Off The Grid

by MajorPaleFace

First published

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.

Paladin Commander John Maxon unexpectedly arrives in orbit above Equestria. Following a 90 year interstellar journey to Proxima Centauri in Cryostasis, John must learn to survive and inspire in a strange new world.

A Voyage Made in Steel

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Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!" - Isiah 6:8

John opened his eyes, he saw only chaos.

Through the clear viewport of his Cryostasis pod, he could see strobing red lights, debris drifted around in zero gravity, as sound and feeling slowly returned.

Muffled decompression could be heard occurring somewhere to Johns left as he squeezed his eyes shut and willed for everything to simply be a nightmare. But as the numbness of the Cryostasis pod succumbed to biting cold; he realised that he had traded one world of uncertainty for another.

He could hear the ship's computer issuing an alert in a vaguely feminine synthesised voice, to the ship, and on all other broadcast frequencies.

“Mayday, Mayday! This is the VSS Anlace. Major Hull damaged sustained! Loss of life support on decks Sierra though Omeg—” The computer's voice was cut short by another thumping decompression somewhere deeper in the ship, followed by an explosion, a wailing klaxon began its cry and the ship shuddered as its superstructure groaned and creaked.

John scrambled for the emergency release lever inside his pod, it was above his head and with difficulty, he gripped the handle with both hands and pulled. It came down with a crunch, and the pod's door opened upwards.

John floated out into the hallway, grasping at the edge of his pod and any other hand-holds located on the bulkheads to move along. He knew he needed to get to the bridge and find out what was happening, but first to the armoury in the next bay.

Another explosion sent the ship hurtling downwards, and sent John sprawling into the ceiling; his all-black bodysuit absorbing much of the impact, it still hurt, he thought.

With a loud groan of exertion, John used his legs to kick off of the ceiling above him and quickly drifted down the Cryo bay to an entrance hatch. The bay was long and dark, lit occasionally by the warning lights - the light cascaded down through grates in the ceiling and floor, pipes connected multiple pods together – John saw no movement or signs of life from within.

As John drifted towards the end of the corridor, he reached the centrally located, hexagonal shaped door. Its hatched warnings clearly marked it as an emergency entrance to a specific area; above the hatch read 'Armoury'.

John entered an emergency access code into a terminal next to the doorway. As it whisked open, he could see bright fire spiralling towards him, the effect of flames in zero gravity made it look like sand swirling under water. He didn’t hesitate in quickly re-sealing the hatch, but not before a few of the flames got through.

The few errant embers continued on down to the other end of the corridor where a double-sided steal door sat firmly shut. They pitted against it leaving burn marks before bouncing off somewhere above the pods, their speed slowed.

John turned his attention back to the screen, this time instructing the fire suppressant system on the other side to activate and quell the flames. The system showed a two-dimensional rectangular room. It was flashing red indicating fire, the flashing slowed and changed to white, indicating that the room was full of Carbon Dioxide.

Above the terminal lay an emergency supply cabinet, it held many survival aids including a rebreather mask – John strapped it to his face and took a couple of test breaths to ensure its functionality. He then manipulated the controls and the door once more swished open.

The Armoury was now filled with a cold, floating mass of vaguely white smog and charred carbon. John ignored it and drifted into the centre of the room, he looked to his right and saw an armour cradle; a large circle filled with robotic arms – he drifted over and placed his feet squarely into the marked receptacles.

“Welcome Commander Maxon.” An automated voice announced.

Upon entering a command into the control panel on his left, the circle and its arms whirred to life; panels in the floor opened and pieces of matte grey armour were lifted out by the arms. John’s hands grasped handles above him so that he was in a star-jump position; he was then raised up and rotated by the Armoury Cradle as its many arms began to build an alloy frame around him, before covering the frame in bulky plate armour.

Lastly, he inhaled a deep breath before a Cradle arm removed his rebreather and an armoured helmet was lowered onto his head, it hissed and clunked once in place.

After a few moments John was fully encased in Power Armour, it covered him from head-to-toe, large armoured shoulders and greaves, a bulky torso piece with a power core mounted on the back and a blocky helmet that had jet black slits for eyes. It’s only other noticeable features were a small protruding lump where the mouth would be, it had several pipes and hoses connecting to it.

The Armour bay cradle rotated John back to his original position, he stepped out of it - with his steel boots clanging as they met the floor, inside his helmet his Heads up Display showed him vital information about himself, the armour and his environment. It tried to wirelessly contact the ship's computer, but after several seconds it simply displayed:

Connecting… Connecting… Uplink unsuccessful. System reboot recommended.

John activated his Magnetic Boots, “no more floating around”, he thought. He stomped over to the other side of the Armour bay, where a weapons locker lay; it had been melted to the floor, blackened and charred by the flames previous, nothing of use here.

John knew his next location would be the command and control centre - or the Bridge. He brought up a view of the ship on his Personal Information Processor, or Pip-Boy.

Mounted on his left wrist it showed a similar two-dimensional view as the Terminal had earlier, although this would show him the entire ship – much of it was unrecognisable to John.

Many hallways and rooms were displaying flashing red, black or simply weren’t displaying anything. John traced a route that would see him safely arrive at the Bridge, it would take several minutes to get there. He turned around and headed for a rectangular doorway, he opened it and stomped his way toward the bridge.

The Anlace had seen better days; power fluctuations were causing some areas to suffer a loss in gravity, like in the Cryo Bay. Others had lost life support or had made the air toxic; many others had suffered critical surges that had caused power to build in their capacitors, before exploding. There were Hull breaches all over the ship, on his way to the Bridge John had glanced down one hallway to see it being crisscrossed with arcing bolts of electricity, he had quickly sealed all the access points around it and diverted the power flow before continuing – but the ship was a mess.

At the Bridge, John stopped. “Shit.” He spoke aloud, his helmet giving his voice a mechanical edge.

The doors had been buckled inwards, getting in would be impossible without cutting through them, those doors were supposed to be damage resistant – what had caused them to become so twisted?

John vowed to return with the correct tools. He did an about face and slowly moved back down to another access hatch. He entered his command code into its terminal to open the door, this time no fireballs erupted out at him, although he suspected his suits energy shielding could handle anything. He was too large to fit through in armour, so he had to use the terminal to close off the emergency bulkheads closest to him, and divert life support into his section of corridor and the room through the hatch.

After several long moments of hissing, the display read green across the board. He exited his armour – a much simpler task than equipping it; using his hand inside his armour, he depressed the release trigger three times in quick succession, causing the armour to open from the back. The large section of plate armour along with the fusion pack lifted up with segments across the backs of the arms and legs flowering open.

John stepped out and down, his considerable height was lessened greatly without the armour. Gravity was active in this section, so John clambered through the hatch into the room beyond.

It held several racks for weapons and equipment, John immediately punched in the access code to a tall narrow locker. Inside were an assortment of energy weapons, grenades and blades. He took a large combat knife, meant for Power Armour; it was half a meter in length. Next were a Type 21 Laser Rifle and a Type 17 Laser Pistol. He also took a few Plasma grenades and a big interlinked belt that held several dozen Microfusion Cells: ammunition for the energy weapons. John carried it all back to the hatch.

It was a lot to carry, his suit responded magnetically to the presence of the weapons. He stuck them onto the armour and went back inside to another container. This one more box-like, it was mounted at chest height.

He opened it, inside were medical supplies and nourishment, after filling a circular capsule with as much as he could, mostly water and MREs. John retreated back to the Power Armour; he got back inside after clipping the Aid Capsule to his Armour's hip.

The armours segments sealed once more, John accessed the terminal, and he returned the breathable atmosphere back to holding tanks and shut off the gravity to conserve power.

Not long after, John returned to the Bridge, the terminal next to it had been destroyed and with his Pip-Boy unable to secure a connection, he couldn’t see what was happening inside the room.

He walked back to the corridor that branched off from the one leading to the Bridge. John took a single Plasma Grenade and activated it before gently tossing it down toward the centre of the Bridge door. He veered around into the corridor and checked his HUD, ensuring his Mag Boots were engaged.

The Plasma Grenade detonated, making a strange electrical and pulsing sound; the darkened hallway was lit up a brilliant green, before dimming once more. John tentatively looked toward the Bridge door; it was now a large hole, still glowing red and green from the super-heated plasma.

He stomped his way towards and through the new hole. On the other side was more destruction, the bridge had once been an expansive, multi-tiered level of computer screens and terminals. It had many chairs arranged along its edges for the bridge crew to sit, before an almighty view screen, overlooking the frontal half of the Anlace.

Only the top two tiers were left, much of the lower portion near the view screen along with the screen itself and the frontal-most two hundred meters of the ship was simply gone. Debris was kicked and bounced around.

John’s sole attention was the giant green marble spinning ahead of the ship; it looked similar to Earth, but it was more vibrant – John knew he needed to look at the Computer system and quickly.

He waded through the floating debris toward the only active terminal, as he got close to it, he used an armoured gauntlet to brush aside a large piece of a console that had drifted in front of him.

Tapping commands into the terminal, John established a link between his Pip-Boy and the ship's computer. The computer had been damaged by all of the power fluctuations, as well as losing many of its hardware when the frontal part of the ship broke away.

Somewhere in the bowls of the ship, the superstructure groaned and creaked loudly before a deep clang announced that another part of the ship had divorced itself. The spinning of the ship was causing large amounts of damage to the external sections and needed to be remedied.

John used the terminal to manually fire all of the remaining manoeuvring thrusters to try and stabilise the ship. As the computer processed his request, John turned to look out of the broken view screen. A shuddering from under his boots announced the activation of the manoeuvring jets. The ships spiralling slowed and eventually stopped.

The Anlace was still hurtling toward the planet at high velocity, John checked the terminal - which proudly displayed that the manoeuvring action had been completed – he found the current velocity reading. Approximately one thousand and thirty meters per second, “very fast”, John thought.

“Just how am I going to slow this thing down?” He wondered aloud, “possibly an aerobraking manoeuvre,” he continued.

John then entered the prompt into the terminal and it flashed red, indicating a non-function. John thought for a moment. He looked at more statistical information that the Anlace computer was displaying. It wasn’t pretty.

The duel-fusion reactors that powered virtually all of the ship's systems had been damaged, it would take a team of engineers and many weeks to get them to work again, the ship only had access to around eighteen per cent of its nominal back-up power; mostly fusion cells and most of that power couldn’t get to where it was needed due to the catastrophic power relay damage the Anlace had suffered.

He tried rerouting all of the main and secondary systems access through the bridge terminal. It took several minutes of slowly tapping away, speed was impossible in zero-G and doubly so when using fat, bulky armoured fingers.

Frustrated, John had managed to reroute secondary control through the terminal, most of the systems were offline or non-functional.

He groaned to himself; this would prove difficult.

A moment of clarity occurred when he thought about the ships Virtual Intelligence, it had most definitely been lost to the void when the ship had split in two, but a secondary hub laid in the engineering compartment a deck below this one. Activating it could cause the VIs redundancy sub-systems to activate and regain limited control over the ship's systems.

John decided it was worth a shot, looking back at the terminal, he saw he was still locked out from the primary systems; he really wanted to look at the navigation log and to check the ships sensor suite.

“Later” he thought.

John clambered down rungs of an over-sized ladder; it had been built specifically for use in Power Armour. John drifted to the bottom, this area was open to space as he suddenly realised he could only hear himself breathing, he could even hear the blood rushing around his body and he started feeling drowsy after Cryostasis.

Entering the engineering compartment he stepped into a large cavernous room. It held two fusion spires in the centre and was surrounded by computer screens and diagnostic equipment, most of which was floating around in Zero G. His suit lit up with clicking, indicating a high amount of radiation, he would be safe in his armour.

The secondary hub was on the far side of the reactor room, so he disengaged his Magnetic Boots and pushed off to drift to the other side. Areas of the floor had been blasted through; he could see the blackness of space through them and occasional glimpses of the planet.

He landed by the secondary hub, after stabilising himself he punched in some commands. After a moment it lit up with life, text scrolled across its many screens and lights came on across the bay. A warning blip drew his attention to a screen that flashed across his Heads Up Display, both reactors were spinning up once again with readouts spiking into the red zones.

Hydrogen fusion reactors, once tenable had been the Brotherhoods main means of power generation for the last century. While a single S-10 fusion reactor was capable of powering the Anlace, a second had been installed in the name of redundancy.

The urgency of the alert was elevated by the ships automated security systems. One of the S-10's had little activity on its cooling system - a slurry of ions chilled to near zero ran through a sheath against the cores shell, maintaining a manageable temperature.

In space getting rid of heat remains an ongoing process for everything, including people and the friction caused by every moving object.

With the sheath on reactor one reading as non-functional - the energy was bleeding off as heat into the chamber, slowly being cooled by the exposure to space. It was still building rapidly within the bowls of the reactor.

John moved to a small maintenance terminal positioned between the pair of fusion spires. He stabbed his stubby armoured digits at the undersized keyboard, eventually bringing up the shutoff failsafe procedure. He was given the option to prevent the reactor from building heat by starving it of fuel, causing an automatic shutdown.

His armoured finger depressed the 'Y' key, several others sinking along with it - however, the terminal accepted the input and began shunting fuel away from the overheating spire.

John made his way back to the bridge sealing the way behind him.

Back at the only functioning terminal, John could tell that elements of the Virtual Intelligence were working to lift the locks on the primary systems. One by one they came back online, Navigation, Life support and Power Management. Several of the non-active Fusion Cells came online as well. John once again entered the aerobraking manoeuvre. While it processed his request John looked at the Navigation Log. It displayed the journey to where they were now.

The Anlace was an experimental deep-reconnaissance vessel capable of reaching extremely high speeds of travel using an alternate realm called subspace.

The crew of the Anlace had been sent to reconnoitre an area of the solar system around the star Proxima Centauri; it had a high likelihood of containing a habitable world. John could clearly see an Earth-like planet in front of him.

They had left earth an estimated ninety years ago.

“That was twenty years more than predicted.” John thought, “Likely there had been a malfunction.”

They had arrived on the edge of a solar system. Scans indicated a red dwarf star lying deeper in the system – scans also detected the signatures of several planets, not just the three or four expected upon arrival. Something didn’t feel right.

He accessed scans of the planet ahead of him, it had an atmospheric composition almost identical to Earth, it was a rocky world with about seventy per cent of the surface being liquid water, it had a fairly temperate climate of around twenty-three degrees Celsius or about seventy-three degrees Fahrenheit. It had two large Polar Regions both into the minus temperature.

The atmospheric composition was similar to Earth's as well; with seventy-seven per cent Nitrogen, twenty per cent Oxygen, one per cent Argon and trace amounts of other gasses. He was also seeing readings for water vapour, dust and pollen particles.

There was a large cratered, ash grey moon hovering in the distance and the Anlace was fast approaching the dark side of the planet. Scans didn’t detect any radio signals or higher than normal amounts of radiation. The orbital period was around 1.1 Earth years and the mass was similar to Earth.

They had been sent to evaluate Proxima Centauri b; a small rocky world with a fast orbital period, this definitely wasn’t Proxima Centauri b. Furthermore, the solar system shouldn’t have contained so many planets; at least the long-range scans hadn’t indicated that it would.

John formulated a plan in his mind as the computer completed its projections. He would have the ship use the planet’s atmosphere to slow the vessel down, crossing into the ‘day’ side of the planet and simultaneously collecting more scans, before making planetfall inside the ‘night’ side. The Anlace’ LiDAR was able to detect a flat landmass near a mountain range.

“It would do” John thought suddenly, he realised he had no choice if he wanted to survive. He checked the Cryostasis diagnostic and was saddened to see that through an unfortunate twist of fate, his had been the only pod to survive the power surges. He would bury them later he decided.

As John tapped in the commands on the terminal - still difficult in his Armour - he had the crushing realisation that he was the only one left; he’d be all on his own for the remainder of his life. He wondered was it even worth it, he decided he’d deal with that later.

As the terminal flashed to acknowledge his command. He then thought about where the nearest escape capsule would be, John knew the ship well, having spent months training during their pre-deployment.

“Shit”. John thought, they were on the other side of the ship near the starboard nacelle. He had an estimated three hours to reach the escape boat. His last thought before departing was “I hope it works.”

The last of the sun's waning rays had disappeared behind the horizon, Princess Luna sat upon her balcony admiring her night sky.

“Beautiful as ever, sister”, a smiling Princess Celestia said announcing her presence.

Luna craned her neck around to smile back, the moonlight reflecting in her blue eyes “We were not expecting you to join us, Tia.” She had used that nickname from when they were small fillies.

Celestia trotted over to sit next to her younger sister, “I had not seen you today and thought I would see how you were doing.” Celestia continued to look at the stars.

Luna hummed “Thou needn’t worry dear sister, for we farewell”, Luna stood and moved back into her chambers, an airiness to her every movement.

A moment later Celestia followed through the dark blue silk curtains into Luna’s room; it was a spacious room with a large four-poster bed at its centre. It had drawers and cabinets all made from dark stained wood, a big telescope sat in one corner. The room held many old relics from Equestria's long and varied past.

“Tea?” asked Princess Luna, she gestured at an ornate teapot.

“Please”, Replied Celestia “you know how much I love tea, dear sister.”

Luna used her dark blue magic to pour them both a cup of tea before levitating one to her sister, whose own golden magic enveloped it.

“Thank you”. Princess Celestia smiled and sipped at her tea.

They moved into a smaller side-room which held a small libraries worth of books and tomes, they sat on large red pillows near a quietly crackling fireplace. The room was rounded and had windows from floor to ceiling; situated on one of the tallest spires in Equestria; Canterlot, the capital city of Equestria, offered many a serene view. At the bottom of one such valley, the closest town of Ponyville could be made out in the light of the full moon.

“We do not often share in such moments as these, Luna”. Celestia said disrupting the silence.

Luna could only hum in agreement, lost in thought as she stared into the burning embers.

After some minutes sat in silence, save for the fireplace cracking and spitting, Princess Celestia looked at her sister and pondered why she was so quiet – after all, she would usually talk on and on about her day, Celestia thought to inquire;

“What thoughts trouble you, Lulu?”

Luna said with a start, “We cannot figure something out.”

“And what, pray-tell, might that be?” Celestia said with interest sparkling in her pink eyes, as she used her magic to gently place a couple of logs into the fireplace, they hissed and popped as the fire took hold.

Luna sat more straight and looked up at her sister, being slightly shorter, their eyes met, “I can sense something above us sister”, she said looking pensive “I cannot determine what it is, it is much like a comet, and is travelling at high speed straight for our world.”

“Is it something we should be worried about?” Celestia’s eyes glistened with concern.

“We are unsure, sister”, Luna turned back to her staring contest with the now roaring fire, “At first we thought it to be a comet or small asteroid, it would have missed Equestria entirely, and we nary gave it a second thought.”

A pause, “What makes you worry so?” Celestia asked, uncertainty marring her features.

“Because some hours ago we detected it alter its own velocity rapidly and change its course”, Luna said, “It will enter our atmosphere several leagues from the castle.”

Celestia thought on this, “Is there anything we can do?” She asked hopefully “Perhaps we could move it—”

“You don’t understand sister!” Luna interrupted as she stood up. “We are detecting harmful energies from within this object!” She closed her eyes for a second, afterwards speaking more calmly “We predict it could impact the Northern Sea of Lights and cause huge amounts of damage to our Deer neighbours and even some of our own territories, Tia!”

Celestia thought on this before draping a large white wing over her younger counterpart, forcing her to sit once again.

“If you say there is nothing to be done, I believe you. I simply hope the damage will not be as severe as you say.” Celestia looked out of a window and glanced at the moon.

“We will simply have to endure and prevail, as we always have Luna.” She pulled Luna in close for a reassuring nuzzle. “Do not worry so much sister, we will get through this together.”

Luna looked up at Celestia, “What of our little ponies?”

“They are stronger than you think, sister. I have faith in them and so should you. Without them, you would not be here now.”

Luna's shoulders sagged as did her head; she looked sadly at her hooves. Celestia used her other wingtip to raise Luna's head to meet her own eyes, “Fear not dear sister, all will be well” Luna did not look as certain as Celestia.

As John stomped through the Anlace, he couldn’t help but wonder as to the strange circumstances that he found himself presently in. He wasn’t merely a stupid mud stomper and prided himself on his knowledge of the pen as much as the sword.

The Brotherhood of Steel usually separated those who grew up as children into classes of soldiers or scholars. John excelled in both areas, at a young age his proficiency with military strategy and weapons usage heralded him as the next great ‘Maxon’.

He hadn’t a spare minute to reminisce however, time was of the essence.

John smashed his way through a collapsed corridor; on the other side, he reached an emergency escape capsule. It was a large self-contained unit, almost four meters in height and two across – it could hold a single occupant with or without a powered exoskeleton. The capsule could eject itself into space or atmosphere and use a small propulsion unit to navigate to safety, it was rated for atmospheric entry and had a large suite of sensors, emergency broadcast arrays and life support. It was even capable of putting the occupant into a state of semi-cryostasis.

John wasted no time as the Anlace wouldreach geosynchronous orbit soon, he stowed his weapons inside the capsules multiple weapons lockers, it already had a vast array of weaponry inside as well as food and medical supplies, John had wanted to be as well-equipped as possible.

The Anlace started to shudder and John heard the ship start to rattle, he turned around after ensuring all of his equipment had been secured and backed into the capsules awaiting hold.

It was a snug fit – John was about three meters in his armour, the pod sagged noticeably with his weight.

The ship visibly shook as the pod's doors slid closed, meeting down the centre, there was a small view screen from which John could see the inside of the hallway he had just left, that disappeared as the pod was lifted up, the back of the pod would now be against the coldness of space.

The Anlace would enter the atmosphere above its landing zone before it glided around the planet to bleed off its considerable speed and then rotate a hundred and eighty degrees to use its main thrusters to slow it even more until it made landfall.

The Virtual Intelligence would handle all of the piloting; it had estimated a seventy-seven point two per cent chance that the ship would land on the surface relatively intact.

Before touchdown, however, after the trip around the planet and at approximately three hundred meters, John would be ejected out of the Anlace.

After many minutes of increased groaning and shuddering, John could feel gravity shift to his back, he was enduring at least two times the gravity of Earth, the pod had a dampening field which helped whether the effects.

John’s mind was linked with his suit, he thought about viewing one of the ships external cameras and his vision was suddenly filled with the planet below, red flames were pulling and blistering at the underside of the Anlace. John watched calmly as a chunk of armour plating sailed past, narrowly missing the camera.

The ship continued to be pulled towards the planet, soon enough the bright flames coming off of the ship were too much for Johns' eyes and so he willed the camera to disappear. It flashed out of existence.

For several minutes John’s world was only of darkness, shuddering and extreme gravity. His adrenalin made him shake and he prayed to whoever was listening that he would make it, John wasn’t religious but he would take any help he could get.

As the ship rotated he felt the shuddering reach a crescendo before tailoring off into a heavy vibration. John once again wished to see an outside camera and the view from one appeared before him; this time from the Aft side; he could see the world transitioning from a barely visible landscape to an almost jet black nothingness.

As the Princesses sat together and comforted each other, Princess Luna suddenly said: “It is changing its course again!”

Both of them stood up, Luna walked hurriedly over to her telescope, using her magic she turned a few dials until it pointed North-East of Canterlot and then looked through it.

Princess Celestia followed and stood by her side, she glanced at her sister, to see her frowning.

“Is everything okay Luna?” She asked, concerned.

Luna didn’t speak for a moment, as if the telescope held all of life’s answers, “No,” she said at last.

Princess Celestia directed her attention north, trying to see what Luna could be looking at. Squinting and craning her neck still revealed little.

“Oh my!” she exclaimed, as her keen eyesight saw in the upper reaches of the sky, a faintly glowing object.“What is it sister?” she asked.

Princess Luna continued to peer through her telescope with one eye tightly shut. “It is made of some kind of metal.” She said finally, looking away from the telescope and up at Celestia.

Celestia looked back toward the streaking meteor-Esq object now hurtling through Equestria's upper atmosphere, “What do you make of it sister?”

Princess Luna returned to squinting through her telescope, turning dials and guiding it with a hoof to keep track of the brightening piece of space-junk.

“We are uncertain as to what it may be.”

“Perhaps it is simply a meteor rich in Iron.” Celestia did not look convinced.

“Nay, sister,” Luna said with confidence, “it shines as though it were forged by somepony or something.”

She looked back to Celestia as the burning metal thing had disappeared from view.

“Is it not possible for it to be actual aliens?” Luna asked excitedly, “I hope they’re friendly!”

Celestia both respected and envied her sister's proficiency with all things outside of Equestria's surface, ever since they were young; Luna's grasp of the sciences such as astronomy, astrophysics and space archaeology far exceeded Celestia’s own, although she was no slouch.

“Sister, while I believe you are more knowledgeable than I regarding matters of the universe, let’s not get ahead of ourselves”, she blinked a few times before looking squarely at Luna, “What are the chances of it being intelligent life and not simply some form of extra-solar oddity we haven’t been able to account for?”

Princess Luna's ears splayed, “We know that it is not likely to be aliens, sister. We are not so naïve.” She continued unabated, “we shall depart tomorrow to personally investigate the impact crater.”

Luna had an air of excitement Celestia had not seen in many years.

“Very well Luna, but I insist on providing an escort of Royal Guard to ensure your safety.”

Luna scoffed, “We art perfectly capable of looking after ourselves, Tia.”

“I know,” Celestia reassured “do it for me, Luna? Please.” Celestia gave her best pleading look, even pouting a little.

After a moment of pretending to consider her offer, Luna sighed, “Very well Celestia, thou know we are soft for your kindness.”

Celestia smiled triumphantly and raised her regal head to its full height, “I know Luna. I shall speak with you in the morning; I have scrolls to read before I rest.”

“Slumber well sister”, Luna said as Celestia turned to leave “may your dreams be forever joyful.”

Celestia turned her head slightly and said with a wink, “With you guarding my dreams? I don’t expect anything less, dear sister.”

With Celestia gone Luna prepared herself to hold the night court, it would run for several hours before she had some free time ahead, she greatly anticipated exploring during tomorrow’s adventure. Little did she know that an adventure would be coming her way sooner than expected.

No more than fifteen minutes into her first hearing and Luna was already exhausted to near-death due to all the pomp and ceremony upon her arrival; first her royal guard retinue had paraded around the throne room, they had made a well-rehearsed display of switching all of the banners and displays from golden and yellow colours, with her sister's sun cutie mark, to those in several hues of blues, purples and black with her own crescent moon cutie mark plastered onto everything.

The contingent of Royal Guard then had a quick pause as they were replaced by the Lunar Guard; they saluted and marched in pairs to their positions. While the Royal Guard were all ponies wearing enchanted golden armour to make them appear as white stallions - the Lunar Guard, by contrast, were exclusively Thestrals; a race of pony that had the appearance of a Pegasus crossed with a bat. They have a variation of yellow coloured eyes with slits for pupils, shaggy fur in a range of blacks and greys and oversized bat-wings.

Their Guard armour focuses on utility over appearance and is a dark series of interlinking plate and chainmail. It covers the Thestrals from hoof to neck with a thickly armoured helmet covering their heads, with small alcoves for the ears to protrude. Finally, they wear a short blue caparison adorned with stars and a crescent moon.

After the exchanging of the guard, the first citizen was permitted to speak to her. Princess Luna smiled warmly and greeted them, “Hello my little pony, what troubles may your princess aide you in?”

The pony, a young white stallion, barely out of his teenage years, after giving a deep bow, he stood and announced himself. “G-g-good evening Princess Luna, thank you for hearing me.” He paused before continuing, albeit nervously, “I am Master Silver Shine, my father is sick and I have been sent to re-request medical help, Princess.” He bowed deeply afterwards.

“Rise”, Luna said somewhat sternly, “why have you sought our council and not that of a doctor?”

Silver Shine stood once more, “I attempted to buy the necessary medicine, however, I prevented as I am not a citizen of Equestria.”

Luna looked down her nose at him and examined him more thoroughly, “We do not understand, you are a pony: all ponies are citizens of Equestria.”

Silver wilted under her stern gaze, “N-no your highness”, he said with trepidation, “I was born in Snowbush, in the Griffon Kingdom, your majesty.” He bowed once more.

Snowbush had once been a border town established millennia ago to further relations with them, at that time, newly discovered Griffon Empire. Many battles had been waged around that region, but that was many a year ago. Now it was a simple trading outpost but it was not under Equestrian sovereignty.

Princess Luna tried to look friendlier, “We find ourselves in need of more information. Speak plainly master Silver Shine.”

Silver stood once more, and swallowed dryly, "I was born in Snowbush”, he said shakily, “I do not possess Equestrian citizenship as I was born outside of its borders. Every doctor or nurse I’ve spoken to told me it simply wasn’t possible to give me free medical supplies.”

“I told them”, he continued, “that my father, also named Silver Shine, your highness, held Equestrian citizenship and they said he would have to come here himself.”

He visibly shook, “I’m sorry Princess”, he bowed his head, “but the journey is long and tiring and I fear that my father would not make it, he is quite old.”

Princess Luna stood and approached, her silver shoes clipping loudly in the otherwise silent courtroom. Silver Shine scrambled away from her and bowed deeply.

As Luna approached she sensed his entire body tense up, “Please do us the courtesy of relaxing Master Silver Shine, we mean you no harm.”

“Ce-certainly P-p-princess”, He stood up and looked up at her refusing to make eye contact, Princess Luna was easily a head taller than he was.

Luna raised her royal voice, “We hereby decree that Master Silver Shine is to be given emergency Equestrian Citizenship”, she looked directly at her personal aide, “Fantasia, see to it personally and have a guard escort him back to Snowbush at first light with enough food and medicine to see that Master Silver Shines father makes a full recovery."

Fantasia, a tall lithe unicorn mare with a light pink coat and matching white mane and tail tied back in a bun answered, “At once Princess Luna.” She smiled as she said it and scribbled on a piece of parchment.

Luna turned back to Silver, “We hope this serves you well young Silver Shine, may our moon guide you in the coming nights.”

He stumbled over himself, “Th-tha-thank you, Princess!” He made eye contact shortly and smiled broadly before rushing to bow one last time.

“Do not concern yourself my little pony, we are here to serve.”

As Luna turned to sit back upon her blue dais an almighty explosion rocked the castle; dust and debris drifted from the ceiling and the stained windows rattled. Ponies screamed and shouted in fear and confusion, the thestrals doing their best to calm them while just as confused.

Princess Lunas senses lit up, she could sense that piece of metal, and it was so close. It must have been directly above the castle.

She whipped around to speak to the only officer present, a young mare by the name of Midnight, “Lieutenant, calm our ponies down – ensure their safety and assemble a squad in the eastern carriage bay.”

“Princess?!” she all but shouted over the frightened ponies.

“We are going to discern what that commotion was.”

“Captain, give me a situation report.” Princess Celestia was all business after being suddenly woken.

“Yes, ma’am!” Captain Stark Wing, commander of 1/6th battalion replied, joining her, “An explosion sounded above the castle several moments ago, the damage is minimal and our casualties are limited Princess.”

They were walking at a fast canter side-by-side, down a corridor in the western section of the castle, attempting to locate her sister and find out just what had happened. If Stark was struggling to keep up with her long strides, he didn't show it.

“Some good news Captain, do we know what caused the explosion?” She said as a trio of Lunar Guard hurried past them in the other direction.

Captain Stark looked up, his features not betraying his feelings, “No princess, at first we thought we were under attack – possibly the changelings again – but our scouts have returned with no sightings, I’ve instructed them to do a perimeter sweep and put the entire castle on stand-by. Both the Lunar and Royal guard is on high alert Princess.” He finished, speaking quickly and matter-of-factly.

A window in a passing room gave an idea as to the hour, as the world beyond was still very dark. “Very good Captain, keep me appraised. Where is my sister?” several Royal Guard and some panicked civilians raced past.

“We haven’t been able to locate her or her personal guard, we have runners all over the castle trying to pin her down but you know how she can be.” He faced forwards as he spoke.

“Yes, I certainly do,” Celestia said knowingly, “she has likely taken on the task of discovering the source of the explosion on her own.”

Princess Celestia and Captain Stark Wing reached the center of the throne room; it was covered in dust and had discarded furniture splayed around. Celestia halted so abruptly that the Captain almost pitched over trying to stop as suddenly. He managed to pull it off, however.

She turned to face him, “continue doing what you are doing Captain, inform your scouts to look out for her.”

“Yes Princess”, Stark said firmly while saluting, “what will you be doing?”

She made an unwelcoming expression, “I will be in the common room, trying to sooth the ruffled feathers of the noble stallions, as I am sure they have their fair share on what to say.”

His face remained as blank as ever, “Better you than I, good luck Princess.”

As the Anlace continued its controlled descent, John weighed the odds of survival and eventual rescue. As the ship jostled and weaved with its re-entry, a sudden queasiness reminded him to think on it later.

A countdown in his helmet appeared, starting at about three thousand meters and rapidly lowering, he would be ejected into the sky at around three hundred meters from the surface. A full minute went by and the readout ticked over three hundred and seventy-two before he rapidly shot out of the Anlace.

The feeling of falling only intensified, but John could see outside of his pod once again, he could see the Anlace; glowing red with pieces of it being stripped off as it hurtled toward the surface – its rear end facing down and thrusters firing at full. It would be a simple contest of power for the thrusters versus the weight of the ship and the planet's gravity.

John didn’t get to bet on which would win as his escape capsule fired its manoeuvring thrusters to level him out and his view screen was filled with stars briefly, before three domed parachutes deployed with a thwumf.

The pod lurched and bobbed and then settled into a gentle descent. It would take several minutes to reach the surface; John planned on immediately gathering weapons and ammo before heading to the crash site.

Princess Luna relished the feeling of the wind rushing through her mane and across her wings. Luna and several Lunar Guard endured flying at a high altitude so as to track the meteor, it was quiet but its bright red glow could be seen from afar.

“Lieutenant Midnight!” Luna shouted to be heard over the rushing wind, “Are you enjoying this as much as we are?” Luna hadn’t felt such a pure sense of happiness in some time; “to be free of that blasted court of kangaroos”, she thought.

The Lieutenant turned her head to shout directly back at Luna so as to be heard over the rush of the wind, “What?!” She exclaimed.

Luna could only smile at that, with her mouth firmly closed, lest she wind-up as a royal flycatcher.

After many minutes of comfortable, at least in Luna's mind, gliding – the strange glowing object impacted the ground with a thunderous boom at the base of two small peaks. The crash sent vibrations through the air itself along with a plume of dust that was illuminated by the light from the still glowing metallic meteor.

“Let’s investigate!” Luna shouted, “Carefully”, she added as an afterthought.

John’s descent was almost calm, moments before the barometric altimeter reached zero - he could hear a distant crack and his pod quivered almost imperceptibly.

“That must have been the Anlace.” He said to no one in particular.

Moments passed, he felt the pods airbags inflate, and he imagined the ring of small circular gas bags suddenly springing to life. Then felt the pod impact solid ground for the first time and he grunted, it banged and jumped as the parachutes dragged the pod a few dozen meters before finally coming to a complete stop.

John hit the release on his pods interior and the frontal panel hissed and burst off shooting into the dark before clattering loudly nearby. He clambered out; not easily done in Power Armour and stood atop the pod, surveying his surroundings.

His HUD automatically adjusted for low-light and so he could see tall trees and rocky ground all around him. Nearby the pod's parachutes had become hung up on a tall pine tree, they rustled with the wind.

John quickly opened the access hatches for his weapon, a moment later and he had his laser weaponry, grenades and ammunition as well as a large combat knife tucked into his right armoured pauldron.

In the distance, he could see a spire of smoke being gently illuminated by the wreck of the Anlace. John set a course for it on his PIP boy, it had created a two-dimensional map of much of the planet after the scans taken by the Anlace during its descent.

He unslung his laser rifle and stomped off into the forest.

Who Dares Wins

View Online

Equestria certainly was a place of serenity; the galaxy above could be seen clearly, its picturesque reflection from a nearby lake was so clear, that it could cause one to believe a universe existed beneath their hooves. The moon hung high in the heavens, a silent vigil over an otherwise still world.

Princess Luna, along with a flight of Lunar Guard, glided silently across the backdrop of stars; ahead of them, looming in the distance, the peak of Foal Mountain and its lesser two peaks lay partially illuminated by small fires from the impact site, its location was somewhere South-East of the furthest peak from Canterlot.

As they descended toward the impact site, Luna's eyes tracked the trail of carnage, it hadn’t impacted like any meteor she had ever witnessed in her long life and had left a trench with scattered pieces of metal and debris – its journey had uprooted dozens – perhaps hundreds of trees.

Her Guards were looking at her for leadership – she gestured at a small ridgeline a short distance from the final resting place of the unusual metal object. As they closed the distance to it, Luna could see markings and small details she hadn’t been able to through her telescope.

They touched down along the ridge, her ponies doing so with a practised subtlety she couldn’t quite imitate, her large wing flaps kicking up dust and dirt. She looked apologetically at the nearest guard as he rubbed an eye with the back of his foreleg.

Assuming a low position, they watched in silence as thick smoke poured out of the thing. She glanced at Lieutenant Midnight, she saw pure yellow eyes watching the crash site with a calculating professionalism.

“Lieutenant”, Luna started, “take three guards and set up an observation point on the other side of the object. Keep low and out of sight – take the long way around if the need arises.”

Lieutenant Midnight looked to her Princess for a moment before her head nodded almost imperceptibly. “Yes Princess”, she stood to leave and pointed with a foreleg at three Guards, “you three with me.” Her voice was quiet, and then the four of them took off with great speed and agility before diving out of sight.

Luna turned her attention back to the object; exhaling noisily she took note of its features. It was absolutely massive, boxy and industrial, it looked like it had lost large portions of itself, "perhaps in the atmosphere", she thought to herself.

It lay at the edge of a small wood; its journey had uprooted numerous trees and bushes – many of which now lay sticking out from under its front or had been deposited on its top. The side facing them was a jagged mess of sheared metal and wiring, electricity occasionally flashed and sparked along with the plumes of smoke it was emitting near its upper regions.

Trees from the wood became sparser toward the crash site; it had landed just on the outskirts of the treeline before smashing heavily into a sheer wall of granite. The impact had caused large chunks of rock and dust to rain down around the ship.

“What is that thing?” a female Guard by the name of Starry Skies asked with worry in her tone.

“We believe it may be a ‘spaceship’.” Princess Luna said, she gestured around her, “The world shall look to us as an example, if we are to happen across a new species."

After a short while of simply watching, Luna heard a sound, carried by the gentle breeze; it sounded like a tree branch being snapped. Possibly ponies coming to investigate, although the nearest settlement of Hollow Shades was half a day’s travel on hoof and lay on the other side of the mountain.

It wasn’t likely to be any wild animals as they should have been wary after such an impact. If indeed this really was aliens, then perhaps one of them had managed to survive. Luna's head was filled with images of little green ponies, or of large grotesque monsters that had come for conquest and to sow ruin.

Luna shook her head, knowing that any life forms probably didn’t look like that. In the distance, between the far edge of lone trees at the edge of the wood and the spaceship, Luna thought she saw a large figure move quickly to the edge of the craft, before disappearing from view.

“There!” exclaimed a guard in a stage whisper, “Did anypony see that?”

“See what?” Another answered.

“Right there, I saw something – it looked like a Minotaur.”They pointed with a hoof.

The second guard snorted, “Don’t be ridiculous; there aren’t any Minotaur’s near here.”

The first opened his mouth to offer a rebuttal, but Luna interrupted it before he could.

“We saw it as well. It appeared to be a large biped, and we concur in that it was likely not a Minotaur.”

“So what was it, Princess?” The second guard said, her voice rising in pitch.

“We believe it to be Equestria's first visit from life outside of our world. Something truly deserving of the word 'alien', somehow it survived the crash. We wonder, if there are others; or if it came alone.” After she finished speaking the atmosphere between the guards became eerily quiet.

After several moments passed she said, “Let us venture and investigate this object. We will ask them ourselves.” She stood afterwards, a look of steely determination in her eyes.

“Guard”, she said looking at Starry Skies, “Return to Canterlot and inform my sister of what we have discovered, the others and ourselves will investigate further.”

The guard looked defiant for a second, her face screwing up as she said, “are you sure that is wise, Princess?”

“It is our decision; we must attempt first contact and pray they are not harbouring hostile intentions. Please fly with haste.” The guard offered a slightly demure expression before nodding and extending her over-sized bat-wings, and then with a single powerful flap, she disappeared into the star-filled sky. Luna watched as the Guards form made a trail in the cosmos, before turning back to the ship.

“Come”, she said, extending her wings, “let us meet this visitor from the heavens.”

John Maxson’s hulking power-armoured frame moved bodily through the trees, they were tall - stretching for tens of meters into the sky and greatly resembling pine trees. John had long wondered if life on other worlds could exist to the same degree as his homeworld, and if so, how different would it look like? The answer here before him was not very different, at least to John's eyes.

The low light vision of his helmet gave everything a pulsing grey, slightly oily look to it. Readouts on his Heads up Display were indicating a breathable atmosphere. John had an internal supply of several hours-worth with more in storage back on the Anlace. He vowed to use it until he could determine that the air wasn’t filled with some sort of flesh-eating fungi or bacteria that would ultimately kill him.

The servo motors of his power armour whirred and hissed quietly with each pounding step, he shouldered his way through a bush and a loud “snap” resounded around him as he pulverised a dead log.

Arriving at the edge of a clearing in the trees he could see the Anlace up ahead; it was barely recognisable – he realised that it had been flipped onto its side. “Great.” He thought.

He ceased all movement, barely able to conceal himself behind a massive tree trunk. Peering around the edge, he couldn’t see any immediate threats and decided to throw caution to the wind and make a charge for the nearest hole.

After several seconds, he quickly cleared the distance to the side of the Anlace, although it might have been the bottom, given its shape and lack of view screens.

He saw a large gash, spanning several meters across and two decks high, but was quite narrow. He managed to squeeze himself through, power armour squealing as its steel kissed with that of the ship. Finally, he popped through with a screech and thudded to the bulkhead below.

“What a mess.” He said aloud – panels from the walls, floors and ceiling had been warped and bent – in some instances they were missing altogether or hanging from a tangle of wires.

Bringing up his Pip-Boy, he wordlessly scrawled through statistical information about the status of the Anlace, the Virtual Intelligence was still online; albeit barely. It was listing all systems as down or non-functioning. The last few Hydrogen Fuel cells were only at ten percent capacity, "it would do for looking at terminals", John thought, "but not too much else". What he really needed to do was reactivate the second reactor.

A warning tone pinged from inside his helmet and a new data stream appeared inside his Heads up Display; it was information regarding the reactor room: it had suffered major damage to its failsafe mechanism.

The Anlace's duel-fusion reactors could boost their power efficiency by over four times in states of emergency or critical combat operations. A single S-10 could easily power the ship, with things like faster than light travel sometimes requiring the second for a boost. One of them was showing that it needed to be reset, but the other was giving off a massive energy surge.

A timer appeared on his HUD. 8.23.36, the seconds started to count down. The self destruct. Johns' eyes widened like almonds, the Brotherhoods ideologies had shifted and evolved over the centuries. But one of them remained constant - the frankly fanatical guardianship of its technology. Allowing advanced materials, like the Anlace to fall into the hands of others was simply out of the question.

So an automated self destruct had been authorised by the ships security software due to the catastrophic ship-wide damage and the dead crew. As John hadn't been on board, the ship planned to blow itself up.

A simple command entered into his pip-boy would sort it, he tapped in his high-level security code. Nothing, he tried again. Same result.

"For christ sake."

John set a marker on his Pip-Boy and thundered off as fast as the chaos of the Anlacewould allow. While navigating around collapsed supports and jumping clear of missing floor segments, he was able to display information on his HUD by simply thinking. He could see vast amounts of damage and he tried to discern if any of it would cause any future problems.

The Anlace was emitting radiation, lethal amounts in some areas; it was bleeding from the hull into the world outside. As well as the reactor preparing to detonate, a Liquid Hydrogen Storage tank on the port nacelle – that was now sticking up in the air – had caught fire, and was pumping large amounts of toxic smoke into the atmosphere – the fire itself was burning hot enough to melt steel, it required him to divert power from a terminal and command the fire suppressant system to engage.

Further down the corridor, he could see it divide up and down. He considered his options, as he needed to head up. Looking down into the depth of a broken corridor. He leapt into the air utilising small thrusters built into his suit, he managed to clear the ten-meter height and reach the top, before grasping onto the edge of a wall.

He hung for a few seconds, allowing his thrusters to draw a charge from his armour's fusion core – he then activated them and boosted up the rest of the way. Jumping forward into the waiting darkness of the reactor access corridor.

Princess Luna and her three remaining Guards crept up to the craft, keeping low and sticking to the edge of the treeline. From there they had all but crawled to the edge of the spaceship where they had seen the biped disappear into.

Luna turned to address her guards, “We will venture inside, Starfire and Frosted Whip will accompany us. You remain here guard…” she trailed off at the remaining Guard Stallion.

“Steel Mustang, your highness.” The only male guard said as he stood a little straighter.

“Very good, track down and inform the Lieutenant of our intentions. Have her squad spread out around the craft, but do not under any circumstance, venture inside. Is that clear?” As she said it, her tone allowed no room for argument.

“Yes Ma’am!” He said, and straightened further, before departing, leaving a trail in his wake.

“Come.” Princess Luna said as Frosted Whip and Starfire followed her through a hole, just big enough to accommodate her.

Complete darkness enveloped them, so Luna used an illumination spell to light the interior of the ship. It was so very strange, everything was made out of cold steel, and much of the ship had walls coated in bare wires that were twisted, burned and still sparking.

She could smell smoke and ash that burned her throat and made her eyes water, she raised a dark blue wing and tried breathing through it.

Starfire took a closer look at the wiring as she raised a leathery wing of her own, “what is this stuff, Princess?” Her voice was muffled slightly.

“Something more advanced than we have ever imagined. Do not touch anything!” She said more loudly, interrupting the young guard’s inquisitive hoof, which lowered at the Princess’s stern tone.

“We do not know what could be harmful to us.” She could sense those strange energies again, as she had when she had originally detected the vessel. “We need to move”, she began, “we detect a building energy signature deeper within the vessel. We should begin our investigation there if we are to locate the creature.”

The two guards glanced at each other before looking at the her. “We shall follow your lead, Princess.” Frosted Whip said assuredly.

“Indeed”, Luna replied, “tis this way.” she led the way down a hallway, the light from her horn brightening the way forward and darkening the area from which they had gained entry, the two guards following closely.

The reactor room had been a mess before, but that paled in comparison to what it was now. The floor of the chamber had almost entirely been eaten way – two decks between it and the outside world. Smoke and fire were being churned out from somewhere among one of them, John couldn’t determine where.

As the reactor spires now pointed to his right, the once floor now being to his left – he observed the two reactor cores. One had been sheared completely from its housing, the long, thick cables that had run up into the ceiling had, in the ships endeavour to turn over on its side, sent the reactor flailing out into the room. It now hung lifelessly, swaying ever-so-slightly.

The other reactor was at a slight downward angle; gravity had done its utmost to dislodge it like its twin but had been unsuccessful. Yellow lights inside its housing indicated something. John would have to get close to it and run a diagnostic routine by connecting his Pip-Boy, to know for sure.

He was getting high radiation readings from both reactors - the inevitable side-effect of critically damaged fission engines.

He looked around the expansive reactor room - it had broken and warped pieces of equipment scattered on every conceivable surface. On johns left, what would have been the left-most wall but was presently the ceiling, held a large hoist – used for extracting the reactor cores for maintenance. It would definitely be non-functional, but it could hold a lot of weight; namely, a few hundred kilograms of armoured human.

John took a few steps back into the access corridor and took a running jump into the chasm that yawned between him and the reactor spires. His thrusters spat a jet of flame and he sailed toward the crane. John didn’t grab onto it so much as smash into it at a great velocity, he bounced off of it, sending the crane spinning with a screech and landed atop the side of the reactor spire.

He had landed on his back and stood up; the frame holding the core groaned in protest but didn’t break.

He spun in place, looking for an access point to connect to. He saw one at the base of the spire – he stretched for it and after a few gangling swings, managed to hit the release, a small square slot extended a few dozen centimetres and opened at its end.

John fished inside a small internal compartment – not easy with the clumsiness of using large armoured fingers. Finally, however, he pulled out a small length of wire and ran it from his Pip-Boy to the access port.

His HUD presented the ship's internal systems once again, only this time John was able to interface with them. The ship's Virtual Intelligence was stuck in a state of limbo, attempting to pilot the ship through space. It didn’t seem to realise that the ship had embedded itself into a mountain.

He looked through the ships logs; his primary concern was finding a way to disengage the self-destruct, as a secondary objective, he wanted to extinguish the Hydrogen fire that was busy burning its way through the port nacelle.

After double-checking the percentage of remaining power, he instructed the ship to divert a fraction of it to the nacelle, and activate its fire suppressant system, several hundred litres of Carbon Dioxide and a combination of a chemical foaming agent would be sprayed all over the affected parts of the ship.

He counted a few seconds. Before witnessing through the holes in the wall, the affected area exploding with white foam and Carbon Dioxide — extinguishing the flames — the walls hissed and spat as they rapidly cooled. Elsewhere on other decks of the Anlace, John could hear similar sounds of squirting foam and gas, before sounds of hissing and popping from the cooling steel.

His suit indicated that the room was being flooded with deadly radiation, enough that he would have to spend as little time as possible inside the chamber, and that meant preventing the ships detonation.

Essentially the self destruct was automatically diverting all power and fuel into the fusion reactor building up a critical mass under the containment system (needed to maintain fusion anyway) and then when it’s ready it just turns the containment off releasing all that energy at one causing one hell of a fission explosion.

The power surge from his earlier machinations had increased the danger from the reactor. He realised with dread, as his HUD was filled with equations and estimations of the time to critical failure and the distance to reach minimum safety.

Flicking through the information with his eyes, he determined a way to shut off the reaction. "Computer, how do I begin a manual shut-down of the self destruct?"

“In the event of unexpected cascade failure; the maintenance and reactor bays should be evacuated. Following that, all personnel are to reach a minimum safe distance of - eighteen thousand and fifty-one kilometres..” The timer and distance were being displayed on Johns HUD.

Once evacuated, I will begin an automated shut off of the wildcat destabilisation.

Alert! Automated systems nonfunctional. Manual shut-off required, the schematics and design plans assaulted his eyeballs, dozens of pages popped across his HUD and pip-boy screen.

Alert! Detonation in t-minus four minutes, thirty-six seconds.

John dismissed her as he had what he needed and proceeded to retract his uplink cable, before punching a series of commands into a control panel at his armoured feet.

The amber light surrounding the reactor housing turned violet and the casing flowered open to reveal a hexagonal prism-shaped core. It was about a meter across and completely symmetrical.

A steady thrum denoted the build-up of Hydrogen and power that in four minutes would detonate with a temperature of almost one hundred million degrees. John felt an animalistic urge to be anywhere else when it did.

A shutdown leaver was visible, he had to pull it, twist and push back in. He did so, each movement making a crunching hissing noise.

Nothing. The countdown continued, the hum was rising in volume.

He tried again. crunch. Nothing.

This time he opened it, his anger getting the better of him, he stood up.

He used his foot to stomp the tubular lever back into its housing underneath the core. The containment field smashed, as did the coils.

Despite the image that is produced as a result, loss of containment in a fusion reactor is surprisingly safe. Without the field to compress the plasma it expands, rapidly cooling and dissipating it into a harmless gas. A cloud of blue-grey energy and gas spiralled upward before disappearing.

The sounds of the reactor going critical were reduced to silence almost instantly. The warning klaxons were silenced, John took a breath, "motherfucker," he said.

Countdown aborted. Recalling Hydrogen to anterior storage C. The feminine robot voice of the A.I broke the quiet.
John huffed as he lowered himself to the gravitational gound. He swung from the spire like an orangutang and dropped to his armoured feet.

Starfire was using a small illumination crystal, that she had procured to view her surroundings better, after searching for the elusive creature. Princess Luna had determined that the ship may not have been the right-way-up – although it was difficult to be certain as the ship had clearly been designed for something even larger than Princess Celestia.

As she used her mouth to hold the crystal, she directed its light over a piece of technology. At least that’s what she thought it was, the alien device had buttons similar to a typewriter and was connected to a square piece of glass.

Curiosity got the better of her and she touched it with a hoof, nothing.

Starfire’s shoulders sagged a little. She had been hoping it would do something, after all, how were the aliens supposed to control the ship? She didn’t see any wheels or pulleys. She was no expert on nautical equipment, but surely the controls for this thing would be somewhat obvious, at least she had assumed they would be.

Turning away from the uncooperative piece of technology. Princess Luna and Frosted Whip were looking around the room with their own sources of light and their backs to her.

Connected to the wall in a darker part of the room, she could just make out what looked to be a more intact version of the alien typewriter. This one was mounted on a wall but at a weird angle. She supposed it made sense if the ship were indeed not the right way up.

She slowly and quietly trotted over to it, having to navigate around and over several fallen pieces of debris. Once near it, she looked up at it. It was a full body’s height above her. She carefully raised herself up on her hind legs and put each foreleg on the wall to either side of the device.

She stared into the glass square, this one had a crack running across it through which she could see diodes and wiring. She turned around to speak to the others and spat out her illumination crystal.

“Princess Luna, look at—” she was cut off as one of her hooves touched the typewriters buttons – many of them depressed at once with a slight click and the glass square burst into a bright white light.

It was so sudden and harsh that it nearly blinded Starfire’s sensitive Thestral eyes, she tipped over backwards and loudly crashed into a pile of debris. She could see flashing after-images in her vision.

A screeching, repeating sound emitted from all around them. She’d woken a monster, she feared, as it wailed for their very souls.

“Guard Starfire!” Luna Shouted to be heard over the deafening noise, now emanating from the walls, “We were implicit that thou not touch anything!”

Starfire rolled onto her belly, “I didn’t mean to Princess, it was an accident!” Her cat-like eyes glistened.

They all held their breath, but nothing happened. After some tense moments, the sound stopped.

“Are you hurt?” She asked the mare genuinely, her voice cutting through the silence.

Starfire shakily stood, “No, I’m okay.”

“Very well, and yourself Guard Frosted Whip?”

Whip was steadily looking around her, her ears were swivelling. “I am unhurt, Princess. Did anyone else hear that?”

“Of course we did. Art thou deaf?” Luna deadpanned.

“No not that.” Elsewhere in the ship, a muffled hissing could be heard.

“Is it a creature?” Starfire said, drawing her sabre with her mouth.

“I don’t think so. I heard fluid rushing through the walls. It was heading somewhere above us.”

Luna began to exit the room, “Then let us head there now. “

After leaving the room, the trio slowly made their way to the destination of the water in the walls that Frosted Whip had heard. They crossed into multiple passages and compartments that had been blackened by a fire until they found themselves in a large corridor with big metal caskets running up two of the sides.

They were once again reminded of the ships tilted axis, as they had to walk along a row of capsules with another row above them. The front of each one had a big piece of curved glass; it was ice cold to the touch and frosty looking.

Luna studied them closely. Inside the one she was standing on she could make out a dark and strange looking shape. She realised with a sudden feeling of wonderment, that it was likely an alien. Starfire appeared to reach the same conclusion.

“I think those are aliens, you guys!” She said excitedly.

“Look,” Whip added, “one of them is open.” She pointed with a foreleg at an indeed open pod, the glass had lifted up to reveal a grey interior, it had lots of small markings, the details of which were completely foreign to Luna's eyes.

“This must have been where the biped we saw came from. But why was it already off the ship when we arrived?” Whip thought for a moment, trying to come up with a reason.

“It matters not”, Luna said, interrupting her train of thought, “you can ask the creature yourself once we find it.”

“Do you think it will be friendly?” Starfire asked hopefully.

“By the sun of our sister, we hope so,” Luna replied, as she led them higher up toward the top of the ship.

The moonlight above the Anlace was a diffuse ocean, lessening the inky-blackness of the sky, but not so much as to completely dim the stars that speckled and glittered in the heavens above.

With all the grace and decorum that he could muster, Commander John Maxon hefted himself from a peeling hole at the top of the port nacelle, his suits servo-motors whined with the strain but he eventually broke free, and his large armoured form became silhouetted against the twinkling sky.

John thudded toward the edge of the wreck, the mountains to Johns left were laid in a great line like the spine of the land. It was as if long ago they were a great beast, only to lie down and one day never rise.

The ship caused a shadow to fall on the ground like a great curtain, his suit's sensors were indicating his lifeboat should be hiding past the dark side. As he evaluated his situation, he was unaware of the three sets of eyes locked firmly onto him.

His HUD displayed the distance to the ground, he checked to make sure his weapons were securely attached. Firmly he grasped his laser rifle and then took a running leap off of the Anlace.

Princess Luna, Starfire and Frosted Whip slowly and carefully made their way upwards, had they not had wings, the task of ascending up the crisscrossing maze of heavily fire-damaged corridors would have been extremely difficult.

After flying up a length of corridor, they reached the fringe of the ship. The moon was visible through holes in the steel, giving off the only light as she had deactivated her light spell. Frosted Whip was about to exit when she suddenly stopped and became very still.

“What is it?” Starfire whispered, looking suddenly afraid.

“It’s right there!” Whip said hurriedly.

Princess Luna moved closer to look for herself and true to Whips word, there it was. Standing with its back to her, it was huge! Taller than Celestia and far broader. It appeared to be made out of, or encased in metal, Luna wasn’t sure which.

“What should we do Princess?” Starfire hissed through clenched teeth.

“Be silent. We shall simply observe for now.” Luna whispered back.

For a time it did nothing and stood there on the ship, unmoving. Luna wondered if it had simply stopped working. She’d just finished that thought when it suddenly exploded away from them, its movements causing loud clanging sounds and sending vibrations through the ship. Before they could react, the creature jumped from the edge of the ship.

All three ponies were agape, that fall would certainly kill it – and it didn’t appear to have wings. After a few seconds, a faint thud could be heard from across the metal of the ship.

She felt disheartened. It had come all this way only to end its own life, they could have helped it.

They said nothing, but she was the first among them to leave the safety of the corridor and clip-clop across the hull toward the edge. After a moment Starfire and Whip joined her.

Luna looked into the trees. Except for a few shreds of moonlight, it was as dark as the inside of a shut cupboard.

They shambled to duck down low once they realised the creature could still spot them. Luna peeked over the top of the rim to see that its back was facing them.

They all waited with bated breath to see what it would do next, but for a time it simply stood there, unmoving. Its odd behaviour was starting to unnerve the princess. Just what was this thing?

More moments spent in silence. Eventually, a strange mechanical whirring emitted from the creature, Luna looked on in apprehension, as the thing's back opened like a grotesque metal insect shedding its skin.

It dawned on her that it was likely getting out of its armour. A much smaller biped emerged from within the steel behemoth, it was slight in comparison – only half the size of the suit that towered next to it, but still large looking even at this distance.

The suit of armour closed on its own accord with a sound like an old lock being turned. The three of them watched in silence, so focused were they on the metal creature, that they didn’t notice the form of another pony, attempting to hide amongst a large piece of debris in the trench that the craft had left.

For the first time Luna realised, she was actually seeing the creature in its true form. Its features were obscure from the distance she was at and muted by the darkness, but it looked tall and muscular – clad in all black and wearing a mask on its head – her keen eyesight could make out short hair and a bald face.

It seemed to study one of its forelegs intently. Then it took a small strange-looking stick that was still clasped in the suit's armoured hand, before walking quickly away from the ship and from them.

Motion in her periphery made her look more to her right, after squinting and trying to assuage what she was seeing, Luna could make out the form of a Thestral guard. She lit her horn briefly in a series of dim notes – it was a common Guard signal, meaning to remain where one was.

She then checked that the creature had not noticed - it had faded almost entirely from view as it made it's way back into the treeline.

His power armour had suffered a servo motor lock-up due to the height he had jumped, it would require a manual reset. Nothing too difficult, but John had neither the time nor the equipment to carry out such a task. With laser rifle in hand, he ran silently through the tall trees that grew thicker like giant blades of grass.

The moonlight spilt onto his back and shoulders, casting a long eerie shadow in front of him. His Geiger counter clicked away, decreasing as he approached the escape pod.

The problem with radiation was that it wasn’t in the air, it was carried on small dust particles. Ninety-five per cent of decontamination was simply removing the contaminated clothes and having a shower.

In the simplest of terms, the amount of radiation emitted from the Anlace would be carried several kilometres on the wind in the form of dust and pollen. Several weeks of rain would mostly mitigate the damage, the soil would absorb some of it, but it would be greatly diluted by the water runoff – eventually being washed away entirely.

The fusion core of the escape pod had been damaged and was also bleeding off radiation, but John would bury it after encasing it in welded segments from the hull of the Anlace.

He endeavoured to return to his power armour and repair it immediately. He wore a breathing mask for now but its oxygen supply was much lower than that of the armoured exoskeleton. Several minutes of wandering back to the crash site and he paused at the edge. Something was amiss, but he couldn’t put a finger on it.

He lifted his laser rifle and scanned the moonlit landscape for any signs of movement. At first, all he could see was his power armour, a stark figure in the otherwise dim shadow of the Anlace. He did a double-take as there was clearly something next to his suit. It looked like a small group of four-legged animals. A mother and three cubs perhaps - the largest looked to be slightly shorter than himself.

He took aim and prepared to cut them down.

Only hesitating after thinking about the possible ramifications, what if they were intelligent, or if after he killed them, hordes of quadrupeds descended on him like the plague. He would tread carefully until he learned more about this new world. John now knew, however, that he was not alone.

After some time his sensitive hearing could hear hushed whispers, emanating from the group of creatures. His aim still on them, he was also continuously checking his surroundings and Pip-Boy readouts.

He considered his options and decided he would start moving closer, hoping his presence would cause them to scatter. Slowly and silently he crept toward them, keeping his form as diminished as possible.

As John neared the group and his towering power armour, one of them noticed him – it gestured with a limb at the others and they all froze to look at him. John made himself as statuesque as possible and tried to halt his breathing.

Nothing happened for a time, John and the four creatures simply looking at each other. A task made difficult in the shadow of the Anlace.

In the resounding silence, the cool night wind tousled John's short hair and pricked at his forehead. His lower face was covered in a breather mask. They stared at each other, neither party willing to make the first move.

Eventually, John slowly raised himself into a less tense position. he moved toward them slowly – watching for any hostile reaction. He pointed his laser rifle low at the center of the tallest creature once he had reached a dozen body lengths from them.

He activated a torch at the end of his weapon, its piercing white beam breaking through the darkness and illuminating the four creatures. Their reaction was immediate; the smaller three drawing silver blades with their mouths and in one instance a wing.

The tallest of the group simply straightened, but they all took a few steps back at the presence of the light, using a front leg or a wing to shield their large eyes. John lowered his beam so as not to completely blind them. Keeping it at the ready, should the situation degenerate.

With sudden clarity, he realised they possibly weren’t just animals, but intelligent creatures, capable of making weapons and armour. As evidenced by the smaller of them – their yellow cat eyes seemed to look through him.

The taller one, clearly their leader, with its more ornate looking garb and lack of weapons, was a dark blue colour and had a long horn protruding from its forehead. He noticed its dark blue wings – the feathers of one being used to partially shield its mesmerising blue eyes, deep pools of starlight that twinkled at him.

He pointed at himself and then at the armour, “I need that.” He couldn’t say that he was expecting a reply, but on the slim possibility that they encountered another species, they were to limit contact and simply observe. Something that was impossible now.

The blue one tilted its head, “You speaketh our language?” her voice held a subtle, feminine smokiness to it.

John really had no idea what was happening – he considered that he might have been hallucinating, or under the effects of radiation exposure. A quick glance at his Pip-Boy dissuaded that line of thinking, however.

He kept his voice level, “It is you who speak mine”, he added, his tone becoming lighter, “You can understand me?”

The three smaller creatures lowered their swords a fraction, allowing their leader to speak further, “How is such a thing possible? We thought thou art from the stars.” Her eyes turned skywards.

John kept his rifle low, just in case it was a ruse, before saying, “Whatever this is, I need access to my power armour.” He gestured at it with his rifle, the motion causing wild shadows to appear as the only light source was manipulated.

The blue one looked to his armour, before narrowing her eyes at John, “For what purpose? If you have come here to wage war, know that such an act will not be tolerated.”

John snorted derisively, his blue eyes meeting with hers coldly, “That isn’t my mission; I require the armour to breathe your atmosphere safely. I have a limited supply in this mask”, he gestured at his breather mask, “and there are tools I need to fetch from the Anlace.” He then pointed at ship.

She looked behind her, before returning her gaze to him. “Very well”, she said at length, “We will not interfere. What is your name? We have never encountered a species such as yours before.”

John decided to chance it and lowered his laser rifle – this was mimicked by the three smaller creatures, they held their weapons at the ready.

He moved toward his armour and crouched to inspect its bulky leg portions, “I am Commander John Maxon of the Brotherhood of Steel, I'm a human, I was in command of the VSS Anlace.”

The horn on the blue one’s head ignited, John feared she was preparing an attack, but after nothing happened, he realised it was a means of generating light. He didn’t let his momentary bout of concern show, as he began expertly dismantling parts of one of the armoured legs.

She approached him and folded her wings behind her, before saying, “Our name is Princess Luna, and these are my compatriots, Guards Frosted Whip, Starfire and Steel Mustang.” She looked at each of the smaller creatures as she said it. “We are called ponies, human.” She pronounced the word ‘human’ a little weirdly; stretching out the vowels with slight difficulty. “It is our pleasure to welcome you to the land of Equestria; we would very much like to share our culture with you and your people.”

She paused before adding, “Will more of your kind come?”

He tried to hide the slightly dejected feeling by rubbing his forehead with a grease-smeared hand, “I very much doubt it. My people died on that ship.” He added harshly.

Luna looked a little remorseful, “Surely that wasn’t all of them? There must be others elsewhere.”

He sighed as he struggled to loosen something within his armours leg, “But they are many millions of kilometres away – more; as I believe I must have crossed into another realm or universe, instead of simply travelling the distance to our destined star system.” The part inside came off with a jerking crunch. “Damn.” He said, inspecting the broken piece.

He stood up – a head taller than Princess Luna – the helms of her guards only reaching his waist.

Clutching the damaged gizmo tightly, he continued, “So they might as well all be dead.” Grimly, he wondered over to the Anlace, “Wait here; I will return shortly.”

Princess Luna couldn’t believe it; an actual alien – this would reshape the history of the world and it was happening right in the heart of Equestria. She looked to Steel Mustang, “Where is Lieutenant Midnight?” Her illumination spell providing them with light.

His eyes had been tracking the creatures – no – the human's fading form and turned to meet hers, “She and the others are searching around the ship, your highness, I was clear that they shouldn’t enter the ship.”

“Very good, locate her and update her on the situation; that we have made contact and are awaiting the human's return.” She said, drawing out the Commanders’ species name.

Steel extended his wings and catapulted himself into the cold night air.

“What do you think, Princess?” Starfire asked, re-sheathing her sabre.

Luna looked up at her moon, “We are excited to learn more about this species. We hope he does nothing to endanger that.”


Show No Mercy

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Stars shone as sugar spilt over black marble, glistening in the sun, while the moon hid solemnly behind a veil of clouds – waning soft rays, occasionally peeking out.

Princess Luna had ordered her two remaining guards to form a small cordon between herself and John’s power armour, and the sparse treeline, as it grew ever dimmer with the retreating moonlight.

Some moments passed, and she turned to look behind her, as John approached from a large hole in the side of the ship. In a pale hand, he held a burlap bag – it bulged, likely with tools required to repair his armour.

He said nothing, as he squatted beside the bulk of his armoured suit, so completely dwarfed by it, that he almost seemed to disappear. Luna watched him intently, as his hands deftly moved and flexed within the legs of the suit. He removed a piece and replaced it with a duplicate, before pointing a small device at it, it sparked once – so luminous, that it left an after image dancing on her eyeballs and she had to blink rapidly to abate the momentary brightness.

As he continued, distant sounds could be heard on the breeze. Luna’s ears swivelled, as did those of her guards, the vague sounds stopped as suddenly as they had begun. An almost uncomfortable silence followed, Luna could feel the tenseness in her guards, and something didn’t feel right.

A hurried flapping could be heard, quiet at first, before becoming louder as it grew closer. Starfire and Frosted Whip drew their sabres once again, as a precaution. Luna squinted, suddenly able to make out a flickering shape, growing closer with the sound of wing flaps; its form distorting the twinkling stars.

It was a Lunar Guard, her appearance was bedraggled – as if she had flown through tree branches – indeed it looked as though she had. Twigs and leaves stuck out haphazardly at odd angles from her mane and tail, and her helmet was missing. Her plate armour had been scratched and chipped by blades; Luna had seen the signs of combat many times.

As the guard jumped and skipped with the speed of her landing, she gasped for breath as she offered a quick bow, before fixing her wide-eyed yellow gaze on Luna.

“Princess, Changelings in the forest! They ambushed us – we saw the biped head into the trees and we followed, trying to keep a discreet distance,” she paused to suck in more oxygen. “We saw it head back toward the ship, we were about to pursue it, but we blundered into a changeling trap!” she spat the word changeling as you might refer to vermin or a plague – in Luna’s mind that was what they were.

“We sent somepony to locate you; Guard Steel Mustang – did he happen across you?”

The guard was breathing heavily but she nodded as she said, “We saw him coming near us, but as he flew over a small defilade, he became consumed in green magic attacks, and that’s when the ambush began,” she looked off to one side in reflection, “Celestia, it all happened so fast”.

“Steady thyself, what are the enemy’s numbers?” Her blue eyes contained fiery steel.

“It was hard to tell, there were so many of them – I was ordered to find you and get help”. Her speech ended suddenly when she finally noticed the towering armour, and her dark orange eyes locked to John, as he stood and dusted his hands off by rubbing them together.

He stared right back at her, as he addressed Luna, “Princess, you look like you could use some help”. He glanced at her, as he clasped the open leg portions shut and grasped a small circular piece on the back of his armour, John stepped back as the suit opened before him.

A buzzing noise could be heard, growing louder as it approached. The new guard’s ears swivelled and she turned her head to look back at the dark treeline, before whipping back to look at Luna with wide eyes, “They’re coming! Princess, we have to leave!”

In answer, Luna drew a pair of long single-edged swords with curved blades; they made a few test slashes in front of her, their handles covered in a faint blue, ethereal glow.

“We cannot, we must defend this location – we art certain that by now our sister will have dispatched more Guards to our position. Commander, we would appreciate your assistance”.

John sucked in a deep breath, his chest expanding with the motion, he then removed his mask, and Luna caught a waning glimpse of his face. It was pale. In addition to sharp blue eyes, the human’s face had a small mouth and a small protruding lump that Luna assumed was his nose, a faint white scar drew a line from his jawline up to and just under an eye.

He turned from her and climbed into his open power armour. While it closed around him, Starfire and Frosted Whip joined the Princess with their sabres held in their mouths – the three of them adopted a defensive stance, holding themselves low to the ground with weapons pointed outwards toward the treeline. The sound of buzzing grew in pitch and seemed to come from all around them.

The third guard joined them, “I need a weapon.” She looked at Starfire tentatively.

“Here,” Starfire said, retrieving a small, thin dagger from behind a wing. “Don’t cut yourself.”

John checked his Heads up Display — it showed all systems nominal. He drew his laser rifle from his back and quickly checked it over — it held a charged Microfusion Cell that would provide him with several dozen shots. In the white-grey of his low-light imaging, John could make out small black shapes darting erratically from treetop to treetop deeper into the woods.

He looked briefly to the ponies and knew that they likely couldn’t see in the dark as well – but he could not be certain. Deciding against asking, he instead swapped his energy weapon for the medical storage canister, magnetically locked onto his right hip. Under the curious gaze of the ponies, he rooted inside for his desired item.

The buzzing sound grew louder still, and Luna turned her gaze away from John and back to the treeline, it was difficult to tell, but she could see them getting closer.

“Aha!” John exclaimed. His helmet gave his voice a mechanical twinge, as he held a small, stubby thing with armoured fingers. It looked similar to his other weapons, which were stuck to his armour — a small handle, which he clutched in his hand, and a short piece that pointed away from him. The only difference was, instead of having a square end, this ones was circular.

Before she could ask him its function, he pointed it skyward and with a quiet puff, a small sparking light was fired into the air. The ponies tracked it with their heads – the few motes of orange light glinting in their glassy eyes.

It exploded into a harsh red light, then cascaded down onto everything and illuminated much of the wooded area and the dead ground in between it and the ship. The flaring light hung high above them. It hurt to look at, so Luna averted her eyes and instead looked to the treeline, where the forms of multiple changelings were now exploding from within the shadows of the trees – cast by the red light – and swarming into the open air.

There were dozens of black, insectoid looking ponies. They had giant fly wings on their backs, which buzzed noisily. Their charcoal limbs had small holes dotted randomly on them, as did their gossamer wings, their heads had a small curved horn ending in a sharp point. As they locked eyes with John and the Equestrians, their jagged mouths opened to hiss and screech.

Princess Luna looked on at the rising swarm of Changelings. They numbered around a hundred. A sudden thumping announced the armoured human’s departure from the ponies’ side.

“Commander, we urge you to return at once!” She had to shout to be heard over the chittering and screeching of the changelings.

He didn’t react. However, as he grew closer to the changelings, they became focused on him. With howling shrieks in their chittering language, half of them peeled off to fly straight at John. As a line of diving changelings neared his armoured form, things seemed to move in slow motion for the Princess, as everything was painted in an eerie red light.

The ever-present thrum of changeling wings was washed out as John pointed a short blocky weapon at them. He fired up into the stream of bodies, with Luna being able to feel the heat even from the distance she was at. The red light from the weapon seemed to outshine the small ember in the sky, as bolts of energy blasted up toward the changelings.

The flow of time returned to a more normal level as the energy bolts hurtled at great speed throughthe changelings. Black limbs were torn off in burning flashes, several of them were cut clean in half or had smouldering holes punched right through them. Luna had seen many acts of violence in her long life but never one with such a singular ferocity.

Dozens of changeling bodies impacted the ground with wet thuds. Limbs rained down, along with splashes of green blood and organs painted across the dry dirt. In a scant few seconds, John had cut their number in half. He switched his attention to the group of bug-horses, now making their way to the Equestrian’s position.

He turned in place and fired in short controlled bursts – red energy bolts lashing out and plucking more changelings from the air. The occasional bolt, which missed, arced high into the sky, before dissipating a far distance away. He risked hitting the ponies, as the changelings sped ever closer toward them.

His suit’s motion tracker was displaying both hostile and friendly signatures a few hundred meters into the trees, “the Lieutenant,” he thought, “They could use my help.”

After the destructive display of killing the vast majority of the attacking changelings, Princess Luna could see John start to thunder away from them into the treeline.

“Curses, where is he going now?!” Starlight shouted as she rushed to meet the advancing changelings. Although they had suffered losses – they still outnumbered the ponies ten to one – Frosted Whip and the surviving Lunar Guard joined Starlight in holding off the advancing changelings.

Princess Luna used a move she had learned millennia ago from an old stag, the deer favoured pulsating magic bursts to stagger and dislodge their enemy in an attack.

She charged her horn, as blue magic built along its length she dispelled it at the first few changelings, sending a rippling tide of magical energy into them – they tumbled and sailed around the encircled ponies.

Luna’s guards lashed out with jabbing attacks, their blades cutting into areas where the changeling’s vital organs lay; necks were cut and heads sliced clean off. For every black bug killed, three would replace it.

Luna was an expert swordsmare; she guided her twin, curved blades high into the swarming changelings, severing limbs and slaying many outright.

A large changeling landed behind Luna, it was nearly as big as her, with a thickly armoured carapace and chitinous armour on its hole-ridden forelegs and black head – its beady blue-glowing eyes looked at her with obvious malice. It screeched once and lunged for her. In its sickly green magic, it held a jagged black blade made from the same chitinous substance as its armour and carapace.

Luna ducked and weaved. Summoning her swords back to her side – as the large changeling brought its black blade down toward her head, Luna’s silver curved blades span around her to meet them, they struggled against one another for a moment.

She turned her entire body around whilst using her swords to lift the changelings up and away from her. She bucked it as hard as she could – two silver horseshoes indenting large gauges into its chest and forcing it into the air and into the ship that was behind them.

The changeling slumped to the ground before shakily standing, all around the Princess her three guards were struggling to hold the changeling horde at bay.

She watched in distress as the guard who had brought word of the changeling ambush buried her dagger into the chest of a large changeling. It head-butted her, before biting deep into her unprotected neck – it reared up and tossed her over its horned head – she disappeared behind a group of changelings, who immediately set about stabbing and biting at her.

Starlight let out a lengthy shrill war cry as she lashed out with a sabre, she slashed back and forth at the big changeling’s neck, practically sawing it off.

The changeling was bucked hard by Frosted Whip, who sent it hurtling into yet more changelings.

Luna’s eyes widened at the ferocious display, she reached out with her magic and telekinetically dragged the wounded guard back through the changelings, tripping over a number of them and resting her at her own hooves.

The guard was curled up and was covering her head with her armoured forelegs, red and green blood matted her fur. She looked up at the princess and Luna could tell by the clarity in her eyes that she was not critically injured.

The thundering approach of hooves made Luna spin around to face the large armoured changeling once more. It slammed into her and sent her skidding back, her hooves leaving small trenches in the dirt.

Its crooked black sword was hammering down at her again and she had to parry it with her own curved blades.

The force of the attack had sent one of her longswords clattering to the ground, the changeling screeched and tried to bite her, Luna ducked her head back to avoid its tooth-filled maw, gritting her own teeth in the process.

As she lay stunned under the fighting forms of Princess Luna and the largest, meanest looking changeling she had ever seen, Dark Goldenrod’s grey-furred ears stood up, a long, curved silver blade rattled to the ground in front of her.

Her blurry eyesight could see Princess Luna’s strong legs arrayed around her and she blinked to try and gain focus but was met with limited success.

Goldenrod managed to focus on the underside of the massive changeling. It was at tall as Luna, but much stockier and had bulky chitinous armour on its forelegs and head – it hissed and roared as it tried to bite the princess.

Goldenrod shakily climbed forward so that she was more underneath the changeling. Neither it nor the princess noticed her as they were so intently locked onto one another.

She nudged Luna’s fallen blade with her snout, being careful not to cut herself, she took the handle side into her mouth.

Leaning her head up, the curved point was aimed directly at the soft seam under the changeling, between its front legs – where the edges of its carapace joined with black flesh.

She kicked upwards hard. The blade digging up into the creature in jerky motions, Goldenrod scrabbled to find purchase underneath the changeling.

The reaction was immediate, the changeling howled and screeched as it back peddled away from the sword that was sticking out from underneath it.

Princess Luna seized the opportunity and leapt forward, grabbing onto the changeling’s jagged sword to immobilise it in her blue magic. She brought her one remaining blade whirling around and stabbed it into the changelings gaping mouth. Grimacing as the handle disappeared entirely down its throat.

The changeling gurgled and spluttered whilst it reared up onto its hind legs. Sparkling blue magic grasped at the handle of the blade sticking out of its underside, she twisted it and pulled it out, before stabbing it back in all the way up to the hilt.

She yelled and used her magic to shove the large changeling back, pushing it into the ship and lifting it up into the air.

Blue magic surrounded it entirely. It kicked, screeched and gurgled – the blade slicing its way into its throat and insides, creating sickening sounds.

It went still as the tip of a blade emerged from the base of its barrel, near its hind legs. Shouting with the effort, Princess Luna made the blade slice up toward the creature’s chest – it shuddered and wobbled with the movement.

She pulled both blades from its now lifeless body and released it from her magical grip, causing it to burst open down its middle as it fell to the ground.

A corpse momentarily cushioned on a pile of green organs and many litres of splashing blood.

The red light from the human’s device petered out. Goldenrod couldn’t help but whimper as the fading forms of Frosted Whip and Starfire – doing battle with the remaining two dozen changelings – disappeared as complete blackness enveloped them.

“ENOUGH!” Princess Luna shouted so loudly that Goldenrod thought she wouldn’t be able to hear again.

The princess emitted a piercing beam of light from her horn and sent a wave of energy into the changelings. It battered them away from Starlight and Whip, but not before the mares cut down three more with flashing steel.

“Regroup!” Princess Luna screamed the order.

Goldenrod rose to her hooves almost involuntarily, her training kicking in. Whip and Starfire had the same reaction, skipping backwards with weapons outstretched to hold the changelings at bay.

They formed a battle line, ready for the next attack. Princess Luna levitated the large changeling’s chitinous blade over to her, Goldenrod took it in her mouth.

“Any weapon is better than no weapon”, she thought – the texture was so rough that she feared it would cut her mouth.

The waning light being emitted from Luna’s horn cast wild shadows around them. Had the changelings glowing blue eyes not given them away, their black bodies would have hidden them.

After a moment of comparative silence, the changelings hissed and spat, seemingly as one. They scampered and skittered toward the ponies, the four of them meeting the changelings with steely professionalism – they would never stop fighting – it wasn’t in their spirit.

The sounds of battle grew less intense and more distant the further John ventured into the woods. After a moment, he could barely hear anything at all, save for his thundering armoured footsteps, and the whirring of his armours servo-motors.

The trees thickened. The moon above was completely obscured by a dense curtain of clouds. It made little difference, as John viewed the world in hues of greys, whites and black – in the low light vision of his power armour.

His suit's sensors were picking out dozens of signatures up ahead – but were unable to tell John what they were exactly.

Great,” he thought sarcastically.

Somewhere in the distance, an owl hooted. It was so eerily calm compared to the chaos of the battle beforehand, after some minutes of endless dark trees, the ground began to rise to a small clearing.

According to his map, the clearing was located on an area of high ground that offered a view of the escape pod.

So this ‘Lieutenant Midnight’ had been ghosting me after all,” he mused to himself.

After he crested a rise in the terrain, he slowed to a halt and crouched to survey the area before him. From the viscera, blood and still bodies, John guessed that this was the ambush site. He scanned the clearing, looking for any signs of movement, he didn’t see any.

He rose up from his crouched position and slowly moved into the open. His hands clutched his laser rifle tightly.

After wandering over countless changeling corpses, he stopped in front of a lifeless pony. It had a long thin black blade embedded in its back, and its face was frozen in a silent scream. The pony’s cold eyes and the fact that it was in a large puddle of its own drying blood, made John decide that it was very much dead.

There were three others slumped in various positions. One of them with its head severed, laying on top of another whose injuries John could only guess at.

The fourth was further away. Its armour was blackened with energy burns, its face an unrecognisable mess of fused flesh and fur. It hadn’t bled much, despite having a large hole seared into its side. The flesh red and raw under the melted armour, its wings were sticking up at unnatural angles – the runner sent by the princess, no doubt.

Before John could properly react, half a dozen changelings appeared out of a small dip in the terrain. They charged at him – some in the air and some on the ground. As they neared the unmoving pony bodies, the one lying underneath its headless comrade burst into action, John assumed from the silver etching along its shoulders that this was Lieutenant Midnight.

She attacked with more speed than he would have thought her capable of. Her movements a blur, as in one deft motion she drew her silver sabre and slashed downwards at a changelings head. To its credit, it was able to dodge partly out of the way, the flashing sabre only managing to slice part of its black head off, causing a spurt of green life fluid to burst from its wound.

A second even faster movement from her blade cut cleanly through its neck and its head fell lifelessly from its black carapace, while its body twitched and spasmed in its final death throes.

She snarled. Causing the five other changelings to freeze momentarily, before they rushed to close the distance on her. She lifted herself into the air – three out of five managing to take flight with her, the final two being cut down in a hail of super-heated laser fire. John didn’t hesitate in attacking, as he took aim on the three remaining changelings.

He didn’t fire however, for fear of hitting the Lieutenant. He tracked them, roughly looking down the stubby laser rifle at the aerial display taking place in front of and above him.

With a curved sabre in her mouth and two small wing-blades, the Lieutenant danced and spun in a whirling image of blue-grey plate armour and black-brown wings. The three changelings struggled to land a hit, their larger unarmoured forms unable to keep up with the agile guard.

They reflected each other, as the three black forms tried to find an opening. One of them darted toward her, its jagged mouth opening. She whipped her head sharply to one side and her sabre cleaved a hole across the changelings head, killing it instantly.

It dropped from the air whilst a second made its move – she performed a manoeuvre like a pirouette, extending both wings toward the changeling.

The thing screeched in its perceived victory, the twin blades attached to the Lieutenant’s wings embedded into its chest – it gave a grisly gurgling hiss, as green blood spurted from its open mouth.

They both began to fall together, Lieutenant Midnight pulling away at the last second as the changeling impacted the ground with a sickening crunch. Its insect-like head bent at an impossible angle.

John had been tracking the entire display with his laser rifle. Gunsights resting on the last changeling to remain airborne, he fired his last three shots into it – the three red projectiles burying themselves into its carapace, leaving three smouldering holes as it fell.

The Equestrian landed with a heavy thud against the ground a few meters from John. With practised ease, he swapped out his spent Microfusion Cell, a fresh one replacing it from the long belt of Cells that was strapped to his torso armour.

They stared at each other for a few beats – John not moving, as he saw the unspoken question in the bat-ponies yellow eyes, friend or foe?

“I mean you no harm,” he said at length, “Princess Luna and the surviving ponies are fighting at the crash site – we should get back to them.”

She looked unconvinced, her piercing yellow eyes squinting as she rotated her head, “Name?” She asked sternly.

He paused, “Commander Maxon.”

“Commander,” she emphasised every syllable and looked around her at the dead.

“You can come back for them later, they aren’t going anywhere.”

Her head swivelled back to fix her gaze on him, she nodded once.

He turned and ran back toward the wreck of the Anlace, the ground rolling by beneath him. In his periphery, he could see the Lieutenant gliding along beside him – seeming to have no difficulty in keeping up, despite the darkness.

Princess Luna, Starfire, Frosted Whip and Dark Goldenrod had been fighting tenaciously ever since the hulking biped had galavanted off toward the treeline. Luna had lost sight of him shortly after his departure and had been too preoccupied to try and retrieve him.

The last half dozen changelings were just as persistent in their hive-minded attacks. These last six were lither – moving with practised ease and experience – dodging sabre jabs and parring wing slashes.

Against the treeline, two shapes appeared. Luna feared at first it would be more changelings, but was relieved to see a towering armoured human and a smaller, armoured Thestral.

Once more John worried he would hit the cornered Equestrians if he fired at the changelings. He ran as fast as he could, like a thousand-kilogram speeding bullet. Lieutenant Midnight effortlessly kept pace alongside him.

They both reached the frantic skirmish at the same time, John crushing changeling bodies under his armoured feet as he slowed to a halt, three of the six changelings whirling to meet them, hissing and chittering as they did.

Midnight reached the lone changeling first, rotating in mid-air to kick it hard with her rear hooves.

John turned his attention to the other two charcoal-horrors coming for him. He was close enough that he felt confident in shooting them without hitting any friendlies.

He stopped entirely to take aim. Moments before however, the nearest bug-horse rolled under his sight, catapulting itself up and into John, sending his laser rifle away.

John recovered quickly and grabbed the changeling with his thick armoured hands, one clenched around its neck and the other clasping its rear legs together.

The changeling screeched in frustration as it was unable to do anything. John jumped into a lunge position and with a sickening crunch, he used a steel-encased knee to break the things back.

Dropping its broken remains to one side, he stood to his full height to locate the second changeling.

From his left side, it came. With a long, drawn-out battle-cry announcing its presence.

It buzzed its wings to drop down at John from above – using its curved pointed horn, the changeling unleashed several fiery-green energy blasts. They surged around John in a maelstrom, his power armour’s orange energy shields flashing to life and stopping the worst of the damage.

As the blasts ceased, John burst from the fading green energy with his half-meter long combat knife in an armoured hand.

He slashed it lengthways at the changeling, however, the obsidian-coloured creature danced away from his wide arc and he only grazed it.

He made an over-hand swipe in the other direction, stepping into the attack like an unstoppable juggernaut, the changeling hissing and shrieking as it shirked away from the human’s attacks.

All around him the Equestrians were struggling to overcome their opponents.

In his peripheral vision, he could see Princess Luna using a type of magical shield to hold off the energy attacks of one changeling, whilst she parried sword blows with it.

He heard Midnight yell “come on!” and an answering shriek from her quarry.

He narrowed his eyesight onto the almost serpentine creature in front of him, its glowing blue eyes staring daggers at him.

John thought about using his suit's thrusters and his suit complied, his armoured figure being jetted forward faster than the changeling could evade him.

He had coiled beforehand and struck out with his blade, thrusting it into the changeling's open mouth – the tip of his blade exiting out of the back of its head.

He yanked the blade out and had a quick look at his surroundings, all of the ponies, bar Starfire and Midnight, had dealt with their respective enemies.

Lieutenant Midnight used a hoof-mounted duel blade to slash a matching pair of gauges into a changeling’s chest – deep enough to be lethal.

John watched Starfire and the last remaining changeling battle it out, seemingly evenly matched. They both parried sabre and chiton blade strikes and evaded magical blasts and dagger throws.

Finally, in a burst of speed, the changeling managed to duck under a powerful blow dealt by Starfire. It impaled twin spikes, one after the other in quick succession, through her back and out of her front – using small seams in her plate armour to do so.

As Starfire gasped and gave a gurgled scream, Luna propelled a curved silver blade entirely through the changeling’s torso – end-to-end – whilst John drew a laser pistol to fire thrice into its head, turning it into a bubbling melted mess, it dropped to the dirt, dead.

Three Thestrals, one lunar princess and an armoured human approached the twitching form of Starlight. Thick dark blood ebbing from the twin holes in her chest and leaving trails along the seams of her armour. She spluttered and coughed causing a spurt of blood to eject from her mouth.

“I’m sorry,” she rasped, looking at Luna – her eyes pleading.

Luna approached her and took a hoof in her own, “do not be – you fought valiantly – and thou art not dead yet.”

Luna’s already glowing horn pulsed brighter with blue magic, light shone through the holes in Starfire’s armour – she gasped and jerked, Frosted Whip holding her steady.

John had been digging around in his aide capsule. He pulled out some bandages, a bio-foam injector and a stimpak, “take her armour off,” he said gesturing with an armoured finger.

Luna looked disgruntled, “We are holding the blood inside, if we are to stop, her life will surely end.”

John thudded to his knees in front of Starfire’s struggling body – using his left gauntlet, he pried off one side of her torso armour, before pulling it off entirely.

“I have medicine,” he said, placing the medical items on the ground, while he gently yet firmly tore a sizable hole in Starfire’s chainmail.

Princess Luna looked like she wanted to object, but made no move to do so. She watched as the human plunged a large needle-nosed device into one of Starfire’s open wounds.

He then injected a smaller needle around the two wounds on her back, being careful not to bend her wings as he moved her.

A thick viscous, bright-white substance began to emerge from her chest-wounds, seeming to set like quick-drying concrete. Her eyes became slightly glassy and her expression changed from one of pain to an almost platonic look.

She looked at Princess Luna as the human began to dress her wounds with a bandage, “Hey there, Princess – that magic potion sure did the trick-ch

Her speech became slurred and her sentence was cut off with a rasp. Slumping as whatever cocktail the Commander had injected her with took hold.

Princess Luna’s head rose to look at John, “what did you just give to her?” she questioned hotly.

John finished bandaging Starfire’s wounds.

“Bio-foam to seal her punctured lung, it doubles as a pain-killer and an antibiotic. The smaller injection,” he brandished the empty syringe at her, “was a ‘Stimpak’, a slurry of chemicals that speed recovery and promote healing – a wound that would heal in a week can heal in a few hours,” he stated matter-of-factly.

“Then you have our thanks,” she looked to Lieutenant Midnight, “Report.”

John set to wrapping Starfires biofoam filled wounds, blood would eventually seep through the foam.

The Lieutenant snapped off a quick, smart salute. Despite the evident damage and wear to her armour, she gave no indication of weariness, her tone was even and calm.

“Myself and three guards proceeded around the object, using tree cover to conceal ourselves. Guard Ash Cloud noticed a large biped enter the woods from the North. We hadn’t yet reached our observation point, so I decided to reroute and follow at a safe distance.”

She jerked her head at Dark Goldenrod, “Guard Goldenrod, Ash Cloud, Silver Slate and I were arranged in a diamond formation. We crept along until we reached some high-ground, by then we could clearly observe the alien—”

Human,” Luna interrupted.

Human,” The Lieutenant parroted with surprising flawlessness, before continuing, “it — he,” she corrected, “Was poking around a weird device the likes of which I've never seen. The human left - I was going to leave a guard at the observation point to keep an eye on the ambiguous metal thing.”

Lieutenant Midnight looked back to the dark treeline, “Ash Cloud argued that we should all head back to you and ensure your safety and Silver Slate agreed. They were both spooked by the whole thing, I mean, who could blame them?” Her tone grew angry at the end.

“This whole situation is a disaster, actual aliens - and the changelings?” She looked back at the princess.

“Go on, Lieutenant,” Luna urged. Her voice was gentle, soothing, placating.

The Lieutenant grimaced as she continued, “It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. I’d managed to convince Ash and Slate that things weren’t as bad as they seemed when I noticed Steel Mustang flying in from the direction of the ship.

“We never found out what message he was delivering. As he came near, he flew over a dip in the terrain, in the near pitch-black we hadn’t noticed them before, must have been the entrance to a small cave – hordes of changelings came out at us.”

Everyone was listening with rapt attention. The moon had started to unveil itself, slim silver rays giving a view of the countless bodies arrayed around the group. Whip and Goldenrod kept one eye on the surroundings – looking for any movement in the shadows. John was monitoring Starfire, looking at a dim green square on his arm.

“He was cut down in green fire, the changelings surrounding us in an instant – I ordered Goldenrod to find you and report. While she took off we held out as best we could, but…”

She tried to make sure her voice wouldn’t break, “Ash and Slate didn’t make it.”

She looked at Luna, sadness evident in her tone and features. “I hid under Ash’s body, waiting for the right time to strike. After what felt like hours, the human found me. He was attacked by several changelings, with his help we took them down.”

She gave a look of respect to the kneeling human, him not seeming to notice, as his attention was fully on the square on his wrist.

She looked back at Luna, her eyes downcast for a moment, before hardening.

“You know the rest once we came here.”

Princess Luna gave an appraising hum, “We do – very good Lieutenant, we are sorry for the loss of your Guards. We shall recover them later, for now–”

A western breeze brought with it the sound of wings. Sounding like a large flight of birds to John’s ears – but the ponies all shared a look.

“That will be the Royal Guard,” Frosted Whip said, looking to the dark sky.

“We agree, there is not much we can do from here. We need to lick our wounds – we can return tomorrow at noon.

“Commander,” she said, stepping close to John.

“We believe you should come with us to Canterlot – Equestria’s capital. The Royal Guard are likely to bring chariots – you can ride in one – as shall we.”

She gestured with an outstretched wing at the gathered Thestrals.

“From there we can learn more about each other. We also need to alert our ponies about the changeling presence here.”

John thought for a moment, he couldn’t think of a better idea, “What about the Anlace? We can’t just leave it here unguarded.”

Luna hummed in agreement.

“We will leave a contingent of Royal Guard. They will have explicit orders not to enter your ship under any circumstance.

“We give you our word, as a Princess, that the grave of your people will not be disturbed. Is that acceptable?”

He considered her proposal, eventually, they would want access to the ship. He had his own orders, not to let any advanced technology fall into the hands of primitives.

While he didn’t exactly think of them as primitives, he wanted more evidence, before he decided for himself what to make of his situation.

If these ‘changeling’ creatures were hostile, then, for now, his only ally was these ponies – so he needed them on his good side if he was going to survive.

After a lengthy silence, all eyes on the armoured human, he finally gave his answer.

“Okay – for now keep everyone out of that ship. It’s dangerous – chemical spills and collapsed segments – but how will you prevent your people from seeing the ship once the sun rises?” He asked incredulously.

“Commander,” Luna smiled briefly, “we will do our utmost to keep everypony away.”

John grunted, but didn’t offer any more questions. Instead, standing and looking up to the rising volume of dozens of wing flaps.

In the darkness, multiple formations of golden-clad, white ponies could be made out – their coats like small moons in the dark sky.

Each group of four seemed to tow a golden, delicate-looking carriage – in the back of which stood a dozen unicorns and ponies with neither wings nor horns.

John would have to inquire later about the differences in their species.

As the flying ponies landed around the trench left by the Anlace, the white guards on board the carriages dismounted. Those with horns leading the way, their horns lit.

They all had a short sword either levitating in front of them or clutched in a mouth, for those without magic.

John still found such a concept difficult to grasp. Had he not seen it with his own eyes, he would have assumed it to be simply made up nonsense.

As it was, he still found himself wondering if he was hallucinating, from exposure to some unknowable energy or space radiation, or dead.

Princess Luna stepped toward the approaching guards, they policed up the dead bodies, many of the unicorns and earth ponies dragging and levitating the destroyed changeling bodies, piling them up a short distance from the ship.

A stocky broad stallion approached. He wore a more bulky version of the Royal Guard armour – appearing more like the Lunar Guard set in a gold finish.

He had a trio of diamonds on each shoulder, and the plume of his mane that stuck through his helmet was red, rather than the standard blue.

“Captain Stark Wing, you appear to be late to the party,” Princess Luna said with a slightly humorous tinge that died in an instant.

“We have dead and wounded. Lunar Guards lay in the forest with more changelings,” she spat the word, “and we have also encountered a new species. Captain, I’d like to introduce you to Commander John Maxon, a human – and the only survivor from this spaceship.”

“Captain,” the massive human’s mechanical voice sent a small shiver down Stark Wing’s spine.

John’s armoured helm swivelled to look down at the pony captain. All around, the other Royal Guards chanced glances at John, whispering to each other as they cleaned up the area – already a sizable pile of dead changelings was amounting.

The Captain’s blank visage revealed little. “Lieutenant Seaberry, take third platoon– go with Lieutenant Midnight to retrieve our dead. And be careful, there could still be changelings in the woods, so I want them swept, clear?”

“Yes, sir!” she replied sharply.

Her armour was the standard version – a single golden body piece which left the legs exposed while offering maximum mobility.

Knee guards and a helmet that had slots for her white ears and blue mane to stick out of, the pair of officers moved away from the group in silence, departing into the trees with three dozen guards in tow.

Captain Stark Wing gave a quick bow, “Princess, Guard Starry Skies reached Canterlot, and she briefed us on the situation, although she mentioned nothing about changelings.”

He looked around them. The small groups of guards lit by the occasional illumination spell or gemstone, as they moved to pile the changelings up higher and higher.

“I brought a company of the battalion with me, the rest of the 1/6th will make their way on hoof – they should be here by midday.”

“We did not know about, nor anticipate their presence. But to have such a large scouting force so deep within our borders troubles us greatly,” Luna said before adding, “how many guards have you at your disposal, Captain?”

He was stood perfectly still, like a statue.

“A little over a hundred made the flight with me, including most of my pegasi. I have them grouped into three platoons.”He gestured at the carriages, parked in the defilade left in wake of the ships crash-landing.

“Your sister wants you back, Luna.”

Few guards could address her without her title, especially in the company of others, but she would allow it from the old stallion, his experience and loyalty belaying any reprimands for the breach of protocol.

She looked around, John picking up his discarded weapon and meticulously examining it.

“Very well, Captain. But we will not depart until we have every one of our guards on board with us.” Her tone left little room to argue.

“Of course,” he said simply.

“Oh, and Captain,” she added, stopping him from leaving.

“Under no circumstances is anypony to enter the human’s ship, under threat of treason.” Her eyes were cold, almost merciless.

A lesser stallion would have cowered under her piercing gaze – but the Captain had known her long enough, that very little from her could disturb him.

Seemingly without a reaction, he answered, “of course, Princess – I’ll see to it personally.”

He turned and walked to a trio of officers, “Lieutenants Dandelion, Percios and Hayseed – firstly, I want 2nd platoon to run security; ready foxholes and defensive positions around the ship – we’ll prepare as if another changeling attack is imminent – and it might just well be.

“Have 1st platoon keep watch positions outside of the defensive line – any changeling sightings are to be reported and repelled immediately.

“Yes sir!” they all shouted while saluting smartly.

He led the three of them toward the growing pile of bodies.

“I want third platoon to join second on the line once they’re back – and get those Lunar Guard and the Princess onboard a sky carriage and out of here as soon as possible, got it?”

“Yes sir!” they answered in unison.

After some time, Princess Luna, Commander Maxon, an unconscious Starfire along with the three dead guards had been loaded onto a sky carriage.

Large and long, with enough room for them all to fit – it had a canvas cover over the top, with extra folding canvas sheets being draped over the side, to create a nearly seamless cover.

Princess Luna stared sullenly at the dead guards, her dead guards. She wondered if she could have done anything differently to keep them from dying – she couldn’t think of anything that would have changed events so drastically. As they had no reason to suspect such a sizable changeling scouting party would reveal itself.

John was splayed out along the floor, legs reaching from side-to-side and his armoured helm touching the roof of the carriage. Next to him was a pile of metal crates stacked from floor to ceiling.

To spare having extra guards, Luna had refuted the Royal Guards from towing her and her entourage in two carriages – instead having her three surviving guards fly them in a single carriage.

In her sleep, Starfire moaned – Luna’s horn flared a dim blue, casting shadows in the dark carriage – she had weaved a spell to ease Starfire’s tumultuous slumber.

“Shh,” she cooed in a soft voice, almost motherly – a stark contrast to her earlier commanding tone.

John was watching her intently. He had never imagined finding himself in such a strange place. But – he decided – he would try his hardest to keep going. To persevere for those who had not made it.

They sat in silence, the only sounds being the gentle creaking of the carriage, wing flaps and the occasional rustle from the canvas.

It was almost tranquil, John found his earlier weariness returning and before he realised it – he too had drifted into exhaustion-induced sleep.

Luna couldn’t physically see the human under his bulky armour, even though he had sat completely motionless for the entire duration of the flight and had not outwardly displayed a change, she could keenly sense him drift into unconsciousness. She reached out with her mind, eyes tightly shut.

At first, she couldn’t sense his mind in the normal fashion. She could detect large amounts of power emanating from his armour – her closed eyes tightened with the slight strain of trying to locate his subconscious. Eventually, she found it – a rippling, alien world that most definitely would be his dreamscape.

She feared to enter could dispel it entirely, his dream was a delicate mess as it was. She instead opted to watch, to the outside world – she also appeared to be asleep.

She saw flashes of death, of twisted bodies and metal – a barren, grey-brown world, fought over time and time again.

She could tell by the muted emotions that he was reliving a memory. Two large armies in armour like John’s waged violent combat against one another, flying machines and big, armoured carriages raced around spitting red death.

She decided against her earlier assessment as his dream started to stabilise in strength. She poured a small amount of magic into him – attempting to guide his subconscious mind into a more peaceful memory; thousands of them flashed by – none of them meeting the positive emotional aurora she was hoping to find.

After several minutes, she could detect the strain on John’s mind.

His physical body twitching slightly, although not enough for his armour to process the movements, she cut her connection, leaving a small note for his mind to sleep without dreams for now. His twitching settled and his emotional essence felt calmer.

She smiled, for she had at least managed to prevent one beings suffering this night. As they neared Canterlot, she thought to the future – about the revelations – and possible revolutions that this alien’s existence would surely spark.

As she resorted to light meditation, she hoped for a brighter future. One without the war and strife that this creature came from, but the universe was not often so kind.

Semper Invicta

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For a long time, Canterlot had been the beating heart of Equestrian politics, trade and commerce. A cultural hub for any foreign visitors or dignitaries, its ancient white walls had long withstood the test of time, surviving several natural disasters and a prolonged siege during its early establishment as the region's seat of power.

It was an architectural marvel. Situated near the summit of Equestrias largest mountain top, it had hanging gardens and magical waterfalls that avalanched from its edges.

The entire city was shaped like a large circular platform that had been partially wedged into the mountainside. Its southern edges frayed with tiered pools, where waterfalls were collected and spat into the wind, causing clouds of moisture in the high atmosphere to create constantly shifting rainbows.

Stretched along its western fringe lay several circular platforms, they rose in elevation as they neared the Cliffside. Each one containing sprawling gardens, watercourses and tethers for Equestrian airships – many such balloons hung in low orbit over the golden-domed domiciles that arced in a circle. A praesidium that occupied the western half of the city proper – at its centre was a crescent-moon shaped garden and a small lake.

The eastern side was separated by a wide, artificial stream that had several bridges over it. Which carried not ponies but more water, the entire city was interlaced with streams and rivers. They ran from the mountain into multiple waterfalls that bled from the city. Canterlot’s miasma of rainbows and misty waterfalls gave it the apparition of floating, for which it was nicknamed: the floating city.

East Canterlot proper was less of a circle and more kidney-shaped – having been constructed ad-hoc – to keep up with the growing population and need for more homes. At the city’s perimeter lay a large castellated wall, it had parapets and battlements that had been cleverly disguised, so as to look as tranquil and welcoming as possible.

Both the western and eastern sides of the city stretched more sparsely up the rising mesa, like outstretched tendrils of algae. White-gold Equestrian structures became more spread out and eventually were replaced with green.

Intermingled throughout the city were tall spires that rose into the sky, each having polished gold caps at their peaks. They varied in height from only two stories to a dozen, most of which signified the fortified keeps of the city’s eldest bloodlines.

Perched on Canterlot’s south-western edge lay the royal palace, it had high rising defensive walls around its perimeter, separating it from the rest of the city. The walls were laid out in a circle, a common shape in the city’s architecture – the western quarter being occupied by a large building shaped like a church. It had gold and white spires rising majestically into the air, presiding over the landscape and casting a shadow across the city during its beautiful sunrises.

Purple interlaced with gold slates covered the slanted roof of the church building, while entirely purple or gold coloured its spiralling domed towers. The two largest occupying the very edge of the city, on the palace grounds western-most side. The interior of the palace walls had immaculately kept gardens, almost ten kilometres square.

With a large, high-walled maze in its north-eastern corner, its centre-most point occupied by a large square common ground, where one could sit and ponder the world around. Its fringes dotted with strange looking statues.

Finally, sat in the south-eastern corner, lay a four-story mansion. Its red clay shingled roof offering a nice departure from the hues of golds, purples and white that occupied much of the city.

Outside of the palace walls, suspended in the air, lay a semi-circle bridge – it carried a large stream of water on the city’s exterior, before ferrying it back into the palaces western side.

As the lone sky carriage approached Equestrias dark city limits, the trio of Thestrals arced their wings in practised unison. Effortlessly they guided the carriage down toward a landing pad, located within Canterlot’s palace.

A few errant rays of moonlight allowing them to see their target zone, it was an internal carriage bay, mostly used for more military affairs than political – having less ornate and beautiful construction and one that was designed for a more utilitarian purpose.

Inside, the small amount of turbulence did little to shift John’s large mass. Luna used a wing pressed into the canvas roof to steady herself. The dead bodies stiffly wobbled – no doubt already set in rigour mortis – Starlight offered an occasional moan as the slight bumps caused her injuries to ache.

The landing bay was open, its golden-plated steel doors already yawning open for their expected approach.

The city itself was sparsely illuminated in the darkness – but the interior of the palace was lit up like a Christmas tree. A wide cone of luminescence streaming out to light up the carriage as it glided above the eastern side of Canterlot.

The three Thestrals working as one in silence, levelling out of their descent and slowing as they made ingress into the landing bay, large doors slowly grinding closed behind them.

The carriage thudded once as it landed, several Royal Guard flew up to meet it as an escort, using their pegasi magic to help corral the weight of the shuddering craft.

A half dozen apothecaries –ponies of differing colours trained in medicine and dressed in matching white uniforms, a red cross emblazoned on their backs –rushed to open the carriages makeshift canvas door.

It fluttered open and they all stepped back. With no small amount of surprise and a little fear, as John’s large armoured form thudded down onto the bay’s floor, Starlight cradled gently in his arms.

He walked over to a magically floating stretcher, ignoring the many expressions of amazement, before slowly lowering Starlight onto it. She groaned as he did so, two older looking pony stallions whisking her away with their magic, a nurse trailing behind, scribbling down the shouted descriptions of Starlight’s wounds.

John turned back to the carriage as Luna gracefully stepped out. Her shoulders and head held high and strong, despite her internal difficulty with the weight of her soldier’s deaths.

“Princess Luna!” several ponies announced, ignoring John and bowing before her.

“Please rise,” they did so. “Bring these to the morgue and see that they are properly prepared for burial”.

She levitated the three bodies out of the wagon. The bodies had been hastily covered in canvas sheets, the logo of a sun visible despite the bloodstained material. A single smaller canvas sack was levitated out along with them.

‘A severed head,’ John thought privately.

He had a quick look around him. At the high ceiling and gold laced support beams, three dozen ponies stood around them, many of them the golden variety, with some of the “bat ponies,” he thought, mixed in.

Staring at him with a mix of emotions, curiosity, fear, concern. He wondered objectively why he didn’t feel in such a manner.

John Maxon had spent much of his life fighting genetically altered humans and monsters. He’d led campaigns against tribal factions of humans, extinguished rogue colonies of super mutants and taken part in countless operations where the odds of survival were almost nil.

At the age of seven, after the death of his father, he had travelled with his uncle and a detachment of the brotherhood of steel, to pre-war Europe.

Europe was a continent on Earth that had seen huge amounts of civil strife and conflict. Enter the great war of twenty seventy-seven – a nuclear exchange which had nearly extinguished all life on earth.

Continents were re-shaped, oceans boiled away and mountain ranges vanished into craters hundreds of kilometres across – the entire world had unravelled.

The United States of America had long been the leader on the world stage in a number of areas, notably production, automation and energy.

It was here, in the seat of technological advancement, that the Brotherhood of Steel was founded – John had grown up with the tales of his ancestors; their greatness and prowess – he had always been burdened with the stigma.

Lesser people would fall, but John rose up, quickly proving himself a capable warrior, leader and tactician.

The Brotherhoods ideologies had shifted and evolved toward grander goals than the original tenets of retrieving technology. Although that still remained a core belief, the Brotherhood had worked tirelessly for over a hundred years to uplift humanity – to reunite them as a species under one banner – one of steel.

A Royal Guard with a silver-backed gold rank insignia rushed through a tall door at the far end of the cavernous room. The guard approached them – a unicorn mare with cold, blue eyes – she quickly bowed, before saluting by raising an unarmoured foreleg to her chest.

“Princess Luna, we’ve been expecting you,” she cast an unremorseful glance at the trio of covered bodies, “and Princess Celestia has requested your presence in the drawing room”.

“Very well, we shall go there now.”

Frosted Whip, Dark Goldenrod and Midnight had dismounted from the carriage, now waiting patiently to its side, facing Luna.

“Lieutenant, go with Whip and Goldenrod to the infirmary – and get yourself checked out as well, then get some food and some rest.”

Midnight stepped forward, “Yes, Princess,” she said before smartly saluting and walking towards a smaller door at the hanger’s side. The same one the apothecaries had disappeared through a moment before – Goldenrod and Whip imitating the salute, before following her.

Luna turned her head to look up at John, the dull steel and black eyeslits doing little to help her gauge his emotions.

“We wish for you to accompany us, you must meet with my sister – ‘tis been a long night already – we fear there is much to do before we can relax, Commander.”

John joined step with her, as she started for the large doors at the hanger’s far wall, the officer in tow with several gold-armoured guards keeping pace around them.

He felt he was under a great deal of scrutiny. All eyes bar the Princess’s placed on him, he felt he was fortunate enough not to have been herded into a cell.

“They can damn well try,” he thought darkly.

“Although,” he reasoned, if it would suffice as an act of goodwill on his part, perhaps a cell wasn’t entirely out of the question. So far he didn’t feel that they were threatened by him – just curious.

They walked along winding corridors and ascended up several flights of stairs, none of the ponies seeming to grow tired from the fast pace the blue-eyed officer was setting.

John’s armour gave him an almost unlimited stamina – as he wasn’t so much walking within the suit, but guided it with his motions – it was the equivalent of running at a sprint by only using the energy of a slow walk.

The palace interior was spectacularly decorated. Hundreds of portraits of epic scenery and the princesses posing with long-dead ponies adorned the walls, the walls themselves made from white marble with golden trim.

Everything had been built using an elegant style. The staircases were grand, three power armoured humans could walk side-by-side up them with room to spare. They had spiralling bannisters, bedecked in finely crafted wood. More gold adorned them, with marble panels extending into swooping patterns.

It was the most lavish place John had ever seen. Humanity had come far in the century since the Brotherhoods mission had begun. To fix humanities mistakes, but they had a long way to go before being able to recreate such grand architecture.

Outwardly he could give no indication of his amazement, as they reached a branching corridor. At its end a thick oak door was set – the guards at the front of the formation pivoting, to stand with their backs against the wall.

Two golden-clad ponies that stood in front of the door lit their horns, each door slowly opened – exposing a portal of soothing candlelight, through which lay a long room.

It held two tiers. The second having balconies and railings separating the drop to the level below, the upper portion containing books and tomes, the first stretching out under tables, drawing boards and planning sheets.

A big set of awning windows looked out into the dark world beyond. They spanned from floor to ceiling, John having to crane his neck a little to see the top.

In the middle of the room, a raised table covered in maps and diagrams had several large red cushions arrayed around it – on one of which sat a large, white-winged unicorn – almost double the size of Princess Luna.

Luna led him in, dismissing the guards with a look.

The one they returned indicated they weren’t happy for their rulers to be alone in a room with a hulking armoured biped. The doors quietly thrummed shut behind them, neither looking back as they approached the only other being in the room.

_ _ _

­Princess Celestia had ruled over Equestria for many thousands of years, in her long reign, she had witnessed countless, timeless events. Many of which have fallen victim to the sands of history, her memory is not a perfect one, but she could picture vast swathes of Equestria’s past in a way that no other could.

Celestia inhaled, the mixing smells of books, parchment and ink imbuing her nostrils with a sense of nostalgia. She so enjoyed reading, but even immortal beings couldn’t hope to read everything, although she so desperately wanted to.

So much time had given birth to thousands of tender moments, of happiness and love. But also, of hate, anguish and pain – she had always tried to forget the bad and live for the good, in all her years she had forgotten much, what was it that Luna had once said?

“A mind wants to forget but a heart will always remember,” she said it quietly to herself.

It had taken her a long time to fully appreciate its deeper meaning, she could never allow herself to hate anything – if she did – it would be forever engraved on her heart.

Unfortunately, over her long life she had amassed a large collection of myocardial scarring, some things she just couldn’t bring herself to forget. The downfall of her sister, the death of a loved one, the extinction of a species, she would be the bearer of these lessons to try and prevent such horrors from happening again.

She halted her train of thought, and instead returned her magenta coloured eyes back onto an old tome, placed on the circular table situated in front of her.

It had a peeling brown cover that had been wrapped with aging cord to try and preserve its condition. The image on the front had once been a unicorn radical, coated in silver she remembered.

Using her gold magic, she carefully opened the tome. Slowly turning the first few pages, this had been the personal diary of Starswirl the Bearded and later that of his protégé, Sage.

Starswirl and Sage had devised many of Equestrias earliest theories, the mystery of matter, magical vigour, the theory of relativity and the laws of the physical world. Many of these concepts had been refined over the years, but no single pair had left such a mark on Equestrian society and the greater world.

Starswirl had been ridiculed in his later years for ramblings of other realms, of other worlds and creatures from the heavens – even claiming that he had met some of them.

He and his protégé disappeared without a trace one terrible winter. Many assumed they had died from exposure, few others believing that they had travelled to an alternate dimension or ether-world.

She had been searching everywhere for a possible reference to visitors from outside of their known world, with no result.

Celestia closed the tome after a few minutes of fruitless scanning, the depictions inside becoming evidently more unhinged and abnormal.

The tome floated away from her at high speed, encased in a golden glow, another, equally as old tome replacing it.

This was an old record from the now defunct imperial society of astronomically celestial entities.

‘What a mouthful,’ she thought with a small smile.

The worn pages displayed nearly five hundred years of Equestrian astronomical events, meteor showers, asteroids, comets, solar and eclipses and blood moons. In the last few pages, she could make out the diagrams of the aurora borealis and the Aurora Australis, with comparing notes on the differences between the two as well as theories as to their existence.

She was about to replace the book with another when the sound of hoofsteps started drumming from behind the rooms large doors. She turned to look at the door as they slowly opened on well-oiled hinges.

She tried to hide her surprise. In addition to her younger sister, standing alongside her was a massive armoured creature. It stood on two thick legs, with thick arms connected via bulky shoulder pauldrons to a torso piece. On its head, it wore a bucket-like helmet with black eye slits.

Her natural magical senses could detect radioactive energy being emitted from the creature, not enough to cause harm – but she filed that bit of information away. Nuclear-reactive energy had long been theorized but had been largely circumvented by hydro-mana energy collection, a safer and more proven technology.

They strode toward her, her sister's blue eyes brightening as they looked to Celestia’s own. They stopped a body length away from her and she stood to face them.

“Little sister, I am glad you returned safely. Who is your new companion?” She glanced at the creatures’ eye slits, attempting to look friendly although she felt a little unnerved by its size, the top of its helmet reaching just above Celestia’s horn.

Luna gestured a hoof at the metal behemoth, “This is Commander John Maxon, the first human visitor to our world.”

Luna craned her head to look up at the creature, “Commander, we would like to introduce you to our sister, Princess Celestia.”

Celestia gestured with a golden adorned hoof, “An honour to meet you, commander.”

_ _ _

As John entered what he thought of as the library, he instinctively gazed around the room – satisfied that nothing would ambush him – he focused back on the pony in front of him.

She was tall, slightly shorter than he was. Her long serpentine neck topped off with a head not dissimilar to Princess Lunas, she had bright pink eyes, a long, slender body adorned with a golden collar, in the centre of which rested a purple gemstone.

She had golden shoes that extended up to the bottoms of her legs and a golden tiara which also had a purple gem set into it. Her fur was so immaculately white, flawless with an image of a sun emblazoned on her upper rear leg. Her hair looked like shimmering turquoise water – blowing in a non-existent wind.

The world around him seemed to snap back into focus as she said, “An honour to meet you, commander.”

Her voice was silky, she reminded him of an officer he had once known. Remembering her smooth voice and grey-blonde hair, her soft brown eyes full of life as she looked down at him. He had to stop himself from shaking his head, it had been a long time since he’d seen her and he had tried hard to forget about that particular memory.

He only half listened as Luna recounted the night's events to her white sibling, Celestia’s face deepened in a frown as Luna glazed over the Changeling attack and subsequent death of three of her guards.

“Changelings so far into our borders does not bode well,” Luna said, finishing her recollection.

Before replying, Celestia offered them both a seat – for which Luna quickly took whilst John remained standing.

“You are perfectly safe here, Commander. You can get out of your armour if you wish,” Luna said assuredly. “We have already determined via magical scans that the air inside your suit and the air in our atmosphere are compatible – you can, therefore, stop worrying about your oxygen supply.”

He looked at her, his helmet the only thing to move as he internally considered her offer.

A few tense moments passed while Luna and Celestia simply watched him for a reaction – his armour blossoming open at his neural command.

He stepped out, his armour shutting after his departure from it. Stepping around the armour, he picked out a large cushion to Luna’s right – opposite Princess Celestia, who sat down with a small smile.

They both looked at him intently, their eyes drinking in his appearance. He realised they were now only seeing him for the first time, John could say that he had seen more repulsive and grotesque creatures in his life. The ponies had seemingly interchangeable human qualities to their appearance, most notably the warm emotion in their eyes.

“I agree that Changelings within our borders is a cause for concern,” Celestia began, drawing a look from Luna and John, “do we have any idea what they were after?” she continued.

Luna shook her head, no.

Celestia hummed, “it is a problem we shall ‘work on’, then.” Celestia turned her gaze to John. “Commander, tell us how you came to be here.”

John blinked, deciding how much he should share.

“I was tasked with leading a team on a ten-year mission. The Anlace – my spaceship – was an experimental reconnaissance frigate. It was supposed to be the first human ship capable of travelling faster than the speed of light.”

Both of the royal’s eyes widened at that.

“And you mean to tell us that you managed to achieve such a thing? We thought it impossible.”

He frowned at Luna’s slightly disbelieving expression. “The science behind it is complicated and highlyclassified. But I can tell you it required a lot of power, so much so that the program was canned for several years while a reactor with sufficient energy output was created.

“It took many years of research – starting before I was born – and our best scribes to design and build such a vessel.”

John looked around the book-filled room while he spoke.

His focus shifted from books to the two Princesses, “The reason why isn’t as important as how the Anlace ended up here.” The human's stare seemed to pierce right through them.

He paused before continuing, “We were not counting on meeting an alien species. You’ve been friendly toward me – so I wish to extend an unofficial offer of cooperation between my species and yours.”

He interlaced his fingers together and leaned over the small table.

“In exchange for providing safe refuge for myself and my ship, I can provide assistance in military matters.”

Celestia’s eyes widened slightly, she hadn’t been expecting such a proposal.

“We can confirm his tremendous providence on the battlefield sister, without him, we surely would have fallen or been taken captive,” Luna offered.

John waited for a reply, the short lapse in conversation dragging on as Celestia seemed to stare into his very being.

“Very well John Maxon, as loathe as I am to allow it – my sister will doubtlessly wish to investigate the Changeling presence in the region, your skills would be best used in helping her. I will dispatch some of my best unicorn guards to cast a concealment spell around the area of the crash site in exchange.

“You will have some quarters assigned to you, for now, I want as few ponies as possible to see you – until I am prepared to reveal your existence to the world.”

Celestia’s head moved to face Luna, “Would either of you like to add anything?”

Princess Luna’s face scrunched up in thought, she squinted and looked down – as if the stitching in her bottom-rest had an opinion of its own. Finally, her head rose and her eyes sharpened.

“We require full military supervision of all of your activities before we agree to grant you refugee status.”

John said nothing for a small time before nodding and agreeing, “I accept, after we’re done with the bugs, I’d like to try to contact my people, although I’m not sure if it’s possible.”

“We will certainly do our best,” Luna said solemnly.

Celestia and Luna both smiled before Celestia said, “We are in agreement then, you will aid Princess Luna and her Guards discover the reason for the changeling presence. In exchange, we will conceal your vessel and in time, try to find a way for you to contact your people.”

John nodded once and addressed Princess Luna, “We should begin as soon as possible.”

“We agree,” she looked to Celestia, “We suggest you assign a small unit of your own Royal Guard to accompany us, they could use the practice.”

Celestia smiled warmly at her younger sibling then looked up in lamentation, “You know that I am not so well versed on our Guards military experience – but I hear that the 7th Guard Auxiliary has yet to be deployed. During times of crisis, they are eastern Canterlots go-to unit.”

Luna hummed, “An inexperienced reserve unit could sustain heavy losses if there is to be a battle, sister.”

“I know,” Celestia said, “but how else are they to gain experience?”

“Tis’ True.”

Luna’s gaze turned to meet John’s, “Come along commander, bid my sister farewell and follow us.”

She stood and turned from her pillow, fluffing it with her blue magic, as she walked past John’s armour, she craned her head over her shoulder, “Be well Celestia.”

John also left his pillow and began to enter his suit, “And you sister. Both of you.” Worry lines had etched slightly over her otherwise flawless white face.

John’s armour gave his voice a scratchy canned effect, “It was weird meeting you princess, but pleasant.” John turned to leave, Celestia’s reply meeting his armoured back.

“Likewise, John Maxon”

Still In The Dark

View Online

A medium summer heat tempered with a gentle breeze, the sensors on John’s power armour gave him a detailed overview of the world outside of it. John hadn’t experienced such a nice day as long as he could remember, the weather back home was still in constant flux due to a nuclear exchange many decades before.
The mud covered terrain John had stomped through during the previous evening had made way for an arider and dust covered locale.

After being escorted to the edge of a flight bay by Princess Luna and a Royal Guard retinue. John had waited while the cold-eyed Royal Guard officer had ordered the hurried assembly of the 7th Guard Auxiliary, a plethora of younger faced, wide-eyed kids from what John could ascertain, they seemed far less sure than their Lunar counterparts.
Starfire, Dark Goldenrod, Frosted Whip and Lieutenant Midnight had formed up alongside the 7th with the rest of their unit, 1st Company Lunar Guard, XIII Corps.

Princess Luna had vowed for their combat prowess due to experience and a hard training regimen. Many had been patroling Equestrias most perilous sectors for two decades, a half dozen ponies for three and two older looking, hard-faced Guards for over 40 years.

John himself was thirty-seven years old and had been training in combat since he was able to walk. His first patrol at the age of six, his first confirmed kill was the same year. He had been fighting as long as he could remember.
As a child John was raised with the other Squires; children of the brotherhood. They were taught language, English literature, maths, history, science and a host of other subjects. Meanwhile, their bodies were trained relentlessly, mile upon mile of marching, running and tabbing. The physical activity went hand in hand with stimulation of the mind.

Eventually, this turned into martial arts and weapons drill, then to weapons maintenance and target practice, culminating in what is known as the hunt. Unblooded Squires take patrols under the watch of Knights and Paladins. They'll have an objective to clear an area of some undesirables – usually raiders or mutants. John had been pushed harder than the other children he remembered, due to his bloodline and the almost fanatical devotion to it.

His grandfather, going back several generations had created the Brotherhood Of Steel and it’s tenets, these had evolved over time to suit a different world, but some of the core beliefs about the preservation of technology and forbidding its use by non-brotherhood members was still prevalent.

Ultimately John had endured and adapted. He had vowed to himself at a young age to be the best that he could be, he had thrived during training and set many records for shooting, unarmed-combat and physical feats, some of which still stood as far as he knew.

After passing “squire school” at the age of 15, recruits would then become an Aspirant. During this period Aspirants would be issued physical enhancements and either begin training as a Knight or as a Scribe. Usually given a choice but sometimes Squires with an aptitude for one branch over the other would be selected to begin training in that field immediately.

For John, despite being almost equally gifted in areas of the mind and body, he had chosen to become a Knight, after two more years of the Aspirant training under a Knight the Aspirant is promoted.

John had led a successful career operating in a strike unit as a Shock Trooper for five years before being promoted to Knight-Sergeant and leading a four-person team. After another year he was invited to attend the OCS (Officer Cadet School) at Fort Benning, Georgia. It took a further year for John to graduate top of his class as a Junior Paladin.

He'd then lead a Company-sized unit he’d created using a mix of Shock Troops and Vertibird Commandos against Super Mutant hollows and Raider gangs nearly as large as the Brotherhood.

John was snapped out of his daydream by a hastily shouted order coming from one of the Lunar Guards, “Atten-Shun!”
The Royal and Lunar Guard formations snapped to attention with the sound of three hundred hooves, spines straight and heads looking forward. They were in two groups of roughly equal size – the Royal Guard equipped in polished-gold plate armour, all of them were white John noted. While the batponies wore chainmail-backed silver and grey plate armour, it seemed less ceremonial and more practical to John.

In the Royal Guard their NCOs had plumed helmets of blue and white while the officers wore gold and white. He could see a multitude of rank insignia, single silver bars, horizontal slashes and silver backed with gold.

“At ease,” Luna said in a commanding tone. John could see the Lunar Guards relax, while the 7th seemed to remain tense.
“You all know of the changeling attack against myself and members of my personal guard,” her steely blue gaze swept up and down. “We have lost good mares and stallions as a result,” she continued, her voice rose in pitch, “were it not for their bravery, we – I may not be alive today.”

“It is the custom of the Lunar Guard to be cremated and for their ashes to be scattered over the edges of the city. Today we shall do it personally – we will honour their memory by continuing the fight against these creatures, as is our duty.”

At her hooves lay a chestnut box not much smaller than a footlocker, she levitated it in her magic and carried it to the edge of the platform. Over which the mists and rainbows rose toward the sky, sunlight shone through creating enchanting patterns on the walls and floor of the flight bay.

Her voice seemed to carry on the wind, a whisper in your ear and a booming shout both at once. “We release you from your vessel, from ashes you came and to ashes, you shall be returned. Glide on the winds of this city! You have served well – and now your spirit is free!”

Luna's magic lifted the box high into the air before scattering a grey cloud of ash into the sky. Millions of granules spreading out and mixing into the mist as they fell away from view.

The same gruff voice from before called the formations to attention once again and was met with the same reply of snapping hooves. “Salute!” he barked causing all of the Guards to raise an armoured leg to their chests.

The procession was short but John saw the raw emotion in the ponies eyes, he more than understood the shared connection that soldiers under fire formed. An unspoken pact of part brotherhood and friendship would bond troopers who’d bled and killed together. John had lost count of the number of men and woman whose funerals he’d attended.

After the Guards had been returned to parade rest, Princess Luna began to address them again.
“As many of you will have heard, last night at approximately two hours past midnight, what seemed at first to be a large meteorite impacted the foal mountain range. Having an interest in astronomical objects, ourselves and a small squad of my personal Guard investigated.”

She swallowed thickly, “We determined that it was not a meteor, but something, unlike anything we have ever encountered.”

She turned to John, “ Commander John Maxon and a team of other members of his species had crash-landed on our world in a terrible accident that resulted in the loss of all crew members save for John.”

The edges of her mouth flicked in what John thought of as remorse or maybe sorrow, “After we made the first contact with him, he assisted us in repelling a large Changeling attack. During which he displayed extreme courage and tenacity, even venturing into a known ambush to assist a stranded recon team led by Lieutenant Midnight.”

Midnight stood in the front row of Lunar Guards, her head remained fixed forward despite receiving a handful of glances from her comrades.

“Of which she was the sole survivor.”

Princess Luna continued, “we do not know the reason for the Changeling attack, however despite their large size it is our opinion that this was simply a reconnaissance unit.

“We have brought you together today for the sole purpose of finding the origin point of these creatures and putting an end to them.

“The 1st Lunar Guards are veterans in combat and recon, which is why you have been selected to lead this operation. The 7th will be coming along for observation and hopefully, to learn from the best,” she allowed a small smile at that.

“As we have already mentioned Commander John Maxon is also highly experienced in combat. He is under our command but if he asks you to do something, do so.” Her tone left little room for argument.

She turned to face John once again, “We shall trust you will not let us down?” Her eyes seemed to flash.

His voice had a distinct nasal and mechanical pitch to it through the speakers of his power armour, “I’ll do my best, ma'am.”

“Very well.” She addressed the older Lunar Guard, "Captain Sharp Wing, have them prepare to disembark."

She approached John as the older Captain grunted orders at the shrivelling 7th and stoic 1st. “Commander, we like to lead from the front, by example – would you accompany us?” She blinked up at him.

John sensed no maleficence, “Not a problem, as long as you don’t mind answering a few questions,” his armoured shoulders hinged up in a half shrug as he stretched his muscles, a stocky laser rifle held in his bulky hands.

Her small smile widened almost imperceptibly before her face became blank and she turned for the flight bay departure ramp.

Effortlessly John joined step with the blue monarch, together they reached the edge of the platform. He surveyed his new environment, rolling hills and bright green grassland blended together with sparse pine trees. Sprinkled around were small towns with what looked to John like pre-war styled houses.

Off to their left in the distance lay a long, slate-grey mountain range. “The Foal mountain range runs east of us toward Fillydelphia, your ship rests about halfway", her head turned to face John, sparkling mane blowing on a gentle breeze.
"We shall board sky carriages destined for the crash site, then search the surrounding treeline and the site of the changeling ambush to try to determine their origin."

“We have supplies to last for a week, three days of searching before we hopefully locate them on the fourth or fifth.” Her dark blue eyes seemed to bore through his armours eyeslits, “any additions you’d like to suggest?”

He didn’t need to think about it. “I’d suggest teaching the 7th things they haven’t any experience in, tracking an enemy for miles and learning the signs of the land is an important skill.”

She hummed in what he thought of an agreement.

“We agree.” He didn’t smile.

After some time in silence save for the rustling and clunking of the guards gearing up, a large sky carriage pulled by four large bat pony stallions alighted with the platform. John couldn’t suppress his surprise at the hovering carriage that seemed to be suspended in the air without any technological aid that he could see.

“Come, Commander, you don’t have fear of heights we hope!”

John, Luna and several Lunar Guards including those who’d fought with him at his ships crash site boarded the carriage, several slightly smaller and less intricate looking carts pulled up to the edge of the platform, most pulled by Royal Guards as the remaining troops boarded.

Within a few minutes, a dozen carriages were flying high in two parallel V formations, toward the Anlace's final resting place.


After a solid fifty minute flight, the flecks of golden sunshine had mingled with the few wispy clouds in the sky. The azure sea overhead showed no signs of rain. It was the perfect weather for flying.

John had flown in many types of aircraft. Large Vertical Take-Off and Landing transports small, fast-attack dropships and had even trained as a pilot in simulation booths.

He had been shot down twice in his life and ever since had been extra wary of his surroundings - spending much of the flight scanning the rolling terrain below and searching far-off treelines in anticipation of anti-aircraft fire. He wasn't sure such technology even existed in this new world, but he didn't want to take the chance.

The Lunar Guards in his carriage also appeared to be watching the ground as well as keeping their eyes facing skyward. Princess Luna had unsheathed both of her longswords and had been sharpening them with a small whetstone before polishing them with a silken cloth.

John had checked his laser weapon by pressing a small release on the left-hand side, the barrel and emitter flicked open on a small hinge allowing John to inspect its internals. The focusing array of red crystals had begun to build up with a slightly charcoal and soot looking substance - taking a small cloth of his own out of his armour he gave it a quick wipe before locking the barrel back in place.

"Princess Luna", John broke the silence, "tell me about these changelings."

She sat at the front of the carriage, her head pivoted on a long blue neck to face John, "Tell us what thou wish to know", she said delicately.

"What are they? Where do they come from? What do they want?" He asked each question in the same nasally tone.

She hummed before facing forward, "Changelings have existed here for as long as we can remember. We believe they were created as minions for a being we call Discord. A powerful magical creature who sowed chaos and ruin throughout the world, my sister and I eventually defeated him in a sort of duel - he was petrified in stone and remains closely guarded in Canterlot."

Johns' eyebrows rose a hairs width under his helmet.

She continued, "they occupy hives and have a sort of "shared consciousness". They feed on the life force of others, using their magic to horrifically deprive one of their energy."

She turned to once again look at John with anger evident in her eyes, "they kill without mercy. They cannot be reasoned with, cannot be bargained with. We have nothing they want except our lives."

Her nose scrunched, "a few years ago they attacked Canterlot - they nearly took our capital." She sighed sadly, "they killed and captured thousands of our little ponies."

Her voice had taken on a harsh, angry tone as she spoke through gritted teeth, "We swore a solemn vow to never let them capture or hurt anypony as long as we still draw breath."

Her eyes looked cold, John had seen people turned heartless before but this was different, more like a mother sacrificing parts of herself to protect her child.

"We will find out where they live and where they breed and we shall destroy them!"

She had finished her last few sentences off so loudly that every pony in the other carriages could hear as well; in response to her rallying cry the Lunar Guard all chanted in union "Ah-hoo!"

She turned to face forward again.

John began to recognize the crash site from the familiar terrain - but the Anlace was nowhere to be seen.

As if she had read his mind Luna answered his unspoken query, "Worry not Commander, members of the Royal Guards 1/6th will have been ordered to cast a concealment spell - effectively rendering your ship invisible."

John remained silent for the last few minutes of the flight, a small landing strip had been marked out and the carriages swooped down onto it one by one. The carriage John was in rattling and juddering as its wheels kissed the earth.

As their transport came to a stop, three guards seemed to appear from thin air a short distance away, they walked slowly toward their carriage as the bat-ponies from within started to disperse. John stood and leapt over the side, landing on the soft ground - his weight causing him to sink a few millimetres.

The other carriages landed and their occupants also started to unload themselves and several crates John hadn't noticed before, food supplies John thought.

Princess Luna and Lieutenant Midnight moved together toward the three ponies, John could make out the red plume of the 1/6th's Captain.

Meanwhile, Captain Sharp Wing had begun shouting orders to form up, he was harrying the Royal Guard - who cowered at his voice, The two dozen crates were piled up neatly near to John, after which the Royal and Lunar Guard moved in columns toward the treeline.

"Over here commander", the Princess beckoned with a silver clad hoof.

Johns laser rifle was held loosely in his armoured hands as he thudded over to join four Guards and a Princess.

The Lieutenant sat on her haunches, the two guards with the Captain were two of the Lieutenants John had seen last night.

"Commander, you remember Captain Stark Wing."

"Commander", Captain Stark Wing said and nodded at John.

"Captain", John returned, with a small nod of his own.

"These are Lieutenants—"

John cut her off, "Lieutenants Seaberry and Hayseed."

Princess Luna returned her outstretched hoof to the ground, "Indeed," she addressed Stark Wing, "Captain, we would like a situation update."

"Certainly if you'll follow me." The three officers turned in unison and began toward what looked like an empty field. John's sensors were picking up something.

After a dozen strides, the three ponies seemed to faze out of view, Princess Luna and Lieutenant Midnight didn't break stride so neither did John. They seemed to pass through some kind of electrical magnetic field, Johns HUD flashed with static for a moment.

John felt it was akin to walking through a shower of Nuka-Cola. Once on the other side, the Anlace appeared before them, its grey hull pitted with scorch marks and dents, the underside of the hull had jagged holes all across its length.
The 1/6th had constructed foxholes in a loose semi-circular perimeter with two Guards per hole, more roamed around in patrols.

"Very good Captain," Luna started, "have you ensured nopony has entered this vessel?" She asked with an appreciative glance at the Anlace.

"Of course Princess, my Guards are curious — but not stupid — and they know their place."

"Very good, Captain. Commander, you mentioned on the flight here that you had a task to complete?" Luna asked.
John only nodded before stomping off toward the Anlace.

Once there he inspected a large pile of debris, the Guards must have collected all of the loose parts of the Anlace's crumbling hull.

John bent at the waist after stowing his laser rifle and scooped up several large pieces of hardened starship armour, lightweight, strong and temperature resistant — composed of titanium, tungsten and trinium, it's a metallurgical wonder to be sure.

He then proceeded toward the Ambush site and a compass marker on his HUD that labelled the location of a radioactive mass. Many of the Guards' heads swivelled to watch him thud toward the outstretch of trees.

Just before the treeline was a large smouldering black pile, it was still smoking — John could easily make out the burned and crispy remains of Changelings. This was a mass grave. John ignored the grisly spectacle and continued toward his objective.

Soon after he reached the ovaloid craft, he glanced up its three-meter height, with another meter buried in the mud. John deposited the scrap metal at his armoured feet and wrapped both arms around the pods middle in a giant bear hug.
His armour hissed and groaned with the strain, eventually, the core began to raise out and back from the hold that the ground had on it. As it fell over John released his grip and stepped back to watch it crash to the forest floor.

He then began to create a shell around the core with the scrap metal, it took several minutes as he welded each one in place, fetching a plasma torch from within a circular capsule still strapped to his hip.
The woods were very different from the night previous, the trees were thick and covered in rough bark. They stretched tall, dust and particles slowly drifted down illuminated by the suns rays which met the forest floor in the places it hadn't been obstructed.

All around birds chirped and tweeted, a dozen meters away and slightly below John's position lay the ambush site - dark stains covered much of the clearing, the ground had been disturbed. Currently, it was the staging area for the 1st Lunar Guards and 7th Guard Auxiliary.

He could see mixed patrols of several Lunar and Royal Guards were heading deeper into the wood, likely trying to locate more Changelings.

John concentrated on welding a complete shell around the defunct lifeboat. He had nearly finished and knew he would have to return with more scrap to complete it when he heard hoof steps approach him from the direction of the crash site.
He stood and whirled around quietly, upon seeing it was Luna with Lieutenant Midnight, he returned to welding.
A large collection of shredded hull crashed down on top of the few pieces he had remaining, he sent a glance at the ponies in question.

Luna offered a small smile while Midnight continued past him, over a small rise and down an embankment to join the rest of the Guards.

"We foresaw thou needing more material." Her voice had returned to its usual cool, smokiness.

"I appreciate it," John didn't turn to face her — instead he reached out with an armoured gauntlet and tugged more twisted hull fragments toward the semi-complete shell, then using his armours weight and servo-assisted strength, he would crush the fragments into shape and weld them on.

After several minutes with Luna silently watching him work, he holstered his plasma torch.

"What happens now?" Asked the blue Princess.

"I'm going to use an explosive to create a large hole and then drag this metal slag into it, then I'm going to bury it forever", he said nonchalantly.

Princess Luna rolled her star-filled eyes, "Thou could request that we do it." her tone failed to hide her slight amusement.

"No offence miss, but you don't look built to dig. But if you want to do it then knock yourself out."

She made a sideways gesture with her head and gave John a queer look before focusing on the casketed pod.
She inhaled deeply before her horn illuminated brightly, dark blue tendrils engulfed the capsule and the ground around it. The magical display causing eerie shadows to dance around them.

The ground seemed to liquify, John took several steps back and ignored his urge to be holding a weapon. The dry dirt churned and became muddy, then took on a consistency much like mousse. The boat started sinking, slowly at first before it finally seemed to plummet out of sight.

As suddenly as it had begun, Luna's horn petered out and the churning mud became dry dirt once more.
Johns' eyebrows had fully risen inside his helmet, he'd seen many wonders in his life but nothing quite like this. He experimentally walked back and forth over the spot.

Princess Luna merely smiled at him from her position a few meters away, "Come along Commander, we should make haste if we are to locate this Changeling menace." Her voice tinged with disgust at the end as she walked past John toward the gathered Guards.

John stared at the spot where the core had been a moment longer, before turning to follow the Princess down toward the ambush site.

Lieutenant Midnight was stood off to one side blankly looking at a mix of red-black and green blood stains, at her hooves lay a Lunar Guard helm. She nudged it with a foreleg, she closed her eyes tightly for a moment. Then suddenly opened them and the sadness and slight vulnerability had vanished, to be replaced with her constant steely glare, which she levelled at John — before displaying a small nod of respect or perhaps gratitude in his direction.

"Form up!" Captain Sharp Wing screamed, much in the same way a bull would bellow.

The Guards all came to attention immediately, even John felt himself involuntarily stand a little straighter.
The Princess gave a head raise as she looked to the ageing stallion, "I've organised search teams using a mix of the 7th Auxiliary and our own Lunar Guard, Ma'am."

"Very well," she sounded pleased, "keep a large pool in reserve, if one of our scouts detect any Changelings we want you to amass at that position. Are we clear Captain?" Her eyes could make most shrink.

Sharp Wing could only grunt out a "Yes ma'am!" in response, years of military servitude and a long marriage had hardened him to a mare's ocular assault.


As the last teams of Pegasi and Bat Ponies took off to conduct ariel recon, John thundered over to Lieutenant Midnight. He hadn't noticed in the dark before, but her fur colour was unique looking compared to the others that he'd seen. Most were coloured in greys, blacks and browns whereas the young Lieutenant had a colouration much like a tabby cat, with black stripes travelling across her forehead and disappearing underneath her silver helmet, more stripes ran sideways across her cheeks - her fur was also a little fuller looking.

She watched him approach with yolk-yellow eyes, a rather thick slit of an iris much like that of a cat, expanding slightly as he stopped near her.

"You said before, that during the ambush the Changelings came out of a cave?"

She didn't move, "Yes."


She gestured to her right and slightly behind her into a small pit in the terrain, it was perhaps a meter deep and a few around.

"There", she said tonelessly.

John moved toward it, unslinging his laser weapon in the process. He aimed at the pit, a small rocky entrance making itself known, just large enough to squeeze a couple of ponies through side-by-side.

A radar pulse on his Heads Up Display let him know the long furred Lieutenant had silently joined him.

"Have you scoped it out?" He said angling himself so he could glance both at the pony and the cave entrance.

"No." She said, her face fixated on the hole in the ground.

"Stay behind me then," John said as he began for the hole, he stuck his head and laser occupied arm through the opening and squatted down, he mentally activated a small torch at the end of his outstretched weapon.

It shone down a short tunnel, about six meters long and smooth on either side, it had a sticky gel-like substance coating the walls and ending at what Johns internal sensors registered might be a large cavern.

He pulled himself out slightly, "Hole extends to a cave underground, large enough for that ambush force for sure." He peeked back inside the cave, "we should investigate."

He heard her shuffle close to him, trying to catch a glimpse of her ambushers hiding spot, "I don't think you'll fit in that armour." She tapped a horseshoe on one of his shoulder pauldrons.

"Not to worry," he groaned exaggeratedly as he rose to his full height. Deactivating his torch and stepping back up toward the gathered ponies, he exited from his power armour - drawing the eyes from many of those close to him.
After stepping down he snagged a few microfusion cells from his power armours bandolier and clipped them to a belt on his all-black body suit.

John then unholstered a laser pistol from his armours lower back and turned to leave only to halt once Luna called out to him, "Going for a stroll, Commander?" Her tone the most upbeat he'd heard yet.

John turned to shout back, "Lieutenant Midnight and I are going to investigate a cave, we suspect it held those Changelings", he added, "if that's alright?"

"Very good Commander," the Princess turned to look at the Guards around her, "Frosted Whip, go with him, be careful."

"You bet Princess,"

"Captain," she addressed an older looking Unicorn mare clad in a golden breastplate, a short sword sheathed at her back.

"Yes, ma'am?" The Guards voice was fruity and matched the youthful energy in her eyes.

"Have two of yours go with them." Luna offered the tiniest of smiles before turning to Captain Sharp Wing.

The Royal Guard Captain scanned the two dozen Royal Guard, many of whom had gathered to talk quietly, share a few morsels of food and drink from water bladders.

"Inglewood, Greenbush, look alive! You're with the biped, try not to get yourselves killed!"

Two Guards near the Captain snapped off quick salutes, before stowing their food and drink, gathering weapons and moving hastily toward him.

An unarmoured John, Frosted Whip and the two Royal Guards returned to Lieutenant Midnight, John could see her stance relax a little at the sight of them, she had a sabre drawn and it lowered a degree.

John activated his torch once again, "Les' go." He said as he led the way into the tunnel.

Even out of armour John was a healthy two meters tall, he was broad and built like a weight lifter — his muscles visibly flexing under the rubbery material of his under armour.

The angle of descent wasn't terribly steep and after a minute of tense silence, John emerged into a large cavern. He shone his light all around searching for hostiles as the convoy of ponies fanned out around him with their own sources of illumination, weapons out and ready.

The cave looked strange to John, almost a perfect egg shape with a flat, rocky floor and the same slimy substance that seemed to ooze from the cave walls.

Around the edges on the far side lay several pony-sized pods, John pointed toward them and slowly advanced forward, the ponies in a line spanning from one wall to the other keeping pace.

With his weapon trained on the pods, his group eventually stopped about a meter from them. John swept the light back and forth revealing several beige coloured pods shaped like cartoon beehives, with the same mucus covering them as well as everything else.

"Gross," said one of the Royal Guards, her voice tremulous.

"Quiet!" Said Midnight in a hushed shout.

John crouched down nearer the pods and prodded one with a gloved finger, it was squishy and a trail of slime came away with his finger, "Gross is right, what are these things?" His voice low.

"Eggs?" The other Royal Guard offered.

No one said anything as John hovered his flashlight near the surface of the pod, the light shone through and revealed a pony-shaped something but it wasn't clear to John if it was a changeling or not. He unsheathed a combat knife from his forward leg and began to slice horizontally across the side of the sack.

"What are you doing?!" Midnight said in the same harsh whisper, a little alarmed.

Without answering the pod burst open causing John to hastily take a few steps back. The tear surged out litres of cloudy muck and mucus along with a lime-green Pegasus mare. She lay still for a moment, before struggling and coughing as she vomited up more mucus, the image of a Daisy chain tattooed on her backside flexed as she spasmed and gagged.

Suddenly the cave burst into sound and movement, causing John to whirl around with his laser pistol up. Two dozen dark coloured, buzzing shapes were emerging from hidden recesses in the walls and floor and heading right for Johns group.
"Contact!" John yelled reflexively as he started squeezing off shots into the burry forms. The Lieutenant and Frosted Whip pushed toward them, swords out and cutting a few down. Both Royal Guard remained fixed at Johns side, one of them a unicorn mare — throwing daggers with her magic, the other held a short sword in her mouth and made a move to help the two Bat-Ponies.

Midnight and Whip lashing out with short, powerful jabs and slashes — striking down several between them, the Royal Guard with her sword crudely imitating and getting a single kill of her own, as she ducked under an aerial attack and stabbed upward into the underside of an unfortunate bug-horse.

John estimated he'd killed nearly a dozen and there were only four left now, two had cornered the unicorn Guard who'd backed up toward the other side of the cave wall from John. She darted her last throwing knife at one, managing to catch it in the neck, the other tackling her as she whipped out a small blade.

Johns lapse of attention made him miss one of the remaining Changelings as it flew straight for him at great speed, impacting his abdomen like a bullet fired out of a gun.

The force sent his sidearm scattering to the cave floor, the light casting shadows. John folded up toward the wall behind him, he stumbled over the pony on the floor, she cried out in a mix of pain and fear.

As he landed on his back with the Changeling on top of him he tried to reach his combat knife but the Changeling immediately began trying to bite him. It hissed and screeched at its fang and tooth-filled maw tried to eat Johns' face.

John's hands shot up to hold the assaulting mouth away while his brain scrambled to think of a way to gain the upper hand.
No more than ten seconds had passed with neither brawler making any progress, the Green Mare from before shouted a shrill battle-cry as she slammed a rock down upon the Changelings head.

The impact sent cracks across its scalp and its electric-blue eyes dimmed in Pain, John rolled it from him and toward the pony as she hit the squirming Changeling, again and again, its skull turned to mulch, splattering her with its green blood.

John stood up without the use of his hands and did a combat roll toward his laser pistol. He picked it up and sighted it at the ponies in front of him, Frosted Whip, one Royal Guard and the Lieutenant having just dispatched their last combatants.
The final unicorn mare shouted as her and the last Changeling left alive battled it out, both sported cuts and had both lost their weapons. John didn't hesitate in sighting the black bugs centre mass and squeezing off a shot, a red bolt lashed out a little high, it cut a hole clean through the Changeling just below the neck to stub out against the wall behind it.

The unicorn mare wasted no time in levitating her own blade back up and whisked it across the dying Changelings throat, its death was quick.

John looked at the Lime-coloured mare as she sat staring at her blood-soaked forelegs, "Thanks." He said as he looked over at the Lieutenant, "Help me with these pods."

John quickly walked over to one of the other pods and sliced it open, the ponies around him joining in with a pod of their own. For each pod opened a pony would slide out, giving a similar reaction to the first.

As the cacophony of coughing and retching subsided, a unicorn mare with a light pink coat and long golden hair cried out, "My baby — has anypony seen my baby?!" Her voice wobbled.

As she started, others chimed in with pleas of their own;

"Where am I?" One choked out.

"Who are you?" Another said tearfully.

"Wheres my wife?" Said a stallion in a wheezy voice.

John had seen civilians caught up in acts of atrocities too many times, often more severe than this. At least they were alive, he thought.

He turned to stalk past the Guards who were doing their best to calm and reassure the wayward captives.
"Calm them down and direct them up-top," he said to the Lieutenant, her eyes looked glassy. A head bobble was his only reply, satisfied he returned to the surface to inform the Princess of their find.

* * *

Call to Arms

View Online

After securing the captives, John had returned to the ambush site to update the Princess. Having recounted their find in detail, from the subterranean cave, the ambush and the ponies they’d discovered.

“You sustained no losses? Very well done, Commander.” The appraisal in her words evident.

“The female in the Royal Guard has a few scrapes, nothing fatal. She and the other Royal Guard did well, considering. They remained calm and professional despite being outnumbered.” John said, his head tilted in the barest sign of approval.

Luna smiled a little, “Excellent, Prepare for departure, I’ll relay our current condition to my sister – and we shall leave within the hour.”

Luna couldn’t discern the look he returned as he left, not quite a smile – in fact, his face – the few times she’d seen it – seemed to express very little, his blue eyes always retained the same coldness.

Luna summoned a little magic across her horn, willing it from deep within, she felt it flash to life as she conjured a magic-scroll spell, then wrote a brief summary and addressed it to her sister. Luna encapsulated a small vile of dragons’ breath in her magic from a recess in her chest armour, the scroll flashed away into green fire and smoke.

* * *

Following the humans return, Captain Ivory Sky summoned one of her senior NCOs (non-commissioned officer) “Sergeant White Flag,” she waited patiently for a few breaths as the stocky earth Stallion got to be within leg-length from her.

“You called, ma'am?”

White Flag was Ivory’s most experienced soldier, the only one in her unit truly deserving of the title. He’d served for 12 years as a Palace Guard, a slightly more elite group of the Royal Guard, they worked more closely with the royals and other ponies of interest. Their training was intense and specialized in surveillance and counter-surveillance, they also underwent extensive training in close quarters combat.

He’d battled against several assassins and bounty hunters in the capitols lower districts and had fought hard against the changeling invasion. Aside from the grizzled sergeant and herself, along with a select few others – notably the two she’d sent to help investigate along with the biped – they were the only Guards in the 7th who had shed another’s blood.

She wiped away a stray hair from her cheek and spoke in a hushed whisper, “have a squad escort the civilians to just outside of the crash site, and ensure they don’t stray too far and stumble across it.”

“You got it, boss,” he grumbled.

“Take leave of them and have Captain Stark Wing summon some transports, get them back home and safe, Sergeant. After that you’re to head south and deeper into this woodland,” she scowled uncharacteristically at the canopy overhead as the sound of the breeze rustled the branches. She looked back to the square-faced sergeant, “before you and your stallions depart – have a few of the captives questioned – we want to know where they came from and when they were taken."

“Aye, Aye,” he said in a regular-volume voice before shouting, “second squad – on your hooves!”

* * *

After a few more minutes, most of the gathered Guards had dispersed into the forest following several trails, like ants forging through the grass.

The assembly of pony captives were brought to the surface by the Lieutenant and the other four Guards, many of them crying – all of them looking absolutely miserable – John didn’t really understand, he’d be more upbeat if he’d been freed.

Nevertheless, Princess Luna moved toward them. Only once the first few ponies noticed their blue pariah, did they straighten up and crack off hastily performed bows, spitting out jubilant words of thanks for their saviour.

She spoke softly enough that John couldn’t hear their dialogue, his armour lay at the group’s rear. As a single short Guard made way for the crash site, John took steps toward his armour. Receiving several uncertain glances as he walked past and a small, wave-like gesture from the pony with the daisy chain mark.

He gave a little hand wave of his own, before entering his power armour. It hissed and clanked as the suit blossomed open – stepping inside, the reverse of the opening movements caused him to be swallowed up. Once again covered in hardened steel, John felt a slim sense of normalcy.

His suits systems were reporting nominal. The medical suite flashing a low-level alert – John’s ribs had taken a battering when he’d been tackled, a few stretches and in a few days’ time the doubtless large bruising would subside.

It had been some time since he’d eaten, over 50 hours, in fact, he’d had plenty to drink due to his suits waste-recycling system – the water always tasted a little chalky but it would keep him alive. He could “relieve” himself without exiting his armour, an experience he’d never truly gotten used to. Probably for the best, he thought.

He set his suits system to decant its waste as he stomped through some nearby shrubbery, he then walked over to the gathered ponies and once more excited his armour. Inside the large cylindrical canister attached to his lower back, he’d stored several litres of fresh water and many days’ worth of MREs (Meals, ready to eat). He quickly took a litre bottle and drank it in several seconds, his head tilting fully back as he did so.

A few ponies nearby seemed to study him intently, more so out of curiosity he thought. He then took a silver packet out, John read the words on the front out loud, “Meal Ready to Eat, black bean and chick-pea curry.”

Two young-faced mares glanced at each other, sat a couple body lengths away, one had a clump of hay in her pink magic, the other eating some ground up wet substance from some brown wrapping paper.

He pulled out a little heating unit, not much bigger than the palm of his hand – he pressed the twin pads against either side of the packet, activated the heating coils and set it on the ground, it would take but a few minutes.

“What is that?” The mare on the left asked, her voice slightly sultry, the other looked intrigued as well.

“Black bean and chick-pea curry,” John repeated immediately. He set about making sure his equipment was in proper working order, paying close attention to his side-arm as it was thrown to the ground.

Energy weapons were powerful. While they had undergone extensive improvements since their invention a few centuries prior, they still held delicate crystals inside that needed constant realignment.

The second mare hummed, “sounds nice,” her voice was higher in pitch and she sounded like a teenager to John, “better than the cold gruel we’re eating.”

After a few moments of tense silence, John took a couple of long strides to be face-to-face with the pair of horned Guards. He squatted so as to be at just about eye level with them.

“When mine’s done you can have a little taste each if you like, your Princess has assured me our internal organs work in much the same way, digestion-wise closest of all.

He was met with twin white smiles, “I think that’s the first good thing my ears have heard all day,” said the first mare.

“Ditto,” mirrored the other, “do you have a name?”

The older-sounding mare shoved a hoof into her partner’s side, getting a wince in response, “of course he has a name!”

They both then turned to John, the first with a slight frown and the other with an apologetic look.

“I am Commander John Maxon, of the Brotherhood of Steel,” he then leaned in with a little smile and extended a black-coated hand, “but you can call me John.”

The first slowly extended a foreleg and couldn’t hide her interest when John gave it a little squeeze and a couple of shakes.

“Rose Quartz,” she said as John released her leg and offered the same hand to the unnamed mare.

Oh,” she started as she pressed a leg into John’s waiting hand, “I’m Guard Berry Twist, but you can call me Twist,” she gave a slightly nervous laugh that sounded a little breathless as her pure white cheeks became tinted a little red.

“A pleasure,” John replied looking each in the eye in turn as he stood up and returned to his MRE. The silver pack had started to swell and condensation had built on the outside, John deactivated the heating coils and left the heating unit on the ground to cool down.

He picked up the hot packet and tore off a large piece of its corner. A small fork clutched in the other hand, he returned to the ponies and sat cross-legged in front of them.

They were sat on their rears, the tail of Twist swished back and forth a few times, her face had returned to its normal colour.

He took a forkful and offered it to Rose, who took the steaming food from the fork in pink magic, Twist doing the same with her light blue magic.

They sniffed it in Union before blowing on it slowly and even more slowly depositing it in their mouths. They chewed and their faces lit up in small smiles as their eyes brightened. They liked it John reckoned.

His hunger returning with an ever so slightly audible gurgle, he began eating his first meal in days – finishing the packet quickly, his hunger causing him to ignore the searing heat of the food. For a meal with no use-by date, it really was pretty good.

After John began eating his meal, Twist and Rose matched his eating speed, eating cold, brown gruel and a small selection of fruits and vegetables respectively.

Twist groaned, “this oatmeal tastes even worse after that stuff,” she flicked her head in the direction of John’s lap where the empty packet lay. The canister at his side, he'd retrieved a small blue toothbrush and had begun brushing his teeth with a small globule of toothpaste.

He gave a paste-coated grin and spoke in an unintelligible mumble, “what’d he say?” asked Rose.

“He said the black bean curry was his favourite,” Twist replied.

Rose looked unsure, “you understood that?”

“I’ve got five sisters, we used to mumble at each other all the time as fillies.”

Rose could only hum as they both tidied up their eating supplies at the command of a Lunar Guard.

John spat a torrent of white foam and washed his mouth with water, the chilled air that hit his teeth and gums feeling like pure cleanliness.

He rose and collected his rubbish, putting everything back into his supply canister, he hefted the cylinder onto his armours lower back. He performed a few last-minute checks and bid farewell to Twist and Rose as he was beckoned by the Princess.

After suiting up, he thundered toward Princess Luna. Stood with her were Captains Stark Wing and Ivory Sky, Lieutenant Midnight joined them shortly after Johns arrival.

“Commander,” the tabby-coloured Lieutenant welcomed. The blood and gore of her armour having been cleaned.

“Lieutenant,” John responded, his armours speakers tinting his voice with a mechanical and more nasally sound.

Ah, human – we will be leaving shortly, well done in helping to rescue some of my little ponies. You’re to be commended once we return to Canterlot.” John had a locker full of awards somewhere on the wreck of the Anlace.

“That’s hardly necessary, we had an agreement and I intend to hold up my end.” His voice held no emotion, killing was a business and if it secured him a chance at getting home, he’d take it.

The Princess tutted, “come now John Maxon, you’ve performed valiantly and I’d like to see that recognized,” she gave a sweeping gesture at the retreating forms of the civilians, “you helped to rescue our people, you fought off the second ambush since your arrival here yesterday and we truly believe that without your assistance we – I – could have been harmed or even killed.”

She had moved closer now, almost touching him as she looked up into his downturned helmet, “I never truly thanked you for that, so I’m saying it now – thank you – allow us to properly acknowledge your exploits with an official ceremony. Once we’ve finished our task-at-hoof, of course.”

She remained uncomfortably close for John’s liking and he suppressed the urge to step back, “think nothing of it, you don’t owe me anything, Princess. If pinning a medal on my chest will help ease your perceived debt – then I’ll agree to it.” He said, finally taking a step back.

“But you needn’t bring it up again until we’re back safe and sound,” he continued with a sense of finality, “But I accept your gratitude, unwarranted though it is.” He offered an armour covered arm, fingers splayed.

She didn’t smile but gave a look of appreciation, extending a silver clad hoof, they shook a few times without speaking. Blue eyes meeting John’s blank eye slits.

“Princess,” Captain Sharp Wing said, “we’re ready to leave. I’ve ordered 40 Guards to hold a defensive pocket here with Captain Ivory, while you, me,” he directed a queer look at John, “him, Lieutenant Midnight and a couple squads make to catch up with our forward units.”

Luna moved away from John as she nodded, “Captain – let’s begin.”

* * *

After three hours of marching, their small band had advanced about 25 kilometres across a large area covered chiefly in trees and undergrowth. Which had become less autumn-themed American woodland, growing in density – and more southeast Pacific jungle. John had seen many bizarre biomes back on Earth, but never a hybrid Greenland.

The sun had begun to set turning the sky a brilliant orange. The jungle still retained the same smoke and haziness to it – albeit leafier and with fewer woodland branches.

Following the tracks of their forward scouts had been easy, several pegasi scouts had relayed directional and intent changes every so often. They’d stopped once for twenty minutes before carrying on.

Now they’d reached a small clearing, the majority of their scouts had established a camp here with two small groups covering their western and eastern flanks.

John had spent most of the journey with a weapon in armoured hand, eyes watching for movement in the thicket line or for snipers in the trees. He’d chatted aimlessly with Princess Luna about the possible origin of those captives.

To which she’d responded, “Sergeant White Flag will be here by nightfall and update us, I’ve ordered the questioning of our citizens before they’re evacuated to Canterlot for medical treatment.

After arriving, John had helped to secure the perimeter from about a thousand meters from the temporary camp. Himself, along with Lieutenant Midnight, Dark Goldenrod and Guards Berry Twist and Inglewood had performed an oscillating patrol pattern. They had begun east of the encampment and worked in silence for the 45 minutes it took them to patrol south and then west, slightly back on themselves.

John had laid a few sensor bogies across the patrols arc if anything moved within 50 meters of one of them it would trigger an alarm in his suit.

With a scant few moments of waning twilight left, John and his patrol mates began setting up their own sleeping areas. The ponies segregating themselves by unit – John somewhere on the barely-perceivable edges of both groups.

Situated between Midnight and her squad and the Royal Guards from the cave ambush, John departed his armour and checked it and his weapons one last time as darkness encapsulated them. No open fires or light sources were permitted so as to not give away their position.

He chatted and shared another MRE with those ponies, tried some unappetizing gruel – Princess Luna joined them and offered some of her own, slightly nicer ration – they discussed matters of the universe, John tried to explain the basic principles that led to his displacement.

As many of the Guards retired for the night, heading for bedrolls and miniature tents, Sergeant White Flag entered the clearing with a dozen Guards in tow.

He spoke quietly to those with him and they headed for the Royal Guard cluster, the Sergeant manoeuvring for the Princess and John.

“Sergeant,” Lieutenant Midnight greeted quietly as he sat, she offered him a water bladder.

“My thanks,” he replied, greedily drinking without wasting a drop.

The three of them waited for the stocky stallion to finish before Luna asked, “We hope you are the bearer of good news.”

He tilted his head with his eyes cast downward, he looked dead-tired, “Unfortunately Princess, I am not.”

The blue Princess leaned forward, her eyes bearing an intenseness John hadn’t yet seen.

“Speak. Please do not tarry, sergeant.”

He sighed, “They come from a small mining settlement near Dodge Junction called Aylesbury. I have family that way, ma’am – its mostly workers and merchants with their families.” His face showed signs of dread. “The entire town was attacked, it was still ongoing when they were taken.”

Her voice was painted with compassion, “fear not, Sergeant – spread the word; five hours of rest – one hour on Guard and four to sleep. We shall withdraw under the shadow of darkness,” she levitated a small map out, John’s eyesight had been medically altered to allow pretty fair vision in pitch blackness.

Nevertheless, he had a small hand-held red torch and shone it on the parchment-like map, the ponies glancing at the light and then to him without mentioning it. “It won’t reveal our position,” John assured.

“This is where we are,” she gestured at a small circle that had been drawn. John could see the route they’d taken from the mountain range where the Anlace lay.

“This is Dodge Junction,” she traced a line south toward a symbol of an asterisk, “and here is this town, Aylesbury. Is that correct, Sergeant?” She asked, aiming the map at the stallion who twisted his head around to look.

After a beat, “Yes, that’s definitely it, Princess. I requested Captain Ivory to accompany me, she awaits slightly north of our position with her platoon.”

“As you say, Sergeant. Do as asked and then retire when you are able.”

“Gladly,” he snapped off a quick salute and trotted deeper into the maze of tents.

Luna looked sternly at them both, “ensure that you are well rested also, tomorrow I expect we will all need as much energy as possible. Farewell,” she said as she left for her own tent.

John offered a small nod, while Midnight lay down on the bedroll she had been sitting on. Her head resting on crossed forelegs, she had removed much of her armour and her furred ears swivelled as the sounds of the nighttime reached them. John could see the muscles visibly flex as she gave a slight yawn and a stretch, her amber eyes never left him.

“What?” She asked pointedly.

“Nothing,” John returned, laying on a bedroll of his own, he was flat on his back and stared at the sprinkled starlight visible through the leafy canopy overhead. As he took in the sounds and smells of the greenland, he closed his eyes and immediately fell asleep.

* * *

Dreaming, John was sure he was dreaming. He’d had this one several times before – the swirling smoke stretching into the sky, the sounds of laser and gunfire, the smell of scorched earth and of burned flesh; he saw his own hand tighten a dirty bandage around his forearm – a lucky escape from a potentially amputating laser strike.

He ignored the pain as his knuckles clicked signalling that he’d tightened the knot as much as he could. On a stretcher in front of him lay the lifeless corpse of Knight Huxley. She’d been a new transfer to his unit, her once bright green eyes stared coldly at an angle, John reached over and raised a woollen blanket over her face.

“Knight Maxon,” the smooth womanly voice of his Paladin said, “gather weapons and ammo, we move out in five.”

He glanced up at her face, pale skin from a lifetime in power armour, grey-blonde hair betraying her age, soft features marred with a few wispy scars at the corner of her thin lips. She studied him for what felt like an eternity, but John knew it was only a few heartbeats. He paid particular attention to her eyes, soft hazel and full of energy.

“I’ll be ready,” John affirmed, before beginning an inspection of his gear – the beige and orange bodysuit he wore covered in grime – he’d been living in it for months now. It had deep gouges across his right calf where a super mutant hound had managed to pierce his thick power armour.

A hound – like their formerly human masters – were wasteland dogs subjected to horrible mutation by exposure to FEV. Forced Evolutionary Virus. It took the average and altered its DNA, modifying humans into towering, grotesque, green-skinned monsters and dogs into stocky, stubby muscle-bound abominations. They were a plague.

He had seen the event unfold a thousand times; he wanted to scream – to call out – to grab her, but in this dreamscape, he could only watch now as he had then and every other time. As he had nearly lost an arm to a mutant counterattack, a second one began as a single high-velocity bullet passed through into the un-helmeted head of his Commanding Officer.

* * *

John awoke with a start, laser pistol in hand – he scanned the darkness around him, trailing his sights over the forms of sleeping ponies and tents. Eventually, the weapon pointed a few inches from the Lieutenants face.

She’d awoken to him sitting up, he looked at her large, alert yellow eyes and the half-drawn dagger from within her fur, before he lowered the weapon. His heart hammered in his ears but his breathing was steady due to a lifetime of battle.

“What is it?” She asked quietly.

“Nothing,” he replied as he exhaled through his nose, “just a bad dream.”

“Oh,” she said softly, the dagger clicked back into its sheath, “Feel like talking about it?”

He was lent back on his elbows, feet out with knees slightly bent. He made a circle gesture with his sidearm, “not particularly.”

John could see her head lay back on her forelegs, “it might help.”

Neither one said anything for a while, John simply watched the stars overhead, a damp sweat clung to his forehead.

Finally, he closed his eyes and began talking barely above a whisper, “I’ve had the same dream for years now. I don’t know why.” His eyes opened and he turned them on Midnight.

“Sounds more like a memory,” her eyes were a little unfocused.

“It is. I’m at peace with what happened – it happened; I can’t change that, so why keep dreaming about it?” He whispered a little angrily.

She shrugged in response, “so what happens in these dreams?”

John huffed a little sigh, before beginning a little unsurely, “Years ago, shortly after I was first promoted, my unit and I were part of a massive battle – almost half a million of us fought for about eight months against a march larger and more aggressive enemy.”

Her head raised at this, “more of your kind?”

“Not exactly,” Johns' eyes became a little diluted.

He began explaining to the Lieutenant. In central Asia, a place formally known as Tashkent – a Soviet-era city, had a post-war population of almost a million mutants. They had been capturing humans across Europe and Asia with the intent of reclaiming the world as the new dominant species. Not if the Brotherhood of Steel had anything to say about it.

John had been deployed for six months with the 30th Shock Battery, woven into the larger 2nd Mechanized Infantry division as part of the 8th Army. They’d been hammering away at the city’s defences with artillery, siege units and air strikes, to little avail. The mutants would have to be pulled out one-by-stinking-one on the backs of dead soldiers like Knight Huxley.

John and the 30th had pushed north through the southern reach of a town called Kursoy and were bottled into a concrete maze of a place named Balta, nothing but scorched concrete for mile after mile.

John’s memory of this time was a painful one, the nightmares had gotten a hold of him once he’d taken the mutant stronghold two months later. But not before 200,000 of his brothers and sisters had given their name in steel for the sake and safety of the European continent.

Lieutenant Midnight lay with her head up, listening intently the entire time – occasionally she would ask a question and John would supply her with meaning before continuing.

“Who was this other human?” She asked pensively, “were you married?”

John actually smiled a genuine smile for a moment before regaining the same blank look, “No.”

He scratched the back of his short-cropped hair, his laser pistol back in its holster, “I knew her during my training as a squire – a child ­­– we lost contact until I was promoted, where I learned she would be my squad leader. She was a fine soldier and a good friend,” his voice seemed to lose an octave or two but Midnight wasn’t certain she hadn’t imagined it.

She took a sip of her water bladder and offered it to John who took it with a brief smile of thanks, “How long before we need to tidy up camp and keep heading south?” He asked taking a sip of his own.

She glanced at the stars, her head swivelling at the neck, “perhaps less than an hour.”

John nodded, before laying back down, an arm behind his head, he didn’t sleep – but watched the night sky. He counted a few shooting stars and idly wished that he could have saved her, he couldn’t bring himself to tell anyone but he had been very fond of her, maybe even loved her.

He closed his eyes and allowed a small smile as his mind wondered, thoughts of his life drifted in and out, he saw her face, watched her smile and her eyes brighten when she looked at him. Then she was gone, replaced with others – many of them dead.

“Form up!” The harsh whisper of a nearby Guard broke John from his thoughts. it was still pitch black, his natural eyesight could see quite well despite the darkness. He packed away his bedroll and made for his power armour.

Not more than fifteen minutes had passed before the ponies and John had cleared up their camp and were moving again – this time in several larger groups spread out over a kilometre.

The frosted ground crunched underneath Johns power armour, they’d been walking for a few hours now and according to Luna, they would emerge from the treeline soon.

“From there Aylesbury should be visible, we will have our Lunar Guards and some pegasi screen the town from the air,” she began as her, John, the Lieutenant, Sergeant White Flag and Captains Sharp Wing and Ivory were gathered around her scribble laden map.

“We shall approach the town in three groups,” she added markers to her map, “ourselves and John will take group centre and head straight for the town. Lieutenant,” she began.

“Yes, ma’am?” Lieutenant Midnight was back in her armour and looked fresh.

“We want you to perform aerial recon. If a changeling presence is confirmed you’re to act on initiative and attack where possible.”

“Captain Ivory, you and Sergeant White Flag lead your platoon and a squad of my Guards around the village and attack it from the rear.”

Princess Luna then looked lengthways at Captain Sharp Wing, “Captain, take half of the 1st and a few platoons from the 7th. We’ll meet in a pincer move at the towns west side.”

“You all have your tasks – we’ve still a half an hour of darkness left before the assault begins. If there are any civilians left; keep them safe above all else – understood?” Her harsh glare swept across all faces present.

She was met with a chorus of “Yes, ma’am!” and “Aye, Aye!”

As the gathered ponies disbanded to carry out their tasks, John and Luna remained together as she checked her map for a few moments more.

“Commander,” she was still looking at the map, “stay close to us and do what you do best should we encounter any threats.”

“It could have been days or weeks since the attack, what makes you think there are any left alive?” He asked.

Finally, she looked at him with resolve, “Call it a hunch, John Maxon.”

* * *

They hid, quaking and sweating with fear as the Changeling Hooves creaked the floorboards overhead. As the children huddled with their father, the mother clamped her foreleg over the baby’s mouth. Tears streamed silently down her face as the baby turned blue and then limp.

She mouthed the words, “No, no, no, no, no!” She desperately shook her baby’s body, in the distance, a piercing scream echoed into the room above. The changelings screeched and hissed in response, leaving rapidly as furniture was overturned and glass shattered.

Her husband crept over as their other two daughters held each other, faces matted with tears. He put his ear to their youngest’s chest before opening her small, blue-tinted mouth and forced a small breath into her. Her chest rose and he pressed gently on her small body to exhale the air.

The mother allowed a small sob to escape her as she held her limp child in her forelegs, her husband kept breathing into their daughter and then pressing her chest, again and again.

She’d just about given up hope when their youngest started to hack and cough as she shuddered with her own breathing.

“Oh!” The mother cried gleefully as her and her family hugged one another, a miracle she thought.

Just then a bright orange glow made itself known, as flames trickled through the floorboards in the corner of their basement, “They must have knocked over the oil lamp!” She exclaimed in a harsh whisper.

Her husband made for the hatch to their living room, they weren’t magic users and he had to resort to brute strength to try to bust the trap door open.

He huffed with the effort as the door wouldn’t budge, something must have fallen onto it – “Help me!”

She tried, their three daughters cuddling together as the flames splashed down in a torrent now, the two parents grunted and shouted in anger as their only means of escape was left sealed.

“Damn it!” Her husband shouted in frustration.

As the flames had started to rage more glass could be heard breaking upstairs, “Mommy!”

* * *

They had gathered on the edge of the treeline, the ground dropped away from them and spread out across a large, barren plateau. On the other side rested the small town of Aylesbury. It had perhaps a few hundred buildings, John estimated the town could have held a few thousand ponies. Using the extreme magnification that his Heads-Up Display allowed, he could see a large open-air market, shapes moved around the town and in the sky; smoke drifted from a dozen points.

“Changelings,” The Princess growled, sourly. John had to agree.

She looked at John as he readied his laser rifle, an assortment of plasma and fragmentation grenades magnetized onto his torso like baubles on a Christmas tree.

Stretched into four groups of varying size, Luna had over four hundred Guards at her disposal. She and John would move straight for the town with two mixed-unit companies, under aerial escort by a further platoon-sized Lunar Guard flight, led by Lieutenant Midnight.

Captain Ivory was a few hundred meters to the Princess’s left flank with a platoon of the 7th Auxiliary and a squad of her personal Lunar Guard.

To her right flank, Captain Sharp Wing would take the remaining company and carve around to the west. Attacking along with the centre group in a pincer move, joining within the town.

A Pegasus and a Bat-Pony arrived with much speed behind them, landing in front of the Lunar monarch, “Report!” She shouted, in full-on military mode.

The pair snapped off quick salutes and confirmed their unit’s readiness, “Tell your commanders to attack at once.”

They scurried off, leaving plumes of dust as they flew away at great speed.

“Lieutenant! Begin your attacking run!” Luna called to an armoured bat-pony, three dozen equally armoured thestrals arrayed around her. They took off fast with chittering yells and whoops. They arrayed into rough V formations and flew for the town.

Luna drew her twin curved sabres and took the lead, John following at her side. They moved quickly – the three platoons behind them coming after with weapons of their own.

The bat-ponies moved with purpose, speed and strength despite their heavier armour, while the all-white Royal Guards moved in looser, less organised patterns.

Off to their left and right, John could see the other two groups heading for the town. Ahead of them the Lieutenant and her unit had been engaged by black bug-horses. Several changeling bodies dropped from the sky as steel wing-blades met chitinous armour.

They were a hundred meters from the town and closing fast, swarms in the dozens left the rooftops to climb toward the Thestral threat. They bobbed and weaved as both groups performed aerial combat.

Many larger, wingless changelings stormed out of the town’s narrow streets and alleys toward the Princess’s group – an armoured Lunar Guard fell from flight with two Changelings attached.

“Form up! Defensive column around the Princess!” A toneless female voice shouted and the Guards all acted as one.

A circular formation arrayed around John and Princess Luna, they were tightly pressed together, a mix of silver-grey and gold armour jockeying for position.

Johns entire upper body was above the pony line, he came up with a plan. “Advance!”

A few ponies swivelled their heads to give questioning glances at the Princess, “do it!” She said without hesitation.

The centre group had formed into three wedge-shaped columns. The Princess and John situated in the middle group surrounded by Lunar Guard.

At the command of a front-facing Guards voice, “Company! Push forward!”

The three wedges took off at a light trot, John began firing over the heads of the ponies. Laser bolts flashed across the open ground to meet charcoal, Changeling hide. Several went down, John not relenting.

Many of the laser strikes passed through flesh and cauterised bone before burrowing into the creatures behind.

The Lunar Guard and some members of the Royal Guard used wings and magic to propel an array of throwing weapons, mostly short spears. The Princess used her magic to lift a large portion of dirt and mud, before launching it at the Changeling horde. It crashed into their centre formation and crushed a dozen of them.

The Lieutenant had lost a few of her ponies to Changeling interceptors. But as their aerial numbers diminished and they saw the losses they had sustained on the ground, many sought to dive-bomb the Princess and John with magic attacks and themselves as they rocketed toward them on kamikaze runs.

Many of the ponies catapulted spears and daggers, a few magical blasts shooting out to pluck the closing Changelings from the sky.

John reloaded again and lobbed a pair of fragmentation grenades in a high arc over the Changeling hordes heads. They were cluster-bomb variants, twin sparks and wisps of smoke denoted the discharge of a dozen bomblets.

The Changeling swarm, originally numbering almost a hundred had shed its numbers, the multitude of small explosions wracking the remainder and sending them into a frenzy. John then depleted his entire Microfusion cell by firing a continuous, long burst of laser fire at the Changeling mass.

Despite the noise of battle, Johns amplified hearing could detect the sound of Sergeant White Flags voice carrying on the wind, “Steady!”

Two dozen remaining Changelings on the ground bid a hasty retreat, the air battle had been won and the surviving Lunar Guards flew through into the town’s airspace.

“Guard Maelstrom, take a squad of thestrals and reinforce the Lieutenant!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Responded a gruff male voice.

Several armoured thestrals shot off and headed toward the skyline above the rooftops.

They had begun walking over the remains of the Changelings, the few survivors quickly being dispatched. A handful of living Thestrals lay with cuts and stab wounds from the air battle, some with broken bones or twisted wings from the fall back to the ground.

“Guards Twist, Inglewood, get these wounded on their hoofs and take shelter in that building,” she gestured at a limestone cottage, “Commander – clear it out. The rest of you, form up and move down this road here, “she indicated with an up-and-down motion of her leg.

As John thundered toward the dressed-down cottage, he could hear shouts and sounds of battle carry on the wind. His steel-clad back slammed against the wall next to the door.

He peered through the portal and listened; inside he heard chittering speech, he burst through the opening to see two large Changelings – one applying some kind of salve to shrapnel wounds on the other.

Upon seeing John, they both drew chitinous blades in sickly green magic, one fired a bolt of energy at John – he sidestepped – it splashed onto the wall where he had just been, blackening it. John fired two quick burst, one stream of laser fire into each of them.

Their charred and scorched body’s danced in death as one launched over a table and the other was sent clattering into the wall. Smoke and embers sizzled from their black flesh, John swept the one-level building, leading with a stubby laser weapon.

“Clear!” He bellowed, before returning to the entrance. As he stuck his head out a massive green energy lance whipped across the street over the heads of the ponies straight at John. He dived for the floor, stumbling half out of the building down its two stone steps.

The energy beam passed through the open doorway and blasted a hole a meter across in the opposite wall. John took a minute to abate his surprise, he leapt to his feet and adopted a square stance, knees slightly bent.

Across the street, in the window of an identical stone building, he could make out the serpentine form of what he thought of as a Changeling officer. He extended his weapon and sent an answering volley of red bolts which blasted through the open window just below where the Changelings curved horn had been.

He leant back against the wall out of habit, less obvious for snipers in a built-up area, not that this was. The forms of a few Guards supporting injured thestrals made their way into the cleared building. He moved up the street, past huddled-down Guards as they scanned the rooftops and windows.

Overhead several Changeling and Thestrals shot past, John immediately fired a few bolts into the bug-horse formation, loosing a few of them from the wind.

He quickly crossed the street to the building where the energy beam had come from. Two Royal Guards led by a Thestral pushed through the open door with John right behind.

The room had been upturned, furniture and personal belonging scattered everywhere. The slumped-over corpse of a long, slender changeling lay – its maw frozen open in its last death cry. One of the Royal Guards thrust a spear into its chest for good measure, the tip emerging coated in green blood.

Two other bodies lay against the far wall, they looked like ponies, their fur was grey-white, skin and muscles all shrivelled up like a raisin. They’d had the life sucked out of them.

The three ponies looked angrily at the two bodies, “Clear,” the Thestral grunted. John would enquire later.

He and the other Guards worked together to clear the stone houses one by one, most were empty save for the occasional withered corpse.

Eventually, John caught up with Princess Luna, her and Lieutenant Midnight were stood between a large stone building and a smaller one on the edge of a ring road that ran around a large, ornate building at the towns centre.

The pair finished talking as he approached, both looking him over, John returned the inspection. Luna looked as flawless as ever, nary a speck of dirt or grime on her. The Thestral was covered in dirt and blood, her armour covered in fresh scratches and dings – a particularly large one had just missed her neck, the thick crease it had left in her upper chest armour evident of fierce fighting.



The now standard exchange in the greeting of armoured human and tabby Thestral calming the gathered ponies nearby. The fighting along this road had been minimal, several squads had peeled off along the branching alleys.

A single Pegasus mare landed skilfully in the narrow divide, she looked a little fearfully in the direction she’d come from.

“Princess, its Captain Sharp Wing, ma’am – he’s missing and our units pinned down in an old schoolhouse just inside the boundaries of the town.”

“By our sisters’ sun, we shall locate him. Commander, go with her and continue the assault,” she peered around the corner at the central building, “we’ll relocate our wounded into that building, it looks defensible.

“Link up with Captain Sharp Wing if you can, but we need to keep moving. We fear our enemy’s numbers here are too great, we shall have word sent to Captain Stark Wing at the crash site and request reinforcements. For now, keep up the good work, human.”

“You’re the boss, boss. Come on pony, you can take point.” Johns mechanical voice very obviously unnerved the small Pegasus, but she led him away after a dismissing salute from the Princess was given.

They moved west, first crossing the end of the street they had been on. Then weaving through twisting alleys and small side-roads.

“Damn, it all looks the same from down here,” she looked skyward, “hold up, I can get a better sense from the air,” a Changeling rushed overhead followed closely by a pair of Thestrals. The Guard leapt with a single flap of her wings landed on the slanted, tiled roof above them.

She scanned around her before looking down, “okay, keep heading that way”– she was cut off, she tried to evade but not quickly enough, a large speeding Changeling careened straight into her, sending them both through shattering tiles.

The sounds of a scuffle could be heard emanating through the hole in the roof, “hang on!” John shouted.

He spun to his right and unleashed a powerful, servo-assisted kick – his armoured leg punched cleanly through the white-wall of its outside border. He then tore a large hole with his free hand, brandishing his laser weapon in the other.

Entering the lower level, aside from the debris from Johns entrance – the cosy come was otherwise tidy and undamaged.

He heard scurrying and blade strikes followed by a bone-chilling scream emanate from above him. John charged up a flight of switchback stairs; his armoured bulk damaging the walls and ceiling of the stairwell in his ascent.

As he crested the final stair, he had to stoop to fit inside the smaller upper level. The slumped forms of the Pegasus mare and a large Changeling could be easily seen. John hurried over, the floor creaked and groaned in protest but didn’t collapse.

He inspected the Changeling first, multiple stab and cut wounds disgorging fresh green fluid, it lay still with a pair of small blades protruding from its gore splattered neck. He relaxed a little and turned on the spot to look at the mare, who hadn’t suffered much better.

The mares’ helmet had been lost in the skirmish, whatever spell gifting them all with the same appearance had dissipated, leaving a pale brown pony with light orange eyes and matching mane and tail.

Her breathing came in shuddering, shallow gasps – a partially amputated foreleg clamped in some cloth with her other frontal leg.

Despite her efforts, large volumes of blood had soaked herself and saturated the wooden planks of the floor. A small puncture in her armour at chest-level slowly pumped out more deep red blood.

John crouched next to her, he began to administer first aid.

“No!” He stilled himself, looking into fear-filled eyes, “There isn’t time, you’re nearly there, in the building over,” she chocked out and gestured to the wall opposite from which John had entered.

“Just make it count,” she released the badly made tourniquet and grasped inside her chest plate as more blood began to flow uninterrupted.

She removed a coloured photograph of a pony with steel-grey fur and blue eyes, her swirled black and gold mane stretching above the picture.

She thrust it at John, “tell her I’m sorry – her names Fair Blossom, she owns a flower shop in Cloudsdale,” she grimaced and coughed, blood peppered Johns armour and hand as he relinquished the picture from her, “tell her I never stopped thinking about her.”

She sniffed some blood back into her flaring nostrils, “Celestia I don’t want to die here.”

Johns' lips fell in empathy as she cried a little, “she’ll know… she’ll know.”

John remained silent.

Her eyes glassed over and her chest became still, nostrils unable to prevent blood from trickling out. John stood and headed back downstairs. He scanned the picture one last time before tucking it behind his ammunition belt.

He continued through the winding ally, his heavy exoskeleton echoing his steps back at him in an eerie melody. Finally, he broke out of the labyrinth, his helmet turning to look up-and-down the wide street that housed the trapped unit.

Inside John could see flashes of gold armour as the occasional energy bolt or speer danced through a window. Changelings swarmed over the roof, few brave enough to die at the hooves of the cornered Guards.

John sprayed laser fire up at those he could see, he swept his weapon side-to-side and up-and-down, effectively scouring the roof of charcoal-coated vermin. Survivors scurried off and were chased down by fast-moving Thestrals.

The coast seeming clear; the ponies peering around the double-door entrance leapt back in surprise as he burst through the timber frame.

“I got your messenger, what’s your status, where is your commander?” He addressed to a nearby squad of spear-wielding Royal Guards.

A boxy stallion with a black eye and a long, thin cut that had been hastily field-stitched stepped forward, “I’m Senior Guard Summersglide, we made the push to here with heavy casualties.”

He beckoned John to join him near a poorly blockaded hole in the wall, “I’ve got ponies spread out all over our approach, half of them in poor medical condition.”

He frowned up at John, “Captain Sharp Wing led a squad south-east toward group centre to try and break through the Changelings. That was half an hour ago,” he glanced at a small jewel on his foreleg.

He looked back up at John with a look of realisation, “Where’s the Guard I sent?”

John unfurled the blood-splattered picture and held it out for the Senior Guard to inspect, “She didn’t make it. She asked me to give this to the pony in the picture, a mare in Cloudsdale.”

The Guard seemed to tire at the news, “damn it. You hang on to that, understand?” His voice brokering no disagreement.

John only nodding in response to his demand, “I’ll head out and find your Captain. The Princess wants you to regroup and relocate your wounded – those you can – to a central building in the towns centre.”

John gestured back through the well-guarded doors, “head south for ten minutes and then east for a few and you should stumble right into it. You’re in charge now, Senior Guard.”

John spoke ahead of himself as he began to leave, “continue the attack.”

After securing the street with a few fresh-faced Royal Guard, John departed alone after the hoof-steps of the wayward Captain.

He followed through more winding alleyways and wide roads, passing through a small residential building. Inside lay the shrivelled remains of several dozen ponies. Some small enough that John assumed they hadn’t been adults when killed.

He coldly scanned the room for any threats, before continuing on the trail of Captain Steel Wing.

Not ten minutes since leaving the residential building in his wake, John came across the scene of a small battle.

A dozen black-armoured Changelings lay, cast around with green stab wounds, missing and twisted limbs and one with an ornate sword emerging from its chest.

Four Royal Guard also lay still, two mares and a small-framed stallion – signs of extreme blood loss being the cause of death.

The Captain, however, was not present. John looked around, examining the carnage for clues, at the far end of the drying blood stains, blood and dirt had been disturbed in what looked like drag marks.

John moved as respectfully as possible over the forms of the dead ponies. He studied the drag marks, before following their trail. They headed south – past the egress point of the church-like building at the towns centre.

He followed it for a time, him becoming warier as the sounds of battle faded. But the marks ended abruptly on a road that exited from the town, he double checked around the finish line of a trail. It was like the Captain had just vanished.

John assumed an air extraction had taken him away, he represented a sizable security breach. John spoke soft words in his helmet, wishing the lost Guard a quick death before he ran back toward Princess Luna and the quietening battle sounds with his discovery.

* * *

‘Ow my head,’ his internal voice murmured. He was being dragged along a dimly-lit corridor made from a dark, softish substance. He groggily glanced around him at the natural contours and curves of the swirling tunnel. Arrayed next to him were black coated forelegs that rapidly marched in unison, carrying him ever closer to some unknown goal.

His eyes felt heavy and he fought the urge to fall back to unconsciousness. It was like a dream; every blink altering his surroundings more and more, he felt his ears pop from the gradually increasing pressure, he swallowed dryly to return his hearing to normal levels.

The sound of a million chittering voices in a language he didn’t understand reached his bloodied ears, a slight throbbing made itself known around his forehead, between them.

His senses were submerged in numbness and his usually excellent peripheral vision had been reduced to a dark, dim tunnel. On and on he was dragged and sometimes carried, his vision started to clear a little bit. ‘Where was he? “who” was he?’ He decided he didn’t care to know right then. He hoped the lingering sense of pain and terror was only his imagination filling in the blanks.

The dim lime lighting eventually blossomed into a much harsher, more piercing emerald brilliance. His eyes blurred and watered, he blinked to try and accommodate the new illumination.

He and the others, “they”, he decided, were in a cavernous room. It had the same natural, insect-like feel to it but with more ornate decoration on the walls and ceilings. Arches and support columns adorned the outer wall, a multitude of large recesses hidden in shadow, covered by silk web.

He was brought to one of these openings and hoisted into it – he felt light – he could have sworn he had been wearing something heavy before. His mind a jumbled mess, panic started to wash over him as he was pressed into a recess by black, blurry shapes.

He tried to speak but his mouth wouldn’t cooperate, like it had been glued shut, he wiggled ineffectively as he was enveloped by a white, silky net – his vision began to darken and his thoughts became quiet – the earlier fear being replaced with a warm sense of safety.

* * *

Return to Sender

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“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.

* * *

Town Under Attack

View Online

John awoke to slight wetness on his face, despite his tiredness he became fully alert in an instant – a biproduct of years of survival. His eyesight could make out the barest details in the darkness as his memories came flooding back to him.

Three sets of eyes looked at him momentarily, before one-by-one they faced forward, a slight drizzle was splattering against him, carried on the rushing wind. Aylesbury’s image grew larger by the second – sparsely lit with fires and lamps, a formation of ponies awaited at the landing zone.

The cart hit the ground hard, mud plastered the wheels and flecks flew off to spit against them. As soon as they had slowed to a crawl, they all hopped out – maintaining silence.

Captain Ivory Skies greeted them, she looked well rested and ready for the coming journey.

“Captain,” Midnight began, “these are Senior Guards Starfire and Starry Skies. They fought with us at the crash site, ma’am,” she introduced the two other Lunar Guards, who stood side-by-side.

She gave each a look of open respect, “I’ve read the reports – glad you could join us. If you’re ready then we’ll leave immediately,” she spoke quietly.

She turned, “Sergeant, move them out!” She ordered in a harsh whisper.

As John sneakily avoided the large formation of gold-armoured ponies, he found his way to the Town Hall. Inside, several camp beds were occupied with ponies of various colours, many covered with bandages.

As he curiously scanned the wounded, a meek Pegasus mare emerged from an adjacent room, a tray of medical equipment rested on her back. Clad in a white uniform, she approached Johns towering form without a hint of reservation. She had cool blue eyes, they conveyed emotion for which John was decidedly unprepared for.

“The carriages will return tomorrow to collect the rest of these poor ponies,” her voice was soothing and melodic.

He made a satisfied look at the answer to his unasked question and approached his armour, as he entered, he watched her administer medicinal cream to some nasty looking third degree burn wounds on the face of a Thestral mare.

His armour closed around him and he breathed in the recycled air, exhaling he realised he felt secure within his exoskeleton.

Laser rifle in hand he returned to the drop zone, collected his weapons and bags, before he and the three Thestrals joined the guard column on a nighttime march to catch up with the 1st.

* * *

A few hours into it and the rain had picked up, the 7th Auxiliary were battered by howling winds. Droplets hammered the ground like a hail of bullets and water flowed around the loosely marked path that carried them southwest.

The ponies huddled forward wrapped in cloud-coloured ponchos, John and the Lunar Guards acted as tail-end Charlie and lingered some distance behind the advancing unit.

Midnight and the other Thestrals bore cloaks the colour of graphite, large hoods were pulled tight over their heads, “Celestia-damned rain!” Starshine all but screamed to be heard over the deafening rumble of thunder.

Dark clouds broiled mercilessly above the treeline of the Everfree Forest to their right, which spat lightning into the thicket of branches that swayed with the strong winds.

They were heading for a territory called Appleloosa, a dry and arid landscape with many small farms and villages. Once past that they would reach Ghastly Gorge, a large canyon a mile wide and deep that ran for several kilometres, with the river Long Mare passing through it.

It was towards here that the Changelings had escaped along with the townsfolk of Aylesbury. A scout from the 1st Battalion had relayed their position near a small settlement, Princess Luna awaiting a little impatiently for their arrival.

John’s over encumbered form waddled through the quagmire of mud, bogging him down. A warning flashed across his HUD – ‘if I keep this up for much longer, my servo motors could burn out.’

Shortly after having that thought, they reached the rear perimeter of houses that made up a small village. Stumbling blindly in the darkness into a platoon of Thestrals who were waiting for them, Lieutenant McKenna revealed herself, her lithe form a dead giveaway despite her cloak.

The wind howled along the street causing shutters on the buildings to bang and rattle. The little wooden domiciles a far cry from the slate and stone structures dominating Aylesbury.

Lines of shambling Royal Guards moved slowly against the high-speed winds into buildings, members of McKenna’s platoon leading the way to shelter.

Bringing up the rear, the tall Lunar officer seemed to remain eerily still despite the fierce gale. She beckoned John and his small entourage of Thestrals toward her, as she retreated for a large timber building with the single word “Saloon” scrawled across it.

Shortly before reaching their goal, a large piece of debris detached from a nearby home and was carried toward them at high-velocity.

A beam a meter across and a few centimetres thick impacted a pair of royal guard a little way from John. He picked up his pace and reached their downed forms, he activated his helmet-mounted torch and the street was illuminated.

The guards lay in the waterlogged mud heavily dazed. John stowed his weapon and with a hold of each in hand, he dragged them through the gritty muck.

Backing up, he hauled them toward the saloon, his armoured weight crunched through a wooden step, he exited his armour and hefted the guards off the ground, before skipping up the stairs and inside. Warmth greeted them as a large stone fireplace crackled and hissed.

Midnight, Starfire and Starry Skies secured the entrance, dragging a bookcase over the batwing doors of the saloon. The floorboards were damp with rainwater, sodden Thestrals gathered around a large blue Princess.

The room was dimly lit with a few lamps and the fireplace, John and the two royal guard the only non-Thestrals present. He deposited them next to the heat of the fire, moisture had clung to his bodysuit and matted his short hair despite him only being exposed for a few seconds.

A balcony above the roaring fire was adorned with two dozen soaking wet black cloaks, the supplies the ponies had lugged here with them were stored to either side of the hearthstone.

Chairs and tables from the eating area had been moved to the outer wall near the entrance, a bar opposite housed many empty shells of silvery-grey Thestral armour.

“Medic!” A burly Thestral stallion burst off the ground at Lieutenant Midnights call.

He put himself between John and the two incapacitated guards and busied himself with treating their injuries.

“Status?” it was undoubtedly the voice of Major Kodiak.

Midnight almost stood to attention but held herself loosely, water dripped from her wet cloak and matted fur.

“We’ve just arrived. Nothing noteworthy except these two took a whack from some debris on the way in.”

Kodiak hummed, “Captain Ivory?”

“In a building four or five down from us, ma’am.” While she spoke, Starry Skies and Starfire helped her out of her armour and cloak, placing them near to the fire.

The Major began donning her armour in an almost hypnotic reverse of Midnight's movements, a pair of unknown Thestrals aiding her much in the way Midnight had been.

“I should introduce myself, set things on the level. You’re the boss McKenna,” the Major and three others departed whilst McKenna quietly acknowledged with a hoof raise.

Sealing the entrance once again against the barraging rain and howling wind, the compliment of Thestrals were unarmoured and John took a good look at their forms. Taut muscle underneath dull coloured shaggy fur, they looked like ponies draped in carpets.

John threw caution to the wind and in several long strides had placed himself between the heat of the fire and the pony cordon.

Princess Luna’s nose was buried in paperwork as she scribbled on parchment, no one spoke and the only sounds came from the rain hitting the saloon and the occasional drip as a leak entered a bucket.

John took out his laser side-arm and ignored the hurried turning of heads as the Thestrals reflexively looked toward a drawn weapon.

He cleaned it, more to pass the time as it was spotless. Shortly thereafter Midnight, Starfire and Starry Skies joined him on either side, they pressed into him like in the sky carriage.

He made no move to escape, despite the creeping uneasiness he felt if this was the pony norm than he would try to accommodate. He fought the urge to shiver as wet hair wiped across the back of his neck as another Thestral lent against him.

He sniffed a few times, ‘funny,’ he thought, ‘wet dog reeks; not wet pony though,’ he shrugged slightly at the unanswerable thought and continued to clean his laser pistol.

Several of the ponies used little brushes with barbed bristles, they brushed their knotted fur and collected the stray hair in little wads, then threw them on the fire. That smell of burning hair brought back a few memories.

* * *

“Elements of Charlie Squad had a shoot-out with ‘muties along this sector yesterday, their report said they’re dug in and heavily fortified. I need you to dig ‘em out, John.”

The short briefing from Star Paladin Hoar still ran through Johns' head, the sound of rain a constant reminder of the messed up climate. He’d fought super mutants all his life, every time it seemed as though they were eradicated – more raised their ugly heads. John wished he could kill them all.

His dull grey power armour blended into the likewise drab-grey concrete buildings of central Berlin. Bombed out and smoke covered since the great war, the city had seen its fair share of pre-war combat, same as everywhere.

Behind John were two squads of heavily armed and armoured shock troops from his own 30th. Rain pattered down and washed through the debris-strewn streets. He kept his eyes and laser rifle trained high up, watching for ‘mutie snipers.

They waited at the edge of a ‘T’ junction, opposite John was Knight-Sergeant Ronald Spiers, he beckoned frantically at a tracked Armoured Personnel Carrier. Its fusion-powered engine revved up loudly before it began to turn into the road.

The APC was a few meters long and two high, it had angled armour and a small turret mounted at the rear. It housed a missile launcher and a 20mm auto-cannon. The head of a young-looking man protruded from the commander’s cupola, the heavy machinegun he operated pointed threateningly at the windows of the buildings.

The street was fairly long, with the same concrete construction all along its length, two- and three-storey apartments stood like the gravestones of a nation. The APC rumbled down slowly for a few meters, flanked by armoured infantry on either side, it advanced on squeaky tracks.

“RPG!” The warning came from one of Spiers men, as they all scrambled for cover, a loud ‘bang’ followed by the roaring of a fast-approaching missile echoed off of the buildings.

The rocket was well aimed and hit the APC’s turret just in front of where the man had been, his body was lifted from the turret on a geyser of flame as the vehicles ammunition cooked off.

At the end of the street a large calibre machinegun sprayed suppressing fire down at them, the brotherhood troopers feeling like fish in a barrel.

John lay in a half-meter deep crater, as he began to raise his weapon to return fire, something landed on him. He prepared himself for battle, only to pause as he looked at the twisted form of a human face.

It was the soldier from the APC, a comrade to John. Although they had never met, John felt a surreal connection to him, the man blinked at John helplessly for a few beats – the sound of weapons fire escalating as more troopers Joined in the firefight before his eyes became cold.

The smell of singed hair and burned flesh was overwhelming, even through the filtered air system of his armour. He leapt up from his position and fired energy bolts down the street.

Green tracers from ballistic weapons and red energy beams filled the space between John and the supermutant positions across from him. John pressed forward and squeezed his armoured bulk into a recess between two buildings, bullets chipped away at his cover soon after, dirt and ricochets pinged against his suit.

John hastily reloaded, unable to move very fluidly in the cramped armpit of concrete, “Cover!” Trooper Wieczorek shouted with a heavily accented Eastern European tinge. She moved past John at speed, the gunfire that had been concentrating on him now followed her.

With an ear-splitting scream through their helmet-linked suit communications, Wieczorek shuddered as a volley of armour-piercing rounds opened up her suit like a can-opener. She fell backwards at the knees, flesh and organs visible through the sheared steel of her chest plate.

The ballistic exchange slowed momentarily as the mutants glutaral voices cheered at having taken out a “bucket-head.” Another APC rolled up, using the first as cover it fired its 20mm cannon, large orange tracer rounds whizzed overhead as a mixture of gunfire, energy bolts and grenade launchers reduced the ‘mutie position to rubble.

The relentless rain continued its assault, pattering against Johns armour and creating miniature splashes across the ground like a micro-scale gun battle.

He surged forward, running at a crouch he reached Wieczorek’s fallen form, she pawed at him as he grasped her shoulder pauldrons and heaved her backwards.

She murmured and cried out as he jerked her back toward cover, the several-meter journey seeming to last an age. He deposited her behind the deployed ramp of the newly arrived Personnel Carrier, a dark-skinned man wearing green and grey overalls emerged with a host of medical equipment.

Another man and a woman in the same uniforms joined him, they quickly performed an emergency-release on Wieczorek’s suit, causing it to fall away from her in pieces. They injected her with multiple Stimpaks and administered a dose of Med-X, a super-healing agent and a morphine substitute, respectively.

The last John ever saw of Wieczorek, she was being carried into the APC on a stretcher, an IV was being set up; John saw her eyes close, pale skin and jet-black hair matted with blood. The exit ramp slowly whirred shut, John led his remaining troopers through the concrete jungle for three more weeks, he lost many soldiers, including a part of himself.

* * *

A crack of thunder and strobing lightning broke John out of his stupor. The bat-ponies had set up a soup pot over the fireplace, a pony John recognised as Pontiac was using a small blade to slice vegetables into the broth.

John hugged his knees, the wetness from before having receded as the almost unbearable heat from the fire sapped all the moisture out of him. Another Thestral tossed some more logs onto the flames, keeping them alive, Lieutenant McKenna peered restlessly through a gap in the closed shutters.

John busied himself with adding new information to his personal database, he brought his left wrist to his face, his features illuminated in a grey-green light. He thanked a Thestral mare that passed him some soup, he ate while he wrote.

Princess Luna had been focused on tracking down the Changelings origin point, a topic that had caused zoologists to scratch their heads for many decades. Her sister had sent to her scrolls and a few tomes that detailed research data and notes on encounters with different species.

Her Griffonian was a little rusty, she held an open book, the cover made from the skin of another animal – the nocturnal Princess had long become accustomed to the brutal history of the Griffin Empire.

Their odd dialect and violent, jagged symbols represented a code of honour, the Griffin scribe who had written this was describing a creature.

“With skin like coal and eyes like fireflies,” she read out loud, a few of her Guards trying not to be too obvious in their eavesdropping, “a creature that hides in plain sight and feeds on the soul; be wary of…” she paused, the dialect of the writer making the translation a little trickier.

John had paused his own recording to listen to the Princess, “the one that changes its shape is a true ‘changeling’, it will mimic your closest friends without error.”

The entry on “shapeshifters of the hidden realms” was the earliest reference the Royal Canterlot Library had managed to find on Changelings, her sister had informed her in her correspondence.

“What’s that you’re reading?” John had forsaken his own writing in favour of the small book she held aloft in blue magic.

She didn’t look away from the scripture, her small scowl deepened as the recording seemed to fade into different topics. Possibly the Imperial Griffonian Archive would yield an earlier log – she would have her sister send a diplomat to request the sharing of information.

“We believe it may be the earliest written reference to the Changelings, this record is over two thousand years old.” She delicately closed the book and returned it to the satchel it had been sent in.

John looked impressed, “most of my species records only stretch back a few hundred years.”

She looked up at this, very much interested in learning more about the reclusive human, “with your level of technology we expected you to have a far longer history,” she frowned a little at the tidbit of information.

He scratched his stubble sheepishly, “over three hundred years ago – almost four hundred if you count the time I spent travelling here – humanity wiped itself out in a nuclear war.”

Luna couldn’t hide her sorrow for such a loss of life, “you split the atom? We always feared it would create weapons too powerful to control.”

John nodded rapidly, “’technology run amok’. It’s a little expression we have for mankind’s innovation outpacing its understanding. In their lust for power – a hunger to consume, humanity bled our world dry of its resources before obliterating it in a war that lasted only a few hours.”

He noticed he had the attention of the room, the only sound coming from the rain outside and the crackling fireplace.

“So where are you from in your world? Have your species recovered?” Midnight asked him from her position laying against his side.

He began explaining, “I’m from America. Although I’ve spent much of my life on other parts of the planet.”

Princess Luna looked a little puzzled, “this America, Is the name of your world?”

John guffawed, the as-of-yet unheard sound from him causing Luna to smile widely in fascination, ‘so there is emotion underneath all that metal.’

As if sensing the thought, he stopped. “No. I come from a planet we call Earth; it has six large landmasses which we call continents, one of the these is called America,” he said it slowly, “I was born in North America.”

Princess Luna held a small notebook out of sight, she wrote everything down, she had a friend who would be most interested in what John had to say.

“What are the others called?” She paused writing and looked at John expectantly.

He shuffled side-to-side with his legs crossed and looked off to one side in thought, “Antarctica, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia.”

“Interesting,” she said a little distractedly.

John drank from his canteen, “What about Equestria? I’d like to know more,” he began writing in his pip-boy once again.

She began describing it with hoof gestures, “Our world has one large supercontinent and a few smaller landmasses off its borders, we call our home Equus. Griffonia is across the sea to our west. In the north is our planets frozen pole, also apart of Equestria.

“To the north-east lay the Deer Hegemony in an area a third of Equestrias size.” She looked excitedly at John as she discussed a favoured subject of hers, “head south far enough and you shall encounter the Zebran people – a large collection of tribes of striped ponies.

“South-west, the Minotaurans occupy a populous nation spread across volcanic islands. Mixed across our multiple and diverse lands are several nomadic tribes and species, off our west coast can be seen a chain of active volcanoes, here be dragons.”

John tried to hide his surprise at the multitude of different species occupying their world, he turned to her new question.

“Are their many species on your world? What are they like?” she asked, Clearly exuberant.

“No.” He deadpanned, “its just us,” he gestured up and down himself.

Luna began to speak but became quiet as a loud repetitive knocking came from the saloon entrance. All heads turned to the door, John gripped his laser pistol tightly.

Two Thestrals huffed as they shifted the bookcase from the doorway, Major Kodiak and three Thestrals returned, absolutely sodden, causing everyone to relax.

The bulky Major didn’t break eye contact with Princess Luna, “Changeling scouts were intercepted by our perimeter patrol – they practically fell into each other in the bad weather.”

She stood, “Any idea what they were doing?”

“Out for a stroll?” John injected humourlessly and received a frown from both mares as a result.

“They had some pony captives with them, a few mares and a stallion. The Changelings started executing them once they were engaged, but we managed to keep one alive, barely.”

“Where are they now?” Luna asked hurriedly.

“We’ve got her in the building across from here, you should hurry – doc doesn’t think she’ll make it.”

The Major turned to leave, Luna followed immediately. John got to his feet, the three Thestrals leaning on him quickly scrabbling to join him.

Luna and the three Thestrals hastily gathered weapons, foregoing their armour, as they departed into the hurricane winds, he bypassed taking his suit which was coated in mud and grime.

Luna activated a spell that cast a blue bubble around them, they had to huddle close together to fit inside of it. The winds reduced to nothing and the rain was unable to penetrate the magical barrier.

After a few seconds of shuffling, John pipped up, “why didn’t you just do this on the way here?”

She continued looking forward, “It is quite taxing; we can keep this up for a few minutes and cover only a limited area."

The decking of the house and storefront they walked onto was a clone of many of the other buildings here, wooden planks nailed onto a timber frame.

As Luna’s shield spell ended, John and the others were nearly torn from the deck due to the suddenly restarted wind. Inside the single-level home were a dozen guards of both regiments.

There was a palpable tension present, in stark opposition from the saloon – several guards wore armour and were still wet.

A small log stove provided a little warmth. Two Royal Guards with white bands on their upper forelegs were gathered around a dining table, their fur splattered with blood, they watched on grimly as a pony wheezed atop the makeshift gurney.

Their entry broke the silence, the wind causing the door to slam against the wall. Midnight and John heaved it shut and he slid a bolt into place.

The sound of the bad weather was greatly diminished once inside, they approached the table causing the other guards to step back.

The mare blearily looked up at them, her haggard breathing hitched as she spied Princess Luna for the first time, “Princess,” she wheezed and coughed.

“We art very sorry for what has been done to you – please – we need you to be strong. Tell us what happened here.” The blue monarch leaned in close, her voice barely above a whisper.

The room was dimly lit, the flames from the stove cast little shadows that danced and weaved across the walls, like Zulu warriors on the horizon.

The wounded mare raised her head, she had dark yellow fur and a short dark mane. Her wounds were extensive and John winced internally at the damage. One eye was bandaged and it wept dark red, one rear foreleg was partially removed and heavily bandaged. Both front legs were wrapped up tightly in makeshift splints – indicating broken bones, in addition to the multitude of bandages across her torso, her wheezing voice a sign of a collapsed lung.

“They came out of nowhere, we were in the fields west of town, we tried heading for the Mackintosh Hills but they ambushed us. Chased us further west – I thought I’d died but woke up here,” she croaked.

Johns voice stole the attention she held, “what do you estimate the enemy’s strength?” His arms were folded.

Her one good eye switched to him over Luna’s shoulder, it was bloodshot, hopeless and strangely devoid of life. The look a person gets when they’ve seen too much, a look John sometimes imagined he had when he looked in the mirror.

* * *

Buttery Biscuit held the strange creatures gaze for a moment, its cold blue eyes seemed so very small. She inhaled as deeply as she dared, causing fresh pain to blossom in her chest.

She knew her time was short, she was feeling weaker by the second. Her ears rang despite the relative quietness. She tried imagining happier times, in her final moments she wished more than anything to be surrounded by her family and friends. Tears escaped from her one good eye which was scrunched tightly shut.

* * *

The day had begun like any other, Buttery Biscuit had woken to another beautiful morning on the sound of roosters calling. The pre-dawn air bit into her sleep-filled eyes, but she relished the feeling of fresh air entering her lungs, invigorating her.

“Be sure ‘an check on them cows, ‘Butters!” Her mother called.

She was next to a pair of grain silos, “Sure thang, mama!”

She made her way toward the dairy barn, they had a dozen cows that lived with them, providing their milk in exchange for shelter and food. A pact that the majority of the bovine species undertook with not only Equestria but other nations as well.

The sky was lightly speckled with stars, a blend of night and day, a crescent moon was low on the horizon. ‘Butters skipped a little merrily through fields of wheat and barley, the soft bristles tickled her sides as she moved.

The two-storey accommodation had been painted just last season and was a vibrant red with white trim, the nicest barn in all of Appleloosa.

She spent the next few hours milking cows and feeding them, dozens of buckets were decanted into clay pots – her sister Butterscotch carried them two at a time for their wagon, to be sold at the market later that day.

Once the supply of dairy had been exhausted, together the Butter sisters pulled the cart to market and began selling their produce, it was only just getting light when the customers started flooding in, jockeying for the best milk in the region.

This hubbub was interrupted by a commotion and screams carried on the wind, fires rose into the sky – and ponies nearby began to panic.

“Butterscotch – break down the stall – hurry!” She began rolling milk jugs for their cart.

Her sister grabbed her and shook her, black figures dotted the building in the distance, “Leave the Celestia-dammed thing! If we don’t get out of here, we’ll be killed or worse!”

Butters’ fought internally with her fight-or-flight instinct, the desire to flee won out and wordlessly they joined many others in galloping away from the market district and back toward town.

‘Refugees,’ the word rang hollow in her head as a few hundred pony stragglers evacuated Southwest toward the fishing town of Blackwater. Sounds of Changeling wings broke the calm of the day for the second time, screams at the rear of their loose formation causing those at the front to enter a fast trot.

Under the yellow sky of early morning and over ground covered with wet mud Changeling warriors made straight for the thick of the column, ploughing up and down, killing and crushing with their thick, armoured hooves.

Almost simultaneously massed Changeling airwings peeled away from the ground units to hunt down and massacre civilians fleeing for the refuge of the hills. Forelegs held high in surrender the Changelings sliced off with their sabres, before feeding on the dying.

The killing in this pony hunt went on for several hours and a new round opened on the banks of the river Long Mare, where the survivors of the collision of the refugee column with Changeling troops dragged and fought their way.

* * *

She allowed herself to gaze at the morose-looking ponies gathered around her, the strange tall creature’s expression never altered, his gaze was calculating.

Her constant talking had sapped her last ounces of strength and she felt herself succumbing to what felt like the last slumber she would ever endure. She gladly awaited the embrace of the Elysian Fields.

* * *

Her body became still, the atmosphere of the room awfully silent, one of the pony medics checked her pulse with his hoof, he stared at John and the Princess and slowly shook his head.

Luna spoke softly, “once the weather permits it – bury her.”

He nodded, the pair of stallions began covering her with a blanket, no one spoke.

“So, what now?” John asked.

“Have some compassion! That poor mares just died, we should hold a moment of silence!” The outburst from a young royal guard mare caused a few of the nearby guards to join her in frowning at him.

His arms remained crossed and he didn’t let up, “every ‘moment’ we spend not tracking these bastards down is another ‘moment’ they get away from us; another ‘moment’ they can use to kill more of your people, so it’s your call.”

Her frown deepened, but she didn’t reply.

“He’s right, we need to hurry up and catch up to these rutters,” Midnight added.

“In this crap?!” A Royal Guard added, peering out a window. Lightning flashed and thunder threatened to shake the house apart, “you’ve got to be kidding me!”

Luna frowned at her hooves, the turmoil inside her made her blood boil, “Enough!”

The booming shout made them all wince and they all took a step back. She heaved a breath, “Major, you’re in command of the 1st and the 7th – have them prepared and checked out. I shall write yet another letter to my sister to see if anything can be done about this rogue weather.

“Commander Maxon, Lieutenant Midnight – I want you to take a strike team – head west toward Blackwater, it’s a small town that runs parallel to the river Long Mare. Brave this weather and report to me,” she gave a small blue jewel to Midnight, “using this. It is voice activated, say the words ‘semper dicere verum’ and we shall be able to communicate. It has limited range, so get as high as you can before you use it.”

Those in the cabin separated to complete their assigned tasks, Princess Luna and Major Kodiak disappeared deeper into the town, hounded by barrages of rain the entire way.

Midnight and John returned to the saloon, “gear up!” She bellowed at the Thestrals gathered there. They responded immediately in a flurry of practised movement, armour was reattached and travelling equipment was distributed.

John assisted the fur covered Lieutenant don her own protective gear, he used the flat of his palm to apply pressure and drew straps closed, she nodded at each segment indicating it wasn’t too tight.

“Okay ears up! Princess’ has ordered a strike team to head into Blackwater, we’ve got fresh intel of Changeling activity there so we’re going to scope it out.

“I’ll lead, the Commanders coming as our heavy-hitter,” she looked around at the collection of Thestrals, two dozen in number, “I only need a small team – Goldenrod, Whip,” she counted off the names and the ponies moved into action.

“I’ll also take Crystal Hoof, Clementine and Windrunner,” three other bat ponies took supplementary spears and daggers.

John headed back into the rain, it had lessened slightly but was still relentless. He carefully inspected the heavy ordinance on his suit. Checking his inventory, he had a laser rifle, several grenades, his laser side-arm and plasma backup side-arm, as well as the plasma sniper rifle. The fat man tactical nuclear catapult rested across the armours back, shoulder-to-shoulder.

After entering the suit, he stored the laser rifle in a hip compartment, the armour moved and wrapped around it, holding it in place. He lent down and hefted the Gatling laser into his servo-assisted grip.

The six-pony team exited the saloon and paused to marvel at his new arsenal. The rain clung to them and seemed to defy physics by rebounding off their cloaks.

Despite being unable to emote outside of his suit, one of the new guards seemed to pick up on it, “if we’re going to be in this storm for a while, we decided to use an ‘anti-precipitation’ spell, we’ve got a bunch that are pre-cast in the form of gems,” she flashed him a Fang-dominated grin and revealed a knapsack filled with coloured stones. John hummed curiously but said nothing else.

“Okay mares and stallion, let’s move on out.”

He stomped at a jogging pace westward according to his compass, the Thestrals taking to the air and gliding alongside him in a loose formation.

The rain became less severe the further west they headed, an hour and a dozen kilometres later, a large boulder became a point of rest in the otherwise featureless landscape.

The showers had succumbed to light spittle, the bat-ponies circled before landing, their cat-slit pupils were expanded. Darkness surrounded them, the slight whiteness of early morning appearing in the distance.

“How much farther?” John asked, his voice tinted with a mechanical whir.

Midnight consulted a small map, “We’re about three hours away at our current pace, we should be there just before dawn.”

“Okay,” he said, “let's go.”

* * *

Princess Celestia had lived for hundreds of average lifetimes, she had witness things many couldn’t comprehend. One thing remained a constant and that was a politician’s ability to argue on practically any topic.

The Monarchy had ruled Equestria for centuries, with Princess Luna and herself acting as heads of state. They technically had ultimate control, however in recent times to appease international and internal interests, they had formed a council of ponies to make decisions in their stead or in times of crisis. They also had a say in larger political moves, including mobilising large amounts of their military – even at the direct order of one of the monarchs.

Why should we send more of our sons and daughters to the chopping block when we can simply recall them here, to keep us safe!” The blustery voice of Sir Woodland Sanders punctuated his most critical points in a thick southern drawl.

The piercing voice of Thorn Bristle responded immediately, “how can we expect them to keep us safe with those abominations allowed to roam free?! We need to send our best troops out there to help our Princess in her quest!”

The Colonel huffed in mock humour, “please mare; don’t remind me of our Princess’ constant need to get herself in over her head – you only need to pick up a history book to see this is just her nature!”

Princess Celestia sat in her courtroom, the large circular chamber had marble carved walls accentuated with spiralling support pillars and bedazzled with gold detailing. Her sun decorated every possible surface as her Honour Guard stood a silent vigil around the room.

Spreading around from her throne were rows of benches, hundreds of smartly-presented ponies bickered loudly to be heard over each other. Her royal aide Fantasia, pink coat and white tail and mane immaculate as ever, adjusted a clipboard she held in her magic.

“The court recognizes Sir Woodland Sanders,” she announced loudly enough to mostly still the bickering nobles.

Celestia was many things, but hard of hearing was not one of them, “please, repeat what you just said, Sir Sanders.” Her eyes narrowed at him and he seemed to sweat a little in contemplation.

“As ah was sayin’, I mean no disrespect – but your sister must be held accountable for her actions! She can’t just gallivant around as she always has! She makes a mockery of the crown and this council.”

She couldn’t decide if she disliked his words or his voice more, “I would like to remind you once and once only; never speak ill of my younger sister again or I shall have you imprisoned.” Her voice held its usual kindness despite the venom in her eyes.

He remained standing but his eyes went wide at the threat, he sat down quickly, “councillors I value your input – that is why I brought this to your attention. Equestria wants results. Equestria wants my sister supported unconditionally. Were our places reversed you would have sent the Calvary long ago.”

She levelled an uncompromising look at the shrinking noble ponies, “Now we can make some decisions. Firstly, how were the Changelings able to penetrate so far into our borders without our knowledge?”

Another stallion stood up, “the chief of national security, Wild Strikes, has the floor,” Fantasia announced.

He cleared his throat, “Princess I accept full responsibility of the failure to detect the Changeling invaders.”

“What in the blazes are you doing?!” Sanders outburst drew many more cries of outrage from those that shared in his beliefs.

“Ponies are dead, Sanders! Its time for me to step down,” he returned his gaze to the Princess, “will you accept my resignation?”

She didn’t fully believe it was his fault, the ponies before her had split into two main groups; those that she suspected had their own interests in mind and those that supported her leadership. Wild Strikes had just gifted her the opportunity she needed to help her sisters Expeditionary Force.

“Very well, I accept. You are hereby relieved of your position and stripped of your title.”

The stallion nodded and sat back down with a look of finality. “We are therefore in need of a new Chief of Security,” the council mares and stallions started shouting loudly for their favoured representatives to be summoned, “Colonel Amethyst, I call upon you to serve,” the only Thestral present received a few jeers and a few cheers from the frenzy of voices coming from around the room.

“Be quiet!” A royal guard stallion shouted, his voice echoed causing the cacophony of voices to become silent.

She stepped forward, her ceremonial black armour adorned with silver and blue metal seemed to absorb much of the room's light, “I accept, your highness.” Her smoky voice reverberated around the now quiet chamber.

Celestia’s mouth flickered into a victorious smile, “excellent, as the Chief of National Security, what are your thoughts on the situation?”

The newly appointed Chief walked from her seat at a small side table to a podium at the centre of the room, “the crown recognises Colonel Amethyst, Chief of National Security,” Fantasia’s honeyed voice seemed to sooth the council members into complete silence.

“Council Members, Princess Celestia, I fully support the reinforcement of the Lunar Expeditionary Force,” before she’d finished the ranks of the council erupted into cries of support and opposition.

Celestia grew weary of this politicking, while they argued, her sister spent more time understaffed with troops and supplies. The extra Royal Guard’s she’d ordered, in confidence, for Major Kodiak to depart with relived some of her worries, albeit a small amount.

She ignited her horn, the pulsating wave of energy it discharged swept through the room like a speeding locomotive. It caused the council to become eerily silent and still at the display of magical energy.

“Please continue, Colonel,” her dulcet tone acted in a juxtaposition of power and kindness.

“I propose we reinforce the position at Aylesbury, we use it as a Forward Staging Area for future deployments into the region. We need to protect our borders – failure to do so will be viewed as a sign of weakness by the other nations.

“A single division would be suitable – we’d need a field hospital and a landing strip at Aylesbury,” she lifted a few files with her hoof, “the Appleloosian territory needs to be secured and I’m of the opinion we should send a minimum of one battalion to each frontier town to bolster their minimal security force.”

She flicked through more papers and reports, “in synchronicity we should prepare an assault force to put an end to the Changeling hive once and for all.”

She looked up at Celestia expectantly, “so I should get to work, Princess – if there’s nothing else?”

‘Ah, military punctuality saves the day,’ she thought, “very good, Colonel – get it done. You have my full support.”

The middle-aged mare slunk away from the podium and seemed to vanish into an adjacent corridor, the large wooden doors not making much sound.

“Council adjourned – you shall be recalled if anything important is revealed, smaller information will be made available via courier,” Celestia decreed, stepping down from her dais, her guards escorted her to the royal library.

Once secluded inside, alone, she began writing a letter. Reinforcement would take time – a few days with the added logistical problems caused by the rogue weather. She had some nondescript friends in the Griffin empire who owed her a few favours.


I am writing to you both as a friend and as a Princess of Equestria. My sister is in desperate need of military support. I know you and your band of outcasts are not concerned about the reason for the fight; only the fight itself and money.

I need you to bring as many fighters, food and water as possible to my ponies in Appleloosa. Fight alongside them until victory is achieved and I shall forget about the life-debt for which I am owed. Please move as quickly as possible and be prepared for heavy combat.

Your friend,

Princess Celestia of Equestria

She stamped it with a wax seal. The gold imprint of the Equestrian coat of arms was in the shape of the three pony races crossing a pair of crowns, backed by a wreath.

The letter folded itself, coated in her golden magic, before entering an envelope and being shrouded in gold flames.

* * *

Princess Luna seethed internally as if the loss of her own troops in the last few days wasn’t enough; the Changelings still roamed her lands and harassed her ponies. She felt a little powerless, the blasted bureaucrats and noble ponies were a constant thorn in her side.

Many of them had the nerve to demand to her sister that Luna and her Expeditionary Force be recalled, that the guard be used to shield the “vulnerable capital.” It made her blood boil.

She felt great sympathy for Celestia, however, she had far more patience when it came to politics than Luna ever had. She much preferred the mud and guts of the frontline to dealing with the asinine demands of her countries most important.

‘Self-loving asses, the lot of them.’

Her request for emergency weather recall via Royal Decree had been approved without question, the Cloudsdale Weather Control already reining in the storm to a more acceptable overcast sky and light drizzle.

She rescanned the reply her sister had sent, the letter as hastily written as Luna’s had been. It foretold the summary dismissal of their chief of national security, at the bequest of the Canterlot council, he had been replaced with a colonel of the 27th Thestral Legion.

Her first act as chief had been to secure reinforcements, bound for Luna and her Expeditionary Force, ‘finally,’ she thought.

Celestia had more good news, she had sent a message to a Griffin who was the leader of a mercenary band. Luna didn’t agree with killing for money without cause, but she’d take what she could get and wouldn’t complain too much.

As daylight started to shine through the cloud cover, illuminating the world, she watched Thestrals and Royal Guard ponies escort the survivors of Appleloosa toward the east side of town.

As the weather had eased up, her guards had managed to explore more of the area. At first finding only fledgeling survivors, before hundreds of refugees emerged out of their hiding places.

They now marched in long columns, they would be extracted toward Aylesbury, her sister informing her it would become a forward operating base.

This was a good start; however, it would still take a few days to mobilise the necessary troops and materials for the scale of a campaign the Lunar Princess had in mind.

Lieutenant Pontiac approached, “Ma’am,” he sounded like he belonged in a western.

“Yes, Lieutenant?” She hid her smirk at the thought.

“The Major has linked up with Captain Ivory to sweep further westward. We’re in control of the area and haven’t come across any opposition so far.”

“Good to hear. Please inform the Major that we shall receive reinforcements in the coming days.”

He nodded, “Aye, aye.”

She took long strides further west of the town, she marched past her ponies, they looked up at her with a mixture of emotions, an old mare muttered a phrase of support.

“Go git’ em, Princess.”

She paused to lock eye-contact with the mare, Luna nodded once before continuing forward.

* * *

“Lieutenant, bogies inbound!” The warning was whispered by Windrunner as he rushed behind a defilade they were using as cover.

They had broken out from the cloud cover of the overcast sky, the land changing from desert sand and mud to rocky green. Clementine informing them they were close to the river Long Mare, now in an area labelled as ‘The Wilds.’

“Cover up – be ready,” Midnight answered.

The half dozen Thestrals drew their weapons, spread out over several meters – John crouched at the groups middle.

The sound of giant fly wings filled the air, the standard prelude to a massed attack. John prepared himself, his armour overloaded with heavy weaponry, he held his Gatling Laser tightly to his armoured torso, its barrels pointing skyward.

The first Changelings emerged into the crevice with the trapped ponies, they were quickly dispatched with precise jabs and slices delivered by the bat-ponies.

John waited until they were closer still, in his left hand he gripped a fragmentation grenade. More single Changelings died, building up a small wall of corpses. He counted to ten before leaping over the pile of bodies.

He charged up his Gatling laser and tossed his grenade in a high arc. It flew up and over, landing amongst a group of Changelings, they were the more serpentine, elite cast members – harder to kill and better fighters, John noted.

The explosive detonated, the shockwave killed many of them, separating limbs and shattering bones, the muffled whoomph sound followed by the shrieks of the dying as shrapnel perforated those not killed instantly.

He let loose with his Gatling laser, the multitude of black bodies between him and his destination being cut down in a hail of laser fire. The sheer volume of energy projectiles created scorched glass patterns in the ground.

He kept the trigger depressed for a solid fifteen seconds, sweeping side-to-side. He released it, the only sound came from the light breeze. Not a single Changeling remained alive.

The Thestrals rushed forward and joined him, forming into a fighting line, “save some for us would ya?” The humour not present in Clementine’s voice a sign of her surprise at the quantity of dead in such a short time span.

In the distance shimmering in the haze of the morning sun was Blackwater, the length of the river dotted with trees and shrubbery. Behind the town was a single isolated mountain that rose above the surrounding landscape.

“Move out – into the town, stay low and stay close,” Midnight scanned the edges of the settlement whilst she spoke.

John took the lead, he thundered toward Blackwater at speed, the six Thestrals spread behind him advanced at a fast trot.

The terrain was mostly flat, a few small hills and dips in the land provided cover for the small team. John had a swaying gait to his movement due to all the ordinance.

He leapt into a natural trench sending mud, grass and a few centimetres worth of water splattering out. The others joined him, they were a few hundred meters from the town – it was desolate.

“John, check it out,” Midnight ordered, John obeying as he sprang from the defilade and entered into a dead sprint, he quickly cleared the distance. A gust of wind blew dirt and detritus through the empty streets.

He kicked the door of the closest building down, it flew off its hinges and banged loudly against the opposite wall. A high-pitched wailing screech built up from deeper in the town.

John stepped back into the street, ignoring the empty structure. Suddenly dozens of Changelings massed from seemingly everywhere.

He gaped at the sheer volume of hostiles, they swarmed into hundreds and then thousands before his eyes. The crescendo of buzzing wings so loud he had to mentally instruct his suit to muffle the sound.

He began firing into the swarm, he raked laser fire around and across the growing airborne blob. So many Changelings now a part of it that it blocked out the mountain and much of the surrounding skyline.

He felt tiny as the Changelings loomed over him. His weapons fusion core ran dry – it was capable of holding thousands of shots – now depleted.

He moved as fast as possible and really shifted; the few hundred kilograms of suit powered by a TX-30M Power Pack able to propel him at speeds in excess of forty miles, or sixty-five kilometres per hour.

As he reached the Thestrals, he noted he’d escaped from the swarm – he turned to look back and regretted it, the thousands of Changelings advanced overwhelmingly.

“We’re so dead!” Crystal Hoof screamed to be heard over the roar of oversized fly wings.

“I have a plan – take this and learn fast,” he handed the now reloaded Gatling Laser to Lieutenant Midnight, leaning it against the ground, he manhandled her toward it so she lay on her front.

“Use your leg to squeeze this part,” he indicated the trigger of the weapon, “fire in short, controlled bursts – go!”

To her credit she began firing instantly, the quick snippets of energy fire sapped a few bug-horses at a time from the throng of creatures.

“Come on form up,” he waved frantically, drawing out a line along the edge of the defilade. The other Thestrals mimicked the Lieutenant, waiting to be armed.

He passed his laser rifle to Crystal Hoof, “brace it against your shoulder – single fire, fire at the swarm!”

A growing shadow fell over them as the Changelings pushed through the withering weapons fire. They returned fire using green energy blasts, they weaved and bobbed as Midnight changed targets each time a specific area ejected more magic attacks than the rest of the swarm.

He gave the pair of energy side-arms to Frosted Whip and Dark Goldenrod, “legs extended – hit those that get too close!”

He stepped over the prone ponies, finally reaching the last two Thestrals, “keep firing,” his booming voices bolstered the Thestrals as they poured energy bolts into the massive concentration of black parasites.

He put the plasma rifle into the hooves of Clementine, “this is such bullshit!” Her eyes were worried looking as she frantically inspected the sleek plasma weapon.

“Less bellyaching and more shooting!” He quickly showed how to use it, spiralling energy bolts were deflected off of his energy shields.

He looked at the as of yet unarmed Windrunner, he shrugged his shoulders, the Thestral copied him and just lay there while the others continued to fire.

He lifted his fat man launcher off of his back, strapped a mini nuke into it and took a knee to aim it at the swarm’s centre. Masses of obsidian bug-horses were now reaching within a few meters before being killed by the volley of weapons fire.

He fired, ker-chunk.

The miniature atomic bomb whistled as it soared over the void between the two forces, John tossed the catapult into the bottom of the defilade – quickly following it, he scrambled to get low.

“Down – get down!” He shouted at the top of his lungs, dragging each Thestral backwards into the hole with him, he had them semi-tucked underneath his kneeling form.

There were a few seconds between them laying in the mud and dirt to the explosion. John always forgot the feeling, your skeleton rattled, the ground shook and trembled and an overwhelming heat washed over you.

A few of the Thestrals screamed in fear, “close your eyes!” He growled back at them, his own clenched tightly shut, the explosion so bright that he could see the outline of their bones through his eyelids.

The explosion lasted several seconds. John felt confident enough to look, he leaned into a kneeling position, before standing.

The ground between them and Blackwater had been blasted flat, a large crater now occupied the towns eastern side. The line of buildings had been heavily damaged and many now burned.

It began raining bodies; he’d never seen anything like it. Debris and chunks of scorched earth crashed back to the ground along with hundreds of dead Changelings.

The Thestrals with John had also crawled into a position to see better, their faces showed fear and disbelief, “come on,” he began as he plucked the discarded weapons off of the ground, “we need to get out of here – more bugs could show up.”

The bat-ponies slowly began to move, ensuring they had collected their own weapons before they followed John. Their exit was slow at first, the Thestrals kept looking back to gape at the still present mushroom cloud that stretched into the brightening sky.

“I’m glad you’re on our side,” Midnight mumbled quietly almost to herself, the confidence she always emanated had disappeared.

John remained silent, he regretted having to resort to such powerful weaponry. He plodded along, the Lunar Guards arrayed around him as they slowly made their way to an area of high ground.

Lieutenant Midnight plucked the communication gem from within her armour, she held it up to her mouth before quietly repeating the activation phrase, “semper dicere verum.”

The cold red gem began to glow, nothing happened for a few seconds, “Lieutenant. Report.” The Princess’s voice came through with a strange energy tinge.

“Princess, we’ve reached the town of Blackwater, we encountered masses of Changelings, maybe thousands,” she paused to glance warily at John, “Commander Maxon repelled the attack using a weapon that destroyed all of them in a single blast – I’ve never seen anything like it, ma’am.”

John interrupted, “Princess, this is Maxon,” his experience with human communications tricking him into using radio-speak, “we’ve neutralised a large enemy force and caused major damage to the east side of town, how copy, over?”

The Lieutenant merely squinted in curiosity at the strange words as a crackle answered back, “we understand you, commander – have you located any civilians?”

“Negative, no civilians. The weapon I’ve used has released dangerous energies – they’ll take a few days and some good rain before they disappear, break.

“Request permission to head into the town alone, my armour will keep me safe, over.”

Midnight’s head swivelled side-to-side in disagreement, but she remained silent, “permission granted. Be careful and quick – in another day I’ll have reinforcements at your position, for now, we’re too preoccupied with the influx of civilian refugees – the entirety of Appleloosa seems to have been displaced.

“Lieutenant, I have a mission for you. Head north toward Ghastly Gorge, we suspect this could be the site of the Changeling hive, given the area they are able to operate from and the response you’ve just seen.”

“Yes Princess,” Midnight didn’t look terribly happy.

“John, once you’ve had a look through the town, I want you to join them, we’re getting reinforcements soon and we can mobilise a large attacking force. But we need to know where to send them, good luck and be safe!” The gem became cold and the crackling energy sound dissipated.

“Okay Lieutenant, take this,” he handed her a laser pistol, “just in case.”

“I can handle myself,” she puffed out her chest.

“I know, I’ll see you soon,” he turned and stomped off toward the town, as he passed through the detonation site his pip-boy’s Geiger counter began clicking, indicating medium levels of radiation.

He stretched his shoulders by rotating them, lifting the Gatling laser he held in a gyrating fashion, before moving deeper into the town. His life-signs detector signalled to him that the Lieutenants team had moved out-of-range, he was alone again.

* * *

The hive mind doesn’t feel, it doesn’t care or know why it exists, it simply does. The queen controls all, directs and motivates those under its thrall for the benefit of the hive. All else is of no importance, no significance. The hive learns from all it touches, experiences from one is shared instantly across the link.

The soldier had witnessed the attack from the ponies and their armoured ally, it had seen the reclamation and had need to tell its beloved mother-queen.

Strange energy had separated the connection to the link, it needed to get back, the silence deafening, maddening. It chittered in pain and discomfort as it scrabbled through the waxen corridors of the hive.

It descended lower, many of the soldiers that once roamed these great halls now out foraging for more food, they had lost a great number at the town called Blackwater, numbers that would need to be replaced.

The soldier scurried into the nest-room, the smell of freshly laid eggs gave it new strength. It kept its gaze low, the form of its queen suspended in the air by tendon-like wax and mucus.

Her large form sent a jolt of admiration across its spine, the soldier bowed before her, hoping to be deemed worthy.

“Riiiiiiiiise,” the lengthy word echoed across the room and the link, the soldier felt relieved that he had its connection restored.

It stood, still keeping its gaze low, the queen had a massive abdomen that swelled with eggs. The soldier’s blue eyes swept over the blind workers that ferried the eggs from her laying area to incubator rooms deeper within the hive.

“My queen, I have witnessed an attack on our soldiers, unprecedented in power, many were killed.”

The queen hissed loudly and writhed in anguish at the loss, “hooooow?” She breathed in a wheezing, echoing noise that reverberated around the egg-room

“A new creature, made of metal, is with the ponies, my queen.”

She grinned at the news, rows of clear, saliva covered teeth being displayed, “We shall send an infiltrator – come forward my child,” she beckoned with a small arm that jutted out from her torso, between her vaguely pony-shaped legs.

The soldier eagerly walked forward, it wasn't capable of love, but what it did feel was the equivalent.

The queen’s hole-dotted horn flashed green, she wheezed in ecstasy as she lifted the soldier off of the ground and sapped the life out of it, tossing it aside and down a small chute that led to the feeding room, its flesh would be used as fuel for the next generation of drones.

Her eyes rolled back as the feeling of a new round of egg-laying overwhelmed her, the many dozens of little black blobs were carefully extracted from underneath her.

The link shuddered with the feeling of their queen’s euphoria, they would carry out her will without question, her conquest for reclamation of the surface would continue unabated.

The infiltrator drone in a chamber above hers flashed into existence, its sleek strong body had no distinguishing features of gender, its form was utilitarian and could be moulded into any shape to trick those that it desired into believing it was a friend.

It ascended to the surface to secure passage toward its goal, the sky bright, the town of Blackwater lay below it, the infiltrator would locate the steel-one and trick it, as it had done so countless times.

The drone took a pony form and leapt down off a ledge, moving toward its target, it would complete its mission. For the glory of the hive!

Outside the Wire

View Online

‘Nice,’ John thought sarcastically.

The inside of his power armour filled with the smell of urine as he relieved himself, utilising its waste recycling system. The smell was tinted with chemicals and a metallic feeling lingered at the back of his throat, the slurry of chemicals used to stabilise him during cryostasis still flowed through his veins.

Once that task had been completed, he took a sip of fresh, slightly chalky water from a thick plastic straw just inside his helmet.

His lips puckered in disgust, ‘I’d almost rather die of dehydration,’ he thought grimly.

He had moved deeper into the town after surveying the still-burning ruins of the first few structures, he had found no signs of life.

The sky was awash with crimson and orange, strange clouds had begun to form in the aftermath of the miniature atomic detonation. His Geiger counter flared in the nuclear breeze but otherwise remained silent.

He continued in a loose arc around the town’s inner constructs. More debris and signs of battle, fewer corpses than before. A dead Changeling had been catapulted over a kilometre from the explosion and crash-landed into a cart, splinters and blood surrounded the impact site.

John leaned over without stopping just in case. Green blood-tipped ribs jutted out of its collapsed chest, its head was twisted almost backwards.

A shadow caught his eye and he rushed to the side of a building whilst sighting along his laser rifle. A small pony limped from between some shops in the street over, she had chestnut fur with a pale mane and tale.

John whistled, the sound reverberated out of his helmet speakers like a phantom wale. The pony froze, he had lowed his weapon and frantically beckoned her toward him with his free left hand.

She looked hesitant, she didn’t move, opting to look around instead. John was half-expecting her to run – however, she came rushing toward him.

She looked fairly clean, she wore no clothes and reminded John of the time he had seen wild horses in the American Midwest.

John met her halfway, moving as stealthily as was possible in a few hundred kilos of exoskeleton. They met under the awning of an abandoned market stall, destroyed foodstuffs and knickknacks had spilt out of it and surrounded them.

“I’m Commander John Maxon, I’m here with Princess Luna, are you hurt?” He examined her, her limp seemed artificial and something about her made him feel tense.

“My leg, I think it's broken,” she held the aforementioned foreleg up against her chest.

“Okay – I’m just going to scan you – It’s harmless, but you might feel hot like you’re standing in front of a fire.”

She looked unsure, her ears folded back, “what for?”

He wasn’t sure, but he could swear he had just seen her light orange eyes flash green, like glass catching sunlight as your angle changes.

“I’ll be able to see the damage, figure out how best to help,” he slowly rested his finger on the trigger of his laser rifle.

A frown adorned her face, but she seemed willing to go along, “A-alright,” she held the foreleg out a fraction, her stance widened.

He touched his laser rifle down his right leg, pulling his hand away left the weapon glued in place. He tapped away at his pip-boy, bringing his suite of medical sensors online. He also included a sweep of software for bacteria, DNA, RNA, cell count, cell composition, internal organ structure and radiological signature.

A warning flashed across his HUD, advising him to deactivate multiple sensor software as the energy burst would likely hurt when it hit.

He ignored the warning, it whisked away at a mental command, “ready?” An armoured finger hovered over a button on his pip-boy he had linked to remotely activate the sensor burst.

She swallowed thickly, her eyes darted back-and-forth, she sweated. John squinted inside his helmet, “I’m ready.” Her voice had become slightly cautionary, her tone rose and fell.

He tapped the button, his suit bleeped indicating the build-up of power. A sound like a swarm of wasps mixed with a jet engine and soda filling a glass permeated the air.

She visibly recoiled, her eyes scrunched shut and her demonic scream echoed around them, it warbled and fluctuated – tinted with a hiss.

Her body shimmered, rippling waves revealing her true form, jet-black bone-like flesh and hole-ridden legs flexed involuntarily.

It lasted only a second, his information processor lit up with fresh data, very different internally to the ponies he’d secretly been scanning whilst among them.

She howled as her brown coat flashed back into black chitin, following broiling green fire. She seemed to grow in size, about the size of Princess Luna with a slit double-pupil. Her long, clear teeth bit a hiss at him.

He immediately drew his laser rifle and fired with his arm extended, multiple red bolts flashed past her into the wall behind, scoring big holes into the thick wood.

She had leapt underneath the attack and rushed for him, they were only a couple of meters apart, she spun mid-air to impact John with her rear legs. He was sent sprawling onto his back, the force far greater than it should have been.

His laser rifle had clattered out of reach, he mentally instructed his arsenal of weapons to detach and they clattered and clanked to the dusty ground while he rose clumsily.

The strike had dazed him, spots filled his vision and blood leaked from his nose. The Changeling landed a few meters away, poised low to attack. She was lithe like the other elite members of her race, she had an extra long horn, larger wings and had a low silhouette due to her tapered waist.

Fangs gnashed together in a hiss laden growl, she began to circle counter-clockwise to John, he mirrored her, fists brought up to his chin. He moved a little awkwardly to accommodate the kickboxing foot-work he planned on using.

His armour limited which kicks he could perform, but he’d still be able to hit the head of this ‘Ling. Its body was held low, her head almost at thigh height as it stalked slowly around with him, it’s eyes never leaving his.

His life signs detector indicated they were the only two within four hundred meters, so he felt confident to engage in the melee.

With surprising speed, she darted straight at him – using her long legs and oversized fly wings to propel her, her spear-like horn glowed with sickly green magic.

John began turning, bringing his back foot out and across, his long, armoured leg connected with the Changeling in a grotesque crunch.

He followed through by stepping into a forward kick after her, she darted away and underneath his leg, trying to get under him.

He quickly squatted down on his other leg, punching downwards he caught her in the forehead and she impacted the ground with force. As he prepared to finish her off, he was sent backwards in a magic blast.

He was once again on his back, she was atop him instantly, seemingly unaffected by the crushing force of his kick and punch, she precisely jabbed her front hooves at his chest and head. The impacts shuddered his armour into the dirt, he covered his helmeted face with his armoured forearms, enduring several more attacks before he embraced her in a crushing bear-hug.

He squeezed as hard as possible, she should have easily died but continued to wriggle and squirm like a giant eel. He rolled them, he was now on top, she lay between his legs as he rose to his knees. He mimicked her punches, aiming strictly for her head – hisses resounded out of her with each hit.

She seemed to slither up and across his torso, locking him in a hug of her own, his suit emitted a pressure warning – but held. He leapt to his feet with her leeched to him, dropping instantly and landing with her between the ground and his heavy armour.

Despite the half ton of human landing on her, she quickly recovered and seemed unfazed, letting go nonetheless. He redoubled his attack and evade methods, John leapt back onto his feet, springing off the ground using all four limbs.

She quickly followed, coming at him again in a weaving zig-zag pattern with a hiss-growl and a screech. The seemingly invincible creature was whip-fast and freakishly strong.

They struck at each other like opposing cobras, their movements a blur as they exchanged strikes and parried what they were able. She pressed into him by standing on her rear legs and quickly attacking downward onto him.

He ducked down low, spinning an outstretched leg in a wide arc, he caught her in the rear legs and she tumbled to the ground. He bear-crawled toward her, moving scarily fast despite his large size.

He delivered an elbow-drop into her jaw, the forceful impact sent her head jutting nearly off of her neck, green blood ejected from her – he struck again and again, finalising it with a straight-armed right jab.

She gurgled but blasted him once more with magic, doubling it with a rear-legged kick, this game irritated him to no end. More and more he wanted to end her life, he felt his blood shooting around his veins, it was red-hot as it dripped from his nose, a copper taste filled his dry mouth.

They stood watching each other, they both slowly rose. John Hurt, despite his protective suit and physiological enhancements, he feared she’d cracked a rib.

Blood gushed out of splits in her face and neck, one eye had swollen shut, she swayed and breathed in haggard intakes and exhales.

John trembled inside his armour, it kept him steady. He glanced at his weapons, deciding he’d try to end this stalemate. ‘I’d like to see you put up a fight once I’ve shot your head off, you bitch,’ he thought angrily.

She noticed the look, suddenly going still.

He dived toward the weapons, she used magic to spray up a cloud of dust. His HUD displayed her as a single red dot moving away from him and toward the mountain range.

He landed, casting up a dust screen of his own – he clutched the plasma rifle in his hands and fired off volleys in her general direction.

The solid red dot hit a hundred meters into the town, it weaved side-to-side, before heading away at even more speed.

“Shit,” he grunted. His torso was on fire, ‘definitely ribs,’ he thought glumly.

Slowly he got to his feet and collected his weapons as the dust settled around him. He inspected each one briefly before storing them on his armour. lastly, he picked up his laser rifle, its internals had been badly damaged. He had spare crystals and circuitry to repair it, he’d wait until he felt a little safer.

He didn’t fancy trying to catch up with her, ‘super Changeling,’ he thought, not at the risk of being led into an ambush.

He decided to cut his losses and began heading north-north-east toward Ghastly Gorge and Lieutenant Midnight's squad.

* * *

They had been marching for a good thirty minutes now, they followed the dips in the terrain and avoided flying to keep a lower profile. Although after that “weapons demo,” as John had put it, Midnight had thought they would have attracted at least some attention. But they hadn’t even witnessed a single aerial patrol.

Now at the mouth of the canyon, dusty grassland kissed slate-grey rock. The edges of the gorge jutted out like miniature mountain ranges or the edges of an earthly wound.

With slight flicks of her head and little gestures with her hoof, Midnight indicated that they were to continue into the gorge, not to fly and not to speak. Each Thestral gave her a solid nod in response.

The giant crack in the earth loomed ahead, they slowly advanced toward it. One of the largest natural canyons in Equestria, it had a river that ran the length of it, exiting the other end a hundred kilometres away and connecting to Saddle Lake underneath the capitol, just by Ponyville.

She made a motion with her hoof, they drew weapons and slowly advanced in a staggered line formation. It took more time, approximately another thirty minutes to make it about halfway to the bottom, slowly descending by using switchback and tiered paths.

Streams of water spilt over the opposite side from the prior days’ rainfall, pouring out of the very earth and splattering over sharp ledges. They walked single-file along a winding path, to their right was a sheer drop to the canyon-bed and the opposite wall sat several hundred meters away.

A rock clattered nearby, skittering and jumping as it shattered into pieces. They scrambled for cover, Midnight scanned their surroundings for any sign of hostiles.

Another landed roughly in the same place, they searched the grey walls and rocky edges of the canyon that stretched around them.

“It’s the human,” Crystal Hoof whispered harshly.

Midnight's ears stood erect and faced forward, her eyes followed the extended foreleg of Crystal. From the direction they’d entered the canyon, she could make out a tall, bulky biped waving exaggeratedly at them.

She waved back. Once he’d seen her, he faded from sight – she estimated he’d be on his way toward them.

While they waited, they took turns eating and drinking, wasting no time and leaving no evidence behind.

She heard him above them, his suit whirred and hissed, before falling silent. The Thestrals glanced around them and at each other, looking equally confused.

Just as she was about to order a guard to make contact with him, he crash-landed in between her and Dark Goldenrod in an explosion of debris and little shards of brittle rock.

So much for stealth.

“Lieutenant,” he said casually. As if he hadn’t just fallen the height of two buildings.

“Commander, we are trying to maintain a stealthy approach,” she scolded.

“I wouldn’t bother,” he got to his feet and shrugged off the little specs of dust and grime that had clung to him.

“The Calvary has arrived,” he stood with his fists balled into his hips, elbows bent in some mockery of a heroic pose, backed by the blue-grey sky.

She couldn’t believe it – maybe he had hit his head, this was a sudden departure from his usual bland seriousness.

He started off further along the path, Midnight scrabbled to keep up, the others followed with several body-lengths between them.

She looked up at him, “are you feeling alright? What happened in Blackwater?” She spoke barely above a whisper.

“I got into a fight with a massive Changeling, she- it, was as big as the Princess. As fast and as strong as I am and extremely resilient to damage.”

She faced forward in confusion, doing a double take at the now noticeable damage – dents and scratches that adorned his torso and helmet. Whip-like marks emblazoned in dust also covered his arms and legs. He had a tiny, barely noticeable sway in every-other step and she could just make out his shallow breathing.

“Sounds like you met one of their commandos. They’re tough, magically souped up to be faster and stronger.”

He grunted as a small dip caused him to drop a few centimetres more than he was expecting.

“Are you hurt? You seem like you can barely stand,” she tried to hide the concern in her voice but she couldn’t help but feel worried for the so-far unemotive human.

He grunted again, “I’m full of med-x and stimpak. I’ll be okay. Just need some time. We find where they live, I shoot off a nuke at them and we skedaddle back to inform the Princess,”

He hopped across a small gap in the path, the Thestrals gliding over along after him.

“With any luck, we can cripple or maybe put an end to them in our delaying action.”

She couldn’t see his face, but she could hear the malicious smile in his slightly slurred speech.

They continued forward, eventually reaching the bottom of the ravine. No sunlight could reach them, the sky a barely illuminated slit at the top of steep slate walls.

Darkness preceded every little nook and cranny. As John led the way he’d sweep past each potential hiding place with one of his weapons.

The Thestrals moved in well-practised silence. Herself and Dark Goldenrod hugged the walls on the left side of the river that wound through the large crevice. Clementine, Wind Runner and Crystal Hoof came in-and-out of sight as they moved in tandem on the other side of the waterway.

Their armours steel and black alloy construction were well suited to camouflaging them in the dimness. The humans' exoskeleton doubly so, the young Lieutenant had difficulty in tracking his movements, despite her keen eyesight.

No creature of his size had any business moving as quietly as John was, his weight left large indents wherever he stepped, his languid movement seemed at odds with their situation.

Her ears twitched at every disturbance, a crow cawed high above them atop scraggly looking dead trees. A small complement of little birds and lizards scattered from the riverside as they passed.

The terrain began a small rise up a little path across a hill. Soft black earth seemed to expunge from the walls on their left.

John held up his left foreleg, his stubby fingers clenched in a fist. The meaning of the gesture was lost on her, she advanced slowly to find out more.

“John?” She spoke quietly.

“I’m seeing topographical evidence that this soil didn’t get to be here naturally. I think someone has excavated it. Possibly Changelings,” he was tapping away at the device on his wrist.

“Okay, we’ll take a look around – we know they like to occupy caverns and tunnels,” she gave a sideways flickering motion with her foreleg at those on the other side from her.

They paused for a beat, before gliding silently over to join them. Midnight leaned into the little group of bat ponies – John watched all around them for signs of trouble.

“Okay mares and stallions, here’s the plan; Clementine and Crystal, flank right along this hill,” she looked at the others,

“Goldenrod and I will hit the left side, Windrunner you go with John right up the middle. If we’re engaged, we fight together and drive them back. Questions?” She looked around at the chorus of head wobbles.

“I’ve got one.”

They all glanced at John suspiciously.

“Do Changelings give birth or lay eggs?”

She blinked once and frowned, “both we think, this really isn’t the time. Are you good?”

His head rotated back toward the hillside, “yeah.”

“Ok, let’s move.”

She accompanied Goldenrod with sabre in mouth, while the others ascended up the steep slopes of the dark grey soil. It was soft and she struggled to find purchase, her hooves sunk and she moved at a snail’s pace, so slowly it was actually an insult to snails. If they were attacked now, they’d be easy pickings.

Their side of the mound levelled out, melding into a small plateau, before ending at a large cave mouth. John had already reached the entrance, he had scooped Windrunner up in his free arm – the ponies legs flailed before sagging in defeat, John lowering him after.

Clementine and Crystal's hoof were on the other side, hugging the cliffside and cautiously approaching the opening.

They blended in well with the dark soil and grey rock walls, Goldenrod lead the way and the seven soldiers positioned themselves around the entrance.

“Looks like a bug-hole to me,” Crystal murmured.

She had to agree, the opening was a dozen meters high and several wide. Dark wax and hard mucus ebbed out of the opening, the unique decorative feature a dead giveaway.

“Okay, John – lead the way – we’re here for reconnaissance only. Permission to engage as a last resort – but we’ll have to fall back immediately or risk being overrun.”

She spoke despite holding her silver sabre in her teeth, an unnatural torch spilt harsh white light out of Johns helmet. He started to walk down the tunnel, the Thestrals followed with swords pointing outward and illumination gems barely piercing the darkness.

It wasn’t long before they had been completely swallowed. The tunnel was uncomfortably warm, and Midnight could swear she could feel slight vibrations through the soft floor like the very walls were alive.

She shivered. They rocked on for several minutes, the tunnel eventually opened into a fork, with several paths to take. So far, they hadn’t run into any bug horses, but she felt like they were being watched.

John scanned around with his weapon shouldered. The light attached to him cast shadows around the semi-circular convergence area, “Which way?” Several paths led in different directions. Left and right, one down, one up and a pair that forked forwards at different angles.

She inspected the openings, big enough for John to fit through, but otherwise, they gave no indication of what they would lead to.

“I guess we continue downward – head further into the hollow and see what we can find, try to keep out of sight. Deactivate your gems,” she sidled up to the hulking Commander, “can you see well enough without your light?”

He turned to her as the light extinguished itself, “I’ll lead, stick close and don’t lag behind – rest of you, don’t get separated.”

The small band of Thestrals followed closely behind the humans' armoured form, their eyesight was naturally well-accustomed to seeing in near-total darkness.

It was a solid fifteen minute decent before the tunnel passageway levelled out into a large rectangular room. The room was barren with the exception of a few pods that were half-sunk into little recesses in the waxen walls.

Tentatively, Midnight approached the nearest one. It was about as tall as a pony was long, made of a similarly dark mucus-y materiel as the rest of the hive. The pod had a thick membrane along the top, through which midnight could make out a shape inside twitch as she practically pressed her head against the pod's outer shell.

“There’s something inside!” Goldenrod whispered a little loudly and recoiled back from a pod of her own. John had pressed onwards toward the end of the room, dim yellow light spilt from a doorway.

Midnight was the second to enter a massively cavernous room. It had to be several kilometres across and so deep she could barely make out the shapes of Changelings as they flittered back-and-forth at the bottom.

She joined a crouching John on what appeared to be a balcony. It ran a ring around a gargantuan underground circular structure. The scale was monumental, an uncountable amount of organ-like black tubes and conduits linked the portions of the tower they stood upon with the secondary construct that dominated the centre of the hollow.

Small domed, bubble-textured green and yellow lamps stretched across the upper reaches of every visible branching corridor and passageway. As well as down the sides of the walls and helped them see the massive thing.

“Jesus Christ.” John exclaimed, Midnight had to agree, whoever that was. His tone perfectly portrayed the awe that she felt in seeing such huge underground construction. She wasn’t an engineer, but evidently, Equestrias ability to create underground cities was far behind the Changelings.

“It goes on for miles!” The others joined them and stretched out several body lengths across the balcony, each expressing quiet shock and disbelief.

She turned to John after serious thought, “how many of those explosives have you got?”

He turned awkwardly and swayed a little due to his armoured weight combined with his stance, “you mean my nukes?”

She didn’t blink, “the big ones, yes. How many?” She repeated the question.

One of his broad shoulder pauldrons slackened slightly, causing a giant belt of large spherical explosives with small box-shaped fins to slink neatly around his middle.

His helmet looked unable to tilt downward very well, she counted four steel orbs.

“Can you rig those to detonate together, or would placing them strategically work best?”

His expression was unreadable, but he glanced around the large room, “there,” he said finally. Pointing out five angled support struts that leaned from the outer walls and converged to meet near the ceilings middle.

“I can readily make these detonate remotely, this far underground they’d need to be set on a timer, as a signal couldn’t penetrate this much rock.”

“I won’t be using the nukes anyway as I’ve plenty of demolitions explosives, I also snagged an anti-tank mine. If I stick it against a pillar it should easily cut through it.”

The Thestrals all nodded with looks of satisfaction.

Or,” he began, “you fall back, I give you twenty minutes – don’t stop, just get out and start flying for Appleloosa. I’ll stay and plant charges on each pillar, fighting as I go – then I’ll use this,” he patted the Fat Man, “to destroy the last one,” He pointed at the one they were currently next to, “then I’ll get out as well.”

“Plan C,” Midnight said with a sense of finality.

“You’ll be killed, I’m not letting you throw your life away,” her eyes bore into him.

“I’ll be fine, I’ve trained for this kind of operation most of my life. I’ll move to set these up, I can detonate them locally from inside here. As the last one falls, I’ll exfil to the top of this mountain. Just be sure to have a carriage standing by.”

She started to argue but he cut her off, “you’ll only slow me down and risk the entire operation. I’ve got more protection and my weapons give me a serious edge. They won’t even know I’m here until it’s too late.”

She teetered, “you can barely walk!”

The human grunted as he stood, “It’s time for you to leave, Lieutenant. That’s an order.”

Goldenrod pulled her shoulder, “we can get a carriage and help him get out of here. Wouldn’t you love to cripple these bastards right now? I think this is our best shot.”

The other Thestrals reluctantly agreed.

“Damn it – this isn’t a democracy. Get out of here, now.

She looked up at him one last time, before turning to leave. Behind her, she could hear Frosted Whip wish him luck.

“Thanks,” he replied.

As they passed through the pod room, Midnight felt compelled to investigate.

“Let’s check out these things before we go – we could learn something.”

Clementine approached a pod at her gesture. She drew a small blade and used pressure rather than stabbing force, to pierce the edge of the semi-translucent screen.

A jet of pressured air escaped the hole she’d made, causing her to jump back in surprise.

“Careful,” Midnight admonished.

“Give me a hoof,” she beckoned Wind Runner, who started moving without hesitation.

Drawing his sabre, he started slicing along a seam which ran down the pods' side. It creaked and hissed as the air pressure equalised. Together they hauled open the front covering, revealing a grisly sight.

They both leapt away exclaiming in alarm, pointing their weapons at the newly revealed creature.

“Is that – Captain Sharp Wing?!” The smell of decomposing flesh spread out to wrinkle their noses.

“Sure looks like it,” her experience with dead ponies made her less affected by the stench.

She took a few steps forward, the form within was definitely a pony. The armour the corpse was set within was steel-grey, a Captain’s rank insignia adorned both shoulders. The decrepit skeletal equine had furred ears and bat wings, the flesh of which had started to recede. The tell-tale signs of age betrayed the identity of the body.

“Definitely him. Shit. Grab his tags.”

Clementine looked unsure but slowly advanced anyway. She reached the pod, carefully she lifted the small chain from around the pony’s neck. The little rectangle had scrawled equestrian across it.

“Captain Sharp Wing, 1st Lunar Guards,” she read aloud.

As if summoned from the afterlife, the formerly dead Captain burst into motion, a harrowing gurgling scream emanated from it as it clawed for Clementine.

She screamed, instinctually imbedding her sabre into the corpse and impaling it into its coffin-like pod.

It murmured in confusion as whatever twisted power attempted to order it forward and found it was unable to.

“He’s a zombie!” Clementine exclaimed, pulling her back-up sabre and holding it menacingly at the reanimated Sharp Wing.

“He’s certainly something,” Midnight examined him whilst staying out of his range. His eyes were white and milky, long dead flesh was exposed across multiple decomposing wounds. His face and mouth were hollow and wizened.

“Captain?” She tried, but he pawed unsuccessfully at the sabre that had bayonetted him to his cocoon.

“Captain Sharp Wing?” Crystal said, again eliciting no response out of him other than haunting groans and grunts.

After a time, Midnight broke the silence, “come on, let's get out of here. Sooner we return to Appleloosa, the sooner we can return to pick up John.”

In morose silence, the abandoned the grunting corpse of Captain Steel Wing, each did so with differing levels of difficulty. He had been one of their officers for years and had earned the respect of everypony in their unit.

They reached the fork, still devoid of Changelings. The trudged up the exit tunnel, the pinprick of light became blinding as they neared closer. Their pupils dilated to see in the darkness of the hive had now retracted into thin slits.

Emerging into the world and reaching the edge of the path once again, they wordlessly began flying for Appleloosa. She climbed high using powerful wing flaps, soon after the others joined her in a ‘V’ formation.

The world below seemed tiny and she thought of the possible outcomes for her bipedal companion should they return to late. This thought spurred her onward even faster, the others barely able to keep up – none of them voiced their displeasure, likely thinking the same thing.

* * *

John worked his way clockwise around the balcony, it was vaguely oval-shaped and gave him unparalleled views of the very alien looking structure that sank away further than he could see.

It took him far longer than he would have liked. After the bat-ponies had departed, he sprayed mining-grade explosives onto the first strut, before implanting a remote-detonation fuse into the hardening substance.

The beam was six meters across and became thicker the further up it went. He estimated he would need to blow the struts at their thinnest part and set a secondary explosive at the ceiling of the hive, bringing down tons of earth and rock into the chamber.

The DTP-50 Explosive Gel came in a 12-litre spray cylinder. Each litre would expand several times into a hard-orange crust, it always reminded John of icing.

It took him twenty-six minutes to reach the second strut, meeting no resistance along the way. He noted there weren’t any other entrances besides the one they had used, he wondered idly of the constructs purpose.

He had been passively scanning it as he manoeuvred across the balcony, pausing to spray detonation gel onto the second pillar.

He was getting readings he didn’t fully understand. It had a hull composition comprised of unknown organic components, also high levels of cellulose, resilin and calcium carbonate.

‘Chitin,’ he thought, with a little something ‘extra’.

He was also seeing radiation spikes, indicative of a power source. These readings were similar to those a starship would give off when the Anlace was performing a sensor sweep.

The reasons of ‘why’ were perplexing to John. Why would the bug-horses want to build a massive spaceship – the cost in resources would be enormous.

He filled away that piece of information for later. From the size of it, he doubted his little sabotage mission would completely cripple it, possibly just delay its construction.

He arrived at tower three, this one was unlike the last two in that it had an enormous, intestine-like pipe emerging out of the ship, carried along the struts curvature and up into the ‘roof’ of the hive.

It was semi-transparent and made a grotesque squelching sound as a thick liquid was pumped from the ceiling and down into the ship. John began generously spraying, making little patterns around the tube and the sides of the strut.

He continued onward, the potential use of a space-faring vessel to the Changelings a mystery. He didn’t encounter any bug-ponies, peering over the edge revealed many hundreds of them flitting between the giant ‘silo’ that John stood on and the strange ship. If that’s even what it was.

He’d been inside the hollow for almost an hour, Midnight and the others should have made it to Appleloosa by now he reckoned.

Support pillar four was like strut one and two. Bland, black mucus-y chitin, crisscrossing ribs moved ever outward along its length as it reared up for the top of the silo. John quickly interlaced it with gel, before moving for the last one.

He moved cautiously the entire way, considering how best to complete his final task without exposing himself too much.

Getting to the final demo site, he exited his armour, the exoskeleton hissed and clanked as it opened. John instructing it to remain that way in case he had to re-enter at speed or under fire.

The 12-litre canister was almost empty and rather cumbersome when used out of armour. He depressed a lever at the cans top, spurting orange foam that quickly expanded to fill every little crevice.

Thumbing in the pinprick-sized fuse completed his task. The canister of explosive foam came with a sling, John harnessed it to himself, his only weapon a laser side-arm. Unfolding a curved ice-axe, he began to ascend up the inside of the pillar.

It was a slow, arduous task; made more difficult with the distant sound of Changeling wings and their strange, chittering language. He had tethered a line of cord around his armour and unfurled it as he climbed.

John was completely exposed and a little defenceless. He used his feet to hook into the strut, but as it widened it became more difficult. His ribs ached, every pulling motion he made felt like having broken glass stabbing into him.

After several minutes of climbing, John arrived at a little crawlspace. It was large enough for him to squat and shuffle on his heels, using this area he sprayed the odourless foam around and into every little pore.

He feet sank into slime covered warmth, a musty scent reached his nostrils and nearly overwhelmed him, a smell like methane combined with ammonia hung heavily in the air. He tried not to breathe but was a little breathless from his pain and the climb.

Most disturbing of all was the machine responsible for pumping the liquid down into the ship. Several smaller tubes exited the ceiling, connected to a kidney-shaped organ. It was as big as a Chryslus Corvega and it suctioned in and out like a big black balloon.

John didn’t hesitate with layering it in the last of the foam. He was also interested in the science of this place, grotesque as its organic construction might be; he took tiny samples of the floor and walls. As well as using a swab on the pseudo-heart, storing them back within a little first-aid kit.

Leaving the discarded cannister behind, he plunged multiple remote fuses into the gel. Bidding farewell to the turgid smell and gross organ with a middle finger, he secured the paracord into the fleshy crawlspace along with his ice axe.

Hang-gliding along it smoothly using his forearms, he clasped his hands together tightly and raised his legs at the last possible second, slamming into his suit and nearly bouncing back into the void.

He caught himself on the edge, the impact sending jolts of muted agony through him. He clambered back to his armour. Getting back inside he breathed in the refreshingly clear recycled oxygen and ordered his suit to inject him with another dose of Med-X. The soothing coolness spread through his veins, causing his breath to hitch as the pain receded.

Reequipping his veritable arsenal of death-spitters, he stomped onward in the same direction he’d been going, bringing him a full three-sixty back to his starting point.

Just before the first support pillar, now over-flowing with continuously expanding foam, he turned right into the hallway they had entered from.

He came crotch-to-face with a column of Changeling drones. The lead bug gaped up at John, apparently not prepared for such an encounter.

John brought himself fully into the passageway, leading with his Gatling laser, it spooled up and began letting off energy bolts. The rate-of-fire overwhelmed the caged bug-horses, who could only hiss-scream as they faced certain death.

The two-dozen black-clad creatures fell within seconds. John held his fire and trundled upward along the tunnel over their corpses.

Emerging into the dimness of the pod-room, he activated his helmet-mounted torch and wished he hadn’t. The grisly yet curious scene betrayed the seriousness of his situation.

One of the pods had been cracked open like an egg, a pony corpse had been skewered with a bat-pony sabre that was in the process of being fed on by a Changeling drone.

The sudden illumination made them take notice of him, serpentine Changelings converged on John, spurred forward by the growl of a much larger commando.

They formed ranks. Five created a wall between John and those who tried to close the distance, suppressing him with magic blasts while the commando retreated up a vertical access tunnel.

A singular Changeling behind the others seemed to self-destruct in a magic implosion that collapsed Johns preferred exit route. He’d have to find another way.

The first who reached him died screeching as his hydraulically assisted kick broke both its neck and back. The force sent it hurtling into the firing squad, who scattered like bowling pins on a strike.

Three more approached, cautiously trying to find a weakness, he began firing before they had the chance.

Atomising death was spat out in a volley, cutting the bugs apart. He let off a few short bursts, the barrels clacked to a halt once he was satisfied none remained.

A shrill, ear-splitting klaxon sounded. It was more like a continuous, ululating scream – it spurred John onward. His path was clear, get through these tunnels, reach the surface, blow the explosives and kill any ugly parasite between him and there.

The Changelings use of wings meant they could build tunnels that were completely vertical between one section and another. John had wrongly assumed they were for ventilation.

He intended to semi-follow that commando and positioned himself underneath its exit. With a neural command, he fired his suit-integrated boosters at maximum thrust, jumping into the launch as he was catapulted upwards through the narrow shaft. He slowed his ascent just enough that he entered into view at a leisurely pace.

He was immediately fired on, orange energy shields flashed to life to ward off the attack. He’d emerged into a clone of the room before, vaguely oval-shaped with wall-to-wall pods and an entrance at either end.

Currently, two teams of Changelings occupied both doorways and had large pieces of chitin to use as cover from which they fired at him.

John crouched, his lower silhouette caused a few errant projectiles to whizz harmlessly overhead. He palmed a pair of fragmentation grenades in his left hand, charging forward – leading with his Gatling, John pitched both grenades at one group while he streamed laser-fire into the other.

The twin blasts vaporised the Changeling position, causing the waxen support around the door to crumble in like semi-melted concrete chunks. He stomped over the smouldering remains of the other team through the only usable doorway.

This one was another fork; he could go left, right, at a 45-degree angle downward or straight up another duct. The persistence of the alarm made John feel tense, his radar was alive with activity.

He hurriedly thundered along the downward corridor for about twenty-five meters. He took his single high-explosive mine and used pressure to force it into the soft material of the wall, about half-a-meter of the ground.

He armed it before rushing back for the shaft. A ghostly green glow began to stream from both ends, his radar displayed hundreds of red blips approaching his position.

John stood underneath the vent, activating his boosters sent him rocketing up the shaft – the siren blocked out by rattling metal and roaring thrusters.

His propulsion cut out, he fell short of the top and lunged out, catching the edge with an armoured hand. Chittering speech came from underneath him, he couldn’t look due to his armours limiting design. John had braced himself with his power-pack pressed into the wall behind and his Gatling laser wedged between him and the shaft.

He felt the eyes of black bug-horses on him, he drew his plasma pistol and blindly fired several shots down at them, receiving howling and hissing in response.

He holstered the side-arm, unhooked a fragmentation grenade and released it, letting gravity ferry it to the level below.

The explosion lit up the vent as he hauled himself into the next room, shrapnel bounced and ricocheted into the tube. This room was similarly sized; large tanks of orange and green liquid were pulled by more vein-like tubes in disgusting squelches.

He peered back down the blackened shaft, Changelings already hot on his heels. He fired down at them, the green plasma melted clean through several at a time, liquefying limbs and causing their owners to screech to their death as they began to fall.

He spun, reloading his pistol and holstering it. John brought up his left forearm, flicking through command algorithms with his mind he detonated the mine on the floor below. The resulting pressure wave blasted body parts and debris back up the vent before sealing it with sheer compressing force.

A single large blip on his radar lay in the next room, as he thundered past the semi-transparent chitin tanks, he raked them with laser fire, splitting them open. A thick viscous mix of foul fluid secreted out after him.

The chamber beyond was barren, the detail of the rest of the hive wasn’t present – the sole lifeform within hiding barely in the shadows.

It was a commando-type, that much was clear. John now had a grasp of the Changeling order, he’d encountered drones, officers and their equally lithe and muscular shock-troops. Commandos seemed to be at the top of the food chain as it were.

His suits auto-scanning revealed it was physically similar to the one he’d encountered in Blackwater, with a few tiny differences to make John conclude it was a different Changeling.

Unlike its smaller cousins, who were exclusively equipped with chitin-made blades. This one held a Naginata in its magic, a long staff with a full-length sword on the end. It displayed a few circling practise swipes as it paced back and forth along the far wall.

As it turned at each end of its pace, its head swivelled to always keep its slit-eyes on him. John wasn’t really interested in another sparing match, his ribs hurt when he breathed, he could feel them grating against one another.

He began to fire at the large creature, it reacted by disappearing in a flash of green energy and reappearing a second later close to John left.

He turned and chased the rapid-moving hostile with energy bolts, its teleported again – this time emerging directly behind him.

John span around fast, unable to fire quickly enough as the Changeling used his Naginata to bisect Johns Gatling laser, shearing it in two. The panic that flashed through John was quickly extinguished as he released the two halves and delivered a left-hook into the creatures’ head.

It whirled downward as John followed up with a vicious headbutt that sent the creature to the ground, John drew his laser pistol with speed that would make any gunslinger jealous.

He squirted off shots at the wriggling Commando, it snarled as its flesh was seared by the laser strikes. The Naginata flashed in front of John, his left arm shot out and deflected it away. He hurriedly moved forwards to try and finish off the Changeling, a rippling magic blast caused John to stumble just out of reach – giving the Commando enough time to roll backwards and regain its footing.

‘Fine,’ John thought, stowing his laser weapon and unsheathing his half-meter long combat knife. Its titanium-carbon edge would slice through power armour, he made a show of twirling it in his armoured hands and tossing it back-and-forth.

They rushed toward each other, the bug in rapid, zig-zag leaps and John in a fusion-powered charge. Their weapons came together, John used both outstretched arms to push the length of his blade against the Changelings.

He jerked his combat knife to the right, taking the Naginata with it. The Commando yelped through saliva-covered fangs as John jumped into a leaping-forward kick, striking the Changeling in the throat.

As it bounced across the hard-waxen floor, its eyes bulged and it grasped helplessly at its collapsed windpipe. John approached, the bug-horse thrashed in animalistic panic as its oxygen had been cut off.

He stood over it, watching coldly as the life faded from its eyes. He’d once seen a trooper have his guts shot out on a ridge. Unable to get to him over the machinegun fire, John had looked on as the soldier had died. He felt now what he had then; apathy. There wasn’t anything he could have done for the soldier then and he didn’t plan on helping this Changeling now.

He drew his sidearm, soundlessly the Commando died as a laser bolt drilled through its left eye socket and out the back of its head. Its squirming fell slack.

His involuntary sigh morphed into a gasp as fresh pain shot through his ribcage. The fatigue he felt was starting to take its toll. The tiredness he felt rushed away as his senses lit up with a stabbing agony through his midsection.

The Naginata had been speared through his back, about where his kidneys lay. Alarms blared in his helmet as he was auto-injected with a cocktail of drugs to stabilise John and cauterise the wound.

He staggered around, half a dozen Commandos flashed into existence, their formerly shimmering bodies now made solid.

‘Some kind of stealth-based magic,’ the voice in his head noted.

“You!” He slurred at the Changeling in front of him.

It was the one from the town. The wounds on her face had sealed and were now crisscrossing grey scars and her eye had become grey and sunken from the days earlier unarmed combat.

He struggled to make his hands meet, one over his back and the other under. With difficulty, he slowly pulled out the offending pole-sword. He brought it up in his hands and resisted the urge to snap it, his bodysuit sealed itself to prevent any further blood loss.

He had a single smoke cannister mounted just beneath the back of his neck, he signalled it to fire. The crack it made as it unleashed a smoke shell drew the Commandos attention, it bounced off the ceiling and blossomed into a thick white cloud.

John used the diversion to take a knee and unpack his nuclear catapult. He hefted it into his left arm, supported by his shoulder pauldron, with his plasma rifle gripped in his right.

He remotely detonated the explosive charges, the delayed compression nearly blasted him off his feet. Immediately following were secondary explosions – they sounded deep from within the hive, flames and debris carried up into their level.

The smoke cleared; John aimed his nuke-launcher at the centre mass of the domed ceiling. He fired, the bomb whistled for split second – his eyes were clenched shut and this time he was sent to the ground. The heat was oppressive, an alarm squealed inside his helmet, barely audible over the roaring of the miniature sun that was burning everything in the room.

He was on his feet, stumbling as a chunk of chitinous superstructure nearly crushed him, he activated his boosters and jetted the two dozen meters into the bright sunlight.

He was greeted with a view of Blackwater sprawling at the base of the mountain, the grey and black rock of the looming summit had a spiral of fluffy white clouds, their almost pleasant shape a real mockery of his situation.

Moments before touchdown on a small, flat mesa, he was shot down by a powerful energy strike. His energy shields popped as they failed, the green magic stripped most of his weapons away and burned off segments of his armour. The ablative coating, designed to reflect laser blasts and plasma bolts was melted off, it was like being splashed with liquid Gallium.

He impacted the ground hard and rolled twice, only stopped by a sharp rocky outcrop. His ears were ringing, his pulse was strumming heavily against his bodysuit, he felt wetness pumping out around his lower back.

A schematic of his exoskeleton flashed across his Heads-Up Display. He had several small breaches across his back and down his left side, the left leg actuator had also been severely damaged. His shields had overloaded and were non-responsive, along with a number of sub-systems that enhanced his combat effectiveness.

Next, he willed a status of his own body, it expanded over the red-highlighted power armour display and showed that John had extensive damage. Three cracked ribs, two badly at the back, second degree burns down his left side, muscle damage and a minor concussion.

A warning displayed itself prominently after John instructed the suit to dose him with a full hit of 230-421-M. A drug capable of pushing the user to beyond-human capabilities, considered immoral and even inhumane, the crippling pain and potential muscular and skeletal degradation a person could experience after warranted careful consideration before administering.

Johns artificially unbreakable bones and dense musculature would protect him; besides, he’d surely die if he didn’t.

“Dammed if I do, dammed if I don’t,” his croaky voice surprised him as he authorised the cocktail of super-drugs to be injected.

He winced as a large needle stabbed into his ass, flooding him with a substance that felt like having both fire and ice shoved through your veins. His skin tickled and burned, his eyes itched and his bones hurt. Beyond all that – his injuries faded to a blankness, his mind felt re-arranged and he began to steadily rise onto his feet. The power armour groaned and hissed as he rose, he took a double-step forward as his left leg refused to budge, instead, it dragged behind him.

Fire and debris rained around the mountainside, several explosions blasted chunks of rock high into the sky, they fell down like low-velocity meteors and caused the ground underneath his armoured boots to shake and rumble. From within the billowing smoke and fire that was ejected out of his emergency exit, three shaped emerged and landed across from him.

His usually sharp eyesight was a little blurry, it suddenly snapped into focus – three Commandos stood a dozen meters from him. At the forefront, the scarred visage of the one from Blackwater glared venomously at him.

A trail of metallic debris marked his decent back to earth, spare cells and parts of his weapons lay haphazardly in concentric patterns.

He dragged his damaged powered leg over to them, bending at the waist he pulled his laser rifle that was semi-buried in a soft patch of sand. It was remarkably unscathed, he popped it open as the three figures approached from the edges of his peripheral vision.

He yanked out the cracked crystal array, reaching into the busted-open cannister that handily laid against his right foot, he retrieved and inserted a new one. Closing the rifle and test-firing it by shooting one-handed at the approaching Changelings caused them to duck and weave, one hissed as he scored a glancing hit.

They looked about as battered as he was, the one he’d struck had a terrible looking gash across its chest and bits of smoking debris protruded out of its back. The right-most bug moved shakily with a long sabre held in its mouth, the tip of its horn was missing and it also bled from various wounds and burns across its leathery, hole-ridden hide.

Lead by the Blackwater Commando, the trio halted. She had fresh cuts on her forelegs and underside, little droplets of green blood leaving a trail behind her.

John panted, the power-assisted strength afforded him a lot less stamina than usual, already the effect of the drug was lessening.

Off to his left lay Blackwater, in the distance across the gorge was Appleloosa. A glinting speck far off in the sky was on-approach, hopefully, that was his ride out of here – he had to live to see it first, though.

The Changeling strike team were also watching the object with vague interest, they returned to looking at John as he spoke.

“Let’s get this over with, we don’t have all day,” his voice had a weird tinge to it, maybe he imagined it.

They mindlessly moved forward, attempting to approach him from three sides at once, he re-trained his weapon at the leader, as he’d unconsciously lowered it.

The tip trembled slightly, in unison all three burst forward with surprising leaps of speed – he fired at the scarred one, she zig-zagged as anticipated and John adjusted his aim accordingly, he was lifted and carried over her with the hydraulic assistance of a single leg and his fluctuating thrusters.

He raked the ground around her with laser fire, unable to hit her weaving form, a task made more difficult with the turbulence of his flight. Once landing, he turned and took aim.

He leaned into the weapon, its recoil not affecting him – short, sharp bursts flowed between him and the skirmishers who had taken to trying to outflank him. One ducked low to avoid a volley of lasers, only to be impacted a dozen times by a low-flying follow-up stream intended to catch it out.

It careened into the ground facedown and remained still, smoke ebbed from underneath it. The second skirmisher took to the air and quickly glided away into the smoke, laser bolts silhouetted it as they lit up the gloom – they chased it, a well-aimed burst traced a line across the bug-horse and the fly-wing sound ceased.

He refocused on the leader, the crisscrossing scar tissue on her face filled his vision as she collided with him, he half-ducked and she barrelled over his back, flailing uselessly at his armour with little blades. Pivoting on his one good leg, he squeezed the trigger as he aimed point-blank at its face.


‘Fuck,’ the one-word thought summed up his situation as the serpentine Commando whirled toward him, its eyes widened, likely in the realisation that Johns energy cell was depleted.

Without any spare cells, John had to resort to his knowledge in fist-fighting, he prepared for battle. He swung his weapon by the barrel like a baseball bat, the Changeling was fast and narrowly avoided the buttstock as it whizzed near her face.

He lunged forward, the non-responsive leg prevented him from kicking properly and she leapt sideways past the sluggish limb, impacting Johns bad side with a rear-leg kick. He folded at the middle, landing on his back – he heard something snap and felt a shooting pain across his left hip.

He ignored the stabbing feeling, the drugs, adrenaline and will to live kept him moving. He rotated using his one-usable leg and lay pointing in the Changelings direction, he tapped his thrusters and he shunted across the ground like a 400kg sleigh, impacting her legs with a terrible force – she wheeled over and landed atop him.

She tried to recover by climbing towards his armoured head, but he pushed her back down with his arms and pinned her between his legs – he grasped a front foreleg in his armoured hands and used his legs to push her head away from it.

A magic blast impacted them both and sent them scattering away, preventing him from tearing her leg off.

The second Changeling had crawled through the smoke and now lay – barely alive – on a small rise on their side of the jet-black smog. John had rolled onto his front and performed a push-up to get to his feet again, his limp-leg making the task harder.

The Blackwater Commando mirrored him – she now had a noticeable limp that visibly hurt to move with, her face was a combination of pain and determination.

Slowly she hobbled toward him, a Naginata returned to her side in a burst of emerald magic, his combat knife materialised into his hand in a second – they clashed, steel parried against steel in a well-practised display.

She smashed her blade into his, striking him afterwards with the pole-end of her staff. The impact went largely unnoticed as he backhanded her in response, the crunch of metal on chitin left a momentary silence.

She retaliated by deflecting his knife hand downwards and thrust her blade against his midsection, following it up with a close-range magic blast that forced it between his abdominal armour slats and into his stomach.

He gurgled as the sword shifted and sliced into his insides, he shouted and brought both hands down into her skull in a hammer-fist movement, she deflated to her knees, John flowed suit.

They leant against one another, John heaved as he panted, his left leg was stuck straight out awkwardly as it wouldn’t bend, he rested his weight against his right knee and his opponent.

She swayed against his chest; her weight kept him from falling flat on his face he knew. Blood trickled from a horrid split in her head – through the wound John could see green-white chunks of an exoskeleton.

She lazily lifted her head, resting it against him their eyes met – they were slits, unlike the solid blue lightbulb eyes of the drones and officers, these were more like a bat-pony’s eyes with an added pupil behind the cat-slit.

John noted not hate or anger was present – through the haziness, he could make out what he suspected was grudging respect. Two warriors who were equally matched.

The sound of wing flaps caught his attention, several yellow blips on his radar approaching from the west, he pressed the Changeling back with his right arm, struggling to keep himself upright as she toppled backwards.

She convulsed and spasmed, choking sound emanated from her and John felt a pang of guilt. He’d killed in many horrific manners, usually out of an instinct to survive. But this fight was over, a combatant of Johns calibre was few and far between.

He looked left, his vision dimmed with the pain in his hip, stomach and ribs. A Royal Guard carriage was hovering near to the mountain, multiple Thestrals rushed toward them. The damage of the mountainside seemed to surprise Lieutenant Midnight.

Her now familiar face looked at him with worry, his hearing had mostly cut out and her words faded into a mumbled haze. Over her shoulder the now dead Changeling flanker lay still on the rocky perimeter, two Thestrals checked it for life.

Midnight levelled a sabre at the Blackwater Commando, she lay on her side much like a dog does when it sleeps, legs sticking straight down. She blearily looked at John, her side rose and fell with shaky breaths.

He crawled forward a little on his hands and knee, the act causing new bouts of soreness. He moved the sabre aside, Midnight remained silent but John couldn’t ignore the concern and confusion at the act.

His armour was ruined, large patches of it were missing, tatters of his ammo pouches remained as well as his first aide kid. He fumbled with it, ignoring the samples – he extracted his last stimpak.

Others had joined him and were talking to themselves; he fought against the impending unconsciousness and jabbed the needle into the Commandos upper leg meat. He depressed the plunger causing her leg to kick the air several times, she squirmed but otherwise made no move to escape.

Midnight's voice reverberated inside his head, “what was that?”

He couldn’t last much longer, he knew.

“She fought well – that might save her, might not,” he could barely speak.

They began to grasp his arms and haul him backwards, dragging him with surprising ease despite his size and weight. Midnight had sheathed her sabre as the Changelings eyes fell shut and collected Johns dinged up laser weapon, the others collected parts of his weapons that remained – carrying them to the carriage that had landed.

Another one hovered above them and a little away, John could see unicorns riding in the back with horns aglow with pre-charged spells.

* * *

He blinked, suddenly looking up at the sky. How long had he been unconscious?

A pair of Thestrals he didn’t recognise pulled away pieces of his ruined armour, a voice spoke – eerily distorted, colours at the edges of his vision flared and warped.

“He’s awake again, doc. Hit em’ with another sleep spell.”

His mind felt suddenly cold, like having ice water poured over your brain. He became exceptionally alert for a second before it all faded away.

Shock Value

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Are you coming?” The voice of his uncle was deep. The only thing to be heard on the otherwise quiet summer day.

“Yes,” the 4-year-old replied.

He hurriedly pulled oversized work boots over his small feet, they ended at his knees and allowed plenty of space between each leg and the boot. The shade of the medium sized barn provided little relief from the sweltering heat of the world outside. It was a newly built storage shed for one of the farms automated harvesters. The cavernous wooden structure seemed huge to the child, who gazed around tentatively.

He scrambled to his feet. Crossing the muddy ground to his uncles’ side, the rough skin of his hand tousled the boy’s short brown hair. He looked up at the broad smile – backed by the harsh midday sun and his hand shot out to shield his sensitive eyes.

“Come along boy, your dad’s a' waiting.”

Massive paths separated the golden fields of soybeans that stretched as far as his eyes could see. The Maxon boys walked in silence, both enjoying the calm of the day. Unbeknownst to the younger of the two, days like today would become few and far between.

His already keen eyesight caught the movement before he could appropriately react, the slim sense of pride was quashed as his father burst from the long stalks on his left and pointed his index finger at him with his thumb pointing skyward.

“Bang.” His voice was level. Quiet and yet loud at the same time.

The boy wanted to argue the unfairness of the pretend ambush but knew it was futile. He knew his family’s bloodline allowed no weakness, no quarter. His dad’s rather plain-featured face didn’t give anything away, his dark brown eyes simply bore into the boys expectantly.

He felt a chill despite the forty-degree heat. He hoped the look he returned displayed that he’d never forget this experience – that next time he’d be ready. His father’s expression softened slightly. His father pivoted to continue walking and the three Maxson’s moved east toward their automated harvesters.

Everything turned dark, like the flame of the only light source was doused in water. His father looked at him and burst into ash screaming. “You need to wake up, John!”

* * *

His eyes snapped open. The room he was in was featureless and dark. A slim line of pale light filtered through from outside, canvas flapped and a fire crackled. He hurt. His head, his arms and legs – a terribly uncomfortable ache spread across his lower back and ribs. Damaged bones and muscles always had a particular pain.
He slowly rotated on the paper-thin floor mat of a bedroll he lay on, pain and a slight dizzying feeling caused him to inhale sharply, sending searing agony through his chest and down the sides of his spine.

His lungs screamed for oxygen, but he resisted as he knew the action would cause him more pain. Slowly, he positioned himself so as to be sitting upright with his long legs stretched across the dusty floor.

His bodysuit had been cut at the waist, his legs in black while the rest of him sported bandages.
Carefully he tried to rise, he felt his head swell with blood, he stumbled and caught himself mid-stumble with an outstretched hand.

He fought the urge to cough and groan, instead, he doubled his efforts to stand up. After a few minutes of slowly testing each part of his body’s responsiveness, he moved toward the slim beam of light.

Peering through what could only be tent flaps revealed a full moon held low in the sky over a pristine mountain range. He sauntered out of the tent like an arthritic old woman. He felt groggy. His vision blurred slightly as he reached a fire, grasping a nearby flagpole to stabilise himself.

“Thou should not be awake.”

His eyesight focused on a sitting princess Luna. She looked both cross and concerned, John felt nausea and stumbled toward the heat of the fire.

“Cold,” the mumbled word was barely legible and he realised with striking clarity how close he’d probably been. He slumped down close to the fire. The warmth hardly pierced his freezing flesh.

She moved over to him. His eyes watered as he stared into the embers, Luna sat close enough to be touching him. His thin bandages and bare skin did little against the frigid air and Luna felt like a heater.

He felt no shame in leaning into her soft fur, something light tickled down his back and across his shoulders, he spied a dark blue wing to his left. They sat in silence for some time, Johns shivering subsided and he felt a little better.

“How long?” He asked a little croakily.

“Nine nights. You were clinically dead. One of our skilled apothecaries brought you back.

He felt the look he was getting aimed at the top of his head, he cared not. Nearby a pair of royal guard with dark cloaks over their armour trotted past on patrol.

“Where are we?”

“Camp Saddle Pad. Equestrias forward most base of operations. Much has happened while you were napping.”

A chill breeze made him shiver, he felt like a child again. He hated that, “my armour?”

She paused. “Can thou walk?”

He huffed, “yeah.”

He struggled to stand, the large equestrian bit his waistline and hoisted him up by the trousers, veritably giving him a wedgie.

“Gahhh,” he complained, he sneered sarcastically at her as she stifled a smile.

Her magic enveloped the flagpole he once again held, a phantom staff split from the pole along with Johns' hand, before becoming solid, leaving him holding a makeshift crutch. Immediately he leaned on it, using it to follow Luna.

She looked as pristine as ever. She wore a large black cloak, it held the dim moonlight and reflected back a million tiny pinpricks.

He shuffled alongside her. Johns eyesight not as sharp as it usually was in the darkness. They passed endless tents atop the semi-frozen ground, the air was very cold but there wasn’t any snowfall. Multiple guard patrols were making their rounds, they acknowledged them with small head bows.

He felt fatigued already and he’d barely been up for more than a few minutes, this is what getting old must have felt like. His kidneys ached. Every shuddering step sent pain shooting up his abdomen. He pressed a hand into his stomach and walked a little stooped.

Eventually, they reached a tall tent. taller than those around it, it sat on a small rise in the mud. Luna brushed a long flap aside and held it back, she looked at him expectantly.

He ambled past, spying some furniture among the myriad of shapes occupying the interior of the tent. The relief from the small of his back and frontal abdomen was immediate as he sat, he sighed and massaged his spine. He let the staff drop to the floor.

The Princess quietly stepped in behind him and moved to one of the fabric walls. Her magic flared blue and a small sconce that hung from the ceiling began glowing a soft orange

There was a workbench with the boxes he had taken with him during his initial visit to Canterlot, a small table with a second chair and a little pit held the stark figure of his power armour. Much of the exoskeleton was intact, with fairly moderate damage to some of the armoured plate. Dirt and grime covered it from boot to helm.

It had big gouges across a lot of it, including a dent in the helmet the size of a grapefruit, spiderweb cracks had spread across the bulletproof eye slits. It was scorched and plastered with mud, many holes had been punched into the torso, the dried remains of biofoam and blood making him swallow thickly.

He leaned forward, resting his head on his clasped hands, “fuck.”

Princess Luna snorted, “language!” It was said quietly, seemingly instinctively.

She pranced slowly around and behind the suit, lighting another sconce, “I had to teleport you from inside the suit as we couldn’t risk hurting you if we cut it open.”

She neared him, her head angled at the neck to make eye contact, finally, her advance was halted fairly close to him, her eyes searching his for something.

“We feared we’d lost you, John.”

There was a short silence, before he looked at her face, “not yet.”

He sat up straight to further the distance between them, “pass me that case, the white one.”

Her eyes were fixated with his, outside the wind rustled the tent walls. The small case he was after held medical items, steroids, Stimpaks, morphine, antibiotics and antirads. He’d need to dose up on most of them for the next few days he suspected.

She broke off eye contact to fetch the case, her cloaked form barely visible. She picked out the case, dropping it at his feet after walking back over.

He grimaced as he pulled it up to rest on his knees. Inside were dozens of injectors, inhalers, syringes and IV’s. He picked out a selection, resting them in the pit of his groin where his legs were pressed together.

His left arm was bare, “where’s my pip boy?” He waggled his left arm for emphasis.

She looked around the room with a frown, “still inside your armour we suppose. You were not equipped with it when we teleported you.”

He nodded, closing the case with a click, before tossing it across the tent at his armour where it clattered amongst the others. “I suppose you’ll want to debrief me?” He asked.

She looked coy, “thou mean interrogate?”

“No,” he injected an antibiotic cocktail under the skin of his stomach, “ouch.”

The injector was hurled at his amour also. Next, a cannula was gently injected into a vein he could just make out on his left arm between the bandages. He injected a Stimpak into his other arm, Luna watched on, clearly very curious.

He took a saline IV. It had some script on it which he glossed over, it would help to promote healing and also keep him hydrated. He took out a small painkiller mix and injected that first, he then flushed the cannula with a second small saline injector, it caused him to smell chemicals, a weird biproduct of the saline. The cannula had a little white screw which he could affix the different injectors or an IV line.

He had three six-hour bags, he shakily rose to his feet with a bag clutched in a hand, he used the hook and slowly placed it over the Princess’s horn. It sank a couple of spirals along her horn’s length, before sagging. She looked seriously unimpressed but didn’t complain.

He then sat back down and smiled wearily up at her, “now we just need to wait six hours and you can get back to what you were doing.”

Her eyes rolled, “Nay. Unfortunately, we are kept busy,” the bag levitated off and was hung on a tent support pole.

“Lieutenant Midnight wanted to see you as soon as you were conscious, I shall direct her here and she can help you with anything you need. For now, you need to rest. I shall be back later for a ‘debrief.’

She exited the tent without another word, John felt exhausted. He wondered if he’d suffered radiation damage. He didn’t feel like moving and so allowed his eyes to flutter closed.

A few seconds seemed to pass. A rustling from behind disturbing him caused John to leap from his chair and spin around, dulled pain catching up with him. He felt his eyes flicker at the unnecessary manoeuvre. A single Thestral stood just inside the tent, a new set of silver-grey armour just visible underneath a light brown cloak, with a hood covering much of the pony’s face.

“Identify,” he asked reflexively, he grasped at a sidearm that wasn’t there.

The lunar guard came at him fast, Johns' eyes widened at the unsuspecting attack, he stumbled and fell backwards – kicking the chair at the pony to slow it down, his IV line trailed along with him. A horn emerged from the hood and levitated a long thin blade in sickly green magic.

“John?!” The voice came from outside as another Thestral dressed almost identically entered, the new arrival froze at the scene, John lay on his back with the Changeling infiltrator stuck between them both.

“Changeling!” It was the Lieutenants voice, her wings tore through her cloak, each sporting deadly wing-blades.

She leapt at the imposter in a whirling spiral, her wings funnelling her at the would-be assassin. The imitation bat-pony was now a ghastly hybrid between the two species, looking much like a hole-ridden Thestral with bat wings and a decayed horn. Its teeth were sharp, crystalline fangs that oozed saliva, its eyes flashed from yellow cat-eyes to a double pupil in hues of greens and blacks.

The two crashed together, the Changeling moved with such raw speed and power that it had to be a commando. Midnight matched it for every ounce of strength, every fibre of reaction speed. She parried the daggers attempts to bisect her head from her neck with rapid-fire jabs from her winglets.

John scuttled away from the engagement on his elbows. Outside a commotion had begun, the light and shadows of torches shone through the material of the walls, making the abomination of a Thestral look even more demented and nightmarish.

Suddenly a large crack resounded within the tent from the deafening teleportation of Princess Luna. The Changeling snarled and tried to buck the night-time ruler, but was met without success as the much larger pony pressed forward, she struck with a front hoof as her pair of sabres telekinetically swished out from their sheaths.

The angry creature shrugged off the blow. Growling in frustration, it drew its false uniforms Thestral sabre and used it and another small dagger to hold off the two ferocious mares.

They parried blows and strikes with precision. Midnight dodged attacks outright while answering in a flurry of wing-blade jabs and slashes. The Changelings borrowed armour could take a lot, a slim break in its concentration allowed the lunar princess to sneak a rear leg through in a powerful kick which sent the Changeling down.

As John wrestled himself to his hands and knees, he got in amongst the pile of human-made boxes and cases, he didn’t have time to don his armour, which may not have been functioning anyway, instead, he collapsed into the stacked-up containers.

While he tore through them looking for a spare weapon, he kept one eye of the melee that was still ongoing with no clear victor in sight.

The Changeling had thrashed and wormed its way off the ground despite having Midnight and Luna bearing down on it.

Midnight screamed a war-cry as their fast-paced blade-play continued, a screech was her answer. John was up to his armpit in a box, it held power armour spares and ammo, as well as laser rifle components. If he couldn’t find a weapon, he’d bloody make one.

A magic blast lit up the tent, the force washed over John, he concentrated on his task. He had a barrel; he’d need to connect it to a focusing array and then a power source. It’d basically be a tube, some crystals and a little square part with the trigger assembly and the Microfusion Cell.

More shouts and the sounds of swords-on-swords, this time from Luna. John imagined her battering the Changeling with her curved sabres, aiming to end it. He’d seen both of the Equestrians fight; they wouldn’t be his first choice if he had to duel with a pony. These commandos were seriously tough.

More screeching and war-cries. John had what he needed, rotating again onto his back, he rapidly assembled the parts into a bare-bones death-dealer.

Midnight and Luna had scored a few hits, Luna struck for the neck – it brought up a foreleg which ate the blow, slicing most of the way through. It howled and danced backwards, practically bowling the Lieutenant over.

The blue princess pressed onward; her other sabre being repelled by the Changelings pair of assassin blades. Midnight sidestepped, using her rear legs she kicked the Changeling and sent it tumbling toward John, he sat up – his legs braced in a ‘V’ shape and fired from the hip. The first few shots peppered the ground, he held it at arm’s length and aimed centre-mass. He fired over and over, the dozen or so bolts pierced into the Changeling but didn’t exit, causing it to dance with the impacts and collapse like a stringless puppet.

Misty carbon-dioxide filled the tent, a by-product of firing laser weapons without their full assembly. Midnight descended on the downed Changeling, stabbing it angrily with shouts of frustration. Green blood spattered her armour, she stepped back once she’d had her fill, breathing heavily.

Major Kodiak burst into the tent along with a Unicorn, the flaps were held open with countless guards awaiting outside, torches and swords at the ready.

“Apologies Princess! Some kind of magical barrier was preventing us from entering, no matter how hard we tried.”

Luna wiped her swords on a dirty rag that lay near Johns armour, “tis quite alright Major, we handled it. Perform a sweep of the camp. Anti-Changeling spells lead the way. No more infiltrations tonight, if you please.”

She nodded, examining John as he sorted his IV line for a moment before exiting to shout orders at the guards outside. The unicorn had its horn lit and was scanning Midnight, and then the Princess and John. No one questioned it, “can’t be too safe, ma’am,” he explained.

“Indeed, we cannot afford another slip like that again,” she offered John a hoof, which he took, “are you alright?”

He stifled a groan as he rose, “I’ll live, thanks to Midnight – and you. I suppose now I owe you, Lieutenant, that’s twice you’ve saved my ass.”

Her scowl lessened to a frown, “buy a mare a beer and we’ll call it even,” she examined the grotesque hybrid more closely.

“Can they all change like that?” John motioned at the crossbreed.

Luna hummed, “we have never heard of a thing such as this. Tis like a blend of Thestral and Changeling. They usually only look like one species at a time, not a strange mix. We shall have our apothecaries back in Canterlot examine it. The Changelings rely on adaptation to thrive, after our recent victories over their horde, it would not surprise us to learn of some type of…” she searched for a word.

“Forced Evolution?” John offered.

She made a face as if she couldn’t think of anything better, “we suppose.”

She picked up the dead creature in her magic, suspending it next to her. Her horn charged and the tent suddenly became immaculate, all of the disturbed and blood-soaked earth became as fresh as a ploughed field. The boxes restacked themselves, the dirt from his armour even seemed to be blasted clean.

John was impressed, “nice,”

She smirked, “tis' not a grain of dust across the moon compared to our true power. If thou require anything, dispatch a messenger – we shall have you guarded at all times.”

His mirth fell from his face, “am I your prisoner?”

She smirked, “do you plan to escape?” She adopted a more serious tone, “for your safety of course.”

John didn’t say anything, instead opting to check out the remaining supply creates, he heard the Princess leave, she praised Midnight beforehand, “well done, Lieutenant.”

Resting in one corner lay a pale of water, Midnight approached it and began using a ladle to drink with, she took a rag and soaked it, she hung up her cloak and started cleaning the blood from her armour.

John found a small packet with clothes. Removing an OD-green T-shirt and a zipped jacket of the same colour. He got them on, favouring his right arm as his left hurt when he moved it too much.

Zipping up the jacket, he had the Thestrals attention as she dried her armour and fur with a cotton towel, “you’re not a prisoner.”

His mouth flickered with a smile, “I know.”

She nodded, “how’re you feeling?”

He tugged a box toward his armour, sitting on it he opened a smaller one, inside were MRE’s and other pre-packaged edibles that would never spoil. He plucked a random triangular package out, once opened he bit into a fairly nice tasting turkey sandwich.

He shrugged, “like shit,” he idly scratched the weeks’ worth of stubble. His hair grew fast and he sported a short beard.

“It suits you,” flicking her head, her eyes looking at his chin. She joined him in sitting on a crate.

He rummaged in his food pouch, looking for a vegetarian option. ‘Veggie Pattie,’ one read, he offered it to her.

“No meat.”

“Thanks,” they ate together, afterwards Midnight departed and returned to the line. Leaving John to begin patching up his armour.

‘First things first,’ he thought, he needed to set up a work station – luckily, he had a portable cradle with him. A flat wide box sat underneath several others, he shuffled toward it, dragging it back and opening it. Inside was a folded-up cradle, a steel frame about five meters tall and three in width. With hooks and support straps to hoist the armour up.

With difficulty, he set it up around his suit. Next, evaluation. He opened the suit and removed his pip-boy, leaving it aside, for now, he got the bucket and rag Midnight had been using and cleaned the inside of his armour.

It took about thirty minutes, he made sure it was as spotless as possible. As if some salty ass drill instructor was about to hop out of a box and chew him out. He exchanged damaged components for new ones, unsealing a toolbox and choosing carefully. Angle Grinder in hand, it was powered by Microfusion Cells, as was most of the Brotherhoods portable equipment. He began ironing out the dings and jagged holes, this would take some time.

* * *

Princess Luna stood in a dark green canvas tent. A shimmering magical barrier separated her from a gurney holding the infiltrator's body. She watched patiently as a pair of field surgeons dissected the abomination.

The wooden door which had been installed opened and in walked Major Kodiak. The two had only met on a few occasions before. The Majors record was fairly lengthy despite her age. The young officer had started her career in the Palace Guard, immediately attending Black Oak Military Academy after passing her Royal Guard training at the top of her class.

As a Thestral in a branch of the Royal Guard, she had turned some serious heads – those who believed it to be a pony-only military branch. She hadn’t spent much time in the eye of the public, however. Instead, she led combat missions for eight years across the outer edges of the territories.

She’d been awarded the Royal Legions Medal for acts of heroism during a training mission in Zebran, and a Celestial Star for saving the lives of an entire town after pre-emptively evacuating during a failed dam construction near Fillydelphia.

She was invited to join the night walkers, a nickname that Lunar Guards affectionately go by, which she accepted. Luna had been impressed with her so far – and her record spoke for itself.

“Ma’am?” She stood at ease, already the two mares felt comfortable around one another.

“Major,” she turned to face her, “I have a task for you.”

The dark mare waited patiently.

“Since our reinforcement, we are now designated as 1st Battalion, 10th Regiment. This entails we now have the means to project our forces over a much larger area. Camp Saddle Pad will become the main base of operations for the frontal engagements with the Changelings – our new objective will be to establish three forward field camps along the gorge and hold those positions in preparation for a potentially imminent attack.

“We know thou are experienced, which is why we feel your skill set would be better utilised on the frontline. We want you to organise platoons for scouting runs – find us the best spots and then hold those areas until construction teams arrive with more troops.

“Our intel suggests massive Changeling activity across the mountain range, we suspect they may be massing for an attack. If they hit us here, they will undoubtedly overrun us, so we want you to establish perimeter defensive positions.

“In the meantime, the nobles want more senior leadership out here to coordinate our efforts. While I am still very much in command, I’m afraid you shall no longer be the senior military mare.”

“Colonel Amethysts our commanding officer, but she was appointed as chief of national security.”

Luna allowed a smile, “correct, Major. Now usually she would temporarily relinquish command of her unit to her subordinate. However, rather unfortunately, her second, Lieutenant Colonel Leaphian was found to be diverting military funds and equipment to rebels of the Thestral government. He was tried and imprisoned this morning. He shall likely be executed by the same leaders he attempted to help usurp.”

The young Major looked surprised but didn’t otherwise indicate anything.

Luna continued, “I have been looking for a replacement, we could bore you with the political semantics that comes with selecting a high-level officer for promotion. The reality is we have already chosen.


The Major opened her mouth to speak but closed it again. “Ma’am?”

Luna levitated a gold pip to join the golden crown insignia she already possessed, “congratulations, Lieutenant Colonel. I’m sure you’ll make a fine addition to the upper echelon,” she smiled, “and you have our full support.”

The princess saluted smartly, the newly-minted Colonel mirrored her flawlessly, “thank you, ma’am.”

“You’re now in command of the 10th Regiment. You have your orders, Colonel.”

* * *

She saluted her Princess. She hadn’t been expecting a promotion anytime soon. She despised politics and you typically wouldn’t be granted a raise in rank without having the right friends in the right places. ‘I suppose I do have a friend in the right place,’ she thought. Lieutenant Colonel. It still didn’t sound right, maybe with time – she couldn’t wait to write to her parents.

She’d head back to her quarters firstly. She had some rearranging to do before she set out to get her objectives complete. Set up three strike teams, three reconnaissance teams and a support wing to reinforce them if need be. She also wanted a unit from the Royal Guard roaming the camp to check for any Changelings.

The night was still dark. Few stars were twinkling tonight despite the clarity of the air. A pristine moon hung low on the horizon, painting the valleys and mountains in whites and greys.

Along the way to her tent, a trio of unicorns escorted by two Thestrals blocked her path, “ma’am,” a stallion Thestral said.

“Trooper. Are you checking for imposters?”

“Yes, ma’am. Under orders from Captain Ivory Sky, ma’am.”

“Where is the Captain now?”

He pointed behind him, “in the canteen, organising search teams.”

“Okay, scan me – and I shall be on my way.”

A unicorn mare stepped forward, her horn ignited scarlet – Kodiak felt a tingling across her fur but remained stoic. The unicorn nodded, apparently satisfied, “she’s clean.”

“Sorry to bother you, Major.”

“Not anymore. I’ve been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Spread the word, be on the lookout.”

She brushed past them without another word. It took a while to find, the camp was like a maze. A never-ending field of identical tents. The canteen was an open-air tent, really just a frame with a canvas roof and open walls. The floor had been covered in more canvas and wooden planks for seats.

Kodiak could see the Captain at the helm, grouping Unicorns and Thestrals together for search tasks. Some of the Royal Guards stood to attention.

“At ease,” she started.

The Captain swatted one of them over the head, “knock that off! You’ll make her a target in the field.” Kodiak stopped to sit, many others returning to sitting positions.

“Since the attack on the human – I’ve been organising search teams. Nothing yet but I’ve half the camp on it. The other half’s watching the exterior, we’re prepped for a fight, ma’am.”

“Good, kill-on-sight.”

The Captain blanched a little but regained her composure. “You got it.”

“I’m now in command of the tenth regiment. Captain Anthem will take my position for now until I decide on who I want to promote.”

The Captain's eyes flickered to Kodiaks shoulder. The shiny rank pip looked a little odd sat next to her scuffed-up crowns, she’d scratch them up nicely later.

She stood up to salute, “Lieutenant Colonel, Congratulations!” The others all followed her.

Kodiak resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she was forced to stand and return the salute.

“I came to organise search teams, but I see that isn’t necessary. Lieutenant Midnight, come with me.”

The aforementioned Lieutenant trotted after the disappearing mare-in-charge, leaving Captain Ivory to continue with the camp searching.

Kodiaks command tent was only a few over from the canteen, the two Thestrals walked side-by-side in comfortable silence. As they got near, Kodiak pulled away to hold open the flap for her.

Midnight padded past without a word, Kodiak followed her in. A makeshift table dominated the middle, with a sleeping zone sat off to the rear of the tent with a silk curtain to separate the two areas. Silk being a traditional Thestral bedchamber decoration.

Kodiak wasted no time in turning on a gas lamp, the warm orange glow lit up the inside. Their sensitive eyes quickly adjusting as they squinted.

“Congratulations Aunty, you bring honour to the family,” she gave a little head-bow.

Kodiak removed her hefty helmet, placing it on the table, “as have you. Your mother would be proud.”

Midnight looked down, “I wish she could see us.”

The older mare moved to place a consoling hoof on her relatives’ face, but she saw the look she received when she got close. Midnight was beyond such solace. She’d seen what she’d seen and that changes you.

“Trust that she can. She’s smiling now.”

Midnight nodded. Her eyes were glassy.

“Captain Sharp Wing is dead and I need a replacement. We’re short of combat-proven officers, so I need you to step up.”

Midnight reflexively straightened, “you’re promoting me?”

“Sure. You’re the most certified here anyway. Top of your training company, same as me.”

She had a few boxes of paperwork stored at a small desk next to her sleeping pit. She flicked through a box containing dozens of folders, pulling it out – she read through it.

“Officer Cadet Midnight led a training mission in a mock-up scenario of a skirmish engagement, during which her unit stumbled into diamond dog bandits.

"They had hostages – Officer Cadet Midnight lead twenty-seven Thestrals in training equipment against a full-sized dog pack, rescuing the hostages and eliminating all of the dogs.

"Several weeks remain before graduation and she is already well beyond her contemporaries in every way, this only strengthens my belief that she’ll be top of this class. Signed, Major Hepstiel, Northwood Officer Cadet School”

Kodiak lowered the file like a disgruntled father would lower his newspaper at breakfast, “You scored a full hundred percent in every field. That’s only been done a few times in the night walkers’ long history.

“Intelligence thinks there are large Changeling units massing on the other side of the gorge, I need you to lead teams out there – find some spots to set up forward bases. If they attack us here, we’ll be overrun in a hot minute, it’ll be up to the Night Walkers to hold the line further afield.

“You’ll be reinforced as soon as possible and there aren’t enough Changelings in hell to stop a fully armed Thestral regiment from going where it wants to go.

“There’s a promotion riding on this one, niece. Get it done – report back. Try not to get yourself killed. Your human friend will be out of it for some time, so you’ll have to manage without him.”

She handed the tabby mare a pair of folders, “you’re in command of 2nd platoon. You’ll be in the middle of three platoon-sized defence sites, establish a position close to the gorge, send a runner and then hold tight for reinforcement.

“Dismissed, Lieutenant.”

Midnight snapped off a quick salute, “Colonel.”

* * *

Midnight had glanced at the roster and the briefing packet after leaving her aunties tent. She was now in charge of forty-two Thestrals, many of the more combat experienced from the last couple of weeks, about half were fresh troops from the garrison. No Thestral was truly an inexperienced fighter, their culture promoted physical training and combat prowess from millennia of fighting tradition.

Most Lunar Guard had already served in the military, either as one of the many equestrian branches or in their homeland defence forces. Midnight had served two years in her hometowns garrison from age sixteen, before receiving an invite to the Lunar Guard. She passed her training, serving another two years as a senior guard, before receiving orders to train as an officer.

All Lunar officers had served in the regular ranks first, it was just the way of things. Compared to their gold-plated cousins whose officer cast generally came from a mix of the inexperienced well-educated and the well-connected upper classes.

She reached her tent, the other officers weren’t present, so she bedded down for a few hours. Setting an alarm for ten to five.

It didn’t take long to track down her Sergeants tent once she’d awoken. It was adjacent to her own – which in turn was at the end of the enlisted troopers’ tents.

Midnight entered into a well-put-together domicile. It had four beds, four desks and a communal table to eat. They’d decorated their bunks with traditional silk and a keepsake Thestral banner was hanging on one of the walls.

The four Non-Commissioned Officers burst from their bunks and stood to attention, “at ease.”

She scanned them, “sergeants Thelian, Agameles, Silent Star and Shadow Chaser,” she listed off their names.

She did a slow circuit of the interior, inspecting their equipment and looking each in the eye. She’d read their files, two had been added from the garrison and two had been present during the last few days fighting. All of them had prior combat experience and a short list of commendations, they were textbook NCO’s.

“Sergeants, new mission. We’re now the second of three platoons as part of the 1st Company, 1st Battalion, 10th regiment. Its Captain Anthems show, myself and Lieutenants Pontiac and McKenna are the platoon leaders and Company Sergeant Major Duran will be keeping an eye on the NCOs – so I wouldn’t give him a reason.

Lieutenant Colonel Kodiak has given me orders to lead the 2nd across to the ridge. We’re to set up a defensive line to the west and hold that position until reinforcements arrive. Gather the troops, formation in five minutes.” She handed each a written copy of her platoon roster.

After a few minutes of the Sergeants bellowing orders at the Lunar Guards, they hurriedly formed into three groups in a parade formation. The sergeants stood, two on each side of her as they faced the waiting soldiers.

“Okay walkers listen up, let me tell you what I know. Our enemy is the Changeling horde, we are in conflict with them, we have taken casualties and so have they. They’ve mobilised massive numbers of troops and special units into the area, but we will prevail in the face of adversity.

“We’re very much still in this fight and its time to bring our A-game and make life difficult for these bastards. From what we can ascertain their strategy is to bulldoze their way east through the lowlands, destroying every last vestige of the local pony populace.

“That is an endeavour we cannot concede. We have engaged groups along the border in multiple skirmishes, but it is resulting in too many casualties, and the Princess wants us to do what Thestrals do best, strike hard, strike fast and bring the balance of power back to our favour. Let’s give this black wave something to break on. Walkers, it never rains but it pours, this will get heavy – do not give up the line, understood?”

“Hah-oo!” Was the response.

The energy amongst them was palpable, “I need four combat teams, Sergeants, group up as you’ve been assigned – I’ll be with Sergeant Thelian’s team.”

They’d already gathered weapons and armour – they’d be rolling for a fight. Midnight couldn’t wait to be back in the thick of it.

Camp Saddle pad was set up in between three large hills. One to the west, facing the gorge, one north toward Canterlot and one south toward the Mackintosh Hills. The rear of the camp was unobstructed, creating an easily defensible position and the means to retreat quickly if needed.

Local timber had been used to create walls that spanned the perimeter, tents and wooden structures created living and eating areas. A dead ground outside the walls allowed for unblocked vantage over the surrounding terrain, daylight was breaking and the treeless landscape was an arid kill zone.

Siege units would eventually be lifted in, giving the ponies the ability to bombard their enemy. Midnight led from the front, her unit in a long two-by-two column with the Sergeants placed at the sides near the front of their squads.

Lieutenants Pontiac and McKenna led 1st and 3rd Platoons alongside her, they’d split up outside the fort and take slightly different paths toward their objective.

They passed other Thestrals and Ponies, getting wished luck. Heavy wooden gates loomed ahead, “Open the gate!” Sergeant Thelian roared. A flurry of movement from a watchtower built above the gate signalled a team of unicorns using their magic to heft the mighty barrier open.

Two dozen earth ponies halted the gate from tearing the walls apart. Midnight's troop moved out of the Camp. The eerily silent landscape unsettled her, but she’d manage, she knew.

The once proud mountain spire had been reduced to half its size. Such was the force of the explosion that had racked the area an hour or so after the departure from rescuing John.

Ethereal green fires had burned for days, thick black smoke had churned into the air as a result, for dozens of kilometres the ground had been stained with the soot and ash.

After two hours of consistent and constant marching, they started to descend toward the gorge, it lay between them and the Changeling hive.

They were to set up next to the middle of the gorge. The long walk had sapped some of her strength, but after a sip from her water bladder, she felt refreshed. They could have flown here in a fifth of the time, but had opted to walk so as to preserve their wings.

Her platoon began working autonomously, preparing defensive positions. They were in the middle of a giant clear area, dark dusty dirt and the occasional grass shoot the only sight all around. In the distance was the gorge, across it lay Blackwater, abandoned.

More than a few hours passed, Midnight patrolled their small encampment. Her troops were both cunning and creative, but as an aerial-dominant species – the Thestrals had no use in heavily fortifying their position. That was the Royal Guards job anyway.

As a minimum, they had dug a series of foxholes and small trench so they could manoeuvre on the ground whilst undercover.

The camp was half a hexagon, a single long trench with two shallow bends faced the gorge, behind which were two dozen foxholes deep enough to conceal a pair of ponies.

Each foxhole and the trenches had used a myriad of small branches, twigs and grass to camouflage their positions.

Sergeant Silent Star and Sergeant Agameles’ squads maintained the ground component, occupying the trench. With herself and the other two squads separated into the foxholes. She was in the frontal-most hole along with Goldenrod, the mare had proven herself in combat and so had been pulled from Shadow Chasers squad.

They waited. They’d had no contact with the other platoons, but Midnight wasn’t worried. It would be best if they didn’t give each other’s positions away.

Midnight pulled out a small eyeglass and used it to scan the gorge and the surrounding terrain. She saw no enemy movement on the ground or in the air. It was all quiet for now.

“Sergeant Agameles,” she called forward, “send a scout across the gorge.”

The large stallion nodded his boxy head, quickly scanning his formation. “Fields, you just volunteered. Get across the gorge if you can, any contact and I want you to fall back to us.”

“You got it sarge’,” another stallion exited the side of the trench and slowly climbed into the air, before gliding fast and low toward the chasm. Midnight tracked him with her eyeglass.

They waited in silence, a small breeze blew over them and rustled their camouflaged positions. She watched as the speck of a Thestral plopped down behind a little rock formation.

He lay low, scanning all around him and looking back, seemingly right at her before facing forward again. He crawled toward the gorge, eventually exploding off the ground and leaping across.

The curvature in the terrain allowed him to disappear from sight. She panned back and forth across the crevice, attempting to locate him once again. Minutes past and she felt a sinking feeling in her gut.

“There!” Agameles grunted as he viewed the scene through a pair of binoculars.

The Thestral stallion scurried through the air in jerky zig-zag manoeuvres, desperately trying to shake off his pursuers.

Multiple black forms chased him, they blended seamlessly into the blackened earth, making it tricky for her to count them.

Little green lights flashed between them and the lone guard, his agility impressive as the ‘lings struggled to achieve a good lead. The Thestrals around her weaved in their own imaginings of the dogfight, each attempting to lend their skill to the scout.

Sergeant Silent Star piped up, “Frosted Whip, Bronze Fang – javelin manoeuvre – get those Celestia-damned bugs off his back!”

“Aye, Sarge!”

“You got it, boss!” The two chimed out in unison, before leaping into the air.

They ascended at a marvellous rate, maintaining their fast climb for thirty seconds before skirting the cloud-line at a hundred meters. They rushed toward the scene, parallel to the ground.

Midnight refocused on the scout. He narrowly missed an energy blast only to fly right into a second. It glanced off his armour, sending him spiralling into the dirt.

He was up instantly, a Thestral broadsword clutched in his mouth – he swung it in powerful, precise movements – catching a bug-horse in the abdomen. It crash-landed, dead.

His backswing bisected a second ‘ling across its middle, the two ends remained semi-connected on a bridge of green organs.

The grisly scene was punctuated as the sounds of battle reached across the earth a second late, the scouts' grunts and the screeches of Tartarus’ vermin made her blood boil.

As the guard scrabbled back into flight, several Changelings aligned with him, intending to bring him down. “Come on,” she mumbled in support.

From above Whip and Fang descended like lead weights, each smashing into a Changeling, catching the scout’s pursuers unawares.

He spun mid-air and utilised his wing-blades to impale a ‘ling through the neck, he used its momentum to swing it around and off of his winglets.

As the scout’s chasers’ shed their numbers, Midnight observed them panic and attempt to out-fly their more powerful adversaries. The attacking duo split-up, chasing down those that remained with a vengeance.

Frosted Whip baited a pair of Changelings into an aerial trap set by Fields, the scout lunged upwards – bayoneting one and catching the second in the face with a winglet. It was finished off by Fang, who had the final bug-horse hot on his hooves.

He weaved in-and-out of small rock formations, Whip and Fields followed behind in a trailing formation. He dipped sideways – the Changeling made to follow but was caught unprepared as Bronze Fang halted his own momentum almost entirely.

As Fang's wings ejected outwards and his back arched, he cartwheeled mid-air to deliver a lethal blow. The Changeling splattered to the dirt, headless.

The trio formed up and headed back. Midnight lowered her magnification, unable to fend off the small smile that wormed its way onto her face. ‘Well done.’

As they skirted near, she could see the look of discontent in the scout’s eyes, he clumsily took cover within the frontal trench.

“Report,” Agameles ordered from behind her before she could, her ears perked up.

He huffed, grimacing at his battered, blackened side armour, “we need to leave! There’s an entire battalion just over that gorge. I don’t know why they didn’t pursue me.”

His Sergeant smothered him with medical salve, “probably just trying to draw us out, son.”

“I agree, we –” Midnight was cut short by several far-off cracks, followed by multiple energetical ‘whistling’ sounds.

She had heard reports of Changeling artillery but had never witnessed it first-hoof. Large green projectiles screamed from over the canyon, impacting all around in explosions. Plumes of dirt and debris shot around and rained down at lethal speed.

The first several fell slightly short and to their left. Whoever was calling in those shots quickly corrected, the second barrage striking in-among the foxholes.

They ducked low, discipline preventing them from screaming and flying off, despite every instinct urging them to do so.

Bronze Fang and Frosted Whip had been top-side when the rain had started, quickly scampering into cover before the first blasts could blow them to pieces.

A bolt landed right next to their hole, spewing dirt all over them, Goldenrod and Midnight were huddled down close together, both uttering prayers of protection.

Another series of magical explosions wracked their position, a shrill scream from her left started up – a mare had been hit.

“Mare down! Doc!”

Midnight chanced a look over the rim of her hole, not much visible as dirt and dust whirled around them.

A young guard had been blasted from her hole – a severely shredded rear leg was being tended to by another mare with a medical icon on her upper foreleg.

More explosions hammered their dugouts, Midnight watched the two, desperately wishing she could do something.

The doc had patched the wounded mare’s leg and was now dragging her back into their foxhole. She breathed a sigh of relief, which quickly caught in her throat as the pair’s foxhole suffered a direct hit – the bright after-image stained her eyes with two of her soldiers being atomised.

The shockwave forced Midnight into her hole and crashing into Goldenrod. They huddled together, shuddering along with the repeat concussion forces that washed over them. The barrage ceased. The roaring explosions making way for an almost serene silence

Midnight spoke up, “sound off!”

“First squad up!” Sergeant Thelian called.

“Second squad up!” Sergeant Agameles shouted.

There was a pause, “sargn’t Stars dead ma’am,” a voice drawled.

She chanced a look from her hole. Smoke and cinders rose from the super-heated energy craters, the form of a bulky stallion shuffled in the trench to her right.

“He took a glancing hit, Lieutenant – we couldn’t save him!”

Midnight growled low in her throat – an evolutionary feature, she cut it off as soon as she noticed.

“Squad four!?” She commanded.

Shadow Chaser piped up, “we’re shaken, but alive! Orders Lieutenant?”

She thought about their next move – the enemy knew where they were and had them pinned. They could fall-back and create a secondary defensive position, provided they had enough time.

“Hostiles inbound!” Agameles alerted, “looks like a platoon-sized recon element.”

Midnight patted herself and then scrabbled around her hooves for her spyglass, she found it, no worse for wear.

She peered through it, ignoring her trembling foreleg and the ringing in her ears.

Three dozen black forms advanced toward them in a loosely spread-out formation, approximately five-hundred hands away.

“Sergeant Thelian, take your squad and fall-back. She glanced around her, Sergeant Agameles, have half of Sergeant Stars squad go with them. Once you’re over the ridge-line I want you to loop around and get above and behind these bastards! Attack them as soon as they’re on top of our position.”

“Alright ponies, time to earn your pay!” Thelian shouted, “let’s make it convincing – fall back!”

A mare joined in by screaming, “retreat!”

No less than fifteen previously hidden Thestrals burst from cover. The apparently unorganised and distressed dash for safety would have convinced her were she a Changeling.

She refocussed on the Changeling probe, they had charged forward at the sight of survivors. Their predictability a serious flaw, Midnight noted.

“Heads down,” she whispered harshly.

She saw nothing but mud walls and the sky above, Goldenrod drew a long, curved sabre, not a standard issue weapon.

“A gift from Princess Luna, after we fought at the humans' ship,” Goldenrod explained in answer to Midnight’s curious head jerk.

The sound of a light chittering and the occasional fly-wing buzz alerted her to the Changelings nearby presence. Goldenrods ears swivelled around as did her own, Midnight made a gesture with her hoof to indicate they should wait a moment more.

As soon as they saw the survivors the Changelings would swarm over their positions, attempting to wipe them out. Hopefully, Thelian and his Thestrals would attack before then.

From directly above her Sergeant Thelian had managed to bring his fighters in a downward attack.

“Go!” She shouted as she and Goldenrod leapt from their hole, other bat-ponies around them didn’t hesitate, they rushed toward their enemy – who waited a dozen hands from the forward-most trench. Midnight had always been quick on her hooves, despite her hefty armour and weapons she could out-run most of her comrades – consequently, she now led the charge.

They screamed a battle cry, momentarily drowning out the sounds of their advance, whilst forcing the Changelings attention on them.

Just before reaching a pair of tall black beetlelike creatures, a dozen armoured Thestrals slammed into the Changelings from above, claiming one-third of them in a single attack. She spun clockwise, lashing out with both wings, she caught one in the face – it screeched and thrashed backwards, Goldenrod bowled into it thereafter, bisecting all four of its limbs with a single sweep of her gifted sabre, before continuing into a trio of enemies.

Midnight faced off against the second, slightly taller Changeling – it hissed and brought its chitinous blade down on where she had been just a second before, with a single powerful flap, she’d leapt a body-length above it – diving downward with her own officers’ sabre.

Its strengthened exoskeleton semi-deflected the blow, it drew its charcoal coloured sword back to its side, dropping it a moment after as she sunk both wing-blades into his throat, its gurgling and spluttering was overshadowed by midnights war cry. In her culture, if you weren’t screaming and shouting in combat, you were probably dead.

She harshly retracted her blades from its neck, as it fell, she flicked her wings downward, causing the green viscera to speckle the ground.

A Thestral from Agameles squad brushed off a blow from an underling, thrusting its short sword through its open maw in response. As he turned to locate a new target he was knocked to the ground and stabbed by a much larger Changeling, he shouted out in pain as the chitin bit into his side.

Midnight jumped to his aide, engaging the Changeling-leader head-on. Its oddly angular mouth split open in the Changeling equivalent of a hungry grin, she held herself low and lashed out with all three of her blades – it parried them with a pair of bulky chitin-constructed cutlasses. Leaping forward, the ‘Ling was forced a few steps backwards as Midnight maniacally pressed her assault.

She shouted again, as she alternated different angles of attack, the Changelings face adorned with a hate-filled look of aggravation as it just barely managed to prevent its own demise.

Finally twirling, she managed to launch a winglet like a low-velocity dagger – it skimmed the Changelings face, its shrieked as a neat cut began bleeding green.

In its anger it used its superior height and strength to push Midnight back, all around her troops were locked in a deadly fight for survival.

She grimaced as she allowed one of the Changelings blades to deflect off of her side, she faked a pained scream and stumbled low, preparing to ambush the feckless creature.

It didn’t hesitate in bringing both blades down toward her head, the speed of the attack nearly cost her life, instead of being beheaded she jumped forward between the ‘lings too-wide stance, just able to fit between them, it jumped and skipped to try and dislodge her from under it – it screeched once as her sabre was stabbed through its soft underbelly, passing through its spine and major organs. It collapsed on top of her and she began wriggling and worming her way out from under its bulk, panting with the effort.

A few engagements remained. The surviving Changelings quickly eliminated – the soldier who she’d saved grumbled as he struggled to stand, he’d used a cauterising gem to seal the nasty wound in his side, “thanks, Lieutenant.”

She made a ‘not a problem’ face, the rush of adrenalin making it difficult to focus, “form up!”

Those still standing snapped toward her, those on the perimeter facing outwards automatically.

Her three Sergeants gathered near, each sporting blood splatters and small cuts, Shadow Chaser had blue-black eye which was slowly swelling shut. But they waited patiently.


Agameles started, “we’ve got wounded, but no dead. I recommend sending a runner to each of our flanking platoons.”

He’d read her mind, “do it,” he rushed to pick two flyers, “we’re to hold here as long as we can until our engineers and reinforcements get here.”

The sounds of more energetical discharges sounded from over the gorge, more artillery. “Fall back – into the sky!”

They rose as one, those who were hurt were helped along, the last of them taking off from the carnage on the ground as the first super-heated energy bolt blasted their trenches again. Safely up in the air, the two runners took off at great speed in opposite directions.

She considered her options, a plan formulating in her head. A crazy, obscene, dereliction-of-duties type of plan.

“On me!” She called, drawing the attention of her troupe as she started gaining altitude.

A large blanket of clouds sat high behind their trenches, she slowed as she passed through the humidity, beads of perspiration clinging to her. Unlike Pegasi, Thestrals had no innate cloud-walking magic. Fortunately, their armour contained magical runes that permitted said cloud-walking.

Once atop the cloud, she settled – allowing herself to be cradled by the unnaturally soft semi-solid water vapour.

In a few moments, three dozen others made the transition from flight to rest. They watched in grim silence as their former positions continued getting hammered.

“Sergeant Silent Stars still down there, ma’am,” Frosted Whip said cautiously.

“We’ll return for his body it's safe.”

Whip nodded angrily.

She took out her spyglass, their newfound height advantage allowing her an unrestricted view of her enemy’s position. All three Sergeants took out their own magnification devices and together they mumbled points of interest.

Guard Fields had been correct, hundreds of Changeling troops swarmed around several blackened pits in the terrain. These pits held their artillery she was certain.

“Celestia”, Thelian breathed, “looks like a full-strength battalion, supporting a field-artillery battery.”

“Agreed. So – we need to take out those units before our construction teams get here – ideas?”

They all looked at her like she was mad.

“Our guys are good, Lieutenant – but forty against three hundred is just a slaughter.”

Agameles and Shadow Chaser murmured their agreement.

“We don’t need to fight them all, Sergeant – we just need to sneak past and knock out those siege machines, then fall-back to our original position.”

This time Shadow spoke, “let’s say we manage to sneak past three hundred Changelings, sabotage those artillery units and fall back – we’re bound to get noticed. It’d be like stirring up a hornet’s nest.”

“You all wait until dark – that will provide us with cover for the attack. I’ll return to Camp Saddle Pad and requisition some explosives from the human Commander, I’m sure he’ll have something we can use.”

She turned her gaze on the massed-together platoon, “Guard’s Starfire, Goldenrod – look sharp – you’re making the flight with me.”

They ambled nearer without speaking.

“Rest up – we’ll return shortly – if we’re not back by nightfall, the units yours,” she prodded Thelian’s chest for added emphasis.

After a brief equipment check, they shuffled through the gathered Thestrals and took off from the vapour – heading east toward their main encampment.

* * *

Fire Support

View Online

John snapped out of his dreamless sleep, he inhaled freezing air through his nostrils – instantly invigorating him. He habitually raised his left arm to look at the time, only to remember his pip-boy lay on a workbench just out of reach.

He had fallen asleep on a pop-up bed, he didn’t remember going to sleep. The final of the three Intra Venus drips had finished being administered, the clear fluid having turned red with a little of his blood as it climbed up the line.

He unscrewed the IV from the cannula after sitting up, swinging his legs around the bed, he felt grubby and realised it had been some time since he’d had a genuine shower. A camp like this was bound to have washing facilities – he had a new mission, then.

He was still in a lot of pain, the cheap camp bed only exacerbating things. Reaching down to the little satchel at his bed’s side, he removed a pair of injectors and a handful of pills. A painkiller, duel anti-rad treatment and a super-stimpak to promote healing. The super-stim as long as his forearm once unfolded, it shot three needles through an inject-site on the quad of his skinsuit, the bottom half of which he still sported.

With still hands, he carefully injected the anti-rad under the skin of his stomach, a bruise on the opposite side a tender reminder of the previous days’ medical machinations. Next, he dry-swallowed a secondary anti-radiation drug called Finaraldexirine. It would help to reverse cell-damage by temporarily allowing the body to create new genetical information. This information wouldn’t change anything within the body, instead, it prevented terrible tumours and cancers from developing.

The second pill was a standard pain killer, Ibuprofen along with Caffeine and Codeine. The last of which causes constipation – but he was sure he could locate some pickles to eat.

He packed an OD Green duffle with a threadbare towel, fresh underwear and socks, brand-new waterproof boots, T-shirt, and finally black Cargo pants. He placed his Pip-Boy carefully amidst the clothing and swiped a hygiene kit from another steel case.

As John was about to leave, he remembered the commando encounter and took a Laser Pistol in a thigh holster – a newer AEP-30 model along with a collection of back-up cells and a combat knife. He considered a hand grenade but decided against it.

He donned a pair of plastic all-black sunglasses before brushing the entrance flap aside and standing to his full height, the pain relievers helping instantly.

A pair of Royal Guard, a Unicorn and a Pegasus, glanced at him from their assigned watch positions but didn’t otherwise say anything.

“Morning,” John offered.

“Good morning, sir,” the shorter of the two replied.

“Where are the showers?”

“Over by the cook-house,” the unicorn replied, his accent sounding continental.

John didn’t reply, instead, he moved toward the mess hall, which rose above the lesser tents surrounding it. He breathed sharply with the walking form he adopted, attempting to force his sore limbs into a more regular gait.

He passed several dozen ponies of all four types, they seemed to blend into two groups, the three pony sub-species and Thestrals. He considered the societal implications – deciding he’d ask one of them later, possibly the Princess if he had time – he still knew very little about the new land he inhabited.

The shower block was formed of several chamber-like tents. Each with enough space for multiple ponies to shower at once, they had little privacy curtains – standing in one of the chambers, he drew it closed.

The curtains were the same rough-hewn canvas that everything else was made from. The ground had wooden slats, so he could stand without getting his feet dirty. He undressed and turned on the faucet, resisting the urge to scream as freezing cold water splashed over him – he stood there for several seconds – his skin thickening and numbing with the coldness.

Turning off the water, John quickly used a new soap bar to lather himself up. Every crevice and cranny – he gave himself a thorough wash. Using a little mirror from the hygiene kit, he wet-shaved with a one-use disposable razor and a little packet of shaving cream. He also brushed his teeth and scrubbed his head with shampoo.

Turning on the tap once more, a deep groaning emerged from the head – pre-empting the eruption of ice water, John trembled slightly as he rinsed himself off, the now-black foam and suds disappearing through the slats.

Quickly drying himself as his body was full-on shaking at this point, he breathed loudly – trying to urge himself back to warmth.

He then took a few missteps as he stomped into one sock and then the other, hastily pulling on his grey boxers, John rubbed his hands together tentatively – hoping to achieve some heat-gain.

Next, his standard-issue black combat trousers and OD-Green T-shirt – he brushed his arms inside the sleeves of his jacket – zipping it up and hunching his shoulders, he felt much better already and his trembling slowly abated.

Pulling on his boots, he laced them up and packed his old clothes into his duffle, before strapping his side-arm around his leg and rolling up his left sleeve to equipping his pip-boy. Grabbing his duffle before drawing the still-wet curtain and walking back toward his tent.

The freshness he felt after showering and wearing clean clothes was indescribable. All too often he was forced to live in the same uniform for days or weeks, he still felt grotty inside. His stomach gurgled – he had absolutely no appetite and felt a small amount of nausea, but he knew he should probably eat.

Weaving through the labyrinth of tents he reached his own. Entering it after nodding once at each guard, he noticed the smell – oil and grease, overlaid with the stench of an unwashed tramp, he’d really needed that shower.

He slung his duffle atop his bed, opting to tie the entranceway open to allow a small amount of fresh air to cleanse the putrid breathing space. He pocketed the medical kit, which contained the samples he’d taken. Next stop, the canteen – and those pickles.

The ponies gathered there watched him – a new group of Royal Guard occupied much of this part of the camp. Reinforcements, John realised – they had distinguishing green and red marking on their greaves, they served no meat at the eatery so he’d assembled a myriad collection of vegetables and fruits – and pickles. They also had the options of hot porridge or heated oats, coffee or tea.

He refilled his depleted mug, from which he’d already drained, with steaming black coffee. It had a sweet, fruity taste and John made a mental note to acquire some for himself, as it was the best he had ever tried.

John scarfed down his assorted food – shovelling it in with a desperate hunger he hadn’t realised he possessed.

After belching loudly, he finished his third cup of coffee – ignoring the stares from the new guards and left after dropping his cutlery and plate off at a washing station.

He trooped around, sniffing out a particular blue pony. It wasn’t long before he spotted her, she was a head above the pair of darkly armoured Thestrals that watched the movements of those who ventured too close like hawks.

As John neared, one challenged him with her eyes – relaxing as she recognised him. The Princess had a lightly armoured breastplate affixed to a full harness – it had slots and latches to connect the rest of her armour, should it be required – she also had a small silver crown.

She talked with a white Guard officer that John didn’t recognise – only shifting to look at him as she noticed the surprised stare from the new officer.

Luna examined his new outfit with interest, “ah – Commander. So good of you to join us. This is Colonel Whitebow of the 23rd Royal Guard Brigade. She’ll be in command of our ground forces across this sector.”

She was a tall, lithe Unicorn mare – she had white-blue eyes, with grey hairs and a small smile permanently tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“Commander,” she greeted.

“Colonel,” he replied.

He stuck out his hand reflexively, she looked unsure of the gesture but slowly lifted up a foreleg, holding it next to his hand.

They both watched as he clasped a hand around her limb and gently shook it. He released it. Colonel Whitebow curiously examined her forelimb before placing it next to her other.

“We are pleased you found us, now we must ‘debrief’. Come, we can talk more in our quarters.”

He followed the two ponies back across the way he’d already pathed – matching the stares and glances from any of the newcomers – he saw no pony he recognised.

After a brief five-minute stroll, they entered a large ornate, blue-tinted tent. It had a crescent moon icon above the threshold, John grazed his fingers across its textured surface, the last of three to enter as the two Thestrals did an about face to ward off any intruders.

A large dais had been recessed into the ground – the combat engineers having gone a little overboard with their rulers temporary living space. The cold earth was reserved for peasants and so had been covered with slats, much like the shower block – over which lay a thick, mottled blue rug.

The walls had silver and dark blue linen décor – intricate fabric hung in decorative swirls around every surface. Silver and blue stained wooden furniture had been arrayed along with an assortment of thick, plump cushions.

A low table had maps, diagrams and scrolls covering it – its underside held recesses wherein countless more spilt out from. As Princess Luna and Colonel Whitebow parted to sit in a dais and a cushion, respectively – they made visible a sitting Major Kodiak.

The jet-black Thestral looked up from a piece of paper, greeting each of the other ponies with a look. She looked down her nose at John, seeming to debate with herself in her mind.

She broke the silence, “are all of your species so difficult to kill?”

Both Luna and Whitebow looked slightly alarmed at the potentially provocative query, looking askew at John – warily hoping he hadn’t taken offence.

His face remained blank as he claimed a cushion of his own, “sadly, no.”

She hummed – seemingly satisfied with the answer.

Colonel Whitebow spoke next, clearly trying to get past the awkwardness as John and Kodiak stared each other down. John only looking at her as she finished talking.

“Princess, I’d like to bring the Commander up to speed.”

“You read our mind, Colonel.”

John looked curiously at her. She wore the same lightly armoured golden chest-plate as Captain Ivory. It barely covered her chest and front legs, tapering off along her back and midsection.

She pulled a few scrolls and files toward her, glancing at them before reaffixing her sharp blue eyes on Johns own, “Major Kodiak has been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, she temporarily commands the 10th regiment – of which the 1st Lunar Guard Battalion is a part of.

“The rest of her unit has been coming in over the last few days, along with my own 23rd Brigade. This will give us a total strength of around eight thousand troops.”

The stark mare thrust a map toward John, on it were little triangles and squares denoting different unit positions. He recognised the topography from his own pip boy readings. Their own position was nestled in between three little rises in the terrain, allowing an easy retreat if necessary.

Forward of them, he could see the gorge, it was far longer than he’d realised – possibly rivalling the Grand Canyon back on earth. On the other side were markings of what he assumed to be Changeling positions, with three separated triangles denoting Equestrian forward positions.

He pointed at them as he began copying the information into his pip boy’s map, “Lieutenant Midnight?”

The three mares blinked at him.

“Correct,” Whitebow seemed unsurprised at his guess.

He hummed, Whitebow pulled out a scroll as he again inspected the map, he kept an eye on her as she prepared a quill.

Luna started first, “Commander we need to talk about what happened in the hive.”

He grunted, “where should I start?”

“From the beginning please.”

Within his mind, the images of the past week’s events seemed to come to life in front of him.

“Lieutenant Midnight, myself and a small team of Thestrals moved on foot toward Blackwater and the Gorge on what initially was a reconnaissance mission.”

A pair of quills held aloft in the blue magic of the Princess and the chalky white of the Colonels own, scribbled incessantly as he spoke.

“It took several hours,” he continued, “it had been dark when we had left and daylight greeted us as we arrived on the outskirts of the town.”

Their scribbling paused as he closed his eyes to imagine it, suddenly back in the hive, the sounds of death and chaos seemed to erupt around him, causing his heart rate to spike.

He breathed deeply to calm himself. “We began our reconnaissance, sending myself alone into the town – I immediately made contact with the enemy. With hundreds pouring out toward me, I opened fire – but there were just too many, I fell back toward the Lieutenants position and we defended ourselves.”

Luna glanced at another, darker piece of parchment, “it mentions in the Lieutenants report that you instructed them on the use of your weapons?”

His head swivelled to face hers, “that’s affirmative.”

She made a note, “continue.”

“We fired at the horde, now possibly numbering a thousand – I fired one of my nuclear bombs, we took cover as they were completely annihilated.”

“Then we –”

Kodiak cut him off, “you have such destructive weapons at your disposal?”

He glanced at their emotive faces, “Yes.”

He wasn’t interrupted again as he continued with his tale, the Lieutenant continued toward the gorge while he conducted a sweep of the town. His fight with the commando and finally he described in detail about his excursion into the hive, he described all that he’d seen, culminating in its destruction and his near-death.

Again, it was Kodiak who spoke, “Lieutenant Midnights report also mentions you assisted a hostile Changeling? One of the commandos.”

Luna and Whitebow looked up as well, the atmosphere becoming chilly.



He paused – why had he? He didn’t really know.

Very few can fight as skillfully as she could, “we were pretty evenly matched – I think it may have even beaten me. Certainly, without my armour, had the Lieutenant not shown up…” he hesitated.

“Go on,” it was Whitebow this time.

He started slowly, “I can’t really explain it – I’ve killed countless times, many were near-death scenarios. But this was different, far closer a contest then any I’ve ever had.

“Besides – she was practically dead. Multiple perforated organs, spinal damage, concussion. These were the last reading I had before losing consciousness.”

“The drug I gave her would probably only help keep her alive a moment before the entire mountainside exploded. Not to mention – a stimpak is designed for humans and so likely didn’t have too much of an effect.”

The three mares spoke quietly amongst themselves, John’s attention shifted to the medical pack which contained samples of the strange fluid he’d encountered.

He pulled it out and tossed it across the table, “I took samples from within the hive, they seemed to have technology comparable with my own, I actually took sensor readings that were similar to the ones the Anlace bleeds off. Levels of radiation consistent with starship power generation, hull strength suitable for passing through an atmosphere. But the vessel had to have been several times the size of the Anlace.”

They considered his words.

The tent flap burst open, startling the four of them. ‘Not again’, John snapped down to lie flat on his back, viewing the scene upside-down as he sighted down his laser pistols sights.

One of the door guards was the source of the intrusion, John prepared to end this Changeling infiltrators life – only to pause as a haggard-looking Midnight weaved around him.

“Princess – Colonels!” She started.

All three stood, John whirled around as well. As usual, she had grime and blood splattered across her fur and armour.

“You just can’t go five minutes without getting into trouble, can you?” John deadpanned. His comment ignored as she rushed to speak to the Princess.

“Changelings at the gorge,” she was breathless, “they attacked our position –” she moved toward the table, between John and it – uncomfortably so.

She used a quill to inscribe a series of diamonds on the map, erasing those that existed, “we actually set up a little west of our assigned coordinates as it allowed for better concealment. We dug in and waited. I eventually ordered a scout to check out the other side of the gorge as we had no clear line of sight.

“The scout was engaged and fell back to us, we killed his pursuers and retrieved him unharmed – our position was then bombarded by enemy artillery.”

She drew new enemy positions, “here, here and here – we repelled a ground attack after the bombardment ceased, we suffered a few casualties – including Sergeant Silent Star.”

She looked back at John as she noticed their closeness, her rear leg bumping into his crossed ankles, she sidestepped away from him and continued.

“They fired on our position again – this time we escaped with a few wounded toward a cloudbank directly above us, from there we could see the enemy firing positions,” she indicated the new additions to the map.

“I have a plan to destroy those positions, ma’am.”

The Princess’ looked back and forth between the scrolls, the map and finally at the young Lieutenant, “proceed, Lieutenant.”

“John – have you got any explosives? They have to be small enough for me to fly with and they would need to have to be simple enough for a pony to detonate.”

He glanced at the attention he now held, four sets of eyes on him, “sure – I can do that. I can come with to oversee their use –”

Absolutely not,” Colonel Kodiak interrupted.

“Colonel?” The Princess inquired.

“The wounds he suffered are far too great to allow him to return to duty! He needs at least another week of rest before continuing operations.”

Whitebow opted in, “he’s a grown stallion Kodiak – if he wants to fight, let him fight.”

“Princess it would be reckless to allow such an asset to potentially kill itself simply for the sake of ‘overseeing’ what I’m sure can be easily taught, my niece is a clever mare.”

“Hey – this ‘asset’ has a name and rank, Lieutenant Colonel.”


“Enough!” Midnight broke in before the Princess could, the blue mare closing her mouth slowly as they all refocussed on the young officer.

“We don’t have time – it’ll be faster if I go alone – John, just help me out with some explosives. It’ll be dark by the time I get back and under that cover, we’ll sweep in and plant the charges – destroying their offensive capabilities and allowing our engineers to construct a forward base without being harassed by artillery fire.”

There was a raw silence while everyone thought about it, “Ma’am?” She addressed the Princess directly, “permission to return to my unit?”

“Granted, Lieutenant. But you are not flying alone,” she stood up – her full height being realised from Johns position on the floor, “come with me. Colonel Whitebow, continue organising the new arrivals into their quarters – prepare your engineers to depart for the Lieutenants position as soon as possible. Colonel Kodiak, I want you to find out when our own artillery is joining us – and both of you prepare for a possibly imminent attack.”

The Princess hurried out of the tent, Lieutenant Midnight and the door guards quickly forming up around her as she led them away from view. John sighed, groaning as he rose with a little difficulty.

He ignored the other officers and began heading toward his little enclave of humanity. Once inside his tent, he got to work – assembling timed and remote detonation capable demo charges. Each about the size of a tin can, they used an ANFO or Ammonium Nitrate/Fuel Oil mix, each weighing about a kilogram – easily enough to obliterate a small vehicle. He spent the next thirty minutes quickly preparing seven charges, having spares couldn’t hurt.

* * *

Princess Luna led Lieutenant Midnight and a pair of Lunar Guard toward the eastern side of the camp, they passed a small internal checkpoint, occupied by a dozen Thestrals and Royal Guard.

Midnight had a feeling like she’d just entered the bad side of town – the uniform military tents made way for haphazard tents of different ages, styles and of differing nations.

No guards greeted her gaze, instead, dozens of Griffins prowled around them, sporting similar combat harnesses – the powerful creatures had always unnerved her, they were unpredictable and that was something she hated.

Griffins, large hybrids suitably built for killing. They had the lower portion of a lion and the upper body of an eagle. Powerfully large, oversized eagle wings adorned their backs, they had sharp talons for frontal limbs and an eagle’s head with a flesh-ripping beak.


“We know – trust us – we know. A gift from my sister.”

Against saddle pads far eastern defensive wall rested a tall red tent, hanging from it were the heads of several creatures – including a single Thestral.


“We know, now calm yourself, Lieutenant.”

Half a dozen nasty looking griffins and a minotaur stood guard at the opening of the tent, they stood aside and watched on silently as the four ponies passed through.

The interior had several chests filled with gold, a single large gryphon lounged on a small throne. Skulls decorated the top of it, the Griffin purred at their entrance.

“The mice enter the cats’ layer. What can I do for you, mice?” The gryphons voice was playful, Midnight didn’t like it.

“Phaeton. It hath been some time.”

“Ah – Princess, you grace me with your presence once more – I am honoured,” he used a powerful wing to offer a kind of half-bow.

“So you are. We have a mission for you.”

Phaeton leapt from his chair, stopping a few inches from Midnight – the three Thestrals had formed a barrier between the Princess and the predator, each remained still with great difficulty.

She glared daggers at him, he was far taller and twice her mass – she would go for the throat, she decided – if the situation turned sour.

Millenia ago – before the fall of Princess Luna, the Griffin Empire had fought a long and costly war with the ponies of Equestria. It had lasted decades, with hundreds of thousands killed on both sides, the ponies losing three of theirs for every one gryphon felled.

It had been a clash of borders and of cultures – the gryphons’ old ways having been at odds with the Equestrian style of living. Diplomacy had failed, as always and had been followed by all-out war.

Eventually, the Thestrals underground city had been discovered by the gryphons, mistaking them for ponies the gryphons attacked – not expecting the Thestrals ferocity and tenacity. The Thestrals formed an alliance with Equestria, brokered by Princess Luna – which had remained all these years – together they pushed the Imperial Griffin Army out of Equestria, all the way back to the empire.

It was at that point that the war had been drawn to a close, a truce had been negotiated under the new emperor – as an agreement within the treaty, a single fort and a single gryphon-controlled city-state, Snowbush, could remain on Equestrian soil, the remainder of the IGA returned to the gryphon empire, across the eastern sea.

Ever since gryphons had a sense of approbation toward the Thestrals.

Midnight hated them, unconditionally – possibly even irrationally. She had witnessed one of her blood-relatives get slaughtered as a filly, all for the silver around her neck.

She remained professional. Midnight could feel the rage boiling beneath the surface.

He looked smugly at her, nevertheless addressing the Princess, speaking over Midnights head.

“My band has been eager to perform, what will you have your mercenary do?”

Luna clicked her tongue, “escort the Lieutenant back toward her unit – assist her in some sabotage and then keep her and her unit alive until reinforcements are brought forward.”

“To borrow one of your expressions, it shall be a walk in the park,” he grinned infuriatingly.

“That remains to be seen,” she hummed, “Remind us how many troops you have at your disposal.”

“A thousand wings align with mine, another three hundred mixed ground attack; ponies, zebras, minotaur and deer.”

She unfurled a map with her magic, a duplicate of the one still within her tent, “divide your flyers between these two locations,” she gestured at the flanks of the forward observation points, “your ground forces will march in along with our engineers, keeping them safe – your wings will act on harassing attacks where ever possible.”

He considered her map, his yellow eagle-like eyes had a double eyelid, she studied him as his head cocked to one side while he regarded the map.

He called once as all birds do, “so shall it be,” a pair of matching gryphons materialised from behind them, “Eurus, Zephyr – take half our flyers each and prepare to depart – and send in Kronos.”

They waited as the previous gryphons scurried out, a large hulking minotaur replacing them, he had to stoop to enter. He was far taller and broader than the human, even in his armour, he had a light brown coat and bulging muscles covered him from his digitigrade hooves to his wide pectoral muscles and thick neck.

He had one horn missing and a large scar ran diagonally just below it, “boss?” He had a gutturally deep voice.

Phaeton weaved through them until he stood underneath the large minotaurs height, “Kronos, take your bulls and the other ground walkers to the gate and await further instruction.”

The bull saluted with a large fist held over his chest, “as you wish.”

As the bull left, Phaeton turned, “I am ready to depart whenever you are, Lieutenant.”

She couldn’t remove the sneer on her face, “wait for me by the mess,” she spoke flatly. With that said, she brushed past him being sure to clip him as she did so.

She didn’t turn back as she took to the air, quickly manoeuvring for the humans’ tent. It took a few moments, as she landed a pair of enlisted Thestrals at the entrance of the tent snapped off crisp salutes, she returned them as she briskly entered. The smell of chemicals and oil greeted her, not horrible but also not natural, she rubbed her snout.


“Here,” he rose from behind his armour, a green satchel clutched in a hand, he opened it as he walked over, “seven one-kilogram bombs – each can be detonated using a delayed fuse or via remote,” three little detonators were also provided, a button on a small stick, essentially.

He placed the bag around her neck, showing her how to arm them, disarm them and the different detonation modes.

“You got it?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Just don’t blow yourself up,” he smiled, but it looked forced.

“How are you doing?”

“I’ll be fine. You best get to it, Lieutenant,” he held a hand up in a mockery of an Equestrian salute, with one hand coming up just above an eye.

He turned around and moved away from her toward his armour, which still sported battle damage. She prepared to leave, turning right once outside and weaving her way towards the mess hall.

After leaving John, Midnight had made a stop-off at their equipment tent, replacing her single, dirty wing-blade for a pair of more ergonomic blades. They sported double the length, each blade so thin it looked fragile – but the Thestral armourer had assured her they were of the highest Thestrian quality.

She’d rounded up Phaeton and his six equally well-sized and equipped Griffins, “Are you ready to depart?” More sneering tugged at her mouth, but she cooled it. Settling for a sullen glare.

“Indeed,” he called once more like a bird, the carrion behaviour in their species had always been a topic of jest.

‘Damn bird-head.’

She explained the plan, after destroying the enemy positions – with any luck undetected, Phaetons Griffin band and the Guards three forward platoons would swoop in and engage the enemy.

Leading them into the sky they performed an aerial warm-up lap of the camp, before shooting for the setting sun and her platoon.

* * *

“Do you see ‘em?” Sergeant Agameles whispered a little hoarsely.

“Yes, Sergeant,” Goldenrod confirmed.

“Well how many, damn it?”

She squinted, not daring to lean too far through the mistiness of her platoons’ cloud cover. That was the beauty of cloud-walking, you weren’t restricted to the surface of the cloud, like with the actual ground.

“Maybe twenty,” she said at length, “they’re sniffing around our old position but they blend in too well for me to get an accurate count.”

“Sorry, Sergeant,” she felt her ears splay a bit as she rose from peering through the condensed vapour, droplets clung to her from the chest upwards.

“Don’t be sorry, we’ll hit ‘em as soon as the Lieutenant’s back.”

They waited in silence. It had been several hours now, first the throng of bat-ponies had baked in the midday sun, now they were shivering in the freezing night-time air.

She was hungry, tired and getting thirsty – all their rations blasted to bits during the bombardment. They had shared a few morsels of thick, dry bread and a few sips from a single water bladder.

‘Join the guards,’ they had said, ‘great pay and opportunities,’ the same voice continued.

“Go to Tartarus,” she mumbled sullenly.

A sound barely audible made an ear twitch. She looked around – no-pony else made a move. The lookouts kept a watchful eye on their surroundings, the others huddled for warmth – weaponry nearby.

‘There it was again,’ “did you hear that?”

Those near to her side of the cloud nodded. She patted herself down, her forelegs feeling a little sluggish.

She found it, pulling out a small, thin whistle – she blew it into it, eyes scrunched shut – it was like blowing into a blocked pipe. It made a shrill sound – only so loud as she was the one creating it. A Thestral hunting whistle, fairly standard fare for most Lunar Guards – it was at a frequency only bat-ponies could hear, they used a more traditional whistle to communicate with their non-bat-related cousins.

A series of notes from the east were returned, she and several others creeping to the edge. She squinted into the darkness – no moon present tonight.

A dozen shapes emerged out of an adjacent cloudbank, several larger rising high into the, a lone Pegasus-shape moving toward them.

The larger forms had her prepared for a Changeling attack – it never came as Lieutenant Midnight, slowly emerged from beneath her, accidentally prodding her in the stomach with her helmet.

They both huffed as she helped the tiring Midnight up, she took a moment to catch her breath, Goldenrod noticed a new addition, a little green satchel.

“What’s in the bag, ma’am?” She asked.

“Our ticket to destroying those positions, I hope,” they spoke quietly.

“Gather round, kids,” she ambled into the middle of the group – noticing their fatigue, she passed her water bladder to Goldenrod, the mare hungrily drank as she spoke, before sliding it to the next Thestral.

“Okay, here’s the plan,” she held out a copy of the map from earlier, using a small red-light gem, her Sergeants moved closer.

“We’re sitting between our old position and the Gorge,” she marked them out, “I have explosives on me from the human, they’re simple to use,” she instructed her three remaining NCO’s on their operation, they in turn passing on the knowledge to every-pony present.

“Four teams – Sergeant Agameles, you’re running interference – find some cover around the gorge and wait for the signal.

“Sergeant’s Thelian and Shadow – I want you to divide up and place explosives on the enemy positions, I want a dedicated demolitions pony per team to carry the bombs.

“Contrary to popular rumour, the mercenaries finally showed up,” this preluded a round of quiet murmuring, “I know, I know – I expect you all to demonstrate why the Death Walkers are the best of the best!”

That challenge made Goldenrod feel rejuvenated. Damn beak-heads.

“I’ll be keeping tabs on our mercenary friends; we’ve got a battalion-sized flight inbound on our flanks – once we take out those positions – it’s Skytalon all the way.”

The Lieutenant passed out the explosives, “Sergeant Shadow I’m appointing Guard Goldenrod as your demo-mare,” three tubular packs the size of beer bottles were given to her.

It took but a moment, every-pony had checked and rechecked their gear, prepared their weapons and crouched ready for the signal.

The Lieutenant had disappeared into the black, seeking-out her money-oriented attaché. Goldenrod was the third in Sergeant Shadow Chaser’s column of eight, opposite them Sergeant Thelian’s team of eleven also stood-by. Clementine was his teams' demolitions mare, she nodded at her and Clementine nodded back.

Sergeant Agameles squad had just left, swirling toward the gorge – looking for a position. A lot could go wrong with this plan, she realised, they could be detected, the mercenaries could abandon them, the–

“Okay, let’s go!” She was interrupted as Sergeant Shadow took off with a powerful wingbeat, immediately the second guard did the same, buffeting her – she powered through it, automatically pulling into formation alongside the first two.

Within seconds, both teams slowly glided toward the gorge, no lights on the other side gave them away, but Goldenrod knew that the area was likely swarming with Changelings. A flicker of movement far-off to her right made her stare at the empty sky, the Griffin-standard formation betraying the Lieutenant and her carnivorous escort.

As they neared the gorge, still high enough that spotting them from ground-level would prove difficult, she tried to spy her comrades. They were too well-concealed and so remained out-of-sight.

A minute more of gliding in silence and the strike teams hung high over the enemy positions, she kept an eye on her team leader, any second now he’d give the signal to dive.

They continued a little farther than she anticipated they would, the blocky Sergeant swaying and tilting his wings in the Equestrian flight-code for ‘dive, dive, dive!’

She did so, hot-on-the-hooves of Shadow and the Thestral in-between them. As they approached ground level, she could make out the features of the terrain previously unknown. Several blackened pits gave away the Changeling batteries positions.

Their team landed just below a shallow berm, taking cover and spacing out – she quietly drew her sabre. She approached Shadow, giving him a nod, he made a series of hoof-signals, ‘attack, first and second emplacement. Two with you – team remains here.’

‘Understood,’ she signalled back.

She leopard crawled toward her target, two others mimicking her on either side, the gentle pat-pat of raindrops calming her as her mind entered the ice-cold focus she’d been trained for.

Taking extra care to be vigilant and stealthy, she saw a few patrols, but they were nearer the gorge. Her eyesight was good – the small hairs unique to her species allowed her to feel things before she saw them in darkness such as this, closing her eyes – she could only sense the two at her sides.

She looked back, left and right – giving each an instruction to move to either side of the first artillery pit. The earth around had been blackened and raised slightly.

As they stopped near, she peered over the top, shrinking back down instantly – wishing she hadn’t seen what she had seen, the image stuck with her.

She chanced another look, this time forcing herself to stay. It was a deep, dark pit – some two-dozen feet wide, long and deep. Inside lay a creature, unlike any she’d ever seen before.

A giant beetle! As big as an expensive house, the thing only just fit inside the hole, which was more like a tunnel – the beetle – if that’s indeed what it was, lay submerged beneath her, surrounding it were several dozen Changelings, each in a sort of sleep-state. Not aware of her or much else, she needed to get further in.

‘Was this responsible for those artillery barrages?’ A slave – or just a beast of burden.’ The self-posed query went unanswered.

She took a small pebble the size of a coin and tossed it at the creature. It bounced off its thick side and landed near a small group of Changelings. No response.

She tried again, this time a hoof-full of pebbles. Nothing. Her teammates waited nervously, she indicated that they should wait, ‘keep watch.’

Slowly, ever so slowly she crawled into the pit, sliding across the hard surface, the earth hardened like ceramic. The Changelings eyes were closed, they chittered and quivered quietly – dreaming bug-pony dreams.

She carefully moved further into the pit – the angle now impossibly steep. The Changelings seemed rooted in pace, she spied a small ridge, no more than a few inches thick but enough to find some purchase.

She made her move, latching on. She hung for several seconds, tentatively looking around at the still forms of the Changelings – she could sense many more life forms deeper within the pit.

Carefully she pulled herself up, she stood – back to the wall, with only her rear hooves touching the ridge, ‘much like how the human walked,’ she thought.

Goldenrod retrieved one of the three explosives she’d been given, careful not to drop it – she reached up toward the underside of the massive creature. It took some doing – but she managed to stick the little explosive stick inside an oversized leg joint of the insect-based siege beast.

A few more moments passed as she climbed back out, halfway through a Changeling shifted position, nearly pinning her against a second – she drew a dagger but calmed after seeing the bug was still not yet with it.

Breathing a sigh of relief, she made the final effort to the top – where a Thestral hauled her out, “well?” he asked, voice barely above a whisper.

“One down, two to go.”

They reached the second pit after no more than ten minutes. The rain had picked up turning the area into a quagmire, the three of them covered in mud. She rustled her bat-wings, shaking off some of the dirt.

She entered, just the same as before, the mud and rain-slick surface making it more difficult – weaving through the small army of nightmare-fuel with her heart in her throat, she breathed steadily – focusing on her training. The explosive was set just like before, no dramas. Exiting just like she had done, only this time there were no close encounters.

It took both guards to heave her out this time, the downpour now in full-force making exiting the last few feet of the pit impossible, mud-like lava and a river of rainwater nearly drowning her. The Changelings seemed unaffected, she noted as she passed.

The third pit lay to the rear of the first two, on the map it was the furthest position west from them, the closest to the Changeling hive, too. Taking the initiative, she led them towards it.

As they neared the third emplacement, her sense of impending doom lessoned. Thestral senses were largely still unexplored scientifically, but it was thought they could sense forms of harm, some innate magic-in-the-air bullshit Goldenrod didn’t really subscribe to.

‘Although,’ that feeling completely dissipated as the trio peered into their final objective. Empty. It was empty, no bugs, no giant beetle, only scorched earth. Suddenly that sense of fear and danger came back so fast she stumbled back, a terrible migraine building.

“What’s wrong?” A guard asked.

“We need to–”

A trio of bright flashes rippled across the area, the shapes of many darting forms both on the ground and in the air were illuminated for a split-second.

“Goldenrod, the bombs!”

The headache was overwhelming, “yeah,” she gasped, fumbling with the detonator, she dropped it.

The two with her stood and drew their weapons, multiple secondary explosions – huge implosions in vibrant green and blue were like miniature suns, the shockwaves battered them.

‘There!’ The detonator blasted away from her into the hole, it was illuminated just as it disappeared from view.

She scrambled in after it – light-gem in hoof, casting shadows all around – no doubt any ‘ling nearby would haul-flank towards her, but she only needed a few seconds.

At the bottom, “gotcha!” She held it up to her yolk-yellow eyes, it looked intact. ‘phew.’

Scrabbling back out, the torrential rain had been joined by its brother, howling winds – the sudden flash-storm wasn’t uncommon in Equestria, it was just bad timing. Thunder and lighting erupted, briefly illuminating the many aerial forms – she depressed the detonator.

There was a definite delay – a few seconds, she reckoned, before a second trio of explosions wracked the landscape, the flaring light and noise being hammered back by the weather for daring to compete.

A monstrous roar overshadowed even the wind and rain, as the beetle nearest Goldenrods group emerged from its hovel, its shape barely visible. It was still half within the crater when it exploded, blossoming into an enormous ultraviolet blast that struck the three of them off their hooves.

Everything went black for Goldenrod.

* * *

Ad Victoriam, CM

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Goldenrod opened her eyes, she was hurt – badly. A busted rib maybe, that explosion had been too close, she blearily looked around her, her senses felt numbed and she clawed at the cold ground. It was still dark, her eyesight came in and out of focus – just able to make out two shapes, two Thestrals, one against the other.

The noise continued all around them. Howling winds battered her, surging rainwater swelled and pattered the ground, turning it into a morass.

She tried to speak but no words escaped her, only a dry croak. She slowly crawled toward the two others – trembling all the while.

As she reached them, she could make out their faces, the guard on top was trying desperately to clinch a neck wound shut, blood covered him – likely being ejected from the Thestral underneath.

Goldenrod doubled her pathetic pace, leaning over the dying mare she silently aided the male guard in applying first-aid.

“It’s Moonshot, she took a piece of shrapnel to the neck – I can’t close the wound!” The guard, Starchaser, rattled off quickly.

Overhead a fierce battle was being fought, the high-speed winds and harrowing rain making it difficult for her to track. Having a quick look at her surroundings, Goldenrod felt confident they were in no immediate danger.

Goldenrod assessed the patient, Moonshot was a young mare – she had only been in their unit for something like a few months. Her emerald-green eyes were wide open, blood trickled out of her open mouth as she gasped for air that wouldn’t come. The edges around a jagged wound at the front of her neck visible at the sides of Starchaser’s thick, grey hooves as he applied pressure.

“You’re choking her!” Goldenrod exclaimed, her thoughts becoming clearer – she rustled through her medical bag, the rain had soaked everything - hard to be sterile in weather like this, “hold on Moonshot!”

Her poncho was still neatly folded, attached just behind her bat-wings, she used her teeth to rip it off – quickly unfolding it she covered both Moonshot and Starchaser, before diving underneath.

A red gem-light painted a grisly scene, a small gap in Starchaser’s loosening grip sent a spurt of blood over his face and across the inside of the poncho, the smell of copper was strong as the rain pattered loudly against its weather-resistant surface.

Quickly Goldenrod arranged out what she would need, using a pair of sterile tongs she gripped a tamponade and hovered it next to Starchaser’s blood-drenched hooves, “lift them!”

He did so, a wet gurgle escaped Moonshot’s mouth as she hungrily inhaled the rain and copper-laden air. She groaned painfully as the little piece of absorbent material was plugged into her neck-wound.

Next, Goldenrod grabbed her water bladder and with haste, poured it over Starchasers hooves – he immediately rubbed them together, mashing the blood and mud off.

His limbs mostly grime-free, Starchaser wrapped a bandage across her neck, firm but not too tight – Moonshot convulsed and groaned, blood escaped the edges of her mouth and a thick stream of tears had created a little line in the grime along the side of her head. She’d survive for now but would require immediate surgery.

They all panted heavily under the poncho, only Goldenrods head and forelegs covered by it – the rest of her soaked, freezing and mud-plastered. She extracted herself, adjusting her helmet as she again surveyed their surroundings. All clear, still.

She lifted the poncho a fraction, Starchaser speaking before she could, “if we don’t get her back to an operating table, she’s not going to make it!”

“I know – stay here – I’ll be back soon!”

She faintly heard him offer up some unsavoury words as she departed, leaping into the sky – the sharp pain in her ribs now a searing agony as she struggled to gain altitude, all the while buffeted by freezing winds.

After breaking through some dense clouds, she flinched as a bolt of lightning arced across the dark sky, a moment that illuminated the chaotic airspace as hundreds of fliers frantically crashed into one another.

She breathed in desperation, willing her tired wings to carry her higher. The turbulence lashed her already battered body, her armour – snug though it was – rattled, the rain streamed off of her, the added weight making the already frankly strenuous climb that much harder.

Finally, she broke through the cloud-top, the harsh winds and rain ablated, she glided in calmness. A quad of Gryphons immediately formed up around her – likely screening any that rose above the terrible weather.

“Identify!” One of them ordered. She was a lean, large and powerful Gryphoness – she sported an unmarked battle-harness. The ablative armour and myriad of stabbing weapons a testament to her cultures demand for combat.

Her claws were covered in sharp steel, one slice from those would likely decapitate her, she thought it best to comply.

“Guardsmare Goldenrod,” she called in response, “2nd Platoon, 1st Battalion – I’m friendly!”

The Gryphon escort guided her in a roughly circular pattern above the battlespace. In the distance Goldenrod could see several other such perimeter guards, one exploding into action as several Changelings broke through, using the confusion of the storm, quickly they were slain to the last – the bodies being reclaimed by gravity and plummeting back to the ground.

“I need to evacuate one of mine!” A rising wind-pocket jostled her and although Goldenrod struggled to level out, the Gryphons displayed no such difficulty.

The hunter-warrior seemed to perk up at the prospect of battle, “lead the way. Guardsmare Goldenrod!”

Snap-lightning pierces the gloomy cloud-veil, vaguely highlighting their approach. Goldenrod leads, behind and above the four Gryphons are arranged in a line, steadily rising like one side of a spear-tip.

Squinting against the rushing storm, water trails off of her – a band of Changelings whirl ahead, they react to their presence like a hive of hornets, rippling in waves of charcoal as they adjust to defend against her inbound evacuation team.

The Gryphons caw and holler, her blood boils at the impending clash – the Gryphons match her speed, stretching out around her like the five on a dice, she plummets faster still, short-sword and wing-blades drawn for attack.

They reach the enemy at such speed she can barely register their passing, her right blade strikes true – tearing a jagged hole into one, while her sabre buries into another.

They’re attached, like a pair of mating insects, the only penetrating being her blade through this bugs chest. It screeches on still, she extracts her sword and kicks downward, its wings shoot out just as she slices its neck with a winglet. The wind catches only a corpse.

The Gryphons easily break through the blockade of chitin, hearing rather than seeing the acts of violence that continue all around her. The rain is as fierce as ever, freezing cold and painful, Goldenrods eyes seep as she veritably slams into the earth.

Her landing zone had not been selected at random, indeed she had been leading her Gryphon custodians as close to her team-mates as she could, noting their position somewhere between the still-smouldering remains of the beetle artillery pits.

In the shadow cast by a geyser of flame, as another bug siege-beast is destroyed, the five-fighter crew assemble into a loose formation. They advance under her guidance without incident.

Looking skyward briefly, Goldenrod manages to make out the distinguishing features of Thestral battle-formations as they engage alongside their larger Gryphon counterparts, holding the far more numerous Changelings at bay.

Plastered with mud and soaked with water, the semi-covered forms of Moonshot and Starchaser are otherwise as still as she had left them.

Approaching, she calls out, “friendlies!”

The Gryphons immediately form up a static perimeter, eagle-eyes make for ideal look-outs as Goldenrod and the Gryphoness raise the cover of the poncho.

Moonshot isn’t moving, her eyes are shut. Goldenrod looks at Starchaser sadly.

“She’s still alive, thank Celestia – just get us out of this Tartarus-damned place!”

He blanches a little as a large beaked head makes itself known, “your bat-friend is in a bad way.”

“What do you think – can you carry her out?” Goldenrod says, glancing at the far larger female.

Her yellow slit eyes bore into Goldenrods yolkier-coloured own, she doesn’t waver as the predator thinks.

“Yes, you wait.”

She exits the poncho, a gust of wind threatening to uncover her companions bloodied forms. Within moments the Gryphonesses’ voice peaks up, “we are prepared for exfiltration – let us go.”

Goldenrod backs up with Starchaser doing the same, together they retract the plasma-coated rain protector from Moonshot, discarding it. The poncho could stay here, she didn’t feel like taking it with them.

An even-larger Gryphon – a male – strides over, many of his add-on armour plates having been divided between the other three hunter-killers, he has a makeshift harness attached to his underside.

“We shall strap them together and fly her out of here,” the Gryphon explains, using her clawed bird-hands to make a raising gesture.

“Okay – and thank you.” Goldenrod would have smiled if she hadn’t been so exhausted.

They return to watching the exterior as the slumped-over and unconscious form of Moonshot is quickly strapped into the big Gryphons body-carrier.

Before preparing for take-off, two dozen Changelings and a Commando take notice of them from the nearby hillside, hissing and screeching – they advance at speed, heading straight for them.

The Gryphoness turns, “Go! Get out of here – we shall hold them off!”

With that, the three remaining Gryphons explode off the ground with such force that waterlogged mud is sloshed around them. The big Gryphon-turned-body-carrier begins to lift-off with no prompt necessary.

Goldenrod and Starchaser quickly follow-suite. She chances a look at the ground-level engagement, the three bird-lion hybrids doing well – she has to return her focus to making it through the Changeling air-cover.

Less organised this time, single attackers dart for their formation – Moonshot leaps forward and brings down one and then a second. Then a third and a fourth, using their freshly-killed bodies to propel himself onto his next victim. His anger and rage evident, Goldenrod holds back to protect against any that get through.

Thunder rumbles and hurricane-force winds make the ascent extremely-tenuous, a lone straggler makes it through Starchaser’s defence efforts, a powerful swipe from the Gryphon-carrier gouges a trio of claw-marks across its face. It croaks in death, falling downward and out of sight.

Ground fire lights up her world in a haze of brightness, a sustained stream of sickly green energy bolts lance around them. They weave and jostle, attempting to out-luck their anti-air assailant.

As Starchaser drifts back into their wedge formation, a pair of blasts rip holes in one of his skin-stretched wings. He howls as he lists dangerously far behind them, their continuously building speed taking him out of sight.

“Starchaser!” Too late, she calls for him.

The ground-level shooter adjusts their aim to finish off their fledgeling comrade before the attack stops as suddenly as it began.

Wispy dark soup greets her as she once again bursts through the cloud-cover, a thinner atmosphere strains her lungs which scream for oxygen.

Goldenrods enchanted armour allows her a moment's respite as she rests on the cloud-surface. The big Gryphon hovering near to her, she unties Moonshot – immediately the hunter-killer caws once, diving like a lead weight back toward his quad.

Moonshot looks terrible, even in the darkness. Her breathing is shallow and raspy, she trembles slightly – her face screwed up and brow knitted.

Goldenrod takes a few deep breaths, holding the last for a few seconds in an attempt to slow her breathing down. Taking the straps around herself, she releases Moonshot from her armour, shedding as much weight as possible. The armour remains on the cloud, Moonshot sagging just below it without its magical assistance.

Beginning slowly, the yolk-eyed mare adjusts herself, before discarding her own armour just as she takes off – keeping only her water bladder and sabre.

It would be a long, tiring flight – the harsh pain of the dead-weight pulling on her chest made her consider cutting her compatriot loose. Heading East, it would be sunrise she reckoned by the time she arrived at Saddle Pad.

* * *

Gunfire from a burning building surprises John, he reacts by returning fire – aiming just above the flickering muzzle-flash as he dives for the ground. The ageing concrete and nuclear-charred steel of the pre-war, ground floor office block he and his squad inhabit crunches under the weight of his armour.

A pained scream sounds out, continuously echoing in the cramped room – someone hadn’t been as fast as John, multiple automatic fire now whizzed overhead. Their incessant cacophony making hearing anything else, even rational thought, impossible.

* * *

John wakes with a start, his heart hammers and sweat coats him, “fucking nightmares!” He grumbles to himself, indeed they had been getting more frequent.

He throws his woollen cover off of him angrily, turning to stand with haste, forgetting the wounds he has suffered, he grunts and clutched his side, “fucking ribs!”

He groans and huffs, fumbling in the dark – he activates a small oil lamp and studies his tent. He had worked quite tirelessly repairing his powered assault armour the previous day, ending on a filling dinner and brief chit-chat with some of the regular troops.

It had buy-and-large been the same queries asked and answered; What are you? Where are you from? Why are you here? A handful of questions based on humankinds’ dietary requirements and even a blatant accusation about John being a pony-eater.

He’d smiled wolfishly at that and suggested that he’d been thinking about trying some of the local cuisine. Alluding with great mirth that he might just eat the pony responsible for the outlandish claim.

The boorish guard distancing himself from John quickly thereafter. John didn’t particularly care. As the fresh alertness of the dream faded, he rubbed his tired eyes. He swiped a little orange pill-pot off of the ground, dry-swallowing two high-content painkillers and glancing at his Pip-Boy, which lay adjacent.

0332 it read. He rubbed his tired and greasy face, the cold of the room beginning to irritate him more than anything else. He covered himself and falling back to sleep quickly, entered a dreamless sleep.

“Wake up call!” A chipper female voice disturbs him, John feels rough – like a hangover after a three-day bender and an ass-kicking.

He had managed to tangle himself within the bed sheet, the horridly unaccommodating camp-bed making little noises of duress as John rotates to face the new entry.

It’s a white pony, from the voice a female – she wears a thin and intricate looking golden breastplate, a red cross emblazed on the front and a matching one on a little white side-cap.

She turns to face him side-on, noticing the precariously balanced breakfast tray John ignores his still-dulled pain and reaches out to take it.

“Thank you,” he says automatically – unsure of the pony’s intentions. His post-sleep clumsiness makes him shake a little with the weight of the food. Piping hot oats, several fruits, two croissants and a pony-style water bladder, alongside a large pot of black coffee and a small cup of milk, greet his tired eyes.

She remains standing, taking out a little notepad – she begins jotting things down. She’s an earth-type pony. John can’t help but marvel at her usage of tools without hands, balancing the pad in the nook of the pony equivalent to a wrist and using her mouth to make small notes, she speaks with the pen in her mouth.

“How are we feeling today?” Her dull-orange eyes narrow at him studiously.

He begins sipping the coffee, ignoring the milk, “I’m sorry – who are you?”

She smiles a little, but seems irritated with her current assignment, “I’m Major Dahlia, the Battalions field surgeon. I patched you up after you were brought back almost dead.”

She smiled again but this one was a little strained, “do you mind?” She gestured at a little cushion.

“Take a seat, Major.”

Another little smile, this one more natural feeling, “oh, please call me Dahlia.”

She drags a dirty cushion over from the feet of his power armour, she inspects the suit tentatively, before sitting a few paces from John, she smelled of lavender, he noted.

“So – back to my original question,” she restarted the check-up.

John ignored her for a time, shovelling in mouthfuls of searing hot, extra-bland oats. He washed it down with his coffee, the dark caffeinated beverage had steam rising out of his nose as his head tilted back to finish the mug.

He smacked his lips together and made a drawn-out “ah” sound, “delicious.” He dropped the bowl down onto the tray a little rudely.

He felt his eyes glaze over as the images from a firefight, in his mind many years ago, but in reality, possibly hundreds of years had since passed.

“I’m just fine,” he proved this with a smile, small pieces of grain sat snuggly in his teeth – he picked them out with a dirty fingernail.

Dahlia wrote a few things, keeping a blank face but John knew she could tell he wasn’t being truthful. John, try as he might, had surpassed the point of being able to hide his emotional well-being shortly after the crash.

“Are you in any pain?”

“A little, mostly the broken ribs ache – constantly. I get bouts that range from soreness to debilitating pain,” he gestured at his torso and around his abdomen, “depends how low on painkillers I get.”

She nodded, “any bleeding or blood in your stool or urine?”

He hadn’t really checked, he probably had.

“Yeah, I think so. I’m self-medicating to alleviate the radiation damage and speed-up the recovery process. Anti-rads make you pee blood sometimes,” he shrugged nonchalantly.

She nodded almost encouragingly, “I take it you are capable of noticing the signs and difficulties in your recovery process,” she slowed her speech, speaking a little unassured, “given how many scars and internal marking you have – you’ve really been through it.”

Her eyes became sad for a moment as she wrote a few more things, looking up again, “would you mind if I ask you some things about your personal life? How you are feeling otherwise and some things about you?”

He crossed his arms and lent back, slowly chewing a pastry, “sure.”

She cleared her throat, perking up at his agreement, “do you smoke?”

John swallowed, “no.”

She remained perky, making a note at each answer, “do you drink alcohol?”

He kept his face blank. “On occasion.”

Another note, “you’ve been here roughly two weeks, correct?”

“Give or take,” he finished his pastry, beginning to assault the other.

“Okay – before you arrived in Equestria, where did you live?”

John looked up, “I had been living in-field for three years in a part of a place called south-east Asia. Conditions,” he paused and looked around the tent, “similar to this camp, to be honest.

“After that I spent six months at a space academy, learning a lot of stuff about – well – space.”

He smiled and she returned it, waiting for him to continue.

“Then eight months aboard the Anlace, with periods in between state-side to see family and so on. We had a celebration and then we entered cryostasis.”

She nodded, scribbling away – she flipped a page over, “how many were there with you – aboard your,” she made a face, thinking for the right word, “ship?”


“So… thirty-three including you?”


“I’m sorry.”

“It isn’t your fault. You have nothing to apologise for.”

“Do you feel alone?”


“Sorry – do you feel lonely being that, well – you’re the only one of your kind.”

“Not particularly.”

A flash of plasma caused him to see spots, he whirled under it – catching the vast majority of it across his back – his armour boiled away and his skin split and blistered. He rose and continued charging toward the enemy, John knew if he stopped, he’d end up getting vaporised.

“…are you alright?”

He shook his head to clear his mind, “yeah I was just remembering something.”

She lowered the pad and took the pen out of her mouth, “do you want to tell me about it?”

John didn’t like this therapeutic approach.

He sulked but immediately dragged himself out of it, “have you ever seen your friends get killed? Ever held them in your arms as they died?” He could feel the anger entering his voice, “ever felt what it's like to watch your best mates last moments as their eyes lose that spark?” He shook his head and rubbed the stubble he had.

She looked a little rattled but didn’t otherwise say anything.

“I’ve seen so much shit in my life – I’ve killed people, other humans, mutated humans and plenty of in-between.”

He smirked sadly, knowing already this wasn’t something to be proud of.

“I’ve lost friends, family – and for what?”

He gestured around, “I am fucking trapped here and I doubt very much I’ll ever leave. So fine – so fucking be it – I can make a home here, I suppose.”

“But the people I left behind knowingly? The people on that ship – they’re gone. Everyone I’ve ever known is gone,” he sniffed. John never cried, not even now as his mind was flooded with the images of people he’d once known, twisted bodies and the sights and smells in his career as a combat veteran.

Dahlia remained calm, “they may be gone, John,” she leaned forward and placed a hoof on his shoulder, the smell of lavender returning, “but their memory lives on in you.

“My dad used to tell me, a pony’s only truly gone when you stop saying their name. Don’t let the ponies you’ve lost keep you down, let those memories flow – hang on to the good ones, try to make peace with the bad. I think it’s always possible to balance out the things in your head, John. You just need a little guidance and maybe, a friend to talk to.”

At first, he’d wanted to bat her damn leg off, but the more she spoke the calmer he felt. The memories seemed to stop whirling around his head. He breathed in deeply and closed his eyes.

They sat in silence. She was no longer touching him.

Her eyes were so hazel-brown they looked like honey.

“Cassandra Moore,” he said at last.

She smiled cheerfully, “some pony you left behind?”

He looked at his socked feet, “yeah,” smiled, “yeah I left her behind.”

The grave was simple. As were they all. She hadn’t been religious as far as he knew but found comfort in biblical scripture. John opting to carve a final farewell across an older-model power armour chest piece, using it as a grave-marker. Her favourite passage, and his.

“Then I heard the voice of the lord, saying, “whom shall I send? And who will go for us? And I said,” he smiled dolefully, speaking slowly, “Here am I, send me.”

He’d searched high and low for a wreath, or a flower – the battle-blasted landscape offering no-such prize. He had taken a red T-shirt and attempted to fold it into a petal shape, it was crude – but he was satisfied.

He hesitated, holding it in both hands, he kneeled, leaning his forehead against the cold steel marker, he mumbled the words he’d always meant to say. Placing the make-shift flower just below the steel atop freshly displaced earth, he stepped back, saluted, “ad victoriam!”

Walking away had been the hardest thing he’d ever done. Some days, like today – he wished for nothing else than to be in that grave with her.

His eyes watered and he rubbed them, “thank you, Dahlia,” he looked up, “for listening.”

“Anytime, John,” she stood up and wandered toward the exit, “and John?”

He looked up again.

“I know what it’s like, to lose ponies you care about.”

With those words, she departed. Leaving John to replay the last twenty minutes in his head, he refilled his coffee – sipping the lukewarm contents as he realised, a weight had been lifted and he felt so much better for it. He smiled.

“Dahlia you sweetheart.”

Tactical Thinking

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Dreamless Memories.

John was dreaming, of this he was certain. With time he had managed to channel his true emotions into these dreamscapes. They were usually the culmination of part psychedelic nightmare, part traumatic experience. Sometimes he felt he could guide them – on those rare occasions he could return to normal sleep and not be forcefully awoken with fear gripping his heart.

This was not one of those times.

Voices echoed eerily around in the darkness that encapsulated him, some shouted angrily while others whispered. All of them phantoms of his turbulent past.

“We had orders!” A familiar voice shouted.

“Give me the launcher!” Another added.

“Commander,” one drawled.

“You can’t save them all.”

He heard his own voice, too, “I tried – I tried to save them.”

Images flashed – darkened skies lit up in the brilliant glow of plasma bombardment.

Burned steel and blazed flesh.

“I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t do anything.”

“Then you failed,” a woman whispered dejectedly.

He jerked awake. The tent. He had fallen asleep quickly after Dahlia's visit, the entrance flap was open and a commotion was building in the distance.

What he assumed to originally be the pre-breakfast scramble turned quickly into a camp-wide combat readiness alert.

A Thestral glided past, returning to inform him, “be ready – we could come under attack any minute!” He was gone again.

John stumbled out of bed, quickly lacing his combat boots – he had slept in his combat trousers and OD green T-shirt. His look complete, he cranked the release lever on his armour’s maintenance frame, causing the suit to thunder to the ground.

Set in the middle of its rear-mounted power pack was the opening mechanism, both hands gripped it and it rotated forcefully, the suit flowered opened with a screech.

Stepping inside, the adrenalin began to flow unrestricted, making him shake in anticipation of a possible fight. His suit sealed around him, he now stood at the familiar armour-enhanced height he had for most of his adult life.

He had a pre-mounted miniature nuclear warhead strapped under his armours power pack, just in case. Bending down he grasped a weapons bag and his recently refurbished Laser rifle, its new, sleek and unblemished furniture glinted in the early midday sunlight as he stomped in the direction of the main gate.

A trio of Guard officers huddled near a small tent, one – Captain Anthem – glanced through a small set of binoculars.

Next to her, Colonel Whitebow and Lieutenant Colonel Kodiak spoke with matched grimaces.

He drew near, the smirk inside his helmet hidden, but not the mirthful energy in his voice, “when’s the war on?”

Kodiak seemed surprised to see him, nevertheless turning her usual blank-eyed frown on him, “Commander,” she drawled, just like the dream, “some of ours are returning – the news is,” she paused, “not good.”

Whitebow, who out-heightened the dark Thestral by a fraction, but was missing much of her bulk, jumped into the exchange, “ despite initial success in combat operations against the enemy siege machines – now revealed to be,” she looked hollow, “giant beetles,” her voice regaining much of its edge again, “the Thestral-Gryphon attack force sustained heavy losses.”

Kodiak added, “As well as terrible weather, difficulties in bringing supplies forward and extracting our wounded –”

Whitebow interrupted again, earning a frown, “meant that a hastily formed retreat was initiated sometime last night. But many of our forward-most units are still holding out, we think, led by Lieutenant Midnight.”

Kodiaks eyes burned like brimstone, “we should dispatch relief troops immediately, Colonel.”

John sensed a sharp rebuke from Whitebow, but it was Captain Anthem with bino’s glued to her eyeballs who spoke first, “we’ve more casualties inbound,” she looked hastily around her with gritted teeth, “you – get up there!”

The multiple targeted Royal Guard lurched into the air, several dots becoming visible in the sun-haze as they rocketed toward them.

John stands tall among pre-prepared Guard formations. Many flyers zip above the camp, relaying messages and distributing supplies.

His finely tuned senses tingle, his mind is clear and his body without ache. John is ready once more.

The time moves forward slowly, the heat of the day being fully realized as a warning blips inside his helmet, the outside air temp reading 118 Degrees Fahrenheit, roughly 45 in Celsius, his American mind automatically translates into the European measurement from his many years spent there.

A single struggling Thestral carrying another larger one in a makeshift harness is guided down by a pair of golden-clad Stallions.

She lists downward suddenly, several more Pegasi leap into the air to blanket her fatigue-induced collapse.

From the huddle of concerned soldiers, a cry of, “Medic!” Sounds above the noise of the camp.

Bustling out from within the group, a familiar face drifts toward them on shaky hooves.

“I’m fine, get off me!” She howls at a retreating Guard.

Goldenrod wobbles as she salutes the three officers and John.

“Ma’am’s, Commander.”

“Status report?” It’s Whitebow.

“We eliminated the bugs artillery, but encountered heavy resistance – they were being reinforced, I evacuated my comrade there,” she nodded at the stretcher-bearing group of Guards as they carried away a single Thestral.

She remained standing a little unsteadily, “she was a priority – not sure she’ll make it,” she grunted and pressed a hoof into her side.

“Permission to pass out, Colonel?”


With that, her eyes rolled back and she started to topple over, John just managing to catch her.

“Doc?!” He called out.

She looked half-dead, the result of a long flight carrying the weight of another.

A medic armoured in gold with white accents skids to a halt next to John. He begins to administer a multitude of healing potions and spells, he levitates Goldenrod onto a stretcher before she, along with several others, are whisked away.

John stands again, turning to the onlooking officers, “send me.”

“What?” Whitebow asks, alarmed.

“Send me in – I can hold off any attack and help the retreating Bat-Ponies.”

Kodiak spoke with some anger evident in her voice, “thanks, but my Thestrals can manage a tactical withdrawal without your help.”

“Colonel, I again request we send in a reinforcing unit to aide in their retreat – and if possible, hold that position,” she was standing close and eye-to-eye with the equally tall commanding officer.

Whitebow thought about it, looking at the multiple waves of slow, listless guards now arriving by the dozen.

“Fine – a single company, and him – its non-negotiable, Lieutenant Colonel.”

“We’ll be much faster without him!”

She spun and moved into the tent, prompting Kodiak, Anthem and John to follow.

“You aren’t going anywhere, you’re the regimental commander, Captain Anthem can lead a relief flight – and the human. Take a dozen carriages and evacuate any survivors you can, and you,” she addressed John, “fire support.”

“No problem.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Anthem added, while Kodiak stormed out of the tent.

Colonel!” Whitebow called in admonishment but went ignored.

She exuded anger, “you both have your orders, get it done.”

They departed together, walking side-by-side, they came across an assortment of carriages and many assembled guards.

Each of the twelve carriages holding well over a dozen ponies, plus one human. Two Thestral air-wings of fifteen each took off with them and soon enough, they were airborne. Destined for the smoke-stacked horizon which blazed with both the scorching sun and dying embers of battle.

A multitude of Royal Guard rode out with them, Captain Anthem outlying the plan once more, “Thestrals, mares and stallions from the Guards on the ground or in the air, hit those bastards hard and keep ‘em off our surviving forces. The Unicorns from the 23rd and the Human can provide you with fire.”

She was relaying the battle-order to a thirty-something Sergeant. John having spent enough time around the quadrupeds that he felt confident in estimating their age. The well-worn three-tiered Sergeants chevrons a dead giveaway to his rank.

It was several more minutes of flying, a large gathering of Gryphons capturing their attention. Fifteen Thestral interceptors led by the Thestral Sergeant met them in a diamond pattern. The differently shaped squads drew close, levelled out and flew close to one another for some time.

A pair of Thestrals broke off from the main group, leaving the two formations to drift apart slightly, they both turned and flew in alignment toward the battlespace.

The Thestrals got closer, “It’s Gryphon merc’s, they’re houndin’ for a fight, Captain!”

“Good, take us in, Sergeant.”

Twelve carriages escorted by two Thestral air-wings and a Gryphon hunting pack along with two hundred Guards all chomping at the bit to get into the war. John just hoped that their losses wouldn’t be too many for the ponies to handle.

More waiting, the air currents likely a nice lessoning in the pure heat for the well-armoured ponies. He sat forward in his carriage, they were the tip of the spear, the edge of the knife.

The retreating stragglers having long since abated. As they descended, the battlespace revealed itself, the far side of the gorge had been morphed into a blackened wasteland, the embers from large explosions still ebbed on the periphery of the landscape.

An outcropping on the Equestrian side of the expansive crevice held a small camp, likely the gathered mercenaries and engineering force who had marched all-night by ground.

The landing zone was well concealed just behind the camp in a low-point in the terrain, the dozen carriages emptying over two hundred combined Lunar and Royal Guard, they gathered into three 8x8 square marching formations.

The thirty-odd Thestral air-wings and the equally sized Gryphon war band waiting at the rear of the carriages. A small rock lay forward of the relief force, Captain Anthem stood upon it.

“No fancy speeches today, your squad leaders know what to do, our job is to evacuate as many of our wounded as possible and take over their old positions. Thestrals and Gryphons screen the air, Unicorns hold back here and provide fire support. The rest of you will ‘hop’ across in the carriages. Good luck and Celestia be with us.”

She jumped down, leading the way into the camp, John and a company of Unicorns followed along with several medically-marked ponies.

The camp was simple, a small collection of foxholes and a surrounding trench system too tiny for John to occupy had been supplemented with hastily built barricades, tents and barbed wire. Dozens of predatory Gryphons stalked about, hunger in their beady eyes, John could see other creatures like deer and a few bipedal cows, this world continued to surprise him.

Multiple bedrolls filled with mostly chewed-up Gryphons and the occasional Thestral had the medical attaché rush to their aide.

An angled canopy kept the days' harsh heat from a little pit where a humongous two-legged bull took centre-stage. A battle-worn Thestral, a pristine Royal Guard officer and a Gryphon studied a map. John recognised the Thestral as one of Kodiaks officers from Aylesbury, he didn’t recognise the pony, however.

As John and Captain Anthem entered, the four turned, “Lieutenant Pontiac, report,” Anthem started.

“Captain Anthem, this is Kronos, he’s in command of the Mercenary ground force,” he switched his attention to the Earth-type pony, a stocky male in bare-bones golden armour with a shield emblem on his chest.

“This is Lieutenant Cast Iron with the 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion, he’s helped us establish fortifications both here,” he turned to gesture at the map, causing Anthem and John to peer at it from behind.

“Here, here and here – these small observation-points are well concealed and dug-in, we’ve been using them to ferry out the few wounded we could find. Lieutenant McKenna’s missing and Lieutenant Midnight is leading the last vestiges of Thestrals we’ve got across the gorge. But we lost contact with them a few hours ago.”

Captain Anthem took all this in, asking immediately, “what about her?” She nodded at the Gryphon. John didn’t see any difference in the hybrid to see what validated her as a ‘she’.

She spoke before the latte-coloured Thestral could, “I am Battle-Major Asteria, daughter of Glavkhavau. I rule Air Group North after Eurus’ fall in combat,” Her English was heavily accented and a little fragmented, John noted.

She drew her bird-hand across the parchment-like map in a line, “we fight the black Doxar across this flat ground, mostly by air action – and your Thestrals destroy the enemy siege beasts.

“The weather very bad, we need to fight on ground or be killed by the lightning. We kill many Chuvkoravk,” the final word confusing everyone.

“A Chuvkoravk?” John asked a little nasally due to his helmet, “do you mean Changeling?”

Siek, that is name, my Etiokdlauv not so good.”

E-q-u-es-tri-an,” Kronos glutaral voice sounded out the word for the Gryphon.

He towered over her as he spoke in the Gryphons ancient-sounding language, she listened intently as he made hand gestures, pointing at the map and then made a sweeping gesture – before balling a fist and dropping it into his other hand.

Uvkoldvik,” the single word sounding a little like ‘understood.’ She exited the tent, the cacophony of battle picked up briefly – abating again after a few moments.

The giant bull was a few inches shy of nine feet tall, someway overhead of John. His thick fingers pointed out parts of the map, “your officers have told me of your plan, Captain. You don’t know because you haven’t seen; the enemy has vastly superior numbers and magic-based weapons defending their side of the gorge.”

He shifted his bulk, his single curved horn prodding into the ceiling materiel, “any attempt to reach the other side will result in large casualties. The bugs know the only route across is by air,” he slapped the table angrily, “they send probing attacks more frequently, almost every half-hour, looking for our weaknesses – we must not show fragility.

“I suggest a smokescreen, we have herbs we can burn, a pair of small catapults can fire incendiary bombs, their range is limited, but if we can trick them into believing we have more warriors than we currently have, we can maybe land a holding force on the other side of the gorge.”

Anthem thought about it, looking at the two other ponies present, “ideas?”

Pontiac glanced at Kronos and then to John, finally voicing his thoughts, “we can launch a two-pronged attack with what we have – after the mercenaries put up a smokescreen, we can launch a short-range bombardment using our Unicorn Mages and the Catapults–”

“I have something you can shoot-off,” John rotated his hips, allowing a clear view of his Mini Nuke.

“I heard about the damage those things can do,” he shook his head, his nose wrinkled.

“Captain – after we soften them up a bit, we can quickly get across, landing ground-pounders in the ‘carts and keeping the bugs on their backs using the Gryphons and our Thestrals as our airpower.”

She looked up at John, “and where are you going to be?”

“I’d be wasted held back, Captain. I’ll donate this nuke and then get across with the other mud-stompers, I can hold the landing zone as you get as many of the Mercenaries and engineers across.”

“How many troops have you got, Kronos?” She asked, the plan of attack sounding more and more feasible.

He grunted, “I had three hundred, I’m now down to around two-fifty.”

“Get your stallions ready for battle, Kronos – Cast Iron, what progress have you made?”

He was short and squat, so wide that his neck-straps were taught around his muscular throat, “we came in under-fire, we managed to construct this little camp, making it as defensible as possible – but we had limited resources and time, the Celestia-damned Changelings haven’t made it easy.

“Most of the night we was up diggin’ and buildin’, we can pull some of the rear defences apart and take them across with us, but short of mud walls, I can’t give you much, ma’am.”

“Just get a small enough team across that you can build a disembarkation zone; I want as few of my troops as possible getting killed as soon as we come into view of the enemy.

“Beware that Lieutenant Midnight or her unit may still be alive on the other side, hopefully, she doesn’t get caught out in the barrage.

“Okay, spread the word! I want a unicorn team to sweep the camp, after what happened to the human In Saddle Pad – I don’t want any surprises, understood?”

“Aye, ma’am,” both Pontiac and Cast Iron sounded off together.

That was it, the little gathering of professional soldiers, mercenaries and skirmishers burst into action, the approximately five-hundred strong force would be getting across in waves of over a hundred at a time, leaving a fifty-strong force to defend the camp and provide covering fire.

John, like always, never left home without an assortment of explosives and stabbing weapons, he’d traded a spent Microfusion cell to the Quartermaster in exchange for a lovely sickle-type blade, it was as long as his forearm and he’d attached it to the front of his energy weapon on a hinge. Much like a giant flick-knife, the curved blade could be put into a ‘stabbing’ position, or retracted underneath for safe storage and handling.

He gave it a few test flicks, smiling menacingly inside his helmet, Pontiac inspected his equipment as they plodded back toward the carriages.

“You think she’s still alive?”

“Who?” John pretended not to know.

“Lieutenant Midnight, do you think she survived?”

“I hope so, don’t you?”

Pontiac hummed.

A large explosion wracked the far side of the camp, a prelude to the latest changeling probe, “Bugs! Bugs in the wire!” A far-off Gryphon cried out in alarm, a squad of Thestrals and a handful of their larger hybrid comrades clashed with several dozen Changelings overhead, a few of which broke-off to strafe the Equestrian staging area.

Green-blue energy bolts stream down, causing all of the well-disciplined pony formations to dive to the ground, many of the Thestrals rise and hover, preparing to cut them down as they overshoot the drop-site.

John doesn’t give them the chance, within seconds – his new laser weapon scores its first kills since the commando in the tent as he precisely strikes each bug from the air, like a bassist plucking chords.

They fall momentarily, each crashing into the ground, sliding and toppling for several meters – large crispy gouges a testament to Johns accurate laser blasts.

Not wasting any time, he charges up the little embankment which separates the element-protected Landing Zone from the camp, within he finds multiple ongoing skirmishes, a pair of black Changelings screech in an ear-splitting ululating tone as they massacre an incapacitated Gryphon. John shoots them both, they shudder and fall with the impacts.

He moves on, rushing through the camp at a dead sprint, he does his best to avoid running anyone down. His murder quest not yet over, he spies a trio of black devils coming from a firelit tent, the still-living inhabitants scream as they burn alive.

The offenders aren’t spared a second, laser fire rakes across the three; cutting them apart and turning one to ash – it hisses in defiance as it’s reduced to charred carbon.

He slows as suddenly as he had exploded into his gun-run, the interior of the tent is like an inferno nightmare, several limp forms are alight, a couple writhe in their last moments of life – John puts a single shot into each to ease their suffering. A single Gryphon claw reaches out to him, he thinks quickly that it’s another female, her smaller, trembling claw grasps at his armoured hand and he drags her out of the firestorm.

The arid heat of the day doesn’t help any, the entire tent now ablaze as the flames stretch into the air, ash raining down around them. She is burned, with one forelimb, both rear legs and both wings all swaddled in white bandage, John is resigned to carrying her.

He continues his sweep of the camp, multiple creatures attempt to stop the fire from spreading, a single Pegasus Guard whirls around the flame spire, turning it into an ever-tighter vortex until it peters out.

Reaching a mass of Gryphons, they relentlessly hold back a veritable wave of Changelings on the ground, John waves his rifle at them from his hip and fires a short burst – the bolts enter and exit the Changelings bodies, cleaving half the bugs from their attack.

Their sudden loss in so many causing the survivors to reconsider their position a little too late, the small stalemate ending as a wing of Gryphons dive-bomb the Changelings. Stabbing, slashing and biting with steel, claw and beaks.

The frontal half of the Gryphon ground component attack in conjunction, they viciously slay the bugs to the last, dismembering and opening them in a grotesque and violent display.

The Gryphon from before – the Battle-Major – sounds a victory call much like a carrion bird would. John passes his hand luggage, the wounded Gryphon, over to her compatriots, he returns to the landing zone.

A pair of dug-outs house wooden-framed catapults, John had a pocket version as a kid, he used it to fire stones at the crows that harassed his uncles' farm.

He quickly scales the edge of the defensive wall, behind him the carriages load up for transport. Waiting only for him as they prepare to launch the first wave.

As his silhouette blots out the brazen orange sky, the firing crew regard him as hostile for a moment, one of the smarter among them recognising him as an ally.

“Here,” he palms the pocket-nuke from his armoured back, “be careful – big boom,” he elaborates by making hand gestures, “fire it at the bugs,” he mimics the overhand throwing of a stone.

“I understand, metal Minotaur,” the deer creature frowns seriously, speaking in a strangely musical voice.

He doesn’t waste any time in scrambling for the carriages, he gets there in three-meter leaps and bounds, pausing by the side of the lead cart, where he mounts it and takes his position at the front again.

The catapults make the sound of a rope being pulled through a reel fast; a crack sounding as they launch their projectile. The smoke from the camp and the herb-based fires mix, the bugs probably thinking their firebase had suffered major damage.

“Boy, are they in for a surprise,” the guard next to him, an earth pony, says what John was about to think.

“Mindreader,” he elbows the guard gently.

The atmosphere around them shifts and warps with the detonation, the ground rumbles and vibrations shudder through the carriage. John can feel the heat wash over him and for a moment all other sensation is lost.

He’s snapped back to reality as the delayed sound from the after-shock hits them, Captain Anthem calls for the lift-off of their carriages, “let’s go! Let’s go!”

The six-pony team at the reigns flex and whip their wings, effortlessly pulling the cart into the sky. The G-force is extreme as they rocket towards the artificial smog at impossible speed.

John grunts in his armour as he’s pushed against the inside of it, once through the smoke barrier, the kilometre-wide chasm passes by quickly. Looking around him, John can see multiple Gryphons and Thestrals flying loosely around the first wave of airborne chariots.

Small bursts of ground fire are poorly aimed and timed as they approach a small clearing in the blackened debris of the battlefield. His cart impacts the ground hard and John barely manages to stay inside as they jostle and hop across the uneven surface.

Go, go, go!” He screams the order to be heard over the sound of multiple carts crashing into the ground, a result of their high-speed crossing.

The final carriage is still several dozen meters from the Landing Zone, the ponies already with John spread out and begin securing the perimeter. The engineering Guards begin administering bolstering defensive construction to the deployment area.

The last carriage gets lit up – such a vicious display making John wince internally. Most of the carts pulling crew are hit, trailing wounded or a corpse in the wind.

Its surviving occupants bail out over the mud-plastered terrain as the transport overshoots the drop zone, creating a large trench as it impacts the ground. A few of the hauler’s bodies fall and land with a splat inside the LZ.

A dozen Changelings stand on the other side of a mud wall, John can hear them chittering. He leans over the top and begins firing – they dart and weave but ultimately are cut to pieces.

Magic and catapult attacks hammer the far side of the hill, multiple hostile strong points can be seen – including more pits, potentially harbouring artillery bugs.

Captain Anthem is next to John as Changelings begin pouring into the Landing Site. They’re held at bay by the combined shock-force.

Guard formations blockade their advance by ground, while squads of Gryphons and Thestrals hound the few bugs that dare take to the skies.

Using the mud wall as his fixed fighting position, he fires short bursts and single shots with great precision, dropping dozens to the dirt with ease.

A five-bug squad emerges from a foxhole, imminent enemy reinforcements pour out of similar pores in the earth. He tosses a plasma grenade, the green swirling energy blasts and burns them away in a flash.

A volley of catapult-launched incendiary bombs land at close-range to them, the flames eating away at a platoon-sized bug wave.

He reloads, placing the empty cell in a drop-bag, “what’s the plan, Captain?!”

“We need to hold this location, be ready for the next wave!” the chariots having deployed the first batch of Guards. All but one, they hurriedly take off and weave to avoid the intense ground fire.

John locates one such anti-air crew in a small nest, his HUD reads it as three-hundred meters away. He equips his laser rifle with a rifle grenade. Essentially a high-density plasma charge on the end of a rod, they can be fired accurately at ranges above eight hundred meters by adapting the power level of the rifle.

His suits Virtual Intelligence software handles the calculations, his mind is linked with his rifle and he adjusts his aim, a holographical arc appears in his grey-green Heads Up Display. Holding it over the energy-discharging bug pit, he fires.

An electrical laser blast sounds, the caustic smell of the shot tickles the back of his throat through his helmets air filters. The high-velocity charge travels away at speed. He loses sight of it – a diamond symbol represents its rough coordinates as it hurtles towards the enemy.

A squad of Changelings occupy a defensive position surrounding the energy-pit, as more green bolts scream out of it towards the now distant carriages, the bomb strikes – the primary seismic charge erupts the very earth in a several-meter-radius around the pit. It vanishes underneath a brilliant green burst of plasma energy, eradicating the position.

The shaky, zoomed-in magnified image retracts to his normal field of view, the small incoming attackers have been largely waved off, time to press the advantage.

Anthem had sidled off and was now talking with a large Gryphon and Lieutenant Pontiac, “we have us a lull and I want you to attack! Take 1st platoon over to the ridge on our left flank!”

“Aye, ma’am!” Pontiac darts away, chasing up his objective.

“Battle-Captain Zenith?! Take your Warband across the right side!” They moved up to Johns position at the wall, the engineers zipped around reinforcing the position with wood and hastily building up the mud barricades.

She pointed across toward the distant Changeling fighting positions and war-pits, “there! An old evacuation site we managed to assemble, it will provide you with cover and give us the strategical advantage!”

“Very well, we go now!” his accent was much like the other Gryphon female. He called in several bird-tones, a veritable rabble assembling, two-legged bulls, deer, a few ponies and some striped ponies as well as plenty of Gryphons – all-in-all around a fifty-strong force began to gallop over the mud wall and tear over toward their defensive point.

John and Captain Anthem now stand with around a dozen engineers, a few medics tend to the multiple wounded and a single squad of Thestrals wait toward the rear. The downed carriage had come to a halt a few dozen meters away from him, it had rotated and flipped – no survivors had emerged, only a few going down with it.

“Stay here,” he commanded, “I’m going to recon that cart,” before she could protest, he burst over the wall, approaching the transport at a dead sprint. In only a few seconds, he’d cleared the distance.

A gouge in the earth denoted the impact point, a short scrape led to the wreckage. Blood pockets surrounded the cart, a still pony lay on the ground – her head having suffered a major blow.

He stepped over the body, inspecting the others. Two of the eight ponies pulling the transport had been killed mid-flight, one still in its harness – the front half of the cart stuck into the air awkwardly, causing the body to limply hang from it. The second had been thrown a few meters and lay in a pile, very obviously dead.

Off to his left and right, friendly troops advanced toward positions further west of the Landing Zone. They were meeting some stiff resistance and taking casualties.

He wasted no time in collecting the three dead Guards, they weighed comparatively little, he placed his Laser rifle on his back, it stayed magnetically adhered. With a pony corpse in one hand and the other two slung over his shoulder, he hurried back to the LZ.

He arrived uneventfully, he saw a sadness in the eyes of a medic who he handed the bodies to, placing them respectfully inside an awaiting chariot. The medic began to strip them of useful materials, water bladders and weapons, healing potions – all of it was salvageable.

It began to lift off, overladen with the dead and wounded. Dust swirled in the dry heat, his armours internal temperature management system, or ITeMS was using far more power than usual. He had a micro-nuclear fusion pack to power his suit, more than enough juice. ‘Even so…’ he thought.

A red gem in Captain Anthem's armour began emitting a squelching, screeching sound – really bizarre. She held the glowing gem in a hoof, announcing her rank and name followed by, “semper dicere verum.”

It flashed once, adopting a solid red glow after, “Trojan Red 6, this is Trojan 6, respond, over!”

A strange, swirling windchime sound continuously played, before Pontiac responded.

“Trojan 6, this is Trojan Red 6 – we’re in heavy contact, endanger of being overrun!” His panicked shout solidified the severity of the situation he and his troops were in.

“If they get past you then we’ve all had it! Can you hold?” There was a delay of about a second, the cacophony of battle, ponies screaming and sword and chitin clashing, sounded like hell.

Pontiacs' voice came back, “we’re spread thin, Captain – we’ll hold this position as long as we can. Red-Six out!”

In the distance, both 1st Platoon and the Mercenaries were duking it out with overwhelming enemy forces, John could help – but not both at once.

“Captain, I’m stood by, ready to assist!” He clutched his energy weapon in his hands, business-end pointed skywards.

She nodded once, setting her jaw, “get over to Pontiac – I’ll have those catapults adjust their fire for the Mercenaries, so you’ll be without artillery support.”

John leaned over her, “Captain, I am the support,” with those last words he again entered a flat-out sprint towards the swirling dust vortex, set against napalm-skies and Lieutenant Pontiac's position.

A long, sandy ridge traced a line in an otherwise crusty-black landscape. 1st Platoon were huddled along with it, desperately fighting those that came near. Mostly engaged on the ground, a sole unicorn provided them with shield spells and anti-air fire, the poor soldier’s efforts not quite enough as one-by-one members of Trojan Red 6 fell victim to the tide of battle.

John landed next to the unicorn and a too-young looking Thestral, both were practically kids going by their wide eyes.

You! Just use your shield magic!” he ordered the unicorn, who obeyed gladly, lessening the taxation of his magical abilities.

John turned his gaze on the Thestral as he pulled down on his remaining rifle-grenade, “get the wounded back there!” He pointed behind them to a large crater.

O-okay!” The Guards voice trembled.

John located the forward-most, largest, meanest-looking gathering of black bastards and fired off his explosive directly at them, “hold them back!” He bellowed.

The barely-held line of dirt was being clung to tirelessly. Johns elimination of what might have been the enemies command group sent the Changelings into a wild, disorganised frenzy – they veritably threw themselves atop 1st Platoons stabbers.

He picked off the more persistent looking aggressors – they came in flocks of threes and fours, he sat cross-legged and squeezed off shot after shot. The occasional Changeling mortar exploding prematurely high above them as the Unicorn set to work, impeding the bugs attacking methods significantly.

Several wounded Royal Guard were dragged to safety under the care of the scared Thestral, she began wrapping their wounds and using healing potions to get them back into the fray.

Every few minutes the mountain of enemy corpses seemed to rise to life, with the survivors of each attack wordlessly rallying for the next in a never-ending sacrificial and superficial charge.

He reloaded. A Pegasus used a weapon yet unseen, a small sack big enough to be placed in the palm of your hand was lit, it smoked from the top as it was tossed toward the enemy – exploding in a rainbow of colours. The flesh was wrought from the carapaces of a group of Changelings, they collapsed in bloody-green piles, their bodies smouldering.

‘Neat,’ john thought and hummed accordingly.

A Thestral Sergeant fired a crossbow bolt close-range into the open mouth of a Changeling, it became rigid and toppled over. Another one took its place, its horn glowed, the energy spiralled and shrunk to a pinprick of green light, before being launched at the Sergeants position.

He and his assistant crossbow Stallion were flung from their hastily built foxhole, both laying stunned either side of it. Laser fire leapt from the end of Johns rifle, rippling across the Changelings energy shields, they collapsed and it died – screeching as large, searing holes were burned through it.

John rolled forward, hopping over another guard-filled foxhole and arriving at the dazed Sergeants side. He dragged them both into their hole, covering their recovery by spraying suppressing fire into an encroaching group of enemy sappers.

Many of them fell, the grotesque, insect-like packages they held detonating prematurely, creating a pit a meter across and as deep. The shockwave thrust John into the dirt, the force pressing down into him like a ton of bricks.

After a few moments, the blast abated, he dragged himself into a prone position so he was behind the two Guards foxhole, he again resumed his suppressing fire, striking down another five kills before he needed to reload.

The Sergeant and his assistant crossbow Stallion Joined in, shooting out steel-tipped bolts at a far slower rate of fire.

It was here, by necessity, he remained in a continual cycle. Fire, reload, repeat. Fire, reload, repeat. Sometimes single shots would lance out and pluck incoming stragglers, other times he’d unload a dozen blasts into a group or lob a hand grenade, breaking up the enemy advance.

He had to switch his focus between the sturdier-looking ground attackers or the airier and more agile Changeling fliers, with magic-based artillery acting as a prelude to each attack.

A far-off explosion sounded, more like a crack followed by tumultuous tremors like an earthquake. A sloping hillside leading across the Changeling hive split open, endless torrents of black devils poured out.

The landscape seemed to writhe and pulse such was the multiplicity of the enemy horde. The gaping and disbelieving expressions of the ponies perfectly encapsulated the feeling of hopelessness.

Well-timed and aimed catapult shots impacted the living wave, barely staving off their advance. The mercenaries began to retreat in a zig-zag, disorganised fashion – exposing their right flank.

Coming straight for 1st Platoon, not a single pony abandoned their post – suicidal though it was.

“Here they come!” John’s blood was filled with adrenalin, he took a few breaths to steady himself, quickly weaving over to Pontiac, who was stationed to the left.

The Thestrals head whipped around to fix his anger on John, barely reeling it in as a Royal Guard mare next to him quickly field-stitched a cut on his neck shut. The offending Changeling lay unmoving at the edge of the foxhole.

“We’re about to have company!” John said as he readied himself for the final defence. If their sector fell, the Landing Zone would be overwhelmed.

“No shit,” Pontiac hissed as the final needle threaded through, “you done?”

“Yeah, sir,” she picked up her broadsword in her mouth and set her face in a sturdy grimace. Difficult when you’re holding your weapon in your teeth.

“Get on the horn and ask Anthem for some extra hands,” the terminology was lost on the young officer, but not the meaning.

He rustled inside his breastplate for the communications gem, activating it he began speaking, “This is Trojan Red 6 – we’re about to be overrun, suggest you evacuate the landing zone, over!”

The initial trickle of charcoal-black shape-shifters soon turned into a downpour as they got within range of John. He began firing – reloading as he streamed his entire ‘cell into them on full-auto. He pulled out one of his last grenades, it read ‘fragmentation, airburst,’ he armed it and threw it over-hand like a baseball.

The puff of the detonation and whumf sound as it tore into the enemy was small, but from the two-dozen collapsed bugs, it was devastating. Most of them only incapacitated from the shrapnel, the first few managing to reach them had grievous looking wounds across their fronts.

Three Thestrals and a pair of Royal Guard leap-frogged the forward foxholes to engage the initial wave of buggers. A big stallion on the right of the friendly probe stabbed a long lance through a Changeling, using brute strength to topple and trip two others who were set on by his comrades.

The scores of dead Changelings soon began to accumulate, forcing the Guards back. “Pontiac, organise your troops into a wedge formation!”

The sheer volume of the battle was overwhelming, dozens of Changelings had broken through and were engaging the platoon all along the ridgeline. The order to close-up was spread as fast as possible, although too late for some as the curtain of enemy bug-ponies slaughtered the perimeter Guards without mercy.

He moved behind the first six, a magic bolt pierced one and she collapsed in a pained gurgle. John ignored his urge to help – instead, he began pouring out laser-fire.

Pontiac was screaming into the static-y sounding communication gem, “they’re right on top of us! Bring it in close!” He tossed the gem to his hooves, fighting off a charging bug as it tried to kill him.

The catapult fire adjusted, explosions began raining around them, through the smog of battle – John spied the ever-advancing Changeling horde. An entire battalions’ worth simply trudged past them back toward the gorge, with another reinforcing the push on 1st Platoon.

The Ponies around him had formed a pseudo-oval phalanx, barely enough of them surviving to form two rows of outward-facing weapons. Two pairs of crossbow-armed Stallions fired into the mass surrounding them, the unicorn had erected a domed shield – keeping the magic attacks at bay, yet not able to prevent the bugs from simply walking through the glimmering barrier.

Johns own laser blasts he held in reserve for those that massed more precisely in an attempt to break through the Guards defence. Catapult fire slowly trickled down around them, ebbing away at the teeming mass of black flesh.

“We need to get out of here!” Pontiac declared, “break out of this pocket, or we’ve had it!”

Johns reply consisted of a single shot that over-penetrated the first Changeling, passing into a second behind it, “agreed!”

“1st Platoon, march in formation – toward the gorge!”

Moving slowly, centimetre by centimetre – the artillery fire walked with them, thinning out their fearless enemy who continued to throw themselves through the shield into their waiting blades.

‘Jesus,’ the Changelings bug-based artillery provides the horde with counter-battery fire, unleashing an uncountable torrent of concentrated shots across the gorge into the makeshift firebase.

It was half an hour of brave and courageous fighting before they reached the LZ. Johns Microfusion Cell supply had been exhausted, he’d opted to use his requisitioned flick-blade. His bipedal stance allowed him to tirelessly cut down the bugs, who’s pace had somewhat slowed.

The Drop Site was in view and the engineers had outdone themselves in creating an elaborate set of recessed and overlapping defensive positions. Unicorns kept shield domes in place and rained short-range bombardment spells into the Changelings. The air was thick with swarms of them – the airspace was contested by Thestral and Gryphon teams, they fought on valiantly.

It was a dozen meters away, the catapult fire ceased, before momentarily being adjusted to fire suppress along the exterior perimeter of the Landing Zone.

Carriages waited within the protective energy barrier, the combined catapult and magical artillery fell like molten rain, even so, it barely got the job done.

“Platoon! Break formation!”

The unicorn’s horn seemed to radiate heat as he all but collapsed as his shield spell halted. John scooped him up in one arm, he bounded over the small trench-like barrier, neck and neck with the survivors of 1st Platoon – depositing him next to a white-clad medic, who started to force water into him.

“Lieutenant!” Anthem was waving them towards her cart as many of the defending troops scrabbled to mount up.

John picked up the dizzy unicorn, he received no protests as he unceremoniously dumped him over the edge of the carriage.


“We’re leaving?”

All around the ponies took up final defensive positions, the catapult artillery began slinging caskets of smoking plants, they exploded violently into thick, grey-white plumes.

“Just got word that Saddle Camp is under siege, we’ve been ordered to withdraw from the area immediately.”

A muck covered Thestral appeared, she was haggard, with pieces of her armour missing and various bloodstains.

“Ma’am, we’re all good-to-go!”

She looked at John and he recognised her eyes. Midnight.

“You’ve looked better.”

She clambered in, rolling over John's legs as she squeezed into a spot between Captain Anthem and three Royal Guards.

Anthem looked a little perturbed, “all those capable of flying should do so, we need as much room as possible in these carriages.”

She looked around, all the ponies in their carriage were wounded or not flight-capable, “I guess that’s my cue to leave. Commander,” she nodded at him and leapt from the cart to join a hundred others in their ring-around flying of the DZ.

He waited a little awkwardly, Midnight seemed like she might die any second, the others inside his cart held a similar complexion. One vomited over the side, ‘nice.’

“You good, Lieutenant?”

Her eyes remained closed, but she kind of chuckled, before looking a little nausea, then frowning deeply, “some of them made it.”

John didn’t know who ‘they’ were.


She chuckled again, a speckle of blood bubbled on her lips, “my squad.”

“Go!” The signal was called by an earth pony, he was cut down as a pair of Changelings broke through the perimeter. The shields were kept up as the carts simultaneously lifted off, hurtling back over the gorge.

They careened over the camp, which was now an empty, crater-marked mess, John fully realised the extent of the evacuation. Hundreds of Gryphons, Thestrals and Pegasi all flew in a flock, avoiding ground fire as they and the dozen carts ascended evermore.

He looked back at the Drop Zone. A token force of perhaps thirty, including most of their Unicorn troops, had been left behind to hold off the enemy. He could fully see the extent of their numbers as the entire landscape seemed to writhe with their sheer numerosity.

Several smaller shield bubbles surrounded the LZ’s main larger one, they winked out one-by-one as the holding force were slowly and systematically overrun.

He felt a sickening shame and sorrow for not being able to do anything other than watch. The final, large bubble shrunk a few sizes – a vibrant blister in an expanse of charcoal monsters.

The bubble seemed to glow brighter and brighter, John found he couldn’t look directly at it. Evermore luminous, the sky became painted with a silvery light. It pulsed once before shrinking and then expanding in a brightly coloured explosive wave.

It spread over the Changeling ground forces like a ravenous torrent that swelled and flashed. Finally, it ended – leaving a kilometre-wide hole in the bug’s advance.

“That’s one hell of a view!” John said, stunned and truly in awe.

Midnight’s head lay against the side of the craft as they passed through a cloudbank and lost sight of the ground.

“It’s enough to make you old.”

Indeed, it was, John reasoned.

She coughed once and then leaned her weight entirely against him. He thought she’d passed out or maybe died – but she had simply lost the strength to hold herself up.

The remainder of the journey was spent in relative silence, none of the other Guards made a peep, and Midnight only twitched and jerked with the occasional bump in the flight. The huge gathering of aerial soldiers and mercenaries was something, his helmet had been auto-recording everything – he’d upload all he’d seen to the Anlace, for what good that would do.

For now, he’d endure the relative calm of the flight – he planned for the future, realising he’d need to impart a much larger impact on this conflict if he was to help bring it to a swift and final end.

He brought up his Pip-Boy, beginning a new journal entry, titled “reach for the stars.”

Duty or Dishonour

View Online

The sight of Camp Saddle Pad loomed distantly within a blue-grey smoke haze. Twin spears of Changeling ground forces advance from the west, whilst vibrant blue energy orbs are fired at the besieged Equestrians.

It was difficult to tell, John using his maximum magnification setting within his helmets Heads Up Display to pick out the odd detail. Colonel Whitebow had wisely deployed a handful of garrisoned units into the dead-ground between the camp and the Changelings invaders.

They were holding for now but were vastly outnumbered. Changelings ruled the skies, using large waves to cut swathes through the air, breaking apart the small wings of Equestrian Pegasi.

Midnight grunts as she leans over the side, “whoa – that’s a lotta bugs!”

The afternoon heat was oppressive, even at this altitude. The carts approached in a V formation, with Captain Anthem flying solo off to his left – she could be heard shouting orders at a nearby guard.

“Those who can fight – form up ahead of the chariots. We need to create a diversion; support the bases defence and allow our wounded to get safely back to our staging area at Aylesbury.”

As the Guardsmare took off to rally those who wearily hung around the main carriage group, John mentally instructed his HUD to return to normal magnification.

He searched the nearby airspace for the latte-coloured Captain. Locating her, he had to shout to be heard over the rush of wings and carriage jostle.

Captain Anthem!” She glided over without looking at him.

“I need to be on the ground!”

Her head drags left and right, “no way! Your boats’ full of wounded. Get to the staging area, re-equip and rest – we’ll take the camp back in the next few days.”

He leaned over the rail, “I have some samples of advanced technology down there. Now from what I’ve seen – they must not be allowed to get their hands on it.”

She glanced at him, “they do not possess hands, Commander.”

His glare was lessened by the helmet he wore, but she relented without much time passing.

“Alright, alright, but you’re getting transferred to another cart. This one isn’t stopping until it lands amongst soft beds and softer nurses, you get me?”

“I get you – just–” he was cut off as Midnight kind of headbutted him.

“I’ll fly you over,” she murmured and wobbled a little.

“No way, you’re riding out. Soft nurses await, Lieutenant.”

She shook her head, her eyes focused more and she seemed to look right through him, “I’m going. Now hold on!” She lifted with a single flap, linking her rear and front hooves under each of his arms, she was able to hoist him out with surprising ease.

He resisted the urge to flail, Anthem and another familiar Thestral taking hold of him. His legs dangled like steel I-beams as they leap-frogged him a dozen meters into the opposite cart. His impact made the carriage sway and those in the cart protested the sudden movement.

Two dozen Royal Guard all scurried away from him – their surprise and scorn evaporating upon realising it was John – not a Changeling attack.

Anthem took off again, marshalling more aerial troops. It was late afternoon and the searing temperature had reduced to a constant hot warmth that permeated everything.

The two-carriage groups were divided between combat-capable and those who weren’t. Scores of Gryphons, Thestrals and Pegasi fell away at great speed, dive-bombing toward the Changeling artillery positions.

It made sense to knock them out now, he reasoned.

Half of the carriages levelled out, continuing at their present altitude towards the forested plateau that was the staging area. Johns own lowered into a landing pattern, amongst others that would see them arrive at the rear of the camp.

“Get set for a combat drop!” Senior Guard Summersglide was leading this boatload of troops, John recognised him from the battle of Aylesbury – they exchanged a glance.

John fumbled with his belt, inside which contained medical items – stimulants and antirads, he carefully plucked out a black inhaler with his bulky digits.

Midnight slumped a little but seemed to be getting more alert by the second.

“Here,” he thrust the stim at her, “an X-Cell. Inhale from it – tastes like garbage, but it’ll set you right.”

She took it and eyed it wearily, inching it closer to her mouth.

“What will it do?”

“It’ll enhance every attribute you’ve got. Speed, strength, stamina. You’ll feel better than ever.”

She blinked at it, each eye seemed to be out of sync with the other, finally, she clamped her mouth around it and inhaled a massive drag of air. She seemed to inflate as she held it a second. Taking away the inhaler, she spluttered and coughed – spittle flew out of her.

Ach – it burns!” Her eyes were bloodshot.

“More,” she did so at Johns encouragement.

This time a wheezing, hacking cough overtook her and she dropped the inhaler.

John swiped it up and placed it back within his belt. Making a note to destroy it later.

The sounds of battle were growing as they approached Saddle Pad in an arcing, eastern curve, coming in above tall trees.

The rear of the camp had a few formations of gold-armoured ponies. They each had a red plume affixed to their helmets.

The seven remaining carts landed quickly, the troops inside disembarking with haste – they were rounded up and funnelled into the camps rear-facing entrance.

A heavily armoured Unicorn mare trotted over, she and all the other red-plume-toting guards sported serious expressions.

She sneered at John, ignoring him – she looked at Midnight as she joined them – who seemed much more like her usual self.

“Lieutenant – round up this rabble and get inside, we’re mounting a final defence and then pulling back. Look for Sergeant Gil, he’s somewhere near the eastern gate, tell him there’s enough room for,” she hastily counted the carriages, “less than 100 wounded.”

Midnight halted and saluted crisply, “Aye, Captain. Come on Commander,” together they jogged after the rest of the disembarked troops.

Inside the camp, it was clear enough that the equestrians were on the back-foot. Trains of wounded were escorted to a cleared area – a dozen Unicorns in more elaborate looking garb charged their horns simultaneously. In a flash, the gathered wounded disappeared.

John had heard rumours of black-ops and shadow agencies within the brotherhood having access to teleportation technology – though he’d never seen it with his own eyes.

He was broken out of his thoughts by Midnight, “come on, we need to find Sergeant Gil.”

She led them away from the bustling troop area. She was stood in a tent filled with discarded armour and weapons, enough to equip a few hundred troops.

“Your guys are taking some big hits,” John commented distractedly as he oriented himself to find his tent.

She huffed and loosened her armour, it slithered around her in a heap. The blood-matted and battle-damaged material was shunted aside with her hoof.

“This ain’t no time for a shower,” she was fumbling with a pail of murky water.

“I can’t think straight with that stuff you gave me, now are you gonna help or not?”

For the love of–” he stopped himself as he spied a pair of full buckets, taking one in each hand – he placed them down next to her as she rubbed a soap bar all over herself.

She stiffened and moaned as he dumped a bucket of cool water over her, the runoff was murky and dark. Her front hooves scrubbed at her face as he poured the second one more slowly, washing off the suds.

“Now hurry up and gear up!”

His command seemed to spur her into action. She strapped into a slate grey cuirass, John bent at the waist and tied off one side of the armour. He picked out a fresh-looking Thestral Helmet, he found a Lieutenant’s pip on a piece of shredded armour and thumbed it into the forehead of the headwear.

He placed it squarely on her crown and she clasped the chin strap shut, she looped her sword sheath over her back and gave her wings a test flap.

Drawing her sabre a few times with her mouth and then foreleg, she seemed satisfied to continue.

Working back toward the eastern gate, a squat, armoured pony was shouting orders off a scroll. Wincing guards were being despatched towards the low din and rattle of combat.

Midnight and John stopped within arms-length of the blustery Sergeant, “What?!”

“Sergeant, there’s seven carriages just outside the gate, they’re ready for dust-off – no more than ninety wounded – just to be safe.”

“Aye – of course there is!” He looked over a clipboard with discontent. He spoke in a thick Gaelic declamatory way.

Agh, bloody nosebleed – I’m almost done with the evacuation, Lieutenant – but there’s this blasted gobshite noble stallion who showed up unannounced. He’s right chummy with Princess Celestia, supposedly – and I Cannae bloody find him!”

“You want me to track him down?”

“Aye – if you’ve a spare moment, Lieutenant. He was last seen near the Mercenary camp. Thanks a lot.”

They distanced from the gruff Sergeant. “This is where we part ways again,” a stray artillery ball streaked down towards them but was promptly intercepted by unicorn anti-spells. It stopped dead, before being hurtled back toward the enemy.” They both watched it calmly, Midnight turning back to him.

“I’ll see you soon,” she leapt off the ground – tearing away at an unnatural speed and out of sight.

Leaving the human in her wake, Midnight kept low to avoid any breakthroughs in the Changeling attack. She’d find her aunty – Lieutenant Colonel Kodiak, first.

Her keen eyesight picked out the standard-Thestral formation of a command ring, one of a dozen wooden towers that were high above the camp – providing an excellent vantage point.

She slowed and landed among four senior officers, her aunty, Colonel Whitebow and a pair of new officers Midnight hadn’t yet met.

“Lieutenant, reports of your status were clear; why aren’t you on your way to the staging area?!” Kodiak turned on her, her all-black coat colour coupled with her large size made just about anypony cower. But Midnight was used to it.

“I’m not sitting pretty in a bed while my unit suffers through this!” She gestured out at the battle before them. A trio of air-burst exploded inside the shield-wall, shaking their observation platform noticeably.

Facing westward, the camps outer wall stretched left-to-right, it was made of cut timber and had a spiked top. Reinforced archer towers situated every thirty meters had mounted crossbows that were chipping away at the enemy’s’ advance. A large domed shield covered much of the camp and provided them respite against the constant artillery barrage. Thick, caustic columns of smoke rose from the battlespace.

A faraway cry of “ah-hooh,” could be heard as forward units engaged with the enemy. In the very far distance, Midnight could make out little specs. Captain Anthem and her rag-tag collective of flight-capable troops attempting to knock out the Changeling siege machines.

One of the new officers ignored the exchange, “damn – where’s our artillery?”

“It’ll be here, any minute now.” The second newcomer said.

“Kodiak – introductions,” Whitebow said, the three Royal Guard not looking away from their binoculars.

Kodiak rolled her eyes, nevertheless obeying, “Lieutenant Midnight, this is Major Opaline of the 20th Legion,” the Unicorn had the same gold armour and red plume as the Guards stationed around the east gate.

He turned to look at her, “Lieutenant.” Back to the binos.

“And this is Major Lacewing, part of Colonel Whitebows 23rd Brigade.”

“Hello, Lieutenant” she was a petite and softly-spoken pegasi mare. Her green eyes were like emeralds.

Kodiaks eyes widened like she’d had a realisation, “where’s the human?!”

“The Commanders on his way to his tent. He wanted to secure his technology. He was clear that it couldn’t fall into the enemy’s,” she flexed the ends of her forelegs, “‘hands.’”

Kodiak slowly nodded, “for once I agree with him.”

“Colonel,” Midnight began, “Captain Anthem has taken all of our flight-capable fighters – including the mercenary Gryphon survivors and they’re currently attempting to destroy the enemy siege machines.”

All four looked at her, “I also saw Lieutenant Pontiac leading our ground forces once we landed – he was headed toward the frontline.”

“I know, Lieutenant – word travels fast. I’ve ordered him to hold out in the southern sector with the Mercenaries that survived, as he and his troops have experience in fighting alongside them. You can join them whenever you like.”

“Colonel, a Sergeant Gil from the Legion asked me to help find a missing politician. He was last seen nearby the mercenary camp – so I’d be heading that way anyway.”

“Fine, fine,” she waved disinterestedly at her and returned to her binoculars.

She turned to take-off, making eye contact with her aunt as she did so. She paused with wings extended as she felt a gentle hoof touch her withers.

“Be safe – don’t do anything stupid,” Kodiaks voice dropped to a barely audible whisper, “after you’re done playing fetch, I want you glued to that human, understand?”

With her head angled so she could just look back at her darker coloured relative, she said, “Yes, ma’am,” before shooting off and out of the tower.

She rose steadily in altitude – quickly mapping out the clusters of friendly troops within the camp. Outside of the forcefield and the walls of the camp she could see a defensive line a kilometre long, stretching from the camp to a hill on the far southern edge.

Celestia, we need more troops.’ The thought came easily. That’s what it had been since the beginning though, it was always the Lunar Guard who had to pull miracles out of their asses.

She banked right, casting toward the mismatched mercenary living space. It seemed much of the ground component had made it back unharmed, she found the towering form of Kronos overseeing the construction of more catapult launchers.

“Hurry up! If you don’t get those slingers up right now, I’m shooting you off with the first volley!”

“Yes, boss!” A scrawny cat-like creature replied it spoke in a slimy way that made Midnight’s ears wilt.

“Kronos!” She spoke more loudly than needed, that drug John had given her coursed through her veins, her head pulsed and she had to breathe deeply to parry the effects. She felt invincible.

“Ah-ha-ha, Lieutenant – I have heard good things about the one coloured like a mackerel, the tales my calves have said about you!” He clicked his tongue approvingly.

She landed, dust blasted away from her, “I’ve come to look for a pony noble. I think he’s quite young. He was last seen nearby.”

His expression became grim, “ah yes – the thief. He has been dealt with,”

Dread filled her, “what do you mean, ‘dealt’ with?”

He held his hands out in a placating manner, “he was caught trying to take a little amulet from one of our most fearsome fighters.”

She frowned, “what happened to him?”

“Come – I’ll show you, Mackerel-Pony,” he led her towards a small burgundy-coloured tee-pee.

“Don’t call me that.”

Her frown only worsened once inside the tent.

Blood-soaked rags were hung in a crisscrossed display, some kind of clan emblem, Midnight guessed.

The tent had little trinkets and a rack of lethal and well-used looking blades. But aside from a small cooking pot and a hammock – the living space was unoccupied.

Midnight exited. Kronos had been bent-over to peer into the tent – he stood up too fast and dragged up a small amulet that they’d missed with his one good horn. It had been pinned over the top of the entrance.

“What’s that?” She inquired.

“I do not know,” he snatched the dangling bauble with a hand and glared at it.

“Let me see,” she stood on her rear hooves, Kronos lifting her with his spare hand and holding the trinket out for her to inspect.

A passing Gryphon looked mockingly at the towering bull. A warning grunt through the bulls’ nose caused the Gryphon to carry on and mind his business.

Midnight hummed, “looks like a Gryphon talon.”

She dropped back to all-fours as Kronos stroked his small goatee in thought, “actually, I might know what this is. Follow.” He took off in giant, lumbering strides and Midnight was forced to the air to keep up.

A few tents along, he suddenly turned and stood outside an identical tepee, this one painted in a faded mustard colour.

“Axterios!” He bellowed, “come out from your hovel, I’ve got something for you.”

The clanging of a pot followed by a string of Gryphonese greeted their ears.

An old, sickly and greying Gryphon emerged. Midnight clamped a hoof over her nose, whatever he smelled of reeked worse than swollen corpses.

His teeth were yellowed and one eye shone white with blindness. His mane and fur were patchy and Midnight audibly gagged as a pair of flies followed him out to run rings around the putrid being.

“What have you brought me? A specimen? She looks nubile,” his speech seemed to echo with a nattering, eerie after-voice.

Midnight drew her sabre and held it outward, “shut your rotten mouth, or I’ll stencil my name onto your coat.”

“Oh-,” He laughed in a chattering manner that made her feel even more detest if such a thing were possible.

“And fierce, too,” he crooned, “what do you want?” He suddenly snapped, all humour leaving him.

Kronos held the trinket out, “a pony noble stole a medallion from Cornelia, this was attached above her tent, explain.”

Axterios’ eyes narrowed at it, his front, inwardly bent and yellowed teeth tapped together as he processed, “neh ka, this represents the trial of ubevkenkn, she took the thief out of clan territory for retribution. There’s a small cave nearby, I’d check there.”

Kronos hummed, stowing the little chain, “so helpful today, are you finally departing for the afterlife?”

He laughed again in that irritating, chittering way, “so long as this one comes again to see me,” misty saliva trickled down his chin and his eyes became unfocused.

Midnight usually would have resisted the urge to kill him, she had the intense feeling to kill a lot of folks – it hadn’t ever been a problem. The humans' drug seemed to amplify this urge that pulsated within her and she leapt forward before she could stop herself.

“Mackerel – no!”

She half screamed and half cheered as her sabre cut effortlessly through the turgid and offensive Gryphons neck.

Blood squirted out and he gurgled with wide eyes, he held both claws to his throat in a fruitless effort to stop his blood from leaving him.

She swept her blade backwards, it flashed across his exposed midsection, blood and viscera bubbled out, dark and infected organs painted the hot earth.

He collapsed atop his internals and lay still, a steady flow of red and orange leaked from his half-open beak.

She heaved in excited, short breaths – she felt untouchable and relished the blood-lust.

“What have you done?!” Kronos was agape and couldn’t quite reel in his shock at the scene.

“There will be vengeance for this, Mackerel! He had family – they will demand blood for blood!”

A throaty growl permeated her words, “then it shall be theirs, Kronos,” her sabre was run across the exterior of Axterios’ mustard-coloured tepee and was re-sheathed.

“Forget what you’ve seen, Minotaur – I’ll be back once I find this bitch Cornelia and the stupid noble.”

She leaned in close, her heaving body and bloodshot, bulging eyes made Kronos realise she was not of sound mind. He took a step back. The strong and confident bull felt little of either as the possibly psychotic mare stared him down.

Speak of this to anypony and you’ll die screaming alongside them!” She burst off the ground in what was assuredly the fasted take-off she’d ever achieved. Leaving Kronos to live in fear. She looked for a cave.

After Midnights departure, John had quickly approached a Unicorn and managed to convince him to assist with teleporting many of his supplies to the staging area. He’d clear the way; an escort and the Unicorn would follow.

Paladin-Commander John Maxon, by all accounts the model soldier. Fearless, unshakable.


“Oh fuck, oh shit!” A dozen Changelings had managed to penetrate deep within the camp. John startled at their sneaky approach as they came face-to-face.

The leader was a crafty looking thing, tall with ornate opaque armour. It chittered and screeched – its subordinates obeyed by firing a volley of magical blasts after him. Suppressed; he fell-back away from his target destination.

“Goddamn,” he burst through an unoccupied communal tent – the personal effects of a few dozen soldiers abandoned as they’d been rushed to combat the Changeling assault.

More green-blue blasts chased him, a few skimmed off his energy shields. A pair of ‘lings had flanked him – taking a more direct route and intersecting his escape path.

One ejected a handful of magic attacks – harmlessly absorbed by his pulsating, orange energy shields. He spun mid-air to deliver a spinning kick to the offending bugs head, snapping its neck and killing it.

The second screeched uselessly, its short-spear was pulverised as was the Changeling – John practically falling atop it at full speed.

He scrabbled up off the ground, delivering a stomping head-kick for good measure and continued to circle back toward his tent.

In the confusion and mad dash of his evasion, the bugs had misplaced their prey – John didn’t waste any time in getting back to his tent.

They caught sight of him disappearing into his tent, firing poorly aimed and predicted shots that passed harmlessly through his tent and out the opposite side.

He rocked his armour cradle over with one hand, wasting time as he gripped a handful of cells. He unslung his rifle from his back and planted a new cell into it. A half-dozen others filled his belt and he dashed back outside as the slew of energy bolts slowed.

Immediately he flicked out his over-sized switchblade, thrusting it into the side of a Changeling. it bleated and he wrenched his bayonet free, mercifully shooting two blasts which dissolved its angular head.

He crouched to duck under a cross-fire of incoming energy shots, he sighted two regular Changelings and the squad leader.

The large, tightly-grouped volley of blasts cut the underlings down, however, a trio of shots destined for the leader glanced harmlessly off its opaque armour.

The final, streaking bolt struck the side of its exposed neck, it wriggled and withered backwards. Taking cover behind a tent, John fires a dozen shots at where it should have been. Although he wasn’t sure if he’d scored another kill or not.

The second squad leap-frogged over each other, attempting to close the distance. John hardly took notice and squirted blasts off at them. He counted five more kills before he started to search for the leader.

He kept low, his shoulders hunched – he reloaded, pocketing the discharged cell within a drop-bag.

A spattering of green-black blood ebbed across the ground and left a trail. He followed it, discovering it had simply vanished.

He looked around him. Empty tents and discarded items were strewn everywhere. As if a small town's worth of ponies had upped-sticks and evacuated.

A squad of Gryphons avoided ground-fire and airburst strikes at high-altitude. Johns attention was momentarily split, in that instant he was blasted off his armoured feet.

He landed amongst a tabletop of half-full glasses which smashed. Amber liquid was spilt as the tent he was in collapsed and he was buried under the heavily alcohol-soaked fabric.

The suddenly bright and searing heat as he was immolated in emerald fire caused him no small amount of panic.

He leapt up, traipsing the fire-covered fabric he made his way toward what should have been the showering quarters.

A line of huge oak casks filled with water was his target. He sweated and grit his teeth against the brutal heat, punching again and again at the first barrel he came across.

It burst with a thunderous, snapping-crack – a torrent of water surged out, flattening him against his back and pulling him across the ground.

Steam and boiling moisture clung to everything, sweat beaded across his face in miniature streams which stung his eyes and tasted of salt.

He tore up to his feet like a giant angry gorilla. He flailed out of the singed and burned scraps of the tent – his laser rifle still clasped with an iron grip.

The opaquely armoured Changeling was bleeding a little. The wound had been semi-cauterised and that had probably saved its life. The dark green-black fluid was splattered across its armour and limbs, it was shiny and strangely oily.

It staggered forward on shaky hooves. Magic blasts and green missiles whipped out from its glowing, hole-ridden horn and deflected off or were absorbed by Johns shields.

The humans' hulking frame wobbled as he bounded out of the still-burning tent ruins. He fired on the Changeling with pulsating laser bolts. It was almost comical, the first few missed or were deflected away – they moved closer together.

Finally, a bolt skimmed across and through the Changelings neck, skipping from the back of its head and fizzling out as it impacted another water cask. The shape-shifter became ridged, toppling over afterwards.

John's eyes fluttered and he checked his surroundings. A dozen dead Changelings lay arrayed around a semi-inflamed tepee.

Gold armour glinted amongst the cafeteria tent – he remained cautious. It was the Unicorn from before and two of the red-plume toting guards.

“Hoo-ahh,” one of them said quietly.

“Come on,” he began walking for his stash, “we need to move.”

After flying at low altitude for some time and having found nothing. Midnight, frustrated, took up a position to the left of the Equestrian defensive line that had been dug-in between Camp Saddle Pad and a southern-facing mountain.

She’d scanned the horizon, seeing nothing but the shimmering black forms of Changeling swarms. The artillery bombardment had been reduced to only one or two firing positions, she noted.

Her natural eyesight was acceptable, even at these extreme ranges. Her head pulsed and her jaw had been clamped together for so long she feared it might break. She only bit down harder upon seeing a small disturbance in a tiny green patch.

Several small bursts of green sprouted up wherever water would pool. This particular one had a jagged black speck within it, the mouth of a cave.

She glided down toward it, skimming perilously above the ground. The terrain flashed past her periphery, she dropped lower, her hoof kissed a small shrub. Faster she flew, recklessly close to the ground. She closed her eyes and glided, blindly feeling the wind rush over her coat and across her skin-stretched wings.

Suddenly she opened her eyes and a tiny enclosure of trees greeted her. Slamming on the anchors – she barely managed to land without breaking all of her legs.

It was painful, but the pain dissipated as soon as it came. Looking around her she could see the scent of the greenery, a quartet of different smells traced patterns into the cave entrance, she followed. Her eyes felt itchy and tight like they were about to burst.

Her natural eyesight was usually superb, nothing like this here, though. Every crevice and outcrop seemed to vibrate. She could feel the worms in the earth and little beetles skittering across the floor. She could taste musky sweat and fresh death.

Her sabre was drawn in a single soundless movement. She advanced deeper into the cave, heading downwards.

A pillar of sunlight cut through the murky gloom, harshly illuminating a body. The small chamber was barren aside from the corpse and a small opening to the rear. Hoof and claw marks cut a path towards it, before vanishing.

The body was female, fairly large. She had a brass chest-piece that swirled artistically around her middle. Her limbs were wrapped tightly in silver-grey steel. A claw-hammer lay still holstered at her side.

Her head had been caved in, her beak cracked and her brains spilt from her skull. Midnight took a closer look, a blood-covered rock lay nearby. She sniffed the rock, licked it. The fresh smell and taste of copper were intertwined with lilac and lavender.

“Magic,” the word wasn’t said in her usual quiet tone but rattled out through gritted fangs.

She took the claw-hammer in a wing, its weight felt light and she held it low, her pinion coiled in preparation for a strike.

She followed the trail of tracks that led toward a darkened pit. The short, wide entrance was marred by scratch marks and a few drops of crimson stained the ground.

The crawlspace was just wide enough for a pair of ponies and just high enough for a large male provided plenty of manoeuvring room for Midnights lithesome form.

She wriggled with ease through the several body lengths to the other side. She’d never met a claustrophobic Thestral and so felt no drama when the ceiling of the crawlspace brushed her head.

A little more and she was free. Standing fully, she prepared for an attack that never came, after lowering her weapons she peered into the gloomy expanse. A chamber as big as the royal throne room was decorated with small, porous tunnels.

“Changelings,” she took off at a run, her hooves audibly pattering against the cave wall. She ran and ran, seeming never to tire. She cut into another large chamber, this one had the same textures as any hive or underground leg-pit she’d ever seen.

‘Mucus and sinew,’ she thought in anger, her blood ran fast and hot.

The tell-tale chitter of Changeling speech echoed from the only other entrance, green torchlight grew ever brighter and shadows of hole-filled creatures grew.

The edge of the room was dilapidated, the wall was chipped and cracked. A greasy mucus-y mud pit made itself know and a few droplets of water ruined its otherwise untarnished surface.

She crawled towards it, sheathing her sabre and clutching the claw-hammer in a hoof, she backed into the quicksand-like substance.

It was viscous and thick, oily black and stinking. She submerged herself up to the eyes and mouth, waiting patiently as the sounds of bug-ponies got ever closer.

As the first leg entered, she retracted her head the final bit, sinking up to her nostrils. She breathed shallowly.

She waited, counted to ten. In her mind bursting from her hiding spot was achievable, although, in reality, it was like being buried in stone. Her muscles ached and burned as she brute-forced her way out of the muck.

The first members of the Changeling train had vanished into the tunnel she’d entered from, six remained within and they continued away from her.

She dragged herself to her hooves, she was heavy with the weight of thick, slimy mud. She brushed it from her eyes and mouth, quickly and stealthily de-crusting herself of the turgid substance.

The last Changeling noticed her movements, it began to turn and she leapt for it. Clearing the distance with alarming speed.

It didn’t manage to sound the alarm as its head was rent sideways with the blow from her claw-hammer. Its neck was ripped open and a single spurt of life fluid shot out before it collapsed.

She dragged the body toward the mud, dumping it in – the substance began to bubble and writhe at its presence, causing the corpse to sink much faster. She realised she’d probably been sitting in some kind of lifeform. She didn’t dwell on it and continued forward.

Carefully Midnight plodded through darkened tunnels, her hyper-alert senses allowed her to avoid any patrols. This cave had opened into a vast network of a Changeling warren.

‘Had they been here all this time?’

She continued, eventually coming to a series of natural-looking fortifications. She hid behind one after noticing the expansive force of Changelings across the other side.

It was like an underground path; it was wide and enormous. Thousands of bulky, squat yet large Changelings surged across it. They were likely going to reinforce the attack, probably they were planning to dig right into the camp itself.

She turned, stealthily making her way one-at-a-time across several large boulders and rock-groups. Arriving at another tunnel, she disappeared into it.

The passageway led to a soft and fleshy surface which she quietly moved across, leading her to the top of some type of chamber. Small cells are housed with chitin entrances and barriers. A trio of Changelings stand watch, they look unattentively around them.

A large Commando storms into the cell, causing all three to stand much straighter. It growls some unintelligible words at them. The bug-talk meant nothing to Midnight.

She keeps her cool and waits. One of the cells whisks open, revealing a pair of Gryphons and a small pony embedded within the waxen walls.

One of the Gryphons was a shrivelled husk, the other begins to squirm and wriggle as the Commandos horn ignites.

Midnight descends behind a singular guard, she slashes its throat with her sabre. The gurgle it emits causes the other two to glance at her, unfortunately for them, too late.

The first is struck in the chest with the hammer, shuddering backwards in a cartwheel and crashing into the ground.

She weaves left, a magic bolt skimming her shoulder pauldron as she stabs her sabre through the Changelings neck. She headbutts it twice, the blows cause its legs to collapse and she withdraws her steel. Slashing it through the air in victory, blood paints the floor in a line.

The tension builds as she enters the prison cell, the second Gryphon looked to Midnight to have aged but wriggles defiantly nonetheless.

The commando is large with freshly healed grey scars across its face and neck. The chitin across its legs appears recently healed too.

It snarls a hiss, drawing a long single-edged blade, the steel-tipped, tanto-type point glints in the dim light. Midnight's blade is small by comparison.


The Commando leers at her as it jerks forward, sweepings its long blade for Midnight's legs. She jumps up and swoops to the top of the cell, narrowly avoiding a powerful energy blast which disintegrates the ceiling.

As sparkling debris is cast downward Midnight falls with it, she gauges the place the Changeling should be and targets it with both hammer and sabre – she screams a battle cry.

They hit something soft and it gives way, she collapses in the smoke and debris-strewn cell. Her hooves feel wet, the hammer bounces away as the dim light is momentarily lost.

She jerks back as the Commando starts to thrash, Midnight thrusts her sabre down, but her weapon is sent clattering away with a wisp of sickly green magic.

The Commandos hoof grips her by the throat and Midnight struggles to simply breathe as she’s raised off the ground. A skull-like head emerges out of the gloom as the debris finally settles.

Midnight chokes and squirms to little avail, the hammer had struck the Changelings head, stripping away much of the chitin and leaving the Commando looking fairly terrifying.

Midnight leaps up and raises her body to stretch out along the Commandos forelimb, her weight is too much and the Changeling is weighed down by the entrapped leg. She kicks out with a rear hoof, punting it in the head.

A shredding sound interrupts their death-struggle as the still-alive Gryphon manages to get a talon to slice through the rubbery restraints. He begins sawing at the material.

Hurry!” The nobles voice is sharp and grating.

Midnight loosens her grip as the pressure around her throat falls off. Lowering down she quickly swipes for the Changelings rear legs, managing to get it to the ground.

The big creature snarls, using its superior strength and size to get all over Midnight – it hits her a few times, Midnight weaves her head and uses her forehooves to mitigate the damage.

She reaches up and loops both forelegs around its neck, drawing it close and forcing its head over her shoulder. This likely unfamiliar fighting style is common among Thestral society – strike hard and fast, if unable, take it to the ground and submit your foe.

The Changeling huffs as Midnight delivers blow after blow to its abdomen using her rear legs, The Changeling presses down on her to force her to concede the assault. They both pant as each attempt to gain the upper hoof.

The Gryphon was able to get most of the way through his restraints, slowing suddenly as his stolen life force begins to take its toll.

“Don’t just stand there, you buffoon! Set me loose!” Cries the noble.

The Changeling senses the tide is shifting, it jumps from Midnight, departing with a kick to Midnight's body which she absorbs painfully. She climbs to her hooves and they exchange a flurry of strikes and blows.

Midnight wheels around and kicks the Changeling in the front of its chest, sending it back with a grunt. Magic wraps around her like a tightening noose as she’s thrown against the cell wall.

The wind is knocked out of her, but she manages to regain her footing as the Changeling charges with its head down – attempting to spear her.

She gets out of the way, narrowly avoiding the fatal blow that instead impales the fleshy cell wall – the small structure shudders with the impact.

The Gryphon falls to the floor as gravity claims him once more, he splutters but wastes no time in rearming himself. He takes the claw-hammer and quickly runs a partial line across the pony’s pod, before advancing shakily toward the creature.

Midnight’s head slumps in her state of weakness, the Commando delivers a massive strike to her crown. Her vision fades and hot blood shoots out of her mouth and nose.

She blinks to rid her eyesight of the shroud and the scene unfolds. The Gryphon is a medium-sized male, he looks comparatively ancient as the Changelings feeding process had only partially robbed him of his years.

He still moves fluidly with grace and strength, causing the Commando to bob and weave. The hammers blade just catches the Changelings shoulder, it attempts to rip the hammer from the Gryphons talons and they struggle over it.

The noble gains her attention, “Guardsmare, here!” Her focus is split as her sabre is tossed near her, it skids across the rough ground to rest at her hooves.

Almost in slow motion, she takes the sabre in her mouth and with a new wave of pulsing energy from the human’s drug, she slashes downward at the Changelings head.

The terrible wound isn’t life-threatening enough, however, and the abomination releases its telekinetic grip of the claw-hammer. Sending an energy blast at the fatigued Gryphon and turning on Midnight with death in its skull-like eyes.

Her sabre strikes are warded off with green magic, her mouth stings from the earlier blow but she ignores it. The Gryphon is up for round two and together they work toward cutting down this chitinous tree.

Midnight bounds with great agility under an energy blast, she skids underneath the Changeling and slices a forelimb partially off near the hoof, leaping upward she lifts the much larger fighter off the ground momentarily as the cat-bird hybrid springs atop the fray with an ululating carrion cry.

The blow to the Changelings head causes crystalline teeth and blood to rupture from its mouth, forcing it to sag groundward with the rising damage level.

Together they stand on opposite sides of the dangerous Commando. Midnight – in blood lust – slashes its neck time after time. Its partially severed head is sent careening across the cell like a grotesque golf ball.

They wobble and fall to their knees as they pant with the exertion. Midnight surveys the room, miraculously seeing no sign of enemy reinforcements – she takes a second to compose herself.

She stands and the Gryphon matches her with less vigour than earlier, nodding at her, “I am Lieutenant Midnight, Equestrian Lunar Guard. I’ve come for him.”

The pony inflates as she points her sabre at him, “oh, thank Celestia, these brutes were going to murder me!”

“You were caught stealing in our camp! Gryphon law is firm,” says the ageing hybrid.

Anger bubbles, but she keeps it in check. This wouldn’t be much of rescue if she descended on the insufferable diplomat or the honour-bound Gryphon with murder on her mind.

“Nevertheless,” she struggled with what she should say next.

“We haven’t time to talk about this here, we need to leave – and we need to do it now,” her tone was firm.

“As you say,” the Gryphon began heading for the exit. The diplomat looked stupidly at her, she turned and followed the Gryphon. The Pony catching up shortly after. He stalked openly, having the Commandos sword clutched inexperiencedly in his hooves.

The journey back was a difficult one. Chitinous Changeling dead-ends were placed where the tunnels from before should have been. They found ulterior passage – cautiously moving along it. Coming to a fork in the network, she closed her eyes and listened.

“This way,” Midnight took a couple of steps toward the right-most one.

The Mercenary and the Politician followed wordlessly, their prior hostility towards one another forgotten, for now.

A dim glow emerged up ahead, Midnight flattened herself against the wall, the Gryphon and the pony managing to squeeze together into a small crevice.

A snapping, hissing-growl preceded the appearance of three thicker-looking bugs, each had smooth and shiny chitin moulded over them. The first held a spear with a series of shiny green orbs clinking together from its tip.

The other two surged behind it, getting closer. Midnight doubted they’d pass without conflict and so she readied herself for battle, her blood rushing in anticipation.

In a single precise and graceful movement, Midnight had her sabre out and leapt into a thrusting charge. Her steel punched clean through the Changelings torso – emerging from its chitinous back.

She and the connected creature were shunted aside as the Gryphon Merc pushed passed. Unusually, the Changelings arrayed themselves into formation – blocking the tunnel with their mass and igniting their curved, jagged horns.

His hammer blow was absorbed by their magic as he began to be pulled towards the two creatures. Emerald energy enveloped him and he arched his back and let out an agonised yell.

Midnight had the fleeting thought of just grabbing the whiney pony and getting out another way. But she doubted it’d end too well and she could use the Gryphons fighting ability. Besides, he had helped her before – although more to save himself, she reckoned.

Extracting her blade by pushing against the dead-weight of the speared Changeling. She sped for them – her left-wing draped over the dead ‘lings’ sword, pulling it along.

Their magic attempted to immobilise her but was mitigated by her magic-imbed armour. She felt it vibrate, one of them roared as it broke its duel-fighter configuration to jump out and meet with her.

Her sabre clashed with its chitin-coated blade, it hissed as it pressed down on her. Her head pounded and her heartbeat thrummed arithmetically. Her forelimbs inflated and the Changeling was pushed back an iota – her wing brought her captured weapon around, catching the beast in the neck.

She saw red. Enraged, she out-strengthened the feckless monstrosity, casting its weapon aside with her own, she rotated as her legs seamlessly shot out to kick the Changeling back.

Before it had even passed its comrade, she whirled at the second shape-shifter. It howled and thrashed in a useless attempt to stave off her narcotic-induced frenzy.

She swept low and high. Advancing progressively; it had to surrender the captive Gryphon to fend off Midnights hurricane-like slashes and jabs.

She deflected a counter and returned a jab with her secondary weapon, just cutting its snout. Its compatriot began to rise shakily behind it – she knew she had to end this now, or more would reveal themselves.

Left and then right, the Changeling staggered with her unnaturally fierce assault. It predictively countered, Midnight fell away like a phantom and rose again between it and its sword. They clashed in a vicious headbutt that left her reeling, unfazed though, she brought her head up – smashing her helmet against its jaw.

As its head snapped back, she stroked her sabre across its vulnerable jugular, green blood sprayed out in a geyser – a final thrust through its throat severed its spine and it was dead from the neck down.

The gore-splattered Thestral weaved betwixt magic blasts impressively fast. Her eyes were wide and blood-crazy as she hammered down at the final creature.

It had risen partially and they danced in a high-paced flurry of blade flashes after half a second Midnight had bested the bug-pony. Its headless body lay firm against the tunnel.

She was panting hard and she struggled to regain her lost breath, “come on,” pant, “we need to,” pant, “get out!”

She stumbled along the tunnel, two sets of hoof and claw steps followed. The Gryphon was breathing hard. ‘Really hard. And loud.’

‘No,’ she realised, ‘its me.’ She tried to make less noise.

It wasn’t long before they reached the room with the mud pit. Thankfully no Changelings were present and they were clear to make for the exit into the cave up ahead.

After arriving at the crawlspace, she directed a head-bauble at the Gryphon, “you’re last, watch our back.”

He spat blood on the ground, he looked so old, head swaying as he lent into the wall, his eyes fluttered.

It was harder this time than previous, Midnight's fatigue was returning and the drug the human had given her wasn’t compensating as much.

Once on the other side, before taking cover she checked she was being followed. She was. The noble was half-way through and the Gryphon had just started shoving himself towards her.

Crawling like a jungle cat on the hunt, she concealed herself behind a series of stalagmites. On the other side; Changeling city. A dozen of the well-armoured variety stood statuesque as cave guards.

Shit,” the hushed curse was heard by both of her followers as they slinked into position at her flanks.

She kept one eye on the bugs and chanced an inspection of the Gryphon. He’d aged considerably. He looked more like that rotten old fool Axterios than the young warrior he was.

His eyes were unfocused and hazy, his beak was open and if not for the pointy rock formation he clung to, he’d probably topple over.

“Hey – Gryphon, what’s your name?” She said almost silently.

He squinted at her, “Axanxi, ‘the cobra,’” he seemed to regain some of his stolen youth.

She looked pointedly at the vexing noble, he rose his chin a fraction and her temper flared again.

“I am Sir Legacy Raven Flies, my father is the honourable Le–” she cut him off by leaning in close.

“Axanxi, it's one last push. I’ll need your help,” her voice still a perilous whisper.

He thudded a fist against his chest, “together we shall prevail, Lieutenant. Know that whatever comes next, the prisoner is yours.”

“Thank you,” she looked the scrawny noble all over, “yes or no, can you fight?”

He seemed offended, “I am a fencing champion, Lieutenant – I’ve also practised military drills with my two brothers.”

Midnight resisted the urge to roll her eyes, “that’ll suffice. Axanxi; in your own time.”

Axanxi didn’t acknowledge, he simply leapt over the stalagmite formation. His movement is noticed by the Changelings – who move with fluidity to intercept him.

The thick-bodied Axanxi rolled like an elephant enraged. Gryphonese curses and taunts of death before dishonour are shouted in a voice like a drumbeat.

Midnight flanks around to the right, catching one of them unprepared she punches her blade through its head.

Three more notice her and close in, opposite her engagement the Gryphon is up to his talons in bugs. Keeping them away with warning swings of his hammer, two crumpled bodies lay at his rear like ants caught in the sun.

Parrying a strike, she kills one with a series of well-aimed slashes – burying her sabre down through another ‘ling’s neck and deep into its torso.

Screeches and screams meet her ears, Axanxi wails in agony, answering something unsavoury in his native language.

The third is a large, stubborn beast. It swings a type of long, unwieldy Warhammer around itself. Midnight ducks back as it delivers a massive blow to the earth where she once stood. Taking advantage, she runs along its length – somersaulting and tracing a long line along its head and back.

It turns, never seeing the sabre thrust that would ultimately end its pitiful life. There are five more Changelings between her and Axanxi, he’s bleeding – but still, he carries on.

Together they clash with the remaining enemy, the fight is fierce and treacherous. In the final moments Midnight makes a costly mistake; misinterpreting a feint, she lurches low and is struck in the head with a short-staffed club.

Her vision explodes with stars, both eyes swell and she struggles to breathe through her nose. The events that unfold around her are at half-speed and blurry.

The shape-shifter who struck her stands over her, the club raised high in its magic – preparing to deliver a fatal, finishing blow. It gets barrelled over by Axanxi, he cuts its rear legs with the claw-hammers blade, before splitting its angular head open with the weapons forefront.

He bashes aside another bug; stomping on its head with his hind legs, a torrent of magic blasts cut into his side and the Gryphon stumbles and sunders to the cave floor.

She hears Legacy Flies screaming a rebel yell, he engages into the melee, impressively felling a bug, before sword-fighting it out with another. His precise and particular thrusts challenging the obsidian nightmare, who struggles to find an opening.

The noble-pony finishes off his opponent and moves to assist the weakened pair of warriors. Midnight's vision fails her completely – Legacy’s voice echoes through to her damaged mind.

She feels the fading grip of hooves lower her into the soft, cool grass. The smell of pollen and nature hangs all around her, mixed with caustic smoke and Tartarus-fire. Soon after, Axanxi is placed alongside her. Looking sideways she can see he’s no longer among the living, his stare is vacant and unblinking.

Looking away, Legacy is waving into the air – something is hanging above them. She passes out again, the sensation of a dozen hooves pulling at her.

Shadow of Steel

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The conflict was being played out to the sound of horn blasts and drum beats. The thump of catapult-fire and the roar of Changeling missiles. Some sounds, the silence of shock, the pain of the wounded and the cries of bereaved comrades were common triggers for Johns PTSD. He tried to ignore it.

Go!” At his command, the final squad of Legionaries dashed away from him towards friendly lines. All who could be evacuated, along with his spare equipment, had been sent back through the teleportation array.

He and two Unicorns were crouched behind a pile of timber. The Changelings had just revealed their ace card as wave after wave of thick-bodied monstrosities poured out of a sink-hole from the camps centre.

The two Unicorns with him were Sergeant Jackal and Senior-Guardsmare Green Petal, together they’d been providing suppression for the retreating Equestrians.

The shield wall had been retracted to protect the evacuation site toward the rear, John and his two assigned mages had been tasked with holding this sector.

He flattened the area with sustained laser-fire while the unicorns sent out explosive magical barrages. They synchronized their attacks – dismantling any bug warriors who came within range.

He reloaded. He’d armed himself with a Type-16a Support Weapon. It had a longer emitter, higher rate of fire and could hold up to four ‘cells simultaneously for an increased charge.

The pause in his defence resulted in multiple incoming Changeling shock-troops. A hail of short-range magic attacks decimated their standard line. Many fell dead, simply slackening to the ground.

As they reached within melee distance, he finally leapt up and fired. Short, sharp bursts picked off single enemies and small groups who were too close to one another.

One came within a meter of him, its head was split open like an overripe cantaloupe. Its exoskeleton cracked loudly with the explosion of gore.

Their probe had been defeated, but more rallied on the far side of the ruined area. Chewed up tents and bodies littered the landscape, small trenches had been constructed by both sides, yet provided little protection.

A series of anti-air fire whipped up from the bug-line toward an incoming scout. As he crash-landed behind him, John dissuaded any secondary skirmishes by directing a field of fire at the enemy.

He placed his laser rifle at his armoured feet, he passed a grenade to Petal, “throw it!” He followed up the given explosive by throwing one of his own. The little dark spots sailed into positions thick with bugs and detonated.

The duel whumf-whumf­ as they blew-apart the enemy was felt through the dirt. He re-armed himself, spinning to meet the flustered Pegasi who shook with the near-death encounter.

The messenger sucked in the death-heavy air, focused on the Non-Commissioned Officer chevrons of Sergeant Jackal and spewed out his message.

“We’re pulling back! Right now, head to the East gate for your ride or you’re gonna be left behind!”

He ruffled his wings and prepared for take-off. A cascade of energy blasts painted the area around them, the unicorn-duo raised energy shields to ward off the attack – John returned fire as bolts deflected off of his power armour.

It was dusk now. The setting sun had turned to orange and then almost tangerine. Rich hues of red blended with purple and sepia tones that kissed cotton-candy clouds. Wisps of jet-black smog curled and danced within the sunset palette, like an artist who had forgotten to clean their painting tools.

His eyes flickered back to the Guards in front of him, “stay close; we move together – understood?!”

“Ahh-hoo!” The dog-bark like chant was sounded by all three. They massed behind Johns bulk as he rose to fire at the bugs, twin bursts were his signal to move – he heard them scamper off.

“Come on!” He heard the scout yawp. John turned and ran, zig-zagging to put-off any enemy marksmen.

He skittered over a few dead ponies, ignoring their loss – he resumed suppressing the enemy. The bugs wasted no time in taking over their abandoned positions and they immediately dispatched another probe-attack.

Pillars of earth were displaced as a result of the bug artillery strikes, in the confusion a few short blasts obliterated their troops, “fall back!” He yelled over his shoulder and resumed firing.

This reverse leap-frog carried them bit-by-bit towards the eastern gate. A final platoon of Legionaries awaited after the final gauntlet.

A plethora of bugs had been encircled between the defending Legion and the retreating Equestrian troops. They formed a tight-knit skirmish nearly a hundred meters squared.

The smaller, winged-kind were slowly being eradicated by the tactically superior equine forces – the upper hand would shift with the encroaching reinforcements.

“Pegasus, get to the Legion commander and tell them they’re in danger of being overrun – go!”

“On my way!” He took off violently, weaving to avoid any attempts on his life.

He checked his rifles charge, “Sergeant Jackal, Guardsmare Green Leaf – shields, as strong as you can give me,” his hand gave a chopping gesture, “we cannot allow the enemy to meet with your troops until they’re ready for evacuation.”

They nodded grimly, “won’t get by us, sir,” Sergeant Jackal spoke for them both.

They stepped toward the skirmish, igniting a colourful energy barrier between him and the small-scale battle. His objective was clear; survive.

The inbound throng of bug-like creatures careened and rolled over the blackened and death-splattered terrain without remorse or mercy.

John had set his remaining three fragmentation grenades to detonate on proximity, they were spread as far as he could throw them.

The enemy artillery was being used to try to batter down the shield wall established by the pair of Unicorns. He began firing, his arms shook with the sustained volley as Changeling bodies stacked up by the dozen.

His energy shields wilted under the return fire, John skittered down toward a small defilade. He heaved up a destroyed piece of a cart and placed it between himself and the enemy. Leaning around it to shoot at those exposed, a grenade exploded in a flash of dirt and limbs.

This exchange continued for some time, John was able to hold off the mounting enemy force, who couldn’t do anything but fall dead once in front of him.

He heard his name on the wind, a gentle sound like rolling waves at a distant beach, barely audible over the overlapping clap and rattle of combat.

Squinting at the shield wall he could see a small squad of Equines waiting for him. John pulled back, his departure was the rallying cry needed for a Changeling massed-attack and the ground rumbled under the weight of a thousand chitinous hooves.

He burst through the shield wall, not slowing even a little as he sailed past a unit of ponies. They quickly caught up, hot on his heels. He had to be precise with his footwork as the ground was littered with the dead – mostly Changeling.

The archway of the Eastern Gate soared overhead as he crossed under it, a trio of longbowmares speckled the encroaching enemy force with arrows, not slowing their advance at all.

Go, go, go, go!” The heavily accented voice of Sergeant Gil spurred on the final retreat, as they all descended on a single carriage like bats out of hell.

They scrabbled aboard. The cart was overfilled with ground-only soldiers, a handful of Equestrian fliers waiting above them. Together, they trailed behind the already evacuated Legion.

Once inside they were pressed against one another as the cart turned vertical, attempting to get as much altitude as possible. It weaved to narrowly avoid ground-fire and artillery strikes.

As their cart levelled out, they watched in silence as Camp Saddle pad was completely overrun. John couldn’t help in feeling he had failed. He had been taken in by these creatures and had let them down. The gears in his mind worked, he knew what needed to be done.

As a final departing gift, John had rigged his miniature fusion generator to self-destruct. He’d prepared for the worst and felt no pride in seeing that it was necessary.

He mentally instructed its activation, a warning to escape to the minimum safe distance flared across his Heads Up Display and whisked away at a mental command.

“Hold on everyone, I left a little something for them,” hollow eyes turned from him back to the camp, his mouth set in an expression of apathy as they waited.

Out on the rolling skyline twenty kilometres away, a lance of orange-white energy shot into the pinked clouds. After an instant blinding light too painful to look at widened into a corona of energy. An enormous eruption of many-hued hellfire replaced the brightness, morphing into an obsidian pillar and then flattening into a mushroom-like cloud a kilometre across.

Underneath the unimaginably large-scale explosion, the terrain was crushed and flattened – the camp and the three small mountains surrounding it disintegrated under a stampeding shockwave.

The ponies all stared in stunned awe, having never witnessed the spectacle of a sub-atomic detonation before. Multicoloured tendrils akin to the magical shield barriers fluctuated and patterned around the edges of the giant cloud. The mix of technological power and natural magic feeling like a sacred violation.

John shuddered involuntarily at the sight. For despite the scale of the Changeling attack, this would surely have decimated their advance – if not halted it altogether.

* * *

They sped towards the Staging area, John could see it had been expanded into a small city's worth of troops and supplies. Thousands of tents and small structures lay inside a multi-tiered defensive wall. It was curved and far better fortified than the camp had been. He could make out the squarish forms of the catapult sites, they had halted their bombardment after Johns attention-grabbing explosion.

Within moments they were swooped down amongst hastily cut forest into a medical evacuation centre. The area had been cleared to accommodate the enormous Equestrian losses.

Hundreds of massed dead had been laid out in groups. Capes or ponchos covered them, those still alive were entrapped by the sheer amount of fallen soldiers and held both hate and derision in their eyes.

He disembarked from the carriage, its pulling crew unstrapped themselves, aiding the medical teams nearby with triage.

The Legionaries were unharmed, a red-plume toting officer caught their attention with a whistle and the troops jogged over toward them.

John was left alone with a pair of Royal Guard from the 23rd. He began walking – directionless, they didn’t talk as they looked for their unit. A large tent of Royal Guard was separated from the tents of wounded. It was a long hall-like structure and wall-to-wall packed with ponies all eating and drinking. They murmured in hushed conversations, but the mood and atmosphere were of disappointment and frustration.

“Unit?” He was broken out of his observations by a Guard sat near to the entrance, the tables-worth of ponies with her looked at John warily.

“5th Battalion, 23rd Brigade,” Sergeant Jackal had stopped alongside John.

She shook her head, “we’re 2nd Battalion, you’re a few over I think.”

They followed her accompanying head-jerk. It was three matching tent-halls down and one opposite, each tent had a weary sentry who would direct them closer to their unit. Each one was almost full, but each unit had seen combat across the frontline around Saddle Pad.

“5th Battalion?” John asked before the Sergeant had the chance.

“Take a seat,” a heavily bandaged unicorn stallion gestured at the bench he was occupying.

“This is where we part ways, Sergeant,” John turned to say it, looking both ponies in the eye.

They shuffled passed him, only Sergeant Jackal looked up, saying, “carry on, sir,” before continuing in.

The sun had vanished entirely behind a smog of radioactive clouds and below the curtain of the bug-occupied mountains. The base was fast succumbing to the shadowy darkness of night-time.

Stars twinkled overhead creating warped and twisted patterns in the pre-evening sky, he searched them for some moments. A passing guard patrol snapped him out of it and he carried on his hunt for a familiar face.

“How is she?” After roaming the camp cluelessly, he’d barraged into a medic who claimed to be on a mission to find him. He followed, and after exiting his armour he was eventually ushered into a dimly-lit, dingy and cramped medical ward.

Dozens of critically wounded Ponies, Thestrals, Gryphons and other mammalian fighters were arrayed on camp beds. Many of whom were in the process of being stitched shut, bandaged over or illuminated with healing spells.

In the far-back corner rested a single cot, the familiar form of Lieutenant Midnight lay motionless. If not for her horrific injuries, he could have sworn she was only sleeping.

Major Dahlia, the battalions head surgeon, had greeted him. Hurriedly she had requested a subordinate to take over her work on another, showing John the young officer.

She rubbed the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hoof, “she’s in a coma. I’d really like her to stay that way so she can properly heal.”

The kindred doctor pulled up a clipboard with some scribbles John didn’t recognise and her eyes widened.

“She has broken ribs, bruised kidneys and pelvis and torn muscles all over her body. Her liver is bleeding and we don’t know why. Blood pressure and heart rate are low and honestly, I’m concerned.

She flipped a page, “her bloodwork is a mess. Toxicology report lists large amounts of beta-blocker-sedatives, high-dose synthetic adrenalin, painkillers,” she paused, “a ‘meta-steroid,’ the likes of which I’ve never seen before, trace amounts of a cocktail of augmenting chemicals and a rapid coagulant,” she dropped the report.

“Now these drugs that I assume that you gave to her may have kept her alive, but now I believe they’re assisting in killing her.”

John absorbed the information from the report without reaction, he didn’t allow his face to betray his true feelings, for he never did.

“I can administer a stimpak, I’ve got immuno-boosters and a smoother that’ll help alleviate some of the drugs negative side effects.”

She was shaking her head before he’d even finished speaking, “are these drugs likely to cause more issues?”

“She was beat-up and insistent on continuing. I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice. It’s unlikely they will,” he explained as he checked inside his medical pouch.

He removed a Stimpak, and two other injectors, “here you go Major, give her these and let me know if her condition improves or declines.”

She took them, the kindness from when they’d spoken before being replaced with mistrust. She didn’t say anything, simply injecting them into a drip-line. John's ears were still ringing from the battle.

“Major, I need to report, can you point me in the right direction?”

She glanced at him, before exiting. John followed, casting one final look at Midnight before he did.

It was dark. The base was, in effect, under lights-out. He’d moved his armour behind the medical tent at Major Dahlias insistence. It was nestled between it and an adjacent dwelling, covered with a tarp.

He pulled his combat jacket tightly against his neck, the biting cold threatening to make him shiver. He hadn’t eaten or had any fluids all day and was in desperate need of a shower. First, he needed to find some senior leadership.

It wasn’t long, trailing through the darker-coloured rows of Thestral occupied tents, that he arrived outside of a single command-style domicile. The crest of the 1st Lunar Guards were displayed outside on a totem pole. John approached the flap – dull light traced its edges.

He poked his hand through one side, peering inside he could see a single, large black Thestral staring back at him.

“You’re not the Princess,” Kodiak said glumly.

She didn’t move as John entered, the flap tickled his legs as it fell back into place, “that I am not.”

She relented and turned to move deeper inside her quarters. A pair of dim-golden lamps provided a small amount of light, making the inside feel warm against the exterior cold. Silken decorations were inlaid along the top of the tent, a small sleeping area in an alcove to the rear was partially covered by more see-through sheets.

Her fur was sleek and clean, her armour lay on a ponequin in another corner next to a still-wet grindstone. They were underneath an array of well maintained, recently polished and sharpened blades.

She tossed him a small scroll, “officers pass for the showers. Turn left once outside, head down about six rows until you reach the canteen and its behind there. You can’t miss it, its surrounded in water casks.”

It was an unnaturally generous gesture, he thought. “Oh – before you do, speak to the canteen staff – tell them to prepare an extra meal for delivery to my quarters. And be back within thirty minutes.”

They stared at each other; John wasn’t sure what to say.

“Thanks,” he allowed, ducking his head in gratitude as he left.

The ground had already begun to freeze over, his breath fogged in front of him. He felt a hard days’ worth of grease and sweat stick to his pits and bits and relished the coming cleanse.

In no time he found the Canteen, it was four times the size of the one at Saddle Pad, yet entirely enclosed. He entered through an unguarded flap, the tent was filled with thousands of ponies, Rows almost thirty across and as many deep were overflowing with troops who consumed their body weight in food and drink.

The Royal Guard and Thestrals seemed to be largely separate, both groups competed to one-up one another in terms of noise output. The dead-silence from outside was shattered as a wave of sound hit him. His ears had just started to relax and again they were jingling.

‘Great,’ he sighed and fought his way to the front of the food line. Fortunately, it was only a dozen long – so he didn’t have to contend with too many unsavoury glares as he cut in.

“Lieutenant Colonel Kodiak wants another meal made for her quarters. Said you’d know what she meant.”

He offered what he hoped was a friendly smile, the slightly overweight, middle-aged stallion looked like he couldn’t care less about what the Colonel wanted.

He had what John would later swear was a thick Boston accent, “ah, so it’s yoah who’ah headin’ down fer’ ah date wit da Colonel? Me n’ Patty was jus’ tahlking ‘bout it, wasn’t we?”

He gestured at possibly his twin brother. The other food prepper simply nodded as he passed a load of fried vegetables to the next pony in line.

“Its wicked pahcked in heah, jus tell Kodiahk wen yous see’r, she dodent haveta worry; me n Patty got it!”

He nodded his thanks and carried on through the bustling eatery toward the showers. A large wooden building had been built on struts, it had no lights and John had to feel his way toward the door.

Finding it – he ducked through the entranceway. A pair of guards, one Lunar and one Royal stood either side of a desk. Behind which sat a tall yet plump mare. Her long spiralled horn was currently being filed down in a haze of turquoise magic.

Not one of them attempted to hide their stares as he placed his shower authorisation on the desk. She looked at it for a second, before continuing to study John's face. Her light violet eyes traced the scar that marred his features and became slightly sad as she refocused on his own eyes.

“Do you require your uniform to be laundered?” Her voice was smooth and soft.

“Uh, I don’t really have time…” he trailed off.

She leapt to her hooves, rounding on him from behind the desk. She began ruffling his clothes with her magic, “oh nonsense, I can have this cleaned in an instant. Now just head through there, turn right and you’ll see the shower blocks. Feel free to use whichever you like.”

He paused, “thanks.”

He showered quickly, the blisteringly hot water revitalised his body, he gouged a soap bar into his flesh and worked all the grease and muck from his skin. His aching muscles were thankful. He rinsed with hot water, turning the lever toward the blue mark to cool him down before he rubbed himself dry with the soft white towels provided.

His clothes were neatly folded on a bench in the hallway, even his weapons looked clean. Redressing and rearming, he thanked the willowy mare as he left, she smiled with genuine kindness in return.

The frigid night-time air chilled his semi-damp hair and neck. He cradled the length of his support weapon under one arm, his hands thrust deep into his jacket pockets and shoulders hunched as he double-quick-marched back to Kodiak and dinner.

He didn’t announce his presence in the slightest, barging the tent-flap aside revealed the large Thestral waiting no less calmly for his return.

He rubbed his hands together, holding them towards one of the lamps. They watched each other, neither spoke.

The minutes stretched on. Kodiak flicked through a few pieces of parchment and then began writing a letter of her own. John kneeled near the ponequin; dismantling his side-arm and support weapon, he cleaned their internals thoroughly.

Padded hoof beats sounded from outside, both looked up as a Thestral head poked his snout through the flap, “Princess Luna here to see you, ma’am.”

At last,” she rose, loudly shutting a tome she had been screening through.

The guard retracted his head and was replaced by Princess Luna. It had only been a few days since John had seen her, yet it felt like months.

She wore her usual silver regalia, covered in a thick dark cloak. She had a large hood that shadowed much of her facial features, looking much like the pony-equivalent of death.

Her hood fell in a burst of navy-coloured magic, revealing tired eyes and a mouth that offered a taut yet polite smile.

“Colonel, thou did not conceive to inform us that the human would be joining us,” she turned to him, “Yet we are glad for your company.”

Her cloak unfurled to be placed on a hook beside the entranceway, she magicked a pair of regal cushions into existence and sat opposite Kodiak.

The large Thestral bowed her head in welcome, “Princess. He invited himself.”

“Did he indeed? Manners, Commander. Did your mother not teach you any?” She looked back at him and for a moment, the calamity of the day was discharged from his body.

He sat next to Luna at her beckoning, he crossed his legs and sat upright. Both mares eyed the laser pistol he placed within easy reach but decided not to comment.

The two ponies spoke in a relaxed manner that John thought was at odds and in poor taste given the events of the last few days. They discussed mostly superficial military matters, the political climate and once that had been brought up, Luna offered some very sage counsel to the young Colonel.

“We have found even we are not spared the opinions of the noble families and parties. Some of whom carry much weight in the Canterlot political arena.”

Kodiak frowned at this but sipped at some kind of sugary liquor.

“Indeed – I would advise caution when discussing military matters with any of them; “play nice,’” she said in a mockingly cutesy voice, “as my sister has directed. Yet this task was difficult for us and ‘twas a long time ‘fore we could master this in conversation.

“Pretend all those you encounter are sided with the opposing party and plan your political comments accordingly. Knowing your politics can easily sway a pony’s opinion of you.”

She continued, “the recently imprisoned Colonel Leaphian kept his own beliefs regarding the Thestral government a secret closely guarded.” She glanced at John who watched on with interest, despite this lesson not being particularly useful for him and decided he could be trusted.

“Colonel Leaphian was found guilty of acts against the state and the ruling members of your hieratical leadership. He capitulated, testifying against the Thestrian rebels and helped to root them out.”

Kodiak sneered, “good – although I’m sure his sentence was reduced as a reward for his help.”

Luna hummed but declined to talk more about it. The food arrived, a pair of Thestrals brought three meals between them and announced their contents.

Cooked mixed vegetables, roasted sweet and regular potatoes with a side salad that contained a variety of nuts. They placed down a fruity wine and some kind of yellowish-brown liquor, John tried a little of both before sticking to the wine, the other drink being extremely salty and pungent. Luna also had wine, while Kodiak selected the salt-drink.

“We hope thou are fairly hungry, Commander,” Luna said with a smirk, as a fork levitated in her magic.

The three of them ate, Kodiak and Luna commented on the taste and flavour of the food, John wasn’t listening as he more inhaled the meal rather than chewed it.

He left nothing to spare; finishing his wine in a single, long gulp. He waited for the two mares to finish. Shortly after both Lunar Guards entered, replacing what John now realised was merely the starter with more food and refilled his glass.

The main course consisted of creamy butternut squash linguine with fried sage. A large plate of vegetable paella was placed in the tables centre for them to help themselves.

He forced down forkful after forkful of food, his gut swelled and bloated. He downed his second glass of wine and his surroundings started to look softer and more subdued.

He finished far sooner than Kodiak or Luna, although both ate in a decidedly starving and unladylike manner.

Next came dessert, some kind of cheesecake with ice cream. He ate all of it, not even caring for the poor dietary choice and chased it down with more wine.

When he exhaled, he could smell the alcohol. It was bitter on his tongue as he ran it across his teeth, working out little pieces of food.

The plates and silverware were collected and they all had their glasses topped up, or in Johns case refilled once more. A small selection of nuts was placed on the table along with more bottles of alcohol.

He felt warm and cosy – the alcohol spread from his stomach in rippling waves. Kodiak and Luna began chatting aimlessly and he sipped on his wine.

The conversation shifted again to more genuine topics, Eventually, John noticed the silence – his head tilted to see both mares looking at him.

“Say again?” His voice slurred slightly and he cleared his throat.

Luna started, “we were discussing the explosion that marked the end of the fighting day – you are responsible, yes?”

“I rigged my portable reactor to detonate on command if I needed it to, seemed like the perfect time. I bet it really rocked the Changeling assault.”

“Indeed – the Changelings had attacked across a front stretching from the San Palomino Desert all the way through into the Everfree, in an attempt to bypass Ponyville they crossed between the township and Rambling Rock Ridge. They were caught in a delaying action by more of my Lunar Guards,” she looked both resigned and proud.

She shifted her weight, her glass having been drained, was placed on the table, “conservative evaluations place the Changeling military strength in the low millions, between two to three. It would seem you wiped out a staggering amount of that force. Well done.

“Three days from now a public announcement of your arrival will be made, of your continued assistance and ultimately, of your heroism and valour.”

John pursed his lips, “I don’t fully believe the heroism part is needed, I’m a professional soldier – would you expect any less of me?”

She smiled wryly, “we would not.”

She gestured at her subordinate, “Colonel Kodiak and I will present you with an award, we shall give a little speech. Several nobles and dignitaries from other nations are taking an interest in this conflict, as well as the small reports of a new, tall biped. So be prepared for an ask and answer session.”

He nodded, “I wasn’t planning on staying here for very long, I think I might have a way to end the war sooner.”

They both looked more attentive, “explain,” Luna said a little demandingly.

“well,” he began, “the Anlace – my ship. It has weapons technology aboard, some of which could be fielded against the Changeling threat.”

There was a pause while the two thought about this revelation.

Luna turned her gaze on him, “thou did not convey this to us earlier, what has changed?”

He shrugged unconsciously, “I’m just tired of fighting, I want to help your people.”

His eyebrows lifted and met Kodiaks calculating eyes, “if I can save you the cost of war – then what is there to lose?” He faced Luna, no one spoke for a while.

Luna balled a piece of thick vanilla ice-cream with a dessert spoon, her brow crinkled.

“Are these weapons similar to the explosions you have brought upon us – during the excursion you undertook within the Changeling hive and today after evacuating from the camp?”

Her expression had hardened, somewhat threatening, hurt my ponies and you’ll regret it.

He moistened his lips and tried to look appeasing. Although the wine had fully taken hold of him and the sway of death-inclined emotions and memories that swirled at the back of his mind were making it difficult.

Finally, he opted to smile earnestly, “yes.”

He continued as the two ponies searched each other’s reactions, “well, its more of a maybe. Much of the ship is simply gone – what remains is less than half, many of the main weapons were located toward the forward part of the ship that was destroyed in the crash.”

They again looked to him with guarded interest, “the heavy-lift vehicles and VTOL Dropships were stowed in the rear part, which is also gone,” he counted off on his fingers, “and the prototype anti-ship battery was on the aft nacelle, also destroyed.”

He shook his head dejectedly, “no – I’d really have to have another look at the ship, see what I can find. I remember requisitioning a pair of Jupiter-Class cruise missiles, they were disassembled and stowed Amidships – so I might be able to cobble together a single working one, with some assistance.”

He lowered his counted fingers and made a placating upwards-palm motion. He grasped the wine glass; his dexterity had escaped him and some of the rose-coloured liquid threatened to spill into his lap.

The beverage was stolen from him in a sparkling blue cloud, Luna smiled sweetly at his indigent glare as it was placed out-of-reach.

“Tomorrow morning then, we will arrange for transport to the Anlace. You shall have two full days to conjure whatever you are able and then be back here for the parade.”

John glumly thought about the tang of the confiscated wine on his lips and how sweet it would have been.


Okay, that sounds fine. At the very least – I can probably provide you with some heavy ordinance to use against them.”

He found himself drunkenly nodding along with them, he had to remind himself to act more normal.

“Very well,” Luna looked contented – happier for the plentiful meal.

“Very well,” Johns imitation went ignored.

Luna changed the topic, “John I’ve had some quarters arranged for you – if you will accompany us?”

He glanced at Kodiak as she slurped her drink coyly, was she flirting?

“Roger,” he gathered his side-arm and support weapon, he felt his cheeks flush with the sudden burst of movement and his private thoughts about the black-coated Colonel.

They wished each other goodnight, John’s tall frame stood in stark contrast to Luna’s quadrupedal form out in the dark, cold night. The star-scape above was so luminous, a spattering of buckshot through an obsidian veil.

Their footfalls and hoovesteps crunched across the frozen ground, the camp dark and quiet. A quartet of large, all-male Thestrals courted around them, helpfully shielding John from a gust of freezing wind.

In silence then journeyed through the canvas corridors, eventually approaching a pair of large, high-topped tents.

A guard entered each one, a few seconds later one emerged followed by the other, “all clear, ma’am.”

She nodded in thanks, a ’follow me,’ head sweep later and they were alone inside one of the living spaces. It was a tent within a tent, the shrunken interior meant John had about a finger width between his head and the ceiling. Luna’s horn was free to swish through the air as she walked away from him.

The Princess used her magic to hang up her cloak, unburden herself from her decorative silver pieces, placing them in a dark wooden chest, that had carved lion paws for feet.

A large four-poster bed sat amongst a pile of pillows and silken decoration. John felt comfortable enough to sit on a large dais that was semi-recessed into the ground, facing the entranceway.

His eyes began to flutter shut, as he drifted off his eyes flew open at the sound of a bottle cork being opened, like the crack of a gunshot.

John needed a better line of employment, years ago the stench of death and all the killing didn’t much bother him. That was no longer the case.

He shivered a bit, a tall, thin glass was levitated to him from over his shoulder, he grasped the stem of the glass childishly, “Champagne?”

She smiled as she sat next to him, a small cushion underneath her. He studied her face, unsure of how to act. Raising her glass a little, he foresaw the invite for a toast and clinked his glass together with hers.

“To you, for the victory, you helped us achieve – for the loss of so many and to the fallen.”

He didn’t feel like he’d earned it but drank anyway.

“So, where am I sleeping?”

Her figure was still, her sparkling eyes unblinking as they bored into his own, “in the other tent, or here if you wish.”

He must have missed something, was he dead? Was he dreaming?

“Err, here?” He leaned back a fraction.

She focused on his mouth, “tis a cold night, Commander, you are welcome to stay here. We can drink a little, conversate a little.”

He got to his feet, winding his way out from under her neck which had begun to pin him against the dais, “Uhm I’m just going to go to bed if you don’t mind – I don’t mean to be rude.”

Her demeanour changed instantly, noticeably she stiffened and relaxed, “of course not, goodnight, Commander.”

He offered an awkward wave, placing the mostly full glass at her hooves on the ground, he swiftly exited and brushed passed the door-staff.

Once inside his own temporary home, he took in his surroundings. A smaller bed, perhaps a younger cousin of the one next-door, lay on a raised level at the rear of the tent.

A few cabinets and a chest were arranged around the place, an empty area at the centre he sensed was meant to be occupied by his power armour station.

His eyes widened as the events with Luna played again and again within his mind, what the fuck, he mouthed the question. Maybe he was just looking too much into it.

He heaved the furniture to create a wall between the bed and the entrance, pulling the drawers out of the chest slightly – he rested his support weapon on the makeshift shelf.

He folded his jacket over the dresser. Unholstering his sidearm, John left his boots on and got under the covers. They were soft and silky, they smelled like lavender. He stared at the ceiling for the better part of an hour, it would be some-time before sleep took hold of him.

Getting Started

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A clatter from outside. Bare feet on cold concrete, he stumbles blindly in the dark – so completely encompassing he cannot grasp the scale of where he is. The wind rustles vegetation nearby, muffled slightly by thick fabric. He grasps at his thigh, there it is – his energy pistol, right where it should be.

A filtered light from the exterior of this dark somewhere spreads the canvas, pinpricks of fire widen in circular patterns, like holes burned into textile. The tent falls away, the frame twists and shrivels in the furnace that now exists, in this hell fully realised.

Power Armoured husks like pillars in a multistorey stand across burned earth. Fire singes everything and permeates the very air. Hulking suits all raise a finger, pointing at him accursedly.

“You!” They accost.

He felt thirsty. So thirsty his throat burned and his eyeballs were quite dry. He attempts to speak but no words escape him, he raises his weapon. Pulling the trigger discharges charcoal beams that slice the golems, carving their limbs from their bodies.

They approach, too many for him to dismember. Whereby one droops away, atomised to dust, another takes its place. The final one is near, bearing down on him ferociously. An animated statue, there is no menace in its attack; only an ending to things.

His feet are lead and cement, evading the attack becomes impossible. He is struck, screaming in his ears, echoing the voices of his former life. Heat and bubbling skin.

* * *

John doesn’t awake violently like he usually does, but his heart nonetheless thrums like an off-tune motor. Perspiration clings to him and the smell of his sweat and grease fills his nostrils.

Sunlight cascades through a slit in the top of his tent, the interior is like a freezer. A single frosty point creeps through, golden light fills the watery shard like a cone of the purest honey.

John dislikes the feeling of a hangover; his movements are sluggish and his muscles weakened. He considers himself a consummate professional, getting hammered wasn’t usually his style. But, he argued, at least the majority of his sleep had been dreamless.

Reluctantly unsheathing himself from the bedsheets, he places his energy pistol back into his thigh holster – heading out into the pre-morning mist to track down his stash of weapons and gear.

The camp is surprisingly active, he supposed military life started early no matter the species. Many Guards were wearing light equipment, practising their sparring or marching in formation to perform other duties.

He finds the landing zone from before, several dozen carts have been arrayed close to one another for storage, tarps covering many. A Unicorn officer with a clipboard notices him, his eyes are pale-blue, much like Johns own.

“Can I help?” The officers' voice is crisp.

“Some equipment of mine – large steel boxes, they were transported through the teleportation array during the evac, know where they are?”

“Not me. Staff Sergeant Nickle River was in charge of squaring away the supplies that were brought back.”

John wanted some coffee, “alright – you know where he is?”

The officer hadn’t blinked a single time since John had seen him, “she, somewhere over there, 10th Logistical,” he gestured at several smaller habitation tents.

“Thanks,” as John backed away – his eyes remained locked with the unnaturally blue and unblinking stare of the pony. He continued not blinking until he finally turned back to his clipboard.

The first abnormal pony he’d met thus far. John made a mental note to keep an eye on him if they ever ran into each other. Maybe he was a changeling spy – he’d mention it to Luna.

He paced over to the mess hall. Finding it as bustling with overly raucous soldiers as the night before, he spotted a self-serve beverage unit, which thankfully went ignored as the starving horde of quadrupeds assaulted the dinner line. Several pastries lay in a tray, he took a handful, swallowing one of them hungrily. He poured himself two cups of coffee, put two sugars in each with a little milk and took off for the direction of the logistical tents.

A dozen tan diamond-shaped structures were arrayed along the edge of a long rectangular storage tent. Armed guards had been posted outside. The tent had a timber frame around it containing a locked security door. John marched across the still-frozen ground, he arrived in front of the sentries, who eyed him warily.

“State your business,” one said, he had a thick band of scar tissue across his muzzle. His twin shifted their weight, his spear lowered enough so that he could thrust it through John's head if he proved a threat. He had two coffees in one hand, the other full of croissants, he wasn’t exactly armed and dangerous.

“I’m trying to find these big metal boxes of mine,” he gestured with his hands, spilling some coffee, “I hear there’s a Staff Sergeant with the 10th who might know where they are, you're part of her unit?”

Guard with spear shifted again, “she’s asleep. Sarge gets pretty mean when she’s woken after a night of, well…” he trailed off, his cheeks tinting a little.

“Drinking,” scar-face finished.

John nodded knowingly, “nothing a little caffeine and a pastry won’t solve. Where is she?”

“Over there, third from the right,” he gestured over John's shoulder.

John turned, his coffee was getting cold and he hadn’t taken a sip of it yet, His stomach gurgled, the once-warm pastries had turned cold under the air temperature. He frowned.

A squarish tent with haphazardly strung support pegs was set out of place between two larger accommodation tents. A spattering of orange vomit was outside, her dinner had been some kind of spaghetti. A dozen flies ran circles around it, their backs shiny-blue like the brilliance of plasma-fire.

He thrust a hand inside to open the flap, the smell that greeted him made him think twice about those supplies.

It was gloomy. A pair of bunkbeds rested against one side, a desk was set against the far back and a small hammock-style chair was opposite. Next to it a large tin bathtub filled with grungy water. Chunks of vomit floated against the tawny liquid. A trail of still-drying water led from the tub to the lower bunk and the only occupied bed in the tent.

A lump-like shape under tartan covers didn’t stir as he set his drinks and pastries down on the desk. Loudly announcing his presence by clearing his throat and flapping the tent strip as he hung it aside to allow fresh air inside.

“Wakey, wakey!” He called in a sickly-sweet voice, imitating his mother’s sunshine-tinged tone.

No reaction.

“Sergeant River – your wake-up call is here,” he said loudly. A groan from the lump, followed by a sniff.

He ground his teeth together, impatience and huger overriding his formality.

“Sergeant River,” he said slowly, “get,” he kicked the bed frame, “your ass,” another kick, “up out of,” a harder kick, “this bed!” He raised his voice to a shout, aiming higher and kicking the pony hard enough that she tumbled from out from the covers, sliding down between the tent and the bunk bed.

She groaned, anger soon took a hold of her, quickly she scurried out from under the bed, causing it to tilt towards John. He grabbed its edges and threw it across the living space, it crashed loudly, unfurling the pair of thin bedrolls and sheets, narrowly avoiding the breakfast.

She was on her hooves, glowering up at him, “what the fuck do you think you’re doing you streaky piece of shit?!”

He held his hands out wide, palms showing, “just making sure you wake up on time, Staff Sergeant.”

John backed away from her, taking a coffee in one hand and a pastry, leaving two for her, “breakfast and a coffee, two sugars and milk – didn’t know how you liked it. Be sure to educate me on the way,” with that, he walked past her and outside.

He heard some clattering and cursing, his back to it all. Sipping his coffee, he watched a flight of some kind of bird soar over the camp, he scoffed his last croissant, wishing he’d stolen another dozen.

Hoof steps from behind, he turned without smiling. “You ready?”

She was a short, slightly over-plump mare. Bloodshot dark chocolate eyes were narrowed furiously at him. Her mouth was balled at the cheeks as she chewed, downing both the pastries with half a cup of coffee.

“You better have a damned-excellent reason for waking me like that.”

“Staff Sergeant, I’m Commander Maxon, I’ve been working directly with the Princess so behave. I brought you breakfast as a peace offering.”

He started walking and he heard her keep pace, always lingering just behind him.

“I need you to help me find some boxes that were brought back through the teleportation array, they’re large and made of metal. Should have stuck out to you.”

Her raspy, exasperated voice followed over his shoulder, “I know ‘em, thought they were fishy. Makes sense they belong to you, and you’re going the wrong way.”

He halted and she bumped into him, “take point, then.”

It wasn’t too far. The weather refused to warm up – although, he reasoned, it was still fairly early. The suns light had only just started to set alight to the horizon, napalm skies the forerunner to another sweltering day.

He finished his coffee, which had ceased to be hot some time ago, a tent they passed had a trolley with trays and dirty plates, he placed his mug there – Nickle River doing the same.

Another large tan warehouse-like tent, “Sergeant,” the Pegasus guard on duty offered.

She wrote something on a clipboard, John following the squat Sergeant. It was as cold inside as outside; pallets kept the crates and boxes from making contact with the cold earth. Row after row sailed by in silence, they reached a platform with a tarp covering its contents. John peeked underneath, running a hand across cold metal.

He straightened, “I need a shower.”

She cocked her head, “don’t look at me – I’m not scrubbing your back for you.”

After retrieving a fresh bodysuit, he’d taken the long walk to the shower block on his own, the disgruntled Sergeant had made it clear that she wanted to return to her bed. He’d been threatened with some fairly descriptive forms of neutering should he decide to wake her in such a manner again.

The cubicles were buy-and-large the same as saddle pad. Small interconnected tents, each with room for multiple bodies. He stepped inside and stripped, showered quickly – the water was freezing, he breathed through it as his muscles hardened and his skin thickened.

Quickly drying himself, John forced on the form-fitting undersuit. They’re rubberised, semi-self-cleaning and capable of absorbing large amounts of damage. They also have multiple ports and connectors to link with a set of power armour.

This one was orange with cream highlights, delineative of a rank lower than commander, but he wasn’t concerned. The only human in forty trillion kilometres, who exactly was going to reprimand him?

He took the liberty of soaking his dirty clothes under the shower, working some soap into them. Wringing them out, John carried the wet bundle back to his tent to hang them. He dared not investigate the second tent housing the lunar potentate, for fear of reliving yesternights minimal flirting.

From there, he traced his way back across the base, searching for the medical area. He prowled underneath crisscrossing overhead covers, they would keep the inevitable scorching sun from burning you to death. The same medical tent from yesterday. He crept inside, asking after Lieutenant Midnight.

Pointed towards a little cornered off section, a large black pony had its back to him. Most of the other patients were asleep, John was careful not to wake them as he sneaked up behind the mare.

Large back muscles were bunched-up taut against their shiny carbon-black coat. A pair of powerful bat-wings were draped from the shoulders almost reaching the floor. She wasn’t wearing any identifying uniform, yet Lieutenant Colonel Kodiaks tall and compact physique was a dead giveaway.

“Colonel,” he spoke softly, “any news on her?”

She didn’t turn around or make any indication that she’d heard him. She merely kept herself facing toward the younger officer.

She took a big breath like she’d been holding it, “the drugs you provided seem to be helping, but it’s still uncertain.” Her voice was a tremulous waver, like a child who had been embarrassed in front of their peers.

He took a step closer, “maybe you’d like to get some breakfast with me?” He offered in hope.

‘Or second breakfast,’ he thought.

Her head swayed. She was still, as if in deep thought. Then quietly, “Okay.”

He turned and walked for the exit, her following hoof falls were fairly quiet, he made a sharp left once outside. Disappearing for a moment, he reappeared with his power armour to find a surprised and naked Thestral. Her pristine yellow cat eyes almost identical to Midnights, he could see the resemblance.

She had to crane her neck to meet his downward gaze, so enormous by comparison that he was once armoured.

“Cafeteria’s to the east, lets’ go.” His voice was amplified and sort of nasally.

They stopped off outside his quarters, as quietly as was conceivable, he stowed his power armour inside, hastily leading the Colonel away after.

He and Kodiak moved side-by-side, like the leaders in a two-elephant parade. They arrived at the cavernous eating hall, not a single word exchanged as they each took a tray and piled them high with food. Pancakes made from apples and buckwheat – topped with thick syrup, half a chickpea and onion omelette, and a vegan blueberry French-toast breakfast muffin. Sided with an extra-large glass of orange juice and several slices of multi-grain toast. He’d picked guacamole to spread over his while Kodiak selected a thick fruity conserve.

They ate gluttonously, neither caring for table manners – the thought tickled him as he’d never met a soldier who couldn’t pack away six meals in one go, the result made him snigger halfway though a muffin.

What?” She asked, incredulously returning from round two of stacking her tray with food.

“Nothing,” he answered quickly, standing to see how much he could consume.

They both sat straddling the benches, his gut felt distended, his iron-hard abdominal muscles were bulging far beyond where they should have been. Kodiak too appeared to have grown several sizes in the middle-region.

She finished her juice, motioning John to do the same as she rose. A chorus of laughter erupted from the other side of the tent. A puppet-like imitation of a small changeling had been fashioned and fastened from the support beams, dangling in a chair-less section of the hall. A few guards took turns swatting it whilst blindfolded.

He turned to her as they left, “I need a carriage to my ship, Colonel. Princess Luna said it’d be arranged come morning.”

She nodded, stifling a belch, “It’s on the west side of camp.”

John raised his head in the direction she faced, wispy clouds slowly sizzled on an auburn coloured horizon. Feather-tips of vapour spread like tendrils of sand across a vast blue sea.

Her tone shifted from down-time to her usual sternness, “see you in two days,” she offered a hoof.

He looked down at it a little perplexedly, grasping it, he shook it thrice, the move confused the Colonel – what else was he supposed to do?

Some light turbulence buffeted the extra-roomy carriage that had been pressed into service. It was about ten meters long and three wide, John sat amongst close to forty wounded ponies, once at the transport depot, they’d get shipped back to their hometowns. For them the fighting was over, many sported missing limbs and bandage covered eyes.

An eight-Thestral pulling team heaved against the airstream. Flight-Sergeant Dark Comet had identified himself and his team as members of 3rd Battalion – called upon to serve as Kodiaks 1st had been largely depleted of soldiers.

Once high among the clouds, the rattling abated. The remainder of the flight was calm, the mood amongst the wounded was a sombre one. A small mare next to John had been badly burned, the sight sent shivers across his spine, hollowed his stomach and filled his throat with sand.

Her eye sockets were sunken and yet swollen, she peered at him through bumpy slits. She had one ear completely burned off, the other still retained some light teal fur. Her miraculously white and perfect teeth moved, she was speaking but that faint ringing had returned, making all other sound unintelligible.

She was fairly cheery, telling him all about her small family. Her name was Jubilant Flower, and jubilant she dearly was. She hailed from the coastal town of Seaward Shoals, her mother and father worked the fishing trade, as their fathers and mothers before them. She had been the first in her bloodline to volunteer for Guard Service, enlisting only last year.

She reminisced on how her parents worried greatly for their only child, the three of them had bitter, angry arguments for some time leading up to her training.

“I would always tell them, it’s just a reserve unit. I’m never going to see any fighting.

Her one ear fell back and she looked at the carriage floor. John didn’t know what to say, counselling grievously wounded equines was not a part of his skill set.

He nudged her, “look at the bright side – you get to see your folks. Spend the rest of your life at sea, find a…” the right word eluded him, “strong male. Have kids. Settle down.”

She didn’t seem any the cheerier for his words, “what about your unicorn magic – can’t that do anything?”

She took a big breath, “there are spells and potions that could help, Major Dahlia already sent a letter to a caster in Baltimare. That’s where I’m headed before I go home – and all of them.” She looked across the group of downcast heads.

Finally, she looked at him, her fate uncertain, “I just don’t know.”

The drop-off had been abrupt, the cart had suddenly dropped several hundred meters, hitting the treetops and skimming them in a maneuverer that would cut any human craft in half. As the Gs began to build, that pressure was lifted as the clearing just before the Anlace filled his view.

The cart dipped towards the ground, coming to a striking stop along a large defilade. That was Johns cue to disembark – rubberised boots sank half an inch into the soft grass. The cart rocketed away, him the only passenger to get off at this stop.

He slings his rifle – blue sky overhead and that incessant Equestrian heat. John takes in a breath of pollen-infused air, walking towards the mountaintop, which peeks above the defilade.

A dozen tents, it looked like operations here had been expanded significantly. Wooden posts had been battered into the ground at intervals, multiple guards patrolled across it, never daring to stray too closely toward the bubble which he knew was there.

The scar in the terrain traced by his doomed starship had been polished up, grass now lay where disturbed dirt and upset trees had once been. As John draws near to the tents, he keeps his eyes skywards. Thick rainclouds threaten from low-orbit, hanging maliciously over the mountain range.

A Guard inside a tent spots him, coming out from his paperwork – John recognised the stubby face of Captain Stark Wing.

“Captain, I could use some assistance with my ship.”

“Of course. Tell me what you need.”

The feeling of fizziness in his mouth and the popping from pressure in his ears solidified what he needed to achieve. Captain Stark Wing had granted him the use of forty soldiers, many of them unicorns – their magic would be put to good use.

Starting with a brief of the interior, John described the dangers one could find within the reconnaissance craft.

“Power levels should be at below three per cent, what this means is only some of the doors will even function – so be careful, and don’t go wandering off. The Anlace is also on its side, it had panels and support columns all over it – once inside you could get confused. Only go where you’ve been explicitly told is safe.

“Furthermore, we have three objectives set out for us; exhume the dead and respectfully bury them, secure some equipment we can use to eliminate the Changeling threat and a secondary goal of rotating the ship right-side up. But only if we can – I don’t want anyone blowing a magic node or whatever it is. Understand?”

He got a handful of ‘yes sirs,’ and nods.

“Good, Lieutenant Hayseed will come with me, I’ll show him and two others the way to go, we’ll mark it with white chalk, then you’re free to travel to and from the cryo chamber. Bring the bodies out, drop them off out here.

“Staff Sergeant Hard Coal has already begun digging graves with her squad, you’ll all be helping with that until instructed otherwise.”

Their movement was slow, his rifle-mounted flashlight illuminated the stressed and heavily damaged internals of his ship, they traced lines across the cold steel of the walls. The ships onboard computer intelligence had entered hibernation mode to conserve energy for life support, which had been turned off.

They passed many sealed doors, eventually stumbling across the path he’d taken during his flight from the crash-landing space-craft. A guard at the rear scratched chalk in short intervals.

“In here,” he passed through the decontamination section, then into corridor 1-A of the cryogenic suite.

He sighed, the air was somehow oily, “there are four corridors just like this – one above and below. The second pair are located starboard, I’ll arrange the bodies – each of you take a crewmember, and get back to the others. I’ll need to thaw out these bodies manually, for that I need more power, so I’ll be two decks below this one, and aft. Understand?”

Stark Wing’s light crystal painted him in red and black, he nodded grimly, they all looked around fearfully.

The pair of crew members John pulled out first were formerly Knight Fenton and Lancer-Captain Marshall. They appeared to be sleeping and were cold to touch.

On the way, he’d passed the infirmary and snagged a dozen body bags, something he had hoped he’d not need. A unicorn guard used his magic to tentatively lift Fenton, he studied his face as it was covered – his form sliding inside the sleeve-like bag. Marshall followed into her own shortly after.

Lieutenant Hayseed stood stock-still while one of the bags was hefted onto him, the Unicorn guard placed the other on his own back and the pair set off.

John and the remaining guard looked at each other.

“Stay here and for the love-of-god don’t touch anything.”

Leaving her behind, he exited through a maintenance hatch, passing right and then left – he arrived at a ladder. Climbing through it, he was moving towards the formerly-lower level, he needed to go sideways to do that. The sound of hoof-steps faded eerily in the pitch-blackness, yet he wasn’t alarmed. He knew the Anlace well.

John passed through an intersection in remarkably good condition, as his weapon-mounted flashlight passed over the undamaged bulkhead he had a sense of Deja Vu. Had the last week not been fresh on his mind he could have mistaken it for just another battery of safety tests leading up to their maiden flight.

A once downward slope was above him, he climbed up into it and into an observation blister, he was now looking through scratched safety glass into the reactor bay.

The controls were dark, he activated his portion of the rooms back-up fusion cell, the entire ship was filled with them. The terminals booted up, he turned off his illumination. Rotating chairs remained bolted to the wall, with nothing out of the ordinary otherwise. Aside from being sideways.

The ship had artificial gravity. Although the technology was beyond him, he knew how to activate and concentrate the field around himself so that he might work more comfortably.

It would have been tricky to use the terminals whilst the wrong way up. So far, he’d managed to interface his pip-boy and was making startling progress. The forward anti-grav system came online without a hitch.

An odd pulling sensation began to drag him sideways, he rotated, landing quite softly on his back as he manipulated the power levels. He set his gravity cordon at .3 of Earths so as not to waste power.

He began the pre-start-up sequence needed to initialise the reactors. One would be non-functional as he had destroyed the housing while disabling the auto self-destruct.

Usually, the Anlace’s team of scribes and engineers would perform a well-choreographed set of manipulations to ensure the safe start-up of the spires. John didn’t have the knowhow or team to begin such a procedure, instead opting for robotic and computational assistance.

A Mr Handy Maintenance Technician bobbed out from within a protective housing, its single jet of propulsion sending it towards the one remaining salvageable core. It was a ball-shaped machine, three arms held semi-circular cameras like eyes above its fuselage, while three smaller arms dangled underneath, each sporting a different tool.

Its arms on its midsection cradled the internal pieces of the spire, calibrating them, preparing for the start-up sequence. Meanwhile, John warmed up the electrical conduits to bring power into this section, essentially rigging the multitude of back-up power sources into a constant flow with which he could feed into the reactor to get the ball rolling.

Fusion reactors needed an enormous build-up of juice to get them going, but once initiated the reaction could be maintained, outputting several times more than the spire had been fed with.

Fusion reactors are innovative imitations of the reaction at the centre of a sun and the stars. Hydrogen nuclei collide, fuse into heavier helium atoms and release tremendous amounts of energy in the process.

Although different isotopes of light elements can be paired to achieve fusion, the deuterium-tritium, or DT reaction has been identified as the most efficient for fusion drives. The S-10 reactor spire and similar Brotherhood devices use the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium to fuel the fusion reaction.

Deuterium can be distilled from all forms of water. It is a widely available, harmless and virtually inexhaustible resource. In every cubic metre of seawater, there are 33 grams of deuterium. It is routinely produced for scientific and industrial applications.

Tritium is a fast-decaying radioelement of hydrogen which occurs only in trace quantities in nature. It can be produced during the fusion reaction through the contact with lithium, however: tritium is produced, or “bred,” when neutrons escaping the plasma interact with lithium contained in the blanket wall of the tokamak.

A fusion reaction is about four times more economic than a chemical reaction such as the burning of coal, oil or gas. In the second half of the 21st century, humankind had all but depleted the easily available resources for power production on earth. Fusion power is a far safer, more economical and environmentally sound means of generating electricity.

While the computer ran simulations, John was busy scrawling through the ship's systems. The Anlace had sustained massive damage, the frontal third of the ship was simply gone, along with the anterior hanger and primary Artificial Intelligence.

The ship still had the stern-side fusion engines and a semi-functional array of chemical emergency-lift boosters, meaning he could probably get the craft off of the ground. Gravity was working here, but he could see read-outs where systems simply weren’t responding.

He had a look through the ships inventory. A pair of Jupiter-Class Cruise Missiles. The weapons were a new breed of guided missiles that could strike at terrestrial targets, they could deliver a large twenty kiloton nuclear-tipped warhead over long ranges with high precision. They travelled at high subsonic speed, are self-navigating, and can fly on a non-ballistic, extremely low-altitude trajectory.

They were currently laid-up and disassembled in armoury B/2/1. Along with a combination of the Anlace’s heavier ordinance. A fifteen-meter-long rail-gun, the ships complement of four MK-IV b Sentry Bots, twelve Assaultrons and a single T-2 five kiloton man-portable fusion bomb.

One other armoury remained within the remnant of the ship; armoury B/1/0 that he’d raided earlier still held dozens of small arms, Gatling Lasers, missile launchers and Fat-Man tactical nuclear catapults. The only remaining armour bay contained suits of Power Armour, a repair station and storage for exoskeletal spares.

A technical bay contained additional systems for the ships automated complement, including several more Mr Handy Maintenance bots. John took a few minutes, running diagnostic checks and then instructing the hovering bots to flow through the ship, repairing what damage they were able. They could start with a basic clean-up, spot-welding panels and checking the ship's circuitry. He set their navigation to keep them off the trail the ponies would be traversing.

The maintenance bots would only be able to operate on their basic functionality setting until he could spare enough juice to feed the power-hungry secondary computer intelligence.

Alone in the dark, he heard a shuffling from his left. John aimed his laser rifle at the ground-side doorway and waited. A head poked through, marvelling at a bank of military-grade processors against the far wall. When it saw John, it made a ‘meep’ sound, ducking down slightly – and then clambering up once it realised John wasn’t a threat.

“I could have shot you,” John admonished. It was the chalk-bearer.

“Sorry,” she said sheepishly. Her ears splayed.

“I’m scared of the dark.”

John nodded, tapping at a few controls.

“Me too. Settle in, Guardsmare – this could take a while.”

Heart Of The Enemy

View Online

“Do you want to say something?”


John stood in between the first row of headstones and the gathered guards. They were all dirt-covered from the arduous task of grave digging.

Thirty-two markers spanned in four sections of eight, they ran parallel to each other, in a sort of crescent shape. The plan was for an engineer and a gardener to come and build some decorations around it, maybe a power-armoured statue and a brotherhood flag.

“Firstly, I wanted to thank you for assisting with my fallen comrades. I find solace in the fact that I am not alone, and I find hope in the eyes of you all.

“The crew of my ship are not interred here for the glorification of war over peace or one nation, or one species above another. My people have lost thirty-two of its finest men and women, along with all the love of our world and their hope and energy.

“They enabled me, they would have done so for you, too. They would have fought for you, for your freedoms and your country. I don’t wish to do them a disservice by leaving them here, they deserve to be home – and yet this is the best I can do.”

He turned and saluted the graves, “Ad Victoriam! On to victory – in the next life, my brothers and sisters.”

His fist was clenched over his chest, he could feel the thrum of his strong heart. He extended his arm into a wave, swiping it from left-to-right in a final farewell.

He faced the guards, some had their heads bowed, others mumbled to themselves.

“Thank you again, rest for now. But I’m afraid I will require you shortly.”

Lieutenant Hayseed took a step to Johns side, they surveyed the cemetery.

“What need?” He asked.

John turned, “using their magic, I’ll need every unicorn to take a hold of the Anlace. I’ll be monitoring the ship's status. I’ll use some of the gravimetric stabilisers and gyroscopes to lessen the load on your soldiers, but it will probably still be quite taxing.”

His face became gaunt, “you want us to lift it?”

“Lift it the right way up, or just pull it onto its bottom – whatever works best once you’re ready, I’ll be in the reactor bay.”k

* * *

He didn’t have to wait long, Hayseed and the Guardsmare with the chalk – Guard Leeksby, had stumbled into the reactor room. Still sideways, the floor and walls had been largely repaired, sealed bulkheads and newly laid-down floors. He planned to use the piles of debris from outside to repair the exterior while cannibalising the interior for internal fixtures.

He waited outside, unable to do much. He’d set a gravitational field inside the reactor bay and configured the gyroscopes so that very little in the way of a physical disturbance could interfere with the guts of the ship.

Thirty or so unicorns were arrayed in a loose semi-circular pattern on the inside of the camouflage barrier. Their horns were pulsing, Hayseed had described the display like filling a glass with water. They were pouring magic into a pre-scripted spell that once fed enough magic, would perform a set of instructions to a decree that wouldn’t be possible using simple point-and-enchant spells.

They had been at it for a while, rain clouds threatened overhead, blocking out much of the pre-evening star-speckle. A rumble of thunder built up the tension to gargantuan levels.

John had returned all maintenance bots to protective and immoveable bays. Should the worst occur, (he hadn’t yet figured out what that could be) at least his robots would be secure.

Hayseed himself was wingless and didn’t possess a horn, so he’d been relegated to the spectator-duty where John now stood. At the sound of thunder, forks of lightning speared the air like reverse-demon tridents.

The spell activated, the unicorns all slumping in exhaustion. A large circle etched into the ground around the craft lit up a brilliant red, hues of pulsing amber and cherry-coloured energy poured out and over the ship.

It was a thunderous, earth-shaking and starship-moving spectacle. John’s eyes widened as the energy enveloped the Anlace and rotated it ninety degrees, the motion was smooth and clean, far from what he had pictured in his mind’s eye.

The ship was held in place a few meters above the ground, where it hovered perfectly still.

“That’s amazing! Our scientists would love to poke and prod one of your unicorns if we could somehow give my species the ability to use magic…” he trailed off, realising he might sound more like the alien-monster he’d suspected the ponies would think him to be when he had first crash-landed.

“And we would sure like to know something – or anything about your ship, maybe we could trade?” Hayseed looked up in a manner a cat or a dog might just before dinnertime. A unicorn for a hundred-billion-cap ship? He doubted any negotiator would set that up as a fair trade.

“We’ll talk about it. I’m sure your people’s scribes would kill for a chance to get a hold of some of my peoples' tech. Unfortunately, there are rules about sharing any advanced technology.”

Hayseed remained quiet.

“How long will it hold the ship?”

Hayseed shrugged, “an hour or two maybe.”

John did the math, “okay, keep your guards away – I’m going to have my maintenance bots come out to make some landing skids with the scrap piles your soldiers collected.”

“Okay, lunch is on soon – so come back through the field once it’s fully dark.”

John glanced skyward. Soon then, he reckoned.

He trotted back to his ship as the first signs of rain began to paint the ground.

The downpour had been ongoing in earnest for several minutes now, almost thirty since he’d boarded the Anlace.

He stood in the bridge on the topside, situated atop the jagged hull across the severed bow. A trio of maintenance bots had strung up plastic sheets over the honey-combed structure of the command deck.

A series of hexagonal-shaped viewports, each two meters across. They were interconnected to form the main viewscreen.

A single one in the front had a huge decompression crack, with one at the upper-most ledge having been explosively decompressed and likely shot out into space. The lower rim had been torn away when the frontal-most part of the craft had been vaporised.

That had led to the venting of the control room. The floor had been cleared of all the damaged terminals and debris, now the three maintenance bots were ferrying spare steel beams and plate armour from one of the storage bays.

He looked up from the only operational terminal as one fired its booster at maximum, lifting it to the six-meter ceiling and out through the rain-tarp.

Water began to gush in as the flap was whipped around by the wind. His suit was temperature-controlled, so he only felt the stinging chill on his exposed head. His gut rumbled though, so he turned away from his endless scrolling, and walked toward the reactor.

The bay had been fully refurbished, you couldn’t tell that the ship had been in a terrible, cascade-failure of a decent and subsequent horrific impact.

The room was spotless, all dirt, grime and even his fingerprints had been removed. Mr Handy’s were jokingly called cleaners foremost, as despite any task you assigned them with – they would relentlessly tidy and polish at every opportunity.

The pair of spires sat in front of him, one hummed a gentle cool blue. Simple lights to indicate that all-systems were nominal.

The other had been stripped for spare parts, the housing had been removed and the delicate internal components rehomed in a closet somewhere. The Mr Handy’s had patched the deck, the one remaining spire sat to one-side of the room, slightly off-centre.

Power had been steadily flowing through the Anlace’s conduits. The ships on-board back-up computer intelligence had assigned two pairs of Mr Handy’s to intra-ship repair duty. John returned to the reactor bay’s observation blister and monitored their progress from one of the terminals.

They had swept over only a few of the corridors, it would take many days at this rate. Several holes in the exterior still needed to be patched, the final three maintenance bots were hot on it. After fashioning some makeshift landing struts – they had begun to suture the underside of the crafts hull.

The computer was relatively self-capable, once it realised it had enough power it activated and began dishing out orders of its own accord. The dozen Assaultrons had been ferried outside, keeping a watch on the perimeter.

With the sentry bots in low-power mode so as not to waste resources, yet they would surely rush to meet any incursion. He’d entered his data compilation. Since he had arrived John had scanned and made entries on just about everything, he made certain that the computer wouldn’t terminate any curious ponies should they approach the craft.

Assaultrons were humanoid, vaguely woman-esq looking battle droids. Their chassis was heavily modifiable, able to tote a host of deadly death-dealers – lead spitters, energy blasters and tungsten-carbide coated blades.

Sentry bots had been the heavy-hitters in the Brotherhoods automated arsenal for the last two centuries, they were large squat, armoured beasts. A torso-piece sat above the three-pronged support wheels, short arms held a large weapon on either side with launchers mounted on the back, just below the grill-filled head.

The MK IV b upgraded versions sported hydraulic frames around their ceramic-uranium composite armour, permitting the use of super-heavy ordinance. Gatling lasers, ballistic 20mm autocannons, missile launchers, mortars and fat-man catapults. They could also fire a ring of air-burst anti-personal mines in the event a foe gets too close.

The repairs would be completed relatively fast. An estimated two days of round-the-clock welding to make the craft air-tight. One more to double and triple check every flight-critical component was functioning as it should.

The main issue would be the materials. The Anlace had been loaded with enough supplies for an extended mission. The hydroponic lab had been lost with the forward section, so he couldn’t grow food. Although he could easily get some from the equestrians. He also had a cargo hold filled with MRE’s and pre-ready meals.

He’d need to use the spare thrust and engine components, along with the automated workshop to produce some more manoeuvring thrusters. Although with the frontal third of the ship gone, the thrust-to-weight ratio would be greatly increased even with partially functioning boosters.

But the fact remained the same; he would need raw materials from the Equestrians to finish the job. Primarily he needed fuel for the reactor, he had a breeder on-board. As well as scientific equipment to produce hydrogen from seawater. But thanks to the powerful display, he knew that thirty average Unicorns could levitate a roughly fifty-thousand-ton ship. And that was worth more than something.

His gut rumbled once again. ‘Stupid biological needs,’ he thought.

He accepted that the computer had things under control. And he headed back to the pony tent-system for some well-deserved sustenance.

Day three, West sector,
Somewhere near Butterfly ridge,
Sierra San-Pony mountains.

Private Amber Leaf was on the front with the rest of the 8th Mountain Regiment. The last few days had revealed horrors the likes of which he doubted he could ever forget. He had made few friends while being a part of the guard, the two he had made had just yesterday been taken from him.

The Changeling’s had bombarded his position, Private Reed Stem had been on watch-duty when the first plasma volley had struck. Amber Leaf had raised his head from his position cowering in a half-dug foxhole to see his short-lived friend with smouldering stumps for legs.

Fortunately, or not, this sectors medic had been a unicorn and had managed to cauterise the wounds, Private Reed Stem had been sent home as a quadruple amputee. His life forever altered.

Later that evening a single enemy artillery shot had whistled down amongst a half-dozen of them. Leaf had taken to the ground as quickly as he could; a piece of shrapnel had gotten in between his other friend Corporal Hazelblossom’s armour segments. You wouldn’t have known he was hit had he not collapsed and started screaming.

Another nearby soldier had run for a medic, but they were stretched thin all across this violent clash. The troopers had to rely on the medical training they had received in basic – Amber Leaf told the Corporal he would be okay. He had been lying through his teeth, Hazelblossom’s sense of humour had provided the only joy in each of their long and treacherous days.

But as his screams and grunts succumbed to wheezing wet breathing, Leaf knew the medic wouldn’t be needed.

“It was a probing shot,” their Sergeant had said, “they were testing our lines. Keep your eyes peeled for infiltrators, tomorrow we take back Butterfly ridge!”

The 8th Mountain had originally been a relatively small group of “elevation combat specialists.” They maintained a high readiness state to deploy into mountainous zones and had been comprised mostly of Earth Ponies – Golden Leaf was one of the few Pegasi, he was used by his squad leader as a scout and a lookout.

The unit’s numbers had been swelled with fresh troops from all corners of the nation; he didn’t know where they were all coming from. Mostly fresh-faced and inexperienced recruits, led by a hoof-full of veterans who had gotten on the wrong side of their superior officers.

The 8th’s task at hoof was to take back Butterfly ridge. A barren and inhospitable line across the lower portion of the San-Pony mountain range. It had been named for its butterfly-like shape when viewed from the valley floor during the spring flowering.

It was the height of summer, and a bad one too. In the shade, it was reaching highs of 60 degrees Celsius (or 140 Fahrenheit.) There wasn’t another life form alive in the furnace of a mountainside, aside from them and the Changelings. All the plants had burst into flames and died, hibernating underneath the scorching earth.

They were having issues getting supplies and adequate water up into the high altitude of the southern-most contiguous equestrian mountain. At some 15,000 feet (4,700m) they were exposed to blisteringly hot weather, bug artillery fire and skirmish attacks. With little water or food, they were shedding their numbers at an alarming rate.

It was early morning now, cold enough that he could see his foggy breath hang in the air. Did he mention that Equestrian nights were often sub-zero? No one said the nation was a comfortable place to live.

He had written his mother a letter, eaten a few stale jam-less crackers. Without water as he’d save the few precious sips he had for when it was too hot to be in direct sunlight. Now he waited in the second rank of what would be the first wave in a massed attack.

He could hear the whumf, boom of short-range catapult-launched explosives, they were softening up the enemy, his Sergeant had said – his face crinkled with worry. He didn’t believe him, but Amber Leaf was no coward, he’d face his enemy. If the 8th mountain didn’t prevail here, then the route directly to Las Pegasus city would be free for the bugs to stampede toward.

The whistle sounded, then several bleats came from a formation horn, this was it. The first wave scrambled up over the craggy berm they had been using to shield themselves from sight with the enemy.

He heard the strange popping and whizzing sounds of Changeling magic attacks. Combined with more explosions from his own sides counter-battery fire. Another series of whistles, he saw his hooves pulling at the rope-ladder, using his wings to propel himself up onto the berm.

He paused to help the soldier behind him, a skeletal mare with soft green eyes. Together they advanced under-fire, the Changelings didn’t appear any the softer. He took cover behind an outcropping of pointy rocks; the barrier was cut away in chips as the enemy poured energy-fire at him.

“Come on, come on!” He beckoned the mare behind him onward.

She was just outside the safety of the outcropping when a green bolt seemed to curve over the rock and was deflected off of her side armour. It left a blackened cleft in her flank, but she seemed unfazed as she reached him.

She carried a bundle of lightweight throwing spears, she hefted one at the enemy, Amber Leaf darted around and towards them using short wing beats to get close. In a few seconds, he had burst into a gaggle of the black beasts. He whirled and felt a chitinous blade bounce over his shoulder, he rotated and kicked with both hind legs, sending the blade wielder away.

A spear sailed wide around the other three, who all moved toward him at once. He darted up and away, now airborne – only two of the four gained flight with him. He circled low, avoiding a pair of jagged boulders. His heart leapt into his throat as a burst of fast-moving energy bolts whisked up the ground underneath him, he could feel the heat as superheated stone shards bounced off his underside.

Amber Leaf brought his pursuers around in a looping turn, aiming for the divot where the spear-thrower had been. He overshot her, two spears up – catching one as the other dived for her.

He came back around, leading a dive-bomb attack into the unprotected backside of the beastly Changeling shock-troop. It reared and made to dislodge him; Amber Leaf tried to slash its throat but the blade was not able to pierce the tough chitin that covered it from angular head to thick hoof.

His world became black – his head spun, the aftermath of a headbutt from the bronco he’d been riding. It charged for the mare – she didn’t pose much of a challenge and she was soon killed, one of her spears cut in half and thrust through a gap in her chest armour.

Blue-green magic enveloped her. And the final ounces of life was drained out of her in the Changelings horrid feeding process. He felt the earth around him dislodge as the remaining two bug-ponies came down either side of him, Amber Leaf’s sword was tossed outside of the divot, along with his wing-blades. They hefted him up, and they began to feed.

Dearest mother,

Worry not for me as I march on this glorious crusade to prevent unspeakable machinations from being carried out. I have many friends within the 8th, all of us are in this together and we share a tight bond. These are my brothers and sisters now, as much as little Apex, I bet she is big by now! Tell her a bedtime story, and kiss her goodnight – from her big brother.

My unit and I have just set up camp near a place called Butterfly ridge, it is beautiful here – flowers that contain every colour of the rainbow. We have all just had a fresh meal, we even have chefs up here with us, can you believe it?

I must say farewell, for now, shortly we will be called to fight; I take no pride nor joy in this battle we must surely win. Our Sergeant is a good stallion, he is fair and brave – under his guidance, I am certain we will prevail.

Keep well, and be safe, with all my love,

Your son,

Private Amber Leaf

It had been a long night for John. It was the usual, he couldn’t sleep so he had kept himself busy, mainly in overseeing the refurbishment of the Anlace. Over the past two days he had constructed a short, angled bow to seal-off the ship from the vacuum of space. Although he didn’t know if the ship would survive re-entering orbit if he could even manage to get it out of the atmosphere.

The bots had also been hard at work, they’d repaired the newly named bridge. The door had been dissected and taken outside to make the frontal-most landing skid. An extension to the frame had been built and they had fixed in a makeshift, sealable hinged door. He could probably just squeeze through it in power armour, but at the least, he could manually seal the corridor against any decompressions.

They’d also scoured the ship, replacing or patching the internal conduits, gravitational systems, oxygen recycling and waste management systems. After three showers he still couldn’t get the farm-like smell out of his hair, a result from a waste spill that had covered him in an awful, foul, and slightly toxic substance that was used to eat away human waste.

He had shaved his head and his short beard. The black hair was disappearing down the drain – he was now looking at his reflection in the mirror. A thin, years-old scar ran parallel to his nose, a small clipping of flesh at the edge of his left nostril was missing, the side of his neck (and most of his back) was slightly discoloured from the multiple skin grafts he’d had that time he’d been immolated. He had bags under his eyes and his skin was pale. His ice-blue eyes were the same as always, cold.

He was ready to go. As he stepped away from the mirror his quite pale, broad-shouldered and muscular body came into view. Years of combat, fighting and training, genetic altering and a strict protein-rich diet had led him to be somewhat large and yet quite lean.

He had five and a half abdominal muscles, part of one next to a large patch of scar tissue where he’d taken a shotgun blast point-blank and then kept going. But otherwise, he was in tip-top physical condition.

He put on an all-black officers’ bodysuit. His laser sidearm was attached to his hip, the light faded from the room as he left – autonomous lighting kept power usage to a minimum.

He made it to the armour bay, deciding on taking a new set of armour with him. He stepped into the cradle. A series of pre-set motions were carried out, he was rotated as multiple overlapping segments of armour were built around a hydraulic, fusion-powered exoskeleton.

The brand-new rubberised boots made no sound as he moved across the bay. A new set of lockers and racks had been installed at his direction, he took a laser carbine, several Microfusion cells and a small bandolier of supplies. Food, water and medicine.

Today was the day he would return to the camp, along with lots of shiny, high tech weapons. His pip-boy bleated an intruder tone, like a squelch. John looked at his forearm, a poly-morphic display showed a camera feed from the underside of the hull. Two Assaultrons stood vigil as a single pony approached.

He ordered them to stand-down. Making his way to the promenade deck to greet the chalk-user, Guard Leeksby. The ramp to the primary deck descended and she stepped back with a meep as the hydraulic system hissed and chugged.

He stood at the top, backed by harsh white light. It was still pre-dawn, yet the Mare looked fresh and alert. He waved her forward. To her credit, she approached without hesitation.

“Captain Stark Wing sent me. He received a letter from the Princess!”

A little satchel at her side opened, her muzzle poked inside – rustling for something. In her mouth, she held an intricate-looking blue-adorned roll. He took it tentatively and opened it, the artistic swirly language the Equestrians used was certainly nice looking – but meaningless to John.

He held it open for her, “read,” his instruction was tinged mechanically.

She cleared her throat, “Dear Commander Maxon, please return to us at our main bastion. The Changelings are about to breakthrough into the San-Palomino desert. From there, they would be able to reach Las Pegasus, a city with over three million ponies. We do not wish to endanger you once again. But we are afraid that is what we must ask of you: we once again apologise for any inconvenience this may cause. Prepare yourself for a difficult battle – a chariot has been sent to retrieve you, post-haste.”

Her meek face looked up at him as the letter was lowered, “your friend, Princess Luna.”

He was thinking. He noticed the mares studious gaze track over his armoured self, her eyes were slightly slanted, like an Asian human. He realised he’d made no move or sound.

“Alright, when will the Chariot be here?”

She lifted one shoulder, “soon. You better get ready, sir.”

He nodded in agreement and walked past her.

“How long?!” John had to shout to be heard.

“We’re coming up on it now, sir – keep your head down, we’re gonna hit the ground hard!”

The air temperature was hot, such that the gully they were concealing themselves in flashed past in a heat-blurred mirage-like haze. He and three Chariots of equal size were ascending the rear of the rock-strewn basin towards the base of the mountain.

The 40-strong strike force would land amongst a rear-guard of hostile Changeling forces, and then ascend by fighting through the Changelings positions to carve a path towards the stranded 8th Mountain regiment. All contact had been lost due to the inhospitable climate and fierce fighting. With the inferior mirage caused by the heat shimmer, mount San-Pony looked like an orange-tan blur and nothing more.

Turbulence buffeted their ride. He had braced himself in the cart by attaching a sling to either side and holding them with his armoured gauntlets. His grip was clamp-like and would last longer than the tensile strength of the harnesses. If anything was going to break, it would not be his hands.

They would probably come-in under fire, he eagerly awaited the Drop Zone. The four-guard pulling team were jostled and banged into one another, struggling to keep their craft from crashing before the DZ.

Changelings!” Lieutenant McKenna squealed, she looked especially uncomfortable. Thestrals were not at all suited to the heat.

As the call went out, a squadron of aerial bugs lifted out of the turquoise and mint coloured soup, catching up to them – they began firing at the formation, singeing the already super-heated air.

The pilots could do nothing except stay the course; any weaving attempts at this stage of their run would ground them permanently.

John clenched the grips even harder, wishing he could shoot back. They were moving too fast and under too much turbulence for him to hit anything. He resigned to letting events unfold naturally. His suit reminded him that during a combat-drop, nine times out of ten it was the lead cart that didn’t make it.

Thirty seconds!” The pilot screamed back.

Thirty seconds!” McKenna parroted.

A timer appeared across his Heads-Up Display. He kept his eyes glued to it. His muscles were bunched underneath his bodysuit. He was coiled and wound up, ready to release.

They were moving at some serious velocity. The pilots were giving it all they had. Not so much that medical attention would be required, but right up to the ragged edge of that threshold.

The rattling vibrations coursed across his forearms, the fourteen Thestrals in his cart were pressed together. Heads down and muttering prayers.

The pilots put their wings up and out, slowing them considerably. Their speed would take most of the thirty seconds to bleed off, his suit ran the numbers, they would need to decelerate from their impossible speed very quickly or they’d be pasted over the Landing Zone.

The G-force reached a crescendo, and just before the chariot fell apart an opening in the mountainside appeared. The cart kept moving still at high speed, as they slammed on the anchors the cart turned vertical.

The changeling interceptors sailed past them as they failed to slow down fast enough, to his left he could see one of the carts dived as it received a direct hit.


He leapt at the order, hot air rustled past him and his stomach rose.

He landed with a hefty thunk. Dust denoted his impact and already a Changeling position was squirting magic blasts at him. Like a swarm of high-velocity hornets, they buzzed around him, he was moving fast – laser carbine clutched in his armoured hands.

He took up a position 15 meters from the weapons pit, palming a fragmentation grenade – his suit projected an arc which would see it land nice and snug dead-centre of the bugs.

He leaned back and heaved it, it sailed away and he chased after it, following its trajectory. His timer read negative six seconds. The damaged cart was a hundred meters behind his as it reached the landing zone, once his time reached negative ten seconds, he was 5 meters from the pit as the grenade detonated in a large plume of dirt.

The carts occupants who could get out did so. Many of the non-aerial soldiers being scooped up from certain death by Thestral and Pegasi fliers, others landing and not moving. The Pilots flopped around in their harnesses, the G force likely breaking necks and twisting spines.

It impacted the ground as it was repeatedly struck with magic and ignited in a large Changeling-type explosion. A huge green swirling mass rose in a mushroom shape, the cart spun end over end like a flaming-green pinwheel. His cart and the other pulled away. The pilots would dump supplies over the 8th’s last known position, then head for home.

He stormed the aftermath of his grenade strike, chunks of charcoal bodies lay around, a single heavily wounded bug limped away pathetically. John fired into it and it dropped.

Two more weapon pits were streaming fire down on the two dozen advancing equestrians. They had made a hard drop and would need time to adjust to the heat.

Unfortunately for the enemy, John needed no such time. He stormed onward, over the Changeling body and towards a winding bottlenecked crevice, flanked by the pits. The teams of hissing and snarling bugs took notice, shifting most of the deadly downpour toward him.

He dropped to his knees and skidded a few meters, softly making contact with the edge of a breast-shaped hill. He shouldered his weapon and fired up at them. Most of his shots soared past and over them, but it kept them in check.

With the majority of the enemy fire abated, McKenna gathered her troops and led them up from Johns right. They had a tiered path-like approach, the Unicorns indispensable as they used energy shields and fired back sizzling blue bolts of their own.

John reloaded. The Microfusion cell clicked into place, under a second and he had the suppressing fire back on them. One tripped up as it tried to ward him off, a half-dozen shots sent it shuddering backwards.

A team of ponies were near the pit, so he began moving up, letting off the occasional burst to let the bugs know he was coming for them.

On his feet now, he charged up the soft terrain. His boots sank and he lost purchase – flailing for a second, before regaining his footing and continuing. As he aimed, four light-black bug-horses looked up almost fearfully. A pair of Royal Guard, well-built earth ponies – charged into the hole.

They headbutted, kicked and stomped and stabbed with short swords. The first two died while their attention was on John, he reckoned the last two would meet a similar fate and shifted his attention to the other crew. One took off as five more formed into a file and blasted a hail of bolts at him.

His shields came up, deflecting most. Then strained and burst into a static-like field, crisscrossing gold sparks pulsed around him while his shields recharged. He hit the deck and landed belly-side down on top of the final bug, crushing it to death. While he and the two guards huddled under the relentless rain of energy fire.

The sounds of combat continued, the whip-like crackling of changeling attacks, pulsing blasts from the ponies as orders were screamed to one another. Just then an artillery barrage began beating the hillside.

His shield came online, the gentle hum inside his helmet barely audible over the artillery blasts. He got up and fired at the opposite pit as soon as his weapons emitter was over the rim of his dugout.

The changeling fireteam was not prepared for the onslaught, he raked his red bolt stream left to right. They all crumpled, smouldering smoke and the smell of ozone in the air.

He grabbed each pony, his rifle caught on a small sling as he stood and charged out of the pit, carrying them to the edge of a berm where the survivors of the strike force had gathered.

Most sported cuts and scrapes, some had bleeding wounds and burns – their comrades patching them up, ready for the next engagement.

All around shoots of mud rose into the air. Earth-quaking booms and blasts reshaped the DZ into a dirty souffle.

Lieutenant McKenna was at the helm of this train, and there were not any stops.

“We keep going – we take this ridge! If its black swiss cheese – kill it!”

Ah hoo, ah hoo, ah hoo!” The grunting call of the unit sent adrenalin-fuelled shivers across his back and spine. John had spent years as a shock-trooper, he lived for missions like this. Him against a thousand black devils, arty raining down – this is what he was made for.

“You are all champions, Equestrias mightiest – now follow me!”

He took after her, McKenna’s wiry frame was a deception to her strength and stamina. She bounded up the rockfaces like a mountain goat, John kept pace. Alternating and staggering his approach so they wouldn’t both be killed should an artillery strike hit them.

They skipped over a path, no surprises or enemy forces awaited them here. But he could see a ridgeline coming up, about one-seventy-five meters above them.

Changelings were swarming it – their giant beetle artillery was up there, moving around and skittering like Corvega-sized cockroaches. The strike platoon was now under defilade from the artillery, so the bugs resorted to rolling basketball-sized rocks and firing down at them.

He fired back, catching a few of the unluckier vermin. McKenna huddled down, as the rest of the unit caught up, spread along a fifty-meter crevice. They were bunched up near the obvious, albeit ancient, rain channels. The easiest paths up, given the terrain, but the bugs would know that and concentrate their fire. Or at least John would have, he supposed they might not think like him and if he kept trying to anticipate them – he might make a critical error.

The L-T’s ruby eyes were calculating, they whirled on John and the pure detest could melt steel.

“We’ll move up with four squads, have them line up along each of the four crevices. Unicorns lead the way with shields and return fire. Ponies and fliers at the back, once the unicorns hit the ridge, we break out and storm it. She pointed to his belt of explosives – you’re on demo duty, but I need you to do your best to keep as many alive as you can.”

He charged his carbine with a fresh cell, “yes, ma’am.”

A sound plan, John watched as a pair of Non-Commissioned Officers scrabbled to arrange the troops into formation. A few small-scale detonations dashed the area around them, John took off toward the ridge. Firing on the move, he cut down a dozen and squirted a long, trailing line along the edge of the rim. The debris and bursting mud clods sent up sprays of dirt, providing cover for the pony assault.

He reloaded, allowing his weapon to droop on its sling as he hocked a grenade, then a second and a third. The first two were fragmentation-airburst. The rising black smoke following the pair of thud-thuds and chittering screams signalled the incapacitation of many of the defending bug-horses.

He reached the top, the long fuse of the third explosive sent a shockwave that cleared the suppressing-fire cloud away. A trio of bugs lay immediately to his right, not wounded – they sprung their ambush.

They came up, the first sent a wide lance of green magic aimed for John's legs, the other two zig-zagged at him with frightening speed.

He aimed and fired. But the spell must have been badass-seeking because it nonetheless wrapped around his leg and pulled him down before it dissipated. Much like its castor’s chest cavity.

The first thrust a thin chiton dagger under his armpit. The reactive nano-laminate under-armour hardened, his right arm was locked up but it had saved his life and subsequently trapped the blade.

John kicked once and sent the bug hurtling back, right into the waiting embrace of a pair of blood-frenzied Thestrals. One dismembered the helpless bug, the second wielded a short-staffed hammer and crushed its head like a peanut.

All-around as the Thestrals and Pegasi took to the air to hunt the bugs down, the ground-focused fighters clashed with a line of chitinous bug-horses. The Changelings hissed and screeched while the ponies shouted and whooped.

The second bug came upon him, his forearm lifted, the opposing strike was blunted by his hardened armour. John sat up and headbutted the bug down, he awkwardly forward-rolled onto it, his weapon bounced in its sling – the pistol-grip tantalisingly close to his left off-hand.

He pushed the emitter against its torso and depressed the trigger. The two blasts blew big, fat holes into it. He got up, sending a neural command to his suit to bleed pressure from his right armpit.

Smoke and debris ran around them, he rushed forward. The Changeling line was being routed from above, the larger Thestral fliers killing great swathes of the black demons with cunning skill and artful guile. The violence was almost over, but the defence was just a diversion. John spotted a Changeling squad near the back, against the opposite side of the ridge.

They were herding four enormous beetle-like siege units over the edge. They chirped and whistled. John suspected they were more akin to brahmin than intelligent creatures, not seeming too pleased with being shoved into a retreat.

He skirted around the clash of fighters, a four-bug team got in his way and he rolled over them. Firing from the hip as he ran, three came apart – limbs and heads falling unattached. The last got its shields up just in time to be rammed by a half-ton human.

It fell under him, he brought a foot down and crushed the bug into the dirt, its carapace split as its magical barrier evaporated. The bug screeched one last defiant hiss as John raked laser-fire across its unprotected head.

He dashed away from the spilt green brains and onward for the ridgeline, over the side the last beetle was ushered. It was then John saw it, the blackwater commando. Unmistakably alien, a grotesque and large creature. It was both elegant and strong looking. A fierce ballerina of a warrior.

It had scars that crisscrossed its face and neck, reminders of the explosion during the battle at the hive as John had fought with the monstrosity.

It hissed once; the message uncertain. John fired at it and threw a grenade, a short-fused concussion explosive. The belt of laser bolts largely missed the commando, he was running more than fifty kilometres an hour. The few that hit were glancing blows at best, superficial – the grenade sailed near and the super-bug swatted it.

The unnatural motion caused the grenades safety measure to detonate. A precaution to prevent having them thrown back at you. The detonation hit the bug with a hundred pepper-spray pellets and a flash of light bright enough to temporarily blind a person.

The blast wave cushioned his speed and sent the commando clear over the edge, he fell after it. The drop was sheer. It was only now he could see the artillery beetles and Changeling drones falling in a controlled descent. Using giant fly wings, the deep bladder-bladder sound was like a Vertibird rotor.

He fell fast, the Commando hadn’t corrected its decent, seemingly stunned. He aimed for it, automatically spreading his arms and legs, although he still fell like a piano made of solid lead.

The air rushed past, the fifteen-meter drop was over in a flash, his armours thrusters automatically fired to stabilising and turn him. He slammed feet-first into the Changelings back, the blow was crushing. Deadly. Not survivable.

He fired one-handed at the bugs near him, they skittered and clambered to escape. Red laser blasts tracked them down and cut them apart or cauterised large holes into them.

They were all dead, save for the beetles which had scuttled away from his impact and were busy balancing precariously in single-file along a small path. A wall with no hand-holds on one side and a sheer hundred-meter fall on the other.

He fired at them, the last of his clip sizzled and spat at it connected with the rear beetle. It howled but caught up to the one in front, and then promptly vanished around a blind bend.

He connected with the wall and rolled toward the ground. As chunks of rock fell around him, he saw the singeing burns and swirling green magic trace back to the commando, how was this thing still going?

His suit blipped a servo-warning at him, he needed a field repair and a reload and this nightmare was rising to finish him off.

He grunted, limp-surging toward the bug with his rifle held by the emitter. He swatted the stock across its check, and it swayed downward. The thing sent a strike his way, and he deflected it. He was in better condition than the last time they had danced, and he regretted that whole “it’s a capable warrior, it deserves to live,” crap. He must have been high on the painkiller.

Its follow-up jab connected with his midsection with a clank, he took possession of the dark limb and spun around, using a hip-throw to slam the bug into the ground. He pressed down on the winded bug with one foot and widened his stance, he still held the foreleg in his vice-like paws. He pulled up, twisting and wrenching the limb. The bug screeched as he tore the leg from its body.

He battered it with its leg uselessly, foregoing the limb as the creature kicked and scrabbled out from his stomp. It rose, he drew his sidearm and fired, aiming for its head.

A bolt slashed a big divot into its upper skull, a second caught it in the mouth – blowing off its jaw. His weapon seized, not enjoying the blistering heat that permeated everything exterior to his armour.

With cobra-like speed, he swept up a chiton-coated blade and thrust it deep into its chest. Dark green blood poured out of every orifice and then it fell back and away. John watched it sail downward – losing sight as it careened into the mirage-reminiscent soup of the lower basin.

After the climb, John was met with a wall of sabres and short-swords, he rolled over the edge and the weapons were lowered. Some slower than others.

John was helped up, although he didn’t need it. He took a long drag of chalky recycled water.

“Did you get the artillery?” McKenna was sweating profusely. They all were.

“I regret to say that I was not able to, they got away while I fought a brutally tough commando.”

She snorted, “you killed a commando one-on-one?! Impressive.”

“Affirmative. What now, Lieutenant?”

Her eyes rolled and reopened with her usual hardened edge, “We push up to the next ridge. We control the vermin, then we prepare for a second wave of chariots to drop us supplies and more troops.”

“Roger that, let’s move.”

The Gilded Circuit

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

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

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

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

Celestia. Hold on, soldier!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sergeant Lamina!”


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

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

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

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

“Aye, aye.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fire!” McKenna screamed the order.

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

Both unicorns winced as their horns rapidly shifted in temperature.

“Good shooting ace,” McKenna said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John had a charge ready and braced himself to boost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah hoo!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“All clear!”

A pair of voices announced, John remained cautious.

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


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

“Lieutenant. Status?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More like crash-zone,’ he thought unamused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who was first contact?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright. See you real soon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Butterfly Event

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“How bad has it been?” John asked. He’d left his power armour near the mouth of the cave

They had reached the 8th’s position nestled in an abandoned iron mine. The veins of valuable material had been exhausted years ago – when surveys of the surrounding area had revealed saleable gems, and a second boom had struck.

On the approach, he and the Thestral recon element hadn’t run into any trouble. A fact for which John was immensely grateful. They’d stumbled into a worn-out sentry, who had promptly led them back to the 8th’s cave. Doling out their water rations to the near-delirious troops, they had been called upon to help with the abundance of wounded.

John wanted to assess the situation here and so had taken up a short conversation with nurse Bluebell. She was a volunteer – not a guard. Her navy-blue and weary face were framed in a series of mustard-coloured braids.

She had that thousand-yard stare.

“An eighteen-year-old colt is carried into the shock ward, and he looks up at me trustingly asking, ‘How am I doing, nurse?’

“I just kiss his forehead and say, ‘You are doing just fine soldier.’

“He smiles sweetly and says, ‘I was just checking.

“Then he dies.

“We all cry in private. But not in front of the colts.”

“Excuse me,” she said and rushed away from him. Toward a line of cots containing out-of-action guards.

The cave provided some much-needed shelter. It was past midday and the blazing Equestrian sun seemed to be in no hurry to surrender its zenith.

A Thestral approached, he had a slender muzzle underneath a thick helmet. He had the diamond-like mark of a Sergeant, with an arrowhead in the centre.

“First Sergeant Comet, round up any of those that can still fight – including the eight of you. We’re mobilising for an offensive.”

He nodded in stalwart obedience.

“Yes, sir.”

John was the joint-senior officer at the moment – despite not technically being a member of the Equestrian military. The line of succession for the 8th Regiments chain of command was a short one. A half dozen Non-Commissioned Officers, a few junior officers, one missing Major and a Lieutenant Colonel who was half dead on one of these cots, according to Nurse Bluebell.

Their size had been diminished, yet a couple thousand of them were thought to be alive. Spread across the Sierra San-Pony mountain range.

John walked past the cots, he carried a water bladder in one hand and drank occasionally. The wounded were a mess. Many were burned beyond identifying or missing big chunks of themselves.

He stopped at one soldier. Curiously he looked to have aged terribly. His once green coat had become ashen. Large creases had formed in the bald patched of his fur, his mane was likewise grey and shedding.

His eyes were closed and he was barely breathing. The nurse stealthily moved to stand next to John, her head reaching above his waist.

“What happened to him?” John asked.

She looked sadly at the wounded stallion, moving to his head and rubbing a hoof across his ancient-looking hairline.

“He was fed on.” Her eyes became very angry. And sad. As if John had told her that her husband had died at sea.

“We don’t fully understand the process. They essentially drain the life out of a pony, and the pony ages fast until they are killed. Or, in the case of this one – are ‘saved’ part of the way through.

“Only a few instances of Changeling feeding survivors exist – that’s why its paramount for this soldier to be examined further, back in the capitol. Maybe there’s a way to reverse it – or better yet – create some kind of immunity.” She sounded hopeful, but John could tell it was forced hope.

They stood in silence for a moment.

“And what about him?” John had crossed his arms, “surely better to put him out of his misery.”

She looked angry again, “No!” She came around to John to look up at his face. “No more killing – please!”

His features softened. “I’m afraid there is a lot more killing’ needs doing before we can get you – and him – out of here.”

She looked between her front hooves sullenly. “I know.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

“I’m leading an attack through butterfly ridge. Where’s your commanding officer?”

His gaze was drawn to the primitive-looking catapult array.

John had donned his armour and assembled outside with the remnants of the 8th’s fourth battalion, they were a mixed group, gaining numbers from the survivors of the other virtually wiped-out sub-units.

Major Bleak-Berry was on the way. The trail of a company-sized complement was visible as they crossed the lakebed. A Pegasus messenger had confirmed they’d waited for any combat-capable troops from the first chariot wave. And that Lieutenant McKenna was alive and well – albeit too hot.

“You’re looking at her. Second Lieutenant Herbishire’s the name.”

She was a rather plain-looking unicorn mare. Her battle-armour had a few dents and dings in it but had been kept clean of the grime that plagued everything else.

“I’ve been running these siege-machines all week, keeping the gears greased and the ropes taut. Our only issue has been the supplying of ordinance – but you’ve solved that by dropping them practically right on our heads.” She looked disbelieving.

“Whose dumb idea was that?” She half laughed.

“Mine,” John said. “You needed resupply and we couldn’t possibly carry it to you. I was told they had a way of making the explosives inert, and you had a way of rearming them.” He couldn’t help but let his irritation seep into his tone.

“The carriages were supposed to lose them in the lakebed. And drop the food, water and medical supplies up here. They were under-fire and moving fast. So, a mix-up was almost expected. That’s why we landed before the second wave to clear the hill from the L-Z to here.”

She made a chewing motion, “fair enough. Who are you exactly?”

“I’m Commander John Maxon. Princess Luna sent me.”

“We did ask for reinforcements.” She said.

“I was told you had a Major something-or-other missing. Fill me in.” John asked.

She took a breath, “Major Lumbercombe led five-hundred troops up the pass towards butterfly ridge. He believed if we could take and hold the ridge, we’d have ourselves a strategic victory over the bugs. And could march reinforcements in at our leisure.”

The corners of John's mouth twitched, “and?”

She shrugged, “we received orders to bombard the ridgeline in the prelude to the attack. I had these catapults battering the ridge all morning yesterday. Depleting our ammunition.”

She continued, “we heard the battle – it lasted several hours. When it had finally finished, wounded began to ferry in and we had to assist the medical staff. Finally, an officer came down off the ridge. Out of the five-hundred troops, just about sixty were left.

“It wasn’t just a tactically superior position, but some kind of underground reserve. Thousands of Changelings.” She shook her head. “That any made it back at all is frankly a miracle.”

“What makes you think the Major is missing – and not a casualty with the rest?”

She looked up, “until we see his body. We’re not giving up on him – Major Lumbercombe was a good stallion and well-liked among the unit.”

John understood the respect soldiers could bestow unto their CO’s. He turned to the gathered soldiers, a few hundred of them. They were already marching along the pass towards Butterfly ridge.

“Lieutenant, I want you to organise your siege units. You can fire when ready.”

“Yes, Commander.”

The 8th Mountain Regiment had been swelled with fresh-faced troops; Johns briefing had informed. Nine battalions – a little over 4,500 soldiers and a battery of catapults had been charioted in. They succeeded in taking the route to Las Pegasus, blocking the access from the Changeling force stationed here.

The battle-plan had been for the 8th to get in, establish a small operating zone and break-out across the mountain range.

The bugs had split. Outflanking and trapping the thirsty 8th underneath Butterfly ridge. They had begun to move down the westward mountainside towards Las Pegasus, when John and two companies from both the 1st and 3rd Lunar Guard Battalions had intercepted.

It seemed to kern their besiegement Major Lumbercombe had led a failed assault across the ridge. Wiping out most of the 8th regiment’s stock of soldiers.

The majority of the 500-strong 4th Company presided here. Along with a further one-hundred combat-capable guards from the other eight companies. John also had 150 Thestrals to call upon.

John turned from the mélange of support troops. A platoon-strength group were hauling the explosive cartridges into place. John would flatten the ridge, and have the fourth company conduct the assault while the bombardment was underway.

Such it was that his shock-trooper training demanded.

“First Sergeant Dark Comet, take your scouts up over the pass. Hug the terrain, keep low and avoid detection where possible. Stay in contact with Lieutenant Herbishire. I want you to call-out any juicy targets for her battery to hit. When you’re ready, join the battle.

“Also, Sergeant – dispatch a messenger to Major Bleak-Berry. Inform him of our attack, and request that the remaining Thestrals leap-frog over us toward the enemy. We need to take the ridge and we need to do it quickly. “

“Aye-Aye, sir.”

The ascent wasn’t too difficult. But it was long. At least an hour’s march through a winding, ten-meter-high passage. The breadth was enough for a few dozen ponies to pass side-by-side.

He had overtaken many of the troops, stomping past as they scattered to his bulk and height. The word had been spread that he was going to delegate the control of the battle to the few officers that remained. But if he told them to do anything – to do it.

The pass split – one path leading to a dead-end depression. It would act as their triage site, those that could be saved would be evacuated back toward the camp in the cave. He’d entrusted Nurse Bluebell to handle it – confident in her expertise.

The thump of the Equestrians artillery barrage was constant. The vibrations growing ever stronger as they moved up the second pass towards the ridge.

There was a large divot that spanned left-to-right. John suspecting it had been the drain to a mountainous lake a millennia ago. The Guards had a monomaniacal preparedness for the coming uphill battle.

He had one last ace. His remaining three grenades were nuclear enhanced. Each one would deliver a two-hundred kilogram-equivalent explosion. He had a trio of gold-armoured Pegasi ferry them to high altitude. They would arm them and drop them amongst the biggest clusters of bugs. He’d told them to aim for command groups, artillery and supply or tunnels if there were any.

The attack would commence shortly, once the remaining troops had advanced up through the pass. They arranged around an old basin, the water long since evaporated. They had an old Equestrian position to take and then would follow through into a Changeling-occupied mine.

The catapults continued with their drumbeat. Distant whip-cracks were heralded by screaming bombs as they hurtled groundward. They struck, lighting the horizon in a tantalising iridescent series of vivid flashes that left marks in Johns eyes.

An older Non-Commissioned Officer began leading a platoon forward, John ambled after them to get in front.

He got into cover a moment after a fusillade of energy blasts cut into the platoon following him. Only a few of the guards managing to accompany him into the safety of a rocky overhang.

Blue-green bolts seared holes through the quadrupeds. Singeing organs and cauterising the exit wounds.

About twenty meters across and over the overhang was a crew-served changeling weapon. It was black – somehow both sleek and organic, with a pitted barrel. It fired volleys at a high rate of fire, the bolts cut into the advancing Equestrians and stalled their advance.

As the first wave was cut to ribbons, the remaining guards stayed hunkered down, garrisoned over a berm hiding inside an old stream-bed.

He had two Pegasi, three earth ponies and one unicorn.

“What’s your name, soldier?” Asked John.

“Sergeant First-Class Gold Seed, sir.” The unicorn replied.

He had wide nostrils and bright eyes, his horn was already swirling with copper-red magic and he looked eager for revenge.

“We need to knock out that nest or the rest of your guards won’t survive the race across. Use your shields, Sergeant. The rest of you – we move together, spread out and don’t let them draw a bead on you.” John only wished he had smoke grenades.

They split into two groups. John led the Earth Ponies left, while Sergeant Gold Seed advanced across the right side. The two Pegasi zoomed over the terrain, attempting to draw the enemies fire but they weren’t fooled.

As soon as he rose over the ground, he let off a short burst with his AER, and then ran ten meters left. Avoiding the trips and potholes as the ground around him was immediately set alight by the mounted weapon.

John dived into a small defilade. His vision darkened as the earth around him was blown into chunks. He was lifted, rotated and thrown out of the hole. A near-miss from a short-range Changeling mortar. He lay on his face, dust rained down from a large plume. He heard the bugs chittering and knew they were close.

It was time for John to educate the Changelings on shock-troop battle doctrine. Ordinarily high-explosive and air-burst munitions fired from 155mm howitzers would batter an area. Smoke was deployed thereafter, shielding from view hulking armoured soldiers who would rain down on the survivors like falling rocks.

A wave of Equestrian explosives was launched across the Changeling line. Mostly it suppressed them, whilst killing a few.

A large thumping detonation left an impression in his chest and stomach as one of his nuclear grenades was used. The amber after-shapes of a Pegasi attack run soared skyward, avoiding a few snippets of anti-air fire.

He rose with the assistance of Sergeant Gold Seed. The stallion had placed a shimmering barrier between them and the bug crew. It was still operational, the crew ignoring their impenetrable shield and opting to pin down any guard they could see.

John rushed forward, carbine-in-hand. He cleared the distance, just as the barrel swung in his direction – he shot each of the three bugs. The last sitting in some sort of harness, it’s horn feeding into a small receptacle.

More artillery blasts cut across the landscape, both sides trying to out-do one another. The group of guards with him assembled inside a crater that surrounded the weapon.

A company-sized Changeling counter-attack was launched. A pair of mortar shots preceded it, landing just short of John and the Equestrians.

“Sergeant Gold Seed, you’ve got the gun!” John said.

He wrenched the dead Changeling from its harness, tossing it outside the pit.

“How?!” The guard crouched down next to it, eyeing the gun warily.

“Plug yourself in, son.” John picked him up by the armpits and placed him in the harness, guiding his head to insert his spiralled horn into the receptacle.

The gun whirled around in a jerky manner, nearly knocking John over.

“Hostiles incoming!” A Pegasus from above called out, leading a pair of streamlined bug fliers into a loop.

The naturally contoured weapon moved to face the incoming enemy attack. The remaining ponies gathered just underneath it.

John stood tall, firing at the enemy. The gun began to rattle off blasts, high-velocity energy bolts tore into the advancing wave.

They were thirty bugs wide as a second and third line joined them. They were spaced a few meters apart, staggered and formed of three columns.

To his left and right small teams of the once pinned-down guards took up positions. They were free to operate. Clearing the stragglers and evacuating the wounded. Their movement was composed to the clash of weapons, and tremors from the artillery barrages and the screams and screeches from the clashing militaries.

John reloaded. Checking around, he could see an officer he didn’t recognise. He squatted next to the guard.

“Name?” She had the smaller and less pronounced features he could expect from a female.

“Captain Quickstar. You’re the biped!” More an exclamation than a question.

Ten Changelings approached through a veil of dust. John opened fire, discharging his entire microfusion cell – they all crumpled like embers of ashen paper in a fire.

“Affirmative. You need to organise. There’s a group of Pegasi who will bomb the enemy with a large explosive. When that happens, it’s our cue to move in and secure the summit.”

She looked unsure. “Won’t that get a lot of my stallions killed?”

John shrugged.

“Casualties are inevitable. We can mitigate our loses by attacking all together. We’ll walk the artillery forward as we advance and swoop down on them.”

Behind him the captured Changeling weapon was now being used as an anti-air weapon. Shooting large streams of magic up and across the sun-blazed white-hot sky.

Finally, she said, “I’ll pass the word around.”

There was a pause in the conflict. A moment’s calm across the battlefield. Both the bug siege artillery and the Equestrians catapult-based bombardment ceased almost as if by the same order.

All heads looked up and around, spires of dust and debris rose and fell.

Up high, plummeting from the bright sunlit skyline came a dozen shapes.

Three gold-armoured forms flew in a tight triangle formation. Multiple Changelings hot on an intercept. Small flashes of light chased the Pegasi, who sank even faster.

At the last possible instant, they pulled up sharply. Angling to level-out over the bug build-up. They came three abreast, weaving and jinking to make themselves more difficult to hit. They released their payload, splashing the main bug formation with a pair of Mark II Fusion Charges. The thunderous boom crushed the ground, raising a pillar of dust from which a shockwave sprang forth.

He could feel it in his chest and ears and rushed forward in an instant. He took long, striding steps across the mesa – his approach shifted upwards as he rose across the ridge. To his left and right four-hundred of his Equestrian comrades followed his example and stampeded en-masse.

John joined in their battle cry, the incessant warbling-roar exhilarated him and he drove himself even faster.

The dust sheet had formed a veil, and he burst into it. Multicoloured flashes and rapid coruscating phosphorescence lit up around him. Revealing the silhouettes of many forms.

Magma-coloured projectiles answered back. John fired precisely at where the jagged bodies of Changeling squads tried in vain to hide.

The clash of chitin-on-steel was an unnatural song. The music to which manifested itself as the screams and screeches of both mammal and insect-hybrid. A flash of teal blazed cerulean ethereal flames all around him, immolating Captain Quickstar.

She screamed as her flesh became twisted and her golden armour turned a shiny blueish black as it fused to her body. It was the kind of scream that made your blood run cold, his throat and chest became tight. A scream of hysteria and disbelief.

As she fell and writhed. John knew what he had to do. It was a mercy killing, he would tell himself. Not the first and probably not the last. But he’d never forget her lidless unblinking stare. The message telepathically transmitted.

‘Kill me.’

As the dust settled, prismatic and random flashes were followed by a clap like rolling thunder. A cacophony and feeling from the overlapping explosions that coated the battlespace.

John eliminated a Changeling wave utilising a long burst from his AER. He then pitched a grenade and the blast broke up the centre of the next big group.

As the surviving bugs scattered, he chased them with a series of several short volleys. He reloaded. Stumbling a little with his oversized armoured hands. Once the Microfusion cell clicked into place he held the weapon outward and surveyed the fight.

Equestrian troops were taking heavy losses, and dying by the dozen. Crimson blood soaked the hot sand and rock, flagpoles of the pony’s progress.

Several Changelings from the last wave survived the approach and took cover in a trench. John ambled toward them. The Guards around him kept up. They worked in unison. He would pin-down or kill hostiles as they appeared. The ponies finishing off those that were left, at each interval they suffered a few more casualties.

A rolling wave of artillery blasts cratered the softer ground, reshaping the area ahead. Across the pockmarked terrain lay a natural pass with a pair of hilly patches on either side and backed by a low ridgeline.

The bugs had converted the hills into makeshift bunkers. Each had a long-jagged opening. Cerulean beams lanced out from within. Randomly striking another Equestrian and forcing them to strategize more carefully.

John paused inside a blast crater, watching as pairs and trios of guards took cover inside the surrounding divots.

The few unicorns traded magical shots. Their multi-coloured bolts were aimed at the bunker slits and any counter-attacking shape-shifters. The airspace had become a chaotic struggle. Large dark-armoured ponies flitted across the cloudless sky, dogfighting with the numerically superior Changeling fliers.

A string of percussive blasts forced John to look to his rear. A pair of Thestrals were coming in toward him. They weaved and jinked – attempting to throw off their attackers.

Three insectoid Changeling interceptors were after them.

Spitting emerald fire from their mouths and streaming magical blasts from their jagged horns. The ground soaked up many of the near misses in the form of exploding brittle rock and rapidly fossilized sand.

John spun and fired. Steadying his shoulders and narrowing his stream at the bugs. One ate several shots. The strip of apple-sized holes suctioned its stamina and the creature dropped from the chase.

A few glancing blows impacted hostile number two. It’s final act of defiance being the take-down of one of the bat ponies. The Equestrian shrieked. Her momentum carried her a dozen more meters before she too dropped and tumbled into a dust devil.

He was forced to reload, but events were unfolding fast and he was unable to assist.

The last Thestral made to serpentine on approach. Bleeding his speed and dropping a few meters until he was skimming the ground – wings out wide.

The Changeling was unable to match his velocity and whipped overhead. The Thestral dropped out-of-sight into a crater a few over from his. John aimed his AER and unleashed a torrent of red death.

The luminous projectiles veritably decapitated the bug, it tumbled and rolled as it crashed into the ground. It lay on its side, John fired two shots into its back. The smouldering wounds certainly fatal.

He faced forward again. A dozen Equestrians attempted to advance but were forced into taking shelter as the first five were cut to pieces by a fusillade of teal bolts.

The surviving Thestral belly-crawled into Johns occupied crater. He was a big boy – and a new face. He heaved in the superheated air, sweat doused him but looked to be evaporating as fast as his pores could excrete it.

He was older. Possessing that tough-faced appearance of someone who had always had to graft.

He looked around, “Damn bugs! The only good ones a dead one.”

He noticed he had arrived alone, “Damn. They got my wingmare. Rest in peace, slick.” His voice was gravelly.

He introduced himself, “Staff Sergeant Colter. Thestrals are up top keeping those bastards in check. But if we don’t win on the ground, they’ll be wiped out. “

John agreed. “Affirmative. Those emplacements are preventing us from advancing – we need to knock them out.”

The Sergeant possessed a grim expression that didn’t seem to ever shift.

“Son, I’ve got just the thing. Wait here and be ready to move up.”

John nodded. Unsure of the older Thestrals plan.

He exited the foxhole. Crawling away like an immolated crustacean.

John faced the pass again. The Changelings were using their magic to build up more defences. The ground was carbonised and hardened, shaped into barriers and prepared fighting positions.

The artillery had largely abated on both sides, he guessed those mobile beetle creatures needed to recharge. And Lieutenant Herbishire's battery might have likewise reached depletion.

The bugs were warming up for a counter strike. He could hear them chittering and screeching. Their chitinous hooves were making scratchy clicking sounds as many more of them moved into a position to attack.

John prepared himself. Taking a sip of recycled water and giving his AER a once over. He had a dozen cells that remained at full charge, no grenades or ammo for his L50. He awaited with a grim uncertainty.

Either side of him the gathered ponies from the 8th Mountain Regiment were doing their checks, quickly drinking or eating rations, running small sandstones across their blades or patching wounds.

They were hunkered across several hundred meters. As he understood – a whistle would signal in three sharp notes and their attack would commence.

Suddenly the Changeling commotion halted. It was a tense few breaths before dozens of them poured out from gaps in their barricades.

Spears and small Equestrian explosives were hurled. The initial shape-shifters succumbing to deep stab wounds and discombobulated limbs.

John fired at the main group. They had already swelled into a forty-strong wave. His rifles energy bolts melted through the overlapping bodies. Searing organs and cauterising flesh.

A pair were welded together for an instant as their wounds touched, several follow-up blasts separating them once more.

John reloaded. A neat and well-rehearsed motion that had him shooting again within three seconds.

The remaining Changeling offenders were repulsed and sent running. Three sharp whistle bleats were called and the ponies rushed en-masse, hunting down the survivors.

The bugs were pinned as an aerial Thestral curtain cut off their escape from above. John advanced under fire. Magical teal projectiles sliced through the air and cut up the sand.

He traded shots with an escaping Changeling. As it passed across the mesa his bolts caught up to it and it stiffened as it died.

A sea of gold armoured quadrupeds surged across the sand-blasted mountainside. The plateau levelled out into another basin.

It had been carved into the earth, revealing limestone and slate walls. The Changelings had established a final defensible position from their warren’s exterior, the immediate area bristled with a bug swarm. They surged and swayed, an obsidian sea set against the ivory-coloured landscape.

The Changelings rallied for a desperate counteroffensive, rising back up the passage toward John and the Equestrians as they were once again forced to dig in.

A scrape in the ground contained a pair of ambushing shape-shifters. For the first time – John witnessed them use their camouflage magic to change themselves from black to a washed-out reddish-orange colour. They blended in with the ground and if not for his keen eyesight he may not have spotted them.

They waited. John pretended he had not seen them and they allowed him to pass unmolested as he leapt over an adjacent crevice.

He turned as the first Equestrian – a sturdy-looking mare caught up to him.

He aimed at the scrape and swept energy bolts left-to-right. The first stealthy Changeling screeched as a laser strike pierced it’s the abdomen, the second exploding toward the guardsmare with speed as it’s pale shroud fell.

Her eyes were wide, yet she brought up her weapon and caught the bug in her magic, lifting them and burying her sword into its neck.

Large wingless armoured Changelings came out of small pores across the approach. They gathered to almost a hundred and then charged thirty abreast.

The third Battalion massed precisely at the tip of the attack, clashing with the ground-based combatants with shouts and curses. Steel clashed with chitin, spurts of crimson and teal blood sprayed into the baking air.

A pair of officers directed the push and pull of the meet; sending flanking squads along the edges of the pass, they tossed explosives and short spears while firing arrows.

The skies were a calamity. An entire Thestral air wing was kept from helping with the ground war by twice as many bugs. Some of them were sleek and fast, a kind of interceptor variant. While others were squat and angular – lazily peeling away from the dogfight to strafe the Equestrian lines.

He roadie ran down toward the enemy, fixing his attention on a Changeling breakthrough attempt.

Two bug Commandos pierced through the smaller ponies with ease, an elite shock-team kept a tight barrier around them. John stood tall from his previously crouched running and sprang at the bugs like a cat on an unsuspecting bird.

He fired at them, cutting a few of the lesser bugs down. He swept the frontal Commando aside with a turning hook kick that caught the large bug in the head and sent it back into its fellow.

The second rushed to meet John, a large thin blade held in its telekinesis. As the bug swiped, John leapt back and then again forward – kicking frontally. Its thick head absorbed the blow – it chitin split and already gushing oily blood.

Three subordinates at the stunned Commandos legs were arranged helpfully in a column. John fired into them. As they died screeching the first commando weaved out of the miasma of gore and serpentined low for John’s legs.

He fired his last few shots and the charging Changeling ate them without slowing as it rose with a chitinous sabre.

He held his AER lengthways and deflected a fierce downward strike. The bug made a half turn to bring the weapon back around using the momentum of the first attack.

This John easily ducked under. He crouched and dragged a leg underneath the bug. As it fell John rushed atop it. Having learned from the Blackwater encounter to finish them off quickly.

He head-butted it, his combined weight and servo-assisted strength damaging it. He'd cracked its jaggedly edged head and its head snapped backwards.

John gripped its exposed throat and with the force of an industrial vice he tore out its oesophagus and trachea.

It writhed with its blood-soaked mouth held wide in a soundless scream. John used a short Czech punch and crushed its neck completely. Its head thereafter lolled at an odd angle.

The ponies around him shouted their thunderous war cry as the fierce melee raged on.




Two remaining Changeling underlings advanced unfazed, the final Commando lurking just behind.

John could not reload and so smashed the stock-end of his weapon across the first Changelings head. It’s blade uselessly scratched across his chest armour and became snagged on his recovery handle. A 3mm thick steel bar used for dragging wounded out of the path of harm.

John discarded his depleted rifle and counter-punched. The strength of the blow pitched the hybrid away like a baseball during a home run.

In the next half-second, he had the offending creatures trapped weapon clutched in his hand, lunging forward he stabbed the dagger upwards through the mouth and head of the second smaller bug.

More shouting.


Finally, alone with the Commando, he clashed with it. The equally strong warriors trading devastating blows that hammered dents into both John’s armour and the Super-Changelings sleek exoskeleton.

He was again purely shocked at the damage the thing could take. Having never met a biological creature that could take multiple punches from a power armour equipped fighter.

He ended his assault of short-range jabs with an uppercut that snapped it’s head up.

As he reached for the bugs throat to kill it just like the first it wrapped his arm in a layer of three limbs. The Commando turned and attempted to hip toss him. It growled in frustration as John’s half-ton weight remained firmly rooted.

He turned the move into a hip toss of his own. Pivoting at the waist and using his servo-based strength to effortlessly crush one of its forelegs. Twisting the limb as he pulled and threw the bug over his shoulder.

The Commando did not seem to even notice the destroyed leg and kicked John backwards as it again weaved towards him.

John concluded that it absolutely would not stop unless killed and allowed instantly a modicum of respect.

As it loomed closer, he feinted a lunging attack. Its reaction positioned it perfectly for a spinning kick that brought his alloyed heel across the Commandos face.

It dropped down a little and stumbled across the last meter. It was stunned. He squared his stance and delivered punches limited for its head.

A magic blast attempted to lift him. John struck down in a hammer-fist blow that dissuaded it from using magic again.

A follow-up right hook scrambled the Changelings egg, and it fell backwards. As it writhed across the hot ground John stomped on its face. Crushing its exoskeletal head and mincing its brain.

John breathed a sigh of relief. Another encounter survived, he rearmed and reloaded himself with his Laser Rifle.

The Ponies had made startling progress. The stocky monstrosities that made up the bulk of the Changeling ground complement had been killed in droves. The smaller Equestrian soldiers using squad-based tactics and the trinity of their species’ races to best bugs.

Likewise, the Thestral air wing had cleared the skies and became able to freely harass Changeling fighting positions.

A stream of the bat-ponies glided low and used small magical explosive to carpet bomb a cavernous pit. The overlapping detonation rose into the air. Wiping out a large swathe of the obsidian horrors.

This single act seemed to be the rallying event needed to spur the ponies on the last assault, yet the Changelings fought on. Bitterly clinging to the scorching landscape until the last bug.

Ponies rushed unopposed into the cave system, using incendiary bombs to clear the bunker ports and slay groups of bugs. The aftermath was a pit filled with death on the path for several cave entrances.

It appeared as though every Changeling had succumbed to the battle. The mines had been largely stripped of material, piles of the as of yet transported ore lay at the edges inside the mineshafts.

A pony John did not recognise stood tall upon a podium of dead Changeling bodies to the cheers and whoops of his fellows.


The single word causing the eruption of cheers and calls from the gathered Equestrian army. The valley was filled with the roar of celebratory success over the enemy.

But John knew the war for the pony’s survival had not truly ended.

Intrepid Alloy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the news?” He asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.” He said firmly.

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

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

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

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

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

John hummed, “that’s good.”

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

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

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

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

He turned, “I’ll be ready.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” He asked at last.

“How do you know where we’re going?”

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

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

“How does that work? Magic?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” he rasped.

“No,” she said, “thank you.”

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

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

“Colonel,” John recognised Major Dahlia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you feeling?” He asked seriously.

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

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

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

“What do you need?” Kodiak asked instantly.

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

Midnight.” Kodiaks tone was scalding.

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

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

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

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

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

His smile fell from his mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Roger,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come Fly With Me

View Online

“Woah.” Lieutenant Midnight said. The single uttered word perfectly summarised the sight before them.

The Anlace was sat on its perch, it’s blocky and industrial design was backed by cool-grey stone from the mountain behind. The pair of bipedal automatons that stood underneath next to its freshly constructed landing struts turned to form an equally spaced barrier.

“What are these things, Maxon?” Kodiak sounded unlike herself but kept her head held high. Her wide stance accompanied the cautionary hold she had on her sabre.

He allowed a small smile at the uneasiness the Assaultrons had on her half-dozen-strong Thestral escort. “Friends of mine. Don’t wander off – they don’t take kindly to that sort of thing.” Kodiak’s eyes narrowed slightly as her Guards formed a tight cordon.

He activated the embarkation ramp and it kissed the soil with a hydraulic hiss and burst of steam. He thundered up the twelve-meter slope, exiting his power armour once inside the decontamination room.

The large space had a small armour bay and medical suite sealed off from the entrance chamber. The whole lower section had its life support that remained separate from the rest of the ship. If contaminants were detected it could be remotely locked down under strict quarantine. It could also be detached from the main body of the ship.

Lieutenant Colonel Kodiak, Lieutenant Midnight along with Senior Guard Starry Skies followed after him. Guards Dark Goldenrod, Moonshot, Frosted Whip and Starchaser hobbled in last.

A tri-laser turret emerged out of a housing recessed in the ceiling and tracked the seven bat-ponies after skipping over John. Once fully inside the vessel. A duel bleep denoted that no harmful bacteria or toxins had been discovered by sensitive detectors located all around the main portal.

The mechanical duo followed them up at a prompt from John, his fingers having barely left his wrist-mounted pip-boy before they strutted in behind them. The ramp hissed closed and sealed with a clank.

“Your friends seriously give me the creeps!” Goldenrod said, frowning.

“Same here!” Moonshot chimed in.

“Ditto,” Kodiak said quietly. Looking expectantly at John.

“Come on, the bridge isn’t far,” John said with a motion of his head and a half-hidden chuckle.

Kodiak and company followed without speaking. The rubberised soles of his all-black bodysuit made no sound and they were swallowed by the access corridor to the tune of clip-clop.

Bland metal hallways lay at intermittent intersections. Signs labelled the paths. Bridge, Armour Bay, Sick Bay, Living Quarters, Cryogenics.

John kept his eyes ahead and walked at a decent pace. They took a switch-back stairwell that brought them near the cryogenic bay. He turned left and then passed across the Cryo threshold, not glancing at the recently sealed door to the room or the plaque that had been erected.

Those we lost, it said above the names of the crew.

The thick steel door to the bridge was set against the end of a long corridor. To John’s eye, it was obviously not a feature of the original ship. It opened on well-oiled hinges, the pneumatic assistance allowed it to swing freely and easily.

He gestured for Kodiak to enter. He followed after Starry Skies and closed the door behind him. That new silicon and recently welded alloy smell hit and he restrained a cough, but Kodiak and her Thestrals couldn’t help but splutter at the unnatural odour.

He had only installed one command chair, and he sat down heavily. Kodiak halted at his left and glanced around the deck, while the others spread around to peer through the honeycomb view screen. It arced from underfoot a couple of meters and then rose into a vague ball shape. The entire thing looking like a giant angled bug-eye. One of the guards let out a soft, low whistle.

The command chair had tactical data pads on either arm, from here John could work in conjunction with the secondary computer. He had access to navigation, weapons and communication systems at his fingertips.

His pip-boy rested on one side, as soon as he was near and inside the ship, it could communicate wirelessly. Data streamed over the screen, he entered a few commands and began warming up the engines. Next, he instructed the maintenance bots to begin assembly of the cruise missiles.

“I'm running diagnostic sims and stress tests. It’ll be a few hours – but if all goes okay, I should be able to take the ship into a stable low-orbit.”

Kodiak looked appreciative, “honestly I never believed this thing would actually fly. But I’ll try to keep an open mind.”

“What now?” she asked after a short pause.

“I can only make a short flight. No more than a day to be safe. I’ll need fuel, so I’ll need another day before I can get in the air again.”

He checked the status of his latest instructions to the maintenance bots. Before he’d left for butterfly ridge, he had decided not having a hanger bay would be an issue. They’d cleared the portside storage bay and had begun to remove a section out of the exterior hull. It would give him some extra material for other uses and allow him to have an in-atmosphere hanger.

“Fuel?” She asked.

“The remaining reactor that produces power for the ship uses Hydrogen as fuel. Specifically, deuterium and tritium.” He explained.

Moonshot squinted in thought, before asking, “isn’t hydrogen on the moon?” Her voice was sort of fruity and made John want to smirk.

He grunted in affirmation, “yes, but relatively only small deposits exist. If its anything like the moon over my world. Typically, hydrogen production on the moon piggybacks on mining other minerals and metals, to make it worth the immense sifting of lunar rock.”

“So how are you going to get it?” Midnight asked.

He nodded at the viewscreen as an image materialised. The ponies all reacted with wide eyes, yet none commented. The image was of a tokamak reactor, of which the S-10 was a miniaturised version. It was essentially a metal doughnut, pipes in and out were labelled in written English.

He turned to look Kodiak directly in the eye. “Once the Anlace is in the air I’m going to land it near the ocean – somewhere clear of prying eyes.”

“Better to make sure you’ve prepped as much as possible before launching an assault. I think we should summon Princess Luna. I’ll send a message. She has the authority to organise our military into a single cohesive force, while they mobilise – you can pack up and make for Horse-Shoe bay.”

She directed a head-raise at Dark Goldenrod, who turned and began unloading a scroll and quill – furiously scribbling paragraph after paragraph.

John nodded, the basis for a final assault on the Changeling hive taking place. “What’s in the bay?”

“A large body of saltwater,” Midnight explained. “It’s a holiday beach near Baltimare. If the unicorns come on board, they can keep the invisibility field stable enough for you to make a short hop over to the bay, and get your fuel.”

He frowned. “Won’t there be a lot of ponies enjoying the weather?”

Kodiak smiled wolfishly; fangs prominent. “I’ll have the weather nice and overcast for your arrival.”

Once all parties were in place, he began the initial launch sequence. Kodiak awaited outside along with a chariot full of Unicorns and her Thestral squad, hovering at a safe distance over the surrounding woodland. The magic-users could still maintain the field while the Chariot kept pace with the Anlace. Coming aboard afterwards as long as the ship didn’t plummet to an explosive grave.

The humanoid Assaultrons and floating Mr Handy bots had scoured every corner of the interior, ensuring everything was secured, except for stowaways. They hadn’t found any, and so he began to raise the engine temperature.

The Anlace had been a hefty 68,000-ton vessel after its commission and had been given a host of tune-ups and adjustments with its extra deep-reconnaissance equipment raising its voyage weight to around 86,000 tonnes. With the damage and loss of material during the malfunction of the Faster Than Light propulsion and crash-landing, the ship now weighed closer to 55,000 tonnes.

The ship was less advanced-looking and more utilitarian, having a bulky shape closer to a freighter vessel than a top-of-the-line military starship.

Still, he mused, she’s got enough ordinance to level a thousand kilometres square.

He received green signals from the secondary computer, and so approved lift-off protocols. The ship began to shudder almost imperceptibly as the Merlin plasma-fuel boosters fired. It had six plasma rocket boosters that could get the ship back into the air in the event it became grounded.

The computer began to auto adjust the manoeuvre thrusters. Correcting the intense wobble that threatened to tip the ship into the mountain that loomed out of the main view screen.

He gritted his teeth, clenching his jaw as he allowed the computer to handle the lift-off proper. He was buckled into the command chair and unthinkingly re-tested the securing strap to ensure it was as tight as possible.

The ground raced away and began to tilt slightly as the Anlace lifted toward the cloud layer, within two minutes he had left the mountain behind and was now far above the ground. The craft was pressurised and so he didn’t feel the usual popping in his ears.

The Anlace levelled-out, the altimeter displayed 3,000 meters and that sickness feeling in his gut began to lift.

Info scrolled over his arm, the pip-boy automatically compiling launch-data. The rise to the ships current altitude was steady, the S-10 reactor seemed to be holding with enough power to spare.

Horse-Shoe bay, as seen from the air was a large body of water surrounded by a thin crust of land. True to its namesake, in the shape of a horse-shoe.

A dozen unicorns had boarded – making themselves comfortable in one of the recently emptied storage warehouses. While the hanger bay had a large open-air rectangular portal, for now, five Mr Handy bots were assembling a set of blast doors from the hull section they had cutaway and a spare lifeboat launch tube.

Most of the debris from the crash site had been collected and piled in another identical warehouse. The cruise missiles were in position, ready to fire. Lieutenant Colonel Kodiak, Guard Frosted Whip and Senior Guard Starry Skies had transitioned into a second cart and according to the Anlace’s instruments was on a pre-set course for the Equestrian capital.

The occasional burst of multicoloured energy would swirl around the outside of the hull and arc across the angular viewscreen. The ships Geiger counters weren’t detecting above-usual amounts of radiation.

So, this ‘magic’ isn’t a radioactive property like some of the mutations I’ve seen.

Goldenrod was sat between Moonshot and Starchaser next to the viewscreen. Sprawling greenery passed underneath the occasional patch of cloud vapour, ever-thickening as they drew closer to the grey coast. All three had barely healed wounds, they were idly talking about their mission to destroy the bug artillery. John kept one eye on them and the other on his instruments.

“What happened to you, Starchaser? I thought you were gonna be bug-food for sure!”

The kid was kind of wimpy-looking. Not as large as some of the other Thestral males, he was underweight and seemed to have difficulty making eye contact, unless it was Moonshot. The female Goldenrod had allegedly saved.

“I’m not sure – I remember the rain and the cold. I was sure we’d make it out together. Next thing I know – I’m falling.”

He swallowed thickly, taking a long drag from his water bladder. “It was like my wings had stopped working, I kept falling, and I just sort of made peace with it, you know? I thought ‘at least Moonshot got out.’”

John could see the small flame the two newcomers shared. It was the classic predicament where two people liked one another yet neither had the cohones to say anything.

Goldenrod carried on. “Anyway – so I kept climbing, eventually breaking the cloudbank. The sun hit my face and I knew I could keep going. Moonshot was still out, so I had to remove our armour and fly with her back to camp. I only just made it as the bugs showed up to kick our flanks.”

Midnight was stood loosely to Johns right. She hadn’t moved in over an hour, the flight almost over. As he studied her, he realised her eyes were closed yet her nostrils were flaring in rapid succession.

He faced forward and lazily leaned on his opposite arm from her, “we’ll be there soon. I’m starting our descent.”

The ship shook for a few breaths, before slowly falling at a steep angle for the bay. The four of them quickly moved to the viewscreen to glance at their world from this perspective. Although, it was probably a view they had all seen countless times due to their winged nature. True to Kodiaks word, storm clouds were brewing – the outside temperature had been falling quickly, and now held at about thirty-two Fahrenheit.

The Anlace descended through two-thousand meters, a barely detectable vibration could be felt through the floor. Horse-Shoe bay was still a couple of kilometres out and the ships secondary computer was sifting over topographical data to determine a suitable landing zone. Ideally somewhere close to the ocean with sufficient subterranean bedrock to hold the weight of the ship. He sent a signal to the maintenance bots to decouple themselves from their storage hold and move to the hydrogen lab, the large equipment for the ground part of this ordeal was stored there.

Several more minutes without event passed. John drummed his fingers on the armrest, the ship tilted a fraction leftward and down, before levelling out again and pulling forward with more speed.

“What’s happening?” Midnight asked.

John checked the altitude readout, followed by the engine and reactor readouts.

At his silence, she asked, “are we landing?” Yellow eyes traced over him.

“Yes.” He said simply, not bothering to explain further.

The viewscreen could display images vital to informing the bridge crew of the computers’ intent. Lime green light raced across the image of the equestrian coastline. Displaying altitude, barometric data and geophysical subsurface scans.

Moonshot, Goldenrod and Starchaser backpedalled away. Halting just short of the command chair. The ship had picked out a suitable landing zone, ground-penetrating radar revealed a rocky under surface comprised mostly of ore-bearing rocks. The LZ was barely large enough for the Anlace at its current size, yet the ship didn’t realise it was smaller and so prepared to pull away for a secondary site. Johns fingers maniacally entered a series of commands. The LZ was not too small, the Anlace had lost some considerable size – mostly by having its frontal third and anterior hanger bays, with all the military-grade gunships held therein, teleported to oblivion.

After a breath, a blip denoted the acceptance of the instruction – and the ship continued on its current bearing. Starchaser had shuffled up bit-by-bit to the screen, waving a hoof over the holographic images.

“How do you make the glass show you things?” Her head rotated back like that of an owl.

John puckered his lips. “It’s a holographic-projector lattice, it lets me see all kinds of tactically advantageous information.” The ship was a few degrees off-course and the computer adjusted accordingly. More numbers popped up, altitude in meters lowering. The ship passed over a small plot of land and the sand and saltwater were cast up in a spray.

They were out to sea. About a kilometre from the continent’s main landmass, the horse-shoe shaped beach district got ever thinner as it cut into the ocean. The LZ was a vague rectangle shape a few hundred meters in length, the surface was a ruddy rock-red colour, porous vents a meter wide held saltwater that rushed out to splatter the hull as the Anlace gently touched down with its landing skids.

The engines and anti-grav systems were kept at the ready in case they had to launch again in a hurry. Either side was an endless grey ocean, just visible to the right and slightly behind lay Equestria proper, he could see the misty spires of a city on the horizon.

That must be Baltimare. He thought.

Around the ship, the seawater swelled and fluctuated against the wash of the engines. Swirling white foam. They remained like this for several minutes, while John checked and rechecked the gyroscopic feed. Aside from a strong wind and vibrations caused by the thruster idle, the ground gave no indication of plummeting them into the sea.

John powered down the flight systems, the wash from them and the effect on the seawater was simultaneously abated.

Moments later and he was leading the four Thestrals down the access corridor that led to the forward observation deck. It was under the bridge and allowed for a good view of the surrounding landscape. They passed through a bare-bones section, the panelling had yet to be repaired and had been simply removed. The usually hidden honeycomb support slats were on display, as they made themselves smaller so a Mr Handy could float past, John equated it to the ship showing the robot its private parts. Causing a tight smile to fight onto his face.

More stairs had them arrive four decks below at a door with hatched yellow lines. It was a duel-reinforced blast door, 13cm thick with a small circular window on the right half of the two sections. They could seal off the bottom of the ship to protect against the vacuum of space.

He didn’t even need to request entrance, his electronic tag permitted him full access. As the doors whisked open, he stepped down into a pitch-black room. He gestured at Midnight who peered into the unlit room with a pinch of suspicion.

However, she along with the others eventually followed. Moonshot stumbled over a step, then they stood inside and glanced back as the blast doors sealed them all in.

“Lights!” He shouted suddenly and clapped his hands twice dramatically.

Nothing happened. His arm-mounted pip-boy came on as he brought it to his face, casting his features in eerie shadows. As if he was about to tell a horror story at a campfire. A hydraulic hissing and chugging sound emanated from the walls either side of the doors. A rhythmic thumping started and bright natural light bled into the room through ever-widening seams on the floor and walls.

As armoured doors lifted over the transparent under surface on guided skirts, the ground between the landing struts was right there – barely four meters away. Due to the angle of the Anlace’s perch, not much could be seen either side except snippets of ocean swell and miniature waves.

In the distance ahead, grey-black clouds were brewing. The wind had been picking up and a light rain was making patterns along the surf.

Behind them, six ball-bodied floating Mr Handy’s were already ferrying thick black cables from ports in the Anlace into the sea. As many bipedal Securitrons strutted around. Being careful, so as not to be washed into the foamy water.

“What’re those?” Midnight asked, and pointed at a series of giant metallic cylinders. They lowered from the belly of the ship right behind the observation blister on a pair of identical yet separate lifts.

John took a step to the side to let them all see, “they are storage tanks for the water. We’re going to be here for most of the day pumping, filtering and the more pumping…”

He shrugged. “It's pretty boring, but from the saltwater – I can fuel my ship using that equipment.” His hands were on his hips as they watched.

“Are y’all hungry?” He asked, again bringing up his pip-boy.

They looked around at each other, nodding in affirmation when each realised, they weren’t alone. The on-board galley was fully autonomous, with enough pre-ready food for forty people to last close to a year. There was a hydroponics bay for growing some food using frozen seeds. But that wouldn’t be necessary now. At the thought, he desperately wished another, actually useful system had survived in its place.

After listing off the 38 options for food, including beverage options of plain H2O, Nuka Cola regular, cherry or orange and Nuka Cola Dark (with alcohol) along with Sunset Sarsaparilla. John had ordered black-bean vegetarian chilli for the tabby-coloured Lieutenant. Her surprisingly long tongue ran circles around her teeth and fangs in anticipation.

Moonshot and Starchaser shared a romantic look and both asked for the seafood pasta. John wasn’t surprised that Thestrals ate fish, and sometimes meat as well.

Goldenrod was the least decisive and made John tell her the options again, and some of them a third time. He was quickly losing patience, fortunately, she decided on vegan meatballs. He also ordered a round of the Nuka Cola Dark. The spiced rum and cinnamon flavours were a real delight.
While the food was prepped, Midnight and Goldenrod took turns bombarding him with questions about the process they were watching. The bots having now assembled an electric-powered turbo-assisted water pump. He began explaining how to fuel a D-T tokamak using Deuterium (Hydrogen 2) and Tritium (Hydrogen 3.)

The first part of the fuel process required the production of hydrogen. Saltwater pumped into a series of chlorine filters and gas-liquid separation membranes will jointly remove undesirable chemicals, biological contaminants, suspended solids and gasses from the water. The filter is about a meter in diameter and has a length of six meters, with a pair of magnetic radiation emitters slung under the filtration chamber to bombard the water with ultraviolet light. A complex medium through which only liquid can pass acts as the final method of filtering. Afterwards, the water is pumped into storage tanks.

The decontaminated, desalinated and degasified water is then pumped into a heavy water production plant, fortunately still suspended in an armoured bin at the Anlace’s steely centre. One of the larger sub-systems aboard, the heavy water process is essential for the production of deuterium – a critical component in fusion fuel.

Hydrogen sulfide gas is circulated in a closed loop between the cold tower (30˚C) and the hot tower (130 ˚C). Although these can be mounted separately, the Anlace had a single large one with the cold section at the top. The filtered water is fed to the cold tower where deuterium migration preferably takes place from the hydrogen sulfide gas to liquid water. Normal water is fed to the hot tower where the deuterium transfer takes place from the liquid water to the hydrogen sulfide gas.

An appropriate cascade setup accomplishes enrichment: enriched water is fed into the cold tower and further “enriched”. The water has around a 15%-20% concentration of D2O, and drains into a sub-level to distillate until more than 99% reactor grade concentration occurs.

Deuterium tritium atoms fuse inside the hot plasma of the reactor, producing one atom of helium-4, one neutron atom and along with it, energy. The fusion neutrons will escape the plasma to react with the lithium atoms in the breeding blanket to produce atomic tritium. This can be extracted and fed back in as the Tritium component to the fuel, the extra is stored in a special and complicated compartment.

He could soon tell that the Thestrals had no real idea or concept of what he was describing. He ventured back into the hallway, located a toolbox which helpfully had a set of chalk and carbon pencils, and returned. He also took a spare piece of decking, it was relatively small – about the size of his torso.

But man does it weigh a ton!

He huffed as quietly as possible as he placed it gently on the clear floor of the observation room, to begin drawing once he’d sat cross-legged.

He drew a simplistic version, a bulky 3D doughnut, with a maze of lines representing the various pipes in and out. He denoted which was which in written English, and explained as he went.

It took him longer to explain the simple version, and although obviously the technology was beyond them – he sensed in their eyes a tiny understanding. At least of the concept.

Dinner arrived and they ate ravenously, the first meal in over a day, he really needed to sort his diet out. A man of Johns size required a complex and high content mix of nutrients. He thought back to when he was a skinny little kid and shivered at the thought.

“Will it be much longer?” Midnight whined, for the umpteenth time.

He resisted gritting his teeth, and growled the same reply, “I don’t know.”

It would probably take the rest of the night and into the morning. Luckily, he didn’t actually have to do any work and took great pleasure in languishing across a sofa-like seat in the ad-hoc downtime room.

“Shouldn’t Colonel Kodiak be back by now?” She followed up after a small frown.

He thought about it, his arm felt heavy – he had, as usual, overeaten. Ordering three Meals, Ready to Eat at once. He forced himself to look at his pip-boy and scrawl across the sensor feed. Nothing within several kilometres except what may have been birds, or the weather team – as Moonshot had claimed the ponies could manipulate the weather simply by flying around.

John didn’t know anything about that, but he did know a chariot-sized object was closing in on the Anlace from the north-west at an altitude of two-hundred meters.

Once inside the hanger, he left the Thestrals alone to peer through the open hanger bay and search for the inbound chariot. John walked along the corridor, into an opposing storage bay, inside which was a dozen Royal Guard spread out. Some were playing cards while other nibbled on awful-looking rations.

“I can get you some food,” he offered.

A squat stallion with what John believed were NCO stripes engraved into his armour spoke first, “shit, here I am eating this crap. Bring it to us, son.”

John didn’t like being called ‘son.’ That was reserved for his father and grandfathers, yet silently took orders again like a 6’8, 300lb waiter. Once completed, he returned to the bay and nearly slipped over on the wet floor.

The weather outside was frightening, strobing lightning flashed across the dark sky and hammering winds carrying icy rain almost threatened to knock the ship over. The antigrav systems were being used to form a conical barrier around the LZ from a hundred meters out, the dark waves bristled and burst against the invisible force, allowing the ship to remain on its struts unmolested. Albeit soaked from the rain and shaking from the wind.

A barely observable fleck was emerging over the waterway, John brought up his wrist and set about making it easier. He activated the anti-collision lights. He imagined the several that still worked winking on.

It was slightly off course. Yet once the pulling team spotted the disturbance from the anti-grav system, they corrected to intercept.

A minute later and the chariot had slowed to an almost complete stop as it emerged through the invisibility barrier, it lowered down, and listed toward the storage-converted-hanger-bay.

Once across the threshold, he instructed the doors to close. It was a larger and more ornate carriage, with a swirly blue-black finish and white jewels painted across it to look like stars. A windowless cover was over the passenger compartment, shielding the occupants from the brutal weather.

The eight-Thestral flight crew were thoroughly drenched, they quickly unhitched and stood with four either side of the tightly tied entrance flap. It was opened from the inside, a large long white horn emerged followed by an aquamarine and sparkling pink mane.

Princess Celestia reminded John of the swan boats he’d seen at an abandoned pre-war amusement park as a kid. Her long and powerful looking neck careened so that her magenta eyes might drink in the surrounding bay. A tiered golden tiara balanced perfectly in the recess of her hairline.

She stepped down on polished gold horseshoes that created light clipping sounds. She wore a large gold collar around her thick neck, a single purple jewel flashed in the artificial light as she turned to grant the next occupant her exit.

Princess Luna was the Yin to Celestia’s Yang. Her dark blue coat seemed to absorb the light. It made the crescent moon mark on her rear leg stand out more. She had a silver inlaid steel breastplate on, her pair of curved and long sabres were fastened onto her back between her dark wings. A smaller and silver version of the tiara Celestia had likewise sat nestled on her head. Her ethereal mane had blues, black and purple under motes of white. Like the most perfect star-filled sky.

Polished silver-tipped hooves touched the deck of the Anlace for the first time since the crash. Luna looked around apprehensively as if the entire place might set alight or come undone any minute.

Midnight, Moonshot, Starchaser and Goldenrod quickly bowed. John almost joined them but decided it wasn’t his place. Luna came almost unnervingly close to rest a foreleg on his abdomen.

“We heard about the burial of your crew and the difficulties you suffered fighting on the ridge. We are glad to see thou are still with us, John” She offered a sincere smile, which he returned reflexively.

Princess Celestia stepped up next, a head taller than her lunar counterpart, John was finally able to make eye contact without looking down. A welcome change.

“Commander,” her voice was not as husky as Luna’s. It was a sort of sing-song voice, and despite his mother having been a hardened man-killer, it oddly reminded him of her.

“Princess Luna, Princess Celestia.” He looked both in the eye in turn. “Welcome aboard the Anlace.

He extended his arms like they had won a grand prize, he waved around himself with a small flourish. They smiled politely, but he could tell neither thought too highly of the dull grey construction. In addition to a pair of defensive ceiling-mounted laser turrets whose purpose was deathly obvious.

He led them forward, the main corridors of the ship were designed with hulking power-armoured soldiers in-mind, and so the two rulers had plenty of headspace. He suggested the Thestral pulling team could hole up with the Unicorns in the adjacent bay and Celestia’s horn ignited in gold for an instant.

The eight Thestrals flashed, all of them unfazed and suddenly completely dry. They secured the craft to the deck using ropes and the rungs at the edges of the walls, the main group leaving them to it as John directed them for the bridge.

As soon as the road to the command deck began, Luna began chatting animatedly as if she was holding drunken court. She went on a tirade about the political situation in the capitol. The noble ponies having finally ‘seen the darkness’ of the world and the shift from resistance to openly suggesting things like mass-conscription and rearming the military with ‘the alien’s weaponry’ hadn’t exactly surprised the darker sister.

“But an outcome of total war is something I had hoped to avoid altogether.” Celestia finished the string of sentences together with her own opinion, Luna gave a disapproving look at her but negated to say anything to that end.

“What were you expecting?” John snorted derisively. “I’m sorry, but did you really think peace could be restored without more bloodshed? It sucks. But it's them or you, and having seen glimpses of both cultures and its citizens,” the last word doused in sarcasm. “You can’t let the kindness in your heart overrule your ability, and frankly, your obligation to keep your people safe.”

They bundled into one of the few functioning maintenance lifts, the door sealing them in like caged chickens as they began to rise.

“I am afraid I cannot disagree with you, John Maxon. Yet I find myself thinking about other alternatives and methods.”

Luna chimed in this time, “if we are to approve of the use of your mega-weapons, shan’t this appear a demonstration of some new capability that we do not actually possess in the eyes of the world?”

They exited the lift once the barrier raised itself, John pulling a sharp right. As they followed him out of a manually controlled door, the two princesses and he had to duck, John waited as they all passed across the steel threshold and then resealed the door.

He pointed and Midnight led the way followed by Luna and Celestia, Moonshot, Starchaser and Goldenrod at the back between John and the monarchs.

They walked in silence, the command bridge coming up. Midnight stopped them at the refurbished door, he had to manually enter the code for this one. He passed the three at the back and had to shimmy awkwardly between the two princesses. He breezed passed Midnight to enter the access code. Once inside they picked up the conversation.

“I believe the use of these weapons is a big decision, and must only be carried out as a last-ditch effort to stop all this,” Celestia said, her eyes squeezed shut.

John grunted, “It’s your call. Just know that while you ponder the ethics, more and more of your soldiers are being killed.”

She sighed, “I know. The most recent figures have almost topped 30,000. It is already the second-highest number of casualties in our history, and It has only been a month.”

John didn’t bother to mention the billions of humans killed in conflicts over his species self-destructive history.

“I’m just saying, its one option. Option two is to use the Anlace in a fire-support role to overwatch a ground offensive. But in that scenario, you're gonna probably throw a quarter-million-strong army at it.”

Celestia blanched. “It is possible, but also unthinkable. Of course, I want this to end soon. But not at the risk of losing so many.”

Luna chimed in by resting a blue leg on her sisters slouched neck. “Of course. But we mustn’t tarry: if we are to become paralysed by indecision as the nobles have been, we are to potentially sink our nation into an eternal abyss. Something we – I – can not condone.”

Celestia nodded, “I know.”

Luna looked at him with the ferocity he’d come to expect. “Is there a third option, human?”

He thought about it. Yes. But did he want to even suggest it? Fuck it.

“I could lead a strike team armed with a portable nuke. Repeat what I did last time, sneak in, set some bang-bang, get out making as much noise as possible and then demo the place to hell.”

She smiled at his enthusiasm when he talked about blowing things up. “How likely is such a mission to succeed?”

John shrugged. “Depends.” He struggled with what to say next.

“Look if I’m stuck here, which might well be an alternate universe or dimension – rather than a fixed point in the same universe as my homeworld, I can give you some action on my tech.”

Luna and Celestia looked as if they didn’t quite understand. “Explain,” Luna said tersely.

He stepped toward a seated Midnight. Fur-tipped tabby ears swivelled in uncertainty but she soon relaxed. He gestured, “imagine. My armour, but designed to fit the Lieutenant.” He spoke more to Celestia, “or for Luna. Power-armoured protection, you could enhance it magically I bet. Toting advanced human weaponry,” he drew and re-holstered his laser sidearm for emphasis.

“Suddenly you would have an enormous advantage militarily over the Changelings, and really anyone else.”

Celestia looked as if to offer a rebuttal, but John kept talking. “Just because you have the biggest stick doesn’t mean people are going to presume you mean to invade and conquer unless of course, that’s what you wanted. But it would make them think twice about messing with you. And if you could defeat the Changelings not only conventionally but without allies from this world, it would go along way to show Equestrian military might.” He clenched his fist and leaned forward in a position of physical power.

Celestia sighed and turned to face the viewscreen. For the first time viewing the world outside. The rain had begun to calm as had the turbulent ocean.

Luna spoke next, “for now, John Maxon, we shall rest. And discuss it more in length tomorrow. Lieutenant Colonel Kodiak is a capable mare, she and her direct superior Colonel Amethyst are going to hold a war meeting with the generals. Her view of the situation on the ground is vital to allow them to come up with their plan.”

She seemed a little giddy suddenly, “in the meantime, mayhaps we might talk more about this ‘power armour’.” She said the words slowly.

He nodded as he looked at the back of Celestia’s turned head. “Alright. I’ll have a maintenance bot set up some quarters. What little furniture I’ve got should be large enough for you both. More than adequate for these,” he gestured at the Thestrals.

She smiled at this, slightly mischievous but he couldn’t say what made him think that. “Tis’ no need, an unused space would be more than suitable.” Her horn flashed in a demonstration, the room strobed white and he shut his eyes for an instant. He blinked. Once the largely barren room had been quite devoid of anything, save for his centrally located command chair.

The bridge now had blue cloth on the walls, an ancient rustic rug had materialised from thin-air underfoot. A half-dozen thick plump pillows lay around in a semi-circle. Blue and gold streamers ran along the upper portion of the walls and across the viewscreen. A small coffee table lay off to one side, a steaming kettle and a tray of cups occupying its surface.

John put his hands on his hips while he inspected the new additions to his ship. “Yeah just make yourselves at home. Do you want to install a log fire as well?”

She smirked in a flash of immaculate teeth, “we thought about it. Concluding the integrity of your vessel more important.”

Midnight and John followed behind an unusually excited blue princess. She veritably skipped down the hall toward the armour bay.

“Turn left,” he said flatly.

She disappeared, he and Midnight rounded the corner. Following for a few moments, they passed a myriad of sealed hatches. Eventually arriving at the armour bay. B/2/1. Once through the security doors, Midnight and Luna each made little sounds of exclamation.

Armoury B/2/1 was the heavy weapons and manufacture lab, from here using automated systems he could 3-D print a wide variety of things from drinking straws to laser weapons, baseball bats to a full functioning set of outdated T-51b armour if he cared to. Four Cerulean Robotics three-dimensional printers could create almost any non-biological material and form single pieces, from there the pieces would travel into the next compartment.

Weapons into an Arm-co assembly unit, armour into an Armour-go assembler and most other things into the unreasonably large H&H Tools, Inc. automated pre-assembled reconfigurator.

What a mouthful.

A set of five armour cradles were staggered on the left, his battle-damaged set sat covered in grime in one, a gap in the floor that ran along the centre granted access into the weapons portion, just visible were dozens of small arms, missiles and belts of fusion cores. At the back of the armour portion rested the fifteen-meter-long rail cannon. It was hyper-lethal. It could fire 7,400 20mm rounds per minute using a variety of munitions.

The far-back bulbous end of this room also held the cradles for the ships four Mk-IV b sentry bots, hulking tanks on wheeled struts, if they did launch a ground offensive, he could always descend into the hive along with his automated followers. Twelve housings for the bipedal Securitrons were devoid of robots save for four. An armoured locker held the only man-portable T-2 five kiloton bomb. A large blank section that used to belong to the pair of cruise missiles sat unoccupied.

The image of an army of fully armed and mechanised ponies caused him to smile, both mares rushed into the room, inspecting all of it.

He followed and the door auto-sealed. It was tricky, John by no-means an engineer. He thought they had to stay there anyway while the ship refuelled, so why not make the most of it with a science experiment.

He began by having Midnight remove her armour, he placed it on a worktable and began loosely measuring her with a tape measure, he was unsure about reaching underneath her body and so asked Luna to take over. He booted up a RobCo terminal and imputed Midnight's measurements as Luna called them. A vague 3-D image of a pony began to form.

Next, he asked Luna to measure from the hoof to the joint and went back and forth to the mackerel-striped Thestral to test the range of motion in her legs, and eventually her body. He added X and Y axis’s along with the approximate location of her various joints and asked them to tell him about their internal organs and bone structure.

He glanced at his pip-boy and could see over two hours had passed without anything exciting happening. Early on the Princess had summoned more cushions and other regal-looking decorations to spruce up the room. He retained a groan at the non-regulation accessories.

John had the automated galley prepare two dozen meals using vegetarian and a few seafood options, a Mr Handy was instructed to be the butler and ferry them to the guards near the hanger and then to Princess Celestia, Moonshot and Starchaser in the bridge.

“Are either of you hungry?” He asked, doing a double-take as Midnight was on top of and had somehow gotten her head inside the headless power armour, pulling it out hastily at his voice.

“I’m easy.” She said fiendishly.

Luna hummed. Her horn lit and a small dining table with three chairs and three set meals hidden under silver covers revealed themselves. John nearly broke his neck at the force of his second double-take.

He resisted the desire to gape. Luna sat on a large blue pillow, Midnight following her example, like summoning an entire living room and three meals was somehow usual.

He sat reluctantly as well. Eyeing everything from the placemats to the half-burned candles, a glass appeared under the management of Lunas sparkling ultra-blue magic. It was promptly filled with a tawny coloured liquid, and he had a sense of Déjà vu from that night he’d had a borderline three-way date with Luna and Colonel Kodiak. John was clueless about the motivations of women. He’d never been any good at ‘playing the game’ as his cousin Sam had said.

He felt a slight sense that one or more of his most recent company might have an interest in him, but he couldn’t be certain and wasn’t sure himself if he could bring himself to do it. When he closed his eyes at night, he still saw her. Amber eyes like gold oil in water, grey-blonde hair that framed her face.

In one motion he took his glass and downed it, foregoing any decorum and as punishment began coughing immediately.

Luna laughed, “art thou alright, Maxon?”

He nodded through watery eyes, coughing even more deeply and hammering his chest to try and put it to an end. He felt his face become warm as an alcoholic heat permeated his insides.

Once he was finished spluttering, a magically levitated bottle refilled his glass, him thinking about her again and trying not to.

“Sorry, I just thought about someone and needed to take my mind off her.” He said, feeling no shame in it.

Luna flicked her chin up in curiosity, Midnight sipping her drink quietly after a probing sniff.

“Tell us about her – somepony we know, maybe.” Her voice had this tone, he wasn’t sure what that meant.

He shook his head, clasping glass number two. “Someone whose been gone for years. I just think about her sometimes, dream about her too.” He smiled dumbly.

“Oh,” she said, “well anyway…” and lifted off all three silvery covers at once, revealing a creamy-looking dish. It smelled excellent.

“What is it?” He droned, spreading some of it with a fork.

“Tis’ roasted squash risotto with cheese. One of our favourites.” She held her fork in navy magic and gave a delighted expression after the first forkful. They ate in relative silence, John forcing himself not to down his other drink. He made some small talk with Midnight, Luna simply observing.

They talked some more about each other’s family, some details of their upbringing and afterwards, they all drank and continued to design a pony-suitable set of power armour.

Eyesight to the Blind

View Online

The Anlace was in a steady low-orbit over the Equestrian peninsula. Through the floor of the observation room, John could see the sparsely-lit settlements and larger cities surrounding a dark hole in the early morning light.

“Are we in position above our enemy?” Luna’s voice sounded somewhat tiny and tinny through the ship’s intercom.

“We are.” He said. Following the line of darkness with the ships multi-spectrum visual suite. Subsurface scans showed a warren about four-hundred meters below a mountain, set next to a large canyon. But actual surface activity was minimal, and that had John worried.

The damage done to the enemy’s lair, while substantial, had mostly been structural. As a subterranean-dominant species, the Changelings could have potentially rebuilt and repaired all the devastation by now. Given what he’d seen whilst inside and from the scans, he could detect a large central silo a kilometre across. It remains the closest point to the surface at around five meters. Nestled inside the silo was another construction, but any Electromagnetic or Radioactivity the scans couldn’t detect through the rocky supporting layer.

“I’m coming up.” He said and turned from the terminal.

A bright flash lasting a microsecond caused him to draw his Laser side-arm. Its stubby emitter was hastily lowered at the appearance of Princess Luna.

Her usually dark blue mane had changed to become almost black, still sparkling with pinpricks of white.

John re-holstered his pistol. “What’s with the hair?”

She smiled coyly, “do you like it?”

He made a face, “It’s alright.”

One of her blue ears flicked and her smile vanished. She was still smiling with her eyes, though.

“You said we are here.”

“Yes.” John turned so she could see the terminal and she stood next to him.

“We are sixty kilometres East of the hive, high enough in orbit that we can maintain our position indefinitely.”

She took in the information wordlessly. Looking at the screen to see topographic data and surface conditions with estimated enemy numbers. John began explaining what the different images and numbers represented, continuing with a few suggestions for the best method of attack.

She squinted, obviously trying to figure out the jumble of new phrases.

He planned to modify one or both of the nuclear missiles to be able to puncture into the ground and burrow into the enemy hive. Detonating once inside.

“Or we could use a seismic bomb. They’re relatively simple to build, but I would need more time.”

“An explosive that is somehow more deadly against underground structures?” She guessed, sounding unsure.

“That’s it.” He said, “exactly.”

Luna’s wings shuddered and she craned her neck to look between her hooves through the observation deck. She studied the gloomy land below for a while, John returned to the terminal and left her to it.

Ship point-defence systems were non-functional. He had a bot’ out on the exterior hull attempting to locate the underlying issue.

“In the meantime,” he started suddenly – breaking Luna out of her search, “we can check-in on Midnight.”

She smiled at this, a glint in her cerulean eyes, “then it shall be our turn to try on your armour!”

He shrugged as they left, “we’ll see.”

The previous night had seen the design process become lengthy. The trio using alcohol to fuel them into the early pre-dawn. After retreating for a nap, they had reassembled after brunch and finished the build. The auto-printer was hissing and clunking as it spat out pieces of steel, ceramic and light alloys. Designing a suit for a quadruped had drummed up many roadblocks which John enjoyed overcoming.

Firstly, there was the size and physiological difference. The only real way the armour could open was from the bottom, John not able to get computerised models to work as he wanted. As for the size, while shrinking the overall design was possible, it had a power pack appropriately sized for a larger set of powered exoskeletons. Therefore, he had plenty of power left for other systems.

The T series armour had built-in microjets and a thrust-control module, combining this with micro-antigravity technology and potentially pegasi magic he could create a suit that could fit a pony, fly and carry on-board weapons. He was thinking about a converted laser-turret design – and still retain technologically enhanced strength and speed. With the addition of energy-shields, the operator would be practically invulnerable. Just like John.

Princess Luna had implied they could agree to a manufacturing pact – money and raw materials in exchange for suits of armour and advanced weapons. John didn’t know how he felt about that; on one hand, he’d be rich. On the other, the ponies could always become overly and unduly powerful, creating a rift and/or new conflict against their neighbouring nations.

The progress would be slow. The printer on the Anlace could produce about three suits a day. Not nearly fast enough to equip an entire army. But he supposed they could start small-scale. Maybe field-test varieties and prototype the converted tech.

“Is it ready?! Is it, is it?!” Midnight seemed far perkier than usual. The half-dozen plastic coffee cups a testament to her energy levels.

“Soon,” John said simply. Luna also looking to become more excitable at the sight of the semi-complete quadruped-appropriate exoskeleton.

He crouched next to the Mr Handy bot that was setting into place the final pieces, John covered his eyes with a hand as a spark from a welder nearly blinded him.

The design was sleek and not as bulky as Johns bipedal set. Without its trademark gunmetal-grey paint, the suit had a scratched-chrome look. He’d sped-up the build process by converting his pre-owned suit, its dented and damaged alloy skin had been recycled and its servo-motors reshaped for a four-legged soldier. A second suit lay in the early stages of construction, it was much larger to accommodate the Lunar monarch.

The bot completed its instructions with a bleep. Carrying itself to the other suit to begin construction.

The suit had four thick legs, an angular segmented neck part connected to the helmet, which was simply a horse-head-shaped bucket with breathing apparatus, voice module and a visual suite. The ponies didn’t have a cerebral interface, and John didn’t trust himself to be able to operate on the mackerel-coated mare to find out if that blend of pony and tech would work out.

The back of the armour where the wings would usually be had the slightly protruding power pack, it added an extra half-meter to the height of the body and ended just in-line with the upper part of the neck, where it connected to the helmet. A small recess at the back acted like a pocket for the tail, allowing the pony inside (hopefully) to remain fairly comfortable. The waste-recycling subsystem was one of the more complex components and he hadn’t been able to fully redesign it. Small bladders in-built into the rear legs could store the waste just the same and then deposit it through the metal hooves.

“You’ll need to tie up your hair,” he said, using a finger to coil a lock of Midnights blackish-blue mane.

She retreated from him, “I hate styling my mane.” She flicked her head and her messy hair flew around in a display of rebellion.

The wind-chime sound he had come to accompany to magic usage tingled in his ears, Midnights hair being magically formed into a tight bun – complete with materialised bobby pins. She hissed and pulled away, pawing at the new style.

She grumbled something to herself, John thought a new style suited her much better. Although he’d always preferred tied-back hair to letting it down, probably because of his militaristic upbringing.

The activation for this suit was a recess on the chest, Luna had used what she called a rune to tie into Midnight's magical signature and hers alone. This way the suit could only be opened by a single operator. In a crisis, John thought it could be a bit limiting, but they could work out the kinks later.

“Stick your leg in here,” he said. “Also, you need to be out of your armour, it might be a bit snug even without it.”

She looked a little pensive, quickly untying the straps and harnesses that held her armour to her, and piling it up somewhat neatly near a workbench.

She pressed her hoof in the crevice and the suit flowered open. The hidden seams along with the limbs, body and helmet splitting like a shedding insect. The exoskeleton reared onto its hind legs and stood in a vaguely bipedal stance; Midnight inhaled to steady herself, before stepping backward into it.

“Now,” John said, “you need to sort-of clench your hoof.” He held out his arms just below his head in an imitation of the Lieutenants pose and flexed his hand at the wrist.

She stared at it while sort of pawing her leg, eventually snagging the activation command as the suit closed up around her and dropped her to all-four hooves quickly, she squeaked and the sound reverberated through the helmet speakers.

Luna had rushed forward and was staring through the silvery-black reflective eye-slits, “Lieutenant, can you hear us?”

The suit flexed as she took a faltering stance, but she didn’t collapse as the suit had an automatic stabiliser to prevent such a misstep.

I –,” She droned in a tinny voice, “think I am fine.” Her head swivelled, testing her physical reach. The design was like the less-advanced suits Johns grandfather had explained he used to fight in sometime in the last century.

His grandfather had ‘one hundred per cent iron in his blood,’ according to his father. Both were hardened killers, yes. But they could be loving in their way – if they weren’t chewing him out for something.

A youthful John had missed the target altogether with a weapon called an assault rifle. He could hit anything at any distance with a laser weapon.

“It’s not my fault! Why do we need to practise with these old things when we can flatten an area with energy fire?” He complained. The steel and wood weapon overly large for the child’s hands.

His grandfather grimaced. “The weapons not the problem, squire. You just shoot like my goddamn grandmother. Actually, strike that, my Mrs Maxon was a deadeye.”

“Now 50 burpees for being a whining little shit!” He said in a voice that brokered no argument.

He’d get his burpee’s. John would hit the target on his next try, he knew.

Luna spoke before he could, “Try to walk towards us!” She was clearly excited, and John didn’t tell her to ‘cool it’. Even if he wished to get any diagnostics over with as fast as possible.

Midnight stumbled a little with the first few steps, and John advised her on power-armour etiquette, “you need to stop anticipating the suit; don’t fight it. The suit will do most of the work, including replacing your natural centre of gravity. Just try to walk without really thinking about it and relax yourself.”

She became very still, her next series of hoof-steps approaching normal. Once at Luna, she paused as if not sure how to turn, but suddenly she did, a little stiffly but she had the hang of it. They spent the next hour practising, a second suit built for Luna awaited smartly for her use after almost another hour.

It had a blueish finish to the metal, just a fluke really. Something to do with the metal oxidizer, but it was apt he had to concede. The armour was proportionally larger to accommodate the Lunar rulers bigger frame. A slot in the helmet allowed her horn to protrude a little, so she might still use her magic.

She made a sound John thought of as an energised and barely contained scream, coming from inside her throat. She removed her pony-designed armour and decorative trinkets alarmingly fast – mimicking the mackerel Thestral by hopping into her specially-built suit. More time passed while they walked in circles and had a little luck with flying. John hydrated and snacked on an expiration-dateless packet of rehydrated beef jerky. It was chewy but tasty. A protein-rich morsel.

A sound from his pip-boy broke the training, and he checked it quickly.

“Tis’ wrong, Commander?” Luna’s oddly mechanical yet smoky voice came at him.

“Somethings approaching the ship, it will be here soon. We should get to the bridge. Stay in your suits, I reckon your sister would like to see them.”

Once at the command deck, he opened and closed the bridge door. His armoured equine escorts struggled to step over the air-lock threshold. Like a dog debating its inevitable journey down a flight of stairs.

Once all were inside the two ponies were admired by Celestia, Goldenrod, Moonshot and Starchaser.

“My, my, sister. You look all the more a warrior.” The alabaster sister smiled, but it wasn’t a particularly happy expression.

The larger of the two power-armoured ponies curtsied. The move an astonishing defiance of the servo-motors limitations, yet she managed it without collapsing.

John sat in the command chair, a holographic map of the horseshoe bay area cut Princess Celestia in half and she scurried away from the green-blue light.

“There’s a cart inbound. We should meet it in the hangar.” John looked around for agreement, which he got in the form of nodding heads.

“Take us there, Maxon,” Luna said.

Single file they marched toward the converted storage shed. Once inside the bay doors revealed a greyish morning sky. Mountains on the horizon blurred into the skyline, making it difficult to determine where the earth and the heavens separated.

A speck that grew could be easily seen; a pony-built aerial transport. The gold-coloured pony-pulled carriage dipped below the flight deck, seeming to have lost altitude and crashed, but rose again and skipped into the bay, hovering next to the royal sister’s vehicle. Before landing a harshly blue-eyed royal guard stallion glared at them. Constant anger and contempt in his eyes.

He jumped the last half-meter to the deck, ignoring the slowly landing craft and coming right for their group. He was a large pony, not particularly tall, but heavyset even so.

He had a purple shield at the front of his chest, it pinned a fluttering red cape that had this silky texture to it. On the back was a crest in gold, crossing swords maybe. John wasn’t sure.

He wore a heavy gold armoured plate that covered every limb, every seam speckled with chainmail. His hip held a long sabre, an artistically styled handle and guard. Cold wind-blown rain splattered against them; it went ignored by the curious pony.

A thinly-built stallion joined him. He was the firsts physical opposite, similar height but wiry-limbed. His armour the simple officer’s chest-plate John had seen other guards wearing. A short-sided helmet covered his identical Royal Guard-standard white fur. The small dagger he clasped at his side a small comfort when facing off against the heavily armed and armoured gathering of ponies and one biped.

A pair of unicorns had joined John and the others at a prompt from an armoured Midnight, and they scanned the new ponies with anti-Changeling disguise spells. Or so John assumed. At their certain nod, they could talk.

“General Testudo,” Celestia began. “What news preludes your presence?”

He had this wild scowl at all times and didn’t blink at Luna or Midnights new mechanised armour. “It’s the Changelings, ma’am. They’ve mobilised for an invasion unprecedented in scale. Their armies roam in all directions, they are on our collective doorstep.”

“We need to discuss a few points,” he continued, “and then pass a bill in the royal court as soon as possible. We need more fresh troops, more supplies. Princess, our very survival hinges on your orders.”

Luna and Celestia shared this look. A serious one, a look that conveyed a dozen feelings and thoughts wordlessly.

Luna spoke, “very well, General. John, we need somewhere to talk.”

“This way, then,” John said, leading them toward a ready room.

Survivors of 4th Battalion, 23rd Brigade,
Western Everfree,
Day three.

“Here they come!”

Charcoal forms began emerging from the smoke and fire strewed ruins of the Everfree forest. Once a natural biome filled with a diverse range of plant and animal life, it had been obliterated in the last two days of intense and concentrated fighting.

Sergeant Bitter-Root had a selection of pre-cast spells at her disposal, she thought about ethereal fire emerging from the depths of her magical ability and that’s exactly what happened. Red napalm bubbled and popped as she sprayed the area fifty meters ahead. A platoon-sized group of Changelings unfortunate to be the first immolated, they writhed and screeched as gold-armoured ponies were encouraged to counter-attack.

The strain in her horn spread into a dull throb at the base of her neck, and she cut the spell. The scorched and still-burning area disgorged more Changelings even as they stampeded over their heavily burned comrades. Caustic smoke caught the wind and burned her lungs, the Changelings had been raining down some kind of gas along with the usual artillery and airstrikes.

She reached into the small pack at her armoured waist, removed her breather mask and strapped it on, a magical air filled her nose and she could breathe once more. The circular eyeholes made it seem like she was viewing the combat through a tube, narrow and restricting. But at least she was alive.

To her sides and behind an overlapping chorus of screams and coughing fits overcame the primal need to flee; grounding her in the here and now and making her blood surge for vengeance.

Bitter-Root had trained and lived with these ponies for ten years, she wasn’t about to take this flank-kicking lying down. Several soldiers in her unit had failed to equip their breathers – faces locked in frozen screams. They lay twisted, having died in terrible agony.

She clenched her jaw and advanced with the others, she clashed with a large bug-pony-hybrid, her steel held against its serrated chiton short-sword. Her magic blasted the creature, vicious blood-ebbing wounds caused it to howl and semi-collapse. She extracted her blade after burring it into the things back.

She turned to check on her unit. The last thing she didn’t see would be a crushing hammer blow to the neck, fatally shattering her chest and skull such was the force. Sergeant Bitter-Root’s sole fortuitous gift was being spared from feeding.

Artillery peppered the area between her position and the Everfree salient. A platoon she had just dispatched was somewhere in the hell-fire, trapped under enemy bombardment.

“Celestia-dammed things just keep coming!” An out-of-breath stallion announced as he all but tossed a scroll at his superior officer.

Captain Ambrosia didn’t acknowledge his griping, instead quickly skimming the update from her forward unit. She’d sent two of her most veteran platoons into the Everfree two days ago to discern if reports of inbound bugs were true. An approximately hundred-thousand-strong force of the bastards had just shown up out of no-where, kilometres from their hive in the west.

She turned to another soldier as he scrabbled into the command post, “ma’am!” The trooper said, firing off a quick salute.

“How long?” She asked. Referring to the evacuation of Ponyville to the North-West.

He shook his head before she had finished asking. “They flanked us! They’re attacking the civilian population centres and there’s a large force of them coming right up our ass!”

“We’re fucked, ma’am!” He said as if to summarise his feeling on the matter.

“Stow it! Send word to Lieutenant Garrison – tell her to move her troops to the rear and we’ll hold out as long as we can.”

“Ma’am?” He asked.

“This is our final stand, trooper. Better pray for a miracle.” She said simply, his wide eyes bulged – but together they pushed outside with the others, three dozen ponies assembling for what might be their last moments.

“it’s a mess, ma'am.” The General said.

Captain Nyx, his administrative staff officer, scattered several black-and-white pictures over the alloy table.

“What are we looking at, General?” Celestia said, her head cocked to one side.

He spread them out so they could be better seen. Big blurry blobs shifted over what John thought might be mountainous terrain.

“Large formations of Changeling troops crossing into our borders.”

He paused to look them each in the eye, “three days ago.”

He moved some more pictures to the forefront, it looked like the Equestrian capital. The ground just visible below a veil of thick black smoke.

“This morning they came out of nowhere, our 1st Army has engaged them stretched along a 40km front.” He handed a copy of a report to each Princess, John studied their sour expressions.

Celestia looked hurt and sad. Looking up with wet eyes. Luna's expression hidden beneath her power armour, “art these accurate?” Her voice was tinged nasally.

The paper file flopped in her magical grasp as she gestured at the General. He looked down, “they are. As of about an hour ago, the enemy is almost inside the capital.”

Luna huffed angrily, “how have they managed to conceal their numbers? To invade and ensnare us so completely.” Her head shook slightly.

“How far have they gotten, General?” John asked.

The older stallion regarded John as one might view a stray dog. Cautiously curious.

“For three days and nights they’ve marched, no army in history can claim that rate of movement. Intelligence thinks they used underground tunnels to move into a position for attack. They are stretched west from the sands outside Las Pegasus and have overrun the 1st Lunar Guard division stationed in Appleloosa, chasing them south into the Mackintosh hills. Lieutenant Colonel Kodiak and Colonel Amethyst have gone there to help lead them out.”

Captain Nyx set out a map over the reconnaissance photos and the General kept talking, “the Changelings have bypassed I-corps who are now defending Las Pegasus-proper, pushing north and splitting into two groups, one heading for Vanhoover and the other flanking toward Ponyville.”

He looked up, “probably intending to march up the Canterlot pass and into the city itself. And although evacuation of the area was almost complete before they even arrived, the civilian casualties remain high. We’ve massed what reserves that remain in the area near the Whitetail woods, and I recommend urging our neighbouring nations to help.”

He carried on at Johns prodding. I-corps was the west coast of Equestrias major most formation of military forces command. Comprised of the 8th Marina Guard Division, (naval assault specialists,) 3rd combat mountain unit, (Mountainous troops,) and the 10th and 15th Royal Guard divisions. All-in-all about sixty-thousand guards garrisoned near Las Pegasus.

By Whitetail Woods the 8th Army Group had four mixed division from the less experienced territorial echelons in the Royal Guards, with another forty-thousand to add to the fight. The 1st Lunar Guard Division south of Appleloosa in the Mackintosh hills had between twenty-five to thirty-thousand battle-hardened troops. And what they lacked in number they could make up for in skill, tenacity and experience.

In the east, a pair of Guard and Thestral Divisions were butting heads but ready to blockade the Changelings from marching toward Baltimare and Horse-Shoe bay.

John studied the maps, markers for each unit were added as the General described the situation. Some two-hundred thousand Equestrian troops from a military of maybe half a million had been called on, rapidly mobilising but they had already lost tens of thousands over the last two weeks.

“What about Vanhoover?”

The General huffed, “Elk share that territory with us and they’ll be dammed if they’re gonna let a bunch of black-bastard cheese-leg assholes ruin their day. We’ll reinforce them if we can but right now our priority has to be Canterlot and the surrounding area. It’s the beating heart of Equestria, our cultural heritage. It must not fall.”

They all had this rallying shaking sensation at his words. Tactically whoever controlled Canterlot controlled one of the highest peaks in the area. But even so, throwing soldiers lives away for a piece of land had always baffled John.

“Cities and homes can be rebuilt, General Testudo. Lives cannot be replaced.”

“Of course, but Canterlot is too important. And they haven’t reached the city yet. The troops stationed at the crash site from the are halting the enemy advance, but they won't last long. With your help, I intend to route the enemy and send em running”

"What units are still stationed within the city itself?” Celestia asked.

"Palace Guards and Legionaries, Princess. A division of each. Already the enemy siege machines are within reach and have begun their barrage. I’ve dispatched pegasi air wings to seek out, strike and destroy them – and they’ve been making some progress but not nearly enough.”

Princess Celestia studied the maps, forming a response. “Can we do this alone – with the help of the Commander I mean?” A question meant for John as much as anyone else.

Testudo spoke before John could, “it’s a simple matter of numbers, Princess; they have more. Our military analysts at Pendragon Research and Development tell me it might be in the range of 9:1. We have the edge pound for pound, but that doesn’t matter when you’re talking about five-million bugs swarming the nation.”

There wasn’t much that could be said to that.

“John – Might we have a word?” Luna asked. Her voice tinted nasally with her power armour.

“Sure,” he said easily. For despite the deteriorating situation on the ground he was safe at high altitude, he reasoned.

At a gesture from Lunas metal-encased leg, her larger sibling joined them outside. He sealed the door at a nod from Luna. Celestia looking as confused as John.

He had his back to the entrance and felt a little claustrophobic in with the pair of princesses within touching distance. He waited for her to speak.

“Celestia, we need to come to terms with the situation and rally the ponies if any of us are to survive this. We have a plan that we think the good Commander can help with.”

“Okay,” Celestia said, “do share.”

After telling them, the trio re-entered the ready-room. John had to admit a small amount of surprise. He could tell from the looks on Celestia, Testudo and Nyx’ faces that they were as equally unprepared. Luna finished by finally asking for his input.

In short – she wanted to use the manufacturing infrastructure in a place called Fillydelphia to mass-produce the ponified power armour, as well as human energy weapons. At the same time, to amass an enormous armed force. To match and meet the Changeling threat.

“I mean… can that be done?” He asked. He was all for the eventual re-armament of pony-kind. But so rapidly?

“Indeed, we believe it can. For we have one critical advantage.”

“Magic?” He guessed.

“Correct,” she said. “We would like to trial something. Lieutenant, please remain steady. We do not know if this will work.”

The power-armoured officer turned to face the Princess, and both moved against the far wall. Luna exited her armour with greater ease and fluidity than John would have thought. She lifted it telekinetically and relocated it to the opposite wall.

Luna inhaled sharply. Her eyes were closed with her lips parted a fraction, when her eyes opened again, they were a deep black, puddles of darkness. Her horn flashed a cerulean blue and energy poured out of it into the smaller armoured Equestrian.

A ghostly apparition of the armour formed and phased to stand next to the Lieutenant. Slowly at first, it began to fill in – blank sections replaced with swirling darker blues and oranges that became solid metal. With a small shockwave that blasted the papers from the steel table and tousled the other Equines fur and manes, a third complete suit stood.

A clap. John began clapping slowly, marvelling at the display. “That’s awesome.” He said genuinely, having never seen anything like it.

She exhaled slowly through her mouth, tipping her chin in a nod. ‘My pleasure,’ it said.

“Twas’ not as taxing as we had thought. We should be able to make several of them, but we cannot copy a copy – we should use the original to make them from.”

“Alright. Midnight – get out and try the copy out.”

Midnight pawed at her chest, eventually striking her release and stepping out of the human-produced suit after it had flowered open.

Midnight began entering the new suit, and John studied it critically. He inspected every nook. “I’ll need one as well, for my own analysis.”

“Very well, we should incline to return to the weapons room.” She looked at her sister, “will you lend us your power, sister? You have far greater energy reserves than I.”

Celestia smiled a tiny smile, obviously the conflict and situation in needing more soldiers – and the possibility that she would have to plunge her nation into war both troubled and scared her. Yet she was able to put that aside to bond with her younger Lunar counterpart.

Verily,” she said in imitation of the way her sister sometimes lapsed into old-world speak.

“In the meantime, General Testudo – we are very safe here. If you could return to the capital, rally the ponies. Myself and my sister are agreed,” as she spoke, she summoned a quill and some parchment to scribe her speech.

“We are preparing for a swift end to this war. In this solemn hour, it is a consolation to recall our repeated efforts for peace. All have been ill-starred, but all have been faithful and sincere. The cooperation of scores of millions of mares and stallions and whose comradeship is indispensable, is the only foundation upon which the trial and tribulation of modern war can be endured and surmounted.

“This mortal conviction alone affords us that ever-fresh resilience which renews the strength of ponies in long, dark days. Outside, the storms of war may blow and the lands may be lashed with its gales. But in our own hearts there is peace. Our hooves may be active, but our consciences are at rest.”

The black ink swirled in an admittedly pretty scripture, again John was reminded that written Equestrian was unlike English literature. Two more quill-ended pens sprung into being, one with a white-edged gold feather and the other a dark black with blue spots.

Celestia levitated the letter to her shorter sister, her blue head raised and eyes narrowed as she read. Luna signed in blue ink, Celestia in gold and a wax mark of each mare was printed into the bottom. Little ribbons trailed from them, the entire thing rolled and slotted into a decorative tube. It passed to General Testudo.

“Read this to the court, we have the infrastructure in place for such a calamity. See to it that the nobles don’t attempt anything oafish.”

“Yes, Princess,” he said in his gravelly voice. He wasn’t a small pony, but he was fairly diminutive compared to the white ruler.

As Nyx and Testudo started to leave, Luna nearly barrelled into the smaller officer to cut-off his escape,

“Captain Nyx, inside Canterlot castle are a single battalion of my most elite Thestral Guards. We art hereby activating them. We want you to send eighty-per cent of them to establish a camp atop foal mountain. The rest are to find us here, understood?”

“Yes, Princess.” He straightened.

“Good, take this. Fly swiftly.” She handed him a small scroll holder.

They escorted the General back to the hanger. John watching coldly as he and his aide officer boarded, the pony-towed transport lifting soundlessly and drifting into the open-air as the bay doors opened. Howling rain threatened to flood the bay and blast the cart onto its back. The pulling team coped well, moving into the sky and fading from sight at vast speed.

John turned, “Princess Luna, take your sister to the weapons bay – and kindly take all three sets of armour. And you can begin making more copies.”

“Yes, sir!” Luna said, half-rudely, half-jokingly. Midnight exited her magic copy power armour, and both of them departed, taking the suit. Luna was now familiar enough with the ship that he trusted her to make it back okay.

That left him alone with a technically naked Midnight. “You owe me a drink,” she said suddenly.

Do I? Probably.

“Aright – but we have to make it quick.”

The kitchen – or ‘cook-nook,’ was a fire-proof and fully sealed space that allowed for non-automated catering. The much larger robotic kitchen was in an armoured cell that could be jettisoned if needed, the food exited via a small air-lock. Because in space, fire is a crew’s greatest fear. Among many others.

He sat in the cramped four-seat table, tapping away at a small series of buttons in the middle of the table. The Thestral sat – albeit uncomfortably. Looking to regret the request for a drink.

He drummed both palms on the table, “what’s on the menu?” She asked.

“Nuka-Cola Dark,” he explained. “Cola with rum.”

The pair of black-labelled bottle appeared soon after, already opened. The fizz and alcohol felt like sand against his teeth, but he drank half in one go after clinking glass with the Equestrian.

“So, I’ve been thinking,” she began. “we have a lot in common, and you know we could be dead any day. Would you mind if I took you out?” The query came out of the left field and completely caught him off-guard. He scanned her features, trying to discern if this was a prank.

He smiled despite the unease he felt, “like on a date? Or with a high-powered rifle?”

She laughed a bit, her yellow eyes flashing brightly, fangs protruding in her own smirk, “on a date. I know I’m probably not what you’d usually go for,” she looked down and frowned.

“But maybe we could try it – see what we both think? This is new for me too, and definitely not what I expected to find myself asking.”

“But –” she said at length, “think about it?”

His eyes unfocused, he thought back to earth, and the women he knew. Even Cassandra, the woman he feared he may have loved – didn’t evoke anything relating to shame, or of taboo. Midnight wasn’t an animal, she was a thinking, feeling person. Even so – when he’d thought about settling in with a soft woman on a tropical beach, this wasn’t what he had meant at all.

But you need to adapt, he reasoned. He’d think about it. He realised he’d been quiet for a while, and Midnight was starting to look worried. The patterned M on her forehead scrunched in a frown.

“Okay, when there’s time, when this is all over.” He gestured between them, “I’ll think about it.”

Her face lit up before she got her emotions in check. “Great! I mean, that’s good. Good.” The dopey smile was hidden as she polished off her drink, John copying.

He led them back into the hallway, banishing the conversation from his thoughts and thinking again about the best course of action.

The wandered down to the weapons bay, underneath the armour facility – where even now, they could see the royal sisters making clones of the pony power-armour. The rear section required a code to enter, the quality killing devices locked away.

They stepped through, and John unclasped a laser rifle from the wall. The Anlace had maybe three-hundred pre-assembled shooters, with the supplies to make about a thousand more. He may need to modify the design a bit for the ponies, but no matter – a weapon was a weapon, it didn’t have to be elegant.

He handed it to the furry Thestral, Midnight sitting to take it across both front legs. She held it awkwardly, before the memory of him teaching her in its usage at the fighting near Blackwater resurfaced and she shifted it into a firing position. John tapped the end toward the floor – to prevent any mishaps.

She looked up a little unsure, “whoever said the pen is mightier than the word has never encountered automatic weapons.”

He gestured at the rows of laser and plasma ejectors, “I’ll be the armourer of an under-equipped military. Weapons, my dear. You and the others aboard are going to have to learn quickly their usage, and help me to teach the rest of your military.”

She gulped, and her snake-eyes widened. “So let's get to work,” he said.


View Online

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.”