Josh Chamberlain had forty two minutes and seventeen seconds left to live. This happy knowledge was imparted to him via the flashing red countdown timer in the bottom left corner of his helmet, a feature of the Human Liberation Front member’s jury rigged Combat Suit that he had mixed feelings about. While on one hand it was just a little annoying to watch his final minutes ticking down second by second, the systems responsible for the countdown for the same ones automatically cycling opiates, endorphins, and amphetamines through his system in sufficient quantities that he could pass said minutes philosophically and relatively pain free, in spite of what, judging from the amount of fast sealing plastics hardening over the visible portions of his Suit, were fairly significant injuries.
On the balance, it was probably worth putting up with. Shrugging inside his bulky wargear, Chamberlain put the countdown out of his mind to stare at his immediate surroundings, although these were if anything MORE morbid than a flickering display precisely measuring his shrinking time left this side of the grave. Doomed last stands might be a wonderful display of the human capacity for defiance and courage in the face of oblivion, but if this one was any sort of indicator, they were also Hell to clean up after. Admittedly, the aftermath of this one was far more colorful than that of, say, Thermopylae or the Alamo, given the dozens of brightly colored equine corpses intermingled with the Suited Up forms of the human dead.
The sound of weeping jerked Chamberlain from his ruminations, the agonized sobbing loud enough to be heard even through his helmet. He considered ignoring it, but with the pain of his wounds deadened the biggest torment of his final minutes had been boredom, which would be at least partially alleviated by a conversation with another living thing.
“After all,” he said out loud, “What’s the point of being stoic and philosophical in the face of death if no one’s around to see you do it?” With a grunt of effort, he began to lever himself into a standing position, wincing as every now and then his mangled body’s protests at the treatment punched through the deadening haze of the drugs. Fortunately, once he’d pulled himself upright the bracing framework on the outer layers of the Suit locked into place, keeping him vertical with no effort required on his part. Not for the first time, Chamberlain was grateful for the stroke of fortune that had caused his squad to stumble across the shipment of Lazarus Trauma Suits in the abandoned hospital several months ago.
Originally designed to allow patients in critical condition to strap themselves in and walk to safety in the event of a disaster, natural or manmade, they were just one of the rigs the Human Liberation Front had adapted for combat once the importance of completely covering one’s body while engaging the Equestrian forces had been discovered. If the enemy’s Conversion Potion touched even the smallest portion of exposed skin, even the most diehard HLF fanatic would be irreversibly transformed into a four legged equine form, singing the praises of the Two Princesses. Many of the Combat Suits included explosive, poisonous, or even more exotic modifications enabling the wearer to commit suicide should a Potion exposure be imminent.
Once he was on his feet, Chamberlain drew his sidearm, the pistol grip sawed off shotgun typically issued to “Suited Up” HLF members when the fighting was expected to get up close and personal. It was possible the crying was another human being, but given that his current streak of luck had seen an entire continent of magic using equine aliens rise from the ocean and declare war on the human race, being prepared for the worst was only prudent. The wisdom of his choice was born out when he rounded the corner of the building he had been lying against and saw a tiny white unicorn with a pink mane and tail, kneeling over the corpses of several of the armored Equestrian Royal Guard and bawling its eyes out.
Immediately he leveled the shotgun at the back of…her head? Yes, as best he could tell, the pony was female and, if he was any judge, slightly overweight. Idly, he noted she must have been extremely wrapped up in her grief if she hadn’t heard the whirring joints and heavy footfalls of his suit..although not picking up on the dog pack slinking towards her from the opposite direction was slightly more forgivable. There were four of them, all the big, aggressive breeds HLF trained to fight alongside its members, most likely still riding the combat stimulants that would have been mixed with their food and water before the battle. They would have been trained to go for live prey even in the presence of so many dead, and the sobbing young unicorn would be setting off every hunting instinct they had been born with in addition to the ones that had been beaten into them.
Tactical considerations whirled through his mind, floating on the dreamlike clarity induced by his own cocktail of drugs. The little unicorn was sure to notice the dogs soon, and use her magic to defend herself. Even the meanest HLF mongrel couldn’t claw through a unicorn spell barrier. The ammunition for his sidearm, however, was a mixture of copper, iron, and silver shot specifically created to disrupt such defensive fields. But what if she decided to teleport? Preemptively blasting her in the leg would certainly disrupt the concentration unicorns needed to perform their magic tricks, and the scent of blood and thrashing in pain would send the dogs into a killing frenzy. His finger tightened on the trigger…and he wrenched the barrel straight up, the gun bucking and roaring in his augmented grip.
“Kennel! Kennel!” he shouted into his helmet’s mike, the words roaring out of the built in speaker. In theory, the packs training would re-assert itself and they would return to the HLF base camp, in practice, Chamberlain had helped bury a few HLF members who hadn’t shown the proper respect for a carnivorous animal hopped up on steroids and the canine equivalent of crack cocaine. Time seemed to crawl by he stared into the eyes of the largest dog, the animal’s feral gaze seeming to peer right through his tinted faceplate. He had seven shots left, but nothing like enough time to fire them all if the dogs charged. Even in his weakened state, it was unlikely they could tear through the Suit, but if they knocked him off his feet he wasn’t sure he could get back up, but as long as he kept a grip on the gun he could still shoot even from a prone position. The real problem was the unicorn. If she screamed, if she tried to run, the dogs would go for her, and he doubted he could fire fast or accurately enough to shoot them off her at point blank range before they tore her throat out.
He opened his mouth to tell her to stay still…but the command left his throat as sigh of relief when the big dog turned its back to him and began to trot off in the opposite direction, although he kept the gun trained in their direction until the last one had turned away to follow the leader. Only then did he turn his full attention on the unicorn. Chamberlain had seen some pitiful looking ponies in his tenure with the Human Liberation Front, but she was certainly a contender for the top spot in that category. Her coat was covered in tears and snot, and she was shaking in fear as she stared at him, her eyes eerily expressive in spite of their redness and blotchiness.
He felt a stab of annoyance at that…he HAD just saved her life, after all, but to be fair to her, they were surrounded by the bodies of beings like him who had killed and been killed by beings like her. More to the point, with his Suit blackened by conjured dragonfire and still dripping thick, reddish brown liquid where the sealing systems tried to plug the rents in it, he probably bore more than a little resemblance to a corpse that had clawed its way back from the dead to keep fighting in the name of vengeance.
“Pony. You all right?” he asked, the query emerging from the speaker in a menacing rasp. His answer was a pathetic snuffle, as tears once again began to well up in her eyes. Chamberlain swore, softly enough that the mike wouldn’t pick it up. He’d never been very good at dealing with little girls, even human ones, and five years of fighting a guerilla war hadn’t offered many chances to improve his skills in that area. “Are you hurt?” he repeated, trying to modulate his tone to account for the vagaries of speaker distortion.
“N-nuh-no.” she blubbered, still staring at him. Chamberlain sighed again, this time loud enough for the mike to catch.
“What on God’s green Earth is a little pony like you doing,” he gestured expansively with his sidearm, “in all this?”
“I w..wuh..wanted to see…”
“Wanted to see that battle.” He finished for her, shaking his head. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask what her parents would think of this little act of idiocy, but he clicked his teeth together at the thought it was very likely one or both of her parents were among the corpses cooling all over the city. Instead, he tucked the shotgun back into its holster and began to fumble with one of the carrying compartments on the Suit’s hip. “Are you hungry? Thirsty? I think I have a ration pack or two that isn’t completely charred..”
“You…you’re not going to hurt me?” She asked, blinking away some of her tears.
“ What..” he paused a moment to collect his thoughts. “What would be the point of hurting you?” She glanced at the carnage surrounding them and opened her mouth again, but he cut her off. “No, I’m not going to hurt you. If you’ll let me, I’ll walk you to the Equestrian lines-that certainly wasn’t the only pack we turned loose, and after a battle like this, there’s certain to be Diamond Dogs or gryphons looking to scavenge.”
“Why? Why would you do that?”
Josh was asking himself the same question. The offer had come tumbling out of his mouth with little to no influence from the cold and logical part of his brain, although likely more than a bit from the drugs coursing through his system. Then again, he’d always believed that life was too short for navel gazing self analysis, and if his Suit’s display could be believed, life was damn short indeed, so he tabled the internal inquiry.
“What difference does it make? Do you want me to get you to safety, or do you want to end up in someone or something’s cooking pot?”
“But you killed them!” the little unicorn wailed. “You killed them all!”
“Look, Miss…what’s your name?” She blinked at him, bewildered. “Your name. I can’t keep calling you pony, or kid, or hey, you.”
“Of course. Of course it is.” Well, anyone named for a general on the losing side of a civil war was in a glass house when it came to casting aspersions on whatever appellations someone else’s parents had saddled them with. “Miss Skies, I certainly didn’t kill all of these ponies. And all the ones we killed here…they were soldiers, fighting other soldiers. You’re just a ki…a filly. And I don’t make war on fillies. Or colts.”
“But why would you make war on any of us? We came here to help you?”
He frowned at her, realized she had no way of seeing his expression through the helm, and shook his head in order to convey his exasperation.
“Has anyone ever told you, you ask too many questions?” That actually got him a smile-a half hearted one that vanished almost as soon as it appeared, but he chose to consider it progress. “The answer isn’t complicated, but I don’t have a lot of time…why don’t we talk about it while we walk?”
“I guess that would be…okay.”
“All right, then.” He said, mentally running over the maps his unit had been issued last week. “The Guard has a base east of here, the sun’s setting over there, so we need to go…aw, DAMNIT!”
While he’d been doing mental cartography, Chamberlain’s gaze had been wandering over the tangled knots of bodies and piles of rubble more or less at random, until it was arrested by a familiar sight amidst the wreckage. Ignoring Sunny’s shocked gasp at his profanity, he threw the suit into as close to a run as it’s battered systems and his ruined body would allow, lurching towards a particular tangle of mangled corpses.
Many members of HLF regarded the Morlock Subterraneon Ore Extraction Suit to be one of the most impractical pieces of gear anyone had ever tried to use in combat. Built to allow miners to brave the extreme heat and pressure encountered as corporations burrowed ever deeper beneath the earth in search of resources, Morlocks were ponderous, slow, and loud enough to alert anything with ears or pressure sensitive skin in a hundred yards to their presence. In addition, unlike Suit designs with articulated gauntlets, which allowed the operators to use a variety of tools or weapons, Morlocks were built with heavy digging and cutting tools hardwired to their arms, rendering them useless at anything except face to face, hand to hand combat.
Morlock operators, such as Josh’s brother Andrew, retorted to criticism with the fact that the design could absorb a mind boggling amount of punishment before it even thought about breaking down, and that close quarters melee attacks were the favored tactic of Equestrian forces when Potion bombs, manipulated weather, and various magical shenanigans failed to break an enemy, which played perfectly to the heavy mining Suits strengths.
“Those firecrackers you’re packing-BAH!” Andrew had said. “Anybody, and I do mean anybody, a chap, a idiot, you name it, can kill somebody with a gun. It’s like Pops said…you really deserve to kill a person, you look’em in the eye when you do it.”
“I’m positive Dad never said anything even remotely like that.” Josh replied.
“Well, you might be right…but it is the kind of thing he would have said if he’d ever thought about it.”
This particular Suit hadn’t let the design’s reputation for durability down. No less than twelve spears, backed by monstrously powerful Earth pony muscle, had been driven into it before they hit something vital, and the mangled remains of Guardponies and spear shafts that lay at its feet showed its attackers had certainly not had things all their own way. Even the pony who had made the killing thrust, judging by the amount of human blood on his spear, wouldn’t be bragging about it. He might have been quick enough to drive his weapon past the Morlock’s defenses, but he hadn’t been quick enough to avoid the cutting arm that had raked across his throat in retaliation.
Josh yanked the pony, held upright by a grip on his shaft death itself hadn’t been able to loosen, out of the way, and swore even louder as he saw the still legible lettering on the Morlock’s punctured chest assembly: PONIES. IF YOU CAN READ THIS, ITS TOO LATE TO SCREAM. He’d often teased his little brother about the grammar of the slogans and phrases Andrew would stencil onto the front of his Suit before a battle…tears ran uncontrollably down the elder Chamberlain’s face, fueled by a mixture of the pain of his exertions, and grief.
“Damn damn DAMN!” he snarled, kicking the corpse of his baby brother’s killer hard enough to cause ribs to break with an audible snap!
“You knew him?” Sunny’s voice cut through the red veil of rage and grief descending over him, and his hand dipped automatically towards his firearm …but no. With a grimace, he bottled up the anger and sorrow. After all, he’d be joining Andrew shortly, no point in coming all to pieces now.
“I did.” He said. “I knew him very well. He had was lazy, had an awful temper, and he never knew when to just shut up. But he never broke his word or let a friend down, and every time I needed him he was there. All in all, I don’t think I could have asked for a better little brother.”
“Your younger brother…” he heard hoof beats as she trotted up behind him. “For what it’s worth…I’m sorry.”
“WHY?” Chamberlain snarled. “Why couldn’t you just leave us alone?” He felt like an idiot as soon as the words left his mouth, but Sunny just sighed, sounding older than she had any right to.
“Celestia says it’s because she loves you.”
“What?” he spluttered, sheer incredulousness managing to sweep aside grief and anger. “Because she LOVES us? You can’t possibly be serious.”
“If you saw a baby..a little baby playing with a knife, wouldn’t you try and take the knife away from it? Even if the baby cried, even if trying to take the knife away got you or the baby cut…wouldn’t you try?”
“I believe there’s just a little bit of difference between taking a knife away from a baby and all this.” He retorted, indicating their surroundings.
“She says that when you die, there’s nothing waiting for you! That all of you, even the kindest, the bravest, the most talented…that you just disappear! If we could save you…even some of you from that, don’t we have a duty to do so? That’s why she made the Potion, that’s why she started the Bureaus, that’s why she…”
“Started the war that’s killing more of us than any conflict in our history.” Josh cut her off. Part of him moaned that it had expected a much more dignified end than debating ethics with a prepubescent talking unicorn, but he told that part it needed to shut up and help him come up with better arguments, lest they have the even LESS dignified end of losing an ethical debate to a prepubescent unicorn. “Even if those are her reasons, and I personally think they’re a load a bunk…”
“What do you know about magic, or souls, or Celestia!” Sunny shouted.
“Where she stares, valleys tremble. Where she walks, beasts are silent. When she speaks, mountains tumble, when she fights, armies crumble.” He quoted, quieting her. “What? Of course we’d study all the pony writings we could get our hands on…first rule of defense is to know what you’re defending against, after all.”
“But if you’d ever seen her in person…”
“I did, once.” She obviously hadn’t expected that, and he took her momentarily silence as permission to keep talking. “It was when the Russian Expeditionary Force was crossing the Rockies…they didn’t think much of us, given that we’d lost half our country to a bunch of magical horses, but oh, we were happy to see them. I was honestly glad that my grandfather had already passed on…seeing us dancing in the streets over Russian tanks rolling in would probably have killed him.”
“So…you were there when…”
“When we all found out how true the last bit of that was? Yes. Yes I was. HLF was serving as scouts and guides…a lot of us grew up in that part of the world, we knew paths, passes, ways to get through that the pegasi hadn’t already flooded or snowed in. And on the plains, the Royal Guard was waiting for us.” He shook his head. “You know, up till then, I honestly thought we had a chance. The Russians had tanks, military grade Suits, rocket trucks…and then, she showed up.”
“She had no choice. The Guard couldn’t have beaten that army fighting head on…” Sunny said quietly.
“I think that was when I finally realized how far over our heads we were. Watching them all burn like that…how do you fight a forest fire? How do you stand up to a tidal wave? How..how, in God’s name, do you go to war with the sun? It was the most beautiful and terrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“God…you still speak of your gods, after seeing Celestia’s power?” she asked.
“Still speak…Sunny, I still believe.” She stared slack jawed at him, utterly flabberghasted. “What? I’ve heard some pretty good arguments that this whole ball of wax might have come about by a bunch of stuff happening over a period of time, but you’re telling me a bunch of random stuff happening ends up with a winged unicorn…”
“Sorry, an alicorn that can shrug off Gauss rounds to the torso and shoot lasers that can liquefy blast armor, you’re telling me that just happens by chance? Somebody had to MAKE that. And don’t tell me it was Celestia that did it…if she had that kind of power, she wouldn’t need soldiers or the Potion, she’d just snap her fingers and turn us all into ponies…all right, she has hooves, but still.”
“But why keep fighting after that? Why not take the Potion? Is it your religion that tells you to keep doing this? Surely if you believe you do have a soul, and your gods care for it, then they’d still accept you no matter how your outward flesh changed?”
“The outward change…that’s not why we fought it. It’s changing what’s on the inside…I knew people who were Converted, and they were not who they were before. “
“Isn’t that the point? Transformation, conversion, rebirth, your worst impulses washed away…your own gods offer these things in return for service. Why then do so many of you resist what I have to give you?”
"What…you..have to give?” For a moment, he thought that his impending death had started to garble his hearing, but as he looked at the little unicorn, she began to change. She was…an earth pony in armor, with cold, cruel eyes, an aged, winged pegasus, on the verge of weeping, a unicorn in the prime of life, smiling with love and kindness…all these and a thousand more images washed over him, accompanied by a light that shone brighter and brighter until he had to turn his head away…and then the lighted dimmed, and She stood before him. Golden armor framed a tall, noble form that was as muscular as an earth pony, but with the flowing white wings of a pegasus and the spiraling horn of a unicorn. Her mane and tail were a flowing river of colors, constantly shifting, always changing, but always beautiful nonetheless.
“Sunny Skies, huh?” he said.
“I was expecting a great deal more awe, given how you talked of me before.” She said, in a voice like liquid gold.
“Ma’am…the systems in my Suit are the only thing holding me up at this point. If I fall to my knees or anything like that, I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting up again. Not…” he added, “That that’s going to be a problem for too much longer.”
"You fought for your friends, your family, and a cause you believed was right.” She told him. “I… I can respect that. But now it’s time for your fight to end.” Somehow, the plates of his Suit were peeling away from his body, and he saw a vial of gleaming purplish liquid rise in the air behind Celestia, lifted by her innate magic.
“Please…” he managed to gasp. “Please, don’t do this.”
“Why? Why should I let a noble soul like yours, one that would defy even a divine power, one that would show compassion for even an enemy, pass into the great void?”
“Because…because…my brother, my mom, dad, grandparents…whatever comes next for us humans, that’s where they are. Even if you’re right, if it’s nothing…that’s where everyone I love is. If I do what you want…I’ll be separated from them, forever. “
For a moment, all was silent. Stripped of his armor, the Potion hovering before him, time seemed to stand still, and he saw a strange look pass through Celestia’s beautiful eyes. Then she lowered her head, and the Potion floated away.
“I will honor your choice. Let your fate be the one you choose, Man of Earth.”
“Thank you…thank you…” he managed to force the words out, through the darkness that was slowly wrapping all around him. “Princess?”
“If it turns out that I’m right…and you were wrong…I’ll put in a good word for you, on the other side.”
She smiled at him, genuinely smiled, and in spite of the darkness and the pain he could see it as clearly as he’d ever seen anything.“If you’re right, and I was wrong…do you think the favor I showed one soul will make any difference at all?”
“Made a…difference…to me.”
On the helmet that had been pulled away from his head, a timer reached 0:00, and Josh Chamberlain went to whatever comes next for mankind, leaving the Princess of the Sun alone in a ruined city, surrounded by the dead.