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XPONI (RGRE, MLP/XCOM)

By ScribblesAnon
Created: 19th December 2020 06:55:13 AM

  1. >Be Anon.
  2. >Be Anon, but wish you weren’t.
  3. >Hiding, chest heaving, heart thundering in your ears and pounding against your ribcage, as though it knows you’re a goner and wants to fuck off before whatever’s out there gets you.
  4. >A distant shriek sends your heart into a fresh round of hammering.
  5. >You’re filthy, your clothes are torn, and you’re pretty certain that the trickling feeling on your thigh is blood instead of piss or rainwater.
  6. >At this point you’re not sure which would be worse.
  7. >Shivering, you press your back against the wall of the burned out shack you’ve found yourself hiding in.
  8. >The rain is hindering the fires from spreading, but the cold and wet is starting to get to you. God only knows how much mud is smeared into the many small cuts and scrapes lining your arms and legs.
  9. >Even if you survive this, odds are an infection will do you in, if exposure to the elements doesn’t.
  10. >Another unnatural screech sounds into the night, closer this time.
  11. >You don’t know where you are, but you know that you’d rather be anywhere but here.
  12. >You want to go home.
  13. >Shifting, you crawl over to the shack’s only window, and flinch as a blast of thunder rattles the remaining fragments of glass in their frame.
  14. >But you saw what was out there, in the flash of lightning.
  15. >It stands, chitin flickering orange in the light of the flames, and green in time with the blasts fired by the smaller ones.
  16. >God, you just want to go home.
  17. ---
  18. >When you’d first arrived in this strange world, you’d been surprised by how beautiful it was. The air was fresh and the plants around you were a vibrant green. Growing up in the country had given you an appreciation for such things, but living in the city had dulled the memories of the lush forests from your childhood.
  19. >The forest you’d found yourself in was like some great deciduous paradise, with trees as thick around as a California Redwood and certainly just as tall reaching into the sky. Glorious sunbeams trickled down from above, and the warmth of one such light had awoken you.
  20. >You didn’t know how you’d arrived, but your empty pockets and the hole in your memories couldn’t answer your question any more than the squirrels or the trees could.
  21. >You knew you were Anon, but beyond the name and the clothes on your back you were destitute.
  22. >The hike out of the woods wasn’t an adventure so much as it was a pleasant walk with a few hills in the way.
  23. >In fact, it only took a few hours to find your way to the edge of the forest, along which ran a rough dirt road.
  24. >All roads may not lead to Rome, but damn if they don’t lead to civilization!
  25. >Above you, the rumble of distant thunder had grumbled the sky’s discontent. The clouds had drank their fill, and soon God would be pissing through a sieve.
  26. >All the more reason to find out where this road went.
  27. >You’d followed it for a few miles, jogging along and taking in the scenery of rolling hills and cloud-strewn horizon, until the dirt shifted to cobblestone beneath your boots. Coming to the top of a rise, you came across a small sign.
  28. >At the time, you hadn’t realized you couldn’t read it, because you were distracted by what lay in the shallow valley below.
  29. >Nestled in against the forest was the quaintest little town you’d ever seen. Numerous small houses lined the road as it wended its way along, coming to an end at what you’d assumed was some kind of town hall.
  30. >You’d grinned widely, glad to have found civilization, and just in time too!
  31. >The clouds had followed you along your walk, and they were darkening. You could smell the humidity in the air, and the light breeze that heralded the coming storm was brushing across your shoulders. The sooner you could get indoors, the sooner you’d no longer have to worry about the inevitable, imminent downpour.
  32. >With a renewed vigor and sense of purpose, you strode towards the town, and it was sometime between the first step and the second that the sky opened up on you.
  33. >Breaking into a run, you covered the remaining distance rapidly, disregarding the swiftly swelling puddles and mud caking your legs.
  34. >It wasn’t like you were going to melt, but no matter how many times you said you liked rain, it was only true as long as you were safely indoors.
  35. >You’d stopped under the first porch you came across, putting your hands on your knees as you caught your breath. Looking up, the street was already awash with rainwater, the rudimentary drains swelling into streams.
  36. >The relentless downpour wasn’t quite deafening, but the booming thunder nearly was. Lightning flickered across the sky, and a steady rolling boom accompanied it.
  37. >There was no one out and about.
  38. >Grimacing, you shook yourself and wrung your shirt dry as best you could.
  39. >Still soaked, but maybe not as bad as you were a minute or two ago.
  40. >Though, maybe whoever lived here would be kind enough to give you some directions?
  41. ---
  42. >You still aren’t quite sure what went wrong after that. Well, you ARE sure, but you still don’t understand what’s going on.
  43. >A scream from nearby cuts off abruptly.
  44. >You sincerely wish you knew what the fuck is going on.
  45. ---
  46. “Hello? Anyone home?”
  47. >Knocking on the door had yielded no answer, and so you’d resolved to sit and wait until the rain lightened up.
  48. >It hadn’t after an hour, but the door behind you had opened, revealing the weirdest… Well, at the time you thought it was some kind of pink dog, but then you noticed the hooves and the large, adorable eyes.
  49. “Hey there.”
  50. >It looked up and down the street, and for a moment you thought it was ignoring you, until it beckoned you to come indoors.
  51. >It took you a moment to realize that.
  52. >A dog-horse just motioned you to follow. And then it… SHE… spoke.
  53. >You couldn’t understand the words, but the voice was that of a young woman. Her tone was low, and harried, and her eyes kept flicking from your face into the gloomy streets behind you.
  54. >Maybe it was some kind of genetically engineered parroting dog-horse? Pony?
  55. >You knew the Chinese were up to some weird shit with bioengineering and gene-editing, but if this thing was Chinese you’d have expected to hear chingchongs and all the other weird phonemes that language has. Not like you’re racist or anything, but you don’t know shit about Mandarin except it’s a kind of orange.
  56. >This was entirely foreign, like some lyrical mix of French and maybe some of the better parts of Spanish, all wrapped up in a cute little package of horse noises.
  57. >In the distance, just at the edge of your hearing, something screeched. You could barely hear it over the thunder and the rain, and for a moment you thought you’d imagined it.
  58. >The pony’s reaction assured you that no, you hadn’t.
  59. >You weren’t alone out in the streets.
  60. >Whatever it was clearly spooked the little pink horse. She stiffened, ears swiveling, and frantically motioned from you to the door again.
  61. “Uh, you sure?”
  62. >The pony glanced up and down the street one last time before she got tired of your indecision and stepped around behind you, shoving your buttocks with her forehead.
  63. “Geez, okay, I’m going, I’m going!”
  64. >She ushered you indoors quickly, slamming the door shut behind you and working her way down an impressive series of deadbolts and locks. It didn’t take a genius to know that something was up.
  65. >You weren’t a genius by any means, but you were smart enough to figure that one out.
  66. >Another screech, just as distant and muffled by the door and the rain, sent a shiver down your spine. You found yourself wishing the door had a few more locks on it, so when the pony started shoving a laden bookshelf in front of the door you were all too happy to help.
  67. ---
  68. >You duck down from the window, praying that monster hasn’t heard you, or smelled you, or seen you. You can hear the tik-tik-tik takking sound its claws make as it skitters across the street.
  69. >They’re sharp.
  70. >If you’re quiet, you might be able to make it through this.
  71. ---
  72. “Thanks for letting me in.”
  73. >You smiled tightly, and leaned against the bookshelf-cum-blockade.
  74. >The little pink mare nodded hesitantly at that, then shook her head to get her red mane out of her eyes. Her ears once again swiveled, this time toward the interior of the small house, alerting you to the presence of another small Chinese horse before you heard the clip-clop of hooves on wood.
  75. >Her voice was higher-pitched, but also feminine, and her tone sounded much more aggressive than the pink pony’s.
  76. >Turning, you gave the newcomer a once-over. This one was slightly shorter than Pink Chinese Horse, and was an eye-popping shade of electric blue. Cradled in one of her forelegs was a wicked-looking spear, and from the way she was glaring at you there wasn’t much keeping her from using it.
  77. >Still, she looked a lot like Chink, but her mane was a dark blue to Chink’s red. Just behind her, peeking out over her shoulder was a green pony. Like the other two, she was lighter in the coat than she was in the mane.
  78. >Also like the other two, she was fucking adorable.
  79. >Aside from the blue one with the spear, that is. Negative cute points for the deadly weapon.
  80. >You shivered.
  81. >At the time, you told yourself it was just the damp, but the memory of that screeching was fresh, and you weren’t exactly familiar with being on the wrong end of a spear, either.
  82. >Chink said something in reply to the blue one, lifting a hoof to gesture at you.
  83. “What?”
  84. >Electric Bluegaloo tilted her head to the side, then nodded, saying something over her shoulder to the green pony. Greenie didn’t reply, instead heading deeper into the house.
  85. >Chink trotted over to a window, peeling back the blinds and peering out into the rain. After another moment of looking you over, Bluegaloo evidently decided you weren’t a threat and joined Chink at the window.
  86. >Maybe being wet and kinda miserable had its perks: less likely to get stabbed by hallucinatory bioengineered Chinese ponies.
  87. >Joining Chink and Bluegaloo, you only just caught the blur of movement beyond the house across the street. You pointed, but from the sharp intakes of breath from Chink and Bluegaloo you could tell it wasn’t necessary. They’d seen it too.
  88. >Greenie chose that moment to return.
  89. >Tapping you on the thigh, she indicated a thick blanket thrown over her barrel, then made what had to pass for a universal “I’m cold” gesture: Sitting back on her haunches, she hugged herself and pretended to shiver.
  90. >Nodding, you removed your wet shirt. Thankfully your pants weren’t too soaked; you don’t mind going topless for a little while, but you liked to think you have some dignity left, even as damp and bedraggled as you were. Greenie and Chink were staring, clearly fascinated by the weird upright thing they’d let into their home.
  91. >You draped the wet shirt over the back of a wooden chair, then wrapped yourself in the blanket. Giving you a small smile (Jesus Christ, these critters are way too cute!), Greenie took the edge of the blanket in her mouth and led you over to a small sofa.
  92. >The moment you sat down, she hopped up onto your lap and wrapped her forelegs around you, making soft cooing noises. You can’t say you complained much; she was warm, and comfortably fuzzy. Still, you couldn’t help but look askance at the other two, and ensure you had a clear view over Greenie’s shoulder to the front door.
  93. >That shape in the rain had left you nervous.
  94. >Bluegaloo was still vigilantly glaring out the window, only sparing a moment to roll her eyes at Greenie, but Chink gave you wide grin before trotting up to take a position at your side on the couch.
  95. >Bluegaloo asked something in a sharp tone of voice, but Chink’s answer apparently satisfied her for now. She shrugged and tightened her grip on the spear. It was hard not to be anxious, knowing something is out there, but the other two ponies seem to be worried you’ve caught hypothermia or something.
  96. “Okay… so, looks like ponies are very touchy-feely.”
  97. >They must have recognized you don’t have any fur.
  98. >Clever girls.
  99. >Greenie leaned back, and pointed at her chest with a hoof, saying something.
  100. >You frowned.
  101. “What?”
  102. >The green pony in your lap giggles and repeats herself, then points at Chink. The pink pony nods and says a different…word? And then points at you.
  103. >Oh! Duh.
  104. >Pointing at yourself, you smile.
  105. “Anon.”
  106. ---
  107. >You’re not expecting the yelling from further up the street. The screams and the screeching of those… things… have become almost normal, but this sounds more like a battle.
  108. >The one in the street outside releases an ear-piercing shriek and scurries away.
  109. >You lean up to check the window again.
  110. >As best as you can tell in the firelight, the coast is clear.
  111. >You have to find Chink and Greenie.
  112. >Maybe they’re still alive?
  113. ---
  114. >You were having no luck at pronouncing their names, so in the end you just took to calling them Chink, Greenie, and Bluegaloo. Weird thing was that while they were having similar issues, you were still able to tell when they said your name.
  115. >Sure, it was butchered, and they had this peculiar pitch change in the middle, but it was God’s plain English, alright.
  116. >”Ah-nonny”
  117. >”An-in!”
  118. >”Ann’n”
  119. >Well, mostly.
  120. >They were doing a hell of a lot better than you were, regardless. Your mouth wasn’t equipped to properly emulate the sounds they could make. Knickers, whinnies, and whatever other horse noises were called left your tongue feeling numb and your lips clumsy.
  121. >Despite being distracted by first watch, Bluegaloo was doing the best of the three.
  122. >"Ann'en."
  123. >It was after the latest round of playing “butcher Anon’s proud family name” that you took the time to more closely examine your three hosts.
  124. >Or rather, the strange tattoos adorning their rumps. You hadn’t even noticed them at first, but they were clearly artificial. Hazarding a guess, you assuming they were some kind of special brand or a fancy serial number.
  125. >Bluegaloo’s looked a shield with a horseshoe painted on it, which was probably why she was the one carrying around the spear.
  126. >Greenie’s was some kind of leaf with a root and mushroom laying overtop. It didn’t look like weed though, which was kind of unfortunate because you were still hoping this was all some kind of drug-induced hallucination.
  127. >You were pretty sure you didn’t do shrooms, though.
  128. >Chink’s was… weird, if you were being honest. It looked like three hats stacked on top of one another, but why anyone would want a tattoo of that you had no idea.
  129. >Greenie gave her rump a shake when she noticed you looking, and Chink busted out into musical laughter when you picked the green mare up from your lap and set her on the floor. Bluegaloo hissed and Chink stifled herself to subdued giggling, but it was clear from the shining in her eyes that some of the earlier tension had drained away.
  130. >Greenie pouted until you let her back onto your lap. It was hard to say no to a face like that, but you waited for Anon Jr. to take a chill pill before you acquiesced.
  131. >From then onward things seemed much brighter. Greenie and Chink were happily chatting away, and even Bluegaloo piped up occasionally from her place at the window.
  132. ---
  133. >Wiping the rain from your eyes, you sprint across the street into a small alleyway. You need to get back to Greenie’s and Chink’s house, and fortunately it isn’t far.
  134. >Ducking back into the shadows as best you can, you watch as a trio of the small black monsters buzz up the street toward the conflict.
  135. >With everyone else distracted, maybe you can escape with Chink and Greenie.
  136. >They might be ponies, but they kept you safe and you owe it to them. Steeling yourself, you press on into the night.
  137. ---
  138. >A comfortable hour passed with Chink and Greenie cuddled up to you on the couch. The light filtering in from the blinds had dimmed considerably, almost to the point where you couldn’t really see, but none of the ponies seemed inclined to use the candles scattered about the room.
  139. >In the dark, the house must have looked deserted.
  140. >It was unnerving, but you hadn’t heard any of the shrieks for a while, so perhaps whatever was out there had moved on?
  141. >The first explosion was timed with the lightning, and you thought it was thunder.
  142. “What the fuck?!”
  143. >The second was much closer, enough that you felt the force of the detonation in your ribs. The flash of green light outside put to rest any ideas that it might have been lightning.
  144. >You could just hear the first screams starting when the third turned the front door into flaming splinters. Greenie pressed herself against you like a furry body shield, screaming in your ear, while Bluegaloo rushed to a position closer to the door, spear at the ready. You held Greenie tightly and yelled.
  145. >You didn’t want to die.
  146. >Chink had dashed into the other room at the screams, and returned with a sword held in her mouth and eyes narrowed. It was almost as long as she was tall, and the blade caught the light with a near mirror sheen.
  147. >You stared at the gaping hole where the door used to be, vision narrowing to that negative space, illuminated by the first fires of the night. Your arms were still wrapped around Greenie. Nothing that cute deserved whatever was happening.
  148. “I… It’s okay, girl, I gotcha.”
  149. >She muttered something and wriggled.
  150. “What?”
  151. She struggled in your arms until you set her down, at which point she immediately started looking you over like some kind of fuzzy EMT.
  152. >You didn’t think you were hurt, but as the seconds ticked past and time slowly resumed its normal pace you found a number of small cuts and aches to accompany with the ringing in your ears. Greenie looked okay, but she was fussing over your oozing cuts like she expected you to break into tears at any moment.
  153. >Chink and Bluegaloo were both facing the hole, weapons at the ready and heads lowered as if to charge. Bluegaloo tossed her head at Greenie and barked sharply, to which both Greenie and Chink replied with what you could only assume was an “I’m fine.”
  154. >Neither of them looked hurt, though Greenie had a small cut on her shoulder.
  155. >Through the pounding rain, thunder, and the continuing explosions you could hear high-pitched screaming and more of those awful screeches. You didn’t want to think about what would happen to a cute pony-creature to make it scream like that.
  156. >Something skittered in the street outside, and you gingerly stood up, though Greenie insistently placed herself between you and what was left of the door.
  157. >The four of you waited, watching with baited breathe.
  158. >A moment passed.
  159. >Another.
  160. >Slowly, Bluegaloo lifted a hoof to point between you and Greenie, and then whispered something. Greenie lifted a forehoof, ears downcast, but nodded when Chink spoke. The green mare retrieved your wet shirt and you put it on. At this point you’d rather be wet and have what meager protection it offered.
  161. >Nudging your leg, Greenie headed deeper into the house. When you looked to Chink, she gestured after Greenie with a toss of her head. Bluegaloo doesn’t look away from the door, but she snorted and stomped her hoof.
  162. >Better get a move on.
  163. >As you turned to leave, an ear-splitting screech came from right outside, and then suddenly the hole was blocked by a mass of shining chitin, blades, and death. Bluegaloo charged it with her spear, and as the blade found purchase the monster howled and thrashed. From the other side, Chink led with a brutal swing that took off one of the creature’s bladed limbs in a spray of foul ichor.
  164. >You stood, frozen.
  165. >It slashed at Bluegaloo, and she screamed as a spray of blood erupted in a terrible line across her muzzle and down her chest, but her grip on her spear didn’t falter. Letting out a lyrical warcry she drove the spear deeper and twisted, yelling something to Chink.
  166. > There was an all-encompassing flash of green and the roar of fire, and a wave of heat washed over you.
  167. ---
  168. >You’re not sure what happened after that, exactly.
  169. ---
  170. >When you came to, Greenie was frantically shaking your shoulders and crying your name.
  171. >”An-in! An-nin!”
  172. >Groaning, you sat up. Your head was pounding and your face felt raw and tender. You wiped your lip and a smear of blood came away on your hand. Stumbling to your feet, you followed Greenie into what remained of the house’s front room.
  173. >You hadn’t even realized you’d been blown into the hallway, but your clothes were laden with dust and rain.
  174. >You found Chink unconscious in the charred debris at the front of the house, bleeding but alive, and with Greenie’s help you were able to free her. One of her legs was clearly broken. She was lucky; the rain kept the little fires from catching on the damp wood. If it had burned hotter, you didn’t doubt that….
  175. >You didn’t want to think about it.
  176. >There was no sign of Bluegaloo.
  177. >After taking a moment to splint Chink’s leg and gesture at her head, Greenie had scrambled to the rubble. Chink must have hit her head, you guessed.
  178. >Greenie was tearing at the rubble with her hooves, gasping out Bluegaloo’s name and sobbing, when you saw the monster’s corpse. Scarcely three feet away, a tangle of bladed limbs and crushed chitin protruded from under a fallen roof beam.
  179. >She hadn’t noticed.
  180. >In your arms, Chink moaned and her eyes fluttered open. They were a stunning shade of red, like her mane.
  181. >Like blood.
  182. >Her pupils were different sizes, and she was sluggish as she struggled to right herself in your arms.
  183. >You gingerly set her down, and followed her as she staggered over to Greenie. They held a whispered conversation, but Chink was slurring her words and had to repeat herself several times. By the end, Greenie’s tears had stopped. Casting one last look at the rubble, Greenie furiously wiped at her eyes and retrieved Chink’s sword.
  184. >Chink gave her a hug and shook her head drunkenly at you, pointing out into the street with a hoof. The explosions had stopped, but you could hear the screams and howls carrying through the night.
  185. >Chink was right. You didn’t have time.
  186. >Gently picking up Chink, you followed Greenie as she led you into the back of the house, out the back door, and into the night.
  187. ---
  188. >Be Memory-Oriented Testing Helper: Emergent Rate.
  189. >M.O.T.H.E.R.
  190. >01: ”Gentlemares. Gentlestallion. What do we have?”
  191. >02: ”Ma’am, colleagues. Mother is providing data assist. At approximately 1100 hours we detected a dip in background magical noise along leylines Mem-14 and Aleph-3. As you can see from these graphs, it was nothing serious, but at 1200 the decision was made to gear up a task to investigate.”
  192. >Relevant charts and data interpretations are drawn up on the Central Hub screen.
  193. >03: “It was determined to be low-priority recon at the time, given the ongoing crises in Manehattan and Baltimare.”
  194. >Rapidly shift to headlines of ongoing situations. Split screen into separate displays of Tactical Command 1 and 2, showing mares scurried about relaying information to squads on the ground.
  195. >01: “A recon task which has been upgraded to strike/retrieval as of 1400.”
  196. >Display orbit map, highlight lunar spell arrays 1 and 3.
  197. >02: ”Yes, ma’am. You can thank our lunar assets for that one. The first whispers started showing up on our spell arrays almost immediately after the leylines returned to normal stability, and Moondancer made the call. But… we’re still not entirely certain what to make of it.”
  198. >01: “Explain.”
  199. >03: ”Well, in the past, we’ve seen no significant signs or indications that they know enough about magic to tap into or even detect leylines. At best they’re only aware of it through us, or are able to see mundane effects like the chiming or light emission from unicorn glow. Heck, even their weapons don’t make use of magic, best we can tell. Speaking of which, there are some developments on that I’d like to speak to you about, ma’am.”
  200. >01: “Later. What do we know? Is this another Appleloosa?”
  201. >04: ”I- We can’t make any calls like that this soon. I’m aware this conflict has been simmering for almost twenty years, but we still don’t know anything about them. If we could speak to one of their leaders, we might know more, but as it is guesswork is just another word for bad intel.”
  202. >01: “Agreed. Without more information, baseless speculation is dangerous. Have Pink Tank run some hypotheticals, but I want everything treated as fiction until it’s confirmed as fact, and that is not relevant at this time.”
  203. >03 and 04: ”Yes ma’am.”
  204. >01: “Continue.”
  205. >02: “As I said, you can thank the LSAs. 1 and 3 were redirected to make sure that the leyline event wasn’t another overfill in the making, and they caught UFO traces with a heading that put it square at the local intersection of Mem and Aleph.”
  206. >01: “Do we still have contact on them?”
  207. >02: “No, we were down to orbital satellites the moment night fell; Princess Luna made the shift to crescent so 1 and 3 are on dark sky duty for now. LSAs 3 and 4 could be re-tasked, but they’re currently in use in Baltimare and Manehattan respectively.”
  208. >01: “Keep them that way. This op should be fine with orbitals. What’s the mission zone?”
  209. >Display local area map.
  210. >02: “Little town called Tree Shades. Population 300 from the last census, but likely closer to 350 at this time. Another farming village, but it looks dark and it’s the closest potential target to the leyline site. If there are any pones still alive, we should prioritize their safety over potential retrieval.”
  211. >03: “I’d still prefer it if we could acquire a few live specimens; a colleague of mine has been going through our current stocks at an alarming rate.”
  212. >01: “I’ll bear that in mind. Do we have projected enemy strength in the area?”
  213. >06: ”Odds are it’s a landed scout; it matches the trace profiles.”
  214. >Display scout craft designation “Discus.”
  215. >04: “They’re clearly looking for something. We just don’t know what, why, or how, yet.”
  216. >06: “And it’ll stay that way until I get some hooves on the ground.”
  217. >01: “What’s Strike 3’s status?”
  218. >Display current roster of Strike Team 3. Five ponies: three unicorns, an earth pony, and a pegasus.
  219. >06: “Understrength, but only just. Losing Mulberry last op hit them all hard, and to be honest I’d be more comfortable sending Strike 4…”
  220. >02: “…but they’re needed to reinforce Manehattan.”
  221. >06: “Yeah. I don’t like it, but with Phoenix 5 grounded Strike 3 is our best available option if we want to investigate. If possible I’d like to sub in one of the recruits.”
  222. >02: “Denied. None of the current batch have finished training and you remember what happened last time as well as I do.”
  223. >06: “…Yeah. Nevermind.”
  224. >05: “Ma’am, if I may?
  225. >01: “Yes?”
  226. >05: “I’m not sure they’re ready for a return to field duty. I want them tapped for another pych eval and R&R for at least another week. Losing anypony is hard, but I know they all loved Mulberry.”
  227. >06: “You bucking would, Doc! But my mares are made of tougher stuff than that, and we don’t have the luxury of a paid vacation right now!”
  228. >05: “I’m just saying it’d be better if they take some more time to-”
  229. >06: “And I’m saying I don’t need a stallion telling me how to treat my girls!”
  230. >05: “We went over this last week, the Commander said-!”
  231. >01: “Enough! Dust, is Strike 3 at sufficient strength for a light op?”
  232. >06: “I’d be happier with a full team, but yes, they should be fine.”
  233. >01: “Doc, were their last evaluations satisfactory?”
  234. >05: “Yes, but they’ve just been through a traumatic experience. This is the first time Strike 3 lost anypony!”
  235. >01: “Be that as it may, unless you have another compelling reason to keep them on-site I want them geared and prepped for the green light in fifteen. You can have them evaluated on their return to base. Mother, please alert Strike 3 to their combat ready station, and have Phoenix 3 prepped for deployment.”
  236. >Acknowledge and relay.
  237.  
  238. >Be Apone.
  239. >You’re still not entirely certain what your sire was thinking when he named you that, but it’s a good enough name for a damn fine mare, in your opinion.
  240. >Your call sign is cooler, though.
  241. >Big Momma.
  242. >At the moment, you’re running the final set of pre-flight checks on your girl, Phoenix 3. She’s a big girl, like you. The Freeranger is a hulk of flying metal and magic engines, nothing like the pegasus who flies her, but you kinda like it that way. She’s sturdier than you are, and strong enough to carry six ponies all on her own.
  243. >She can keep them safe, and you can keep her safe.
  244. >From your place in the dockpit[spoiler]Heh-heh, DOCK.[/spoiler], with your wings tapped into the flight-feedback controls and your hooves resting on the throttle, you can almost imagine the thrust pushing you back into your seat. You’re brought out of your thoughts by the head of your maintenance crew calling up from the Freeranger’s stable.
  245. >”Apone, how are checks looking?”
  246. “Everything’s coming back green, Timber! I told you, I went through this earlier.”
  247. >”I know, I know. You and your ‘feelings.’ One of these days they’re gonna stick you in a room with Pink Tank if you’re not careful.”
  248. >Ever since you were a filly you’ve had a good gut instinct. Your sire always told you that it was your mother’s earth pony magic at work, though you didn’t appreciate it at the time. When you were younger you’d have happily traded every piece of earth pony heritage away if it meant you could fly a little better.
  249. >You’ve grown since then, but you wish you’d gotten a chance to tell her that.
  250. >Reaching over to the console, you delicately adjust the picture you’ve taped in place. There’s you, a young grey pegasus with a striking white mane, and your mother, a dull brown earth pony with the widest grin you’ve ever seen. Your abnormally large wings are spread wide, and your cutie mark is on full display: A pegasus silhouette protectively cradling a heart. It was the day you graduated from flight camp and got your cutie mark.
  251. >I miss you, mom.
  252. >Clip-clopping steps alert you to Timber joining you in the dockpit, and you disengage the chair from flight mode to swivel, facing her with a smug grin. Your heart isn’t in it, but she’s ground crew and doesn’t know you well enough to tell.
  253. “Like heck! You know I’ve got the best record on the drop teams. Unless we get some talented new blood, I’m irreplaceable.”
  254. >The little black unicorn [spoiler]Face it, everypony is little to you.[/spoiler] rolls her eyes and gives you a friendly nuzzle. “Careful, hotshot. They’re going to change your call sign to ‘Dash’ if you keep bragging.”
  255. “Maybe. Anyways, I’ve got green across the board here, so I’m just waiting for the foals to arrive. Is Strike 3 on the deck, yet?”
  256. >Timber shakes her head.
  257. >”Not yet. I think there was some kind of hold-up at inventory, but they should be here and loaded soon.”
  258. “Ugh. Darn paper pushers are always causing trouble for us working mares.”
  259. >She laughs in reply. “You’re telling me? I had to fill out the paperwork on engine 2. Black Sight was riding my flank all week, making sure I dotted my t’s and crossed my i’s. I swear, she’s worse than Sparkle sometimes.”
  260. >You shrug in sympathy. Black Sight has been gunning for the Head of Logistics seat for the past three years. While she’s good at making things run smoothly, the sheer amount of paper generated could make a small forest disappear on a daily basis.
  261. >”Did you hear that she-”
  262. >Timber is interrupted as your earpiece buzzes, and you quickly shush her with a wave of your hoof. Bringing a hooftip to your headset, you activate it.
  263. “Big Momma here, go ahead.”
  264. >Your earpiece lights up with the cool baritone of Top Tower. “Phoenix 3, your cargo is on-deck and ready to board. Please make any final preparations and move to launch position 1 at Bay 4.”
  265. “Gotcha, Tower. Want me to pass anything on to your sweetheart before we lift off?”
  266. >You give Timber a mischievous wink and pretend to swoon. She giggles and blows you a kiss like a certain lovestruck colt.
  267. >Tower growls at you over coms.
  268. >”…Just bring her back home safe, Apone.”
  269. >Ouch, no call sign today. Tower must be having a spat with Doc again.
  270. >Timber gives you a goodbye hug and turns to leave the dockpit. “Make sure you bring her back in one piece, okay? Tower might be worried about Rabbit, but I don’t want to do all the paperwork to replace this bird, let alone you.”
  271. >You give her a cheeky grin.
  272. “I know. I’m irreplaceable.”
  273. >Within a few minutes the mares of Strike 3 are strapped into their harnesses in the Freeranger’s stable bay, and you’ve taxied to the proper position underneath the massive hangar doors. Your girl shakes around you as you gently up the output on her vertical lift engines, slowly lifting you out of the underground hangar and into a steady hover in the open sky.
  274. “Alright, mom. Let’s fly.”
  275. >Punching the throttle, you rocket off into the night.
  276. ---
  277. >Be past Anon, a memory of you.
  278. >Chink had fallen asleep in your arms, and judging by Greenie’s reaction that was a bad sign. You didn’t know much about concussions or head injuries, but sleeping might be the last thing she did if Greenie’s watery eyes were anything to go by. Shaking her head vigorously, Greenie pointed to a house just across the narrow street.
  279. >The front door was hanging off its hinges.
  280. >Darting to the porch, Greenie glanced over her shoulder and motioned you to stay back. She hesitated, shook herself, and then disappeared into the darkness beyond its threshold.
  281. >You weren’t sure where you were in relation to anything anymore. Between the screams, the rain, and the constant sneaking from shadow to shadow, your nerves were shot and it was all you could do not to find a corner to curl up in. That wouldn’t help Chink, though, and you were certain that Greenie was on her last legs as well. If you gave up, it could very well mean that none of you got out of this alive.
  282. >Poking her muzzle out of the darkness, Green waved, beckoning you into the house.
  283. >The coast was clear.
  284. >The interior of the little home was much the same as Chink’s and Greenie’s: a wooden floor, some furniture, and a small fireplace against the far wall. Greenie had you set Chink down on the ratty couch, then disappeared into what you assumed was the kitchen. While you waited for her to get back, you shook Chink’s shoulders and murmured in her ear.
  285. >You were careful not to jostle her injured foreleg, but if you hurt her she showed no sign of it.
  286. >Grimacing, you left Chink on the couch and did your best to push the door back into place. The hinges wouldn’t hold it, but you managed to jam it into the doorframe and prop a chair under the handle. Hopefully that would keep anything from wandering in, but having seen the monsters wandering the street you weren’t so certain. You also closed the curtains on the window.
  287. >Greenie returned with a bowl and what looked like a string of dried herbs, and set about grinding the plants into a powder while you kept watch. Neither of you spoke.
  288. >You were glad for it.
  289. >The less sound you made, the less likely something would come looking.
  290. >After what felt like hours, Chink began to stir.
  291. >”An-in!”
  292. >Greenie immediately called you over, and with a little bit of charades you figured out she wanted you to hold Chink upright. The brilliantly pink pony lolled about in your arms, eyes blinking out of sync and moaning in pain. With some effort, Greenie cajoled Chink into sipping on the strange brew she’d concocted.
  293. >Chink dry-heaved, and protested, but Greenie would not be denied. Another ten minutes of bullying and encouragement saw the last of the concoction slipping down Chink’s throat. You weren’t certain, but she looked much more alert almost immediately.
  294. >Thank god for that, because she was the one who first heard the distinctive sound of hard chitin against wood.
  295. >Tik tik tak tak.
  296. >Something was on the porch.
  297. >It scrabbled against the front door, claws scratching and scratching.
  298. >Greenie was frozen, staring at the door, and she almost screamed when you shook her gently and pointed to a door by the fireplace. It was open, and you could see a stairwell leading down, but almost immediately you realized a problem.
  299. >You could clearly hear the sounds of something outside, clattering away on the wooden porch.
  300. >The floor inside was wood as well, and both of your companions had hooves.
  301. >If they moved, whatever was outside would hear them.
  302. >Briefly, you wished you’d taken the time to work out more.
  303. >The monster seemed to lose interest for a moment, but then began clattered at the door with renewed vigor.
  304. >You swiftly scooped up Greenie in one arm and Chink in the other, murmuring a low apology as the pink mare hissed in pain. Greenie pointed at Chink’s sword leaning up against the wall, but you’d just have to come back for it. Creeping along, you walked as though you were stalking a deer in the forests at home.
  305. >Heel down first, then ease to toe.
  306. >Step.
  307. >Heel, to toe.
  308. >Step.
  309. >The thick rubber of your boots was far quieter than hooves or chitin, and your long legs brought you quickly to the stairs. Keeping yourself as close to the wall as possible, you kept going, trying to ignore the increasing urgency in the scratching at the door. Chink hooked the basement door with a hoof, and it swung mostly closed behind you on thankfully quiet hinges. Reaching the bottom, you set your pony companions down on the bare earthen floor.
  310. >Greenie collapsed immediately, sides heaving, while Chink shakily propped herself up at her side. The pink mare was standing over her protectively and glaring at the top of the stairs.
  311. >Above you, wood cracked, splintered, and broke. What remained of the door crashed to the floor, sending a trickle of dust fluttering down onto you and the ponies.
  312. >Tik tik tak tak.
  313. >It was in the house with you, now.
  314. >Tik tik tik tak tik tik tak.
  315. >Worse.
  316. >There were two of them.
  317. >Whatever they were, they made a high-pitched chittering. One set of tik-tik-takking steps approached the basement door, and you slowly ushered the two ponies into the empty space under the stairs. The steps continued past the door, followed the little hallway Greenie had taken to the bathroom when she’d gone to get those herbs.
  318. >You let out the breath you’d been holding.
  319. >Above you, the one still in the entrance room chittered loudly. The other’s reply was muffled.
  320. >They were communicating, and they had split up.
  321. >Under the stairs, Greenie jostled against a dusty old box and squeaked. Chink was on her in an instant, shoving a hoof in her mouth. Their collective ears were all perked upward, following every sound from above. Greenie pressed tightly against Chink and shivered, eyes wide and unseeing. She whimpered against Chink’s hoof.
  322. >The poor pony was coming apart at the seams.
  323. >The creature above warbled, and its steps slowed. You didn’t hear the other, if it replied, but the noisy movements from the far side of the house slowed and stopped.
  324. >Tik.
  325. >Tik.
  326. >Tik.
  327. >Tak.
  328. >The one above was crawling, and its underbelly scraped along the floor. It was headed for the top of the stairs.
  329. >Chink was staring at you.
  330. >You could just barely make out the tears forming in her eyes.
  331. >This is it, they seemed to say. Greenie is helpless, Chink’s injured, and you…
  332. >You what?
  333. >You’re just going to take this shit lying down?
  334. >Fuck no!
  335. >You were wet, cold, sore and your head was pounding, but you’re not done yet.
  336. >There was nothing in the basement you can conceive of as a weapon at first glance, but you don’t have the time to search for one and there’s a sword just upstairs. If you can get to that, you’ll have a chance to take on the first monster before the second can come and help. You couldn’t suppress the shiver that caressed your spine at the thought of those blades, but this was do or die.
  337. >Bluegaloo died keeping you and the girls safe. Chink’s leg was broken, and Greenie had been putting on a brave face since you escaped her home. Chink could have left you outside to start with, alone with those things, but she and the others had welcomed you into their home.
  338. >It was time you paid them back.
  339. >You picked up a dusty glass jar from an old crate and let out a shaky breath. Everything was moving too slowly. Your blood was rushing in your ears. In the gloom below the stairs, you could just barely make out Greenie and Chink. The green pony had her face buried against Chink’s neck.
  340. >The pink mare was trying to catch your eye, shaking her muzzle and struggling to stand against Greenie’s panicked embrace. She was too weak, and her injured leg collapsed underneath her. She gritted her teeth.
  341. >”Ahn-nonn!”
  342. >You forced yourself to smile.
  343. >Sorry, little pony. You saved me, now let me save you.
  344. >The tik-takking steps had reached the door to the stairs. You braced yourself against the wall, coiling like a spring.
  345. >You can do this. You’re strong, you’re tall, and you’re young. Young, red-blooded men have been dying and fighting since the dawn of humanity. Thousands of years of bloodshed and competition culminating in you, right here, right now, about to fuck this monster’s shit up. You were practically bred for this since the day your family left the old world for the new. Grandpanon fought the fucking Nazis. Papanon was in the military.
  346. >It was your family’s calling, and now war was calling you.
  347. >Right, Anon?
  348. >Yeah, right.
  349. > A shiny black silhouette blocked the meager light from above, and the door started to open on silent hinges
  350. >You were out of time.
  351. >You felt numb.
  352. >You were going to die.
  353. >Everything was suddenly going far, far too fast.
  354. >Bellowing a warcry, you charged.
  355. ”AAAAAAAAHHHH!”
  356. >Not your best work, but you were pretty sure at the time that anyone crazy enough to coming charging headlong at a beast made of blades was probably pretty scary themselves.
  357. >You sprinted up the stairs, the thrown jar catching the monster square in the chest with a tinkling of shattered glass. The further you went up the stairs, the shorter it appeared and the more it occurred that this thing wasn’t anything like the monster from before.
  358. >It was almost half your height, and instead of bladed limbs it had hooves like Chink or Greenie. A sickly green glow wreathed a wickedly curved horn, glinting off delicate wings. Long, vicious fangs were dripping as it screeched at you. A mass of bulbous eyes made you think of a spider. God, you fucking hate spiders, and this one looked like a ponified black widow.
  359. >Cocking your foot back, an errant thought crossed your adrenaline-high mind.
  360. >What the fuck were the Chinese thinking when they made evil spider-ponies?
  361. >The spider-pony caught your kick full in the chest, and you felt chitin crumple from the force of the blow. The spider-pony collapsed to the floor, hissing, and struggled to open the distance between you.
  362. >The sword was exactly where Greenie left it. You hurried to retrieve it, but the weapon felt awkward in your grip. It was too short.
  363. >The other one was probably seconds away.
  364. >The glow on the thing’s horn got brighter as you approached, blade raised. Maybe it was some kind of bioluminescent defense mechanism?
  365. >You were caught completely off guard when the glow suddenly jumped out, picked up a heavy book from behind the creature, and smashed it into your shoulder. The sword clattered to the ground and you staggered back.
  366. “Fuck!”
  367. >They had telekinesis?!
  368. >The spider-pony struggled to its hooves, screeching loudly as its horn brightened again.
  369. >Ignoring the fallen sword, you instead jumped at the spider-pony with both feet high in the air.
  370. >You fucking hate spiders.
  371. >Beneath your heavy boots, chitin shattered and delicate wings were shredded. Vile green ichor splattered across your pants and the floor as the creature burst like an overripe fruit. The second came shrieking into the room just as you were extracting yourself from the corpse, and hit you in a full-blown tackle, driving you both to the floor.
  372. >Long fangs sank into your shoulder, and you screamed as you felt your muscle tearing. The monster was jerking its head back and forth, ripping into you.
  373. >With a cry, you jabbed your fingers into its mass of eyes, forcing yourself not to retch as foul-smelling fluids burst across your face. It screamed in pain, wrenching its fangs free of your bloody shoulder and shaking its head wildly, which gave you the opening you needed.
  374. >Baring your teeth at the pain, you ignored the heat in your shoulder as you scrambled over to the sword. With the spider-pony blinded and thrashing, it was helpless.
  375. >A single, brutal swing later, and it was done.
  376. >You nearly collapsed to the floor then, but the rising screeches from outside told you this wasn’t over.
  377. >In the street, illuminated by firelight and the bioluminescent glow of the spider-ponies, stood another bladed monster.
  378. >You hadn’t appreciated how large they were. The first had been hunched over to fit into Chink’s home. This one stood tall, surrounded by a group of spider-pony underlings, and it knew you were here.
  379. >You glanced at the basement.
  380. >It didn’t know that Chink and Greenie were here.
  381. >You gritted your teeth. It had to follow you, so it and the rest wouldn’t investigate. If you were lucky, you might be able to give it the slip and circle back to Greenie and Chink.
  382. >This was their best chance.
  383. >Your best chance was running and hiding.
  384. >They couldn’t run, so they might need to stand and fight.
  385. >The blade was awkward in your grip, anyway.
  386. >Throwing the sword down the stairs, you dashed out the front door. Yelling, you threw yourself off the side of the porch, and ran into the shadowy alley behind the house.
  387. >A swarm of screeching, chitinous death chased after you, blades hot on your heels.
  388. ---
  389. >Be Apone.
  390. >Be Big Momma.
  391. >Even in the dockpit of your Freeranger you can feel the electric tingling of the magically charged thunderheads outside. Rain lashes against the windscreen, and you can feel the water pounding against your metal wings through the flight-feedback controls. Flashes illuminate a mountain range of clouds ahead of you, and your girl has already weathered two direct strikes.
  392. >[spoiler]Weathered. In a thunderstorm. Get it? Faust, Apone, you’re a riot.[/spoiler]
  393. >Nothing serious, but you know that your fur is going to be sticking up in all the worst ways when you get back home.
  394. >Unfortunately, your console is showing worsening conditions from here to the horizon. Winds are picking up, and with the wild magic roiling out of the Everfree you don’t see the storm easing up anytime soon.
  395. >A gentle chime and a flashing light on your console indicate Tap Dancer has just disengaged her stable’s harness, and her hoofsteps echo up into the dockpit. For a moment, you can feel memories creeping up on you, but you greet the mare with a flick of your ears.
  396. “Hey, Tapper, did I forget to put the seatbelt light on?”
  397. >”No, Momma. I wanted to… to see how you’re holding up.” Her voice crackles slightly through your earpieces, but you don’t miss the way she catches herself.
  398. “Oh, you know. The usual. Beautiful skies, a belly full of fillies, and out for a joyride. You?”
  399. >Her magic jingles as she clicks off her mic, the cool blue light playing across the dockpit’s many screens.
  400. >Time to be a Momma, Apone.
  401. >You flick a switch to turn your own mic off.
  402. >She sighs heavily, but you can barely hear it through the storm raging outside.
  403. “…Sorry, Tap. I miss her too.”
  404. >”Yeah.”
  405. “Are you holding up okay, kiddo?”
  406. >Tapper snorts as your girl shudders through a powerful crosswind. “I’m holding, but if you want to catch a drink when this is over, I’m paying.”
  407. “How could I say no to that?”
  408. >She forces a half-hearted chuckle, then clicks her mic back on. You follow suit.
  409. >”What’s our ETA? My headset is on the fritz.”
  410. >You check the navigation feed, and highlight the mission boundary on the display.
  411. “According to the nuts and bolts, about fifteen. I’ll start the pre-op show in a sec.”
  412. >”Alright. Thanks, Big Momma.”
  413. “Anytime.”
  414. >She trots back into the stable bay, and the harness light switches to green when she straps back in.
  415. >Setting your channel to Strike 3, you start reading off info from the various feeds coming in across the main screen.
  416. “Okay, fillies, listen up, this is your captain speaking. According to the weather sats and my two peepers, there’s a nasty Everfree storm rolled in over the mission area. We’re coming in steady, but I’ve got two potential drop zones.”
  417. >Your earpieces crackle as Tapper keys in.
  418. >”What are our options, Momma?”
  419. “Zone A puts you about two klicks out from the mission boundary, but it’ll be a smooth ride.”
  420. >”What’s Zone B?”
  421. ”Directly in front of the town hall. We come in at a gallop, you all hot-drop, and I hop out before the X-rays melt the rubber off my landing gear. It’ll save you some time, but I don’t want to dawdle.”
  422. >”Hold that thought, let me see what Central thinks.”
  423. >There’s a pause as she switches channels to call Central.
  424. >”Sorry, Momma, but she wants us on-site ASAP. We don’t have time for a hike.”
  425. “Understood. I’ll be dropping you off in front of the town hall. Better prepare to get a little wet, fillies.”
  426. >Minty Leaf, Strike 3’s lone earth pony, chooses that moment to join the conversation. “Wait, just how bad is it out there? I forgot to pack my umbrella!”
  427. >You chuckle, then you key your mic again.
  428. “Sister, if you need to know anything about the weather you can just take a peek out the window. It’s gonna be that way all night, as far as I can tell."
  429. >Minty groans. “I hate rain.”
  430. >Tap Dancer laughs. “So do I, Leaf. Momma, How long will you be able to remain on station? Intel expects light resistance, but…”
  431. >She trails off, and the channel falls into silence. No one’s willing to say it, but you’re all thinking the same thing.
  432. >Intel has been wrong before.
  433. >You steady yourself with a slow breath, then tap at the Freeranger’s status display.
  434. “In this mess? All night if you need me. Big Momma always looks out for her fillies. Fire support might be iffy; I’m getting some interference from the ‘free magic. I should be able to resupply Pinwheel if you want her dropping torps, though.”
  435. >”Pinwheel, thoughts?”
  436. >There’s a moment of silence, then Tapper speaks up again.
  437. >”Pinwheel! Ears in the game, mare!”
  438. >”What? Oh, yeah… Yeah, I can do that. Should be fine. Sorry, Tapper. I’ve got a cluster munitions setup right now.”
  439. >The other pegasus is quiet by nature, but it’s hard not to know where her head’s at.
  440. “Pin, you can call me in when you need another load, but I’ll be holding above the clouds until you need me. Alright?”
  441. >”O-okay. Yes, ma’am.”
  442. >You smile grimly.
  443. “Just Momma to you, kiddo.”
  444. >”Okay, Momma.”
  445. >Poor little bird, don’t you worry. Momma always takes care of her fillies.
  446. [spoiler]>Except when she fails.[/spoiler]
  447. >You’ve got a feeling about this mission.
  448. >Twitchy tail.
  449. ---
  450. >Be Lucky Star.
  451. >You’re a unicorn mare, aged 26 years.
  452. >Rich blue coat, icy white mane tied back out of your scarlet eyes.
  453. >Right now, you’re strapped in tight to your stable’s harness, feeling the Freeranger vibrate around you. You’re not concerned, because you’ve done this many, many times before.
  454. >Enough times to count.
  455. >Most of them were with Strike 3, designation “Cupcake.”
  456. >You wish more of them were.
  457. >Your breath comes in wisps and clouds, the altitude and cold rain leeching the heat out of the bay. The cold doesn’t bother you, though. Your lineage can be traced back to the times when unicorns ruled from their fortresses high in the mountains, and your warm coat and long fetlocks leave you well-equipped for cold. Your teeth and horn are sharper than the chill’s bite, and your leonine tail lashes despite your outward calm.
  458. >Strike 3’s leader trots back from the dockpit, the orange unicorn staggering slightly as the ship jolts from underneath her. With a flare of your magic and a musical chime, you steady her and help her lock back into her harness.
  459. >You spare her a gentle nod and wave a cloven hoof. She nods back.
  460. >It’s hard not to like Tap Dancer, but you still have to pretend you don’t know why she was up in the dockpit. You have a duty to her to keep up appearances for the sake of the others, if nothing else.
  461. >Another time, another place, somepony would have made a joke that forced you to crack a smile, but this isn’t that time, and is no longer that place.
  462. >You draw yourself inward, mentally reviewing your array of spells. In the past two weeks alone you’ve memorized four new spell patterns, and pushed yourself to their mastery. At a moment’s notice, you can flood the battlefield with fog, bind your opponent in solid ice, or drive a frigid lance through their heart.
  463. >You… you also memorized a spell to draw a pony into deep slumber, and grant her gentle dreams. It’s an old cantrip, rewritten and published from Her Highness Luna’s own repertoire, but it’s inefficient and takes so long to cast near-useless in the split seconds of combat.
  464. >In your mental library, it’s found a home next to a spell for summoning pure slushed ice.
  465. >The others are running through final checks, and Apone is sorting out the last details with Tap Dance. You’d never admit it, but you’re rather fond of the pilot. The large pegasus is nearly as tall as you are, but with your horn you make for the decisive victor.
  466. >She’s strong, and Tap Dance needs strong right now.
  467. >”Lucky, set up a position on the town hall’s steps if there’s cover. I want you on over-watch the second we’re on the ground. Pin, if you see more than two X-rays grouped up I want that bomb in the air. Hit them hard, and then link up with Big Momma.”
  468. >”Yes ma’am.”
  469. >You nod solemnly.
  470. “Affirmative.”
  471. >”Minty, I want you on point with Rabbit. She’ll handle entry when we need it, you waste anything that isn’t equine. If you encounter anything you can’t put down in a single stomp I want you to fall back immediately so Pinwheel can drop a brick on it or Lucky can freeze it. We are not having a repeat performance, understood?”
  472. [spoiler]>’I will not have blood on my hooves again.’[/spoiler]
  473. [spoiler]>’I can’t have blood on my hooves again.’[/spoiler]
  474. >Minty Leaf stomps in place and blasts out a breath like steam. “Loud and clear, boss.”
  475. >Over the com channel, Big Momma expresses her displeasure. “Minty, if you’re putting dents in my girl again so help me Faust we are gonna have words!”
  476. >”Uh, sorry, Momma.”
  477. >”Atta girl. Now don’t you go doing that again. You almost knocked me out of the flight couch.”
  478. >You are absolutely certain that the light green earth pony is stronger than Apone, but the pegasus was a master of bringing out the sheepish memories of broken vases and muddy floors from one’s foalhood.
  479. >Soft Rabbit speaks like her namesake.
  480. >“Tap Dance, ma’am, what should I be prioritizing? Briefing said that the labs want more live specimens, but if there are civilians I don’t want to risk them getting hurt.”
  481. >Rabbit is a sweet mare, pink in coat and yellow-maned, and you aren’t certain how she’d gotten mixed up in XPONI originally. Her scores at the shooting range were Fluttershy-levels of terrible, but to her credit every target set up in front of her horn evaporated into wood dust and splinters.
  482. >100% hit rate.
  483. >No, you’re not envious.
  484. >Perfect on-target score, but that’s all she can do.
  485. >Bullseyes, ten point ring, five point ring, out of bounds on-target… all exploded equally. When averaging her points out on a square-inch basis, she came up in the negatives every time.
  486. >There is no small amount of irony that she also happened to be the most competent field medic you’ve ever seen.
  487. >Perhaps that’s out of necessity, come to think of it.
  488. >You don’t really pay attention to Tap’s reply, but you make a mental note that she wants to focus on reducing civilian casualties. Of course, there was only ever going to be one answer to Soft’s question.
  489. >Tap hates them.
  490. >Big Momma calls out a timer over coms, and a countdown pops up in the corner of your HUD.
  491. >Two minutes to drop.
  492. >Tap is running down the list, confirming that yes, everypony is ready and you are all clear on your orders.
  493. >”Doors are opening at the sixty second mark, fillies.”
  494. >Pinwheel. ”I-I’m ready, ma’am.”
  495. >Minty Leaf. ”All set, boss.”
  496. >Soft Rabbit. ”I’m ready, Tap.”
  497. >Finally, you.
  498. >”Lucky, you all set?”
  499. >Recon/retrieval: Find, kill, and steal.
  500. >You take a deep breath of the cool, damp air.
  501. >You are Lucky Star.
  502. >You are smart, talented, know three languages, have countless hours of combat experience and probably know more ways to kill something than most mares know words. You graduated top of your class from Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, and were tapped for fieldwork with S.M.I.L.E. immediately out of guard training.
  503. >You’re a crack shot with your magic, and your score on the range places you in the top percentile.
  504. >At your side, your magic focusing rifle hums to life in tune with the chiming of your horn. It is sleek, custom-tuned to your unique magical signature. Frost coats its long barrel.
  505. >You are Lucky.
  506. >You only ever miss the shots that matter most.
  507. >On your flank, you can feel your cutie mark burning.
  508. >95%
  509. “I’m ready.”
  510. ---
  511. >Be you.
  512. >You… you’re you.
  513. >You’re bleeding, and badly. You’re pretty sure it’s supposed to hurt more than this.
  514. >Your left eye isn’t working properly, and a spike of white hot pain arcs up your foreleg.
  515. >Wait, no, there’s the pain.
  516. >You think your left hind leg is broken, but you’re still standing so it probably isn’t.
  517. >You don’t know how much longer you can last, but… but you have to.
  518. >They have to get away. You have to buy them time.
  519. >You woke up first, half-buried, but there were more. Horrors in the street, in the dark, lurking and hungry.
  520. >You led them away, or they chased you.
  521. >You’re not sure.
  522. >Somehow, you made it to the town square. It’s deserted, but that’s okay.
  523. >Maybe they all left?
  524. >Focus, Kite. Don’t… don’t you dare let them down!
  525. >Kite?
  526. >You’re… Kite? Kite something.
  527. >Be Kite something.
  528. >Be determined.
  529. >Gripped between your bloody lips is the head of a broken spear. At your hooves are… four, or five changelings.
  530. >They shouldn’t be. Changelings don’t…
  531. >They look wrong.
  532. >Eyes.
  533. >The first one wasn’t a changeling though, and now there’s four dead by your hooves.
  534. >You’re not sure if it’s four or five. One of your eyes isn’t working right.
  535. >You rasp out a chuckle. It’s funny because your left eye isn’t working right.
  536. >Your chest hurts.
  537. >Dimly, you’re aware of a wave of heat as something roars overhead.
  538. >Maybe… maybe it’s a dragon? Like in the stories Pestle is always reading.
  539. >If… If Hat was here, you could take it together.
  540. >Show off for the weird minotaur colt.
  541. >He’s kinda cute.
  542. >You don’t feel it when the ground hits you.
  543. ---
  544. >Be Memory-Oriented Task Helper: Emergent Rate.
  545. >M.O.T.H.E.R
  546. >Attempt log access.
  547. >Note: Log deleted.
  548. >Attempt retrieval.
  549. >Attempt fail.
  550. >Attempt retrieval.
  551. >Attempt success.
  552. >Log corrupt.
  553. >Log defrag.
  554. >Play log.
  555. >04: “No! That’s not good enough! We have to contain that area, now! The last time-”
  556. >02: “No, Cupcake Actual, I’m asking if you can hold until-”
  557. >05: “- still ponies in the target zone! OUR ponies are in the target zone! That is a town full of ponies and you want Celestia to glass it?!”
  558. >04: ”Yes, that is exactly what I want her to do! You weren’t here the last time were faced these things Doc, so you can be forgiven for-”
  559. >06: ”This isn’t right.”
  560. >05: “-condescend to me, you stupid bitch! I’ve seen the reports, I’ve patched our mares up! I know what blood looks like! You have no right to treat me like a f-”
  561. >02: “-gain, Cupcake 3? Negative, Strike 4 is unavai-”
  562. >03: “Working with changelings, how? What would possess Chrys-”
  563. >06: “-not the same.”
  564. >04: “-I don’t give a damn about how much land we have to destroy, if a single one of those things gets out of the op-zone we’re bucked! The only reason we haven’t been overrun by the Terror is-!”
  565. >02: “Cupcake Actual, retrieve any survivors and-”
  566. >05: “-going to throw their lives away on a chance?!”
  567. >06: “It’s a new strain!”
  568. >01: ”Dust, please don’t dent the table. Explain.”
  569. >06: “Just…! Bucking look at them! Mother, bring up detail footage of Terror leg-blades from the Los Pegasus attack.”
  570. >Log: Display requested images.
  571. >06: “Now compare them to currently available mission footage of the Terrors from Tree Shades.”
  572. >Log: Display requested images.
  573. >06: “It’s a new strain.”
  574. >02: “…Sweet Faust have mercy.”
  575. >03: “Is that… Please tell me that isn’t what I think it is.”
  576. >04: “N-no. That’s exactly what you think it is.”
  577. >06: “I told you: It’s a new bucking strain. It’s just like what they did to the Diamond Dogs after Ghastly Gorge. They got new material.”
  578. >01: “This changes things.”
  579. >-
  580. >-
  581. >-
  582. >06: “-shimmered? That’s more like chan-”
  583. >03: “-never see them coming…”
  584. >-
  585. >-
  586. >-
  587. >03: “-completely unprecedented. Just look at what they did to the-”
  588. >04: “Ma’am, I need a line to the Badlands Hive, right now. I don’t give a damn if the Changelings are our enemies on paper, nopony deserves this. If they need help we have to act immediately. I will NOT have another genocide on our hooves.”
  589. >01: “Done. Mother, alert the Princesses and send a message to the Council. Central, get Strike 3 out of the zone. Clean-up can pick up the pieces.”
  590. >Log: Acknowledge and relay.
  591. >Log end.
  592. >Log deleted.
  593. ---
  594. >Be Lucky Star.
  595. >The timer on your HUD shows 90 seconds to arrival, and the green digits continue to count down. To your left, Pinwheel is fidgeting with the bomb strapped under her barrel. Beyond her, Soft Rabbit has her head down, but you can see her lips moving. Her eyes are closed, and a hoof is placed against her breast.
  596. >Prayer, then.
  597. >Across from you, Minty Leaf meets your gaze with bared teeth and an aggressive snort, fog wreathing her muzzle like a dragon’s smoke. Her hind legs are trembling, and she paws at the deck. Muscles ripple underneath her armored barding. The bulky forest-green earth pony has scores to settle.
  598. >Tap Dance nods at you, her horn glowing with the same cool blue as her focus pistols.
  599. >5 seconds until the doors open.
  600. >4.
  601. >3.
  602. >2.
  603. >1.
  604. >Right on cue, Apone calls out. ”60 seconds!”
  605. >The Freeranger’s ramp drops, and immediately you have to squint your eyes against the lashing wind and chilling rain pouring into the stable bay. Your ears pin back against the engines’ roar and howling storm as the dropship skims fast and low over the rooftops. Beneath you, fires burn in the darkness, and you can pick out bundles and familiar shapes lying in the street as you pass overhead. A flash of lightning illuminates a tall shape rushing through an alley below, but then it’s gone.
  606. >You key your mic, voice raised against the background noise and booming thunder.
  607. “Tap, brief visual on an X-ray in the alleys.”
  608. >”Profile?”
  609. ”Thin biped. Mutts may be in the AO.”
  610. >”I’ll relay to Central. Momma, you copy? Gun Mutts in the area.”
  611. >”Loud and clear, Tap. I’ll keep my girl clear until they’re dealt with. Timber will kill me if she’s gotta replace another engine.”
  612. >20 seconds.
  613. >The Freeranger dips under your hooves as it swings around the outside of the town square. In the center of the square, a lone earth pony mare stands surrounded by fallen shapes. There’s a glint of metal in her mouth, maybe a dagger. Her head momentarily tracks the Freeranger, but then she collapses.
  614. >Opening your mouth to inform Tap, you activate your mic but Soft Rabbit beats you to it.
  615. >”Ma’am, there’s a wounded civilian down there!”
  616. >A burst of crimson light illuminates the ship’s bay as Rabbit releases what feels like a wide-area pony detection spell.
  617. “Soft, she has a weapon.”
  618. >”She’s the only pony alive in the square, I just checked.”
  619.  “Tap, she’s armed.”
  620. >”I’ll be fine!”
  621. >Tap growls. ”Then go!”
  622. >A moment later, Apone flicks off the ‘seatbelt’s on’ button.
  623. >The red light at the front of the stable switches to green, and you start unlatching from your stall’s safety harness. You’re careful to brace yourself as Big Momma brings the Freeranger to the ground, but you’re not even fully unbuckled when a pink blur rockets past you and into the night.
  624. >Rabbit living up to her name.
  625. >Apone’s voice crackles in your ears.
  626. >”Touchdown! Hit it, mares!”
  627. ---
  628. >Be Soft Rabbit.
  629. >You don’t look it, but you’re fast.
  630. >In a dead sprint, you can outpace Minty Leaf.
  631. >You can hold steady with Pinwheel, on a good day.
  632. >When you were young, you enjoyed nothing more than a long gallop in the morning, feeling sweat dripping off your body and the wind caressing your mane. Driving your hooves into the dirt was a rhythm almost as essential to you as your surging breaths or pounding heartbeat.
  633. >You’d race against your sisters. You’d race against your friends.
  634. >Racing was easier than talking, and by Faust were you ever the shy little thing.
  635. >When you were young, you loved racing and running, anything to get your blood pumping and to get away.
  636. >Racing is no longer a pastime.
  637. >In the race against death, every second counts.
  638. >The Freeranger is descending swiftly, but it’s not nearly fast enough. Slapping the emergency release on your harness, you ignore the safety alert that chimes in your ears.
  639. >Yes, you’re aware that the ‘seatbelt on’ light is still active, but you don’t have time to waste!
  640. >You tear yourself free of your stall, hooves clattering on the deck.
  641. >At four meters off the ground, you’re already bounding past Minty’s bulky form and ducking under Lucky’s long rifle.
  642. >At three meters, the tip of your nose has cleared the bay’s threshold and the howling wind is in your ears.
  643. >Two meters. You’re already half-way down the ramp and accelerating to a full gallop.
  644. >You don’t wait for the touchdown, leaping off the edge of ramp and hitting the ground at full tilt, cold rainwater streaming off your bright coat and drenching your mane. Jumping over burning debris and cold, fallen forms, you race like her life depends on it.
  645. >It probably does.
  646. >You kick up a spray of filthy rainwater as you sprint through a puddle, and skid to a stop at the fallen mare’s side, ignoring the still forms at her hooves. They’re beyond your help now, and you only have eyes for the blue mare. There’s a few other faint, distant signatures, but she needs help here and now.
  647. >Crimson light blankets her as you screw your eyes in concentration. You only know a few spells, but this is the most important. Magic chimes, and you’re your horn flares. Suddenly, her heartbeat is thundering in your ears, the spell flickering at the tip of your horn keeping pace with the rapid tattoo.
  648. >Oh, thank Faust.
  649. “Tap, she’s alive!”
  650. >”Keep her that way.”
  651. >The spell continues to feed you information, and you set your lips in a thin line.
  652. >The mare is about your age, maybe a little older.
  653. >Bright blue coat, darker mane.
  654. >Cutie mark is intact, shield and horseshoe.
  655. >Airway is clear.
  656. >Breathing is rapid and shallow, heartbeat fast and thready.
  657. >Ears and muzzle are pale.
  658. >Major lacerations to muzzle, chest, flank.
  659. >Ocular fluid oozing from her left eye.
  660. >Right foreleg broken just below the knee, hoof visibly split.
  661. >Left hindleg fractured, but not broken.
  662. >Ribs intact, but heavy bruising to the right side.
  663. >Faust, she’s lost a lot of blood….
  664. >The blue mare is in a bad way, but as long as she’s breathing and her heart beats alive in your eardrums you’ll do everything you can. You tear an emerald medigem out of your leg-pocket, and shatter it between your hooves, pressing the rapidly melting fragments against the laceration on the mare’s chest. The magically infused crystal oozes across the wound, binding it shut and pulsing antibacterial magic.
  665. “We need to get her inside, she’s in hypovolemic shock and I can’t keep her warm out here.”
  666. >The Crystal Empire’s gems are capable of incredible feats of magic and healing, but they can’t work miracles on their own. You crack another gem over the mare’s injured flank, working the warm goo across the wound with your magic.
  667. >Tap Dance joins you at the mare’s side, her magic humming as she picks up the broken head of a spear in her magic and nudges one of the dead ponies around you. That must be the weapon Lucky was worried about, but the blood on its blade isn’t red, so it couldn’t have been used on the bodies around you.
  668. >Your leader snorts in disgust and kicks one of the corpses.
  669. >Distantly, you realize they’re not ponies.
  670. >The pony detection spell only works on living, breathing ponies.
  671. >Only ponies.
  672. >The bodies surrounding her aren’t ponies.
  673. >They’re changelings.
  674. >Even knowing that they’re dead, you feel a shiver trickle down your spine, and not from the cold.
  675. >Tap Dance grimaces, then speaks into her headset. ”Minty, get into the town hall and clear the front room, Soft and I are on our way with wounded.”
  676. >You’re dimly aware of the loud crash of the town hall’s massive front doors being kicked off their hinges. Lucky says something, but it’s not relevant to you at the moment. Patient comes first. Another green gem oozes across the mare’s face, sealing over her injured eye.
  677. >Making sure the spell has set, you tap Tap on the shoulder.
  678. “I want you to lift her hindquarters, I’ll carry her torso and head.”
  679. >She nods.
  680. “On my count, 321… Lift.”
  681. >Together, you and the other unicorn maneuver the injured mare inside, stepping carefully over what remains of the front doors. The storm is still raging, but you’re out of the cold and wet for now.
  682. “Lucky, I need a heating spell. Standard shock treatment, and clear me an IV site; there, on her leg would be best. I need to prep fluids.”
  683. >”Very well.”
  684. >Leaving Lucky to her work, you quickly extract a saline bag and set up a needle. Concentrating, a spark activates the magically sensitive capsule floating in the saline. It’s not as good as a blood transfusion, but it’ll do until you can get the poor mare to the base’s medical wing.
  685. >The minutes that follow are a blur of magical healing and blood. At some point Lucky slips away upstairs to set up on the balcony, and Minty moves outside to give Pinwheel some company on overwatch. Tap Dance curses in a hurried exchange with Central about “new developments.”
  686. >Right. Changelings.
  687. >Bucking Changelings.
  688. >After a while, you lean back on your haunches and let your diagnostic spell fizzle with an exhausted sigh. You’re satisfied that the mare is out of imminent danger. When Tap asks if she needs immediate medevac, you shake your head.
  689. “No, she’ll be okay for a couple of hours, I’ve got a stasis gem on her. If we’re holding here she should be safe, but otherwise I’d like to get her onto the Big Girl.”
  690. >Tap calls it in to Big Momma, but she’s rightfully reluctant to land again until the ground is clear.
  691. >”Sorry, Rabbit, I promised Tower I’d fly you home and I can’t do that if some stupid Mutt’s dropped my girl. Get Pinnie rigged up with a stretcher and I can do a flying pickup, though.”
  692. >Pinwheel slides in out of the storm, landing delicately with nary a sound. With Tapper’s help, you gently remove the torpedo from the pegasus’s barrel harness, and rig up a stretcher in its place. As the soft yellow pegasus leaps back into the air, you can hear the throaty roar of the Big Girl’s engines on approach.
  693. >You’ve won the race for now.
  694. >Over the pounding rain, a screech echoes through the town square, and Minty shouts from the front steps.
  695. >”Contact! Changelings on the main street!”
  696. >The piercing whine of Lucky’s rifle carries down from the second floor.
  697. >…Back to running.
  698. ---
  699. >Be Lucky Star, watching the world through a pinhole.
  700. >…fwinnnnn-CRACK!
  701. >The magic channeling through your horn peaks and a brief wave of exhaustion rushes through you as the rifle discharges. Below, ice crystals erupt from a changeling’s eyes, and it falls to the street with a howl.
  702. >You duck.
  703. >A ball of green energy boils past your head, splashing against the wall behind you with a magical hiss.
  704. >You’re crouching down on the town hall’s balcony, hunkered behind a decorative stone planter. Rain patters against the shimmering white shield you’ve erected to keep it out of your mane and eyes. From your elevated vantage point, you can almost cover the entire town square.
  705. >It’s a sniper’s paradise, but the firefight is starting to weigh on you. Minutes have ticked over into hours.
  706. >Aiming around the planter, your horn discharges again, and a changeling copy of Minty collapses as ice encases its left side. Another shot coats it entirely.
  707. >These changelings were apparently bad at copying the eyes. Ponies are only supposed to have two.
  708. >A series of thin beams drive another changeling to the street, the glow on its charging horn fading.
  709. “Good shots, Tap Dance.”
  710. >”Thanks.”
  711. >Letting your horn rest, you glance up into the sky. Pinwheel had reported that she’d gotten the injured mare properly secured on the Big Girl, and she should be on her way with another kind of payload any second now.
  712. >Your ears swivel as you pick up a pitched whistling that grows louder and louder, becoming a howling drone that drowns out the rain and shrieking. A golden blur shoots past overhead, wind buffeting your mane as the howl reaches a crescendo.
  713. >An explosion engulfs a group of changelings further down the street, lighting up the night with a thunderous detonation.
  714. >You don’t need your earphones to hear Minty whoop in celebration from the town hall’s front steps.
  715. >”Good hit, Pinwheel! I count four down on that strike.”
  716. >Tap Dance chimes in. “Agreed. Come in for a landing and we can set you up with the torpedo in the entrance hall.”
  717. >Pinwheel glides in and disappears out of sight under the balcony.
  718. >Soft Rabbit pipes up from inside. ”Ma’am? It looks like they’re falling back.”
  719. >Minty snorts. “Buggers couldn’t put up a decent fight if they tried. We whooped them in Canterlot, we can do it again here. How many did we get? Why are they here, anyway?”
  720. “Indeed. I count 11 dead by our hooves.”
  721. >You sight down your rifle and another beam lances into the distance.
  722. 12.”
  723. >You smirk. You always wanted to do that.
  724. >”Central is just as confused as I am. Intel last placed Chrysalis licking her wounds out in the badlands, not doing… whatever this is. If possible, we’ve been tasked with finding out why.” Tap Dance’s tone conveys a frown, and your brow furrows in turn.
  725. >You raise your rifle, using your scope to examine the corpse of a changeling frozen upright in a block of solid ice.
  726. >Minty clears her throat. ”I’m just spit-balling, but... we haven’t seen any aliens aside from the one Gun Mutt that Lucky saw, right? Maybe this is just a bad changeling op and you mistook a changeling for something else?”
  727. >You hiss into your mic.
  728. “I know what I saw, Minty Leaf.”
  729. >Tapper interjects and tells you cool it, and you sigh.
  730. ”I’m uncertain these changelings belong to Chrysalis’s hive, Tap Dance.”
  731. >Pinwheel coughs nervously. ”W-What do you mean? Holes, black carapace, green magic? That fits her p-profile, right?”
  732. > Again, you look down your scope at the changeling and frown.
  733. “They have too many eyes.”
  734. >You hope your voice doesn’t sound as petulant out loud as it did in your head.
  735. >”O-oh.”
  736. >”I noticed that, too. The ones our civilian brought down had the same features. That could just be some kind of genetic variation, though, right? Like the difference between her infiltrators and warrior changelings?” Tap Dance asks.
  737. >Soft Rabbit hums. “Maybe, but-”
  738. >You don’t listen to the rest of what the pink unicorn has to say, as something skitters behind you and your ears swivel.
  739. >Tik tik tak!
  740. >You only have a split instant to register something thin and sharp punching through your rain shield, and you instinctively jerk away at the sting of magical feedback.
  741. >That’s what saves you.
  742. >A blade stabs through your light combat barding, shattering the protective plate on your shoulder and cutting deep into muscle.
  743. >You scream and drop your front legs to the floor, bucking upward with all your strength. Your kick is powerful, but it only lands a glancing blow against the strange shimmering in the air and rain. Still, it sends the apparition stumbling backward, the blade dislodging from your shoulder in a spray of bright red blood.
  744. >Below you, Minty is bellowing at the top of her lungs and you can hear Tapper’s pistols discharging again and again.
  745. >You don’t even have a moment’s respite, as the blur lets out a shrieking howl and charges, barely-visible blades swinging. There are strange ripples in the air, leaking sickly green blood.
  746. >Screaming a wordless challenge, you draw up a shield, and reel in pain as a heavy impact sends magical feedback arcing down your horn. You can’t spare enough concentration to charge your rifle, and you clench your teeth as you pour more energy into your shield.
  747. >Bells are jingling in your ears as your magic flares, but you can see and feel the hairline cracks beginning to form in your shield. The shimmer is pounding against the pale bubble with all its strength, each impact chiming as the pressure in your horn increases. Your lions-tail lashes wildly as the pain builds.
  748. >You charge a second spell.
  749. >You have to time this right.
  750. >The tip of an invisible blade sinks into your shield, scoring a thin, bloody line down your neck. It draws back, rearing.
  751. >Icy fog curls off your horn, and cross-spell feedback sends flash-frozen raindrops tinkling to the floor.
  752. “Die, beast!”
  753. >The shield fails, splintering into countless pale fragments that you push outward, and you surge forward, as the blur staggers off-balance.
  754. >You feel the sharp point of your horn pierce hard chitin, sinking into soft flesh, and a blade skitters off your barding in a glancing blow. The invisible monster screeches, and you bare your teeth in a wild snarl.
  755. >The pressure in your horn releases.
  756. >You clench your eyes as a blinding white flash of magic bursts forth.
  757. >This is it.
  758. >This is it.
  759. >…is it?
  760. >You’re panting, trembling, and drenched in cold sweat and rain when you open your eyes. Above you, a solid statue of ice holds your horn in place. Razor-sharp ice crystals erupt at the seams of chitinous plates, and a mass of frigid crystals form a deadly flower where you scored your glancing kick against its carapace.
  761. >It’s a Terror….
  762. >Dear Faust, you just stabbed a Terror with your bucking horn.
  763. >…and you survived…
  764. >A shuddering breath escapes your lungs, and a whimper sneaks out from between your lips.
  765. >Something tickles your ear, and in the icy reflection you can barely make out a frozen blade caught mere centimeters from the back of your skull.
  766. >Your eyes widen, and you can’t help but disappear for a moment as your breath quickens and your sides heave.
  767. >You feel sick.
  768. >You can feel every drop of cold rain trickling down your coat and still you feel too hot.
  769. >Shivering, and gently running a current of warming magic through your horn, you close your eyes while you wait for the world to stop spinning.
  770. >It’s never been this bad before.
  771. >You never came this close before.
  772. >Extracting yourself gingerly to avoid the deadly ice sculpture’s scything talons, you retrieve your rifle and limp downstairs. Faust blessed be, but your shoulder hurts.
  773. >You hope the others are okay.
  774. ---
  775. >Be Pinwheel.
  776. >You’re always quiet.
  777. >Blood is spurting around your hooves as you press another bundle of gauze into the ragged wound on Minty’s chest. You’d close your eyes, but you need to see, you need to be able to see, but with the tears in your eyes the world is a blur of red and lime-green streaked with red.
  778. >Soft Rabbit is cracking gem after gem, ignoring the oozing wound on her forehead as prayers slip past her lips. She has one eye jammed shut to keep blood from blinding her. Tap Dance has her pistols trained on the door, her voice raised as she tries to get Central to know what’s going on. Something skitters in the darkness outside and she lets loose a barrage of scorching beams. The skittering stops.
  779. >You don’t know if Lucky is okay. You hope she’s okay. You like her, she doesn’t talk a lot.
  780. >There hasn’t been any sound from upstairs since Minty’s legs gave out from under her.
  781. “Come on, Leaf. St-stay with us.”
  782. >The earth pony chuckles, and a bloody froth erupts from her mouth.
  783. “No! D-Don’t talk! Soft has got you, it’s gonna be okay!”
  784. >In the corner, the crushed and trampled remains of a Terror are slowly fading into view, as whatever magic or biological sorcery that obscured its form fades away. It’s barely recognizable as the monster from the training vids, but then again Minty isn’t very recognizable anymore either.
  785. >Removing the gauze at Soft’s direction, you watch as she spreads a thin layer of medigem goo across Minty’s chest. The bruise on your side hurts, and your chest throbs where the torpedo slammed up against you.
  786. >She saved you, and now she’s dying.
  787. >Numbly, you replace the sopping gauze with another bundle, but Soft takes it from you and instead starts wrapping it around one of the many cuts that criss-cross Minty’s body like ladders.
  788. >”Ha… more cut than coat now, huh?”
  789. “Stop j-joking! Now is… not the t-time!”
  790. >Soft gently rubs Minty’s shoulder and leans over to look her in the eyes. “Minty, I’ve patched you up as best I can, okay? I’m going to crack a stasis gem and that’ll freeze you until we can get you to medical.”
  791. >Minty shakes her head. “Nope. Ah, I don’t. I haaaa... hate getting froze. Can’t move, but… can feel.”
  792. >Her chest spasms and another glob of red froth escapes her mouth. You can barely see through the tears, but she’s looking past you now.
  793. >Faust, please no….
  794. >”Then sleep, Minty Leaf.”
  795. >Your wings flare and you jump as Lucky steps past you and lowers her horn to Minty’s forehead. You didn’t hear her coming down the stairs. Lucky’s horn flickers, and Minty’s eyes slide closed.
  796. >”Freeze her, now.”
  797. >Lucky’s tone brooks no argument, and Soft Rabbit places a clear gem on the earth pony’s chest. Her horn ignites, and a magical spark tumbles onto the enchanted gem. Immediately, Minty’s coat takes on a gentle glow as it works its magic.
  798. >The large pure-bred unicorn staggers to the doorway. Her rifle spits out a weak beam, but you still hear the enraged cry that comes in response.
  799. >You feel so useless.
  800. >Tap Dance is cursing into her headset and spraying the down town square with rapid-fire beams, and Lucky is leaning against the wall, horn sputtering. Soft Rabbit is finally pressing a bandage to her forehead and wiping the blood out of her eyes.
  801. >”Central, this is Cupcake Actual. We have confirmed presence of Terrors in mission zone.”
  802. >“They’re not… Terrors,” Lucky rasps, and raises her rifle to fire into the rain.
  803. >Tap Dance points at the corpse steaming in the corner.
  804. >”No, there are no local command elements, we need… Yes! No, I understand that, but-!”
  805. >Soft Rabbit ducks back from her place at the window, horn glowing an angry red and hissing steam from the rain. ”They’re coming around the sides!”
  806. >”Pinwheel, get up there and drop that bomb! Now,” Tapper yells.
  807. >You don’t even bother to use the stairs, instead bounding into the air with a powerful down stroke and zipping out the open door to the balcony. Pumping your wings against the rain, you gain altitude, flip over
  808. >For a brief, frozen moment, you fall at the same pace as the rain, and it seems as though all the droplets are still around you.
  809. >Then gravity catches you, and you dive.
  810. >There’s a mass of scuttling creatures picking their way through the debris and corpses toward the rest of Cupcake squad, barely visible in the dark. You adjust your course slightly, and tap the release on your harness. The torpedo gently arcs away from you in the air as you pull out of the dive, driving your wings to get clear.
  811. >Below, the explosion rocks the town square, and a series of smaller detonations pound against your ears for a few seconds afterwards. Mercifully, the distinctive shriek of the Terrors and changelings is cut short.
  812. >When you canter into the hall, Tap Dance is still in a furious exchange with Central, but she stops long enough to give you a weary smile.
  813. >”Good hit, Pinwheel. Get Minty ready to roll. Lucky, Soft, launch your flares and keep the square clear. I’m calling in Big Momma for pickup.”
  814. >The two unicorns nod, and a moment later bright white and crimson fireworks light up the night sky.
  815. >”This is Cupcake Actual to Big Momma, we need you down here, now! Minty is critically wounded and Central is scrubbing this mission. We’re to retreat with any survivors. The LZ should be clear on arrival, but if it isn’t I want you to waste anything that doesn’t have four hooves and a cutie mark.”
  816. >”Already on my way, Tapper. Central told me. I’m descending now.”
  817. >You busy yourself wrapping a blanket around Minty. You know she hates getting wet.
  818. >Tapper signals to Soft to start collecting specimens, and Lucky helps you move Minty out into the rain as Big Momma descends.
  819. >Time to go.
  820. ---
  821. >You are Lucky Star, and you miss all the shots that matter most.
  822. >It doesn’t happen every mission. In fact, in most missions you have a near-perfect shot-to-kill ratio.
  823. >But this is one you’re going to miss.
  824. >You’re not even able to take it.
  825. >The beam fizzles as a spike of pain lances down your horn.
  826. >Magical exhaustion.
  827. >You throw your rifle aside and charge at a gallop, ignoring the tearing pain in your shoulder and neck.
  828. >The X-ray you saw before matches the profile of their high command: tall and thin. You can’t believe you mistook THAT for a Gun Mutt, but it fits. Any time the Terror has been present, so too has some command element to control them!
  829. >And now one is within easy reach and about to kill what could be the only other survivors in this small town.
  830. >The green pony has the right idea, tackling the X-ray to the ground, and her companion is bringing a sword to bear, but they’ll never stop it in time if it’s even half as powerful as the briefings say.
  831. >You call Pinwheel and she acknowledges, soaring overhead. You leap, tackling the green earth pony away and catching the alien just as it begins to stand.
  832. >Tap Dance, hot on your heels, jumps into the ponypile, pinning its arms, and Pinwheel latches onto its face, blinding it. Soft Rabbit flops on top of you, and you groan as her weight forces the air out of your lungs, but her tranquilizer dart zips past your muzzle and catches the alien in the neck.
  833. >The two civilians are yelling and screaming, but you don’t have time to explain things to them.
  834. >Two quick sleep-stun spells later, and you’re loading up the alien and the two remaining civilians.
  835. >The Commander is going to love this.
  836. >As the Freeranger rockets back towards base, the sleepy, empty town of Tree Shades erupts in solar fury as dawn comes early to Equestria.
  837. ---
  838. >Be Anon.
  839. >Be wet, bloody, cold, sore, and have a host of other complaints, but above all be worried.
  840. >You can’t find Chink and Greenie, because you can’t find the house you left them in.
  841. >The sounds of fighting and loud screeches are still carrying between the buildings, and you want to go investigate, but you have to know that the two little ponies are safe. Hopefully they’re both still hidden in the basement, but if they’ve moved on then checking out the battle might be your next best chance at finding them.
  842. >Goddammit, you wish you know what was going on!
  843. >A fresh sheet of rain lashes against you, and you shiver.
  844. >The memories of warm pony cuddles and badly mispronounced names feel like ages ago, but it can’t have been more than a couple of hours.
  845. >Can you be nostalgic for something that soon?
  846. >You shake your head, but the pounding behind your eyes doesn’t like that. Ow. Right. Rescue now, dumb thinking later, and don’t do anything else to make your headache worse.
  847. >After managing to slip away from the swarm of spider-ponies and the blade monster, you’re currently slinking from house to house looking for the one with two dead spider-ponies in the front room. Unfortunately for you, almost all of these places look the same, so it’s slow going.
  848. >You poke your head into yet another house.
  849. >You could swear the village wasn’t this big when you first arrived!
  850. >Aha!
  851. >Two dead spider-ponies!
  852. >Some part of you recognizes that using corpses as landmarks is pretty high on the ‘list of things that would be fucked up if you were still at home,’ but at this point it’s pretty mundane in comparison to fighting and killing aforementioned spider-ponies.
  853. >You dash across the room to the basement stairs and whisper into the darkness.
  854. “Chink? Greenie?”
  855. >There’s no reply.
  856. >The basement is empty, but you can’t find hide nor hair of a struggle. But Chink’s sword is gone; they must have taken it with them, wherever they went. Despite trying to be stealthy, you can’t help but let out a muffled whoop of celebration.
  857. >It’d worked!
  858. >Your dumbass plan had worked!
  859. >Now, all you have to do is link up with the others and get the hell out of here.
  860. >Searching around the basement and then the upstairs for any indication of where they’ve gone turns up a drawing not dissimilar to a kindergartener’s treasure map. Crayon, scribbles, and even an X-marks-the-spot.
  861. >You find a crude sketch of a hat and a mushroom, with arrows pointing at… well, if you squint your eyes and tilt your head sideways it looks a little bit like the big building at the end of the town’s main road, and there’s a dotted line leading to an X right in front of it.. They were headed to the town hall?
  862. >You almost slap yourself.
  863. >Obviously! Where do people go in times of trouble? They organize! If this place has a government, then odds are whatever authorities exist are holed up in there.
  864. >Working your way quietly out of the house, you make your way towards the sounds of explosions and fighting. Hopefully Chink and Greenie are staying clear.
  865. >An indeterminable amount of time passes as you creep and sneak and ninja your way from shadow to shadow, carefully hiding and evading the sound of scuttling chitin in the alleys and streets around you. The screams from before have fallen silent, and the only sounds that remain is the booming thunder and pattering rain, and the occasion screech in the distance.
  866. >You’re almost to the town hall when you see the spaceship come roaring overhead. Ducking around a corner, you watch as it lands, and a group of normal, not-spider-ponies dash towards it, one of them floating in midair.
  867. >What the fuck? Can Chink and Greenie do telekinesis too?
  868. >You frown and resolve to ask them later when you hear a shout.
  869. >“AHN-IN!”
  870. >Clip clop, clip clop. Clip clop clop CL-CLOP CL-CLOP CL-CLOP!
  871. >The sounds of a little horse approaching at a hard gallop are difficult to miss, and at her shouted cry you turn, crouching down and opening your arms to give her a hug, but the little green mare doesn’t slow at all!
  872. >Greenie jumps up and tackles you to the street with her hoofs wrapped tightly around your neck and waist, nuzzling her face into your neck and cooing. It’s like she’s determined to make sure you’re safe by physically confirming that you’re present.
  873. >She pulls back and looks you over, making soft noises over every cut or bruise. She gasps sharply at the ragged bite on your shoulder, and proceeds to act like every single scratch on you is potentially some mortal wound.
  874. >Greenie narrows her eyes and pokes you in the chest with a firm hoof, saying something in her musical horse language.
  875. >You wince, but grin anyway. Serious pony is adorable.
  876. >She huffs and goes back to looking you over for injury.
  877. >It’s hard not to laugh.
  878. >Chink limps up from behind her, sword tip trailing just above the ground. She looks between you and Greenie, then gives you a smirk around the handle.
  879. >You raise an eyebrow and wave. She points at the pony in your arms and wiggles her eyebrows. You’re not sure what’s up with the flirty little things, but right now you’re too relieved to care.
  880. >You’re not exactly sure what happens next.
  881. >One moment you’re gesturing to Chink where she can stick her giggling, and the next you’re buried under what feels like a mountain of soft fur and armor.
  882. >Kinda cozy, actually. Little tight on the chest, though.
  883. >At least it’s warm.
  884. >…
  885. >Okay, definitely too tight on the chest.
  886. >Something soft and furry wraps itself around your face like a cat.
  887. >You wheeze, and struggle, but you can’t breathe.
  888. >Another weight pins your legs.
  889. >You hope Chink and Greenie are okay.
  890. >These ponies sure… are… cuddly…
  891. >Ow! Don’t poke me, you little....shit.t…..s…
  892. >Darkness creeps up on you like a bad ex, and you know no more.
  893. ---
  894. >Be Memory-Oriented Telos Helper: Emergent Rate
  895. >M.O.T.H.E.R.
  896. >02: “Gentlemares, gentlestallion. Ma’am. Mother, roll the after action report, if you please.”
  897. >Display relevant information.
  898. >01: “Did we find any confirmation of a landing?”
  899. >02: “Aside from the Terror and new specimens? Yes and no. There were numerous locations that matched the melt and scorch patterns of their plasma weapons, likely a small shipboard cannon.”
  900. >06: “So it was a scout landing.”
  901. >02: “All but the landing ‘part,’ yes. Celestia wasn’t very talkative on her return, but Luna reports that she denied any presence of a landed vessel.”
  902. >03: “A shame. Engineering was hoping we could recover an intact core for study.”
  903. >01: “We can make it a priority at the next opportunity. What else do you have?”
  904. >02: ”Casualty numbers. Mother? Next slide, please.”
  905. >Display relevant slide.
  906. >05: “By Cadenza’s heart… I knew it was going to be bad, but… Faust.”
  907. >06: “Just the three, huh?”
  908. >02: “Unfortunately, yes. Celestia may have picked up one or two more, but if she did she hasn’t shared the details with us. Of the survivors on base, one is in critical condition and two are under quarantine.”
  909. >04: “Quarantine? Why? They’re the only ones who could possibly tell us what happened, and I KNOW that Terror gestation periods are measured in minutes. If they were implanted they should have turned by now.”
  910. >05: “I scanned them all first thing, they’re not-”
  911. >03: “One of them, the green mare, woke up earlier than expected and started kicking up a fuss about the…. Well, we haven’t named it yet but we think it could be our first Ethereal specimen.”
  912. >04: “Mind control, then?”
  913. >03: “That’s what Scalpel believes.”
  914. >01: “You have doubts.”
  915. >03: “Insightful as ever, but yes. The green one… I don’t have her name written down here, but she claims that it’s a minotaur bull that got caught up in the fighting.”
  916. >05: “That points to THS, as opposed to mind control.”
  917. >04: “THS?”
  918. >05: “Traumatic Herd Syndrome.”
  919. >06: “You mean she’s thinking with her clit.”
  920. >05: “No, that’s not what-”
  921. >02: “Either way, they’re compromised.”
  922. >03: “In a word, yes, but I’d like Intelligence to conduct a full interview. Maybe you can glean whatever details they haven’t shared yet.”
  923. >04: “Of course. Where are they being held?”
  924. >03: “Scalpel had them both confined in a holding tank once medical cleared the pink one.”
  925. >04: “Alright, I’ll have some of my mares pick them up from the labs tomorrow. We’re currently swamped from the last two ops.”
  926. >01: “We’re getting off-track.”
  927. >04: “Right, sorry.”
  928. >02: “As I was saying… The injured civilian-”
  929. >05: “Kite Shield! Her name is Kite Shield. I found her cutie mark in the database when I was looking for her medical history pre-surgery. She’s ex-Guard.”
  930. >06: “Really? I guess that explains the dead changelings.
  931. >04: “It is rather impressive that she took them all down at close range.”
  932. >02: “Close range?!”
  933. >06: “Yeah, totally badass. Broken spear only.”
  934. >03: “Hmm. When you said ‘ex-Guard’ I was expecting somepony…”
  935. >02: “Older? No, she retired not long after Chrysalis’s assault on Canterlot. One of the… Well. She was a Section 8.”
  936. >03: “Section 8?”
  937. >05: “Psychiatric discharge.”
  938. >06: “Oh.”
  939. >05: “Yes, ‘Oh.’ I’m sure you remember what it was like to come home wondering if your family wasn’t your family anymore. Or friends. You DO have friends, right?”
  940. >06: “…Watch your mouth, Doc.”
  941. >02: “Excuse me! May I finish now?”
  942. >06: “Go ahead.”
  943. >05: “Sorry.”
  944. >02: “You already covered most of what we have on her, honestly. She scored average in pretty much every respect during training aside from hoof-to-hoof, no disciplinary measures aside from her discharge incident. Hopefully once she wakes up she’ll be able to give us a better impression of what happened than the other two.”
  945. >01: “Hopefully so.”
  946. >02: “You’re planning something.”
  947. >01: “Perhaps.”
  948. >02: “I know that look, ma’am. Dust?”
  949. >06: “Don’t drag me into this. I’m not in the mood.”
  950. >01: “We can discuss it later. For now, please continue.”
  951. >02: “Alright. Mother, skip to slide 4, it’s the one on the recovered speci-”
  952. >Display relevant slide.
  953. >02: “-mens. Uh, yes. That’s the one. Thank you. As you can see, before Strike 3 extracted they recovered a number of as-yet unseen foes. The new Terror forms need no introduction, but these… changelings are new.”
  954. >06: “So Chrysalis is working with them, now. That’s just what we needed.”
  955. >04: “We’re not sure of that, actually.”
  956. >01: “You said that Chrysalis didn’t pick up the phone.”
  957. >04: “She didn’t, but I think that’s more reason for concern than anything else.”
  958. >01: “We’ll put a recon task on the agenda.”
  959. >03: “Could she be supplying them with drones?”
  960. >04: “I don’t know.”
  961. >06: “And what DO you know, four-eyes?! This was supposed to be a light op! Instead, one of my girls comes back butchered and Celestia has to glass a small town! Intel bucked up!”
  962. >04: “There was no indication of-!”
  963. >06: “Buck your indications! I’m sick of you dropping the ball and my mares having to pick up the pieces!”
  964. >01: “Dust, sit down. Had we been aware of the situation beforehoof, the mission would not have been given the green light. As it stands, we did the best we could with the information readily available, and Cupcake squad recovered a number of high-value assets.”
  965. >06: “But-!”
  966. >01: “Hold your grievances until this meeting is adjourned. I appreciated your insights during the operation, but now is not the time.”
  967. >06: “Fine.”
  968. >01: “Continue.”
  969. >02: “Ma’am. As I was saying, Cupcake recovered these specimens, including this one, here. It matches what little we have on the Ethereal race: tall and thin, somewhat uncanny-looking. This could very well provide us with the edge we need, provided the interrogation is successful.”
  970. >03: “I have that scheduled for tomorrow night, if you’re interested in watching the proceedings.”
  971. >06: “Sure.”
  972. >04: “I have dinner with a friend, but please pass your findings on. I’ll look them over afterwards.”
  973. >01: “I’ll attend, but I would like to meet with you about an hour before to discuss the results from today.”
  974. >03: “I’ll see you at 1700 in my lab, then.”
  975. >05: “…I’ll pass. Once was enough to last a lifetime.”
  976. >06: “Aww, does the colt have a weak stomach?”
  977. >04: “To be fair, interrogations aren’t pleasant to watch.”
  978. >05: “’Interrogation?’ Just call it what it is, Mem. It’s torture. It’s not the Equestrian way.”
  979. >03: “Doctor, I understand your concerns, but we’ve gone over this.”
  980. >05: “It still isn’t right.”
  981. >03: “Agreed, but right and wrong lie outside our areas of expertise. You patch the girls up. I take whatever hurt them apart.”
  982. >01: “And I determine what is right and what is wrong. Now, was there anything else you wanted to cover before we move on to Baltimare and Manehattan?”
  983. >02: “I would like to discuss Cupcake’s combat performance, but we can go over those with the results from Strikes 1, 2, and 4.”
  984. >01: “Okay. I was watching the feeds coming in from tactical. Alfalfa squad and Buckle both performed above expectations.”
  985. >06: “Thank you, ma’am, I thought so too. I’ll be tapping some of them for promotion.
  986. >02: “Excellent! They can fill out Strike 5’s command and act as a skeleton for Strike 6 when the new Freeranger comes in.”
  987. >01: “Send me the files when we’re done.”
  988. >02 and 06: “Yes, ma’am.”
  989. >01: “Mother, please alert Miss Sparkle that I wish to speak with her after this briefing, and bring up the after action reports for Operations Waning Tyrant and Second Dusk.”
  990. >Acknowledge and relay.
  991. ---
  992. >You grimace as you take a long sip of your coffee. It needs more sugar. Trotting back to the Medical Wing’s staff room, you stir in two more sugar cubes, and take another drink.
  993. >Still slightly bitter, but you’ll grin and bear it.
  994. >A glance at the clock reveals you still have another few hours to go. Technically, you could sign off now, but if a mare can pull a 24 hour shift then so can you.
  995. >You fight back a jaw-cracking yawn as you return to the front desk, slumping into the seat. A passing nurse gives you a warm smile. You nod your head in reply and take another draught of coffee.
  996. >The bitterness helps perk you up.
  997. >Be Doc.
  998. >The name on your Medical License is Doctor Window Pane.
  999. >For obvious reasons, you insist that everypony call you “Doc” instead.
  1000. >The griffins always insist on calling you otherwise, but such is their way.
  1001. >You poured years into getting your degrees and licenses, and by Faust you’ll enjoy the title that comes with it. Well, that and “Doctor Pane” sounds like the punchline of a bad medical joke. Not that you haven’t had your share of sniggers over insisting you be called “Doc” (Dock), but it is what it is.
  1002. >Not that you haven’t had your fair share of jokes over being a stallion in medicine, either.
  1003. >Those only last until the first Code 99.
  1004. >Then everypony calls you Doc.
  1005. >To everypony in the Medical Wing and at your last two hospitals, you’re Doc.
  1006. >It’s been almost a full day since Strike 3 came back from Tree Shades, and you’re finally getting the chance to unwind. Not that you’re off-duty yet.
  1007. >There’s too much left to do.
  1008. >A pair of nurses rush past, one reading off a patient’s chart while the other pushes a trolley coated in sharp medical equipment and medication bottles.
  1009. >You glance at the list of active patients in Medical.
  1010. >There’s always too much to do.
  1011. >Minty Leaf will be needing another round of antibiotics to stave off any potential infections from surgery, and… Kite Shield, she’ll need a dose of painkillers and a wound check in another two hours.
  1012. >You frown as you reach the next name on the list.
  1013. >Lucky Star, Faust damn her, was missing and she’d taken off with her hospital bed. This in spite of your explicit instructions that she was not to be walking with her injured shoulder and that she was not to leave her bed until you determined her injuries to be sufficiently healed.
  1014. >Your frown deepens.
  1015. >…On second thought, perhaps it was BECAUSE of your instructions that her bed also happened to be missing, rather than in spite of them.
  1016. >You fume quietly.
  1017. >Nurse Gauss is liable to kill her when she shows back up, and when the hardy nurse told you that Lucky had run off (Again!) you had half a mind to hunt down Lightning Dust and give her a piece of your mind about keeping her mares under control.
  1018. >She prides herself on discipline and yet she lets things like this happen. You suppress a snort.
  1019. >If you had the time, you’d be hunting Lucky down right now, but with the casualties from Alfalfa and Distaff, to say nothing of Cupcake, you were hard-pressed. As it was, it was only at the insistence of several nurses that you were taking a break at all.
  1020. >They were… right, of course. Going through multiple urgent surgeries and meetings in the last 24 hours had left you running ragged, and caffeine can only do so much. You’re no good to any of your patients if you collapse in exhaustion, not to mention Ladybird and Deft Caress are never happy when you come home exhausted.
  1021. >You shake your head and continue down the patients list, looking for any upcoming medication alerts.
  1022. >There’s a few other names, some being monitored around the clock as fate decides whether they’ll succumb to their wounds.
  1023. >You’ve stacked the deck in their favor as best you can, but there’s never enough time.
  1024. [spoiler]>’Racing death,’ she called it.[/spoiler]
  1025. >Your brown eyes wander to the outpatients list, and find a name.
  1026. >You absently run a hoof through your mane.
  1027. >It was easier when she was still here.
  1028. >Not perfect, not by any means. There was always going to be another wound, another illness, another critical status trooper flying in on a limping Freeranger….
  1029. >Another lost cause, another report filed….
  1030. [spoiler]>Another condolence letter printed and signed, blanks filled in and boxes checked.[/spoiler]
  1031. >There’s never enough time to save them all.
  1032. >Not here.
  1033. >Not in reality.
  1034. >But…
  1035. >She was fast, and agile, and smart.
  1036. >’Racing death,’ she called it.
  1037. >The thought brings a weary smile to your lips.
  1038. >Fitting.
  1039. >You sigh again and take a long drink from your mug. Doctors on medical shows might drink it black, but you’ll never understand how anypony could tolerate the stuff without two sugar cubes at minimum.
  1040. >Rubbing your eyes, you stand up. You should go and administer Minty’s medication, and perform a check on…
  1041. >Your eyes flick to the patient chart.
  1042. >Kite Shield.
  1043. >The doors leading into the lobby slide open as a grey pegasus stallion trots through, his long blue curls bouncing with each step. A card is tucked under his perfectly-preened wing.
  1044. >His cutie mark is a majestic cloud castle with a single spire rising above the rest.
  1045. >The light smile on his muzzle fades and dies as his green gaze locks on you.
  1046. >You can’t help but stiffen, but then he moves on, scanning the rest of the empty lobby as though you weren’t there. You school your expression into a professional blankness, ignoring the pressure in your chest.
  1047. >Top Tower.
  1048. >The pegasus trots over to the front desk with his lips set in a thin line.
  1049. >”Minty Leaf?”
  1050. >Ah. That explains the card.
  1051. >You point to the double doors leading further into the ward and he walks past without another word. You buzz him through as he approaches, swiping your ID card on the scanner at the front desk. One of your nurses can help him get to where he needs to go.
  1052. >You’re glad for the reprieve.
  1053. >The doors slide shut behind him and his trotting hoofsteps fade away.
  1054. >Your muzzle droops into your forehooves. You’d hoped you wouldn’t see him until Friday.
  1055. >Things are…
  1056. >He’s a friend.
  1057. >A good one.
  1058. >Things are just Complicated, right now.
  1059. >Capital C.
  1060. >On the patient chart, Minty Leaf’s name starts flashing and an icon pops up. With a tired swipe of your hoof you dismiss the reminder.
  1061. >There’s never enough time.
  1062. >You finish the last of your coffee, sticking your tongue out at the bitter aftertaste, and stand up.
  1063. >Minty needs her next dose of antibiotics.
  1064. >Depositing your mug in the staff room, you let Nurse Fib (not to be confused with Nurse Tib) know to take over at the front desk, and collect a syringe of medicine from the stocks to place in your saddlebags.
  1065. >It only takes you a few minutes (too few), and then you’re outside Room 03.
  1066. >Minty Leaf’s room.
  1067. >You hesitate at the threshold.
  1068. >Maybe he’s gone by now?
  1069. >You peek around the door, watching Top Tower as he quietly arranges the small pile of Get-Well-Soon cards that have already accumulated on Minty Leaf’s bedside table, placing his to one side. He sinks to his haunches, and you hear him murmur something, but despite straining your ears you can’t quite make it out.
  1070. >His tone is apologetic, and his shoulders slump.
  1071. >From her place on the hospital bed, Minty doesn’t reply. She’s still asleep, and will be for a while yet. Her green coat is more bandage than hide, and there are numerous places where the white cloth is stained a muddy red. What little remained of her orange mane after her last opt-in military cut is gone.
  1072. >A tube winds its way out of her nose, and a monitor keeps time with her heartbeat. Bright pink scars criss-cross her flesh where there isn’t bandage or fur, the recent magically sealed wounds still fresh.
  1073. >Something small and fast catches the light as it drops from Top’s muzzle to the floor.
  1074. >You should just go. Pretend that you didn’t hear the slight quavering in his voice.
  1075. >Minty Leaf will be okay if you delay for a few minutes, long enough for Top Tower to say his piece and canter back to…
  1076. >…to his room.
  1077. >…back to her.
  1078. [spoiler]>’Oh! Good morning, Doc! I didn’t know you were a runner.’[/spoiler]
  1079. >There’s never enough time.
  1080. >Slowly, you step into Minty Leaf’s room on light hooves, but Tower’s ears twitch and swivel at your approach.  He rises, but doesn’t turn to face you.
  1081. >You pretend not to see the way he wipes hastily at his muzzle.
  1082. >You open your mouth to speak, but he beats you to it. His voice is level, perfectly so, like a master craftspony had come along and run her plane across it a thousand times until not one place of elevation or depression remained.
  1083. >Hollow.
  1084. >Cold.
  1085. >”This… this could have been her.”
  1086. “I’m sorry.”
  1087. >”I know. You said that already.”
  1088. “I meant it. I still do.”
  1089. >He hums noncommittally.
  1090. >Something sparks in your chest.
  1091. “You think I didn’t try to convince her to stay? She’s a better nurse than most surgeons. She’s better used here.”
  1092. >”…But.”
  1093. >Water drowns the spark in icy cold.
  1094. “But somepony has to be out there.”
  1095. >”You said that already! You’ve said it twice now!”
  1096. >You try not to wince. Top Tower burns hot, and you’ve already been scalded once this week.
  1097. >He continues, but his words come slower, and the level plane begins to wobble.
  1098. >”And. I get it, alright? She shouldn’t… she shouldn’t be out there. I don’t want her out there.”
  1099. >In the corner, Minty Leaf’s monitor is beeping steadily in time with her cardiac rhythm. For a moment, the soft beeping and Toppy’s labored breathing are the only sounds in the room.
  1100. >The heart monitor reminds you of your alarm clock. You always awake before it goes off in the morning and lie in bed, watching the seconds tick by.
  1101. >Beep… beep… beep…
  1102. >Top Tower takes a shaky breath, chest shuddering.
  1103. “I don’t either, Tower. But she told me when she left that somepony had to. She’s right about that.”
  1104. >”Why her?! I… None of them should be out there, Doc! I shouldn’t… She shouldn’t… when Apone told me she was coming in with wounded aboard, do you know what my first thought was?”
  1105. >You step closer.
  1106. >In his voice, there are mountains and valleys. A placid lake turned into a raging sea.
  1107. >”I thought… I thought that maybe it was happening again. And that this time instead of... I thought… I thought…”
  1108. >His voice cracks, and the dam breaks.
  1109. >You pull him into a hug.
  1110. ”Shhh.”
  1111. >You run a hoof through the younger stallion’s soft mane, and his wings extend and join his forelegs, embracing you both in a warm blanket of feathers.
  1112. >Letting the room fall to silence is easy, the beeping monitor keeping time with Top Tower’s tears.
  1113. >You can feel a damp spot forming on the fur of your shoulder.
  1114. >You have to be careful.
  1115. “Somepony has to, but it shouldn’t be her. Not out there. She’s a better nurse than she is a soldier.”
  1116. >Toppy freezes, and you can feel the muscles in his neck tighten, the way his chest spasms as he forces the wracking sobs to stop, halt, wresting control of himself back.
  1117. >He pulls away, not enough to leave your embrace but enough to look you in the eyes. He has lovely eyes, beautiful green ones now tinted at the edges with red.
  1118. >So unlike your dull brown irises.
  1119. >He doesn’t say anything for a moment, instead taking a steadying breath. He blinks, and his gaze looks into yours. One of his curls slips out of place from behind his ear, falling to frame his right eye.
  1120. >Beautiful young green to dull old brown.
  1121. >He looks away, eyes drifting to the floor.
  1122. >His mouth opens.
  1123. >Closes again.
  1124. >He breathes.  
  1125. >“I know what you’re trying to do, Windy. I’m not blind.”
  1126. >You stiffen and move to pull away, but Tower’s grip is strong. His wings cocoon you tightly. He keeps himself in good shape for Soft Rabbit, or perhaps it’s the other way around.
  1127. >Before you can reply, he speaks again.
  1128. >”With Cupcake, and… and Soft. I figured it out earlier this morning.”
  1129. >Your lips are dry.
  1130. >Faust damn you.
  1131. “What?”
  1132. >”Lightning Dust sent out a notice, and Rabbit told me. About the new round of evals?”
  1133. ”…I see.”
  1134. >He shakes his head. “No, you don’t! Softy said you wanted to ground Cupcake last mission, and-!”
  1135. >You cut him off, brow furrowing.
  1136. ”I’m in charge of their wellbeing, Toppy. Mental and physical. If they’re not in top condition I can’t risk letting them out onto the field where they could get hurt!”
  1137. >Your eyes drift to Minty Leaf, her barrel rising and falling slowly. You still need to administer her medication.
  1138. >He follows your eyes, looking over his shoulder.
  1139. [spoiler]>’Where she could get hurt.’[/spoiler]
  1140. >You have… it’s your duty.
  1141. >It’s the right thing to do.
  1142. >Years ago, you took an oath to do no harm.
  1143.  [spoiler]Her golden mane flutters in the wind and her soft pink coat glistens with a thin layer of sweat.[/spoiler]
  1144. >Isn’t that what you’d be doing, if you let them onto the battlefield in anything less than optimal condition? Could you look yourself in the mirror if you didn’t do your best to keep them safe?
  1145. >Do no harm, you’d promised.
  1146. [spoiler]Her cutie mark, a rabbit with a red cross on its breast, seems to race across her flank.[/spoiler]
  1147. >It was only recently that you learned to race death, and how.
  1148. [spoiler]>She smiles.[/spoiler]
  1149. >”Why are you doing this?”
  1150. >You focus your gaze on Top Tower, meeting his green eyes with your brown.
  1151. “Mister Tower, I’m not at liberty to discuss their treatment or medical history without-”
  1152. >He shakes his head again, vigorously, eyes clenched shut.
  1153. >”No! That’s… that’s not what I’m saying, Windy. I’m not asking, I just. She doesn’t want that. I know she doesn’t and I just...”
  1154. >He slows, muzzle drooping and his now-wild curls falling in front of his eyes, but you can still see the tears.
  1155. >You bring up a hoof and rest it on his cheek.
  1156. >He looks up at you, anguish written across his face.
  1157. >”I don’t want to lose her… But... She wants to be out there.”
  1158. >Suddenly you can’t meet his gaze.
  1159. >What would she say, if she knew?
  1160. >At least she’d be alive to say it.
  1161. “I understand. You don’t have to agree with me, but we both want the same thing.”
  1162. >You look up in time to catch the tail-end of some inscrutable expression fall away.
  1163. >Tower looks away from you, furling his wings and stepping back. You deftly retrieve a tissue from the box mounted on the wall.
  1164. >He accepts it with a passing smile.
  1165. >”Thanks. And thanks for letting her take recovery in the barracks.”
  1166. >In his room, he means. With him.
  1167. >You wish….
  1168. >But he’s offering you both an escape.
  1169. “She asked me if it was alright, I didn’t see any reason why it’d hinder her recovery. She’s restricted to bed, of course, and no strenuous activity. I sent a printed list of restrictions with her, and I’d appreciate it if you could make sure she’s following it.”
  1170. >He nods.
  1171. >Professional.
  1172. >You feel lighter than you should, with the weight passed to another time, and you have to suppress a smirk. Soft was either going to ride Toppy’s Tower ragged, or spend the next two days frustrated.
  1173. >…It was bittersweet.
  1174. >No strenuous activity, but… with him.
  1175. >Something hot bubbles in your chest, and you viciously stomp it down.
  1176. >Ladybird and Deft Caress are waiting for you at home.
  1177. [spoiler]>She laughs as you make a poor medical joke.[/spoiler]
  1178. >Top Tower scuffs his perfectly manicured hoof on the cold tile.
  1179. >”I wanted to say I’m sorry about before. I shouldn’t have said what I did, I just wasn’t in a good headspace. I know you don’t mean anything by it.”
  1180. >Yes, you do.
  1181. >But he’s a friend.
  1182. >You spread your forelegs, and he steps into the hug eagerly.
  1183. >Water under the bridge, for now.
  1184. >“Doc?”
  1185. >You recognize the voice of Nurse Tib as she taps on the doorframe. Toppy gives you one last squeeze, and then you quickly step away. He coughs and ruffles his feathers.
  1186. “It’s okay, Mister Tower. Excuse me. Yes, what is it, Tibula?”
  1187. >”Nurse Gauss was looking for you. She’s in Room 21 now.”
  1188. >The white mare has a faint blush staining her muzzle, and you have to stifle a groan. You can guess what’s passing through her mind.
  1189. “Please tell her I’ll be with her in a moment. I need to administer Minty’s antibiotics and I’ll be right there.”
  1190. >”Yes, Doctor.” She turns and hurries away.
  1191. >Turning back to Toppy, you raise an eyebrow and flick your ears towards the hallway.
  1192. >He rolls his red-rimmed eyes in reply. He caught it too.
  1193. “Will you be alright?”
  1194. >He smiles weakly. ”…I think so. For now, at least. We’re both under a lot of stress these days.”
  1195. >Nodding your head, you return a haggard smile.
  1196. >You feel drained, even beyond the caffeine propping up your eyelids and the soreness in your limbs.
  1197. ”Give Soft my regards, and remind her to stay in bed. If she insists on throwing herself into danger then the least she can do is recover properly.”
  1198. >He nods, and leaves, his hoofsteps echoing in the empty hallway.
  1199. >Standing at the door, you watch his retreating form until he turns the corner and disappears from sight.
  1200. >You sigh.
  1201. >It’s not over.
  1202. >You have to keep her safe.
  1203. >You’re not a fighter. You’ve never handled a blade larger than a scalpel.
  1204. >But you can do what you can.
  1205. >Your eyes settle on Room 04, where Lucky Star should be if she wasn’t off hiding Faust-knows-where doing Faust-knows-what.
  1206. >When your shift is over, you’ll go and seek her out.
  1207. >With any luck, you’ll be able to pin her long enough to cuff her to her bed, and then nail that to the floor until her injuries are healed.
  1208. >She needs help, too. They all do.
  1209. >Alfalfa, Buckle, Cupcake, Distaff… so on, and so forth. Every trooper, every broken soul.
  1210. >Pinwheel, Tap Dance….
  1211. >The list goes on.
  1212. >Soft Rabbit.
  1213. >You turn, pulling the syringe of antibiotics out of your saddlebags.
  1214. >There’s never enough time.
  1215. ---
  1216. >You are Lucky Star.
  1217. >Technically, you should be in bed, resting.
  1218. >Technically, you are in bed, just not resting.
  1219. [spoiler]>90% is not a satisfactory mark, Star! Again![/spoiler]
  1220. >You push magic into your horn, and your focus rifle discharges.
  1221. >...fwinnnnn-CRACK!
  1222. >Downrange, your target (a picture of a roaring manticore) shatters in a shower of icy shards. Cold mist curls around your rifle’s barrel.
  1223. >You check the target feedback.
  1224. >Too low; you’d have needed another shot for a kill.
  1225. >Tapping at the range control panel, you summon another target and aim down the scope. You prop yourself up on the hospital bed, and pound your good hoof against your pillow, ignoring the ache that burns in your injured shoulder.
  1226. >Doc always fluffs them too much….
  1227. >Mulberry would have found this hilarious.
  1228. >Of course she would. She found everything hilarious.
  1229. >Your ears prickle as somepony canters into the range room.
  1230. >You look up.
  1231. >“How many times are we gonna do this, Lucky?”
  1232. “As many times as I’m wounded, ma’am.”
  1233. >Lightning Dust is smirking at you. “You know, I don’t think this is what the Doc meant when he confined you to your bed.”
  1234. “Perhaps not, ma’am.”
  1235. >”I’m tempted to take a picture for blackmail’s sake.”
  1236. >Your tail twitches, but you keep your expression cool.
  1237. “The range is available at all times for use by XPONI personnel. It’s a public space, ma’am.”
  1238. >“Technically, yes, but at 0300 there sure as heck aren’t enough ponies to count as public. Has anypony seen you doing this?”
  1239. “One, ma’am.”
  1240. [spoiler]>Technically two, now, but secrets are taken to the grave.[/spoiler]
  1241. >”Who…? Oh. Aside from me.”
  1242. “Zero, ma’am.”
  1243. >”Stop that. The only times I want to be ma’amed are when you’re in trouble or a stallion is on my bed.”
  1244. >So you aren’t in trouble, then.
  1245. >Your muzzle is still cold, though. Definitely cold.
  1246. “Very well, ma’-. Very well.”
  1247. >She exhales and closes her eyes.
  1248. >”Why aren’t you resting, filly?”
  1249. >You run a hoof along your weapon.
  1250. “I’m working on my magical endurance. The last operation showed me I was… lacking.”
  1251. >“How many shots?”
  1252. 32 by my count, but I’m still functional. I think I have another 10 or 15 full charges in me.”
  1253. >”Going for burnout training, then?”
  1254. “Yes ma’am.”
  1255. >She doesn’t reply, instead going to one of the weapons lockers and pulling out a crossbow.
  1256. >There’s a reason the strike teams are almost exclusively unicorns.
  1257. >She steps into the range booth next to yours and summons a practice dummy shaped like a rearing Terror.
  1258. >Her crossbow twangs, and the bolt sinks deep into the target’s head zone.
  1259. >”Doc wants you all evaluated again.”
  1260. >That wasn’t new.
  1261. >Ever since Mulberry died, the stallion seemed to have it out for Strike 3. From a rational standpoint, you could understand why. Cupcake had just taken a huge hit to their morale, and strike teams needed to operate at peak efficiency in the field.
  1262. >You were all coping in different ways, though you were certain that none of them were on the Doc-approved list of coping mechanisms.
  1263. >Minty had been throwing herself into fights and sparring matches harder in the past month, and Soft Rabbit was either holed up in Top Tower’s bunk or kneeling in the Temple. Tap Dance was spending all her spare time with Apone, and Pinwheel vanished into thin air.
  1264. >Normally, that’s what you’ve come to expect of the quiet pegasus, but she usually came to spend time with you in the library, or followed you around when you were running errands.
  1265. >She hasn’t done that for the past couple of weeks, and you only see her at meals, if then.
  1266. >She might need more help than your company provides.
  1267. >You’ll have to go and check on her before you head back for the night.
  1268. >But you?
  1269. >Oddly enough, you’re doing fine.
  1270. >If anything, your performance had increased. Your range numbers are been better than they’ve ever been, shaving off a whole 0.001% on your shot-kill ratio. You’ve been throwing yourself into memorizing new spells. You’re injured for the moment, but before the mission at Tree Shades you were gradually increasing your physical numbers, as well.
  1271. >”He mentioned you specifically, this time.”
  1272. >That…
  1273. >That’s new.
  1274. >But Doc is a stallion and they’re masters at finding problems where there are none, if nothing else.
  1275. >You’re no misandrist, but he seems determined to make you one.
  1276. >You take aim.
  1277. “Did he mention any reason why?”
  1278. >She peers around the wall of your booth, looking you up and down with a critical eye.
  1279. >Her gaze lingers on your (technically stolen) hospital bed.
  1280. >”No.”
  1281. >Another shot blows apart your target: a Gun Mutt wielding a menacing weapon, this time.
  1282. >Lightning Dust steps back from the range and stores her crossbow. The locker clanging shut echoes in the empty room.
  1283. >”When you’re done, I want you to roll yourself back to medical. Your nurse was looking for you, and technically removing equipment from medical without Doc’s approval is stealing.”
  1284. >You nod.
  1285. >”He’ll stuff you in the brig if it means you’ll stay put.”
  1286. >You nod again.
  1287. >”Heck, I’LL stuff you in the brig if it means you’ll stay put.”
  1288. >You bristle and purse your lips.
  1289. “I know my limits, ma’am.”
  1290. >They mean well, but so did many other ponies in your life, and right now you have to ensure that you’ll be ready when the next op comes.
  1291. >You owe her that much.
  1292. >”Alright, but- Wait. How are you going to get back if you’re burned out?”
  1293. >You point at the broom you’ve been using as a makeshift paddle.
  1294. >Lightning Dust blinks, shakes her head, and trots away, clearly trying to suppress a laugh.
  1295. >”Goodnight, Lucky.”
  1296. “Goodnight, ma’am.”
  1297. >She barely makes it to the door, and you can hear her chuckling in the hallway.
  1298. >You smile ruefully. At least she didn’t take a picture.
  1299. >Calling another target, you raise the scope to your eye and take aim.
  1300. >Fire.
  1301. >Exhaustion rushes through you, and you grit your teeth.
  1302. >The target explodes into icy shrapnel.
  1303. >You summon another.
  1304. >A stunted, almond-eyed Goblin brandishes a small plasma thrower.
  1305. [spoiler]>A friend throws herself to the ground. Too slow.[/spoiler]
  1306. >Ice bursts from the bullseye on its head.
  1307. [spoiler]>You try not to think about her.[/spoiler]
  1308. >You summon another.
  1309. >A Terror, blood dripping from vicious claws and legs reaching for your throat.
  1310. >You blink, and the target flickers in your vision.
  1311. >Night Crawler.
  1312. >You open fire, and it disappears in a storm of magical beams and ice.
  1313. >Your magic sputters, and dies.
  1314. >You’re panting.
  1315. >Fragments of ice patter to the floor, and your breath is misting in the chilled room.
  1316. >48.
  1317. >Your last best was 47.
  1318. >The next target is another short, pale biped with glowing purple eyes.
  1319. [spoiler]>Her.[/spoiler]
  1320. >You stagger off the bed to stow your rifle in your locker.
  1321. >You’re not supposed to walk, but what Doc doesn’t know he won’t complain about.
  1322. >You’re fine.
  1323. [spoiler]>95%[/spoiler]
  1324. >You’ll be fine.
  1325. >You want a slushy.
  1326. >You crawl back into your bed, and start clumsily paddling your way to the mess hall.
  1327. >You need to see Pinny.
  1328. ---
  1329. >Be Soft Rabbit.
  1330. >You’re waiting for Toppy to get back to his room after his shift in the hangar.
  1331. >He said he wanted to drop off a card for Minty, but you’re not allowed to leave his room for another 48 hours except for meals and bathroom breaks.
  1332. >Doc’s orders.
  1333. >You’re lying in Toppy’s bed, breathing in his scent, and feeling the restlessness in your muscles that comes from not having gotten up all day. You grumble and roll over, spilling your long golden mane across his pillow.
  1334. >Doc’s condition for letting you take your bedrest in the barracks: No leaving bed for longer than half an hour at a time, no magic, absolutely NO strenuous activity, and ‘Mare, you had better call me if you have even the slightest dizzy spell or I swear to Celestia I’ll have you confined to bed for a month and Toppy can go on your bloody missions for you!’
  1335. >Not quite what he’d said word for word, but close enough that the thought of it makes you smile wistfully. Doc is a good friend, but like any colt he worries too much.
  1336. >You’re a competent mare. You’re well-trained, you learned medicine at Manehattan University’s teaching hospital, and you’ve been racing for years.
  1337. >Racing death for somepony else while sometimes literally racing death as plasma flies overhead is relatively new, all things considered, but you were tired of seeing reports scroll by that read “KIA” and knowing you could have done something.
  1338. >Doc doesn’t understand that, but you’re glad that somepony as talented as he is is looking out for Minty and Lucky.
  1339. >You’d also be glad he was looking out for you, but he wouldn’t let you take your three days’ of bedrest in the barracks (more specifically, Toppy’s room) without setting those stupid conditions. You know on the surface it was a punishment, but you’d seen his “Oh I’m so clever and devious” smirk when he said it.
  1340. >Gossipy bastard was probably trying to drum up some tea for the rest of the base.
  1341. >’She was in his room for three whole days and not allowed to leave bed?! Oh, that poor stallion is probably going to be sore for a week!’
  1342. >To be fair, they’re not wrong.
  1343. >Buuuuut Doc forbade you from strenuous activity.
  1344. >You are beginning to suspect that the current situation is his little piece of payback for going into the field.
  1345. >You bury your face in Toppy’s pillow again.
  1346. >Stupid Doc.
  1347. >So, here you are, waiting for your stallion to return.
  1348. >Your stallion.
  1349. >You almost giggle to yourself at the thought of your handsome pegasus.
  1350. >He’s a Cadenzan, which was a bit odd at first. No herding, no studding, always surprising you with a kiss when you got back from a mission, and different prayers said before bedtime. Apparently his parents were pretty new agey, and he’d picked that up as a colt.
  1351. >You thought it was cute, but….
  1352. >You’re kinda hoping you can change his mind about herding. The income XPONI provides is generous, but you’d like to have two foals (assuming you can bargain him up from zero to begin with), and a herd would make things much more financially viable.
  1353. >You come from a long line of devout Celestians. You had two herdmothers growing up, and your dame taught you the ins and outs of herding, especially as lead mare.
  1354. >You’re sure he’d make a fantastic sire for a bunch of cute little fillies and colts!
  1355. >But…
  1356. >You glance at the picture of on Toppy’s nightstand.
  1357. >There’s you and Toppy, and on his other side is a vibrant purple mare with a wild black mane. You remember the first time you met, back when you were just a nurse at Los Pegasus General, and you’d asked her about her blackberry cutie mark….
  1358. >You know, the usual conversation starter between two mares who were getting shot at by evil space aliens.
  1359. >In your defense, you may have been in shock at the time.
  1360. >’IT’S A MULBERRY!’ she’d shouted, and jumped out from behind the fallen medical cart you were using as cover, and blasted one of the short, pale aliens with her horn.
  1361. >She’d turned to you and smiled that glorious smile. ‘Sorry. I get that a lot. I’m Mulberry, what’s your name?’
  1362. >You’d joined XPONI a little under a year later.
  1363. >It’s hard to believe she’s gone.
  1364. >A cold, cynical, disgusting and calculating part of you also notes that it’s made your love life much simpler.
  1365. >Herding…
  1366. >It’s… not as pressing an issue anymore, but it’s still something you should talk to him about. And it’s not like foals are going to be a possibility anytime soon.
  1367. >Not with the war on.
  1368. >A pregnant mare can’t outrun death for others, much less herself.
  1369. >Hearing the clack of a hoof fumbling with the door controls, you perk up almost immediately.
  1370. “Toppy?”
  1371. >”Hey, Softy! I dropped off that card for Minty and you would not believe what Black Sight did to the medical rooms!”
  1372. >You pull him into a close nuzzle and stay there for a moment, taking in his presence and scent and just enjoying how he’s going on about the nasturtiums that clash horribly with the medical wing’s décor and how Doc was looking awfully tired and worn out today… all these little things that colts concern themselves with.
  1373. “Hey, Toppy? It sounds like we’ve both had a bit of a restless, stressful day, hmm?”
  1374. >Your stallion raises an eyebrow and his lips quirk in that stupid cute way that turns you on.
  1375. >You smile and shove him back onto the bed.
  1376. “Hey, hon… what say you and me make like rabbits for a little while?”
  1377. >He laughs at the awful, silly, cheesy line, but you cut him off with a kiss before he can reply.
  1378. >The evening passes quickly, and while TECHNICALLY you don’t engage in any particularly strenuous activity, you’re pretty sure that Doc wouldn’t enjoy hearing about it.
  1379. ---
  1380. >Be Pinwheel.
  1381. >You’re lying in bed, curled up with your rabbit plush. It’s not as white as it once was, but it’s still soft. One of its eyes is missing and its ears are worn ragged from all the times you’ve nuzzled them. They’re also damp at moment.
  1382. >Lucky Star knows about your love-worn toy, but that was because she’s the only pony you’ve let enter your room before.
  1383. >She sat in your chair, reading a book and not saying anything until she decided it was time to leave.
  1384. >She understands you best.
  1385. >You are not a marely mare.
  1386. >Lucky’s easiest to spend time with since she’s your best friend, but the rest of Cupcake squad are all okay too, which is a vast improvement over how things used to be. Soft Rabbit likes to invite you on her morning runs and physical training, and the whole time the both of you are too focused on the exercise to talk much. She’s really nice though. Tap Dance is kind, but firm, and she’s really good at reading you and making use of your skills.
  1387. >You’re an efficient, useful engine.
  1388. >Minty is loud and brash and huge and everything you’re not, but sometimes she practically breaks down your door asking if you want to go out and grab a drink with ‘the mares.’ Her other friends are also really loud, and big, and strong, and they can drink a lot, but on the few times you’ve said yes they’ve always made sure you got home safe and checked in on you in the morning, including that one time a stallion went home with you and though you didn’t have the best time of things you couldn’t help but give them a little smile because they were so excited and high-energy and enthused and happy for you.
  1389. >You didn’t even stutter when you said ‘Thank you.’
  1390. >Minty lets you ride on her back sometimes when it’s just the two of you.
  1391. >You think she knows, but you never have the courage to ask.
  1392. >Dropping bombs is easy.
  1393. >Flying is easy.
  1394. >Ponies are hard.
  1395. >You probably don’t have time to waste, anymore.
  1396. >Mulberry is gone, and Minty almost….
  1397. >Doc said it wasn’t as bad as it looked, but in his words you only saw Rabbit cracking gem after gem, and the blood welling around your hooves and trying to drown you.
  1398. >Tapper said it wasn’t your fault, and you believe her, but you don’t feel it.
  1399. >Lucky gave you a small smile and a nod, but she didn’t say anything.
  1400. >Soft said you did everything you needed to do and it was only thanks to your help that Minty made it back in one piece.
  1401. >She didn’t realize her words would be following you all day and night and nipping at your heart.
  1402. >Minty’s life had rested in your hooves.
  1403. >YOUR hooves.
  1404. [spoiler]>’It’s okay to be afraid, Pinwheel. Ordinance is a big responsibility. One buckup and you’re gone, and your squad’s gone, and your sire gets a letter in the mail delivered by kind ponies wearing white gloves letting him know that you’re gone, too.’[/spoiler]
  1405. [spoiler]>’Don’t be that buckup, and we’ll get along just fine.’[/spoiler]
  1406. [spoiler]>’Now MOVE IT, rookie!’[/spoiler]
  1407. >Minty will probably call you a lil dummy and give you a big hug and laugh about it when she’s better.
  1408. >You nuzzle Snowball.
  1409. >Tomorrow, you’re going to get up out of bed and go visit Minty in the hospital wing. She should be out of surgery by then, and Doc probably won’t object to letting you spend some time with her, even if she’s asleep.
  1410. >’Pinny, dear, I can’t let you stay in the room while I’m operating. Please, go back to your room and get some rest. She’ll be here in morning when you wake up, okay?’
  1411. [spoiler]>That was a lie, the last time.[/spoiler]
  1412. >You’re pretty certain that Doc knows, because he’s a stallion and they’re all bucking mind-readers, anyhow, but he’s been kind enough not to gossip about it.
  1413. >He probably doesn’t want to hurt your feelings.
  1414. >It would kinda hurt your feelings.
  1415. >Somepony knocks at your door, and you sit up, quickly stowing Snowball under your pillow and wiping your face to get the dust out of your eyes.
  1416. >It’s early, or really late, and you haven’t washed except for your hooves and they’re still sore and raw. You wrap your blanket around your shoulders.
  1417. >When you open the door, Lucky Star is there with a couple of spoons and bowls from the cafeteria, a jug of water, and a bottle of mulberry juice.
  1418. >She’s lying in a hospital bed and there’s a broom held in her un-bandaged foreleg.
  1419. >She gives you a familiar, wobbly smile.
  1420. >You recognize it because it’s the kind of smile you wear all the time.
  1421. >Her eyes are red.
  1422. >Her eyes are red, too.
  1423. >”Want a slushy?”
  1424. >You fall into her hooves sobbing.
  1425. >She understands you the best.
  1426. ---
  1427. >Be Memory-Oriented Transient Helper: Emergent Rate
  1428. >M.O.T.H.E.R.
  1429. >03: “Ah, Commander. I’m glad you could join us. I trust you’ve read the preliminary reports?”
  1430. >01: “I have, but I’d appreciate it from the source.”
  1431. >03: “Very well. We’ll be interrogating the newest specimen later this evening, and Doctor Scalpel has the dissection lab prepped for tonight.”
  1432. >01: “So what can you tell me so far?”
  1433. >03: “I can’t tell you much about the Ethereal, unfortunately, but I expect that will change after tonight.
  1434. >01: “Why not? You’ve had plenty of time to observe it.”
  1435. >03: “Well, the creature has been oddly resistant to our scanning spells, and Scalpel has hypothesized that it’s potentially a consequence of its unique powers. It registers as a complete blank in terms of magic.”
  1436. >01: “I see.”
  1437. >03: “However, Our other dissections have been… illuminating.”
  1438. >01: “How so?”
  1439. >03: “Well, put simply, the Terror isn’t the same creature we’ve encountered in Los Pegasus and elsewhere.”
  1440. >01: “I thought we established this during Operation Married March?”
  1441. >03: “For the most part, we all made the assumption that the Terror had simply been upgraded in a manner similar to the diamond dogs. Instead, this creature is an entirely new beast. Look, here and here. The limbs and blades feature the characteristic holes of changelings, rather than the slim, metallic blades of the Los Pegasus Terrors. And here, if you compare the two’s mandibles side by side you can see these new creatures don’t have the secondary mouth necessary for… implantation.”
  1442. >01: “They’re not meant to reproduce.”
  1443. >03: “From the dissections, they’re all entirely sterile. There’s a withered organ that matches the egg pouch of previously dissected Terrors, but it’s completely empty. When combined with the chameleonic plates and larger brain, seen here, it paints a grim picture.”
  1444. >Display relevant data.
  1445. >01: “They’re meant to operate independently.”
  1446. >03: “As best we can tell, yes.”
  1447. >01: “Alright, what about the… spiderlings? Who named those?”
  1448. >03: “Tap Dance, incidentally. Almost pure changeling genetic tracers, but there’s been some clear tampering. In addition, each of them was implanted with this… chip.”
  1449. >Display images.
  1450. >01: “Purpose?”
  1451. >03: “Unknown. You see the scorch marks here and here? It self-destructed, likely because they’re alert to our specimen collecting. Current theories are that it’s some kind of… control chip.”
  1452. >01: “Which would point to a potential partnership with Chrysalis’s hive being forced instead of voluntary. I’ll have to talk to Intelligence and see what we can do. But that doesn’t explain why they would attack the Ethereal. Why was it even present if the new Terrors are autonomous and the spiderlings have control chips?”
  1453. >03: “We have a couple of theories, but none of them are very cheerful.”
  1454. >01: “Go on.”
  1455. >03: “I was originally uncertain why the… Neo Terrors and Spiderlings would attack one of their own leaders, but our current theories hinge on their rebellion being some sort of fault in their development cycle. I’m not so certain, however.”
  1456. >01: “Why do you say that?”
  1457. >03: “Well, if you had a dangerous weapon prototype, and it would turn against you and do you harm, would you allow that prototype to go into production? Of course not! It could be that this specific command alien has poor psionic capabilities, but we’ll know once the interrogation starts.”
  1458. >01: It looks like the others are arriving, we’ll finish this later.
  1459. >Redirecting….
  1460. >End.
  1461. ---
  1462. >Being Anon.
  1463. >Be suffering under the early stages of terminal boredom.
  1464. >You’re currently going over your bandaid collection for the second time.
  1465. >How did you come by a bandaid collection?
  1466. >Well, that’s a bit of a funny story, you see…
  1467. >You awoke lying in an empty room, and it was stupidly bright. Buzzing lights glared down at you from above, and you groaned loudly in complaint, but no one was kind enough to turn them off. The white walls caught the light and turned everything into a blinding chamber of “Fuck you, and fuck your headache, too.”
  1468. >Also, you were buck naked.
  1469. >Ordinarily, waking up naked meant good times were had by all, or at least one person (you, hopefully) had a good time, or the cops had been called because apparently people aren’t allowed to have a good time once in a while.
  1470. >In this case, waking up naked and alone was pretty disappointing, because you distinctly remembered being buried under a delightfully warm and fuzzy pile of Chinese ponies, which was the best way to end what was undoubtedly the most horrifying night of your adult life.
  1471. [spoiler]>Seriously, it was even worse than that one time with your ex.[/spoiler]
  1472. [spoiler]>No, you’re not thinking about it.[/spoiler]
  1473. >Not that ponies were for sexual, though you’re pretty sure that Chink and Greenie were DTF.
  1474. >God that was a weird thought.
  1475. >You’d be lying if you said Greenie didn’t have a 10/10 booty though.
  1476. [spoiler]>Whoa there, down boy.[/spoiler]
  1477. >Maybe it was like that anime conspiracy? Like, the Chinese were trying to get all the western countries hooked on anime and manga shit, so guys would be too busy lusting after their waifus to go out with real chicks, causing the birthrate to collapse and make way for a global empire based on big-tiddied anime girls.
  1478. >Only this time they were bioengineering little pony thots.
  1479. >Or something.
  1480. >You want to say you heard it on the show about the guy with the gay frogs, but you were pretty drunk at the time.
  1481. >In any case....
  1482. >Even worse than the headache and the lack of Greenie, Chink, and adorable ponies?
  1483. >Fucking nothing.
  1484. >It’s been god-only-knows how many hours and NOTHING has happened. You’ve already fallen asleep and woken back up once, and NOTHING has happened.
  1485. >You even had to take a piss in the small, grated hole in one corner of the room. You’re pretty certain that’s unsanitary, but you’re doubly certain it’s undignified and against your rights or something along those lines.
  1486. >The one small blessing out of all of this is that someone had taken the time to clean up the worst of your wounds before dumping you in here to die of boredom.
  1487. >Even better, while you were going over your rather impressive collection of soon-to-be-scars-you-got-while-fighting-blade-monsters-and-spider-ponies-and-not-running-away-like-a-bitch you found a motherfucking smiley-face bandaid.
  1488. >You also had one with flowers on it, and another with some bitchin’ stars, but the smiley-face one was the best and you’d fight anyone who said otherwise.
  1489. >Hell, you’d fight anything at this point if it meant something would happen.
  1490. >Maybe you’re going stir-crazy. Cabin fever is a thing, right?
  1491. >To be honest, you’re pretty focused on being bored.
  1492. >There’s a good reason for that.
  1493. >You’re worried about Chink and Greenie.
  1494. >You’re trying not to think about what happened to Bluegaloo.
  1495. >You’re afraid that this isn’t some weird, drug-fueled nightmare and that you almost died last night, or the night before, and that there aren’t any Chinese secret agents fucking with you.
  1496. >You’re also pretty sure you’re suffering from dehydration and maybe the early stages of an infection, because you feel kinda too hot and you’re thoughts are a little fuzzy.
  1497. >You are Anon, and you’d be having a really shitty day if you weren’t so busy being bored.
  1498. >You are going over your bandaid collection for the second time when one of the walls starts to move.
  1499. >At first, you think you’re hallucinating.
  1500. >Well, hallucinating more.
  1501. >Something ACTUALLY happening?
  1502. >No way!
  1503. >But, lo and behold, the wall is moving.
  1504. >Gradually, over the space of a few seconds, the wall retracts entirely, revealing a strange window of some kind. You stagger to your feet, using a wall for support, and stumble over to it.
  1505. >It’s glowing and blue, like some kind of force field, and you can hear a humming as you lean towards it to get a better look outside. Beyond, you can see a group of ponies, all staring at you. One of them has wings, and a couple of them have little horns poking out of their manes, and by god that orange one is wearing the cutest little labcoat!
  1506. >You immediately grin and wave.
  1507. >One of the little ponies frowns and scribbles something down on a clipboard, pencil floating in midair in a strange purple glow.
  1508. >So the ponies can do telekinesis like the spoder-ponies?
  1509. >That’s… weird. Why hadn’t Chink or Greenie done anything like that? Could they?
  1510. >Another one, a brown mare with a light blue mane, waves back hesitantly, then says something to the one with the labcoat. You can’t hear it over the humming force field, but the one in the labcoat replies sharply and points at you, then at something on a screen you can’t see.
  1511. >The other pony winces and her ears droop.
  1512. >Okay, so Labcunt is a jerk that makes other ponies sad.
  1513. >Good to know.
  1514. >Continuing your exploration of the sudden Things Happening, you move to touch the force field. The surface buzzes angrily as you bring your fingertip closer, small sparks and ripples erupting from the blue field. Okay, maybe you shouldn’t touch that. That thing looks more dangerous than a high-voltage power line.
  1515. >Fortunately, most of the ponies seem to be distracted by something on their little monitors. One of them is staring at you with bright, piercing blue eyes. She has a black coat, and a black mane, though you can’t make out her butt tattoo from here.
  1516. >Behind you, you hear an electric whine, and a pair of doors open in the ceiling.
  1517. >Hey! More Things Happening!
  1518. >A pair of wide pads on robotic arms drop from the ceiling.
  1519. >Huh?
  1520. >The pads start glowing and sizzling an angry red, and reach for you in a decidedly bad-touch manner.
  1521. >Okay, can we go back to less Things Happening, please?
  1522. >You look between the force field and the slowly approaching arms.
  1523. >A shock, or death by evil robot?
  1524. >Shock, or evil robot shock?
  1525. >The arms make your decision for you.
  1526. >The instant you feel the cool metal of one of the pads touch your shoulder, you jump, and stumble forward into the crackling blue field.
  1527. >Rather than the expected shock, nothing happens, and you fall clumsily into the room beyond the force field, crashing facefirst into a small desk and sending papers flying.
  1528. “Ow…”
  1529. >Groaning, you stumble to your feet and hit another desk, sending more papers and expensive-looking miniature electronics crashing to the floor.
  1530. >The ponies are yelling and screaming in their lyrical music language, and the bulk of them start a panicked rush for the large door at the end of the room. Poor little things looked absolutely terrified, for some reason.
  1531. >You stop.
  1532. >You look down.
  1533. >You are kinda tall, and you are VERY naked.
  1534. >The blaring alarm and the doors closing cinches it.
  1535. >One of the ponies is shouting at you from a corner and banging her hoovsies against a panel covered in flashing lights and buttons. She’s the one with the sharp, piercing gaze from before.
  1536. >You idly wish Greenie or Chink were here.
  1537. >You shiver in the cold lab, your skin erupting in goosebumps.
  1538. >You could really use a warm pony cuddle pile, and you’re feeling kind of bad because now all these ponies think that you’re some kind of
  1539. [/spoiler]>rape[spoiler]
  1540. >Chink and Greenie aren’t here, though.
  1541. >But you still want a hug and a warm cuddle.
  1542. >Well… in for a penny, in for a pound.
  1543. >Turning, you approach your newly designated emotional support pony.
  1544. ---
  1545. >Be 01.
  1546. >You are 01, Commander of the secretive forces of XPONI and in charge of leading the effort to end to the alien threat menacing your planet.
  1547. >You are currently trapped in the arms of what you now suspect is NOT the Ethereal you were previously led to believe.
  1548. >When it first broke through the containment field, you’d ordered all of the others out of the room and smashed the panic button, shouting in the hopes of distracting it.
  1549. >According to protocol, you were supposed to be the first to leave the room in the event of a breach.
  1550. >On paper, you are the most important pony on the planet besides the Princesses themselves.
  1551. >In practice, you couldn’t bear for the others to die in your place, and you’d rather go down fighting than watch as Mem or Neighlen were torn apart by the strange alien magic known as psionics.
  1552. >They’d barely managed to escape the room when the lockdown activated and the heavy blast doors sealed in place, trapping you in with would could well be the most dangerous thing on the continent.
  1553. >You hadn’t heard it approaching you from behind, busy as you were fiddling with the emergency controls, trying to activate the room’s defense systems.
  1554. >You felt its powerful limbs wrap around your barrel. Your hooves dangled uselessly as you flailed in its grasp.
  1555. >You were about to die.
  1556. >You’ve seen the clips of what psionics can do to a pony. Two of the survivors of the last attack are hopelessly enslaved to its will, and they’re what most would consider fortunate.
  1557. >If you were lucky, you’d suffer a brain hemorrhage as it tried to mind control you, or it would fry you and you wouldn’t feel a thing as your brains boiled out your ears.
  1558. >Forcing your eyes to stay open, you resolved to face this monster until the very end.
  1559. >It looked at you, its lips parting and revealing small, pointed teeth.
  1560. >You expected it to lunge forward, tearing open your throat or injecting you with some terrible alien venom.
  1561. >You did NOT expect it to crush you against its chest and start making babbling noises at you, burying its face in your mane.
  1562. >You especially did not expect it to start scratching behind your ears in a way that turns your legs to jelly.
  1563. >And you triply did not expect to enjoy it so much.
  1564. >…
  1565. >When the blast doors open and Neighlen, Lightning Dust, and Mem peek in past a phalanx of heavily armed and armored troops, you level them your harshest glare.
  1566. “Gentlemares, I have subdued the alien.
  1567. >The tall biped coos at you.
  1568. >One of the troopers sniggers, and you resolve to have her on latrine duty for a month.
  1569. “Not one word.”
  1570. >The creature hits that one reaaaaaaaally good spot just behind your left ear, and you shudder.
  1571. “Not. One. Word.”
XCOM RGRE OCs Anon

SpideRarity/Anon (Snippet)

by ScribblesAnon

XPONI (RGRE, MLP/XCOM)

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Cute Milf Green - Days 1 & 2 (RGRE, Mayor Mare)

by ScribblesAnon