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Sgt. Anon (COMPLETE)

By Lurkernon
Created: 19th December 2020 11:26:38 PM

  1. Originally published in August 2014.
  2.  
  3. Introduction:
  4. - SgtAnon grew out of a thread on what a Human vs. Pony war would be like. I tried to write a reasonably realistic portrayal of a soldier's experience would be, getting a bit further than "lol X would curbstomp Y because reasons".
  5. - This story started as a oneshot. I decided to continue it to a pair of linked oneshots... and then expanded it again and again until it got to be a full story. As it changed from oneshot to story, the style of writing changed as well. I may go back and rewrite the opening segments to fit better in time.
  6. - I have never personally served in the military. The actions and behavior of the soldiers in this story is based purely on my talks with actual veterans, nonfiction accounts of battle, a little net research, and 'realistic' military fiction such as Generation Kill and Band of Brothers. Despite this, I do apologize for any mistakes I make regarding military operations or behavior. While some things are being stretched for story reasons, I am trying to actively avoid anything in the category of "shit the military just would not do."
  7.  
  8. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  9.  
  10. > Be Sergeant Anon
  11. > Soldier of the Allied Planetary Expeditionary Force
  12. > Currently staring at the saddest sight you've ever seen.
  13. > No less than seventy of these little horses just walked into your platoon's kill zone.
  14. > At least 26 of them the horned fuckers.
  15. > And they just sat down.
  16. > Sat down in full view of two machine gun nests, four SAWs, and 30-some assault rifles.
  17. > You're fairly sure one of them is sitting ON a claymore that 3rd squad planted last night.
  18. > They know you're here. You've brought down two of the bat-winged kind scouting your lines at night over the past 3 days.
  19. > "SERGEANT ANON!"
  20. > That's the LT.
  21. > "Get your squad up there and see what they're up to."
  22. > Why always us?
  23. > You and your squad climb out of your sandbagged position and start up towards them.
  24. > 300 meters
  25. > You fan out into a staggered line.
  26. > 200 meters
  27. > At 150 meters, they notice you at last.
  28. > One of them in fancy gold armor stands up in front. A royal guard, officer material.
  29. > The rest still do nothing.
  30. > 75 meters
  31. > 50 meters
  32. > Your men are getting antsy.
  33. > Nobody wants to be captured by something that can do magic.
  34. > You comfort yourself with the fact that there are at least 2 M2s aimed at them if they try anything.
  35. > 5 meters. You stop.
  36. > Gold-armor horse is staring at you.
  37. > At this range you can see that they're a mess.
  38. > Ribs protruding everywhere, not many with complete sets of armor, lots of bandages, and the eyes.
  39. > The empty eyes.
  40. > Those huge eyes are even more expressive when they're not seeing anything.
  41. > At least, not anything real.
  42.  
  43. > Your rifle settles pointed at the gold-armored one.
  44. > He doesn't flinch.
  45. "What do you want?"
  46. > "Surrender."
  47. > They dragged you out of your line to demand that again?
  48. > "Ours."
  49. > Wat.
  50. "Why? Where the hell are the rest of you; we know there's at least three battalions holding this area."
  51. > "Not anymore. We tried pushing your lines near Trottingham last night. Your armored vehicles were there. Our lines are gone."
  52. > "We've had no word from anyone else for hours. Last group that tried to retreat got run down by your hell-coptor things."
  53. > His mistake would be funnier if they weren't all so sad looking.
  54. > Still...
  55. > You heard artillery and tank fire yesterday evening, but this?
  56. > Briefing said around 5,000 enemy regulars plus militia.
  57. > There's not more than 90 here.
  58. > You look at him again.
  59. "You took this long to figure out that surrender was a good idea? I haven't seen my home in six fucking months, I'm stuck in an alien hellhole listening to my buddies get fried by lightning or burned by your fucking horns, and NOW YOU FIGURE THIS OUT? WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU WANT?"
  60. > You expect him to get angry.
  61. > You want him to get angry.
  62. > Instead he falls on his stomach sobbing.
  63. > "I just want to go home too!"
  64. > "I'm not even a royal guard, the last one died and I'd done some patrol duty years ago so they threw!"
  65. > "I just want to go home."
  66. > "I want my job in the weather factory back."
  67. > "I want my wife."
  68. > "I want to see my kids go to school every day."
  69. > You look at his backside.
  70. > Mark is a bird carrying a raindrop. Whatever that means.
  71. > Not a blade.
  72. > Not a shield.
  73. > Not a burning human.
  74. > You look at the other ponies. They're all either staring at you with some level of sad desperation or to shocked out to see you at all.
  75. "I just want to go home too."
  76.  > Fuck this war.
  77.  
  78.  
  79. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  80.  
  81. > Get on the radio with your LT.
  82. > He doesn't believe you at first.
  83. > Makes you go through all the code phrases for confirming you aren't being brainwashed or some shit.
  84. > Long silence.
  85. > "Bring 'em back, Sergeant."
  86. > You turn to the ex-royal guard again.
  87. "Right, get your people moving. You're coming in."
  88. > He doesn't bother correcting you to ponies.
  89. > Just pushes himself up and starts getting his miserable little herd moving towards your position.
  90. > Your squad follos them back across the muddy field, watching for any that try to bolt.
  91. > At one point a couple of jets go roaring overhead.
  92. > The ponies all freeze or look ready to split out of here like the Flash on crack.
  93. > Jesus, what have these things been through?
  94. > You find the guy in Royal Guard armor again.
  95. "You the ranking officer? For this..." Look at the mismatched group of shell-shocked horses again. "...company?"
  96. > "I'm the only officer. And this is the remnants of four companies."
  97. "You got a name?"
  98. > "Swift Mist."
  99. > Typical pony names.
  100. "Right. I'm Sergeant Anon. Here's how it's going to work: You keep your group in line until we find somewhere to put you, you'll be alright."
  101. > You're falling back into by-the-book stuff from Basic now.
  102. "Under our conventions of war, you are protected from any further harm so long as you do not attempt escape. You will be given food, shelter, and medical treatment. You will not be mistreated or tortured."
  103. "We will have to hobble wings and cap horns, though. Make sure they know this, we don't want any trouble."
  104. > He nods.
  105. > "Yeah. Um, listen... Sergeant Anon. Back, uh, back where our lines were... there's more. Some we couldn't move. Can you... can you send some of your vehicle things to go get them?"
  106. "I promised I'd try and come back for them."
  107. > You can't help but feel a bit of respect for this guy.
  108. > Officer looking after his guys. Ponies. Whatever.
  109. "Gonna have to talk to the LT about that. I'll take you to him soon as we get you all rounded up."
  110.  
  111. > Turns out the LT is waiting at your lines.
  112. > He takes Swift Mist aside and puts your squad back on the sandbags.
  113. > Over the next couple hours a few more surrendering ponies trickle out of the treeline as well.
  114. > They're sent in after the first bunch.
  115. > You pass the time bullshitting with your squad and listening to artillery fire in the distance.
  116. > Some of it's fairly close.
  117. > Was Swift Wind lying about no others still fighting?
  118. > "SERGEANT ANON!"
  119. > And that's the LT again.
  120. > You go find out what he wants.
  121. > You find him standing with Swift Mist standing at his side.
  122. > Mist's wings are hobbled with a ziptie now, but he actually looks a little better.
  123. > "Go grab second and third squad. Find the rest of them at their position and get 'em back here. You'll get 4th and 7th's HMMWVs and three 5-tonners to move them."
  124. > This turns out to mean six humvees and three 5-ton trucks.
  125. > Should be enough.
  126. > You end up taking Swift Mist and a couple other ponies he says were the equivalent of noncoms to help getting the others to surrender.
  127.  
  128. > You're riding with Mist in one of the humvees.
  129. > Been driving for ten minutes.
  130. > He points up over the next ridge.
  131. "They're back behind there."
  132. > "Better not be a trap, asshole."
  133. > That's the corporal in the seat next to you.
  134. > You're about to tell him to shove it, but Mist gets there first.
  135. > "If it's a trap, I'm in one of your vehicles. I'm dead too."
  136. > Your military-standard-issue sergeant deathglare keeps the Corporal from starting anything again.
  137. > Crest the hill.
  138. > ...
  139. > There is no position here.
  140. > Just a ton of craters, maybe 155s?
  141. > That arty you were hearing earlier.
  142. > FUCK.
  143. > You look over.
  144. > Swift Mist looks like he's just been shot in the chest.
  145. > You get on the radio.
  146. "Okay, 1st and 2nd squad, let's go look for survivors. Get the 5-tons down here."
  147. "3rd squad, hang back a bit and cover us."
  148. > The closer you get the worse it looks.
  149. > They must have had an aircraft spotter or something, walked the shellfire right up the ponies' line.
  150. > You get out anyway, spread out and search.
  151. > Some bodies aren't even recognizable. Others are practically untouched, looking like they bled out of some tiny shrapnel wound.
  152. > You realize Swift Mist isn't following you.
  153. > Look back.
  154. > He's fallen to the ground to your HMMWV.
  155. > Looks dead inside again.
  156. > Probably is.
  157.  
  158. > A sharp, hacking cough from somewhere ahead grabs your attention.
  159. > "SARGE! Got a survivor!"
  160. > You follow your soldier over.
  161. > Tiny little pink-and-blue thing, couldn't have stood more than three, four feet high.
  162. > Won't be standing soon, though. One leg is gone, another looks shattered.
  163. > They've been bandaged, though.
  164. > She's alive.
  165. "MEDIC!"
  166.  
  167. > You ultimately find four more.
  168. > There were nineteen left behind.
  169. > The five little bodies don't even fill one of your 5-ton trucks.
  170.  
  171. > You climb back into your HMMWV and start back towards your position.
  172. > Swift Mist is next to you again.
  173. > Still looks dead inside.
  174. > You put a gloved hand on his shoulder.
  175. > He flinches.
  176. "Shit, Mist. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
  177. > He doesn't respond.
  178.  
  179. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  180.  
  181. > You end up stuffing the ponies in a barbed wire enclosure for the night.
  182. > Put their worst wounded in some spare tents.
  183. > Not really good shelter, but it's not like you guys are sleeping in luxury.
  184. > In fact, you spend most of the night curled up against a sandbag.
  185. > Sometime around noon tomorrow your relief arrives. A couple more platoons of Army guys, different unit than yours though.
  186. > Judging from the chats you have with them, they aren't going to be sticking around with you for much longer anyhow.
  187. > Your new orders come soon enough as well.
  188. > You're relieving the units in Trottingham, freeing them up to keep pushing the line.
  189. > Also, you're bringing the surrendered ponies with you.
  190. > Loading them in to the trucks takes longer than you'd like. They're not to keen on getting into a human truck.
  191. > Swift Mist is still staring into nowhere, he's no help.
  192. > End up having to just toss a fair few in.
  193. > Ride is supposed to be about a hour and a half.
  194. > That was before the state of their roads was considered.
  195. > After two hours, you're reduced to staring out of the back of the truck.
  196. > You wonder if you look anything like Swift Mist.
  197. > The soldier next to you makes a weird choking noise.
  198. "What?"
  199. > That noise again.
  200. > You turn to look at him.
  201. > There's a dart of some kind in his neck.
  202. > "AMBUSH AMBUSH AMBUSH DISMOUNT"
  203. > SHITSHITSHITSHIT
  204. > You hop out just in time to see a fireball crash into the truck you just hopped out of.
  205. > The canvas covering catches fairly quickly.
  206. > The screaming from inside starts up. The wounded ponies still inside.
  207. > DAMN IT!
  208.  
  209. > You grab the nearest pony's hind legs and drag it Clear of the truck.
  210. > It's screaming its poor little throat out, but it's not burning to death.
  211. > You turn back to see the rest of your squad emptying the other ponies out of the truck as well.
  212. > Arrows and darts of some kind are starting to fall with alarming regularity.
  213. > You take sprint to the next truck, find them dismounting as well. Good.
  214. > Somewhere down the line someone opens up with a .50cal. Probably blind firing.
  215. > "SARGE!"
  216. > One of your squad.
  217. > "Where the fuck are they?"
  218. > What do you look like, a walking radar array?
  219. "Fuck if I know. Uh, find Deckard, he's got good eyes."
  220. > You squad's marksman.
  221. > Around you the crack-pop of further rifle fire and thud-thud of .50s is increasing.
  222. > Someone must see them.
  223. > You crawl back alongside your burning truck to get to Deckard.
  224. > You find him, alright.
  225. > He's cradling a shattered arm, hit by a unicorn's bolt.
  226. > Fucking pinheads.
  227. > The pony prisoners are still screaming their brains out.
  228. > Someone taps you on your shoulder.
  229. > He points down a slight slope from the road you're on.
  230. > Sure enough, a bunch of little technicolor blobs hidden by scrub.
  231. > The ponies never did quite get the idea of camouflage for general operations.
  232. "OKAY RIFLES UP, TARGETS 80 METERS OUT, ALTERNATING FIRE, HE-FRAGS IN YOUR 203s, READY ON MY MARK!"
  233. > Your squad adds its fire to the increasing stream of lead heading out.
  234. > Staring down your scope, you see something odd and flickering behind the first line of ponies.
  235. > A shield.
  236. > There's a second line of unicorns.
  237.  
  238. "Patuzzi, Carrero, Dickinson. You see that pinhead shield at one-fifty meters?"
  239. > A chorus of yessirs.
  240. "I want a barrage of forty mike-mike on it on my call. HE-DP followed by fragmentation. See if we can't flush them out."
  241. > You wait while they load their grenade launchers.
  242. "Fire!"
  243. > Three grenades burst against the shield.
  244. > It deflects the first two blasts but shatters before the third impacts.
  245. > The frag rounds sail right in, and moments later a bunch of multicolored blobs burst from their former line, fleeing.
  246. > They're rapidly boxed in by rifle and machine-gun fire.
  247. > You turn to check on your squad, but before you can an arrow slams into your body armor.
  248. > It doesn't penetrate the heavy plate, but it still feels like a boxer just suckerpunched you.
  249. > You fall back to the ground, sucking breath in.
  250. > A second later, you realize you're in the open.
  251. > An arrow landing near one of your unarmored legs reinforces this.
  252. > Try to get up, can't move from that arrow hit.
  253. > You feel something grab your shoulder and drag you back behind the remains of your truck.
  254. > After a moment you turn to face your savior.
  255. "Thanks, Priv-"
  256. > It's Swift Mist.
  257. > A pony just dragged you out from under fire.
  258. > His own allies fire.
  259. > Whatthefuck.jpg
  260. > "SARGE."
  261. > The moment is broken.
  262. > You get back to shooting.
  263.  
  264. > Twenty minutes later the last of the pony ambushers have fled.
  265. > You don't chase them. That's not your orders.
  266. > You've lost two trucks.
  267. > You were lucky. Your squad mostly got out of yours.
  268. > The lead truck took three telekinetic rocks dead-on, followed by pegasi-driven lighting.
  269. > Seven guys trapped in it when it burned.
  270. > Seven guys and three wounded ponies.
  271. > Did they know their own kind were in those trucks?
  272. > You hold position until a reserve patrol is called out to escort you.
  273. > As you crawl into your truck, Swift Wind collapses beside you.
  274. > You look down at him.
  275. "Why?"
  276. > He looks up at you.
  277. > His eyes are still empty.
  278. > But not as empty as before.
  279. > "You tried to save the ponies relying on me."
  280. > "Ponies know that the first step to friendship is reciprocity."
  281. > You ignore the implication that humans don't know.
  282. > You're to tired and to confused to bother.
  283. > Ponies killing ponies, and you getting your ass saved by a royal guard.
  284. > This war...
  285.  
  286. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  287.  
  288. > Your platoon finally rolls into Trottingham by early evening.
  289. > It's actually pretty nice looking for a pony city - you've only seen smaller towns so far.
  290. > Reminds you vaguely of a city-sized renaissance fair.
  291. > Most of the city isn't even that badly damaged; apparently the defenders just broke and ran after human armored brigades encircled the city.
  292. > That also means most of the population is still here. You get a good eyeful of them as your convoy rolls through the city, a multicolored spectacle of terrified ponies.
  293. > They must be scared to death you would bring the fighting into the city.
  294. > Not surprising, if they saw armored units in action. They probably think you'd just raze the city flat.
  295. > It's kind of sad.
  296. > They obviously had no clue what they were getting into when this got started.
  297. > And now here's a city full of civvies who just got the only authority they know blasted away and replaced by aliens.
  298. > A couple of pegasi hover alongside your convoy, trying to sell the soldiers something.
  299. > They stop when they see how burned out you all are after that ambush.
  300. > You look down, checking on Swift Mist.
  301. > He still doesn't look great, but he's looking better the more he sees that there are ponies freely moving about the city.
  302. > You still aren't sure what to make of him.
  303.  
  304. > Get to a field base on the opposite side of town, set up in some shipping warehouses on the waterfront.
  305. > Roll up beside a command post, watch your LT go talk to the resident Colonel for new orders.
  306. > He comes back shortly and hops on the radio.
  307. > "Good news and bad news, ladies."
  308. > "Good news is, we're staying here for a bit. Apparently we've suddenly become high-value what with the prisoners. Until the can get another round of trucks in here to pick them up, we're looking after them. That means hot food, real bunks, and time for you all to rest up some."
  309. > "Bad news is, they're short on people to patrol Trottingham itself. We've drawn that duty until further notice, so we aren't off the hook yet."
  310. > "We've got a bunk area set up. Get the prisoners unloaded, and I want to see the platoon sergeants at 18:00."
  311.  
  312. > End up in one of the cleared-out warehouses.
  313. > Your platoon dismounts and starts the long process of getting the little herd of pony ex-soldiers inside.
  314. > It's not optimal, but someone's managed to find a bunch of hay-stuffed beds for them.
  315. > Your men are laying out their bedrolls on the other side of the warehouse, split own the middle by some barbed wire pinned down by bricks.
  316. > Getting your men in place when a soft call from across the barbed wire catches your attention.
  317. > Unicorn mare, the horn still capped securely. Left side of her body is all bandaged up with gauze.
  318.  
  319. "What?"
  320. > You find it hard to keep the chill out of your tone.
  321. > Unicorns still bring up bad memories to you.
  322. > She flinches. "Um, you're the one that brought the group out for us, right? Back in the field?"
  323. > Must've been with first group that came in to surrender with Mist.
  324. "Yeah, what of it?"
  325. > "Well, um, I don't mean to be nosy or, um..."
  326. > Get on with it, pinhead.
  327. > "What's going to happen to us?"
  328. "You're going to be transferred to a larger prisoner camp eventually. You'll stay there until the war ends or you're exchanged for one of us."
  329. > You explained all this to Mist already. He was supposed to tell them too.
  330. > "But, um, what about... about... wha..."
  331. > She totally breaks down into massive sobs.
  332. > "I don't want to die chained to a machine!"
  333. > Figures. Rumors always spread in wars.
  334. > You crouch down next to the barbed wire try to keep yourself from scowling to badly at the sight of her horn.
  335. "Okay, I don't know what they told you, but I'm fairly sure that's not going to happen."
  336. > Unicorn is still sobbing away. "B-b-b-but th-that's what you d-do! C-cut off our h-horns, t-take us b-back to your w-world and make us turn m-machines t-to make you m-more weapons u-until we sta-a-a-arve!"
  337. > Did somebody read these ponies a history of WW2 and cast you guys as nazis or something?
  338. > ...okay in fairness you were kind of over running their territory at blitzkrieg-level speeds, but still.
  339. > A couple of other ponies have been drawn over by the noise. Good, they can hear this too.
  340.  
  341. "...okay, lady, I don't know what you've been taught, but mutilation, starvation, and enslavement of prisoners are all pretty clearly against our laws."
  342. > She sniffles a bit. "How c-can I trust y-you?"
  343. "Swift Mist trusts me. Can you trust him?"
  344. > You hope Mist doesn't mind you putting this on his head.
  345. > You sort of hope you don't ever have to break his trust, for that matter.
  346. "Now look, there's no reason to be bringing back to our world either, so... yeah, I think you're pretty safe. Now, go get some sleep. We should have food coming around soon enough."
  347. > You stand up and turn away; the other two ponies lead the sniffling unicorn back to one of the straw-filled beds and keep calming her down.
  348. > You make some final checks on your men, then head on out of the warehouse.
  349. > Time to see what the ol' LT wants.
  350.  
  351. > 18:00
  352. > You're in the little office your LT has taken as his own.
  353. > Other 3 squad leaders.are there as well.
  354. > Go over the ambush, your squads' current strength, and inventory.
  355. > LT wants to know what your estimation of the prisoners is.
  356. "This bunch... they won't try and escape, sir. You didn't see them out there in the field, but they're completely shattered. They just don't want to die."
  357. > Other three squad leaders confirm your story. These ponies aren't going to try anything.
  358. > "Good. Sergeant Anon, you have the best working relationship with them. Putting your squad on guard duty for that group until the convoy shows up tomorrow for them. Rest of you, report to Lieutenant Correta at 08:00 tomorrow for your patrol assignments."
  359. > Walking back to the warehouse it finally seems to hit you.
  360. > When they get on those trucks tomorrow, Swift Mist and the rest will be gone.
  361. > The only pony to legitimately do something good to you.
  362. > You still aren't sure how to feel.
  363.  
  364. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  365.  
  366. > The trucks don't show up the next day.
  367. > Or the day after that.
  368. > Someone up the chain of command screwed up, told them to go somewhere else.
  369. > Typical screwup.
  370. > At the same moment you can't help but be glad they aren't going just yet.
  371. > They surrendered to you, and on some level are your charges.
  372. > You're still glad you're being kept busy on watch duty around the base, though.
  373. > If you spend to much time hanging around the ponies, your squad might think you're getting soft.
  374. > You might think you're getting soft.
  375. > By the 4th day, though, the ponies are getting a little restless.
  376. > You can't really blame them. Being kept cooped up in half a warehouse with no real privacy or anything to do would drive you nuts as well.
  377.  
  378. > Day 5 is when things come to a head.
  379. > Your squad's on duty besides one of entrances to their little barbed-wire enclosure when Swift Mist walks up.
  380. > He's done fairly well getting them organized and under control, you think.
  381. > And keeping morale up, especially among the badly wounded.
  382. > Right now, though, he's got a determined look on his face.
  383. > "Need to talk to you, Sergeant Sir."
  384. > It still feels a little weird being called 'Sergeant Sir' by a pony who was probably equivalent to a lieutenant or captain.
  385. > Still, good to know that they know who's in charge here.
  386. "What's the issue, Mist?"
  387. > "Look, I know you're probably not looking to let us out of here for any reason any time soon, but they - we - we need to go do something."
  388. > "It's getting to us all, but the pegasi especially. We really need to stretch our wings."
  389.  
  390. > You look down to Mist's own wings, still bound to his sides with a ziptie. They don't look too bad.
  391. > A little grubby, maybe, but you're not looking to hot yourself.
  392. > He notices your gaze.
  393. > "We need to preen, Sergeant sir. If we don't, the dirt and old feathers build up. A wing can get infected like that. Imagine if you had all your, uh, fingers bound together for days at a time."
  394. > Oh. Ick. Yeah, you can see that being unpleasant.
  395. > "Especially since we, uh, haven't really had a chance to bathe..."
  396. > Okay, that part was sort of your guys' fault. Nobody had bothered putting in a shower when the prisoners were only supposed to be staying for 12 hours.
  397. > Still, infection sounds like a serious issue.
  398. "Okay, Mist. I'll talk to the LT about that when I get a chance. Anything else?"
  399. > He shuffles his hooves awkwardly. "Well, we'd rather like to get a chance to go outside again. And, uh, the unicorns are getting, uh, kind of upset about not being able to use their horns... depressed, you know?"
  400. > First bit is understandable too. Fuck the unicorns, though. You just don't feel safe with one of those guys around and uncapped.
  401. "I'll talk to the LT. Maybe we can see about something."
  402.  
  403. > Later that day.
  404. > Find the LT during dinner.
  405. > Explain the situation to him.
  406. > "You can cut the zipties, sergeant, if they let you tie them down by something else. No way I'm letting them fly around freely, even inside here."
  407. "They're not going to like that, sir."
  408. > "Then they can stay grounded."
  409. "And getting them outside for a bit?"
  410. > LT looks up, gives you a funny stare.
  411. "I think it would do good to keep them passive and put off any resistance, sir."
  412. > "I'll think about it. Give you an answer after dinner."
  413. "Understood, sir."
  414.  
  415. > After dinner, you're sitting on your bedroll cleaning your rifle.
  416. > Boots thud up beside you. "Sergeant."
  417. > LT's back!
  418. > You jump to your feet, saluting.
  419. "Sir?"
  420. > "They can go outside, no more than five at a time, with a squad watching them. No more than 50 yards from this building, and make sure they understand that they might be shot if they try to flee."
  421. > You bet they're just going to love that.
  422. > Welp. Here's hoping Swift Mist knows to take a deal when he sees one.
  423.  
  424. > Next morning.
  425. > You step into the ponies' enclosure, get Mist to pull them all together to hear you out.
  426. > As expected, it gets a cool reception.
  427. > "Let me get this straight," one pegasus yells. "You're willing to let us fly, but we have to let you tie us down so we can't fly? What kind of offer is that?"
  428. > The only one you're going to get, bud.
  429. > Fortunately some of the others see the sense in your offer.
  430. > Unfortunately, the two sides rapidly devolve into a shouting match.
  431. > In the midst of the chaos you pass Swift Mist a pen and some sheets of paper.
  432. "Get the names and marks of any interested in taking part in this."
  433. > He nods, and you get back out of the enclosure while they argue it out.
  434. > Head out, decide to head over to the camp latrine. Unfortunately, it's on the far side of the camp.
  435. > About halfway there, dodging around the field hospital trailers, an eerie droning starts up.
  436. > A noise you would have preferred not to be hearing any time soon.
  437. > An alarm siren.
  438.  
  439. > Drop to the ground as the sky off to the north lights up in a dazzling flash.
  440. > HOLY FUCK, did they just let off a nuke?!
  441. > Something is wierd about the light, though. You just can't put your fingertip on it.
  442. > Crawl over behind a trailer for cover; a couple of other guys land beside you.
  443. > "What the hell is going on, Sergeant?!"
  444. > Some kid from another platoon.
  445. "Hell if I know! Looks like they set off something big, though. Just stay back here until it fades."
  446. > It doesn't fade, though.
  447. > Instead, you hear - over the distant rumbling and thuds of heavy guns - a strange noise, like someone is shouting at the top of their lungs into an empty auditorium.
  448. > Can't make out the words, though. To distant and to many explosions to hear.
  449. > Watching the shadows on the ground, you finally realize what's wrong about the light.
  450. > It's not just drifting upwards, like a fireball would.
  451. > It's actually playing back and forth, like someone is waving a giant flashlight around.
  452. > Probably some unicorn bullshit.
  453. > You turn to the others behind the trailer with you.
  454. "Whatever this is, it's not hitting us here yet. Get back to your units, go!"
  455. > They take off sprinting, and so do you.
  456. > Rounding a building, you finally get a view of what is causing this.
  457. > Holy shit.
  458. > Something is darting back and forth in the sky, expertly evading the lines of tracers and missiles streaking up towards it.
  459. > Every few moments, a blindingly white lance of light stabs down from it to play across the ground, accompanied by the rolling rumble of an explosion seconds later.
  460. > That's not human.
  461. > You pound back into your unit's warehouse, go straight to your gear and start strapping it on.
  462. > Find your guys.
  463. "What the hell is going on?"
  464. > "One of their princesses, sir. She's gotta be hitting the big push near the north road."
  465. > Fuck. You'd heard some stuff about what their princess-deity things could do.
  466. > Seeing it, though? That's something else.
  467.  
  468. > For over twenty minutes you listen to the distant gunfire, explosions, and distorted shouting.
  469. > Both soldiers and pones crouch in the warehouse, away from anything that might fall over.
  470. > You're well aware that if she comes here, it's probably going to be bad for you both.
  471. > Finally the noise of battle fades; all you can hear now is the warbling tone of the all-clear siren.
  472.  
  473. > Within an hour the little camp outside Trottingham is overrun with wounded.
  474. > Their sun-princess had cruised up and down the point the APEF forces were pushing at.
  475. > Made slag and ash of a couple armored battalions in under half an hour.
  476. > Near 2,500 casualties in less time than it takes you to eat dinner.
  477. > Just burned, like ants under a magnifying glass.
  478. > Watching the endless parade of scorched and moaning bodies go past, you feel an old anger bubbling up in you.
  479. > Fucking ponies.
  480. > Fucking unicorns.
  481. > Fucking princess.
  482. > Fuck this war.
  483.  
  484. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  485.  
  486.  
  487. > With the immediate crisis past, you settle into the familiar rhythm of 'just getting stuff done'.
  488. > Whole brigades are being thrown in to try and close the gap the princess carved, which was rapidly being followed up by the biggest offensive the ponies had made yet.
  489. > Anyone not absolutely necessary for their current duty was being drawn off.
  490. > While 3rd and 4th squad have been drawn off to provide security for one of the dozens of convoys heading to the front, you and 2nd squad were left to handle the prisoners.
  491. > Which is how you now find yourself sitting in the warehouse, staring through a roll of barbed wire at the ponies.
  492. > There isn't much to hide behind in their enclosure, except for the latrine curtains, so you can see just about all of them.
  493. > Including how they've all huddled together, much more quiet and subdued than they were that morning.
  494. > They can sense the shift in tone since the attack.
  495. > They're obviously terrified.
  496. > It almost moves you to see how scared they are, even though there's got to be four times as many of them in that pen as there are APEF soldiers watching it.
  497. > But every time you let your mind drift, there's that sight again.
  498. > The writhing bodies on stretchers, blackened and moaning.
  499. > The trucks, bringing in a seemingly endless stream of casualties.
  500. > The *smell*.
  501. > ...
  502. > You look down and loosen the deathgrip you'd unconsciously tightened around your rifle.
  503. > That wasn't going to help things much.
  504. > Neither was screaming at these creatures in front of you.
  505. > They hadn't called their princess down, after all. They'd done the sensible thing to end this as soon as possible and surrendered.
  506. > ...but that doesn't mean you have to get all mushy on them either.
  507.  
  508. > Behind you, the evening chow cart is rolled up.
  509. > Not for you, you can go to the camp mess.
  510. > You take it from the private who rolled it in, and push it into the ponies' enclosure.
  511.  
  512. > ...to be honest, food's probably about all they have to look forward to in their current state.
  513. > You let them take the cart and watch as a couple start spooning out the stew.
  514. > Really you're just there to make sure they stay in nice, orderly lines and don't start anything.
  515. > Not much of a chance with this mood.
  516. > Something nudges your leg.
  517. > A unicorn.
  518. > You flinch despite yourself.
  519. > "I'm... um... I'm sorry..."
  520. > She's apologizing?
  521. "Don't want to hear it."
  522. > She looks struck. After a second she looks down to the ground again.
  523. > "It's just, we, um, lost a lot of, um, friends too. Before we, um..." She pauses, as if struggling to say it. "...before we surrendered to you."
  524. > ...
  525. > Does she think that makes what you saw any easier?
  526. > "So, um, I just wa-"
  527. "No."
  528. > You look down at her again, your hands tightening into fists.
  529. "Look, pinhead. I don't know what you're going on about, but I'm really not in the mood to hear about it. Why don't you just shove off befor-"
  530. > You pause.
  531. > She's taken a few steps back, eyes pinched shut as if you were about to hit her.
  532. > You sigh again, slowly unclenching your fists.
  533. "I'm not going to hurt you. I just don't want to hear about it right now, okay? I just saw a lot of people who'd been messed up pretty bad, and I don't want to hear about it for a bit."
  534. > She nods slowly.
  535. > "My name's, um, Aurora Gaze."
  536. > You grunt, having gone back to watching the dwindling lines around the chow cart.
  537. "Sergeant Anon."
  538. > A protracted silence extends between you until she grabs her plate and trots away.
  539. > You look after her, then turn back to the cart again.
  540. > Catch sight of Swift Mist staring at you.
  541. > He nods and turns away.
  542. > What was that? Approval? Thanks?
  543. > Either way, you get the feeling that he's just as uncertain about this whole business as you.
  544.  
  545. > Next morning.
  546. > LT arrives with new orders.
  547. > "The prisoners aren't being moved any time soon. They're trying to encircle the ponies' offensive, 2nd and 4th Armored to the east and 9th infantry division as the anvil to the south."
  548. > "That effort's tieing up the supply lines bad, and that means transport for our prisoners as well."
  549. > "They've also pulled just about everyone out of Trottingham to reinforce the lines, so we're being left behind to keep things under control as well."
  550. > "As long as we're around the city, though, we'll be requisitioning some housing for both ourselves and the prisoners."
  551. > Great. City patrol. At least you'll be bunking somewhere nicer; sleeping on nothing but your bedroll was getting old fast.
  552. > "We also might be co-opted to help keep the roads around here in manageable condition, so the convoys don't get bogged down."
  553. > "Lieutenant, why don't we have the prisoners work on that, sir?"
  554. > The idea had come up in your head as well the moment the LT mentioned it, but you hadn't said anything.
  555. > Apparently 3rd squad's sergeant had the same thought, though.
  556. > "I'll pass the idea up the chain of command, sergeant, but as long as we hold to the Convention I don't think brass will have a problem with it."
  557. > You make a mental note to bring up the idea to the ponies later, see what their reaction is.
  558.  
  559. > Answer: After a short bit of deliberation, near three quarters of them step forward, lead by Swift Mist."
  560. > "We'll do it, Sergeant Sir. So long as it isn't to bad, we're all going mad stuck in here anyhow."
  561. > "And, um..." He grabs a rolled up sheet of paper in his mouth and hands it to you.
  562. > Ah. The list of Pegasi willing to take your little deal from earlier. You'd completely forgotten after the attack...
  563. > "If that is still an option, Sergeant Sir..."
  564. "Yeah, should be. Also, we'll be moving into an actual building in the city soon enough, so that means actual rooms and baths for you lot."
  565. > You can see the anticipation ripple through them.
  566. > Swift Mist gives you an actual smile.
  567. > "I'm glad to hear that, Sergeant Sir."
  568. > You get back to your side of the warehouse and bunk down for a little bit. You've got a little while until you have to go back on watch anyhow.
  569.  
  570. > Two days later, you find yourself leading a little herd of ponies into the outskirts of Trottingham.
  571. > Command wasn't to averse to the idea; as long as you didn't loose any prisoners - or even worse, soldiers - it seemed you had the go-ahead to keep your plan in motion.
  572. > So here you are, your squad leading twenty ponies down a street.
  573. > Towed behind each group of four is a heavy road grading plow, requisitioned from Trottingham's public works department.
  574. > Best of all, one of each four is a pegasus, their wings freed. You've figured that the plow plus the weight of three other ponies should be plenty to keep them from fleeing.
  575. > The inner city might have been spared the worst of the fighting, but the roads around the edges show the signs of repeated ravaging by heavy armored vehicles.
  576. > ...yeah, this is going to take a while.
  577.  
  578. > Getting the ponies into position and moving turns out to be the easy part.
  579. > One of your men takes each plow and guides the ponies to the correct spot to grade.
  580. > Some cooperative spirit or herd instinct gets them underway easily, the plows flattening out the ridges and ruts that have been dug into the road.
  581. > The problem proves to be the locals.
  582. > Your activities draw a fair amount of attention. Oversized eyes peer from between window curtains, half-open doors, and around corners.
  583. > They're examining everything. The prisoners, the plows, your rifle cradled in your arms...
  584. > No way were you going through this unarmed. The prisoners might be mostly passive, but they were still prisoners.
  585. > Plus the risk of rebels, especially unicorns.
  586. > Being around this many uncapped unicorns is starting to get you seriously jumpy, and you can see it in your men as well.
  587. > A fair number of those looks you were getting were plenty fearful or hostile, after all.
  588. > BUt there were other things in some of them as well.
  589. > Pity, for your prisoners.
  590. > Curiosity, towards you.
  591. > Confusion, that you were bothering with fixing up the roads.
  592. > Of course, you were supposed to let the locals have a good look. That was part of the deal: They had to see that the ex-guard prisoners were coming out here of their own free will.
  593. > That when lunchtime came, your squad would be sharing out food with them.
  594. > The message, you hoped, was pretty clear:
  595. > We're not crazy beasts from another world.
  596. > We're not torturing prisoners or chaining them to weapon-building factories.
  597. > You can work with us and come out okay, even if you are a prisoner.
  598. > You rather hope that message sticks.
  599.  
  600. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  601.  
  602. > You slack off around noon.
  603. > Road grading isn't easy work by any means,
  604. > Not for you, or them.
  605. > You guide them off the road, finding a nice shaded spot beside a building to settle down in.
  606. > A quick look through the window suggests printing shop of some kind. Abandoned now, of course.
  607. > You get out the packed lunches you' put together.
  608. > MREs aren't exactly pony-friendly, so you'd had to start assembling food for them.
  609. > A chorus of soft groans meets the distribution.
  610. > The first few days after they turned themselves in, they were just to starving and miserable to care about food beyond it being food.
  611. > Now that they weren't so desperate, the ponies had come to the same conclusion you came to long ago.
  612. > Military food sucks.
  613. > Still, it's food, and they quickly go through it with only some minor grumbling.
  614. > The ponies quietly chatter among themselves after they finish, some of the Pegasi starting to get in a much-needed preen.
  615. > You have to resist the urge to just watch them, the strange act still a point of curiosity among your squad.
  616. > After all, you're supposed to be guarding the whole group.
  617. > And, of course, keeping an eye on the surrounding streets.
  618. > Thankfully most of the attention from the pony residents has largely dropped off since your task had been proven to be so mundane.
  619. > A few persistent faces stick about, though, watching from a distance.
  620. > You watch them right back, trying to seem attentive, but not threatening or afraid.
  621. > Fat chance of that.
  622. > You all get back to work soon enough.
  623.  
  624. > Get done with this stretch of road late in the afternoon.
  625. > Start bringing your little group back in towards the new 'prison'.
  626. > Go through the awkward process of having to walk slowly down a street while being observed by dozens of faces peering cautiously at you.
  627. > Still plenty of hostility.
  628. > Oh well. Probably to much to hope for change in a single day.
  629.  
  630. > Get to the former school that you've taken over as a makeshift prison for the ex-guard ponies.
  631. > It's nothing special, a simple U-shape brick building with lots of nice big rooms.
  632. > Pony prisoners are bunked on the inside edge of the U, your platoon on the outside edge.
  633. > You don't think they'll try an escape, but it pays to think ahead with these things.
  634. > "Halt! Identify yourself and state your intent."
  635. > It might seem silly - you've know the corporal from 2nd squad hollering at you right now for months, he definitely recognized you.
  636. > But it gave you a chance to call out any number of warning phrases in case you were being forced back to the prison under duress.
  637. "First squad, bringing in our work team. Everything's just peachy. Been a long day, though. Can you hurry it up opening that gate?"
  638. > That last part wasn't a code or anything. You were seriously looking forward to laying down again.
  639. > "Alright, Sergeant. One moment, we'll have the gate open."
  640. > When your platoon took the place over, a wire gate had been put in across the open top of the U.
  641. > Closed off the interior courtyard so you could use it as you needed. Sure did screech when you swung it open, though.
  642. > You lead your work group in through the gate, directing them to line up the grader plows over along one wall.
  643. > Wait for the squad on watch to shut the gate behind you before you follow the work gang over.
  644.  
  645. > You start to unharness the ponies from the road grader and get them back indoors.
  646. > When you get to the first team with a pegasus on it, you also pull out a ziptie to tie his wings down again with.
  647. > He ruffles his wings angrily, giving you a sharp glare. You meet it evenly.
  648. "Tough noogies..." Glance at his mark. "...Cloud Watch. I can either put this on, or you get tied to one of those."
  649. > You motion to a row of posts sunk deep into the ground. He huffs, but shuts his wings an lets you put the ziptie on.
  650. > You'd rapidly found out that pegasi hated being tied to the ground even more than they hated having their wings bound.
  651. > You get the last of them indoors, escorting the ponies down to one of the classrooms you'd converted into group cells.
  652. "Okay, guys. Dinner's in, uh, 45. Until then, you're off. Good work out there today, though."
  653. > Only response is some tired grunts.
  654. > Eh, whatever. You figured they could use the praise. If some words keep them happier and cooperative, why not?
  655. > Besides, they were proving to be really rather reasonable for enemy soldiers.
  656.  
  657. > Next day, you're out on the same stretch, spreading a few truckloads of gravel over the road you graded yesterday.
  658. > Unlike yesterday, though, you're nervous as fuck, watching every move like a hawk.
  659. > Locals are no more curious than before, a handful of persistent types holding at a distance and watching you constantly.
  660. > Difference is your team of prisoners today includes a fair few unicorns.
  661. > You think you've checked their horn-caps at least a dozen times, but that doesn't make you any less twitchy.
  662. > After all, it' take just one of them to get the cap off to undo the bonds on the others.
  663. > Or take out one of your men. Your squad's marksman, Deckard, was still in the hospital nursing his shattered arm after a unicorn got him in the ambush on the way in to Trottingham.
  664. > And you still hadn't gotten a replacement for the other Private you'd lost in that mess either.
  665. > Altogether, you were understrength and guarding prisoners who effectively have a low-powered rifle permanently strapped to their forheads.
  666. > Yeah, you were antsy.
  667. > Of course, so were they.
  668. > These ponies seemed hyper aware of emotions.
  669. > Or you were signaling with the force of a lighthouse, because they were a lot more subdued than the last group.
  670. > Even at lunch, they did not chatter nearly as mu-
  671. > "So, um, Sergeant Anon, I was wondering... what was your home like? All the way back home, I?"
  672. > Ohfucksake. One of them wants to make smalltalk.
  673. > You look over to your side and suppress the urge to grimace. Of course it's a unicorn too.
  674. > One you know, actually. Aurora Gaze, the one who tried to 'comfort' you after the princess pulled her little stunt.
  675. > ...you know what? The heck with it. You're supposed to be putting on a show of benevolent occupation for the locals. You can force yourself to play nice.
  676. > Even to a unicorn.
  677. "It was... busy, even for one of our cities."
  678. "We live near a big port city, Norfolk. Ships come in from all over the world to offload or take on goods."
  679. > "That must have been exciting. You could talk to pon- people from all over, right?"
  680. "Not really. They kept to themselves for the most part. Besides, I didn't have much to do with the port; I was just done with school and was working as an electrician."
  681. > She looks surprised - horrified, almost. "School? But, you're, like, an adult right?"
  682. > Oh.
  683. > "Yeah, I am. Twenty-two. Back home, we go to school a lot longer than most do here, I think."
  684. > "Why's that?"
  685. "Well, we gotta learn a lot more. We don't get told what we're talented at, so we have to learn a lot and hope we figure it out."
  686. > You take a glance at her mark; a cluster of little white stars overlaid with a wavy red-green line.
  687. > Real descriptive there."
  688. "What'd you do anyway, Aurora?"
  689. > She perks up in her harness a bit. "Oh! I was an astronomer."
  690. > ...okay, that actually made sense.
  691. > "I used to like to go up to the Crystal Mountains, in the north, and study all the stars. There were eight of us who went up every year..."
  692. > "...then the war came, and we all got conscripted."
  693. > Ouch.
  694.  
  695. "We din't have conscription back home... at least, not when I left."
  696. > She looks up, a little wide-eyed.
  697. > For a second you can see the shellshocked, miserable little thing that surrendered to you in the field that day, staring into nothingness.
  698. > Then she shakes her head a little and meets your gaze again.
  699. > "Then the rest of your people are very, very lucky, Sergeant Anon."
  700. > Yeah. They really were.
  701.  
  702. > Third day of work goes quietly as well.
  703. > As you're making the long trip back to the prison, one of your local observers finally works up the courage to approach.
  704. > Earth pony mare.
  705. > Pulling a cart.
  706. > Instantly your soldier-sense, which had mostly been quiet that day, starts going off like nuts. She's not just passing by - no, she's looking right back at you.
  707. > Grab one of your fireteams and move ahead of the group a little, rifle at the ready.
  708. > She looks nervous, but keeps coming.
  709. > At 20 yards, you yell out.
  710. "That's close enough, ma'am. What's your business?"
  711. > She stops and waves her head back to the cart behind her.
  712. > "I've been watching you working out here for a long time. You always look really tied coming back, so I thought you might like some fresh food...?"
  713. > She's speaking to you, but her eyes are on the prisoner work teams behind you.
  714. > You know the food's really for them.
  715. > And they know it too. They've all perked up at the idea of having actual pony food instead of whatever human food that can tolerate.
  716. > You walk over to the cart, rooting through the contents a little.
  717. > No concealed equestrian soldiers or angry rebels stare back up at you.
  718. > Just some bags of mixed fruit, oat cakes, and what looks oddly like hamburgers but appear to be stuffed with hay instead of meat.
  719. "Ma'am, I can't promise you money or any recompense for this. Not without a go-ahead from my commander."
  720. > And probably several steps up the command chain from the LT as well.
  721.  
  722. > Word in the barracks is that food isn't exactly short for the ponies, but not exactly plentiful either.
  723. > If she was looking to do business right off the bat, this was going to be a no-go.
  724. > "It's okay. I don't mind just giving some."
  725. > Okay, what's her angle now?
  726. > "My, um, husband is in the EUP guard. I'd want someone to give him something if it were him. I wouldn't want him to be hungry."
  727. > Ah. Well, you could understand that.
  728. > You look back to the work team again, their eyes shining in hope.
  729. "Okay, uh, let's get this stuff on the backs of the plows, we'll pass it out at dinner tonight."
  730. > The prisoners all give weary grins.
  731. > None protest as the bags of food are loaded onto the plows.
  732. > Before you send the earth pony off, an idea strikes you.
  733. "Listen, see if you could find any others who'd be willing to bring food too. If my commander approves this, we could start buying from them as well."
  734. "Maybe provide for the other team out each day as well?"
  735. > She breaks into a smile. "I'll ask, sir."
  736.  
  737. > Back at base, you're sitting before the LT.
  738. > Unfortunately, the longer you thought about it the more you realized this was going to be a very hard sell.
  739. > Buying food from locals wasn't unheard of by any means, but to buy from an unverified, unsecured source who'd approache out of the blue?
  740. > You really hoped he could pull some strings.
  741. > Besides, there was plenty of stuff here humans could eat too.
  742. > You had to admit you were sorely tempted by the thought of some fresh food as well.
  743. > You enter, saluting and taking a seat when he motions.
  744. > "Sergeant Anon, what's this about?"
  745. > You explain the situation to him.
  746. > The offer from the mare, the ponies' undeniably positive reaction to the idea of their own food.
  747. > The possibility of getting other locals involved.
  748. "...and besides the implications for morale among the ponies, I think there would be a fair chance of improving relations with the locals if word got around that they can do business with us."
  749. > LT folds his fingers together an stares at you.
  750. "And, if we have them given the food at lunch while on work duty, we avoid having to let unknowns into our yard out there, and add another benefit to prisoners volunteering for the work teams."
  751. > "Awful lot of assumptions there, Sergeant."
  752. > Shit, did you overstep?
  753. > "But you also make some good points."
  754. > Phew.
  755. > "Are you willing to take on responsibility for this, Sergeant?"
  756. > Yeah, why not. You've already bet on the work party idea as well, and letting the pegasi have their wings free.
  757. > Either fate is saving up for one big doozy of a screwup, or you're being paid out a nice backlog of good karma.
  758. > Either way, no reason to stop here.
  759. "I'll take it, sir. If you can get this set up, I'll take on whatever comes of this."
  760. > Yeah, you're probably going to regret this one.
  761. > The LT nods.
  762. > "I'll pass it up the chain of command, see if we can get some funds freed up."
  763. "Thank you, Sir."
  764. > "And, Sergeant?"
  765. > Abruptly he splits into a smile.
  766. > "I like your guts, soldier. You're willing to push hard, seize opportunities. You'll make lieutenant one day, I think."
  767. "Thank you, sir. But, let's see if we can get this war done before that happens."
  768.  
  769. > Next day.
  770. > The earth pony appears at your work site around eleven in the morning. You peel off to intercept her.
  771. "Just about one hour until we break, ma'am. You can pass the food out then."
  772. She gives you another smile.
  773. > "That's fine. I'm Bountiful Fields, by the way."
  774. > Figures she'd be providing food, with a name like that.
  775. > Come lunchtime, you escort her between each of the plow teams, handing out food.
  776. > The prisoners are noticeably overjoyed to be getting actual pony food for a change.
  777. > It helps that there's only one unicorn in this day's group. You don't have to watch any others so closely.
  778. > Corner the mare before she leaves.
  779. "Listen, Ma'am, we'll be working over on the north side of the city tomorrow, clearing debris. If you come out there, you'll probably find us."
  780. > She nods. "I'll certainly try."
  781. "Also, I've asked my commanding officer if we can get some payment for you for doing this."
  782. > Her eyes go a little wide
  783. > "I'll look forward to hearing his response."
  784. > The work team's spirits remain high throughout the day.
  785. > This might actually work.
  786.  
  787. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  788.  
  789. > As predicted, the following days find you on the northern edge of the city, removing the ruins of several collapsed buildings.
  790. > The work teams have traded their plows for heavy metal mesh nets, two ponies on each end of them.
  791. > It's a lot rougher work than just plowing the roads.
  792. > On the upside, Swift Mist is on work detail today.
  793. > He's kept his role as leader among the former guards, and having him around always makes things run a little more smoothly.
  794. > Frankly, you're rather glad to have him around. The ponies were much more agreeable when they felt they had a leader to go to.
  795. > And he understood his position with you and the rest of the guards as well.
  796.  
  797. > You break a bit earlier, because even you're feeling the burn and you aren't even doing the heaviest pulling.
  798. > By noon you're back workings again, which is why you don't notice the lunchmare until she's practically beside you.
  799. > You mentally berate yourself; a rebel could have gotten close enough to hit you and you wouldn't have noticed.
  800. > She doesn't notice your anger, thankfully.
  801. > "Good Afternoon to you again, sir."
  802. "'Afternoon. You find us without much trouble?"
  803. > "Yes, I was able to get directions easily."
  804. > Yeah, you suppose that you do kind of stick out.
  805. "Okay. Let's get everyone their lunch, then."
  806. > Turn to the rest of your squad and the work teams, you issue new orders.
  807. "Okay everyone, take a break. Find a spot on the side of the street and wait there, chow's coming around."
  808. > Once you're sure the work teams are all off to the side, you once more turn to Bountiful Harvest.
  809. "One last thing, before you go."
  810.  
  811. > You pull a wad of paper strips from one of your pockets and quickly separate out twenty-four of them.
  812. > One for each pony on your work detail today.
  813. "The LT approved the request for some kind of payment.'
  814. > Her face breaks into a wide smile, eyes lighting up.
  815. "I know it's not your normal currency, but you can turn over this scrip at our post near city hall for some of our food, medicine, or other stuff that catches your eye."
  816. > She takes it with her mouth and stuffs it into one of bags on her cart.
  817. > "That's fine! It's good to just get anything."
  818. > You can't help but give a little smile as well at her enthusiasm.
  819. "Well, best get to handing out that food, then."
  820. > She looks confused for a moment at the phrase 'handing out', then nods.
  821. > "I'll get on it."
  822. > You watch her start stopping by each work team, handing out sandwiches while your squaddies watch.
  823. > After a moment you head over to one of your corporals, discussing the work that needs to be done in the remaining hours.
  824. > As you are pointing out another collapsed block he is going to take his work team over towards, you are interrupted by a sort of pitched, strangled noise behind you.
  825. > Instantly spin on your heel, hands instinctively bringing your rifle up.
  826. > Instead of a wounded soldier, though, you see Bountiful Harvest. Her neck is locked with that of Swift Mist, almost like she is trying to bite his spine.
  827. > He is doing the same.
  828. > Dammit.
  829. > Of all the ponies to get into a fight, Swift Mist was not the one you thought it would be.
  830. > You take off sprinting, but before you can break it up you notice several things.
  831. > Neither of them are moving one bit. Bountiful Harvest is making a weird sort of keening noise.
  832. > And both have tears running down their cheeks.
  833. > Belatedly you realize this isn't a fight, but some kind of pony neck-hug thing.
  834. > Suddenly you don't want to interrupt this anymore. Instead, you just watch.
  835. > Swift Mist raises one leg to rest on Harvest's... shoulder? You don't know the right word.
  836. > "Shhh... It's okay, Harvest."
  837. > She just shakes her head, but eventually quiets.
  838. > You're about to step in when she speaks again.
  839. > "Where's Rocky?"
  840. > Rocky?
  841. > Swift Mist obviously tenses, then lowers his head to rest on her neck again.
  842. > "Where's Rocky?! I need to know, he hasn't written me since he got out of training!"
  843. > Training?
  844. > "He... I... I lost him, Harvest. About seven weeks ago, before we surrendered. One of their aircraft dropped a bomb, and he couldn't get out of the trench in time..."
  845. > Bountiful Harvest lets out another keening wail and collapses to the ground.
  846. > "I'm sorry... I know you loved him. He did too; always said he'd write your again when the mail was getting through."
  847. > Abruptly you remember her's comment as to why she was giving the prisoners food.
  848. > She had a husband in the guard, she said.
  849. > Oh. Oh, fuck.
  850. > One of your privates gives you a questioning look, wondering whether he should step in.
  851. > You shake your head no. Best to just let this play out.
  852. > Another ten minutes pass before Harvest can force herself up again.
  853. > She's still crying.
  854. > But she still manages to force herself to pull the cart around to the rest of the work teams.
  855. > You move over to Swift Mist's side.
  856. "You going to okay?"
  857. > He looks up at you.
  858. > You've seen the look on his face before.
  859. > Flat-set mouth, eyes seeing something far away, body sort of slumped.
  860. > It's the same look you've seen your buddies, your soldiers get when they have to report a KIA.
  861. > "I'm... I'll be..."
  862. > He stops.
  863. > You get the point though, and give him a pat on the 'shoulder' before moving on.
  864. > One more thing you've got to do.
  865.  
  866. > When Bountiful Harvest is done passing out the food, you are waiting for her.
  867. > She's still sniffling, but she looks up at you anyhow.
  868. "Listen, I... if you don't want to do this anymore..."
  869. > "No!"
  870. > She practically yells it out, then repeats her answer more softly. "No."
  871. > "He wouldn't have wanted me to hide away. He'd have told me to go look after the rest of his... his friends."
  872. > You pause, then nod.
  873. > She looks down. "You've lost po- people before?"
  874. > You nod.
  875. "One gone, another got his arm shattered real good."
  876. > "Then you know why you have to go on. They wouldn't have wanted it."
  877. > In fairness, you think Private Kessle would've wanted you to find some booze and all get totally smashed in his memory.
  878. > He was kind of dumb like that.
  879. > But she doesn't need to know that.
  880. "Yeah, I do."
  881. > As pulls her cart away, you realize it's become far to easy to become detached from the fact that there's still a war going on.
  882. > That the meat grinder that ate up people and ponies alike was still going on somewhere out there.
  883. > The front line had begun to advance again some days ago, and you didn't even hear the crack of outgoing artillery fire to remind you anymore.
  884. > You'd gotten settled into an easy routine, and the fighting had gotten distant far to easily.
  885. > You suspect it's not a mistake you'll make again.
  886.  
  887. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  888.  
  889. > Wounds that deep don't heal quickly.
  890. > While Harvest had continued showing up each day to deliver food, she was far more subdued and quiet than she had been previously.
  891. > Fortunately the offer of payment had eventually brought two other mares into the delivery program as well, taking some of the demand off of Harvest.
  892. > Swift Mist, on the other hand, buried himself in trying to help the remaining prisoners.
  893. > He'd started walking between the cells - escorted, of course - each day to visit the few remaining ponies still recovering from their wounds.
  894. > It was both moving and kind of sad.
  895. > So you had every right to be a little concerned when the LT dropped a terse request to see you straight out of the blue.
  896. > The moment you step into his office, that worrying niggle becomes an unpleasant bubbling in your gut.
  897. > Given the scowl on his face and the sergeants of 2nd squad, 3rd, and 4th already seated, there's no way this is good news.
  898. > "Sit down, Sergeant. Afraid I've got some bad news."
  899. > Gut sense, meet damning confirmation.
  900. > The LT leans back in his seat, looking between you all.
  901. > "I realize you've all been doing a lot of good work out there. You've kept your men and the work teams under control, and we've only had a few minor escape attempts."
  902. > "Unfortunately, it seems no good deed goes unpunished."
  903. > Well, fuck. Guess that convoy that was supposed to pick up the prisoners all those days ago is finally going to show up.
  904. > Back to the frontline, I guess.
  905. > "We've been selected as the unit to handle a particularly unpleasant case. Another prisoner, some kind of hot-shot in their ranks. They picked her up yesterday outside of Los Pegasus, and want us to handle it."
  906. > The hell?
  907. > Judging from the way the other sergeants shift in their seats, it isn't the news they'd been expecting.
  908. > "All due respect, sir, this warranted a meeting?"
  909. > The LT gives 3rd squad's sergeant a look, and he shuts up.
  910. > "It's worse then just one bullheaded idiot. The major I was talking to said she's already put injured six, two of them still in the hospital. That's not the bad part, though."
  911. > You lean in; whatever this is, it probably deserves your attention.
  912. > "I said she's some kind of important figure to their military. That might have been understating it; she's something close to a national hero."
  913. > "So far we've coasted easy, what with the city being taken intact and the front line moving on. Having her here is quite likely to stir up some opposition sentiments, though. There will probably be rescue attempts, maybe other violence and resistance developing."
  914. > 2nd squad's sarge grunts. "Does this problem have a name?"
  915. > The LT shakes his head. "Not yet, though I figure we'll find out soon enough."
  916. > You've kept quiet so far, but a question has been slowly forming.
  917. "Sir, requesting permission to speak freely?"
  918. > LT gives you a look, but nods. "Granted."
  919. "Sir, what the hell is really going on here? Why us? We get saddled-" No pun intended, you think to yourself. "-with a big pile of prisoners for days on end, get the funds allocated to buy food from a local almost instantly, and now this? Why not send this troublemaker to one of the forward operating bases, or put her aboard one of the navy's ships? Why'd we get picked up out of all the units to handle this?"
  920. > The 3rd and 4th squad's sergeants nod. Seems you've spoken what they were thinking.
  921. > LT takes a long look at you, and then sits back in his seat with a hefty sigh. Suddenly he looks a whole lot more tired than he did a moment ago.
  922. > "Okay, fair's fair. You guys deserve to know." He looks around again and begins.
  923. > "Turns out, we've not been taking nearly as many prisoners as you might think. A lot of the pony units are either taking unusually high casualties, or melting back into the civilian population."
  924. > "Our group is actually one of the larger groups to have been picked up at any point, and we were very successful in getting them to cooperate as well."
  925. > Eyebrows around the room are rising, including yours. You'd picked up, what - 90 some equestrian guards? And that was one of the larger groups?
  926. > "I've been in contact with a major somewhere up the line for about a week now, and they're watching us closely as a model for handling prisoners and working with the locals."
  927. > You give a little unhappy groan.
  928. "So now they want to push their luck, huh?"
  929. > "Looks like." 2nd squad's sergeant nods in agreement with you.
  930. > LT nods as well, but leans forward again, resting his elbows on his desk.
  931. > "You and your men just keep doing what you were out there. The smoother things are when this prisoner arrives, the less problems are likely to crop up."
  932.  
  933. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  934.  
  935. > The prisoner transport shows up late the following Thursday - two days, as predicted.
  936. > You had been tasked to guard duty, watching the school-turned-prison.
  937. > At this particular moment that meant being hunkered down two of your men by a large window above the main gate, where you could keep a good watch on one side of the entrance and most of the yard.
  938. > This also meant you spotted the three armored vehicles cruising up the road towards your position long before they arrived.
  939. > By the time they pull up you've scrambled down to the main gate with four of your men, ready to deal with whoever this is.
  940. > To your intense surprise, the three IFVs pull up and an entire squad and a half begin disembarking.
  941. > As they spread out into positions around the street, you briefly wonder if you're a little under-prepared, with only five men including yourself preparing to receive.
  942. > Before that line of thought can go far, there's another sergeant heading right for you.
  943. > You salute, and he smartly returns. "Sergeant Anon, 4th company of 3rd battalion?"
  944. "Yes, that's me."
  945. > "Sergeant Kivan, 2nd company of 2nd battalion, 3rd armored cavalry. You're ready to receive this prisoner?"
  946. > No, you aren't, and you really wish you didn't have to deal with this prisoner business. It's not your job.
  947. "Yes, Sergeant."
  948. > A quick signal to one of your men gets the gate opening, and you proceed outside.
  949. > "Good, we don't want to have to deal with her any longer than we have to. She's been a headache; I don't know why they're being so insistent we deal with this."
  950. > You shrug.
  951. "Apparently the brass is being funny again, experimenting with stuff to see what sticks."
  952. > He gives your little makeshift prison a look-over. "That how a bunch of infantry ended up running a POW camp?"
  953. "Pretty much. We were supposed to just give them up, but their princess messed that plan up good."
  954. > He grunts. "The princess, yeah. I heard she turned tail when the air force showed up and tossed a few AMRAAMs her way."
  955. > You snort.
  956. "Yeah fucking right. No way she ran from an AMRAAM or two; I was watching her dodge back and forth up there. I dunno why she left, but it wasn't some airhead miracle."
  957. > Sergeant Kivan has lead you around to the back of one of the AFVs. He pauses now and gives you a look. "You saw her? When she chewed up seventh and eight armored?"
  958. "Yes. Wasn't anything I want to see again."
  959. > You motion to the AFV, wanting to change the subject. You still try not to think to hard about the things you saw that day.
  960. "So, your cargo's in there?"
  961. > Kivan nods. "Yeah. Watch out for this one; even after we got her wings down we ended up having to hobble and muzzle her."
  962. > You give him a stare.
  963. "And they're just handing this off to us? Has the brass lost it?"
  964. > Okay, that last bit was a bit much, maybe, but Kivan seems like a good guy and understands how ridiculous this is.
  965. > Kivan gives you an apologetic shrug. "Dunno, bud. I'm just trying to get my orders done."
  966. > "All I can say is that they must really want her intact for something. We had orders not to be to more rough with her than absolutely necessary."
  967. > You grunt unhappily. Playing babysitter for a fairly reasonable crowd of ex-guard ponies you didn't mind; this was another thing entirely.
  968. "Well, going to have to get on with this. Does trouble have a name?"
  969. > He gives the AFV's rear hatch a couple of knocks, and shortly it slides open. "Yeah, Spitfire. Don't expect her to follow orders unless you yell it real loud, though."
  970. > Kivan climbs up into the AFV and you peer in after him. Despite his warning, what you see surprises you - four soldiers sit tensely guarding a single pegasus, her disheveled hair a reddish-yellow and body only a bit lighter yellow.
  971. > Instead of a ziptie her wings are bound up with a harness, which they also have used to actually chain her to some of the interior equipment racks. Her legs have been hobbled in pairs; seems they really didn't want her moving around one bit.
  972. > Her jaw is also wrapped in a tough-looking muzzle, though it did nothing to block her eyes - or keep you from seeing the visceral hatred that drips from them the moment she spots you.
  973. > The sheer force of the look she skewers you with gives you pause. You've seen a lot of different emotions from these ponies - including hostility, anger, humiliation, and fear. Never have you seen one that acidly hateful.
  974. > Kivan's men carefully unhook her from the AFV's interior, loosening the hobbles around her legs just enough to allow her to walk.
  975. > They don't even bother speaking to her, instead using the chains anchored on either side of her harness to guide her of the vehicle.
  976. > Your men grab the leads as soon as possible.
  977. > Despite her still-hobbled hooves, the pony leaps down from the AFV's back door, managing to land evenly - though not before shooting each of your men an equally vicious look.
  978. > You get it. She's trying to show she can do what she wants regardless of the bindings put on her.
  979. > You turn back to Kivan.
  980. "Well, thanks for the delivery. If this is it, I'm going to get back inside."
  981. > Kivan rolls his eyes at the sarcasm. "Yeah, yeah. You're a lucky bastard, getting to stick back away from the front."
  982. > You snort.
  983. "Tell that to my men, having to patrol through an already jumpy populace that we're about to dump gasoline on. I still think whoever made this decision is crazy."
  984. > Kivan shrugs a 'what can you do?' kind of shrug and turns off, yelling for his men to mount up again.
  985. > You start off back towards the prison gate, one soldier holding one of the leads on either side of Spitfire and the remaining two plus yourself following behind.
  986. > The moment you look up to signal the men on watch to open the gate, Spitfire makes her move.
  987. > You look back down as you hear a heavy grunt, just in time to see Spitifre bounce off of the armored chest of one of the men leading her.
  988. > And there's the first escape attempt.
  989. > Crazy pony must have leapt straight from a stand-still to try and tackle him.
  990. > Fortunately, your soldier's bulk works against her - while he falls back to his knees, he keeps ahold of the lead he held.
  991. > Inertial promptly turns against Spitfire as the lead pulls taught and jerks her to the ground.
  992. > You give her a flat stare.
  993. "If you're done flopping around, get back on your feet and let's get moving again. You're not going to just walk away."
  994. > She spits around the gag towards you, but pulls herself upright again.
  995.  
  996. > The hike across the interior yard and down the interior halls goes off without any further escape attempts.
  997. > Instead she relegates herself to glaring at every human she can spot and growling at any who come particularly close.
  998. > More worrying than that to you, however, is the dozens of pairs of curious eyes you saw peering out of the windows.
  999. > Your other prisoners know she's here now, and any who are out today will find out soon enough.
  1000. > You were rather hoping that could have been put off until it could be broken quietly to them. Having it introduced to them by seeing Spitifre all but dragged across the yard?
  1001. > Not how you were planning it.
  1002. > Oh well.
  1003. > You move down to the end of one hall, where a cleared-out janitorial closet had been repurposed to act as a solitary cell.
  1004. > LT had called it necessary when explaining this situation to you. Given how this pony had acted so far, you were inclined to agree.
  1005. > You remove the leads from her harness, but keep the hobbles on her hooves. If she escaped, it'd slow her down at least. And if LT disagreed he could chew you out later.
  1006. > Eyeing the muzzle, you take a shot in the dark at how to try and calm her a little.
  1007. "If I take that gag out, are you going to keep your teeth to yourself?"
  1008. > She spits at your feet again.
  1009. > Well, so much for good will. At least she was honest.
  1010. > Standing, you turn for the door; your men follow.
  1011. "Suit yourself. Food and water will be around in a few hours."
  1012. > Shutting the door and locking it, you look to the four soldiers accompanying you.
  1013. "Spread the orders around - two men here at all times. One facing the door, one off to the side. You hear her doing anything suspicious, you check it out. She attacks you or anything, just chain her to something again."
  1014. > They all nod.
  1015. "Carrero, Kristof. You two are on first. Patuzzi, Keller - let's head back to gate watch."
  1016. > Splitting up, you wonder again just what the point of this is.
  1017. > Other than making your job a lot harder.
  1018.  
  1019. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  1020.  
  1021. > Bringing Spitfire dinner proved to be mildly problematic.
  1022. > The other prisoners ate in the rooms they slept in, mostly one-time classrooms.
  1023. > Obviously there was no way in hell you were setting her loose in a room like that. The windows might've had bars bolted to them, but you didn't doubt this was one determined pony.
  1024. > Force-feeding wasn't an option - you weren't trained to do that even on humans, and would probably just choke her by accident.
  1025. > Not to mention the idea left a bad taste in your mouth. War was one thing; that was another entirely.
  1026. > You'd have to find a way to convince her to eat without leaving her "cell".
  1027.  
  1028. > After puzzling over it while you complete your watch, you decide to see if getting one of the other prisoners to bring her the food will help at all.
  1029. > There's really only one of them that you know well enough to trust with this kind of thing.
  1030. > You feel kind of bad for dumping this on Swift Mist's head, but it's something that's gotta be done.
  1031. > You peer through the cell door, spotting Mist and motioning to him.
  1032. "Hey, Mist. Come on out here a sec, I need you for something."
  1033. > He walks out, peering up towards you. "Yes, Sergeant Sir?"
  1034. > Still feels weird to hear that.
  1035. "Follow me."
  1036. > You lead him down one of the halls into an empty classroom, currently filled with MREs stacked in crates.
  1037. > Closing the door behind him, you sit down on one of the crates; across from you, Mist does the same.
  1038. "Right. The name Spitfire - what can you tell me about her?"
  1039. > His eyes widen slightly, the look of someone who's just had something unpleasant confirmed. "She's here, then? Some of the others were talking after I got back from work duty..."
  1040. > Yeah, see this is why you'd have preferred to keep things reasonably quiet.
  1041. > No point in hiding it now, though.
  1042. "Yes, she is. She's not wounded, but we're keeping her separate for now."
  1043. > Mist nods, looking down to the floor. Before you have to remind him of your question, he starts to talk.
  1044. > "She's, uh, the captain of a team called the Wonderbolts. They mostly did shows before the war, but sometimes got called out on emergency duty. I know the 'bolts all got called up to combat when things got bad, but after that..."
  1045. > "I don't know. I haven't heard anything about them since we finished training."
  1046. "Did she ever have a reputation of being... kind of bitter and bitchy?"
  1047. > Mist stares at you in confusion until you realize that human slang probably doesn't carry over to ponies very well.
  1048. "Uh, was she ever thought of as really hostile? Like, well-beyond-normal aggressive, all the time?"
  1049.  
  1050. > "Oh!" Mist perks up, then shakes his head. "No, not really. I mean, I heard from a friend who got into the Wonderbolts training academy that she was rough on the recruits, but really - everything else I've heard is that she's pretty nice, kind even."
  1051. > Apparently recruits being given a hard time is a universal standard.
  1052. > That didn't really give any good reason for her to be acting that way, though. You scratch your head, humming softly.
  1053. > "What's wrong with her, Sergeant Sir?"
  1054. > Word's going to get out anyhow, may as well. You start talking.
  1055. "I can understand ponies being upset with us, Mist, but Spitfire - she's not just mad. It's like she's desperate to pick fights, even fights she can't possibly win."
  1056. > Swift Mist stares at you, his look pained and confused. His wings twitch slightly against the ziptie that binds them.
  1057. "It's bad, Mist. We've been told to try and keep her safe and out of trouble, but the way she's been acting - I'm worried she's going to get herself hurt."
  1058. > It doesn't need saying that you mean 'wounded by a guard.' Mist gets it, though he still looks just as lost.
  1059. > "I don't... when we surrendered to you, we were so desperate, we couldn't even think of fighting. I don't know what might have happened to Spitfire to make her that angry."
  1060. > "...sir...? Why are you telling me this, Sergeant Sir?"
  1061. > And now the 64,000 dollar question: How much do you dare tell Mist? Everything up until this point was stuff that was pretty much guaranteed to end up in rumor anyway (if not how you'd phrased it).
  1062. > But telling him more means giving up information.
  1063. > The LT would probably back you, but who else?
  1064. > How much do you trust Swift Mist?
  1065. > He's been helpful, yes, but that was because it benefited the other prisoners - ponies who had been his responsibility, his comrades - as well.
  1066. > Expecting him to be reasonable and considering him to be trustworthy were two entirely different things.
  1067.  
  1068. > But you don't really have a choice either, do you? Whoever in the chain of command decided handing you a both literal and metaphorical spitfire was a good idea has forced your hand.
  1069. > Just like your hand was forced in encountering these ponies in the first place, and humanity's hand was forced into open warfare with them in the first place.
  1070. > You need to take a first step.
  1071. "I'm telling you because I need your help, Mist. I'm concerned about what'll happen if things go bad here."
  1072. > Mist nods a little bit, silent but obviously paying attention. He gets how important this is.
  1073. "I know there's got to be a million rumors flying around already, and the sooner we squash the worst of them, the less likely it is somebody will get hurt."
  1074. "But that's not all. Mist... she isn't going to behave. I don't know how we're supposed to feed her. I don't know how they did before handing her off to us; maybe they had a better cell they could let her loose in safely."
  1075. > The walls in the school-turned-prison are solid brick, not easily moved.
  1076. > But neither you nor the LT want to risk Spitfire breaking out... or harming herself crashing against the hardened walls, accidentally or otherwise.
  1077. > You pull off your helmet; it's a safe bet considering that you're not on duty at the moment and Swift Mist isn't likely to attack you.
  1078. "Mist, I'd really appreciate it if you could bring her some food. I think she's less likely to go off the wall if it's one of you bringing it to her."
  1079. > Swift Mist gives a jerky little nod. He's not really comfortable with the idea, you can tell, but seems to get your logic.
  1080. "One of the men will watch you at a distance, but it'll mostly be you in there with her. Maybe you could talk to her some if this works? See if you could figure out what's gotten into her, if she really was as calm as you say she was."
  1081.  
  1082. > "I'll do it, Sergeant Sir. I, um, just have two questions?"
  1083. > You nod for him to go ahead.
  1084. > "Why me, Sergeant Sir?"
  1085. > Of course he starts with the heavy one.
  1086. "A couple of things, really. First is, I know you're competent and reasonable. I can expect you to do this right. The other bit..."
  1087. > Again you pause, but after a moment you realize how silly it is to hold back now.
  1088. "I kind of respect you, Mist."
  1089. > His eyes widen in shock - a strange appearance, considering how wide they are already.
  1090. "Look... remember about what you said in that field, when you first surrendered to us?"
  1091. > He nods again, silently listening.
  1092. "You just missed your old life and wanted to go home. Well, that's how a lot of us feel too. We didn't choose to come here - not for a war, anyway - and if it ended tomorrow we'd be smiling all the way home."
  1093. > Assuming it ended in their princesses surrendering, but you don't say that.
  1094. > Mist seems kind of surprised by what you said, though. Did he really think you wanted to just roll over and conquer Equestria?
  1095. "But even so, you took care of the ponies under your command first. You could have tried to sneak away, but you lead them into something that could have gone much worse, and you still stood in front - and then went back for the ones who couldn't come."
  1096. > Mist winces lightly at the memory of the artillery-scarred line you had found instead.
  1097. "You took care of your command first, Mist. You did the right, reasonable thing. You aren't a fanatic - trust me, we've got plenty of those back home - and you're looking after your soldiers."
  1098. > You lightly shrug.
  1099. "And I can respect that."
  1100. > Swift Mist stands up, and actually gives you a little bow. What?
  1101. > "T-thank you for that, Sergeant Sir."
  1102. > You shrug, standing as well.
  1103. "Now, lunch will be up in a couple hours. I'll come around and collect you to see about getting Spitfire some food. Until then, let's get you back in with the rest."
  1104.  
  1105. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  1106.  
  1107. "Alright, Mist. Here's how it's going to go: When I open this door, I'll go in first. You follow me in. I'll take her muzzle off and then you can bring her the tray. If she's agreeable, I'll back off a bit so I'm not hovering over you the entire time. We'll all be watching until she's done, though."
  1108. > There are four of you standing outside Spitfire's cell. Mist, yourself, and two of your squad's privates.
  1109. > Mist has the food tray firmly gripped in his mouth, another habit of ponies that you still couldn't quite get used to.
  1110. > He's tense, his jaw gripping the tray so tightly it's trembling a little.
  1111. > Your two men are also obviously nervous, hands resting on holstered pistols in case something goes wrong in the confined space.
  1112. > You give them all a glance, hoping to calm them down. They relax a bit, you can see they're still on edge.
  1113. > That worries you. You didn't think she was that much of a threat, honestly, bound up the way she was. But if your men are getting antsy, the odds of something going wrong rise.
  1114. > Turning back to the door, you unlock and open it.
  1115. > Instantly you're struck in the chest by an orange-yellow flying ball of rage.
  1116. > Dear god, what's she do - just leap from a standing position? No way she ran into that, her hooves were still hobbled.
  1117. > Even though she weighs probably half of what you do, Spitfire has enough inertia behind her to still hit hard.
  1118. > You take several steps back despite having braced against the impact.
  1119. > The breath is driven from your lungs, but you still have the sense to reach out and grapple the harness wrapped around her barrel.
  1120. > Her inertia spent, Spitfire lands adeptly on her feet.
  1121. > Behind you, your two men have drawn their weapons and raised them. At least they had the good sense to keep their fingers off the triggers.
  1122. > Mist is cowering, his face a visage of shock and surprise. None of his prisoners had ever outright attacked any of their handlers, even during the rare escape attempt.
  1123.  
  1124. "It's okay! It's okay, guys. I've got her."
  1125. > Grabbing the harness with both hands, you bodily drag Spitfire back into the cell.
  1126. "I don't know what the hell you thought that would accomplish, but from now on you're staying in the back."
  1127. > Reaching the rear of the room, you pin her with a knee and snap one of the chain leads back onto her harness; the other end was securely wrapped around a heavy metal rack.
  1128. > Looking down, you meet one of Spitfire's orange eyes. The pinned pegasus is glaring at you with unmitigated fury; you opt to not respond.
  1129. > For a moment it's just the two of you there; quite suddenly you realize how heavily you're breathing as the adrenaline rush wears down.
  1130. "Right, so food's here for you. I"m gonna take that muzzle off you, and then you're going to remain laying right here until my friend brings you the food, okay?"
  1131. > She doesn't respond, but she doesn't try to struggle either, so you take that as an affirmative.
  1132. > Reaching down and keeping your fingers well clear of her mouth (just in case), you undo the muzzle and pull it free of jaws.
  1133. > She works her lips a little the moment it is clear, but stays agreeably still as you stand and back out.
  1134. > When you're back to the door, you look back and motion Mist to come in.
  1135. "You're clear, Swift Mist. Bring it over."
  1136. > The moment she hears 'Mist', Spitfire looks up.
  1137. > Her surprise is obvious; she definitely hadn't been expecting another pony to bring her food.
  1138. > Mist gingerly steps closer; you pull a stun gun from one of your pockets. If she did attack, a pistol wouldn't do much help with Mist in the way.
  1139. > A foot or so away from her, he puts down the tray. "H-hey Spitfire. I, uh, brought you some food. You should, um, try to eat a little. Save up your strength?"
  1140. > His voice is pained; it reminds you of how he sounded when he first surrendered to you.
  1141. > Spitfire lays her head back down; you can see Mist visibly flinch.
  1142.  
  1143. > "Please, Spitfire? It's not going to do you any good to starve yourself..."
  1144. > She is silent, just staring into the wall.
  1145. > Mist lowers his head a bit, only to jump when Spitfire speaks.
  1146. > "So, they finally dragged a pony into doing their dirty work for them. What'd they promise you, not to shoot up your home?"
  1147. > You ignore the jibe; it's nothing you haven't heard before. Mist is shocked, though.
  1148. > "No, I - I chose to. I just thought it would be better for my -"
  1149. > "For your what? You think those murderers will hold up any promise they give you?"
  1150. > Mist shakes his head; despite being an officer, he's totally stunned before this mare. She must really be big stuff to them.
  1151. > "No! I mean, from what I've se-"
  1152. > Spitfire pushes herself upright and Mist clams right up again.
  1153. > She surveys the tray he's deposited before her and apparently decides it's palatable, pushing her muzzle into it and beginning to slowly eat.
  1154. > Mist looks back to you expectantly, unsure of what to do.
  1155. > You give a little motion for him to stay; despite her words this is the calmest you've seen Spitfire.
  1156. > He lays down, going prone in front of her. "I'm, uh, sorry, for what happened to you..."
  1157. > Spitfire lifts her muzzle and gives him a look that Mist visibly shrinks from.
  1158. > "You don't know anything about what I've been through, so don't patronize me by pretending you do."
  1159. > Mist looks down, but to his credit works up the guts to reply. "I-I have, though. I saw a lot of things, when I wore the gold. My comman-"
  1160. > "YOU? You were a royal guard?" Spitfire stares in undisguised awe - though it is not a good kind.
  1161. > Mist gulps, and she eyes him over - probably noticing for the first time the ziptie around his wings and the way he holds himself.
  1162. > "Celestia's wings, you really were. You... you... YOU CHAOS-DAMNED TRAITOR!"
  1163. > Uh-oh.
  1164.  
  1165. > You tighten the grip on your stun gun, your thumb drifting over the triggering stud.
  1166. > Without warning she pulls herself up and draws herself up to her full height.
  1167. > It's not much to you, but she must be terrifying to Mist.
  1168. > You also suspect that only the fact that her chain lead is already nearly taught is keeping Spitifre from trying to jump Mist as well.
  1169. > It certainly doesn't stop her from bawling him out.
  1170. > "HOW CAN YOU COOPERATE WITH THOSE BUCKING MONSTERS?! DO YOU KNOW HALF OF WHAT THEY'VE DONE? DO YOU?!"
  1171. > Mist is on his hooves now, backing away.
  1172. > "You've actually been in the royal guard - seen actual battle - and you're working with them? You disgust me. Get out of my sight, traitor."
  1173. > Well. Shit. It was going so well, too.
  1174. > Mist just keeps backing out.
  1175. > He turns when he reaches the door, trotting the last few steps away. You follow him, backing out the door.
  1176. > Before you close it, you take one look back in.
  1177. > The look Spitfire returns could melt steel. Not just hatred now, she's channeling a deep rage as well.
  1178. > Then the door closes, and the lock slides shut with a very final 'thunk'.
  1179. > You turn to look at your little group.
  1180. > Swift Mist is shaking, still staring into the closed door - still seeing the room beyond.
  1181. > Your two men are quietly replacing their pistols, looking a lot calmer now that the door is shut.
  1182. > You just sigh. So much for your great plan.
  1183. "C'mon, Mist. Let's get you back..."
  1184. > You were going to say 'in your cell', but it somehow didn't seem right to drop that on him right now.
  1185. "...with the others. Get some chow of your own."
  1186. > "Yeah." He turns slowly, starting back down the hallway. "Yeah, I'll... I'll go."
  1187. > You and your two men follow.
  1188. > After Mist is safely in the cell with his fellows, one of your men turns to you.
  1189. > "Sir?"
  1190. "What is it, private?"
  1191. > "What're we going to do, Sir? About... her?"
  1192. > Well, that was the big question, wasn't it?
  1193.  
  1194. "The LT and brass above him will make that call, but for now - we keep her under control and alive, until whoever thought this up starts seeing straight again."
  1195. > You turn to face the both of them.
  1196. "Speaking of which, I'm going to report to the LT. You two are dismissed; return to your posts."
  1197. > They both snap to attention, Yessirs echoing before they head off.
  1198. > You start for the LT's office, already thinking over what you are going to say to him.
  1199. > 'Prisoner Spitfire is clearly out of control and is aggressive to both guards and other prisoners.'
  1200. > 'Recommend she remain harnessed, hobbled, and chained to the cell at all times; muzzled except during feeding times.'
  1201. > 'Any release from this should be done only under heavy supervision.'
  1202. > It's going to be unpleasant to say, but what other choice do you have?
  1203.  
  1204. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  1205.  
  1206. > Spitfire's arrival proves to be quick to brew trouble.
  1207. > Not two days later, you are approached while out with a work crew.
  1208. > A young stallion wants to know if you really have Spitfire as a prisoner.
  1209. > Someone must have seen you drag her into the prison... couldn't be avoided, though you wish it had been.
  1210. > What's worrisome is that in his version of the story, it's her corpse that you were dragging in.
  1211. > You manage to pacify him with a reassurance that Spitfire is alive and safe, but cannot tell him more.
  1212. > For each mind that you settle, though, you are two the next day.
  1213. > Spitfire isn't cooperating yet either; she doesn't speak to anyone in her cell, pony or human.
  1214. > At least she doesn't try to jump anyone anymore.
  1215. > The final straw in relations with the locals comes a little over a week later.
  1216. > You had felt the shift in the city's tone the moment you had begun to head to the worksite that morning.
  1217. > Sullen stares now greet you where you had finally begun to receive hopeful greetings from ponies crossing your group's path.
  1218. > The air itself seems oppressively heavy. Your old nervousness begins to return.
  1219. > When the mare with your team's lunch arrives, she barely speaks - handing out the packages of food and hurrying off with barely a word.
  1220. > She doesn't look any of you in the eye.
  1221. > You find a quiet corner and grab your radio, switching the microphone to the platoon band and giving the mic trigger a squeeze.
  1222. "Uh, Big House, this is Sierra One-One, over."
  1223. > The LT's radio operator responds in short order. "Sierra One-One, this is Big House; I copy you, over."
  1224. "Hey, Big House - did something happen that wasn't in the morning briefing? Feeling real unwelcome out here, a lot of unhappy vibes from the locals."
  1225. > "Copy that, Sierra One-One. Any hostile activity?"
  1226. > You look around again, just in case.
  1227. > A fair few watchers lurk at a distance, staring at your squad and its charges as if you were some unpleasant mess, but none approach.
  1228.  
  1229. "Negative, Big House. Just a lot of observers, none looking to thrilled, over."
  1230. > "Yeah, copy that Sierra One-One. Second squad called in about an hour ago to say the same thing."
  1231. > Second squad was the other group out on work detail that day. It wasn't just you, then...
  1232. > "Sierra One-One, pull back in if you feel threatened. Otherwise, normal schedule applies, over."
  1233. > Not big enough to be a real worry, then. You wish your nerves could agree with that sentiment.
  1234. "Copy that, Big House. I'll give you another call if things get bad. Sierra One-One, over and out."
  1235. > Just because it's not you alone doesn't make you any calmer as the day goes on, especially when a pair of unicorns decide to prop their forelegs out of a nearby building's window.
  1236. > You keep one eye on them for the next hour, while the prisoners finish clearing this section of street.
  1237. > When you move onto the next street, many of your followers follow.
  1238. > Walking back to the prison/barracks is the worst.
  1239. > You can see dozens of ponies peering from alleyways and windows. Occasionally an incomprehensible whisper reaches your ears... what could have set them off like this?
  1240. > Walking back through the front gate of your 'home', you peer up to see third squad on guard duty.
  1241. > They seem exceptionally tense as well, rifles held loosely and the two machine gun nests fully manned.
  1242. > As soon as the prisoners are back in their cells and secured, you head off to find third squad's sergeant.
  1243. > He's relatively easy to locate, kneeling behind one of the windows overlooking the main gate.
  1244. "Hey. What's got everyone spooked? We were really feeling the love out there, and the LT"s RTO said 2nd felt the same way."
  1245. > He lifts his eyes briefly to grunt at you. "There was some kind of big rally early today. Rumor is some hotshot rebel types from outside the city snuck and were raising up some rabble about us."
  1246. > Your eyebrow goes up.
  1247. "So they flipped around the entire city's idea of us overnight?"
  1248.  
  1249. > "No, that would have been the raid 2nd the guys from 4th company pulled off early this morning."
  1250. > "Broke up a big gathering, but apparently missed the real troublemakers and just arrested some random local civvies."
  1251. > Oooh.
  1252. > Yeah, that could be troublesome.
  1253. "An naturally, they forgot to mention it in the morning briefing."
  1254. > He nods. "Naturally. The LT found out same time as the rest of us."
  1255. > You groan, shaking your head; if it was a different branch of the APEF, you could at least understand that.
  1256. > This was just frustrating, though.
  1257. "You guys see any of the fallout back here?"
  1258. > He shakes his head. "Lotta unhappy looks and a couple of sharp words, but nothing serious."
  1259. > Best you could hope for so far.
  1260. > Unfortunately, the coming days bring nothing good.
  1261. > News of another offensive in central Equestria had filtered into the city.
  1262. > The first time someone yells an insult shouldn't have been a surprise, but it still is.
  1263. > "MURDERING SCUM!"
  1264. > You spin towards the voice, but only see a brownish tail vanishing around a corner to the sound of hoofbeats.
  1265. > At least your men are disciplined enough not to pursue.
  1266. > It's just the first of many.
  1267. > "Murder", "torturer", "monster" - the kinds of things humans had been yelling at each other since the dawn of time.
  1268. > In some ways the ponies weren't that different, it seemed.
  1269. > Others were more confusing.
  1270. > "Filthy apes", "Nightmare spawn".
  1271. > "Tirek's children" confuse you until the rare helpful pony explained it to someone in third squad.
  1272. > That guy sounded like a real piece of work.
  1273. > The food deliveries are brusque affairs now, a simple and mostly silent unloading of the cart before Harvest - or whoever delivers the food that day - swiftly canters off.
  1274. > It is during one such visit that things finally hit the fan.
  1275. > You are quietly watching over the work team, scanning for any ponies coming to close.
  1276. > Bountiful Harvest pulls her cart from group to group, eventually moving beside you. "Excuse me?"
  1277.  
  1278. > You look down; she is looking back up at you.
  1279. > Her voice is nervous, a carefully-hidden tremble in it.
  1280. > "The food's all been hoofed out, but the yoke for my cart seems to have become twisted. Can you try to fix it?"
  1281. > Despite the recent return of your nerves while out and about, Harvest still ranks among Ponies you trust.
  1282. > You kneel beside her, taking a careful hold on the yoke she uses to pull the cart.
  1283. "It doesn't seem that bad, just a little bi-"
  1284. > Her muzzle is practically jammed under the rim of your helmet, next to your ear.
  1285. > "There's going to be an attack. Tonight, maybe tomorrow. Soon. I heard them talking."
  1286. > She isn't even bothering to hide the worry in her tone now.
  1287. "You're sure?"
  1288. > "I... I heard some talking. After the big meeting the other night." She sniffs. "Not realy so secret."
  1289. > "There are some strange ponies from out of town. They seem really tough; I think they might be guard deserters. They're going to try to rescue your prisoner."
  1290. > Prisoner?
  1291. > Not prisoners?
  1292. > ...Spitfire.
  1293. > Goddamit, brass, why couldn't you have handed her to someone who knew what to do with her?
  1294. "Do you know how many?"
  1295. > Harvest shakes her head the barest fraction, as if afraid to make any larger motions. "No, I just heard them talking. They way they spoke, though, I think a lot."
  1296. > A pause, and she adds: "I just don't want anymore to die. I've seen enough death - some of my neighbors, my h-husband..."
  1297. > It strikes you how deeply Bountiful Harvest must feel this; no doubt she was aware of the personal risk to her for telling you this.
  1298. "Okay, . If you're really sure about this... thank you. You've been very brave to tell us this."
  1299. > It feels somewhat odd to say this, but it's true.
  1300. > Without a thought you slip back into professional soldier mode.
  1301. "I want you to go home, Harvest. Go home, lock your door, and try to stay away from any windows if fighting reaches you."
  1302. > She nods, now openly trembling.
  1303. > You give her what you hope is a reassuring smile.
  1304.  
  1305. "Go now. We'll get everyone safe on our end... and I mean everything."
  1306. > You motion meaningfully to the prisoners on the work team.
  1307. > She catches your meaning. "Please do!"
  1308. > She trots off at a hurried pace; it occurs to you that you'd never even fixed her yoke.
  1309. > If there was anything wrong with it in the first place.
  1310. > You have to wait until she's out of sight before you take your next step.
  1311. > Move to fast and it would be obvious.
  1312. "Break-break. Big House, this is Sierra One-One. We've got a priority situation, over."
  1313. > "Big House actual here. Go ahead, Sierra One-One." Evidently you got the LT's attention.
  1314. > Bountiful Harvest's report is passed on in turn, along with your own thoughts on the topic.
  1315. "If I had to guess, Sir, I'd say a core of trained guard using an angry mob as cannon fodder."
  1316. > "Concur, Sierra One-One. You'd better get back here ASAP."
  1317. "Copy that, Big House."
  1318. > A pause.
  1319. "...going to be a lot of dead civvies, Sir."
  1320. > The LT's concurring grunt is audible over the radio. "I'll get the Captain on the line and request some more riot control support."
  1321. "Good to hear, sir. We'll be on out home now; Sierra One-One over and out."
  1322. > Shutting the radio, you turn to the rest of your group.
  1323. "Carrero, Kristof, Patuzzi, Keller! Get your groups up; we're turning in early. Back home, swift march. Go!"
  1324. > They don't even bother asking for an explanation.
  1325.  
  1326. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  1327.  
  1328. > By the time you're back to the base, it's obvious that preparations are underway.
  1329. > Extra sandbags have been filled and placed around the converted school you are housed in.
  1330. > Windows turned into effective firing pedestals and the roof line broken up by revetted nests overlooking key positions.
  1331. > The ponies have long since figured out that something is up, and mutter nervously among themselves as they are herded back to their "cells".
  1332.  
  1333. > You check the bars bolted to the windows of each of the one-time classrooms.
  1334. > While it was profoundly unlikely that the mob would reach the inner courtyard, you didn't intend to give them an easy chance.
  1335. > Boxes of ammunition are spread out in key points, ready to be cracked if need be.
  1336. > The lack of more than a handful of nonlethal rounds for each soldier makes you rather concerned, though.
  1337. > The hoped-for reinforcements don't seem to have shown up yet.
  1338. > In a few moments of peace between jobs you pause in a storeroom, taking a quick breather.
  1339. > Your mind wanders, releasing the focus you've held for a while now.
  1340. > As it does so, an idea slowly begins to form.
  1341. > A good one.
  1342. > Standing up, grab a stun gun and all but fly out the storeroom door.
  1343. > You stride through the hallways, around two men lugging a machine gun up a flight of stairs, and to a familiar doorway.
  1344. > Even amid this chaos, Spitfire's cell is guarded by two men off of third squad.
  1345. > You nod to them, motioning to the locked entrance.
  1346. "I want to see her."
  1347. > They look to one another, then shrug. "Can you handle her on your own, sir, or do you need us?"
  1348. > There's no cheek in his question - the last thing anyone needs is a wounded sergeant right now.
  1349. "I'll be fine, soldier. I've handled her before, when she wasn't bound down."
  1350. > "Your call, sir. Yell if you need anything."
  1351. > The door unlocked and opened, you pass through. It slams shut again behind you.
  1352. > Spitfire is curled into a yellow-orange ball in the far end of the room, her back to you.
  1353. > Her harness is still chained, preventing her from reaching more than halfway across the room, and the muzzle still in place when she isn't being fed.
  1354. > You pad over to just beyond her reach. Spitfire remains still, only the rise and fall of her sides indicates she is even alive.
  1355. "Spitfire. We need to talk."
  1356. > More silence greets you. You raise your voice a bit, in case she is asleep.
  1357. "Spitfire. It's going to get bad out there. You can stop it."
  1358.  
  1359. > She shifts a little, but still no response.
  1360. "Ignoring me isn't going to sto-"
  1361. > "What possible reason could you give me to lift a feather to spare you trouble?"
  1362. > So she was listening.
  1363. > Her voice is a bit distorted by the muzzle, but the words are clear enough.
  1364. > You take a breath and begin to talk.
  1365. "Some ponies are going to try an storm this place. To get you and the others out."
  1366. > She shifts a bit at that.
  1367. "They're going to be slaughtered, Spitfire."
  1368. > That gets her attention. Spitfire pushes herself onto her stomach and shoots you a murderous glare.
  1369. > "Slaughtering ponies like the rest of your kind. Why am I not surprised."
  1370. > That annoys you. The exhaustion of the day catches up with you, and any cool you had is lost.
  1371. "Shove it, Spitfire. I don't know what the hell got such a stick up your ass, but I'm actually trying to save their lives."
  1372. "They are going to try to lay siege to this place. It is going to go badly for them. Even if they somehow manage to get in, it'll be blood all over."
  1373. > You stand up to your full height and stalk the rest of the way over towards her, leaning over angrily.
  1374. > Despite the fact that she only reaches your hip, Spitfire does not back down one bit.
  1375. "You know what that'll do? Make more people angry. People, ponies, whatever. It's going to get more blood spilt."
  1376. > You reach own on impulse and pull off her muzzle, letting her meet you face-to-face.
  1377. "They want you, Spitfire. You can tell them not to. Tell them it's just going to end badly."
  1378. > She just glares at you for a moment... and then breaks into a slow, rising laugh.
  1379. > "You? Under siege? I'll enjoy watching this for a change."
  1380. > Shaking your head a little bit, you rock back on your heels.
  1381. "What the fuck is wrong with you that saving the lives of your own doesn't mean anything to you?"
  1382. > Spitfire freezes, then laughs again. "What's wrong with me? Let me ask you what's wrong with you lot."
  1383.  
  1384. > "When your army reached Cloudesdale they couldn't get in. You just slip through the clouds. So you just set up outside and boxed the city in."
  1385. > Cloudesdale? That had been one of the first cities APEF forces had reached, back when you were still shipping out.
  1386. > "Can't grow anything up there, so things ran out fast. Any time we tried to get a convoy out, your aircraft shot it down. The unicorns tried teleporting food in, but that was to tiring..."
  1387. > You can see where she is going.
  1388. > "Every day you sent up a message, trying to convince us that we should just surrender, that you were actually doing us a -mercy- by not attacking Cloudesdale itself. By the time we tried a breakout, we were down to condensing the city itself for water. Food?" Spitfire gives a little dismissive snort.
  1389. > You consider pointing out that in a city made of clouds, an attack using bombs and bullets would almost certainly have reaped an even greater toll on civilians.
  1390. > "The breakout itself? A slaughter. Guard and militia went in first; my 'bolts were in the reserve. We got to watch them get torn out of the sky before it was our turn."
  1391. > Despite her cold, calm retelling you can tell that Spitfire is barely just holding back a deep reservoir of roiling emotion from the memory.
  1392. > "I watched my 'bolts go down too. You ever see that, human? Watched your fri- your -family- just get torn down before your eyes? Myself and Misty were the only two to even get away."
  1393. > "Fleetfoot just vanished in a blast, Rapidfire hit the ground hard, Soarin'..."
  1394. > For the first time you see emotion crack through her shell.
  1395. > "Soarin'... lost a wing. Saw him go, spinning out. Said something about finally getting a pie again, and then a scream and he was falling."
  1396. > Well.
  1397. > Shit.
  1398. > Spitfire turns up to stare at you again. Her eyes are sparkling, but her jaw is gritted and she holds back anything more.
  1399.  
  1400. > "You get it now, human? You starved us out when we don't fight and tore us apart when we did. Watching you squirm a bit for a change will be just fine with me."
  1401. "And the fact that you could save the lives of many more ponies means nothing to you? The fact that you could stop others from having to go through what you did?"
  1402. > She snorts. "You're conquering us, even when we don't fight. At least this way they can say they stood up for what is right."
  1403. > You stand, turning away. There's a million points you could make, a million flaws in her reasoning... but you don't bother.
  1404. > No sense in arguing with someone that deeply set in their views.
  1405. > "You want my cooperation, human?"
  1406. > You turn back, listening again.
  1407. > "Bring Soarin' back to me. That's the only way."
  1408. "You just said-"
  1409. > "I kNOW WHAT I SAID!"
  1410. > ...ah.
  1411. > With a shake of your head, you knock on the door and step back out.
  1412. > You still have preparation work to do.
  1413. > When you reemerge, the sky has finally darkened into night.
  1414. > The courtyard is a busy mess of soldiers running back and forth.
  1415. > Four heavy armored trucks had shown up, and what looked to be a whole platoon of military police was unloading gear from them.
  1416. > Extra barricades, low-frequency LRADs to be mounted on the roof, multiple-shot grenade launchers being loaded with the nonlethal rounds...
  1417. > You spot the LT talking to one of the MPs and grab his attention.
  1418. "This all they sent over to us, Sir?"
  1419. > He dismisses the MP and nods to you. "Yeah, seems someone over on the main base caught word of this from a different source and snagged all the availables for themselves."
  1420. "Even though the threat was explicitly against us, here."
  1421. > The LT shakes his head. "Not in the version they told. No idea if they heard a different version, or just forgot a couple facts."
  1422. > Figures, someone trying to cover their own rears probably.
  1423. > "Where were you anyway, Sergeant?"
  1424.  
  1425. "Trying to talk the prisoner Spitfire into helping us, sir. I think it's likely that she'll be the focus of their efforts."
  1426. > The LT nods in agreement. "Any luck?"
  1427. "No, Sir. If anything, I'd say she's looking forward to it, sir."
  1428. > He shakes his head in disbelief. "Would have saved both us and them a lot of mess. Get back to your squad, Sergeant; I think we're going to need all available men tonight."
  1429. > You find yourself wishing you didn't agree.
  1430.  
  1431. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  1432.  
  1433. > The ponies hold off just long enough for you to get some shut-eye.
  1434. > It's not much, though.
  1435. > You're shaken awake by one of your men not half an hour after you lay down.
  1436. > "Sarge? Sarge, gotta get up. We've got company out on the streets."
  1437. > You grunt, sitting up and checking your watch.
  1438. > 10:12 PM.
  1439. > Of course they had to pull this in the middle of the night.
  1440. > You quickly strap on your body armor - you'd not bothered changing out of your clothes - and grab your rifle from its rack.
  1441. > Arriving on the roof of the building, you find most of your squad already up and blearily rubbing sleep from their eyes.
  1442. > The last two come up the stairs behind you.
  1443. > It's gone cloudy at some point, not a star or even this world's oddly-large moon to be seen in the sky.
  1444. > Without the pegasi up to handle it on a wide scale, the weather did seem to have gone back to more Earthlike randomness.
  1445. > It'd be comforting to have something a bit like home, except that it denied you another source of light to see what was going on.
  1446. > Drop lights have been spread around the rooftop to give you and the MPs something to see by.
  1447. > Peering out over the edge, you spot a number of ponies milling about in the streets beyond.
  1448. > It isn't many, but the streets around your base don't see a great deal of traffic.
  1449. > They aren't even bothering to hide themselves before things kick off either, which strikes you as odd
  1450. > Were they betting on you not being willing to fire on a civilian crowd?
  1451. > Or was this a protest of some kind before the riot?
  1452. > You tighten your grip on your rifle in concern; hopefully the nonlethal stuff the MPs brought would be enough.
  1453. > Hunkering down, you watch more ponies trickling in, the small clusters growing into a reasonably-sized crowd.
  1454. > You can hear extra generators in the yard being primed and started in expectation that their power would be needed.
  1455. > Beside you, one of your men peers over an unlit spotlight. "Awful lot of bodies, sir..."
  1456. > You nod slightly.
  1457.  
  1458. "At least they don't seem like they're thinking about rushing us yet."
  1459. > You can see the unicorns' horns glowing like some kind of overcharged cone lamps.
  1460. > Others are lighting torches and lanterns to carry with them. Privately you are thankful the building you are in is solidly-built
  1461. > Finally the crowd begins to advance towards you.
  1462. > Looking off to the side, your stomach drops a bit as you see the glow of horns and torches growing from the side streets as well.
  1463. > Seems like they're going to surround you straight from the start.
  1464. > Glancing around at your men, you reach out to pat one on the shoulder.
  1465. "Easy, guys. Let the MPs do their thing first; we only get involved if they rush us."
  1466. > About the time the crowd reaches a block away, they start to chant.
  1467. > It takes you a few seconds to figure it out, but once you do the words don't surprise you one bit.
  1468. > "Let them free! Let them free! Let them free!"
  1469. > In response, the MPs flick on their spotlights and LRADs.
  1470. > More than a few ponies are wearing hooded cloaks and strips of cloth bound around their muzzles.
  1471. > That worries you. Not wanting to be recognized doesn't bode well for this ending peacefully.
  1472. > "PLEASE DISPERSE NOW. THIS IS A DESIGNATED MILITARY FACILITY; PLEASE DISPERSE NOW."
  1473. > The LRADs give the MP's voice a tinny, somewhat distorted quality; initially the ponies flinch back from the sudden sound but quickly rebound.
  1474. > They're pressing against the barriers now, the front row rearing up on their hind legs to press against it.
  1475. > "DISPERSE NOW. ANY ATTEMPT TO BREACH THIS FACILITY WILL BE REPELLED WITH FORCE. PLEASE DISPERSE NOW."
  1476. > The ponies don't seem inclined to listen, but abruptly begin to quiet down.
  1477. > It takes you a bit to see why, but at last you notice the crowd parting to allow a table to be pulled up to the barrier.
  1478. > A unicorn climbs on to the top - cloaked and masked, of course - and begins to speak.
  1479.  
  1480. > His voice is amplified, though it lacks the mechanical tone a loudspeaker would give. Must be magic of some kind.
  1481. > "Quiet now, quiet now! We are all very passionate here, I am sure, but we must be quiet!"
  1482. > A leader? This could be good. Better than having to deal with an angry mob alone.
  1483. > The MP running the LRADs appears to agree, since you do not hear any more of his voice.
  1484. > The last few ripples of conversation fall away, the thrumming buzz of the generators rising up again from the courtyard now that the greater roar is gone.
  1485. > "I am sure nopony here has failed to see what we have all noticed these last few weeks now."
  1486. > "I am sure all of you have seen what these humans have been doing to their prisoners - forcing them to work, to clear the roads so even more of their armies can swarm onto our land."
  1487. > Okay, so he wasn't technically wrong there. A lot of the roads the work teams had cleared were because supply convoys needed them.
  1488. > But still, you definitely weren't 'forcing' them.
  1489. > "We have seen how they never let their prisoners leave their sight, chaining them together like the tyrant Sombra!"
  1490. > You have no idea who 'Sombra' is, but apparently it's a loaded name among the ponies.
  1491. > They all shift and boo on cue, until the unicorn raises one leg to silence them.
  1492. > Somewhere behind you, one of your men mutters, "Will somebody please shut this pinhead up before he gets them all out for our blood?"
  1493. > You hold your silence; as far as you're concerned anyone not immediately egging them on to charge the barriers was buying you time.
  1494. > "And now we have all heard the newest outrage - the hero Spitfire, captain of the Wonderbolts, is being held in a cage, unable to even stretch her wings!"
  1495. > The MP on the LRAD appears to have had enough.
  1496. > "THIS IS AN OFFICIAL MILITARY FACILITY OF THE APEF FORCES. ALL PRISONERS HELD AT THIS FACILITY ARE HELD UNDER CONDITIONS AS LAID OUT IN OUR MILITARY CONVENTIONS."
  1497.  
  1498. > "VISITATION BY A NEUTRAL PARTY TO ADDRESS YOUR CONCERNS CAN BE NEGOTIATED. FOR NOW, PLEASE DISPERSE. HOSTILE ACTIVITY TAKEN TOWARDS THIS FACILITY WILL RESULT IN FORCEFUL DISPERSION."
  1499. > The crowd surges forward again; you can hear more than a few voices yelling from behind the barriers. "Liar!" "Torturers!" "Human scum!"
  1500. > A few stones and bottles are hurled up from the crowd by hoof and TK field.
  1501. > Your men don't flinch, but you cen tell they are steeling themselves against the crowd.
  1502. "Easy, guys. Easy. Let the MPs do their thing."
  1503. > One of your men grunts. "They better do something fast. I'm not liking just sitting around up here all exposed."
  1504. "I know, guys, I know. Keep cool, let the MPs work."
  1505. > The cloaked unicorn raises his foreleg again, and once more the crowd goes quiet to. "You ask us to trust you, to negotiate with you. But how can we..."
  1506. > You are distracted as one of your men pats you on the shoulder and points to one of the buildings. "Sarge, check that roof at seventy yards, got some possible activity up there."
  1507. > Raising your rifle to your shoulder, you scan the rooftop he had pointed out through your scope.
  1508. > It takes you a couple passes to see it, but eventually you spot what he had seen.
  1509. > More ponies, also cloaked and masked, crowding just below the roofline.
  1510. > The light from the crowd below makes them hard to spot except when they move.
  1511. > Sweeping the adjacent rooftops, you spot more huddled shapes.
  1512. > Not good. Those aren't just upset ponies; they look organized.
  1513. > You're about to report it in when third squad calls it in on the platoon circuit; they saw the same thing.
  1514. > You just confirm their sighting.
  1515. > "ALL PONIES, PLEASE DISPERSE NOW. IF YOU CONTINUE TO REFUSE, WE WILL USE FORCE TO DISPERSE YOU."
  1516. > Looks like talks with that leader didn't pan out.
  1517. > The ponies don't react well; again the first and second ranks of the crowd rear up to try and lean on the barrier.
  1518.  
  1519. > Looking to the side, you notice the unicorn who had been egging on the crowd has vanished.
  1520. > Despite your position far above the crowd, you feel a drop of sweat run down your back. Provocateurs vanishing is never good news; it means they expect to need to get out of the way.
  1521. > Around the rooftop, the LRADs switch over to siren mode.
  1522. > Behind them, it's not to bad, but you can see the ponies flinch back as one in response to waves of skull-pounding sound wash over them.
  1523. > It's shortly followed by the strangely soft thunk-thunk sound of the MPs firing their grenade canisters out into the crowd.
  1524. > They arc out far, bouncing off the buildings across the road to land among the crowd and begin ejecting thick white clouds of CS gas.
  1525. > For the hundredth time you are thankful most unicorns can't grab objects that small and that fast out of midair.
  1526. > Another wave of ear-aching sound is blasted out by the LRADs, and for a few moments you see the crowd beginning to waver.
  1527. > The LRADs especially seemed to give them second thoughts.
  1528. > Back and forth it goes for an indeterminable amount of time.
  1529. > The crowd surges forward against the barriers every time the cloaked figure speaks up, only to fall back, ears flat each time the LRADs sound.
  1530. > Even the cloaked figures on the rooftops have stopped moving, deterred by rising clouds of stinging aerosol and the pounding sirens.
  1531. > Neither you or your men speak now, the situation being far, far to tense.
  1532. > It's as though any interruption could break the slow progress being made against the crowd.
  1533. > Another wave of grenades soar out, this time bursting with firecracker-loud pops that even you and the others on the rooftop flinch from.
  1534. > It suddenly strikes you that this must be the most terrifying for the prisoners in their cells below.
  1535. > No sense of what is going on, or what could happen in the next few moments.
  1536.  
  1537. > Just the angry roaring of the crowd filtering through the walls, along with the hellish screeches of the LRADs and pops of concussion grenades.
  1538. > You're surprised by the thought, but can't help feeling that they don't deserve this.
  1539. > Swift Mist, Aurora Gaze and the rest did the reasonable thing and gave up fighting.
  1540. > And now they're the ones under siege without any idea of what is going on.
  1541. > A third wave of grenades is launched, mixed CS and concussion this time.
  1542. > At last the crowd begins to break, whole sections of ponies breaking off and fleeing from the eye-burning gas and painfully loud sirens.
  1543. > You allow yourself a small smile. Maybe you'll get through this night after all.
  1544. > And then it all goes to hell.
  1545. > Three things happen at once:
  1546. > First, a far-off crack-rumble splits the air. Not thunder but an explosion, loud enough to be heard even over the LRADs.
  1547. > Your attention is dragged away just in time to see the city's skyline illuminated by several other sharp flashes, followed by the rolling thuds of more large explosions.
  1548. > A sinking feeling forms in your stomach as you realize that's where the rest of the base is.
  1549. > Second, just as you are looking off towards the explosions, a line of well-aimed unicorn kinetic bolts snaps out from the darkened rooftops, impacting along the parapet with furious crack-crack-cracks.
  1550. > Spotlights explode with arc-white flashes of current before their breakers cut.
  1551. > Most of the LRADs just collapse, but one dies with a strange warbling noise like a dying animal.
  1552. > And three men collapse nearby you, two clutching broken bones where the bolts impacted.
  1553. > One is silent and still.
  1554. > Finally, a second round of bolts sail up from the rear of the chaotically milling crowd of ponies below.
  1555. > Screams start to rise as the scene descends into confusion.
  1556. > So much for getting through the night easily.
  1557.  
  1558. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  1559.  
  1560. > Immediately you can tell this has gone well beyond anything the MPs are capable of handling with CS gas and flashbangs.
  1561. > A couple of beleaguered grenadiers are still trying to fire their nonlethal rounds into the crowd, but this time the grenades are expertly grabbed in glittering multicolored fields soon after landing and tossed back to the base of the wall you are leaning over.
  1562. > Fucking pinheads.
  1563. > A second volley of unicorn bolts slams into your parapet and another soldier goes down with a cry - someone from your platoon this time.
  1564. "Squad! Weapons free; find a target and open fire!"
  1565. > An enthusiastic chorus of yessirs greets you.
  1566. > Soon the air is filled with the staccato pop-pop of rifle fire; soon enough it is followed by the louder thudding of one of the 240s near the gate opening up as well.
  1567. > "All squad units, all squad units, weapons free! Weapons free! Engage hostile targets of opportunity."
  1568. > The LT's voice is barely audible over the platoon radio between the weapons fire and the screaming of the crowd below, still milling about in confusion
  1569. > More bolts are flying up from their rear, slamming into the barriers at the front of the crowd fruitlessly.
  1570. > They only chip flakes from the hardened concrete, but it also drives the crowd back towards your position.
  1571. > What parts of the crowd need driving, anyway. Some of them still seem to be out for your blood.
  1572. > Some, though...
  1573. > Even from the rooftop it is obvious that some are milling about in obvious confusion and panic.
  1574. > Their overly-expressive faces twisted visages of terror and shock.
  1575. > The question comes to you again: Did they not expect you to fight back?
  1576. > You refocus on trying to suppress the unicorns on the rooftops.
  1577. > Privately, you much prefer dealing with them targets before having to spot and hit single hostiles among the crowd below.
  1578. > Far to likely to hit someone else at random down there.
  1579.  
  1580. > You can see the ponies' outlined forms dropping when bullets kick up dust around them, but in the low light and confusion it's hard to tell if they are merely ducking or actually being hit.
  1581. > They don't seem to be bothering with shields, which strikes you as odd.
  1582. > Almost as if they want you to keep paying attention to the-
  1583. > Some tiny noise drives you to look up, just in time to catch an indistinct figure diving on you from the darkened clouds above.
  1584. > You catch manage to turn your rifle to catch it before it hits you, but are still knocked to your back.
  1585. > Wings buffet your head, but it does little with your helmet fixed in place by the chinstrap.
  1586. > The thing standing over you snarls something you don't understand and raises a foreleg leg again.
  1587. > You vaguely note the strange, clawlike blades fixed to its hoof.
  1588. > Dropping your rifle, you grab its leg and twist; the blades miss your throat and go skittering off your helmet instead.
  1589. > It rears up again, but jerks to the side as bullets impact its body.
  1590. > The pony collapses heavily on top of you, giving a few more twitches and laying still.
  1591. > One of your men pulls the corpse off, lending you a hand to pull yourself back up with. "I gotcha, Sarge."
  1592. "Thanks. Fucker weighed a ton."
  1593. > Glancing back over at the corpse, you do a double-take when you see it is not just an overweight pegasus.
  1594. > The body is almost entirely grey and black in the harsh shine of the droplights.
  1595. > Plate covers its barrel, flanks and chest, a simple helmet resting on its head, the neck bare except for a segmented guard running down the back.
  1596. > At some point the armor had been painted over matte black, presumably to cut any reflections at night.
  1597. > One thing had been left unpainted, though - a slitted blue eye of polished glass, set directly in the center of the chest.
  1598. > You check its wings, already knowing what you would find.
  1599. > Instead of a fan of feathers, a leathery, bat-like appendage is is fixed to its side.
  1600.  
  1601. > Turning around, you spot at least a dozen similar bodies splayed out in various positions around the rooftop that you can see.
  1602. > Three more bodies of other soldiers as well, a medic already crouched over one.
  1603. > Crouching back down behind the sandbag revetment, you grab your radio, check its set to the platoon frequency, and squeeze the mic button.
  1604. "LT, Sierra One-One; we just got hit by at least two squads of moonies up here, over!"
  1605. > The LT responds quickly enough. "Copy that, Sergeant."
  1606. > Third squad quickly keys in to confirm that they just were hit as well, with two casualties.
  1607. > Turning back to the far roof, you grab your rifle again and quickly sight on a new target.
  1608. > Down below, most of the crowd has finally begin to frantically disperse.
  1609. > "This isn't just a riot, is it sir?"
  1610. "No, it is not. I'd bet those pinheads across the way there are all moonies as well."
  1611. > "What the hell is a moonie?!"
  1612. > You don't recognize that voice; looking aside, you see one of the MPs curled beside you, his back to the sandbag wall.
  1613. "Night Guard, officially. Some kind of separate branch attached to one of their princesses; they mostly come out at night."
  1614. > The MP passes you a box of spare ammunition, something you are quite grateful for. You grab two magazines from the box and pass it on.
  1615. > Two more cracks from your rifle and a target slumps over the parapet it had emerged from behind.
  1616. "Mostly bat-pegasus things like that one back there, but some unicorns as well. If they're committing here, this isn't just a local riot."
  1617. > Beside you, another soldier falls back with a cry, clutching his shoulder.
  1618. > The MP finishes reloading his rifle and takes your soldier's place.
  1619. > No more words are spoken between you except for the bare necessities of battle.
  1620. > Someone finally gets a loudspeaker up and running again.
  1621. > "ALL PONIES BELOW, DISPERSE NOW, DISPERSE NOW. FURTHER ATTEMPTS TO BREACH THIS FACILITY WILL BE MET WITH LIVE FIRE."
  1622. > Well, shit.
  1623.  
  1624. > Firing on civilians still rubs you wrong, but they don't look like they're going to give up anytime soon.
  1625. > "THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING. DISPERSE NOW OR BE FIRED ON."
  1626. > A few more clumps of ponies break and run, but still dozens are trying to push the barriers aside.
  1627. > You keep up your fire against the unicorns still trying to hit you from a distance, but your eyes are on the crowd below.
  1628. "Pull off, you idiots. You're not going to get through that.."
  1629. > They don't, though, and seconds later you see bodies jerk and fall as bullets rip through their ranks.
  1630. > Despite the casualties, the ponies keep pushing.
  1631. > Another round of cracks and even more drop. This time the rearmost ranks begin to flee en mass.
  1632. > Yet a third arc of fire scythes through them, and this time the crowd shatters entirely.
  1633. > You're fairly sure you see a few go down beneath the hooves of other furiously fleeing ponies.
  1634. > As the flight continues, the volume of unicorn fire from various buildings slackens off.
  1635. "Guess they don't feel like fighting us without any push to cover..."
  1636. > It's another twenty minutes before the last unicorn fires a bolt and turns tail.
  1637. > Another fifteen after that until you finally relax.
  1638. > The medics have been busy, moving crouched across the rooftop to recover the wounded where they could.
  1639. > It's a bit past midnight.
  1640. > The night is still periodically interrupted by the low, grinding buzz of anti-aircraft guns firing from the base.
  1641. > You squad is down to less than half strength.
  1642. > Of the seven of you that had arrived on the rooftop, four are still standing.
  1643. > Two of them are wounded.
  1644. > Two others were pulled from the rooftop on stretchers, badly wounded but alive.
  1645. > Dickinson was dead.
  1646. > A kinetic bolt had caught him directly in the face, snapping his head back to far.
  1647. > He'd been gone in an instant.
  1648. > Those who are still alive sit slumped against sandbags, breathing softly now that the rush of battle has faded.
  1649.  
  1650. > The corpses of the night guards had been moved to the edge of the roof and left there until they could be removed.
  1651. > Thirty, all told.
  1652. > That was nothing compared to the butcher's bill on the streets below, though.
  1653. > Bodies of the living and dead lay sprawled together.
  1654. > When ponies emerged from side streets with carts to try and collect the wounded, nobody fired.
  1655. > Arguably they were enemies, but everyone had seen how terrified the ponies had been once actual fighting started.
  1656. > Gradually you become aware of low chatter from somewhere on the street below.
  1657. > "Sergeant? You're going to want to see this, sir."
  1658. > Pulling yourself up to the edge again, your soldier points to just beyond the concrete barrier. "Down there, sir. Looks like they didn't all clear out."
  1659. > Leaning out over the edge, you peer down.
  1660. > Finally you spot a low glow coming from behind the barrier.
  1661. > Seems some diehard holdouts are taking cover beneath it.
  1662. > You frown, nodding.
  1663. "Looks like we've got some that don't want to quit just yet. Pass that down to whoever else is still up here."
  1664. > He turns to move down the roofline. On your opposite side, one of the MPs shakes his head.
  1665. > "Are they to scared to move, or that dedicated?"
  1666. "Quite possibly both..."
  1667. > The soldier you had sent off to point out the stragglers returns soon enough.
  1668. > "Sir, LT's radio is busted, but he says to get off the roof. We're pulling in and hunkering down for the rest of the night."
  1669. > Beside you, the MP raises both eyebrows. "You're giving up the high ground?"
  1670. > You snort at that.
  1671. "High ground's only good if you can hold it. With the numbers we've got left, best to use the hallways as chokepoints."
  1672. > Standing with a stretch, you make your way to the stairway down from the roof.
  1673. "Grab any ammo boxes with anything left in 'em and come on. I don't want to get hit with half our guys still out here."
  1674. > Once inside, you find a room with a good view of the streets and pair off in the windows.
  1675.  
  1676. > Even sleeping in shifts will leave you undermanned, but even a firefight like that has left you tired.
  1677. > There's no way your men could make it through the night.
  1678. > Volunteering for first watch, you quickly find it to be utter tedium.
  1679. > Instead you think back to the faces in the crowd again.
  1680. > Shock, pain, horror.
  1681. > How did they expect soldiers to respond in a situation like that?
  1682. > Why did they come down here if they weren't ready for the obvious outcome?
  1683. > Grunting softly, you reel your thoughts back in and refocus on watching for threats.
  1684. > The ponies behind the barrier have all gone quiet, and there's no sign of any rooftop activity.
  1685. > Were it not for the night guard corpses on the roof, you might be inclined to think they had given up.
  1686. > Another rattle of distant gunfire banishes any residual hope that this might be the case.
  1687.  
  1688. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  1689.  
  1690. > 2:30 AM.
  1691. > You switch off with someone from squad three on watch.
  1692. > Before you turn in you walk the hallways, checking each of the empty rooms to make sure nothing is out of place.
  1693. > Turning a corner, you're met by sharply barked order.
  1694. > "Identify yourself!"
  1695. > An MP is crouched behind an impromptu barricade at the end of the hall, his rifle clutched tightly.
  1696. > Your patience is at an end.
  1697. "Do I look like I have four legs, you idiot? Start paying better attention to things; you'd have heard a hoof on this floor a mile away."
  1698. > He drops untenses a bit, his weapon's muzzle drooping towards the floor, and has the good sense to sound apologetic.
  1699. > "Sorry, sir. Just on a hair edge."
  1700. "Yeah, well stay focused. We're all on a rough edge tonight."
  1701. > Privately you wonder how bad it must be if reinforcements haven't arrived from the main base yet.
  1702. > The LT's radio was busted, sure, but there was a backup in his office.
  1703. > And the MPs must have brought their own gear as well, so it wasn't for lack of communications.
  1704. > The distant echoes of gunfire and the occasional explosion suggested that not all was calm in the city.
  1705. > You turn back towards the room the remnants of your squad was camped out in.
  1706. > Just in time for the lights to go out.
  1707. 'Shit!"
  1708. > The generator is grinding madly from the courtyard; something is clearly wrong.
  1709. > Snapping on your flashlight, you scramble to the room across the hall, looking down on the courtyard.
  1710. > To your shock, the generator isn't just malfunctioning, but appears to have actually half-tipped over into the ground.
  1711. > As you watch is sinks even further, until only half of it is above-ground.
  1712. > It finally chokes out and dies; you can see soldiers appearing at other windows around the courtyard.
  1713. > And then another sinkhole opens up.
  1714. > Right in the middle of the yard, the ground simply collapses away.
  1715.  
  1716. > Fumbling furiously for your rifle, you raise it just in time to see a strangely-hunched figure's head and shoulders emerge from the sinkhole.
  1717. > Human?
  1718. > A light catches its face - an almost comically oversized jaw protrudes from beneath a metal helm.
  1719. > No, not human.
  1720. > "YOU! GET ON THE GROUND, NOW!"
  1721. > Someone else has reacted faster, but the creature - whatever it is - dives back into the hole with a speed that belies it bulk.
  1722. > Bullets impact around the rim of the crater as it vanishes, tossing up little puffs of dirt.
  1723. > No chance to see if any connected.
  1724. > What comes up next instead makes your stomach fall into a pit.
  1725. > The strangely-shimmering crest of a unicorn's shield.
  1726. > Seems the second push has arrived.
  1727. > Even as a second sinkhole opens up across the yard, the shield pushes up and out, expanding into a bubble that covers the nearest doorway.
  1728. > It ripples where bullets slam into it but holds; from what you've seen no individual unicorn could sustain a shield against that fire.
  1729. > The that doesn't bode well for the number of unicorns down in the tunnel.
  1730. > Normal protocol called for you to use a grenade or other large-caliber round to shatter the shield and cripple the caster.
  1731. > In the middle of this, though, that would be fatal.
  1732. > Even as you add your fire to that rippling off the shield, the snap-crack of unicorn bolts echoes from across the hallway.
  1733. "Kristoff, Patuzzi!Where's that unicorn fire coming from?"
  1734. > One of the MPs replies instead. "Behind the barrier, at least six or seven, they're trying to move it too!"
  1735. > Shit. You don't have the men left in your squad to split them.
  1736. > In the courtyard below, someone's flashlight illuminates a third tunnel having opened up, armored bodies already flooding in.
  1737. > That makes the decision for you.
  1738. > Running back into the outer room, you point to the half-filled reserve ammo boxes on the floor.
  1739.  
  1740. "First squad, check your mags and follow me. Rest of you, keep using those boxes and keep anything out there suppressed."
  1741. > "Yes, sir." "Yes, Sergeant!" "On it, sir!"
  1742. > They're technically not your command, but none of the MPs contest your orders.
  1743. > Moments later the remaining four of your squad are furiously pounding down the steps to the first floor.
  1744. > You spread out around the stairwell door, motioning one of your men to open it.
  1745. > Even as he is reaching down for the handle, though, it swings open.
  1746. > A shocked pony in full plate stares in, his eyes wide.
  1747. > For what seems like an eternity he just stares in, despite the spear mounted at his side.
  1748. > Two cracks of a rifle and he collapses, blood already flowing from beneath his helm.
  1749. > The spell is broken; the pony behind him rears up and prepares to charge, spreading his wings and brandishing hoof-mounted clawlike blades.
  1750. > A further three rounds slam into his stomach; he falls to the ground with a cry.
  1751. > From somewhere in the darkness a unicorn bolt soars out, catching one of your men full in the chest.
  1752. > He flies back with a heavy grunt, loosing his grip on his rifle.
  1753. > You and one of your two remaining men respond by returning fire at the half-seen shapes in the dark.
  1754. > Judging by the screams, you're hitting something.
  1755. > Unicorn fire slackens off for a moment, allowing you to turn back to your wounded soldier.
  1756. "Where'd it hit you, Patuzzi? Are you wounded?"
  1757. > He is sitting up, patting his chest and coughing. "I'm okay, sir. It crushed one of my spare mags, but the plate caught it."
  1758. > You offer him a hand up.
  1759. "You going to be okay to fight?"
  1760. > After a second he takes it, shouldering his rifle again and nodding. "I'm good, sir. Hurts like a bitch and a half, but I'm good."
  1761. > From somewhere beyond a noise comes - a repetitive dull thudding, following by an angry crash.
  1762. > It takes you a moment to place it amid the cacophony of battle.
  1763. "They're breaking down the cell doors!"
  1764.  
  1765. > Another of your soldiers sticks his head out into the hallway; instantly, a nearby wall sprouts a pair of arrows with an angry buzz.
  1766. > "At least a full squad of them, sir!"
  1767. > Glancing around, you are interrupted by the pop-pop-popping of a rifle somewhere down the hall; instantly the ponies' attention is diverted.
  1768. "One of the other units must be down here as well. Go, now! We'll hit them from both sides!"
  1769. > Praying you are not caught in any friendly fire from the far end of the hallway - or worse yet, catch a friendly in your own fire - you charge out into the hallway.
  1770. > Sure enough, the cluster of pony guards are all busy hurling bolts down towards the corner at the far end of the hallway.
  1771. "Single rounds and spot your targets well, watch friendly fire!"
  1772. > Going to one knee and hiding half your body in another recessed doorway, you raise your rifle and sight on them.
  1773. > Only one of your men responds with an affirmative, but you can hear all three of their rifles firing as well.
  1774. > A shield briefly flickers into existence to cover the rear of the little crowd of guard, but it collapses quickly under the barrage of fire.
  1775. > Must've been a single unicorn's effort.
  1776. > With that defense gone, the guards quickly begin to collapse.
  1777. > Some of them turn back to try and suppress you, but your squad had expertly spread out over what cover there was in the hall.
  1778. > They can't keep you all down.
  1779. > Finally the last few break and flee into side rooms.
  1780. > You cautiously advance, calling out ahead:
  1781. "First squad here! Four of us, coming forward; check your fire!"
  1782. > An uncertain voice answers back: "Private Mincerr, third squad. Two of us here."
  1783. "You okay down there?"
  1784. > "Got one wounded with me, but we can keep them bottled up, sir."
  1785. "Where's the rest of your squad?"
  1786. > "Trying to keep the courtyard contained, sir. They detached us to try and cover the hallways."
  1787.  
  1788. > Moving a bit forward - cautiously watching the doorway the pony guards had vanished into - you approach the shattered door of one former cell.
  1789. > Inside, dozens of huge, scared eyes greet you.
  1790. > You breath a sigh of relief; the prisoners are still there.
  1791. "Everyone alright in here too?"
  1792. > A soft chorus of varied affirmatives is the response.
  1793. > You think you hear soft weeping in the back somewhere.
  1794. > Unbidden, your thought from earlier comes back: These prisoners are perhaps the worst off in this mess, having tried to escape the fighting once.
  1795. "Okay. All of you stay in there, back against the wall. Any of us come in, you tell them that Sergeant Anon of first squad told you to stay put."
  1796. > They slowly nod.
  1797. "Long as you stay here, you'll be alright. Step out into that hall, someone might very well shoot you."
  1798. > They nod again, rather more actively this time.
  1799. > You aren't pleased about having to leave them unguarded, but the prisoners seem more terrified than anything else.
  1800. > And again, you simply don't have the men to leave even one watching that door.
  1801. > Moving on to the next two doors, the process repeats itself.
  1802. > You can't do a headcount in the darkness, but it seems that none of the prisoners have escaped yet.
  1803. > The last doorway.
  1804. > You don't need to look to know the pony guards are trapped in there.
  1805. > "You out there, human?"
  1806. > Yeah, they definitely are.
  1807. > None of you respond.
  1808. > "We want to negotiate."
  1809. > What?
  1810. "We're listening."
  1811. > You don't really have the authority for this, but you need to keep them talking.
  1812. > "You know we can't get out past you, but you can't come in here without losing a lot either."
  1813. > While he was speaking, you were talking quietly to one of your men.
  1814. > If you're going to break into this room, you're going to need one of the MPs' grenade launchers.
  1815. > Or at least one of the concussion rounds from one.
  1816. > He pads off down the hallway, while you go back to BSing to buy time.
  1817. "Okay, what's your offer?"
  1818.  
  1819. > "You let everyone in here retreat, we won't kill any more of you on the way out."
  1820. > One of your men can't resist a snort, and you feel similarly.
  1821. > That's his offer? It's ridiculous...
  1822. > ...or he's buying for time as well.
  1823. "Uh, well how many exa-"
  1824. > The thundering rumble of collapsing brick comes from within the room.
  1825. > Well, that answered that. They must have collapsed the wall to the courtyard.
  1826. "In, in, in - now!"
  1827. > You spin around the doorframe to face the room.
  1828. > Dust obscures a great deal, but the expected hole is there - the last armored body stumbling over the pile of rubble out into the courtyard beyond.
  1829. "You two, through the mousehole! Patuzzi, cover with me!"
  1830. > The four of you enter the room; as you reach the door, a shape rears up out of the ground in front of you.
  1831. > The hunched thing that had emerged from the tunnel before.
  1832. > This time it can't flee so quickly; the body jerks as bullets slam into it, piercing the armor it is wrapped in.
  1833. > You two men scramble over the debris pile out into the courtyard, yourself and the remaining man firing past them at shapes in the darkness.
  1834. > It seems the guards are in full retreat now, trying to reach the tunnel entrances.
  1835. > Unicorn shields flare and collapse randomly as they desperately try to cover for their comrades.
  1836. > The end of the fighting comes abruptly.
  1837. > One moment, gunfire from multiple windows echoed across the interior.
  1838. > Then, the last body has scrambled down into a tunnel.
  1839. > At some point the ponies outside the barriers had evidently quit as well.
  1840. > Silence reigns.
  1841. > You hear a voice call out, "Check fire, five coming out, north wall!"
  1842. > Keeping behind cover, you watch as five soldiers emerge from a shattered doorway.
  1843. > Cautiously they advance to a the first sinkhole. After peering down it and a moment of discussion, one of them produces a grenade, which is deposited into the void.
  1844.  
  1845. > The explosion coughs up a fair amount of dust from the opening, but seems distant. The tunnel must go down fairly far.
  1846. > Satisfied that the passage has been cleared for the moment, they move on to the next opening.
  1847. > The process is repeated with the three remaining tunnels.
  1848. > No sudden flurry of unicorn bolts or dark shapes descending from above responds to this.
  1849. > You take a deep breath, suddenly aware of how heavily your heart is pounding.
  1850. "Okay guys. Let's get back upstairs, secure that area. We can check the courtyard again if they come back."
  1851. > Wordlessly, the four of your troop back upstairs and retake your original position.
  1852. > The rest of the night passes peacefully for you.
  1853. > Occasionally there is the distant rumble and thud of guns, but no further attempts are made on your position.
  1854. > You don't say how thankful you are for this, but you can see your men are just as grateful.
  1855. > You're also pretty sure they know you are as well.
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