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SgtAnon, Part 2:

By Lurkernon
Created: 19th December 2020 11:28:18 PM

  1. Originally posted in October 2014
  2.  
  3. Part 1: ponepaste.org/2285
  4.  
  5. ------------------------------------------------------------------
  6.  
  7. > Morning came with thunder and rain.
  8. > Not the planned and carefully-controlled storms that you had heard - and once or twice seen - the Pegasi creating.
  9. > A good old Earth-style wild thunderstorm, as the heavy clouds that had rolled in the previous night disgorged their watery contents.
  10. > You half-suspected that the storms might have been created to cover the attack, and now unattended in the aftermath were being allowed to disintegrate.
  11. > In any case, you were a little glad for the rain.
  12. > After the pressure and then chaos of the past twelve hours, the rain was somewhat calming.
  13. > It also washed the blood from the previous night's struggles off the roof and road outside.
  14. > It helped that you weren't being required to work outdoors.
  15. > That was the new guys' business.
  16. > They had shown up practically at first light, four armored vehicles and two trucks disgorging a whole two further platoons into your little holdout.
  17. > Having taken over the actual defense, they left the remnants of your platoon were handle the prisoners.
  18. > Now they worked feverishly to counteract the damage done during the battle.
  19. > Trashed generators were hauled out of the ground and replaced with fresh ones.
  20. > Mouseholes blasted into the walls were sandbagged over to a reasonable height.
  21. > You, meanwhile, sit inside.
  22. > The fighting had badly savaged your platoon, leaving you down to a little over half-strength.
  23. > Of your squad, only four of your original nine were left.
  24. > And you were all exhausted.
  25. > You'd gotten three, maybe four hours of sleep total last night.
  26. > Combined with the stress of fighting, it left you all bone-tired.
  27. > Spread across the entire platoon, there was barely enough men to allow you to sleep in shifts.
  28. > Two-thirds on, one third off; you'd volunteered to let your men sleep first.
  29. > Now, as you got up from your impromptu nap against a storage rack, it was time to return to duty
  30. > Taking your position at the end of a hall, you settle in for the long watch.
  31.  
  32. > The ponies had been moved out of their original cells on account of the shattered doors and into unused rooms.
  33. > You walked between those rooms, pausing to peer into each and make sure the ponies within were calm.
  34. > None were... exactly calm.
  35. > Huddled piles and fearful eyes cast in your direction were in abundance.
  36. > It made sense.
  37. > Several of them had been wounded in the confusion, most by shards of glass as the unreinforced windows had shattered.
  38. > One had caught a stray bullet in the flank, though.
  39. > Amazingly, not one had managed to flee in the midst of the skirmish.
  40. > Whether fear of repercussions if caught or
  41. > Again frustration flares within you; whoever handed you this mess had a lot to answer for.
  42. > Grunting softly, you take a position back at the end of the hallway and lean against the wall.
  43. > Lunch time comes soon enough.
  44. > Lacking the ability to go out and meet one of your normal sources of food for the prisoners, MREs had to be made up for them again.
  45. > They looked unhappy in each room when you brought the lukewarm trays in, but it was food.
  46. > And the same things you were eating, for that matter.
  47. > In the last cell, you spot Swift Mist curled up in the corner.
  48. > While the others finish up their meals, you wander over and squat down next to him.
  49. "Can I talk to you a sec, Mist?"
  50. > He lifts his head blearily. "What do y- what is it, Sergeant Sir?"
  51. > It's still oddly endearing how he calls you that.
  52. > Pausing a moment, you glance about the room.
  53. > None of the other prisoners appear particularly threatening, so you take a seat beside Swift Mist.
  54. "How is everyone doing in here?"
  55. > He doesn't answer for several moments.
  56. > You can see the conflict in his eyes as he begins to respond.
  57. > "We're... in rough shape, sergeant sir. A lot of us... pretty scared."
  58. > Understandable.
  59. > "Bluebelle twisted her ankle. She had a nervous breakdown in the middle of the battle."
  60. > He points to the pony in question, who sits with one leg splayed out oddly.
  61.  
  62. "It real bad?"
  63. > "Just a sprain, Sergeant Sir. She'll be alright, as long as we don't have to march anywhere."
  64. "Anyone else?"
  65. > "No, sergeant sir. Not... physically."
  66. > It doesn't take a genius to figure out what they mean.
  67. > And however mad these ponies were, they seemed to be pretty close to human intelligence.
  68. > Heck, you'd heard of the canine units having dogs with PTSD back home. It wasn't a stretch to see it in talking horses.
  69. > After all, the looks they'd had when they first turned in...
  70. > Yeah, you'd seen that look before.
  71. > Painful silence reigns between you to for a long moment.
  72. "What about you, Mist?"
  73. > "Sir?"
  74. > You look down at the diminuitive creature next to you and study his face.
  75. "You holding up, personally?"
  76. > Your concern is real, but quite practical as well.
  77. > Swift Mist had led this group in, and played a fair part in keeping them docile while imprisoned.
  78. > If he were to suffer a breakdown of his own...
  79. > "I... It's been rough, sir. I can't forget about home, seeing my family again... but I can hold on a bit longer. For them."
  80. > He motions around with one hoof to the other former guardponies.
  81. > Apparently he's picked up on the subtext of your question as well.
  82. > Still, he seems to be in decent shape.
  83. > You'll trust him a bit longer.
  84. "Doing the right thing, Mist. Keep at it."
  85. > A little pat on the withers accompanies your reinforcement.
  86. > Mist looks up and nods to you; it's easy to see he's still feeling the pressure, but his eyes look a little brighter.
  87. > "I'll try, Sergeant Sir."
  88. "Any other concerns?"
  89. > "Just, um... I know your commanders probably don't want to let us out again soon, but maybe we could stretch our wings a little bit in here?"
  90. > He'd stopped asking for the unicorns to have their horn caps taken off a long time ago, when it became clear nobody was comfortable with that.
  91. "I'll look into it."
  92. > A thought suddenly occurs to you.
  93.  
  94. "Hey Mist? Long could one of your go without needing that? Before it becomes actually dangerous?"
  95. > "Probably not more than a week at most. After that dirt and dead feathers really start to build up."
  96. > You grumble unhappily under your breath.
  97. > "Sergeant sir?"
  98. "Don't worry, Mist. Wasn't what you said that annoyed me."
  99. > Technically it was, but that wasn't his fault.
  100. > You just weren't happy to be the one to tell the LT that someone was going to have to let Spitfire out of her harness.
  101.  
  102. > After giving each room time to finish up, the trays are retrieved.
  103. > One prisoner left to handle...
  104. > Any chance of having another pony feed Spitfire was out of the question.
  105. > The building was effectively on lockdown until brigade command was reasonably sure that the attacks would not resume this evening.
  106. > That meant you were going to have to do this personally.
  107. > None of the night guard intruders had found Spitfire's cell, and door remained thankfully untouched during the fighting.
  108. > Ironic, considering she was apparently their primary target.
  109. > The locks are undone quickly enough to allow you entry.
  110. > In addition to the normal food tray, three men behind you carry a rather large basin filled with water behind them.
  111. > Spitifre is awake this time, orange eyes glaring out from her bed in the corner. "You're still alive, huh?"
  112. > One of the men moves to responds; you stop him with a gesture.
  113. "We're alive, yes. And you still need to eat. Once you're done, we're going to let you wash up and preen."
  114. > Actual surprise flickers across Spitfire's face. Apparently she didn't think she'd be let out of the harness either.
  115. > "Well, about time. I thought you damn monkeys were going to keep me tied up until my wings rotted off."
  116. > Again you notice one of the soldiers shift, poorly-concealed anger stamped on his face.
  117. > Not one of your men - a guy off of second squad who'd volunteered to help move the basin.
  118. "Shut it and start eating. Not in the mood to be talkative right now."
  119.  
  120. > She gets up, wandering over to the tray. The chain lead clinks softly as it drags across the floor.
  121. > While she eats, you have the basin brought in and changed up.
  122. > Spitfire finishes, glancing to the basin and back at you.
  123. > One hobbled leg motions to the chain lead and the impromptu bathtub. "That's a bit far for me to reach."
  124. > Stepping to her side, you squat down.
  125. "I'm only going to say this once, Spitfire. When I take this off, you will behave yourself. You will not try anything or provoke anyone."
  126. > You motion to the other men in the room.
  127. "We've got stun guns; you try anything, you're just going to end up on the ground hurting. You behave, this will all go a lot smoother. Clear?"
  128. > The two of you lock eyes in a momentary battle of wills, and then she gives a jerky little nod.
  129. > "Yeah, yeah - you'd shoot me in a second, I get it."
  130. > Not really what you said, but close enough.
  131. "Right. Stay still while I get these off and step away. I'll tell you when to get started."
  132. > Still on edge, you reach down and very carefully begin to undo her bindings.
  133. > The harness around her torso goes first, then the hobbles around her... ankles, you guess?
  134. > Stepping up and away, you back up to a reasonably safe distance if she decides to try another flying-leap.
  135. "Okay. You can get started."
  136. > Stretching out her wings with audible pops, Spitfire goes through a series of interesting-looking stretches involving all six limbs.
  137. > "Oh, that feels so good..."
  138. > You rather suspect that wasn't meant for you, given the sharp look you get a moment later.
  139. > "What, aren't you guys going to piss off and let me bathe?"
  140. > ...did she seriously think you were going to just leave her entirely alone like that?
  141. > You point to the window.
  142. "That's a tight fit, but I don't want to risk you being able to wriggle through it. No, we'll be staying."
  143. > Her eyes narrow. "What, can't resist the sight of a mare bathing? Sick bucks."
  144.  
  145. > It's apparently to much for that guy from second squad. "You, shut up! I don't even know why the Sarge is letting you out of that after what you got us into last night, and if he -"
  146. > Unfortunately, Spitfire snarks right back: "You think I got you into that? That's your own fault for invading; they should be throwing themselves at you until there's not a single one of you left in Equestria!"
  147. > He takes two steps forward, hands balling into fists "Oh fuck you - you attacked us firs-'
  148. "THAT'S ENOUGH."
  149. > You point at him.
  150. "Private, we are not here to argue with her no matter what she says; let it go."
  151. > "No fucking way, sir! Not after what she said about us."
  152. "Then you dismissed. Return to the bunkroom and report to your s-"
  153. > You had been about to say Sergeant.
  154. > Second squad's Sergeant had been wounded, evacuated out that morning when the relief had arrived.
  155. "-enior squad member. I'll talk to you later."
  156. > Jaw gritted, he salutes sharply before stalking out the doorway. "Yes, Sir!"
  157. > Yeah, you're definitely going to have to have a long talk with him, or whoever is running his squad now.
  158. > At this moment, though...
  159. > You spin, turning around to jab a finger at Spitfire.
  160. "And you. I told you to do anything that might provoke, but apparently that's not enough for you. Now, I'm all of about two seconds away from going to town on you myself, so keep your mouth shut."
  161. "And no, we will not be leaving now. You can either deal with it or stay dirty."
  162. > She glares back, but you just keep going.
  163. "That basin is plenty high enough to hide anything you really don't want us to see, but I am not letting you just go unwatched when you cannot even keep your mouth shut."
  164.  
  165. > Again there is a painfully long silence, and for a good while you fear that Spitfire would refuse to bath just to 'resist' you.
  166. > Considering what Swift Mist had said about infection, that could be a serious problem.
  167. > Finally, looking back away, she climbs into the basin.
  168. > You let out a breath you had not realized you were holding.
  169. > Behind you, both of the remaining men relax as well.
  170. "Good. You'll find a shampoo and soap on the side; I don't know what you prefer to use, but it should clean you up. Do what you have to do and finish up in there."
  171. > Spitfire doesn't respond, but you can hear her starting to wash up.
  172.  
  173. ------------------------------------------------------------------
  174.  
  175. > The classrooms your platoon had converted to serve as bunkrooms all bear a rather somber mood.
  176. > Previously it had been six of them - a little under a squad in each.
  177. > After last night the remainder of your unit could cram into two.
  178. > The others have been all taken over by the new platoons that had arrived anyhow.
  179. > Finding where the remnants of second squad were bunked down wasn't hard at all.
  180. > The moment you step in, one of them is standing to meet you, a corporal.
  181. > "Sergeant Anon, Sir."
  182. "You're in command of second squad?"
  183. > He nods. "Yessir, I am in command at the moment. Heard there was an issue with one of my men?"
  184. "Yeah. He'd come along to help us handle the special prisoner. Lost his cool at her."
  185. > "Anything serious, sir?"
  186. "No, I kicked him out of there before anything real bad, though. Got damn close to insubordination, though."
  187. > "Sir.." His voice drops down a bit. "Do you intend to go to the LT with this?"
  188. "What? No, no. Not after last night. LT's got bigger shit to worry about, I don't need to be bothering him over a yelling match.
  189. > Relief floods across the corporal's face, and you sympathize.
  190. > Having just taken command in the field, a possible disciplinary action was the last thing he wanted in 'his' squad.
  191. "Just... look. Talk to him, figure out what his issue is, get him in line."
  192. > You rub your forehead slightly to ward off a building headache.
  193. "I couldn't pin anything on him if I wanted to, but he came seriously close to being actually out of line."
  194. > "Understood, sir. He's probably just shaken up after last night."
  195. "Whatever it is, just cool him down before he does something stupid."
  196. > "Yes, sir. And thank you, sir."
  197. > On returning to your own bunkroom, you greet what remains of your squad and drop onto a bedroll on the floor.
  198. > They all look at you with knowing eyes. They're as exhausted as you are.
  199. > "Hey Sergeant."
  200. "Hey."
  201. > "That crazy one didn't put up to much of a struggle, then?"
  202.  
  203. "Not really. Shut up after I explained things to her."
  204. > In fact, after you chewed out both her and that guy off second squad, Spitfire had been shockingly agreeable.
  205. > She had washed up thoroughly but quickly, which you didn't particularly care to watch that closely, and then gone through a careful preening, which you did.
  206. > It sort of reminded you of something halfway between a bird preening and a cat washing itself.
  207. > Even when being strapped back into the harness and hobbles she had done little more than quietly express her displeasure.
  208. > The only remotely tense moment had been when you insisted on checking under her wings to make sure she hadn't tucked anything beneath them, but she'd looked at the rest of your men and backed down.
  209. > There wasn't anything, but it never hurt to be sure.
  210. > More likely that'd been a last bit of pride for her.
  211. > Maybe it'd finally gotten through to her that you weren't the worst option to be looking after her.
  212. > Or maybe she just wanted to be clean.
  213. > That line of thought is interrupted as the LT pops his head in the door. "Hey guys, seventeen hundred briefing in the lunch hall tomorrow. We'll be getting our new orders."
  214. > Once the chorus of yessirs has faded and he has moved on, you all look among each other again.
  215. > "Hey Sergeant?"
  216. "Yeah?"
  217. > "Sir... any ideas if we're going to move out or anything soon, sir?"
  218. > You've been wondering that as well.
  219. > Apparently command had become convinced you had some kind of special rapport with these ponies, and had resisted getting you back to doing actual infantry business.
  220. > After this, though?
  221. > Maybe they would finally see that keeping a well-known prisoner right on the outskirts of a city wasn't the most genius idea ever.
  222. > Or maybe not.
  223. "I've not heard anything. I'm surprised they got back to the LT so quickly."
  224. > "So, we're all in the dark here."
  225. "Just like usual."
  226.  
  227. > The remains of your platoon all file into the lunch-hall, some recently-awoken men still rubbing at sleepy eyes.
  228. > Everyone finds their 'seats', most of you just outright sitting on the low (to you) tables the ponies used to eat at.
  229. > Just another reminder of how different everything is here.
  230. > The LT is already in the corner, chatting with someone you've never seen before.
  231. > He's in uniform, a captain by his patches, but the unit insignia isn't immediately familiar.
  232. > The formalities quickly pass, with the LT getting down to business: "I got good news, and bad news guys."
  233. > "First of all - Zytekki, you've been authorized for a promotion. Congratulations, you're now second squad's sergeant."
  234. > There's none of the grins or backslapping that would normally go with that sort of thing.
  235. > You all remember far to well the state their old sergeant was in when he was carried out.
  236. > "Second - good news first. Division command got back to me, we're already on the fast-track for replacements to fill us back in. For that - quiet, guys, quiet."
  237. > The murmering his announcement had set off wasn't entirely unwarranted.
  238. > Replacements allocated in under forty-eight hours?
  239. > "For that, I'm told we have in large part to thank our liason with the 8th Military Information Support Operations brigade."
  240. > Ah. That's where you'd seen that patch before.
  241. > "Who the hell is that?" One of your men murmers.
  242. "Psyops. Probably the bigshots who thought it was a good idea to keep us here in the first place."
  243. > "Second bit of good news is that we are likely going to be allowed a week off active combat duty as a result of our actions last night."
  244. > "The bad news, is that we are apparently considered 'indispensable for continued operations in this area'. So, we'll be sitting right here for the foreseeable future."
  245. > That brings a lot of unhappy grumbling.
  246.  
  247. > "If the Psych guys want this place happy so bad, how come they don't come out here and run it on their own?"
  248. > You didn't catch who yelled that, but he's got some balls to put it like that with a guy from the unit in question in the room.
  249. > Actually, a quick glance around shows that the rep from Psyops has vanished.
  250. > Must've concluded his business with the LT and vanished off from wherever he came from.
  251. > "I don't know. But I know that even if we're taken off immediate combat duty, we're probably going to be hanging around here a bit longer."
  252. "So they keep us playing babysitter instead of actually doing infantry work, sir."
  253. > The LT glances about and rubs the back of his own head.
  254. > Belatedly you noticed that one of his hands is wrapped in a bandage as well.
  255. > "Listen guys, I know this has got to be ticking a lot of you off. If it's any better, we're probably going to be spending some time chasing down the guys who did this to us-"
  256. > There are a few muted cheers.
  257. > "-but yes, command has suddenly decided that we're suitable for babysitting duty. I don't know why."
  258. > "What I have heard is that once we get our replacements settled in, we're going to focus on keep supply lines open. Things are apparently getting tight up at the front, and command doesn't want any convoys or trains getting stopped."
  259. "Any idea if we're going to be doing convoy escort duty, sir?"
  260. > "Not likely, Sergeant. Word is they're assigning some units just to ride with the convoys from beginning to end for protection."
  261. > Drawing a sheet of paper from his pocket, the LT scans it. "Also, apparently our work groups were appreciated and we're to restart that as soon as the city is declared safe to -"
  262.  
  263. > A few scattered snorts - including your own - give a clear opinion of that.
  264. > "- to operate in, and yes I know that's going to take a while. I think that's everything - you're dismissed."
  265. > You stand, stretching, and turn to your men.
  266. "We're not on watch for seven. You guys take some time off, but do a full check on your gear and weapons before tonight."
  267. > Turning back, you wander off to find some food.
  268. > Better to get it in and the sleepiness over with before your watch comes, even if it's early for lunch.
  269.  
  270. ------------------------------------------------------------------
  271.  
  272. > Neither the Night Guard nor the rioters return that night.
  273. > Or the night after that.
  274. > In fact, in the following weeks the city was downright silent in comparison to before.
  275. > Any progress your platoon had made towards getting the locals used to human military presence was undone.
  276. > A few small attacks by masked ponies happened each night, but nothing on the scale of what you had faced.
  277. > And they always scattered when the local guard - often reinforced by human units - moved in.
  278. > For the ponies, it was an unpleasant reminder that Trottingham - no matter how unscarred by the original front-line - was still technically a city under military occupation.
  279. > For your guys, it was an unpleasant reminder that the four-foot-high pastel furballs could still inflict serious harm if not taken seriously.
  280. > The explosions you'd heard at the beginning of the siege turned out to be casks of black powder - actual, honest-to-God black powder - that had been smuggled into a basement nearby the main base.
  281. > Apparently they used the stuff for fireworks and some engineering projects before the war.
  282. > You presumed they had lit the fuses and had unicorns to hurl the casks over the barriers and into the base, to low for the anti-mortar systems to intercept.
  283. > Either way, it was a very unwelcome surprise.
  284. > Command had squads out sweeping the city for any more reserves of the stuff.
  285. > Probably to late to catch it, but they were still trying.
  286. > Everything had been reset to zero again, pony civilians and human soldiers alike only now just starting make inroads towards not being nervous around each other on the streets.
  287. > Not you, though.
  288. > You were busy breaking the new guys in.
  289. > Reinforcements for your platoon had arrived on the twelfth day after the attack, and had been settling in ever since.
  290.  
  291. > Entirely fresh meat, shuttled in straight through the gateway from infantry school back home.
  292. > Getting them used to all the absurdities in this weird world you were fighting in was a task in and of itself.
  293. > In that, at least, the prisoners had actually proved to be of great help with them.
  294. > Being around ponies who were, by this point, rather docile to your presence and inclined to obey orders was a good place to get them used to dealing with the locals.
  295. > Still, it was another week - your promised week off combat duty - before you were hauled out again to once more walk the streets.
  296. > Anyone who thinks time off combat lets your nerves calm is wrong.
  297. > Dead wrong.
  298. > Stepping back out onto those streets again, you feel our old suspicions creep back up again.
  299. > Every crate might be another load of gunpowder, ready to go.
  300. > Every cloud, a lightning bolt waiting to fall.
  301. > Every unicorn, charging a kinetic bolt to snap your neck back and end things.
  302. > No, if anything it was the normality of the patrols that helped.
  303. > Settling yourself in to a regular routine, and proving by repetition that your life wasn't going to end the second you let your guard down.
  304. > That helped.
  305. > The prisoners were still technically on lockdown after the battle, so you were patrolling on your own or with one of platoon's other other squads.
  306. > The change was both pleasant and worrisome:
  307. > On the one hand, you did not have to look after a gaggle of prisoners while out and about.
  308. > On the other, without pony accompaniment you were now an open target again.
  309. > More than once, rocks and trash had come sailing over a low wall or from the roof of as you walked by.
  310. > Of course by the time you investigated the perpetrators were gone, or you only got the vaguest descriptions.
  311. > There were some good signs, though.
  312. > Most of the ponies who had been selling you food for the prisoners reappeared soon after the attack, ready to do business again.
  313.  
  314. > Apparently the profit motive, or a sense of duty to aid the prisoners, was greater than any fears the abortive uprising had planted in their minds.
  315. > You also got inquisitive kids - no, "colts" or "fillies" - approaching to talk to you.
  316. > Some are escorted by nervous-looking parents who keep their eyes on you, and some come on their own.
  317. > But to them, the war is now a distant thing - something that only comes back from time to time, and otherwise is happening far, far away.
  318. > And like children everywhere, they posses that strange ability to turn the terrifying into the fascinating.
  319. > So you end up talking with them.
  320. > The usual questions, simple stuff.
  321. > What was home like, what does that thing do, can your planes really fly faster than the speed of sound.
  322. > When the prisoner work-teams are finally allowed out again allow them some (tightly supervised) time to talk to each other as well.
  323. > Then you find Bountiful Harvest.
  324. > It's a morning patrol.
  325. > No prisoners this time, just you and the other eight of your reinforced squad.
  326. > The absent but loaded cart is the first sign of trouble.
  327. > Nobody - or pony - would just leave a fully-loaded cart out there without someone watching over it.
  328. > Distant or not, the war was still making things tight.
  329. > Your squad settles into crouches as you consider whether it's a ready or not.
  330. > To your knowledge nobody had encountered the pony equivalent of a car bomb yet, but they had gunpowder and you didn't want to become the first.
  331. > You settle for making careful circle around the cart, trying to see more of it.
  332. > Maybe halfway around, you realize it's Bountiful Harvest's cart - probably loaded with food beneath the cover.
  333. > That's odd.
  334. > You remember from the pre-patrol briefing that there was going to be a work group out in this part of town, but she's much to early to be meeting them here.
  335. > Why's her cart unattended?
  336. > For that matter, why is the food still there if it is?
  337.  
  338. > Are the ponies to afraid to steal something that might be going to you?
  339. > Glancing around the street again, you see dozens of them walking about, going on their daily business.
  340. > There are a number of nervous glances in the direction of your squad, but they aren't avoiding the cart.
  341. "Odds are it's not a bomb, then..."
  342. > "Sir?"
  343. "Nothing, private."
  344. > You hadn't meant to be muttering that aloud.
  345. > But why are they just leaving the cart alone?
  346. > Looking over, you select one of your fire teams.
  347. "Keller. Monroe. Check that cart; it belongs to a known friendly, so just see if she's around and see what's up."
  348. > The rest of you hang back as the two approach.
  349. > Even from a distance you can hear their curses as they pull back the tarp to look inside.
  350. > Keller comes jogging back.
  351. > "Sir! It's Harvest; she's beat up bad."
  352. > That cold, tight feeling in your stomach takes hold again.
  353. "Accident?"
  354. > "No sir."
  355. > He hands you a scrap of partchment.
  356. > On it is written three words.
  357. > 'She fed invaders.'
  358. > You force yourself to resist the urge to crumple the parchment; it's probably important to save it intact.
  359. > But still...
  360. > She wasn't even feeding you - just the prisoners.
  361. > Instead you take a deep breath and look back to Keller.
  362. "How bad? Is she, I mean."
  363. > Keller grimaces. "Should probably get her to a hospital, sir."
  364. "Damn."
  365. > You make your way to the cart and take stock of the injured pony laying within.
  366. > Even with barely any knowledge of their anatomy, it's easy to see she's been fairly badly beaten.
  367. > Lots of bruising visible, probably a couple ribs busted, maybe a broken leg.
  368. > Definitely still breathing, though.
  369. > Now that your squad has approached the cart, it's as if some spell has been broken.
  370. > Ponies divert from all around to gather around the cart, some of them rearing up to look inside as well.
  371. > The little crowd quickly begins to whisper among themselves.
  372. > You need to take control of things again.
  373.  
  374. "Okay, everyone please remain back. Obviously something's happened here, but we need to get her to a hospital first and foremost."
  375. > Instantly numerous questions are launched straight back at you.
  376. > "What happened?"
  377. > "What was that note you took?"
  378. > "What did she do?"
  379. "We don't know ma'am. We don't know. But we're going to need everyone to back off until this gets dealt with."
  380. > The crowd is agreeably willing to back off - a group of armed soldiers can have that affect - and you make sure they keep a nice radius.
  381. > While they mill about, you call in the situation and request new orders.
  382. > Surprisingly, you're directed not to take her back to base, but to the nearest city hospital.
  383. > Apparently they don't think the risk of anyone trying to finish the job is real enough.
  384. > And since she isn't in immediate mortal danger, no, they will not be sending an ambulance out.
  385. > At the very least they agree with your point that someone had targeted Harvest on account of cooperating and assign another squad to your route to let you accompany her to the hospital.
  386. > You're thankful for that.
  387. > It wouldn't exactly be encouraging other ponies to cooperate if you just abandoned your allies when they were in trouble.
  388. > Turning back to the crowd, you look out over the sea of curious faces.
  389. "Does anyone here know this pony?"
  390. > A couple of hooves go up.
  391. "Right - come with us. We need someone to pull the cart, and the hospital's probably going to want to hear from you as well."
  392. > Someone other than a human, of course.
  393. > Frankly, you didn't want to think about what would happen if a human soldier dragged a beat-up pony into a hospital with only his word on what had happened to her.
  394. > Two of them step forward, sliding themselves into the cart's harnesses.
  395. > You proceed at a quick march, both to get there sooner for Harvest's sake and to keep any awkward conversation to a minimum.
  396. > Not a couple of blocks in, though, one of the ponies speaks up.
  397.  
  398. > "There's something else you should know, mister."
  399. > You glance down at him.
  400. "What is it?"
  401. > He seems hesitant to speak, but the mare helping pull the cart speaks up for him.
  402. > "We knew who the cart belonged to. We were waiting for you to come."
  403. > You do a double-take.
  404. "Wait, you knew Harvest was in trouble and didn't do anything?"
  405. > The first one speaks up again. "We were going to, but..."
  406. > He can't meet your eyes.
  407. "You were scared."
  408. > He nods, looking rather miserable. "Don't wanna get beaten up to, if we mess with those guys."
  409. > The mare adds on: "We didn't know she was hurt like that, you know? We just thought they had stolen the cart and smashed all the food, then left it for you."
  410. "How'd you know something was up."
  411. > "I'll show you when we get Harvest to the hospital. There's a mark carved into the back of the cart; they've been putting it up everywhere they pull something."
  412. "Who's 'they'? The Night Guard?"
  413. > Immediately you get a sharp shake of the head in response.
  414. > "No! No. I don't think they would do this. Not beating Harvest like that. It's some ruffians acting in their name, beating up ponies and smashing things because they can say it's in the name of the war."
  415. > You aren't quite sure you believe that.
  416. > After all, it was the Night Guard who egged the mob on to charge your guns.
  417. > The stallion nods in agreement, though. "Before this, they'd all have been locked up in an instant."
  418. "Look. Next time something like this happens, report it to us. We can handle this sort of thing, okay? Either us or the city police."
  419. > The rest of the walk resumes in uncomfortable silence.
  420. > It doesn't take long to reach the hospital.
  421. > Thankfully the ponies there are of the 'deal with injuries first, ask questions later' variety.
  422. > They barely take one look at you before shuttling Harvest off for treatment.
  423. > Of course you're asked to wait while until a doctor can speak to you, but you expected that.
  424.  
  425. > In the meantime you sit your squad down in a waiting room and let them rest their legs.
  426. > It's an almost humorous sight: Nine men, all still wearing full battledress and body armor, toting weapons, all slumped about on far-to-short couches and chairs.
  427. > Any levity is offset by the grim mood that seems to clog all hospitals on any planet.
  428. > The two ponies who helped you bring harvest over look to be taking it the worst.
  429. > It isn't hard to guess why.
  430. > You'll have to talk to them about that later.
  431. > When the doc finally does come out to talk to you, it's instantly apparent there's another problem.
  432. > He does not like you.
  433. > Not one bit.
  434. > The scowl on his face is enough to tell you that, but his clipped tones confirm it just as well.
  435. > "Right. You. Human. You're the leader of this bunch?"
  436. "Yes, I am the officer of this unit. You're the one treating Bountiful Harvest?"
  437. > His horn flickers as he a sheaf of papers to examine.
  438. > "Yes. She will live and recover in due time. Now, if you are quite done bringing more trouble to my hospital, if you would be kind enough to take your soldiers and leave?"
  439. > Where the hell did this come from?
  440. "Excuse me?"
  441. > The two ponies are up as well, looking confused. "Yeah. Can we like, see her or something?"
  442. > "Well of course both of you can. But I must strictly insist no soldiers enter my ward; it would not be good for the patients!"
  443. > You could probably push this if you wanted - you're pretty sure this doc doesn't have the authority to kick you out.
  444. > But you don't care to start an argument like this.
  445. > Not now, and especially not with a unicorn.
  446. > It would... not go well, in an enclosed space.
  447. "Both of you - go ahead and visit her if you want. Just, come back here when you're done, okay? We still have to interview you about this."
  448. > Unfortunately, the doctor doesn't seem to agree. "No. I'm sorry. I simply will not allow soldiers in this hospital. Not after the hours I spent digging your bullets out of my patients!"
  449. > Ah.
  450.  
  451. > You probably should have figured that bit out earlier.
  452. > Some of the newer guys in your squad shift.
  453. > They're not used to taking any lip from ponies yet.
  454. > Time for you to be a good sergeant and step up, unicorn or not.
  455. "Look, doctor. I can respect your ward and your patients, and I can stay out of there for now, okay?"
  456. > You step up to him now, making sure he's aware of the fact you're twice his height.
  457. "But just like you have to look after you patients, I have my orders too. And those say I need to talk to these two about what happened, which means I've got to be here when they come back, okay?"
  458. > For a second you think he's going to argue with you anyhow, but at the last moment backs down.
  459. > "Fine! So long as you stay here. But if you take a single step into your ward, so help me-!"
  460. > You hold out a hand to stop him.
  461. "Relax, doc. I just want to do my job."
  462. > As the doctor and the two ponies disappeared into the medical ward, you went back to find a seat to collapse into.
  463. > You were quite glad your men couldn't see the sheen of sweat that had broken out when you were confronting the unicorn.
  464. > Wouldn't be good for them to see you shaken so easily.
  465.  
  466. ------------------------------------------------------------------
  467.  
  468. > The interview was pretty much what you'd expected.
  469. > 'We knew she had been left for you to find.'
  470. > 'We'd heard stories about other ponies who told on them getting hurt.'
  471. > 'We would have taken her to the hospital in time if you hadn't come.'
  472. > It doesn't change the fact that they left Harvest waiting there.
  473. > That's just the first of the problems to get dropped in your lap, though.
  474. > Two days later, a small but rowdy crowd approached your base/prison claiming they had captured on of the Night Guard responsible for the attack.
  475. > Instead, they had produced an obviously terrified bat-pony that couldn't have been a guard in a million years.
  476. > In fact, you were 90% sure this one was a juvenile still.
  477. > He was taken in anyhow, if only to get him away from the crowd.
  478. > The reactions the other prisoners had to his appearance pretty much confirmed what you'd been suspecting.
  479. > He was a kid, maybe the pony equivalent of a teenager.
  480. > No way he was a guard, though.
  481. > Even if the guard had mysteriously dropped its recruitment age, not nearly enough muscle tone on him.
  482. > Either that, or he was a damn good infiltrator.
  483. > Later on, though, you heard down the grapevine that his story had checked out.
  484. > Family in a small bat-pony enclave on a ways out of the city, birth records, schooling records, the works.
  485. > And apparently a whole undercurrent of racial (species?) tension you didn't even know about beforehand.
  486. > You only got the full story in bits and pieces, from several other ponies.
  487. > While some in the city had been more than willing to 'do their part against the invaders', there were other, older issues in play at well.
  488. > You weren't sure where the truth moved in to legend, but the gist of it seemed to be that the Night Guard were associated with some kind of historical coup attempt.
  489. > Ever since then the bats had largely stuck to themselves.
  490.  
  491. > And nobody in the crowd that had brought him in seemed to have any better reason for thinking him guard than 'he was in the city'.
  492. > You weren't sure what happened to him in the end, only that another squad of MPs showed up one day to take him.
  493. > Rumor was he got taken home, but you were hearing a lot of rumors.
  494. > A far more pleasant surprise came a day or two after that.
  495. > Someone had slipped a piece of paper into one of the food deliveries.
  496. > You didn't get to see it directly, but everyone heard what it was - a tip-off on when one of the "resistance" groups in the city would be gathering.
  497. > Apparently the guys up in intel thought it was legitimate, because you soon heard there would be a raid on the meeting.
  498. > The excitement was palpable when your platoon got assigned to lead crashing the party.
  499. > Finally, you were going to have a chance to hit back!
  500. > To take the fight to the ones who had been part of the crowd the night nearly half the platoon was lost!
  501. > A couple of tersely worded reminders to your men not to let their enthusiasm affect their trigger fingers are needed, but you have to admit even you can't deny the enthusiasm of being on the attack for once.
  502. > Right now, though?
  503. > Right now most of that enthusiasm had flown out the window.
  504. > For the past three hours, you and your men had been crouched in the back of an armored truck.
  505. > You'd pulled in earlier in the evening, a good distance from your target area.
  506. > Even with the speed advantage your trucks gave you, nobody wanted to leave this to chance.
  507. > So instead, you sat crouched in the cramped rear of the truck in full battle dress, waiting.
  508. > The night had turned unexpectedly chilly, and yet somehow the heavy body armor remained stifling, leaving you both hot and cold at once.
  509. > The plan, on the face of it, was fairly simple stuff.
  510. > Your squad, long with 2nd and 3rd, was to come in and encircle the position on three sides.
  511.  
  512. > Fourth was to hang back while you closed the noose, then you would all move in together.
  513. > Another platoon from a different unit was going to park itself in the rear of the cluster of buildings you were targeting, acting as the anvil to your hammer.
  514. > It was brutally simple in theory, but that just made the prospect of something going wrong all the more worrisome.
  515. > A recheck of your watch shows it's little under ten minutes out now.
  516. "Alright, squad. Remember what we said before; keep your fire teams together at all times in there, don't let them split you up."
  517. > You heard someone groan at what was probably the sixth repetition of this speech, but you think it bears repeating, especially for the new guys.
  518. "You have to fire for any reason, you yell out what it was you were shooting at. If I don't hear you, I am going to assume you are down."
  519. > Checking off the points on your gloved fingers, you move on.
  520. "Watch your fire, make sure it's hostile before you shoot at it. It's possible there are going to be civvies in there too, so there's going to be a fair bit of confusion. Lastly-"
  521. > You point out a finger, sweeping it over all of them.
  522. "Keep yourselves under control. I know we all want to kick a few asses to pay them back for hitting us like that, but that is not an excuse to let go. I don't want any unnecessary casualties in there, ours or civilians. Got it?"
  523. > You make sure to get an affirmative from each man in turn.
  524. > The possibility that someone would decide to unload in anger was not something you wanted to see in your squad, at all.
  525. > Your radio gives a chirp, the LT's voice oddly loud inside the truck's armored compartment.
  526. > "Two minutes, final check."
  527. > You move through your squad in turn, each man making a check of his gear and weapon.
  528. > The radio cracks again. "We're moving."
  529. > Up in the front the driver starts the truck's engine, the bass rumbling seeming deafening after sitting there for so long.
  530.  
  531. > Fourth was to hang back while you closed the noose, then you would all move in together.
  532. > Another platoon from a different unit was going to park itself in the rear of the cluster of buildings you were targeting, acting as the anvil to your hammer.
  533. > It was brutally simple in theory, but that just made the prospect of something going wrong all the more worrisome.
  534. > A recheck of your watch shows it's little under ten minutes out now.
  535. "Alright, squad. Remember what we said before; keep your fire teams together at all times in there, don't let them split you up."
  536. > You heard someone groan at what was probably the sixth repetition of this speech, but you think it bears repeating, especially for the new guys.
  537. "You have to fire for any reason, you yell out what it was you were shooting at. If I don't hear you, I am going to assume you are down."
  538. > Checking off the points on your gloved fingers, you move on.
  539. "Watch your fire, make sure it's hostile before you shoot at it. It's possible there are going to be civvies in there too, so there's going to be a fair bit of confusion. Lastly-"
  540. > You point out a finger, sweeping it over all of them.
  541. "Keep yourselves under control. I know we all want to kick a few asses to pay them back for hitting us like that, but that is not an excuse to let go. I don't want any unnecessary casualties in there, ours or civilians. Got it?"
  542. > You make sure to get an affirmative from each man in turn.
  543. > The possibility that someone would decide to unload in anger was not something you wanted to see in your squad, at all.
  544. > Your radio gives a chirp, the LT's voice oddly loud inside the truck's armored compartment.
  545. > "Two minutes, final check."
  546. > You move through your squad in turn, each man making a check of his gear and weapon.
  547. > The radio cracks again. "We're moving."
  548. > Up in the front the driver starts the truck's engine, the bass rumbling seeming deafening after sitting there for so long.
  549.  
  550. > Fully a quarter of the building had just collapsed, rooms and hallways gaping out into the night sky like an open wound.
  551. > Windows had been shattered across the entire front, and only a few ever covered with boards.
  552. > Judging by the dim light glowing from a few windows in the still-standing sections, though, other plots had started to play out within its walls.
  553. > Even before you breach the door it's obvious you've stirred the hornet's next.
  554. > Sharp shouts and the fading pounding of hooves on ragged carpeting make it quite clear the alert's gone up.
  555. "Kristof, Douglas, get the door!"
  556. > The big front double doors had been barred across with wood, but not very well.
  557. > It only takes a few kicks of their heavily-booted feet to break them open again.
  558. > A few feet away, two men from second squad are doing the same.
  559. > As the doors fly open, you - and the rest of your squad - are already moving forward, weapons raised and ready.
  560. > The lobby is has seen far better days.
  561. > Disuse and exposure to weather through the shattered windows has turned everything to peeling paint and the stench of mildew.
  562. > A thin layer of dust coats the floor, the ticket desk, and a variety of stands for faded posters of performances long past.
  563. > The dilapidated state of the structure is thrown into sharp relief as Your night-vision device is brought down over one eye.
  564. > For you, barely any of this registers.
  565. > What matters to you is that nothing is moving.
  566. > For the moment, you are safe.
  567. "Kristof, watch those doors on right. Patuzzi, check our left as we move. Everyone else, through there."
  568. > A flashlight highlights the largest exit from the lobby, a grand double-staircase leading to the main theater hall.
  569. > The theater itself, when you reach it, is almost poignantly sad.
  570. > Part of the roof and a bit of one wall had gone in the collapse, leaving several rows of seats covered in plaster and crumbling masonry.
  571.  
  572. > The stage curtains were long-since vanished, probably cut up for bedding.
  573. > The whole place had a denuded look to it, though you were glad there were far fewer places for any rebels to hide.
  574. "Theater clear!"
  575. > You move forward, staggered between several isles towards the stage.
  576. > The darkness is broken only by distant calls between other squads and the soft thuds of your boots on the dusty floor.
  577. > No gunfire.
  578. > Yet.
  579. > One by one you heft yourselves up onto the stage.
  580. > Third squad have already started to filter in behind you, following you forward.
  581. "Hey, we've got left. You guys okay with right?"
  582. > "Yeah, we got it. You guys go ahead."
  583. "Okay, Patuzzi, you guys are on left. Kristof, your team's on right. Go!"
  584. > You work backwards from the stage, moving through the ready-rooms for actors.
  585. > The first pony you encounter is a young mare, cowering in a corner with two foals curled beneath her legs.
  586. "Ma'am, you need to go. We're sweeping this building."
  587. > She lifts her terrified face to stare at you, eyes flicking between your men.
  588. > By your guess she can't really see anything; this far in even the night-vision device is having trouble making out sharper details.
  589. > "W-where..."
  590. "The entrance, ma'am. Left out of here, follow the hallways down to the stage, then keep going forward to the entrance. There are others waiting-"
  591. > "You'll let us come back, right? To our home?"
  592. > Her home?
  593. "I'm going to pop a light, guys."
  594. > Your flashlight is already working its way out of your pocket as they all brace for the sudden light.
  595. > You flick it on, playing the beam out across the room and finally getting a good look at the floor.
  596. "Holy shit..."
  597. > Several lumpy, hay-filled bags form beds laid out between suitcases and saddlebags.
  598. > A pair of dirty blankets decorated by faded images of fruit lay crumpled next to the long-finished remains of a meal.
  599. > A framed picture sits in the corner, showing a family by the edge of the ocean.
  600.  
  601. > Despite the poor state of the room, the picture has obviously been kept in carefully kept condition.
  602. > You're looking at a family's entire worldly possessions here.
  603. > Behind you, one of the men mutters something.
  604. > You don't catch it, but it's not hard to guess.
  605. "Ma'am, we're not going to hurt you. We need you to take your children and go to the entrance. You'll be checked there and allowed back in once we're done."
  606. > In reality you have no idea what they're going to do here once they're done.
  607. > But it's fairly obvious that if you told this family to leave the few things they still have, not even a tank would move them.
  608. > Shakily the mare pushes herself up, nudging the two foals beneath her.
  609. > Not moments after she had slunk off back towards the stage the sharp cracking of gunfire echoes through the theater.
  610. > For a sickening second, you thought someone had been to quick on the trigger and fired on the mare you had just sent off.
  611. > Moments later reality catches up: That was far to muted to be that close.
  612. > It does mean someone else has made contact, though.
  613. > You proceed up a stairway and on to what you presume to have been the apartments for cast and crew.
  614. > It's here that you first encounter signs of a hostile presence in the building.
  615. > A tripwire has been stretched across the floor at ankle height for you, attached to something spherical mounted to the wall.
  616. > Unfortunately, whoever strung it clearly wasn't expecting you to be able to see this well at night.
  617. > Two of your men slink close enough to determine that it's not a bomb, but a bell.
  618. > Everyone breaths a sigh of relief.
  619. > Carefully you step over the cord strung between the two walls.
  620. > Perhaps twenty feet down the hall you encounter the second trap.
  621. > Like the first, it's just a bell.
  622. > But now you're getting nervous.
  623. > "Maybe they aren't here, sir?"
  624. > It's one of the new guys.
  625. > You shake your head at his thought.
  626.  
  627. "Wishful thinking, soldier. The way we moved in, someone's got to be trapped in here."
  628. > "So they just wait for us to come?"
  629. "If they're smart. The dumb ones ru-"
  630. > You're interrupted by the crunch of wood splintering under tremendous force.
  631. > A brief but furious burst of gunfire quickly follows, but by the time you've turned around to see what has happened it is over.
  632. > The only thing that is left is the shattered remnants of a door, an equine body laying on the floor just beyond it.
  633. > On the opposite side of the hallway, one of your men sits half-slumped over but pushing himself up with the help of two others.
  634. "What the hell happened?"
  635. > "Douglas opened the door and the bastard bucked him in the chest, sir."
  636. "Is he - Goddamnit, Douglas, are you okay?!"
  637. > Now fully standing, he pushes the other two men off but wavers a bit. "Yeah, I'm gonna be fine, Sarge. I'm fine. Just got hit a bit hard."
  638. > You glance behind him; he'd actually left a slight impression in the rotting wallboard.
  639. "The hell you are - where'd you get hit?"
  640. > "On the chest, left side - glanced off the plate, but still got me."
  641. > One of the other men mutters "Must've been a real musclehead to do that."
  642. > Quickly pulling a flashlight from its pocket, you flick it on and shine it on his exposed eye.
  643. > Lifting the night-vision device, you check the other as well.
  644. "Name, rank, and service number, Douglas."
  645. > "Private first class Niel C Douglas, number 98-221-392, sir."
  646. > Checking both his eyes again, you shake your head as your stomach finally unclenches itself.
  647. "You're an incredibly lucky man, Douglas. I don't know how, but I don't think you have a concussion. Anything broken?"
  648. > "Not that I can tell, sir."
  649. "Good."
  650. > You grab his shoulder and give him a good shake.
  651.  
  652. "Don't ever let me catch you standing right in front of a door when you open it, soldier. That's a rookie mistake and it will get you hurt or dead. You want to make rookie mistakes, they can put you back on the home side of the portal. There's no room for bootcamp fuckups like that here, and definitely no room for that in my squad. Got it?"
  653. > "Yes, sir!"
  654. "Good."
  655. > You let him go, allowing your anger to drain out.
  656. > After loosing half your squad once, another one falling due to some rookie screwup was the last thing you wanted.
  657. > But he had managed to come out of it okay somehow; this time, you had dodged the bullet.
  658. "Okay, what've we got in here?"
  659. > "Two hostiles down, sir; look like locals with some homemade stuff."
  660. > Looking into the room, you see the one pony laying just within the door - an earth pony stallion, well-built and definitely capable of kicking a man into a wall.
  661. > The second is further back in the room, a unicorn collapsed against the far wall.
  662. > Beside him lay a bundle of wooden poles that on closer inspection prove to be fire-hardened spears or lances.
  663. > Definitely not actual guard equipment, and their ambush was flawed too - the unicorn would have a hard time throwing his spears around his ally.
  664. > Locals, then.
  665. > The idea is both reassuring and worrying: On the one hand, an actual guard pony could have killed Douglas.
  666. > On the other, civilians arming themselves against you... that was a fight you'd prefer not to see.
  667. "This is all clear. Snap those spears and let's move on."
  668. > The spears destroyed, you quickly make your way through the hallway.
  669. > A few more contacts are made.
  670. > Most give up on realizing they've been cornered by actual human forces, forcing you to detach one of your fireteams to escort them out while you hold your position.
  671. > Some, you have to kill.
  672. > Those, you just add to a list of race, gender, and butt-mark in case they turn out to be important.
  673.  
  674. > By the fifth time you're forced to pause and wait for one of the fireteams to return, the lack of progress is starting to get frustrating.
  675. > It's becoming obvious the would-be rebels had panicked and scattered when you showed up, forcing you to root them out of each individual room.
  676. > In a way, you wished they'd all stayed bunched up.
  677. > The stairway to the third floor proves to be especially hellish.
  678. > Several ponies had taken up residence on the third floor landing and were hurling bits of masonry at anything which moved beneath them.
  679. > Even with the advantage of your night-vision gear, nobody felt like taking the chance of catching a five-pound brick to the face.
  680. > The result was an extended trip around to find an alternate staircase while three of your men kept their attention.
  681. > Ultimately it turned out to be only four, and they had totally failed to watch the rear of their position.
  682. > Not even a glance was taken down the hallway when you finally got up behind them.
  683. > A call for surrender only yielded a masonry chunk hurled down the hallway.
  684. > Your responding gunfire was considerable more accurate; with the addition of the men you'd left on the stairs, all but one are soon dead.
  685. > The last one - a youngish-looking pegasus - is shaking in a corner when you approach.
  686. > Two of her legs are clasped around a third, the shiny stain of blood leaking from beneath.
  687. > She peers up at you with a mix of terror and anger, but can barely move aside from curling her wings up defensively.
  688. > Your patience has evaporated over the course of the operation, though.
  689. > Whereas you might have once had the patience to see a scared civilian trying to 'defend' her 'home' from terrifying 'invaders', you now just see a problem to be solved.
  690. > That, and the whole tried-to-drop-rocks-on-your-head thing rather colored your opinion.
  691. "Kristof, get one of your guys to bandage her up and get her down with the rest. We'll hold here."
  692.  
  693. > Moving on once they return, you return to the painfully slow job of clearing the floor.
  694. > You find... absolutely nothing.
  695. > No ponies hurling things at you from behind doors.
  696. > No noises of ponies shifting in the dark, desperately hoping you will pass them by.
  697. > Nothing.
  698. > Partway through, you meet second squad - also having made their way up to this floor, and also having found nothing.
  699. > Time to sweep it again.
  700. > The resistance had seemed to be getting strong as you went up, so why nothing now...?
  701. > The rooftop was being swept by several of the trucks' fifty-caliber guns; no way they had just flown away.
  702. > Could one among them be able to teleport?
  703. > If so, why hadn't-
  704. > "Sir!"
  705. "What is it?"
  706. > "This hall ain't right here, sir."
  707. > One of the other men snorts.
  708. > "Damn right about that, where'd they all vanish to?"
  709. > "No, no - sir, we just cleared this room, and the one before it. But, the middle room is missing."
  710. > Now he's got your attention.
  711. "Talk to me. What're you thinking?"
  712. > "Sir, all these rooms - they're the same size. Offices or something. But, there should've been another door on the left side of the hallway; the rooms on either side don't go far enough to meet.
  713. > You step out into the hall to verify what you were just told.
  714. > Sure enough, on the opposite side of the hall is a door - broken open under someone's boot - and the corresponding office beyond.
  715. > On the left side, nothing.
  716. > Someone calls from within one of the rooms: "There's definitely something there, sir. If I stick my head out the window I can see a couple of windows there."
  717. > One of the guys from second squad is walking down the hall, his hand stretched out before him to touch the wall.
  718. > Just as he passes where the door ought to be, he pauses and straightens up.
  719. > "It's here! Invisible or something, but I can feel the doorframe."
  720. > Second's sergeant immediately takes charge. "Okay, second squad, get ready to breach. First, can you back us up if we need it?"
  721.  
  722. > There's an understandable tremor in his voice.
  723. > This isn't something you've seen before, and presumably it takes a fairly competent unicorn to turn a whole door invisible.
  724. "Affirmative; if you're okay we'll check the roof. First squad, ready up to follow second in. Check your fire, going to be tight in ther-"
  725. > A soldier gives the invisible door a solid kick; beyond, panicked voices are raised.
  726. > Quickly they fire a burst of rounds in, and the voices go silent.
  727. "Yep, here we go. Okay, ready guys-"
  728. > Two of second squad begin to kick the door in.
  729. > And that's when ol' Murphy decides to be a good policemen and enforce his law.
  730. > "Everyone back, back, back! Grenade!"
  731.  
  732. ------------------------------------------------------------------
  733.  
  734. > It doesn't take long to realize you've finally run into the core of this little group.
  735. > Unfortunately, they must have taken to the roof to try and fly away before realizing they were cut off there as well.
  736. > Instead now they are holed up in a service accessway that had been hidden from view.
  737. > At least ten voices, maybe more are now furiously yelling from beyond the shattered doorway, desperately trying to make their own revisions any plans to counter your approach.
  738. "Patuzzi, you were closest in the door. You get good look in?"
  739. > No, sir. Couldn't see anything before I ran."
  740. "Shit."
  741. > The instant the door had collapsed, flickering back into existence as the magic hiding it failed, a pair of spherical objects had come sailing through the newly-opened portal.
  742. > The sparks furiously spitting from each had sent you all quickly retreating in opposite directoins the hallway, diving through previously-opened doorways into cover.
  743. > The two grenades had burst seconds apart, filling the air with the scent of burnt gunpowder.
  744. "First squad, roll call! Everyone safe?"
  745. > Relief floods through your system as your men check in one after another.
  746. > No casualties.
  747. "Okay, okay - let me see if I can get second squad up on the radio. Hold here, keep a close watch down the hall."
  748. > Raising him proves to be easy enough.
  749. > The problem is what he reports.
  750. > "Couple of my guys got a look in. They're tucked in real tight, got a nice barricade set up far enough back you can't just our shots in."
  751. "Fuck. Get some frags of our own in there?"
  752. > "Not sure if we can. You see how those grenades curved out? I think they've got a unicorn in there throwing them."
  753. > Of course there was a unicorn 'throwing' them.
  754. > They didn't just have grenades now, they had to have grenades that curved around corners.
  755. "Fucking pinheads."
  756. > "Yeah. Goddamn lucky they must have fused them a bit long and we got clear. You guys got any wounded?"
  757. "No, we all got clear too. Uh, what about-"
  758.  
  759. > A burst of rifle fire interrupts your thoughts, quickly followed by another explosion.
  760. > In the confined room, the blast is thunderous and painfully loud even through your helmet.
  761. "What was that?! First squad, where'd that come from?"
  762. > "Sir! Fired on movement near the door, they just put another couple grenades out of it."
  763. > One of your men.
  764. > Someone else yells back down the hall: "Hey! All of you in there - we've got you blocked off on both sides. We're not going anywhere, and we know there's no other ways out. Come out slowly, unicorns last."
  765. > The answer comes quickly: "Buck you, human. Get out of our city!"
  766. > You get back to the radio.
  767. "Okay - okay, seems like they've got grenades to spare and aren't inclined to just walk out. Don't think we're getting close enough to push through the door - can we blow a mouse-hole in?"
  768. > "Uh, maybe with a 203. Hey, this side of the building - it's straight down to the a road out there, no structures."
  769. "Yeah - what're you thinking, get some fire from the Cougars on them?"
  770. > "Yeah, if the 40-mil doesn't toast them it'll definitely force them out."
  771. > Nominally you were supposed to avoid as much damage to the structure as you could, but there was no way your men could get close enough to that door to flush them out alone.
  772. "Okay, let me get my guys to safety and you can call them in."
  773. > You're all filing out into the hallway when one of them men decides to try at talking to the holdouts again.
  774. > "Last chance in there. We're going to blow this open; come out-"
  775. > "Buck off! Glory to the princesses, and death to the invaders!"
  776. > The cry is quickly followed by several cheers.
  777. > You put a hand on his shoulder and shake your head.
  778. "Just get clear. They've made their choice."
  779. > When you've gotten to a safe distance - all the way down to the next floor below - second's sarge calls in the 40mm, carefully specifying the zone of fire to avoid stray fire.
  780.  
  781. > The nine of you crouch in silence, tense and waiting for the bombardment to begin.
  782. > When it does, there is no warning.
  783. > The five blasts come rapidly, barely a breath passing before another half-dozen grenades explode against the holdout's exterior wall.
  784. > Then, again, all is silence.
  785. "Okay, up up up, get back onto position!"
  786. > Again you charge up the stairs.
  787. > The hallway you had left behind is a mess; the walls nearest the holdout have been torn apart by shell fragments.
  788. > A hoarse scream can be heard from somewhere further up.
  789. > You continue to advance slowly, approaching the shredded remains of the door you had been trying to breach.
  790. > At four feet away, you signal a halt.
  791. > Your squad spreads out into the other rooms, seeking cover.
  792. > On the opposite side you can see second squad holding likewise.
  793. > Still no further noise.
  794. > Had the forty-mil gotten them?
  795. "Patuzzi, get ready to breach."
  796. > Your fireteam scoot up into position. "Ready to go, sir."
  797. > A bead of sweat runs down the back of your neck.
  798. "Breach on three. One..."
  799. > Three things happen in rapid succession.
  800. > Several gaping holes in the walls are ripped open.
  801. > Behind you, someone sputters a stifled curse: "What the f-"
  802. > And a shrill cry rings out from behind you.
  803. > "FOR THE PRINCESSES! GET THE INVADERS!"
  804. > And then everything becomes chaos.
  805. > Unicorn bolts and scattered bursts of flame erupt from around you.
  806. > Instantly several screams are heard, shortly followed by the cracking pops of rifle fire and the incessant thunder of one of your gunners chewing through a belt on his 249.
  807. > "One the left, third door, five yards!"
  808. > "Man down, man down!"
  809. > "Supressive fire into that door!"
  810. > "I'm hit!"
  811. > "Reloading!"
  812. > You're caught in every infantryman's worst nightmare: Outflanked on both sides and the foe is making excellent use of cover while you are trapped in an open space.
  813.  
  814. > Second squad is moving up, but they dare not fire in your direction and are re-clearing each room to ensure they aren't ambushed as well.
  815. > The only advantage you have is your continued night vision.
  816. > While the ponies are firing at half-formed shapes in the dark, you have the advantage of being able to see their movement.
  817. > It's an advantage your men take advantage of as they drag the wounded clear of the hall and dive into the nearest doorway to seek cover.
  818. > You find yourself next to one of your gunners as he slides the first of a new belt into the receiver.
  819. "How many are we looking at?"
  820. > "Don't think more than six or seven, sir. I don't know how we missed them when we cleared the rooms again!"
  821. "Okay, okay - keep suppressing, see if we can get them flushed out and into our lines of sight."
  822. > Steadily your men start to push down the hallway.
  823. > You slide another magazine into your rifle and follow them down.
  824. > Something finally occurs to you about the direction you're traveling in.
  825. "They're going for the stairs!"
  826. > Even as you speak another grenade is sent sailing into the hallway from a door.
  827. > As everyone scatters to cover you catch a glimpse of four equine forms making a break to the staircase.
  828. > Even before the ringing of the grenade's burst has cleared from your ears you are up and moving again.
  829. "First squad, come on! Clear that stairway and-"
  830. > An indistinct form hurls itself at you from the stairwell door.
  831. > A fusillade of rifle fire and it collapses, twitching.
  832. > From the next flight up you can hear a furious banging and a pair of voices.
  833. > It isn't clear why they don't move out to the roof, but your men don't give them any time to recover.
  834. > Another burst of shots.
  835. > The thud-thud of boots on stairs as your men climb to meet them.
  836. > "All clear up here, sir. Three of 'em - two unknowns and an armored bat."
  837. > Night Guard.
  838. > Everyone had suspected they were heading up this little insurgency.
  839. > The door rattles again, and someone laughs.
  840.  
  841. > "The door is jammed. They must have thought they could make a break from up here and run smack into it."
  842. "Collect weapons and get their marks. Leave the bodies..."
  843. > You take a long breath.
  844. > After the chaos of the ambush, the absence of the noise of battle seems almost strange.
  845. > Blood still pounds in your ears as the adrenaline rush tapers off.
  846. "...leave the bodies for someone else to get. We need to finish sweeping the top floor."
  847. > Quietly moving back down to the hallway - ruined and shattered from ambush and explosion - you check the area once more.
  848. > All that is left now are bodies.
  849. > Until you reach the original room the resistance had been sheltering in.
  850. > The barrage of grenade fire from outside had reduced the outside wall to rubble and opened gaping holes to the rooms on either side.
  851. > While a few of the rebels had obviously managed to somehow escape into other rooms and hide, many others had not.
  852. > No less than thirteen bodies litter the floor.
  853. > Your men tread among the ruins of the walls and barricade, checking each one.
  854. > One in particular catches your eye.
  855. > Their equivalent of a teenager, maybe, she still looks a bit like their children.
  856. > Certainly not a grown adult.
  857. > Somehow she had managed to survive the initial grenade barrage and pull herself to a corner.
  858. > It must have been quite a feat, considering both her rear legs had been torn to shreds by shrapnel.
  859. > "Sir?"
  860. > Nonetheless she had made it, curled still in the corner when she died.
  861. > Her jaws were still locked tight around the hilt of a blade.
  862. > Ready to face down anyone who might have happened upon her before she passed.
  863. > No matter the fact that they would be carrying a rifle and she was crippled with only a blade.
  864. > "Sir, we're done here."
  865. > Obviously not a guard.
  866. > What had you - what had any human - done to inspire that kind of determination?
  867. > Had she lost someone close to her, like Spitfire?
  868. > "Sir!"
  869. > The shout breaks you out of your thoughts.
  870.  
  871. "What is it?"
  872. > "We're done here. Nothing left on this level."
  873. "Okay. I'll call it in to the LT and we can get back home.
  874. > "Roger that, sir."
  875. > You switch to the platoon circuit and take another deep breath to clear your head.
  876. "Sierra One-One to Papa One, over."
  877. > "Papa One copies."
  878. "Reporting all hostiles eliminated and all floors secured, LT. We've got, uh, two casualties, wounded, none critically."
  879. > "Copy that. Can they be moved?"
  880. > You look to your fireteam leaders; they both nod.
  881. "Affirmative, sir."
  882. > "Then come on out, Sierra One-One. You've done a good job."
  883. > The ride back to base goes in near-total silence.
  884. > Everyone's probably thinking about the same thing.
  885. > How the fuck did they get behind you?
  886. > How did you not notice them?
  887. > It's increasingly pissing you off the more you think about it.
  888. > Two of your guys are down - one with fairly major wounds - because of that screwup, and you don't know why.
  889. > Including Douglas.
  890. > Not an hour earlier you had been lecturing him on not making rookie screwups.
  891. > Now someone else's mistake had cost him.
  892. > The truck comes squealing to a stop and you hop out, heading in to the debriefing.
  893. > As you head in, something catches your shoulder.
  894. > The LT.
  895. > "You going to be okay, Sergeant?"
  896. > Your bad mood must've been more noticeable than you realized.
  897. > "Hey, they're going to be alright. They'll get patched up and be fine. We didn't loose anyone in there."
  898. "Yes, sir."
  899. > He gives you a slap on the back, and you head on in.
  900. > You wish you could believe everyone was as okay as he thought.
  901.  
  902. ------------------------------------------------------------------
  903.  
  904. > The following morning left you feeling just as glum.
  905. > It turned out you had been assigned to prisoner watch-duty again.
  906. > This time hauling enormous bags of concrete along the outskirts of the city for some new project or another.
  907. > You were thankful that it at least gave you a while to talk with them.
  908. > Currently you were listening to one of your men debate the finer points of pony mythology with Swift Mist.
  909. > "So wait, you're saying that these... windingo things, they actually fed on hatred and stuff?"
  910. > "Well, yeah. Hatred and anger. Until the flame of friendship banished them away."
  911. > "Not sure I buy that. Sounds pretty freaky."
  912. > Another soldier chimes in.
  913. > "Hey, what about those bug things TF 432 ran into down south? Aren't they supposed to eat love or something?"
  914. > The pony makes a face.
  915. > "No, those are changelings. Those are totally different."
  916. > "So, have you actually seen this flame thingy? Is there, like, a princess to do that as well?"
  917. > "Not really, but-"
  918. > You tune them out.
  919. > Mist had taken better than expected to the news of the raid on the stillborn resistance.
  920. > Certainly there were parts that he got very quiet about.
  921. > Especially when someone happened to mention the fact that there had been children among the rebels.
  922. > You were still pissed about that being leaked.
  923. > But altogether, he hadn't been as broken by it as you might have expected.
  924. > No, your concern was with Aurora Gaze.
  925.  
  926. > All of the unicorns had been steadily worn down by being kept horn-capped all the time, but Aurora was taking it worse than most.
  927. > Every time you saw her she looked ever more withdrawn.
  928. > Her eyes had begun to appear sunken - a strange appearance, considering their large size.
  929. > She spoke less and less, and this morning in particular seemed to be in an especially dark mood.
  930. > While you had some ideas about what was weighing on her you needed to be sure.
  931. > Quickening your pace, you move up beside her and take a spot beside Aurora and her partner as they lug their cart along.
  932. "Aurora."
  933. > Her ear twitches, but Aurora doesn't otherwise respond.
  934. "Aurora Gaze."
  935. > "Yes?"
  936. > Her tone is flat and tired, as though she can barely summon the strength to respond.
  937. "You're off today, Aurora. Is there going to be a problem?"
  938. > Her ear twitches again, and you frown.
  939. "Aurora, if there's going to be a problem, I need to know. Because, it's going to be a lot worse if this just sits around."
  940. > "When is this going to end?"
  941. > Aurora finally looks up at you, letting you have a good look at her eyes.
  942. > Immediately you know you have a problem on your hands.
  943. > Her eyes are glazed over and distant.
  944. > "When is this going to end? When are you going to stop fighting?"
  945. > You look away.
  946. "Fuck if I know, Aurora. Believe me, I want this to just be over as well."
  947. > "I just... we followed Swift Mist to your lines because we thought it would... make it be over."
  948. > You snort softly.
  949. "If only if it were that easy, Aurora. War doesn't end like that."
  950. > She looks down again, and you can practically hear the despair in her voice.
  951. > "So it isn't going to end, then...?"
  952. > You pause, then shake your head.
  953. "It's gotta end sometime, Aurora. War doesn't stick around like that."
  954. > You wish you could believe it.
  955. > Up ahead of you, one of your men calls back.
  956. > "Incoming vehicles, sir."
  957. "Okay, clear the road! Everyone off, everyone off the road."
  958.  
  959. > Your men add their weight to pushing the carts, quickly clearing the road proper.
  960. > You can see the vehicles in the distance now - heavy trucks, by the look of them, escorted by light armored vehicles.
  961. > One of your squad leaders steps up next to you.
  962. > "Those ain't Abrams, sir."
  963. > He is right.
  964. "What do you think - Leopards?"
  965. > You're increasingly sure the closer the trucks get, the more able you are to see the outlines of the tanks on the back of them.
  966. > "Yeah, think so."
  967. > Switching your radio set over to the platoon circuit, you call up HQ.
  968. "Hey, uh, LT - were we supposed to have any foreign units coming through?"
  969. > "Negative, you got something?"
  970. "Yeah, whole ton of trucks carrying Leopards coming in from the south."
  971. > You squint your eyes a bit, trying to make out the markings on the vehicles.
  972. "Looks like Germans, at least a company of them."
  973. > "Okay, I'll get on the horn with command, pass the word. See if you can get them to stop and see what they want."
  974. > By that time the first Vehicles are quite close - close enough for you to see the crews riding on the outside of the trucks.
  975. > Beside you, the one of your men shakes his head.
  976. > "Jesus, they're going to get themselves killed riding like that."
  977. > You nod, raising an arm to flag down one of approaching vehicles.
  978. > A truck near the front pulls off to stop in front of you, a helmeted man with a sergeant's patch leaning out the window.
  979. > "You are the Americans, yes? This is Trottingham?"
  980. "Yeah. Who are you?"
  981. > Someone else in the truck gives a sharp bark of laughter. "Ich sagte dir, wir sollten dort hinten westlich gedreht haben."
  982. > The sergeant leaning out our window laughs as well before motioning back along the convoy.
  983. > "B and C companies, 104 battalion, five panzerdivision. Our Captain - he made us lost."
  984. "Lost? You're kidding me - where the hell is he? My command is probably going to want to talk to him."
  985. > "Back, in the back. I tell him you want to talk."
  986.  
  987. > He pulls back in, motioning to his driver. "Lass uns gehen, Markus."
  988. > The truck pulls away, brakes hissing and engines roaring as the convoy starts up behind it again.
  989. > You back away, allowing them plenty of room - especially when the enormous tank transporters pass in front of you.
  990. > A quick glance back shows that your prisoners aren't faring as well.
  991. > Ears flat back, eyes wide, even off the road they have universally shrunk back from the thundering, towering machines as far as their harnesses allow them.
  992. "Hey - let's get them off this road before one of them looses it."
  993. > "Roger that, sir. Okay, come on - up and off the road, you lot. Come on, we're going somewhere quieter.
  994. > You watch the ponies and most of your squad disappear around a corner, leaving you alone on the road with Kristof.
  995. > The squeal of brakes behind you drags your attention back to the road, where another armored truck is pulling up.
  996. > To your surprise, it isn't a captain who gets out but a first lieutenant.
  997. > Another figure can still be seen in the truck's rear compartment, hunched over a laptop screen.
  998. > The lieutenant motions back in, grinning apologetically.
  999. > "I am sorry - the captain, his english is not so good."
  1000. > You're just close enough to Kristof to hear him mutter a curse beneath his breath.
  1001. "Yeah. We heard you were lost?"
  1002. > "Ja. We are supposed to be almost 150 kilometers west of here."
  1003. "No GPS?"
  1004. > "No. No signal for three days now."
  1005. > That was bad.
  1006. > Lack of GPS had been a problem from the beginning of the campaign.
  1007. > Rumor was the Russians and the guys over at NASA were trying to launch some satellites on converted ICBMs.'
  1008. > You hadn't much use for it in the city, but if the Germans were having trouble getting a connection still...
  1009. "Where are you guys going, anyway?"
  1010. > "Supposed to go to a base East of - what is it called - Vanhoover? Ja, Vanhoover. We meet our infantry there, then go somewhere else."
  1011. "Vanhoover... that's pretty far north."
  1012.  
  1013. > "We hope they brought jackets with the infantry."
  1014. "Yeah. You're not to far off route to get there, I don't think."
  1015. > "Far enough. The captain, he wanted to get there quickly."
  1016. > You shake your head at that, then motion towards the rest of the convoy.
  1017. "Okay, I told my CO about you guys, he'll pass it up. If you need to stop, drive around to the north edge of the city, we've got our stuff set up there."
  1018. > He nods appreciatively. "We will get around. What is the radio frequency for your commander?"
  1019. "Two-alpha-one. Major Lilton is the XO."
  1020. > "Good, good."
  1021. "Oh, and, uh-"
  1022. > You lower your voice a bit.
  1023. "Just a recommendation, your guys on the tanks? Have them get inside. We've had some issues with resistance groups and guard remnants, and if your guys get caught up there..."
  1024. > That makes the lieutenants eyebrows rise.
  1025. > "For certain?"
  1026. > You nod, and he turns to yell back into the truck.
  1027. > "Hauptmann, sagt der amerikanische unsere Besatzungen sollten in ihren fahrzeugen, kann es Aufständische hier sein."
  1028. > Another, far more frustrated sounding voice yells back.
  1029. > "Ist er sicher? Sie werden dort zu braten."
  1030. > "He says they will get overheated in the vehicles - we cannot run the AC when not fighting."
  1031. > You shrug.
  1032. "They don't pull anything major often, but even a minor attack can be bad - pinheads especially."
  1033. > Noting the look of confusion on his face, you add:
  1034. "The unicorns. Have you fought them before?"
  1035. > "No, no. We just got finished fitting out at Sennelager before going through the gate. The sun popping up every day like a morning alarm is still messing with us all."
  1036. "Well. It's just a recommendation, having them get inside. Choice between heat and falling off if you get attacked. You guys don't have rides for them?"
  1037. > The captain replies from the within the truck with a shrug.
  1038. > "Nicht genug lastwagen."
  1039. > Not enough trucks.
  1040. > You get the feeling it's a discussion he's had plenty of times before.
  1041.  
  1042. > Soon enough the captain's ride is pulling away again, the last of the heavy transporters and the rear guard rolling off in a cloud of dust.
  1043. > Kristof turns to you as soon as they have pulled away.
  1044. > "First time in crazy-horse-land, no GPS, and they don't have trucks? Goddamn, I feel bad for those guys."
  1045. "You're telling me. Don't blame him getting lost either, with the sun screwing with him. Come one, we'd better go see what the rest of the squad is doing."
  1046. > "Roger, sir."
  1047. > The answer turns out to be 'not much'.
  1048. > They're sitting around in a big circle under some shade a block away.
  1049. > Most of the ponies still look rather shellshocked.
  1050. > You don't blame them.
  1051. > That was probably the first time they've been that close to armored vehicles since they were brought in.
  1052. > And frankly, you'd be a little nervous standing next to a roaring contraption three times your height you didn't understand.
  1053. > One of your men stands as you approach. "What'd they want, sir?"
  1054. > You shrug.
  1055. "Captain who didn't speak english and not enough trucks got a couple of tank companies lost."
  1056. > "Shit, seriously?"
  1057. "Yep. Okay, everybody up again. We need to be moving if we want to get in before chow time."
  1058. > That catches their attention.
  1059. > Nothing like fresh(-ish) food to get a soldier's attention, of any species.
  1060. > The rest of the march goes in relative silence until, beside you, Aurora speaks up again.
  1061. > "S-sir?"
  1062. "Yeah?"
  1063. > "Those other soldiers - they didn't speak your language?"
  1064. > Aurora must have noticed your look, because her eyes drop down.
  1065. > "I, um... I'm sorry."
  1066. > You grunt softly. Hadn't the idea been to try figuring out what was wrong with her, not scaring her further?
  1067. "No, it's okay. Yeah, some of them didn't - most of them probably did, a little bit."
  1068. > She is silent a bit longer before going on.
  1069. > "I-I just... I don't understand. You don't even speak the same language, but you would unite to invade here...?"
  1070. > You pause, considering how to answer that.
  1071.  
  1072. "I'm guessing most of the other spec- uh, nations here - they speak the same language as you?"
  1073. > She nods. "Yes. Even the seaponies, and they almost never talk to us."
  1074. > Seaponies?
  1075. > That's a new one.
  1076. > You'd better not be getting into some little mermaid BS here.
  1077. "And the relations with those nations, they're...?"
  1078. > "Mixed. Some of us are our friends, some... aren't."
  1079. > You nod.
  1080. "Yeah, okay - see, you're used to a language barrier being a big deal, but it doesn't work like that back home."
  1081. > "...oh."
  1082. > She quickly adds, "But, if they don't speak the same language as you - that must mean they're from really far away, right?"
  1083. > You debate trying to explain to her just how 'short' a hop over the Atlantic to Germany had become in the last hundred years, but decide not to.
  1084. "Not really. We have a lot different ones, sometimes close together. We had to learn to get along, even if we don't speak the same language."
  1085. > Aurora nods slowly, her brain processing that.
  1086. > "And fight together."
  1087. "And fight together, yeah. Funny thing is, around eighty years ago we fought a war with the country those guys come from."
  1088. > She practically trips over her own hooves at that. "What? And now they're fighitng with you?"
  1089. "Well, yeah. I mean, it was different people - probably, like, the great-great grandfathers of those guys - but same group of people."
  1090. > There's a long silence after that.
  1091. > "I don't know whether to think it's good even a creature like you can forgive them, or sad that you only do it to fight someone else."
  1092. > You debate explaining that they were 'forgiven' for the most part years ago, but then remember that it was mostly to fight the Soviets back then.
  1093. > She still had a point, you suppose.
  1094. "Well, look at the upside... when this is over, I don't think we'll hold a grudge against you long."
  1095.  
  1096. > "Only if we give up."
  1097. > That brings you up short.
  1098. "Yeah. Or sue for peace, or something."
  1099. > "I don't want the princesses to surrender... but I really want this to end. I don't know if that's wrong."
  1100. > For a second you think back to the body of that young pony, laying amid the ruins of the resistance hideout.
  1101. "I don't think it is... but you should probably talk to Swift Mist, or one of the other leaders about that. They'd be able to talk to you about it better."
  1102. > "Yeah. Maybe I should."
  1103. > Her voice has gone back down to its empty, flat tone.
  1104. > So much for your efforts.
  1105.  
  1106. ------------------------------------------------------------------
war aie

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