This was wrong. I'm a fool to believe Cattani a second time around! Using such an unpredictable species as humans... Queen Chrysalis paced around her throne overlooking the immense hive constructed within a natural subterranean cavern. Many drones were asleep in their honeycomb quarters along the walls, but others were still hard at work building more of the evergrowing hive.
"We should progress with the original plan." said Cattani as he approached the queen. He was accompanied by six other high-ranking changelings: Tempest, the chief director of strategic operations; Gripen, commander of assault forces; Gloster Grebe, second-in-command of assault forces; Lancer, primary squad-leader of assault forces; Albatros, assistant operations advisor; and finally, Breda, the chief armorer and combat specialist.
"And completely dismiss Twenty-Nine's warning?" Tempest barked. "Cattani, this time you've really gotten us into a big one!"
One major simplicity of Changeling recognition was the most recent method of using numbered designations for drones and soldiers as nomenclature, instead of their actual names. Not only did it make operations easier, but also served as a perfect cover callsign should anyone intercept any form of their communication with the hive. An operative's cover would be compromised, but the secrecy between individuals of the hive itself would remain.
"How was I to know? Of the documentation Operative Sixty-Eight managed to smuggle out of the Star Swirl the Bearded wing of the palace, 'Observer's Report Number Five' on humans was the most accurate report of all. It mentioned absolutely nothing about weapons, but it did describe their psyche. Clever and advanced, but vague as to exactly how advanced."
"Sixty-Eight fowled up." Tempest informed with a sigh. "Operative Thirteen already infiltrated the wing prior to Sixty-Eight, reporting a number of more recent observer's reports written by someone else. Someone must've been stashing them there for safekeeping until they were relocated to an appropriate secure location. The featherbrain Sixty-Eight missed all of them and went down the wrong section."
Albatross thought for a moment. "Alright, who do we have inside the palace right now?"
"No one." said Cattani. "I mean, we have Operatives Seven, Fifty-Nine, Forty-One, and Forty-Three down in Canterlot, but I can't pull them from their locations.
Albatross grumbled. "Okay, any other agents local to the Canterlot area?"
"Just Seventy-Six, but I can't pull him out either. He's in deep cover as a gate guardsman."
Tempest made a rude noise and chimed in. "Cattani, what happened to those agents you sent on patrol on the Everfree outskirts? How deep under cover are they in right now?"
"Seven and Fifty-Two? We haven't heard from them at all in the past forty-eight hours. I think they've been compromised."
"Anyway," Albatross stepped in. "I think we should get someone back inside and retrieve the correct documentation. I suggest Sixty-Eight again. What resources do we have for another infiltration?"
Tempest was already shaking his head in disagreement. "No, we don't have time. Nor do we have the resources for another infiltration."
"Then what do you suggest we do?"
"We do as Twenty-Nine suggested. Evacuate the hive and fall back before contact with the invaders."
Chrysalis stomped a hoof on the ground "Run away, yes?! With our tails between our legs?!"
"My queen, we're in way over our heads this time. We can't possibly-..."
"Us Changelings have never run away from a fight. We will not run away from this one!"
"The circumstances have changed! We are simply not ready for this kind of opposition."
Chrysalis took a breath to speak, but nothing logical would come forth. Instead she immersed herself within her thoughts again, allowing the others to converse on their own. We've been defeated once, but not exterminated. Now there is a lingering possibility we will succumb to both. What is a vast army of Changelings to do? Then it finally hit her. To hunt a dragon, become one! "We use the human."
The voices in the room stopped dead silent, all eyes now on the queen.
"We assign him as an operational advisor. We follow his species' tactics to fight them off."
Cattani snorted. "He would never accept such an offer."
"It's not an offer, Cattani. We're going to use him, regardless of his opinion."
"Enough! That is my final decision on the matter. Bring him to me immediately."
Correction, this was the closest Ray had ever been to a rogue faction. There his enemy was, sitting right across the room from him, conscious of each others' presence, and in crisp communication. And he was still living and breathing to experience it.
Faust leaned forward to speak. "You see, Ray, the faction was quite different when Tolwin's father was in charge. I knew him well. He was a very respectable man." Faust took a cigarrette out of his front pocket and put it between his lips. He then reached into another pocket and pulled out a lighter, lighting it up. "He took no **** from no one that apposed what he believed in, but he wasn't a savage man." He closed the lighter and put it back in his pocket.
Faust paused for a moment, then yanked the pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and offered one to Ray. He declined with the shake of his head. Faust put the pack back in his pocket and continued. "Oh, savage he definitely was not. He had a kind heart, but he knew who his enemy was. And who his friends were. His cause was liberation, never extermination. His son, unfortunately, didn't understand. He only saw the enemy as the villain of a great fantasy story, and the faction as the hero army. The enemy, through his eyes as time went by, was the world itself. The world that resided outside the faction. They showed hostility... they were opposition.
"His father was a terrible loss among the 'family.' But by then Taggard had been of the appropriate age to take command. He was a bright young man, but I knew he didn't understand the foundation his father was trying to lay with the faction before him. Before we knew it, we were raiding communities for weapons and equipment. Forcefully recruiting or executing oppositions. The more we conquered, the stronger we became as a force in power." Faust took a pause then let out a deep exhale of smoke. "This wasn't at all what his father wanted. But no one had the heart to tell him. Me and a few others are all that's left of the older generation. We're surrounded by young recruits that only know of Taggard's twisted ways."
Ray swallowed hard. His intentions completely dissipated now that he had another perspective to listen to.
Faust grinned slightly. "We were the saviors of a world trapped in despair. Now we've become the very enemy we've been fighting for so many years."
Ray took a breath to speak, but nothing would come out. He was speechless.
Faust looked down at the ground. "And I let myself become a part of it."
Junkers and Agusta also looked at the ground, with almost shameful expressions.
Faust looked back up at Ray with a smile again. "I'm sorry, where's my manners? I don't believe I know your name."
"Ah. You know, you've become a legend within the faction since your daring escape back in the desert. 'The Driver' they call you. The only man alive who has ever escaped the devastating firepower of Tolwin's aircraft."
"Then what got me in the ravine?"
"A 'Snooty gun.' It's what we call some of our mobile artillery. Damn lucky shot too." Faust snickered.
Ray coughed up dust as he tried to laugh along.
"Sort of anyway."
"What kind of car were you driving?" Junkers asked.
"A 1970 Chevrolet El Camino with custom desert mods. When I bartered for it it had mounts for high-cal. weapons on the hood, but I removed them since I couldn't find any."
"Couldn't find any?" Agusta snickered. "Kind of hard to believe, my friend."
"In the desert I taught myself to run from engagements. Any force in power that outnumbered myself. So, I never took anything from anyone. Except... for things I find abandoned along the road. And should I meet any drifters, I suppose that's a good source for things, though it requires a trade. And it's a risk I don't like taking, unless it's vital for my survival. Water and food, mostly."
Faust let out another deep and smoky exhale. "Well, my friend, I respect your convictions, but it's kind of sad in my opinion. On the road of war you need a friend. Maybe then you'll find your street of dreams"
"Yes, but trust is a hard thing to come by on the road of war. Don't you think?"
Faust thought for a moment, then looked at the ground with a shrug.
"How did you get caught?"
"Well, we were a small patrol squad in charge of setting up a transponder, a kind of triangulator device for our GPS."
"That thing in the woods..."
"Yeah. That thing in the woods that Junk trashed with the M202."
Junkers rolled his eyes. "Please stop bringing that up."
"Anyway, I went out into the forest, alone, so I could put out a fire Junk started. Then these Changeling things came out of nowhere, capturing me and dragging me off to the hive. Like demons of your darkest nightmares, I swear. According to Agusta and Junkers, all kinds of hell broke loose after that. Huge waves of them from all directions. Eventually we were the only survivors that saw imprisonment. We were interrogated for information, then thrown in here.
Did the queen happen to tell you what she plans to do?"
"Yeah. Did she tell you?"
"Yep. The whole plan. Crazy, isn't it?"
Ray nodded. "Indeed."
A nearby doorway opened up, making way for two Changeling drones. Everyone climbed onto their feet and hooves in response.
"Ray!" one of the drones shouted. "Come. The queen wishes to see you."
Might as well comply. Ray followed the drones out of the cell, looking back at his friends as the door began closing behind him. He proceeded.
The two drones lead him through a dense network of tunnelways through the hive, dimly-lit and glistening with slimy material. Softer sections of the walls seemed to move, as if they were alive. It was like walking through a biomechanical being. A giant machine with living parts.
His sense of smell was back. To his surprise, it didn't stink in any way he'd expect such a place to. In fact, it smelled sweet like honey. Like being in the honeycomb within a bee's nest.
Ray finally arrived in the cavernous room overlooked by Queen Chrysalis in what appeared to be her throne. He stopped with a glare aimed towards her direction.
"Ray," she said, "just the human I wanted to see."
"What do you want, Chrysalis?"
"I need your help."
She removed herself from her seat and approached him. "You say despite my grand army outnumbering the Raiders they are a mere 'nuisance' in contrast to their power. And not even our own magic would be enough to repel them?"
"I seriously doubt it."
"Hmm. Well, what if we were to say... update them? To transform my army into a few thousand strong in a reasonable technological match to the Raiders?"
No... I know what she wants. And she wants 'me' to do it! Ray smiled.
"What's so amusing?"
"You want me to help train your army and equip them for battle against the Raiders?"
Chrysalis shifted her eyes. "Yes, exactly. Can it be done?"
Ray snickered, fighting the urge to laugh even harder. "You're a lot crazier than I thought."
"Silence! I did not bring you here for your sarcastic tongue! I asked you a very simple question. Can it be done, dear Ray?"
He straightened up. "Overnight? Of course not. No army in the world can be trained overnight with these kind of tactics. To supply them with such an arsenal is an even bigger problem... where would you find the weapons? You see, these things take months to years to achieve."
"My army is much more disciplined than you think. What you teach us can be learnt as quickly as instructed. I can demonstrate, if necessary."
"Fine. I'm sure they are a respectable fighting force. Now, what about weapons? Again I ask, where will you get them?"
She shrugged. "Improvise."
Ray took an argumentive breath, then paused for a moment. Wait, she might be on to something. What if... yes, yes! Oh, but my manuals were in my car. Dammitt... Well, maybe she knows what happened to it. If we could improvise something from those manuals, we might just have a fighting chance against the Raiders. Magic and technology combined, at an almost equal force in power. Might as well try it, seeing as it may be my only way out of imprisonment with these things...
Chrysalis tilted her head at Ray. "What are you thinking about so hard?"
"Do you happen to know the whereabouts of my car?"
"Your 'car'... you mean, that broken machine in the woods?"
She knows! "Yes, you know of it?"
She grinned and gestured to her left.
Ray looked that direction and saw the pile of wreckage that was his El Camino, resting in a far corner of the room. So they were the ones that took it! Now everything is falling into place. Now was the time to also prove a developing theory. Ray turned back to the queen. "Do you have a crowbar?"
She furrowed her brow in confusion. "A what?"
"Nevermind, I think I have one in the back." Ray walked towards his car.
The two drones followed him to observe his actions.
Yes! Found it. Ray reached into the back of his car, emerging with a very large crowbar. He then lept into the rear bed area and began prying open a locked toolbox. Chrysalis and the drones stepped closer with curiosity.
He pried and pried until the lit popped open with a metallic "clang!" that echoed through the entire hive, waking up a good amount of drones from their sleep. He then threw the crowbar on the ground and held the box open, revealing its contents. There they are. This might just work after all!
"What are those?" asked Chrysalis.
"These, my queen, are old army field manuals."
"So we have documented tactics to learn from. Now, how does this solve our secondary concern you so stressed earlier?"
Ray turned to her with a sly grin. "You'll see."
Keep Low. Move Fast. First Kill. Die LastOne Shot. One Kill. No Luck. Pure Skill.
Orbs on the biomechanical walls flickered to life, illuminating the large and cavernous room. It was a storage bunker, filled with all kinds of human artifacts. Vehicles, equipment, clothing, etc. A secret cache. The state of the artifacts, however, were troubling.
Cars and trucks lay shredded with their mechanical guts in piles, weapons bent and charred, and other miscellaneous things damaged beyond repair. Battle damaged, possibly.
"As I may have said before," Chrysalis started, "you were certainly not the first human visitor to Equestria. Before you is a collection of various human artifacts we've gathered from the previous ones."
Ray turned to the queen with the crossing of his arms. "And what of the previous 'visitors'?"
"They fought for their lives." She turned to Ray with a faux expression of reassurance. "Despite a rather generous peace offering. We were left with only the choice of defending ourselves.
I would have given them the same opportunity you have now, but it was Cattani who felt the next ones should be left oblivious to not only our plan, but to our very existence. Until the very end."
Ray turned his back to the queen and approached the items in the room. He cautiously inspected everything. I wonder if she understands the state of everything? What did she mean by her statement earlier? "When you said 'improvise' I had thought you meant something that could be conjured up from the field manuals."
"Of course. Are you questioning my intelligence, dear Ray?"
Ray turned to her. "What makes you ask that?"
"I see it in your eyes, small as they may be. Windows nonetheless, are they not?"
"I'm still very confused by your statement. You said 'improvise', yet you have an assortment of weapons and equipment at your disposal."
"Again with the questioning of my intelligence?"
Ray smiled. "Forgive me."
She met his in response. "You may find that not everything in this collection is in the dreadful condition you see before you. On the far right is the latest addition to the overall cache. Things we have collected from the attack on the small group in the Everfree Forest."
Yes, Ray saw them. A small pile of assault rifles next to a wooden box containing an M202 FLASH launcher with four rockets, an M67 recoilless rifle with a metal box of 90mm shells, and an Otokar Akrep light recon vehicle. Yet a familiar item also caught his eye. There was his WA-2000 resting at the top of the pile of assault rifles.
"Even I understand this isn't nearly enough for my army entirely. But I do believe it will give us an additional step towards our goal. Don't you agree?"
Ray took a deep breath. Look at where she brought me. Her drones are outside of this room. We are alone in a room full of potential weapons. Does she not realise I could kill her in an instant? He stared at his rifle in the pile until it felt as if his pupils were burning holes through it. I could do it. I could kill her and make my escape.
"Hmm? I said, don't you agree?"
"Yes, my queen." No. It's not right. This is what I was brought here to do. Something feels so different. 'I' feel different. There was yet another restraint. Magic. I would not be quick enough, and I would also be outnumbered. But... why take the chance as you have, Chrysalis? Have you made yet another reckless mistake, or is this something deeper I'm not seeing?
"Ray, it seems you're lost in your thoughts again. Would you care to come back to Equestria and help us with the problem at hand, please?"
Ray looked into Chrysalis' eyes. Those big, eerie yet soultry eyes. You understand everything, don't you? You know I won't pick up that gun and threaten your life, because the net result would be my death. You're aware of my understanding. I will be no good to you dead. You need me. You all need me. "Of course. Time is short, and so lets get on with it."
"Come with me first." She led him out of the room.
And I need you.
The air was cool, the smell of fresh air mixed with the unusual scent of honey from the hive, swirling amongst everyone as if the sweet breath of the planet itself. The space above was not of a cave, but it was surely dark enough. No, it was the night sky, yet not a star could be seen. Possibly smoke or some other such obstruction? But the open sky was there regardless.
Below was an immense depression in the earth illuminated by green and blue orbs. It was filled with literally thousands of Changeling drones, awaiting something.
Ray's heart sank. It was truly an impressive sight!
"Hear me, my army of the Changeling clan!" Queen Chrysalis shouted to her troops. "Who is our sworn enemy amongst these lands?"
"Equestrians!!" they shouted.
"Well, my minions, we have yet another rival. The humans!"
Mumblings throughout the entirety of her subjects.
"You know of the humans. You know of my plan for them. However, we have a new human force in power that has threatened our very existence. Worse, they threaten both of us Changelings and the Equestrians combined!"
First mumblings, now a gasp to silence them all.
"We alone cannot stop them. However, tonight I introduce a new plan that may just liberate us after all! We have at least one human prisoner who is willing to teach us his species' ways of fighting, so that we will be victorious against the Phantom Raiders! His name is Ray. Listen to what he has to say. It may save your life." She paused. Not a voice among the gathering. No sign of objection. They were for it, if it meant the survival of their species. She continued. "Magic and technology combined! We will be far more powerful than ever before!"
What of their hunger for love? Is this no longer their power source? Perhaps their plan to feed rests on their victory.
Chrysalis turned to Ray, a twinkle in her eyes. She then turned back to her subjects. "But another factor lies in our efforts. We must work together with the Equestrians to fend away this menace! Do you understand, my faithful subjects?"
"What happens if we are victorious, my queen?" a drone asked among the gathering. "Then will we have a chance to overthrow the Equestrians as previously planned?"
She paused for a moment, shifting her jaw. Come on, Chrysalis. Make the right choice. I know an intelligent cerapter like you will understand what you must do. Search your heart... if you have one.
"No." she finally said. Well done. I may have some respect for you yet. "We will follow the gentlemens' code of warfare. We will give the Equestrians a head start in the end. After all, it is what a human would do when fighting another human."
I've never heard of such a "code," but I am familiar with the act itself. After all, it is only fair a swordsman's enemy have a sword as well, or it would not be a fair match. A philosophy she must've figured out from our own goal... I must applaud you, Chrysalis. You are no longer the maniacal dictator I first met.
"Ray, do you have anything you wish to add before we get started?"
He nodded. She stepped aside to make way for him as he cleared his throat to speak. "I am Ray. Skyray. I am a warrior of the great desert. Your queen has asked me to train you in the way of human combat. I have agreed to do more than just that. I will teach you how to improvise weapons that are a technological match for the Raiders' firepower. And I will help lead you all to victory. But in order for this to happen you must do me the favor of setting aside your petty differences with the Equestrians. Because as of now, they are our allies!
I will teach one-hundred of your finest soldiers. Those soldiers will teach the next thousand, and those will teach the next! Tonight, you will become more than an army. You will become warriors!"
"Hurrah!!" erupted the gathering of drones. "Hail Ray!!"
It felt amazing to Ray. For the first time he had an army behind him. There is nowhere else to run. There is no need to run. Now is the time to fight back. No more running and hiding. The runner has become a soldier. The soldier is now a leader.
Cattani gathered among the other high-ranking Changelings just adjacent to the primary gathering at the main entrance to the hive.
"For the first time," Tempest spoke up, "I question the sanity of our queen at the hight of conflict."
"You wouldn't be the first." Cattani grumbled. "If any plan is a flawed plan, it's this one. No human can be deemed trustworthy."
"I have faith in him." Gloster Grebe stepped in.
"You forget current events, Gloster."
"Don't ever say that to me again. Cattani, here we have the chance to learn a way of combat that might be in our favor. According to your studies of the smuggled documentation, they are a clever species. Yes? Are you not the one who said just that?"
"Yes? Well, my friend, there it is. Now we will have the upper hand. We will be as clever as a human, not to mention just as advanced."
Albatross shook his head in disagreement. "Moderate match. I doubt we will receive computer-enhanced weaponry. Aside from that, I sense something behind the queen's plan. There is much more to the picture we're not seeing."
"Of the queen or Ray?" asked Cattani.
Albatross shrugged. "Both, perhaps."
An uncomfortable pause among the group.
"Best keep a lookout for anything suspicious. From both parties."
Updated cover art:
Here we go:
The moon casted a brilliant beam of blue over the palace grounds. It was a beautiful night, cloudless, with every star in the sky complimenting the moon's radiance. Luna had really outdone herself.
Princess Celestia, however, payed no attention as she paced through the great hall, immersed in her thoughts.
The nearby door opened with an outline of a dark-blue magic aura, making way for Princess Luna. "Big sister?" she called with a whisper as she proceeded. "What art thou-... I mean, what are you doing here?"
Celestia turned to her sister with a worryful expression. "I fear something terrible must have happened to Twilight Sparkle and Ray, and everypony else. I have received no report from anypony in over two hours. Not even of my guardsmen."
Luna attempted a reassuring smile. "Fear not, my sister. The elements have never failed to defeat our most powerful enemies. Because the wielders of their power are very strong, and live by their meaning with iron determination."
Celestia nodded with a sigh, gradually making her way towards the door. "Yes, you're right. I should never doubt the capabilities of my faithful student and her beloved friends. I suppose even the outlander Ray would prove to be a valuable asset." She halted just as she reached the archway. "But I will never forgive myself for such a foolish mistake."
"You must not dwell on that. Besides, look at me. Do you recall my mistake? My so foolish mistake?"
Celestia looked her younger sister in the eyes with perfect understanding as she recalled the events of their lives. "I suppose it is a miracle that immortal souls as ourselves have made so few mistakes in our immense lifespan, despite the severity of those we have."
Luna smiled, holding back the involuntary urge to snicker at the irony of her sister's logic.
Celesta managed a grin to meet hers. "Where is Spike, by the way?"
"I let him rest in my chambers while I guard the night. Speaking of which-..."
"Yes, of course." Celestia interrupted, continuing out the door. "Good night."
"Good night." Luna replied. And sweet dreams. The morning, I trust, will bring about a wonderful surprise.
The Changeling drones gathered all of the requested supplies from the cache and brought them before Ray. Most notable were eleven glass bottles half-full of gasoline taken from the Otokar Akrep and Ray's wrecked El Camino, a bowl of salt, rags torn from shredded clothing, a twig, and the army field manuals, all on top of a table erected from an upturned back-seat of a car, supported by large rocks.
Beside the table was a pile of the weapons and miscellaneous junk taken from the cache. The wrecked vehicles were stripped of usable materials, including thick metal pipes cut from their framework.
The Changelings themselves, including their queen, stood patiently around Ray like an audience, ready to learn what he had to teach them. Let's get on with it then.
Ray picked up one of the bottles and held it out. "I need the other half of this bottle full of blood. Anyone care to help me out?"
The drones looked around at each other. Ray had obviously not gained their trust yet.
"Look, if you want me to teach you what I know, you're going to have to help me in the process. Now please, contribute."
Suddenly, a glow emitted from a nearby drone, forcing the bottle out of Ray's hand and into the drone's presence, disappearing into the crowd. Within a mere few seconds it was back in his hand, full of a mixture of gasoline and, surprisingly, red blood. That's more like it.
"Thanks." Ray put it down and grabbed a handful of salt from the bowl, sloppily pouring it into the bottle. Next he stirred the mixture with the twig, for a timespan of about a minute. The mixture began forming a gel, eventually becoming so thick that it chunked when he moved the stick inside it. He stopped stirring and grabbed a nearby rag, jamming it half-way through the top of the bottle. It had quickly become a Molotov co.cktail.
He then stepped away from the table, holding the rag end of the bottle over a nearby torch, setting it on fire. "Now, if you on the left there would kindly form a gap about ten meters..."
The drones did just that, backing away to form a wide opening that exposed the rocky earth beneath their hooves.
With a swift motion, Ray threw the flaming co.cktail to the distant ground. It exploded into a startling fireball, with flames that refused to die down. Gasps and mumbles came from the crowd as they stared mesmerized.
"Gasoline mixed with blood and salt forms a flame fuel that adheres to target surfaces, like a poor man's napalm. Of course, you can also use sugar instead of salt." As Ray walked back to the table, the drones began stomping their hooves on the ground. Confused, he turned to the queen.
"They're applauding you, Ray." She said, smiling.
"Oh." He turned back to the crowd. "Well, there's much, much more where that came from. I would like about ten of you to perform the same procedure I just showed you, with these remaining ten bottles respectively. Come and grab your supplies."
Exactly ten of them levitated the materials towards them as they disappeared into the hive.
"Now, I hear you have weapons newly acquired for your previously planned offensive that are about a technological match against the Royal Guard. Well, time to modify one specific kind for our new offensive. I want one of you to give me a bow and arrow."
One drone emerged from the crowd, levitating the two items onto the table.
"Beauty. Now I need a few more things from the cache. I need a bag of chemical fertilizer, something made of aluminum, a tube of any material that's about five inches long and one inch wide, an abrasive object like a metal file for grinding, and some tape."
Two drones separated from the crowd, searching the pile of junk, eventually finding the materials and levitating them to Ray. The aluminum items were empty drink cans, the tube was a thin metal pipe, about six inches long instead of five, and the abrasive object was a blade to an electric metal-grinder. I suppose this will do.
"Thanks." Ray took one of the rags and stuffed it into one end of the metal tube, then rested the tube against a rail support of the upturned seat with the rag end facing downward. He then got to work grinding the surface of the can over the tube's top opening, hoping to catch as much of the filings as he could.
Queen Chrysalis looked on at Ray with admiration of his skill in this field. Indeed he would prove to be a very valuable asset in the Changelings' mission to repel the invaders. It was a very exciting time for everyone.
She felt a nudge on her left front hoof and turned to its source.
"I need to talk to you, my queen." whispered Cattani. "In private, please."
She followed Cattani through the crowd behind Ray, disappearing from his presence undetected. They found themselves within the hive entrance, accompanied by the other high-ranking Changelings.
"So what's going on here, my subjects?" asked Chrysalis.
Tempest stepped forward. "Well, I would like to know more about this plan of yours. I think it would be in the hive's best interest if you'd enlighten us all."
"Alright then, let me guess. Once you've acquired your information on the outlander's improvised weaponry, you plan on betraying him in the battlefield. To fight not only the humans, but to also weaken the guard and their defences so that you'll have a window to infiltrate the palace. Am I close? If so, please note that I don't protest it, but I find it rather wreckless, if I may be so bold in saying so."
"I don't like your tone very much, Tempest. And rest assured, I stand by what I said."
"So you do plan on actually giving our sworn enemy a head start?" Cattani snapped.
"Cattani, there's much to this night I've yet to explain even to myself. But I feel this descision will benifit us a great deal. Ray and his friends will lead us to victory, to the fighting finish. The Canterlot Royal Guard will be our ally in this conflict. Though a regretful mismatch to the Raiders', and soon, our, destructive capability, we need as much help as we can get. I do not plan on throwing it all away in our one and only chance to fight for our very survival. Whatever happens in the end should we be victorious, to both or prisoners and our 'former' Equestrian enemy, will be decided in our retrograde that will allow them a chance to redeem themselves."
Tempest shook his head. "You want to give our enemy a chance to gain the strength that we will tonight."
She remained silent.
"You've changed, my queen. What happened to the survivalist leader I once knew during the first Canterlot invasion? Did the impact of that fall affect a vital region of your hea-..."
With the glow of her horn, Tempest found himself yanked from his hooves and shoved into the hive wall behind him.
"I need not explain myself any further, Tempest!" she said, gritting her teeth. "I've grown weary of your sniveling sounds of distrust and rude impulse. You and Cattani both!"
Cattani swallowed hard, backing away from the confrontation.
She continued. "Don't push me. I may have gained somewhat of a moral sense lately, but that doesn't mean I'll take any less pleasure in inflicting pain upon those who insult me!" She finally released him and began walking towards the outside of the hive.
"Contradiction much?" Albatross said to no one in particular.
Tempest retained his attitude. "Chrysalis!"
She halted and turned back to him with a scowl.
"We're notifying Twenty-Nine and the other agents of this drastic change of plan. I think they deserve to know what's going on."
"No. You will do no such thing. They are in deep cover, and I am not blowing this chance."
Tempest remained silent for a moment, then turned to face the other Changelings. "So be it, my queen."
Chrysalis proceeded out the entryway, joining the rest of the gathering.
Cattani edged closer to Tempest. "We're sending the message anyway, aren't we?"
"What do you think?" Tempest snorted and walked deeper into the hive.
Ray finished pouring the powdered fertilizer inside the metal tube, careful not to fill it all the way to leave room as he jammed another rag into the top opening, this time leaving a part of it dangling outward of the tube. He picked it up and shaked it, mixing the aluminum filings and furtilizer evenly. Shortly after he ripped pieces of duct tape from the roll and tightly wrapped it around the top and bottom openings stuffed with the cloth, then took even bigger pieces from the roll, this time taping the entire tube along the front end of the arrow. He held it up for all to see.
"This is arguably the earliest example of an explosive projectile. Well, next to explosive cannonballs anyway. But much more powerful than simple black powder." Ray then picked up the bow as he walked to the nearby torch, lighting the rag that hung loose from the tube on the arrow, then quickly positioned it on the bow. He had already picked out a safe target, taking aim and firing without warning.
The Changelings tracked the flaming arrow as it streaked accross the darkened sky, then watched as a twisted tree in the distance dissolved in the most violent small-scale explosion they had ever seen.
"You can also add nails and metal chunks into the mixture, which allows for a much deadlier fragmentation explosive, good for taking out multiple personnel."
More applause as about twenty-five archer drones levitated the materials to themselves, all dissappearing into the hive with eager looks on their faces. Refreshing enthusiasm, I must say.
"Now there's one more improvised system I want to show you before we move on to small-arms training. You may notice that we have a small stockpile of assault rifles, including my own WA-2000, and about an equal distribution of ammo for each. However, this will only be enough to arm a small squad, obviously not an entire legion."
Ray walked back to the table, putting the bow on the ground next to it. "Someone give me a bullet from one of those rifles. Doesn't matter which one."
Shuffling from the pile of weapons as a round of ammunition flew from inside one and onto the table. "Good. Now one of you find me a thick metal pipe about twenty inches long with an interior width that matches the diameter of the bullet." One drone stepped forward and inspected the bullet carefully, then rummaged through the pile of junk.
"Others find me these following items: A straight piece of wood about thirty inches long, two inches wide, and four inches tall; a short pipe-link about five inches or so; three small nails; lots of rope or string, preferably very strong; finally a belt, or a strap that's equal to a belt size."
Many enthusiastic soldiers did just as instructed, at an enviable pace. One drone that found the piece of wood noticed flaws in the requested dimensions, and began cutting it to the required specifications with his magic. Interesting. This answers the question of how I'm recieving such quality items that almost match my specifications. Furthermore, this may prove to be a useful weapon as well. "Excuse me, but how powerful is that spell you're using?"
The drone stopped and looked up at him. "Just enough to cut wood and thin metal."
"Hmm. That may come in handy."
He smiled at him. "I don't think it's strong enough for what you have in mind. We mostly use this spell for cutting and ramming through wooden structures."
"Still might be a useful close-quarters tool. Remember it when you're dry of physical weapons."
The drone thought about it for a moment, then went back to cutting the wood. He quickly finished and gave it to Ray.
"Thanks, everyone. Now watch closely." Ray first picked up the pipe, then put the narrow bullet inside, with the larger cartridge end sticking out. Next he screwed the pipe-link onto the same end of the pipe as tight as he could. He stuffed more of the rags inside to even the diameters of both the bullet and the pipe-link, then stuffed even more inside, completely concealing the cartridge. He then poked the nail through, just matching the approximate location of the cartridge primer.
He paused. Wait, you're still missing a couple more things. Ugh, this thing is more complicated than I remember.
Crickets chirped everywhere in the cool, breezy night, oblivious to the destruction that surrounded them. The Raiders, however, were as silent as the remains of two-hundred soldier ponies scattered about the town. No lights from the newly-erected tents, no voices, and not a movement that was of sentiant origin.
The metallic smell of blood tainted the air, mixing with the scent of ash from charred bodies and structures. The telltale sign of decay would accompany this mixture soon enough.
The disturbingly quiet night was interrupted as Riggs opened the door to the library, stepping out onto the grassland to take in the air. Air he thought would be fresh. As he inhaled, he began caughing up the stench that surrounded him, forcing him to take small, controlled breaths with his mouth to lessen the extremity on his nostrils.
A silhouetted figure emerged from the rear end of Tolwin's Chinook about fifty feet away, stepping closer to the nearby light to reveal himself.
"Hey, Faust." Greeted Riggs with a soft tone.
Faust grinned. "Can't sleep?"
Riggs shook his head. "Got a headache from watching all those films with the old man."
"I hear you."
"Hey, you got a cigarette?"
Faust twitched his head. "What?"
"A cigarette. You got one?"
He looked at the ground, shaking his head. "No, sorry."
Riggs snorted. "That's the first." He sighed, staring out into the darkness of the demolished town.
"What's on your mind?"
Riggs turned back to Faust, stepping closer to join him nearer to the aircraft. "I dunno. I just...I can't comprehend how this is even possible. You know?"
"I think so."
"I mean, this all just seems so fantastic. Intelligent equine capable of what humans have only ever dreamed of. Here, of all places. Look where we're standing, Faust. You've been in the unit longer than most of us. Have you ever seen anything like it?"
Faust shook his head. "I've seen lots of strange things in my life, but nothing like this."
"And Tolwin just wants to blow it all away." He snorted. "That man needs a good kick in the teeth."
Faust giggled. "Yes, to say the least."
"I mean, are these things aliens of some kind? Or did they come from here? Are they some kind of mutation? I think we should learn about them. Make contact with them. I dunno... maybe something benificial to the unit could come out of it."
"Yeah, well, last contact I had didn't go so well."
Riggs kicked a rock on the ground, crossing his arms. "I just hate this. I hate it. I hate what Tolwin wants to do to get to the Driver. It's senseless and stupid. Not to mention a waste of a perfectly good arsenal."
Faust let a pause wash over the conversation for a moment, then spoke up. "You know, when I excused myself from the film screening a few hours ago, I took one of the cars out to the second transponder site. Just to check on things."
"Yeah? How'd it go?"
Riggs uncrossid his arms as he turned to Faust with surprise. "What?"
"The vehicles, the equipment, even the bodies. Everything."
"Like how the Driver's vehicle just... vanished."
"Yeah. I think those pony things came back for it all. Probably studying it for whatever advantage they feel it might give them. Sound plausible enough?"
"Sure. Why not? I'll believe anything these days, after what we've been through." Riggs crossed his arms again. He felt something hard inside the top left pocket of his jacket, like a pen or stick but shorter. He put his hand inside and pulled it out to see. Behold, it was a fresh cigarette. He turned to Faust with an overly-excited expression. "Holy sh*t, man."
Faust shaked his head with a slight grin. "Sure. Contribute to the already fowl air tonight."
"Hey, at least it tastes better." Riggs put the cigarette in his mouth, then paused, turning to Faust. "You okay?"
"Hmm? Oh, I'm fine. Why?"
"You just-... nevermind." He turned the opposite direction, giving himself a grand view of the town and surrounding mountains as he pulled out his lighter. Something ahead caught his eyes as he raised it to the cigarette in his mouth. "Faust..."
"Yeah, what's up?"
Riggs turned to Faust, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth. "Go wake up Tolwin. Now."
Most awesome, but I question the validity of Ray's explosive mixtures. Did you base any of this on real methods?
Dear Princess Celestia,
Today I learned that nopony kicks ass without tanker gas. Nopony!
Your faithful student,Fluttercopter
Yes, it all came from the DoD's IED handbook. This very handbook may be in Ray's possession in the story as well, among the other "old army field manuals" he had stashed in his El Camino.
But I was noticeably vague in describing the proccess in making the "furtilizer arrows". Note how I didn't indicate what the "secret ingredient" was in chemical furtilizer, or how much of it is needed in the mixture, to make an effective explosive device. Also, you obviously need pure aluminum. I'm not sure, but there could be fillers in cans that could muck up the mixture...
Ray's weapon was now complete. The drones had helped him acquire a small piece of metal to rest atop of the wood piece, and a rubber band to keep it in place, as well as allowing it to serve as a type of trigger. The rope was used to secure the "barrel" of the weapon in place, just in front of the trigger assembly. A belt was nailed to both ends of the weapon, to serve as a type of sling.
Operation of the improvised carbine was simple. It had no sights, but could be aimed with natural indentation in the material of the pipe, and careful estimation of elevation. The trigger was like that of a slingshot. With the metal object suspended in front of the nail and bullet primer by rubber band, one would have to simply pull back and release, allowing the metal to strike the nail, which in turn strikes the bullet's primer, thus firing the round of ammunition through the pipe.
"One more thing." Ray said, looking up at the drones. "One of you put this can on that rock over there." He pointed at a particular rock formation protruding from the slant around the depression, just level enough to set the can. The can that he was referring to, of course, was the same one sitting on the table with chunks missing where the metal had been filed-off for the "fertilizer arrow".
A drone complied with his order. Ray took aim with the carbine, merely guessing the elevation as he lined the barrel up to the target. Don't screw this up. It's a disposable one-shot self-defence system, after all!
Ray's grip began shaking, throwing off his aim. He began slowly pulling the trigger back, remembering that gradual progress of an intended action forces the brain to calm the nerves and muscles, allowing a more steady shot. He took advantage of the momentary stability and let the trigger go.
As intended, the bullet inside was successfully fired, even hitting the can. There was, however, one undesired side-effect. As the bullet left the muzzle, the unguarded rear-end of the chamber allowed the spent casing to fly out, with its hot metal grazing Ray's ear along the way. The nail was completely unaccounted for.
The drones were completely engrossed at the effectiveness of the weapon, not to mention startled at the ear-piercing sound, so much as not to even notice the flaw and began immediately applauding him again.
Ray gritted at the pain in his ear, holding up the weapon like a sword as he turned to face the group again, silencing them. "I want one-hundred thirty-five of these made! I don't care what the body material is that you use in your construction, as long as it matches the required dimensions, and that the metal barrels and trigger assemblies match exactly what I have here. And please, find something sturdy to partially conceal the rear of the chamber, enough to keep the cartridge from ejecting in your face, but not so much as the trigger is blocked from hitting the nail firing-pin. Understand?"
Heads nodded, eagerly awaiting what he had to say next.
"Now remember, these are single-shot weapons that are nearly impossible to reload in an active battlefield. Make your shots count! After we're done constructing our stockpile, and finished with firearms training, I'll give you the briefing on how to use these in this particular offensive." He paused, lowering the weapon and setting it down on the table. "Grab your supplies and make it happen."
As the night progressed, the sky had become a beautiful purple sea of stars. Below it and northwest of the town, just at the edge of a nearby mountain, was what appeared to be a grand palace, brilliantly-lit and ever so inviting.
Tolwin did nothing but stand next to his Chinook, staring at the distant palace with a smile on his face. Everyone else, however, gathered amongst themselves behind him.
"It just gets better and better by the hour, doesn't it?" said Riggs.
Marchetti let out a yawn. "Yep. Think we have enough supplies left for another invasion?"
"Oh, March, give it a rest, man!"
"Not right now! I just mean-..."
Faust interrupted, crossing his arms. "Riggs feels Tolwin's repetitive victories will foil our chance to make friendly contact with the pony species."
Riggs rubbed his eyes. "Really, Faust? In front of the commander?"
"Furthermore ignoring the fact that I've already made contact with them. Hostile contact, I might add."
"You know what, Faust? I'm really getting sick of your-..."
A swirl of smoke and green flames formed in the air around the group, catching the attention of everyone, including Tolwin. They watched as it slowly compressed together, forming a type of scroll. It floated in the air momentarily, then dropped directly in front of Faust's feet.
All eyes met his as he nervously uncrossed his arms.
Tolwin trained his right hand over a hip-holster containing his sidearm, a worn and rustic Łucznik Arms PM-63 RAK with stock removed. "Pick it up."
Faust kept his eyes on Tolwin as he followed the order.
"Read it. Out loud."
Faust looked down at his message, taking a quick look at the text before enlightening other ears of it's information. This is it, my cover's been blown! Now all I have left to do is accept imprisonment with these savages, or take my own life before they have a chance to do with me as they please.
He looked back up at his new captors, letting the message slip from his fingers and into the wind. You won't get such a pathetic act out of me, Mister Taggard Tolwin! Listen loud to the sound of your own technology as it pierces your heart, savage human, for it is a message you and your followers will never forget. We are Changelings! We will fight before we are cornered into cowardice!
"For the queen!" Faust drew his sidearm from his hip holster.
Tolwin, however, was quickest to react, whipping out his PM-63, shooting Faust in the forehead.
A green plume of magical matter exploded from the bullet hole, gradually consuming his being as it swirled around them like a wind storm. They shielded their eyes at the intense luminosity.
"What the hell is this?!" Marchetti yelled over rumbles from the matter that sounded similar to thunder.
The matter dissolved from existence, leaving behind, not Faust, but a strange equanoid creature sprawled on the ground where he once stood. It bore close resemblance to the pony creatures, but with a dark coat, sharp fangs, insect wings, and hooves riddled with holes and partial cavitations.
"My god..." said Riggs as he edged closer to the dead animal. "Faust was one of them the whole time!"
"That's not them." said Marchetti upon closer inspection.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, look at it! Fangs, bug wings... this is something else."
"Jesus. My question is, how long has he been one? Since our invasion of this place, or his entirety of service?"
Tolwin holstered his sidearm and lightly kicked the lifeless corpse. "Doesn't matter. The point is these things are creatures of deception. Any one of us could be one of them."
Riggs and Marchetti looked at each other worryingly.
"It's all a matter of trust now."
Lights around the basecamp came on, one-by-one within the various drab tents. No doubt alerted to the gunshot.
Tolwin payed no attention and instead searched the ground for the message. Instead he found it stuck onto the Chinook's co-pilot window. He walked up to it and peeled it off the glass, reading what it contained.
Dear Operative Twenty-Nine,
The Hive wishes to inform you that plans have changed. Thanks to your messages, we have determined that the human invaders are far too strong to repel with our original plan. The queen has captured the lone arrival and is currently using his skills in human combat to help fight them off, and, we assume, to finish off the Canterlot Royal Guard completely.
Since you've already successfully infiltrated the Phantom Raders' organization, we would appreciate if you could aid in our efforts by taking them out from the inside. However, if this is impossible, we strongly suggest falling back and re-joining with your squad. We need as much assistance as we can.
Please acknowledge this message immediately with your decision.
Tolwin's blood pumped vigorously, his face reddening with anger as he crumbled the letter in his hand, throwing it at his aircraft with a growl.
"What did it say?" asked Marchetti.
Tolwin turned around sharply. "The Driver! They got him, and now he's helping them! Faust was a traitor and a spy gathering information to use against us the whole time."
Jones and the other soldiers gathered around the area, fully equipped, alert for whatever was going on.
"What happened?" asked Jones. "We heard a shot and-..."
"Yes, I just killed Faust!"
Jones' heart obviously sank as his jaw dropped, as did many of the other soldiers. "Why?"
"Because he was a spy helping not only the intelligent equine, but the Driver himself! And for that, he dies, Jones! You know how I feel about traitors!"
"Not only that," Marchett interjected, "but he was supposedly one of them. It seems they have an ability to shapeshift into humans, and possibly other lifeforms."
Jones paused for a moment. "But... why not interrogate him? We could've used him to learn more about the Driver!"
Tolwin shot him a sarcastic look. "I'll remember that when he threatens me with his firearm again!"
"Yeah. Now get in the aircraft and man the com-station."
"Yessir." He quickly left the group and entered the aircraft.
Tolwin turned to the rest of them. "Marchetti, I want you and Virus in the Shilka. Organize the ground crew and prepare for another assault."
"You got it." Marchetti ran from the area, to a small tent set up next to the Shilka parked behind the library.
Riggs stepped closer to Tolwin. "You're preparing an invasion already?!"
"Riggs, shut up. If you so much as hesitate firing a shot from the GAU-17, I'll put a bullet through your head! Got it?"
Riggs swallowed hard with a scowl, managing a slight nod.
"Go get John and the fuel truck, and prep the aircraft. Now."
Riggs gradually stepped away from Tolwin and began running towards the tents around the supply vehicles.
Next stop, your kingdom. That's right, Driver, we've found you... and we're coming for you!
Look. Look upon your subjects, Chrysalis. Your army has become a legion of overnight warriors. Magical, technological, with all their power combined in a daunting display. For the first time, since the battle of Amrieigh and the daring invasion of Spectrum City, and furthermore despite our failure at Canterlot, I'm finally proud of my subjects. And now, for the first time in my life, I can say the same of a human.
Blast it, you mustn't praise them so soon! Why, we have yet to see battle! Calm yourself. The time will come for them to prove their worth. Soon... soon.
It was still an unbelievably amazing realization, that a single human scavenger had trained her thousand strong in such record time, unfortunately not likely to ever find its way in the "books". Better yet, he was willing! Yes, of course there was the possibility of it being a charade to mask his intentions for escape from her capture, but she couldn't help but express her admiration regardless.
After all, he probably thought the same of her, for her sharp change of attitude.
Ray's sudden glance caught her by surprise. Followed by his tired voice, strained from giving orders to the drones: "My queen."
"Yes, Ray?" Chrysalis acknowledged.
"There's just one more matter we need to discuss."
"Oh? Regarding what?"
"I think you know what."
It didn't take her but a fraction of a second to figure it out. Yes, indeed she knew. After all, what in the world would I do with you and your friends should we be successful? I've set the matter aside for too long... for the sun is already bleeding a crimson red over the skies. Make the decision.
She nodded and let out a sigh before answering.
"Can one of them truck things carry, say, about a ton of apples?" asked Applejack, obviously struck with an idea.
Twilight and her friends had gathered around Faust with friendly curiosity, despite knowing the fact him and his friends were an enemy caught between them and another. Imprisonment, it seemed, brought the more "human" side of the three Raiders, which appealed to the six ponies. They felt sympathy for each other.
Worry also shadowed over them regarding Ray's long absence. It had been hours upon hours. Yet, no one felt tired, or even bored. Fear mixed with fascination of the human and pony "ways" alike was enough to keep everyone in the room apprehensive.
"Try three tonnes." answered Faust with a puff of smoke.
"Land sakes!" exclaimed Applejack with astonishment. "Just think how useful a truck would be on the farm! Why, I might even be able to handle the next harvest all by my self after all!"
As if on cue, all five of her friends gathered in one loud and final "No!!"
"Well, fine. But I see potential in of of them fancy machines, and I so intend on taking advantage of it."
Rarity spoke up. "If you're going to actually use one of those things, might I suggest some, err, shall I say... remodelling? If that is the correct term for it. I mean they're so ugly! Caked with dirt and rust, gritty, grimy and beaten, drenched in slimy oil and-..." she almost gagged at the mental picture.
"Form follows function, Rarity. But if I actually do get my hooves on one, you're welcome to do whatever 'fancifying' you please."
Twilight put a hoof to her chin. "Applejack, I thought it was tradition to use manual technology, nothing too advanced or magical."
"If what I'm hearing is right, then I wouldn't exactly call these vehicles 'automated'. They seem pretty manual to me... besides, these are machines, Twi. Nothing magical goin' on there. Personally I'm just fine with an added 'boost' like this. But I'll have to check with the rest of the family, say they have a different opinion on adopting the new tech."
"Pft!" spurted Rainbow Dash, "You guys are talking like we're actually going to make it out of this hole!"
"Think positive, Rainbow. The queen can't hold us here forever. Surely there's a way of reasoning with her."
"Fat chance." She rolled her eyes and scooted away from the rest of the group.
All eyes went to the nearby door as it opened wide. What approached within brought everyone to their feet and hooves. Among two changeling drones clad in improvised steel armor, Ray stood tall and stern, armed with all of his trademark weapons.
"Ray!" Twilight shouted, running up to him. She composed herself. "What happened? How did you get your weapons back?! And who are-... what... how... ?!?!!" Composition immediately lost again with questions.
A smile formed on his face. "I've made a deal with the queen. And I think you're going to like what I have in mind."
Faust pulled his cigarette out of his mouth. "Wait. Are you going to say what I think you're going to say?"
He shrugged. "The enemy of my enemy is also my friend. Not only is this plan our ticket to freedom, it also means a potential advantage over Tolwin and his forces." He let a pause go by, realizing he had been talking with one of Tolwin's soldiers. "Look, I know he's your superior, and that you may have grown an attachment to individuals within his faction. But you said it yourself... he's a twisted man, extremely dangerous, and absolutely must be stopped once and for all. You know what needs to be done, Faust.
I came here to ask you to join me in this defensive. Will you accept?"
Faust took a puff from his cigarette and threw it on the ground. "If it means stopping a madman from wiping out humanity and its equivalent, as well as putting an end to our imprisonment, I'd be a fool not to partake in this plan of yours. Ray, my friend, you have my sword."
Ray gave a nod of approval, then looked down at his pony friends. "And you?"
Uneasy glances were exchanged, especially from Fluttershy and Rarity at the thought of violence.
Twilight sighed. "You can count on us, Ray. But I have just two conditions."
"We will not kill anypony. And I refuse to fight alongside the queen. We'll help you with anything else you need out there."
"Fair enough. Welcome aboard... my little ponies."
They all gave him a smile that forced him to return a similar one.
And so towards the horizon of a blood-red dawn we stagger through the sea of arrows with but a cloak and a dagger.
Shining Armor's quarters was grand and spacious, residing just north of the Celestial Ward. His office, however, was cramped and cluttered with documents and research literature as far as the eye could see. A sure sign of a busy mind. Much like his sister, though a polar opposite on the matter of personal organization.
He sat quietly at his desk, with a stern look at the floor ahead in an obvious display of pondering something of great concern. Behind schedule. No report, and no sign of the defence forces. Colonel Blackburn... where in Equestria are you?
A shadow cast over his desk as he found himself staring at the golden shoes of a breathtaking cerapter mare. He left his thoughts to look up at her. His heart became heavy and and his anxiety dissolved into bliss, for it was his beautiful wife Princess Cadence.
"Honey?" she called ever so sweetly, "Is everything alright? I came as soon as I heard about this threat made on Ponyville."
What would've become a smile on Shining's face became a frown with a sigh. "I don't know what's going on. Just yesterday I sent a platoon of two-hundred men, but they were supposed to report back several hours ago. I've received nothing at all. Princess Celestia seems to also share my concern, for the enemy who made the threat are not who we thought they were."
"She waited several hours to inform me that they are not, in fact, a Changeling army, but an army of another species. An advanced species. She spoke of technology that I didn't understand..."
"But the Changelings are still at large?"
"Yes, that is but another concern I've added to the list. We just may see the worst invasion in Equestrian history, and I fear we may not be prepared for it."
She took his hoof. "The Crystal Empire. I can organize a legion of Imperial Guards to assist you."
"Unfortunately, I don't think we have much time."
A bell echoed through the Ward outside, snapping Shining to attention. It was rung fast and repetitive, signifying immediate danger to the palace.
"Cadence, you must get back to the empire."
He rose from his seat and headed for the door. "Please, go now! You'll be safe there!"
Horrifying rumbles of machines and screams of terror echoed through the streets of Canterlot as Tolwin's aircraft stormed over the land, with his army rolling through just below.
The blades threw papers and light objects around in hurricanes, putting out several windows. Tanks crushed carts and carriages, and demolished corners of buildings with their shriekish tracks. Buggies and other softskins trailed behind, with a few mischievous drivers plowing through large display windows of the local stores with faux Indian battlecries and maniacal laughs.
Others threw Molotov co.cktails in the nearby buildings, chanting random Latin phrases. Some even carried flamethrowers, taking the opportunity to set ablaze whatever they pleased.
"No munitions." Tolwin called over the radio. "Flamers and miscellaneous incendiaries only. Save the big stuff for the palace ahead. Just a half-a-mile out, guys."
Gunners in the Abrams tanks let loose on the .30 cal. machine guns in the turrets, giving the streets ahead a thorough sweep.
"And quit pissing away the quarters! We're low on heavy machine gun ammo. Save it for later."
They ceased fire and continued on.
The M5 "Stuart" choked and stopped abruptly in the middle of the street, with a plume of black smoke rising from the engine. The driver poked his head out of the hatch and looked behind them, just as a panel on the rear housing exploded from the vehicle, killing the engine.
The Shilka pulled up next to him, with Marchetti emerging from the turret hatch. "Get that ancient relic going! You're holding up the column!"
An engineer emerged from the Stuart, jumping onto the rear housing to inspect the damage, while coughing and waving away the thick smoke. "It's dead! Transmission's shot!"
Marchetti growled, grabbing a communicator from inside the Shilka. "Abrams Leader, this is Shilka, come in Ronnie."
A voice crackled on the comm. "I read you, Shilka. What's the hold-up ahead?"
"Lyle's old wreck just checked out. Make some room, Ronnie."
"Roger. Come on down, guys. Out."
Marchetti threw the communicator below. "You heard him, go! Move it!"
The Stuart crew abandoned the tank and headed for the lead Abrams. Marchetti went back inside the Shilka as it rolled on.
Ray slapped a crude map of the palace layout on the ground next to the Otokar Akrep, with his "platoon" gathered around. He knelt and placed his index finger on a particular location at the entrance to the castle.
"This is most likely where he'll park the invasion forces before proceeding through. We're going to sneak behind him at this key point here..." This time pointing directly behind the supposed location of Tolwin's forces, just ahead of the main road through Canterlot. "... and outflank them here and here." Now the hillside and the straight drop of the cliffs.
Faust scuffed his feet. "But how the hell are we supposed to climb the cliff-line?"
"We don't. We'll have airborne rifle platoons rise and descend from those two points. We're taking the road over here that forks from the main road behind the Raiders. Got it?"
"Now, Tolwin's going to fly NOE with his aircraft to surprise the guardsmen. He'll have a very good field of view of the ground. Not to mention the Triple-A guns, which will have an equally good view of the air, so airborne units will have to stick to the treelines in low-profile before attacking. Space gets pretty open along the Ward and trenchlines, so when I give the signal, don't hesitate. We'll run out of cover dramatically fast."
He turned to the Changeling squad-leaders. "On the matter of these improvised carbines, remember they are single-shot and must be discarded. The goal of the riflemen is going to be painfully crude, but imperative. They must be accurate with their shots, and absolutely must take enemy weapons after they gain a kill, or we'll run out of firepower before the actual counter-attack even starts, understand?"
Ray looked around for Chrysalis and found her behind Junkers. "Did your soldiers refuel the Otokar Akrep with what was left in the stockpile?"
Agusta raised his hand. "Uh, I took the liberty."
"Great. Everyone ready? Got everything you need?"
Gripen stepped forward, slinging an AKM on his back. "Locked and loaded, Ray."
"The let's go."
Chrysalis nodded to Gripen and awaited his command to the legion. "Move out!!" he shouted.
The six ponies entered the rear of the vehicle, followed by four of the Changeling military leaders, as well as Junkers and Agusta. Chrysalis demanded to sit upfront in the passenger seat, despite the risks.
Ray crumbled up the map and threw it in the vehicle, but was quickly halted by Faust as he was about to enter the driver side.
"Where do you think you're going?"
Ray shrugged. "I'm driving."
Faust snickered and put his hand on his shoulder "No, it's my car. I'm driving."
Chrysalis stepped in. "Ray's driving. Hurry up and get in!"
Faust grimaced at her, then back to Ray.
He shrugged with a playful smile. "Queen's orders."
"Fine. At least let me in the middle there."
He hesitated, then stepped aside for him.
"Thank you." He rolled his eyes upon entering the Otokar Akrep, with Ray following.
Ray looked back at his passengers, then started the vehicle. "Here we go!" Pedal to the metal, and they were off, with the army of Changelings airborne behind.
While the majority of the drones carried the improvised carbines, explosive arrow kits, and Molotov co.cktails as their major armament, the "VIPs" of the fighting force wielded the more powerful weaponry. Ray, as usual, carried his modified WA-2000, Colt 1911, M62 fragmentation grenades, and M1 combat knife. Faust had an AKM with an odd-looking custom barrel piston under the foregrip - most likely some sort of crude anti-recoil device - and a Beretta M92F for a sidearm. Junkers and Agusta both had AK-101s, but Junkers' lacked a stock. They did not carry sidearms, but did have combat knives and red signal grenades that could be used for a smoke-screen.
The higher-ranking Changelings had their share in "special" weapons as well. Cattani carried a classic AK-47; Gripen an AKM with custom iron sites like that on a Heckler & Koch product; Gloster an M16A1 with an M1 bayonet; finally Lancer a Bizon PP-19.
Chrysalis demanded a weapon as well, and per request she carried an RPK-74 with a rare steel drum clip. Being as bulky as it was, she had to have the window down for the long barrel and bipod to stick out in order to make room.
Reserve weapons included an extra AKM, M16A2, even the M202 FLASH and M67 recoilless rifle. These last two items were strictly anti-armor weapons, and were ordered to be used only with permission from the highest-ranking individuals, or used by those individuals themselves. The queen and Ray we're those individuals unless they were incapacitated from command.
The six ponies needed no other weapon but their minds and their elements. Not the unfortunately lost representations, but the elements within their hearts. With that, as long as they remained true to themselves they felt unstoppable. Even if Twilight detested the inconvenient truth that they required assistance from a bitter-hated enemy. The queen's presence in the same vehicle was no aid against those feelings and only fueled insecurity.
Ten whole minutes had passed, and yet not a word was spoken above the bumps and rattles as they traveled over harsh terrain. Not a whisper.
Thanks a lot Justin, I'm glad you're enjoying this story so much.
Hearts pounded, hooves trembled, eyes co.cked. The wind had died and the Earth became a conductor around them. Low rumbles echoed from the trees and the ground shook at the advancement. They're coming, but from where? The groove in the sloped mountainside? Or the trees?
Shining Armor stood next to Lunar Guard Commander Sterling, both forward of the entirety of Equestria's last line of defense. Sterling kept looking back at the hundreds of young faces behind them, having difficulty hiding his concern.
Shining adverted his glance and spoke frankly to the superior. "We're all scared, Mister Sterling. To be honest, I'm terrified."
Sterling let out a shaken sigh. "Your men have more combat experience and training than my division. I'm worried for them."
Shining could not help but smile at this. "If over a dozen practice drills and raids count as actual 'combat experience' in your perspective, then I'd be lying if I said I didn't agree."
"Hey, if I found it in the budget of my division, I'd be ripping-off a lot of your tactics. And I promise, I would have no shame."
Shining shook his head in mock disapproval. Being of separate divisions, both superiors allowed this kind of nervous joking around, despite being of different ranks. Even if they had been of the same division, however, they most likely would maintain the same acceptance of it given the present situation.
The rumbles grew heavier, the ground trembled even more, and something began rising from the slope ahead. This is it. Let's make our kingdom proud.
What in the hell is that, and why couldn't we see it this morning? Tolwin was awestruck at the brilliant pink forcefield enveloping the entire palace ground. It was like a giant bubble, shimmering and rippling like water, defying the laws of physics. To Tolwin's knowledge, of course.
Behind the transparent curtain could be seen hundreds of ponies clad in medieval armor, wielding equally primitive weaponry. All stood guard outside the palace, waiting to defend it with their lives.
"Ain't that cute." He remarked to no one in particular, then held the communicator closer to his mouth. "Everyone hold position here."
The column spread out in an intimidatingly aggressive stance and halted, just as Tolwin eased back on the cyclic and pushed down on the collective to descend his aircraft closer to the ground in front of them.
"Is that some kind of magic forcefield, or something?" Riggs asked, sharing Tolwin's curiosity.
Tolwin shrugged with a sarcastic smile. "Why, of course it is. What better protection against threats like ol' Destruens Angelus?"
"Well," started Jones in the back, "why don't we find out how strong it is, if that's the case?"
"In time." Tolwin reached for the hand-microphone for the loudspeaker. "First, interrogation for intel. Then, a little psychological warfare. For the hell of it."
Riggs rubbed his eyes with disapproval.
The flying mechanical demon hovered only a few feet from the ground in front of a legion of other odd machines, with rather curious types of weaponry all trained in the direction of the guardsmen.
A voice called out from the flying machine as if it were a mighty god. "You cannot escape us! If you attempt to attack us, we will destroy you and your kingdom without mercy. It would be pointless! Your armament is a pathetic match!"
"Then what in the name of Equestria do you want from us, outsiders?!" Shining Armor shouted as loud as he could over the sound of the machines as he stepped forward.
"The driver! A man who is arming you for a defensive against us! Have him step forward for us all to see! I want to finally have the pleasure of seeing his pathetic face!"
The... what? Who or what in the world is he talking about? "Who is this 'driver' you speak of?!"
"Don't play with me, little horsey! The human man helping you arm yourself against us! Ha! What good he did for you, with all that 'knight-and-shining-armor' crap!"
"I honestly have no clue what you're talking about, outsider! You must have the wrong kingdom!"
An uncomfortable pause crept through the rumbles and thunder of the many machines, until a an ear-splitting explosion erupted from one of the land machines, causing Shining's magical forcefield to shatter as if it were constructed of glass. They were now fully exposed to the danger of these invaders.
Princess Celestia and Princess Luna looked on through the great observation window in horror as the projectile that shattered the forcefield made its way through the air above the Ward and impacted the nearby wall of the Great Hall, shattering glass and crumbling stone everywhere in the blast radius.
The structure above collapsed, faster than the two princesses had time to react to, and as a result they were pinned underneath the material.
Two guardsmen nearby ran up to them, pushing away as much of the debris as they could.
"Your Highness!" One of them shouted. "Are you okay?"
"Y-yes..." came a low, strained voice under the rubble. "My sister..."
They dug away to locate Luna. They found her under a large pile of bricks, unconscious.
"She's out cold." He turned to the other guardsman. "You, help Princess Celestia out of there. I'll take care of Princes Luna."
"Alright." He acknowledged and did as he was ordered.
Celesia struggled to speak. "Now... I'm too weak to help them. Yet another foolish mistake to end us all!"
"Please don't speak, Your Highness. Save your energy."
"Don't test us! Give us what we want, or suffer."
"You'll just have to give us your best shot! We will fight you with equal dismission of mercy!"
Tolwin laughed hard enough to almost loose grip of the microphone, much to Riggs' usual disgust as of late. "You and what army?!"
"This one, Mister Tolwin!" The voice calling out from their port side snapped him out of his hysterical state, as it seemed to have come from another loudspeaker. He looked in the direction and found a small vehicle situated on the nearby hillside, with a communication dish on the roof. Faust's Otokar Akrep...
The driver door was open, with a man standing next to it with a hand-microphone up to his face.
Tolwin held his own microphone back up. "Who are you?!"
"My name is Ray! I'm the one you're after!"
He smiled like a maniac, satisfied to not only finally have the man within his grasp, but to know his name. "Well, what a pleasure to finally meet the elusive driver! The only man ever to escape our firepower alive... but foolish enough to face us yet again in another softskin! Which, by the way, I believe is my property! I'd very much like to have it back."
Ray stepped aside and handed the microphone to another individual stepping out of the vehicle. He wore the very same service uniform as the rest of the Phantom Raiders, much to Tolwin's surprise. Then the man looked on at the faction, giving them all a better view of his face.
Tolwin was momentarily speechless with the recognition. Faust? No... it can't be...
"No, sir." said Faust over the loudspeaker. "I'm not letting your filthy hands anywhere near my vehicle any more."
"Faust!" Tolwin shouted much louder than he had wanted or expected to. "I killed you! I goddamn killed you, you bloody traitor! What kind of sorcery is this?!"
He grinned. "I guess you only live... twice?"
Tolwin's face flushed red with anger as he slowly spun his aircraft in their direction, all forward weapons now trained at them.
"You see, Tolwin," Faust continued, "Some mature minds grow weary from the exploits of an immature leader. Such as you."
Tolwin strained hard not to squeeze the weapon triggers on his flight controls. "Elaborate."
"It saddens me you would even make that request. Do you even know what the original cause was for our division? Don't you remember those days?"
"Cleanse the world of pitiful opposition that destroyed it in the first place, build our empire of peace...-"
Faust cut him off. "No! Our cause, the very cause your father tried to pass on, was liberation!" He practically screamed the last word, much to other listeners' discomfort. "Your father would be ashamed of what you've done to this once respected unit! For years after his death we've followed your sorely misunderstood ways, raping lands and feeding your lust for power! No more, Tolwin! I won't let you disgrace us any longer. And I won't let you destroy what is probably the only equivalent of harmonious humanity left in the world!"
"Leave my old man out of this, Faust! And don't you dare lecture me on how to run my unit!"
"I say again, Tolwin, stand down. Or we'll just have to take you down ourselves."
"Ha! I'd like to see you try!"
"So be it." Faust threw the microphone into the vehicle and stepped inside, with Ray following.
How can they possibly fathom the idea of getting out of this? They're outnumbered and outgunned! Even if they charge for attack, we could just trap them, and I could save my munitions for the palace.
Oh, Faust, and your new friend Ray, how can you be so foolish? This will be easier than when we totaled Ray's car back in the desert... Tolwin's memory woke up his deductive logic of the event again, reminding him of his old theory. Oh my god... it's another trap!
A sand buggy just behind his aircraft exploded, sending fragments through the openings in the fuselage. The ramp-gunner was badly wounded in the shoulder, tumbling onto his back in agony, gripping the entry wound with immense pressure.
Tolwin's instincts shot to life, forcing him to squeeze the weapon triggers, sending a barrage of unguided rockets and machine gun fire in the direction of the Otokar Akrep. Unfortunately, all munitions missed given that the vehicle was already in motion.
"Airborne targets!" a door gunner shouted in the back. "Left rear!"
Bullets began ricocheting off the canopy, dangerously close to the glass. Tolwin quickly pulled his aircraft out of position and prepared for the apparent dogfight.
The whole faction scrambled the area below, opening defensive fire.
Ray carefully drove the Otokar Akrep around the area with Chrysalis returning fire with the RPK-74 from the passenger window, and Agusta doing the same with his weapon from the turret hatch in front of the communication dish.
The airborne Changeling unit dove from the sky like green meteors, impacting in various places within the enemy column. The drones that remained in the sky attacked with their improvised carbines, but were far too high than they had originally planned, giving AA guns perfect opportunity to take them out.
"You're too high! Get down!" Ray shouted at them, despite the fact they could not hear him. Of course, they can seemingly learn new tactics and ordnance improvisation on the fly, yet they can't follow a simplified plan right!
Sure enough, the nearby Shilka opened up on them with the quad-mounted 23mm 2A7 autocannons. Its turret spun lighting fast as it tracked the targets, mowing them down before any could properly react. And before Tolwin could even react in his gunship.
Those that remained on the ground took out as many drivers as they could find in each of the vehicles with their carbines, hijacking them in the process and allowing others to utilize enemy equipment. The vehicles with concealed personnel, such as the tanks and APCs, were instead attacked with the Molotov co.cktails, but to no avail as their armored skin was too thick for them to do any damage. Each of the drones who tried this attack, lost their lives to the heavy weapons on these vehicles.
An Abrams tank found a window of opportunity and fired a shell at the Otokar Akrep. The explosion was close enough to send it tumbling onto its side, throwing Agusta out of the hatch and into a patch of shrubbery.
Everyone else poured out as fast as they could, and dove for cover in a nearby ditch just as the Abrams fired another shell that blasted the vehicle into oblivion.
Cattani seemed to have a better hijacking method in mind as the armored monster stormed their direction. He leapt and climbed onto the hull, emerging onto the top of the turret with a Molotov co.cktail lit, prying open the main hatch. He then threw the ****tail inside, resulting in an abrupt halt from the vehicle and terrible cries of agony escaping from inside.
Next he grabbed an extinguisher nearest the hatch, and disappeared into the tank, closing the hatch behind him.
"He's a crazy fool," started Chrysalis as she peaked over the grove in the ditch, "but his resourcefulness is undeniably admirable."
Agusta crawled away from the shrubs and rolled into the ditch with the rest of the group. His knees were skinned badly from the impact, with holes in his pants exposing the bloody mess. "Yeah, nobody go back for the gunner, leave me high n' dry in the bushes!"
"Oh, quit whining!" shouted Faust.
Cattani's newly-acquired Abrams tank began moving forward and backwards awkwardly, indicating that he was most likely acquainting himself with the controls.
A Snooty gun did not seem to notice the recent hijacking of the vehicle and pulled up next to it, with the commander atop the turret ready to signal the "fire" order.
Cattani swung the tank's turret around, aiming at the vehicle, much to the commander's surprise as he shouted "Wait!" just before Cattani fired a shot to destroy the entire port-side, raising a great storm of dirt over the fragmenting fireball. The contact was far too close, resulting in the tank's 120mm gun barrel flowering open and blasting clean off the turret.
Other drones struggling to control their vehicles crashed into each other and other enemy-occupied vehicles despite their efforts, resulting lethally explosive impacts or enemy entrapment by fire.
The Changelings made no effort to attack the palace, or any guardsmen whatsoever. But they fought the technologically advanced invaders with determination that appeared to be in favorable defense. They're... helping us?!
But their numbers were decreasing dramatically fast as they executed their daring tactics. Shining Armor knew he and his fellow guardsmen could not just stand idly by and watch as their one and only chance to defend their kingdom dissipated before their eyes. They had to attack now before it was too late.
"Alright," Shining started, turning to his men, "we're going in! Now I-..."
"On who's side?!" Sterling interrupted.
"Ours! Now listen up! The Changelings are an obvious neutral faction right now! Focus on our efforts against the advanced invaders! Don't attack any Changelings unless they attack you first! Got it?"
"Yes sir!!" The legion shouted.
"Let's move out!!" Shining lead the entire army of guardsmen in a grand stampede towards the battlefield.
Tempest and Gloster watched upon the nearby hillside as the Royal Guard stormed the direction of the chaos. The first wave of Changelings was decreasing at an alarming rate, much to Gloster's surprise.
Tempest spoke up. "The Guard is attacking rather earlier than we had anticipated, don't you think?"
"I don't give a good royal bone! We're loosing men!"
"We can't do anything about it. We haven't gotten Gripen's signal yet!"
Gloster glared at him. "You mean Ray's signal, you cynical, ignorant fool! And forget the signal, we're going in now!"
Tempest stepped closer with his defense. "Gloster, you'll stand down until we-..."
Gloster cut him off. "We're going in!" He waved his signal to the rest of the unit. "Attack!!"
The army of Changelings charged like a thick swarm of bees, some remaining on the ground and others darting across the sky. The archers, however, remained on the hillside with their explosive arrows. They lit the fuses over small torches they had staked in the ground, took aim for their targets, and launched their thundering ordnance.
Many small scout vehicles were destroyed in violent explosions, but the armored vehicles were merely disabled, with tires and treads blown or shredded from the chasis.
In response to Cattani's bold solution to the armored vehicle problem, many of the soldiers attempted his method with success and began hijacking and utilizing the monstrous machines. Of course, it was not without clumsy introduction to their operation.
This is it. This is the evil storm of chaos brewed by the humans... the chaos they have to live every day. This is war. Twilight and her friends huddled together in the shallow ditch for support as the earth trembled from the destruction that surrounded them.
Rarity compulsively rubbed at her face and coat as she was bombarded by dirt and rock debris from the explosions and proximate ricochets of flying projectiles from the human weapons.
Fluttershy held onto Pinkie for dear life, crying and shrieking in terror. Another approaching tank only made matters worse for her, despite recent conversion to friendly machine by a Changeling soldier. The massive gunblast was powerful enough to rattle anyone's brain at that proximity, meaning her reaction to the effect would be doubled. Any closer and the whole group's brains would literally be mush.
Her shrieks became screams that only got worse after each blast. "I can't take it anymore! Make it stop!!"
Pinkie held her in a tight embrace. She knew they could not move from position yet, so she did her best to keep her from escaping the apparent agony, even if she was obviously desperate enough herself to take the risk of breaking cover. She took Fluttershy's head in her hooves, trying for a grip as they slipped from the flowing tears. "Fluttershy, listen to me! I have an idea. Think of it as some kind of celebration! Close your eyes and think of pretty flashes of light in the sky. All of the explosions are just fireworks, okay? We're at a big fireworks show!"
Pinkie's selfless and optimistic attempt at comforting Fluttershy almost brought tears to Twilight's eyes. True friendship, shaken so vigorously in the eye of a chaotic storm, yet remain one and unbreakable. A fire that never dies. Truly, no hardship, no conflict, no war, can put it out.
Twilight rolled over to check on the rest of the group, remaining close to her friends.
Junkers looked incredibly anxious to return fire, but restrained himself as not to blow their cover. Agusta dressed his wounds with clothing shreds, despite a rather apathetic expression from Faust as the wounds were mere scrapes in his perspective.
Chrysalis held her weapon close as she strained to retain an athorative appearance, but her worriful eyes gave away her true insecurity. But I thought this is what you wanted? You seemed to enjoy watching us crumble once upon a time. How is this any different? You'll never get any sympathy from me, you evil monster.
A familiar face stood out to Twilight as she watched the waves of guardsmen storm the battlefield. Shining Armor! My brother! Oh, in the name of Celestia, please be careful out there!
"No, no, no!" Ray started, staring in her direction, "What do they think their doing?! I didn't give the signal yet!"
Twilight rolled over to the direction he was indicating. The second wave of Changeling soldiers swarmed from the hillside to join the guardsmen in battle, taking out a handful of major armored vehicles with a mix of explosive ordnance utilization and hijacking methods.
"Oh look," Chrysalis started in a rather deadpan tone as she turned to Ray, "it's working."
He was not too convinced of that, however, as his eyes darted to the direction of Tolwin's aircraft, finally unleashing firepower onto the site without hesitation. "Not for long. Not with that thing still in the air."
Tolwin dismissed the risk of friendly fire as the enemy had eventually outnumbered and conquered half of his entire faction. He had to act fast and obliterate as much of the opposition as he could. These damned ponies, how are we losing to these things?!
Riggs, obediently firing the minigun, obviously weaseled a loophole in Tolwin's order as he seemed to deliberately miss all of his targets by a wide margin.
Tolwin whipped out his PM-63 with an outburst of rage and put it to Riggs' head. "I swear on my father's grave if you don't help me kill these things I'm going to splatter your brains all over the glass!"
Riggs slowly turned his head to meet Tolwin's reddened eyes. "How about you just blow me the f*ck away already?"
The Chinook suddenly shook from a blast in the rearmost quarter, forcing Tolwin to regain control of the aircraft.
"Ah, hell!" Jones shouted from the crane-controller's box. "I'm hit!"
Tolwin struggled to keep the aircraft level. "What happened?!"
"Some flaming arrow from hell, man! The blast took out all of the gunners and fragged me!"
"Will you be alright?" You better... you're my only senior technician!
"Yeah, but I won't be laughing for a week!"
Another explosion shook the aircraft, this time sending metal fragments and smoke into the co.ckpit. Riggs and Tolwin shouted curses as they shook and brushed away the hot material from their uniforms and gasped for air.
"Jones! I think we're taking RPG fire, hang on!" But there was no answer from the back. "Jones, you alright? Jones?!"
Both Riggs and Tolwin took a look behind them, expecting the worst. It was like the remnants of a hurricane-stricken butcher shop, with pieces of bone and flesh sprawled over twisted metal, laced with shreds of charred camouflage.
They jolted back into their forward positions in synchronized dread, omitting the image of what they had witnessed.
An arrow struck the outer frame of the co.ckpit glazing, startling the two pilots. This is just so incredibly insane.
The Chinook bombarded the ground forces with every weapon it had in its arsenal. Its devastation was still yet unmatched with anything the Changelings or Royal Guardsmen had at their disposal. Not even the newly-acquired enemy equipment.
Chrysalis peeked over the grove in the ditch. "What do we do, Ray?"
He looked around, hoping to see something that could possibly be used to their advantage. Anti-armor weapons lost in the Otokar Akrep, no dedicated anti-air ops, and thinning airborne defense.
The only thing that immediately came to mind was the Shilka that was blasting everything except the Chinook out of the sky. Not to mention the ground units in its immediate parameter. Utilization of it would give them a better advantage against Tolwin's aircraft, but the speedy turret was no wonder it had still yet remained untouched.
"That anti-aircraft vehicle."
Faust scooted closer. "I see what you're thinking, Ray, but the Shilka's got a full 360-degree turret radius running on 30 rpm. You're not gonna get very close in time."
"What we need is a distraction. One that'll last long enough for us to approach it."
"I got an idea!" Rainbow Dash shouted. "I'll distract it."
Wow. A pegasus pony volunteering to be a target for an AA gun. Now I've seen everything.
Twilight spun her around. "Are you crazy?!"
"Pft! 30 rpm! That thing's a glorified banana slug on tracks. I can totally beat it!"
Faust gave her a very sincere look of uneasiness. "I dunno, it's got a mean tracking reputation."
Rainbow rolled back over to face them again. "Hey, I'm the fastest flyer in all of Equestria! I did a sonic rainboom for ponies' sake!"
Agusta spoke up. "Just to be clear, how many of us are going?"
Faust turned to him with the answer. "It only needs a crew of two, so just me and Ray."
"Then how about a more sensible approach? Have the rainbow pony carry you guys there."
Rainbow shook her head. "Whoa whoa, no way. I can't carry the two of you and dodge its firepower at the same time!"
Agusta stopped dressing his wounds and picked up his weapon. "Listen, guys, going out there on foot is a terrible idea. There's a gunship out there, remember? You've got to be quick about it, and I don't buy into the flying rainbow pony as a legit distraction."
"I have a name, you know!"
Out of a sudden flare of bravery, Chrysalis chimed in. "Ray, get on my back. I'll take you to it while Rainbow distracts it. Once we've acquired the vehicle, we'll come back with it and pick up Faust and we'll finally take down that flying war machine."
Did she just say... "Wait, what?"
"You heard me, get on my back. Now!"
Ray turned to Faust, hoping for a confirmation of what he thought he was being told. He simply shrugged in return. "Queen's orders."
"And you actually agree with this plan?"
Chrysalis threw her weapon down and pulled Ray closer to her. "I said 'now'!"
Ray complied and climbed onto her back as she stood upright on all four legs, breaking cover from within the ditch. He held onto her long neck with his left arm while holding his weapon in the right. "To whichever race survives this, I would appreciate the exclusion of me going down in the history books as the first man to ride a Changeling into battle."
Chrysalis signaled Rainbow with a nod, and they were off. Rainbow scooped a pile of rocks into her hooves as she soared for the Shilka, throwing them at its hull to get its attention.
"Hey!" she shouted. "Over here! Twenty points to catch the rainbow, bulletbrain!" She immediately began her dazzling display of agility as the turret tracked her and strained for a clear shot.
Something "whirred" overhead Ray and Chrysalis as they headed for the Shilka, followed by an explosion just ahead of its supposed trajectory. Ray looked behind them to find the source. Tolwin's Chinook emerged from a massive plume of smoke and chased the two in an aggressive low-level approach.
"We got company!" Ray shouted as machine gun fire erupted from the aircraft.
Tolwin overshot them and banked around for another pass.
Luckily they had arrived to their destination in time and dove for cover at the Shilka's tracks, just as Tolwin passed over the area, clearly searching for them.
Ray leapt onto the rear engine housing of the Shilka, then onto the almost convulsing turret, struggling for a grip on the main hatch. Chrysalis followed him onto the vehicle.
Ray pulled out a grenade from one of the pouches on his belt. "Cattani's method two-point-oh!" He looked up to the sky to find Rainbow Dash. "Rainbow! Take cover, you're done!"
Rainbow Dash made a mock salute and headed back for the ditch with the rest of the group.
Ray turned to Chrysalis. "Open the hatch."
She did so as he pulled the safety pin from the grenade, ready to toss it inside, but to their surprise, a pistol emerged from the opening. It shot Ray twice on his left shoulder, forcing him to drop the grenade somewhere on the ground behind them. He tumbled back onto the engine housing in shock from the impacts, gripping the wounds before the pain could finally register. His rifle was as of then completely unaccounted for.
Chrysalis hugged the turret's hull as the grenade exploded next to them, showering them with earth debris.
The turret stopped moving and the vehicle was now in motion. The same hand holding the pistol awkwardly reached for the hatch to close it, but Chrysalis lunged for it and clamped onto it with her razor-sharp fangs, swiftly pulling the terrified man out of the vehicle and throwing him onto the engine housing.
Ray leapt onto the man from behind and pried the gun away from his wounded hand. The man elbowed Ray's ribs repeatedly, forcing him to roll away, but remained latched onto the pistol hand. He spun around to rip away Ray's hands from his own, but to no avail, and as a result attempted to aim the weapon in his direction. It was an immense test of strength for them, even to the point of the man kneeing Ray in the gut in attempt to weaken him. The man's exertion forced his index finger through the trigger guard of the pistol prematurely, resulting in accidental discharges from the weapon.
Chrysalis jumped onto the man and latched onto his arm, agonizingly drawing blood with her fangs and loosening his grip. He finally let go of the weapon with a cry and punched her wherever he thought he could do damage. In response she threw him off the vehicle, onto the battle-torn earth.
"Drop it!" They spun around to find another crew member atop of the turret, threatening them at gun-point with a P90. "Drop the gun!"
"Hey, Marchetti!" A voiced called out behind him.
He turned only to find the butt of an AKM striking his face, leaving an ugly abrasion over his cheeks as he tumbled from the hatch, onto the engine housing with Ray and Chrysalis, both of which pried the weapon away from his hands.
Faust slung his weapon and leapt onto the man to pin him down. "You two, get in the Shilka! I'll take care of him."
They staggered onto the turret and crawled inside.
"Are they gone, sir?" the driver asked, mistaking the entering individuals as the man now captive by Faust outside.
Ray put the gun to the driver's head. "Nope, not today. Get up." But he would not budge. "C'mon, get on up, let's go!" He was too petrified to even control the vehicle. Ray pistol-whipped him and threw him from the seat. As Ray took his place, the driver suddenly regained his senses and reached for a handgun on his hip-holster.
Spotting the motion from the side of his eye, Ray reacted and shot him point-blank in the forehead, splattering a fair amount of blood on him and the rest of the interior.
Chrysalis spat and desperately wiped it off her face. "What the devil was that about?!"
"I had no choice!"
She gained a mild composure and joined him in an additional seat installed in place of the battery compartment's original location next to him. "Do you know how to drive this thing?"
He put his feet on the pedals and gripped the steering levers on each side of the seat. "Shouldn't be that difficult." Despite the fact that the wounds on his shoulder were becoming increasingly painful thanks to what could be predicted as hollow-point rounds.
"I could use some help out here!" Faust called from outside.
Chrysalis crawled out of the cramped space and exited through the turret hatch to answer his call.
Chrysalis emerged from the Shilka and spotted Faust next to the communication dish replacing the original radar setup, struggling to keep Marchetti pinned to the hull.
He looked up at her and pointed starboard. "Tolwin! He's coming back!"
She looked and saw his monster gunship on another low-level approach.
Chrysalis snapped back to him. "What do we do?! I don't know how to work the guns!"
"As soon as I get some cooperation here, I'll join you. Just use that MG to distract him 'till then!"
She looked around and found a heavy machine gun mounted next to the hatch. But before she could reach it, Tolwin passed over the Shilka showering his own machine gun fire over them, with armor-piercing rounds shredding through the thick hull. Faust was fragged in the leg by a stray metal splinter, giving Marchetti opportunity to elbow him in the face, knocking him straight into the communication dish, miraculously avoiding certain death by missing the center antenna by mere inches.
Faust reacted with a kick on Marchetti's side, forcing him back down. Faust leapt back onto him, trying for a head-lock. Marchetti avoided common reaction of prying free and instead punched Faust's fresh wound repeatedly.
Chrysalis crawled out of the hatch in preparation to assist, but hesitated when she saw Tolwin circling around for another attack. As he was about to pass over with another barrage of machine gun fire, Chrysalis got behind the turret-mounted weapon and took aim, using magic manipulation to pull the trigger since her hooves could not fit through the guard.
Tolwin pulled out of the attack as the bullets ricocheted off the co.ckpit, with one lucky shot appearing to shatter one of the lower observation windows.
"Give it up, Faust!" Marchetti wheezed. "He'll kill us both if it means security of the command vehicle."
"I know that, you idiot! But not before we get those 23 mike-mikes ablazing!"
"You should kill me. I'll never cooperate for the likes of you, or that damned driver!"
"I thought I could give you a chance and show you a little mercy, but if you insist on resisting then so be it. Sucks for you I can operate this thing too." With a swift motion, Faust threw him from the vehicle, sending him on a collision course with the carcass of a sand buggy. "I never liked you anyway. Sniveling little brat like Tolwin."
Chrysalis firing the machine gun brought him back to realization of his position on the vehicle. Oh sh*t...
Tolwin's Chinook roared overhead, spraying the vehicle with machine gun fire again. This time a round went straight through Faust's other leg, forcing him to collapse in pain. He rolled from the turret, and despite his struggle for a grip on anything along the way, he fell to the ground below.
Chrysalis fell back into the vehicle and scrambled over to Ray. "Faust got hit! We have to go back for him!"
"We can't, we have to get these guns going before he starts using rockets on us!"
She looked around inside the turret. "How do you work this thing?"
Ray let go of the right steering lever and reached for the control panel in front of her, pressing random buttons. It was worn and aged to the point of the labeling rendered illegible under the rust and abrasions. "There should be a manual trigger here somewhere."
The guns suddenly erupted to life, startling them.
"Which one did I just press?"
"This one!" She pressed a small black button on the panel, firing the weapons again.
He grabbed hold of the steering lever again. "Alright, forget about aiming the turret. We don't have time to figure it out. I'll guide the vehicle around and you fire the guns when he's in range. Got it?"
No, no, no, this can't be! They've seized the Shilka! Our command vehicle! Tolwin had no choice but to destroy it now, before its new occupants could figure out how to operate the main weapons.
But behold, gunfire erupted from the quad-mounted cannons, despite the turret remaining in a forward position.
Tolwin decreased his altitude as he prepared for another attack, this time his thumb on the rocket trigger. He pressed it hard, but nothing would launch. He proceeded to press it repeatedly, just as they passed over the Shilka, forcing him to circle back around.
"What's wrong with this thing? We can't be out already!"
"It's a misfire." Riggs inspected the underwing UB-32 rocket pods from his window. "Two or three out of 192 are guaranteed misfires, and it's preventing the rest from launching. Either that or the optical wiring overheated and melted."
"And I'll bet you're enjoying every bit of it, aren't you?" Tolwin patted the floor around his seat to try and find his PM-63, but it was unfortunately missing. It most likely fell out of the aircraft when the lower observation window shattered.
The Shilka spun around and began its bombardment of AA fire upon them. Tolwin reacted and pulled out of his low-level approach.
"He's too high!" Ray peered through the three vision slots in front of him, watching as the Chinook circled around, preparing for another attack but at a higher altitude. "We need to get him back down here!"
"But how?!" Chrysalis searched the turret for the controls, but could not find them within the confusing mess of different mechanical objects.
Amor-piercing rounds punched through the vehicle again, hitting a number of vital components. The internal lights shattered and blanketed everything in relative darkness, with the only light sources being the vision slots and bullet holes.
There's only one thing I can do now. I wish I had a better plan, but without any anti-armor weapons left, it's all I can think of! The only one thing to end this once and for all. Ray turned around to face Chrysalis. "I have an idea! I want you to go find Twilight! Have her perform some kind of spell that will bring him closer to the ground, and maybe keep him still!"
"But you need help firing these guns!"
"I can very well reach the controls, my queen!"
"And drive this thing at the same time?! You need both hands!"
"Don't argue with me, just do it!!"
His attitude towards an authority figure was indeed unorthodox, much to Chrysalis' indignation, but she knew further arguing with him would be foolish and instead complied with his order.
Chrysalis emerged from the turret and flew as fast as she could back to the rest of the group still taking cover in the ditch. Avoiding stray gunfire, she deliberately crashed herself onto the ground and rolled into the depression.
"What happened to Faust?" asked Junkers.
"He got hit by Tolwin, but I think he's still alive." She turned to Twilight and put a hoof on her shoulder. "Twilight, Ray needs your help."
She brushed her hoof off and rolled away. "Don't touch me!"
Chrysalis furrowed her brow and forced her back around with her magic. "Listen, I don't care what you think of me since the wedding, but if you really are as smart as they say you are, you'd know that now is the time to shut up and listen to what I have to say!"
"Then talk!" Twilight shouted angrily.
"Ray needs you to perform a spell that will bring Tolwin closer to the ground. I'll cover you while you perform it."
"Why should I trust you?"
"Because if you don't we're all dead! Got it?!"
She hesitated and thought about it for a moment.
"Oh!" Pinkie spoke up. "Try that one you used on the Ursa!"
"I'll give it a shot..." She emerged from cover and began casting the spell, a bright pink glow emitting from her horn.
Chrysalis found her RPK-74 in the same spot she had left it and picked it up to join Twilight for covering-fire.
Tolwin circled around again, but the controls became momentarily frozen, followed by a sudden decrease in altitude.
"What the hell?!" He pulled on the collective to try and bring them back up, but to no effect. "I can't pull up!"
Riggs checked the instruments on the dashboard. "Engines are still up, gearboxes are fine..."
"Well something's wrong, find out what the problem is!"
They passed over the terrain at dangerously low-level, with vehicles and trees missing them by mere inches.
"One thing I can tell you, sir, is that we're so VSF at this point!"
"Very... Severely..." He saw a T-72 standing in the way of their path, with its barrel high up in the air. "... FUUUUUCKED!!"
Tolwin turned hard to the right to avoid it, with the barrel scraping the side of the fuselage. Riggs reclined with a greatly relieved sigh.
Twilight strained to keep the aircraft low top the ground. Sweat flowed down her face as she concentrated, with small spurts of sparkling magic shooting from her horn.
"It's... too big! I can't... keep it still!"
Her efforts still yet kept the Chinook at the same level, and she hoped this would at least help Ray with his own in the Shilka.
Ray took a moment of opportunity and fired more shots from the guns as the Chinook entered his line of fire, but missing as the aircraft attempted to dodge it, as well as the miscellaneous machines and tree life scattered about the terrain.
He made another pass, shredding the vehicle with more armor-piercing machine gun fire. Ray fired more shots as the aircraft attempted to pull out. It moved far too quickly to confirm any hits in the already well-battered fuselage.
"Come on, you and me, man! You and me! Show me what you got!"
I will kill him, if it's the last thing I do! I will kill this man today, even if it means the fate of this unit! You will die today, Ray! You will die!
Tolwin circled around and charged at the Shilka, squeezing the trigger to the GAU-17 on his flight controls until his knuckles were white.
Riggs turned to his commander and looked on at his rage. He was astounded how red his face was, largely contrasted by his gritting light-yellow teeth.
"Sir, you better fall out of the attack. We can't maneuver around this sh*t too long!"
The Chinook passed over the Shilka again, and this time Ray followed it by spinning the the vehicle around and chasing it. Slamming and pulling the controls at such a vigorous rate felt like murder to his shoulder thanks to the bullet wounds, but he gritted the pain as much as he could and focused his attention on Tolwin.
The aircraft yawed and began another pass, with Ray returning fire.
Riggs watched in horror how dangerously close they were to hitting various things on the ground. "Sir, think about what you're doing!"
"You're gonna ball up the rotors if you keep turning like that at this altitude!"
"I said shut up!!"
The Shilka's guns blasted one of the rocket pods on the starboard wing apart, sending debris raining down onto the ground.
Ray ran the Shilka full speed towards the Chinook, holding the trigger to fire the guns at full automatic, running the risk of overheating. He had no care in the world, except that this insane man was blown out of the sky.
The pain in his shoulder became unbearable, forcing him to groan as if it were his final battlecry.
Tolwin charged his aircraft over the battlefield, passing flaming debris, aiming straight for the thundering Shilka as it fired upon them a hail of fragmenting projectiles.
Riggs looked as if he'd seen a ghost and grabbed hold of Tolwin's shoulder. "Sir! Please, stop!"
He did no such thing and forced the controls forwards, tightly grasping them and machine gun trigger as if they held his very life in the balance.
The AA fire blasted a large chunk away from the front rotor pylon, exposing some of its inner workings.
Ray yelled at the top of his lungs as his foot almost mashed the accelerator petal to the floor. Machine gun fire knocked chunks of various instrumentation around the interior.
A panel to his left exploded, with glass chunks raining onto his arms. A hose popped from a nearby container, spewing a white gas into the air with a loud hiss. But nothing stopped him in his determined assault as his eyes ogled upon his target.
Another rocket pod on the starboard wing exploded, this time resulting in a cracked door window due to the flying debris. Next was the partially-retracted whip antenna on the belly, now among the scattered debris in the battlefield below.
Tolwin let out a cry as he squeezed the minigun trigger, full auto.
More chunks of the fuselage were shot away, giving way to terrible turbulence. One of the engines split apart, with a small turbine spinning across the sky like a top. The entire port wing blasted away from its mount, spiraling it into an explosive collision course with the remains of an Abrams tank.
The co.ckpit glazing shattered to pieces, with a good portion of the dashboard also taking lethal hits. Riggs was caught in the gunfire, resulting in limbs exploding from his body in a bloody mess. His head became nothing more than a twisted stump before he could scream from the pain.
Twilight ceased casting the spell and watched hopelessly as the two war machines charged for each other. "Ray! Get out of there!"
But it was too late. They crashed straight into each other and dissipated within their fiery and debris-filled doom. The entire lower-half of the aircraft was peeled away in the blast, leaving just the rotors above spinning uncontrollably into the ground, chopping the ground up like a giant blender.
A stray piece of rotor blade flew her direction, when suddenly she was yanked from her hooves and tumbled to the ground in another's embrace before the piece of blade struck the ground where she stood.
She looked upon the hole-riddled hooves across her coat, then at the face of her savior.
Chrysalis finally let her go and looked on at the wreckage that lay in a flaming disarray. Twilight did the same, hoping to spot any sign of life from within.
It became quiet all around them. No gunfire, no rumble of engines, and no voices. All that remained audible over the smoky battlefield were the pops of fires and scuffing of individuals moving around in the dirt.
She watched and watched, just waiting for movement under the flaming metal. Anything under the rippling sea of heat. Anything at all. But, alas, there was nothing.
"Ray..." She whispered with tears welling up in her eyes.
From a limitless void of colorless silhouette, a soundless existence in nothingness, to awareness of a familiar unknown. Light bled through Ray's eyelids as he gradually peeled them open. Pain expanded throughout his body as he lay sprawled under a mass of mechanical parts.
He remembered where he was, even recognized the dreadful remains of the Shilka's interior. The original driver's hatchway that previously remained unusable due to a well-sealed weld now laid collapsed at his legs with various other twisted metal holding it down. He escaped from the entrapment, but not without cutting his skin on the sharpened edges.
He remembered that his shoulder had been shot, but it was no longer painful. In fact, it felt numb. Brushing against his left arm with the rest of his body made it feel as if it was from another person. But as soon as he attempted to utilize the muscle in said arm, pain shot through it as if it were being severed from his body, forcing him to cry from the brief yet torturous misery.
The front of his head throbbed and stung, and he could feel a warm fluid creeping down his cheeks to his mouth, which tasted of salted copper. He investigated with his right hand and felt a gash at his forehead, just above his eyebrows, bleeding profusely. The shape of the wound according to his touch matched the corner of the vision slot behind the driver hatch.
After wiping away a good amount of blood from his face, he still yet tasted it in his mouth. With investigation of his tongue, he felt that one of his upper teeth were loose. Ugh.... I'm broken... He felt like laying waste in the wreckage, to just wither away from the torment.
Voices could be heard from outside of the vehicle in low murmurs. The ponies! The Raiders! The battle! Who made it through? He feared for the worst as he crawled towards the opening above the vehicle where the turret had once been. He feared that his plan had failed, and that Tolwin had survived the downing of his aircraft. That perhaps the Raiders had surpassed the attack and overwhelmed the defensive with crushing firepower.
He climbed from the opening with his only capable arm, onto the battered outer hull of the vehicle and took a deep breath of air as he staggered to his feet. It smelled like a smoky barbecue that had gone horribly wrong, laced with gasoline and diesel.
He looked around the battlefield where fiery debris lay scattered amongst the land, and through the smoke and heated distortions he could spot hundreds of eyes peering his direction. The sight made his heart sink in surprise, for they were Royal Guardsmen and Changeling soldiers gathered all around the area to witness his rise from the carnage.
It was silent despite the settling of wreckage and the crackling fires, and occasionally there was a distant scream or yell. The moment seemed to last much longer than it actually did. Something also felt lacking from the situation, like there was some kind of cue he was missing. Do I say something? He instead made his move and climbed down from the Shilka, making his way towards the crowd with a limp.
He could only imagine how he appeared to them all as he awkwardly approached. Like some kind of bloodthirsty, undead monster.
"Ray!" a familiar voice shouted from the crowd. Twilight Sparkle galloped towards him, then stopped abruptly in his path. "Is it really you?!"
"Well I sure as hell ain't a zombie, that's for sure."
Her eyes lit up like lights as she formed the biggest smile on her face, followed by her running up to his left leg with a tight hug. She finally let go and stepped backwards towards the rest of her friends, with the smile still on her face.
"You're a lot uglier than I imagined you'd be." came another familiar voice off to his right. Queen Chrysalis had emerged from the crowd walking elegantly towards him with a sly smile.
Despite the excruciating pain, Ray laughed at the irony of her expression, regretting ever saying such a thing to her now that he looked upon her sultry eyes again.
Her smile faded and the crowd gasped as if they had all seen something terrifying.
An arm locked his head in an embrace as the muzzle of a gun pressed against the side of his head.
"Nobody move or I blow his head off!" Marchetti had him hostage and he could not escape in his condition.
Twilight lifted a hoof, eager to help, but failed to figure out how.
"We can make a deal!" Marchetti continued, when suddenly a gunshot erupted from behind, and a bloody hole popped open from his forehead. The gun fell from his hand and his grip slackened, followed by his lifeless body collapsing to the ground with his eyes wide open.
Ray turned to find Faust awkwardly leaning against the remains of an HMMWV, with a Beretta M92F trained in his direction.
"Goddamn marauder..." he mumbled as he lowered the weapon and collapsed to the ground in front of the vehicle, struggling to sit upright.
Ray staggered towards him and knelt next to him, putting his right hand on his shoulder.
Faust turned to face him, then briefly looked around, momentarily returning to Ray's gaze. "What do we do now?"
Ray looked upon the crowd that gathered around them. At the guardsmen, his new pony friends, the Changelings, Junkers and Agusta, and surviving Raiders held captive at gunpoint by the other soldiers. At Twilight, then Chrysalis.
It's amazing what a little human influence will do. We seeded the existence of a race to succeed us, and in the end we helped them survive, by uniting them with a foe that too understands what it all means, even if it took the hard realization of their outcome if they had shunned it as they have before. Only together can we take a stand to liberate this dying world. Only together can we understand and embrace the magic of friendship.
He turned to Faust with the simplest answer that came to his mind. An answer that held the deepest meaning to every one of them, and he gave this answer with a casual shrug. "Coexist."
Medical tents had been erected within the Celestial Ward, just outside of the battlegrounds that hundreds of Canterlot citizens and Royal Guardsmen helped clean up. Many volunteers helped pony doctors and nurses rush wounded to their stations for emergency care.
Changelings could be seen assisting them in their efforts, but not without bitter distrust amongst the majority of the pony folk.
The inside of the tents were busy with medical personnel attending to wounded that poured in by the dozens. Yelling of orders from the doctors and nurses combined with the painful screams from the patients made it feel as if it were a madhouse that would drive one to insanity. It was a nightmare that none of these seemingly peaceful creatures should ever have to endure.
Ray laid helplessly in one of the hospital beds, watching everyone scramble the tent in a whirlwind. Occasional nurse ponies would gallop by in a blur telling him they would attend to him as soon as they could, only before more serious casualties entered the establishment.
He watched as doctors performed CPR on a guardspony, with the only result being blood welling up from his mouth. They attempted to drain it out and pump air into his lungs with a long tube, but to no avail. He had drowned in his own blood thanks to an ugly shotgun wound in his back.
Next to them was a human man that had been burned to a charred mess in his lower abdomen, as of then under powerful anesthesia to knock him out, so that he would not die from the painful shock of his injuries.
Nurses rushed in another victim, a Changeling soldier, and threw him onto the bed to his left. Ray felt a sudden rush of nausea as he gazed upon the wounds he had suffered. Bone protruded through the flank above his right-hind leg, within a cavity filled with shredded veins and muscle tissue. Worse was that his belly had been sliced clean open, with intestines and other such organs poking through a flowing scarlet stream. Oddly enough, the fully-conscious soldier did not scream from agony, but instead looked upon himself with utter fear as tears crept down his face.
Ray shifted his gaze to the empty bed that lay to his right side, fighting the urge to throw up at the sight.
The same bed had quickly become filled with yet another Changeling soldier, this one clad in rather familiar improvised battle armor. The nurses and volunteers had left him and attended to work elsewhere, leaving him alone with Ray, since his wounds were less severe.
Recognition shifted his memory of the sickening sight he had witnessed to his left. He lifted his right arm and pointed to the soldier with a grin. "You."
The soldier turned his head to face him, in turn recognizing Ray as evident by the smile gradually forming on his face. He answered with a weary "Meee..."
"What you did with that Abrams tank... you sure showed a lot of guts out there, my friend. If it weren't for you I would've never thought of hijacking that Shilka."
Cattani snorted in disbelief and drifted to sleep almost immediately.
Shining Armor stood near the back doorway, watching with dread as the wounded rushed in, while the dead rushed out in black bags. Many of them were his men, and he feared peering at faces for recognition, for they may have been ponies he knew well.
Princess Cadence emerged from the corner of the tent. Their eyes met and they ran into each other's hooves in a tight embrace.
"I'm so glad you're okay." She said. "I love you so much."
"I love you too."
They pulled away and gave the personnel room to move through the doorway.
"This is such a bizarre day."
She could not help but giggle at his expression for the situation, but quickly composed herself.
"Alright, perhaps that's the wrong choice of words."
"No, you're right. It certainly is."
"It's just..." He let out a sigh. "never have I thought of a day we'd be invaded by a bunch of highly-advanced bipedal beings, let alone assisted in our efforts against them by a race that was once our enemy."
"I know how you feel. After all, to this day I see them as a manipulative strain of monsters that nearly ruined our lives. I will never trust them, no matter what they do to make peace with us. As for the humans, as they're called, I'm not exactly sure."
"We should get to know them before passing such judgment. They say there's a few surviving humans that were actually responsible for the Changeling alliance to us."
"I know. One of them is called Ray. I was speaking with Princess Celestia in another tent. She would very much like you two to meet.
Shining turned towards the chaotic tent. "I'll be sure to find him."
It had been a little over three weeks since the human invasion of Canterlot, and many locations caught in the conflict still laid in ruin. However, efforts were still underway to repair and refurbish by volunteer ponies and Changelings, the latter of which had gained a tentative trust with their efforts.
It was the queen's attempt at paying for the damage she has done to them in the past, in hopes to bring her species into a brighter light. To start over, with relations that could potentially benefit them both in the future.
Princess Celestia remained rather reluctant at the resolution, but accepted it on the condition that an additional sum of her empire's currency would be paid to the Canterlot commonwealth. Enough to pay for repair and restoration from the first repercussion. However, none of them had discussed official political relations at the time. It would call for further conditioning that Chrysalis was still yet unprepared to fulfill. This and there was still a major trust issue between them, which was unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
The surviving Phantom Raiders whom assaulted the empire served their sentence within the subterranean dungeons. This would mark its first use since its very construction in the beginning of the kingdom, since offences had ordinarily been rather minor in comparison, in which the conventional short-sentence prisons were used.
Among the prisoners was Tempest, chief director of strategic operations of the Changeling empire, serving his punishment for disobeying his queen's orders, resulting in the death of one of their best agents. Out of fear of what his punishment would be under Chrysalis' rule, he demanded imprisonment in the Canterlot jurisdiction. He knew at least he would be given better treatment with whatever dignity he had left, and despite the lack of political relations, the two superiors accepted the transfer.
Furthermore, many of the surviving war machines and weapons were transported to the Equestrian Mechanical Design & Engineering Technical Institute for research. Potential use of the designs were sought by the ponies for both civilian and military applications, and plans were already underway to reproduce the designs for such uses.
Unfortunately, fuel had become an issue given that the only source of it was already in the old war machines and a surviving armored fuel truck. The matter was still under discussion, but a strong proposal was made to scout the outside wastelands for more abundant sources. A second proposal was to convert the designs for steam-power, an already well-proven external combustion method. However, this proposal was dismissed on account of weaker horsepower in comparison to the newer internal combustion designs.
Equestria was in the early stages of a technological revolution, thanks to an outside species previously unrecorded to their knowledge. Their world would never be the same again.
Ray awoke from a long, natural slumber, much like he had at Fluttershy's cottage about three weeks ago. This time he was in a hospital bed in a small room, presumably within a hospital building.
He moved to stretch, but decided against it when he realized he was still wearing a solid cast over his left arm, and an uncomfortable IV in the right. There was a soft clip of some kind over his right index finder, with a wire that hooked up to a machine next to him that repeatedly beeped. Ray had always been curious as to what this particular machine did, but he assumed it measured his pulse because of the consistency of the beeping sound.
The morning light shined brightly through the nearby window, almost overpowering the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Birds chirped sweet tunes to start off a presumably glorious day.
The door across the room suddenly creaked open with a nurse pony entering the room.
"Morning, Ray." she greeted. She wore an ancient style of nurse uniform similar to what humans did long ago, including the signature hat with a bright red cross on the front. "Sleep well?"
"Like a broken rock."
She giggled and walked up to the beeping machine to turn it off. "For what it's worth, you've made quite a recovery." She proceeded to remove the clip from his finger, then moved on to the IV in his arm. "That's saying a lot given that you're one of our first human patients. Normally under these circumstances, you'd be under the care of the local vet. The complexity of your condition and physiology called for our expertise."
"Congrats on the milestone." He flinched as the needle was removed from his arm.
"You know, your first human patient... and it survived under your care. It's a joke."
"Oh." She did not appear to be amused at his humor this time.
"Alright, I really mean to say thanks. I appreciate the efforts to get me well enough to freely walk the earth again. And I'm happy it could be under your care."
She smiled at him. "It was a pleasure, Ray. Now let's get to that cast."
Ponyville was still in a state of repair and restoration, but the more gruesome remnants of the invasion were cleaned away from the streets, but were near impossible to clean from their memories. The time of mourning and sorrow had came and went under the past week, and it was now a time to celebrate their victory.
The lingering hell of war was now at the back of everyone's mind as a terrible nightmare presupposed to never return again, and peace flowed through them as they partied the daylight away in Town Square.
Stars and a bright full moon illuminated a beautiful purple sky, combined with a magnificent multi-colored aurora waving like giant glowing ribbons above.
Ponies were gathered everywhere. They ate at the grand buffet tables, danced with glee on wooden dance floors, and gathered amongst themselves to converse and express their happiness.
Faust, Agusta, and Junkers could be seen at the far end of an outdoor bar area drinking cider with a few other ponies, watching amused as Pinkie Pie danced her crazy randomness away on the table as the music grew louder.
The song playing throughout the gathering had been from a CD found in one of the war machines' audio devices, transferred to a record so that it could be properly played on their native sound system. Appropriately, but certainly not coincidentally, it was an old rock-and-roll song called "Party" by a band called Boston.
Ray simply stood by the ruins of one of the nearby buildings, watching the celebration. He enjoyed the music and loved seeing everyone's' cheerfulness. It made him feel warm and appreciated for his efforts in fighting for them. It truly was worth every moment of it.
But something kept him from joining them. He couldn't understand what the restraint was, but his hesitation mounted weights on his shoes.
He jolted around as he heard the sound of a twig breaking behind him. A familiar silhouette approached him and gradually revealed itself as it walked closer to the light.
"Chrysalis?" Ray eased up.
She walked up next to him to observe the nearby celebration. "Am I interrupting anything important over here?"
She looked at him with puzzlement. "How come you're not with the others?"
"I don't know. I just-..." He trailed off without a logical answer, then turned to her. "What about you?"
She turned back towards the crowd. "They're not ready for me. I've been a menace to them long before you came into our land. They would look at me as they always have, and I would just ruin their good time. I'd rather not risk throwing a wrench into the sprocket."
"You did a noble thing, my queen. You could've struck when they were at their weakest, but you defended them and even made amends to them after it was over. I don't know what changed you, but I don't think you realize how much recognition you've received for what you've done."
"I don't care about recognition. I just want the paranoia to be over. I'm not an evil queen."
"Paranoia, unfortunately, burns relentless. And as a shapeshifting, emotion-consuming species, I'm sure you can understand that. But at least you can proceed with your efforts to win their hearts. Show that you mean them no harm, and that you embrace the magic of friendship as well."
"They will not be won easily, and I fear now is not the time. But perhaps after the award ceremony tomorrow, I can make an attempt."
"If you feel that's the right thing to do..."
She withheld a reply and continued watching the gathering with Ray, then finally spoke up.
"We found an abandoned hillside castle just outside of Canterlot. With Celestia's permission we've migrated the hive there and are currently working on developing a small capitol city. A nice and quiet little place to thrive."
"Good to hear. I hope your children enjoy it."
She gave him an odd look. "I don't have children. What are you implying?"
He met her gaze. "Your subjects. The Changelings."
She snorted amusingly. "No, dear Ray, you've got my species wrong. We may be an insectoid equine race, but the hive-mind is my method of governmental organization. I'm a queen of royalty, not biology."
"Really fooled me. Given you have drones and all."
She shrugged. "Biological selection of newborn without the ability to reproduce. We've never understood it, but that's just how it works with us."
"I brought up our new home because I'd like to offer you a place to reside should you not find anything here."
He hesitated and crossed his arms. "I'll definitely get back to you on that. Just give me a little time to think about it."
"Of course." After a moment she turned to him with a smile. "Thanks for everything, Ray. Without you we wouldn't be where we are now." With that she slowly retreated back into the darkness.
"Good night, Chrysalis."
"Same to you." She replied, then stopped abruptly. "Oh, Ray?"
"Stop standing around like an idiot and join them already. It's your night as much as theirs. Have a good time."
He uncrossed his arms and looked back and fourth from the gathering and back to her.
"Queen's orders." she finished and proceeded walking towards the dark of night.
He turned to the celebration and began slowly walking towards them. His heart beat like a drum and his hands quaked, but he walked on with pride. And upon being greeted by the cheerful ponies, he realized how distant his fears and suffering had become. He had friends in his life now. Individuals who cared for him, and actually loved him unconditionally. He had traveled the world upon the road of war, and has finally found its end. He was home.
Maybe Faust was right. After all these years of searching, I've finally found my street of dreams.
Ray's theme ---------- Main theme
Awesome story. Are you planning a sequel?