The place stank like rotting trash. Where most of the lower cells discharged a damp cascade from underground water sources, others remained layered under dust and cobwebs. A cell at the far end of the block even appeared to be completely collapsed. The moonlight barely reached through the gothic obstacles, leaving everything immersed in darkness. Ironically, it was paradise compared to the Canterlot Dungeons.
It was a completely isolated building from the rest of the prison blocks and dungeons, only administered by two guards because of the rather derelict state. Derelict until now, at least. By next week it would have a full staff.
Tempest found himself shoved into the nearest cell from the main access. His wings were bound with an iron ring that clamped snug around his abdomen, with chains bolted to the lower half of it, leading to shackles on his hole-riddled hooves. His horn was wrapped with a cloth soaked in some kind of potion that temporarily prevents magical abilities, which included his natural Changeling ability to shapeshift.
A human man fell after him, bracing himself on a nearby bed. He was completely naked, with only chains and shackles covering his wrists and ankles.
The two guards responsible for their brief "orientation" of their new home were Lunar Guardsmen wearing service uniforms instead of armor. They appeared equipped with 9mm firing devices designed for equine hooves, riot prods, and bright LED flashlights. Modern equipment, much to Tempest's surprise. It was an unusual mix with their dreadful surroundings.
The cell door slamming shut left everyone in the area with ringing ears that would surely last for several minutes.
"Consider yourselves lucky." one of the guardsmen barked. "Not many prisoners sentenced to the dungeons get off the hook with 'good behavior', so try not to give us any grief. You'll surely find yourself back where you started, and I guarantee you'll never see a chance like this again."
The human man turned and sat upward to face them. "As long as I get those clothes tomorrow, like you promised, I'm not complaining."
"'Lyle', is it?" the other guardsmen spoke up. "Yeah, I heard about you. You were a tank driver back in the second Canterlot invasion. I bet you'll be pleased to know your old wreck is now in a museum in Manehattan."
"Quite pleased, actually. Glad it wasn't raped to the core like the rest of my division's junk for the sake of science."
The guardsmen smirked. "Speaking of which, how was that handsome stallion in Block Two-Twelve?"
With a sudden fire in his eyes, Lyle bolted to his feet and charged for the bars, but was quickly halted by the unholstering of the guardsmen's firearms.
"Heyhey, remember what I said. Now you're in our little playpen." He holstered his firing device and got closer to the bars. "Don't mess with us."
His partner also holstered his firearm and they walked away, through the main accessway, slamming the door shut behind them.
Tempest found a black garbage bag in the far corner of the room, next to the toilet. It was recently placed there, as evident by the lack of dust and webs. He rummaged inside and found many items for basic hygiene and various reading material.
Lyle turned to Tempest out of curiosity. "What'd you find over there?"
"My stuff." he answered, pulling the items out and placing them neatly on the stone floor. "Various items confiscated from me when I was first imprisoned. Others I requested upon transfer here."
Lyle watched the items emerging from the bag. A tube of toothpaste, toothbrush, dental floss, soap, towels, candle, quill with ink bottle, writing tablet, and two books.
"Oh, I got something for you too." He tossed a pack of cigarettes and a lighter next to Lyle's feet.
Lyle sat back down and picked the items up. "Wow. Thanks, man. I owe you one."
Tempest snorted playfully. "You owe me three, cheapskate."
Lyle chuckled and pulled out one of the cigarettes, preparing to light up.
"No, not now. Let's get some sleep first."
He thought about it for a moment, then set the items aside. "I suppose you're right." He climbed into the dusty bed, brushing away the filth as much as he could. There were no covers, leaving him in the shivering cold.
Tempest looked around for another bed, but there was none. Instead he sat on the other side of the cell and lit the candle with the lighter, then began reading one of the books.
It was a publication written by the same man laying on the bed nearby, called "Brave Young Revolutionists". It was an autobiographical tale about Lyle written in first-person about his time serving under the late Commander Taggard Tolwin of the 500th Phantom Raiders division. Apparently it had become a Canterlot Times best-seller despite being written by a prisoner of the kingdom.
Tempest knew its praise was mostly due to the first-person account of someone behind the invasion. It was the first of its kind on the shelves, but more would certainly come should other human prisoners find out. Tempest understood every one of them had an equally interesting story to tell about their adventures, and soon or later they would finally tell their story for all to hear and see.
The idea inspired a creative spark in Tempest's mind, and he had decided on a similar conclusion as well. He had been interviewed from his old dungeon cell by the Canterlot Times in the past, but he knew a written publication, in book form or an article, would be far more impactive with what he had to say. Now, unfortunately, was not the time for such an expression. He had another agenda.
An hour had passed and Lyle was sound asleep. Nothing could be heard in vast, empty prison block but his low snoring. It's time.
Tempest slowly closed the book and set it neatly next to the candle, then crept towards Lyle, careful not to emit too much of noise to awaken him from his slumber. He was like a cat ready to pounce at his prey. Eventually he made his way behind the headboard of the bed and slowly raised his hooves so that the chains binding them hung over his head.
Lyle's eyes snapped wide open as Tempest shoved the chains with all of his might onto his neck. He squirmed and pried for his life under Tempest's exertion, desperately trying to scream under his gargling chokes.
"A lesson you'll be taking to the other side..." Tempest grunted, "Never trust anyling. Friendship only leads to dissolution, especially when the usefulness of one's exploits have expired. Did you really think I would take a human under my wing? It's because of you that my kind now lives in corruption!" He bit one of Lyle's hands as it reached for his face. "Lastly, you leave the world as probably the worst writer I've ever met."
Lyle became limp and collapsed in the chokehold. Tempest finished the job and grabbed his head in his hooves, breaking his neck with a swift twist.
He bolted to the bars of the cell, heart pounding with adrenaline, listening carefully for footsteps or a door opening. For a good three minutes there was nothing, and he was safe to continue with his activity.
He blew out the candle and gnawed away the wax, leaving behind a metallic pipe of some kind, stopped at both ends by a cork. He pulled a cork off and placed the pipe upright against the wall, then moved on to the ink bottle. He unscrewed the top and poured the black "ink" into the pipe, making sure to get every last drop inside.
Next was the pack of cigarettes. He ripped the box open and poured the cigarettes on the floor, then one-by-one began peeling them apart, revealing small nails hidden inside them. He dumped the nails inside the pipe, then relocated it to the corner of the room nearest the cell door.
He moved on to the bar of "soap" and placed it on the floor in front of him. Next was the tube of toothpaste. He unscrewed the cap and tossed it aside, then began squeezing the contents onto the soap. It was much thicker and chunkier than normal toothpaste, therefore much harder to expel from the container.
Satisfied with the amount he applied to the soap, he tossed the tube aside and grabbed the floss container. He pulled a very long strand out, revealing it to be a much thicker and darker string of sorts rather than actual floss, and stuck the end into the "toothpaste" mess atop of the soap.
He then slapped the soap onto the wall opposite of the bars, with the toothpaste end keeping it in place. He unraveled the string from the container as he slowly made his way to the cell door, then dropped the container on the floor.
Next he grabbed hold of the bed where Lyle's body lay and tossed it onto its side, pulling it closer to the cell door. Tempest picked up the "floss" container and the lighter, setting fire to the strand. He hid behind the bed as the string hissed and burned like a fuse, with the spark gradually making its way to the soap on the wall.
The blast sounded as if the world exploded, throwing rock and debris around the cell. Tempest rose from cover and saw that the wall had been completely blown away thanks to its deteriorating rock, exposing the world outside of his confinement.
Lost in the realization of his sure freedom, he had not acknowledged the presence on the other side of the cell door until he heard the distinct sound of keys and hooves shuffling around from the other side.
Tempest leapt to the bars, reaching through and grabbing the Lunar Guardsman by the neck, smashing his head repeatedly into the steel until he tumbled unconscious to the floor.
"Hey!" came a shout from the opening where a wall once stood. The second guardsman unholstered his firing device and prepared to fire.
Tempest reacted and leapt to the metal pipe leaning in the corner, grabbing it and slamming it hard at the edge of the bed. The contents inside reacted from the shock of the impact, expelling the nails as if it were a scatter-gun, killing the guardsmen as a result from an ugly wound to his face.
Tempest ditched his weapon and utilized the guardsman's, making his way to freedom as he disappeared into the dark of night.
you seriously never cease to amaze me.........keep it up
Keep Low. Move Fast. First Kill. Die LastOne Shot. One Kill. No Luck. Pure Skill.
I take back my previous question about a sequel.
Awesome, can't wait for the rest.
Dear Princess Celestia,
Today I learned that nopony kicks ass without tanker gas. Nopony!
Your faithful student,Fluttercopter
Thorne One was the designation of the primary oil and natural gas well located in the desert wasteland just East of the Everfree Forest. It was one of three major wells crudely erected in the desert after geological and ecological investigations proved the existence of remaining fossil fuels beneath the Earth's surface, enough to refine and fuel Equestria's innovative line of turbo-combustion engines for a few-hundred years.
The timeframe was a suitable amount to give the scientific and alchemic community a chance to develop alternative fuels for these new machines, and thus the race had begun. Meanwhile the domestically-produced monsters burned the petroleum-based liquid-gold as they tore up the streets of a once quieter and cleaner land.
Despite complaints of the foul smell of their byproduct and disturbing sounds, they well proved their worth among the civilian and military dominions. Horsepower had exceeded beyond the capability of manual force, thus its potential was utilized whenever and wherever needed. Civilian ponies whom could afford such expensive transportation often found use for them in businesses for transporting equipment and stock, and others found it easier to simply get around.
Military uses were about the same, however defense was an issue. Combat vehicles were still as crude as most war machines that have been encountered in the wastelands, and proper vehicles of this type were still under heavy development.
Time was running short on this issue, for rumors of the domestic fuel supply had somehow spread to the wastelands, reaching human minds twisted and geared towards obtaining this precious resource, meaning they would do anything to get it. Mercy was the furthest thing from their mind. Many pony explorers of these wastelands have never returned, but the few that have returned with stories so fantastic that they evoked the launch of small security forces to guard the borders of the royal land, as well as the specific oil wells.
Human travelers rarely encountered the Equestrian borders, but when they did, they were welcomed with relatively open arms, but not without prior inquisition of their intentions. They have yet to encounter the larger horrors of the outland, but the day would come. Soon.
Thorne One was protected by two scout technicals improvised from muscle cars, both guarding a gated parameter with sentries and machine gun nests.
The first technical was a 1969 Z28 Camaro code-named "Landmaster", armed with a Lunar Defence Products G-12 minigun on the roof. The driver was an Earth pony named Riga, a seasoned Royal Guardsman specially selected head of security for Thorne One, much to his disgruntlement. His partner in the passenger seat was a lazy young recruit called Star Charmer, a subtle unicorn guardsman living his life in bitter irony.
The desert heat was excruciating and all the two had for a cool breeze was a small metal fan hanging on the rear-view mirror on the windshield, plugged into the cigarette-lighter. They had been sitting in the vehicle for over two hours now, with nothing to do but either watch the roads ahead for threats, as they've been assigned to do, or make use of various reading material that Riga happened to stockpile in the back seat. Or do what Charmer had been doing at this particular moment: sleeping the hours away.
Riga managed to tear his eyes away from a romance novel between his hooves and checked his surroundings for anything new. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except for a buff unicorn bathing in the sun from the roof of his car instead of remaining inside like he was supposed to.
Swift Swirl was his name, and his vehicle was a domestically-produced copy of a 1965 Pontiac GTO code-named "Gatekeeper". His particular technical boasted better firepower than Landmaster's prototype kit, mounting two G-13 autocannons on the hood and an 85mm rocket launcher on the far right side of the roof. Riga had always criticized the kit as "utter overkill", but their superiors encouraged it and Swirl absolutely loved it.
Through the dusty windows could be spotted a rather stiff-looking pegasus guardsman named River, eyes alert and posture overly appropriate. He was Swirl's bureaucratic partner of little conversation and obsessive drudge of protocol. Inspection of his wooden gaze revealed discomfort for the guardsmen's passive attitude and slack obedience to their assignments.
Riga snorted and went back to his novel.
"What time is it?" Charmer shifted around in his seat as he awoke from his slumber.
Riga checked the digital clock on the dashboard. "It's two-oh-five."
Riga's hold on the book collapsed onto his steering wheel as he shot him a sarcastic look. "What do you think?" He picked it back up and began reading again.
"Well excuse me. Next time can we bring some music for the cassette-player?"
"No. I hate human music."
Charmer shifted his entire self to his side to face Riga, eyes bloodshot and blinking rapidly. "What are you reading?"
"A book. Please stop interrupting me."
Charmer sighed and turned the opposite direction. "Wake me when your attitude improves."
A droning bellow of a two-hundred horsepower engine passed by, snapping their attention back to the road ahead, but they could not locate the source.
River could be seen in Gatekeeper frantically grabbing the CB communicator. "Landmaster, this is Gatekeeper, come in."
Riga reached for his. "Landmaster here. What was that?"
"Sandrail FAV with no visible serials or insignia, and what appeared to be a human driver. He's heading southbound on a high-speed approach for Thorne Two."
"Roger that, we'll take it. Stand by."
"Copy that, Gatekeeper out." River set the communicator down and punched the roof to get Swirl's attention.
Riga bookmarked his novel and threw it in the back with the rest, then started the vehicle up and took off, heading down the road in pursuit of the unidentified vehicle.
Charmer opened the glovebox and reached for a pistol and extra magazine inside, then slammed the lid shut. It was a Royal Arms Factory G-2, one of the first production pistol types built for equine hooves. He co.cked it and carefully held it low in his lap, ready to use it if the need arose.
Riga reached for the communicator again. "Base, this is Landmaster in pursuit of a sandrail FAV southbound to Thorne Two, requesting assistance. Over."
A voice crackled on the other end. "Copy that, Landmaster, stay on target. We're notifying Thorne Two and a technical should be on its way shortly."
"Thanks." Riga hung the communicator up.
"Riga?" Charmer suddenly spoke up.
"Why couldn't we just let Gatekeeper come along, if you need backup?"
Riga rolled his eyes. "You don't pay much attention to the safety and security briefings, do you?"
"I don't follow."
"Of course you don't. Standard procedure of a two-vehicle security force of a certain location requires one of the two to stay behind should a situation arise that calls for a pursuit, so that the location were protecting stays guarded. Understand?"
"Fine. Still sounds redundant."
Riga shook his head. "Rookie..."
Thorne Two was located in a thin oasis nearby a small pond of water, with plenty of Joshua trees providing decent shade for the two guarding technicals outside the oil-well's defense perimeter. The pond was shallow, but cool enough from the shade to protect schools of guppies and water snails.
Hawker had been stationed at this location for over six months now and has since loved to relax and unwind in the dry grass that surrounded the shallow pool. He had often been teased for the amount of time he spent there, which apparently gave the term "Earth pony" a more literal meaning at his expense. He often wondered why the other guardsmen dismissed the serenity so easily. It was peaceful, and often helped him forget about the hostility of the surrounding desert.
It was their loss. At least he could have more of it to himself, without much interruption.
Hawker rolled onto his belly and edged closer to the pond, reaching for something bathing in the cool water. He pulled out a glass bottle of cider and felt the temperature, making sure his improvised attempt at natural refrigeration was successful.
Upon investigation he found a large ramshorn snail attached to the side, slowly pulling its way across the glass as it traveled a destination that could only be whimsically thought of as searching for access to the contents. Hawker chuckled as he plucked the mischievous mollusk away and threw it back into the water.
Immediately after popping the lid open he noticed another ramshorn gliding upside-down across the surface of the water, twice as fast as it would normally traveling across a more solidified surface. Hawker was rather impressed, especially since this is the first time he had ever seen such behavior from these freshwater critters.
"Hawker!" His partner shouted from the armed muscle car parked only a few meters away. "Hey, Hawk! We got some action today!"
Hawker climbed to his hooves and trotted over to his vehicle, bringing the cider with him.
His car was a prototype EMDETech imitation of a 1968 Chevrolet Impala code-named "Interceptor", armed with a roof-mounted General Electric GAU-19 minigun. It was protected by thick plate armor crudely applied to the frame, commonly referred to as "ghetto armor" due to the aesthetically unappealing form.
Hawker's co.cky partner Diamond Fire wore a carefree expression behind his aviator sunglasses as he sat upright and proud in the driver's seat. "Sounds like a softskin's burning rubber on the southbound circuit. Base wants us to take care of it."
Hawker casually opened the door and stepped back. "Move."
"Oh come on, Hawk! You never let me drive!"
"Ever since that incident with the veggie cart back in Fillydelphia, I wouldn't even let you drive a screw. Move."
"That was a whole year ago! Jeeze, you still bring it up like I leveled a schoolhouse or something." The young pegasus scooted back into his passenger seat to let Hawker in.
Hawker closed his door and grabbed the communicator. "Penetrator, this is Interceptor. Stand guard, we're taking off."
He was referring to the 1970 Dodge Super Bee with dual hood-mounted M2 Browning machine guns on the opposite side of Thorne Two.
"Alright," they answered on the static-filled CB, "Penetrator standing by. Good luck, guys."
"Thanks. Out." Hawker put the communicator back and started up the engine, reversing out of the path and speeding down the loosely-paved road.
Riga and Charmer strained for a glimpse of the ghost vehicle past the curves of the road as they traveled over elevations that distorted their view, and regrettably slowed their pace the sharper they turned. But nothing could be seen but more empty road.
They eventually reached a clearing from the obstructions where the road became a straight line for a good distance towards the hidden turn-off to Thorne Two. And just less than a kilometer down the road could be seen a small vehicle speeding away.
"There!" Charmer shouted, pointing excitedly ahead of them.
"Yeah, I see it." Riga reached for the communicator. "Landmaster calling whoever's on their way, what's your current location? Over."
Hawker stopped abruptly as he reached the main road, blocking it off, then reached for the communicator. "This is Interceptor, we're on the slope guarding Thorne Two's pathway."
Fire patted Hawker's shoulder as he looked through binoculars at the road ahead.
He pointed. Hawker looked in the direction and saw the approaching vehicle in the distance, then held the communicator back up. "Also, we've got a visual on your little friend. Over."
"Roger that." Riga replied on the CB. "Sit tight. If he evades, blow him away."
"You got it. Out." Hawker put the communicator back.
Fire set the binoculars on the dashboard and reclined in his seat. "Hawk, that thing's a sand buggy, right?"
"So what if he goes off-road in the dunes? We won't have a clear shot, and I don't think EMDETech built this thing with all-terrain capability."
"He won't go far. The canyons will force him back on the road, and we'll just catch up to him from there.
"Alright. Now what if he just blows us out of his way?"
Hawker pursed his lips and turned to his partner with a deadpan expression. "Well, we either wait here until we become dehydrated zombies or we set the ball in motion. If he doesn't respond to the megaphone and charges for attack, we take him out." He took a drink of cider and set it in the cupholder.
"Speaking of dehydration, should you really be drinking that stuff in this heat?"
"It makes you thirsty for more."
"Good thing I brought the whole case then."
Riga caught up with the mysterious buggy and switched the communicator output to the loudspeaker pack. "This is Thorne Security, pull the vehicle over! Pull over, now!"
The buggy did no such thing and kept its course, charging for Interceptor's location ahead.
"Pull over, now! If you do not comply, you will be fired upon!"
A small streak of light appeared to emerge from Interceptor, followed by the buggy bursting apart in a fiery explosion.
Riga threw the communicator down and swerved to avoid the flying debris and flaming chassis blocking the road, then screeched to a halt, grabbing the communicator again. "Hold your fire, hold your fire! Interceptor, what was that all about?!"
"It wasn't us!" Hawker shouted from the other end. "I swear to Celestia!"
"Then who was it? Do you see anyone else out here?"
"That's a negative, Landmaster!"
Charmer looked as if he saw a ghost and patted Riga's shoulder to get his attention. Upon doing so he pointed towards Interceptor. Something large could be seen behind Hawker's vehicle, growing immensely as it approached them.
"Wait..." Hawker came back on the CB. "Holy c-...!!"
The signal cut out as Interceptor spun to its side and split apart, with the two halves deflecting to the side to make way for a giant V-blade storming towards them.
"Whoa!" Charmer shouted in surprise. "Reverse!"
Riga shifted and reversed the vehicle on the road, sharply swerving around the remains of the FAV, then held the communicator up. "Landmaster calling anyone on this channel... I need backup! Now!"
Swift Swirl and River sat alert in Gatekeeper, listening to the CB. River was first to grab the communicator.
"Landmaster, this is Gatekeeper. What's your location? Over."
"Southbound circuit to Thorne Two!" Riga answered in a panic as his four-hundred horsepower engine could be heard drowning the static-filled background. "Some kind of ramrod is after us! Interceptor is down! Repeat, Interceptor is down and we're on the run! Over!"
Swirl grabbed the communicator out of River's hoof. "Gatekeeper on the way. Sit tight." He set it down and started up the engine.
"Wait a minute." River protested.
"Don't give me that by-the-book nonsense again, I know what I'm doing."
A chunk of his forehead blasted away from his skull in a bloody mess as machine gun fire punched through the thinly-armored skin of the vehicle. His head slammed onto the steering wheel, holding the button for the horn down.
River ducked for cover as the vehicle got bombarded, desperately wiping away the blood from his dead partner. He found the communicator in a pile of glass shards from the windows and grabbed it. "This is Gatekeeper, we're under attack! Thorne One is under attack!"
Returning fire from Thorne One's other defenses could be heard, followed by the rumble of approaching engines. Explosions quaked the ground beneath Gatekeeper. River broke cover to see what was happening outside, but as soon as his head emerged from behind the dashboard, he suffered a similar fate as his partner thanks to more machine gun fire.
Landmaster was now thundering down the road in the correct direction, Riga desperate to escape the metal monster chasing them behind. River's voice could be heard on the CB, but the two roaring engines distorted Riga's understanding of what was said.
He picked the communicator up. "Say again, Gatekeeper!"
They were close to the slopes leading back to Thorne One, where the road was no longer straight, which Riga hoped would give them an advantage in evading the ramrod.
"Gatekeeper, come in! I didn't catch your last! Over!"
Still no answer from the other end.
"Gatekeeper!" Riga threw the communicator down after another pause of silence from the CB.
Charmer rolled his window down and emerged halfway through with his weapon, prepared to fire at the ramrod. He lowered it in horror as he watched a human man pop up from behind the ramrod's open-frame driver cab with an RPG-7. "Riga!"
"What?!" He looked in his rear-view mirror and also saw the man with launcher, now aiming it at their vehicle. "Oh, horseapples!" Riga swerved off the road and into the dunes, just as the man fired the weapon. The rocket hit the empty road, much to the man's infuriation as he shouted a curse inaudible over the engines.
Riga stopped the vehicle in a patch of tumbleweeds and let the ramrod pass by. Charmer fell back into his seat, eyes wide with apprehension. Both looked on at the slopes ahead with elevated dismay, not at the ramrod as it sharply turned around and headed back for them, but at what followed behind it.
A whole army appeared to charge for them; tanks, APCs, mobile artillery, scout cars, armed transport vans, buggies, dirt-bikes, and even a medium helicopter all came for them in a thundering stampede behind the ramrod.
"Reverse!" Charmer shouted.
Riga frantically shifted the gears, but the handle was stuck from his panic.
"Shut up!!" The handle freed and shifted to the gear he wanted. Riga mashed the accelerator to the floor, kicking dirt around as his wheels pushed the vehicle back onto the road. There he spun around with a screech, shifted to overdrive, then mashed the pedal again to continue his desperate escape.
Charmer watched in his side-mirror as the human man with the RPG launcher loaded another rocket into his weapon. But instead of aiming it for them, he turned around and fired it at the column of other vehicles behind him. The other vehicles fired back with their weapons, with one stray projectile impacting the road next to Landmaster.
Riga reacted and swerved, quickly correcting his course as not to fly off the paving. He swerved again to avoid the FAV wreckage, just as another rocket impacted the road behind them. The vehicle became uncontrollable, resulting in them flipping over and tumbling towards the remains of Interceptor.
They impacted the twisted metal upside-down with minimal damage, to both the vehicle and themselves.
"Oh, lovely." Charmer groaned as he lay cramped on the upturned roof, shoving away shattered glass and the piles of Riga's books. Upon attempting to crawl out of the window, he stopped and screamed with terror at the road in front of him.
The ramrod plowed straight into them, reducing Landmaster to flaming debris mixed in with those of Interceptor as they deflected to the sides of the behemoth's giant V-blade.
Hoooooooooooooolley SHeeeeeeeit that is awesome :D
Dang, thats some sweet action. Keep it coming.
The sun shone brightly over the rich and beautiful orchards of Sweet Apple Acres, peeking behind the occasional fluffy white clouds. The apples in the trees were already growing into plump and delicious fruits ready for harvest.
A truck slowly traveled over the sloped terrain and stopped under a specific area of trees where the apples grew more abundant. It was a customized EMDETech-13 utility vehicle decorated with a bright pink coat of paint over specially designed carriage features and an apple-shaped cab.
Applejack personally hated the design, but she kept her feelings to herself since it was Rarity who had bought the vehicle for her as a gift, and even designed the customized shell herself. Applejack knew how difficult and expensive it was for her to go out of her way to do this, even stepping out of her element in the process, and therefore gave her a certain appreciation of the gift when she used it.
Applejack leaped out of the driver's seat, followed by Faust from the passenger side, and they both met behind the vehicle to unload barrel halves they have been using to load apples with.
With permission from Applejack and her family, Faust had been living with them and helping out with their business until he could find a place of his own. He grew weary with his age and old bullet wounds to his legs, but his history with the Phantom Raiders kept him strong and able to perform the tasks laid out before him. The Apple family appreciated his help and greatly enjoyed his company.
Applejack leaped into the truck bed and tossed the barrel halves on the ground, with Faust picking them up and rolling them to specific trees that surrounded the vehicle.
"So anyway," she said, continuing a conversation they had been having on the way there, "she takes a bite, then spits it out and screams like she'd tasted the apocalypse and runs to the sink to rinse her mouth out a million times."
"Oh!" Faust shouted with amused repulsion.
"Well now she checks em' like a quality inspector on an assembly line before they even reach her plate, just in case someone pulls a prank like that again."
Faust shook his head. "That Rainbow Dash. Always the creative prankster."
"You betcha. But just between you and me, she kind of had help." She winked at him.
"Well. In that case I better start checking on my own apples."
Applejack jumped from the truck bed and began bucking one of the trees, causing apples to gradually fall into the barrel halves on the ground below. "Heh! What makes you think I might use apples a second time?"
Faust sighed with mildly serious apprehension. "Sh*t."
They both had a good laugh as they continued with their activity.
Just as Faust had began loading the full barrel halves into the truck, another vehicle pulled up next to them. It appeared to be an Otokar Akrep, similar in design to one that Faust had once owned during the second Canterlot invasion, except this one had been a VIP-specific transport model without armament or sensory equipment mounts.
A familiar human man wearing a suit and aviator sunglasses exited from the driver's side and approached Faust near the apple truck.
"Agusta?" Faust asked with a smile forming on his face.
"Long time no see, Panzerfaust!"
Both opened their arms and gave in to a big hug, then finally let go.
"Man, look at you all sharp. Come back from a funeral?"
Agusta chuckled as he quickly reviewed his own apparel before returning back to Faust's gaze. "REDF's got me riding a desk in intelligence, hence lack of service uniform. I got an office right next to Shining Armor's back at the castle."
"Well good for you. Glad to hear they're treating you well in the military dominion."
Agusta's smile faded. "Look, the reason I came here is, well..." He paused for a moment then finally let it out with a regretful sigh. "Something's happened back in the desert. Remember those oil wells that were set up a few years ago?"
"Well, the security forces stationed at two of them have gone offline earlier this evening. Thorne Three is still active and has reported some kind of gang activity going on not too far from them, and they suspect there's a connection with that and the mysterious happenings at Thornes One and Two."
Faust nodded, puzzled at the relevance it had with him. "Well, that's terrible news. Have you gone and checked them out yet since it happened?"
"Nope. Thus the reason I'm here. The Princess has ordered you and a special military unit to go in and investigate the wells."
Faust backed away and continued with his task. "No way. I quit armed service a long time ago."
Agusta pulled out a letter from his jacket. "She gave very specific orders, and wishes you to lead the unit personally. I've got the letter right here, if you want me to read it."
"I'm getting too old for this sh*t, Agusta. Why can't she just get Ray or Junkers to go? And why does it have to be one of us instead of one of her own guard officials?"
"A human presence is needed for advisement on this particular situation. Ray was actually her first choice." Agusta licked his lips, holding something back.
"Yeah, so?" Faust pried.
"We can't find him. We can't find Junkers either."
Faust dropped what he was doing. "What?"
"Since this morning we've been out of contact with them, and no one seems to know of their whereabouts as of late."
"Have you tried the Changeling Empire?"
"As a matter of fact we have, but with no results. We also checked the Crystal Empire, REDF, his office at EMDETech-..."
"Emm-Dee-Tech?" Faust interrupted, hoping for clarification of the acronym.
"The Equestrian Mechanical Design & Engineering Technical Institute over in Caterlot. The same people responsible for that poor pink bastard." He nodded towards Applejack's truck. "So anyway, given the urgency of the situation, their lack of availability has prompted Celestia to give the burden to you. You are to report to Canterlot within two hours and-..."
"Forget it." Faust interrupted again, picking up another barrel of apples, preparing to throw it into the back of the truck.
Agusta stepped in front of him to block his access. "Look, you've been drafted. These orders are specific from the Princess herself. Now, I'm not familiar with the penalty of disobeying a direct order from royalty, but if I were you I wouldn't want to find out. Please, come with me."
Faust dropped the barrel and turned around with a growl, taking a moment to gather his thoughts.
"These new guardsmen you'll be working with are much better trained than the ones back in the day, armed with state of the art firepower. Basically the same stuff we had in the Raider division, all developed right here in Equestria. Industrial-strength tools for industrial-strength stallions, man. You'll be in good hands. Or hooves, actually."
Faust turned back around to face his old friend. "Alright, but I have just one condition."
"I'm not sure you're in any position, but go ahead and state it."
He stepped closer him, holding his right palm out. "I'm driving."
The old hive in the Amber Forest looked the same as Tempest had left it upon being imprisoned, with its main entrance peaking through shrubs and gnarled roots from oak trees.
He was free of his old restraints and carried a large black bag over his back, humming a happy tune as he trotted over to his old home, disappearing into the shadows.
The green and blue light orbs on the walls automatically came to life as it detected his presence, as did various biomechanical structuring on the wall itself. The light helped him navigate through the vast maze with ease, eventually helping him make his way to the Queen's throne room, then to her office to the left of the cavernous area.
There he dumped the contents of his bag onto the desk, then threw it in the corner. He sat down and reviewed the items presented before him - various books and instruction manuals on military tactics, armament-improvisation, and explosive-making; canned food; bottles of water; forks and spoons; various hygiene products; towels; a knife; the Lunar Guardsman's 9mm firing device; finally a daisy sandwich wrapped in foil.
Tempest collapsed into the comfy chair after swiftly grabbing the sandwich out of the mess of items, ripping the foil open in haste to get to the delicious food. He dove in and groaned with ecstasy. Oh, I haven't had this kind of food in years! With no love to go around, I'll settle for this stuff any day.
After completely devouring it, he crumbled the foil and threw it across the room, remaining in his relaxed state to take in his newfound freedom. He began rocking in the chair, humming his happy tune again.
About three minutes had passed and he sat back up in his seat to face the items scattered about the desk. A particular book and army field manual both caught his eye, "Vietcong Traps" and "Improvised Munitions Handbook, 1969". He grabbed both of them and set them in his lap, opening up the IED handbook first.
"Time to make a shopping list." He muttered to himself as he casually flipped through the pages.
The sun was setting, giving the sky a beautiful red and orange glow over the wastelands. The air was still uncomfortably warm, but cooled as the night gradually came to be.
Engines rumbled and echoed from the dunes and rock, growing louder and heavier as the sounds traveled down a nearby road. A column of military scout vehicles emerged from a slope, ripping around the curves of the road at high speed.
Most of them were Jeeps and HMMWVs, but others included a couple of sandrail FAVs, three M35 "deuce and a half" trucks with equipment, and a 6x6 MOWAG Piranha APC armed with an M51 Quad-50 anti-aircraft gun. All bore the Equestrian coat of arms on their sides, followed by stenciled serials.
Faust drove the lead HMMWV with Lunar Guard Commander Sterling in the passenger seat. In the back were two of Sterling's men armed with AKMs and equipped with upgraded body armor camouflaged with desert patterns. They held on to the handles of their doors as Faust flew over rocky and sloped obstructions in the road without hesitation.
He had the stereo on, with a Doug & The Slugs cassette playing. Currently it was a song called "Tomcat Prowl", which he treated as his theme music as he sped down the rough terrain.
"Must you hit every single protrusion and depression?" Sterling spoke up, his voice trembling as the rest of the vehicle shook.
"What's the matter? Don't like roughing it?"
"These roads have yet to be paved. I would greatly prefer a decrease in speed, if you don't mind."
"We're behind schedule. At least according to 'our' orders. Don't want to upset Celestia now, do we? Or Luna, in your case."
Sterling shrugged. "Then crank it up."
Faust shot him a devious half-smile and turned the volume dial up on the stereo, then let out a howl that could be heard over the column's engines. For the first time in many long years, he felt young again.
After fifteen minutes of their journey down the desert road, the sun was finally down, leaving a blackened sky full of sparkling stars. The crescent moon began its ascent from behind the mountains ahead, providing slight illumination in compliment to the headlights of the vehicles.
They reached brief flatlands with fork in the road, with the left pathway becoming a perfectly paved road leading through elevations ahead of them. A sign accompanying the road off to the side read "Oil and Natural Gas Well - THORNE 1 - Royal Equestrian Property - No Trespassing!"
Faust slowed and stopped the vehicle, shutting off the stereo. The rest of the column spread out and halted behind, sitting idle and awaiting command. All Celestial and Lunar Guardsmen watched the hills and rocks alert with their weapons.
Faust shut off his engine and headlights, then grabbed the CB communicator on the dashboard. "Recon mode, everyone. Shut off your engines and all running lights. Stand by."
The unit did so respectively, darkening their surroundings with uncomfortable silence.
They strained to hear anything over the "ticks" and "taps" of the metal in the exhaust systems expanding and contracting. Fed up with it, Faust and Sterling exited and slowly edged to the front of the vehicle, weapons out and ready.
Something finally caught their ears. It was a low rumble of car engines coming from somewhere in the distance, but they could not determine which direction it came from. Another mechanical sound accompanied it, but grew even louder as it got closer. Like the whine of a turbine engine on a jet. Definitely an aircraft of some kind.
Faust turned around to face the APC, giving the "lookout" signal to the AA gunner. The gunner gave him a salute and ****ed the guns on the mount.
It was in a low-level NOE approach, making its location harder for them to determine. They looked everywhere they could around the silhouetted mountains, just waiting to spot ascending anti-collision lights. The mechanical shriek grew even louder, making everyone twitch with apprehension.
A rocket streaked across the sky, impacting the AA gun and destroying it in a brilliant explosion that briefly illuminated the entire area as if it were a small sun.
"Everyone hit the deck!" Faust shouted, dragging Sterling down with him in the dirt.
A helicopter rose from the slopes leading to Thorne One, with a bright spotlight almost blinding everyone as it approached them. As it passed over, Faust could identify it as a French "Dauphin 2", its Aerospatiale manufacturer origin obvious enough with the loud shrieking sound due to its rotor layout - a four-blade main rotor and a "Fenestron" tail rotor, which was basically an enclosed rotor type that resembled a fan inside the fin.
It had stub wings carrying pylons for unguided rocket pods, TOW missile tubes, and wingtip GShG-7.62 miniguns, all of which were being used to destroy the many vehicles and mow down escaping guardsmen in the area.
Faust and Sterling fired back at the aircraft as it passed over, trying for a shot at the windows. They dove for cover behind a rock when a door gunner spotted them and began firing at them in response.
Approaching the column for another attack, the Dauphin fired more rockets and destroyed all of the lead vehicles, including Faust's transport. It eventually circled around and began to attack the rear of the column to prevent any retreat.
Sterling leaped from cover and fired at the helicopter, this time trying for the vital engine areas.
"Stay down!" Faust shouted. "Get behind something now!"
He was immediately blown apart from high-caliber machine gun fire, but oddly enough it did not come from the Dauphin.
A more lower-pitch and heavier-sounding helicopter could be heard somewhere behind Faust. He turned around and spotted a Russian Mi-24V "Hind-E" passing over the road towards them, making its way to a steady hover.
The Dauphin eventually ceased fire and drifted to the rear of the column, also slowing to a stationary hover.
"Everyone drop your weapons!" Came a voice on the Hind's loudspeaker. "Surrender yourselves or we will finish you off! Unarm yourselves and come forward!"
A swarm of other vehicles thundered down the road from behind the Hind, surrounding the survivors.
"I said drop your weapons! Now!"
Faust and the remaining guardsmen threw their weapons down in the dirt and slowly walked towards the massive gunship, Indignantly ready to be taken prisoner.
The dim glow of the morning sun began rising from the vast prominence of the Foal Mountain range, shimmering over the small capitol city Handlirsch of the Changeling Empire. The city was still heavily under construction, with only twenty-five of its eighty-nine major buildings completed. These included large apartment complexes for inner-city residents, as well as various governmental centers and factories.
The castle palace itself was located on the southern slope of the mountain, much like Canterlot a few dozen miles away, overlooking the rest of the city. It was much darker and gothic in appearance than its Canterlot counterpart, still under repair and restoration from its previously derelict state.
The hivemind was no longer a literal hive like before in the Amber Forest, but now an official monarchy form of governmental organization. Though, the signature and revolutionary biotechnology used in the old hive had been retained for the construction of the Changeling Empire. It was crude and unworldly, but undeniably efficient.
The technology was also no longer limited to construction of their habitat, and was now used for the development of competing automobiles and military weapons with various EMDETech and Lunar Defence Products counterparts.
Unfortunately, the vehicles themselves had no primary fuel source thanks to the petroleum wells and Equestria's only refinery under Canterlot jurisdiction, whom the Changelings have yet to form official political relations with since they have been granted permission to rebuild society at this location. However, talks have been made to change this for years, and negotiations have been officially scheduled for the following month.
One of the goals was to obtain thirty-five percent of the manufacturing rights of the Canterlot refinery, as well as equal joint jurisdiction of one of the desert oil wells, though they were prepared to settle for a lesser number, and even the exclusion of rights to the selected well. Just as long as they received a reasonable amount of the refined fuel to power their line of machines, for a fitting price amongst the Changeling society.
Electricity had also been an issue, but recently solved thanks to hydropower provided from a dam constructed in the nearby river system. It was more than enough needed to run the major factories and miscellaneous appliances in the city.
Lighting on the other hand made use of the old-fashioned bioluminescence via what were called "lightbags", which were basically transparent, flexible bladders made of rubber, filled with a mixture of water, milkweed fluid, and an enzyme found in Changeling blood. The mixture reacts and creates a glow that can be adjusted with how much of the enzyme is added, and can even be given color with traditional fluid-coloring methods. These odd successors to lightbulbs could last up to two decades without noticeable loss of luminescence.
Older forms of the lightbag technology made use of luciferin pigments and luciferase enzymes found in the eyes of younger Changelings, which, when exposed to oxygen, creates the common blue glow. Not only was this method limited to the eye color of the subjects, but it was painful and dangerous to extract, and therefore it was abandoned when this later method was invented.
Equestrians were unaware of this super-efficient lighting method, but the Changelings knew it would benefit them a great deal, so therefore it was added to the petroleum deal. In exchange of the supply in fuel for their competing innovations and joint ownership of production methods, they would share the technology and freely export it to the Equestrian market for widespread use.
In their eyes, one would be foolish to refuse such an offer, and they were prepared for the upcoming exchange with upmost enthusiasm.
The adjacent Emerald Forest was very similar in general appearance to the southernmost Everfree, following a large stream of water called the Jewel River, named for its habitation of water beetles with bright green, highly-reflective exoskeletons. Smaller residents lived within the forest and along the river in quiet cottages, secluded from the noise of the industrial Handlirsch City.
At the moment, Ray and Queen Chrysalis of the Changeling Empire had been using the skies above this secretive location to test their latest flying machine, an open-airframe two-seat helicopter based on the general shape and layout of the ancient Bell Model 47. It had been a secret project among the two, as well as Junkers, in preparation for a demonstration of the technology for Equestrian market when it was ready. Hopefully in time to be a decent supplement to the lightbag in the upcoming petroleum deal.
The machine was named the CR-1 "Snakefly", and this day was its tenth successful flight since construction and tether tests last year. It was tested twice with pontoons attached to the skids, proving its versatility as an amphibious aircraft as well.
As it turned out, Junkers had rotorcraft-piloting experience prior to his recruitment to the Phantom Raiders, long before the second invasion of Caterlot. He had been a pilot of a Hughes-MDD 500 "Defender" in another faction that had fallen victim to his later overlords, and therefore had decided to help teach Ray how to fly such an aircraft.
Ray, after many months of gathering the knowledge and eventual private practice, had then decided to teach Chrysalis. It was an obvious redundancy for her species, given that she has wings that allow her far more versatility that the aircraft, but she was enthused and expressed curiosity at its appeal to those without her ability.
She had not only learnt the art of mechanical flying, with much quicker progress than Ray, no less, but had grown to enjoy it on a level that contrasted her natural ability. She could not explain it, but she loved it, and that is all that mattered to her when she soared in the mighty Snakefly.
Today she decided to show off her talent, blasting the newly-installed stereo system with a cassette of King Kobra songs as she flew low-level behind the treelines, following the river like a road. Back and fourth the aircraft tilted as she guided their way over the curves of the stream, forcing Ray to hang on to a safety handle above the opening to his side of the co.ckpit canopy.
"Hey," he started, shouting over the sound of the rotors and glaring stereo system, "I wonder if this is what it was like back in the Vietnam War!"
"The what?" She shouted back.
"Vietnam! That dirty little war about thirteen-hundred years ago! Lots of jungle-fighting and low-flying helicopters galore!"
She let out a heavy laugh. "We could be over the old battlefields for all we know!"
"Yeah! If only our old geographic records were still intact, huh?"
"I am having so much fun! How 'bout you?"
He shrugged at her sharp change of subject. "I'm riding on a killer rainbow, my queen!"
Junkers watched casually reclined in a lawn chair as the Snakefly returned from its twenty-minute flight and landed softly on the pad constructed of wood and roofing tin. Engine powered down and rotors slowed, followed by the exit of its two pilots.
Chrysalis trotted over to Ray with a huge smile on her face, kissing him on the head with the excitement of a little filly. "That was so much fun!"
Ray grinned as they headed over to Junkers. "Nothing says adventure like the possibility of crashing and burning."
She gasped playfully. "Do you not trust my aspiring piloting skill?"
He turned to her. "Come on, you know I'm pulling your tail. I think we're both ready for a public demonstration of Snakefly."
"I think so too."
Junkers had removed himself from his seat and approached the two pilots. "You've got to be the most hotshot pilots I've ever seen. And I mean that in the best possible way. Keep it up, you'll be giving the Wonderbolts a run for their money."
They both shook their heads with disapproval, then Ray spoke up. "What time is it?"
Junkers looked at his watch. "It's eight-thirty. Oh jeeze, we've got twenty-five minutes to get to the classrooms."
"Let's go." Ray lead the three to their vehicles.
Ray's El Camino had been fully restored from its totaled state thanks to Changeling bioengineering and was even given a fresh red paint job. Junkers' vehicle was an EMDETech copy of a 1970 Plymouth GTX that he bought with earnings from his job at the Royal Equestrian Defence Force training center in Canterlot.
He and Ray were both instructors and technical consultants at REDF and EMDETech for various military and combat related issues. Ray specifically taught what he did since the second Canterlot invasion, as well as equipment and vehicle operation, team organization, and safety.
They both got into their vehicles and started them up, while Chrysalis stayed behind to prepare the aircraft for transportation back to the hanger located back at one of the factories.
"Ray?" Junkers called out on the radio communicator.
Ray picked up his own and answered. "Yeah?"
"How 'bout a race?"
"Might as well, seeing as we're behind schedule. Name the route and damage."
"The main drag. Last one there buys the cider. A whole freakin' six-pack. Damaging enough?"
"Holy crap, you got it, pal."
They both threw down the communicators and they were off without any official count-down.
With these vehicles now in use among the kingdom, newly-passed Equestrian law enforced a speed limit of fourty-five miles-per-hour on this particular street. However, these two were far past this limit as they sped and ripped around the corners.
Passing by the more residential areas caught many worriful eyes at the reckless display, as if they were a couple of maniacs. Deep inside, Ray felt that was probably what he was always like, and the war-torn desert wastelands were the only suppression of it until now. He could only speculate that Junkers' situation was similar, if not the exact same.
Junkers picked his communicator up. "So what is it with you and Chrysalis these days?"
Ray was surprised at the question and raised his communicator with hesitation. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on. Three years you've been bunking at the palace. Room right next to her's in the royal wing. Grand meals next to her in the dining hall. Joint-development of a secret rotorcraft prototype with me as the third wheel. General informality. Jeeze, kissing on the head. Feel free to stop me any time."
"Friendship is magic, smartass."
"I'm serious, bro. Really, what's up?"
"I'm telling you, nothing's up. She's a good friend, if not a 'war-buddy' from back in the day. We're comfortable around each other. No trust issues whatsoever."
"So you're not like... you know."
Ray was becoming rather uncomfortable with the conversation, shifting his eyes in sharp directions in between watching the road in front of them. "Of course not. Hell, she's a different species than me. And do you really think I'd risk my relations with the Equestrians with such a controversial relationship?"
"You tell me. Do you find her attractive?"
He gritted his teeth with a final "Get bent." then threw the communicator down. Junkers' laugh in response was loud enough to briefly distort his signal to static.
As the miles passed by, Junkers had gained an advantage over Ray and lead the way. As he desperately searched for a way to get ahead, he noticed a nearby car-wash, with its customers and employees staring wide-eyed and jaws dropped at them. More importantly he spotted some kind of metal ramp.
The ramp was placed behind a concrete barrier to prevent excess splashing from the pressure-washers in the truckwalks underneath when they cleaned the undercarriage of large trucks. It was unoccupied and just high enough for a stunt he had in mind, and therefore he grabbed hold of the opportunity as it approached.
Ray deviated from the paving and headed for the ramp full-speed, almost flying as he drove over it. His heart sank when he saw it was only a half-ramp that lead to another from a dangerously far distance, sandwiching in between them long and wide truckwalks. It was like an incomplete bridge over a canal.
A pony fixing one of the pressure-washers looked up in utter horror, and in almost slow-motion Ray could read a crystal-clear "Ohhhhhh shiiiiiiit!!" rolling off his lips. The fact this was the first time he had ever seen or heard such profanity uttered from these creatures was the last thing on his mind. There he was, mere feet from certain death, miraculously reaching the other ramp in just the right moment for him to return back to his pathway on the road with Junkers.
They were side-by-side this time, with none of them making advances to go ahead. Ray could see Junkers staring at the side of his eyes between inspections of the road. He met his gaze, amused at Junkers' complete shock at the stunt as he slowly raised the communicator to his mouth.
"Ray." He started. "Is our friendship really worth messing up like that?"
He shrugged and picked his own back up. "Hey, I'm still here, aren't I? Keep your mind on that cider, brother."
"You're starting to sound like Rainbow Dash."
Ray busted through the door of the Improvised Ordnance classroom with an overly-excited expression behind dripping sweat. There he met the gaze of fifteen students in Celestial and Lunar Guard uniforms, staring at him with dead silence as if he'd gone insane with his awkward display.
"Right." He eased up and corrected his posture as he slowly shut the door behind him. "How y'all doing today?"
A few guardsmen in the front row muttered "good", still with puzzlement.
He wiped away the sweat and made his way to his desk, thumbing through the schedule. His desk and various shelves and counters were filled with inert explosives and other improvised ordnance, purposefully displayed by Ray and other staff for physical demonstration of their operation when required. Not to mention they served as fitting decoration.
"It's Thursday already?" He muttered to himself out loud, still reading the schedule. "Blasted 'Claymore Thursday', man..." He cleared his throat and picked up a blue dummy Claymore mine from his desk, then made his way in front of it with the most authorative expression he could muster as he faced the class.
"'Morning, everyo-... pony. Today's our special monthly 'Claymore Thursday'! That's right, we'll be learning some more about this little baddie right here. Some of you may remember last month's class where we covered the improvisation of a home-made directional mine like the Claymore. Well today we'll learn how to use it."
A guardsman in the back row raised his hoof.
"I was just wondering, is that thing live? See, I don't feel like going through another case of the 'rocket trashcan' today, ya know?"
Ray grinned. "How 'bout you come on up here and find out for yourself? We should do more demonstrations around here, right guys?"
The students laughed and cheered him on.
"Yeah, no thanks."
"Oh yes, you're gonna trot right on over here." He pointed to a location on the floor as he pulled the safety from the mine.
The guardsman shrugged and got out of his seat, gradually making his way towards Ray. "Might as well go out with a bang."
"You eat up this sh*t like candy, don't you?"
He shrugged again, now in the spot he was directed. "What can I say? I like things that go 'boom'.
"Yeah? So what about the trashcan incident?"
"I like things that go 'boom', not when they go 'boom' in my face."
"You're in the wrong line of work then, my friend." He nodded to the side of the room.
The guardsman turned to see another Claymore on a nearby table, facing directly at him. He turned back to Ray with yet another shrug. "Cool."
Ray raised his other hand to reveal a detonator in his grasp, which he smashed onto the surface of the dummy mine in his hands with a "click" that made the guardsmen flinch out of his hotheaded attitude. He grinned wider with amusement.
"That's not funny, man!"
The rest of the class bursting out in laughter said otherwise, prompting him to storm back to his desk.
"Now remember, there are two types of triggers for the directional mine. Low-tech tripwire, and the wired electronic detonator. Depends on the fuse assembly on the device. So if we were to-..."
He was cut off by the door opening, making way for Agusta. He approached Ray with an intimidatingly serious expression that silenced the happy mood of the class.
"Ray, we've got to talk."
Ray held up the dummy mine and detonator. "I'm a little busy at the moment. Maybe after-..."
The northern streets of Canterlot were busy and congested like the streets of Manehattan, filled with carriages and automobiles desperate to reach their locations on time despite the slow pace of the overall traffic.
Stores were busy with customers, mostly ponies, but an occasional humans would show up browsing for products relevant to their needs. Such things were in short supply due to the human population's recent inclusion to Equestrian society, but availability was predicted to fit the climb by a couple of years.
The experience was deliverance from the hardship they faced in the outer wastelands. A chance to start over with a refreshed outlook and endless opportunities, a chance to connect and communicate on a level that had long dissolved, a chance to coexist in harmony. And above all, a chance of freedom.
Paranoia, however, lingered about the settlers. By permission of Princess Celestia they still slung their weapons across their backs, or holstered on their hips, under the condition that they remained unloaded of their ammunition. Clips and magazines could be carried in pockets or some kind of external carriage, but some secretly bypassed this rule by leaving a round in the chamber.
Rarely did they intimidate the equine demographic as long as the individual had a generally friendly attitude. They embraced the newcomers and sought to welcome them to their land of friendship and opportunity.
Safe. This was a word they could finally utter in their minds as they lived their new lives. For many years they would call themselves fools for ever processing this mythical word, but now that they have found a haven they could trust, they could finally use the word and embrace its meaning. Truly it was the dawn of a brand new era for the human race, and pony kind alike.
The ground quivered as a violent explosion erupted from a nearby department store, sending flaming fragmentation and surrounding vehicles in a clashing disarray. The blast was short-lived, but the chaos that followed lasted for eternity as ponies looked on in shock of the charred bodies and screaming wounded laying scattered about the debris.
Brave humans and ponies scrambled the blazing turmoil to rescue individuals from the mess and outbreaking fires, others unslung and loaded weapons, alert and close to cover in assumption that it had been an external attack.
One particular unicorn pony emerged from the crowd, devilishly grinning upon his bearded face with what could be instantly judged as complete and utter pride at the terrible sight.
"And thus the games begin." He muttered as he turned back for the crowd, his hazel eyes momentarily dissolving into a neon-blue glow until a blink reverted them back to "normal".
Ray and Junkers both stared into silent space as they sat like criminals at the table placed in the exact center of the small room. Thoughts raced at the possible outcome of their actions, what punishment they would receive, and whatnot.
Hearts jolted as the door finally opened, making way for Shining Armor. He gave them no eye contact until he had shut the door and made his way to a seat facing the two humans. There he shook his head with disapproval as he looked upon them.
"Believe it or not," Junkers started, "there is a perfectly logical explanation for our actions."
Shining rolled his eyes. "Don't bother dignifying this, the damage has been done." He paused for a moment and leaned closer before continuing. "You broke five major rules for the Equestrian road system, written by Celestia herself.
First off, you raced on a public road, thereby breaking two major rules in one, which includes speeding. Third, illegally veering from the road and onto corporate property without using a designated turnoff, resulting in number four: damaging property, specifically scraping the paving and specialized truck ramps outside of a local carwash. Finally leading to the fifth, endangering the lives of Equestrian citizens."
Shining reclined back into his seat with a snort. "That poor pony in the truckwalks was nearly traumatized after witnessing that reckless stunt of yours. Anything could've gone wrong. For goodness sake, you two of all people should know better than this! What were you thinking?"
"Oh, now I can explain?" Junkers spoke up in deadpan.
Shining excused his attitude. "Yes, now you can."
"Okay, so, me and Ray were late for an important deadline, which I believe you and the Princess specifically set up for us at REDF's training center. If I remember the rules correctly, being late would result in depromotion of our REDF status, so of course the pressure lead us to a conclusion that certain rules of the road needed to be bent in order to help us reach our goal. The race was my idea. I figure, why not? It's a race against the clock, why not make it interesting?"
Shining blinked unamused. "Is that all?"
"That is by far the worst defense I've ever heard. Endangering pony lives for a personal little problem like this. And no, your status gets depromoted if you miss a full twenty-four hours, not twenty-five minutes! Forty-eight or extended in case of ailment or emergency."
"It's bullsh*t is what it is."
"Hey, watch it. Remember who wrote these terms."
Ray attempted to ease the tension, putting his hand out as he spoke up. "I'd like to know what the penalty is for our actions today, and if there is any way we can be granted a second chance."
"Seizure of your vehicles for three-hundred hours and a payment of three-thousand twenty-six bits is the total fine for this particular series of crimes. You have the option of exchanging the payment for one-hundred sixty-eight hours of community service, but this is all non-negotiable."
Junkers gritted his teeth in silent rage, restraining hard not to punch the table as he desired.
"However," Shining continued in a lighter tone, uplifting the two with a ray of hope, "there is a third option available. If you could help us with a little... err... 'problem', you may get that second chance after all."
"What is it?" Ray asked.
Shining took a deep breath before replying. "I understand you and Richard Faust are close friends since the second invasion of Canterlot, correct?"
Ray simply nodded, but Junkers cleared his throat to speak. "He was my squad leader in the Raider division. We go way back. Why?"
Shining spared no hesitation and went straight to the point. "He and a special REDF assault group were intercepted by wasteland radicals about nine thirty-seven last night. Intelligence reports he and a few other survivors in the attack were captured and imprisoned. Problem is, we have no idea where they've been taken."
Both were in shock at the news, but Ray managed to snap out of it and respond. "What? What the hell was he doing in the desert with an REDF squad in the first place?"
"About two-ten PM yesterday we lost contact with the security forces guarding our major oil wells. Apparently they encountered some hostile activity and we haven't heard from them since. We sent in an REDF team with Faust as a human advisor and Second-In-Command to investigate, and we presume the hostiles encountered by Thorne Security are the same ones that intercepted and captured the team."
"But why Faust of all people? He's retired!"
"If you can remember correctly, he is only one of four humans with clearance and authority for this level of REDF service. Agusta is second, but he works intelligence. That leaves you two. Since we couldn't find you, we needed to replace you. Faust was the obvious choice, understand?" Shining leaned closer, furrowing his brow. "Where were you anyway?"
Ray and Junkers took a glance at each other, then back to Shining. It was Ray who decided to answer. "Handlirsch."
"The Changeling Empire? We checked and no one knew where you were. What in the world were you doing over there, and why were you out of contact for so long?"
"Um," Ray trembled in his response, attempting to protect the secrecy of his project with Queen Chrysalis, "I'm afraid I can't disclose that information."
"You better, because withholding vital information from us could be considered treason."
"Look, I've been in friendly relations with the Changelings since the second invasion. They trust me, I trust them. I have the same relations with the Equestrians. Our current political paranoia doesn't apply to our long history together. I'm not smuggling information between governments. I'm no spy. You know me better than that. So unless they hatch a plan to blow us all to kingdom-come, let me retain confidentiality with them. Alright?"
Shining took another deep breath. "Fair enough."
"Now, what are you doing about Faust and how can we help?"
"Please follow me." Shining got out of his seat and lead the three out of the room.
The main office area was a convoluted madhouse with papers flying, landline telephones ringing, and ponies shouting information and orders at each other. Shining Armor could hear sirens outside of the building as he lead Ray and Junkers into the room.
He approached an apprehensive pegasus guardsman holstering a 9mm firing device, who immediately saluted him the moment he entered.
"Lieutenant Nord," he started, returning the salute, "what's going on here?"
"A department store in northern Canterlot blew up, sir. Agusta's boys say the radicals that intercepted the squad might've had something to do with it. We're looking in to it right now."
"When did it happen?"
"About ten, maybe fifteen minutes ago, sir."
"Hey, guys!" a familiar voice called out over the rest of the shouting in the room. They turned to find Agusta on the other side of the room, holding a rolled-up scroll. "This came hot off Celestia's desk! Says Ray and Junk have to go check it out before we move on to Faust!"
"Wait a minute!" Ray shouted in protest. "We don't know how long he's got to last with these hostiles! Why should we delay our plans for what might just be a diversion? Does she even factor these things in?"
Agusta threw the letter on his desk with a groan. "I don't know, just humor her! Alright? Take the trip, then when you come back, meet us in the war room in an hour! I've got things to do." He turned back to the chaos of activity erupting all around him.
"This is bullsh*t!"
Shining pushed the two through the crowds, towards the exit.
The fires spread about the ruins once a department store had quickly been put out by the fire engines called out onto the site, and many of the bodies of dead and wounded were carried away to a temporary medical tent set up nearby a road block denying access for Canterlot citizens.
Some firefighters helped road crews clear the area of debris, while police and Royal Guardsmen guarded the grounds to let the investigative team sweep the inside of the building for evidence.
Shining Armor pulled up at one of the roadblocks in his marine-blue 1978 Lincoln Continental. The guardsmen recognized him and his passengers and lifted the yellow tape to let him through, allowing him to park next to a sidewalk closest to the disaster site.
"You know, I don't know which I hate most." Junkers started as the three of them exited the vehicle and made their way towards the building. "Radical wasteland nutjobs, or Celestia's warped concept of timing and priority. I swear to god, she's going to give me ulcers one of these days."
"You're young, Junk." Ray said. "You'll live."
"Yeah, but for how long if she keeps jerking us around like this? And how long will will Faust for that matter?"
"You know what?" Shining interrupted rhetorically. "Your remarks are becoming increasingly difficult to forget in my reports to Celestia. You mind cooling it and helping out with the problem at hand here? Or is that asking too much?"
"Fine." Junkers waved his hands in surrender.
"The sooner we find something useful in our investigation, the sooner we can get on with the rescue operation. Stay focused."
They had reached what was left of the structure and proceeded inside. Ray had already come up with an educated theory as to what happened as soon as he saw the damage done to the building. Just the way it appeared seemed disturbingly familiar, like he had read it in a book somewhere.
"Well," he started, "what we have here is the result of a high-explosive incendiary device. My guess is that it was planted somewhere over there." He pointed to the very opposite of the store, at a wall with small hole punched through to another neighboring business.
"So you're saying it wasn't an attack from outside of the building?" Shining asked.
"No, it was strategically placed here in the building. But something doesn't make sense."
Ray stepped over the debris and looked around the surrounding rubble. "Well, a standard high-explosive device of this magnitude would've leveled the rest of the building, but all it did was collapse the top floor and blow out the front of the store. All of the other walls are fine, but that one in the far end with that tiny little hole."
Ray scrambled over more rubble to make his way to the hole. It was about seven feet in diameter, standing just inches from the floor. Nothing in the neighboring store appeared to be as badly-damaged as in the one Ray stood in, but a charred trail of damaged products suspiciously lined up with the opening as if a meteor had struck through, but dissipated where an impact point would be.
He ran his fingers over the edges of the hole, then raised them up to his nose to smell the resin. "It's home-made." He then proceeded to taste it with a careful lick, then spat it out.
"What?" Shining asked as he and Junkers made there way over to join him.
"Okay, see this?" He pointed at the edges of the opening.
"It's blown out like an impact point. Something like a car driving through it, but something obviously hot, like the explosion from the incendiary device."
"Obviously." Junkers replied sarcastically.
"But it doesn't add up. No matter how or where the bomb would've been placed in here, the structure should've collapsed entirely from the force exerted up and outward upon the support construction. But instead, it only blew out that end of the store, and made this small exit point right here. How is that even possible?"
Junkers snapped his fingers in realization. "A directional explosive."
"Yes! See that fire trail there lining up with the hole?"
"A directional explosive of this magnitude works differently than a small-scale anti-personnel device like a Claymore mine. In fact, it's more along the lines of a rocket-launcher. The 'face' of the device is pointed at whatever the target is, forcing the majority of the blast in that particular direction, while the over-pressure escapes the rear of the device like a recoil or backblast. That's most likely what made this sort of damage."
Shining shook his head in puzzlement. "Wait, 'target'. What target?"
"I don't think the bomber had any specifics. He wanted to take out customers and any other individuals caught in the line of fire. But for what reason? That's out of my logical jurisdiction."
"You say that like only one person was responsible for this. You don't think the wasteland radicals had anything to do with this?"
"This is home-made, but the incredibly professional kind of home-made. It was built by someone with a well of patience and expertise."
"How do you know?"
"I tasted the sh*t. Look, we're dealing with a professional here, not some wasteland marauder. This is in no way connected to the hostiles that took Faust."
"Ray, how do you know? Those hostiles could be another rival military faction like the Raiders for all we know. You're making assumptions."
Ray was beginning to lose his patience. "Hey, look, you dragged me here to give you my analysis of the situation, and I did, when we could be in the Ward right now preparing a rescue mission for my friend!"
"Watch your tone or I will have no choice but to have you arrested. Got it?"
He eased up and leaned along the edge of the opening in the wall.
"Now I'm going to have a talk with the police chief and prepare a report to the Princess. In about thirty minutes well be on our way back to REDF headquarters. Don't go anywhere." He walked off, exiting the building.
"Junkers." Ray said after a long and uncomfortable pause.
"I'm beginning to suspect the street of dreams has crossed the road of war somewhere down the line."
Junkers snorted. "Not if I can help it."
Ray grinned at his cheesy expression and patted him on the shoulder. "That's the spirit."
The only thing worse than the pain was the stench that filled Faust's nostrils as he hung neck-deep in an artificial pool of human waste and old vehicular fluids recycled beyond further use. He was sure that the lash marks he had received upon imprisonment would likely become infected, and he dreaded the thought of sickness as he rotted away in whatever hole they would throw him in.
He watched as maggots squirmed about in the waste below his chin, inducing his gag reflex but without actually vomiting yet. He forced himself to look upward and ahead of him, blocking out realization of what he was partially submerged in. Though, the smell and the swarms of flies crawling on him made it incredibly difficult.
He had an audience staring at him like an animal. They bore resemblance to medieval barbarians dressed in improvised battle armor and skin-tight rubber and leather, enough to conceal and protect privacy and faces, but not so much as to prevent the rest of their skin from breathing in the desert heat.
Weapons were almost unidentifiable thanks to handfuls of odd modifications done to them. He could spot the obvious "shapes" of some various Kalashnikov assault rifles and what he thought were SPAS-15 auto-shotguns, but that was all he could assume. They also had plenty of knives and swords, possibly forged from scavenged metal found in the wasteland.
A man ahead sat in a shredded armchair atop a hill made from piles of metal drums, as if it were his mighty throne. He wore a heavily-modified bondage suit with armor improvised from broken car parts and a goaltender mask with welding goggles covering over the eye holes. Behind him were two "guardsmen" fanning him off with rakes draped with thin seat covers.
A much taller and stalkier man stood nearby to his left, with muscles so mighty as if to tear through his leather clothing. He too wore a goaltender mask, except his was a much later kind with a cage over his face instead of completely concealing it.
The man in the "throne" made a slight gesture. Faust found himself yanked out from the filth by a construction crane, but stopping just a few feet above the pool.
"I am Overdog." The man said in a nightmarishly deep and raspy voice. "Leader of the Zone Ravagers. You will not speak unless told to. You will not insult me. You will obey my every command, or you will be put to death in the most painful way imaginable. Do you understand?"
Faust made a weary sound as he attempted a nod that seemed to remain in the confinement of his mind.
"I take your grunt as an agreement. Very good. Now, what is your name?"
Faust did not answer and only stared blankly.
"Your name! I asked you what your name was."
He still did not answer, and instead watched at the corner of his left eye as a barbarian picked up a flamethrower, igniting the muzzle. He shot a very small fireball past his arm, just enough for pain to register and force him to speak. "Faust! Richard Faust!"
"Good. We are making progress. Now tell me, where are you from? What gang are you a part of?"
He took a deep breath, preparing to recite information in the way he had been taught for situations exactly like this. "Lieutenant-Major Richard Faust, 500th Phantom Raid-... Royal Equestrian Defence Force! Serial Five-One-Zero-Eight-..."
"Stop! Repeat that first part again!"
"Lieutenant-Major Richard Faust! Royal Equestrian Defence F-..."
The man bolted from his throne. "Don't f**k with me! Repeat what you first said!"
Faust cursed at himself for speaking so foolishly. He knew what his previous affiliation with the Raiders would bring upon himself, but now he had no choice but to give these barbarians the information. "500th Phantom Raiders Division."
Overdog slowly stepped down from his mountain of drums and made his way closer to Faust in an eerily slow pace. "At last. We have a Phantom Raider in our captivity. I've waited so many long and agonizing years to finally have one of you in my clutches!"
"I'm no longer affiliated with that unit!" Faust dismissed the thought of punishment for speaking out of the agreement.
"Lies! One can not simply sever affiliation with a faction so mighty as the Raiders of legend!"
"I swear on my head! I no longer work for them! The Raiders have been defeated about three years ago by a powerful race indigenous to these lands called Equestrians! I am now a part of their military faction, the Royal Equestrian Defence Force!"
"The Raiders of legend are told to be so powerful as to be nearly impossible to defeat, because nothing has ever matched their devastating firepower! Unfortunately, not even my mighty band of Zone Ravagers."
"The Equestrians have been thriving off of our land for over thousands of years after the apocalypse had nearly wiped the human race off the globe. Their power in numbers render us insignificant, even the late Raiders or your precious Ravagers combined!"
"Surely you don't mean the talking animals that we've captured by your side!"
"I do. As far as I can tell, they are the new sole inhabitants of our world. They're picking up where we left off... where we failed. Successors to our existence. And they're doing a finer job than we ever could."
"Me and my band of Ravagers have been roaming these lands for over thirty-five years, and you're telling me that the whole time our planet has been run by an equine species spawned from the apocalypse, yet not once have we come across these beings in our travels?"
"I've been with the Raiders even longer than that, and we haven't even heard of them until just a few years ago. It seems a great deal of the world is still undiscovered to them, therefore resulting in a lack of contact with us."
"How do you expect me to believe such a fantastic story?"
Faust knew the obvious answer was to interrogate the intelligent ponies in isolation for his proof, but he did not wish for them to undergo the possible torture that would be endured for information to be extracted should they resist, so he immediately came up with an alternative. "Why don't you just travel south of the oil wells you've captured? There you'll find the Equestrian borders. That should be proof enough."
At least this meant a possible confrontation with the patrols, thus leading to a conflict that would destroy his captors and allow him and his REDF team escape from their clutches. That is, if he and his team were actually taken with them. All he could do was hope and pray the scenario played out like he imagined.
"Ah, but whether what you say is genuine or not, you and your so-called Equestrians are not as mighty or clever as you think. My proof? Your captivity in my hands! No, we will not fall for whatever trap you have planned for us. We will interrogate your little equine friends, and if their stories do not match your fantastic tale... well, just pray all goes in your favor. You will find with time that we are not such a forgiving clan."
The plans immediately unraveled, but Faust still found amusement in the last sentenced and snorted in response. "I believe you."
"Take him to the cage and prepare the 'ash room' for one of the talking animals." He walked away from Faust and disappeared into one of the industrial structures nearby.
Faust was swung by the crane and released onto hot, dry earth with a painful crash that nearly broke his bones. He was picked up by two of the barbarians who proceeded to drag him across the desert sand, towards another section of the industrial structure.
The two barbarians threw Faust into the large cage constructed in the depths of some kind of factory floor, but just at the edge of a blown-out wall that gave them a spectacular view of the large settlement outside.
The cage appeared to be a mess of steel objects intertwined and welded together. Spiked protrusions aligned the interior, preventing prisoners from reaching through the gaps in the metal. Some of the spikes appeared rusted and caked with old blood, a sign of use long before holding Faust and his team.
The two barbarians slammed the cell door shut and locked it, then proceeded down a junction through old machinery, disappearing behind a corner. They were certainly not gone, however, as their footsteps sounded as if they stopped abruptly behind the obstruction.
There were only five of Faust's team left, huddling and leaning close together for support so they would not accidentally lean against the sharp walls. Luckily the sunlight was at an angle to where the building interior casted a cool shadow over them, but later in the evening would be quite an uncomfortable, if not painful, experience as they wait for the sun to finally go down.
The first REDF soldier was a Celestial Guardsman named Rockwell. He was a strong-looking unicorn that still held stern determination. It was obvious that he ran escape plans through his mind as his eyes darted aimlessly around the cell.
The second Celestial Guardsman was Mirage, a smaller earth pony with a stern look equal to Rockwell's behind special eyeglasses, but he only stared at the floor. He was the team's explosive expert and electrician, not strictly combat-oriented. He would not know the first thing about escaping confinement unless a hole was made for him.
Leaning behind Mirage was Borgward, a buff Lunar Guardsman with a terribly jagged manecut. He was also an earth pony, and a shivery one at that. He was probably the most frightened of the group, eyes darting around like Rockwell's, but in utter fear instead figuring out logical escape scenarios.
Opposite of him was another earth pony, a Lunar Guardsman called Dassault. He seemed the more accepting stallion of the five ponies, in complete surrender to what was happening to him. He was zen, and he felt fine. Life, death, or a world of pain, he was ready for what came for him.
The fifth and final survivor was a female Celestial unicorn named Silverspade. She was more difficult to read out of the five, but she was most likely closer to Rockwell's state of mind. Though, she was extremely patient, resulting in a relatively calm attitude similar to Dassault's. Perfect for her role as the team's dedicated sniper.
All of them backed away from Faust in abhorrence of his powerful stench and did what they could to keep the smell from dwelling before their senses.
"Good Celestia, Faust, what happened to you?" Silverspade choked.
He shrugged. "I got dumped."
"Helluva time for humor."
"It's the only thing keeping me sane right now. That and some sliver of hope that Ray or the REDF might be hatching a plan to lift us out of here." Faust scooted closer to them, despite their obvious aversion. "Listen, one of you guys are going to be interrogated by Overdog. I don't know if it's just one of you, all of you, or all done one at a time, but the point is he wants answers, and he's going to get them no matter how much you resist."
"What do you suggest we do?" Rockwell asked.
"Remember what you were taught at REDF Basic. Name, rank, serial. Optionally, branch of service. Only what he needs to know. Nothing more, alright? Resist, but try not to make it look like you're resisting."
Rockwell glanced at the other group in disbelief of the plausibility in Faust's plan.
"I know it's crazy, but I can't guarantee anything. I don't even know what the 'ash room' is. You just have to trust my judgment as a soldier."
"Have you been imprisoned like this before?" Silverspade suddenly asked.
He paused for a moment, recalling events in his life. "Once, yeah, by a small gang in suburban ruins somewhere north. About thirty, thirty-five years ago from now. Typical wasteland radicals like these guys, but nowhere near their numbers. This was back in the day when Tolwin's father was leader of the Phantom Raiders.
I was part of a small patrol squad ordered to scope out the surrounding locations of our basecamp. One of three. We encountered the gang in some city plaza, looked like they had just recently dug in. Our group was just three light technicals with about five men each, so we were still outnumbered and ended up in a grizzly firefight. I and a couple of others were all that survived and we were taken to these pits that were dug out in the ground. Had some kind of metal mesh at the top that were held down by concrete blocks they would roll over them, which prevented us from flipping it open if we climbed to the top."
"How long were you down there?"
"Just a couple of days. Sometimes they would throw roadkill in there for us to eat, but I managed to wait it out. Also, it turns out we weren't the only ones in there. They had taken a couple of other prisoners before us and they pretty much told us what they knew about the gang. They weren't gang or faction members themselves, just some drifters they happened to intercept. I made the mistake of becoming friendly with them."
Silverspade tilted her head in curiosity. "Why was it a mistake?"
Faust looked into her eyes, then down at the floor without saying a word. His expression was obvious that he was holding back something tragic. Something so terrible that it haunted him to the point of turning such a dignified man to a crumbling mass of sorrow.
"You got close to one of them, didn't you?" It was much less a shot in the dark and more of a logical guess.
Faust took a deep breath before continuing. "Her name was Arielle. She was a scavenger native to the area long before the gang found her, apparently. She was so young and beautiful, with such an amazing smile and an admirable sense of humor. They say in the wastelands that love is a rarity, and love at first sight is a myth. But I'll tell you, just the first few hours together made history for us. By god, we were in there only a couple of days! But it felt so right. Like it was meant to be.
And then we got rescued by the rest of the faction. Long story short, it was quite a battle that ended in the gang getting obliterated and us regaining freedom. Unfortunately, Arielle was caught in crossfire when we were sprung." He took a moment to clear his throat and swallowed hard.
Silverspade put a hoof on his shoulder.
"I swore to myself to never fall in love with anyone ever again, no matter what. But that one moment changed my life forever, and it never leaves me. Not since the death of my parents have I felt so empty. Alone."
She smiled. "But you're not alone anymore. We're all here for you."
Faust became uneasy as soon as she cradled herself near his stomach. He did not know what to do but stare at her, taking glances at the uninterested group. He decided to stroke her mane in response, hoping it was an appropriate enough display of appreciation. "I suppose so."
The door to the cage screeched open and collided with the metal construction, making way for the two barbarians.
"You!" one of them shouted, pointing at Rockwell with their weapons. "Come with us. Now."
He hesitated, but crawled to his hooves, finding himself forcefully escorted out of the cage.
"Remember what I said!" Faust shouted to him, just as the door shut with a loud "CLANG!"
Rockwell scanned his surroundings as he was escorted through the depths of this ancient industrial structure, recording as much of the layout as he possibly could, while keeping count of the guards that stood watch around the corridors.
One particular doorway down one of the corridors caught his eye. It was spray-painted with the word "Garage", indicating a possible location for their vehicles. He was already forming a plan based on this, but he knew not to execute it yet.
They were now on another factory floor, walking towards a giant chamber installed at the center of the building. Next to it was Overdog and two of his "royal guards".
"Welcome to the ash room, little pony." He greeted.
"And what is this 'ash room'?"
"I've been told the proper name is an 'incendiary chamber', but others have disagreed with the validity. It was I who coined the simpler term to avoid future confusion. Basically it is a controlled furnace used for melting down industrial metals. This is what we've been using to forge most of our conventional weapons and ammunition."
It was obvious as to why he was taken here, but he decided to clarify anyway. "So you want me to get in there?"
"Yes. This chamber also serves as my interrogation room. You will tell me what I want to know, no pitiful excuses. Failure to do so will result in the rise of the chamber's temperature, to a point where you will either be deprived of oxygen or completely incinerated. Though, I suppose we could utilize it for our third use."
"And what would that be?"
He snorted. "Well, we've been without a decent meal for many months. In the meantime we've had to resort to trapping rodents found in the factory floor, and when they ran out, we had to resort to... well, lets just say it was a feast that caused lives of a few of my most faithful warriors. You will be quite a wonderful change of pace."
Rockwell retained his determined look, but his heart was sinking at the thought of such a dreadful death. He knew he had to act before entering the chamber, or his only chance of escape would be lost indefinitely.
"What makes you think I'll cooperate?"
"You're a bold little one, I must say. Do the trained muzzles of my warriors' firearms not intimidate you in the slightest?"
He grinned. "Of course not."
In an instant, Rockwell bucked the barbarian to his left into nearby machinery, knocking him unconscious, while he then rammed his horn through the chest of the one to his right, stealing the unslung assault rifle in the process.
Overdog's guardsmen raised there weapons and opened fire, just as Rockwell leapt and rolled to cover behind another mass of machinery.
"After him!" Overdog shouted, prompting his guardsmen to chase after the escaping pony.
Rockwell emerged from an unexpected location behind the machines and opened fire, mostly to cover his escape through the mechanical maze than to actually hit anyone.
Overdog took no chances and fled from the factory floor, leaving his guardsmen to face the battle.
Rockwell found access to a catwalk that stretched across the factory floor and slowly crept along it, watching as the guardsmen below scrambled the machinery in search for him. One of them separated and traveled just underneath where he was. He took the opportunity to drop from the catwalk and land onto the guardsman, killing him from the shock of his unprotected head slamming against the concrete floor.
The other guardsman emerged from a row of machines in the distance and spotted them, opening fire, and thus cueing Rockwell to dive behind a steel pillar for cover.
The corridor from which he was escorted from could be seen on the other side of a row of factory machines, close enough for him to sprint to if he timed his escape right.
He could hear the guardsman shouting cures as he reloaded his weapon, dropping the spent magazine to the floor. Perfect window of opportunity. Rockwell spun from cover and fired at the guardsman, who apparently took cover behind a similar steel pillar in anticipation of such an attack. He then galloped to the row of machines and exited through the main corridor.
Adrenaline rushed through his system as he forced himself behind a duct that concealed him from what sounded like the guardsman running towards the corridor. And surely it was as he leapt into view with his gun ready. Slowly he stepped down the sandy floor as he eventually passed Rockwell hidden behind the duct.
Rockwell used this moment to hit the back of his head with his weapon, then continue his escape down the corridor.
Coming across one particular accessway, one guard happened to walk straight into his view, with Rockwell leaping into the air and kicking him to the ground before he could register the threat. Once on the ground he spotted two new men down the accessway, preparing their weapons to fire.
Rockwell rolled to cover behind the opposite corner and shot his weapon at them, successfully killing the two. With access to the "garage" door now available to him, he quickly galloped down the accessway and bashed through the doorway.
He now found himself in a vast warehouse among rows and rows of post-apocalyptic wasteland machines, many of them with keys still in their ignitions thanks to their careless owners. He chose one particular sandrail FAV parked nearest him and leapt into the driver's seat. Now realizing that the large doors ahead were open, allowing others to witness his theft of the vehicle and his daring escape, he quickly started it up and and sped out of the warehouse, kicking up dirt like a sandstorm.
Gunfire flew from all different directions as he traveled through the outside perimeter of the gang's hideout, forcing him to keep his head low to avoid being hit. Unfortunately this obscured his view, thus resulting in occasional scrapes against various structures and running over small objects in his way.
He could spot the prisoners' cage in the second level of the industrial structure ahead overlooking the area. Faust and the others could be seen cheering on his escape. Or, at least, that is what it looked like to him.
"Don't worry!" Rockwell shouted, not sure if they could hear him. "I'll be back with help! Just hang in there!"
He circled around and found a clearer area that lead to the gateway out of the hideout. The gate itself was not a likely exit due to the many guards surrounding it, and the fact it was constructed of a school bus covered in large metal spikes.
Instead he found what appeared to be Overdog's empty throne atop a mountain of drums, just along the confining concrete barriers. He mashed the accelerator to the floor and headed straight for it, using it as a ramp to fly successfully over the wall and into the dunes outside.
Rockwell braced himself as he impacted the dirt, carefully correcting his wheels as not to collide with the rubble that blocked him from accessing the main road. It was suspicious to him how easy his escape was, and that the gunfire seemed to have stopped now that he was outside of the hideout. But it did not matter now. Just over the elevation of the dunes ahead and he was free, for the Equestrian borders were only two miles away. Nothing could prevent his advance now.
Until he ran his front wheels over something small and metallic hidden in the dirt.
The explosion shocked the hearts of the prisoners as they watched its dusty fireball blast the small FAV into oblivion, scattering its flaming pieces across what they now realized was a minefield surrounding the hideout.
Silverspade screamed Rockwell's name with denials of his demise, collapsing in a sobbing mess as the others watched helplessly through their confinement.
"We're never getting out of here." Borgward mumbled as he turned away from the terrible sight.
The rest followed him, gathering around the floor trying to digest what had happened. But alas, the shock still yet overcame them.
"First off," Ray started, holding a glass of water up to his face as he sat hunched over the large table situated in the Celestial War Room, "I want my own people on this. Individuals I know I can trust, and have proven their skill in modern warfare in the past. Second, we're going to do this mission my way. No strolling up to Thorne Sectors' front doors like last time, expecting a conventional fight."
He took a drink and gave the other officials a moment to respond. There were four high-ranking military officials in the room, including Shining Armor, representing the various branches of Equestrian armed service: Canterlot Royal Guard, the subdivisions Celestial and Lunar Guard, and the newly-formed Royal Equestrian Defence Force. Additionally there were two field advisors and one intelligence officer. But, of course, Ray knew this last human man as Dee Agusta.
Next to Ray was Junkers, arms crossed and reclined in his chair. Finishing this circle of officials were Princess Celestia and Princess Luna. The circle was not truly complete, however, due to the four extra seats reserved for foreign officials that remained empty in this meeting.
Shining was first to respond to Ray's demand. "And how do you suggest we do this?"
"We're 'going' to have Changeling assistance in supplement to REDF assault groups."
The room came alive with snorts and chuckles, followed by amused mumbles among the individuals. Ray's heart tightened with anxiety at the display as he took another drink, discreetly taking a glance at the unamused Junkers still reclined in his seat.
Agusta raised his hand out to get their attention. "Um, I actually concur. Having fought alongside them during the second invasion, I can guarantee an effective allied assault force. You see-..."
"The problem with that," Shining Armor interrupted, "is that the circumstances have changed since then. We're no longer in a defense crisis. That was an emergency situation where we suffered obsolete firepower against an advanced opponent, in which we welcomed foreign influence to strengthen our efforts."
"You're saying this isn't an 'emergency situation'? Is that what you're getting at?"
He ignored Agusta and continued. "We are now modernized and combat-ready for the modern threat. Influence by Changelings or otherwise are now redundant and a breech of conduct for collaborative efforts in warfare due to no, I repeat, no political connections with their government." He glanced to the Princess. "Despite the fact that we've allowed them to rebuild within our borders because of a small peace agreement that could potentially dissolve at any given moment."
Ray's blood boiled as his fury grew. "What am I, a doorstop? I'm the closest political tie between them and us. All three of us humans in this room, as a matter of fact. Frankly I don't understand this paranoia you have with them, after all they've done to help you in the past. And furthermore, I wish to remind you of the upcoming negotiations that I can guarantee will aid in favorable relations."
"That is in the future. This is right now, Ray. I repeat, no official political relations! Besides, you weren't here during the first invasion. You know nothing about our history with them." He turned to one of the recently-promoted Lunar Guard officials at his side. "Now, how many men does your armored interceptor division have at the current situation?"
Junkers finally sat up. "Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. You already sent an armored column out there and Agusta's intel division reported it got flattened in a matter of minutes. You're just going to send anoth-..."
"It was a recon search-and-destroy group specially sent to secure the wells, not a-..."
"You can call it a parade of butterfly hippies for all I care, it doesn't change the fact that it was an armored unit that got intercepted due to its proximity with enemy-occupied territory, resulting in the capture of good soldiers. And the death of a high-ranking officer."
"Regardless, we must form a specialized armored assault group if we are to successfully secure the wells."
"And rescue Faust and other survivors." Added Agusta.
"If possible, of course."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Junkers asked in alarm. "I thought this was primarily a rescue miss-..."
"We must ensure the security of the wells, or we would see a drastic decrease in fuel production. This means an inflation, which means the economy of the automobile sector would collapse, which means-..."
"So no matter what, Faust and whoever's left is on the back-burner until you secure your petroleum?"
Ray took a deep breath to contain himself. "We're getting beside the point."
Shining payed no attention to him and continued his argument with Junkers. "If you were in my or another Equestrian official's position, you'd have a better understanding and appreciation of the situation, above all why our wells are so important to-..."
Ray finally lost it and slammed his glass on the table, splashing water on him as he rose from his seat. All eyes bolted towards him in utter surprise at his outburst, reverting the room to dead silence again. The two Princesses were especially appalled by the display.
"Are you even listening to yourself? Say you send another unit out there, bigger and badder than the last. That unit gets intercepted and taken out because of your underestimation of the enemy's capability. Then what? Send an even bigger one. It gets taken out. Then what? Exhaust your defenses, but by then the third and final well would be captured and then you'll have no more oil. No oil and no defense forces. Then what?"
"We would change our tactics, of course, before that even happens."
"But under who's advisement? You need me on this, and you know it."
"Ray, you are becoming quite difficult."
"Shining Armor," Princess Celestia interrupted, "lest we forget that it was I who requested his presence on this matter for his experience and expertise? Please, let him speak his mind."
"Y-yes, your majesty."
All eyes were on Ray again as he was given the floor. He walked to the rear of his chair and leaned on the back rest as he faced his audience, taking another deep breath in preparation to speak in a more appropriate tone. "If you have the slightest understanding of the situation, you'd know that Princess Celestia's original plan of having me as primary advisor and Second-In-Command on the mission still stands, recent events irrelevant to that fact. I know what we're up against out there, you don't."
Shining Armor sat back in his chair. "So what is your plan of action then?"
Ray prepared his answer indirectly. "I and Captain Armor will lead a small covert recovery team through Thorne Sector. Thorne Three will be our checkpoint, where we will rendezvous with a small armored interceptor squad. Our recovery team will then proceed into hostile territory under the cover of nightfall. We will conduct a careful reconnaissance of Thorne Sector to determine the exact location of gang's hideout."
"And what about the wells?"
Ray lifted his finger at Shining to silence him, then continued. "Once we've located it, we'll proceed to infiltrate it as quiet as possible. And once the infiltration and recovery of the prisoners are a success, we'll alert the armored unit that we're on the way back. However, in an emergency situation, they must meet us as close to the area as possible. We'll have a limited window to get back to the borders as quick as possible.
On the matter of the wells, the same armored unit will move back behind enemy lines after our men are dropped off to safety. Perhaps some additional support can be arranged to accompany them if needed. They will take back the wells one at a time and set up a defense perimeter should any more hostiles attempt to counter our efforts. Sound like reasonable plan?"
Shining cleared his throat. "Well, um..."
The Lunar Guard official raised his hoof. "Mister Ray, there's another matter that might severely affect this plan of yours. I was going to bring it up in response Captain Armor's question as well, before I was interrupted by Mister Junkers. You see, we don't have enough armored vehicles to complete the required unit size you have in mind."
Ray sat back in his seat. "Well, what do you have?"
"We have an M1A2, a T-90, and a 2S25 'Sprut' tank-destroyer in our main armory, plus a mix of other softskin fighting vehicles, all left over from the second invasion and other small encounters since then. EMDETech and Lunar Defence Products are still developing our domestic line of IFVs, and so far it looks like they won't be ready for production until next year."
"Roll the stock out anyway. Anything combat-ready, because you're in luck." Ray nodded to a Celestial Guardsman guarding the door. He nodded back and unlocked the main entrance with his unicorn magic.
The grand double-door opened to reveal Queen Chrysalis accompanied by two of her "Royal Guardlings". Their entrance into the room was met with very uneasy stares from the group, mainly from the two Princesses and Shining Armor. He was especially discomposed as he hid is bewilderment under his old hatred that he had for the Queen since the first invasion of Canterlot.
Chrysalis took her seat at one of the foreign official chairs while the two Guardlings stood behind her. "It has been such a long time since I've been within the regal Equestrian walls. I'm pleased to have been invited back into them under more beneficial circumstances. Many of my sincerest thanks to you all."
Ray smiled at her and cleared his throat. "So, my queen, we were just touching on the subject of a certain difficulty we have with meeting the required number of IFVs for the armored unit discussed in the plan. It seems we have a slight 'shortage' until next year. Can you please enlighten us as to how your government has provided a solution to this problem?"
"Ah, yes. The Elytron Corporation under our jurisdiction has already developed a line of IFVs with complete armament and equipment packages. They have fifty production vehicles ready as we speak. However, there is only one major problem: we have a severe lack of fuel and ammunition at our disposal.
In what can be considered an emergency defense situation, I am proposing a deal regarding your reserves precedent to, yet unrelated to, the official negotiations. Specifically I'm requesting a portion of Equestrian petroleum and munitions for these IFVs, in exchange for their temporary inclusion in your inventory and our cooperation to fulfill the requirements of this mission."
"Queen Chrysalis," Princess Celestia called out, "you have a deal. You may have a portion of our fuel and munitions reserve, but under the boundaries of the amount needed for the number of vehicles chosen for the mission, not your overall stock. Is this understood?"
"Those are more than fair of terms, your majesty. Thank you."
Shining Armor glanced at her with irritation, then reverted his gaze to the middle of the table.
Ray put his hands together and rose from his seat. "Well, looks like all is in order. Can we now end this horribly time-consuming committee and get on with the mission?"
Celestia nodded. "Yes, you have my full approval. Please organize your men and ordnance as soon as possible."
"We'll be ready in an hour."
Tempest's newly-acquired stereo system blared throughout the hive as he rolled large metal drums into key locations of the old storage room below the throne room. He had obtained a small collection of human music from a Canterlot thrift shop and had grown a taste for classic rock, especially enjoying a certain Bon Jovi album. As of this moment in his chore, he danced awkwardly to "Raise Your Hands" and attempted to sing along with it.
He appreciated the solitude of his hideout. He could never get away with such a bizarre display around other Changelings, and certainly not around the Queen. Not to mention the secrecy of his latest activities. The freedom was truly bliss, and he relished every moment of it.
There were five drums in this particular room, all filled with turpentine. He was careful to place them upright and properly spaced from each other along the walls so that they formed a circle around the room.
Next he opened a wooden artillery munitions case in the center of the room and grabbed an armful of C4 blocks from inside. He placed an even distribution of the blocks on the sides of the drums, somewhat mashing them to properly adhere to the metal.
He then walked back to the box, now pulling out lengths of fuses ended with blasting caps. Each capped fuse was inserted to the respective blocks of C4, then linked together at the center of the room. There he connected the network to another larger fuse leading out the nearby door.
A distant beeping caught his ears, but it was so faint that he immediately shrugged it off as just part of his mind processing the loud music. After a few more beeps he realized what it was and trotted out of the room with an excited grin on his face.
Making his way through the throne room and towards the office, he was careful not to step over a small rug he laid under the doorway's arch and leapt over it. Once in the office, he made his way to a large microwave oven on his desk. He opened it up and pulled out a measuring glass full of some kind of clear, thick liquid.
The liquid flowed almost like syrup as he poured it into an all-purpose five-gallon utility bucket through the spout on its lid. After emptying the contents into the bucket, he sealed the spout and set the glass on the desk. Next he picked up a couple of C4 blocks from the desk and mashed them onto the top of the bucket's lid, flattening the mass of plastic explosive within the grooves like dough in a tin. He finished it off by sticking capped fuses into the explosive.
Finished with the device itself, though, he was not. He carefully tipped the sealed bucket over and laid it onto its side, rolling it against the desk for stability. He then grabbed another couple of C4 blocks with fuses and repeated the process on the bottom of the bucket.
He was interrupted by a loud "ding!" coming from the other side of the room. There he made his way to a toaster oven atop a utility table, opening the lid to pull out a tray of cookies. He lifted the tray close to his nose and took in their delightful smell, proceeding to place the tray on the table with pride, as these cookies were extra special. The recipe was an experiment of his that he had recently thought of when "shopping" for his supplies, and he was anxious to try it out.
"Now, where'd I put the milk?" He mumbled to himself, looking around the room.
Since Rockwell's daring but short-lived escape attempt resulting in the destruction of a Ravager vehicle and damage of their other property, the five surviving prisoners were transferred to deep pits dug separately around the hideout. There were three of them, two of which held two prisoners each, while the third held the fifth and final prisoner.
Mirage was the unfortunate survivor to be sentenced to this solitary confinement. His pit was located near the gateway of the hideout, just underneath a watchtower.
Borgward and Dassault were located near the factory building, with only two Ravagers guarding their pit. And not very closely at that, as they smoked and played some kind of game with rocks next to their motorcycle and side-car.
Faust and Silverspade were at the far end of the hideout where piles of vehicle scraps lay in waste. The guards of their pit, too, loosely watched over it as they cleaned their weapons in the shade of another watchtower.
The reason for such lazy security of the pits was due to the near impossibility of escaping from them, at least in the Ravagers' experience. Being dug as deep and wide as they were from such soft earth, a proper hold along the walls was impossible without slipping and dragging dirt along with whomever attempted to escape.
Faust understood the mindset of Overdog for transferring them to these new enclosures, and therefore made no immediate attempt to escape and instead laid on the ground, taking comfort in the cool and shady depth of the pit in contrast to the outside desert heat.
Silverspade, however, channeled Rockwell's state of mind, thinking of possible methods of escaping the seemingly easy confinement. She jumped and grasped at a rock protruding from the dirt, only to find herself falling back to the ground, taking the rock down with her.
"Don't bother." Faust sat up, waving the disturbed dust away from him. "If it were that easy, they'd have beefier security up there."
Silverspade stayed down and rolled onto her stomach to face him. "But why did they throw us in here? What kind of punishment is this where they throw us in open pits?"
"It's an old false-hope tactic. After a prolonged period of thinking and and attempting escape, only to fail, and thinking someone will happen to find them and rescue them, eventually starve and dehydrate after however long they're kept in the hole, either turning mad or finding themselves inches from death. It's a terrible and cruel punishment. Slow and agonizing. You'll find that out after about a week."
"But why do you just sit there like Dassault? So calm, not doing anything about it..."
He shrugged. "What can I do? There is no possible way out of here. Unless your unicorn magic includes advanced levitation of bio-entities. Does it?"
She shut her eyes and looked away with shame.
"I didn't think so." He scooted closer to her. "Look, call it that false-hope, but there's only one thing that keeps me from succumbing to the insanity a place like this can educe."
She looked back into his eyes, tears now flowing down her face.
His heart sank from looking into the abyss of her breathtaking orange eyes, so big and bright, crying such lamented innocence. "Faith in a friendship."
"You mean Ray?"
He nodded. "He's no fool, and neither are his friends. Loyalty and trust, never broken. I know he's doing everything humanly possible in our favor. I promise our freedom, but it will only come with patience."
"And faith in friendship." She added, wiping away the tears.
He nodded again, taking her in his arms. "Don't loose it. Never loose it. Because only then will we be truly lost."
She nodded in understanding, pressing herself hard against his chest for comfort. Faust stroked her mane as he did before, closing his eyes and letting his mind wander to far pleasurable things to shut out their reality. Only five minutes had passed and they were sound asleep, undisturbed and peaceful, even if temporary.
Sunlight shimmered through the Great Hall as Princess Celestia and Luna made their way down it's grand pathway with Agusta at their side.
"So with the current absence of Ray's team," Agusta started, "I'm requesting Changeling cooperation on yet another matter I've been studying as of late."
"Oh?" Celestia asked in mild surprise. "What might that be?"
"Well, it seems a bomber is at large within Canterlot territory."
"Oh, this. Yes, I recall this matter. I was going to have the Canterlot police look into it instead of using Guard resources."
"Yes, but the thing is, upon review of Ray's and Shining Armor's reports, it seems the bomber is an expert of technical explosive devices, not just some random killer with a bad case of pyromania or something."
"Your point being?"
"Well, my division doesn't have a lot of activity as of the launch of Faust's rescue mission due to intelligence relying on the activities of Ray's team. Strictly beyond our borders. What I'm saying is that I'd like to run an investigation with the collaboration of Lieutenant-Colonel Cattani, temporary SIC of the Changeling Empire. For his experience with these kind of matters, of course."
"Hmm." She thought for a moment. "Mister Agusta, I will accept this proposal and grant you permission to run this joint investigation, but under one condition."
"Sure, what is it?"
They stopped in the middle of the hall and faced each other.
"That whatever resources you use are strictly of Changeling cooperation and courtesy. Under the current crisis we must conserve our own resources for this imperative matter. Understood?"
"Yes, your majesty. Thank you. I will keep you updated on any progress we make in the investigation."
They continued traveling down the hall.
"That would be greatly appreciated. The best of luck to you and your division."
"Thanks." Agusta broke away and headed down the hall in the opposite direction, leaving the two Princesses to their destination.
"If you want the second phase of the mission to be a success," Chrysalis started, "You're going to need an SMF team to accompany your REDF squad." Her voice shook as she raced alongside Ray, Junkers and Shining Armor in their determined march for the double-doorway to the vehicle warehouse of the main armory, located at the opposite end of the long corridor alternatively accessing the War Room.
Ray shook his head in confusion at her suggestion. "Wait, a what?"
She took a glance at him as if to confirm the sincerity of his question, then shot back to the double-door, realizing his lack of prior knowledge to her newly-formed unit. "The Changeling Special Mission Force. It's a covert-operations recon, recovery, and direct-action unit I and Cattani formed in response to the need of a special unit to fulfill military requirements similar to Celestia's REDF."
"You're talking counter-terrorism and black-ops."
"Yes, exactly. The concept of the unit was formed shortly after the events of the second Canterlot invasion, but it wasn't until a year later that we began training an adequate number of soldiers upon acquisition of documentation on ancient human military units, such as the Delta Force and Special Air Services. As of now they are fully-trained and combat-ready. And, dare I say, far superior to the REDF thanks to Changeling art of deception and ingenuity."
Shining Armor rolled his eyes with a snort at that last sentence, clouded with pride for the Equestrian unit based on his experience with it, having trained his own soldiers with similar human tactics with overwhelming success. He needed solid proof, such as to see the Changeling unit in action himself, before changing his mind.
"Wait." Ray came to a halt just before they reached the archway towering over the double-doorway, forcing the rest of them to stop and meet his gaze in regard. "You never told me about this special unit before."
"Yes, your point?"
"Well, as a founding REDF official and representative of both governments, I just feel I should know about the activities of Changeling military developments, including equivalent unit operation for future reference." He turned around sharply to face Shining Armor. "Not in the name of counter-intelligence..." He turned back to the Queen. "... but for my own personal assessment for utilization of foreign resources. Namely for situations like this."
She raised her eyebrows. "If I had been requested such trouble in the past, I may have granted you this knowledge, but alas, you never asked."
"Well, from now on, indulge me, my Queen. If you'd please."
She nodded as a grin of admiration formed upon her charcoal-shaded face. "You've become quite the authority figure since your affiliation with Equestrian armed service. I admire your wise determination. I knew you'd amount to such a respected caliber the moment you first spoke to my old legion before leading them into battle. A runner first born leader meant to deliver the lost from chaos into salvation. I'm filled with pride at our friendship and professional affiliation."
He blushed with a grin to meet her's, ignoring the impatient tapping of Shining's hooves on the stone floor.
Her proud grin instantly shifted to an authoritive frown. "However, forget not to whom you're speaking. Mind your tone when addressing higher authority unless permitted otherwise, especially among an audience." She almost muttered these final words for Ray to take a subtle hint.
Ray's mild shame wiped the grin off his face as well, as he nodded in understanding. "Of course. My apologies."
"Now let's have a look at the new hardware, shall we, dear Ray?"
He nodded, and they continued to the double-door. Shining opened the doors with his magic, allowing the group access to the massive vehicle warehouse.
Ten of the Changeling Infantry Fighting Vehicles were aligned in a row with supplemental Equestrian hardware in a smaller row behind them. The Changeling machines were quite impressive, daunting in size and shape, while boasting professional workmanship in the engineering. Their respective crews inspected the inner workings to ensure safety and quality field performance before they were to be rolled out. Chrysalis looked on with pride as the others inched forward in awe.
"Impressive, aren't they?" She said, speeding ahead to lead them in a tour around the nearest machine. "They're called Elytron Model 4s, based on the basic BTR-90 design with several refinements, packed with state of the art technology. Eight-wheel all-terrain drive train, seven-inch-thick steel hull armor with rearrangeable reactive plates, one-hundred twenty-five millimeter smoothbore gun in a powered turret, and three thirty-caliber machine guns."
Junkers ran his hand over the cold surface of the vehicle's hull. "What's the accommodation?"
"Crew of four, plus seven passengers or fifteen-hundred pounds of cargo. The troop compartment is accessible through the rear hydraulic ramp or the crew hatches. There's also a hatchway at the bottom of the vehicle for emergency use."
Ray nodded towards the turret with amusement, as a .30 caliber machine gun appeared to project from the shell in the opposite direction of the main gun. "What's the deal with the rear gun here?"
"Oh, that's based on ancient light tank practice used by Japanese humans to cover the rear of the vehicle. The original idea is obsolete, I know, but Elytron has refined it by allowing a more flexible mount for the weapon should the main gun be in use. In fact, the fourth crew member is solely for manning this weapon to lighten the workload of the main gunner in combat.
Now, I'd love to go over the rest of the 'goodies' these lovely beasts possess, but I'm afraid time is running short. Captain Armor, if you'd please direct me to your munitions reserve..."
Shining Armor co.cked his head to the left, referring to a mountain of wooden boxes stacked at the far end of the building, next to the main armory.
"Splendid!" She pointed to four Changeling soldiers conferring with Royal Guardsponies nearest to the vehicle. "You! Go acquire those munitions crates and arm these machines at once!"
"Yes, my Queen!" One of them shouted as they saluted her, then immediately flew over to the boxes to begin their task.
"As for the rest of us, let's meet with that SMF team I spoke about." Chrysalis lead the group towards the armory.
On the way to their destination, the group kept looking back at the ten IFVs. They were truly remarkable, but bizarre all the same. The basic design was not unusual to standard armored vehicle layout, but the shape was rather alien compared to what they were used to in military engineering practice. The hulls were smooth and streamlined, with technical parts appearing eerily biological as they intertwined with the steel covered in awkwardly-applied reactive armor blocks.
Aside from the other-worldly aesthetic, they still retained a similar "boat hull" shape at the frontal end not unlike the original Russian design they were based on, yet these machines were far from amphibious. Ray understood these and the rest of the fifty examples were still trials vehicles and would not receive further variants until reports of favorable field performance in actual combat. And now was their chance to prove their worth.
Passing through the gated barriers enclosing the armory from the rest of the building, the group watched the many weapon racks filled with various firearms, most of which were Lunar Defence Products designs. They all seemed to bear similarity to already existing human firearms, but with special modifications done to accommodate the shape of equine hooves.
Three particular types of weapons neatly stored in nearby crates, however, appeared to be newer additions to the inventory. The first was the Elytron EP-2, an automatic pistol type with parts to convert into a carbine of sorts, complete with scope and suppressor system. The second was the Elytron EMG-6, a medium machine gun bearing Kalashnikov similarities, with optional magazines or drums.
Ray snickered with amusement at the third weapon. It was a crossbow with scope and collapsible stock similar to that on Colt products. The arrows had two-inch, razor-sharp tips with teeth-like ridges, but could be replaced with timed or contact-explosive tips. I just wonder what event in history inspired this latter option? Ray shook his head with a smile as he remembered the source of the inspiration as clearly as the memory of yesterday morning.
"Attention!" Chrysalis' shout to the SMF team directed Ray's attention toward their direction. Six Changeling soldiers in black combat uniforms bolted from their seats at a large table and stood at attention in a straight line in front of it.
They carried the various Elytron firearms over universal gear, all equipped with sound suppressors over the muzzles. Even more interesting was the electronic devices they carried, which took the form of black collars around their necks with wires leading to earphones in their left ears and what appeared to be modified handheld radios clipped to the harnesses of their saddlebags. Ray and Junkers recognized the setup as some kind of SATCOM communication system adapted from old equipment recovered from the Phantom Raiders.
Shining Armor was unimpressed with the display and spared no expression of his disappointment towards the number of soldiers. "Six? Only six?"
Chrysalis turned to him. "I assure you, six SMF agents are more than adequate. And lets not forget that four of them will serve as squad leaders for your REDF."
Shining shook his head. "No. As Captain of the Royal Guard, I officially refuse these soldiers as supplemental forces to the REDF, let alone respective squad leaders, due to the unsatisfactory number and untrustworthy service experience."
Ray impatiently spoke over his last words. "And as co-founding official of the REDF under specific privileges granted by Celestia herself, I officially declare your opinion irrelevant." He turned to Chrysalis without loosing a beat. "My queen, if you'd please introduce us to your SMF team..."
She nodded and turned to face the team still patiently standing at attention. "Far left is Gotha, code designation Operative Ninety-Nine, rifling; medium-range urban combat."
Ray observed the red code designations stitched on the left shoulders of their uniforms, now in understanding of their significance. Since they carried no actual name labeling, he would make sure to remember which designation applied to which name.
Chrysalis continued from left-to-right. "Next is Lancer, Operative Fifty-Two, rifling and submachine gunner; medium-range to close-quarters urban combat. Following is Heinkel, Operative Eighteen, submachine gunner; close-quarters urban combat. Sud Quest, Operative Two-Twelve, heavy machine gunner and demolitions specialist. Saver, Operative Thirteen, stealth infiltrator. Finally Fabre, Operative Sixty-Eight, infiltrator and sniper."
"Thank you, my queen." He stepped forward, closer to the team. "My name is Ray - you all may address me as such in the field - Second-In-Command and primary field advisor for this mission. From now on you will take orders from both the Queen and myself, is that understood?"
"Yes, sir!" They all shouted.
"Good. You may be seated and we'll get started on the mission details."
The sun was reaching its term, painting a beautiful glow of orange over the sky, as if the landscape of Handlirsch was painted on canvas. The biomechanically-adapted solar sensors were already activating the lightbags in various streetlights in anticipation of the coming darkness.
This time of evening was always the most active between work and sleep, giving most of the Changelings time for leisure.
Two particular drones ventured down an alleyway competitively kicking a dead lightbag across the empty paving, casually conversing about whatever came to mind. One appeared taller and skinnier than its companion, who bore a slightly chubbier appearance with his stunted height.
"Hey Palaeo, you know what I don't get?" The tall one shouted.
"What?" Palaeo replied with mild enthusiasm, having answered many times before to the other of his friend's many thoughts to the point of losing interest.
"Our Queen." he said awkwardly.
"What about her?"
"Her royal title and organization."
Palaeo shook his head in confusion. "You mind completing your sentences? You're not making any sense."
"Okay, how is she a queen if she's never had a king in her life? If anything she's a princess, but without higher authority. I mean parents, of course. A king and queen before her."
"First of all she's a queen regnant, not a queen consort. She can be a queen without a king in the absence of higher power. Second, she's royalty, she can do whatever she wants, so she can claim whatever title she wants. After all, she did make the decision to advance the hive-mind to an Imperial society all by herself."
"But it doesn't make sense. She's still claimed a title that is out of common practice for her situation. If anything 'Empress' is a more fitting title."
"To our knowledge. Who knows for sure what her true origin story is. Or ours, for that matter. All I know is that I'm starving. Wanna head over to Neopter's Tavern?"
"That's a big yes!"
They stopped abruptly as soon as they noticed something unusual hanging suspended between the two structures forming the alleyway.
"Hey Palaeo, what the heck is that?"
He only shook his head.
It appeared to be some kind of cylindrical container hanging by secretive resin and cables, with a putty of some kind mashed to the sides. Wires and circuits crisscrossed across the entire container as if it were a multicolor web. One of the circuits had a small red LED light on it, blinking repeatedly.
Palaeo's heart sank, now realizing what it was. "Wait a minute."
His friend seemed to have came to the same conclusion. "You wait a minute, I'm outta here!" He swiftly spin around and sprinted in the opposite direction.
"Hey!" Palaeo followed him, tripping in a pothole along the way.
The Great Hall of the Handlirsch castle was an impressive yet gothic sight. The refurbishment was unfinished, leaving the old stone in a dreadful scaling mess wrapped in cobwebs. The green and blue lightbags only reinforced the eerie appearance as the light shone through the gossamer like prisms.
The royal furniture, however was new. It was old Celestial furniture bought from the Equestrians for temporary use until a proper domestic kind was developed. Of course, the delay was due to higher military and industrial priorities set forth by the Queen herself. She could handle the used foreign furniture as long as her empire developed as she planned.
Cattani was temporarily in charge of the palace and its activities during the absence of Queen Chrysalis. Two Royal Guardlings fanned him as he sat comfortably in the throne reading an ancient human novel called "The Hunt for Red October" by Tom Clancy. It was one of a few books that were smuggled from the main collection recovered from the Phantom Raiders by the Canterlot Royal Guard for their inclusion in the Royal Library.
Cattani especially enjoyed the work of this particular author for the attention to technical detail and thrilling suspense. He only wondered if it was all based on true events in history or a complete work of fiction.
His enjoyment of the book was interrupted by the entrance of Agusta into the Hall.
"SIC Cattani?" Agusta called to him.
Cattani put the book on a stand next to the throne. "Greetings, Agusta!" He shifted to a mock monarchy tone. "Welcome to my royal palace. What is thy business, humble peasant?" He cleared his throat and reverted to normal after receiving an odd look from Agusta. "Eh, sorry, I always wanted to say things like that. You rarely get these kind of opportunities in life, you know?"
Agusta nodded in understanding. "Of course."
"So what can I do for you?"
"Well, I come requesting your assistance on a matter that has been shadowing Equestrian territory as of late. It seems there's a bomber at large, and since you're experienced in IED craft thanks to the teachings of Ray, I was hoping you could help me in a joint investigation to track him down."
"A bomber you say? Hmm." He thought for a moment, rubbing his chin. "Do you know if it's human or not?"
Agusta shrugged. "No, we have no idea what species it is, but whoever this bomber is, he or she is an expert of such improvised ordnance. The first device was discovered to be a directional explosive which took out customers in a Canterlot department store, surprisingly without compromising the integrity of the structure itself. We're keeping our eyes out for a possible second device should one surface in the future."
Cattani nodded, still thinking about this request. "My friend, you have my full cooperation. As long as there's no interference from your Princess or that insufferable Captain Armor."
"I first came to Celestia on the matter and she granted me full approval on the condition that whatever resources we utilize are under your jurisdiction."
"That's an acceptable condition given the situation in the desert."
A third Guardling entered the room, making way for Cattani at curiously fast pace. Once there he whispered something into his ears, but was immediately shooed away.
"For goodness sake, say what you want to say out loud, I hate otherlings' breath in my ears."
The Guardling muttered in a way he hoped would keep his message a secret from the human presence. "Sir, we've gotten a report that an explosive device has been discovered in the southern residences of Handlirsch. It appears armed and we quite frankly don't know how to disarm it due to its complexity. How do you suggest we approach this situation, sir?"
Cattani stared him in the eyes, still digesting the information he was given. He then turned back to Agusta. "Well, it looks like your 'second device' has finally surfaced, as you anticipated. Right here in Handlirsch, of all places, and it apparently hasn't gone off yet."
Agusta crossed his arms. "Let's go have a look."
Faust and Silverspade laid cuddled in each other's arms as they watched the colors of the sunset from their confinement in the ground. By now the foul odors had mixed with the earthly scent of the disturbed desert ground, making it more tolerable. Hunger and thirst, though, was becoming a serious matter.
"I've always loved watching the sun set." Said Faust.
"Yeah, it's beautiful." Silverspade replied with a sigh.
"Back in the Raider division it was always the one thing that relieved realization of the war-torn earth. And I've always wondered if it lead the way to a place where none of this existed. Someplace untouched by the apocalypse. An eden of sorts that we've heard about in legends spread about the roads. But of course, that was before we found Equestria."
He glanced at Silverspade, then back to the sky. "I wonder if there's a connection with those legends and the existence of Equestria? Have we always known about the sentient ponies but as we fade through extinction our knowledge of them suffers the same fate? Or have they always known about us but have long forgotten to build their civilization of peace without our dangerous influence?"
Silverspade began crying again, pressing her muzzle against his chest. "Oh, Faust, I don't want to die like this!"
Faust brought her even closer in attempt to comfort her. "No, no, don't give up yet. There's still time. There's still hope. As long as Ray and his friends know about us, there is still a chance he's figuring out a way to find us and get us out."
"I know him, Silver. He's my friend, I've known him since the second invasion. He'll do whatever it takes to ensure the well-being of his friends."
She looked up to him with those beautiful orange eyes again. "How do you know it's not that false-hope you mentioned before?"
"You're going to have to trust me, Silver. Please, just trust me."
She stared at him without response, no longer crying.
"We'll be fine, I promise." he continued with a whisper.
She stared into his eyes as if she were reading the most enchanting literature of her life, and so too did Faust unto hers. Without warning she dove for him in an amorous kiss that took him a moment to think of a reason not to partake in the display of affection.
He finally broke away. "Silver, we can't do this."
"Because we're..." He was already regretting having found an excuse, but said his thoughts anyway in a cloud of panic. "You're a pony and I'm... human. We're too different."
She sighed. "For so long I've compared and contrasted your intelligence with that of equinity, which is so incredibly human." She brushed her hoof on his cheek. "But there's so much more to it that I want to explore. I can see it in your eyes too, Faust. You have the same desire. There's no borders anymore, not except for the ones we lay in fear. You have my trust, now I'm asking for your's."
"But... I'm almost fifty..."
"Please, Faust. Just give me this." She closed her eyes and leaned closer, just inches away from his face.
"But..." His struggle for excuses was becoming slack.
"Shhhh..." she hushed, mere centimeters, and closed with a final whisper. "Show me what it's like to be human."
They engaged in another kiss, this time without resistance from Faust. There was no reason to fight it anymore and he knew that. She was right about everything. He hated himself for breaking his oath to never fall for anyone in his life again, but he treasured this moment with Silverspade for it reignited a deep passion he had thought was lost forever.
Silverspade had never experienced this kind of passion, though. Faust was the first person in her life to actually spark it. She knew this was unorthodox, but here among chaos and corruption it was her salvation. Nothing else mattered but this moment she shared with him.
The closing of the desert sun climaxes our love as it brings forth the radiant moon, ushering light among the shadows of a twisted earth so the lost souls among its wastelands may find salvation and peace. If our love could manifest the laws of magic, it would yield a reformation that would smite hatred where it stood, and bring about eternal harmony, unbreakable and never forgotten.
And it liberates my shaken soul that I have found someone to share this passion with, and even more so that I have found it with a human. My tears no longer shed for misery, but for alleviation.
Finally I've decided to continue working on this.
Dawning lit a cigarette as he watched the moon rise behind the machinery of Thorne Three, remaining close to his technical in case of an attack. Being somewhat accustomed to human lifestyle, he would normally have his car stereo system livening up the sector. Unfortunately, with recent sightings and reports of gang activity among the other wells, now was the time for vigilance under uncomfortable silence.
It was becoming cooler as the moon rose. He knew it would not be long before he would have to get back inside the vehicle for warmth, but his back was sore from sitting in the uncomfortable kevlar seat for so many hours. He promised himself that on his next shift he would definitely bring along some warm clothing.
He panned his vision around the glowing vista, observing the odd shapes of the surrounding canyons silhouetted against the purple sky. He impulsively raised his hoof into his vision, trying to level out the slopes with the flat underside. The silhouettes matched perfectly if he closed one of his eyes. He panned around some more, flattening out more hills and canyons, until he reached another technical atop a nearby slope. It almost made an amusing impression of holding a toy car in the air.
It was a 1963 Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt battered with ghetto armor, armed with a roof-mounted Mk.19 grenade-launcher and a window-mounted RPK-74. Dawning remembered this was Lace Jade's vehicle. These two were close friends since childhood, yet Dawning had always felt there was a hidden competition between them. One that Lace had always won, with Dawning feeling somewhat inadequate at the end.
Case and point, Lace's cherry though battle-hardened Thunderbolt, whereas Dawning was stuck with an EMDETech imitation of a 1977 AMC Pacer. On the bright side, Dawning was a First Lieutenant, meaning he was solely in charge of Thorne Three's security. Lace was a Second Lieutenant. This made him an SIC of sorts, but still designated him perimeter-watch.
"What are you doing?" A voice came from the Pacer behind Dawning.
He finally realized how awkward he must have looked with his hoof pointed towards the horizon, topped off with random giggles of amusement to insinuate that his cigarette must be something more powerful.
He put his hoof down and turned towards the vehicle. "Succumbing to insanity. Want to join me?"
The white unicorn furrowed his brow as he sat up from his reclined passenger seat. "No." He found a magazine on the dashboard, which he draped over his face as he lay back into the seat.
Dawning turned back around to face the setting sun. "Why, of course not. That would only require effort on your part for some friendly communication. Celestia forbid."
His irritated mumbling held truth to his partner's disposition. Dusky had a real attitude problem with Dawning that he did not understand. For some reason he was bitter towards his partnership with Dawning, to the point that he desired no communication with him and instead would rather sleep the hours away in the technical while Dawning wandered about searching for as much amusement as possible. The only thing they could agree with, it seems, was a shared taste in human music.
Dusky could hear his mumblings clearly and groaned under the magazine.
Dawning decided to taunt out of boredom. "Sometimes I forget you're even here. With casual radio chatter prohibited I might as well force a tulpa to overcome my solitude. I mean, would it kill you to say anything at all to me besides questioning a simple action?"
"Booga-booga." Dusky answered.
"I'll bet you're a hit at parties. A real gala king."
Dawning was startled to hear the sound of the magazine ripping away from Dusky's face and turned to find it being crumbled and shredded at him, then thrown to the ground. He casually glanced away from it towards his partner. "Feel better now?"
Dusky made a deadpan ambivalence gesture with his hoof, then crashed back into his seat.
Lace Jade's voice crackled on the CB communicator. "Aggressor, this is Liberator. Come in, Dawn."
They both lunged for the communicator, but Dawning was the quickest to reach it in time.
"Aggressor here." he replied to Lace. "What's up?"
"We've got visitors approaching from the south end of Thorne Sector."
"Um... You should probably have a look for yourself."
Dawning glanced over to Dusky. They were both in puzzlement as to why he did not give them a straight answer like any other professional guardspony would. Dawning decided not to press the issue. "Copy that. Out." He reached for a pair of binoculars and ran to the elevation that concealed Thorne Three from the rest of the wells.
He was careful to crawl next to protruding rock formations as he reached the top of the slope overlooking the dunes around Thorne Three. Putting the binoculars up to his eyes he scanned the dirt road connecting Thorne Three with the main road through the sector. There he found the mysterious visitors mentioned by Lace, kicking up a cloud of dust as their vehicles charged down the road in an organized two-by-two column. Upon closer look at the vehicles themselves he began to understand the confusion.
The two lead vehicles appeared to be a 2S25 "Sprut" tank-destroyer and some kind of futuristic Jeep with an off-center rear blister turret. Both carried flags bearing the Equestrian coat of arms indicating that they were friendly, but the rest of the vehicles were obviously of Changeling origin. If the drones manning the external weapons were not an immediate indication of such, the design of the IFVs sure were. They were the most alien-looking armored transports he had ever seen.
Dawning was unsure whether this was classic Changeling deception or actual collaboration. With such an organized approach for their sector in a seemingly neutral stance possibly indicated the latter, but he needed to be sure.
He turned to face the nearest watchtower guarding Thorne Three with a whistle to catch the guard's attention. He then gave the "lookout" signal to indicate company, but it was immediately followed by the "hold-fire" signal to ensure the guards stood down while the visitors' stance was accurately determined. The guard nodded at his orders and casually leaned against the machine gun mounted next to the searchlight forward of the tower.
Dawning slid back down the hill and ran to the front of his Pacer to greet the coming visitors. The wait for them to emerge from around the corner of the slope bought him time to think of possible defensive actions or escapes should they take any hostile action towards them. Being out and exposed out in the open as he was was probably not the wisest idea, but his curiosity got the best of him and so he remained at the front of his technical, just waiting for the vehicles to emerge.
The first to appear was the odd-looking Jeep, which came to a screeching halt mere feet from Dawning's technical. Next was the 2S25, stopping just behind the Jeep, then the Changeling IFVs spreading out in wedge-formation behind the lead vehicles. With the Jeep in better visibility and its blinding headlights now off, he could read a small logo on the hood indicating that it was actually called a "Scrambler". An appropriate name for a fittingly odd vehicle.
The driver door slid open like that of the rear passenger compartment of a van, making way for the driver as he leaped out of the vehicle. Dawning recognized this human man almost immediately.
"First Lieutenant Dawning?" the man called.
Dawning nodded. "Yeah, that's me."
"I'm SIC Skyray of the REDF. Accompanying me is my associate Lieutenant Junkers, also Captain Armor, and Queen Chrysalis of the Changeling Empire."
Shining Armor exited from the rear passenger hatch behind the Scrambler while Junkers exited through the flip-over half of the turret blister above, both as Ray had announced their presence as if on cue. Most unsettling was that last part, just as Chrysalis emerged from the turret hatch of the 2S25.
"There's no cause for alarm," Ray assured as he stepped closer to Dawning, "the details of our mission call for Changeling assistance. We're here about the gang situation you've been reporting to headquarters."
"Ah, I see. It's about time you guys got here. Those colts of broods' are causing all kinds of hell down there."
"What do you mean? What's the situation?"
Dawning gestured for Ray to follow him up the hill that overlooks the sector. He did so, prompting him to continue the conversation. "Oh, first off they tore up the southbound circuit going after the patrols. I saw the whole thing through my 'glasses' here, a real gritty mess. Next we loose contact with Thornes One and Two, then after that we see the rest of the faction moving to the north, leaving behind a good chunk of their manpower behind to guard their captures. We're damn lucky this hillside is here to obscure the third well or we'd be discovered like the rest."
They finally reached the top of the hill with Ray holding his hand out for the binoculars. Dawning handed them to him and he began scanning the sector. He could spot the two other wells in the distance, separated by hills and dunes. The darkened landscape distorted details of the locations, so he could not see the intruders from this distance, but the wells seemed intact. Even the electronic lighting was still active.
"Is that it?" Ray pressed.
Dawning snorted "Good goddess, no. The following night we saw an armored column patrolling the road towards Thorne One, but they got taken out by the gangs before they could reach the well."
"Did they take any prisoners?"
"As I said before to HQ, yes, I think about four or five of them. I think one was a human male. A bit hard to tell from this distance."
Ray lowered the binoculars and turned to him. "Did you see where they took them?"
"Yeah, they went that direction and disappeared behind those hills." He pointed eastward of the sector, towards a formation of hills with a small pathway cutting straight through them.
Ray carefully observed the location for a minute. "Another day, another roll in the dunes."
Cattani's bulky Explosive Ordnance Disposal suit was beginning cause him frustration as it restricted his movements while snout-deep in the convoluted mess of wires and circuits covering the bomb that hung suspended in the dark alleyway. He too was hanging suspended, just above the bomb on a system of harnesses and cables.
He mumbled sarcasm to himself in response to his own frustration. "A hundred dead ends, a thousand booby traps, a million ways to totally **** up my day..." He accidentally dropped his small LED light on the ground while juggling a pair of pliers and a screwdriver. He finally gave up and turned to the other drones observing him from a safe distance. "I think we oughta approach this a bit differently."
Five minutes later, he was safe on the ground among the other drones, as well as Agusta, arming himself with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Agusta could not silence himself about the situation any longer. "I'm not so sure Chrysalis would be comfortable with you putting yourself on the line like this. There's other qualified personnel."
Cattani shrugged. "Beats sitting around the palace all day reading human literature."
"Alright. But are you sure about what you're doing?"
"Of course." He walked towards the door frame of a rear entrance to one of the buildings. "Zero likelihood of shrapnel at this distance. But as a precaution, the frame and EOD suit should protect from any overpressure."
He shrugged again. "Just about."
Agusta shook his head. "Just remember the Abrams, Cattani."
"How can I forget, Agusta?" he responded sarcastically. "I'm reminded of it everyday."
"Alright. Your jurisdiction. Your call."
"Damn straight." He ****ed his weapon.
Another five minutes later, Agusta and the other observing drones were at a safe distance on a rooftop overlooking the alleyway.
Cattani stuffed a wad of chewing gum in his mouth to ease his nerves as he aimed his weapon at the cylindrical charge hanging in the middle of the alleyway. A part of him nagged at how unprofessional this plan seemed, but another assured that it was the safest alternative to gambling with his life by disarming, picking out the correct circuits and isolating them from the traps. He was at a safe enough distance. With both buildings evacuated and the streets clear, what could go wrong?
Something else nagged at him. He forgot to load a shell into the rifle. With a groan he reached into a pouch on his suit and pulled out a red 12-gauge slug, then proceeded to load it into the chamber.
"Cattani, what's the hold-up?"
He suppressed his annoyance at Agusta's voice on the internal communicator in his suit. "Nothing. Don't rush me."
Sweat began trickling down his face and his chewing became more vigorous as he took aim again.
Agusta watched carefully through his binoculars, assessing the situation in his mind. He decided to be supportive without being too intrusive and spoke to him with the softest tone possible. "You got this. You own it." The lack of response indicated how deep in the zone he really was.
But something suddenly seemed off about the location Cattani picked out. He knew that what he said about the shrapnel was statistically correct, as well as the overpressure, and that disarming such a complex device would be too time-consuming and left impossible room for error. The Changeling police squads checked the area thoroughly and found no additional devices, eliminating the possibility of a collapsing circuit. So what was wrong with this picture?
Then he noticed a dumpster at an odd angle, just along the building opposite of Cattani's location. His observation led him back to the device: it was also at an odd angle. He assessed the situation even more carefully. Cattani right there with a shotgun... the dumpster right there at an angle... the device pointing that way... He was certain of a relationship between these key details. Shotgun... dumpster... device... the device is pointing at the dumpster...
Cattani lightly squeezed the trigger.
... A rebound. The realization hit him like a golden bullet and suddenly the world blacked out, with only him and the alleyway in a soundless vacuum. "Oh ****!"
BA-BANG!!!! The device detonated from Cattani's shot, sending a blast of fire down the alley that rebounded off the dumpster and forced him into the metal door beside him in a painfully hard collision.
The split-second action and initial shockwave still processed in Agusta's mind as he watched the large, fiery mushroom cloud rise and dissipate into thick, black smoke. It was an image that burned into his mind like a branding iron as he looked on at the blast-stricken alleyway. He turned to the equally shocked drones around him. "Somebody get an ambulance! Now!"
Agusta's race to the disaster site was an unstoppable journey with any obstacle rendered insignificant. Doors swung open without care and caution tape ripped away while sirens could be heard faintly in the distance. He stopped at what appeared to be Cattani's body, lifeless and slumped in front of the metal door, of which now sported a nasty dent that nearly ripped it away from its hinges, undoubtedly due to the force of his impact upon it.
Agusta coughed and waved away the smoke, slowly removing Cattani's helmet and face armor. He feared for the worst as bruises and blood covered his face, prompting him to check his pulse. "Cattani?"
Movement. Cattani's eyes slowly opened as he regained consciousness. "What happened?" he breathed.
"You sprung a trap, but we'll talk about it later."
Cattani tried to move but was met with intense pain all over his body.
"Don't move, don't move. You'll be fine. Help's on the way."
He looked around for a minute, obviously thinking about something, then rolled his eyes.
"What is it?"
Cattani replied with a sigh. "I swallowed my gum."
A crowd of frightened and curious Changeling residents swarmed the nearby streets, struggling to get at good look at the chaos that had unfolded in the alley. Several officers and soldiers sealed off the intersections with barricades and squad cars to make way for the local fire engines and ambulance rushing to the scene.
One drone in particular looked on with neutral disposition. "It was only a matter of time that your pride became your downfall." He withdrew from the crowd after receiving an odd look from one of the drones and made his way down a nearby alley.
With a green flash, his disguise was wiped away and his build became slightly more lean with a taller stance than how he appeared before. Damn you, Cattani. That blast wasn't meant for you.
Either way it only progressed his plans further. He just needed to get more creative with his true target, and fast.
The smell of burning gasoline and freshly-welded galvanized steel filled the air in Overdog's main garage, where his men tirelessly slaved to maintain their vehicles under a thick curtain of smoke generated by several running engines. The sounds of these metal monstrosities were as piercing to the ears as the flickering florescent lighting above was to the eyes in contrast to the darkness of night outside.
Overdog himself casually strolled through the immense building, overlooking the many tasks at hand. Not one of his men slackened in his presence. He made sure that every one of them understood just how personal the maintenance to their machines were. They were every part of the machine as much as the sand of the outer wastelands were a part of the earth. They were the machines. A physical and psychological singularity.
If a vehicle lay neglected, its owners might as well lay waste with it. To starve it of essential fluids meant starvation of one's self. The discipline in caring for one's machine resided in the discipline in caring for one's self. If one valued their pathetic life, they would surely value their machine. The same applied to their weapons, and not one was without proper cleaning and other maintenance.
He was proud of his army of Zone Ravagers. They were loyal and fierce, merciless in the wastelands and thorough to the benefit of their clan. But as proud as he was, they were nothing without him. Mere scavengers no better than radioactive vultures or insects. He was the key in this clan's very organization. He gave them reason. They were servants to his cause, therefore expendable. No one dared cross his superiority without meeting a terrible fate. They made no mistake, for he was Lord Overdog. Their leader. King. Religion. Life.
McNabb, Overdog's heavyweight muscle, emerged from group gathered around one of the machines and approached him. "My Lord, our first shipment will arrive momentarily."
"Shipment..." Overdog spoke of the word with incredulity as this new method of obtaining their precious fuel had previously been out of their element. Their capture of the wells was indeed a great triumph that would benefit the growth of the clan for ages.
"The oil from the wells." said McNabb, mistaking Overdog's expression for a question of confusion.
"I know!" Overdog barked. "Filled to the spout like I asked?"
"Yes, I made sure of it myself."
"Good. When the trucks arrive I want the tanker adapted to the pumps immediately."
"When do we begin refinement of the crude?"
"Tonight, McNabb. And from this night forth, we will continue to refine our precious fuel until our wells are mined of it." Overdog started towards the loading doors heading outside, with McNabb following behind. "The desert is ours again."
Headlights rose from the dunes ahead, growing brighter as they approached the main gate to the hideout. The gates opened, making way for two large Peterbilt 379 trucks accompanied by several smaller scout vehicles protecting them. One of the trucks carried a long, 10,600-gallon petrol tank trailer behind it, while the other had a standard cargo container for carrying troops and other equipment, sometimes smaller vehicles. The fuel truck headed towards the refinery pumps and the cargo truck followed the rest of the vehicles into the garage.
One of the scouts spotted Overdog and pulled up to him. "Sir!" he shouted.
Overdog stepped closer to his vehicle. "Yes, what is it?"
"My Lord, we spotted another caravan heading this way!"
"Are you sure?"
"Yessir! Coming from the east! And it's bigger than the last one!"
Overdog swiftly turned to McNabb. "Warm up the 'Thunder Dragon' and 'Screaming Minnie', now! And wake my gunners!"
"Yessir, right away!" McNabb sprinted towards the helo pads.
Faust and Silverspade held each other close in a warm embrace as the cool night air washed over them. The moonlight cast slight illumination into the hole, reminding them that the world still existed above them. What was left of it, anyway.
Suddenly nothing mattered to the two lovers but their happiness in that very moment. But then, the world outside came back and so did their troubles. They were prisoners and they were starving. Death...
Faust attempted to re-immerse himself back into the moment and stroked Silver's mane. She was so beautiful in this light, radiant with non-human beauty that he had never known before. She slept soundly on his chest while he lay with his back onto the earth.
The ground began shaking, followed by a familiar sound. Silver awoke to the vibrations, eyeing the sky for the source as Faust did. The sounds and vibrations grew louder until two objects with flashing lights passed over the hole. Undoubtedly the Hind and Dauphin that attacked the column before their imprisonment.
Now what are they after?
hillberg wrote:Also on FimFiction ,,,,,,Yeah!
Also on FimFiction ,,,,,,Yeah!
Hell yeah, best place for my obscurities to reach the mainstream brony audience.
More to follow soon.
Ray gripped the steering wheel of his Scrambler with force that made the rubber material wrinkle over the frame. His nerves were getting the best of him as he cautiously proceeded down a pathway through the barren mountains, monitoring the silhouettes of rocks and dead plant life for anything suspicious.
Junkers was in a similar frame of mind, looking down the physical sights in the turret blister and occasionally glancing at the motion-tracking monitor situated to the left of him. His seat was slightly elevated so that he could get a clear view from inside the fully-glazed blister, and it was married to the powered rotation controls so that both moved in unison. The blister was reminiscent to that on an old bomber, though with flat armored glass panels rather than streamlined, and mounted a 37mm cannon on the right side in place of where an additional window panel would be.
Shining Armor leaned forward in his improvised passenger seat arranged in tandem behind Ray, next to Junkers, practically hugging his Heckler & Koch G3 while straining to study Ray's observations of the world outside of the vehicle. His frustration was obvious in that he would have preferred taking priority of the wells before proceeding with the rescue mission, but he knew that this situation called for Ray's elevated authority over him and therefore he struggled to restrain himself.
"Any sign of life yet?" Chrysalis crackled on the radio. She was safe in the 2S25 "Sprut" tank-destroyer tailing Ray's Scrambler, ahead of just one Elytron Model 4 carrying the SMF team.
Ray reached for the handset. "Nothing so far, as far as I can see." He turned to Junkers, who gave him a shake of the head after reviewing the motion tracker that only read the two known signatures. "Nothing on the tracker either."
"What about transmissions? Any unidentified radio chatter?"
"Not on our channel."
"Try other ones then."
He shrugged, glancing at the old receiver. "I don't know, I'm not familiar with this model and there's no displays left so I'm just keeping it on this channel and frequency. Don't want to screw it up."
"We'll try on our end then. How's your fuel?"
He snorted and loosened his grip on the wheel. "You just want to hear my voice, don't you? Feeling lonely in that big Sprut?"
"Ray, remember what we discussed."
"Sorry... my Queen. Fuel's still in the green and we have plenty of reserves, so don't worry."
"Advise any changes. Out."
Ray set the communicator down, tugging at his hot collar with the assumption of judgmental eyes responding to the awkward end of that conversation. He decided to break the ice and turn to Junkers. "Are we loaded and locked?"
Junkers inspected the weapon. "Yeah," he turned to a rack situated behind him, holding six can-shaped containers with spirals of 37mm explosive shells inside of them, "But we only have six Star-clips."
"Should be enough. We're not going to war, Junkers. This is a stealth mission as long as we stick with the plan."
"And what if the situation renders it otherwise?"
He shrugged. "Retrograde and Chrysalis' Sprut for cover, I guess."
"Not very reassuring."
"Look, just trust my judgement on this. This isn't my first time in the desert."
"Yeah," started Shining, "Running away from everything."
Ray took a breath to respond to that bit of sarcasm, but rethought his response as he knew this was true. It was not until his discovery of Equestria that he began to stand up for himself and others rather than retreating from any given threat. "There's no shame in hiding."
A beep sounded on the tracker, catching Junkers' attention. He could see an additional signature emerging from the top edge of the screen, descending as they approached. "I got something here."
"Where?" Ray peered for a glimpse of something along the hills.
Junkers pointed in the direction that the tracker indicated. "Just over that hill to the left."
Ray picked up the handset. "Activity spotted. Eyes on. Follow my lead with low-level lighting." He set it down after receiving acknowledgement from Chrysalis and the driver of the Model 4, then switched to low beams as he slowly guided his vehicle towards the hill. The other vehicles followed his gradual ascent, also switching to lower lights.
He stopped at a particular elevation, shutting off his lights, which prompted the others to do the same, then turned to Junkers. "Still have it?"
"Yeah, still there. It's fluctuating, but it's not advancing anywhere beyond that one area."
"Stay here. Shining, follow me. Let's go have a look." Ray grabbed a scoped CX-4 Storm carbine next to his seat and slid his door open.
Upon exiting the vehicle, Ray and Shining both kept a low profile as they climbed up the hill, all the way to the top where they could see what was over it. They stopped as soon as they could see lights in the dunes ahead, belonging to an industrial complex seemingly filled with human activity.
"This looks promising." said Ray, peering down the awkwardly-mounted rifle scope on his carbine. He spotted several wasteland vehicles parked in a nearby open garage and a fuel truck connected to a large repository, most likely unloading its petroleum cargo from the wells.
"If you say so." was Shining's delayed response.
He continued to observe the complex, spotting awkwardly-built rooms overlooking an open area with jagged steel welded together as if to contain something that was not meant to escape. "Those look like cages... but they're empty."
Shining shifted in the dirt. "Great. Because no other fortress takes prisoners, therefore this must be the place."
Ray lost a hold of his temper and lowered the weapon. "Okay, what the hell is your problem?"
Shining's eyes went wide. "What?"
"This whole trip you've been a pain in the ass, and I'm getting sick of it."
"Listen here, Skyray, if you speak to me like that again-..."
"I don't care what position you are in the Guard," he interrupted, "You better change your attitude or I'll change it for you!"
"Don't bark at me, you scav!"
"Say that again. Say that again, I dare you!"
"Shut up!" Chrysalis shouted from the Sprut, "Both of you! You sound like a couple of foals in a schoolyard! How about some professionalism?"
"Yeah," Junkers agreed, "And covertness."
Both attempted to regain their composure and return focus at the complex in front of them.
"I'll try and forget this conversation in my next report." Shining mumbled.
"Really, Shining?" Ray responded in a quieter tone, "Why don't you just tell me what your problem is instead of being an ass about it? Is this still about the race yesterday, or what?"
Shining met Ray's gaze, then shifted his attention behind him. "What's that?"
Ray rolled his eyes. "What are you, two? I'm trying to have a professional conversation here."
"No, really, what is that?" He co.cked his weapon.
Ray trusted his apprehensiveness and turned around. A brightly-lit object emerged from the hills in the distance, slowly heading in their direction. Ray picked up his weapon and peered through the scope to get a better view.
A... train? It was an odd sight, as it appeared to lack any major engine compartment and instead sported massive solar sails, giving the impression of a pirate ship in silhouette against the bright lighting on board. It even had a crow's nest with an elderly human man observing the surroundings with a pair of binoculars.
Ray took a closer look at the ground nearby and spotted a set of rusted tracks a few meters away. How'd we miss that?
"Ray!" Junkers called out while trying to retain a covert tone, pointing in the direction of the sail-train.
"We see it, Junk." Ray responded.
The sail-train rolled closer, maintaining its sluggish speed down the tracks. Ray could spot more human people on the deck, seemingly frantic about something while shouting orders and going about various jobs in haste.
The man in the crow's nest looked terrified at something straight ahead, lowering his binoculars. "Barrier ahead! Barrier ahead! Hit the breaks!"
Ray looked on at the opposite end of the tracks and noticed a pile of dirt and metal debris forming an impenetrable barricade for the vehicle.
A crewman on the sail-train ran up to a pair of levers at the front of the vehicle, pulling them back as hard as he could. The breaks screeched as they rubbed against the rolling wheels, making everyone react to the sound as if they were fingernails on a chalkboard.
"Contact!" the man in the crow's nest shouted, pointing at the barrier.
Three figures emerged from the debris, setting up a SPG-9 recoilless anti-tank gun aimed right at the approaching sail-train. They broke open the hinged cone in the rear to expose the breach and loaded a 73mm rocket, closing the breach once the projectile was secured, then fired the rocket at the vehicle.
The rocket impacted the base of the tower holding the crow's nest, causing it to topple down onto the deck with the man tumbling out of the nest and through a weak point in the deck's wooden construction.
"Junkers!" Ray called, "Take out that cannon!"
Shining grabbed his shoulder. "But this isn't our fight!"
Ray shook Shining's hoof off and climbed to his feet. "I've got a goddamn plan!" he yelled, running towards the sail-train.
Junkers rotated the turret with the 37mm gun trained at the anti-tank position behind the barrier, then fired one of the "Star" shells at it. Success, as the position fragmented from a quick fireball.
"Trikers on the starboard!" a crewman on the sail-train shouted.
Ray stopped dead in his tracks and jerked to his left to find a squad of motorized trikes heading towards him and the mammoth tracked vehicle.
Junkers took out one of the lead trikes with another Star, providing a distraction from Ray's end of the skirmish.
Ray took aim with his carbine and attained a kill. A driver of one of the trikes fell from his seat, allowing Ray to capture the stray vehicle for himself and sped around to the other side of the sail-train.
Two of the train's crewmen manned respective side turrets, which upon closer inspection appeared to be motorcycles with rollcages attached to improvised pivots, armed with sawed-off miniguns. The gunners tried for the remaining trikes but struggled to aim for the fast-moving vehicles in contrast to the slow pivots.
One of the trikers unholstered a small crossbow and launched an arrow at one of the gunners, impacting him in the chest, just below his right shoulder.
Chrysalis' Sprut was in motion, with the Queen herself aiming for the trike with the 125mm gun. "Hang on!" the driver shouted as they literally flew from an elevation in the ground. Chrysalis fired a shell whilst the Sprut was still airborne and destroyed the trike before they touched back onto the ground. "Wooo! Yes!" she cheered.
Ray quickly explored the surrounding dunes and found a natural ramp for himself, launching him and his trike full-speed into the air, heading straight for the sail-train. He crashed into a pile of crates along the deck, forcing him off the trike. He shook off the painful impact and and fired at two trikers that threw grappling hooks onto the sides of the hull.
Only one triker remained and was quickly destroyed by Junkers in the Scrambler.
One of the crewmen approached Ray with an assault rifle, prompting them both into a standoff as they aimed at each other.
"Hey, whoa, wait a minute!" Ray demanded.
The crewman remained still. "Drop the gun!"
"I will if you will!"
Large splinters of wood exploded from the deck, forming a chain of holes as they reached the crewman, shredding him into pieces before his eyes. The man's gun discharged all over the deck, forcing Ray to dive for cover behind the wrecked trike until its clip was spent.
"Gunships!" another crewman shouted in terrified repetition, "Take cover!"
Ray emerged from cover and finally caught the sound of rotor blades in the distance, spotting two helicopters approaching the port-side of the sail-train. "Why can't anything be simple anymore?"
The gunships fired a barrage rockets, attaining hits that destroyed chunks of the crudely-built tracked vehicle, taking out a large amount of its population. They overshot the target and banked around for another attack.
Ray was among a few others that jumped from the sail-train, sprinting for cover near the dunes obscuring the Scrambler and other vehicles.
The gunships apparently did not notice the escape and proceeded to attack the sail-train until it was a smoking pile of twisted metal and burning wood. All that remained were a couple of shipping containers behind it, which were likely left standing due to the possibility of goods inside.
The surviving crewman looked on at the remains of their vehicle as they lay still in the sand with Ray, some stifling tears and others with vengeful scowls.
The gunships observed the area with their searchlights, looking for any survivors, but suddenly came to a stationary hover. The first one appeared to be an Aerospatiale Dauphin, while the other looked like a later-model Mi-24 Hind, both armed to the teeth. Ray presumed that the Hind was the leader.
"My Lord Overdog." came the voice of the pilot in the Dauphin over its loudspeaker, "We're low on fuel. We should go back and return in the morning for our spoils when we're full and have better visibility."
The Hind appeared to agree despite lack of audible response and turned for the industrial complex in the distance. The Dauphin promptly followed behind.
Satisfied that both were now a safe distance away, the crewmen crawled to their feet and approached the remains of the sail-train, kicking and shoving away the debris to look for any signs of life and intact items still of usefulness.
One of the young crewmen found the old man under a shred of solar sail, still alive but bleeding profusely from a wound on his head.
"Duster!" the young crewman called, "Get over here, he's hurt!"
Another young crewman, obviously a twin brother judging by the same facial features, scrambled over to help, with a few others following him. "Jarrett, get out some bandages."
Jarrett reached for a pouch on his combat belt and pulled out a roll of cloth, proceeding to dress the wounds on the old man's head.
Ray casually glanced over to them while he wandered about the wreckage, with Shining Armor joining him. The Scrambler and the other vehicles drove up to the remains as well to gain a better perspective of the situation.
The old man caught Ray's glance as if he recognized him. "Overdog!"
Ray furrowed his brow, uncertain of what he meant.
"Overdog!" he repeated, "You did this to me, you son of a bitch! You knew we were the only doctors in the whole zone! How could you?!"
"I think you're confusing me with someone else." Ray replied.
Duster restrained the old man from moving. "Be still, Grandman. He's not the Overdog."
Grandman groaned from his pain. "Then who is he?"
"He's just an outlander. A scav."
Ray, taking offense to the term, responded. "My name's Ray. SIC of the REDF."
"Red... Eff?" He pondered the acronym.
Jarrett got up and approached Ray with a stride that made him look authoritative. "What do you people want?"
"Jeez," Ray mumbled to Shining, "Is it so hard to get a simple 'thanks' once in awhile?"
"I asked you a question, outlander!" His authoritative demeanor faded upon noticing Shining Armor, obviously never having seen a creature like him before.
"I'm on a rescue mission. I have reason to believe what I want is located in that complex over there." He pointed in its direction. "You know anything useful?"
"You have no claim there. The killing of Overdog is ours and ours alone."
"I said it's a rescue mission. What I want is to find my friend and his team and get them out. I have no interest in this 'Overdog', whoever he is."
"You wish to enter the Forbidden Zone, then so be it, but do it yourself. We have blood-loss here."
"Hey, I only wanted some info. Sorry to bother you." Ray walked towards the Scrambler with Shining following behind.
Jarrett edged to follow in order to end the conversation his way, but was stopped by his brother, persuading him back to the job at hand.
Agusta paced around Cattani's hospital bed, gripping a file folder under his arm while he held a fist under his chin as an aid for his deep thoughts.
Cattani was fully conscious, though hooked up to IVs and bandaged to the point of looking like a mummy. "Agusta, stop pacing around. You'll wear a groove in the floor."
"Stop distracting me. You're breaking my concentration."
"You're breaking mine too, now stop it!"
Agusta stopped and found a chair, seating himself next to the bed.
"Let me see the file again."
Agusta handed it to him.
Cattani flipped through various pages until he came across the report on the device that resulted in his injuries, then flipped to the report on the one that resulted in the destruction of the department store in Canterlot. He made a grunt and flipped back to the more recent report.
"I just don't get it." said Agusta. "How are we having such a hard time finding this guy?"
Cattani ignored him and continued reading.
"No fingerprints, no hoofprints, no eyewitnesses, nothing."
"You can't expect instant results, Agusta. Think: what do we know thus far?"
Agusta paused for a moment before responding, then took a deep breath. "Well, first off both devices he planted are directional in nature, meaning they force their energy at a specific target."
Cattani nodded. "Yes, what else?"
"Both devices were professionally made. The bomber knows what he's doing and anticipates tampering with his plans."
Cattani shrugged. "I suppose so, but what else?"
"He's careful not to leave a shred of evidence. No eyewitness reports either. Somehow he's able to infiltrate very public places without being spotted."
"There. Think for a moment. How is he able to achieve such a feat in plain sight, even in broad daylight?"
Agusta put his fist under his chin again, thinking hard, until it finally dawned on him. "He's a Changeling!"
Cattani nodded with a grin this time. "He, or she, can be anyone they choose to be, at any moment, and no one would expect a thing."
"Holy sh*t, Cattani."
"Yes. It's imperative that we keep this revelation out of the books for now, or it may cause an instability in our relations with the Equestrians. If they found out a Changeling was involved..."
"Yes, yes, I get the point."
A nurse Changeling entered the room with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk, setting them down on the table nearby.
"What's that?" asked Cattani.
She smiled. "These are from Lieutenant Nord at REDF headquarters. He wanted to wish you a speedy recovery and gives you his best regarding the investigation."
"Oh." He rolled his eyes.
"What are you guys investigating?"
Agusta was quickest to respond. "That's classified, ma'am."
"I see. Well, I'll leave you to it then. I'll be back in an hour to check your bandages." She exited the room.
Cattani shifted around in his bed for comfort. "You can have them. I'm not hungry."
Agusta rose and made his way over to the table, swiping a cookie off the plate and taking a bite. "These are good. You sure?"
"Yeah. Indulge. I think I'll be sick if I eat something right now."
"Okay then." He finished it and went for another. "So anyways, a Changeling infiltrator."
"Right. I think we should start with all Changelings who have criminal records, then weed them out based on their education. Obviously he must know a lot about chemistry and physics to pull off such elaborate acts of arson."
"Oh jeez, don't even get me started on how complex that barrel bomb was. Yeah, this guy definitely has formal education of an advanced level."
"Either that or he's an enthusiast with a lot of time on his hands and a well of patience."
He shrugged, taking a gulp of the milk. "Whatever." He set the cup down. "Man, that's nasty."
"I only hope we're correct about this. The last thing we need is a dead end, meanwhile he makes more kills."
"I hear you." Agusta put his hand on his stomach, indicating that it was under some kind of distress.
"I dunno, just... a stomach ache. I think that milk was spoiled or something."
"Want me to ring the nurse back?"
"No, I-..." Suddenly he arched forward with a cry of pain, collapsing to the floor on his knees.
"Agusta!" Cattani patted the bed for the call-button, finding it under the sheets. He pressed it repeatedly. "Hang in there, I'm getting help!"
Agusta vomited a pool of blood onto the floor, much to Cattani's utter shock. The suffering man stood back up, sprinting for the bathroom next to the room, slamming the door behind him.
"Somebody get in here!" Cattani yelled, hoping to get anyone's attention outside.
The door and the entire wall around it suddenly blasted away from the side of the room, showering Cattani with hot debris.
Tempest watched the hospital from a safe distance behind a bush, as a window on the top floor exploded out with a puff of fiery smoke, raining glass into the courtyard below. He could hear the alarms going off clear over from where he was.
"Binary liquids." He said aloud to himself. "I'm a genius. Yes, yes." I hope this time Agusta was caught in the blast. I'll know soon enough.
Tempest backed away and disappeared into the darkness.
"I demand your attention at once! All of you... fellow Changelings, Equestrians, humans, et cetera! And listen close to what I have to say, as I will only say it once!"
Tempest's mind was filled with pride as he strode for the entrance to the hive. With Agusta dead, Cattani out of commission, The REDF of the Equestrian Guard preoccupied in the wastelands with the Queen, Ray, and their associates - including the Captain of the Royal Guard Himself, Shining Armor - the window of opportunity was wide open.
"For too long my kind has lived in corruption due to the meddlings of the humans and the Equestrians... the brainwashing of their petty ideologies into our once respected and fearless leader, Queen Chrysalis, as well as the hivemind itself!"
This was his chance to finish what he started without either governments interfering with his plans to make his species great again, superior over all others. And it was he who would deliver them back to their former glory. He was anxious to brainstorm his next move.
"I say 'no more,' for we are Changelings! We feed upon those that dwell below our hierarchy, consume the so-called 'love' they create! We are not allies... they are the slaves and we are the masters!"
He carried a large sack over his back, just as he always had when returning, and as usual it was filled with all kinds of items smuggled out of sensitive areas within Canterlot and Handlirsch. He put this particular bag by the entrance, as this was for a special project he would tend to outside of the hive.
"I know there are those of you who have seen past the corruption yet silently submit, while others blindly allow themselves to be herded like sheep! To obey, consume, and coexist with an enemy that exists to exterminate! The time to act is now! Rise up against our oppressors and show them that we are a powerful force not to be reckoned with!"
His office near the throne room was a mess of laboratory equipment and gutted electronic devices, with technical manuals and tools scattered about. He headed over to his desk, already formulating the details of something he had planned before proceeding with his work. He glanced amusingly at a picture hung on the wall behind the desk, as it was a painted portrait of Queen Chrysalis which Tempest had vandalized by piercing arrows into her eyes.
"To the Equestrians and the humans... your reign over us is over! While you scurry about finding wars beyond your borders, you forget to look within your own backyard! A storm has brewed beneath your hooves with a force the likes of which you've never seen! You and your princesses are now vulnerable to this storm, and so will your great warriors and our now corrupt queen when they return!"
He passed by a mirror, edging closer to better inspect his appearance. The blue glow of his eyes were fading, exposing narrow pupils surrounded by dark-green irises. In the old hive this was considered a sign of elevated maturity, in which he would have higher authority that would increase the more he matured. A fitting turn of events as he would soon crown himself King to lead his revolution.
"Make no mistake, for I speak of the inevitable! Resistance will be met with violence and death! If you wish to wage war, then it is a war you will surely get... and you are doomed to fail!"
But he knew that before he could proceed with his revolution, he must send a message to those that he wished to collaborate, as well as those who opposed him. A message so bold that it would strike fear into his enemies and inspire his potential allies. He quickly pulled out a chair and sat behind his desk, preparing a quill and parchment on which he would pen his communique to the world.
"I recite with emphasis that it is you who are the slaves to us, for we are the masters!"
It would be copied several times over and performed live by Tempest himself, spread throughout Equestria and reaching every sole inhabitant to ensure that no word of his message was unheard, or unread.
"And I am your king! Yes, you all know who I am. Foolish to think think I can be held captive to the likes of any of you! Hear me, for I am King Tempest! Your new leader!"
He dipped his quill into a bottle of ink and began writing.
"And your worst nightmare!"
"Down with the Queen!" a Changeling shouted as he threw a Molotov co.cktail through the window of a Handlirsch department store, setting it ablaze in a matter of minutes.
Similar acts of terror swept across Canterlot, with small mobs quickly escalating into militant force against the locals. All chanted in favor of their new leader, encouraging the ousting of the Queen from her throne to make way for the new, incorruptible hivemind.
Ponies and humans feared for their lives against the Changeling terrorists, defending their land and demanding the removal of the hostile species from the land.
Innocent Changelings insisted on their stance as allies against this sudden militant fringe, but most would be stigmatized under the arising conditions. Soon Handlirsch would be under similar attack by the opposing force, with no one but the police and Royal Guard forces to contain them.
Pony mobs formed around the castle grounds in Canterlot urging the Royal Sisters to remedy the situation, but the paranoia had grown even out of their control at the moment. Princess Celestia and Luna still yet attempted to restore order any way they could, while their kingdom began to crumble before their eyes.
It was the beginning of a revolution, and it had formed in mere hours.
Lieutenant Nord trembled behind his shield, ready to unholster his 9mm firing device. He was among a row of other REDF soldiers and guardsmen acting as a barricade for one of the streets. A group of vehicles - some firefighting engines and others military APCs - waited idle behind them, ready to defend with greater force.
The state of the city made their hearts turn, with visions of burning buildings and wrecked vehicles being that of which they will never forget. But the questions of how this disaster unfolded were quickly repressed with what was about to develop ahead of them.
Nord licked his lips with both fear and anticipation as he could hear the approaching voices of their opposition, accompanied by the bright orange and green glows rising from behind an elevation in the street.
"Steady!" He ordered.
The mob of Changeling terrorists charged for the soldiers, armed with swords and guns as well as flaming torches and Molotov co.cktails, yelling from the top of their lungs.
"I just want to say," Nord started to his team, "Whatever happens... it's been an honor serving with you fine fillies and gentlecolts."
Though the aggression of the terrorists invoked the emotions for which they pressed, it was short-lived when up against the Guard of both cities. They were poorly-armed and vastly outnumbered, resulting in their inevitable demise.
This was not the revolution that this so-called 'King Tempest' had envisioned, and now that everyone knew who was behind this fringe uprising, a search would commence to hunt him down and execute him. He was to be given no mercy.
Other members of the fringe utilized their Changeling traits and withdrew from the extremism, disappearing into the shadows of their imperial society.
The speciesist stance against the Changelings in whole still remained, however, and Handlirsch and its innocent inhabitants remained under attack, yet to be contained due to lack of present leadership and Celestia's efforts to regain control over Canterlot.
This was a social and political rift that would take a long time to mend, perhaps even longer since the first invasion of Canterlot.
Good sequel but this last chapter feels a bit rushed. :/
It was. I really want to get this fic over with and move on. But I promise more consistent quality in the next chapters.
Don't worry about how quick to end it. but how well you end it.
like flying, A good take off & cruise are forgotten with a bad landing
No worries, the ending is going to be awesome. Even better than how I ended the first "Rayverse" installment, IMO.
Love the artwork, haha. I see Spike doing that in the show.
Ray pressed on in his Scrambler, as did the two other vehicles in his shadow. He was still frustrated with everyone's attitudes towards him, even after everything he had done for them. If it was not Shining Armor and his insecurities forcing his relentless and misdirected sarcasm, it was innocent wasteland scavengers simply trying to survive.
Shining broke the uncomfortable silence. "We should stop for food."
"Why?" Ray asked with an irritated tone.
"We should build up our energy before we reach the Zone."
Ray smirked at how the sector's name stuck with him, but retained his irritable disposition. "I'm not wasting any more time today. Before dawn we're going to break Faust out of there, and that's that. Nothing is getting in my way."
"That's all well and good, but you're not thinking about your team and their needs."
Ray gritted his teeth. "Needs?"
Junkers aligned the turret and shifted in his seat. "He's right, man, I'm starving. Let's break for five."
"You want to stop now when we're this close?"
Shining kicked the back of his seat. "Stop the vehicle, Ray. We need to talk anyway."
"Okay!" Ray shouted, obviously letting go of his sanity, "Alright! Fine!" He mashed the break pedal to the floor, causing everyone to rock from the inertia, then engaged the parking break as he slid his door open, proceeding to exit with the engine still on.
The Sprut and Model 4 stopped in a similar fashion due to the unexpected action, nearly resulting in a fender bender.
Shining Armor climbed out after him. "Stop right there!"
Ray spun around. "What?!"
"You seriously need to calm down! You're starting to become worrisome!"
"Oh, **** off!" He growled and began walking off into the dunes again.
"See, right there! Total lack of professional conduct to a superior!"
He returned from his journey of only a few footsteps. "You know what? Maybe I was never cut out for your high up advanced military social organization! But guess what? Here I am under orders from Celestia herself, because of my expertise in this situation! So deal with it and get off my back!" He practically yelled for the whole desert to hear with that last part, much to the worry of the team.
"Calm down, scav, or I'll-..."
Ray edged closer with fire in his eyes. "What did I say about calling me that?"
"It's what you are and always have been since you came to Equestria! Just another lonely scavenger running from your problems!"
That was it. That was the straw that broke his back. Ray threw a punch so hard that it sent Shining into a collision with the Scrambler.
Shining regained his balance and glared at him, wiping away a trickle of blood from his nose. "Why, you little..." He suddenly bolted and tackled Ray to the ground, causing them to roll down a depression in the dirt.
"Stop it!" Chrysalis shouted, joining the crowd that quickly formed from the crews of the nearby vehicles, "Knock it off, I'm ordering you!"
The two eventually fell into a hotspring, still fighting despite the water hampering their movements and weighing them down as it soaked into their clothes.
Junkers pulled out a notepad and pen from his jacket and raised them in the air. "Alright, taking all bets! Taking all bets! Let's see those numbers!"
Everyone pulled out their native forms of currency, shouting their wagers for either Ray or Shining.
Chrysalis grew furious at the madness unfolding before her, but gave up attempting control over them and stepped away from the group to gather her thoughts. As she made her way towards the vehicles, something caught her eyes.
A light from behind formations of rocks slowly washed over the road, presumably from another vehicle. The headlights finally emerged as it approached at a rather sluggish pace.
Chrysalis quickly rejoined to group and attempted to catch their attention. "Contact!"
No response as the group still watched the two fighters in the water.
"We've got company!"
She unslung her EMG-6 and fired a shot into the air, silencing everyone and drawing all eyes on her. "Vehicle! Over there!" She pointed.
The group descended into the depression as the vehicle passed by their own, with Ray and Shining crawling out of the water to join them.
It appeared to be a ramrod built from some kind of heavy industrial vehicle with all kinds of desert modifications done to it - a partially concealed cab protected by wire fencing, large tractor tires in the rear, a big spherical tank behind the cab presumably carrying fuel, and a giant V-blade plow in the front, so large that it gave the impression that it was attempting to eat the vehicle whole.
It sounded like a train as smoke stacks and pistons along the hull pumped clouds of byproduct. It even had a special piston that drove the rear wheels, a likely crude solution for boosting its ability for climbing steep terrain.
The ramrod suddenly halted in front of the Scrambler, but the driver's intentions remained obscured as no activity could be seen inside the darkened cab area.
"Is that one of Overdog's machines?" Junkers asked.
"Damned if I know." Ray answered, rubbing the bruises on his face.
The ramrod still remained idle in front of the Scrambler, bellowing clouds of black and white smoke from its various orifices.
"What do you think it wants?" Shining asked, searching for his weapon. He facehoofed when he realized that he left it in the Scrambler.
"I dunno. Looks unarmed... I'm gonna find out." He broke from cover and stood in plain sight, illuminated by every headlight in the area.
"Ray!" Chrysalis called in a quite tone.
He simply waved his hand at her, waiting for a reaction from the ramrod. It still remained in the same spot, occasionally letting out pressure from its airbrakes with a loud hiss.
He turned to Junkers and Shining. "Gather your stuff and get in the Scrambler." He proceeded to walk closer to the behemoth.
Junkers and Shining stayed low while heading towards the Scrambler, eventually reaching the vehicle but stopped to watch Ray and the ramrod instead of getting inside.
The ramrod suddenly jolted, making his heart do the same and stopping him cold with apprehension. He let a few seconds go by and made agesture with his hand concealed behind his back.
The rest of the group understood the signal and emerged from the depression, following Junkers' and Shining's covertness towards their vehicles.
Ray pressed on until he was directly in front of the ramrod's massive V-blade. "Uhm... Hi! H-how can I help you?"
Suddenly the ramrod was in full motion, heading straight for him.
He reacted quickly, running to the side of its path and allowed it to pass by, then followed it from behind one of its blind spots.
The ramrod stopped, then slowly reversed back to its original spot, obviously searching for its victim.
Ray climbed onto a protrusion in the rear, grabbing a smoke stack for stability as he traveled over the spherical tank and onto the engine cylindars. He finally located the cab and reached through the wire fencing, finding a human face in the darkness and attempted to grab its head.
The driver's vision became obscured and his panic forced him to mash the accelerator, sending the ramrod into a collision course with a boulder.
The inertia forced Ray flying off the vehicle and into the dirt below, where he decided to remain to appear out of commission.
The driver punched a hinged door on the roof open, sending it crashing loudly into the metal that held it in place. He emerged from the cab and looked around. "Son of a bitch!" He found Ray laying on the ground past the V-blade. "Well I'll be goddamned... Skyray!"
Ray was surprised to find that this person knew who he was but remained on the ground as not to blow his game of possum.
The driver grabbed an AK-47 from inside the cab and leaped onto the ground, approaching the seemingly knocked-out man at gunpoint. "Get up."
His command was without compliance.
"Come on, Ray, that's got to be the oldest trick in the book! Get up!" He kicked him in the back.
Still yet no sign of response.
The driver's concern grew, lowering his weapon and turning Ray over. "Ray? Are you o-..."
Ray sprung to life and punched the driver in the face, knocking him onto the ground. He put his boot on the man's armed hand and pried the assault rifle away, this time holding him at gunpoint.
"Well, well, well," the driver started, "Still got some of that old energy left in ya."
"Do I know you?"
The man climbed to his feet, wiping away the dirt from his scavenged uniform. "You should, after what we went through at Fort Rockatansky."
Ray was still not convinced, but struggled to find familiarity in his face. He was black with a shaved head, bearing a build similar to his own.
"We met at a market colony near the Oil Seas. We were just teenagers back then."
He finally recognized him after playing through the history in his mind. "Washington!"
The man shrugged. "What's left of him."
"What happened to you? I haven't seen you since that attack on Bearclaw Canyon." He began lowering the weapon, then picked it back up as he remembered something else. "You took my car and left me in the dust!"
"Come on, Ray, I thought you were dead."
"Well, evidently not."
He shrugged. "Sorry. What did you end up with?"
"That battered old El Camino that was stuck in a ditch a few miles away."
Washington stifled the laughter until it was unbearable and let loose.
"It's not funny! I really liked that car. What happened to it?"
His laughter subsided. "I got ran off the road by a gang called the Toecutters. Totaled it."
Ray shut his eyes for a moment, lamenting the loss of his favorite vehicle, then turned to inspect Washinton's. "And where'd you get this... overgrown snowplow?"
"Borrowed it from a couple of scavs down the road yesterday. Bunch of trigger-happy maniacs with bazookas and sh*t. Got 'em back for blowing up my red convertible I saved from a camp that got slaughtered... after I lost your ride. Man, that thing was cherry."
"I know the feeling."
Washington glanced at the damage done to his ramrod from the force of its impact on the boulder. "Just look at it... look what you did!" He kicked a piston connecting the large rear wheel to the engine, causing it to rumble back to life and then die back down.
"Nothing a little bit of welds wont mend."
Washington crouched down to inspect the machinery underneath, then paused for a moment to asses his situation. "Yeah, okay..." He roze back up to face Ray. "Well, I guess if you get me towed outta here, between you and me, we got ourselves two machines and, well... we got it made again. Leave that old trash that I drove by behind."
Ray grinned. "They're not derelict, Washington. I'm not alone this time."
He backed away to allow Washington to get a look at the three vehicles near the hotsprings.
He could see at least one human man behind the lead vehicle, but the rest he struggled to process as he observed them. The quadrupedal beings with big, glowing eyes must have looked like unworldly demons to him.
"And we were just about to eat, so if you don't mind..." Ray trailed off and headed towards his Scrambler.
Washington snapped back to him and followed. "W-wait a minute, now. I'll let you have some of my rations... probably not enough for your, eh, friends here, but I'm sure we could work something out. We'll make it a banquet, eh?"
"We got food. Real food."
"Well, excuse me. I'm only being generous because of our former friendship."
"What former friendship?"
"Okay, well... can I at least have my gun back?"
Ray raised the weapon back up. "Oh, right, I totally forgot." He swiftly spun around and threw it into the hotspring nearby.
Washington threw his arms up in surprise, then let it go.
"I'll tell you what. If you agree to help us out with our mission, we'll give you a tow and maybe I'll just... forget about that last time we parted ways."
His answer seemed rather desperate. "What's keeping you so on your toes?"
He sighed before answering. "The Zone Ravagers have been on my ass since I found that ramrod."
"Overdog's gang. I just want a safe passage afterwards."
Ray snigered. "Well, you won't much like our mission very much then."
Before he could answer they caught the sound of approaching engines from behind them. They looked to find two motorcycles with rollcages heading towards them, undoubtedly the same motorcycles that were used as turrets on the sail-train.
Washington pulled out a knife from his uniform.
"It's okay," said Ray, "They're friendly."
The two cycles parked near the ramrod and the familiar drivers disembarked. They were the two brothers, Jarrett and Duster.
"What do you guys want?"
Duster answered. "We're tracking you to Overdog."
Washington turned to Ray. "Are you sh*tting me? You're going after the big dog himself? Are you crazy?"
Ray waved a hand to silence him. "Of course not, I'm on a stealth mission to his compound to rescue my friend. I could give a rat's ass about Overdog."
"That's got to be the most suicidal thing I've ever heard! Count me out."
"Okay. Forget the tow and safe passage then."
"For Christ's sake, Ray..."
Ray stepped closer to the brothers. "You're welcome to stay here while we recharge."
"We don't need your permission, outlander!" Jarrett barked, "We do as we want."
He stepped back to the Srambler and turned to Washington. "Do you find them as charming as I do?"
Washington shrugged. "I say grease 'em before they spoil your plans."
"Come on, don't you think you're being a little harsh?"
"It's what I'd do."
Ray walked over to his Scrambler and pulled out a container of rations from the back. "Well, that's why you'll never make military leader. Like me."
"Man, the Skyray I knew would've done it without blinking. You're losing your edge."
Ray slammed the container on the ground. "I'm not losing my edge! I'm just trying to do things a little smarter these days." He turned to Shining Armor. "Not that anyone seems to give a damn besides myself."
Washington shook his head and walked towards the hotspring.
"Where you going?"
Lieutenant Nord took the pleasure of throwing the last Changeling terrorist into the cold, dark holding cell with the rest of his comrades, slamming the door shut while other Changeling guards protected him with borrowed 9mm firing devices.
The Changeling scurried back to the door to face the Equestrian soldier. "You can't stop all of us! The revolution is inevitable!"
Nord retained an authoritative demeanor in the face of his intimidation. "I've got news for you, pal. Your little two-hour revolution's over. How in the hell did you expect this to actually work?"
"This was just the beginning. Come a few years, perhaps a decade, we'll be back."
Nord stepped closer. "Where is Tempest? What do you know about his plans?"
"I'll never talk. Equestrian scum..."
"I'm going to ask one more time. Where is Tempest and what do you know about his plans?"
The Changeling spat on his face.
Nord wiped it from his face and stepped back. "You might want to think about where you are. We're not in Canterlot anymore."
He pondered the relevance of that statement, until a Guardling pulled out a nightstick and bashed him on the head through the bars, forcing him to the floor in pain.
"Tell me what I want to know!"
"Shove it up your donut!" He covered his head and face.
The Guardling kicked him in the ribs, forcing him to remain curled to the floor.
"I don't know!" He screamed.
The Guardling was about to hit him with the nightstick again, but was stopped by Nord.
"This was the first time anyling stood up for what we believed in! For years we've been putting up with these new ways..." He coughed. "That go against our own nature. None of us know how Tempest managed to escape, nor do we know the details of his plans, but we do know one thing..."
"Going up against him is going to be one helluva dogfight."
Nord took a deep breath and lowered himself to his level. "Have you ever just... took a moment to think about why your Queen decided to advance your social and political organization to begin with?"
"Propaganda brainwashing from the humans and you!"
"It's called change. Things change, evolve, become better. Some worse, that's true. Chrysalis changed your ways because she saw it as beneficial to you and everypony else. Dictating and enslaving potential victims diminishes that which you've sought to survive... love. Love can only come from the elements of friendship and trust. Give that to them, you'll find that you'll receive it, much more than if you were to use your old approach. Why do you think your empire has thrived so much after all these years since the invasion?"
The Changeling turned away, struggling to formulate a logical response.
"That is why your revolution was doomed to fail. And any splinters of your movement still hiding in the shadows will soon realize that themselves, just as you have."
He turned back to Nord, surrendering his resistance to him.
"You're following an insane leader. Tempest will never realize this with his arrogance, ever since he learned from Ray's teachings during the invasion. All he knows is power and control, combined with his knowledge of explosive ordnance. Trust me, he is doomed to fail as much as the rest of you."
At this hour the desert was at its coldest, not enough for thicker clothing but enough to induce horripilation in addition to the apprehensive nerves. Lack of sleep was also a rising issue that forced a strain to focus on the situation at hand.
Ray prepared his SATCOM communicator and put on a headset, combing through his mullet while adjusting the device for comfort. "Ray online, how do you copy?"
Various team members acknowledged him on similar communication gear, still gathered around him awaiting his command.
"Everyone remember the plan? Ready to move?" He barely let a second pass for them all to form a coherent answer. "Let's go."
Weapons were at the ready and all teams split off, hitting the dirt as they approached the complex. Ray led the first team with Shining Armor by his side, as well as Junkers and Washington for support. Chrysalis led the SMF team, heading towards the opposite side of the complex.
The brothers Jarrett and Duster waited anxiously in a ditch near the back of the complex, keeping their promise to strike upon the success of the rescue mission and when the REDF and SMF teams were well out of range.
Xenon searchlights moved across the barren land from behind large walls of concrete and various scrap metals, looking for intruders who dared traverse into Overdog's territory. The main gate appeared to be a bus paneled with ghetto armor, well-guarded with watch towers and turrets, making it an unlikely entry point for Ray's team.
The team stopped behind a large rock, allowing a beam of light to pass by on the other side.
"We may need to rethink this." Shining said, peering over the rock.
Ray shook his head, emerging from cover to observe the complex as well. "No time. Look for a weak point in the wall and we'll exploit it."
"There." Junkers pointed to a thin sheet of metal along the wall, loosely applied to the crude frame in contrast to the rest of its sturdy construction. The only obstruction appeared to be an active watch tower built over it.
"It'll have to do. Who has the bolt-cutter?"
"Me." Washington answered, pulling them from his belt.
"Up front with me. Stay close."
Washington scooted closer to him, holding both his weapon and the bolt-cutter readily as he prepared to follow Ray's advance towards the wall.
"Wait!" Junkers hissed.
All eyes went to him, in which Junkers pointed to an object in the ground next to them.
"You've got to be f*cking kidding" was Washington's response to seeing it.
At first glance it appeared to be a circular handle to a faucet valve sticking out of the sand, but they knew what it really was, as well as how is severely affected their plan.
Ray pressed on his headset, urging himself to report the finding to Chrysalis. "My Queen, we have a problem."
"I know," she replied, "Minefield. They're some kind of Bouncing Betty offshoots. Probe the base with your knife to sweep them out. We're already at the wall."
He shot her a bit of sarcasm. "Nice of you to share." He pulled out his knife and stuck it in the ground next to the circular trigger, prying out the whole coffee can-shaped mine and set in a safe spot next to the rock. "Any open windows?"
"Drainage grate. We'll be through in a minute."
"Copy. We're moving." Ray nodded to the team and proceeded towards the wall.
Shining was burdened with sweeping for the mines, carefully probing the dirt for any hidden ones between unearthing those already visible, while Ray led them through, keeping his attention at the searchlights. Each mine seemed to differ slightly from the other, but the most notable differences were the trigger assemblies, as some bore the circular shape while others had three needle-like prongs giving the impression of stiff grass blades. Shining knew better, of course.
"Hit the dirt!" Ray whispered loudly, forcing them into a depression.
They laid low, allowing a searchlight to pass over them unknowingly, then continued on while remaining prone. The team finally reached the wall, hugging it close to remain out of the range of the lights. Everyone crept towards the weak metal, with Washington preparing to utilize his bolt-cutter. Then a loud "CLICK" snapped them to attention, freezing them in place.
Junkers, eyes wide as if he had seen a ghost, slowly looked down. Everyone else followed his vision, stopping at his boot. He was standing on a mine. He looked up at them in horror, not knowing what to do but remain as still as possible.
Ray put his hand out, approaching the armed device underneath its terrified victim. "Don't... move..."
"Really? No sh*t!" Junkers struggled to remain silent. He knew that if he stepped off, the mine would detonate. Still he counted his blessings that he was lucky enough to encounter one with a pressure-release fuse at all, rather than a pressure-contact or magnetic type.
Ray removed a small pack from his belt, pulling out various tools for disarming the device.
"We're through." Chrysalis announced on the communicator. "What's taking so long?"
Ray threw a screwdriver on the ground. "Charlie Mike. Junk got himself trapped here, so give us a minute."
"We're moving on. Out."
He went back to his task, shoveling the dirt away with his hands to expose the surface of the mine's body. He used a screwdriver to unscrew the plugs from the detonator wells, proceeding to pull out the detonators with a magnetic rod, then tossed them aside before putting his equipment away, grinning at Junkers with a look of satisfaction.
"That's it?" Junkers asked incredulously.
Ray nodded. "That's it."
Junkers hesitantly stepped off the mine. It made another click, but to his surprise it did nothing else. The sensation of relief overcame him and forced him to collapse into the wall for support, sitting upright to stare at the device that almost claimed his life. The sensation dissipated to allow a shred of audacity to take over as he scooped it out of the ground and brought it to eye-level to confront it. "Gotcha, sucker." He tossed it aside and brought himself back to the situation at hand.
Ray turned to Washington. "Charlie Mike."
Washington raised the bolt-cutter up to the metal, then hesitated for a moment, turning to Ray. "What does that even mean?
"Just cut the damned metal."
He shrugged and continued. The cutter made its way through the metal surface like a knife through butter, eventually making an opening large enough for them to fit through one-by-one. And they did just that, with Ray leading them behind a barrier of sandbags.
Washington snuck back to the opening and grabbed the mine and detonators, shoving them into a pouch on his belt, then returned to the group.
"Team Two," Ray hailed to Chrysalis, "The gnome's in the garden. Time to whack the weeds."
"Copy that," She acknowledged, "We got you covered. Be advised, Two-Twelve and Thirteen are en route to the main structures, so check your fire."
Two Ravagers stood in the beam of moonlight shining through the framework of the factory ruins, passing a cigarette and conversing about whatever came to mind. Their weapons were slung and postures were slack, unalert, expecting this night to be like any other.
"I'll be right back," one of the barbarians said to the other, immersing himself into the shadows as he made his way through the steel labyrinth. He found a concealed area where he planned to carry out some very important business, but found himself staring at two bright, blue eyes a few feet away. Before he could react, a pair of hooves wrapped around his neck from behind and snapped it instantly, resulting in his dead body collapsing to the ground.
Sud Quest nodded to the pair of eyes, which emerged into the moonlight to reveal himself as Saver, prompting him to shapeshift into an exact, living copy of the body laying before him. In a flash of green light, he was now a human Ravager, with the appearance of clothes and equipment included in his holographic disguise. He slung his weapon and took the barbarian's to complete the illusion, checking the ammo and chamber before potential use.
The other barbarian noticed the green flash behind the machinery and quickly ran to the area to investigate, only to find the usual scrap and earth, but no sign of his comrade.
Saver loaded an arrow into Sud's borrowed tactical crossbow and launched it into the man's back, paralyzing him as he tumbled to the ground.
Sud darted to a support beam and removed a C4 block from his saddlebag, armed the electronic detonator, then placed it onto the beam. He repeated this process on another beam on the other side of the structure. As a provision, Chrysalis carried extra remote detonators programmed for each device's frequency, should Sud be out of commission to utilize his own.
As soon as he completed his task he gave Saver a nod.
"My Queen," Saver hailed on the communicator, "This is Thirteen. First half of Plan B is secured. Moving on to the refinery."
Ray and his team reached a large garage area, remaining behind the outer wall to allow Ray to peek over the edge to see inside. It was brightly-lit, with all kinds of vehicles being worked on by various personnel.
He led the team past the openings as all eyes averted from their direction, occasionally crouching concealed behind the wasteland machines to remain under cover, then finally reached the other side of the structure, where they found a doorway into the rest of the complex.
Ray and Junkers checked the corners of their entrance, scanning the opposite ends of a forked corridor, then declared it clear for them to move. They pressed on down a corridor that led to the cages, but upon inspection they appeared empty.
"Great," Shining mumbled, "I knew this was a waste of time."
"It's not over yet." Ray replied. "We got a whole complex to search."
Junkers checked his watch. "We better hurry. Sun's coming up in twenty minutes."
Saver approached one of the men manning the pump that extracted the crude oil into the repository tanks for the refinery. "Hey!"
"Yeah?" The man answered, taken by the disguise.
"Could you help me with something?"
"I'm a little busy, what do you need?"
Saver looked down at his crude assault rifle, which he purposefully sabotaged beforehand. "I forgot, what do you do when it misfires and the chamber refuses to eject the round?"
The man looked at him alarmingly. "Hey, take that thing somewhere else if you're having that problem! Do you want to explode or something?"
"Please, I need your help. I don't want to risk upsetting Overdog if he finds out."
The man hesitated for a moment and took a deep breath. "Okay, follow me." He looked around to see if anyone would notice his desertion of the task at hand, then led Saver to a safe position behind a metal structure separating them from the refinery.
"Let's see what's wrong here." He grabbed the weapon from Saver and began inspecting it, attempting to pull a release lever on the weapon to open the chamber, but it would not free. "Man, you weren't kidding. This thing's really stuck." He turned his back to Saver, crouching on the ground to exert more force on the lever.
Saver took the opportunity to unsling his other weapon.
"How often do you clean the-..." He was interrupted by the impact of a rifle butt into his head, knocking him out cold.
Saver slung his weapon and grabbed the man's legs, dragging him into the shadows.
Sud, now having a window to move, approached the pumps and prepared another explosive, planting it in the most vital location he could think of under the repository tanks.
"Second half of contingency in place." Saver reported on the communicator. "Moving on to final step."
"This is weird," the radioman started, adjusting dials as he monitored his equipment, "I'm getting some kind of signals."
He was among a guard, both stationed inside a small warehouse being used as a radio shack to track signals around the compound. It was a dreary haze filled with cigarette smoke and the sounds of creaking wood and metal, the latter of which mostly bothered the guard as the radioman was immersed in the sounds of airwaves through his headphones.
"What kind of signals?" the guard asked with a puff of smoke.
"Transmissions, I think. Coming from inside the compound."
"Yeah, but I've never seen this kind of frequency before. Hang on." He flipped a switch on the speaker box and adjusted a knob until voices could be heard:
"...-py that, my Queen. Still no sign of the package. We're moving on to the back."
"Understood, team. Sixty-Eight will provide sniper cover. Will advise."
The radioman turned to the guard. "What the hell was that all about?"
The guard shook his head and made his way to the door, putting out his cigarette in a nearby ashtray along the way.
Ray and his team halted as soon as a door to a nearby warehouse flung open, making way for a Ravager that scanned the compound. He immediately spotted the team, but before he could say anything a silent bullet went through his head, killing him instantly. Undoubtedly the work of Fabre, or Operative Sixty-Eight as he was designated, from some hidden location.
"'The hell?!" another man inside the warehouse shouted, running to the door to see what happened. He was met with the same fate, collapsing onto the ground next to the other body.
A guard in a nearby watchtower heard the commotion and jerked his light towards the warehouse, shining it right over the bodies.
Ray quickly raised his weapon and took aim, hissing the word "Light!" as he shot the guard with his silenced weapon.
Shining understood the relevance of the word and shot the spotlight as soon as the body hit the floor, disabling it.
"My Queen," Ray hailed, "We need to hurry. Things are getting sloppy real fast out here."
"Understood," Chrysalis answered, trotting towards the industrial structures with the rest of her SMF team, careful to stay quiet as two guards stood conversing nearby, "We're approaching the south end. We'll rendezvous at the-..." She suddenly fell down a hole in the ground with a loud "Oof!"
The two guards caught the sound and turned sharply towards the area to find the source, but were quickly gunned down by the SMF agents' silenced weapons.
Chrysalis coughed away the dust and found herself eye-to-eye with a familiar man.
"Make yourself at home." was the man's response to seeing her.
"Faust?" she asked, mostly to reassure herself.
"No, I'm his twin brother. Nice to meet you."
She grinned at his playful sarcasm and met the gaze of another inhabitant of the hole, who appeared to be a female REDF pony. The mare was holding on to Faust for dear life as she stared at the Changeling Queen, suggestively close despite the fear in her eyes.
"What happened?" Ray asked on the communicator, "Are you alright?"
"We've located Faust! He's in a pit by the vehicle wreckage."
"Nice work! How's he doing?"
"He's pretty roughed up, but he'll live. We have a REDF soldier too. We're extracting them now."
"Is that Ray on that thing?" Faust asked.
"He's here? Now?"
He smiled and turned to his companion. "See, what'd I tell you?"
It would not be long after Chrysalis and her team extracted Faust and Silverspade from the pit that they would find others around the hideout, extracting their inhabitants to safety as they made their way back towards the drainage grate.
"Stop right there!" a guard shouted from a watchtower, shining his light directly at Sud as he was preparing another explosive to plant on the gate, not even close enough to his target as he stood with Saver near a pile of empty fuel drums with a throne atop of it.
"Oh dear." Sud sighed, accepting his fate.
The guard fired his weapon at the unearthly creature until the bullets impacted the saddlebags of demo gear, engulfing the two intruders in a startling and bright explosion that shook the compound and destroyed Overdog's mighty throne.
The entire hideout was alert, with bells and alarms sounding everywhere as Ravagers yelled and scrambled without order.
Ray's team dove behind an APC carcass for cover as soon as they heard the explosion, hiding from the Ravagers that swarmed around the compound.
"What the hell was that?!" Ray asked into the communicator.
"Two-Twelve and Thirteen are down!" Chrysalis answered.
"Alright, Plan B! Plan B! Rendezvous near the helipads!"
"The last explosive isn't planted yet! They never made it to the gate!"
"****!" Ray concluded that the explosion must have been from the last batch of C4 and quickly brainstormed possible solutions.
Shining woke up to a particular part of that sentence with alarm. "Explosives? What explosives?"
"The ones to keep the enemy busy once we extract the hostages! Except the last one was to cover our escape through the main gate, but now that plan's shot to hell!"
"They're not close to the refinery, are they?"
"Of course they are!"
"That's over a billion bits worth of petroleum! Are you crazy?!"
"Don't start with that **** again, now shut up and let me think!"
Shining grabbed Ray by his collar. "You're insane!"
Ray shoved him away with the aid of his weapon, while Junkers struggled to restrain the Royal Guard Captain. "If you do that again we're leaving you here! Stop being part of the problem and help me find a solution, damn it!"
He turned away, muttering something about a report to the Princess.
Ray looked around and noticed a helicopter being prepped by aircrews nearby, then came up with a plan on how to use it to their advantage. "Alright, I got an idea. My Queen, are you listening?"
"Affirmative!" she responded.
"Alright. Junkers, take Washington and Shining back to the vehicles... extract the same way we infiltrated, post-haste. Chrysalis, take the hostages and the SMF team and steal that helicopter to the south... regroup with Junk and the others and then rendezvous with me on the highway back to the Equestrian border. It's a small distraction, but the canyons and dunes won't allow us to stay separated long enough so hopefully it buys us enough time for our run to safety. We don't have time to regroup with the armored unit! Everyone on the same page?"
"I got it, Ray, we're on our way to the chopper now!"
Junkers spoke up. "How are you going to make it to the highway without us?"
"Don't worry about me, just go! If I'm not there just keep heading for the border!" Ray took off towards the factory and garage structures.
The SMF team took down the aircrews preparing the Dauphin with their silenced weapons, leading the hostages into the cabin and Chrysalis into the pilot's seat. Lancer joined her in the ****pit, claiming the co-pilot seat to her left. By now the sun was rising, casting an orange glow over the desert surface. It would not be long before the Ravagers would notice that one of their aircraft was commandeered, so Chrysalis finished the preparations to lift off, flipping switches and turning knobs in haste.
It was slightly more complicated than Snakefly, but she understood enough from flying the small experimental and reading enough relevant literature to figure out the rest on her own, separating the critical flight instruments from the other sensor equipment and weapon systems.
"Sixty-Eight!" Lancer shouted into his communicator. "Sixty-Eight, this is Fifty-Two! We've secured the chopper! Get over here!"
Chrysalis' heart sank, stopping her preparations to look back at the stick of troops in the cabin, and indeed her quick headcount indicated that one of her operatives were missing; Fabre, Operative Sixty-Eight, probably still dug in to his sniper position.
"Negative," Fabre responded, "Area is too hot! Repeat, area is too hot! I have no clear path between you and me! I'll provide cover for your extraction and exfiltrate towards Thorne Three! Over!"
"Alright, Sixty-Eight, good luck! See ya in Equestria, over."
"Heh! I'll see you in Handlirsch! Happy trails!" His signal suddenly cut.
Chrysalis was uneasy at the idea of Fabre exfiltrating to a location many miles away on his own in the desert, likely having to ditch his equipment to fly there, but she assured herself that the SMF was fully trained for desert warfare and survival and therefore made the decision easier for her to accept. Besides, it was far more sensible than wading through enemy fire to get to an already fully-loaded helicopter.
"Here we go," said Chrysalis with her hooves positioned on the controls, "Hang on!" She slowly pulled back on the elevator lever to her left and steadied the aircraft with her right hoof on the cyclic at the center with her back hooves on the pedals for tail rotor control, which dictated the direction of the aircraft. Her posture was awkward in the small seat, making her slightly uncomfortable, but she pulled through and raised the helicopter into the air. Her take-off was smooth for her first time in a more advanced helicopter, though a bit wobbly, but she quickly grew accustomed to it and began flying the Dauphin towards the front of the compound.
"Triple-A!!" Lancer shouted, "Left-front!"
Chrysalis looked and saw a pair of Ravagers preparing a mobile SAM station trained at the escaping Dauphin.
Faust grabbed the minigun guarding the open door window to the port side and fired at the installation until the Ravagers dropped behind the clouds of red and brown smoke exploding around them. "Tango down! They got the drop on us, let's get the hell out of here!"
Chrysalis realized the other major obstacles in their escape and took action, finding the rocket trigger on her cyclic. She took aim at the various watchtowers around the base and fired rockets at them until they were blown apart in flames.
Washington was last through the hole in the wall as Junkers and Shining ran through the safe path through the minefield, towards the dunes concealing their vehicles. Washington stayed behind, removing the mine he took earlier and fuses from his pouch. He rearmed the explosive device and ran a piece of wire over the trigger, placing the mine on one side of the opening and tied the other end of the wire to the beam supporting the watchtower on the other side.
"Hey!" a Ravager shouted at him, "What are you doing there?!" This particular barbarian seemed even less intelligent than the others, appearing genuinely confused as to whether he should have his weapon trained at him or not.
"Planting a bomb, you moron! What does it look like?!" With that said, Washington finished and sprinted away towards the rest of the team.
The Ravager reacted and began chasing Washington, not noticing the small wire across the hole until he tripped it, hearing a loud "CLICK" to his right. As soon as he turned in the direction of the sound, the mine shot out of its casing and hit the man in his chest, blowing him back into the watchtower support beam just before it exploded and caused the tower to collapse.
"Triple-A!!" Lancer shouted again, spotting another pair of Ravagers preparing a SAM launcher, "Dead ahead!"
Before Chrysalis could react with the weapons on her gunship, the two Ravagers were met with the fate of unseen small-arms fire aimed perfectly for their heads. Undoubtedly the work of Fabre still dug in somewhere.
"Chrysalis!" Ray shouted on the communicator, "Execute!! Blow the explosives!"
"Copy that!" She acknowledged, then turned to Lancer. "Grab the detonators out of my pack! I'm a little busy here!"
"Yes, my Queen!" Lancer did as he was told and set the remote detonators in his lap, awaiting the command to set off the explosives.
"What are you waiting for?! Do it!"
"Affirmative, detonating!" He grabbed all of them and hugged them close, triggering all of the explosives at once.
The factory and refinery exploded into brilliant mushroom clouds that cast shadows over the compound as they darkened. Chrysalis could only imagine how Shining felt about seeing this spectacle unfold. Better yet, how Overdog himself felt about his precious fuel going up in flames.
No... No!! The refinery! Our only way of refining the fuel! The fuel!! Overdog watched with fury burning through his veins as his refinery was reduced to rubble, swallowed by the desert and the fuel gone with it. He reminded himself with vexation that his only means of refining the crude of his new wells was destroyed before his eyes, and there was no undoing.
Suddenly revenge was all that lingered in his mind. He felt it as strongly as he could smell the smoke and fire of his burning fuel around him, no longer lamenting the loss of his control of the Zone Ravager base and instead cursed the ones who did this.
"My Lord Overdog!" McNabb shouted as he approached the enraged monster of a man, "They've taken the prisoners! And Screaming Minnie!"
Overdog watched as the stolen gunship screamed overhead, making way for the dunes and out of the confines of his compound. "They will pay for this," he started, just barely audible over the commotion, "They will pay in kind with their blood scattered across the wastes!"
Suddenly the thin wall of the nearby garage burst open as one of the tanker Peterbilts sped towards the gate, driven by an unknown man sporting a dark-brown mullet. The truck then crashed through, not the gate, but the metal structure of the wall next to it, quickly swerving back onto the road to avoid the minefield.
"After him!" Overdog shouted to the scrambling Ravagers, "He has the prisoners! Go!!"
Those that actually heard him ran to their vehicles in the garage, with others following as they realized what was going on.
Overdog spun to McNabb and grabbed his shoulders. "Prepare my battlewagon! Go!!"
Dawning put out his cigarette and shifted his sunglasses for comfort, eyeing his opponent with an intensity that made him break a sweat before the rising sun could bake the dunes hotter. He was alert, ready for anything, so he thought, his concentration far too dire to break. His opponent was not only in plain sight, but in close proximity. Extremely close proximity. Literally only two feet away.
"Well ask me already, don't wait for the second apocalypse!" The Changeling Model 4 driver in front of Dawning was obviously growing impatient and irritated with how seriously he was taking this game of cards.
"Okay," Dawning finally spoke, holding up his cards, "Do you have any... threes?"
The Changeling threw the cards down and got up. "That's it, I'm out."
"You're supposed to say 'go fish.'"
"Pick another number and I might, pony boy!" He walked away joining the spectating crew of his IFV.
Dawning lit another cigarette and gathered his deck with a sigh. "I knew I should've taken up those poker lessons."
"Incoming chopper!" someone shouted, catching the attention of every Thorne Three inhabitant as they eyed the sky for any sign of the aircraft. The voice finally clarified: "Approaching from the East!"
From where the gangs took the prisoners... where the recovery team went! Dawning dropped the card deck and ran up the nearby slope to get a better view, removing binoculars from a pouch on his belt. He peered through and watched as a sleek helicopter gunship headed for them with daunting speed. He was relieved to find what appeared to be REDF ponies and Changelings peeking through the open windows of the rear cabin, filling him with exhiliration at the realization of who they were. He got up and turned to the rest of the occupants of the well site. "It's the REDF! They've got the prisoners!!"
Cheers errupted from everywhere, even the Changelings as they quickly moved their IFVs out of the way to clear a path for the aircraft to land.
The screaming sound of the helicopter's Fenestron blade harmony was almost deafening as it came in for a landing, cabin doors swinging open as soon as the wheels touched the ground. Faust and the REDF ponies emerged and collapsed to the ground, prompting Dawning, Dusky, and others to gather around and help them up, ducking and shielding their eyes to avoid the whirlwind of dust as they made their way to the safety of the Model 4s. The Changelings that accompanied them, however, stayed behind in the cabin, manning the door guns.
"Welcome back!" Dawning greeted. He halted when he noticed the pilot door swing open and a hole-riddled hoof beckoned him to head over there. "Dusky, take over, I'll be right back!" He left the group and approached the ****pit to find Queen Chrysalis at the controls.
"First Lieutenant Dawning!" She shouted, "Make sure they get to the border ASAP! And radio HQ! Tell them Ray has commandeered a tanker and is with the rest of the recovery team en route to Equestria! They're being tailed by a hostile gang faction and require reinforcements!"
"I'll send the message right away!"
"One last thing! The ramrod is friendly!"
"The one with the big cow-catcher! Just tell them!" She left it at that and shut her door, preparing to take off.
Faust broke away from the group, having overheard the conversation and ran up the hill to get a better view of the desert. He could spot a faint glint in the distance, moving down one of the roads. He identified it as the tanker Ray had taken in the escape from the Zone, but he could also see more vehicles chasing behind, most likely the gang of Zone Ravagers. "Don't get yourself killed this time, Ray."
Junkers, Washington, and Shining Armor finally made it to their vehicles, with the crews of the Sprut and Model 4 waiting for them around a burning barrel at the center of their makeshift camp. Shining signaled the Sprut crew to saddle up as he entered the turret hatch of the formidable tank-destroyer, with the Model 4 crew following their example as they prepared the Changeling IFV.
Washington was first to start his engine. The mighty ramrod sounded almost like a tank as it warmed up, yet was oddly louder than the 2S25. It was obnoxiously more toxic as well, immediately coughing up its familiar plumes of black smoke and hissing jets of white condensation.
Junkers was about to enter the Scrambler until he could hear a distinctive shrieking sound accompanied by a repetitive pitter-patter. He looked towards the sky to see Chrysalis' Dauphin heading towards them, easing into a sideways drift that stopped into a hover.
"Team One," Chrysalis hailed on the communicator, "Package has been delivered to Thorne Three. Faust and the other REDF POWs are safe."
"Yes!" Junkers shouted with great elation, "Are they on their way to Equestria now?"
"Affirmative, the armored unit is escorting them back as we speak!"
"That's great news! What about Ray? Did you see him along the way?"
"Yes, but we need to hurry! He's reached the highway but the whole Ravager gang is closing in on him! He won't make it to the border without us!"
"Alright, lead the way!" Junkers jumped into the Scrambler and slid the door shut, quickly starting his engines and kicking dirt as he sped from the dune, the other vehicles close behind as they followed him and the Dauphin back to the roads.
Ray struggled to control the metal beast as he was not accustomed to driving larger vehicles like this. Turning was bothersome and he could only reach 44 miles per hour for some reason, no matter how hard he pushed the tanker truck. The gang was sure to catch up to him at this pitiful speed. He checked the ammo in his CX-4 carbine and unscrewed the suppressor on the muzzle, being no longer necessary as he wanted as much accuracy as possible when a confrontation arises. He set it on the seat next to him and checked his other weapons; a tactical crossbow and a Serbu Super Shorty that he found under his seat, but he could not find any more 12 gauge shells than the six already clipped to the holder on the side of the weapon.
He caught a glint of something in his mirror and adjusted it to see the Ravager vehicles approaching him from behind. Here we go... He set the weapons next to him and attempted to push the tanker past the 44 mark again but was still not permitted to. Cursing under his breath he tried to think of solutions, such as to escape the confines of the road, but the dunes, rocks, and canyons forbade the idea.
A red flatbed technical sped to the left side of the tanker trailer just as a turn was coming up and Ray used it to his advantage, taking up the technical's side of the road and forcing it into a bed of rocks where it tumbled onto a twisted heap.
The road became straight for a long distance, allowing others to catch up to him with ease. A pair of motorcycles split off and headed for the driver cab from each side, each cyclist holding out some kind of flechette-launchers on their wrists. Ray swerved and ran the one on the left into the dunes, but the one on the right had already made it to the cab, swinging his arm around to aim his weapon. Ray instinctively grabbed the crossbow and shot an arrow into the cyclist's neck. The man gripped the arrow in pain, losing balance of his bike and forcing him crashing to the road, sliding and rolling until he was run over by another technical.
Ray tossed the crossbow aside and grabbed the Shorty, loading two of the shells into the magazine. He could see the armored technical gaining, but staying close to the trailer behind. He strained to find a weak point on the body, but it was covered in far more ghetto armor than the last one, with only very narrow vision slots and wheels barely visible behind the thick fenders. A shot at the driver would be pure luck that he feared was run out by this point. Ray thought to run him off the road like the others but noticed that two Ravagers had already jumped onto the trailer between him looking at the road and checking the mirrors. They climbed over a mesh netting covering the cylindrical tank, edging towards the cab. The technical backed off, anticipating Ray's next move.
****! Ray almost lost control as he came across another turn in the road, before it became straight again. He tried yet again to pass the 44 mark but was met with the same results. It made no sense to him as he was nowhere near the red zone on the meters and the transmission made no signs of struggling through high RPMs.
Without warning the technical exploded into pieces just behind the trailer, sending a shock through the vehicle that shook Ray's senses as he frantically looked into each mirror to find out what happened. He looked rearward to find a familiar band of vehicles approaching from behind the marauding caravan, as well as a helicopter gunship that passed over the tanker.
"Welcome to the party!" he pressed the headset, but he was met without reply. Checking the communicator he found a crack in the receiver and promptly ripped the headset away.
Chrysalis' Dauphin lowered to the right side of the cab so he could see her. She gestured to her ears, obviously indicating the SATCOM gear.
Ray replied with the same gesture followed by a hand across his throat, conveying to her that his communicator was shot.
She made another gesture, this time pointing at either him or the cab.
THUD! Ray looked up at the roof, realizing that one of the barbarians had reached the cab, when suddenly a fist with spiked knuckles punched through the glass of his door and grabbed his neck into a chokehold. He dropped the Shorty into his lap and grabbed the arm that restrained him, trying to pull away while steering the tanker with the other hand. A gnarled metal weapon smashed through the slotted armor across the windshield and shattered the glass all over the cab, repeatedly until the entire protective grill was ripped away.
"Help him!" Chrysalis shouted to her door gunners, "Get the one on the roof!"
"I can't!" the Changeling gunner replied, "He's to close to Ray!"
"Oh, for hell's sake!" She pulled out and guided the aircraft over the trailer, somewhat off center to allow access from the port side of the cabin. "Disembark! Both of you!"
"But I'm not SMF!" the gunner protested, "I'm not trained for-..."
"Get out! Get out!!" Chrysalis yelled like a maniac.
Heinkel abandoned the starboard door gun and grabbed the frightened Guardling, shoving themselves out of the cabin and landed onto the top of the tank, both struggling to grab hold of the mesh.
Chrysalis pulled away again, falling back to provide gunship support.
"My Queen," Lancer started, "We're low on rockets! I suggest using the machine guns! I'm reading full capacity!"
"I'm not trained for this!" the Guardling yelled, following the SMF agent as they crawled towards the cab.
"Oh, shut up!!" Heinkel replied, unslinging his crossbow.
A buggy approached the left of the trailer, with another pair of barbarians throwing chained grappling hooks onto the mesh. One of the hooks caught the guardling's legs and trapped him, causing him to pannic and yell for help.
Heinkel looked back at the commotion and quickly shot an arrow into the first Ravager's chest, sending the man colliding with the road.
"Your horn!" Heinkel shouted to the trapped Guardling, "Use your cutting spe-..." He spotted the other barbarian emerging from the side of the tank and quickly loaded another arrow, but was quickly shot in the head by the Ravager's sawed-off shotgun before he had a chance to aim. His lifeless body hung from the mesh off to the side of the tank, crossbow still attached to his hoof.
The buggy scraped against a rocky hill along the road and swerved out of control, toppling and spinning into a mess of debris as the sandrail body got snagged on the chain, being dragged behind the tanker and flailing all over the road.
The Ravager's leg caught onto the chain as well, trapping him upside down onto the side of the tank. The man struggled to grab hold of the mesh, grunting at the pain of his bond as he could feel the chain digging close to the bone.
Ray kicked at the Ravager on the hood with his free foot while he continued to struggle with the other that held his neck. He struck the barbarian twice until the man grabbed the kicking leg, trying to crawl into the cab after him.
He let go of the arm that held him and grabbed the Shorty, firing one of the scatter shells at the Ravager in front of him and sending him rolling off the hood, meeting his fate under the wheels of the tanker. He then turned and fired a shell at the arm, deafening his ear as blood splattered all over him.
The man withdrew his arm with a cry of pain, as he took in the sight of a large chunk missing as if a bite were taken out of it.
"Can't you speed this thing up?!" Shining Armor asked the driver of the Sprut.
The driver shook his head. "I'm going the max speed allowed for it!"
Shining looked at the speedometer and noticed it was just shy of the red zone, meaning it could be pushed further if need be. "That's not what this thing says!"
"Any faster we might seize the engine!"
"That's an order!!"
The driver pushed the old tank-destroyer harder until the hull shook, gaining on Ray's tanker.
As soon as they were in close proximity to the rear of the tank trailer, Shining turned to the turret operator. "Raise the turret a couple of feet! I want it touching the top of that tanker!"
The REDF pony did as he was told, raising the 125mm gun until the barrel met the upper edge of the tank.
Shining emerged from the hatch, climbing onto the gun in order to get to the tank.
The driver popped his head out of his own hatch and called out to the Royal Guard Captain: "Captain Armor! What are you doing?!"
"There might be crude or refined petroleum in this thing and Ray needs all the help he can get! Now keep it steady!"
Something popped at the rear of the Sprut, making it choke and slow down, just as Shining reached the tank and grabbed hold of the mesh net. The barrel slipped out from between his legs, sending them colliding with the tank. The Sprut's engine died and stopped dead in the road, forcing an armored car crashing into it, crumbling the front end like a tin can. The pair of vehicles suddenly exploded, likely the result of a fuel leak sparked from the impact.
Shining shielded himself from any debris and pressed on, having no time to grieve over the loss of his men and rare equipment. He followed the chain that dragged the buggy carcass to the side of the tank where he was met with a ricochet of buckshot on the edge, forcing him back to cover. He unslung his G3 rifle and spun back around, firing several shots at the Ravager that hung from the chain until satisfied he was dead. He started making his way along the side of the tank until an explosion impacted the ground next to him, fragging his shoulder and forcing him off the net. He quickly grabbed hold of the chain for support, dropping his gun on the road in the process.
An armored car sped closer to him as a roof gunner tossed a spent M72 LAW launcher and grabbed the machine gun mounted in front of him. The rear of the car blasted apart, killing the gunner and forcing the vehicle into a ditch.
Shining saw that it was Junkers in the Scrambler, operating the rear turret with the second set of controls in the driver area. Shining grinned with a salute and grabbed the mesh again, continuing his journey to the top of the tank where he met a terrified Changeling trapped from the grappling hook.
"Please!" the Changeling yelled, "Help me!"
Shining continued past him and made way for the driver cab where Ray was, then stopped and turned around after another plea from the Changeling.
"Don't leave me here like this!!"
He thought for a moment, then cursed as he crawled back, attempting to pry the hook off of the holed leg.
"Here!" a voice called next to them. It was Washington in his ramrod, holding up the bolt-cutter. He threw it to Shining, who struggled to catch it but was helped by the Changeling.
Shining cut through the metal, freeing both the Changeling and the sandrail that dragged behind.
"Thank you!" the Changeling shouted, the look of relief on his face difficult to ignore as Shining helped him cross the top of the tank towards the cab.
As they reached the other side, they found a Ravager clung to metal protrusions behind the cab for support as he bandaged his wound. He then looked up, staring incredulously at the creatures before him for a brief moment before succumbing to his instincts, raising his other arm and firing a flechette at one of them.
Shining ducked and grabbed the crossbow caught in the hooves of Heinkel's body still hanging from the mesh and shot an arrow into the man's head, causing him to fall off the supports and onto the road below the tanker.
The Changeling beside him choked, eyes wide as he gripped his neck with his hooves. Shining was almost brought to tears from the look of helplessness on the creature's face, his eyes fixed on the stream of blood pouring from the flechette wound. He brought himself back to eye level.
"I'm sorry..." was all that Shining could think of to say or do, as nothing could help this poor Changeling now. "I'm so sorry!"
And just like that, the Guardling fell lifeless in his arms, eyes still wide from the previous shock.
Shining's mind was a blank, holding on to the body unsure of what to do now but remain there. When thoughts did finally flood his mind again, it was a replay of events. The face of the terrified Changeling caught in the hook. It was a face he knew he would never forget.
Ray loaded more shells into the Shorty and checked his mirrors, watching as another pair of motorcycles approached. One of them was quickly gunned down by the Dauphin, but the other still charged. He reacted and swerved to hit it, forcing it to collide with a rock and sending the cyclist flying down a drop into a dry ravine.
The passenger door opened, prompting Ray to whip the Shorty in the direction of the intruder, only to put it down as he recognized the hooves gripping the doorframe.
"Friendly!" Shining Armor shouted as he entered the cab, shutting the door behind him.
"How d-... What are you doing here?!"
Ray noticed a wound on Shining's shoulder. "What happened to you?"
"Nothing, just watch the road! I'll cover you!" He grabbed Ray's CX-4 from the seat and checked it.
Ray then shifted his vision to the mirror, watching as another flatbed followed next to the tank, preparing to unload a group of Ravagers. "Over there!"
Shining emerged from the window and fired at the technical, attaining a kill as one of the barbarians fell off the vehicle.
A gunner behind the flatbed's cab shot a barrage of arrows at the tanker, with one hitting Shining in the same wounded shoulder, forcing him back into the cab.
"Ah, damn it!!" He roared, "That's the same place they got me before!" He gripped the arrow in pain.
Chrysalis destroyed the flatbed technical with the last rocket, switching back to the machine guns with the control on her cyclic.
"Well," Lancer said, "That does it for the unguided rockets! Except for those things..."
"Those!" Lancer pointed at what appeared to be lone rockets at the wingtips, larger than the ones from the pods. There were only two of them, one for each wing. "I think they might be some kind of guided missiles!"
Chrysalis looked at her cyclic to find the switch for them, but could only find the controls for the rocket pods and machine guns. "Where's the controls for them?"
Lancer observed a kind of periscope-shaped device protruding from the ceiling where a roof window would be, ending in front of him. "I think this thing's the sighting device! Perhaps my stick here has the-..."
A barrage of metal arrows struck the port side of the ****pit, shattering the windows.
Chrysalis pulled away, taking a look at her copilot to find three of the arrows lodged in his now dead body. "No! You bastards!"
She guided the Dauphin back to the highway, ready to attack when suddenly she noticed another vehicle catching up to the tanker. She was taken back by the odd display, as it appeared to be a carriage of sorts made from the front end of a Volkswagen van, minus roof, being pulled by two motorcycles as ponies would.
Overdog! She could see him as the "driver" of the bizarre setup with reins made of chain that led to the cyclists wearing spiked collars. Behind Overdog was a gunner position, firing another barrage of arrows that struck the belly of the aircraft, forcing Chrysalis to pull away again.
"What the hell is that?!" Ray asked in surprise of the cycle-drawn carriage, staring at it's image in the mirror.
"Watch the road!" Shining yelled, reaching for the wheel.
Ray quickly brought his attention back to avoid the debris of a wrecked sandrail FAV in the middle of the road, leftovers from the first attack on the oil wells.
Overdog's carriage shot arrows into the front wheels of the tanker then sped up, heading back on the road attempting to cut Ray off.
Ray began losing control of the Peterbilt, running over more debris from wrecked guard technicals until the vehicle started tipping over. "No, no, no, no, noooo!!"
The tanker rolled onto its side, forcing Shining to land on Ray as he braced for the impact. The vehicle slid to a halt with the tank trailer blocking the road. Much to the danger of Junkers as he crashed the Scrambler straight through the tank, flying into the air and flipping over as he met the road again.
Overdog whipped the cyclists with the reins for speed as he watched in terror as the upturned Scrambler headed straight for them, colliding with the chariot in a total mess of twisted metal that crushed the two cyclists under the remains.
Washington stopped his ramrod next to the Peterbilt wreckage, exiting the vehicle with his AK-47 drawn at the wrecks of Overdog's carriage and the Scrambler, then ran up to the tanker cab when he could not see any sign of life from them. He slung his weapon and shoved away various debris. "Ray! You okay?"
The Dauphin came to hard landing next to the tanker with Chrysalis exiting the ****pit, running up to Washington to help him uncover the cab.
When they moved the last piece of debris away from the broken windshield they saw Shining Armor laying unconscious on Ray's body and decided to pull him out onto the road, with Chrysalis checking his pulse to make sure he was still alive. Ray was still awake as he kicked away shattered glass and metal fragments, being helped out by Washington.
"Goddamn, man," said Washington, "Do you ever know when to quit?"
Ray grinned with blood staining his teeth, looking down to find Shining on the ground. "Is he okay?"
Chrysalis got up and approached him, ecstatic to see the both of them alive. "Yeah! He's fine, he's just unconscious. I'm glad you're okay, Ray."
"Thanks, same to you my Queen." His smile faded when he noticed the remains of the Scrambler ahead and began approaching it.
"Maybe you should sit down." Washington tried to stop him but was brushed away.
Ray ran up to the wreckage and began shoving debris away to get to the driver's area, struggling to get it all cleared away until he found a hand emerging from below, frantically helping him. Eventually Junkers surfaced, his head covered with blood as he sported a gash along his hairline.
"Hurry up, man, get me out of here!"
Ray pulled Junkers onto the road and helped him to his feet.
"Thanks, much appreciated." He looked back at the wrecks with a whistle. "Man, sorry about your ride."
Ray laughed. "Don't worry about it. I'm used to it."
A familiar pair of motorcycles with rollcages rumbled towards them and stopped to join the group, with the two brothers slowly getting off with expressions of disappointment as they looked at the remains of Overdog's carriage.
Ray spoke up to them. "Nice to see you two again."
"The death of Overdog was our brainworking!" Jarrett barked, "Our purpose to-..."
Duster put his hand on his brother's shoulder to silence him. "I'm sorry, what he meant to say was... while we felt it our duty to see that death be brought upon the Overdog by our own means, we are relieved that his reign of terror over the wastes has finally been put to an end once and for all. We can't thank you enough for that, outlander."
Ray simply stood there, taking in what the wastelander had to say.
"I think we now may be able to live in peace. Sort of."
"Why don't you come with us?" Ray asked, nodding towards the Dauphin.
"We appreciate your offer, but our place is here. Our family is here." He paused for a moment. "Perhaps we'll rebuild at Overdog's abandoned compound. Finally settle down somewhere safe."
"And the minefields?" Jarett reminded him.
"Hey, it's an idea. We'll brainwork those problems when we get to them." He turned back to Ray. "You're welcome to visit us any time you wish. We are indebted to you." He then escorted his brother back to the motorcycles and they both took off, heading back up the road from where they came.
Washington put his hand on Ray's shoulder. "Well, look at you, making a name for yourself out in the wasteland."
Ray shrugged with a sheepish grin and started walking towards the Dauphin.
"It's a beautiful thing, man! Hot damn, I love it!" He noticed Junkers struggling to stand and quickly moved to support him. "Oh, sorry."
"You're a strange human," said Chrysalis.
Washington gave her a puzzled look. "Why do you say that? Is it because I'm black?"
"No. You're just strange. But my kind of strange."
"Huh, well, back at ya... cheese horse."
It was her turn to give him a look.
"Sorry. Your majesty, your royal hind-end, or whatever."
She excused his bumbling demeanor and rolled her eyes with a snicker, trotting up to Ray as the group approached the Dauphin to leave this godforsaken land behind, careful to load Shining into the cabin before they finally took off.