Special thanks: to my editor tebee without whom this story would be a mess of grammatical errors and my pre-readers
Once upon a time, on the not-so-magical-and-actually-quite-fucked-up planet of Earth. There was a US Marine who signed up to defend his country. He was assigned to a fire team, the fire team assigned to a squad and the squad assigned to a company. Together they defended the area surrounding a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan from insurgents. If only it were that simple.
Chapter 1: Of New Wars and PipBucks
"As a soldier, you can be sent to any area of the world... you could find yourself alone, in a remote area possibly in enemy territory. This manual provides information and describes basic techniques that will enable you to survive and return alive, should you find yourself in such a situation." Preface, US Army Survival Guide.
" and so I said, 'chicken nuggets? Are you crazy!?'" exclaimed Jackson
The two marines in the Humvee's back seat roared with laughter. I'd missed the setup so the joke didn't really work for me. I did crack a smile though. Heh. Oatmeal.
That's right, I'm a Brony. Not that that's a secret. There are no real secrets in the company. Relying on each other for your lives seems to make things like our TV preferences seem somewhat insignificant. So, despite some ribbing (no Jackson, Bronyism is NOT covered under "don't ask, don't tell!"), it was accepted just like Andrews' bottle cap collection, or Jackson's wild exaggerations of his teenage adventures. Hell, it gave us something to talk about, and when you're stuck patrolling a the same patch of dirt for eight months anything is better than talking about the weather. Lets have an example conversation:
"Hot today isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. Just like it was when you asked yesterday. Just like it has been for the last four months. So when you come up to me tomorrow, and you ask me, 'Hot today isn't it?' my answer's gonna be; it's still freakin' hot, and we're still in a fucking desert."
"How hot do you think it is?"
"I hate you."
My short brown hair was plastered to my head beneath my combat helmet, a few beads of sweat pooling around the follicles creating an itch I'd learned to ignore. Gold tinted Oakley sunglasses rubbed against the chinstrap while shielding my eyes from occasional blasts of light when the sun was unobstructed by cliffs. Ear plugs hung on a cord around my neck. According to SOP's written by some rear echelon motherfucker they were supposed to be inserted whenever I left the FOB, but seriously? Fuck that. I'd rather hear the enemy coming than die with intact eardrums.
Some people wonder whether humvees are comfortable like the civilian versions. They're not. Mind you, when you're wearing eighty pounds of combat gear in a hundred and ten degree heat, comfortable is not a term which is thrown around much. Humvees are utilitarian beasts, and when it's a choice between a more comfortable seat and an extra fifty pounds of armor on the doors, I know which one I'll pick. The seat. Man, fuck armor. Standard armor already stops seven six two's, and if you get hit with an RPG you're fucked anyway. It's an anti-tank weapon, and no matter how much armor you bolt to a Humvee it'll never be a fuckin' Abrams! Damn PoG's don't think like that though. Hur, der Marines 'er tough, they c'n handle be'in uncomfortable!
Yeah, of course, until it comes back and fucks you in the ass when you jump out into a firefight and can't run straight.
Andrews was listening to my rant and peeked down from the gunner's turret.
"Maligning the armor?" asked Andrews with mock incredulity, "Oooo, tempting fate now aren't we. Next you'll be saying you're two weeks from retirement!"
It was difficult to tell how serious he was being. We joke about fate and superstition, but at the same time we all have our rituals, the things we do just to appease lady fate. Little things, stupid things. Andrews wears a cross around his neck that I'd never seen before we deployed, Jackson listens to the same song, every day at the same time, even the Sargent is not immune. He stirs his cereal three times before eating, no more, no less. And me? I have my Twilight Sparkle. A little blind bag pony that stays in my pocket, where my nocs (night vision goggles) used to be, before they broke (dust proof my ass). We believed in luck, yet mocked the very idea of it. The mind's way of dealing with what we can't control.
"Fuck retirement, only way I'm retiring in two weeks is in a bodybag," I retorted, "I plan on a long and illustrious career of being shot at, blown up and unappreciated in some backwater country."
"That why you re-enlisted?" he asked more seriously.
"What would I do as a civvie?" I deflected, "Get some shitty ass customer service job and work it for the rest of my life, if I'm lucky? Fuck that shit, I'm a Marine."
The first Humvee in the convoy exploded. Or at least the front of it did. Supersonic metal fragments pinged off our windscreen.
"IED!" someone yelled.
In the movies, this is where everything would go into slow motion. Real life was not so forgiving. Everything happened nauseatingly fast. No time to think, only react. We skidded off the road in a cloud of dust. I threw myself out of the Humvee, but blinded by the dust cloud I missed my footing and fell on my face. Tasting dirt and a trickle of salty blood from a split lip, I rose up into a crouch. I'd managed to keep a hold of my rifle. I could hear rounds being fired, impacting sand and metal. AK's. At this distance my armor would hold, but that didn't mean shit unless I got hit in the chest.
Goddamnit where were they! I scanned left. There up on the cliffs.
"Ten o'clock," I yelled "up high!"
"I got more at three o'clock!" called Jackson, "looks like they're dug in!"
I fired my M4 ineffectually, wondering why the fifty wasn't firing. I looked back and was met with a sight that, upon reflection is horrifying, but at the time was just numbly accepted. No time for feelings. Most of Andrews' face had been blown out by a shot to the back of the head.
"We're too exposed," yelled the Sargent, "get to the cliffs, Pearson, you first, now, COVER FIRE!"
That was me. As my fire team fired off rounds, I sprinted forward for the first piece of cover I could find and dove into a convenient alcove in the rocks. Something wasn't right. I looked more closely and my blood ran cold. There was a wire sticking out of the ground.
"Secondaries!" I yelled, as I threw myself as far as I could back out into the street.
The explosion followed. Focused by the rock walls it threw me like a ragdoll, shrapnel tearing into my left leg. I hit the ground. Hard.
I guess I must have passed out because when I came to, it was cold and dark. Really dark. A thick cloud cover blocked both moon and stars. Where the hell was everyone? I scrabbled in the dark and was relieved when I felt the familiar shape of my rifle.
This is my rifle, there are many like it, but this one is mine. Without me, my rifle is useless, without my rifle, I am useless.
An adage endlessly repeated by Boots and considered 'stupid' by veteran Marines, it none the less provides an idea of the bond between a Marine and his weapon. Any Marine unfortunate enough to misplace his rifle will likely experience a sensation not unlike excreting a number of standard masonry blocks. For those of you who have consumed MREs this will require little imagination.
I switched on the barrel mounted flashlight and the powerful beam cut through the darkness.
This couldn't be right. I looked around and recognised nothing. The Humvees, even the wreckage was gone! The cliffs were all wrong. Hell even the dirt was wrong, it was soft and fine, completely unlike the coarse, sandy grit that filled my boots.
They couldn't just have left me behind! I pulled out my radio and turned it on, cycling through the different military channels... nothing. That wasn't too surprising; the range on those things is only a few miles. I put out a few calls, but I wasn't about to hold my breath.
Luckily the shrapnel wound to my leg was not as serious as I'd feared. As I bandaged it, I noticed something bulky under my left sleeve. It was so comfortable that I hadn't noticed it up til this point. Rolling up my sleeve revealed some kind of wrist mounted computer. A small emblem read 'PipBuck 3000'. Weird name.
I was hesitant to press the 'on' button in case it turned out to be packed with explosives. In Afghanistan, paranoia saves lives. Eventually my curiosity won out. After all, someone had gone through the trouble of putting it on me while I was unconscious. If they'd wanted to kill me they'd have done so already.
The monochrome display lit up amber and revealed a map. Wow, retro, I thought to myself. All the sudden my vision flashed and when it came back I could see a compass in the corner of my vision. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Some kind of retinal projection? Wow, I take back what I said about 'retro'.
There was a direction marked on the compass. A direction I should travel. I looked down at the map and... da fuck? It was navigating me to a place named 'Ponyville'. Since when do Afghans name their towns in English? Someone was having a joke. That or this was some kind of coma dream, still couldn't rule that out, but I couldn't quite bring myself to believe that it was. For now, this was real.
You'd probably think that as a Marine I'd feel right at home operating alone in what could potentially be enemy territory, that as a veteran of two wars I'd be ready for this. You'd be wrong. Sure I had some training, but I was a Rifleman, not a Commando. I lived and fought alongside my four man fire team, and most of the time with the other two fire teams of the squad backing us up. I hadn't been truly alone in months and psychologically it took its toll.
With no idea where I was relative to
anything, I figured I may as well follow the nav point. I doubted I was within any kind of search area, heck, it was probably a different country. Equestria came to mind but I dismissed it out of hand. Ponyville wasn't that unique of a name, and this didn't much look like a magical utopia to me. If it was, I'd be giving Rainbow Dash a piece of my mind. This weather was ridiculous. I laughed at my own joke, but really I was freaking out. So I fell back on my training.
Right, first things first. Inventory; M4A1 SOPMOD1, ACOG scope, night vision scope, flashlight, four 30 round mags FMJ 5.56mm, M203 under barrel grenade launcher with three 30mm grenades, Berretta M9, two 15 round mags, multi-tool, med pack, standard combat knife, Dragonskin armor, helmet and ballistic goggles, sunglasses, digital watch, hydration pack, two energy bars, a (useless) radio, an (equally useless) map of the area we had been patrolling and a mission report logbook. To my surprise this was all listed out in my (I guess I can call it mine, it is attached to me after all) PipBuck. Next to each of them was a value in 'caps'. Whatever those were. The most intriguing thing was the entry for my armor. 'Dragonskin armor (Human Variant)'. 'Human Variant'? As opposed to what?
I still couldn't see much as I worked my way towards the nav point, but the ubiquitous mud I was trudging through seemed to confirm my suspicion that I was no longer in the desert. I swapped out my ACOG scope for the night vision attachment. This meant the sights were no longer zeroed of course, but it'd be good enough for close up work.
Ponyville turned out to be a collection of charred ruins. Only a few buildings were still standing, and even those looked to be on their last legs. No signs of repair either; this town had been abandoned long ago. People had died here. Civilians probably. Who fucking knew really? Truthfully it didn't bother me. Whoever said "war never changes" never had to worry that any one of the civilians he was supposedly protecting could be strapped with explosives, or been forced to help rebuild a water-pump for a village that may very well harbor the same insurgents who had just sewn the road back to base with IED's. There were times when a part of me felt it would be easier to just drop a MOAB on the damn villages and let God sort it out; the more rational part of my brain reminded me that 'most' of the civvies were decent people, just trying to survive, and that their support was critical to base security.
Being torn so strongly in two directions; helping and harming, saving lives and ending them, my emotions all washed together. Fragile hope and crushing despair, insufferable rage and courageous pacifism, they all collided with one another, creating a kind of destructive interference that just left me feeling numb.
Gunshots. In my experience there's one surefire way to tell some 'tough guy' from a soldier. When startled, 'tough guys' freeze, their reflexes deadened over the years to demonstrate they have no fear. Soldiers duck. Fragments of brick and mortar sprayed from a nearby wall as it was struck by a bullet that I had little doubt was meant for me. I ducked behind said wall, and considered my options. My adrenaline kicked in full force and I felt like I could go hand-to-hand with a fucking bear!
I took a deep breath and controlled myself. I switched the safety off on my rifle, setting it to single shot with a satisfying 'click'. I had to PiD (positively identify) the shooter. I did *not* want to be responsible for shooting some over-zealous young ANA (Afghan National Army) soldier, even if he had taken a shot at me. It was very dark after all, and he could probably see by my silhouette that I was armed.
The ANA was... not the most professional of armies. The training we gave them was, by necessity, limited, and they had a somewhat alarming tendency to get high on hash and opiates prior to or even during battle. This wasn't to say they were useless. Far from it. We had to count on the fact that eventually they would be able to keep the peace if we were to have any hope of ending this war.
On the compass (which still kind of freaked me out, being superimposed onto my vision) a red bar seemed to indicate the position of the shooter. Useful, but it still didn't tell me his intentions. Deciding that popping my head out into view of what I was ninety percent sure was a sniper was probably not conducive to staying alive, I explored other options.
"US Marines!" I yelled out, "identify yourself!"
There was no response. I racked my brain to try and remember the phrase in Dari, the local dialect, but was drawing a blank. Fuck. We'd always relied on the terps (interpreters) to interact with the locals. 'US Marines' should have been clear enough anyway. It's not like that needed a translation.
I had an idea. In daylight, it would have been far too obvious, but in this darkness it just might work. I was betting the sniper wouldn't have the benefit of night optics. Pulling my combat knife, I stuck it into the mortar between two bricks close to ground level. Making as little sound as possible, I removed them, creating a hole large enough for the rifle and its scope. I lay prone behind the wall poking the barrel through the gap and activated the night vision scope. With a high pitched whine the area beyond the wall lit up in fuzzy green detail. What I saw shocked me, which was quite a feat considering my already elevated state. What I could see was, without a doubt, a facsimile of Rarity's carousel boutique. Who had built it, and why, was beyond me, but right now I had more pressing concerns. I had to identify the sniper before he spotted the faint glow given off by my scope. I flicked on the infrared laser, the sight wasn't zeroed, but the laser was. Zeroed at 100 feet mind you (it was offset from the barrel), so if the shot was further, I'd have to adjust my aim right. The invisible beam glowed brightly through the scope cutting a swath through the air as I looked for my target.
Now it wasn't unusual to see horses in Afghanistan, nor even for insurgents to fight from horseback, so when I looked through the scope and saw something vaguely horse-shaped I wasn't particularly perturbed. As I looked closer however, I saw two things wrong with it. The first was that it was wearing some kind of armored barding, which quite frankly was ridiculous. Insurgents could rarely afford armor for themselves, let alone their horses. The second, and more important problem, which I had to believe was some kind of trick of the light, was that it was riderless, and somehow levitated a rifle above its head.
I took my eye away from the scope and sure enough, I saw what could be the faint glow of telekinesis around the rifle, about 50 yards away. Which meant... which meant that... fuck. Which meant I was seeing things. The rider's clothing must be deflecting light peculiarly, messing with the scope. Not being completely insane, as far as I knew, I wasn't willing to entertain the other option that was staring me in the face. Still, I had PiD'd the target. He was definitely armed and, even if I couldn't see him, from his armaments he was definitely not NATO or ANA.
"Cleared hot," I whispered to no-one, not used to working alone.
This wouldn't be the first person I'd shot, but it still wasn't something I enjoyed. I went over my rationale again. If the rider was going to see my scope glow, he would have fired by now. I was well aware that he was probably not alone, and if I fired I would give away my position as surely as sending up a flare. The fact that I couldn't see anyone else through the windows was making me nervous, they could be trying to flank me. Could I slink away without being seen? Probably not. There was a lot of open ground before the next piece of cover from the sniper.
What was my evidence for him being hostile? He'd seen a lone, armed figure walking towards his camp and taken a, literal and figurative, shot in the dark. Hell of a reason to kill somebody. I might have done the same thing! Fuck this war. Why couldn't this shit ever be black and white? Give me a bunch of God-damned Nazi zombies to kill any day.
The RoE (rules of engagement) were clear. I could shoot him now, and I was probably going to have to. Completely inappropriately, a thought crawled into my head as I felt a piece of hard plastic dig slightly into my chest. What would Twilight Sparkle do in this situation?
Probably go insane like me, and start thinking about imaginary characters. Fuck. No. I knew what she'd do. She wouldn't do anything. If her friends were here, she would take the shot, to protect them just as I had in the past. By myself... by herself, she wouldn't do it because she would never be able to live with herself afterwards, even if it was self-defence.
But I wasn't Twilight Sparkle.
I calmed by breath, exhaling slowly and aimed roughly half a meter above the horse's head, where the rider's chest should be.
I was a Marine, a trained killer.
I pulled the trigger.
My rifle cracked authoritatively, the vibration knocking the scope out of focus.
"Piece of crap!" I muttered, smacking it with my gloved hand, "Never see this shit in Call of Duty."
The scope sputtered, cutting to black, then blurred back into focus. I looked and observed... no effect on target. The rifle was still right where it was before, appearing to float amid the blackness. Seemingly without warning it started firing wildly. A trained individual should have been able to spot my muzzle flash; the insurgents were many things, but highly trained was not one of them. At this rate he'd run out of ammo before he even saw me. Right, I thought, new plan. Wait till he starts to reload, then shoot the horse and run. It had always seemed kind of slack to me to shoot enemy animals (a favorite tactic of the insurgents was to strap IED's to pack animals, the safest way to disarm them being to detonate from a distance), they didn't have any choice after all, but if it was him or me, it was going to be him.
I shifted my aim slightly lower, keeping the laser on the horse's head. I might as well make it quick. I saw the clip drop from the supposedly floating rifle and took the shot. This time the effect was immediate, the rifle clattered to the floor, followed shortly by the horse. The gunman was still nowhere to be seen.
I rose up into a crouch and started moving away from the wall, but then I saw another red bar on my HUD. This time I knew what it meant. I spun left and flicked on my flashlight. My assailant was shocked by the sudden brightness, but not as shocked as I was. There was no denying it now. This creature, charging at me with a rusty machete clenched in its teeth, wearing blood stained leather armor, was a pony. Not a small horse but an, honest to god, fucking FiM, G4 pony. The enormous eyes and bright blue coat left no doubt in my mind. Leaving me to wonder what substance I could possibly have consumed to make me trip balls like this. Fortunately I didn't have time for a protracted questioning of my sanity, my survival instincts forcing me to accept instantly what would no-doubt have taken hours of intense introspection to come to terms with; I was in Equestria.
The pony resumed his charge. While the RoE was strict, (not that I was under any obligation to follow it at this point), charging a US soldier with a rusty knife was still more than enough to get you shot. That said, the RoE was far from my mind as I fired two rounds into his center mass.
He stumbled and fell, a pool of blood spread out like an oil slick in the blackness of the night. My Little Pony, laying in a pool of blood. The show was just about the only thing in my life that I had considered wholly pure and innocent. It would be a lie to say I'd never imagined living there. Of course something so pure could never survive contact with me.
Three more red bars, behind me this time. Eyes in the back of my head, I was starting to like this PipBuck more and more. Flicking off my flashlight I sighted my first target, and fired.
The shot went low, the green pony stumbling as her foreleg shattered. Another gunshot rang out, but not mine. Fuck that hurt. The round hit me in the shoulder, fortunately it was of low caliber and my armor did its job.
I rounded on the shots location and put a round through the offending pony's head. I turned to face my last opponent, but he was already upon me. At the last second I think he may have realised the folly of going up against a creature twice your size in hand to hoof combat, but any such thought was cut short as I brought the butt on my rifle down on his head. There was no cute little staggering around like you might expect from a cartoon pony. Instead he hit the ground like a sack of bricks.
SPECIAL: James Pearson
Perk added: Marine Your years of combat experience grant you +1 to Perception and Strength as well as a 25% accuracy bonus when wielding rifles or semi-automatic pistols
Trait added: Human Your dexterous hands give you an extra 15 points each to repair and survival, but you suffer -1 endurance and -50% movement speed over open ground. Due to your alien appearance equine characters may flee from you or attack without provocation.