Chapter 2: A Wasteland Sunrise
"You should also avoid grazing animals with horns, hooves... Move carefully through their environment. Caution may prevent unexpected meetings." US Army Survival Manual; entry on Dangerous Animals

Sunrise in Afghanistan was a beautiful thing. The clear air and mountainous horizon made for a spectacular transition from a star strewn night to a fiery orange star-burst with rays cast across the land, shimmering in the airborne dust.

Sunrise in the Equestrian wasteland... not so much. With the light diffusing through thick clouds it was difficult to spot where exactly the sun even was. It was better than stumbling around in the dark, but it did little to lift my spirits.

The light also made it easier to examine the small pile of equipment I had acquired from the three dead ponies. I didn't know how many more there were in the ruins, so I just took what I could easily carry, a few weapons clipped onto my webbing and the concussed pony draped over my shoulders. He owed me some answers, but with my luck, and knowing what little I did about medicine, knocking someone out for longer than a couple minutes was a probable death sentence.

The mare I had shot in the leg had, to my surprise, managed to escape without so much as a trail of blood, but I doubted she would live long without medical attention. It brought back memories of Afghanistan, following blood trails when you finally get lucky and hit one of the bastards that had been shooting at you for days and weeks. It was amazing how fast my brain had labelled these ponies 'insurgents'. Just like that they were symbolically responsible for killing my teammates and any hesitation I'd had in shooting them was gone. Of course that was all well and good in the heat of battle but now I had to wonder. I mean, I'd been shooting at them, they were shooting at me; were they just defending themselves? Had I just committed a massacre? Who knows what kind of mythical beast they mistook me for.

Fuck it. They shot first. I defended myself. This wasn't on me. I really wished my team was here, not for physical protection, but just to have someone to reaffirm that I'd done the right thing. That I'd had no choice.

The weapons were all modified for pony use. No. Not modified; they were built this way. The rifle's trigger was contained in a mouth grip and the stock was bent downwards, no doubt to meet with an earth pony's shoulder. There was a scope on the side of the rifle, but the lenses were cracked and useless. The other weapon, a pistol, was similar. The slide and barrel were pretty standard, except that the sights were mounted on the side. The mag and receiver were mounted in the regular vertical fashion, but the trigger and mag release were on a complicated looking mouth grip sticking out from the left of the weapon. It looked like it might actually fit in my mouth, but I wasn't about to risk breaking my teeth with the recoil. The pistol used 9mm rounds and the rifle, .308's. Odd that they used the same round sizes as us, including the both imperial and metric measurement systems. No doubt that said something very interesting about their pre-war history, but mostly it was just convenient. I decided to keep the pistol - I would have to figure out how to fire it by hand, but at least I had some more ammo.

The 'enemy combatant' I had tied up began to stir. When I had removed his armor and saddlebags I noticed that his green coat looked matted, mangy and smelled foul; his cutie mark appeared to be a fractured skull. Not what I was expecting from a 'pastel grass-muncher'. Hopefully I was about to find out what happened to the utopia I once knew and loved.

The pony looked at me and his irises contracted in fear. I suppose he hadn't gotten a good look at me last night. He struggled against his bonds before bearing his yellowed teeth in a rather adorable attempt to intimidate me. Despite the circumstances, ponies still looked cute.

"What's your name?" I asked, starting the interrogation with what I hoped was an innocuous question.

I half expected him to be surprised that I could speak 'Equestrian', but if he was, he wasn't showing it. I suppose most creatures in Equestria could speak it, so it wasn't that much of a stretch.

"I'll kill you!" he yelled, starting to struggle again.

Ok, this was going to be harder than I thought.

"Fair enough," I responded, "but right now you're not in a position to kill anyone. Answer my questions and I'll let you go."

"I'll hunt you down," he threatened, "I'll rip out your guts, and keep your head as a trophy."

Was there a real risk of him hunting me down? Maybe, but people had been trying to kill me since I set foot in Afghanistan. Equestria too, now that I think of it. The information this prisoner could provide would be invaluable to me, and hey, if I noticed him following me I could just shoot him. Technically it violated RoE, but fuck it, I wasn't about to get killed trying to uphold directives from a different world.

"That's a risk I'm willing to take. Answer my questions and I'll let you go. What is your name?"

"Skull." he answered menacingly. I mentally rolled my eyes, probably could have guessed that.

"Why did your... group, attack me?"

"You were in our territory."

Great, so they were just some gang, squatting in the ruins.

"When did Ponyville get destroyed?"

He looked at me as if unable to believe my stupidity. "It was always this way."

"You mean as long as you can remember? What happened, was there a war?"

"Have you been living in a bucking stable! The great war? Zebras blew us to pieces with balefire warheads." He paused, then grinned cruelly, " 'least we got them as good as they got us."

"Balefire warheads?" I questioned.

"Ya know, the megaspells that turn cities into radioactive craters?"

A nuclear war, mutually assured destruction. I'd have loved to know what drove peace loving ponies to that, but my hostage didn't seem like he'd be an accurate source of historical information.

"How did ponies survive?"

"How the buck should I know, now are you going to let me go?"

I asked him a few more things of tactical importance, locations appearing on my PipBuck map as he described them.

True to my word, I let him go. There was a standoff once he was untied, but after a few seconds he turned and galloped away. I watched him through my scope until he disappeared back into the ruins.

-x-

Re-evaluating my status with my new intel confirmed my earlier suspicions. Fucked, would be a good descriptor. I'd been transported to an Equestria that was at least as much of a hellhole as Afghanistan with no backup, I had less than a day's worth of food and water, and I was going to be stuck here for an indefinite length of time.

Well at least food and water were something I could work on. Those insurgents must have had supplies cached somewhere, even if they were just raiding caravans or whatever. I couldn't feel particularly bad for stealing from them, they no doubt had stolen most of it from civvies to begin with. Or so I moralised as I took the last bite of my energy bar. The best approximation of its taste would be boiled potato with the consistency of chewing gum, but I savoured it nonetheless. My last meal from Earth. I didn't hold out much hope for finding anything better in the wasteland - hell, I'd be lucky to find something I could metabolise. Preserved equine food would probably be based on hay, or something similar. The thought of foods I could metabolise inevitably lead to meat. I shuddered as I realised I could have eaten those ponies.

No. That was practically cannibalism; butchering a pig was different to eating a creature you could have had a conversation with fifteen minutes ago. If it came down to it, I was sure there would be smaller game for me to hunt.

Moving through the ruins in daylight was surreal. The layout wasn't exactly the same as in the show, no doubt there had between some changes leading up to the war, but it was scarily close. There was no colour. Previously vibrant walls had long since lost their paint, buildings were missing doors, windows, roofs, entire walls; some houses were entirely reduced to rubble. There seemed to be no epicenter, the varying degrees of destruction were more to do with the strength of building materials. A few bomb craters scared the ground, but they weren't large enough to have caused this level of destruction. My best guess would be that it was mostly fire damage. Knowing that there were WMD's involved in the war I was surprised that Ponyville wasn't just one enormous crater. Surely the town housing the elements of harmony would be on the Zebras' primary target list? Then again, with a state of nuclear readiness perhaps the elements were moved from place to place to avoid them being targeted? Urgh. It hurt my brain trying to reconcile these new facts with my existing knowledge of ponies.

I had seen burnt out villages before. The most off putting thing about Ponyville was that everything was in miniature. Cute right? Maybe, but it presented a significant obstacle to effective close quarters combat. The doorways were at chest level, which would significantly limit mobility within buildings.

I crouched down and entered one of the buildings. Crouched over like this I couldn't back out easily I would just have to hope I could deal with any resistance head on. Some Vietnam tunnel rat bullshit. Ah well, at least this place wasn't boobytrapped.

BEEP... BEEP... BEEP...

What the fuck was that? I looked down and saw a metal disk about three inches wide and one inch thick, on top was a flashing button labelled: 'Disarm'. I didn't press it. Obviously no-one puts a working 'disarm' button on top of a landmine. I kicked it down the hallway and threw myself to the floor, feet towards the blast, minimising my surface area.

The explosion was actually quite anaemic, doing some minor damage to the closest wall. It had probably been designed to maim rather than kill. Blow off a foot and a soldier was out of the fight; it took more resources to care for a wounded man than a dead one.

I backed out of the house and reconsidered my options. With the houses boobytrapped, scavenging just got alot more complicated. What did my training tell me? That this wasn't my MoS and I should get on the radio to EOD. Yeah. That was going to happen.

I caught motion out the corner of my eye and turned to face what appeared to be a floating helmet. It was making a beeline for me, at speed. I'd seen enough car bombs try and run roadblocks that there was no way in hell I was letting this thing close to me. I brought up my rifle and fired once into the ground underneath it, giving it a warning shot purely out of instinct. The floating orb didn't slow its pace, but it began to bob and weave evasively. I managed to fire another five rounds as it approached me, two shots clipped it, but they must not have hit anything vital. With ears ringing from my own weapons fire, I struggled to make out what the orb was saying as it reached twenty feet. At ten feet, it stopped and I tried to squeeze in one last shot.

Pain lanced through my left arm as it spasmed and threw off my aim. My pipbuck was electrocuting me! It took all my self-control not to just drop my rifle and attempt to tear the the thing from my wrist. I knew it would do no good, that thing was bolted on good and tight. My left arm was rigidly by my side, on the verge of hyper-extending, my right awkwardly trying to aim my M16 pistol grip, braced against my shoulder.

I fired again but the shot went wide, as I pulled the trigger the shock grew to the level of a Tazer, my muscles tensing involuntarily forcing me to my knees. At this distance I could finally hear its message.

"Subject Six," ordered the orb, taking a position just outside arm's reach, "cease hostilities at once! Non-compliance will result in termination."

The fuck? I thought, though I wasn't exactly in a fit state to speak.

"Your co-operation is appreciated." the orb bobbed happily, there was a soft click as if the orb were loading another recording, "Congratulations traveller, you have been selected to take part in the first trans-dimensional cultural exchange! At Stabletech we pride ourselves on not just surviving this apocalypse, but preventing the next one!"

The robot's cheery yet mechanical voice was grating on my nerves. It sounded like one of those radio ads where people are WAY too excited about buying insurance.

"Relevant files have been uploaded to your Stabletech issued Pipbuck," my Pipbuck beeped, and the orb continued, "if you do not comply, your Security Pipbuck™ is fitted with a failsafe device that will ensure your termination."

Paranoia justified. I never should have turned this fucking thing on. I had two choices, comply, or try to fight my way out. I didn't much like being at the mercy of an orb.

I went for my rifle and the damn thing buzzed me again.

"Alright!" I said warily, "I'll co-operate."

I shakily stood up, half expecting to be tazed.

"Excellent!" said the orb, " we're going to be the best of frie-zzzzzzzzz"

The orb never finished that sentence because I reached out and grabbed it, my other hand going for my knife. As expected, I was electrocuted, but whoever programmed the orb wasn't smart enough to think this through. With the pipbuck pressed against the orb's metalic hull the smell of burning plastic emanated from it followed by several pops. It dropped to the ground like a hunk of lead, dragging me with it, as whatever was keeping it aloft cut out.

I hit the ground. Hard.

-x-

There was a soft ringing in my ears and I had the insistent feeling that I was supposed to remember something important, but I couldn't quite recall what it was. I realised I was laying on a bed. I cracked my eyes open, expecting the light to sear them, but it did not. My whole body felt like it was floating, all my movements occurring in slow motion. I enjoyed the sensation for a time before it suddenly hit me.

The ambush! What happened? How did I get here? I tried to sit upright, but almost immediately there was a hand on my shoulder, pushing me gently back down.

"Easy there Marine," said a doctor, "you took a hell of a blow to the head."

"How..." I began, my tongue felt thick in my mouth.

"You've been unconscious for two days," he answered my incomplete question, "you're in a field hospital near Kandahar."

"My team?" I managed to say.

"They've been waiting for you to regain consciousness," he replied, "I'll let them know."
Just then Jackson walked into the room.

"No need for that!" He said heartily, "We knew it'd take more than a couple pounds of C4 to knock Ponyboy out of action!"

The Sergeant was next. He pulled a chain from his breast pocket, the end of which was revealed to hold a purple pony. One of Twilight's legs had fallen off, but the most eye catching thing about her would have to be the half inch piece of shrapnel embedded in her side.

"Doc says, if she hadn't been in your pocket, you might have died," explained the Sargent, "wear 'er proud Marine."

"Oorah sir," I said with a snicker, still slightly loopy from the drugs I guessed.

"I might have to give the pony show a try," said a third voice. I knew that voice but...

I looked over and my eyes widened. Andrews.

"B-but," I stammered, "you're dead!"

Andrews looked at me with an expression of pain and disbelief, as if I'd just stabbed him. I'd seen it. I'd seen him get shot, right through the head! A single drop of blood ran down Andrews' face. Followed by another, and another, until a gaping hole opened up in his face, to the point that I could see right through to the other side. He just stood there as if nothing was wrong while his face melted away.

I yelled and screamed for people to help him, but they ignored him and just looked at me with concern.

No! This isn't real. This can't be happening. I jumped out of the bed and started running, I smashed through a pair of double doors into an emergency room. I could see the exit, another pair of wooden double doors, with windows set into them revealing that is was night time.

Seemingly out of nowhere, two MPs stepped out and blocked my path. I raised my arms to defend myself... and realised I was wearing my PipBuck – what the hell? While I had been looking at my PipBuck, the MPs seemed to have frozen in place. I stopped running and lowered my arms. The MPs took this as a sign of surrender and relaxed slightly. I glanced over at the doors, and caught my reflection in the glass. It wasn't human. It was a pony with a bright blue coat, stained with blood, gripping a rusty machete. It doesn't even seem possible with a tool clenched in his teeth, but somehow he grinned at me.

There was a metallic clink, my eyes opened and the dream world faded almost instantly, only to be replaced by an actual pony, green this time, holding an actual knife towards my throat.

-x-

"Mhf suf ev woove gevv oo." said Skull, unintelligible through the knife grasped in his teeth.

My eyes widened, my heart raced, knife training was the first thought in my head. Like an amateur he was holding the knife a distance from my throat instead of pressing against it. That would give me time to react. Still, he was a pony, and none of my training was designed to combat that. Strangely enough we didn't practice techniques against knives held in the mouth. Go figure. I had another idea.

"I'm sorry, what?" I asked, masking my fear, "you went to the zoo?"

"NVO, EI SEV EI WUVV GEVV OO!" He yelled, louder, but no more understandable, pointing the knife menacingly.

"You've lost a shoe?" I questioned again, feigning ignorance, "well I'm not sure that I can help you with that..."

He spat out the knife and got right in my face, his breath smelled of rancid meat - euch. Did I even want to know?

"NO!" He spat, "I SAID -"

No-one will ever know what he was trying to say because I grabbed him by the throat, smashed his head against a rock, and stabbed him in the eye with the discarded knife. He shuddered once, then died, the knife buried to the hilt in his freakishly huge eye socket.

Fuck. I took a few deep breaths and waited for my hands to stop shaking. I glanced over at the body and felt nauseated. Shooting someone was one thing, but this? With my bare hands? Both my gloves were covered in blood, but my left was charred, fibres fused with the burned hand beneath. That damn orb thing. I poked at it with a finger and winced. Some of the pony's blood had gotten into the open wound. I hoped there were no pony-human diseases, but knowing my luck I would probably die of pony AIDS.

I could almost hear the sergeant. Stow that shit Marine. Check for more attackers, be ready. My rifle was still attached to my webbing. Safety off, round in the chamber; despite the circumstances the realisation that I had been sleeping with a weapon that was ready to fire felt like a gut punch. I probably should have found shelter, or at least moved to a more defensible location, but the ringing in my ears had come back, and I was unsteady on my feet. I stumbled along until I reached a wall that was mostly intact and slumped down with my back against it. I scanned the surrounding area with my rifle, wincing as I gripped it with my burned hand. Nothing moving.

I set the rifle down and began the delicate task of removing my glove. I took a hold of one finger and gently pulled, gritting my teeth as the glove's fibres dragged against where they were fused to my hand. Jesus fucking Christ that hurt. There was no fucking way the glove was coming off that way. I pulled my combat knife and carefully cut around the fused areas, only stabbing myself twice with the ridiculously sharp blade. The rest of the glove came of easily enough, leaving four pieces of cloth fused to my palm. This was going to suck. I folded out the pliers from my multi-tool and gripped the first piece, took a deep breath and -

"FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!" I screamed internally as I ripped fabric out of the wound. It bled profusely as the burnt skin was torn apart. I repeated this for the rest of the pieces, rinsing the wound with water from my hydration pack, then bandaged the hand as tightly as I could manage. The bandage became stained red, but after a couple minutes of applying pressure, the bleeding appeared to stop.

I took a sip from the hydration pack, and realised it was empty.

Well that was just fucking great.

Footnote:
Level Up
Medicine: 25