Fallout Equestria: Letters to Celestia
by AlmanacPony
Categories:
Characters: Derpy Hooves, Original Character(s), Other BG Pony
Canon: AU
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Crossover, Dark, Suspense, Tragedy
Pairing: M/M
POV: 1st
Status: In Progress
Warnings: Death, Profanity, Sex, Violence
• Mature •

Years before Littlepip stepped from Stable 2, the Wasteland greeted all ponies with it's usual contempt. Tome Tale and his silent partner, Stranger, live day to day on their next bag of caps, until they stumble into something bigger than themselves.

 

Bigger than the whole of Equestria.

 

Based on Fallout: Equestria by Kkat.

 

This story follows Tome Tale. A scholastic pony that prefers talking to fighting. Though he also has a bad habit of pissing ponies off. A pony with a hidden past, in an effort for caps he gets himself tangled in something not necessarily good for his health. A Wastelander that had long since hardened himself to the horrors of the Wasteland, the ice in his heart threatens to melt as friends are made, loves are lost, and the Wasteland and Stars yield their most darkest of secrets.


Series: None
Chapters: 9
Word count: 102952 Read count: 3683
Published: 10 Nov 2015 Updated: 10 Sep 2016
Story Notes:

NOTE 1: Only the original Fallout: Equestria is considered canon officially. I will however do my level best to not cross over with other large fics such as Projects Horizon or Pink Eyes. While I will not mention such events in my story, I will do my best not to negate them so readers may consider whatever they wish to be canon from other works. (This is not set in stone, and if I am faced with a situation where I must disregard the interpretations of PH or PE to further my story, I shall without qualm or hesitation, but I do not think such a scenario is likely. I have planned this story out heavily, and do not believe any of it will conflict with such stories.)

 

NOTE 2: Tome Tale is an Earth Pony in the Wasteland. Too many stories are unicorns from stables, or other things like that. I wanted to write this story different from other ones. Tome Tale grew up in the Wasteland, he has already become hardened. Too often we are faced with an innocent character fighting the corruption of the Wasteland both internally and externally, and such story lines are very well written and received, but they ARE overused. Tome Tale is not such a story. His is a story not of fighting corruption in himself, but of redemption that can never be found. A heart which is cold, becoming warm again, and a pony such as him, learning what it means to be alive.

 

I hope you enjoy the story, and please, leave a comment. Your attentions will fuel me. :3

 

NOTE 3: Tags and things will be changed as the story progresses.

1. Foreword (Only for those that have not read the original FoE) by AlmanacPony

2. Prologue/Intro by AlmanacPony

3. Chapter One - Dear Princess Celestia, Life Sucks. by AlmanacPony

4. Chapter Two - Dear Princess Celestia, The Wasteland Makes Monsters Of Us All. by AlmanacPony

5. Chapter Three - Dear Princess Celestia, Are We Our Mistakes? by AlmanacPony

6. Chapter Four - Dear Princess Celestia, Is Greed All We Know? by AlmanacPony

7. Chapter Five - Dear Princess Celestia, Does Our Past Define Us? by AlmanacPony

8. Chapter Six - Dear Princess Celestia, Fate's Just a Bunch of Bullshit, Right? by AlmanacPony

9. Chapter Seven - Dear Princess Celestia, I got some tail! by AlmanacPony

Foreword (Only for those that have not read the original FoE) by AlmanacPony

Foreword


 




 


This foreword is being written after I am already a little way into writing the third chapter of this tale. I’ve stopped, gone back and added this little snippet before the intro. This is because of a thought I had while writing.


I cannot tell the future. I do not know what the world has in store, and for all I know tomorrow we might die. In fact that’s quite probable.


Because of this, I have decided some context as to the world, myths and legends should probably be explained. The world might be reduced to ash and the descendants that come after us -if any at all- may never know the tales and histories that drove Equine kind to the precipice of extinction. So maybe some context would help. If you know these details, then perhaps you could skip this part, and move onto the ‘Intro’.


Where to begin?


I suppose I should begin where the conflicts first started. Over a thousand years ago, with the Mare in the Moon.


Equestria was once a place of gorgeous colours, dancing and singing ponies and other species of every kind, loving and joyful in their serenity, honest and noble in their intents and full of hope for the future. There was harmony. We had not known war with any nation. Life was beyond beautiful, it was pure.


Alicorn princesses. Part of all forms of ponies, they had the strength of Earth Ponies, the magic of Unicorns, and the flight of Pegasus. Truly majestic beings.


Princess Celestia and Princess Luna ruled us side by side. Celestia, the Princess of the Sun’s great magic guided the sun around the planet, lifting night to day for all beings that were graced by her loving warmth.


Luna, the Princess of the Moon’s great magic guided the moon around the planet in the wake of night, shining silver rays that lit the way for any nocturnal folk, and opening the skies to the beauty of the stars beyond.


But something changed the Princess of the Moon. Something changed her into something new and dark. While before she and her sister had ruled together in harmony, now dark thoughts stirred in the younger sister’s mind. She became jealous of her sister’s day, how the ponies would play and frolic in the golden warmth of the sun, but sleep through the silver beauty of her night. Such jealousy began to taint the younger sister’s heart.


Princess Luna became Nightmare Moon.


A mare of dark power that sought to end the sun. She enacted her plan by blotting it out by her own moon forcing a perfect night-time that would last permanently throughout the world. Celestia opposed her, and thus War was brought to Equestria for the first time.


To defeat her sister, Princess Celestia used the most powerful objects in the kingdom. The Elements of Harmony. Unable to control all of their power without her sister by her side, she used what she could. Rather than being able to cure her sister of what afflicted her, and bring her back to the side of good, she instead could only banish her, locking her within the moon for a thousand years.


A thousand years later Nightmare Moon returned, but was stopped by six ponies who each stood for one of the Elements of Harmony.


Magic, Loyalty, Honesty, Laughter, Generosity, and Kindness.


True virtues that at their core are the foundations for the betterment of ponies and all species alike.


They cured Princess Luna, and she once again returned to her sister’s side, contrite, and ready to rule as equals.


Nopony knew why Luna had become Nightmare Moon. They thought it was a tantrum, but as a thousand years had passed pony kind hadn’t even remembered how bad such a war between sisters had truly been.


The Zebra’s had their own legends of Nightmare Moon. Legends that were fraught with darkness, piercing notes, and the shine of Stars from above. Whatever the true cause, Luna was safe now, and back where she belonged.


Celestia, having ruled for a thousand years in her sister’s absence, was considered the primary ruler of Equestria. Luna took her place behind her older sibling, and never again let jealousy take her heart.


Many years later, Equestria had evolved as all countries do. Textile and steel mills were born, industrial revolutions that were hidden away in cities such as Fillydelphia so the rural towns, for all their pastel colours and quaint joy, could reap the rewards of furthered technology.


But industry comes with price. Equestria so far could afford it.


A series of events occurred. I am privy to each one and have learned them in my travels. But this tale will serve to tell you them in more detail than I could fit in this foreword, so I shall simply state the more generic information that is known most commonly.


The Zebra’s needed gems. They needed gems desperately and Equestria had a supply. Our industries were growing but stable, and in the idea of expansion, we offered to give them gems for coal, of which they had abundance, and we did not.


A favourable trade.


This did not end well. As industries and desperations came from both sides, trade turned to arguments and disputes, and industrial strain and thus political intrigue. Eventually the politics of Equestria became corrupt, and War began between Equestria and the Zebras. A war that lasted ten years.


To save the world from war, the Ministries were created, and each headed by a bearer of an Element of harmony. The Ministry Mares.


Six mares who swore to serve the Princesses, and use whatever means they could, to end the War that had begun to ravage them.


It was a war that ended in Balefire.


The Megaspells.


A Balefire Megaspell was a bomb that could explode and destroy an entire city, and at the climax of the war Equestria was hit with many.


Equestria was gone.


Those that survived did so by hiding in Stables, reinforced underground shelters that would protect them from the harsh world outside that had become nothing more than a radioactive Wasteland.


When they emerged, they did so into the sands, the overcast sky, and the darkness that was the permanent shadow over the world they had once known. Two hundred years passed, and the Wasteland became something far different than what Equestria had once been.


Raiders, Slavers, Traders, Monsters, Ponies, Creatures of the old war, Robots and all manner of beings now struggled to survive.


The war had begun due to desperation. And now the Wasteland made everypony desperate.


Even after two hundred years, the war never truly stopped. The sky was cut off by the Pegasus, the ground in turmoil due to monsters, and the ponies that had likened themselves to monsters. The fighting never stopped, the pain never stopped.


Equestria had once enjoyed a thousand years of peace, so much so that it had forgotten the very word of ‘War’. But it remembered now. Like a permanent scar that had scoured itself into the hearts of all ponies that live and die in the depths of the Wastes.


War was like a curse, perpetuating within the hearts and minds of the descendants of those that had scorched the planet in their Balefire.


Such a curse could not be lifted easily. And while its fire still spread, the land of Equestria and all those affected could not possibly change for the better.


Because war, war never changes, and neither do ponies.

Prologue/Intro by AlmanacPony

Introduction/Prologue

 

________________________

| Strength 6 |

| Perception 8 |

| Endurance 5 |

| Charisma 5 |

| Intelligence 9 |

| Agility 4 |

| Luck 3 |

| Remaining 0 |

________________________

Level Perks

Book Horse -- +1 additional skill point whenever a skill book is read

 


 

 

Have you ever seen the sun?

I have.

I remember it, it’s not something you forget; I was young, hadn’t gotten my cutiemark yet, but not as young as you’d think, young teen, I was a late bloomer, I was down rummaging through some old farms on the outskirts of Ponyville, getting closer to the Everfree Forest, but trying to keep my distance still, ya know, trying to be smart with it. Then it happened. There was this little flash of light I didn’t recognise; it lit the floor up all yellow and warm. So I looked up, trying to find where the light was coming from, and I saw it, a parting in the cloud cover.

That endless sea of blue that stretched up and up, way past where my eyes could see. There was this shining orb of yellow and white that sat there amongst that blue, it was so bright, but it was also so beautiful I couldn’t look away. I felt it too, the warmth, the way its rays just caressed over my face and warmed me up all nice.

It was gorgeous.

That was the first time anyway. After that I found a nearby farmhouse and started bunking there once in a while when I could get away from the encampment. Day or night didn’t matter much to me, the place was safer back then than it is now. I’d just sit there on the roof of that barn, trying to catch glimpses through the cloud cover of anything up above.

I saw the most beautiful things on those days and nights. The nights especially. The nights felt mysterious. They felt like they held secrets, like the stars twinkled notes of music that no one could hear, like they were almost speaking to each other. They twinkled and flashed in that endless black.

Once I even saw a Pegasus or two, that excited me so much I ran right back home to my mother and bragged about what I’d seen…that was a mistake of course.

Mum didn’t believe it was Pegasi for starters, she thought it was a couple of birds I saw, but I remember a flash of gleam from them, like a glinting reflection of something metal, and birds don’t wear armour. I tried explaining this to her, but she’d already freaked and I was banned from going back to the farm. We moved away from the area a little after that. There was talk of Raiders encroaching on the place anyway, so it was probably for the best.

But I didn’t see the sun again, not for a very long time. For a little while on my travels the sun always greeted me, I could look up whenever I wanted and marvel at its rays and warmth. Some would think you’d get used to it after a while, but personally, I can’t get enough of it. I look up at it whenever it’s to be seen, and I’m always in awe. I even saw it today.

I want to tell you about today. I will, I promise, but first…I want to tell you about my other days, and what brought me here. It’s a mixture of chance, circumstance, a stupid amount of curiosity, and not a small amount of luck.

But luck comes in two forms. So whether my luck is good or bad for me I suppose will be answered tomorrow. Because as much as today has been important to me, I think tomorrow may be important to everyone.

There is something special about the stars I think, something eternally special.

The sun, when you see it, it makes you think of hopes and dreams, but the stars…they give you questions. Their little twinkles make little sparks in your thoughts; and those introspective concerns can’t help but poke their annoying little heads out.

I remember asking myself, on one of those nights long ago where the stars filled my gaze and the quietness of the night around me felt peaceful and comforting. I asked myself, ‘What could my life be?’

I thought about maybe getting a wife in the future, having foals of my own and being a father one day, maybe if I did I could give them a really good life. Ya know all the fantasies that the young have before the world crushes them into a fine powder.

None of it was ever possible.

I feel I have to warn you straight from the start, that this story I’m telling is not for the faint of heart.

I can only hope that you ARE of faint of heart. And that you have lived a good long life.

I hope this because if you have managed to survive this world and still remain faint of heart, then this tome of a diary has been found and read far into a future that I cannot yet see possible, but can only hope may one day be achieved. Because the sad truth is, there are noponies that are faint of heart in this world. At least, none that will live long. They probably won’t even live past tomorrow.

Allow me to give you a little context as to the nature of this diary. If you’ve ever read a diary (unlikely, but let’s go with the theory that you have) you’ll find that this diary is unlike most others. This is because, despite my initial attempts in the past at writing the basics, I cannot help but fall into the stereotypical ramblings and descriptive methods of a novelist. Because of this, I’ve decided to make this diary, a form of story, a ‘Tale’, if you will excuse the pun.

Because of this decision, you will find that I will avoid revealing certain things about myself and my past until opportune times. If I’m going to write it like a story, I might as well preserve the shock and awe value by keeping juicy details away until they are needed.

I can, however, at least tell you my name.

My name is Tome Tale. I’m a smart pony. Ya, I know, kinda rare in this part of the world. But my skillset has let me survive. What is my skillset?

I’m a really quick learner.

Fallout: Equestria

Letters to Celestia

Chapter One - Dear Princess Celestia, Life Sucks. by AlmanacPony

Chapter One

Dear Princess Celestia, Life Sucks.

“It’s a better life than what she’d have with me.”

 


 

 

The spittle on my cheek was giving me a squeamish feeling; seriously, did assholes really have to spit? The urge to reach up and wipe it away was gnawing at me in an unpleasant way, the kind of unpleasant feeling similar to an itch you couldn’t scratch. It was annoying, and distracting…but strangely, much more appealing to pay attention to rather than the ramblings of the idiot, but soon-to-be-dead idiot, of a stallion in front of me. As my thoughts turned to him I glanced up, the motley grey and brown hide of a pony suffering from a bad skin condition greeted me, the foul breath of halitosis was coupled by teeth that were more ‘black and not there’ than they were ‘white’, and those blue eyes had a yellowish tinge that was NOT healthy. If I was a doctor I’d probably say it was Scurvy, but hey, not surprising, fruits rich in vitamin C weren’t really common around here. Though, there was this fantastic place up-

Whack!

Ouch. My muzzle lashed to the side and the coppery taste in my mouth told me I’d bitten my cheek a little. That kinda hurt. “Are you payin’ attention to me, ya stupid motherfucker!” He yelled, in an accent that spoke less of what region he was from, and more about how much brain damage he probably had.

“Not really. Can I wipe my face, please?” I asked as I wriggled my jaw side to side to make sure nothing was broken. The stallion in front of me didn’t look too happy at my calm demeanour. I suppose he had expected a different reaction considering the circumstances. I was held by three other ponies, a unicorn and two earth ponies, with my fore hooves tucked behind my back, hence the inability to wipe my cheek. Oh, and he had a gun to my head, well, one of his lackeys did, but as this idiot was apparently ‘giving the orders’ (Celestia knows why), I considered it him in control of the trigger, so yes, HE had the gun to my head, rather than the violet maned unicorn beside me who kept the pistol locked in a pinkish glow against my temple. In such a situation, most other ponies would be begging for their lives, so his confusion as to why I wasn’t was understandable.

“What’s fuckin’ wrong with ya, are ya a stupid buck or sumthin’?”

“‘Stallion’,” I corrected.

“Wha’?” The incredulous look on the varmints face showed off his rotten teeth and turned a rather ugly bloke into a disgusting one. Truly a face only a mother could love.

“‘Stallion,’” I repeated. “‘Buck’ is used for Cervines and Lapines, and last I checked we don’t have antlers or those fluffy tails. ‘Buck’ is a slang term, adopted much in the same was as ‘Kid’ is for children, despite them not actually being baby goats.”

Whack!

My muzzle lurched to the side again. Ouch. That time I think something clicked in my neck, that can’t be healthy. “You are one crazy motherfucker.” He said, nodding his head in a ridiculous manner as though confirming his own statement to himself. “You come down here; you walk straight up to me-”

“Actually I more zig-zagged, there is the mine field after all.”

Whack!

Okay, my jaw was starting to hurt now. I rotated it to regain a little feeling. The sticky sensation of something dribbling down my chin told me at least some part of my lip had finally split under his blows.

“You walk STRAIGHT up to me...” He continued. “…You…THIS IS MY TERRITORY NOW! I OWN IT!” He yelled, though whether he was trying to convince me or himself, I wasn’t quite sure at this point. “YOU INSULTED MY MOTHER YOU PIECE OF SHIT!”

“In my defence, you’ve called me a ‘mother fucker’ more than once during these exchanges, so I think we’re pretty even.” I replied, doing my best to shrug my shoulders, though it wasn’t easy given the situation.

“Oh no, we ain’t even, ‘motherfucker’!” He snapped, emphasising the ‘motherfucker’ this time.

“You sure? Because that’s like, the fifth time now.”

“WE AIN’T EVEN! You’re fuckin’ dead!” He turned his head and pulled the gun from his side holster, a nice ten calibre pistol from Ironshod Firearms, he held the grip in his muzzle as the barrel was pushed against my head. “Shay goo’nigh’” He slurred, his jaw clenching visibly on the trigger mechanism.

Bang!

Blood and brains splattered the ground. The red viscous remains of an equine skull splattered the muzzles and barding of the ponies that held me as their leader fell backwards, minus a head. The momentary shock that passed through the idiots that held me slackened their grip. I leaned down into the interior of my jackets collar and bit onto the thin handle of the four inch shiv that I had hidden away there; I turned my head once the small blade was secured in my mouth, the sharp point carved into the tender flesh of the earth pony’s throat to my left, it wasn’t the best of blades, its lack of length meant that the wound was shallow, but that’s the beauty of the neck, so many vital things so close to the surface. Carpe jugulum. Blood splattered my muzzle as the wound gushed. I pulled away from the stunned compatriots of the now two dead ponies. The unicorn, who already had his magical grip on a gun, finally found the brains to aim it at me, only for a nice clear hole to slice through the stallion’s temple as another deafening shot rang out, silencing his magic and his thoughts forever. The remaining earth pony reacted valiantly in my opinion…or perhaps ‘stupidly’ is the word I should use. He rushed me and lashed out with a cleaver he’d wonder-glued to his hoof. I ducked low and thrust my shoulder forward, driving the armoured cap of my shoulder barding into his gut, his blade scratched down into the leather of my hide and struck the metal plating underneath. I launched my body up and towards him from below, offsetting his balance and rolling him onto my back and then to the floor. I was on him before he could recover, myhoof smashing down and cracking his skull into the ground. He went still after that.

I sighed as I looked down at him, reaching up to remove the spittle that had now almost dried to my cheek. I wiped it on the barding of his chest. He didn’t seem to be breathing. I looked up to his face again, glancing over his wounded head as blood pooled from his temple. He looked dead, but what can I say? I gotta make sure. I smashed my hoof down onto his head, the first blow cracked something, the second caused something to split, and with the third my hoof went into brain matter. I pulled my hoof free, grumbling about the mess. I used his shitty barding as a wipe, the metal of his buttons clinking my prosthetic.

I placed my hoof back down, listening to the soft clink of the metal touching the stone below. I kinda liked the sound; it made me think of a sort of foreboding and dramatic atmosphere it could add to my presence. It wasn’t stealthy, ponies could hear me coming for sure, but what would they hear? They’d listen to the dead of the night, the sounds around them gentle and almost peaceful, until the unmistakable sound of ‘clop, clop, clink,’ would reach their ears. ‘Clop, clop, clink’. What could go through their minds? Maybe they imagined a powerful cyber-pony with one red eye, armed to the teeth with laser canons and large mini-guns. Or maybe a dangerous outlaw, with a single cyber-leg and a wide brimmed hat, ready to bring sweet justice to the Wastelands of Equestria. Then they’d see me of course, and any dramatic effect the nice clinking would have would be shattered. But hey, it’s the image that counts, right?

A prosthetic hoof was one thing, ponies could guess it might be capable of transforming into some sort of death ray, or give me the strength to smash my hooves into a pony’s chest and rip out their still beating hearts. THAT could be a formidable aspect to one’s reputation and appearance…glasses, a bad mane-cut and an obviously malnourished physique however…those were NOT conducive to a formidable appearance.

By all accounts I would probably be considered a ‘nerd’ a hundred years ago.

The sound of clopping hooves brought me out of my thought process. I turned to see my partner walking towards me. He wore a long overcoat, and he was covered head to hoof in bandages that had probably once been white but now sported a dirty grey and black colour. Thankfully he was the strong-stubborn type so he wasn’t that worried about wound infections. His face was covered with bandages too, the wrapping tight enough to cover any trace of coat except for his right eye, which showed through as a beautiful deep blue. He wore a dirty wide brimmed grungy hat which sported a hole where his abnormally long horn could poke out. I say ‘abnormally’ long, but it was only a bit longer than the average unicorn horn. The coat he wore was unkempt as well; its hem was tattered and frayed, and the entire thing would look big on most other ponies, except this fella was a big fella, standing a full head above myself, not including his horn. Where he found a coat that big in the Wasteland I never did find out.

He reached me, his sniper rifle hanging in the air beside him, held in the purple glow of his magic as he walked. The stallion stopped a few paces from me, standing in a silent and stoic manner as though waiting for me to do anything but stare at him. “Cut it a little close don’t you think?”

He didn’t answer my barb of course, and I didn’t much expect him too. I went to the first corpse -the leader, an idiot piss-head of a Raider named Blue Bingo, or Blue Bronco or something like that- and began ruffling through his pockets. He didn’t have much on him, a healing potion in the back pocket of his bags, a few bottlecaps on the inner lining of his jacket, and an empty bottle of whiskey. Bastard hadn’t even saved me any.

“Maybe next time you could just take them all out?” I asked as I moved to the unicorn’s body next. “Or better yet, next time, I hide safely with the rifle, and you get to be the bait. ‘Barrel at ya head sound good?” I asked rhetorically, though, to be fair, every question to my compatriot was a rhetorical one. He was, predictably, silent as the grave.

I dug around in the saddlebags of the unicorn, finding some scrap bits of salvage that I threw down at his hooves before giving him a glancing look. As usual, he just watched me. I sighed, shrugging away the one-way conversation. “Nah, I guess it has to be me. Gotta keep them talking.” I grumbled, moving to the final earth pony when the other one yielded me nothing but a bottle of wonder-glue. “Then again, I could be wrong. Maybe they’d be nicely distracted by your charming personality.” I gave him another glance as he lifted the scrap I’d tossed him into his own saddlebags, the weight not seeming to bother him at all, big boy that he was.

The problem with having a travelling partner that had his entire face covered in bandages was that you couldn’t tell if he found your jokes funny or not. I liked to believe he found me hilarious. I turned my back to the corpses and headed into the encampment this small band of Pseudo-Raiders had set up. It wasn’t much in the way of a camp to be honest. A few strewn about items and scrap metal with some tents pitched up around what looked to be a poorly constructed and recently doused fire was less of an ‘encampment’ and more of a ‘shitty-place-to-hold-up’.

I slipped into one of the tents, coming across a hooflocker at the hoof of a cot whose metal surface had not yet rusted so badly that I couldn’t see myself in its reflection. Green eyes and a burgundy mane stared back at me from the metal surface. I was thin, not surprising though due to the nature of our lifestyle. Exactly how thin I was though was often concealed by the coat I wore. It was a dark leather hide that had a few outside plates along the shoulders of my fore legs; it also had some metal plates sewn into the lining for added hidden protection, pretty standard in the way of barding if I’m honest. It wasn’t the best and probably wouldn’t stop a point-blank shot from most guns, but my methods of handling situations usually involved not getting shot at, so I figured I was fine with what I had. I’d also modified it in my time to have a few hidey holes. Part of the collar had a hole just big enough for the shiv I’d used on the earth pony and the lining underneath also held a small pistol. It wasn’t the best of guns, but it was good in an emergency. The lining at the bottom on my back also contained a well concealed knife. I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed reach it in any given situation, but the fact that it was there gave me a small measure of comfort.

My name is Tome Tale. This is my diary you are reading. I’m in my mid-twenties, I was born and raised in the Wasteland, I have a prosthetic left hoof so I clink when I walk, and you could probably describe my coat as a sky blue…if you had a sky to compare it to anyway.

Though try not to visualise such vivid colourations in your mind, the Wasteland isn’t kind to colours. My coat, could sometimes appear just as grey due to dirt…or maybe red if I was covered in a particular amount of blood. I think at this point my chin and neck were a little caked in red, arterial blood tends to spray and make a mess. My mane also had black splotches, caked in dirt and blood that made it more matted than styled. I needed a wash, but hey, welcome to the Wasteland. A nice bath might be needed once in a while, but I’d prefer not to come out of the water glowing like an irradiated Ghoul.

Looking away from the surface of the hooflocker, I used my hooves in an attempt to force the lid, but predictably, it was locked. Slipping out some bobby pins I set to work convincing the inanimate object to yield its secrets to me. It wasn’t difficult, there was a satisfying click before the lock sprang open. The contents were mediocre, a few shells for a shotgun, a NaughtyMare magazine and five bottlecaps. I took them all anyway and headed back out, slipping into the second tent. The hooflocker in this tent wasn’t locked, and didn’t contain anything other than a worn Teddy-Ursa, telling me that these ‘Raiders’ had been particularly bad at keeping up the ‘toughbuck’ act. The third and final tent had a cot that was big enough for two ponies giving me a few thoughts about the kind of relationship two of those stallions had. I moved over to the hooflocker and began picking the slightly more difficult lock, it wasn't long before a light click met my ears. Smiling at the victory, I opened it up and sighed as I finally found what we had come for. Of course it would be in the last place I looked. Reaching down I pulled out a small box that looked like it’d be at home on a mare’s vanity desk in her pre-war boudoir. It was brown varnished wood, inlaid with some gold edgings and a simple clasped latch and lock. By its design it probably contained some jewellery or something that our client found to be of sentimental value, or maybe even actual value. But, we’d been told not to open the box, so rather than satisfying a nagging curiosity that gnawed at the back of my mind, I slipped the box into my saddlebag.

Walking out of the tent I passed the waiting Stranger and stepped back onto the jagged road. I jerked my head in a gesture for us to start heading back the way we’d come, and together we began trotting down what had once been a highway intersecting Ponyville with the neighbouring towns like Appleloosa. You might think that we’d be full of witty banter, but really we just walked in silence.

Stranger didn’t talk much. That was his name by the way, ‘Stranger’. Or at least, that’s what he called himself. Whether that was because he didn’t know who he really was or maybe it really was his actual name, I couldn’t say. The backdrops of having a noun-based naming system could get a little irksome sometimes. Stranger and I had been companions for a while. Despite his habitual silence, he wasn’t a mute. He COULD talk. He had a tongue in his mouth. He just chose not to use it. Which I suppose worked for me in some ways, ponies always said I liked the sound of my own voice, so who knows, maybe our partnership was a match made by Celestia.

The road back to New Appleloosa wasn’t a very long one, a few hours at most, but it was long enough to take in the sights. We’d moved around Ponyville on our journey, and from the ragged highway we trotted down the town could be seen in the distance, barely rising above the horizon. Ponyville was considered a landmark town, even if nopony lived there anymore. It had been quite important during the Pre-War years, but these days it was just a ghost town, filled with the unheard screams of the damned and the long-time dead. It was distinguished on the horizon by the crumbling remnants of one of its largest and most notable buildings, the Carousel Boutique, an old, barely standing, dress shop that had once been decorated in pinks, purples and gold’s, but now sported mottled browns, blood red stains and faded greys. Ponyville was a magnet for Raiders, they never stayed or lasted very long, but they always moved in sooner or later. Ponyville was a symbol of a time before the war, a place known to have been home to the Ministry Mare’s before the world had ended. It held a semblance of innocence. Raiders liked innocence. They liked soiling it.

Turning away from the distant crumbling buildings and the spires of the old Ponyville town hall I looked ahead of me. The road below me was crumbled and cracked; centuries of neglect had made them more a path of crumbling rocks than a highway road that had once ferried vehicles and carriages. It was uneven to walk on, and the soft clink of my prosthetic hoof on the concrete was a constant in our travels. A few companions in the past had found the sound incessantly annoying and had tried to convince me to either cap it with rubber, or to boot the damn hoof up, but I’d always refused. I liked the sound. At least Stranger never complained about it; which I would take as a compliment except he never complained about anything. Not pain, not work, not even the weather. Which was surprising, because the weather in the Wasteland was utter shit!

As though Celestia herself had heard my inner most thoughts, the heavens took the opportunity right then to piss on us; opening wide with a torrent of rain.

I glanced up at the sky and thought about cursing Celestia, but I figured that would be a disservice to her. SHE hadn’t closed the skies. SHE wasn’t the one that had cut herself off from the surface in a selfish act of self-preservation, leaving everypony down here to live and die and suffer in this forsaken Wasteland. No, that was all the pegasus’s fault. I was slightly bitter towards pegasus ponies, as you might have guessed, it’s not so much a prejudice thing, as it was just good sense. They didn’t help us down here, so why should we down here give a Brahmins shit about them up there.

The grey cloud above me had been a ceiling I had been stuck with for my entire life. The ground was irradiated and barren, no sunlight meant no plants, which meant little to no food, which meant we all starved while they lived all nice and safe up in their cloud castles or cloud cities or whatever they had up there. It made me grumpy thinking about it. I turned my attention from the clouds, back to the road ahead. The light reeds of dead grass that littered the side of the road might seem good eating to the desperate, but they contained about as much nutrients as rocks, so it wasn’t advisable. Besides, it backed up the bowels something chronic.

The way was predictably quiet, only disturbed by a couple of radroaches that crossed our path. We didn’t waste our ammo on them; a few hoof stamps settled the insects easily. “We need a big job.” I said, “a really nice big job. That pays enough that we could survive a month or two with no worries.” I grinned, mulling over the fantastical idea. I glanced to my left when I caught sight of movement. We both froze, watching the horizon. There was a group of four ponies, dragging along two others. The four ponies in front wore garish makeshift armour that wasn’t much better than a raiders shambled attempts at barding. The two being dragged along wore nothing, one was a mare, and the other was a stallion. Both were earth ponies, and by the look of the blue coated stallion, he was probably the father of the pink mare. Both had chains around their necks and leather muzzles strapped around their mouths. The stallion wasn’t struggling; he had a black eye and limped on one of his hind legs. The mare however looked to have fight in her, periodically having to be dragged by the leashes they had attached to their collar.

I could feel Stranger’s eye burning into the back of my head, watching to see what I would do. I did the most sensible thing I could think of. I did what I was supposed to do. I turned away and kept walking, leaving behind the whimpers and cries of the enslaved father and daughter. It was only a little into the afternoon by the time we finally pulled ourselves into New Appleloosa, the rain had soaked our saddlebags and clothing by this point. The large gate opened when the guard saw us, tipping his hat in our direction as a greeting.

“The old feather brain here?” I asked, calling up to him. If he noticed the edge to my voice, he didn’t show it.

“Nah, he’s out at his usual perch, you’re fine.” The gate sentry replied as he showed an almost toothless grin. I nodded in relief.

“Thanks.” The last thing I needed to deal with was a bloody pegasus.

The gate closed behind us after we’d entered. The market was on, a few stalls set up in the centre of the town, surrounded by towering boxcars that had been placed up as makeshift defendable walls. They were manned by sentries that were pretty good at their job, making New Appleloosa one of the safest towns. They had good defences, a decent population compared to other places in the Wasteland, and that featherbrain that hung around here was, I suppose, a pretty good scout when it came to spotting approaching raiders. As I entered the market, hooves wrapped around me in a squishy and gag-worthy embrace that was similar to being hugged by jelly. It was unfortunately coupled with a smell of stagnation and rot. So I held my breath, I really didn't want to throw up and hurt her feelings. The grey and red splotched mare pulled away from me and wriggled on the spot, the few strands she had that consisted of her mane flopping in front of her unfocused eyes.

New Appleloosa also had this going for it, and as far as I was concerned she was the main reason this place hadn’t been destroyed by a larger force already. Nopony wanted to inconvenience or hurt the feelings of Ditzy Doo. I took a step back from the mare and smiled. She was a little too affectionate at times and had personal space issues, but she was such a sweetheart that nopony could hate her for it. Though, there were still a few ponies here or there that had reservations about Ghouls on a general principle. Although when it came to Ditzy Doo, it was a universal and unspoken consensus that you kept your opinion to yourself.

I dug into my saddlebags and smirked at her when my hoof  came in contact with what I was searching for. I let her stew for a moment, that needy expression on her face becoming priceless. Before her excitement made her explode I pulled out a box, the red band on the side spelled out “Hoofsted Flour: All the Baking Goodness You Need.”

The look on the mares face was worth the squishy hug and more. Her bright smile lifted and beamed so bright it was like a small ray of sunshine that was only meant for me. If she could, I’m sure she’d have squeaked in joy. “It’s a full box and was hard to find, so try not to use it all up too quickly.” I advised her. She nodded and took it from me, hugging it to her chest before giving me a few caps in its place as payment. I counted out what she’d given me and sighed before I gave her a stern look. Her hoof began shuffling on the floor before she extended it again, allowing me to place some of the caps she’d given me back into her hoof. “You know not to do that.”

She nodded and gave me a bashful smile. Despite the lack of red on her cheeks, I was sure that she was blushing. I shook my head, unable to stay annoyed at her. My only irritation was that she had a habit of doing this. I didn’t like being over-paid for work. Forty caps for a tub of flour was a bit much, it was thirty, tops, and that’s including the service of picking it up for her. I had a reputation to keep and build, and I’d rather it was a little higher than a whore that would do anything for extra caps rather than make honest business transactions.

“Run along.” I said as I shooed her off. She beamed again before padding away, the few strands left of her golden tail swishing as she walked, her stumpy ‘wings’ lifted high, and if they’d had their bones and feathers still attached to said stumps, I’m sure they’d have been spread in delight. Yes, Ditzy Doo was a pegasus, and no, I had absolutely no issues with her, because Ditzy Doo had NEVER abandoned the surface, and to my knowledge, that mare had never abandoned anyone. A light bump at my flank turned my attention to Stranger who stood behind me. Despite him being the one to have bumped me, he was looking everywhere but at me. I rolled my eyes. It was a theory his that Ditzy had a ‘thing’ for me. I supposed it was possible. I took the time once in a while to get her things that she’d have difficulty getting elsewhere, like the flour. That mare sure liked her muffins. She was also quick to hug me, I supposed I could ask her not to, but the mare liked hugs and I’d feel bad if I denied her that just because I couldn’t stand a bit of a smell and squish once in a while. But even if she DID like me, she was a ghoul, so NOT going to happen. I had standards, and decaying flesh was WAY below them on the dating scale.

“Come on.” I grumbled, and together Stranger and I trotted off into the bustling market. They seemed to be having a good haul today. There were a few groups hanging around some of the merchants, and the tinkering of caps told me that a fair bit of profit was being made on both sides. The market was split off into two sides; the left side was for defence, and the right for offence. If you needed healing supplies, barding and armour, you went to the left, if you needed guns, knives, hammers and other weapons of death, then you went to the right.

“IF-28 ‘Chikasaw’ Sniper Rifle here!” A merchant to our right shouted out, his unicorn magic holding aloft a worn and somewhat battered rifle that, judging by its shine, he had attempted to fix and polish up himself. “You there!” He demanded, pointing a hoof at me and Stranger. “You look like you could use it. Wha’d’ya say?” He asked with a large sales-pony grin.

His coat was a similar colour to mine, a light blue that had become dusty over time with dirt and grime, but his mane was a sallow pale colour that was somewhere between yellow and white. It gave him a sickly air. “Five thousand caps,” he announced with sparkle in his eyes. A tell-tale sign that he thought this a fair price.

“I could get two rifles in better condition for that much. Besides, we don’t need it.” I said.

The sales-pony drooped as Stranger slipped out his II-12, a sniper rifle made by Ironclad Industries. It was sleek chrome and black, it gleamed due to Strangers habitual nightly polish of the weapon. Marred only by a scratch above the grip where some old etchings had been scoured into illegibility. The sales-ponies expression went from disappointed to one that could only be described as ‘eager’, his ears perking up and a grin spread far across his cheeks as his hooves clopped together. “Any chance ya’d be willin’ ta part with it? I’d pay ya handsomely.”

His request was met with a deadpan expression before the rifle was tucked away back into its holster. “Not for sale.” Stranger’s voice sounded deep and guttural from behind those bandages, the only sign that it was him that spoke were the movements of his jawline, because he never opened his mouth wide enough to part the bandages. The voice suited his large stature well, but the bass of it often caught ponies off-guard when they heard it. The good thing about having such a voice is that when Stranger spoke, ponies listened. I wasn’t quite sure what it was that had that effect. It could be the bass, the pronunciation of his words, or maybe it was simply that he was a big fella with a big gun. Probably the latter.

We stepped past the stallions stall and slipped down the street to a small little corner. A single stall occupied the space at the end of the street, behind it sat an office that was little more than sheets of metal propped up by wood panelling. On either side of the stall sat two guards wearing heavy-duty looking armour and both carried well-kept shotguns, both glared at Stranger and I as we approached. Sitting behind the stall was a singular white mare with an orange mane. She wore a wide brimmed hat and chewed the end of a pencil as she looked over a clipboard that sat in front of her on a paper strewn stall table. I glanced up at the large sign above the stall where large red painted letters spelled out “Morab’s”. I padded to the side of the stall where a large wooden panel had been erected for advertising. I made a show of ‘humming’ and ‘harring’ as I pretended to look over the jobs that were available, though one near the bottom of the board had caught my attention, if not for its content more due to the amount of names that had been signed up. The sound of my ‘hums’ and ‘hars’ didn’t go unnoticed, and the mare grumbled as she looked up at me. “Tome?” She asked, her voice a flat sound of annoyance that spoke of a keen displeasure.

“Oh, hey Morab, I didn’t see you there.” I answered as I flashed a patented charming grin at the mare. “I have a present for you.”

“You got the box.” She said flatly. Her words weren’t toned as a question, she knew me too well to believe I’d ever come back empty hoofed.

Morab Arts was the local contract dealer for New Appleloosa. Most towns had a stall like it, and often there was some good communication between them. Local issues, individual requests, or calls to arms for future plans could be advertised. If anypony was up for earning some caps, they could do some of the work. To hear the stories told, you'd be considered a mercenary; doing swift deeds, of heroic valour, earning your wealth in the wasteland as you moved from contract to contract, building a name for yourself that might herald you wherever you trotted…well in reality there was not much fighting, the issues could just be a nest of bloatsprites, or parts to unclog a sewage system, or to go gather a box from some bloody wannabe Raiders. Really we were more like couriers than mercenaries.

Speaking of said box, Morab’s hoof was held out, her face brokering no room for my antics. “Wow.” I said, feigning a hurt look at her. “You take all my fun away, you know that?” I asked her, giving her the saddest eyes I could. “It hurts.”

“Good. Now hoof it over.” she said.  No fun at all, I gave it to her with a chuckle and she snatched it from my hooves. She turned it over in her hooves, inspecting it before she pulled a small funny looking key out from under her desk. The key looked to be silver and it was engraved with strange markings.

“You can open it?” I asked, eyeing the small key.

“The client gave me the key so I could verify the contents before I cough up the caps.” She mumbled as she slipped the key into the lock and turned it twice. The lid popped open with a springy click.

“Is that a…?” I asked, letting my voice trail off. It was a stupid question. I knew a memory orb when I saw one, but this one was different. Memory orbs were filled with a milky white fog. This orb was jet black, and the insides swirled as I stared; gathering, dispersing, and reforming. Secrets, knowledge, and mysteries were dancing wisps hiding just past my distorted reflection.

The lid snapped closed and the lock clicked as Morab sealed it, slipping the box under the table and out of sight.

“Sooooo, a memory orb?” I asked curiously.

“I’m not at liberty to talk about it. That’s the clients business, not yours.” She pulled out a sack of caps and slid them over to me. “Take your earnings.”

“Well who’s the client? I might want to ask them some questions.” I asked as I put the bottlecaps away. I’d count them, but Morab wasn’t stingy on the caps. She paid what the job advertised, and that was that.

“Steam Bolt.” She said, giving me a glance.

“The slaver?” I asked as my curiosity screeched to a halt.

“Yup. I’m assuming you want to negotiate with the client about getting to view the orb yourself. I know you enjoy digging around. I have a direct line to him if you’d like me to send him a message?” She asked, her pretty red eyes batting at me in mock innocence as she smiled.

“Erm, no, I don’t think so.” I grumbled, sitting back. I wonder if I could sneak into her place sometime in the night and steal the orb before she could send it off on courier. “Say, your bar open tonight? I’d love to spend a few caps on some good drinks.” I lathered my voice with all of the niceties I could muster, giving her my most innocent and award winning smile.

“Rather than pretending to get drunk in my bar, take a bed there for the night, wait for the place to calm down before you sneak around my place and steal the orb for a few hours…” She said. “You could always ask if I’d be interested in letting you view it for a price before I give it Steam Bolt.”

I gasped. “What? Sneak around your home? I would never-” I stopped when I met her eyes. I scratched the nape of my neck. “So, erm, how much?”

“Ten thousand caps.” She said with a smirk.

I coughed. I couldn’t help it, I felt like I was choking on my tongue. “HOW much?” I demanded. “Just to view an orb?!”

“It’s information.” She shrugged. “Information is as pricey in the Wasteland as anything else. You should understand that, didn’t you once pay five hundred caps just for a book?

I turned away from her and grumbled under my breath. “It was one I hadn’t read.” I defended.

“Wow, a book you haven’t read, I hear they’re becoming rare. Didn’t you clear out the Ponyville Library last month just to read the books in there, how’d that go?”

“Not well.” I mumbled, the memory of the incident bringing a sour taste. “Raider’s had started painting blood on the walls, blood ain’t good for books. Most of them were mush. There must have been hundreds of books in there, and like twelve were actually legible.” I grumbled.

“You read all twelve?” She asked, her brow rising in curiosity.

I nodded before scratching the back of my neck again. “Anyway, you owe me another two hundred caps.”

“I do?”

“Yeah.” I nodded. “The contract had a bonus on it, if I killed Bronco and his lackeys there was a two hundred cap bonus.”

I stood there smiling, with those caps I could at least get a few drinks, some healing potions and maybe get some patching up done on my barding. I sat there waiting for her to give me my caps but all she did was lean over her table and start looking down at my hooves as though searching for something.

“What?” I asked, glancing down, trying to see if I was trotting shit everywhere or something.

“I don’t see them.” She said as she shrugged and slipped back into her rickety seat.

“What?” I repeated. She was about to cheat me out of some caps, I knew it.

“Heads.” She said as she turned back to her clipboard of sums and notes. “The contract said to bring back their heads for the bonus.” She said, casually pointing a hoof at the board.

“No it didn’t!” I said, turning to the board. “That can’t be right.” I slipped my eyes down to the bottom, found the contract, read over it and grinned. “AH HAH! SEE!” I exclaimed as I began to read aloud. “[Optional]: Whilst retrieving the box, a bonus of two hundred caps will be made available if Bronco and his group are executed.” I grinned.

“Keep reading.” Her voice and confidence were irksome.

I slipped my eyes down to the next paragraph. “Proof of each Optional objective shall be needed to validate their completion. The heads of Bronco and his gang should be presented with the box to be considered eligible for the mentioned bonus.” I finished, dumbfounded.

“I don’t see any heads.” Morab said, not bothering to look up from her clipboard.

I seethed. “Oh buck you. You could get easy info from the area to confirm they’re dead.”

“Fuck you too. Dead don’t matter. Heads matter.” She replied, still not lifting her eyes to meet my gaze.

“You got any more jobs then? Because without that bonus I’ve not earned enough to buy a round of drinks, let alone fix up my gear. I was counting on that bonus.”

“And I’m counting on a stallion with a tree trunk between his legs to sweep me off my hooves and carry me into the sunset.” She said. “But sadly, that’s not likely to happen. Just like you and your jobs, they’re all full.”

I flashed another grin. “I’m quite well endowed.”

This time she looked up at me, and while she may have tried to hide it, I could see her eyes flicker down my body before they hardened and her smile turned into something more akin to a sneer.

“Sorry, I’ve got a rule about bumping flanks with the local asshole.” She said sweetly.

I sighed and turned my attention back to the board. “You must have something for me, guys gotta make a living.” I mumbled, my eyes perusing the different contracts. But she was right, they’d either been crossed out as done, or already had names signed up to complete them. Near the bottom was the contract that had caught my attention earlier. This one had a LOT of names, well over thirty.

[Client: Steam Bolt – Steam City Slaver]

[Location: Neighagra Falls Oasis]

The Neighagra Falls Oasis? Why would anypony willingly go there?! I shook my head and continued reading.

[Details: There is a Stable beneath the Neighagra Falls Oasis which has recently been discovered. Stable 2B.-]

Stable 2B? Stables didn’t have ‘A’ and ‘B’ series categories. They were just numbered from 1 and up. This contract was making less and less sense the more I read about it. I continued reading anyway.

[-This Stable is reliably sourced to have advanced technology that is within the interests of the client. Acquisition of this technology is considered priority one.]

[Optional: Chances of Stable being occupied less than 20%. If in the case of occupation, live acquisition of Stable residents considered secondary priority. 400 Caps per resident bonus.]

I stared at that ‘Optional’ objective and let out a sigh. This was an acquisition, and potential slaving contract. Well that wasn’t fun.

[Pay: 10,000 Caps pp (per person)]

Well that explained a few things. Neighagra Falls was a death sentence, but for ten thousand caps just for participating there were always going to be a few that would jump at such a contract. And with four hundred caps as a bonus per head, a group of thirty infiltrators, a Stable average holding of around five hundred to one thousand residents…this was a life changing contract. A pony could make their life worth living with this kind contract, and it wouldn’t be that hard.

I glanced at the sign up list. All thirty slots were filled.

I thought about it for a moment before checking some of the names. When I spotted two familiar ones I grinned as a plan formed in my brain.

I turned back to Morab smiling. “So, about that drink tonight.”

*** *** ***

Morab Arts wasn’t just a contract dealer, a salespony, and something of a swindler, she was also the head barmare of the local ‘Morab Arts Tavern’, although it was a popular consensus that if she kept conducting business the way she did, she was likely to lose it soon enough.

The bar she ran was walled with girders and filled with tin sheets that sectioned off areas. The bar itself was quite nice, there was alcohol aplenty, and ponies could relax in beds upstairs for a price each night. How she’d gotten it set up I wasn’t quite sure. It was comfortable to sit at, it got polished a few times a week, and the place never attracted that bad a crowd. The problem was the prices. Morab overcharged. I slipped into the ‘Morab Arts Tavern’ and looked around. My nose wrinkled at the piss weak smell of shitty bear. Nopony really liked it in here, but it was the only place in town to get a drink, and here in the Wasteland a drink was always needed. I slipped onto a stool by the bar where I was flanked on either side by two stallions wearing combat armour and carrying shotguns. “Barrel, Pegleg.” I said in greeting to both of the stallions. They turned to me as I flashed a grin before moving my attention to Morab who was speaking to a mare at the end of the bar. “Hey. How about some drinks over here?”

“Tome,” Barrel’s guttural voice greeted in return. Pegleg however just grunted in acknowledgement. Barrel was a large brown stallion with a jet black mane. He smelled of gunpowder and his temper could be just as explosive. Pegleg was much like his name might suggest. Small, thin, and wiry, a grey coat with a dark grey mane, and two back hooves that were just stumps of wood he used for prosthetics.

“What’ll it be?” The barmare asked with a narrowed gaze. I wasn’t that regular of a customer, alcohol wasn’t my vice of choice and she knew it, so any reason I could have to be in her bar, wasn’t a reason she would likely welcome.

“I’d like to buy an extra round for these two fine stallions.”

“I don’t swing that way.” Barrel grunted, taking a swig of his drink, a drink that was almost empty.

I shook my head dramatically. “What? No, no, I’m not propositioning you, I’m helping you celebrate. It’s a good luck drink. I saw your names on the board out there, you’re going up to that Stable for the Steam Bolt job?” He eyed me for a moment before nodding.

“Well that place is a death trap. So I figured you two deserved a drink as a send-off.” I explained as I paid Morab for the overpriced pisswater, plus a small tip. She took the caps before preparing the drinks. that mare never said ‘no’ to caps. I’d made sure to get a drink for myself and reached over for it. My hoof moved too quick and I didn’t grasp the beer in time before the mug splashed its contents all over, soaking Barrel’s outfit in the process.

“Oh fuck you!” He yelled, standing up, his front drenched.

“Oh, I am so sorry; I’m a bit of a klutz today.” I said with a dramatic sigh. “Might be a concussion from my recent job, took a few knocks to the head ya know. Go get yaself dried up in the toilet, I’ll mind ya drink.”

He grunted at me before shuffling away with a myriad of grumbles. I pulled his drink close with my prosthetic hoof, opening a small catch on the side and sprinkled a small white powder into the drink.

“What you doin’?” Pegleg asked.

I moved the drink closer. “Just keeping his drink safe.” I smiled. “Enjoying yours?” I asked, my left hoof moving from the drink to his shoulder as I patted it neighborly.

He glanced at my hoof for a moment before looking back at me, his mouth opened as though to speak before he let out a small yelp. I slipped the empty syringe out of his neck and laid it down on the table. Pegleg stared at the syringe before his eyes rolled back and he fell off his stool with a ‘thump’.

Everypony turned to look, glancing from the now unconscious Pegleg to myself.  “What the fuck you do?!”, Barrel demanded as he returned.

“Don’t worry; he’ll only be out for twelve hours, I think.” I said. Barrel yanked me from my stool and pushed me down onto the bar.

“Hey, careful of ya own drink, I paid for that remember.” I grunted as bar dug into my side.

He glared before he grabbed the beer and downed it before slamming the mug back down on the bar. “Happy? NOW I’ll cream ya!” I raised my brow as he raised his hoof. Then his eyes rolled back and he fell over. Morab’s vice was money. Barrel’s was alcohol. I pulled myself up, straightened my jacket, and then turned to Morab who was looking over the two sleeping beauties.

She rolled her eyes before resuming her work. “What did you stick them with?” she stated. She probably didn't like that I drugged two of her customers but she wouldn’t do anything. I’d given her a tip after all.

“Not a clue.” I admitted. “Found it on the floor of a pharmacy. But I don’t think they’ll be getting up anytime soon.” I sat back down on the bar stool and rubbed my neck to ease the aches that had grown there. I turned back to Morab. “How early does that job start tomorrow by the way, cuz I think you have two spots free and I’d like to sign up?”

*** *** ***

Never before had I seen a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, except perhaps on some rambunctious nights at Morab Arts'.

All together there were thirty of us, thirty destitute ponies, all armed and hearing the distant jingle of bottlecaps in our ears. We were outside in the main market area, the stalls had closed the night before. I and Stranger sat near the back, trying to listen to Morab Arts who stood at the front of the crowd as she gave the details of the contract. It was difficult to hear, mainly because some of the other ponies were chatting to each other and wouldn’t shut the hell up.

BANG!

A shot rang and echoed across the now silent crowd. The shot had come from one of the four ponies at the front that stood beside Morab Arts. These were not part of the thirty that had gathered here today. They were ponies of a different sort straight from Steam Bolt himself. Sleek black armour glinted in the early light, covering every inch of their bodies. It was curved and rounded, like an insect. The ponies that wore them were earth ponies, or at least I guessed because of the lack of horn or wings on the armour. Their faces were masked by sleek helmts. For all I knew they could be robots. The side of each of the armours harboured a different array of weaponry, but the one that had fired the shot had large canons sprouting from a battle saddle unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Despite standing still, the pony had angled the barrel up into the air. The cannon, with an audible whir, soon slipped down and faced forward again.

“Thank you.” Morab said, looking visibly disgruntled. “These fine bucks-”

“Stallion,” I muttered.

“-have come straight from Steam City to supervise this operation. With your participation on this endeavour come a few vital rules.” She said, looking out over the crowd. “Once you walk out that gate and start for Stable 2B, you are not allowed to forfeit or abandon this mission. Anypony that abandons their post will be killed.” The silence was palpable. “As noted on the contract, the chances of this Stable being occupied are small. However, if it is, please avoid killing them, as capturing them as new slaves for Steam Bolt is worth four hundred caps per head. If you aren’t comfortable with slaving, now is your time to leave. If you don’t mind it but would rather not do it yourself, then ignore the residents as best you can and let somepony that is okay with slaving make their living. You may kill to defend yourself of course, but only if you absolutely need to. This is a Stable guys, they’re pussies, so avoid the trigger. Okay, as a final note, residents are a secondary priority. Primary is tech so keep it all intact, don’t blow anything up and gather as much of it as you can. Those that want to leave, do so now, those that are staying, good luck.”

The crowd stayed silent and no one made a move to leave. Thirty ponies came, thirty ponies stayed. Thirty ponies didn’t have a problem with slaving. I felt Stranger eyeing the back of my head and was grateful when the crowd started moving out.

The journey from New Appleloosa to Neighagra Falls was a long one, at least several hours if we walked without stopping, maybe two days if we took a break. Either way, it was going to be a long walk. A few ponies talked about what they might do with the fortune of caps waiting for them. I myself, preferred to walk in silence rather than strike up conversation with anypony else.

Silence was too much to ask for it seemed. “Hey.” A voice greeted me from my right. We’d been walking for around three hours now in relative peace. Once or twice a few gunshots had rung out from near the front, likely a radroach or some unlucky scavenger crossing our paths. I never saw if it was either, the dangers had never gotten close enough to be a threat to the back of the line.

I turned to the pony and gave him an inquisitive look. “Yes?”

“I’m Copper.” He greeted happily.

I looked him up and down. He was young, only a teenager, he had a black mane with an orange streak and sallow yellow coat. His eyes were a brilliant blue. Overall, he was a cute lad.

“Aren’t you a little young for this?” I asked

“Hey, I’m twenty-five.” He said, flicking his mane out of his eyes.

“No you’re not.” I sighed. “Your dad know you’re out here with us?”

“I told you, I’m twenty-five.” He said. “Look, I thought you were cool, that’s why I said ‘hello’, but if you aren’t going to be cool, then fuck you.”

“You’re dads a pretty good drinker ya know.”

The buck stumbled and turned to me with his mouth agape. “You have his eyes.”

“How…how did you…okay, you’re right, please don’t tell my dad!” He hissed at me.

I shrugged. “I don’t know your dad.”

He stared at me. “But you said-”

“Eye shape is hereditary from paternal lineage; it wasn’t hard to figure you’d have your father’s eyes most likely. Morab Arts is the only piece of entertainment in town, so your father probably frequents it, especially if he’s got a son like you with an obvious rebellious streak stressing him out. Anypony would need a drink after that.”

He stared at me. “You’re an ass.”

“And you are still too young to be here.”

“Well I can’t leave now can I? If I do I’ll be killed by those four big guys. So I’m stuck. Besides, when this is all over, I’ll be rich and then I can live on my own.” The colt was eager, I'd give him that. I moved away, hoping he'd take the hint so I could ignore him. “So,” but he couldn't take a hint of course. “What happened to your leg?”

I felt a ghost of pain slice up my disembodied hoof, it was accompanied by a roiling in my stomach. “Nothing that concerns you.” I snapped at him through gritted teeth.

“Sorry.” He gasped before he turned away. He's just a colt dammit. I unclenched my jaw and breathed out heavily.

“What’s your name, colt?” I asked. I could feel Stranger watching me again, him with those fucking judgemental eyes.

“I’m not a colt.”

“What’s your name?” I insisted. Just a colt, a damn irksome colt.

“I told ya before; it’s Copper, Copper Twang.” He said as he puffed out his chest. “And one day, it’ll be a name everyone knows. I’m gonna get some money, retire in Tenpony, and get some ponies to train me to be a really good fighter, and then be a ranger for them, raiding the ruins for food and chems and stuff, and then I’ll make a name for myself, I’ll be the Copper Ranger, the best in the land.” I could taste this colt's confidence and it was pretty sour.

“Where you grow up?” I asked, adding the word ‘colt’ onto the end of the sentence in my head.

“All over the place,” he shrugged. “My dad used to be a trader before he settled down. I learned how to shoot when I was young, so I know how to defend myself.”

“You ever killed a pony?” I asked.

He balked at that. Then shook his head.

“You don’t know shit.” I said. The colt drooped as I said that. “but you will by the time this is over.”

“I will?” He said as he cocked his head. “But we’re not supposed to kill residence, and there might not even be anypony in there.”

“You’re right, but if residents aren’t in there, that means it was never sealed. Stables were only sealed once they were full, so this’ll be wide open if there are no residents. That means it’ll be the home to something else, something nasty. But if it was filled, they could all be dead; and what killed them might be waiting for us. Whether by some terrible experiment, a break in, etc. In which case we're back to something nasty waiting for us.” I shrugged, giving him a glance. The colt's pupils were pinpoints and he seemed fixed on me. “But hey, let us say, for arguments sake, that there are ponies in there just waiting for collars around their necks. The average stable houses upwards of five hundred residences, there are thirty of us. We’re far more heavily armed and experienced so yeah, we’ll win, but they WILL have weapons too, maybe not many, but they will have some. That means they’ll be fighting back.” I turned to him, looking down at his holstered pistol. “What you got there?”

“Erm, 9mm.” I could only sigh. I reached into my coat and pulled out my spare.

“This is 10mm, automatic. Point, pull the trigger, and try not to hit me.”

“Thanks, what’re you gonna use?” He asked as he looked the pistol over.

I turned to Stranger, meeting his eye. “I don’t need to worry, I’ve got him.”

*** *** ***

Neighagra Falls had once been a beautiful and serene place. The towering waterfalls that tumbled into the ever after churned frothy water in the glistening sunlight. Or at least they once had. In an effort to gain electric power to the local bases in the area, Neighagra Fall’s had been the site of the first pony built dam. The water became controlled, and the  falls changed from a sight of beauty to one of industrialism. The dam was seven-hundred feet high, built out of concrete and filled with generators, pre-war tech and enough hollow space inside for hundreds and thousands of ponies to be hidden away. The dam’s rooms were said to travel below the water and well into the rock below with rooms and chambers and more resources than any pony could grasp for themselves. Sounds like the perfect place to scavenge or even take shelter in doesn’t it? Many once thought so. Many of the inner chambers had flooded overtime with the water from the gorge, and those weren’t waters you wanted to go swimming in to get around. But I supposed the most interesting part of Neighagra Falls, was the Neighagra Falls Oasis.

There, sat in the middle of the gorge lake behind the dam that lapped at the edges of the stony structure was a small little island. It was so small that it was barely a few meters across, and contained a single tree. But it got stranger; this was perhaps one of the few places I had ever seen grass growing. Not just growing, but GREEN. It was green and lush, and the tree flowered and gave fruit and the water was a clear blue and sparkled gorgeously. Everything looked so inviting. This was exactly why nopony came to Neighagra Falls. Nopony wanted to die. We didn’t know why or what was happening to this area, but the water and that little island appeared to be so magically irradiated that it caused some…peculiarities. The water had a higher radiation average than any other water source in the entire of wasteland. The islands green grass was so irradiated that eating it guaranteed cancer and death, and may Celestia have mercy on anypony that ate the fruit of the tree. Neighagra Falls was a death trap.

“So,” I began, turning to one of the large black armoured ponies, hoping to answer the question on everypony’s mind. “How do we get in?”

He/She/It didn’t look at me, but at they did grace me with an answer. “Over the last eight to ten years the radiation in this area has been waning significantly, it is now safe to enter so long as RadAway and RadX precautions are taken.” His voice was gruff and deep and muffled by the helmet he wore, but at least I knew his gender now.

“Radiation doesn’t just go.” I said, thinking out loud more than making an attempt at conversation. “If two hundred years haven’t been enough time for the Wasteland, ten won’t be for this place. Which means there’s something here cleaning the radiation out of the surrounding environment, which I’m assuming is what Steam Bolt wants?” I concluded, watching the stallion’s reactions.

This time he did turn to me, and even though I couldn’t see his expression or his eyes, I got the distinct feeling he was displeased. “Who are you?” He asked. “You seem…educated.”

I fixed him with a steady stare. “I’m just a smart pony.”

There was a stand-off between us, an unspoken animosity that said this stallion really didn’t like me, and I wasn’t sure I much liked him either. Eventually he seemed to understand that I was the stubborn sort, so he looked away and trotted towards the dam.

“Follow me.” He called out to everyone, the other three insect-armoured ponies flanked him as the thirty strong group slowly moved toward the water's edge.

We were led down the bank and round to one of the access doors in the dam. The door was metal and firmly placed in the concrete of the massive structure.

After everypony had taken a dose of RadX and made sure they had spare satchels of RadAway handy, the door was yanked open. The view that greeted us wasn’t comforting. The door lead into a small narrow corridor, which meant ponies would be walking in two files at most, this made for easy pickings. We’d be bottlenecked if it came to any kind of fight, but nopony other than me seemed to be paying attention to this fact. Two of the big black armoured ponies entered, while the other two herded us in. Stranger and I were near the front of the crowd; I’d made a point of slipping forward to put as much distance between myself and ‘Copper Twang’ as I could. The colt was bugging me.

The corridors were surprising. Not only were they thinner than foretold making it a tight fit for all of us, but they were well lit. The lights buzzed while filling the corridor with an artificial glow. How this place was still working after two hundred years I couldn’t fathom. It was probably earth pony ingenuity; I couldn’t imagine any unicorn spells lasting this long. That wasn’t to claim the superiority of earth ponies, more to simply point out the different strengths in terms of creativity. The two black ponies in front led us down the corridors pausing only at intersections. We moved to the end of this one and turned left. Another corridor dipped down into radioactive water. The black armoured freaks trotted forward, wading right into it and we followed them. The water was up to our necks, and it was difficult to see ahead of us. Floating around in the water was a myriad of pre-war items. Some wonderglue, tape, what looked to be an old radio, and even some clothing. Maybe some ponies had once used this place to hold up. Maybe it’d had a staff at some point that lived in the dam and kept its generators running. The corridors eventually levelled out and the water level dropped. We now trotted our way through puddles of water that splashed around our hooves. The corridor we were in had several other turns, and a few of them seemed to have rooms. I looked around us as we walked by stacks and shelves of things and pre-war tech that seemed untouched.

“Come on.” I whispered to Stranger and quickly extricated myself from the crowd and down a different corridor. He trotted after me without a word, even though leaving the group probably warranted our deaths. I slipped out of sight with Stranger into a nearby room, the door had been wedged open at some point. It was dented in as though somepony in the past had tried to force it open, curious considering the rest of the place seemed pristine. The room was a medium sized office, there were filing cabinets along one wall and a desk with a terminal sat in the corner. I padded over to it, the radioactive water sloshing around me. I hoped this water damage hadn’t messed up the computer systems. Though considering the rest of the places electronics hadn’t been compromised was probably a good sign. The terminal lit up with a soft green glow as I flipped the power switch, and of course it had a password. I opened the computers terminal before typing in a few short commands. A new window opened up, displaying a seemingly random array of characters and words. It was a wonder Stable-Tec computers used to be so popular, considering they had such a huge vulnerability in its operating system. Somewhere in the mess of characters and words was the root password for the system. It took me a few tries and once I had to back out to avoid being locked out of the terminal. But I finally found the password, ‘DAWN’, and the screen opened onto two options, ‘Personnel’ and ‘Governmental’. I selected the ‘Personnel’ first and was greeted by more options replacing the previous ones. I selected the first one entitled ‘Messages’ out of curiosity. The list that greeted me was surprising. This terminal alone had received over seventy messages. I selected the latest one.

 

‘Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Protocol Demands We Begin Immediately.

Dear Lucretius Song, this conversation has become tiresome. The projects are being sealed away at my request and the Stage 3 products will arrive this evening for storage. Please take care as these will include the ‘GE11-2’ as well as the ‘NMA01’. It is highly important that you do the job I asked of you. My predictions show that we are entering the final stages of the war, and if this tech is not accounted for in the safety of Stable 2B, then the future of Equestria may be in danger, and that danger will rest on your hesitation. Please do this; I need to make sure there is a way to save Equestria if all else fails.

Twilight Sparkle

M.A.S. Ministry Mare’

 

I sucked in a breath. A message from Twilight Sparkle? Well that was a find. But the conversation made no sense. I began perusing some of the older messages, but they seemed to revolve around this Lucretius Song character arguing with the Ministry Mare about whether or not it would be wise to seal the tech away so soon when they could still be of use. Twilight seemed to be more focused on saving the tech rather than using it. It made me wonder if she’d known the bombs would really fall. I backed out of the emails and moved down to the next selection, ‘Stable Inventory’. The screen suddenly flashed for a moment and the green glow was replaced with a cool blue one that I’d never seen on a terminal before. On the screen was another request for a password, with a pixelated Equestria flag waving above it.

“Erm…okay.” I used the shortcut that would usually open the terminal prompt, but the moment I pressed it, the screen turned itself off. I glanced over at Stranger who was watching me looking quite unimpressed. “Hey, I didn’t break it.” A beep caught my attention.

‘ERROR: Hacking Attempt Registered’ Oh?

‘9’

Why was the number nine taking up the screen? ‘8’

‘7’

Why is it counting down? ‘6’

‘5’

This was probably not a good thing. ‘4’

‘3’

I turned and dived out of the way to the end of the room. ‘2’

We grabbed the filing cabinets and yanked them down with a crash; we then jumped on top of them to get above the water.

BOOM! The computer screen exploded in a shower of sparks, several of its wires split open from the surge and the water that had been sloshing at our hooves lit up for a moment as arcane electricity surged through it. I tapped the water to make sure it was no longer shocked before stepping down and approaching the smoking terminal. I felt Strangers eyes on my back. “Okay, so not one of my finest moments.” I said, attempting to save face. Stranger didn’t seem to buy it. “Hey, we found out some things. The Ministry of Arcane Sciences, or at least the Ministry Mare herself, was using Stable 2B as a storage site. That’s interesting.”  Stranger didn’t seem to agree.

The sound of gunfire in the distance told me that the group had finally made it to the Stable, and like predicted, some of them just couldn’t help but be trigger happy. I sighed as I sat down on the overturned filing cabinets. “Might as well twiddle our hooves for a bit,” I said as I pulled out some RadAway and gulped it down. I had no idea how much radiation I’d soaked up through the water at my hooves, but it probably wasn’t healthy. Not that it mattered much. “Not like there’s anything we can do. We’ll wait for the others to be done, go and take our own share of the loot and head back to collect the cap reward.”

As always the stoic silence of my partner gave me the gut feeling that he was judging me negatively for my actions. Would he rather I be in there slaving with the rest of them? The cacophony of yells and gunfire was loud enough to penetrate even these thick walls, but it slowly dwindled to a distant sound after about half an hour. Stranger and I waited there for about an hour total before we figured it was best to get moving. We walked back down the corridor and passed some of the others in the group. They were laughing and dragging three ponies between them, two stallions in security barding, and one mare whose flank was bloody around the thighs. She limped a little, sniffling with each step. I let them pass. I was getting sick of those judgmental eyes boring into the back of my skull. I grit my teeth and refused to look at Stranger as we moved down the corridor. We eventually found the Stable door after two turns, finding the right direction by the slow procession of ponies and newly captured slaves filing out. The door to the Stable was an unusual one. Usually a Stable door would lead into a basic area that connected to the rest of the interior, but this one lead to a staircase that went down further. I stared down the stairs and I was about to take a step down before I heard something on the very edge of my hearing. I turned away from the Stable doorway and listened. The soft sloshing of the water that trickled down the stairs and the constant trotting of hooves around us as ponies milled out of the Stable dragging others that whined, whinnied and cried out to be saved were the only sounds that met my ears. But I was sure that in that singular moment of silence I’d heard the sound of somepony else crying. And it hadn’t come from the inside of the Stable.

I turned away and headed down a different corridor, turning around a corner and as quietly as I could, began moving down. Sadly, stealth wasn’t a virtue I had in abundance. The soft clink of my prosthetic hoof accompanied my walk. A sharp breath stopped me outside a door that was opened just a hair. I opened it, finding an office similar to the previous one, but this one’s filing cabinets looked to have been raided. Paper and trash floated about in the hoof deep water that still rolled around on the floor. In the same corner as before, sat a desk and a computer terminal, except this one was still sparking. Maybe some pony had made the same mistake I had and blew it up. Didn’t seem that bad a theory, after all, it’d exploded on me and I was a smart pony. What made the scene interesting was that I wasn’t the only one in the room. There, standing in front of the desk and staring at me with a jittery expression was a stallion was at least a decade my senior. He had amber eyes and a dirty lime green coat, he wore a wide brimmed hat and his dishevelled long brown mane hung around his neck and shoulders in a mess that would have covered his eyes were it not for the hat holding it back. His hide was covered in leather barding, complete with a vest. He was also looking at me wearily. My first instinct was to hit him.

“Lucky Horseshoe,” I greeted softly, keeping my urges in check while glancing from him to the desk. “It’s been a while.”

“Hey Tale,” he greeted stiffly, glancing around himself nervously.

“’Didn’t think this kind of gig was up your street.”

“Well, ya know,” he began, eyeing me. “’Gotta survive somehow.”

“I thought you avoided groups as a rule, because of your…problem.” I said while leering at him, wondering if I could buck him up the head before he could react…I probably couldn’t.

“As I said, need the caps.” He glared at me, looking less nervous.

“What’s behind the desk, Lucky?” I challenged, taking a step closer, the soft clink of my hoof drawing his attention.

“You’re leg.” He stared at the limb with wide eyes, the silence among those two words palpable between us. “Did you…?” His voice trailed off as he asked with a slight note of concern. The concern just made me want to hit him more.

My eyes narrowed. “What’s behind the desk?” I asked again as I approached.

He stared at me before his eyes narrowed. “What are you going to do, Tale?”

We stared at each other challengingly for a bit before the sound of a gun cocking could be heard behind us. A slight smirk slipped over my features. Stranger had him dead to rights. Lucky Horseshoe glanced over my shoulder at what I could only guess was the sight of the large figure of Stranger holding his II-12 in his magical grip, aimed squarely at Lucky’s head. I stepped around the stallion confidently, and pushed the desk out of the way to reveal a curled up unicorn filly looking quite terrified of me. She had a sallow yellow coat, a dirt brown mane and grey and yellow Stable 2B barding. Her cutiemark was a circular winding flower rooting out of a seed. Her brown eyes were dilated with fear. “Dammit Lucky.” I said under my breath.

My attention went to the door as two ponies barged in. “What’s goin’ on in here? Everypony’s lookin’ for ya!” The unicorn talking had a red coat, black mane and bright yellow eyes. He wore metal barding and carried a shotgun at his side, coated in the soft glow of his magic. The other stallion had a yellow coat with an orange mane. He carried a revolver in his mouth. The moment they saw the filly a bright grin stretched across the red stallion’s mouth. From the doorway another pony stepped in. His black mane with an orange streak and yellow coat were distinctive enough for me to recognise. Copper Twang.

“Oh, hey,” he greeted the moment he saw me. There was a moment of silence and awkwardness. I didn’t know how I was going to handle this situation. I might be able to talk our way out of this, but unfortunately Lucky decided to do something very stupid.

“You are not having her!” He yelled, standing between us and the filly. I facehoofed.

“What?” The red stallion asked, chuckling. “Residents get taken. That’s the rules. Shove a collar on her and let’s get going.”

“I won’t let you enslave her.” This idiot was going to get us all killed. I heard the cock of a barrel and saw the red stallion readying his shotgun.

“Wait, you really don’t want to be doing that.” I said, moving to stand between Lucky and the red stallion.

“What are you doin’?” Copper Twang approached, looking confused.

“His name is Lucky Horseshoe’s, and he is not a pony you want to try shooting.” I said firmly. I’d seen first-hoof what happened to ponies that thought Lucky was easy pickings.

“Get out of here Tale; I don’t need your help.” Lucky grumbled.

“What’s going on?” Copper Twang looked very confused.

“Get out of the way or I’ll shoot you too!” The red stallion demanded.

“EVERYONE SHUT UP!” I yelled, panting. All this noise in the area was giving me a headache. I coughed for a moment, feeling a writhing in my chest before I managed to make myself calm down. I wiped my mouth and looked around. A filly behind me, being protected by a pony I’d wished I’d never meet again, two idiots in front of me that were feeling trigger happy, a young colt looking to prove himself a stallion, and Stranger in the doorway. He was a good ten paces away, but even in this dull lighting I could see that gaze of his; sapphire, deep, and always judging, watching to see what I would do. It was like he was waiting for something. Like he always had been. Just waiting for me.

Fuck.

Bang! My gun was out and smoking before anypony could react. Bang! Stranger’s gun went off, killing the other stallion, dropping the second one to the floor, blood pooling into the water at our hooves. Two corpses. Copper Twang’s eyes went wide; he pulled out the gun I’d given him. The 10mm. And he decided to aim it right at me. “Don’t do it.” I asked him softly. I could see him hesitating, he had it aimed at me and his grip on it was shaking. I glanced to Stranger, but I saw he’d put his gun away. He wouldn’t interfere. He was just watching. The bastard.

Bang!

I ducked low and forward, the bullet slicing into my shoulder and the pain flashed and burned. I slipped my mouth down, gripped the shiv in my collar with my mouth and thrust. I felt wetness against my muzzle. I could feel the colts shaking body as he leaned against me, the blade in his throat. “I’m sorry.” I said softly. The boy fell into the water. I’d killed a child. I was silent for a bit, staring down at the colt. He’d wanted to prove himself a stallion. I heard approaching hooves behind me.

“Thank you.” Lucky said, the gratitude lathered his voice. I decked him. I turned and hit him with as much force as I could. He was just lucky I didn’t choose to use my left hoof. It wasn’t any stronger than my right, but metal hurt a lot more than hooves. He splashed to the ground unconscious. Dammit, hitting him hadn’t improved my mood. I stepped over Lucky’s body, glancing down to make sure he at least wasn’t going to drown in the few inches of water below us. When I was confident he wasn’t I turned to the filly. I stared down at her. She looked terrified. I glanced at my shoulder, the wound still itched and burned but it wasn’t too bad. The filly in front of me glanced to my wound and then to the now dead ponies on the floor. She swayed for a moment before her eyes rolled back and she collapsed. She’d feinted.

“Stable ponies,” I grumbled and turned away, heading for the door. Stranger made no move to let me past. He stood in the doorway, blocking me. I tried to move around him, but he moved to cut me off again. “What are you doing?” I asked carefully, looking up at him. He stared back at me, his only visible eye boring into me. “What?” I asked dangerously, my eyes narrowing. “What do you want from me?” I asked. I was sick of this. Sick of his judgemental stares, sick of his silent stoic fucking manner, and sick of that single fucking eye! “WHAT?!” He didn’t move and he didn’t speak. He just stared. Waiting. I felt my stomach twist in knots and I turned back to the filly, if only to look at something other than him. “You want me to save her don’t you?” I already knew the answer, he didn’t need to give it, and he chose not to anyway. “She’d be better off if I didn’t.” I grumbled. “She’s a Stable pony.” I turned to him, leering, wishing I could make him feel what I was feeling. “She won’t survive outside. Stables are kind. Outside isn’t kind. If she gets a good owner she’ll be fed, maybe homed. If she’s unlucky she’ll be treated like shit and maybe even raped, but slaves are expensive so most’ll try their best to not kill her at least.” I argued. “It’s a kinder life than what she’d have with me.” He still refused to move. I wanted to rage against him, but he’d probably stamp me out if I tried. I felt something slither and crawl in my throat again and it drew out another bought of painful coughing. I turned away from him when the coughing subsided. I wiped my mouth. “I fucking hate you.”

*** *** ***

With a soft click the mechanical collar latched in place around the unconscious filly’s neck. I felt sick locking that thing on her. It was sleek black and might have been considered an okay accessory, were it not for the glowing red band along it and the fact that it couldn’t be taken off by the wearer. I picked the filly up and slipped her onto my back before walking out of the room. This time Stranger let me pass. I hesitated for a single moment before asking him to carry Lucky as well. I’d rather not leave the stallion behind to be killed.

We didn't attract much attention from the others as we moved through the corridors and out of the dam. One stallion did ask us about the shooting, but we explained it off as some of the ponies trying to ditch their jobs, so I had to put them down. Walking around with a collared filly on my back and the dead ponies were good enough evidence to halt their prying. Lucky was explained as having taken a hit to the head during the fight. That one was more or less true. The unconscious filly on my back made my insides feel heavy as I walked. I stole glances at Stranger, but he refused to meet my gaze. I was so tempted to hit him. We began heading back as a group. Some of us had died, and judging by the amount of ponies taken as slaves, many of them had died too. What I did notice, was a distinct lack of large tech despite the orders. I’d seen a few saddlebags full, but other than that I’d expected some large machinery hauling. Even the black armoured ponies were carrying light. Maybe something had gone wrong, and my absence meant I’d missed something crucial. It was a mystery that I pondered for a bit, not out of any actual interest, truth be told I couldn’t give a crap, but if I didn’t make myself think of something I was going to deck Stranger like I had Lucky. Truth be told I was surprised I’d landed the hit on that old stallion. Lucky wasn’t the easiest of ponies to face in a fight. Things don't go the way you want them to when fighting him. I had no idea what I was going to do. I couldn’t leave the procession of ponies or I’d get shot. I couldn’t steal the filly away, and I certainly couldn’t leave Lucky to his own devices, he was a bit of a disaster and that’d likely end up as a disaster for me.

I looked up to the horizon ahead of me, pony hooves thundered in my ears, interrupted by the clink of my hoof as we walked. I scowled as a wrongness roiled through my insides. I had a bad feeling I was going to be stuck with a filly from a Stable and an asshole from my past for longer than I’d like. And worse, I had another feeling I wasn’t going to get paid.

 


 

 

Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Small Surprises – Your use of impromptu weapons have made you a skilled surprise attacker. +10 damage on unsuspecting ponies when using your shiv.

End Notes:

(Authors Note: Here it is. My own Fo:E story, hurray for joining the fad. I’ve planned this story out HEAVILY, and plan for it to be quite lengthy. How lengthy? Personally…no idea. I’m releasing chapters all the way to chapter two first thing, and then spreading it around online like a maniac as you’ll find out.


I’d like to give special thanks to Kkat for writing the original Fallout: Equestria, and a special thanks to my editor, Mission, who is doing AMAZING work. I hope you all like my book, PLEASE comment and tell me what you thought. As for canons, something you might want to know, I will NOT be making any reference to any canon events or aspects other than those of the original FoE, HOWEVER, I do plan on making GREAT efforts to avoid stepping on the ‘hooves’ of other stories like Project Horizons or Pink Eyes. I’ll do my best not to conflict with them, so you CAN consider them canon, if you personally want to. But, I do not bind myself to that, and if the story reaches a point where I do not feel I can continue without doing my own version of something project horizons might have explained away, I make no apologies about it. I’ll do my best to avoid that though.


I hope you like the story. Comment and subscribe. )


 


(Editor's Note: Yep, we've joined the fad. Thought about writing my own FOE story more than once. Just never came up with a plot that felt concrete. Then that guy up there ^, went and proposed this story. Of course I was immediately intrigued, and when I found out he needed an editor I hopped aboard.


Then he went and showed me the first chapter, and dammit he got me hooked. When he sends me a rough draft to edit, I have to read the blasted thing before I can get to editing it. The story is just that good.


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Chapter Two - Dear Princess Celestia, The Wasteland Makes Monsters Of Us All. by AlmanacPony

Chapter Two

Dear Princess Celestia, The Wasteland Makes Monsters Of Us All

“Slavery is a weed that grows on every soil…even if it’s irradiated.”

 

The group had become a line outside of New Appleloosa. The town tolerated slavers, but they and their slaves weren’t allowed inside the town, and to make sure that everypony stayed outside were a group of looming guards. One of which stood on a high perch on the main gate.

He was a feather-brain, a pegasus everyone just called Gale. He was an old coot. Blind in one eye, light grey with a white mane, grey-scale all over this one with a single red eye, his other one white and scarred. He avoided me. I avoided him. He knew I had no love for pegusi, Dashite or otherwise. I shot him a glare. He was staring at me from under that wide brimmed hat of his. His hoof stroked a rifle in his lap. He was goading me. I did not need that right now; my mood was foul enough as it was.

Morab arts had met the group outside the town. She was filling out receipts and taking stock of the inventory as she went. The plan was for the entire group to head all the way to Fillydelphia to receive payment from Steam Bolt. Usually contract payments would be handled by Morab herself, but apparently this was a three-hundred-thousand cap operation. You don’t trust a single mare with that kind of cash, no matter how credulous their reputation. The receipts had only just started flowing, and Morab had started at the front of the line. So I had time before she reached me at the back. How the fuck could I get out of this situation without losing my head? I shot stranger a look, this was his fault but that wasn't going to help now. So I inhaled a gulp of air and casually stepped out of the line.

“Where are you going?” A deep voice said beside me. I turned and met the black visor of one of the armoured ponies that had escorted us. The twin canons on his back and his voice made me realize that we'd met before. He was the one I’d spoken to briefly before we’d entered the dam at Neighagra Falls.

“Over the hill, need to use the little colt’s room.” I said in a semi-sarcastic tone.

“Leave your prize and stuff.” He said. My step faltered before I gave him a square gaze. I tried my best to convey how stupid the order was with just that expression.

“This is a group of slavers after as big a payday as they can get. You really think I’m gonna leave my gear around them or a four-hundred cap slave sitting on their lonesome while I go take a shit?” I made sure to maintain a condescending tone. “No, I’m taking her and my stuff with me. I’ll be back in about ten minutes, I’ll even stand at the back of the line when I get back, don’t much care.” And with that I walked away from him.

I didn't look back as I walked, but my ears where pricked and I listened for any sound that might alert me to a follower. I stepped over the hill and down towards the ditches that ponies often used to relieve themselves. The stench was rife. I walked around it and headed down the side of the hill, trying to keep myself low when it levelled out. Soon I had the town between the group and me. I said I’d take ten minutes, but I bet he’d get suspicious after only five or six. So I didn’t have long. I started trotting. I knew that the armour-clad stallion would come looking for me and I knew I was leaving Stranger behind but that was fine. If I was lucky Stranger would follow him, then I'd have backup. I followed the wall of New Appleloosa before heading down into the nearby dunes, putting some distance between me and the town. The direction didn’t matter, so long as there was something between me and the group. They would kill me if they knew I was trying to get away.

My five minutes passed. Faster than I would have liked. So, I ran. Then I felt a shuffling on my back. No. Nope. This was not the best time for her to wake up. “What’s going on?” Curious sentence structure for a child, maybe she was older than I thought. “Mother?” Damnit.

“Your mother isn’t here.” I grumbled to her as I ran. “Settle down.” She was wriggling around, and it was messing with my pace.

“Let me down!” She screamed. Whack! My head exploded in pain and I stumbled to the ground.

“Arrgh!” I groaned as I rubbed my temple. She took the opportunity to slip off my back. That had bloody hurt. She trotted in front of me and I saw why my ears were ringing. On her forearm was a bloody PipBuck. Stable ponies, you can keep ‘em. “Was that really called for?”

“Where is my mother?” She growled at me. She was small, about half my height and around 10 years of age if I had to guess, but her eyes spoke of a maturity of somepony much older. Anger burned in those eyes too. A real anger that ponies don't typically learn when they were that young.

“Well, aren’t you a spitfire.” I said as I finished rubbing my temple. I checked my hoof, I wasn’t bleeding, but I bet it would bruise. “We don’t have time to talk. We have to go.”

“Where is she?!” she screamed. I shoved my hoof into her mouth.

“Shut the buck up!” I growled at her, forcing her face to look me in the eyes as I held her. She looked scared, but I saw something else flash in those green eyes. Defiance. “Fine,” I conceded as I dropped my hoof, adopting a malicious grin as I leaned in to touch noses. “Your mother is dead.” Her pupils narrowed as that news sunk in. Grief, fright, terror and anger rolled over her face. “Or she might not be.” I said with a casual shrug. She looked ready to cry; or hit me again; probably both. “Hell, she might be just behind us in the crowd behind these city walls. There’s a load of them from your Stable there, she might have just gotten captured.”

“MOTHER!” She yelled as she ran past me. I grabbed her collar in my teeth and yanked hard, pulling her backwards into the air. I then slammed her down with my hoof, pinning her to the ground with it.

“Do you see this?!” I hissed at her, shaking the collar as she stared at me. “This is a slave collar; it’s wired with a bomb that can be set off remotely. It goes off, your head goes off. And your mother, if alive, has one just like it. She MIGHT be alive, it’s unlikely, but it’s possible I suppose. But if she is she’s got one of those on her neck and that makes her a slave. And she’ll be surrounded by those that consider her property.

“There are over twenty ponies over that hill, all of them either consider you or your mother or anypony else you cared about in that Stable as nothing more than a pile of caps, or a piece of meat.” She was listening now. Good; maybe we might get out of this alive. She just needed to listen and obey. “If you go back there, at best, you’ll be captured by them, taken by them, raped by them, and then traded for a bunch of caps to a Master that might do all of that every day for the rest of your life. Or maybe they’d just put you to work until you die from exhaustion.” I let that sink in a moment. “You can’t help her if you go back there, but if you shut up and come with me, maybe one day we could save her.” I saw a little hope in her eyes. “Bear in mind there are around sixty of your stable friends back there as slaves, and the rest of your Stable was killed. So the chances of one of them being your mother, is very slim.”

“My mother’s alive.” The certainty in her voice was admirable. It was also extremely naïve. “Who are you?”

“I’m the guy trying to save your life.” I said as I removed my hoof from her chest. We needed to get going; I trotted past her. “Come on.” She was staring back at the dune, over which the tops of the New Appleloosa walls loomed.

“Can’t we save her now? Please?” The filly's voice cracked. Just what I needed. I wasn't looking at her, but there were probably tears.

“No we can’t. We have to go now. They’re gonna come looking for us and we’ve barely put any distance between us and them. If they catch us, they’ll take you, and probably kill me. So come on!”

“If I’m such a danger to you, then why save me?” She yelled. That stopped me, I hadn’t expected that question. I turned back to look her in the eye.

“Because I have a judgemental bastard of a friend that made me.”  It probably wasn’t the answer she’d expected. But hey, I was an honest guy, well, most of the time I was. And why the look of fear? She wasn't even looking at me anymore… what was she..?

“I’d say that was some bad advice.” Fuck.

I turned around and faced the sights of a double cannon battle saddle. I'd say he wasn’t happy. Not that I could really tell, his face was covered by his helmet, but I assumed he wasn’t happy. Happy people didn’t often point guns at each other; gun pointing in the Wasteland was a common occurren-

“Hoof over the filly.” Oh right. Cannons. Filly. Bad Guy “Or do you want this to get ugly?”

“‘This to get ugly’?” I parroted back. “Where are you from?”

“That doesn’t matter. Hoof her over!” Those cannons definitely didn't look friendly.

Maybe this would get me killed but it was worth a shot. “The way you speak is scripted.” I made sure to adopt a cocky tone.

“What?” He said

“You sound scripted. Like this little bit has been practiced. Did you prepare this in front of a mirror?”

Whack!

Uggh, more pain. Okay, maybe I should not antagonise the bad ponies with big guns. It was fun of course, but my jaw was paying the price, and this guy hit harder than Bronco.

“Hoof over the filly, now.” He warned. Odd, there was no menace to him. This guy had the big guns, the big armour, and the big attitude. Yet, he wasn't scary.

“So what’s it like in the Enclave. You get dental?” I said as I eased the pain out of my jaw. There was a bit of a stare down then. He was fighting with himself. Would he choose action or words, personally I hoped for words. I was good at those. Then the sides of his armour split open. So not option B? Wings slipped out of his armour and he was in the air and on me before I could blink. Guy was fast. He drove me into the ground, his hoof on my throat. Though to be honest, I was more concerned with the jagged pebble that started digging into my spine, because that was uncomfortable.

“How?” He demanded. His hoof trembled against my throat. It wasn't rage, he was panicking. He was afraid.

“The way you spoke.” I grunted.

A squeal interrupted our conversation and we both looked at the filly. She was staring directly up at the sky with a look of abject terror. A puddle of urine had pooled onto the sand under her. Fucking Stable ponies. She had just noticed the sky. While I had expected this to happen eventually, this was not something I wanted to deal with right now! Her eyes stayed locked onto the sky, as though it might fall on her. Then she vomited onto the ground and collapsed to the ground. She curled up there and whimpered to herself. The idiot should have run for it, but instead she was shivering on the ground in a pool of her own vomit and urine. Her whimpers increased in volume and…Wait, that had a cadence, like a song. Was…was that little bitch singing to herself?! Fuck her. I had a hoof to my throat, and she was singing to herself. Dammit, I'd just have to do my best to ignore it.

“You speak like a wannabe raider”. I told the pegasus in answer to his previous question, glancing a again at the filly for a moment. “You try for the tough guy act and it doesn’t fool anyone, because here in the Wasteland there are real tough guys that don’t need to put on an act. We can all tell the difference. That and you keep asking me to hoof her over.” His headed tilted to the side. It reminded me of a confused dog. “You have bucking canons on your saddle, you twit. You could ‘a just taken her instead of asking for her. Which means ya're pretty new to this. Also you keep using the word ‘hoof’ instead of ‘hand’. Out here everyone’s birds of a feather, even the ones with actual feathers. When your enemies or allies are sometimes undead ghouls and griffins you learn to be a bit all-encompassing in your language to avoid offence. ‘Anyone’, ‘Handing’ things over. You get the drift. All are nice signs that say you have no idea what you’re doing nor any ideas of how to act down here. That and the shiny suit. It screams Enclave.” There was that silence again, long and boring as we stared at each other. A silence filled with pitiful sniffles mixed soft singing.

“Shit.” He grumbled as he stepped off of me. “Shit, shit, shit.” He began pacing. “Now I gotta kill ya.”

The filly yelped and the singing stopped. Thank Celestia for small mercies. “Well you don’t have to.” I said leisurely as I pulled myself to my hooves.

“Why did you take the filly?” Okay, more questions. I was giving the bird-brain a right dose of exposition it seemed. Still, better than getting shot. He was doing that dog impression of his again too. “Ya know the price pay-out is set right? You get the share of any other slaver that you bring down while they were trying to defect, you took down three. You’re looking at a forty-thousand-four hundred cap pay day.”

I whistled. “That is a lot of caps.” I admitted as my hooves stroked my neck. “But caps aren’t a big thing for me.”

“But, caps are survival. That’s all anypony cares about down here, surviving to the next day.” He said. It was like he was trying to convince me.

I gave him a square look. “Well being alive is all well and good, but what’s the point if it’s not for an ideal. Ya gotta live for something for it to be worth it.” I glanced at the filly, her head was turned away and she was trembling. Seriously, was she going comatose? She could have escaped at like, any point during this…seriously, any point, me and the bird brain had been pretty busy with each other.

I got the impression that the pegasus stallion (I liked him even less now that I knew that he was a pegasus by the way, the canons in my face had made me irritable before, but the feathers…oh yeah, gonna kick him up the head when I can) was judging me hard enough that even Stranger would be proud.

“And what is it you live for?” He asked.

“Reputation,” I said. “I start a job, I get it done. Right now the job is protecting this filly.”

“Seriously? That’s it; you’re willing to die for a reputation?” He said.

“Well that’s the gist of it. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Let me explain...” I took a deep breath.

BANG!

The gunshot was quiet, suggesting a lot of distance. The aim was good though, dirt kicked up between us as the shot struck the ground. The pegasus spun in a circle, looking for the shooter. His cannons moved up and down, trying to lock onto a target. “Finally.” I sighed in relief. “I thought I was gonna need to keep you talking forever.” I grumbled as I turned to the filly.

“Who is that?!” He demanded. “Who’s out there?” He really wasn’t used to the Wasteland. He scared way too easily.

“The ‘who’ is Stranger. That’s his name. And he’s a really good shot.” I commented as I inspected the filly. She was rocking back and forth, probably from shock or fear. Maybe both.

“Fuck this.” The stallion growled. Then he took a step towards me. BANG! Blood splattered the ground as a bullet sliced through his hoof. He fell. Screamed too. Even cradled his foot like a baby. Definitely not used to pain either. Damn, I thought Enclave pegasus were supposed to be tough.

“Language,” I chastised. “There is a filly present. Oh and Stranger uses armour piercing rounds and he’s a really good shot. I’m sure I mentioned this.” I said before returning my attention to the filly. I nudged her but she didn't move.

“Are you going to kill me?” He rasped, his deep voice shaking from the pain. I glanced back at him clutching his hoof and felt a whisper of pain lance through my own amputated limb. I grit my teeth and shook my head.

“No.” He visibly relaxed. “Right now my only crime against the biggest slaver in Equestria is a bit of theft, if that. He’ll run after us a bit and then say if he spots us around he’ll kill us. But if I kill you, I take out one of his personal pegasus lackeys. That’d probably earn me a pony-hunt all across Equestria filled with all such delicious scenarios as getting shot in the ass a lot.” I turned back to the filly. “Smart choice is to let...” What in the? “you...” Umm. “Go...?” What am I looking at? I had pulled the filly from where she was sitting and… huh

“What?” The pegasus asked as I stared down at the spot. That was grass. Grass wasn’t unusual. Grass was all over the Wasteland. It was this yellow straw shit with no nutrients and two hundred years of deader than dead. This was real grass. GREEN grass! It was luscious and thick and…only in that spot. I sat to and stared at it. “It’s just some grass. It’s everywhere.” He didn’t see the big deal.

“Yeah but its green!”

“What colour should it be? I mean yeah, the rest of it is yellow but, so what? Some is growing.” He said.

I gave him a look before I remembered he was Enclave. Enclave used cloud-seeding to feed themselves. A special spell on the cloud cover that allowed them to grow whatever they needed, and I suppose some of it might be grass. “I’m sure they gave you some education before you came down here, but just in case they didn’t... Nothing down here grows, and if it does grow it’s usually very bad because it’s not supposed to. But this is grass. This is green grass. This is-” My ears pricked as I heard something. There was yelling coming from over the hill. Ugh great, seems others have come to investigate. They’d probably heard the gunshots. Perfect, just perfect. No time to waste; I grabbed the filly and threw her over my back. She yelped when I grabbed her, but she stayed on. “Gotta go. And oh, if you follow us,” I said, turning back to the pegasus. “My friend will put a bullet through your skull. My advice would be to stop the others from following us as well, or there’ll be more bodies.” He recoiled from me but he nodded.

“Hang on.” I told the filly. Then I ran. It wasn't a full sprint because I didn't want to lose the filly, but I ran damn-it.

The grass was shoved to the back of my mind to join a myriad of other questions that were brewing. At least the question was in good company. It had brothers and sisters in there, maybe even a few cousins. Like what was so important in Stable 2B? Why it was even called Stable 2B. Why was the Enclave involved with a slaver like Steam Bolt? How dead was I for doing something this stupid? And my personal favourite, what the fuck was I actually doing with this filly? Ah there was the estranged member of the family.

Life really sucked.

*** *** ***

“Will you PLEASE SHUT UP!”

The Filly would not. stop. crying. She had fionally gotten over the bloody sky, and taken to staring at the ground or walking with her eyes closed. That was until her ‘mummy’ popped right back to the forefront of her attention. I massaged my temples as I began to get a headache and groaned a silent wish to Celestia to deliver me from a whining filly of all things.

“But my mum! MOTHER!” She screamed again as she pulled against the rope. Okay, so maybe tying her to a rope wasn’t the best idea, but she wouldn’t stop struggling! Were all fillies this insane?

“Will you please help me?!” I snapped at Stranger. He still carried the unconscious Lucky on his back. He paused and gave me a cryptic look. Well... he wasn’t going to do shit. “Great.” I grumbled. “I’m not cut out to be a father you know!”

“You’re not my father!” The filly cried, hitting my flank with her PipBuck again.

“Ouch, will you bloody stop that! And I’m glad I’m not your father, or you’d get a bloody spanking!” I snapped. She’d figured out that her PipBuck was heavy, thick and not easily broken. So she’d taken to using it to club me whenever she could. After I’d gained a few bruises over my cheeks, I wrapped a rope around her collar and tied it to my waist so I could just drag her along. Now my flank was taking the damage though. Thankfully though, it seemed that my outburst had settled her down. I turned back to see if she had really shut up only for pain to lash through a particularly sensitive area so violently that I almost threw up. I met the ground in a soft and sweet embrace and curled up into the foetal position as my guts tried their best to crawl out through my throat. A yellow and brown blur dashed over me, a chewed through rope trailing behind her as she scampered down the dune. She didn’t get very far. A soft tingle was followed by a pleasing yelp told me she’d been caught.

“Let me down!” She screamed. Her legs kicked in the air as she floated in Stranger's magic. I fought with my stomach for a while, trying to keep my breakfast down. When I was sure I wasn't going to hurl, I stood up. Then I reached into my saddlebag to pull out a black box. I flipped the switch on its side. A beeping filled the air, and the filly's collar flashed red. She shut up. Finally.

“Let her go.” I said to Stranger. He did, the filly thudded to the ground. “Your collar is armed.” I said to her. “I've explained this before, what does the collar symbolise?”

She was shaking. “S-slavery…”

“Very good. And you are wearing one, which makes you my slave. You obey; you live nice and comfortably, you disobey or pull that kind of stunt again…” I flipped another switch and the beeps sped up, to a rapid chirp.

“No! No I’ll be good I promise!” She squealed. Tears streamed down her face before dripping to the ground and if she had anything left in her bladder after the last time, I was sure she’d have expelled it. I flipped the switch again and the beeping slowed, before turning the device off. The beeping stopped.

“I am not a slaver.” I said while glaring into her eyes. “I don’t like the idea, but it is part of the Wasteland. And despite how you feel, I actually am trying to save your life. And if that means I have to make you my slave to do it, then I will. So from here on out, I’m your owner, you’ll call me sir or master, and you’ll do whatever I say, when I say it. Is that understood?” The filly glared at me. Angry fire and icy terror shimmered in her eyes. I didn’t like that look, but what could I do? She wasn’t cooperating, so I had to make her. We stayed like that for a while, staring at each other. Then, finally, she nodded. That'd have to do. I stepped over and gently untied her, garnering a quizzical look. “I don’t want to have to drag you around is all, but don’t try to run, you won’t get far. And there are worse people out there than me. Of that I can promise you.”

“I doubt that.” She mumbled. I was about to remind her that we had just saved her life, but I figured at this point it was probably a pointless discussion. She’d watch me kill other ponies in front of her, knock out the one pony that had been trying to protect her, I’d snapped a slave collar on her, dragged her away from her mother (if her mother was even still alive), and now threatened to kill her. I’d hate me too if I were her.

I looked at Stranger. I made sure my eyes expressed the all of my defiance. Was this what he wanted? Was this what he had imagined when he’d made me save this filly? That I would take her for my own slave? No. He hadn’t wanted that. His single blue eye drilled into me with a notion of judgement heavier than I’d seen in a long time. I wasn't deterred. What had he expected of me? We were on the run. Better I own her than somepony else. At least I could try to keep her safe. I turned away from my companion. “Let’s find someplace to rest.”

We found a rundown shack off the side of a dune. It looked more like a pile of garbage than a shack though. Old carriage pieces, wrenches, and other assorted pieces of crap were strewn about the place. Inside there was a cupboard with three bottlecaps and a bottle of wonderglue, other than that there was a mattress on the floor that would do fine for a bed. “Take the mattress.” I told her. She stepped past me and poked at it. At a better time in its life the mattress had probably once been white, but time had stained it red, yellow and black. She looked mortified at the idea of sleeping on the thing.

“Do…do I have to?” She asked.

“It’s either the mattress, or the floor. And the floor is worse.” I said.

“Where will you sleep?” She asked, sounding almost concerned.

“The floor.” She didn’t argue after that and curled into a ball on the mattress. “Hey,” I began. “Before you sleep, what’s your name?”

She didn’t answer. Instead turning her back to me.

“What’s your name?” I repeated more firmly.

“Sonnet,” she answered in a small voice, “Sonnet Bloom.”

*** *** ***

Night fell in the Wasteland and with it a cool breeze washed through the yellow straw grass and sandy dunes. The silence of the darkness grew in the night and when paid attention to, the Wasteland, for all its desolation, came alive. Alive with the sound of scuttling radroaches, the squeals and screams of ponies somewhere far off, and  the odd gunshot to accompany it. Tonight though, things seemed still.

As the hour drew late and the night cold I watched as Sonnet Bloom began to shiver. Dammit, what was I thinking? I wasn’t a father. I wasn’t a baby-sitter, and I certainly wasn’t a protector. I’d saved her from what? Slaving? I’d made her a slave myself. Why? Because I’m so much better than other slavers? I’m not better than anypony.

She began whimpering and curled in on herself. I undid the straps of my barding, shrugged off the leather outfit and then draped it over the filly. The leather was still warm from my body heat and soon enough her shivering stopped. I starred at her for a moment then looked at Stranger. He was watching me again. With that look of his. “What?” I said sharply. He continued his look for a moment more, and then turned his head away. At the rate he was going, that was a good thing. He and his looks were wearing out their welcome. If this continued, he could fuck off to find someone else to partner up with.

Within an hour or two, the night had grown chill enough to warrant some warmth. Stranger and I decided – or at least, I had– to get a fire started. I bunched some of the dry burnable crap from the small shack together and started up a small fire. The light caused the final member of our company to stir. Lucky Horseshoe’s blue eyes squinted against the light of the fire. He was understandably groggy. Heck, I'd be groggy too if someone knocked me out with a blow to the head. He had changed somewhat since I’d known him. He looked older of course, but more so than I’d have expected. His face had deep lines. His brown mane was fraying at the tips and there was a dullness that teased at grey hair to come. He looked haggard. Otherwise, his lime-green coat was pristine. Most ponies sported scars of some sort but Lucky’s hide was flawless. Though I hadn’t expected anything different.

Lucky picked himself up and began massing his jaw, where a bruise had swelled up. “You hit me?” He asked himself more than me. “Is that because you doing so somehow saved me?” He continued, this time directing the question at me. His voice was a monotone sourness that made me grit my teeth.

“I think you’ll find in this case, it was less about the benefits of getting hit and more likely because I was tempted to do much worse.” I was practically growling.

He contemplated my answer for a moment before shrugging it off. “You’re probably right.” He stepped towards the door, as if to leave, but stopped mid-step when he noticed the filly. “You...you saved her?” He stepped over to her and pulled back the leather barding gently so as not to wake her. “They collared her?” He asked before looking back at me. I gave him my best glare in response. He looked back at the filly in response. “I see…you collared her.”

“I’m sorry, is that disapproval?” I asked, cocking my head in the doggy way the pegasus had, keeping my tone light and casual. “You think you have a right to judge?”

“Slavery isn’t right.”

“I’m keeping her safe.” I countered.

“By strapping a bomb to her neck?” More judgmental looks. “You’re right; I can see how that’s perfectly safe.”

I was on my hooves before I’d realized it. “The ones that wanted her are slavers. So long as she’s free she’s not safe from them. That collar keeps her in line and will make her listen to me, which means I can keep her safe.”

“You always were the one reaching for logic.” Lucky said gently. His eyes lost their judgement, instead they were worse…they were full of pity. “The ends justify the means for you. I never taught you that.”

“You weren’t there to teach me it.” He flinched at that.

“I’ll stick around.” He said. “To make sure you don’t fuck her head up.”

I scoffed then curled up by the fire. “Yeah,” I said while staring into the embers. “And how long before you abandon her too?”

He didn’t answer.

I dug into my saddlebag and pulled out a black box. It had a bunch of wires and microchips inside and a port in one end, the wires and chips seemed to be connected to a data cassette. I opened the box up and flipped a small switch, lighting a small green LED light. I lifted out a single black earbloom and closed the box, slipping the bloom into my left ear before curling up. Words filtered through to my ear in low quality.

“-classified into different categories based on structural design. These classifications vary based on proportional weight, moving parts, or the materials used. Most advanced categories for Bridges, are based on the forces of tension, compression, shear, bending and torsion that are distributed throughout their structure…”

*** *** ***

A poke in my side roused me from a deep sleep. I grumbled as light filtered through my eye-lids. Then I stretched as a long drawn-out yawn escaped me. “What is it?” I said as I opened my eyes. A gun barrel greeted me. Definitely an interesting wakeup. I looked past the 9mm pistol that was usually stashed in my leather coat, past the gripped bit on the wielders jaw and into the brown eyes of the filly. The weapon was shaking as much as she was. I glanced at Stranger who sat content to watch the show, though with how close he was he was at ‘gun-point’ as much as I was. Lucky was nowhere in sight from what I could see. Bet he had decided to leave us already, a record time even for him. Not unexpected though.

I fixed the filly with a cool gaze and waited, wondering if she had the guts.

“You didnsh shaph my-” Bang! I'll admit it, I started yelling a little. Ok, maybe I started yelling a lot but you'd be too if a bullet had just punched into your leg. I grit my teeth to shut myself up, but damn that hurt. The filly jumped and yelped jumped. The gun clattered to the floor between us drawing both of our eyes to the weapon. We sat there in silence. She hyperventilated, while I mostly bled onto the floor.

“Pick it up.” I commanded, eliciting a meep from her. Her eyes locked with mine, her pupils shrunk to pinpoints. Then she lowered her head hesitantly to grab the weapon. “With your magic, you’re a unicorn for buck’s sake!” I snapped. She yelped but the gun was wrapped in a gentle yellow glow. The weapon drifted up into the air. “Now”, I continued. “Feel around the gun with your magic, carefully, get ready to put pressure on the trigger and aim it here.” I pointed to the centre of my head.  Damn thing still shook in her grasp, even when held by magic. “Aim for the head when you can, takes ponies down easier. And if you have to use your mouth, don’t talk. It is possible to speak around the trigger without shooting someone in the leg,” I paused at that statement to punctuate the point. “But for a newbie like you, you need to be as careful as possible.” This needed to hurry up; my leg was starting to get cold from the blood loss. I needed a bandage. It took her a moment, but the gun eventually rested on my forehead. “Good... now pull the trigger.”

She didn’t, instead she asked, “w-why?”

“I own you.” I said. “You kill me, grab the control from my bag, unlock your collar, you run away safely, go back to New Appleloosa. Then you can track the ponies that have your Stable friends. You find your mother if she’s alive, and then you and her go galloping off into the sunset where she can take care of you. Isn’t that what you want? Then pull the trigger.” She still shook but I almost smiled when her gaze steadied. She was actually going to do it. Maybe she’d survive after all.

Smash, clang, clang, clatter.

All three of us turned our eyes to the small round apple shaped object that had burst through the window and settled on the floor a few feet away. Ah...fuck me. I turned and bucked Sonnet as hard as I could. I felt a crack under my hooves as a rib collapsed under my blow. The filly flew out a window just as the grenade went off. Everything went white, next I remember I was on the floor next to the wall. A magic shield the colour of Stranger's magic stood where I had been. I guess he had thrown up a hasty shield. Not quick enough, oww by the way, but it had probably saved my life. Now, all I needed to do was worry about the bongos that were pounding in my head, the lovely amounts of pain I was in, and whoever had thrown the grenade. A wall had a large hole in it, and the interior of the shack was destroyed. I heard the soft clatter of another grenade. Fuckity, fuck, fuck! I dove through the hole in the wall while ignoring the copious bodily alerts telling me that I was in no condition to jump. Stranger and I both landed out into the overcast light of the morning, striking dirt and sand just as the shack shook from another internal explosion.

“Well looky here.” I coughed on the ground before looking up to a group of three ponies wearing raider armour. The one talking, a yellow stallion with a red and black mane was playing catch-the-grenade with himself, batting the apple-shaped explosive from hoof to hoof. “We struck gold. Would you two happen to be a set of runaway slave-contract herders stealin’ the property of one business-stallion by the name of Steam Bolt, would ya?” He spoke with a malicious grin adorned on his face.

“Word travels fast.” I grumbled as I got to my hooves. My left leg stung from the gunshot but it looked like the wound had been cauterized, and hey, the rest of my body was hurting now too, so that at least made the gunshot wound easier to ignore. “What’s the bounty? Has a price been set?”

“Oh Morab took care of that. Real simple…we get your share. Ten-thousand caps.”

I almost chuckled. Morab had skint them. “Oh my share is a bit more than that.” I said while stretching a little. I was trying and ease the aches from my damaged body. “We were paid the share of any defectors we took out. I took out three others. My share is worth forty-thousand-four-hundred caps.” The raiders started salivating. “But I suppose Morab is being a greedy skint and will be keeping the excess thirty-K all for herself. Pity no-one’s getting paid. You killed your prize.” I watched them go stiff.

“What?”

“The property was the filly, a young filly with no barding or experience. And you threw grenades at her. She’s over there, probably in pieces.”

There expressions were delicious as their own stupidity sank in. The lead stallion turned to the others in a panic. “Go check!” They obeyed instantly, running towards the smoking shack that was on the verge of collapsing. The moment their leader turned back to us, my hooves wrapped around him. I’d usually have crushed his windpipe but my prosthetic hoof wouldn’t have the strength since the upper leg had a cauterized bullet hole in it, and I couldn’t stab the guy because my shiv was in my coat and my coat was in the ruins of a shack. So I settled for choking. My right leg wrapped around his throat and pulled back hard. Sadly choking isn’t nearly as silent as some would have you believe. He kicked and gurgled, and his lackeys turned back with raised weapons. I turned his body towards them as they began to fire. I was without barding, and I had already taken one bullet. I didn't want another. I charged forward with my meat shield. They fired a few shots that I felt through the leader, but their attack halted as I heard a clattering. Stranger had released their ammo clips.

I threw the limp corpse of their leader at one of them and then attacked the other. I kicked his gun up, knocking the bit into his mouth. Then I slugged him in the face as hard as I could with my good hoof causing him to drop the gun. I ducked down, grabbed the weapon and its ammo, slammed the ammo clip home and then turned the stallion to a bloody mess as I filled him full of bullet holes. When the gun clicked empty, things were silent but for my panting. I turned to find Stranger wiping blood off his horn; the bandages on his face were stained with a little more red. He had skewered the other raider on his horn…classy.

I dug through their pockets. Three caps were found between the two dead henchponies and only four caps on the yellow stallion. They’d been poor; no wonder they had been drooling over the reward. Among the yellow stallions possessions I also found a note.

‘The stallion known as ‘Tome Tale’ is in possession of a slave that is, by rights and property, owned by Steam Bolt the Slaver. The recapture of the slave and the elimination of Tome Tale and his partner, will grant the bearer of the slave Tome Tale’s previous contract share of ten-thousand caps. Please return the slave to Morab Arts, New Appleloosa.’

Slimy bitch.

If she was going to put a bounty on my head she could at least be honest with the reward instead of swindling caps out of ponies. Of course slavers in general weren’t a good example of morality and fairness, but when it came to doing a job for caps honesty was important. Even slavers had families to look after. And swindling them was just as bad as swindling anyone else. At least it was to me.

I pocketed the note and made a mental memo to repay Morab if I ever got the chance. I trotted back to the hole in the shack. It was surprising the place hadn’t come down yet. It was a wreck. Stranger had managed to pry his sniper rifle from under some rubble. I couldn’t see his face but there was a change in his posture that spoke of displeasure. Hopefully the gun was okay. I found my leather barding under a fallen beam. After tugging it free I slipped it on. It was a little torn and weathered now, but in better condition than I had any right to complain about. Speaking of complaints, I was hearing singing again.

I stepped back out of the shed to find Sonnet Bloom sprawled on the ground with a bruised hide. She had curled in on herself. “Are you alright?” I asked. She just hugged herself and sang. As she sang her horn began to glow a shimmering yellow. I reached for a healing potion; I was sure I’d broken something with that kick. I didn't complete the motion though.

Grass was growing again.

Bathed in her magic light, I watched as the ground around her grew a greener and begin to sprout new grass. “Oh my Luna.” I whispered

“Holy Celestia,” said another voice.

For a moment I thought maybe Stranger had spoken, but it hadn’t had the depth of his voice. I looked up and my eyes met the red eyes of another raider, this one with a grey hide. Shit, I’d missed one.

“Stranger quick!” I yelled.

The pony’s eyes widened and he turned to gallop away. Stranger took aim with his rifle scope and pulled the trigger when he had the pony dead to rights.

Click.

Click.

Huh…

I turned to Stranger as he lowered his rifle and looked at it with a steely gaze that I didn’t ever want aimed at me. The rifle was busted. Fuck.

I turned back to the stallion just in time to see his hide disappear over a dune. Double shit, and we weren’t in any condition to give chase.

I looked down at the filly who kept singing. I liked to think of myself as a curious fellow, the kind of guy that enjoyed solving mysteries and learning lots about lots of things. I could disassemble and reassemble most guns. I was a bit of a whiz around computer systems-most of the time (hey, that time back at the dam was NOT my fault). I could pick locks, shoot a pistol and some rifles, though don’t hand me anything that rapid fires, I’d probably shoot myself if I’m not point blank to who I’m killing. And despite being an earth pony, I could probably give a unicorn some basic lessons on magic. I’d read the books. I knew the theory. I’d learned that shit. But THIS SHIT…

I heard a sound behind me and whirled around with the shiv of my coat in my mouth. The guy was Lucky, lucky by name and lucky I didn’t kill him. The green stallion looked from us, to the corpses, to the destroyed shack, then back to the filly lying on a patch of miraculous green grass. “I went for a shit…did I miss something?” He looked confused.

I looked away from him and back down to the whimpering filly whose song had turned into an incomprehensible hum. Lush grass that the Wasteland hadn’t seen in two hundred years grew around her.

…What book should I have read for this?

*** *** ***

She wasn’t talking to me. I’d tried peppering her with questions about her strange power, where she’d gotten it, whether it was a spell or natural ability or some kind of curse or otherworldly magic, but she refused to give me an iota of her attention.

The questions were just an attempt at distraction though; I was worried about that stallion. He had seen us and if there were any ponies that believed him, then there’d be more than a few new bounties on our heads. Her ability was quite astonishing. I’d taken a sniff of the grass she’d made and even given it a bit of a nibble. It was horribly plain. I had no idea how our ancestors had eaten it in the past but apparently it had been a common practice. Unlike the yellow grass common to the wastes this stuff didn't turn my stomach. Hopefully that meant it wasn’t radioactive, because I had filled up on the stuff.

We were several miles from New Appleloosa now, heading to what I had guessed to be the west. I didn't have a compass on me so I wouldn’t know for sure until we’d passed some landmarks. Though, the travel had a few saving graces. The filly had finally settled down. A marked improvement when compared to the last leg of our trip. Though I wished she would talk to me. Seriously though, between the moody filly, grumpy Lucky, and silent Stranger, I was beginning to miss the arguing. I was starting to pray for a raider attack, just to break the boredom. “Will you please talk to me; I’m going crazy with the quiet here.” I snapped. She turned her nose up at me. Well, that was a reaction at least. She was a strange filly, one moment she had this mature air about her, then the next she was just a normal petulant child. Weird, but at least some part of her was normal. I mean, she couldn't be all weird, right?

“We can talk if you want.” Lucky said from behind me.

“Shut it.” I growled. I'd take a raider attack over a conversation with him. Then, when I realized where we were, a conversation with Lucky suddenly seemed like a really pleasant idea. We had strayed slightly north in our travels. I stopped walking as I took in the structure in front of us. It was a towering construct of broken cables and concrete, the remains of a large bridge highway (an arch bridge if the lack of centre piers were any indication) that had spanned the entire Equestrian northern-west. The lower ramparts were filled with hollow crevices and maintenance rooms. Perfect for housing raiders.

“We need to get out of here.” I said as I turned south.

“What’s going on?” Sonnet said.

“This is slaver territory, we need to...” Shit. I watched as a procession of cackling stallions and mares crawled out of the ruins. They wore spiked leather barding stained with blood and gore. “Stranger, be ready, Lucky, stay back, Sonnet…behind me.” I hadn't expected the filly to actually obey, but she did, jumping behind almost eagerly. “And no singing.” I grunted at her. She bit her lip for a moment before biting down on my tail instead. Odd, maybe the singing was conditioned into her. Just another question to add to the list.

“Looky here,” said a mare from the front of the raider pack. She had a crème coat and a blood red mane. I could see her teeth were stained and damaged from a lack of oral hygiene. Her eyes darted to each of us in turn, appraising us.

I looked around for an escape route, but more were climbing out of hidden crevices. We were already surrounded. I counted twelve, but more could be hiding. I turned back to Sonnet and leaned into her ear and whispered, “Whatever I say or do here, I’m sorry; I’m trying to save all our lives.” Then I grabbed her collar in my mouth and threw her out to my side. “Stay there and shut up.” I bellowed. I turned towards the pack leader and gave her my most winning smile. “A pleasure, my lady, and who might you be?” I made a point of looking her over with an appreciative gaze. It wasn’t hard to pull off; under that gore she was quite pretty.

The mare glanced from me to the filly's slave collar, “she yours?” I imagine we looked odd together. Especially Stranger. His presence had a habit of putting ponies on edge. Nopony liked surprises here in the Wasteland, surprises got you killed. And a stallion dressed head to hoof in bandages whilst wearing a large coat tended to be worth a little weariness. “Something wrong with your friend there?”

I glanced back at Stranger. “Burn victim, hates the scars, likes to keep them covered.” I lied. Stranger gave me a look. I don't think my explanation was the one he would have chosen. What? Did he want me to tell the truth? Buck that.

“Huh, fair enough.” she said. I watched the mare as her eyes ran over the filly. “She looks fresh. Do you mind if I look her over?” She wasn’t really asking. It was a courtesy; we were surrounded with more than enough guns to take us all out. I gave her a curt nod and stepped back. Sonnet trembled as the mare approached and reached down. She inspected Sonnet's barding and the cutie-mark, and then she looked over her hooves. “A PipBuck,” she said with a light knock against the device. “Fresh from a Stable then?”

“Yup.”

“Stable 2B?” She asked as she read the label on Sonnet's barding. “Never heard of a ‘B’ before.”

“Yeah, me either.” I said with a light chuckle. “Interesting operation you got here. Any chance you can let us pass? Unless you know…you wanted to lock me up too?” I said with a pouty look.

“That is tempting.” The mare said as she batted her eyes at me. “But…there’s a problem.”

Fuck.

“There is?” I gave her the most innocent expression I could manage.

“Oh yes,” the mare said. “You see, there was an emergency broadcast sent out from New Appleloosa not fifteen minutes ago. From one Morab Arts.” Fuck a duck with a rusty spoon. “And she’s after a young filly with a PipBuck from Stable 2B. Apparently stolen by a stallion and his silent companion. Part of some contract with Steam City. She even increased the bounty. Fifteen-Thousand Caps. So we’ll be taking this filly off your hooves. But don’t worry, we’re not gonna kill you.” Good news? “We’re going to sell you to Steam Bolt for extra.” Nevermind, bad news. Very bad news.

*** *** ***

The straw I laid on was hard, coarse and felt rough against the coat. It was better than rock and metal for sure, but when the straw was filled with bedbugs things became debateable. The small container we were in was just a cage on wheels – ‘we’ being myself, Lucky and Stranger. They’d taken Sonnet somewhere else. Our weapons and bags had been taken as well and they’d even detached my prosthetic hoof.

I looked down at the scarred stump. I felt pain coursing through a limb that didn’t exist anymore. They hadn’t taken my coat at least, and while they had tried to remove Stranger’s bandages. A few broken muzzles had persuaded them otherwise. Though they'd taken Lucky's hat for some reason. Maybe so they could say they came away with something for their efforts.

Speaking of Lucky, he wouldn't shut up. “Can I ask something?”

“No you can’t.” My reply was curt.

“It’s about your leg.”

“Especially not about that.” I snapped.

“What happened-”

I turned and swung at him, but missed him by inches; my hoof struck a metal bar instead. The metal vibrated and my hoof went numb from the pain. Celestia dammit. I shook the aching limb while mentally cursing him. “Shut up about it. I did what I had to do, that’s all you need to know.”

He stared at me for a moment. I hated that gaze, it was filled with pity. I turned away from him. “It’s bad, isn’t it?” He almost sounded concerned.

“I can deal.” I said in a low voice. I could deal. I had so far. A slight roiling inside me reminded me of just how well I was ‘dealing’ with it. I could lie to everypony, but my gut always told me when I was also lying to myself.

Glorious silence fell then. It wasn’t a pregnant silence though, more contemplative. Lucky wasn’t going to ask any more questions so I could finally curl up on the straw and try to drown the world out with my –damn – they’d taken my player when they took my stuff. “Hey!” I called out to the guard that stood near the guard. “I need something from my bags.”

“Shut the fuck up.” The guard said. Bastard hadn’t even bothered to look up.

“It’s not a weapon or anything; it’s a small black box with an earbloom. It’s just something to listen to, please.” I said while looking around. They’d housed us inside of the bridge. It was larger than expected, but I could still see light filtering in through a doorway to our right. From the look of it, it would be getting dark soon. I really didn’t want to go a night without my player.

“Fuck your shit. Now shut up.” The guard growled gruffly.

“Seriously, I need my player. It’s just something to listen to, can’t you give me that at least, I won’t ask for anything else.”

The guard sighed, and then heaved himself around. He opened his mouth to say something. BANG! BANG! BANG! He shut it, and we both turned to look at the door.

“What the-?!” The guard turned and ran to the entrance but his head exploded before he took a step. The guard’s corpse collapsed to the ground. Then a brown earth pony with a crème mane padded over his body. The stallion stowed his gun and gave us a wide smile as he approached.

“Don’t worry, I got ya.” He was young. He pulled out a bobby pin and screwdriver. He raised his eyes and almost dropped his tools. “Holy bugger! Are you…” He was looking past me at Stranger. I stepped out of the way to let him get a better look, “…are you…no you can’t be.” He said before he got to work on the lock. Didn't take the kid long, he had the gate open within moments. “Names Bobby Pin.” He said while turning to show off the cutie mark on his rump. It was an image of three bobby pins standing on their points beside a screwdriver.

“Tome Tale. Thank you.” I said as I stepped out of the cage. “Was this all you? How’d you get through…?”

“What? No!” The colt said as he laughed and shook his head. “Do I look like I could‘a galloped in all guns blazing. I’d like ta, but nah, I’m just one of the gang. An important part.” His need add that last part made me question the statement.

“Gang?” I asked curiously.

“Oh, outside. Here we go.” He trotted off with the expectation that I would follow. Stranger, Lucky and I stepped through the door. The small encampment the slavers had made under the bridge was big. When they’d dragged us through it we’d glimpsed a few cooking areas and tented areas, as well as a pen that had been filled with more than ten other slaves. All of them were emaciated so I suspected they’d been kept in there a while. But now, as we passed them again I gagged. Most of their heads were gone. For those that still had a head, it hung limply by a thin stretch of flesh. It was a gore fest.

“What happened?”

“Oh that.” The said nervously. “The head slaver guy was a bit stubborn, wouldn’t give up the slaves, so he made sure to take them all with ‘im when we tried to stop ‘im.” The boy stared at the ground with his head lowered as he said this.

“At least you tried. It’s more than most.” They were hypocritical words. I was one of those that wouldn’t try. I had my reasons not to try. It wouldn't do shit for the Wasteland, and certainly not for me. But I felt it was something the boy maybe needed to hear.

“Yeah.” He said, giving a light smile.” Come on, I’ll introduce you to the others.” He led us (me limping on three hooves) through the camp to where five other ponies stood, four adults and one of them a filly younger than Bobby Pin. The filly was barely into her teens, if that. But it wasn’t the young one my eyes lingered on. It was the leader. I recognised him.

A hulk of a pony, he stood a full head above myself, he was taller than even Stranger, if only by a few inches. He wore heavy looking armour decorated with metal plates over his right shoulder and over his torso and back. The armour looked heavy and impressive but what really got me was the gun he carried. It was a large shotgun with a huge barrel, with a bottom mounted grenade launcher. An Ironshod Firearms ‘Judgment’ Anti-Personnel Shotgun. It was rumoured firing it from the mouth would break a ponies jaw. Only one pony matched his size, dress, and armament.

Buckshot of the Buckshot Gang.

They were heroes in the southern wastes. Buckshot, the leader, had a white mane that was a stark contrast to his dusty crimson coat, his cutiemark was hidden by his heavy barding, and he was bigger than any other pony I’d seen. Beside him, dwarfed in comparison, stood a stallion that was thin and, by the look of him, quick; he was a unicorn with a blond mane and a dark grey coat. His cutiemark was a rifle. Ranger. Beside them was a blue mare with an equally blue mane, though half her mane was a vivid red. Her cutiemark was an explosion. Vanilla Milkshake. The fourth was a pegasus Dashite named Dusty Feathers. He was a turquoise green-blue with brown eyes. The tips of his wings looked to have been dyed a crimson red. He had goggles atop his head, flattening back a steely blue spiked mane. He was armed with a battle saddle that looked less like guns and more like canons attached to the underside of his wings. The last member of the group was the young filly. She seemed at least two to three, maybe a young looking five years older than Sonnet was. Her light grey coat was offset by her light brown eyes and messy blue two-toned mane. She wore a cobbled together set of armour that had no taste for aesthetics. I couldn’t see her cutie mark either and I had no idea what her name was. Bobby Pin moved to join his five companions, making them a group of six.

“The Buckshot Gang.” I commented, looking them all over. “Well this is a surprise.” I approached slowly, still limping without my prosthetic hoof. “I thought you guys operated in the south.”

Buckshot spat out a reed he’d been chewing before speaking to me. “We figured we’d give the north a run, heard this end had a bit of a slaver problem.”

“If you’re eager to take down slavers, why not cut them off at the source and storm Fillydelphia.” I challenged. I couldn't help it, my mouth just started flapping. Someday it'd get me killed, I was sure of it. In this case though, I just didn't like his hypocrisy, even if I was a hypocrite myself.

Buckshot stuck me with glare before he approached. Huh, it was interesting having to crane my neck to look eye to eye with another pony, interesting and slightly terrifying. “In time,” he said, and then turned away. “We've got a lot of work to do before then. You’re welcome by the way, for the rescue that is.”

“Thank you. We’re obliged.” I said while I remembered my manners.

“Bet you are.” Said as he glanced back at us, but his eyes shifted from me to Stranger. “By Luna’s tail…” He turned to face us again. “Would that be a ‘Stranger’ I see?”

I glanced behind me at my silent companion. “Yes it is. You know him?”

“By reputation.” The stallion grinned as he approached. “When I was younger he was a big shot.” He stood before Stranger and the two looked eye to eye. But Buckshot didn't look like he wanted to pick a fight. He sat in front of Stranger and just kinda took him in. “You were my hero back then. You were great. You inspired me.”

“I didn’t want to be a hero.” Stranger’s voice was always novel to hear.

“That’s what made you one, mate. You didn’t want nothin’ but for ponies to respect each other. You saved lives. I wouldn’t be the stallion I am today if it weren’t for you. Thank you.”

“I didn’t want ‘thanks’ either.” Wow, two sentences from Stranger in less than a minute. Where’s my camera?

They stared at each other for a moment before a yell behind them broke up this homo-romantic moment of idle worship. I turned to see Bobby Pin again. At some point in the conversation he must have slipped away, kid was light-hooved. He was struggling with a particular little filly.

“LET ME GO!” Sonnet squealed as she swung her PipBuck at the poor colt.

“I’m trying to help you! We’re saving you!” He barely got the words out before the PipBuck struck him in the nose. He fell backwards onto his rump and held his nose. Blood dripped down from it. “Ouch!”

“I’ve had enough of being saved!” She squealed in fury as she raised her hoof again

“Sonnet!” I snapped. She froze and turned to meet my eyes. Her hoof dropped down to her collar. She ran the hoof over the collar as if it to make sure it was still there and wouldn't go off. She stayed that way for a moment before she dropped her hoof back to the ground and made her way to us. She hung her head the whole way, refusing to meet my eyes.

“Who’s this?” A new voice asked. I turned to see Ranger stepping forward; he looked over the filly curiously.

“She was out back; her collar didn’t go off, Ranger.” Bobby Pin announced, still holding his nostrils shut with his hoof as he approached. “Must be broken, saved her life.”

“Stand back.” Buckshot said. “Vanilla. You're up”. Ranger and Bobby Pin kept their distance as the mare of the group stepped forward.

“Hold still, honey.” She said with a kind smile, reaching for her collar. She looked over the main explosive pack. “Nope, this collar’s active.” She said. “Whoever owns her, it wasn’t the same buck as the last ones.”

“Stallion,” I corrected habitually. “And she’s mine.” All eyes turned to me.

“Repeat?” Buckshot growled.

“I said she’s mine. I own her.” My honesty was going to get me killed. And to emphasise that point, guns were pointed at me for the second time today. How lovely.

“He’s with me.” Stranger said. Wow, three sentences from him, was today my birthday?

“Stranger? Why are you hanging out with a slaver?” Buckshot asked. His voice dripped with disgust.

There are a few particular notions in life that should be understood. One being the importance of emotional situation and how certain events can shape a pony's mind. For instance, anger. Anger and a sense of righteousness, can make a pony do incredibly horrible things. Anger comes in many forms. Passionate anger caused by a loved one. Anger from grief could also be a powerful motivator, but all of these are simplistic; they were just an explosion of emotion and action. There is, however, a different form of anger that builds methodically. The anger of a pony disappointed in their hero.

A hero is important. They can inspire, and shape a pony. Seeing a hero fall to evil can do some cruel things to a ponies mind. I saw that here. I saw that in Buckshot’s eyes. How far had Stranger fallen in those eyes? I saw it, the moment where it clicked. His hero was worthless. Stranger's answer to that question would determine if Buckshot and his gang saw us as allies... or enemies. And I really, really hoped we were allies.

“Tome Tale is not a slaver. He simply has the filly under collar. He can explain his reasoning.” Great. Wonderful work Stranger. Our life hung on a thread, and you shove the responsibility up MY ass. Prick.

Buckshot locked his eyes on me. I though him scary before. Now though I was trying not to wet myself. Thank Celestia I was good at talking. “To defuse the situation,” I began. “I pose to you a question of my own. Tell me, what are the chances, capabilities, and constitution of a Stable pony, upon first leaving said Stable and entering the Wasteland? How good are their chances of survival?”

Buckshot was ready to shoot me. I could see it in those eyes, but thankfully, he was willing to play a little ball for now. “Little to none. They’re usually stupid, unlucky, and get killed in their first day.”

“And that’s an adult, yes?” I enquired.

“Yes. Are you saying she is a Stable pony?”

I nodded in reply. “You can tell from how clean she is and the Stable barding.” He didn’t look convinced. “Her entire Stable was culled and I saved her.” That was mostly true, it was really Stranger that had made me.

Ranger spoke up. “And you put the collar on her, why, to control her?”

“She was unruly.” I explained. “She was trying to save her mother, who is likely dead. I couldn’t get her to stop, and she would have gotten killed without me. So to save her, I had to collar her. Also, when I grabbed her we were around other slavers, if I hadn't collared her they would have grown suspicious. I figured I could use it rather than take it off. It’s good incentive for her to not run off and get herself killed.”

“So to save her life, you threaten to kill her if she misbehaves.” Vanilla said as she stepped over to Sonnet. She wrapped her hooves around the filly protectively, giving me a look the entire time. If looks could kill, this mare would have had me disembowelled by now. She thought I was filth. Sonnet nuzzled into the older mare’s chest. She stayed that way, trembling.

“That’s what I tried to tell him.” Lucky chimed in.

I ignored him. “It’s worked so far.” I replied. “When she relaxes and stops trying to get herself killed, when she matures and learns to handle herself in the Wasteland, I’ll take it off. I’m not a slaver.”

“No, you’re not.” Buckshot growled as he walked past me. “You’re not a slaver, you’re just an asshole.” He glanced at the filly. “Or a monster, I dunno which yet.”

“You gonna kill us then?” I probably shouldn’t have asked, but... mouth, flappy, can't help it.

“No.” Buckshot gave me a look. Anger broiled in me and I bit the inside of my cheek to stop myself from saying anything. I really fucking hated the judgement in his eyes. “You’re not worth it.”

The Buckshot Gang turned away from us and walked further into the slaver camp.

“We’ll stay here tonight.” Buckshot’s words seemed inviting, so Lucky, Stranger and I followed. Sonnet clung to Vanilla's side.

We made camp there. I found my gear and refitted myself as we bunkered down in the slaver's tents. My prosthetic hoof was among my things. I fitted it on, tightened the locks and grunted as the metal clenched into place. It was tight today. I tested my weight on it then laid back down to look over it. The scars that ran from the edge of the stub all the way up my foreleg were still visible. My gut stirred, and I swallowed a lump that had formed in my throat. How long would it take?

I looked up from my mutilated leg and over to Vanilla who sat a few tents away from me with Sonnet curled up next to her. She was reading from a children’s book, I didn’t know where she'd found it, but Sonnet seemed to find comfort in it. It was sweet to watch them.

A monster huh? Maybe I was. I slipped the earbloom of my player into my ear and curled up.

“-towards the end of Celestia’s fourth Century. The advancements after that came less in the form of structural arrangements, and more within the materials and refinements used. Methods of metal purification became much more refined, which in-turn gave birth to much more durable alloys of various uses.”

 


 

Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Tricks Are For Kids – +10 durability towards explosions. You can now react much faster to the presence of grenades, landmines, and other things that go boom. This also gives you better dialogue options when dealing with a pony that specialises in explosives.

End Notes:

(Authors Note: And this is the second chapter. I hope you like where this is going, so far none of these events are random so please don’t think I don’t have a direction, I VERY much know where I’m going with this. As before, I’d like to give special thanks to Kkat for making Fallout: Equestria a thing, a special thanks to my editor for his amazing editing work. Without him, this would probably be a shit story.


Comment and subscribe. )


 


(Editor's Note: That guy ^ is too modest and sorry for the delay folks. Was my fault that it took so long to get this story and the previous published. Had to have a certain somebody smack me with a newspaper a few times to finish up the editing for Chapter 2 and the foreword.


Things took an interesting turn of events here, and I for one want to know how the relationship between Vanilla and Sonnet will turn out. I haven't seen Chapter 3 yet, but my forecast is blood with a chance of tears.


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Chapter Three - Dear Princess Celestia, Are We Our Mistakes? by AlmanacPony

Chapter Three


Dear Princess Celestia, Are We Our Mistakes?


“Think I’ll write about how bein’ a good family isn’t about bein’ perfect as much as it is about bein’ able to get through the rough patches together. About bein’ able to forgive each other for mistakes.”


 




 


Music wasn’t really my thing. I’d never been a fan and found it a waste of resourceful time. I much preferred the sounds that came from my earbloom giving me educational information. But I wasn’t ignorant, I could see why others took to music in the way they did. The harmonies, the emotive interface of mind and music could be intellectually exciting; even if it wasn’t something I could personally take pleasure in. It is a mark of intelligence to be able to understand another’s point of view without sharing it yourself. So I did my best to be open-minded and understand that not everypony was going to enjoy soaking up information as much as I did, I’d found many a stupid pony whom I was sure couldn’t soak up any information at all. That didn’t change the fact that I found music to be irritating.


My ears pricked up to the sounds outside of my tent. The music that met my ears and disturbed my sleep was from a radio. I’d heard the song before. It was one from Sapphire Shores’, played on DJ Pon3’s station. The music was accompanied by foalish giggles. Curiosity overtook me, I poked my head out of my tent. I watched as Vanilla Milkshake danced around the fire with Sonnet. I sighed to myself and tried to dismiss the scene but my eyes were drawn to the filly’s face. There was a smile and a light in her eyes. It was like the music and dancing had entranced her and helped her forget all that had happened. Vanilla picked the filly up, cuddled her to her breast and spun around. It was like watching a mother and child.


I heard the faint cry of a child echo in my head. The child’s screams called out in my mind as I watched Sonnet laugh and play in the comforting embrace of the blue mare. I hated remembering.


I turned away from the scene. It was painful. It was something that wasn’t meant for me. I screwed my eyes shut, forcing myself to not think. It wasn’t for me.


It wasn’t meant for me.


It wasn’t meant for me.


The chant helped me sleep.


 


*** *** ***

 


Fatherhood. It wasn’t meant for me. Pretty sure I’ve said this.


Sonnet Bloom sat across from me. We stared at each other. A slab of meat sat between us on a plate. “Eat it.” I repeated for the fifth time. Her defiant eyes bore into me. We were inside one of the tents; she’d been refusing to leave it so far for obvious reasons. Her agoraphobia I could handle, but her pickiness with food? Her stubbornness was starting to irk me something fierce. “Eat it.” I repeated for the sixth time. She did nothing. Confound this stubborn bitch of a filly! “Listen!” I barked. “Out here it’s whatever food you can get or you don’t eat at all. Do you want to starve to death?!” She didn’t reply.


“Tome.” A voice spoke beside me. I turned to look at Vanilla Milkshake. Despite her vibrant colours -not something I cared for in a mare- she was quite attractive. “Let me take care of it.” She pulled out a can of peaches.


“You can’t just give in to her. She needs to learn to eat whatever she can to survive.” I mean seriously, this was basic parenting 101, right? Wasn’t it? Make them do what’s good for them even if they don’t like it?


She gave me a hard stare. “I’ve met plenty a pony fresh out of Stables that survive just fine as vegetarians. She’ll eat it when she’s ready, or not at all.” I looked her over and saw the barest of scars underneath her coat. They were pimpled and peppered. Considering her cutie-mark was an explosion, they were probably fletchett wounds. She’d been sprayed with some pretty bad shrapnel in the past.


“Since when were you her mother?” I was being a bit petulant I know, but something about the mare’s attitude seemed too righteous for it not to bother me.


“Since when were you her father?” She bit back.


“Since I own her.”


Silence. It was quite a comforting sound when you got used to it, especially between two ponies learning where they stood with each other. With this mare I stood exactly where I wanted to, anywhere but on her side. I was thankful we’d been freed but what can I say, I wasn’t a fan of heroes.


“You don’t own her.”


Her voice was strangely soft when she said it. She turned away and that’s when I saw it, the slight ring around her neck where the fur looked to have grown a little different. A permanent scar on her coat. “The collar says I do.”


A slight smile touched my mouth as I felt the anchor sway. The ‘anchor’ is a conversational expression in my own head. It’s the flow of the conversation and who holds the points to stand above the other. Conversations were a game, talking was a point of skill, and the ability to find the right way to say the right things entirely depending on the best results. Now the anchor was in my favour.


She shot me a look and I saw the slightest tremble flow through her. This mare was stronger than me, more experienced than me, had seen more shit than me...but the way I said my words, and the way I held myself right then and there…made her feel weak. “You’re trying to save her.” She said a little too quickly. “You said so yourself. That you’d let her go when you felt it safe to.” She was grasping at straws.


“All of that is true.” I chuckled, taking a step forward. She stepped back. More anchor for me. “But I saved her because Stranger made me. I save her now because I’m invested in saving her and the collar keeps her in line. Yeah, I’ll let her go but until I remove that collar she is mine to do with and treat how I see fit.” I saw the flash of pain that passed through her features. Oh I so loved hitting the sweet spots. “You mistake my intentions and actions for a personality trait rather than a simple decision based on other factors. You think that because I am saving her, that I am good, that my way of saving her is simply misguided and that me hanging around with an old Wasteland hero puts me on the same side as all of you. But that’s not so.” I needed to phrase this next part very carefully now. “I saved her to avoid shit from a friend. I have no idea why said friend follows me around but he has for years. When I make a promise or commit to an action I complete it regardless of the cost, saving the filly just happens to fall under that category, and I put the collar on her not because I’m misguided, but because I couldn’t be shitted to deal with a whiny stubborn filly that would have made things infinitely more difficult for me if I hadn’t.” I leaned away from her and just chuckled. “I’m not a hero. So get that out of your head.”


“You done?” Did her stance just change?


My head snapped back, there was even a click in my neck as I collapsed to the floor. She could punch! “Ouch.” I groaned, my jaw and cheek aching. I glanced up at her, her eyes were shiny with moisture but her posture was calm and collected.


Her brow narrowed. “You’re a talker. You read people; you know where to hit with words. Well I know where to hit with hooves. I was a slave. You’ve probably guessed that. I’m not ashamed of my past, Tome. I don’t hide from it, but I do make sure that nopony else goes through what I did.” I didn’t reply, I just watched her. It was interesting when I saw the different sides to different ponies. In her I saw strength. “You’re riling me, trying to gain leverage for your own sick amusement, talking of slavery to get me to choke up.” Ooh, she was smarter than she looked. “If you ever try this again, I will geld you.” Ouch, did she really have to go with the gelding?


Vanilla turned and trotted from the tent as I pulled myself up. Sonnet was staring at me as I wiped my mouth. I wasn’t bleeding but I was definitely going to bruise. “You can have the peaches; I don’t care if you eat them before or after.” I told the filly without looking at her. “But you’re eating the meat too. If you haven’t eaten it by the time I come back, I’m shoving it down your throat.” I turned and walked out of the tent, leaving the teary eyed filly to her lonesome. She was such a smart filly sometimes. There was intelligence behind those eyes, more than her age should have, but sometimes she did things that really reminded me that she was just a child. Crying was one of them. Crying was pointless in the Wasteland. If you shed tears for everything that you lost, then you’d never stop crying. Better to just move on and not care. At least then you could survive.


I stepped away from the tented areas and walked around the encampment. The others were gathered around a fire in the centre, all except Buckshot himself. I glanced away from them, my eyes catching onto a figure that had moved itself out of the encampment itself. It was Lucky. I’d almost forgotten about him. “He’s been there since yesterday.” A deep voice said beside me. Buckshot sat beside me, his grey eyes fixed on Lucky. “He’s refused to eat our food, and refused to come near us. He’s even refused to talk. What’s his story?”


I looked from him to Lucky and sighed. “Lucky’s a loner, he doesn’t like being around other ponies.”


“Then why is he with you?”


I grumbled incoherently at the question. “I don’t know. He says he’s here for the filly, to protect her.” I scoffed.


“You don’t believe him?” Buckshot asked quizzically.


“He’s not the ‘stick-around’ type.” I said.


“He and you have a history then.” It wasn’t a question. Buckshot stared at the distant stallion. His posture made me wonder what he was thinking. “Why is he depressed? He didn’t even thank us for the rescue.”


“Don’t expect him too. He’d probably have got out anyway without your help.” I shrugged, not bothering to look at Lucky any more. I got tired of seeing the git mope all the time. “As for why he’s depressed, things don’t go well around him.”


Buckshot eyed me curiously. “You say he’d have gotten out, that makes him sound lucky like his name suggests, but you also say things don’t go well around him. Quite the contradictory words wouldn’t you say?” He knew I wasn’t telling him everything, but hey, fuck him; we were strangers. It took more than a hero’s reputation to make me an open book.


“I said he’d have gotten out. He’s the one that’s lucky, everyone else around him usually not so much.” I turned and walked back to the fire and the others. I wanted some food. Someone had skewered a large rat for the meal tonight. I made a mental note to ask who had and thank them for that. Rat was good eatin’. I helped myself to some of the meat, enjoying the warm flames of the fire in front of me. To my right, on my opposite side sat a small huddled bundle with eyes, I glanced at the little filly of the Buckshot group and gave her a light smile. She was grey with a blue two toned mane and completely covered in clothing that was two times her size. “Greetings.” I offered, giving her my winning smile. Children were a difficulty for me. I could charm almost any stallion or mare but put me with a kid and it was like they had a sixth sense about me. Like they knew I wasn’t their friend.


“She don’t talk.” I looked up. Perched on one of the nearby boxcars, chewing on his own leg of rat was the Dashite, Dusty Feathers. “We been tryin’.” He continued. “She listens, she understands, but she don’t talk.”


“Huh.” I eyed the filly as I pondered and shuffled away from the pegasus. “Maybe she can’t?” I offered, thinking that a mute filly was probably the best explanation.


“Nah, she can. She just don’t.” The Dashite glanced at the filly for a moment chomping down on his food. His eyes turned to me after a bite and decided to clarify. “She talks in her sleep.” Interesting.


I took a nice bite of the rat and tried to relax. I was just getting comfortable when I heard hooves come up behind me. I was mid-way to another bite of delicious meat when I was lifted up and slammed against a boxcar. The hooves that gripped me were a dark grey and they held me firmly. Brown eyes bore into me, seething with anger. “Hey.” The grey unicorn spat through gritted teeth. “I hear you been saying shit to Vanilla?”


Damn, he was strong for a unicorn. I sputtered and coughed for a bit before I found my senses. “Yeah, she was pissing me off, butting into my business with ma filly.” I answered.


His hoof struck me hard. Damnit, now I was bleeding. My lip split and the coppery taste filled my mouth. “I don’t care what you do or say.” He sneered, splashing me with spittle as he spoke. Seriously, did they always need to spit? “But you ever bring up her past again; I will fuck your chest with my horn!” He let me loose and I slid down to the ground. I watched him turn away from me and I couldn’t stop myself from chuckling. Not my fault, he was a funny guy. I mean come on. First Vanilla with the gelding, and now this guy trying to fuck me in the chest with his horn. I could not imagine what goes on in this group when company is not around.


“Making friends with my crew?” Buckshot asked as he approached the fire.


I glanced up, giving him a bloody grin. “That’s me, the ponies pony. Life of the party.” I let my grin become a smirk as it rolled over my muzzle. I directed the expression at the unicorn. His horn began to glow a dull blue.


“Move along, Ranger.” Buckshot said sternly. Ranger looked like he might refuse at first, but like a good lapdog, the glow of his horn died and he skulked off solemnly.  He headed off to a tent on the far side, which was probably where Vanilla had gone after our ‘talk’. Wow…I really had done a good job on her if everypony was coming to her aid all gallant-like. “And Tome?” I turned back to the large red stallion as he spoke. A swift kick sent me onto my back. Was this ‘Hit Tome’ day? Seriously, I was getting my ass kicked by friendlies more than enemies. Buckshot's calm face hovered over me. “Don’t go near Vanilla again.”


I coughed a spit of blood onto the ground and nodded. Maybe these weren’t the best ponies to mess with; I got the feeling my affiliation with Stranger was a protection that was wearing mightily thin…that and my jaw was REALLY starting to hurt.


I kinda laid there as I dug into my saddlebags for a bottle of water. Needed to clean my mouth out with something, and felt like if I got up someone else would decide to hit me. I was still rummaging through my bags when I heard something from outside the camp. Damn, what now? I climbed to my hooves and headed to the end of the small encampment. Around a wall of piled up boxcars I saw a traders Brahmin approaching with a pony stepping up beside it. But they weren’t alone. At least eleven others were with them, each dragging one or two slaves of their own. A Slaver group that was probably hoping to trade with the ones that was supposed to be camping here. The ones Buckshot’s Gang had killed.


“Hey.” One of them called out after seeing my head poke above the ruins. “You open for trading today?” He asked with a wide grin. He had a light yellow coat and a black mane. His eyes were jaundice, probably from liver damage. If the canteen near on his belt was anything to go by, I assumed it was alcohol addiction.


“Tome.” Buckshot called as he approached. “What is it?”


“More Slavers. Let me handle them.” I turned away and began to step out into the open.


“Let’s just take them out.” An excitable young voice said behind Buckshot. I turned to see Bobby Pin grinning eagerly. “We can take them.”


“There’s too many. We don’t have to take them.” I informed him. Celestia, you’d think the boy had no experience in the Wasteland with that attitude. “I can handle it.”


“Hey! What’s going on in there?!” The slaver called out. I stepped out quickly and approached.


“Hey, sorry, was conferring with the big guy inside.” I informed, giving him an apologetic smile. “Look, we recently got hit. We fought them off and protected the merch, but now there are fewer of us and almost too many slaves. We’re full to capacity.”


The stallion looked me up and down before sighing. “Well that sucks, I’d take some off your hooves but we don’t have the caps yet.” He grumbled. “Okay, we’ll try the next place. See ya.” Civil discourse amongst slaving bastards saves the day. They began to trot away and I was glad to see the back of them.


“We’re letting them go?” Mares, always kicking up a fuss. “They have slaves with them, we should be helping them! That’s kinda what we do, isn’t it?” I turned as Vanilla pushed past Buckshot; she looked at each of them with a disappointed expression.


I slipped over to her, weary eyes watching me as I addressed her, probably ready to hit me again if I spoke too much out of turn. “There are a lot more of them than there are of us. And the more attention we draw to our presence here, the sooner somepony will realise something is wrong. We have foals here; I thought you cared about that?” She glared at me and her mouth became a tight thin line.


“Hey, we changed our mind.” Everything went still. “We will take some of the merch off your hooves.” The Slaver’s voice made me turn and look at him as he spoke. “We can make a tidy profit if we double back and head to Fillydelphia.” The stallion looked happy with the idea; his yellowed eyes ran between us before they moved past to the pile of bodies stacked up nearby. “Wow, you really did get-” He stopped, looking from the bodies, to us, and then to Buckshot. I was suddenly acutely aware none of us looked even slightly like Slavers. “You’re not Slavers.” He seemed calm at the knowledge, probably in shock and not sure how to process the situation. But that particular block in his brain quickly dissolved. He stepped back and I watched him draw in a breath.


BANG! My bullet splattered his brains against the makeshift wall beside us. Then I heard galloping hooves and I pushed everyone back into the camp. “Weapons!” I had no idea why I was barking orders but they obeyed, Vanilla and Ranger stepping up beside me, the former pulling out a pistol, the latter pulling out a rifle. Dusty flew to the edge of the wall, aimed his rifle and fired off a few rounds. There were shouts coming from beyond the wall now.


“There’s a lot of ‘em, Buck!” He yelled out.


“Watch yourself, Dusty!” Buckshot boomed beside me. The words came too late. Dusty let out a yell and fell from the top of the wall, his wing splattered with blood. “Shit.” Buckshot turned to me. “Your friends gonna help?”


“I will, Stranger should, no clue about Lucky.” Although with Lucky’s position outside of the camp I wouldn’t be surprised if they stumbled across him soon. Not that it’d matter; they wouldn’t be able to kill him.


“Who the fuck are you assholes?!” Somepony shouted from outside.


“We’re the Buckshot Gang!” The large red stallion roared beside me as a loud crack sounded from the cock of his massive shotgun. I watched as he approached the gates. “And I say leave now, or you’ll not get another chance.”


A pony slipped into view and fired. The bullet slammed into Buckshot’s chest, pinged off his armour and puffed into the dirt. The slavers ears drooped. He raised the gun again but Buckshot was faster. His gun cracked like thunder as a swarm of bullets tore through the slavers chest, separating limbs and head from his torso. More Slavers burst into view, firing wildly at Buckshot. He ducked into cover as bullets pinged off him. They were bottlenecked, we had the advantage. The only way they could get us was by coming through the entrance which we had tightly locked down within our sights. Unless they found the back way-Urghhh… CELESTIA FUCKING DAMNIT!


A bullet tore through my hind leg. My scream turned into a grunt as I grit my teeth. I turned to where the shot had come from, watching as Slavers began to pour in through the other side of the encampment. They had us from both sides now. In less than a minute since the first shot, our advantage had just become our grave. I ducked behind whatever cover I could find; shooting over it when I could. I was a good shot, but not a great one. That was Strangers department. I took aim and fired at a stallion that had slipped behind some cover. My bullets pinged off the metal inches from him. His aim was better. Pain flashed through my shoulder as a bullet lodged itself deep. I gasped and ducked down low. I glanced up and was about to take aim again, only for the slavers head to explode and paint the ground a new shade of red.


Stranger walked into the field, his rifle cocking before he aimed again and fired. Another down. He cocked again, aimed and fired. There goes a third. A bullet splattered into his chest, staining his bandages from the wound, but Stranger didn't seem to notice as he sent his own bullet through the shooters chest, dropping the stallion instantly. A mare managed to get behind him. I raised my gun and took aim, but the mare was quickly wrapped in a purple glow and smashed against a wall. She was coughing blood when Stranger turned to her and splattered her brains across the wall.


Turning, I noticed the Buckshot Gang’s filly was backing away from a Slaver near the fire pit. The filly squealed as the stallion launched himself at her. The stallion’s insides splattered the ground as my bullet found him. The filly turned to me with wide eyes. I was about to shout to ask if she was alright when my mind snapped to Sonnet. In a panic, I darted from my cover, my injured leg almost giving way as I forced myself to move. I slipped past the Buckshot filly, her eyes watched me as I ran by, and down to the tents. I saw three Slavers. Two were watching the third as he tried to coax Sonnet from her tent.


“Come here honey.” He smirked with an avaricious grin spreading across his muzzle. My bullet tore through his cheek.  The others turned to me, I shot another through the throat and jumped at the one I’d already shot through the cheek. My hoof smashed into his mouth tearing what remained of his jaw from his face. I heard a click and turned to look down the last pony's shotgun barrel. It clattered to the ground as he cried out in pain. I shoved my pistol into his mouth and blew out the back of his head.


I saw Sonnet behind him, shaking and holding a bloody rock in her teeth. I looked at the slaver and saw what she’d hit -or ‘crushed’ as the case may be- and felt very sorry for the now dead stallion. Behind me, the other slavers were storming in the front entrance. Without cover to shield me I expected this to go south. I stood between them and Sonnet and took aim but the entrance suddenly exploded. Bullets and shots rained down from above that peppered the ground with explosive force, splattering the slavers. Their bodies erupted in holes, limbs were severed, and some erupted into chunks from the constant barrage.


It ended quickly and silence descended. My eyes travelled skyward, searching for our saviour, and the silhouette of a pegasus flew by for a moment before it descended into the camp. Stranger’s gun immediately cocked and aimed. The moment I saw who it was, I also took aim.


“Well that’s a nice welcome.” The pegasus chuckled, his voice mechanical and deep in his black armour. “You gonna shoot me after I saved you?” I was considering it. His wings folded in and his armour clicked shut, hiding them. “Or are you going to shoot me through the hoof again?” His yellow bug like eyes looked from me to Stranger.


There was a pause as everyone took a breath. Our guns were still held at the ready and the Buckshot Gang watched us curiously. Damnit. Why would this asshole follow us? The only thing I could think of is that he still wanted to bring the filly back to Steam Bolt, but then why take out the Slavers?


“I told you that if you followed us we’d kill you.” I said slowly, enunciating my words carefully.


“Are you going to introduce us, Tome?” Buckshot asked. He was bleeding from a flesh wound on his neck, but otherwise he seemed unharmed. Ranger was supporting Dusty Feathers behind him. “That’s some interesting armour you’ve got there.” Buckshot remarked. I could see the Enclave pegasus’s gaze move to each of them. He was surrounded on all sides. Vanilla, Buckshot, Ranger, Dusty, myself and Stranger; the latter two sporting guns aimed at his head. To be fair, I doubted my pistol would get through his armour, but I knew Stranger’s rifle would.


“Do I not even get a ‘thank you’?” Enclave-boy asked bitterly.


“I dunno, does he, Tome?” Buckshot asked, turning to me.


“You’re gonna accept his account of me?” The pegasus seemed to chuckle. “He’s a slaver.” I was about to protest being called that, but I supposed that technically, it was an accurate title. Not that I enjoyed it.


“I will.” Buckshot’s answer was a surprising one. “Tome Tale has proven he’s trustworthy. He’s proven himself a disreputable pony as well and if Stranger didn’t vouch for him, I might have killed him by now…” I met Buckshot’s gaze and, well, what can I say, I grinned. Probably not the best reaction to such a statement, but hey, I like pissing ponies off. Ponies far and wide always underestimated the sheer irksome cocky nature of a good grin at the right moment. “But he has earned trust.” He continued. “So yes, good buck, I will.” He turned to me expectantly. His expression demanded my explanation be good.


“Stallion.” I corrected habitually. I holstered my weapon so I could talk easier without its grip slurring my speech, trusting that Stranger would put the pegasus down if anything went awry. “And he’s Enclave.”


Buckshot’s brow rose. “I’ve never seen Enclave armour like that.”


“Me neither till I saw it on him and his friends. They work for Steam Bolt.” I informed. Now there were more guns on him. I made a note that it was Vanilla that pulled hers out before anyone else even had the chance. Such tells that mare had. “He was part of a group that cleared out a Stable at Neighagra Falls. That’s where I acquired the filly, and he’s who I’m protecting the filly from.”


“Now listen here-UGH!” The armour-clad pegasus’s head snapped to the side from a blow to the head. Ranger had taken him from behind. The pegasus fell to the ground limp and unconscious.


My brow rose. “Was that necessary?” Ranger didn’t answer verbally; he glanced to Vanilla whose gun was still pointed at the unconscious pegasus, the gun shaking in her maws grip. Maybe it was necessary; she looked ready to shoot the pegasus on the spot.


Stranger looked over his rifle, stroking it gently. It was still battered but it was obviously in a working condition now. “Thanks.” He said to Ranger -whom I assumed had repaired the rifle a bit for him- before stowing the firearm away and turning back to the camp fire as though we weren’t surrounded by slaver corpses and now hosting an enclave pegasus hostage. Nonchalant much?


“Did the 'Stranger' just thank me?” Ranger looked about ready to squee. Ugh, fan boys.


 


 


*** *** ***

 




The pegasus groaned as he woke up. His first instinct was to try moving. He found he had been bound up with rope, as had his weapons. The two canons on the side of his armour had been tied with rope around his body in such a way that he couldn’t move them into any position other than pointing straight up into the air, which wouldn’t really be helpful in a fighting situation. He looked around, his eyes soon meeting mine. I sat across from him. Behind me Stranger had his rifle drawn. It was slightly shinier than before, obviously he’d been polishing it in an effort to make it nice and pretty again. He had the weapon resting in his lap for now, stroking it gently, his single blue eye staring unwaveringly at the bound pegasus. “So here’s how this is going to go.” I began. “I’m going to ask questions and you will answer them. If you don’t, Stranger will put a bullet in you.” The pegasus nodded without a word. Cooperation, such a wonderful thing.


“How many people know where we are? How many are tracking us?”


“Just three groups.” The stallion answered. Huh… that was easy. I wondered why. Though, we did have a gun to his head- but usually there was at least SOME resistance. “Twenty in each group.” Oooh, details.


“Are you able to communicate with them to give them your location?” This was an important question, so it was quickly punctuated by the soft click of Strangers gun loading a bullet into the chamber.


“Yes.” Shit. “But I won’t.” What?


I let silence fall for a moment as I studied him. Truth and lies could be figured out from the posture of a pony or in their eyes. As I couldn’t see his eyes through his helmet, I had to work with posture. It was more difficult than with others due to the armour he wore but I couldn’t detect anything more than submissive honesty. It felt like he was trying to earn my trust. But why, not too long ago this pegasus had tried to kill me. “Why not?”


“I need your help.” Well…shit.


“Help? Why should I help you?” If he honestly thought he could weasel help out of me for caps or something he was going to be sorely mistaken. Also dead, he’d probably be dead. Bullets tended to do that and I was more than happy to put a few in him.


“Because my suit is linked to the others.” My thoughts paused at the words. “I’ve disabled my tracking signal so they can’t find me via their AEFS, but they can still read my vitals. If I die, they’ll know.” And then I’d have a squadron of black, powerfully armoured pegasus hunting me down, as well as the whole of Fillydelphia. And maybe an Enclave army to back them up. Fuck. “So, you can’t afford to kill me.” He said in a cocky tone. Well that was a mistake on his behalf. Only I got to be the smug pony around here.


“Yeah, but how about we just torture you instead.” I asked, watching him go stiff. I imagined his eyes widening at the words. “I could feed you healing potions, keep you nice and alive, fully aware as I strip that armour from you, piece by piece, and then your limbs, piece by piece, maybe I’ll even geld you.” I punctuated my point this time by pulling out the shiv from my collar, the blade glinting in the light.


“No, no! Okay, I wasn’t sent here, I saved you, I ran away, I wanted to JOIN YOU!” He all-but screamed the words at me.


I slipped the shiv away. “Join us? Why?” It smelled like a trap.


“I don’t want to work for Steam Bolt any more. I have my reasons. And you both seem like good ponies. You saved that filly.” Why was everyone so presumptuous about my motives?


“What’s your name?” I asked. I was getting sick of calling him just ‘enclave pegasus’ in my head.


“They call me Aero.” I caught my laugh in my throat and turned it into a cough. When I had finally composed myself I cleared my throat and smoothed back my burgundy mane.


“I’m sorry; I asked you your name, not what your dramatic handle from your teen years was.” I smirked, glancing at Stranger to see if he found it as funny as I did. He wasn’t really reacting, which was annoying, but he never reacted. Goddess he was boring at times.


“That IS my name.” He protested, while puffing up. I imagined his cheeks and feathers puffing up in firm defiance, which only lead to more giggling.


“Alright ‘Aero’.” I mocked. “I’m going to untie you but those canons of yours stay facing up. They move an inch and you never move again on account of a hole in your head. Capiche?” He nodded. I undid the rope and packed it away in my saddlebag in case it was needed later. “Your helmet, Can you take it off?”


“It retracts. But I’d rather not.” He seemed suddenly nervous.


“Do it.” I warned. Strangers gun took aim this time, the weapon aimed right at ‘Aero’s’ head. Wow that was a stupid name. Our captive hesitated for a moment before he grumbled to himself incoherently. He turned and kicked a stone. Truly a fearsome member of the Grand Pegasus Enclave.


Aero’s helmet gave off a whirring sound before its plates retracted and the helmet slid back from the stallion’s muzzle. No…not stallion. COLT!



I stared at him. A silence flooding my mind as I drank it in. ‘Aero’ had a dark grey coat that was almost black, vivid blue eyes and a pure snowy white mane with blue tips. I had no idea if the blue tips were natural or not, but he was a child, so it was entirely possible they were dyed. Aero was maybe sixteen years old, seventeen at a push. I felt a sting in my disembodied hoof. “Nope.” I turned and walked away.


“What?” Aero asked. I don’t deal with children. I shouldn’t have started with the filly. I walked through the encampment, leaving Stranger with our captive, out of the bridge complex and onwards.


I stared at the ground. I was not doing this. I was going back to New Appleloosa, going to square things away with Morab Arts somehow, she could HAVE the damn filly because I was NOT doing this.


“Tome.” A soft voice called my name from behind me, and I stopped. I stood there, shaking my head.


“Leave me alone, Lucky.”


“Where are you going, Tome?”


“Back to New Appleloosa.” I replied. “I’m done with this.”


“What about Sonnet? Are you gonna abandon her?” I looked at him and he flinched. He had no right to speak to me about abandonment.


“She’ll be safe with the Buckshot Gang.” I turned away.


“That’s bullshit and you know it.” Lucky shot back as he approached me. “You know they are planning on heading to Fillydelphia. If they’re dragging around that other filly, you can bet they’ll drag her there as well.”


“Good, her mother might be there. They can help get her mother after taking out Steam Bolt, getting rid of the bounty on my head for ‘stealing’ from him. Everypony wins.”


He scoffed. “D’you seriously think they’ll win?” I wanted to keep moving, but I couldn’t take another step. “You’re smart, Tome. Very smart. Too smart to think they’re gonna be able to take down a Slaver like Steam Bolt. They’ll get her killed.”


“Why is that my problem?!” I snapped, rounding on him. We were nose to nose. He was the same size as me, but his haggard, aged and gaunt features made him seem smaller. Frail. He was still in good shape and he wasn’t technically ‘old’ yet, but to me he seemed it. Like a weak old man that had almost given up on life. “Why is that my problem, Lucky?” I asked, a little calmer this time. “Why should I care?”


“Because you aren’t your father.”


I hit him. Luck be damned, whatever gods on high that might exist, by the very stars above, my blow landed and my hoof cracked his head to the side and knocked the bastard to the ground!


“Don’t you ever-” I swallowed a lump in my throat and took a deep breath. “You don’t get to say that.” Lucky lifted himself up and wiped his mouth. He spat a glob of blood to the side, looking at it curiously before he looked back up to meet my eyes.


“I said it because it’s true. You aren’t him.” I barely restrained myself from hitting him again. “You aren’t a hero, Tome. I’m not an idiot; I don’t expect you to be something you aren’t. But you are not the same buck that did that to you. You aren’t the same one that wasn’t there for you. You don’t abandon-” He stopped himself and took a deep breath.


“I don’t what?” My brow furrowed in challenge. “I don’t abandon people?” I took a step towards him. “Do I not make the cut of that particular squad? Is there some admissions test to the club of abandoning ponies that needs to be taken? Would you be the chair-pony?”


He took a step back, then steeled himself. “I deserve that. But everything I did, I did for your own good. I’m just asking you to try and do the same for her, and what’s good for her right now is for you to be there and help her. Or she’s not gonna make it.”


“And you’d be the authority on what’s good for people, right?” He swallowed and turned away.  “She’s not gonna make it. She’s a Stable pony, remember.” I spat. He looked up at me and his eyes bore into mine. They looked tired and old. They twitched back and forth as if searching for something that could not be seen. I tore my eyes away from him. A silence stretched before I made my decision. “I’m not doing this for you.” I said as I took a step back towards the camp. “Not even doing this for her.” I turned to him and gave him a steely gaze. “I’m doing this because I would rather die tomorrow protecting a filly I don’t give a shit about, than be even remotely like you.”


I walked past him, seeing the barest flash of misery and pain in his features before heading back to the encampment. Nothing had been resolved. I still wanted to leave, but for now my anger had dissipated. I’d stick it out till I couldn’t any longer. I headed straight back to the Enclave pegasus. He was being held at gunpoint by Stranger still, obviously to make sure he didn’t fly away. I trotted up and stood before them as I looked between Stranger and the colt. I didn’t trust the pegasus, I probably never would. I’d likely have to kill him before tomorrow was done, but for now I couldn’t be shitted to fight it. I had no direction to go, we needed supplies and the boys canons might be good in getting us some, and maybe this ‘help’ he needed would give me time to clear my head. If I agreed to do it, that is.


“Tomorrow we’re leaving.” I told him. “Me, Stranger, Lucky and the filly. We’ve stayed in one spot for too long. We’re not going with the Buckshot Gang. You have one night to come up with a convincing argument as to why we should help you. If you can manage a convincing argument, then we will and we’ll let you travel with us depending on how it turns out. If you can’t come up with a convincing argument, we’ll shoot you in the head and bury your body. You can leave if you want. Come, go, don’t much care, but if you’re here tomorrow, that’s how it’ll go down. If you don’t think you can convince us or maybe you don’t really need our help, I encourage you to leave tonight.” I glanced to Stranger and motioned with my head for him to put his gun away. It was a little past midday but I was already tired enough to sleep. Emotional stress wasn’t in my usual range of issues, but bloody hell I was feeling it today. Stranger obeyed. He always listened to me. I didn’t even know why now that I thought about it. Five years we’d been together. Five years of wandering around, trying to find a place to hang our hats, and maybe earn a few bits. We’d been doing contracts for three of those years. I’d hoped by now to have something of a reputation.


Your reputation could get you killed, or save your life. If you were someone out here, you were hunted, but also rewarded for being you. But if you were no-one, you were just the next target of somepony else. I was never interested in being a victim. That’s as good a reason as any to care about reputation. Isn’t it? I really liked bullshitting myself.


I stepped into the tent. Sonnet was gone and in the corner was an uneaten piece of meat. I curled up under a dirty blanket and ignored it. A few tents away I heard sniffling. I glanced up to see Vanilla Milkshake holding a young yellow filly with brown eyes and mane. She was curled against the blue mare’s chest, sobbing softly as Vanilla gently caressed her head. Poor girl had watched three ponies die right in front of her. She had helped me kill one. Maybe it would be best if I just left her with the Buckshot Gang. She’d be safe with them. Wouldn’t she? They already had a filly with them. They could handle one more. Except Lucky was right. It wasn’t safe.


Safe is a strange concept in the Wasteland. Nowhere was safe. But maybe being as far away from Steam Bolt was at least as safe a life as I could make for the filly right now. I turned away from the sobbing child and curled in on myself, putting my earbloom into my ear and pressing play, hoping the words would drown out everything else.


“…two-hundred-and-eighty times the diameter of our planet, the sun consists mostly of hydrogen and helium undergoing nuclear fusion at its core. With a surface temperature of approximately five-thousand-seven…”


 


*** *** ***

 


I awoke in the night to a noise. My mouth gripped my shiv but as I listened I realised it was music from a sprite bot. The marching parade music was monotonous. I closed my eyes again ready to ride the sound into slumber, but the music cut short. I poked my head out of the tent and saw the silhouette near the encampment's entrance. It was either Sonnet or the Buckshot filly. I slipped from the tent and stretched. The fire lit everything around me in a warm orange light but the cold still slipped into my bones the moment I stepped away from my tent.


“You really think my Mum is still alive?” Sonnet asked the floating Sprite-bot. She was talking to it? “Mister-Tome-master,” cute title, “told me that most of my Stable is dead. So the chances of Mother being alive are very slim. But I think she is. She’s very smart and able-bodied. If Slavers look for useful slaves then my Mother would probably be one of the ones they’d keep I think. She’s good at physical labour, and she’s very pretty, so she might be too attractive to just kill.” Erm…what? “She’s smart too. She wouldn’t have fought, she’d have submitted, knowing she’d have the best chance of survival.” She said to herself. “If the Slaver weapons that invaded the Stable are anything like the ones that attacked us today, then the average weapon they’d use would be automatic and only have twenty-four rounds before the need to reload.” I listened as she prattled off a few more numbers about how many she thought might have entered her Stable, as well as how many slaves a single Slaver could probably keep in line and some minor information I had told her, which in her eyes, couldn’t be considered trustworthy but was decent for the sake of the math. Finally she seemed satisfied with her answer. “So while you may think that it’s only a twelve in three-hundred-and-seventy-five chance, it’s actually closer to a ninety-six in three-hundred-and-seventy-five chance, which is MUCH better than previously expected.” She seemed very pleased at this news, beaming proudly at herself. “But… I don’t think I’m ever going to see her again even if she is alive.” I was tempted to go give her a hug, but instead I turned around to leave her to talk to her inanimate hovering robot. “I hate him.” I froze. “I hate him, and he scares me so much.” I swallowed. “But today he saved me. I think…” My ears twitched as I listened to her words intently. “…I think he means what he says. I think he’s trying to save me. But what if he can’t save himself?” I hated children, especially perceptive ones.


I slipped back into the tent and flopped down. I glanced through the tent flap at the sky. Darkness masked the clouds.  It almost looked like a clear starless night up there. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep, but when sleep failed to claim me I considered grabbing my earbloom instead, but approaching hooves stopped me. I kept my eyes closed as I heard the hooves stop. They seemed to stay still for a moment before moving further away. I opened one of my eyelids and watched Sonnet curl up beside Vanilla and close her eyes.


I was almost jealous.


 


*** *** ***

 


When I woke up I stepped out of the tent and stretched to ease some of the soreness from my back. After checking to see that I hadn’t been robbed in the night (I hadn’t) I stepped into the main area of the camp. I turned left. Stranger laid beside the smoking remains of the doused fire. Beside him was Bobbie Pin. I raised my brow in sympathy at my companion as I realised the young annoying stallion had probably been regaling Stranger with adventurous stories that Stranger had probably lived through. In short, being an annoying fan-colt. He turned to me as I approached before following. I could tell though, his hooves moved a bit too quickly. He was running without making it seem obvious to Bobby Pin. Once he was level with me he motioned to something behind me. I turned and saw Aero, the Enclave pegasus, curled up in the corner. His weapons were pointed straight up still, which was impressive. He looked peaceful, were it not for his heavy snores. I kicked him.


He yelped in pain. Guess his armour couldn't take it. “Hey, what?!” He jerked up and looked at me. “Oh, you.” He grumbled as he got up. He looked between me and Stranger and gulped. He scratched the back of his pale mane nervously before beginning. “So…erm…about the help I need.” His eyes flicked between Stranger and I, trying to latch onto any emotion. I kept my face a mask. I wanted him nervous. His head flopped to one side. Wow, it really was like a dog expression, single flopped ear and all. “So…” He said again. “Erm…so…”


“Say ‘so’ again and I’ll shoot you.” I said


“S-sorry, I erm...so-” He eeped. “I need to get into a prison complex.” He said the words so fast I almost didn’t understand them.


I raised a brow at him. “You want to do what? Why?”


“Okay, look, Woodtail Prison, inside there is some pretty good security systems.” He began explaining. “It’s all this phase three tech, real top o’ the line shit in there. Durable as anythin’. I hear that one of those Camera systems can last up to-”


“Get to the point.” He was a talker. I hated talkers. Especially when they talked more than me.


“Alright,” he meeped defensively, “they’ve got this underground network of camera systems, so the complex can see upwards of a mile in most directions. I need access.”


That was an interesting request. “Can’t get in yourself?”


“They erm…got turrets and stuff, set to shoot anything that’s outside the walls or even inside if it’s higher than the walls, so flyin’ in is a bit of a problem. That and I don’t know what’s inside. I figured I’d need help.”


“No.” Stranger’s deep voice shocked the pegasus. And with that the bandaged stallion began loading his gun in front of him.


Aero’s expression switched to a nervous one. “N-nice gun…looks a bit worn, I could probably fix it for you…erm…what do you mean ‘no’?” He looked on the verge of panic.


I shrugged. “He means you make no sense, so we’re gonna kill you.” I said with a smile. “If you’re confused, let me break it down for you. You work for Steam Bolt. You hunt us, you attack us, we shoot you, you find us, you save us, you ask for our help. You make no sense. So until you make sense, we can’t trust you.” Stranger’s weapon cocked and the muzzle rested inches from the colts head.


“I’m looking for my Father!” He screamed as the gun went off. The crack of the shot and the soft phew of the bullet picking up dirt as it struck the ground reverberated through the area. The bullet had missed the pegasus by a hairs breadth. The boy was shaking, his eyes screwed shut and he shook. He slowly opened his eyes as he realized he wasn’t dead yet. He threw up. Lovely.


“Your father?” I asked. “Do tell.”


He gagged and cleared his throat, then smoothed back his mane. “Well, I’m not really looking FOR him. I mean, I know where he is, back up there with the Enclave-” Stranger chambered another round. “BUT!” He yelped. “I’m lookin’ for EVIDENCE of him. He were down here when he were younger. And there are some things I wanna find, and they’re for my own reasons. I can’t say any more on that so please don’t shoot me ta find out.” I was tempted to let Stranger shoot him anyway. “I was just doin’ as I was told with Steam Bolt about you and the filly, but I ain’t after her right now. I just wanna get into that prison because I think maybe he was round this area back then. Maybe he was seen on one of them cameras.”


“What makes you think he was around here?” Lucky’s voice came from behind me. The lime green earth pony stepped up to the colt’s side, looking him over. Lucky was around three times the boys age, it was quite the generation gap standing side by side.


“Who’re you grandpa?”  Lucky looked indignant at the title. Huh, maybe the colt wasn’t so bad, that was a fun expression on the old coot.


“I’m not that old.” Lucky said as he glared at the colt.


“Uh huh.” Aero said. His nervousness was gone, he kicked the back of his own rump and his suit gave a whirr, a compartment opened up and he fiddled around inside with his muzzle before pulling out what looked like a rolled up poster. “Found this when I was rootin’ through my dad’s desk one day. It’s a map of where he was down here, his route ya know. It don’t have dates on it, but this path here goes right through here.”


The map had several points on it, one of which went all the way to Fillydelphia. There were others that went to Manehatten, as well as other spots along the way. One even went far south to the border of Equestria and the mountains between us and the Zebra lands. “And these other points?”


“I haven’t checked them out yet. I looked all over Fillydelphia while with Steam Bolt but I couldn’t find any evidence of him. He never told me what he was doing down here.” The boy seemed quite bitter about it. “I want to find out. So I figured I’d start here.”


I mulled over the information. It was certainly a trek and a half. But there was one question that needed answering before I gave it any further consideration. “What’s in it for us?” He looked up at me. “You haven’t told me why I should help you yet.”


He looked nervous again. “I can help the filly.” He answered. “I can get in and out of Fillydelphia; they think I’m out looking for you. If I get in there, I can find her mother and get her out.” At my confused expression he rubbed the back of his head. “I heard the filly screaming about it  before we met that time. Ya know, when ya shot me.” He wriggled his hoof which showed no sign of the wound. “Kid’s got a voice.”


“Child.” I corrected. “And she does.” I sighed. I was considering spanking that child at this rate, her actions were causing me bother…was I allowed to spank her? Does that actually help any as a form of discipline? I needed to skip to the child psychology sections of my tape sometime. “Besides,” I continued. “That’s all nice for her, but what about us? We need some compensation too.” I smirked. Stranger’s eye glanced to me and Lucky rolled his eyes. I was feeling smug before I heard a sniffle behind me. Shit.


I turned to look at Sonnet who was staring at me. “You promised.”


“No I didn’t.” I said. This earned me a quick whack behind the head from Stranger. “Hey! What? I didn’t promise her anything. I said ‘MAYBE’.”


“But he can get her out. He said so.” She countered, approaching me. She was on the verge of tears but was trying to stay strong. It was kinda admirable.


I glanced at the others, they were watching me. Fine then, they wanted me to parent. I will. I approached her and sat down, and in my best and most calming voice I said, “Growing up, means you don’t always get what you want.”


She decked me. The FILLY decked me. Okay, Ranger is one thing; the unicorn had some good blows on him. Vanilla was surprising but understandable, and Buckshot? That one was a given. But Sonnet? Fucking SERIOUSLY? I hit the ground and felt pain lash over my jaw and a sticky wetness that told me I was bleeding. I glanced at her and saw the PipBuck. That thing bloody hurt!


The filly jumped onto my chest and stared at me with a steely expression. “Save my mother.” She commanded. What can I say? I was impressed.


We stared at each other and I smiled. Then I laughed. And then I grabbed the filly and to her surprise (as well as my own) I hugged her as she squealed for help, while I laughed like a hysteric madpony. She hit me in the sides a few times with her PipBuck, but I didn’t much care until I felt pain lance through my chest that told me she might have cracked a rib. I finally let her go after almost half a minute of hugging only to lie back, my legs spread as I smiled through the pain. “Okay.” I said, smiling up at the overcast sky.


The filly landed to me side after sliding from my chest. “Okay?” She asked hesitantly. “So…you’ll save her?”


“Yup.” I smiled. Rather enjoying her joyous expression.


“Are we going to do it now?”


“Nope.”


She deflated. “But…you said…”


I climbed back to my hooves, wiping my chin. “I said I would save her.” I had a big split that stretched past my lip and down my jaw. Ouch those things packed a punch. “Aero is right that he can get in and out with your mother. But Steam Bolt, the Slaver in charge of Fillydelphia right now, keeps a close watch on all his prizes. We already stole you from him, how do you think he’ll react when we steal your mother too? He’ll hunt us, this time using those pegasi he’s got that wear armour like Enclave-boy here. And we can’t outrun those easily. Would you prefer we save her now, only for all of us including her, to die only a few days from now when they catch up to us?”


She gulped. “So…what do we do?”


“We plan. We gather supplies. We make sure we have somewhere to go and we try to make as many friends along the way as possible. We need places we can hold up, which means visiting towns, getting on their good side, and it means getting as many resources as possible. So we’ll probably be helping Aero with his thing, hopefully we can gain a little reputation and get some help that will tip the odds of survival in our favour. Do you understand?” Besides, if ‘Whitetail Prison’ had good defences and we cleaned it out, it could be a good place to stay and hold up for protection.


The filly looked ready to start crying again, but she nodded. I think she understood that such a task would likely take a long while to do and so it would be a long while before she saw her mother again. She turned away and began walking away; she stopped after a few steps and looked back at me. “I’m sorry for hitting you.” She said in a small voice. She then turned away and walked back to the tenting area, probably in search of Vanilla.


 


 


*** *** ***

 




We left the Slaver camp behind within two hours of the discussion. The goodbyes were swift and simple for the most part, filled with glares in my direction and nods of respect in Stranger’s. There were even tears shared between Vanilla and Sonnet, as well as the promise of future visitations and meetings. Sonnet looked on the verge of asking to stay with Vanilla, which I might have agreed to if she’d plucked up the courage to ask, but she didn’t. Dusty Tails kept us in range for a little bit, seeing us out safely. Ranger kept his distance, I had a feeling he didn’t like me. And Bobby Pin almost cried when he saw Stranger go.


I gave the group one backwards look as we walked away, my eyes falling on the little filly the group had with them. For the first time she stepped into full view, having only been draped in a blanket this time, for some reason or another. She moved away from the Buckshot group as though heading back to the tents. I saw on her flank a cutiemark that looked a little like a megaphone and a microphone, or was it a disc of some kind? At this distance it was too indistinct to know for sure.


The Slaver encampment was out of sight in less than half an hour. Stranger kept his rifle drawn the whole time and while it was never pointed at Aero directly, I was sure the pegasus understood that the gun was meant for him as much as it was for anyone that might attack.


“You’re crazy.” Aero said to me. I walked a little ways behind him, Lucky a little off to my side and Stranger up front near Aero. Sonnet rested on my back and seemed comfortable enough to have fallen asleep.


“I probably am. But I’m sure you’re referencing something specific.” I mused.


“You spare me even though I tried to kill you, you then agree to help me for reasons I can’t fathom-”


“Would you have preferred I didn’t help you?” I asked him curiously.


“Oh no, I’m real grateful, but that don’t mean I can fathom the reason.” He drawled. “Like you and that filly. One moment you say ‘no’, she hits ya good and hard, which was funny by the way, and then you say ‘yeah’. Why do you change ya mind so much? You don’t seem…stable. Like you’re all over the place. And you said I don’t make sense.”


“Maybe I’m not stable.” I shrugged before giving him a smile that was meant to be unsettling. He shivered. “Do you understand the concept of belief?”


He did the dog thing. “Wha’?”


“The concept of belief is, without empirical evidence, to trust in something you think is right. In lamen terms, it’s called being an idiot.” The pegasus watched me like he was waiting for me to make a point. “I have no beliefs. I have no concepts that I consider fact in my head without first there being requisite proof of said facts. I hold onto my ideals until they are challenged by sources that break the foundation of said ideals. She did.”


“She…erm…wha’…nevermind?”


Was it really so hard to understand? Huh…maybe I was crazy.


The walk was going to take a few hours. I stuck by Stranger for most of it with the filly snoozing on my back (since when did I become a bed?), but as we journeyed I found myself drifting back to where Lucky was. He refused to meet my eyes. I watched as Aero tried his best to convince Stranger to part with the rifle so he could ‘take a look at it’. That was not going to happen.


Lucky gave me a sideways glance, his mouth opened and from the corner of my eyes I could tell he was trying to say something to me. I gave him a moment, but he stopped and turned away. Even in conversation he was a coward.


 


*** *** ***

 


Whitetail Prison was a structure of metal beams and high fences. Around the main perimeter the ground was pocked with small hills that were probably mines. The main path, which wasn't covered in mines, was guarded by two laser turrets that had held up against the ravages of time.


“Well someone’s home.” I remarked, eyeing it curiously.


“What makes you say that?” Aero asked, raising a brow at me. I’d made a point of requesting he keep his helmet off and down when we weren’t in a combat situation. If I needed to shoot him, I’d prefer to not have to waste an armour-piercing round.


“The minefield,” I said as I stepped forward.


Aero stood there with a confused expression behind me. Lucky, thankfully answered in more detail. “The minefield is still here and untouched.” Lucky began. “After two hundred years, a few people would have at least tried to get through it and failed but the pattern of mines is unbroken, so someponies been replacing them after they go off.”


“And he couldn’t explain that ‘cause?” Aero’s bitter tone reached my ears clearly.


“Because it’s obvious,” I chimed in, glancing back at them both. “And explaining the obvious bores me. Come on.”


I led them towards the mines. We stopped one meter from the first set of mines. “We’re not gonna try the front? Less mines there.” Aero grumbled, eyeing the mines cautiously.


“We could.” I answered, eyeing the mines curiously. They were placed in a way that if we got close enough to disarm one we’d already be setting off the others. “But the only way we’d get past those turrets is with a decoy target while someone else takes them out. They’re magical plasma based turrets so getting shot will likely disintegrate ya.” I turned to Aero. “Are you volunteering to be said decoy? A flier would do well. You might not even get fried.”


He gulped. “So erm…the mines, what we gonna do?”


I smirked. “Stranger, would you mind?” Stranger stepped forward at my invitation. His horn glowed a dull purple before the first mine was pulled from the earth and brought closer. It began beeping furiously. The others looked nervous, but Stranger swiftly slipped it into my hooves and I disarmed it. “This’d be easier if I could get close to them. This might take a while.”


“Why not just blow them from a distance?” Aero asked curiously. “Maybe the explosion would give us a way in.”


“And let whoever is inside know we’re here before we enter the building? Marvellous idea, would you like to take point and get shot first?” I challenged as I disarmed another bomb that Stranger handed to me. That shut him up. You’d think a stallion with such little experience in the Wasteland would trust the more experienced wanderers with these kinds of things. How green was he anyway? “Hey Aero,” I called out as I packed away another mine into a spare saddlebag after disarming it. “How long you been down from the clouds anyway?”


“About three months.” He said, glancing up at the sky. The wind blew through his alabaster mane as he gazed at the cloud cover. “Do you…miss the sun?” He asked softly.


“Can’t miss what you’ve never seen.” I grumbled as we moved past the first line of mines and onto the next.


“Never?” He asked, sounding concerned at the very thought of never experiencing the sun.


I paused. “I saw it once, well, not once but…ya know.” I said softly, remembering my childhood. I began tinkering with the next mine that was passed to me. “I was near the Everfree Forest, edge of Ponyville, wandering some of the farm lands. Wasn’t so full of Raiders back then as it is now. I looked up and there it was.” I shrugged. “Visited again a few times, a few glimpses, not as nice as the first tione, but yeah. So maybe about…six times during that first week, that’s about it.”


Aero nodded at that. “The cover above the Everfree Forest has always been sketchy. They have to replace it every few months; the clouds get a mind of their own up there.”


I ignored that stupid evaluation. They were fucking clouds. Pegasus magic aside, clouds weren’t alive. There was a silence that stretched out after that as Stranger and I worked.


“Ya know you could cut the tension here with a knife.” Aero mumbled. I fumbled with a mine and glanced back at the pegasus with a raised brow. He shuffled his hoof nervously. “So…favourite food?” Aero asked everyone, trying to sound casual and failing.


“Do you mind shutting up?!” I barked at him as I disarmed another mine.”


“Sorry, I was just trying to make conversation.” He grumbled.


I grit my teeth, seriously, he reminded me of a particular colt from the Stable…what was his name? Rivet? No…Iron? Copper? Yeah…Copper …something. I couldn’t remember. The sound of gurgling span through my mind and I stiffened. Why could I could taste blood in my mouth? I felt my shiv slicing through the colts throat…but I wasn’t holding my shiv…the way it pushed through sinew and muscle. Easy…like slicing up a rat to eat.


The sound of loud beeping that pulsed in tandem with my fast heartbeat pulled me out of my trance. I glanced down at the mine in my hooves. I’d daydreamed too long. I threw it into the minefield. It erupted, causing several others to explode in reaction, tearing down one of the walls. Rubble and pieces of metal from the fence flew in all directions. I shielded my head, gasping as a piece of shrapnel lodged itself into my left foreleg.


“Fuck! Fuck!” I grunted, lowering myself to the ground to look over the wound. It was a few inches above my prosthetic. The piece wasn’t as big as I had expected but it seemed to have lodged itself in the bone. “Oh that is gonna suck coming out.” I grunted.


“What happened?” Lucky asked.


“I got distracted for a moment because certain colts can’t keep their traps shut!” I barked to Aero. “Silence is golden, remember that and shut the fuck up in the future.” I grunted, turning to Stranger. “Do you mind?”


The shrapnel was wrapped in a dull purple glow before it was suddenly wrenched from my hoof. I whinnied at the pain and hoofed at the ground with my good leg, gritting my teeth at the pain. “Here.” I turned to see Lucky offering a healing potion. I declined it.


“Gonna have a lot more injuries than this in there, best not to waste it.” I tried to put pressure on it and winced. Sonnet poked me in the side. I turned to her and she gave me a nervous look. She lowered her horn to the wound and it began to glow a light yellow. I watched curiously for a little bit, the wound tickled from the touch of her magic but nothing else happened. She pouted.


“I’m sorry. I’m not good at healing spells.” She looked at the ground.


“Hey,” I said, trying a warm smile, but it was marred by the pain in my leg turning the smile into a grimace. “Thanks for trying. On you get.” I said, motioning to my back. She hesitated, glancing at my hoof before climbing on anyway. The extra weight did hurt a little but I could deal. I was not blind to her concern though. Going from hating me to showing concern for me was a marked improvement on our relationship. “At least now we have a way in.” I commented dryly.


“The same way I wanted us to try almost half an hour ago?” Aero asked with a sullen expression.


“Zip it.” I grumbled, “We’ve pretty much lost any element of surprise we had, so keep your eyes peeled.” We began moving/limping through the path that had opened for us. We passed by the mines and into the fenced off area. The inside of the fence led us into a large courtyard. It seemed to be sectioned off into three areas. One was a main fenced courtyard that led from the main gates to the entrance into the building, with a gravel roadway for vehicles. The second area was a visitor’s area to watch the inmates in the third section; we’d broken into the second section. We walked in and glanced nervously at the mounted turrets. From what Aero had explained, if we flew above a certain height (higher than the fences for example) the turrets would shoot us down. That’s why we couldn’t fly over the fence. Our hooves crunched over gravel as we moved towards one of the doors.


The door was locked of course. “Anyone know how to pick locks?” Aero asked in his usual drawl.


I pulled out my kit and waved them at him. I heard him grumble under his breath something about me ‘bein’ good at everythin’’ apparently. Well sorry for actually having an educated mind. Plebeian.


I worked a little on the lock and managed to get it on the first try. For such a tough outside security, the internal security was pretty light. The room inside was a reception area. A desk sat in the middle. It was cluttered with papers that had yellowed over the years. I was about to take a step forward before I glanced back at the filly. “Make yourself useful, you’ve got EFS right?” She nodded and jumped off my back. She stared at her PipBuck and then back to the room. I had no idea how EFS was turned on or off but it seemed to have a small bit of mental manipulation to it, which made me wonder why more systems weren’t done via mental manipulation. But I supposed turning something on or off was a bit different than trying to sort through your inventory during mid-combat in case you needed to grab a Healing Potion. She glanced to me and nodded quietly. I assumed that meant the way was clear of any hostiles.


I stepped forward. “Fan out, search the room, loot what you can and tell me if you find anything useful; maps would be a good place to start.” I began shifting through the papers on the desk, finding a few financial clipboards. If these earnings and costs were anything to go by they had some inconsistencies in their math. Maybe those that ran the place had been embezzling funds. I turned to the computer and booted it up. I used the keyboard commands to bypass the main security features. I got myself past the first few firewalls until I could find the password command jargon. I hummed to myself as I began eliminating duds. I tried two different passwords but they didn’t work, I found a glitch that allowed me to replenish my attempts and used that to hunt down the real password. It was “Money.” Interesting password for a receptionist to have. I slipped into the files of the computer and found a set of emails, a safe unlocking command (which I unlocked quickly, perused through and pulled out several dirty magazines and some old Equestrian money), and a map system. Hurray for the smart pony finding what we needed while the others mulled about aimlessly.


“Got the map.” I said before turning to Sonnet. “Can you download it into your PipBuck in case we need it?” She nodded and connected her PipBuck to the terminal. The new connection feed relocked the terminal. I was about to show her how to get in but she handled it herself, using a backdoor I hadn’t found, she had the pass in less than two tries. Impressive. She downloaded the map and then began browsing for her own curiosity.


“What’s a slut?” She asked curiously. I coughed at the question and my brow rose as I glanced at her screen and read a few lines. She was reading emails between the receptionist and one ‘Warden Iron Bars’. In said email was a rather graphic self-deprecating email of how ‘naughty’ a girl the receptionist was and what she wanted to do with certain anatomical parts of the Warden’s body. The Warden’s reply didn’t discourage said behaviour. There was also something about the mare enjoying a set of pearls the Warden had bought her so that answered the password question for me. She had obviously been a gold digger after the Warden’s money.


“It’s a depreciative title given to Mares who enjoy copious acts of fornication in a depraved fashion. For some it’s considered an exciting name, for others it’s an insult, depending on the sensibilities of the mare.” I informed educationally, glancing through the rest of the emails before shutting it off. “Not really for the eyes of foals, but you’ll see worse in the Wasteland so whatever. I’ll not shield ya.”


“I am well versed in sexual intercourse, why shield me at all?” Sonnet asked in confusion, ‘sexual intercourse’ was a really weird set of words to hear come from a child’s mouth.


“Well versed?” I asked curiously. A ten year old being ‘versed’ in sex was…a little creepy actually.


“Well I’ve never had it of course.” Thank Celestia. “But I know all the aspects of fornication and what is required for pregnancy. I know of oestrus and ovulation and-”


“Okay, okay. I get it, you’re educated.” I should have figured she would have been. Stables did have schools. Fillies out in the Wasteland weren’t nearly so lucky, so the average pony IQ was probably not up to scale compared to what was average two hundred years ago. Who knows, maybe I would only be considered average back then too. For some reason the thought depressed me.


“Why is it considered insulting to desire copious-?”


I interrupted her, both out of curiosity and hoping it’d change the conversation. “What kind of Stable did you grow up in?”


“I’m not allowed to talk about it.” She mumbled.


“Pardon?”


She sighed dramatically. “I was told that should ever we come into contact with the outside, only the Overmare has the right to discuss any aspect of the Stable. Nopony else may discuss it.” It was like she was reading from a text book. I wondered if she’d been taught those rules all her life, indoctrinated with them.


“Can you even give me a hint?” I asked and sighed when she shook her head. I thought for a moment and smiled. “Okay, how about I not ask about any of the work that you did in the Stable, what if I asked about you and the ponies in it. Would you be able to tell me about your mother?” She seemed to struggle with that, but I figured I might have just found a loophole around her rules. Finally, after a little deliberation, she shrugged in answer. I took that as not a no. “What’s her name?”


“Indigo Velvet.” She said quietly.


“Huh, odd. Most families are named via tradition, or surname, but yours doesn’t fit either pattern. How did ‘Sonnet Bloom’ come from ‘Indigo Velvet’?” I asked curiously, making a point to search through the trash. I found twenty caps littered at the bottom with some empty Nuka-Cola bottles. I fished out the caps and pocketed them.


“We’re not named until we show an Aptitude. Before then we’re given a Stable number.” She mumbled.


“Aptitude? So what was your mothers Aptitude?” I asked. Asking about her mother seemed a good way to gain information as to how her Stable worked.


“She made colours.” She said while leafing through documents that were on a desk. She didn’t actually seem to be looking at them, just distracting herself while she spoke. The room had been searched thoroughly by now but I wanted to keep her occupied, keep her talking. “She could make ultra-violet spectrum's that we used to keep the plants healthy.”


I was about to ask her more when Aero hissed from behind me. “Are we going or not?” I shot a glare at him and turned back to the filly.


“Plants?” I asked her hopefully. No dice. She turned away and refused to answer. I’d gotten her on a roll of talking, only for feather-brain here to ruin it all. Fucking pegasus. I pushed passed him in a grump.


“Hey, what I do?” He asked complained as I headed for a set of double doors.


They were more flaps than doors and opened easily. The corridor beyond was less pristine than the reception area. A water cooler at some point had been turned over and the ground was stained where the water had once been. A light flickered overhead, and against one of the walls was a skeleton that looked to have been left where they’d fallen, the back of its skull was cracked and a dark long dried bloody spot on the wall showed where it had hit its head. I looked around the surface of the tiled walls. There weren't any bullet holes, they hadn’t been shot. From the way the dead ponies legs were broken and twisted as well, it looked like they’d been partially trampled after they’d fallen. Whatever had happened in this prison it had involved a crowd of ponies stampeding through this corridor. I looked down both ends of the hallway. Both lead to doors but from the way the water cooler had been kicked over, I’d hazard a guess that the ponies had ran to the right. A sign on the door said that direction led to a lower level of the facility. There was usually only one reason ponies ran down to get away. There was shelter down there. And high defences meant a likely command base for their security detail. Down it was then.


We went down. Sonnet stayed behind me, but in front of a silent Lucky, Stranger walked closely beside me and Aero hung back. “Sonnet.” I asked softly.


“Y-yeah.” She asked, sounding a little scared.


“Don’t worry, we’ll protect you, but I need you to use your EFS to pick out any enemies. Aero, you do the same. Your suit has EFS right?”


Aero nodded. “AEFS, and yeah.” His helmet slid back into place over his face, the eyes flashing on with an Enclave bug-like yellow glow. I glanced at the armour and turned away. I hated that armour.


“AEFS?” I asked him curiously, trying to defuse the tenseness of the situation. We were all feeling it. We were far too big a crowd in this tight corridor. What had those ponies been running from and was it still here? “What’s the ‘A’ stand for? Advanced?”


He shrugged. “How should I know? Just what it says.”


What a wonderful well of information he was. His voice had gone deep and distorted again, like when I’d first met him. You couldn’t tell his age when he was like this, a fact I’m sure he revelled in. We opened up a second door and found an elevator and a stairwell. “Stairs.” I announced, heading right for the door.


“Hey, you ain’t the leader here.” My brow rose as I turned to Aero who had stepped closer. His weapons were down now and in this enclosed space he’d probably kill us all if he decided to fire them. “I’m a flier, not a walker; I’ll take the elevator if you don’t mind. I ain’t bothering with no stairs.” I opened my mouth to protest before but an amusing idea struck me. I shrugged and gestured him to go ahead. I stepped back and waited. He looked at the elevator call button through the yellow bug eyes of his helmet and pressed it. The light lit up. We waited for a moment before a rumbling sounded from above us. Then a clattering racket that cut off abruptly. “What happened?” He asked. The doors of the elevator twitched before one of them opened with a squeal. “Erm…” The pegasus stuck his head through and looked up. He squealed and dove away from the elevator doors as a screaming elevator cart tore down the shaft and erupted down below, the floor shook and smoke billowed out from the shaft into the hallway. The initial crash was enough to shake the floor and make Sonnet yelp before hiding behind my legs.


I coughed and waved my hoof in front of my face to clear the air of dust. When I could see clearly I let my eyes rest on Aero. I spoke casually, “I’m the leader, because I’m the smart one. So if you are quite done, follow.” I turned and opened the door to the stairs. We began to descend.


There were five levels in all but the lowest level was listed as water systems, I’d check those out on the way out if I could but for now, level four was the aim. It was listed as ‘Security’ so I assumed it was the correct floor. According to the map we’d downloaded, there were four rooms in the Security area. One was described as a ‘Panic Room’, which probably meant it was a vault that had tried to work as a bomb shelter but with none of the achievements and capabilities of a Stable-Tec Stable.


We stepped out of the stairwell after more flights of stairs than I had expected, and into a deserted corridor covered papers. I glanced at the date of the papers that littered the ground, the date matched the day the bombs fell. Well, something had happened here. A soft ticking caught my attention and I stopped and looked around. The walls were a pastel grey and reinforced, there were no bullet holes so combat certainly hadn’t happened here. At both ends of the corridor they turned into another section. A door was on my right, but if the map was to be believed, it was just a storage cupboard. “What’s that clicking?” I asked curiously.


“I think it’s my PipBuck.” Sonnet Bloom said curiously, shaking her foreleg as though the PipBuck was damaged and she were trying to fix it somehow.


“Let me see.” I picked her up and she yelped in indignation as I pulled her hoof to me without waiting for permission. Oh, a radiometer…rads? Huh…they were quite high here…that wasn’t good. I dropped her to the floor with a squeak. “This place is irradiated.”


Sonnet grumbled, rubbing her rump before squeaking again at my news, she seemed to panic. “We should go, I’ve been taught about radiation poisoning. There’s nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, fever, fur loss-”


“Lucky we have this.” I interrupted, pulling out some RadAway, “best not to waste it yet though, just in case we’re down here for longer than we should be.” I slipped it back into my bags and turned back to the corridor. “Come on.” We began trotting down, the sound of our hooves echoing loudly on the floor, broken by the odd chinks from my prosthetic. It was itching. I hated it when it itched.


“Doesn’t that still hurt?” Sonnet asked from, behind me.


“Huh?” I asked casually, glancing back at her for a moment.


“Your h…leg.” She said, pointing to the wound from the explosion outside.


I shook my head, suddenly keenly aware I’d stopped limping entirely. I’d need to note that down at some point. “Nah, it’s stopped hurting now.” I commented casually. I could feel Lucky’s eyes on the back of my head. Leave it you fucking git. Just leave it.


I looked up and down the corridor. I didn’t like it. Those ponies had run down here for a reason but there wasn’t a single corpse other than the one upstairs. Paper was thrown about as though they’d all been in a rush, but in a rush to get away from what?


The corridor turned left. There were two doors ahead of us; at the end was a large gate-like door that covered what looked to be a massive vault door. It was circular rather than the usual Stable gear, but probably not nearly as strong. It was sealed tight. Nearby was an entrance into a different room. This was more of an archway than a doorway, and light flooded out of the archway. Something scuffled around, but as we approached it stopped. Not for the first time I cursed my prosthetic hoof and the clinking sound it made. I figured a diplomatic approach might be best, but Stranger had already cocked his gun.


“Hello?” I asked loudly, my voice echoing off the walls. I hoped it was a friendly tone but this place unnerved me and I admit to a slight shake in my voice. I turned the corner and looked in, only to balk and launch myself backwards.


I’d barely gotten a glimpse of the room. What I had seen was a large collection of terminal servers and more screens than I’d seen in any other complex. There was a single red pony in there; I couldn’t tell if it was a stallion or mare at the first glance and I didn’t really get time for the second. Because the moment my head poked around the corner, a very large and terrifying beast with robotic legs and a metal jaw launched itself at me.


We all jumped back, the beast skidded on the ground turning towards us as it did. It was a dog, but twice as big as any dog I’d ever seen. It had black and brown fur, and one of its eyes were red and cybernetic, it’s legs were entirely robotic, tipped with large claws, and it’s jaws were a snarling chrome metal. It launched at us.


I grabbed Sonnet and dived out of the way. She squealed. I let her go and pushed her away. “Get back!” I yelled. I turned just as Lucky pulled out a shotgun. The beast cut the gun in half with a rake of its claws and narrowly missed Lucky's face due to him tripping over his own hooves and falling to the ground.  Stranger’s rifle barked and a bullet tore into the side of the beast. The force knocked it sideways. It rolled with the blast and slipped to it's feat as it growled at us. Blood pumped out of it's wound and the fucking thing didn't care. That was an anti-personnel round and this pooch just shrugged it off. Shit. “Aero…your canons would be really nice here!”


“Okay! Everyone get down!” He yelled. I turned and dived on Sonnet as the canons suddenly let loose. The dog jumped up and the large calibre bullets destroyed the floor just as the beast landed in front of Aero. Its jaws tore through Aero's cannon's. Aero seemed to piss himself and ran back, the beasts paw raised it's paw to tear Aero a new ass-hole when someone let out a shrill whistle. The pooch froze.


“Winter!” An unfamiliar stallion yelled. I turned to the security room's entrance, a stallion stood there with a crimson coat and black mane. He had gorgeous blue eyes. I noted he was wearing blue stable barding that was reinforced with metal plates over the shoulders and sides; the yellow numbers ‘101’ still clear on the outfits collar. Upon command, ‘Winter’, the dog, moved away from Aero and sat obediently beside the crimson stallion who casually petted the mutts head. The stallion looked between us all suspiciously before he smiled warmly. “Sorry about that.” His apology was about as casual as one might give for bumping into somepony, rather than sic’ing their cybernetic dog on them and almost tearing their throats out.


“That’s quite the pooch you got there.” I stated as I stood up, Sonnet cowered behind me. I just hoped she wouldn’t start singing.


“Yeah.” Aero grumbled, nursing his ruined canon barrel as though it were an injured pet.


“Who are you?” I asked as I kept my gun ready and displayed. Lucky seemed to be doing the same, as well as Stranger, Aero however was still pining over his damaged canon barrel.


“Who are you?” He mimicked, looking us over in turn. He was younger than me, barely out of his teens. His eyes scanned over us analytically. For most lamen, the eyes went to particular places. They checked weapons, armour, and luggage. His eyes did the same, but they also checked stance, they checked our eyes each in turn, they checked the way the filly hid behind me, biting her own lip until it bled, trying to not let herself sing. He was a smart pony. I was about to take charge of the situation when Lucky stepped forward.


“Stable Pony. Stable 101, where’s that?” No answer. Just silence. “Okay, well, my name Lucky Horseshoe’s, that’s Aero, this is Stranger, and he’s Tome Tale.”


“You’re the leader?” The crimson stallion asked. Lucky was about to answer when he realised that it wasn’t him that dog-boy was addressing the question to. He was addressing it at me.


“Oh, well, I wouldn’t call him-”


“Yes.” I interrupted Lucky before he made a fool of himself. “I’m the leader.” I watched Lucky grit his teeth at that.


He looked me over, down to the filly, his eyes scanning her collar before glancing back up into my eyes; he then turned to everyone else in turn. “He comes in, you all stay out here, Winter will guard you.” He turned to the dog and gave it the command to stay before turning back to the security room and padding inside.


“Guard Sonnet,” I warned them, pushing Sonnet beside Lucky who  recoiled from her as though he were afraid to get too close.


“Why are you goin’ with him?” Aero asked, finally turning his attention away from his ruined canon barrel.


“This isn’t smart, Tome.” Lucky warned, glancing from me to the crimson stallion, Lucky’s voice was hard on the edges.


“I know what I’m doing.” I countered, turning to follow.


“Do you?” Lucky challenged. I froze mid-step and turned to him with my patented glare. He stared at me for a moment before scoffing and turning away. He curled up in the corner as was his usual habit. I turned away, glancing at Stranger who gave me a curt and supportive nod. I returned it respectfully, trusting that he could handle things if anything went wrong.


I began to follow the crimson stallion back into the Security room, Winter sat by the entrance and stoutly watched my comrades as I followed him through. “They’re confused ya know.” I commented once we were inside and relatively out of earshot.


“I know.” The stallion said, moving back to the console and punching a few buttons. He seemed quite interested in what was happening on the screens, each one was labelled. Trottingham, Bel-Mare, Manehatten, Maripony, and Friendship. There were other places listed like Appleloosa, Ponyville, Vanhoover, as well as pegasus places like Cloudsdale, Pegasdale, and Aerie. But these other ones were either completely blank, or full of static. Each of the live places showed the areas in grainy detail, ponies mulling about. It made me wonder how he was seeing so far. “You’re not.” He commented, keeping to the topic. It wasn’t a question.


“I’m not.” I admitted. “You’re a reader. Body language, the way Lucky spoke you deduced I was the leader. Me protecting the filly stated a moral compass to you-”


He scoffed. “Omit the last part.” Though he didn’t look at me I could hear the smirk in his voice.


I rolled my eyes. “Fine, you don’t perceive me as a threat.”


“Also wrong. You’ll probably kill me just fine if I don’t give a good explanation for why I’m here or about Winter.” Now he glanced at me, meeting my eyes.


My brow narrowed and I approached him, the sound of my prosthetic clinking on the floor below. “And what is your reason for being here?” I challenged.


“Research.” He shrugged, turning from me and back to the monitors. “I’m studying EUP variances, weighing pros and cons against personal observation and mutual result. The camera systems here are good for that.”


“What’s the base set?” I asked, scanning the same monitors he was watching.


He shrugged. “Earth Ponies.”


“Conclusive theories?” I inquired, raising my brow.


“Innate constructive ingenuity, magically encompassed, versus learned advantages. Quick-fixes versus patience.” He yawned as though he found it boring to explain.


I raised my brow. “Interesting. Hypothesis?”


“Inconclusive evidence supporting, but hoping to see that each species has at least some worth. Part of the S.O. requirements.”


“S.O.?”


“Not from a Stable?” He asked. When I shook my head he shrugged. “Surprising. S.O., Stable Overseer. Each Stable has a requisite guide for when the door opens (or should have); ours required field research as to the validity of our principles.”


“Principles?”


He shook his head. “No, now I get to ask you questions.” I nodded in reply, giving him the go ahead. “You’re group doesn’t mesh.” It wasn’t quite the start to an interrogation I had expected. “You’re divided, segregated, you don’t feel like a group, you just feel like you’re all tag-along’s. Except for you and the one in bandages, you two have synergy, what about the others? The filly seems afraid of you, yet she clings to you, the one calling himself Lucky seems to hate you, but he keeps glancing protectively at the filly, but won’t go near her, and the armoured one…he and the bandaged one are difficult to read.” He seemed confused about this.


“Stranger’s the one with the bandages, his story is his own. You want to know it, ask him.” I shrugged.


“He doesn’t strike me as a talker.” He said, giving me a small smile.


I smiled at that too. “As for Aero, he’s a teenager with little to no Wasteland experience.”


“Ah.” The crimson stallion smiled, nodding to himself. “That explains it.” He glanced over his shoulder towards the entrance before glancing back at me. “I can’t be sure but…pegasus?” I nodded and he smiled. “I’d like to study him.” My brow rose. “Non-invasively, of course, just…maybe a wing sample, some light observation. Think you could make that happen?”


“I’ll consider it.” I wasn’t about to make promises.


“Your team? Seems a bit of dissension in the ranks.” He observed.


“I’m the smart one. Stranger’s smart to, but he doesn’t like to lead. And somepony has to.”


“Why not Lucky? He seems to resent your leadership right now, think he wants it for himself?”


I thought about his question and shook my head. “He probably thinks he does, but he’s not the kind. Responsibility isn’t his thing, besides, it’d be a disaster. Things don’t go the way he wants them too, there’d be too much of a personal involvement if he took the lead instead of just followed. It’d cause issues.”


“Issues?” He asked curiously.


“All part of his story, ask him.” That made the stallions brow rise.


“You give the bandaged one the respect- Stranger was it?” I nodded and he continued. “-the respect of his own business, but scoff at the pegasus, yet you give Lucky the same respect. I thought you didn’t like him.”


“I don’t.” I grumbled.


“Bitterness, a story behind that.” He grinned.


“The dog.” I pushed


He chuckled at the change of subject but allowed it. “Winter.” He provided helpfully.


“Yeah, whatever. Cybernetics. Never seen them like that. I’d heard stories, but never found anypony with them or the capability to make them.”


His eyes glanced at my prosthetic hoof and I had to consciously stop myself from hiding it behind my other leg. “I can imagine.”


“I’m not asking out of desire.” This time it was his brow that rose. “Just curiosity. Prosthetic is the best option for me. Cybernetic Augmentation wouldn’t work.”


“It wouldn’t, why?”


“Stick to the subject. Winter.” I said, probably a little too quickly. He picked up on it.


“You’re the one that keeps changing it.” He said, the smirk never leaving his face. “But fair enough.” He shrugged. But I could tell by the way he looked at me that he liked these particular mysteries about me and I probably hadn’t heard the last of his questions. “He’s mine,” he answered. “I’ve had him since he was a pup. We bred them in the Stable.” He smiled. “He was the runt of the litter.”


“He’s a bit big for a runt.” I commented.


“Growth augmentation.” He chuckled. “There were complications though.” He smiled grimly. “Growth manipulation caused degeneration in his marrow. The bones of his legs became brittle. So I replaced them. The eye’s a different story. My turn again.” He said, turning to me. “You say you aren’t from a Stable, where’d you get your education?”


“Books.” I shrugged. “I like to read, well that and this.” I pulled out my black box from my saddlebags.


“May I?” He asked, cautiously.


“If you break it, I’ll kill you.” He paused at that comment, looking me over.


“You mean it.” He seemed surprised. “Fair enough, I’ll be gentle.” I nodded and handed over the box. He opened it up and looked it over. “Huh.” He chuckled. “Crude, but creative. From an old PipBuck?”


“My fathers,” I answered, feeling a ghostly twitch in my hoof. “Too damaged to use. Matrix was completely scrapped, no internal defences, easy to break it apart when there’s nothing holding it together.” I mumbled.


“You salvaged the audio chip and download feature. No visual chip?” I shook my head. “Shame. What’s the data reel?” He asked, looking over the cassette I had slipped into the reader. “S-3BI2?” He read from the side of the tape.


I shrugged. “There were two of them; I’ve finished the first, that’s the other one. My…father…made me listen to them whenever I went to sleep at night. Never left the habit.” I expected him to ask about my parentage, but he thankfully ignored the subject.


He looked over it a little more before shrugging. “Looks to be an Information Cassette from a Stable.” I looked at him quizzically. “Every Stable was provided with information cassettes, providing science, magical education and physics, mathematics, history and general knowledge. Basically whatever a Stable would need to stay educated, so they could maintain information that would otherwise be lost. Lots of data. You finished the first one?”


I nodded, “it took me eight years.”


“Sounds about right. How far you through this one then?”


“A little over halfway. Can I take it back now?” He smirked at my request and offered it over. I took it and protectively stashed it back into my saddlebag. “Your work, you said ‘Principles’.”


He chuckled and turned away. “I think I’m done answering questions about my work, if that’s okay.” He added the last part as though he genuinely would have continued if I said it was required, but I figured it wouldn’t be good to press the subject.


Instead, I opted for an easier question. “Alright, how about a different one, what’s your name?”


He opened his mouth to answer when there was a loud crash. My eyes widened before both me and the mysterious crimson stallion ran back to the entrance of the room.


“S-sorry.” Aero’s apology was quite moot in the situation. His damaged barrel was smoking, and from down the hall where the panic vault was, there was now a big dent and hole in the door. He looked to have been testing to see if his canon still worked, the fucking idiot.


“Oh no.” The crimson stallion was staring at the damaged vault door, looking quite worried.


“What’s ‘oh no’?” Asked Lucky.


“I’ve been held up in here for about three weeks.” The stallion shrugged. “When I got in the place was overrun, had to herd the previous occupants into the panic room there and managed to lock them in.”


“Previous occupants?” Aero asked in a concerned tone. “Who’d be held up in here?” The answer came with the sound of screeching and groans from the inside of the door.


From the blackness of the doors newly created hole, limbs started to reach out from the darkness in some creepy visage of a horror show before their bodies spilled fourth from the blackness. Their lack of mane or tail told me exactly what they were, their fur sparse if there at all, wounds over their bodies that would never heal and skin stretched taut over their frames. Ghouls. Feral ghouls. If we got out of this I was going to take Aero’s canons and shove them- SCHREEEeeeeeeEECHH!


 




 


Footnote: Level Up.


New Perk: Guncolt – You are obsessed with using and maintaining a wide variety of conventional firearms. With each rank of the Guncolt perk, you gain an additional 5+ points to damage with conventional weapons firearms.


End Notes:

Author's Note:

(Authors Note: And this is the third chapter. I am so sorry it's taken ages to get this out. This was originally a MUCH longer chapter, but has since, had to be cut down and split into two chapters, 3 and 4, (hence the cliff hanger). And since then was in the hands of my capable, albeit a bit slow, editor. I give special thanks to Kkat for making Fallout: Equestria a thing, a special thanks to my editor for his amazing editing work. Without him, this would probably be a shit story, but it may be out a lot sooner. The price we pay for quality.

Comment and subscribe.)

(Editors Note: Woo! Third Chapter! Took me far too long to finish this one up. Literally got fed up with keeping Almanac waiting and cleared out an entire day just to finish it. Finished 30+ pages in one day! I think Almanac gave this to me sometime in early november checks Nope, they gave it to me mid October. Apologies for the delay folks. Enjoy, and be sure to send all your LOVE to AlamancPony!

30+ pages in one day fills me with DETERMINATION!

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Chapter Four - Dear Princess Celestia, Is Greed All We Know? by AlmanacPony

Chapter Four

Dear Princess Celestia, Is Greed All We Know?

If his monstrous ways you wish to impede, you must prevent him from practising greed.”

 

 

 

SCHREEEeeeeeeEECHH!

 

A glowing light burned in the darkness and the green fire of irradiated balefire bathed everything in a putrid green glow. A ‘glowing one’, a ghoul that burned with irradiated fire; fucking hard to kill, engulfed in fire and erupts in green bale-flame upon death...they ain't nice. It's screech reverberated on the walls and it's glow highlighted the mass of clawing forms inside the dark chamber, they screeched like a chorus of damned souls in Tartarus.

 

Well, there was the likely radiation source we were trying to avoid earlier.

 

Hundreds of ghouls charged for their new exit, crawling like spiders over the ground and walls before standing up and charging at us like crazed monsters.

 

BANG! The closest ghoul's head exploded in gore as my pistol's bullet tore through it. This was NOT the place to only have a pistol!

 

ZOMBIES! FUCKIN’ ZOMBIES!” Aero squealed in panic. He shot his canons into the crowd, blowing ghouls apart into wet chunks.

 

Stranger took to the situation with his usual calm. He pulled out his damaged but functional rifle and shredded three of their heads with quick shots. How he could aim and reload the bolt-action that fast was something I’d never quite figured out. I watched as one got close to him in between reloads. I ran up, skidding down and under the tall legs of my comrade, sweeping the ghouls hooves from under it. The ghoul collapsed face first on top of me. I shoved my gun barrel into its mouth and a bite on the trigger painted the far wall and my own barding in radioactive congealed blood. I kicked off it's corpse and turned to fire at another. One got close to us, it's mouth wide as it screeched, it's spindly hooves raised to tear at us, but before it could, Stranger bucked it against the wall. Then blew apart its chest with a well placed shot. Despite the heat of the moment, my mind made me remember the filly, I turned looking for her in a slight moment of panic, hoping that she was okay before breathing a sigh of relief when I saw the crimson stallion and his ‘dog’ protecting her. I watched as the pooch tore down several ghouls with a single swipe, shredding their bodies like stringy taffy. Lucky was nearby, he’d barely moved from his position, casually shooting in the general direction of the ghouls. Every bullet found its mark, tearing through the ghouls skulls and putting each one down. When one got close to him, it was either taken down by somepony else or it tripped over its own hooves and became an easier target, its body parts soon painting the floor when someone pulled the trigger in its direction.

 

A sudden weight on my back drove me to the ground. I yelped as I felt a bite tear into my shoulder. A swift buck from Stranger tore the ghoul from my back. The ghoul’s skull was wrapped in a telekinetic grip and smashed against the wall repeatedly until it cracked open like a gory egg, spilling its contents down the wall. Stranger gave me a look.

 

Yeah, yeah, I know, ‘pay attention’.” I grumbled in reply to his unspoken chastisement. I forced myself to my hooves. Looking up, my eyes widened and I quickly raised my gun. Stranger, rather than being alarmed, ducked instantly as I bit down on the trigger and blew apart the head of a ghoul that had been about to take a chunk out my friends neck.

 

SCREACH! The glowing one’s screech was lost in the filly like squeal of terror from Aero as the ghoul descended on him, sinking its teeth into his throat and tearing out a fleshy chunk. His eyes went wide and his voice became a strangled gurgle as blood poured down the pegasus’s armoured chest. We all turned and bit our various triggers; bullets tore through the glowing one from all angles, tearing it apart. Its guts exploded and its head was ripped from its body as it fell to the ground.

 

Keep them off me!” I yelled, hoping they’d listen. I ran to Aero’s side and looked over the wound. It was bad; he was choking on his own blood and he was becoming pale. I pulled out a healing potion and shoved it down his throat. I watched as some of the healing potion leaked from the wound. Celestia damnit... his oesophagus had been torn! I watched as the wound slowly started to knit itself together. Slowly, he took a shaky breath and I sat back in relief. The gunfire died around me and I turned to the others. “Are we done?” I asked between pants as I surveyed the shrivelled corpses.

 

I looked to each of them, trying to find any sign of other injuries. One of Strangers hooves looked like it’d been used as a chew toy, but I was sure he’d be fine. I looked at Sonnet, she was covered in gore, pale faced and looking quite traumatised, but she seemed otherwise uninjured. The dog, ‘Winter’, didn’t seem injured either and Lucky looked annoyingly unharmed. Hell, he wasn’t even splattered with blood. His coat was perfectly clean. I turned to the red stallion, hoping it really was done now.

 

I dunno, how good’s the idiots bullets?” The red stallion asked, giving me a wary look. I didn’t understand the question but I checked the battle-saddle and gave him the info anyway.

 

308, Armour Piercing and…from what I can see they’re also concussive rounds. Why?”

 

Because that vault is two rooms deep.” He answered and my blood ran cold when I heard more screeching from inside the dark depths of the panic room. “The other side was already closed off; somepony had locked them all down there. I locked the rest in the second room.”

 

How many are in the further room then?” I got the feeling I was really not going to like the answer.

 

About fifty.” That’s a lot of ghouls…but to be honest, I’d expected much worse. “But the number isn’t the problem.” It wasn’t? “The problem is how big those ghouls are. And that some of them are gonna be a bit difficult.”

 

I really didn’t want to ask this question, it was a question that in the Wasteland often provided fewer answers and more mysteries and more often than not it got somepony killed. But I had to ask it…because I just couldn’t help myself.

 

Why?”

 

Because those ghouls were the inmates here.”

 

Aero’s coughing broke the conversation as he massaged his raw and still damaged throat. “So,” Aero tried, his voice croaking horribly. “So what…they’re all buff and stuff?” He asked, holding his throat as though he were afraid it would tear open again. He was shaking and still pale, he’d lost a lot of blood and I wasn’t sure we had enough healing potions to fix him up fully.

 

You wouldn’t think so, what with ghoul degeneration and lack of bodily nutrition from a decent radioactive source.” The crimson stallion began. “The place had a generator in the lower levels that malfunctioned and was heavily irradiated, it’s what turned them in the first place but it died down over a hundred years ago. Power only works now because I’ve rigged up my own generators-”

 

You’re rambling.” I chided quickly, the continued screeching from inside the blackness making me wish he’d hurry up with his explanation. “Why are these ghouls different?”

 

The crimson stallion collected himself and quickly apologised for going off topic. “Okay, well the inmates kept here were specifically those that had a history of chemical substance.”

 

It was a rehab clinic?” Lucky asked curiously.

 

No, not rehabilitation, experimentation.” He answered, giving us a shrug. “These were incredibly violent criminals; rapists, murderers; worst of the worst and all of them heavy chemical abusers. From the logs on the systems I found they were getting extra income by leasing the facility for chemical studies, testing to see what the overuse of certain drugs or a cocktail of drugs does to the body.”

 

So you’re saying these ghouls, when alive, had been permanently fed cocktails of drugs that would fu-buck up their bodies and when they got turned into ghouls...they stayed that way?” I questioned.

 

Oh no…they didn’t just stay; they kept shooting up.” He shrugged as though it were obvious. “With insanity setting in quickly after the change due to their already unstable condition, they kept shooting up despite being ghouls; ya know, running through the motions and schedules of their previous life, as some ghouls do.” I immediately thought of the Canterlot Ghouls and tried to suppress a shiver. “They’d been shooting up daily for over a hundred years before their minds broke completely.” At this explanation, a large roar that barely sounded human came from the direction of the vault.

 

Let me guess…Aero’s guns might have been strong enough to punch through this door and into the other one?” I turned to Aero, vowing silently, once again, to shove his barrels somewhere unsightly when this was all over.

 

Unfortunately-” CRASH! “…Yes...”

 

RUN!” I yelled as I grabbed the whimpering Sonnet who had spent her time clinging to my back leg. I slipped her onto my back, grunting at the pain from the shoulder bite I’d gotten from the ghoul, and turned, galloping towards the entrance. I could hear a cadence to Sonnet’s whimpers. Not the time to sing!

 

But my research!” The crimson stallion yelled. “I need to download it. Winter! Come!” He yelled and ran back into the Security room with his pet on his heels. I considered going back for him but there was no time. He’d have to get out on his own. Shame, it was nice having an intellectual conversation for once.

 

The rest of us ran back to the stairs. I glanced back and almost soiled myself as I watched a few thin spindly, spider-like ghouls crawl out of the hole in the panic room door, followed by a large hulking beast of a ghoul that was much larger than any pony had a right to be.

 

Canons up his ass! So far up his ass I’ll make him choke on them!

 

We ascended the stairs, galloping up as the screeching of terrifying, psychotic, drugged up ghouls followed us. We were two floors up when they caught up. We turned a corner as ghouls swarmed after us. They clung to the walls like insects, their eyes were sunken, a light blue glow shined in their depths and their skin was so taut against their bones that they looked like a skeleton covered in plastic wrap. Their skin had long turned furless and black and their hooves and legs were as thin as sticks. They were like four legged pony spiders as they screeched towards us.

 

In here!” I yelled as I burst through a door on the third level, everyone piled in. We were greeted with an office crammed with desks and computers. Dim red emergency lights lit the room. It bathed the area in a red glow that somehow made everything more sinister. Pitch darkness would have been less creepy.

 

We moved through the room. I was tempted to scavenge through the desks, sure that I would find something that would either be of use right now or for trade later. Then the stairwell door smashed off its hinges and into the desk, and all I could think to do was run.

 

Through here.” I ran through a door to our left and round a corner, the movement was too fast and threw Sonnet from my back. She squealed when she fell, smacking hard into the wall of the corridor. I reached the end of the hallway with the others before I realised what had happened. I turned back for her. “You go on ahead!” I shouted at the others, galloping back as fast as I could.

 

I wasn’t going to make it in time. The door we’d ran through was thrown open, one of the little spider like ones tore into the corridor and went straight for Sonnet. I fired, Sonnet screamed as the creatures head snapped back and its brains splattered against the wall. Another one came through, I shot that one in the chest, it didn’t die, I shot again and it stumbled. It scrambled on the ground in front of the filly as its chest wept green fluid and congealed blood. Sonnet squealed and slammed her PipBuck down repeatedly, she screamed louder with each impact before the ghoul's skull exploded. Another one got close moments before I could reach her; I bit the trigger only to hear a click from the empty chamber. Shit. I pushed myself into a gallop, dropping my pistol as I ran.

 

LEAVE HER ALONE!” I threw all my weight into the punch. My metal hoof buried into its face, slamming the ghouls head against the wall. I reared back for another blow when the hulk-ghoul (that my brain was trying to figure out a name for) suddenly tore through the door. Shit. I threw the screeching spider-ghoul to the floor, grabbed Sonnet –the filly puking up over my back- and dived. The large brutish ghoul’s hooves smashed down, just missing us and crushing the screeching spider-ghoul I’d thrown to the ground. I charged away as fast as I dared with the filly on my back, glancing over my shoulder at the large ghoul as I did. This one still had most of its fur but patches of greyish-green cancerous skin covered parts of its hide. Its muscles were grotesquely large, looking more like tumours. One of its eyes was a pure white orb in its engorged socket, bulbous, while the other one was sunken in and out of sight with the same dull blue glow in its depths like the others. A word came to mind; Behemoth. What the fuck had these ponies been taking!

 

One of the spider-ghouls pushed in with the behemoth, jumping to the wall and galloping across it in insectoid fashion before it jumped at us. Sonnet squealed again but the ghouls head exploded before it could reach us. I looked ahead to see Stranger in the doorway. I nodded in thanks as we ran by him. I heard the rifle go off again and the behemoth ghoul screamed in pain. I looked over Strangers shoulder, hoping he’d taken it down but no such luck. The bullets aim had been true, but instead of a corpse we only seemed to have pissed it off more; one half of its its face had been blown off. To my surprise, a blue fire burned through its wound and the features slowly started to reform. It wasn’t quite the same, the new flesh was pink and offal, like tumour cells.

 

I realised two things were quite certain at this point: these things don’t die easily, and we were fucked!

 

 

*** *** ***

 

 

The office was a dull grey like everything else in this complex. I was surprised we had yet to come across any incarceration areas like the actual cells that would house the inmates. So far it had just been large office areas with stalls for workers. This particular office was smaller than the others we'd seen so far, though. It was obviously meant only for one pony. A desk occupied one corner with tables stacked against others, a barred window looked out over the prison yard and a large white board with a list of pony names and a status mark that said either ‘N/R’ or just ‘R’ sat snugly on the wall behind the main desk.

 

We were held up quite securely behind a locked door. We’d managed to escape out of sight and taken refuge in this room before we were seen, but I knew it wouldn’t stay safe for long. They’d find us eventually.

 

How’re you holding up?” I asked Aero. He caressed his throat. The fur hadn’t grown back and it was a burning red, but at least he wasn’t drowning in his own blood. Ya know, small mercies. He shrugged in answer, before turning away, seemingly refusing to look me in the eyes. Well at least he seemed contrite. “I’ll take that as a ‘good’, hopefully good enough for the requisite lecture for our situation.”

 

He glared. “Spare me.”

 

Oh I’m afraid I can’t.” I shrugged casually. “So really; firing your weapons like that. Please regale me with your intentions at the time.” I gave him a piercing look. He was going to make this difficult, I could tell.

 

Do you need to do this?” Lucky asked me from the corner. He’d nestled himself under a table and seemed content to stay there.

 

Yeah, because he needs to learn.” I kept my eyes on Aero. “You worked for Steam Bolt. What was it like?” I asked him.

 

What?” Aero seemed confused. “It was…alright I guess.”

 

Probably better than ‘alright’. If you got the caps to pay, Fillydelphia’s the place to be, ain’t it?” He was giving me a look now. “Best slave-tail in the Wasteland I hear.” My tone was low.

 

Do you have to say that in front of the filly?” Lucky snapped, his eyes glancing to Sonnet who had curled up under her own table, seeming to have copied Lucky in that respect, but this time as far away on the other side of the room as she could get.

 

Make ya bloody point.” Aero growled angrily. Or was it that his voice was so rugged after its damage that everything he said sounded like a growl? I wasn’t quite sure.

 

The slaves there are very well taken care of. They’re expensive, valuable and Steam Bolt’s property. He doesn’t like his property damaged. So even though they’re used for sex and raped Celestia knows how many times a day, they’re still relatively safe there, aren’t they? I mean, they're not likely to be killed.” I reasoned.

 

I suppose.” Aero grumbled through clenched teeth, his brow fixed in a glare.

 

Ya wanna know why Stable ponies make the best slaves, Aero? Because they give up quicker.” I shrugged. “They can’t survive out here. They don’t have the experience. One or two try to escape the clutches of slavery, they end up dying out here and the rest see it ain’t worth it. At least as slaves it’s shelter over their heads and food in their bellies.”

 

And this has to do with our situation…why?” He challenged.

 

Because you might as well be a Stable-born slave, Aero.” I said his name snidely.

 

Aero’s canons cocked and his helmet locked into place. He stared at me through those yellow bug eyes. “You sayin’ I’m gonna die out here?”

 

A rifle cocked and Stranger’s barrel was pressed to the side of the pegasus’s head. I smirked, my eyes not leaving Aero’s for a moment. “Yes, I am. You are weak, stupid, and you act impulsively. You are a cocky little shit and you have no idea how to survive out here.” I glared at him. He was fucking pathetic. “So, I think a new understanding of our deal is needed.” I smiled, turning away, moving to the office chair and sitting down in it, the swivel of it spinning me around on the spot. I smiled as I span in the chair like a foal, using it for a casual motion. Always good to make the idiots unnerved.

 

What do‘ya mean?” He asked, his helmet slipping back from his face so I could look him in the eyes.

 

Okay, this is how it’s gonna go.” I stopped spinning and leaned forward in the chair to address him. “I don’t like Lucky.” I announced, pointing to the lime green stallion who's ears perked up at the sound of his name being mentioned. “He doesn’t like me; but he’ll stay with me for Sonnet. Sonnet herself doesn’t like me either but she seems to be getting the picture that I’m trying to help her.” I shrugged. “Both of them will probably stick around. But you are a wild card. I don't trust you and I don’t like you much, but you could be useful, especially in helpin’ Sonnet get her mother back. We need firepower and you have it. But all the firepower in the Wasteland won’t protect you if you’re stupid.” I leaned back. “I can't guarantee you won't up and leave. I wouldn't exactly miss your company but if you are around here we may need to rely on your firepower from time to time, and if you suddenly vanish...that could get us killed. But if you do leave, you won't survive out there. So you need us or you’re a meal for the Radroaches. So yeah, deal’s basically the same as before, I help you with ya dad deal; you help us with Sonnet’s mother. But with a twist.” I jumped off the chair, sending it clattering against a wall as I approached the pegasus. “You’re gonna stay with us, before and after the deal, you’re gonna hang, you’re gonna learn, and you get to leave when I say you can leave. Also you’ll be doing exactly what I say, when I say it, and nothing more. You follow me now, like a good puppy.”

 

He glared, his eyes glancing to Sonnet for a moment. “So I’m a slave too now?” He sounded very bitter about it.

 

I gave him my most winning smile. “Would you like a collar to make it official? I have a spare one lying around I’m sure.”

 

He stared at me, his jaw clenching. I could hear him grinding his teeth together and by the way he was tensing, I knew he wanted to hit me. “No collar needed, thank you.” He spoke stiffly.

 

I tapped his cheek. “Good boy.” I grinned. “First order of business, if you ever fire your guns like that again unless it’s to protect yourself, protect others, or with my personal permission; I will crush your throat. Is that understood?” He swallowed hard and nodded, still glaring as he did so. I do believe I just reached numerous-uno on his list of detestable ponies. So nice to reach an understanding.

 

Stranger put his rifle away as he and I moved to the door. We sat down with our backs against the door. It was a relatively comfortable place to relax and allowed us to hear outside the door in case of approaching assholes. I closed my eyes and eased out a heavy sigh before breathing in for seven seconds, and out for eight. I repeated for a moment. When I felt myself relax entirely I opened my eyes again and looked back to Stranger, my eyes running over his form. My gaze travelled to the bite wounds, as well as the other wounds he had sustained previously from the camp. “’You managing?” I asked softly so the others wouldn't hear. He nodded stiffly, then pointed a hoof at me, as his eye turned to look me over.

 

Me? I’m fine.” I shook my previously wounded leg at him. “It’ll scar though.” The bleeding had stopped long ago and the wound was starting to close. I checked the bite on my shoulder and saw that it too had started to get better, though there was a little puss from the bite infection. But that wouldn’t affect me much. My gaze lowered as I looked over my prosthetic left hoof, noticing that it had become slightloy swollen and raw. “Might have to trim again soon, it’s getting tight.” I grumbled unhappily. His eye narrowed on me and I felt a turning inside my stomach. “I know.” I said softly. “It’s happening more quickly.” I met his gaze and gave him a sad smile. “Remember when it took a year? Now it’s every three months.” I chuckled light heartedly, flexing the stubby fetlock. “I’ll be fine.” I dismissed. The absurdity of that lie was hilarious. I glanced at him, and though he didn’t actually laugh, I swear to Celestia I saw a spark of humour in his expression. Maybe he did find me funny.

 

I sighed again, then glanced around the room, my eyes falling on the window that looked over the courtyard. Huh...maybe.

 

You got the door?” I asked, not bothering to look at him. I saw him nod in the corner of my vision as I slipped away, trusting him to defend us if anything went wrong. I walked over to the window and looked over the bars. They were heavy iron, but the bottom of the window had been damaged at some point and moisture had managed to seep in through the cracks. The base of three of the bars were rusted. “Stranger, come over here. Lucky, by the door.” I ordered. Lucky glared but he obeyed, displacing himself from his chosen spot before curling up next to the door. Huh, seems he was capable of moping AND listening out for danger, who knew the git could multitask.

 

I showed Stranger the bars and he gave me an understanding look. Light purple magic lit up his bandaged horn and gripped the bars. Stranger gave them a single firm telekinetic tug. The sound of plaster and rock cracking under the sudden force echoed out a lot louder than I’d have wanted. Stranger immediately stopped and we all listened in silence. I held my breath, hoping, but despite my silent prayers I heard a roaring screech sound in the distance.

 

Good going.” Aero grumbled miserably. His cannons cocked as he glared at the door.

 

Sonnet crawled out from under the desk. “What’s happening?” Her voice was shaking. I wonder how much Wasteland adventure this filly could take.

 

We’re getting out of here.” I replied firmly. “It was a mistake to come here in the first place. Stranger; the bars.” Stranger nodded and pulled with all his might. The telekinetic field tore the bars from the wall with a resounding crack. His field then wrapped around the window and tore that from its hinges before letting it drop to the ground outside. “We’ll get out of here and head for Friendship; I have a friend there that might be able to help give us a low profile for a while. We’ll wait for Steam Bolt’s heat to die down, should only take a month or so, and then we figure out what we’re gonna do from there.” Then I grabbed Sonnet and began to lift her to the window opening.

 

No.”

 

I froze and turned back to Aero. He was wearing that fucking helmet again. “Excuse me?” I asked curiously. “Didn’t we just have the conversation about you listening to me?”

 

I am not leaving until I get what I came for.” He growled. “You go if you want to.” He turned to the door and Lucky who sat beside it. Lucky’s eyes widened when Aero’s guns span. The lime earth pony jumped out of the way as the pegasus's canons roared, blowing the doors off their hinges in a smoking blaze, shattering the wood and some of the wall to pieces. Was that REALLY FUCKING NECESSARY! “Get out of here if you want.” He yelled before he ran through out the door, then down the corridor beyond. The resounding sound of canons firing soon joined the horrible screeching that came from the hallway. Fucking pegasus, feather-brained, half-witted, asshole, butt-fucking, cunts of the Enclave!

 

Oh that fucking wanker!” I yelled, forgetting to check my language in front of the filly. “Fuck him!” I yelled and pushed Sonnet through the window. She yelped when I let her go and she thudded on the floor outside. Lucky went out next, landing beside Sonnet. I was halfway out when ghouls tore through the now open doorway. “Stranger!” I yelled, watching as they suddenly descended on him. He turned to me and kicked out with his hind legs, his buck struck my hooves and I yelped as I let go of the windowsill and crashed to the ground below.

 

I laid on the ground, momentarily dazed from the fall as rifle shots boomed. The window was too high to jump to from the ground, and we no longer had a pegasus with us. The one fucking time I needed a feather-brain around. Typical. I climbed to my hooves and shook myself. The gunfire was moving away now, which meant Stranger was leaving the room. “Come on, we’re going round!” We moved around the complex to a side door that turned proved to be locked. Fuck. I looked back at my comrades and grimaced. Our power hitter had run off and our combat expert had thrown me from a window. So I had a mopy git and the weirdest filly in Equestria to work with. Oh goody and fuck me.

 

Here.” I pulled out an IF 9mm pistol. I offered it to a very apprehensive looking Sonnet who eyed the thing as if it would go off just by being near her. “Relax. Take it, and shoot at anything that isn’t us, try to go for the head.” I turned back to the door before I paused and turned back to her again. “Oh, and try not to shoot me this time.” She gave me an apologetic smile. But hey, a smile is a smile, and seeing one on her face made me feel better. Wait…it did? When did that start?

 

I picked the lock, opened the door and aimed my rifle down the corridor. “Come on.” We entered slow. There were doors on either side and the corridor stretched out before us. “Stay quiet, stay close.” I ordered, moving with them. Sonnet was stuck behind me.

 

Do you hear something?” She asked, looking around in alarm.

 

I tried to listen for what she might be hearing, but nothing stuck out. “What is it?” I asked as I looked through a door window on the left. It was a storage cupboard. I saw medical kits sat on a shelf inside, the pink butterflies on each one a familiar and inviting sight. I picked the door quickly (in my haste I broke a bobby-pin which was a tad annoying) and opened it quickly. I am not ashamed to admit that I yelped when the corpse fell from inside the door on top of me. Sonnet stifled a squeal. Pulling myself back to my hooves I straightened myself and looked it over. The body still wore the prison staff clothing. The name tag labelled them as the receptionist. She’d locked herself in the cupboard during…whatever the hell happened here.

 

Is that the slut?” Sonnet asked, looking at the corpse fearfully.

 

I considered having a talk with her right then about the use of that word so casually but I figured, what was the point? I looked from the corpse up to the shelves where I’d seen the medical cases…except they weren’t there. The shelves were empty, any sign of the medical boxes I'd seen before was gone. Shit, I must have hit my head harder than I thought. “Keep your eyes peeled, and stay as quiet as you can.”

 

They both nodded, and we moved down the corridor to a turn-off. I glanced down it and noticing a few lumbering shapes at the far end. They hadn't noticed us yet. I turned to Lucky and Sonnet and checked our weaponry. It sucked but they were stuck with pistols. I hefted up my rifle. It wasn't too fancy, but it had a silencer (for further note, it should be mentioned that silencers do not in fact silence the weapon. They simply lower the decibel level to a range where the shots will echo with more reverberation. Basically, they wont stop the opponent from hearing the gunshot, but will stop them from being able to tell where the shot came from. This is especially useful against ghouls, as they mostly tracked prey by sound until they could sight their targets). I turned back around the corner, took aim, and bit the trigger firmly. The phew of the bullet sounded out in the corridor as a hole sliced its way through the spidery ghouls skull. I'd figured with only two of them, they wouldn't know which end of the corridor it came from, behind them or in front of them. Sadly...I miscounted and didn't take into the fact a basic process of elimination...if the prey wasn't where they were face...they might just turn round to look. The other ghouls immediately burst into movement. Others, plural, because I was sure there was only two before, but buck me if more didn't burst round the corner.

 

Damnit.” I yelled. “Go for the heads!” I flicked my trigger as fast as I could aim. I took another one down and struck the chest of the next sending it stumbling. 'Go for the heads' I'd yelled, bloody shit, I needed to improve my own aim! They were crawling on the walls and ceilings, and the damned screeches echoed down the hall. Was it just my eyesight or did it look like a shadow was following them? Like the lights were being blacked in a tide of darkness as they came.

 

There were gunshots beside me. Sonnet yelped at the kick of the gun in her magical grip. She blasted one in the kneecap and it sprawled across the ground. Not a fatal shot, but the other ghouls did the rest of the job for her as they trampled it.

 

Stand back!” Lucky yelled as he pulled out a grenade. The pin flew out and he chucked it down the corridor. He dived on us both, driving us back round the corner as the explosion filled the corridor with incendiary fire. Body parts and rubble splashed around us, one piece of girding from the walls sliced into the wall where my head had been.

 

Thanks.” I panted as Lucky pulled himself off of us and I pushed myself to my hooves. “Why didn't you use that when we were down in security?”

 

With my luck I'd have killed all of them, and all of you but myself.” He shrugged. “Didn't want to risk it.” I understood that logic. He turned back to me and looked at my shoulder where the bite wound was barely visible under the barding I wore. “You've almost healed.” I didn't look shocked, he looked scared. With good reason.

 

Yeah.” I said glumly. “I'm aware.” I moved past him down the hall. There were several doors down here. “Does this place even seem like a prison to you?” I asked him

 

No.” He grumbled. “It looks more like a-”

 

-Medical Facility.” Sonnet answered, surprising us both.

 

I was gonna say a school, but why a medical facility?” I asked her .

 

In answer she pointed down the corridor to the ceiling where a large fan rotated and circulated air throughout this section. “This section is ground floor, there are doors and windows, the fan isn't needed. So it's not an air conditioning unit.” It was times like this when I was acutely aware that for all the crying and whining that filly did, she was not a normal child.

 

So what is it?” Lucky asked curiously.

 

Air filtration.” She stated.

 

There's a difference?” Lucky asked, turning to me.

 

Air conditioning,” she explained proudly. “Is a system that circulates air, cools it, and allows it to flow to otherwise closed off areas of any facility, to keep them fresh and cool. Air filtration is a system used to purify the air. Primarily used in medical facilities. It stops the spread of nasty bugs and also helps with the smell.” It was like listening to a text-book. Did the filly have any practical knowledge, or was it all book? Huh...Celestia I'm such a hypocrite.

 

Smell?” Lucky asked, looking like he knew he wasn't going to like the answer.

 

I turned to one of the rooms and pushed open the door. The room was white, or at least it looked like it was supposed to be. Tiled walls and floors, a drains and a table slab set up in the middle were what greeted out gaze. All of it, top notch equipment, and all of it practically bathed in crimson.

 

Blood.” I answered.

This place wasn't a prison. That was just a cover used while they ran experiments on the long-term effects of drug exposure. Inmates were the test subjects of course. If that was true, then this place would have a hefty medical supply... hopefully.

 

I stepped into the bloodied room. Lucky followed me and wrinkled his nose at the coppery scent of blood that seemed to have permeated every nook and cranny of the room. “This blood is fresh.” He commented, looking somewhat disturbed by the notion.

 

Not quite.” I said, looking down at how coagulated it was and stained and dried. “This is a few weeks old, easily.”

 

It should be a two centuries old.” He grumbled.

 

He was right. It SHOULD be two centuries old. But only a few weeks? Something was going on here.

 

We should get out of here as soon as we get Stranger and Aero. It was a mistake to come here.”

 

Why Aero?” Lucky asked bitterly from behind me. I perused the contents of a medical cabinet. There were a lot of drugs here I didn't recognise the names of, it would have helped if they had short-hoof nicknames on them, but instead they were just lots of chemical names that were hard to pronounce. While I was a smart pony, chemistry was not my forte.

 

It'd be better for us.” I replied.

 

Ya know, one of these days, you might want to preface your assholish meagre explanations with a miniscule amount of respective context.” Lucky spoke quickly and clearly.

 

My brow raised in amusement. “Exhaust your vocabulary there?”

 

Fuck you.” He replied I think he had actually just tried to impress me. Huh.

 

I chuckled. “Well if you're done trying to sound smart...” That earned me a glare. “...the reason it'd be better for us, is because Aero found us easily before. We have no idea if he's really working with the Enclave, or for Steam Bolt. All we know is that for now he's trying to be helpful, that is, until the git ran off. If he survives, he could find us; if he doesn't, we could get hunted for his death. In either case I'd rather have him by my side as either extra firepower, leverage if they come after us, or so I can kill him as soon as possible if it becomes needed. If I take him out and the others are after us, at least we'd be one foe down and stand a better chance than no chance at all.”

 

So, keep your friends close and your...potential-enemies closer?”

 

You put it so succinctly.” I mocked as I opened the cabinet and began empting some of the more useful crap into my saddlebags. Even if I didn't know what they did, maybe I could get some caps for it when we got out of here.

 

Tome-master-sir?” The filly called in a small voice. I rather liked being called Master, it made me feel fuzzy.

 

Yes?” I asked, turning to her. She was examining the blood on the table slab. Which was surprising, I'd figured with her being a Stable dweller and all, she'd find the sight of such offal repugnant and disconcerting, but nope. She looked it over fine...clinically in fact.

 

This blood, erm...it's from a normal pony. Not one of those...erm...things.”

 

Those things are called 'ghouls'.” I informed her before stepping towards her, “and what makes you say that?”

 

The rate of coagulation is concurrent with a few weeks after death, but the erm, 'ghouls', already have coagulated blood. In fact it seems to have broken down into protein and the base levels of soluble gel. Consistent with two hundred years of pressurised containment within a dead but otherwise functioning body. If this were a 'ghouls' blood, it'd appear black and wouldn't smell like normal blood, likely it'd smell of bacterial infestation rather than copper.”

 

How do you know what ghoul blood looks like?” I asked her curiously. In reply she raised her hoof, showing me her PipBuck. It was still caked in the blood of the Ghoul who's skull she'd crushed.

 

I looked at the small filly curiously. “How do you know about bodily decomposition?”

 

We used them for compost in the Stable.”

 

Well...that was a cheery thought.

 

Lucky looked to be about to say something about that statement when something clattered outside the room and down the corridor. “The plot thickens. Let's go.” I ordered. They obliged immediately, which I was enjoying. It seemed the filly, even if she didn't like me, had finally fallen into line when it came to trusting me. And Lucky, well he'd stopped glaring at every order I'd given him, maybe he wouldn't contest any more. It was a futile hope of course, the git was every bit as stubborn as me; but for now we seemed to be working in synch. Which was a relief, because I was stuck with the one Stallion that could get us killed without getting a scratch on himself, and a filly who'd never used a weapon before today. Hurray for being the only veteran of the group.

 

What I wouldn't give for Stranger to just turn up already.

 

Down the corridor from the room we found an intersection; to the left lead to an exit, and the right went further into the complex. I didn't see any ghouls so we headed further in as quietly as we could. Moving from room to room on the way we managed to beef up our supply on a few notable chems that I'd finally been able to recognise; Psycho and Buck, as well of at least one case of healing potions, yielding one extra strength and two normal ones. In our collection that made five healing potions, one of them extra strength. Not too bad, considering how large our company had become. I figured we'd need to start sharing the supplies and gathering more. Such were the pro's and cons of groups in the Wasteland. The bigger the group the more safety, but the harder it was to stretch food and supplies. Personally I preferred groups of two or three, but I'd been saddled with a group of five. Well, not right now since I only had the grump and the filly, but the premise remained.

 

We moved to the end of a corridor. The floor number emblazoned on the wall. “How?” I heard the filly ask behind me. I turned to her looking at the large number '3' curiously.

 

What's up?” I asked curiously.

 

How did we get here? We were down on level five... we went up to level three, we went out of a window to the ground level, back inside and...we're still out on level three when ground level was...level...zero?”

 

That...was a good question. I'd barely noticed, but...how did...I...was that a three or a four? Why was that suddenly an important question. I...I couldn't really remember how we'd even got here...everything felt foggy.

 

I moved to the next intersection, trying to focus on the situation at hand, even as my brain began to feel like it was filled with bees. I glanced around the corner; it was clear. I turned back to the others to tell them to be quiet as we moved forward, only to stumble and press my back to a wall as my eyes widened in terror. The wall had a mouth! A FUCKING MOUTH! The wall was cracking and stretching and groaning before it began to shake; rubble began to fall around me and I saw the wall crack open wide with teeth of concrete; drooling with offal and blood. I felt something crawling on my skin, I looked down at my left hoof and watched as the prosthetic metal on my stump snapped and the scarred flesh burst open with blood and mucus, a tendril erupting from the stump of my fetlock and extending out as a new slimy part of my limb, moving of its own free will. I think I started screaming.

 

Mister-Master—Tome-Sir?!”

 

Then I realised I was being shaken. I could hear gunshots and see the muzzle flare flash up the nearby walls. I looked up and the tendril was gone, so was the face in the wall... Lucky was firing at something that I couldn't see, but I heard the screeching. I looked down into the panicked eyes of Sonnet as she screamed at me. I could see the danger and her fear, but it seemed muted... somehow... distant... OW!

 

Sonnet had given up and decided to clobber me round the face with her PipBuck instead.

 

The world rushed back to me loudly, and the gunshots immediately became deafening to my ears. I pulled out my gun, my teeth chattered against the bit and moved up beside Lucky without hesitation. I didn't have time to think or collect myself. I shook. Every breath I took felt strained as blood pounded in my ears.

 

I looked down the corridor.

 

There were hundreds...

 

Hundreds of them...

 

We were going to die in here.

 

 

*** *** ***

 

 

Oh for the love of Luna…she was singing again!

 

My eyes opened up and a fresh slice of pain flashed across my face. I groaned as I held my hooves to my temple and forced myself to sit up. Everything was a bit blurry and I couldn’t quite make things out. My hooves knocked something when I lowered them and I realised that the blurriness had nothing to do with what had happened to me. My glasses had just fallen off. I picked them up and placed them back onto the bridge of my nose. Then looked around.

 

I was in a cage. It had thick bars and the gate was fixed with prison bearings. I was in one of the prison cells. In a cell to my right I saw Sonnet –surrounded by a small bed of flowers that had somehow grown through the cracks of the concrete floor- and the cell to my left held an unconscious Lucky. How had we gotten here?

 

My hooves moved to my temples and pressed firmly. I recoiled in pain. My hoof came back slicked with blood from a head wound I did not remember receiving. I looked beyond the cells and around the room. It was a long corridor of cells on either side, all of them had electronic locks that were probably controlled via a master switch. Can't pick those. At one end of the room was a door and at the other was what looked to be a computer with a large tank filled with blue liquid. They were hooked together with all sorts of tubing and wires. At said computer was a chair, and sat on said chair was a certain red stallion, humming to himself as he worked.

 

I pressed myself against the bars to get a better look and my prosthetic clinked against the cell door. I froze as a shiver ran down my spine and a churning roiled through my gut. I looked down at my hoof. It was fine. No tentacle had sprouted from the stump. It was a little tight, but that could be dealt with later. I stared at it, turning my leg over, trying to find comfort in it's normalcy; but I was terrified... terrified that I was dreaming and I'd wake up into a fresh nightmare.

 

Tome, glad you’re awake.” A voice called casually. I'll admit it, I jumped a bit.

 

What happened?” I asked, trying and failing to steel my voice. My head still throbbed and I felt sick. I had no idea how long I’d been unconscious. I couldn’t hear the sound of Aero’s cannons or Stranger’s rifle, which gave me a gnawing sensation in my gut that quickly grew into a sense of dread that I promptly tried to bury, hoping that the stallion wouldn't see it on my face.

 

Oh, chemical build-up.” He said nonchalantly as he stepped away from the computers and approached 'my cell'. “The ghoul’s bodies are metabolising the chems they took. Slowly of course –ghoul metabolic rate being what it is- so when they exhale to screech or grunt, or even talk, they release a gas. It’s an Ethylene Hydrocarbon, extracted and peptide-bonded with Carboxyl proteins, gathered by in-taking Nitrogen from their decomposition. The build-up was in the room your friend blasted open, in very high concentrations so at the breach the sudden pressure drop flooded the area we were in quickly. You all galloped out of there so fast you only got hit with a high enough dose for a delayed effect. Results are disorientation, hallucinations, and eventual unconsciousness. It’s a very interesting chemical.” He seemed almost proud. “I call it Pythia.” At least the disorientation and hallucinations explained how we'd somehow moved in incomprehensible paths when exploring. We actually hadn't, our brains had just been fucked. “How are you feeling?” He asked sounding concerned.

 

I’d be feeling much better if we weren’t locked up.” I commented, eyeing him suspiciously. “Why are we locked up?”

 

You were in the way.”

 

I really didn’t like the way he said that, “‘in the way’?” I heard a groan beside me and looked to see Lucky waking up.

 

What happened?” He asked while holding his head between his hooves, likely suffering from the same headache that I did. Mine was a dull throb at this point. I was a little surprised he'd been affected at all, but I suppose there were limits to how far his 'situation' could take his luck.

 

A gas apparently.” I answered, “Breathed out by the ghouls. Not gonna repeat the science of it, but suffice to say that our friend here is responsible for our current ‘locked up’ condition.”

 

What does he want?” Lucky asked, idly testing the bars before narrowing his eyes at the red stallion.

 

He was just about to enlighten us to that mystery.” I commented, snapping my eyes back to our captor. I waited for the red stallion to respond, but he didn’t. He was studying us for his own amusement, a slight smile adorning his face. “Are you at least gonna tell us your name? I never caught it before.”

 

He sighed. “My name is Futurity Champron; now I have some more work to complete before I need you.” He said as he turned away, heading back to the large computer. He sat down, restarted the monitor and began typing in commands.

 

What are you doing?” I asked. It was a strange name, but I suppose it almost suited the crimson stallion. “Futurity, what do you need us for?”

 

He paused for a moment. Then he gave a heavy sigh. He swivelled around in his chair and locked me in an almost compassionate gaze. “Tome,” he began. “We’re a lot alike, you and I. We’re both inquisitive by nature. And it was good having somepony I could actually talk to. But my investigations and experiments are important. If my Stable is to have a future, I need to do these tests. And that means having access to live samples. And you seem to have prime candidates.” His eyes ran from me to Sonnet who was currently whimpering in a small patch of grass and flowers that had grown around her, “some very interesting candidates.”

 

 

*** *** ***

 

 

I have no idea how long we were in there. I had pressed myself up to a corner near Sonnet's cell; she'd decided to accompany me, curling up as close as possible to me as she could. Maybe I made her feel safe. That was a depressing thought.

 

Futurity Champron. Interesting name. 'Champron's' were ancient armour pieces worn by battle stallions, 'futurity' was a prophetic notion of the future. A defender of the future? Was that some prophetic titling or just the results of overly dramatic parents. Probably the latter. But whether or not such a name was deemed prophetic by Futurity himself was the big question. Those with a bloated sense of their own importance to the future tended to be the ones that were the most dangerous. Thankfully, they also died quickly. The Wasteland did not suffer fools.

 

But the issue was that I had no idea if the stallion was villainous or not. I mean yeah, he'd locked us up for his research, but maybe he'd let us go when he was done. Maybe his research was important. Maybe he knew something we didn't. Or maybe he really was just a mad scientist and he was going to harvest our organs for his own amusement and experiments... Who said I couldn't think positive?

 

I want to talk to you.” Lucky announced from the cell next to me. I turned to see him looking at the red stallion. Futurity looked at him from his seat by the machines and smirked to himself before he slipped from the chair and approached Lucky's cell.

 

Yes?” He asked, his brow raised in curiosity.

 

What are you going to do with us?” Lucky asked casually.

 

Nothing to you, you're an Earth Pony, I have no need to study you. You're in here to keep you out of the way. Her however-” He pointed to Sonnet as she lay curled up against me. “-I'm going to be taking blood and keratin samples from her.”

 

Keratin?”

 

Horn samples.” I interjected from behind them. “He's going to file some shavings from her horn.” I sighed, looking to Sonnet. She'd long since fallen asleep, which I was grateful for; it meant she wasn't singing and making more flowers. Her cell looked like a bloody garden.

 

Lucky turned back to the red stallion and looked him over. “How did we get here?”

 

I'd been wondering that too. The last thing I remember was the ghoul horde.

 

Concussive grenades.” He said. “Knocks normal ponies unconscious, but ghouls skulls are a tad more fragile, they tend to pop.” He chuckled. “You were near a particular one, I'm surprised you weren't injured. You must be very lucky.”

 

I was about to remark on that when a battle-saddle announced itself. A loud boom came from the other side of the door and the entire room vibrated. The moment presented an opportunity. Lucky seized it. He turned and kicked out hard, bucking his back hooves against the bars. This would usually do nothing to such a sturdily designed cell; but Lucky was a very lucky pony. Futurity Champron turned in surprise when the bolts pinged out of their bearings, and his expression was utterly delicious as the door fell off its hinges. The poor sap tried to run but the metal crashed down onto his back, slapping him to the ground with a whinnied yelp.

 

Lucky stepped from the cage casually and looked down at the now unconscious stallion. “Lucky? Huh, you have no idea.” He grumbled as he trotted to the control area. He searched for a label, and when he found none he just pressed a random button. The cell doors opened.

 

I stepped out and Lucky headed for Sonnet. I quickly stopped him. “You've tempted fate too much today.” I warned him. He thought about it for a moment then nodded agreement. I moved into the cell and nudged Sonnet. She woke up with a light grumble.

 

W-what is it?”

 

We're getting out of here. Come on.” I said warmly, nuzzling her onto her hooves. “Onto my back.” I urged her. She obeyed quickly and climbed on, her slave-collar clinking a little as she climbed. I had the momentary urge to take it off of her. But... not yet.

 

Then the doors burst up and Aero flew in, keeping low to the ground. He landed in a shower of dust. “Let's go.” He said through his suit's distorted voice

 

Where's Stranger?” I asked quickly.

 

Buying us time.” Then I heard several blasts from a high powered rifle on the other side of the door. Aero looked back over his shoulder then announced, “we have to go, now.”

 

Lucky, carry Mr Champron.” I ordered as I searched for our stuff. Handily, I found it in the first box I searched. I gathered up our weapons, threw Lucky his pistol and threw on my own gear. I cocked my rifle and headed for the door.

 

Lucky blanched, “you've got to be kidding me, Tome. Why?” He asked as he looked down at the unconscious and injured red stallion.

 

Because he may have locked us up, but he also saved us from the ghouls.” I stated. “Besides, I have more questions for him.” I had a lot of questions for him.

 

Lucky grumbled and lifted the stallion onto his back.

 

And what if I get him killed?” Lucky asked, sounding hopeful.

 

That's fine too. But do try your best.” I replied, heading for the door; then Stranger was running through it. Ghouls were not far behind him.

 

I fired and two of them dropped. Aero's rifles proved capable of crowd control as his blasts unhinged the doors and blew the ghouls apart, tearing limbs and skulls from their rotting bodies. Lucky pulled out a mine, clicked it on and skidded it across the floor. It popped under the fallen doors and we all got down as it erupted.

 

Then everything went quiet. I breathed a sigh of relief as I dropped my rifle from my mouth to my hooves. “Let's go.” I'd barely spoken before a huge hulking figure filled the doorway. The behemoth.

 

Oh fuck!” I cursed as I scrambled to bring my rifle back up. The huge ghoul lashed out and struck Aero painfully hard, knocking him off his hooves entirely and into the nearby wall; the sound of his armour crashing against the concrete wall was sickening. I caught the briefest glimpse of his armour before I turned to fire, it was horribly dented in such a way that I was certain his ribs had suffered.

 

Strangers rifle blasted and tore half the beasts face off in a single blast. My own rifle joined the fray, unloading an entire clip into it until I saw the jaw tear from its features. It's right fetlock also sheared away as our bullets tore into it. The behemoth fell to the ground and laid still.

 

We all panted in exertion, taking a moment to catch our breath. I watched it for ten seconds before I ran to Aero.

 

Aero, lower your helmet.” I ordered. He was still but not dead yet. His armour whirred and the helmet retracted. “Oh buck.” I whispered. He was pale and blood spat from his mouth every time he coughed. His armour wasn't just dented, it was entirely bent inwards. I'd be surprised if he had any ribs left intact.

 

Metal.” He croaked out, coughing up more blood.

 

Yeah, I think it's in your side, it must of shattered the inside of the suit. I can't give you a healing potion till it's removed, we have to get you out of that suit.” I told him, looking for a way to release the occupants. “How do I do this?”

 

No.” He croaked out, coughing again, a splatter of blood painting the floor nearby. “Metal... back compartment, put metal in it.” The back of his suit gave a whir and a compartment opened up on his flank. I hesitated for only a moment before I ran around, collecting what scrap I could find.

 

I looked around the machinery and found some cables that were labelled 'c-systems' which I assumed were the systems for the camera's. They'd been hooked up in this room too. I found at the base of it a strange machine box that was patched into a junction. I grabbed it and tore it out. The cameras on the screens fizzed and died before turning back on again, but this time they were either entirely dead, or only showing the immediate area rather than the towns they'd been able to monitor before. Weird.

 

I looked over the device. Despite it being technically excellent in design, I could tell it had an element of crudeness to it. It made me wonder if this was just a prototype of some kind rather than the finished product. I yanked the microchip out of the device. Then carried it over to the pegasus and placed it on the floor. I stamped the device into the ground with my prosthetic before shoving as much scrap as I could into the compartment. I watched as the compartment on Aero's armour closed. Then it whirred and crunched as it chewed on the metal. With a loud pop the armour buffed itself out and Aero took a deep ragged breath. He began to shake and his mouth foamed a little. I shoved a healing potion into his lips. I held his nostrils closed and forced him to gulp it down. I watched the shaking stop and he soon began gasping for breath eagerly, as though he'd never had air before. It wasn't long before he stood slowly to his hooves on shaky legs.

 

Self repair features.” I commented, actually impressed. “I know Steel Ranger armour had it, didn't think Enclave did.”

 

They don't.” He panted, stroking his throat. It was still raw from earlier, but this second healing potion had healed that up a bit too so it was much better. “But this one does.” He mumbled as he walked past me while wiping his mouth.

 

Then screaming exploded in my right ear. Sonnet was scrambling to get away without getting off my back. I turned to what had scared her... fuck me for the third time today. A blue flame was burning through the massive ghoul and I watched, terrified, as it struggled to get up. It barely had a fucking head! A new limb sprouted from the visceral stump of its right foreleg, and its jaw and face began to reform. Watching that hoof regrow had my whole body shaking.

 

FUCKING MOVE!” I yelled. We ran for the door as fast as we could. Our hooves galloped on the floor and my prosthetic hoof clinked loudly on the metal tiling. Lucky carried the red stallion, I carried Sonnet, and Stranger and Aero led the way. I was the last through the door and I only stopped long enough to plant a mine on the floor. I looked back at the behemoth and the ghoul now had a fully formed leg; but it was stringy and muscly, like twined noodles. Its tip wasn't a hoof, instead it looked like a meaty claw. It dug into the floor, rending metal tiles with ease. The creature screamed a sound that should never come from a pony's lungs.

 

I ran fast. I watched the others turn left at a corridor and Aero's cannons fired to clear the way of ghouls. But ghouls were gathering behind us now too. I could hear their screeches. The ground vibrated as they thundered down the hallway. Then my mine went off. At least we didn't have to worry about that THING. Then I heard it roar again. It hadn't been killed. Fuck, Fuck, FUCK!

 

I had no idea how long we were running, or how many twists and turns we'd navigated before I was running out into the open air. Our gallop had burst us into the main prisoners yard.

 

I had expected ghouls to be waiting for us in the courtyard, but it was surprisingly empty. Stranger and I hung back to set up the last of our mines. I was grateful I had pocketed the mines earlier at the minefield outside the fence. We had a lot of them. I laid them out quickly, but made sure they wouldn't activate all at once. I needed them to go off individually so distance between each other was important for the makeshift field to stay effective, but not stupid. I set two near the door, another one ten paces away and one ten paces near that. Together we began setting up a quick perimeter, It took less than thirty seconds since Stranger could place multiple mines at once with his magic.

 

We had just got out of the way when the first set of ghouls ran through the door to erupt the first set of mines. The ghouls blew apart wonderfully. I was intensely glad the spider like ones weren't capable of putting themselves back together again. Stranger and I stepped back as we fired. Using our rifles to pick them off as fast as we could so that as the mines erupted we weren't overwhelmed by the group that would follow the now clearer path in the minefield we'd hastily constructed.

 

Then the door erupted and several smaller ghouls were torn apart as the behemoth ghoul tore through into the yard. It was the same one as before, at least three times our size still, tumorous and vomit inducing to look at. But now it had two front claws, and its face was somehow more grotesque. The smell of necrotic flesh washed over us. My insides twisted and I became sick as I imagined the claws tearing us apart.

 

WHY WON'T THIS THING FUCKING DIE!” Aero screamed as he blasted it with concussive rounds. The creature ran towards him, smashing its claws/hooves into the ground, unperturbed as chunks of its body blew apart with each blast. The pegasus dodged out of the way. He flew up above it and peppered the beast with shots. The behemoth reared it's claw back to swipe at Aero but the ghoul's entire hoof/claw was blown off by two rounds from Stranger's rifle. A blast from Aero's cannons knocked the brute back into the minefield. Huge chunks of its body tore apart as the mines went off. I felt hopeful before it caught fire once again. The blue glow spreading over it's body once again.

 

Why won't it die?!” Aero screamed again as he flew over to it in a rage. His cannons blasted into the creature with a barrage that ended with a dust cloud that obscured the area. Aero continued screaming in rage and fear as his cannons tore at the hulk. Then a claw swiped out from the dust. Aero tucked a wing to do an aerial roll, but a deep gouge was rent through his armour and into the flesh of his right hind leg. He whinnied in pain as he flapped his wings furiously to put some distance between him and the brute. Then a siren started to blare.

 

Aero! Fly lower!” I yelled in panic. Aero suddenly plummeted to the ground as the magical energy turrets blasted at his previous location. Shit! He'd almost been incinerated...wait. That's it! “We need to get him into the air!” I yelled. “Stranger! Sonnet! Lighten it's weight as much as you can!”

 

I...I'm not good at that.” Sonnet replied in a shaky whisper.

 

I whipped my head around to look at her. “Sonnet! Fucking do as I say now before we die!” She whinnied in terror as she looked over my shoulder, I turned back in time for the behemoth to ram me with the force of a train. Several bones crunched, I'm pretty sure most of them were mine. The ground was a sweet embrace when I finally stopped tumbling and came to a halt. Agony tore through me. I watched through blurry eyes as the ghoul charged at me again. Sonnet screamed and her horn erupted with a yellow glow that surrounded the beast, it was joined with a purple overglow from Stranger.

 

AERO NOW!” I screamed through the pain. Aero swooped down low and aimed right up at the beast, blasting it with his cannons for all he was worth. The concussive blasts forced the behemoth into the air, with the help of Sonnet and Stranger's magic. The complex alarm sounded again, the turrets fired and the ghoul erupted in magical light before bursting into dust.

 

Then I fainted.

 

 

Footnote: Level Up.

 

New Perk: Hail to the King – You kick arse for Celestia! Your adventures have granted you extra damage to those of an undead nature! 5+ points to damage when dealing with Ghouls.

End Notes:

(Authors Note: Chapter Four!!!! I hope you all have enjoyed it. This ones out muich quicker than the last one thankfully and I hope you like what you've read so far. The next chapter should be especially interesting, so remember to keep reading! Also, thank you SO much for Kkat for making the original 'Fallout: Equestria', and thank you to my amazing editor who actually got this one done by the deadline. XD

Comment and subscribe. )

 

(Editors Note: Woo! Hello everyone. I actually made a deadline that Almanac set! Amazing ain't it? Anyways, I'm getting hungry now and all this talk of bones snapping and death makes me want some chicken legs. You know you want some too Almanac!

 

No secret code this time, sorry about that!)

 

 

(Authors Note 2: Mmmmmm, chiiicken.)

Chapter Five - Dear Princess Celestia, Does Our Past Define Us? by AlmanacPony

Chapter Five


Dear Princess Celestia, Does Our Past Define Us?


Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”


 


 


 


Futurity Champron was curled up under a makeshift tent constructed with tarp and rods dug into the ground. At the entrance of the makeshift shelter was his 'dog' Winter. The dog hadn't been with his Master when we'd taken Futurity with us but the cybernetic mutt hadn't wasted time finding us once we were clear of Whitetail Prison. For some reason, us carrying his Master away on Lucky's back, hadn't warranted an attack from the mutt, which was a welcome surprise. However, the moment the tent was set up and Futurity was under it, Winter curled up at the entrance. Then growled at anyone that came near.


 


When he did come to, I was busy having a polite conversation with Aero.


 


I did what ah felt ah needed to do!” Aero barked at me, his voice deep and mechanical from his helmets voice changer. I fucking hated that thing.


 


Exactly!” I retorted. “You did what you felt like without thinking of the consequences! You don't think!”


 


You wanted to leave! I needed that footage and you wanted to just piss off without it!” He snapped.


 


Yeah, I wonder buckin' why! In case you didn't notice, we faced a nigh unkillable ghoul bigger than a bucking Clydesdale!” I'd started censoring myself a little around the filly.


 


Sonnet sat in her own tent with a blanket wrapped over her head as she watched us. Stranger stood beside her in case Winter couldn't be trusted to stay docile. Lucky was in his own tent, a little way from the others looking sullen as always, his hat rested over his eyes as he pretended to sleep. Aero and I had broken out in an argument while setting up our tents. I'd woken feeling grumpy and argumentative in general, and Aero was a good target for my frustrations.


 


Which I killed.” He retorted as though it hadn't been my plan that had saved our lives in the first place. “We could have went back in and got what we came for, if you weren't such a bitch.”


 


I was about to retort when my brain stalled. Did he just call me a- “How's your throat?” I asked, not out of concern, out of warning. He balked, taking a step back and turning away from me.


 


The anchor of the conversation was a bit tippy-toppy right now. He wasn't good at arguing, but to gain anchor in any argument I had to offset his rebuttals in a way he couldn't refute, which wasn't that hard; the issue was he refused to acknowledge when I'd made a good point. He just searched for something else in an attempt to be right about anything at all. Luna, I fucking hated people like that.


 


A shape flashed at the corner of my eye. Then pain lashed through my neck and I was driven to the ground with a metal claw wrapped securely around my throat. Oxygen suddenly became an issue. I could still breathe... kinda... but it was constricted, enough for my body to enter a state of panic. Strangers rifle cocked. Winter replied by pressing the sharp talons of his metal claw to my neck. I stopped struggling.


 


If you shoot him, Winter's claw will close on reflex and tear your friends throat out.” Futurity said from the other side of the mutt. With the soft clop of hooves on dirt the red stallion slowly padded into view beside me. He looked down at me curiously. Futurity's cheek sported a large bruise and his right temple had a trailed blood down the side of his muzzle, other than that he seemed well, if a little pissed.


 


Aero's cannons cocked nearby. “You kill 'im, you die.” Aero's voice was dark and surprisingly sincere. I was almost touched.


 


Interesting that you'd try to avenge someone you so obviously hate, but lets not get hasty.” The red stallion replied with a raised brow. “I have questions.”


 


Ask them.” Lucky's said from not too far off, my view once again blocked. Despite the situation, Lucky sounded almost bored, hell, he sounded depressed, but then again, wasn't he always?


 


Futurity smirked at the lime green stallion, apparently finding his tone and approach entertaining. “How'd you break the cell door?”


 


This was his first question? He really was inquisitive, but in a weird way. I'd wonder such a thing in his position too, but in this rare position of power among such a group as ours, it certainly wouldn't be the first question I'd ask.


 


I got lucky.” There was the smallest hint of a smile in Lucky's voice when he said the words. Hell even I snorted.


 


Futurity scowled. “Maybe I should study you.” He grumbled before pausing and looking around himself, noting everypony's eyes on him. “You brought me here, probably saved my life in doing so, why?”


 


Tome said not to leave ya...kinda regrettin' that now.” Aero answered, his cannons trained on the red stallion, ready to fire at any given moment. I had to admit, maybe saving Futurity's life hadn't been one of my best decisions. See what doing something nice got you? This is why I'm not a nice pony.


 


Futurity scoffed. “Put your helmet down, you aren't impressing anyone like that, colt.” He pronounced.


 


The pegasus stiffened. “Call me that again...” Aero growled, spinning his cannons threateningly. “...I dare you.”


 


Stupid words to say. Very stupid words to say. Futurity approached the pegasus and smirked at him. He leaned in and very clearly spoke a single word, “colt.” Everypony held their breath as they watched Aero to see how he might react... he didn't. Futurity smirked. “That's what I thought.”


 


Leave him.” Strangers voice was calm and barely raised, but it carried over the small makeshift camp-site. I even felt the dog stiffen above me at the sound of the voice. I wonder if Stranger enjoyed the effect his voice had on ponies.


 


The red stallion turned to Stranger and narrowed his eyes. “Shut it, corpse.” He snapped. “I don't even want to address the likes of you, go eat somepony.”


 


My left hoof suddenly lashed up and struck the claw at my throat, pain lanced through my stump. It reminded me that I'd have to deal with that today at some point. The force of my blow forced Winter's paw up my face, the claw trying to clamp down at the sudden movement. I felt pain lash through my throat and face as its sharp talons raked from my neck to my cheek. My cheek split open right to my gums. Blood poured down my face. But I'd gained my leverage. I kicked up hard and pushed, the sudden lift arching the dog to the left where his foot no longer had the support of my throat. I turned my head, and the mutt lost it's purchase. The dog sprawled to the floor. I was on it fast, blood drooling from my muzzle, cheek and neck as I shoved my gun into the dog's mouth. Winter seemed extremely intelligent and fully aware of what guns were as the moment it was at my mercy it went still, light whimpers sounding from its maw.


 


How about I make your dog eat a bullet?” I spat out.


 


Futurity looked at me shocked, he tried to turn, possibly to leave but stopped when a gun barrel pressed securely to his forehead. Stranger looked down the barrel of his rifle with an expression I hadn't seen pointed at someone else in a long while. He was glaring, and for once it wasn't at me. Not much could affect the emotionally blank wall that was Stranger, but this stallion had somehow managed to rile my bandaged friends temper. I was impressed.


 


Lucky approached me as he dug something out of his saddlebag before offering me a healing potion. I took a quick swig but nothing more than a single gulp. It was enough to close the wounds but not heal them completely. I wasn't going to waste it on superficial wounds like a small hole in the cheek, the Wasteland would deliver much worse than that in the future. I felt the wounds knit together, the blood stop and a light numbing pass over the sensitive flesh. It still hurt a little, but I was fine with that.


 


You're new to the Wasteland, Futurity.” I said while stroking my wounded face in an effort to ease its soreness. “So here's some advice; don't fuck with those obviously better than you.”


 


Stranger decked him.


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


Futurity would be out for another hour, which gave us plenty of time to talk. This time we had Winter tied up beside him. The mutt was on his side with ropes wrapped around both his legs and claws. Which were tied to large bits of metal we'd forced into the ground as anchors. He wasn't going anywhere. And don't ask how we managed to tie the dog up... suffice to say it wasn't easy and had required another swig of healing potion.


 


We sat at our various tents in silence. I was massaging my left fetlock a bit. I grit my teeth as pain lanced up the stump. The prosthetic was feeling tight today. Stranger's tent sat opposite of Futurity's. His rifle was trained on the red stallion. If looks could kill then Futurity was already dead. Only I'd earned such glares from him in the past, and usually it was his way of demanding I take on any form of 'moral' responsibility. I did my best not to glance at Sonnet with that thought in mind. The filly was curled up under a blanket behind me. I didn't think she was sleeping but she'd been quiet for a while now. I was starting to worry about her. Or maybe I was just channelling Lucky's empathy, Celestia knew the stallion kept glancing at my tent. Made me want to punch him. Actually, maybe I should... I'd managed to land a hit twice now since we'd met at the Stable, it was really satisfying to feel his jaw against my hoof... or the prosthetic, that was fun too-


 


A corpse, huh?” Aero's distorted voice stated. With a soft whirring the helmet from his suit retracted, showing the young stallion's face. “What did he mean?” He looked at me warily, his voice significantly higher without the voice changer.


 


I didn't reply. This was Strangers business after all. I glanced at my bandaged friend who in turn watched me. It was like a silent conversation was going between us. I wouldn't reply. I wouldn't say anything. If he wanted them to know then that was for him to say, not me. He respected that.


 


I'm a Ghoul.”


 


Stranger's voice blanketed the camp. I mean yeah, it was quiet before. Everypony had been pretty much quiet, but this was different. Ya know when you can just tell that everyone is holding their breath? Well that's what was happening here. I turned away and laid my head down in as comfortable position I could manage. This was Stranger's conversation.


 


Aero stared dumbfounded for a moment. “I knew there was somethin' fucked up about-”


 


Watch it.” I growled, and shot Aero a narrowed expression. This was Stranger's conversation and his business... but he was my friend. Aero's Enclave skull would be splattered over the ground if he kept talking to Stranger like that.


 


The glare must have done the trick because the pegasus gulped and looked back to Stranger. “So... you're like... those things back there? A zombie?”


 


No,” Stranger replied, “and yes.”


 


Aero's head tilted at an acute angle just like a dog's, “care to explain?”


 


I felt a movement near me and saw from the corner of my eye Sonnet crawling forward. She leaned out and watched Stranger, her ears turned towards him. She was trying to watch without being noticed by him. She was afraid of Stranger now. Once again I was struck by the thought that maybe she'd been traumatised by the events at Whitetail Prison. The Wasteland wasn't kind to children.


 


I'm a Canterlot Ghoul.” Stranger explained, turning away. There was an edge to his voice... distaste. “I was affected by both the Pink Cloud and the Radiation of the megaspells that fell on Canterlot at the end of the war.” There was smallest of octave drops in his voice, the slightest hiccup. There was a rise and fall in his chest that one would probably assume was breathing, except ghoul breath was extremely shallow if ever at all. He wasn't breathing... he was in pain.


 


Are you a monster?” Sonnet's voice was small beside me.


 


Stranger looked to her and I saw him see saw the fear in her eyes. I skipped a breath when I saw sadness in his. “Yes,” he answered. He stood up and walked away.


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


Stranger settled on an elevated rock formation. He stared down the scope of his rifle, keeping watch. Though, he was only there to get away from us so he could be with his thoughts. It was best to leave him be for now. The last thing he needed was me making a mess of things by trying to cheer him up. Therapy was not one of my strong suits.


 


You knew.” Aero said.


 


I knew where this was going. “Yes.” I answered, not bothering to look away from Stranger.


 


Did you even think of the child?” The pegasus accused, glaring at me.


 


Her name is 'Sonnet'.” I stated. Then returned his glare.


 


What do you care what her name is?!” He snarled as he jumped to his hooves. “You don't give a shit about her! You put a bomb around her neck and you've admitted you only saved her life because that- that THING told you too!” He pointed an accusing hoof at Stranger. My bandaged friend was far enough away that maybe Aero thought he couldn't be heard, but I saw the smallest twitch of Stranger's ear. He'd heard it. “You sit there, acting all high and mighty! You threaten me! You threaten the child from what I've heard!” I glanced at Lucky who was decidedly looking everywhere but at me. So these two had been talking. Interesting. “I just spent the last two months in a Slave whore camp!” Aero reminded me. “I have watched stallions do the most disgusting things to mares and not a ONE of them was as big of an asshole as you! At least they knew they were monsters!” He stamped his hoof before walking over and spitting on me. The spittle landed on my cheek and I didn't wipe it away. Then after panting for a full minute, he almost calmed down. Almost. His face had contorted into a look of disgust and he refused to meet my eyes. “You forced a filly to travel with a -corpse- that could turn on us and her at any given moment. I'm not sure who's the bigger monster... you or the corpse.” Then he trotted back to his tent and laid down facing away from me. His muzzle wrinkled like he'd smelled something particularly bad.


 


I should have hit him. It was my style, pretty much the style of the Wasteland. Someone screams at you like that, you either deck them or shoot them. To be honest... I'm not sure why I didn't. Maybe because I knew it wouldn't help, it'd just divide us more. Lucky and Aero had obviously been talking, which meant they both had strong negative feelings about me. If this kept up I'd have a mutiny on my hooves, they'd take Sonnet away from me and try to do the job themselves. They'd wonder why they even needed me and Stranger in the first place. I couldn't solve this with violence. It wasn't my way anyway... I know, shocking. You'd think violence was my first call to action with how I'd been since the Stable. Was I losing myself?


 


I started talking. “Three years ago I was a junk-trader. Basically, I collected junk and sold it off to traders and settlements.” Aero glanced up at me, still moody but his head was tilted in confusion. “I was good. Good at finding stuff. I knew how a lot of the pre-war stuff worked, so I knew what it could be re-purposed for or how durable things were or even what a settlement may or may not need. It pays to be intelligent in the trade.” Aero scoffed. I ignored him. “One day I did something stupid,” another scoff... if he interrupted me one more time- “I took on my first bounty mission. I mean, it was half bounty, half junk scrounging. There was a bit of pre-war tech; a working arcane carberator from a boxcar that seemed to be in working condition. Worth a lot. But some raiders had gotten a hoof on it and I'd have to get it off them somehow. I didn't know what they were using it for when I took the job.” I gulped and massaged my left hoof through grit teeth. “I played it smart. I scouted first, watched them from over a ridge. Thought I was being stealthy. Didn't work, got caught due to... an incident with a rock.” I grumbled as pain lanced up my stump. Both Aero and Lucky were paying attention now, there was even the slightest twitch in Strangers body language. He was listening too. “They dragged me into the camp and started beating me- among other things. I was their new play thing, their Slave. They kept hold of me for a whole week, just using me for their- frustrations.” I smirked at the word, “apparently it was all someone like me was good for.” Lucky looked particularly distressed. This was after everything between him and I of course. I wonder if he felt responsible for my circumstances? I sighed and shrugged the thought off. Then looked over to my bandaged friend as he gazed through his scope over at the horizon. “Stranger saved me. And I trust him with my life.” I got up and turned around, putting my back to Lucky and Aero. “If you don't think you can, you are welcome to leave.” I said over my shoulder as I curled up.


 


What were they using the arcane thing for?” Aero asked from behind me, his tone sober.


 


I glanced back at him and gave a sad smile. “They were roasting children in it.” Lucky winced and Aero shivered. I bet he wished he'd never asked.


 


I turned away and curled up into my sleeping bag. Sonnet was there beside me, her eyes watching. I closed mine and relaxed, ready to sleep before I stiffened and almost yelped when I felt the filly press close... almost cuddling me.


 


...When had I won her over?


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


I'm glad you're awake.” I said warmly as I suckled on meat juices. I pushed a plate of meat towards him. It was rat meat, but still good. Cooked to crispy and juicy bites and stuck with sticks. Futurity looked down at the meat curiously before looking back at me. I glanced up from my own meal, paused, then apologised before setting my meat down. I leaned forward and undid the ropes that bound Futurity.


 


Not afraid I'll try something?” He asked as he massaged his fetlocks.


 


I glanced away from him and nodded to Aero who sat on the opposite side of our small camp with his cannons trained on the red stallion and his cyber-mutt. Aero gave Futurity a pleasant wave. “I'm confident you're smarter than that,” I remarked. Then turned back to the red stallion with a friendly smile.


 


Futurity had woken up around fifteen minutes ago, and rather than beat on him like I thought he deserved, I decided to take a different approach.


 


Futurity looked at me with his brows furrowed before looking down at the meat, “and what if I don't eat meat?” He questioned.


 


Then you go hungry,” I said with a shrug. I was being hospitable, he didn't have to accept what I gave him. Futurity gave me a wary look before he picked up the meat and started chewing. Then screwed up his face in distaste as he swallowed. “So,” I began, “I thought we could talk, ya know; without ghouls interrupting us, bars between us, or your dog trying to bury me like a bone.” I mumbled, chewing more, slurping up a particularly juicy bite.


 


Why bother after what I did?” He asked while wiping grease from his mouth.


 


I sighed and pushed my plate away, wiped my hooves on my barding, then turned to look at the rock formation where Stranger sat with his blue eyes gazing out over the horizon. “I don't know. Maybe I'm trying to live up to some expectations.”


 


You're not the type,” Futurity grumbled as he forced himself to swallow more meat. His throat lurched as he fought to keep it down.


 


I wasn't,” I replied, “I'm not. But I guess... I'm under a bit more social pressure than usual lately.” I turned back to him as he pushed his plate aside with an unhappy look on his face. “You're new to the Wasteland,” I told him, “you didn't know any better; so I'm gonna try and be all hospitable about this.” I attempted a warm smile. “But, of course, if you try anything-” I glanced over at Aero again who supplied a toothy grin.


 


Futurity nodded and tilted his head down as he considered his options, “point taken,” he settled.


 


I settled myself into a more comfortable position and stretched. My stump chafed like hell. “So,” I began, “why did you attack us the moment you woke up?” Futurity turned away at my question, not looking inclined to answer. “Come on,” I urged, “don't make this difficult.”


 


It took him a little while to answer, but he eventually did, in a smaller voice than I'd expected. “Strength.” He stared at the ground. “First time I was out I got attacked by a group of raiders. I took a shot to the back leg but Winter was there and managed to take most of them down. The others surrendered and I even got supplies from them. They ran. There were others after that, and each time Winter showed them not to mess with me,” he shrugged, “eventually I started having Winter stop them from running. I decided to make them useful before I let them go.”


 


So he was using fear and slaughter to make raiders that attacked him fall in line, so he could complete whatever it was he needed to get done. “Smart,” I commended with a smile. Really, it was an effective method, and I could understand why he'd try it with us. Though killing me would have put him in Stranger's sights, and considering Stranger's... condition... I doubted Futurity was confident he could have gotten out of it alive. So he'd gambled and used me as a hostage instead. “Useful for what?” I asked.


 


My research.” He said with a shrug as he looked up at the roiling cloud cover above us. It was probably going to rain at some point, I could see the darkest patches starting to build in on themselves as they travelled across the sky.


 


And what were the results?” I asked. I wanted to keep him talking.


 


Nothing but a baseline.” He grumbled. “They were all earth ponies, every one of them. I couldn't get good data about them, but I could use them for a baseline in the Wasteland, to really show the differences in the EUP races. Turns out everypony out here is a physical paradox.” He mumbled.


 


We are?” I asked curiously, I'd never studied us from a scientific point of view, but then again, I'd never met a pony as healthy as Futurity, him being a Stable dweller and all.


 


You're all physically fit. The trials of the Wasteland toning muscle mass. And your bodies have adapted to not just nourishing itself from alternative food sources like meat and the like, but you're more energy efficient. Your activities don't tax you nearly as much as it should, so to me, despite copious malnourishment, you all have energy and stamina to spare.”


 


I smirked at him. “It comes in handy.” I wriggled my eyebrows suggestively.


 


He didn't appreciate it. “First you're intellectual and threatening, then you're weirdly friendly after I try and kill you and now you're perverted and lecherous. You are a quagmire,” he grumbled and turned away from me, “I do not like quagmires.”


 


I let a silence settle between us. I turned away and looked around the encampment. Sonnet was walking with her head down. She was carrying a book towards Lucky who had curled in on himself in his tent. She nudged his side to get his attention and he peeked up to look at her before his eyes travelled to the book. I could see Lucky debate with himself, almost for a full minute, before he conceded and nervously nodded to the young hopeful filly. She curled up beside him as he opened the book. He glanced at the filly anxiously as he read to her in a low voice.


 


Why?”


 


I turned back to Futurity and raised a brow. “Pardon?”


 


Why are you all together?” He seemed genuinely curious. “And don't give me any bullshit.”


 


I considered not answering but I sighed before looking over everyone, my eyes landing on Aero. The pegasus, who was supposed to be watching me and Futurity, was in fact drawing in the dirt with a bored expression on his face. “He's angry,” I answered softly, “he's angry at someone. Not me, just... someone. Maybe his dad.” I shrugged.


 


Why his father?”


 


He mentioned he's looking for evidence of him. It's why we were in Whitetail,” I explained, “their security systems should have had recorded footage. Apparently his dad was around here years ago and he wanted to know where the old stallion went next. But as he's said his dad is still up in the clouds right now, that pretty much means his dad pissed him off about something and he's searching for something down here about it. We were his best bet at getting into Whitetail Prison. Now that's a dead-end, I wouldn't be surprised if he leaves us in a few days.”


 


Futurity's eyes flitted to his bound up grumpy looking dog for a moment before turning back to me, “why doesn't he just leave right now?”


 


I chuckled. “Because he's a child,” I turned back to Futurity with a grin, “and children are stubborn about admitting defeat.”


 


He nodded and looked at the others. His eyes moved to Sonnet and Lucky. “And those two? Why do they stay?”


 


Sonnet's the only one that can't leave,” I explained. “She's got that collar on, but even if she hadn't, we're the only ones she knows out here.” The filly's ears twitched as Lucky read to her. “Since being out of her Stable she's almost been taken as a slave twice, actually enslaved by me, attacked by raiders and almost eaten by ghouls. It's only been a few days.” I shrugged, took in a deep breath, then let it out in a hiss. I wanted to hate all this, I wanted to want to protect her. But I didn't. More than that I wanted more bad things to happen to her. I'm not sadistic. I don't want her to suffer, but I knew it would harden her... but, I could be wrong. The Wasteland didn't just harden ponies, especially not Stable dwellers... it broke them. “I think she's far too traumatised to feel safe around anything unfamiliar right now.” I turned back to Futurity and guided his gaze with a hoof. “See her sitting with Lucky?” Futurity nodded. “She's making him read to her, but she's smart enough to read to herself. In fact she's so smart, she can recite bodily decomposition. So why do you think she's making Lucky read her a children's story?”


 


Futurity looked at Lucky and the filly. “She's escaping into foalhood to forget what's happening around her.” I nodded. We watched Sonnet and Lucky in silence for a little bit. She was curled up against him with her eyes closed and her ears perked as she listened. Her breathing was slow and her head rested on Lucky's leg.


 


And Lucky?” Futurity asked.


 


My eyes moved from Sonnet to the lime green stallion. I saw the small tenseness in his shoulders and I heard it in his barely discernible words as he read a children's book to a child he'd sworn to protect, but had done everything to avoid. “He's scared.” I answered softly. “And he's trying to atone.”


 


Before you said he was here for the foal.”


 


I smiled and shook my head. “I was referencing a different foal.” I said as a roiling inside me as I pushed away old memories. I waved a hoof, dismissing Futurities further question. “His story. Not mine to tell.” Thankfully, Futurity nodded and left it.


 


We sat in silence then, letting the breeze pass over us as we sat there together. Aero had dozed off with his face buried in his hooves.


 


I'm sorry.” Futurity said, startling me. I turned and found myself faced with a rather uncomfortable looking Futurity. “I'm sorry,” he repeated, “I'm sorry for making Winter attack you, and I'm sorry for locking you up before that.” He turned away from me.


 


What is it your after?” I asked.


 


Nothing I'm just trying to apologise,” he said as he glared me for my supposed rudeness.


 


No, I mean in general. You said you used the Raiders for your research; you say you're after discovering the differences or the beneficial qualities of all the EUP races, and you say you locked us up because we were in your way and would make good subjects. But what is it you're after?” He nodded at each question then looked down. He frowned and scratched at the dirt with a hoof.


 


My Stable is dying,” he said softly. I gave him my full attention. “Back when the call went out to fill the Stables, Ponyville was one of the first places evacuated by Ministry order. We opened our doors for the first time five months ago, and since then I've been out three times. Trying to find a solution.”


 


What's killing them?”


 


Time,” he answered, “most Stables were set in the largest populations. Cities. Only a few were in such small towns as Ponyville, so our Stable wasn't built to house very many. Which limited breeding variation.”


 


Oh.” I said. Then nodded when it hit me. Inbreeding. “How bad is it?” I asked. I wasn't usually interested about Stable life, but I felt for this stallions plight, even if he had been a git.


 


We managed it at first,” he said with a shrug, “If anything went wrong we'd replace it with tech. Pony born without a leg? Give them a new one. Born barely able to breathe? Lets give them a new set of mechanical lungs.” He said smugly. “You'd be surprised how fast we developed what was needed to survive.” His voice burned with pride. I tried to imagine the kind of developments that might be possible with two hundred years. It was difficult to fathom. “But then morals and judgements over the generations began to turn,” he continued, “eventually, while frowned upon, degree's of relation began to become... blurred.” He grumbled as his pride became sour. “At that point everypony were cousins and when you rely on cybernetics to fix the foals, you stop worrying about the breeding results and just trust the techies and surgeons to do their jobs.” He said in disgust.


 


You don't have that same opinion?” I asked as I took a drink from a water bottle I'd pulled from my saddlebag. Then offered it to him.


 


Futurity looked at the bottle for a few seconds before he took it and swallowed a large gulp. When he finished he gave me a grim smile. “My sister was adamant on having our fathers child, but the old coot died before that happened.” Well that was an interesting answer, but I understood. Futurity glared at the dirt as he scratched his hooves into the earth. “Let's just say I was lucky to be born bodily correct.”


 


I sighed and decided to push the conversation forward onto his work, perhaps it would prove to be a better topic. “So what is it you're hoping to find? There's isn't much in the way of genetic cures out here.” I asked as I snatched back the bottle and took another swig.


 


He shrugged. “New blood, obviously,” he answered, “we didn't know what had happened out here; if ponies had mutated or anything, or maybe they were sterile, or dead, or any number of issues. Maybe you were all diseased.” He said as if it were obvious. Which now that I thought about it, it kind of was. “I had to make sure you were genetically viable for breeding.” I gave him a curious look before he answered my silent question. “You are.”


 


I thought about it before I remembered what he said back at the prison. “Before you told me it was part of your Overseer Orders from Stable-Tec. What was that about then?” I asked as I gave him the rest of the drinking water which he gulped down.


 


Secondary research that happens to tie in with my 'quest for salvation'.” He answered as he tossed the now empty water bottle to the side. “Our Stable is an experimental one, entirely earth ponies. No unicorns, no pegasi, nothing but dirty hooves. The orders asked that we study other races and see how they faired culturally, and if they'd scorched Equestria again.”


 


That... was confusing. What had Stable-Tec thought about pony kind in general then? “Did Stable-Tec think earth ponies were the only ones worth anything?” I asked. I'd heard of experimental Stables, usually they were just horror shows though. I'd made it a habit to avoid them.


 


I doubt it.” He said, shaking his head. “They probably have all-pegasi and all-unicorn Stable's out there somewhere, I think they just wanted to find out what would or would not work socially. It's understandable. Of course, that's my theory anyway.”


 


I smirked at him, understanding the message behind the tone he used. I just couldn't help it, I laughed. “Your peers don't agree?” I asked between chuckles.


 


He scoffed. “Please, half of them barely notice there's anything wrong with the Stable. They're all for the 'Natural Superiority of Earth Ponies'.” He grumbled with a snort, stamping his hoof mockingly before curling up with a grumble.


 


A silence stretched out between us. I looked up at the clouds to pass the time. The clouds looked angry and I could feel the air pressure grow as they threatened us with the prospect of rain. Within moments the heavens broke, and a torrential downpour descended. Aero yelped as the deluge of water shocked him awake, sending him scrambling for cover. He dove into tent and peeked back out at the river of water and mud that had pooled around us already. The short time in the rain had already soaked his mane through. I grinned, it was too easy. I opened my mouth but a thunderous boom drowned the quip before I could get it out. Instead, I watched him. He looked quite miserable, and stared at the water with suspicious eyes. I doubted it, but maybe Aero was hydrophobic? Though, it wasn't fear in the colts eyes, it was disgust, like the rain was something he really didn't want to touch. It was an oddity I logged away for future perusal. I looked back at Futurity who was busy scowling up at the clouds.


 


Not a fan of the rain?” I asked over another thunderous boom.


 


He shook his head. “Surprised me my second time out, first I was fascinated... then I just wanted it to stop.” He mumbled. He shrunk into his tent, trying to keep himself as covered as he could. I wondered what Sonnet's reaction would be, but when I looked over, she and Lucky had fallen asleep with Lucky curled around her. I wasn't sure if that was good or not. It was good for Lucky and Sonnet to bond, but I worried about Lucky's condition. It could get her killed.


 


I pulled myself up and sharp pain lanced up my left hoof. I grit my teeth, then looked up at the sky through rain soaked glasses. Now was as good a time as any.


 


I've got things I need to do. Rest well.” I told the red stallion and started trotting away.


 


Hey, Tome.” Futurity said behind me. I stopped and turned back to him.


 


He nodded respectfully. “Thank you... for giving me a chance. And for not killing me.”


 


I nodded at first then let a smirk out. “'Nights still young.” I said through a chuckle. I left him looking confused and worried.


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


I limped away from the encampment. I shouldn't have left this for so long.


 


I looked back at the tents, then at where Stranger still sat in the pouring rain. Rivulets of water poured down his hat. He wasn't looking down his scope though, he was looking at me.


 


He nodded.


 


A shiver ran down my back as I nodded back.


 


Some distance from the camp, I found a rock formation with an overturned carriage behind it. Whoever had driven the thing had crashed the carriage against the rocks, then just left it for time to eat away at. It'd do. I crawled under. Thick brambles prickled my hide as I scurried. It wasn't exactly nice but it didn't need to be. It just needed to be relatively dry.


 


I slipped off my glasses and cleaned them on my dirty barding. I tried getting them dry and clear for five minutes before I let out a huff and gave up. The air was just too moist and I was doing little more than smudging water over the glass. I slipped them back on, then looked down at my stump. I reached for it with my good hoof and unlatched the prosthetic before slowly easing it off. I hissed as the cool air touched bare flesh. The stump was scarred, swollen, red and irritable. It had grown distorted in the confines of the prosthetic. I should have been more careful. I should have avoided those radiation areas. That bloody bog me and Stranger had waded through a few weeks ago, and that crater before that? Not to mention wading through the irradiated waters at Neighagra Falls. And Whitetail Prison too with its glowing one didn't help. I was going to kill myself if I kept this up.


 


I sighed and grit my teeth. Just had to get it over with as fast as possible. The rain battered the carriage, a small river of water poured in, and the thunder above drowned out everything. I delved into my saddlebags and pulled out three things. One was a belt, next was a short wooden bit that had teeth marks dug into it from previous use, and the final object was a bone saw.


 


I tied the belt around the fetlock of my left hoof tight enough to cut off circulation. I shoved the wooden bit into my mouth and bit down. Then I clipped my hoof into the handle of the bone saw. I measured. Then set the blade edge an inch from my stump. Then I sat there, staring at the area. I closed my eyes and sucked in a deep breath, I waited... and waited... and waited... thunder struck overhead.


 


I screamed.


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


Anypony that tells you getting a limb removed isn't as bad as you'd expect has never had to cut through the flesh and bone themselves. It's worse than you expect. Every time.


 


The pain does not merge together. It doesn't numb overtime, and it is never easy to keep going. My first ever time doing this, I passed out. The second time I threw up AND passed out. After three years you would think I'd be used to it. You'd be wrong. You don't get used to it. I wasn't sure I wanted to.


 


I sat in the mud with my stump extended out into the rain letting the water wash over it. A full inch of severed leg sat nearby; a bloody slab of meat that sent a roiling through my stomach every time I looked at it. I was panting and I could not stop shaking. Going into shock is not the best idea, sure it numbed pain, but you had to calm yourself, let the pain wash over you... or the shock could kill you. I breathed in. Then closed my eyes. As I did, the water running down my face became noticeable. I wasn't even sure when I'd started crying.


 


Mister-Master Tome-Sir?” A small voice asked from outside my small shelter.


 


I yanked my hoof back in and hid it from view. “W-what do you want?!” I snapped.


 


I glanced at my bags. I needed a healing potion... I started searching for it frantically as the filly crawled through the mud under the carriage to join me.


 


I felt her hoof gently lay itself in my leg and I froze. The touch seemed to burn my skin even through my barding. Slowly, the filly guided my left hoof out of hiding, I wanted to resist, but hey, I was feeling sensitive. Mud had covered the stump in my haste to hide it from view. There wasn't much blood, the belt cutting off the circulation saw to that, but it did drip a little as she looked it over. Sonnet looked over the stump with a warmth that I hadn't seen from anypony in a long time. She glanced up at me for a moment then she turned and put a hoof into my saddlebags and pulled out a water bottle. She slowly began to clean the stump. When she was done she pulled out a healing potion of which I took a single swig. Just enough to stop the bleeding and promote healing. She gestured for me to take more, but I shook my head.


 


...I can't.” I croaked. “If I take too much it can grow back... need to seal it and constrict it in the prosthetic.”


 


She looked at me curiously, then nodded. She pulled out one of the blankets we had -in truth it was one of the ones I used for her- and bundled it up. She laid it into the mud as a pillow between me and the dirt, then placed my bloodied hoof on the blanket's surface. It was surprisingly comfortable.


 


I looked at my leg on the blanket then I looked at her. We stared at each other in silence, just listening to the storm as it roiled overhead.


 


She was staring at me expectantly. I knew what she wanted.


 


I turned away from her eyes and stayed silent for a long time, just watching the rain and listening to the thunder and lightning that flashed above. With each flash and powerful roar, I noticed Sonnet twitch. I could see each furtive glance she gave to the rumbling storm that raged outside our small shelter. Her agoraphobia was acting up, but she was putting on a brave face for me. I chuckled. A filly I'd enslaved was trying to comfort me of all ponies...


 


A curious expression crossed her face as she looked at me; I dismissed her with a wave of my right hoof, giving her an almost warm smile. Then my face drooped as my melancholy returned.


 


The silence seemed to stretch on for hours, but I was sure it had only been minutes. She sat there with me, waiting patiently.


 


I'm dying.” My voice was smaller than I'd meant it to be. She didn't seem surprised by the news and barely reacting to the words as she watched me. “Taint,” I continued. My voice was barely loud enough to be heard in the roaring rain. “Taint mutates the body. Kills you as a pony and turns you into a monster. It can happen at any moment, at any time. Taint will one day kill me.” I was stared at my hoof. “My mother was... she was pregnant with me and she got infected. Not by much, but it doesn't take much. I was born... wrong.” I gestured to my hoof and she looked down at it. “Remember when I told you I'd gotten caught by the raiders because of an incident with a rock?” She nodded. “My left fetlock has never ended in a hoof,” I explained, “for most of my life I've been a partially mutated freak. I was born with a tentacle where my hoof should be,” She stared at my bloody stump, “it used to move against my will sometimes; I could control it if I needed to but it never worked very well. It hit a rock while I was trying to hide and the rock fell down the cliff face. I got caught.” I said with a shrug. “When I was chained up, they liked to chain me up by the tentacle. When Stranger came in, I saw it as a way to save myself. One of them went after Stranger with a bone-saw but they were taken down and it landed near me; Stranger took out the Raiders but he never actually freed me... I freed myself.” I looked down at the stump.


 


You cut it off?” She asked softly.


 


I nodded. “Afterwards I was delirious and I don't remember much. But Stranger told me the next day that I had saved him.” I smiled a little. “Some asshole had a shotgun to his head, would have killed him just fine, even being a Canterlot Ghoul.” I was surprised when she made no reaction at the mention of what Stranger was. I thought she'd developed a traumatic aversion to ghouls, but maybe I was missing something. “Apparently I took the guy out, bone saw to the neck and passed out after. Stranger dragged me out of the camp while I was unconscious. He didn't have to... it wasn't the kind of thing he did back then. But he did it anyway... I'm not sure why.” I said honestly.


 


It's growing back... isn't it?” She asked.


 


I nodded. “Taint is agitated by Radiation. It can cause extra mutations and increase the speed in which it mutates the body. I already heal faster than a normal pony should, and I can even regrow limbs over a period of months.” I looked at the hoof and glared. “I'm never letting this one grow back.”


 


The stump had healed over mostly, but it was scarred, scabbed and raw. I slowly unlatched the belt on my fetlock and let blood circulate into the end of my limb again. I watched as parts of the stump burst and blood drooled from the wounds. I hissed as pain lanced up my hoof as the feeling returned to the stump. Damnit, blood was staining the blanket pillow Sonnet had kindly set up for me.


 


Why did you save me?” The filly asked after a few minutes of silence. I turned to Sonnet and looked her in the eyes. She was looking at me warmly, like I was actually someone that mattered to her.


 


Because Stranger told me to,” I answered honestly. Her expression fell a little before I added, “and in this fucked up world, he's the closest thing I have to a conscience any more.”


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


We slept there in the pooled mud and splattered blood; we slept under the dirty carriage by the cold stone. And for some reason... I think we slept well.


 


Hey.” Lucky's voice greeted me, and I cracked open my eyes. He was staring at me with Stranger behind him. I looked at them from under the carriage and turned to Sonnet beside me. I nudged the sleeping filly awake then pulled her out with me, crawling on three hooves so as to not dirty my stump again. I would have to stay off it for the day before I could put it back into the prosthetic.


 


Thankfully, I was accustomed to being three legged. The tentacle had always been somewhat flaccid. All muscle and tissue, very little in the way of bone to keep it up. So it'd always been terrible for support. So I grew up moving about on three legs. Imagine my joy when I finally got the damn thing in a prosthetic and could walk like a normal pony. Despite the growing pains... just being able to walk normally was worth it. Well, that and the looks. The looks were something I'd never miss.


 


I pulled myself up, careful to keep my stump raised away from the ground. A half asleep Sonnet stood beside me yawning and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. It was absolutely adorable. I looked at Lucky, who was looking at my leg and I could see the curiosity boiling in his eyes. I resisted the urge to hide the stump, even if he couldn't see it he'd still ask.


 


Not yet.” I told him. Though, I felt much calmer than I'd been last night. Hell, I was even feeling good about myself. Was that the therapy of the pain? Or my heart-to-heart with Sonnet? Either way, I was feeling better than I had since the Stable.


 


Lucky nodded to me and I looked at Stranger behind him, our eyes met, and he too gave me a respectful nod.


 


You bucks done fuckin' over there or what?” Aero's loud and grumpy voice said from the tents.


 


Stallions,” I said as I approached the tents, “and there's a filly present, watch your language.” I demanded while glaring at the feather brain. Despite being in a better mood, the feather-brain in the group was enough to make me feel sullen.


 


Then Sonnet piped up behind me. “Mister-Master-Tome-Sir, what's 'fuckin' mean?” I really should buck Aero round the face once or twice.


 


My brow raised and Aero slunk back a step, as though afraid I would actually hit him. I turned to her and sat down. “Well, it's complicated.” I said.


 


She nodded. “I can tell.” She said. “It seems variations of the word 'fuck' are used as an exclamation point within sentence structure to accentuate a heightened situation, but Mister Aero just used it in a different context.”


 


I balked then looked at Stranger for help. The git was decidedly looking elsewhere, apparently the hills on the horizon were very interesting now. Oh, so I should save the filly AND teach her about the appropriate use of swear words? Fuck I'd like to take that rifle of his and shove it right up- “Why do you care?” I asked while looking down at her curiously.


 


She shrugged. “I've never heard these words before. You use different vernacular out here than we use in...” She paused. “... home.” She finished. It was like her brain had stalled when the stable had come up. Then it reset... like the pause had never happened. “I find it all very interesting.” She smiled warmly. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that was an expression of a filly having fun... Not a good sign.


 


There are some words you shouldn't learn.” I grumbled.


 


Let her learn what she fuckin' wants.” Aero snapped suddenly.


 


Someone woke up grumpy.” Lucky grumbled beside me as he headed for his own tent too.


 


Oh shut your mouth you old git,” Aero said, “I may play guard dog for the prisoner and the mutt; but I ain't part of this group and I ain't your slave.” He said that last part to me.


 


I just sighed. It was gonna be one of those times. Fair enough. “So what's got you upset today, Aero?” I asked in a monotonous tone. I was getting bored of his childish tantrums.


 


Same thing as I was pissed about yesterday. We went in there for a reason and we left without it! The deal was, you help me, I help you. So if you ain't gonna help me, I don't see no reason to stick around.”


 


You really should stay.” Huh... hadn't expected him to speak up. All our eyes turned to Futurity who was still in his tent, a grumpy looking Winter still tied down next to him. Futurity was gently patting the dogs head to sooth it. “Can we please untie Winter, this is somewhat cruel.” He mumbled, then gave me a glare. I had to admit, Winter was looking pathetic. My only hesitation were the large claws it had for paws. Yeah, they were something of a deterrent.


 


Stay out of this.” Aero said to him while his triple-barrel canons whirred at his sides as they cocked and jerked in a sort of mechanical threat.


 


I returned my attention to the pegasus. “I tried. I got you in. But it was far too dangerous, and we have a filly to care for.”


 


Then you shouldn't have brought her along.” Aero retorted.


 


Actually it was a good thing he did, it got me interested.” Futurity muttered. “Can I please loosen these ropes? I think they're twisting his legs awkwardly, it might be painful.”


 


Aero ignored the red stallion. “If you're so concerned for her, then why take her into such a place. Everything you did in there was a fuck-up!” He spat. “From the mines outside to the-”


 


-the part where you blew a hole in a door and let loose a bunch of ghouls on us?” I finished for him, my brow raised.


 


The red stallion piped up again, “seriously, I think the ropes are chafing him. This is cruelty ya know.”


 


WILL YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT YOUR DOG! NO ONE CARES!” Aero suddenly bellowed.


 


You should. He's got all the computer files and recordings you need stored in his head.” Futurity said calmly.


 


Silence.


 


HAH! So there was a way to shut the feather-brain up.


 


What?” Aero said. His face was priceless... I think had a camera stashed somewhere... did I have time to grab it?


 


Futurity shrugged. “I told you back when you first ran off, I needed to back up my work.” His hoof tapped on the metal cybernetic components that covered the large dogs right eye and a little over his head. “I included the computers files. Including many of the recording the computer had. Forty years worth; there were more of course, the records went back almost two centuries, but I chose twenty years from the war period for analysis of societal norms back then and twenty years from today. Twenty is far enough back right?”


 


And you didn't tell us?” Lucky asked from his corner. He'd already begun compacting his tent and was currently stuffing the tarp into a saddlebag as he looked over.


 


Futurity nodded sagely. “Oh yes, I am, of course, going to tell my captors all of the vital information I may or may not have rather than waiting until I can use it for my benefit. Truly that would be the intellectual thing to do.” I liked his sarcasm.


 


And what benefit is it to you now?” It was Stranger that spoke. I was happy he did. The moment the words left his mouth, Futurity twitched.


 


He stared at Stranger, his eyes twitching a little as he turned away. “I require your aid in both escorting me back to my Stable, and in my research, which you will provide me in exchange for the information you seek.” A bargain, huh.


 


Why don't we just beat it out of you?” Aero asked with a malicious grin.


 


Everyone's eyes rolled. “Because it's in my dogs head, not mine, you imbecile.” Futurity answered with the same expression upon his face that I had. Seriously, I was tempted to deck Aero just to try and knock some smarts into him.


 


W-well...” Aero stuttered as he tried to gain some ground in the intellect department. “Why don't we just download it from your dog, with that PipBuck the filly's got?” That... that was actually a good idea. Huh.


 


Futurity shrugged again. “Be my guest,” he said with a chuckle, “but it's all encrypted. It'll require an algorithm to decrypt it that the PipBuck just won't have. But I do-” he gave us a look, “-back at home, in Stable 101.”


 


...The git.


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


You realise the roundabout way of this, right?” Lucky asked me as we walked, interrupting a perfectly good bout of silence. I looked at Futurity who walked ahead of us with his dog beside him.


 


Eyup,” I answered then glanced to make sure both Stranger and Aero still had their weapons ready and drawn. They did.


 


That we're helping someone, to help Aero, to help us?” He continued.


 


Eyup,” I repeated.


 


Then silence descended again, stretching out between us. So many unsaid words, so many things that needed to be stated and voiced... but nothing came. Lucky's mouth opened at some point, but predictably it closed again. Ever the coward.


 


You cut it off.” He finally said, surprising me. Was he finally gonna talk to me about it?


 


I did.” I answered, glancing at him from the corner of my eye.


 


It's growing back, isn't it? That's why you had to do... that... last night.” He was staring at my raised stump as I walked on three legs. By tonight I could put it back into its prosthetic, and that's the last I'd have to deal with it... for a while. “I'm sorry.”


 


I shot him a glare, “I'm not after your fucking pity, Lucky.” He flinched back at my words. Good. “Why are you here?” I asked him. If he wasn't going to bring it up, then I fucking would, because I was sick of this prancing around. I'd spilled my guts to Sonnet last night, so hey, I might as well get what was needed out into the open with Lucky too so I could bury it back in the ground again.


 


I told you...” He mumbled, “I'm here for the-”


 


-the foal?” I finished with a raised brow.“Cut the bullshit.” He turned away from me. Fucking coward. “Fine then, let me ask you something else, why hasn't 'It' happened yet?”


 


It?” He asked in a low tone. He was being depressive again. Why did I get the strong feeling that this stallions mind was about as macabre as one could get. Seriously, I wouldn't be surprised if he had a funeral march theme in his fucking head wherever he went.


 


It.” I said firmly. “'It' should have happened back at the Stable. 'It' should have happened with the Slavers and Raiders, and 'It' certainly should have happened at Whitetail Prison. So tell me Lucky... why are we still alive with you here.”


 


He gulped and looked down at his hooves, staring at them as he shifted from one to another, like his fetlocks were suddenly the most interesting thing in Equestria. “I don't know.” he said. Shit he was actually being honest.


 


Silence again.


 


I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I could feel the lump in my throat growing. “I know why you left. I get it, I really do, and I'd probably have done the same in your place.” I opened my eyes and found him looking at me now. Sweet Celestia, he looked about to cry. God he was pathetic. I turned away, not wanting to look at those eyes any more. “I get it. But I was a foal. I'd just lost everything. And yeah, I get why ya did and maybe it was right to do-” I turned to him and fixed him with a glare, “-but I will never forgive you for abandoning me.”


 


A tear ran down his cheek. Good, he could appreciate how I'd felt all those years ago. I turned away and moved up in the group to stand beside Stranger. He turned and gave me a look. That look. I turned away from him too.


 


*** *** ***


 


 


The sky above us was... well it was the Wasteland sky. It was overcast as always. But something about it made me feel jumpy. The clouds seemed thinner. In the distance I could see a small homestead. The large spires and relatively small buildings were a staple design that I instantly recognised. Besides, who could forget those light pinks and purples of the desecrated Carousel Boutique. Ponyville.


 


Wait.” I ordered. Everypony stopped. Not because I'd demanded it, but more because Stranger had stopped. I know they were following his lead because they glanced at him before they obeyed me. Since when did Stranger, the guy Aero had been condemning last night, warrant more respect than myself. Assholes. “That's Ponyville.” I pointed to the town.


 


Yes it is.” Futurity agreed, glancing to it before looking back at me, obviously searching for the point I was trying to make. “Shall we continue?”


 


I know where this leads,” I expressed, pointing in the direction we were heading, “where exactly is your Stable?” I challenged.


 


The Everfree Forest, beneath the Castle of the Two Sisters.” He answered calmly.


 


My brow raised and I shook my head. “Oh no, you expect us to go in there?” I challenged. “We have a filly with us.” Sonnet's hooves tightened a little at the mention of her presence. She'd been travelling on my back as usual. Her weight had become comforting.


 


The Everfree Forest?” Aero asked, looking concerned. “Ain't it supposed to be dangerous? The cloud cover don't work like it's supposed to. Even above the clouds it's weird.”


 


Winter can protect us from anything in those trees. It's perfectly fine.” Futurity assured me. He turned and began walking again.


 


He better.” I mumbled. We began moving, or at least, most of us. I turned my head and Lucky was just standing there, hell, he seemed frozen. His eyes were wide and, for the life of me, if I didn't know him better, I'd say Lucky looked... afraid.


 


But he never looked afraid. What could he be afraid of? Nothing could touch- oh... I remembered.


 


No.” Lucky's voice was quiet.


 


Lucky, sir?” Sonnet asked softly from my back.


 


Aero grumbled impatiently, “hurry up, you old coot.”


 


No, no! Fuck no! Not there!” He shouted before back-pedalling. His eyes closed and his hooves dug into the soil beneath him as though he were trying desperately not to fall apart.


 


...You alright?” Aero asked, bewildered. “Gramps, you're lookin' pale.”


 


Lucky shook his head rapidly. “I'm sorry... I can't.” He turned back the way we'd come.


 


NO!” Sonnet squealed, startling us all. She jumped off my back and I tried to catch her but the little git was surprisingly fast. She jumped out of my reach and quickly latched herself onto Lucky's leg.


 


Leave him, Sonnet.” I said.


 


Lucky shook his leg vigorously, trying his best to shake her off. “Let go!” He grunted, but she was stuck fast.


 


NO!” She screamed at him. “No! NO!”


 


Then Lucky snapped, and everything started moving painfully slow. Something in his eyes broke, his eye-lids went wide and unfocused. And for a single moment his face contorted with pain.


 


LET GO!” He yelled as his hoof struck. Sonnet fell to the floor her cheek bruised and her lip bleeding from the blow. Tears began running down her cheeks as she looked at Lucky. Lucky's eyes shifted back into focus and he balked. A silence descended as we watched the older stallion and the filly stare at each other. “I... I'm sorry,” he said before he turned and began to gallop away. Sonnet watched him go with her hoof against her bruised cheek.


 


No one said a word. I wasn't sure why. Surely Aero would be wondering what was going on, maybe Futurity would have some choice words at the sudden display of inter-group drama presented before him. But they didn't. They didn't speak.


 


I picked Sonnet up and placed her on my back. She started crying into my mane. I was surprised she still had tears left to shed. Poor girl. Lucky was the first one to protect her. He had even stood up to me. He'd always been the one that was just... there. She'd lost her Stable and the only life she'd ever known as well as her mother. When she'd finally gained something here in the Wasteland, a big part of it ran away.


 


The first information reel I'd listened to covered the basics of psychology in an educational format, but the second reel went into things at a more advanced level. I'd yet to reach that point in the second tape but I was pretty sure Sonnet was developing some big abandonment issues.


 


I'm sorry girl. That's just how the Wasteland is. Eventually... everyone leaves.


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


The Everfree Forest loomed before us.


 


It was a deceptive sight. The sky above the forest was cheery enough for the wasteland. The cloud cover broke once in a while and blessed us with glimpses of the sky beyond. Rays of sunshine flickered in and out as the clouds thinned and shifted. The trees, seemingly untouched by the desolation of the wasteland, were a vibrant display of gorgeous browns and golds that grew high above our heads. It was as though time stood still here, an homage to the world of the past. It wasn't though.


 


The forest had been dangerous even before the War, and two hundred years later it was only worse. Trees had become the whispering agents of a pony's death, and the pretty plants desired to consume all those that dared to tread through this dark place. Also it was home to other things with big teeth... that was a thing too.


 


Weapons check.” I called out. I let Sonnet drop from my back as I pulled off my saddlebags. I pulled out both my pistol and my rifle. The rifle was decidedly not in good condition. I needed to replace it, and soon. I couldn't now though, so I would have to do what basic maintenance I could. I offered Sonnet the pistol and she took it without a word, which was unsettling. She didn't seem to realise what she was holding. She was just so... depressed. Seriously? Did we really just get rid of one mopy team member only for the small one to take up the role? Ugh... this was gonna be a long day.


 


Speaking of... I looked up from my rifle and turned my attention to the sky again. It was getting dark already.


 


I looked at the others. Aero was once again trying to convince Stranger to let him take a look at his rifle. Futurity stood impatiently while Winter paced behind him. “Scratch the weapons check, we've got plenty of time to do that while we camp. We'll head in first light tomorrow.”


 


What?” Futurity exclaimed. “But... it's like... half an hour's walking distance. We would be there soon.”


 


Yup.” I replied as I pulled out the tent tarp. “Plenty of time for us to get lost, eaten or turned inside out by Killing Joke, and that's during the day; check the sky.” He glanced up. “It'd be foolish to go in there when its dark.”


 


He glared. “Well maybe we'd be there by now if you hadn't of slept in so late with the filly.” he countered. His eyes shifted from me to her. The git better not be insinuating what I thought he was insinuating.


 


I'm sorry, I was up late last night playing doctor with a bone saw.” I said while shaking my stump at him. That got a reaction out of him. He turned away looking somewhat grossed out. Huh, wouldn't have thought he was the type to be squeamish. Then again, I couldn't remember anytime he'd been close to a bad wound, even when Aero had his throat ripped out he'd been turned away, focused on the doorway. But what about the experiments in the prison medical areas... wasn't that him? Questions were starting to pile up. “Just be thankful the walk up here was uneventful. This place is usually heavy with Raiders, so count your blessings, shut up, and set up camp.” I grumbled as I threw some tarp to Aero. He looked at it as though it were the most foreign thing in the world. He didn't have the barest idea of how to set it up... Stranger though, wordlessly moved to help him as I began set up mine.


 


And isn't staying out here likely to get us in trouble with raiders then?” Futurity challenged.


 


I sighed. “Possible, but unlikely. Raider's are stereotypically not the brightest spark plugs in the drawer; kinda like Aero here.”


 


Hey!” The pegasus snapped indignantly.


 


But even they are smart enough to avoid the forest.” I continued as I raised my left hoof to hammer a nail into the ground. Then I remembered it wasn't in its prosthetic or even healed yet. So I grabbed a hammer instead. “Besides,” I continued, “they are the only things that'd be trying to kill us out here tonight, everything will be trying to kill us when we go in there.” I mumbled through the hammer as I worked. “I'd rather stick with the things that bullets actually work against.” Once the tent frame was set up I covered it with the tarp and shoved my stuff into the shelter.


 


Fine.” Futurity grumbled as he began setting up his own tent that Stranger had provided for him.


 


Sonnet wasted no time slipping into my tent and curling up in my sleeping bag. I could feel Futurity's eyes on me. I liked the stallion, he was a good conversationalist, but if he didn't stop giving me that look when it came to Sonnet, I was going to deck him.


 


I looked at Sonnet. “Hey... are you alright?” I'm an idiot, of course she wasn't but I wasn't really sure how to approach depressed ponies. Give me a trader and I could barter. Give me a pony to swindle and I could get the caps out of their pocket. Give me a pony to impress and I'll have them fawning in minutes. But give me a depressed pony and... Shit. I had no fucking clue what I'm doing.


 


I'm better at pissing ponies off.


 


Sonnet shrugged. I sighed, then grit my teeth. I turned to Stranger who looked back at me. I gave him a pleading look... the git shrugged. Great. Wonderful help. Inspirational.


 


I'm fine.” Sonnet's small voice declared grumpily. Grumping now? Damnit. Okay, seriously, I should just skip to the therapy section of my tapes, because I was confused. Shouldn't she just be upset that Lucky left? So why was she angry... and with me? What did I do?


 


Food.” I said firmly, because food solved everything in the wasteland. Seriously, you could calm a rabid raider with food. Food was good. It was safe. Safe is good. Yup, yup, yup.


 


Grub?” Aero perked up with a hopeful expression.


 


I nodded to him. “Food.” I confirmed.


 


I found some precooked Brahman meat in our rations. I salted it up a bit and shoved a plate near her with what I hoped was a pleasant expression. Filly's liked smiles right? ...right?


 


She gave it a look then gave me a dead-panned expression. Ah... right... meat. Wait... Was she thinner than before? I could see her ribs and I certainly couldn't when I'd first met her. I mean, seeing the ribs of a pony was pretty much standard, I'd expected it on others. But she was a cute filly, she still had baby fat... or was supposed to.


 


What?” She snapped at me.


 


My smile faded. “When was the last time you ate?” I asked her. I'd shown her where the food was in my saddlebags and given her free reign. I often left my saddlebags when we'd camped so I didn't always have to carry anything around, she'd had plenty of chances to eat... but the last time I could remember distinctly seeing her eat was-


 


The peaches.” She answered for me. The ones Vanilla Milkshake had given to her... three days ago.


 


...My brain stalled...


 


You haven't eaten for three days?” I asked softly. Her posture changed from grumpy, to slightly fearful as I closed my eyes and bit the inside of my cheek. I sighed. Of course... in the wasteland, nothing good ever lasts long. My eyes opened after a minute and I fixed her with a look. “Eat.”


 


I'm fine.” She mumbled. I hadn't used this tone since I'd tried to get her to eat the first time.


 


Eat.” I ordered again. “I won't ask a third time.” She was making me do this.


 


She looked past me at the others. All movement had stopped. I could feel their eyes watching us. Who had I been kidding. Going soft on a filly, as if the Wasteland might spare her it's hell. Us connecting? Us having heart to hearts and even cuddles... it was nice while it lasted. I think she had even started seeing me as her 'hero'.


 


I'm not a hero.


 


I grabbed the food and took a small bite, I chewed it, then grabbed her. She squealed as my lips forcibly met hers. Fuck what it looked like.


 


Holy shit!” Aero exclaimed in shock.


 


What in Tartarus?!” I heard Futurity yell, though his shock was also laced in riotous anger. Hooves approached, probably to stop me, but they stopped. I felt Stranger's presence keeping everyone at a distance. Stranger knew what I was doing. That or he just trusted that it wasn't what it seemed.


 


I covered her nose until the filly's mouth opened to gasp in air, I shoved the food into her mouth with my tongue and pulled away, forcing her jaw shut. Then I held it closed as she struggled. I stroked her throat to stimulate reflex and force her to swallow. I let her jaw go when she did to grab the meat again. She was screaming for help as she tried to scramble away. I bit, I chewed, I kissed her, I held her nose, I forced the food into her mouth, and I made her swallow. I did it again. And again. She threw up, I wiped her mouth with my hoof, and continued, ignoring the taste. She tried biting my tongue. I ignored the pain and carried on.


 


Twenty minutes later the meat was gone. She'd only thrown up once. She'd resisted the urge after that because I'd pointed out I had a lot more meat. She knew I'd continue if I felt she hadn't eaten enough.


 


I sat in the corner of the camps, a few feet from my tent. I looked over my rifle, trying to occupy myself by making sure it was in good condition. The filly sobs could be heard from my tent. She hadn't left the makeshift shelter... yet. The clouds above were probably messing with her agoraphobia. I had stationed Stranger beside my tent to stop her from stepping out. He continued to monitor her. I couldn't have her running off to throw up somewhere that I couldn't see.


 


Everyone, other than Stranger, was glaring at me.


 


Why?” Aero asked me in his suit's distorted voice. His helmet was up again. Did he just wear that thing so that he could feel intimidating? Seriously, it was pathetic.


 


Because I'm saving her.” I answered as I checked the ammo clip of my rifle. “And she doesn't have to like me for me to do that.”


 


The camp had descended into silence.


 


Futurity had calmed down when he had realised what I'd been doing. But he looked concerned. Kinda. His eyes were... weird. He was looking at me like he would look at a test subject. I knew that look... it was the kind somepony would get when they saw something they wanted to dissect. How did I know that look?


 


Oh...It was my look.


 


...Guess I hadn't lost myself yet.


 


 


Footnote: Level Up.


New Perk: Forceful Compulsion – Ponies do what you say, even if you have to make them! Your manner has gained you 5+ CHR when dealing with those of lower CHR than yourself.

End Notes:

(Authors Note: And that's the new chapter down. That's a little lore and backstory and character interaction to warm the hearts and turn the stomach! Hehehehe. I sincerely hope you all enjoyed it, and I look forward to all of your opinions and reviews. ^-^ Thanks so much to Kkat and the original Fallout: Equestria story, Thanks to my amazing editor for getting this out on deadline, and thanks to all those that are reading this and actually give a crap about it. :) You make writing worth it.

Comment and subscribe. )

 

(Editors Note: Sup folks! That's two deadlines in a row that I;ve met. I'm on a roll! On fire baby!

Ack! Shit! I'm actually on fire.... Almanac?! Get the fire hydrant! Please! My pants are on fire!)

Chapter Six - Dear Princess Celestia, Fate's Just a Bunch of Bullshit, Right? by AlmanacPony

Chapter Six


Dear Princess Celestia, Fate's Just a Bunch of Bullshit, Right?


“'Cross my heart, Hope to fly, Stick a cupcake in my eye.' ~ Pinkie Promise”


 


 


 


The Everfree Forest. It was not a good place to be.


 


I watched the darkness through the trees. During the day, the intermittent sunlight from above could look quite welcoming as it played through the branches and leaves. Charming even. It would dazzle you with colours that were vibrant and ALIVE with gold's, and reds, and green's. In the bleak wasteland, the colours made ponies hope. They'd hope their way till their death.


 


The darkness of night hid the colours and showed the forest's true nature though. Trees swayed in the darkness, tricking the eyes into seeing things. Made you feel like you were being watched as something hid somewhere beyond the first line of trees. I shivered at the thought.


 


We sat on the edge of the forest, less than thirty feet from its borders staring in. Well, I was staring. Staring and shivering. The night was cold. This night I didn't have the comforting thin walls of a tent to keep me warm, I'd given that up for the miserable filly. She'd sniffled herself to sleep over a few hours, Futurity had fallen asleep across from her in his own tent, and our feather-brain Pegasus snored louder than a ghoul. Did all Pegasus snore when they slept? Ugh. Stranger and I were the only ones up.  His deep azure eye scanned the horizon for the smallest mote of a threat.


 


 


Sonnet started sniffling from my tent, and even her crying and whimpering had a melodic cadence... which was irritating. I sighed as I picked myself up and slipped into the tent. She was curled up in on herself and kicked the blanket from her body in her sleep. I slipped it back over her, tucking her in properly. Then I slipped back out and walked up to Stranger. My prosthetic clinked against a rock as I flopped down on my stomach beside him. I nudged the rock idly, letting the slight clink echo quietly around us.


 


“I'm terrible at this parental business, aren't I?” I mumbled. Clink. Clink.


 


“Yup.” He answered.


 


I was glad he'd answered. Stranger kept his mouth shut most of the time, but he always seemed to know when it was right to speak... when I needed him to... Celestia, I was pathetic.


 


“I know you, Tome.” He continued. I'll admit it, I jumped. “You're not a hero,” gee, whoopee, “but you're not a bad pony either.” He turned to me, and somehow, through the bandages that wrapped his muzzle, I thought I saw the faintest creases of a soft smile. But hey, maybe it was just my imagination.


 


I pulled a face, “I prance-kissed a filly.”


 


“Yup, probably could have handled that one better.”


 


My brain stalled and I shot him a look.  “Did you just mock me?” I asked. He didn't answer, and instead stared at the Horizon. The smile I'd thought I'd seen wasn't there and his expression was as stern and unemotional as ever... but I swear I could see the glint of mischief in his eye. “Don't go silent on me.” I said indignantly. He refused to respond, instead he stood up and began to move away from me. The mother-fucking git...


 


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


 


I hadn't slept. I imagine in hindsight that was probably a big mistake. But it's difficult to sleep when your brain is telling you how much of a horrible person you are, whilst simultaneously defending yourself through ever more desperate rhetoric. The worst part was, I'm pretty sure both voices were right.


 


I may not be a good pony, but I am not an evil one. And even though what I'd done to Sonnet was abusive and disgusting, it WAS for her health and survival. But, do the ends justify the means? “No” my mind whispered… I buried that whisper.


 


The sun was starting to rise, evidenced by the golden tint on the clouds above. I pushed my glasses up my nose with my forehoof and stood up for a stretch.


 


Then I took stock of Stranger's position. My musings had kept me in my head for the last few hours so I'd sorta lost track of things. I found him about ten meters away, staring at the horizon still.


 


“Tome.” Futurity's called. I turned to see him giving me an expectant expression and I raised my brow in response. “I just want you to know that I don't think you're a monster.” He said.


 


“And you figure this because?” I asked. I didn't consider myself a monster either, but I was curious why he thought that.


 


He shrugged, “what you did for the filly, it was the correct thing to do. She needed to eat and you were limited on your options.” He gave me a level look. “It was commendable.”


 


I barked out a laugh. “Well, I'm glad you think so.” I turned away from him to walk away, but a thought stopped me. I looked back over my shoulder. “This Stable of yours?”


 


“Yes?” He answered.


 


“Is it safe?” I asked.


 


He seemed confused. “Why wouldn't it be?”


 


It was an important question. Stables were oft to be horror shows. I'd heard of Stables filled with monsters, with ghouls, with killer robots and machines. I'd heard of ones with plant-like ponies, others that seemed empty but were in fact full of invisible creatures, and just a few that were either poisoned, or containing chemicals that made you crazy. There were even a few that seemed normal and full of ponies, but those ponies were crazy and cannibalistic.


 


“Most Stables,” I tried to explain, “are not safe. Your Stable, as you said, was designed around the superiority of Earth Ponies, but these weren't the only experiments Stable-Tec did.”


 


Futurity nodded, “I'd assumed as much. Can you give me some examples?”


 


I bit my bottom lip. “I'd rather not. Suffice to say that many of those experiments, no matter how well intentioned, went wrong. Stables are reputed horror shows. So I need to know she's going to be safe.”


 


Futurity chuckled, then nodded, “fine.” Then smiled as though he were humouring a foal. “Cross my chest, hope not to die, stick a knife into my eye.” He swore as he crossed his chest with his right hoof. It was the pinkie promise, but not as I'd ever heard it before. Must be his Stables own version. But humouring or not, it was good enough.


 


“Thank you.” I said. He shrugged and turned, heading back to his own tent. I continued to Stranger, padding up to him before sitting beside him. I scanned the horizon as he was. “So, Captain Sass...” I began, about to chastise him for his earlier mockery, even though I was secretly impressed. Seriously, Stranger, making a joke... that like, NEVER happens-


 


“Someone's coming.” He interrupted. My brain stalled as it tried to process what he just said. Thankfully my adrenal glands kicked it back up. I angled my head, trying to pick out what Stranger's crazy eye did. Then I realised a singular pony was approaching. At first I thought it was Lucky returning to us after his breakdown, but I noticed the gait was wrong. This pony held their head up high; they walked with confidence. They also wore armour, though indistinct as it was, I could tell it wasn't shit armour even from this distance. As they approached, I saw a deep lavender coat, a shock of violet mane, and I was almost certain they were a mare.


 


She stopped five meters from us. A tactical distance. Close enough to get a good shot, remain casual in conversation; and far enough to dodge if required. The mare, as I'd predicted, was smiling. Gleefully at that. She had gorgeous carmine red eyes that I definitely wasn't staring at, and her mane, even though raggedy, was surprisingly clean and shone beautifully in the light and- Okay-


 


I gave myself a mental kick. Yup, she was pretty. Plenty of pretty assholes in the wastes. I reigned in my hormones and focused on the mare, slipping my brain into logical non-stupid-stallion mode... but seriously, she was hot.


 


“Hey~” She purred. She had a gun on her side, but she didn't seem inclined to using it, or maybe she didn't think she'd need it. The armour fit her snugly and though well put together, was still made of scrap.  The snug fit told me that it was custom made. Which meant one of two things, either this mare had some caps on her, or she had friends who did. Maybe both. That or she somehow made it herself, which I suppose is a third option. I glanced at her hooves next. If the Keratin on her soles were thick, that meant heavy use, not just for walking. But I couldn't tell, they were booted up and the boots were worn in, armoured but dirty and fraying at the edges. So she probably wore them often. This mare travelled a lot.


 


I looked from her hooves back up to her eyes, and balked when I noticed she was looking directly at me. Quizzically at that. Until, of course, I realised I'd just been staring at her for almost a full minute. I'd be confused in her position too. My brain kicked into gear... again. This mare was friendly, she seemed to want to speak to us or maybe get our aid, or maybe she was interested in something else. The Gentle-stallion approach was probably the best. “Nice to meet you,” I greeted warmly, taking a step towards her. Her back left hoof twitched and slipped into the dirt by the barest of an inch. “Can we help you with something?” I asked. Her smile widened, almost imperceptibly. Her brow also furrowed. She was trying to maintain her current expression... she was smiling... but hiding a smirk. Fuck.


 


She chuckled and shook her head at my question. “Nah, I'm just a distraction.” Her smile was infectiously warm. I found myself starting to return her smile before my brain caught up with her words. FUCK FUCK!


 


I dived to the side as the first shot rang out. A bullet lodged into the ground where I had just been. Moments later I heard Aero's saddle-canons. If the camp wasn't awake, they'd be now.  Then, in less than five seconds, our encampment turned to shit. I saw Raiders, a LOT of them, almost twenty, running in, firing off their guns, a LOT of guns... did I mention there were a lot of raiders? There were a lot of raiders. Triple Fuck!


 


I drew my pistol and shot the nearest one in the head before a bullet decided to use my right shoulder as a nice place to nest. I groaned through my pistol as I took aim at the next raider and fired. The bullet sliced through his throat and he fell to the ground gurgling blood.


 


Stranger stood next to me as his rifle fired off three hot bursts as fast as he could reload... seriously how the fuck did he reload that fa- PING! I yelped as a bullet clipped my prosthetic hoof. Seriously? Going for a cripple’s aid? Fuck you guys!


 


Then Aero was above them. He flew high, raining fire down on the raiders. But the idiot was making himself an easy target by hovering in the air. Bullets pinged against his armour as they ricocheted off. Then one sliced through a thin spot on his left wing and it gave out. He plummeted. Feathers-for-brains worked his other wing furiously, trying to regain control of his flight and it worked… kinda. He stopped flipping end over end just before he hit the ground. He crashed, rolled once, then sprawled into an awkward heap. Shit, there went our artillery.


 


A mare took aim at Aero to finish him off but I put a bullet through her skull before she could. Her brains exploded out of her head as the raiders around her followed suit when Stranger's bullets found their mark. Each boom of his gun was followed by a dead raider. Boom. Boom. Boom. SNAP!


 


What was that?


 


I turned and Stranger was looking at his weapon curiously… I looked down at it too. Shit. The firing mechanism had broken entirely.


 


I gave my hoof a petulant stamp just as a Unicorn jumped over a tent and landed next to Stranger. She shoved her shotgun right against his throat. Damn. I started turning, but I wasn't going to be able to fire before she did. She had him dead to rights and she knew it. She smirked as she bit down on the trigger. Then a blur jerked the mare and her shotgun blast erupted into Strangers shoulder. Winter swiped at her again as she raised a hoof to defend herself. The mutt's claws sheared through the hoof, and the mare screamed. She tried to run, but only manage to hobble. Though she was moving surprisingly faster than I could on three legs. A small part of me was strangely annoyed at that.


 


A yell pulled my attention to my left. More raiders were coming. A backup group... they'd distracted us, then took us down with not just numbers, but waves. The bastards were smart.


 


“Tome!” Aero yelled. I turned back to him. A stallion was aiming his shotgun at Aero. I couldn't make the turn to save Stranger but this turn I could make. I blew the stallion's throat out.


 


I galloped over to Aero. “I got ya.” I said before I helped him to his hooves. But, we both dived back to the ground as bullets peppered the ground around us.


 


“No,” Aero yelled over the gunfire as he waved me off. Then he pointed to the forest. “Sonnet ran in!”


 


I stared at the forest as my eyes grew wide. Did I mention shit?!! We didn't have a choice now. “Into the forest!” I bellowed. Then I ran. I ran and hoped they'd follow me. Stranger caught up to me quickly. He had picked up a shotgun and a pistol from somewhere and he was dual wielding them with his magic, blasting any pony that came close. Aero was the next to catch up, pulling alongside me just as we entered the forest. He had his injured wing folded tight to his side. Futurity was ahead of me, he and Winter both. That was everyone but Sonnet, good… kinda. Brush, branches, and leaves swatted at us as we ran. I felt a heavy thump against my back as branch swung back on me, and pain shot up my spine. I ignored it and kept running with the others.


 


The tree's closed around us, and the raiders didn't follow.


 


They were smart ponies after all.


 


We ran until we could barely breathe. Or at least until I could barely breathe. After only five minutes of running I was starting to lag behind the others.


 


I stumbled a little and had to call out, “wait... need... a break.” I said as my vision swam. The tree's around me warped a little, and my brain felt prickly. Adrenaline was starting to ease off now and I was feeling pain. Everything ached. My head, my hooves, my shoulder and my back... my back? I looked over my shoulder and saw three holes in my barding. Oh… Well that can't be good. Did they go through the barding? I think they did.


 


Then the adrenaline completely fell away and I felt very heavy as I stared at the wound. A red drool oozed from them. Oh yup, I was bleeding. Ooooooh, that thump hadn't been a branch. Gotcha, hadn’t seemed important at the time. I'd been shot... I chuckled. Yep, I'd been shot... I cocked my head. That was actually quite a lot of blood. Bugger. And why was I so tired? Guess I should take a small… little… nap...


 


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


This mare knew her way around a stallion. Her red eyes bore into mine as her lavender mane bounced. My god I could almost forgive her for trying to shoot me. She gave me a wicked grin then pulled me in close. Our lips locked and our tongues danced and twisted together.


 


She pulled back and... she kinda looked like Aero?


 


It was weird waking up to seeing three ponies staring down at me. Aero was giving me disgusted looks while wiping off his tongue, Futurity looked something between concerned and amused, and Stranger was... well Stranger. Ugh... Did I have something on my face? Did I have an erection? Was I laying in shit? I better not be laying in shit. I would be very upset if I was laying in shit.


 


Aero was the first to speak. “We've ehm… We've got a problem.”


 


“Am I laying in shit?” They stared back at me blankly. Ok, so maybe it wasn't shit. “So what's the problem?” I snapped. Then it hit me. Oh... right. I'd been shot. Sonnet had run into the forest. The Everfree Forest. I sat up abruptly. “Where's Sonnet?!” Ugh. Bad idea. Hot pain lanced through me and I started coughing. Something also started burning inside me. I looked up at my friends (were we friends?) for answers. It was Futurity that laid the details out to me. They'd given me a healing potion while I was unconscious but... the bullets hadn't punched through me; they were still inside me causing damage. “Shit.” I replied softly.  “Have we found Sonnet yet?” I asked as I slowly and painfully pulled myself to my hooves.


 


“No, but...” Aero looked confused. “Shouldn't you rest? You almost died.”


 


What else was new? “We need to find Sonnet.” I answered.


 


“Fuck that filly.” His words stopped me mid-step. “We need to get outta this place. This be dangerous. If she wants to run away, why do we need her? She's baggage anyway, she won't even feed herself.”


 


Stranger stepped between us just as I turned around to kill the git. I stared Stranger down before addressing Aero.


 


“Just like a Pegasus.” I spit. “A cowardly little shit that wants to run away from all danger, abandoning everyone.” I stepped closer but Stranger cut off my approach again. “Let me help remind you, to give you some beneficial incentive to shut your fucking cock-hole.” Aero took several steps back when he finally saw my face. “If that filly disappears, our need for you to help her mother disappears. So our need to have you around disappears. If you want help with your daddy issues, find that filly.”


 


A lot of things irritated me; the ever increasing prices of produce in the Wasteland, running out of my favourite snack cakes, finding a really good condition book that was missing the last few pages of its contents. But Pegasus’s being Pegasus fucking infuriated me... I'd grown used to Aero in the group -partially anyway- I'd nearly forgotten he was a Pegasus every once in a while. But the selfishness was just so... Pegasus. Pegasus... they were the only ones that decided to be selfish as a WHOLE FUCKING SPECIES. Closing off the damn fucking sky and pretending they'd be alright up there while we all suffered down here... hiding away from the dangers... fucking cowards.


 


I snorted at Aero and forced myself to start walking. One hoof in front of the other. He hadn't replied, which was probably the smartest decision he'd made since I met him. I was suddenly conscious of every clop of his hooves in the dirt, every breath he took. I found myself gritting my teeth more, trying desperately to think of anything else. I made myself focus on my surroundings. Beautiful coloured plants flowered on ivy that wrapped around the tall tree's.


 


“Aero.” Futurity began, moving into step beside the armoured pegasus. “Is that your birth name?”


 


“...”


 


Aero didn't respond. I wish the idiot had. I had a feeling the name was bullshit; no parent was that uncreative. Then again, Lucky's parents had named him 'Lucky'. I couldn't describe how common that name was, especially with Horseshoe's as a surname. Variations of it were all over the Equestrian Wasteland, parents hoping and praying to Celestia that their child would live up to the name and be 'Lucky' to survive. Idiots.


 


“Where did you grow up?” Futurity continued. “Cloudsdale?”


 


Futurity still wanted to study our Pegasus companion. My guess, was that he was starting conversation to get information on Pegasus society. I had an urge to tell them to shut up as a part of me did not want to hear about the so called 'plights' of the Pegasus. Fuck, who am I kidding, a sizeable portion me didn't want to hear it.


 


Aero snorted. “Cloudsdale's a radioactive no-go zone. It was the first place to be hit by a Megaspell.”


 


“I didn't know that. We don't have good records of what happened in the war... So, if not Cloudsdale, where?”


 


“A click off Pegasdale... aboard the 'Titan's Folly'.”


 


I had no idea where Pegasdale was, but my memory flashed and I remembered it being one of the places listed on Futurity's monitors. One of the places he'd been spying on in Whitetail Prison. My curiosity was taking over, damn it.


 


“Aboard? As in 'aboard a ship'?”


 


Aero was about to reply but fell quiet as we entered a new area. The forest looked... strange. Like it had become twisted. We passed a gnarled tree that was contorted and bent. Then another, and yet another.  It was as if something had rent them to its desire, bending them into shapes without breaking them. The grass had turned from a luscious green to a greenish-blue colour. The air felt thick and had a slight tang to it. I shivered as the hair rose on the back of my neck. The place was giving me the chills.


 


“Do you feel that?” I asked. Stranger walked up beside me, his eyes fixed ahead of us. He did.


 


I continued and Stranger stepped forward without me. He walked up to one of the twisted tree's, his eyes moving along the branches. He reached up and pushed aside some of the vines that had tangled around the length of its bark. I couldn't quite tell, but I thought something was carved there. He let the vines fall back into place, and walked around the first load of tree's, disappearing from view. I followed him but found my way blocked by a curtain of vines. We stepped through.


 


We stood in a clearing. The tree's around us were the twisted kind, the ground below us a downy luscious green grass. The canopy above cast a shadow over the grove while Celestia's light shone from above.


 


The grass was springy, sturdy but soft, unlike any grass I'd ever felt. I leaned down and sniffed it, and my mouth watered. I opened my mouth to take a bi-, my mouth snapped shut. A purple aura surrounded my muzzle. I looked up and Stranger had his eye narrowed at me. He shook his head before releasing my jaw. But, I was acutely aware of just how hungry I was now. When had I last ate? I considered trying again before my mind snapped back at me. What was I thinking? This wasn't normal. I shook my head stubbornly, dismissing the thoughts.... though my stomach growled at me in protest.


 


Stranger stepped forward into the wider part of the clearing. The tree's around us formed a perfect circle, as though the forest radiated from this hidden vale. In the centre of the area was a small ring of stones. They weren't large, just rocks of average shape and size. They just so happened to be placed in a circle, and within the circle was an array of unassuming mushrooms. Twelve of them. Stranger's eyes ran over them, then upwards to the canopy overhead.


 


“We should not be here,” he said. “We should leave.”


 


Then I realized how quiet the grove was. The sound of the forest had been a constant before. Now, there were no animals twittering or growling in the distance or the gentle rustling of leaves as the wind blew through the trees. I couldn't hear anything from the canopy above.


 


“What is this place?” I asked.


 


“The heart of the forest.” He answered.


 


“We didn't travel that far,” I countered, entirely sure we'd barely been walking or running twenty minutes, “we can't be in the heart so fast.”


 


“It's heart, not it's centre.” He clarified. “It will not want us here.”


 


“What are you on about?” Aero asked in his helmet distorted voice. “I thought this place was a bunch of tree's?”


 


“The Everfree Forest is one of Twelve locations of converging magic in the world.” Stranger said as he stared down at the circle of stones. “It is a lay-line intersection.”


 


“And that means?” Futurity asked before Aero could open his mouth.


 


Aero glanced at Futurity before pointing his hoof at the stallion, “what he said.”


 


Stranger turned from the stones and started back the way we'd come, passing us. “It means it's alive, and it does not like us.”


 


We moved back through the vine-curtain and as I passed through it I could feel the grass clinging lightly to my hooves, as though it were trying to keep me there. Upon leaving the strange place I shuddered and my coat stood on end. I could hear something slithering, I was sure of it.


 


“Wait.” I said. The others stopped, almost immediately. A small part of me enjoyed the synchronisation of our small group. The rest of me was trying not to panic as warning bells went off in my head. I looked around, trying to find the source of the noise.


 


“What?” Futurity asked. Then his breath caught and his ears pricked up. Something was moving over soil. Winter growled as the sound got louder. It was coming towards us.


 


Something blue lashed out from the undergrowth to our left and I dove forward. I rolled, stumbled, and fell flat on my ass with a grunt. Something tore inside me as I suddenly and acutely remembered I still had bullets lodged in me somewhere painful. I coughed violently, and I tasted blood. I spat it out. Then looked at the blue thing. It was a umm... I think it was a plant?


 


It was a green vine wrapped covered with beautiful blue flowers. And I could smell… spiced honey?


 


It laid there as though it had always been there, despite recent memory arguing otherwise. Warning bells blared in my head as I stared at it dumbly. It was familiar for… Oh… Shit. I knew what this was.


 


“Killing/Poison Joke!” Futurity and I exclaimed. We looked at each other.


 


“Killing Joke?” He asked curiously.


 


I opened my mouth, but the vine twitched and I jumped back several feet.


 


“An interesting change in moniker, is that due to any evolution of its state or- UGH!” Futurity was yanked backwards. His back hit the ground and he gasped as the air was struck from him. A blue vine tightened around his neck, then snapped into the air taking him with it. Futurity kicked and struggled to free himself as the vine held him suspended. I froze as I tried to figure out how to help. I couldn't touch the vine or else it'd kill me. Hell I half expected Futurity to explode any moment now. Thankfully, Winter acted before I needed to. The cybernetic dog severed the vine using its mechanical limb and Futurity dropped to the ground. He coughed violently as he struggled to draw oxygen in. His throat was red raw and indented. Damn... the vine had almost crushed his oesophagus.


 


“Are you okay?” I asked as I galloped to him.


 


“Y-yeah,” he croaked, “I don't think it had time to do anything to me. I think I'm fine.”


 


Then I heard more slithering as the undergrowth rustled around us.


 


“You've been in and out of these Forests, you must know safe routes!” I yelled.


 


Futurity nodded, “It um, grows in hotspots.” He massaged his throat as he looked around. “Follow me.” He croaked as he galloped off. The rest of us weren't far behind.


 


We travelled over trees that were scorched by what had to have been lightning. Then down into what I can only assume had once been a lake, but now only resembled a damp ditch. We ran across the muddy bottom then climbed up the other side. My hooves slipped in the dirt as we made our way up.


 


“I thought Earth Ponies were good at this stuff.” Aero chided, as he flapped his wings.


 


“Most... of us... have four hooves.” I grunted. I wasn't bullshitting either, my prosthetic wasn't digging into the ground. Without feeling I couldn't tell where the hoof-holds were or how sturdy they were. I yelped as I slipped and started skidding rapidly down the slope. Then I stopped with a lurch that almost made me lose my stomach. I hovered about a foot from the muddy ground. I grumbled. “Put me down Stranger.” I did not enjoy being cradled in magic like a babe.


 


Then I heard slithering. “Never-mind! Up! Up! Up!” I yelled. Stranger took my request to heart and threw me up the hill. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I squealed. Futurity joined me, having been tossed in a similar manner. Though he didn't squeal like a filly and seemed thoroughly amused. Aero landed not long after, also looking amused. Then Stranger reached the top, having crawled up the long way.


 


I glanced across the ditch. Blue vines slithered along the edge. They'd stopped approaching, they weren't even trying to cross. We were safe… I think.


 


“Okay... let’s take a break.” I said between pants. I collapsed against a nearby tree and sucked in as much air as I could manage. The stupid bark was uncomfortable.


 


“You don't take breaks in here.” Futurity said firmly. “There's a reason I'm in and out as fast as possible. We need to go North-East for my Stable, we should head there now.” He seemed antsy.


 


“No.” I said. I was pretty sure it'd be the death of me if we stayed any longer, but I wasn't about to leave without finding Sonnet.


 


“We could get help, a force that could scour the forest with us to help find your filly. I just need to requisition one from the Overmare.” That... is actually a good idea.


 


“How long would that take?” I asked.


 


“We could be searching for Sonnet as early as first light.”


 


“No deal. We don't leave the forest till Sonnet is with us.”


 


“Why do you care?” He wasn't being judgemental or condescending, it was just intellectual curiosity. Didn't stop from snapping though.


 


“Fuck off asking me that!” I yelled. Everypony dropped silent and staring at me. I glared back. A silence descended on the forest, interrupted occasionally by the gentle rustling of leaves in the canopy overhead. “Breaks over.” I growled as I stood up. I stalked off in a random direction, assuming the others would follow.


 


I stamped by hooves as I walked. Aero had pissed me off bad enough, and now Futurity had my temper broiling. I forced myself to think of other things, but Sonnet kept coming to mind. My anger was being eaten by worry. Pain was playing a part too though, my insides felt like a blender had chewed through them.


 


My prosthetic clicked on the ground as I walked and I forced myself to breath in and out in tandem with it.


 


Clink, in. Clop, clop, clink, out. Clop, clop, clink, in...


 


Then my lungs seized as I coughed violently, spitting blood everywhere. Shit. I did NOT need a coughing fit right now. I ignored the others, but I could still feel their eyes on me. Every few steps I wiped my mouth off. My hoof was covered in a new coat of blood every time. If I didn't get these bullets out of me-


 


“Hey Futurity.”


 


“Yes?” he asked.


 


“How good are the medical facilities in your Stable?”


 


“Excellent. We have a fully trained surgical staff.”


 


I nodded, “Good. I'm probably gonna need it.” I took another step forward and my prosthetic echoed loudly as it struck a rock. As the sound reverberated the foliage near me rustled. I froze. A light flare of hope blossomed in my gut. Maybe? “Sonnet?” I asked hopefully.


 


A vicious growl broke my train of thought. Not Sonnet, Decidedly NOT Sonnet.


 


WHOOOOoooooOOOOOooo!


 


“Timberwolves!” Futurity yelled.


 


What the fuck were Timberwolves?


 


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


 


Timberwolves were apparently made of wood, held together by glowing green joints and veins, and at least twice my size. Timberwolves were also fast. Very fast. And agile. They could jump and cling to tree's, they moved like a blur and their claws were extendable and could grow to the frightening length of a sword. And each paw had four of these. Oh, and did I mention there were HUNDREDS of them?


 


But... that's not the worst of it. Nope. Did you know that bullets are basically useless against wood? Ya'd think otherwise wouldn't ya. But nope! Ya wanna know what bullets do to creatures made of wood that don't die unless you break them apart? ABSOLUTELY BUGGER ALL!


 


To punctuate my point, I blasted a hole right through one. It was nice neat hole through its torso. Sappy blood splashed the ground too! But nope, I might as well have thrown my gun at it for all the good it did! Hell, there was an idea. I smashed the muzzle of my gun into the head of the beast trying feast on my prosthetic hoof. The creatures head gave a satisfying crack before its whole body turned into kindling.


 


Huh, take out the head and it falls apart... got ya. I slipped my gun away and fumbled around under my coat and pulled out something I hadn't used in a long time. My nice big knife. Well... it wasn't so big. It was 8 inches, but hey, it’s not the size that counts! And I was confident in my ability to find the right spot to penetrate. I turned and lashed out at a Timberwolf. I tore through its frame easily and grinned triumphantly as the creature’s small frame fell apart... wait... had that one been smaller than others? Was that a puppy Timberwolf? Did I just kill a puppy?


 


...


 


Damn it. Now I felt bad.


 


A bigger one came at me then but now I had something that worked! I turned, ducked under its swipe and thrusted up into its neck. TAKE THAT! The blade sank in heavily. I pulled the kni... Wait... I wriggled my muzzle, gripping the handle of the knife tightly. The knife was stuck. Oh... that's a thick neck. Oooooh, yeah... bigger Timberwolf, made of bigger parts. That made sense.


 


Then I was aware of a glowing green eye staring at my own. Huh, this close I could see a strange magical swirl in the eye... It would have been pretty if the beast wasn't trying to use me as a scratching post; and I hadn't been busy squealing like a mare and clambering away for my life.


 


I tripped over the tatters of my barding and roots as I ran. Stranger, Futurity, and Aero took their cue from me and hurried to catch up. We galloped as best we could through the undergrowth as the heavy footed paws, and the growls and howls behind us made it difficult to not shit ourselves. Or myself. I was definitely feeling something in the bowel department.


 


Branches slapped my face as we ran, which hurt, but not nearly as much as my chest. I felt like something was tearing inside me. “Healing Potion please!” I yelled out. Stranger passed one over with his magic as we ran.  I grabbed it, yanked the top off and downed it as fast as I could. It felt better as my insides knit nicely back together. Much better.


 


“We can't keep running forever!” I yelled as I dove under a fallen tree only to have to vault over a boulder. Sadly, though my glasses enhanced my terrible vision, they didn't give me any sightly superpowers so I couldn't see THROUGH things; which is why I didn't notice that directly behind the rock was a hill slope. And we were at the top. Diving over the boulder was an interesting experience. The vertigo of suddenly lacking a ground beneath me. The slam as my back met a rock on the slope. The sudden and frightening slide down. Then the world became a hazing blur as my glasses flew from my face, I was stumbling and tumbling, and I think I felt one of my legs snap. Yup, there's the pain.


 


I landed on my back and the air pushed from my lungs on impact.


 


For a moment, everything seemed peaceful. The ground turned soft. I breathed in slow repetitive cycles, and unconsciousness felt nice and comfortable at the edges of my mind.


 


The world around me wavered and slowly pain numbed my brain. I heard whimpering. I turned my head. Through my blurred vision I could make out the shapes of Stranger and Futurity. Stranger seemed unconscious, but Futurity was stirring. I had to find out if Stranger was okay, if his head got bashed open on the way down he could be...


 


I tried to rise, but pain lanced through me and I had to fight the urge to throw up. Both my hind legs were broken. I began crawling; I used my forelegs to drag myself forward. I shook him when I got close.


 


“Stranger... wake up you asshole...”


 


My voice was weak. I felt a roiling in my stomach again and I wasn't sure if it was fear, the bullets, or something worse. Plenty of options to choose from.


 


As I tried to decide which one was more likely -the bullets winning out so far- I heard whimpering again.  It wasn't coming from Stranger or Futurity either. I turned to my left and saw her hiding in the undergrowth and relief poured through me and for a moment I forgot the pain. I saw the small dirty face poking out of the bushes, Sonnet. She was shaking and clutching her fore-hoof. She was hurt... and I needed to help her.


 


I began crawling towards her. I came within a few feet of the filly and began grabbing leaves and brambles from the ground. I dragged them close to me, bunching them up before pushing them towards her. The overgrowth above her would block any view from above and this small wall would hide her enough... I hoped. “Stay quiet.” I told her, my voice barely above a whisper. “No matter what happens, stay quiet.” I stared at her eyes. Even with blurred vision I could see how scared she was. “No matter what.” I reiterated as I turned away from her and began to crawl in a different direction.


 


“Mas-Tome, w-wait? I'm sorry.” Her voice was shaking, it sounded weak. Probably fear.


 


I looked back at her and put my hoof to my lips, shushing her as the first Timberwolves came into view.


 


It was all just a blurry mass to me, my head was swimming with pain. I could barely see the shape of the Timberwolves. Their glow painted my view, like a sickly glowing mass of growls and wood. Their claws dug into the dirt as they began to surround us. We must look like quite the enticing meal. Did they eat ponies? Did they even need to eat? I chuckled as the nearest one approached me, its glowing green eyes staring down into my own. Was that a glint of metal near its... oh, that's my knife still in its neck. The way it growled at me felt personal. So they held grudges. That was an interesting titbit of knowledge... and their blood seemed to be a form of magical sap... and then there was their pack nature. It was all quite interesting... or at least it was to my addled brain right now. Though I had a sneaking suspicion this was just my brains mental reaction to terminal fear.


 


I pushed the thoughts away and stared up at where I was pretty sure it's eyes were, I could hear the growls and his eyes were quite glowy; but to me they blurred together.


 


“I hope you choke on me.” I spat at it.


 


Yup, as final words go, that'd have to do. Its growl increased in volume. Ooh, it sounded angrier, well if I am about to die, might as well go out doing what I do best. Pissing something off.


 


I can't count the amount of times I'd been told that my attitude would get me killed. I think I owed said people money. I mean, they were right after all... Then pain erupted from my side. I tried to scream but my throat felt strangled and hoarse. The only sound that escaped was a dull grunting groan. I felt my barding tear and lacerations scour my flesh.


 


Now I screamed.


 


Bile and blood poured from my mouth, strangling my voice. I vomited a mixture of blood and what meagre stomach contents I had as the heavy sickly feeling of my insides exposed to the air overwhelmed me. I was nauseous and feeling on the verge of passing out.


 


I heard her on the edge of my mind, like a soft breeze caressing my face. For a moment I couldn't tell if it was real or not. Somehow over the din of my timely death, I heard her voice. She was singing. Crying as she sang, but it was still a song. A beautiful song. I hadn't realised how beautiful her songs were. I part of me wanted her to keep singing because it was nice to hear something so beautiful through the pain and darkness that began to overtake me. But another part of me begged her to stop... begged her to stop because if she was singing, the Timberwolves could find her. Sonnet... please stop.


 


I felt the Timberwolf stop chewing on me. He pulled away as I tried to groan, to get its attention back so it'd just continue. Come on boy, tasty meat here... please, just stay with me. Just me, just kill me, not her.


 


But it ignored my mental pleas. I felt it step over my body towards the singing. I heard the footfalls of its fellow Timberwolves. They were going to take her... they were going to kill her.


 


I remember feeling cold after that. But even in the cold and the numbness that spread through my body... I cried.


 


I knew I'd fail.


 


Something exploded nearby.


 


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


 


I've never been dead before. It's weird. I think there was music. But that might have been Sonnet. There was definitely something, something that spoke in the darkness... like the notes of a musical instrument. I saw lights too, lights that swirled in the vortex before they collided together and erupted into a huge star. That star then began spinning and creating things. It drew in rocks that crashed together before forming planets. They spun with the star. Life brewed on the planets as they spun. Things grew and a strange sort of energy poured from those lives into the star. The star had given them life and in turn, they gave life to the star.


 


That was until I woke up and the bright light I'd seen as a star turned out to be a REALLY bright lamp that burned my eyes the moment they opened.


 


The first thing I said was, “Gah, fuck!” The first thing I did was to cover my eyes with my hooves. The second thing I said was “Ugh!” And the second thing I did was empty my stomach over the side of the bed I was lying on.


 


“Easy there.” A mare said, her voice soft and comforting. Her hoof stroked my head and I admit I leaned into the touch like a dog might. It was comforting. I tried to remember what had happened, why I was waking up in a strange place...


 


I got a flash of it. The blurry green and brown Timberwolves, the feeling of jaws in my flesh, the feeling of my insides being ripped out in the beast’s jaws...


 


I threw up again. Though this time it was more dry heaving.


 


My head hit the pillow when I was done and my throat burned with the acids of my stomach. I grunted at the still blaring light. The mare must have got the hint, because the damn thing finally turned off.


 


I turned to my left. Across from me, through a clear screen I could see another medical room, joined with this one by a window and a door. The blinds weren't pulled, and I could see Futurity on his own bed. Free of his barding he looked smaller than I remembered. His black mane dishevelled around his face. My eyes travelled down his red coat to his exposed rump, to his cutie-mark, or at least, where his cutie-mark should be. There was no cutie-mark. Just a large horrific scar, as though the mark had been burned from his flesh. That was the last thing I remembered before I drifted back to sleep.


 


I slept for what felt like another few hours. When I regained consciousness I was felt better. Not great, my stomach churned, my head ached, and I thought I was gonna throw up again, but still, stronger than before. The mare from before was nearby, looking over some paperwork.


 


“What-” I was about to ask what happened, but that was a stupid question. I remembered what happened. Then I was going to ask where I was, but even without my glasses I noticed the mares clean clothing and the clinical metal walls that surrounded me. I saw blinking lights of many machines I didn't recognise but seemed to be of medical use. I knew of few facilities which had the resources for such things, so my brain stumbled to the conclusion that we were in a Stable, Futurity's Stable most likely. Which left only one question I could ask: “Is she okay?”


 


“The filly? She's fine.” The mare answered warmly. Her sureness soothed my worries for the moment.


 


“Stranger? Futurity? Aero?” I asked, trying to discern her facial expression through the blur. Seriously, where the fuck were my glasses?


 


“Stranger's fine, we found a way to help him. Though never aided a Ghoul before, your friend Aero is the one that brought you all back here, so you should thank him for that. And Red's with the Overmare.”


 


Aero saved us? Huh. Then again, I didn't remember seeing him on the ground with us, and I suppose falling down a hill is less of an issue for somepony with wings. And then there was the explosion, probably Aero's canons.


 


“Red?” I gave her a confused expression, though I'd expect it was because of his red coat. His coat- the scar. His cutiemark scar. I gulped at the memory.


 


She gave a nervous chuckle. “Oh, Futurity. It's a nickname.” She smiled. I couldn't see it, but I heard the smile in her voice. I could also hear the edge to it, was she blushing? Huh... maybe she was Futurity's special somepony.


 


“I need my glasses.” I told her.


 


“Oh, you wear... erm... we don't have them. But we have some spectacles that we should be able to get for you, let me get the box.” She began humming a merry tune as she headed for the door.


 


She was much too chirpy. I didn't like her. I breathed in deeply and the place smelled... clean. I didn't like that either. This place felt like a dream, barely real. It felt like it was suspended in time, ignorant of reality. It felt like a fantasy.


 


I was almost missed the Stable horror stories. Somehow this place's ignorance seemed worse.


 


The mare returned after a few minutes with a blue box. She popped the lid and rooted through it. “Do you know your grade?” She asked.


 


“Grade?”


 


I couldn't hear it or see it, but something told me she was biting her lip. “Well, I guess we'll need to do some exploring then.”


 


It took us half an hour. 'Grades' seemed to be how bad my eyes were. They had a system that allowed them to get the right spectacles. Apparently glasses used to be very common, but not for a while since the advantage of something she called 'cybernetic ocular vision enhancements', which in lamens terms sounded like 'robot eyes'. She recommended I consider asking for it, but I refused. While not having bad eyesight would be lovely, I wasn't ready to have my eyes taken out to have new ones put in. Eventually, we found a pair that worked, and better than my own had, which wasn't surprising. I'd grabbed them from an optometrist store in one of the big cities up north. I'd changed the pair to new ones over the course of a few years as my eyes got steadily worse, but it wasn't like I'd ever had somepony in-the-know give me a 'prescription pair'. But here I was, finally being given a pair that worked for me. Turned out I was an 'O' grade. Which is apparently around the same grade as a pony twice my age. How nice of her to tell me.


 


I put the glasses on and took a good look at my surroundings. The sudden clarity I was seeing was jarring, everything had such sharp angles, I almost missed the blurry softness. The mare I'd been talking to was crème coloured with a brown mane and... was that a cybernetic ear? It was painted the same colour as her coat but...


 


She touched her ear when she noticed I was staring. “Birth defect,” she said, “got it fixed when I came of age, I'm due for an upgrade actually. There's a new one that can pick up outside broadcasts. We don't get much of that down here, the place is well shielded, but this one patches into a special relay system in the Stable that connects to another relay outside to give us channels we don't otherwise get down here.” She spoke like Futurity. Big words that to her sounded casual, but to everypony else seemed advanced. She was a nurse but she obviously understood electronics and some cybernetics. I had a feeling this Stable was going to piss me off.


 


Apparently I'd undergone surgery. They'd removed the bullets, fixed up my insides, administered healing potions and put me back together properly. They did have one slight bit of worrisome information for me. Apparently I had three large growing tumours. One near my liver, and the other two on either side of my stomach. I knew where the roiling was coming from now at least. Healing potions weren't gonna affect them because tumours weren't an injury, they were an explosive growth of cells. If anything, healing potions were making them worse. The weird thing is they were more upset about me having the tumours than I was. I already KNEW I was fucked. At least now the tumours gave me a bit of hope. If they killed me before I mutated into... whatever it was the taint had planned for me, then I was happy to have them. Hello friendly tumours!


 


Because of the tumours, they hadn't administered a second healing potion when they sewed me up, they'd insisted on normal healing. I downed one of my own the moment they showed me to my things. The crème nurse mare looked at me reproachfully as I drank the thing. What was she, my mother?


 


After seeing a basic map of the place on the nurses PipBuck I left the medical wing. The smell of disinfectant had burned my nostrils enough. The corridor outside of the clinic was exactly as expected. I'd only seen the inside of one Stable before, and that was one I'd stupidly wandered into when I was about fourteen. Nothing much had happened, I got as far as the first corridor, heard something bump in the dark and ran out screaming. Never stepped hoof in one since. But I remembered the look of the walls. Closed, claustrophobic walls that seemed intent on keeping everything trapped inside. I mean yeah, I knew that Stables were designed to keep the bad stuff OUT of them... but looking at these pristine walls I didn't get the impression of a sanctuary. It was more of a gilded cage.


 


I walked through this cage now. The air felt stuffy in my nose, like it was just... wrong. I felt pressure too, like I were under a mountain. My hooves echoed in the corridor as I padded down, the lights filtered down and something about them hurt my eyes so I looked at the floor. I padded down and turned left, passing a mare and a stallion who'd been giggling cutely to each other. The moment they saw me, their conversation stopped and the mare averted her eyes. Like she was afraid of me. The stallion pulled the mare to him as they walked by. He didn't give me a bad look, in fact he smiled at me and nodded his head. But it was tight, like he was trying not to upset me. These ponies must have heard horror stories of those from the Wasteland.


 


I found an open arched doorway with no door, it led into what looked to be an eating area. It was large enough to seat a few hundred ponies, but the height of the ceiling is what did it for me. I'd been in buildings of course, grew up in one my family had called 'home' for a few years. But this felt different. The low ceiling, the walls that stopped my vision when I was so used to seeing a horizon...


 


It was a few moments before I realised I was panting and my heart was pounding. Okay, a panic attack? Really? I've crawled through building maintenance tunnels before to gather scrap, I am NOT the claustrophobic sort. So why did this Stable make me feel so... uncomfortable.


 


I closed my eyes, relaxed myself and began taking a few deep breaths.


 


“Excuse me!” A mare shouted from behind me. I yelped and quickly moved. I was blocking the doorway, a blue mare with a red mane much too big for her head sauntered past me with an ego much bigger than that of her station.


 


“Don't mind Lilly.” Futurity's voice commented with a soft sigh. I turned and saw him to my left. “She's in training to be the next Overmare. The Overmare we currently have is a bitch, but at least she can be reasonable at times. Lilly's just a bad egg.”


 


I tried not to let my eyes drift to his flank. He was wearing Stable barding now, so I wouldn't be able to see his cutiemark -or lack-there-of- anyway. He looked better, like he'd had a good rest. Maybe it was just the comfortability of being back in a Stable. I can imagine that growing up here could make it difficult to spend time on the outside. “Where's the others?” I asked him


 


He shook his head. “We can go find them in a minute. They're fine. You need food.” He guided me into the cafeteria without letting me respond. But he was probably right, my stomach was churning.


 


We got food at the counter. It was served by a multi-limbed robot. I almost shot the thing when I saw it. Of course, I'd seen robots before in the wasteland. Simple Sprite-Bots blaring their fun anthems as they bobbed along the wastelands countryside... and then there were Brainbots. Ponies brains shoved in robots that were designed to blast and kill and murder. Sentrybots that blocked doors and tunnels of the old world from entry with a barrage of bullets against those that came too close. Foalbots. Cute little robots that looked like metal foals. They'd once been designed for play, now held deep in the darkest reaches of old mental institutions, their AI having gone crazy in the many years of neglect and their only existing programming was to hunt down the screams of children to silence them with friendly hugs... hugs that cracked spines and crushed skulls.


 


So you can imagine why I might have yelled and pulled out my gun at the thing.


 


Futurity's voice had broken through my panicked reaction and his waving hooves distracted me enough to hear sense. “Mr Hoovsies okay! He's okay! He's just a cook!”


 


“I do apologise, sir, if I startled you.” The thick Trottingham accent on the robot was a disconcerting feature.


 


I was panting again. I wasn't feeling very much in control. I was jumping to conclusions and making an ass of myself. This was not like me. Well, yes, making an ass of myself is EXACTLY like me, but usually I'm at least intending to. Here I'm just fucking up.


 


I put the gun away. “I'm sorry.” I closed my eyes and tried to gather myself. I need to make myself calm.


 


Futurity sighed, his hooves rubbing his temples. “Maybe it wasn't a good idea to let you lot keep your guns.” He mused to himself


 


“So why were we?” I asked as I tried to control myself. Not that I wasn't grateful to have my guns, I'd feel exposed and more vulnerable without them. But honestly, if I was running this place, I'd take the guns. Best to keep the place safe after all.


 


“Well,” Futurity began, “first they tried taking Aero's canons away, that proved difficult, what with the armour. And then they tried taking away Stranger's rifle...” He bit his bottom lip at that.


 


My brow rose, “pony in the infirmary?”


 


Futurity shrugged apologetically. “I'm sure he'll recover. Anyway, I vouched for you all and you were given a bit of leeway. Just, try not to bite any triggers.”


 


We grabbed the food and sat down. The food was shit... kinda. It was fresher than most things I've had before, a side of green leaf stuff I think was supposed to be lettuce and a weirdly brown apple. It was tasteless. I did my best not to complain.


 


Once I was fed I leaned back in my seat and breathed deeply. Okay, so I had a full stomach. That was nice. I had my guns. That was nice too. And I'd been healed up by some nice surgery ponies. All of it is good. Everything's good… Damn it all. Celestia, I felt like killing something.


 


“Where's the others?” I asked again. This new dynamic was annoying. Out there, I felt a distinct level of control over Futurity. We were helping him, but he was a hairs breadth from being our captive. Inside here, I felt like the captive.


 


“Big place,” Futurity answered with a shrug, “last I knew, Aero was in the armoury getting parts for repairs. Stranger was down in the reactor room soaking up radiation to heal and Sonnet was in the Library.”


 


An armoury would be a good place to visit, but I couldn't go see Stranger yet if he was down in a reactor. But maybe Sonnet if she was in... my brain honed in on the last word. I looked to Futurity and breathed out slowly. “You have a Library?”


 


Futurity gave me a curious expression. “Yes...” He admitted hesitantly


 


“Lead the way.” I said quickly, standing up from my seat. The others could wait. I made myself calm down. It was just a Library. That's all.


 


Futurity rose his brow but obeyed. He led me out of the cafeteria as I tried not to vibrate. I've been in a few libraries before, small libraries in a few towns. I'd tried the Ponyville Library once, cleaned that place out of everything that was readable, and then there was the Manehatten Library. I'd gotten close to that, but Manticores blocked me from getting inside. And I'd also love to get into the Canterlot Royal Library but pink cloud prevented that. Most small towns had a library and I'd picked most of them clean. But this was a Stable Library, untouched by the ravages of the wasteland. But, I shouldn't get my hopes up. This was, after all, just a Stable. Sure they'd have more than I was used to seeing, but my home collection was probably better anyway. They probably wouldn't have much variety and I doubt they'd have filled the place before the bombs- HOLY MOTHER OF LUNA...


 


I stepped through the door to the library and a choir of voices sang out, I swear! The room was as big as the cafeteria but with a ceiling twice as high. The metal floor was covered mostly in a large warm rug, comfy armchairs were present, warm lighting came from above. The furniture was a deep dark wood that seemed varnished and just aching for my hoof to stroke over them slowly, to just feel their smooth firmness. And then there were the books. Those gorgeous shelves that housed volume after volume. Not just a lot... but hundreds. I think I was weeping, was I weeping?


 


“Tome?” Futurity's voice broke through my fixed watery gaze.


 


“What? What?” I asked as I wiped my eyes and cleared my throat.


 


“You just squealed.”


 


“I most certainly did not.” I defended, because I could NOT remember squealing... had I? My eyes caught the title of a book. “Is that-?!” I dove for it and pulled it from the shelves. IT WAS IN PRISTINE CONDITION! Not a dog-eared page in sight. I placed it on the nearby table. I then moved down the aisle and saw another I wanted. I pulled that down too and placed it on top of the first one. I then moved on. Oooh, this is a good subject. Ah, this one too. And of course, I can't leave without reading this. And then there was that book, I've actually read that one, but might as well again, my old copy sadly got used for firewood. What a dark day that was. The memory made me pause and shiver.


 


“Tome-Master-Sir?”


 


I forgot the books. Her barding was gone and she wore a simple white gown. They'd given her a bath.  Her brown mane looked like it had been freshly washed and so did her coat.  She was standing beside one of the book aisles and from her stance, her hoof seemed fine now.


 


“Hey.” I said to her. Umm… damn. So... what was I supposed to do here? Hug her and tell her I'm glad she's safe? Spank her for running away and almost getting us killed? Was I allowed to spank her? I think I was allowed to spank her. Then she was against me before I realised what was happening. She was hugging me, and she was crying. Yup, definitely crying. Her face was buried in my leg, her sobs racking her body as she clung to me.


 


Was she okay? “What's wrong? Are you hurt?” I asked, looking her over as best I could from my angle.


 


“I thought you were dead!” She screamed at me.


 


“Oh. And that would be... bad?” Ouch. She'd just hit me. Well... not ouch, of course I could take a punch from a fill-OUCH, stop hitting me!


 


“You're a FUCKING idiot!” She squealed. Wow, okay, well at least she was using the word in the correct context. She finally went lax against me.


 


I was silent for a little while as she sniffled into my leg. I had to ask though. “I thought you hated me.” She'd had moments where she almost seemed to like me, and then moments where she detested me... I had no idea which one I'd prefer. At least if she hated me, when I failed her, I'd only be living up to her expectations.


 


She looked up then away. “I... I do. But... Just shut up.” She mumbled in a low voice as she turned away. Suddenly she didn't want anything to do with me. She sat in a chair, grabbed a large book and used it to hide her small frame as she tried her best to stop crying.


 


I grabbed the first book on my quite large pile, sat beside her and opened it. I read beside her. Or at least I tried. I was too aware of her at first, but her sniffles died and the silence stopped being so awkward. Eventually I drank the words on the page. Even as my mind delved into the book, I was still aware of her next to me. Reading. It was... peaceful. I absorbed the words, mulled them over in my head and my imagination spun wildly as it conjured up mental images. I'd read many books, but today was different. I'd never sat in a library like this before, I'd never sat beside a pony with their own book. I'd never sat in content silence and just read a book while enjoying the company of another reader. I glanced to her, her eyes met mine and she looked away hurriedly. I smirked at her petulant attempt to stay upset, she tried her best to keep up her grumpiness and her attempt was valiant. However, a smile began to break through. It felt so bright to me.


 


I'm not sure how long we sat there. Long enough for me to finish one book and start on the next. This one was about locomotion. I'd learned about these on my tapes. The coal and fuel industries biggest enterprises before the war were trains and the like. I read about the first set of track carriages being pulled by ponies, and how those trains were made and conducted; and as I read the book I found myself smiling. I hated this Stable, but it had given me this moment. Maybe it was just me, maybe the moment was lost on everyone else, but as I slowly turned the page I glanced to Sonnet and smiled to myself. She was reading a book about PipBuck's. An interesting choice. I'd expected her to be reading something fictitious, like the adventures of Daring Do, or the Trials of Mare-Do-Well. But like me she wanted to read facts, she wanted to learn. I think I was starting to feel a kinship with this filly.


 


“Don't you know about PipBuck's already?” I asked her. After all, she had a PipBuck, and she'd lived in a Stable for most of her life.


 


She gave me a look. “I wasn't taught everything. I learned plants, not fucking PipBucks.” She said.


 


I sighed, “you don't have to colour every sentence with that word. It's best used sparingly.”


 


Then, as if on cue, Aero burst through the Library door. “Where the fuck have you been?!” Fucking feather-brain. “I've been lookin' everywhere for ya. Oh hi filly, you doin' okay? Why'd you run off like that? You almost got us killed.”


 


Whatever affinity I and Sonnet had built in our companionable reading was buried by Aero's words. Sonnet turned away from him and her eyes bore into the rug below, no longer interested in books or me.


 


“Aero.” I began through gritting my teeth. I was about to chastise him. To tell him he'd went too far. That Sonnet was too sensitive right now to take his shit for what happened at the camp and in the forest. I was about to tell him to go fuck himself. But my words were halted by a gun in my face. Not pointed at me, mind you. It was just shoved under my nose and it seemed in perfect condition. I barely recognised it were it not for the scratched inscription above the handle. I could make out only the first letter of whatever had once been carved there. It began with the letter 'R'. “Why do you have Stranger's rifle?”


 


“He finally let me have a crack at it.” He grinned. “Think he'll like the result?” His grin was cocky; he was just itching to show off his work.


 


I snatched the gun from him and placed it on the table. I unhitched the latch, pulled open the furniture and checked the barrel, I checked the spring system inside, the magazine and the bolt lock. All had been cleaned, oiled and shined. He'd even replaced some parts on it entirely, the cartridge guide and the spindle valve. This was really good work.


 


“Where'd you learn to work a gun like this?” I asked. This was a feather-brained idiot; he was a total fuck-up... but this was REALLY good work.


 


“Duh, first thing we learn up there.” He said proudly.


 


“It is?”


 


He nodded, “we don't have much in the way of factories up there, we get by on old gear. When the homes you live in and the ships you ride in and the guns you carry are two hundred years old, everypony gotta do their part to keep it in check. Repairin' shits the first thing they teach us. All Pegasus learn it.” That made a lot of sense.


 


“So what can you repair?” I asked. This was the first interesting conversation me and Aero had ever engaged in.


 


“Oh, pretty much anythin'. I can repair power armour that ain't too badly damaged, I can get Vertibirds to work, I can maintain anything from a small sky-wagon to a Raptor.” His grin was infectiously proud. He paused for a moment and put a hoof to his own chin as he thought of an amendment to his boasts. “I can probably do a Raptor better now that I think of it, grew up on one. I mean, I always had problems with the weight calibrations for a Vertibird-” He was trailing off and losing me here.


 


“Okay, so you have some uses.” I concluded. He didn't seem to appreciate my comment.


 


“Yeah, well,” he replied stiffly. “Consider my work a bribe.”


 


“A bribe?”


 


“For you to get off your ass.” He stepped towards me and surprisingly I found myself stepping back. Since when had I ever found feather-brain intimidating? “These past few days have been shit.  I have busted my ass for you lot, now you will do right by me. Get what I need from Futurity.” He spoke through grit teeth.


 


I nodded.


 


“Fine. I'll go grab Stranger, and then we'll go face Futurity.” I looked around the Library. Futurity had led me here but I hadn't noticed his departure. “We'll find him after I find Stranger. Has he finished in the Reactor?”


 


“Yeah, about an hour ago. He met me in the armoury.” He gestured with his head. “Come on, I'll take you.”


 


I glanced to Sonnet and shook my head. “Just show me on the map.” I asked. I moved to the corner of the room where a map of the stable was taped to a wall beside a notice board. From what I'd seen, there had been one in each room. Aero pointed to a spot on the map. It was down a set of stairs and over a few corridors, but not that far away.


 


“Keep an eye on Sonnet.” I turned to the door but paused and turned back. “And don't talk about the forest and her running away.” I turned back to the door, only to turn back again. “And just, don't upset her in general.” He nodded as I turned away before I paused again and once more turned back. “And if you even so much as dog-ear a single page, I'll kill you.” I turned and stepped into the corridor before I poked my head back into the Library. “Seriously, not. a. page. If I find a book damaged in here, it's your ass. I'll carve up your hide and feed you your own cutiemark.” His face turned pale as I left.


 


          The corridors were monochromatic. Grey walls and grey floors with grey ceiling above. The light was white and each pony's coat seemed washed in the glare, even my own coat was desaturated in the light. Though I had to admit, I'd never had such a sheen to my coat. I was practically glowing. They'd washed and conditioned me before and after the surgery. I also felt lighter. It's kinda gross to say that the caked on dirt and blood felt like a part of me, but I felt naked without it. The only saving grace was that they hadn't cleaned my barding. It still stuck to me in places. However, it was in tatters. Several metal plates could be seen through the torn leather. Some of the plates had even been completely ripped from the fabric. Needless to say, I needed a replacement.


 


          Celestia, I probably made it sound like every Wastelander was disgustingly filthy. What I mean is, well, we're never entirely clean. I'm almost never stuck in towns drinking the nights away or hanging my metaphorical hat in a cosy home. I'm something of a hermit in that respect, always on the move and always outside of the city walls. I get my bits by odd jobs and bounty missions, so go figure I get quite dirty. I guess I'm just not used to actually being clean.


 


I stepped down a set of stairs then down another corridor. Then stopped at an intersection that had a few signs painted on plaques;


 


'Reactor'


 


'Maintenance'


 


'Armoury'


 


'Security'


 


I turned down the corridor labelled 'Armoury' and padded to the room with the same label. The door was open.


 


I'd expected small, and I was right. Outside in Military bases, armouries took up entire warehouses. Guns upon guns, and gear upon gear, the problem was getting past the defences. This was a small room. The first thing that greeted me was a desk, defended by a mesh wall with a slit that allowed weapons to be passed through. It was built like a cage and had a mesh door that allowed the authenticated ponies through. This door, however meant for security it was, had been left wide open. Inside were three ponies, two of them wore the standard Stable 101 barding and were looking very nervously at the third. Stranger. He looked whole and well, I think, I mean, he's wearing bandages, not sure how I'm supposed to know if he's well or not, I usually just took indication from the look in his eye, which at this point was bright and attentive as he looked over a particularly well kept sniper rifle.


 


“Find something you like?” I asked him as I stepped through the mesh cage.


 


“Can you ponies stop just walking back here?!” One of the stallions said. He had a beard and a yellow moustache that looked ridiculous against the deep colour of his green coat, but it was surprisingly well groomed. He also looked annoyed. His head dipped as he looked at me, a habit usually reserved for those that were used to wearing spectacles. Which was probably a safe assumption, his left eye was closed and scarred. Maybe he'd had to wear glasses before having the eye taken out.


 


“The doors open.” I countered.


 


He bristled as he pointed accusingly at Stranger, “that is because HE opened the door without permission! Unicorns shouldn't stick their bumps where it ain't welcome.”


 


He wasn't yelling or anything, but he was loud and gruff. He struck me as the sort of pony that had a habit of complaining about anything.


 


I shrugged then looked to Stranger. “You feeling better?” I asked. The bearded stallion grumbled something underneath his breath about 'outsiders'.


 


Stranger didn't bother answering me, but his magic moved the sniper rifle he was looking at under my nose. I let out a long appreciative whistle. It was sleek black and chrome. The furniture on it wasn't wooden like most stocks, it was pure... metal maybe? It looked it but felt too light. The Sniper wasn't cumbersome to hold and it had a sling that would allow it to fit securely on a ponies back. It utilised a hoof trigger rather than a mouth one, which might be an improvement. Sniper rifles often had a nasty kick that I'd known to chip a few teeth. The barrel and some parts seemed strange, like they'd been modified to fit the gun, rather than made for it in the first place. Either way, it was extremely clean and looked badass. “This is good, well maintained too.”


 


“Thank you.”


 


I turned to whoever had spoken and finally took notice of the other stallion. Though I suppose 'colt' would be a better description. I mean, he wasn't actually a colt, he was an adult, but young. Younger than me anyway. Kid couldn't have been older than his early twenties, maybe even late teens. He had a blue coat, an orange well styled mane and bright sapphire eyes. He was cute. He had a light one-inch-long scar on his left cheek but it only gave him character.


 


“You work on this one yourself?” I asked curiously.


 


“I made it.” He grinned proudly, pointing to the butt of the stock where the insignia of make and model should have been stamped on, it had instead been painted over. “I call her Frankenmare, ya know, after Frankenstallion, the-”


 


“-Yes the book I know,” I interrupted, “So she's what, an amalgamation of parts?”


 


He nodded. “We had an old IF-3 Groningen; yeah, they were prone to jamming but their stock was really buff so I-” He then began to go into detail about all the different guns he'd taken apart, modified, and put together into this final gun that was more powerful and more reliable than any of the others it was made from. “After that I just grabbed the standard guard screws and plate catches and locked in an AES-12's barrel for the rifling.” He shrugged with a chuckle as though it were an almost comical thing to say. I didn't get the joke, but Stranger nodded as though it had all made perfect sense. Gun nuts...


 


I looked over the weapon appreciatively as the older stallion scoffed.


 


“Twas a waste of parts, boy.”


 


“They didn't work anyway.” The younger one defended. He turned back to me. “Besides-” He leaned in close and in a not so subtle whisper said, “they were boring as they were.” I couldn't help but chuckle. He may be a tad over-talkative, but I think I liked this kid.


 


“So how much?” I queried, watching as the boy’s expression dropped in shock.


 


“Oh,” he began, looking at his rifle with a longing expression, “ya mean you want to... oh, I dunno. I never thought of sellin' it.”


 


I shrugged and laid the rifle on the table. “Well how's your girl gonna lose her virginity if she don't get to penetrate something fleshy?” I asked lewdly.


 


The boy's cheeks turned so red that I thought he'd pop. I also noticed his eyes flicker down my body for the fraction of a second. Oh my, was he having thoughts? I gave him an almost seductive grin.


 


“Get out!” The bearded stallions gruff tone cut through what thoughts I was having. “I don't want no horn-heads in here any longer!” He demanded.


 


“I'm an Earth Pony.” I challenged him, not enjoying his tone as he said 'horn-heads'.


 


“Outsiders neither. Get!” He all but pushed me and stranger from the armoury. We obeyed and walked out, but I glanced behind me at the boy and gave a wink. I watched him gulp a little, and if my eyes didn't deceive me, there was a certain something poking out from below him. Maybe this Stable had more to offer than I thought.


 


As we were walking down the corridor back the way I'd come, this time with Stranger by my side, a pony poked his head around the corner ahead of us. “There you are.” He sighed with relief. “Please come with me, we need you to wait in the Library, the Overmare will wish to speak to you soon.”


 


I raised my brow, but I shouldn't have been surprised. Outsiders in her Stable, the Overmare probably had questions. One of them being 'how soon could we leave'. Truth be told, I had expected our welcome to have worn out much sooner than this. The freedom they'd given us was quite surprising.


 


“Have you been treated well?” The stallion asked nervously as he lead us down the corridors. The stallion was yellow with an orange mane and wearing the same Stable barding as everyone else in here.


 


“We just got kicked out of the Armoury, but no harm done.” I commented.


 


“Oh, I am so sorry,” he said, looking both contrite, and fearful. An odd combination. “Spanner is old and grumpy. I will have him spoken to immediately, can't have that sullying our relationship.” He said, giving me a bright and hopeful smile while his eyes were practically beginning me not to hurt him.


 


“Relationship?” I asked curiously, was I missing something here?


 


“Yes, well. We'll do what we can on our side. I'm sure the Overmare will be able to figure out something for you in terms of trade.” He smiled confidently, though the note of anxiety remained in his voice.


 


“Stop.” I said firmly. And he did, he obeyed me instantly and glanced back at me, his eyes wide. His muscles were tight, and he seemed to be trying really hard not to pull himself into a ball. This pony was terrified of me. Was that because I was an outsider? Or something else? “Relationship? Trade?” I asked curiously. “Why do you think we are here?”


 


I was missing something and I had a feeling that this was why we'd been given such a wide birth and freedom of the Stable.


 


“T-to... to form an alliance, of course. Futurity said you would trade your services with us, help us... did... did he lie?” This concept seemed to terrify him. He even glanced around to make sure the corridor was empty, or maybe he was hoping that somepony else would actually be around so he wouldn't have to deal with us alone.


 


So, Futurity had lied to them. But it did make sense. When we were first brought in, he'd need to get us healed. We were unknown quantities to the Overmare. He probably spun a story about an alliance to get us help. And then we were allowed free rein to 'look around' and inspect the place. If we went against this narrative, Futurity would be in the shit, and suddenly we'd find ourselves very unwanted guests in this Stable. The Overmare might simply kick us out, or she could have us killed. If we were kicked out, we couldn't get the information Futurity promised, if they tried to kill us... We couldn't take out a whole Stable easily, lots of ponies would die, maybe even some or all of us. But if we agreed to this, they would have tasks for us, requests for our services that we'd probably be manipulated into holding up. Futurity had used us. He'd forced us into a decision that would benefit him and the Stable. I began to wonder for just how long he had he been planning this. When he'd first woken up after Whitetail Prison? On the way here? Before or after the Raiders attacked? Me and him were going to have words. I don't like being played.


 


“No.” I lied, answering the stallions question. He showed a visible sign of relief, releasing a breath he probably hadn't realised he'd been holding. “I was just wondering how much he'd said.” I spoke with a warm smile, but I wasn't sure it was reaching my eyes. I was going to deck that red stallion.


 


I walked into the Library, the scent of the books instantly improving my mood, and saw Aero sitting sullen in the corner with a bloody nose. Sonnet however, was smiling as she read a book, humming to herself. She seemed chipper.


 


“Erm... what happened?” Was I going to like the answer?


 


“He dog-eared a page, so I hit him.” Sonnet replied proudly. I was so proud of her right then.


 


I looked to Aero and he flinched.


 


“She used her PipBuck.” He said quickly, as though it were a defence.


 


“Hurts, don't it?” I couldn't help but grin. I'd deck him myself for doing that to a book, but if Sonnet got to him before I did, well, best not give him two doses of punishment, because that PipBuck REALLY did hurt. I wonder if being used as a club was in their original design. I wouldn't have put it passed Stable-Tec to do something like that.


 


Stranger walked past me, used his magic to grab a random book from the shelves before he sat down and started reading. I turned to the stallion that had lead us here. “What now?” I asked.


 


“Futurity Champron is currently being debriefed by the Overmare.” He informed me.


 


“I thought that happened earlier, I was told he was with the Overmare then.”


 


The stallion shook his head and gave me a kind smile. “That was a lecture and information on you and your friends for this Alliance. This is a debriefing on his mission and voyages into the outside.” He glanced at all of us, his eyes lingering on Sonnet and Stranger for a fraction of a second longer than it did on any of others. I noticed the smallest tighten of his jaw. Futurity hadn't been kidding when he said his Stable was prejudice against other races. They probably thought Aero was an Earth Pony since his wings were hidden under his armour. “When the Overmare is ready for you, you will be fetched. Please remain in here.”


 


He then left us alone.


 


I did the only thing I could think of and grabbed the nearest book. Ooh, it was a book on cybernetics. Probably written by somepony in the Stable. I opened to the first page:


 


 


'The father of Stable 101 cybernetics, Weser-Hoof Endleberger, began development in nerve-cybernetic synchronisation in April, 3rdSG. His theorem, which has been expanded on many times by the minds that inherited his work, was that the pony nervous system, could be ran, incorporated and communicated with-'


 


 


I let my mind absorb the words.


 


I have no idea how long I sat there. I didn't know what Stranger or Aero were doing, and as for Sonnet, I assumed she was reading like me. It made me long for the quiet moment we'd shared only an hour or so before.


 


I'm a fast reader. I finished the entire book within an hour. I'm certain it had only been an hour because there was a handy clock in the corner that told me so. I put the book down and stretched.


 


“Well,” I began, “I'm bored.” I got up and glanced at Sonnet. She looked up as I stood. She was leaning forward a little as she held her book, I wondered why before I remembered the bulky collar around her neck, it was probably uncomfortable to lie against.


 


The door opened and a mare stepped in, it was the nurse that had helped me before. “Oh, hello there.” She smiled. “May I borrow Sonnet?” She asked. “I wish to give her a health check-up, being out in the Wasteland can't have been good for her.” I nodded and glanced to Sonnet, jerking my head towards the mare. Sonnet nodded and put the book down before following the mare out the door.


 


“I am going to find out what's going on with Futurity.” I announced. Stranger put down his book and moved to follow me. Aero moved to follow as well, but Stranger stopped him. He looked confused, glancing between Stranger and myself.


 


“Somepony needs to stay in case they come to get us. Just say we got bored and wanted to explore.” I shrugged.


 


“And what am I supposed to do in the meantime?” He asked, his hooves spread wide in an exasperated gesture.


 


“Try reading a book.” I advised with a chuckle as me and Stranger moved down the corridor. I had no idea where the Overmare's office was, but I did know where Security was.


 


We moved down the corridor, turned left, went down the stairs and found ourselves heading past the Armoury again. At the end of the corridor was a door marked Security. I knocked. Because, of course, I was a polite pony.


 


“Yes?” Asked the mare that answered. She yawned, not seeming the least bit surprised. Though she'd probably seen me and Stranger approaching through the camera systems. She had a deep cobalt blue coat, and a white mane.


 


“The debriefing between Futurity and the Overmare. Is it being recorded?” I asked curiously. The mare gave me a lazy nod. “Can we watch it please?” She opened the door wide. Wow, this Stables security was shit.


 


We were led to one of the nearby monitors, she pressed a few buttons and as the live security footage of the Overmare's office popped up on the screen, she turned her attention back to a different monitor. It was showing... were those moving pictures... that were drawn? I'd heard of the Cinema industry but had never found much about them. I think what she was watching was called a 'cartoon'. She sat with her head in her hooves, looking bored and glum at the screen, paying us no mind. She was kinda cute. I turned to the debriefing and began to listen.


 


“-you have found nothing that is of value then.” The Overmare said, sounding unimpressed. “Red -sorry- Futurity-” She corrected herself, but the sneer on her expression told me the correction had been deliberate. “-you were given this assignment because you asked for it, and because as long as you are out there, you are not in here causing trouble. But now I find you are bringing trouble back with you.”


 


“I told you, they can be great assets.” Futurity argued. “Tome, the leader, alone, is extremely smart and capable. His command of the group makes them excellent for completing tasks.” How sweet of him.


 


“Yes,” the Overmare began dryly, “I have seen Winters recordings, most impressive how they almost killed you when against you, and almost got you killed when trying to defend you.”


 


Futurity's jaw visible clenched. “The start was a bit... rocky. I'll admit. But I might not have made it back alive without them.”


 


“Why not?” The Overmare challenged. “You've been out there before, and each time you came back safe. Why would this time be any different?”


 


“Safe?” Futurity seemed boggled by the assumption. “I have almost died every time. This time I was shot at by a Raider ambush and grabbed by Killing Joke. Aero saved me from the Raiders and Tome saved me from the Killing Joke. Aero is a Pegasus, by the way, in case that fact interests you.” He spoke bitterly.


 


“Oh yes, I saw the wings on the recording, most impressive of a Pegasus to shoot some thugs so you didn't die. And who, may I ask, was responsible for the Ghoul breakout at that Prison complex?” Her brow was raised expectantly.


 


Futurity's eyes narrowed. “Are you saying you don't want their help?”


 


“No, I don't.” The Overmare seemed very firm on this issue.


 


“But we need it.” Futurity pressed.


 


“Yes we do.” The Overmare nodded. Futurity glared at her. “You see, Red Eye-” the moniker seemed to make Futurity flinch, “-I am not selfish like some ponies I know.” The words were accusatory. “I do not want their help. Only one is an Earth Pony, and while he seems rational, the others are unknown quantities. And I am not comfortable putting this Stables future in the hooves of Unicorn and Pegasi.” Her voice was raised in anger. “However,” she calmed, “my personal opinion must take a back-seat. Because we are decidedly out of options. This is why I agreed to let them recuperate here, let them have the run around of our facility; against my better judgement I have done all I can to extend the olive-branch you desire me to. So yes, I will accept this alliance so long as their terms are fair, but...” Her eyes narrowed. “You are responsible for them. Their actions will reflect on you. Do I make myself clear?”


 


Futurity nodded, his gaze had become a smouldering anger. “Crystal,” he grumbled.


 


“Now,” the Overmare said, the tone of the meeting shifting to a more business like one. “Tell me of the chemical composition you extracted from these Ghouls, this 'Pythia' as you called it.”


 


Futurity breathed out and contained his emotions. “I started looking into the development of Ghouls -how they're able to heal themselves through radiation- and came across the Ghouls in Whitetail prison. Because of their advanced regenerative capabilities -much beyond that of the Ghouls residing in the Canterlot ruins- I thought that...” Futurity suddenly went still. “Th-that...” He seemed to be trying his best to continue. He was staring at the Overmare who herself was looking confused.


 


“Red?” Her brow raised curiously. “Red?” She asked again, this time louder, waving her hoof in front of his face. I could see Futurity's hooves shaking. What was happening? “Futurity?” The Overmare actually seemed concerned.


 


Futurity finally moved and the Overmare breathed a sigh of relief. “What was that about?” She asked as the red stallion reached lower and pulled out something from his barding. Was that a knife? “Red?” The Overmare's voice was small now at the sight of the blade.


 


“What the?” I commented, confused at what I was witnessing.


 


I watched as Futurity's eyes looked down at the blade in his hoof. His eyes were wide. I watched as the other hoof unzipped his barding, showing off his chest and stomach in front of the Overmare. She moved her chair back in an effort to put more distance between them.


 


“Now Futurity, I'll call security if I have to, what are you doing?” She demanded.


 


If he were a raider, I'd say he was about to dive on her and rape her, what with undressing and holding a knife. But... he looked terrified. Slowly he brought the blade close to his chest and my eyes widened as pressed the blade into his own flesh. Futurity carved down his own chest diagonally, only to cross it again from the other side.


 


“What the fuck?!” The Overmare shouted, echoing my own thoughts.  Futurity was panting, hyperventilating even. The blade pulled away and blood drooled down his chest. He stared at the blade as one might look down the barrel of a gun, terrified of what was to come next. The blade moved closer to his face. The sickest feeling broiled in the pit of my stomach as I watched.


 


“What the fuck?” The mare behind us said.


 


Futurity seem to struggle with himself, his hoof stopped, the blade a few inches from his own face. He said something. A single word. He said it small, like the whimper of a child, “help.” Suddenly his head lunged forward. The blade plunged into his left eye and blood erupted over the table.


 


Futurity screamed.


 


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


 


He had been in surgery for almost four hours now. I didn't think it would take that long to deal with an eye wound, but they were earth ponies after all. They didn't have the benefit of magic to heal their injured. Though, I didn't know of any unicorn spell that could fix an eye.


 


We were in what seemed to be a 'waiting room', or as close to one as they had. It was just an adjacent room with a few chairs that weren't very comfortable. Sonnet sat beside me, she was snoozing gently against my side. She'd been animated at first, worried about Futurity and shocked at the news of what had happened to him, but after two hours of waiting she'd dozed off. Stranger was beside me, and Aero sat by his lonesome in front of us.


 


“Why would he do that to himself?”


 


“Please stop asking that.” I replied softly. He'd been asking the same question in ten minute intervals for the past two hours now.


 


The answer I'd given him so far, was that I just didn't know. And that was technically right, but I did have my suspicions. In fact, I was almost certain I was right. But I wanted to speak with Futurity first.


 


The door to the room opened and the nurse mare walked in. I had a feeling they were strapped for staff in the medical department, because she was so far the only medical staff I'd met since waking up in this place. As she walked in, I stood up and approached her, waking Sonnet in the process.


 


“What's going on?” Sonnet asked as she rubbed her eyes.


 


The nurse looked from her to me and sighed. “He's stable, and he'll be fine.” She said, but she looked worried. “We were unable to save the eye. But as the wound is new, we were able to perform an enhancement.”


 


“A what?” Aero's voice came from behind me, he hadn't yet got up from his seat.


 


“Oh, we gave him a robotic eye. He'll be able to see through it fine, and even receive PipBuck HUD data of a much more comprehensive nature than a PipBuck usually provides. It can be quiet convenient-”


 


“Miss,” I interjected, her voice trailing off at my interruption. “If this is such an improvement, then why are you giving me the feeling there is bad news with all of this.” She looked away from me as she shuffled her hooves. She hopped from one to another momentarily before she sighed.


 


“I'm afraid, any plans you or he may have had, the fact is... he will never be able to leave the Stable again.”


 


Her words surprisingly affected me. I'd made no such plans, but maybe it was the loss of Futurity's dream or mission that I had at least grown to respect. Either way, I felt saddened by this news. “Why?”


 


She sighed, “the medication. He'll be needing injections and medication to keep his body from rejecting the cybernetics. He'll need them for the rest of his life. We have the facilities to create what he needs here, the Outside does not. I'm sorry.” She looked genuinely contrite. She turned away and headed for the door. “He'll be awake within the hour.”


 


 


 


*** *** ***


 


 


 


His hoof moved first, raising up as though to touch something or someone in front of him. He then spoke. “Water.” I handed him a cup that had left nearby. Only after drinking a full gulp from the cup did he finally open his eye. Any sign of his trauma was marred by thick bandages, he didn't sport it as well as Stranger did. He looked up at me and smiled a little. “Hey.”


 


“Hey.” I answered back, sighing softly, “you okay?”


 


Futurity shrugged, the soft smile never leaving his face. “Not bad, I mean, I've had worse I think. Can't name anything right now but a knife in the eye? Foals stuff. You get the point. Well, I suppose I got the point.” He joked. I chuckled, but not out of any actual humour, it was just to make him feel better. He sighed softly and looked up at me and the mirth vanished. “I couldn't stop myself. I tried... really hard but... I knew what I was doing, what I was going to do, and my body just... did it.” He gulped fearfully.


 


I just nodded. “I know. I was watching on the cameras.” I didn't know if I could really say anything that would make much of a difference.


 


He looked at me, closed his eye and breathed out slowly, visibly working to relax himself. “What happened?”


 


I had heard his account now. I had planned to ask, but his offering made things easier. I was pretty sure I was right about my theory now. Sure enough to share it. “'Cross my heart, hope not to die, stick a knife into my eye.'” I recited.


 


His eye opened and he stared at me, and confusion slowly turned to realisation. Realisation turned into hysteria. He laughed. It was a dry and breathless chortle that eventually devolved into giggles. “Killing Joke.” He confirmed; I nodded in reply. “Wow. Well that is unfortunate.” He breathed out a sigh, as though he were almost relieved. “So was Sonnet hurt then? Because the promise was about that.”


 


I shrugged in response, “not hurt. They took some blood, she said 'ouch' at the needle apparently.”


 


He nodded, sighing again. He was doing that a lot I noticed, usually a sign of depression. “So Killing Joke's joke on me was making me keep my word over a foalish swear.” He pulled himself into a sitting position, swung his legs off the bed and began pulling out the IV's and other assorted tubes they'd put into him. Machines beeped as he did this, but he ignored them, heading to the nearby cabinets, a mirror occupying the door of one. “At least she's fine.” He said, staring into his reflection.


 


He seemed generally at ease with everything that had happened, which was unnerving. He wasn't wearing anything, so I got another look at his flank. I hadn't dreamt it; he really did lack a cutiemark. A large burn scar was there. I wanted to ask him about it, but I was hesitant to do so, this was probably not the right time to bring it up.


 


He was staring at himself in the mirror. His good eye narrowed as he reached up, slowly feeling over the bandaged area. A silence descended in the room as I just watched him. I watched as his indifference turned to anger. His expression smouldering.


 


“I wasn't born perfect,” he said. “Behind my left eye the arteries didn't develop properly, too small. A congenital defect.” He was speaking logically now, as he had when I'd first met him. “I was a sensitive foal, late getting my cutiemark and always crying. I used to rub my eyes raw and when I did it to my left eye it would fill with blood due to clots. For a year they called me 'Red Eye'. A stupid foalish tease.” So that's where the name came from. “When I got my cutiemark it was worse though.” He opened a drawer and pulled out some pens. He picked out a black and a red one. He lifted the black one in his mouth and drew a quipped ellipse on the mirror, the shape of an eye. He then picked up the red one, and drew a large 'P' in the centre. The circle of the P took up the inside of the ellipse and the straight bottom of the 'P' hang down below the ellipse. “I'm a mathematician,” he announced, “I created an algorithm. It's called a Predictive Angle. It's a mathematical formula, that, when numerical values are placed into both input points, can predict patterns in future numerical values associated with it. I designed it and got a cutiemark in it.” He looked it over, his expression becoming bitter. “I should have chosen better colours. Because when everypony saw it, they just thought it looked like an eye.” His voice was almost venomous now, anger boiling beneath the surface. “A 'red eye'.” His hoof lashed out and smashed the glass of the mirror. I jumped at the sudden crash.  “The name stuck after that.” He turned to me and grabbed the bandages and began unravelling them. They fell to the floor in a bloody pile. He looked at me. His red coat contrasted against his jet black mane, his good eye that usually shone with a radiant blue now felt steely and cold to me. And his other eye... metal covered his brow, small blinking lights here and there, and there in the socket was an orb, metal, menacing, and glowing a dangerous red. “Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.”


 


 


 


Footnote: Level Up.


New Perk: Horseshoe’s and Rabbits Feet– You are one lucky S.O.B! Your friends are there in the nick of time! +5 to Luck during combat against more than ten opponents.


 

End Notes:

(Authors Note: FINALLY!!!! Sorry about the wait. It’s no one’s fault. Between military duty, irl drama and everything, my editor, and even myself, have been very much incapable of getting this done anytime sooner. But I thank you all for your patience and I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed this latest chapter. I look forward to the reviews, they make this all worth it!


Comment and subscribe. J)

Chapter Seven - Dear Princess Celestia, I got some tail! by AlmanacPony

 

Chapter Seven

Dear Princess Celestia, I got some tail!

“Little children are a treasure. Their worth you cannot measure.”



I was rewarded with a squeal as I drove my hips forward. The poor boy mewled below me and shivered with each thrust. It was difficult not to think of him as an adorable mewling colt. He was an adult of course, just small… small with shapely hips. We were at our peaks though, and his writhing made it difficult to control myself. The stallion below me beat me to it. His body clamped down on me as he painted the bed with his release. I moaned as I finished too, filling the stallion below me. I collapsed on top of him, buried to the hilt and panting with a large satisfied grin on my face.

 

I didn't have a thing for the young, I swear I’m not that kind of pony; but his innocence was definitely an arousing aspect, as was his femininity. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a feminine stallion in the Wasteland? I liked masculine stallions too of course; I'm not stuck to one type of partner. But between mares and stallions, I always preferred one quality... the squealers. It was like music to hear my partner elicit the loudest noises possible. Masculine stallions just were not that vocal in my experience. They preferred to grunt their way through it. Which can be fine for a quick relief... but for a real slutty feminine stallion or a squealing mare to be on the receiving end of a good hard rutting... nothing better.

 

“You alright there?” I asked, my face stretched into a smug smirk.

 

Blue Barrel nodded weakly, not yet having found his voice. Slowly we rolled onto our sides so we didn't have to support ourselves in a difficult position. I made sure to keep him close, and in fact, kept myself buried inside him. I wanted to go for a second round in a few minutes. I looked at the cute blue stallion. He was still gathering his wits about him.

 

“I want to make sure we're on the same page,” I began steadily, “this was just a bit of fun. I'm not after starting anything big.” I'd told him this before I'd touched him of course. I remember the look on his face as I'd re-entered the armoury, finding the colt (stallion) alone, still polishing his 'Frankenmare' gun in a way that only encouraged me. The boy(stallion) had fallen out of his chair when I had mentioned that I 'needed some relief' and 'thought he'd be interested.'

 

Then when I offered -very candidly I might add- that we 'go back to his room where I'd make him scream so loud we get told off by the Overmare', the boy became instantly -and obviously- excited before leading me back to his room. He had been like a shy puppy with his ears flat against his head. He had also tried his best to hide the prominent bulge he was sporting in the oh-so-tight stable garment he wore. I’ll admit, even if this was a fun fling, it was one I'd love to repeat sometime; the boy was great at taking cock.

 

I smiled at the thought and, in a moment of self-indulgence, I wrapped my hooves around Blue and pulled him close against my chest. I'd already started softening inside him, but unlike species such as diamond dogs or griffon's; ponies had the benefit of penile control. And I wasn't about to retreat back into a level of modesty just yet. Right now I was enjoying the warmth and closeness of having some kind of intimacy.

 

I felt the stallion snuggle into me, and I must admit, it was nice to feel someone this close. It had been a while.

 

“So, you’re leaving soon?” Blue asked, sounding hopeful that I’d correct him and say I was staying. But truth be told, I had to break the poor boy's heart because me and the troop were indeed on our way out in a few hours. And yes, I do mean ‘break his heart’, because even though he nodded and agreed that this wasn’t anything big, I knew his type. Poor boy was a ‘heart on the sleeve’ kind of fellow, he’d probably already fallen for me, or would if I stayed much longer.

 

Then again, who can blame him, I’m irresistible.

 

“We got what we needed,” I answered, “and I get the feeling your Overmare doesn’t like us much.”

 

Blue shrugged, “she doesn’t like anyone.” He grumbled. I chuckled, the poor kid was already pining for me; It was adorable.

 

“Even so,” I smiled warmly, nuzzling the back of his neck, “we should head out. We’ve got things to do, places to go, towers to see.”

 

“Towers?”

 

“Yeah, we’re going to one of those white towers.” I informed him, recounting the basics of what we’d found.

 

Earlier, when I’d entered the Library I was in a bad mood. Channelling Futurity’s condition I think. He’d lost an eye, I’d lost a hoof, together we were kindred spirits in losing body parts.

 

“How’s the crazy guy?” Asked Aero. It was a comment that struck a nerve in me immediately.

 

I snapped, “shut your fucking cock-hole!” Aero jumped at my sudden shout. “You have no idea what it’s like to lose something like that! Keep your bird brain out of shit you don’t understand!” I was fully aware I was overreacting; I just didn’t care. The room had gone silent at my shout. I felt justified regardless of logic. I wasn’t entirely sure why I’d reacted so strongly at all if I’m honest. I’d turned to go to a section of books I’d been combing through on my last visit to the library, only to come face to face with Stranger blocking my path.

 

“What?”

 

“A word.” Stranger’s voice was deep with warning. If I tried to refuse I was sure he’d drag me. I left the prying wary gaz