Connections are important. Without them, friends drift apart and allies are lost in the darkness. Through them, we leave our mark on the lives of others, both in actions and in words. When cut off and alone a friendly voice can give us the strength to carry on. When fear reigns above all else sometimes all you need is someone to remind you of your purpose. Without a way to connect to one another, ponies are weak and scattered.
But, connections are also dangerous. Through our relations to one another pain spreads. When we say the wrong things friends can be lost. The connections which bring us together can drag us down as a whole. When we leave behind marks of our passing, connections with others and memories, our hoofprints sink into the world. Others can find them, follow them and learn of us through what we leave behind, for good or for ill.
The early morning light cast a pale shine across a broken and pained landscape. Pools of standing water remained amongst the shattered remains of the roadway from the rain the night before, having stopped before the sun rose. Around us spread buildings, broken and collapsed, their frames barely remaining intact enough to distinguish them from the cracked pavement and bent signs of a long-dead city. Once this place had been filled with life, now shattered by war and time.
A great building dominated the skyline before us, stretching at least four stories into the air. Long ago it had been built of beautiful white marble, now stained in strange hues by rain and the passing of ages. It seemed to sag slightly to one side, where a part of the structure had collapsed and been rebuilt with multi-colored stone and metal, obviously patched by whatever ponies now called it home. Those same ponies had built a wall all the way around the building, reaching up far enough to cover my view of the bottom two floors. In the distance I could barely make out the shapes of something resembling ponies walking along the tops of those walls, but their profiles seemed wrong somehow. My PipBuck marked the location on my map as ‘Ministry of Peace Forward Hospital’, information silently stolen from the letter marked R it seemed, though in its current condition it resembled something more akin to a fortress.
As we approached I could feel Requiem moving closer beside me, barely more than a hoof’s width from my legs. She had returned to her typical tendencies since we left the Library, moving quietly and low to the ground, so much so that only the way I could sometimes see her swaying away from me when avoiding getting underfoot made it clear to me she was even still there. It was doubtful that those on the walls of the fortress before us would even be able to see her at any distance.
Just as I was contemplating whether or not they would be able to tell Requiem was with me we passed close enough to the building for my E.F.S. to begin to pick up those inside the walls. Two on the tops of the walls and two more somewhere more towards the center, though I couldn’t see them. Almost instantly the road before us exploded in a cloud of gravel and fire, the air filling with a horrible sound like thunder. Frantically, I cast my shield around the both of us before any more shots could land and cursed my stupidity, I hadn’t even stopped to consider that the figures around this building would shoot at me on sight!
The thunderous detonations continued around me, sending a massive cloud of broken pavement and shrapnel rebounding off my shield. It was fortunate they had begun firing on us from so far away, had we been any closer they might have actually managed to hit me directly with one of their explosives. As it was the detonations surrounding us were dramatically less of a threat. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t the chance of a lucky shot.
Frantically I looked around for any sign of something I could use for cover, the brilliance of the explosions combined with the steady thunder they emitted making it difficult for me to focus on my surroundings. Unsurprisingly, Requiem found cover before I did, as she began sprinting towards a section of overturned pavement not far from our location. Without thinking I turned to follow her, diving behind the section of artificial rock as I grabbed it with my magic and did my best to heave it up further, to create a proper wall between us and the source of the bombardment.
The effort of moving the dislodged piece of pavement was enough to aggravate the headache the continuous thunder was giving me, further scattering my already panicked thoughts. As I did my best to collect what remained of my concentration the onslaught rained down on our makeshift cover, splitting off chunks of the hardened pseudo-rock, it wasn’t going to last us very long at this rate and they didn’t seem at any concern of running out of ammo.
Frantically I began to go over my options in my mind. Option one, take Requiem and run away. Possible, but dangerous as we would have to leave our cover and worse we were still in dire need of medical supplies, it would also leave me no closer to finding the raiders who had slaughtered Requiem’s family. Option two, teleport to the wall and attempt to counter attack. A quick check of my PipBuck confirmed what I had known since last night, I was out of functional weapons, and I was fairly certain my hooves couldn’t beat grenades and missiles at short range. Option three, try talking to them. Half of my brain revolted at that idea instantly as being both insane and stupid, the other half was too desperate not to get blown up to care. I could always try running away later.
I raised my head up and yelled as loudly as I could towards the wall, my horn glowing by reflex as I cast a simple spell without even pausing to think of its effects, a spell seemingly so basic and effortless I couldn’t believe I had somehow forgotten it, though some part of me insisted I had never known it to begin with. “We are not here to fight you!” The rubble around us shook slightly with the booming volume of my voice, echoing in the distance, “We only want to trade!” Scraps had mentioned before I left the Junkyard her belief that everypony needed something. If I were really, really lucky these ponies would need what I had. And wouldn’t just decide to kill me and take it.
Amazingly, after just a short time, the rain of munitions ceased. The thunderous roar which had filled the air began to clear enough for me to be willing to stick my head up over the, more than half destroyed, refuge Requiem and I had taken cover in. On the wall I could see the distant figures shifting back and forth slightly in their positions, it was obvious even to me that they were talking.
If worse came to worse I would grab Requiem with my magic and flee as swiftly as my wings could carry me. I might not be able to get away even then, but there was a chance, right? And any chance is better than no chance at all.
Seconds crawled by like hours, the tense feeling in the air making every breath agonizingly frustrating. I couldn’t tell what they were talking about from here, but I had to hope that with the break in firing they were at least considering I might be telling the truth. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, a voice answered, roaring at augmented volume which surpassed even the thunder of their guns.
“Wait there. We will send somepony to speak to you. If you harm him, we will not hesitate to shoot you.”
Well, it was a step in the right direction, at least. Then again, given that they hadn’t hesitated to shoot me even when I had done absolutely nothing to them I wasn’t certain how much I could trust that proclamation. I just had to hope that they’d come to a decision which was actually useful to me.
I could feel Requiem slowly climb out from beneath me at that, where she had been hiding since we took cover, taking up a sitting position beside me instead. She wobbled just slightly on her legs and looked a bit dazed as she slowly uncovered her ears from the riotous sounds which had filled the air a moment earlier. Looking down at her I did my best to give a reassuring smile, disheartened slightly when she still backed away from my vision. She trusted me enough to protect her, but evidently not enough to be comfortable with me looking at her. Somehow that felt so very wrong. Part of me desperately wanted to sweep her up in my wings and tell her everything would be okay, that she didn’t have to be afraid of the world, while another part was viciously mocking the first part for being so naive.
The squeal of metal against metal shocked me out of my introspection. In the distance I could see a part of the wall split open, a gate which had been difficult to see separately at such long range. The two markers on my EFS I had seen before behind the wall were moving apart, they must have been opening the gates, three more having appeared between them. Once the gates were open wide enough the three stepped through and I could immediately see that those great metal constructs were closing behind them, giving me only a moment’s view of the courtyard beyond and the doors of the hospital, too far away to make out any details.
Slowly the three markers approached our position as I began to be able to resolve them into individual ponies. Two of them wore the distinctive armor of the Steel Rangers, their helmets matching the one which Scraps had had me dig out of the Junkyard before I left, save that where the armor in the Junkyard had been an unpainted metallic grey these armors were painted vibrant apple-red. The third was a brown earth pony with a darker brown mane, dressed in a dingy red robe which looked like it hadn’t been washed in a month. His trepidation at bargaining with me was clearly written across his face as they approached, but his two companions seemed to be enough to give him confidence I wouldn’t attack.
When they got close enough he finally spoke, in a comfortable volume, “I have been sent to do business with you.” The way he said it made it clear that he wasn’t happy about that fact, but was at least willing to talk to me, “You will have to lower your shield if we are to conduct proper trading arrangements.”
That worried me. Without my shield I was little more than so much battlefield skeet against the guns those two armored ponies were carrying. Then again, even with the shield I was only slightly better than that, and if no pony extended a hoof in trust we weren’t going to get anywhere anyway. Reluctantly, and against the urging of several other parts of myself, I lowered my shield before speaking in return. “I don’t have much,” a sad admission given that I’d picked up not one but two serviceable weapons at one point, “But I’ll offer what I can.” doing my best to give a relaxed smile as I activated my PipBuck’s inventory sorting spell and began to unload those things I was willing to part with.
A few moments later I had a small pile of materials for trade. A few dozen rounds for the now-long-destroyed Assault Rifle, two unexploded but badly charred grenades, a small bottle labeled Buck and a small pile of ammunition for what I guessed were originally the rifles one of the raiders had used to puncture my shield. The earth pony in the red robe gave me an extremely skeptical look at that, like he was almost embarrassed by how little I had to offer and thought I was deliberately wasting his time. Admittedly it was not all I had to my name, but I wasn’t going to trade away the two remaining bottles of purified water or the fruit I had acquired in Requiem’s home and I couldn’t even bring myself to consider selling the photograph or book from the library, not that I would expect these ponies to want them.
Requiem, for her part, was remaining as silent as ever and close by my side. Given how quiet she was, and how fixated the others were on me, they hadn’t even noticed her yet. When the earth pony spoke again he seemed more frustrated than anything else, “This is it? Ugh. Fine. For this we can offer you two healing potions and four yards of enchanted bandages.”
I could see Requiem move out of the corner of my eye, shifting forwards angrily. I could practically hear her complaining about the way he was shorting us on goods. I had to agree, but at the time I wasn’t in a good bargaining position and we were in desperate need of the supplies.
As the earth pony moved his hooves over the pile to make sure he had counted properly he finally caught sight of Requiem sitting by my side, her irritated look drawing his stare away from me. His demeanor instantly changed, from being unfriendly but business-like towards angry, “A filly!?” straightening up as he glared at me, “You kidnapped a filly!? And are dragging her across the wasteland??” My blood turned to ice in that instant as the two beside him took similar note of Requiem, who rapidly scrambled backwards on being stared at by the black eye pieces of their heavy armor.
For a moment I thought they might open fire, that Requiem would run away and I’d never be able to find her, that something terrible was about to happen. A dozen horrible thoughts ran through my mind, before fear gave way to anger at the accusation. I’d saved her! I hadn’t kidnapped her! I straightened up to my full height, spreading my wings wide and returned his glare, “Her name is Silent Requiem.” I leaned in closer towards him, “She is under my protection!” my nose barely failing to touch his as I pressed onwards, “Her family was murdered by raiders. Raiders, I might add, who came from THIS city.” waving a forehoof around at the surrounding destruction, before bringing it down on the ground with force enough to crack the pavement to punctuate my point, “I will NOT hear you blame me for what happened to her! If I had done nothing she would be dead, or worse!” my eyes seared angrily as I took a half-step forwards, forcing him downwards towards the ground with my bulk and anger. I could see the red glare of my own eyes reflecting off his, glowing from inside in time with my rage.
The earth pony reared backwards at my assertion, leaning further and further back as I pressed my face closer against his until he fell over onto his back in a rather undignified position. Quickly he righted himself before backing up between his armored allies, who quickly closed in beside him. For a moment I worried again that I might have just destroyed whatever chance of peaceful relations we had, before one of the armored guards spoke up, the voice from within that of a mare, “South-End Junction was hit?” the frantic nature of her voice made it clear she was not happy about that news. The fact that she knew what town it was without me saying so implied she’d been there, personally, before. A moment later she jabbed the earth pony in the red robe in the ribs, speaking to him in irritation, “We need to find someone to do the job now. Ask her, Waffle.”
Now I was just getting confused, too many conflicting emotions all at the same time made me nauseous. The earth pony, Waffle, slowly stepped forwards again, clearing his throat and doing is best to recover his prior demeanor, even as it was evident he was much more afraid than he had been before, “There is something else you could do, if you’re willing. We have been cut off from the other Rangers for several months now.” he frowned a moment, stamping his forehooves into the dirt, as though he were about to admit something he didn’t want to share but had little other choice, “Recent events, however, have made it clear we recover communication with the outside world. With news that South-End Junction has been destroyed, our primary source of food and water has now been cut off. What was once merely necessary is now a priority.”
I listened quietly to his explanation, glancing towards Requiem, she’d lost her home, these ponies risked losing their lives, how many more had the raiders harmed in that single instant of wanton slaughter? I couldn’t be sure, and I wasn’t certain I wanted to know. My gaze returned to the leader of the trio as I thought about that, “So what do you need me to do?” The way he spoke made it clear he didn’t expect things to last for more than a few weeks if nothing else was done, and I wasn’t going to abandon them any more than I could Requiem.
Waffle looked up, face turning from dour fear to showing the slightest signs of hope, “There is a radio station not far from here. We need you to go there and reactivate the relay booster. With it we should be able to get back in contact with the rest of the Rangers, hopefully enough to find another safe place to move to or to acquire more supplies.” he paused briefly, “Should that be impossible, disconnect the transmission controller and bring it back here. We’ll try to rig something up here temporarily at least. I can give you instructions on how to do those things on your PipBu-.” he paused in his speech, seemingly just now realizing that I even had a PipBuck, “Why do you..? No, not right now. One subject at a time.” closing his eyes in frustration, “You don’t have to do this for us. It’s certainly not your problem, after all.”
These ponies were suffering, I was here, I could do something to help them. Why wouldn’t I? That’s what ponies were supposed to do, right? Help each other. Certainly there were parts of me which wanted to help for that reason. Even the idea of just walking away made my stomach feel heavy and sick, like I would be abandoning something important to me. Though, to be honest, part of me wanted to accept just because I was afraid I could have stopped the attack on South-End Junction had I been just a little bit faster and another part wanted to do it purely out of hope that they would admire me for my actions, I tried not to think about those parts. “I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
All three of the ponies before me seemed shocked by that suggestion, even the one who had suggested telling me didn’t seem like she believed I’d actually try to help them, not that I could blame them for their disbelief. The earth pony cleared his throat and spoke up again, “Excellent. Then I will give you some instructions on how to do what we ask while my companions retrieve the supplies you wanted.” giving a glance towards the pony who hadn’t been insistent on asking me, “There’s one last thing you should know. We sent three Paladins into that radio station about a week ago, none of them returned. If anything happened to them, it would be appreciated if you could retrieve their ID tags from their remains. At least that way we could confirm what happened to them and set what’s left to rest.” he sounded sad at the prospect, but serious, it was clear that death of friends was a near-constant threat to these ponies, “If you do, I’ll try to find something special we can offer in return.”
The Paladin took a moment to gather the supplies I had dug out before, as I could feel Requiem pressing in against my side out of concern about all this. I wondered briefly how much contact the Rangers had had with South-End Junction and how well Requiem might know the capacities of these particular individuals. It was concerning to say the least, as my mind chewed over the idea that something out there was dangerous enough to kill several of them without even allowing time to call for help. I didn’t like the idea of walking straight into such an opponent, but on the other hoof I couldn’t bring myself to leave ponies in distress.
The Rangers delivered the medical supplies I was hoping for promptly. Gathering them up I turned towards the distant radio tower and began to walk, Requiem swiftly following behind to take her place beside me. The idea of asking the Rangers to take her in had crossed my mind initially, but after meeting with their trader I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what they would do with a filly like her, or even that they would take her in without reason. For now she seemed to trust me enough to stick close, and I had to hope I was good enough to keep her alive. Soon we were over one of the hills, the pale light of early morning filtering through dust in the air to cast a strange glow across the city.
The pale light of morning had grown brighter by the time Requiem and I arrived at the remains of the ancient radio station. The building was short, square and utilitarian, not precisely ugly but it lacked the kind of once-attractive architecture of the Blueblood Central Library or Ministry of Peace Forward Hospital. Built of red brick, whatever paint had once covered its walls now long washed away by endless rain, the building stood barely three stories tall. Somehow that simplistic design gave it a kind of charm all its own, this was a place to spread news across the city, it didn’t need to look grand or impressive to serve that function.
Behind the station was the broken remains of what had once been its transmission tower. Once it had been easily four times the height of the station itself. Now it lay where it had smashed through the outer walls and lodged itself mid-way into the crumbled remains of what had once been a much larger building, now reduced to barely a few broken pieces of floor and a collapsing wall. Even from where I was standing it was obvious that it had not fallen naturally, the way the metal struts which had once held it upright were melted and charred, something had cut through its supports and pulled it down. Entering the building was seeming like a worse and worse idea all the time.
As we approached the building I could make out graffiti scrawled across the front walls. Some pony had taken the time to mark the building with a large blazing skull, the empty eye-sockets seeming to glow from within. A disturbing visage, but meaningless to me. Nearby an ancient poster remained, the color partially faded with age, the stylized form of a white-maned earth pony with a pale yellow coat stood in the foreground wearing a hard hat and worker’s barding. Her head was held high with pride as a great building stretched upwards from beneath the picture and above the top. ‘Every pony should do their part!’ written atop the poster, continuing at the bottom, ‘Help build a better tomorrow, today! Join the Ministry of Technology!’. The poster drew odd feelings of sorrow and anger from my heart, forcing me to look away before I was lost in my mind again.
As I tilted my head away I caught sight of a strange symbol, on the far side of the door from the poster. A small purple star, surrounded by five others, red, orange, green, blue and pink. It would have been easy to miss, as it was neither large nor central to the wall. Something about it felt important, a connection I knew I should have but couldn’t place. It made my heart ache in the same way the photograph in the library had.
A tug on my hair brought my attention back to Requiem as she looked up at me with a worried expression. I gave the best reassuring smile I could, her look making it obvious that she was afraid I was going to drift off again. My attention returned to the doors in front of us, large metallic doors built on easy hinges which had survived the end of the world with relative ease. Slowly I wrapped my magic around them and pushed them open, stepping inside. This time, Requiem decided to take up position behind me, evidently she was as worried about what we might find within as I was.
As I stepped across the threshold into the radio station a distinctive aroma filled my consciousness. A sickly sweet smell, like over-ripe fruit mixed with crushed roses. In that moment I discovered that it was entirely possible to want to vomit despite not needing to eat. My stomach felt like it had been bucked, flopping over and struggling to escape from my body through my throat. Only the lack of contents to flee from it kept me from retching on the spot.
The sound of liquid splattering on hard flooring drew my attention downwards in concern, Requiem had suffered the same as I had but was unfortunate enough to have actually eaten breakfast just a few hours before. Whatever remained of the bottle of water and strange fruit I had recovered from South-End Junction now graced the hard tiled flooring. She seemed to be recovering even as I watched, and as moments ticked by the nausea passed. The horrible stench remained hanging in the air, but the initial shock of exposure was passed.
Requiem’s vomit joined a myriad stains upon the hard flooring, tiled in white and black checkerboard pattern which seemed to clash with the yellowing walls of the reception room. The room itself was spacious enough, a half dozen badly decayed chairs in various stages of falling apart sat against the walls, an over-hanging light fixture still filling the room with sharp white light. A desk at the far end of the room had been turned over onto its side, signs of multiple small impacts clear across its surface as the objects which had once been sitting on it were scattered haphazardly across the room. Two doors sat near the overturned desk, one which had been forced open and knocked off its hinges by some kind of impact and the other a large metallic door with no clear way to open or close it.
As I began to approach the desk the horrific aroma which lingered in the air grew stronger, mixing with another subtler smell of burnt wood and rubber. For the first time, Requiem seemed genuinely hesitant to follow me as I looked back towards her. She slowly crept around her own vomit, carefully remaining behind me. Walking largely without looking where I was going I approached the desk, a slight buzzing sound briefly registering on my consciousness just before a small object sailed passed my vision barely an inch from my head causing me to rear backwards by reflex. The buzzing grew louder as I turned my head to see where it was coming from, the purple glow of my shield filling my vision. My EFS suddenly alive with half a dozen red markers.
What greeted my eyes upon looking through the destroyed door frame was like some twisted mockery of nature. A horribly over sized, bulbous body colored an odd pastel blue with multi-faceted iridescent eyes covered in short bristly hairs which seemed to bend almost like unnatural legs. The grotesque monstrosity held aloft by wings which looked entirely too small to be able to maintain its flight. The creature opened its mouth, strained with overly thick mucous, and spat a sharp needle-like thorn towards me, managing to do little beyond leave some rainbow-colored goo upon the exterior of my shield. The buzzing filling my ears came from the creature as well as a small cloud of multi-colored specks behind it swarming near a piece of wall. The voices in my head matching my own feelings of disgust along with some distant feeling of horror at what I was looking at.
My moment of disgust gave way to a mixture of fear and rejection. What I was beholding was so completely wrong that even the idea of allowing it to live somehow felt horrific in its own right. In a moment of combined panic and rejection I wrapped my magic around the large desk sitting on the floor beside me, hurling it through the air at the bobbing and weaving thing before me. The desk sailed with graceful abandon across open air between us, filling the doorway a brief moment and blotting out my vision of the disgusting thing... Then continuing onwards across the room to smash violently into a door which I hadn’t noticed in my preoccupation with the buzzing monstrosity. The door smashed and crushed inwards, ripped from its frame as the small window in it shattered into tiny pieces. My target was, at least, reduced to less than pulp by the impact.
The buzzing sound did not abate with my overwhelming application of force. Instead it grew louder again as another of those strangely bulbous things floated towards the doorway, hurling more goo-covered shards at my shield, and this time I was fresh out of desks. Requiem, jarred from her sickness by the impact it seemed, crept past me towards the door. She moved low into the room, ducking down before leaping upwards to catch the bloated thing as it was preoccupied watching me. The sudden added weight of her landing dragged it from the ground as she smashed her hooves into one of its over-sized eyes, swiftly reducing the iridescent orb to pulp. She tore the wings from its back with her teeth and mashed it with her hooves until it stopped even twitching, shaking the goo from her coat as she tracked a few slight hoof-prints of grey-green glop away as she trotted back towards me.
For my part, I felt suddenly deeply embarrassed. Massive overkill to destroy something even a wasteland filly could handle on her own. Admittedly, I had no way to know if Requiem’s skills were average for a wasteland filly or if she was more exceptional than most, but at the moment it didn’t really matter. A great and powerful Alicorn, once regarded as one of the great monsters of the wasteland, which ponies hated and feared for prowess and stature, outdone by an unarmed foal. Some of me wanted to scold Requiem for rushing into danger, but a larger part just wanted to cover my face with my hooves in embarrassment. Instead I chose to take the steps through the door-frame into the room beyond, the continuous buzzing sound and the additional red markers on my E.F.S. worrying me enough to keep my shield up.
Calling the room ruined would be an insult to the state of the decaying buildings of the wastes. The room had once been a mixture of cafeteria and bar, the floor covered in the same black and white checkered tiling as the waiting room. Once the center of the room had been dominated by a large bar with shelves for bottles and drinks behind it and stools set up all around it. Now shattered glass, broken so fine as to be almost a powder, dusted the room alongside broken pieces of wood and twisted metal. The bar and shelves had been reduced to shrapnel by whatever catastrophe had visited the room. The walls, once covered in tastefully decorative wallpaper, were partially smeared with chunky red paste and black shards which resembled the carapace of some great insect. The buzzing of tiny bloatsprites was thickest around those horribly repainted walls, the random nature of the spread making it clear this wasn’t some planned design. I tried not to think about what had made up those stains.
Slowly I walked across the room, the sound of crunching glass easily audible with each hoof-fall. The horrors painted across the walls continued as I pressed onwards into the room, until I rounded the shattered remains of the bar to find half a pony laying on the floor. The left half, to be precise. Some great force had torn the pony apart, cleaving cleanly through their shiny black armor to splinter bone and strip flesh. The shattered remains lay upon the floor, motionless in their own right yet teeming with activity as hundreds of tiny insects crawled across the surface of the rotting meat and entrails seeking sustenance. For the second time today I felt like vomiting and only the emptiness of my stomach stopped me. A splayed wing rested broken and abused upon the tile flooring beneath the body, this had once been a pegasus, caught in an enclosed space by some powerful destructive weapon. Part of me wondered what a pegasus was doing in a place like this, part of me wanted to cry, part of me was angry at the waste, most of me was too horrified by the sight to think about anything else.
The soft crunching of glass alerted me to Requiem creeping up closer behind me. Quickly, I turned and swept out a wing to stop her, doing my best to hold my stomach in place, “Why don’t... Why don’t you go check out that closet over there?” nodding my head in the direction of the door which my hurled battering-desk had managed to break from its hinges, “There’s probably something interesting in there!” a half-hearted smile passed my lips. However horrific the wasteland could be, I wasn’t going to subject an innocent filly to that horror of rotting meat. I didn’t even want to subject myself to it!
The look of annoyance Requiem gave me spoke volumes to her willingness to listen to me, especially as I gave such a weak smile of reassurance in return. For a moment I feared she might step past me anyway, as I did my best to stay between her and the broken remains upon the floor. Finally, after what felt like forever, Requiem turned away and began to make her way towards the shattered doorway, climbing over the now-twisted desk and taking the time to yank each of the drawers open. As she disappeared into the small closet I quietly released a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding and immediately regretted it as the stench of rotting meat returned to my senses in full force. My eyes watered just slightly. This building was less radio station and more abattoir now. A monument to the tragic ends of some ponies who hadn’t even had the good fortune to die in a place where they would be buried.
Slowly I turned back towards the shattered remains of the pegasus, carefully moving past them. Had I the means I would have gladly destroyed the body on the spot. No pony, no matter what they had done, deserved to have their remains left to rot like that. I was so preoccupied thinking about what kind of creature would leave a pony in that state that it came as a complete surprise when my hoof sank into some unknown substance. The horrific, warm, squishing sensation made me at first fear I had just stepped into the remains of another pony. Nervously, I looked down, to find my hoof engulfed ankle-deep into a puddle of thick green ooze. In an instant I pulled my hoof free and did my best to shake the goop off, some part of me feeling like I’d just stepped on some pony’s grave.
As I shook my hoof clean the ooze began to collapse inwards to fill the hole I had punched in it, some of it sliding off a small metallic object. Still sickened and nervous I slowly wrapped my magic around the object and began to pull it free. The object was a small, reinforced metal tag with a set of minuscule gems embedded in it. An arcanotech device of some variety. As I turned it over in my magic to inspect it, it gave a slight click-hum and suddenly sprang to life. The gems glowed a pale green as the image of a tiny pony leaped into existence before me, alongside a short list of information.
Name: Rosie Smiles
Affiliation: Applejack’s Rangers
Serial Number: 1409-4662-5892
A part of me recognized the device, a military identification tag intended to allow an injured or deceased pony to be recognized even if severely disfigured. More tellingly part of me recognized that name ‘Applejack’s Rangers’. My mind swam for context on why that name was so important, but found only madness and discord where there should have been memories. Even then, something about that name made me feel good, a distant kind of happy feeling like somewhere someone important was being treated right. My mind dwelt on that fact for only a moment before realizing what I was actually standing over. In a sense, my first thoughts on what I stepped in was right. The pile of glowing green ooze in front of me had once been one of the Applejack’s Rangers sent into this building.
Today seemed to be getting worse and worse, especially after it had started so well. Part of me scolded me for believing that the wasteland would be so kind as to give me a day without tragedy. The same part which had previously berated another part of me for wanting to make Requiem feel safe and happy. At the moment I wished it would shut up.
Sliding the metal tag into my bag I slowly turned back towards the storage closet. I desperately wanted to put this room behind me, to be anywhere but in here. Even somewhere as cramped as a storage closet would have to be an improvement over THIS. For once, at least, I was right. As I climbed up over the desk, having to crouch low to make it through the door frame with so much of it taken up by the now-twisted metallic construction, I could see Requiem had been sorting out the things she had found while I was away.
Pausing in the door frame, crouched low upon the desk, I watched her work. She moved with surprising efficiency, nudging each object into its own place with her nose before climbing the metal step-ladder somepony had left in the closet to reach another shelf, heaving whatever contents caught her attention off onto the floor and adding them to her pile. In her occupation with her task she didn’t seem to have noticed me, or she was actively ignoring me. It was hard to be sure which, though I had a difficult time imagining she could have missed me filling the entire door frame.
So enamoured was I with Requiem’s actions that when she came to a toolbox on the shelf and went to push it off it didn’t even occur to me to try and catch it with my magic. As the toolbox tumbled through the air I briefly caught sight of a six-colored symbol similar to the one outside the building just before it smashed into the ground. With a clatter the ancient latch, long abused by time, snapped open and the contents of the toolbox scattered across the floor. Requiem scrambled away from the sudden burst of unexpected noise, pressing herself against the wall of the small room in fear. My own attention shifted to the scattered pieces from the tool box. A wrench, a hammer, a dozen nails, nothing that special at first glance. Then I caught sight of a grey rectangular object, an opening on one end matching the connection on the side of my PipBuck.
Carefully, I levitated the grey metal object from amongst the debris and brought it forward to examine. The tape had landed face down when the toolbox burst open. On the opposite side was an odd diagram, but one which looked instantly and intensely familiar to me. Two alicorns, one white with a pink mane and tail, the other black with a dark blue mane and tail, were chasing each other. Between them was a circle, half golden and half silver, and around them were six distinctive colored stars. The symbol brought with it a wave of emotion which threatened to overwhelm me. Joy and sorrow swam through my mind in equal measure as my heart felt like it was being wrenched from my chest. Far away I could hear chanting and laughter, the sounds of ponies being happy. Without so much as a second thought I slammed the recording into my PipBuck and allowed it to download the contents. This was connected to me somehow, that much I was certain of, and I desperately needed to know how.
My PipBuck chirped as the transfer completed, labeling the newly acquired audio log Preacher’s Log #10. That meant there were at least nine more logs like this one somewhere in the wasteland. For the first time since my moment of clarity in the Junkyard I was absolutely certain I had found something related to my past, and there were nine more pieces of it out there waiting for me. In that moment all the horrors of this building were forgotten, whatever pains might have or would still be visited upon me this day didn’t matter in the slightest. Frantic to hear anything about my past, anything which might lead me to where I was supposed to be, I toggled the recording on, fighting back tears of fear and joy. The voice of a mare greeted me, not filled with the hope or joy I had wished for but with exhaustion, anger and sorrow.
“Blessed be the Goddesses and the Six. May their path lead us back towards greatness and their lessons mark our way.
“I hope whomever finds this is in a better state than we are today. We got hit by raiders again yesterday.
“Got myself shot. Through the leg when the main body of the raiders attacked the caravan. Hurts to stand right now, doing my best not to move.
“We won. I suppose that should be obvious, since I’m recording this and not painting the inside of some ruin somewhere with my blood. But I’m not sure ‘won’ is the right word. We survived, but we lost.
“Merry is dead. They had a sniper up in one of the nearby buildings. Got her before we even realized they were there. It was horrible. I was standing right next to her mid-sentence when her head just exploded. It could just as easily have been me. Or Makeshift.
“... This... This is going to sound horrible. But I almost wish it was me. I was right there, and I couldn’t do anything to save her. The raiders took her away without even pausing to breathe. When they attacked they almost seemed delighted to watch their fellows die. Like any death, even their own, was good.
“The wasteland is broken. It’s perverse and dangerous. The ponies out here don’t want to listen. And... And worst of all... I think it’s breaking me too. When Merry died like that, barely a hoof-step away from me, all I could think about was how hard it would be to get the stains out of my robe. She’s still stuck to it, little bits of her clinging to the cloth, not enough spare water to wash it properly.
“We’re holed up in an old radio station right now. Hopefully you already knew that, if you found this recording. Makeshift thinks she can get the transmitter working again, maybe send some news back home. Let them know we’re still alive out here.
“Home. What I wouldn’t give to be home again right now. To sit down to just one more of the High Priestess’ sermons. To listen to her talk about the goodness of ponies and the way things should be. To eat a good hot meal, to spend a day at the spa.
“Sounds like Golden Bit is gathering up the caravan to have dinner. I should go, eat something, even if I don’t feel hungry. Starving myself won’t bring Merry back.
“She deserved better than this. All of us do.”
My heart sank as I listened to the recording. This was a piece of somepony’s history, but it wasn’t mine. It felt like somepony had ripped my heart out listening to that message. So much of my hopes had been dredged up in the moment of recognition, only to be dashed upon the rocks of reality. Worse, somepony had recorded this in their time of need. I wondered briefly whether they had ever made it home, found their solace and peace. The voices in my head were of mixed opinion, many reminded me that this wasn’t my problem, others felt sorry for the mare in the recording, one told me that I had something I had to do here before I could have a breakdown. That last voice was winning, at the moment. Mostly because it had support from the parts of me which desperately wanted to be anywhere but here.
As I roused myself from my introspective stupor I noticed that Requiem had finished assembling the last of the things from the closet. She was sitting in front of the small piles, looking up at me impatiently. The annoyance from my prior insistence that she come in here mixed with some slight degree of worry over the way I was acting. I did my best not to think too hard on how she must have felt about me at that moment, instead focusing on gathering up the collection of objects in my magic and depositing them into my saddlebags. A few dozen bottle caps, two empty Sparkle~Cola bottles, two still-sealed cans of beans, a badly damaged tin which had had most of its front scratched off leaving only ‘nt-als’ visible and a single, pristine, coffee mug. Not precisely the most impressive collection of goods, but it was something.
Carefully, I backed out of the closet, turning to face the cafeteria again. Doing my best to shut out the horrors of this place my eyes moved towards the far side of the room. A staircase leading up to an open door, and what looked like a hallway beyond. The constant buzzing of the tiny bloatsprites in the room was beginning to grate upon my nerves as I started moving across the room towards the base of the stairs. Requiem, thankfully, contained her inquisitive desires and followed after me, the soft sound of wood and glass shuffling across broken flooring making it easy to tell where she was.
My hooves fell upon another bloatsprite. The feeling of it crushing beneath my weight sent shivers up my spine and made me dearly wish for enough water to take a proper bath. Nearby I could hear another ‘thunk’ as Requiem landed on a second bloatsprite further down the hallway from me. The last red dot on my E.F.S. went dark as she crept quietly out from one of the side rooms, shaking ooze from her mane and coat. However bad it was for me to have jammed my hooves into these things, Requiem had practically bathed in them. I couldn’t begin to imagine how she could be comfortable doing that, yet she didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned about it. I had to pause in wonder as she slipped past me further down the hall. How often had these creatures been a problem for the survivors at South-End Junction that even a filly seemed to know the best way to destroy them?
The second floor wasn’t much better than the first. In some ways it was worse. Comprised primarily of a long, narrow hallway with several smaller rooms off to each side. A recording studio, a few small offices and a mixing booth. The walls here were covered in similar red smear mixed with black metal fragments, scorched and partially destroyed by whatever weapons had ended the lives of the ponies here. There was no signs of intact bodies here, at least. The only sign beyond the state of the walls that there had been any ponies in these rooms at all was another small pool of green ooze. I had found another small tag floating in it as we fought our way past the half-dozen bloatsprites which had accumulated in the smaller confines of the upper floor. This one belonged to a stallion named Winter Breeze, another member of the Applejack’s Rangers.
I wondered briefly what had caused this tragedy as I began to ascend the stairs towards the third floor. Had whatever they were fighting over been worth it? Was there anything worth such a horrible waste of pony lives? Part of me said I was stupid for asking, after all I had killed six ponies just to save Requiem. So far I only had evidence of four deaths in this building. Another part of me countered with the belief that Requiem’s life was worth more than some raiders who would have raped and murdered her.
The idea that some ponies deserved to live more than others did somehow felt horribly wrong to me, yet familiar as well. After all, I had been trying to find those same raiders since leaving South-End Junction, hadn’t I? Surely some group willing to murder an entire town just out of petty vengeance weren’t going to stop just because I asked politely. I felt sick to my stomach, and not just because of the horrible stench for once, but did my best not to think about it. Thinking about it too hard just made my head hurt. Too many conflicting answers, not enough space to consider them all properly. Better to just keep moving, focus on what’s in front of you.
In front of me, at that moment, was the room we had come here to find. I had reached the top of the stairs and found the transmitter room. Its state was comparable to the cafeteria we had first passed through, if slightly less gore-ridden. The walls were pockmarked where smaller weapons fire had dug bullets into the construction, mixing with the deep gouges and scorch marks which reminded me of the weapons which Scraps’ robot had attacked me with in the Junkyard. The room itself much more simple and undecorated than anywhere else in the building. Red brick painted over with simple colors, a plain wood floor and a half burned out lighting fixture was all there was to the room.
The broadcasting equipment would have been the only truly noteworthy thing in the room, were it not for the two sets of uniquely designed armor laying on the floor motionless. The vibrant red colors of the Applejack’s Ranger armor was familiar to me now, after my encounter that morning. The other armor was the same black and green design as had been worn by the corpse left downstairs. Both of these sets seemed to be intact and there was no indication of the state of their inhabitants. I wasn’t certain if that made the sight more or less horrific, as I briefly considered what the interior of those suits must be like.
I slowly stepped over the threshold into the room proper, heading towards the controls for the transmitter. It was obvious that simply reactivating them wouldn’t do any good, not with the radio array collapsed like that. So it was time for plan B, recovering the transmission controller to return to the Applejack’s Rangers. Thankfully, Waffle’s instructions were both step by step and relatively in-depth. Within a few moments I had my PipBuck connected to the system and could access the release mechanisms to open it for retrieval. Somewhere along the way I heard my PipBuck chirp unexpectedly, but I was too busy trying to make sure I did things in the right order to pay attention to why.
It only took me a few minutes to get the radio control panel open and retrieve the deceptively small bundle of wires and gemstones which orchestrated the entire transmission system. In that time Requiem had entered the room and began her characteristic inspection of anything and everything she could get her hooves into. Which in this case wasn’t much, as she seemed to be avoiding both of the corpses rather pointedly. I stepped forwards and gently cleared my throat, “Come on Requiem. We should get back to the Rangers with what we found.” I didn’t think it needed to be said, but somehow saying it made me feel better. The idea that we wouldn’t have to remain in this fetid, vile place any longer was comforting.
The trip out was vastly easier than in, at least. The sealed door I had seen in the lobby had a release switch on this side. A single swift kick and the door slid open automatically, leaving us free to depart through the main doors once again. The fresh air outside the building was indescribably perfect compared to how horrific the interior had been. Even the usual damp, heavy atmosphere of the wastes was vastly preferable to that place. Slowly the two of us set out again across the wrecked landscape, climbing across broken streets and cracked pavement. The path back to the Applejack’s Rangers was simple, if not particularly short.
By the time I could see the looming form of the Ministry of Peace Forward Hospital once again the day had passed to late afternoon, only an hour from darkness at most. The hospital itself looked much as we had left it, which wasn’t terribly surprising. What was more surprising was that I could see a figure sitting outside the front gates as we reached the same area the Applejack’s Rangers had met with me earlier that day. The figure rose from their position and trotted towards us. I could see two more Applejack’s Rangers up on the walls again, making me briefly wonder how frequently the hospital came under attack that they needed constant guard.
As the Applejack’s Ranger came close enough for comfortable conversation a familiar female voice crackled from the speakers, the same who had insisted that Waffle offer us the opportunity to help them that morning, “You’ve returned. Excellent. Then you did what we asked?” I nodded, still mostly numb from emotional roller coaster which the interior of that building had been, “Good. Elder Muffins wishes to speak to you. Please follow me.” Despite her polite wording it was obvious this wasn’t so much a request as a demand. A dozen dangerous situations flitted through my mind, warnings about how bad an idea it was to follow her into the heart of their control flashing past so fast that I could barely even make sense of one before a more horrible possibility presented itself. As usual, my thoughts proved as useful to making a decision as hurling a dozen buckets of paint at a canvas was for creating fine art.
I cast a wary glance towards Requiem, who shrunk away from my gaze slightly, looking back down towards the Applejack’s Ranger with a mixture of worry and irritation. Never more than that moment had I wished Requiem would say something, anything, to me. Her expression made it clear that she knew something was strange about all this, but she still didn’t seem to want to make even the slightest noise as she began to creep forwards behind the Applejack’s Ranger. I rose and followed along behind the two of them, giving the occasional nervous glance towards the armored ponies on the walls who weren’t even trying to disguise the way they were following me with their weapons. The message was clear, even to me, ‘Do anything unexpected and die’.
The screech of metal against metal filled the air to an almost deafening level as we approached the massive gates. They looked enormous even compared to me, and I could scarcely imagine what the Rangers would need such a large entrance for. As we passed the gate the courtyard stretched out before us. A large open area covered in smooth pavement which still had the faintest remains of lines painted upon it surrounding the main building of the hospital.
The front of the hospital itself was worn like the rest of the building, once beautiful white and pink stone now stained brown and green by centuries of rain and wind. Metal letters were sunk into the stone above the main entrance ‘HOSPITAL’, the small cross with a butterfly at the center sitting just off to one side, the same symbol as had been on Scraps’ medical robot. The front doors of the hospital were closed, one of them having been plastered over with a poster, ‘Heroes come in every shape!’ read the top, a trio of ponies, one unicorn, one pegasus and one earth pony standing together at the center of the poster each carrying a unique stylized version of a personal firearm, ‘Together we can claim victory!’ was scrawled across the bottom. This one didn’t seem to provoke spontaneous emotional reaction, at least.
A trio of ponies sat several yards away from the doors as we approached, one of whom was wearing the same familiar Applejack’s Ranger armor as our guide. One of the two remaining, an ice blue unicorn stallion with a mane which was a mixture of blue and teal, wore a red and brown robe marked with a small patch showing three bright red apples. Part of me ached for that symbol, the same way it had at the name of the Applejack’s Rangers, but I couldn’t put a hoof on why it seemed so important, an infuriating feeling to say the least. The third member was a dark green earth pony stallion with a greying orange mane, wearing a different style of red robe with a high collar, sporting a similar patch of his own. The way the others were sitting around him it was obvious he was by far the most important of them.
Our guide stepped out forwards to take up a position opposite the other armored pony beside the apparent Elder of the Applejack’s Rangers here. The other robbed pony speaking up, “I still do not believe this is a good idea, Elder. This one may have proven useful, but she is still one of those things. How can you possibly expect her to be honest? You remember what the last ones did!”
That stung. The parts of me which remembered what I looked like in the mirror in South-End Junction and how Scraps had first reacted to me reminded me I should be expecting this, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling from other parts of me that he was wrong! I was as much a pony as anyone else was! Wasn’t I? I hoped I was, at least. A disturbingly large part of me felt more insulted that he had dared to talk down to me like that, professing that I should do something to prove my own greatness and then he would have to listen! Given the way that the two on the walls had been watching me, that seemed closer to a swift way to suicide, so I did my best to ignore those suggestions.
“She’s probably the one who destroyed South-” His speech cut off mid-sentence as the armored pony who had lead us in dropped her hoof to the hard pavement beneath us, creating a resounding sound of metal on stone. The way she turned her head to regard her compatriot I couldn’t imagine the death-stare hidden behind that metal mask. Evidently the robed pony actually COULD imagine it, as he instantly went silent.
Finally, Elder Muffins cleared his throat, speaking with a deep gravely voice which sounded at least twice the age he seemed to actually be, “Your objection is noted, Head Scribe Frozen Fog.” his intonation and formality was all he seemed to need to show of his irritation at his subordinate, who sat silently with an irritated look upon his face. “Now. Star Paladin Lilac informs me that you’ve found what we sent you for?” the elder looked up towards me hopefully, though I got the feeling that it was as much formality as an actual question.
Carefully I levitated the hunk of metal and gemstones from my saddle bag over in front of the Elder, “I hope so. I followed Waffle’s instructions as closely as possible.” Frozen Fog recoiled slightly in surprise, obviously he had been expecting that I would fail, or at least that I would keep it for myself if I succeeded.
“Excellent! Fog? I’m counting on you to get something up and working, soon.”
Frozen Fog nodded at the Elder’s words, grasping the arcanotech device in his magic, “I’ll get to work immediately.” stepping away to move into the hospital, the way I could see him relax as he stepped away from me made his own thoughts on the matter of my presence even more clear. As though he needed to make it more obvious.
Elder Muffins looked up at me as he straightened out, speaking again, “Now, about the other thing we were looking for..?” I hung my head in some shame at the mention of that, I didn’t want to think about what had happened to the ponies there. I didn’t want to remember what I had seen. Strange as it sounds, after I had set out looking for memories, I found myself wishing I could forget.
Slowly and I pulled the tags from my saddlebag and floated them over to him. “There was a third, still sealed in their armor. I couldn’t recover the tag.” it was a shaming admission to make, leaving one of the dead behind unknown like that. But I hadn’t the skill to break into the armor, nor did I have the strength to carry something like that all the way back here.
His expression turned graven, “I see. I apologize for putting you through this on our behalf. It is not surprising, though it is still upsetting.” he paused a brief moment at that, “Do you know what killed them?”
Then it was my turn to pause, opening my mouth to answer I found too many conflicting answers to verbalize any one. It was like when I had been asked my name, the overlapping answers only driving my own mind to pain. Instead I answered with the one thing I could be certain of, “Pegasi. I... I don’t know how, or why.” pressing my lips closed nervously, hoping he’d actually believe me. Concerned he might assume I was attempting to cover for someone else.
Muffins’ expression turned from graven to horrified with amazing speed at that, “Pegasi? Here? Why would they..?” shaking his head a few moments as he looked up to me, “It is enough to know who is responsible. Thank you. We will see to it that their names are set to rest in a proper funeral at the least.” nodding his head towards the Applejack’s Ranger beside him, who’s name I realized I still didn’t know, who gathered up the tags and began to carrying them back inside. Leaving me alone with the Elder and Star Paladin. “I apologize for this, but we cannot allow you access to the hospital. However, you are welcome to stay in the yard inside the walls tonight. I will see if we can spare any food for your companion as well.” his eyes straying towards Requiem. Who shrunk away from his vision as she did from everyone else.
Star Paladin Lilac leaned closer, whispering something into Elder Muffins’ ear I couldn’t hear. He nodded in return before looking back to me, “I need to return and make certain that everything is handled properly. Please make yourself at home out here. I will send a scribe with some blankets and food soon enough.” I nodded half numbly at his offer, watching as he turned to head inside, leaving me alone with Star Paladin Lilac.
“I’ll show you where you can stay out here. I used to spend nights on guard duty pretty regularly, there’s a few places you can find comfortable for resting.” the artificial twang of the speakers on her armor conflicted with the over-all cheery disposition she seemed to have as she stood to lead the two of us onwards around the building. The place she led us to was a small mound where four cushions had been unrolled on the pavement, a sheet of metal set up over top of them to keep the rain off. It was hardly fancy, but it was more comfortable than sleeping on rocks at least. “Here you go. It’s not much but it’s the best I can offer outside of the hospital itself. Somepony will be out with some food and blankets soon. I need to go assist the Elder with updating duty rosters after the confirmation of death.” her voice sounded dour at the end of her statement, and I for once had absolutely no difficulty imagining why.
“Thank you.” I stepped forwards as Requiem leaped up to take a place on one of the cushions. Lilac just shook her head at my thanks, turning to head back towards the hospital.
She called back briefly over her shoulder as she went, “I’m sorry, about everything.” Something about her apology just didn’t make any sense to me at the time. Did she have some idea what had happened in the radio station? Was she familiar with what it was like to be me? The statement just didn’t make any sense to me, and was going to drive me crazy(er) trying to contemplate it.
Instead I decided to settle down on the cushion, turning my attention to my PipBuck, reactivating the Preacher’s Log. Some part of me hoped I had missed something in my first listening. Another part felt sorry for this voice in the darkness, wondering what she had endured to be where she was. Most of me wanted to believe that there was a happy ending at the end of her story, but part of me kept telling me that was stupid. Happy endings didn’t happen. Hope wasn’t worth the pain which came with it. I dearly wished I could have crushed that part of me underhoof. Instead I listened to that sad, angry, tired voice and let her words obliterate all semblance of thought.
“Blessed be the Goddesses and the Six. May their path lead us back towards greatness and their lessons mark our way.”
Aurora Borealis (Level Up! - Level 4)
New Perk: Foal at Heart - Your foalish nature shows through in your actions and words, causing consternation to some and giving you a natural connectedness to youths. You gain access to special social interactions with foals and certain adults, in addition you gain a 20% bonus to the starting disposition of all foals, you’re just naturally like-able that way.
New Spell: Royal Canterlot Voice - Once used to address crowds at public functions, this volume-boosting spell makes a great party trick as well. As long as you don’t mind deafening anyone standing nearby.
Silent Requiem (Level Up! - Level 3)