Stable 48 - Triage
By: Mister Clacky
Because all the sick do not recover, therefore medicine is not an art.
In the dusty confines of a long abandoned office, a young mare approached a bank of monitors recessed into a massive crescent desk. She lifted her foreleg. A ripple ran through the metal cuff above her fetlock, eight spindly legs uncoiled themselves as her assistant sprang to life. With an eager chirp it leapt to the desk below. It skittered through a jagged hole in the old top. A few minutes passed before the monitors blinked to life.
“Good work, Junior. Let’s see what happened here.”
>>Video Playback Initiated
A stallion stalked through a well lit room, slinking toward a darkened corner. Something indiscernible bobbed around in his mouth as he mumbled.
“Junior, see if you can enhance the audio.” An acknowledging chirp sounded from inside the huge desk. A few moments passed and the clarity and volume increased. She grinned.
The stallion was still skulking across the room. He mumbled to himself, “The brave hero brandishes his blade...”
...The sun reflects off his silver coat like polished steel, his burgundy mane falling down his neck like a river of blood. A few light scars crisscross his hide as sinuous muscles dance below his skin. A red heart, stitched up the middle with crossed blades beneath, adorn his flank, speaking to his natural talent for survival in the face of fatal injury or inescapable danger. Before the massive stallion lurks a mutated abomination. The chitinous beast covered in thick, sharp hairs. Its eight spindly legs meet at the sternum, its bloated abdomen trailed behind. The monstrous arachnid contemplates the hero for long moments with its compact, alien eyes and then charges. The massive insect clacks its slavering, venomous mandibles as it barrels down on the hero, a tender morsel to be paralyzed and dragged back to its hungering brood.
The stallion nearly falters, hypnotized by the glittering fangs of the radioactive mutation, but he regains his composure and hefts his sturdy weapon. With a great bound the hero leaps into the air; his mouth-held blade lances through the felspider, impaling it upon the gray earth. With a powerful twist and a great flow of greenish ichor, the beast's struggles cease.
The mighty warrior takes a few panting breaths, the adrenaline rush diminishes, and the hammering of battle creeps from his mind. He rears astride the corpse of his foe, turns his muzzle to the heavens, and bellows a warrior's cry.
“... is… mine… EWWW!”
Dr. Lancet stared cross-eyed at the small brown spider impaled on his scalpel. He gripped the scalpel at the farthest point from the tiny arachnid, his lips pushed as far as possible away from his face. Why can’t they get these damnable spiders under control? He crossed Stable 48's immaculate infirmary, over which he held dominion as the Stable’s Head of Medicine. Daintily, he flailed one front hoof as he tried to strike the pedal to open the trash can. He locked his gaze on the murderous, dead bug. It could have been playing possum, waiting for a moment of distraction to pull itself off the scalpel and pounce on his…
“I reckon that has got to be the most emasculatin’ sight I ever did see.”
Startled, he stomped down with his lifted foreleg, causing the trash bin to finally snap open. Violently. It closed just as quickly, and he leapt back with a yelp. The scalpel tumbled from his mouth, clattering on the tile floor.
A braying laugh cracked the antiseptic atmosphere in the little medical bay as the doctor composed himself.
“How long have you been there?” A slight coloring of his neck betrayed the stoic mask he wore.
“Since about ‘He rears astride the corpse.’” She mimiced his victory pose for a moment before descending into fits of laughter again. The tawny mare restrained herself to a few strained giggles as she crossed toward him. She lowered her head to retrieve the scalpel, her tight braid tumbled forward, its vivid candy red muted by the harsh clinical light.
His blush nearly suppressed, his tone shifted to the professional. “Miss Cider Press, to what do I owe the honor of this visit? You’re not bleeding, no lacerations or contusions. Hmm... Of course! A neurological disorder! But which? Dementia? Possible. Aphasia? More likely. But then again, with that accent, who'd notice?” He arched an eyebrow. As the stable's doctor, it was his sacred duty to ask the hard questions.
She scraped the spider off the scalpel and spat the soiled instrument onto a nearby table. “Oh, 'Miss' and a mouthful o' big words, I musta put ya in a right foul mood. I can get the spider out of the bin and chase ya a bit, ifn' ya like? I betcha I can make ya eat it.” She glanced toward the waste bin before taking a threatening step toward the good doctor. Her eyes glinted with challenge.
He heaved a sigh of resignation. His caustic personality, built up as a result of being a stallion with a heart on his ass and all the ridicule and bullying that implied, didn’t daunt the mare. It hadn’t helped matters that he was small for a stallion, built more delicately than other stallions, or that this Apple family amazon had taken it upon herself to fight his battles for him growing up. Once she moved to the orchard and he to medical, the bullying escalated again. But then most bullies will pick a new target the first time one of them comes in for a routine dental procedure and wakes up his chest wired up and a bloody heart in a jar beside him. Even the twin terrors of 48, Rough and Tumble, gave him a wide berth after that.
He gestured toward a nearby chair before rolling onto the examination table. “So, why are you here, Ci'? Shouldn't you be at the orchard? Or is all that talk about Apple family work ethic only applicable to the ones with actual apples on their flanks?” He glanced pointedly at the wooden cider press on her flank. Instead of a satisfying glare he was rewarded only with a frustrated huff as she ignored the chair and settled to her haunches.
A pregnant pause hung in the air before she spoke. “They done run me off. Those eggheads commandeered the orchard to 'proceed to phase three of the trial,'” she ended with a fair imitation of Professor Tentation, “I git they gotta up production, but there hasn't been an advance in productivity since Professor Arboriculture, Celestia rest his soul, bred up them zap apples that bear fruit five times a year.”
Cider's shoulders sagged and her head drooped. Verbal jabs aside, Cider was his oldest friend, and he could read her like a book. It was a simple book. She only existed in two states: working or worried. He brought up his schedule on his PipBuck, the hightech wristlet that all stable ponies received when they came of age. The PipBuck had a slew of functions, from inventory management, to chronometer, to combat aides, although those could only be activated by the Security Chief Heads Up or the Overmare.
His shift was nearly over. Dr. House Call would be in any minute. He rolled back off the examination table. “Well, as much as I would like to stay in here and sulk with you, my shift has concluded and I must 'git me some vittles. Wouldn' y'all like t'company me?'”
She scowled at his mutilation of her accent, but a scowl beat a grimace any day. She stood and walked toward the door, “Well, I reckon I don't have much else to do.” She raised her snout in the air and glared down it through half lidded eyes, taking on a ridiculous air of superiority. “And, for your information good sir, 'y'all' is a shortening of 'you all' and as such should only be directed at a group, not an individual.”
“Aw, shucks. I didn’ wanna turn ya all sour, marm.” He adopted his dopiest grin.
She tried to keep her stern look in place, but a grin threatened to ruin it. A half-giggle forced its way out of her. A few moments more and neither of them could contain their laughter.
Cider wiped away a few stray tears, a final few chuckles dying in her voice. “Thanks,” she said, catching her breath, “I needed that.” She walked over to him and punched him hard in the shoulder. “Let’s get them vittles.”
Lancet bit his lip, trying to keep a straight face and not reveal any of the pain throbbing through his playfully abused shoulder. “Ladies first,” he said, gesturing toward the door. She didn’t see him shaking out his foreleg as he hobbled along behind her.
The dingy, gray halls of the Stable seemed even gloomier coming from the impeccable brightness of the infirmary. There had, from time to time, been the odd request to brighten the mood with a mural or something. Each time the request was denied: time wasted beautifying could be better spent doing anything else. Several turns and dreary hallways later the doctor and foremare arrived at the most important room in the Stable, the cafeteria. The comforting smell of fresh baked cornbread assailed them. Lancet stopped in the doorway, taking a moment to close his eyes and let his nose indulge in the ecstasy of piping hot bread and fresh fruits and vegetables. Some wise pony had realized long ago that the morale boost of a good meal can overcome any obstacle. The Stable may have had all the aesthetics of a tomb but the comfort division took great pains to make sure the dining was first rate.
“In or out, Doc. Pick one.” A quick horn prod from the olive-coated, green-maned Security Chief brought him back to reality. Chief Heads Up tilted his mirrored glasses back on his face and looked down at the tiny doctor. The Chief was tall and lithe, but the security barding he wore made him bulkier. Lancet abashedly made his way to the counter. The Chief fell in line behind him. “So, what's up, Doc?”
“Nothing exciting in medical. Not since your boys waylaid Splice.” Lancet’s attention stayed focused on the mare behind the counter. She finished serving Cider and looked to him, smiling, “Afternoon Molly, I’ll take apple juice, beans n' cornbread, and a slice of carrot cake.” She rang up his charge with a prosthetic hoof. His PipBuck confirmed the payment.
The Chief snorted, anger threatening to crack his calm fascade, “He lays a hoof on his family again and you won't be able to stitch him up for lack of pieces.” His scowl softened. “Cornbread and coffee, please.”
Lancet let out a low whistle. “Coffee? Big spender today, what's the occasion?” The Chief ignored the query and trotted past the two, coffee and cornbread levitated in front of him. Coffee was labor intensive, grown in very limited quantities, and was considered a luxury item. In short, it was buckin' expensive.
The trio made their way to a table on the far side of the room. The Chief sat with his back to the wall and a view of the door. His companions arrayed themselves across from him. He looked at the pair and sighed. He lowered his voice conspiratorially and leaned in. “It's this new trial in the orchard. I wouldn't think much of it, except Tentation himself came to my office and asked me to put additional security around the orchards for the duration. He also suggested they wear their riot gear. When I asked why, he gave me some song-and-dance about ‘precautionary measures’.” He leaned in closer and asked, “You remember the Diamond Dog Fiasco?” Lancet nodded, memories of mutilated security ponies and charred feral dogs pressed on his mind. Cider shook her head. The Chief fixed his attention on her and continued, “Tentation gets the idea to clone diamond dogs from the gene vault in that rotten egghead of his. He wants to use them for excavation to expand the Stable. Good idea, except he accelerates their growth to the point they leave the vats fully grown with no language or social skills. He releases a dozen adult diamond dogs with nothing in their heads but predatory instinct. Did he ask for extra security then? No. Has he asked for additional security for any of his subsequent, lesser mishaps? No. But he asks for additional security now? In riot gear? It doesn't add up.”
He paused and took a drink of his coffee. Cider interrupted the silence, her voice laced with doubt. “Maybe he done learned his lesson and just wants to make sure we's all safe.”
He lowered his coffee mug. “You don't believe that any more than I do. See, I went to the Overmare with my concerns. You know what she did? She ordered me to arrange the security and stop asking questions.”
Overmare Bureau Carrot had never been one for secrecy. Uncomfortable questions started to form in the minds of the two listening ponies but were dispelled by the crash of serving trays clattering across the tiled floor. Two unicorn stallions loomed over a trio of orchard workers across the way.
The infamous Rough and Tumble were twin unicorn stallions from the engineering department. They were big for unicorns, and identical from their ice-blue manes to their chestnut coats. Only their eyes and flanks distinguished them. Green eyes and a grinding wheel added up to Rough. Blue eyes and a lockpick meant Tumble. The worst of the bullies of Stable 48, they had always been bigger than most everypony else, and they didn't hesitate to use their magic to make life miserable for those around them. Lancet had been their primary target as a colt - and as an adult - at least until the whole heart-in-a-jar thing.
Rough fit the trio of workers with a menacing glare. “This is an engineering table. You mudponies need to move your flanks.”
The expressions of the worker trio ranged from anger to indifference to fear. The diminutive orange stallion seethed. The smallest stallion in the Stable, Sprout got singled out a lot. If looks could kill, the two bullies would have been immolated under that gaze. Unfortunately, the Stable’s scientific community gave precedence to food production over eye lasers, and Sprout had taken innumerable beatings because of that oversight. The small stallion looked even more diminutive next to the massive mound of pony beside him. Tiny Spartan could have been said to have a personality to match his apple tree cutie mark: the red coated, green maned stallion was stoic to the extreme. He just couldn't be moved, physically or emotionally. He appraised the two bullies with half-lidded, apathetic eyes. The cowering mare of the group looked to be trying to hide within herself. Sunny Showers was, to use Rough and Tumble speak, a freak of pony genetics: a one in a million shot. She was born a pegasus to earth pony parents, a secret family connection buried deep in her genes brought to the fore. Wanting their daughter to have a pegasus name, they searched the archives for weather-related words and came up with Sunny Showers. Even the most lackwitted of 48’s bullies could put her name and coloration together for a hurtful jab. Rough and Tumble elevated it to an art form.
“How about it Golden, why don't we go somewhere and live up to your namesake.” Rough sneered.
“Yeah, I could use a shower, Golden,” Tumble quipped.
Sunny half sobbed, half squeaked a response.
“What was that? You think being with Tumble would be dirty?” Rough took an intimidating step closer, his sneer turned into a lusty leer. “Well, you can get dirty with him, and then I'll clean you all up.” He slowly traced his tongue over his lips.
“Ain't ya gonna do something Chief?” Cider's voice snapped the two stallions out of their observations and back to their table.
“My hooves are tied.” The Chief let out a resigned sigh. “There is no law against being an insufferable ass. Unless they lay hooves on somepony, there is nothing I can do. As much as I would like to give them a fifty thousand volt lesson in manners, letting personal feelings into my line of work is a slippery slope.”
“Y'all broke four of Splice’s ribs and he needed mor'n a hundred stitches! You saying that wasn't 'cause of 'personal feelings'!” Cider's voice rose to a screaming whisper.
“Splice's wife had been to medical with black eyes, busted ribs, and little round burns for months. We all knew what was going on, but she wouldn't turn the bastard in. When his daughter came in with a broken leg, she DID say who hurt her. We went to apprehend him, he resisted, we subdued him. Vigorously. All by the book and legal. If they get physical, I'll haul them down to the brig to cool their hooves, if they just keep acting like asses. I. Cannot. Act!” Chief hissed the words out, trying to restrain them to conversational levels.
“She’s your niece!”
“And I’m the Chief of Security! As much as I would like to give both of those rancid manure piles an electric suppository, I can’t play favorites!”
“Well I'm not gonna let those two trot all over my workers.” She stood and turned toward the two technicians. “Hey! Why don'tcha come over here and spout off. I'll hornfuck you both with each other's horns!”
The twins looked over from their prey. Tumble smirked. “Someone torque your gears, Cider? I could help ya unwind. The way you say it, it sounds so violent.” Tumble fixed her with a nauseating look. “I can show you how gentle a hornfucking can be.” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“If'n you get within hooves’ reach, I'll break your face.” Her flinty eyes blazed with anger and indignation.
“Come, don't come, come, don't come. Isn't that just like a mare.” Rough sauntered to his right as he talked, subtly splitting himself off from his brother. His eyes traveled unsubtly to her flanks. “I think she really does want you to come, Tumble.”
“Yeah, I'ma comin' Cider.” Tumble reared up and thrust vulgarly in her direction, a semblance of an orgasmic expression plastered on his face. “I'ma comin' Cider. I'ma comin' Cider! I'ma COMin' CIDER!”
The problem with exposing oneself to a mare is that you’re exposing your junk to everypony. Lancet grabbed the Chief's half-full mug of piping hot coffee and hurled it in a flat arc at Tumble's exposed danglybits. Some of the liquid was lost along the trajectory, but a goodly portion of it stayed in the mug until it impacted low on Tumble's stomach. The scalding liquid cascaded over his stallionhood. He howled in pain and crumbled to the floor. Every stallion in the cafeteria cringed.
Rough rushed over to his whimpering brother. His horn sparked to life, and a pale blue aura surrounded a nearby chair. “I'm going to beat you into paste for that, Lancet!” Cider imposed herself between the enraged twin and the smirking doctor.
“I’ma Comin’ Cider! aaAAHH!” The unicorn stallion on the monitor yelped in pain.
The palomino mare broke into fits of laughter. “Way to go, Dad!”
>>Resume Playback (Frame by Frame)
She laughed as the bully’s face contorted in anguished pain. She froze the playback on one particularly hilarious face and nickered, “Oh, shoot.” A tear rolled down her cheek as she finally stifled the last few giggles. “Enough of that.” She resumed the playback.
The room fell silent, only the static crackle of Chief's Persuader filling the air. Chief Heads Up strode across the room, fixing Rough with a withering stare. “Put down the chair, son.” Rough hesitated a moment, staring into angry eyes that begged him to resist. He dropped the chair from his magical grip. The briefest flash of disappointment marred the Chief’s features before his authoritative countenance reestablished itself. “Good. Now take your brother somewhere and cool off. You boys start any more trouble and you will be spending the night in the brig.”
“Maybe you should come by the infirmary,” Lancet chipped in with a smirk.
Chief rounded on him with a glare. “Why? You aren't going to be there.”
“They instigated a scene, said some nasty things and made some crude gestures. You assaulted another pony with a scalding hot liquid. Coffee. My coffee. My incredibly expensive, perfectly warming, blissfully caffeinated, once a month on my salary, coffee.” Lancet’s ears drooped, and he sagged to his haunches under his friend's furious glare. “Now, will you be coming quietly, Doc? Or do I need to persuade you.” The Chief’s prod crackled for emphasis.
The smaller stallion glanced at the sparking stun stick, “Persuader” lovingly engraved on its length. “I think I'll come along quietly. See you tomorrow Cider.”
As the Chief started to direct him out of the room, a straw colored pegasus blocked the path. Her hooves crossed nervously, her body tensed, gratitude warring with bashfulness. “I… um… I just wanted to say… um… thanks.” In a flash she had the startled doctor wrapped in a timid embrace. He blinked in surprise. When his eyes opened again the only sign she had been there was a rapidly dissipating trail of gold.
The Chief prodded him with Persuader. The electric tingle caused his leg to spasm slightly. A low setting. Thank Celestia for small miracles. He glanced back to see the Chief’s angry scowl replaced by… an even angrier scowl. The unnaturally loud click of Persuader being turned to a higher setting snapped him fully back into the moment. Lancet took the hint and made his way down to the brig without further delay.
The brig was a dreary place, which made it like any other place in the Stable. Gray metal walls, a simple bed, sanitation facilities, a vending machine for meals, oh yeah, and thick metal bars.
Chief cleared his throat, obviously preparing to go into some well rehearsed speech. “Resident 175, Lancet, known alias “Stitches,” Head Physician. You have been found in violation of Stable law, in particular you are in violation of Statute 565.060, and are guilty of assault in the second degree. Given your lack of prior disciplinary action, your sentence is twenty four hours in the brig. Please present your PipBuck.” He complied and the Chief connected their PipBucks. The speech continued, “All communication and entertainment functionality of your PipBuck will be locked. Your PipBuck will only be able to receive emergency broadcasts or interface with the vending machine on the wall of the cell.” He gestured toward the box in the wall to the left. “At the end of your sentence a member of Security will release you.” He disconnected the PipBucks.
“Hey Chief, I really am sorry about the coffee.”
Snort. “Me too. But it was worth it. I appreciate you and Cider sticking up for my little Goose. Sunny’s had it rough. She needs friends to have her back.” A grin spread across his face.
“Then why don't you let ...”
“Not gonna happen. Can't mix personal feelings and work. Enjoy your twenty four hour vacation.” He turned and started to walk away.
Lancet called out after him, uncertainty tinging his words.“Hey, Chief? Can you send somepony to my quarters and have them tell Rack and Pinion that they’re welcome to stay, but I won’t be back tonight?”
Chief waved in agreement. “I’ll swing by myself. All my folks are in the orchard keeping an eye on whatever Tentation is cooking up.” He started to turn again, but paused. “Listen, I believe you have honorable intentions. But it doesn’t look right for you to be letting Splice’s wife and foal stay with you. He can’t get within two rooms of either of them without an alarm being triggered.”
“Rack is suffering from unipolar depression and post traumatic stress. She...”
Chief cut him off with a glare.
Lancet took a breath. “Look. She’s scared. She doesn’t feel safe at home. But she won’t do normal therapy. If I let them stay, I can keep an eye on her and Pinion. And maybe I can get them to open up. They may not believe it, but they need help, and it’s my job to help ponies. Besides, where else can they go?”
“You’re preaching to the choir, Doc. I believe you. It doesn’t change the fact that there are rumors going around. She isn’t Molasses. For one, she’s still married.”
“You’re right, she isn’t Molly. Molly suffered from Bulimia Nervosa and depression, and I didn’t catch it until she ran her hoof through a grinder. If I had been there for her from the start, she wouldn’t have hurt herself. I’m not going to let Rack hurt herself or Pinion because I failed to act. If ponies want to talk, they can fucking talk. I’m going to help who I can, and if it pisses ponies off, they can...”
“Whoa there Doc. Don’t burst a vessel, I’ll tell her.” He turned to leave a third time. “Just saying,” he mumbled, the door closing behind him.
“How long have I been stuck here?” Lancet asked nopony in particular. He glanced at his PipBuck which helpfully displayed a countdown timer for his incarceration. 23:14:52. Forty five minutes? I’m going to lose it!
His eyes drifted from the ceiling (130 tiles) to the floor (also 130 tiles) to the walls (solid concrete, no tiles) to the bars of his cell (24 bars). Bored, bored, bored... Vending machine! He trotted over to the wall mounted machine. Surplus bread, water… at five times the cost. They really stick it to you down here. Another option caught his attention. His brain couldn't keep up with his hoof as he hammered the button down. Sin-Thetic Cigarettes, putting the Sin in Synthetic.
He ripped the package open and inhaled the wonderful fragrance of the luxurious smokes he held in his hooves. An air of bliss surrounded him as he prepared to indulge in his not-so-secret vice. He hadn’t had a smoke since before his shift. He tapped the pack of coffin nails against his shoulder and then lipped out one of the delectable little cigarettes.
He looked around the vending machine for something to light his cigarette, except no such tool existed. Buck me…
Sunny sprawled out, concealed, in the boughs of her favorite tree. It had been easy enough to convince the security ponies she needed into the orchard. Officer Mallomare was a real softy. Besides, being nice to her was a good way to get on her Unca’ Uppity’s good side. The Chief’s good side was very tiny, so any chance to get closer to it was jumped on by security.
The sweet, clean scent of apples filled her nostrils, soothing her. She drew in a deep breath of the calming aroma and blew the heavy breath out between her lips. I hugged him. A hot blush stood out beneath her pale coat.
Her thoughts wandered back to the cafeteria and the warmth of Dr. Lancet’s neck, the sound of his surprised gasp, the safety she felt. I should have kissed him…
“Thank you,” she says, gazing up into his warm, kind eyes. They soften as he looks down to her, he tips her head up gently with a hoof, his eyes start to close as he leans in. She quivers slightly in anticipation before his lips meet hers. The taste of him is clean, the movement of his lips strong yet nimble. The kiss deepens, their tongues …
“No!” she yelled at herself, the actual sound more like the falling of a leaf, “I could never do something like that with Miss Press around and Unca’ Uppity standing right there! Although if they weren’t …” Her mind started to wander again before a quick shake cleared her mind. The din of some commotion drifted to her tree from across the orchard, pulling her fully from her thoughts.
“What’s going on over there?” she wondered aloud. She floated up above the trees, trying to get a better view of the goings on across the way.
20:17:24, I'm going to die in here. The door across from the cell opened and a dark green mare with a graying orange mane and a bundle of carrots as a cutie mark entered the room. A small pair of reading glasses sat low on her snout, slightly obscuring her hazel eyes. He straightened his posture by instinct. “Overmare! What brings you down to the brig?” he asked conversationally, beads of sweat threatening to break out across his face.
“You bring me here, Doctor Lancet.” She fixed him with a unblinking gaze. “You see, when the Head of Medicine takes to scalding other stallion's genitals during his lunch break, that is a problem for me. Do you get so little work that you feel you must create injuries?”
“No ma'am, I get plenty of work down in the infirmary. But Rough and Tumble's antics are unacceptable, and they needed to be brought down a peg. Security won't act unless it comes to blows, so I handled it.”
“And you think that resorting to violence is the answer? As a doctor, I thought you took an oath to do no harm?” She stalked up to the bars of the cell, her eyes unblinking, “It is bad for morale and undermines Stable security when ponies 'handle' problems themselves.”
Well, two options, smile and nod or… He crossed the cell and met her gaze, their faces separated by scant inches and a few thick bars. “With all due respect, ma'am, I would say it is more damaging to morale to allow bullies like Rough and Tumble to get away with harassing any pony they damn well please.” A bit of an edge crept into his voice, the subject striking close to home. “As a doctor, and a victim, I can tell you that those two are inflicting very real wounds on the ponies they torture. Sunny's confidence is shot, and those two can smell the blood in the water. They are going to drive her to hurt herself or somepony else. They are out of control and need to be reeled in. If Stable law isn't going to protect ponies from them, then I will.”
She looked at him and sighed, her eyes softened. “Doctor Lancet, I understand your frustration, and I hear you. I'll see what I can do, just promise me that there won't be a repeat of the jar incident.”
“On one condition.” Her ears perked up and her gaze sharpened. “Nothing too hard, I just want access to the archives while I'm in here. As you said, I am the Head of Medicine, and I shouldn't be wasting my time twiddling my hooves. I can catch up on paperwork.” He flashed her his best smile.
“Alright.” She connected her PipBuck to his and unlocked it. “I expect no complaints about being behind after this.” She quirked an eyebrow at him and he nodded in agreement. “Very well then, use your time wisely. Don't make this a common occurance.” With that, she turned and left without further comment.
Victory is mine! All his paperwork was caught up, time to play Apples Vs. Zombies! He tried to start up a new game only to be denied. Damn it, she must have only unlocked archive access. “Cheating bitch!” Well hell. There must be something interesting in here.
Lancet paged through several archive entries on his PipBuck hoping to find something interesting enough to serve as a diversion. A thought dawned on him. Cider had mentioned some kind of trial in the orchard, and Chief had been all worried about it too! Something like that would have to be interesting. He dove into the archives with the vigor of the bored. Victory! Project Regrowth. Head researcher: Professor Tentation, Lead Assistant: Professor Kudzu. Lancet tried to open Professor Tentation’s log, but was locked out. Figures. He may not be able to access the logs of another division head, but that wouldn’t stop him from getting into Professor Kudzu’s notes. A few moments, and his passcode as the Head of Medicine, later and he had Professor Kudzu’s audio logs.
Entry one of Project Regrowth, Professor Kudzu’s log. Today I was assigned to Professor Tentation’s new project. Few have his gusto or flair for science, it will be an honor working with him. The goal of the project is to genetically engineer a plant with higher productivity than the current assortment of crops. I meet Professor Tentation and the rest of the team tomorrow.
Entry two of Project Regrowth, Professor Kudzu’s log, one day from previous entry. Today was our first day on the project. Professor Tentation gave a rousing speech on the fruits of our work feeding the Stable for decades after our own lives end. It was so moving in fact, I will even forgive the pun! So many ideas, even the youngest technicians got into the spirit!
Lancet’s face fell. Ugh, this isn’t very interesting at all! But I’ve already counted all the tiles, so I guess it will have to do.
Cider sat in her quarters with two others--a few close friends gathered around a squat table. She’d made tea to distract herself from her worries. She served the gathered couple and herself and took a seat.
“Thank ya kindly for comin’ over today. I was gonna spend it with Stitches, but he done got hisself hauled down to the brig.” She huffed, frustration evident in her voice.
“I say, from what you have told us, it was quite chivalrous of him to swoop in to your rescue,” observed the monocled, mustachioed guest to her left.
“Not that you needed the help, honey,” quipped the husky lady to her right.
“Darn tootin’. I can handle myself. I don’t need no scrawny, pegasus-hugging sawbones comin’ to my rescue!” Indignation rose in Cider’s voice.
The moment hung awkwardly in the air a moment before Mr. Splitter broke the silence, “Now, Dear, what was the lad supposed to do, eh? Shove the lass away when she only wanted to express her innocent gratitude? Perish the thought!”
“Innocent gratitude? The trollop ‘as probably been eyin’ the good doctor, circlin’ like a buzzard, waitin’ for just such an opportunity.” Betsy fixed Mr. Splitter with a heated stare. “An’ you got the gall t’say its innocent gratitude!” She turns her attention to Cider, “Now look ‘ere Missy! Ain’t no point in wallowin’ around in pity. You gotta be honest with yerself and figure out why yer upset.”
“I ain’t gotta do no such thing!” Cider stood in a huff and turned to leave.
As she passed out of the room she could hear Betsy whisper to Mr. Splitter, “Yep, cause there ain’t nothin’ gonna go wrong if you keep hidin’ from yerself.”
He turned toward her reassuringly. “I’m sure she will figure it out, Love. All we can do is be here for her.”
Lancet sprawled on the uncomfortable cot. It had to be the brainchild of some deranged, ancient designer whose goal was creating the most uncomfortable sleeping contraption in existence. The mattress was just thick enough to allow a pony to realize how miserable of a job it was doing in softening the stiff steel webbing under it. The whole thing was too thin. Even Sprout couldn't have fit himself completely on the tiny cot. His legs jutted off the side. He tried to roll to a more comfortable position and failed. His legs splayed in the air, he continued listening.
Entry three of Project Regrowth, Professor Kudzu’s log, fourteen days from previous entry. First failure. I guess banana corn doesn’t sound like such a bright idea in hindsight. It seemed like such a good idea though! One banana corn tree could produce the same amount of grain as a hundred square foot plot of traditional corn. A shame the growth acceleration couldn’t be slowed after the tree reached maturity. We don’t have time to grown new trees in the traditional sense, we need a new strategy.
Entry four of Project Regrowth, Professor Kudzu’s log, five days from previous entry. I don’t know why it took me so long to think of it, it’s right in my name! A parasite! Hmm… that is a little depressing actually… nevertheless the idea is brilliant! We don’t need to grow a whole new plant, we just need to develop a plant that can increase production while living off existing crops! I’ll present my idea to the group and start working with my namesake on the morrow!
Entry five of Project Regrowth, Professor Kudzu’s log, forty seven days from previous entry. It has been too long since I sat down and recorded one of these. It’s not like all this isn’t in my notes, but still these logs help me think. But I’ve just been so busy! The original idea didn’t bear fruit, literally and figuratively. We’ve decided to think smaller. It was Tentation’s idea, engineer them at the cellular level.
Entry six of Project Regrowth, Professor Kudzu’s log, eight days from previous entry. Mixed success. We have engineered a bacterial culture that when exposed to plant cells will absorb and mimic those cells. We prepared one hundred grams of the bacteria and applied it to an apple of the same mass. The bacteria perfectly absorbed and replicated the apple! And we were left with one apple that was not an apple. Further work must be done.
“That’s the big plan? Turn goo into apples? Science is gross!” He paused the logs, considering them for a moment. Still more interesting than recounting the tiles. He cued up the next log.
Rack stood in Dr. Lancet's living room listening to her daughter play in the bedroom. The tapioca mare absentmindedly folded the thin blanket that was left haphazardly on the plush couch the doctor had been spending his nights on. That task accomplished, she cast her eyes around the room looking for something else to busy herself with.
It was strange for her to not be working. After her husband had been arrested, her life had gone into flux. Her boss had given her time off from working the storeroom to be with her daughter while things shook out in engineering. Splice was a senior technician. Working in engineering and not running into him would be difficult at best for her.
She shook her head, tossing her raven mane to and fro. Don't dwell on that! Dr. Lancet says to stay positive! She cleared her mind with a deep breath. She grabbed a duster from the tiny utility closet. So armed, she set herself to dispersing the fine layer of dust that had accrued on the various nicknacks scattered around the living compartment.
A disused shelf in the corner had been tempting her since Dr. Lancet had left for his shift in the infirmary. It wouldn't be polite to snoop. But it isn't snooping if I'm dusting. She nodded in agreement with herself and cantered over to the lonely little shelf.
A few framed pictures and old texts sat on the shelf. She examined the photos as she dusted. The largest one was of a small colt and two adult ponies. It looked to be taken in the infirmary. The chocolaty stallion with the head mirror must have been Lancet’s father, Dr. Sutures. The snow-white mare beside him blended into her lab coat. Professor Alabaster had been a prominent researcher under Professor Arboriculture. The sullen little silver colt had to be a young Dr. Lancet. One of his forelegs was encased in plaster. She squinted at the white limb. She could just make out one large name written across the barren white cast. Cider.
More photos were strewn across the shelf. Each had a taciturn Lancet of varying age and a cast of other ponies throughout the years. Tucked in the back was a photo that bucked the trend. She picked up the picture of the smiling young Lancet and smiled back. Little Lancet was sprawled out, grinning. He was tangled up with a little red-maned filly. She had him pinned down, his ear in her teeth. From the expressions on their faces and their quizzically cocked heads it was easy to imagine their roughhousing had been interrupted by a call of “Look this way.”
She raised a hoof to her chest. They’re so adorable!
A knock at the door brought her out of her thoughts. She replaced the photo and made her way to the door. “Coming.” She hit the release and the door slid silently open.
“Afternoon Mrs. Rack, mind it I come in?”
“Afternoon Chief. I’m sure Dr. Lancet wouldn’t mind. Please come in.” She stepped out of the doorway and gestured inside.
Chief glanced about the room as he entered, his eyes coming to rest on the overstuffed couch. “Well, I’ll be, Doc still has that couch. Only comfortable couch in the Stable.” He noticed the confusion on her face. “It used to be my couch, then I lost it to his Mom.”
“Can I get you something? A glass of tea or…?” She started to make her was to Lancet’s small kitchen.
“That would be lovely, thank you. Doc sent me up to let you know he won’t be back tonight. He got in a spot of trouble with those bullies from engineering.”
“Oh, I hope he wasn’t hurt.” She bustled back into the room, a tray of tea balanced on her back.
“He’s fine, he’s just cooling his hooves in the brig.” He took the proffered cup of tea and let the conversation drift.
Lancet sat chewing on his Sin-Thetic Cigarette, getting very little satisfaction but enough precious nicotine to combat his mounting headache. He continued listening to the project logs.
Entry seven of Project Regrowth, Professor Kudzu’s log, thirty nine days from previous entry. Failure. More than a month of failure. Spirits are getting low. We have not be able to progress past our previous breakthrough. The agony of being so close and yet so far is unbearable. We’ve had only one minor victory. By using a virus as the base cell instead of a bacteria, we’ve been able to increase the rate of absorption and mimicry by several orders of magnitude. Professor Tentation says he has a new plan he’s been working on, but he is being cryptic about it. I guess we learn tomorrow.
Entry eight of Project Regrowth, Professor Kudzu’s log, one day from previous entry. I don’t know who is crazier, Professor Tentation for doing it, or the rest of us for not burning all his research and having the Overmare bring him up on recklessness charges. The bastard has been working with Killing Joke in his home lab. KILLING JOKE! The single most dangerous, magical, and malevolent plant to ever exist. But it worked, by Celestia it worked. He repeated the apple mimicry test, with the expected results, but when he cut a slice from the apple, it regenerated itself. We were left with a nice slice of apple and a whole apple! He produced a sauce pan, some synth-butter and synth-amon with the intention of a celebratory meal. Except the slice burst into flames when it hit pan. I suggested more work needed to be done, but he insisted it was safe. He went so far as to try a bite raw. I guess his bravo is contagious, we are moving forward.
Entry nine of Project Regrowth, Professor Kudzu’s log, one day from previous entry. Professor Tentation is a pony possessed, throwing himself into his work. It is inspiring, the zeal with which he works, the passion. We completed the second trial today. After exposing a dwarf apple tree in the lab to a small quantity of the virus, the tree was absorbed and replicated in short order. When an apple was removed from the tree, the tree replaced it almost instantly. Prof. Tentation has acquired access to the orchard. We move to phase three tomorrow.
“Well, that was … interesting.” Lancet sat alone in his cell, contemplating for a moment. “Yes, there can be no doubt. I am more bored now than before.” He tossed himself onto the uncomfortable cot in the corner and tried to force himself to sleep. Maybe he could at least find something interesting in his dreams.
Chief’s PipBuck blared and flashed crimson. He muted the alert and glanced at the warning scrolling over the screen. Emergency: Biological Contamination (Orchard). Emergency: Intruder Alert (Orchard). He acknowledged the alert, banishing it to side of his PipBuck screen.
“If you will pardon me a moment.” He excused himself to the corner and dialed up the frequency of the security contingent stationed below. “Major Solver, It’s Chief. SitRep, go.” Nothing. “Major Solver, Chief. Report.” Nothing. “Security squad at orchard, respond.” Nothing. “Any officer this net, respond.” Nothing.
Every officer he had was down at the orchard. The whole situation had him on edge. He’d put everyone down there. Now he couldn’t raise anyone from security. That isn’t ominous at all. “Mrs. Rack, I would advise you to stay in quarters until this is all sorted out. No need to be alarmed, but until I figure out what this is all about, its probably safest you and Pinion stay put.” Rack nodded in agreement, scooping up little Pinion in her forelegs.
Chief rounded the corner and quickened his pace to a trot. A trotting officer is in a hurry, a galloping officer inspires panic. He brought up his officer’s PipTags on his PipBuck. Their markers dotted his Eyes Forward Sparkle.
“All in the orchard,” he mumbled to himself, “but why aren’t they responding.”
He made his way through the twisting corridors of 48 to the central lifts. A lift ferried him down to Level F. He moved down abandoned hallways, passing by several laboratories. The ponies within undoubtedly staying safely put until the emergency was lifted.
He approached the large reinforced bulkhead to the orchard. Being the source of 48’s food, the orchard had its own environmental systems and an airlock separating it from the rest of the Stable. He entered an access code into the panel beside the heavy door and waited. Nothing. He broadcast his security override. Still nothing. He was getting rather frustrated with nothing.
Out of ideas, he bucked the massive door. His hooves clanging ineffectually off the mammoth construction. “Who’s there?” asked the small intercom alongside the bulkhead.
Well, that was something anyway. “This is Chief Heads Up. I need the bulkhead opened, now.”
“I can’t let you do that, Chief.” The speaker’s voice cracked. “Nopony here but the dead.”
“Who is this?”
“Professor Kudzu, at least I think I’m Professor Kudzu. I might not be.” He giggled. “Are you sure you’re Chief Heads Up? I don’t know if I can trust you. I don’t know if you can trust me, either.”
Wonderful. I finally get someone to answer me and he’s cracked. “Listen, Professor. I know my officers are in there, I can read their PipTags, I need you to open this door!”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Chief, they aren’t them anymore, they’re something else.”
“What are you talking about Professor?”
“They were them, then it got them, now they aren’t them! They’re it!” Kudzu broke into peals of maniacal laughter. “Celestia help us. Its getting the last laugh after all, the food is eating us!”
Chief took his hoof off the intercom. He grumbled to himself. They were in there, but something must have happened to shake Prof. Kudzu that bad. Nothing for it. He accessed his PipBuck and upgraded the emergency alert to a level one lockdown.
He cantered back to the central lifts. A plan slowly coalescing in his mind. Get to the armory on D level. Load up. Round up some help. Crack that door.
The lift ferried him speedily up from the lower levels. The armory was connected to the main security hub on Level D. He hurried past the empty desks and stared into the retina scanner at the back of the room. The armory door slid open with a faint whump. Rows of neatly cataloged equipment stood in silent vigil before him. He made his way past the few remaining suits of heavy riot barding. It was impressive and reassuring to the civilians, but it was hard to react in. Chief wanted to be able to move so he skipped armor entirely, instead directing his attention to the rows of weapons.
He pulled a pump action Prism Projectiles Model 12 off the rack. Rotating it in the grip of his magic, he alternatingly loaded flechettes and slugs. He chambered a round with a satisfying clack. He tossed a few boxes of ammunition into his saddlebags, his PipBuck’s inventory management system organizing them for easy access. He secured the armory and made his way to Cider’s quarters. If there was anypony who could round up a posse in a hurry from outside of security, it would be her.
He approached the door to Cider’s residence. He banged impatiently on the metal door, the clang of hoof on steel reverberating down the empty hall. A few moments passed. He raised his hoof to knock again when the steel portal opened. Her face warred between confusion and aggravation.
She schooled her features. “Howdy Chief. Cain’t say ya was the pony I woulda expected, but what can I do fer ya?”
“I need you to round up some ponies to help me investigate what’s going on in the orchard.”
“And just what is goin’ on in my orchard?” She hadn’t been in the best of moods to start with, a lockdown and some unknown problem in the orchard didn’t improve her attitude. “An’ what’s with the shotgun?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t need you to round up ponies to help find out.” Some of his frustration slipped into his voice. “The shotgun is because, again, I don’t know what is going on in the orchard.”
They locked eyes for a moment before Cider responded, “Alrighty then. You gonna provide arms for the rest of us?”
“It is against protocol to arm civilians without the approval of the Overmare.”
“Would you rather find out what is going on in your orchard, or wait for authorization to come down through channels?”
“Alrighty then.” She sent a quick message via her PipBuck. “Meet you at the lift?”
“That will be fine.”
As he turned to leave he heard Cider call out to her back room. “Mr. Splitter, Betsy, we got work to do.”
Cider gazed at the lovingly maintained tools in front of her. She slipped a pair of large cylindrical fuel tanks into the right side of the battle saddle, securing them with a lacy metal band. She connected the fuel hoses and checked the pilot.
After a final check, she shrugged on the battle saddle mounted flamethrower, cinching it in place. She grabbed the nearby fire axe, a twirling mustache and monocle painted carefully on the head, a miniature bow tie secured to the haft. She stowed it back over her shoulder
She gave herself a quick shake to make sure nothing would shift and headed toward the central lifts.
Chief stood by the central lifts. Three other stallions shuffled around him. Tiny Spartan, Sprout, and Redstrake looked nervously about. They had answered the call from Cider, but Chief had yet to let them in on the big emergency.
Chief heard the reverberating clap of heavy hooves striking metal echoing down the empty halls. Cider rounded the corner, a massive flamethrower on her back.
“What the Well are you doing with that!” Chief gaped at the giant civilian weapons violation on her back.
“Ya said ya weren’t gonna arm us, so I brought some backup.”
“Where did you even get that thing?”
“Standard issue. I keep it in quarters after somepony got a bit too playful with her.” She scowled pointedly at Redstrake. He quailed a bit under her gaze.
“But... how? Why? You really think it is a good idea to lug a flamethrower around the Stable?” The irrationality of it was starting to wear away his veneer of calm.
“Ya said yerself, ain’t been no contact with yer fellas. Ya wouldn’t be packin’ that scattergun if ya didn’t think there was somethin’ off. If somethin’ is goin’ bad wrong down there, I intend to have a plan B.” Indeed, scrawled on the side of the offending weapon in bold block letters was “Fire is Always Plan B.”
“Fine.” He turned and smacked the down arrow with a bit more force than was strictly required. “It isn’t worth fighting over. We are going down to the brig to get Dr. Lancet, then you all will accompany him back up to medical to get whatever supplies he needs. I’ll meet you at the orchard once I get a technician to crack the door.”
Bored. Lancet stared at the ceiling, chewing ineffectively on a cigarette. He held his hooves in front of his face. I’ve got you now Box! Now I shall crush you! He brought his hooves together with a clap.
“What have I been reduced to?” he cried to nopony in particular. “What kind of cruel monster would trap a mind of my caliber in a place like this? Its worse than a sensory deprivation tank in here! At least in the tank it is dark and a comfortable temperature!”
He took a deep breath to continue ranting when the door opened.
“Come on Doc, vacation’s over,” Chief announced as he strode into the brig.
“Really?” He rolled off the cot and trotted toward the bars. “What’s the catch?”
“Something happened in the orchard. Professor Kudzu’s lost it and barricaded himself in the airlock.” Chief’s voice tightened with frustration. “I don’t know what’s going on in there, but we’re going to find out.”
“Alright then.” Lancet adopted a suitably serious mien. The unlit, gnawed cigarette dangling from his lips detracted slightly from his stern countenance.
Chief entered a command and the barred door slid silently open. With a tilt of his head he indicated the door and the two stallions made their way out of the brig.
Cider waited in silence with the rest of the makeshift security detail outside the brig. Chief had gone to get Dr. Lancet, and had instructed the ragtag little group to wait here. No civilians in the brig, he says. He’s got us steppin’ ‘n fetchin’ like our heads is on fire and our asses is catching, but we cain’t go in the damn brig ‘cause of regulations. Before her mind could wander too far toward the image of Chief’s mane on fire, the door opened.
Chief and Lancet stepped out into the hall. A look of recognition and affection crossed Lancet’s face. A gentle smile crept across his lips as he looked at her with half lidded eyes.
“You have no idea how happy I am to see you,” he said, crossing the distance between them. He lowered his head, lips pursed and optimistic. He leaned in, eyes smiling.
Cider shook her head. “What do ya think yer doin’?” The motion of her head caused the flamethrower to track left and right. He futilely tried to track the darting pilot, jabbing his still unlit cigarette at it vainly.
“I’m trying to get Madam LeCrisp to light my cigarette. But you’re making it difficult.”
“Her name is BETSY!” She stomped before stepping forward menacingly. The flustered doctor took a step back. “And ya ain’t got no right gettin’ all familiar with anot...”
“Hold it!” Chief stepped out from the group of confused stallions watching the little altercation. He fixed Lancet with a confused stare that tried to be stern. “You knew she had that thing!”
“She has a name, you know.” Lancet deadpanned.
The Chief’s eye twitched as he resisted the urge to facehoof. “You know what, I need air. Head up to medical and get whatever supplies you might need for emergency first aid. We don’t know what happened, so bring anything you think might possibly be needed. I’m going to head down to engineering and round up a technician or something to crack the orchard bulkhead.”
He trotted down the hall to the lifts without further delay, leaving the group behind. Cider took a few steps forward. “Y’all heard him, let’s get to it.”
She started toward the lifts, the rest of the group falling in line behind her. After a few moments Lancet trotted up beside her, a manipulative grin trying to hold fast on his face.
“I really need…”
“I’m a doctor, I know…”
“Stitches, I ain’t lettin’ ya light one of them killthroats offa Betsy.” She turned to look him square in the eyes. “Sometimes I wonder ‘bout ya. Sometimes ya seem so smart, and then sometimes I cain’t help but think that if yer brains was dynamite, ya couldn’t blow yer nose.”
His falsified smile evaporated, replaced by his usual mien. “Was worth a shot.”
Chief trotted through the familiar halls of engineering. His folks had both been technicians, and he remembered all the nooks and crannies he had scampered through as a colt. The decision to go into security had been a point of contention between him and his father, but mom had eventually patched things up.
He had a knack for noticing things: a crossed wire, a frayed cord, the way a pony’s eyes would go to their left if they were making things up. Useful to a tech, invaluable to a security stallion.
The mechanical smell of engineering brought back memories of childhood games and experiments. He still tinkered from time to time. Persuader was a fine case. Standard issue stun sticks used a relatively small gem for power and had two settings. Early in his career he had had the unfortunate task of trying to subdue Tiny Spartan’s father. Two settings were not enough to faze the ornery drunk. While he was on desk duty with a wired jaw, he tinkered with his stun stick. The result was a heavily reinforced weapon that ran off a plasma rifle’s energy cell. Persuader had eight additional settings. A rampaging, vat-grown diamond dog rated about six to reduce to a twitching, smoking heap.
He rounded a corner only to be presented with a shapely white flank swaying before him, a pale yellow tail bouncing merrily from side to side. A pair of interlocked plastic ties adorned the well-rounded hindquarters of the mare half buried in an access panel. Why do those always remind me of hoofcuffs? He shook his head before he allowed his mind to wander again.
He cleared his throat loudly before speaking, “Zippy? You do realize we’re on lockdown, right?”
The startled technician banged her head as she tried to quickly remove herself from the tiny compartment. Once free she sat down hard on her well cushioned posterior, the tools on her tech barding jingling. She rubbed the back of her head, worrying over a growing knot. “What’s the big idea, Heady? Sneaking up on a mare like that.”
“I was hardly sneaking.” He took a step back as she took a step toward him.
A look of hurt washed over her face. “Aww, now don’t be like that. I learned my lesson.” She settled to her haunches and raised her right foreleg, the left placed over her chest. “No touching, fondling, or groping any stallion without permission, regardless of how hunky they look in uniform. Oh, and always use a safe word.” She grinned wickedly. “See, I’m a fine upstanding young mare, so what do you say?” She waggled her eyebrows suggestively, a mischievous glint in her baby blues. “I know a nice secluded spot we could have some fun in.” Her voice turning singsong at the last.
“I’m not here for fun, I’m here for business,” he said flatly. The mare deflated slightly. “I need something to crack the orchard bulkhead or a technician who can. One of the professors screwed with the lock, and now none of the overrides work.” Zip Tie brightened.
“What a delicious coincidence! I’m a technician! And I know just what you need.” She winked. He moved out of the way as she bustled past him before she could ‘nonchalantly’ rub any part of herself against him. “I would be happy to get you up.” She put a hoof to her lips, feigning a slip of the tongue. “Get you set up, that is.”
Lacking better options, he followed the lascivious mare deeper into engineering.
“Yada, yada, blah, blah, blah.” The two ponies on the screen ran casually through the halls of engineering. “Boring, get back to Dad!” Their playful banter was fun for the first few minutes, but the constant innuendos soon got tiring. The security pony on the screen trailed behind the white mare. What was his name? Major Head? The mare chuckled to herself. Her tiny mechanical companion crawled out from the hole in the desk and spread itself out above the monitors.
The pair had made it to a store room. They seemed to be talking for a moment, and then General Erection started picking his way through the jumbled equipment. Her eyes drooped as she watched the super speed ponies on the screen. They were talking, Sergeant Schlong was trying to free a plasma cutter from a pile of disused equipment. She slowly closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. Her mechanical companion skittered off the bank of monitors and climbed up her neck onto her head. Perched across her forelock, the little machine used its long, insectile legs to massage her scalp. “Thanks,” she sighed to the mechano-bug. It chirped a happy response.
She opened her eyes and looked back at the screen. She jerked forward violently, spilling the micro-masseur back onto the desk.
”WHAT the BUCK is THAT? Dad never... I mean... what... is that... it can’t... FUCK!”
Zip Tie motioned Chief into the dim storeroom. The lights flickered and cast harsh shadows across the walls. There was an impressively varied amount of junk strewn around the room. He picked his way through the piles of scrap.
“Damn, you really let this room go,” he said. Zip snorted. “Well, not you directly I’m sure, but you technicians in general.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t consider walking around chatting with ponies to be a full day’s work down here.” Her former cheerfulness forgotten, he had apparently struck a nerve.
He continued pushing through piles of scrap and forgotten tools, avoiding eye contact. They had been friends growing up, maybe more than that for a while, but she took his abandonment of engineering personally. A pony doesn’t get to be the head of security without some psychology training, and it seemed to him that she tried to fill the hole with any stallion that showed her an ounce of affection. He knew the flirting and the physicality were a mask, and he hated being the cause of it. Maybe I should send her Dr. Lancet’s way. He collects broken mares.
In the deafening silence, he couldn’t bring himself to look back at her. Then he spotted it, a yellow box with some leads and knobs, the plasma cutter he was looking for. “I think I see it!” He started pulling at it, trying to free it from pile.
With a giggle and a muted click, the room descended into darkness.
“We don’t have time for your horny bullshit, Zip!” His mounting frustration finally broke through his calm veneer. He lit up a flashlight spell, casting a concentrated beam of light onto the buried cutter. He huffed. “Listen, I know we didn’t end things on good terms, and I’m sorry about that. I know you feel like I abandoned you, but what you’re doing isn’t healthy. I think you should really see someone about whatever it is you’re feeling. Dr. Lancet is really rather good at...”
A wet squelch interrupted him. A slurping gurgle underscored by a sound like ripping canvas and rustling leaves.
“Zippy? You alright?” She was no longer behind him. He slunk around the mounds of debris, casting the light in a tight pattern around the room. “No more games, Zip. Zip?” Only jagged, dancing shadows answered him.
He rounded another pile of debris when the beam washed over her face. She grinned at him, her head cocked quizzically. “Zip?” She lifted her head, surpassing her normal height. The long serpentine neck gliding toward him, her body shuffling obediently behind her. With an unnatural rasping the long neck recoiled on itself, tensing to strike.
A wet hacking sound drew his attention, and the beam of light tracked down to her body. Zip’s once white coat was split down the center of her chest, a gaping hole sucking and popping as something within the dripping maw writhed like a nest of snakes. What could have been ribs, or teeth, or something else ringed the hole beneath flayed tatters of skin and fur. A terribly familiar scream snapped his attention back to her head. Zippy’s pretty face was contorted in pain. Her scream carried on unnaturally as the flesh peeled away from her skull, velvety fronds unfurling around a thorny gullet. Blues, reds, and greens danced within the thing Zip Tie had become. It stood still a moment, its innards writhing in counterpoint to its stillness. Then with a reverberating roar it barreled through the clutter toward him.
Years of training took over. The shotgun leapt from his back in a strong magical grip. He loosed a hail of flechettes, the cloud of metal darts burying themselves into the thing’s maw. It stalled its charge. Chief racked a slug into the chamber.
The moment hung in time, slowed by the adrenaline coursing through him. He lined up the shotgun with what had been Zippy’s head. The thing spat out a long, viny tentacle. The tentacle struck the weapon as he concentrated on pulling the trigger. The shot went wide, the weapon wrenched from his magical grasp. Three more tentacles exploded from the thing, streaking like harpoons toward him. He dove to the right, behind a large pile of scrap.
The thing bellowed its rage and withdrew the tentacles back into itself. It shuffled after him, the additional weight over its forelegs seeming to unbalance it.
Chief pulled Persuader off his side and cracked it past its highest setting, the weapon would completely discharge itself with one pull of the trigger. The memory of the shotgun fresh in his mind, he tossed Persuader in among the scrap that was his cover. He continued backing down the narrow path between the junk heaps.
The thing rounded the corner and bellowed. It took a few steps toward him and lashed out with its viny appendages. Chief’s magical aura surrounded a large sheet of scrap metal and pulled it in front of himself. The tentacles rebound with a clang, leaving a quartet of dents in his improvised shield. It pulled its appendages back toward itself, the serpentine forms folding back on themselves ready to strike.
It moved cautiously closer, baby blue eyes staring, unblinking, from the mass of fronds. His lip trembled. “Goodbye, Zippy.”
He enveloped Persuader in his magic, the modified stun stick lying in the junk at the thing’s hooves. With a quick motion he jammed the electrodes into the thing that was Zip Tie and pulled the trigger. A crackling surge of energy coursed through the thing. Ichor popped and sizzled for a few moments before the beast took flame. The thing thrashed as the flames consumed it. The fire lapped at it hungrily, the shambling corpse a quickly diminishing pyre.
It screamed, a discordant chorus of agony. The body of the thing danced in the flames. He approached it slowly. Fire raced up the thrashing neck, but suddenly the vines unwound themselves, freeing the slithering form from the burning corpse.
It slithered toward him, building up speed. He backpedaled, eyes sweeping for anything to put between himself and the charging abomination.
The thing hurled itself at him, maw outstreched, fronds ready to pierce his flesh and consume him.
A reverberating clang rung out in the little room as the thing impacted on the dented sheet of steel. “I said no hanky panky!” He hurled the shield and the still-writhing form wrapped around it back into the slowly burning pyre. He pinned the thrashing form in the fire under his twice improvised shield.
It ceased struggling after a few minutes. Soon a charred mass was all that remained of the thing. Of Zip Tie. He took a deep breath. “No,” he said under his breath, “that wasn’t Zippy. It couldn’t have been.” He tried to clear his head with a quick shake. Whatever it was, it burned readily. The melted and cracked remains of Persuader sat nestled in the remains. He walked the long way around and collected his shotgun. He shined his light on the entryway and flipped the switch, the harsh fluorescence exposing the grizzly aftermath of the battle.
He brought up his PipBuck. Schooling his voice, he opened the channel. “Cider, It’s Chief. Send Doc down to engineering. Scratch that. You bring him down here. I need him to see something. And don’t take that thing off, I think we’re moving on to plan B.”
Duty attended to, he allowed himself a little shake as the adrenaline wore off. Shit. What else can go wrong.
Then the lights faded out, the red glow of the emergency lamps flickered to life.
Hello hypothetical reader, if your reading this, congratulation! You are no longer hypothetical! And that, my non-hypothetical friend, is the first step to being awesome.
I'm a fan of constructive criticism, it is my foremost goal in life to generally not suck (that's the second step to awesomeness right there, concerted effort to not suck). So load up your critic cannons and sight me up.
Which brings me to the third step of awesomeness, write a review! I've spent a good deal of time writing what (I hope) has been a decent diversion for you, I hope you will share your thoughts. I don't expect a 1,000 word analysis from every reader, and don't feel obligated to rack your brain for something to post if nothing jumped out. But, if anything does stick with you, from a long detailed analysis to a simple “There was something about [this part] that made me feel [emotion]” I would love to know so I can improve. And if you want to get really brutal but don't want to do that in a public place, shoot me an email at Mr_Clacky@yahoo.com.
Thanks again all you non-hypothetical, potentially awesome readers.
And I can’t finish without throwing out some thanks!
All hail Kkat, crafter of the sandbox we play in.
I want to thank Mysecsha (Read ‘Wild Sky Yonder’ NOW!) for being my sounding board, and my pretty, pretty princess. He helped me turn this from a rambling, tense-confused, mess into a semi-coherent, functional story.
I also want to thank Drakmire (of ‘Lacuna’ fame) for issuing a grammatical beatdown. I learned about correct attribution tags and how ellipsis really work! If you read this and think ‘dang, this author sounds like he knows his stuff’ it was probably Drak.
And then I need to thank my volunteer beta readers: ErrantIndy, FallingSnow57, and all the others who stopped in from the FoE community to give it a quick look-see.