Chapter 10: Revelations
“Oh, no…” I said, my blood running cold with dread as I looked down at my second year’s flight school report card. “Oh no, my parents are gonna kill me…”
It wasn’t a good report card. In fact, it was the complete opposite of a good report card. I’d done so abysmally I was going to have to repeat the grade. Last year, when the requirements weren’t as strict, it would’ve been a passing grade, but not this time. I was already on thin ice with Dad for trying to get into restricted areas of the base while attempting to impersonate him by wearing his spare dress uniform, this would push the old buck over the edge. I had to do something, I had to hide it or something. I couldn’t let him see this.
Other ponies my age shouldered their way by me, eager to get home as I stood blocking the doors to the school. I looked up from the paper that was the harbinger of my doom to watch them a moment as they flowed around me like a rock standing steadfast in a river.
“Ooh,” I heard Duster say from over my shoulder, sucking in a breath sharply through his teeth, “tough break, Hoss. Maybe yer pappy c’n work somethin’ out with the school? Ah hear he knows ponies. Ponies in high places.”
“You don’t get it, Duster,” I said as I turned to face the beige pegasus colt, my eyes full of panic, “when my parents see this I won’t be so much as a pile of feathers on the ground. I’m dead meat, dude. Of all the worst things that could happen, this is the worst. Possible. Thing.”
“Aw come on, pardner, y’ worry too much. Ah’m sure yer folks ain’t gonna kill ya over somethin’ like this. They know yer givin’ it all y’ got, Ah’m sure of it. Some ponies jus’ learn slower than others, that’s all.”
“No,” I insisted, “no, they will destroy me. Well, my dad will at least. Duster, you have to help me, dude. I need somewhere to hide out where they won’t find me. Can I stay in your barn’s loft?”
“I heard that, young colt,” said a voice from behind me.
Turning around slowly while my little heart began to hammer in my chest, I saw an adult mare approaching the two of us rapidly, her expression none too pleased. Her coat was a light, rich ruby, leaning towards pink and what I could see of her palest, powder-blue mane beneath the flight cap perched atop her head was pulled back into a bun. Her cutie mark was a winged staff with two serpents intertwining around it.
My mother, Milky Way, had always been a serene, kindly-looking mare. That was not the case at the moment. Her face was twisted into an expression of absolute fury, and my little sister Astral trailed nervously in her wake. She was still supposed to be on duty. That meant… oh boy.
“Imagine my surprise, young colt, when I was pulled away from my duties to find out that my son is to be held back a grade. What do you have to say for yourself, mister? Oh hello, Duster, sweetie,” she said, smiling warmly at my pal. Wish I got that treatment.
“I’m waiting, Mach.”
I’d clammed up. There was nothing I could say to excuse myself; it would only be the same old story I told her every time my instructors told her I wasn’t doing as well as the other foals. Personally, I blamed my wings. They were goofy and awkward, and everypony else had a pair that were actually proportional to their bodies. Mom always told me I’d grow into them, but how was I supposed to pass through flight school while I was waiting for that to happen?
Duster slowly started backing away from where we all stood. “Ah’m jus’ gonna… gonna skedaddle now. Good luck, buddy!” And then he was gone, running full-tilt back to his father’s farm while I remained there, helpless.
That butt! Leaving me to deal with Mom all alone… oh, just wait till I got my hooves on him… He’d be in a world of hurt the next time I saw him.
I stood there rooted to the spot, repeatedly opening and closing my mouth as I fought to come up with some sort of excuse to get myself off the hook. The more I looked up at my mother’s disapproving glare however, the faster every possible idea that sprang to mind dissolved away into nothingness. She was always understanding with me, never upset, which told me one thing: I’d really messed up this time.
“I WANT TO LIVE!” I blurted out, and tried to run away as fast as my stubby little legs could carry me.
I didn’t get far. I’d made it about two steps before I felt a strong tug on my ear, and I was lifted off the ground and left to dangle from it.
“Ow, ow, ow! Lemme go, Mom!”
“This is foal’s play, Mach,” she said as she began trotting home with me dangling painfully by my ear, “Just wait ‘till your father gets home. By the time he’s done yelling at you, you’ll be lucky if you hear anything ever again. You’re lucky your instructor notified me and not him, I don’t want to even think about how he would’ve reacted if he’d been informed of this while on duty.”
“Do- Ow… Do we have to tell him?” I asked, wincing in pain as I swayed to and fro from my smarting ear.
“Of course we have to tell him, Mach. He’s going to find out one way or the other, and it would be a lot better if he heard it from your mouth rather than by seeing that you’re in the same class you were the year previously.” She sighed, and I shivered uncomfortably as her breath blew directly into my ear. “I’m not angry at you, sweetie, I’m just very disappointed.”
Aw… well now I felt like the bad guy. How did that happen? It wasn’t my fault, my body had betrayed me. Duster hit the nail on the head earlier; I needed more time than school gave me to learn to fly right. I needed… a tutor, or something. Mom and Dad were always too busy with their duties to take time away to help teach me, so I needed somepony else to help me.
“Hi!” Astral said brightly from off to my side, snapping me out of my reverie.
“Oh, hey squirt,” I said, stretching over from where I dangled to mess up her mane. “What are you up to today?”
“I’m helping mommy!” she said with a smile, doing a short hop into the air and fluttering her teeny wings excitedly. “Well, I am now. Earlier it was just me an’ the foalsitter, but then mommy came home early an’ she said we had to come get you because you were in trouble. Is that true, Mach? Are you in trouble?”
“Yes.” A different voice hissed in response, male, and one that made me wish I could fly well enough to get myself far away from its owner as fast as possible. I thought I’d have a few hours of relative safety before he got home, I wasn’t expecting to run into him before we even got there! “Yes, Astral, he most certainly is in trouble. Deep trouble.”
A pony who needed no introduction in the Enclave- three-star General Immelmann, my father, stood blocking our path. His pressed dress uniform was just as crisp as the moment he’d put it on, stopping just short of his blue-grey flank; his cutie mark was a tactical formation I’d been told was called a right echelon, four strange symbols aligned in a forward slash, with a fifth on the opposite side, behind and just to the left of the headmost position. Also of note was his brutally scarred, lame right wing- the result of a grievous injury dealt to him by a griffon during the Enclave-Aldornan resource war. It didn't stop him from flying completely, but it sure made it difficult for him. To top off his ensemble, a large, impressive peaked cap inlaid with three gold stars sat perfectly level atop his dark military-length manecut.
“Front and center, maggot!” he barked with authority.
My mother released my ear from her teeth and gave me a gentle nudge forward.
“Go on, do as he says. Don’t make it any worse than it has to be.”
Hanging my head, I trudged slowly over to where my father stood and saluted before my lack of respect gave him an aneurysm. I could already see that little vein in his forehead pulsing with rage, his jaw was set in anger, and his lower right eyelid was twitching, too. All bad signs. I’d seen them one at a time, and even two at a time before. I called ‘em combos. However, I’d never seen all three at once before.
“You must think this is some kind of joke, son. Well, I'm. Not. LAUGHING! I’ve had it up to here with your behavior lately. Ever since you met that little rube- Duster- you’ve lost sight of everything that should have been important to you. Here you are, in second grade, and you’re still unable to fly. You should have been able to manage a steady hover in kindergarten! Doesn’t seeing all of your classmates flying while you’re still stuck on all four hooves give you any kind of motivation at all? How many times does your mother have to console you when you come home crying because your classmates have ganged up on you before you make an honest effort?”
“It’s not my fault, Dad! My wings-“
“DO NOT INTERRUPT ME WHEN I AM SPEAKING!” he roared, and I cowered on the spot, huddling down near the clouds and tucking both ears back in fright. “It’s a poor soldier that blames his equipment. Your wings aren’t the problem, son. You are. Larger wings generate more lift, you should be flying better than anypony else your age.
“I don’t know what it is that’s keeping you from flying as well as you should be, but I’m putting an end to it today. I've already pulled the necessary strings to push you through to the third grade, and I will not be made a fool of. You have the blood of some of the best fliers in history running through your veins; the fact that you aren’t living up to their standards is inexcusable. You will be flying by the end of the day, I guarantee it.”
Despite my terror of the unknown, I watched curiously as he parted a large hole in the clouds before stalking over to where I stood. I looked up at him as he towered over me, and tried for a smile, but he only glared back coldly before lifting me off of the ground. I thought he was just going to show me something to make an example, but he carried me over to the hole and stood up high on his hindlegs, raising me above his head as he did so.
Looking down through that hole, seeing nothing but a brown splotch of desolate, barren dirt miles beneath us, I felt my head start to spin with vertigo.
“Immelmann!” My mother shouted from behind us as my father raised me even higher, “Immelmann, what are you doing!?”
“It’s an old earth pony trick,” he replied. “You know how they teach their foals to swim? They throw them into the middle of a body of water. If they don’t want to drown, they learn to swim real fast.”
“No! Immelmann, don’t! Don’t do it, I beg you! Stars alive, don’t kill our firstborn son just to preserve your dignity!”
“It’s too late. He brought this upon himself.”
And then he let go.
All of the breath immediately left my lungs as I screamed for dear life. Tumbling end over end, the wind howled in my ears as I plummeted straight down towards the ground below. Desperately, I tried flailing my limbs to right myself, but only succeeded in making the spinning worse, and it wasn’t long before I got so dizzy I lost my lunch in freefall.
Think, Mach, think! My inner pony yelled as I streaked towards the very solid, very deadly ground beneath me. What was it the instructor had told us? In order to arrest momentum during freefall, apply counter-thrust. Counter-thrust; what was that again? Come on featherbrain, think! It wasn’t like my life was riding on this or anything. Counter-thrust…
Oh yeah! Flap, duh!
By the time I’d stopped myself from spinning and started flapping I’d hit terminal velocity and I was positively screaming towards the ground at a rapid rate. So you’d understand my alarm when I started moving even faster once I began flapping. Argh, what was I doing wrong? Why was I going even faster now? The instructor said counter-thrust would slow a fall down!
Panicking now, I flapped even harder as I plummeted, tears starting to stream from my eyes, and not solely because the wind was drying them out something fierce. The harder I flapped, the faster I went, and it wasn’t long before a strange feeling came over me. It felt like something was obstructing my path, slowing me down as I sped up. What was that?
The strange feeling grew in intensity as I drew even nearer to the ground, now close enough for me to pick out individual details, like tiny little pebbles and bits of grass. I was full-on crying by this point, upset that I was about to die, upset that I’d never see my parents or my sister ever again, upset that even with the threat of death looming over me, I still couldn’t manage to fly well enough to save myself.
And then the most curious thing happened. Scant meters from the ground, when I was one-hundred percent positive I was going to die, the weird feeling reached its peak, and incredibly, indescribably, I was slowed to a halt in midair and flung straight back upwards in the opposite direction at a ridiculous speed.
I may not have had an explanation for what had just happened, but I couldn’t let this second chance go to waste. Immediately I resumed my frenzied flapping and used the boost from the rubber band effect to shoot straight back up towards the clouds, aiming for the hole I’d been thrown from.
I was completely and utterly focused now that I didn’t have a ticking timer attached to my lifespan, and everything I’d had trouble with for years just became natural instinct as I fought to return home. I could feel the wind flowing past my wings, and the drastic difference subtle movements made. Leaving them flat gave me the most speed, but tilting their trailing edges downward increased drag and slowed me down. It was all making sense to me now. Stars, this was easy! Why had I had so much trouble with this beforehoof? Being thrown straight into it was probably the best lesson I'd ever had, and everything just felt so... natural to me as I playfully rolled and looped my way back up to the clouds. It was like I was born to do this, like I'd found my calling at last.
My joy didn't last very long once I realized that my father had been right. It wasn’t my wings that had been the problem. It had been me all along. I’d been stupid, unable to grasp the simple concepts the instructors had taught me and apply them in practice. It had taken the threat of my very life on the line to finally drive the lesson home, and for that I was humbled, shamed, and absolutely humiliated.
Popping up through the hole my father had made, I landed gracelessly and was about to plant my rear end on the clouds when I was swamped by my mother.
“Stars above, you did it! You did it, you flew! Oh sweetie, I knew you could do it!” She pulled away so that we could see eye-to-eye, and I could see tears of happiness streaming from her eyes. Aw, Mom... “I know you were very scared, and I’m so, so proud of you for pulling through, but I must confess, your father did discuss this with me quite some time ago. I thought we'd come to an agreement that he'd warn me before he actually did it, however. We'd planned to have one of us waiting for you near the ground in case you failed to learn, but your hot-headed father saw fit to ignore preparation. I do believe we shall be having a... discussion about this later tonight," She said sternly, eying the hole my father had dropped me through. "He kept insisting that you'd figure it out, but I told him to follow you down anyway. He still hasn’t made it back yet- that wing of his. How about that, you beat your own father on your first flight!”
Mom had actually gotten Dad to come down after me? I hadn’t seen him on the way back up… Turning to look over at the hole, I saw him swoop up and land nearby. He wasn’t smiling ear-to-ear like Mom was- his face was back to that cold, neutral mask it always was, and he nodded at me as our eyes met.
“Good work, soldier. I knew you had it in you.”
“Sir. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” I replied listlessly.
Astral gasped from somewhere off to my side as I stared blankly forward, waiting for my body to readjust after the near-death experience.
“Mach! Look at your flank! Look, your cutie mark!” She hopped up and down on the spot excitedly, and pointed a hoof at my flank.
Twisting around, I looked down at my right flank, and watched as an image faded slowly into view before becoming completely clear. A silver horseshoe had shown up on my flank, with a pair of impressive, angelic white wings sprouting from its sides. Wha… what did it mean? Dad’s cutie mark told everypony his special talent was being a master strategist and tactician, Mom’s told everyone she was a great medic, but what did this mean?
“Yay,” I said dully with a roll of my eyes. “Who cares? I don’t even know what my special talent is. All I did was almost die.”
“Milky Way.” My father said, looking over at my mother, his neutral expression now one of seriousness. “Did you see him hit it? Sent him flying back up like a catapult. Took off so fast I couldn’t catch him before he made it back to the clouds. I think he might just have it in him. I’m going to have him start practicing first thing tomorrow, and all throughout the summer vacation. If everything goes as it should, he should manage to pull it off once at the very least by the time school is back in session.”
What? What were they talking about? What exactly was ‘it’?
“Oh my stars above,” my mother said breathlessly, “I can’t believe it. Our son, capable of the most legendary aerial feat known to pegasi? And he gets his cutie mark on the same day? Oh, I could die happy right now, a proud mother.” And then she hugged me so tight I thought my eyeballs were going to pop out of their sockets.
“Mom! What about me, Mom?” Astral pouted, tugging at my mother’s medic barding.
“Oh, of course I’m proud of you too, sweetie,” she said, pulling Astral over to join in the hug.
I didn’t get it. What had I done? All I’d managed to do was get myself thrown off of a cloud and somehow manage to bounce off of air as though it were a trampoline.
“Dad?” I asked hopefully, turning to look at the cranky old buck. “Dad, what’s going on? I don’t understand any of this.”
“Oh, you’ll find out tomorrow, son. You and I are going to be training day in and day out every day this summer. You’ve made your ancestors, and your mother and I, very proud today. Rest up,” he said, and I could’ve sworn, for the first time since I’d known him, the corner of his mouth quirked up in a faint smile. “you’ll need every bit of energy you can get tomorrow, soldier.”
All summer training with Dad? Suddenly, smashing headfirst into the ground was seeming like a much better fate than whatever was lying in store for me in the morning…
“So that’s the long and short of it, really,” I finished lamely.
Greaser had slipped back into her bed on Razorbeak’s insistence before I’d begun my story, and she now sat straight up in it, reclining with a pillow behind her back. Her expression was difficult to read at the moment, there were so many emotions fighting to make themselves displayed that they couldn’t quite seem to come to an agreement and instead settled on a horrific, twisted masque in compromise.
She looked really strange to me at the moment, crazy face aside. Her maintenance barding had been stripped away, and for the first time since we’d met, her cream-colored coat was exposed to the outside world. Her barding had been covering a great deal of oil and grease stains, as well as a bald patch or two where hot slag had burned through the fabric over the years. Her orange and yellow striped mane hung free of its tail now, and was a lot longer than I’d have expected given my previous memory of it.
I’d also been able to spot her cutie mark for the first time when she’d gotten out of the bed to pummel me with her hooves. It was pretty damn cool, actually. A welder’s mask was the center of attention, and just beneath it, a crossed wrench (It’s a bloody spanner, mate! Get it right!) and a gas cutting torch set up like a skull and crossbones. Really awesome; way cooler than mine.
“He just dropped you!?” Greaser screeched a moment later, finally free of her speechlessness. “Is your father out of his little pony mind? Dropping a foal from a cloud is mental!”
“On that, we can agree,” I said, fidgeting uncomfortably in my seat by her bed.
It had been a long, long time since I’d relived that day. Years. With age came wisdom though, and looking back on it now, it wasn’t really as bad as I’d made it out to be. Sure, I could have died if I hadn’t stupidly accelerated and been rebounded by the sound barrier at the last second, but the experience had been eye-opening. I’d finally gotten my shit together that day; I’d finally been able to manage flight.
I couldn’t really argue with my father’s methodology; I probably would’ve done the same thing to my kid. However, if it were me, I would’ve dropped him above the clouds to give him a more cushioned impact. The fact that my mother had actually needed to tell my father to chase after me had made me extremely bitter towards the old stallion from that day onward. What I'd never taken into account before, however, was the fact that he initially refused to pursue me solely because he genuinely believed in me, believed that I'd be able to fly, and he'd been right.
“How did you even get out of that mess alive?” Greaser asked. “What happened during the fall?”
“I had no idea what the hell had happened back then, but I understand it pretty intimately now. My father explained it to me the very next day, when we started my rainboom training in earnest. He told me I’d hit the sound barrier, but I hadn’t been going fast enough to break through it and ended up launched in the opposite direction.
“Remember what happened to me above the tower the other day? When I kept trying to show you a rainboom and ended up spiraling out of control no less than three times?” Greaser nodded and encouraged me to continue. “That was me hitting the sound barrier and failing to push through it. It’s kinda hard to explain. It’s… sort of like the opposite of tug-of-war. If you don’t go fast enough, push hard enough, it’s going to push back harder and throw you for a loop.
“Took me a long time before I could do it consistently, and even then I only did it a hoofful of times. Dad had me practicing in secret; it was too risky for us to do it openly, and as you’ve noticed, rainbooms aren’t exactly quiet or unnoticeable. See, the Enclave keeps very special track of all pegasi who can pull off a rainboom. They like to keep such valuable assets very, very close. Only ponies I know who can pull off rainbooms are the Wonderbolts. Every one of them. I haven’t met a single pegasus like me who could do it, though that’s not to say there aren’t others like me who’ve managed to keep it hidden.
“Having had all this time since coming to the Wasteland to think about it, I can see why my dad wanted to keep everything under wraps. It wasn’t about whether or not I wanted to be a Wonderbolt, it wasn’t about being a showy, glorified flybuck. He didn’t want that life for me; he didn’t want me being one of the Council’s elite right hoof, didn’t want the Enclave keeping me on such a tight leash.”
All those years of animosity, of resentment, and all it took was one persistent little unicorn mare eager for a story to show me I’d been a colossal idiot. Everything made sense now- all of it. My father had pulled me out of my position as rank-and-file infantry and kept me locked down in recon where he could keep an eye on me, knowing that because of my cocky attitude and the reckless, impulse-driven mistakes I’d made on the assassination mission, I was more than likely to slip up somewhere down the line and reveal my ability to perform a rainboom.
He’d refused to divulge my secret to the Wonderbolts the night I’d made my escape, even when it meant I’d get away without answering for my crimes. I could even forgive him for wanting me branded and executed, all he knew of what had happened was what he’d heard Gust say during our standoff on the parade grounds and what he’d seen with his own two eyes- me putting a bullet in her brain. As far as I was concerned, everything that had happened between the two of us since I was a foal… that was all water under the bridge now.
“You gonna be okay, mate?”
“Yeah… Yeah, it’s just a lot to process right now. Think about it, I’ve gone for years now absolutely loathing my father, only to take a minute to think and see that he may have actually had my best interests in mind all along. If I ever see him again, I may just be able to mend fences with him. I have you to thank for that, kid.”
“Me? What did I do?” Greaser asked, gazing at me quizzically.
“You got me to open up, talk about my past. I’ve been keeping everything bottled up inside, I haven’t thought about any of it for years. It was only because you wouldn’t leave well enough alone that I was able to stop for a minute and look at everything from an objective standpoint, instead of one colored by perspective.”
“You mentioned that your father said you have some of the best fliers in history in your bloodline, does that mean…?
I held up a hoof to stop her and shook my head. “I know what you’re thinking, and you can stop right there. No, I am in no way related to Rainbow Dash, awesome as that would be.”
“Come on mate, you have to admit it’s at least somewhat possible. How can you be sure you’re not really related to her in any way? You definitely fulfill some of the criteria.”
“I can understand how you’d think that, having lived in the Wasteland all your life, where there is no governing body, no order. But up in the Enclave, we have a very orderly, structured way of life. Living in the Enclave is a lot like living in Equestria before the war, although we’re a bunch of hotheads, so even in peacetime we’re always majorly focused on our military. Anyway, like I said, we’re ordered. We keep records of everything, and among those are birth records, family trees, genograms. It’s all documented, and I can tell you without a shred of doubt that I am in no way related to Rainbow Dash. At all.”
We fell into a momentary lapse of silence, which was soon broken by Razorbeak as he barged into Greaser’s room.
“Hate to break up all the sappy bullshit, but I need you, Red.”
“Sorry pal, I don’t preen my feathers that way,” I joked, busting his chops. “Don’t get me wrong, I keep an open mind; I’ve done a little experimenting myself, but let’s just say stallions aren’t my thing. If you like dudes, that’s cool with me; I’ve got friends that like dudes. The Enclave encourages it, actually. Whatever ripples your nipples, I always say.”
Greaser snorted. “You don’t preen at all, mate. You’re a filthy slob.”
“Hey, hey, hey, don’t you presume to lecture me on the hygienic habits of pegasi, Miss Unicorn. I don’t tell you how to file that horn or whatever, do I? I probably should though, now that you mention it. It’s been a long time, and my feathers are seriously starting to get out of alignment.”
“Zip it!” Razorbeak snapped in irritation, and pinched my muzzle shut between two massive talons. “Look, I’ve got a delicate business proposition to conduct, and I really need you there with me, Red.”
“Say pretty please.”
“Would you stop being an annoying little shit for two seconds? Look, I’ve got a meeting with a mercenary faction that’s comprised entirely of Wasteland pegasi. Their numbers are really small, so they’re very guarded; they don’t let anyone else join their ranks, not even griffons. I need you to come with me so that I can negotiate with them; they’ll trust one of their own.”
“I think you’re putting a little too much faith in my race. I’m not going to be a very convincing negotiator, especially when you take into consideration my outcast status. In case you didn’t notice, one of those slavers you popped a few hours ago was a pegasus. I didn’t exactly get a warm reception from him; he was pretty disgusted with the fact that I assumed he was on my side just because we were both pegasi.”
Razorbeak angrily stalked over to where I sat in my chair. I’d turned it around so that I could rest my forelegs on the back, and my chin was currently lying atop them. “I’m not asking, Red,” he snarled, wrenching the chair around so that we were nose-to-beak. “I’m telling. I need you to do this for me, and I’m not taking no for an answer.”
“What’s in it for me?” I asked, lazily raising my eyebrows and giving him the most bored glance I could muster.
“I don’t eviscerate you, for starters,” he said, and a wry smile turned up the corner of his beak as he continued. “Apart from that? Weaponry. Experimental weaponry.”
That was all I needed to hear. “You heard the griffon, kid! Up and at ‘em, we’ve got work to do!”
“Uh-uh,” Razorbeak said, cutting my excitement short. “No, she stays here. She still needs at least two more treatments with Traction before she can go anywhere.” Traction, I’d learned, was the name of the ill-tempered pistachio-green unicorn doctor who’d mended my wings well enough for travel the other day.
“Well you can forget it then,” I said, hopping off the chair to stand by Greaser’s side, curling a wing around her as I did so. “I’m not going anywhere without my wingmare.”
“Like I said,” Razorbeak growled, knocking the chair aside and stalking over to where I stood, looming over me menacingly and lifting me bodily by the collar of my barding, “I’m not giving you a choice in the matter.”
I’d had more than enough of Razorbeak pushing me around. If he was going to kill me for refusing to play along, he would’ve done it a long time ago. Twisting my right foreleg around, I drove my elbow into his beak as hard as I could, and he dropped me in shock.
“I’m done going it alone, Razorbeak!” I shouted as he reeled back from the impact, massaging his sore beak and staring at me like I was a raving lunatic. “Every time I try to take on more than I can handle alone, I end up paying for it. I’m just not doing it anymore, so either you wait until Greaser is good and ready to go, or you can go fuck yourself, because I’m sure as hell not attempting to negotiate with a band of Wasteland pegasi all by myself.”
“You won’t be by yourself, you fucking idiot,” he snapped, wiping away a trickle of blood that had started to ooze from his left nostril and down his shiny black beak. “I’m going to be there with you. You think I’d trust you on this one alone? You ruined a ceasefire agreement the first day you got to Buckston; you couldn’t negotiate your way out of a damn paper bag.”
I was about to protest when Greaser rested a hoof gently on my left shoulder.
“It’s all right, mate. Go do what you have to do, you’re in good hooves- er, claws. I’ll be fine here, there’s nowhere safer for me to be, really.”
“It’s not about that,” I said, turning to face her, “it’s about knowing I have somepony I trust watching my back. I trust Razorbeak about as far as I can throw him.”
“If I wanted to kill you, Red, I would’ve choked the life out of you the day you walked into my office,” Razorbeak said curtly, leaning up against the wall by Greaser’s other side and crossing his forelegs.
“It’s not about whether or not you want me dead. It’s about when, if push comes to shove, you’ll have my back; that you won’t just leave me to face insurmountable odds by myself in order to save your own hide.
“As far as I can tell, mercenaries are loyal only to their next paycheck, and operate with the mentality that it’s everypony for himself. In the military, we look out for each other. Even if I hate the pony standing next to me, you can bet your ass I’ll have his back, because I know he’ll sure as hell have mine when I need him to. That’s the kind of working relationship Greaser and I have, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Can you honestly say you’d be able to do that even half as well as she does?”
“I had your back during the raid on Prominence, or did you forget about that already?” Razorbeak shot back angrily. “I could’ve left you to die at any time. When those griffons were hot on your tail, when you were busy scarfing down a healing potion after you got shot full of holes, and when Prominence had you pinned down by snipers and speared on the end of his sword. If you’re so damn worried about whether or not I’ll flake on you, look to that as an example.”
“That’s different,” I insisted stubbornly, “I had their attention the entire time. Not once was your life ever in danger, so you had no real reason to leave me behind. You got to sit back with your rifle while I drew everypony’s attention. You got to sneak around behind Prominence and his snipers while I was busy being cut to pieces. It’s easy for you to say you’ll have my back until you’re faced with your own mortality. That moment is the true test of character for anypony. Can you honestly stand there and tell me that if I was outnumbered, wounded and pinned down by a group of advancing hostiles and you had a clear escape route, you’d still wade through enemy fire to drag my ass to safety?”
“Yes,” he said without a moment’s hesitation. “You want to know why? Because allowing my clients and associates to die is bad business. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: you might have screwed up a lot of shit since you landed ass-backwards into my city, but you’ve helped a lot more people than you’ve hurt. That makes you a valuable business partner, and I look out for my own.
“I know I’m incorrigible and rough around the edges, Red, but damn it, I’m trying. I’m doing the best I can to help the people who live in Buckston. I’ve done enough harming in my lifetime; it’s time for me to do some helping. So I ask you once again- will you, knowing that you have my solemn promise to watch your back and that Greaser is safe under the protection of OEQ, help me negotiate with these pegasi?”
I thought about it for a moment, scrutinizing Razorbeak’s face and posture carefully to try and get a read on him. He seemed to be a little tense, which I took to mean he was awaiting my response with some trepid anticipation; either that, or he was waiting for me to haul off and punch him again. His face was a stone-cold mask though, just as readable as a blank sheet of paper. Why did he need me there so bad? What could I bring to the table that he, as one of, if not the foremost authority figure in the city could not?
Unable to make up my mind, I turned to look at Greaser expectantly, hoping she’d have something to say about it, hoping that she’d advise against it, even though I knew better.
“Go, mate,” she said, shooing me away with a hoof as her horn started to glow its pale orange. “Thanks to your little trip to the stable, I’ve got plenty to keep me busy while you’re away, and Razorbeak is a griffon of his word. He’ll watch out for you.” She smiled warmly at me and I watched as the set of targeting talismans and her autoturret drifted over to lie on her lap.
“You’re sure you don’t mind me running off without you again? I distinctly remember you being worried out of your mind when I went off alone to check out the Buckston Underground.”
“No worries!” she insisted, “You’re with Razorbeak this time. You’ll be fine.”
Sighing, I shrugged and turned back to Razorbeak. “Yeah, I guess I’ll help you out. Help might be a relative term in this case, but I digress. Let’s get to it, I’ve got other things to attend to afterward. Like hunting down my nemesis.”
“C’mon, I’ll meet you out front,” Razorbeak said, steering me out of the room. “I’ve got a couple things to take care of before we head out.”
Groaning more dramatically than I had any right to, I continued on my way while Razorbeak peeled off to do whatever it was he had to do. Slogging along on that now all-too-familiar path from hospital floor to lobby via elevator, I retrieved my gear from the checkpoint guards and made my way back outside. This was getting ridiculous; with all the errands Razorbeak had sent me on, I really should have qualified for being under the employ of OEQ by now. Having to drop my weapons off every time I showed up here was a pain in the ass.
Plopping my butt down on the top step of the staircase leading up to the tower from the sidewalk, I decided to take Greaser’s advice and do a little bit of personal grooming. Stretching out a wing, I began the tedious process of running my mouth over my feathers, pulling their disarrayed barbs back into alignment.
Greaser hadn’t been too far off with her remark; I was often pretty lax when it came to taking care of my feathers. As somepony who took great pride in my flying ability, it should have been a major concern, given how much messy feathers could affect flight performance. I took a rather archaic, brutish approach to that particular school of thought, though. As far as I was concerned, more power was enough to compensate for any aerodynamic shortcomings caused by poorly-maintained feathers.
“Don’t know what higher being would give a creature feathers without a beak to preen them properly,” I heard Razorbeak say from behind me. “I don’t know how the hell you pegasi manage it.”
“The laws of physics say we shouldn’t be able to fly, either, but we manage,” I said as I got back to my hooves, spitting out a mouthful of blood red feathers that had come free.
I was taken aback when I looked over at Razorbeak. He’d come out loaded for bear; his upper body was encased in a set of matte-black combat armor, the griffon’s-paw OEQ logo painted on in grey to stand out against the darker background. Over his back was the sniper rifle that had killed my captors and countless Prominence mercs, and to top it all off, he had a compact little shotgun (at least in his claws) tucked away as well. Drum-fed and revolving action with a folding stock. Deadly little piece of machinery; I’d often heard them nicknamed streetsweepers.
My jaw hit the floor. “You’re uh… a little over-geared for negotiation, wouldn’t you say?”
He flashed me a winning smile. “You never know when ‘negotiation’ will turn into ‘aggressive negotiation’, if you know what I mean,” he said, nudging me in the ribs. “Come on, we’re meeting in the park. Neutral ground will deter them from doing anything hasty.”
We made our way across the street and into Sanctuary’s small park, and I couldn’t help but notice that Razorbeak was getting a lot of looks. Did he not go out into public often? Or maybe it was the fact that he had enough gear strapped to him to re-declare war on the zebras. Or, and this was probably the most likely case, it was all of the above, plus the fact that he was walking around with the Enclave’s currently most-wanted pony.
“So,” I said to break the silence as we stood around waiting for the pegasi to arrive, “what are these guys all about? Prominence were a bunch of pyros, what makes these mercs stand out?”
“They call themselves the Cult of Speed. Infer from that what you will, I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise,” Razorbeak answered with a chuckle as he continued to scan the skies for them.
They arrived about ten minutes later, and it couldn’t possibly have been a more obnoxious entrance. Swooping down from on high in a group of five flying in V-formation, they did a lap around Sanctuary’s roundabout, blowing past everyone close enough to reach out a hoof and touch their heads. Once they’d completed the lap, they split, each taking a cardinal direction and one streaking straight up before turning around and heading straight for our position.
I facewinged as they all landed in perfect unison and slid to a stop nearby. “Stars alive, I can’t believe I let you talk me into this. These guys are a joke. They’re like a bunch of wannabe Wonderbolts.”
“Beaky!” The one I took to be the leader said, trotting over to us and thrusting out a hoof for Razorbeak to shake. His coat was a bright, acid green, and the entirety of his dandelion-yellow mane, save a large portion of it that had been pulled into a topknot, was shaven bald. Adorning his flank was a cluster of falling bombs. His only article of clothing was a heavy leather jacket lined on the inside with cotton; it actually looked pretty awesome. And comfortable.
“Hey, Bruise Cruise,” Razorbeak said with a smile, gripping the pegasus stallion’s outstretched hoof. “Been a while, hasn’t it?”
Oh what the fuck, they knew each other? What the hell had Razorbeak just pulled me into?
“Too right it has, Beaky. So, this is the guy, huh?” Bruise Cruise said, turning to get a good look at me. “Pfft, doesn’t look that fast. You sure you’ve seen him flying fast before? Speedy pegasi have smaller wings than that, he’s got those big ‘ol honkin’ things on him.”
Oh, I know he didn’t just say what I thought he did.
“You want to run that by me again, chump? I’m not sure I heard you correctly.”
“I said you look like you fly slower than a drunk, sleepy griffon- no offense, Beaky,” he said, holding up a hoof to ward off any enmity from Razorbeak’s end. “Razorbeak said you’d be a worthwhile opponent for a race, but after seeing you, I’m just not so sure.”
Immediately I rounded on Razorbeak. “You son of a bitch, you set this up? This was never a negotiation, was it? You just wanted to use me- again- just to show this jackass how to fly. If it wouldn’t bring down the wrath of everypony in the city I’d fucking kill you.
“And as for you,” I snapped, turning back to face Bruise Cruise, “You call me slow one more time and I’ll hit you so hard you’ll starve to death rolling. I could fly circles around you with my battle saddle on and a wing tied behind my back.”
“Care to put your money where your mouth is, freak?” He shot back, stretching his wings out and limbering up. “First one all the way down Mane Street to Celestia Boulevard and back wins. Think you can handle it, or are you chicken?”
I hated this guy more and more every time he opened his mouth. Not only had he insulted my flight performance without even having seen me in the air, he’d also given me shit about my wings, which I thought I’d heard the last of after flight school. I couldn’t let a slight against my self-appointed title as fastest pegasus in Equestria go unchallenged. I knew I could beat him, and without Dash. Without the rainboom. I was going to leave this guy spinning in my wake turbulence.
“You’ve already lost,” I said, unstrapping my battle saddle. I was confident I could beat him without taking it off, but I wasn’t about to make this any more difficult than it needed to be. “You picked the wrong pegasus to throw down with. I hope you’re prepared to be made a fool of in front of your crew.”
“Talk is cheap, pal. Get on the line so we can do this. Beaky, you want to do the honors? Be our starter?”
Moving over to stand on the imaginary starting line by Bruise Cruise, I watched intently as Razorbeak raised his shotgun into the air. I wasn’t too worried about being first off the line, I had something in mind. Waiting tensely for Razorbeak to fire a shot and signal us to start, I gave Bruise Cruise a sidelong glance and quickly did a double take.
He’d pulled out a little container I’d become reluctantly familiar with. Dash; he was about to cheat. I watched as he inhaled the chem, glaring at him with disgust. When I’d taken it, it had been because of an emergency; he was taking it to give himself an unfair advantage. Or so he thought. He could have his little boost, and I’d beat him anyway using my skill. I could think of no better way to illustrate my point than to outperform him while he was using chems as a crutch.
A moment later, Razorbeak pulled the trigger and his shotgun roared, signaling a start to the race. Bruise Cruise was first off the line, as I suspected. The Dash would have boosted his twitch reflexes to insane levels. He wasn’t hard to keep up with, however. I’d honestly expected him to pull ahead and gain a big lead, but I was keeping pace with him with minimal effort. Was this really all he had, even while flying high on Dash? His mouth had been writing a lot of checks that his wings sure as hell couldn’t cash.
Buildings flew by rapidly on either side as we flew down one of Buckston's main streets, and I could see out of the corner of my eye many people beneath us stopping to watch our little race. Even over the howl of the wind in my ears, I could hear excited murmuring from the spectators as they watched in utter amazement while two pegasi battled it out in the air, hooves and claws pointing skyward to draw more and more eyes to us as we flew on. I could already feel my overinflated ego swelling as the attention piled on, and my determined grimace quickly gave way to a smug grin. How often would these people have gotten the chance to see a pair of pegasi racing? It was my duty to give these guys a real show!
Not yet, though. I had to wait for the right moment to get the maximum effect out of my performance. I continued to lag behind even as we hit the halfway point. Bruise Cruise slowed to a halt and pulled a hard turn, shooting back past me in the opposite direction. I decided to kick it off with something a little more flashy, instead performing a Split S, diving downward in a half loop and rolling, exiting my loop lower in altitude and facing back the way I’d come.
My plan for stomping Bruise Cruise was simple in its elegance, and often worked on less experienced, less confident people. Staying behind my opponent allowed me to observe how they flew, learn their habits and adapt to their behavior. In addition to that, it also lulled less-experienced fliers into a false sense of security, leading them to fly slower, believing that they had already won.
Seasoned opponents, however, were an entirely different story. They usually knew exactly what I was up to, and it made them nervous, causing them to fly at a hectic, breakneck pace. Therein lied the problem for the experienced fliers- nervousness and speed combined afforded them no shortage of opportunity to make mistakes. It really was a great plan, and it had served me well over the years, just as it was now.
It was time to put an end to this farce and give these people what they came here to see. As the park slid into view, I sped up, gaining on Bruise Cruise with relative ease. Rolling so that I was inverted, I reclined in midair and propped my head up on my forehooves as I blew past him, touching a hoof to my forehead and throwing him a sarcastic little salute before getting serious again, rolling back over and speeding up further still. I was moving at a healthy clip now, flying just short of supersonic speeds. One little push would be all I needed to start duking it out with the sound barrier.
Thankfully, that wouldn’t be necessary, as I had already made it back to the park. In order to bleed off my excess speed, I did a short little lap around Sanctuary’s roundabout, seeking out Razorbeak where he stood once I’d slowed down sufficiently enough.
“Hey,” I said as my hooves hit ground and I trotted over to the griffon mercenary leader, “your boy’s a slowpoke. Even on Dash, he’s one of the slowest pegasi I’ve ever raced against.”
“Good work, Red,” Razorbeak said with a winning smile. “Knew you’d be able to beat him. Gotta say, I’m glad you did, because that experimental weapons technology I mentioned? I have no idea where it is. Bruise Cruise has the information I need in order to find it, and the race was the price I had to pay in order to get my claws on it.”
“What did he stand to gain from it?” I asked suspiciously.
“I told him I knew a pony that can do a sonic rainboom. Told him if he won, you’d sign on with the Cult of Speed. He liked the idea of the notoriety that would bring to his mercenary group.”
Well, that certainly explained why he’d taken the Dash. He had a lot riding on the outcome of the race and couldn’t afford to lose.
“You what!?” Before I could stop myself, I’d punched him in the armored shoulder. “Ow, fuck!” I hissed, shaking my smarting hoof. “Damn it, Razorbeak, can you stop doing shit like this without asking me first? Next thing I know, I’ll be somepony’s indentured servant because you made a deal you couldn’t follow through on.”
“I needed this, Red. If I don’t get my claws on this weapon technology, any of a number of rival mercenary groups will. This is some serious shit; if the wrong person gets a hold of this tech and figures out a way to replicate it, it would be enough to completely oust OEQ from power. If I lose my grip on the city, it will be anarchy all over again; I can’t have that.”
“Fair enough,” I growled, still upset about my throbbing hoof. “If you knew it was that important, why didn’t you seize this asset earlier?”
“Because we just found it for him the other day,” somepony called out from behind me, and I turned to see Bruise Cruise trotting over to where we were standing. Took him long enough. “Ol’ Beaky here employs us for scouting work every now and again. Found an isolated little experimental weapons plant on one of our runs a few days ago. Up until now, he hasn’t been able to come up with any sort of payment that would quite cover the cost of the information, but when he offered up an honest-to-goodness practitioner of the sonic rainboom, that was just too good of a chance to pass up. He didn’t tell me the pegasus I’d be racing was the one in question,” he said, glaring at Razorbeak angrily.
“I never said he wasn’t either,” Razorbeak said with a smug grin. “Now out with it, where’s the weapons plant located?”
Bruise Cruise grumbled angrily and dug through a pocket in his jacket, producing from it a folded square of paper. “Fleeced again. This is the last time I do you a favor, Beaky.”
Razorbeak snatched the paper up and unfolded it while I took a peek over his shoulder. It was a map of Buckston and the outlying area, and I could make out a good deal of the places I’d been to as I gave it a cursory glance. Toggling the ScoutBuck over to display my map, I cross referenced locations on the paper map with the ones my ScoutBuck had said I’d been to, the map marking function sprouting unvisited locations all over the place as I looked them over on the paper map.
“Here it is,” Bruise Cruise said, tapping at the map with a hoof, indicating a point nestled within the city itself, which my ScoutBuck helpfully marked for me.
“What?” Razorbeak squawked in disbelief. “It’s here? How can it be in the city, we’d have noticed it by now!”
“Not necessarily,” I said, frowning as I thought about it. “If you had to hide a tree, where would you place it?”
“In a forest…” Razorbeak said, the logic of it dawning on him at last. “Well, I suppose that makes things marginally less difficult for us, at least. We can be there and back in no time. Thanks for the help, Bruise Cruise. Sorry it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to.”
“Whatever,” he replied with a shrug before turning to me. “Hey, sorry about giving you a hard time earlier. If I’d known who you were, I probably would’ve held my tongue. For the record, there’s always a spot open in the Cult of Speed for somepony of your caliber, should you choose to take up the offer.” Join up with those losers? I don’t think so.
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not one for representing anypony but myself; I prefer to work as an independent contractor. It’s a lot easier to keep my own reputation in good standing rather than rely on my employer to do it for me.”
“Hey, that’s cool, I understand. Just keep it in mind, yeah? Always an opening. All right boys, let’s roll,” he said, gesturing to his team to take off by whirling a hoof in a circle.
I eagerly watched them depart, glad I wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore before turning back to Razorbeak, who was still examining the map curiously and scratching his head in confusion.
“I just don’t get it Red. How the hell could it have been right underneath my beak all this time, and yet no one found the place yet? It’s not even like it’s well hidden. It’s only a few blocks north of OEQ tower. I don’t like this. Come on; let’s get over to this place before someone stumbles upon it and we have to fight over the tech.” Tucking the map away, Razorbeak spread his massive wings and took off before I could object, leaving me standing in the park alone with my mouth gaping open like an idiot.
Shutting my trap before I started catching flies, I followed after the griffon, catching up just as he passed by the tower. He slowed his pace shortly afterward, and we canvassed the area, looking around for the building that supposedly housed crucial weapons technology.
Even with my ScoutBuck telling me exactly where the building was, it took us quite a while to find the thing; I was beginning to understand just how on the mark I’d been with the analogy of hiding a tree in a forest. If we were having this much trouble spotting the building from the air, what chance did somepony walking the streets have?
The building in question turned out to be directly in the middle of a city block, accessible from the ground only by traversing a series of backalleys. I didn’t notice it until after Razorbeak had already swooped down out of sight, gliding down to land in the tiny courtyard in front of the building. Heading down to join him, I landed nearby and took a look up at the inconspicuous, grey rectangle of a building, the faded blue letters over the entrance catching my eye.
“When a bullet just won’t cut it, unleash the fury of a sun!”
I was really digging the logo the title was superimposed over. It was a little blue star of a lighter shade than the wording, casting out caricatures of radiation in every direction. The motto wasn’t too shabby, either. That was a statement I could really get behind.
“Come on,” Razorbeak said, and started forward towards the entrance.
Bolting ahead of him, I seized the door handle and wrenched it open, slipping inside before he could get there. I wasn’t about to let him lead me around by the nose; I forged my own path now that I’d left the military.
While I waited for Razorbeak to catch up, I took a look around the interior of the building. I’d entered a large, impressive lobby, and looking down at my hooves, I could see that I was standing on a massive version of the Pulsar Systems logo that had been painted onto the marble tile beneath me. It blended well with the rest of the floor, which was comprised of pure black marble flecked with white, giving the whole room an outer space-y feel to it. Quite frankly, I felt right at home.
A security checkpoint was directly ahead of me, a pair of metal detectors standing at either side, the conveyor belts standing directly next to them once used to run ponies’ belongings through the X-ray machines they were linked to. Past the checkpoint, in the center of the lobby, was a large, semicircular reception desk crafted from a sturdy hardwood. Maple, or oak, maybe. To either side of the desk were staircases, curving slowly up and inward to join together on a balcony connected to the second floor above. All in all, the little weapons manufacturing plant had a really inviting feel to it.
“Any signs of recent disturbance?” Razorbeak called out from behind me, his talons clacking loudly on the marble floor as he approached.
“None that I can see,” I replied as I moved forward through the metal detectors, adding the echoing clops of my own hoofsteps to the clamor. To my surprise, the detector actually sounded an alarm as I passed through it, causing me to jump in shock, my heart rapidly hammering in my chest. “Sweet Cygnus, I didn’t think those would still be working.”
Breathing heavily with hoof to my thumping breast, I turned around to glance over at Razorbeak, only to find him pointing his shotgun directly at me.
“What the fuck is this? That’s not funny, Razorbeak; you’d better point that somewhere else before you do something you’ll regret.”
The shotgun roared, belching flame and lead as he fired… and missed. Or so I thought.
I whirled on the spot as I heard the shriek of rending metal followed by the crackle of an electrical short behind me, turning to see the remains of a demolished robot that had been sneaking up on me. It had a really odd design, one I’d never seen before. It had been using anti-gravitic propulsion and was shaped like a bulbous discus, a set of strange-looking energy rifles mounted beneath its chassis, and one long rectangular antenna protruding from the top of its ‘head.’ A lone, cycloptic red ocular device at its center flickered briefly before fading out into darkness as it lost power.
Razorbeak may have stopped me from being shot in the back, but I was still furious.
“What the hell! You don’t even tell me to get down, you just plug the damn thing? You’re using a shotgun, asshole! You could’ve taken me out with the pellet spread!”
“Not using buckshot. It’s loaded with slugs. And you’re welcome.”
This stars-damned griffon was simultaneously the most infuriating, yet one of the most reliable people I’d ever worked with. I wanted to be able to stay mad at him, but his constant flawless logic made it rather difficult.
“Let’s go, Red,” he said, brushing past me and making his way up one of the staircases, “we’re wasting time.”
I glared after him as he ascended the stairs before I bypassed them completely by swooping up to land on the balcony. Scanning the lobby’s upper floor, I tried to find any clue as to where weapons were manufactured, or at least where the crucial data used to develop them was stored. A small little group of signs were mounted on the wall just opposite the balcony landing, and they appeared to point visitors and plant workers to several locations within the building. To the left were offices and bathrooms, and to the right were R&D labs, testing areas, and data banks. Naturally, we headed off right.
I’d been about to round a corner to my left when another of the hovering robots, drawn by the noise I figured, swooped around the corner and took aim, the barrels of its rifles beginning to glow with an eerie green inner fire. Eh, no big deal. I bit down on my battle saddle, intending to blow it to shreds with a burst from the coilgun.
Oh shit, when was the last time I’d reloaded it? Never, I realized. I hadn’t used it enough times until I’d started doubling my ammo consumption with Greaser’s improvements.
“Razorbeak!” I shouted as the robot fired, coruscating green energy bolts lancing out at me as I dove to the floor. “Cover me!”
Two shots in rapid succession from Razorbeak’s shotgun put the robot out of commission, the slugs tearing massive chunks out of its armored shell, knocking it out of the air and sending it skidding over to crash into a wall.
“Little bastard…” I muttered, getting back to my hooves and fishing through the satchel that held my coilgun magazines for the first time since Doc had given it to me. Pulling a magazine out of the bag, I checked to make sure it was actually loaded before I slid it into the coilgun. I furrowed my brow when I saw the tiny little 2-millimeter slugs loaded into the little box. They were a luminous, silvery white, completely unlike any other bullet I’d ever seen before. Something about them greatly unnerved me, but I couldn’t quite put my hoof on it.
I pushed it to the back of my mind for the time being and replaced my depleted magazine, the ammo count on my E.F.S. that I’d been too stupid to pay attention to immediately returning back to the coilgun’s mag cap of twenty. I’d gotten too used to my autoloader feeding ammo belts into Rattler for me; I’d completely forgotten that the coilgun needed ammo as well as microspark cells to operate.
Fit for combat once more, I continued onward around the corner with Razorbeak in tow, following the hallway further into the weapon plant. I was on the lookout for the R&D labs, I really wanted to scrounge up any tech they had lying around that I could put to my own use. Razorbeak was more adamant about finding the data bank, however, insisting that the means to develop these weapons was a whole lot more important than any leftover existing technology.
“Let’s split up then, if you’re so worried about it,” I said as I continued further on my way, determined to come away from this little excursion with something of value.
“Don’t be an ass. Look, it’s right over there,” he said, pointing at a door marked with a little plaque. “You can take two seconds to check it out with me. If there’s any data worth salvaging, I’ll need you to store it on your PipBuck for me until I can get it into my system at the tower. I’d take it as a courtesy. I bailed you out twice in this building alone, you can spot me one favor.”
“Ugh, fine,” I said, throwing back my head with a sigh. “And for the record, it’s not a PipBuck, it’s a ScoutBuck.” I went to push the door open, but paused when I noticed that it wouldn’t be possible. “Uh… you got any ideas on how to get past a door equipped with a card reader?”
“I’ve got a key right here,” Razorbeak said with a grin, and took aim with his shotgun, blowing out the door’s hinges with the slugs he’d loaded into the drum.
“That’s one way to do it, I suppose,” I said with a chuckle, pushing the ruined door aside and entering the room that housed the weapon plant’s data banks. I was reminded vividly of the AI Core in the unnamed stable, large banks of maneframes set up end-to-end in the small room.
Trotting over to the central maneframe, I began typing away at the keyboard inset into its surface, hacking into it in order to gain access to the weapons tech stored within. It was a little trickier than the Overmare’s terminal had been, but nothing that I couldn’t handle. The password had turned out to be ‘Neutrons’.
Yanking the ScoutBuck’s data transfer cable out, I hooked it up to the maneframe and began to download its secrets for Razorbeak. While it was in the process of doing so, I took the time to peruse the files myself, seeing if there was anything useful to be gleaned from them. The files on the experimental weapons technology and the prototypes they’d developed were of particular interest to me, and I opened a file that caught my eye and began to read.
Pulse Technology Theory: A Primer
Intended to improve upon and surpass laser and plasma technology’s current limitations, pulse weaponry is Pulsar Advanced Weapons Systems' flagship product.
While laser technology simply utilizes a series of focal gem arrays to amplify and weaponize light, plasma technology is slightly more complex, instead harnessing the power of spark and microspark cells in order to fire superheated bolts of plasma.
Pulse technology, an entirely new concept developed by Pulsar, greatly improves upon plasma technology. In order to understand pulse technology inherently, one must first understand the workings of plasma technology. A power source, typically a spark cell of some size, is used to spontaneously generate plasma in a chamber specially crafted for this task, before being propelled from the weapon in its natural state. The unstable, volatile nature of the plasma projectile is the cause for the signature effect of reducing its target into a mere puddle of goo.
Pulse technology, while lacking in raw power next to plasma, is yet stronger than laser technology, and far more stable than either.
A pulse weapon typically consists of a barrel shrouded with a solenoid, which is used to magnetically stabilize and propel the once-volatile plasma round, now a pulse round, on its journey toward its target. In place of the plasma chamber, instead a magazine comprised of a solid block of ferrous metal is typically utilized to form the projectile, slivers of metal on the block being sheared off in order to be superheated into plasma before they are ejected from the weapon in their altered state.
The magnetic fields generated by the solenoid keep the projectiles stable and compact, allowing them to travel slower and with more stability than a laser bolt, but faster and more accurately than plasma while delivering a near-equivalent amount of damage.
Addendum: While Head of the Ministry of Wartime Technology, Applejack, has approved the finalized design, Princess Luna still has yet to grant final approval for mass production, but one small-scale functional prototype has been developed for demonstration as proof of concept.
I needed this. I had to have this weapon. I was fully prepared to turn this building upside down in order to find it. First though, there was one more file I wanted to look into.
YDX Drone Series
A combat drone intended to assist officers on the battlefield, Pulsar has currently developed one prototype and two variants, for which a hoofful of additional prototypes have been manufactured.
YDX0 Gun Drone – Prototype model. Equipped with dual plasma rifles and is intended to provide fire support to officers and their squads. Five manufactured.
DX1 Gun Drone – Base model. Pushed through from prototype stage, will be outfitted with the recently developed pulse technology. Awaiting mass production approval from Princess Luna.
DX2 Shield Drone – Base model variant. Built upon the DX1’s chassis, the weapons systems have been removed and replaced with a small shield generator. This drone is intended to help officers and their squads take and hold positions on the battlefield, offering additional defensive support. One manufactured.
That sounded an awful lot like what had attacked us out in the lobby and the hallway. Well, we’d killed two, so there would only be three left, at most. Four, if you counted the shield drone.
Not long after I’d finished reading, a little beep sounded in my ear and a flashing disk indicator popped up on the ScoutBuck’s screen, telling me the data transfer had completed. “All right, I’ve got the data, so let’s go do my thing. I’ve confirmed that they’ve built one prototype, and one prototype only. It will be mine.”
Razorbeak rolled his eyes and followed me out of the room as I struck out in search of the prototype pulse weapon. I continued down the hallway at a hurried pace, barely able to contain my excitement. I loved experimental weapons, it was the whole reason I spent my days in recon testing all of Doc’s crazy inventions. The Enclave needed somepony to test weapons, and I liked being the first to test things out, point out their flaws and strengths, so naturally, I had been a perfect fit.
When I spotted the R&D labs, all the way at the end of the hall, I sped up and burst through the doors in my eagerness to lay claim to my prize. I soon discovered that had been a terrible idea, as the remaining drones were all waiting within the room in some sort of standby mode. The second I slammed the doors open, however, every one of their little red eyes burned to life, and they traversed on their axis’ to face the source of the intrusion.
“I got it,” Razorbeak said, not a touch of urgency to his voice as he raised his shotgun and prepared to fire.
“No, don’t!” I shouted, knocking the barrel aside as it discharged, though I was too late. The slug rocketed forward and impacted upon the shimmering invisible shield a drone in the back of the group had put up, ricocheting and rebounding back at us as we dove for cover. “Let me take care of it,” I hissed as I got back to my hooves.
Bringing the coilgun to bear, I triggered S.A.T.S.; I didn’t want to miss and hit a gun drone by accident. Queuing up a burst from the coilgun, I let it fly, the slugs tearing through the shield as they were meant to do and shredding the shield drone to pieces, leaving the rest of the hovering robots vulnerable.
“Okay, now shoot.”
Razorbeak got back up and sent a few slugs into the drones as I peppered them with Rattler’s armor-piercing rounds, reducing the small group of prototypes into so much scrap metal.
“How’d you do that?” Razorbeak asked as I pulled out the coilgun’s spent microspark cell and swapped it for another.
“I hadn’t met you yet, but the first day I showed up at OEQ tower, I had to leave my battle saddle with your stupid security guards. I made it crystal clear that it was a very important, one-of-a-kind prototype, and that it wasn’t to be harmed, or else harm would come to those who harmed it. This gun was developed for the sole purpose of bypassing alicorn shields. I was told it was the bullet’s high velocity that allowed it to bypass them, but after reloading it a few minutes ago, I’m starting to think that may not actually be the case.”
Leaving the griffon to mull that over, I began looking around the R&D lab for the experimental pulse weapon. It reminded me a lot of Doc’s lab, actually. There were workbenches all over the place littered with parts, corkboards with weapons schematics pinned to them on all the walls, and a chalkboard with engineering formulas written all over it in one corner.
I found it before long, nestled in an armored case padded with foam under the lead engineer’s desk. Pulling the case up and placing it on the desk, my heart pounding with excitement, I opened the clasps and threw the cover open, allowing my eyes to drink in the raw beauty of the weapon before me.
It was simple, elegant. Boxy in design, it was double-barreled in an over-under configuration and just about the length of my foreleg from the knee down. A pistol. I’d found a pulse pistol. This couldn’t have been more perfect! I’d been looking for a replacement for my service pistol, and this would fit the bill nicely.
That wasn’t all it had to offer, though. While the grip of the pistol was gunmetal grey, the forward half, the frame of it, was painted in a pearlescent white, and gold filigree decorated every contour. Towards the front of the pistol, an inch or two shy of the muzzle, there had been painted a large orange sun and somepony had taken great pains to paint in immaculate purple cursive on the weapon, a name: ‘Celestia’s Grace’. As a non-believer in the goddesses, the irony was not lost on me, I assure you.
Feeling accomplished for the first time in days as I slid my new weapon into the empty holster on my hindleg, I turned to look at Razorbeak. “Anything else on the agenda? I’d like to get back to the tower so Greaser and I can start unencrypting the Steel Ranger holodisk. Sooner I get back on Vortex’s tail, the better.”
“Yeah,” he replied, tossing me a small square package. “Right after we set these we can head back.”
It was a demolition charge. “You’re one paranoid griffon,” I said, shaking my head as I followed him out of the door to start rigging the place to blow.
“What do you mean you can’t decrypt it!?” I shouted, causing Greaser to flinch back away from me.
“I’m sorry, mate! The encryption’s just too strong! I can’t do it without a key or a Crusader maneframe, and the latter is completely out of the question!”
“No, damn it! No, that’s not good enough! I’m not letting Vortex get away with this because we don’t have the means to decode this data. If he could do it, then stars damn it, so can we!”
“Uh, ahem. If I might interject?” Razorbeak said from somewhere off to our side. “I know a place where you guys could go to decrypt that thing. There’s an old pre-war building a few miles out from the city that used to specialize in terminal repair, cyber warfare and everything in between. If there’s any chance of you getting that thing decrypted, that’s your best bet.”
“When is Greaser fit to go?” I asked immediately.
“Oh, she can leave right now, she’s been discharged by Traction.”
“Perfect. Let’s go, kid. Oh, and here’s your saddlebag back. I can buy my own now.” I tossed the loaned saddlebag back over to her, but she wasn’t ready and it collided with her shoulder, a tiny little container flying out onto the floor as it was overturned.
“Mach…” she said, and I could hear her straining to keep her voice even. “What is this?”
“That’s, um...” My headache, still present since it started earlier in the day, throbbed particularly painfully and I licked my lips nervously. “That’s Dash. It’s what I had left over from the pharmaceutical plant. I hung on to it in case I needed it again.”
“So you’re a bloody addict then, is what you’re telling me,” she spat, unable to keep the venom out of her voice any longer.
“I’m not an addict, Greaser. I hung onto it in case I needed it. You saw me fail the rainboom the other day, and that was the only thing that got you back here in time before you died. I couldn’t have done it without the Dash, you would’ve been a goner. I don’t need it, but what if something happens to one of us again? What if a situation arises where I need to fly that fast but I can’t manage it? Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?”
“Not when it means you’re exposing yourself to this fucking garbage!” she screamed, and my eyes widened in shock. I’d never seen her this angry before.
“No! I don’t want to hear it, Mach!” Her face was contorted in fury, and I could see the beginnings of tears in her eyes. “Dash killed my parents, mate!”
“I started to tell you this the other day, but you cut me off before I could say anything. When I was a little filly and we were still traveling abroad with the caravan, one day the tosser pulling our wagon decided he wanted to party. We were traveling through a narrow mountain pass at the time, and the genius decides it’s a good idea to look down off the sheer cliff face. Well, needless to say it ruined his trip and he flipped out, pulling us along for the ride with him. He was going way too bloody fast to jump off without killing ourselves; we had a mountainside on one end, and a drop thousands of meters down on the other, so no way out.
“Well, dad decides that we’re going to die if we stay on the wagon, so he comes up with a plan. He tells my mother to curl up around me, and levitates the both of us as gently and slowly as he could off of the back of the wagon. We tumbled and tumbled, and eventually we couldn’t hold on to each other anymore. I went one way, mum went the other, only she wasn’t as lucky as I was. I slid to a stop, but she went right off the edge. Dad… I don’t know what happened to him. I never saw him again. Nopony ever found the wreckage of the wagon.”
My heart went out to her. Really, it did. I may not have had the best relationship with my father, but Mom and I got along great, and at least I still had both parents. She’d lost both of hers at a young age. I couldn’t imagine what that could possibly be like for a little filly, especially one who had to grow up in an environment as rough as the Wasteland.
“Greaser, I’m so sorry-”
“You’re not off the bloody hook yet, mate, so don’t start giving me your pity! I thought I knew you, Mach. I still remember how outraged and disgusted you were when we found the Dash shipment. How could you just turn your back on everything you said that day?”
“I don’t know what you want me to tell you, Greaser. I haven’t touched the stuff since I used it to get you back here. What it is, what it does, that does disgust me. I’m not proud that I needed it, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make for you. Just having it on me, just knowing it’s there if I ever need it… it helps. I’m telling you, Greaser, I’m not an addict. I swear on my life, on Polaris- the North Star, the entity I hold in a regard higher than anything else, that I don’t need Dash.”
“Prove it,” Greaser snapped obstinately.
Without another word, I brought my hoof down and smashed the little container to pieces where it had fallen.
“I don’t need it. If I have to give up the rainboom to prove that to you, then so be it.”
“Oh, bloody hell,” she said, and rushed over to throw her hooves around my neck. “I thought I’d lost my best mate to addiction. I was so worried that this was going to become a huge issue that I was going to have to help you work through, and I honestly didn't know if I would've been able to help if you'd been well and truly hooked. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it must be for you to give up something you trained your whole life for, just like that.”
“What good is using Dash to do the rainboom if I lose my friend and my self-respect in the process?” I said, patting her gently on the back. “So, you ready to hit the road?”
She nodded enthusiastically, and gathered up all her things from around the room. She threw her maintenance barding back on, covering up her cutie mark and the stains once more, tied her mane back up in a tail and tossed her saddlebag back on before levitating her autoturret and the Railway Rifle into their positions on her back.
“All set, mate.”
“I’m going with you, too,” I heard Razorbeak say from where he’d been standing. Jeez, I’d forgotten he was even there.
“Wha- huh? Why?” I asked suspiciously. Razorbeak never did anything unless he stood to profit from it in some way.
“I’ve been roosting for far too long, Red. Nestled safely up in my tower, away from it all while I do nothing but delegate from a distance. If I was still a teenager, I’d be out making trouble, but I’ve grown past that. I want to help the people of the Wasteland. Getting my ass out of the tower to help you made me realize what I’ve been missing all these years, so I left control of Obsidian Equestria to Magnus while I help you on your travels. It’s in good claws.”
“Uh… okay, I guess. Welcome aboard? I’m not gonna say no, you’re a good shot and a hell of a brawler. One thing, though. I give the orders in this squad. If you don’t like that, you may as well just go right back to your office.”
“That’s fine,” he said, “I can deal. So, shall we get moving? I can lead you right to this place, shouldn’t take more than an hour to get there.”
I nodded and we shuffled off, out of Greaser’s room, up the elevator and out past the lobby into the streets once more. I stopped for a moment, only to purchase a saddlebag and some rations before we departed south, passing beneath the large Sanctuary sign, for what may very well have been the last time.
Once we’d made it out of Sanctuary, Razorbeak led us southwest, and we began our journey in earnest, slogging through the city’s streets as we made our way to the building that would hopefully be able to decrypt this Steel Ranger data. I got Greaser up to speed as we walked, telling her about everything that had happened from the moment she’d been shot, right up until Razorbeak and I had made our return to the tower.
“Celestia’s Grace, huh?” she said, twirling the ornate pulse pistol in the air as she examined it curiously, her engineer’s curiosity getting the better of her. “Do you have any idea how ironic this is?”
“All too well,” I replied, tucking the pistol back into my holster as she gave it back. “But hey, I’m not about to let a perfectly good weapon go to waste just because of a name somepony painted on the thing. Plus, I relish the opportunity to kill my enemies with a weapon named after a deity I don’t believe in. Death by blasphemy.”
We fell silent after a while, having exhausted ourselves of things to talk about for the moment, and Greaser started messing with her PipBuck, turning the radio on and playing some music I couldn’t stand. It went on like that for maybe two songs before I got fed up.
“Please, please change the channel, Greaser. I can’t stand that pop bullcrap.”
“Oh, come on mate! This is Sapphire Shores, she’s brilliant!”
“If it doesn’t have an electric guitar, I don’t want to hear it,” I said stubbornly, and she began channel surfing again. “Wait, stop!” I said as I heard the tail end of a crazy guitar solo, the song fading out as Greaser settled on the station.
“Hey out there, Wastelanders! This is Shock and Jock on 94 WPNY, Buckston’s source of classic rock. We’ve got an interesting tidbit of news for you guys today, don’t we, Jock?”
“You know it, buddy! Now you all have no doubt heard about the Stable Dweller by now, given how much ol’ DJ Pon3 goes on about her. She’s been helping people in Ponyville and its outlying areas one step at a time, been making a name for herself doing all that good.”
“Don’t forget Security, Jock. She’s been up to quite a bit over in Hoofington, and her brand of justice is a little more my style. Hard justice is the only justice, as far as I’m concerned. That’s right, everypony. A humble little Security mare turned total badass is restoring order to Hoofington slowly but surely.”
I snickered. “A rent-a-cop, really? I’m supposed to believe a security guard is holding it down out here? Especially in a fucked up pit like Hoofington?”
“Last I heard, Shock, she’d cleared out all the raiders between Megamart and Withers. The route between Hoofington and Manehattan is relatively safe thanks to Security.”
“Hmph,” I said, considerably impressed. “Okay, I take it back. She sounds like somepony I’d like to have a beer with.”
“That’s all old news, of course,” Jock continued, “no, what we’ve got to tell everypony is that we’ve got our own little hero running around out here in Buckston.”
“Yep, that’s right folks, we’ve got one too. Ponyville has the Stable Dweller, Hoofington has the Security Mare, and we’ve got… got, uh… What the hell do we even call him, Shock?”
“What about Outlaw?” Shock offered up. “That’s what he is, after all.”
“Nah, that’s too easy. We need something catchier. What about… oh! How about the Angel of Death?”
“That’s stupid. You're stupid. Wait, I’ve got one. He’s supposedly able to do the sonic rainboom, yeah? Okay, so what about Rolling Thunder?”
“Perfect, that’s the one.”
“That’s it, okay. So, everypony, get a load of this guy. You may have recognized him from those wanted posters the Enclave’s been handing out to every major merc organization in Equestria. He’s wanted for murder, treason, and theft of government property among other things, and the Enclave promises a 2.5 million bit reward for him dead or alive.”
“He doesn’t seem like such a bad guy to me, Shock. He’s already completely decimated the Prominence mercenary group, and everypony knows they’ve been trying to get drugs into Sanctuary for years now.”
“Yeah, well he also got the Rangers and Enclave fighting again,” Jock said testily. “Did you hear what happened over in the Sovereignty of Crown Jewel? Apparently, he broke Crown Jewel’s nose and killed her bodyguard before making off with her pendant.”
“He’s been causing a lot of trouble for the Steel Rangers, though, and that’s perfectly fine by me. Hey, you keep up what you’re doing out there, Rolling Thunder; you may not be Security or the Stable Dweller, but you’re the closest thing we’ve got. Just try not to screw up too bad, eh?”
I groaned as the DJ pair finished their news broadcast and put some music on. “Great. Fan-fucking-tastic. Now the Enclave knows where I am thanks to those two assholes. As far as they knew, I was still hanging around Ponyville and now they’ll all know I’m over in Buckston. Awesome. Now I’m going to have them breathing down my neck along with Vortex and the Rangers.”
“You… you murdered somepony?” Greaser asked quietly.
“What? Greaser, I murder people on a daily basis. You murder people on a daily basis. It’s part of surviving out here.”
“No, Mach. This is different. We kill ponies to survive in the Wasteland. If the Enclave wants you for murder, that means you killed somepony who didn’t deserve it.”
“Greaser, you can’t trust a word the Enclave says, they’re masters of deceit. They actually want me on two counts of murder in the first degree, but one of those ponies was actually killed by an alicorn. The other one I shot, yes, but in self-defense. She was about to murder me and call me a traitor so she could get vengeance for her sister and earn a promotion all at once.
“Come on, Greaser, you know me. You know I wouldn’t murder anypony who didn’t deserve it. Remember the griffon I spared in the balefire missile silo? A murderer would’ve killed him.”
“Yeah... right,” Greaser said coldly. "Sorry, never should have brought it up."
“Hey,” Razorbeak said before I could ask her just what she meant by that, “Pay attention, we’re here.”
We’d arrived at a tiny little hole in the wall out in the middle of suburbia. I could definitely see the terminal repair aspect of the shop, but cyber warfare? No way. The place looked like it was a small business run by three eggheads living out of their mothers’ basements. Even the name was cringeworthy.
“You honestly think we’re going to find something that can decrypt a data disk encoded by Steel Rangers in this little crapshack?”
“Jeez Red, would it kill you to be optimistic for one moment of your life?” Razorbeak said, as he pushed his way into the little terminal repair shop.
I reluctantly stepped through the door with Greaser following behind, a little bell tied above the entrance ringing as I pushed it open. If I was supposed to be more impressed by the inside of the building, I wasn’t. The interior was tiny, and broken or disused terminals were piled up all over the shop. A long countertop ran the length of the store on the left side as I came in the door, and there were displays set up in the middle of the sales floor where demonstration models had once sat.
“If you can count on an egghead for one thing,” Razorbeak said, groping about on the dusty floor, “it’s being crafty.” His claw found purchase, and he seized a small handle and pulled up on it, revealing a trapdoor that led into a basement beneath the shop.
"Wait, how the hell did you even know that was there?" I asked suspiciously as Razorbeak made his way down into parts unknown.
"Nothing gets by me, Red. This is my city, and there are very few places that I haven't investigated personally."
Shrugging, I made my way down after him, finding myself a whole lot less concerned that this had been a fruitless endeavor. A massive supercomputer sat in the basement, and while Greaser insisted that it wasn’t a Crusader maneframe, she said that there was a strong possibility that it would be powerful enough to crack the encryption on the Steel Ranger holodisk.
I tossed it over to her and she immediately went to work, inserting it into the massive machine and typing away frenetically on the keyboard. Waiting with bated breath, I watched from over her shoulder as her hooves flew over the keys, an occasional curse slipping out of her mouth as she fought to unlock the disk’s mysteries. At long last though, she finally prompted me to connect my ScoutBuck to the maneframe.
“I did the best I could, mate. It’s encrypted a lot more heavily than I thought it would be, but I managed to get through some of the lower level protection. We don’t have all the secrets it holds, but we have the ones that aren’t top security clearance at least.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said grimly as my eyes flew over the data pouring into my ScoutBuck. “This is just what I need. It confirms my suspicions.”
“Of what Vortex has planned? What is it?”
“He stole, among whatever else is hidden on this disc, a list of major population centers. This matches with the missions he sent me on when I was working for him. He was after a large civilian convoy, and an airport terminal packed to the brim with raiders. He’s looking for ponies. He’s not trying to indoctrinate recruits using his charisma, like I initially thought. It would be pointless, there would be no way to take them to the Enclave to attack. No, he’s after something entirely different, he told me as much when he stuck that poor mare with the needle at the pharmaceutical plant.
“He’s after test subjects,” I said, grinding my teeth at the very thought of it. “He’s trying to breed his own mutant pegasi army.”
Footnote: Level up.
New Perk: Pulse Power – You’ve really learned your stuff! Studying up on the how-to behind pulse weapon technology has greatly increased your proficiency with this little-known weapon type. You deal ten percent more damage with all pulse weaponry.
Companion Perk: Pain Train – Griffon talon Krieg Razorbeak joins the party! When entering S.A.T.S., you may queue up your companion for one close-range melee attack free of AP cost in addition to your own attacks.
Thanks to Kkat, as always, for even writing Fallout Equestria in the first place. Also thanks to my readers, glad you guys are sticking around for the ride.
Well fillies and gentlecolts, we've officially hit the 1/3 way point of the story. That's right, I've got it all planned out, it's 30 chapters long. Also a brief heads up- the next chapter may or may not be delayed depending on how busy I am, but it will get done.