Chapter 6: Grounded
“Mach. Second Lieutenant. Service number two-zero dash two-six-six dash five-nine-seven. That’s all you’re going to get out of me, Steel Asshole.”
I glared defiantly up at the Steel Ranger that stood before me. He was a Star Paladin by the looks of it, and in charge of my interrogation. When the Rangers had finally arrived at my position, I fully expected them to kill me and take their stolen data as I lied there helpless and be done with it. The Star Paladin’s squad had been ready to do just that, and only his word kept them from turning me into mincemeat. He had been wiser then they, assessing that something was amiss the moment he saw me paralyzed with a knife sticking out of my chest, the stolen data disk lying not too far from my body.
“Come now,” he chided in the tone of a parent scolding a foal, “is that any way to treat the pony that prevented your execution? My knights were eager to turn you into a feathered splotch on the ground after your attacks on our civilian convoy, FOB and research installation. I really didn’t have to call my leadership into question to spare you. Make it easy on yourself and cooperate. Tell me what the Enclave is doing in Buckston.”
So he was good cop, huh? Where was bad cop? It was inconsequential in any event, ‘cause I didn’t have the answers he was looking for. All I had to go on was my own speculations using the information I’d gathered thus far. Sharing my ideas with him wouldn’t gain me anything, anyway, so I didn’t see the need to divulge my secrets. I had been stupid to trust the Major, and I’d be even dumber to trust this Steel Ranger, who was probably trying his very best not to beat me to death on the spot. If I told him everything I knew, he’d probably kill me and be done with it. If I refused to say anything, he’d probably kill me and be done with it just the same, so I’d be damned if I was going to help this guy before he killed me.
The Ranger jerked back as if I’d physically struck him across the face. He stood there a moment, impassive, and I heard him trying desperately to calm his breathing, the filters on his helmet betraying his irritation.
“Ha,” he chuckled tentatively, “you… don’t seem to grasp the severity of the situation. I will give you one more chance to provide me with the information I seek before I forcibly extract it from you.”
There it was, threats of violence. That sure didn’t take long. I’d been waiting here in this cold, dark, tiny cube of a room, trussed up like a turkey and sitting on a lone chair for like five minutes before he came in and started berating me. Of course, I was not incapable of objectivity and felt he had every right to make demands of me. Hell, he had every right to put a damn gun to my head and pull the trigger; I’d slaughtered quite a lot of Rangers in just two days. Though while I felt it was his right, that didn’t mean I was going to start begging him to shoot me. He’d have to make that decision on his own. For my response, I just sat there and glared at him in silence.
“All right then, have it your way. I tried being civil, and now I can see that I was mistaken in my assumption that an Enclave pegasus would be capable of such a refined concept.” He looked past me to somepony that must have been standing behind me. “Dunk him.”
Do what now?
Before I could even begin trying to decipher what he meant by that, I felt a hoof come into contact with the back of my head, and force my face down into a large tub of water. Cold! Oh stars, the water was so damned cold my breath was stolen from me by the shock, and my first instinct was to gasp and draw in a lungful of air. Problem was, there wasn’t any air to draw in, so instead I got a mouthful of freezing water.
Whoever it was that had dunked my head in the water finally let go and I surfaced, coughing and spluttering as I tried to get all the water out of me.
“Thank you, sir,” I choked out, feeling my teeth begin to chatter together from the frigid water, “may I have another?”
Antagonizing my captors was probably the least intelligent thing I could have done, but I couldn’t help it. My mouth started running all on its own when I was scared shitless; it was a coping mechanism.
“I can see it will take more than that to break you,” said the Star Paladin, “however, know this: I have all the time in the world. You do not have such a luxury. If you continue to refuse to cooperate, I will have you tortured to an even further extent and you will eventually be executed.”
He nodded to his associate again, but this time I was ready. Before he plunged my head back into the water, I took a deep breath and was determined to hold it, no matter how damn cold the water was. It was all for naught, because he didn’t let go after a brief soak like he did the first time. He held my head under the water until I started struggling and thrashing against him, at which point he increased the pressure.
I couldn’t hold it anymore. My body was screaming at me to take a breath, my lungs burning in my chest, and I reflexively drew in a huge torrent of the freezing water. Fortunately for me, the majority of it was diverted to my stomach. Ain’t it a miracle how the body works?
The Ranger let me go shortly thereafter and I toppled from my chair, coughing and gasping for breath. As I lie there vomiting up the water I’d taken in, the Star Paladin approached, dropping something by my head. Twisting to get a better look at it, I saw the data disk containing the information I’d stolen for the Major. I craned my neck upwards to look at the Ranger in confusion.
“This data. You assaulted one of our research installations and killed numerous Rangers and Scribes in order to acquire it. You killed ponies I knew in there. Non-combatants, friends of mine. What I want from you is simple. Tell me why. For what purpose did the Enclave intend to use this data?”
I shrugged in response. “No idea. I don’t even know what’s on the disk,” I admitted truthfully, “I have no idea why they wanted it so bad. The only reason I was helping those assholes out is because they made a promise to stop trying to hunt me down, and I was dumb enough to believe it.” Boy, was I. That was not my finest moment, I’ll tell you that much.
“Lies!” he roared, and I grunted in pain as he delivered a swift kick to my stomach. “You know something. You have to know something, and I will get it out of you, no matter what lengths I have to go to in order to do so.”
“Look pal,” I snapped, all pretense forgotten and my voice tinged with pain from the kick to the gut, “I really don’t know what to tell you. I’m sorry, but I don’t have the answers you want. Oh, did I say I was sorry? Because I’m not. Fuck you, and fuck every last Ranger alive. If I had to do it all over again I would in a heartbeat. None of you assholes deserve to live. You should be protecting ponies, not stars-damned technology.”
He kicked me again, a lot harder this time, and I felt one or two ribs crack as I slid clear across the floor and into the wall. “Silence, you pegasus mongrel! I will not be lectured by a murderer! The goals of the Steel Rangers are far too complex for anypony outside our command structure to understand. Who are you to judge what we do in the Wasteland? You spend your days nestled safely up above everypony else, hiding away in your clouds, unable to face the reality of the situation the world is in, and yet you see fit to criticize the way we do things?”
“Pot, kettle, black. You’re leveling accusation at me and the rest of my people now, just like I was a second ago. Don’t you dare lump me in with the rest of the Enclave, I left for a damn good reason. I’ve been able to see what it’s like down here for years, with the best possible view- straight down from the sky.” My stomach turned uncomfortably as a slideshow of still images that had been stored away in my mind for years flashed rapidly before my eyes. “I’ve seen entire encampments wiped out by raiders, innocent young foals captured by slavers after their parents were murdered trying to protect them. I’ve seen ponies at the end of their rope ruthlessly hunted down by mercenaries, all for a currency comprised entirely of bottle caps.”
Forcing myself to look up, I turned so I could stare straight into the Star Paladin’s visor. “I’ve seen groups of Steel Rangers slaughter ponies wholesale to get their hooves on a pre-war gadget or macguffin. More than once I’ve had to file an intelligence report on a Steel Ranger battalion murdering the occupants of a stable in order to claim its secrets. You call me a murderer?” I spat sardonically. “Try looking in a mirror, you fucking hypocrite.”
He stood there for quite some time, not doing a thing but reciprocating my reproachful glare. “Very well, then,” he said eventually. “It would appear that you are dead-set on holding fast to your information. My patience has run out, and now I am afraid I will have to utilize my last resort.” He turned to the other Ranger in the room with us. “Untie him. Let it not be said that I am unmerciful. He deserves a fair chance, though it’s a shame he won’t have a ghost of one.”
Hoo boy, I didn’t like the sound of that one bit. I watched with no small amount of surprise as the other Ranger undid my restraints, allowing me full range of motion once more; not that it was all that full given the injuries I’d sustained from the beating I’d received. Standing, I stretched my sore wings out. Not that I’d be able to go anywhere caged up in this tiny room.
If I had been just a little more unhinged I would’ve tried to escape, but I wasn’t going to risk it given my condition and the two heavily armed and armored Rangers in the room with me.
“So,” I said, tilting my head back and to the side, trying my best at a roguish grin, “why the sudden change of heart? You gonna let me go?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? No, not at all. Not hardly. You’ll wish I’d killed you when I found you after he gets through with you,” the Star Paladin said with immense satisfaction. “Brawn!”
Raising an eyebrow quizzically, I looked on with mild interest as he called for somepony to come into the room. Brawn, eh? Must be a thuggish bruiser type.
When the door to the interrogation room opened and I saw the pony standing behind it, I wanted to throw up, crawl into the nearest corner of the room and weep like a terrified little foal. Apparently Brawn and I had met on a previous occasion. He was the ginormous pony that I’d had a bit of a disagreement with in the middle of Sanctuary and um, if I recalled correctly, he’d promised to destroy me the next time we crossed paths.
In a move of pure desperation I flew straight at him, hoping I’d get lucky enough to slip by and flee before he turned me into a pile of mush. He’d anticipated just such an attempt however and stuck a hoof out, clotheslining me as I closed the distance. Flipping spectacularly as my neck slammed into his outstretched foreleg, I landed hard on my back just beneath him.
He looked down at where I’d landed and spoke with a tone so saccharine I feared it was going to give me diabetes. “Where do ya think you’re goin’, punk? We ain’t got all caught up yet!”
I wormed my way out from beneath Brawn and put as much distance between the two of us as I could, pressing my back to the wall of the interrogation room as I watched the Star Paladin stop on his way out to mutter something to him.
“Do not kill this one, Brawn. I mean it this time. If I find out that you ‘accidentally’ killed another one of your prisoners during interrogation, I will have you shot. The information that pegasus possesses is far too valuable to lose. I want to know why the Enclave wanted that data so badly; it should have been completely irrelevant to their agenda.” Stepping through the door, he turned to deliver one last comment before locking me in with the beast. “Now then, shall I leave you two to get all caught up? I understand you’ve already met Brawn, I daresay you two have a lot to talk about.”
Brawn watched as the Star Paladin shut the door before turning slowly to look at me, cowering in fright at the other end of the very, very tiny room. “You got lucky, Feathers. But jus’ ‘cause the Star Paladin says I can’t kill youse doesn’t mean I can’t beat youse to within an inch of yer life. ‘Sides, ain’t much difference if youse bleed to death after the fact. Technically I’d still be followin’ his rules. Rock Steady was a good buddy of mine, an’ I plan on gettin’ some revenge fer what youse did to ‘im.”
Oh, no. Stars no, I didn’t want to die like this, caged up like a bird. If I had to die, I’d always pictured myself going out in a blaze of glory, at least accomplishing something worthwhile before snuffing it. But this… this wasn’t an honorable death in even the slightest sense of the word.
No, if I was going to die, it was going to be on my terms, damn it.
Standing up straight, I squared off against Brawn, and we began to pace a circle around the small room, glaring at each other. I’d be a little more confident if I at least had my knife on me, but it was just me and my four hooves against him and his powered armor. Cheater. Oh, and my wings, I guess. Fat lot of good those did in cramped confines. I had speed at the very least. He was a lumbering mountain, whereas I was smaller, sleeker, and faster in every way. You’re also injured, featherbrain, my inner pony chided me. Damn it, I couldn’t catch a break, could I?
I’d always been more about offense than defense, so I initiated the attack, charging in lightning-quick and delivering my hardest buck to his helmeted head. I growled in frustration when it failed to cause him any harm, unsurprising though it was.
“That all ya got, Birdbrain? I was hopin’ you’d put up more of a fight than that. Here, lemme show youse how to buck for real.”
He pivoted on the spot with a surprising amount of speed for somepony of his vast size to deliver what should have been a devastating blow, but I shot up and away from him, my wingtips brushing the ceiling with every beat as I hovered just out of reach. Brawn chuckled as I flew about in the tiny room, trying my best to evade him, a look of pure defiance etched onto my features. “Flyin’ ain’t gonna help ya none, pal. Not in this here room.”
With another burst of surprising speed, he charged forward and swatted me out of the air like a bothersome fly. I rocketed away from the impact, slamming my back hard against the wall, gasping as it knocked the wind out of me and sliding down to land in a heap at the floor.
“Ya better start talkin’,” he growled, stomping up to where I lay, desperately trying to catch a breath between my broken ribs and the impact with the wall. “…before I take what’s precious from youse.”
“I don’t know anything! I don’t have the answers you’re looking for, damn it! I’m telling the truth!”
He clicked his tongue and put one massive armored hoof on my chest to hold me down against the floor. “Can’t say I’m too broken up about what I’m about to do to ya.” With another hoof, he pried my left wing away from where I had it tucked at my side and spread it open against the floor as he continued. “Dunno what ya heard, but Rock Steady didn’t have a quick, painless death. Your bullet fragmented when it hit his helmet, an’ only a tiny piece of shrapnel made it through the visor. Went straight through his eye and into his brain. Didn’t kill ‘im right away though; no, he was in agony as it wormed its way through there ‘till it hit somethin’ important an’ eventually killed ‘im. He died on the operatin’ table. This was a long time comin’ you little feathered fucker.”
I’d been too caught up in his monologue to realize what he’d been doing, but as he finished talking it hit me with stunning clarity. I immediately tried struggling and thrashing to break free, but he had me pinned to the floor hard. Squirming and kicking got me nowhere; it was impossible to hurt him with my bare hooves.
“No, don’t!” I pleaded frantically. Anything but this. Stars, I wouldn’t wish this on anypony. “I’m sorry! Look, I didn’t mean to kill him, I didn’t have a choice! I’ll do anything, I swear to Polaris, just please, please don’t do- AAAARGH!” I’d been stoic up to that point, taking my lumps like a champ, but as he stomped on my wing and I heard and felt my bones snapping and popping like so many dry twigs underhoof, I screamed. Did I ever scream. My throat was on fire and tears were streaming from my eyes as he finished crushing every last bone in my left wing.
“Mercy!” I shouted, eyes welling with tears, my voice hoarse from the screaming. “Please, have mercy!” I wasn’t proud of myself, but this was pain like I’d never experienced it before. I’d broken a bone or two in my wings in my lifetime, lots of pegasi did. But never had I ever had somepony smash them to bits with the help of power armor. The pain was excruciating. It was as if somepony had injected molten iron into the very veins of my wings themselves.
“Mercy?” Brawn sneered incredulously. “You want mercy? Did ya show that convoy mercy when ya murdered its entire contingent of Rangers? Did ya show the Rangers at FOB Gamma, or the research installation mercy? Did ya show the scribes mercy? What about my poor buddy Rock Steady? All he was gonna do was bring ya in to turn ya back over to the Enclave. He wasn’t gonna hurt ya, an’ ya went and shot ‘im in the face.”
“I didn’t kill any of the civilians; I only went after the military targets! I could’ve killed a scribe at Gamma, an armed one, but I let her go!”
“Too little too late, pal. Now,” he said, prying my right wing away just as he had my left, despite my frantic attempts to keep it clamped tightly to the side of my body, “tell me what the Enclave is doin’ in Buckston, an’ why they needed that data so badly, or this one will get the same treatment.”
“I- I told you, I don’t know,” I sobbed, praying that he’d believe me. Oh stars not my other wing. I couldn’t be grounded, I just couldn’t. That was the worst possible fate for a pegasus. What point is there in having wings if you can’t use them? If I lost my wings, I’d lose everything that made me special. I’d be no different than an earth pony, only without their uncanny knack for… whatever it is they do. “I don’t know because the Enclave isn’t in Buckston. Those guys aren’t Enclave. Please, I’m telling the truth! I have nothing to gain by lying to you!”
Brawn sucked in a breath and raised his hoof. “Yeah, see, that’s not gonna fly. Heh, fly,” he chuckled at his own joke. “Oh, sorry. No pun intended. But yeah, seriously, not good enough.” And without further fanfare, he brought his hoof down and proceeded to crush every bone in my right wing while I screamed bloody murder, all alone in a Steel Ranger interrogation room, where nopony could hear or help me.
They threw me in a holding cell when they finally realized they wouldn’t get any information out of me. The Star Paladin had called an end to the interrogation after Brawn had finished destroying my other wing, telling him to throw me into the cell and let me slowly succumb to my injuries. I lie there now, broken, bleeding internally and bawling my eyes out like a foal with a skinned knee.
I had been telling the truth. The Enclave hadn’t been to Buckston in… well ever, as far as I knew. Not technically, in any event. The moment I’d recognized who the Enclave Major really was, all the pieces had locked into place. He wasn’t affiliated with the Enclave in the traditional sense of the word. His name was Ardent Vortex, and he was the leader of a rebellion my squad had been sent to quash when I was still a wet-behind-the-ears recruit. I tried to focus on the day of the assassination attempt; if I got out of here alive, putting as many pieces of the puzzle together was integral to stopping him, because this went far beyond simple vengeance at this point. The simple fact that Vortex was alive meant that the safety of all the citizens of Equestria was now at stake, and he’d made it abundantly clear that I was the only pony who knew about it. I was the only pony who could stop him.
“Airpony! Airpony, am I boring you!?”
I jarred awake with a snort as I felt my head slip off of where I’d propped it up on my hoof, and slam straight into the briefing table in front of me. Yawning, I stretched back in my chair and wiped the congealed drool off of my cheek as I turned to gaze lazily at my superior.
“What? Oh. Yeah, a little. Sorry about that, Sarge.”
The rest of my squad laughed at my honesty, and Duster guffawed loudly from my right side, slapping me on the back jovially.
“I know it’s hard for you, given the fact that you have the attention span of an overripe grapefruit, but please try and pay attention. Our squad has been charged with a very serious task. As you all know, the Vortex Rebellions have been going on for close to two years now. Well, the council has decided that it is no longer a simple political stunt, and that it is in fact actively threatening our way of life.
“Their leader, Ardent Vortex, has stated that it is time for the Enclave to take up its rightful place as the ruler of Equestria, claiming that we need to spread out into the Wasteland, forcing its occupants, as if there are any, to surrender to our might or die. In order to do this, he plans to supplant the council and make himself dictator, either through election or by force. The council fears that, given Vortex’s penchant for violence, force is far more likely and has authorized a black operation. We are to move immediately and assassinate Ardent Vortex.”
I leaned back in my chair, tilting it so that it stood on its rear two legs, and raised a hoof.
“What is it, Airpony Mach?” My squad leader, Sergeant Storm Watch, sighed with exasperation. She was a tough old mare with a red coat like mine, only hers was a much brighter, candy-apple-red. Her mane was short and spiked up, colored black, with streaks of grey that had started to show through in recent years. On her flank was an innocent, drizzling little raincloud, which seemed to be at odds with her nasty temper.
“Question,” I stated in the most bored tone possible, “why are we, a bunch of recruits barely out of Basic, being sent on such an important mission? Why can’t the council send somepony more experienced?” The rest of the squad murmured assent as they inevitably came to the same conclusion as I did.
“It’s simple, really. We’re expendable. If we die, the council can disavow any knowledge of our actions. A squad of recruits won’t be as large a loss of valuable assets if captured or killed. Besides, I volunteered us for the job. I think you’re all capable of pulling this off. If we manage it, we’ll definitely be lauded as heroes. Think about what that will do for your military career, eh?”
The squad murmured amongst themselves with uncertainty. I for one was eager to show the council just what we could do. Eager to show my old buck what I could do. If I brought him the head of a rebel, that would get him to shut his gob real quick. Maybe then I’d be able to follow my own career path instead of having him work in the shadows to keep me where he wanted me.
“Before you all head out to get geared up,” Storm Watch said, getting our attention once more, “We’ve got a few more details to iron out. Vortex will be making a public appearance at a rally in his home city of Cyclonus. During his speech is when he will be the most vulnerable, but also the most protected. We’re going to take him out from a distance with a sniper team.”
She turned to the other pair of ponies that comprised our squad. Maverick, a grey pony with a missile for a cutie mark and an air of cockiness to rival my own, and his wingbuck, Goose, a brown pony with a radar dish on his flank. “Maverick, Goose, that’s your job. Mach, Duster and I are on the intercept team. If the sniper team botches their shot, it’s up to us to chase him down and finish the job. Are there any questions?”
“Yeah, I got one,” I said, raising my hoof again. “Why do those two rowdy jerks get to take the shot instead of us? I’m a better markspony than either of them. Go ahead, check my range records.”
“Because I need my best fliers on the intercept team. That’s us. I know you know that, Mach, because I have to remind you every damn time you raise an objection.”
“Yeah,” I admitted with a cocky grin, “I just like hearing you say it.”
“All right, that’s enough. I want you and the squad to go get geared up. Report to the airstrip once you’ve done so. No slacking, we’ve got a very tight window for this operation. Vortex will only be speaking for ten minutes, then he’s gone to who-knows-where. Do I make myself clear?” We all nodded obediently. “Very well then; dismissed.”
Peeling my numb butt out of my chair, I took a minute to stretch out before meeting Duster by the door. “Big day fer us, eh Hoss?” Duster said as I approached, tipping his hat as I fell into step beside him. “Killin’ off a rebel leader. Dang, muh pappy’ll be right proud o’ me once Ah tell him we were the ones responsible fer savin’ all o’ Equestria.”
“I think you’re gilding the lily a bit, buddy,” I said, shoulder-checking him playfully. “I doubt this crazy bastard would really be able to take over the Enclave, let alone use its military might to steamroll the Wasteland. Besides, would anypony really care if he did? That place is a stars-damned pit down there. It’s not even safe to live in. Hell, if he wants it so bad, I say we give it to him. He can stay down there and we’ll keep the clouds all to ourselves, thanks; we’d be better off with one less basket case up here.”
“What do y’ figger he even wants t’ conquer the Wasteland fer? Ain’t nopony to rule over down there. They’re always tellin’ us how unsafe it is t’ live down there, an’ that we should forget ‘bout it fer the foreseeable future. Ah got a buddy in Neighvarro Recon, he always seems like he’s hidin’ somethin’ when Ah ask him ‘bout it. Gets real quiet, won’t say nothin’ ‘less you change the subject.”
I snickered with amusement. “Pfft, recon. Promise me you’ll kick my ass if I ever end up there; talk about boring. Who wants to be stuck watching a barren, dead tract of land all day? Not me, that’s who. As for Vortex, there’s no rhyme or reason to his motives, Duster. He’s a psychopath, that’s all there is to it.”
“Reckon that might be so,” Duster replied, nodding sagely. “Ah c’n see where yer comin’ from, sure. Still though, Sarge is right. They’ll throw us a parade fer this’un, that’s fer certain.”
I cuffed him over the head with a wing. “Don’t be stupid, Duster. This is a black operation, admitting it to the public is the perfect example of what not to do. If we manage to kill Vortex, they’ll fabricate a story to fit the circumstance and bury our hard work under a mountain of positive spin. If the council admits to authorizing an assassination, they’ll be discrediting themselves and reinforcing Vortex’s allegations in the eyes of the public. If we pull this off, the best we can hope for is a promotion with little to no ceremony.”
“You’re such a buzzkill, Mach,” Maverick said from behind me. I turned to see him and Goose hovering along just behind me and Duster. “I think you’re just jealous that we’re gonna be the ones to take him out while you’re stuck watching from the sidelines like a sap.”
I shot into the air, butting foreheads and jabbed him in the chest with a hoof. “I’m not jealous, but you’re a terrible sniper. You couldn’t hit the broad side of a cumulonimbus with your own body, never mind a bullet. We’ll be the ones doing the killing after you miss and alert him to the assassination attempt.”
He pushed my forehead back with his own as we hovered there, trying to outmuscle each other. “Easy for you to say, Heavy Weapons Guy. You throw so much fire downrange you’re likely to hit something no matter how bad your aim is. Some of us prefer an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”
“All right, that’s enough, y’all. Y’ c’n pick up yer li’l pissin’ contest where y’ left off when we get back. We’re on a schedule, remember,” Duster said, grabbing me and pulling me back to the ground as Goose did the same to Maverick. They had a lot of practice with that; he and I were always going back and forth.
“Duster’s right,” I said, making my way into the armory before looking over my shoulder at Maverick. “Settle this the same way we always do when we get back?”
He nodded in response, a grin working its way up the corner of his mouth. “You’re going down this time, pal. I’m gonna drink you so far under the table my liver will be begging me for mercy.”
We fell silent as we entered the armory and began gearing up for the mission. I threw on my basic infantry pony gear, standard Enclave grey fatigues with a bulletproof vest and a helmet, along with my trusty combat knife just over my left shoulder. Hooking up my radio, I slid it into the pouch on the front of my vest and popped the earpiece into my right ear before turning to attend to my battle saddle. It had been outfitted with standard Enclave heavy weapons kit- a massive beast of a weapon called a plasma cannon. It was the big brother to the plasma rifle, and packed one hell of a wallop. I rubbed my hooves together eagerly as I considered it; the thing was powerful enough to turn a pony into a steaming puddle of goo with a single shot. Even splash damage would be enough to cause lethal injuries to anypony caught in the blast.
“Case in point, people,” Maverick said, pointing a wingtip at me strapping my battle saddle on as he trotted by, a semi-automatic sniper rifle mounted on his own.
“Oh, get bent,” I snapped around the battle saddle’s strap in my teeth as I pulled it tight. “When the shit hits the fan because you can’t shoot worth a damn, you’ll be glad I'm there to vape the crowds of bodyguards that’ll be swarming your position. Firepower and strategy win battles, and I’ve got both in spades.”
“Jus’ drop it, Hoss,” Duster said from behind me, putting a hoof on my shoulder to calm me down. “Let’s get goin’, we don’t want t’ keep the Sarge waitin’.
I nodded and followed Maverick and Goose out of the room, grinding my teeth and trying my best not to tackle Maverick to the ground as he snickered to himself in amusement. “I hate that guy,” I muttered under my breath, quiet enough so only Duster could hear. “I’d like very much to kick his ass up between his ears. Somepony needs to do it. He needs to be taken down a peg.”
“Well now, that’s a bit interestin’,” Duster said, chuckling despite himself. “Want t’ know what Ah think? Ah think y’ see so much o’ yerself in him it’s got y’ all worked up in a tizzy. Y’all are like peas in a pod, Hoss.”
I stopped short while the rest of the group kept moving, and fixed Duster with my best look of horrified disgust. “Thank you, Counselor Duster. Look pal, I am nothing like that guy, not in the slightest. He’s… he’s… an arrogant, self-centered asshole who thinks he’s Polaris’s gift to Equestria; that he’s the best at everything he does, and that- that, um…” I trailed off and hung my head in shame when I realized what I was saying. “Well, shit.” I wasn’t that bad, was I?
Duster patted me on the back sympathetically. “It’s all right, pardner, y’ get used t’ it eventually. ’Member now, we’ve been friends since flight school. Ah’ve been dealin’ with it all them years jus’ fine. If Ah c’n do it, you can too, Hoss.”
I grumbled and seethed on the rest of the walk to the door outside, eyes on the floor until we emerged out into daylight. Shielding my eyes against the glare, I took a look around the outside of Stratofortress Air Force Base. It was your standard airbase, a long airstrip for takeoffs and landings, hangars for Vertibucks and Raptors, an air traffic control tower and even barracks buildings way over on the far side.
As we made our way over to the airstrip, Storm Watch swooped down from above and landed nearby. “You’re all late, now we’ve got to push it to make up for lost time.” She swept her gaze over the entire squad, assembled in a line in front of her, standing at attention. When she got to me, her eyes locked on and her brow furrowed in irritation. “Damn it Mach, really? You’re on the intercept team, do you need me to define the meaning of interceptor for you, or would you like to provide me with the definition yourself so I can make sure you’re not retarded?”
“Interceptor – a high speed military air unit intended to stop, seize, or interrupt a target in progress or course before arrival at the intended destination, ma’am!” I rattled off immediately.
“Correct, Airpony.” She smiled sweetly down at me, but I could see that it was forced, a twitching eyelid betraying her irritation. “Would you also like me to explain the laws of physics, and how carrying equipment that weighs in excess of twenty pounds hinders your ability to intercept!? Use your brain, Mach! What the hell were you thinking mounting that thing when I told you that you were on the intercept team?”
“Twenty pounds is nothing, Sarge. I’ll be fine, don’t worry about it. Might come in handy, you never know what’ll happen. Besides, we really don’t have time for me to reequip, we’re trying to make a deadline, remember?”
She screamed in frustration and slugged me across the face with a hoof. “You’re not off the hook, Airpony. I’ll make sure you’re charged with insubordination for this.” She hovered into the air while I stood there massaging my sore cheek before turning to gesture at all of us to take off and follow. “All right everypony, we’ve got a rebel to kill! Move out!”
It took us two hours at a fairly decent clip to get to Cyclonus. Even pushing it as we were, it was nearly sundown by the time we got there. The city itself was spectacular, and without a doubt one-of-a-kind. Cyclonus, as its name implied, was a city built upon an eternal hurricane. A marvel of modern pegasi engineering, it utilized the power of the Equestrian tower network to sustain itself, and, when it wasn't out over the ocean, it very rarely passed over Equestria's west coast on a slow, lazy orbit. This was one of those times, and we were using the opportunity to strike in a timely fashion. As for the city itself? It was a sprawling metropolis fashioned out of clouds that stretched for miles in every direction, completely encircling the eye of the artificial storm. It was certainly the biggest city I’d ever been to, and I paused a moment to take it all in, gazing at it with complete awe.
As I looked down at the massive, bustling city, I could see some pegasi walking its many roads, and others flying between the buildings as they went about their daily business. Most looked to be on their way home from work, given their attire and the time of day, but as we passed slowly over the city, I could notice a lot of them peeling off to head towards the eye- the city center.
“Follow them,” Storm Watch said, pointing a hoof at just such a group of ponies, “they’ll lead us right to where we need to be. Stay sharp, we want to avoid being spotted by anypony in Vortex’s security detail.”
We glided after them as carefully and stealthily as we could, keeping high and to the shadows when possible. More and more ponies funneled into the already high amount of traffic headed into the core of the city as we got closer to the target. Just when I thought the amount of buildings couldn’t possibly get denser, they suddenly halted to give way to a large park in the very middle of the city. It was in this very park that the citizens of Cyclonus had begun to assemble, a massive crowd on the ground in front of a stage, and even more hovering above them, waiting for their chance to listen to Vortex come to speak.
“All right, troopers, here we are. Maverick, Goose, I want you two to set up on that building over there, you’ll have a clear line of sight to the target. Remember, Vortex is royal blue with a green mane. His cutie mark is an Ouroboros, the serpent that devours its own tail.” They nodded affirmation and complied immediately, heading off to perch themselves on a large building just south of the park, opposite the direction of the stage. “As for us, we’re going to spread out and cover every other direction. I’ll get north, Duster, you take west, and Mach, you get east. Unless you have something absolutely vital to report, maintain radio silence until Maverick takes the shot.”
We split up, and I headed east while Duster and Storm Watch headed off in their respective cardinal directions. Landing gently on a building, I placed myself in a spot where I would have a good view of the stage so I’d be able to see this scene play out for myself. I didn’t have long to wait, and I watched curiously as I saw the very leader of the Vortex Rebellions, Ardent Vortex himself, trot across the stage to a small podium.
“Thank you,” he said over the thundering amount of hoofbeats the audience was making by way of applause, his voice amplified by the microphone on the podium carrying all the way up to where I stood. “Thank you, everypony; I’m glad you could make it out to the rally today. As you no doubt know, I’ve come to speak to you all about a matter of great importance. The Enclave government, the council themselves, would have you all believe that the Wasteland is uninhabitable. A desolate, barren, inhospitable land that is incapable of supporting life. I am here today to tell you that that is most certainly not the case. Ponies yet survive down there, making a living any way that they possibly can. The Enclave hides this information from you. They are all aware of the fact that it is more than possible to live in the Wasteland, and have been burying the information to keep you happy in your ignorance.”
Tch, this guy was spouting nothing but lies and slander and the idiots were drinking it up without any objection whatsoever. He hadn’t even provided proof, and yet they were all willing to eat out of his hoof just from his charismatic nature alone. The council was going to have to do a lot of damage control after this one.
“I am here today to open your eyes. The truth may hurt, my fellow pegasi brethren, but only for a moment, and it is far better than living in the dark all your lives. What should we do in light of this information?” He continued on as the crowd murmured amongst themselves. “The answer is simple. We retake the Wasteland by force. Those who do not comply will be crushed underhoof. The world will realize the strength of the mighty pegasi population; we will spread out to claim what is rightfully ours. It was we, guided by the glorious Commander Hurricane many, many years ago, who provided weather for the pathetic earth ponies to grow their crops. It was we, during the Great War, who provided the backbone of the Equestrian Military. And it was also we who closed up the skies to deny the rest of the world that most precious of resources- the very sun itself. With the princesses gone, we are the dominant pony race in the world, and we have every right to conquer and reshape it as we see fit.”
Ugh, this guy was making me sick. Why hadn’t Maverick taken the shot yet? I looked over to where he and Goose had set up, and immediately groaned in frustration. Goose, Maverick’s spotter, hadn’t put a filter on his scope. I could see the glare clear over from where I was standing, which meant anypony covering Vortex would be able to as well. Damn it, this was why you didn’t send a group of green recruits on such an important mission. “Goose!” I snarled into my radio, “Put a stars-damned filter on before Maverick takes the shot!”
I was too late. As I turned back to watch the stage, I saw a bodyguard swoop out of the sky and ram into Vortex, throwing him to the ground and protecting him as Maverick’s rifle cracked out, sending a bullet straight through the spot where Vortex had been standing not a moment before.
“Damn it! I’ll do it myself!”
I hopped up on the lip of the building and took aim at Vortex and the bodyguard shielding him. One shot from the plasma cannon would annihilate the both of them. I fidgeted impatiently as the cannon built up enough charge to fire, loosing the shot immediately once it had reached critical levels. The travel time left something to be desired, and the bodyguard had swept Vortex away behind the stage while it was still in flight. At least the explosion was pretty; a massive green fireball crackling with bolts of discharging energy detonated as it hit the stage by the podium, tearing a massive chunk out of the cloud, causing the crowd of panicking onlookers to flee in terror.
“Get ready intercept team, they’ll be flying away from here any minute now,” I heard Storm Watch say through my radio. They did sure enough, only there was a small problem. “Damn it! Body doubles!” Indeed they were. Three identical Vortices shot up from behind the stage and streaked off in three different directions. “Get your asses in gear, team! Everypony pick one and stick to him like shit to a blanket!”
Hitting the quick release on my battle saddle, I left the cannon behind with a massive thud as I rounded on the double nearest me. I hauled ass after him as he fled the scene, taking a second to glance at Duster and Storm Watch heading off after their own respective targets.
“Oho, you got picked by the wrong pony, buddy-boy,” I said with a grin as I poured on the speed while he fled for his life, or for Vortex’s life if he was just a double, closing the distance in a surprisingly short amount of time. With another quick burst of speed I rammed hard into his back and drove him to the ground, using him as a sled to slide along the clouds to a halt. I flipped him over when we came to a complete stop, rolling my eyes when I met the defiant glare of a body double.
He looked me up and down and spat in my face. “Figures. Enclave sends a strike team to take out Ardent Vortex. Where are the Wonderbolts, eh? Is our leader not important enough to at least garner the attention of the most lethal group of pegasi assassins ever founded?”
“Jeez, you’re just as long-winded as your deluded leader,” I said, injecting as much scorn into my voice as I could before punching him hard enough across the face to render him unconscious.
“This is Sergeant Storm Watch, I require assistance! This one is too damn crafty for me, he’s all over the skies and I really don’t want to lose him. I think he might be the one.”
“Mach responding,” I said into my mouthpiece, “Duster, stay on your target, I’ve already dealt with mine- it was only a double. Sergeant, I’m en route to your position, just hang on until I can get there.” Shooting into the sky as fast as I could, I rocketed off in the direction I’d seen Storm Watch and her target heading off in. I’d caught my target relatively quickly; I still had time to catch up before they got too far away.
The buildings of Cyclonus dropped away beneath me as I passed into the city outskirts. Where the hell was this guy headed? Out in the middle of nowhere was the last place he should have wanted to be, especially with a team of assassins after him. Unless… I gasped with sudden realization. Trap!
I was about to radio in and warn the Sergeant when she and Vortex came into view beneath me. They’d landed and were now circling each other on the ground. As I headed towards them, Vortex shot forward with a surprising blur of speed and seized Storm Watch’s head before she could react, giving a quick jerk and twist, snapping her neck.
“Sarge, no!” I dove faster, propelled by my fury, and smashed right into Vortex, sending us both sprawling to the ground. “You motherfucker, you’re going to pay for that,” I snarled as I dragged myself to my hooves and stalked towards where he lay on the ground.
Vortex did a graceful backflip off of the ground as I got closer to him, flipping two more times to increase the distance between us. “Oh that’s rich, coming from one of the ponies who came here to assassinate me. Tell me, did you enjoy my speech? Were you enlightened, or are you too pigheaded and set in your ways to see the obvious truth as it stares you in the face?”
“Nothing but a bunch of bullshit lies and propaganda to rally ponies to your insane cause. You’re just like every other dictator who comes along with grand aspirations of world domination. You’re a fucking joke, no better than a comic-book villain, and I’ll be doing the world a favor by killing you.”
I expected him to brush me off and gloat. What I wasn’t expecting was for him to wind up beside himself with anger.
“Lies? Lies!? You think I’m feeding all these ponies a line? Well I’ve got news for you, trooper. It’s all true, and I’m going to open your eyes for you.”
He shot forward with the same surprising amount of speed he’d used to kill Storm Watch and pulled one of my forelegs behind my back, incapacitating me. I waited for the killing blow, but it didn’t come. Instead, he reached out with a hoof to part a hole in the clouds, and forced my head down to look through it. What I saw made me gasp in shock.
There were ponies down there. Milling about in a little town, going about their lives. I saw ponies tending to the little ramshackle houses they’d built on the irradiated ground, sowing fields in a vain attempt to get anything to grow with the lack of sunlight and unpredictable rain. I saw little foals playing excitedly in the dirt roads in the center of the small town, making the most out of their miserable situation. Then, as quickly as I had been able to take it all in, it was destroyed before my very eyes. I watched in horror as a group of savage looking ponies armed to the teeth rolled in and systematically murdered the entirety of the town, taking no prisoners as they moved through it in a massive wave of death and destruction.
“So…” Vortex whispered into my ear. “Do you understand, now that you’ve seen it with your own eyes? It is possible to live down there, and as the only remaining bastion of civilization left in the world, the Wasteland rightfully belongs to us.”
Hidden as I was by the cloud he’d forced my head through, I moved slowly for my knife. Okay, so he’d been right about the fact that ponies could survive in the Wasteland. That didn’t mean that we had the right to conquer it. If anything, those poor Wasteland ponies needed help from whatever it was those savage ponies were.
“What do you say?” he continued to whisper in my ear. “Now that you’ve been enlightened, would you care to join my organization? I’m always looking for new recruits; I could use a pony like you.”
Okay. I took a few deep breaths, steeling myself for what I was about to do. Okay, it was now or never. I’d only get one chance at this. In one fluid motion, I slid my knife clear of its sheath and whirled, breaking the hold Vortex had on me and plunging it straight into his chest. I jumped back as he stared down at it in shock, blood slowly beginning to soak through and spread across his tailored suit. He stumbled drunkenly forward, which was incredibly odd looking considering how agile he’d been before I’d stabbed him, and fell right through the hole he’d made for my viewing pleasure. I watched with grim satisfaction as he dropped away out of sight, looking over my shoulder at where Storm Watch’s corpse lay.
“That was for the Sergeant, you psychopathic zealot.”
Walking glumly over to where she lay dead, I stooped to close Storm Watch’s eyes and retrieve her ID tags. “Sorry, Sarge. I should’ve been faster.” I turned with a start as I heard somepony land behind me, relaxing when I saw it was only Duster.
“Got mine. He was jus’ a double, figgered y’ could use a li’l help considerin’ what the Sarge said.” He grimaced and shook his head when he saw me crouched by her corpse. “Dang, wasn’t expectin’ there t’ be any casualties on this here mission, thought we’d get out o’ it in one piece.” Sweeping his hat off, he held it solemnly to his breast. “So long, Sarge. It was a good run, ma’am.” He patted me on the back and dragged me to my hooves. “No time fer mopin’. Need y’ t’ get yer head back in the game, Hoss. Y’ gotta step up now that we’re down a squad leader.”
I hung my head and stared at my hooves. “Duster, I can’t take command, we’re all the same rank. Nopony outranks anypony in this squad, we’ll fall apart if somepony starts giving orders. You and I both know Maverick isn’t going to listen to a word I say.”
“Well now, reckon that might be true, but yer the only one o’ us who has command experience.”
Rolling my eyes, I sighed in exasperation. “Duster, I washed out of Officer Training School, remember? We went and got plastered afterward and I lost two teeth to that redheaded orange mare I called out after she said she could throw a punch just as well as the next buck.”
“Some experience is better’n none, far as Ah see it. Look, somepony’s got t’ step up ‘till we get back t’ base. Don’t matter if y’ don’t want the position, ‘cause we’ll prob’ly end up with a new squad leader once we make it back. Jus’ take over fer now, ‘till we make it back, all right?”
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay. All right, I get the picture. Maverick, Goose, report in,” I demanded into my radio, “Regroup with the squad so we can go home, the target’s been eliminated.”
“Copy that,” I heard Goose return, “we’re falling back to your position now; it’s getting a little hot over here anyway.”
“Come on,” I said to Duster, taking off and streaking back towards the park, “let’s meet them halfway and get their backs.”
We flew back towards the park with all due haste, eyes on the lookout for the sniper team. The city just started to slip back into view when we caught up with them, a group of Vortex’s security detail in hot pursuit.
“Okay troopers,” I said as they drew closer with their trail of hostiles, “evasive action, you know the drill.” I dove, leading the squad on a tight series of high speed twists and turns through the city in our desperation to shake our tail. I couldn’t spare a glance behind me with maneuvers this complex, requiring all of my concentration so I didn’t end up plowing into a building or a lamp post, so I just hoped they could keep up with me as I weaved through back alleys and sidestreets.
“I think we lost ‘em, Mach,” I heard Maverick say in my earpiece.
“Maverick? Since when are we on cooperative terms?” I replied in complete disbelief.
“Since I realized you know what you’re doing by bitching Goose out for not having his scope filter equipped. And, y’know, killing the rebel leader. First round is on me when we get back, you can buy the rest.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said with a grin as we made our way back to base, the mission accomplished and our pursuit left in the dust.
“What? Dad, come on, you can’t do this to me!” The moment we’d gotten back to base, my father had been there waiting for me, and he’d whisked me off to speak in private.
“I have made my decision, Airpony, and it is final. You will report for training first thing in the morning.” My father said with a tone of finality. Only with me it was never final. I refused to give him the satisfaction.
“Dad- General, you can’t just push me off into Reconnaissance. I killed a rebel leader, stopped an insurrection, you should be proud of me! Come on, it’s all I’ve ever wanted, and you’ve held me back since I was old enough to enlist in the military. Why invest all that practice time with me if you were only going to force me to squander my talents?”
“No son of mine is going to be a Wonderbolt, do you hear me? That is final! Putting on airshows like a bunch of frivolous degenerates; unbelievable. A good military pony does what he is ordered to do and nothing more, which is exactly what you should be doing by following my orders. Which are to report to Reconnaissance training in the morning. It was where your aptitude test placed you, and I allowed you to try your hoof at being a normal infantry pony. I can clearly see that was a big mistake.”
“Wha-? how do you figure? The mission was a success, I killed the target! I completed the objective!” Ugh, he always found something to nitpick about! He could never just be happy with the positive side of things.
“Because you jettisoned your Enclave military-issue plasma cannon in hostile territory, the entirety of Vortex’s loyal followers now know that it was a government-sanctioned action. Do you have any idea of the political shitstorm you’ve stirred up for us? If you’d followed your orders and equipped yourself accordingly, you would have been able to retain your gear and still give pursuit much earlier than when you did. Your insubordination got your squad leader killed, and put the stability of our government in jeopardy. Do you see now the importance of following orders, Mach?”
“That’s not fair, Dad. You can’t settle the blame squarely on my shoulders for that. Goose alerted the bodyguard to Maverick’s presence with his incompetence- something I noticed, in case you’ve forgotten. Besides, I was part of the intercept team, it was my job to chase the target down if he fled, which was exactly what I did.”
“Irrelevant. Whether or not you were a part of the sniper team did not hamper your ability to equip accordingly. An ounce of foresight would have prevented the entire thing from happening. Now, once again. Report for training at oh-five-hundred hours in the morning. Dismissed.”
I scoffed and whirled on the spot, not saluting, not saying “yes, sir”, not caring anymore. All I wanted to do at that point was get so drunk I wouldn’t remember a stars-damned thing in the morning, and that’s exactly what I going to do.
Oh, yeah. Well, it was all certainly starting to make sense now. Years ago Ardent Vortex had been rallying ponies from his home city, and all other cities in the Enclave who would listen to his propaganda. Now that he’d been presumed dead, who the hell was he planning to use to overthrow the Enclave with? It had to have something to do with that civilian convoy and the raider encampment. Could it really be that simple, though? He was one hell of a public speaker, but I doubt he could get raiders to follow his command. Even if he could, there wouldn’t be any way to get them to walk on clouds in order to assault the Enclave in the first place.
I groaned as my wings throbbed with pain, completely derailing my train of thought. This was something I’d have to think about when I was out of here. If I ever could get out of here, that is. Taking a look around my holding cell, I noted its features. Sturdy brick construction, reinforced steel barred door with matching window, hanging cot and a toilet. Standard holding cell equipment and completely impenetrable in my current state. Sighing with depression, I let my head flop back to the ground and went back to wallowing in despair. Wallowing was much easier than plotting escape.
See how quick he is to give up when the path ahead becomes fraught with difficulty? Is that really a subject worthy of pursuit?
Oh no, not this crap again. Ever since I’d been thrown in here, I’d been hearing whispers in my head.
We are not looking for somepony who will remain steadfast when faced with complications. All we need is a pony who understands complex military doctrines and procedures, a working knowledge of weaponry and complex tactics to serve as an advisor to the true leader- a lieutenant if you will.
And that talent of his... so useful! We cannot foolishly allow such a valuable resource to be wasted.
“Oh stars, shut up! Shut the fuck up, get out of my head!” I screamed, trying to block the voices out by pressing my hooves tightly to my ears.
I was provided with something much more effective at blocking the noise out as my cell was rocked with the force of an explosion. It was chased with additional detonations, and eventually joined by sporadic gunfire. Was somepony actually trying to bust my ass out of here, or was that just wishful thinking? Who in their right mind would attack a base full of Steel Rangers if they didn’t have a good reason?
Waiting in silence, as that was really the only option available to me, I tried to pick out any distinguishing clues in the myriad of sounds assaulting me. If only I had the ScoutBuck, I’d be able to intercept Steel Ranger communications and find out what the hell was going on… My ear perked up and I oriented it accordingly as I heard voices filtering in through the window.
“Tracker says it’s in here. Stand back, I’m going to put a breaching charge on the wall,” I heard one say.
“Will it kill him if he’s in there? We didn’t come all this way for nothing,” said another; female.
“Nah, it’ll just pelt him with a bunch of rock, won’t be enough to kill him. Might sting a bit, though,” the first one replied.
Using context clues, I shielded my head with my forelegs as the wall beneath the window blew out in a shower of rubble and debris. When the smoke and dust cleared, I looked up at the hole in the wall, feeling my heart skip a beat when I saw who it was.
“Hey. Came to get you out of… whoa, holy shit, what the hell happened to you?!”
My eyebrows threatened to shoot right up off of my head when I saw Greaser peeking out from behind Razorbeak. What the hell was she doing here? I told that buzzard to make sure she stayed safe! When she got a good look at me, broken and bloodied as I was, she immediately tried to push past the griffon, reaching for a healing potion as she did so.
“No,” he said, holding out a massive claw to stop her from reaching me with the potion. “You have to leave him for now until I can set those bones properly. If you give that to him before I do, they’ll heal the way they are and he’ll never fly again.”
“You’re a griffon mercenary leader and a medic? Now I’ve seen everything.” Oh good, I could still manage sarcasm. Glad to see Brawn hadn’t broken that when he’d beaten the stuffing out of me.
“Yeah. Are you familiar with the term ‘sawbones’?” He said, unable to keep a grin off of his face.
Oh stars, no.
“Now,” he said, lifting me gently and placing me upon his massive back, “tell me how the hell you ended up in such rough shape. You’re lucky pegasi wings are so resilient, if a griffon had his wings smashed up that bad, he’d never fly again a day in his life, no matter how many healing potions he slugged down.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” I replied incredulously. “Didn’t you see them on your way in? I was captured and tortured by Steel Rangers; this place is crawling with them!”
“Um…” Greaser said cautiously, speaking up for the first time since we’d spoken back in the OEQ tower. “There… there weren’t any Steel Rangers here, mate. The place was completely empty except for some raiders who were about to check the place out.”
I glared down at her from my spot on Razorbeak’s back, reading the worry and confusion on her face. “You think I’ve gone off the deep end, don’t you? Look, I’m not crazy. I was captured and tortured by Steel Rangers and left to rot in that cell because I didn’t have the information they wanted. Is that so hard to believe?” I paused to gauge their reactions. They looked at each other and Razorbeak gave a small shrug. “Whatever, I’m not going to complain. Just get me the fuck out of here.”
Razorbeak nodded, stepping out through the hole he’d blown in the wall and scooping up Greaser carefully in his claws before launching himself into the sky. I watched the ground blow past miserably from Razorbeak’s back, sighing as his wing came up to buffet my face with every flap. Flying as a passenger was no fun, now I knew why Greaser had detested the ride so much. To my surprise, we were already in the city of Buckston itself, and we were departing from an old police station. If they'd gone through the trouble to bring me all the way back to the city, why hadn’t the Rangers just taken me to Fortress Hill at that point? Maybe it was my assault on the convoy, and they wanted to keep me as far away from their territory as possible just in case I managed to escape.
Razorbeak made his way expediently over to the OEQ tower, landing atop it and depositing Greaser before heading over to the roof access. We packed into the elevator and it jerked sharply downwards as Razorbeak hit the button for the first sublevel floor.
When the doors parted, we were thrown into a veritable whirlwind of activity. Ponies and griffons were constantly rushing from place to place, and grievously injured mercs were being pushed along on stretchers to ICUs, while the lesser wounded ones leaned against walls or sat on the floor, waiting their turn in the triage queue. A fully functioning hospital within a mercenary headquarters? Razorbeak was prepared for any possible contingency, and I said as much to him.
“Well, the thing is,” he said as he rushed me off to be cared for, Greaser hot on his heels. “This here hospital wing ain’t just for us. We treat anyone in Buckston that needs medical aid. This is Sanctuary Memorial Hospital. Well, that’s what we call it, anyway. It was never a hospital to begin with. C’mere, you,” he said as we passed by a pony wearing nurse’s scrubs, and dragged him along by his scruff into an operating room. “Get me the anesthesiologist. This will be incredibly painful if he’s conscious for it.”
The nurse pony nodded and trotted off, returning shortly with another pony in tow, his cutie mark resembling a cylindrical tank of some sort.
I hissed with pain as Razorbeak set me down on an operating table as gently as he could, and immediately everypony started bustling around me. They started sticking all sorts of electrodes and tubes to me, and the anesthesiologist pony slapped a mask over my muzzle and told me to start counting backwards from ten. I managed to get to eight when everything suddenly faded into blackness.
It took a major amount of effort to peel my eyes back open when I regained consciousness, they felt as if they were made of lead. I looked myself up and down when I finally managed to keep them open, noticing that my wings had been splinted and bandaged, and my chest was tied up tight as well. I wasn’t feeling all that great, but at least I didn’t feel like walking death anymore.
“Oh, you’re awake.”
I jumped in my bed when I heard Greaser speak from beside me. “Stars, don’t do that! You almost gave me a heart attack. That’s the last thing I need right now, don’t you think?”
“Sorry,” she replied sheepishly. “Look, I was worried sick about you, mate. You were gone two days with no way of contacting you, and when we finally found you you’d been beaten to a bloody pulp. I’m glad to see you pulled through it okay.”
“It’s good that you’re here,” I replied in a businesslike manner, completely ignoring her concern for me. “I’ve got something I need to talk to you about.”
“Oh, yeah? Go on, then. Let’s hear it.”
“I want you to take a good look at me and then seriously consider your decision to travel with me. Think long and hard about how fucked up I am right now, and then tell me you’re willing to end up in a hospital bed just by following me around. Remember what I said about what the Enclave would do if they captured a unicorn poking around their territory? Well, that goes double for an Enclave pegasus poking around Steel Ranger territory. Put yourself in my horseshoes for a minute and tell me again that it’s a good idea to tag along.”
“I made up my mind ages ago, mate,” she replied, her expression set in determination. “I’m in this for the long haul. You’re stuck with me whether you bloody well like it or not.”
I sighed in frustration; she just wasn’t getting it. “But I still don’t see why. You have to have some reason or another. Nopony in their right mind sees such a perfect example of pain and misery and thinks: ‘oh wow, I’ve gotta get me some of that.’”
She shifted awkwardly in her seat by my bed, poking two hooves together meekly. “Well if you must know, it’s because I- I think you’re kinda… cute.”
I facehooved and gave her a level look. “That is the most ridiculous, silliest excuse for becoming a traveling companion I’ve ever heard in my life. I suppose the next thing you’ll tell me is that the reason I woke up the other day with your nose pressed to mine is because you had been kissing me while I was out cold.”
She looked down at the floor, and I watched with horror as her face grew redder than mine.
“Greaser!” What the hell! Creepy, much?
“Look, I- you’re just- you’re exotic, okay? I couldn’t help myself! How many pegasi do I see in the Wasteland? You’re the first, if you’ll believe it, and you’re not half-bad looking.”
“So what, because I’m not a unicorn, I fulfill some kind of fetish for you? Greaser, I was old enough to be your father ten years ago,” I said, incredulous.
“Funny you should say that, because that’s the first time I laid eyes on you. Ten years ago, and you were a real looker back then. You age pretty gracefully, mate.”
“Horseapples,” I spat, my guard springing up immediately. “I would’ve been living above the clouds still. There’s no possible way you would’ve been able to see me.”
She looked up and smiled at me with a devious ‘I know something you don’t know’ grin. “Break the sound barrier lately?”
“How do you know about that!?” I yelled, grabbing her by her maintenance barding and hauling her close so we were eye to eye. “Are you a spy? Only two ponies know I can fly faster than the speed of sound, one of them being me, and the other one is an Enclave General.”
“Make that three ponies,” Greaser said coyly, “When I was a little filly, I came to the Equestrian Mainland from Sydneigh overseas. When we got here, mum, dad and I booked passage with a caravan to find somewhere to settle down. One night, while I was supposed to be asleep, I was just lying on my back, staring up at the sky. Why, I can’t say; nothing worth watching up there, really. I guess I was hoping I’d get lucky enough to see the moon and stars for once. Anyway, that was the first time I saw you, mate. This will probably sound corny, but the moment I set eyes on you, it was like somepony had let loose a swarm of butterflies in my stomach. I watched with breathless awe as I saw this brash young pegasus buck, maybe twice my age at the time, fly so fast I could barely keep my eyes on him. I remember thinking what a damn shame it was, because it made it that much harder to ogle you while you were swooping about up there.”
Oh sweet Cygnus, talk about awkward.
“Then I heard it- a rumble like thunder, and all of a sudden you were nothing but a red streak bolting across the sky too bloody fast for me to track. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen in my life, and I watched as you did it again and again, clearly pouring your heart into your practice. I admired that about you. Your determination. When I saw you hit by that artillery strike outside the carriage service station, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, what are the odds we'd meet face-to-face, here of all places, after never having met in person before? One-in-a-bloody-million? There was no way I was going to pass up the chance to travel with the pony I’d seen all those years ago.”
Rainboom practice. She’d seen me running drills with my father in secrecy, just under the clouds so nopony in the Enclave would catch on. “You saw me practicing my rainbooms, huh?” I glared at nopony in particular; the memories of rainboom practice weren’t pleasant. The experience had been invaluable, but with my father as a coach, it sure as hell hadn’t been fun. “I suppose that also means you heard my father screaming at me about my sluggish acceleration.”
“Yeah… I remember you telling me back at the mall that he gave you a hard time about your cutie mark. I take it you two didn’t get along very well.”
“No, we didn’t.” And that was all I said on that matter. “So,” I said eventually, “how the hell did you and Razorbeak find me, and how did you even get him to help you in the first place? As far as I can remember, he hated my guts and wasn’t likely to help me unless I solved his little problem with the Enclave and Rangers.”
“I’ll field that question,” Razorbeak said, and I looked up to see him standing in the doorway to my room. “Your little engineer pal had me hide a tracking device in your barding. I slipped it into one of your pockets when I handed your pistol back before you left the other day. As for my help, well, that’s why I’m here, as a matter of fact. I’ve come to discuss the recompense for my favor.”
“Greaser, you didn’t ask Razorbeak to help me as a favor, did you?” Oh, please say no. Please, please, please.
“Well I didn’t have enough money to hire him! I had to do something! I couldn’t just leave you out there, Mach; you could’ve been hurt or dead. You were hurt! Badly!”
Oh stars, why? “Greaser, do you realize what you’ve done? Now that he’s done us a favor, we’re in his debt, and he can have us do whatever the hell he wants until he decides its been paid back in full. That’s how mercenaries operate; a favor for a favor, a contract, verbal or written, is binding.”
“Bingo,” Razorbeak said as he strode up to us. “Now, benevolent as I am, I’m going to let you rest up before I decide to put you to work. Believe me, with injuries that bad, you’re going to need it. Fortunately for you, however, I’m going to let you go after just one job, but it’s a fairly important one.”
I let my head flop back against the pillow and sighed in exasperation. Well, worse things had happened in the past couple of days, so I’d be lying if I said I was worried whatever he had in store would be too much to handle. Besides, I’d have my trusty battle saddle back, and Rattler and the coilgun would be eager to spill some blood again.
“All right old-timer, whatever you have can’t possibly be as bad as my day was yesterday. Do your worst.”
Footnote: Level up.
New Perk: Tenacity - The brutal assaults on your body have made you that much tougher. When your HP drops below 25%, your DR doubles.
As always, thanks to Kkat for the brilliant story that is Fallout: Equestria, and thank you to my readers for sticking it out with me thus far. I know it can't be easy to deal with an infrequent update schedule, but take solace in the fact that the next update is always in progress unless I say otherwise. Thanks to all my readers who leave comments- even a few words of inspiration does wonders for me. For anyone who may be on the fence about leaving a comment, go for it, I won't bite! Any questions you guys have, I will do my best to answer (unless of course the answer would be a spoiler), so don't be afraid to leave a question or comment!