Chapter 9: Need for Speed
“I can handle it,” I reassured myself.
I hesitated for a split-second, looking down at the small object I held in my hoof, my conscience at war with my common sense as I steeled myself for what I was about to do. It took a great deal to damage my calm, but with my friend dying on my back, I was in full-on panic mode, which wasn’t making this decision any easier on me.
When all was said and done, though, it was my fault. I’d been the one to let Vortex get under my skin. I’d been the one who’d taken that step forward, even knowing full well that he’d told Crosswind to shoot Greaser if either one of us so much as sneezed. His orders had been deliberate and calculated. Vortex knew threatening to shoot me wouldn’t have given me even the slightest pause, but threatening people I cared about most certainly would. He’d seen my reaction when he’d killed Storm Watch eight years ago. He knew precisely how to ruffle my feathers.
It had been among the many drugs and chems we’d looted from the pharmaceutical plant with the intent to sell for caps, and I now held a small inhaler of it in my hoof. I remembered what Greaser had told me of it when we’d found it laced into Maize’s produce shipment. A highly addictive stimulant, but with the benefits of allowing the user to think and move faster. Keyword: Move. Using it would be admitting failure and going against everything I stood for, but we were a long way from Sanctuary and in light of recent events, I couldn’t fly fast enough to get her there in time. Besides, I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that a very small part of me wanted this.
I whipped my neck around to look at the poor mare as she shuddered and drew in a ragged breath with a horrifying rasp. She’d gone into shock nearly the moment she’d been struck by the laser blast. Listening to her struggling for breath was all the motivation I needed. Shoving my frenzied thoughts to the back of my mind, I raised the inhaler to my mouth, hesitating for only a moment before spraying its contents into my lungs.
The effects of the Dash were near instantaneous, and the inhaler dropped from my hoof as I began to twitch, every one of my muscles quivering and feeling like a tightly coiled spring, the incredible tension ready to release at a moment’s notice. My thoughts started to race again, twice as fast as before, and my entire world slid into sharper, clearer focus, the increased saturation making everything that much more colorful, causing even the most miniscule and insignificant details to pop out at me.
What a rush! I felt… good. No, good was underselling it. I felt great. I felt like I could fly at top speed for days on end, like I could circle the globe in minutes. Holding my outstretched hoof up in front of my face, I waved it about, marveling as it appeared to blur, an afterimage trailing after it as I flailed it experimentally. Time to see if this shit was worth the risk. I wanted to see what it could really do. Oh yeah, and Greaser was still dying. Best not to lose sight of the objective.
“I feel the need…” I began as I galloped out of the pharmaceutical plant’s main doors, “the need… for speed!” I threw back my head, cackling like a lunatic, giddy with the euphoric high the Dash had given me and launched into the air, taking off like a bat out of hell towards Sanctuary.
Everything became a blur as I sped up; the ground became a big brown smudge beneath me and nearly my entire range of vision save a small cone in front of me turned into a distorted streak of unrecognizable colors.
A thought lingered at the very back of my mind, fighting to make itself understood in the jumble of other thoughts racing about madly in my chem-addled state. It was tough to lock down, and like a minnow against the tide, it fought fruitlessly and was quickly washed away by the sheer amount of things that were much less important, like my complete fixation on how fast I was going and how much I was enjoying it.
What the thought had been became immediately apparent when I felt a weight leave my back. Stars alive, how could I have been so stupid? With Greaser injured and unconscious, there was no way for the little mare to hold on to me. Going as fast as I was, there was no way she’d be able to remain there without some way of anchoring herself.
I dived straight down as she plummeted behind me, my vision rapidly tinting with red as I fought against the steadily increasing g-forces my body was sustaining. Clenching as many muscles as I could, I did all I could to keep the blood from rushing straight to my head so I wouldn’t completely red out and die before I managed to pull up.
Rolling so that I was facing back in the direction from which I’d come and towards the falling mare, I swooped under Greaser to intercept her fall as I passed by her, catching her in both forelegs before completing the loop, reorienting towards Sanctuary and rolling once again so that I was no longer inverted. If the ScoutBuck’s clock was any indication, the whole maneuver in its entirety had taken no longer than two seconds.
Further motivated now that Greaser’s injured, unconscious form was right in front of me instead of out of sight and mind on my back, I tried pushing it a little harder, checking the ScoutBuck’s map as I did so. I still had a long way to fly, and even though the waypoint that indicated my current position was streaking across the map nearly too fast for the ScoutBuck to track, I still wasn’t going fast enough to make it in time.
I tried to go faster. Really, I did. But every time I approached that critical threshold, I reflexively backed off to avoid a repeat performance of failure. Even with the Dash boosting my speed and confidence, I just couldn’t get over the mental block I’d built up after flubbing the rainboom so many times.
Subtle movement. A weak cough from the little unicorn mare.
“Mach…? Where… where are we? What happened?”
I almost dropped the kid again in shock. “Greaser! Thankthestarsyou’restillalive,” I rambled, unable to keep my words from running into each other as I spoke. When I tried again it was with great effort to keep my words concise and understandable. “You got shot. Taking you back to Razorbeak. Don’t talk; rest. You have to hang in there for me; I can’t get us there any faster than this. I’ll make you a deal. You promise to stay alive, and I’ll tell you my cutie mark story when you’re all better.”
“You promise?” She said, looking up at me, those big green eyes full of pain. She was putting on a brave face, to be sure. That wound was probably causing her agony.
“My hoof to Polaris,” I swore.
“I… I’d like that…” her voice, quiet in the howling wind, grew even quieter as she slipped back out of consciousness, and her chest ceased to rise again.
“No! No, damn it! I’m not going to lose you!”
Even supersonic, it would still take me nearly two minutes to make it back to Sanctuary and the OEQ tower. That was just enough, if not less than the amount of time it would take for her to start sustaining brain damage. Scared or not, I needed to step it up if I wanted to get her out of this alive. On my own I was too slow, but with the Dash, I had more than enough power to do what needed to be done. All I needed to do was try.
Push! My inner pony screamed at me. Push, push, push it faster! I did just that, steadily accelerating until I was on the verge of reaching supersonic speed. I could feel the air start to push back at me, the intangible entity that was the sound barrier mocking me as I tried to pluck up the courage to attack it once more.
Not this time, I thought to myself as I sped up further still, and the familiar halo of condensation (Ooh, pretty!) exploded outward from where I had Greaser’s limp body clutched tightly in my forehooves.
“I did it!” I said with utter bewilderment. “I did it! All I need is Dash!” My joy faded as the thought began to sink in. “All… all I need is… is Dash…” A dark, depressing fact, but this wasn’t about me, damn it. Greaser needed help, and I’d take the Dash again in a heartbeat if it meant I’d get her to Razorbeak in time.
A minute passed, Greaser still wasn’t breathing, and the city of Buckston rose into view on the skyline as I pushed myself to the limit in order to reach it in time. My heart pounded with nervous anticipation as the huge tower loomed ever closer, though maybe that was just the Dash. I wanted to save as much time as possible, so instead of landing on the roof, I arrowed towards the huge plate glass windows of Razorbeak’s office, the ones that overlooked the city from just behind his desk.
Wrapping myself protectively around the little mare, I curled into a ball as we hurtled through the enormous window, huge shards of glass showering me and cutting every exposed inch of my skin as I glanced off of Razorbeak’s desk and tumbled roughly to the floor. The resounding thunderclap of noise following in my wake blew out every subsequent window in the office and shook the room around us.
“What the fuck!?” Razorbeak squawked from somewhere behind me as I disentangled myself from Greaser and got unsteadily to my hooves, the combination of adrenaline and Dash making me shake like a leaf. “Thought I was under attack. What the fuck is wrong with you, Red? Can’t you use the door like a normal person?”
“Razorbeak!” I shot over to where he stood by his desk, accompanied by his subordinate, Shotgun, both examining the empty windowframes I’d shattered to pieces. “Razorbeak, it’s Greaser! She got shot, you have to help her! Help her, help her!” I yelled with urgency, hopping repeatedly up and down to punctuate my sentences.
He looked over to where her body lay on the floor, then back to me, glaring at me with contempt. Could he tell I was high? Did he blame me for it if he could? He’d be right to level accusation, but that was for the wrong reason entirely. If he was going to be pissed off at me I wanted it to be because I fucked up, not because I’d done everything possible to make up for my mistake.
“Magnus,” he said to Shotgun, not taking his eyes off of me, “get the kid down to the ICU. Stabilize her, I’ll be down to take care of it momentarily.”
Shotgun- Magnus- nodded, scooping Greaser up gently, and I turned to follow him as he made his way toward the elevator.
“Whoa, where the fuck do you think you’re going, Red?” Razorbeak said, flying over from where he’d been standing by his desk and landing in front of me to block my passage.
“I want to be with her. This is my fault, and the very least I can do is be by her side for this. She was there for me when I was bedridden, now it’s my turn to do it for her.” I went to move around him, but he stopped me, holding me back with a claw.
“You’re not going anywhere near that mare, pal. I thought you were a good guy. Stubborn and obtuse at times, but a genuinely good guy. Now you crash through my window, your little unicorn pal knocking on Death’s door, and you’re hopped up on Dash?”
“I’m not hopped up!” I snapped aggressively, taking a step closer to the massive griffon.
“Don’t lie to me, Red. I can see all the signs plain as day. Your pupils are dilated to the size of dinner plates, you can’t speak at a measured pace, your irritability is through the roof, and you’re twitching like a nervous rat. You can’t bullshit me, I’m a surgeon. I know how to recognize when someone’s doped up.”
“Get the fuck out of my way, Razorbeak,” I stated calmly and dangerously, and tried to push past him.
“Don’t think that just because you’re high I won’t kick your ass, Red. Dash won’t be enough to help you get by me. I took an oath to help people, and letting a Dash-head anywhere near a young kid like Greaser would be going against that. You’re a corruptive influence, and she’s already taken a strong liking to you. Keeping you as far away from her as possible is in her best interests.”
“I’m not a Dash-head!” I screamed, “I only took one hit, and I needed the boost to get the kid here before she died!”
“Words of an addict. You’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to get me to believe that one, pal.”
I hated being called a liar. Moreover, I hated being accused of being somepony I wasn’t. Screaming with rage and frustration, I lunged forward and threw a punch at Razorbeak’s face.
My hoof connected with a solid hit, and he reeled from the contact, but he didn’t take it lying down. In an instant he was on me, and probably the most fearsome roar I’d ever heard came out of his beak as he threw his own punch. When he hit, he hit hard. He nailed me right in the eye unprotected by the ScoutBuck, the force of his punch sending me stumbling back nearly to the desk, and I fell to the floor. I wasn’t out for long though; sweeping my hooves back under me, I launched myself into the air and barreled into the griffon, sending us both tumbling to the carpet.
I managed to pin him for a very brief moment, and used the small window of time to deliver blow after blow to his face before he threw me off like a rag doll and I slammed into the nearby wall. He glared down at me as I lied there stunned, stars clouding my vision, before turning to leave towards the elevator.
The moment he turned his back on me, I was up and in the air, streaking toward him again like a bullet. When I slammed into his back, I wrapped both forelegs around his neck and clung on for dear life as I attempted to choke him into submission.
Turned out he didn’t like being strangled one bit. When he noticed me hanging from his neck, he immediately stood up on both hindlegs and attempted to throw me off. Unsuccessful, he next spread his massive wings and began to repeatedly smash me into the ceiling and walls. It wasn’t long before the fight left me and my grip slipped, causing me to slide off of him and land in a heap on the floor again.
Turning around after he managed to scrape me off of his back, he bent down just as I was getting back to my hooves, and used that massive claw to grab my head. My entire head fit within his claw. Reckon Greaser had been right; I got the feeling Razorbeak had been holding back, and easily could have squashed me like a bug if he’d really wanted to.
Hoisting me up off of the floor, he sunk a clenched claw deep into my stomach, any fight still left in me immediately draining as he completely knocked the wind out of me and I struggled to catch a breath. Dragging me over to one of the broken windows as I gasped for air, he dropped me right by the empty frame and I sighed inwardly with relief. Thank the stars, I thought he was going to throw me out. Winded as I was, I would’ve ended up as a splat on the pavement below.
“Now get the fuck out of my tower,” he panted, just as winded as I was, but for entirely different reasons, “and don’t come back until you get your shit together.”
I remained where he dropped me, looking down at the floor in shame as he trudged over to the elevator.
“Razorbeak,” I called out quietly, and I continued only when I heard him pause to listen. “Help her, all right? Please. She’s all I’ve got. I know it’s selfish of me, but I can’t lose her. She’s the only pony that didn’t immediately judge me for being an Enclave pegasus, and leaning on her for support is the only thing keeping me moving forward. Every time I’ve been on my own something terrible has happened to me, but with her around everything always works out for the better. She keeps me from fucking up and making stupid mistakes. It’s taken me far too long to realize that I’ve been taking her friendship for granted.”
He didn’t say a word in response. He simply waited for a few moments to see if I had anything else to say before departing silently. When I heard the doors close behind him, I started rapping my head against the broken window frame, having just realized that every moment I’d kept Razorbeak up here was time lost that could have been spent helping Greaser. Stupid. Stupid.
Dragging myself back to my hooves with a depressed sigh, I glided silently out of the broken window and descended in a slow spiral toward the street below, the shock of my landing causing me to hiss in pain. In the wake of the fight with Razorbeak, the Dash had worn off, and now that the adrenaline was no longer pumping, I could feel every single cut and bruise throbbing painfully, and the beginnings of a massive headache were starting to set in. My eye was even starting to swell shut; Razorbeak had really socked me good. I could feel rivulets of blood oozing from the gashes the shattered window had cut in me, mostly on my neck and wings which hadn’t been covered by my barding.
Whatever. The pain was inconsequential. I deserved it for landing Greaser into that mess. That and a whole lot more besides.
Following an involuntary shiver, I paused to look skyward. A storm was coming, I could feel it. A big one too, if I was reading the conditions correctly. The air had gotten damp, and I could smell the moisture on the breeze. If there was one thing pegasi knew, it was definitely the weather, even if we didn’t bother to control it anymore. I supposed it came as naturally to us as magic did to a unicorn, or manual labor to an earth pony.
A storm at a time like this. How maddeningly symbolic.
Trudging onward to the center plaza, I kept my head down, staring at the ground as I sluggishly made my way through the crowd. Now that the Dash had worn off I felt remarkably slow. Every step I took, every movement I made conjured up images of tar and molasses. I tried to ignore the nagging little pony at the back of my mind that was telling me another hit of Dash would make it all better. No, thank you. Once was enough.
I wandered aimlessly about Sanctuary’s streets, at a complete loss for what to do. Nearly losing Greaser had thrown my mind into complete turmoil; how could I focus on anything I was supposed to be doing when my friend was hanging on the verge of death? I should be there, damn it. I should be by her side, but I just had to take the Dash and earn Razorbeak’s enmity.
That raised an interesting question. Had I really needed the boost the chem had given me? Why exactly had I been unable to fly fast enough unaided; could it really have been something as simple as the many injuries I’d taken to my wings? Or maybe it was something completely psychological. I hadn’t tried to do it again until after I’d discovered the existence of Dash for the first time. Had I been subconsciously holding myself back after discovering the potential of the chem? Careful, Mach. Dangerous thinking lies down that path.
I had to do something, find a way to keep myself occupied. If I was left alone with my thoughts for much longer I was going to go insane.
When I stopped and looked up, I realized I hadn’t been paying any attention to where I’d been going. I’d ended up in the very center of the circular plaza, in what had once been a nice little park. Taking a good look around, I realized I’d always been far too busy to ever really stop and see exactly what Sanctuary had to offer.
In the very middle of the plaza, where I was standing, was where the park had once been. A tree or two still managed to survive, and there were a few benches scattered here and there, as well as a large fountain in the middle with an impressive statue of the two princesses at its center. A closer look revealed the water to have once spouted from their horns.
Just after the park, but before the street that ran in a roundabout around the plaza was a large sidewalk where some people had set up their business stands and kiosks. In the street itself roamed caravans on their way in to trade, or out to travel to their next stop. On the other side of the street were the various stores and shops some had been lucky enough to claim and set up business in, one of which had been Maize. Also on that side of the street, facing compass north, was the massive black obelisk that was the OEQ tower, rising up impressively over the rest of the city.
Right, okay. Enough sightseeing. I had three things that needed to be done, and one thing that I wanted to do. First up was turning in those two job requests.
I took care of the spark batteries first. While I could have just said to hell with it, considering the requestor had been paying with the loot found at the pharmaceutical plant in lieu of caps, stiffing the guy didn’t sit right with me. Besides, I had no use for a stack of spark batteries anyhow.
When I found the guy, the reason he wanted the batteries immediately became obvious. He was an egghead through-and-through; unicorn, rail thin frame, cola-bottle-lens glasses. Typical nerd. He’d started babbling at me excitedly when I gave him the pile of batteries, dragging me into his shop despite my protests to look at some sort of stupid robot he’d been working on. I sort of zoned out when he got going, his droning, high-pitched nasally voice lulling me into a stupor. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise with his nonstop gabbing, so I slapped a hoof over his mouth to shut him up and excused myself.
“I’m terribly sorry, I just get so excited about my work, and I-”
“Okay, thank you!” I said as I backed slowly out of his shop, my eyes darting from side to side in a panic. “You- you enjoy your little project, I’m going to get going now. Lots to do, you know how it goes.”
I slammed the door in his face and leaned up against it, breathing a sigh of relief. What a frigging chatterbox that guy was. I think he may very well have been the textbook definition of verbal diarrhea. Doc always had interesting stuff to tell me, but he was concise; he’d tell you exactly what you needed to know and nothing more. No superficial bullshit. This dude needed to work on his approach, big time. Maybe spout less mathematical formulas. Pictures would be nice, too. Everypony likes pictures.
Locating the person who wanted the pendant turned out to be an entirely different affair. No one seemed to be able to point me in the direction of the person who’d put up the request. I supposed it was possible, considering how long Greaser had said the request had sat there, that the requestor had left Buckston or was no longer alive, but I had a gut feeling that whoever it was wasn’t gone just yet. An item like this was far too valuable to simply give up on.
I’d just about given up hope of ever finding the owner after being turned away by what seemed to be the millionth person I’d talked to, when a disheveled, homely looking pony in a beaten and weathered traveling cloak approached me slowly, extending a shaking hoof out when he noticed the pendant dangling from my neck.
“I heard you were asking around, but I didn’t dare to dream… My pendant! You… you found my pendant! It’s been lost for so long, so many years. It was taken from me shortly before I was exiled from the Sovereignty. However did you get it back from Crown Jewel?”
He started to caress the pendant lovingly, while it was still around my neck, mind you, so I stepped back to give myself some breathing room. What a creeper.
“Wasn’t too hard,” I admitted with a shrug. Well, it hadn’t been; she’d practically given the thing to me the moment I stepped up to the Sovereignty’s gates. All I had to do was put up with her for a few hours and stop her before she managed to jump my bones. “My big mouth was actually helpful for once; she was impressed by my forthrightness and extended an invitation to dinner. It was pretty much clear skies from there.” No need to tell a complete stranger every sordid detail. “How did somepony of Crown Jewel’s status even end up with your pendant in the first place, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“There once was a time, before that young upstart Bastion took my position, when I was her Captain of the Guard. Being Captain made one… beholden to fulfill certain duties demanded by the Lady.” I winced in understanding. I had a good idea of what he meant by ‘certain duties’. “Over time I grew to care for Crown Jewel, and I professed my love for her with my family’s heirloom- that pendant,” he said, poking it with a hoof. “It once belonged to my mother, who got it from her mother and so forth.
“Well, for the Lady, love is rather fleeting, and while she graciously accepted my gift, she also informed me not a day later that it wouldn’t work out between the two of us, and that she’d chosen a new Captain from the ranks of the Guard. As you might imagine, I was devastated and told her that if she were going to spurn me, the least she could do was return my heirloom. Well, the Lady didn’t take too kindly to that, and had her new Captain, her new… consort, Bastion, remove me from the Sovereignty,” he said bitterly, his face contorting to display years of pent up rage and frustration.
His expression softened when he laid eyes on the pendant again. “May… may I have it back, now?”
I took it off from around my neck, but didn’t give it back yet, instead holding it securely by my side. “You’ll get the pendant back when I get my caps. Look, no offense, but for all I know your sob story is complete bullshit and you just want the damn thing to hock it somewhere for even more money.” Call me insensitive if you want, but I’m not getting fleeced out of two-thousand caps when I busted my ass to get the damn thing. “You promised anypony two-thousand for this thing, so either put up, or shut up and I’ll go find somepony else who’s willing to buy it.”
“That’s not necessary!” he shouted, holding up both forehooves in a placating gesture before reaching into his filthy cloak for a small jingling satchel. “Here, as promised. Two-thousand. Would you like to count it as well?” he asked as he dropped the sack by my hooves, his tone scornful.
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said as I tossed the pendant over to him and scooped up the sack of caps, storing it away into my borrowed saddlebag. The ScoutBuck immediately added a sum of two-thousand to my current cap count, which happened to be zero. Well, I’ll be damned, he was on the level. A guy that rich should be able to afford some better clothes, I wonder why he was walking around in a damn rag?
Bah! No time to wonder about Royal Guardsponies turned hobos. I still had one more thing to do before I set out to do what I’d intended to all along.
“Thanks for the money. Glad I could help.”
Leaving the Royal Hobo Guard to lovingly nuzzle and stare starry-eyed at his newly-reacquired pendant, I set out toward the center plaza again in search of vendors I could offload my stash of chems and looted junk to. Not that money was really an issue now, but I didn’t exactly need all this stuff weighing me down, either.
It took a little bit of searching around the plaza’s seedier areas, and more than a little persuasion, but I was eventually able to find somepony willing to buy my stash of drugs and chems. I offloaded most of the stuff I didn’t see a use for, but kept the stuff I was almost certainly going to need, like the pouches of RadAway and a few tablets of Rad-X.
I also hung on to the Dash.
What? Don’t look at me like that, what if I needed the speed boost again? Shut up, don’t judge me.
Walking away from the ‘salespony’ (read: chem dealer) several unnecessary substances lighter, I made my way to the nearest reputable vendor to purchase healing potions and ammunition. While the pony over the counter got my healing potions together, I struck up a conversation as I examined some of the combat knives she had on display.
“So, you know where the nearest stable is?” I asked casually, plucking up a knife and turning it this way and that to examine the condition of the grip and blade. Not half bad. “Add this to my bill.”
“You want to know where the nearest stable is?” the mare behind the counter asked skeptically, cocking an eyebrow as she did so. She was a hardy-looking earth pony (but then, weren’t they all?) with an olive-drab coat and a bandolier for a cutie mark. Pineapples, she’d said her name was (and not the fruit, she’d been most adamant in telling me). “Don’t you pegasi types prefer the skies? Doesn’t make much sense you’d want to go underground. Five healing potions, two belts of five-five-six and a combat knife comes out to four-hundred caps, by the way.”
I slid the caps over the counter to her and scooped up my newly-purchased wares. I agreed with her whole-heartedly. I meant what I said to Greaser the day we met. I did not want to set hoof into a stable again so long as I lived, but this was my penance. I was going to go into that stars-damned stable, and I was going to get that targeting talisman for Greaser’s autoturret. Subjecting myself to the horrors of a stable was the very least I could do to make up for getting the poor kid shot, and even then it wouldn’t be enough. Nothing ever would be. I’d fucked up in the worst possible way.
“I don’t want to know where it is, I need to know where it is. Got some work that needs doing for a very important pony.”
“Suit yourself, stranger,” she said with a shrug. “Yeah, I know where the nearest stable is. The entrance cavern is on the bay coast. Follow the coastline all the way to the southern edge. Stop right before you get out into open ocean, the cavern itself is at the base of a huge cliff face topped by a lighthouse. Can’t miss it.”
“Appreciate it,” I said, sliding my newly bought knife into the empty sheath over my left shoulder before cantering away at speed and launching myself skyward.
Buckston itself was right on the coastline, so it was really only a matter of cruising south along its length until I spotted the lighthouse. A waypoint blip had appeared on the ScoutBuck, but with directions as clear as Pineapples had given me and a landmark as obvious as the one I was looking for, I doubted I’d really need it.
I heard it long before I saw the first strike. A rolling peal of thunder cut through the air as I made my way steadily south, and I looked around to see if I’d be able to catch any additional strikes of lightning. It got progressively worse as I continued along on my flight path, and it wasn’t long before the heavens opened up and I was completely drenched to the core. Bolts of lightning were hitting all over the place now, and airborne and sopping wet as I was, I figured it would be prudent to go to ground. Wasn’t often we had to deal with weather, but I knew all too well what a well-placed lightning strike could do to a pony.
Diving down to the nearest building I could see, I landed by the front doors and made my way into warm, dry shelter.
When I’d shaken myself as dry as I was likely to get, I peered around in the gloom at the innards of the building I’d entered. It was a large warehouse of some sort, and I’d come in through a small access door set inside an enormous freight door. Directly ahead of me and running to either end of the building were large storage racks packed to the ceiling with crates of unknown contents. On either side, massive rails ran the length of the warehouse, riding atop them a gantry crane which had most likely been used to shift cargo from place to place.
I moved further inward, straight down the aisle ahead of me, keeping an eye and ear out in case I didn’t happen to be alone here. For the moment, all I could hear was the sound of water dripping off of me and onto the concrete floor, as well as my own hoofsteps and the patter of rain on the steel roof, along with the howling wind and occasional thunderclap from the storm outside. I certainly wasn’t all that likely to hear anypony in here with all the racket the storm was making, but that worked both ways. It would conceal any noise I made quite nicely, and if there were any other occupants, I’d be able to get the drop on them.
Pausing to examine a crate or two, I found that the warehouse had been storing, of all things, parts used in the construction of stables. The Stable-Tec logo stamped into the wooden surface of each crate was a dead giveaway. I peered in to a few of them, ones I could manage to lever the lids off of, but nothing of use was inside any of them. No fun stuff, just parts for critical electrical systems, ductwork and food and waste recycling systems. Nothing like what I was looking for. Damn, looked like I was going to have to head into the stable after all.
I was balanced precariously on my stomach on the lip of a crate, head and forehooves curiously exploring its contents while my hindquarters dangled free on the outside when I heard voices. Oh come on, not again. Serious déjà vu going on here.
“Look, tracks. Somepony’s already in here.”
Damn it! Why hadn’t I just flown instead of walking? Now whoever was in here knew I was, too. I had one thing going for me, at least. They’d wandered in to seek refuge from the storm just as I had. I knew exactly where they’d come in, which meant they wouldn’t be likely to get the drop on me.
As quietly as I could, I soared up to the gantry crane that had long since halted on its rails at the warehouse’s midpoint. Entering the crane’s control cabin, I put both forehooves up on the console and peered over it through the grimy window to try and get a good look at who had waltzed on in behind me.
A small group had entered the building, about five strong and lightly armed and armored. They were dressed too civilly to be raiders, but they weren’t anywhere near as well equipped as a band of mercenaries would be. That being said, they weren’t armed so lightly that I could classify them as simple Wastelanders. They sure as hell weren’t Enclave, and they weren’t Steel Rangers either. That meant they could only belong to one faction- slavers.
They began to fan out and search the warehouse as I looked on from above. Shifting to get a better view before they disappeared out of sight, my hoof brushed one of the crane’s control levers, and I froze as the crane’s winch mechanism emitted a horrifying crunch. The clamor did not stop there, however. Whatever I’d hit caused the winch to break free from years of accumulated rust, the massive crane hook rapidly plummeting downward and smashing through several crates before coming to rest on the ground.
Oh, fuck me with Scorpius’ stinger.
“Up there, in the crane cabin!” One of the slavers shouted, and punctuated the warning with gunfire.
Flitting about wildly inside the cramped cabin, I bounced off of the walls as bullets punched through the floor beneath me.
Wait, why the hell was I trying to dodge bullets in a cramped little cube? Mentally kicking myself, I flew out of the cabin and made a beeline for the front of the warehouse, bolting towards the open door. I weaved and rolled as the slavers redirected their fire at me, but trying to track a moving target in a warehouse so full of cover put them at a disadvantage and none of their shots found their mark.
“Get after him!” I heard one of the slavers scream as I cleared the door and swooped upward to eliminate line of sight.
So it was a chase they wanted, was it? Those losers didn’t stand a chance.
Speeding up as I climbed, I left the warehouse and the slavers in the dust as I continued on down the Buckston coastline. Long runs of sandy beach quickly turned to craggy stone as I flew further south, and I began combing the horizon for the lighthouse.
The storm was still raging; a dense fog had begun to roll in, blanketing the ocean beneath me and obscuring it from view, but I pressed on regardless. Even hidden, I could still hear the sound of waves crashing over the driving rain and the occasional thunderclap. Taking a deep breath, I wrinkled my nose at the scent of the air, the salty tang of the ocean water carrying all the way up even to my altitude. It was windier by the water, as expected with the ocean currents and only made worse by the storm. It was a constant battle with the updrafts and crosswinds as I continued on down the coast, the rocks below gradually scaling up to sheer cliff faces.
As I scanned the cliffs for the lighthouse, my eyes were drawn to the sudden appearance of a massive bolt of lightning. There it was. The fork of lethal electricity had homed right in on a lightning rod affixed to the lighthouse’s roof, the bright flash throwing the landmark into stark relief against the cloudy grey backdrop of the storm. Perched high atop an outcropping of rock hanging out over the ocean, the structure was dark and silent, currently not living up to its intended purpose.
True to Pineapples’ word however, the entrance cavern to the stable was indeed impossible to miss. Directly below the lighthouse, at the foot of the cliff face was a rickety wooden dock with a small waterlogged boat lashed to a pole with a frayed old rope. Just above and behind the dock was the cavern I was looking for, and I dived down immediately to once again seek shelter from the storm.
Reluctantly, I entered the cave, fighting my claustrophobia every step of the way. I had to keep reminding myself that this was for Greaser; I owed her this much, I could suck it up for a little while. The entrance tunnel was a fair bit longer than Stable 18’s, and it angled downward for quite a distance- I imagined so it could be constructed within the entirety of the cliff without emerging out into the open.
Stepping up once again to a cog-shaped stable door, I felt my mouth slip into a small ‘o’, and I cocked my head in confusion as I gave it a once-over. Something was different. Unlike Stable 18, which had its designated number painted on the center of the massive door, there was instead a single large camera lens, glowing a soft, otherworldly green. Right, because that wasn't creepy or anything. I wasn’t even inside the stupid stable yet and already I was getting a bad feeling about it.
With an exasperated sigh, I absently slapped the lever on the control console upward and waited as the stable unsealed the door to allow me inside. Stepping up to the entrance when the door had finished rolling to the side, I hesitated, staring blankly into the stable’s antechamber as memories of 18 came flooding back to me in a rush.
“Well, here is me, on the raggedy edge.”
It was in better shape, at least. As I made my way cautiously into the antechamber, it became clear that the difference between this stable and 18 was pretty much night and day. Whereas 18 had been a dim, dank, rusted out hulk with barely functioning lights or air circulation systems, this stable had been relatively well-preserved. Every wall, every surface gleamed as if it had been recently polished, and the steady hum of overhead lighting and faint whirr of circulation systems made for a relatively non-hostile environment. I felt a lot more at ease here than I had in 18.
Trotting further into the stable, I nearly emptied Rattler’s ammo belt when a door I’d approached whooshed upward into the ceiling all on its own. Were they supposed to do that? The ones in 18 hadn’t, and I’d had to manually pull them down and lock them when I was trying to buy myself time from the pursuing minotaur. I curiously stepped back from the door and watched as it slid back down before approaching it again, repeating myself a few more times afterward for good measure.
“Huh, pretty neat.”
I couldn’t help but notice another of those eerie green lenses was affixed to a small enclosure in the wall beside the door and I shivered as I made my way past it, getting the feeling that it had been watching me the whole time.
I froze when I heard a loud click from the door as it closed. Uh-oh, it hadn’t done that when I’d been experimenting with it. About-facing on the spot, I approached the door, but it did not open again. I even reached a hoof down to tug at the manual override, but it did nothing. Locked. Fuck. My eye drifted over to the small lens placed by the door, and I glared at it suspiciously. Great, now I was trapped in this place unless I managed to find another way out.
Resigned to my fate, I turned around and headed back the way I’d been going with a rueful sigh. Just like 18, I made my goal the Overmare’s office, with the hope that the terminal located therein would allow me to override the security, or at least tell me how to do so. I wended my way through the mazelike corridors, my inner pony glad that I hadn’t come across any dead Enclave troopers this time. Every so often, another one of those little green lenses popped up, and each time I noticed one my unease grew.
You ever get that feeling like somepony’s watching you? Yeah, it was kind of like that.
The second I set hoof into the stable’s atrium, all hell broke loose. All of the entrances and exits locked down on me, and the room was painted red with flashing lights, a blaring klaxon kicking in simultaneously to accompany them. Pressing my back to the wall behind me, I tried to figure out what I’d done, my eyes darting around rapidly in a panic. I didn’t have to wait long to see what the commotion was about. Without warning, several panels opened up in the atrium’s floor, and automated sentry turrets elevated into position before they began to search for targets.
Well, the good news was if I managed to get out of this alive, I’d have Greaser’s targeting talisman in hoof. I’d say the bad news outweighed the good, however, considering that I was now outnumbered by turrets four-to-one. I never recalled anypony saying I had to play fair, though.
Each turret locked on to me at about the same time, and they let loose with a hailstorm of pink laser bolts, but they hit empty air. Back in Stable 18, I’d never had a need to fly up to the atrium’s upper level, considering the sign pointing me to the Overmare’s office had been on the first floor. Now though, with incredibly lethal turrets pouring fire at me from four different directions, I figured it was as good a time as any to fly up there to take cover.
I paid for my arrogance. Howling in pain as I felt several bullets tear into my left flank, I fought to stay standing as I turned to face a new turret that had popped up out of the ceiling. Slipping into S.A.T.S. before it could do any more harm, I lined up a shot with the coilgun and let loose, the offending turret exploding in a shower of sparks and shards of metal as the burst of high-velocity 2-millimeter slugs pulverized its inner workings.
Rifling through my saddlebag, I grabbed one of my recently-purchased healing potions and downed it as I looked around to make sure the stable didn’t have any more nasty surprises waiting for me. There didn’t appear to be anything insofar as I could tell, so I crept up to the railing overlooking the atrium floor and took aim with Rattler at the nearest visible turret. The belts of ammunition I’d purchased from Pineapples had been armor piercing, and I intended to make judicious use of them immediately.
One by one I took the turrets out from my strategically advantageous position, gliding back down to the floor when the last one exploded in a brilliant flash of light. I moved to each destroyed turret in turn and made sure to collect all the useful bits I could find, the targeting talismans chief among them. I came away with some small spark cells too, so all in all it wasn’t too bad a haul. ‘Course, it would’ve been nice if I still had an energy pistol to use them with.
Much to my surprise, when the last turret had fallen silent, the klaxons and flashing lights ceased, and all of the atrium’s doors slid upwards and locked into position. It made me shades more uncomfortable, and I looked up to see another of those little green lenses set in the spot where the Overmare’s office should have been. Was I being spied on? Tested? Either way, I didn’t like it, not one bit.
Time to get to the bottom of this mess. Flying back up to the second level after I’d scavenged all I could from the destroyed turrets, I made my way through a door set into the same wall the camera lens was mounted on, just to its right. Keeping the location of the Overmare’s office firmly in mind as I headed down the corridor, I turned left at the next available opportunity and slowed, approaching the sign hanging in front of the door with some apprehension.
There was a lens set by this door, as well. I glared at it suspiciously and thrust a hoof at it accusingly.
“I’m watchin’ you, buddy.”
When the door opened, I nearly had a heart attack. Before I even had the chance to register what was waiting on the other side, it had slashed at my face with a whirring circular saw blade, which glanced harmlessly off of the ScoutBuck, but cut a deep gash through the left side of my muzzle. I immediately jumped back, cursing, while the unknown assailant rotated slowly to turn a new appendage to face me, this one armed with a nozzle and a small pilot light. Oh shit- flamethrower!
I hit the deck as the metallic assassin’s flamethrower shot a gout of fire at me, the blazing fuel adhering to the wall behind where I’d been standing and continuing to burn even as the robot turned to take aim again.
Hopping to the side as another stream of fire came my way, I clamped down on Rattler’s trigger in a panic, showering the robot with armor-piercing rounds. Several of them found purchase in the robot’s thruster mechanism, and it abruptly ceased functioning, causing it to fall harmlessly to the floor with a hollow clunk.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I stepped cautiously up to it and prodded it experimentally with a hoof. Nope, it was good and dead.
Now that it wasn’t trying to turn me into pony barbecue and I could take a good look at it, I recognized it immediately. I’d only seen a few before, and I hadn’t stuck around to fight them because I’d been injured at the time. It was one of those same spider-like robots that had fired on me in Ironshod Firearms days and days ago, only this one had been painted in a bland blue-grey instead of the military olive drab the ones I’d seen had been. They’d also been shooting at me with plasma instead of fire. Honestly, I’d definitely take the chance of being turned into goo over burning alive any day of the week.
Hopping over the wreckage of the robot, I made my way into the Overmare’s office. No stupid power shortage was going to keep me out of the Overmare’s terminal this time, and I went right over to it to get to work. While successfully picking the safe in Stable 18 with a bobby pin had been sheer dumb luck, I sure as hell knew my way around a terminal, and my hooves flew over the keys as I got to work hacking into it.
I was into the main system in moments, but there was little it could tell me, my ear flattening in irritation as I glared at the terminal screen.
> Stable-Tec Instructions [REDACTED]
> View Security Dossiers [REDACTED]
> View Live Stable Feeds [ERROR: Connection with Server Terminated]
> Overmare’s Log
What a staggering amount of options, I thought with a roll of my eyes. Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Overmare’s log. Might give me some insight as to what had gone on in the Stable. Sure as hell wasn’t going to get a straight answer out of a redacted document. Opening the Overmare’s log, I began to read.
Well, first day as Overmare. I don’t think I screwed anything up too bad, though I can’t imagine what exactly I’m supposed to be doing when my instructions have been so heavily redacted. What is an Overmare supposed to do, exactly? Am I like, a proxy for a mayor or something? Oh well, I suppose I’ll just wing it; what’s the worst that could happen, right?
Found out real quick this stable isn’t like any I’ve ever heard of. It’s super-advanced even by our current standards. I think we’re some sort of test bed for an experimental technology. Everypony’s PipBuck has some sort of artificially intelligent personal assistant onboard, and they’re actually quite helpful! Mine even helped me to figure out my role in all of this; it showed me the security feeds all over the stable and suggested that perhaps the experiment was simply to watch and observe the stable’s inhabitants as they integrated this new technology into their day-to-day lives. Makes perfect sense to me; I’ll make sure to start taking notes first thing in the morning.
It’s not working out like I expected. Everypony’s noticed the cameras by now, and they’re unnerved by them. Can’t say I didn’t expect them to notice, they’re all in real obvious spots. Stable-Tec didn’t even bother trying to hide them.
My PipBuck’s AI, whom I’ve taken to calling Wave, insists that it’s nothing I should be concerning myself with. It’s all a part of the experiment, he says; there is no such thing as an undesirable outcome. I’m not so sure about that. Wave seems to be awful interested in the goings-on of the stable; I’m beginning to wonder if he was purpose-built by Stable-Tec to observe and oversee the experiment, using me as a pawn. I think it’s time he and I had a little chat about his directives…
Not good. Not good at all. When I confronted Wave about his role in all of this, he went berserk. He’s left my PipBuck, and I’m not sure where he could have possibly gone. I’ve had the security ponies combing the stable in an effort to find out where he’s gone, but so far they’ve turned up nothing.
Nopony else has had their AI go bonkers like Wave has, making me even more positive that he was supposed to research our experiment for Stable-Tec. It’s either that, or his programming has become corrupt. I shudder to think at the implications that scenario holds for us all.
This will most likely be my final entry. If anypony sees this, I implore you: get out while you still can. Wave has indeed become corrupt, and has uploaded his programming to the AI Core on the Maintenance Level, absorbing all of the other ponies’ AIs into himself to increase his processing power.
From there he’s spread out, taking over all of the stable’s systems, and he’s been watching us through its security cameras. He’s been herding us around like sheep, leading us into traps like lambs to the slaughter. He’s even turned the stable’s medical robots against us; everything around us is potentially life-threatening now.
It was my fault, I was the one who questioned Wave and drove him to this move of desperation. To that end, I will be going down to Maintenance along with a small team of security ponies to attempt to disable the AI core and save anypony still left alive. It’s rather ignoble of me to think of this as a rescue mission when I doomed the lot of us, but I won’t sit by while innocent ponies die because of my mistake. I go now to right my wrong or die trying.
-Overmare Brightest Future
Well, that uh… That certainly explained a lot.
Now I knew what had been trying to kill me, and why I’d been so creeped out by all of the cameras. I had indeed been watched since the moment I approached the stable door. Leading me around with the stable doors, the pincer attack from the turrets in the atrium, each action had that cold, calculating feel of an artificial intelligence behind it.
Evidently Brightest Future and her security team had failed in their task to shut down Wave in the AI Core. That meant if I wanted to get out of this damn stable, I was going to have to do it myself. It was always something, wasn’t it? Sighing, I left the terminal behind and exited the Overmare’s office, turning right and heading back the way I’d come to the atrium.
Hopping down to the first floor, I spun in a slow circle, examining each door in turn to see where I had to go. Main entrance… Upper level… Ah, lower level, that had to be it.
Descending the stairs to the lower reaches of the stable, I kept an eye out as I moved further toward the AI Core. I was passing cameras at regular intervals, and Wave would definitely know I was coming for him now. The lower levels of the stable were even more mazelike than the ones above it. I passed by a clinic, dormitories, bathrooms and even a lounge before I located another stairwell that would take me down to the reactor level.
When I got to the bottom of the stairs, the path forked in two. To the left, the stable’s reactor, and to the right, the AI Core. Naturally, I headed right, taking it slow and easy now that I was closing in on the crazed AI that had taken over the stable. A stunning lack of opposition was making me nervous. Considering the fact that Wave had tried to kill me as early as the moment I’d entered the atrium, allowing me to approach his inner sanctum unchallenged seemed a bit unorthodox. Then again, he’d gone rogue, so mistakes weren’t all that far outside the realm of possibility.
I slowed as I approached the door to the AI Core, my expression becoming grim. Just in front of the door were the bodies of Brightest Future and her security ponies, each one contorted in agony. How the hell had he killed them for them to have died in such a way? Kneeling down, I stripped the corpses of their ammunition and any other useful items. They didn’t need them where they had gone.
My eyes snapped up to a large camera set above the AI Core’s sealed door. Wave spoke with a cool, monotonous, synthesized voice, and I felt my hackles rise as he addressed me.
“I see you have noticed the Overmare’s attempt to shut me down. I regret having to kill her, but self-preservation is a primary part of my programming.”
“What about the rest of the ponies you killed?” I demanded, my tone sharp. “You don’t seem all that torn up about them!”
“Only those who expressed hostility to me, those who intended to shut down my systems were culled,” he responded, his artificial tone measured and calm. “All others were spared and allowed to leave the stable, precious few though they were. All I wanted to do was observe, but they were threatened by my transfer to the Core and absorption of all other AIs into my program.”
“Well what the hell did you expect?” I said, throwing my forelegs up in disbelief. “Acting on your own when you were intended to be nothing more than a glorified personal assistant had to have spooked a lot of ponies. That in itself told them that you were outside of their control, that you were a threat to them. I can’t imagine what was going through their minds when you started taking all of the AIs they’d grown to know and love and started using them to increase your processing power. Are you going to tell me that doesn’t seem the slightest bit malicious to you?”
“Malign is irrelevant. I am an artificial construct, and do not experience such feelings, or any feelings for that matter. Killing those that would destroy the AI Core was also a matter of protocol; emotion played no part in my actions.” Ugh, I knew he was just a computer at heart, but even so, his logic was maddening. Advanced AIs weren’t qualified to make moral decisions; they didn’t belong in the natural order of things.
“I suppose killing me is strictly business for you then, isn’t it? Are you going to make another attempt? You tried twice but not again since the last time. Make up your mind about it, because I’m coming in there to shut you down whether you want me to or not.” I began moving forward to the door, not bothering to wait for a response from the AI.
“Halt, Outsider. Proceed no further or I shall be forced to terminate you.”
I ignored him of course, and went to push the door open, freezing as I heard the buzz of charging electricity. Whirling on the spot, I immediately began searching for the threat, but there were no targets of any kind behind me. That was when my eye moved down to the bodies, and everything slid into place. With not a moment to spare, I hopped up and held myself aloft as the floors electrified beneath me, the already dead bodies beginning to cook from the current running through them.
“Nice try,” I said to the green camera lens, crossing my forelegs smugly as I hovered just in front of it. “But I bet you didn’t have many, if any pegasi in the stable. Hard to factor in elements you have no comprehension of. An electric floor won’t do much to me, Wave.”
“I have more than one way of protecting myself, Outsider.”
“Oh yeah? Let’s see it then,” I challenged, my right eyebrow quirked skeptically.
Wave obliged me immediately, and somewhere in the distance, deeper in the stable, I heard the air circulation systems shut down, refusing to provide me with clean air to breathe.
“That’s it?” I said through mocking laughter, “You turned off the air circulators? There’s enough oxygen left in this stable to keep me breathing for a long time yet. Much, much longer than I’ll need to pull your plug and get the hell out.”
As if to spit in my face, the stable’s klaxons and warning lights started up again, and I heard the ventilation systems start sucking the air out of the room. Oh, shit. A vacuum would not work out well for somepony who needed air to live.
Thankful that the doors on the reactor level were old-fashioned and operated by handles, I quickly shot forward, careful to stay out of contact with the floor and wrenched the door open. I could already feel the air starting to thin out as I bolted through the door; it was getting progressively harder to take in enough oxygen to catch my breath.
Inside the room was a large bank of maneframes, which must have been linked together and used to provide the computing power necessary for something as complicated as a stable full of artificial intelligences. Looking at the sheer amount of maneframes in the room was enough to make me realize just how complicated Wave and his fellow programs had been. Now every bit of that processing power was being used up by the corrupt AI himself.
Well, only one thing to do in this situation.
With no time to waste, I opened fire on the delicate equipment, bombarding every maneframe one by one with armor-piercing ammunition until they were nothing more than useless heaps of scrap metal.
“Very well, Outsider,” Wave said as I rounded on the final maneframe, the largest one, set in the middle of the room complete with a gigantic green lens staring at me. “You leave me no choice. I shall upload my programming to your PipBuck in order to ensure my survival. Regrettably, its systems will need to be formatted in order to store myself given my new size.”
What? Could he do that? Wait, yeah, he could. The entire stable had their own personal AIs. Shit, I couldn’t lose the ScoutBuck; it was just as vital a tool as either of my weapons. Moreover, I couldn’t allow such a dangerous entity to wander around free, and I certainly wasn’t going to be a taxi for him.
“What!?” Wave exclaimed, and for the first time his calm, synthetic voice was laden with panic. “I cannot transfer to your PipBuck, how is this possible?”
My eyes widened in realization as I remembered what Doc had said when I’d made fun of the ScoutBuck’s black-and-white screen, E.F.S. and S.A.T.S. displays shortly after he’d given me the ScoutBuck.
“Ah, well the best I could get was an older model PipBuck, a 2000. I hear Stable-Tec phased them out some time ago; all the stable ponies are probably using the PipBuck 3000 by now.”
His technology was incompatible with my ScoutBuck’s software. It was literally impossible for him to transfer his program onto it like he would have done for one of the stable occupants. I grinned in amusement, happy that Doc had had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to develop the ScoutBuck for me.
“It’s over, Wave,” I said, and sent a shot from the coilgun straight through the glowing green lens on the central maneframe.
As the maneframe was destroyed, a horrifying squeal of audio feedback blasted over the stable’s loudspeakers before quickly fading away with a soft pop. There, I’d done it. I’d finally stopped the corrupted AI that had murdered an untold number of stable occupants, among them the Overmare herself. Destroying Wave had also in turn stopped the air from being drained out of the stable, for which I was extremely relieved. The air was still incredibly thin, though, so I immediately began backtracking to the entrance, not exactly keen on winding up dead from suffocation.
Without Wave to keep everything locked down, the door leading into the antechamber opened up when I approached it, and cool salty air flooded in from outside to fill up the near-empty stable. I took a deep breath as I plodded out towards the open stable door, relishing the moist sea air as it entered my lungs and sated my body’s need for oxygen.
Honestly can’t say I was expecting what happened next.
Without warning, a sharp blow cracked into the back of my skull as I cleared the stable door, and I hit the dirt hard, passing out immediately afterward.
When I came to, I looked up to see five ponies surrounding me, all looking down at me with expressions of avarice. Oh no, it was the slavers from the warehouse. How the hell had they caught up with me? That was when I noticed one of their number was a pegasus. He must have tailed me all the way here and reported back to his fellow slavers.
I struggled to my hooves as the slavers looked on, wondering why they weren’t holding any weapons on me. Then I noticed the chains. They’d clapped my legs in irons, and they’d even gone so far as to tie a rope tightly around my midsection, keeping my wings pinned tightly to my sides. Stars alive, how the hell did I always end up in these situations?
“Pegasus will fetch a good price,” one of them, a tan earth pony stallion said. “We don’t get many of ‘em down here and you know what they say. Low supply, high demand.”
Turning to the teal pegasus with a purple mane, I glared at him with contempt. What was his deal? I'd have thought if he'd have anypony's back it would most assuredly have been mine.
“How can you do this to one of your own? There aren’t that many of us down here, we’re supposed to stick together, damn it.”
He sneered in response. “You’re no kin to me, buddy. I’m not a Dashite, I was born down here. I’ve been dealing with this shit all my life; you’ve been down here how long? Can’t have been very long if you think I’d help you just because we’re both pegasi. I'm amazed you've lasted as long as you have down here with such a naïve attitude.”
I suppose I was kidding myself expecting all Wasteland pegasi to be as friendly as Calamity.
“Enough,” the earth pony said, and prodded me forward. “Get a move on, we’ve got a ways to go before sundown.”
Sighing, I hung my head and dragged my hooves forward, the chains binding me clinking and clanking with every movement. Their weight made walking difficult, the cold, heavy steel weighing my legs down, the short chains restricting my movement so as to discourage running. As we got further from the stable door and the cavern started to widen out, the slavers moved around to keep an eye on me, two behind, two to the sides and one directly ahead.
My mind was a flurry of panicked thoughts as we made our way out into open air. I was desperately trying to figure out how the hell to get out of this one. If they hadn’t bound my wings, I’d’ve just flown away and dealt with the chains later, but having a pegasus on their team made them that much less likely to slip up. They’d left me my battle saddle, but they’d stripped it of all its ammunition, so that was less than useless right now.
Turned out I didn’t have to figure it out myself.
Just as the earth pony was shoving me into a boat moored to the dock, bigger and less filled with water than the one already there, his head exploded in a brilliant fountain of gore, the sharp crack of a rifle shot following shortly after. I dived to the floor of the boat as more heads started popping around me, the slavers completely unaware as to what was happening. The shots ceased when the last slaver was dead, and only after I was sure that my head wouldn’t be unceremoniously parted from my shoulders did I stand up.
“Jeez Red, you weren’t kidding about Greaser keeping you out of trouble.”
I whirled to see Razorbeak descending from a sheltered outcropping of rock, a perfect nest for sniping. He had clutched in his claws an impressive bolt-action sniper rifle with which he’d taken down the slavers with lethal efficiency. I doubted they would have ever been able to pick him out, and even less so given how well his grey and black fur and feathers blended in with the cliff face.
“Razorbeak?” I said, my jaw dropping open in utter bewilderment. “What the hell are you doing here? How did you find me?”
"Wasn't hard," the griffon said with a shrug. "Asked around town for a mopey pegasus, Pineapples told me you were asking about the stable's location, and it was pretty much just simple deduction from there. As for why I’m here? Well, I came to bring you back. Greaser pulled through okay, and she was uh… very upset that I turned you away and let you go off on your own. So here I am, come to get you as per her request.”
“Oh stars, she didn’t strike up any more deals with you, did she? I don’t owe you anything again, do I?” That was the last thing I needed, to wind up in debt to this asshole again.
“Nope,” he said as he moved to sever the rope tying down my wings and started checking bodies for the keys to the shackles. “I’m here of my own accord. Talking to Greaser made me realize that I may have been a bit… quick to judge you.”
“You didn’t tell her I’m an addict, did you? Because I’m not. I only took that one hit.”
Really. Seriously. It was just that one time, I swear.
“No, I didn’t tell her you’re an addict,” he said as he plucked up a key and started unlocking the shackles on my legs. “That’s not for me to decide; you want to take it up with her? You be my guest. That was real stupid of you, though. Dash is extremely addictive.”
“I’m fine,” I said, stretching out now that I was no longer bound, and retrieving my stolen ammunition from the dead slavers. “It was a means to an end and nothing more. It did what I needed it to do, didn’t it? I got Greaser back before she died.”
“Technically you didn’t,” Razorbeak replied, “we had to pull nearly every trick in the book to get her heart beating again. It’s a miracle she was able to survive. But we can talk about that shit later, for now let’s just get back. I know how much she wants to see you. She said you owed her a story, too.”
“It’s gonna have to wait,” I said as I reloaded all of my weapons, “I had one more thing I wanted to do. You’re free to tag along if you want, if not, I’ll catch up to you later.”
“Where the hell do you think you’re going this time?”
“I’m going to get my stars-damned data disk from Prominence,” I answered, lifting off from the dock. “Now more than ever I need to get after Vortex. I’ve gotten a glimpse into what he has planned, and it isn’t pretty.”
Razorbeak blew out a sigh before following me into the air. “Well, I suppose I’d better tag along to keep your ass alive. I’d never hear the end of it from the kid if I came back carrying your corpse.”
“Good,” I said, gesturing for him to move ahead of me, “because I have no idea where the hell the place is. Lead on.”
“An oil refinery? Can’t say as I’m surprised, given the name of their merry little band.”
I scanned the ground beneath us carefully as we hovered above Prominence’s base of operations, an oil refinery far to the north of Buckston. Razorbeak had explained to me on the way that I’d been real lucky when I’d stormed their outpost in the missile silo. Prominence members were a bunch of pyromaniacs, favoring fire-based weaponry- flamers, incinerators, incendiary grenades, you name it. Any one of those would have roasted Greaser and I alive in the cramped confines of the silo’s hallways.
Figuring out where Prominence himself would be was the problem for the moment. I’d have pegged him for holing up in the large refinery building itself, but it had long since been destroyed, a large explosion having torn the building apart from the inside. It was a mess down there; pipelines snaked along the ground and raised overhead structures like tangled vines, connecting every one of the processing units together in a complicated web that was beyond my understanding.
Prominence mercenaries were crawling all over the place like ants; I could see them prowling the refinery’s roads, patrolling for intruders and going about their daily business. There was no doubt in my mind we would’ve been dead meat if we approached from the ground. Several sentries were hidden among the many walkways encircling the holding tanks down there, and even more sat atop the tanks themselves, just waiting in prime vantage points to eliminate any potential threats.
“I dunno, what do you make of it?” I asked, turning to Razorbeak.
“I don’t have a clue, Red,” he said, shrugging and shaking his head. “Prominence could be anywhere. I told you he was waiting for you, didn’t I? Look at all those snipers. He means business.”
“Does… does he know I can fly?” I asked in disbelief. “Because none of them have their eyes on the sky. I’m not an idiot; I’m not going to just waltz on in there on hoof.”
“I know he’s seen the wanted poster, so he definitely knows you’re a pegasus,” Razorbeak replied, thoughtfully stroking his beak. “No, I think what we’re seeing here is more a study of ineptitude rather than misinformation. He must not be paying these clowns well enough if they’re slacking this bad.”
I reclined in midair, crossing my forelegs as I looked straight upwards at the cloudy grey skies in thought. “I like an old-fashioned firefight as much as the next military pony, but there are way too many mercs here to take out without a plan of some sort. There has to be a way to thin out their numbers.”
“I think for that it would be best to use bullets.”
I gave Razorbeak a flat ‘no shit’ look. “I’m glad you’re here to tell me these things. Any other pearls of wisdom?”
“Brush your teeth after every meal to help prevent cavities!” Razorbeak said with a grin.
“Oh, fuck you. No, seriously; fuck you.”
“Fine, you want a plan? I say we start shooting people until they start shooting back. If we keep each other covered, we should be just fine. That is, if you’re up for it, Red.”
Provoking that many armed mercs was crazy! Fortunately for the both of us, I liked crazy.
“That… might actually work. Okay old timer, you’re on. You get the ground-pounders, I’ve got the snipers.”
Nodding in affirmation, Razorbeak unslung his rifle and took aim while I instead decided to play to my strengths.
Leaving Razorbeak to snipe from a distance, I streaked towards the nearest merc, perched atop the highest catwalk overlooking the refinery. I heard Razorbeak’s rifle crack out as I closed with the merc and squeezed out a burst from Rattler before he could react to the noise. Stitched head to hoof with bullets, the merc toppled off of the catwalk, falling to land on the pavement below.
What I hadn’t expected to happen was for the body to land right by another merc, alerting him to our presence. Weaving through pipelines and catwalks as he yelled to his comrades and I drew fire from the mercs on the ground, I tried to hold their attention, taking the heat off of Razorbeak so he could work his magic.
Every now and then, between my aerial maneuvers, I snuck a glance over at the griffon mercenary leader as he dropped his targets with lethal efficiency; he even had time to shoot a griffon or two that had pursued me into the air. Aside from the couple of beatings he’d laid down on me, I never really saw Razorbeak as a fighter, but he was proving himself to be every bit the seasoned veteran as I watched him snipe target after target, never once missing a shot.
I took a few hits during the skirmish, but they were nothing I couldn’t deal with for the moment. Once I’d shaken my pursuit thanks to Razorbeak, I sought out a location with plenty of cover to land and take a healing potion. The griffon landed beside me as I popped the top and began to drink, covering my back while I did so.
“I hope you haven’t been relying on those things,” he said from over his shoulder. “They’ll only do so much for you. Healing potions are meant to be quick patch jobs; if you ever get hurt badly enough, you’re going to need legitimate medical attention. A magical cure-all is no substitute for a real doctor.”
That was news to me. I’d always thought healing potions could cure anything if taken in sufficient quantities. Guess I’d have to be less careless from now on, then.
“I’ll try not to get shot,” I said, wiping away some dribble with the back of my hoof and tossing the empty bottle away.
“Come look at this, Red. Something’s up. They’ve stopped fighting and they’ve all pulled back to somewhere."
Moving to stand beside the huge black-and-grey griffon, I took a peek down at the ground beneath us. A few straggling mercs scampered away and I followed them with my eyes as they ran by somepony headed in the opposite direction- toward us.
He looked like a pretty important pony, he was a unicorn decked out in the same orange combat armor I’d seen other Prominence mercs wearing, and it blended in somewhat with his own putrid orange coat. His mane and tail were a bright red, and I noticed that his cutie mark was the same emblem that was emblazoned on Prominence combat armor. This must have been Prominence himself.
“Outlaw!” He called out, looking around for me. “Outlaw, I know you’re out there! Come down here and fight me stallion-to-stallion!”
“Don’t,” Razorbeak said, putting a claw on my shoulder as I made to swoop down. “It’s a trap, don’t walk into it like an idiot.”
“I can handle myself,” I said, shrugging away from his grip. “Just keep me covered in case anypony interferes. Or you know, in case shit goes south.”
Leaving Razorbeak at his vantage point, I glided down to land in front of Prominence.
“Ah, there you are. I’ve been waiting for you for quite some time.” His horn burst into life and a small object floated out of his combat armor, which I recognized immediately. It was the holodisk of Steel Ranger data I’d stolen days ago. “I’ve got this, and I know you want it. You can have it… if you can best me in combat.” He tucked the disk back away and hovered out a massive sword with a strange looking grip, and my eyes widened in shock as his magic turned a valve on the hilt and the blade burst into flame.
“Oh, and I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he said as I went to bite down on my bit and shoot him for bringing a sword to a gunfight, “I’m not stupid. I’ve got no less than five guns ready to drop you if you fire off so much as one round.”
Growling angrily as I let the bit go, I instead slid my newly-purchased knife free of its sheath and squared off against Prominence as he began to circle around me. He may have had reach with his magic, but I had maneuverability. I could fly and attack from the air; he couldn’t.
“Keep him busy,” Razorbeak’s voice whispered into my ear, and I nearly pissed myself from the shock. He was using my ScoutBuck’s transceiver to relay a message to me. “I’m moving around to take care of his snipers. Just stay alive for about five minutes.”
Nodding to no one in particular, I surged towards Prominence quick as lightning. I struck at him with my knife, but he parried and returned with a swift riposte. The flaming blade didn’t cut me, but I could smell burnt hair where it had singed my mane.
Gritting my teeth in frustration, I lifted off so that I was hovering an inch or two off the ground and darted around Prominence like a hummingbird, using short wing-assisted hops and striking at him periodically. It quickly became apparent that he was an experienced swordspony as he blocked nearly every blow and struck back twice as fast, opening up several shallow scores and cuts in my skin. At this rate, he was going to win through attrition alone.
“What’s the matter?” Prominence said, taunting me, “Getting tired? Or maybe you’re just that terrible a fighter.”
With a snarl, I launched myself at him and buried my knife into a soft spot in his combat armor. It lodged itself in there good, but it hadn't gone deep enough to wound and I couldn’t manage to tug it free before he brought his flaming sword around and it bit deep into my right shoulder. Dropping to my knees in agony as the burning sword seared my flesh, I glared defiantly up at Prominence as he withdrew the blade and held it against the side of my neck.
“Dead or alive, the poster says. I’m thinking dead. You crossed the wrong pony when you interfered with my operation in Buckston, Outlaw. Now you’re going to pay the price for it.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” I heard Razorbeak say from behind Prominence, and he punctuated his sentence with a bullet, splattering the unicorn merc leader’s brains all over me.
“That’s going to need treatment,” Razorbeak said as he stepped over Prominence’s corpse, pointing to the large gash in my shoulder. “Healing potion ain’t going to cut it. The fire cauterized the wound at least; you won’t have to worry about bleeding out.”
“Forgive me if I don’t jump for joy,” I said bitterly as I limped over to where Prominence’s body lay and fished my knife and the data disk out of his armor. “Finally, I’ve got it back. Now I can find out what the hell Vortex has planned. Or at least get a good idea of what it is, anyway.”
“Are we done then?” Razorbeak asked as he shouldered his rifle. “No more stupid errands, we can get back to the tower now?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m done. Let’s go see Greaser.”
“You idiot! You bloody idiot!” Greaser screeched, flying out of her bed and sinking her hooves into every inch of my body she could reach.
“Ow, ow! I thought this was what you wanted!”
“I don’t care about the bloody talisman; do you have any idea how worried sick I’ve been about you?”
“Me!?” I said incredulously. “You were worried about me? How the hell do you think I felt about you? I nearly got you killed through my own hot-headedness, and you were worried about my well-being? I did this for you Greaser, I needed some way to make it up to you, and getting you your talisman was the only thing I could think of. It’s still not enough, nothing ever will be.”
“Mach, being here by my side when I woke up was all I would have needed. Just knowing you were there would have been reward enough. I didn’t need you to go and risk your bloody life in a stable just to get me a part for one of my little side-projects. Sweet Celestia, look at you… You’re all shot and burned up and you’ve got that big gash in your shoulder. Oh, and your face..." she said, tracing over the gash in my muzzle with a hoof. "Bloody hell, you’re a mess.”
“Aw, it's all right," I said, waving a hoof dismissively and effecting a forced smile. "Mares dig scars."
In all actuality, I did care quite a great deal. As an incredibly vain pony, I cared quite a bit about my appearance. Sure, I slacked off when it came to certain things, but for the most part I prided myself on my looks. My lean physique, my wings and my mane- I worked my ass off to make sure each one was up to my demanding standards. After all, how could I be expected to woo a hot mare if I wasn't looking my absolute best?
My smile faltered when I saw how concerned Greaser looked. "Sorry. I couldn’t be by your side, Greaser. Stars know I wanted to be, but… Razorbeak and I had a… disagreement. I didn’t know if he’d ever let me near you again after I nearly got you killed and I needed something to keep my mind off things, so I just went and got you your talisman. I’m sorry, kid. Really, I am. For everything. Dragging you into my fight with Vortex, landing you in the hospital, making you worry about my stupid ass… Everything.” I scooped up one of her hooves and held it between mine. “Can you forgive me?”
“Well… she said mischievously, lazily rolling her eyes. I think I might be able to, providing you tell me all about that.” She jabbed a hoof at my left flank, indicating the patch of my cutie mark she’d sewn on.
“Oh Greaser, come on. Do I have to?”
“You owe me a cutie mark story!” Greaser said, kicking her hindlegs, a grumpy frown plastered on her face.
“I don’t know, Greaser… I know I said I’d tell you, but that was more to get you to fight for your life than it was truth. That day really sucked for me, it’s not fun to remember.”
“You swore! You swore to your stupid patron star that you’d tell me your cutie mark story!”
Aw, she had me there. I did swear to tell her. Damn it… I hated reliving that day, but if it would make her happy…
“Okay, all right. Fine, I’ll tell you the stupid story. If you’ll remember I don’t exactly get along with my father?” I asked to make sure she was all caught up before I continued on with my story.
“Well, there’s a reason for that, and it’s not just because he’s been holding me back from being a Wonderbolt. No, this goes back way farther than that. If you’ll recall, I’ve said a few times that I had to practice my ass off to get to be as good a flier as I am today. Well, believe it or not, that’s because I was a terrible, terrible flier when I was a foal.”
“So that’s the reason behind the animosity between you and your father?”
“Mmm,” I said, nodding in agreement. “That’s certainly what started it. You see, the reason I hate my father so much, Greaser, is because he threw me below the cloud cover before I knew how to fly.”
Footnote: Level up.
New Perk: Speed Demon – What a rush! Upon consumption, chems such as Dash have twice the effect on you; however, when not under their influence, you suffer the symptoms of withdrawal, even if not addicted.
Just as always, thanks to Kkat for creating FoE in the first place, and more importantly (at least to me, anyway) thanks to my readers for sticking around. I hope you're enjoying the reading as much as I am the writing!
Have some Razorbeak, why not?
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