Chapter 18: Alone
"It could be worse. At least this isn't a sewer!"
Lee's final words barely had time to register in my mind before I was being whisked away from her, perhaps forever. It was a decision I had not expected to make, or even realized I was making. I had just chosen Demi's well-being over continuing to live with, and seek help for my mother. I may have just sacrificed my life to look for someone who could well be dead. Going down a drain, head first, was not the sort of thing that should be done willingly, but I just had. I pressed my hooves down hard, trying to jam myself between the top and bottom of the steeply angled pipe in an attempt to slow myself, then realized that Demi would probably not have been in the position to do so. If I wanted to find out what happened to her, it was probably smarter to just go with the flow, literally.
Moments later I discovered my attempts at braking had very little effect on the overall outcome of the descent, as the pipe spat me out into another of a larger diameter, and mostly full of moving water at that. The water slowed me enough that ramming into the opposite side of the pipe wasn't too painful. It also helped deflect me so I didn't hit it head first. I don't think the impact would have knocked out even an ordinary pony so Demi, if she had been conscious, would probably have been able to get her nose above water and keep breathing, as I was doing now. Fortunately it appeared to be a storm water pipe, and not a sewer.
The next however-many-minutes-it-was, were not particularly enjoyable. I had to keep afloat, keep breathing, and not get too battered by the occasional heavier piece of debris that had settled to the bottom of the pipe. Actually, keeping my head above water when I was pushed under wasn't hard. I simply put my feet on the bottom and pushed. The pipe really wasn't that big. It wasn't that interesting to look at either. It was concrete, and it was round, and occasionally another smaller pipe emptied into it. I dropped the light spell, as it was wasting my energy, relying on the glow from my Pipgirl instead. As that was under water, the effect was interesting, if not entrancing. At least it added a little beauty to a scary situation. I can imagine how terrifying it must have been for Demi. For her it was probably dark, as I doubt she would have had the opportunity to use her Pipbuck lamp, and the pipe was carrying her away from the little oasis of joy in her otherwise pretty horrible life.
It was not long before I was dumped into yet another pipe of even larger diameter. Again, the current prevented me from hitting the opposite wall too hard. This pipe took the occasional deviation, always flowing down, of course, presumably towards a river or other natural low point. I was becoming a little scared about how low these pipes appeared to be going. It occurred to me that the expense of putting them in from above ground would be prohibitive; that's when I remembered the Diamond Dogs, tunnelers extraordinaire, and then I became really scared. Surely these pipes didn't lead to some bottomless pit deep under Equestria? Had I just thrown my life away, trying to save somepony who was already dead? I had no choice but to wait and hope.
Just when I was sure that Equestrian drains lead to the center of the planet, the pipe abruptly ended, the water arcing into a dark void, taking me with it. You had to be joking. It didn't really empty into a bottomless pit, did it? No, it couldn't. I took a deep breath, and waited for the upcoming splash, or thump. A splash it was, and I plunged down several meters. Holding still, I allowed myself to float, breathing deeply as soon as my head was clear of the water. I worked my most powerful light spell, and was surprised at how dark it remained. Eventually I was able to determine that I was floating in a large, grime and slime stained cistern, into which several pipes emptied. Around the walls at the level of the water were several other pipes, each covered by grills. The water was flowing away through them. That would mean that the only ways Demi could have gone were up... or down. I took a deep breath, and plunged myself back under water, swimming towards the bottom. It was a long way down; in fact it was so far down that the currents formed by the water pouring into the cistern had little effect. Sediment and debris were settling down here, and had been for centuries. It was some sort of crude sediment filter system. It would have been designed to be emptied on a regular basis, and perhaps some automated system had been doing so every few years since the war. Or perhaps since the war, there were simply not enough ponies dropping litter for there to be much build-up.
Whatever the case, if Demi was in here, her body would be down here somewhere. I surfaced, gasping for air. As soon as I was able, I dived down again. And again, and again. On my eighth trip down, I found a tiny pony, a doll or figurine. Grasping it with my teeth, I pulled it free, and turned to the surface. After taking a few breaths, I took the time to put it into a storage pocket on my barding, glad for the warding spell that kept dust and water from entering the pockets. If not for those spells, the pockets would have kept filling with water until the storage matrix was full, and that would have made me impossibly heavy, pinning me to the bottom of the cistern, if not crushing me outright. I dived down again.
Eventually I was so tired that if I didn't find a way out of the cistern soon, I would be joining the debris on the bottom. Maybe my limbs couldn't tire, but my brain sure could. The coldness of the water was also taxing my systems, and despite the increased warmth the cybernetic systems were generating in an attempt to keep my body temperature correct, I was slowly but surely chilling. I hadn't found Demi's body, despite my dozens of dives.
I swam towards the side of the cistern, working my way around, looking for a way out. About three quarters of the way around, I found the steel rungs of the built-in ladder. I gave the first rung a tug, and it showed no sign of collapsing. A touch of my horn revealed to me it was of a good grade of stainless steel, so I would not need to worry about any of the rungs breaking under my weight. I hooked my hooves around the first rung and pulled myself up. Free of the buoyancy of the water, I immediately felt my weight, and as tired as I was, I wondered if I had overspent myself. Over the next half hour, I slowly dragged myself from one rung to the next, then paused for a short rest. Ladders and ponies did not mix. These must have been designed for a more dexterous species to climb, or were only put in as an emergency life saving measure. I was worried somewhat by the sluggishness of my cybernetic limbs, wondering if I had somehow drained my internal spark batteries, despite recently charging them. Perhaps I was simply overloading my systems, with a significant amount of power going into trying to keep my body warm.
By the time I finally reached the top, the heat generated by my cybernetics had dried me, and my soggy barding, and I felt a little better. Moving to the nearest wall, I lay down on the concrete, and extinguished my light spell. I lay there just trying to recover some of my energy. It was not long before my body took over the task and sent me to sleep. I can't say it was a pleasant experience, the dreams all being about Demi dying, or being separated from me by an impenetrable veil. Finally that torture came to an end and I opened my left eye. Something was holding my right eye shut. It took my muddled mind a few moments to realize I was still bandaged. The bandages could probably come off now, especially considering the soaking they had during my excursion along the drainage system, but the doctors had said the bandaging was to help prevent scarring, and I really didn't want any of that! My face really had been a mess after being shot, then kicked, by a Steel Ranger in power armor, what's more. As inconvenient as it was to have one eye covered, I decided to leave the bandages on for the time being.
It was while I was lying there, I recalled the figurine I had put in my pocket while swimming, I retrieved it and placed it on the concrete in front of me. It was of a pegasus mare in flight, a letter held between her teeth. On its base, was emblazoned "We Deliver!" and "Equestrian Postal Service". Well, it wasn't one of those rare Ministry Mare statuettes I'd occasionally heard of in rumors, but it was kind of nice. I'd give it to Ditzy Doo next time I saw her. She'd love it. As I was staring at it I noticed some fresh scratching below it, on the concrete in front of me. I moved the statuette a little so I could get a better look at the writing, and immediately jumped up, adrenaline at maximum. Scratched there before me was a simple message. "Anne, I'm okay. I am going to try find my way back to Stable Four above ground. I love you, Demi."
In my enthusiasm, I ran a few directionless steps, before returning to her message. Like me, she must have slept in the same place, after climbing from the cistern. I could have saved myself so much effort and stress if I had come straight up here, instead of searching the depths for her body. But if I had climbed first, and missed the message, chances were I would have gone back down into the cistern to look about. Meh, it had happened already. It was yesterday-Anne's problem. Touching my horn to the floor, I used my magic to carve, "Love you too, Demi. I'm looking for you, Anne." below her message to me. Chances were she would never see it, but if she did come back for whatever reason, she would know I had come this far.
Lighting my horn again, I looked around for an exit. I soon spotted a staircase to raised catwalk. I trotted around to it, ascended the stairs it, following the catwalk as far as I could. The material the catwalk was ordinary steel, and the mist thrown up by the water pouring into the cistern had not been kind to it. I could hear it as it creaked, groaned with every step, despite the roar of the water pouring into the cistern below. Without even thinking about it, I stopped and pressed my horn to it, using my magic to feel out to all of the weak spots around me, forming the rust back into solid steel, remaking failing welds, strengthening the corroded structure. Feeling somewhat safer, I trotted on a few more paces, then repeated the process. There was no point in me risking my life now that I knew Demi was ahead, and in relatively good health. I stayed alert for any messages she may have left me, and was rewarded on two occasions with her name carved into the rust. I left my mark too. Ponies in the future could make whatever they would of it, should they ever discover them.
Soon enough the catwalk was replaced by a suspended steel tunnel, then shortly afterwards, a concrete service tunnel of the sort I frequented while repairing cables. A few doors along this tunnel led to the expected machine rooms. Pump motors and control panels filled them, but I had no interest in them. I checked each, in case Demi was hiding within, and failing to register on my Eyes Forward Sparkle. She wasn't, so I went back to following the tunnel, hoping it wasn't a dead end like those down near Stable Four. Actually, if it was a dead end, perhaps I'd find Demi there, and that wouldn't be so bad. That would mean we were probably trapped, though, and that would be bad. After climbing another long staircase, I found myself facing a standard service tunnel door. It wasn't locked, so I pulled it open, and stepped out into the pre-dawn air. Freedom, at last! Though it was not a very practical way to escape from Stable Four, it was a way, should all else fail, for someone to go looking for help. What was I thinking? I was already out here, wasn't I? Before I moved on, I glanced around for a mark from Demi, and found her sense of humor had also survived.
"I wouldn't recommend Helvetica try this way out of the stable," she had written. I lay down to wait for the sun to rise, pulling out some of my food and water. For the first time since I went looking for Demi, I noticed I was quite hungry!
Dawn had revealed Demi's tracks, so I followed them, on and off, as she passed over soft and hard ground, steep hills, rocks and cliff faces determining where she had walked. When it appeared I was about to lose her tracks due to where she had to travel, I would find an arrow scratched into the ground, guiding me. She may not have a lot of wasteland experience, but she was making up for that with her intelligence. I didn't really recognize where I was, but starting to suspect we'd been dumped in Ghastly Gorge. It was after all a natural drain, and would have been where the water flowed before any civil works interrupted the flow. A quick check of the mapping feature on my Pipgirl indicated I'd never explored the area before, and thus had no identifiers marked. What it also showed me was I wasn't that far from New Appleloosa. Perhaps I'd get there with a day's walking. If Demi had any sense, she'd call in there too. She'd need provisions for her trek back to Stable Four. I did wonder what she would do for money though. I couldn't recall if I'd given her any of my caps or not. I would have been stupid not to include some when I first put together her little survival kit. After all, I had just taken a reasonable number of caps from the slavers from who I had rescued her.
As I began my climb out of the gorge, it began to rain. It was inevitable, but I was still annoyed as it washed away any traces of Demi's tracks. If she was leaving any more tags for me to find, chances were I would miss them. I wondered if she would stop doing so after a while, eventually giving up hope that I had actually followed her out through the drain. That she was heading straight for the stable, and wasn't waiting indicated she wasn't counting on anyone having followed her. It also showed common sense. Had I been in her situation, I would have wondered at the sanity of anyone jumping down that tiny dark hole, not knowing if I was dead or alive. I guess that meant I had to consider myself a little nutty, because that was exactly what I had done. Loopy Lee and Insane Anne, wasteland idiots! It had a wonderful ring to it, didn't it?
Uncharacteristically for me, I flicked on my Pipgirl's inbuilt radio. It would give me a little company, even if I was totally sick of the tunes DJ Pon3 played all the time. I guess he was a creature of habit, just an old timer stuck in his ways. He'd been playing these songs ever since Lee and I had crawled out of our hole, and probably from before then too. The occasion I met him, I told him he needed to improve his play list, and he had just laughed. Thus, I was totally surprised when wonderful new music issued forth. Hooray! After all, it simply wasn't possible that the wasteland had destroyed all musical recordings, and all musicians. If anything, I thought the bleak, desolate place would have inspired some to create music. Maybe it did, and it was just to depressing to play. Or maybe it was just plain bad!
I stepped off the track leading out of the gorge into a full blown storm. It nearly blew me off the edge and back into the gorge! For a few moments I considered backtracking, as the gorge had been sheltering me from the worst of the wind, but decided that I would keep going in the hope that I would find some place better to shelter. With each step I took, I wished I had stayed in the gorge, but each step I took away from it gave me one more reason not to turn around. The rain was driven hard into my coat, and had leaked under my barding, robbing me of the warmth under there. My bandages were soaked through again too. The wind was then blowing through my wet coat, chilling me further. Damn pegasi and their cloud curtain. What in Celestia's name made those arrogant pricks think they had the right to starve us of sunlight and warmth? Sure, they lived above us, but they seemed to be mistaking their physical location for their place in Equestrian society. I would sure like to bring some of them down to the ground, both figuratively and literally. My complaints were only about those that lived up above though. The few that had the gall and guts to live down here with us ground pounders were okay, if they chose not to indulge in the vices of so many others that lived down here.
When I finally became too uncomfortable, I called up my grooming magic, and blasted all of the moisture out of my coat, enjoying the brief moments of dryness before the rain began soaking in again. I was feeling too drained to try casting a shield spell. I thought of Cirrus, back at Stable Four. She would be having a fit if she saw me now. Not only was I not getting bed rest, I was pushing myself, exposing myself to too much water, bacteria and whatever. I really hoped my wounds had already healed. At least they were not hurting any more.
By the time the lights of New Appleloosa appeared on the horizon, it was already dark. I was tired, cold and hungry. I hadn't stopped to eat or rest, because I knew if I did, I wouldn't be able to convince myself to start walking again. My stump was feeling quite painful too, and I was sure I had some blisters on it. The prosthetic made walking possible, but it was by no means as good as having an intact leg. As I was this close to the walled town, I wasn't stopping now, though I did think about where I may find myself sleeping. Last time I had slept here, I had curled up beneath one of the rail cars of which Ditzy Doo's general store as made.
A few more minutes of walking later, I realized I might be stopped from entering by circumstances beyond my control, or more specifically, a dirty great steel gate. I walked up to it, and into the area lit by several spotlights. That gave the night guards an advantage over me, as I could not see them with the light in my eye. Standing in the circle of light also showed quite clearly that I was prepared to put myself at their mercy.
"Who are you, and what is your business here?" demanded one of the guards from a walkway somewhere above me.
I turned my bandaged head in his general direction. "It's Anne, the repair pony, and I'm looking for a lost friend."
"Oh, I didn't recognize you, all bandaged and without your gear. Where's your mother, or is that who you are seeking?" the voice responded.
That was a good start, a guard that recognized me. "Mum's still out on a job. I'm looking for a white filly with a black mane and tail," I said, not referring to her wing, as she may have kept that hidden in her barding. "She was headed in this general direction yesterday."
"I can't say I've seen her, but she may have come through on someone else's watch," the guard answered. "Wait a moment while I get the gate opened for you. Most pony folk are in bed now. You won't get many answers before morning, so I suggest you find somewhere to sleep."
"Thank you," I responded as the heavy gate scraped open just enough for me to squeeze through, before closing again the moment I was past.
Like the last time I had needed a place to sleep here, I headed towards Ditzy Doo's store, Absolutely Everything. The ground under her ramp had made a good bed last time. I ducked down into the space below the repurposed rolling stock, then used my magic to blast all of the water and grime from my coat, barding and bandages. I located the patch of ground where I had slept the last time, and settled down. I pulled a couple of hay cakes and a bottle of clean water from my barding and began to eat. Full, I lay down and fell asleep, this time too tired to even dream.
"Look, Mommy, there is a hurt pony sleeping under our home," the voice of a filly stated, waking me . Silver Bell had discovered me again.
"Hello, Silver Bell. Hello, Ditzy," I greeted them, without even opening my eye. I sat up and faced them. "I hope you won't charge me room rent for sleeping under here!"
The ghoul pony grinned. I really wished I could have met her when she was young and still... well... still a pony. She would have been charming and delightful. More so, I meant. Moments later I found myself being ushered into her store for breakfast. Admittedly the fare was simple, but as I was a guest, I was delighted. She would have been within her rights to sell me something. As I was finishing my meal, the town doctor walked into Absolutely Everything. Before he could even open his mouth, Ditzy steered him in my direction. Was his arrival coincidence, or had Ditzy sent for him? I didn't know.
"Oh, it's the grim reaper," he stated when he recognized me.
"Good morning, doctor," I responded,
"And how is your mother?" he asked.
"Loopy is still loopy," I responded.
"Have you managed to get her help?"
"Alas, no. We ended up giving help instead of getting it," I commented. "Technically, we are still on our way to the lab, although I seem to have become somewhat waylaid."
"What about you? You've been mummified," the doctor stated.
"It's kind of poetic justice," I responded. "Would you believe Saffron Fields kicked me in the head? It was by accident, but that didn't make it any better for my head!"
The doctor suddenly became very serious, approaching me. "Hold still while I look you over," he commanded. "How bad was the injury?"
"It was a glancing blow on a fresh bullet wound, but it took me down to bare metal. Tore half of my face and my ear right off."
"When?" he asked as he began to carefully unwind the bandage from my head.
"Two or three days back. Some unicorns treated it, but I sneaked off before I was meant to. Speaking of which, I don't suppose you have seen a white filly with a black mane and tail. She goes by the name of Demi."
"Demi One Wing? No, I've not seen her in a few weeks," the doctor responded.
"What?" I spluttered. "You know her?"
"She's a local. I've treated her a few times. Her parents refused to pay to have her wing removed, so the poor girl was constantly picked on," the doctor explained.
"They sold her to slavers," I practically spat.
"Oh, I don't think they would have done that," the doctor assured me, "although it is possible she was captured by some while outside of town. Anyway, hold still."
The doctor finished unwinding the bandages from my head, and that took quite some doing because, as he had observed, I had practically been mummified. Eventually, with my head free of them, he gently moved about studying my face and ear, gently moving hair with his lips from time to time. Opening my right eye, I found the eyelid to be working perfectly, and my vision to be clear
"Move your ear," he commanded.
I obliged. It felt perfectly fine.
"If I didn't know you to be basically trustworthy, I'd say you were lying about being injured. I can't even find any scarring. Nothing," he stated. "Those unicorn doctors of yours are top rate surgeons."
"Wow, that's great, and not just for me. Saffron's marefriend was also injured in the same fight. She lost half of her face too."
"Saffron has a marefriend? He didn't kick her, did he? Who were you fighting?"
"No, he didn't kick her too. We were fighting bugs," I answered. "Hundreds of radroaches."
"You are lucky to have survived," the doctor stated.
"I very nearly didn't," I confirmed.
"I think you could safely remove the bandage from around your midriff," the doctor said, "if those unicorns treated that wound too. As for charging you, as I didn't actually need to do anything, and in fact volunteered to look at you, this one is on the house."
"Much appreciated," I responded. I admitted to myself I would have been a little miffed if he had tried to charge me here. If I had gone over to his clinic, then it would have been a different matter.
After the doctor left, I thanked Ditzy Doo for her hospitality and excused myself. I had some parents to find. Ditzy pointed me in the right direction. After that, it was just a matter of asking the locals if they had seen Demi or her parents. After about five minutes, I had worked my way across to the other side of the compound, and up a level when a pony I asked pointed me directly to Demi's family's door. I thanked him, and moved to the indicated residence. Not unexpectedly, no pony I had asked had seen Demi since the slavers took her. That meant she must have deliberately avoided Appleloosa. If her parents really had sold her, I could understand that. That the doctor may be correct, and Demi had just been captured while wandering around outside the compound was troubling me. That would mean Demi had lied to me. My gut instinct told me that she was truthful, so that meant her parents really were the worst. That too was troubling, but given the choice between them selling Demi, or Demi lying to me, I would choose them selling Demi. I didn't want anything to damage the picture of Demi I held in my mind... or was it in my heart?
From one step down, I knocked on the tatty old door of their converted passenger car home. The windows had been painted a sort of grimy off-white, so the only indication I had of anyone hearing me was hoof steps coming towards the door. The door opened inwards, and I found myself looking up at a white mare with a dark blue mane and tail.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"I'm looking for Demi," I stated. "Have you seen her today?"
The mare looked at me as if I was stupid. "She left town several weeks ago. Everyone here knows that."
Now it was my turn to look at her as if she was stupid. I decided to get straight to the point; politeness could go to hell. "Yes, I know you sold her to slavers several weeks ago. I lost track of her two or three days ago."
That was when she noticed my prosthetic. A look of horror and guilt painted itself across the mare's face. "I suggest you come inside if you want to continue this discussion," she said, stepping back to allow me past. There had been no denial. My heart jumped with relief.
Once I was inside, the mare shut the door behind us. We were in a short entry hall, made by the removal of the car's original seats, and the erection of a couple pieces of old plywood. A full length curtain blocked my view of what lay beyond.
"Well?" I prompted, looking up at the mare. It was times like this I wished I had grown to full size instead of being trapped in this teenaged body. It was very hard to act intimidating when everypony else towered above you.
"Honey," the mare quietly called back into her home, "one of Bukov's other girls is here looking for our blasted daughter. It appears she has escaped."
Bukov's girls? Who the hell was Bukov? More importantly, there had still been no denial of them selling Demi. In fact, the mare had practically confirmed it. I felt secure in my judgement of Demi's character. I was glad to know that the doctor and other townsfolk had it wrong.
"Haven't seen her," came the reply from Demi's father, "and if she escaped, that's Bukov's problem. I'm not giving the money back."
If I wanted to prove the treachery of this pair, all I needed now was the receipt. I already had the confession.
"You two really are scum, aren't you?" I said loudly. "Fancy selling your daughter to slavers."
"Hush you stupid foal, or the neighbors will hear," the mare commanded.
"That is why I raised my voice, you bitch," I yelled back. "I rescued Demi from the three slavers. They were all killed." I couldn't honestly claim I had killed them though, as I had been upside down against a wall, full of shrapnel from a grenade at the time. The honor of killing them had fallen to Saffron and Lee.
"Shee-it!" the male voice exclaimed. "You mean she never even got delivered to Bukov? He will be so pissed!"
"I hope he comes looking for a refund!" I yelled back, as the stallion moved into view. Like his wife, he was also white, but had a chocolate mane and tail. That would explain Demi's coloring. "May you bastards rot in hell!" I spat as I turned to leave.
The mare's hoof reached past me and slammed against the door, holding it shut. I glared up at her, wondering what her game was.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Demi's father asked.
"If Bukov or any of his cronies come looking, we pass this filly over," Demi's mother answered, "That gets him off our back, gives him a new cripple to fuck, and someone to blame for his losses. Grab her, and lock her in the box car. Don't forget the little bitch is a unicorn. Drug her or something so she doesn't try to escape."
The more I heard from Demi's parents, the more I was impressed with Demi herself, and this Bukov they were referring to sounded like a really unsavory character. He had to be some sort of local warlord, or crime boss or something like that, and by the sound of it, he had a fetish for the physically disadvantaged. Maybe I should look him up, and deal with him. That was a problem for the future though. Catching up with Demi and getting help for Lee came first. Then I had to help the Stable Four mares. I felt a little guilty that others may come to harm while I looked after the things on my to-do list, but I couldn't solve everything wrong with the wasteland, could I? I was no hero. That title belonged to the likes of this Stable Dweller DJ Pon3 seemed to like talking about.
In the mean time, I was too busy to be getting caught, drugged and sold off to slavers by these bastards.
I planted my butt hard against the door, feigned fear, and primed my pushing spell, waiting until Demi's father was only a step away. As soon as he was close enough, I let lose with the full power of the spell, aimed squarely at his chest. Using a variation of this spell, I had stopped four ponies from falling to their deaths at Stable Four. This was easy by comparison. The stunned stallion went back in the direction from which he had come, at several times the speed, spouting expletives for the duration of his relatively quick trip. I heard the door explode open at the other end of the old passenger car, and assorted crashes and bangs as he came to an uncomfortable landing, probably down one storey on the ground below.
"You're next, you bitch," I snarled at Demi's mother, as I swung away from her and bucked her upside her head, literally. She went over backwards, and collapsed, unconscious, on the floor behind me. I paused only long enough to buck her again. That would give her a bruise where it would really hurt when she woke. I opened the door and stepped out of the passenger car. I could see a few other locals had gathered, drawn by the commotion.
"That's right, they sold their daughter Demi to slavers," I stated loudly as I walked past, "and they just tried to capture me and sell me to them too. You probably heard that bit yourselves. You folks have such wonderful neighbors." I left it that, and walked purposefully back toward Ditzy Doo's shop, leaving the residents twittering among themselves. Ditzy, I knew, had no tolerance for slavers. I was sure she would tell me (or more correctly, write down for me) all she knew about this Bukov character. That way I would be able to move on him when the opportunity arose.
After the fight with Demi's parents, I went to ground. The last two times I had come to New Appleloosa had resulted in a fight. If I kept up this behavior, I would get myself kicked out of the town permanently, and while I really didn't care for the town that much, I didn't want to lose access to Ditzy Doo and her store. I sneaked back across town, mostly staying under various rail cars and walkways, and actively avoiding ponies. I managed to slip into Absolutely Everything unnoticed, although once I was inside, I stopped sneaking. A few quick words with Ditzy rewarded me with a likely address for this Bukov character. After thanking her, I pulled my disappearing act again, only revealing myself after I was through the town gates and walking away. I would follow the route we had taken last time. My mind returned to my thoughts on living out a real-life game of snakes and ladders as I walked over ground I had walked recently. Actually, it wasn't that recently. What was it? Three weeks ago, now. Had I really been stuck down in Stable Four for that long? It was funny, now that I was out walking on the surface again, it felt wrong, as if I was beginning to prefer living in tunnels.
Eventually my blistered stump got the better of me, and forced me to stop. Hitting the release on my leg armor and Pipgirl, I pulled both my good foreleg and my stump from their encapsulation. That sure felt good. I splashed a little of one of my healing potions onto the blisters, and rubbed it in, thankful for the relief that gave me. While I was at it, I took the time to remove my barding, and the bandage around my midriff and clean both them and myself. With my blisters healed, I wrapped my stump in the freshly cleaned bandage, hoping that would prevent rubbing. I slipped my prosthetic armored leg and my Pipgirl back on, and locked them in place. The armor from my left leg went into one of the pockets on my barding. It had been chafing too. After a quick meal, I returned to my trek through the wasteland.
Not too long after, I recognized the ruined buildings in which we had slept the night we had encountered the slavers and rescued Demi. It would be funny if I found Demi here. I started sneaking again, as I knew slavers had camped here before, and I really didn't want to stumble into them unprepared. I ducked into the ruins and worked my way through the rubble, ducking under collapsed door frames, and climbing through broken windows and gaps in the masonry. I soon reached the same building where we had slept that night. Most of the blood had been washed away by the rains, and even the bodies had been dragged away. My first guess was raiders seeking to supplement their diet, but when I looked out the broken upper storey window, I saw three marked mounds below me. Someone had actually buried them. What that meant was those slavers had friends. Bukov's ponies must have done it. I looked over towards the slaver camp from which we had rescued Demi, seeing two ponies, sitting there, around a camp fire. There was no one in the caged area though, so it was possible these two were not slavers. Their voices and mannerisms were not pleasant though, rather they were rough and uncouth, laughing, mimicking and mocking.
Adjusting my ears for best reception I listened in to their conversation. It was not long before I picked up on what they were discussing. Yesterday, they had come through here while returning from on one of their regular runs, when they saw one of the slaves that had escaped when their mates were killed. That sounded ominous. I really didn't even need to listen to the rest of what they were saying to know it was Demi they had found. They were delighted, because their boss had been very annoyed at the loss of the "one wing", and capturing her not only placated Bukov, but earned them a bonus. I was just about to try to kill the bastards when I realized all of my guns were back at Stable Four. Bugger. This called for a different approach. Perhaps it was time for an inside job, if I could call it that. Let these bastards get me inside Bukov's place, find Demi, then break out, killing as many bastards as possible while I could.
To do that well, I knew I had to present myself as a silly filly, and dressed in security barding wasn't going to cut it. It was time for drastic action again. I jumped down a drain with very little, to look for Demi, so I might as well walk into a slavers' camp with nothing. To that effect, I removed my barding, and extracted a bottle of water and some hay cakes, which I ate. I may as well carry what I could inside me! Who knew how long it would be before I got to eat again. The water bottle, I tied up with string and hung it around my neck, after first drinking some of it. They'd probably steal it, but that didn't matter. I folded my barding and tucked it into the bottom of a decrepit cabinet that was in the room, and using telekinesis, locked the door. Maybe my stuff would still be here if I returned. Maybe some other adventurer would come past, pick the lock and make off with their find. I was sure I'd done exactly that to other adventurers!
So wearing only my prosthetic, Pipgirl and with a water bottle hanging around my neck, I started towards the steps leading down. Glancing across at them I saw they were about to break camp.
"I wouldn't go there if I was you," a tinny voice said near my ear. I nearly left the room by the window! Calming myself, I turned, finding one of those wretched sprite-bots hovering silently next to me.
"Gah!" I said.
"Watcher," it replied, then after a few moments of silence, "Oh, it's you. I didn't recognize you without the mare you usually travel with."
"I don't like being watched," I replied.
"I noticed," the watcher responded. "So far every time I have approached you, you have shot the sprite-bot I was using."
"Ah, so you control these pests from a safe place?"
"Only when I need to. I hack into one and take control, as I am doing now," Watcher explained.
"Good for you," I said. "Now, if you don't mind I have some stallions to introduce myself to."
“That is not a good idea. Those ponies are slavers."
"I know," I responded, "and they are talking about my friend, who I intend to rescue."
"That is very virtuous of you. Have you discovered your virtue yet?” Watcher asked.
"I'm a thirty four year old virgin," I responded. "Does that count? Now, if you will excuse me..." With that I trotted down the stairs, and out the front door, angling towards the slaver camp the moment I was out. They looked up, surprised to hear me coming. After all I had been hidden up to a few moments ago.
"Hi guys!" I called. "I'm looking for a friend of mine. She's a white pony with one wing."
Footnote: Maximum Level. Perk: No additional perk gained.