ThursdayMetafics! Metafics everywhere! 14 comments · 103 views
2w, 6dI'm So Excited 3 comments · 62 views
3w, 6dWritten in thirty-nine minutes 7 comments · 90 views
4w, 2dSongs of the Unfinished 2 comments · 68 views
5w, 3dSo apparently Huggled is a success! 1 comments · 99 views
6w, 3dMy Little Pony: The Musical 3 comments · 62 views
8w, 5dEarth Ponies 9 comments · 111 views
9w, 43mIt is done. 2 comments · 75 views
10w, 1dMore random facts about the Stalliongrad Metro 1 comments · 68 views
10w, 2d200 Followers!!! 2 comments · 69 views
My Little Metro: Chapter 11
“He noted with satisfaction the black line of dots on the green of the camouflage.”
The run from Compass was not something I recalled with clarity. I clearly remembered skidding to a halt far down that dark, dank tunnel we retreated into, but before that I recalled blurry, half-formed images of Sunny Side panting next to me, with Tracer plowing on ahead. I remembered a blurring network of pipes that we followed like a river downstream, and the sharp smell of mildew mixed with the tang of my own sweat. The fear of being chased and hunted triggered some deep, instinctive reaction, and like a panicking herd of the old days we charged, blind and deaf to anything but the path ahead of us. We ran like a demon chased us until we stopped abruptly, like a spell was broken and we found ourselves again.
Where we stopped was a completely unremarkable stretch of tunnel. Sunny Side and me dropped on our haunches and breathed, our mouths gaping like fish as we greedily gulped the cold, bitter air. I could taste the faint, nausea inducing taint of poison, but I didn’t care. My lungs clawed at my throat to get at the stale air, and I felt myself shaking. Not from exhaustion, but the exhilarating fear of the battle behind us. The gunshots had long since faded into the distance, but I still felt the lingering excitement, the need to stand up and run and do things. Was I supposed to be this excited? I felt ashamed of myself as I came down from the high, slowly drooping down until I rested on my stomach. Sunny Side was in similar straits, still gasping and staring straight ahead. I could only wonder what he was feeling. We’d never been involved in such a huge battle with other ponies before, and the Hoofsa tank was the first time I’d seen such a monstrous armored vehicle. No wonder they claimed to be the best bandit hunters in the Metro.
I remembered the tense chase and subsequent fall that had begun this journey, and how terrifying that had been. But now, for whatever reason, it seemed less a life-threatening experience and more a simple event, an obstacle I’d had to traverse. I was more tired than afraid, more battle-fatigued than emotionally exhausted.
On a whim I pulled out the Guide and looked it over, trying to make heads or tails of the esoteric symbols and Old Equestrian writing. Nopony had mentioned a rail cart that would take us where we needed to go that should be somewhere along here. I felt Tracer’s eyes on me as I went over the strange document, marking the location of the rail cart. Once again, before my very eyes the language became clearer and clearer with each viewing, like it wasn’t a puzzle but an optical illusion my eyes needed to acclimate to…
“I didn’t think it was true,” Tracer murmured. “But I suppose the Metro has shown me stranger things before.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I immediately felt guilty under the weight of Tracer’s stare, certain that I’d just done something wrong. Or perhaps his eyes were just that accusatory in general. I felt he’d done a great deal of judging, given his past with the farmers and the other degenerates of the Metro.
“I mean you’re doing something normal ponies shouldn’t be able to do,” he said outright. “But I don’t know what it means. A Guide can only be read by the ones it’s supposed to be read by, or those who have the key. Powerful enchantments guard them. And here you are just breezing through it.”
My stomach flipped over. I got the feeling now that I’d done something very, very wrong, and I crammed the Guide back into my saddlebag, feeling chagrined.
“What about it?” I asked. “It’s not harming us. Anyway, we’re not far. Since we’ve run so much I’d say the rail cart is right around the corner.”
“You’re treading a very dangerous path, Lockbox,” he said. I felt like he was trying to look inside of me, like how Hunter often looked at ponies except with much more hostility. I stood up and walked south, determined to move on.
“I already knew that,” I shot back. Sunny Side let out a gasping, weary sigh, but stood to follow me as well. I felt sorry for him, knowing he had nowhere else to go. Our friendship had dragged him into this, and he was good and trapped just like me. I could only take solace in that we were in this together. Facing this journey alone would’ve broken me.
“There are other dangers in the Metro besides what you’ve faced, Lockbox,” Tracer said, glowering as he took up the rear. “Do you think you are the only one who has been shot at, or killed other ponies? Do you think the monsters you’ve seen are the extent of what the Metro can throw at you?”
“Why does everypony I meet insist on reminding me of how impossible my mission is?” I snapped without meaning to. I rounded on Tracer, angry at the world. “I have enough weighing on my mind and I would appreciate it if just one of you cut me the slightest bit of slack! There is nothing I am not willing to face, and nothing I am unwilling to do if it means saving my home from destruction! In less than two weeks I’ve been shot at more times than I’d care to count, had my life threatened on several occasions, and murdered ponies in cold blood! I don’t give a damn what you’ve seen, or what Sidewinder’s seen, or whatever the hell kind of lesson Nopony is trying to teach me! Shall I sit down and share all my miseries with you? I am too tired and too selfish to think of anything right now except putting one hoof in front of the other! So if you please?”
Tracer remained infuriatingly silent through my rant, which only when it echoed back to me from the depths of the tunnel did I realize how loud I’d been. My cheeks burned with shame and I slapped a hoof to my mouth.
We waited. My ears strained to hear the call of some horrible monster on the hunt, drawn by my shouting. I’d let my emotions get the better of me and now I’d doomed us all…
The Metro remained silent as death. The shadows were still and the pipes did not ring with the cries of the dead. It appeared safe.
We all breathed a sigh of relief.
“My… apologies,” Tracer said quietly. “I am a Ranger. My worries are my own. I had no right to project them onto you. You two have shown extraordinary bravery coming this far. I shouldn’t be so doubtful.”
“At least you’re brave enough to admit it,” I grumbled without remorse. Sunny Side punched my shoulder and stepped between us, allowing Tracer to finally return his battle saddle. He shrugged his shoulders and let its weight fall onto its familiar place on his back. He seemed comforted that he had it back, and I thought he did look more capable when he wore it.
“I heard one of you say we’re close to the exit?” he asked.
“Should be,” I mumbled, and got up to walk again. “It said so on the Guide.”
“Once we get past the Ring, our route will take us near Fort Guarsky,” Tracer said with a grim sigh. “I pray that the Yellow Line tunnels are still open and we can bypass it. Going in there will be akin to deliberately stepping on a howler’s tail. It’s controlled entirely by bandits. The Fort itself is a big sewage treatment plant built mostly underground… two other stations along Blue Line there are owned by the bandits too. Of course, it’s not all bad. They call it a fort, but different crime factions squabble constantly with each other inside it. Nopony really owns it, but they keep their borders secure enough nopony bothers them.”
“And then further south is the Republic?” I asked.
“Yes. The poor suckers caught between Guarsky and the Republic are unenviable… one side is anarchists and criminals, the other is a loony dictatorship. Don’t let the name fool you. The Republic is ruled by a single president who’s been in office for fifteen years and keeps winning every election by a landslide. Her name’s Lucky Clover, and she explains her endless success by describing her special talent as ‘luck.’ Puh, she’s quite the arrogant bitch, but she can juggle the hatreds and needs of ponies beneath her well enough. That’s all you really need to do, you know… identify what a pony’s scared of and assure them you’ll take care of it. That’s how Hoofsa has been able to get smaller stations to flock to their banner. How they got the farmers to be so scared of us Rangers ruining their well-laid plans. There is an old saying: you can take everything from a pony except what he owns.”
“What sense does that make?” Sunny Side asked.
“It means as long as certain boundaries aren’t crossed, a pony is willing to do anything. All you need to do is keep pushing the lines further back, further back… soon they’re putty in your hooves, but as long as what they think is ‘theirs’ hasn’t been touched, they still believe they’re in control. Just keep making them believe it’s worth it, or they’re better off with you… ” Tracer went quiet for a while, mumbling to himself. “Poor, misbegotten bastards,” was all I could make out, and then Sunny Side broke the awkward silence again.
“So there are no other friendly stations to go to?” he asked. “I mean, I’ve heard about the Confederation and Five Towns…”
“Those are still friendly enough,” Tracer admitted, picking up where he’d left off as though he’d never stopped talking. “But they are too far off our path, and plague has strangled travel through the stations between them. No, our route is dangerous, but better. Between the Republic and Guarsky is a mess of independent stations and mutant-ridden plague holes. We might have to head up to the surface every once in a while, but that’s the best way to go undetected. Hopefully we can cross over to the Orange Line and go a little further west, closer to Ponyopolis. I just hope the Monarchy’s tendrils don’t reach too far north and we get cut off.”
The darkness of the Metro was becoming more and more familiar to me. I stood apart from my comrades, who rested at a very small fire that Tracer had put together, looking down the tunnel we traveled. It was old, and ill-kept; mutants or worse were likely to be here. Dirt and cobwebs were here aplenty, and the ceiling was held up by worryingly rotted beams of timber. Rusted pipes ran along the ceiling and sides of the tunnel, an ever-present pathway to nowhere. We’d been running from the three-way battle at Compass for over an hour, and it soon became obvious that our route wasn’t going to take us directly to Otzark Bulvard; if Hoofsa was already beginning its advance on Bucklyn, Otzark would be nowhere near safe. We’d have to take another detour. I didn’t mind, though, if it meant staying away from the destruction that was coming along the Ring.
One thing nagged at my mind, however... Bucklyn would have to stand alone, without any warning from me. They had no idea that their once closest friends had abandoned them for the sake of safety and security. When Hoofsa finally came, they’d be completely unable to stand their pressure combined with the bandits and a potential embargo of food from the plantations. I’d failed in my task to help them prepare. The thought gnawed and gnashed on my mind, playing itself over and over before me. I had given my word to a station that, while very unfriendly, had at least had the decency to give me a purpose and friendly ponies when they sent me off. Ponies who’d died for my mission. I’d told them that I’d do what I could to help, and here I was running away from them and my responsibilities.
Frankly, it made me feel quite worthless. I hadn’t quite been hit by the reality of what I was doing and what it was going to cost me until those few, reflective minutes in the tunnel, the weight of it threatening to buckle my legs. I was a wretched thing, wasn’t I? Desperate for something to distract me from my troubles, I turned to the Ranger. Remembering Ray Drop made me remember the mistake that had cost her life.
“Tracer. What was the package you were supposed to deliver to Outpost 6?”
The question came unbidden. I knew it had to be asked once I thought of it. It took the Ranger by surprise, and he stopped, turning to face me.
“Where did you learn about that?”
“Hunter’s talisman led me to a Ranger outpost on the surface,” I explained. “It said you were supposed to deliver some kind of package to Outpost 6.”
Tracer stared at me for a long, tense moment.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It won’t help us now.”
He turned away, leaving me again with more questions than answers. I decided to let the matter drop for now, and soon we found ourselves at a tunnel junction wherein Nopony had promised a railcart would be waiting. At last, we would be able to penetrate the Ring and find our way into the central Metro.
“Here we go,” Sunny Side said, shining his light on a railcart that sat purposeless on the tracks. “Hmm. Looks to be in good shape,” he murmured as he hopped onto it and lit a lantern hanging above it. “And plush leather seating too!”
He grinned and pointed at a ratty, moldy chair that the driver sat in. Tracer dropped down onto it, motioning for the rest of us to take our seats as he magically started the engine and settled in for the ride. The tunnel was dark and large, and the tiny put-put noise of the engine as it struggled to turn the engines died before it even reached the walls. I looked forward as the cart began to roll, struggling not to fall asleep. I didn’t want to see any more horrible visions. I didn’t want more thoughts and doubts piling up on me. I didn’t want to see Sweet Dreams in my nightmares, leering as she gobbled my insides and taunted my continual failure to be a good pony. Most of all, I didn’t want to see her. I blinked, and saw her anyway, hiding behind my eyelids, waiting, pleading silently with a question I couldn’t hear and didn’t know how to answer.
What did she want from me, that strange yellow pony? What was she trying to tell me? I wondered if there was even an answer to those questions. The Metro was good at tantalizing, giving me clues and questions, leading me down these dark roads and never giving an answer. After all, was the Metro not all one self-contained system, a looping maze of tunnels that led on forever and never actually got to a destination? There were so many things left unsaid, left without an answer. I still hadn’t found a trace of Sixpence or evidence of why he’d tried to kill me, nor did I think I ever would at this point. The Guild of Magic would probably see me as an enemy if I ever met them again. I had no idea what Hunter was supposed to even have been doing up above, why he disappeared, or why Tracer had a mysterious package from Hunter he either had or had not delivered. I didn’t know what the Dark Ones were or how to stop them.
I knew nothing. I only wanted to know my home would be safe. The tunnel continued interminably, without ending it seemed. Time dragged on and my tired body felt the sincere need for more sleep. That little nap provided by Tracer back in the plantations had barely been enough to keep me going. But I struggled to stay awake regardless, fighting my nightmares, and so the tunnel stretched on, and on, and on...
A flash of wings. A sad sigh. I raced down the long tunnel, racing to catch... something. I didn’t even know. I saw the long darkness of the tunnel stretching before me, following it without hesitation. Something was far ahead of me, a blur of pink and yellow, and I felt a desperate need to chase it. Soon, the sound of gently fluttering wings was the only clue it was still ahead of me. I didn’t feel the impact of my hooves on the rails. Instead I floated along, never hovering more than three feet off the ground. The tunnel curved and swerved wildly, taking completely random and senseless directions. I followed its winding pathway to a tee, never slowing down, but never seeming to move forward either. I didn’t know if I was making progress, or even if I needed to anymore, since I couldn’t see what I was pursuing.
And then a voice came to me.
Find peace. Find life. Stop running. Conclude your journey.
And so I stopped. The sound of wings faded, and I thought I heard somepony mournfully cry my name. But behind me came something new. Something different and monstrous. I wanted to run away again, to keep charging headlong down the tunnel, but I found myself rooted to the spot. The tunnel began to glow red around me, and I heard the sound of squealing machinery, creaking hinges... some kind of doorway was opening far behind me. I felt my head begin to ache, becoming light and fuzzy. Something was inside me... something... This was wrong... I wanted to see that flash of pink hair again, the buttery yellow beckoning so far, yet so close... was I really supposed to have stopped?
I felt a tap on the shoulder, and turned around. Sweet Dreams leered at me, bloody eye sockets dribbling. She grinned, and blood seeped out between her lips
“Caught you,” she whispered, and pushed her mouth over mine, clutching me in a horrifying kiss. I felt her teeth sink into my lips, and tear.
“Lockbox, wake up! Wake up NOW!”
I jolted upright and found myself shoved down again by Sunny Side, who threw his body over me. Bullets zipped overhead, ripping apart the lantern and the body of the cart, which had come to a halt.
“What now?” I asked. Sunny grabbed me after the volley was done and hauled me off the cart.
“Bandits or something! I don’t know who!”
“Over here!” Tracer shouted from behind a makeshift barricade of fallen rock and wood. We’d made our stop at a junction, where our line came to an end and another one stretched parallel to ours. Bandits were flooding up from behind us and in front. To our right, going south, was the Yellow Line Tracer had mentioned before. To our front was a blocked off tunnel, and a doorway. Bandits were all around us.
“Oh Luna... shit!” Sunny Side gasped as he dodged and weaved towards Tracer, with me close behind. Still waking up, it took me a few moments to realize we were once again in mortal danger, not because of monsters, but ponies who acted like monsters. This was getting tiresome. But the force of adrenaline and that familiar, boiling indignation helped push away the fear as I slid around next to Tracer, who’s levitated guns roared in two directions at once, barking and snapping at the intruders.
“The tunnels are too open. Make for that doorway!” he shouted, nodding back at the door behind us. No idea where it went. No idea if it’d save us. But it was our only option.
Bullets cracked against the ground, throwing chips of shrapnel against my helmet and flak jacket. I didn’t even feel the impact of the door as I slammed into it with my shoulder, shoving it open.
“Just what I needed. More tight spaces!” Sunny Side said with a nervous laugh. Tracer soon took up the rear, closing the door and ducking below the line of bullet holes that tore into the metal just above his head.
Then they started coming from the other direction too. We pressed ourselves against the walls, behind a few crates. Hiding behind wooden boxes in a firefight was about as useful as trying to put out a fire by shouting at it, but instinct drove us down anyway, huddling into the corners. At the far end of the hall was a small room occupied by bandits. Celestia damn it, couldn’t I get some rest? I couldn’t remember the last time I had restful sleep that wasn’t full of nightmares, or a moment of my life that wasn’t full of danger. I felt the anger rising. The frustration. I huddled against my little box, feeling more exasperated than anything else. After the mad dash from Compass, this seemed so... rote. So ordinary. Such violence becoming so everyday.
Everything went dark. I felt a rush of air as Tracer charged forward, bellowing. His horn shimmered in the darkness he created.
“Go go go!” he shouted to us as he dashed by, guns thundering. I heard screaming as bullets struck home. I stood up, bracing myself, finding the bullets to be no trouble. These... these bastards. They refused to stop making life miserable for other ponies. All of them. Hoofsa, Bucklyn, these bandits... they were all the same. They were all in my way. I was trying to save my home, to do something worthwhile and all they could think about was their greed!
Damn them. Damn all of them. I didn’t feel like a hero. I didn’t want to be a hero. I wanted all of these ponies dead, and out of my way.
Sunny Side took up the rear as I charged into the melee with Tracer, who had already killed two of the three bandits with his brutal, result-oriented attacks. The last one crouched behind a stockade, desperately trying to reload. I saw his face in the grim twilight cast by Tracer’s horn, the fear and anger etched into his face as he slammed a magazine home.
No thought of who he was. What he wanted out of life. He was hostile. He had to die.
I leaped over the barricade and slammed my hoof into his face, taking him by surprise. He fell, and I pushed my Mule up against his neck and fired. The spray of blood, dull and grey, from the gory wound made me feel a tiny sense of satisfaction. So you thought you could get in my way? All these ponies who want me dead think they can stop me? To hell with you.
“Behind, Lockbox!” Sunny shouted as he rounded the corner ahead of the crowd of bandits from the tunnels, who’d apparently thought their friends at this barricade would take care of us. They stumbled into the darkness and were met by my gunfire.
I didn’t even wait, I just pulled the trigger and held it down. The gun snapped and hissed far too early, halfway through my magazine; a quick look told me I’d jammed. Two bandits were dead, the rest fell back, staggering backwards through the doorway as Sunny Side’s rifles roared after them. I folded my ears back as I yanked on the release, trying to eject the jammed bullet. Damn it, did guns have to be so loud in close quarters?
“Stupid... fucking... damn it!” I tore the Mule off my war rein and slammed my pistol in place, but I didn’t get a chance to keep firing as Tracer snatched me by the collar.
“If we stop moving we’re dead! Go go go!” he shouted in my ear as he threw me into the next hall. I tripped and fell into the wall, my helmet scraping as I righted myself, helped along by another shove from Tracer. Who was next?
Many, many ponies.
We came out in a large area that had been converted into something like a fortress. I saw a blurred menagerie of makeshift guard towers and cobbled together gun emplacements, looking up and down the service tunnels that entered the large room. Tents and sheet metal shelters covered a long series of islands and barely held together catwalks. This appeared to be some kind of train depot or service station. Also, it was still occupied by the aforementioned many ponies.
All of whom leaped for their guns as we burst through the doorway.
“Run!” Tracer shouted, and we dodged to the side as bullets ripped into the air behind us, tearing up the doorway. We didn’t have anywhere to run but behind a rusted out train car, keeping our heads low as at least a dozen guns chewed away at our cover. I chanced a look over my shoulder and saw a few of the ponies behind us charge the doorway directly into the line of fire of those in the depot. They didn’t seem pained or fearful as they fell; in fact, I’d wondered how they didn’t notice they were rushing straight into a hail of bullets from their own comrades.
The fact that they had white masks over their faces was also very confusing. But never mind that. Ponies to kill. Things to do. Anger still in my heart.
I stood up while those in the encampment were distracted and fired two quick shots through a window on the train, cracking a pony’s skull open with my pistol and sending another ducking for cover. Tracer yanked me back down as the return fire tore apart the train’s walls. Killing didn’t feel guilt-inducing anymore. In fact, it felt rather therapeutic. I embraced the adrenaline, the rush and need to survive, and let it take me where it would. I saw a group of ponies moving to flank us, and one of them was a unicorn. I doubted they had the power to take on Tracer, who was firing blindly over the quickly decaying walls of the train with his assault rifle, but I knew they could become a serious problem. And in that moment I knew what I had to do. The gunfire pointed our way slackened, and I saw muzzle flashes coming from one of the service tunnels. Another group of ponies, apparently also hostile to the ones in the camp, was taking part in the battle, and offered the perfect distraction.
“Cover me!” I shouted, and armed with a jammed submachine gun, a half-full pistol, and a hoof knife, I charged.
I didn’t even really know what I was doing. I was lost in the anger and heat of the moment, the killing passion that overwhelmed my senses. I wanted everything that was shooting at me and my friends dead, so we could get some peace and quiet, using the battle as an excuse to rail against the unfairness of my own situation.
The other ponies had been busy trying to set up a fixed machine gun to help in the defense against the other attackers. The unicorn, busily levitating the gun onto the tripod, was shot dead by a hit between the eyes.
Thank you, Sunny Side.
Two remained: a pegasus and an earth pony, both fixing the gun in place. The pegasus took aim for me, but I shot first with three quick pulls of the trigger. The smoke from my gun and the jostling of my own sprinting body prevented me from seeing exactly what I’d hit, but hit him I did as he fell next to his companion, who was desperately feeding ammo into the gun, apparently too panicked to think about using his own Mule.
All I could think about was running, powering through the blizzard of bullets streaming my way, focused entirely on this one pony who I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt was going to kill me, and so I had to kill him. If it’s hostile...
I vaulted over the small barricade of crates just as he turned the gun barrel towards me. Instead of repeating earlier success and laying him out flat with a punch, he managed to duck in time. I stumbled and tripped over the massive machine gun, falling clumsily on the earth pony and driving my knife into his gut. He screamed in my ear. I barely even heard it as we rolled on the ground, him mostly just trying to get away. Our guns scraped on the concrete, strangely loud in my ears. We collapsed onto our sides; Nopony’s bag of food and other tools pressed painfully into my ribs. I saw the other pony turn towards me, mouth gripping the trigger of his Mule.
We pulled at the same time. He missed. I didn’t.
I saw more than heard the result; the report from both our guns firing so close to my head was deafening. I felt the heat of the muzzle blast, the brush of air as the bullet went flying past my ear. But that was nothing compared to what I did to him. My final bullet pierced his nose, smashing all the way through his skull and out the back of his neck. His head snapped back with a horrible, convulsing twitch he went limp and quiet, all the tension simply dropping out of his body. His eye twitched the wrong way, staring up at the ceiling while the other was pointed straight at me. I was staring right in the face of a pony I’d just killed, saw in gruesome detail the result of my work. My ears rang loudly, and for a few seconds the outside world faded away until there was just the high pitched ringing and the dead pony right in front of me.
I didn’t feel anything except strangely empty. And for the barest of moments, that nameless pony’s face was Sweet Dreams, open mouth grinning, sightless eyes staring with grim approval. At that moment an explosion stole my attention. I rolled over to look at the encampment to see it becoming engulfed with flames. Though it had been made with defending against ponies in mind, whoever planned it hadn’t been very careful when it came to fire management. Tents and clothing caught fire easily, and the tightly constricted clumps of flammable shelters meant the entire depot would soon be filled with smoke.
I saw ponies rushing back and forth in the glow of the quickly spreading fires, and for a moment I wondered if they were more bandits. But these were different. They wore white masks like the ones at the door, completely obscuring their faces, and they showed no fear or care of the fire raging all around them. Surely in the middle of that growing inferno of heat and smoke they’d feel some discomfort? But they didn’t appear to. They charged through the depot, threading their way through the trains still on the tracks, lobbing grenades to shield their advance as they overran the bandits with machine-like determination. Their movements were much like Tracer’s, precise and methodical, fighting with proficiency that only came with years of experience. There were unicorns among them, powerful ones who radiated shields of bright purple light and tossed debris overhead in a confusing maelstrom. Bandits who tried to shoot them found their guns suddenly exploding in their faces, instantly disassembling, or magically misfiring. Their cover was lifted away by strong telekinesis, leaving them easy prey.
The lowly bandits put up a stiff resistance, but didn’t stand a chance in the end, and they were soon pushed completely out of the depot, the ragged survivors running for their lives. And then I realized: we’d dropped out of one war and straight into another. The Metro didn’t stop killing itself just because I’d run away down a different tunnel.
I was suddenly enveloped in bright yellow wings, and for a moment I thought the pink-haired pony of my dreams had come to visit me in real life. But it was Sunny Side instead, screaming at me. His voice echoed like a bell. I felt dizzy. My head had some kind of high-pitched whine invading it, confusing me, making me feel dull and listless. Something felt... different. I couldn’t tell what it was; the anger I’d felt before... something about the light of the fires... the completely calm way the masked ponies pressed their attack...
“Lockbox! Get up! Get up!”
Sunny yanked me to my hooves. Tracer was beside us, firing indiscriminately into the crowd of ponies running amidst the flames, and then we were running again, down the service tunnel, already out of breath and harried by our experiences.
But it wasn’t until we’d actually gained the tunnel entrance, and started rushing south again, that I realized no return fire followed us. I chanced a look over my shoulder, and what I saw chilled me to the bone. The masked ponies weren’t pursuing us... in fact, they stood in absolute quiet, as if the battle they’d just won meant nothing. Some of them watched us run, through the small circles cut into their otherwise featureless white faces, as though we were but a curiosity or something they might scrape off their hooves. The others, in complete and perfect unison, looked up at the ceiling, searching, or praising something beyond my senses.
Other than the crackle of the fires they didn’t heed in the slightest, everything about them was perfectly still, and silent. They didn’t chase us, didn’t shoot at us. Only stared in that haunting calm way, until we rounded a turn and they were gone.
“Okay. Now what the hell was that?”
Tracer turned to Sunny Side and shook his head. “That... that was something I didn’t think I’d ever see this far north.”
“Those masked ponies weren’t supposed to be there, were they?” I asked, my voice quiet and hushed. I was still feeling out of sorts. I didn’t feel quite as angry as before. Just... cold. Cold and dreadful. I was curious about the masked ponies, but I didn’t need to know. Something inside me said I already knew what was so strange about them... or I didn’t want to find out. That brief brush with them made my head itch and ache. I tried to pass it off as post-battle jitters... but I felt almost like I did when I’d run from the anomaly. Something about those masked ponies was wrong. Horribly, awfully wrong.
“No. No they were not,” Tracer said, looking almost regretful. Even despairing.
“Who were they?” Sunny Side demanded. I wondered at his anger now. He was Sunny Side, always willing to crack a joke or smile. Why was he so angry? Had the masked ponies affected him too?
“Servants of the Wyrm,” Tracer answered in a low, quiet voice. The words somehow echoed in the tunnels, reverberating with some unseen power. Tracer chuckled grimly as he watched me and Sunny Side recoil.
“You feel it, don’t you? The dread. The fear of their name and who they are even though you’ve never heard about them. We believe it to be some kind of magical influence those ponies wield. Ancient magic that gives words and language itself real power... something we have yet to unlock. The ponies that first attacked us in the tunnel were also servants of the Wyrm, and they followed us right into that depot with the bandits. We were fighting a three way battle the whole time. But you are right, Lockbox. They shouldn’t be here. Especially not in the open like that.”
We began to walk south in silence, listening to Tracer explain.
“They are cultists. Ponies who’ve given up believing in Celestia and Luna, even themselves. The Cult of the Great Wyrm, they call it. It all started about... oh, ten years ago, we think. That’s when the reports started surfacing to the Ranger Order in numbers and consistency too great to ignore. But they are so many and so powerful, it’s possible they go back even further than that... some superstitious fools think they were always down here. They know the tunnels well enough. But nopony really knows who they are. They show up every now and then, do something strange and violent and mysterious... then leave again, without a trace. We’ve tangled with them before. They’re hostile to anypony who isn’t them, and slaughter mutants and Diamond Dogs as well if they find them. We know nothing about them, and they never speak to us except through their guns.”
“Why the masks? All they had to see and breathe were those little holes,” Sunny Side asked, shivering as he pulled his wings tight against his body. I felt almost as frightened, remembering the anomaly, the weird tentacled creature before we met Sidewinder, the horrible mutants we saw on the surface... all of them defying natural laws and rational thought. What other mysteries did the Metro have to throw at us?
“Why not?” Tracer answered. “They’re a cult. Perhaps they do it to frighten other ponies. The few we managed to take alive never answered us. I remember a time several years ago, when I’d only been in the Order a few years and the Cult was just starting to gain prominence. After a hairy fight we managed to capture one of the bastards alive. He was a fairly normal looking pony at first glance. A little pale and skinny maybe. But something was off about him. Like he wasn’t all there. His eyes were... were almost hollow. He said nothing. Spoke not a word. Did as we asked and removed his clothing and weapons.”
He gave a sudden, angry snort. “The freak had burned off his own cutie mark. Both flanks. Nothing but seared flesh. We asked why and he just stared at us, like we were the stupid ones. As if we should’ve known why already. Puh! Then he just sat down and looked at the wall. We goaded him, yelled at him, even eventually cut him with a knife. Not a sound. Not a twitch. We left him in a small room and set a guard on the door. and a few others decided to resume the interrogation a couple hours later. The guard didn’t report any problems, just some noise of him moving around. But when we got inside...”
He trailed off, shaking his head as though disappointed about something. After a look from me, he continued.
“He’d smashed his own head against the wall. Cracked his skull right open, brains were all over the place... the guard swore up and down he’d heard nothing, no cries of pain. Whoever that pony was, he’d chosen death and didn’t even hesitate. That idiot. All the others were exactly the same. No explanations! It’s like they exist to be freaks.”
He fixed me with a stern look, and I saw the same anger as when we’d escaped the plantations. “Let that be a lesson to you, Lockbox, and you, Sunny. There’s a lot of monsters down here that look like ponies, talk like them, act like them. But they’re not ponies. And given what they’re capable of, we cannot take the chance that they’ll come back if we let them go. Remember the Codex, boys.
“If it’s hostile, you kill it.”
“Lockbox, I’m worried about you.”
We were sitting in front of a small fire, cooking our first real meal in quite some time while Tracer scouted ahead, making sure there were no more ugly surprises waiting for us. Nopony’s bag, which he’d left with me, was full of edible, if not delectable, foodstuffs. Apparently, the old world had even made their food to last; we were currently snacking on some kind of oatmeal that’d lasted since the Great War. All it needed was some of our brackish, ugly water to make it chewable. The little tin cans promised that it gave us all the required vitamins and minerals, but I still wondered how much value was even in this tasteless gunk. Still, it was better than an empty stomach.
“Worried?” I asked, setting down my now empty can after licking it clean, going to work on fixing my Mule. I’d expected it to break sooner or later, but I’d also expected it to be much worse than a simple jam. I began fiddling with the ejection mechanism, sticking a small pin between my teeth to try and pry the trapped bullet loose.
“You fought like a madpony against those bandits. When you didn’t really need to.”
“I wanted them out of the way.”
“Well... yes. Yes, we all wanted them out of the way. But the way you charged a gun
emplacement? Lockbox, you almost gave me a heart attack! Do you know how lucky you are that shot nailed the unicorn?”
I shrugged, still not really seeing the problem. Sunny Side let out an exasperated groan and flopped onto his side, wings sagging.
“Lockbox, you’re not acting like the pony I remember from Exiperia.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. Was it a problem I’d tried to eliminate bandits who wanted to kill us? Clack, clack, went the latch of my gun, struggling to eject the bullet within. Would the damn thing never come free? “Maybe I never was that pony,” I said. “Maybe I’m just finally ready to do what I need to, instead of sitting on my couch and dreaming all day.”
“I haven’t seen you collect anything in a while.”
“There’s not much out here worth keeping. Everything’s either being used, or it’s such junk I couldn’t lug it around all the way to Ponyopolis.”
“Yes, I know...”
“What’s your point, Sunny Side?”
“You, Lockbox!” Sunny Side sat up and stared at me with sudden fervor. “I thought I knew you before, but these last few weeks have been blowing things out of the water! Sure you received basic training, we all did. But don’t you see what’s going on? What’s happening to you? You’re doing things nopony like you should be able to do!”
He shook his head, and I found myself annoyed by the sadness in that small motion. I worked the ejector with renewed ferocity while Sunny Side spoke. “You’re... you’re changing, Lockbox. You may not feel like it, but you are. We’ve both done things we never thought we would before... but you just don’t seem affected by it. It’s like it’s coming so naturally to you!”
“If it’s any consolation,” I said, not concealing my snarky tone, “I almost shit my pants when we were riding that war wagon.”
The jam finally came loose with a snap, and the useless bullet fell to the ground with a small plink. I put it in my saddlebag anyway, out of compulsion.
“That’s not what I mean,” Sunny sighed, and I rolled my eyes. “Lockbox, this whole journey is just... strange. We’ve all gone through tough shit. That’s the way of the Metro. But why is this all happening to us? How did we get through the surface when everypony else died? Why did you manage to wake up quicker than the rest of us after that anomaly? Why did Hunter choose you to go to Ponyopolis and not anypony else?”
I shifted uncomfortably. These were questions I plagued myself with often enough. I didn’t want to have Sunny Side reminding me too. Just remember the cold, hard anger like what Tracer carried. That righteous indignation. If it’s hostile, you kill it. No need to dwell, or remember. It wouldn’t help anypony.
“... Do you really think I have an answer?”
My voice was small and fragile, barely reaching over the fire. Sunny Side’s ears twitched.
“No, I... I suppose not.”
The silence stretched on. I looked away, feeling sheepish and indignant, like a colt caught teasing his little sister. What right did Sunny Side have to bring this up now? He was acting like it was all my problem! He’d killed ponies too. It wasn’t like I had to be the one to hold all the guilty conscience and worry here.
“I’m just... concerned, Lockbox, that you-”
“Sunny Side, we’re friends,” I snapped, “but I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”
“You keep things bottled up, Lockbox, don’t think I don’t notice. You’re thinking about all this as much as I am-”
“And what of it?”
“I’m just trying to say-”
“If it’s about Ray Drop I don’t want to hear it!”
“I didn’t mention Ray Drop.”
“Or the anomaly! I’m trying to not think about it, don’t you see? If I stop to think... if I try to dwell on all the things I have filed away up here, I’ll go crazy. I’m already going crazy! So many ponies out here... Tracer was right. They’re monsters. They deserve to die! It’s the only way I can deal with it.”
“Lockbox, I just don’t see why you can’t talk about-”
“Because I killed her!”
The shout echoed horribly. Reverberated in my ears. I killed her. My fault. The Metro tunnels seemed to amplify my cry, cutting my voice into a chorus of accusing ghosts, chanting what I’d done in my ears. All of it seemed to come back in that one crushing moment, the stress I’d so far managed to keep chained under lock and key boiled and hissed, leaking out in a slow, burning stream. I’d known of it for a while. But now I was so much more aware of it. Shaking, I buried my face in my hooves.
Sunny Side was quiet. So was I. The fire crackled, a hollow, empty noise. I kept my face hidden as I took deep, shuddering breaths.
“... Did... what...?”
“She was dying. I tried to save her. I really did. But I couldn’t leave her like that. Not for them. She was already gone. I thought everything was gone. It’s my fault. For bringing us out here. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have thought I was so ready for this. Nopony really is.”
The fire popped and hissed. Sunny Side’s gaze felt hotter than the flames. I heard him stand, then come over to sit next to me. He dropped down like a load of bricks, sounding as tired as I felt. One of his wings settled over my back.
“... I’m sorry, Lockbox.”
I closed my eyes, and Sweet Dreams crooned into my ear.
Eat you alive.
The first inhabited station we came across on that lonely, dilapidated stretch of track was the small town of Trotsky Freehaven. It was named after some great Equestrian war leader, from the days when war was fought by ponies, for ponies, before the days of the Princesses, and now only his name survived. Though, the ponies here were not the warriors their station’s namesake was. They didn’t have the magi-tech to construct much more than simple alarm charms, which we tripped deliberately, and kept our lights bright so they’d know we were ponies. Trotsky wasn’t a station well known to me, except for the fact that it was labeled on my Guide.
Tracer thought they’d be, at the least, non-hostile. And they were, for the most part, meaning they didn’t shoot us on sight.
“Hey! Hey! Who are you? Speak up, I’m talking to you!”
The voice that hailed us was gruff and scratchy, from an older pony’s throat. To my surprise, he was a pegasus; usually they didn’t last as long as this grouchy old specimen. He was thin and his coat patchy, mane and tail rather ratty and unkempt. The others with him weren’t much more impressive; all of them looked shy and anxious, casting nervous glances everywhere. Tracer continued walking, and so me and Sunny Side followed. I’d thought I’d been a badass when I forced my way into Ponyevskaya, but Tracer didn’t even need to say anything for the guards to pause and rethink who they were shouting at.
Tracer fearlessly pulled out his Ranger insignia and showed it to the guards. He didn’t need to say anything.
“A... a Ranger? I... What’s your business here?”
“My own. You’ve got cultists in the north, they wiped out the fort at the old depot. Now let us through. We’re just passing by. No need to raise any alarms, right?”
The old pony looked at his guards, who stared back with fear and respect in their eyes. They reminded me of myself whenever Hunter came by to visit. Somehow, seeing for myself the effect Rangers had on other ponies, I swelled a bit with pride that I knew one personally, and now had one guarding my life. Nopony who had half a brain willingly got in their way... those poor fools in the plantations had given up more than they imagined when they turned on the Rangers.
“No,” the old pegasus said, and bowed his his head slightly. Such supplications seemed inbred to us ponies. Even though we had no princesses to bow to, we still found reasons to. “No, no need. Go on in, and your friends too.”
But as Tracer stepped forward the old pegasus moved to intercept us, lowering his voice.
“Those bastards at Guarsky are going crazy, you’d better be careful. That depot was supposed to be a strongpoint for Auntie Buttercup. I don’t know about cultists or anything, but this whole stretch of the Metro is in deep shit. We’re not supposed to welcome Rangers, but if you can do anything, we’d sure as hell appreciate it!”
Tracer gave him a curt nod, and I knew then that it was possible we’d have to sacrifice another chance to help a station if it meant getting this message to Ponyopolis.
“If I can do something, I will,” Tracer replied, and we followed him into the sorry station beyond. The place was lit by very few lights, magical or otherwise, and there was just the constant red glare from the emergency lights set up in years past, maintained studiously by the unicorns. Sprite-lights were in abundance among what few lights there were. The ponies here looked harried, tense, as if they were waiting for something. I could usually see that any old day back in Exiperia, but these ponies were moving like they were on a schedule.
“It’s almost nine o’clock,” Tracer noted as we passed under a clock hung over the entrance. I looked up at it in wonder; I’d almost never seen a functioning clock, and they were something of a luxury. The best way to judge the passage of time was when the lights came on and when the lights were dimmed at “sleep time.” We had two back in Exiperia, and it suddenly struck me that I’d never seen a clock outside of Exiperia until just now. Trotsky was a dark and forbidding place, with low ceilings that had no decorative arches or pillars. They were living in the bare minimum of living space, crowded right up next to the halls along the tracks, in small shacks and huts. The side halls and rooms were, as always, occupied by the important members of the station, though I saw very few offices with lights on. A very few of the ponies outside were cooks and merchants who hawked old, dilapidated wares. These ponies weren’t doing well for themselves; I saw a great many of them dressed in little more than rags, and others shivered because they had few if any clothes at all. There were only a few unicorns, who seemed to be standing a constant guard at one end of the station, at walled off stairways that led to the upper levels. All of them were similarly pale and shy like the guards, and many of them had patches missing from their pelts and manes. They gave us wary, almost fearful glances as we passed by. The only ones who weren’t so skittish seemed to be travelers, resting here until the next leg of their journey. These ponies kept to themselves. I saw one big earth pony bearing the Stalliongrad patch on his jacket, though this Stalker was not the Sidewinder I knew. He flirtatiously chatted up a waif of a filly sorting through some of the junk he’d brought to sell. Other than that I saw very little actual business being carried on.
“What’s so important about nine o’clock?” Sunny Side asked, unable to bear not knowing.
“It’s when Trotsky Freehaven goes dark,” said Nopony.
He stood in the middle of our group. All three of us turned to face him. I was struck with the very real possibility that he’d been there the whole time, and his strange abilities had made it so we didn’t notice until now.
“... Yes,” Tracer said, doing his best not to whip out his gun. I’d seen his horn begin to glow when Nopony spoke. Was he alert enough that he could “notice” the strangeness surrounding our faceless companion as well? I looked around and saw that nopony else was surprised by his sudden appearance, just as he’d said they wouldn’t be...
“So... what’s ‘go dark’ mean?” Sunny Side pressed.
“You’ll see,” Nopony said, and Tracer didn’t add to that. My stomach felt queasy, and Sunny Side was uneasy, but we kept walking with them deeper into the station.
“Guarsky is a hive of activity,” Nopony said quietly. “It may be best for you to avoid it when you move on.”
“There’s only one passage out of here that doesn’t go through Guarsky, and I don’t want to take it,” Tracer answered. “Nopony gets through those tunnels and lives. It’s a deathtrap.”
But not for those ponies with a Guide,” Nopony pressed. “And we have one of those right here.”
“I don’t want to put my trust in-!” Tracer began, and then stopped to look back at me. I glared at him; he’d been about to say he didn’t trust a pony like me. A pony who could do those weird things that nopony else was able to do. Read a Guide without learning about it, fight anomalies without training or warning. Perfect. My own protector didn’t know whether to trust me, and I wasn’t sure if I could trust myself.
He seemed mollified by my expression, and he let out a small sigh.
“I’m sorry Lockbox. I didn’t mean to insinuate-”
“I know what you meant,” I said in a low voice. “Do you think I’m one of those freaks too, Tracer?”
“No,” the Ranger said quietly. “No, I don’t. I just don’t think that that tunnel is safe enough for us to take the risk of walking through, that’s all. It’d be better if we went to the surface. Trotsky here has plenty of access...”
“No!” Sunny Side said, loud enough to make me jump. “No, I... don’t think the surface is a good idea either... I’m not going back up there.”
Tracer took one look at my friend’s wings and nodded. Sunny hung his head in shame.
“Right. So we have the choice of dying one way or another,” I piped up. “That guard said they aren’t supposed to welcome Rangers.”
Tracer shook his head and led us towards the other end of the station, passing by ponies who spoke in low voices and ignored us. “I doubt Trotsky will do anything towards us. They live alongside the bandits. They don’t work for them. And the bandits know the Trotsky ponies are useful enough that harassing them is useless.”
“How so?” I asked.
“In about ten minutes, you’ll see,” Nopony said. “Come, we should find a place to stand with the others-”
I heard a rattle of gunfire, up a large flight of stairs that I realized led up to-
“The surface?” Sunny asked, gasping. Nopony else seemed worried or even noticed the sound of combat not far away. “This station is exposed to the surface?”
Tracer nodded. “The hermetic seals that should’ve closed up the passages above suffered a near direct hit during the War. Blew the whole station above wide open. There’s a lot of side tunnels around these stations, yet these ponies are pushed right up against the tracks in the lowest levels... The upper rooms are toxic due to radiation and the poison outside. So with that and their doors open to whatever the hell wanders in... they stand constant guard right here. An important existence, but a sad one too. Nopony bothers them, nopony bothers to help them.”
“That explains why so many ponies here are sickly,” I observed quietly, scuffing my hoof. These poor ponies were in a constant struggle for survival, even worse than my Exiperia... no doors, no seals, no nothing between them and the horrors above! They were all slowly being eaten alive by the poison that wafted in from above, and nopony could be bothered to help them close off the gap. The thought of being so vulnerable made me shiver. It was almost like the plantations, but worse... pressed constantly by mutants and the radiation that leaked into their home. It was then I noticed something I hadn’t before: there were almost no children here. Poor things couldn’t even find the resources to start families...
“Who lives here?” I wondered.
“Transients, castaways, ponies with nowhere else to go,” Tracer answered. “They find camaraderie here they can’t get elsewhere, and even if the rest of the Metro tries not to notice them, they do something vital. If it weren’t for these ponies, this whole station, this whole stretch of the Metro, would be overrun in days. One of the main tunnels leading in from the Ring would be cut off. Everypony knows it, but they don’t acknowledge it because, hell, who has the time to help out some poor bastards who can’t shut their own gates? The Guild of Magic and Hoofsa occasionally send shipments of supplies so the guard here is kept up, but the only lives on the line are Trotsky ponies. The advantage of this place is, we can just walk up and out to the surface from here, and avoid the deathtrap near Guarsky-”
“Please...” Sunny moaned, suddenly looking pale himself. “I’d rather face bandits than go up there again.”
“We won’t go up there again,” I decided firmly, supporting my friend with a hoof on his shoulder. “The surface is as much a deathtrap as Guarsky... we’ll try to sneak past them. I don’t even want to know what’s down this other tunnel you keep talking about...”
“Nopony does,” Nopony answered. “I’ve studied it for years. It’s what I call a dead-end tunnel. Every so often, ponies go in... and they never come out the other end.”
And so we decided to rest here for what it was worth, until we figured out what our next move would be. Tracer, being a Ranger, was all but obligated to stand a shift with the guards while the station “went dark.”
Sunny Side and I volunteered.
The process was like a well-oiled machine. At nine o’clock sharp, the lights were dimmed to avoid attracting attention from more mutants. Ponies that weren’t doing anything huddled even closer together, shops were closed, weak points were quickly boarded up by the unicorns, and guards came out of the woodwork. I heard the squealing of gates farther up the tunnels being hauled shut. Almost everypony armed themselves as the non-combatants gathered near the tracks... and Tracer led us up the main stairway, through the small gate in the barricade the Trotsky ponies had thrown up haphazardly at the top.
I could already taste the faint, acrid stench of tainted air as we wormed our way through the tunnels that once funneled ponies underground to the trains below. Many of them were almost completely blocked off by welded sheet metal and twisted rebar made into imposing spikes that pointed outward, and I saw a few guardponies manning these sorry posts. A miserable looking colt equipped only with a gasmask, a Mule submachine gun, and the clothes on his back looked up with eyes that were far too old for his age. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen. He coughed and retched painfully as we passed, his already thin voice a lifeless echo through the filters of his mask. Living in this station with this air meant he’d die an early death from disease. But what could we do? It wasn’t like there was a cure for all of this. I tried not to let the guilt get to me, the knowledge that my home station was paramount, yet here ponies fought and died every day simply by dint of where they lived... at least in Exiperia we could comfort ourselves that creatures had to attack us directly, and we were a little more secure behind our great gates and barricades.
“Gasmasks,” Tracer said, and we slipped ours on as we came to the most forbidding part of Trotsky Freehaven. We came into a large, rectangular space that might once have been a stairway or the like for escalators, but now was just the end point of a giant hole in the ground. Before us was a massive tangle of metal and rock and dirt illuminated by a dozen sprite-lights and two big spotlights, which flickered and buzzed with intermittent power. The debris, I saw, was the result of a huge cave-in that went up a long slope to a great big hole at the surface about eight meters up. The very top was shrouded in pitch blackness, and I felt a great shiver of fear as I looked at that gaping abyss above, from which anything and everything could pour in. I imagined a horrible tide of rats and Dark Ones, choking even this large tunnel as they swept into the Metro, nothing to stop them... except a large contingent of guardponies at the base of debris slope, with two gun emplacements in ramshackle fortifications. Guns, ammo, and sandbags were in abundance.
“Back at the beginning, the debris was enough to deter most monsters,” Tracer said quietly as he led us to the solemn, thin line of guards, the frighteningly permeable barrier between the station and death. “But eventually some dug through. Unicorns keep repairing the traps and the blockades, but the mutants are never restful. Eventually the blockades are dug through, the traps wear out or get used up. And when some get through-”
“Others always follow,” Sunny Side murmured.
“Ah, more meat for the grinder!” announced the stocky leader of the rag-tag group of ponies, a surprisingly well-fed looking earth pony. His vivid, bright orange mane and dark caramel pelt was a stark contrast to the other ponies around him. “Just in time for the show to start. We’re already taking bets on how big the bastards will be tonight.”
“This is awful,” Sunny Side murmured, looking up at the gaping wound in the Metro, a place where the infections could seep in. Monsters and radiation alike... “Why can’t you just blow the whole thing up?”
“You don’t think we’ve tried?” the lead guard answered. “They’ll find a way in. They always do. And an explosion big enough to cave the whole area in will permanently damage this part of the tracks, and there’s few enough safe passages around here already. There are other punctures up and down this stretch of tunnel, which is why we have to close the side gates too. We get visitors every night, you see, and it’s best if they mostly come here, where we can see them.”
“What’s the situation so far?” Tracer asked. The guard looked impressed.
“Oh, a Ranger! We might not lose anypony tonight. Come here, sit down. Name’s Red Delicious. You can call me either one, cause they’re both true. We’ve got Celestia knows how many bastards clogging the waterworks tonight... but a couple of our unicorns have spotted one or two sneaky little tunnels the mutants have been digging.”
He looked up as the spotlights swam over the slope that led outside. There was a sharp whistle, and it made me look up in alarm, but there was nothing there. False contact.
“We’ll be standing guard here tonight,” Tracer announced. “But I am on a mission, and must be moving on at dawn.”
“Understandable. Nopony but Trotsky ponies stay in Trotsky!” Red Delicious said with a deep, bellowing laugh. As he turned away, we began to take up positions, ready for a long, deadly night. We stared and sat and waited at the base of that huge, silent, awful slope, with only a few spare words exchanged between us. I didn’t get to know the ponies around me very well, and they didn’t seem interested in talking too much. But even in the lack of conversation, there were no complaints. No pointless worrying. In fact, after the first hour and no contacts, it became rather relaxing. I felt like I did back at Exiperia, standing guard in one of the tunnels at the three hundred meter mark, near the gates that kept us safe, speaking in low tones with others at the barricades about nothing in particular.
But those nights had been soured by fear, as they were now. The tense, horrible expectation of looking into the dark and being uncertain what could appear. These ponies didn’t look tense or fearful like the ones at Exiperia. No, these ponies knew for a fact that something was coming. The fear and the worry had been chiseled away, bit by bit, until they were just tired and despondent. And they did this every day at nine o’clock sharp, waiting quietly as the radiation from above slowly chiseled away at their insides. I wondered, vaguely, how much my chances for mutation or hair loss was being increased by standing here. My geiger counter was clicking, spiking every so often, and eventually one of the other guards told me to go put it somewhere quiet; they all knew there was radiation and toxins here, no need to be reminded every click.
I took up post next to a bored looking earth pony sitting with some others. Sunny Side was exercising, flapping around in slow circles under the low circle. I could tell he was tense; being this close to the surface and that great open sky must have been a temptation he worked hard to ignore. But I saw Tracer keeping an eye on him, and felt somewhat reassured. The group I joined welcomed me in that way that everypony welcomes a stranger they have no strong feelings about: I just sat down in the midst of them, and gradually they grew used to my presence enough to speak.
“Hello. My name is Green Bow,” said my temporary companion. He didn’t have a mane; it had all fallen out, and his teeth were a sickly yellow. His cutie mark was a faded gramophone, for what that was worth.
“Lockbox.” I nodded.
“Right. Over there is Red Bow and Blue Bow, and that one’s Skip. We don’t really bother with fancy names here.”
“Do you remember the trader from Glimmer Station?” Green Bow asked the others.
“No,” said Red Bow. “I’m more concerned about that news of the cultists just outside our own fucking gates.” He wasn’t red, and his cutie mark wasn’t a bow but a pair of scissors, but I supposed in a station like this, where you just sat and waited for death, you learned to stop caring what a cutie mark really meant. I felt sick.
“I heard it was something called the Cult of the World!” Skip piped up. He was a unicorn with a peculiar, smaller than average horn, and still had most of his hair, but he was just as skinny as the rest.
“That’s Wyrm, you idiot,” muttered Blue Bow, and the dour earth pony looked at me from under his gasmask. “What about you? You fought them, right? What were they like? Think they’ll come here? Aunt Buttercup’s probably having a fit about it, that depot had most of her northern fighting power.”
“Good, screw that bitch,” said Green Bow. “They still know they can’t occupy our station. We’ll fight for it, and then they’ll have to deal with the radiation just like us.”
“There’s no way to leave?” I wondered. “Seal the tunnels and go elsewhere?”
“Why?” Green Bow asked. “Everypony that lives here knows the risk. It’s a death sentence, what damn place in the Metro isn’t? We have nowhere else to go. We came here bcause it’s the only place... and, at least here, we can say we’re doing something with our lives.”
“Freehaven gives everypony a chance,” Blue Bow muttered. “It’s not like any of us have reason to be nasty to each other here... we all know how it’s gonna end.”
A whistle shrieked. As one we sprang to our hooves, watching the searchlights swinging slowly back and forth over the slope.
“At those pipes! A little to the left!” one of the guards shouted. I watched as the lights swung downwards, our eyes straining. My mind’s eye conjured a horrible menagerie of shapes and creatures out of the twisted metal... but then one of the piles moved, and a horrible, bony shape twitched as the light glossed over it.
The small space erupted with noise that echoed through the chamber, a dozen guns opening fire at once. The debris before us erupted with slithering, snake-like movement, and more gangly monstrosities from my nightmares crawled out, seeing the element of surprise was gone. I couldn’t see them clearly at this distance; they were all limbs and long, coiling tails, with sickeningly huge, unblinking eyes adapted to the gloom of the city. We cut them down as they came, leaping and hooting and hollering like deformed apes, cracking their knobby limbs and bursting their fish-like, unblinking eyes. I couldn’t even fathom what creatures they might have been once descended from.
They were sickening to look at. I was happy to destroy them.
“Cease fire!” Tracer roared over the cacophony. The guns ceased.
We waited for the dust and smoke to clear. One of the creatures’ bodies slowly pitched forward and collapsed at the foot of the barricade with a squeaking groan, like air escaping from a small leak. Its toothy, boxy jaws dribbled with blood and oozed some kind of luminescent saliva.
“Goddess, would you look at that,” Green Bow muttered. “We saw these creeps about a week ago. Think they’re related to the howlers.”
“No special powers that we could see,” Tracer said. “Must just have been curious little bastards.”
“Alarm! Alarm!” a new voice cried from back within the station. A pegasus appeared at the door. “The southeast tunnels are under attack! Big wave this time! They dug around the last barricades!”
“Lockbox, Sunny!” Tracer shouted, and we both ran to his side. Red Delicious and two others followed. I couldn’t see Nopony. He’d come when he was needed, I supposed. We charged back through the cramped tunnel spaces as we threaded our way through abandoned kiosks and waiting areas to the southern end of the station, past another guard post where a small reserve waited with bated breath. Down the hall, gunfire was barking and cracking.
“What are you waiting for?!” Tracer shouted at those who lingered. “It’s not like you’re going to die any slower back here!”
Shamed into action, the remaining ponies followed us to the defensive line, which was a wall of sheet metal reinforced with timber and sandbags, with small openings at the top for gunners who stood on a platform above. We raced around the side to a fortified gate and looked out into the tunnel beyond.
I saw a vision of hell.
Dead mutants were scattered all around a small knot of guards standing bravely just outside the gate. Spent bullets were all over, mixed with blood and gore. Four ponies had already fallen to the claws and teeth of the horrors and I saw by their pig-like snouts and bat-like claws they were one of the central Metro’s feared enemies: nosalises. Nopony really knew what they were or where they came from. Some postulated they were like shrews or rats, gathering in hordes and swarming through the Metro. But they were everywhere in the deep tunnels, and I could see them boiling up from side tunnels beyond, coming out of the dark like monsters birthed by the shadows.
Steeling myself I took up position next to the others and fired into the tide while Sunny Side took to the air, his rifles banging out a constant rhythm of death. Without pause, without shame, without care for their own lives, the nosalises came on. It was just like the attack on Exiperia when we held off the cerberus: fire, reload, fire again. Never mind the smoke and the noise. Just point forward and shoot. Within minutes the tunnel began to clog with bodies of the pig-snouted monsters.
We couldn’t hold them off forever, and ponies eventually had to reload. A group of the beasts, hungering for our flesh and relief from whatever it was that chased them here, leaped to the attack while I fumbled to reload. Sunny Side pounced down on one from above, silencing its squeals with a knife straight into its neck. Tracer fearlessly stepped forward, flinging two of them away with telekinesis, and then simply punched one of them right in the face. Its nose snapped and the pink, hairless body dropped. At the same time, Tracer levitated his knife and viciously stabbed one in the eye, before stomping on the one whose nose he’d crunched. His assault rifle was reloaded and firing again before I could blink.
It didn’t deter the rest. Still they came on.
“Bastards! Where are they coming from?” Tracer thundered.
“They must have dug through further down!” Red Delicious shouted back over the constant gunfire. The ravening horde continued to spill over the bodies of their fellows. “There’s a barricade up ahead... or there was... they must have dug through!”
“Then what’s next?”
I didn’t hear the last part, as I was too busy with a nosalis leaping at my face. I spun and bucked it in the head, hard. I felt the satisfying snap and ensuing crunch, and the creature crumpled at my hooves, dead. No time to gloat. Keep firing.
“-but that’s suicide!” Red Delicious finished.
“Then I’ll do it,” Tracer boldly volunteered.
“Cherry Bomb! Get the explosives!”
I watched another guard turn and run back into the station.
In those two minutes between his leaving and his return, the situation grew dire. We had one lull. Just one. It lasted a few seconds until another wave, smaller than the last but no less ferocious, came straight at us. I couldn’t count how many creatures we’d slaughtered by now, but it felt like an entire nest was emptying out at us. Shotguns were tossed down from above, fed into war reins, and put to use.
“Running low on ammo!” shouted the guard manning the top of the barricade.
“I’m out!” Sunny Side wailed, and dropped onto the ground, going back to his own Mule.
Keep firing. Don’t stop killing. Stand firm with the Earth, and let her give you strength. Don’t think about the fear. Let the magic flow and keep your hooves planted, just like Hunter instructed. Celestia, my jaws ached. I had a headache. When was the last time I’d taken this helmet off? My gasmask felt so thick and heavy. Another monster on the right. A short burst will do, don’t worry about more. My vision blurred. In between every last nosalis, every tiny pause between bullets exiting my gun, my body desperately tried to regain control. Those blessed moments of calm, where there was only my heavy, sucking breaths through my filter, and the click of my gun as I fed my final magazine into the chamber. Somehow I found myself off to the right of the melee, seeing one of the guards gored as a bleeding and dying creature leaped on his neck. The pony cried out as bullets ripped into his attacker, and another earth pony tried to drag him to safety.
“I’m back! Here! Here!”
I only then noticed the pony that had left, Cherry Bomb, was in fact a unicorn. He’d brought a fresh contingent of guards with ammo, who quickly joined their firepower to ours... and a long, strange weapon attached to a large gas tank. I recognized it almost immediately as he set up a tripod with a few flicks of his horn.
“Burn these fuckers!” Red Delicious yelled. “Freehaven won’t fall today!”
“Let’s kick some snout butt!” Cherry Bomb agreed as he magically pulled the trigger.
An enormous gout of flame burst into the tunnel, turning the already hellish environment into a living vision of the Abyss. The heat seared my eyeballs even beneath the cloying, thick cover of my gasmask. The flamethrower did its work, making the nosalis horde draw back with a ghastly wail of dismay. The old ways held true: wild animals would always be afraid of fire. The combined din of our guns and the torrent of sticky, greedy flames forced back the once unstoppable mob.
The ensuing moment of silence pounded on my eardrums. My ears rang and my body shook. The entire tunnel was full of smoke and dead bodies, and I found myself thankful for my choking mask. Oh, Luna, these poor ponies dealt with this on a daily basis?
“We’re not done!” Tracer bellowed, levitating a small pack Cherry Bomb had brought. “Stay here. I will demolish the tunnels these creatures come from.”
“You need help!” I blurted out, without thinking. “I’ll go with you.”
“Then I’m going!” Sunny Side spoke up without hesitation.
“Fine,” said Tracer. “The rest of you, prepare yourselves. If we fail another team will have to go.”
“Celestia guide you, Ranger!” Red Delicious answered, tossing us all a fresh magazine. “If it gets too hot, fall back and we’ll give them another taste of our guns.”
I saw Nopony alongside us as we ran down the tunnel, through the broken, scorched bodies of the nosalises, and a few ponies they’d managed to overwhelm. He turned towards me, staring with that sightless gaze from under his gasmask.
“I’m proud of you, Lockbox,” he said. How had he gotten here? I hadn’t even seen him during the battle... but the blood on his clothes said he’d pulled his own weight.
My mind was quickly distracted as I realized my hasty decision to follow Tracer. And yet, I didn’t feel foolish for volunteering. These ponies gave their lives every day, thankless and stoic, knowing they were there to die because nopony else would accept them. I couldn’t ask them to do more for me than they’d already had without my knowing... perhaps, in some small ways, the Metro was not as hopeless as I’d thought. Perhaps if we could understand each other, we could even begin to help each other.
We vanished into the shadows of a side tunnel about ten metres away from the barricade. All around me was the rotten, decayed evidence of other guard posts that’d been set up in days gone by, and overwhelmed one by one until Trotsky’s ponies were pushed up to their final redoubt. I realized, as I ran through that madness, I was seeing a vision of my home in the future. Exiperia, standing alone on the northern frontier, slowly but surely ground to a bloody pulp under an unstoppable mass of mutants. We came to a collapsed section of tunnel, where the ground was covered in dirt and loose stone. The creatures had burrowed all the way through the last tunnel collapse from another cave system above the tunnel, clearing away the entire mess and opening the whole tunnel to use again with almost pony-like intelligence.
“They cleared up the entire blockage,” Tracer said, growling. “It’s like these freaks know what they’re doing, opening up the whole stretch for invasion...”
The entire ceiling above had been clawed open, their point of entry, and I heard the growls and snuffling snorts of more nosalis as they regrouped virtually above our heads. Beyond I saw only the dark tunnel leading south. If we didn’t seal this hole, this whole line would be at risk from the horde.
“Cover me,” said Tracer as he began tossing up the explosives and magically fastening the wires, tossing a few of the bombs up into the hole in the ceiling for good measure. “This is important, now, there’s-”
“Behind!” Sunny Side shouted. The ceiling broke open behind us as well, sending rock and concrete crashing down. From the dust spilled the nosalises, met by our paltry resistance of bullets.
Nopony himself took up a pistol and fired. Tracer was busy with the explosives, furiously setting wires.
I was the only one that noticed the big one coming from behind.
From the shadows a monster dropped almost directly in front of me, black and covered in shaggy fur, its mouth a hideous, serrated beak. The others, they weren’t... no notice... no time. Act. Regain control of this senseless journey.
I leaped to the attack, put myself directly in the creature’s path and fired. It didn’t slow down as it lumbered towards me, even as my bullets ripped away chunks from its pelt, scattering its blood over the floor. But it chose to face a pony that knew the whole earth anchored him to the ground. This is what I wanted. This is what I knew I was supposed to do: fight to protect the ponies I cared about. These ponies wouldn’t die like Ray Drop. They had their dignity, and these monsters wouldn’t take it from them while I lived.
It leaped. I reared up on my hind legs, punching forward with my hooves. As if in slow motion I saw my knife sink into its neck, just behind the jaw.
Too bad I’m almost out of bullets. Should’ve listened to Sidewinder and done more scavenging.
I cried aloud as the creature’s weight almost bore me down, but I held firm. I was a pony. I was better than this mindless beast. With a mighty heave I threw the squealing monster to the floor. It snapped its beak-like jaws at me, making ugly clacking noises as the bony plates came together.
By Celestia, this thing is ugly.
I felt another weight on my back. More of the creatures spilled from the ceiling almost right on top of our position. I tried to stand, but I felt claws grab my leg, tug my clothes, jaws snap shut on my back and bear me forward off the pile of dirt. I felt their warm, fetid breath washing over me. Feral, panicking instinct took control and I threw my limbs about with was much strength as I could muster, firing blindly at a blur of swarming, stinking bodies.
So this is it? I’m going to die with my guts strewn all over the place? Not how I thought I’d go after all this.
I tumbled and rolled onto solid track, the nosalises biting me, biting each other, confused and lawless. I saw Sweet Dreams before I stopped spinning, waiting for me in the black tunnel beyond. Waiting for me to succumb, to die in screaming horror so she could get her revenge, to take me into her bloody grasp and rip open my soul’s throat...
Eat you alive...
“Lockbox!” Sunny Side screamed, and I’d never heard him sound more fearful. But I didn’t see him coming towards me. I saw only more nosalises, confused for the moment by my gunfire. They milled about, as if unsure what direction to take, but sooner or later they’d notice a kicking, screaming pony in their midst. I didn’t even hear myself screaming, I was so numbed by adrenaline and mind-bending terror of pain and death.
“Lockbox! Let go! Damn it! LOCKBOX!” Sunny Side sounded much further away this time. The nosalises must have been driving him back too.
“I’m here!” I managed to squeeze out as the nosalises closed in. I kicked one in the face and managed to strike another across the brow with my knife. My gun was dry. Nothing but the strength of the earth.
I have a mission. I will not die until its completion!
But then, miraculously, I tore free, and ran for my life, away from my fellows. Or rather, I staggered and gasped and flopped, as I felt the creatures leap onto my back again.
No, no, no! I won’t go like this! I won’t!
But if this is where I was fated to die, I’d do it actually accomplishing something. My final cry tore from my lips.
“BURN THEM! DO IT! DO IT NOW!”
My world exploded.
A light. So beautiful. So pure. Too weak. Something carried me to it. It felt like hope.
We have seen you. We will protect you.
Green. I saw green. Everywhere. Under my hooves. In the air. Such smells as I’d never known before. I looked up and saw nothing but pure, endless blue beyond.
You must see us. You must understand us. As we wish to understand you. To help you...
I stood on a lonely path in the woods. A far green country beyond, fearless and expansive. Something else behind me. Something that pulled on my clothes. Tugged at my mane. Tried to draw me back. I took a step forward. Into the light. Into that beaming orb above. The backwards pull grew more insistent.
To feel the Sun... and see the Sky... walk on...
I walked on. Towards paradise. The tugging from behind fell away. Not important. Or was it? I felt something sorrowful as it stopped pulling on me. I wanted to turn my head and look. Something stopped me.
Let us guide you... and protect you... protect all of you... Walk on...
I stopped. I heard a flutter of wings behind me.
I turned. She stood there, still shockingly beautiful, pure as spring water, butter-yellow pelt shining in the sunlight, pink mane gently framing her soft, rounded features. She stood at the path in the woods. Her eyes were crystal clear from here, shining with some inner light, something she knew and wished to tell me... looking directly at me...
Something prevented me from going back. I was stuck between purity and paradise.
She waited for me.
My eyes opened. I saw another fire in front of me.
Too bright. I closed my eyes again.
When I opened them, I saw darkness, interspersed by smooth lines over my vision.
My mane was singed. All of my possessions were gone. It felt so strange to not have that familiar weight on my back.
Parched. I was parched. Starving for water.
“Water,” I croaked, and reached out. I felt bruised and burned all over. Strange... I thought I’d be vaporized when the explosion went off. But these wounds were fresh, and I felt so hungry...
My hoof was stopped by cold, metal ribs. Straight, smooth lines.
Not another cage... not another stop... I didn’t want to rest like this.
“Mmn... somepony...” I whispered.
I knew that voice. Through the shadows and despair already clouding my mind, that burning anger I’d felt before cut through. It pierced my grogginess, dragging me to the world of the waking. I turned my head, propping my body up against the cold bars.
“Sidewinder,” I hissed. “Where are you, traitor?”
“About two doors down.”
I glanced left. I couldn’t see anything, though it seemed we were in a long, rectangular room. I saw the shadows of catwalks spanning overhead. More cages surrounded me, some with pony-shaped lumps in them. Somepony was crying somewhere. Two cages down, I spotted one very familiar pair of cloudy, unscrupulous grey eyes.
“I knew there was something about you,” Sidewinder said. “I just knew it.”
“You... you left me... left me to die!” I rasped. Oh, for some water, just to make my throat smooth again.
Sidewinder grinned toothily, pressing his lips against his cage. “I never said you couldn’t follow me. You’re the one who stayed behind. So in a way, it’s kind of your fault.”
“If I weren’t in this cage...”
“Oh, don’t worry. They’ll take us out of here soon enough. Probably sell us as slaves to Hoofsa or the Monarchy. Probably shoot us for sport. If we’re lucky, they’ll let us shovel shit for the rest of our lives.”
“Where are we?”
“My friend, we’re in the belly of the beast. Fort Guarsky. Seems a patrol went to investigate some huge explosion along the Blue Line. And they brought you back.”
I groaned aloud. If this was the Metro’s way of spitting on me, it was doing a good job. My friends were gone... my things... my meager collection. Ray Drop’s picture... The Guide! Hunter’s talisman!
“I have to get out of here!” I said with unexpected loudness that tore my scratchy throat. I devolved into a fit of coughing, which made me cough more, which made me cough more. Just a drop of water, please...
“Look at it this way,” Sidewinder said, though I’m not sure if he was consoling or mocking me. “You’re living a charmed life! Only somepony who’s really special would live through what you have only to have life kick you in the balls.”
“How’d you end up here?” I wondered. The question seemed incredibly important for some reason.
“I thought it’d be a nice getaway after all that’s happened... then I played some cards. Really, is it my fault if a few end up my sleeve now and then? I was drunk, he was drunk, you never know where your cards will end up! Long story short, I pissed one of them off and he had the leverage to toss me in here. But look at us now! Peas in a pod. Or more appropriately, ponies in peril. Really, what are the odds we’d run across each other here? I told you you were special, Lockbox, I told you!”
“I promise, if they do make us shovel the latrines, you can use my lucky spade. I get to ride the wheelbarrow after we empty it though.”
“I mean the smell can’t be that bad. I guess eventually you get used to it. At least it’ll be pony poo, not the mean green stuff mutants usually spit out... speaking of which, I once saw a mutant that spits out its poo instead of shitting it normally!”
“That’s a nasty cough you got there, Lockbox. You should get that looked at.”
I quieted down, hoping he’d shut up so I could ponder my fate and how to get out of here.
I didn’t get long. A door opened, spilling light over us. I shaded my eyes and watched shadowy ponies descend a set of stairs, onto the catwalks. The other prisoners kept their heads down. Even Sidewinder had gone quiet. Only I dared to stare up at my captors. I’d killed bandits by the dozen by now... should I really be afraid of them now?
They stopped directly over my cage. The one in the middle, a unicorn that had the shape of a mare, lit their horn with a harsh purple glare. My eyes widened as I beheld the striking, blood red pelt, the short burgundy mane framing bright red eyes that stared at me like a pony would their garbage. The mare, who on closer inspection looked only a few years older than myself, glared down with a scowl that could make a thumper cringe. I knew her, too, remembered shouted threats and bloodthirsty anger outside the tunnels of Bucklyn...
Suddenly, I felt very afraid.
“Welcome to the Fort,” she snarled. “My name is Ruby Red. You can forget where you came from and where you were going. All you need to know is that like everypony else here, you are now officially my bitch.”