My Little Metro: Chapter 2
“Just the usual tunnel trash…”
What’s strange about Stalliongrad is that most of the tunnels were not built with surviving a war in mind. Equestria knew peace for thousands of years under the benevolent rule of our Princesses. Whatever conflict there was stayed between individual ponies and almost never escalated into violence. War was a cautionary tale, a fable in storybooks that only happened in the lands of the griffons and the dragons. We had never believed it would reach us. So, the Stalliongrad Metro was created mostly to service ponies who elected not to walk the crowded streets above. Only when the war loomed were some of the tunnels haphazardly converted into shelters. By the mercy of Celestia and Luna, wherever they are, many of the tunnels have not collapsed after so many years of wear and tear. When construction began they were built in a sprawling, almost flippant manner. The enthusiasm of ponies unbridled and willing to work I supposed. It worked to nopony’s advantage, since it meant that everything was rather scattered, if roomier than it was normally supposed to be. At least they put work into whatever they built. We simply had to trust that the magic woven into the soil to keep it safe for the tunnels didn’t fade. Magic could be become tainted though, just like everything else. If the power of the bombs could destroy the land, then the residual effects of their magical enhancements would doubtlessly corrupt and twist the original spells laid down by our forefathers.
Did they know the war to end all wars was coming, I wondered? Did they know they were building the future homes of the shattered remnants of their people? That those few metro stations that were built in just such a way would be converted into factories, farms, and armories? Some of the stations were certainly built with preservation of the species in mind… large, fortress-like constructions deeper than most of the regular Metro. These were occupied by the stronger factions, such as Ponyopolis or Hoofsa. I didn’t know how or why those were created; many of the records of the time before were destroyed. The buildings above held few archives worth salvaging, and the stalkers who prowl the ruins come back more with salvaged goods than historical artifacts. No books or great fortresses, however, could prepare us or shelter us from the monsters that crawled out of the wreckage of our civilization.
I didn’t know what the Dark Ones were, why they were here, or where they had come from. It was clear they were a grave threat, if the terrible scene in the hospital had been any indication, but if that was the case… why had my father tried so hard to keep the truth from us? Had he been so preoccupied with the status quo? I couldn’t fathom it. My father was always one for keeping the peace and keeping the labor forces going, but to try to pass off a new and terrible danger to Exiperia as nothing more than simple mutants… it disturbed me greatly, and the conversation we had had about it didn’t bode well for our relationship.
“That was awful, father,” I said as we returned to my room from the meeting in his office. The walk had only served to let my father’s thoughts gather and his temper boil. He wasn’t easy to aggravate, but when he did get angry, he was less like a cinder block and more like a flaming gas leak.
“I know, Lockbox!” he hissed, shaking his head and looking everywhere but at me. “These creatures… these monsters, they are not like anything I have seen before. I have no idea how to deal with this, and it frustrates me.”
“The station should know the truth,” I said quietly. “If they don’t know what is killing their families, they’ll eventually storm your office and demand answers.”
“They already do! If I could do something I would. But I won’t let these creatures destroy our station from the inside out. I will put on a strong face for them. We have nowhere to go if we must evacuate. Give in to Hoofsa’s demands and become one of their satellites? Goddesses forbid it! We must see if there is another option. When Hunter returns, we’ll be in a better position to know what is going on.”
I was still surprised to hear my father put trust in the Rangers, but then, he had only mentioned Hunter. Friends of the family were the only ponies he could stand when it came to real trust.
“There must be somepony who can get out there and do something, though?” I asked. I wasn’t volunteering for anything, but I knew that against creatures who weren’t afraid of guns or fire and could kill with their brains, we couldn't just sit back and wait for them to come to us. If we were all destroyed, then nopony in the future would be able to remember the past. And if that happened, then everything was lost.
“Do what?!” my father snapped, making my ears fold back. “There is nothing that can be done, not tonight at least. And not tomorrow. Especially not for you!”
My eyes widened as he pointed a formidable hoof right at my nose. “Father, I’m not saying that I would do something foalish,” I attempted to mollify him, “but without somepony to go out and find out what’s happening, what the rest of the Metro might think of this threat…”
“I won’t hear another word of it!” he almost yelled and stormed out of my room, clearly convinced that I was ready to get out and get myself killed. It disturbed me to see him so angry, and for a few moments I was so confused I just stared at the air in front of me. I couldn’t figure out why he was getting so upset, or why he seemed to be focused on me in particular. At the time, I chalked it up to stress, but that just made the argument seem silly. The next day, when I was sitting at the open eating area near the loading docks, I even found myself growing indignant. I looked down into my meager meal of mushroom and barley soup like it was at fault.
What right had my father to snap at me so? To try and tell me, a pony who might one day help run this station, that I’d have to sit down and keep quiet while better ponies did their jobs around me? I wasn’t a child anymore. I was a full-grown stallion whether he liked it or not, and no matter how he had found me I was going to have to start taking a more active role in securing our future. He couldn’t just believe that I was going to do something harmful because that was what his overprotective instincts told him. How dare he just tell me that my desire to find help was a foal’s notion and not fit for consideration! I was no stranger to the dangers of the Metro. I had taken an active part in its defense more than once, clearing out tunnels of straggling mutants. I had even once helped to hold off a wave of thumpers that ambushed a guard post I was inspecting with my father. My shooting lessons with Hunter had come in very handy that day. That moment of glory had been unintentional, however, and I’m fairly certain I had wet myself when one of the beasts got too close.
Even so, I had done it, and would do it again. It was very apparent to myself and others that I would do what’s necessary to defend the station, and if that meant doing something about the threat of the Dark Ones, then that was clear too.
Would I, though, if I had the opportunity? This wasn’t just picking up a gun and popping a few mutants in the head, or stepping on some rats. The question ran through my head over and over as I stared at my cooling soup, not even taking a bite. The mushrooms were rubbery and the barley was tasteless, but normally I would devour it as quickly as anypony else. Today, however, I was stuck for answers and full of questions.
The other ponies around me knew I was there, but did their best to ignore me. They were preoccupied with news of another guard post being destroyed by a terrible, unknown force, the news my father should have reported yesterday when it happened. Even if it was just a simple mutant attack as my father had tried to explain, no mutant utterly destroyed squad after squad of combat ponies and didn’t even leave a scratch on their bodies. I felt their stares as they looked my way, knowing that I knew something, but they weren’t brave enough to ask. I liked to think they respected me enough to not pry into my private business, but at the same time I felt alienated. I was stuck between duty to my father and love for my station.
I wanted to shout what was going on right there in the square, but what good would that do? At least they’d know. I had my Wall, didn’t I? Touting my love of truth, finding the reasons behind every dark deed? Shame began to weigh my head down. I did my best to stay interested in my idle thoughts and my soup, which was growing lukewarm and wasn’t steaming anymore. I didn’t care. I wrestled with too many feelings. I didn’t even notice Sunny Side drop down next to me, and suddenly I found his gasmask stuck in my face.
“Boo!” he barked. I fell backwards with a shout that echoed across the eating area, drawing a few amused glances from passers-by.
“Hi, Lockbox,” said Starry Gaze, looking down at me with a wary smile. Her pretty white fur and bright eyes enveloped my vision. I felt her deep red mane tickle my cheek as it cascaded over her head.
“Hello,” I replied as curt as ever, and rolled away to sit up again. Sunny Side laughed as he removed his mask. He must have just got done with a shift, as his deep yellow coat and orange mane were damp with sweat.
“That was very rude,” I grumbled. Starry Gaze tried to calm me with more smiling.
“We thought you looked lonely,” she said quietly, and reached across the table to touch my hoof with hers. I did my best to look disinterested, since I caught Sunny Side’s quick glance at the affectionate display. “Were you thinking about something?”
“Many things,” I said, taking my hoof away and rubbing it with my other one.
They waited in silence until Sunny Side raised his hooves. “Well? Many things like what?”
“Private things,” I said, angry at them for prying, angry at myself for not appreciating their concern and giving voice to my worries.
“Lockbox, you could pass for a Ranger, the way you never talk clearly,” Sunny Side exclaimed, brushing off my temper. “In any case, the whole station is in a tizzy. The business with the attacks and all, you see.”
“Aren’t you told anything?” Starry Gaze asked him. “You’re in the militia!”
“That’s what gets me,” my friend grumbled, waving a waiter over to get himself a soggyweed sandwich. I don’t know where he got his love of the stuff, since I despised its texture. It reminded me of crunchy worms. “We’re putting our lives on the line out there. These attacks hit us first, and apparently we can’t do anything to stop it… but we aren’t even told what could be coming for our post next? It’s pretty crappy, if you ask me.”
“Um… Lockbox?” Starry Gaze asked, giving me her most winning smile. “Has… has your papa told you anything?”
I finally dug my snout into my soup and slurped it up grumpily, taking time to chew the rubbery mushrooms.
“I think he’s been told more than he wanted to know,” Sunny Side murmured, fixing me with a suspicious stare. “You know what’s going on, am I right?”
“If I could tell you, I would,” I said at length, my snout dripping with white broth. “But even I don’t know the whole story. It’s some new threat that’s terrifying and dangerous. That’s all I know.”
Even if it was the truth, it didn’t satisfy Sunny Side, who huffed and stared straight ahead, tapping his hooves together. When his sandwich came, he ripped into it like he had just been through a famine. A strand of soggyweed dangled comically out of the corner of his mouth. An uncomfortable silence fell over the table and I found myself resenting my father for the gulf his secrecy put between me and the rest of the station. Starry Gaze only looked uncomfortable and put her hoof on mine again. I was too distracted to brush her off, even though I saw Sunny Side glancing at us out of the corner of his eyes.
It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate my father and what he did. I owed him my life, and I loved him as I would my birth father. But this was going too far. Lives were at stake, and he was trying to put a lid on it like it was just another broken water valve or farm maintenance spell that needed attention. And now my closest friend was in danger of dying a horrible death, and I couldn’t even tell him what was going on.
“I’m sorry, Sunny Side,” I mumbled at length. The pegasus fluffed his wings, making his barding rustle. He rapped the table with his hooves, full of nervous energy, and then burst into a huge smile. I could still see bits of soggyweed stuck between his teeth.
“Ah, don’t worry, Lock,” he said, patting me on the back. “You all have me on the job, remember? If any of those… whatever they are… comes around, they’ll be the ones six feet under when I’m through with them!”
He nibbled his lower lip, starting to grow anxious. Sometimes pegasi just did that. They would get a burst of restlessness and need to start using their wings. If they weren’t able to they would grow depressed and temperamental for the rest of the day. Stations usually had a large room set aside just for pegasi to work off all that energy, a “flight room.” Even if ours could barely be called a “stand up and walk around” room for how cramped it was, it was something. I pitied my friend for his afflictions, because they weren’t his fault and would be completely natural if Equestria wasn’t a poisonous wasteland. When it happened I just let him take care of it without pointing it out, as it was a terrible reminder that one day he too could go feather-brained and make a suicide run for the deadly clouds above. He once made me swear to shoot him if he ever went that crazy, not wanting to be remembered as just another lunatic. Another pall settled over the table.
“Um… I gotta go,” he said apologetically. “I gotta go… use the flight room before my next shift. Exercise, you know. I’ll see you guys around.”
I let him go with a small smile shared between us. Starry Gaze smiled too, which made Sunny Side even sunnier.
“Be careful out there,” Starry Gaze told him.
Then it was just the two of us. I looked up at her, and our eyes met. Awkward silence reigned. I forced myself not to notice how pretty her eyes were, how they pleaded for me to open up. To trust her with things I kept close to me. Her hoof was still on mine. She must have taken the silence to mean her companionship was wanted, and improving my mood. Even I had to admit it was good to have somepony stand beside you in a time of loneliness like this.
“You’re a good pony, Lockbox,” she said quietly. “I can see it.”
“Thank you,” I murmured, as I didn’t know what else to say. With a final rub of my hoof from hers, she got up and left with a sad smile dominating her expression.
I was alone again for a long time. It wasn’t until my father came to fetch me that I remembered I hadn’t shown Starry Gaze her trinket like I had meant to.
“No word yet from the other stations?” I asked my father as we stalked down the hall to the City Gate. It was our largest self-made construction, a bristling array of magical wards and automated turrets manned by our most dedicated guards. The Gate itself was a huge steel door, crafted many years ago to serve as a barricade against the horrors that lurked in the city above. Stalliongrad was home to many dangers, and the largest and most powerful beasts roamed the streets. Magical enchantments hid the already hard to find entrance above, confusing the minds of simpletons and mutant freaks. If they got through that, the enchantments would activate alarms and guardponies would rush to secure the door as more traps stood ready to burn, maim, and destroy anything that wasn’t a pony. If they got to the door, they’d likely never pry it open. If they got past that, a whole army stood ready to wipe them out.
Hunter, of course, knew the secrets to getting past our security measures. Each station had different methods of security, and only a chosen few that were allowed out the main gates knew how to get back in. The surface was just too dangerous to open and close the doors for any old pony. The Rangers were one of those few we trusted not to take advantage of our knowledge.
“No word yet,” my father said quietly as we stood before the gate, surrounded by stiff-necked guards weighed down by flak jackets and full body barding. Many of the beasts that wandered the aboveground could shred that armor like it was paper, but it was better than nothing. And we had not yet met the creature that was invulnerable to bullets and knives and strong hooves.
“The other stations are as in the dark as we are. They haven’t encountered the Dark Ones, but they have received odd reports from the stalkers of new beasts combing the ruins, in much the way that Librarians roam their haunts. But we will receive no help from them. Not even Draft Station is willing to send military aid apart from spare guns and bullets. They don’t want ponies’ lives wasted on what they think are panicky rumors.”
“Troubling,” I said.
“Very ,” my father said. I worried that his taciturn nature rubbed off more on me than I knew.
“We have a pony coming in!” A guard at a terminal reported, watching a small green line oscillate up and down. “Magical readings normal. He’s alone.”
“That will be Hunter, yeah? Open the gates. Unicorns, send the signal to disable the traps until he’s gone past!”
I watched the great Gate, shifting my weight from hoof to hoof. To meet with Hunter again was an exciting prospect. We hadn’t seen each other for several months, and it wasn’t like Rangers just dropped in for routine visits.
“Guard ponies, tack up and lower weapons!” I heard the loud, ominous clicks and clanks of guns being put into their ready positions.
A gun is a hard thing for many ponies to handle. With the shortage of proper battle harnesses and gun platforms, we’ve had to improvise our own methods. There are several tried and true ways for a pony to handle a gun: the least favorite but most common is to simply grab it in your teeth and pull the trigger with your tongue. But that is unwieldy at best, and many ponies can’t properly brace themselves against the recoil or aim properly in a fight. So many folk craftsponies devised a special mechanism called the “war rein” that allowed a gun to be fitted into a cradle on the sides of their heads. It was designed to be interchangeable with most weapons, so that any gun smaller than an assault rifle could simply be slotted in. Most weapons nowadays were built with being slotted into the reins in mind. A small lever acted as the trigger. All a pony had to do was flip the lever down and bite it to fire the gun, and the powerful neck muscles all ponies possessed did the hard work. Many variants existed, allowing a pony to do everything from switch which side of his mouth he fired from to raising the weapon over his head to fire over cover. All of them had the ability to be popped right off in an emergency. All one had to do was be careful to remember which lever did what.
Even so, building the war rein was time consuming and complicated, and it could be unwieldy in close quarters. It was typically issued only to ponies expected to be in consistent, hard combat in relatively open or straight areas. However, larger weapons were simply too big to just slap onto a pony’s head. Specialized hydraulic barding and specially made saddles gave a pony a steady platform from which to fire large weapons. Without one, you just had to trust yourself.
Of course, if you were a powerful unicorn all of that was rendered moot. This made unicorns exceptionally lethal, valuable, and feared combatants… and the most visible and sought after targets on the battlefield. Hunter, however, was far too skilled to be worried about such things.
The Gate gave a loud squeal as the hydraulics hauled the two great interlocked slabs apart. The doors ground back on the tracks built into the floor. They only came apart about a foot or so. Blinding glare from the surface flooded the dim room, and I raised my hoof to cover my eyes. A tall, imposing shadow stood defiantly with the light at his back, showing no fear at all the guns aimed directly at the small opening he occupied. One could never be too careful in Stalliongrad.
“Well,” a voice, deep and commanding said, “this is a fine meeting for a pony who’s gone to hell and back!”
“Welcome back to Exiperia, Hunter!” my father exclaimed. “We’ve been waiting for you. Guards, close the gate!”
The gate squealed shut again, the great locks coming together once more as magical conduits connected and did their work. Hunter’s horn glowed as he levitated his bag of supplies and walked it in. He was dressed in the full body barding of the Rangers, covered in saddlebags and ammo packs, with heavy armor protecting almost every inch of his body. His head was covered by a large helmet with a built-in gas mask and filtration system, customized to provide a metal spike over his horn, allowing it to double as a last-ditch weapon. Through the faceplate stared dark green eyes, regarding every detail of his surroundings with critical scrutiny. He seemed to radiate an aura of authority, knowledge, and command. Every guardpony nearby visibly shrank back as if in deference to his mere passing.
I’d never seen a pony more prepared for the dangers of the outside world, nor did I think I ever would again. He stood tall and powerful, a rock for every danger of Stalliongrad to break upon. Every step he took was measured and confident, like he knew every action he was going to take before he did it.
“Guards! Holster weapons!” There was a chorus of clicks and clanks as the war reins were switched back to their upright, inactive positions. Several of the guards turned away to head back to their other duties now that the excitement was over. The others who stayed watched with rapt attention, eager to hear what wisdom they could gain from the Ranger.
“Come, Hunter. Let’s sit next to the fire,” my father offered. Hunter pulled off his helmet, revealing his dark green fur coat. His short-trimmed silvery grey mane spilled out around his neck.
“It’s good to see you both,” he said, his deep voice reverberating in my chest. He fixed me with that hawkish gaze, riveting me to the spot.
“Lockbox. I found something for the Wall,” he said with the tiniest hint of a smile, and floated out a small piece of paper from his saddlebag. It was an old, faded picture of the royal palace at Canterlot. We had no idea what it looked like nowadays. All we knew was that radio transmissions from that direction had ceased many years ago, and that it had been at the epicenter of a massive bombardment. The best we could figure it was nothing but a giant crater carved into the mountainside.
“Thank you,” I murmured, and took it in my mouth to place it in my saddlebag. I felt a short spike of guilt when I noticed Starry Gaze’s trinket again.
“So, Hunter. I assume you know why you have been summoned here,” my father began.
“Yes… the new threat beyond your borders. I didn’t find anything but the usual tunnel trash on the way here. But I did sense several areas that were… tainted, in some way or another. Large vortices of magical disturbances that I couldn’t pin down, like somepony had unleashed hell on the place and then vanished without a trace.”
“The poor souls who could speak after the attacks did mention horns, and something akin to magical power being thrown around by the creatures,” my father agreed. “Our unicorns are the first to fall.”
“Well, damn! Guess I’m the wrong Ranger for the job,” Hunter said with a Nightmare-may-care grin. “Maybe we should send little Lockbox instead? He’s a dead-eye shot with his pistol, that one.”
I cleared my throat as my father shifted uncomfortably. “I would… rather Lockbox remain out of this conflict,” he said sternly. “He is here to learn, and nothing more.”
“The boy has all the makings of a good pony, it’s true,” Hunter said quietly. “You may need his help in time, Cinder, especially if these creatures are as powerful as I’ve heard.”
“I will say no more.” And he did not. Hunter cast me a pitying, understanding gaze and telekinetically poked the fire, stoking it to life.
“In any case, there is a new development. The Celestian Monarchy is beginning a new push. Hoofsa has decided to allow them into their station. It’s not looking pretty. The New Lunar Republic is stepping up efforts to combat their influence by spreading propaganda and violence. There are rumors they have taken Diamond Dogs to bolster their ranks. One of Hoofsa’s satellite stations was wiped out by them.”
“That gives the Monarchy control of the great armory and most of the central trade routes,” my father said worriedly. “I’m almost glad we’re out here on the periphery.”
“Whatever this other threat is facing you, I will do my best to find out what it is,” Hunter assuaged him. “These Dark Ones will learn what it is to try and kick a pony when he’s down… the Ranger Order is well aware of what’s been going on, even if we cannot yet understand its nature. We will destroy these creatures soon enough.”
It was at that moment there was a burst of yellow feathers, and my friend Sunny Side hurtled into the room.
“The southern guard station!” he shouted, his eyes wide with fear. “It's been attacked! Everypony’s dead!”
It was a terrible sight at the southern entrance to Exiperia. Pony bodies were flung about as if they had been rag dolls. Weapons and bullet casings were scattered all over the floor. The rail car stationed at the post as a static defense had been completely upended, and its mounted weapon torn clean off by some terrific force. There wasn’t much blood, but somehow that made the scene even more terrifying. All the barricades that blocked off the unused tunnels had been torn to pieces, as if a tornado had swept right through the wooden and stone blockades and tossed the debris like confetti. I saw that one unfortunate pony had been stabbed through the neck by a flying chunk of wood. I fought to keep down the soup I had eaten earlier in the day. I then noticed something even more terrifying than the lack of blood.
There wasn’t a single Dark One body to be found.
The others rushed forward, trying to find what ponies they could help… though none of them were breathing this time. I was riveted to the spot by shock and awe.
“Damn it, damn it!” my father said, flipping over a body and recoiling from the victim’s look of surprise and terror frozen on his face. “Why weren’t we warned? Where the hell was the alarm?!”
“They never made it,” Hunter murmured, pointing a hoof at an earth pony mare who looked like she had keeled over just before reaching the alarm. “I’m willing to bet the Dark Ones were strong enough to disable the magic wards and enchantments in the outer tunnels, too… these poor souls got no warning and no chance to call for help.”
“Dark Ones?!” the guardponies gasped. “Is that what they’re called?”
I winced. They definitely weren’t going to be encouraged hearing an ominous name like that out loud. My father only pointed his hoof at Sunny Side, who was rubbing his temples with worry. “Explain what happened here!” he barked. The pegasus snapped to attention.
"Me and my patrol were standing just inside the door,” he explained, pointing at the entrance. “And then there was this… this noise! I can’t even explain it. It did something to us. We were all frozen… we couldn’t even move. Then there was the sound of shooting, shouting… it didn’t even last a whole minute. Then it all went quiet again, and… we couldn’t move for at least a couple minutes afterwards.”
“The Dark Ones swept in and wiped them out, paralyzing any chance of reinforcements!” Hunter growled, stamping his hoof. “They’ve already faded into the Metro…” His eyes narrowed, and his expression grew slightly more thoughtful. His horn suddenly glowed a fearsome blue. “I think I can sense them… or whatever traces they left behind. No, they are gone now. Vanished.”
“Celestia knows what’s happening here,” my father snarled. “We need to-!”
“Wait!” Hunter snapped. His horn began to pulse. “I’m feeling life signs… lots of them. They’re definitely not ponies!”
“Oh Luna!” another guard wailed. “The Dark Ones are coming back! Shit, shit! We’re all gonna die!”
“Quiet, coward!” my father snapped. “Hunter, what is it?”
“Not Dark Ones… Mutants,” he hissed. I gulped. Sunny Side checked his mounted guns to ensure they were loaded.
“Battle stations!” my father shouted. “Tack up and lower arms! Lockbox, grab a gun!”
“Everypony form a line!” Hunter barked. “Use the wreckage as cover! Watch each other’s backs, gentleponies! Pegasi, mind the ceilings!”
The unused tunnels were always kept blocked off with copious amounts of mortar and wood, and whatever else we could use to discourage travel through them. If they were available, we sealed them with a large gate. Mutants and bandits had full reign over those tunnels, and now that the Dark Ones had obliterated the barricades…
“They set this up,” I heard Hunter mutter to my father. “Destroyed the guards and blew out the barricades. Set the mutants on us now that we’re alert… wouldn’t be surprised if they strike from another direction while we’re busy with this.”
I swept up a submachine gun cradle attached to a helmet, latching it firmly around my head as I took up position with the others. I felt the creeping, gnawing fear. It chewed at my insides like a hungry deep ant.
Then came the sounds. Many of the mutants of the Metro were thankfully not at all subtle. They were loud, cantankerous beasts and gave away their presence with their shrieks and howls. And oh, how they howled. Loud, wailing screams and short, staccato barks pierced the air.
“Cerberus is coming. Make sure your triggers are faster than their feet, ponies! Open up the moment you see the bastards’ faces!” Hunter said with a grin, levitating two assault rifles to his sides. It seemed he was actually happy to face such beasts. The cerberus was a horribly mutated creature descended from the dogs that used to run and play with ponies in better times. Now they were ugly, horrid monsters that sported anywhere from one to three heads. Rarely were the extra heads useful, mostly being useless deformities, but they left a terrible impression on those who were attacked by them. Worse, they traveled in packs.
I felt my muscles tense. Guards stood their ground, I narrowed my eyes and clutched the trigger between my teeth. Claws scrabbled and raked on stone and metal as the pack drew nearer. It seemed they were charging headlong towards us. Sunny Side took up position directly overhead, covering me. He was singing something, just loud enough to be heard.
“When I was a little filly and the sun was going down…”
His voice was drowned out by the roar of gunfire that tore into the first wave of cerberus to round the corner. Blood and brains and chunks of mutant went flying all over the tunnel. I jumped at the explosion of noise, my mouth clamped on the trigger, a burst of bullets went wide. The dogs leaped and sprang on their unnaturally strong legs, zipping back and forth. It took a steady jaw and steadier nerves to face one down and line up a shot.
Knowing Sunny Side had my back, I remembered the lessons drilled into my head from the day of my birth. Not everypony was militia, but they all had to learn how to defend themselves.
You are an earth pony. Feel the land. Take strength. Stay steady. Aim true. You are as firm as the earth.
I spread my hooves and watched as one of the creatures broke free of the pack and went wide, springing onto a wall, about to use it as leverage to pounce right at another guard pony…
My gun chattered. Crimson geysers burst all along the cerberus’ back as it fell limp to the ground. Turn. Aim. Fire. Don’t hold the trigger too long. Trust the others to pick up your slack. Fire! Another rattle, another deafening report. Another cerberus went down, sporting a brand new set of holes. From there, it was almost automatic. Turn. Shoot. Turn, shoot. I flinched as one of them came close, but Sunny Side’s mounted guns blew two of its three heads into chunks before it could raise a claw. Somehow, all I could think was how disgusting the sight of destroyed innards was. I was out of bullets. I punched the magazine out, grabbed another off the ground, slammed it home.
Turn. Shoot. Stay steady. You are as firm as the earth.
It was over as suddenly as it began. The cerberus crowded the tunnel with their bodies.I stood in the midst of the carnage with the other ponies, panting heavily. The trigger felt warm and foreign in my mouth.
“That’s it!” Hunter called, his horn no longer pulsing. “Holster weapons!”
As one, we pushed the war reins back up. Some of us turned to give each other nervous smiles. See? We could still do this. We could still defend ourselves. The site of the massacre was now the site of a victory.
“Lockbox!” my father and Sunny Side said at the same time. I let the trigger, slimy with my spit, pop out of my mouth, tossed helmet and reins to the ground. I felt queasy, but I could also feel the exhilaration of a battle won in the air. It helped me keep my lunch down.
“Are you all right?” my father asked as Sunny Side landed beside me.
“Of course! He’s a great shot, like I said,” Hunter exclaimed, fitting his helmet back on. He was already trotting towards the tunnel the beasts had come from. “You might want to clean up this mess before another monster is attracted by the blood.”
“You’re leaving?” I asked, and it felt strange to talk. My mouth was still buzzing from the vibrations of the gun.
“This was no accident,” Hunter said, his voice grim and dour through the filter on his helmet. “This was an attack. The Dark Ones annihilated an entire guard post without even touching it and then sicced the monsters of the Metro on you. We won very little here today.”
The realization slammed into us like a ton of bricks. The glory of victory went sour in our mouths. Sunny Side grimaced as my father scowled. The rest of the guards lowered their heads and set to work clearing the bodies.
“Luna knows what’s going on out there. These Dark Ones are clearly seeking destruction and violence… so I will go to my order and tell them to answer in kind. I must finish my investigation and then go straight to Ponyopolis. We will destroy these Dark Ones before they can destroy us.”
He turned to the pile of cerberus corpses. One of the creatures stirred and out a pitiful moan. Hunter stood over it, staring through his helmet. I could feel his scowl from that distance.
“We Rangers have a motto, you see. If it’s hostile…”
He reared up on his hind legs and brought his armored hooves down on the cerberus’ main head. It caved in with a disgusting squelch. Sunny Side grimaced again. I and my father watched it all. We didn’t even flinch as the blood sprouted up and splashed onto Hunter’s barding. The Ranger looked back at us.
“You kill it.”
My father sighed and turned to go back inside, apparently full of violence for today. Sunny Side began to help clean up.
“Lockbox, if I could speak with you,” I heard Hunter say, staring down the tunnel the cerberus had come from. I trotted up to him, eyes widening as respect and admiration bloomed in my chest. This pony had just looked at the scene of a massacre and faced down a horde of mutants, and he was already preparing to hurl himself into danger again.
“Your station will not survive this,” he said.
“I know,” I whispered.
“There is no more time to waste. Action must be taken. Ponyopolis is the only station with the strength and will to help us fight these creatures. They must be warned.”
He levitated a small talisman out of his barding. It was a necklace, and on it was a pony skull crossed by two daggers behind it. He floated it in front of us to hide it from the others.
“I want you to keep this safe,” he said quietly. My eyes bulged.
“Do this for me, Lockbox. I trust you. It is vital that this talisman is kept secret. Should I not return by morning-”
“Hunter, we need you—”
“—then take this to my fellows. There is a Ranger base near Bucklyn station. They will carry my message the rest of the way to Ponyopolis. Just show this to them, and they will know what to do. Bucklyn isn’t far. I know you will make it if I fall against these Dark Ones.”
I felt a tightness in my throat. All at once, I was struck by the realization that Hunter was giving me what could be his last words. I was being given a mission. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. Excitement? Terror? Betrayal? Anger? Or all at once. My mind reeled, and I almost took a step back. But the way Hunter looked at me made me stop. Something in his eyes spoke of a deep trust and understanding that he knew what I was feeling, and was giving me this responsibility because he knew I would see it through. I was touched and intimidated all at once. I didn’t feel worthy or ready of such trust, especially not from a hero like Hunter.
Bucklyn wasn’t far, like he said, and this mission could prove vital. I had seen the devastation the Dark Ones could wreak. Hunter was right. Ponyopolis had to be warned. Here at last was my chance to do what I always want: help to save my station. To help the Rangers. To help my friends, my father, all the ponies I cared about. And anyway, this was Hunter standing there! Of course he would come back and simply take the talisman and do what he needed to save Exiperia. Perhaps the responsibility wouldn’t fall on me directly, and if holding onto this little thing was so important, couldn’t I do that much at least to defend my home? Did I really have a choice when my family’s survival was on the line?
Did I really want there to be a way out?
I gave an imperceptible nod without really meaning to. I just felt it was right. I knew I would’ve been ashamed of myself if I refused to at least hold on to it. The hard, heavy feelings in Hunter’s eyes receded just slightly.
“Thank you, Lockbox. I cannot impress on you how important this is, and how grateful this makes me.” He floated the talisman into my saddlebag. It felt unusually heavy. My body subconsciously sagged to one side as the weight of duty fell upon me. Hunter floated his weapons to him, attached them to his body, and without another look back, stalked into the shadows.
“This is about our survival, Lockbox,” he said, and though he spoke quietly his voice echoed as he left me there, forlorn and frightened at the mouth of the tunnel. His voice rang in my ears long after the sight of him was lost to the Metro. “Never forget that. We are all that remains of ponykind and we are on the brink. We cannot hesitate. We cannot waver. The war has not stopped.
"And we will be the ones to end it."