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My Little Metro: Chapter 3
“It’s now or never!”
The next morning found me staring at my Wall again. I waited for news of Hunter’s return, praying to the heavens that he would come back safely. I figured even just hoping against hope would somehow affect the Ranger’s journey positively. I didn’t know if heaven or hell or even the supernatural in general existed anymore. It had become clear very soon after the bombs fell that Celestia and Luna weren’t going to swoop down and fix everything. Nopony knew where they were, or even if they were alive now. The few thousand ponies who huddled in the Metro after the attack had to deal with their entire world being shattered, then having the guts ripped out of their very faith. I wondered how they’d survived. How they hadn’t just torn each other to pieces in a panic. But that was the nature of faith, I supposed. Its incredible resilience in the face of impossible odds ensured its survival. Belief in the Princesses and in the virtues that made us good ponies was still strong in some parts of the Metro. I too had faith that Equestria might someday become green again. It wouldn’t be faith if there was always a clear cut reason to believe, would it?
But today, it seemed my faith was failing. I didn’t believe enough, or Hunter wasn’t strong enough, because he did not return. My father had tried to speak to me after Hunter had given me his talisman, but I would hear none of it. I only caught some vaguely consoling words about the nature of the Metro and how we all needed to trust each other. I just retreated to my room and flumped onto my couch, my thoughts swirling. I stayed there all night, tossing and turning in bed and chewing on my store of snack foods. Sunny Side came to visit once or twice, checking in on me, but I didn’t even look up to see him. I locked myself away in my little box, curled up with all my pretty pictures, and tried to believe that the threat of the Dark Ones was still manageable. Every second that came closer to morning without news of Hunter eroded that belief. I made a special point to glare at Starry Gaze when she came by and shut the door in her face. I shared a few curt words with my father when he came by in the morning to tell me that Hunter hadn’t arrived yet.
I knew I was being temperamental and angry. But in my mind, I had good reason. They couldn’t possibly understand what was going on. Hunter was out there, fighting for his life or already dead. If the strongest of us couldn’t face the Dark Ones, what hope was there? My friend, my mentor was in danger. He’d looked me in the eye and I had seen doubt. Doubt in his own abilities to face this threat, and certainty that Exiperia would be wiped off the map. Hunter had always been the pony that believed in me and what I could do. My father sheltered me, but Hunter gave me focus. He told me about the dangers of the Metro in detail, offered the lessons that saved my life and the lives of other ponies. His lifestyle was clear-cut and without any room for hesitation or dreaming.
If it’s hostile, you kill it. The phrase had a simple, brutal kind of power to it. It was attractive, even through my natural aversion to scenes of blood and gore. It gave me impetus, and I appreciated that much if not the thoughtlessly violent principle behind the words. I wanted to understand, but the Metro gave a pony so little opportunity to delve into its secrets. The dangers of the Metro were too great for understanding. There’s only the space between your tongue and your trigger that determined how quickly you died. And if something like that could overwhelm even Hunter… Did Hunter believe another Apocalypse was coming? Was I going to be the first herald of our ultimate doom? That little talisman in my bag wasn’t a message of hope. It was Hunter’s epitaph.
The weight of such a thought kept me in bed well until lunchtime, when Sunny Side barged in and demanded that I get up and get something to eat. When I refused, he kicked me in the side and dragged me by my tail until I relented. We said little to each other on the way to the eating area. My head drooped low, while Sunny’s was high and mighty. He looked angry. I wondered if it was with me or the situation in general. I admitted to myself that Hunter’s appearance had been less than cursory, and realizing that he wasn’t coming back didn’t help matters at all. We sat down at a table, and there was a small shuffling of hooves as ponies moved away from us. From me. It stung, but I knew they had their reasons. Their families were dying, and I was stuck with orders from my father not to say anything. The name of the Dark Ones had inevitably spread from the militia to the rest of the Metro. It had the effect I’d anticipated. Everypony was afraid of the outside and paranoid of leaving the station. I heard a group of colts and fillies at play discussing how the Dark Ones ate your brains and turned you into one of them. That was probably not far from the truth.
“So…” Sunny Side began, sipping at his mushroom soup. “It looks like we have a heck of a situation on our hooves.”
“Mmnh,” I grunted. I was somewhat distracted by hearing Primare Donna and Ironhoof speaking to a crowd nearby. They talked about the threat facing the station, reminding us to be encouraged by the new alliance with Draft Station.
“It would’ve helped if we knew about it sooner… at least, that’s what the other guards say,” Sunny continued. “Me, I’m willing to admit that there are some things you just can’t do anything about. I mean, if they can just zap us with their minds and not even unicorns can fight? What’s the point? Who cares if they’re called Dark Ones or ‘those mutants’ or whatever. We’ll still be just as dead.”
“Your optimism is a light in these dark tunnels, Sunny,” I grumbled. He smiled and patted me on the back.
“Don’t worry, Lockbox. I’m scared as anypony. But… well, I don’t blame you, all right? There’s no point in that.”
He let up when he saw I wasn’t getting any more cheerful. My mind was still on Hunter. I knew him. If he said he was going to come back by morning, then he was coming back, no exceptions. But he hadn’t come back at all, and I still had his talisman stuck in my saddlebag. I wondered if I should give it an extra day or two. Perhaps Hunter had just been delayed somehow? Maybe he’d been injured and was traveling slow. I refused to entertain the notion that he was dead. It just wasn’t possible that somepony so strong and brave had just ended up like all the others.
Death was no stranger to me. Its specter followed us everywhere. My own parents had been killed when I was just a colt, and there was hardly a pony in the station who hadn’t lost somepony close to them. But there were a select few ponies who I believed would never perish. Hunter was one of them. He had to be alive somewhere. Even so, he’d charged me with the mission of carrying his message to the Bucklyn Rangers. Somehow I had to find my way there. Though it was a line or two over from Exiperia and not much farther than Draft, it wouldn’t be easy finding an excuse to leave. My father wouldn’t let me go outside the gates more often than not, and never alone. He’d be keeping a close eye on me until this business with the Dark Ones was resolved. If I told that a Ranger, even if it was Hunter, had trusted me with a dangerous mission, I’d never hear the end of it. No, it was better to keep quiet and keep my head down until an opportunity presented itself. Until then, the talisman weighed heavily in my bag.
I blinked and started, looking to Sunny Side who was waving his hoof in my face.
“Metro to Lockbox! You’re zoning out worse than a guardpony gone a whole shift without a drink…”
“I’m thinking,” I said quietly.
“You’re always thinking! Stop thinking and start talking one of these days, Lockbox. Sometimes it’s truly tiring having to talk for the both of us. You know I never really know what’s going on in your head.”
I liked it that way, but I didn’t say it out loud. I appreciated that Sunny Side had stuck with me all these years in spite of my anti-social disposition, though I hadn’t said so much. The understanding was just… there. I quietly ate my food while he talked about how the morning shift had gone. No more attacks by Dark Ones or mutants, but there was always an undercurrent of nervousness.
“We all know something’s going to happen eventually,” he said. “But we just don’t know when. It’s like we’re all strings ready to snap…” He trailed off, and I knew he was thinking about all the other pegasi who had snapped and gone feather-brained. I grimaced, giving him a gentle pat on the shoulder. Even if I didn’t know what to say, I figured that being there for him was the best I could do.
“Well, it’s bad at any rate,” Sunny Side finished and began eating his soup again.
“Maybe… if we just get out of the station for a few days,” I said out of the blue, shrugging. Sunny Side sputtered and shook his head, trying to clear his ears of whatever lunacy he had just heard.
“What, you mean… just go do something else? While all this is going on?”
“If the Dark Ones haven’t swooped in and annihilated us by now, I doubt they will the moment our backs are turned,” I continued. “Besides, we still need to keep our station running. Father can’t just shut down all the railcars.”
I looked up and just happened to see a familiar pony walking by. It was Sixpence, the trader who had survived a Dark One attack with his mind still intact. I noticed that his leg was now wrapped securely in regular bandages, but he seemed to be walking fine on his own. He’d mentioned his home was in or around Bucklyn Station. Perhaps…
“Sir?” I asked, waving him over with my hoof. Sunny Side watched me curiously.
“I know you,” he said. “I saw you with Cinder Block in the infirmary.”
“Yes. Forgive me for prying, but are you healed enough to go back home?”
“That I am,” Sixpence said, and looked extremely relieved. “I’m going back to Bucklyn with the very next caravan due out. I’ve already signed on.”
“I’m with that caravan,” Sunny Side spoke up, grinning. “I was assigned as a guard to it just this morning. Heh, old Ironhoof was never in a blacker mood. He practically threw my orders at my face!”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“I didn’t want to give you any funny ideas!” Sunny Side shrugged haplessly. “We can shoot mutants well enough Lockbox, but your father would have my head if I just let you run around willy-nilly. You remember what happened the last time we went out alone!”
I touched my side warily, remembering the day. We were silly children wandering in an unused tunnel, and I had dared try and go to the surface on a rickety, rusty ladder. I’d fallen of course, and hurt myself so bad I cried. Sunny Side flew me all back to the station. I’d practically owed him my life that day.
“We were children, Sunny Side,” I grunted. “We made a stupid decision, but nothing bad really came of it.”
“Tell that to your father!”
I resisted the urge to scowl, instead turning back to Sixpence.
“Well, I wish you luck, sir. Perhaps I’ll see you on the caravan.”
“Thank you,” he said. “If you don’t mind my saying so, I wouldn’t mind if you were there. I heard you acquitted yourself well in the battle at the southern gate.”
“You… heard about that?”
“It was hard to miss all the shooting! I heard a Ranger also came by?”
He suddenly leaned forward, quite interested in what I had to say. Rangers were everypony’s folk heroes, but I didn’t feel like talking about it, remembering my promise to Hunter. I looked at Sunny Side instead for support.
“Well, he did,” the pegasus answered for me. “But he also left almost immediately after that attack. He’s investigating the Dark Ones you see.”
I elbowed Sunny in the ribs.
“Come on, Lockbox!” he groaned. “It’s not like the station hasn’t figured out what you call them already.”
“And this Ranger... Did he say anything at all about what might be done about this?” Sixpence asked. Chalk it up to a trader to be worried about what could affect commerce through the tunnels.
“If it’s a big enough danger, he’ll find the other Rangers, and they will contact Ponyopolis. And then they will fight the Dark Ones,” I said tersely, just to get him off my back.
This seemed to satisfy him for the moment. He stood back, nodding slowly to himself.
“Oh, good. That’s good. Ponyopolis? I was there, once, you know. On another caravan. Amazing place. Can’t really get through to them much anymore… guess we’d need a Ranger to get any messages to them now, what with the Monarchy and the Republic spreading all over the Metro. Between them and the mutants and bandits, we practically need a tank just to get anywhere.”
I raised an eyebrow. This conversation was supposed to have been over a while ago. “Yes. Well. See you on the caravan, perhaps.”
“Yes. Yes, see you later. Take care. Hope we aren’t late.” He waved and walked away. I noticed a slight wobble in his step, as if he wasn’t quite sure of his footing. Perhaps he wasn’t as fully healed as he’d claimed… a magical bandage could only do so much to knit together flesh. It sped up the process, but it was vulnerable to all the same dangers if some foolish pony started clopping around on an injured limb. Either that or the attack from the Dark Ones had left some mental scars that weren’t immediately apparent.
“Poor guy,” Sunny Side said, seeming to agree with my thoughts. “He must be stressed something awful. Almost getting killed and then getting stuck in a strange station.”
“Yes. Stress,” I murmured, waiting until Sixpence had disappeared into the crowds before going back to my food.
“And you wanted to join this caravan why?”
“I think it would be a good experience for me, father. I’m fully grown now, and I’ve never been outside the station. Not on official business at any rate. Since Ironhoof needs most of the militia to remain behind here, he’s understaffed. He’s been asking for a few volunteers.”
My father watched me with his usual stern scrutiny. He tapped his hooves together on his desk, and for a moment I was afraid he would refuse me outright. But then his expression softened just slightly, the lines around his eyes receding back into his pelt.
“Son,” he said quietly. “You know that whatever I do, it’s for the good of the station, right?”
I gave him a single, firm nod. I knew my father well enough to say that he always had the best intentions in mind, whatever he might say or do. Of course, that sometimes led to bad decisions in themselves. I wondered for a moment if my noble intentions were going to get me anything but a quick death.
“I know these attacks have everypony worried. These Dark Ones are beyond anything we have seen before. But I do not want to stifle you. I have been short with you, even unfairly angry the last couple of days. And for that, I apologize. I know that you want to help the station. You have a good heart, Lockbox. This trip to Bucklyn should be a good thing for all of us. The caravan will strengthen ties with Draft Station by providing some goods and services, and then they will move on to Bucklyn for our merchants to collect some of the latest trade goods. Everypony likes to see commerce flowing.”
He continued to tap his hooves together, staring at the table. I was somewhat mollified by his apology, but he still had not given me permission to go with them.
“And I understand your friend Sunny Side will be a part of the caravan?”
“Yes, he’s a good stallion, that one. You two have always worked well together. You always keep an eye on each other, that’s good.”
I understood what my father was doing. He was trying to convince himself that letting me go might actually be safer than keeping me here. If I was traveling all the way to Bucklyn then I wouldn’t be in the way of any more Dark One attacks. It made me want to roll my eyes, but I still felt flattered. My father, overprotective though he may be, only wanted me to stay safe in the end.
“Well, all right,” he said. “The caravan leaves first thing tomorrow morning. Report to Ironhoof once you’ve collected your things… I know you’ll be a valuable asset to them.”
He looked at me with a tired smile, which I returned. But as I turned to go, I was halted at the door by his voice.
I looked over my shoulder, ears perked.
“I know you respect the Rangers. And I know you admire Hunter as well. I’m sorry we’ve received no news from him yet. But, son… the Rangers are not like normal ponies. They’re… dangerous. In more ways than one.”
Did he suspect this had something to do with Hunter? Worse, did he know? I kept my expression placid as he continued.
“Please, just… remember that Exiperia will always be your home, all right? Do what needs to be done, and come back safely.”
I stared at him for a length of time, puzzling over what he had said. There seemed to be only one appropriate response. I turned back and went to his desk, moved around it to his side, and gave him a one-legged hug around the neck. He returned it after some hesitation. The moment stretched on, and over his shoulder I noticed a picture on his desk that was normally on one of his top shelves. It was a small photograph of me as a bright-eyed young colt, standing next to my father who wore a small, barely happy smile. In contrast, I was grinning so wide it looked like my face was about to split apart. It had been one of my first pictures, and in my little colt’s rationale I’d wanted it to look good for posterity’s sake. New pictures were so rare nowadays, requiring the arts of a very focused and talented unicorn. So few resources could be spared to make them, pictures were often prized by those who had them, like me. Knowing he’d been looking at it send a tiny needle of guilt into my heart. I was keeping a secret from him. I didn’t trust him to trust me with the full weight of the truth. But this wasn’t that bad, was it? I’d just knock on the door of the Ranger base, pass on the message, and come back home. I’d be able to do something to help, and Ponyopolis would get Hunter’s message one way or another. Everypony would be happy.
As I pulled away from my father and finally left his office, I felt my stomach twist. How deeply was I going to underestimate my own problems to make them bearable? I wanted to believe that this would be a simple task, and that when it was done our problems could be solved by ponies stronger and wiser than I. Was I being selfish, just wanting to fulfill my own dreams of being useful to the station? I hadn’t even begun my journey, and already my doubts were piling up.
I looked Starry Gaze in the eyes, an unwise thing for a stallion to do at the best of times. But she didn’t usually give me a choice if she could help it. I think it’s because she’s a firm believer in eyes being the window to the soul. So in her mind, the longer she stared at me, the better I’d be understood. The only thing I was getting a better understanding of was why I kept trying to brush her off. She kept searching for a part of me that wasn’t there.
“So… Sunny Side told me about the caravan,” she said. I nodded, and plucked the strings on my guitar. My turn to play around the story fire had come. Tonight the elders would share stories again. Some were scary, others wistful, all of them sad. Some of us didn’t even remember exactly how long ago the war had been, or what precisely it had been about. None of us came from families that held positions in the government or prominent places in the military of the old Equestria. Then again, most ponies, even the oldest, didn’t really care why the war had been fought. All we wanted was for things to go back to normal.
“You’re going with them? To Bucklyn?”
“It’s not that far. We’ll be all right,” I said, to remind her and myself. It’s not that far, Lockbox. You’ll be fine. The station will be fine. Hunter is alive, and this is just a little favor. The Dark Ones will be defeated quickly. And everything will go back to normal… or as normal as it got in the Metro. Starry Gaze tapped her hooves together and broke her gaze. I looked back down at the guitar. I always had to look to play properly. Hooves and strings didn’t go well together, but unicorns usually focused their talents on more useful things.
“Still, um… Take care, of course,” she said nervously. “I know you’ll be fine. Especially with Sunny Side with you.”
“He’s a good pony,” I said, a none-too-subtle hint towards his eligibility.
“Yes… yes, he is,” she said, perhaps remembering she had told me the same thing. It probably didn’t help that I had remembered to show that I hadn’t forgotten her trinket at last, and had it looped around the end of my guitar. It had delighted her, of course, but only after I brought it out did I realize it had the exact opposite effect I’d intended. I raised my gaze again, noticing the way she looked at the fire. She seemed lost, even confused. Poor filly. As a unicorn she’d be called on to do a great many things for the station. Encouraging our meager supply of plants to grow, creating healing supplies to counter radiation and injuries, forging the magical enchantments that would ensure our survival. She needed companionship I wasn’t able to give. Eventually, Sunny Side did join us, and with a smile he settled in on Starry Gaze’s opposite side as the story began.
“Canterlot was a fine place,” the storyteller started as I strummed a slow, melancholy tune on the guitar. “But everypony always talks about Canterlot. No, what I’ve heard… is about the Whitetail Wood. We all know it’s not standing anymore. But I know. I know what it used to be like. The smells and sights and sensations. It was once a very peaceful forest. Grown and tended to by our very own Ponyville ponies. The sap was harvested there… ah, tree sap. There’s something I’m sure we all miss. We’ve all seen the trees that grow in the streets, and the tunnels. The twisted, gnarled things that sway and groan? But these trees… oh, these trees! They reached into the sky, they did. Growing straight and tall, waving bark as brown as… as chocolate. Ah, chocolate. I remember when we still had some chocolate stores… sweet chocolate that melted in your mouth and gave you such a buzz you’d swear lightning danced on your tongue! Dark chocolate bitter as our coffee, but twice as rich and so much tastier. And the leaves on those trees? Ah, they spread out on branches like an umbrella, big and green. So, so green it’d leave you dazzled. Nopony remembers the sound of rustling leaves anymore, not the kind you’d hear in Whitetail… not even I can relate it to you tonight… or the sight of a good old sun raining light down through them…”
We all listened, well into the night. The storyteller, an old blue-grey mare, told what she knew. She spoke of the trees that reached as tall as buildings, healthy and bountiful under the watchful eye of pony caretakers. She told of the sweet sap and juicy fruit that would fall from their branches, and the grass beneath them that was so soft it tickled your hooves to walk on it. We had copies and pictures and words of such things, but no way to truly feel what those memories were like. No way to see, to listen or touch. No way to really know. Such a thought never failed to make me sad, and yet at the same time it filled me with hope that one day we might see a world like that again. Hope for something as beautiful and pure as Equestria before the bombs was something I wouldn’t let go of. Not ever. I poured my feelings into the guitar’s song long after the mare fell silent, closing my eyes and losing myself to the music as my hoof danced back and forth over the strings. I didn’t even notice when the stories, which had been trotted out one by one, stopped. I didn’t notice when ponies began to file away to go to bed or their duties, leaving only those few who talked quietly with each other and listened to my music. I just… played.
It was only when another player tapped my shoulder that I woke up from my reverie. It must have been a good two or three hours later, because the crowds had thinned considerably. It was nearing bedtime. I looked to my right and saw Sunny Side staring into the dying fire. Starry Gaze had fallen asleep against his shoulder, her pretty red mane scattered over his back. Her chest rose and fell with gentle regularity, and the look on her face was one of heart-breaking peace. Apparently Sunny Side’s shoulder was very, very comfortable. Even if it had been coincidence and not choice on Starry Gaze’s part, both I and my friend were pleased with the result. Sunny Side hadn’t budged an inch since he’d sat down, and his smile was at once goofy and content. I reached into my saddlebag as I got up and walked around them, and with a flick of my head tossed Starry Gaze’s trinket onto Sunny Side’s ear. He raised an eyebrow and turned to stare at me as I left. He seemed confused, even as I smiled at him. Starry Gaze would hurt for a while, but this was for the best. For the strangest reason, I knew that it’d be better this way. Something in my gut told me I didn’t want to be close to anypony this night, or many others to come.
The next morning was a rush of activity. Sunny Side woke me up quickly, telling me to hurry and collect my equipment.
“Ha! Lockbox! Gonna become a regular old soldier now, are we?” asked Arsenal, our pony in charge of the local armory. His appearance fit his name: he was big, heavy, copper furred unicorn with a bunker cutie mark. He was invaluable to the community, being an expert in the maintenance of firearms. We couldn’t afford to make much more than the most basic weapons, which amounted to the simple, improvised small arms guns. Submachine guns, basic pistols, and single and double shot shotguns were common outside of the Armory, which had the manufacturing capability to produce high quality weapons at exorbitant prices.
“Only for a day or two,” I answered, and I was issued all the standard gear. The Mule, a mish-mash of different parts into a serviceable if stubbornly hard to manage automatic carbine, was standard issue. I also made sure to pick up my trusty standby, a magazine loaded pistol. The last few weapons were a bit more ominous.
“This is your hoof knife.” Arsenal pulled out a long, serrated blade. “It fits onto this holster on the side of your leg like so, see how the flat of the blade goes against your leg? Any sideswipe from this will rip open even the toughest mutant hides! And you can hold it in your mouth, too, if you like to fight that way.”
I didn’t relish the thought of sinking cold steel into anything, even mutants, but I accepted the weapon regardless. Apart from that, I had to be tacked up properly: militia uniforms had to have anything and everything attached to them for use in any situation. Arsenal gave me a quick run-down of what my barding was like. There was little in the way of protective armor since that’d just slow me down, but there were plenty of spare bags, pockets, and slots. The gasmask, by far one of my most essential tools, was hung around my neck so I could just slip it over my face in an emergency. Several spare filters were stuffed into my saddlebags. All filters had magical enchantments to absorb the foul spells that lingered in the air on top of the poisonous air.
“These should last about twenty minutes each. But if more than four hours, get a doctor,” Arsenal said with a wink. I didn’t get it.
“And don’t forget this.” Using his magic he slapped a harness onto my head, fitting it over my helmet. There was a light attached with a wire running down to a small apparatus he fastened to my chest. “That’ll be your charger. It’s designed to work with almost anything electrical, and if you slap a gemstone into this slot here, it’ll give you a magical charge. That gem will do everything from act as a secondary light to let you give a minor enchantment to any item of your choosing.” He tapped his horn. “You got my special talents to thank for that addition.”
Being loaded down with everything apart from the kitchen sink was a new experience; I usually didn’t need to carry anything more than a single saddlebag. Still, I thanked Arsenal and trotted to the main loading docks, where the caravan was being outfitted. Sunny Side greeted me there with a smile.
“Hey hey hey, my little militia pony!” he said, slapping me on the back. “Glad you could join us. You look silly, by the way.”
I felt silly too, covered in barding, gear, bags, and munitions. If anything, all the equipment piled onto me would provide as much protection as body armor. Nothing but a small flak jacket protected my chest and ribs from harm. My helmet was a size too big and tightening the harness made it cover my eyes, but it had to be tight to provide a good platform for my war rein.
“Well, anyway, let’s get going, huh? We’re gonna be late.”
“All caravaneers report to the main loading docks immediately!” Ironhoof bellowed at the end of the platform. “Get your gear together, foals! Tack up and move it out! Cart pullers, to your stations!”
Sunny Side let out a loud whistle as he fluttered into place on the rear cart. All of them could be propelled by pumping the lever that turned the wheels, but since we weren’t expecting to keep a fast pace, we were going to be towed by the guardponies. The pullers got hitched up while I did a final check of my gear.
“Hey fellas!” I looked up at a familiar voice. Sixpence had arrived at last and dropped into the cart next to me. I froze, staring at him, remembering the odd conversation we had had the other day.
“Mind if I join you?” He seemed to be asking me. I didn’t answer. Sunny Side gave him an easy smile as he pulled on his battle harness. The carbines attached to his shoulders and pistol armed war rein made him look inordinately dangerous.
“Not at all,” he said. “Don’t worry; we won’t make you pull on that leg!”
“Ha! I hope not. Don’t want us crashing and burning or anything.”
I gave him a short stare, and then leaned forward to speak to Sunny Side.
“How’s Starry Gaze?” I asked him. He suddenly got a very pensive look and flapped his wings.
“Not too good,” he said, and I must have looked guilty, because he tried to soften the blow. “I mean, I was there to talk to her, you know? But seeing that you’d given me her little gift… that wasn’t a nice thing to do, Lockbox. She had a lot of feelings wrapped up in that trinket.”
“Of course it wasn’t nice,” I said, my mood suddenly going south. “Rejection isn’t nice. But I’ve never been good at… discussing that kind of thing with fillies. We’re not going to be an item, and that’s final. She’ll get over it, I’m sure.”
“Maybe,” Sunny Side said. “In any case, she let me keep it. Just in case you wanted it back.”
“No,” I said firmly. “I have too many other things on my mind.”
Sunny Side gave me a stare, raising an eyebrow. “… You’re not a colt-cuddler, are you?”
I blinked. Sunny Side started to grin and I knew he was messing with me.
“Because, if you are, that’s totally fine with me…”
“What!” I squawked a little too loudly. I glared at my friend and gave him a quick punch in the shoulder. “Of course not. Don’t be silly, Sunny Side. I just… I just…” I grunted and looked away. “Look, I’ll apologize when I get back, all right? Perhaps it wasn’t the best thing to do. But I have other things on my mind.”
Sunny Side gave me a sad, almost pitying stare that I felt angry about for some reason.
“You always have things on your mind, Lockbox. But you never really share them. It worries me, sometimes.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, fiddling with my helmet. The talisman weighed heavy in my bag. It’ll be fine, Lockbox. This secret can afford to be kept. I kept telling myself that as the caravan began to pull away from the docks and into the darkness of the Metro. In there, my thoughts could hide away in the cold, damp spaces.
“So, why are you going to Bucklyn?”
I turned around and gave Sixpence a stare. I’d been looking back, covering the rear of the caravan as we started our journey. My headlight kept flickering, but continuously pumping the charger gave me something to do. Sunny Side fluttered overhead, unable to sit still for long.
“Pardon?” I asked.
“Well, it’s just... You aren’t part of the militia, and you aren’t a trader from what I can see. Bucklyn’s a bit of a trip, isn’t it?”
My thoughts went to Hunter’s talisman. “I’m just excited for the chance to get out for a while,” I said, trying to sound natural. “These attacks have made me restless, you see.” Sixpence continued to stare at me with a strange, wobbly smile.
“I see,” he said at length, barely audible over the clacking and squeaking of the cart wheels. “It’s a good thing, I suppose, for young ones to get out and about. Especially since we’re confined to these tunnels.”
“Not that young,” I reminded him. I didn’t look back again, though I felt his eyes on the back of my head.
Later on, we came to a checkpoint. It was a small area where, out of courtesy, other travelers along the line dropped off supplies like bullets and pure water. There was a special load in every regular cart run that was used to resupply checkpoints, and we made a quick stop to rest and change out our pullers and get a little break from the constant rocking of the carts. Even in times like these, we of the northern stations didn’t like to think we had left a stranded caravan without any hope of survival.
I decided to get out and stretch my legs while the others made sure that all the goods were well and truly tied down. My helmet was stifling my vision, so I decided to loosen the strap just a little bit. I found myself staring down a side tunnel, one that led far, far away. Eventually it would pass through some dangerous areas and hit Marestra Station, a far off and strange station that also resided on the edge of pony territory. The tunnel itself was dark and forbidding, much like the path that lay ahead of me. I’d given my word to Hunter that the message would be delivered in person and the talisman would remain a secret. But until then…
Until then I was interrupted by a loud scream and a clatter of hooves. Sixpence came tearing around the corner, his eyes wide with fright. His injured leg slowed him only slightly as he bolted towards us. I was incredulous. How had he gotten so far from the caravan? Why had he…
“MUTANTS!” he screeched at the top of his voice. “Mutants everywhere! They came out of the ceiling! Run! RUN!”
I could hear the loud snuffling and angry growls of whatever it was chasing him, punctuated by loud, thudding stomps. They were as loud as my heart as it hammered against my ribs. My blood ran cold as I hoofed it back to the caravan, the pullers scrambling to get themselves hitched. I recognized that sound, from a time not so long ago when I fought by my father’s side against a wave of monstrosities.
The thumpers had come out to play.
“Get the lead out, ponies!” the caravan commander shouted. “Pegasi keep us covered! Everypony tack up and ready arms!”
I leaped onto the rear cart, Sixpence dropping in beside me as Sunny Side took up station above. The loud thuds and stomps grew louder and louder as ear-rending screeches and whistles echoed through the tunnel. The pullers at last got their hooves under them and began the slow crawl up to speed. We accelerated painfully slowly, and I could see the long ears and gruesome fangs of the first thumper round the corner as we at last started to gain ground.
“Oh, shit!” Sixpence whined. Sunny Side’s guns roared alongside another pegasus in our company. The beast’s head was split open like a melon struck by an axe, bursting apart with a spray of gore. We rounded the corner, and though the rests of the creatures were lost to sight, their horrid sounds still came after us.
“What the hell are they doing here? This tunnel is supposed to be secure!” I heard Sunny Side shout as the mossy walls turned to blurs around us. The pullers were spurred on by terror and adrenaline, but thumpers could keep pace with even the best of earth pony runners. Our advantage lay in our endurance. A thumper could only keep up top speed for so long. But that single burst of speed was often enough to overtake their prey.
“Probably our old friends the Dark Ones!” the puller of our cart shouted over his shoulder. His hooves pounded the track as his burly muscles strained themselves to the limit. It was all on him, now. I looked to the rear and immediately wished I had stayed home.
At least a dozen thumpers were hot on our trail, their long hind legs giving them bursts of power and speed no pony could hope to match. I could see the pink insides of large, pointed ears turned towards us, attracted by the clatter of hooves and the huffs of terrified panting. Our fear must have been music to their senses. It was hard to believe the pony-sized horrors were once sweet and timid little rabbits. The destructive power of the bombs had warped and tainted even the most innocent of Equestria’s creatures.
“Don’t just stand there!” Sunny Side shouted, spinning in mid-air and popping off a double-shot that cracked a thumper’s leg clean in two. “Shoot them, Lockbox! Shoot them!”
I felt a jolt as I slammed my war rein into place, the Mule in the cradle already loaded and ready to fire. I bit down on the trigger. My teeth rattled. My head ached. My ears hurt from the eruption of noise. I kept my jaws clenched regardless, spraying bullets into the oncoming horde. Another guard deftly leaped from the front cart and added his bullets to mine. I had burned almost halfway through my ammunition when I realize I was firing in a blind panic. Noises crowded my senses: the sound of galloping hooves, the screeches of the thumpers, my own wheezing breaths. My nose was full of the caustic stink of burning gunpowder. Adrenaline sharpened my senses to a keen knife’s edge. Everything was too loud, too colorful, too frightening.
The chase was on as the pullers got to their top speed, and the fittest of thumpers continued to bound after us with wild abandon. Their constantly moving bodies, however large, were hard to get a bead on. My mane, picked up by the wild wind of our flight, flapped against the side of my neck. I took whatever shots I could manage, squinting through my gun’s shockingly bright muzzle flashes. No matter how many monsters we downed, another was ready to take its place.
“Conserve the ammo,” the guard next to me said. His voice was hoarse and muffled around his trigger. Crack crack crack! went his gun, not helping my headache at all. “Conserve the ammo, Lockbox!”
I was about to say something back when the thumpers fell upon us at last. Sunny Side and his companion spun and shot two clean off the walls they had been clambering upon but three more swarmed our cart, pouncing over the bodies of their fallen. Sixpence screamed ineffectually. Then came a flash of mangy fur, an impact on my shoulder, and I toppled onto my back. The helmet, one size too big, came loose and flopped off.
My vision was full of ugly monster snout. Bestial eyes wild with hunger stared me down seconds before a paw the size of my hoof slammed into the side of my head. Everything went dark and blurry. A high pitched whine inside my head rang against my eardrums. My world went dark for a precious few seconds as instinct kicked in. My hooves kicked wildly at the great, shaggy weight on my chest, my hind legs bucked and clawed for purchase. The knife on my leg caught on the thing’s fur, slicing its chest. I gritted my teeth and sawed into the flesh, nauseated by the ugly feeling of metal sliding over bone. The beast wrestled with me on the floor of the cart, punching my chest armor before grabbing my foreleg in its horrid teeth. I felt the limb almost tear clean out of its socket as the creature jerked its head back and forth.
The whine inside my head grew louder. I could see red on the edges of my vision.
“No!” I screamed, and brought my hind legs under the creature’s chest. With all my panicky strength, I bucked as hard as I could. It was like kicking a brick wall, but the creature reared back all the same, wheezing for breath. Its head came apart a moment later, showering me with brains and guts. For a split second, I saw every gory detail of the inside of a thumper’s brain cavity, and then its body slumped to the side of the cart.
“Lockbox!” I heard someone shout, probably Sunny Side. That was another I owed him. I felt something drop onto my chest. My war rein. Put it on! I slid the helmet back into place, squashing my mane uncomfortably as I jerked on the straps to tighten it up. A quick glance over my shoulder showed the other pegasus kicking a dead thumper off the cart. The earth pony was out cold or dead, several long gashes scored on his throat.
“Spinner!” Sunny Side shouted, dropping to his side. “Spinner, are you okay?!”
Our puller’s warning came almost too late as the cart shook from another impact. I twisted violently, seeing a thumper’s jaws snap shut just in front of my nose. A burst from my Mule took care of that, but it was just one of many. The creatures had gained on us again. The thumpers were all around us now, and every gun that could opened fire. The chaos lasted just a few seconds, but those seconds would remain burned in my memory forever. There was nothing in my world but the deafening roar of guns, the screaming of ponies in pain and terror, and above all the rumbling clatter of the wheels on the tracks.
Sunny Side and the pegasus dodged back and forth above, struggling to stay alive and aloft as much as they were trying to protect their fellows. Claws and teeth were everywhere. My jaw ached something fierce. I’d been biting down so hard on the trigger I felt it or my teeth would crack. My mind was gone. My body was all action. Spin, fire, reload, too slow, get the pistol and jam it in your teeth, fire again. There, punch, kick it right in the face. I felt blood in my mane, on my face, in my eyes. Mine, theirs? Doesn’t matter, shoot again!
A scream to my left! Sixpence struggled with one of the beasts as it attempted to pull him right off the cart. Time seemed to slow as I saw one of his hooves leave the floor of the cart. In another instant he’d be pulled to his doom.
No time to think. Jump! I jumped, not sure of what I was doing, only knowing that I wasn’t about to abandon a pony to a fate as horrible as that. I landed right on the creature’s square head, driving my front hooves into its skull. I pressed my pistol against the back of its neck. With two jerks of my tongue, my final two rounds slammed into its spine and burst out the other side, spraying the back of the cart with blood. I turned back to Sixpence as the creature collapsed to the tracks and rolled with a series of heavy, meaty thumps.
My eyes met the trader’s. He seemed strange, as always. Shocked. Grateful. And then his eyes hardened. Narrowed. At me. Before I could register what was happening, I felt his hooves grab my shoulders. His hind legs push into my stomach.
“I know what you’re trying to do!” he growled. “And it won’t work!”
He kicked. My hooves left the floor of the cart.
I was in open air. Falling. Spinning. The ground zoomed up to meet me. I felt it embrace me with all the subtlety and power of a falling boulder. I felt a terrible jarring impact, realizing that was my body colliding with the mercilessly unyielding tracks. There was an explosion of white behind my eyes. The world spun around me. I tossed and turned, hooves flailing. The whining in my ears returned full force, blotting out my senses. The last thing I heard was a loud thud as my body rolled to a halt, and then the sound of cart wheels and gunfire receding into the distance.