((Note: This chapter contains certain uses of text formatting which do not work on FiM Fiction. The entire chapter follows intact, however for best effect it is recommended you read it in its original formatting here.))
Responsibility. It’s an easy concept to grasp. What you do is upon your back. Your past, carried with you through life. Every decision you make adds to that weight. Like a great boulder we all carry with us. Whether for good or for ill. We share it with one another, help each other with the weight. It makes life easier when we’re all together.
But how far does responsibility go? Can you blame those who have no ability to make decisions? Is it their fault for losing that capacity? If circumstances conspire to force someone to do something horrible are they still responsible for it? I ask myself these questions every day, and I still don’t have a satisfactory answer.
The cracking thunder of gunfire rolled across broken ground. We had to abandon the road shortly after dawn, picking our way through rocky weed-entrenched land. The stable was out here somewhere, according to Tumbleweed. More pressingly, somepony else was out here having a fire fight.
The sound of gunfire grew progressively louder with each hoofstep carrying us closer to the stable. Requiem was creeping from one rocky outcropping to another. Arsenal sticking closer by my side, still limping slightly from her injury, “We’re not going to get involved in another fight, are we?”
“Maybe?” How should I know? I didn’t even know who was shooting! “I hope not.” My heart sank at the prospect of having to kill yet more ponies. The image of that armored alicorn laughing over the destruction of Manestreet lingered in the back of my mind. I wasn’t like that, was I? I wasn’t a monster like her.
Arsenal opened her mouth to answer as we crested a small hill, falling silent when the actual battle came into view. Two groups of ponies facing off across a short area of open ground. The cave entrance we were looking for immediately on the other side of the firefight. Why was the wasteland never easy?
At first, the battle continued without anyone noticing us. Bullets chipped away at hard stone, screaming through the air uncontrolled. Neither group was in good condition, both sides ragged and poorly armored. One side was definitely at the advantage, outnumbering the other nearly two to one. Where had all these ponies come from?
Parts of me raged at the fight, wanted me to get involved, stop them from killing. Other parts insisted it wasn’t my fight, that getting involved was a pointless endeavour. “You’re not thinking about actually getting involved in that, are you?” Arsenal’s voice cut into my contemplation, were my thoughts really that obvious? “It’s not our fight. Do you know who they are? They could be like those horrible ponies who captured me.”
She voiced the same concerns as my mind. My legs felt weak as the battle raged below, indecision smothering my mind. I couldn’t just stand here, but what if I made the wrong choice? The idea of murdering innocent ponies out of expedience sent cold shivers down my spine.
Finally someone from the battle had noticed us, sending up an excited shout. Another pony, wearing thickly reinforced leather barding, cast a quick glance our way. His voice rose above the din of battle, “HAH! Doublethink came through for us after all! We’ve got backup this time. You!” he looked up towards me as he yelled, “You’re gonna help us capture all these ponies. Get your flank down here!” What? I... What? Parts of me seethed at the idea that some random pony thought he could order me around. Most of me was just confused.
The shouting drew attention from the other, smaller, group. Several of them had spotted me now, giving up their own excited shouts. One broke from cover, trying to run away. The pony who had shouted orders at me grabbed a small sidearm from his flank. Biting down on the trigger the fleeing pony fell instantly, no sign of obvious wounds on their body.
A moment later he broke cover, rushing across open space. He’d dug another object from his packs in just the moment it took to close that ground. A metal collar, identical to the one around my neck. With practiced ease he slid it around the other pony’s neck, locking it in place. Slavers. They were slavers!
My mind fell out from under me. My collar burned with the strength of balefire. The weight of chains settled across my body, a distant echo of much worse times. Slavers. Attacking innocent ponies. I slid Tom from where he rested at my side. A basic motion and he was raised. Words crawled across my vision as I primed him, but in my rage they barely registered.
Arsenal’s voice shouted from beside me, even her words fell upon deaf ears. My skin crawled with electric tingles, my blood boiled in its veins. I slid effortlessly into the frozen time of my targeting spell. A single shot was all I had before needing to reload, but it was all I needed.
Three ponies were slain in a single shot. Their bodies flew through the air like rag dolls. A rain of blood and severed limbs descending from the sky upon the remaining slavers. It took less than a moment for them to turn their weapons towards me.
It took less than that for my rage-fueled mind to throw a barrier between us. Bullets slammed into my shield and scattered. Even those which punctured it barely registered upon my mind. The sharp cutting of gunshots grazing across my body seared into my awareness. The pain only drove me onwards.
I had lost all sight of Arsenal and Requiem. The only thing I could see were those things down there in the valley. They weren’t ponies. They were monsters, wearing the skins of ponies. The chorus in my mind was drowned out, a single voice screaming, raging and crying in equal measure. A second missile slid into Tom with unthinking ease.
The horrific noise of a missile launch filled the air for the second time. Four more ponies died in an instant of fire and pain. It felt good. Somewhere, far away, part of me protested this slaughter. But the voice of vengeance was so much louder. The weight of chains so much heavier. It wasn’t enough, maybe it would never be enough.
Pink beams of light raced across the battlefield as another pony fell, vaporized into a small pile of ash. Arsenal had joined me in removing these horrors from the world. As it should be. The slavers could tell they were outmatched now. Most of their allies were dead, the would-be slaves were still firing on them. They turned and broke, beginning to run.
No. No! They wouldn’t escape. They couldn’t be allowed to flee. They’d go back to hurting ponies. To breaking ponies. Brilliant white filled my vision and the world imploded around me. Less than an eye blink later I stood in their path. Dark purple shield around me, my eyes burned with crimson rage, wings spread wide. It was like someone else was guiding my body through the motions. Without thinking I raised my voice, rumbling across the open ground, “YOU WILL NOT ESCAPE! THROW DOWN YOUR WEAPONS AND ACCEPT YOUR END!”
The slavers skidded to a halt before me. Turning they fled back towards the would-be slaves. Their leader shouted something which didn’t fully register on me. I stalked down the valley, slowly at first, until the four remaining raiders broke into a full gallop for the cave entrance. My legs carried me after them without thought or hesitation, blundering through the rocky outcroppings they had been hiding behind.
Darkness swallowed the sky, suddenly burying me in a tomb of stone and soil. Ahead I could see lights, the silhouettes of the slavers stark against the brilliance. I wouldn’t lose them. I couldn’t! Rushing onwards, the rock and soil changing to steel and paint, my hooves clanging across metal as I chased them further and further into the ancient Stable. I wasn’t seeing any of it, just the images of those slavers, all sound drowned out by chains and cruel laughter.
Lost. Alone. Cold. Pained.
Any of these words could have described me. But perhaps the best word for me at this moment was exhausted. My mind was spent, my rage had run cold, the voice in my head gone silent. I was left alone beneath cold, sterile white lights. All around me were pristine grey walls. The hallway reflecting the dull, empty feeling inside me.
Dull, pulsing aches filled my body. Remnants of what had been searing hot wounds not long before. Places where a dozen bullets had passed over my coat, scouring my skin and burying themselves in meat and bone. Blood stained my coat, my blood forming a sticky wet mass of hairs around recently closed wounds. Two empty healing potion bottles rolled across the floor.
My legs were weak from blood loss. My horn pounded from exertion. My vision didn’t want to focus. The dull metal hallways around me felt familiar and foreign in equal measure. I should know this place. Should recognize it. Distant echos of the past, a faintly flickering candle of recognition amidst the storm of madness. But it wasn’t enough. Something was wrong. Something was missing.
A weak step forward pulled on the tightly wrapped bandages around my forelegs. Dark red stains ran through pristine white cloth, tightly wrapped and covering far more than necessary. The thought that I knew how many bandages were ‘enough’ for bullet wounds was horrifying. Yet somehow it felt comforting as well, a distant recognition of forgotten things. Exhaustion prevented any joy from making its way into my thoughts.
Hoofsteps came slow and unsteady. With each motion another wave of dull aching swept over my mind. It was hard to walk in a straight line, my legs just didn’t seem to want to cooperate. Or maybe my eyes were lying about where the walls were. The nauseating way the world lurched with each step made the hallway twist and turn inappropriately. My path weaved back and forth, swaying across empty hallways.
Empty hallways. Something about that was wrong. Even through the confusion and pain I could tell. There were supposed to be ponies here. The walls were clean and well maintained. The lights didn’t even flicker slightly, their quiet humming in perfect tune. So where were the maintenance ponies repairing them? Where were the foals rushing up and down the halls? Why was this place so silent?
Distant sounds drifted to my mind as I pondered those questions. The echos of words, broken and barely audible. Nonsensical.
“... over six months …”
“... tell them when …”
“... tonight is the night …”
“... wasn’t supposed to be like this …”
The words had no direction, echoing in empty hallways. All sense of location lost upon my addled mind. But voices meant survivors! Or did it? They were broken in a way they ought not to be. My mind was fuzzy, couldn’t focus properly. Where were they, why did they feel so familiar? My stomach squirmed as I tried to focus on those thoughts.
The sharp clatter of hooves on metal filled the hall. The noise cut through my confusion like a knife. Forcing my mind back into the moment, a flicker of movement rushed passed my vision at a T-crossing up ahead. Small, fast, running towards something else. Panic swept through me, I had left Arsenal and Requiem behind! Were they lost somewhere in here as well?
The surge of realization sharpened my vision. Lacking the strength to rush I had to settle for a slow walk. “Hello?” My voice echoed down the halls as I rounded the corner. Another form was visible some distance down the hall, laying limp upon the ground, covered in thick blue and yellow barding. The smaller form was nearby, doing something to the unconscious pony.
They didn’t even look up as I began to approach. For a moment I hoped that they’d be harmless, friendly even. Maybe the ponies here would be willing to listen. To talk. To... Do what? I had come to steal their water away. To take it for another place. Maybe I could offer them a place there. But would they really abandon their home without reason?
They were questions I wouldn’t get answers to. The smaller figure, a filly, raised her muzzle. Grasped in her teeth was a small automatic weapon as she turned to face me. Looking up at me with huge eyes and a passive, emotionless expression. The roar of her weapon filled the hallway less than a moment later.
Searing pain lanced through my flank, burning through whatever lingering confusion remained. Medical warnings flashed across my vision as half a dozen bullets buried themselves in thick muscles. My legs wavered under me, blood pouring from fresh wounds. A scream escaped my lips, howling down hallways in surprise and pain both.
My first reaction was to grab my revolver. Floating it into the air with sickened, pained confusion, slipping into the frozen time of my targeting spell. I stared down at the filly for a long, long time. Just sitting there as my targeting spell waited for further input. A tiny pony, not even as old as Requiem, barely large enough to carry the weapon in her mouth. She had nearly fallen over after beginning to fire, rearing up from the recoil. The familiar form of a PipBuck was closed around one of her forelegs.
My mind reeled with pain and exhaustion. What... What was going on here? The figure behind her was some kind of security pony. I recognized that now. But what... What was this filly doing here? Why was she collecting weapons? Why would she attack me? Why was... Why was she marked as an enemy on my EFS?
For a long, long time I stared down at her, confused and pained. Parts of me seethed, demanding I fight back. She made herself my enemy, I couldn’t ignore that. But more of me, much more, protested. She was just a filly. Killing her, even in self defense, parts of me insisted that was unthinkably horrible. My heart squirmed inside my chest from the pain and confusion.
Releasing my targeting spell I turned and ran as best I could. My legs, filled with pain and wrapped too tightly, swerved under me. Almost tripping as I ran. Behind me the soft ‘thud’ of my attacker hitting the ground was dimly audible as the hail of bullets stopped. Without thinking I ran down the hallways, pain screaming through my body. Further into the den of madness.
Twisting dull grey corridors, every one like every other, sprawled far beneath the ground. I wasn’t in the same hallway, for certain. My flight had taken me down two sets of stairs, much deeper into the ancient Stable. A long hallway filled on both sides by doorways stretched out before me.
Another empty healing potion bottle. Bandages soaked in fresh blood. The sharp pains in my limbs had returned to being dull aches. Parts of me longed for the warmth and joyful tingle of the sewers again. How they had swept away every pain and care in my body. But that place was far, far away from here.
For fifteen long minutes I had sat, slumped against a wall, half-watching my EFS for any signs of more attackers. Struggling to keep myself from slipping into the dark embrace of sleep. My body protested; even filled with healing magic the wounds were far from repaired. Sleep sounded wonderful, but not here. This place was filled with enemies.
Forcing legs back under me I slowly stood. Down the hallway, aches returning with every hoofstep. Sweeping away sleep from my mind through pained stimulation. Doors sat open on either side, bedrooms which had no signs of being lived in. Each pristine and perfect, carefully maintained and cleaned. The shelves lined with ancient mementos.
Curiosity won over good sense, I ducked into one of the side rooms. Books lined up on a small bookshelf above a bed. A pristine light, turned off, on a small side-table. A closed footlocker by the base of the bed. Everything was perfectly ordered, perfectly straight, no signs of the lived-in feel that a room should have. “What happened here?” My question went unanswered by the empty room.
Cautiously I stepped further inside, swinging open the footlocker. There was no actual lock on it, surprisingly. Inside was a neatly folded medical coat, a small stack of discarded bottlecaps and an audio recording tape. Caps went into my bags without a second thought, though part of me protested stealing from Stable Dwellers. The audio tape held my attention. Plugging it into my PipBuck, it took only a moment for a strong, male, voice to fill my ears.
“Overmare came to me today. She had instructions and some blueprints from Stable-Tec. They were strange, I’ve never seen arcanotechnology quite like it before. The instructions were even stranger, directed to me personally.
“I know the head of Stable-Tec was supposed to review each application for a Stable personally, but I hadn’t expected personalized instructions for Stable usage. But these plans are most intriguing. If they really do what the Overmare claims then pursuing them is definitely worthwhile.
“It will take a few days to set up a proper study area. I think the empty room at the end of the hall should be perfect for our test subjects. With luck, we should be able to begin the first procedure in less than a week. The Overmare claims she already has a volunteer, as well. This could revolutionize Equestria, if we can make it work properly.”
The audio recording was confusing. A project in a Stable? Orders directly from the Stable-Tec head? Attempts to answer my questions only seemed to spawn new questions. This place was some kind of research facility and Stable both. But, why perform experiments on survivors? It didn’t make any sense.
I spied something out of the corner of my eye, interrupting my thoughts. A red marker on my EFS. Approaching from somewhere back up the corridor. No time to be digging into old memories now. But my legs lacked the strength to run much further. Parts of me protested, demanding I stand and fight. I didn’t want to think about those parts, not right now.
Down the corridor I stumbled. Door after door on both sides open and empty rooms. The red markers on my EFS were still moving, at a guess they must have been in the stairwell. There! At the end of the corridor, a closed door! Struggling to move quicker sent painful shockwaves up my flank. The bullet wound from earlier still not fully healed.
The door slid open quietly, with nothing but the soft whir of a motor. Inside I rushed, kicking the button behind me to close it again. I had to hope they wouldn’t see me enter. My breathing was hard and labored, my horn still pounding from the exertion yesterday and again this morning. For a moment I tried to relax, not worrying about the markers on my EFS. Panic wouldn’t help now.
The room I had ducked into looked like a nursery. Children’s books stacked on small shelves. A toy box in the corner. Small play rug in the middle of the room. But it was like the bedrooms. Everything was too perfect. Too orderly. It didn’t look like anypony had been playing with anything here in a long time.
Slowly I swung the lid of the toy chest open. Inside were dozens of toys. Tiny carts, stuffed animals and dolls. They were all organized, ordered into strict rows by type. This was just getting stranger and stranger. One of the toys caught my eye, a dark grey pony doll wearing a fake PipBuck. Thickly curled yarn worked in her mane and tail. It stirred distant, comforting feelings inside. For a moment it was easy to forget the pain as I floated the doll from its resting place.
The motorized whir of the door almost failed to register upon my mind. Suddenly two more ponies entered the room, red markers on my EFS burning brightly. Ripping my attention from the doll as I threw my shield around myself just a moment before bullets screamed through the air.
One of them had another of those light automatic weapons. A scant mouthful of bullets screamed through my shield, blunted greatly in the process. The other was carrying a much different weapon, a rifle like the one I had stolen from the raiders. The resounding crack of its fire filled the room as the bullet barely missed me, passing through my mane.
The voices in my head were arguing again. These ponies were attacking me! I had to defend myself. I couldn’t let them kill me. So the voices said. But others protested. They were Stable ponies. I was in their home, invading from the outside. I couldn’t kill them, they were just defending their home. Back and forth the voices warred angrily, as I stood, transfixed by the sight of the two ponies. Both wore dark blue barding, the yellow number sixty six emblazoned onto their shoulders.
“Please! Please stop shooting at me!” My voice cracked from pain and exertion, loud enough to be heard over even the gunfire. The two ponies didn’t pay me any mind at all. If anything they seemed to redouble their efforts to slay me.
If I couldn’t fight, then I could still run. For a moment I concentrated on my magic, brilliant white light filling my vision briefly. Then the spell fell apart, my horn throbbed painfully as the teleportation magic collapsed. The pounding on my shield increased the ache. It felt like my head was being split open from the inside. But I couldn’t release my magic. In this enclosed space that automatic weapon would chop me to pieces!
But I still couldn’t kill them. Could I? They were innocent ponies. But they weren’t listening. I couldn’t run. I... What was I going to do? If I stayed here I’d die. My mind pounded in agony. I wasn’t a monster. I couldn’t just murder ponies like that! Even dying would be better than being that!
What about Requiem? If I died, who would look after her? Lilac? Lilac couldn’t even stand on her own. Scraps? Maybe, but I couldn’t imagine Requiem trusting her. Arsenal? That thought was worth laughing at, in less dire situations. She needed me. I couldn’t die here, I wouldn’t leave her without anyone. I couldn’t fail her again.
Pulling the revolver from my side I slipped into the frozen time of my targeting spell. These ponies were defending their home. They were protecting what they cared about. But I had to protect what I cared about. I wasn’t... I wasn’t a monster. Monsters didn’t care for others. They didn’t fight to protect or love. My heart clenched tight as I queued up attacks.
My revolver emptied all six chambers. Three at each pony. Even I couldn’t miss two stationary targets at short range. The large, heavy rounds cut flesh and shattered bone. Two ponies hit the ground with a resounding ‘thump’. Tears welled up in my eyes as they let out their last gasps. Not a monster... Not a monster.
I had to move on. Downing one more magical healing potion. Down to just two healing potions left. With a whole Stable and no idea where Requiem or Arsenal were. My thoughts drifted a moment, trying to piece together what to do. There had to be a medical clinic somewhere in this Stable. Go there first, get supplies, then search for my friends.
Pulling the guns from the two ponies I had just slain, I shook tears from my eyes. Crying wouldn’t help, not now. Survive now, breakdown later. I spared a brief glance around the room again, my heart low and pained. I had murdered again today, taken the lives of ponies out of necessity. My mind struggled to find anything else worth thinking about.
The doll had fallen, forgotten, to the floor. Slowly I levitated it up and stuffed it in a bag. I didn’t want to abandon something like that to a place like this. I’d give it to Requiem. Something for her to hold at night. Maybe it would help her overcome her fear of ponies.
A moment later I was off, moving down the hallways at a slow and deliberate pace. Now with a weapon ready. I didn’t want to kill any more, tears still staining my cheeks just from those necessary deaths. I wasn’t a monster. But I couldn’t die here. Not yet.
Twelve confused eyes looked towards me as the door whirred open. Ponies sat around small, round tables, meals in various states of consumption before them. Friendly markers on my EFS, hope that there might still be somepony down here I could talk to. Somepony I could convince to call off their attacks.
My hopes were destroyed the moment those ponies laid eyes upon me. Instantly the markers changed from friend to foe, one of the nearest ponies grabbing a knife from their plate and lunging at me with barely a pause. Without thinking I swung my sawed off shotgun around and pulled the trigger, a bloom of fire and pain filled the space between us as another life was snuffed out. The pony flew past me, carried by the momentum of their lunge, crashing with a resounding crack into a hard metal wall.
Madness erupted in the cafeteria. Tables toppled as ponies rushed for chairs and knives. Improvised weapons snatched up and readied. What was going on? Why were these ponies so dead set on attacking me everywhere I went!? Through the chaos and strained eyes I could spot a smaller figure, a colt, holding a butterknife in his mouth. Just as intent and determined as any other.
My legs quivered under me, threatening to give out. The aches of gunshots healed over by magic strained my muscles. The thoughts of those I had already killed and the fear of murdering more drowned my mind. Why was this happening?
It’s strange the things you notice when your mind is filled with confusion, like the fact that every pony in the room was a blank flank. Even the adults. Even the one I had killed. No Cutie Marks to show their talents or purpose in life. But that was impossible, wasn’t it? Everypony was best at something.
My moment of confusion was all it took for the first of the ponies to spring upon me. A grape mare with a blueberry mane, her blue and yellow Stable barding a gorgeous contrast to her natural colors. She would have been beautiful if she weren’t so murderously intent on killing me. The bar stool in her lips traced a smooth arc through the air, filling my vision.
My sight blurred and swam as I stumbled to one side, the pain in my head and horn exploding a thousand times worse. My shotgun clattered to the floor, skidding outside my reach. My vision wouldn’t focus right. So tired. This was all wrong. Rearing up I sprang upon the mare, too close to me to run away. My vision clouded with tears and pain as my hooves slammed down upon her. The resounding snap of her spine filling the air as the jukebox in the corner clicked over to a new track. Vibrant, beautiful orchestral music poured across the room, in stark contrast to the death which was about to plague it.
Sharp, stinging pain lanced through my leg. My scream was swallowed up by the crash of strings. A cutting knife driven hilt deep into my shoulder seethed dark red blood. The pain forced rationality from my mind. Fight. Kill. Survive.
Hooves flew through the air, bodies broke, tables shattered and crashed to the ground. Swung in mouth and thundering against bone. Percussion of hooves against hard tile floors. Crack, snap. Another spine, another rib, another body fell to the floor unmoving. A symphony of pain rushed along my nerves. Distant and meaningless, half my vision filled with unfocused light.
Another pain dug into my flank, soliciting a kick without even looking at the offending party. Wound upon wound piled, stomach lurching and heaving in agony. What was left of rationality screamed for reason, but there was none. Blood painted walls and floor, a warm sticky feeling trickling down my horn as the fourth fell to the side.
The floor rushed up to meet me, searing heat covered muscle and bone. The crash of cymbals resounded in time with the shot. The thunder of drums in time with hooves on my torso. Crackling, popping pain seethed through my ribs. Blood flowed across lips as a glass rolled across checked floors. My hooves moved of their own accord, grabbing and shoving. A body flung loose, hurled free and high as the music crested. The resounding smash of the bar followed but a moment later, the pony impaled upon broken wood.
My legs found their way back under me. Barely the strength to stand. My vision was blunt and nonsensical. Tears streamed from my eyes without my consent. A strange blob of color stood before me, the waves of nauseating pain seemed distant and meaningless now. A faint cutting, grating feeling almost made me giggle from it. So effortless a short kick with a foreleg and the strange color moved, skittering across hard tiles.
Tears slowly cleared, breathing heavy and labored. My eye coming back towards focus. Below me was a small body. Broken in two places. Spine snapped, lower body bent all wrong. Neck twisted, head facing upwards, staring at me with unfocused eyes. Eyes which stared off in two different directions. Unmoving. Dead. Dead by my hooves.
Not a monster. Just a pony.
My legs wavered, trying to get my magic to focus enough to levitate the shotgun. My horn lanced with pain again, strange multicolored lines worming their way across my vision. Carefully I lowered my head, grabbing the shotgun in my mouth. My legs carried me slowly, shakily, towards the kitchen. Stomach heaving from the pain of every step.
Healing potions. Needed healing potions. Two more in my bag, a moment later gone. Empty bottles clattering to the hard floor. Not a monster. Just a pony. Past the dead, over the broken counter, into the kitchen. Food. Wanted something to feel better. Needed time to heal. Food. Not a monster. Just a pony.
Tearing through the kitchen was easy. Grab lever, pull, doors open. No locks, why would there be? Soon my mouth filled with the sweet taste of carrots and snack cakes. Wounds closing, muscles mending, body patching back together under magical treatment. Not a monster. Just a pony. Tears returned, slumped against a counter. Six more dead. Not a monster. Just a pony.
A slip of paper fell from a book as I smashed across the room for more food. Words scribbled on it which wouldn’t focus properly. Made no sense. Stuff it in my bags, move on. Needed more food. Stomach lurched in pain and misery with each step. Worth it. Revel in the taste, forget the pain. Euphoria, brief and wonderful.
Soon it was all gone. Eaten. Packed away. Time to move on. Needed healing. Needed answers. Not a monster. Just a pony. Down the halls. Find the medical center. Had to be one. Was sure. Not a monster. Just a pony. Had to get healed. Had to find my friends. Get out of this place, before it was too late.
Not a monster. Just a pony. Not a monster. Just a pony. Not a monster. Just a pony.
Tempered steel sunk through soft white tissue. A gush of liquid washing out as the eye ruptured. Monster. A pony fell to the ground. Stinging pain lanced through me. Distant, disconnected. Someone else was doing this, not me. Pony. Burning, searing heat. Something lodged in my flank. Should hurt more. Couldn’t stop now. Monster.
Tears clouded eyes, filling the world with nonsensical shapes and colors. Pony. Another creature before me. Gunshot filled with fire and death, blindingly bright beneath white lights. The mass of color slumped, staining red from the prickling fire. Monster. Just a few more hoofsteps. A doorway before me. Three more bodies behind. Pain swam from every step. Wanted to stop, collapse, sleep. Warmth and weight in my stomach. Pony.
Through the door. Over the bodies. Tables, clean and white. Pristine surroundings. Crosses and butterflies. Safety. Goal. Needed healing. Was here. Couldn’t stop now. Had to make it right. Another step, another pain. Another figure?
Tall, purple, strong. Covered in blood, streaming from cuts and gunshots. Slitted eye swollen, bloodshot and angry. Knife handle jutting painfully from a shoulder. Bandages wrapped all around, stained in blood belonging to her and others. How did I know? Familiar. Focus. Had to focus. Was... Was that me?
A great horror dragged from the nightmares of ponies. My swollen, bloodshot eye was dilated, in sharp contrast to its tightly focused, slitted companion. My muzzle was the wrong shape, bludgeoned by tables and chairs. Fresh cut flesh bared to the world along my neck, places where bullets had burned away my coat. Flames had seared my coat from one flank, soft pink flesh below looked newly grown. The black handle of a knife jutted from one of my shoulders, the pain I felt with every hoofstep. My legs wrapped tightly in bloodsoaked bandages, both mine and others. A monster in the mirror.
Exhaustion and pain made thoughts run together. Medical supplies. Needed medical supplies. Should be easy, my surroundings were obviously identifiable as the medical clinic for the stable. Without hesitation or thought on how I got here I began digging. Needed something to heal me.
Minutes passed as I ransacked the room. Drugs in dozens of different flavors poured into my bags. Part of me protested stealing the medical supplies from these ponies. The more practical part stamped that thought out, these ponies were trying to murder me at every corner.
My focus was fading again. But I found it, a large glass bottle, my PipBuck identifying it as a Super Healing Potion. And something else as well, another recording. This one was tucked far back in one of the closets, behind other supplies. Drink, then listen.
But first there was one more painful thing to do. Twisting around I grabbed the handle of the knife and pulled. Searing agony swam through me as my leg gave out, knife clattering from my lips across the floor, trailing drops of blood. Blood which mixed with the expanding pool of a corpse. A corpse I had made. Not a monster. Just a pony.
My EFS was filled with medical warnings. Dozens of injuries which needed healing. More acquired since the lunch room. I had fought and killed, been harmed in return. A moment of respite. Just a moment. Eyes so heavy. No. Had to drink first. Struggle to my legs. Grab the bottle. Down the contents. One more motion. Collapse. Relax. Activated the recording. Something to focus on while the medicine did its work. Had to get better.
“Success is a wonderful thing. The first three implants have gone without any complications. Someone at Stable-Tec knew what they were doing when they designed these things. The first three implantees are still young, orphans whose parents died before the bombs fell.
“The devices seem to be functional. All three subjects spend hours together without interruption. I can only assume having conversations and sharing thoughts. They’re a little creepy, though. Keep finishing one another’s sentences, or talking all three at once. May have to work on filtering in the future.
“I admit, I was skeptical when the Overmare first came to me with the blueprints. Stable-Tec leaving something like this behind just for us? It seemed bizarre. But she confirmed it, even let me see the original documents on her terminal. Nopony else knows about it but us. Part of the instructions, I assume.
“The Overmare asked me about the possibility of an emergency control system for the implantees. I agree with her, the danger presented should these ponies get out of control could be astronomical. I’ve already begun working on a modified version of the implant which would give anypony with one dominance over the normal implants.
“Two of the maintenance ponies were in today for injuries as well. One of them suffered a head wound from a falling pipe. I think the injury may have left some brain damage. He’s being sustained through life-support and stimulants right now, but without help he’ll most likely die within the month.
“I wonder if these devices could be expanded to do more than just network ponies together. They already have basic cognitive links. Perhaps I could expand them with terminal technology. Save a pony’s life by giving him a new brain. Sounds like something from a bad science fiction movie. But it might just become real, right here.
“Will have to experiment more. All of this is so exciting. The good this could do for Equestria is unfathomable. I’ll begin work on an upgraded implant as soon as I finish the Overmare’s design.”
My body seethed as the medical magic worked upon it. Muscles writhed beneath my skin, knitting themselves back together. The painful swelling in my eye faded. Sharp pain washed through my mouth and it took a moment for me to realize I had regrown two of my teeth. Electrical tingles ran along my nerves, through my muscles, across my whole body. In less time than it took the recording to finish my wounds had faded.
But not my exhaustion. My mind was still heavy and weary. The throbbing pain in my horn remained. The potion had healed my body, but my mind remained fractured and unfocused. Had to stand up. Needed to move on. The recording left me with even more questions. But now I knew where I could find the answers. The Overmare’s office. One more step along a bloody road. One more pain.
Swaying with each step, I clambered back over the corpses I had left in my wake. Back into the hallways. Move onwards. Don’t think about them too much. Survive. Not a monster.
Staircases. Why did this place have so many staircases? Walking on flat surfaces was bad enough. Climbing stairs over and over was just agony. Somewhere there was a pony laughing at my misery. Part of me wanted to find them and stab them. Not the part I was listening to right now. Brain all fuzzy, making it hard to think properly. Had to stay focused, couldn’t fall asleep yet.
Finding the Overmare’s office proved remarkably easy. Large well-lit displays on walls and ceilings pointed the way. Lots of staircases between me and it. Not many doors, at least. Or many ponies. Two more corpses left in the hallways. Two more deaths. They weren’t even armed, tried to flail at me with hooves and heads. Shot them with the revolver. Shotgun wasn’t working any more.
The doorway was open. The room a wreck. Its brown, rusting walls a sharp contrast to everywhere else in the Stable. Old bones sat half-curled upon the floor, strange metal bits sitting amongst the bones. Past the bones, towards the lockers. Had to be a clue here. A recording. A message. Something. Files, lots of files, words didn’t make any sense. Didn’t mean anything.
The dull green flicker of a terminal monitor pulsed in the corner of my vision. It didn’t take long to connect my PipBuck to it. Give me your secrets. Tell me what happened here. Flickering lights on the screen, text flashing briefly. I didn’t think about what was said, just copied everything. Three audio recordings.
A time to listen, at least briefly. Rest. Where were Arsenal and Requiem? I hadn’t seen any sign of them. Parts of me worried, most of me was too exhausted. I slumped to the floor, staring up at a bank of monitors, half of them broken, the other half showing images from around the Stable.
Ponies working repair, cleaning up corpses, scavenging from the remains I had left behind. Four were in the cafeteria resetting tables, hauling remains away. Even a filly worked to tug the colt I had murdered away. Not a monster. Not a monster. What was happening here?
The oldest of the recordings first. Stable-Tec Orientation. The voice of a mare, filled with a mixture of rage and sorrow, crackled in my ear. Her words slurred slightly, almost drunkenly, voice cracking with pain as she spoke. Had she been crying? Some part of me felt a distant twinge of sorrow at the sound of it.
“My name ish Shcootaloo.
“You know what? This whole thing sucks. From start to finish. Everything. Horrible. Shtables built to save ponies. Hide 'em away. Make 'em fix the world... for us. Nopony should've had to use 'em. Horrible. What are we up to? Sixty? Too many. Too many poniesh in pain.
“What was I saying?" The voice took on a sarcastic tone: "Oh, yes. You’ve been selected as Overmare of one of our esteemed Stables! Congratulations, I hope you’re worth the position... I go over every one of these myself. Shtill isn’t any easier. By the time you hear this, we’re all dead. All of us. The ministries, the cities, everyone. Poof, like one big candle.”
The voice paused, breaking down into sobbing for a few long moments, before slowly recovering.
“You have your instructions. They’re enclosed with this recording. Read them carefully, but take care of the ponies with you. If it becomes a danger, just... stop. Help them. Help them first. Everyone deserves better than this.
“Somepony have mercy upon us. It never gets any easier. Every time. Please... Please make it through this. Rebuild the world -- without the horrors which made all this happen. Bring back the happier days of our youth.
“I... I’m sorry. Good luck.”
The recording cut off abruptly. That was... strange. It didn’t answer any questions at all. If anything it left me with more. The second recording might help a bit. Overmare’s Instructions, had to hope that would do better. A different voice this time. Smooth, clinical, detached. Almost synthetic.
“Enclosed alongside your orientation recording and this recording are a set of blueprints. As the Overmare of Stable 66, it is your duty to make sure these blueprints are implemented properly. The device they describe will help link ponies together, to share thoughts and feelings with one another.
“These devices are very delicate and difficult to manufacture. As such, your Stable has been outfitted with a special repair and assembly station on maintenance level D, where new devices may be created. Stable-Tec cannot replace any lost or broken assembly machines once Omega Level Security Protocols are activated. It is up to you to make sure they remain functional.
“Several experts on pony anatomy and arcanotechnology integration have been assigned to your Stable. Seek them out and recruit their aid in your efforts. The ponies of your Stable will thank you for all you’ve done. Remember: A better Equestria starts with you!”
Machines designed to share thoughts? Implanted in ponies? The other recording had something similar mentioned. But... An emergency override function as well? So tired. Brain wouldn’t focus right. There was something more, something missing here. Third recording, this one was simpler, Overmare’s Log #372.
“Today marks a historic day. The day my Stable opens for the first time. The day when I first set hoof upon the outside world. When I can finally see other ponies. Yes, a momentous occasion! Others shall come, flock to me, dote upon me. The world will see my magnificence the way that my dear followers do. I am certain of it. After all, was I not born to greatness? Do I not deserve my power and position? I am the ruler of Stable 66, by birth and the blessing of the Goddesses. And soon the whole wasteland will look up to me as well!”
The thought that the goddesses blessed this place churned my stomach. Horrific, beyond belief. Terrifying and painful in equal measure. No. This place was awful. Terrifying. Wrong. Not blessed. The ancient skeleton resting in this room. Had she recorded this message? The last Overmare of Stable 66. What happened to her?
My mind wandered, tired and beaten. Without focus it was hard to get anything done. Staring up at those flickering green screens. They changed from position to position, showing many parts of the Stable. Ponies cleaning, ponies painting, ponies repairing, ponies in cells. Wait, what?
Yes, those were definitely ponies in cells. Their doors looked open, flickering lines on the screen. But I could see them clearly. Half a dozen ponies rounded up in one cell, in various states of injury. But the other had only two. A pegasus and a filly. A broken pegasus and a filly desperately trying to hide behind her. Lightning surged through my mind. Requiem and Arsenal! They’d been captured.
I couldn’t stay here. Couldn’t rest yet. But my legs barely wanted to move. Needed to do something. The recording from the clinic. What had it said? Stimulants. They had stimulants. Down through my inventory, had to find them. Needed to be able to move. There, my medical spells and inventory sorter found it swiftly enough. Only four doses. Had to hope it would be enough.
The syringe was large and terrifying. The way it punched through my flesh briefly painful before the rush of energy flowed through me. My nerves lit on fire, my heart pounded, energy surged. Up. Move. Move! Got to move. Run. Find them. On my way, hooves clattering across metal floors. The world tinged red, throbbing in time with my heartbeat. Energy, boundless and infinite, ran through my body. Onwards, to save my friends!
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Rushing, surging, running. Onward, onward. My muscles sang, the pain in my head a dull memory. Everything tinted slightly red, a haze across my vision. Move, move. Bursts of fire and death spat from the revolver in my lips. The ringing howl of dying ponies distant and disconnected. The pesky stinging, biting distortion in my leg as another of the ponies returned fire. Empty pain, so far away.
Awake now. Couldn’t stop. Brain on fire. Burning, burning. Run. Walls streaking, endless halls. Staircase, left, right, straight, left, straight. Run, run. Thump, thump. Heart beat, too loud. Warm wetness on my head, another body hit the floor. Had I impaled that pony? Seemed so. What was wrong with me? Angry, couldn’t stop now, too much energy. Burning up.
Friends in danger. Had to find them. More halls, brilliant lights on signs. Overmare’s Office, Cafeteria, Orchard, Armory... Armory? Distant recognition. Guns, weapons, more weapons. Lots of ponies here. Ponies between me and friends. Had to find weapons. Make it further. Follow the signs. Red path stained upon grey walls. Trail blazed with bodies and death. Hot. So hot.
Doors, doors, lots of doors. So many doors. Why all the doors. Which door, that door? No, wrong door. Ponies making out. Were happy together. Now dead. Trying to kill me. Everypony. Sad. Monster. Move on. More doors. Messages on the walls, blurry messages. Thump, thump. Thunder of hooves, of guns, another red blossom blooms on my coat. Warm, wet, soft pain.
Break the tiny ponies. So easy. Come apart on my hooves. Smash, buck, another body. Move on. Fuzzy all over. Another door. The right door? Pain catching up with me. Searing, got to keep moving. Thump... thump... slower now. Where was I?
A room filled with shelves, weapons hanging from hook boards all around. Dozens of small guns, pistols, automatic weapons, rifles. Enough to stock an entire security force. The ponies knew I was here, why was there so much left behind? Ugh. Head hurt. The throbbing pain from before returning slowly. New pains screaming into my brain with it.
Pulling myself over the threshold I began to search. Take everything I could carry. Rifles, automatic weapons, ammunition. Everything. It would be heavy, weigh me down just a bit, but worth it. Scraps could do something with them. Sell them if nothing else. This place was full of death. So many dead ponies. Not a monster. I wasn’t a monster. Just... Had to save my friends. Please let me save my friends.
My heartbeat was slowing to manageable levels. Still awake, though suddenly wishing I weren’t. Ow. Next time I go on a blind rampage, remember to wear armor. Bullets hurt. Half a dozen new weapons added to my bags. My legs were beginning to ache under the weight of it all. Not going to be able to take much more form this place. But there was something else. Far back behind one of the maintenance tables I spotted it. The grey and black of a recording tape.
Getting my head under the table proved remarkably difficult. Stupid giant horn, sure it was great when I could use it for magic, right now it was just an agonizing annoyance. Clunk, clunk, argh. Finally I managed to spear my horn through the wooden supports and force the tape out enough to grab in my mouth. Another recording from my nameless doctor, it seemed.
Listened while I ran, down the corridors towards maintenance level. My joints were aching again, faint but noticeable, my head throbbing. Had to keep moving. The voice in my ear sounded as stressed as I was. Horrified, lonely.
“It’s all gone wrong. The Overmare has gone mad with power. Once I finished the override controller she insisted on being the next to undergo implantation. I spent hours trying to talk her out of it, but she wouldn’t listen. Said if I wouldn’t she’d find someone else who would. It’s all my fault.”
Round a corner, another pony infront of me. Stable barding. My EFS registered them as friendly, but only a moment before it turned hostile. Like it had so many times before here. My legs quaked, eyes filling with tears as I bit down on the weapon in my mouth. The shattering gunfire drowning out part of the message as another body fell. One more corpse in my path. Not a monster. Move on. Don’t think. Thinking hurt.
“- be so stupid? It should have been obvious from the start! They’re all gone now. Dead inside. The Overmare used her controls to take them all away. Turned them into her own little puppets. They’re tearing up the Stable, searching for survivors. I’ve seen them, dragging others away to join the ranks. Why? Why did it come to this? Was this Stable-Tec’s plan from the beginning? To create an army of mindless drones?”
Mindless drones..? Puppets? Exhaustion and pain made my mind fuzzy. He was... talking about the Stable Dwellers, wasn’t he? What happened?
“They’re not ponies now. Not any more. Just... Machines. Machines of flesh and bone. Because of me. They took Misty from me. Broke into our room in the middle of the night, dragged her away. I think the Overmare is leaving me for last. I don’t know why. She’s mad, going on about how she’s building a better world. About how she deserves to rule. How the Ministries never rightfully recognized her, but Stable-Tec did.”
Machines of flesh and bone? Monsters. These ponies were monsters. Mindlessly killing and attacking anypony who came here. Without concern for themselves or others. They were... Just machines. I wasn’t the monster. They were. They were the monsters. Had to find Arsenal and Requiem, save them from this. Tears fell to the floor, everything was blurry now. Down more stairs, can’t stop.
“I should have seen this coming. Should have done something. Should have... Stopped it somehow. Now everyone... Everyone’s just... Gone. Please, if anypony is hearing this, you have to get to the maintenance level! Destroy the machinery there! End this madness. It can’t be allowed to spread past this stable. It’s all my fault.
“Please... Forgive me. *BLAM!* … … …”
The resounding crash of a gunshot ended the message. Nothing but dead air afterwards. Tears stained my cheeks and I ran harder. Another life ended in tragedy. The Overmare had started this. This horror. Stolen the freedom and lives of ponies. Turned them into monsters. They were the monsters. They weren’t even ponies any more. Move on, save everyone.
The pain was catching up to me. Down the final set of stairs, my legs were aching, head throbbing. It was less now than it used to be, but still immense. Another three healing potions consumed during my travel. More bodies left behind. But I was almost there. My friends were waiting on the other side of this door.
The grinding of metal against metal filled the small hallway. It was so cramped down here, not the right size at all. Why would it be? This place was built to house and save regular ponies. My heart clenched tight at the thought of how many I’d killed. No. No. They weren’t ponies. They were monsters. Just wearing the form of ponies. The only ponies here were down there. They needed me.
The door swung wide, leading out onto a tall overlooking catwalk. The room below was oddly empty. Only a single Stable pony was down there, next to a massive machine which hung from the ceiling. Half a dozen spindly metallic arms with too many joints hung low over a medical table.
A figure was strapped to the table, an orange coated mare with soft green mane and tail. A chunk of her head had been shaved, the fresh pink color of magically regrown flesh visible even from here. She thrashed and screamed, eyes wide. What was wrong with her? My eyes tracked naturally to her flank, her cutie mark a pad lock. A rapidly fading pad lock! Swept away in a wave of sparkling light as she stopped her struggles. The pony by her side disconnecting those bonds. Yes, a chance for her to fight back! But, she didn’t. She rolled to her hooves and began to walk away, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to join these ponies.
My stomach heaved at the thought. This was... This was wrong. All wrong. Monsters, enslaving other ponies, stripping them of their individuality, of what made them special. Tears filled my eyes again, heart clenching tight. My collar hung heavy and cold around my neck. A different feeling this one. Surging through my horn.
Half a step backwards, rush, jump over the railing, wings spread wide. For a moment I was airborne in the large room. Swooping down towards the pony working the machines. A pony who looked up just in time to catch both of my forehooves in her face. The resounding ‘crunch’ of hooves against bone filled the small room. Another monster destroyed. Wasteland a little safer.
“FINALLY! Where have you been!?” A familiar voice cut through the haze in my mind, Arsenal, sitting just behind a flickering energy shield. “Don’t just stare at me! Get this shield down. There’s a terminal over there they’ve been using to control it!” A jab of her hoof directed my attention to the keyboard and monitor just between the two energy cells.
Finally, some hope. Staring up at the screen made my head pound. Ugh. Why didn’t the words make any sense? I hadn’t taken a hit to the head that hard, had I? Come on, focus. You can do this. The machine emitted an angry buzzing noise as I struggled with it. Okay, maybe I can’t do this. “Ugh. I’m going to have to walk you through how to use a basic terminal, aren’t I?” Hey! That wasn’t fair! I’d used terminals before. Just never one quite like this.
For several long minutes I followed Arsenal’s instructions. Step by step, slow and steady, until finally the resounding buzz of the energy field around their cell faded. Arsenal wasted no time at all in getting outside her confines. “Ugh. I go through all the trouble to get that stupid robe, even get it armored, put up with the itching and they take it away from me!” She paused to rub at her chest with a hoof. “Gah. I can still feel the scratching. As for you,” she cast her vision in my direction, “Please, please, please tell me you found my rifle? I don’t want to search this whole stable for her.” Her face melted into a pleading pout.
Hah! Had I found her rifle. Had I found her rifle? A quick check of my PipBuck confirmed that I had indeed found it, a moment later it was back with its rightful owner. “You didn’t really think I’d abandon you down here, did you?” My question was simple enough. These were my friends, right? Ponies who trusted me enough to travel with me. I couldn’t just leave them be. The maimed pegasus offered no answer, instead just clinging her weapon tight and whispering sweet words of reassurance to it. That was just creepy.
Wait... Where was Requiem? She hadn’t been taken had she? No. Nono! N- My fears suddenly interrupted when something small and fast grabbed tightly onto a foreleg. Still wrapped in bloody bandages, soon soaked through with tears as well. Requiem pressed her face against me, clinging to my leg and crying. She was here, with me. Where she should be. Where I should be.
“H-hey! You can’t just leave me here!” Another voice, from the other cell, a pony rushing to the forcefield. An older looking stallion with a soft charcoal coat and blue-grey mane. A ball and chain cutie mark blazed on his flank. He was one of the slavers.
My mind split. Raged with itself. Part of me wanted to leave him. He was a slaver, not worth saving. Less than a pony. Let him suffer what he was doing to others. Let him feel the pain they had felt. But leaving him here, to this? To lose everything? I just... I couldn’t. Nopony, not even a slaver, should have to suffer that fate. Slowly I dipped my head back towards the controls.
A soft groan. “You’re not really going to save him, are you?” Arsenal’s disbelief was hardly surprising. “You killed most of his friends out there! What makes you think he’s not going to try to shoot you the moment he’s free?” Okay, she had a pretty good point.
“I won’t. I won’t! J-just don’t leave me here. Please don’t leave me here. What they’re doin’ here just aint natural. Even Doublethink can’t do this kind of shit. Get me outta here! Please!” Doublethink? The pony outside had used that name. Nnngh. No. Couldn’t leave him. No matter how tempting it was. Repeat the process Arsenal had told me. Easy enough and the second wall fell. “N-now let’s get out of here!”
“Not yet.” There was one more thing we needed to do. What we’d come here for. I wasn’t leaving without the water talisman, “Arsenal? Where would the water talisman be?” Couldn’t leave here empty mouthed. Too many died to make this possible. Too much pain.
Arsenal stowed her weapon back at her side, strange that they’d let her keep her saddle bags. “Somewhere down here in maintenance,” she pointed a hoof towards the piping in the ceiling, “Look for the place where all the pipes come together. That’s where you’ll find it.” I gave a brief nod, we’d have to search a bit. But hopefully not too much opposition down here.
Requiem had taken the time to relocate herself to my back, soft warm tears flowing over my side. She hadn’t cried like this since her home was destroyed. What had these ponies done to her? What... What had I done to her? No, I’d saved her! Made sure she was alright! Don’t think like that, Aurora. You’re better than that.
“We’re going.” Heading towards the doorway, a different one than the one I came in. Arsenal went first, then our new ‘friend’. Stepping through the door I paused, turning about on my hooves. It took me a moment to draw Tom up to eye-level without my magic, grabbing hold of the trigger in my mouth.
Tom promptly fell off to one side. Ohno! Scraps was going to kill me if I broke Tom! I might kill me if I broke Tom! A moment of panic passed quickly as I looked down. The scope and trigger mechanism had detached from the main bulk of Tom. It clung to the side of my head through some kind of magical induction. Pre-war technology was weird.
Words began to scrawl across my vision. ‘Combat Missile Launcher Mk. II Prototype “Tom”, interface online. PipBuck Functionality detected, connection established. S.A.T.S. interoperability confirmed. Targeting lock activated.’ What? The words vanished just as fast, a strange new pattern sliding into my vision. A set of small diamond and square, lagging sightly as I cast my vision around. Highlighting other things as they passed over.
Now was not the time to get caught up in what was going on. A momentary grab with my mouth and Tom returned to my flank, a moment later to slip into my targeting spell. Line up Tom with the machine. The little symbols in my vision slowly circling one another until they overlapped completely. ‘Lock confirmed. Fire when ready.’ I bit the pearl trigger.
A single missile spiraled through the air. At first I feared I might have missed, passed to one side of the machine. Until a white glow swept around the projectile, yanking it suddenly into a new course, turning in the air into the machine. The detonation was deafening, scraps of metal shattered and showered across the room.
“Do you think you could make more noise? I think there might be some surface dwellers who didn’t hear that!” Oh, come on. What did you expect me to do? Shoot it with a pistol! Arsenal was right, though, we had to get out right now. Red markers were already beginning to fill my EFS.
That was all I needed, turning on my hooves to rush down the halls, “Run. We’ll find the water talisman then get out of this horrible, horrible place.” I had my friends back. Had my hope back. The pains of this place seemed infinitely lesser now. Even the aches in my legs were less with Requiem on my back. For her, I’d carry the world.
“How much longer is this going to take?” The aches and exhaustion were overbearing now. Standing in one place was impossible. Only the pacing was keeping me awake. So tired. Arsenal had been working for what felt like forever. Finding the service room proved surprisingly easy. Getting the Water Talisman out intact, not so much.
Arsenal mumbled something around the screwdriver in her mouth which sounded a lot like ‘When I’m bucking done’, but I was pretty sure I heard her wrong. After all, Arsenal wasn’t the type to swear. Complain, whine, argue and berate, sure. But not swear. Ears were ringing from everything which had happened. Was crashing even harder now than I had before.
Ugh. So tired. Just lay down, close my eyes for a second. No. No! If I did I’d fall asleep. No sleeping. Not yet. Got to get out of here first. Aching all over. Keep moving, don’t fall asleep. The warmth of Requiem clinging to my back was enough. Focus on that. Remember what was worth staying here for.
Our new companion was watching the door nervously, “Are ya sure they’re not comin’ this way?” My eyes were all blurry, but I couldn’t see any sign of them on my EFS, so I was pretty sure. Just a brief nod to him. So tired, had to stay awake. Stay focused. You can do this Aurora, just a little longer, a little further. Once you’re out of here there’ll be a nice long nap waiting for you. Just a little longer...
A panel smashed into the hard metal flooring as Arsenal let out a cheer, “Got it! Now let’s get out of here before the locals show up.” She was already heading towards the door. She hadn’t been fighting all this time, hadn’t been expending herself. Of course she was still fresh. Legs felt so heavy. Could barely move.
Down the halls we went, as fast as my legs would carry me, which wasn’t very at the moment. Celestia give me strength, this place was huge. So many staircases. Whoever designed this Stable was a masochist! More hostile ponies between us and our escape. Rushing from side-rooms, lunging with makeshift weapons. Like when I was coming in, too many ponies in our way. The riotous sound of gunfire filling the halls.
Even our new companion was armed with a light pistol. Arsenal had complained about it, naturally. He was a slaver, we couldn’t trust him. But he was also a victim, and wanted out just as badly as we did. Plus I was in no mood to argue, not with her or the part of me which kept insisting I should just shoot him and be done with it.
So tired, had to focus. Stay ahead of what was happening around me. Heh, ahead. Well I was at the front of the group. Only one with an auto-map, after all. Hope I could figure out how to read it properly. Not getting lost in this maze of tunnels sounded wonderful. No, stop, focus. A split in the path, head left. Up more stairs. So tired.
“Are you sure you know where you’re going? This place looks a lot like the halls we were just in!” Arsenal was back to her usual self. I just gave a grunt, rising up another set of stairs towards the atrium. The way out would be easy from there. I’d passed through it on the way in. At least I was pretty sure I had. Memories weren’t working quite right.
Round a corner, five more locals. This time armed with guns. Four adults and a filly. The riot of gunfire which erupted down the hall was deafening. My ears were already ringing, why did they have to be so loud!? My horn felt like it was about to crack from all of it. Two of the adults fell to Arsenal, one vaporized instantly. Another to the gunshots of the former slaver. Had to ask his name later. Had to find- No. Focus. Combat first.
Two more ponies. A mare and a filly. Slipping into my targeting spell was easy, the revolver grasped in my lips warm from repeated firing. A comfortable weight, familiar after hours of running through this madness. For a long, long time I stared at the pair. Were they a family? Were they out for a walk when we interrupted them? Were they here to kill us, or were they just unlucky to be here? Ugh. So tired. Couldn’t focus right.
Tears filled my eyes, taking lives was hard, but this was torture. These ponies were monsters, but they were still ponies. Stable Dwellers, clad in blue and yellow barding. They carried PipBucks like me. Was I like them? Just another monster out here? I... No. I wasn’t. I was here for a reason. To protect, to save, to help. They were... They were the monsters.
My heart clenched tight as I bit the trigger, two shots. Two simple shots down a small corridor. Two more bodies on the ground. A filly and a mare. Maybe a family. I wanted to cry, to sleep, to forget. But couldn’t. Not right now.
Requiem hadn’t moved from my back. Hadn’t fought a single pony here. Was she more afraid of them than the monsters? Or was she just afraid to harm ponies? I wasn’t sure, but something about it made me... Happy. The blood of ponies shouldn’t be on her hooves.
“Y-you... You shot a filly!” Arsenal’s words cut deep, it was bad enough to know I had. Did she really have to point it out directly? “How... How could you? I know they’re dangerous, but... But you could have-!”
“They’re not ponies.” I cut her off. I wish I felt as confident as I tried to sound, “They’re... They’re monsters. Machines of flesh and bone. Horrors which attack and kill anything which comes here. Not ponies. N-not ponies...” each word felt harder to say than the last. They weren’t. They couldn’t be. If they were... What was I? No. Not ponies.
Arsenal stared in disbelief, “You’d better have proof! H-hey, don’t ignore me!” I climbed over the remains, too tired to give her a detailed answer. Move on. Don’t think. Up more stairs, another corner. Another long, empty hallway. There was less resistance now. Had I... Had I really killed enough of these ponies that there were so few remaining? Was that what happened here? Or were they afraid? Did they have the ability to feel fear now? Focus. Just get out. Think later. Recover. You can do this, Aurora. Just a few more rooms. Almost free.
The Atrium was abandoned. That was... strange, to say the least. There’d been so much resistance going in, why wasn’t there anypony around to stop us leaving? My head throbbed, horn felt like it was about to shatter, way too much abuse today. No bodies here, but I didn’t think I’d killed any here either. Almost free. Just one more staircase. My legs ached so badly. Had to get out.
On my back I could feel Requiem clinging tight. She was still crying, even after this long. What had they done to her? What had I done to her? No... Don’t think about that. Just up the stairs. Light streamed through the massive Stable door, sitting open before us. The sun must have been on the horizon, almost directly outside the cave. Soft, cool, fresh air flowed from the opening.
The voices returned. Echoing far away. Flowing easily over my exhausted mind.
“... Think he’ll accept?”
“I hope so, we’re so...”
“... I know just who to …”
“... gonna get one of those?”
“... pack your things …”
“... for the first time, tonight …”
Scattered memories, so far away. Just a little further. Down the stone corridor. Had to keep my mind together, over that last threshold. Soft cool air washed over me, finally free of that horrid place. Sunlight touched my wings, warm and beautiful. Fading swiftly, but so perfect. Freedom.
Now was the time for rest. Time to find a nice place to sleep. Like this patch of dirt, right here, under me. That sounded wonderful. Hello patch of dirt! You’re comfortable. We’ll get along great.
Cool air blew through my mane. Everything hurt, but not nearly as much as it had before. My horn at least was no longer a splitting train-wreck of pain. Instead it had descended to merely being an over-active jackhammer. The soft smell of smoke filled my nose, accompanied by warmth on one side. A campfire, at a guess. The weight of Requiem pressed against me under one wing, familiar and comforting. I could feel her breathing, ruffling my feathers just a little, enough to give me the beginnings of a smile. Something was still wrong. My legs wouldn’t move quite right, strange. Slowly I opened my eyes to check on them.
What greeted me was a bit of a shock, to say the least. Vast blackness filled one of my eyes, only the slight metal twinge around the edges gave any hint I hadn’t gone completely blind on that side. The barrel of Arsenal’s energy rifle had been positioned directly in front of me. Arsenal herself was resting at the far end, staring down at me. My legs still wouldn’t move right, but I couldn’t see why from where I was laying.
“How could you?” Arsenal’s voice cut my brain like glass, “You shot a filly. Right in front of Requiem! Then... Then you claim they were a monster? Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t shoot you right now.” The throbbing in my horn intensified as she yelled at me. Couldn’t she keep it down? Someponies were in pain.
Parts of me parsed what she said. Wanted to stay silent. Just let her shoot me. It’d be less painful that way. I’d murdered and slaughtered and destroyed. Requiem needed me then. Needed me to save her. But now? What was the point? Another part of me insisted that was all wrong. She wanted an explanation, not another corpse on her hooves. I couldn’t do that to Arsenal.
“She was tryin’ ta save us. Th’ little one was shootin’ just like th’ others.” Another voice. The slaver? Why was he still here? Not the time to think about that. Big gun in my face demanded attention. Time to hopefully not get shot.
My voice cracked and groaned, when had my throat gotten so raw? “Not a filly. Just a monster.” Arsenal adjusted her grip on the gun slightly, making it clear she was going to shoot if I didn’t pick my next words very carefully, “Check the... Recordings. On my PipBuck. You’ll understand.” Please, please let her understand. Please. It hurt bad enough knowing what happened. If Arsenal hated me for it... I might just die. Well, literally, with the energy rifle in my face, but figuratively too! That still counts!
For a long moment there was silence, before Arsenal gradually moved away from her gun. I could feel her touching my leg, but it felt distant and disconnected. Had she drugged me in my sleep? I certainly had enough pain killers in my bags. The speaker on my PipBuck crackled to life, beginning to replay the messages from the Stable.
“Overmare came to me today...”
Slowly the pony who was the closest thing I had to a friend returned to her weapon, listening to the recordings. Her expression was hard at first, angry, bitter. But it began to change, bit by bit, as those words replayed. Hatred gave way to recognition, which gave way to sorrow. My heart sank lower and lower listening again. Tears found their way to my eyes, long and slow. Why couldn’t I have just stayed silent?
“*BLAM!* … … …”
I couldn’t suppress a wince at the detonation, even on the recording it was loud enough to send a surge of pain through my horn. For a long moment Arsenal just stared at me in disbelief. I wanted to say something, do something, to make it all right. But my heart wasn’t in it. They were monsters, but that didn’t make me happy they were gone. So many ponies who I couldn’t save. Too many.
Long seconds ground by, Arsenal shifting her gun in her hooves. Tiny wiggles barely away from my eye, kept making me want to blink. She bit her lip, ears folded back as she mulled over what had been heard. “W-well! J-just don’t go doing something like that again!” A ruffle of damaged wings, Arsenal glared down her gun at me. A faint smile worked its way to my lips, at least she was forgiving. The scowl on her face grew heavier, “I’m serious! If you do I might just shoot you myself!” Well, maybe not that forgiving. But that was good too. If I ever did lose myself that badly, maybe she’d be able to do the right thing.
A low whistle from our guest drew my attention away, “Woooh. Ya really know how ta find th’ strangest things. Tell ya what, th’ things in that Stable, ponies ‘r not, were our enemies. They made ‘s that th’ moment we came in. Shot ta pieces, kidnapped. Woulda been like them iffin’ yer friend hadn’t rescued us.” Great, I was being consoled by the slaver. My life had taken such a turn for the better today.
Ugh, suddenly I felt dirty inside. Well, dirtier. Didn’t think that was possible right now. “Why are you still here?” An important question, all things considered. He had a whole wasteland to go crawl to.
“Ain’t got nowhere else ta go. Doublethink’d kill me iffin’ Ah came back w’thout any new slaves. ‘specially iffin’ Ah was th’ only one t’ come back t’all.” A brief pause in his speech, “Plus, figure y’all save m’ life back there. T’wouldn’t be right t’ just go ‘n leave now when yer all hurt.” Consolation and sympathy from the slaver. Grand.
But something about this felt a little odd. “Why would a pony like you care about something like that? You sell other ponies every day.” Arsenal beat me to my own thoughts once again. Was she always that fast, or was I just getting slower?
The yet-unnamed buck snorted derisively, “Not e’ry pony does things cus’n they like t’. Some ‘f us ‘r just tryin’ t’ get by. Used t’ be better. Back ‘n the old man ‘s still in charge. New bitch’s crazier ‘n a whole barrel fulla Alicorns. Present company ‘scued, course.” Even the slaver knew I was nuts. Well, I guess after my outburst this morning anypony would.
Wait. That seemed odd in itself, “How do you know what Alicorns are like..?” Most ponies just wrote us off as monsters, but few of them seemed to actually know much about us. Even I didn’t know much about me!
A long, long pause, “Th’ mad mare ‘s got a whole lotta y’all ‘round. Keeps collectin’ ‘em. Like somekinda guards ‘r pets ‘r somethin’. Uses ‘em t’ hunt down th’ runaways sometimes. ‘r t’ just do what she likes. They’re all weird. Creepy weird. Dunno why. Make me nervous.” Well I couldn’t blame him for that. I was pretty nervous most of the time. But... Other Alicorns. Were they like the one in Manestreet? Sounded odd.
Not good odd, either. Pets to a mad slaver? That couldn’t be right. “How far away is this place..?” There was something more which needed doing. Something which I could help with. Not walking away again. Not when ponies needed help.
“Pleasant Acres ‘s a couple hours walk from here. ‘s easy enough t’ find. Yer not seriously thinkin’ about attackin’ them, are ya? They got like a dozen ‘f you guardin’ that place.” Great, well that wrote ‘frontal assault’ off, then again life was never that simple.
Arsenal cleared her throat audibly, “Aurora, dear, please tell me you’re not planning to haul Requiem off into the middle of a slaver camp.” Well, I wasn’t planning that either!
“No. No I’m not. You and Requiem are going to stay here. Tomorrow morning, our new friend-”
“Iron Clad.” The other pony cut in on his own.
“Right. Iron Clad. Will take me out to this Pleasant Acres place. He’s going to present me to this Doublethink as a pony he captured. And together we’re going to find a way to save everypony there.”
Long, long moments of silence as Arsenal stared at me in disbelief. “That... may be the craziest thing you have ever said! You can’t possibly be serious. She’s insane! And has a dozen Alicorns! You can’t do that. Just stay here, let’s go home. Leave them be. You said it yourself, right, they’re not ponies. Just... Machines.” She didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. “Please, please can we just go back to the Junkyard?”
My head was pounding. Arsenal’s insistence grated heavily on the boarders of my mind. “No.” It hurt, but this was important. I had to do this, and I certainly wasn’t going to take orders from her over something like this either! The whining went on for hours, but I mostly ignored it. Short of shooting me there wasn’t anything Arsenal could say to stop me. This was too important. Not going to leave more ponies behind. More victims.
She was wrong. I was strong.
Bright, warm sunlight contrasted the decayed state of Pleasant Acres. Dozens of small bungalows surrounded the central courtyard. Every one had its doors barred from the outside and metal grating over the windows. Occasionally I caught sight of forlorn eyes peering from behind ancient cracked glass. A resort turned into a prison.
More disturbing were the figures of other Alicorns, standing passive yet attentive. Balanced upon rooftops and beside the path which Iron Clad now lead me down. They watched me in silence, a few sharing my own dark purple coloration, others near-black blue like the night sky and two an impossibly dark green. They said nothing as we passed, barely even seeming to notice us. More frighteningly most of them were lacking bomb collars. They couldn’t be serving here willingly, could they?
Questions danced at the edge of my mind, forcing me to bite back my tongue. Iron Clad had told me to remain silent, that it was important Doublethink believe I was just a mindless wreck. If I were going to get close enough to her to stop her I’d have to trust him. For now, at least. But something about all this was just bizarre.
The weight of chains upon my legs returned in full force, my collar burning around my neck. No. Now was not the time. I couldn’t fight this many enemies all at once. Shut up, brain. I am not going to do that. No, no, no. Focus on what was going on, on why you were here. Find the one responsible and crush her.
Slowly we approached a large building, easily three stories high, half collapsed. Once the administration office of the resort, now the center for the still-loyal slavers. Standing just outside was a bright yellow unicorn mare with softer blue mane and tail, “You get those unicorns packaged up! Mister Green’s representatives will be here soon, and you know how much he hates to be disappointed.” Two of the Alicorns on the rooftop took to the air at her words, swooping across the complex. For a moment I wanted to spread my wings and join them, find out what they knew, talk to them. I hadn’t even seen another of my kind in person before, and now here they were, working for a slaver? How... How could they?
“Uh. Boss. Ah got ‘nother one for ya.” Iron Clad spoke to the mare as I stared off into space, probably for the best.
My attention slowly drawn back to the pony before us. She looked wrong somehow, though it was only when she got closer I realized why. Her horn was cracked, chipped and damaged, tiny little cracks running along its length.
A sharp, predatory grin spread across her face as she looked me over. Eyeing me like a piece of meat. It made my skin crawl just to be looked at by her that way. Was this how Requiem always felt? If so I could understand why she’d never want somepony else seeing her. It took all my willpower not to buck her face in right there.
“You’ve done well Iron Clad! This one’s even got one of those PipBucks. I’m sure Mister Green will pay especially well for that kind of find. Once we... Tame her.” Tame me? What was she talking about? “After all, am I not the benevolent ruler of Pleasant Acres? Do I not take in the poor, oppressed masses and give them a purpose in life?” This mare was completely insane! Forget waiting, I was going to buck her right now!
I... Why wouldn’t my legs move? “I am the great Doublethink, who rules this camp with an iron horn.” Cold, sadistic laughter rolled over my awareness, “You will do what I tell you to, when I tell you to, and nothing else. Very soon. There’s no other reason for you to exist.”
Her voice throbbed in my head, pounding at my mind. What was happening to me? There was... Something wrong with my mind. Everything was getting all hazy. No! I was... I was somepony now! I should be protecting others, fighting her, not doing what she said! Like... Like a good pony should!
Was I a good pony, though? Images of dead raiders flashed through my mind. The thick, pasty soup I had reduced their leader to clinging to my coat. The warm, wonderfully strong feeling it gave me when I drove my horn through one of them. The way I reveled in watching them die and wanted more.
No... No! I was... I wasn’t like that... I was helping ponies. Protecting them! Protecting them? I had broken into their home, fought with them and slain them for what? Not to protect, but to destroy. For revenge. Parts of me protested, I had gone there for Arsenal, to save her! But if that was why I went, why would I have slaughtered with such enthusiasm.
Not a monster. But... I... I was protecting others. I helped the Applejack’s Rangers! Got them the information they needed, the chance at a new home! But my mind flashed to what Frozen Fog had said. They only lost their home because of me. They died because of me. Lilac would never walk again, because of me. The soft squeaking of her wheelchair screeched against the back of my mind.
I had a reason to live. To carry on. To fight. I had to help others. To protect others. To... To do something positive in the world! Why? Why did I care? What was the point of it all? Was I really trying to help others, or just help myself?
All I had done was spread misery and pain everywhere I went, destroyed homes and slaughtered ponies. Images of the deaths in Stable 66 flashed through my mind. They were monsters! Nothing but monsters! But... Ponies... What had I done there? Was I any better? Killing for what I wanted. No, no. Not true. But it was.
I was... I was living for Requiem. I would protect her. Make her safe. Show her a world where she could be happy. That was... That was worth fighting for, wasn’t it? The happiness of a filly. The life of one. But, how many lives had I sacrificed for hers? How many had died because I wanted to save her? Six lives snuffed out in her home. Five more in the prison. Dozens more in Stable 66. How many more would I kill and write off as protecting my friends? Would I drown her life in blood?
But I had to... To protect her. Protect her? She followed me everywhere! Into the most horrible places. Into danger. Without me she would never have been shot. Never have been captured. Never have been thrown around like a rag doll. Everything I had done since meeting her only put her in greater and greater danger. She was... She was better off if I just disappeared. If she went home with Arsenal. Forgot I ever existed.
My heart clenched tight as my head swam. What was happening? Where were all these thoughts coming from? I... They hurt. It hurt so bad. Why was I even here? Did I think I could really save these ponies? I was a fool, a selfish idiot who existed only for myself. Running away from friends and those who cared for me. I didn’t deserve to live. Didn’t deserve freedom. Darkness collapsed around me, all thoughts falling away.
I was wrong. I was weak.
Wake up. Move. Help. Guard. Watch. Move again. Gather ponies. Fly. Fight. Kill. Wake up! Come back. Sleep. Wake up. Fly. Walk. Watch. Hurts. Over and over the same actions, blurred by senselessness, empty thoughts. The world was so far away. Sometimes I thought I heard voices, familiar voices, but their words were empty and meaningless. Listen! It was better this way. No more pain or suffering, no more tragedy or loss. I was at peace. Simple, basic, peaceful. Wake up! Walk, rise, fight, capture. Watch. The soft cycle of heat and cold repeated four times.
Watch. Something darted across my vision, small and fast. Moving with just a blur across green grass. Give chase. Run it down, around corners, over boxes, under an awning. Something moved in the shadows. Hooves raised and rained down into the shadows. A figure tumbled into view. Small, broken.
Below me was a small body. Broken in two places. Spine snapped, lower body bent all wrong. Neck twisted, head facing upwards, staring at me with unfocused eyes. Eyes which stared off in two different directions. Unmoving.
Aurora Borealis (Level Up! - Level 8)
New Perk: Large Scale - Your extreme bulk makes wielding larger weapons substantially easier for you than most. You can ready and reload big guns 20% faster than a normal pony and big guns decay 20% slower than other weapons in your care. Remember: You don’t have to be accurate if you have a big enough warhead!
Arsenal (Level Up! - Level 7)