“Well, why not!” I had made a mistake. You see, after Serenity's sullen reaction last time we were in The BS, I had figured there wouldn't be a problem taking her there again. I was mistaken. She had lasted about three minutes before pouncing on Starscream and demanding to know how his cybernetics worked.
“Because.” I sighed. “You can't have wings.”
“But they'd be so cool!” she said way too loudly, jumping up for emphasis. We were supposed to be meeting Mr. House, but he was busy with... something. We didn't ask. And that left the five (Serenity, Flare, High Stakes, Starscream, and I) of us standing outside his office.
“They are pretty cool,” Flare said as he wiggled his feathers. That was actually kind of disturbing. Serenity stared blankly at him before going back to gushing over Starscream. “What! Metal is boring, all natural is where it's at!” Yes, clearly. At least High Stakes looked amused.
“You do not wish for these, child,” the cybernetic alicorn (who was not nearly as good-looking as a real alicorn) said.
“But I do!” I don't think she understood how annoying cybernetics were. Sure they looked cool. And they increased your physical strength, made you tougher, and a better fighter. They were also replaceable (Serenity managed to build me a leg out of two leg pieces she had scavenged back at the steel ranger base, but insisted I get a real replacement), and... I lost my train of thought.
“These wings...” he snapped them out, making them look almost sharp, “were a mistake.” He kept smiling as he leisurely strolled to the office door. “It was an attempt to give a unicorn flight, but the wings themselves were not enough, and attaching them caused pain throughout my body. It seems without pegasus magic a unicorn is too heavy to fly. House attempted to fix the problem by hollowing out my bones as you'd see in a bird, but this caused... more complications. Cybernetics had to be drilled into my bones, and more enhancements were added to help with blood cell growth. In the end I gained flight, but am in constant pain.” Serenity winced back a bit at the story, but Starscream still seemed to be smiling.
“You're awfully pleasant for all that pain.” High Stakes glasses shined in the hallway light.
“Med-X... and mint-als for the mood.” The cybernetic alicorn said. “I may be addicted, but the alternative is much worse. I have to undergo detox every few months to make sure the pain-killers don't decrease in effectiveness.”
“Fascinating.” I yawned. It did make me feel a bit sorry for him, and glad that my own cybernetics didn't come at such a cost. Yet. Part of Mr. House’s deal included a (experimental) cybernetic eye, and that could go wrong in so many ways. So long as it got me the job though, I guess it'd be okay.
Serenity backed up between my forelegs and rubbed her head against me. “I don't want wings anymore... can I have a leg?” No no no. “Just kidding~.” I had no idea if she was serious or not. I know she liked cybernetics (if being obsessed counts as liking), but I really didn't want her to get any. At all. Ever.
And there I go jinxing things. We're off to a fabulous start.
Well, she had insisted on sitting in on my eye surgery. Hopefully that would turn her off wanting one of her own, because apparently it wasn't going to be pretty. Considering the first part involved cutting into my eye and removing the remaining tissue and... Starscream had explained the rest of the surgery, I just couldn't remember. Something about connecting to my nerves, or brain stuff. And then... something.
“How much longer?” Flare asked, standing on the ceiling. I don't know why he couldn't just stand still. It was like a compulsion of his to constantly do silly little tricks. “As much as I like waiting here, I could be off... doing, like stuff. And things. I have this idea for a disguised mine and I need some supplies.” Yeah, I believed that.
“Whaaat? You aren't going to stay to watch?!” Serenity seemed legitimately shocked.
“It may be difficult to believe, young Serenity,” Stakes said, “but some ponies do not enjoy the sight of ponies being opened up wide and fitted with sharp metal objects.”
“Why not!?” Apparently, Serenity was a bit morbid. Or didn't fully understand. Perhaps a little bit of both.
“Er.” Flare scratched the back of his head.
“Well...” High Stakes couched.
Hah. My daughter managed to creep out my two companions. This was a cause for celebration... and I just called her my daughter. Even my brain was against me.
“It is not so strange for foals to find hobbies.” Starscream smiled down at my da-... Serenity. “When I was your age, I was quite enamoured with the construction of buildings.” There was a sad smile on his lips. “I am sure it shall not be long before you get your cutie mark. If you wish it when you are older, we may be able to set you up as an apprentice.” Her grey eyes went wide and watery. Then her eyes met mine, and they went even wider.
“Yes, Serenity. If you want.” She started jumping for joy, but I had to quickly silence her with my hoof. “Just. Don't get any yourself. They hurt.” She nodded but still looked absolutely giddy. Apparently this was a big deal... even if it was coming a pony who actually had no power in the cybernetic department of House’s empire. Though I am sure he could swing it, if he really tried.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” She hopped around me, getting strange looks from a pony in a white coat down the hall. “Yes!” She beamed up at me. I wondered if she would get a cybernetic cutie mark. She liked it well enough, but it was hard to explain her sound ability. Magic like that wouldn't really help a cybernetic spell set, and yet it was the only one she knew. Not that it mattered, a pony didn't have to do a job based entirely on their cutie mark.
The door creaked open.
A tiny blue mare with two really advanced robotic legs walked out. “Starscream!” She leaped up hugged the alicorn (who hugged back dispassionately). “How have you been?! Are these the new recruits? You've given them a good scaring, I hope.” She giggled and stepped off him, and tilted her head at us before running a hoof through her black and white mane. I wasn't sure what a 'locked door' cutie mark was supposed to represent, but I'm sure it was easier to explain than three rocks. “I am Tight Lips.”
“Er, hi.” I stared blankly at her until Serenity kicked me. “I'm Hired Gun.”
“Oh!” She perked up. “You're the one who killed Roy, right? Hah! I was trying to convince House to let me have you, but somepony claimed dibs.” She stuck her tongue out at Starscream. “Oh look! You have friends, how nice? Oh. One of them is High Stakes, not nearly as nice.” She giggled, and I could just imagine High Stakes’ glasses shining at that. “As you probably know, I am the head of the Hizai Internal Department. Handling defence and security for all of Mr. Houses assets. If Mayhem had had me, he wouldn't be dealing with cleaning up the mess The Batmare and The Laughing Stallion made of his water plant.” Yeah. They were the ones to make a mess all right.
I did not know that, so I stared blankly at her and pretended I understood.
“She doesn't know, does she?” Everypony else shook their heads. “Starscream,” she playfully smacked at him with one of her cybernetic leg,. “you dog, always keeping your newbies in the dark.” She turned to me and gave me a grin that was way too wide for her face. “I handle all security for House, and I hope Sky told you 'bout infiltration?” I nodded. “Their leader, Mr. Star, you might not even see him... and if you do, he's doing his job wrong. He handles the smallest number of operatives, but highly specialized. They infiltrate other gangs and organizations. Don't tell anypony, but we have an operative working beside NCA General Scoiatel and another currently deep in the heart of Minotaur territory.” I wasn't going to tell anypony, but I couldn't say for Flare who sure liked to blab stuff like that.
“Hah!” She patted me on the back. “You're a good pony. I heard The Boss has a job for you, so try not to screw it up and die, okay? Maybe if you manage that, we'll go out drinking!” I'd like that. The drinking. The mare herself was a bit too hyperactive for my tastes.
She trotted off down the hall and proceeded to glomp a doctory-pony. Right. Strange pony.
“Don't mistake her appearance.” High Stakes warned me. “When I first got this job, I had intended to shove past her, annoyed that my appointment was being rescheduled. She broke three of my ribs before I hit the ground.” I once broke my ribs so hard they had to be removed. So I could sympathize with him. I made a mental note not to pick a fight with Tight Lips unless I had to.
“You're just a wimp, Stakey,” Starscream said with a tiny grin. “House is free, follow me.” Flare nickered at me as we followed Starscream into House's antechamber. The huge computer and monitor on one side of the wall was currently turned off, and the stallion himself was standing beside it looking out the window at Dise. I would rather not join him...
I wondered what it was like being a ghoul. He had lived in the city for over two hundred years. He'd seen the fall of civilization and watched as it slowly brought itself back from the edge, only to begin to tear at the seams. It must have been hard for him, living so long and seeing so much, but not being able to enact the change he so desperately wanted. I wondered what he'd give for that chance. I was only one pony, but I had to help him. He was the only pony who had shown himself competent enough to unite this fractured city.
Fear my critical thinking.
“Mr. House,” Skyscream said, adopting a grim expression.
“Yes.” The ghoul turned and gave me a sickening grimace from his partially melted face. “I knew you would see reason. You are lucky. After your show last night, I heard Molly was getting ready to send her assassins against you. With me, she wouldn't dare. Not so brazenly.”
“So she's still in danger, but now if she gets killed, it'll be all quiet like?” Flare smirked to my left.
“Enclave rat. Do not speak unless spoken to.” Flare gulped and nodded, staring hard at his hooves. “We shall proceed with your surgery. Your new eye is experimental technology using a more refined system than those Cerberus fools used. So no, it will not glow red.” That was good. “After that, I have a job for you. High Stakes, you will accompany her in this job to make sure it is completed even if she fails.” Thanks for the vote of confidence.
“As you say.” High Stakes bowed his head slightly in deference.
“A large raider gang has been moving slowly south from the hills bordering Equestria. The NCA sent an envoy to them, requesting that they state their intentions. The envoy came back missing an ear, with a map declaring much of the north their territory. The NCA may move against them. This issue here is the town of Bridle Hope. It is an important town, more so then they realize. It holds the centre between north and south, and east and west. I do not care who holds the territory, but I need to make sure that town is free. Or, barring that, that all caravans going through will be free of taxes or fees.” I nodded. Kill some raiders, free some citizens, all in a days work.
“I can do that.”
“I hope so.” He motioned his head to my left. “For all the money I am putting into you, I hope it's worth it. I'll be handling the surgery myself.” Really? He was an earth pony ghoul, I wasn't sure he would be able... but I was not going to tell him that. “I am the most experienced of my doctors, and the procedure is new. It is safer for me to do it, and now. It may take several hours, but if this works your recovery time will be short. Let us get started.”
“Right now?” I was just slightly nervous about this. I mean. Having my face cut open and stuff would have to hurt. I wondered if I'd get pain medication or something. That'd be good.
“Yes, weren't you informed?” I shook my head, and he shrugged. “Just follow me, Starscream lead those who wish to watch to the viewing platform.”
So I followed House down the plain halls of The BS and into a room on the same floor.
It was a large, sterile room, painted all in white and decked to the nines in fancy-looking medical equipment stuff. The bed I was to lay on was fairly plain (also white) and had an eyeball on a tray beside it. Not to mention a shit load of wires. Also in the room were four white-clad ponies hidden behind medical masks, and what looked like stadium seating in the room above, with a thick glass window separating the two rooms. Serenity waved to me, so I gave her a slight smile. Her face was literally pressed up against the glass. I guess she was excited...
As soon as I walked in, there was a great deal of fussing. The doctor ponies started touching me, taking off my eye patch and my makeshift leg (One doctor looked more disgusted at my leg than at my eye remains) and helped me onto the bed. On my back... moving on.
“Here.” One pony said putting a mask over my muzzle. “Lie back.”
“Okay.” I rested uneasily on the bed, unused to being on my back. “Uh, what're you doing?” I knew what they were doing, but I didn't like it. Two of the ponies were slowly strapping me in with thick leather bindings so tight I could feel it cutting into my skin.
“Don't worry.” The pony who helped me with the mask said. “Just in case you move in your sleep.” I nodded. “It'll be fine. Don't worry. Tell me where are you from?”
“Uh...” I blinked. Why were my eyes so droopy? “Marefort.”
“Can you count how many ponies were in Marefort?” Sure... I could. Fuzzy-headed pony. It was... Um...
“One... two... three.” Four. Five. “Six.” Wait, did I say those two out loud? I needed to start again. “One. Two. Two.” My eyes closed. Just needed to rest. Then I could finish counting. “Seven.”
“What are you doing?”
I looked at Wildfire lying on the ground behind me, then ignored her. Before me was a pile of rubble that had to be sorted through. Lowering my body, I squeezed under an iron girder and started. After getting it snugly in place on my neck, I slowly started to lift it, gritting my teeth to keep my neck tight.
“You can't lift that.”
“Grrr.” Every muscle in my body was complaining, and it felt like they were on fire. I had been growing at an exceptional rate, but I was still barely older than a filly. I could do this though. It was just a stupid bar. I could lift it.
“You're going to hurt yourself.”
Well, I couldn’t with that attitude! I continued to ignore her, as I ignored most ponies, and did not stop ignoring her until I lifted the girder and tossed it aside. I was sweaty but damn triumphant. Standing up tall, I looked down at Wildfire. “You were saying?”
She laughed prettily and shook her head. “I stand corrected. But... why?” I was scavenging for material. It's all we ever did in Marefort. There were enough guns and ammo stored around here to last another hundred years.
I turned back to the small section of collapsed building. “Why what?” I poked my nose into the pile before picking up some metal wires with my mouth and throwing them away. “I'm working.”
“You know you don’t work today, right?” With a growl of annoyance I took my nose out of the dirt and looked her over. While I was growing bigger, she was getting taller and sleeker. Her coat seemed to shine, and her mane was just so... so something. The problem was that she had a cast on her left foreleg, and that meant she couldn't do any work. If she didn't do work she didn't get paid, which meant she didn't eat.
“You do,” I said simply before going back to digging through piles of rubble. Peering through a small opening in the rubble, I thought I saw something... boxy. So I started digging with renewed vigour.
“What?” What was she, stupid?
I didn't have the time to look back at her while I was digging. “Working for you. So you can afford to eat.”
“I can work.” She sounded almost a little insulted.
I tossed a chunk of concrete off to the side. “Idiot.” She snickered at that. “You can't. Leg is broken. Schedules are locked. You have scavenging all month. You can't work. Can't eat.” I grunted, trying to paw at the box. “Rations aren't enough. You'll be hungry.”
“I'll survive on them.” Ack. I caught my leg on something sharp and pulled it out. “Why do you even care?” I think I was bleeding. Looking down I could see blood start to swim down my leg, definitely bleeding. Fucking hell. “I won’t die, won't be comfortable, but I won’t die.”
“Idiot,” I repeated, shuffling my bleeding leg close so she wouldn't see it. “You need strength. Heal faster. Then you can work again.” If I did her work for her, then she would heal sooner, so I wouldn't have to. There was nothing wrong with that train of thought. “I'm helping.”
“Why?” I turned my head to give her my 'what the hell are you talking about' face. “You barely even talk to me. Or anypony. Then, out of the blue, you start helping me? That doesn't even make sense.” Makes perfect sense, stop questioning it. “You do this all the time, too! After Smooth Tongue...” Her voice trailed away in thought. “You spent a week standing in front of my house and glaring at anypony who came close, so I could rest.” I wanted to explain that her father died, and she clearly needed to rest without being bothered. “And, when Nox got lost a few months ago, you ran off to find her!” Well, she was lost. Lost ponies needed to be found. “What about that time with Star Belle?” Well she accidentally shot herself, and I was the only pony that remembered the safety instructions...
I tried to apply pressure to my cut. It was kind of deep... that couldn't be good. “Someone had to.”
“But why you?” I wish she'd stop questioning this. “You don't talk to ponies otherwise.”
“Shut up.” I tried to reach down towards the back again, but pain shot through my leg, and I drew it back. This sucked. “I'm helping. Does it matter why?” I turned to see her nod. “Fine. Because I feel like it.” It wouldn’t be so hard, working a double shift. I was nearly the size of two ponies my age, so it only made sense. “Let it go.”
“Silver...” I shook my head.
“If you want to do this, keep arguing.”
She huffed. “Fine. Fine! I'll just sit here and...” She paused and I looked back at her to see her pretty green eyes to go wide. “Are you bleeding?” I looked down and saw that blood had pretty much soaked my entire right leg. And most of my left since I’d I tried to put pressure on it. And it was pooling on the ground.
I looked up sheepishly. “No...”
“Silver... get over here.” She turned to dig into her saddle bags, but I shook my head. “Silver.” Kept shaking. “Hon, it won't do any good if you can't work either.” Yeah. That's true. I guess. “Hon.” She started using pouty lips. They just weren't fair.
“Fine.” I stood up slowly and walked over, careful to avoid any of the sharp pieces of junk I threw away. By the time I got there she had gotten a bundle of medical supplies out of her saddle bags, and was resting them on her cast. Standing over her, I let my blood pool in the dirt. “Uh...”
“Lay down, please. Close.” Yeah, close. I laid down, putting my bleeding leg out towards her. “This looks deep.”
She took out a cloth rag and pressed it into the wound which just made it hurt more. “Be still.” Easy to say when she wasn't the one hurt... other than her broken leg. I had nothing. “Does it hurt?” I grimaced and nodded a bit. “I'm sorry, it's just...” her voice trailed off as she looked up into my eyes. She had the most beautiful green eyes. I... didn't like her like that, it was just that... looking at her eyes sometimes I lost track of time and....
“It's fine.” I flushed, looking away. She might have been blushing, too, but it was impossible to tell through the color of her coat.
She nodded, then took out a healing potion and poured just a little bit into the wound. It stung a bit, but not that bad. “That should close the wound. Just be careful around the leg.” I nodded. “And... I... thank you. For helping me. Even if you're weird... and...” She looked away. “And I uh...” She turned her lovely green eyes back to me.
So I kissed her.
It was sort of sloppy. I think it was my first kiss, and it ended way too soon, before I really understood what happened. I pulled back.
“I, uh... sorry.” I smiled bashfully up at her.
“It's fine.” She nuzzled my cheek. “It's fine...” There was something wet on my shoulder. I thought, for a second, it was tears.
But when I turned to her, there was a gaping hole in her head, and blood was flowing down over me. I could hear it dripping. Drip. Drip. Drip.
“Grah!” I gasped and opened my eyes. I was glad I didn't shoot up out of bed, because I was not in the mood to be a cliche. I felt a burning in my shoulder and thought it felt familiar, but chalked it up to being in a hospital and around medical ponies. I was more concerned with the throbbing in the back of my skull. I spied a med-x on the table by my bed, and used it as recommended.
Taking a deep breath, I steadied myself. Just a dream. I hated my dreams. I would just like one without somepony dying. You know? Is that so much to ask? Of course it was. I wouldn't be Hired Gun if I wasn't haunted by the ghosts of my forgotten past. I hoped one day I would be able to forget the past, but apparently it was not that day. Which is lovely.
After calming myself down, my eye slowly got used to the darkened room. It wasn't the same one I was put out in, that was for sure. It looked vaguely hospital-ish and I saw apparitions of medical, equipment-y stuff all around. It was a small room though, and it seemed I didn't have a roommate. That was good. I disliked ponies watching me sleep.
With a sigh, I fell back into the pillow. I doubted I was going to sleep that night. Just alone with my thoughts. Huzzah...
The burning started to get stronger. Hmm.
There was a knock on my door. I looked down at my pipbuck to confirm it was well past midnight. “Uh, come in?”
The door opened and nopony entered. At least, I didn't see anypony enter, but I heard hoofsteps and the burning in my shoulder intensified, making me wince. A few seconds later the door closed silently. “Platinum Haze?” I hazarded a guess. It was either her, a minotaur, or an assassin trying to kill me. I was really hoping for the first one.
The veil of invisibility dropped and I was lying in bed before a rather beautiful alicorn. A welcome sight for my (literally) sore eyes.
“Ah,” she said. “Are we interrupting? We hope we have not awoke you from your rest it is-”
“We are sorr-oh. Sorry. I am not awakening you am I?” Her gaze lowered and she looked a bit saddened. “Diamond Sky has returned, and has told me to take some time off. We... I do not require sleep and found ourselves rather bored, so we wished to remark upon the status of your operation.” Well she was trying at least. “I hope w-I am not intruding, or pressing against the boundaries of my social limitations.”
“I ain't even sure what you just said,” I said, and carefully scooted up the bed so I was sitting up with my back resting against the headboard. “Surgery went good. I guess. I'm not dead.”
“I have noticed you have acquired a new leg, it looks to be the same model as your last one.” Huh. I looked down at my leg and saw a brand new (relatively speaking) cybernetic leg. I wasn't quite sure when I got that. Lifting it up, I swung it around a few times for practice. It certainly felt like the same leg. “It is much more practical than the one your filly constructed.” Yeah, but I liked Serenity's mish-mash. I was thinking of hauling it around in case my stupidity broke my leg again. She continued after I nodded. “Is there pain?”
A fair bit. Even with the med-x it was pretty bad. “Felt like I headbutted a vertibuck. Or wrestled a hellhound.” She smiled prettily at that. “Don't worry. They gave me pain-killers.” I waved to the table beside me with the empty med-x syringe.
“I see. So long as you are taking them as directed.” I rolled my eyes. “Hired...”
“Everypony and their lectures. Barely know you two days. And you're starting too.”
“Perhaps if you did not make it so easy.” I chuckled a bit as she moved close and laid beside my bed. It put us at about eye-level because alicorns are really freaking tall. I kind of liked it actually. There were so few ponies even close to my size, and it was refreshing to be overshadowed some times. “So long as you are well. We have heard you are to be leaving tomorrow?”
Something like that. I didn't know if I should have been looking forward to it or not. The work I was doing with House should hopefully start setting right what was wrong in Dise, but it meant dragging Serenity (willingly) into the fire. As much as I loved murdering raiders, it churned my gut knowing Serenity had to come. Hopefully now that she was armed, she would be able to protect herself. And we were going to have a long boring discussion on why she should be hiding in every fight, not standing in the open all the time...
“Yes.” I answered eventually. I had forgotten to speak again. “To the north. Fight some raiders. Protect a village. Hero-y stuff.” The dark room cast a shadow over the blue pony's face, obscuring her expression. “Ever hear of Bridle Hope?”
“Yes,” she answered, a bit quickly. “Please be wary, it is where Serenity was imprisoned, and we do not wish her undue emotional distress.” Wait, what? How did she know that? I muttered something and stared blankly at her. Apparently she too could read my mind. “I was in your memories, remember? It was a point I remember quite clearly.” Right. Gotcha. I kept purposely forgetting about that incident.
“Yeah. Good point.” I hadn’t even thought of that. I really need to ask Serenity about what happened down there. She never spoke of it, and when she did tears were usually involved. I hated seeing her cry (the irony of me constantly making her cry was not lost on me). “Sorry. Didn't even think of it.” It made sense though. It would be like dragging me to Stable 42 and asking me to act rationally.
Not that I ever acted rationally.
“It is fine. It is why I reminded you. We worry about taking the filly along, it will be dangerous.” I nodded. “Harmful.” I couldn't argue. “Potentially life threatening.” Yeah... “Are you sure she will not be better off with Diamond Sky and me?”
“She would be.” I said. Shuffling a bit, I brought myself up and steeled my face. “But. She's lonely. I think. Since she was young she never had a pony... to, like, care for her. She never got the love and attention she needed. It's why she attached herself to me. Haze.” I sighed. So many words. “I think you're good at what you do. But, I think... I think Serenity needs more than that. Ya know? So if she wants to follow. I can't say no.”
“We understand bu-”
“I will protect her.” I reached out my hoof and lifted her chin up. “I will. I promise. Discord himself could fly down from the sky shooting lightning from his eyes, and I would still protect her.” I gave her a weak smile. “I promise.”
“Yes. We are sorry. We worry about foals; it is part of the job. We hope Serenity will be happy with you and will find what she is looking for her. Just.” She smiled at me. “Don't forget we are always an option... and even if you don't let us help, you could visit or...” In the dim light I couldn't tell if she was blushing, but it amused me to think so.
“I'll visit. When I'm in the city. Wouldn't miss it.” Moonlight filtered through the window making her face light up. “You worry too much.”
“And you not enough.” Eh, I couldn't argue with that.
“Why did you come and visit anyway?” I closed my eyes, slipping back further into my bed. I didn't really care that she did, though I found her timing eerily impeccable. Unless she was waiting in my room, and just stepped out when I woke up...
“I... we er.” She looked away. “As we said, to make sure you were okay.” I'm sure that wasn’t it. Even I was able to see through such an obvious ruse. I awarded points for tenacity, but I still wasn't interested. Okay I was interested, how could I not be?! It'd be like banging Luna... I'm a horrible pony, forget I said that. I needed a cold shower.
“I understand.” I smirked. “Just teasing.” It wasn't that I disliked her. Or disliked companionship, it was just I wasn't a fillyfooler. And if you don't believe that, would you believe that I didn't think she wanted a fling (I'd be okay with that) and that I wasn't emotionally ready for a full fledged relationship? I mean, sure we'd start small but the idea was just... weird. And kind of scary. And in the end what she wanted was something comforting. A stabilizing factor at a place where she feels she had lost control (all guesses on my part, but really... a few weeks ago she was part of a hive mind super entity. It wasn't that hard to figure out), and I was not, well, stable. I was emotionally broken, afraid of commitment, and prone to sudden bouts of... er, death. I wasn't what she needed.
I was just the only pony nearby that didn't try to shoot and/or kick her on sight.
“Hired?” Huh, I turned my head back to her. “Oh. You went quiet suddenly, and we thought you fell asleep.” I really need to time my bursts of deep introspection for when It was not my turn to talk. “I did not cross the line coming here, did I? I know it is late but...”
“It's fine. Sorry. Thinking.” There was a smile of hope on her face. “I'm glad you came but...” Watch as I crush the hopes of magical goddess ponies under the pretence that I would hurt them later.
That was a familiar argument. Sorry, I can't commit right now because I’m a bad pony and I'll hurt you later. Last time I travelled down that path, I killed a foal and went weepy for two days straight. I shut my mouth and cried out in annoyance, slamming my head back against the pillows, and sending pain lancing up my skull. Post surgery sucks.
“Hired, have we annoyed you.” She began to rise slowly. “We didn't mean to, we shall go an-”
“It's fine. Just me. Thinking,” I said. She raised an eyebrow, which meant I had to respond. “I hate thinking.” There was a subtle smirk on her muzzle. “Can I be honest for a second?” She nodded so I continued. “I am getting the feeling you like... want something. Between us.” She gulped but nodded slightly. “It's just. I don't think you want me. At least. Not me, in particular. It's like. You've been saying how everything’s been moving fast. So. Maybe you aren't looking for me. I think... I shouldn't be telling you how you feel.”
“No...” She looked a bit ashamed. “We would be insulted were you not correct in some manner. It would be nice if we had some stability in our life and... yes, we are sorry. It is not fair to pressure you in this manner.” She stood upright. “It as a mistake.”
“Why not just hook up with Diamond Sky.” Alicorn on alicorn action... my mind was going to very bad places.
“Ah. Well unlike me, she is waiting patiently for Velvet Remedy to find a way create male alicorns.” As I absentmindedly wondered if male alicorns were... proportional, I realized my brain was in a very strange place after surgery. Fuck. Wait, dammit.
“I see. Um.” My brain needed to reboot. “It's just. I ain't stable. So you won’t find stability with me... and you know. I'm all fucked. In the head. You saw that yourself. You have my pity... So. It's not that I'm not interested.” Even though I wasn't a fillyfooler, you can't turn down a date from a freaking goddess without thinking about it first! And she was so pretty. And... it twisted my stomach to tell her no, because a part of me wanted her so damn much. But... it wasn't her I wanted. It was Wildfire, and the warmth of companionship. She couldn't live up to a ghost, and it was wrong to try and force her to. “It's that. I guess I'm not ready. And I'd end up hurting you.”
“We doubt you have that ability, we have been through more than you can imagine an-oh. You mean emotionally don't you?” I nodded. “Well. Even still, we do not see ho-”
“Well. I could freak out. Then sleep with a hooker to drive you away.” She winced a bit at my blunt assessment. The knot in my stomach twisted harder. Sometimes I really hated myself.
“You wouldn't,” she said, defiantly. Sure, she knew me better than most due to magical mishaps, but she didn't know me that well.
“I... don't know. After what I did to push Serenity away? I'm not taking that risk. Don't want to hurt you.” I closed my eyes. “Sorry. It's not you, it's me.” She started laughing. This wasn't a joke! I was trying to be serious. I huffed and felt her kiss my forehead gently.
“Sorry. It is just that claim is a tad overused, and we could not help ourselves. We will respect your wishes, but just want you to understand something.” I opened an eye. “If you wish to get past your issues, you can't hide away from them. We are of the belief that you eventually must confront your issues and try to push through them if you are to be who you wish to be.” She smiled just a bit. “W-I. I may be biased.”
“I'-” I was cut off by a goddess.
“‘I will think about,’ you are about to say, am I correct?” I nodded. “We had guessed as much, for a pony who claims not to be smart, you most certainly think about many things.” She looked behind her shoulder. “We must be going. The foals will be up soon, and dealing with so many in the morning... I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.” There was a faint smile on her lips when she vanished from sight.
“I'll think about it. Take care of yourself. And...”
There was a haunting voice in the room. “May the goddess watch over you; please be safe, Silver.”
The door opened and closed, and I fell back onto my bed, hard, wondering if I had just made a really stupid mistake.
Morning came quickly, and I didn't sleep. I stayed up all night, mourning the fact I turned down alicorn love... that's a lie. I actually spent most of the night worried I’d hurt her. I really hoped not. I was so tired of hurting ponies. But... I guess it didn't matter. We'd still be friends, and I'd still talk in cliches.
Light filtered in from the window curtains and aimed directly for my eyes, making me wince and turn away. Brightness sucked. I scratched at my eye patch and wondered if I would be able to take it off soon. I heard that before there were healing potions, it'd take days or weeks (or months) to recover from surgery, but things had changed. I'd be adventuring by lunch. Hopefully. My head was still throbbing.
I laid back in my bed. I just wanted to be released.
It was another hour before the door opened. I was staring at the wall when it happened. It was white. I hated it.
“Ah! You are awake!” I turned to see a doctor-y pony walk through the door. “We were worried an-”
“MOMMA!” A pink blur sped past the doctor, flew through the air, and landed hard on my chest. Her grey eyes looked wild. “You'reokayweweresoworriedmrhousehadto-” I stuck my hoof in her mouth. She was being a bit too loud. Slowly I took it out. “You almost didn't make it!” I... what!? She latched her forelegs around my neck and squeezed.
I turned to the Doctor and saw Flare and High Stakes follow him in. The grey doctor in his full white uniform looked a little embarrassed as he began. “There were complications. A previous implant was making the eye install troublesome, and near impossible. We had to alter it...” But my intelligence! “But that required removing pieces of your skull and screwing it back together.” I winced and instinctively wondered how much med-x it'd take for that wound to go away. “It went well after that, and we installed your new eye without further issue. But in the process, it seemed as if we may have deactivated some of the functions of the chip, but we couldn't remove it to be certain due to the time constraints. Do you know what it did?”
“It was an Intelligence chip.” Flare started laughing. He came in just to laugh at me. I could feel it in my bones.
“Oh. It was not a model House was familiar with so we did not insert a replacement.” I could feel my intelligence leaking out of my ears. I was going to miss it so much. “However, when your new eye is activated, it should provide your brain with extra computing power, that can be used when it's not using its more labour-intensive functions.” Oh! I guess I got to keep my smart... ness. Except when I was working out my eye. Or. Something. I wasn't sure so I'm just going to assume it stayed the same. Easy!
“So... I'm okay.”
“You are awake and not brain dead; it would appear so.” The doctor placed a hoof on Serenity's (who was still hugging my neck) head. “This one was very brave throughout the tense moments. Heck, I think she was fascinated more than worried.”
“I was worried.” She lifted her head up to explain. “But I knew you'd make it. We've been through worse.” The doctor raised an eyebrow, and that was a perfect time for Flare to step up flapping his wings.
“True. Remember the tunnels under Dise with that crazy cult ghoul who did cult... things?” Serenity winced and Flare chuckled. “Don't stress, Serenity. He deserved it.” There was a look of rising horror on the doctor’s face as High Stakes also stepped up, his glasses shining.
“When we stood against those landsharks she displayed remarkable fortitude and... accuracy.” That was a good time, with a bad ending. Honestly those land sharks were disturbing. What would Dise do if they ever moved towards the city? Die. I guess.
The doctor however looked very concerned with the story and was looking at me with a mixture of shock and amazement. Apparently dragging a filly around on horrific adventures wasn't an 'in' thing. “I...” He shook his head and tried to maintain a professional calm. “I guess...” he said. “Never mind that. We need to do some tests on your eye to make sure it is working at capacity.”
“Good.” After helping Serenity off me, I rolled out of bed and landed hard on my new leg. I leaned on it, then kicked it against the floor. Yup. It's certainly working right, but something felt different. It seemed just a bit heavier. “How do-”
“Oh!” Serenity jumped up. “Can I do it!?”
“Only if we want Hired to explode,” Flare said, inciting the filly to use her powerful glare against him. It wasn't very effective. “No offence but I think we should let the trained... you were trained right? The trained professional do the activating. That way if she does explode, we can sue.” He laughed. “Right?”
“No courts in Dise,” High Stakes explained.
“Bugger.” Flare kicked at the ground. “Oh well, points for trying.”
“Your friends are all insane.” The doctor sighed and pulled a long skinny device thingy out of his coat. “Take your eye patch off and...” He looked up at me. “Kneel down.” I picked at my eye patch until I could get it off, before kneeling down. The doctor continued, “High Stakes, there is a med-x on the table, please get it.”
“You are mistaken, doctor; the only thing here is an empty syringe,” Stakes said. I gave the doctor a weak smile and he just sort of glared before sighing.
“In my coat pocket.” I felt the familiar burning of Stake's magic and looked up to see him standing beside me. He jammed a med-x into my shoulder. Sweet relief.
Then the doctor jammed the device into my eye.
Half my vision turned white. For a split second I began to see to my right again. I was about to cry out in joy, but I just started crying out as pain lanced through my head like somepony had slammed it through a rock crusher. I dropped to a knee and squeezed my eyes tight as I emitted a high pitched squeal of pain. That was until I felt another needle jam into my side and the pain fell down to a heavy throbbing. Blindingly painful, but at least I was able to think.
“I'm sorry, Miss Hired!” The doctor sounded really defensive. A part of me was begging me not to hurt the nice doctor pony. “The med-x should have taken care of the pain, I did not think we'd have to use two.”
“It's.” I gritted my teeth as the pain slowly faded away. “Ok... what the fuck!” I took a step back and stared at the doctor, my new eye moving awkwardly in its socket. There was a strange orange box highlighting the white coated pony, and above him a little tag that said 'Dr. Pony'. This was almost like that time I turned on crazy time-stopping mode. Only now I had little moving ticks at the bottom of my vision in amber and red. They kept moving around.
“Oh. Yes.” The doctor smoothed back his mane nervously. “The new features. You'll see in addition to your EFS--.”
“What.” I stared blankly at him.
“Eyes Forward Sparkle.” Serenity giggled. “Ain't 'cha have those ticks in your vision before? Cause of your pipbuck?” I shook my head and she giggled more. So did Flare. “Basically the little ticks there correspond ta ponies in your location, an' shows if they're friendly or not. Green, or yellow is friendly, red is meanie.” Red is... I looked back at my EFS and noticed the red one was gone. Right.
“Your daughter is smart,” the doctor said. Flare seemed to be amused so I tried to glare at him hard enough to make his tick turn red. “Ahem.” I turned my head back to the Doctor Pony. “The icons around us correspond to our threat level. Amber is non-threatening, brown is low threat, red is middle threat, and purple is high level.” Blah blah blah. “This can be determined via a magical fields that measures po-” I zoned out as he explained how it worked. It wasn't really important. “Also, you'll be able to utilize SATS even if your pipbu-”
“Wait! I can make everything go all time-stoppy again!”
And everypony stared at me. Like I was an idiot.
Because I was.
“Yes...” the doctor said really slowly making me flush a little. “Yes, you can.” There was a look on his face that seemed like he was wondering if I really was supposed to be an elite cybernetic agent of house. “What exactly did you use your pipbuck for?”
“...the radio,” I mumbled under my breath. “And...” There was something else. What was it. “Oh.” I facehoofed. “The map.” That would have helped me two nights ago when I was fighting crime with The Batmare.
“Right...” Doc sighed heavily. Off to the side of the room, I saw High Stakes leaning against a wall being all bored-like. “The eye is powered via the same power source as your leg. There is a small wire under your skin from your head to leg, but should be deep enough it won't be cut easily. It has a small backup power source that will last a day if it does... the wire may itch.” Dammit, it was itching now. Why did he have to say anything? “We have provided your companions with power gems, and painkillers.” I reminded myself to make sure I got a hold of those right away. “And... House wishes to speak with you about functions of the implant I am not privy too.” He huffed. No doubt offended that I would have the information despite being something of an idiot.
“Right.” The Doctor walked away, and I watched his tick move on my EFS until it flashed out of sight. That was pretty cool actually, but a bit confusing. It didn't seem to tell between levels, so a lot of the ticks from the few floors above and below me meshed into each other, and I couldn't even see the ticks behind me. So it wouldn't help if I got sneak attacked.
There was a strange silence in the room that lasted for minutes. My companions’ eyes were watching me. Very Closely.
“Uh...” I said slowly shifting a bit from side to side. My leg did feel weird. Maybe that's what they were staring at. “Yes?”
“Your eye...” Flare said slowly. “It's green...” I... wait what. I looked down at Serenity who nodded. “Very, very, very green,” Flare finished.
Why was my eye green? Before I had a chance to respond, High Stakes floated a mirror in front of me. There, sunken into my face among a series of thin white scars, was my eye. It certainly looked like an eye, but the pupil seemed strangely light, the white part had small green veins in it (that glowed) and the iris itself was green and glowing.
“Why... is my eye green?” I asked slowly.
High Stakes answered, “I did give House your correct eye colour... it seems he had forgotten my recommendation, or it was not an option. Whatever the case, I do not think changing the colour is possible at this time.” But. I liked my eye colour. It was one of my most redeeming features... I guess it didn't matter anyway. It was better than no eye at all...
“Right.” I leaned over and picked up my discarded eye patch with my mouth. “Serenity.” I kneeled down to look her in the eye. “Help me put this on.”
“But Mom- Hired, why would you do that?! Your eye is so cool now and has all these special powers an-” I gave her a hard look. With a heavy and exaggerated sigh she lifted the patch up and slipped it over my mechanical eye. At the same time the boxes around her, Flare, and High Stakes vanished, as did their name tags. The tics in the bottom of my vision stayed there though, and continued to be a distraction. “What a waste.” Serenity said when she finished tying my patch on.
“It's my penitance for what I did...” I tried to explain. It was... important. I lost my eye right after killing Post Haste, and... and keeping my new one covered would be a reminded of the lives I'd taken. Of my mistakes. In my mind it was important.
“Penance.” I turned my head to High Stakes, and he continued. “The word you're looking for is penance. To atone for one’s sins.” I kept staring at him. “What?”
“Are you a dictionary?” I asked. Flare started cracking up laughing. I considered that a win.
“I guess,” Serenity said as she kicked softly at the ground. “I guess. If it's so you can do better, that's okay... but you gotta take it off when you're fighting. The systems in it could save your life!” I nodded. “Please...”
I ruffled her mane with my good hoof causing her to squeal and squirm away. “I know, Serenity.” She smiled softly at me. “I know.” Just then, the door opened.
A ragged ghoul stormed through the door so fast, I thought his black and gold hat was going to fly off his head. He turned sharply at me and set me with a hard look that was just shy of a glare. “You are awake late,” House said. I've been awake all night, but that was just logic talking. “Your eyes don't match. I thought you had green eyes...” he said looking at the eye that wasn't hiding behind an eye patch. Lavender was not green at all.
“Thanks for that,” I said.
He snorted and shook his head. “Right. Moving on.” He started talking. Fast. I guess I was an annoyance. “I installed an earbud into your... ear.” We had a new contender for captain obvious. “Before the war, a wealthy idiot placed a large number of two way radio amplifiers in and around Dise. I modified these to carry my special channel, and amplified it to take the signal across much of the Dise wasteland. We will not be able to be in contact directly, but the channel will direct you using a series of agent-specific keywords which I have programmed into your pipbuck for reference. The ear bud will allow you to listen to my instructions discreetly. For the sake of the channel your codename is 'Star-Mare'.” I wasn't sure what to think of that. “For safety purposes, each Hizai has their own codename, and their own set of command words to substitute ponies and places.”
“For example.” He looked annoyed. More annoyed. “If the channel indicate that, 'The Star-Mare must head to D-tank' you would check your pipbuck and see that D-tank stands for Dise. However another ponies command word for Dise may be, 'Leftish'. That way if one of my agents gets caught they won't be able to give out the code to deciphering all of my messages. Only the ones directed at them.” I nodded. That seemed, quite smart. Actually. “I would suggest reading up on the command words in your free time. The list covers most ponies, places, and requests I could ask of you. I have prepared for every opportunity.”
“I... thank you.”
“As well you should. I have given Stakes provisions for the trip, along with ammunition and...” He turned to look at Flare. “Grenades. Please try not to die. It would be a waste of resources.” I'll try. “If there isn’t anything else, I have reports.”
“Yes... you are from before the war right?” I asked. That was a stupid question so he simply raised a non-existent eyebrow at me. “Right.” There was something I was actually curious about. A name that seemed to pop up a lot. “What do you know about Wallkirk?”
He laughed. Actually laughed. I was not expecting that.
“Wallkirk? A damn fool of a pony.” He adjusted his hat slightly before continuing. “He was the son of some wealthy pony. He was in the army for a few years, but when his Father kicked the bucket and left his riches, he moved to Caledonia and declared himself a war hero. Mind you, this was back when the Minotaurs had just started raiding the outskirts of the land, and the ponies of Caledonia were excited at his fame and set him up as mayor of some no-name town. Well, with his riches and backing from the Ministry Of Morale, he built 'Celestia's Paradise' as we see it today. Even put his damn statue in the centre of town.” Wait, that was of him? I must have walked past that statue at least a dozen times and didn't even realize. “He hated competition though, and he hated when I started here. He bribed some of my best technicians to quit their jobs with me and go work for something called 'Project Steelpony’.” he scoffed at the name.
“I take it you didn't like him?” I asked.
“No.” Was the simple reply. “He was an idiot. He put his hooves in every pot. He bought the unfinished Stables from Stable Tec when the controversy came up that Caledonian stables had lower capacity than Equestrian. He took money from the Caledonian military and Stable Tec and used it to build a stupidly large military research centre in the middle of a Celestia damned mountain. Even I don't know what went on there, but I know whatever it was pissed off the Equestrian upper brass. Around the same time the bombs started falling, the MoM launched a raid on 'The Clips And Clops', where Kirk worked. If the world hadn't ended, it would have been a deathblow to Caledonian independence. In the end, he was a fool. All his plans were half-finished and half-assed. His top advisers stole from him and spied on him.” Which would explain how House knew so much. “Given a few more months, he would have been betrayed and replaced... but time was on his side. So he got to die rich,”
“What happened to him?” So that was the great mystery of Wallkirk. He was some business pony before the war, tried to juggle too much, and was almost killed for it. I wasn't sure why I cared, but it seemed important somehow. For good or ill, the city existed because of him, or at least because of his bits.
The ghoul shrugged. “Bombs fell. Everypony dies. Anymore stupid questions?”
We left the BS not long after that. I had the distinct feeling I had forgot to ask something, but I couldn't remember.
Either way, we started walking down the main street of Dise, and I paused to stare at the pony statue in the centre of the city. I had seen it many times before, but this was the first time I really looked at it. The stone looked weathered and faded, covered with nicks and scratches. The right forehoof that I suspected was supposed to be raised in the air was missing to the ages, while his face was so beaten it was a blank slate. This was Wallkirk. I had hoped that maybe if I knew about him, I'd be able to find out why the city was so fractured. But he’d died two hundred years ago. Useless.
“Hired.” Huh? I turned to see Flare staring at me. “You're doing that ‘stare into space’ thing again.” Oh. Right. I tore my eyes away from the broken statue and kept walking down the main street. “Hired... Hiiired.”
“You okay? You've been actin' funny.” I looked to my right to see him smiling at me... but instead of focusing on him I looked at the three large buildings of the Ale House rising into the sky behind him.
“Molly has been silent.” He gave me a 'what' look. “She sent assassins after me... yet here I am. Meters from her front step. And nothing. Not a word. Shouldn't she be... killing me?” Flare shrugged as I continued. “I guess she gave up...”
“Not Likely.” High Stakes scoffed behind me. “Molly doesn't forget, and she certainly doesn't forgive. You don't stay a gang leader in this city by forgiving, and certainly not when you have the pressure she does. Many ponies resent her race, and look for any excuse to hate upon her. She needs to be harsh and swift to her enemies, to show them why they shouldn't be.” I cast a longing glance at the Ale House and nodded. She was going to send somepony against me soon, and I had to be ready for her.
I angrily kicked a can down the road. Of course, Serenity followed the can and gave it a few more good kicks for me.
There was just so much more I needed to do in Dise. I had to talk to the Batmare, kill that damn Laughing Stallion, try to get out of that free job from Mayhem, deal with Molly, talk to Clean Cutt and the watchers about what was up with the starmetal in my body. It was frustrating that I had to live it again so quickly... and I really wanted to see Haze again. I never should have turned her down.
For lack of anything better to do I flicked on my pipbuck and started to hear it pounding in my ear. That was new. “...Mayhem has claimed due to the damage to his water-plant water prices will have to be risen for the second time. When questioned about how two crazy costumed ponies even managed to get into his highly secure facility he declined to comment. Well how about that folks, ain't that just grand. If you see the Batmare give her a pat from me, and then tell her that if she wants to play superhero not to do it around vital city resources. Well, enough of that...” Wait.
“That wasn't what happened!” I said out loud.
Serenity's can hit my metal leg and bounced off it as she came running over. “What didn't?”
“The... Haygas is claiming Batmare cost city resources. She... well, we saved the damn water plant.” I growled. That wasn't fair. We worked hard doing something right for a change, and got blasted for it on the radio.
“That is common,” the Batmare said. I jumped a little, and spun to see her standing beside me, a vague look of bemusement on her face. She clearly didn't teleport, or I would have noticed. Right? “I have foiled The Laughing Stallion so many times that the city has forgotten what happens when I don't.”
“What happens if ya don't?” Serenity asked the obvious question.
“I --” The Batmare paused. “Well, I have always foiled that dastardly stallion. But it would be bad!”
“Why not... ignore him?” I said. She looked almost insulted. “Or. At least focus your effort on something else. Parasite mound. It has a lot of crime.”
“Refugees from Equestria have been flooding the town as well, making the problem more prevalent,” High Stakes added helpfully. I'm not being sarcastic. He was actually being helpful.
I continued, “Maybe help out there. If nothing else, The Finishers will be happy. It'll give you some friends. Or something.” I shrugged. “Just. Saying.”
The Batmare nodded. “We shall take that into consideration. Oh, Sidekick. We just came here to wish you a safe journey. May you bring justice to those who need it most.”
She flashed away, this time my shoulder burning. Well that was something at least. She could have stayed longer to chat though... Hopefully she would listen. I don't know why I cared. It just figured that Parasite Mound was always such a shitty place, it'd be nice if they had somepony to help clean it up.
I felt Serenity jump onto my back, breaking my trance. I turned my neck to smile at her. “You know. Unlike me you have all four legs.”
“Yeah,” she admitted, lying on my back, “buuuut, yours are so much bigger. Mine are tiny and get worn out. An' I’m lazy.” That was a terrible excuse, I knew for a fact she had a lot of energy. She proved it by immediately digging into my bag to pull out her makeshift leg, then she started to tinker with it. Most lazy ponies didn't try to build complicated pieces of magical cybernetics. But what did I know?
So I kept walking.
We stopped at the giant gate of Dise and had to wait as it slowly opened. Serenity and Flare had started discussing something about the difference between Enclave and Steel Rangers, and I didn't really care. When the doors finally opened, I noticed a section of the ground near the entrance was stained red. I remembered... back when I first came to Dise, a colt ran towards the gate and was killed. His body was taken away but the stain remained.
Something smelled like smoke.
Yeah, definitely smoke.
“Hired!” I felt two little hooves slam into the back of my head knocking the smell away. “Hired.” Serenity sounded annoyed. “You were staring into space.”
“Oh...” I tore my eyes away from the spot of blood. “Sorry. Just. Been thinking.” Under my eye patch my new eye started to sting and itch. I almost wished I had stayed blind, it was annoying. “Too much.” I started walking through the main gate. The ponitrons on either sides turned with me as I watched, their large array of weaponry seemed to be targeted at me... however their ticks on my EFS stayed amber so I ignored them. Still didn't keep them from making my mane stand on end.
Parasite Mound seemed busier than I had ever seen it. Multitudes of ponies buzzed back and forth across the few streets not covered with rubble, and many of the broken down buildings seemed to have been somewhat repaired. I had lost track of how long it had been since I was here, but it was much more than I was expecting. Most of the ponies were dirty though, and way too many were laying on the street begging for caps. I indulged a few, but could not spare enough for all of them.
As I walked past the ‘Photo Finish Gallery Of Ze Magicks’ I saw the blue mare herself standing in front of the entrance talking with some heat to a pony in an NCA officer uniform. She paused for half a second to give me a polite nod and to adjust her glasses, before going back to arguing. I wasn't close enough to hear all the details, but it seemed to be important.
Seeing her reminded me how bright Celestia's sun was today. I paused for a minute to fetch my sunglasses. Sure, seeing everything in pink was strange, and they must have looked weird over my eye patch, but I loved them. Much cooler than High Stakes’ glasses even if they didn't shine nearly as much.
“Why are there so many?” I asked, as we started walking. I was sure one of my companions knew why these ponies were crowding Parasite Mound, and I was sure they'd tell me in the most patronizing way possible.
High Stakes, never missing a chance to be patronizing, answered first. “The Enclave war is still raging in Equestria, or so I have heard. Many ponies travelled south to escape, and were even past the border on the day of Sunshine and Rainbows. Having no homes left, I assume they kept walking. Dise is not too far from the border, and famous, so they tried to come here. When they were denied entry they must have just stayed here. The pressure has been building on The Finishers for some time, and they have been forced to kick some out.”
“Really.” That didn't sound much like the Photo Finish I knew, but when I turned back to look at her arguing I guess it wasn't that surprising. She couldn't have had the resources to handle so many ponies, and the pressure on her to do so must have been intense. “Where did they go?”
“Some ruins.” High Stakes Said, “They are calling themselves Eastside. The NCA is worried they will turn raider. It would be the first time ponies in the Dise outskirts threatened the city by turning raider.”
I was about to come back with a really witty reply when I noticed a commotion behind High Stakes.
Blue clad NCA soldiers had surrounded a store labelled 'Deadheads Gun Emporium’ and were dragging an old ragged stallion out of the store. The old buck was flailing and screaming about deals and treachery but quickly shut up when one of the soldiers put a hoof in his face.
Against my better judgement I trotted over to the scene. “What is going on here?” I asked as I felt Serenity jump off my back.
One of the ponies scoffed at me from under his helmet. “Nothing to see here ma'am.” I looked down to see a beaten old pony bleeding from his mouth. “Move along.” This was not fitting into my fixing Dise plan so I moved no wheres and lowered my glasses so i could glare at him on a more personal level. “Uh...”
“What is going on here?”
The buck I was speaking too didn't feel like answering me, but a large mare with a plum mane did. And while hoisting the prisoner pony on her back no less. I was impressed. “Deadhead here has been selling illegal passports to travellers, ma'am.” He turned to give the pony the dirtiest look. At the same time I felt the telltale sign of Serenity’s silence spell in my shoulder. So I smiled and kept listening so Serenity could do whatever it was she was doing. “We have been instructed to take him into custody. I am sorry about Cpl. Steady Hoof, he's a new transfer from Hoof Town, and doesn't yet know the way it works here.” She turned her rather fierce glare to the Cpl.
“How it works?” I paused, and still felt Serenity’s magic, so I decided to keep her talking. “What is your name?”
“Major Willow, ma'am.” She stood straight at attention. “You are an agent for Th-” She corrected herself. “Mr. House.” I smiled at her just a little and nodded. Though I was more curious if she just assumed I was an Agent due to my leg, or if the NCA actually put out memos about all the new House agents. Also it opened up the possibility that House and the NCA worked closely together. I wasn't sure if I liked that.
“What proof do you have of Deadhead’s involvement?” I asked in my most professional sounding voice as High Stakes and Flare stood to either side of me, looking threatening. Well, Flare was probably making funny faces, but he was on my blind side so I couldn't chastise him for it. Not that it mattered. I really didn't care about the stupid pony. It was his fault I couldn't get a passport into Dise the first time I tried.
“Direct order from Major Lucky.” There was an old name.
“Excuse me.” High Stakes said, “But didn't you just say you were also a Major? Where is it in the NCA playbook that you must take orders from ponies of the same rank.”
Willow looked flustered for half a second as she repositioned the prisoner on her back. “Major Lucky is... different. He choose to keep the rank he had before the war, but acts outside of the chain of command. He takes the positions he feels like, and his word is considered equal to that of a Generals. Opposing an order from Lucky would be...” She grimaced and looked down the street. “Suicide. Political and career.” She shifted the prisoner again. At the same time I felt Serenity's magic fade, and felt a weight on my back. “If it's all the same ma'am I need to get going. The rest of my guards are staying here to make sure the store is not looted.”
I nodded letting her go ahead and followed her down the street after a spell. Not stopping until we were far enough away the guards around Deadheads old shop that they couldn't hear.
“Serenity what wa-” I turned around to try and ask what that was all about. And then I saw it. Cradled in Serenity's hooves was a sleek black shotgun with pink trimming. The same one she tried to steal way back when. “Really, Serenity? Really?”
“Really what?” Flare asked, sounding genuinely confused. “That's a nice gun. Why are you being so 'serious?”
“She knows,” I said simply. Serenity just smiled meekly. “You already have a gun. You don't need two.”
“But Mo-” I cut her off.
“No buts. You don't need two and... look at it!” it was nearly as big as she was, for Celestia's sake. “Maybe when you're bigger.” She started to pout. “Oh stop that. Put it in my bag.” She did slowly, pouting more. “You have a better gun. Why would you need this one?”
“It's pink.” I facehoofed at her answer. I did that a lot. It couldn't have been good for my brain. “Fine, you can have it. Matches your mane, but I want it when I'm older!”
“You're silly.” She stuck her tongue out at me. “So silly.” I said as I started to walk to the exit of Parasite Mound. We had a job to do.
We did eventually manage to leave the city and get on our way, and without randomly running into a single other pony I had met earlier. For a bit there, I thought I had suddenly become magnetic to ponies I'd met before. When I left the city though, I did notice the robotic gun vendor I had bought supplies from before. Pasted on the top was the acronym, 'NCAAD'. New Caledonia Armoury Distribution. I had to wonder if that played a factor in Deadhead being taken down.
In the end, we walked for the rest of the day northward, towards the town where I began. I wonder if there is something symbolic about that? I guess we'll find out! Of course that was not the topic of discussion, as nopony (except Haze) knew enough about me to know the circumstances of how I got into the Dise wasteland.
Instead, the time was mostly spent with Flare recounting the story of how his little breakaway group broke away from the Enclave. According to him, it happened during a war with the griffins (which I did not know existed). It seems the remnants were so disgusted by The Enclave’s brutality that when they were ordered to fire on chicks, they refused. This brought the hammer of The Enclave down on them and they were forced to escape to their home Thunderhead (not sure what that is) in an attempt to start an uprising. They failed and were forced to retreat below the cloud layer with little but their armour and a few Vertibucks.
The story was actually interesting. At least the way Flare told it.
Eventually though stories got old, and ponies got tired so we were forced to stop for the night. I had hoped to stop in Timber, but it was not to be. We found an abandoned shack, (Little Tyke’s Flying School For Pegasi Who Can't Fly Good) and set up camp in there. Since it was missing most of a wall and the roof, we were forced to use some of the wood to make a small campfire (Flare assured me it wouldn't burn down the shack). We drew straws to see who'd get what watch, and wouldn't you know it, I got mid watch, meaning my sleep would be cut in half and end up insufficient. Which is exactly what you want.
So I laid down beside Serenity and tried to get a good nights sleep. Tried. It's the key word in that sentence.
My dreams were filled with smoke and fire. I was running through a burning red hallway filled with thick black smoke. Somepony. I was looking for somepony, but I wasn't sure who. I gave a wordless cry and coughed out thick black smoke. I had to keep going though. There was a pony that needed me. That needed my help.
To my right there was a flaming door. On it was the word 'Foundation'. My eyes went wide and I turned to run down the hall. Flaming doors with names flashed by me. I didn't look, but I could reach each name. Wildfire. Mischief. Lye. The names of my failures streamed past until they were a blur.
At the end of the hall there was only one door. This one wasn't on fire, thank Celestia. The name. It said Serenity.
I bucked it open with a crack. When I looked inside Serenity was nowhere to be found. Instead I saw a small colt whose mane was made of fire, and whose tears were made of blood.
“Why did you kill me?”
I woke up with a groan and the sense that my subconscious had gone from moody to melodramatic. It didn't help that I could still smell smoke. I opened my eyes, and was treated with a face full of fire.
“Shit!” I scrambled back and moved to cover my face. Only... it was just the campfire. Nothing else. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes to calm myself.
“Interesting reaction to fire, Hired.” My eyes snapped open to see Flare smirking across the campfire at me. “Don't scream so loud though, the others are resting.” Serenity was curled in a ball not a meter away, and High Stakes was sprawled out, taking up as much room as equinely possible. “When I was flying to Karkhoof, we could smell the smoke from kilometres away. It was... unpleasant. The smoke and fire, that is. Things like that have a tendency to bring back unwanted memories, ya know?” Did I ever. With a groan I rested into a sitting position and nodded. “Listen. Can I ask what happened there? High Stakes seemed to hit close but... nopony is really sure 'cept you and Serenity, and you aren't talking.”
“I...” My voice cracked. “There was a colt... I was supposed to start a stupid fucking war. I was aiming for a mare but I...” I couldn't tell him Serenity altered my shot, “I hit a colt.” Flare winced and looked away as the fire flickered between us. “With my fire bullet. Post Haste.” I laughed bitterly and covered my good eye with my hoof. “Then the pony that hired me tried to kill me.”
“Instant karma.” Flare copied my laugh. “Yeah, if only it was that simple.”
“Yeah.” I slowly put my hoof back down on the cracked stone floor. “How did you deal with it after... what happened to you?” At Bitter Steel or something. When he accidentally bombed all those foals, it couldn't have been easy.
“Lots of drugs, moping, and bad jokes.” Flare gave me a strained smile. “That... won't be an option for you. Drugs are bad, and you should feel bad, and you suck at jokes.” I did not! It's just that my jokes were usually unintentional. “Moping though. I think you've mastered it.”
“It took years of practice.”
“Oh, I'm sure. Standing in front of a mirror each morning, practising grimaces. But you never turned back, you kept going, no matter how hard being a downer was.” He mockingly clapped his hooves. “We honour your sacrifice. Really!” I gave him a slight smile. “Really though, not sure if I can help you. Murdering a foal, it's... well that's not something you let go.” You don't say. “Because it's an evil thing, whether you meant to or not, and it taints you. You want to do better, but how can you? How can you do better when you've fallen so far. Some ponies give up at that point and go raider. They can't do worse, so why do better? Other ponies focus their self hate into making the world better. Into trying and fixing the fucked up world. Some just drown themselves in guilt and drugs and alcohol... But if you want to forget about what happened, let it go and move on? You can't. It's one of those things.”
“Great.” I think he underestimated how much I could repress. Not that it was a healthy thing to do, if my dreams were any indication. “Thanks... I guess.”
“Sorry, Hired,” he said, as I looked up through the missing roof into the sky. It was a clear night, not a cloud that I could see, and every star was shining bright. I could see why Luna wanted ponies to see this. “Not much I can say. It's... they say time heals all wounds, but it doesn't fix scars. It's hard for you, so soon, but in time it gets easier living with yourself. Even if it never goes away.” He laughed. “There was supposed to be a joke in there, forget where. Damn, your mopiness is catching.”
“I do that.” I grabbed piece of rotten wood and threw it onto the fire. “A lot... sorry.”
He laughed and flapped into the air some. “You're saying sorry to me? Hah, ridiculous. After what I did?” I raised an eyebrow. “That whole 'spying' on you thing, or did you forget. Of course you didn't! How could you...” He looked solemn. “I didn't want to, you know.”
“Liar.” I stared into the dancing orange flames. It was hard, I kept seeing a colt running through them. “If you didn't want to, you wouldn't have.”
He snorted and scratched the back of his multicoloured mane with his hoof. “Yes, well... what I mean is that I didn't want to later. When they asked, I had known you for, what? Three days? In that time you nearly killed me twice, and got drunk with me once. Not the best records, so when it was requested I agreed. It was after I started to know you that... that I didn't want to. After you ran to save me, even when you knew your filly was in trouble. In the tunnels, do you remember?”
“Yeah... you got mobbed by ghouls.”
“Fucking ghouls.” He seemed to stretch his wings out at that, is if remembering the old injury he got there. “I'm a shit melee fighter, they would have eaten me alive if you hadn't showed up. I think Serenity is better at close range combat than me.” As if she could hear her name in her sleep, the small pony started to mumble something. I think I heard the word 'sugar' in there.
Schooching over, I put a hoof on her head, and stroked her mane. “I remember.” Visions of Wildfire flashed through my head. I remembered all too well.
“Spying on some asshole you barely know is easy... after seeing the lengths you'd go to, to save Serenity... and me. Well. It changed things. I was going to tell you on the boat but I got... summoned to Sky Fall. Then it was too late.” He shook out his mane and stared up at the starry sky. “Sorry. Shit got out of hand, but I shouldn’t have...”
I looked up from Serenity to smile at him. “Laughing at me when I confronted you was also not bright.” He laughed quietly and nodded. When he landed in front of High Stakes he leaned over to see if he was awake. “It's fine. Just... don't do it again,” I said.
“I'll try my hardest. Don't need much incentive to avoid your wrath.” He smiled over at Subtlety. “It was a stupid decision... but honestly I'm not sure it was the wrong one. I like you Hired, but compare to my family? I don't know.”
“Don't worry about it. I'll kill you later,” I said, giving Flare my sternest look.
“Don't.” He winced back. “Stop looking at me like that! Damn, your poker face is deadly.” I moved to make a reply but he cut me off, “I know I know, 'And so are you.' Very classy come back. I know you aren't going to touch me ‘less I try to touch you. Hell, unlike that one,” he nodded his head to High Stakes, “you wouldn't even kill me for caps. You'd say you would, but chicken out.”
“You're too hard on him.” He smiled at the green pony. “He tries, but he's had a hard life. Did you know that he was a slave once?” Wait, really? “It's true. Mother sold him when he was barely a colt. He had to win his freedom in some sort of fighting games or something...” That'd explain why he always seemed so calm and efficient whenever he fought. Kind of creepy. “That lever-action rifle he carries was the weapon he used to win his freedom.”
“I... didn't know. I mean. I wouldn't have guessed.” I took a good long look at the tall stallion. “He talks so proper.”
“He claims he forced himself to, so ponies wouldn't suspect.” I chuckled a bit. “I guess it worked. After that he worked for whoever paid him. He's rough around the edges, and believes in caps and all that, but... he's trying. I mean, he's rough around the edges but I think I... we... can smooth it out. In time.”
“Before he shoots us in the ass for fifty caps and a new hat?” I grinned.
“Before he shoots you. Nopony wants me dead... not counting the metal hat brigade. They don't count.”
“Don't count?” I layed down on the ground. “They have the biggest guns. They count twice.”
“You're insane.” I shrugged. I was okay with that. “And I'm following you. Does that make me more insane? It's a great mystery of our time. Oh!” He checked his wrist... “Look at the time. I should sleep, it's your watch now. Enjoy looking at... rocks.” he paused. “Is that what your cutie mark means?”
“Yes, Flare, my cutie mark mea-” I stopped. I heard. Something. “Shhh.”
I waved him down. It was my guard duty time anyway, so I might as well do my job. I inched closer to the far window. The muffled sounds seemed to get louder, and I recognized them as voices. I was hoping we wouldn't run into any ponies. Which I guess should have been my first guess that I was going to. Things never worked out the way I wanted, except when they did, and even then they didn't.
That made sense right?
I peeked up through the empty window frame and saw a light coming down over a hill. Not just a light, it looked like half the sky was on fire, and illuminated by it were ponies running. As they got closer I heard them yell, and talk in hushed voices. As they got closer I turned and nodded at Flare who seemed to be trying to wake Stakes up. “Stay here.” I said. He looked up and nodded.
I moved quickly over to the door and opened it into the dark night. The smell of smoke was still strong. I had thought it was the campfire, but I wasn't sure with the lights to the north. Something was burning, but what was up there that could cause such a blaze.
“Stop, stop!” One of the ponies running this way cried. I moved to meet them on the road as they skidded and slowed, but not before making sure Subtlety was tight on my back. “You!” A deep red mare said. “Don't go that way!”
“Why not?” I felt something in my gut tighten. Past the hill they ran down I could see so much light.
“It's...” In the dim light I could see tears in the mare's eyes. “Timber! Timber is on fire!” The mare started to sob and ran past, the three others in soot-stained barding followed.
We didn’t go to Timber right away. That's because it was still hours off, and we'd never get there fast enough to save anypony. Instead we rested the rest of the night and headed off first thing in the morning. I did tell High Stakes about it when it was time to change shifts, and he didn't even really seem to care. Maybe he had never been there before, but it was bothering me all night so I could barely sleep.
In the morning I had to tell Serenity that 'something' happened to Timber, and that it was not going to be pretty. She was understandably a bit upset at that, given how long we stayed there last time. It was... frustrating. I could do nothing but pray. I hated being helpless, so we left as soon as possible.
It was a long, quiet trek. With each step we could smell the smoke more and more. I hated smoke.
Eventually we got to a small hill about a mile away, overlooking the town. What was once the town. Maybe a tenth of the buildings were still standing (barely), and the rest blackened husks. Squinting a bit, I could see a few bulky figures in heavy armour walking down the main street, and past the town towards the huge mountain that overshadowed the city I could see more figures moving. They were moving towards the mountain... not... towards the 'Reconstruction Center'. What the hell happened here?
“I have a bad feeling about this.” I said crouching low on my perch on the hill.
Something slammed into the back of my head making my eye sting. “Dumbass,” Flare said harshly. “Never say that! Might as well say 'what's the worst that could happen?' or, 'don't worry, it's safe'.” I what? “Saying shit like that means bad stuff will happen. You've doomed us all.”
“Flare.” I gave him my best glare. “This is serious.”
“I am being serious! Do you have any idea what you've done?” He was flailing his forelegs very dramatically, at least until High Stakes kicked him in the side. “Okay, maybe I'm being a little over dramatic, but just to be safe, don't do that again!”
“Should we go look for...” Serenity gulped. “Survivors?” Yes. Great thinking.
“Why?” High Stakes looked down at the hell that was once Timber without an emotion on his face. “We were instructed to go make sure that Bridle Hope is safe from some roaming raider gang. We have no reason to rush to the rescue of every poor town that didn't think to protect themselves.” He flipped his straight hair out of his eye just in time for his glasses to flash. “Besides, do you have any idea who took the town out?”
I had an idea.
High Stakes kept talking though. “Do you have any idea what's in that mountain?” A lot of pre-war tech that was supposed to be used to help re-build the world. “Do you know why it hasn't been used?” Because the bottom level was protected by magical shields, and the top levels guarded by robots. Except for the very top which was once used by the Enclave. What? Sometimes I paid attention. “Do you know which group would have a great interest in that much pre-war tech?”
“Steel Rangers.” Flare said.
“Exactly! We can't barge into newfound Steel Ranger territory an-”
“Steel Rangers!” Flare flew into the sky and I snapped my head away from Captain Obvious to see two Steel Rangers approaching our hill with surprising speed. “Fuckity fuck, I hoped they'd leave us alone.”
“They're not after us, Flare.” I said slowly. “They want the tech in there.” Not just tech though, so much more. Dammit. Why would they hurt so many just for a few cool guns? “We'll take these two out an-”
Rocket launcher, rocket launcher! I grabbed Serenity and dived backwards from where we were. The explosion hit like a minotaur and made my ears ring sending bits of dirt and muck into the air only to shower over us. I looked down to see Serenity, alive and mostly unhurt. Though she looked to be whimpering as she held her ears. I guess she couldn't get her spell up quick enough.
“Is everypony okay?” I said, barely able to hear my voice over the ringing. High Stakes was standing a bit away, and I could see his mouth moving. Dammit, those things were loud.
I shook my head and was vaguely able to hear him say. “Fine.” He wiped dirt off his glasses with a rag. “We need to leave.”
“Yeah, once those fuckers die.” I spat out dirt and helped Serenity to her hooves.
“You got lucky once fighting steel rangers! This time they mean business, you can't wi-” He was cut off by another rocket whooshing into the air. “FLARE!” He turned to the sky, his eyes wide.
Flare was looking down as the rocket screamed towards him. He twitched. It got closer. Flare, watch it! Do something! Move!
The Rocket exploded.
No. Dammit, Flare, why didn't you move? You aren't allowed to explode! Flare had to be safe, no way he got hit. Flare...
“DID YOU SEE THAT!” I spun quickly to see Flare grinning wildly with bunker buster on his back. “He tried to shoot a rocket at me, and I detonated it with a shell of mine! One in a million shot, and who could do it but me!” He kissed one of the barrels of his grenade launcher. “She never lets me down.” he smirked. “You okay, Hired? You look... worried.”
“I hate you,” I said, and Serenity giggled. This was not the time to be giggling! “What are we going to do?”
“Fight, die, or run,” answered Flare, so very unhelpfully. Thanks.
I turned away and moved towards the crest of the hill. “Watch my back!” I ran over the side to see the two steel rangers climbing up the hill. I quickly scoped Subtlety and used my stop timey mode. They can't beat me if i can stop time! Thank you, Stable-Tec.
Fuck you, Stable-Tec. It said I only had a five something chance to hit! I knew nothing about math but I knew that was less a chance than if I aimed normally. So I reluctantly turned the spell off and tried to aim Subtlety. A bullet fired and slammed through the helmet of one of the steel rangers. The beast didn't even fall over, just stop in his tracks as his armour kept him standing.
I didn't shoot though. It came from the town.
The second ranger looked away towards the town in shock. That time it was me who ended him. I got lucky, those explosives nearly fucked us up.
“Lets go, now.” I tossed Serenity onto my back and made a beeline to the town. Flare and High Stakes followed, I assume because they realized I was stupid and going to do whatever I wanted anyway. That's just how I worked.
We reached the first row of buildings eventually, and I quickly slid behind its charred facade. Flare and High Stakes followed me, which I was thankful for. I had almost expected High Stakes just watch from afar. Flare said we could rough out his edges, but I doubted that. I guess, partially, because I'd have to smooth out my edges first.
I looked at Serenity beside me and nodded to her. Just like that, we were covered in a soundproof pink glow. She was getting much better at that. After smiling proudly at my little magician I slowly moved around the edge of the building, and peeked my head out into main street. There, I saw nothing but a few charred bones, rubble, and what looked to be the remains of a water trough.
I motioned for Serenity to put down the barrier. When it faded I said, “Coast is-”
“Fuck!” I dove back behind cover as the bullet missed by centimetres hitting the ground in a small puff of dirt. “Okay. Coast is not clear. There's a sniper in town. He doesn't like us.” I paused. “Or me. Probably me.” No pony liked me. Maybe it had something to do with my brutish behaviour or the way I tended to fuck up the lives of those around me. Or both.
“I have an idea.” All heads turned to High Stakes. “How about we head towards the crazy sniper trying to kill us.” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Great plan.” I grinned. He face hoofed and clearly misunderstood that I got his sarcasm and just didn't care. “The shot came from across the street.” I pointed to the mark left by the bullet. “From high up, further down. I checked. Probably the old inn.”
“As good as that information is, I fail to see how it helps. We can't get across the street, not with a sniper scope on us.” Oh High Stakes, why must you spend all day trying to make me hate you? Is it really that hard to be a little bit likeable? He kept talking. “How do you plan to get over there. It is not like we have one of Batmare's smoke bombs.” There was an idea. I really wanted a smoke bomb.
“I have a plan,” I said sternly, as I wrapped my hoof around High Stakes’ neck. “It is...” I threw him out of cover into the street. “Run!” As he gasped and started running, I ripped off my eye patch. Suddenly, everypony had orange boxes around each other.
I dashed out and looked up at the second floor of the bar. Sure enough I saw a red box in the distance highlighting somepony. So I aimed there and let Subtlety roar. In the distance I saw splinters flake off the buildings and the red box vanished inside the building. They were still too far away for my EFS to work.
I really was getting the hang of this technology though.
“What the Hell!” High Stakes screamed at me, his glasses shinning. There was a thin trickle of blood flowing down his muzzle. “You could have got me killed!” I hadn't even thought of that...
“Stop being a wimp.” I rolled my eyes at him. “You're fine. A credit to the team.” I turned my head down the street. “We need to go... you know. Because of the sniper about to shoot... at us. With his rifle.” I blinked. “Seriously.”
Flare ran past carrying Serenity on his back. “Stop bickering!” he said as he flashed past... only to trip on the remains of a water trough. I had to wonder what that was doing in the middle of the street. Seemed like a terrible place for it. I mean, really. I still followed.
The run was quick. And brutal. The charred and ruined buildings to either side smelled like smoke and death. If I chanced a look, I could almost make out pony remains in the buildings. Fuck. I can't believe what happened here. It was such a good town. I was going to find Elder Chunky Soup and feed him hot lead for what he had done here. I don't care if he let us escape before, this was just fucking evil.
Evil. Yet, when I looked around at the town it wasn't Timber I was seeing. It was Karkhoof. I could hear the ponies screaming, and smell the new smoke. How could I call this evil, when I did the same thing? Fuck. I closed my eyes tight to hold back the tears, and then opened them again when I heard Serenity tell me to stop.
There. The town’s inn/bar thingy. Up top was a sniper with the answers. “Let's do this,” I said.
I slammed into the door headlong, then, as if punishing for me for speaking in cliches, felt something slam into my side and send me flying to the side. Groaning, I opened my eyes and looked groggily around. There. Above me on the other side of the doorway was a shotgun. Rigged to a trip wire. Which I hit. Because I’m an idiot.
“Fuck!” I said. Serenity rushed over with a healing potion already ready. “No.” I grunted as I slowly staggered myself to my hooves. “No...” I looked down at my barding. “Didn't pierce.” I winced as I shook off some of the buckshot from my barding. “Just. A med-x.” That's all I needed.
“Uh.” Serenity looked down. “If you say so; does your eye hurt, too? It can sometimes get bad post-op, an’ if you're not feeling good...” I nodded. It didn't hurt that bad, but enough. A few seconds later Serenity injected the syringe into my back, and I could already feel the sweet relief. My side still stung, but not that bad.
“Thanks.” I smiled. “Much better.” She nodded nervously as I got to looking around the bar. What I saw didn't look good. All the tables had been pushed to the sides of the room except for a lone chair in the centre of the dirt floor. It was dyed red, and around it there was a huge stain that looks suspiciously like blood. Not good at all.
“What the hell happened here?” Flare asked. As if we'd know. “I can't even think of a good joke! It's a tragedy.” I shot a glare at Flare. “Too soon?” Dumbass.
I tore my eyes away from the bloody chair and moved towards the stairs. It was just too much. I knew the Steel Rangers were capable of brutality but this just seemed like too much to believe. I had to figure out what happened. I was too late to stop it, but I had to do something... right?
The stairs were exactly where they were before, which I suppose was a good thing. They seemed clean though, I half expected them to be slick with blood. Maybe I was just in a morbid mood. It was a tense walk up them, and I was sure everypony could feel it too. A sense that something was about to go wrong. That we wouldn't be able to do anything. I swear I could hear Serenity's heart beating in her chest.
The hallway was dark, almost black if it wasn't for my pipbuck light and slightly glowing green eye. In my EFS I could see a single red tick. Two doors down. I motioned for my companions to stay behind as we inched closer. There was no point using Serenity's magic. At this point whoever the sniper was he knew we were here. Which was not really a comforting thought at all.
We stopped at the door. My techno magic stuff said the pony was upstairs and I wasn't arguing. I licked my lips and stood point with Subtlety scoped and pointing towards the red tick in my vision. With a nod to Stakes, he reluctantly moved to buck open the door. Hopefully he could manage. With a few more nods of my head I was able to direct Serenity and Flare to either side of the door. I was getting better at this.
Okay. Deep breaths. Calming myself I nodded to the tall stallion. The door broke open with a crack.
I slipped into SATS. Chose the sniper’s head and... stopped. In the compressed time state I saw my EFS change slowly from red to green. I turned it off for the second time without firing a shot.
“Grimer?” I asked. The scruffy light purple pony with bad teeth, and a badge for a cutie mark. The last time I saw him, I was making him the mayor of this Celestia-forsaken town. He was cowering in the corner, his hooves resting on a large sniper rifle that uses a push button, so that earth ponies can use it. “What the hell?”
“Hired...” He whimpered. “Hey.”
I walked in slowly, as the tense stallion seemed to be jumping at the sound of out hoof falls. He was the last pony I had expected to be in here. You'd think they'd kill him first. My companions followed along, and we took a long silent time getting settled across the room from him so he could still watch the window he was crouched beside.
Eventually it was Serenity who spoke. “Grimy!” The stallion winced at the noise. “What happened! Are you okay? It's so good seeing you again but what happened!?”
“You happened,” he said slowly, his eyes scanning the street. “Well... Hired happened. Funny. When I saw you two coming up, I thought you were the heroes I've been hearing on the radio. The mother daughter band fighting evil in the northeastern villages...” He shook his head. “Maybe you came to try and save us even though it was too late... you're not the heroes from the radio are you?” I shook my head. “No... It was a vain hope, after what you did here...”
“I... what?” I rubbed my forehead. “Last time I checked. I left the town with a new mayor and NCA fr--” I stopped and thought about what I was saying. I left the city NCA free, and what did I know about NCA and Steel Ranger relations? What did I know about the Steel Rangers in general? “When I forced the NCA to leave. Fuck. No way...”
“It was a matter of time.” He hefted his gun up and balanced it on the window sill. “The NCA kicked most of the fighters out. They became the raiders you helped kill in the Reconstruction Center. When you forced the NCA to leave, the town was virtually unprotected.” He looked up from his scope to give me a sad smile. “We should have seen them coming...”
I heard Flare flap his wings beside me. “You're telling me. They've been after that place for years, can't tell you why though. I mean it's like...” Flare looked a little... wary. As if he was expecting a Steel Ranger to jump out of the wall behind him and pin him down. “They won't get anywhere. I've been in the base at the top. Go down two levels and you reach a giant stable-like door. Unblastable. At the bottom, robots and worse patrol, and they aren't friendly. Not to mention...” His voice trailed off.
“Tell me,” Grimer said. His voice seemed strained. Well it always did, but worse now. “I want to know why my ponies died.”
“Hired, do you remember the tunnels?” Flare asked.
A voice whispered in my ear. I never wanted this... for either of us.
I nodded, and Flare continued. “Something like that. Sometimes you'd be walking down the hallway and see a face in the corner of your eye but nothing was there when you turned to look. When you slept sometimes your dreams would be vivid memories of the past... or the future you wanted most. Ponies used to call it haunted, but I wasn't sure.”
“Some sort of magical recurrence.” High Stakes gathered. “Why stay there if such things were happening? The Remnants had other options. Though I suppose in the end you did move your base.”
Flare looked around at all of us before sighing. “Listen.” He scratched the back of his head. “This is super classified shit right here, and I don't want it spreading.” He waited until we all agreed to not tell anypony before continuing. “For a while, the Remnants still had unofficial contacts with the Enclave at large, and we only moved our base to Dise when we got wind Operation Cauterize was going to go down. But the reason we stayed was...”
He paused and looked around before groaning loudly. “The reason we stayed was...” Another look. “General Steel Wing believed that there was a megaspell inside the facility.” Wait, what! A megaspell? Like the 'end the word' type megaspell. “The pony who built it was playing the Caledonian Military, and Stable-Tec, for funds, and rumours have been rampant that he abused the money on illicit experiments and megaspell production. If the Steel Rangers have that information, and got their hands on a fucking megaspell...”
“Then a lot of ponies will die.” I said simply. Fuck. I rubbed my forehead. Things just got a lot more complicated. “Why would Wallkirk make a megaspell there? It was supposed to be... rebuilding, right?”
Flare nodded but also shrugged. “Don't know. I'm not a history buff, but I do know Stable-Tec was banned from Caledonia near the end of the war. Political bullshit. They needed an outside contractor to build their stuff, and Wallkirk was rich, right? So I mean. He used that money, and the Caledonian military money... I’m sure there is more in that mountain, but that's what I imagine the Steel Rangers are after.”
“Without the NCA to stop them, they tore through the town...” Grimer said. “They brought ponies into the bar and tortured them. Saying they must know something. They killed so many.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “I'm sorry, Hired. I was strong once. The NCA put a bullet in my brain a long time ago, and since then... I tried, I really did.”
“I know, Grimer.” I sighed. “I know.” A fucking megaspell. A pony like Curly Fries getting his grimy hooves on a megaspell was just unthinkable. Apparently, the Steel Rangers didn't use their scavenged tech, but after the way the NCA had been pressuring them...
“Who cracked?” High Stakes asked the sensible question. Well, almost. The best question would of been, what did they tell them?
“The bartender,” Grimer said after a moment’s hesitation. “Doughy and talkative mare.” He shook his head before scanning the street again. “She lasted an hour, but they broke her. It... it wasn't pretty. I saw it from the w-... I saw it.” His voice sounded like barely repressed sadness and anger. “She told them what most ponies apparently knew. That the town was built by the survivors of Stable 123.” I remembered that stable. Moreover, I remembered I still had that recording of Scootaloo that I’d downloaded.
I paused to turn off my ear bud, find the recording on my pipbuck, and play it for all to hear.
“Hello! My name is Scootaloo. You probably know me (since I am pretty famous) for my awesome performances at events like last year’s GALLoPS, or maybe just as the founder of Red Racer… Actually you might not. Never did get a foothold into Caledonia...” it made sense she never got a foothold in Caledonia. By the time she recorded this her company was forced out for political reasons. I had to feel sorry for her.
“It doesn't matter right now. You're the... lucky mare to find herself as the Overmare of Stable 123, and I can't say I envy you. You see we here at Stable-tec have... a philosophy. The world’s turning to shit... I know. But we have to find a way to make it... better. And... fuck... you won't like what comes next.” They wouldn't like what came next. I remembered that stable well, and it ended in bloodshed.
“You can't stay here. You need to leave. I am asking this of you... when the radiation goes down to liveable levels, leave. Go out and make the world a better place, fix this fucking mess we caused. You aren't Equestrians; you shouldn't get it bad... hopefully... hopefully you can leave in a year. Two. Every Stable was made with an idea in mind... find a way to fix the mistakes. When the other stables come out of hiding... I want there to be a world for them to live in.”
I had to agree with Scootaloo here. Her heart was in the right place, she was trying to fix things. She failed in the end, but she tried her best. I had to wonder how much it hurt her, to know the world was going to end, and not being able to do anything. That all her work would end up being for nothing. My mind went back to the Laughing Stallion's question, 'What is the nature of a hero' and I wondered if doing all you could in impossible circumstances was the nature of a hero.
“Yeah...I chose a non-Equestrian stable for this reason. Only six stables were made outside of Equestria, and this task I made sure was in one of them. We fucked this world up. We can't fix it. Not yet. Not until we’re ready, and maybe not even then. So when the times comes I am asking you... leave and rebuild the world.
“If you don't want to, then I’m sorry to say I'm not giving you a choice.” Was not giving them a choice the right thing, even if it was to help rebuild the world? I wasn't sure.
“You may have already noticed the basement leaks. It will flood. You may have noticed the smell. The air filter will break down. You may be able to live for ten, twenty years. But eventually you’ll have to leave, or everypony will die. Yeah... I'm a fucking monster. But somepony needs to fix this mess we caused, and fuck it, I'll make sure they do it whether they want to or not.
“Download the coordinates and passwords on the terminal. They'll lead you to help, a start. We have a second chance.” A start. In the end her start wasn't what she thought. Wallkirk gave the pretence of help with the lumber and supplies in the bottom level, but above that was anypony’s guess. If anypony would ever be able to find out.
“If it's any consolation, I’m sorry. I never wanted this... get out there and start rebuilding. Soon everypony else will join you. We'll have learned. I'll make them learn. So this will never happen again. May Celestia bless us all.”
Scootaloo's voice echoed through the room before fading into tense silence.
“That's the one,” Grimer said. “It has the password?”
I paused, I wasn't sure. The recording I downloaded said it did, but I wasn't sure. So I said, “Probably. They might be going there now. Or sending a few ponies.” I sighed. “I fucked up.” Karkhoof, and now Timber. I suppose I should get a list of towns I wiped off the map by my actions. It'd put it beside the list of foals and innocents my incompetence and moral failings killed. I stomped my hoof so hard it cracked a floor board.
“Mommy...” Serenity said softly. “Don't do anything stupid.”
“I won't, Serenity. But I will stop them.”
“Really, Hired?” That would be High Stakes. I shot a glare at his smug face. “May I remind you that you have a job to do. Bridle Hope needs protection too. And House ordered you there. Once we are done with that, I'm sure he won't be against us trying to stop Steel Rangers from getting a super weapon... but not until we complete our job.”
The small room was getting smaller, and more tense. The worst part was that he was right. I had a job to do. I was still Hired Gun, and a Hired Gun that doesn't shoot at what it's pointed at has no use.
“I'm sorry, Grimer...” I said slowly. “I'll help, but I need to go north. We'll be back.”
“I won't be.” He leaned part way out the window and fired a resounding shot. “They burned my town. I'm not leaving, and eventually they'll find and kill me.” I tried to say something, but he cut me off with a near screeching voice. “They burned my town! I'm tired of running! Of being a coward!” He turned away from me, glaring out the window. “They let them go home. The ones that survived. Then they burned it. Entire families. I don't know why they didn't burn the bar, but they didn't. I could hear their screams but I was powerless. There is nothing worse then the sound of a pony burning.” He grit his rotten teeth together. “I've ran my whole life. I ran from one side of the world to the other. When they came I-... Not now. They will come and I will kill as many as those fuckers as I have bullets.”
“You could run. Make a new life. Start again.” I tried to convince him. Eventually the Steel Rangers would find him cooped up in there, eventually he would die. Bloodily.
“No.” He shook his head. “Not this time. I'm tired of running, of failing. This at least I can do right.” He gave me such a sad smile. “Nice eye, Hired; it suits you.”
“...Grimer.” I turned to Serenity. “Get him three healing potions, will that be enough?” Grimer nodded. “And some food. Whatever we can spare.” Serenity started digging through my bags and I turned to Flare. To see him already looking through his bags.
“I don't know this Grimer buck,” Flare pulled out a few mines, “but if he's going to risk his life killing Steel Assholes, then I'm willing to help. Celestia knows the wasteland needs less of them.” He slid the mines over. “Plant them by the door, if you want to go out with a bang.”
“Don't look at me,” High Stakes said quickly. “If he wishes to die, I am not going to assist him.”
“Ignore the asshole.” I rolled over the last two bottles of beer I got as a gift when I first got to The BS. “You won't want to die sober. It'd be a damn shame.” He lifted it up and put it beside the other supplies I gave him. I briefly thought about maybe giving him a med-x but decided against it. I didn't really have enough to spare.
“Um.” Serenity looked around. “Why can't... he just come with us? If the plan is to come back here, then we all win! Right?”
“Sorry kiddo.” The old stallion smiled. “I'm not running again.”
“You'll die though!” Serenity's voice sounded strained.
“Yeah.” He looked out the window. “Yeah. I've always wondered what it's like after you die. I'd like to go to Celestia's side. Be better than here. I should have died a long time ago.” He wanted to die. It was pretty clear. Something happened that he wasn't telling us about, something bad enough he felt the only way he could redeem himself was getting himself killed in a bloody rampage of revenge. My only thought was that maybe, when the Steel Rangers came, he had run away. Turned coward and fled, and came back when it was too late to save anypony.
“Can't be so bad.” Flare grinned. “There'll be a party, I'm sure. You like parties, right?” He gave a bit of an awkward laugh. “When you get there save some cake for us. I don't plan on dying anytime soon, but I'm sure heaven cake won't ever get stale.”
“I like cake,” Serenity said confidently.
“Sorry, Grimer.” I looked at the floor. “This is my fault. I... what I did here. I should have known. I tried to help this town. But I didn't know anything. I tried to help with a problem, and I didn't know all problems...” I looked at at him and winced. “Sorry. I...”
“Oh get over it. Stop whining and do what you have to do. Yeah, you fucked up, I fucked up, everyone fucks up and sometimes ponies died. You didn't kill the town though.” Grimer spat.
“Just left it to be killed,” I said.
“I liked you more when you were an emotionless bitch.” I laughed when he said that. “Shit happens. Move on and do better, or die fixing it. Just don't run away like I did.” He looked out the window. “They seem to all be up at their camp. If you want to leave, best do it quickly before they cut off the road.”
I got up, and we moved to the door. I turned back to see tears in Grimer's eyes.
“Goodbye,” I said. “Kill them all.”
Another town down. It seemed like everywhere I went, I managed to bring destruction along with me. I guess it was my fault. I had been so determined to be some sort of ruthless mercenary that I forgot to think about what I was doing. There were a thousand ways I could have gone in and out of Timber without inadvertently causing it to be demolished. And at least a million ways I could have handled Karkhoof without causing a war. But thinking of an alternate solution would have been the smart thing to do, and you know me.
The escape from Timber was long and tense. Most of the Steel Rangers had left a while back, but not all of them. We had to crawl through the remains of Timber’s houses in order to leave, and it was... unpleasant. I had Serenity close her eyes the whole way through. Bodies and skeletons seemed way too abundant, and all were charred black.
I tried not to think about it. One hoof ahead of the other. Keep going. Don't look back.
At the same time, I had to see some of the chaos I caused through my actions. I had to smell the burnt flesh and dwindling smoke. For the same reason I kept wearing the eye patch, I had to remember what I did and why I had to do better. Hopefully without moping so much. Flare was going to stab me if I kept moping.
We did make it out of town, and booked it down the road as fast as we could. It was still a few days’ walk ahead of us. We had to travel around that huge mountain and head north a ways to reach Bridle Hope. If we moved fast, High Stakes said it would take two days walking. So we moved fast.
I was really itching to get there. If there was one thing I could kill without looking back and kicking myself, it was raiders. Apparently this gang mutilated an NCA envoy, so they had to be bad news, and if we got to Bridle Hope before them, we could teach them a lesson in pain. I even switched Subtlety's ammo to the fire ammo, and I hadn't used that since Post Haste. Foals shouldn't burn, but raiders sure as hell should.
“You seem excited,” High Stakes noted as we trotted quickly down the old highway. The sun hung low in the sky, and it was going to be time to stop soon. We were nearly around the bloody mountain though, partly due to my excited walking.
“Yeah,” I said squinting into the distance, “I guess you could say that.” I looked up to see Flare lazily flying above us. He could’ve been to Bridle Hope and back five times by now. “Just. After seeing Timber. I need to kick something.” I grit my teeth together. “Hopefully without it kicking me back later.”
“Of course, I understand.” I raised an eyebrow at him. “I do. Don't look at me like that. You are angry and you can't fix the thing you are angry about, so you wish to vent it on somepony who hopefully deserves it.” I guess it was something like that. “You know, if you wished, we could have stayed at Timber and took on the Steel Rangers. You did not need to change your mind on account of me.”
“What good would that do?” I spat and trotted faster. Serenity whined about the rocking motion from my back, but I ignored her. “I can't save Timber. Grimer wants to die. I fucked up. Bridle Hope, though. If we get there soon maybe...”
“Maybe you'll be a big damn hero, vanquish evil, and save the day before galloping off into the sunset?”
“Shove it, Stakes.” I glowered at the road ahead of me.
“Then let me be serious. You may not find what you like there, and you may have to do things you don't like. Our job is not to wantonly kill everypony and save the day, we are there as a representative of House.” I kicked a can I pretended was his head. “We are to negotiate a trade agreement to avoid fees for caravans on this road, and if they will not listen then we provide them with the fire you are so wishing to bring.”
“Shut up.” I glowered some more, because I could never get enough glowering.
“I am trying to help you.” I shot him a confused look to see his face looked at most slightly annoyed at my insults. If that was his helping, I didn't want to see his hindering. “If you go there looking for a fight, then a fight you will get and nothing else. More ponies will die, and maybe they're raiders or slavers, or whatever you have a hate for at the moment, but each of those ponies you are running to kill have family. They have loved ones, they have hopes and dreams, and for every one that is irredeemable there are ten more that can change.”
“How many raiders have you met, Stakes?” I asked him.
“Thousands. I used to work for Red Eye, and most of his so-called army was raiders or slavers. They're not all bad.” He shook his head and paused to move his mane out of his eye. “I'm urging caution. We are here to make caps, not to go on a righteous crusade. You are not The Lightbringer and you are not Security. You are a mercenary who happens to work for a gang leader.”
“What did you say the nature of a hero was?” I asked as we started a down a gradual turn in the road that led around, finally, to the northern side of the mountain.
“Stupidity.” He smiled just a bit. “For every hero that fights evil and clears the skies of Equestria, a thousand more die un-mourned unloved, and too soon.” There was a sense of sadness to his voice. “Just try to keep that in mind. Anything that happens there is not personal, it is just business. Okay? You seem to take everything so personally, but it's not about you. It's not about House, or raiders. Everything in the wasteland is about caps and survival.”
Survive. “I know, High Stakes. Don't worry.” I smirked at him. “Don't know why you care.”
“I was the one who advised House to put you on his payroll. If you fuck up, that's on my shoulders.” His glasses flashed at me. “Like I said, it's just business.”
“Of course...” I could forgive Flare spying on me behind my back, because in the end he was right. I barely knew him when he did it, and afterwards he regretted it much. If anything, Flare shouldn't have cared what I thought at all.
But High Stakes was hard to stomach, because... maybe he reminded me of who I tried to be. Survive, gain caps, survive some more. For so long that was all I was doing. Hell, it was what I was still doing, but I was so bad at being heartless. Part of me still wanted to be that heartless mercenary, it would make life so much easier. But with each fuck up, it became harder to hold to that illusion. High Stakes didn't seem to care, though. Not if he got paid. Did I really want to be like that?
“I won't let House down,” I said finally. “If I have to, then I will gleefully take down all those fucking raiders, but the job comes first. It always does.” I paused for a second. “I really want to shoot something.”
“Knowing you, you'll be able to. I'm sure when we get there we'll be set upon by hundreds of raiders and assassins crying out for blood.” He gave a mischievous smile.
“And monsters. The kind that turn invisible and shoot laser beams from their eyes,” I added.
“A hellhound or two as well. Fifteen Steel Rangers.” I looked up to see Flare grinning at us. “They've been following us.” He flipped through the air to land on the other side of me. “Been keeping a way back. I don't know what they're doing, but they are following us. Might be they recognized me, though I had hoped that after their last botched attempt and seemingly new goal, they've forgotten. It was just some stupid-ass political thing anyway, to keep the detractors busy.”
“Great.” I groaned. “Just what we needed. Steel-clad stalkers. Did you notice any assassins too? I figure Molly has been waiting a while. Might want to try again.”
“Can't say I have, though I wouldn't be surprised.” Flare smiled. “Have you pissed off any other deadly group we should know about? Because if you did, this would be the time to tell us.”
“Nopony you'd know.”
Despite being stalked, the rest of the walk was completely uneventful. We stopped that night in a small cave low on the mountain, and Flare set up his remaining mines at the entrance in case our stalkers got a little bit too nosy. Despite that, I actually had a full night’s sleep without a single nightmare for the first time in a long time. I didn't wake up sweating, or cry out in my sleep or anything. This, of course, made me very suspicious.
I did not have much time to dwell on this. as we rushed out there as soon as Flare disarmed his mines.
The walk north was long, boring, and nothing interesting at all happened. Often, that seemed to be the way it went. If you weren't being attacked by radroaches or raiders, nothing interesting happened. Sure, we talked a bit, but most of that was between Flare, Serenity, and High Stakes and was hardly important. Such as the three hour discussion on which was the best flavour of snack cake (turns out it's carrot), an even longer argument on the best way to cook a radroach (Flare was heavily on the 'roasted' side but in the end stew won out).
Part of me really wished something interesting had happened from the time the sun came out and we left our cave, to when we reached the outskirts of Bridle Hope sometime near midnight, but... well, nothing. By the end of the walk we were all so tired of walking (and of each other) nopony spoke at all. It just doesn't make for an interesting narrative, sorry.
It was not a good sight coming into the starlit view of Bridle Hope. All around the town were large banners flying a symbol obscured by darkness, and crude tents were erected along the main street. We were too late. The raiders were already there.
“This is not good,” I whispered urgently to Flare, as we hid behind a rather large boulder. “Not good at all.”
“You're telling me.” He smirked. “So much for saving the town. The way House talked, I had hoped we'd be able to get here before them. Celestia knows we moved fast enough... for earth ponies anyway.” I kneed him in the chest. “Too soon?”
“Ass.” I smirked and peeked back over the rock towards main street. Most of the camp was too far away for my EFS but I picked up at least one red tick. I could vaguely see the outlines of ponies in the tent, illuminated by light inside. The largest number of ponies weren't by the tents, though, but gathering around the Bridle Hope general store. It seemed it got a new owner, this one certainly as vile as the last.
“See anythin'?” Serenity tugged on my barding to ask. Slipping back behind cover, I nodded... and then shook my head. I saw something, but what I saw wasn't really worth squat. I knew some raider clan was camping in the middle of town, but I didn't know who, and most importantly I didn't know where the townsfolk were. I only stayed here one night, but there was at least one pony I'd like to see safe.
Pearly. It had been so long since we had... whatever it was we had done when I first arrived. I still wasn't clear on the details of my drunken haze, but I had a few ideas. If she was still alive, I imagine we'd need to talk about that, and I'm sure Serenity would like to discuss with her a few things in regards to what happened to her. If nothing else, we could do that. I looked down at Serenity and remembered Haze's words. I had to make sure she was okay with all this. This town brought her no good memories, I was sure.
“So, now what?” I asked my companions. Maybe they had a better idea how to proceed then me.
“We should go to the raiders as representatives of Mr. House,” High Stakes said simply. “It was what we came here to do, remember.”
“Well,” Flare said slowly, “I remember House saying something about an NCA envoy being mutilated. Now, last I checked, House is not more powerful than the NCA, so in all likelihood they'll treat us worse. Much worse.”
“If we could find the townsfolk,” I said, “we'd have a better chance of making our next move. Wanton murder, or whathaveyou.” This was not working out the way I wanted. Since we’d left Dise, we'd run across one destroyed town, and another now under raider control. I wanted to ask if things could get worse, but I am sure Flare would have stabbed me for jinxing our chances.
Serenity sighed. “Scootaborg would know what to do...” She paused as if listening to something. “She says you should give me that shot gun.”
“This is not the time, Serenity.” I growled. Think, Silver, think. I had to do something. Something smart. Something that wouldn't get me or any of my companions killed. Something that...
It seemed I’d forgotten that my EFS only worked in the direction I was looking, and not behind me. Because it seemed that when I was busy trying to think of a solution to our problem, part of the problem snuck up on me and pointed a gun at my face. A stallion with a green mane and a pissy scowl, to be exact. It didn't help that he was standing on the boulder we were hiding behind, pointing his gun down at us.
“My my my, what do we have here?” There was a sadistic grin on his face that slowly faded to one of confusion. “You with the glowing eye. Do I know you?” He turned his scowl back on. “It doesn't matter, you're coming with me. I was told to bring any trespasser to see S-”
Serenity threw Scootaborg at his nose.
The raider drew back as it hit his nose, his eyes going crossed as if he wasn't sure what hit him. It was just long enough for me to stand on my back legs, grabs his gun and toss him off his perch and onto the ground with a hard thud. Before he could move, my metal hoof was on his neck. “Would you like to know me?” I growled.
“Nice line, Hired!” Flare clapped his hooves together, “You're getting better.”
I shot him a glare as my temporary captive spoke. “Who the hell are you supposed to be?”
“Hired Gun. Representative of Mr. House.” I pressed my hoof down harder. “We are here. To make sure trade can pass. Through this town. For free.”
“Good luck.” He spat.
There was a long pause.
“Is that it?” I tilted my head at him. “Aren't you going to tell me who you're working for? Curse me? Explain why I'll fail? Do something... dramatic? That's what they usually do.”
“Are you an idiot?” Was that a trick question?
“She totally is,” Flare said ever so helpfully. “But she's an idiot with an iron hoof to your neck. So, under the circumstances, it'd be prudent to keep her satisfied. So scream a little. Beg for forgiveness. Something. You're such a boring captive.” I wasn't sure if I should laugh or kick him. Maybe both.
“Captive?” He asked. I didn't like the way he was smirking. “We've been watching you for miles. Nice pipbuck. Do you know the problem with EFS? It only works in one direction.” Wait. Oh shit. Oh fucking shit. “I'm not a captive, I'm a distraction.”
“FUCK!” I turned as fast as I could to see two ponies with pipbucks behind me pointing rather large guns at my face. Fuckity... “Flare, how did you not notice?!”
“You have pipbucks, too. Bet you can tell how far away you need to be for EFS to not trigger.” Flare grimaced, looking at one of the ponies legs. “I wasn't looking, didn't expect it.” I heard the sound of breaking branches and turned to see even more ponies behind me. I wouldn't be able to get close to the bridle of Subtlety without being blown to bloody bits. Even worse, I could hear Serenity whimpering as she hid behind my legs.
“Take their weapons.” My once-captive said as he scrambled to his hooves.
Why did everypony take my gun from me? I growled and glared at the ponies who came near, promising to destroy them at a date to be determined. Flare looked really aggravated at ponies taking his weapons, but High Stakes seemed resigned. I'm sure he was finding some way to blame me for this. Just because I got captured once or twice... At least they didn't check Serenity for weapons. I guess they figured a foal wouldn't be armed. And I still had that shotgun Serenity had stolen in my bag. I was surprised they didn’t check. It was something, if we had to fight our way out, and knowing my luck...
“March,” the stupid now-captor said. “Maybe our leader won't kill you.”
We were forced to take a long, humiliating march around our rock cover and down the main street of Bridle Hope. In front of the camp were two flags planted on iron poles, but I didn't even look at them. I was too busy trying my hardest to think of a way out of this predicament. There had to be a way to fix this. I could do something... anything. Yet we kept walking down the street, and once again I was powerless. For all my vast strength I could never do anything.
We took another step into the camp. I really was useless wasn't I? Even when I tried to do good, like in Timber. I failed, and ponies burned. They burned when I was evil, and burned when I was good. Every action I took was just another failure upon failure. Serenity should have stayed with Haze; she shouldn't have been witness to all my failures.
Another step. I wondered who the leader of this raider gang was. If he or she knew anything about me though, they'd do the smart thing and kill me without a second thought. I've betrayed so many ponies now, it'd be foolish not to. I could only hope I was still anonymous enough to get away without being known. I was a failure, and couldn't even live up to my less than optimistic name.
Ponies were sticking their heads out of their tents as they watched us pass. Flare and High Stakes seemed to have their heads held high, but I kept mine low, staring at the ground. At the corners of my EFS, I could see so many red ticks I didn't even want to start counting them.
Another step closer to the store where I had killed Nanny Jane and rescued Serenity. It was my first job with House, and I’d failed already. Maybe... there was still the hope that their leader would negotiate with Mr. House. Maybe I could pull it off. No. Not me. I was not a smart pony, and it'd take a smart pony to talk themselves a deal from a position of weakness. I had failed, and now had to hope one of my friends would bail me out, again. Maybe I should have listened to High Stakes and marched up, demanding to speak to their leader. It'd look better on us than being dragged there.
Another step closer and I looked past the store and up at the casino and hospital on the hill overlooking the town. I could see lights shining from the windows... I wondered if that's where the townsfolk were. It'd be a good defensive position. If these raiders attacked it they'd win, but take heavy losses. Pearly would know that. She had to be alive.
We stopped at the entrance to the store.
“I don't wanna go in there.” Serenity whimpered. “I don't wanna, don't let them.” My eyes watered a little bit as I looked down at the poor filly cringing away. I should have listened to Haze, but that would have been the smart thing to do. I should have asked her to keep Serenity in Dise. I should have asked her to kiss me.
“Serenity...” I whispered down at her. “Be strong. Nopony will take you from me. Not while I live.” I steeled my gaze for when she looked up at me. “Not here. If they try, I'll kill them all.” I heard one of our guards jeer, but I shot her a look that would shatter bones before turning back to Serenity. “Nanny Jane is dead. You don't need to be afraid her. I won't leave you.” She looked away. “Look at me, Serenity.” She did, reluctantly, and her sad grey eyes were full of tears. “They won't hurt you.”
“I love you, momma...”
“Love you too, Serenity.”
I wasn't sure if she meant it. I know that deep down, she was still mad at me for what I had done, and I deserved that anger. But now she was going to face a place I know she never wanted to, and she needed something to hold onto. A foundation she could build her emotions on to keep her strong. I could be that something.
We entered the General Store.
I am not sure where the goods all went, but they’d been cleared, leaving the entire room empty except for the lower counter that was being used as a table. On the other side of the table was an olive pony with a thick grey mane, smiling wanly at me. It made my stomach turn and twist into knots. A thousand horrid memories came to the forefront all at once. Wait...
No. Fuck. No way! It couldn't be!
“I killed you!” I blurted at the raider leader.
“I thought the same of you,” Smooth Tongue of the Crimson Hoof said, “Silver Storm.”
You forgot to keep track of your stats! Idiot! New Milestones: Guns 75. Unarmed 50. Sneak 50.
((A/N: Sorry for the wait, but here we are again, and once again I would like to thank kkat for the wonderful world she created for me to defile. As well I’d like to thank my awesome editors who helped make this stupidly long chapter readable. Them being: theBSDude, Julep, and Errant Indy.))