“Mom, is it safe?” Foundation's ruby eyes looked wary at best.
“Of course, sweetie.” I stretched out my forelegs. “Just a spar. Keeps me big and strong.” Big and strong and unbeatable.
Twice a year in Marefort, the guard ponies would gather for a series of competitions. There was marksmanship (Nos won the last five years), races (Wildfire won this one, actually), and of course sparring. It was mostly to make sure all the guard ponies were ready in the event of an attack, but also became a bit of an event for all of Marefort. They liked to call it the 'Iron Pony Competition' and place bets on who would win. Apparently the bet was twenty to one that I would beat Star Belle in the final bout.
I could see why. The golden pony with a dark amethyst mane wasn't good at sparring, but she was much smaller than I. She won her previous bouts by ducking and dodging and wearing her opponent out. From the look in her eyes she knew that wouldn't work for me. My muscles weren't for show, and I did not tire easily. To beat me, she was going to have to fight me at full strength, and that just wasn't possible.
“I mean for her.” She scrunched up her muzzle. I really didn't want her to be worried. It was a miracle we had even been able to convince her to come. She was afraid of crowds, and most of Marefort was surrounding a small circle in the dirt. Sure, she was half hidden under Wildfire's legs, but it was a start. She looked up at me, “You're big...”
With a smile, I ruffled her mane which made her squeak and try to hide behind it. “I won't hurt her, I promise.” She bit her lip and looked away. Which is what she did whenever she was unsure. “Trust me. I didn't hurt the others, did I?” She shook her head. “Exactly. Just stay with Mommy.” She nodded and gave me a weak smile. I was so proud of her coming out here with us. It was a big step. I gave her a quick kiss on the top of the head, then took a step back and turned towards my opponent.
This was going to be almost too easy. Of course, it always was for me. The rules were simple. Kicking was not allowed, what you had to do was wrestle the pony until they were flat on their back for three seconds. It was simple, and could be brutal. I was just so much stronger than everypony else it was never much of a challenge.
“You ready to lose, big girl?” The small mare across the ring from me stretched. “Time to bring you down.”
I stared blankly at her. No words were needed. There was a bell rung, and ponies started cheering. I pushed them out of my mind though. Before me they became grey shapeless figures. The only thing that mattered was my opponent. This was the way life should be. Straightforward.
She charged at me. I was not expecting that. Quickly I strafed right and she passed by. She turned quickly, and smirked. Just a test. We circled each other around the ring. Just to get a feel for each other. Maybe I underestimated her ability. Or something.
The pony dived for my leg. I didn't even bother to move. She just clamped her legs around it, and tried to tug me over. I didn't budge. At all. Instead, I lifted my leg out forward with her still attached. With a raised eyebrow I shook her slightly. She gave a weak smile back as if realizing and accepting how badly thought out her plan was. “Are you done?” I shook her hard, but she clung on. I think somewhere in the mass of ponies I heard laughter, but I pushed it out of my head.
“Not yet.” Faster than I could follow she climbed up my leg and snapped her hind legs around my neck. There was a sudden sharp pressure around my throat. “C’mon.” Damn, her thighs were made of iron. Black sports flared in my vision. Oh. That couldn't be good. Dimly, I heard somepony say, “Timber!”
My eyes snapped open. Crap, I was on the ground. That was never good, ‘specially not in a wrestling match where the point was to put the other pony on their ass. Something was pushing against my chest. Star Belle. She was ramming me with her head to try and get me to turn over. This really wasn't a fair match. I mean, she couldn't even move me.
“Fuck, you're heavy,” Star Belle grunted.
“Yeah.” I grabbed her neck in my fetlocks, and rolled. She flipped over me and slammed hard into her back. She tried, but I was over twice her size. It would have taken a miracle for her to take me down for good. Three seconds later, the match was over. It really wasn't much of a challenge for me.
Before I could get back to all fours, I felt a small body slam into me. Knowing immediately who it was, I rolled over and fell on my back with an over exaggerated 'oof'. Serenity climbed onto my chest, giggling pleasantly.
“You were teasing her, weren't'cha? I knew it, ya just pretended to be downed.” Yeah, that was it. She didn't have thighs of iron or anything. It was all an elaborate act to mess with my daughter.
“Yeah.” I reached my metal leg up to ruffle her yellow mane. Huh... had it always been metal? Part of me said yes, but looking around at Marefort it just felt... wrong. I couldn't put my hoof on it. “Totally let her get me down. Makes the victory sweeter.”
“You should teach me!' she said, jumping up and down on my chest. “It'd be so cool!” She blinked for a second before gaining a wicked grin, “Oh, if I'd something to make me strong, I bet I'd be unstoppable, can I, Mom? Just new legs, cause mine are boring.”
“Serenity.” She stopped hopping to smile at me. “Really, now.” The pink unicorn pouted and hopped off my chest. “Go to your momma, and don't ask her about them either. You know she'll just say no, and you know how I don't like you going behind my back.” She giggled and ran off to ask her mother. Because who ever listens to the giant mare.
With a sigh, I rolled onto my hooves and cracked my neck. She’d really done a number on me. “Here.” I stretched out my left hoof to Star Belle. The golden pony took it happily and helped herself up. “You nearly got me.”
She laughed and wiped back her mane. “I nearly did, but, damn, you're heavy. How did you get so bucking huge?” Her eyes were wide as she looked up at me. I had to chuckle just a little bit. “I mean, seriously.”
“Born this way. And exercise.” She laughed a bit at that. It wasn't really a joke. I was always big for my age, and after momma died and my brother got taken away I'd had to fend for myself. This meant I needed to take the more labour-intensive jobs earlier than most ponies because you got more rations that way. Of course as a filly I wasn't strong enough, so I had to spend a lot of my free time resting, or exercising so I could keep up. Eventually I got stronger and stronger, and after that I just didn't stop exercising. It became routine and I became a walking tank.
“I should try that,” she chuckled, rubbing the back of her neck. “Next time, I'll beat ya, so you best watch out!” She laughed and galloped off. I watched her for a minute before turning back to my 'family'. It wasn't a real family, but this was the wasteland and it was close enough.
Foundation was carefully navigating from underneath Wildfire. Now it wasn't like my red mare was large, but Foundation had always been a bit on the runty side ever since we found her. Maybe that was how she was able to survive the raider attack that killed the rest of her village. Either way, she was always careful to be close to someone she trusted, or hidden enough the other ponies couldn't see her. If she agreed to go into a crowd, she always hid under either me or Fire.
Quickly trotting over, I was surprise-attacked by Wildfire, giving me a kiss on the cheek. Foundation made an 'eww' noise and I copied it. “Ugh, Wildfire, in public? Ponies might get the wrong idea.”
“Or the right one, hon.” Ah this old argument. We both knew the steps and could dance the dance without flaw. I for one, was too tired from getting choked to respond. We shared sly smiles and nothing more was said about the matter. “So, when do we get our prizes? I heard there were carrot cakes involved. You know how Foundy loves carrot cakes.”
The little filly below her nodded adamantly until I looked down at her. She gave a weak smile, nodded once more, and tried to hide behind her mane. It was long and unruly, but it didn't work that well. “Y-yeah. They're the best.”
“And you get two whole ones! How exciting.” Cake was something you got once a month, and never a whole one. I never much cared for sweets, so I always gave my share to Foundation. Wildfire did as well, though she liked to steal bites. Never big ones, just enough for Foundation to catch her and playfully scold. Wildfire said it was supposed to be teaching lessons of honesty, but I think it was just a silly game so she could get a bite of cake. They both enjoyed it though.
“It's very... I like cake...,” she paused for a second as we moved closer to the Marefort housing warehouse. “Two whole cakes. All for me?” Her ruby eyes were wide in wonder. That was a lot of sweets, and I'm sure if she were the type, they would have gotten her all types of hyper.
“Well,” I smirked as we neared the entrance, “not all at once, of course.” She made a soft 'awwwwwing' sound as I saw a golden maned pony stop to wave at me, before trotting my way. “You two go ahead, I'll see what Marigold wants.”
Wildfire gave me another kiss (to see me squirm in front of Marigold) and trotted off with a giggle. Marigold snickered. “Pretty mare, good thing she's not taken.” My glare apparently told her to change the subject fast. Not before laughing at me though. Ponies were forever laughing at me. “Right right, I got it, Hired. No need for your stink eye.” Shouldn't that be stink eyes?
“What is it, Mari?” I asked with an exaggerated sigh.
“Your cake, of course.” She chuckled softly. “You put up quite a show; next time we might have to offer the prize to anypony who can last a minute with you. Damn those muscles of yours.” Yeah yeah, I've heard it before. “And Wildfire winning the race, now that came as a shock. Hell, next time we should have a mechanics competition so your filly gets a prize too, eh?” Yeah, she'd like that. More cake for her.
“Thanks. I think.” I tried my best to smile as I tapped my metal leg against my pipbuck.
“Hah, you always sucked at taking compliments, didn't ya.” She bent back to grab something from her saddle bags and throw them at me. I was quite deft, so I managed to catch them in my saddle bags. “There, cakes. You earned them. Tell Fire I need her in two hours, can ya?”
“Yeah, no problem.” There was an awkward second where I wasn't sure if I should have walked off or not, but since when did I care about courtesy? Wildfire had already entered the Marefort, and was halfway up the ramp to the second level by the time I caught up.
Marefort was its usual self, that being busy and full of din. Serenity absolutely loved it though. She said the place reminded her of what would happen if a town got cybernetics. I didn't really understand the reference, but always nodded along when she said it anyway. When I caught up to them Serenity was literally bouncing on Wildfire's back.
“So, cake? Cake? Cake?” She grinned at me. When I didn't respond right away she started to frown. “You did get the cake right?” She licked her lips, “I'm in love with cake 'cause it is delicious. Top three favourite candy of all time. No! Top two, I've decided this.”
“Why not top one?” Was the obvious question as I trotted up beside the pair.
With a heavy sigh she just shook her head at me, “You need'a leave room for other foods to grow. Give them an opportunity to succeed, so the top spot is always empty.” I was not entirely sure that made any sense at all. But hey, whatever works for her. I wasn't about to argue.
The thing about Marefort is that if you're fearless, getting down from the top is quick, but no matter what, getting back up is a pain in the flank. To get to our house in particular, there were three ramps to climb and two bridges to cross. So if you lived in Marefort, you had to be strong because you'd be walking up and down them everyday. Some of the ramps were stupidly steep, too. Sometimes it felt like a chore to get home without being cut by poorly designed buildings, or getting a hoof caught somewhere, or falling.
This time however there was one casualty. That being a long scratch in my left leg that bled slightly. It wasn't really enough to worry about, though when we reached out house Foundation crawled out from under Wildfire and winced at the blood. I just had to dab it with a healing potion to show her it was nothing. She really didn't like the sight of blood. Nudging her inside the house with the promise of cake I looked around to see if the coast was clear.
Wildfire didn't wait for my check before leaning down to kiss me. It was just long enough to leave me satisfied, and have me begging for more. She was a talented mare like that. “Something something, 'I’m not a fillyfooler' right, hon?”
With a heavy blush I nodded. “Yeah, yeah.” With a kick at the floor I said. “Marigold said she needed to talk to you. Didn't say what about. Guess you should go.” She gave me another quick peck.
“You look so sad about it, too. Ya know how I hate it when those pretty eyes go all mopey.” I wasn't moping. That'd be dumb. “Make sure she doesn't eat too much cake. You know how she gets. She'll like it better spread out in tha long run. I won't be long hon.” With that she turned and sauntered off, her tail rising suspiciously high. After staring for a minute (can you blame me?) I turned and went back inside our house.
It really never changed much. Two beds, a table, and very little space. Serenity was already bouncing happily on the bed in anticipation. Considering her excitement, I decided on ‘quickly’ instead of spread out and placed the cakes on the centre table. My eye patch was itching so I took it off as well. “You ready for cake?”
Foundation nodded. She didn't say yes, but I could see in her eyes how much she wanted it. It was her favourite type of cake after all... huh. I just stood there looking at my filly for a minute. Something felt...
“Argh.” My right eye stung. Something must have fallen into it. My right eye... right.
“Momma, what's wrong?” Nothing. Nothing at all. I looked away from her and to my table to see the eye patch was gone. But it was just there. Just a minute ago. “Momma?” Serenity said. I would recognize that voice anywhere. But Foundation was there...
I backed up. The table fell, spilling its contents on the floor. A round cake rolled across the floor before resting at my metal leg. Something was wrong. Something was. Looking over, Foundation’s ruby red eyes seemed panicked. Or were those my eyes? Something was just...
Light filtered into my vision like liquid fire. I kept screaming. The light swam through my skull, setting it on fire, until all I felt was fire. Never before had I ever seen something so bright. Dammit. I slammed my head down and hit something hard. There was no pain though. Everything already hurt way too much for there to be any pain. It was just a sense of pressure and nothing but the fire in my skull. For a second I thought someone set me on fire. That I was going to die. It would have been appropriate.
And just like that, the fire left and I was left in darkness. I felt a chill wind blow over my eyes and shuddered at the sensation. Slowly my eyes opened, but still there was only darkness on all sides. My gut twisted. What happened? I was in Marefort. There was an Iron Pony Competition, and then everything went wrong. So very wrong.
I sat up slowly. My metal hoof clinked off the floor. Metal, it must have been. I reached my hoof over to my pipbuck and clicked on the light. There was a deafening second before the light finally clicked on and bathed my world in a dark amber light.
The room was small. Smaller than I was expecting, barely enough room to turn around. The walls were a dark and dusty grey (I believe, amber is not a good light colour for judging things like that) with a liberal amount of cracks crawling up them. More distressing me was the fact that one wall was less of a wall, and more of a series of impenetrable iron bars. Apparently I was in a cell. Which was great, except it wasn't.
There were noises from beyond my walled barrier, and a gasp of pain. Apparently somepony had been in the dark so long even my meagre light hurt their eyes. The voice wasn't one I recognized, so I hoped maybe they'd be able to tell me something. After getting to my hooves, I peered through the gloomy bars. Sure enough, there was another cell across from me, and inside it, a cowering pony.
“W-who are you?” Good question. I was about to ask the same thing myself. The pony was an almost pure white unicorn with a yellow mane that hung in clumps, as if it hadn't been washed or brushed in weeks. His cheeks were gaunt and hollow, and his eyes were sunken and looked lifeless. On his flank was a picture of an open book with a series of numbers underneath, but it was scratched and bleeding as if he had been trying to remove it. He was alive, but had he not spoken, I wouldn't have known it.
“Uh, Wildfire.” I don't know why I lied, or why of all the names I could have chosen I had to pick that one. “Where are we?” The pony looked so scared that I did my best to keep my voice calm, despite the itching in my mind telling me how wrong all of this was.
“You don't know...” It wasn't a question. “It's... where I'm not sure. This place is hell... yes, that's it.” His eyelid twitched. “Caledonia military... thing.” Not New Caledonian Alliance. It had to be before the war... there was a sinking feeling in my gut. “Ponies in uniforms, some with stars. It has to be... I'm sorry.”
“For what?” I tried to press myself up against the bars so I could look down the hall. As soon as my cheek touched metal a bolt of electricity slammed into me. Next thing I knew I was sitting on my ass, my eyes spinning. “Woah...”
“Sorry,” he repeated, his eyes downcast. “There is no escape... none. You'll die here...” Oh good. “Others have. Better. They're... experimenting. Trying to... I don't know. I can't know. If I know they'll kill me. Anything to beat the minotaurs, right?” I nodded dumbly. Part of me wanted to explain that the war ended and everypony died, but he didn’t seem in the mood. “I-I was bad so...”
“I wasn't bad!' His eyes went wide. “I wasn't! I... I was a psychologist. I-I helped ponies. G-got to the root of their issues. Gave comfort.” He peered at me. “You need comfort. You'd need me but... I... I was bad. There was a conference and...” His eyes glazed over and his tone went from nervous to dead. Just... dead. “I was invited to discuss wartime stress disorder and how to fix the soldiers so they can go back to fighting. I said maybe they shouldn't be back fighting so soon. I said if we just ended the war, told Equestria we're not fighting their proxy war, that we should quit.” His voice started shaking again. “They took m-me the next day, do'ya see? I said we should end the war! I was bad and...”
“And they couldn't let that stand.” Right. I was getting a clear sense of pre-war sentiments. “What happened?” The story must have been important. Otherwise why was I here. How I got here could wait.
“And I was taken... to the Snake Bite labour camp. So much work, b-but wasn't so bad. Not so bad... until I was... chosen.” His head moved back towards his flank. In the dim light I saw the numbers under his cutie-mark again. “My number. Five-Six-Eight-Nine-Four-Seven-Seven. You have to remember. Five for the years in college. Six siblings. Eight times a patient committed suicide. Nine weddings patients invited me too. Four children. Seven times they whipped me when I forgot. Seven days before I could feel again.” He looked up at me. “You have to know your number.” He paused. “I forgot. Not what brought me here. I was chosen. There was a lottery. They said... they said I'd won and I'd get to go home.” He sobbed. There were no tears though. He must have used them all up so very long ago. “They lied.”
“They brought you here instead.” Wherever here was... when I found out I vowed to destroy this place. Tear it to the ground with my teeth if I had to. I knew nothing yet, except how much I hated this place. Hated what it did to him... I don't know what it did, but just looking at him made my heart sink.
“Yes... here. I never saw but it's so... white. I hate it they... do things. Needles and tests and... the others died, I didn't... I'm stronger. You're new, you'll die.” He started shaking. “Die screaming like rest, but it's for a good cause. For the war. We shouldn't end the war. We need to win. No... no matter what.”
Far down the hall there was a click. A rush of cold wind followed. Then hoof steps. They fell heavy and hard. The sound reverberated down the hall and into the darkness. I could almost feel the ground shake at each hoof fall. The pony heard it to. From the look on his face it was the sound of death itself.
“Tell them!” He shrieked. “Tell them what happened here! My number my number. Five-Six-Eight-Nine-Four-Seven-Seven, I have to remember. I had a name once! I... I had it. It was... Five six eight nine four seven.... Five six... six....” His muzzle scrunched up. “Simple Heart. Tell them! What happened... remember. Remember your number, and my name. Please.”
Three ponies walked into view. Two were dressed in all concealing security armour making them indeterminable, but the one in front I could see. She was a astoundingly pretty lavender unicorn with a sea green mane chopped short. Her smile was pleasant as she trotted over to Simple Heart's cage. “Talking to yourself again?” She paused... “What was your number?”
“Five-Six-Eight-Nine-Four-Seven-Seven” he said instantly. “No... talking to Wildfire. He pointed at me and I felt my heart sink. Something about that mare made me want to curl away and hide.
Her crimson eyes flashed at me. Only... through me. As if I wasn't even there. “You're a real piece of work aren't you?”
“Yes Miss Baptisia.” he bobbed his head up and down. “Seeing things. Bad things. Sorry. So sorry. It won't happen again. I promise.”
She laughed venomously. “No, because you won't be coming back.” He gulped. “Not like that, after this you'll be... free.” That didn't seem pleasant at all. “Red and Rum.” she looked back at the two anonymous guards. At once the two 'helped' the white unicorn out of his cell, and 'escorted' him down the hall. He didn't even try to fight back. Part of me hoped he'd look back at me one last time.
The pony named Baptisia did though. Not at me, but close enough it made no difference. For a second she opened her mouth and I thought she was about to say something. But she just let out a breath and walked away, her green tail whisking behind her. She stopped though, and gave me one last lingering look with her crimson eyes.
When she left, there was just me.
Well, not just me. Darkness was with me too. It wasn't your usual sort of darkness, but the kind that closed in each second I waited. At first my pipbuck light was enough to shine across the hallway of cells, but it grew weaker. At the end of the hallway was a deep and growing darkness, and it moved towards me. It was slow, but certain. Whatever the darkness was, it was going to reach me sooner rather than later.
It was just a dream though. Or something close to a dream, I was sure. So it didn't matter if my light faded, I would wake up soon and find whoever was messing with me. Only. I didn't wake up. The sinking feeling in my chest grew, and my stomach twisted itself further into the knots the longer I waited. Something was wrong, something was so very wrong.
“It's just a dream.” I said to the darkness, but it declined to reply.
“Is it?” Something replied, but not the encroaching darkness. Something else said that, someone.
A thin mist came out of the darkness and swam along the ground in front of my cage. It swirled in a circle before rising upwards with a dramatic thrust, becoming what could only be described as a tornado. Slowly, ever so slowly, the mist turned red and started swirling into shape. The red mist took the form of a pony, but didn't stop there, it added details and figures until I realized who it was.
It was at that moment I realized I couldn't have been dreaming. All my dreams ended with Wildfire dying, but here she was already dead and standing before me.
“Ah.” The ghostly apparition cracked its neck, “It has been so long since I've taken this form.” Her phantom eyes addressed me coldly. “You look like shit, hon. No offence.”
“Y-y-you.” Get it together, Silver. She's not real. It wasn't the first time I've seen her. I was just going crazy again, nothing to worry about. “You're dead,” I said finally. “I saw you die you...” bled. There was so much blood, and I could still hear the sound of it dripping to the ground.
“Yeah.” She gave me a weak smile. “Sorry about that, hon.” She scratched a spot on her head and looked down the hallway, “We don't have long. I've missed you.”
“I...” Tears stung my eyes. “I missed you, too. I'm sorry.” My nose was running too, so I wiped at it with my leg. “You never should have come with me to 42... I shouldn't have gone. It was... I fucked up. Meadow didn't even want me. I'd hoped...”
She leaned against an invisible wall, wisps of red smoke rising from her. “I shouldn't have come with you... hell, I don't need to tell you I'm no fighter. Ain't never been, but after what happened... with Foundation.” Just her saying that name sent my head spinning with a throbbing sensation in the base of my skull. “And after... I thought maybe you went there to... die. One last hurrah, and hon, I couldn't let that happen.” There was a pause and a bitter chuckle, “Well that worked out didn't it? I'm dead and here you are... “ She looked towards the creeping darkness. “No time to reminisce. I'm sorry.”
“Are you really here?” My throat felt raw. “Or... is this just my mind playing tricks with me?”
“Does it really matter? Listen, hon. Maybe I am real, but if I was, nothing could convince you of it.” As she spoke puffs of red smoke came out of her mouth. “Silver, you need to rest. I know... I know sometimes things are beyond what you can do, but you need to get back to Dise and rest. With that Platinum Haze there, maybe. She seems nice.”
If she'd even take me now. Wait... I looked over at Wildfire and blushed furiously, was she really suggesting this. “I don't know what-”
“Right, with the denial. I'm dead, hon, ain't cheating, and she seems like a right fine mare. And a Goddess too, now ain't that somethin'?” Her smirk was seductive and her eyes half-lidded, but the expression was lost on her semi-transparent misty face. “And I want you to talk to that poor foal'a yours. Tell her with no ifs ands or buts that you're her momma, okay?”
“But...” Memories of Foundation ran through my head making me feel faint. “You know I can't just... what if I fail. What if... I can't put her there. I'm not ready!”
“Well, get ready!” she snapped at me. “Dammit, Silver, have you seen the way she looks at you? After what you did, you're lucky she's willing to take you back, but she needs somepony there for her, and you've already accepted the spot. Saying it aloud won’t change shit, but it'll do her a world of good. Yeah it's tough, hon, I understand. After what happened... but she needs this more than you need to hide from your past.” Her voice softened. “You can do it, Silver, really.”
I gave her a small smile. “Came here to lecture me, then? Oh, that brings back memories.” I sat down and noticed the darkness creeping in ever closer. “Yeah... you're right. Always were. I'll... try.” She gave me a stern gaze with her ghostly eyes. “I will.”
“I know it's hard, hon.” She looked over into the darkness. It was so close now, parts of her misty body were dissolving and being sucked in. “Time's up. Fuck. It's never long enough. Silver. Listen to me. I know it's hard, I know life likes to kick you around, but don't give up! Keep going! You are strong, and you’re smarter than you realize.” Phantom tears fell from her eyes and turned into smoke. “I know you miss me... and...” My tears joined hers. “I miss you too. I know... I know you can do better, be the hero you wanted to be. You can do it... so don't give up. I have faith in you.”
The darkness was on us now. The light from my pipbuck faded completely as the black swirled around us like rushing wind that chilled me to the bone. It engulfed Wildfire first sucking up her ghostly smoke and leaving nothing but a pair of green crying eyes. “Silver...” the eyes said crying smoke. “I love you.”
“I love you too.” Tears fell from my eyes and into the swirling dark. Part of me knew it wasn't really her, just an apparition, just my mind's image of what she should be and what she should say. But it didn't matter. It was enough for me to hear her voice again.
Her eyes vanished, too, and I was finally alone. Just me and my thoughts, and I couldn't imagine worse company.
I woke up alone.
The first thing I realized was that I was no longer in the security room with the monitors (which is where, presumably, I’d lost consciousness) and instead I was in the same cell as I’d been in, in the dream. At least, I think it was a dream. Sometimes it was hard to tell. There were differences though. Such as the cage door being broken off, and there actually being light. Though, I was lying in the same spot as in my dream. My stomach lurched in protest, it was too uncanny and just...
“Don't think about it.” I said to myself to break the silence.
So I didn't. Instead, I rolled over and got to my hooves. My knees were shaking as I stood there, and I felt a cold sweat on my brow. That felt... safe. I took a tentative peek outside my cell and looked back and forth down the narrow hallway. It was remarkably like my dream, down to the last detail. Especially when I looked down the hallway to the exit; the last few lights had gone out, leaving it in darkness. Just darkness. I could almost feel the cold it emanated.
This wasn't my dream though, so it wasn't a cold bastion of evil (or whatever it was supposed to symbolize in my dream-space), but just a lack of light. Which did so much to alleviate my fears. My head pounded to look at it, but I remembered the dream well enough. It was the only way I could go.
So I took a step forward. The impact trembled up my leg and shook my body and made me cough. How long had I been out? Why did I feel so weak? It couldn't have been that long... So I took another step, this time with my metal leg, and it proved much sturdier. Just one step at a time. I could do this. Something had happened. My head was swimming and pounding, but I had to get out. To search, to find out what had happened.
Flare and Serenity were gone. As I walked through, past the cages, I looked in each one. None of them contained my companions, though a few held skeletons. Each step made the next easier as I closed in on the darkness. Still, my body felt so... wrong. My back legs were cramped and itching, and my stomach twisted. Something was wrong with the situation. What though, I couldn't say.
Something snapped behind me. My body reacted faster than my mind. I turned on the spot and lowered myself, ready to lunge. The sound of my heartbeat was all I could hear. Steadily my heart slowed down and only the whirring of lights remained. Whatever cracked behind me was gone, or never existed.
...How long is she going to be like that?...
Right. Just my nerves. Turning, I faced the darkness again and stepped towards it. There was more shaking, and my mane stuck to my face from the sweat, but I was moving. Maybe they’d poisoned me., and that's why everything was so difficult. That had to be it. The voice on the speaker... he was behind this. If I could find him, kill him, then I'd be able to find them. Find Serenity. Wildfire told me I had to talk to her, so I had to.
I moved into the darkened hallway. You know, it seemed ominous before, but as I stood in it, I realized it was nothing at all. It was barely dark at all when I got closer, and I could even see the door to leave the hallway. It was simple. Just simple. I walked through the darkness and opened the door. There was nothing to worry about at all.
“MINOTAUR SPY! EXTERMINATE!”
For a second there I thought the universe was going to go five minutes without fucking me over.
The Protectitron fired a wave of green energy at me. I didn't even have the chance to dodge as the bolt hit my scarred face. Searing pain filled my vision, and all I could smell was burnt flesh. My legs gave out and I collapsed to the ground, letting the second bolt fly over my head bathing me in heat. Great. I lifted my head up and saw the cone object rolling close. It was going to kill me.
Only... it didn't. Instead it rolled over and bellowed, “YOU HAVE ASSUMED THE SUBMISSION POSITION! AWAIT SCAN OR BE DESTROYED!”
A small devise popped out of the machine and flashed a light over me that tasted like blue. My shoulder burned warily, as it stood over with its little scanner thing. You know, it wasn't really doing much, but it was close and taking its time. Whatever drug me to this cell didn't have the wherewithal to remove my barding. Which meant....
I reached into my collar pocket, pulled out the Spark Pulse Emitter, and jammed it into the machine. Bolts of electricity danced around the machine as it cried. “STAY SS-S-S-S-S-STiiiiiLLLL OoOOR...”
“Or what?” I asked with a self-satisfied smirk. Sure, everything hurt, but I’d kicked that machine's ass.
I really wanted to just lay there forever, but I remembered some internal system in these stupid things repairs them from anything but the most serious damage. Of course my spark pulse emitter had probably taken that down too, but who knew for how long. So I got up faster than I wanted, ignored my shaking body, and took a look around. The room seemed to be a fairly spacious office, with a few desks (and accompanying skeletons) scattered around. From the looks of it, the room was not in the security wing we found before, which would make sense as these prisoners were being kept from outside the facility.
Turning back to the robot, I wondered if I would be able to smash it like the one in the cafeteria.... I didn't think so. I was not really feeling up to my usual strength, and that'd take too much of my scant energy. So instead, I stumbled my way around the room looking for some sort of weapon.
Turns out my luck was not entirely shit as I found a pristine (barely working) combat shotgun under one of the desks. For a second I thought it was painted pink, but it was just my imagination. With the shotgun in mouth I limped my way back to the robot.
Following High Stakes’ example, I moved the shotgun to near point blank. Two shots later, there was a huge hole in the machine. At that point, I shoved my metal leg in and kicked the shit out of it, until its internal components looked like pasta. Then I pointed the shotgun in it again for one last blast.
If I was going to explore this damnable place, I’d want it to be without being followed by death throwing pieces of shit.
First things first though. I looked around for the nearest terminal. If the wasteland had taught me anything, it was that terminals only had so much information, and usually it was always relevant to the situation at hand. The nearest was on the desk from which I obtained my new shotgun. It was also the only in the room, which I thought was very suspicious.
My pipbuck did its magic thing, and just like that, the computer opened up. From the looks of it, all the entries in the terminal were listed by date. Just to see what was on, I clicked one at random.
Project Completion: 67%
Subject Causalities: 2
Remaining Subjects: 7
Subject Morale: Poor
Notes: A series of blunders made today especially poor for morale, pertaining to both subjects and testers. Firstly: When attempting to implement the framework into Subject Gamma's form, Dr. M forgot to properly enhance the magical restraints resulting in rejection by Subject Gamma's body. Attempts to revive Subject Gamma were unsuccessful. Secondly: when trying out a new stabilizing agent (Codenamed: Rainbow) Subject Theta escaped from their restraints. Subject Theta managed to find a scalpel that was to be used in the surgery and injure five doctors, including Dr. P. All tests were halted for the day.
Subject Sigma still refuses to consume more than one meal a day.
Overseer B is pushing to complete the project before W. engages in one of his impromptu inspections. Overseer B believes that, with the facilities and tests as they are, we will not be able to hide the truth. With that in mind, Overseer B has ordered a new shipment from Snake Bite and ordered an increase in testing.
That was. Well... it made me feel better. I mean, sure I felt weak, my whole body was shaking, and I was sweating like a radhog, but at least I wasn't being mutilated in testing. Against my better judgement I scrolled up the list to the last entry date. This should be... interesting.
Project Completion: 99%
Subject Causalities: 0
Remaining Subjects: 1
Test Subject Morale: Non-Existent
Notes: Today is the day, Overseer B assures us. She has ordered this final note be recorded for posterity. We managed to replicate results on the small scale with Subject Beta the day before. Though Subject Beta later died of complications due to repeat testing, the theory is solid. With W.’s inspection within the week, Overseer B has put us on an accelerated timetable. Subject Sigma will begin and finish the procedure today, instead of the week as is recommended. Overseer B believes this is worth the risk, as if successful, it could mean a definitive end to the war, and W. will gain all credit for it. Even if he is angry over our... willingness to disobey, he will not be able to publicly reprimand us.
However, Subject Sigma has been showing signs of stress and psychosis. Even if tests are successful, the subject's mind may not be able to process the increased information, and the subject may not be able to follow commands. Doctors M., Y. and T. have signed an official recommendation to wait for a new shipment, but Overseer B and Operator K have denied authorization.
I'm going to break protocol here because I want this on the record. I hate what we're doing here, and I hate what we are throwing away to do it. When this is over, I have made plans for me... well. I won't be around long after the war. What was done here was monstrous, but it was a monster of necessity. We can't win the war conventionally, and Overseer B. understands that, so she created this way we could win. She understands the tensions growing here in Caledonia, not just between us and the Minotaurs, but between us and Equestria. She understands that if we don't act fast there won't be a Caledonia to save, and she even understands that there might not be a world left if it goes on too long.
What she doesn't understand, is that when we save the world, we won't have a place in it. The things we have done are too unforgivable. It was the only option, but it has tainted our souls. This new world won't be for me. Or for her. But for our children, and our children's children. We can have peace in their time, and it was for them I woke myself up every day for nearly two years. Soon it'll all be over though. The world will have peace... and then I'll have mine.
I don't know why I am writing this here, but it needs to be written. I'm a horrible pony. For everything I have done. For all the ponies who died. I am truly sorry. I don't deserve to live any longer, and I won't.
What could I really say?
I hated this nameless doctor with every fibre of my being, and yet I felt bad for her. She truly thought all this was going to save the world, save her countries and her kids, but in the end she failed. Something horrible happened here beyond her control and the world still ended. So what could I say about her? Maybe she got what she deserved... whatever that was.
Unlike all the other desks in the room, hers was lacking a skeleton. So... I guess she died before the end of the world. Maybe she offed herself when it all failed, or she was taken away for what she wrote. Whatever punishment she got it would never be good enough, and it would always be too much. It was just too much. I really hated this place. What else could I do but rest my forehead on the desk and wonder where ponykind had gone wrong.
When I lifted my head, there was a spot discoloured by my sweat. Well, that was pleasant. With nothing else for me in this room I took one last look around for supplies (hoping for a med-x or healing potion to be honest), but there was nothing of the sort. Eventually, I had to leave the relative safety of the room and venture outside. I was not sure how well it'd work, considering, but ponies needed rescuing. Probably.
Before even thinking of going out the exit, though, I checked my EFS. Like I should have done earlier. It was thankfully clear, but I was not really confident. Surely something out there was going to kill me, it was the way of things. Of course, I didn't really have a choice in the matter so I shakily opened the door.
Another bland looking hallway. Lovely. Oh, and the office was right across from a janitorial closet. So there's that.
I looked both ways down the hallway to make sure the coast was clear before walking out. Because everything ever hated me, as soon as I’d taken two steps into the hallway, I started hearing voices. My eyes darted back and forth down each section of hallway but my EFS was clear. Either they were far away, or they didn't count as existing. Either way, I darted (read: limped fast) into the janitor closet.
As soon as I entered the dark room (I stepped on a rat trap, I hoped they didn't hear...) and quickly shuffled around the clutter so I could peer out a crack in the door. It took a few minutes before the voices got loud enough to hear. The first I was surprised to find I recognized.
“...Understand that, due to the nature of the job, all information is very confidential. Any leak of information is treated as willful treason,” a sickly sweet mare's voice said. “Not that I suspect it of you, but I'm required to explain that little tidbit so nopony gets any ideas. One pony tried giving away information, but their contact was a plant...”
“I'm guessing,” a youthful stallion said, “they were executed.”
“Quite right,” the mare said with a short laugh. “You'll fit right in.” The pair of ponies walked into view from the crack I was looking through.
Like I expected, the mare was in fact the mare from my dreams, Baptisia (worth noting that this time I got a chance to see her cutie mark: a wilted flower) while the other was a young brown stallion with a blond mane and a huge grin. Interestingly enough both were... transparent. As if they were just holograms. Even still, I didn't risk letting myself be seen. Just in case. They walked out of view as fast as they came into it.
“So when does the project start!” The stallion seemed to be bursting with enthusiasm. “Sorry. It is just I have been trying to get a government job for so long. Help the war effort you know?”
“Yes, but please understand; we aren't officially government.”
“Right right.” The stallion laughed. “You're working for Wallkirk who is contracted by the government. It's close enough.”
“Yes, but it's an important distinction. Plausible deniability and all that.” The mare's voice did not seem amused. “Here is your office. Your duties don't start for a month so you have time to acquaint yourself with the facility. You will be in charge of keeping profiles on all subjects, including side effects and moods. Beyond that you are to write up daily reports and assist other doctors if needed. Your full duty list will be emailed to you in the coming weeks. There's a meet and greet with the newcomers next Thursday. Any questions?”
“None at all!” I could almost hear the cheerfulness in his voice. “I just can't wait to get started. We'll do a lot of good here, I'm sure!”
Then there was nothing at all. It was like they’d completely vanished. Assuming, of course, they were ever there to begin with. I was starting to think the facility enjoyed fucking with me. There was a cold chill behind me. Turning around, I saw a pair of ghostly eyes burning like the sun.
I ran. I didn't stop until I was all the way down the hall and out of breath. Whatever it was, it didn't follow me. Not yet...
I kicked a hole in the medical box.
Whatever level I was on, it had a shit-load of medical labs and surgery stuff. Yet no matter where I looked, not a single one of the medical boxes had any med-x at all. Hell, I had managed to find only a single healing potion too. Apparently this place was not big on the recovery aspect of surgery. Not that it was really much of a surprise. After taking my hoof out of the box, I kicked the empty thing away and turned back to the room.
It was a lovely surgery chamber of questionable morality. This was best demonstrated by the fact a skeleton was still strapped to the operation table by harnesses that did not seem at all consensual. It was not, of course, the only skeleton in the room, as when I tried to walk for the exit, my hoof got caught in a rib cage. The unfortunate pony was dressed up in a lab coat, so I didn't really feel bad for desecrating her corpse. It was annoying though, having to kick my leg several times to get her off.
So far my adventure in the labs had been a resounding failure. I found more than a few bloodstained surgery rooms, a few labs with broken equipment, and an office locked with a regular key. I'd been too weak to try and break down the door (I could have if I had tried, but I didn't want to waste my limited energy on it.) So it was summarily ignored in favour of this lab that I had hoped would have something to help me make it through. It hadn't, obviously.
However, the surgery room was directly connected to an office, and maybe that had information, or something. I limped my way over there to find the door said 'Dr. Maplewood'. It was already half open too so I didn't even need to limp my way over.
It was a lovely small room with a 'Grand Galloping Gala' poster on the wall and a terminal on the desk. Other than that there was nothing of note in the room but... but... a vial of med-x.
Holy shit! My eye must have been bulging out of my socket, and my heart was racing a mile a minute as I stared at it. Yes, I knew this stupid place would have one! With that I would be able to ignore my body’s weakness and press on, nothing would be able to stop me. I dove for it and jammed the needle into me waiting for sweet relief.
No relief. No wash of heat. Nothing but me staring at the needle in teary eyed confusion. Looking down at the needle that was jammed into my side, I saw it was empty.
It had always been empty. It was just a thrown-away vial. In my rush I hadn't even noticed.
“Fuck!” I tore the syringe out and bit down so hard it shattered. “Fuck!” I said again, this time punctuating by spitting out blood and glass shards. “Just...” A wave of nausea washed over me making my stomach flip and my head to spin. Everything got dizzy and I just had to sit down. Sit down and wait for it to pass. “Just, ugh.”
Thankfully, the wave of nausea passed without me throwing up or passing out. My head still felt out of it, but I was able to move again. Slowly at first. Not wanting to risk meeting any robots until my head space went back to semi-normalcy I crawled my broken ass over to the terminal.
“Fuck you.” I growled as my pipbuck did that glowing burning thing. The machine whirled and booted up. Without any prompting, an email popped up on the screen.
Dammit Bap, I'm a doctor, not a spy!
That was literally all it said. It was in the outgoing messages folder, and I decided whoever wrote it was my hero. I was a big fan of witty one liners. To appease my curiosity (and because my stomach was still being a bitch) I clicked to see what exactly the message was a reply to.
Maple, I need your help. Wallkirk is coming in four days, and you're the only pony I can trust. By now I'm sure somepony told him what happened, and he won't like that one bit. I need something against him, some dirt that'll make him too afraid to work against me. A little birdy told me he has spies in the Equestrian Ministry Of Image, Stable-Tec, and something called 'OIA'. If I could find out what he's doing, get evidence of his involvement, something on him... I need your help. Right now, the facility is turning its back on me. They all agreed and helped before, but now... they won't even let me leave. It was to save the world, it almost worked! It...
Doesn't matter, does it? Because it didn't work, and now it's all on me. Please, Maple. You have friends, friends that have turned on me. You're the only one I have left. Please, try to find something. Anything.
Suddenly, Maple's reply was less of a witty one liner, and more of her betraying her friend in thirty characters or less. It did nothing at all to settle my stomach. Sure, this Baptisia was a total bitch, but, her friends should still have stuck by her instead of making her take the fall... for whatever happened. I still didn't know that much. Something about test subjects and...
Something started laughing in my ear. It was a small subtle chuckle that sent shivers down my spine. The monitor fell off the desk with a crash from my kick, giving me enough space to jump over the desk and scramble for the door. My heart as in my throat by the time I reached the door. Against my better judgement, I turned around to see who was laughing.
Nothing. Only the lingering memory of closeness, and the sense of wrongness in my gut. This was just getting weird.
“Okay, calm, Silver.” I said it aloud to hear a voice that wasn't creepy in my head. It didn't calm me, but it grounded me. I was Silver Storm. Hired Gun. I'd lost legs and eyes and half my face. I'd charged down minotaurs and gunned down land sharks. I'd gotten up from near death on too many occasions, and I had escaped from capture like a million fucking times. I wasn't about to be scared by ghosts!
With all my rage, I tried to buck over the operating table in the lab. Unfortunately it was bolted to the floor, and I was weak as fuck, so what happened was I kicked it and faceplanted. Because what I needed right now was more fucking head trauma. At least It wasn't into a skeleton. I slowly got back to all fours and took a deep breath. The fresh air cleared my mind. Just needed to calm down.
I slowly, whilst keeping an eye on my EFS, trotted back into the hallway. Just in time for the voice in the speakers to make its reappearance. “Do Not Delve Further Into History Or It Will Be Your Doom!”
Well that was interesting. A ghoul perhaps, who survived whatever went wrong. Oh, now this was interesting. I so loved mysteries. So much... Not that I had a chance to look. A wave of nausea washed over me dropping me to a knee hard. My stomach twisted as I heaved my guts onto the floor. Hated. Puking. Ugh...
I fell over. Just needed to rest for a bit. After that I could keep going. Find Serenity and Flare...
My eyes burst open. Where was I? On my back. In the darkness, somewhere. Everything was dark, and I could hear my heart racing in my chest. Squirming didn't seem to help at all. On all sides, something was stopping me. Dammit. I needed to get out. Out of whereever I was.
I flailed my metal leg to the side and hit something. The sound that came from my hit sounded a lot like wood. When I tried to other side I heard the same sound. Above and below me as well. Wood, just wood. Dumb as I was, it didn't take long for me to realize where I was. Somepony buried me alive....
I tried to roll over and my casket creaked. When I carefully pressed my hoof to the roof of my tomb, I could feel the meters of dirt pushing back. Fuck. Okay. So I was underground surrounded by black darkness. So what. It was like being captured by death, and I've escaped worse predicaments, right? I just needed to use my not-brain and figure this out. How hard could it be. Just. Breathe.
My breath was ragged, and parts I couldn't reach itched. Okay. Calm was not working. Not working at all. Wait, my pipbuck light. There was barely enough room but I managed to squeezes my hoof over to flick the light.
My body was washed over by the amber light. It was beautiful, the power to see in blackness, but it wasn't enough to stem my growing fears. Even with it, I still had no way out. I could see the lines of wood, every knot and crack, but in the end it didn't help me break out. All it did was confirm my predicament. Trapped under the ground. No way to escape. No hope.
I might have screamed.
When my throat was raw, I stopped. That didn't help. Panicking didn't help. Needed to be calm. Even though my tomb was closing in. Thousands of pounds of dirt pressed in on every side ready to squash me, but I just had to be calm. But I couldn't. I was going to die. Crushed.
Maybe it was better this way. It was an okay way to go. It'd be quick, I think. Not painless, but only as painful as I deserved. Celestia above knows I didn't deserve peace after all I did, but it'd be nice, you know? Just lie down and sleep. Never have to worry about anything ever again. No more haunting dreams, or regrets. It'd be...
Survive, the little pony in my head that liked to live whispered. But why? And for what? I was already buried, so why not die too?
Because Serenity needed me. She was... where was she? My mind was foggy and it was hard to remember, but I knew she was lost and needed my help. So I had to find her. Break free. Even in the darkness. Even as the walls pounded in on my, and each second called for my doom. If for nothing else I'd survive for her.
I kicked upwards. The wood instantly cracked along a groove, showering me with dirt. Instead of letting it bother me, I spit out the dirt and kicked again, And again. Each time my hoof hit, the hole got wide and wider. I could escape this, all I needed was one more kick.
My eyes opened.
Once again, the whiteness of the facility startled me. I was back. Of course, I'd never really left. Just sorta passed out... or the facility made me pass out. It reminded me so much of the tunnels, only where the tunnels were very blunt with their creepiness, the facility was subtle. Very subtle.
Most of the time. Right now though something was standing above me. There was a warm breath on my back, and the sound of breath. Nothing to be afraid of. There was a pressure on my back from a hoof. Probably just a ghost rapist I had somehow insulted. Not bad at all. Against the part of my brain screaming how bad an idea this was I turned my head to see.
Nothing was there, and pressure went away. I must have imagined it...
I didn't move for a long time though, and I don't think I could have if I tried. As I lay there on the floor the only thing I could think about was how I must have been going insane. Eventually, and with great effort, my body started to calm down enough for me to get back up. When I finally made it back to my hooves I realized I'd been lying next to a pile of vomit. Mine, from before. Thankfully I hadn't rolled over onto it in my weird... dream... thing.
“VAGRANT DETECTED! INITIATING DELETION PROTOCOL!” My eyes darted down the to where the cone robot was rolling up. You know what sucks? A blast of green energy slamming into my chest and making my chest feel like it was on fire.
“Celestia damn, just, aghr.” I said as I stumbled backwards. I really hated these things. Just as I managed to dodge a second burst, I looked behind me. There was a hallway splitting off from the one I was in just a few meters behind me. It wouldn't give up right there, but it'd give me time to plan and think. Because I did both of those things so well.
Another blast flew over my head, scorching my mane. Right, leaving. I scrambled backwards as fast as my weak legs could take me and threw myself around the corner. Resting my back against the wall, I felt my ragged breath burn my chest. Clearly I was sick with something, I just didn't know what. It was enough to make this facility hellish. I could make it though. Worse things than sickness, haunted ancient labs, and murderous robots had tried to kill me and failed. Just need to think about how to do this in the way that kills me less.
“UNIDENTIFIED SUBSTANCE LOCATED! COMMENCING CLEANING!”
Wait, what? Slowly, I peeked around the corner to see the metal monster standing above my vomit puddle... and cleaning it with a strange vacuum thing. That was awesome. Now I just needed to find liquids and throw them in front of those robots whenever they got close as a distraction. It wouldn't stop them forever, but it'd be just long enough for me to get away. Which I should have done while watching it. Right.
After hiding back behind the wall my eyes scanned the hallway I was in. Hallways and labs. Just what I’d always wanted. Alright, whatever. I picked myself back up and ignored the sensation that I was being watched. This facility had more mysteries, and more importantly it had my friends. Somewhere. So far, my luck at finding them was nil. It wasn't like they were just going to appear in front of me. It was going to take time and effort, and a lot of searching.
Something flashed on my EFS in front of me. A red mark and... Amber. A friendly... Either that was Flare, Serenity, or a robot that somehow gained sentience and wanted to help me. Since that last option was rather unlikely, I ran forward at full gallop. Given my condition, my full gallop was a slightly faster than normal limping run. Regardless, I ran like a mare on a mission. Which I was.
The EFS was moving away from me and when I reached the right hand turn at the end of the hallway and turned towards the mark in my vision, it had already gone down another hallway. Whoever designed this building deserved to be flayed, because it was a fucking maze. So I ran down that hallway too and turned again where my EFS said the robot and its buddy were.
Another long hall exactly like the last two. Only this one had other occupants. Like a cone-shaped robot dragging a blue pegasus in a net. My heart leaped. Flare. I’d found him, thank Celestia I’d finally found him! Now I just needed to find Serenity and then find a way to get out of this place and never, ever, go back. Ever. My hate for this place could not be described in mere words. It had to be written in the blood of whoever had built it.
“DO NOT INTERFERE WITH PRISONER SUBJUGATION PROTOCOL!” Well, that explained why I ended up in a cell. Apparently these things just dragged them there after defeating them with green, pulsating, suck balls. That sounded wrong. Whatever, killing time.
The robotic kidnapper fired a bolt of green energy when I started to get close. Luckily for me, it slammed against my metal leg, leaving a black mark, but causing no damage. It didn't get a chance at a second. Apparently the programming on it made it so it didn't fire at me until I was far too close, which gave me plenty of time to jam my spark pulse emitter into it. Electric energy danced around the machine’s casing as smoke started to rise from its crevices. Less than a second later, the Protectitron was silent.
Normally I'd have freed Flare, but I knew these things could were able to partially reconstruct themselves so I took out my shotgun and unloaded it the rest of its ammo into the fucker. This was followed by 'carefully' using my metal hoof to tear it apart. Or at least apart enough that it wouldn't be able to fix itself quickly, if ever. Time to get me a pegasi.
I turned back to where Flare was netted in a ball. Only, it wasn't him that caught my attention. The faceless pony stood over him and watched me. Just as quickly it vanished again leaving me with a feeling of dread.
...Oh yes, right there, that's the spot...Ooooh...
I froze. Okay. My hallucinations just got dirty on me. In Wildfire's voice. Because apparently being laced with burn wounds, suffering from some strange sickness, being weak, dizzy, nauseous, and hallucinating wasn't enough. I also had to be horny. Fuck you, ominous facility of death. Really.
Okay. Needed to focus on anything other than that. Like kneeling down and making sure Flare was okay. And that it was Flare, because I hadn’t gotten a good look. So I slowly rolled the pegasus shaped ball over so I could see his face. Well, the stallion certainly looked like Flare, same pompous smirk even while sleeping, same mane. I would have checked his cutie-mark but he was still wearing that Enclave style armour.
“Hey. Hey. Wake up.” I shook the body but he didn't react. So I shook him more. “Flare. Wake up. C'mon. Dumbass.” I sat back. This was not working at all.
I was getting light headed, and my face felt really warm. Not to mention the feeling in other body parts. Damn, this place was really just messing with me now.
...Oh My... you're getting so much better... now it's your turn...
“Flare!” I kicked the unconscious body. “Wake the fuck up.” Because I needed something to get my mind off the voices in my head. You'd think being sick and in pain would stop my libido. Maybe it was because I hadn't been with a pony since... well I had thought Pearly, but apparently before that. I kicked him harder. “Seriously.” Nope nothing. Oh for fucks sucks.
Nope nope nope. Not listening. I leaned over Flare and sighed. Whatever sort of deep sleep he was in, it wasn't natural. It was like the tunnels all over again. “Flare.” Slowly, I untangled him from the net so he had more room. You know, when his mouth wasn't flapping, he wasn't bad looking. His face was cute, if a little girly, and he was well-kempt. The armour without the helmet was kind of dashing too...
And he was gay. Don't forget that part. Clearly my mind was in a bad place if I was thinking about Flare like that. Stupid bloody voices in my head, making me aroused. Closing my eyes didn't help either, because when I did, my mind filled the darkness with images of Wildfire in... compromising positions.
“Agh.” I slammed my hoof into the ground. “This is stupid.” So very stupid. Even still, I leaned over Flare's sleeping face. “Wake up.” I pressed my forehead against his. “Please.” No, I didn't kiss him. Because when I was about to, there was a sound of rushing water in my ears, making my eyes cross and my head feel dizzy. So dizzy.
Another dream. I was starting to get the feeling these weren't normal dreams.
At least this one put me in a place I knew, instead of a coffin. I was standing in front of the apartment-building-turned-Enclave-base in south Dise. Only, it wasn't all of Dise. It was like this small section was torn out of a book and I could see the ridges. All around was a swirling red and black void, and the only available direction was into the Enclave base. Only the base looked a bit different. It looked newer than I remembered and a lot brighter. Nearly every window in the building was glowing, and that was an unusual sight in Dise, not counting the House-owned buildings of course.
On the bright side, without the moaning in my ears, I was feeling far less amorous. Of course that sensation was replaced with a sinking feeling in my gut that something really bad was about to happen very soon. Since the dream only gave me a choice of creepy void of death or the Enclave base, I walked towards the former apartment building. Each hoofstep felt heavy and sent gravel flying from the path when I walked.
Two guards flanked the entrance when I walked up, and when I walked up they pointed impressive looking MEW's at me. Great. I was about to be hit by more energy bolts, and I wasn't even awake. Apparently the universe liked to fry me.
“Halt, who goes there?” The two pegasi spoke in near unison.
“Uh.” Right.... I wondered what name to use. Considering it was a dream, they'd probably only react to my given name, but since it was also a dream of Dise, my chosen name might actually work. This guards looked displeased at my delay, and the rightmost shot a warning on the ground in front of my hoof making me jump.
“Name!” they repeated.
“Hired Storm!” Okay. I might have panicked a little bit there. The pair looked at each other in creepy symmetry and the rightmost spoke quietly into his helmet.
A few tense seconds later and they spoke again. “The Admiral is expecting you. Make your way to the third-floor training room. Do not touch anything. Do not take pictures. If your eye has a remote camera we will know.” Huh, that was right. My eye. I had gotten so used to the boxes it put around ponies I didn't even realize these ponies didn't have them. Must have been a facet of the dream world. I kind of missed them now. They made the world more colourful, and less brown.
The entrance to the building slid open with a subtle hiss. Fancy. I trotted inside to find a surprisingly high-tech building. It was a metallic interior with a series of banners about pegasi superiority hanging on all the walls. Every door was the sliding type, and, peeking inside a few, I noticed high-tech labs and terminals. All of which looked very brand new. You know, my subconscious was very weird if this is what it was bringing up.
Not that this was a normal dream anyway. The last few hadn't been. They were dream-like, only they felt a lot more real. I've had realistic dreams before, mind you, but these might as well have been actually happening. The only reason I knew it was a dream at all this time was because of the incomplete outside.
My mind raced as I wandered through the building, my hooves instinctively knowing where they needed to take me. The more I walked, the more I realized how unnatural all this was. These weren't normal prophetic dreams, they were something else. This Enclave Base made that all the clearer. It was like the Facility was just fucking with me. Which, given its track record....
Still, I kept walking. Somehow, I knew exactly where I needed to go. More weird dream bullshit. As I closed in on my destination, I took a look at some of the pegasi. They seemed real enough, but my eye did not identify them as such, and their actions seemed a little... wooden. Not all the time, but watching one mare flying past me, I noticed at one point her wings did not bend when they flapped. Only once though.
“Creepy,” I muttered aloud. Nopony nearby so much as noticed I had said anything. That did nothing to alleviate my suspicions about this place.
I did eventually make it to where I was supposed to go. I knew because it was clearly stated as 'Third Floor Training Room' on a gold plaque on the large double doors. The two doors slid open as I approached revealing a room that was much too large to fit in the building. To my imperfect eyes, it looked to be at least a hundred meters long, and nearly as wide. The whole facility looked like a giant gym, only with high ceilings for pegasi. Various exercise and training equipment were littered around the room. On the far side, a troupe of ten black-clad pegasi (sans helmet) were practising a routine in front of two stallions.
As soon as I realized who the two stallions were, I realized something vital.
This wasn't my dream.
It was Flare's.
“Hey, Hired!” Flare clopped his hooves together and the performing pegasi stopped in a 'v' formation. He was leaning back in an oversized chair with a pony lounging in a smaller one beside him and many dash inhalers scattered around the floor in front of him. Unlike with everypony else, my eye put a coloured box around him, so I knew for sure it was him. “How've ya been? Crazy couple years, eh? Who'd know they'd make me Admiral.” He laughed and leaned back to whisper something to the green unicorn behind him. The two of them laughed. “Ya still look like shit though, eh, but not even time can fix that face, right?”
“What’s going on...?” I took a few steps closer as I scanned the pegasi flying guard. Surprisingly one of the faces was familiar. The pegasi named Sail who was a guard with me on that doomed caravan run right after I woke up in Bridal Hope with a new leg. He was dead, but I suppose dreams don't work the same way as logic.
“Training my security detail. All of them volunteered: they used to be my squad way back when I was a captain, ya know. It's good to seem them all together again.” And alive, his voice seemed to say. “Stakes thinks it's a waste, and that we can protect ourselves, but hey, better safe than sorry.” A the mention of his name, the stallion beside him leaned over to nuzzle Flare's cheek, eliciting a chuckle and a soft whisper I could barely hear: “Stop it, not in front of guests.” The green stallion stopped, but with a satisfied smirk.
The stallion, however, was not High Stakes. He was close, but not quite. Differences like the fact he was an earth pony now, instead of a unicorn, and that he was bulkier than normal, and not wearing his trademark glasses gave away that the pony was not as he should be.
“That's not what I meant.” My voice sounded ragged and hoarse.
Flare's pink eyes seemed to narrow. “Hired... don't do this,” he said, very carefully. “Just turn around and walk away.” Sensing the threat I seemed to pose, the security detailed lowered and started to surround me. I guess I'd make good target practice. “Let me have this...”
“It's just a dream. Flare-”
“You think I don't know that!” His voice caused waves to ripple through the building like it was made of water. “I'm not stupid. My squad is all but dead to a pony, and Stakes shot you in the face and betrayed me. I know...” his voice went soft. “I know.”
“You know...?” The dreams I had all seemed real until the last second. Even this one I wouldn't have realized if it weren't for the fact it was Flare's dream not mine. “But... why are you still here?”
“I... I like it here.” There was a sad smile on his lips. The pony masquerading as High Stakes leaned over the arm of Flare's chair for a kiss. Never one to turn away a kiss, Flare obliged the pony, but even from where I stood, I could see it was heartless. “My squad’s back, High Stakes isn't an ass. Hell, you're here too so everything’s set for me. So it's a dream, I don't want to leave.”
“It's not real.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He waved a dismissing hoof and leaned back further in his throne. Obediently, his security detail flew behind it and fanned out, and High Stakes leaned over the arm and held him. “I wake up and suddenly I’m an admiral? Obviously fake as shit, but who cares? Real or fake, I have everything I need. If you aren't going to enjoy it with me, just leave me be.” I tried to speak but he cut me off again. “So what if it's a dream? The dream is better. It's like those tunnels, Hired, you remember? Close your eyes and it'd give you what you wanted. Only this time it's the future I want, not the past I miss. And fuck, I like it. Not like I was doing anything anyway.”
This wasn't working. I guess it was plan B. By now you should know my plan B is always the same. I charged.
The pegasi squad quickly fluttered in front of my path, but I bowled through them like they weren't even there. 'High Stakes' tried stopping me as well, and I got to live the fantasy of high-speed headbutting him. With them out of the way, I was free to ram into Flare on his throne. The seat cracked and fell over, sending us tumbling over each other. A few chaotic moments later and I had the pegasus on his back.
My forehooves slammed down hard on his wings, pinning him down and eliciting a screech of pain. “Flare!” I yelled. “Snap out of it!” The pegasi writhed on the floor but that only stretched his wings out even more painfully. “Why? You know it's not real. You can have a real life. One that's worth something.”
“Why! Fuck it, Hired, why fight?” His face contorted to a look of anguish. “So I can die in two years when I relapse, or when I get betrayed by the next buck I fuck? I've never done a single thing right in my life, so who cares if I die here in this dream? At least I'll be fucking happy.”
I kicked him in the face. “Dumbass. Is this about High Stakes?” There was a shocked look on his face when he nodded. “Well he’s scum. He's not worth you throwing your life away. You knew him, what, two weeks? If that? Get over it.”
“Every buck I date ends up dying or stabbing me in the back.”
“Well then you have shitty luck. Don't throw your life away because of that vermin.” I kicked him again. “You're talented at explosives. An amazing flier. And are handsome. You can do whatever you want. Any stallion would be lucky to have you.”
For a second it looked like he was going to cry, but instead he laughed. “You kicked me!”
“You deserved it!”
The dream cracked and fell apart at the seams.
I woke up laying over Flare...
“Listen Hired. In case this wasn't clear, I'm very gay.” One of his feathers prodded at me. “And you're very heavy. Mind getting off?” Right, gotcha. I carefully rolled off him and flopped on the ground. My body was still slick with sweat, and my head felt even dizzier than it had before. The lights above me seemed to spin in a circle. “You alright?” He peered over me, his pink eyes narrowing. “Ah, I see.”
I swatted him away half-heartedly. “See what?”
“Tell me.” He poked my nose, making me scrunch it up. “When was the last time you had some med-x?” Really, this again? There was no point answering. I just rolled onto my shaky hooves and started walking past the robot I destroyed earlier. I was not going to discuss that with anypony, especially not him. As if he had any right to judge. “Hired.” I heard his voice following. “I wasn't insulting you Hired.”
“Shut up, Flare.” I still needed to find Serenity and suss out what exactly was happening here. I didn't have time for his wild theories on who I was or what was going on with my body. “We have more important things to do.”
“Which is good.” Flare flapped his way so he was flying backwards in front of me. “If you can do the things you need to do. Hired. You know how I hate making fun, but you look like shit. Not normal shit neither. The type you get after eating food that wasn't preserved properly all-”
“Get to the point.”
“Right. Basically, I'm fairly certain you got yourself hooked on the cool juice.” I stopped and blinked at him a few times. “You know... block, cube, mojo, M, Murphy, mud, Luna's Helper, Celestia's Favourite, first line, hows Miss Blue?” What the fuck was he talking about. “Hired!” He pressed his hooves on my cheeks so I'd pay attention. If I’d felt better, I would have kicked him. “Med-X. You've got it bad.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I pushed away his legs and pressed my hoof on his forehead. “Can we go now?” I pushed hard sending him sliding back in the air. “Serenity is still somewhere, and we need to find her.”
“Oh please, Silver.” The use of that name drew my attention. “Have you seen a mirror? You're sweating, you're shaking, your eyes are dilated as fuck, and that's only what I can see. I'm guessing you have phantom pains, dizziness, and nausea, too?” My only answer was avoiding eye contact. “Nailed. Check your pipbuck, how long have we been in here? Because it seemed like a long time when I woke up the first time.”
“Uh...” I looked down at my pipbuck. It was still on the password screen, but helpfully it listed all the times I’d used it with time stamps. So all I had to do was take the time of the first use, then do a little math. And by a little, I mean it took me five minutes to figure out. A new record. “Nineteen...” No, the first time was an hour before we entered the facility, “Eighteen hours...”
“Yup, withdrawal. I ain't an expert, mind, but I've been through it once'er twice with Dash, and some things are similar I'm pretty sure. Hell, I’d be surprised if the stress and pain of being shot didn't help speed up the symptoms.” I'd no idea if that made any sense at all. “Listen, I'm worried about you. I don't want you going down the same path as me...” I tried walking past him but he zipped in front of me. “Listen. Now I'm sure this is not the ideal place for an intervention, but hear me out. I know shit like this, okay? So you and I are going to find you a med-x so you don't break down, and if we make it back to Dise you're going straight to the Watchers...” he pauses. “It won't get rid of the problem. You'll still want them, but your body won't need it to survive.”
“Fine. Whatever.” I said. It was enough to get us to keep walking.
Honestly I was looking for it anyway because I was blackened and burned from the plethora of energy blasts, and it'd help, but not because whatever he thought. Though... maybe it was true. I wasn't sure. I mean. It was true that I took med-x a lot. Okay, maybe more than a lot. But I needed it a lot. I've had the shit kicked out of me all across the wasteland, and if it wasn't for those painkillers then I wouldn't have survived.
Then again there were a few times I guess, I hadn't needed to take it. I guess. But they still helped even then. Flare was so positive, and Blackwater too. And Flare at least would have a good idea on that sort of thing. Maybe once we were safe I was going to have to think it through. Look at everything that happened. I was fairly certain I wasn't an addict, but a part of me nagged at the back of my mind asking 'what if you're wrong?' And if I was wrong, well that wasn't something I wanted to burden Serenity with.
...It'll only sting a little...
I cried wordlessly in annoyance and built up a limping speed following the pegasus. He didn't react to my annoyance and didn't speed up, forcing me to slow down again. I guess it was for the best because the increased speed had just sent more aches up my already shaky legs.
“Don't go right.” I said when we reached a crossroads. My EFS was flashing a lot of red that direction.
He nodded and we kept going forward. I noticed he caught sight of one of the many laboratories on the right side of the hall. I, however, was far more interested in a door to the left. A certain office with the title of 'Overseer' on it. Sure, the lab could have med-x, but that office could have mysteries. And they were almost, if not more addicting.
“Where are you going? We’re not treasure hunting,” Flare said when he spotted me by the door.
“Shut up, Flare.” I tapped my metal hoof against the wooden door. It sounded really hard. After looking around in vain for an access terminal, and then trying my password to no avail, I had to do the unthinkable: ask Flare for help. “Could you knock this door down?” Normally I could do it, but I was not feeling strong enough, and I didn't want to risk it. I mean, if Flare couldn't I would, but I'd rather not.
“Sure can!” He flew backwards and towards the ceiling. He gave an over exaggerated lick of his lips and flashed towards the door at full speed. I thought for sure he was going to hit it head on. Only, he didn't. Instead, he stopped on a bit right in front of the door, calmly reached a hoof out to the handle, and opened the door. “Not every door is locked Hired.”
“Well aren't you a smart one.” Serenity was smarter. At least in some aspects, but it still amused me to note that a filly was smarter than him. Of course, both were heads and tails above me, but that really wasn't much of a contest.
The office interior was fairly large with the fanciest furnishings I'd seen so far. The floor was actually carpeted (though it seemed a bit stained) and the large desk that took up the majority of the room was carved all fanciful. Hell, there was even a bookshelf with a large number of books I would never be able to understand, not to mention the mountains worth of reports. What interested me the most was the terminal. I know I had more important things to do, but I couldn't help my curiosity.
“What are you doing here anyway?” Flare stood in the doorway. Well, more like leaned against the doorway.
“Something is fucking with us.” He seemed to muse over that before nodding. “On the monitors. That made us pass out. Whatever that was. It was created here. If we can find out what...” I left the ending vague because I was not sure what we could do if we found out. Maybe if the creation process also came with a weakness, but how likely was that.
“Right, well. I'll stand watch. Celestia above knows why I'm letting you, of all ponies, do the reading and investigating.” Well obviously because I already had the head start. And because I felt like I was dying and needed to sit down anyway to clear my head.
So I did just that, but first I had to push the skeleton out of the way and take a seat. With a sigh, I pressed a button on the terminals keypads. I really hated how small they made all these buttons. I was passable with time, but it seemed like it'd take longer than just writing. Luckily for me the computer wasn't even locked. The screen flashed on in the middle of an unfinished email.
Wallkirk get out of Celestia’s Paradise now, or...
Well that was useful.
“Mind hurrying, Hired?” Flare looked nervously over his shoulder towards the hall before shuffling inside and closing the door.
I would get right on that. After I checked a few more emails. Most of the emails seemed to be deleted though, except for a few marked 'Vital'. After scrolling through a few, I opened a couple that seemed interesting enough. After that, I planned to look into whatever else was on the computer. Honestly, Flare should have been doing this: he was so much better with technology.
The speakers in my office are wigging out. I don't give two shits about ponies thinking my office is haunted, I want it fixed. It keeps going on and off at random, or repeating old messages. Just, fix it. And before you ask I know it's not only happening here, but I'm the overseer of a major project, for fuck’s sake. Get your boys up here today!
Flare seemed a little more nervous than usual, and was pacing back and forth in front of the door. Which meant it was time for the last email I randomly picked out. Part of me wished I'd time for all of them, but what can you do?
Yeah it's a little creepy being in her office after everything that's happened, but I deserved this promotion. Bap wanted to help ponies, but she funnelled a lot of money into her pet project and she deserved what she got... not that I know what she got... Won't lie; I got a shivers down my spine a few times today. There's just something about this place that is putting me on edge. There are rumours that Bap died in this office, and it's haunted, but I don't believe it. But I've got more important work to do than worry about ponies long gone. Thanks for the concern though. Keep in touch.
“You about done there?”
“Just a second.” I flipped off the the email closed and looked at all the juicy classified information. It made sense that my password could access it. After the end of the world they must have figured ponies trying to start anew could benefit from this sort of information.
“How about you throw me over the spark taser,” Flare said as he backed away from the door. I think he meant the Spark Pulse Emitter, or whatever it was called.
“Wh-” A flurry of splinters cut me off. Through the door came a storm of green blasts that tore it apart and forced Flare to flip backwards through the air and take cover behind the desk beside me. More greens bursts came through and slammed into the terminal. With a fzzt the computer blacked out and fell apart. Well there went critically important research data I'd never understand anyway.
“Duck!” Flare pulled me down as something rolled into the room.
There was an ominous sound of machinery, and a few boops and beeps like all good robots made. “Surrender now and you will die painlessly!” The voice was clearly robotic, and loud, but more smooth and suave than the normal Protectitrons.
“Protectitron Mk2, the voice on the speakers told me as much when I woke up the first time. If I didn't have this armour I'd look worse than you.” That wasn't funny at all. “We might die here, just as an FYI.”
“You have ten seconds to comply!” Ever so slowly I peaked out from the side of desk to get a good look at the metal monster. It was similar in some ways to the normal Protectitron. It still had the cone shape and movement patterns, but it was slightly shorter and skinnier, with thick black armour. Oh, and two large Gatling MEW's hanging on either side of its body. This was going to suck.
“Any ideas?” I slipped back into cover. The pegasus shook his head. Great. That means the idea was up to me. “Well... you said you fought one before?”
“Ran from one before,” he corrected me. Great. “They have good tactical sense too. Look at it, it's standing right in the doorway. It knows we're trapped, and it's going to wait us out.” Great. To run down we were facing a heavily armoured mini-tank with gatling lasers without anyplace to run, and limited cover with only a melee weapon. The level of suck just hit critical mass.
“Wait!” I pulled out my Spark Pulse Emitter. I had a plan, and it was awesome. Rolling out behind cover I quickly went into SATS. This was genius. I could stop time, how could a robot even think about getting me? Just had to line up a few hits just to be safe and...
I had no idea what that meant, but zero of anything was bad. The sinking feeling in my gut confirmed just how bad a plan this was. Okay. Think. Even in my stop time I could see the starting movements of his guns. Slow, but certain. My only hope was if I could get back behind the desk, and the desk could take more of a pounding as I came up with a plan. With a gulp I slid out of SATS...
And realized I wasn't fast enough.
The guns were revving. They fired before I could move. Blasts flew through the air. At me. Green globs of death a hundred a minute. Well there was no way I was getting out of this one. My body tried to dive. I just couldn't.
A black and blue blur intercepted.
Green waves of energy danced off the armour's black coating. Flare pushed me on my ass and bent over me protectively as blasts bounced off him. Each one was punctuated with a grunt. “Stupid. Idiot.” He wrapped his forelegs around me tight. “Roll.”
The two of us rolled back towards the only cover in the room. We made it, mostly alive. Flare looked in a bad way though. Parts of armour were melted through, and I could smell burning. Carefully I nudged him under the desk where there was more protection. His breaths were slow and ragged.
“Fuck.” He closed his eyes tight cough roughly. “That hurt. Always... always getting yourself killed. Fuck.” Tears stung my eyes. If he died I don't know what I'd do... “Kill that fucker... so we can... yeah. Be fine. Need to rest. Do you smell smoke?” I did my best to smile securely at him as the beams of green whittled down our safety.
You know what? Fuck this robot. It hurt my friend, and that made it personal.
“Further delay will result in termination!” Yeah, that wasn’t happening. Not while I was still breathing. Maybe I was sick and tired and injured, but I was also pissed, and that gave me strength. With my body under the heavy desk I slowly rose to my hooves. The desk was heavy, but with a grunt I managed to heft its full weight onto my back. I took a tentative step forward. The desk wobbled on my back, and the weight almost made me fall. Still, there was no choice but to go forward. And do it fast.
I charged as fast I could. It wasn't fast enough. Green blasts broke through the desk and slipped past me, singing my coat. Still I pressed on and slammed into the advanced robot. It heaved and slid back through the door.
“Obstruction Detected, Obliterating!” The revving sound got louder as it started to tear apart my barricade. That was all I needed though. Without it firing at me directly, I was able to dodge the blasts, climb over the desk, and slam the Spark Pulse Emitter into the robot’s bulbous head.
Electricity surged through the metallic monster for nearly a minute before it finally went dead.
I stumbled backwards from the robot, my eyes stinging from the smoke that it was emitting. My body cried out in pain from the dozens of different burn wounds over the past eighteen hours, and all I wanted to do was to lie down and rest. Turns out office floors are comfy so I laid down and closed my eyes. Then I remembered the freaky magic in this place and opened them again...
To reveal a ghost standing over me. It was fairly easy to tell it was, in fact, a ghost by the way it was all see-through and wavy. Unfortunately, it wasn't Wildfire. Instead, a ghostly version of Baptisia stood above me, looking almost scared. I was getting tired of her.
She didn't stand there for long, as a minute later three more ghosts walked into the room. One was a slightly overweight brown stallion, the other two just guards. The stallion and Baptisia flapped their their mouths at each other for way too long before the two guards flanked the former overseer and escorted her out of the room.
“What the fuck.” Flare mumbled from his side of the room.
Eventually, we picked our broken asses off the floor. Flare was in rough shape, wincing at every step, but he didn't complain but to mention how much of an idiot I was. I had to agree: running out in front of a super robot was a terrible way to defeat it. We didn't bother talking about the weird vision. It made no sense, and we knew it. We also had more important things on our minds. Like not dying.
And finding Serenity. Actually, that was first.
“Enough of this...” I leaned against the wall looking around the destroyed room. “This med-x shit. Help me find my daughter.”
“Find...? I know where she is.” Flare’s lips curled into a small smile. “I woke up before. You and Serenity were asleep, so I scooped up the filly and flew off to try and find a way out. I was gonna come back for your heavy ass, but the filly comes first. Anyway, I got cornered so I stashed her somewhere the robots wouldn’t find her...” He kicked at the floor nervously. “Then I fell asleep again. Sorry.”
“It's fine.” I hobbled my way to the door. So much debris in the way. My weak limbs went to work clearing the way. “It's better. Smart to take Serenity. Thank you. Where is she?”
“Nearby. Asleep and safe of course. I guess we can find med-x for you after, but somepony has to carry her, and I figured you'd want to. Not that it matters now, neither of us are in any shape to carry anypony.
“I'll wake her up.” His raised eyebrow begged the question. “Same way I did for you.”
“... No. You know what I mean.”
“You called her your daughter.”
“I hate you.” With a kick the rest of the desk moved out of the way. For once I was really glad I had a cybernetic leg. Unlike my other leg, it wasn’t weak or shaky. It was pretty much the only thing holding me up. “I did call her that, though. Tired of games.”
And Wildfire had told me I should accept her. I had known it for a long time, but I was so afraid. Despite what that dream tried to tell me though, Serenity was not Foundation. The past was the past, and nothing I could do would change it, but I had a chance to be better for Serenity. To learn from my mistakes, and give her the love she needed. So I had to do that. For her, because she deserved it.
“Really? Shit, it's about time, Silver.” As if I didn't already know that.
“If she'll have me. After Karkhoof...” I left the name linger in the air as I pushed the deactivated bot out of the way. For good measure I also jabbed it again with my Spark Pulse Emitter. “Why do you keep calling me Silver?” It was a desperate attempt to change the conversation.
He followed me outside the room with a noticeable limp. “You know. It's your name. I haven't decided which I like better: Hired Storm or Silver Gun.” I went to correct him, but realized at the last second that he was mocking me, so I shut up. “Really though, Silver Storm is a nice name. Why change it?”
“Because.” I took a look both ways and Flare pointed one direction with his wing. Since he had the information of where he put Serenity I followed his directions. “Bad things happened with that name...”
“You mean bad things happened to you.” This was the part where I turned to glare at his jackass face. “And if you'd notice, bad things are still happening to you. You know, name changes don't actually make your life better.” He trotted up beside me and patted my back with his left wing. “Seriously, I get it. Run away from your old life, start anew. But the way that thing works is your past always catches up to you. Sooner or later, you have to deal with it. Or it'll chase you down and devour you, piece by bloody piece. It starts by tearing out the throat so you’ll bleed out before-”
“Right, that metaphor ran away from me there.” There was a slight pause. “Get it? Because... oh never mind. I mean it though, you have to accept what happened. Changing your name won't change shit.” Flare was giving me advice about not running away from the past. I'll just let the irony sink in.
“Right. Got it.”
We went back to walking. My EFS scanned the area as we went. We passed more than a few tempting labs, but we kept on going. As much as I wanted to explore to find out the secrets (and find med-x and healing potions), Serenity trumped those desires. At least Flare had had the good sense to take her first, and to hide her when he had been cornered. I'd have to thank him after we got to her.
As we turned the corner I noticed... something at the end of the hall, a strange staircase that seemed to call to me. Against my better judgement, I ran (well, considering how injured I was) towards it.
The stairs were made of carefully polished white marble. The small stairwell went up sixteen steps, and, while the bottom of them was fairly wide, it narrowed slightly upon rising. At the top was a pair of large wooden doors set with odd, gilded carvings. Something seemed to call me up the stairs. A powerful force was beyond it, so much so my shoulder was flaring in absolute agony.
“Hired!” Flare rushed to my side when I dropped clutching at the joint where my metal leg connected to my body. It was lightning coursing through my eyes. Fuck. “Hired, are you...”
“Yeah.” I grunted. His eyebrows were furrowed as looked down at me. “Fine... just... the magic.” burned through my body. “Beyond that door.” He turned to look up the stairs. “Something...” magical. Powerful. Part of me already knew what. In the observation room where we saw the video of that pony, it was taking a video of the room beyond those stairs. One more mystery. Some of the pieces to unravel the puzzle I already had, but I couldn't help but think I was missing something.
“Yeah, I figured you'd want to see that...” He attempted to help me up, but apparently forgot how much I weighed. “Uh, can you get up?”
“Yeah...” Slowly I did, trying my best to ignore the pain in my body. While the pain didn't leave, I grew accustomed to it enough to get to all fours. “Later. Where is she?”
“You passed the room I put her in; c'mon.” He trotted backwards until I started to follow. From my vantage point, I could see where the MEW's had left his armour melted and slagged to his back. He didn't even complain. That stallion was tougher than I wanted to give him credit for.
I followed him to a small door that I would not have noticed had he not pointed it out. When Flare opened it, I could see it was a simple, cramped storage closet I could barely squeeze into. On the shelves to either side were a large variety of cleaning and electronic supplies, and a locked ammo box for some reason. The most important thing in the closet, however, was the small pink ball in the centre of the room. Serenity...
...you can't blame yourself, Silver... you did everything you could...
Flare didn't try to stop me as I limped to her body and lay to the ground beside her. Her chest rose and fell in short shallow breaths; her mane was so slick with sweat it was sticking to her face. Lowing my head I pressed it to hers and closed my eyes.
Tears stung my eyes. “I missed you, my Serenity.”
I had no idea where I was at all. For reasons I could not explain, I was standing on a hill, overlooking a city in a valley by a giant river. The river was so vast it seemed to stretch in every direction until it met the horizon. The city itself was in various states of disrepair with the ruin becoming more intense the closer it got to the giant crater in the exact centre of the city that actually glowed green. Squinting my eyes, I could see ponies moving in the distance, looking as small as ants.
A road that looked part dirt, part pre-war materials, wound from the city and towards the hill I was standing on. Beside the road was a rather large sign with writing I just couldn't make out. I really wished that my eye had a zoom function. Maybe when I got back to Dise I could ask House for one. If I got back to Dise. After all that had happened, it seemed the likelihood of returning was fading more and more.
With a resigned sigh, I turned to try and figure out where I was.
Directly behind me was a huge white house I hadn't noticed. It looked to be three stories high at least, and had to have been freshly built and painted. It looked like a picture of pre-war equestria had been crudely plastered over the wasteland. Even the lawn was a pure green, even while the dirt around it was as brown and lifeless as it had always been. Children's toys seemed to be scattered across the lawn, including a complete swing set.
“Well...” My eyes scanned the house. It was big and beautiful, like nothing I had ever seen before. I made my way slowly towards the door, but I made sure to keep my eyes watchful. Having no idea where I was obviously meant I had no idea of what dangers could be lurking.
By the time I reached the solid wooden door, I was almost positive there were no dangers. Everything around was wasteland, but the house and its lawn were positively idyllic. It was obviously a dream so I didn’t bother knocking, but I did try to press my ear against the door to see if I could hear anything.
From inside I heard... something. It almost sounded like a song, but why would anypony be singing? Well, the only real way to answer that question was breaking and entering. The door opened silently and I was inside the house.
The house was actually really creepy. The living room I entered into was painted a strange silvery-grey, and all over the walls were posters of cybernetic parts laid out on great detail. The singing became more clear as I walked towards the striped white and pink couch. In front of it was a small metallic coffee table, and on that was a single picture frame. Since I was breaking in anyway, I might as well sate my curiosity.
I knelt down to get a better look. The picture was of a small pink foal whose yellow mane looked to be just starting to grow in properly. Though she was young enough to still be in diapers the foal was leaning over a magazine depicting an artificial leg with a screwdriver in her mouth. Above her, on the frame, were the words 'She Is Always Watching Over You'. It didn't take a genius to figure out who the foal was. Part of me wished I could steal it for myself, but I was fairly sure this was a dream. Which meant no stealing baby pictures. No matter how cute.
The singing got louder, but I still couldn't make out the words. However, it was easy to tell they were coming from up the stairs on the far side of the living room. When I made my way across, I noticed the stairs were actually carpeted, and in alternating colours of green and yellow. The entire stairwell was blue, which made the whole thing look a little gaudy. About half way up it, I started to hear the words of the song.
“It's a big world, baby~ And you're little, for a little while~”
The hallway at the top was painted a deep blue that made the room look smaller than it was. The carpet was toxic green, and the only door (strange, that) was purple. It was cracked open slightly and I thought I saw movement on the other side. The singing got clearer as I got closer.
“It's a big world, baby~ And you can fiddle, in your own style~”
I carefully peeked into into the room, hoping whoever was inside wouldn't notice me. The room was light green while the carpet was designed to look like puzzle pieces of interlocking red and orange, and it was currently covered with toys. Two rectangular windows shone light from the outside on the two figures in the middle of the floor. Well, I found out who was singing.
“In your own style~ In your own style~”
A tall, skinny grey pony with a long, pink and yellow mane had her forelegs around Serenity and was rocking her softly as they sang. The filly’s eyes were closed blissfully, and she was either asleep or getting there.
“In your own style~ In your own style~”
When the final note faded into the air the pink filly smacked her lips together and yawned. The larger mare petted her mane softly as Serenity got into a more comfortable position. “Would you like another song, sweetie?” The mare's voice was soft where mine was rough and gravelly. Serenity nodded. “Your favourite?”
Well, enough of that. The door shattered at the force of my kick. That got their attention, and woke Serenity into attention. “Let my daughter go.” I stomped my hoof for emphasis.
The skinny mare turned to me, her green eyes wide. “Who are you?! Get out! You aren't allowed in he–‒!”
“You called me your daughter!” Serenity pulled herself away from the strange pony and ran over to hug my leg. “I knew it! I love you, Momma.” I... my heart fluttered, and I felt really warm and happy. It didn't last long as I felt the dream start to crash around me. That was easier than I'd expected.
I woke up to find a certain filly doing her damnedest to choke the life out of me with a hug.
“Serenity,” I said, but she just squealed and hugged me harder. “What happened?” It took me forever to break Flare's dream... “Didn't you want to stay. You looked...” She shook her head and let go of me.
“Who cares 'bout any'a that? I have'a real momma, and that's all that matters!” She smiled. “You meant it right? For real? You really wanna be my momma, cause if ya don't it's okay, I understand. Don't wanna force ya, but I'd be really happy because...”
“Serenity.” She zipped her mouth shut at my words. “Yes, I'll be your foster mom. If you'll have me. I should have said so earlier, but after everything that happened... I just. Just if you want me to be, I will. I do love you, you know. I'm just not smart and fuck up how to show it.” She hesitated for a minute, her brow furrowed in thought.
Then she hugged me again, and that was all the confirmation that I needed.
“Touching,” Flare said after a minute. “But it should wait. We’re still trapped in this fucking creepy-ass place and we have no way to get out. So...” He held the word way too long. “Let’s head out. Once we're safe, you two can be all mushy and sickly sweet. Just not around me. I don't want diabetes.” At that cry Serenity jumped up and started showering the pegasus with kisses. Each more deadly than the last. “No, nooo, get it off! It burns us!” Flare fell in a dramatic flare of wings and twitching legs. “So. Much. Cute.”
With a final twitch, the great pegasus's head fell to the floor. The monster was vanquished once and for all, and the heroine took her rightful place standing with one hoof on his face with a look of triumph on her face.
As much as I wanted to play there with Serenity forever, we had things to do. For one thing, confront what was behind those strange doors, and then find our way out. Then we had to actually to escape the mountain, confront some Steel Rangers, let Subtlety (I missed her) have a nice long chat with High Stakes and my brother. Then eventually get back to Dise a failure and fall asleep beside Platinum Haze. That sounded nice enough to push my weary body forward.
Serenity and Flare followed after me when I walked into the hall and turned my head towards the end of the hallway where the stairs were. Even from this distance I could feel an intense heat in my metallic socket. It was painful, and familiar. As far as I was concerned, that room was the answer to what happened here, and I had to find out.
“Are you sure we should go in there?” Flare asked. “I mean, it's kinda, ya know.”
“Not even sure where we are. Weren't we in a security room?” Serenity asked.
Oh, right. I quickly gave Serenity the short version of everything that had happened since we got knocked out the first time. She bobbed her head in tune with what I said, so I had to assume she understood. Considering it was Serenity, she definitely understood if I did. She was just that much smarter than I was.
So we made our way towards the double doors. The walk seemed longer than it should have, and each step sent shockwaves up my body. My body was still weak, and it had been getting weaker since I’d woken up, but I had to keep going. Since I was young, I had always able to take more than most ponies, and this was no different. In time, I'd rest, so I kept moving to get to that time. In my mind, figuring out what happened was the key to getting out of here, and then getting the long rest I needed.
So just a few more steps. We reached the sixteen stairs and looked up at the doors. It was close now, and my shoulder was in agony. I could take it though. To escape, to get free, I could take it. Now that I had Serenity with me, I was determined not to let anything stop me. Just a few more steps and I'd be there. Find the truth, and then we could escape.
“What do you think that pony is?” Serenity asked as we ascended the stairs. I had a few ideas, but nothing solid to go on. Whatever that pony in the monitor was, it was something powerful. Maybe evil. Still, if it was behind that door, I'd have to meet it. Maybe it'd kill us, but if that was the case, it could’ve killed us at any time.
I really hated this place (if that wasn't clear already), but we were stuck here until we could escape. I was positive that something behind this door could help. I could feel it. So we had to try. It was the only way, and yeah it totally sucked, but what choice did I really have?
“Lets find out.” I opened the door, and held my breath.
New Perk!: Intense Training Level 3: Through hard work and extensive body modification you almost have an average intelligence! INT +1.
Skill Note: Magical Energy Weapons 25.
((A/N: Wow, you actually got through that chapter? I’m a bit shocked. I guess I should thank the lovely Kkat for building this world for me to defile, and my editors theBSDude, Menti, and Mint Julep for their hard work.))