We didn't talk about what we had seen. During those final minutes when Simple Heart threw all his power at us in his attempt to subdue us, we had all seen terrible things, things meant to break our will. Things we really did not want to talk about. We never told each other we weren't going to talk about them, but when we had burst through the door into the crisp morning air, we just knew. It was impossible to get the image of Foundation hanging there out of my mind, just like it had been for so long back in Marefort. I was thankful the exit we found was just a carefully disguised door behind a large rocky outcrop, and not on top of something high...
The morning was still new, and there was a thin mist curling around the ground as we walked towards the highway. Nopony spoke for the time. What could we say? Our minds were still processing the amount of bullshit we had just been through, and we were all nursing wounds. I was by far the worst, my coat more black from burn scorches than it was grey, but Flare wasn't far off; the back of his power armour was actually melted into slag on his back, and he winced at the slightest touch. Even Serenity had her scars. Although she’d only been hit directly once in the battle under the tunnels, given her size, it was not a pretty thing. Between the three of us we needed a Vertibuck full of healing potions to get back to full strength.
We found the highway easily enough, as we had been there before. Turning, I looked back at the mountain close behind us. It stuck so high and so sharp into the sky, it looked like a dagger from the earth trying to pierce the heavens. Clouds swirled around its snow-tipped peak, and it made me dizzy to look at. For a second I thought I saw a bird, but it must have been my delirious mind.
I took a deep breath of the sweet morning air, and turned to my weary companions. “You have to choose.” I pointed north. “Go with me to confront my brother. And High Stakes.” I motioned south. “Try to avoid Steel Rangers. Go back to Dise.” Then I sorta waved east and west. “Go the long way around. Easier to avoid Steel Rangers. Much longer.”
“Dise,” Serenity said at once. “Just wanna go home.”
“I say we go find High Stakes and chop his head off.” Flare said that far too happily. “Your brother too. If they control the town, we could try talking to them, convince them we aren't a threat... or something.”
“High Stakes won't be in Bridle Hope.” I was pretty sure. Even chained and sold, I don't think he'd risk staying in one spot while I was alive. Not if he was as smart as he claimed to be. “Smooth Tongue either.” He said he was moving on, and that was true enough. “He said he'd leave a lieutenant. Might be my brother. If it's not, the pony may be tractable.” They looked at me strangely. “I still have a job to do. Make sure trading is not interrupted. I may kill them all yet. But until then I was paid to do a job. I can't go home until it's done.”
A lot had happened since I got the job back in Dise, but I still had to do it. There was no way I was wrenching the town from the Crimson Hoof's... er, hooves, so that means I had to work with them no matter how much it grated at my mind. I was still Hired Gun, I was still a Hizai, and I was Hired for a job, so I had to do it. Hired Gun does not back out of contracts... she may kill her contract holder after the job is done, but that's a completely different story.
“You just said we had a choice.” Flare incorrectly pointed out.
“I said you had a choice. You don't have to go with me. I'd rather not risk it...”
“Momma, we're comin' with'ya.” And that was that. Normally I would have tried to convince Serenity it would be safer if Flare flew her back to Dise, but she got that stubborn look on her face, and I had given her the option to choose. Even still, there was no way I was letting her into the town proper.
“Okay. Go with me. Wait outside the town. Don't want to risk you. Again.” I looked at Flare who smirked back. “Either of you.”
“Yay, I'm accepted!” His voice was exaggeratedly happy. “Oh, we should make team uniforms.” What? “Every team needs a pithy name and a uniform. We could be the 'Wasteland Crusaders', but we'll need capes. I wonder how much the Finishers charge to make capes.”
“If you go to them,” I said as I started down the highway, eager to leave the mountain on the horizon, “they'll put you in a dress again.”
“You know, Hired, that gives me an idea. If you're going to go negotiate, you should look good.” Wait, what? “I still have your dress in my bag you know.” I turned my head partially around, giving Flare a nice view of my scars. “Remember in the tunnels? You lost your saddle bag and only managed to save your dress. You gave it to me to hold. I've been keeping real good care of it.” Seriously, is this really where he was going.
“Think about it! If they recognize you, they'll shoot on sight, but if you saunter up asking for an audience looking all fancy-like; well, it'll be more likely they won't put you in chains.” He paused as he trotted to catch up. “Not impossible, you're still Hired, and getting caught is your modus operandi.” My... huh?
“Momdius, openrendy?” What the heck was that supposed to mean.
Flare just laughed. He had done that on purpose. “It means like, how you do what you do, get it?” I nodded. “Anyway, wear the dress. You'll lose fewer body parts.” Well, that was always a positive. At the rate I was falling apart I'd be a robot by the next full moon.
“Oh! Momma, you really should.” Serenity trotted up beside me. “It'd cover up your wounds, make you more presentable.” It wouldn't do much for the tangled mess of hair that was my mane, but it would look better than my thousand burn scorches. At least the Med-X made them bearable. “Pleeease.”
“I'll. Ugh, think about.” They tried to talk again, so I flicked on my pipbuck radio. It had been a while, and I was missing out on a lot of news. Somehow I knew I'd be involved.
“...to circulate about the ghosts of the Goddesses living under the city. If you ask this newscaster, thats’ a bit too crazy even for a city of robot guards and super heroes.” I smiled at that. It was good to know. “And I have more casualty reports from the violence in the north. Seven more survivors from Timber have found their way to Dise, all telling matching tales of the horrors they saw at the hooves of the Steel Rangers. An official spokespony for the group has stated that what they did was a necessary evil to secure the safety of the wasteland, but did not elaborate. They also said nopony travelling near Timber will be harmed. Officially, the NCA has declined requests to bring the group to justice as Timber was not under control at the time. To quote Major Lucky; 'The NCA cannot be held responsible for every evil in the wasteland, and Timber passed up its chance for NCA protection and justice.' Whether you agree with the NCA decision or not, it is true that they lack the pony power to police the entire wasteland. But that does raise the question if they are able to protect Dise like they claim.”
As I listened, Serenity walked beside me, looking up with pleading eyes. She did like to ride on me, but I was still sore all over and there was no way I was up to being a mount. I glanced over at Flare, and he sighed, picking her up and placing her on his back. Trotting beside me, he gave a rueful smirk and shook his head.
“Reports from Bridle Hope have been more mixed. We originally reported that the town was being attacked by raiders from the north, but new information suggests that there was an internal dispute inside the town, and one side hired mercenaries from the north. Reports are hard to verify, but I can report that the new town leadership has promised the town will continue as it had before with a few cosmetic changes. We will try to dig a bit deeper. For now, the town seems safe, but keep your chamber loaded just in case.”
“Finally, after the zebras of Karkhoof's sudden and devastating attack on the retreating Celestia's Promise that killed nearly all the ponies involved, the NCA promised to march an army to Karkhoof to make them pay for their crimes. When they arrived however our reports state that the town was empty. Apparently, the zebras fled in the night, and nopony seems to know where they have gone.”
As I focused in on the rather glum news, I felt something heavy land on my head. Something giggling. Strands of yellow and red passed into my vision before I got a view of an upside down Serenity. “Can I ride up here? It’s real comfy. Kinda smells though.” With a smirk, I nodded far too much, forcing her to grab onto my ear to stay on. With a giggle, she righted herself and got comfy.
“In other news, the Chairpony of the New Caledonian Alliance is coming to the NCA base outside Dise in the next few days to sign a peace treaty with the Minotaurs. This unprecedented action is fraught with perils, but he insists it is for the good of the Alliance, and of all nations within.”
“Woo! We got time for one more story, so let’s end on a happy note. I reported earlier that the Hero of Wending led a group of civilians out of Bridle Hope to escape the crossfire, and that those ponies credit her and her daughter for saving their lives, well guess who came to visit me today in office. None other than the Hero herself! Though she prefers to be called Pinprick, and we didn't have time for a proper interview. She was... not what I expected, and had a mouth that'd shame Nightmare Moon, but she's a good mare, and she's doing the hard work, so if you see her give her a pat on the back. And maybe some ammo.”
“Two towns wiped off the map, another in disharmony, one peace conference, and a hero... it seems the wasteland is moody. Well that's enough of my blathering, lets get to the part you actually care about.” A song I've heard a thousand times in the past few weeks played over my radio. The news was grim, and getting grimmer, with a little bit of hope sprinkled on top.
It was nothing I could deal with now though. I had a job that needed to be done, no matter how much it pissed me off. So I kept walking northward. Honestly, after everything we had been through, I was looking forward to the long boring walk. It was better than slowly being driven insane while robots shoot green death at you. So there was that. At least I had Serenity, even if she was determined to be a hat.
We made it to the outskirts of Bridle Hope by dusk. At least, I was fairly sure it was Bridle Hope, but it was hard to be certain with a wall around the town. It seemed all the unused houses in the outskirts of the the village had been torn down and used to make the barricade around the town. I know Meadow had told me he planned to build a wall around the town, but I hadn't expected him to do it so quickly. It was hard to not be a little bit impressed.
Serenity had long since fallen asleep on the walk, and was snoring quietly on my head as we stopped and hid behind a large rock. Flare helped me place Serenity on the ground, and took out her brown cloak to use as a blanket. “She is cuter when she's asleep.” Flare smirked. When he saw my look he quickly added, “Because she's quieter, I mean. When she's awake it's all 'an I was fixin' her cybernetics when tha inhibitor coil snapped an I had'a-'”
“Right.” Flare did an uncanny impersonation of Serenity, and it was more than a little creepy. “Point made. Just get the dress.” The pegasus looked scarily giddy at that prospect.
“Oh, yes!” He tore his saddle bag off and threw it to the ground with a heavy thunk. Turning his back to me, he dug through it (how much could it even hold?) and chuckled so much to himself I wondered if he just liked embarrassing me, or actually liked the way it looked. It did give me a good look at his back, and it still looked bad. Slagged metal melting on your back had to hurt, and he was being shockingly blase about it. Of course, as he said, he’d had worse before, but still, it made me feel like a wimp for complaining.
“Found it!” He laughed and turned, holding the slightly wrinkled white and red dress. “It's a shame Serenity will miss it, but there'll be time later.” I hoped not. While Flare thought it'd put me in a good position for bargaining (not looking like I'm about to smash heads is always a plus) I was half wishing I'd get into a firefight and ruin the thing. “Alright. Now... how do you put it on again?”
“Uh.” I stared at him. “You're the expert.”
“Just because I like stallions doesn't mean I like dressing up as a mare. I take offence to that.” Wait, I didn't mean that! I just... “Just fucking with you Hired -- the look on your face. I should have told you sooner, because it’s funnier this way.” I glared. “Though, I really don't know how to put it on.” We both stared at the dress...
An hour later I was finally dressed. It was a long awkward thing that we both agreed to never speak of again. Suffice it to say, dresses are annoying and I hate them.
“So... I just walk over to the gate and ask to see the mayor?”
“Sure! Why not?”
“And if they recognize me.” The dress pinched at my chest, and rubbed against the worst of my burns. “I die?”
“Why? You're no threat. They're trying to make themselves look like not-raiders, right? Well, killing random passersby wouldn't be very fitting. Besides, they might be expecting you to try and sneak or fight in, so walking through the front door will surprise them. It’s genius.” Flare seemed proud of himself.
“Or they shoot me in the face.” Just saying that made the scars itch.
“You'd just get back up even more pissed.” I stared at him for a second before giving a conciliatory nod. How could I argue with that. So far two ponies had shot me in the face, and besides missing a few body parts and my good looks, I was doing well for myself. Just had to keep going, and I'd show the two that shot me how you properly kill somepony.
“Watch Serenity. If I take more than a few hours, leave. If-”
“First sign of trouble, blahblahblah, got it. Just go.” He smirked. “It'll be fine. The wasteland is due to cut us a break, don't you think?”
“Now that you said that, I'm going to have to wrestle a hellhound or something.” That was enough to get an amused smirk out of Flare. “Seriously. Be careful. I'll be as quick as I can.” Flare nodded, and I turned to walk away, imagining the thousand ways this could go wrong.
I stepped out onto the roadway and stared down at the town walls. Behind them, a wall of light shone up, and I could see the casino resting on its high hill. It was the same town, but different. From the outside, it felt more secluded, hidden. Licking my lips, I started down the road, ignoring the burning in my wounds. Right. Just go and talk to Crimson Hoof management, no way that is going to be tough.
I took a step forward, and warnings flashed in my head. This was stupid. Suicidal. Going to get me shot again. Still, I kept walking. How bad could it be? I never really tried talking on friendly terms, and running and gunning wasn't going to work this time, and not just because I lacked guns. Maybe I could do talking. How hard could it be. So long as it wasn't Smooth Tongue...
The gate loomed, and I could see two ponies standing guard outside it. Behind each of them was a crudely painted flag of a bloodred hoof print. Subtle. Still, I kept going forward, even as they pointed their guns at me. Right. Be cool. I've done this before.
“State your business.” The blood red mare to my left said. Wait, mare? That seemed wrong, but I couldn't put my hoof on why.
“The mayor. I need to speak to her.” I did my best to brush my mane in front of my scarred face. “I am a representative of Mr. House.” The two looked at each other, confused. “A gang leader, and partial ruler of Dise. Do not keep a Hizai waiting.”
“Uh.” the mare turned to her stallion partner and nodded at him. At that he swiftly went into the city, probably to ask what a 'Mr. House' or 'a Hizai' was. “What’s your name?” The blood red mare squinted at me. “Do I know you?”
“Hired Gun. And I doubt it.” I smirked at her, trying my best to look confident in my dress. “I've come a long way to be here.” Not a lie. “You shouldn't hold me up.”
“It's my job. Nopony without business in Bridle Hope will be let inside by orders of Mayor Summer Silk.” Ah, so it was Meadow in charge. I tried not to let my apprehension show on my face. It was a good thing the night was dark. “Are you sure I don't know you?”
“Ever been to Dise?” The mare shook her head. “Then no.”
“Who did you say you worked for again?” The mare was very careful to keep her mouth close to her battle saddle bit.
“Mr. House. Runs 'The Black Salamander Casino'. Has a cybernetic empire. His enforcers are called The Hizai. Cybernetic warriors.” I motioned to my leg, but that seemed to make her more suspicious. “Here to organize a trade deal. Were you taught nothing?”
The mare's suspicious look turned into a rather heavy glare. She didn't say anything else so I matched her glare and brushed my mane out of the sway of my scars so I'd look more menacing. The stallion took his time so we just stood there staring at each other as the wind whipped at my mane and dress.
Eventually she asked, “Why is your eye glowing?”
“Last one got shot. Got a better one.” I missed my eyepatch. I'm not even sure where I had lost it, but I missed it. Part of me had hoped I'd find another lying around. “It has many functions. It also shoots laser beams.”
The red mare laughed. “Now I know you're lying.” I shook my head. “Show me.”
“No.” I quickly added. “It'd kill you.”
“Don't aim at me. Are you an idiot?” Well, ask a stupid question.
“Well.” I looked at a rock not to far away and glared at it. “Stand back.” The mare did so, looking a bit conflicted. On the one hoof it was clear she didn't want to believe me, but on the other I could see how curious she was. So I glared hard at the rock. My eyes started to whirr to life and I could feel its glowing intensified. The sound of my eye intensified until I was sure it was going to overheat and...
My eye could still not shoot lasers. The look on her face was really amusing though, so I kept it up for a few seconds longer. Just in time for the stallion to return.
“Jas,” He panted, running through the gate. “Summer wants her brought to him at once, and requests you escort.”
“Huh,” The pony named 'Jas' said. “But...” she turned to me and glared.
“Well.” I looked away from the rock and attempted to saunter past her without tripping. “Another time then. It is such a cool trick, too.” His glare only intensified as I trotted through the gate and she was forced to follow. I was beginning to understand why Flare always teased me, it was pretty funny.
The town looked very similar, if much smaller now that it had a wall to constrict it. I noticed some of the more decrepit buildings (including the old school with the bell tower) had been torn down, making the town feel cleaner. Also, wooden posts with lamps now lined the streets making it far easier to see. It was annoying. The changes actually improved the town, at least on a superficial level. But it had only been, what, five days at most since I was shot? There was no way he should have been able to work so fast.
“Protection is paramount,” Jas said bitterly when she noticed me staring. “Summer had us use all our resources to construct the wall. It’s still weak, but with time... the lanterns were so we could work through the night and be able to see. The remaining civilian population liked it, so we've decided to keep it.”
“I see.” I noticed she was leading me towards the casino, that was not much of a surprise. “Why?”
“Why protect the town?”
“It is under Crimson Hoof control, and when we take control of the town, we keep it under our control. To do that, we break a town’s resistance, and then offer them a better alternative to rebelling. In time they accept us.” She smirked as we started up the hill.
“Where are you from?”
“Stallionguard.” She laughed. “A bloody stupid name for a small town. Called after some bigshot city in the north, we took it because it fit. I doubt you'll ever go deep enough into Crimson Hoof territory to find it.” Stallionguard. For some reason I imagined that's what Marefort would have been called if the mare's were dragged off, and the stallions stayed... I was going to have to ask about that, because it piqued my curiosity.
“Right.” I almost asked about Marefort, but I thought better of it. This mare clearly had no idea who I was, and I didn't want to say anything that could tip her off. “So you like them?”
“Who, the Crimson Hoof?” I nodded. “Well, fuck.” We reached the door to the casino. “I guess. They're my family, and my job. It's not a matter of like or love or shit, they're my family.” She shrugged. “Now shut up, I don't know what Summer wants with you, but it can't be good.” She eyed my dress. “Nice, a bit small.” She was telling me! Fuck, it stung. Chafing against my burns.
The casino was almost exactly the same, save for a few blood stains that had not been properly cleaned up, and it was completely empty. The blood red mare (who I just realized had a grey mane peaking out from under her helmet) led me around a few Rainboom Riches machines to a small, dingy back hallway that led to a room labeled, “GM's Office.”
The room was small, with a large window overlooking the town dominating one wall and a chart on the other. I didn't pay attention to it, as my brother was sitting across the room from me at a desk. Upon entering, he pushed the paper he was looking at away and stood up. “Sister.” I opened my mouth, but he kept talking. “I've been going over casualty reports. How many did you kill in the battle?” Accident.
I was a bit startled; he didn't even look at me. “I... three. Or, four. Something lik-”
“Primrose.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jas tense up at the name. “Was found dead outside the casino with her stealth buck still activated.” Oh, yeah, I remembered that pony. “Head caved in. Such a shame. What did she do to you?”
“I-what? She attacked me. In a battle. I was fully justified in everything I-” Something slammed into my chest. Grunting I stepped back, and turned. My EFS flashed red, and my eye placed a brown box (meaning she was a low-level threat) around her. When she turned and aimed her battle saddle at me, though, it quickly changed to red. “Shit.” She was too short, I couldn't duck.
So I did what I always did. Charge.
My head hit her neck hard, making her gasp for air. A second later I wrapped my foreleg around her neck, and slammed her to the ground. The mare struggled with me, but even injured she didn't stand a chance of overpowering me. I looked up wild-eyed to my brother as I tried to figure out why he did that.
“Jasmine.” He leaned over the desk. “Silver will let you up, and you will go peacefully.” The mare glared but nodded.
Though I didn't really want to let her go, I did. When I did she immediately wrenched away, spat at my hooves and walked out the door. When it slammed shut I turned my head to my brother. “You killed her wife.” I blinked. “Primrose, the invisible mare you assaulted. Or did you think the ponies you killed had no lives? You don't even know how many you've killed.”
“She would have killed me.” I stomped my hoof.
“Yes. So you killed her first.” He smiled. “We're both killers, but you try to lie to yourself about what you are.” What, what the hell was he talking about? “And I-”
“Oh shut up.” I straightened out my dress. “One of these days I'm going to kill you. Not today though. I'm not that stupid. I'm here on behalf of Mr. House. I had hoped it wouldn't be you but...” he shrugged. “I'm not here to argue morality. Accuse you of being a raider. Or shoot you. I'm here about trade.” My EFS showed three green ticks, but only one pony. My shoulder burned, so I had to assume stealthbucks.
“Oh...” a blush came to his cheeks. “I thought you'd be... uh. So...” he chuckled awkwardly. “So... about trade...”
“You make a shitty Smooth Tongue.” It was clear what he was trying to do. He thought I was going to come in here raging about this or that, and he was going to throw that death in my face. While I felt bad about the fight, so his plan worked, his attempted manipulation wasn’t really conducive to the conversation. “He would have waited. Until he knew why I was here.”
“Thanks for the advice.” He grimaced. “So... Silver.”
The silence was deafening.
Why couldn't I have been anypony else? It was bad enough swallowing my pride and finishing this job for House, but with my brother here, it made it all the worse. Old wounds resurfaced and made my blood boil and what was left of my ears burn. After everything he had done, how could I just dumbly accept this. I should have killed him. Nothing less than what he deserved... so why did I hold back?
“I can't believe it's you,” Meadow said. “When you were a child you were so... happy. Full of energy. Large, yes, and a bit slow, but this is...” he shook his head and sighed. “Why did you attack stable 42?”
“For you!” I said at once, almost believing it. “I saw you. Attacking the caravan, I was going to-”
“Bullshit, Silver.” He glared at me. “That's bullshit. You had over ten years to care about me, and where were you then? Do you think I don't know what happened? You fall from a cliff, tell everypony you lost your memory, and then come and try to save me?” I winced. That was not one of my better lies. But after everything that had happened, I just wanted to... forget. Pretend like it didn't. Go into my little world and forget my failure, because remembering hurt too much. “Were you trying to get killed?”
“Because if you were.” he continued as if he didn't hear me, “I can get you help. Dise has some good therapists I hear, it'd cost-” I slammed my hoof down and he shut up.
“I went to save you. I thought. Fuck, you're working for raiders.”
“Didn't you just say you came here to not have this argument?”
“Well, we're having it now!” He just smirked when I said that. “I mean, that's why I went to save you. Because of... them. And....” and maybe I was looking to redeem myself. Make up the loss of one family and get another one back. Or maybe he was right and I was trying to die a hero. “Yeah, I fucked up.”
“How many did you kill?” One, Wildfire. The others didn't matter. When he saw I wasn't answering, he kept talking. “Seven. I informed each of their families. And you can't even tell me why!”
“They were raiders!”
“So what does that make you?”
I... that... I was a.
Tears stung my eyes. I just wanted to be a hero. Like The Lightbringer. But instead of making mistakes and doing better to the point of clearing the skies, I just made mistakes, got ponies killed, and then did it again and again. I lost my brother and mother, so I made up for it with Wildfire and Foundation... then they died, and I found Serenity and Flare. How long until I fucked up and...
I felt something soft on my face. My brother... was nuzzling me.
That was so not happening.
I wrapped my leg around his neck and threw him to the ground. After everything, I refused to take comfort from him. To my surprise he actually rolled back to his hooves and lunged at me. Did he really think he could out wrestle me? I know I promised not to kill him, but damn, he was just making this way too easy.
Except. When all was said and done, he had me pinned on my back with a cocky grin on his face. Even after all these years, instincts kicked in, and I let him win. Just like when we were foals.
For some reason this made me astoundingly uncomfortable, and I wrenched away and rolled to back onto all fours. “It really is you.” He looked bewildered. “I had thought maybe... I don't know. Thought maybe you weren't really Silver, it had been so long after all... that maybe...” he paused. “I'm not sure if that makes it better. That you'd do all of this.” He laughed bitterly.
“You mean like.” I did my best to hide the emotion in my voice. This was my brother, still. I thought he’d changed, but maybe it was just me. “Attacking a town. And stealing control.”
“If it wasn't us, it would have been something worse. We let anypony who wished to surrender stay unmolested, and many did. We are giving them safety, security, and the backing of an up-and-coming empire. If the Steel Rangers came through would they be offered such courtesy?” The charred remains of Timber flashed through my mind. “Or raiders? Or when the slavers got bored of using this town as a hub and decided they'd get more money just taking them all? Or if the minotaurs crossed the east western and thought this would be a great place to send the NCA a message?”
“What if the NCA came. Protected the town. They'd do a better job than yo-” He cut me off.
“They're more professional and have more ponies, but they have enemies. So far the only enemy we have is you. If the NCA took the town, it's the closest to their most dangerous enemy, and furthest away from their power base. They would retreat.” Oh, that was a good point. “The town would be defenceless. The town can't survive these troubled times on their own, it needed direction. What would you have us do?”
“Give them a choice.”
He laughed. “Yeah... we could have done that. But ponies are stupid. They need guidance,”
“Not like this.”
“Well we're at an impasse then, aren't we.” He slowly trotted back to his desk. “There. We had our little sibling spat. We're never going to agree with each other. If there was any way I could reach you, I'd do it, but you've always been stubborn.” He sighed. “Silver... you're my sister, it kills me to see you make this mistake. The Crimson Hoof is not a raider gang. We're ruthless, but for a purpose.”
“And Smooth To-” he slammed a hoof on the desk to cut me off.
“He's not your enemy! When you attacked the stable and killed ponies he offered you a job, a job. When you came back again he tried to convince you to stay, and when you were dying from your wounds he ordered you fixed up. He told me if I saw you again to give you anaother chance. Hell, how do you think you got that pipbuck?” Huh... Wildfire bought it for me. From a trader. You know, I never did wonder where a trader got a functioning pipbuck. “Smooth Tongue gave them to ponies who weren't selected to join under the regular procedures, but he felt were worth it.”
“Wildfire gave it to me...”
“She knew full well what it meant. Smooth wanted you to join him, and you keep spurning him for no reason.”
“He killed our mom!” How could he keep forgetting that?
“Silver, she was...” he sighed. “We've been over this. Are we never going to have a civil conversation?” I glared. “That's a pretty dress. A bit tight, but it suits you.” I... my glare softened a little.
“Thanks.” I paused. “I guess. Whatever. Lets just get this over with. Mr. House requires something of you. He needs-”
“The town to be free of taxes on traders, I know. High Stakes and I have already worked out a deal that should be satisfactory.” He did, what, why?
“He insisted on finishing his job before joining us. He made a good argument, and we agreed. Which reminds me.” He pulled something out of a drawer with his mouth, set it on the desk, and nosed it towards me. Slowly, I edged forward and took the object.
“An audio recording.” I took the recorder in my mouth and slipped it into one of my collar pockets. “Why?”
“High Stakes. He wanted me to give it to that pegasus of yours if you came back.” He laughed. “Buck was getting all emotional about it, too. You should have seen it.”
“The only way I'll see him is dead.” My brother winced at that. “Where is he?”
“You know I can't tell you that.” He shook his head. “He did try to kill you after all, and I know how badly you take that. Shoot you once an-”
“You shot me with poison from space!”
We matched glares. Mine won because he looked away first.
“I just... can't do this with you Silver. You want me dead; I want you gone. We can't go five seconds without yelling, so I think you should just... go. It was a mistake to think you changed.”
“Oh, get off it. We hate each other. I'll have a guard escort you to an empty house, your friends, too.” He looked past me out the window. “Yes, I know about them. You were reported hours before you got here... the weapons we took off you will be returned.” For some reason, getting Subtlety back felt hollow.
My emotions were a twisted wreck. On the one hoof, this stallion had betrayed me, but on the other he was still my brother. Even more, he actually wanted to help me in his own little messed up way. Part of me hated him, hated the sight of him. And the other part wanted to rush over to hug him and apologize for whatever it was I did. Tears welled in my eyes again and I tried to force them away by remembering the time he shot me. That just made more tears come. It just hurt, and I didn't know why. He wasn't the same colt he was... but.
“Fine.” The two stallions who were stealthed beside Meadow decloaked.
“Escort Silver away. Make sure I never see her again.” His voice was cold and passionless. I followed the two ponies to the door, and heard Meadow speak one last time. “Silver... if you don't leave tomorrow. I'll kill you myself. I'm sorry... goodbye. Get better.”
“Seeya, Meadow.” I was taken away from my brother, and I doubted I would ever see him again. Instead of sad, angry, or anything, I just felt... dull.
After getting my weapons (Subtlety!), the guards escorted me out of the casino and into the night. Right outside the door, I saw Jasmine glaring at me as I passed. No doubt she was going to try and kill me, and then I'd be forced to kill her back. That thought did not fill me with joy. It was easy to kill ponies when you don't know them, but killing a pony you’d widowed was many times more difficult, even if in self defence. Not that I usually fought in self defence...
The mare didn't touch me, on account of my guards, but I could see she wanted to. As I was escorted down the hill, I did my best to think about something else, anything else. It was surprisingly difficult.
I was led to a one-story house that was built so close to the wall it looked like it was more support than home. It looked mostly intact though, if you didn't count the windows which had been blown out centuries ago. One of the guards shoved me roughly inside with the command. “Don't start trouble. We've been ordered to kill if you do. Your friends will be brought to you shortly. In the morning, we’ll bring you to the edge of town. You are not allowed back. Ever.” Yeah, I got all that before. Idiots.
The door clicked behind me. Inside, the house was mostly empty, save for a table in the kitchen, a single bed in the bedroom across the hall, and a chair in the living room. A few candles had been set up and pre-lit. That was awfully nice of them, because I had just been going to use my pipbuck light. Lacking anything else to do, I sat down at the kitchen table and hefted Subtlety onto the table.
The orange light reflected off the smooth black surface, gleaming on all the scratches and scuffs. My brother had been doing a shit job keeping it for me, and it desperately needed to be cleaned and maintained. Well, I had the time, so I took out a rag and some cleaning supplies and got to work. Unicorns liked to brag about how their magic made things easier to manipulate, but earth ponies and pegasi had practice, and for me it was simple to start taking Subtlety apart. My mind faded from my task as my hooves did their work. I'd taken apart so many guns in so many ways (In Marefort, when we found weapons we had to make sure they worked before we could sell them) it was like second nature.
My mind went back to the facility. So much happened in so short a time in there that it stayed with me even though I'd been out for nearly a full day at that point. There was just so much in there, and I never found the answers to my questions. Like what actually happened to Baptisia. Whether or not anything Simple Heart told me about his powers was true. How they managed to attach a megaspell to a pony. What the hell was up with the voice over the radio. Why all robots suck. Unless I ventured further into the deep of that facility I would never really know.
And that was not going to happen. While all those questions (the robot one in particular) were important, I wasn't about to risk going back there just to figure them out. The most nagging question was the voice (not the robots, that's just the most annoying). I was confident that the voice and the megaspell-pony were not the same, but beyond that.... Flare gave a few good options of who it could be, but that really raised more questions than answers.
With a frustrated growl, I set aside the detached barrel after cleaning it. Subtlety really was a piece of work. For what it was, it was surprisingly simple in design compared to some over-engineered high-powered rifles I'd seen. It had fewer parts to be worn down or get gunked up, making it the most reliable anti-material rifle I'd ever handled. Made it fairly simple to clean too, but I took my time. It helped me relax.
Well, it usually helped me relax. In the dim candlelight that day, it just seemed to make me more nervous. Taking it apart reminded me of Dise. Or at least the structure of how it was run. The vital internal parts were like the gangs; if you wanted the city to function you needed them all. The scope was like the NCA or the Watchers. It wasn't necessary to fire the weapon, but it made it many times more useful. Just like Subtlety, sometimes the pieces inside needed maintenance, like killing Roy needed to happen to put the Mustangs back on track. And sometimes pieces needed to be replaced completely, like way back when the Baises took over another gang for control. Eventually though, if the weapon breaks more and more, you were going to just need to get a new gun.
I set the last cleaned piece off to the side. Some of the components were getting used, but for now they'd still work well enough. Once I got back to Dise though they'd need to be replaced or Subtlety would break on me at the worst possible moment.
“Alright.” I grabbed the receiver of the gun. “Time to put it back together,”
“You know Silver, you shouldn't talk to yourself,” Flare said from the entrance chamber. “Somepony might mistake you for unbalanced.” I couldn't be bothered to crack a smile at the joke.
“Flare!” I heard Serenity say. “That's not even funny.”
“In the kitchen.” I finished snapping Subtlety together and set it on the table. My brother had given me my ammo back too and I looked at my two options. When I had come down to Bridle Hope what seemed like forever ago I had planned to use my fire ammo to take out raiders, and I hadn't used that since Post Haste. Once again though the thought of using the bullets left a bitter taste in my mouth. Sliding that magazine away, I loaded Subtlety with a magazine of regular bullets.
“You won't believe what we found while waiting for you.” Flare trotted into the kitchen. I turned around to see Serenity riding on his head, and something riding on hers.
“It's Scootaborg!” That it was, though she looked much dirtier than last I saw the toy. “I must'a lost her when she attacked that guard, when we got nabbed behind that rock back when we first came here, 'member?” That I did. “So when I woke up outside, guess who I saw staring at me!” She lifted the toy dramatically in her magic. “It was awesome! She needs replacement parts though, hers are all dirty.” She frowned, but I could tell she enjoyed the prospect. There were few things Serenity liked more than fixing Scootaborg.
“Oh.” Flare trotted over to the table. “The stupidly named gun has been returned, too.” He was one to talk. “Please tell me-” I cut him off by pointing to the corner where I’d dumped the rest of the weapons we got back. “Bunker Buster!” He flew over to the corner and excitedly cradled the weapon in his forelegs. “I missed you so much.” He started to pet it. Talk about over the top.
“Are you just about done?”
“Wait...” He petted it twice more. “Waaait.” and a third time. “Okay done now.”
Serenity jumped onto the table to get a better view for which to smirk at Flare from. He was being especially silly. “So, Momma.” I turned to her and gave her my most convincing smile. What I wouldn't do for a healing potion. “Are we captured again?”
“Actually no.” Both Flare and Serenity stared at me in stunned silence. I did not find it that amusing. “We could go now. But he gave us a place to rest tonight. We have to leave tomorrow, though,” and somehow make it around Steel Ranger territory. There was no way they were going to be pleased with my escape. “If we don't, then he'll kill us.”
“That's a marginal improvement!” He laughed. “So instead of being forced to stay, we're being forced to leave. Just peachy.”
“Better than robots.” Serenity frowned. “Robots are like... super-cybernetics, so they shouldn't suck as much as they did.” She rubbed her burn wound. “Hate them. So much. An' better than creepy voices and singing an...” her voice trailed off. “When're we getting back to Dise?”
“Soon,” I said at once. “I hope.”
“Can we stay there for'a while, 'cause I like it there 'an...”
“Yeah.” I pulled Serenity into a quick hug. “We can stay there for a bit. It'll be safer than... whatever it is we've been doing.” Hopefully House would put me on jobs inside the city, or nearby. If I went too far, Serenity would demand to come, and I didn't want her to. If nothing else, maybe I'd get a break for detox... assuming I did that. I was still torn on the issue.
“An' we can see Haze again right?” With a blush I hoped was unnoticeable in the candlelight, I nodded. I would very much like to see her again. For many reasons. Which, for some reason, reminded me of the audio-log my brother had given me for Flare.
“Yeah, we can see Haze.”
“Ya gunna kiss her?” Warmth rose to my cheeks.
“That means yes.” I mumbled something incoherent and blushed more. There was no way that was going to be hidden by the dim light. Judging by the combined laughter, I guess they noticed. Or my reaction was hint enough.
“Uh... so. Flare.” I cleared my throat. “I have something for you.” That cut his laughter off and garnered me an inquisitive look. “Wait...” I nosed through my pack until I found the disc and slid it over to Flare. “Here. Meadow claims it is from High Stakes.”
“So the ass has something to say,” Flare said. His voice sounded cocky, and he smirked, but I could see nervousness in the way he stared at the disk without looking away. “Mind if I use your pipbuck, Hired?”
“Sure.” I hefted up my pipbuck to him. Very quickly he attached the device and stared at it saying nothing. “You don't have to...” I did my best to be comforting, but it was new territory for me.
“Hah, it's. Nothing.” He pressed play and my pipbuck clicked. “Nothing at all.” High Stake's voice wafted over my pipbuck and through the room. It pissed me off.
“Is this thing on? Yes. Yes. If you are listening to this I hope you are Flare, and nopony else. If anypony else is listening to this, it does not concern you and I advise you to turn it off.” Flare looked at me and shrugged. Neither me nor Serenity went anywhere.
“When you did not come back, I guessed what had happened. You went to save the idiot, did you not? For all you insult her, I cannot understand why you have been so loyal to her, but... I should still have guessed that would be your choice in the end. I had wanted to believe... I wished you would see your mistake, and come with me. I could have offered you a reprieve from your life, a way out. You could have left the Enclave; they never respected you. They have treated you like shit since before Bitter Steel, you have said as much yourself. You have given them your everything and they threw it in your face! You deserve so much better than that. You could have gotten away from Hired too, for all you like her you cannot deny the danger she presents. Every day another stupid reckless action, another haunted tunnel, or hopeless battle. I could have...
“We could have gone with Smooth Tongue. Nopony would bother us. The jobs would be easy, the pay good. We would have been together without having to hide from your superiors, we could have had everything you said you wanted. A free life, a safe one. Instead you went after her... Why? Why would you run after that... she doesn't care about you, not like I do... I thought you'd realize, understand and...” His voice choked and it sounded like he was breathing heavily.
“Fuck. I mean... okay. I just do not understand, I thought you cared, that you -- l... it does not matter. I was wrong. Just another fling in the wasteland... right? I do not know. Maybe if I had killed her properly you'd be with me and I wouldn't have to... to...
“Flare. If you are listening to this... wherever you are. Just know I did what I did because I thought it was the best for you, for us. I thought we could be happy, a foolish thought in this world but when I saw you smile I believed it was possible. And what is one life compared to that? I am... sorry I failed to understand you. I am sorry you failed to understand me, and that we didn't get enough time together.
“I feel like an idiot. We barely knew each other, a little over a week, maybe more, but in the Wasteland you take what you can find, and I found you. Then lost you...
“Now I have lost my point. I am sorry, Flare. If you are listening, please know I am so sorry I hurt you. I never thought... I understand if you never want to see me again, but if you do... the deal still stands. If you want me again, then I will be waiting. Until then, I guess this is...” the voice choked again and the sound became something muffled and unintelligible before it turned off.
We stared at the tape for a long time and nopony spoke.
Eventually Flare, tears welling in his eyes, stood up. He quietly turned around and left the kitchen, and a few seconds later I heard the bedroom door shut, and the lock click. I pretended I didn't hear anything else after.
“Is Flare gunna be okay?” We had moved to the couch in the living room after putting out the candles. Since Flare had claimed the bedroom for his pity party, we were resigned to sleeping on the couch. It was problematic, given the couch could barely hold me. So Serenity was forced to sleep on my back.
“Yes... I think.” She squirmed on my back. “He just needs time to think it through...”
“Is he gunna...?”
“I just said he'd be okay.”
She prodded me in the back of the head, so I half-turned to look at her. “I mean, go with High Stakes.”
Huh, oh. I guess he was given the offer again. If he wanted to, I'd let Flare go. Not that it'd be my choice, but I didn't think it'd be good for Flare. High Stakes was a dick, and Flare could do better than him. On the other hoof I was biased on account of the fact that he shot me for caps. Of course, I'd shot a lot of ponies for caps too, but it was different when you're on the receiving end of the bullet. I suppose if I was a smarter pony I would learn something from that.
“Oh... I don't know,” I said eventually. “You should get some rest.”
“You should, too.” Yeah, I should, but that was not a likely outcome. To say I was troubled would be an understatement. Between the final vision Simple Heart forced on me, having to deal with my brother, Flare's mental state, and all my usual problems and issues, my brain was swimming to much for sleep to seem plausible.
“What’s wrong, Momma?”
I laughed. “Not... that sort of tired, well kind of... it doesn't matter, I'll try to sleep.” And the next day we would travel south to Dise and try to avoid being caught by the Steel Rangers. Somehow. Hopefully I could just kill any that got too close with Subtlety, but the chances of it being that easy were... yeah. I rested my head on the couch and sighed.
I didn't sleep there. For a long while, I just rested there and listened to Serenity snore on my back. How long had it been since I last slept? It must have been at the tram. It felt like forever ago, but I couldn't find it in me to sleep. I was as tired as I had ever been but I just couldn't...
The house was dark, save for the light from my pipbuck. Slowly, I brought over the device and looked down at it. Carefully I flipped on the ear bud before turning to the radio function. Mr. New Haygas wouldn't be broadcasting live, so it'd be either all music or repeats of what I already heard. I tapped it a few times when I noticed I had a second station saved... I didn't remember doing that. So I flipped it to that, and listened.
“...Wishing star, alpha protocol to hybrid rockstar, welcome next stop.” Wait, what? I stared at the screen as it spoke more insanity into my ear before I remembered something. Way back when I first got my new eye (I still needed a new eyepatch), House had told me about how he contacted his agents. A radio station filled with codewords, but the catch was each agent had their own set of codewords, so they couldn't give away anypony else’s. Which means... he may have been trying to contact me.
So I listened to that for a while as I flipped through the database of codewords also on my pipbuck. My codename was supposed to be Star-Mare, so I just had to wait for that to come up and hope I could keep track to see what he wanted to say. It seemed a bit complicated, but if it kept secrets.
“...Star-Mare.” Oh, that was me. I was on the radio, that was pretty cool. “Blackbird et alamo. Luminosity.” I tried my hardest to remember what those words were, even though it sounded mostly insane. Flicking through the log I was able to determine that 'Blackbird' meant 'Return to base' and 'et alamo' meant 'or request assistance'. As for the second word...
What was it again. Luna... light, lumi... something. Crap. I skimmed the list of keywords, but I couldn't recall what the word was, and it didn't help it was one of those big words I didn't know anyway. Growling I moved the pipbuck away from my face.
At least I knew he wanted to see me, probably asking why I was so late. The job was done at least, even if it took longer because we got sidetracked through pre-war hell.
As I stared into the darkness I thought I heard something. Straining my ears, I could pick up the sound of shouting, and... that was a gunshot. Lovely. I guessed it was just a fight, and it didn't concern me, so I kept my head down and tried to sleep. Eventually the yelling died down, and I felt my eyelids grow heavy. Sleep, I hoped. At last.
Knock, knock, knock.
The world hated me, I decided.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Fine. Carefully I set Serenity down on the couch and trotted over to the door. After tripping over no more than three things I found myself there to hear somepony knocking again. Annoying. When I opened the door I was treated to my brother standing there.
“You need to get out,” He barked at me. I just glared back.
“You said we could stay for a-”
“Shut up.” He barged in. “Get your things. Wake up your friends. You need to leave.” I stepped back for him, but didn't stop glaring. When I went to open my mouth he cut me off again, “They've come for you. Steel Rangers.” Oh shit. “I don't know how, but they know you're here, and they aren't happy about it.” With everything that had happened I'd forgotten an important fact; so long as the facility’s password was on my pipbuck, they would be able to track it down.
“Why do you even care?”
He looked at me for a second and didn't respond.
“How many?” I guess it was better not to ask that last question.
“Enough. Five by my count, but that's enough to blow a hole in this town it'd take months to fix.” Only five? Hell, I’d managed to take out five on my own. Of course I took them by surprise, and it very nearly killed me. Still, I had Flare on my side, and Bunker Buster...
“Is there another way out of town?”
“A few secret exits, that's why you need to be quick.” Meadow trotted his way around looking for something. My companions to wake up, maybe. “We can't pacify them forever, and some ponies want me to give you away.” Lovely. “So hurry the fuck up.”
Yeah, yeah. I quickly trotted over to the bedroom and knocked hard on the door. “Flare. Flare. Get up. We need to leave now. You can finish moping later.” On the other side I heard a grunt that sounded like an agreement, so I walked away. Hopefully he could get his shit together soon enough to escape, I was hardly one to talk, but we didn't have the time.
By the time I got over to where Serenity was, she had already dressed in her brown cloak with all her stuff packed into her saddle bags. She smiled at me. “Heard ya' talkin', so I got ready.” With a smile, I nodded and turned back to the main hallway.
“Oh,” Meadow said looking at Serenity. “This is your new daughter right?”
“New?” Serenity tilted her head in confusion. At that moment I really wished I could shoot laser beams from my eyes.
“What?” He looked at me. “You didn't tel-”
“Do you have any healing potions?” I cut him off before he could continue unveiling my past before I was ready. He gave me a curious look that I pointedly ignored, before he dug into his bag and hoofed over four healing potions. After drinking one (It felt so freaking good to finally heal some of my burns.) I let Serenity have one. She wasn't as badly hurt as Flare or I, but she was smaller and not used to pain like us.
“Thanks, Momma.” Serenity smiled at me. “Feels much better. Battle scars are cool, but they hurt!” With a smirk, I nodded at the filly. “So from now on I'mma hide behind you; you're better at getting shot.”
“I don't think,” my brother said, “that getting shot takes skill.”
“Nah, but getting up after does, and Momma is the best at that. This one time-”
“This isn't the time for stories.” Not that I wanted to share any with him, anyway. I really didn't know what I was supposed to think of my brother anymore. He was an antagonistic asshole who worked for raiders, but claimed he was doing the right thing and sometimes you had to kill ponies to save more. Which was not so far off from my thought process working for Mr. House, and it didn't help that I came here in the first place planning on slaughtering a raider gang. But then, he came here explicitly to save me (unless he had a nefarious purpose I couldn't see). It really did a number on my 'kill the fucker’ plan.
Flare had gotten emotional over High Stakes' message, which meant he probably had some feelings for the bastard, so I couldn't kill him yet either! My murder list was getting annoyingly short. I blamed Curly Fries. At least he was still on my list. Right alongside Blackwater (I could imagine her cackling evilly at the thought).
“Flare, we need to-”
He burst from the door in a flurry of feathers with a smirk on his face that looked painted on. “I'm ready, I'm ready.” He fiddled with his grenade launchers and when I tried to hoof him a healing potion he pushed it back. “The armour is still sort of partially melted into my back, hurts like a bitch, by the way, but if I try to heal it then it'll heal around the metal and make it harder to remove. I'll need surgery when we get back to Dise, and I expect you to pay, you crazy, crazy mare.” I tried to interrupt, but he kept talking. “Hey look, it's the Nightmare Moon to your Celestia, rape any foals lately?” Calm, Silver. Calm. Flare was just overcompensating, and I shouldn't go beat his face in for being an idiot.
I took a deep breath, placed a hoof on the back of his head and pulled him close so we could talk in near-private. “Are you okay?”
“Peachy, chief.” He smiled. “Didn't know you liked being this close, are we going to...” his voice faded at the force of my glare. “Don't worry about it. I'm not abandoning you, not yet anyway.” That was... mostly reassuring. I guess.
“Do you want to... uh, talk about it?” That was my attempt at being friendly. It wasn't really in my skill set.
“No! Yes, maybe?” He pulled back, “Maybe once we're back in Dise and things have settled down; we have shit to do.”
I nodded an affirmative and looked over to my brother for his plan... there is no part of that sentence I liked. “We need to get you three outside town. There's another gate, but it's kept hidden. Go east through the hills before turning south if you plan on going back to Dise. Once you've been gone long enough, I’ll let them look through the town. You owe me one, Silver.”
“You shot me! With poison! From space!”
“That’s right. I guess we're even.”
“And it won't work. We'll need to kill them.” He stared at me blankly. “They can track me. Sort of. If I leave they'll know... and know you hid me.”
“...Okay.” That was easy. “Kill them, bury the bodies. They were never here. But how?” He must have seen my look of confusion. “They're assholes. Half of my ponies want to kill them, the other half you. This way I can prove my strength against a superior force, in terms of armament anyway.”
“Right.” That made sense, right? “The idea is. Lead us out the gate. We flank around. I hit them with Subtlety.” I motioned to the large gun on my back.
“You named your gun?” My brother raised an eyebrow.
“A stupid name too, if you ask me she shouldn't be allowed to name any-”
“This isn't the time!” I cut Flare off. They both shut up and let me talk, though Serenity looked like she was about to laugh. That filly was forever giggling. “I hit them with Subtlety, and Flare hits them with Bunker Buster, which is a much stupider name,” I quickly added, “while they're distracted. Have your ponies shoot them. You have strong guns right? Armour piercing bullets?”
“We can manage.” He didn't sound so sure. “Anything else?”
“I'll need 25mm grenades,” Flare said confidently, “as many as you can spare. And if I can add an addendum to the plan, I get my weapons and set up in the sky on the other side from S'n'S.” I guess he meant me and Serenity... “Subtlety is not exactly subtle, so I'll wait for the signal and blow them apart. That way if one of us gets caught the other can jump in to help.” I guess that made sense.
“What do I do?” Serenity asked, jumping up in the air to be noticed. “I can fight too.”
The three of us looked down at her silently.
“So...” Flare said slowly, not looking away from the filly. “That's the plan.”
“Yup.” I agreed, ignoring Serenity.
“Yes.” My idiot brother agreed.
After quickly leaving the house, Flare was escorted away by one of Meadow's ponies, hopefully to get weaponry. Serenity and I, however, were led to a small door in the wall which blended in so seamlessly that I didn't notice it until we were already there. It must have had something to do with the fact the wall was junk hastily made into a wall shape, with wooden beams holding it up. After a few minutes of fighting with the door, Meadow let me through.
“Silver,” he said when I was halfway through, forcing me to turn awkwardly in the narrow doorway. “Whatever else you are... you're still my sister. I hate you, you hate me, but we are blood.” His eyes narrowed. “I'd like to think... think that still means something.” Like it meant to our mother? Is what I wanted to stay, but I kept quiet. “So don't die out there... and just... get better.” Because I was fucking sick, yeah I knew. I couldn't really argue with the mentally damaged part (my denial only goes so far), but hearing him talk about me like that twisted my gut.
Still, I was having a really difficult time hating him. Since Stable 42, we had talked so little, and all our conversations vitriolic, that I'd imagined him in my head as a Blackwater-esq villain. You know, lighting ponies on fire to hear them scream, kicking puppies, that sort of thing, but he wasn't. He was harsh, but he actually thought he was helping. When I looked around at the wall it was hard not to believe he was helping.
“I'll try not to... You too. I'll. Leave you alone. When this is done. Thanks.” I looked away from him and kept walking into the night. I didn't look back at the wall until I heard the door shut behind us.
“I thought you were gunna kill Uncle... what's his name?”
“Meadow. No... not yet anyway.”
“He's confusin'.” There was nothing else to add, so I nodded silently and started walking. Luna was out in full force that night, letting me see even without my night vision turned on. Instead of following the wall, I went out a bit before circling around. The ground was as rough and rocky as it had ever been.
Obviously, my pipbuck light was turned off as I walked, and I tried to crouch as low as possible, even when I couldn't directly see the Steel Rangers. Serenity copied my technique but didn't cast her silence spell because of the light. She was a smart filly. Eventually we passed into the line of sight of the Steel Rangers.
Five of them stood in a rough line, bathing in the torchlight of the front gate. It gave me a good view of them, now I just needed a spot to fire. Serenity tapped my leg and pointed out a large gathering of rocks similar to the ones we hid behind those two times, with an easy way on top. I could fire from there and hide behind it if they counterattacked. It was... well, an obvious plan, but whatever worked.
I just had to hope that Meadow kept his side of the bargain.
By the time I reached the rock the clouds moved in and partially covered up the moon. It didn't take long to get set up on the rock, but it did take a bit longer keeping Serenity hiding behind it. She wanted to watch the fight, but that never worked out well. After I finally placated her (I let her take out her gun and watch my back), I looked at the group of Steel Rangers.
I really liked their armour. It was large, and shiny, and hard to break, not to mention making you faceless so ponies wouldn't be able to see how ugly I was. Too bad all the ponies I had seen wearing it so far were a good deal smaller, so I doubted I'd find any that'd fit me. It was a nice thought though, and I almost felt bad for having to destroy a few.
Sitting there waiting to take my shot reminded me of back when I’d first found Serenity. It had been raining then (it rained a lot less since the clouds had cleared), and there was thunder, but I felt the same sort of tension. There was a cool sweat on my forehead as I pressed my eye against the scope. There were five ponies this time, not just one, but it still was important I killed on the first shot. I took a deep breath and marked my target.
Of the five, three of them had large miniguns attached to their power armour, another had a couple of grenade launchers, and the final (and I presumed leader) had a rocket launcher on one side, and a grenade machine gun (Flare would be jealous) on the other. If there was a firefight I was going to need to take him out first so he didn't accidentally destroy the entire town. Who needed that many explosives? Really. He must have been overcompensating for something.
I wasn't really sure how far away I was from the pony, but I had to guess two hundred and meters away, maybe a little bit less, and the wind was blowing slightly north. After adjusting my aim to compensate I watched the pony. She just stood there, turning her head from time to time. She didn't seem to move, which was good for me. So long as she stood still, Subtlety could give her an apple sized hole and we'd be able to start the assault.
I inhaled and held it there. My aim was perfect, just had to bite the bridle and she'd die, and I'd survive. For some reason I hesitated. My mind went back to that invisible pony I killed, and her wife. Maybe this Steel Ranger was married, maybe they had kids, a family. Who was I to decide they needed to die? Why was it in my right? Just because I had a big gun and got the jump on them. My jaw clenched, and I couldn't bring myself to kill her.
Above me, the clouds parted slightly, letting Luna's moon shine over the dark wasteland: a light that just happened to hit my scope.
The pony whose head I was stalking turned to me so fast I flinched. Subtlety roared. The bullet zipped past the pony into the dirt.
“Shit!” I screamed, loading up another shot, but they were already moving towards me too fast, I didn't have time.
“Sniper!” somepony shouted, followed by a whoosh of a rocket.
The missile hit the rock just as I tried to jump away. The blast wave hit me and sent me flying. Pain throbbed through me as I hit the ground. My ears were ringing, and dust and bits of rock were raining over me. I tried swearing to alleviate the pain, but I couldn't hear my own words. When I opened my eyes, my vision was fuzzy. Still, I scanned for serenity. She had to be okay she...
...was huddled behind the half destroyed rock with a pink glow around her. When she saw me looking she started waving, so I waved back. For some reason that just made her wave harder. Oh, she wasn't waving. She was pointing. Why? My brain hurt.
A steel face appeared over the rock glaring at me with glowing eyes. Oh, that's what she was pointing at. Fuck.
The Steel Ranger aimed her weapon.
And a flash went off behind her. The world shook, and the steel ranger turned. It had to be Flare, that cheeky bastard, I owed him.
Quickly, I rolled to my hooves. I charged. Before the Steel Ranger could react, I was on her. My body slammed into her steel carapace. It was strong; I was stronger. She fell on her side, and I was on her in an instant. My metal hoof met her metal face with a great clangour. Neither budged so I kicked again. I could feel her helmet start to give so I kicked down again and again, and again, eventually raising my whole body and bringing both hooves down with all my weight.
By the time I was done, the helmet was a flattened bloody husk.
My vision was so focused I didn't notice the rest of the battle going on around me. One of the other Steel Rangers were lying on the ground, probably dead, while the remaining three were retreating away from the flaming wall. Wait, shit, why was the wall on fire? Some ponies seemed to be putting it out while other fired against the steel soldier, their weapons doing pitiful damage. Somewhere over head I thought I saw a blur, and a second later the Steel ranger ranks were scattered by fire and smoke.
I scoped Subtlety and looked down at the smoke. The battle was moving too fast though, and I started charging towards it to make my shot easier. Unfortunately that also made their shots easier, as a Steel Ranger scrambled to her hooves in the smoke and just happened to see me. I could barely pick up the sight of her minigun starting to warm up before I started to move. The bullets slammed into the dirt in front of me as I started to run sideways away from them.
It didn't seem to matter how fast I ran as the bullets caught up nipping at my tail. If only I had Rage, I would have been able to outrun them.
Pain flared through my right hind leg as bullets ripped into it. I fell hard and rolled through the dirt as bullets whizzed closer to me. This was going to suck. Only it didn't. Because I wasn't shot. Which was surprising, as this was usually around the time I got shot and lost a body part. Since my ears were still not working properly I had to look up from my ball of fail at the fight.
In the dim light I could see a silver-grey stallion rapidly shoot a shotgun into my attacker's head. The metal helmet sparked and snapped back. Then the pony’s head righted itself and the stallion was kicked back. The iron clad pony swung around, minigun still spinning.
For reason I didn't understand I scrambled to my hooves (my hindleg roaring in protest) and I took aim. Subtlety fired and found its mark. The steel ranger stumbled, a new hole her armour, when I fired again. The third shot put her down for good.
Meadow looked over to me, his face unreadable in the moonlight.
Another blast filled my vision (I could actually hear this one as my ears slowly recovered), so I turned away from him to the battle. One of the remaining steel rangers was a twisted sack of metal still smoking from the explosion, while the last was being pushed back with concentrated gunfire.
I helped the final Steel Ranger on her way to Tartarus, then sat back on my flank. Fuck, my leg hurt. And bled. I hate bullets. If it wasn't for adrenaline, my leg would have hurt a lot more, so yay science I guess.
Doing what I imagine Serenity would do I tore out a healing potion and poured it over my leg. The wounds stitched themselves closed, and I felt a small measure of relief wash over me. Not as much as I'd get with Med-X, though. Luckily I was fairly sure it was getting close to the time I could get the dosage off Flare. I was looking forward to it. One thing at a time. The fight was over, and I needed to see to a few things. Namely my idiot brother, my daughter, and... Flare.
Slowly I returned to my hooves and looked around. The Steel Rangers were already being systematically stripped of their armour and weapons. I doubted they'd be able to use the armour, given its super high tech nature, but I suppose it wouldn't hurt for them to try. Unless it exploded. If that happened there would be one less Crimson Hoof to deal with! There was no way I could lose.
Before I could go and confront my brother I felt something slam into my back leg. “Momma! Are you okay?” Sure enough, the little pink filly was latched onto my leg with a hug. “I tride'a shoot at them, but mah gun didn' work right, it kept not workin'.” She frowned. “I need more gun.”
“No.” She pouted. So I shook her off my back leg making her land on her rump. “It's for emergencies, not for Steel Ranger hunting.” This did not please her at all. “I'll take away your dessert...”
“As if we ever have any!”
“I'll buy some, then take it away.”
With that victory, I helped my daughter (maybe if I kept calling her that it'd stop making me nervous) and trotted over to Meadow. He was in a middle of a group of ponies, waving his hoof this way and that way to direct ponies. Patiently, I waited outside the little circle until the ponies dispersed and my brother stood there. His face was a mask of blood from a small wound above his eye that he must have used a healing potion on. When he saw me he frowned.
“Silver. You should go.” He walked over quickly, lowering his head. “I lost seven ponies here, most new recruits, so you're lucky. We would have lost more without your plan, but if we had given you up...” I nodded my head in understanding. Seven more names to add to the list of my failures. “I'm trying to play it as a victory against overwhelming odds and a hostile aggressor. If anything it'll show the civilians we mean to protect them, so I can play it right, just...”
“It's fine. If you see me again I'm dead.” He nodded. “I'd like to kill you too.” With the blood stains over his face I couldn't tell if he was grimacing or smiling. “Actually... I have something for you.”
“What is it?”
“Give me one second.” I quickly turned away from him and moved a good distance before looking at Serenity. “You have the map of the facility?”
“Yeah, it's...” She magicked out the map. “Here, momma.” It took a few minutes but I was able to figure out where one of the entrances to the facility would be by using my pipbuck map (which marked the factory’s entrance) and comparing it to the facility map. It would have to work; my defence against the Steel Rangers depended on it. I marked the approximate location on my pipbuck and turned back to my brother.
“Here.” I shoved out my pipbuck. He just stared at it. Then back to me. Then at it again. “Ugh, Go to that location.”
“Why... what are you try-”
“Bring explosives to breach the door. Inside is an advanced pre-war facility. That's the entrance to a training facility. It will have equipment. Programs. Lots of it. Enough to help you. Fight the Steel Rangers if they find out what happened. Give you power. Tell your ponies you got it from a corpse. More propaganda.” He seemed to like that idea. Giving this technology to The Crimson Hoof was probably a bad idea, but my brother just went far out of his way to save me. Moreover, both were powerful groups around Dise, but not based in Dise, so the chance of conflict was high. I needed the sides as evenly matched as possible.
“Is this a joke?”
“Not at all, Uncle!” Serenity had found her way to my head. “It'll help ya! For real!”
My response was to shrug and say, “Go there or not. Up to you. I'll leave now; don't die.”
I left him there. I've had enough of emotional goodbyes. My emotions were as mixed about him as ever, and I just couldn't deal with it. I just had to find Flare, and that'd be the end of it.
Flare wasn't that hard to find as he landed in front of me with a cocky smile. “So.” He flicked back his sweaty mane. “Did you see how many I got?” He blew on each barrel of Bunker Buster despite the fact they obviously weren't smoking. “That's how the Enclave does it.” He gave a triumphant victory pose.
“You're a credit to team. I need you to do something for me.”
“Anything for you, Hired, because, you know, I haven’t saved your ass nearly enough.” There was a smirk on his lips I wanted to smack off, but I suspected he knew that.
“Fly to Dise as fast as you can.” He nodded slowly. “Tell House I need help. Get him to send... somepony to help escort us. The Steel Rangers will be out for blood. Can yo-”
“No problem,” he cut me off. “We all need to get back, I'll run the message. I'll need to borrow some of your medicine.” My ear twitched. “Just two. My back is...” yeah, okay, that was a good enough reason. “You can keep the rest, do not use them all right away or you'll be fucked, I'll be back as fast as I can.” He quickly dug into his bag and tossed me most of the medicine in a bag, “There's something special in there too.” He winked and flapped his wings. “I'll be quick; don't die.”
Just like that he flew off. I still needed to talk to him about High Stakes...
After taking out a Med-X and giving myself a dose of sweet relief I gave the rest of the bag to Serenity. “Put that away for me.”
“Huh.” Ever curious, Serenity started to shuffle through the bag. It was not like it was possible to hide it anymore. “What's this?” I turned to the south and started walking down the road. Behind me I heard the sounds of ponies working and small fires burning. Carnage I had created. “In case of emergency.” Serenity said for reasons I couldn't explain. So I kept walking south. I was running on no sleep, and no time, with enemies determined to hunt me down. So I had to keep walking.
Something fell over my eye, and half my vision was gone. My cybernetic eye flashed warning and attempted night vision before turning off.
“In case of eye-patch emergency,” Serenity repeated. “Flare thinks of everything.”
The lack of vision made things clearer. I was tired and sore, but I'd places to go, ponies to talk to, a city to save, and redemption to be found. Just had to keep walking.
New Perk: Adaptive Eye Programming II: Your practice with your new eye has paid off, increasing the range of its EFS, and improving its threat-detection in low-light environments. In addition, you’ve noticed your eye now has a night-vision function that turns on automatically after you’ve been in the dark for a second or two!
((A/N: 100K views. That’s a terrible way to start a sentence and yet there it is. It’s been nearly a year, 300K words, and 100K views. I wouldn’t be here without all my wonderful readers [yes you!] so you have my utmost thanks for sticking through this sorry excuse for a [excellent] story. You’re awesome, and I love you.
I as always need to thank Kkat as well for giving me a blank canvas to write upon, and my lovely editors theBSDude, Mint Julep, and Menti. Here’s to another 100K! ))