• Published 27th Feb 2013
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Fallout: Equestria - The Hooves of Fate - Sprocket Doggingsworth



A young filly in present day Ponyville is cursed with nightmares of post-apocalyptic Equestria. She finds herself influencing the course of future history in ways that she cannot understand.

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A Special Kind of Friendship

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX - A SPECIAL KIND OF FRIENDSHIP
“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” - Arthur Schopenhauer


After Kettle Corn and I parted ways, our next stop was Bananas Foster. AKA Thirteen.

I found the idea of it terrifying, to be honest. Not ‘cause she was a changeling. Not ‘cause she had been sent out into the world on a shadow mission by those inky clitweasels. Not because those said same clitweasels were currently hunting for Foster. Trying to figure out how she'd managed to disappear from their sight.

It was the hospital.

The idea of going back inside turned all my muscles into rocks. Transformed my chest into a cage full of angry butterflies with razor wings and super-anxiety-moth-lasers shooting out of their eyes.

‘Cause everypony in there - the nurses, the doctors, the orderlies, the paperwork ponies - they all thought I might be crazy. And they thought that before I had flipped out in front of the whole town!

I thought back to that discharge report that Roseluck had left on the kitchen table. Somepony in there had written that thing up. Somepony in that hospital had examined my head without my even realizing it.

I wasn't sure what exactly was going on in there, but I knew I couldn’t trust anyone in Ponyville General who wasn’t wearing a gown.

“What is it?“ Cliff said.

I looked down. I hadn’t realized it before, but it turned out that I’d been clinging to the Ponyville General Hospital sign that stood at the edge of the grounds, clutching it for dear life. As though the hospital were some kind of malström looming beneath a sinking pirate ship. Trying to suck me down to my doom.

“Hehe.” I chuckled lightly. “Nothing.”

And as Cliff watched me, all concernitty. Again. I eyeballed the hospital entrance. Made a decision then and there. To get it the fuck together. I couldn't have a freak out every time I had to face something unpleasant. Kettle’s house. The hospital. Where was it gonna stop?

Was I gonna seize up and make an ass of myself when I had to go back to school? Just ‘cause I’d end up having to explain myself a little?

I shook my head.

No. There was no way I could live the rest of my life like that.

I turned to Cliff. Swallowed my throat-apple straight into my belly. "I’m fine." I said stiffly. Let's go.”

* * *

All was quiet in the waiting room. No hustle. No bustle. No bleeping or blooping sounds. Just a room full of empty chairs and a yellow mare I had never met before sitting behind a receptionist's desk, fiddling with some kinda paperwork.

“Where is everypony?” Cliff whispered to me.

“I guess no one got hurt today.” I replied.

“Um, excuse me?” I spoke up. Tried to get the receptionist’s attention. “We're um, here to visit a friend.”

“One moment, please.” The mare mumbled, pencil still in her mouth.

She delicately gathered up the scattered stacks of papers and nudged them into folders with her hooves.Aligned them slowly and meticulous-like. Until at last she was ready to acknowledge our presence.

“Okay,” she said, letting the pencil drop from her lips as she spoke. “Now how can I help you, sweeti--;”

The receptionist stopped dead the moment she saw me. What had started as a hint of a smile in her cheeks drooped down like wax. Slid down her skull, and melted into something of a scowl.

As if to say, Oh. It's you.

I shrunk back. In total shock.

The receptionist must've surprised herself too. ‘Cause she tightened her lips back. Sat up straight. And put on her best professional face. Clearing her throat, she said to me, “What can I do for you again?”

In a way, her politeness just made it worse. The fact that she wasn't even trying to be mean. The fact that her reaction to me was purely visceral.

“We're visiting a friend.” Cliff said for both of us.

Not family?” The receptionist said.

Cliff and I exchanged glances.

“Um, no. We're friends.” He said.

“I see.” The receptionist answered dryly.

She buried her face in her papers again. Took to rummaging.

“Um, hello?” Said Cliff.

But the receptionist did not reply.

“It never mattered before.” Cliff added.

Shwack! The lady behind the desk slapped a clipboard down in front of us.

“Sign in here, and have a seat.”

“Um, okay.” Said Cliff.

We both did. Name, date, time, and patient. And then we sat in those squeaky chairs. As the waiting room fell still again.

Tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick. Went the second hoof of the clock on the wall.

“I don't understand.” Said Cliff Diver. “They usually just let me walk right in.”

“It’s me.” I whispered. “She's trying to get rid of me. “

“What?” He recoiled. “No, don't be silly. Why would she do that?”

I raised an eyebrow at him. Waited for it to sink in. Tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick.

Suddenly, Cliff Diver gasped. Clutched his chest with his hooves like a delicate debutante. “You don’t think…”

He stopped. Crunched his face up real hard as his thinking gears got to turning. Then, without warning, he shot up out of his chair as though it were a catapult. Marched on over to the desk.

“Excuse me.” He said.

“What can I do for you?” The receptionist said dryly, not bothering to look up from her paperwork.

“I, um, understand that you're very busy, but we were kinda wondering about the wait.”

“We need to check to make sure the patient isn't occupied. Your friend could be with a doctor, or a therapist, or in the lab getting tests done, or any number of things.” The receptionist answered. “We’ll call you when the coast is clear.”

Cliff glanced at the clock. Plunged his face into his coat pocket. Pulled out paper clips and rubber bands and lint. And finally, a crumpled up piece of paper, which he studied carefully. “I have her schedule.” He said. “I know we didn't come at a bad time. And...and...and...you didn’t even glance at the sign in sheet!”

The receptionist sighed. Rolled her pencil aside. “Look, kid. There are other factors.” She stole a glance at me.

“What other factors?” Cliff said indignantly.

The mare rubbed her temples. Like she had a headache coming on. “This is a facility for the sick.” She replied. “I understand that you want to get in there and see your little friend. But I have to wait ‘till my supervisor gets back. I can’t be held responsible for any…” She paused to look up and study the ceiling. As though the right word might be written on it. “…Disruptions.”

Again, she snuck a peek at me just as the words finished coming out of her mouth. This time, out of the corner of her eye.

“But it's a disruption if we don't go!” Cliff Diver's voice cracked indignantly. “Foster's expecting us.”

“Go right through those doors.” The receptionist said out of the blue, suddenly devoid of all passion. “When you get to the end of the hallway, make a right.”

“You don't understand,” said Cliff. “You can't just--;”

He stopped. “What?”

He stretched his neck out in the direction of the double doors, following the receptionist’s directions in his head. Then he spun back around and turned to me. Shot me a what the fuck glance.

I shrugged in reply. I didn't know what was going on either.

“Wait, what?” Cliff said again.

“Right up that hall.” The receptionist repeated. This time, she glanced my way. But all of her revulsion - all her veiled hostility - was totally gone.

That mare almost seemed to be looking right through me. Like those No Mare's Land soldiers who just sorta sat there in the cold. Gazing at nothing. “Down the hall and to the right.” She said.

“Um...Thank you.” I replied.

The receptionist turned to Cliff, and spoke in a dry, monotone voice. “Isn't she the sweetest, bravest little thing?”

“Huh?” I pointed to myself. Made a what, who, me? gesture at Cliff.

But he didn't know what was going on either. Cliff just wrinkled up his face, shrugged, and shook his head. While I hurried stealthily past the front desk.

I couldn't quite put my hoof on it, but I Iiked that mare even less when she was being accommodating.

“You're very welcome.” She replied coldly. Mechanically. It had been so long since I had said ‘thank you,’ that her reaction almost seemed totally random.

Cliff and I moved on.

Once the double doors shut safely behind us, we pressed our faces to the glass window. And watched the receptionist carefully.

She didn't seem to be up to anything. At least not anything interesting. She just sorta sat back down like normal. Rubbed her temples a bit. And got to organizing papers again. Corralling them with her hooves into neat little stacks.

“Weird.” Said Cliff.

“Let's go.” I said. “Before she changes her mind.”




We made our way down the hall, swung a right like the receptionist lady had said. The first thing we saw was a nurse's kiosk. For a brief moment, I cringed. Hoping that none of them looked my way. That Nurse Redheart didn't see me, and stare down at me with disappointy eyes for what I had done.

I felt a strong impulse creep up in my belly. Urging me to run and hide.

But then the Twinkle Eyes in my head judged me harder than the nurses ever could.

I had just fucking sworn to myself, right outside, that I was gonna knock it off. Get it together. Have some damn dignity. And there I was, not ten minutes later, already starting to come apart at the seams all over again.

My Brain Twink put a stop to that. Just by making her presence known. The moment I sensed her, I snapped right out of my idiotic panic.

“Not the two-by-four of friendship!” I whimpered aloud, anticipating Brain Twink's wrath.

A bunch of the nurses turned. Looked my way. Not Redheart, thank Celestia! But Nurse Stethescope, (aka the Jerkface Who'd Taunted Screw Loose), and the fledgling young nurse I'd nicknamed the Purple Professional.

“What're you doing back here?” said the Jerkface.

Fearing the wrath of my Inner Brain Twink, I summoned all of my willpower not to cringe. Or show weakness of any kind. Especially in front of that guy.

“We're visiting Bananas Foster.” I said.

“Isn't she the sweetest, bravest little thing?” He replied in a somewhat exhausted tone.

“Huh?” I said, getting all dé-ja-vu-ish and stuff. But before I could even begin to process the super-mega-weirdness of what was going on, something primal inside of me kicked in instead. Out of nowhere. And for just a brief, tiny moment, I was a little filly back on the playground again, taking offense at what the Jerkface had said, Isn't she sweetest little thing or whatever?

“She’s not little.” I grumbled. “She's taller than me.”

“Not me,” Said Cliff, in a sudden flash of smugness. “I'm taller than both of you.”

I glowered at Cliff. And we kept walking. But the Jerkface back at the kiosk - he just stared at the wall. All vacant-like.

It was freaky.

* * *

Cliff and I disappeared around the corner. After a few twists and turns, we found ourselves at my old hospital suite. Foster's permanent home.

It felt weird being on the outside. As I stood there, knocking on the door, it occurred to me that, even after spending two of the most intense weeks of my life in there, I would not have been able to find the place if Cliff hadn't lead the way.

“Come in.” Came a muffled voice from the inside. I could hear Foster's curtains too, sliding along their tracks.

When we stepped in, Cliff and I found the room totally empty. Well, my half anyway. They'd rolled the bed out, and left a big wide empty space. Cleared out everything but a couple of visitors’ chairs.

“Rose Petal!” Foster rushed to the edge of her bubble. “Are you okay?”

“Uh, yeah.” I said, a little taken aback.

Instinctively, I inspected myself. To make sure there weren't any giant holes in me or anything.

“I heard about what happened.”

“Oh. Yeah.” I said. “That.”

I nudged the door closed. Wiggled out of my winter coat and hung it on a hook on the wall.

“It's taken care of.” I said. And as the words left my mouth, I slowly begin to realize the truth of them.

The incident was behind me. Finally.

Sure, I might still get a dirty look or two, and yeah, I was positive I'd end up reiterating the same explanation again, and again, and again.

But it really was taken care of. There was nothing left to do but move on.

“I'm kinda sick of talking about it.” I told Foster. “All that matters is that I learned something about the Shadows.”

“You did?”

I hurriedly grabbed a chair and nudged it across the room with my face. Cliff did the same. We plopped our flanks down. Leaned in super close. And I asked Bananas Foster. “Have you ever heard of blues music?”

“Like Badwing Jubilee!” Cliff interjected with foal-ish exuberance.

Foster glanced at me. Hoping for a clue. But I just rolled my eyes.

“Uh, yeah.” Bananas said. “I’m vaguely familiar with blues. It’s fringe Equestrian culture, but I’m thorough in my research.” She sat up tall. Knowing was a point of pride. “But, uh, I never actually heard any blues, now that you mention it.” Foster’s grin faded. “Just read about it. And this, um, Badowin, Badwum, Badw--;”

“Badwing!” Said Cliff.

“Yeah.”

Cliff smiled a mouthful of pearly whites.

“Never heard of him either.”

Her,” said Cliff. “Badwing was a her. See, she's this awesome--;”

Fwomp. I stuffed a hoof in Cliff's mouth.

Foster masked a chuckle.

“The blues has the power to ward off shadows.” I said. “It takes all of that darkness in a pony - fear, regret, sadness. That kinda stuff. And turns it into joy...Well, supposedly.” I added. (It had never actually worked for me).

“Anyway, a bunch of Travelers invented it as a way to sorta bring that pain to light so that the shadows couldn't use it against them.”

Foster laughed nervously. “Yeah, um, no offense, but I don't think I'll be listening to that.”

“Why not?” Said Cliff, spitting my hoof out of his mouth. “It's totally amazing. It's so raw, and real, and--;”

“That's not how it works for me.” Bananas interrupted. “Turning pain into joy is probably great for a crowd of drifters huddling under a bridge, trying to ward off a shadow attack. But me?” Foster tapped her noggin. “The shadows have already been in here. Deep in here. My only hope at all is if I can keep them from finding me.”

Bananas held up her hoof. As if to say ‘hold on. She darted to the corner, plunged her face into that trunk of hers and produced a vinyl record. A few seconds later, she had it all set up and ready to go.

After a couple of crackles and pops, an orchestra began to play. Just like the last time that Foster and I had had a little shadow talk.

“It's music.” Cliff whispered. “Music is a kind of magic that fends them off. It’s not about genre or whatever. It's what inspires you.”

“No.” Foster chuckled as she sat back down in her chair. She leaned right up to the edge of the bubble. With passionate intensity. As eager as a foal on Hearth’s Warming Morn’. “Maybe that's true of ponies, and maybe it isn't. But when it comes to what I'm doing, you have no idea how wrong you are.” A mischievous smirk stretched across her face.

I rolled my eyes. “Okay, Little Miss Smarty.” I said. “What makes you so different?”

“First of all, I can't be Miss Smarty. I'm not even female.”

“What?!” Cliff said.

“None of us are.” Foster replied. “Except, of course, for our glorious queen.”

Bananas sighed.

She missed her mother. He missed his mother.

“You mean you're…” Cliff’s jaw kept moving, but no sounds came out. He was at a total loss for words.

“Does it matter?” Foster folded his forelegs.

“No.” Cliff shuffled in his seat. “Of course not. I'm just, you know, surprised.”

“Aaaaanyway, a hive has one queen, a few dozen scouts, and about 7,000 soldiers.”

All male?” I said.

“No. We're not exactly male either.”

“Okay, now I'm confused.” I said. “First of all, he or she?” I couldn't even figure out how to phrase the thoughts running through my head without pronouns.

She.” Foster replied. “Let's keep it simple so we don't slip up in front of outsiders. We have enough secrets to keep.”

I nodded.

“It doesn't matter anyway. Where I come from, there is no gender. There is no, ‘I'm a pegasus mare.’” Foster put on a Whinnysota accent. “There is no ‘I'm a unicorn stallion.’” Out came a heavy male Bucklyn voice. “You are your job. You are your rank and number. And only that.”

“Thirteen.” Said Cliff.

Foster blushed. Brushed the mane away from her eyes. “Not exactly. That's uh...more of a nicknumber.”

Cliff and I looked to one another. “A nicknumber?” We both said in monotone unison.

My kind uses a lot of hexagons in our architecture. It's a sort of, um...sacred geometry.”

“I hate geometry.” I said. But Foster just ignored me.

“And because everything comes in sixes, Thirteen is, to us, an accursed number. So, it’s a rank that we politely skip over.

“My big brother, Fourteen, got superstitious about it, so I agreed to take on the name Thirteen, as a sort of honorary title. I mean, how much more cursed could I get, right?” Foster laughed.

“A lot.” Said Cliff.

“Dude.” I gave him a shove.

“Sorry.”

“No.” Foster said. “Cliff's right.”

The classical music in the background petered down to a faint hiss. And the silence put Foster on edge. She closed her eyes. Tapped her hoof against the chair. Tip tap. Tip tap. Tip tap. Waiting for the next song to play.

‘Till Boom! A big drum hit. And horns started ba-ba-baaa’ing.

With a sigh of relief, Foster changed the subject from her own cursed fate.

“I'm a scout.” She said with pride. “We travel across realms in search of a new host. When you're trying to feed an entire hive, finding the right host is absolutely crucial.”

“And you picked Equestria.” I said. Suddenly feeling sick to my stomach.

It shouldn't have mattered to me. But somehow, knowing a thing, and talking about it out in the open were totally different creatures.

“You picked us ‘cause of our love, and our friendship.” Cliff added with a callous touch of intellectual enthusiasm.

“I picked you because of your social structure.” Foster replied.

“Our what now?”

Princesses.” Bananas continued. “Ponies worship anyone with wings and a horn. It's part of your culture. If Mother could have harnessed that, it would’ve been enough to keep us all fed for years, and years, and years.”

“That doesn't make any sense.” Cliff interrupted. “How does the love she eats feed everyone else?”

“Were you at The Canterlot Wedding?” Foster said with a raised eyebrow. “Did you see my brothers smashing themselves against the dome to get inside? Did you see them swoop down on the streets of Canterlot?”

Both Cliff and I shook our heads no. We’d each been stuck at home. Unable to attend.

“Well that's what they did.” Foster continued. “How were seven-thousand drones supposed to find seven-thousand hosts, and trick them all while the city was occupied, and everypony was on the defense? There would have been a catastrophic love famine had all of my brothers been expected to feed themselves!”

"No.” Bananas Foster added firmly. “It all comes from Mother. Everything comes from Mother.”

“But how?” Cliff reiteratized.

Foster closed her eyes. Licked her lips. Lifted her head up high. “Listen to that.” She said.

Cliff and I stopped. Pricked our ears up. But we didn't hear much of anything.

“An Equestrian symphony orchestra has twenty, forty, sometimes two-hundred players.” Foster explained. “All of them following a meticulously constructed script. All of them following a conductor. They move as one, even when each section has radically different tasks.

“The ensemble ebbs. It flows. When executed correctly, an orchestra is the closest thing pony culture has to a hive.

“My family is all connected.” She added, smile on her face. “Mother’s voice in our heads. Like a maestro. Only we don't need weeks of rehearsal the way an orchestra does. We're already of one mind.

“We act instantly upon her will. And she transmits love. Nourishment.” Foster reclined back in her chair. “My brothers - we don't just love each other. We are each other. That's what friendship means to us.” She said as tears pooled up in her eyes. “I miss it. I really miss it. Her voice!”

Foster shook her head. “Your world is so quiet. So empty. How do you stand it?!” Her voice cracked.

Cliff shrugged. Not a nonchalant kinda shrug. A Holy Celestia, I wish I could help you but I have no clue what to say kinda shrug.

Then I had a realization.

“We do have something like that.” I said softly.

“Huh?” Cliff looked at me like I had slugs growing out of my eyes.

Musical numbers. I can't imagine what it must be like to live like you, Bananas. Caught up in the collective. All the time. But I have tasted what it feels like. To get swept away. To move as one. And I know what it’s like to get cut off...Well, at least a little bit.” I added quickly, careful not to equate my setback with Foster's world-shattering loss.

She nodded back solemnly.

“But...musical numbers are temporary.” Cliff jumped in. “We don't live our everyday lives like that. How do you get stuff done? How do you focus? How do you do your homework? How do you read a book with all that stuff going on inside your head?”

“Our consciousness is different than yours. We're built for it.” Foster tapped her noggin.
She was already out of her sentimental slump, and back into explainy mode.

“But how?” I said.

“Our minds are…well...” Bananas looked to the ceiling. Flailed her forelegs around wildly as she struggled to conjure the right words. “Compartmentalized.” Foster said at last with uncertainty.She knew it was totally the wrong term. But still couldn't name it anything better.

“When the shadows probed me, I hid my hive mind. Like a secret room. They dug for weeks. Tortured me. For weeks. And I didn't cave.

“...Until they found it.” Foster shuttered. “After about the thousandth time they made me relive the attack. I actually felt those rusty voices. Scratching at the outside of my secret room.

‘I couldn't bear the thought of those scratchy metallic whispers speaking at me from the inside. From the deep place. Thepart of my head where Mother's voice had spoken from.

‘And it was only a matter of time. Before they realized what they had found. And broke down the walls. So I surrendered. Agreed to play their game. Made them think they won.

‘Then they released me into the world. Swearing a billion promises. None of which I kept.”

Foster stopped for just a moment. Closed her eyes as a single violin sang sweetly through the phonograph horn. Even I noticed how sad it sounded. How tender.

“I've been off their map ever since.”

“Good one.” Said Cliff.

“Thank you.” She sighed. “Now to answer your earlier question, the records I play are more than a simple matter of taste. The orchestra wakes up that little corner of my brain. Keeps it secret so that you, and me, and Rose can talk freely about the shadows."

Cliff nodded intensely.

“So no,” Foster concluded. “I won't be inviting them back into my head with any blues music.”

“Shame. It’s soooooo awesome.”

No it isn't. I mouthed silently

“Pfff!” Foster broke out laughing. Had there been milk involved, it woulda come out her nose.

I snickered too.

“What?” Cliff said, looking back and forth. To Foster, then me. Then Foster, then me, then Foster, then me. “What?!”

Bananas and I just laughed all the harder. ‘Till there came a knock on the door.

It creaked open. And all three of us fell silent.

Good news,” said the nurse that I had previously nicknamed the Purple Professional. “Your books finally arrived. All the way from Canterlot!”

She strode confidently in, pushing a fully loaded cart. Paperbacks mostly. Daring Do, Pinkbeard, romance novels. And two giant hardcover tomes.

“Canterlot?” Cliff and I asked at the same time.

The Purple Professional nodded. “Letters of the Founding Sisters: A Collection

“Gosh,” said Foster. “That's super awesome!” Her voice suddenly bursting with wholesome fucking sunshine.

Purple approached the dome, laid the big old books on the floor, and slid them carefully into the bubble.

“Thanks.” Foster said with a giggle and a smile. “I don't know what I'd do without you!”

“You're welcome,” the Purple Professional replied. And as she grabbed the cart with her unicorn magic, and spun it around, she snuck a peek at Foster. Who was already turning the pages eagerly.

Purple leaned in close to me and Cliff, and whispered. “Isn't she the sweetest, bravest little thing?”

I was left dumbfounded.

Those were the exact same words that the Jerkface nurse had catatonically recited to us not ten minutes before. And the receptionist too!

The sweetest, bravest little thing.

Purple nudged the book cart out the door. And Foster snorted a dorky little laugh. Blushing and smiling through her thank-yous.

‘Till click. The swinging, creakitty door finally latched shut. Then whoosh! That innocent smile dropped from her face like a falling curtain.

“Wait ‘till you see this stuff!” Bananas got down on the floor and spun Volume One around. “Rose, you should take a look at these. Ponies’ History of Equestria has snippets of original source material, but this has an exhaustive account of the details that went into the founding of Equestria. Not to mention its downfall under Emperor Discord. The footnotes are thorough too! Professor Dusty Tome did a great job of contextualizing everything.”

Foster slid the books back through the dome. Looked to me with a smile. A real one. But I was not in the mood to smile back.

“What about everyone who's not in your hive?” I said.

“Huh?”

“You guys are in each other's minds and stuff all the time.” I reasoned. “You’re all one. But...How do you feel about everyone else?”

Foster blink-bloinked her eyes at me. Blink-bloink. Blink-bloink. Blink-bloink. “I don't understand the question.”

Cliff jumped in. "I think Rose is concerned about the hospital staff.”

Foster sighed. “Oh.” She said. "I had a feeling that was gonna come up eventually."

“Are you controlling them?”

“Not really.” She answered with a shrug.

“The Purple Professional just used the same exact words that Jerkface Nurse and the receptionist did.”

Foster crinkled her face up in confusion. Like an old paper bag. She didn't know what the fuck I was talking about.

Isn't she the sweetest bravest little thing?” I clarified.

“Oh. Her.” Bananas Foster replied. “She’s fine. Why? Did she look unhappy to you?”

Bananas scooched in closer to the edge of the dome. She appeared to be genuinely concerned, so I took a moment to think about it carefully. To reread the events in my brain. The Purple Professional hadn't actually seemed unhappy. Like, at all. In fact, she’d been perkier dealing with Bananas than she had ever been while dealing with me.

“No,” I said.

“Good.”

“But the lady at the front desk did.” I added. “And the Jerkface Nurse at the counter! He was totally wrecked.”

“I still gotta eat, Rose.” Foster retorted casually. “That's just a reality.”

And out of the blue, I was reminded of the words of the High Priestess of Trottica. The quote from the ancient philosophers that Foster had actually been able to identify. Food first, morals follow on.

I saw red.

"You don't gotta do it like that!” I squeaked.

“Like what?”

“Like, you know, messing with their brains and stuff.”

“But you hate him.”

“No, I don't.”

“He tormented your dog friend. For fun.”

“Okay, fine.” I growled. “I hate him.”

“Exactly.” Foster exclaimed. “Soooo, I've been feasting on him. “So I can afford to leave the other nurses alone.”

“Wait. You're saying you actually care what happens to the other nurses?”

“No,” Foster replied, matter-of-fact-ishly. “But you do. You're a softy when it comes to, you know...innocents and stuff.” She rolled her eyes. “So I narrowed my pool of hosts to leave them out of it. I mean, yeah, sure, I've taken a nibble here and there on everypony else. Just enough to plant suggestions so they don't start suspecting me.”

I sighed. Ran my hoof through my mane. Foster made a certain amount of sense. I understood that she had to eat. I really did. I even got that she was probably kinda sorta maaaaybe eating conscientiously. For a changeling anyway.

But I still couldn't accept it.

“That's...that's...like...slavery. I whispered. “For the ponies you do feast on.”

Foster froze.

“Oh, boy.” She said as she raised trembling forehooves to her face. Rubbed her temples. “It’s not.” She sighed. “It’s really not.”

“You're making ponies do things they wouldn't ordinarily do.”

“I'm making them do things that are less terrible than what they’d ordinarily do. The triage nurse at the front desk?” Foster gritted her teeth. “I'm still working on her. You should hear her gossip when she's back here. The things she says!”

Gossip about me. I thought. The mean lady at the front desk spent her lunch breaks or whatever gossiping about crazy old me. Attacker of popcorn-themed fillies.

Bananas’d had the good taste not to rub it in of course. But come on, it's not like Foster would have given a fuck if she was into Sapphire Shores gossip.

“You're okay with that?” Foster squeaked.

“No,” I said. “...I mean, yes! Like, if that's what she actually feels. ‘Cause, like, what happens when you take that away from her?” I pleaded with Foster. Tried desperately to make myself understood. “She's not the same pony.”

“Because she's not a jerk anymore?”

“‘Cause she doesn't have a choice anymore.”

I never had a choice.” Foster retorted.

“I'm so sorry.” Cliff said, hanging his head low. If he’d had a hat, he'd have taken it off and clutched it to his chest, all solemn-like.

“Don't be sorry.” Bananas rolled her eyes. “I don't want one.”

I sighed in relief. Chuckled nervously. Just a little. She’d been talking about her hive mind. Not her accursed shadowy fate. With all the torture and stuff. This was a much easier subject to tackle.

“Well, to us,” I said. “It's everything.”

"Yeah,” Cliff added. “If you don't, like...have the freedom to choose to be a jerk, you never learn. You don't grow to be better.”

"Or friendshippier.” I said,

But Foster didn't wanna hear it.

“Come on, Rose. I don't expect Cliff to understand, but you have to!”

“Why do I have to?” I gently mocked her tone.

“Uh, ‘cause you got hurtled through time and space by mystical forces, and thrust into a mission with a predetermined outcome? Twice?!”

“Hey, I made all the decisions on my own!” I squeaked. Foster had officially pushed me too far. “You think the voices told me how to escape the Priestess, or the mines? Do you think they even gave me a clue what I was supposed to be doing in the trenches?”

“No.” Bananas leaned forward and whispered consporatorily. “But they already knew what those decisions were gonna be. That's why they chose you to be their drone.”

"I'm not a drone!"

“I meant it as a compliment.” Foster said.

“Ponies don't work that way.” Cliff said dryly.

“Look,” Foster fiddled with her mane, all exasperated-like. “I know this notion is contrary to your culture, but nocreature can help who they are. What they are. Every event in your life has made you the pony you are today.”

“What would you two be like if you were raised by Cliff's parents.” Bananas pointed at me. “And you were raised by Roseluck.” She shifted her hoof in Cliff's direction.

I shivered in revulsion. Cliff snickered and smirked. Then we both just stopped. Looked at one another. It was freaky and weird. Like in The Legend of Pinkbeard and the Curse of the Swapping Stone.

"I can fix these ponies.” Foster said. “Make them not jerks to us anymore.”

I closed my eyes. Took a deep breath. Jerks to us anymore. That’s what everything boiled down to with Foster. Us and them.

The scary thing was that I actually kinda understood it now. If everycreature you ever cared about lived inside your brain, then yeah, of course it would be impossible not to think of everyone else as a bunch of outsiders who didn't matter.

But that didn't make it any better. Foster's belief that we were all a bunch of puppets? It itched at my soul. Struck something primordial in me. A dread I couldn't name.

As I sat there contemplating it, the horns kicked in on Bananas Foster's record. I'd mostly been ignoring the music completely ‘till then, but those blaring trumpets - that noble fanfare - it made me think of Equestria's glories. Its triumphs.
And I realized that all of it had come from one thing.

“What about hope?" I said solemnly. “If you don't have the freedom to choose to be a jerk, you never learn. You don't grow to be better. Or friendshippier. Equestria was founded on that hope. That chance.”

Cliff nodded in enthusiastic approval.

Foster bit her lower lip. Crunched up her cute filly forehead and thought about it. Real hard.

The music on the record grew stronger. Bolder. Climbed up real high. ‘Till it finally hit its final epic crash-of-a-finale. Then, when the echoes of the concert hall decayed into nothingness, Foster broke the silence at last.

“You willing to gamble your dogmare friend on that hope?” She said.

To that, I said nothing. I honestly didn't know. Screw Loose was so helpless. And Foster could protect her. At least a little bit.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I couldn't back down either. I had lost everything remotely resembling innocence. My principles? My purity? They were all I had. All that any of us had. Any one who'd lived through mines and wars and stuff, anyway. Without it, ponies seemed to lose their way. Come out of their tragedies jaded like the soldiers of No Mare's Land, if not downright evil like the High Priestess of Trottica.

That moral bedrock had been the drive behind every victory I'd had.

My head started throbbing. A thousand ideas pounded around inside my skull. All at once. I closed my eyes. Thought about the coming war.

Ponies and zebras were gonna do horrific things to each other, and end the whole fucking world. All because they believed in their goals instead of believing in virtues.

I couldn't accept that. I couldn't become like that.




I felt a new resolve. A total confidence in my convictions. 'Till I heard a meal cart wheel screeching its way down the hallway. And for a brief moment, I thought it was Screw Loose. Crying. I remembered how helpless she was. How alone. How fragile.

I was the only pony in the whole wide world that that poor dogmare actually trusted. It would be totally evil and selfish for me not to do everything in my power to protect her.

With a heavy sigh, I opened up my eyes. Looked to Cliff Diver. Who was super mega concernitty. Then to Bananas.

"I don't know." I told her in all honesty. "I really don't know."

Author's Note:

SUPPORT: Hooves of Fate is a labor of love. However, I also have mouths to feed. If this story, or my Heart Full of Pony essays have touched you in any way, and you can manage to spare a few bits, I'd very much appreciate your support on Patreon.

For those of you who already are pledging, seriously, and for real, thank you. Your support makes a difference, and it means a great deal to me. /]*[\

SPECIAL THANKS: First of all, I would like to thank Seraphem as always for his tireless assistance providing feedback during the editing process, and Kkat for writing the original Fallout: Equestria story that inspired me to write Hooves of Fate in the first place.

DISCLAIMER: I have no affiliation with Bethesda whatsoever. Fallout 76 isn't my fault. I swear.