• Published 23rd Feb 2013
  • 3,227 Views, 242 Comments

Fallout Equestria: Second Wind - TinkerChromewire



In this FoE Sidestory, a veteran of war returns to the harsh realities of the wastelands from beyond the grave. Discovering the hardships of New Equestria and its terrors, he seeks to find a place in a world that moved on without him.

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Chapter 11: Cost of Living

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"Cost of Living"

It isn’t what you would expect.

One would seek the wonders of the world, in the past, and find beauty in places, but in this time, there is only ruin. Equestria was always a land of wonder. That has not changed, those wonders have just become more deadly. The sins of the past inherited the future, leaving a debt this generation pays eternally with diminishing returns. Their lives are on loan, short, fleeting, and they have been left with so little to strive for other than survival. The cost of living, the debt to live is paid by everyone. Someone else dying so that you may live, and eventually, you'll pay that price too. It's an unwritten law, illiteracy notwithstanding, that governs the actions of all life now.

"I do not want to die." Is something I have heard so many times, among other excuses from even the most ruthless of raiders. They barter with their executioner that they were forced to take lives to continue their own. Foals, it is a debt we all have to pay someday. Die and leave supplies for scavengers, or be killed for your supplies. Die near a place with danger, your skeleton a grim warning for others to keep their distance. Die so others can live, the cost of living is ironic. It is death. I wonder, when my time comes, how will my death serve another? A raider will kill me for what little I have, more than likely.

A typical life and death, in this world, is interchangeable. No special snowflakes, no one in a million, only a menagerie of fleeting lives postponing their post-mortem debt collection. You can’t change it, and even if you could, there’s nothing to replace it with.

---From the Journal of Nevermore


There’s a lot of things I’ll stand. I can stand a bit of back talk from my subordinates, I can stand harsh routines and hard hours, and I can stand not questioning my orders like a good soldier. But this, I cannot abide, I cannot stand it. The way the tribals--the civilians look at me.


It’s in my name, Standtall Stillshot. I’m a Steel Ranger of division 25, demoted Senior Paladin, now a Crusader and the leader of squad Delta. Delta was the known dumping grounds of renegades and free thinkers. It was often I had new members assigned, to replace the ones lost in battle. This happened far too frequent for my liking, and I’ve been the sole survivor to more than one deployment. Being the biggest stallion, and perhaps oldest, of my entire division has lead to a life of being a bit of an odd ball, with eyes always on me, always watching with interest or trepidation.


That’s not how these civilians are looking at me. They’re looking at me with hate, anger, and scorn. They avoid me, moving aside without prompt, even if I was not even trying to get past them. When I ask for things, they refuse, even for help with the barricade or for ammunition. Common procedure dictates I just take what we need in a time like this, but we’re outnumbered, and tensions are running high, I don’t need to give them a reason to open fire on us.


It might be paranoia, every ranger sometimes feels it, like those tribals would greedily murder us for our gear even though they have no capacity or reason to use it. Ignoring that gut feeling that everypony wants a piece of you is hard, especially when you know you have to take things from them to protect them from their own ignorance.


Tech level 7 and up are not permitted in the hooves of tribals. This pretty much means anything Stable-Tech(or sometimes even a radio) is grounds for confiscation. It sometimes depends on the mood of the ranger’s superior, personally I’ve only ever had to take a toy from a foal once, Joyboys in working condition were too rare. The crushed soul of that foal may haunt me, but I’m confident he made a recovery and went on to better himself. Or maybe I just took a brief moment of joy from him in this bleak, crushing existence and he lived a bit more miserably. That was thirty years ago, that foal had likely grown up and died by now.


Compliance and confiscation, follow our demands and you won’t come under scrutiny or ire. That’s the rule we follow. We make no distinction between these unfriendly Friends and the tribals that now surround us. We’re surrounded on all sides by Friends, raider kind that out do each other on insanity, and they’re no friends of mine. Friend is just a term for especially violent raiders, coined by natives of the Moohave and adopted by patrolling rangers when they picked up the colorful radio banter. All it takes is one problem and everypony turns into a ‘Friend’, giving ‘Friendly Fire’ a very exciting double-meaning.


It bothers me, not that it’ll happen, but that it’s not happening. Their xenophobia towards us is justified, but instead of acting as our command has taught us they’d act, they are simply tending to their own, working with each other to hold together. A community. Command also says they’re not keen enough to use the tech we confiscate in ways other than harming one another. That we are protecting them from themselves.


We keep the roads clear! All we ask is for all that they couldn’t use otherwise! Can’t they see that if they don’t work with us they’ll all die? No, all they see is a big bully wrapped in a big suit of armor. Because that’s all we are.


Disgrace.


We’re at war, constant war for our survival. The entire city is always in flux. There’s a massive hole at the heart of the city where all the best supplies are still plentiful, but we cannot get to safety. No, we’re forced to the outer ring to live off the scraps, and each faction stakes a claim, taking bites out of a limited pool of resources to survive.


South Quadrant, East Quadrant, West Quadrant, and North Quadrant; these are the territories remaining that are ‘fit’ for survival, each with limited resources.


The Rangers have dominated the Northern quadrant and made it safe(r) for trade, the use of our bunker makes us hard to remove while our knowledge of old tech has allowed us to rebuild large sections of tram-way to allow us rapid transit between sectors. Well, as long as something doesn’t break down and the tracks stay clear...


To the West are the Whirlybirds, a faction of ruthless smugglers and parts traffickers, specializing in chop shop cyber parts and mob mentality justice. They make their home in the old business district, their home is a trade hub built on a winding and elaborate terrace built into the top levels of the still standing skyscrapers. Below in the streets, feral timber wolf packs roam endlessly, dense and vicious.


South is the Baker Barbarian Clans, enemy to all things made of meat, they’ve had a long standing feud with the Whirlybirds over the now contested Big Top Blok. The Rangers have long since wanted their territory, since they made their home in the industrial park, a location of high value to us. There’s also a lot of ‘non-hostile’ settlements in the Southern Quadrant we could gleam tech from if we could institute compliance and confiscation.


To the East, are our mortal enemies, the Zebra Remnants, lead by the vicious Redstripe and his merry band of cowards. All they do is continue this endless war with any pony still alive, no matter the cost. Detrot had at one point been a refugee hotspot during the war, the income of war-torn zebra families and strife gave birth to the Striped Slums.


It wasn’t all bad, due to Detrot’s high zebra population, the city was passed over for megaspell attack. That was until the Remnants dropped baelfire forty-nine years ago. They hated the thought of the city recovering, of there being hope. The filthy zebra killed off their own people to keep Division 25 from preparing the city for repopulation once Stable 22 and 23 opened. That’s just how stripeys are, ruining anything and everything good, no matter the cost!


Of course, the striped snakes tell a different story, that it was King Hades punishing the hubris of one would-be hero that rose against his rule after the fall of Tomb Town. The Ivory Tower was summoned with the wave of the God-King’s hoof, its very appearance ruining a majority of the city. I think it’s a zebra lie, you can’t go outside to see this tower, it doesn’t exist. Sure, the deadmare were around before, but in far lesser numbers, enough for Division 25 to handle. It bothers me though, that the zebra would weaponize our own dead against us by creating something like Hades and his kind. Equestria would have never done something like that, we honor our dead. I wonder just how spread out they are, though, since Steelgraft is from Fillydelphia, reprogrammed by the technicians at Division 44...


The last group worth mentioning has no territory their own, The Fallen, who are nomadic, cling to the inner ring and roam. They’re mostly ghouls that believe we should atone for our sins by suffering, and they stop most scavengers from getting into the Dead Zone’s easier to plunder areas.


One thing all these groups have in common is that they drain resources from the city, and through infighting ignore the true threat; King Hades, the biggest player of them all. For as much as I’d like to cast off his crown, the chances of the Rangers trying anything soon are narrow and slim. Defense is the best offense, but I’m feeling more like we’re boxed in our own coffin sometimes. What happens when we’re the only ones left and every other faction is dead or subservient?


We die.


The tribals all suffer for it. That’s why they hate us. I just watched their leader, a tight hooved pegasus mare, hand out all the supplies for free. There wasn’t enough to go around, and spread so thin, it did little good. I grit my teeth, thinking selfishly how long those supplies would have lasted for my squad alone--it would have done more good, a squad of fully nourished and healthy rangers would be more tactically sound than a gaggle of self trained flunkies drunk on drugs and booze. It was a waste. I couldn’t protect them from their own stupidity.


“Maybe I’m asking the wrong person, but you’ve been around longer than me, do you have any wisdom?” I finally finished, looking to the phoenix I’ve been talking to this entire time.


She squawks and preens her amber, blazing feathers, perched upon the trashcan I found her on. She raises her tail and lets out a blazing dropping into the trashcan, which bursts into flames. Her disinterest is a clever cover to the true nature of her sagely wisdom--Some just like to watch the world burn and do nothing to quell the fire.


“I don’t think that really applies here...” I explain to her with a dull grumble, tapping a hoof to the side of my helmet. The companion of the phoenix is staring at me, not in a wholly negative manner, but one of coy understanding. She was a simple mare, wearing a woven hat with a pointed top--her demeanor easily spoke of her ancestry to Neighpon, a very wise and understanding people as any I’ve had the priviledge to meet. Well, when they weren’t yelling at you in Neighponese.


“You talk too much.” The mare grumbled, her firebird keening softly with a nod. The mare stabbed a withered carrot over a sharp skewer and began roasting it over the fire-bird. After babbling near non-stop at the bird about everything, it was disinterested in interacting with me at all.


A brisk trot like the clanking of a dozen tin cans alerts me to the approach of a ranger, while my HUD gave me a notice of that same ally on a small mini-map. I gazed down to see the approach of the smaller earth pony clad in identical heavy armor, a small floating nametag overhead.


“Sir, I’d like to request my firearm returned to me.” My subordinate, Silver Tongue asked, not even bothering with the formalities of a salute. I let it slide, due to the circumstance. “Were you...Talking to animals, again, old man?” She added, and even though she was in armor, I could read the inflections in her voice, she was raising a single eyebrow questioningly.


“I’m an Earth Pony--Talking to animals is our thing.” I explained briefly, before changing the subject to her work, “Give me a status on the barricade.” She often disrespected me, so much so that I had punished her near a thousand times for insubordination. Nothing worked, so I eventually gave up on the notion that this mare could be tamed. The Dossier said her family came from Mustangia, so that explained a lot for me--Including her hatred of being cooped up in the bunker back home.


Silver Tongue was tense, she felt naked without her weapon, even while in that thick armor. Any ranger would feel naked without their weapon, maybe this was the only punishment that had any effect. “The barricade’s made of rubbish stacked double your height, sir, but it won’t hold long against a Strider. Maybe ten seconds?” Her voice was filled with scorn, she didn’t like busy work. “We’d have done better if we had more hooves and--”


“I asked for results, soldier, not ‘what if’ or ‘what could’.” I barked softly, I hated raising my voice, especially around an animal like a phoenix that could easily be spooked. I left the mare and her flaming companion be to perform an inspection of our fortifications.


The wall was twice my height, making it double the height of the large double doors lining the entire front of the theatre. A quick punch with a hoof made it rattle, but it didn’t budge, and Silver Tongue was proud of her work, as evident by her soft laugh. “It’d be so much better if I had some sandbags, but I made it work!” She said, looking up to me for approval. With a snort, I nodded, returning to her her prized Stampede riot shotgun. With a squeal of glee she took it from me, snapping that it was, “About time!” But a stern glance from me made her add a quick, “Thank you, sir.”


It wasn’t enough, it wouldn’t do. A barricade of rickety, old wooden benches; trash bins and wooden crates. Even I could barrel through this in a matter of moments. Would it do? Probably not, but it was the best we had for the moment. It was time for me to get my squad ready, the attack could happen at any moment after all. I scanned the lobby for them, they should all be together, I had not given the order to be ‘at ease’ or ‘mingle’ with the tribals.


“Hey, you didn’t tell me if you liked it or not, come on, don’t be so tight lipped, Juggers!” Silver Tongue barked at me, tapping a hoof against the shoulder of my armor--which was the highest point she could reach on me with her forehoof. ‘Juggernaut’ was a nickname I had, mostly because of my size and my ability to soak bullets, two things I had in common with a brick wall, and anypony that had things in common with brick walls were either uninteresting or too interesting.


I spared her any honest comment and elected to just push her over with a playful shove while she was reattaching her weapon to her mount. The toppled mare sputtered out a curse and growled, picking herself up, “Gah!” She picked herself up quickly and gathered up her scattered shells and weapon utilizing her suit’s onboard pipbuck utilities and engaged the auto-equip and let magic do the rest. “Stupid jerk, you ruined my manual reload!”


“You use your suit’s auto set functions, soldier. I don’t need you making a mistake mounting and you jamming mid-firefight.” I reminded her, perhaps for the fiftieth time now that she should be using her suit to get her job done more easily. I was met with a begrudging grumble from her before she gave a nod and half-assed salute.


“Yeah, yeah, excuse me for takin’ pride in my manual mounting.” She said, using a tired old excuse--One I tended to agree with. The Earth Pony way is certainly not a bad way, but a time and place for everything is important.


“Are you guys talking about manual mounting versus auto-mounting again?” A radio communication from another in our group shot in. I’d left the channel open, the rest of the squad could hear everything I said.


“You guys should just screw already.” Interjected another of my subordinates with a snort. “I bet Silver Tongue’d love to manually mount you, sir.”


“Shut up, Wise Crack, don’t clutter my coms with smut,” I ordered.


“Yeah, don’t piss off Silver Tongue,” Added Bombshell, “Or she’ll show you how she earned that name.”


“Oh, I’m so scared. I’m ploppin’ deuce in my armor!” Leeway chuckled.


“Wait,” Another ranger, Greenhorn was his name, “Can we actually poop in our armor?”


“ ‘Course, go ahead and try it!” Chimed in Wise Crack, a known jokester, “It’ll be good for a laugh!”


Voices died out as I cut radio coms to scan the crowd, my attention lingered briefly on a rather interesting minotaur in the crowd, I recognized the weapon craft and manner he held himself in easily. That and the small goat laden with black powder and a saddlebag was a dead giveaway, he was a Macitaur. They originated from the Macintosh Hills but moved to a nearby mountain range due to climate issues when the Badlands spread, though the dossiers on their group mentioned a deadly behemoth running them out of the hills as well. He was likely here on pilgrimage, and I could tell from his manner and jovial stomping he was bragging to the group of ponies that surrounded him about his exploits. I picked out a few words from his loud conversation, and heard mention of a battle with ‘Vikeans’ who were another...Odd, lesser known group of these parts. I’d never seen a Vikean, mostly because they could never get past the mountain ridge settled by the Macitaurs.


“Och aye, it’s a guid tale it is, abit th' time Ah beat a vikean wi' a soft bat!” Bellowed the Macitaur, who lifted his meaty, black-splotched, white arms and swung in a faux-dramatic style. “Those bairns waur cryin' aw th' way haem, they waur!”


It sounded like such a riveting tale, one with wiffle bats and heroism, which when together with drunken minotaurs, lead to great drinking songs. If he fought half as good as he bragged, we’d have half a shot at making it out of this.


“Sir, you know you can stop wasting time LOOKING for our men and just hail em on the radio? You know, use your suit’s utility functions like you just bitched at me for?” Silver Tongue chided, much with her tongue in cheek. “Then again, I don’t blame you for killing your coms, they’re trying to get Greenhorn to drop apples in his armor.”


“I’m getting a layout of the battlefield,” I told her, “And seeing what we have on our side.” When the mare asked me what we had, I bluntly dissected my findings, “A bunch of rusted guns on clueless ponies, but that Macitaur’s going to be good in a pinch.” I paused for a moment, “Are they really trying to get Greenhorn to soil his armor? The waste management system on his loaner armor’s broken, right?”


“Yup, totally busted. He doesn’t know that though,” Silver Tongue chuckled, “And if he plops, I get twenny caps.” She then shot a glance over to the Minotaur I mentioned, cocked her head and nodded, “Yeah, those guys’re crazy in battle...And when drinking...And all the time, really. I can’t believe how nice they are, something that big--” The mare stopped right where she was speaking and glanced to me, then reconsidered what she was going to say. “Well, then again, we all know not all big things are mindless brutes, right, sir?”


“Nice save.” I replied. I was unsatisfied with what I had seen, all the vantage points, of which there were few, no cover, and really, the only places to fall back to were the theatre rooms. This packed place would be a bloodbath without enough room to maneuver because of all the bodies standing around, stumbling over one another. “Send a ping to the rangers, tell them to meet on this position. I’m hailing headquarters.”


“Yes sir.” Silver Tongue affirmed.


Opening a hailing frequency was easy, it was automated by the suit I was in, and it used radio frequencies on the emergency channel at 1640 kHz. External sound was disabled to limit interference and noise pollution, I could hear nothing outside and no one outside my suit could hear me either now. I started with a ping and followed up with, “Break-Break, this is Delta K, do you copy? Over.”


“This is HQ Operator on emergency channel 1640, reading you five-by-five, Delta K. Go ahead.” Came the response, oh good, they had someone on the line for once!


“Code Black, current location in Southern Quadrant is dire. Requesting extraction team at our coordinates for an entire evacuation of settlement.” I responded, making it known what I required or deemed necessary from my superiors.


“Roger, processing request. Standby.” This was going swimmingly, who said that bureaucracy was a useless tool? It was working for me tonight. While waiting, I watched as my unit formed up before me, waiting for me to address them. I waved a hoof, signaling an ‘at ease’ while I waited for a response from HQ.


“Delta K, do you copy?” Asked the operator. I responded affirmative. “Your request is denied, your position is beyond operating orders. You’re on your own. Out.” Oh, great, that wasn’t good. It was true, we were in a place we had no ties to, and an extraction in force for Code Black was a ton of resources to mobilize.


“We demand to be patched through to HQ-Actual!” I shouted, very glad my unit couldn’t hear me. “Do you hear me? We’re trapped in a hot zone, Code Black, and if we don’t get reinforcements we’re all going to die! Now patch me through to Elder Haywire right now! Over!”


A brief pause followed, “Wilco.” Came an affirmation of my request.


“HQ-Actual, Haywire speaking. You mind why you’re out there at Big Top, Crusader?...Over” The dark, rumbling voice made my insides cold, and I swallowed at a knot of freezing ice in my throat, “Yes, sir, we intercepted distress, the Baker Barbarians began an assault. Over”


“That isn’t a Code Black, soldier. Code Black is...Regrettably a lost cause for any settlement. Are you certain, this far out from the Dead Zone, that it’s Code Black? Over.” Haywire was being unusually patient, his voice calm and smooth, never raising in pitch. He hated wasting time, but for me, he was always a bit nicer. Why? Because I served with his father, the last Elder, and even though I was demoted, he always remembered who babysat him when he was a tyke.


“Affirmative. 70 Active Striders by estimates. Several hundred civilians in danger. We need full evac. Over.” I lodged my request to him, personally.


“Delta K, not only are you out of boundaries, but you are endangering my equipment on a fool’s errand to rescue tribals? If it was a valuable piece of technology or information I could understand, but wasting our resources to save civilians? I thought your age would make you wise, that is just feckless wishing. Now, if you do manage to get back in one piece, I’ll give you a lenient court marshal and assign you a new squad of underachievers. As of now, you’re on your own. Out.” Haywire cut the transmission right then, and no matter how many times I hailed, I heard no response.


My Rangers all looked to me, waiting expectantly for me to break the silence, and when I turned on external sound and audio feed (hesitantly, I might add), I was met with a silent shuffling of metal hooves.


“What’d command say?” Asked one Ranger, Greenhorn, the newest and youngest of our squad. He quickly gave an unnecessary salute, and fumbled with a request to speak freely. Really, he was a scrappy, if cute kid. He was shifting around in his armor, waggling his back end.


“Something wrong, there, soldier?” I asked, rather amused.


“Uh, no, nothing, I just...I think my waste management is busted and I...I...” He sounded so embarrassed by this, like he was about to cry. “I plopped and it smells and...Can I go to the loo, sir?”


“After briefing,” I told him.


Jabbing him in the side, several of my other rangers teased him, laughing. “I can’t believe we got him to bomb his armor! AHAHA! Twenty caps to the lady!” The banter grew and got a tad out of control, with bro-hoofs galore. “Yeah, good one, guys, you got me!” Greenhorn said, holding his hoof up, expecting to be included. They of course left him hanging, so I met the recruit’s hoof with mine, to lessen his discomfort. He was such a good sport, I was proud of him.


This immature celebration ended when I cleared my throat, “Code Black.” I said first, which got them spooked, they recoiled as if gunfire had gone off nearby. “Seriously, sir,” mumbled one, and a flurry of worried mumbles followed.


“That’s an affirmative soldier, and headquarters said that...” I looked at them all, sizing each one up, each one was something of a friend, a responsibility, and an ally all in one metal-clad package. A band of brothers(and sisters) of battle. “Reinforcements are coming.” I lied, unable to bear the thought of this final battle with them filled with hopelessness. “A full evac. We’re saving as many as we can.” Heroes, we’ll be....Heroes. Yes, that’s how we will die.


How many squads have I lied to, put in danger, all under order? Too many, I’ve seen too many rangers die in service, doing what I was told. This was different, this time my squad would die because of me, this time, my own actions would lose me another squad.


“You’re a disgrace to your Ministry and your mare!” That ghoul, that peculiar, strange civilian from Division 44 had called me a disgrace. Maybe he saw it then, saw into who I really was. Things in Division 44 were different, I imagined. It was personal, meant, and more than likely true. If Applejack met me, she’d be ashamed of what she saw; a big, old ranger without honor, jaded pessimistic to hopelessness.


There was an awkward silence among my squad, each fidgeting nervously, avoiding my gaze. One voice broke the shuffle, one head tilting up to break the foul mood that lingered. “I’m not scared!” Barked Greenhorn, “We’re gonna be heroes, like in the stories! We’ll show these civvies that we’re the good guys! They’ll never forget us!”


Bravado was met with a ‘HOO-AH!’ from the entire squad. Prepared for battle, my squad took positions at the ready, psyching each other up with comical radio banter. They took bets on whether or not Greenhorn would be the first to die or not, and while good spirited, it made me feel uneasy. “Hey, Greeny, if you live, I’ll fraternize with you long time!” -- Silver Tongue’s jokes were always met with roaring laughter from the stallions. “Yeah right, I’m cleaning out my armor now, I’m not trusting you guys again!” Greenhorn squeaked as he took leave to the loo.


“Don’t worry, scamp, you probably still smell better than Will Helm!” Silver Tongue added stingingly, “He has this uber superstition that cleaning his undersuit is unlucky.”


“Pinkie Keen and sure as overcast, nothing’s proved me wrong! I haven’t gotten sick in months!” Will Helm defended his strange quirk against the laughter and jabs. “Yeah, only cuz the smell scares the germs, not to mention the mares, away!” Wise Crack burst in with his high pitched hyena laugh.


Head-butts, hoof-ups, and playful shoves, they all seemed happy. With a heavy heart I tried to participate, to enjoy this while it could last. “None of you are allowed to die before me,” I said to them seriously, “And that’s an order.”


“So serious. Look, if we can’t die before you, then we aren’t allowed to die.” Deadpanned Leeway, “Period.” They thought me invincible, and they had reason to think that. In all my deployments with them, I’d never suffered severe injury, my armor soaked damage like a thirsty sponge. I was their shield, their cover, their iron curtain. I was the reason we were able to be deployed so far from base, a mobile piece of siege equipment in grossly oversized pony form.


Far past my prime, I hadn’t had the mercy of being put out to pasture. This was one old nag of a soldier that could still pull plow with the best of them, if only because of the armored suit I was sealed in. If any of my squads had seen how feeble I was, outside my armor, they would be less than impressed. Maybe I’d finally die this time. Then I wouldn’t suffer the shameful return to HQ alone, once again. Or maybe some of them would survive this, just maybe.


I was disrupted from my disparaging thoughts by a private message from Silver Tongue, “Holy suns, a settlement evac for Code Black? You must have said some choice words to get that. Course Haywire’d hate to lose his father’s old favorite, guess you being leader isn’t so bad.”


“Yeah,” I muttered, “Some choice words.”


Time passed, as it always does in a tense situation, at a slow crawl. Seconds were minutes, and minutes were hours. No one could predict when the assault would come, but they all knew it’d happen shortly. The time was just past Nine, and all was quiet, no more songs and stories, only the licking of half-healed wounds and the hugging of rifles and notched clubs.


Of those gathered, most knew not the horror to come, most were ignorant to it. Bitch Fit would wager that a panicked people would die far more quickly than a mildly surprised one, and spread the rumor that a the Warlord Muffincake himself was planning a march on their stronghold tonight in a final bid to pry free their hold on the territory.


At five minutes past Nine, a single section of lighting fell from the roof, injuring several ponies. A brief panic erupted and several shots were fired off into the air, striking the ceiling until Bitch Fit screamed a cease fire.


“You fuckin’ knobs, it’s just an old lighting fixture! Ain’t nothing to be afraid of!” The pegasus growled, hoving over the lighting fixture. A drip from the ceiling hit her ear and she felt it with a hoof, “Oh great, the ceiling is leaking again, thanks for shooting it ya---” She gazed at the black, sticky mucous on her hoof in horror, consequently gazing up to discover the host of her horrid, sudden realization.


A ripple of reality encased a single entity hanging from the ceiling on sickled claws. Hisses erupted to shrieks as more ripples appeared until the surface appeared to be one whole writhing mass of refracting light.


One Strider dropped down, reduced a once stout earth pony to giblets, then moved onto the neighboring group of densely packed equines. In shock, the ponies turned on it and opened fire, doing more damage to friendlies than the Strider in question.


“Shoot the fucking ceiling, now! STUPID GITS!” Bitch Fit roared. Crossfire zipped past her ear, leading to a spit of scarlet and a stinging howl of pain. She ducked low, spitting out a short stream of curses, “Melee! Melee!” She cried, “Melee the ones down low, shoot em on bloody high!” Common sense, it was so rare in the wastes Bitch Fit could consider it a super power, casualties to friendly crossfire outweighed the loss of life to their foes within the first few seconds.


Standtall gave a similar order to his rangers before he widened his stance and aimed his heavy autocannon up, the feed mechanisms whining before the gun began lobbing heavy shells into the writhing, half-cloaked mass of deadmare that had yet to drop. Over 4,000 pounds per round of recoil energy slammed into the crusader, his suit compensated for the massive force by locking his legs and grounding him, each heavy, 30 millimeter shell tearing out great chunks of the ceiling and making it rain black blood.


After a hundred rounds in the first half minute from Standtall alone, there was a decent amount of remains dropping from above. His weapon was built for this, it was typically a vehicle mounted weapon, but thanks to his size, he was pretty close to being a tank. Small fortifications and most armored opponents withered under the fire of the heavy autocannon, which rightfully earned its place as Delta squad’s plucky mascot.


In that same half minute, however, many civilians had died, many from accidental friendly fire as the deadmare weaved through the crowd like deadly sewing needles. Large crowds and enclosed spaces were not the best place for a hundred guns to be blazing, and in retrospect, Standtall regretted his order to make a barricade. Any thoughts on breaking it down were abandoned, as the Striders moved in to cut off escape routes and laid low those that had wisely turned to destroy the obstacle. The lights dimmed and flickered, and more lighting fixtures dropped down into the crowd, leaving a gaping hole leading outside. The phoenix and several griffons took their chance to flee, only to be rewarded with swift death to crossfire. An explosion of fire screeched out when the firebird died, raining down ashes, triggering the sprinkler system to belch rancid water for a few seconds. The main water line had been destroyed by the earlier attacks, there was not a drop left in the system now.


The Striders put down by gunfire were back up moments later, the air heavy with death, and their bloodlust unquenchable. The only thing that put them down for any reasonable amount of time was complete dismemberment, which the Macitaur was dealing in spades. A single explosive disk would be tossed up by the goat, and the large rocket propelled maul would catch it against its magnetic face plate before flattening a strider to paste, the resulting explosion from the hammer drop propelling the weapon back up for a quick, consecutive swing.


Bitch Fit herself was a bit of an aerial duelist, matching a set of Striders move for move and parrying them at every strike with the blades along her wingtips before she could deliver a sawn off ‘kiss’ from her favorite gun.


At first, it seemed like it was an even fight, where only the weakest or most inexperienced died quickly, the most of which were now strewn across the floor in various states of dead, dying, or wishing they were. In a normal battle, it’d be about the strongest against the weakest, and Striders were far from strong. Deadmare won by tenacity and attrition, the mindless drones themselves lacking creativity, they left that up to their masters. For every gallon of blood spilled, for every death on the battlefield, a downed Cyberghoul would rise like a phoenix from ashes to kill again.


For every combatant on the field that dies, a horde gets more ravenous, their pleasure centers tickled with a joyful jolt of stimulation at every act of violence. Oh, and of course, those dismantled parts could reassemble themselves into rather odd abominations given enough time, if their matrix was not destroyed, which was steadily happening now, just minutes into the battle. It’s a sight said to drive ponies mad, seeing flesh and metal mesh, their once living companions drawn into the bosom of undeath to become part of a nightmare.


“Oh fuck, there’s so much blood! So much... blaaargh!” Greenhorn was the first to lose his mind, witnessing such an act, just feet away from him. The young stallion had vomited into his helmet and fallen prone, falling victim to a twisted husk. “No! AH! help me!”


Med X is a gift in most situations, a suit of Steel Ranger armor pumps it straight into the bloodstream at the first signs of trauma. In this situation, it’s a curse. Several stabs lanced right into the armor, past any defense, and seared the wounds shut as the blade sawed back out. The armor prolonged this torture, which would have been brief otherwise.


Sixteen times. The blades on the Strider’s legs bit into the underbelly of the toppled ranger sixteen times in a vicious, happy dance before Standtall ceased suppressive fire and charged to aid his comrade. Shrieking, the monster thrashed about as it tumbled end over end and was pinned to the ground by the blazing barrel of the autocannon, with which a single roar pressed the beast into a well beaten puddle of steaming, sparking goo.


The crusader stood over his fallen charge defensively, spreading his stance out, “We’ve got a ranger down, ranger down! Medic! I need a medic!” Standtall called, pinging for assistance. The vitals of two of his other squad members were in critical and one had just recently flatlined, the display in his vision condemning him as a leader. Their medic, Bombshell, was already dead.


You’re a disgrace,” Standtall’s mind murmured.


“Hah...Look at me, disobeying an order. On the bright side you can’t court marshal me...” said Wise Crack, nearing his last breath. “Ha...Ha...Ha.” The sad irony of his death was that he hadn’t been harmed by a Strider, but instead was dealt a fatal wound by careless friendly fire by another squad member. That Squad member had been their medic, who was now a headless corpse inside her armor.


“We just lost Leeway!” Will Helm screamed. His own end came shortly after, with a crackling burst of static and a high pitched squeal over the radio.


One by one, each of Stand Tall’s squad were downed, each one screaming over the live radio link between their squad mates until only three remained. Standtall, the mortally wounded Greenhorn, and the cursing, violently running and gunning Silver Tongue.


“B-be strong, commander.” Greenhorn rasped weakly, “It’ll all be...Fine we just have to...Be strong until they get here. I just wish I coulda been stronger.”


“You’re the strongest I’ve ever known,” Standtall replied to his comrade, just as the rookie’s vitals went flat. Standtall had never met a young ranger with more heart than Greenhorn, that was true. The optimistic stallion had been the heart of the squad, the butt of the jokes, and he never complained. It was a wonder why the poor buck got dumped off into Delta, it was probably due to squeamishness or poor battle performance. The kid should have just been a scribe...


Anger, pain, and adrenaline mixed together to form a concoction of unending rage. Blades came at the crusader, but the magical blades glanced off the ablative armor coating. Had they given that to his squad too, they might still be alive, but why squander resources on disposable soldiers?


Forsaken by his own, his squad gone save one, the juggernaut let loose a fierce cry that shook the entire lobby, his voice amplified by his speakers; “Get down, I’m laying lead!” He broke free of the few Striders upon him, bucking them away and taking stance, locking his legs. The long-barreled death dealer came to life with a whir before it laid down a layer of lead in a controlled, sweeping arc, his S.A.T.S. kicking in as he rapidly selected target after target, shoulder high to strike at the Strider’s vital matrix components.


Those in mid battle tossed themselves down as the bullets whizzed just over their ears, some weren’t as fortunate and were ended clipped by the crusader’s stray rounds. He hit more civilians that Striders, but he hit very few Striders as it was. The bladed monsters leapt up along the walls and retreated away from the fire, just as Standtall focused fire on one of the larger reassembled abominations, turning it into a hole strewn mess of sparking parts and gore.


Whirrr clakka psssshhhht--The chamber clicked dry and the overheated barrel groaned, hissing hot and glowing, smoke wafting from the warped bore. Everything was still, save for the curling, rising smoke as time sped up once again for the Crusader.


“Yuh bleedin’ clipped mah, yeh sage pod folly wocker!” Roared the rather angry Macitaur, “Gaud mess tho, fer ah branded folly!”


“What were you thinking, old man?! Have you lost your mind?! Where’s our reinforcements? Sir?! Everypony else is....They’re all...” Silver Tongue couldn’t sum into words what she wanted to say, picking herself up off her belly. There was a minute of calm, as if the battle was over, Several ponies took that as the end of the battle and began picking through what was left, they had missed seeing the Striders flee and cloak, and assumed them all slain by now. There was no cheering, save for Bitch Fit who strutted proudly as a peacock. “What did I tell you, this is my house, my rules! House always wins, even against the so called King Hades!”


Just then, as if to mock the pegasus for her hubris, the doors to the theatre rooms burst open, and panicked civilians filtered out, trampling over one another. The cloaked Striders, waiting for this set upon this new source of potential and began the killing anew, and all the downed deadmare surrounded by survivors sprang up to kill once again.


The theatre room was choked with the gas, pink was pretty, especially when contrasted against melting flesh of one’s gooey, red innards. The crowd, in a panic, had rushed the doors to escape a fate worse than death, only to trample one another and end up in another proverbial fate worse than death scenario involving homicidal death blenders dancing the razor’s edge.


Gangrene stayed behind, wisely waiting for the crowd to disperse before even thinking of getting out those doors. Her head throbbed with aching pain, her brow knit in concentration as she maintained a shield spell around them all, the cloud misting the barrier and weakening it. The mare had to bite her lower lip hard to maintain consciousness, blood trickling down her chin.


Images danced through the dense pink fog, still holding Steelgraft in a trance, his single eye a pin prick as he was trapped in a continual loop of his previous life’s worst memories. Stuck in his lap was a frantically squirming Rebel Riot, whom for the love of taffy could not free himself from the cyberghoul’s frozen grip.


Bawling brats and heart attacks, Gangrene needed a plan before she died where she stood maintaining such a high level spell! Juggling another thought made another blood vessel rupture in her sinuses, and blood weakly oozed from her nose. “I ain’t holdin’ this fer much longer,” She groaned, “Keena, three legs, baby mamma, sweet cheeks; when it drops, get the kids out.” When the hippogriff argued she couldn’t possibly carry that many at once, Gangrene growled out that she’d have to manage like she was. Frisky was rather petulant about being called ‘three-legs’ but agreed to carry two of the ‘little snots’ while Zone Control carried three, and Glazed Marshmallow chipped in, taking two on her back. The rest would have to run, and hopefully not trip or stumble, though if they did, Zone would more than help them along with her magic.


Keena nodded, calling the children over, reassuring them before she got around to sweeping them up, struggling to keep hold on them. “What of Rebel?” Keena asked, whilst juggling her unseemly large load.


Frisky snorted, insulted the hippogriff, and took another bundle of joy from her and said, “There, now I got another, stop yer whinin’!”


“I think I need to pee.” Said Gulag, the chubby foal he’d just snatched from Keena.


“Yah’ll better not, punk.” Frisky chuffed, “Or Ah might take a spill ahn leave y---aw, really?!” He trotted in place, holding the foal out away on his single foreleg, trying to avoid the spreading pool of warmth.


“I-i’m scared...” The foal whimpered.


“Well stahp bein’ scurred all over the floor!”


“What about Steelgraft?” Zone control added, her tone deeply worried. A moment of pause lead her to shoot the dancing Frisky a glance, shaking her head at her husband’s current antics. “We can’t leave anypony behind in this!” She was unwilling to just leave Gangrene like this, the plumes of pink weren’t sitting well with her, and she wanted to brave as little as possible.


“I’ll handle it!” Gangrene hissed, “Z-gurl, grab the health potions, douse yourselves now!” Zone Control followed the order without hesitation or asking ‘why’, because it’d be stupid to waste time and she knew a bit about the effects of that horrible cotton candy pink toxin. A preventative measure to it was to douse oneself in healing potion, of which Gangrene only had three to spare, which spread among so many was a very sparse sprinkling. “You got three seconds tops with that afore you start meltin’. Make them seconds the most important seconds of your life.”


“We’ll miss you,” Whined Taffy. The other foals shared similar sentiments.


“I’m not dead yet, stupits! I’ll be right behind yahs, buckin’ babies.” Gangrene snorted with a strained eyeroll. “Be ready on three...One...” Her eye twitched and she felt the last of her strength drain, the shield broke and she roared, “Three!” A startled Keena flapped her wings, squawked, and leapt up, barely clearing the theatre seats and making it out the wide, open door while the two earth ponies ambled with their loads behind a surprisingly spry six month pregnant mare. Gangrene could have sworn Frisky slowed down just to check out his wife’s kiester, but she had nary a fraction of a second to consider such obnoxious depravity.


These were, after all, the most important three seconds of her life. While in the shield, Steelgraft was statuesque and unreachable, so she didn’t waste time trying to talk to the comatose stallion that clutched the foal and instead set her sights on the projector high up in the balcony. Bolter raised, she strained to concentrate, her magic faltered, and she dropped it into the seat. With a curse, she swiftly propped it against the back of the theatre chair and aimed, using the manual trigger to fire two bolts. The first missed, but the second clipped the projector and shattered the bulb inside before the intense heat caught the whole thing on fire.


Steam boiled off her skin as the potion’s coating wore off, pain kissing every pore and kneading into every muscle. She tried to hold her breath, but the cloud just pushed into her lungs, spoiling her air and making her cough. Weak from injuries, it didn’t take much for her to succumb, sinking into the chair with a weak rasping of breath. She could only hope that Steelgraft would come out of it and rush Rebel out of the room, dragging her along if he had enough foresight to notice her in the congested room. Dying like this wasn’t what she wanted, but maybe that’s just how it’d work out. Her world faded to black.


My world had a touch of pink; a color I detested, categorized along with the likes of Mondays, red balloons, and party clowns. Things I hated for some reason but could scarcely remember why, or if I did, I wanted to forget, which I couldn’t. Not anymore and not ever again. Yet, I know I’ve felt this way before.


Have you ever had that feeling where you’re experiencing something for the first time and it feels like you’ve been there before, doing that same exact thing, yet you know you’ve never been there before? What was it called, deja-vu? Yes, that’s right, I wonder if there is an expression for the opposite, for when you’re in a place you recognize and remember but it still feels unfamiliar.


Jamais-vu’...You simpleton. It is a French expression. “Ah, yes, the universal language of surrender!” I replied internally to the voice in my head. This voice, belonging to a mare, snorted in disgust; Uncultured as you are simple, Captain. Keep your wits about you and witticisms to yourself, you might live longer by keeping that tongue wise with silence. Just what I needed, more bleed-over from my memories as auditory hallucinations.


Old friend--you seek to undo--your comrades--and would allow--the sting of mourning? Enlighten--the pain that built--your understanding. --You--couldn’t--change. --Revenge--forgotten.--In effigy--witness--the evil--you may remember.--Those that-- embody to everyone--death.” More whispers, voices around the edges, just out of sight where I was looking. Like echoes, weaving deeping into my mind and leaking out into the world. I didn’t know where it came from or why I was hearing that dreamy voice that spoke in mollifying tones.


You know what that said? It said vendetta, personal, not business. Whoever Hades was, he had no qualms about getting even through nefarious means of gross collateral damage. If he had the resources to orchestrate this vicariously through some puppet like Cradle Robber, ekeing out by the skin of one’s teeth was the preferred best outcome. Playing host to the full attention of one such being, warlord or not, was not an honor any sane, sentient creature would want to humor.


Who was Hades? How was I connected to him? An entire theatre full of ponies (Griffons, and the odd sheep included) had trampled one another to escape this room, even before this pink gas started filling it. I didn’t know a single thing about this entity, other than him being universally feared, even more than the Warlard Muffincake; a fat glutton that ATE his victims. Then again, it shouldn’t be too surprising if he commanded armies of the cybernetically enhanced undead, like me, to slay the living. Briefly reflecting on the message to me, hidden in his words, I wondered if I really wanted to know our connection.


Knowledge is damning and ignorance is bliss. I could probably sit in this gooey, pink frosting mist forever and think about all the ways I hated it if not for the fact I noticed in my lap a trembling foal whom had a sick aversion to it, or of the mare wheezing noisily at my hooves, a bolter glued to her foreleg--No, not glued, it was her flesh melting against it. It hit me just then, a force of memories pulsing from the back of my skull to the front, making my horn jolt at the juncture between my skull and bolt fitting, my left eye burning with searing pain beneath my bandages.


Stop. Wasting. Time.


Acting on this impulse, I thoughtless complied, seizing up the mare and foal(and the bolter stuck to the mare’s foreleg). Every step echoed memories from my recent life as I tread over trampled corpses pooling on the floor with a consistency of melted taffy. I had to briefly consider that everypony from Greenvale Heights was a plot basket for forcing me into this crazy job that just so happened to include a side quest of unwanted self discovery.


Waking to a pink fluffy cloud filled room poorly prepared me for venturing into a scene I could only describe as the aftermath of a giant pony juicer set to pulp, coating all surfaces in the sickest splatters of gore. A protracted battle hopelessly waged on, because there was nowhere to retreat to. Bladed abominations and several larger, cobbled together beasts coated in twitching blades ambled about, picking off the remaining resistance. A group of ponies dashed past me and then back again, indecisive between dying via amputation or the pink fluffy mist that slowly spread out into the hall. Living creatures did not find its company agreeable.


A large group of survivors, twenty at most, squeezed in behind the concession stand, Zone control, her gimped husband Frisky, Keena, the brats, Marshmallow mare, and the rest of my acquaintances among them. Keena was taking pot shots at Striders that were otherwise occupied and managed to save the life of one overwhelmed mare using a set of chains as her weapon of choice. Zone was on point, at the edge of the counter, peeking out and keeping a watchful eye in case something came upon them, leading me to greet the barrel with a friendly boop to my nose.


“Whoa, that sight really never gets old!” I said nasally, raising both my forelegs and presenting my palms in a non-threatening manner, “Parley?”


The blue mare softened, lowering the shotgun, “Steelgraft, oh thank goodness, I was worried one of those cloaking freaks would sneak up an--” Her eyes widened, once she recognized the sputtering, coughing ponies draped over my back. “They look horrible!” The mare took my wheezing passengers, calling for somepony to bring whatever leftover medical supplies they had.


“Comin’ I’m comin’!” Grumbled an earth pony of undecided gender. The ugly, scruffy faced nag performed triage at a glance to the ailing pair. “Good as dead.” He decided, giving Rebel Riot a soft kick in the gut. The little buck demonstrated symptoms of life by sinking his teeth into the stallion’s leg. “Gah, get offah me! Ow, ow dat hoits!” A feeble swing to his dangling apple sack sent him into a fetal position, the scraggly buck could do naught but sing in soprano--That was a feeling I certainly didn’t miss. It wasn’t soon after that Gangrene regained consciousness as well, and she had some choice words, curses, complaints, all with a voice of gargled gravel.


Gangrene wheezed, giving pause to spit on the downed buck as she stumbled into the counter. “Good as dead, he said? Yah don’t know the difference between a speculum and a stethoscope!” Gangrene still had her aplomb demeanor, as graceless as it was. The yellow unicorn snorted, coughed, spat, then shook the extra weight added to her foreleg. “Fudge packin’ dilweed. You took a w-while gettin’ us outta there. Look at dis!” She aimed her hoof at me, complete with heavy industrial boltgun melded to the side. “This ain’t an improvement!” She was also charismatically mouthy despite her sickly condition.


“It looks cool,” Keena interjected between shots with her rifle, “You’re like Megamare.” Gangrene didn’t know who Megamare was, and waved a hoof as the gamer hippogriff tried to briefly summarize the game up in a few words. “Don’t care, it hurts! Gonna rip it off...Like a big metal band aid.” The unicorn mare groaned, peeling it off, leaving a fat, flapping piece of pelt hanging off the weapon’s stock.


True to her nature, she looted a couple healing potions off the downed ‘nurse’ and chugged one for herself and forced one on Rebel Riot. You’d think the foal preferred the taste of that unwashed stallion’s leg over the taste of the potion given his resistance. “Come on, yah brat, drink it or it’s a spankin! We nearly died in there cuz somepone’s a slow assed molly.” The unicorn shot me a glare of daggers.


“Glad to see you awake, love to chat, but I got that to deal with.” I didn’t bother further elaboration to my statement, and merely pointed over the counter. Gangrene followed my fingertip to the battle waging between the living and the dead not twenty yards away. It wasn’t going very well at all. “And the cloud stuff? That’s spreading,” I added.


“You really got us in it this time,” Gangrene said in a rather airy, bemused fashion, “I hope there’s a plan brewin’ in that putty you call a brain, cuz I can’t fight worth applesauce right now.”


“I’ll come up with something,” I muttered noncommittally, vaulting onto the counter. “Just stay right here and wait for a signal. I’ll clear a path.” Gangrene looked more disgruntled than convinced and the others were a bit busy covering the counter to give any disparaging remarks with jaded, justified spitefulness.


I took only what I needed from my saddlebag, the three syringes of combat enhancer, specially made for ghouls(Headcase warned me to read the instructions), and my nearly worn out Can Cleaver. “Hey, three-legs,” I said, tossing my bag at Frisky Fritter, which knocked him over flat, eliciting a stream of reactionary curses involving a rubber hose and some parts of my mother. “Watch my stuff for me.”


The stallion had been huddled behind the counter near his wife, where I’d expect him to be. Near him, one of the supply crates was toppled sideways, and many of the foals had sought shelter there as if the flimsy old wood would offer them more protection. All bawling, of course.


“Is there something I can do, Steelgraft?” Zone Control asked, and I knew she’d do anything I told her. She was a good mare and she was going to make a wonderful mother. Ponies like Zone Control and Gangrene gave me hope that it was all worth it, that the world hadn't changed so much afterall. You know, except for the robot zombies, the raiders, the magical fallout, the warlords, and the lack of any good mental health care facilities. You know what, scratch that; the world sucked now.


“Yeah, stay alive,” I said to her, jumping the counter. It was time for me to enter the foray going on in the lobby, and I moved at a methodical trot, catching glimpse of what struggles were the in most immediate dire need.


The enormous Steel Ranger was hunkered over the fallen form of a smaller armored ranger, and all about the battlefield the rest of the squad was slain, as evident by the errant metal covered limbs glistening from the clotted stew on the floor. A fat, reformed culmination of tattered Strider parts repeatedly lashed him with a heavy segmented limb, ending in a crude spade of magical blades. The crashing sound rang out, and evident to the dents and damage to the armor, he could only weather a few more minutes of prolonged abuse.


“Aye, comin’ tah gitit a’e yeh, blauthit vones? Ah’ll wrap yer cutlah’ey intah armbands fer mah clan! Ah bet even tha’ Vikean could best yeh serreh finks!” Bellowed a war-weary, but battle savaged minotaur. His ham fisted grip on his remaining arm trembled around his maul, fatigue allowing only the occasional swing at the murderous can openers on all sides. The vultures circled him, waiting patiently for him to bleed out. His goat companion was incapacitated, slung over his broad shoulders like a boa.


“Go get ‘em, tiger!” Cheered Key, whose voice alone could make me cringe. Oh, of course he had to be among the survivors! It was a near morbid expectation for that stallion to be flirting with death, trying to copulate a bladed monstrosity.


“Waht’s the signal, yeh rotter?” Frisky belted at me from over the counter, “Are yeh a fool? Yeh ain’t tol’ us tha signal!”


A fool, yes, it’s a part I play well, it’s a wonder why, when I once wore a hat, that it had not been of the attire of the jester, complete with bells. Was this suicidal? Yes. Was it a trap? Obviously, it had been, and very clever too. My quarry knew me well, even better than I knew myself. I glanced back over my shoulder, frowning, “Just wait for an opening.” Yes, and let the amnesiac, unhinged stallion you probably hated pick up the slack.


I had the beginnings of a plan, a dragon in its shell about to hatch. It began with getting the attention of every combatant on the field and drawing them to me, granting some relief to the tired civilians that fought desperately against a pitched, uneven battle. Little dots danced over my vision, green and red, where the red outnumbered the green. There were forty-three active Strider units on the field that I could detect, some could be cloaked. These odds were stacked, chances of me winning? Slim. Brute force wouldn’t work--But if I got all attention on me and kept it on me, then that big guy, Standtall, could take out the barricade and everyone could get out before that noxious pink cloud spread to the lobby.


You know this probably is only going to get us killed, my thoughts projected to me a skeptical, morose outlook on what I had planned. “You got a better idea?” I asked myself. When I didn’t hallucinate a response, I knew that meant there really was no alternative. My instincts agreed with a simple blurt; Lets. Buck. Plot. “Groovy.”


Euphoria washed over me the moment my hooves graced the hallowed ground, anointed by the blood of the innocent and occupied by the guilty. Saliva built up in my mouth, muscles twitched at memories driven by lust for glorious battle. Seeing so much carnage had lost its bite on my sensibilities. I’ve seen a forest of corpses, what did seeing this matter? It was worrying, it should bother me, it should bother me because they were alive, talking, laughing, and living their lives just moments ago. I should care, but I didn’t, at least not right now, even while fetlock deep in their blood. There was a sense of irony not wasted on me, the walls were covered in crooked posters featuring heroes standing stalwart in the face of certain danger; Families came here to watch those films, to find escapism through fantasy. Not only was I no hero in any sense of the word, but now those trapped in here would be lucky to escape this place alive.


Ponies were right to fear me, to hate me, if this is all cyberghouls are capable of, our crowning achievement was genocide. To become what I am now, I must have been a bad pony, a very, very bad pony. My memories pointed to that conclusion, and if I was going to fight with knowledge I may die, I wanted to know; what happened next? What did I do? I enlisted and I fought--For revenge. Nothing had changed, I couldn’t change. I may have forgotten the reason, but I was still fighting, blood for blood. It’s just the nature of things--My nature.


Felled by a blow that crippled a wing, the reddish-orange pegasus mare scooted away on the twitching remains of fallen comrades, dry firing a sawn off shotgun held in a mouthgrip. The Strider lunged for her and came up fruitless as I snagged the mare by her remaining wing and tossed her over my back and into the concession counter. “Hello, beautiful,” I purred with a grin, slamming my open palm against the beast’s throat, “Mind if I cut in?” A harsh clamp seized about its throat like a vice and I tore upwards, freeing it from the ground. It scrambled and whined until I put it down hard into the floor and dug into the protective metal sheath in its back and tore out a glowing, prismatic core with a free floating cube inside. The beast writhed and hissed as I took a large bite out of it as if it were an apple. I spat, remarking how disgusting it was before killing the beast by crushing the reliquary.


They took notice. Not one; but all. The method I used was irreversible.. Without a matrix, a deadmare ceases to be, and anypony that knows where the core’s located is usually a top target to reduce resource loss in assaults. How do I know this? Mr. Exposition, aka Headcase, that smart lipped head in a jar with an affinity for info dumping had explained it to me in far more words than the following--All deadmare are connected via Necro-Net in conjunction with a peer-to-peer connection where they relay communication and data amongst each other, calling for aid and pinging important objectives.


“Now that got your attention,” I said, waving them over, “Come on, I’m on a tight schedule, so don’t worry about one at a time. I’ll take you all on.” I then pointed to the bigger of the reformed abominations, a bloated thing with bladed, segmented tentacles, “That includes you, fatty.”


A collective shriek echoed and every single one left their current target, much to their target’s relief, and came barreling for me, a straight, quick line with blades at the ready, intent on lashing me limb from limb as quickly as possible. I didn’t plan to dodge, they were driven on bloodlust and were ravenous, making them faster than I could match. I didn’t expect them to be that fast though, and I found myself recategorizing my ‘plan’ as an assisted suicide. I selected two of my three syringes of combat enhancer and plugged both my temples, a pneumatic hiss sounded as the thick bore needles drove into my brainpan and delivered two battle brews straight into my noggin.


Who needs instructions, I had thought, when I tossed the instructions soon after I’d gotten the box from Undertaker. Highly concentrated drug cocktail, inject directly into temple! Self explanatory, cute little diagram of a ghoul stabbing himself in the head; Headcase mentioned they were called Headshots due to how they were injected, amusing but grim considering a slang for ghoul was zombie. Racists! In retrospect? Should have read the instructions.


Reality slowed down, the air became molasses the Striders now lazily swam in, my perception changed in depth and breadth. A pop-up from my integrated iseeU told me the drugs I’d just injected once the effects were identified ’Wreckless Stampede’ and ‘Overclocked Turbo’ which were highly concentrated versions of their normal counterparts, fatal to anything but a ghoul. My enemies were obscured by the highlight reel of details my cybernetic implants pulled up for me. What a stunning list of endless negative side-effects; Severe anal leakage, fever, paranoia, increased appetite, loss of inhibitions, cardiac arrest, the ability to taste colors, hallucinations, and on, and on, etcetera, etcetera.


Hiss!--I’d finally manually closed all the info windows dancing around the peripherals of my vision, only to come face to face with one of my assailants. Countless blades from numerous angles played hopscotch in my chest cavity, the magical gleaming blades sinking in and causing splits along my body. Black ichor shot from my wounds, crystallizing and shattering mid-air. Light vanished as the swarm overtook me completely, the Striders careless as they caused each other harm. We’re dead, you idiot, D-E-D, wait, no, D-E-A-D! We’re toast and it’s all your fault! This. Is. Bad.


It’s not like I haven’t been pin cushioned before! At Stable Heart Hospital, I woke up nailed to a wall with comically large surgical tools. This? Well, these were notably bigger blades, attached to vicious, deadly monsters, the resulting injuries were much more dire in scale.


**Damage Assessment_Update##%**
//System Integrity: 6%\\
==Status Critical
//Emergency Parameters met\\
**Disengaging Safety Protocols**


Bright lights flickered far into the dark distance of my vision, at first I thought I was dying, then the light broke up into panels of information that noted a significant change in system output. My body was forced into a final act of desperation for the sake of self preservation ushered by several vibrant warning prompts that tasted like lemons.


Unconscious reflex took over my body as my thoughts drifted away on confused tangents, mentally chasing butterflies while the primitive part of my brain became master control. I shot up my fist and caught a Strider in the faceplate and squeezed, my servos whining as they overheated with power, the faceplates shimmering brightly against the spew of ichor. The loosely packed striders on me were knocked aside with relative ease, the death filling the air slowly rebuilt the damage I suffered, the aroma alone was a meal.


Wow, I seriously can’t believe that worked, too bad you’re still going to get killed for nothing. “What are you talking about? Clearly, I’m winning.” It’d sure be nice if my psyche wasn’t a confusing labyrinth right about now. We’re in the middle of fighting! Hey, just be glad you’re not ‘off in la-la’ land like that mare you keep googlin’ over says, we’d be toast if you went and had a flashback. Blah. Blah. Blah. “At least I don’t think in little yellow squares during the narrative,” I reassured myself. Yeah, that’d just be crazy!


By now, the Striders were trying to retreat as my overclocked, drugged up systems rendered me an actual threat; but their blades were trapped deep in my belly and chest. “You thought you were clever, didn’t you?” I rasped, slamming both my gauntlets into either side of two heads before me, smashing them into a third in the middle and grinding them to a pulp against one another. “You think these memories pain me?” I said calmly, grabbing one of the blade sticking into my gut, tearing it free before dipping it back into the wound over and over again, punishing the Strider foolish enough to mount me. “It only makes me pity you cannot be made to suffer as you’ve made them suffer...” I rasped, spitting out a mouthful of black ichor, “I will enjoy this.”


They feel no fear, not like we do, but they have self preservation instincts, enough that the remaining Striders stuck to me severed their own legs to get out of range of my strikes. Their lost limbs and blades were easily replaced from their fallen sisters strewn about. So here I was, torso like a cutlery block, facing a superior number of opponents.


Circling me, ever wary of my current potential, they waited for the drugs and my power to run out. My flesh sizzled over my bones as the fluid pulsing in my flesh began to hiss out as steam from the sutures along my body. I took one of the Strider blades out and shook the blood off the blade, bringing my blood covered digits to either cheek and leaving a line on each before sucking my digits clean. Necessity was the mother of cruelty, and I was to be the father of unnecessarily gratuitous violence.


My body laughed like a mad pony and dashed, trailing one of the severed legs along the remains and into a straggler that hadn’t managed to reattach a new pair of foreblades yet. My parameters were peaking and that was just the beginning! The unbelievable power I felt, able to dance along with them and twist to avoid their stabs, my joints cracking into improbable positions until I dealt a brutal blow that send limb and torso flying! For a moment, I forgot everything, why I was fighting, who I was, who my opponents were. I could read them, not their thoughts, they didn’t have thoughts, but I could understand their etiquette of combat, a one-way street of information easily broadcast from every unit. Telegraphed attacks, foreshadowed maneuvers, even when they cloaked it was easy to tell where they’d go, following the sizzle of their blades along the ground.


Whispers kissed the air, tickling the inners of my ears with secrets, my skin crawled with the tingles of a million fire ants, could they hear me too? Was I broadcasting to them on some secret channel?! String! Why was the word string suddenly so fascinating that I had to say it in my head? String, string, string, string, string! String became stripes, and for some reason, stripes inspired anger unparalleled. I associated my enemies with this anger, projecting my aggression onto my formless opponents.


This was a show, a spectacle, and everyone was too dead to be entertained! Blood, blood, all raining down, everywhere an ocean of endless waves, beaching bodies weaned off the tides. I became a passive observer, watching the pincushion stallion tackling these bladed butterflies down to the ground before splitting them to inoperable bits. Charge, stab, pin, and end. Rearm with another blade from my cutlery block, repeat process, continue until there are no blades remaining! Sounded like a plan, and it went well to a certain point, until that aforementioned fatty joined the fray, striking with a large, segmented tendril. Twist out of the way, just like dancing, but luck be damned. A cheeky freak leapt out to be my partner, reclaiming the last blade jutting out of my chest. “Ah, crap,” I thought, a moment of clarity striking me like a breath of icy air. I was drawn into the segmented limb and entwined with it.


Constricting pressure surrounded me, my joints creaking. Air forced out my useless lungs in a shallow wheeze, silencing me just as I was about to deliver a very witty line or possibly, more sanely, demand help from the civilians I had just granted reprieve. When a gunshot rang out, followed by others, I was relieved, until I noticed that Keena had drawn the ire of a modest pack of the freaks. Zone Control stepped around from behind the counter and made one spin backwards with a well aimed shot to one mid-air, making sure to unload another several rounds into it.


“What are you waiting for? The signal?! Help him!” Zone bellowed in a commanding way only a mother could, and the baser instinct to comply with a stern, demanding female was so hard grained into most that it was complied with in earnest. A shame that most of the help was busy trying not to die to the pack rushing the counter. Their attention was unevenly split between my problems and theirs, so unevenly that I nary got a sliver of concern, maybe a stray bullet or two, attributable more to poor aim.


My brain was broiled with the chems coursing through it, I couldn’t think right, but the edge was off just enough to know something wasn’t right. When your sanity breaks, you scarcely notice it, it’s not all at once--You lose a bit at a time, eroding at your senses until you suddenly believe red tastes like chocolate and every toaster conspires against you. Higher brain functions twiddle their hooves while your primal functions remain intact and fed stimulant gravy. Guess I’ve tripped before, to recognize these signs, to notice the cogs jump teeth. Knowing you’re high as a kite is great, but it’s not going to help you too much.


“Is that-” I grunted, slammed hard into the furthest brick wall, “The best you-” I was then catapulted into the far wall and then quickly scooped back up by the same tendril as I bounced off the floor. With a rough, lashing thrash, I was slammed into the floor hard and the bladed, heavy spade on the end dropped against my chest, crushing the last of the witticisms from my body. “Ghaaaa!” I had intended to say ‘got’ and make a statement, but the only impression I made was the sizeable imprint of my body on the floor.


Yeah, new rule; no more fat mares. Ever. “Forgive me, I didn’t know it was glandular,” I coughed.


I was getting pulverized, withering potential while being bashed around like a toy. This hadn’t been thought out, at all, which was not anything new. If anything, I was still alive, so everything was going according to plan! By the seat of my pants, as usual, and I didn’t wear pants! Pants were a luxury, like medical insurance or toothpaste.


Face down in remains, a weak pang of hunger made itself apparent. Without prompting or an update for my integrity from my iSeeU, I knew I needed to, I had to. I shoveled as much bloody, fresh meat into my snout, chowing down to restore some much needed utility to my battered body. A small icon appeared in my vision, a red pony with horns and a very mischievous grin along with the textual cue; “You’ve lost Karma!” Well, gee, if I was doing this because I enjoyed it, I could understand the loss of points on a sliding scale of morality, but that wasn’t the case! It was a reminder that I needed to find a way to shut off my HUD display and notifications.


I got three shovel sized mouthfuls down my greedy throat before the tentacle of blades tore me up from the ground to continue the abusive ground pounding. Every other slam, I got a mouthful of gore(with a notice that I lost karma each time), which kept my condition more or less stable. Not long before I started associating getting beaten into the floor with eating ponies--Which actually might be a good thing.


Struggling was pointless, even with my body outputting at a dangerous peak, I couldn’t break free. It wouldn’t be long, I felt the high starting to leave me, the drugs burning out. These buffs were useless while I was rooted and unable to make use of them.


Intermittent slams against the ground halted, heralded by a hissing chorus of shrieks. The cobbled together abomination was toppled, then trampled by the oversized Steel Ranger, his voice booming over his speaker, screaming out in anger. The massive stallion reared back and dropped down, crushing the reconstituting mass.


A streak of glowing fire cut the air, trailing a heavy hammer head into the thinning base of the tendril holding me, leading to my reclaimed freedom. Flighty and combative, I was expecting to fight whatever force had severed the tendril from the main mass, I came up swinging blindly. Pained laughter wheezed out of the one-armed minotaur, a reciprocating kick from the hefty beast’s cleft hoof floored me. “Min' yer mukker frae foe, laddy, lest me hammer fin' asylum in yer noggin.” Translation; No clue. In the time it took me to peel myself back off the floor, the one armed brute strode over me and continued wailing on the thrashing, unholy matrimony of flesh and machine. While I wasn’t the smartest pony, especially not while under the influence of illicit, controlled substances, the primitive parts of my mind that still functioned could recognize his pale green dot as friendly. Note; green is good, red is dead. Even you should be able to remember that, stupid.


“Sorry tae lae ye hangin', mmmmishar, ah juss needed a wee kip o’breafth.” Said the one armed minotaur, ragged pants gave me pause for concern, the aroma of cooked flesh drawing quick attention to the stump of his elbow. He’d seared his flesh shut with the back end of his strange, rocket propelled maul, and the sweat soaked, rippling muscled ‘taur didn’t give it a thought. “Thes?” He snorted, noticing my concern, “Narah ah flesh wund. Ah got plentah tussle lef’!”


“Pretty sure you’re missing an entire arm.”


That managed to elicit a chuckle from the brute. “Ah, think ye micht want tae concentrate oan th' barnie, lest we join th' fluir ornaments.” A broad swing over his shoulder delivered a crippling blow to the tentacle that had reformed into what appeared to be a bladed worm. Anything else would be dead thrice over after taking blows like that, if it had been a real beast. It was more like a living gelatin than the imitation of ponies each had been individually. It had cores all along its length, each wrapped up in several feet of flesh, acting as natural armor, and the hammer was only tenderizing the meat, pulping it around the hard nodes that were the heart and brain of this monster.


The gestalt corpse-orgy formed a new head where every jagged tooth was the head of a Strider, a set of compound sensory organs made from captured parts of fallen victims formed over the crest of a carapace made of fused bone.


There’s a colorful phrase used in mocking I remember; “Oh, I’m shaking in my boots!” Well, I only had one boot on, but I was shaking in it. A centipede?! Bug, bugs, it had to choose a bug! It had more legs than a scorpion! It had to have at least a hundred crudely shaped limbs, some of them bladed. Does more legs qualify for more terror?


“Whit th' bleedin' buck is 'at?! They waur jist wee bladed buggers a ‘mmmoooo ago!” The crippled bruiser asked, muscles flexed for another mighty swing.


“That’s the stuff of nightmares,” I said to him, backing up until I was far behind him, keeping something big between me and the bug thing seemed like a jolly great idea! “I don’t think I can fight that! It’s too...It’s too horrible!” Yup, more than eight legs was worse, I decided. If it is an invertebrate, has more than four legs, and it’s enlarged to show ugly, then keep it far, far away from me! Aw, come on, we’re sure there are plenty of vertebrae in that thing. All over! For some odd reason that thought only made it more terrifying to me. “This one’s all you! I’m not fighting it!”


“Greem ur fae, it'll die th' sam.” The minotaur chuffed, throwing his weight into his shoulder and kicking at the head of his maul to spin into the air. Momentum fed by an explosive battery of rockets behind the head sent it crashing into the faux millipede beast. Broken at the middle, it curled back and folded inward, like a crumpled can, echoing with the slap of meaty bodies and breaking bone. It went into death throes, lashing out venomously. It now resembled a train, bending and buckling around its meaty passengers.


Everything was just peachy, the gimpy minotaur was besting the terrifying garden hose with legs, allowing me to catch my...Breath? It was tag-team match where one partner, me, was not going to step in for any reason whatsoever! Besides, gimpy was doing great, or he was, until the meat-freak disarmed him. No, he didn’t lose his other arm, thankfully, but it was nearly as bad. My gimped savior of limping bravado had been separated from his maul by the hungry jaws of the villainous meat-o-pede. Maybe you should step in now. My mind was kinda right, there were things I needed to do other than be glued here by paranoid fear. Multiple battles were taking place, each one needing help. The concession stand was being assaulted by a small group of still independently bodied Striders, and the large Steel Ranger with the deep voice was tangling with the large fatty fat-fat thing that birthed this mini-titan.


“Och, ye want tae lock horns, 'en? alrecht, lits wrestle!” Gimpy was totally alright with fighting that thing unarmed, it’d be inhospitable to rob him of this opportunity! Minotaurs lived for this! CRUNCH! One strike from the spaded tail sent the lumbering oaf down, his teeth gritting in agony, spilling his unconscious goat-companion ‘boa’ onto the floor. Triumphant, the abomination reeled back, ready to strike the final blow and feast. A scream echoed in the air, the scream of a little filly.


That scream had come from me, I realized, as I put myself between the meat-freak and the injured moo-man. Standing up on my hind hooves, I’d braced myself and caught the jaws of the monster in my grip. I was staring right down its throat, watching the pulsing stew of its insides. I was touching it! “Ew!” I shrieked, closing my eye and pushing it away with all my might. I drew my Can Cleaver and ignited the blade, batting at the air with less than florid flourishes, crying ‘ew’ over and over again as many times as necessary. Shrieks of pain filled the air to match my cries of disgust, the alien sound devoid of soul fizzled out with the crash of shattering glass.


Upon opening my eye, I found a sculpture of the hideous meat-o-pede, each section shimmering black, covered in hairline fractures. Deep, glowing gashes hissed techni-colored smoke, evidence of where my blade had bitten in. This was an aversion to magical energy weapons, one we shared. It was still alive, trembling, moving at a shuddering, jerking pace, each movement rewarded with a new crack. Gore seeped out from honeycombs of fresh remains just beyond fissures, dripping thickly onto the floor in thick, stringy globs.


“Och, mah heed, 'at hurt.” Oh, he was still alive--Good! I’d hate for all that to have been for nothing. “Did ye hear 'at lil lass scream?” Oh, he could just go die now.


“Don’t worry, she’s fine.” I grit my teeth irritably, my mind hazy with swimming vision. It almost looked like that that meat-o-pede sculpture was filling in the cracks of its body with the seeping gore. I was never taking these combat enhancers ever again--The side effects were too extreme.


“By th' stonefaither, what's it daein' now?” He asked.


“Laying prone, unable to defend itself, like you.” I remarked bitterly. No, it was recovering; those gore filled pockets were restoring the damn thing! This wouldn’t be a problem, I could just hack it apart with--*Fsssht!*-- The warm, humming blade of my magical chainsaw flickered, the warped housing giving a pitiful whine, killing the blade. Shaking the rattling thing inspired only a scant ovation of gleaming particles to rise, accompanied by my worried, colorful nautical curses. “Unreliable, keel-hauled, scurvy dog!” I leapt back when the beast recovered enough facilities to muster a meager, unfinished attack. “Still your turn, big guy!” I reminded the lazy minotaur, really, the nerve!


Good humor was not evident in the ‘taur’s expression as he got up, groaning under the strain of creaking bones. His injuries were far more than just superficial scratches and the loss of an arm, still, he agreed that it still was ‘his turn’. “Och, Ah ainae givin' it a chance tae putty th' cracks!” In two solid motions the one-armed gimp of a ‘taur was beating the crystalline sculpture to bits with its own disembodied tail-spade. Brutal but effective. “That's dain,” he said, picking up his goat companion and discarded maul. “Looks loch 'at big bloke needs a bit ay help, t’oh. ”


‘Big Bloke’ was reference to the two ton Steel Ranger who had gone fistihoofs with the larger part of what me and ‘taur put down. Standtall was overwhelmed, with many tendrils wrapping about his limbs and neck, constricting him into the heart of the mass. He was no longer struggling, his energy spent. The only other Steel Ranger alive was trying to free their commander, shooting tearing out large chunks of the beast with the hot blast of a shotgun. “It's yer turn, by th' way,” the minotaur snorted, giving me a smug, broken grin, revealing a row of gaps where ivory lacked.


We could barely handle fighting a small part of that thing, and now he wanted me to fight the massive fat thing? I’d rather kiss Big Helga! I gave my weapon a few shakes, arousing it to a weak flicker and hum. It only had a few good swings left, it wasn’t up to the task of downsizing that titanic, undulating mass.


"I don't think I can handle dishing out number three right now!" I told the minotaur, causing him to shoot me a befuddled expression. Oh, right, noone else can see my mental list but me. #3 on my list was 'Inflicting harm to raiders and/or abominations. This tied directly into to my #1 on my list, being alive, it involved doing a ton of #3, especially now. Maybe it was time to edit my list, #3 just wasn't as appealing as it used to be...


Another scream alerted my attention to the back of the lobby, in the direction of the small collection of arcade machines. Great wafts of pink cloud had crept up like fog into the area, flushing the ponies there further out into the lobby. They’d taken up a new position at the threshold of the mare’s lavatory next to the set of toppled arcade cabinets they used as paltry cover. Immediate danger closed in on them from all sides; all remaining Striders with independent bodies focusing them.


As if sensing my concerns, flicked his head over his shoulder in the direction of the ponies in peril. “I'll handle th' wee pones, ye help 'at big fellaw.” Bargained the minotaur as he hefted me up in his meaty palm, much like a child would pick up a toy.


“What they hay seeds’re you doing?!” I scrambled at the air helplessly. “Oh no, don’t you daaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” Through the air, I sailed like a flailing, deadly projectile unable to steer. Resounding with a ‘clang’, I bounced off of the side of Standtall’s helm and caught myself on a part of his armor, grasping hold tightly with my unburdened gauntlet. Fumbling with the cleaver, I managed to maintain my grip, casting a stare of daggers at the back of the minotaur who was keeping his word.


Standtall shook his head, taking notice of me, “What are you doing?” He demanded, groaning as the abomination squeezed down on his armor, causing the metal plating to buckle inwards. “Just leave me, both of you! That’s an order!”


“I’m not leaving without you,” Cried the Steel Ranger, her voice identified her as that mare, what’s her name? Silver Tonsils? Yeah, Silver Tonsils, we’ll go with that. Silver Tonsils was perfectly fine with putting her life at risk to save this guy. Me? Not so much, he was a decent chew-toy for the hulking beast, and if it wasn’t for the fact I needed him to destroy the barricade, I might have considered leaving him as a distraction. I didn’t care for him all that much; lets not forget, he tried to kill us! That was then, this was now, and now he was necessary to facilitate my goal of getting out alive with as many survivors as possible.


“Just let me die,” the tin can pony moaned dejectedly.


“Maybe later,” I said to him, cleaving one of the invading tentacles of black flesh away. The shallow cut must have grazed him, because the ranger squirmed and groaned in renewed pain.


“I said let me die, not finish me off!” The soldier barked. He really should just shut up and listen to his doctor. “Sue me later,” I spat, raising the weapon up. This was one buckton case of bonafide malpractice. My imaginary credentials in perforatorial studies would not hold up in a court of law; with my luck, Rad-Lawyers would be everything but proponents of rabid anarchy.


The worst place to be when dealing with an animal is said to be right in front of the head--Well this damn thing didn’t have a head, exactly, but we were centered on it. That was close enough to qualify. Every appendage you could think of, hooves, talons, and heads shot out on ghastly, gnarled stalks to lash out at me. My grip was loose, greased with blood, and these flaily bits whacking at me did not make it easier. Errant, wild shots took some agro off me, much to Silver Ball’s credit. If only she hadn’t clipped me in the shoulder in the process.


Getting nicked while shaving’s one thing, but I was taking more than just flakes of skin off of this big metal tumor of a Ranger--I was shaving off small chunks! There was some protective barrier on the armor, the worn weapon wouldn’t eat through him like a hot knife through butter. Damn thing was breaking apart, I only had a few good swings left in it, and I was wasting them because my aim was hindered!


“Steelgraft, are you too busy? How’s the suicide mission going?” Doctor Headcase, exposition captain of the S.S. Super-busy-go-away-and-bother-me-later! “I imagine it’s going well, so well you haven’t even bothered using that fancy targeting system of yours.” He’d been monitoring me, possibly to deliver an ‘I told you so’--I opened my mouth to say something snarky--Wait, did he say ‘Targeting system’?


“Did you say targeting system?” Right, I should say that aloud, not just think it! He’s not a mind reader. “Well, yes, your S.A.T.S.--I imagine you’ve no clue what that is, so let me explain it to you as simply as po--” I stopped listening at that point, death suddenly sounded better than another lecture about how to properly secure my horn bolt or how to refresh the HUD of my operating system. Oh, and I was getting beaten around by a plethora of meaty things, there was that too. It was like college, lectures and constant meat-beating. Not that I ever went to college.


I opened my mouth to yell at him, but fell short when a pair of jaws clamped around the side of my face. Me and the disembodied head on a stick had a biting contest, one that I won in two bites. Headcase warbled on about what S.A.T.S. really was, Stable Apple T-something something; I’m sure I was wrong.


I spat out the pony ear and succinctly cried out, “Magic words, what are the magic words!” By now, Standtall figured he was being clung to by an insane maniac with a magical chainsaw that just bit the ear off a zombified head and shouted something stupid. The ranger was struggling, if only to shake me off and spare him from more accidental slips with my melee weapon.


“Weren’t you listening?” He asked. I was too wrapped up to really reply at this point, so I humored him a roll of my eye. “Visualize your target. Oh, and to clarify, told you so.” He amended with a disappointed sigh. Called it! He popped in just to mock me, I swear if I ever met him in person I was going to shake him like an 8-ball! Following his instructions did yield a result. A cursor popped up in my vision along with a targeting reticule, as well as a warning error;


--iSeeU is online--
##engage## S.A.T.S.
[[Target Not Specified]]
//--Error--Visual Obstruction--\\


An obstruction? Ponyfeathers, my targeting system was in my cybernetic eye--Defective, unable to stand bright lights. In order to even get the bandages off I’d have to let go of my handhold, unless I...Buck it. Gritting my teeth, I turned the Can Cleaver’s gleaming blade against my brow, severing the bandages and frying them off. Blazing pain filled the flesh of my face, brittle cracks spreading out from the wound. At least it worked.


Time was slowed for me while I selected my targets, as if the whole world was just frozen in time waiting for my permission to tick away the next second. My targets were thought at with deep predjudice, the system interpreted my thoughts and calculated hit chance as small percentage boxes and fed me other combat data. At this range, at my current proficiency, I had a 95% chance to hit each of the fat vines. It’s like I’m thinking things to death in real time.


First swing scored a good hit, digging into the limb and causing it to glass over. Second and third followed suit, but on the third I missed my target completely and cut the large minigun off its mounting. This was enough to free the Ranger, his weight snapping off the last remaining tentacle. Whud! Two steel hooves the size of small ale kegs slammed into the ground at either side of my head, causing a small tremor to shake the walls.


“Come on, sir!” Silver Butt urged him, “We need to get beyond the barricade, our reinforcements might be stuck beyond the North gate!” Reinforcements? That was great news! Or horrible news, threatening to shatter the intricate tapestry of lies Gangrene had forged to convince this group of Steel Rangers we were allies. How much of a fire needed to be lit under this big guy’s ass before he moved?


Rolling up, I parried the counter-attack of the massive beast. Poor thing was pissed I’d taken its favorite chew toy. “Anytime, tinman! Move or we’re all dying!” I spurred him on with a quick strike to the flanks with the Can Cleaver and caught a buck for my efforts, rocketing me into the beast. At least he was moving now, making a beeline for that barricade.


More pressing matters for the living; the Pink cloud had claimed half the lobby, corralling the remaining combatants to the forefront of the lobby. Strange reactions hit the monsters within the pink mist, their bodies mending from exposure. Perfect! It kills everyone else and heals them, just what we need right now!


At least I still had my Can Cleaver, with it, I could keep this fat tumor at bay--SCHLORP! Nevermind. Just...Nevermind. It ate it right out of my hand. Could this get any worse, I dared to think to myself. A cursory bleep of information flashed, the gleaming face on the back of my gauntlets fizzled and flickered, then the staples along my body shot out like shrapnel with a sharp hiss of black steam--I was rapidly overheating, my systems could handle no more.


Fate was laughing and destiny was conspiring to make me the biggest idiot since that pony that invented Sparkle Cola flavored door knobs for earth ponies. Bright ideas on hoof; zero. Well, there was one, but it wasn’t exactly bright. I engaged S.A.T.S. to give me a moment longer to think, its cooldown timer had just pinged, why not use it? I skipped all targets and found I could target weapons, namely the large rotary cannon that had been on Standtall. I was prompted for an action in queue, from my options I selected ‘equip weapon’ and then queued up a target.


It was at the speed of thought, my body acting faster than I could consciously, I did all the motions necessary to scale the beast and reach my objective. Grabbing the gattling gun, I hefted it up and slammed my fist into the control box, a spark of arcane magic granting me control over it.


--iSeeU Update--
{Notice}
*Weapon proficiency not met*
//Ammo: 0| Attack interrupted\\
{Stampede has worn off!}
{Turbo has worn off!}


Useless?! No bullets, no proficiency?! I’m standing on this damn thing with a useless masculinity compensator and I can’t even use it! Well, the barrel spun, at least there was that. Revved up to full power it almost looked like a drill, tearing the tentacles clutching to it to tatters. No, not completely useless, after all! Stuck in place by several limbs winding around me, I couldn’t budge, so I did the only thing I could do; I lanced this behemoth like a ripe boil with the rotating barrels, sinking right in with a sickly spew of curdled remains. I struck gold, or perhaps, better put, I struck Can Cleaver. The high powered arcane engine reached critical mass and erupted deep inside the monster, splintering it to bits and sending me into the ceiling to ricochet into the floor.


My senses were blanked for a while, I don’t know how long. Seconds, minutes, or hours could have passed. Mental cohesion returned with the babbling of the nagging Headcase, getting on my case about blatant recklessness. Pink cloud had spread only a bit further, clueing me in that only a small amount of time had passed, now it surrounded me sparsely. The barricade was being trampled now by the massive Steel Ranger while others were busy picking themselves up from the gore.


When my HUD display flickered back on, there were no hostiles active in range, and I could detect no deadmare units. The magical blast had done a number on them, wiping them out; and I hadn’t escaped unscathed either. All my limbs were crippled, blossoming cracks like it was springtime. It’d be awhile before I was ambulatory again, I didn’t want to linger in the pink I wholly detested.


“We made it, we actually made it.” I chuckled to myself, raising a gauntlet to the ceiling, “We actually won!” There was no cheering from anyone, no celebrating, just awkward silence punctuated by metal hooves smashing into the barricade.


A mass exodus followed the fall of the barricade, a small group just under 30 left; there had been over one-hundred, maybe more crammed in here. Barely able to move, I did my best to follow them, Limping, staggering, and leaving fractured pieces of my body behind.


I considered taking a body part for the road, maybe a leg, in order to regenerate. They’d probably not like that, though, it might be a friend or loved one. Hey, maybe it’d taste better with ketchup or mustard? Maybe a side of colesl--


THOOM! A massive impact slammed into the center of the lobby behind me, tearing through the razor wire netting and widening the hole in the ceiling. Sent to slide across my belly, I tumbled back onto my hooves and faced the concession stand. A large black star-shaped pod, a deadmare pod, had landed right in the middle of the lobby. A mechanical whurr and clank echoed as it spun, opening up small vents on the sides. It drew in the Pink cloud around it, funneling it in until it was gone. Latches blew off five separate compartments on every angled surface, a pole jutting out horizontally, plain looking bodies with obvious cybernetic modifications hung in rows by cables running into key points on their bodies. Twenty red blips appeared on my HUD.


One by one they opened their blue eyes and let out a rasping breath, dropping down once the cables disconnected. They lacked the headgear and bladed limbs the Striders had and shared my facial features, nearly identical to me save their shaved heads.


“Really?” I groaned, stumbling a bit, “This night just keeps getting better! At least you’re not armed...” I could hear Zone Control cry for me to just run, but I waved her off, “I got this!” I said; me and my big mouth. These ones didn’t look nearly as tough, I could only see a few evident implants; a pair of electrodes jutting from the back of the skull, two blue cybernetic eyes, and a twin pair of tubes running from their chest cavity to their spinal column. They looked like stock, what would be used to make something else, an in-between of a full transformation. I was wrong.


The gang of twenty solved their lack of arms, their horns flickering to equip every weapon discarded on the floor; that’s not an exaggeration. The twenty unicorn deadmare levitated an armory’s worth of rusted, half functioning weapons from the floor. A flash of magic and the weapons were repaired, sparkling, and very ready to fire.


They could use magic? That was unfair! Cheater unicorn magic, I had to do everything like an earth pony an--Hey, moron, we’re about to die!--Oh right, I only have enough time to scream in abject terror at this, better not waste it.


Rapid fire mayhem filled the air with the smell of sulphur and burning metal. Repetitious eruptions of gunfire deafened out everything else. When the first volley missed me completely, I was relieved, then filled immediately with dread. They hadn’t been aiming for me.


Over my shoulder, beyond the dust kicked up by bullet saturation was Standtall, the massive Steel Ranger had thrust himself between the wall of lead and everyone else. His battered armor was full of hundreds of little holes, each draining a trickle of red blood. Return fire back at the marksman deadmares was met with an unblinking, unflinching synchronized march forward, the rounds reflecting off a shield barrier thrown up at their front. The weapons were reloaded with smooth automation, and the next volley didn’t start until all weapons were ready to fire. Everyone wisely had fled before the next volley cleared the door.


It was time for me to join them. Turning tail, I ambled along as best I could, the tense seconds melting away until the next volley started. This time, I was also a target, a half dozen small arms rounds sunk straight through the tattered metal plate sewn into the back of my coat and into my brittle skin.


A red blip on my HUD vanished suddenly, the sound of a giant bug zapper firing off temporarily muted the gunfire. A shield flowed out along the ground, shifting in intricate shapes and rotating to deflect shots, when a shield wall encountered one of the monsters, it engulfed them in a cube and sprung upwards. A brief glance up filled my vision with the stunning light of dancing lightning, blinding me and delivering sharp pain lancing straight into my ocular nerve.


Two more blips vanished--A green blip rapidly approached, and when it reached me, a deep blue foreleg streaked with blood crossed into my vision. Zone Control’s lips moved, she was shouting, her words dimmed by punctual gunfire. Her horn sparkled with an emerald glow, her expression strained, sweat poured down her face; or were those tears? She shouldn’t be here, she should be out the doors beyond the courtyard, heading for the Northern Gate!


“Why?” I thought, “Why are you still here?” Hazel eyes, a warm smile, kind-hearted, motherly, stern and strong; she was just like her. “Get out of here!”


A scarlet ribbon burst from the side of her neck, her eyes grew wide open as the color drained from her face. She collapsed into a heap in front of me, gasping for breath through a bullet wound. No, no, no, no! Not for me, she shouldn’t have--Not for me! She was going to be a mother and raise a foal with Frisky, they were going to be happy! They were supposed to have a happy ending; I was supposed to protect them!


Tears rolled down her cheeks, her lips moving weakly, fumbling to make words. I tried to pick her up, but I had no endurance left, my joints whined and buckled. Not for me, I thought, She was not going to die for me!


Her horn flickered, but kept lit, another blip vanished from my mini-map. I was tugged down, her bloody lips right next to my ear, “Keep them safe,” She managed. With a final pulse of her horn she encased me in a cramped cube and hurled me out into the courtyard.


“Where is she? Where’s Zone?” Frisky Fritter was less than understanding when I alone came tumbling out of the cinema’s lobby. The look in his eyes betrayed his questions; he already knew the answer, that she was gone. The unified march of the monsters through the doorway was more than enough driving force to spur the group into motion once more, with me and Frisky taking up the rear of the herd.


“She’ll kitch up wit’ us later, she prolly found another way out,” Frisky said with a voice so hollow you could run a train through it. He was in denial, deep denial about the loss he’d suffered; I wasn’t about to correct him either. I was a killing machine, not a grief counselor.


Deadeyes, that’s what they were called. Headcase was enamored with blabbering on about them. Evidently, they were an elite second-wave unit dispatched sparingly to finish off any remaining resistance should a first wave of Strider units be unable to do the trick. Why did we all look the same? Headcase wouldn’t answer that, so much for transparency. He didn’t seem too saddened by the loss of Zone Control either, saying it was a shame to lose such a lovely mare, but such is life in the wastes. Yeah, I wasn’t going to be on speaking terms with him for awhile; I told him as much and he agreed to leave me alone for the rest of the night.


We made it to the Northern Gate, relieved that Bitch Fit had the emergency codes, only to discover a taunting message painted in yellow frosting just above the broken access terminal mounted into the wall. “Sweet Dreams” A few bodies hung from walls, nailed to the shop walls that flanked us on either side of the exit. None of the shops had anything of use, unless if you wanted pre-owned horseshoes or had a package to send via the Moohave Express.


That was it, we were doomed. We could have went back, but Angus, that was the name the one armed minotaur gave us, had destroyed the welded lamp posts to drop the razor net behind us for the past hundred yards between here and the cinema’s courtyard. For what it was worth, it had bought us some time, it would take the remaining monsters at least an hour to circumvent the obstacle.


Fleeing was the only option left, and we had nowhere to run. There was no going back, not even to get Zone Control, a point that Frisky Fritter kept objecting to. He demanded where she was, constantly, as if my answer would change the next time he asked.


“She’s gone,” was the only reply I could give him. He would counter with something irrational, “She’s not supposed tah use her magicks, it’s bad fer tha baby!” or something equally inapplicable. His wife was gone and no amount of hope was going to bring her back, but he refused to accept this fact. He believed she must have found another way out, and when I told him I hadn’t seen her die, he became even more fervent in his conviction.


Ignoring him, I checked on Gangrene; she was leaning against the broken storefront to the Moohave Express, holding a trio of foals; Rebel Riot, who looked more shaken up than hurt; a shaggy earth pony foal with a hastily wound head dressing soaked with blood; and a young unicorn filly I couldn’t identify under the sanguine coat of blood.


“Hey, Gangrene, how’re you holding up?” I scanned the immediate area but spotted none of the other ankle biters. “Don’t talk to me right now,” was all Gangrene said through strained sobs, rocking slowly back and forth. The taste of death lingering in the air lead my gaze to the aisle between shops near Gangrene. The crate that had been used to ferry the foals quickly lay discarded on the side, riddled with bullet holes...


Keena sat apart from us, facing East for a sunrise that couldn’t come sooner, praying to her medallion for guidance that wouldn’t come. Key and Lock were resting against each other, occasionally comparing wounds and complaining they were unlikely to remain symmetrical now; nobody cared. That old crusty prospector was fuming, staring at me angrily, at least he remained silent. As for the canned ponies, the big one, Standtall, was laying on his side, quite content to just die there--Shame his armor was patching him up. Silver tongue was cursing up a storm, pacing angrily and cursing, “Ratfink crowbaits! Where are our reinforcements? They should be here! I've been trying to hail HQ for ten minutes!” Occasionally, a soft zap of electricity sounded, Glazed Marshmallow was tossing any apple cores she found in the trashcans nearby at the electrified gate.


A handful of other roamed about, trotting about our fenced off enclosure. There weren’t many of us left, out of an entire settlement only a hoof-ful remained.


“See, this is why they should have built maneframe terminals out of clipboards!” Indigo boasted, standing next to the wild eyed pegasus mare that bitterly slapped at the terminal. “Clipboards? I swear you landwalkers are all dead from the neck-up. Should have never went AWOL...” Bitch Fit was far more bitter than everyone else, but she hadn’t given up, she was trying to get the smoking wreck of a control terminal functional.


“If Zone was here, she’d could fix it. She kin fix anythin.” Frisky Fritter said with an air of longing, staring straight up at the razor net overhead. I didn’t want to disagree with him, but I don’t think anyone could have repaired a dozen bullet holes, a broken screen, and a melted keyboard--In fact, why was Bitch Fit even trying?


“Cryin’ shame Zone’s dead then, ain’t it?” Bitch fit scoffed, shaking her hoof into the terminal a couple times; seemed she was about as good with technology as I was. Maybe I was a bit better, only because I could recognize a lost cause.


“She ain’t dead, y’hear? She’s fahne! She’ll catch up!” He shouted--Which lead to more back and forth screaming that I did my best to stay out of. I was mentioned a few times, and I had somehow become the key subject to blame. The wily old prospector grumbled that there hadn’t been an invasion this bad since Tomb Town, and likely that I was the scout. That I had blighted them this night.


It was hard to argue, even from my point of view, Cradle Robber had orchestrated everything so well--Leading me along, showing me how ugly everything could be. I knew now why everypony distrusted and hated me and I couldn’t blame them; a ghoul with metal parts is an omen of death.


Divided, the arguing escalated. The old crusty prospector proposed I be destroyed before I could use them to recover, training his rifle on me. “He’s pretteh busted up, lookit him, he’s glassed over! Brittle as china and nowhere near as fine!” The only thing that kept him from firing was the knowledge that if he did, he’d become a hostile target. I reckoned he wouldn’t commit without having enough firepower behind him to down me instantly and make sure nopony would cap him either.


“My life’d be better if I’d never met him,” Gangrene said ruefully, she was speaking through her pain, but the words still hurt (Or I wished they did, I felt indifferent). “Don’t think he’s a scout, though, he’s not clever.”


“The other monsters seek his end just as they seek ours!” Keena squawked, allowing a break in her praying to speak in my defense. “We must not be divided, we need him!”


“We need him lahke ah need a hole in my head!” The prospector growled gravely.


“That, I can arrange,” Keena said darkly, raising up to train her rifle on the grizzled old pony. “Steelgraft is on our side, he fought those things same as us!”


Crusty took a step back, his beard, mustache, and eyebrows all bristling out like defensive spines. “It’s allah ploy, it is! He infiltrated us, makin’ us think he’s hacked with a cute little inhibitor collar; it’s a trick!” Crusty’s lips were nearly foaming with spit; he was going full tinfoil hat.


“He might be right,” Bitch Fit grimly agreed, “I say we off him just to be sure. I don’t want my ass chewed while I’m trying to work a miracle on the door terminal.”


“Oh, I vote th--” Silver Tongue was more than eager to jump in, I bet she would have loved to just shoot me herself, but her commander interrupted her. “We abstain.” He grunted austerely, “Keep trying to hail HQ.”


So now everyone was tossing out votes on somepony getting shot or what should be done. Frisky Fritter voted to not shoot me; ‘that would make Zone upset’ and he went through ‘Baelfire and Tartarus’ to wake me up in the first place. “Ah mean, what’s it matter that he’s a coward that what ran n’ left mah wife tah fend fer herself back thar? She’ll be right as rain--Or she bettar be or ah might do somethin’ regrettable tah him later!” Frisky Fritter was teetering on the razor’s edge of sanity, wallowing in denial proudly. This rose more questions; I knew that my contacts here had been Frisky and Zone, that they had some of my belongings. What I didn’t know was what they meant by what they went through to wake me up, I was hazarding a guess that Headcase had a bit to do with it, and that I was woke up expected to champion their battles.


This was their fight, not mine, I had nothing to do with it until this collar got slapped on me. Then, there was Cradle Robber, taking business and making it personal. Hades made it personal, punishing me for things I could scarcely recall deserving; I didn’t think anyone deserved what they were getting. That was just how the world was now. No longer did I want answers, dredging up the past only granted me sour memoirs. Escaping my past, putting as much distance between me and it, that’s all I wanted now; forget everything else. Kill the warlord, ditch the collar, and skip town. Maybe I might have cared to help them more if they were the least bit grateful I put myself at odds to save their lives, but no, they were debating shooting me, and in kind, I was debating whether or not this was worth my effort.


Blame shifted in the form of gun barrels, moving from one target to the next. Not everypony participated in the blame game, but there was enough guns in the mix to produce worry. “Did Bitch Fit properly warn everyone?” All guns were on her just then. “It was the Steel Rangers that trapped us with the stupid barricade!” More shifting of blame, trailing gun barrels to a very solemn Standtall Stillshot and an aggressive Silver Clit. “Our fault?” Silver Bodypart spat, “I only followed orders! Most our squad died for your sorry, tribal asses!”


“Th' lot ay ye waur hidin' behin' cowre while most died in th' thick ay it! tempered wi' yella' iron, th' lot ay ye,” the crippled Angus declared, pointing the fat, warped head of his hammer at the old crusty prospector. “Ah cam haur since they said culture an' community waur strang haur. if yer will undain sae easily tae turn hammer oan thumb, 'en ye ainae nae different frae th' corruption 'at takes yer haem!”


“What did he just sah?” The Prospector asked nopony in general, the confusion breaking him from his frothing mad stupor. A collective shrug infected the area, they had no clue what the minotaur was saying. Angus stomped huffily, slamming his hammer into the ground and resting a meaty palm to his hip, fingers knotting his coarse plaid skirt into a loose fist. “Half corned beef an' twice 'at senseless! cannae ye nae hear th' words comin' frae mah gob?” The huffy brute was met with blank stare, then the guns shifted onto him along with undeserved blame; “He’s in league with the scout!” I was really starting to think on how I could kill the prospector without triggering my collar to go off; I’d like to come up with something before he incited a riot.


“Don’t you see it now, Captain?” Whispers rose up from the dark, pushing to the forefront of my mind. “These ponies are going to turn on you. They will never trust or like you. They woke you up just to use you. If they live they’ll just propagate more disaster--They’re the evil ones, not us.” It wasn’t a hallucination, it was a radio broadcast straight into my mind! The voice of Cradle Robber cooed venomously. “They’re a blight on the world. One that will never accept you because of what you are. I can set you free, just say yes--I can deactivate that collar and you can let go of these inhibitions; you can return...To us, Captain. All forgive. Just say...Yes.”


Moving my hand up to grip my collar, I had a new profound hatred for it. It was a shackle that kept me from defending myself until I was attacked. I had to follow orders of ponies that I did not know and act according to their whims. Jump; how high? Beg, roll over, shake, murder a warlord, all tricks their little pet Deadmare would do. No, I’m less than a dog to them, they considered me more an appliance covered in meat, didn’t they? A meat toaster at best.


In the list of things I enjoyed, freedom was quick to take first place, even above living. I’d rather be free and dead than alive and a slave. Say yes, we can be free! Free, do it, do it and kill the prospector! Then anypony else that gets in the way! We won’t have to kill Muffincake if we rejoin---Our. Old. Master.


Conflicted, I wanted my freedom, my thoughts lingered on Gangrene and the foals; what would become of her? “Keep them safe,” Zone Control’s last words whispered in my mind on repeat, layered with goading from a thousand voices all demanding attention. Do it, do it, do it! Say yes! No, say Yeah Yeah Yeah, baby! No, say no! Maybe, ask me later!


My conflicting thoughts bashed against one another, my teeth gnashed, and I gave a restrained answer. “No,” I said, lowering my gauntlet down to the floor, “No.” Men choose, slaves obey. If I said yes I would only be trading one master for another--It wouldn’t get me what I wanted. “No? I won’t give you another chance, this is your only shot Captain. I’m offering your freedom, your life, and everything you could dream for!” Cradle Robber entreated me, condescending in tone and demand. “I’ll make what I want--A world without masters,” I told him defiantly.


So lost in my conversation, I hadn’t realized I had been speaking aloud and everyone could hear my half of the conversation. Guns were trained on me, even by those who previously had defended me. “Perhaps I should have said ‘yes’,” I thought bitterly.


“He was talking to his master, did you hear it? He’s one of them! He’s in cohoots!” That prospector climbed to the top of my ‘must be slapped silly’ list, which hadn’t existed until just now. I think I rather enjoyed lists for some reason.


“Do you really want to fight, old man?” I asked him directly--This question struck fear to him and it showed on his face, the old buck backed up a few paces. “Of course not...” I continued to approach him, making him back up. “You’re a coward,” I snorted, walking him back until the electrified gate was not but a pace behind his old, sagging flanks.


“G-get away from meh! Someponeh, shoot him! He went bonkers!” The prospector begged, swallowing at the lump in his throat.


“Why don’t /you/ shoot me?” I asked. I already knew the answer, and after a brief second’s pause I delivered it as coldly as I could; “Once you try, I can kill you--You know my collar is real. It’s the only reason why I haven’t killed you, because I can’t harm a non-hostile. You’re happy to get these people to turn on each other over your paranoia.”


Trapped like rats, we were all going to die without a means to escape, there was no reason to make our last hours miserable for the sake of one grizzled old buck. “I care more about these people than you do; that’s sad.” I pointed at him accusingly, nearly poking him in the face.


“Getcher weird, creepy metal poker outta my face!” He snorted derisively, “You disgusting monster!”


“Oh, you want to see a real disgusting monster?” I asked, turning my finger inwards, I jammed my index digit two knuckles deep into my flared nostril. Pulling excalibur (my finger) from my nose, I brandished a slick, slimy, blood encrusted bogey and held it out at the prospector. He balked, rearing backwards to avoid me smearing it on his face, taking the final pace into the electrified gate. A choked cry caught in his throat, his body went stiff, and he cooked for a good fifteen seconds before finally dropping to the ground in a steaming heap.


“Well, that saves me a bullet,” Keena was the first to speak, rather amused by my method of indirect murder. The hippogriff prodded the twitching corpse with the tip of her rifle, her headcrest perking, “Yeah, good and dead; he wasn’t a team-player, good riddance. Oxygen thief.” Mares and gentlecolts, the pious and empathic Keena, demonstrating her near limitless capacity to surprise me; I thought she’d object, not condone.


Keena and Gangrene shared similar sentiments on the subject; Crusty had to go, he had been a problem. The others were either indifferent or spurned to shouting again, at me. “You murdered him!” Lock cried. “Suicide, actually, brother. He jumped back into the gate,” Key replied, rolling his eye. Gun barrels found a home with their crosshairs on my noggin, none tried to speak for their owners, they did that themselves. “We have to now! We have to put him down!” Silver Butt declared, ignoring a cease order from Standtall.


“Death by booger, noo that's whit Ah caa damn funay,” Angus said, puffing on a pipe while he leaned his side against the hilt of his hammer. His boa of a companion, the marbled goat draped over his shoulders, bleated softly in agreement.


“Grandpa needed to take a dirt nap,” I said pointedly, “If you want to join him, go ahead, once you go red, I’ll make you dead.” A forced stalemate, fighting me was an unappealing option, it’d end badly for everyone. Wiping the booger off on his pelt, I contemplated eating the old man’s body, but the flies buzzing over him beat me to it; he probably tasted like crap. And a booger.


“Well, that was pointless; good for a laugh though.” Said Bitch Fit, waving a hoof at the rising smoke, coughing. “Yeah, fuck this, terminal’s toast, can’t lift the gate, and we’re trapped here with a clever meat-machine.” Bitch Fit gave up on rebuilding the terminal due to lack of parts and technical knowledge. The gate was too tough to beat down and too dangerous to try circumventing without proper tools. “Our best bet is hoping those tin canned buffoons come to collect their equipment,” Bitch Fit groused while pointing her one remaining wing at the two rangers.


Yeah, there was still hope! Those Steel Rangers could swoop in at any moment like big damn heroes and pull our asses out of the fire!


“They’re not coming.” Standball mumbled deeply. Or not...


“What do you mean, sir? You said a full evac is coming! Maybe they got pinned down a bit or the trolley broke or--” Silver Nuts babbled on for a short stint about where their reinforcements could be held up, and even if that’s what happened, it meant they weren’t here now.


“They cut the emergency lines,” Standtall admitted morosely, “They abandoned us out here.”


“That’s why there’s radio silence?! You lied to me, to the whole squad! I don’t know who to be pissed at more, sir, you or HQ for abandoning us out here!” Silver Nostrils was ticked off. The metal clad mare stomped a hoof hard against the ground several times, yelling at her commander. “--We could have run, forgotten the barricade and just ran to a gate! We didn’t have to fight and die to save no lousy tribals!”


“Lousy tribals?!” Bitch Fit growled, getting her face right into the helm-space of the ranger. “You rangers confiscate our shit and expect us to be grateful, then when it comes time to throw down you balk and you call us lousy? You sick, disgusting piece of shit--Never thought I’d meet ponies worse than the Enclave, but you dirt pounders aren’t much better!”


This was getting tired; acoma never wake up again tired. Nopony else had any ideas about what to do other than wait and die, which was more unappealing than the corpses buzzing flies nearby. I thought about the carnival I had gone to with my family, trying to figure out how to trigger that lucid projected memory to escape the bickering; never thought I’d want to go to la-la land intentionally. Didn’t work.


Then it hit me, a sudden sense of inspiration that perked my ears. The carnival; that was it! “Gangrene,” I blurted, leaping over to her, “I know you said to leave you alone but I need those frag mines if you’ve got them!”


The sallow mare gave a dry cough and fished them out, “Got a plan? Is it better than the last one?” She asked while scooting the unprimed mines to me. More than what I needed them for, but you never know when extra proximity explosives might come in hoof-Hand...Erm whatever appendage applicable with that expression.


“We’ll find out,” I replied as I slipped to the next pony I needed something from. Indigo; his clipboards would save our lives! “Indigo, I need three clipboards,” I told him.


“What for, friend?” He asked, rubbing his pudgy chin with a hoof.


“To save our lives,” I told him, “Clipboards are an integral part of my scheme.”


“Ahee, as they were always meant to be, dah, here you go!” The pudgy indigo earth stallion peeled three of the clipboards from his portly flank. “You need coffee mug too? Never stains, never chips!” He gave me the sales pitch and I refused, waving a flat palm at him. “No, thanks,” I said, using the same hand to add the clipboards to my inventory. Indigo held out his hoof still, expecting payment; I bumped hooves with him and moved on, leaving him dumbfounded.


Next on my busy schedule was Angus; his hammer was the perfect tool for this job. The question was convincing him to let me use it. The bulky beast had chosen that maul over saving his own arm, so he said, so saying he was attached was a vapid understatement. I was pretty sure all those runes spanning the hammer’s thick iron cheek was family lineage--Don’t quote me on that, I was only able to make out the rune ‘Speak, Friend’ on one side. How did I know how to read runic? I don’t know, exactly, but I did remember it was the ancient language of dragons.


“Hey, Angus,” I spoke up to him, raising myself on my hind legs to bring my stature just under his pectorals. How did minotaurs walk like that? I could barely keep my balance for long just standing! “Mind if I borrow your...Hammer thingy?” I asked, placing both my hands on the weapon’s pommel and leaning against it.


Angus flicked his tail twice, drew a long puff from his metal pipe and blew a smoke ring at me, “Mah Booooommmaul? Nae oan yer life.”


Yup, totally wasn’t going to be easy to convince him. “What about on all of our lives?” I replied glibly. His orange orbs briefly locked with me before rolling back up to the bickering pair that were now in a semi-violent shoving match. He hummed softly, scratching his scruffy chin with the stem of his pipe, he briefly conferred with his goat then nodded.


“Anythin' woods be a better shaw than these mmmmoooofs; ye can borraw me an' mah hammer. Whit needs breakin?” Angus said, teeth clamped around his pipe’s stem, his single ham of a hand lifting the maul from the ground effortlessly, leaving an indent.


I hung from the hammer’s haft, wearing a wide grin, “Oh, we’re going to be peeling that massive north gate open.”


The minotaur licked his thick lips and snorted, assessing the gate at a glance. He gruffed out a half laugh, eyeing me with flaged brows, “B’ me oan herns! Break 'at? that's a taa, toogh, tumultuoos order tae fill. Teel me th' plan! Aam in.” I dropped off the hilt and landed, eager to get out of this circus tent of a bugzapper. I explained my plan succinctly and was rewarded with the flickering of the bull’s ears and nodding of his head.


“That's half radge! Ah say we dae it.” Angus said, baffling me with his odd dialect and accent. Of course I didn’t know what ‘radge’ meant, but all I needed to understand was my plan was half that and he thought we should do it, which meant radge was probably good.


Setting up our crazy plan around the bickering ponies was a bit of a chore, but within a few minutes, we had everything set up. In that same time-frame, the fighting had stopped, only because those that were fighting were roared at to ‘Shewt tae Tertahrosh oop’ by a booming Angus.


What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force? I was about to find out! At three points I set a frag mine on the ground, unarmed beneath an indestructible clipboard wedged under the space under the gate; this formed a lever with the mine acting as the fulcrum. Over the three levers we laid a section of lamp post, hoping to get a synchronized explosion when we struck it dead-center with the boom-maul.


“This idea is worse than your ‘wait for a signal’ plan,” Gangrene said gloomily before slipping into the Moohave Express with the kids. “I’m staying way over here for when this goes bad.” Frisky Fritter and Glazed Marshmallow were in tow with her. The grizzled three-legged earth stallion had become incredibly nice to the ‘little runts’--especially the little unicorn filly he now carried dotingly on his back. I was concerned, but took solace in the fact he was redirecting his grief into fondness.


“I said it was ‘a plan’, not that it was a ‘good plan’.” I defended my insane idea, it was afterall the only idea anyone had come up with. I was proud of my FAP. By the north winds, I couldn’t get over how stupid that acronym had been. Filed Action Plan? Really, Headcase?


“You know, it won’t work, that gate’s not gonna budge. The gates are made from an Enclave airship’s hull,” Bitch Fit was sporting a new bloody nose after getting in a scuffled with Silver Butt. The dour pegasus sucked air through a split in her upper lip and spat blood, “I’m willin’ to betcha my ass-rash that this ain’t gonna move worth pucky.”


“Suppose it does work,” Said Key. “How will you keep the gate from coming back down,” Finished Lock. They made catty observations, indirectly giving it their approval.


“Oh, that’s easy, we brace it open with Standtall,” I joked.


The massive Steel Ranger grumbled, getting up and storming off to clear the blasting area, “Like hell you are,” The gravelly voiced juggernaut bayed. Silver Tit was at his heels dutifully.


“If this works,” She said, “I’m buying everypony a drink.” The mare knocked herself into Bitch-Fit roughly as she passed her, “Except you, clipped-wings.” They really didn’t like each other.


“I was joking! I’m jamming the open with this other lamp post!” I told them, pointing to it. Would it hold? Maybe! That maybe was good enough for me, at least right now. We only had one shot at this. “See, Silver Bum?”


“It’s Silver Tongue! TONGUE!” The Ranger roared at me from afar. Ah, Silver Tongue! I knew it was Silver (insert bodypart here)--I’d conveniently forget her name and keep referring to her as different body parts until I felt the joke was sufficiently dead. Like me.


“It should be a good show,” Key purred, idly prodding the prospector’s corpse curiously. “Yes, brother. Lets give the men some space to work.” Lock droned, tugging his brother away from us.


Blast zone clear? I looked around, everyone was hiding behind something with the exception of me, Angus, and the goat he was still wearing. “So, a corpse, minotaur with one arm, and a fashionable goat walk into a bar--” It sounded like the beginning to a horribly racist joke. “The corpse turns to the minotaur and says, ‘all clear’, and to that the minotaur replied--”


“Ah need a pint, where's thes bar yoo're oan abit?” Angus totally ruined my punch-line, failed to play along, and the goat bleated boredly.


“Just hit the damn thing with the hammer,” I sighed, palming my face and rubbing my temples.


“Fire in th' huel!” Angus roared, raising the hammer high and swinging it down, a squeeze ignited the rocket behind the head and brought it straight down into the post stimulating the mines to erupt and force the clipboards twisting up, lip peeling up at the gate. My job was to slam the other light post under the gate and prop it up, and I pushed forward. An arc of electricity shot up the pole, lighting both bulbs and me up. My mind was rattled and my body convulsed until I was propelled away from the gate.


Ow. Or it would be ‘ow’ if I could feel pain and needed the use of my lungs. Reflexively I coughed at the smoke, waving my hand at the air and blinking. “Okay, that was stupid...” I admitted, standing back up shakily.


Stupid and ineffective; the gate had lifted up a few feet before I slammed the light post under it, keeping it ajar. That same light post bowed outward and snapped, the gate devouring it when those metal jaws clenched shut, sealing us in. I knew we should have used something sturdier and expendable, like Standtall!


Solemnly, the others filed up behind us, the last of our hope evaporating; we couldn’t try it again, Angus had thrown his back out with that swing and I only had one mine left. “That’s it, I’m completely out of ideas,” I said, throwing up both hands as I reared up. I stomped back down heavily, causing flecks of my skin to break off.


“It was a good show,” Said Key. “We got further than I expected us to,” Added Lock.


“We could smash out one of the shops and run,” suggested Standtall, “But it won’t make a difference--The Deadeye will find us. Maybe this is where our story is supposed to end.”


“Nae, Ah dornt want it tae end thes way,” Lamented Angus, hunging over on his hammer, panting in pain. “Nae a sool will sin' mah legend in sang if Ah die haur. They willnae know whit happened.”


“Gangrene, I don’t wanna die...” Sobbed the shaken filly, eyes brimming with tears. Frisky gave the small, brittle unicorn a little nuzzle and reassured her he’d let nothing happen to her, his precious little ‘Zone’--He’d gone nuts, I believed that was the correct medical term, completely nucking futs.


The sound of marching, distant but there drifted in on the smoking air, a whisper of ruin. The sound of snapping cable and wire interrupted the marching intermittently. They had almost caught up, the Deadeyes would leave no survivors.


Such a shame you won’t be making the party afterall,” crackled the public announcement system with the voice of Cradle Robber. “No matter how you insects try, your wriggling and squirming amounts to nothing! You can’t change what you are. You’re pests. You should be thanking us, allowing you to become part of something greater than yourselves! Your lives shall feed a higher purpose. It’s only a shame that the Captain chose to die with you; always the disloyal loser, even in death.” He had to get the last word in, the last laugh of a plan that came full-circle. No matter what happened, he had made sure he’d be victorious one way or another.


And that’s where my story should have ended. I should have died with them in that mall-turned town with loose associates I could barely call friends, but I’d call them friends, because in this world they were the closest things to friends I had--I had nothing else.


When all hope left me that’s when deliverance came through a vehicle most unexpected; the gate began to open, spreading a cold wind, plaguing the uncovered with a case of the shivers. On the other side, framed by the darkness was a spritely ball of pink with an eternal smile, wearing my lost boot upon her head.


“Sorry I’m late,” Said PNK-3, “I was supposed to be here a whole ten minutes ago, right when you’d get here but I ran into some raiders and--Oh, I found your lost boot! I was all ‘Twitcha-twitch!’ and it landed on a raider. Meat Pie, no relation to yours truly! You need to learn to watch your things. You’re always losing something. Oh, are you happy to see me?! Well are yah?! I bet you are!”


She was met with silent, disbelieving stares; her appearance was as unexpected as it was miraculous, her timing couldn’t have been better or worse. “So, Miss Pie,” I thought of the pink pony the bauble reminded me of fondly, “You’re still the life of the party.”


*Ahem* Deus Ex Pinkamina! Yes, I’ve been waiting for 4 chapters to use this joke.
Some will be revealed in the next chapter; Touch of Pink!

Level Up! Level 8 acquired--
New Perk!
Character Progress Review
Quest Completed!