• Published 23rd Feb 2013
  • 3,229 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 13: Rehearsal

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"Rehearsal"

Places everyone; we only have one shot at this!


O’ Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O’ heart! heart! heart!

O’ the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.


Time, it passes so slowly for those waiting impatiently. Filling one’s time with something to do gave the illusion of time flowing faster, preoccupying parts of the brain that would otherwise be sitting in a rut using their functions to tap fingers on the table. I was not eager to solicit misfortune, but with bated breath, needless and long, did I drag from the billows of my chest. Time, like water, had flowed down to a trickle, sprawled out and dried across the plutonian shore; heeding the past, I collected my strife and honed the edge of my inequity. Revenge best served icy, like death, minty and cool. Darkness to ice, goodfellows in arms, like time and water. Feckless, needless, pointless expression. Wasted on the living.


It’d be nice if I could fall into the rut of believing such conventions, but so disillusioned am I that there is no belief to spare for flippant designs of feeble minds. For the hundredth time I was shouting at the quivering, fearful lumps of flesh; their coordination lacking, making the grains of sand seize up in a sieve to lengthen an hour’s time to insurmountable irritation. This hourglass would never empty, would it? We deadmare had limitless lives, endlessly long, patience was a virtue we had honed to an edge--Vengeance delivered ice cold and strikes made when metal was hot, timing was everything...Yet for once, time was not in abundance, at most I had an hour to finish preparations.


“No, no, no!” I roared, slamming the meaty hands of Tauros’s form into the edge of the stage, forcing the whole building to creak and shudder. Nearly a hundred years had taken its toll on metal and wood, as did time take its toll on my sanity and inhibitions. What was an hour more to wait? Filling that hour with begrudged, beguiling kindness wasted on expendable ponies doured my mood further. “You’re not even playing it right, try again, from the TOP!” I bellowed, flinging flecks of black spit over them. No hesitation in them, they rushed to fill my order lest they join the flutist I had tossed into the furnace alive to motivate them. Oh, her squeals had been a delight; I prefered the death rattles and cries of fools to the sound of music. What can I say, it was therapeutic, like squashing an insignificant insect.


Silence, save for music, that’s all I desired, yet my desire was fulfilled by the ponies dangling in cages over the boiling vats. Never did they cease in their begging, distracting my musicians from learning the funeral tune I longed to play for my very important guest. “It’s too noisy in here,” I decided, tapping on the crest of Tauros’s head. “Lug Nut, darling.” I cooed, forever hating to use his new name; his old name had been so cute, afterall. “Catwalks, please.”


Grunting, my darling symbiote slammed both fists into the ground and extended his pistons, vaulting himself up onto the catwalks following the trajectory I’d set up in SATS. We landed heavily to the protests of the catwalks and thundered down the row of cages. I counted aloud to myself, watching the cages silence themselves as I passed. I loved that feeling of importance, like an executioner strolling along the cells on death row. “Oh, now you’re quiet?” I said, a touch of disappointment rising in my tone. I cast a stern, glowing glare at the battered, beaten creatures packed into the cages and smiled. “You all worry too much,” I consoled them. “As I promised, none of you shall be harmed.” Some ponies released the breath they’d been holding, perhaps relieved in the false belief they’d survive this night. “Speak or cry without permission and I’ll drop you into the quagmire of oil you find yourself oh-so precariously dangling over!” Tauros shook one of the cages for good measure, eliciting a peal of whimpers.


“Please, just let us go home,” a squawking came from a cage further down. Oh, this had to be addressed; after all, they had said ‘please’. If one thing, I was not impolite. Stalking over the the final cage in a row, I met the gaze of the one bold enough to speak out of turn. A small fledgling griffon hardly out of his down, a bit fluffy too; Red-hawk and lion? My, a classic breed! About him were young ponies, lambs, and a single little llama; all wearing the iconic vestments of the Church of Eternia, a simple poncho of white and gleaming gold marked with the crests of the gods they worshiped.


“Oh my, oh my, look at all of you, cute little ones...” I purred, leaning over my compatriot’s head and cupping my chin with a hoof. “So, care to tell me why exactly I’d let you go?” I’d already decided their fate, but humoring the young was something of a hobby to me.


Searching for words, the young griffon stumbled over syllables with his lips, petering off into mewling chirps under my gaze. Unsurprising that he could not find a reason; there was none to be had, no good reason to spare them incarceration. I was not a charitable zebra, and sparing them from being cooked alive and eaten by Muffincake had been the extent of my good will. Passively, I glossed over the old warlord dangling over the table in place of the chandelier, poor sod had passed off the mortal coil some time ago, perishing in agony. Good as a pawn, grotesque for decor, he’d found his calling and was no more.


“When Keena finds out where we are, you’ll be sorry!” Roared the soft voice of the llama. So cute, the young ones always had such brainless courage! He attracted my attention and my ire, coaxing me to lean closer to the cage.


“Child, never am I sorry...” I grumbled with contempt, tapping the bar with a hoof. Never once did I feel remorse for crushing the life from a creature; would they besorrow treading upon an insect? Nay, one should not neigh-say an act of stamping out a lesser creature, even if the creature squeals its pleas and beggars life. I told them as much, saying, “Your needs and desires are as important to me as the needs of an insect are to you.” I licked my lips, watching the courage drain from my prey, I could almost smell their fear. What did they have to fear in death, didn’t Eternites believe in the afterlife?


“Keena will come...She has to...And she’ll save us...” Still, they insisted on this racket. And crying, oh did they insist on crying. They were doing the opposite of what I wanted, which was to be quiet. One would think an Eternite would be eager to die, seeing as they believed in being one with the Eternal Herd and joining the Gods in the afterlife in harmony. Complete hogwash, if they believed that then they’d do the wastes a favor and off themselves. No, those blasted Eternites insisted on spreading peace and faith. Though, it was to note they did have a flair for violence now and then, as they did hold their own in the West against both the Whirlybirds and raiders. Most respected the Eternite Orders and their battle clerics for their mercy and kindness, willing to spare raiders and care for wounded on both sides of any conflict. They made it a point to never turn anyone away, not even ghouls--Especially not ghouls. Between that church and those damned Viper Bandits, there was just a shred of hope left for equinity.


I would crush that hope, starting with the children. These children, specifically. With a calm smile and a beguiling sweet tone I spoke, “Oh, perhaps you’re right! She’ll swoop in and come to rescue the church’s choir!” I leaned back, bracing one of my covered hooves to my ceramic skull mask dramatically. “Perhaps she shall slay me, purge the blights of my soul and salt the earth upon where I die; but do you know what she’ll find, even if she does manage to kill me?”


My answer was to drop their cage into the vat below, their screams hushed over the bubbles of the oil stealing their future. I drew a sharp, needless breath into my lungs and laughed, “She will find that I’ve already won.” I cooed, watching the oil spill over the sides of the massive steel smelting pot. “Does anyone else have anything clever to say?” I was met only by the stifled gasps and whimpers of the remaining captives, much to my displeasure. I’d wanted to drop another cage...Oh, who was going to stop me? I dropped another cage for good measure, snapping the chain with ease; boil, boil, dead!


Tauros gave a muffled whine, gazing with mournful sorrow at the chain held in his massive hand. “Oh, don’t be sad, Lug Nut, darling, I already told you; none are allowed to live.” The minotaur was such a softy, being an undead weapon had not changed that, which had become such a problem that he had allowed me to become critically damaged in deployment many years ago. Tomb Town, what a mess that had been! Bitterly, I recall having to be grafted to Tauros in order to override his innate gentle nature, better than the alternative, my darling Lug Nut losing his free-will while I was to be recycled.


Lug Nut gave a shake of his head and snorted, flicking his tail as he leapt down from the catwalk, ignoring me. The big brute was always like this, unwilling to do what was necessary; did he not know that I did this for love? If he did not kill he was worthless to the system!


“Don’t you dare be this way, stop ignoring me this instant!” I demanded, wrapping my legs around his thick neck and nuzzling his thick mane. “Come on, darling, I let that little violinist go! You know I never let children go; it’s so bad to let the insects breed! I didn’t even smash her violin! Honey bull...”


His attention was so far removed from me that no amount of nuzzling would rouse him to my charm. It was a shame that we had no ability to feel sensations, save for one location where our matrixes were located. I knew the location of his, the left horn; I peppered it with kisses and the minotaur reacted in kind, thumping his large hoof. The music took a turn to wax romantic and it gave me pause to glance up, astonishing me with an unwelcome discovery.


“Oh, how cute; romance, even among the Gravelords...” Spoke a stern, musical voice belonging to an unexpected guest that made room for himself upon the stage. Another of the enforcers and an ex-member of the Krew just as Lug-Nut and I. He was a small, unassuming grey unicorn, rather gaunt, with a jumble of stove pipes coming from the sides of his chest and torso.


As far as aesthetics went, we Deadmare were decidedly utilitarian, function over form, where our forms were grotesque, exaggerated dimensions that enhanced our particular specialty in life. Little Equinity remains in our kind, but beyond that we still retain a semblance of vanity, most of our kind wear a Deathmask to conceal our faces; with the notable exceptions, such as Lug Nut whom kept getting startled every time he saw a reflection of himself wearing his. He now no longer wears his mask, much to my delight. Of course, Lug Nut still wears the noose by which he had been hung with after our speedy, unfair trial. I recall they’d used the same rope for the both of us; he had been so heavy the drop had torn his head clean off. He had been executed first...These memories plague me, but no longer. Not after tonight. Tonight will be the day I leave my death behind me and bury its cause.


Tangents aside, as far as Number Ten’s Deathmask was concerned, it was an object of mockery which felt the sting of a thousand cackles on my behalf. I considered it gawdy, like sunglasses indoors. At night. A bit and harness kept his lin lips peeled back in a permanent undecided sneer as if he’d smelled something foul, and the blinders attached to the ceramic mask ensured he’d only be able to see directly forward. That was if he could see through the etched steel plate slanting across the bridge of his muzzle between the blinders to cover his eyes, only the faintest of red glow curled around the edges. The metal plate was where his number, PP-010, was etched along with his Roaman Numeral, the X. Why he chose such an ornate mask was a subject of ridicule among the other numbers, and if it ever bothered him, Ten never let it show.


This particular number was a walking music machine, which explained the massive improvement. Ten’s ability to lead and control the weak willed through his melodies made him an envy among the numbers. Even I envied the ability to force small settlements into killing each other and themselves. He did it without ever lifting a hoof.


“What are you doing here, Organ Grinder?” I growled, ignoring his previous comment. “I can finish the mission and return Thirteen without you; this is my mission!”


“Well,” Organ Grinder began, his voice sounding musical. “I’m here for my own reasons. I worry this is too personal for you; number Thirteen is to remain intact.” Music continued to play over the pipes jutting from him and a small swing arm extended to insert a vinyl record into the slot in his spine, making a soft melody play over the speaker under his mask. He was teaching them a song, and mechanically, against their will, the captive musicians were learning it, playing musical instruments Organ Grinder had summoned with his magic.


“I am making him suffer; showing him just how pointless resisting us is!” I growled, this interference was most unappreciated. I’d served Hades since activation, extending his will from the very center of Detrot. Still, he preferred that...Traitor, number Thirteen, over us. “I do not know the point in keeping that unit intact; was Tomb Town not enough? Penance turned on us!” Oh, that day was on my mind, every day for fifty years. Captain turned against us; why? None of us knew except Hades--And he’d never tell. “I want him to suffer for what he did to me then and in my past!”


“That’s why I worry,” Organ Grinder sing-songed, slicking back his sparse, ratty blonde mane. “You never let go of your former life. You still blamed him, even when he was one of us. It is unhealthy to hold onto our former connections, we cannot serve Necro-Net as we were before. Let it go.” A moment’s pause was given, and then he commented on my choice of music that I’d play, “And the song you chose? Atrocious. Let me handle the musicians, you want Penance’s welcome back party to be...Perfect, don’t you?”


Begrudgingly, I snorted, nearly quaking with anger. “Give me your word you won’t interfere! And keep those ponies quiet; I only want to hear music!” My plans should not be altered, it all had to be exact! No interference, no exceptions!


“You have my word,” Spoke a chorus of hypnotized ponies, all of them under Organ Grinder’s spell of song. Oh, this was going to be perfect, Penance would suffer much more before the night was over--I trust that he wouldn’t die before making it here. He was plenty resourceful to survive most anything I could throw at him. With the music handled, I resumed my seat at the head of the table, left to twiddle Lug Nut’s thumbs. Come, oh Captain, my Captain, to your fate of ice and fire, for your suffering is my carnal desire. Writhe and squirm, struggle and fight; My dark zebra heart will not sojourn your plight.


It was hard not to think about, to not question the gods and their infinite knowledge. I knew that it was wrong to do so, that it was sacrilege to challenge the tenets of our ways--But I found myself asking why the gods would send us a champion in the image of our greatest enemy. It was beyond understanding, like playing a platformer with a light-gun controller, but the gods were the gods, and their champions were their champions.


It had to be a champion of Discord, only he would be so twisted to give us a hero that was so unexpected, but that did not explain how he was shrouded in glorious light and wielding a golden beam of light in the bakery; perhaps it was just my imagination? Still, watching him feast on the remains of fallen raiders and regenerate had me question his divinity. Maybe he was to be redeemed by his actions? Was I to preach to him about the church and pray he listened and stopped his vile ways? That would be like teaching a griffin to be vegetarian, even I ate meat, but I never ate ponies.


The frigid air sank hard under my wings, stealing a few feet of my altitude. It was such a freezing cold night, my talons began to feel numb and my breath dusted the air as fog. The poor filly I carried shivered, quivering as her hooves held firm around my neck, snout buried into the scruff of my plumage to keep warm. Her hot breath was against my neck, not at all unpleasant. Every flap of my wings brought me closer to my goal at the cost of my stamina. I’d have to make this trip twice, and in normal circumstances, I’d pace myself. This wasn’t normal circumstances.


I’d never flown so fast before, the city below was just a streak of brown and black, and this high up, my sharp eyes could pick out the faint burst of light from sporadic, distant gunfire. It was everywhere, miles into the distance the city stretched, so far that I could not fathom it ever ended.


Above me, the dense cloud looked ready to drop its bounty, and with the near freezing temperatures of fall, it might become winter’s first snow. The first blizzard of the season was never mild, it was cold and unforgiving. Thoughts of ponies frozen in hovels danced through my mind. More than likely the priestess, in her wisdom, would send the flyers such as me out to gather and deliver care parcels to the unfortunate. Our church would be packed with bodies, pews layered in shivering, sleeping bodies covered in blankets. If we had enough blankets.


I did not look forward to the first freeze, but second to that was Winter Wrap-Up...Oh, what a harsh, difficult task was that. With so few unicorns with proper magical attunements we could only affect a limited area around the church, most of the cleanup was done manually, and if it was done too early, nature would simply replace the snow with another blizzard...Manual labor cost resources and...Well, last time we tried to cleanup early, over twenty people died of starvation and weakness from the first attempt and subsequent refreeze...So, it was best to endure and let nature run its course and clean up whatever remained. I loved the stories of old, some ghouls told us that ponies used to love winter, that it was about renewal, rest, and holidays. Now it was about a couple feet of stubborn, hard snow that rivaled the deadliest of hazards in lives claimed.


Softly coughing, Dirge whimpered about how cold she felt. “Could we fly a little lower?” She asked, her voice nearly lost on the wind, “It’s s-so freezing...I feel...I don’t feel so good.” If she got any greener, she’d be in the likeness of a plant from the church garden!


Perhaps she’d appreciate a bit more fresh air? And a distraction, yes, it has been long since I dared venture over the clouds to see the moon. It was risky, due to those that resided above the clouds. Enclave, they were called. A slow, gentle climb to the cloud layer to unzip a hole in the clouds to dive into the blanket of night provided ample distraction to the filly, who for a moment, seemed to forget her motion sickness and cold to take in a breath as she saw the sky for what I believed was the first time.


“Ah, the sky, you broke it! You broke the sky!” She marveled, eyes wide with ignorant fear. I’ve dealt with this more than once before, as I’ve ferried several younglings before her to the precipice of night over the veil of cloud. Some marveled, others screamed, and some were too stunned. I was grateful she was not a screamer, for among the twinkle of beautiful stars that pushed through the haze of pollution that covered the city like an aura was the black obelisk of a massive Enclave airship. Keenly, I picked out several other shapes in silhouette, air balloons with targets dangling. They were preparing for target practice. Again. Those on the ground had much to fear, for it was not uncommon for Enclave to miss and those shells they fired would descend through the clouds, triggering a storm before laying waste to buildings below. It was easy for locals to attribute cruelty to what was done in incompetence, many believed the Enclave were evil. I knew better, though, for in my short travels I met a mare that spoke of her people’s ignorance of anyone living below the clouds that were not wicked in the world’s ways.


Star Racer; never had I ever met a stronger, more dependable mare than she. It was my dream to become more like her and less like...Well, I’ve been known to get distracted, going off into my own little world thinking about things or entertaining myself. “My head in the clouds,” the priestess always says.


“The sky is not broken,” I told her, “We are above the clouds. That is the moon cast against the blanket of Luna’s magnificent night.” I waved a talon at the sky, pointing out the crescent moon. I did not know if it was waxing or waning, for I was not a battle cleric of Luna and did not study the moon nor star, but I could still appreciate the splendor without knowledge. “That is the moon, the one you’ve heard so many stories about, I’m sure. And those little twinkling lights are the stars.”


The little filly nestled in more firmly, still shivering, the dampness from the clouds adding to the sharp wind chill. “And what are those shadows? The ones that look like tombstones?” I looked around the sky, not knowing what she was referring to.


“You mean that big blocky thing? That’s an airship and the smaller ones are targets,” I explained, giving a mighty flap to tread just barely over the clouds. We had to remain undetected, lest I be forced to explain to the territorial pegasi why I was here. Usually they spoke with force, with beams of light arcing through the air to repel invaders like, well, me. I always did love a challenge, but with a filly? Yeah, let’s avoid that entirely.


That’s not what she meant though, she did not have to speak a word for me to notice; I caught a glimpse of shadows over the clouds to my left and I jerked hard into an Aileron roll into a hard bank turn. By a narrow margin, the hot jolts of magical energy sailed by, too close for comfort. Smoldering heat and smoke curtailed off my vestments, bearing scorched holes. Dirge screamed, her color fighting to return pale while the jerking motion spotted her face with green.


Five dark, winged shadows formed out in the darkness, approaching high, gleaming red dots of their visors casting off pinpricks of light. Like living shadows they came at us, hurling shooting stars of brilliant light with great accuracy. SATS, I hated fighting opponents with SATS, it was an aim assist, cheating, as far as I was concerned. Of course, one could not cry foul of their abuse of SATS if one was reduced to ash, so I begrudged them their distance and tried to keep a margin of error to buffer my evasive maneuvers.


“W-why did you have to fly higher?! Those monsters are gonna git us!” Dirge cried out, clutching about my neck with such force that I could feel my pulse in my inner ear.


“Just hold on, we’re going to make our descent now!” I gave her split-second’s warning before I folded my my wings and pitched forward, opening them again the arc into a full stop while pointing down; a hammer turn into a full drop. Like a Bolter’s rivet through power armor, we tore through the cloud layer, soon followed by the five Enclave still in formation. Stars of light whizzed by and their threats and screams were lost on the wind; they’d never followed me below the cloud layer this far before! If I couldn’t shake them before I had to pull up, I’d be in trouble--They were much faster than me, aided by their armor and not weighed down by a filly.


Opening a single wing, I spun in the air to face my foes, falling back first towards the ground below. Shouldering my rifle, I took shaky aim, unable to get a perfect bead on the lead flyer, I let loose with a few semi-auto bursts. Sparks flashed off the armor with little effect, without armor piercing rounds, may as well be shooting spit-wads!


Dirge could not withhold her screams which turned to sickly vomit, spewing up over my shoulder and stinging at my talons like hard rain. The misted puke struck the lead pegasus and they broke off their pursuit. I could hear the disgusted groan of that pegasus on the chilled winds, and I took a small modicum of pleasure in that Discordian delivery. Praise Discord that was weird and wholly unexpected, and never would I gamble good fortune of the gods, I wisely made use of the time granted to pull up. It was in the nick of time I did so, as I was forced to tuck my legs up tight or risk tearing them off on the roof’s protrusions. My cleric’s garb snagged on the edge of the roof and momentum swung us into a downward spiral down an alleyway between two ruined buildings.Wind left my lungs in a shallow, pained squawk as I bounced off the ruined fire escape and into an open dumpster.


Any landing you could walk away from was a good one, as far as I was concerned. What would you consider a landing that left one limping? A decent 7/10 landing, I think, leaving me mildly sore. Dirge’s head spun and her eyes struggled to focus, she deposited another gut full of bile onto the floor.


“I never wanna fly again,” Dirge groaned, eyes rolling in her head. I’d carelessly dropped her in our crash, fortunately she’d landed in a trashbin, wearing a wig of refuse. Withholding a soft snicker, I plucked her from the bin and set her down, picking a rotten apple core from her gnarled mane. She’d look lovely with a braid...


“Hasten your breath, we may need to take flight soon...” I felt for my ensemble, making sure all items were in order. Rifle, ammo clips, belt, medallion, no vestments though. My barding had torn loose on the roof above. “If they followed us this far down, they will not stop until we are undone. They have ways to track us and--” I froze as metal hooves struck roof several stories above.


“Hey, here’s that Whirlybird’s barding,” Muttered a tinny voice, modulated by his helmet.


“I dunno,” coughed another that joined the first, “It looks a bit ornate for a Whirlybird. Maybe they were just some curious earth born griff?”


“Hooves, dunce,” Spoke another. Soon, all five were up there, two of them were circling the area just above the alleyway. Vultures, the lot of them.


“Griffins don’t have hooves...” Grumbled another Enclave combatant, a low growl in her voice and patterned puke on her once-pristine armor marked her as the flight leader. “I see a few combatant markers in the alleyway on my EFS. I’m going to check it out.”


Multiple icons? We weren’t alone in this alleyway! The rustling in the trashbins was my first clue, and the unusually large, bloodthirsty rodents were my second clue. Obviously, there was a minor infestation of mutated, disease ridden worm-tails. Dirge found a home behind me and I backed up against the furthest wall, drawing my rifle and switching it to full-auto. Slowly, the rodents approached, seven boxing us in, whiskers twitching curiously, beady eyes staring holes into our soft bodies. I urged Dirge to stay completely silent, the filly covered her muzzle with both hooves, the barest squeaks of a whimper easing through the quaking seal. If those Enclave gits caught wind of us there would be more to worry about than some mangy worm-tails.


“No, we aren’t, ma’am!” Chirped one of the officers, weighed down with more cannon than the rest. “We’re not even supposed to go below the cloud layer, it’s court-martial if we don't get top-side.”


“I’m the leader of this little operation, dunce. I say jump, you ask how high. I say fly into the dirt? Well, you better dig deep!” That bossy leader of theirs was getting fresh with her troops, I imagine their morale was horrid under such an ornery leader. Her troops were less than subservient and urged her to go top-side of the cloud layer and fill a report. “No, we’re not leaving! I want this Whirlybird, they don’t own our skies, they shouldn’t even be allowed to jump!”


“Look, ma’am, we know what the Whirlybirds did to your brother, but--” The officer began, trying to console his captain. His kind hoof was batted away.


“Yeah, they strung him up with a wagon wheel outside the city! They used him for target practice! I want this one to hurt, bad!” She was practically screaming, her voice echoing. If she was not trying to murder me, she’d garner some sympathy. Personally, I had a deeper reason to dislike the Whirlybirds, they believed in pure-blood pride and hated pegasi. Terror-Terrace had a strict half-and-half rule; meaning all half breeds were executed in the worst of ways or made to toil and serve the Don. Anyone in a mixed race relationship? Also executed. Bound to a wagon wheel and hung from the sky scrapers or given Jump-Duty. When it came to them, all the love and tolerance instilled in me by the clergy that raised me vanished into a burning rage of righteous anger...So yes, I did relate. I wanted to console her, to hug her, to be friends. Maybe on a better day I could do so...


Those rats were looking a bit famished, drooling as they licked their infected, bloody lips...Baring teeth and chuffing, the largest rat, easily half my size, was gauging how easy a meal I’d be. My talon eased over to the trigger and I prepared to lay waste and take my chances in fleeing through the city. MY chances were better in tighter spaces at out-maneuvering the Enclave than in open air, may as well take my chances.


Schlink! The lead-rat’s mouth gaped open, preparing to let loose a screech, but only blood gurgled freely, the head dropping from a cauterized stump. Staying my trigger, I watched as several other rats were slain by an invisible opponent, a faint clicking of blades sizzling over the floor. Cowardly, the rest attempted to flee, only to meet a grisly end. My blood ran cold, there was only one thing that could move and fight in such a manner, and I could see the light bend about its form. Not but an hour ago I’d been fighting them by the numbers, and the horror stories involving no survivors.


“By Soarin’s Pie, what the buck’s going on down there?!” cried an Enclave officer. “Shit, those lights are vanishing fast!” Yes, they were, and I feared we’d be joining them. “Ma’am, contact, we got contact; that’s a DM. Repeat, DM in the alleyway!”


“Damnit! Fucking prick must have nailed our bird! Pull-out, ascend! Now, now, now, you maggots!” They arrived the way they came, flying straight up and far, far away. Would getting vaporized by magic hurt less than getting torn limb from limb by a deadmare? Nah, I could beat this thing, Steelgraft made it look easy, so how hard could it be?


The Deadmare decloaked in the center of the alleyway amid the bodies. Sparks danced from gaping wounds, flesh cracked and smoldering from previous battles. Three legs, no blade tail, and missing its mask and horn-blade? The crippled piece of junk wouldn’t last through two clips! It seemed more interested in feasting on the rat carcasses to regenerate. Not giving it that chance, even if it was a tad unsporting.


“Wait!” Dirge burst out, stepping around me.


“Wait for what? For it to finish eating?” I pressed down on the trigger, my shots going erratically upward as the filly slammed a hoof into my talon.


“No,” She shrieked!


One second later and the beast had pirouetted about on its single foreleg and charged us. My life flashed before my eyes, the church, the children, and the pastor. I was going to miss them terribly. What a horrible way to die, and for what? Because I was too stupid to stay below the clouds in the first place...


“Stop!” Dirge declared with authority. It complied with her, blade frozen in mid-stab, aimed straight for me, Dirge standing as an obstacle. Did it just obey an order form a child?


Beak agape, I stared, unable to process this. “Did it....Why did it listen to you?”


“It’s the same one the scary bull-monster ordered to follow me,” the filly explained softly, reaching up a hoof to press it to the nose of the fearsome killing machine. The Deadmare remained unmoved by this provocative ‘boop’. “It protected me...” She then frowned and tilted her head, “She’s hurt.”


“Yes, hurt.” I muttered, silently wishing more injury upon this beast. “She’s not going to carve us up?” I asked, unwilling to lower my gun otherwise.


“She wants to protect me,” The filly said, “You do too. So that means you’re friends.” What a naive girl, it was cute, in a way. Friends with...That thing. Love and Tolerance only stretched so far...


To me, the monster seemed a bit different from the others. Without a mask I could see a face, a feminine version of Steelgraft’s own likeness. Her eyes were a bit glazed over, but both were intently focused on the child. Slinging my gun over my shoulder, I coughed into a talon, “You have our thanks for your assistance. The filly is safe; your job is done. You can leave now...” Oh sweet, merciful Celestia, let us just be rid of the thing!


Dirge went into a brief coughing fit as she attempted to tell the wayward soul that one should say ‘you are welcome’ when they are thanked. Good manners, that child. Though worrying that she now was stricken with fever, much to my error.


The beast looked nearly panicked, bereft in a sense as it danced in place. It seemed concerned for the filly, at least as concerned as one in the condition of being a Deadmare can appear. It glanced up to me and opened its jaws wide, stuttering in broken, weak sounds. “Yeeeeh-Yua- aaaah- -Weeeh ...
K-Ken.” Likely, the creature had never uttered a word naturally before, and it only did this in hopes it would improve the state of its charge. A few inspective sniffs to the sickly filly followed, once again leaving me rather...Lost on what to think.


Another one like Steelgraft? Not hacked but naturally...Defective. One with heart or the makings of one. There was somepony in there, a soul deep inside. “Listen, she needs a doctor, there is one at the Highscore Arcade.” Gangrene was close enough to being a doctor, far as I was concerned. “I’m taking her there. It’s not safe for you to c---” I stopped talking, for no sooner had I told the damned thing where the doctor was, the beast snatched the filly up by the scruff and scrambled away in the direction of the arcade. Oh come on, I did not have the time for this, not in the least!


Bitterly, I stayed my talon from trigger, for there was no evil in this monster’s heart, and followed after, begging it to see folly in its ploy to assist. For one, I was a much faster method of travel...


~~~

“Let me see that damn bag!” I demanded, snatching the brown, crumpled thing from PNK-3. I inhaled and exhaled into the bag several times, pointless as it was. We’d been running for miles, barely keeping ahead of the unlikely offspring of a manure factory and monster-wagon. I didn’t realize how much stupid crap I was starting to remember; nothing important, just mundane. In Baltimare they held rallies where they’d put massive wheels on horseless carriages and would crush stuff with them. Mindless entertainment, good for the masses. Curbstomp 2.0 reminded me of one of those things, aesthetics abandoned for torque and terror. Good thing that wrecking machine abandoned pursuit once we made it to Nommage Valley; damned thing couldn’t follow us through all the wreckage piled up at the slope of the main industrial complexes.


Yeah, turns out the reason they called it Nommage Valley was because the sewer and maintenance tunnels collapsed beneath the foundations of the massive factories, dropping them a good fifteen feet down below the surrounding city. Twisted, gnarled girders and ruined husks of buildings formed a line of palisades facing the outside, the only way in was dropping down the road, and it was a tight squeeze. Too tight for a Roamer. That’s why the artificial valley remained contested and under control of the Baker Barbarian Clans for so long, it was, well, a stinking cesspool of foul, horrible danger. If I hadn’t been dead already, I’d worry about tetanus and other horrible diseases.


“Hey, Captain Steelgraft, you do know you don’t need to breath, right?” PNK-3 mentioned matter-of-factly while hovering just before my face. Everytime the bag inflated, she’d be pushed back, but she’d ease back into my personal space once I deflated the bag.


“You don’t breath either,” I pointed out, holding the inflated bag aloft in the same hand I pointed with. I took a few more pointless huffs, inhaling and exhaling rapidly. “So pot, meet kettle.”


“My name in PNK-3.” She squeaked, “But it’s nice to meet you, Mr. Kettle.”


Last nerve struck, patience withered like an old mare’s libido, unable to resist...Must--Just get it over with, give her a good whack! “You’re really not helping right now, voice in my head!” I thought bitterly. Oh, since when do I ever help you? I’m in this for me, myself, and I. I want to survive but I’m stuck inside YOUR skull, so that means you have to survive. Fuck me, right. You. Need. Therapy. Great, great, just what I need, more comments from the peanut gallery. One of my eyebrows twitched in purified, enriched anger and annoyance.


“Could you just go back to reading graffiti or something?” I asked, glancing about for anything to distract her. No, there were no dongs, dicks, or dumbass doodles around, surprisingly, just a large volume of rotting husks flayed and bolted up on girders and walls. Several bodies, rather fresh, swung by nooses in the cold breeze, tied off to a sunken billboard. Smile, it isn’t so bad! Exclaimed Pinkie Pie, Ministry Mare of Morale, her face was barred with a tired grin, as if she even knew it wasn’t true but was much too invested in believing in a silver lining that wasn’t there.


“Smile, it isn’t so bad.” PNK-3 read aloud, then she spent a split second looking around for more things to read. “No nothing else. Don’t worry though, I’m totally right; it isn’t so bad!” The sound of my sanity snapping was that of dry twigs, long hollow of life and cast off from a rotten tree barren of leaves. Expressed in an unnecessarily poetic analogy!


“Hey, Captain Kettle, you okay? Your face(What’s left of it) is awfully red and...You may have sprung a widdle tid-bit of a leak! Is it normal for steam to shoot out of your ears--That’s pretty neat!”


I swung the inflated paper bag, caught the irritating bauble and burst the bag. Confetti every-flipping where. How that much fit into the bag was beyond me. I exhaled harshly out my nose and glitter came out. I’d been huffing party favors!


“And there’s the confetti!” She danced about in the falling sparkles and laughed. “We made it, congratulations!” Thunderous drums played as she flitted about my head and she sang.


“Oh we haven’t died this day!
Hooray!
Still we play this dangerous game!
Woohoo!
If we’re careful it’d end just the same!
Boohoo!
But not today, so yay!”


She had a song for EVERY occasion. Heck, she had a song while we were running! How she managed to fit lyrics to Yakety Sax was beyond me. Never again would I feel safe listening to that whimsically braindead song.


“You really think surviving by the skin of my teeth is something worth celebrating?” I asked dourly, my single eyebrow twitching over a mad eye. “It’s not! It’s not worth a silly song, it’s not worth a yippee kay-yay, it is not worth smiling over!” Against my harsh yells, the spritebot shrunk away and hovered around a toppled rubbish bin, hiding from view. For the next few moments I took my aggressions out on my surroundings, hurling lawn chairs, cinder blocks, errant coffee mugs, and lunch pails around. Had I not been so angry, I would have noticed it sooner, but this location was an outpost, likely the chairs and junk around the small firepit were so the raiders could watch their victims suffer. That thought alone was a cold splash of water on my face, extinguishing my rage and blowing a chill straight into my core. This is what Greenvale Heights would look like if Muffincake and his band of fat, unmerry murderers marched past the weakened defenses. I let the small handfuls of rubbish fall to the ground before trotting off further into the cesspool of a valley, doing my best to move around the sewage filled potholes. On several signs and display boards dotting the area, a mantra had been painted in red on white; “Deh Weaks Behcum Deh Eats.”--Likely it was their motto; Only the strong survive. The world wasn’t always like this, it didn’t have to be. There was a fine line between survival and indulgence, ones these raiders crossed.


“You done yet?” PNK-3 asked from her obvious hiding place. “And for the record, you hardly have any skin left on your teeth.”


“Yeah, you can come out.” Said I, the tantrum having run its course to a pointless conclusion. “Just stop being so damn cheerful. There’s nothing to be cheerful about.”


“But of course there is,” She sing-songed, joining alongside me. Even though she hovered, the spritebot saw fit to weave around the potholes filled with sewage. “We’ve made it this far! Nopony from the town council thought you’d make it this far. I’ve always believed in you, but I can understand why they’d feel you weren’t up to the task. You’re just not--” She stopped speaking. Normally I’d be happy, but in this circumstance I knew she had wanted to say more but chose not to; that irritated me more, it made me feel like she was intentionally hiding something.


“Pleasant, smart, nice? There are plenty of things I’m not, so spit it out,” I said somberly. I kept my eyes off any distractions. I wasn’t looking at the corpses nailed up or swaying in the breeze or the broken facilities or ruins. I wasn’t triggering my SATS every step. I was looking straight ahead, watching a shaft of smoke rising over the lot in the distance. The only factory with any light on in the night, the only place with fires burning in chimney stacks.


“You’re not much the same,” PNK-3 finally admitted. “You lost your muchness, Captain. You used to be so much more.” She seemed to struggle with examples, but she was right. All it took was one look down at myself to see all that remained of who I was.


When my journey began I woke up in a pristine white room, a little den of lies that asked me my name. I was a newborn carrying the sins of a previous life, one I could scarcely remember. I was expected to lift the mantle of their Captain and carry on--For them. For people I barely knew or remembered. “Who I used to be and who I am now are apples to oranges. I know just enough of who I was to grieve. I know more than enough to hate what I am. Stop talking like you know me.”


“But Captain Kettle,” She huffed, “We’re friends!”


“No.” I decided. “We aren’t friends. The closest thing I had to a friend wishes she’d never met me!” Gangrene, maybe she’d said that in anger and pain, but it struck me after the numbness wore off. “I have no friends. I’m just a tool. A hammer. I see a lot of nails and plenty of people getting screwed.”


“I’m sorry, Cap--I mean Steelgraft. Do you need a hug?” As sincere as she sounded I knew she was just about as real as I was. Her equinity wasn’t even skin-deep. She had no skin. Or arms. Or even a soul. Why did I even bother talking to her like an equal? She was just a hunk of junk, an irritating hunk of junk that’d nearly gotten me killed more times than my own stupid ideas. “You sound like you really need a friend, Steelgraft.” She added.


“What I need is for you to make yourself scarce. Capiche?” I wanted to be alone, I didn’t need her tagging along to slow me down or announce my position.


“We’re not at our destination yet! Is this because I keep calling out direc--PROCEED ONE-HUNDRED METERS AND TAKE A LEFT AT BAKER’S STREET; PROCEED FIFTY METERS TO ARRIVE AT WAREHOUSE 221B!” She broke off into declaring more step-by-step directions to where we needed to go. She’d done this our entire trip, interrupting the travel music and announcing to the Roamer chasing us our intended turns. I’d even tried to shake it off our trail by going the wrong way only to have PNK-3 loudly shout ‘Recalculating’ and shout new instructions to get back on track to our destination, entirely defeating the purpose of trying to shake it off in the first place.


“Yeah, that’s part of it,” I deadpanned. “But really, that’s more of a feature compared to--”


“Is it because I think aloud sometimes? I’m sorry! I was honestly wondering what it’d be like to have a bellybutton!”


“Yeah, it’s also that but mostly it’s--” I tried to keep calm, but everytime I tried to get a word in edge wise she’d go on and interrupt me.


“Is it the singing? I can stop singing, promise!”


“Well, if you stop the singing ma--” I sighed.


“Is it because of the Roamer? I only had one banana! If only I had a banjo!” The spritebot slammed into my side, grinding into me, shedding simulated sobs. “Please tell me why you want to leave me behind! What’s the real reason!” It was pretty much all of those reasons together.


Stopping in my tracks I rolled my eyes, “It’s because I don’t like you.” I deadpanned again.


PNK-3 froze mid-hover, pulling away from me. “You don’t like me? Like, at all?” She asked, her voice quivering.


“Not a single bit, no.” I admitted. I spared her a sympathetic glance and blew a piece of my tattered mane out of my eyes. “I need to finish this--Alone.”


Like a deflated balloon, the jovial air left the machine, it hung in the air like a heavy, gloomy cloud. “Alright, I understand.” She said gloomily. “I’ll wait here in case your friends come by...”


“Yeah, prepare to wait a while for that,” I scoffed, trotting away from the pink irritation. I stole a glance over my shoulder to make sure she wasn’t following me. She was still there, floating over a puddle of sewage, completely silent. Good! I didn’t need her mucking this up for me.


It was finally time to put an end to this chapter of my unlife, once and for all. Alone. Without backup. Did I mention completely and utterly alone? “Leaving PNK-3 behind? That was a good call, she has a history of giving away positions.” Well, okay, not completely alone, with the constant badgering of Headcase, I was never truly alone. Unfortunately.


“Yes, Headcase, I left her behind. She’s annoying and I don’t trust her.” I informed him dryly, my interest in talking to him was at such a low, it may as well be subterranean.


“That spritebot’s existence does beg many questions, many I fear may never be answered...” He didn’t exactly sound like that bothered him too much. “If anything, she is merely a curiosity, much like you, but unlike her, you still have a valid use and purpose.”


“Yeah, got it, doc. Say, you don’t think you’d mind shutting up?” I didn’t care about being spoken of like that, but at least he had the cajones to speak like that to my face. Then it hit me, since he was a head in a jar, he was technically a gelding. I snorted back laughter at that, much to Headcase’s annoyance.


“I was actually going to ask you how you’re planning on approaching the Robronco Smelting Facility.” Headcase seemed genuinely curious. “I’d offer you advice on how you should approach, but you always do the opposite of what I say anyway.”


“See! You can learn,” I mocked. “I got an invitation; shouldn’t be too hard. They probably have a red carpet rolled out for me and everything.” I rolled a gauntlet at the air, popping the metal joints. The sickening mess clinging to my fingers was definitely not mud. Flanked on all sides by dilapidated, derelict industrial buildings and massive storage containers, I was surprised I hadn’t found a single soul, living, dead, or otherwise. My eyes darted around in the darkness, spying the torch barrels set up, still burning about the area. I took a left turn at an overturned cargo trawler and stopped just outside the gate posted as 221B, an old crooked sign was marked up with the motto of the Baker Barbarian Clans, obscuring the sign’s old words in smeared blood.


“Red carpet? Really, is that your plan? A frontal assault in your condition isn’t sound in the slightest! Combat at all in your condition isn’t sound in the slightest!” Yup, here it was, another lecture about my poor ‘Field Action Plans’ or as he was now calling them, Suicide Gambits. I found it important to correct him when he was wrong; clearly they were Suicide WANKS. You know, easy as a wank in the park? That’s how I remember the saying at least...


“The saying is ‘Easy as a walk in the park,’ “ Headcase unwisely corrected me. “And what you’re doing isn’t easy, you’re walking right into a trap. Again.” He looked weary on the video feed screen, his baggy eyes visibly sagging and puffy. Maybe he was just absorbing the fluid in his tank like some kinda sponge? “Look, perhaps you’re right this time, like you were with the invitation...But what if you’re not?”


“If I’m right about this, it brings us to; Steelgraft: 2 Headcase: 5. And since the points don’t matter, go buck apples!” Click! The sound of me hanging up on him was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. Then, it was my favorite sound ever to follow; absolute silence filled with an absence of Headcase’s voice. “Let me work, is that so damn hard?” I said to noone in particular. “Yeah, you really need to stop talking to yourself, Steelgraft. Then again, what if he’s right?” I didn’t want to know.


Steeling myself, I found myself at the threshold of the final step; the junk lot just before the big bad’s fortress of fattitude. The gnarled, unlatched gate was decorated as I’d come to expect of the Baker Barbarians, reinforced by bodies liberally bolted and tied down with razor wire. Even the robots did not rest unmolested, with bodies bolted to metal husks and machines swinging around on cable wire dangling from the large crane sitting off to the side of the lot, slapped there like an afterthought. A nearby sign reminded workers to wear hardhats and to lift with their knees; a bleached skull with a hardhat sat on a pike atop the sign. Ironic or sarcastic? Nah, that’d be giving them too much credit.


Piles of abandoned robots, a proverbial electronics graveyard engulfed me with pungent aromas. The dangling machines were likely used for target practice, given the bullet holes. Most curious, though, was the pile of bodies sitting right in the middle surrounded by thin layer of sparkling dust. Bodies weren’t an uncommon sight, but these bodies were Baker Barbarians, judging by their flimsy armor and unwashed, sugary stench. The intact bodies were scathed with deep burns that still lightly smoked. They were somewhat fresh kills, death clung to the air just barely, like the few final drops of flat Sparkle Cola in a warm bottle. A rattling breathing caught my attention, my EFS pinged its recent discovery; a small raider huddled under a pair of larger bodies. The green, beady eyed stallion looked awful, his body trembling.


“Shitfuck...S-sh...Shitfuck,” He muttered. As I approached he tensed, clenching his teeth as he looked up to me. “Ah, fuck, i-it’s you!” He gasped.


“Yeah, how’s the nose, buddy?” I asked sarcastically.


“B-bigger things tah worry bouts, yo!” He replied quietly. “Don’t make no sudden moves...”


I looked around, raising what remained of my eyebrow. There was no movement, EFS wasn’t picking up anything either. I tried to trigger SATS, but I only got the stallion before me. A cold wind briefly tore through the lot and scattered the dust, forcing the buck to shield his eyes. “No sudden moves? Or what, you’ll get dandruff on me?” I snorted.


“N-no man! You’ll wake the bots up!” He hissed nervously. “I don’t wanna get toasted!”


“Yeah, those robots are pretty...Dead.” I stated, taking a mental count of the corpses. There were at least twenty bodies and at least ten ponies worth of dust scattered about. But if those robots were inactive, then what killed all these raiders? Maybe Scruffy Mcdandruff here wasn’t pulling my tail.


“The robots, man! They came tah life n’ gunned us as we tried ah run!” He muttered, teeth clattering. He scratched one of his forelegs, losing a clump of hair. Mange, he had mange and probably fleas too, dirty bastard.


I took another cursory glance at the robots that lay about in cluttered heaps. No movement other than the rust buckets moaning as the soft wind funneled through hollows and gaps in their plating. “Okay,” I breathed out softly. “What were you running from?”


“You kiddin? How you don’t know?” He bit his lower lip hard, beady eyes darting around. Releasing a ragged, misty breath, he lowered his voice to a whisper. “That fukkin’ prick, Muffincake had me odaed tah be exahmacuted...” Oh, how tragic! Muffincake killing his own; perhaps I’d play a song on the world’s smallest violin? I just so happened to carry one around. “Well, ah uh, slipped ‘way while deh dealt with ah double cross. T’at enforcer o’ the Death King went n’ attacked. Kill’t errabody. Got out her, yah know? Thought we’s safe. Then...Dhey woke ups n’ blat blat!”


“Why am I not surprised?” That was a figurative question, but the scruffy stallion answered me anyway.


“I unno. Reallah shooda ah see-seen dis ah-comin’. Least ah made it outta that cray-cray. Stuck here now, sucks!” He looked to me, eyes misting with tears. I looked away and trotted over to one of the fresher bodies. The stallion watched as I took a few generous bites out of his former comrades. He didn’t raise no fuss, must be that motto of theirs. Weak to meat.


“Yeah, sounds like you’ve got a real problem on your hooves. Best of luck to you.” I said through a mouthful of pony meat. I gorged myself until I had an adequate increase to my integrity; pieces of my flesh began seating themselves against the bed of my bone and metal, it’d be easier to pin it down with a staple-gun.


“W-waits, yous gonna leave meh here?” Asked the stallion I was totally going to leave behind. “You cunt do daht!”


“It’s easy; watch!” I more than cheerfully said while taking a gentle trot away. He was a raider, and obviously, the robots were tuned to them as hostiles while I was on the guest list, or so I gathered. Helping him might make me a target and burn up precious time of which was waning few. As the distance between me and the sallow, mourning buck grew, I found each step to be burdened, like I was strolling in molasses. His sobs, faint on the wind, haunted me. Conflicted, I froze in my tracks just feet from the massive sliding door to the complex. “What’s the matter, Captain?” One of the many voices I argued with whispered. “What ails you? Cold hooves or is it that bleeding heart?” It was mocking me, which was a new notch in the sliding decay of my sanity. The raider took my pause as a sign I’d begun to reconsider my stance and began to beg in earnest.


“Please, ah dun wanna die like dis!” Bawled the raider. His cries made me ball up fistfuls of gravel, setting my teeth to grind. “Ahm beggin’ yah! Ah’d do anythin’! Anythin’ yah’d ask!”


“He’s lying! Lying! He’s a Baker Barbarian! You can’t trust him!” Chimed that little voice, full of malice and frothing anger. “Let him suffer! Mercy is for the weak.” Well, that was one-third of the peanut gallery, what did the other voices think? Help. Him. Please. No voice spoke to break the tie, leaving me to make the final decision. If I saved him and he lived on to harm others, it’d be no good. It was a roll of the dice, if he said he’d do anything, maybe he’d bargain his life for a promise to quit being a raider, to turn his life around? “Oh with bated breath do I wait for such a thing to happen. What do you think this is, some kind of fantasy world?” You. Never. Know.


“Puhleaze! Ah...Ah’ll give up Scorpio! Ah’ll give up mah speshul brown-eyes! Ah’ll...” The raider gagged, “Ah’ll go Vegan! Ah swears oan mah dreads, mahn!” He’d go vegan? That was a thought; ponies were typically vegetarian back in the day, my day, before all these whippersnappers came around with their cannibalism, bad hygiene, and sociopathy.


Well, if he promised, that was a start. I didn’t want his pleading cries haunting me, knowing I could have done something and just left him. About facing, I made my way back to him and grabbed a heavy, rusted boltgun off one of the fallen raiders, dusting it off and checking its clip. It was in shoddy shape, but there was no doubt it could prove useful. Beady eyes welled with tears watched me, his choked, held back cries muffled by his own hooves.


“Here,” I muttered, scooting the weapon within hooves’ reach. It must suck being an earth pony, and I could relate, not having use of my horn. “This should come in handy.”


The buck looked to the weapon and then up to me, wiping his snot-encrusted nose on his mangy foreleg. “Yah serius? Ah’d get ripped tah shreds if ah tried tah book it. That tang ain’t doin’ me any good!” So, beggars could be choosers. I rolled my eyes and snatched up the weapon, cocking its slide.


“Then come with me if you want to live,” I said, offering him my hand. He stared at it and then trailed his eyes up to my face, gulping down a mouth full of saliva. The moment his hoof entered mine, I tore him up from his hiding place and tossed him ahead of me. “Move!”


He wasn’t ready nor expecting that, his panicked nature leaving him to stand like a deer in a spotlight, trembling numbly with a thousand yard stare. To his credit, he hadn’t lied, the moment he was out in the open and detectable, the Robronco brand robots came to life, spitting sparks and cheerful tunes.


“Wub ah zubub daloo wub-wub--That was a lil number by Neon called Battery Acid Necrosis. It is now 12:30, folks. Afraid the Witchin’ hour’s commin’ to ah late close! Fear not, music plays around twenty-four tocks and ah’ll be here at 6 ‘o'clock tah get your day started right sunnysahde ups with a helping of mad bass and crass laughs. This has been DJ BOOOOMBAAAAHRK with dah Witchin’ hour, ahn remember, kiddiez, Nightmare Night’s just ‘round dah bend. Better have your Bucksnacks, sacks, and costumes ready, pones!” Boombark’s radio station must have some good range for it to get picked up with all this metal interference. He concluded that the Witching Hour was over, but from where I stood, it had just begun. The dead machines came to life, like the dead crawling up from shallow graves, moaning out static, broken cries and stuttering in sparks. Oh, and of course the techno music...


“I hope we can be friends,” Spoke a legless metal pony with a glass faceplate dangling from the crane’s magnetic plate. It fired a sizzling bolt of magical energy at the buck in front of me. I pushed myself over the numb and dumb raider and powered up SATS, targeting the robot with the boltgun twice. My body acted swiftly, acting on impulse to follow my SATS commands faster than I could think.


Sh-Tunk! One bolt sailed wide and the other struck the dead center, shorting out the robot and melting its internal components. The barrel of the boltgun glowed like a torch, sizzling with great heat. A wound on my side, fresh and blistering, crystallized as flesh peeled off in glassy chunks. One down and...I checked my EFS--The robot graveyard was a bloody smear of red dots!


“Fresh coffee, miss?” Groaned an orb shaped contraption with many limbs. At one point it must have been able to fly, but it was getting around just fine on its remaining arms, each ending in a deadly weapon like a buzz saw, flame thrower, or squeezer claw. Only fresh thing about this grabby freak was how intimate its buzzsaw was trying to get with my undercarriage.


I triggered SATS again and placed a bolt in it, causing it to hiss loudly, the wound spewing fuel that ignited into a jet of flames. The robot was propelled sideways into another machine and exploded, scattering shrapnel. Take that, jeeves! I take my robots like I take my coffee, molten and charred black!


“Move, damnit, move!” I commanded, pushing the buck ahead while I used myself as a shield. My coat was soon ablaze and the smell of burning canvas filled my nostrils. The air was filled with smoke and laser lights, which would make a killer show if the lights were deadly lasers trying to kill the dumb buck, compounded by the fact that I was the only thing between him and becoming a pile of incandescent dust.


The raider squealed and jumped when I pushed the boltgun’s burning barrel under his greasy braided tail and love-tapped him on his ovoid colt makers, making him take off faster, leaving a trail of dust clouds. Returning fire, I kept pace, prioritizing my targets, the ones launching a majority of the lasers. Most of the robots were nonambulatory, meaning very few were able to follow us far. Just had to avoid the crossfire--Which was easier said than done, not that I could speak through my rabid curses as I was struck a good half dozen times. Pain, pain, like stings from dreaded spider-bee. Shudder!


“Need we remind--Bzrt!--I swear! Use coasters or I’ll strangle you!” Wow, that one would certainly lighten up a stuffy Canterlot party! Maybe if I corralled them together I could populate a log flume ride with them? I’d call it “The Aristocrats”.


Habit caught me offguard when I felt required to shut the gate after leaving the lot. One would be wise to keep running in such a situation, gates be damned, but I was a stallion of short-sighted tradition. “Always close the gate!” A gravelly voice sounded when I thought such thing aloud, as if the thought was not my own or perhaps a memory. The gate slammed shut with a rusty dry-heave of squealing metal, the busted latch rattling off the equally ruined catch--I expected more shots to come between the gaps in the chainlink fence, for the machines to force me back to join the greasy buck I’d just saved behind the overturned trawler. As usual, what I expected was not what I got, everything went still as soon as the gate was closed. Every robot powered down, dangling where they were bound or collapsing into heaps, like toys cast about by a rough toddler.


A picture of serenity, rusted monuments of technology hiding an egregious surprise. They’d spring like a trap on any unsuspecting prey, burning them to ash in a fierce crossfire. Now I wondered, just what would make them react. A few stones tossed into the lot or at them produced nothing, it was only when I opened the gate and stepped hoof within the lot did they react again, powering up and raising from slumber. Then out, power off. Like a switch; In, out; on, off. I did it several times before I slammed the gate shut again. Nothing is ever easy. I’d need another way around now, the buck I’d saved would have to prove useful. Where was he now? Great, now I had to track him down and question him!


“AHHHH! Anotter un!” I heard the stallion scream. Figures of course he’d die anti-climactically only after I’d suffered to save him. My EFS was picking up no hostile targets and two green indicators behind the wrecked cargo carriage. Wait, two, as in more than one? At least they were both green. To me. There was no assurance the green dots would be affable to each other.


I’d give myself one guess as to the identity of the second dot. If you guessed ‘Aggravating Pink Spritebot’ feel free to pat yourself on the back, Steelgraft, because you were correct. “You’re so damn patronizing,” muttered that little voice in my head. The buck was being held at blaster-point by PNK-3, leaning towards less than affable diplomacy.


“You can’t pull the wool over my eyes, I don’t have any!” PNK-3 shrieked angrily.


“No, I ain’t lyin’, I ain’t wit dem Bakers n-e-more!” The mangy buck was holding an old crate lid over his head as a shield. Smoke rose up from his greasy tail and he was half hunched, sucking in air from his teeth as he crossed his rear legs in painful writhing. “Hey, you! Git dis crazy robot!”


Oh, if I didn’t need him right now, I might be tempted to just let PNK-3 turn him into confetti. Bossing me around? How ungrateful! Using my last nerve, I forced a strained half-faced smile to diffuse the situation. “He’s harmless.” I said, adding a grind of my teeth. “Didn’t I tell you to stay put?”


“Well, yeah, but since when did I ever say I had to LISTEN to you? We’re not friends.” The bauble retorted indignantly. I knew mares were mouthy, simulated mares were no exception. “I heard trouble, I’m supposed to keep you in one piece.”


“Fine job you’re doing,” I muttered, stuck in a perpetual rolling of my eyes. Undertaker would likely diagnose me with a severe case of vertigo next time I saw him.


“You don’t make it easy.” She stated flatly, her voice lacking any jubilant flair I had come to know. It was dull, flat, and the tinny twang to it became unignorable. The spritebot hovered silently and directly up to me, not dancing around or bobbing; just pure efficient movement. It was creepy on her. I took one step back to get some space, opening my mouth to say something unkind--I didn’t get that chance.


Every single time, every single day, in some conceivable way. It always happens, I get coated in something gross, without fail. There was no denying that it wasn’t mud and my mouth had been open. The magical radiation detector on my iSeeU ticked up from a low, slow click to a steady tock like a metronome while steam sizzled up from my now browned cloak. A pot hole. A big, stinking, foul fistula between the roadway and the sewage lines filled with--Shudder--excrement.


“What the buck, Pinkie?!” I shouted at her. I came out of the muck and shook out, scattering the mess everywhere--leaving PNK-3 mysteriously unscathed. Shit just didn’t stick to her. “What was that for?!” That greasy buck was laughing until he got splattered, then it was no longer funny to him.


“Your coat was on fire,” She said dourly. “Oh, and I don’t like you. Not even a little bit.”


I deserved that. Not gonna lie. Totally deserved that. Had I been too hard on her? Maybe! Maybe I had. Did it matter? No, not really. Was I going to apologize even if I didn’t believe it was necessary? “Okay, I get it. I’m sorry for being a jerk.” Yes, I was. “Now if you excuse me, I need to question stinky here.”


“Well, you did say sorry...” PNK-3 hummed to itself before making a snap verdict. “Alright, I’ll let you off with a warning.” She hovered away only to appear on my alternate side. “This time!” She clarified, grinding her metal husk against the bare bones of my exposed face. Ever hear bones grind against metal? Not exactly pleasant, and even if I could not feel it, the crunching made me convulse.


She gave me some room to interrogate the greasy pap smear of a buck, distance could be increased by another fifty meters and I would probably still hear her humming some irritating tune.


“Sorry about her,” I said to the trembling buck. He was still nursing his sore marbles.


“Whah ah care ‘bout tin-can? Yah burned mah bullocks, yah rotty geezer!” Oh, wasn’t this adorable? We’re having informative dialog. Idly, I wondered if he’d be as snippy if I was wearing his teeth on my knuckles...


“It’s not like you’d get a chance to use them; gelding. Now, I saved your mangy ass...” I leaned in to him, quickly regretting such a decision. He smelled worse than the quagmires of mushy stool bubbling around, pumping methane into the air. It had seeped into his fur, deeply seeded, so much so that he was a concentrated avatar of filth, mange, and ticks...No, those were just giant fleas. Rad fleas? Sweet Celestia’s hot backwinds, why did I dare get this close? Hiding my disgust, I imagined he was growing a tulip out of his mange-filled dreads. “I need to get inside. Because of you I can’t. Alternate routes. Now.”


When a skull-faced undead cyborg is in your personal zone, demanding something, you typically say yes while liberally pissing yourself. This buck was thankfully only complying with the former. “Ah, dere’s oneh one wai in, tuh way out!” He babbled, closing his eyes.


“Only one way? But you said two ways out.” I grabbed him by the chin and forced him to look at me, “Why are there two ways out? Where is the second entrance?”


“T-the shittah!” The buck sobbed, “Anyone kin get in, but most leave as shit, man!” He began to scratch himself, making flakes of fur and flesh peel off. “Mahn, them eats. Meat mules, mahn. Weak tah meat, tis the way of the...The...” He gulped hard as I stared right through him. I didn’t like what I was hearing, and the grinding of my jaw told him so.


“So that lot’s the only way in?” Buck a duck and wish me luck, I was screwed there. “There’s no other entrance? Be straight with me or I’ll toss you back into that lot and use you as a decoy!”


A decoy? Oh, so brutal, Captain. Just like you too!” Cooed a voice in the back of my mind. It sounded a bit like Cradle Robber, but I knew I turned off my radio and wasn’t accepting incoming transmissions. Slowly, I speculated, I was eroding my sanity. Now the toasters were after me.


“The other uns’re blocked off’n thah crib’s crawlin’ with beeper-booms.” He tried to push away from me, but he wasn’t nearly strong enough. His sinewy, weak muscles clung to his emaciated frame. Why would a Baker Barbarian be so...Flimsy and thin? He might be one of those weaklings the larger members forced into the front lines, I recall a barbarian referring to them as ‘The Leftovers’.


One last question. “Your prisoners, are they alright?” I asked. I wouldn’t fault them if they weren’t alright, Deadmare were brutal. I was more worried if they were fine, then they could be used against me or something equally w--”Why are you thinking like that?!” I thought. “They’d better be alright.”


It took him a moment to understand that question, his face the picture of dumb insecurity. “Prisoners?” He asked aloud. “Yah means dah meat mules?” He scoffed. “Why yah’d care bout them meat mules?”


He felt cold metal wrap around his throat and the trawler’s undercarriage against his back. “I’ll decide what I care about, meatbag!” I squeezed lightly, a disgusted snarl leaving my jaws. “Now are they alright or do I need to throw you back in the lion’s den?”


“Dey fine! Dey fine!” He wheezed, pounding at my gauntlet with struggling gasps. He fell back down into a heap, panting and rubbing his sore neck. “Yah crazeh...Cray-cray! So, yah gonna go save em? Ain’t no sense. Nopony dat ain’t Baker ever leave dat place ‘cept through a shittah!”


I left him to his own devices, tossing him the boltgun. He was going to need it to get out of here alive. “Word of advice, ditch the muffin boxes. Take a bath.”


“Don’t turn your back on him, he’ll shoot you!” A voice rasped in my mind. “Kill him now, he’s a liar! LIAR!” I tensed, an icon on my EFS went from green to red. The buck was fumbling with the boltgun, aiming at my flanks. “The weak become meat! Eat, eat him! He’s red, he’s deaaaad!”


In my current condition, I could take a few more bolts before I was dropped, and if I killed him then I could recover enough integrity to last a little while longer. Long enough to see Gangrene again, to protect what was mine. “Why’d you do that? He was harmless!” I recalled that time, the ambush at the toolshop. Gangrene had killed an injured buck to protect herself and her family. “Don’t make me do this...” I spoke, my voice heavy with contempt.


Thud. The weapon hit the floor and the intimidated buck fled. It happened so differently in my mind, though, I imagined killing him and stripping his throat out with my teeth. I would have, too, had he fired. One lucky shot and I would have died--This collar around my neck was a burden, if I couldn’t proactively defend myself, then I was double-dead walking.


Considering my options, I weighed them. I could take my chances, enter the lot and hope to make it to the other side. Maybe I could fasten a shield out of cargo box lids and make a daring dash across the realm of the mechanical unmaintained. Or, I could swallow my pride and ask PNK-3 for help. Robronco robots were something she knew a bit about, I gathered, since she was one. She could hack the machines or something-something science! Yeah, science, not my strongpoint. On a scale from 1 to 100, I’d say my science knowledge was around a paltry 20. During a scientific debate, likely I could claim to know some of the words the lab-coated ponies were using.


My approach was tactful as could be, coming up behind the spritebot and giving a nervous cough, “PNK-3, I could use some he--”


“Okie Dokie Loki!” She chimed, not even letting me finish. “I’ll gladly help you out!”


That was remarkably easy. Dumbstruck, I stared at her as if she’d sprouted a horn and wings. “That easy? Really? After I was sai--”


“That you were sorry? Yup! Easy as that! So, tell Pinkie what you need and lets make this baddie eat his just deserts! I baked him a pie...”


~~~

This city, a den of foul darkness, a vicious fucking pit of scoundrels, heathens, and wannabe villains, tied together by a dangerous lord of darkness. He knew me to be a threat, so he struck my powers from me with noxious pink and left me for dead. He took my gang, my friends, there ain’t nothin’ mo’ tragic than a bloody crate full o’ holes and dead foals. Gulag, fat porker, always teased him about his weight. He ate enough for all ah us combined; well, he took enough bullets to die for at least four. That’s why we few survived.


It’s just me, Rebel Riot, toughest little Viper of the notorious do-gooder bandits; Shag-Rag, the charming, a tough dust mop that knew how to take a few licks and give em too; Taffy the blaze, cute but not innocent, she had an unnatural love for fire; and of course, our fearless leader and my mentor, Gangrene the Mender. Don’t let that title granted her fool you, she’ll break your heart, your wallet, and leave you some advice to mend your soiled pride. Of all the Vipers, it is just us now.


I’d like to say that I’m not afraid, that I can tough through this. That the tears in my eyes were from black ash on harsh, cold winds. Not the case, I’m terrified. I’m guilty. Blood of my friends covers me, inside and out. My home is gone, burned to the ground, and now we walk a lonely road to salvation. A dark path to the messiah of forlorn boredom. The arcade.


Not all can make the journey, and not all can stand the pressure. Tempers boiled like a sealed pot, spraying ambivalent aggressions. One of the tin heads, the smaller one called Silver Tongue, she was a weak link about to snap. Her movements were terse and responses just as rushed, tripping out insults and barking like a feral, starving dog. She blamed her commander, the large tank on legs, Standtall, that they lost their gang for foolish reasons. That we tribals weren’t worth the sacrifice of twisted cans.


Gangrene was short and quick, snapping at her, even with a soft voice of a whisper, her gaze split steel and silenced the booming voice of the Crusader. “Died for no reason?” She spat, “How dare you! Those Rangers died honorably for us, all of us!”


Surprise, a feeling I expected to instill dread, but this time, it was just confusion. I’d never heard Gangrene refer to tin cans as Rangers. She hated them, even more than I did, and that was saying something. They took away my father and left me to fend for myself; they’d done the same to Gangrene, so she said. I never pried, she respected my privacy to never ask about my shitty parents...Well, my mother at least. Stupid bitch tried to sell me for drugs once. Dad ran off with me to keep me safe, train me up to be a trader. Tin cans shot him over a busted radio they wanted to confiscate. A radio! A fucking useless, broken radio!


I fixed that radio, I still have it too, in my saddle bag. Sure, it’s heavy, hard memories are heavy, and that’s pain I never want to forget. Baggage, it’s all just baggage. I wondered what baggage Gangrene must be carrying, what her story was. Her words were windows into her personal life before, carrying weight.


“I don’t know how a Crusader with common sense got the position, but he’s a good stallion. He stayed. He fought. I bet he feels terrible. So shut you’re fuckin’ trap, keep walking, or do me a huge favor and get lost.” Gangrene said without pause, no hesitation, like she was using her tongue to squeeze a trigger and eliminate a threat. Bang.


Click; a loaded gun, a shotgun, a promise of words to bullets from the rim of a barrel. We all stopped, watching the stare down between the steel wrapped shit-talker and the fearless Viper leader. Even while unarmed, Gangrene had a fearsome presence, one that spoke a warning louder than any gun I’d heard fired. Her horn flickered, wrenching a twisted piece of rebar from a nearby pile of rubble off the side of the road.


“Shut up! I know your game, harlot! Do you think your lil sob story about the Star Paladin was all that convincing? That was you; you got my friends killed!” Silver Tongue was teetering on the teething edge of a sharpened blade, driving a wedge between common sense and reason. We were exposed, out in the cold, covered in cold blood. She was insulated in armor, so I supposed she didn’t notice nor care.


The tank on legs dropped a heavy hoof, “We need to move!” He bellowed loudly, his modulated voice adding authority that wasn’t truly there. It made me wanna spray paint him solid pink and stick butterfly-fru-fru magnets to his ass. I promised myself I’d do so later while he slept.


“We will, back to the base after I take out this tribal bitch!” Silver Tongue raved, oblivious to the impending carnage that Gangrene would deliver. The yellow, pierced Viper was already pondering ways to pop open that can and deliver her venom. Standtall didn’t want to go off alone, big things were just bigger meals, canned. Common sense, so rare to the Steel Rangers it might as well be a mutation or superpower. What kinda super power was common sense anyway? Lame.


“Hey, hey, hey!” Bitch-Fit, now lame and crippled with only a single wing, stepped into the center of the stare-down. “We ain’t got time for your periods, what are you, fucking synchronised?” As she spoke reason to them, my eyes wandered her flanks, tongue pensively in cheek. I liked mares, I was at that age, but what I always stared at on her was the scar of a cloud and lightning bolt where her cutie marks once were. I’d always wanted to ask her about them. She’d caught me staring once...I shuddered, remembering the taste of her hooves; get caught staring and she’d step on your face. Likely, if she had to, she’d walk all over Silver Tongue like a floor mat.


Another voice joined the fray with smoking nostrils over a pierced ring. “Whit ur we daein', standin' loch a cabre oan th' plains? Mmmmmake nae folly, quick ur nane at aw!” The large minotaur clad in a skirt was the picture of absurdity. What would possess a large, heroic figure to crossdress? The spotted goat was over his broad shoulders, one eye closing before the other. Gangrene always said it isn’t nice to taunt the mentally handicapped, but I couldn’t stifle a sick little snicker. “Somethin' funay, boyo?” He spoke to me darkly, leering down with fiery eyes.


“Ah, n-no,” I spoke firmly, unshaken by his gruff voice. I mimicked him, sounding just as gruff. My voice cracked like thunder! “I just can’t understand a flippin’ word comin’ out of you! Weren’t you speakin’ normal-talk earlier?”


“Weel me speech therapist took a blaw tae th' heed, gezz a break! Wee runt...” The minotaur, Angus was his name, gestured to the dumb-looking splotched goat. That minotaur had made foul by speaking to me in that manner. I’d let him off with a warning glare, but next time, he’d feel the full brunt of Rebel Riot’s power! You know, after my legs stopped quaking, it was cold! The barrel-chested crossdresser leaned over the hilt of his huge hammer, the head easily twice my size, and snorted at Silver Tongue. “Best beh goiun er best tah be dyin’, misseh.” Now that I could understand, and by the looks of everypony else, they got it too.


Ousted with an assured promise of rebuke, Silver Tongue snarled, “Fine, I’m heading back to base, without you!” She shot her commander with a tail-flick of disgust and plodded down an alleyway. “I’ll tell em’ you died. You’d like that, right? Consider this a favor.” And like that, the weak link left us, which should have made us stronger, but instead, only reduced the number of things standing between us and the darkness by one.


Everyone gathered themselves up after that short episode, a brief break in walking had done some good, a forced march would leave a trail of tears. One that could be followed back to heart-break. We left a puddle, perhaps a lake. Maybe it was a river. If I made a dam, could I keep the pain away? Forget this night? I looked down at myself in a reflective pool, salt touching my lips, stinging my face with cold.


“Thank you, Gangrene...” spoke the large steel titan of a stallion, his head bowed in reverence to the Viper Queen. Even he recognized her greatness as we lil’ bandits. It was easy to see, plain as day.


“Don’t mention it,” Gangrene spoke coldly, taking a half trot before pausing. “Ever.” She added, tongue clicking against the roof of her mouth like the pop of gunfire. She approached me and Shag-Rag, giving a dour glance to the three-legged stallion that was dolefully attending to Taffy’s well-being. Creepy blighter, that guy, but any adult that’d care for a child in tears like Taffy earned points with me. Gangrene saw no issue with Fritter taking care of Taff, so I had no spit in the eye ‘bout it none neither. “You okay, squirt?” She asked me, her stern expression was a stone wall, one that made my nausea turn to butterflies.


“It’s Rebel Riot!” I spoke firmly, as maturely as I could. My voice cracked like lightning. Gangrene quirked a brow.


“Well, you made it to puberty, cracker-jack.” She teased, pressing her nose to my cheek, then to Shag-Rag in kind. “Do you need me to carry you?”


“No!” I barked. I was short on breath, tired, weakened by that noxious pink Hades himself sent to wound me, but I was not without my pride! No, I had to be strong, for Gangrene, for everyone. I had to be the hero now, with everyone else gone. I had to carry my own weight now. I had to make room for the hurt, just like Gangrene had taught me, and carry on for everypony else.


Strangers to family; Fritter, Glazed, Indigo, Key & Lock, Angus, that goat, and everyone else. We all were relying on each other to last the night. I would carry my weight and my baggage, like everypony else, Mare-Do-Well would never let herself be carried! Then again, Mare-Do-Well didn’t have a mentor like Gangrene.


Powerless against her cheap unicorn magic, Gangrene plucked me up and saddled me over her back. She tensed briefly, gritting her teeth. The bandages around her leg were soiled with blood, even now the bleeding hadn’t stopped. I felt sick, a weight of lead, slowing her down. I was so tired, my hooves were bleeding, and I shivered in the cold.


“It’s okay,” Gangrene said, unaware of my guilt. She would hate me if she knew. I was guilty; I’d killed Bruise with my own two hooves! I survived when the others didn’t, and now I was just slowing her down. It wasn’t okay!


No amount of pleading or begging could convince her to let me down. If I couldn’t jump off myself, I had no business trottin’ as she said. Walking numbly, feeling that exhaustion and pain drained every bit of my concentration, it made me not think about it, about my guilt or the friends we’d lost. Our home, my work table, even that old crazy tin foil wearing alpaca! All gone, all lost. All I did was run away, it was all I could do, think about it now. Who had I been kidding? I wept in the bitter cold. I begged to be left behind. I wanted to just stop thinking...I just...I...


“Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to lay your sleepy head--” Gangrene started to sing that damn song. That damned lullaby. My one true weakness besides bullets and boredom. Eyes heavy as lead curtains, the fell over my stage and pushed the spotlights away. In my dreams, whatever grieved me could not follow. They were there, my friends, and everyone was still alive. And then a river swept them all away...

A short while later...

“--Damnit, I don’t have time to deal with another injured pony, we need to go back. Now.” Sleep was losing its hold on me, the voices of Gangrene piercing into my dreams along with the sounds of music and the beeping of machines. Groaning, I turned over from my side, trying to wipe the sleep from my eyes.


“Now look at what you did, you woke Rebel,” Keena clicked hushedly.


“No, you did, by making me raise my voice! That kid’s going to have to wait until we get back. I’ve got to get my idiot back!” Gangrene replied.


Sands of sleep left the corners of my eyes against the back of my hooves and I sat up from under the blanket draped over me. Shag-Rag and Taffy laid sprawled next to me on the padded bench. We were in a safe, holy place; Highscore Arcade. It was after-hours, so many of the machines were off, but it seemed like Record Wrecker flipped on some of the machines for light. All the ones with the best music, Mortal Wombat, Galaga, and Zebra Safari 3: Wiped or Striped. Cap wasters, gory, explosive, glorious cap-wasters. Sound faded in and out, my tired mind blended the beeping and words together. The world spun and I shook my head hard.


“You’re lucky I even allowed that Steel Ranger in here, but how you ever convinced me to let that in here is beyond me...” Record Wrecker kept an eye on an empty corner of the arcade, forcing me to squint my eyes and stare hard. Whatever she was talking about was lost on my unfocused eyes.


“It’s on our side, don’t worry.” Keena chirped. “You let Steelgraft in here, remember?”


“Everyone else wants to kill it, Keena. You should take it outside...” Record Wrecker warned. “As for Steelgraft, he’s different. He’s impolite company, but he’s company...That thing’s not.”


“Oh, we’ll take it outside when we leave. I could use a practice target for this bad bitch...” Gangrene sounded vicious and pleased. Another slap to my snout pushed the drowsiness away enough to see why. It was a top-rack prize, worth a million tickets. I’d always had my eye on it, everypony did. It was ‘The Compensator’ Anti-Material Rifle, designed specifically to take out armored vehicles. It was said the last time it was fired it took out two of the Remnant Army’s hovertanks. In one shot. They said that Cerberus, guardian of Tartarus breathed the fire that was used to hammer the steel of the barrel; all those legends, they were true as far as I knew. They had to oil it with the blood of raiders so it never forgot the thrill of the kill. Gulag had told me all this, so it’s truth had no ring to it. Poor Gulag though...I sorta missed that fat jerk, even if he always ate my Bucksnacks and lied about it.


“Yooo'd waste sic' a big bullit oan sic' a wee fash yerse?”


Vision swimming, mind reeling; never felt so sick before. It was hard to focus, my eyes were lead curtains on my show. I faded in and out at least twice, catching small bits of conversation as the survivors moved around the arcade. Broad and hard to miss, the minotaur dwarfed the arcade cabinets nearby, easily twice as wide. He brushed off his hammer, offering a ‘radge’ solution to the invisible party in the corner. Nightmares trotted gayly through my mind, imagining it to be the worst of threats possible. Everyone was so calm. Clanking of parts and the rawr of a diesel engine; it invaded my dreams and spooked me to full wakefulness.


“No!” I cried out, bolting upright and tangling myself in the blanket. I pulled Shag-Rag down with me, Taff was snatched up by Frisky. I gave a dull groan, pulse pounding in my temples. Gangrene dropped her cannon and rushed to me, pulling me free of the blankets. “Gangrene! They’re everywhere! Everywhere!” Couldn’t they hear that engine? The hissing? The roar?


“Buck-it-all, do I gotta do every-dang thing? I might as well shove the barrel up your collective asses and use you as silencers for as useful you’re being!” Gangrene was short, uncharacteristically short. Shorter than usual, that is. “Put them to bed, Frisky, now! I’d use a sleep spell but my noggin’s knackered!” The three legged stallion wasn’t much a team player, as foul tempered as he was ugly, but he cared enough for Taff, his mad ramblings under whisper to her as he begrudgingly went about arranging the blankets in his teeth.


“ ‘M-fine...” I mumbled, rubbing more sleep sand from my weary eyes. I made a show of slicking up my dual-tone mohawk as Gangrene always did and tried to walk it off to succeed only in meeting my old foe, the carpet. “If you’re goin’ out, you need back...Up.” I stated, honestly, going without her sidekick when she promised? She promised! If she left alone she might not come back!


“You can’t even get up, let alone back-up, squirt...” She groaned with a shake of her head, sweat mane plastered to her face. She was breaking her promise, leaving me behind again, and she knew it. I grumbled dourly and folded my forelegs under myself and looked away, ignoring everything she said after. The lump in my throat kept on growing, I knew what was coming. She was going to go off and I’d have to sit and make a brave face and keep everypony else in high spirits...Except there was hardly anypony else left anymore!


“--Can’t believe we left my cousin behind...” Glazed spoke from a bench across from us. Other survivors milled about nearby, maintaining their gear and treating their wounds. Fritter scoffed humorlessly and reloaded his saddle-mounted submachine guns.


“All yah left wuz a corpse; least yah gots tah say yer peace. Ah ain’t even know if Zone’s there er not...” Fritter cast his words as carelessly as one would play a bad hand of caravan with low stakes. The stallion hobbled over to our bench and checked on Taffy dutifully.


“If that little filly dies, it will be blood upon your hooves; what if she does not last for when you return? What if we do not return?” Keena puffed out her feathers, beak clicking in agitation. Clack, clack, clack; amber eyes narrowed at Gangrene, intense as a laser.


“Kinda busy here!” Gangrene shouted. She snatched my chin with a hoof and tilted my head up. “You look at me! Pay attention, right now!” She ordered. I clenched my eyes and tried to pull away, tasting something sour in my mouth. “Please...” She pleaded. Her voice it was soft, motherly, like when I got sick or when she welcomed me home or...When she hugged me. Our eyes met and no longer was she the fearless leader of the Vipers, she was my mom. Our mom.


“Ache! Giv’m ah mmmmmo!” Angus chuffed, ushering the stranglers away to different aisles. Frisky moved Shag-Rag and Taffy, Glazed helped, and everyone picked up their things to grant Gangrene and I a bit of privacy. Only Keena stayed, holding with her a wounded filly, a really pretty one with a lavender pelt and gnarled black mane.


Gangrene took a moment to compose herself and glanced over to Keena and then back to me. “Sweetie, I know how much you want to help me, I know...But this isn’t an adventure. This time I might not come back. I really mean it.” She knew me well, her hoof was already upon my lips, stilling my words. “I don’t want to leave you. I want to watch you grow up; I wanted to watch you all grow up. Big, strong, and better. I wanted you to beat this city. All of us. That ain’t how it played; I almost didn’t make it to save you. He brought me to you. I can’t...” She swallowed hard at the steel tacks in her throat, warm tears spilling down her grease smeared cheeks. “None of us woulda made it if it wasn’t for him. Now he’s out there, alone, finishing it. I can’t let him die...Not like that. So that’s why I’m leaving, sweetie. Because sometimes you have to make tough decisions, ones you don’t want to make, but it’s the right thing to do.”


This was real, it was happening. This night, the whole thing wasn’t some comic book story or some plot point in something greater. It was no nightmare, it was what it was. And she was leaving too. “No, please don’t go! Someone else could go! You don’t have to!” I clutched to her, willing to say anything to make her stay, I promised to do all the chores and do as I was told. I’d never argue with her ever again as long as she wouldn’t go.


“Hey, hey...Keena’s got a one passenger limit. This rut stick I’m packin’s pushing it.” She waggled the massive sniper gun in the air, giving a waggle of her eyebrows. It failed to make me laugh, she always did suck at jokes that were actually jokes. She blew a snort at her mane and shook her head, “Critics, allah yah...Listen, you, Shag, Taffy...You’re gonna to be fine. Greenvale owes us, they’ll do right. If not, Keena will take ya in if she makes it and I don’t...” Her honeyed words were so sour to me, sour and salty. My face was soaked in tears but I felt too tired to bawl even though I deeply wanted to. Into her shoulder I pressed, hugging her with all the strength that remained in me. “There is one thing you need to do for me’ one thing I can’t trust to anypone else, got it? Could yah do that for me?”


It wouldn’t make her stay, but she was asking...For once she was asking. It sounded important. Numbly, I wiped my snout and nodded.


“This filly Keena brought, she’s in bad shape. I ain’t got the time to make her comfy. Could yah stay awake a lil while longer and tend her?” Gangrene cast a glance in the direction of the others. “I know what I taught cha but I ain’t trustin’ what these foo’ think they know.”


I got a good gander at my future patient, she was ‘bouts my age with a cutie mark of a tombstone and music note. Judging by her symptoms I cracked a guess at hypothermia and a severe wound infection. One was easy, I’d rubbed down Curbstomp’s stanky ass more than once before after he freezed himself dumber in the big freeze last year. Infections? We didn’t have any pills. “I...I’ll do what I can.” I spoke, never before had I been so uncertain. Tall order for such a small stallion.


“And one more thing, tell Shag-Rag and Taffy I love em’ once they come to. Love yah too, by the by...” She said, pressing a kiss to my brow. “And remember, if yah can’t say sometin’ nice-”


“Say something clever and devastating.” I finished, smiling weakly. It must still be freezing, I couldn’t stop my legs from quaking and the dirt made my eyes sore to tears. Yeah, it was just something in my eye, I ain’t no cry geldy!


“That’s my boy.” She gave me a solid, deep noogie, which I hated, but this could be my last one, so I tolerated it.


Keena and Gangrene got ready to leave, everyone else found a comfortable spot to rest, and I went about caring for the filly with what supplies I could scrounge up from around the arcade. I’d always been good at scavenging, so coming up with supplies wasn’t too hard. The arcade was well-lived and trade came through frequently. In my mind, I played it out; Steelgraft about to be defeated by overwhelming odds and Gangrene saving him and vanquishing the foes. She would return home and we’d pick up the pieces and find a new home. That’s what I hoped for, that’s what I dreamed of. Is it still called a daydream when it happens at night? The rumbling engine from my nightmare came back louder. Maybe I shouldn’t be day-dreaming...


“Something is coming,” that tank of a pony murmured through his helmet. His legs creaked as he stood up. “EFS reads hostile. Big...”


“Don’t worry,” Record Wrecker replied to the aging canned Crusader as she handed me some gauze from the reward case behind the counter. “The turrets will deal with it. Keena! Gangrene! Wait before you go out! Big Helga might be hunting. Let the turrets chase her off before you go.”


“We ain’t got time for this shit!” Gangrene growled, staring through the glass on the doors into the darkness. “That ain’t look like Helga!” The Viper Queen pivoted and jumped away from the doors, screaming out fast naughty words. The doorway exploded, the turrets had no time to return fire. I wanted to rush to Gangrene’s side but she yelled for everyone to stay away. She raised The Compensator and loaded a shell, aiming it for the doorway. We were ready to face this, whatever it was. Personally, I was really hoping the turrets had just malfunctioned and exploded.


Clank. Clank. Clank. The metal sound was softened by the sound of flesh, but nothing could soften the sound of the massive diesel engine. An awful smell snaked into the arcade, like a hundred rotting corpses stuffed with soiled baby diapers. From the darkness and smoke came a rumbling beast on stilted, wheeled legs, a flesh covered chassis and a gatling laser mounted to its undercarriage. It didn’t matter how ugly it looked, Gangrene was ready to drop it with one shot from her rut stick; but she hesitated, and I couldn’t see what she saw up there, but her rifle barrel dipped down.


“Curbstomp?” Gangrene asked, her voice filled with horror.


That split second of hesitation was all it took; the machine opened fire upon the arcade.

BOOM!


~~~

Wow, you finally arrived at the den of the evil wizard. After what, 13 sessions? It has taken FOREVER for you to get this far. On the first major arc. This is just like one of those japaneighs cartoons, taking forever to get a single thing done! You know what, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars! You don’t level, so there! Hah, enjoy being level 9!

Also, I have to say, I enjoy watching what the others are doing compared to watching the main protagonist. Gosh, what a loser--His super power’s akin to getting kicked in the face for eternity and surviving it. At least I’m having fun...

What? I’m sadistic? How dare you call me sadistic! I’m the GM, I control the world! Do not argue with my wisdom or--What? Where did you get that photo? I swear, it was a phase! It’s a lie, it’s a natural part of growing up, it was peer pressure! Fine, you can have some exp! Just...Give me that photo...

Character Progress Review
Not like much has changed. No loot, no exp. Gear degradation.

O’ Captain, My Captain BY WALT WHITMAN--Used without permission.