• Published 21st Feb 2012
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Fallout Equestria: Tales of a Courier Reloaded - a friendly hobo



This is the story of Clover and his quest for revenge.

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Chapter 14: Mind The Gap.

Chapter 14: Mind the gap.

"Chapter quotes are getting so damn annoying. Y’know what, Matt? No more quotes. They’re tedious.” - aFriendlyHobo, 2014

“You’re just lazy.” - Matkingos, 2014

Where was I? What happened? All I could remember was being dragged somewhere, then everything turning black. But that still raised the question of where was I?

I looked at the forest around me as I ran down a long dirt path. I saw lush emerald-green leaves glinting in the warm shining sunlight ahead, as a deep blue sky spanned the horizon. The sound of birds echoed in the distance, making me smile.

Around me, though, the trees were turning yellow and orange, the leaves had started to fall from the branches, floating softly to the ground swirling and whooshing behind me as I ran past. My hooves kicked up large piles of the leaves, scattering them into the air. I felt like a child again!

Why was I running? I hadn’t really noticed it before, but my legs were running as fast as they could! Was I running towards the summer? The light? The green paradise ahead kept turning to autumn ahead of me, constantly out of reach. If I wasn’t running towards something, was I running away from something?

I looked over my shoulder, not sure what to expect. Behind me, the trees were bare, the leaves blasting away a few seconds after I passed them crumpled and shriveled on the ground, the trees withering and dying. The sky was covered in thick clouds, darkening as I ran away. The cold winter was following me, but that wasn’t the only thing.

Behind me, I saw what I was running from. Double Down, eyes red with rage, his face distorted into a massive, twisted, hungry grin, was following me, running through the dead leaves and freezing them under hoof.

Beside him was the crazy mare who’d buried me. Her green, tangled mane flared out behind her, her yellow eyes tiny pinpricks. Her wicked smile was filled with sharp teeth, but her tongue hung out the side of her mouth, waving in the wind as she sprinted like a dog. Her spiked metal armour and her light blue coat were coated in blood.

“No!” I yelled, turning my face forward again. Tears streaked down my cheeks, remembering the night Shamrock died. How I was tied up and couldn’t do anything to stop it. How brave my brother was, even in the face of death. How he’d given me one last smile before dying.

Ahead, I spotted a clearing on the left side of the path. In the middle was my house back on The Plains, home. Smoke started to rise from the area around it as fire spread across it, engulfing my home. The roof quickly caught fire, collapsing inwards as I passed. The entire building became an inferno, the windows exploding outwards as flames poured from them. I couldn’t stop.

The dirt path seemed to go on forever. It continued in a straight line all the way to the sunny horizon. To my right was another open field with just one barren tree. Tied to it was an orange and green stallion, his right eye burnt to a crisp. He looked up at me as I passed and smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile, but a sad smile, the same he’d given me before he died. To my horror, Shamrock’s body started to decompose before my very eyes. It took only seconds before he became just a skeleton tied to a tree. A ring of fire spread around the field in a circle, closing inwards.

What the hell was going on? I couldn’t explain it, it just couldn’t be real. I took another look over my shoulder to see the sinister duo still hot on my tail, slowly closing the gap. The dark clouds behind me started to part into a wicked smile with razor sharp teeth. Red eyes punctured the clouds, turning the sky into a hellish face.

“What are you running from, Clover?” a voice whispered over the trees. I tried to ignore it, instead focusing on getting away.

Another field, another memory. This time of a massive yellow pony with a thick black beard. He was wearing the patchwork armour of a Separatist and a blue cap on his head. The stallion was a giant, at least twenty times bigger than I remembered. He stood alone in the field, watching me with a maniacal grin, holding his revolver up. Pain lanced through my leg, coming from the puckered skin on my thigh where the stallion had shot me. His beard and mane started to burn, but he didn’t flinch. The forest behind me started to burn in small patches, sending long tendrils of smoke into the sky.

The smoke started to weave and wave in the wind, taking on a new form. It was draconic as two yellow eyes peered out of them, reminding me of the Dust Devils that almost killed me on my way to Iron City. They waved in the wind, watching me as more came to life as the fire spread.

It was insanity. Why was I running through an endless forest, infested by my nightmares? What was next? The tunnels with the ghouls? The hospital in the Red Zone?

“Running, running, running…” the sky said with its sick grin. “But where? Salvation? Hope?”

“Fuck you!” I screamed upward, tears falling from my face and onto the cold, dry earth. My nightmares were coming to life around me, tormenting me, following me. I felt like I was losing my mind.

“Oh, I know where you’re running to,” the voice said, followed by a cackle. “Right… here!”

Suddenly, the dirt road fell away like a double door had opened, plunging me down a deep trench. The trench walls were made of stainless steel with very small windows. Occasionally there’d be an exposed wire or coil. Perhaps even a light or two.

I screamed for my life as my hooves flailed around me. Double Down and the crazy mare stopped at the side of the doors and laughed as I plunged out of view. It felt like I was falling forever. The walls whisked by me as voices started to fill my head. First one, then two, then it slowly started to increase. Five, seven, ten, fifteen… before long I had a whole room of people talking in my head. I couldn’t make out a single sentence. The words sounded scientific though. ‘Testing,’ ‘Success,’ ‘Trials,’ all sorts of sciencey words.

“Down we go, down, down, down into the depths,” Trailblaze said, his voice clear above the others. “I wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes?”

The bottom of the trench was shrouded in darkness. I couldn’t see it for the life of me, I just kept tumbling and tumbling, spiraling into the void, screaming at the top of my lungs. I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t think anyone would understand it.

The bottom of the trench came to view, too fast for comfort. Painted on the steel floor was a massive “S #04” in red paint. I clenched my eyes shut, bracing for the inevitable splat of my body against the hard floor.

I didn’t hear a sickening splat, but instead a massive shatter of glass. My eyes shot open, and I saw large fragments of glass spreading away from the light behind me. I drifted into a dark void, unable to feel anything around me. My hooves swished through the nothingness, trying to gain purchase.

Eventually, an armchair floated towards me with the black stallion himself sitting comfortably. “Well that was fun, wasn’t it?”

“Are you fucking serious?” I yelled at him and flailed my hooves, trying to strike him. I just ended up slowly tumbling end over end.

Trailblaze chuckled, crossing his legs. “Well I thought it was.”

“Why would you do that?” I asked with a sigh, realising that I couldn’t do anything. He slowly came back into view as I tumbled.

Suddenly, a lounge poofed into existence under me. “I did it because it was necessary.” He slowly put his hooves together under his chin. “Reliving your trauma. Some say it would break a pony. Cause them to go… insane…” He couldn’t help but deliver a small laugh. “But I know you. I need to break you to make you stronger.”

“You son of a bitch…” I muttered, narrowing my eyes at the bastard. “I don’t want to change. I like me.” If I could, I’d have killed him. Right there.

“You’d kill me, hmmm?” he asked, eyebrows raised. Oh right, he could hear my thoughts. Bastard. “Well then.”

The void seemed to pop and we stood just twenty hooves from each other. The dirt under my hooves was warm. Where were we? Why did everything keep changing? I saw that we were in a large, circular pit with stands and bleachers all around the top, countless ponies cheering and laughing up above, watching us. I was wearing a heavy set of armour and a large sword stuck out of the ground in front of me. Trailblaze wore nothing but a white cloth, wrapped around him like a toga, his mane and hooves giving off black wisps. He smiled and bowed at me. “What are you waiting for?” he asked.

“Clover, Clover, Clover!” the crowd chanted. A grin started to crawl across my face. I liked it. I wasn’t the underdog anymore. I didn’t care if it was real or not, I wanted it.

I pulled the sword from the dirt and ran at Trailblaze. I let out a war cry around the sword and brought it down on his smug face.

The world popped again, right before the sword landed on his nose. We were standing in an alley way. I had a gun, he didn’t. “Lets try that again. Kill me.” I looked at the gun and blinked. It was a sword before. No matter. I pulled the trigger.

Another pop. We stood in the middle of a desert. Nothing around for miles. I looked down and saw that I had a shotgun to Trailblaze’s face. “You suck at this, you know that, right?” I stared angrily at him. If he didn’t keep changing the scene, I’d have killed him already. “Come on. Shoot me. I want you to shoot me. Shoot me, dammit!”

I pulled the trigger again, but ended up right where we started. In the void on couches.

“Stop doing this to me!” I yelled at him, digging my hooves into the lounger. “Stop giving me hope and taking it from me!”

Trailblaze chuckled and sat forward. “I’ll admit, that was more for me than anything.” He let out a satisfied sigh and sat back again. “Why do I keep doing this? Because it makes you tougher. You being a pussy is going to get you killed, then what will I have left to do? Well I’ll tell you.”

His chair zipped closer to me, almost within my reach. “I won’t have any barriers left. I’ll own your body. I’ll get to do whatever I want.” He laughed and leaned forward. “I’m an agent of Discord. My trade is chaos. Anarchy. Lunacy. The wasteland will be forever changed.”

“I won’t let that happen. Not in a million years!” I growled at him, my mane bristling a little. “You are everything I hate. A murderer. A lunatic. A torturer.”

“Good. Let the hate flow through you,” the dark stallion said with a wide grin. “Fuel the fires of your rage. It’ll make you tougher. More able to stop me.”

“Why are you helping me?” I asked. “Why not just let me die and take over?”

“Because that’s not part of the plan,” Trailblaze replied. “There’s something much bigger than just you and me going on here, Clover. There’s a plan for us, and I’m going to make sure we see it through.” He sat back and crossed his legs. “When it’s complete, you will be free to live your life the way you want. I won’t be around any more.”

“You’re lying,” I snarled. “You’re always lying!” I just couldn’t believe for one second that Trailblaze was working for Discord. Was he worshipping him or something? I just couldn’t let him influence me to work with him, if he’s got something to do with the demi-god of chaos! What would that turn me into?!

“I haven’t lied to you before.” He said. Damn, he was right. “And this is closer to the truth than anything.”

“What is this plan?” I asked, barely believing that I was humouring him. “You’ll really leave me alone afterwards?”

Trailblaze shrugs. “I have no idea. Best way to stay on track is to survive, right?” he asked with a laugh. “It’ll be fun! And when its done, I’ll be on my merry way! Won’t that be swell!”

“All I have to do is survive?”

“Mhm.”

“Fine,” I grunted, still on the lounger. “Whatever. If it gets you out of my head, I’ll do anything.”

“Good.” Trailblaze’s eyes grew a darker shade of red as his grin intensified. “Now stop being a coward. No more tears. Get angry. Get tough. Take drugs. Punch a bear.”

I growled at Trailblaze, not wanting to take his advice, but if it got rid of him, I’d do it. I was stronger than him. I controlled my body, not him. I wouldn’t let him wreak havoc on the world and turn it into his own shrine to Discord. “I want you to leave me alone. I want to live a peaceful life. I survive, and I get what I want. Deal?”

“Great. Atta boy. Now get out there, and survive.” He blinked in realisation, then chuckled. “Oh, one more thing.”

“What?” I hissed, narrowing my eyes. My heart sank, I knew there was a catch. There had to be a catch. You can’t have a hope for salvation without a catch. Fucking chaos...

“You getting stabbed? By that monster, I mean.” He smiled, putting his hooves together, like he was scheming. “That should have killed you. Food for thought.” He winked one last time and disappeared.

I stared into the blackness of the void. “Now what?” I asked nopony in particular. “Any time now, please…” a few seconds passed and I heard a loud clunk. It sounded like an elevator, then I started moving downwards, hearing a gentle hum. Definitely an elevator.

Another loud thunk and the moving stopped. There was an intense grinding, and the lounger started to freefall. I clung to the sides, my heart racing. I yelled and clamped my eyes shut as the wind started to pull at my limbs. Light started to penetrate the void around me.

One last thump and it stopped.

--- --- ---

The feeling of waking up from unconsciousness started to get annoying after the third or fourth time. I swear, most of my brain cells were dead because of the amount of times I passed out. Did it work like that? I didn’t know, I wasn’t a doctor. I sure as hell needed one more often than I wanted to admit.

Slowly, my senses started to return to me. I heard muffled voices and strange noises, and my eyelids began to lighten. I couldn’t make anything out through my blurred vision. The room was a tad too dark to focus in. The next thing I felt was a burning sensation coming from my shoulder, I clamped my eyes shut and forced out a low groan of pain. It felt weird, like something was crawling on and around it, but I couldn’t move to figure out what.

“Oh hush, you big baby,” a strange voice said from beside me. It didn’t sound right, like it was two or three ponies talking at the same time. “We’ll get you fixed up in just a moment. Now quit squirming!”

“Wha…” I began, my throat feeling like sandpaper. “Where…”

Pain lanced through my body from my shoulder as something dug into it. “Shuddup! You’re distracting me!” Pain was generally a bad thing, so I shut up and let whoever was there do whatever they were doing.

I endured through some sort of ritual or examination or something, mostly involving pokes, pricks, and some gentle rubbing from some sort of cold instrument. Soon enough though, it was over, but not until a final stabbing pain shot through my shoulder.

The pain was starting to dissipate but it didn’t feel right. The flesh tingled and felt like it was stretching and as my eyesight started to clear, looked down at whatever it was making it hurt. I saw a gaping hole in my shoulder closing up, sparkling around the edges like someone had doused it with magic healing potion.

“And that’s the ball-game. Surgery finished,” the voice said. I turned my head to see who it was, but my neck couldn’t reach around that far. I felt like I was strapped down to the table.

“So… can… can I talk?” I asked, my throat protesting and my voice sounding not too far from a ghoul’s. Had I turned into a ghoul?! My body didn’t seem flakey, so I didn’t think I was...

The voice just huffed in annoyance. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

Oh great. One of those types. “What happened?” I asked, looking up at the ceiling and seeing cracked cement with a light fixture hanging down. It was remarkably bright, contrasting against the rest of the room.

“You got shanked. Anyone told you not to play with an Executioner?” the voice asked, moving away. I heard the sound of castor wheels against a ceramic floor. “As for where you are, Orion Metro Station medical bay.”

“What?” I asked, none of it made a lick of sense. “What’s an Ex-” Then it hit me, what happened before I woke up. I remembered the fight against the mutants. Tallie being a brave little griffin and killing one of those big fuckers. Me running to her and getting stabbed by that monster, that must’ve been an Executioner. Then I remembered being dragged through the snow and bodies, then nothing. That’s where it cut off.

I winced as I remembered every last detail. How we fought, how we bled, how I was ready to die, then the mysterious stranger who saved my life. None of that was important though. “Tallie… is… is she okay?” I asked.

The voice moved a little closer. “Tallie… Tallie… that’s the griffin kid, right? Yeah, she’s fine. Shaken up, but nothing two hundred year old hot cocoa can’t fix.”

Ew.

“Good…” I sighed. “And… everyone else?”

“Everypony’s doing fine. The big one and your medic are faring the best. Hell, Lollipop helped me patch you up. The big one, Featherweight, he brought your almost-carcass back here. Nice guy.” the voice sped off again to the other side of the room along with the sound of castor wheels. I heard the tapping of a computer’s keyboard. “Now. Lets focus on you, shall we?”

“Who are you?” I asked, ignoring her request to talk about me. “What are you?”

There was an audible sigh. “Look, you wanna know why you’re tied down? Your friends say you like to overreact.”

“No way…” I muttered. Me? Overreact? Psh. Never.

“Fine then. Prove it.” The voice moved into the light where I could see it, and I could safely say I definitely wasn’t expecting it.

The voice belonged to a mutant unicorn mare. Her pupils were narrow slits and she had an odd hand-like appendage sprouting from the base of her neck and hanging over her shoulder, along with two back tentacles. She didn’t seem as menacing as the ones I’d fought earlier.

“I’m Doctor Stitches. A mutant.”

“Told you,” a more familiar voice said from across the room. Lollipop trotted into the room past end of my bed. At least, I thought it was a bed, but it didn’t really feel like it. It was more like a gorney if anything. Lollipop certainly was a sight for sore eyes, even if she was an annoyingly bright shade of neon green in the room’s light. “How’re you doin’, Sweetie?”

“Mutant…” I muttered, trying to catch my breath. She hadn’t killed me yet, and she’d even helped me, apparently. Still a mutant though. Mutants were dangerous. Then again, I’d only met the violent type before then.

“Clover, c’mon,” Lollipop said in a very bored tone, raising an eyebrow at me. “Chill out. Seriously, how are you?”

“I… um…” I stammered, not entirely sure of myself. “I don’t know. How am I?” I tried to turn my head, but moving proved to be painful and limiting because of the restraints. Overreacting, yeah, right…

“Well…” the mutant… sorry, Stitches, began. “There’s no visible mutations on the outside yet.” I didn’t like ‘yet’. “And I’m hardly going to go cutting you open to peek inside. I could, but nah.” She giggled sweetly, which was creepy following that sentence. “No fun that way.”

Lollipop trotted around me, looking me over. She winced once or twice, seeing my accumulating scars. “So how will we know if he’s all jacked up on the inside?” she asked.

“I’m glad you asked!” Stitches almost squealed, followed by the sound of chair castors trundling over the floor. “I took several samples from his body, and I’m gonna test them!”

“Samples?” I asked. “I don’t like the sound of that…”

“Yep!” the mutant said, I could tell she was grinning. “Lets see… I took blood, mane, skin, and sperm samples to test for certain stra-”

“Sperm samples?!” I yelped. “Wha-, ho-... why?!”

“Science!” She shouted as she trundled into view, and stroked my mane with her weird mutant arm thing. “I have spells for a lot of things, Clover,” she said, softly. It made my skin wriggle. “I’ve been doing the same thing over and over again for the past two hundred years.” She then trundled away once more. “I took them to test you for DNA mutations, and hopefully find out what you won in the mutant lotto! Whee!”

“This isn’t happening…” I moaned, clamping my eyes shut. “You… you violated me with magic…”

“Oh please, it was only a little bit of pumping…” Stitches replied with a stifled laugh.

Lollipop giggled, then thankfully changed the subject. “So, strains, doc?”

The mutant nodded from the corner of my vision. “Yup. The most common one being the Prowlers. Nasty bastards with a worse temperament. Stupid as a barrel of apples, though.” Stitches flicked through several pieces of paper before returning to us with pictures. She showed us the picture of a Prowler. “Most ponies that get infected turn into these. Toothy, tentacley, violent psychopaths with a taste for blood.”

“Yeah, we saw our fair share of those pricks,” Lollipop said with a smirk, taking the photo in her magic and looking it over a few times. “Might be mean, but they go down easy.”

“Easier than a Boulder at least.” She flipped through her photos and pulled out one that looked like another mutant we’d seen. It stood up on two hind legs and had extraordinary rocky skin. It still had the back tentacles and a slobber-mouth full of teeth though. “Similar to the Prowlers, but they mostly infect Diamond Dogs, according to my research. Their skin is hard as rock, hence the name, and they are a bitch and a half to kill, apparently.”

“What about those flying things?” I asked, my eyes clamped closed. My shoulder ached with each passing thought of the day before. Although fleeting, the memories were vivid, as if I was watching them on a TV.

“Those guys have a lot of different names.” Stitches said, flicking through her photos once more. “Some call them Demons, some call them Bitches. Most call them Holy-Shit-It’s-One-Of-Those-Things. Personally, I prefer to call them Predators.” How fitting. “From what I can tell, they mutate exclusively from Griffins.” She showed us the photo of a Predator. Its massive, patchy wings spread wide, and its toothy beak ready to chomp at the lens.

“Damn chickens…” Lollipop muttered. “Good thing Featherweight had flak shells. Those guys were annoying to target.”

“That’s what the Ghosts say,” Stitches said, flipping through the pictures once more. I was going to ask about the ghosts but she cut me off. “Now, on to the nastier brutes,” she muttered. “Next on the list is the Executioners. Fun bunch, them.” She poked my new shoulder scar, making me wince in pain. “Those are the bad fellas that shanked you, Binkie.”

“Binkie?” I asked, my lip quivering. My shoulder felt like it was going to fall off at any moment! Whatever that was Stitches injected me with wasn’t working fast enough!

“Yup. Seemed fitting.” What? How was Binkie fitting in any way? What’s a Binkie? “Anyway, these are the result of a special strain. Note the elongated heads, the mandibles, and the spike-like forelegs. These guys act as… I guess sergeants, or something, ordering the pack around. When one of these is around, the pack is sure to follow.” She showed us a picture, and the pain in my shoulder spiked. The memories of being pinned and sliced into still fresh in my mind.

“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, hmm?” Trailblaze muttered in the back of my mind. “Maybe not physically, but mentally. Well, if you got a metal hoof, then maybe stronger. How fun!”

I tried to ignore the insane voice in my head. I’d had enough of him for one day.

“Not the overall leaders though,” Stitches continued. “That is left to the Reapers.”

“Sounds ominous,” Lollipop said in a hushed voice, listening intently. I guess being a medical mare, she was into that sort of stuff. I wondered if her hobbies had anything to do with her fascination. Perhaps she was a nerd for enjoying all this mutants and monsters stuff?

“Sounds like a scorpion on steroids, more like,” the mutant huffed. “These guys have four legs, four tentacles, and one extra one right in the middle of their backs, tipped with a sharp spike for impaling its prey.” She shuddered and showed us the picture. “The Ghosts came back with stories of seeing one cut clean into another mutant like that. Gory stuff.” She put the photos away and smiled. “Anyway, those guys are the big leaders, but they don’t care about the other mutants. As soon as it bolts, the others get pretty confused.”

“We know,” I groaned. “I saved a…. an ally from one before. Shot its spike tentacle clean off.”

“Not enough to neutralise it, I’m afraid.” Stitches sighed, shuffling through the photos. “It’ll still be out there, being all angry.” Fun. “Now, there is a really strange one…” she said, sounded very distant. “But I just refuse to believe it.”

“Why’s that?” Lollipop asked, sitting on the end of my bed-thing.

“Well…” The mutant unicorn pulled out one last photo and showed it to us. It was taken in a blizzard, but I could barely make out a large dark outline in the photo. Whatever it was, it was massive. “The Ghosts claim that this is real. They called it a Behemoth. Another group says they saw one too, but not as big.” She pulled the photo back and put it away. “If they are real, which I still don’t believe they are, then its possible that they come in different sizes. I estimate about two to three stories tall.” she rubbed her chin while staring at the photo. “We have a mutant here who’s big, but not that big. I still think its an isolated mutation.”

“Holy shit…” Lollipop whispered. “Yeah, I’m not buying it. That’s impossible.” So’s an insane pony living in one’s head. “The amount of biomass they’d have to go through a day, being that big, over two hundred years? Nah.”

“Pretty much,” Stitches said, sounding chipper again. “I’m pretty sure the Ghosts were just hallucinating or something. Could’ve been some creative rubble.” She shuffled her photo-deck again and looked through it, but didn’t pull any out. “And finally, we’ve got the Roaches. One of the weirder ones. I don’t have any photos, but they’re like heads on spider legs.” I remembered seeing one of those. Good golly goodness they were the worst. “No clue how they work, but they do.”

“I remember them…” I muttered. “I don’t like them. Freaky little fuckers.”

“So yeah, that’s the hostile buggers. Sometimes people will get lucky and not get a mutation that takes over the brain. Like me!” She lifted her hooves to the ceiling and spun on her chair. “Tada! Anyway, its not likely, and I’ve never seen a repeating pattern, but some ponies come out mutated, but still normal in the head. Everyone here is like that.”

“That reminds me…” I muttered. “Where are we? And can you get these restraints off please?”

“Oh, right.” the mutant doctor said with a giggle, and started to untie me. “Sorry. I guess I get that from my love of bondage.”

“Please don’t…” I almost whimpered, pulling my arms and legs in as soon as they were free. I instantly regretted it as my shoulder shook with pain.

“Relax, those days are long gone. Almost nobody down here gets any.” She smiled, then sighed. “Most of us don’t even have genitals anymore.”

“Let’s not go there.” It took a lot of effort to sit up, and my head was aching as I peered around the room, seeing lab equipment, medical kejiggers, and a few computers. The room it was all in though, was weird. One of the walls looked like it was cobbled together and the tiles were coloured oddly. Mostly in stripes.

“Like I said before, you’re in Orion Station’s medical bay,” Stitches said, looking very proud of herself. “And my humble abode.”

“Neat…” I nickered, it definitely was an impressive feat to still have it up and running after so long. It also explained the room’s decor. “I guess we made it to the station then…”

“Yup,” Lollipop said, putting a foreleg around my neck and grinning. “We made it, kid. Hell of a journey, but we’re almost out of it.”

“Thank Celestia…” I sighed. “Are the others alright?” I asked, dangling my hind legs over the side of the bed-thing. I felt like pounded shit, twice fried, then fed into a meat grinder. I probably looked like it too.

“Yeah, a little shaken up, but we’re good.” Lollipop gave me her best smile. “Some of them are helping out around the station too. Fuse and Tallie are the most shaken up, so they're taking this time to rest.” Good to know the others were keeping active. “You came out the worst. We’re all a bit lucky in that respect.”

“Lucky?” I asked with a huff. Lucky would have been the Executioner missing me and stabbing the dirt instead. Maybe he was aiming for my face… that was lucky.

“Yes, lucky.” my friend replied. “We’re lucky that we didn’t all die. We only lost three ponies, and we could have lost you too.” She then prodded my four-leaf-clover cutie mark. “And you’re lucky to be alive and not a Prowler or a pile of goop or something.”

“Hey, Frankie’s not that bad,” Stitches interjected with a pout. “I knew him before he was goop. He’s a stand up pony.”

“I can’t have heard that right…” I muttered, shaking my head. “When will this madness end?”

“When you decide to call it quits, obviously.” Lollipop said, hopping off the bed. “But that won’t happen until after you get revenge for your brother, right?”

“Right.” I replied as I stepped down from the bed, just to stumble straight into Lollipop. My shoulder still hurt like hell. “Not giving up.”

“Atta boy.” Lollipop said, guiding me to my clothes. “Now get some clothes on, we should go tell the others you’re alright.”

“Good!” Stitches cheered, her castors trundling over to one of her many computers. “I need to get to work finding out what Clover’s gained, lost, or twiddled up.” Twiddled up? I didn’t even want to know…

It took me a few pained minutes to get at least my beaten armour on, and to get it looking decent again. I still looked like a jelly-donut after it’d been chewed up. Thankfully, Lollipop had cleaned the blood from the many holes in my armour, and was trying her best to fix my mane. Soon, we were ready to go.

“Seeya!” Stitches shouted, not looking up from her monitor. She’d gotten a bunch of her machines running, doing the tests she needed to do. “I’ll send a walker, runner, or maybe even a sludger after you when I get the results. Failing that, I’ll find you some other way.”

“Fun…” I said, using Lollipop as a crutch to help me walk to the door. “See you soon…”

--- --- ---

The hallway outside the doctor’s office was decorated with faded, multicoloured tiles in varying designs. Most were very hard to make out because of their age, but I could make out swirls and small ponies.

There was a hefty musk in the air, like something you’d smell in an old warehouse. Something about it felt warm and welcoming, but the sterile whites and the flickering, humming lights gave off a cold vibe. I wondered how two hundred year old hallways managed to stay so clean. Maybe the inhabitants were a clean folk? Hopefully. I didn’t want to encounter more drooling savages anytime soon.

“Come on,” Lollipop said, walking down the hallway. “Lets go find the others. Oh, and this place isn’t as you’d expect it to be. It's… well…” She abruptly stopped, placing a hoof on her chin in thought, almost causing me to lose my balance. “Kind of hard to explain. You’ll just need to see. Let’s see if you’re okay with stairs.”

We passed a couple of office doors while walking. They said in bright red, bold lettering: Station manager, maintenance foreman, and security. Why would a metro station, which are generally small from what I’d heard, need these ponies?

“Stairs?” I muttered, looking down a fairly short set of them. “Uh… maybe… hey, what’s the deal with having a foreman, manager, and such?”

Lollipop chuckled, stopping at the top of the stairs. “Like I said. Nothing you’d expect. Now, let me help you.” She slipped to my side and offered to support me.

“Okay… I suppose… I’m not going to like this, am I?” I asked, leaning against her. We started to walk down the stairs, with much difficulty. Pain lanced from my shoulder with every step, making me wince and whimper all the way down.

Lollipop checked my shoulder when we got to the bottom, and smiled. “The station? That depends. If you’re still the same old Clover, then maybe. The stairs though, you handled like a… er… champ.”

“Gee, thanks. So much confidence,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I’ll try to not shit myself.”

“That works,” Lollipop smirked. “Alright, just through there.” The unicorn medic pointed a lime green hoof at a small door at the end of the hallway. We limped forward, our hooves clicking against the faded tiles.

Lollipop smiled, turning towards me. “Welcome to Orion Station, Cloves.” She pushed the door open and helped me through.

Through the door, we found ourselves in a massive warehouse-looking room. We stood on a catwalk overlooking five long, raised platforms, each with a train on top. The trains seemed to have been gutted and heavily modified.

“Woah…” I exclaimed. “This is incredible!” I stumbled over to the railing and looked over for a better view. Down below, between each raised platform, was a cramped looking bazaar. Stalls were set up along the maintenance platforms and strange looking creatures hustled and bustled between them. There must have been fifty or sixty people down there.

Along the walls were old carriages, chopped and cut into small cabins. I assumed they were being used as homes of sort. Two larger towers stood against a large, open door. Two pony-looking creatures stood at the top with rifles. Guards, I assumed.

“Pretty sweet, huh?” Lollipop said, “And this is just the market area. They’ve got a whole platform for farming, and three for residences. This place is huge!”

Lollipop chuckled and began walking down the catwalk. “Sure is. This station, I’ve been told, is a major maintenance hub and station,” she explained, stopping next to the stairs down the market. “It had almost a hundred people working for it. Ya’know, mechanics, security, stuff like that.”

“Well…” I began, a little perplexed by the scale of the station. “Far out.” I made my way over to the stairs and gradually made my way down. One step at a time. Painful as expected.

“C’mon. The gang’s with the Mayor of this little town.” Lollipop said, waving for me to follow. “Now, don’t freak o-”

“Hey!” a gnarled voice yelled mere centimeters from my split ear. “Watch it!”

I recoiled in shock, finding that I was just a second away from walking straight into what used to be, I think, a donkey. This particular mutant only had three legs; both of his hind legs were intact, but he only had one right in the center of his torso. How he stayed balanced was beyond me. He also sported two tusks and three tentacles on his back.

“S-Sorry!” I squeaked, baffled by the sheer level of his mutation. I shivered where I stood, literally quaking in my booties.

“Yeah, whatever…” the grumpy donkey grumbled as he walked by us, heading off towards the other end of the massive chamber.

Lollipop chuckled to herself and gave me a pat on the back. “We all reacted kinda like that when we first got here,” she explained, gently pushing me along. I took the hint and let her lead me along. I balked at all the mutants around me of various different species.

I saw a griffin with three wings, a pegasus with a horn on his chin, a minotaur with one eye, and an overly large pony, two heads taller than average, walking down the aisles, haggling for stuff the vendors were selling. The stalls varied from dull-coloured foods to home-made toys. Some even sold weapons, but the most popular booths had relatively new looking gear. The vendors were always tough looking ponies, armoured and scarred. They must have been scavengers.

I watched in wonder, leaning against my mohawked companion, and I was so distracted that I hadn’t realised all the heads turning to stare at me. I only really noticed when a small griffin, pulling a little hoof-made wooden train behind her, scurried out in front of me and stopped. Her little eyes grew three sizes as she spotted us. “Oh my gosh!” she squealed in an odd voice. It was like there were two of her speaking at once. Her mutation was fairly obvious though, she had no wings, only two little nubs where they used to be. One even had a tiny wool hat on it. Best make the best out of a bad situation, I guess. Other than the wings, her eyes glowed with a faint pink, and there were odd blue rings going down her arms. “Normies!”

“Normies?” I asked, looking at Lollipop. She was going to explain it, but the penny dropped. Too slow, pinkie! “Oh, normals. Right.” I looked down at the little cub and smiled. “Uh… yeah, I guess we are…”

“That’s, like, so awesome!” the griffin squealed. “I’m Jinx! Who’re you?” She sat down in front of me, beaming brightly.

“I’m Clover,” I said, trying to give her my best smile. She was just too darn cute. “And this is my friend Lollipop. We’re not from here.”

“Well duh!” Jinx said, followed by a giggle. “You don’t have any extra bits, or missing bits. You’re kinda like the model earth pony.”

“I seriously doubt that,” I said with a smirk. “My brother though, he was the best example of an earth pony.” I ping of dread shot through me at the mention of Shamrock, but I was determined to spread the word of him in a positive way. It was the least I could do.

“Oh, did he stay at home?” The tiny mutant asked, cocking her head to the side. “He sounds cool. Wish I could meet him too!”

“Uh…” I looked at Lollipop, then back to the griffin. I didn’t have the heart to tell her about Shamrock. “Yeah. He’s at home, hanging out with mum and dad.” It was kinda the truth, at least. “But that’s a long way away. Hey! Can you take us to the mayor’s office?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

“Yeah!” the griffin chirped, springing up and grabbing the string attached to her train. “That’s where I live!” She turned and began walking ahead. I looked down at the train and smiled. It reminded me of the trains I played with in my youth. I missed those things.

“So you live with the mayor?” Lollipop asked, trotting after the griffin. “That must be nice.”

“Yup!” Jinx called over her shoulder. “She’s my mom!” She navigated her way forward, skirting around buyers and guards. They all smiled at her as she passed, some waving with a friendly ‘hello’. These mutants were just like normal people, just fallen on hard times. It felt so surreal.

“Ain’t that somethin’?” I asked. “That sure is a really nice train you have there.” I nodded at the tiny toy. “I really like trains.”

“Thanks!” Jinx giggled, turning around and picking up the train. “Mister Spook made it for me! He’s really cool.” Something about that name just seemed… spooky. “He’s good at making wooden things.” She put the train down and gave it a tug. “C’mon, my house isn’t far!” With that she scurried on ahead.

“Spook.” I whispered, looking at Lollipop. “Ring any bells?”

Lollipop shrugged and shook her head. “Haven’t met him.” She then smirked and kept walking. “Not like I’ve met everyone down here. There has to be at least one hundred and fifty people down here. At least!”

“What?!” I stopped in my tracks. “One hundred and fifty? That can’t be possible.”

Lollipop rolled her eyes and looked back at me. “There’s three levels to this place. Maintenance, station, and security. This country was at war, you know.” I hobbled as fast as I could to catch up before she continued. “This town is connected to the next station too, making one big town. At least, that’s what the mayor said.”

“I don’t understand this place,” I admitted as we continued to follow the griffin. “How it can survive, how has it sustained, all of it?”

“I’m not sure I can answer that,” Lollipop replied with a friendly smile. “I’m guessing its through a ton of careful planning or something.”

We soon turned a corner into another corridor. The sounds of the hustle and bustle of the market slowly petered out as we walked down the hallway. The only thing ahead of us was a big double-door with a guard on each side.

One of them kneeled down in front of the griffin and picked her up. “Hey, Jinxy!” he said, smiling. “Here to see momma?”

The griffin shook her head, clutching her train close. “Nah, Mister Clover and Miss Lollipop said they wanted to see her. I just brought ‘em.”

“There’s a good girl,” the guard said, putting her down. “So you’re the one who got the short end of the stick up there, eh?” he asked, looking right at me.

“If you think this is bad,” I said with a smirk. “You should see the other guy.”

The guard snorted and nodded at the door. “Alright. In you go.”

I nodded and looked down at Jinx. “I’ll see you around. Thank you very much for showing us the way.”

“No problem!” the child chirped, beaming up at me. “I’m gonna go look for Spark Plug. Spook made him a wooden dog!”

“No way!” I gasped. “That’s awesome. Tell him I said hi!”

“Okay!” And with that, she was off, scurrying down the hallway and out into the market. Such innocence in a place where I expected none. I was actually starting to like it.

--- --- ---

“Clover!” a familiar voice called out from across the large room. Before I could find the source, I spotted it trotting over to me. Ace stopped just before me and gave me a big hug. My shoulder protested, but I tried to ignore it. Ace’s hugs were just too good. “I thought you’d be… different.” she said after releasing me, a sense of relief in her voice.

“Yeah... well, I haven’t gotten the test results back,” I said, “But I feel alright. In pain, but y’know, aren’t we all these days?”

She gave me a playful thump on my good shoulder. “Still, good to see you’re alive.” She turned and walked into the room, beckoning me to follow.

The room was quite large, with a raised platform at the far wall and the ripped remains of curtains hanging up above it. The room looked like it’d been repurposed into a meeting room, complete with a large table. There were four plaques with names carved into them. ‘Grid Lock’, ‘Sparky’, ‘Geraldine’, and ‘Roric’. There were two large doors on either end of the stage.

“Lets go meet the mayor, hmm?” Ace asked, walking over to the one on the far left. “Tallie and Fuse are resting in the Mayor’s chambers.”

We walked into a smaller corridor with a room on either side. Ace walked over to one and knocked, while Lollipop waited behind me. A few seconds later, a mutated griffin head poked out and smiled. “Hello Ace. How can I help you?” She spotted me and raised an eyebrow. “Ah, you must be Clover. Back from the brink. How are you feeling?”

“Like I got stabbed,” I replied. “But other than that, fairly alright. You must be the mayor?”

“Yes, that’s right,” the griffin said as she opened the door fully and walked out. She had very similar mutations to Jinx, but the rings on her arms were bright green, and she sported large bat-wings. “My name is Geraldine, pleased to meet you.” She held out her hand, which I promptly took and shook. She had a strong grip, which I’d been taught to admire.

“Nice to meet you, Mayor Geraldine,” I said with the best smile I could muster. “I’m very impressed with your station, and your daughter. She showed us the way here.”

“Ah, my little Jinx. My pride and joy,” the griffin sighed with a large smile, one that boasted her pride. “Quite helpful. I think you’re the first normal ponies she’s ever met.”

I nodded and chuckled. “She was enthusiastic, I’ll give her that.” Then I cleared my throat and looked at my friends. “So, uh… where do we go from here?”

Geraldine nodded and pointed at the large room behind us. “Your friends have been waiting for you to arrive before telling me what you’re doing in Mustang. They said it was your idea. Quite foolish, I might add.”

“Gee, thanks,” I muttered. Wait, did I say that out loud? Whoopsie! “I mean, I see… Well, it all started at the Stable-”

The older griffin raised a talon’d hand. “Pardon me, Clover. It would be better to wait for the Council before you tell us the tale.”

“Council?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. There was even a council! Imagine that!

“Yes,” Geraldine answered, walking towards the large room. “Did you really think I could run such a large town without help? I’m not super-griffin.”

“Makes sense…” I whispered to myself before following her. Ace ducked into Geraldine’s room for a few moments before emerging with Tallie and Fuse, both looking quite tired, especially Fuse. I doubted she’d gotten any sleep, poor thing. I remembered being in that position, but she doesn’t have a little, evil voice in her head to get her through it.

Who said I’m evil?

We followed the griffin into what I thought might have been an auditorium, there was a ruined stage, with rows of tattered moldy chairs pointed in its general direction.

The griffin said something to one of the guards, and off he trotted. She gestured at a few comfy chairs around the table and smiled. “Please, make yourself at home. I’d offer you tea, but unfortunately we’ve run out until next harvest.”

“That’s alright,” Lollipop said, sitting down in front of Geraldine. “We’re not here long enough to take advantage of any hospitality.”

“Very well,” the griffin smiled and steepled her talons after sitting down. “Now we wait.”

We didn’t have to wait long until the other members arrived and took their places at the corresponding seats. First, there was a short earth pony with a blue coat and red mane, and sporting a very bushy moustache and a hard-hat. He had two goat-like horns sprouting from either side of his head, and several griffin-like arms sprouting from his back. He took up the seat associated with Grid Lock.

“This is Grid Lock, lead mechanic and former foreman of this facility.” Geraldine explained. The stallion didn’t say a word, just smiled and tipped his hat at us with one of his many arms.

Next was a short and scruffy looking diamond dog. He had a set of massive sabre-teeth, large claws, and glowing eyes. He seemed to have it fairly light, all things considered. His coat was a dusty brown, and his eyes glowed blue. He sat down at the ‘Sparky’ seat.

He wore a set of grey and white armour with a gasmask hanging around his neck. He seemed like he was ready to go out above ground, and from some of the patches on his armour, he had done for at least a few years.

“Sparky, our lead Ghost.”

The diamond dog sat down with a heavy side and nodded at us. “Welcome to our little metropolis, kids.” His voice was rough and deep. “Hope you’re enjoying your stay.”

“Its ‘aight,” Tallie mumbled, rubbing her eyes. “Soft beds.”

Last, but definitely not least, was a massive brute of a Minotaur. He wore faded yellow fatigues with brown plated armour, some parts of it camouflaged. Slung over his shoulder was a great, big machine gun with several ammo boxes tied to his belt. He had two extra arms, sprouting from just under his normal ones. Nothing much else though.

Featherweight, the Iron Defenders’ heavy-gunner, walked in behind him, taking a seat. He gave me a wide smile before paying attention. Of course he’d get chummy with the guy with the big gun.

“And Roric, our head of security.”

He sat down in the most reinforced of the chairs. “Alright, folks, what’ve we got here?” he asked, smiling brightly. Although he was a massive mountain of meat, he seemed really quite friendly. “Its not every day we have normie-guests.”

“Indeed,” Geraldine said, turning her attention to me. “This is Clover. I’ve been told he’s the leader of this little outfit.”

“Hello,” I squeaked with a little wave.

“So.” Roric started, leaning back. “Why did you pop-up in our little slice of heaven?”

“Well, we’re on a mission,” I said, leaning forward. “Specifically, to Mustang Research Facility, about a kilometer or two from here.” I explained.

The council members started murmuring to one another, looking slightly shocked. “Go on.” Sparky said, sitting back. “What is your mission?”

“It all started back when we were asked to go into a Stable. There, we met a massive beast that called himself The Patriarch and he-”

“The Patriarch?!” Sparky spluttered, sitting right back up again. “He’s real?”

It was our turn to look confused. “You know him?” Ace finally asked.

“Well, no,” the diamond dog explained. “But some of us Ghosts… well, when we’re above, in the snow, we sometimes hear whispering, someone talking to us. Calls us ‘his children’, and that he’s The Patriarch.” He looked at the other council members. “That’s the one who some of my guys are worshipping.” He said. “They think he’s some sort of god.”

“Well, he’s real,” I said. “And he needs us to destroy what he calls his ‘tether’ to set him free. I figure, if we do that, maybe he can pump some life into the deserts outside of Mustang.”

“So the deserts are real too?” Geraldine asked. “I had my suspicions. Most of the ponies down here are convinced that the world had frozen over when it ended. That just begs for more questions…” she steepled her fingers again. “So you’re here to destroy something in MRF for a supposed deity… interesting.”

Featherweight nodded at the griffin and smiled. “And that’s why we’re here. We were going to take the tunnels west towards the bridge, then walk right into MRF.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Sparky interjected. “The tunnels will get you there, sure, but the bridge was destroyed fifty years ago, and even then you wouldn’t be able to get into MRF that easily. Some of the Ghosts have mentioned seeing some weird shit on that side of the river; no way you’re going to just walk in.” He snorted and sat back again. “This is Mustang we’re talking about.”

“Then we’re at a predicament.” Roric said, all four arms folded. “There’s no way a team of seven outsiders are getting all the way there in one piece, and I’m not sure why we should or if we can help you.” He frowned and sighed. “What is there to benefit us?”

Seven? But there’s only six of us… “The Patriarch said something about freeing his children,” I said, thinking. “What could he have meant by that? Getting you out of here? Maybe taking control of the hostile mutants? If he can just barely reach your ‘Ghosts’ maybe he can reach them.”

“That’s an interesting point…” Geraldine mused. “It would be nice to get out of this station, at least once in a while. It seems unlikely though.”

“What if,” Ace said. “We can find a way to melt the ice.” That got a look of confusion from most, and a look of amusement from some. “Think about it. Mustang is covered in ice, while the rest of the wastes is blanketed by desert. The ice is not natural, so maybe whatever’s causing it can be stopped.”

“Interesting…” Grid finally piped up, his old voice muffled by his moustache. I couldn’t even see his lips move. “Perhaps a zebra magical weapon or something?” he asked, looking at Roric.

The Minotaur rubbed his chin for a few moments. “Well… I dunno. I was down here for most of the fight, protecting civilians. I didn’t see anything, but it could be possible. I’d heard of worse back in the day.”

That got their attention. It seemed logical too, all things considered.

“This is a lot of new information to process…” Sparky said, thinking. “I say we put it to a discussion.” He looked to Geraldine to confirm it.

“Very well,” the griffin said. “We’ll discuss the viability of helping you. It would be a shame for you to die if you decide to continue this mission.”

“Alrighty,” I said, getting out of my chair. “We’ll leave you to it then. Thank you for your time.” Having the station’s support would have definitely helped, but was it worth it? I felt it was worth it to finish the mission, the wasteland needed it. I needed it. Perhaps if I got the Patriarch on my side, getting to Double Down would be much easier. Would he let me ride him into battle? That’d be so sweet...

The rest of us civilians walked out of the council chamber in silence, each of us in deep thought, or in Tallie’s case, deep sleep. She’d crawled up onto Ace’s back and curled up. The hallway was skirted by long benches, which served excellent for waiting on.

“I’m kinda on the fence about this, myself…” Lollipop said, quietly, after the doors had shut. “There’s a lot of variables here.” She took a seat and rested her head on her hooves, thinking.

“She is right,” Ace said, stopping and looking at us all individually. “But I’m in favour for finishing this. We’ve come so far, we can’t back out.”

“I want to finish this,” I confirmed. “The risks are high, yes, but the rewards… I believe they’re going to be much bigger.” I looked at little Tallie, sleeping on Ace’s back, and Fuse who was still twitching. Was I really willing to risk so much?

Featherweight let out a deep hum, sitting down beside Lollipop. “We’ve already lost almost all of our team…” he said, then let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t like where this is going, honestly. Thunderhoof said it was for the greater good, and if he believed you, there has to be some form of high reward. No way would Iron City give this much in resources for nothing in return…”

“Another good point…” Lollipop said, then looked up at me with a smile. “Well… I say we keep going then.”

“Agreed,” Featherweight said, quietly. “We’re behind you, brother.”

I nodded, then looked at Fuse. “Fuse, are you okay with this?”

The little mare looked up at me. I could see the fear in her eyes, but she still managed to take a deep breath and nod. “If there’s a chance we can end this madness and stop them killing more ponies, then yeah. If we die, well… I guess we’ll be in a better place?” she let out a nervous chuckle. “But I’m sure we’ll… make… it…?”

I nodded at the small mare and took a deep breath. I couldn’t believe I was actually heading a dangerous expedition into the unknown, like the old Daring Do comic books! Who’d have thought little, timid Clover would be doing that sort of thing. Crazy. “Alright. It's settled then. Lets hope we get the support then.”

Ace smiled and put a foreleg around me, giving me a half-hug. She opened her mouth to say something, but the intense clopping of hooves barraged down the hallway. As fast as she could, Stitches sprinted towards us, looking awfully excited.

“Clover! Clover! Hey, Clover!” she shouted as she ran. She literally screeched to a halt in front of us, waving a piece of paper with her taloned-mutated hand. “Tests are in! I know what you’ve got!”

Moment of truth. Time to figure out what was mutated inside of me. I hoped it wasn’t anything too bad, like a tentacle wiggling inside my stomach, or an extra liver sprouting out inside my intestine. We all stood in silence, waiting for her to continue. Ace’s grip around me tightened.

“Alright, so,” the mutant doctor began before clearing her throat. “First thing the computer found in some skin cells, is that you’ve got some ‘advanced hair-growth’. Unlucky. The amount you’ll spend on razors alone…”

“So I’ll grow a beard? Sweet!” I smiled at Ace, but she gave me a worried look. “What? That’s good right?”

“Maybe…” the beige mare muttered. “What else?”

“This is getting kind of personal…” The grenadier mare, Fuse, announced, walking past us. “Me and Featherweight are gonna take a look around. We’ll find you later, yeah?” She gave us a lopsided smile before tugging on Featherweight, almost dragging him along.

Stitches watched them leave, then shook her head. “Poor mare. PTSD. Definitely.” She spun around on one hoof, grinning. “NOW!” she announced, pulling the paper back out. “Your spermies say…” She looked up at us with a wince. “Sorry but you’re aboooooout… Ninety-five-ish percent sterile. Not the worst mutation, but…. yeah…”

So I’d never have kids. I looked down and dug my hoof into the floor. “Well… it could have been worse, I suppose.” I said, looking back up. Kids hadn’t really been part of my life plan, but maybe one day I would have liked one or two. “Anything else?” I asked, seriously hoping there wouldn’t be any. That’d suck.

The doctor nodded. Shit. “According to your blood tests…” She glanced at the paper, reading a couple of lines, then nodding. “Yep, your leukocyte levels are through the roof."

"Leuko-what?" Ace said, as confused as I was.

"White blood cells." Lollipop chimed up from behind us "And as good as that is, the cons outweigh the pros. Elevated white cells usually points to an infection, or disease."

"Which Clover is completely free of, I’ve checked,” Stitches said

“That’s good, right?” I asked, looking at Ace. “Doesn’t that mean I won’t get very sick?” Ace shrugged and looked at the doctor.

Stitches gave a reassuring nod. “No cancer, no infections, no nothin’.”

“Which is still good,” Ace said, looking between both of the doctors. “Means he’s healthy.”

“But for how long?” Lollipop continued. “High white cells can cause fever, fainting, bleeding, bruising, weight loss, and general pain. Clover might experience any of those symptoms randomly.”

“Shiiiiiiiiiit…” I groaned, sitting down on the bench. “So I’m going to be perpetually sick without being sick, and I won’t be able to have kids ever.” I sighed and held my head in my hooves. “At least I can grow a beard now…”

My beige unicorn friend put a hoof on my shoulder and gave me a half hug. “Could have been worse,” she said, reassuringly. “You could have a tentacle crawling out of your eye.”

“True.” I pulled my head out of my hooves and tried to give her a smile. “I still look normal.”

Tallie piped up with a squeaky yawn. “Whatever normal looks like for you,” she said, now sitting on Lollipop’s back. “You kinda got chronic butt-face, dude.”

“Tallie!” Lollipop scowled, “That’s just rude.”

“At least I don’t have a big stupid-head, Stupid-Head!” I retorted with a fake sneer. Tallie blinked then giggled as Lollipop rolled her eyes. Tallie might have been childish, but I had to be at least twice as childish.

Stitches cleared her mutant throat to grab our attention again. “So! Anyway! Other than that you seem oddly normal. Lucky bastard. Now I see why you have that cutie-mark.” she said, poking my flank. “Unluckily lucky. Stabbed in a mutagen-filled city, but don’t get any serious mutations.”

Unluckily lucky. I like it. “So I’m a mutant now.”

“To an extent, yes,” the mutant confirmed. “Welcome to the club. You get a free shirt, meetings are on Mondays, and taco night is on Sunday.”

“Thanks,” I said, then looking at my friends. “Ain’t I a lucky buck.”

Ace nodded, but didn’t smile. “You got lucky this time, Clover, but you never know when your luck is going to run out.” She took a deep breath and sighed. “Just don’t take risks you don’t need to, okay?”

I almost laughed, me, take risks. “When have I ever taken risks?”

“Point taken,” Ace said, cracking a smile. “I just worry about you.”

“We all do,” Lollipop said, giving us both a hug. Tallie looked between all of us, shrugged, and joined in. One big group hug. It almost seemed perfect, and would have been if Stitches wasn’t making gagging motions behind us, and if my shoulder wasn’t killing me.

She stopped when she spotted Geraldine the griffin council member leaving the meeting room. “I’ll catch you guys later. Tests to run, mutants to heal, yadda yadda ya.” She turned around and started trotting away.

The hug broke and we all turned towards the griffin. It was the moment of truth. There was probably a thirty/seventy chance that they’d help us, and my heart was racing. We needed the help, and I didn’t know exactly what we’d do without it. My Pipbuck maps could only help to an extent, but they were pre-end-of-the-world. I seriously doubted they’d have the rubble and destruction programmed into them.

“We have come to a verdict,” Geraldine announced as the other council members flanked her. Here we go! “We have decided that the reward of freedom to roam this city without being further mutated, and without the threat of our deranged counterparts is extremely beneficial to this settlement, therefore we will provide guides to the surface.”

“Yes!” I exclaimed with a hoof-pump. “Awesome!”

“However,” Sparky interrupted. “You will only have our Ghosts’ support until you reach the Mustang River. After that, it's up to the Ghosts’ discretion. It's up to them if they want to continue on. Over that river is MRF, and that is completely uncharted territory and for good reason.”

“So we’re pretty much meant to do it alone?” Tallie asked, folding her forelegs. “That’s totally unfair.”

“It’s the best we can afford,” Geraldine said, “We don’t have many Ghosts these days and we just cannot risk them for any operations other than salvage. If they decide to continue, they’ll know the risk and what they are getting into.”

That was a kind of shitty situation, but it could have been a whole lot shittier. Like, hole-in-the-ground-toilet shittier. The one that you’d need a shovel to clear out. “At least we have something,” I said, eager to get the others to see the brighter side of the situation. “When do we plan on leaving?”

“One of my Ghost squads is assembling and preparing as we speak,” Sparky said with a rather wide smile. “You’ll be safe while they’re with you. My surface rangers are the best of the best.”

“I should hope so!” Ace said, a sly grin on her face. “They’ll have to keep up with me.”

We had the support that we needed, I was as normal on the outside as anyone else, and all of my friends were okay, or as okay as you can be with PTSD. Everything was turning up Clover. All we needed was for the luck to keep us going until we got back to the desert. We were probably going to sleep for days when we got back.

“If everyone here is ready to go, then you’ll move out as soon as you can,” Roric said, his massive, meaty arms crossed. “Get some food, and any supplies you need, then meet up with the squad at the northern gate.”

I nodded at the minotaur and looked to the others. They didn’t seem reluctant at all. Those ponies were my rock. My best friends. The only ones keeping me from going insane. I loved every one of them, even though I hadn’t known them very long. Ace grinned and gave me a friendly punch on my good shoulder. “Ready to kick mutant ass?” she asked with a wink.

“I think so, yes.” I replied, limping down the hallway. We just had to grab the two surviving soldiers from Delta squad, grab a bite to eat, then get out of the station and on to the surface. Simple as one two three.

Then again, is anything simple in the wasteland?

No.

Not at all.

--- --- ---

The food down in the station wasn’t really that bad. It was little bland, but it was probably better than some places in the desert where the crops can get real sunlight. Down in the station, they mostly ate mushrooms, or anything that they could get to grow in underground hydroponic plants. All of the vegetables grown were three shades paler than they should have been, and you could kind of taste it.

My friends and I had gotten comfy around a table as we ate our fill, and we’d picked up Featherweight and Fuse along the way, but we were missing something. I couldn’t put my hoof on it, even tapping a carrot against my forehead wasn’t helping me to remember.

“Ah, there you civvies are.” Oh. Right. We did have a seventh. “Why wasn’t I told he was awake?” Sergeant Mayflowers, aka Bitchicus Maximus, pointed her booted hoof at me. She didn’t seem all too plussed that I was alive. More indifferent. “And I’ve also found out that you spoke to this station’s leaders without notifying me immediately. I am in charge of this expedition.” She stomped her way through the small canteen, straight towards us.

I sighed and put my carrot down. “I forgot you survived,” I said, looking her dead in the eye. “But we got what we needed without your help.” I put all of my concentration into not flinching, or crying, or lip quivering.

That was not what she wanted to hear. She huffed herself up, ready to lay into me, but she closed her eyes and swallowed her rage. That was not the time or place to create a scene. “Okay… how resourceful,” she said, trying to keep it together, her voice shaking with suppressed anger. “I assume we have a plan?” she asked, her eye twitching violently.

It’s probably not best to admit it, but I was secretly enjoying getting under this Thundercunt’s skin. Kind of felt like vengeance over her cuntiness earlier. I nodded and smiled. “The surface rangers, The Ghosts, are going to help us all the way until the river, then it's up to us to get across, destroy whatever’s holding The Patriarch in his prison, and get back out again. One-two-three.” I smiled and stuck a carrot in the side of my mouth. “I’m sure we can do it.”

“Oh right, this Patriarch.” Mayflowers rolled her eyes and scowled at me. “He better be real, and this better yield the results expected by Iron City, or I will personally cut your balls off, Clover.” She almost literally stared daggers at me. Impossible you ask? Most likely, but if it were to ever happen, it would have been then.

“He’s real, and he will stay by his word,” I replied, munching on the carrot. I really liked carrots. Delicious, especially when they’re just the right levels of crunchy and juicy. They weren’t great carrots, but they were a good supplement. “I know it. Right down in my gut.”

“Well sometimes that’s not enough,” Mayflowers growled, stomping a hoof on the table.

“Enough!” Lollipop shouted, standing up. “Clover survived a mutated monster, survived mutation, and convinced the Council to help us on little more than a hope of freedom.” She stared at Mayflowers with that primal look she dons in combat. Forget what I said earlier, that was the look of dagger murder. “Now you will back off, or we will have problems.”

Mayflowers stared into Lollipop’s eyes and actually backed down. Something in those crazy eyes could make the strongest Minotaur weep. The green unicorn was a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Sometimes she could be the sweetest mare, caring and sympathetic. That was her medic side. Her combat side though, was a wolfish, scary mare, capable of anything. Maybe she was bi-polar? Schizophrenia?

“When do we move out?” Mayflowers asked, a bit quieter than before. Success!

I finished my carrot and swallowed. Mmmm, bland carrot. “As soon as we’re done here,” I explained, “So not long now. Grab something for yourself, while you’re at it.”

Tallie couldn’t help but laugh around a slice of cucumber. She was probably the hardiest of us all. All the horrors of the outside, and there she was, giggling away, as if nothing had ever happened. We were so similar, we were both traumatised by something, but we kept going. We were both hurt somehow, but more importantly, we managed to laugh when we could.

I wrapped a hoof around the little griffin and chuckled. “Almost done?” I asked, nodding at her empty plate.

She nodded up at me and smiled. She swallowed her last piece of cucumber, then grinned. “All good in the hood, friendo.” With that, she jumped up and stretched. “Ready to get top-side and kick some butts.”

Ace laughed and pushed her plate forward. “I’m done too. Quicker we get out of here, the quicker we can get back to warm sheets at that nice hotel in Iron City.” She got up and shook herself down. “Just got to hit the head.” she said, and skipped merrily along to the little girls room.

Everyone got to their hooves once she’d returned, and nodded in agreement. It was go time. Time to kick some mutant ass, free The Patriarch, and make the wastes a little bit better. Time to make a real difference in my life. We filed out of the cantina, mutant eyes following us, and headed towards the North Line gate. None of us talked, mostly enthralled in the feeling of awesomeness. At least, I was. Was I finally getting confident? I sure hoped so.

--- --- ---

“You must be Clover and his merry band of adventurers!” a voice boomed at us as we approached the gate. It was built like a garrison! There were guards posted around the inside walls, sandbags piled up and facing the gate, and even a machinegun nest! It must have been the end of the civilized tunnels or something, leading into the wilderness.

The voice belonged to a tall, extremely beardy earth pony with a battle saddle mounted flamethrower. His mutation appeared to be two tails, from the looks of it. Not that bad, really. “Name’s Tinder Two-Tail!” He bellowed, walking towards us and giving me a firm slap on the shoulder. It wasn’t my good shoulder. “Whoopsie-daisey!” He said, catching me as I stumbled to the side. “Right, forgot about that. Roric said you’d been injured. My bad.”

“Its… alright,” I groaned, gritting my teeth. “Just… watch that shoulder.”

“Anyway, we’re Clover’s band of Adventurers!” Ace cheered, trotting forward. “Ready to kick ass and complete our mission.”

Tinder laughed heartily and spun around on a hoof. “That’s what I like to hear! Lets get you suited up!” He trotted towards a large door, situated on the side of the tunnel. “Your stuff has been brought in and checked, repaired, etcetera. Order of Geraldine herself!”

We followed him in, one by one, and were greeted with lines of weapons in various states of condition, along with armour, gas masks, everything someone would need for a fully stocked armoury.

Several ponies milled around, chatting and checking their equipment over. In one corner sat four mutants playing a card game, and in the other were two twins by the looks of it. Both of them had three extra griffin-like arms protruding from their shoulders, each holding different tools and were repairing a pair of rifles each. Most of them wore the station guard armour, but others wore white and grey pieces of armour, and seemed to have fancier gear. They must have been The Ghosts.

“Equipment time!” Tinder yelled as we lined up. “Clover, locker 2-3, Ace, 2-4, Lollipop, 2-5…” He read off our names and the appropriate lockers each, ending with Mayflowers on 3-1. It was on the opposite wall to our lockers. Something about that just made me feel a little happier inside.

Inside my locker I found my coat and tarp, a brand new gas mask, saddle-packs, my saddle, my salvage duffle, and a few other odds and ends. I had to get a little help from Lollipop to get some pieces on, my shoulder not exactly letting me get it all on myself, but before long we were suited up again.

“I still don’t get a gun?!” Tallie whined, sitting on top of the lockers. “That’s totally not fair! I can’t beat mutants up with my tools! It’ll ruin them!”

I looked at Ace, concerned that she wasn’t getting a weapon. I was sternly against a child having a gun, but she needed something to defend herself with. Ace seemed to mirror my look, I was sure she was thinking the same. “What are you good at?” I asked, trying to gauge what to give her. She must have handled a weapon at some point in her life.

“Explosives, you know that,” Tallie huffed, putting her hands on her hips and pouting. “I blew up those bad guys on the way to Iron City, remember?”

“Right, but you can’t just place explosives on a mutant,” I said, reaching up and pulling her down. She was certainly a good climber.

“I can still throw really good!” Tallie whined, looking at Ace. “You believe me, don’t you?”

Ace nodded and looked at me. “Maybe some manually detonated explosives?” she asked. “Like, with a remote. She’s smart enough not to accidentally blow us all up, I’m sure.”

I took a deep breath and looked at the little griffin. She seemed so hopeful, and who was I to deny her safety? I sighed and nodded. “Fine, but be extra careful.”

Tallie nodded and grinned, looking towards Tinder. He was watching us and seemed deep in thought. “I don’t know…” he rumbled, stroking his magnificent beard. “They don’t exactly grow on trees…”

Ace tapped her chin then grinned, reaching into her locker and pulling out her salvage duffle. She unzipped it and smiled. “How about a trade?” she asked.

Tinder looked into the pack and examined all of the weapons and other equipment we’d picked up on our way to the station. “These are mostly in good condition… plenty of ammo…” he mused, looking them over. “Alright. I’ll take these and give the griffin some small charges.”

Tallie jumped up and cheered, but stopped when I put a hoof on the top of her head. “Don’t get carried away,” I warned, turning her attention to me. “I’m trusting you with something extremely dangerous. Don’t make me regret it.”

Tallie nodded and squirmed out from under my hoof. She reached up and took the bandolier of explosives from Tinder with a happy smile. “Thanks!” she said with a grin, putting it on. “Now I don’t feel like a defenseless cub!”

The bearded pony nodded, reaching up to a higher shelf and pulling out a large helmet, fitted with a small protective visor. It wouldn’t cover his face, but it would give his eyes some protection. He also picked up a special gas mask and slung it over his shoulder.

A few minutes later, we were all standing at attention, masks ready, coats on, and weapons ready. Tinder smiled and waved us out of the equipment room. “Alright, Normies… and Clover! Time to go meet the team!”

I couldn’t help but smile as we left the armoury, walking behind Lollipop and Tallie. We were going on an adventure, and I was actually looking forward to it! Maybe my hallucination with Trailblaze actually meant something!

Slowly, the large North Line gate slid open, revealing another security station just outside. “Good luck!” a voice came from behind us. It was little Jinx, being held by her mother’s foreleg. She still hadn’t let go of the wooden train. All four council members were there to see us off, each giving us their blessing of good luck.

“We’re all counting on you,” Geraldine said with a curt nod. “Our expectations are high. Don’t fail us.”

I nodded in confirmation before shuffling through the gate. A lot was riding on this mission, a lot more than we’d initially thought. Now two cities were counting on me to get this done. Being determined not to fail, doesn’t mean we won’t. I shouldn’t have thought of that earlier…

All doubt was pushed aside as we entered the first security point outside the gate. There were more guns, and more guards than there was behind the gate, that’s for sure. Two large towers stood on either side of the tunnel, each with a machinegun, and two machine gun nests sat underneath them. Several more fixed guns were pointing towards the dark tunnels ahead.

Most of the guards were huddled around fires, set in barrels. The chill really creeped into you outside of the gate, making a few of us shiver under our jackets. Some of the other guards were sitting around, chatting or playing heavily damaged instruments.

Tinder lead us towards three Ghosts, chatting to one another, with a unicorn sitting in a chair beside them, huddled over and carving something from an old block of wood.

“Clover and gang, this is my team,” The heavily armoured, bearded pony said with a strong sense of pride. “Hammerhead, Geoff, and Copper Wire, and sitting over there, being quiet as always is Spook.” Spook just lifted his head and nodded while the others said their hellos.

Hammerhead was a Minotaur, but a little smaller than average. Her horns were blockier towards the tip, which I supposed matched her namesake. Her other mutation seemed to be a third eye in the middle of her forehead, and tusks pointing out of her mouth.

Geoff was a griffin with large, white wings. He also appeared to have two tentacles pointing out of his shoulders, and wrapped around his forelegs. One of them slid away from his forearm and gave a little wave. It creeped me the hell out.

Copper Wire seemed smaller than average too, about half the size of me. He carried two SMGs on a tiny turret on his back that seemed to follow where he was looking. He chucked and smiled. “Hey guys!” He said in a very comical, high pitched voice.

Finally, Spook. He didn’t seem to have anything wrong with him, other than being stoic. He wore a large helmet with a shark-mouthed bandana across his muzzle. “What’s his mutation?” I asked, leaning into Tinder.

“What, Spook?” He asked, looking at the stallion. “He ain’t got no mouth.”

Spook looked at us and pulled his bandana down, revealing he did indeed have no mouth. Not a single trace, no lips, no teeth, nothing.

“Woah…” I exclaimed. “That sucks.” Spook nodded and went back to his carving.

“We ready, boss?” asked Geoff, picking up his gear. Tinder nodded and all of the Ghosts, in complete unison, pulled on their gas masks and helmets, then picked up their guns. They walked towards the gate at the far end of the station and waited.

“Masks on, kids!” Tinder barked, looking back at us. “You’ll catch your death of cold without ‘em!” He then laughed as he put his mask on. Some sense of humour he has…”Outer gate!” he called out. “Where’s Tiny?”

“Coming!” a distorted child’s voice bellowed from behind the second gate. A massive filly with a pink coat and blonde mane, almost about the size of the tunnel, came stampeding towards the gate, then dove under it at the last second. “Hey Tindy!” she boomed, giving him a wave.

Tinder returned the wave with a smile. “Hey kiddo!” He called up. “Wanna open the gate for us, hun?” he said and pointed at the door.

The massive foal nodded vigorously and reached up to the ceiling as the rest of us stood in shock in front of her. With a little bit of effort, the child pulled on a large device fitted to the ceiling, and the gate at the far end of the station slowly slid open. There was a loud click and the door stopped. The filly let go and clapped her hooves. “Yay!” she squealed in glee.

“Calm down, honey,” a quieter voice said from just behind Tiny. A tiny little mare with a purple mane poked her head out from behind the filly’s and smiled. “Alright boys, good luck!” she called down. She had to be about the size of a filly! That place was just starting to screw with me, I was sure of it.

“Alright, ponies!” Tinder bellowed, “Move out!” He swung his hoof forward and the Ghosts began to file out. The remains of Delta Squad followed them, all prepped and ready to go. Featherweight was even wearing his little beanie with the pom-pom on top.

Lollipop helped Tallie get her mask on, then she put her own on. She trotted after the others, catching up quickly and leaving just me and Ace.

“Well…” I said, pulling my new, fancy gas mask from my neck. “Shall we?”

Ace nodded and pulled me close. She closed her eyes and jolted forward. Our lips locked and she kissed me! It only lasted a second or two, but she grinned when she broke it. “For luck!” she said, as some of the guards whistled at us. She then slid her gas mask over her face and sprinted after the others, leaving me stunned.

I got a kiss! A real kiss! Yay! Had she made up her mind about me? I certainly hoped so! With a massive grin plastered over my face, I put my mask on and hobbled as fast as I could after the others. Thankfully, the injection Stitches had given me was starting to take effect as the pain started to slowly subside.

I caught up and smiled at Ace. She was facing forward with her shotgun now in view, but Lollipop and Tallie were certainly looking at me. I could almost see their grins. They’d seen the whole thing, hadn’t they? Great. They seemed like the type to tease me about these things…

The gate clicked behind us and slowly slid down, giving us less and less light until we were swallowed up in complete darkness, with only the sounds of hooves to be heard.

I’d lie if I didn’t say I was at least a little scared.




Footnote: No level up.

New quest perk!

Mutated: Clover now has a few mutations in his body. He grows hair much faster but will need it cut more frequently, gets sick less frequently but presents symptoms regularly, and can’t have babies. Is it really a perk?

Sorry for the long absense, had a lot going on recently. The next few chapters are planned out, and after that I'll be planning the rest of my story. Should be smooth sailing, as long as I get the motivation to keep going. Thanks for baring with me!

Don't forget to hit that thumbsup button! The more people like the story, the more I'll want to write it!