• Published 15th Mar 2013
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Fallout Equestria: Shades of Grey - Gig



Some of us aren't heroes. Does it make us the villains?

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Chapter Seventeen: Black Friday

Read it on Google Docs for improved formatting.



“Salesmen are like piñatas: if you hit them hard enough, they give the money back.”

Chapter Seventeen: Black Friday

“I cannot stress enough how bad an idea this is.”

“My options were limited, Saios. We both know very well she would have denied my care.”

“This hardly give you the authority to perform surgery without her consent.” A sigh. “But yes, I understand.”

A weak groan managed to push its way out of my throat. What…?

“Is she waking up?”

“Yes. I gave her a minimal dose. Now, for the real anesthesia…”

“Isn’t anesthetist a full-time job?”

“Of course it is. And had the situation be any different, I would have refused to perform without an assistant and a reanimation team nearby. We play with the cards we were given, Saios.”

“Don’t lose her, Evey.”

A silence.

“I won’t.” The voices seemed to fade away. “I would rather…”

(** **)

I opened my eyes in the darkness.

The cloth of the bed sheets were soft against my fur, and cocooned me in a warm embrace as I floated weightless over the mattress and the pillows.

Time came and went, slipping away in unquantifiable measures. My eyes confusedly stared at the alarm clock as its display changed, again, and again, blending in symbols without meaning.

I did not feel at peace.

Thoughts and sensations floated at the brim of my consciousness, indistinct shapes in the fog. They had an importance of their own, that much seemed certain; yet I couldn’t quite grasp their origins nor their goals, let alone understand them.

I stayed, unmoving, frozen as a statue of flesh. ‘Morning,’ my brain supplied. ‘You always feel like shit in the morning.’

True, I realized. The fog will go away in time, as it always does. The confusion of the awakenings, this tear between the body and the mind, never lasted. Consciousness had to prevail in the end.

I rolled on my back. The simple movement kicked my brain into overdrive as my body registered the shift in sensation. The way the bed sheets followed me in my movement. The way my head dug into the pillow. The change from warmth to coolness as I moved on the mattress.

I frowned and shifted my shoulder plates. Something had somehow managed to get between my back and the bed, digging into my oversensitive flesh. It followed my movements.

Groaning weakly, I lifted a forehoof and tried to pry it off. Oddly, the something had been wrapped all around my torso. Had I fallen asleep in full gear again?

“What the fuck…” I mumbled, trying to get a glimpse in the utter darkness. Large pale bands circled around my barrel, from my elbows to my hips.

“Bandages?” I murmured, confused. Had I been injured?

I sat on my haunches, muffling an indistinct groan. I could barely make out the forms around me, but I recognized my room at Big Mountain nonetheless.

Tentatively, I pulled on the gauze warping. It didn’t come off, at all. Whoever did this obviously had a lot of experience when it came to patching somepony up. It had to be Evey, then.

And that’s how it struck me, like a sledgehammer to the face. I grabbed my head between my hooves, cursing loudly.

“That Luna damned BITCH!” I threw the bed sheets away, now fully awake. A kick into the lamp lighted the room up, and I cursed some more as the change in luminosity assaulted my eyes.

“Discord sweet fucking cunt, I should have seen that one coming.” I trashed the whole place, looking for my stuff. “Fuck, fuck fuck FUCK!”

Neither my suit nor my guns were in the room. My eyes fell on the door and an indescribable dread fell over me.

“Surely he wouldn’t,” I mumbled, heading toward the exit. “Unless she…” The pane immediately slid open with a relieved hiss. “Good, good.”

“Spring, you are awake.” From the other side of the room, Evey looked up from a book, an innocent smile on her lips. Oh, but by then, I just knew better. “I am sorry for what happened earlier, but you have to understand…”

I tuned out her babble. I had to act, fast. What had Saios said the other day? Should I follow my battle instincts, her mind-reading abilities wouldn’t be able to keep up. “Spring? Please, don’t…”

I bolted. My left hoof found a random piece of junk and hurled it right at her face. But I didn’t wait to see if it connected.

Instead, I dove forward. There, on the table right between the two of us, lay all my stuff.

I rolled, firing my telekinesis. Even outside my field of view, I felt a familiar weight answer to my call. A process, so often repeated, racked the slide backward, chambering a round. And I slammed the table, and I aimed down the sights.

And I pressed the trigger.

The gun clicked empty.

Time came to a halt.

There we stood, frozen, staring down each other’s eyes. And I saw fear, and I saw betrayal, and I saw anger, and for an instant I wondered which of us I was, and who, of the alicorn or the unicorn, I was facing.

Somewhere in the room, a stack of books finally succumbed to the call of gravity. The loud noise barely shook us off of our torpor.

“I… Saios advised I emptied your weapons,” Evey finally murmured, her voice almost imperceptible.

“Did he now?” I frowned, the alicorn not leaving my sights even once. My face was composed, but inside? I was boiling – anger, and pain, and fear, perhaps.

“Spring, you need to calm down.” Saios’ voice was calm – too calm. He had the no-nonsense tone of someone scared out of their mind, but clever enough not to let it show. Somepony operating in damage control mode – facing the incoming train, but still looking for an exit.

“Calm? I am perfectly calm,” I snarled. I spotted the workbench in the corner of my eyes. Tools were hardly weapons, but even a screwdriver would be better than an empty gun. “Why wouldn’t I be-”

Suddenly, a massive pain erupted in my left cheek. The world went black for an instant; when I opened my eyes again, Meridian was there, pinning me against the wall with a strength I didn’t know he possessed.

“Fuck! Let me…” My words died in my throat as my eyes met Meridian’s. I stared down his blue irises, and my body went limp. All my anger evaporated like snow under the scorching sun.

It wasn’t my life I was afraid for. No, as he held me there by the throat, his face frozen in an impassible mask, I feared for my very soul.

“Get a hold of on yourself, girl,” he ordered. “The Goddesses know I have come to love you like a daughter, but heavens forbid, if you pull that kind of stunt ever again, I will end you myself. Even if it is the last thing I ever do in my life.”

“Meridian, she…” My voice was barely audible.

“She what?” He shifted so Evey could get into my view. “Look at her, Spring, and tell me: what, exactly, has she done?”

“I…” I looked at her. The alicorn had not moved at all, frozen on her haunches. She was staring at me.

She was crying.

“Fuck, what have I done?” I whimpered. “Meridian, I’m sorry!”

Meridian let go of his grasp, and I slumped pathetically on the ground. “It’s not to me you should be apologizing to.”

“Evey, I…” I couldn’t finish my sentence. All dams broke loose. I curled up, sobbing like a foal, my head hidden between my legs. How could I…?

“Shh, it’s okay.” The voice was soft yet hesitant, as something pulled me into a soothing embrace. “It’s okay.”

I looked up. Through the veil of my tears, I saw Evey lying beside me, a tired smile on her lips. She wiped my eyes out.

“No, it’s not okay,” I sniffed. “I fucked up. Again.”

“Everypony errs.” The alicorn pulled my mane from my eyes with a hoof. “The fault was mine to begin with. Foolishly, I had not taken into account your traumatic experiences. I cannot blame you for an overreaction.”

“Overreaction?” I repeated with a strangled, dark chuckle. “Damn it, Evey. I tried to kill you not thirty seconds ago.”

“Yes.” I felt her body shudder, and a wave of fear washed over my consciousness. “Yes, you did.”

“Evey, do I scare you?” I whispered, staring up to her eyes.

“Spring, you terrify me,” she answered truthfully. “But I love you nonetheless. You need… you need my help, whether you want it or not, but it was careless of me to dismiss your concerns as foalish.”

“What a friend I am,” I murmured, ears tucked again my head. “I didn’t even stop to think. But…”

I looked down to my hooves.

“But why did you do that to me?” I continued, weakly. As much as I wished to scoot away from her embrace, there simply didn’t seem to be that kind of strength left in my body. “Why did you have to go and betray me?”

“It never was my intention.” She lifted my chin and wiped a stray tear with a hoof. “Your wounds needed to be taken care off. I expected you to be angry, but… Well, we all have to learn sometimes, haven’t we?”

“Me more than others I suppose,” I mumbled. “So, what did you do?”

“Not much. I removed the dead flesh and used regenerative balms to mend your derma.” Slowly, she began unwarping the gauze and smiled weakly at me. “Nothing spectacular I’m afraid.”

I held my breath as the bandages came undone. In a way, I didn’t want to see it – yet, I had to.

“Evey…” My voice died in my throat as the black skin came into view. Silently, my own hoof traced along the edge of the perfect rectangle.

“I could not have regrown your hairs,” the alicorn sighed. “Sadly, this would have been problematic even with wartime resources. I wish there were more I could have done.”

“More?” I repeated, eyes wide. “Evey, I have no words…”

“The edge of the graft may scar lightly,” she bit her lower lip. “It shall fade with time, hopefully.”

“It’s like it had never been injured at all,” I murmured as I probed the regrown skin with a tip of my hoof. It was still sensitive, yet alive all right. “I… Thank you, Evey.”

“I was just doing my job.” Her smile faded an instant. “But please refrain from trying to kill me next time.”

(** **)

I had to hoof it to Evey, she really had faith in me. Had somepony pulled a gun in my face, friend or not I would have turned them into a smear on a wall. But Evey? She gave me a hug and my weapons back. Fuck, there really had to be something very wrong with her… Or me, for that matter.

“There you are!” Chrystal greeted me with a toothy smile as entered the warehouse. “You know, it is hardly polite to leave a lady waiting.”

“I’m not in the mood, Chrystal,” I grumbled. The pearly unicorn lifted an eyebrow, but – Luna be thanked – let it slide. “How is everything going?”

“More smoothly than I would have expected.” She pointed toward a couple notepads on a nearby table. “Your friend did prove out to be useful in the end.”

“Your acknowledgement has been noted,” Saios said with a remarkable deadpan. “I, on the other hoof, am not afraid to admit we may be headed toward something.”

“This is… nice?” I proposed, perplexed. “Has something happened when my back was turned?”

“Surprisingly, no.”

“Ms. Chrystal here has difficulties to overcome her prejudice against artificial intelligences,” Saios explained coldly. “Little does she know her prophecies may be self-fulfilling if she keeps on calling me a ‘tin can’.”

“Are you threatening me?” Chrystal’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly.

“I have little need for implied threats.”

“Would you two stop bickering like foals?” I sighed, facehoofing. It was obvious they weren’t serious in the slightest, if only because both were far too clever to throw the whole operation through the window because they didn’t like each other. They weren’t like me. They had at least a hint of stability.

I shook my head. “Just give me an abridged version of what’s going on.”

“There is little to add to the inventory I already gave you a few days ago.”

“Everything is in a better shape than I dared hope,” Chrystal continued, lifting a notepad in front of her. “I cannot really assess the true potential of that ‘AMDR’, since I have never seen something like that operate, but it hardly matters. If we want to achieve mass production, we need to specialize.”

“Yet there is little we can do without schematics for both the goods and the assembly lines,” Saios carried on. I smiled inwardly – for all their protests, they were already almost finishing each other’s sentences. Eh, they’d get along just fine, and if the old-couple bickering was of any indication, I might even have to assist in a wedding one of those days. However that might work. “Even then, our raw material supplies may be insufficient to get us started.”

“Thankfully, I know where to find the former, and he has hints for the latter,” Chrystal finished. “The Vanhoover area may just have the resources we need. Its mines supplied half the ore for the pre-War industry. It is unlikely they were depleted since then.”

“And what about the blueprints?” I asked.

The mare rewarded me with her trademark shark-y grin. “Fillydelphia. Where else?”

(** **)

Where else indeed, I wondered as the whole group – Evey, Meridian and Sunburn included – stared thoughtfully at the giant map in front of us. It hadn’t been kept up to date, sadly, only featuring Fillydelphia in all her pre-War industrial glory. The balefires had laid waste to the whole region, and a particularly nasty megaspell had carved a humongous crater right in the middle of it. Whatever used to stand there, the zebras really didn’t like it and had wanted it gone.

“This is Red Eye’s territory,” I pointed toward a large part of the map. Saios tinted it red accordingly. “I mean, the whole place is his turf, but you can’t get past the suburbs without meeting a raider at every corner. I ain’t setting a single hoof in there.”

“Don’t worry, we won’t have to,” Chrystal tapped another section a dozen kilometers away. “Our target is an old Ironshod Firearms facility right there. We ought to find enough material to get us started. We scoop in, steal the data, then torch the place to the ground.”

“This seems a bit excessive,” Evey noted calmly.

“That’s a total understatement.” I looked up at Chrystal. “I’m all in favor to wreck Red Eye’s stuff, but let’s get real, the guy ain’t stupid, and if we show up with brand new weapons just after his factory mysteriously burned down, he’s going to be pissed. Plus, torching an industrial complex is harder than it seems, trust me.”

“Pyromaniac much?” the white mare asked playfully, before turning toward Sunburn. “Let’s ask the expert. How hard would it be to blow up a weapon factory full of explosive material?”

“That’s not the good question,” the ghoul chuckled, leaning back to light up a cigarette as Evey threw him a black look. “You should be asking: how gone do you want it to be?”

“So not that hard,” I deduced with a wince as I remembered Hollow Shades. Fillydelphia would soon be sporting a brand new crater. “Still, any particular reason you want the whole place vaporized?”

“Personal history,” Chrystal answered curtly.

Silence trailed by as everypony stared at her.

“Fine,” she continued with a sigh. “Almost a decade ago in Fillydelphia, Red Eye was little more than that one noisy kid full of dreams throwing a temper tantrum next door. He wasn’t the first to get the idea of giving back to Fillydelphia its former industrial glory. Scavengers had scrapped the place to the ground, for sure, still some industrious ponies managed to find pre-war factories that just needed some polish to get started again. I suppose you see where this is going.”

“Yes, we had that theory running around for a little while now,” Saios said. “This is where your weapons stockpile came from, am I right?”

“Indeed,” she sighed. “Sadly, some morning Red Eye decided downtown Fillydelphia didn’t have enough room for his little empire to grow. My… associate decided the grass was greener on his side, so he betrayed me. Thankfully, I had already moved a decent part of our wares to a more secure place, in a properly paranoid fashion.”

“So this is why we need to target this place in particular.” Chrystal tapped on the map. “I know for certain there is data of value there, and my dearest associate Black Slab is due a blade through the throat.”

“Wait, you associated with somepony named Backstab?” I chuckled. “Even I would have seen that one coming.”

“Black Slab,” she corrected, unamused. “Besides, you know the saying: hindsight is always twenty-twenty.”

“As a matter of fact, I don’t,” I replied, puzzled.

“Do you remember the visual tests we did yesterday?” Evey flew to my help. “This is a scale to measure how good your eyes are. Ten is good, zero is blindness. Twenty is perfection, or at least so above average it is almost off the scale.”

“Okay, I get it.”

“So, as I was saying,” Chrystal as she steered us back on topic, “Red Eye has extended his reach to most sources of pre-War tech. Unless you want to take on the Steel Rangers head-on, we are bound to step on his toes. Our best bet would be to tackle his assets while he is not aware of our intentions.”

“A surprise strike, hm?” I looked around the table. “It shouldn’t be out of our reach, but I’m worried about what happens next.”

“Red Eye may have an army, but he doesn’t have what it takes to storm this place.” Sunburn ground out his cigarette in a nearby ashtray. “Bloody raiders don’t make decent soldiers, that’s what I’m saying.”

“On the other hoof, we will have the best private contractors money can afford.” Chrystal smiled devilishly. “That is, once we are back in business. We will have to operate in relative secrecy for a six-month window, after which we should be a force to be reckoned with.”

“I have some credit with the Talons,” I pondered aloud, “and Red Eyes recently got on Grimfeather’s bad side. That ought to work.”

“As long as we can pay them,” Meridian added. “I trust mercenaries just as far as I can throw them.”

“Which bring us back to that raid.” I turned my gaze back to the maps. “What are we stealing, anyway? Printed blueprints, or digital ones?”

“Both,” Chrystal answered. “As a secondary objective, Saios should try and learn as much as he can from the industrial layout of the place.”

“This should be pretty straightforward,” he mused. “It wouldn’t hurt to get some insights on how the heaviest machineries were designed however.”

“I doubt we’d have enough time to tear them apart.” I shook my head. “Given the area, our window is going to be tight. Even moreso if they can radio in for reinforcements.”

“Let’s make sure they won’t, then.” Chrystal smiled devilishly. “I don’t have the factory’s schematics anymore, but I know of a way for a stealthy pony to sneak inside all the way to the offices. Do you feel up to the task?”

“Depends.” I munched my lower lip. “How many guards are we talking about?”

“About a dozen, but they are spread out. For a mare of your talents, with the element of surprise clearing the offices should be a breeze. Then we will move in from the ground level and kill the stragglers.”

“Aye, that we can do.” Sunburn nodded. “We break the entry points with a wee bit of PE-4, we toss a couple flashbangs and those poor buggers won’t even know what hit them.”

“Shock and awe?” Evey asked. “It will only work if there is not too big a surface to cover.”

“Aye, good point,” the ghoul smiled. “You did that kind of gig before, haven’t ya?”

“Perhaps. I was in the army during the War, I think.” Evey frowned slightly. “I have little to no memories of it, still, I seem to remember those tactics utilized in a full-blown battle once… And it didn’t end very well.”

“Two-Rivers’ Crossing.” Sunburn’s eyes lighted up in recognition. “They tested airburst phosphorus bombs to blind the Stripes on the other side before a head-on charge. It didn’t do a bloody damn thing, our guys on the ground got turned into grinded meat.”

“Somehow, that prospect does not seem very compelling to me,” Meridian piped in. “Are you certain it would work?”

“The place is big, but not that big,” Chrystal said, dismissing his concerns. “Furthermore, Spring will have a vantage point from the top of the office block.”

“There is little I can do if they decided to shoot you down,” I pointed out. “If you can’t find some sturdy cover near the entrance, you’d be toasted.”

“I could shield everybody,” Evey interrupted.

Everypony turned toward her.

“You can do that?” Chrystal asked, eyebrow raised. “Raising a shield is a thing, but sustaining it under fire is another entirely.”

“I did it before to protect us from shrapnel when we escaped Stable 87.” Evey nodded toward Meridian and I. “Small arms fire should be manageable.”

“Hm, I supposed it wouldn’t hurt,” Chrystal admitted. “Very well, then! Ladies and gentlecolts, let us get started.”

(** **)

“You know, when you said ‘let us get started’, I assumed you were talking about going out,” I deadpanned, sitting on a crate in the warehouse. “Not doing another round of planning.”

“It is called teamwork, honey.” Chrystal winked seductively before getting back to her saddlebags. “We need to be assured every one of us is ready to play their part.”

“Well, I’m ready.” I jumped down and walked a couple steps toward the exits. “Let’s go!”

“She is right, Spring,” Saios interrupted. “We don’t even know what are our strengths and our weaknesses.”

“We never needed that before,” I pointed out.

“No offence darling, but you are quite easy to read.” Chrystal chuckled.

“Fine, let’s get assessing, then.” I threw my hooves to the sky. “I got my pistol, plus suppressor and all kind of ammo, and my rifle, bolt action, chambered in three-o’-eight. But you knew that already, because I bought most of that stuff from you.”

“Not that splendid suit of yours, I’m afraid.” She stopped a couple foot in front of me. “Tell me everything.”

“Ask our local nerd.” I rolled my eyes and pointed toward a nearby camera.

“Well, the C.A.I. Mk. I is an powered exoskeleton controlled by a neural interface and fitted for combat and-”

“You know what, nevermind,” I interrupted with a chuckle. “I want to get this done sometimes this week.”

“Hey!”

“It got the same rating as combat armor, but it feels way lighter because it’s power armor,” I continued with a wry smile. “It obviously was designed for stealth, not to soak up bullets, but it handled a blank-point twelve gauge birdshot shell just fine the other day.”

“I had to do minor repairs,” Saios pointed out. “The internal plates were shattered because they absorbed the brunt of the impact. Had you been shot again in the same place, the outer layers would have stopped the projectiles but the shock would have shattered your ribs, possibly killing you.”

“Yes, steel armors have the same problem,” Chrystal added, then pointed toward her gear. “As for military combat armor, it was designed to be modular. Expended ceramic plates are supposed to be thrown away after each use, not that the pony inside could run around after being shot anyway.”

“That was a one-time thing.” I shook my head. “I don’t expect to get into shotgun range anytime soon.”

“What else?”

“The googles are pretty neat.” I tapped them with the tip of my hoof. “Nightvision, IR, cameras, all the good stuff. Plus, they are supposed to be bullet resistant, but I’m not sure I want to test that out. Ever. Otherwise, it’s mostly gadgets, like medical assistance, or dynamic camouflage.”

“Most importantly, the suit can act as a communication relay,” Saios pointed out. “Wherever it is, I can communicate with it in real time. We won’t need to use long distance radio transmissions.”

“So that’s how you control the APC.” Chrystal smiled. I repressed a shudder. “The lag would have been too great otherwise, am I right?”

“Well, yes and no,” Saios admitted. “I can only do it when Spring is around. I can use a satellite as a relay, but the ping is outrageous. Driving can be hazardous, and fighting is out of the question.”

“Fighting?” I repeated. “You don’t even have a cannon mounted on it!”

“Trust me lad, when you’re on hoof the turret is the last thing you need to worry about.” Sunburn said. His gear didn’t seem to have changed at all – nothing dropped, nothing grabbed. Then again, he had only been over here for a dozen hours or so. “An armoured puppy like that can ram through small buildings as if they were made of wet paper and being run over is hardly pleasant.”

“Point taken.” I smiled as I pictured the look on some imaginary raider’s face when they were being charged at high speed by thirty tons of solid steel.

“I could have designed a small turret around the machine gun to remote control it, but we hardly had the time,” Saios lamented. “Still, we already most likely outgun anypony out there.”

“True.” I motioned toward Sunburn’s grenade launchers. “You think you could take down a tank like that?”

“It’d be a challenge.” The ghoul scratched his chin pensively. “With anti-armour shells I probably could penetrate it a wee bit from behind, but even then my weapons were designed to take on infantry, not tanks.”

“Hm, so you would have been mostly impotent?” Chrystal asked with a wry smile. I rolled my eyes, but said nothing.

“Aye,” Sunburn answered, seemingly oblivious. “On a battlefield, I would have blown up its tires from afar, then radioed in an SPG to light the bugger up. Anti-armour guided missiles would definitively be a problem, but they are useless against infantry so I haven’t seen any in ages. Most morons out there would break their bloody neck trying to fire them anyway.”

“Humor me, you got something else than explosives in your gear?” I frowned as the thought crossed my mind. “We can’t really have you throwing grenades around in a weapon factory.”

“Catch.” Sunburn threw me something from his ammo belt.

“What am I looking at?” It was some kind of oversized rifle round with a black plastic cap. “I mean, I know it’s a grenade, but what about it?”

“It’s a 40mm buckshot round,” Sunburn tapped the side of his left launcher. “Less accurate than twelve gauge, but it clears rooms in a yiffy.”

“No shit.” I gaped at the gigantic shotgun shell. I tossed it back to its owner. “Do you have other fun things like that?”

“Aye, a few.” He dug his head in his saddlebags. “I got high-explosive, flares, smokes, timers, even half a dozen balefire ones a friend refitted from zebra ordinance a few decades back.”

“See, darling, I knew you liked doing inventories,” Chrystal teased with a charming smile. “Do you want to see mine? I can make it very… thorough.

I facehooved and groaned. “Just the gear, please.”

“You’re no fun,” she pouted mockingly, before striking a pose. “I assume you already noticed my mark VIIb body armor. Full ceramic plating, reinforced joints, hard enough to stop 7.62mm rounds but light enough not to impede movement.”

“Yes, very pretty,” I deadpanned.

“Oh, shush you,” she chuckled. “I know it’s lingerie you want to see, but as it turns out it offers little protection against incoming projectiles, obvious distraction factor set aside.”

“Why would anypony wear…” I began, before my brain betrayed me and pictured Chrystal in a very, very inappropriate attire. I shook my head but couldn’t keep my cheeks from heating up. “Gah, you did that on purpose, didn’t you?”

“On purpose? Moi?” Chrystal feigned indignation. “Why, do I ever? Here I am, laying my inventory bare in front of your eyes, and you go on and assume the most outrageous things about me.”

“What weapons do you even have?” I redirected the discussion on topic. Sometimes, you just have to choose your battles. “I got to say, I was surprised to see you carrying a SMG and not an assault rifle.”

“I came to realize a little while ago that, as far as weapons are concerned, bigger is not always better.” She shot me a sideway playful glance as she unstrapped her submachine gun. “There is no point carrying a five-kilo rifle with a hooful of high-powered rounds if all the foes you engage do not have proper armor. This SMG is lighter, smaller and features a larger magazine; as for the rounds, well, it uses the same your new sidearm does.”

“So that’s why you didn’t want me to buy another nine mil’.” I frowned. “Just to have a convenient excuse to have plenty of ammo with you to sell me down the line!”

“Oh, Spring, we both know I like to play those kind of games, but now you are getting silly,” Chrystal laughed. “No, I really meant what I said about that five-seven round, even moreso when fired from something with a longer barrel than a pistol.”

“Very well.” I was unconvinced, but let it slide. “Carry on. What else? Why did you even bring a sword?

“Ah, she and I go a long way.” The unicorn drew her sword in a fluid fashion, and as she stared at the naked blade a genuine smile graced her face. “She saved my life more than once, and while we were off to a chaotic start we came to… appreciate one another.”

“It’s just a sword,” I pointed out with an eyebrow lifted. “I mean, I can understand sentimental value – hell, I wouldn’t trade my rifle for anything in the world – but at the end of the day, that’s all it is: an object.”

“True.” Chrystal nodded but her eyes didn’t leave the sword for a second. She continued, lost in thought: “And yet… Have you ever heard of soul swords?”

“That’s a kind of ninja sword from Neighpon, right?” I ventured. “I’m not really into knives and whatnot, honestly. My knowledge starts and ends with ‘stab with the pointy end’.”

“I do know about those.” Saios sounded dubious, for some reason. “Legendary swords, forged by the greatest blacksmiths for the master Neighponese warriors. It spawned countless knock-off copies, but the masters were very secretive about the fabrication process and always brought their blade with them to the grave.”

“Believe me, she is no imitation,” Chrystal chuckled, her sword slashing in the air a couple times. “Yet, you would be right to believe few non-masters ever wielded such a blade, let alone own it. They have a certain… strength of character, if you will, and while I am hardly superstitious, there is no denying once the blade chose to be bound to somepony, the link remains for life.”

“I know most myths have roots in reality, but this doesn’t make any sense,” Saios said. “I believe the mystical properties of those blades stems from their exceptional quality and the skills of their wielder – then the secrecy turned the facts into legend.”

“So I thought.” Chrystal frowned. “Still, I have seen and felt enough to realize there is something else to those blades. Little things, subtle interactions – the way it would bite the flesh of somepony trying to steal her, the uncanny way it manages to deflect incoming projectiles… As much as I would love to attribute it to my skills, the sheer precision of even the laziest strike has little to do with luck.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You just told us the sword only binds once to a wielder. I think that’s the most contrived thing I’ve ever heard in my life, but let’s say it really works that way. How come you can use the blade now?”

“Ah, this is a long story.” Chrystal smiled, the sheen of the blade reflecting in her eyes. “Let us just say the mystery of those blades had little on the misery of the war. It is said a master blacksmith pours a part of his soul in each of his masterpiece, so I can only imagine the depths her crafter had to fall into to accept to sell her. Some rich idiot saw it as the perfect gift to offer a friend from Equestria – a Countess and a cunning mare. Neither really knew how precious it really was. It was priceless, but they bought it nonetheless.”

“Sounds like something you would do,” I laughed.

“True enough,” she chuckled. “Still, for the master of the arts, a soul blade is akin to a cutie mark in a way – each one is unique and deeply linked to its wearer in a coming-of-age epiphany… When I found her, she was unbound and I was quite foolish. I learned a lot since then, and I daresay I made her mine, just as she made me hers.”

“Are we still talking about the sword?” I asked uneasily. “Because it sounds like a lot of mumbo-jambo to me.”

“It is hardly the only legendary property of the soul blades I confirmed first hoof,” Chrystal continued with a small shake of the head. “Watch.”

Naked blade besides her, she walked toward a massive vertical steel beam supporting some large shelves. Then, out of the blue, she lashed right against it, as if she were trying to slice it in half like some bamboo. The blade ripped, showering the ground in hot sparks. A deafening clash of metal bounced around the warehouse like iron nails on a chalkboards.

“What the fuck?” I asked with a start. “You’re gonna ruin it!”

“Ha, not a chance.” Chrystal held the blade toward me. “You won’t find a single notch on her.”

She was right. The edge had an uncanny feel to it, as if it was too sharp to be reasonably real. It gave me shivers just to look at it – like an impending sense of doom.

Yet, had I not seen it with my very eyes, I wouldn’t have believed that blade had just gone on a collision course with an immovable object.

“Impossible.” Saios couldn’t hide his bewilderment. “Even the highest quality of metalcrafting couldn’t make a blade that hard without shattering it at the slightest shock.”

“Then let me blow your mind some more,” Chrystal continued with a seductive smile. “She has never been sharpened, ever, from the day she came out of the fire. She never dulls, never breaks. I have cleaved halfway through armored ponies without so much encountering the slightest resistance.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” I shuddered. “Enchantments of this magnitude don’t come for cheap, and I’m not just talking about cash.”

“There cannot possibly be enough gems in the handle to account for it,” Saios sounded dumbfounded. “Unless they possess unprecedented qualities. Legendary artifacts do have properties defying reason, after all, so at least it falls within the bounds of reality.”

“Well, whatever it is, it has nothing to do with the enchantments we have around here.” Chrystal shook her head. “The handle does wear with time, unlike the blade. I had to replace it a few times and there were no gems involved.”

“Are you certain?”

“Darling, I do know the difference,” she laughed before grabbing her holster.

She then proceeded to produce the most ridiculous handgun I had ever seen in my life.

“You can’t possibly be serious,” I stared at the golden monstrosity. The pistol was the size of a large book, and looked nearly as heavy. Its humongous metal frame had been plated with some golden alloy. Gems were incrusted in the handle, preventing its use as a mouth grip. The whole thing oozed testosterone, as if whoever commissioned it wanted a tool to show off rather than a real gun. “This is ridiculous.”

“I know,” Chrystal sighed. “But it was a gift, and it does have its uses every once in a while.”

“You mean when you need to club somepony to death?” I deadpanned. “Or when you need a gun to go with a fancy dress?”

“You missed your calling, Spring dear, you should have taken career in stand-up comedy,” Chrystal retorted with a cunning smile. “While my pistol can act as a symbol of social status or as a tool of intimidation, I was talking about its very high caliber and the enchantments weaved on it.”

“Regular enchantments?” Saios asked.

“Yes, among the best money could offer,” Chrystal confirmed with a hint of pride. Then, she put her gun next to her sword. “Still, it really falls short of my blade’s qualities. It is wear-resistant, not indestructible, and the gems have to be replenished every once in a while.”

“Aye, I recall those kinds of modifications.” Sunburn nodded. “Some Shadowbolts had wee gems embedded in their guns to reduce the kick, because recoilless rifles can burn your bloody wings if you’re a pegasus.”

“I always dismissed those enchantments as costly and impractical,” Saios added. “They have to be precisely calibrated for the weapon, and if anything need to be replaced you have to remove them, then redo everything from scratch. The MoAw was really throwing money through the windows back in the days.”

“Well, well, well, look at the pot calling the kettle black,” I teased. “Remind me, who decided to build a giant underground evil lair just because?”

“Point taken.”

“Right.” Silence fell back on the warehouse. “So, are we good to go now?”

“I just finished packing up the medical supplies we might need.” Evey startled me as she entered the room to my back. Large yet practical saddlebags had been fastened on her flanks. “Saios suggested you had something else in mind for me?”

“I… do?” I said, perplexed.

“The armor,” the AI suggested in my earpiece.

“Right, I do!” I headed for one of Chrystal’s crates. “I know you have your fancy shield and stuff, but we found something neat for you to wear.”

“True, she might just be of the right size.” Chrystal nodded thoughtfully, her eyes scanning the alicorn up and down. “Her horn won’t fit under the helmet however. It was designed with pegasi in mind.”

“For what little good they do, she’ll just go bare-headed,” I grunted as I tried and failed to wrench the crate open. “Luna fuck me with a rusty spoon, did you really have to nail it shut?”

“Some of us do care about other’s belongings,” Chrystal retorted, hoofing me an orange crowbar. “Nothing is more unbecoming of a trader than damaging their goods during transportation.”

“How peculiar,” Saios deadpanned. “I would have expected you to love things fallen off the back of a chariot.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” I stopped, my frozen body weighing on the half-opened lid. “What the hell does a chariot, of all things, has to do with anything?”

“It is an euphemism for stolen goods, darling,” Chrystal rolled her eyes. “For all his processing power, your friend doesn’t seem to be able to make his jokes funny.”

“Hey!”

“Tss, pre-War humor,” I shook my head. With a final tug, I pried the crate open. “There you go. Take a look and please tell me it’s a fit because I really doubt I can return it.”

Evey walked toward me and froze at the sight of the butterflies painted on the armor. For a fleeting moment, I saw something in her eyes, a small flash of recognition, but then it was gone.

“You found medic armor? Good call, kid.” Sunburn whistled appreciatively, before nudging the alicorn in the shoulder. “Eh, that ought to bring you back, lad, right?”

“It… does,” Evey blinked. “Or at least, did. I used to own body armor like that, I believe… Or perhaps I worked with ponies wearing them? I can’t recall.”

“Don’t worry, lass, when you’re as old as you and I, you’re bound to lose some memories along the way,” Sunburn laughed heartily, patting the alicorn in the back. “Trust me, you don’t want to recall what happened to us during that bloody War.”

“So you really are two centuries old,” Chrystal noted with surprise, before biting her lip. “Apologies. One should never speak of a lady’s age. For all it’s worth, you don’t look a day over thirty.”

“Thank you?” Evey proposed hesitantly. “I suppose?”

We helped the alicorn put her new armor on. Minor adjustments of the padding were required, but otherwise Saios had been spot on: it fitted her just fine.

“So, what do you think?” I asked with a smile. In my eyes there was no doubt Evey had worn such gear in the past – she was barely in it and already she looked like a fish taking to the water.

“It’s a big tight around the wings.” She deployed her large appendages all the way. “This was to be expected. Pegasi medics have never been known for being great flyers, and had the wingspan to go accordingly.”

“Aye. I used to know a couple lads who would have killed to get babies like yours,” Sunburn whistled with approval. Meanwhile, I approached Evey and lifted her left wing a bit to get a better look.

“Don’t take my word for it, but I think just ought to cut that seam just a bit to let you breathe,” I noted, the soft feathers under the wing rubbing with the top of my head. I pressed my hoof against its base to make my point. Evey fidgeted a bit. “Better?”

“My, my, Spring,” Chrystal chuckled behind me. “I would have never guessed you had a soft spot for pegasi.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I pushed the wing up to get a look to the mare behind me. It was then I realized the conflicted look on Evey’s face.

“You are not very familiar with pegasus anatomy, are you?” she asked uneasily.

“Did I hurt you?” I removed my hoof from the wing. Evey closed her eyes for a second and let out a deep sigh.

“I wish you could hurt me like that!” Chrystal laughed at loud.

“Wings are very erogenous for pegasi and alicorns alike,” Evey continued with a sorry smile. “This is not an area you want to touch without permission.”

“Erogenous?” I repeated, dumbfounded, before facehoofing loudly. “You mean, like… Oh, Luna fuck me.”

“Keep at it, and that might just happen,” Chrystal landed the killing blow. I wisely opted to cut my losses and proceed to a strategic exit one might have mistaken for a cowardly retreat.

Clearly, in that kind of battle I was clearly outmatched.

(** **)

“Finally!” I groaned, jumping out of the APC. While Evey’s nonthreatening behavior tended to make one forget her massive size, the cramped interior of the armor served as an awful wake-up call. If the outward trip had been uncomfortable, the journey toward Fillydelphia downright made me claustrophobic. All my plans of stuffing Evey between me and Chrystal were thrown right out the window because of my awkward ignorance of the most private uses of a pegasus’ wings. While the alicorn couldn’t mistake my intentions (mind reading, duh), I really didn’t want to give the evil shopmare more ammunition for her teasing should I fall asleep and accidently snuggle Evey. I’m sure the poor lass wouldn’t have it in her to wake me up to free her wings.

This being said, my next mate’s going to be a pegasus. Those damn feathers were soft!

Anyway, a thankfully cuddle-free ride later, we arrived a couple hours’ away from Fillydelphia. As tempting as ramming through the factory’s door with the APC might have been, it would have squandered two of our most valuable assets: anonymity and my skills at sneaking around undetected.

But then, dismounting within the sentries’ view range would have been equally unadvised. Camo painting or not, our armor wasn’t exactly a model of stealth. Thus, the party had to cover a sizeable distance on hoof in hostile terrain.

Surprisingly, we made it to the factory unscathed. As we regrouped behind a wall that had seen better days, the assault team (everypony but me and Saios, safe in his bunker) checked their weapons. Chrystal freed her SMG from her barding, Meridian awkwardly added rounds in his six-shooter, Sunburn began making neat stacks of explosives for the fireworks, and Evey checked out her brand new laser rifle’s sights. When I first saw it, my first words were, in substance, ‘are you really sure you want to hit something other than our asses?’.

Then Chrystal and Saios teamed up to make fun at my expense.

As it turns out, and as I should have known somehow, lasers are actually accurate as fuck, as long as their optics are taken care off. Unsurprisingly, nopony ever bothered doing that in the Wastelands, basically making every laser rifle ever a complete crapshoot. I suppose it answered the question of why I always saw them as a downgrade from good ol’ gunpowder.

Obviously, our local nerd had already taken care of that problem. The on-board software should even correct misaims, he bragged. War-era ponies probably couldn’t aim on their own, I suppose. They were blind enough to throw the world into the inferno, after all.

I suppose a laser make sense for a medic. It is… cleaner, in a way. Traditional guns make a lot of noise and leave a helluva mess in a firefight. Energy weapons just zapped your problems away, turning them to dust or burning a neat hole in their thick heads.

Good thing Evey wasn’t a pacifist, else she would have probably asked for a dart gun or something equally silly.

The weapons checked, I headed toward the large factory building, sticking to the sentries’ blind spots. It wasn’t all that hard, given the rough nature of the terrain and the layout of the building itself.

What stood out first was the giant barn-like structure spreading out on the concrete. Some three stories tall, it probably hosted the real factory work, while the smaller buildings adjoined were the offices. The roof had obviously been remade, if its patchwork appearance was of any indication, but unlike many collapsed buildings nearby, every wall had been built with a mixt of concrete and steel. It had stood the test of time, yet I had my doubts about Sunburn’s explosive part in the plan.

Some climbing later, I had found my way to a remote part of the upper structure. Security was lax – they probably weren’t expecting any kind of trouble. After all, bandits had easier prey to rob, and raiders worked for Red Eye in the first place.

“All right, what know?” I asked Saios in a whisper. Chrystal had talked of some inconspicuous way to enter the offices, but I had trusted the AI with the specifics. “What am I looking for?”

“Right behind this old cooling unit, there ought to be an opening toward the level below.”

“A vent?” I managed to half-choke on my own spit. “Are you fucking serious?”

(** **)

“I can’t believe you were fucking serious,” I grumbled incoherently as I crawled through the narrow passage. Granted, it was only a couple meters long, but I felt like one of those pseudo-spies in those stupid stories. “A vent, of all things.”

Thankfully, Saios failed to comment on that point and on my less than graceful landing. The things I do for money…

I arrived in a room that might have been a coffee lounge in times long gone. Now, a vandalized vending machine and some broken down furniture were the only hints at better days.

“Okay, tell them I’m in,” I murmured after checking nopony was around. “Do you want me to head for the coffers first?”

“Please leave this to me,” Chrystal answered. Saios had patched the rest of the party to my suit. “Black Slab would inevitably cross path with you, and I have a score to settle with him. After all, we all know what happens to stallions standing in your way, hm?”

“That only happened once!” I protested. “Well, once in the past two months, fillies excluded.”

“Fillies?” Meridian somehow managed to make the word sound like an accusation.

“I mean, mares,” I sputtered. “Obviously. Sunburn can attest it.”

“Hm?” the ghoul in question perked up at his own name. “Oh. Aye, a mare. Indubiously.”

“See?”

“For a certain definition of a mare,” he continued absentmindedly.

“Dude, not funny!” I hissed. “All right, recess’s over. Get ready to move, just allow me to kill a couple guys and get in position to murder some more.”

Tense and gun at the ready, I opened the door. The corridor was (thankfully) empty, but I registered voices coming from a room further ahead.

“Three guys, at least,” I mumbled under my breath. “But there’s bound to be more.”

I leaned against a wall and dared a peep inside.

Yep, three stallions all right. Armed and all geared up.

“Fuck,” I mouthed silently in my gas mask. How come I never stumbled on ponies with their pants down?

“Something’s wrong?” Saios managed to pick on that nonetheless.

“Three guys, that’s two more than I’d like,” I breathed out. “I can’t risk alerting the others.”

“You’ve done much more difficult in the past – with much gusto, I might say,” the AI answered. “You could probably even pick them off one by one and they would be none the wiser.”

“It was different,” I bit my lower lip. “Wasn’t dangerous. Was simulated. There’s no extra lives this time.”

I peeked again. The three stallions, two of them with their back turned, were reading and laughing at an old comic book that had somehow survived the apocalypse.

“Fuck,” I took a deep breath. “There goes nothing…”

I slipped in the room. Time went to a standstill.

I pointed my suppressed pistol toward a stallion’s neck, and had my eyes on the next before I even pressed the trigger.

It took forever for the one facing me to register the bullet speeding through his colleague, spraying a thin blood mist in front of him.

I tackled his other friend in front of his bewildered eyes. Usually, a sturdy stallion like that would have easily shrugged off the impact of a mare of my stature – but then, the body slam usually didn’t come with six fifteen centimeters long blades sticking through his chest.

He was dead before he even realized I was there.

At last, the remaining raider reacted. In slow motion, he kicked the coffee table to my head.

In real time, I aimed toward him, shooting him dead right through the table. Splinters arced in the air; his lifeless body jerked backward as two rounds exploded his forehead.

Time took back its rights and the coffee table hit me square in the face.

(** **)

“Son of a…” I cursed, nursing my bruised muzzle and my broken ego. “Celestia’s holy anal flares, that fucking hurt! Too bad that bastard’s already dead, or else…”

“You would just kill him again?” Saios finished, bemused. “Just to make sure he is most certainly dead.”

“Har dee har har, Clowney McLaughtinpants, you are such a master of subtle humor,” I snarled. “Remind me, what was that joke you told me last time? ‘A proton and an electron walk into a bar…’”

“Evey found it to be quite funny,” he interjected with half-faked indignation. “It is your ignorance that cannot be helped.”

“Well sorry smartass if I don’t…”

“Are you two done bickering like little foals, or do I have to get in there and spank you?” Chrystal interrupted. “Or whatever passes for spanking among tin cans.”

“… you left the channel open,” I pointed out bluntly after a few embarrassing seconds of silence.

“I left the channel open,” Saos admitted with a hint of shame. “My bad.”

“Right,” I sighed. I almost missed the good old days of my solitary endeavors. It was different back then. Less unforeseen events. Less untapped potential, too. I hadn’t had so much fun in my life in forever. “Where are the coffers anyway? I don’t want to accidentally take your vengeance away from you.”

“Don’t worry, at the first signs of trouble the coward will entrench himself in the old basements we had turned into offices,” Chrystal explained. “The ones you are standing in right now can get really chilly in winter, you see.”

“So nopony will be heading my way either,” I deduced, pushing an ages-old sofa against the stairway door nonetheless. As a general rule, ponies like me hated being sneaked upon. “Good, good.”

I unstrapped my hunting rifle (which had, surprisingly, seen a lot less of service lately) and removed the caps from the optics. Peeking out the half-boarded windows – the absence of glass panes being a good candidate as to why it was ‘chilly’ in winter – I assessed the situation downstairs.

“I see six, no, seven guards down there, with probably more in my blind spots,” I mumbled. “There are a few sturdy-looking pieces of equipment near the gate. It ought to provide some light cover, but don’t get your hopes too high. It hardly screams ‘bulletproof’ to me.”

“Well then lady I hope your magic is as potent as you made it out to be,” Sunburn laughed. I could almost see him nudging Evey and Chrystal shaking her head. “I already died once, it was an unlikable experience. I’d rather not see it happen a second bloody time.”

“I can handle small arm fire and shrapnel,” Evey repeated, her voice calm and smooth like the surface of a mirror. “Spring, any heavy weaponry we should be wary off?”

“None that I can see.” I paused as I noticed a larger pattern in the movements downstairs. Civvies in rags were assembling rifles in a way even I found horribly inefficient. The weapons that came out of the assembly line were rusted pieces of shit, even by Wastelands standards. Fuck, if that was the best they could do, I really had to revise downward my assessment of Red Eye’s forces. “As long as Sunburn mind his fire and doesn’t light up a couple tons of gunpowder, you’re in the clear.”

“That means no fragmentation grenades,” Saios helpfully translated. “Nor incendiary, high-explosives, timed charges, modified landmines or anything that could turn this place into an untimely crater.”

“Not even a small one?” I repressed a chuckle as I could almost hear the ghoul pout.

“If I hear so much of a firecracker going off, you are walking all the way back,” Chrystal warned.

“Well, technically it’s Spring’s APC, so that’s her call,” Sunburn countered.

“Walking home, with a couple rounds lodged in your ass,” I continued, glad the radio didn’t convey my wide grin. “I do believe I have the skills to make it non-lethal to an old chap like you.”

“Fine, flashbangs it is,” Sunburn finally yielded, “in addition to the fireworks to throw the buggers off.”

“Deal,” I nodded. Below me, a guard hammered a slacker right in the face with her rifle’s stock. A nagging doubt crept into my mind. “Just a thought, what about the civvies? There has to be two or three dozen around here. If they jump on the nearest guns, the odds won’t be in our favor.”

“If they do, believe me they shan’t be shooting at us,” Chrystal answered grimly. “Slaves, the lot of them. Black Slab is the kind of pony not to spit on cheap labor, however uneducated they might be. Oh, how low this place has fallen…”

“Innocents souls, caught in the crossfire,” Meridian murmured almost inaudibly. I rolled my eyes. Of course, of all the things in the world, my knight in shining armor had to worry about them.

“Fine, watch your fire then,” I sighed. Somehow, I doubted the guards would spare them the same curtesy and if I had to shoot through meat shields I would never hear the end of it. “Better not have too much collateral, I suppose.”

“True,” Chrystal backed me up, to my great surprise. Perhaps the ice queen had a soft side, after all.

“It would make for horrendous PR otherwise.”

Eh, nevermind.

“Aye, laddy.”

Meridian and Evey didn’t say anything. Then again, I already knew their stance on the matter.

“Good. Everypony’s ready?” I breathed out, checking my three-o’-eight one last time. The hollow point rounds would make one hell of a mess at that close range.

“On your mark, lad,” Sunburn’s voice sounded professional all of sudden. “We’re all set here.”

On my mark? I pondered silently, taking note of which guards I should shoot first. Somewhere along the road I had taken the lead of that rashtag band of misfits. My rashtag band of misfits. Who would have guessed?

“Let’s get started,” I finally announced, strengthening my grip on the rifle.

Sunburn happily obliged.

(** **)

I wish I could transcribe the chain of events that followed, but words just fall short of the otherworldly chaos that shook the factory to its core. Discord, the mad god, would have surely been quite proud of the display.

Synchronized explosions annihilated half a dozen access points, turning the welded doors to burned rust with a precision that shouldn’t have been even remotely possible. Five of them were decoys, to force the defenders to spread out needlessly. As it turns out, such a sophisticated breach proved out to be completely unnecessary, because Sunburn then tossed a cartload of stun grenades to the hapless ponies inside.

All I saw was a silent white flash that sent me ducking behind my cover. Even with all the suit’s gadgets to protect me against that kind of attacks, I felt as if I had been hit straight in the face with a sandbag. That’s how tremendous that explosion was – the light shone so bright it physically hurt.

Really, leave it to Sunburn to make a megaspell out of damp matchsticks and a pack of peppermint bubblegum.

Needless to say, our friends downstairs fared even worse than I did. The most resilient were rolling about, screaming insanities while clenching their bloody ears. The grenades had left scorch marks here and there but did surprisingly little damage. I would have expected everything to be lined with a thin crust of pony flesh, to be perfectly honest.

My own squad rushed in, Evey’s shield glimmering before them. They reached their designated cover without much hassle, since the raiders guarding the rest of the facility had still to figure out what in Tartarus had just happened.

Well, Sunburn did try to make a very noisy guard swallow a smoke grenade just to silence his wailing, but a single glare from Evey and he sheepishly put the weapon away.

“We are in,” Chrystal nodded in my direction. Even through the smoke, I could see the shock on her face.

Couldn’t blame her, really. Luna’s tits, my own expression would be some sight to behold, too.

“I’ve noticed,” I radioed back grumpily. “And so have everypony in Fillydelphia.”

Just on cue, submachine gun fire rattled against their cover’s heavy steel, sending sparks flying in the air. A couple rounds bounced harmlessly against Evey’s shield, and I’m certain I saw Chrystal mouth a very unladylike curse.

A three-o’-eight round silenced the shooter. His friends wisely ducked back to cover. I moved to another window.

One of my rounds hit a large metal plate some raider less stupid than the others had raised as a makeshift cover, but failed to penetrate. Grunting, I switched to armor-piercing rounds but already Evey’s laser had cut right through the metal. The beam stopped right short of overpenetrating and the stallion fell limp as if somepony had cut his puppet strings.

Fuck, the girl was a natural.

Meanwhile, Chrystal was spreading lead left and right. The businessmare seemed like a piranha out of water; clearly she had spent some time and effort to learn how to fight. Her style was right out the pages of an Old World’s strategy book, granting covering fire without getting herself killed. Conversely, the glimpse of her swordmareship I saw back in Friendship City had seemed to come right out of her heart. I finally understood why she carried that sword around. Above all, it was her trademark weapon, the one she excelled at.

Sunburn’s face alternated between a maniac grin and an impenetrable mask of concentration as he blasted rounds after rounds from one side to the room to the other. Incredibly, he never missed, once you had accounted for the terrible dispersion of his shotgun shells. A supersonic rubber ball (of all things!) hit the metal plate I had shot earlier with a deafening bang. It violently toppled over a couple raiders hidden behind it. One had his neck snapped at once, the other got lucky and jumped out of the way at the cost of a good chunk of her tail.

She probably never noticed though, because the second she stepped out I exploded her brains out.

Meridian, to my great surprise, had his revolver out. He fired a couple haphazard rounds toward the raiders and stopped dead as one of the few civvies too deaf to run stumbled in front of him and fell heavily to the ground. I saw his face go pale and his eyes grow wide, even at this distance, until the slave got back to his hooves and staggered to a safe corner.

And sadly that summed up the Earth pony’s involvement in the gun fight.

“We ought to charge them, lads,” Sunburn urged as one of his gigantic shotgun rounds pulverized a rotten crate and half of the mare behind it. “Before they get to flanking us.”

“By all means, take the lead,” Chrystal yelled. A burst from her SMG caught an unlucky guard right to the throat. He stumbled around a couple seconds, a panicked look on his face, and then crumbled, dead.

All the civvies that hadn’t been too injured by the flashbangs had already crawled out of the way with the uncanny speed granted by decades of life in the worst parts of the Wastelands. If they kept it up they’d probably be halfway to Vanhoover by nightfall.

Evey stuck her head out of cover and stared at the open space in front of her. Bullets ricocheted against her shield yet she barely seemed to notice. Her visage was blank, yet for some reason I knew she had last-second doubts about her shield. Not that she cared about being injured herself. Would it hold against sustained fire? For that matter, would it even be safe to return fire then?

Meridian put a hoof on her shoulder. Evey relaxed immediately.

Then she stepped forward.

(** **)

I have seen shit in my life that would have made many a raider soil themselves and call for their mommy. I have waddled through the darkest abysses of the Wastelands, observed the ruin of ponykind until there was no hope left in my heart, no emotions but resignation.

I have witnessed the improbable. I have done things that defied imagination.

And yet, as I watched the scene unfold before my very eyes, my brain simply refused to process it. I gaped like some brainless imbecile, blinking stupidly, as if the simple movement could banish the absurd visions back where they belonged.

By the time Evey had gotten out of cover, every single raider still carrying a weapon had focused their fire on her. The rattle of gunfire had turned to an unending string of bangs, blending into one another in a sound not unlike the world’s deadliest symphony. The alicorn’s shield turned opaque in the onslaught as hundreds of bullets bounced and ricocheted in a stream so stupidly dense the ones on their way back slammed the ones on the way in.

The bubble stopped there, until the raiders’ ammo ran out. As the smoke cleared, a string of unholy curses ran in their ranks. A couple, probably wiser than the rest, bailed out on the spot. The others franticly reloaded.

Evey began walking.

It wasn’t a charge, it wasn’t a dash – no, she merely strode toward them at a sedate pace. The sheer determination in that movement, that doomed feeling of facing an unstoppable mass, soon got the better of the raiders’ courage. Most of them dropped their weapons, sometimes without even bothering to empty them in a last ditched attempt. There were but a few who remained, perhaps unaware of the gaping holes in their ranks.

Finally, Evey stopped again. She unfolded her wings, in all her glory. Her ethereal mane floated in an invisible breeze ; her eyes shone and sparkled with the raw power coursing through her veins.

Begone.

It wasn’t even an order. It was a statement.

I think those guys are still running to this day.

(** **)

“Well, that was fun.”

Sunburn shrugged, before lighting up a smoke. I would have said the ghoul was pouting over his recent rebuff, but honestly presuming anything about the expression on his rotten face of his was less than easy.

Further away, Meridian’s eyes were slowly taking in the desolation in front of him. Bodies littered the floor, most of them raiders. Some slaves had failed to make their big exit in time and had paid a heavy price for it. Bullets were like that: no friends, no foes. ‘Friendly fire’ is one helluva fallacy if you ask me.

Still, we had done our best. If the guards didn’t care for collateral damage, that couldn’t be helped. Evey muttered so in Meridian’s ear, before heading toward a couple poor fools that were somehow spared by the onslaught. Leave it to her to patch up complete strangers, eh.

“Come on, don’t be like that.” I poked Sunburn in the shoulder, regretting it almost instantly. No offence to the guy, but he really was, ugh. The texture of his flesh alone made me want to puke, and that’s coming from someone who’ve swam in makeshift sewers twice in her life. “You still have the whole place to bring down, remember?”

At that, his eyes light up like Hearth Warming trees. I swear, the manic look he had whenever he thought about blowing something up was unsettling.

“Aye, I do.” His grin sent shivers down my spine. Luna fuck me to orbit, his lips barely had any flesh on them. “Give me twenty minutes to set the charges up. This is going to be bloody bonkers!”

“Just wait for us to get to a safe distance.” I chuckled uneasily. “Remember Hollow Shades? I still hear my ears rigging at night.”

“No they don’t!” Sunburn slapped me in the back, seemingly obvious to my grimace. “True, the narrow street made for an unexpected funnel, but hey, lad, you had asked for a diversion, I gave you a bloody good one!”

“Well I’d like that one to be bloodless.” I frowned. “At least for us. I don’t care if we dismember a few of those bastards on the side.”

“Aye aye ma’am!” The ghoul threw me a mock salute and immediately dashed off toward the upper structure. How somepony with so little feathers left could even hover was completely lost on me.

Then again, magic. Duh.

“Speaking of which…” I mumbled, looking around. “Where in Tartarus has Chrystal gone?”

(** **)

As it turns out, Chrystal had to be really angry with that Backstab guy (or whatever his name was), because the second it became obvious Evey had the situation well in hoof, the unicorn dashed off toward the basement. Following her hoovesteps, I came across a couple bodies warm enough to still be bleeding. The first had his chest riddled with holes; the second had a leg and most of his torso severed. Uh. I guess she really wasn’t kidding when she said her sword was razor-sharp.

In her rush, she did miss a few raiders bunkered down in a small storage room. I would have killed them off, too, if one of those morons hadn’t tried to toss a grenade at me only to fail miserably. The projectile ricocheted against the door frame, came back right at his face.

Needless to say, the resulting picture wasn’t pretty. It’s truly amazing the amount of blood and gore a pony can produce when squeezed out the right way.

It was then, as I turned away from the freshly repainted room, that I noticed the tiny windows running against the base of the eastmost walls. Craning my neck, I realized they opened on the lower level. While far too small for a pony to crawl through, a clever pony armed with a shotgun would have had no difficulty blasting the legs off any intruder walking in my corridor. Perhaps it was my paranoia talking, but I kept a watchful eye on those nasty holes as I moved forward. Better safe than crippled, ‘nuff said.

As I rounded a corner, the room downstairs changed. The moldy corridor gave way to a large and surprisingly cozy room. The walls had been repainted sometime in the last two decades, from the look of it. Somepony had even taken the time to drag a nice wooden desk all the way there and various painting adorned the place. Hell, there was even a worn-looking carpet on the ground.

More importantly however were the ponies inside.

Nearly facing me, a dark grey stallion with a dull green mane had backed against the far wall. From time to time, his eyes darted to an open drawer in the desk, which I assumed contained a weapon of some sort. He made no move to retrieve it however; he would have been dead before even taking a single step.

The other pony showed a backside that I had grown to know very well, to my great dismay. Smug like a snake, Chrystal had her ninja sword pointed lazily at the stallion’s throat. The other had to be Backstab, then, or whatever his name really was.

“…never done this,” he was saying. His voice was full of spite but his eyes full of fear. “You couldn’t just let it go, could you? Now Red Eye’ll have your hide, and probably mine too while he’s at it.”

“For that, he would need to know I was involved.” Chrystal chuckled ominously. “Last time I checked, however, corpses weren’t known for their loquaciousness.”

“You can’t kill me.” Black Slab tried to back a little more nonetheless, to no avail. “I know you. You’re a greedy bitch. You wouldn’t have hired mercenaries for the payback. And you can’t open the safe without my code.”

“You underestimate my friends’ abilities at breaking things.” Chrystal stepped forward. “Yet you are right. Time is a luxury we do not have. Breaching the safe would be anything but fast.”

“If you surrender now, I’ll try to go easy on you.” Now that was bold. “Who know? I might even let you live.” And that was terminally stupid.

“I have a better idea.” I couldn’t see Chrystal’s face, yet her sadistic smile was even audible. “You are going to give me the code.”

There was a pause – a vague moment of uncertainty, as if the whole world asserted the threat behind Chrystal’s words. Then, in an adrenaline-fueled blur, Black Slab dashed for the door.

He didn’t make it quite that far, of course. He was quick, quick enough to have put a sprinter to shame, but he never stood a chance. Chrystal pounced like a manticore on a ball of yarn.

Both of them jumped out of my narrow field of view. Cursing internally as I missed the good part, I moved for the next window.

Black Slab was sitting awkwardly against the wall in which he had been slammed rather unceremoniously. His eyes were unfocused, staring at a point in the distance over Chrystal’s shoulder. She was in front of him, backing up a couple steps, sword slightly lowered. She had a look on a face, one I could not describe for the life of me. It was a sight of cruel beauty, of marvelous terror, akin to standing in a dark tunnel, facing an incoming train’s lights. It was both fire and ice, silk and steel, rapture and death, a determinate mask you could only love and loathe and not pry your eyes away from it.

“You are a fool.” Oh Luna have mercy on my soul, that voice. It inspired both images of satin and of unconditional obedience. “You cannot run away from me.”

“No…” His voice was unfocused, distant, as if he had been fighting to remember something and failing miserably. “Can’t run away from you.”

“Good boy.” Chrystal’s voice had been barely more than a whisper, yet her voice seemed to echo on the walls, bouncing in the room like an ominous sign. “Now give me the code.”

“No…” Black Slab shook his head awkwardly, as if coordinated movement was now something completely out of his reach. “Can’t. You kill me.”

“Give me the code!” Chrystal lurched forward, her face mere inches away from his face, her eyes plunging into his. The hopeless stallion’s irises dilated in abject terror, but just for a fraction of a moment – then they grew dim, lifeless, as their owner gave in.

You couldn’t live long in the Wastelands without nurturing some skill for detecting trouble, akin to a sixth sense guiding your steps away from mortal danger. It helped you avoiding deadly zones, or walking away from a suicidal contract. It was that dreadful feeling in your guts, that dead stone weighing in your stomach that made ponies move out of the way long before the trouble even began.

“Twenty one, oh four,” Black Slab mumbled, expressionless. “Twenty, twelve.”

My fight-or-flight instinct kicked into overdrive.

I didn’t know what, I didn’t know how, but I just knew I had just witnessing something sick, something so wicked and so opposed to pony nature even a murderous freak like me wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it.

I had believed I knew Chrystal, I realized, just because I hadn’t been falling for her like everypony else. Foalish and reckless thoughts! She could play me just as well as she could play any other pony. Was Chrystal even her real name? Was anything I knew about her even real, or was it all just a deception? She had said it herself when I asked about her cutie mark the other day – why would anypony lie about their special talent that way?

Unless, perhaps, this was what it was all about. Manipulation. The power to sway minds, to breathe lies and to make your own truth. Perhaps I had been too quick to assess Chrystal as one of those mares who liked to turn heads wherever they went. For sure, that’s what she did, yet it didn’t define her. It was but a tool, a means to an end – and whatever lurked below, I realized, I really didn’t want to know.

Suddenly, it appeared to me Chrystal may have been more trouble than she was worth.

“What the fuck did I just see?” I mumbled under my breath.

“It appears our business associate can be even more charismatic than expected,” Saios answered approvingly. It startled me – he didn’t sound like he even noticed.

“Wait, you didn’t feel it?” I asked, moving away from the window. Now that Chrystal had moved away from her ex-associate, I really didn’t want her to realize I had seen the whole scene. “That dreadful feeling?”

She had already reached the safe on the other side of the room. I heard her hit the keypad.

“I give you five seconds to understand what was wrong with that sentence,” Saios said flatly. “Then I’ll start shocking you.”

The safe opened with a satisfactory hiss. Chrystal chuckled darkly.

“Sorry, sorry,” I mumbled, my back hitting a wall behind me. “I… Sorry.”

“You okay?” Saios picked up on my hazy reply. “Spring, you feeling okay?”

“Usually, this is not how I finish my opponents,” I heard Chrystal say, “but you know what? I don’t even want your blood on my blade. So long, Blacky – you really shouldn’t have fucked with me.”

Gunshot. Loud, clear, echoing down the basement. Fifty call action express, I mused idly, the wall in front of me rocking back and forth. That had to be her ridiculous pistol, then.

“Spring? SPRING?” Saios shook me up off my torpor. “Are you feeling okay? Do you want me to call Evey in?”

“I’m good, I’m good,” I took a deep breath. The world rolled back into focus. “I just had some kind of… I dunno, it was weird. I’m better already.”

I stood up, even though I didn’t remember sitting down in the first place. Then, I headed toward the lower level.

(** **)

“Ah, Spring,” Chrystal looked up from the century-old documents spread out on the desk in front of her. “I would have expected you sooner, darling, but I suppose a mare must know how to feel desired, hm?”

“Something unexpected came up on the way down,” I explained truthfully. I left it to her mind to invent the details.

The room was every bit as lavish as it had seemed through the windows. The only unexpected addition was the large crimson pattern splattered on the yellow plaster.

The corpse underneath presented an even more gruesome spectacle. Nasty head wounds were hardly a novelty to me, being a sharpshooter with a high-powered rifle and all that, yet that particular one could have earned a place in a horror gallery. The single round, probably a hollow point from the damage, had blasted the head open, leaving an exit wound larger than a cauliflower. In fact, from the way the loose skin on the top bagged inward, the whole skull had in all likelihood shattered like porcelain, leaving the bony bits to float in a brain stew.

One of the eyes even hanged out of its orbit, the optical nerve visible.

“Ew,” I stepped over a growing poodle of blood. “You really made a mess.”

“So I did,” Chrystal frowned and shook her head disapprovingly. “I may have lost my cool. Regardless, there are not many ways of disposing efficiently of liabilities, are there?”

“It wasn’t a reproach,” I took a look to the schematics on the desk. They looked like gibberish to me. “Just sayin’ it could have been cleaner.”

“Well, he was uncooperative and made a run for the door.” I looked up straight into Chrystal’s eyes, my best poker face on. It wasn’t really hard, since inside I just felt… numb. Hollow.

“So I shot him,” she continued, unwavering. “He would have not said anything anyway. Thankfully, he never thought of changing the safe’s codes.”

So that was what a perfect lie looked like, I told myself as I couldn’t spot a single twitch on her beautiful face. Yes, I thought as I finally looked away with a cornered smile, I didn’t know a single thing about that mare. It was too late to back down now however. I would have to play her game and hopefully find out the rules as I go.

“Ponies are so reckless,” I chuckled darkly, peeking over my shoulder at the late Black Slab. For all I knew, that guy could be me, ten years down the road. “Found anything of value?”

“Most of the things I remember leaving behind were still here.” She embraced the desktop with an outstretched foreleg. “Weapon schematics, of course, but also trademarked industrial processes, heavy machinery blueprints, all in all serious assets for our endeavor.”

“No computers?” The room was completely devoid of terminals of any kind. “Well, shit. Two century old papers it is.”

“Don’t be so hasty,” Chrystal chuckled, waving a couple drives in front of me. “Back in the days, I had every schematic we ever came across digitalized and stocked on those puppies. Paper has the annoying downside of being both volume consuming and flammable.”

“I would have expected you to run away with them,” I frowned.

“I did,” she sighed, pointing a hoof to her temple. “Yet a genius had the brilliant idea of tossing a pulse grenade at me on my way to my safehouse. He probably believed it was a plasma charge or something. All it did was wipe the data clean. Thankfully, I didn’t have the opportunity to come back here to destroy those backups, or else we would have been left with nothing to take off with.”

“It also explains why you didn’t try again someplace else.”

“Oh, make no mistake, I could have acquired a few blueprints here and there,” she smiled devilishly. The emphasis made me shudder, and that’s coming from a burglar not afraid to murder the owner if it can save me a headache. “Still, I had very little heart going back to that kind of endeavors. With Red Eye rising on the horizon and the Rangers getting ever more aggressive in their hoarding, it just was not worth the trouble.”

“Yet you seemed eager to work with us,” I pointed out. “What changed?”

“Well, for starter our leader has devilishly good looks.” She winked seductively at me, and the room temperature jumped up ten degrees. “Those arguments set aside, the stakes couldn’t be more different from what they used to. We already have a functional base of operation – a fortress, I might add – with all the technical expertise we might need. I have very little to lose, very much to win and competent allies to watch my back. It would have been unthinkable to pass up this opportunity.”

“I reasoned on the same lines,” I mumbled, shifting my weight on my hooves. “Saios, how are the others doing upstairs?”

“Sunburn is done placing charges at strategic locations and the wounded ex-slaves have been moved out to cover,” the AI answered. “They seem to be ready to move out.”

“Good, good.” I shoot a sideway glance toward Chrystal. “I think we’re done here. Let’s get the hell out of this place.”

(** **)

Dust rolled across the dead streets on the horizon, like a brown fog under the colorless sky. The empty husk of buildings long gone littered the view as far as the eye could see, silent testament of times long gone. Here and then a sound pierced the quiet – the growl of some monster, the snap of some gunfire, the agony of some pony. A ghost, that’s what some people would have called Fillydelphia’s suburbs – a shadow of its former glory, and a reminder to the days to come. Yet it fell short of the truth. Specters disappear in the light, whereas the ruins were all too real.

“This should be a good place to enjoy the show,” I concluded, turning back toward the squad. Meridian winced at the thought of the upcoming events, while Sunburn’s smile somehow grew even wider.

“Aye, it should,” he grinned, arming his detonator. “Who should do the honors?”

“Well…” I looked around. Meridian was suspiciously inspecting the bottom of his left forehoof and Evey discreetly shook her head as my gaze crossed hers. “We had our fun last time. I’m sure Chrystal’s up to it.”

“Do I ever,” she chuckled sinisterly.

Sunburn hoofed the detonator to her. She walked all the way to the hill’s edge, her mane waving in some invisible wind. The device floated at eye’s level, floating in her green telekinesis.

“This is for payback,” she murmured almost inaudibly. “And this is for the future.”

She pressed the button.

Down in the streets, the dust and the wind let place to fire and fury.

(** **)

Main quest updated: A Courier's Tale

Objectives:

[ ] Secure supply lines toward Big Mountain (Primary)

[X] Acquire Schematics for Big Mountain (Primary)





Side quest added: Power Supplies

Objectives:

[X] Acquire Schematics for Big Mountain (Repeatable)





Level up!



New perk:

Party Crasher: Well, that was fun. Your sneak attacks now stunt the foes you didn’t kill in the first place. Your team also gains a bonus to sneak attacks critical rates.

"Surprise, motherfucker!"

Author's Note:

Special thanks to Lepking13 for his proofreading and to Amneiger for his detailed editing!
Cover art courtesy of Greeny-Nyte.

Read it on Google Docs for a better formatting:
Fallout Equestria: Shades of Grey, Chapter Seventeen: Black Friday