• Published 27th Feb 2013
  • 7,282 Views, 765 Comments

Fallout: Equestria - The Hooves of Fate - Sprocket Doggingsworth



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

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A Fragile Peace

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - A FRAGILE PEACE

"The ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame, and on each end of the rifle, we are the same." - John McCutcheon



Grown-ups spend their whole lives either running away from, or running toward their childhoods. Well, Hearth’s Warming is one of those things, you know. There's a certain magic about it. It may feel like it’s lost its specialness as you get older, but everyone's still carrying around a million holiday memories in their brains. And if just one of them had a drop of Hearth’s Warming magic, there's hope.

I was standing right smack in the middle of a beat up, charred, rancid old field where thousands had died. And we'd turned it into a paradise. 'Cause we'd all just stopped, looked around, and said "enough." All of us at the same time.

Hearth's Warming - our faith in it - our longing for those wonderful feelings again - it was bigger than war. Bigger than death. Bigger than all of us.

* * *

The soldiers found a beat up pine tree from somewhere or other, and cut it down. Dragged it to No Mare's Land. We decked the hell out of the thing with whatever we could find. And those candles of the dead – they made their way right near the top. Even stayed lit thanks to a little bit of magic. But we hardly needed it. By the time we'd put the tree up, the wind had stopped altogether.

There was this fire burning in all of us, and not a pony was left untouched or unchanged. That lime green mare who had shot at the corns yelling, "Fucking monsters, have you no decency?" She was drunk now. Singing. Forelegs intertwined with one of the ponies in gray. Mummy too. And Mummy had called them fucking evil just an hour before. Rainbow Glimmer was puffing smoke again. Thanks to a gift of fire sticks from that crazy corn lady who'd met him in the middle of the field.

Me? I kept busy draping pine branches all over those razor wire fences to make them more festive. Sprinkles and me both. We decked the living fuck out of them. Having the kinds of conversations that really teach you something about the other pony. You know, deep thoughts and stuff.

"Ok my turn!" Said Sprinkles. "Who would win in a fight? Steelhooves or Littlepip."

Having never read the Book of Littlepip, I took the safe answer. "Littlepip."

"I think so too! What's your reason?"

"Uh..."

I paused to tie that gray blanket around my neck like a cape. I had to use my teeth, which sucked, because their blankets tasted nastier than ours. But at least it gave me an extra minute to think of a reply.

"Uh, she is cleverer, and better at, um...repairing toasters."

Sprinkles snorted out a laugh.

"My turn!" I said. "Do you think there was any way the war could have been avoided?"

Good one, Rose Petal. Crafty. At least I thought so, but Sprinkles just looked at me like I was nuts for asking.

"You think too much." She said.

"What's wrong with--;"

"Ooh! I got one!" Sprinkles interrupted me.

"Hey! You didn't answer mine."

"Yes. Okay? Coulda been avoided." She said. "If you--;"

"But how?" I insisted, my mission ever on my mind.

"Don't care. Now listen, if you could go back in time..."

"What?" I stopped.

"If you could go back in time, meet any princess, and say one thing to her, what would it be?"

I had to think on it. So I thought on it, and thought on it, and thought on it, and thought on it, and thought on it.

Out of the blue, the sound of laughter suddenly carried across No Mare's Land. They were playing soccer. Rangers versus Corns. Hundreds of grown stallions and mares laughing again - playing again. It reminded me of the playground back home. Where everypony battles, nopony dies, and you all go out for milkshakes afterward.

“Hey, you cheated!" Somepony shouted.

I don't know who made the accusation, who had supposedly cheated, or how, but at the end of it all, a ranger and a corn broke out into a friendly wrestle. Just like Misty Mountain and Twinkle Eyes. Squabbling over the imaginary game in my dream.

Everypony laughed, cheered, rooted for their favorite of the two wrestlers - you know, generally acting like idiots - 'til finally, the fighters got up off the ground and hugged. Stumbled around like a couple of Berry Punches.

What we were doing - the corns and us - it was a miracle.

"Princess Luna." I turned to Sprinkles and said. "I'd tell her 'Thank you.'"

* * *

Sprinkles and I took a step back and looked at our work. The pine. The long strings of jinglies that I later learned were called bullet shells.

You could hardly tell that it had once been a flesh-ripping agony fence. It even had a nice glow to it. Our flares were on the ground, burning red and orange. The Wall itself, with its gigantic panels, its long, veiny iron cables, its lumpy, techy guns and stuff - it cast neat-o shadows like a Hearth's Warming tree at night when all the other lamplights are out. And the Crystal Empire dome, even from half-a-mile away, cast a pale purple glow on all of us. Our decorations shone like tinsel.

It was perfection.

Then Oldie, the guy I'd met in the cellar, wandered by and killed the mood.

"Hey, Oldie," I said.

He looked over his shoulder to see who I was talking to.

"Um, I mean, hey, uh..."

"Pumpkin Scone." He formally introduced himself for the first time.

"Yeah, that's what I meant to say. Pumpkin, meet Sprinkles. Sprinkles, Pumpkin."

"Hey," he said dryly and gave an unenthusiastic hoof bump to the corn.

"What's wrong?" I said. "Come on. It's Hearth's Warming! It's a party!"

He didn't say anything. He didn't have to. The moment after the words left my mouth, I realized exactly what was wrong. Oldie was all by himself.

"Um, say, uh...where is Sterry?"

He lifted his eyes to meet mine. Sad eyes. Scaredy eyes.

Fuck.

"What happened?" I rushed him so hard my head almost knocked into his chin.

He looked to Sprinkles, "A moment alone, please?"

Sprinkles backed off without having to be told twice. Oldie leaned in real close. Right up to my ear.

"That's just it." He whispered. "I don't know. No one knows. Nopony's seen him since he reported in with the colonel six hours ago."

I looked out over the trenches where we'd come from. Way over them. Past them.

There was a ruined little crap town on a hill wedged right against the wall of the Crystal Empire. They had fires burning there, and strange unnatural lights in the windows. I could see them all the way from No Mare’s Land. It was like the whole town was watching us. Lurking. Waiting.

"Not on Hearth's Warming." I growled.




* * *




After I said my polite goodbyes to Sprinkles, I climbed back into the trenches, and made for the town, if you could even call it a town. Pumpkin Scone tailed me. Nagging.

"What are you going to do?"

I ignored him.

"Hey, kid, come on, this isn't safe."

I grumbled and trotted faster. When I hit a wall in the trenches, I made a left. Then I hit another wall, and made a right.

Left, right. Left right. Pumpkin following me all the way like an annoying little puppy. Nag, nag, nag, nag, nag. Finally, when I hit my twenty-seventh dirt wall, my patience wore down to a nub.

I whipped around, and yelled at him. "What?!"

I had to pant just to catch my breath.

"Um...Uh..." He took a deep breath and rolled his eyes. "This way." He said with a sigh.

* * *

We made our way through a long and tedious maze of dirt. It drove me crazy. I was itching to charge right the fuck up there and grab Sterry - to take down Colonel Wormwood for being such a jerk. I wanted to yell at somepony - anypony - and say, "Hey! It's fucking Hearth's Warming! What the hell is wrong with you?!"

But there was no opportunity for any of that. Just dirt. What seemed like miles, and miles, and miles of dirt.

When we got close to the “town,” we started seeing more of those iron-clad ponies. Officers. Then I just wished for more dirt. We had to creep along at a snail's pace. Ducking, and bobbing, and hiding to avoid being seen. At the end of it all, our trench turned into a road, and we were out in the open.

"Fuck," I said. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck."

I scanned the landscape for cover. Found only a building that had been destroyed long ago. Nothing was left but the foundation and a single wall. But it was better than nothing.

I ran. Darted for it so eagerly that I tripped on my sleeve. Fell flat on my face and tumbled forward.

It was only then, as I lay there with my back against the ground, eyes facing the stars in the calm night sky, that I realized what should have been obvious from the start.

I was a moron. A total fucking moron.

We had no reason to run. No reason to hide. Pumpkin Scone was a fucking soldier, who had every reason to be there. And I was safe with him, so long as we both played it cool.

"Ok," I said, brushing myself off, rising to my knees. "I’m thinking that maybe you can show me th--;"

I turned to Pumpkin, but he was just fucking standing there. Staring. Wide-eyed. Like a dumbass.

"What?" I whisper-shouted. "What is it?"

“I can't,” he said. “I-I took an oath. This…”

He pointed in the direction of the town.

"This is treason."

“This isn't fucking treason!” I snapped. “You're walking into a town you have been in before, not assassinating a princess. Do you care what happens to Sterry or not?”

He swallowed hard. That wind was creeping back up on us, and it was whistley. Pumpkin rubbed his bright brown eyes, licked his chapped scabby lips, and nodded at me.

“Okay,” he said, and inched over toward me. “What's the plan?”

“Um…”

Before we could get into the inevitable argument about how bad an idea it was to go busting into a compound without an actual plan, we spotted two of those steel ponies coming up the road.

"Okay, you go over there," I said.

But Pumpkin was already gone. He darted into that burnt up old building and hid behind it's only wall. Crouched good and tight against a pile of bricks.

Fuck. I ran after him.

“What are you doing?” I whispered.

“Hiding,” he said.

“You're a soldier,” I said. “You belong here. Go out there and...I dunno, salute them or something.”

“I can't,” he whispered.

He was trembling. And not from the cold.

There was so much to say, but the officers were getting close. So close, we could hear the metal on their hooves crunching against the gravel and frozen dirt. It was too late for pep talks.

“So I was like, 'Dude, give me back my bowling ball,' and the other guy was like, 'Dude, make me.'”

“What’d you do?”

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

“Uh...Nothing. He dropped it on his own hoof. Had to go to the fucking hospital. Douche.”

“Oh.”

Crunch. Crunchitty, crunch-crunch, crunch.

“That’s the dumbest story I’ve ever heard.”

They crunchitty-crunched all the way up to the battered wall we were huddling against, and flipped open what sounded like a small metal hatch. They were so close, I could hear every raggedy detail of their breaths. I had to clutch my hoof against my mouth just to muffle my own. Pumpkin did the same.

“I think the antenna is fine,” said one iron pony to the other.

He sounded like he was coming down with a cold.

“It doesn't make any damn sense at all.” Said the second one.

“Well, if Wormwood says she never received the orders, she never received them.”

I turned to Pumpkin. He just shrugged. Terrified and confused.

“Really? I'm not so sure.”

The not sick one lowered his voice to a whisper. It made the two of them harder to tell apart. “What do you mean you're not so sure.”

“I don't know, bro. She hasn't been right in the head since…well...”

“Dude, her fucking son died. Of course she's not right. Doesn't mean that she...”

They both fell silent again. Let the wind do the talking.

“Look, I never said that she did." The sick one said at last.

“Just drop it, ok?”





They quit talking for a bit while their hooves fiddled with whatever was on the other side of that wall. It made little creaky sounds. Scratchy sounds.

I wished the whole time that they would talk again. I could swear my heart was beating louder than the work they were doing - that it would give us away.

But they just kept on fiddling with whatever it was they were fiddling with, content to ignore the thunderous pounding sound coming from inside my chest.

"She's not a traitor.” Said the sick one, stern as the grave. “But I'm telling you she's not herself either. She arrested that poor kid. Sterile Field.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Why?”

The other pony was silent. Even he didn't know.

"I guess that kid finally swiped one too many onions." Said the not sick one with a sigh.

Then the little metal lid flicked shut.

"Aaaand the transmitter is working. Like I said."

I couldn't see what was going on on the other side of the wall, but somehow I could feel them looking at each other. Their worry. Their apprehension. Their suspicion.

What the fuck was going on?

There was a painfully awkward silence. Pierced only by the sound of gravel grinding underneath their nervous hooves.

"Let's go check the other transmitter.” Not Sick said at last. “You know, just in case."

"Yeah," Sick Pony coughed in reply.

A couple of hesitant hoofsteps later, they marched past us and headed on down the road.

* * *

Pumpkin and I didn't dare move 'til they drifted out of earshot. It took a long while, cause those two had marched away real slow-like. Finally, when they were gone, I turned to him.

“You okay?” I asked.

He shook his head no. He was shaking with anger.

"You ready?" He said to me dryly.

"Yeah," I said, peering down the road. "Let's go."

* * *

Breaking into the "town" was easy. There were no fences. No walls. The big brick buildings on the perimeter had been left completely unponied - their three-century old ratatatatatat-er's reduced to nasty old lumps of rust.

There was not much left of the old defenses. Just a scar of singed earth around the town's borders. Probably from a protection dome that had burnt out long ago.

The important thing is that Pumpkin Scone was a soldier who actually belonged there. So nervous as we were, there was no need to hide or sneak around at all. I, on the other hoof, got scowls and dirty looks from every iron pony we passed everywhere we went. It made me wish they'd put the helmet parts of their suits back on so I wouldn't have to look at their big ugly glowery heads.

But no one stopped us. And that's all that mattered.

Pumpkin was there to "escort" me to Wormwood, after finding me wandering around. That was the official story, and he was quick to trip over his tongue with it at any officer who so much as looked at us funny. But no one cared. They all let us pass.





As we got deeper into "town," the broken brick buildings faded away, in favor of a small row of cottages. Quaint little thatched roofs, long collapsed. Crumbling wooden beams. Uneven foundations visibly sloping. There was barely anything left of the fragile little houses at all, but what I saw reminded me of Ponyville. One cottage was even a dead ringer for Miss Cheerilee's. Except that the Rangers had draped tarps where the roof had been, and turned it into some kind of tent.

The sight of it sent shivers across my spine.

"What is this place?" I whispered to Pumpkin.

"Nopony knows for sure,” he whispered back. "We think it used to be a village that sprung up just before the empire disappeared. Maintenance workers fixing glitches in The Wall.

"We’ve had our hackers up there trying to get into the maneframe pretty much around-the-clock since we got here. If you ask me, the whole thing is stupid. If you could hack the door from that building..."

He pointed at the giant hideous central structure.

"They would never have built it on the outside of the fucking wall."

* * *

And so we'd arrived.

The headquarters looked like a Fillydelphia apartment building with massive squiggle-majigs coming out, plugging into The Wall like swirly straws. Between the giant tubes and the lit up windows, the whole thing looked like one of those spiders with the billion eyes.

I called it the Town Hall for lack of a better term, but the cluster of rubble we'd trudged across was hardly a town. I doubt it ever had been, even in it's hay day. The reason they'd mimicked Ponyville architecture was probably 'cause it's simple, cheap, and disposable. It doesn't matter if bugs eat your plumbing, and rabbits stampede through your living room - it never takes more than a week or two to repair.

* * *

That seven story headquarters was, bigger and weirder than anything I'd ever seen in real life. And still, compared to The Wall, it was just a pebble at the foot of a mountain.

A mountain made out of guns and stuff.

We clip-clopped slowly to the steps that lead to the front door. Took our deep breaths, composed ourselves, and approached.

Two iron ponies stood at the bottom. And unlike the others, their heads were covered with armor too. They were in full on I'm so cool as I stand here, all-still-and-scary-like-a-statue mode. They were inscrutable. I couldn't tell if they were sizing me up, or ignorifying me. It didn't matter. I was distracted by the big red apples painted on their shiny steel flanks.

Had they all had those?

"You got papers for that prisoner?" One of the iron ponies said to my escort.

"Prisoner? No, I--;"

Pumpkin turned to me. Stared at me. The orange ran from his face. Something was wrong. Wrong enough to make Pumpkin Scone go all white on me.

"Umm..."

I had no idea what the fuck was going on, but I didn't like it.

"The prisoner...yeah." Pumpkin stammered. "The prisoner."

"Wait, hold on a second!"

I looked to Pumpkin for reassurance, but found only apologies in his eyes. And fear.

"Zip it, corn." Snapped one of the iron ponies.

"But I'm not--;"

"Ease off, she's just a kid." Said the other officer.

"Corn?" I said, still utterly confused.

But that just earned me scornful looks. Even through his helmet, I could tell that the dude on the left hated me for being a corn. It was only when I stopped and had a good, hard look at myself that I realized why.

There was a blanket still tied around my neck like a cape. A gray blanket.

The mother of all facehoofs. How could I be so fucking stupid?

And Pumpkin? With his O-Dear-Celestia-What-Have-I-Done face. How could he be so fucking stupid?

"I'm, I'm, I'm...Not a corn, it's just a blanket!" I said. "Check it out! Underneath, I'm a brown coat. Like you."

The iron ponies turned to Pumpkin. He looked like he was about to cry.

"Um...uh..."

He's gonna sell me out. Fuck! He's gonna sell me out. That cockgoblin is gonna sell me out.

"She's--;"

I am losing him.

"Pumpkin," I said.

He looked down at me, utterly mortified.

Please. The word was on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn't say it. Couldn't give us away.

But he knew damn well what I was asking.

"She's...a filly, sir." He said at last, suddenly all military-like. "I found her wandering the trenches."

"A corn spy it would seem." Iron Douche was smirking underneath that helmet. I could tell.

The other metal pony officer guy just brought his hoof to his face.

"Sir! Private Pumpkin Scone intends to deliver the prisoner to Colonel Wormwood," Pumpkin spoke of himself in the third person. "And let the Colonel reach her own conclusions once I have given her my testimony, and full report, sir!"

The douchey iron pony didn't move. Or speak. His part in this was officially over. He was fucking pissed about it too. Cause there was nothing left to do but to let us pass. We hiked up the front steps solemnly. Step-by-terrifying-step. The sympathetic one followed us, and stopped Pumpkin before we could reach the door. Grabbed him. Whispered something in his ear. Pumpkin listened, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and nodded.

Whatever that guy had said, it was not good.

* * *

"What the fuck was that?" I barked at Pumpkin in an angry whisper once we got inside.

"I don't know." He whispered back.

"Why didn't you tell them I wasn't a corn?!"

I stomped on his hoof.

"Ow. What the hell?"

I smiled. Started walking ahead of him out of spite, but he grabbed me.

"Hey!" I growled at him. "Don't you dare--;"

"This way, dumbass," he whispered.

Pumpkin led me through a doorway, and up the stairs. Our clopping hooves echoed in the stairwell.

For the first flight or two, we didn't say a word. Then I got tired from the hike, ran out of breath, and took it out on him.

"Why didn't you tell them," I huffed. "I wasn't...a corn?!"

Wheeze. Wheeze. Wheeze.

"I couldn't. I..."

I could tell he wanted to say more, but in the end, he ran out of words and just sighed

Desolation Bingo. N-14. Betrayal.

"Come on, don't look at me like that." He said.

"Druggo-dropper;" I snarled.

"What? Huh? Listen--;"

He started murmuring some excuse or other, but at that precise moment, I just so happened to see something that made me completely stop giving a fuck what Pumpkin had to say. His voice just sorta trailed off.

There was a great big hole in the wall of the stairwell. One of those giant metal veins stuck right out of the building just one floor below us, and ran out into the open.

"Whoa."

I poked my head out of the gap. The cable was so close, I could make out the thousands of tiny runes written all the fuck over it. They seemed to pulse, and vibrate color ever so faintly under the steel. The glowy vibratey appendage-a-majig ran crooked, but not squiggly, into a crevice in the wall's machinery. Tucked in to this long, long stretch of wall stuff that seemed to go on, and on, and on forever, and ever, and ever.

But as I looked out over the vast expanse of the Crystal Empire wall - the miles of magic and machine that powered it - the stuff that still worked after three centuries of abuse - all I could think about was the fact that we ponies actually built that.

And it would happen in my lifetime. Start to finish.

"Come on." Pumpkin yanked me away.

For once, he was right. We had to keep moving. I scurried back inside. Started up the stairs after him.

* * *

We carried on in silence after that. At least 'til we reached the top. Then we just stood in front of the door together and panted. The door with the big number seven painted on it. It took a long, long while, but we both eventually stopped wheezing, and when we did, Pumpkin cracked his neck, and turned to me.

"Okay," He said. "On the other side of this door is a hallway. Wormwood's office is at the end of it."

After that, he just stood there like a jackass. Silently. I kept waiting for him to finish his thought, but he didn't say a word.

"And..."

"And what?" He said.

"And...What's the fucking plan." I asked.

"I thought you had one."

"Me? You're the one who works here. What do I know?"

Pumpkin shrugged.

I had to fight the urge to kick him.

"Okay," I said through gritted teeth. "Where do you think they are keeping Sterry most likely?"

"The basement," he replied.

"The basement?! What are we doing up here?"

"I thought we were turning you over to Colonel Wormwood."

Arg.

I banged my head against the wall.

"Why"

Thud.

"Would..."

Thud.

"We..."

Thud.

"Fucking..."

Thud.

"Do that?!"

Thud.

Pumpkin grabbed me. Shoved a hoof in my face and shushed me. There were other ponies in the stairwell. Six flights below us, it seemed when I poked my head out over the rail.

Shit.

"Okay, you're a corn." Pumpkin whispered.

"Pumpkin, fucking no!"

"Listen, listen, listen, listen." He said. "We go in there, and I turn you in. Then I escort you. To the basement because they will want to lock you up, you see?"

I nodded.

"I get the key, unlock Sterry, and we all gallop the fuck out of there."

I ran the whole thing through my panicky brain as fast as I could.

Echoey clip-clop's resonated all the way up the stairwell. We didn't have a whole lot of privacy time left.

"That's...Not a bad idea at all." I said.

"Great!" He motioned to open the door, but I threw myself in front of him and wrapped my legs around his hoof.

"Wait!"

"What?" He snapped.

"What about Wormwood? She's up to something."

"Sterry will know, I'm sure. Why else would he be locked up?"

I nodded again. He motioned to go inside, more urgent-like than before.

"Wait!" I blocked the door. "What if they don't give you the key? What if they think I'm a corn? And do something else to me? Like they take me out back and--;"

"They won't kill you. You're a prisoner of war."

"Armed conflict," I said.

"Whatever! If another guard takes custody of you..." Pumpkin scratched his head. "Uh, I don't fucking know, I'll pick the lock or something while you distract them."

"But--;"

"I aced breaking and entering in basic training!"

He winked, clearly a point of pride for him.

"We'll be fine either way. Now let's go!"

I thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it.

We had a plan.





Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Clip-clop.

The hoof steps were getting closer. Third floor probably.

Both of us flung open the door and ran through together. We didn't even have to confer. Pumpkin closed it gently behind us.

I gawked at the long hallway. There was a big door at the end of it. Neither of us were in a terrible hurry to get there. So we crept up on it. Past another not-so-important door or two.

"One more thing," I said to him, never peeling my eyes from that door. "Before we go through with this, I gotta know. What did that guy whisper to you back there?"

"Uh...You really don't want to know."

"I'm putting my life in your hooves, you cuntmuffin. No secrets."

Twink had left me with only a small fragment of her verbal arsenal, but I could make it count.

"Fine," he said. "The sentry told me to be careful, cause, um...Wormwood is in a real bad mood today."

Wonderful.

* * *

The very last thing we did before making our grand entrance was to spy a little. I lay on the broken tile floor and peeked under the crack in the door. There was a uniformed figure at the end of the spacious room. I could make her out. Just barely. She was green and brown, as you might guess from her namesake, and she was sitting at her desk, looking over some papers in a compact version of one of those folders that look like an accordion. There were stacks of paper everywhere.

I don't know what exactly I'd expected to see. A helpless pony tied up against the wall as a figure in a black hood tickled her hooves with feathers? A gang of shadow-things holding a conference? A weather-control machine?

Colonel Wormwood was just doing a bunch of grown-up desk stuff, and like all grown-ups doing grown-up desk stuff, she looked really, really stressed out.

I rose to my hooves. Slowly. Carefully. We couldn't let her hear us stalking her door.

Pumpkin looked to me expectantly. I shook my head. There was nothing to report.

He brought a trembling hoof up, and let it hover by the door. He was doing exactly what I had done back in the cellar. Counting in his head.

Buying time. One, two, two-and-a-half, two-and-three-quarters...

"Oh, for Celestia's sake."

I got fed up and just knocked on the fucking door.

Pumpkin looked at me like I had thrown rotten eggs at his mother, but I didn't care. We had bigger problems.

"Um, uh...ma'am." He addressed the door. "Private Pumpkin Scone here, escorting a prisoner with news from the front, ma'am!"

He physically stiffened. Held his head high, even though she obviously couldn't see him through the door.

"Come in, Private." Came a cold, dry voice from the other side.

Pumpkin pushed down on the knob. The door creaked open.

Colonel Wormwood glanced at us briefly as we entered, and resumed her grown-up desk business - examining loose papers. The accordion thingy was, for some suspicious reason, nowhere to be seen.

"Have a seat," she said, without lifting her eyes from her work.

There was a cushy chair about ten feet from her desk. It was all beat up and worn, but like everything else in the room, it was the nicest of luxuries that the post-post-apocalyptic village had to offer. When we finally reached it, Pumpkin made to sit down.

"Not you," said Wormwood, still focused on her paperwork. "Dismissed, Private."

"What?" I couldn't help but exclaim.

We were supposed to stick together!

"Ma'am," Oldy's voice shook. "Private Pumpkin believes that--;"

"Yes, yes, yes. I will hear your full report after the filly has been processed."

"But, ma'am she's a corn, aren't we supposed to--;"

Wormwood removed her reading glasses. Set them down gingerly on the desk. And finally looked Pumpkin Scone in the eye.

"That," She pointed at me. "Most certainly is not a Twilight Society spy, nor soldier. Your objections have been noted, Private. I'll take it from here. Dismissed."

He stood there. Trying not to quake or quiver. Afraid to stay. Afraid to go. Terrified for me most of all.

"That's an order." The Colonel's voice was gentle and relaxed; her intent: hostile.

Pumpkin looked to me, desperate for some sort of visual clue about what he should do next. But I was as lost as he was. Lost-er, considering that I was the one in the hot seat.

He smacked the dryness from his lips. He looked like he was gonna cry. But he kept it together. Saluted the Colonel. Held the pose as long as he reasonably could without coming off all weird. He was trying to buy just a few more seconds of time.

Finally, with all other options totally exhausted, he lowered his forehoof, straightened his coat, and made his way to the door.

Neither of us dared make any other gestures toward one another. When the door closed behind him, it sounded like two mountains slamming into each other.

"Uh..." I had to clear my throat a little. "Colonel, ma'am."

"Just a moment."

She signed some documents. Stamped some others. Never looking at me once.

I struggled to swallow. Fought the urge to scream while Wormwood casually made more paper rustley sounds.

Once she tucked away her first stack of documents, and straightened out the next, Wormwood lowered her reading glasses.

"You don't think very highly of me, do you, Rose Petal?"

"Um..."

She hit me with the kind of eye contact that bores holes into your brain. Didn't even blink once. Just cordially and hospitably made me feel three-inches-tall.

"No," I said shyly. "I don't."

I tried to hold my own. Really, I did. But eventually I just plain had to look the fuck away.

"And why is that?"

She turned her attention toward her paperwork once more.

"You called me Rose Petal. How do you--;"

"An officer who doesn't know her own trenches is no officer at all," she spat out rapidly as if by reflex. "Now Blanket Girl, Rose Petal, whichever forehooves down on the desk, and leaned forward at me. Got all stareitty.

"You have a low opinion of me." She said curtly. "And I should very much like to know why."

What was I supposed to say? I don't trust you? Everypony keeps telling me you’re a whack job meanie?

She was crazy. Drunk with power. No doubt about it. But I couldn't tell her what I thought of her without revealing who’d been sowing discontent behind her back. She was trying to trick me.

"Uh...For starters," I said. "You're really creeping me out right now."

Stick to the observable facts.

Colonel Wormwood raised an eyebrow. Gestured. Waited for me to finish.

"And, uh...I've been told I have problems with authority."

She sat motionless and watched me. Examined me. Calculated me 'til she exposed whatever truth it was she was trying to discover, took a mental note of it, and resumed her desk work. Assembling loose pages, stacking them neatly.

"Fair enough." She said.

Her papers scrape-scrape-scrape-scrape-scraped against the splintery wood 'till the sound got intolerable. I gritted my teeth. Everything inside my head was screaming at me to leap up on the desk, kick over those ledgers and papers, and yell at her. Demand that she fucking look at me. That she fucking say something.

Luckily, she broke the silence.

"You caused me quite a headache with that little Hearth’s Warming stunt you pulled down there."

I swallowed my heart. It exploded in my chest - an acid volcano. She knew. Wormwood fucking knew.

I trembled. As much with anger as with fear. The idea of anyone coming along and fucking up something so beautiful - it was too much to bear.

"Relax," she said. "No one is going to steal the presents out from under your tree."

“Well, uh...good!” I laid down the law.

"So what now?" Colonel Wormwood ignored my defiance.

Busied herself with the stack of papers on her desk. Got them all tidy-like, and slid the first pile into a manila envelope.

Pant. Pant. Pant. "What?"

"Hearth’s Warming Eve is almost over." She said briskly. "We’ve got corns and rangers down there right now. Singing, drinking non-regulation spirits. What do you propose we do next?"

Wormwood put her hooves down and looked at me directly. It was her go on, the class is waiting face.

"Uh...Call off the war?"

She looked at me. Got all stareitty again. It made me feel stupid. Even though I knew in my heart I was right.

"Um...please?"

She tapped her hoof on the desk. Looked away from me for the first time that didn't directly involve papers and desk stuff.

"And when we get the Crystal Empire doors open?" She continued.

"We, uh...Share?"

The Colonel sighed, ran a hoof through her mane.

"Please," I said. "The corns - they're not evil. They love Hearth’s Warming as much as we do."

"Of course they do." Wormwood rose from her desk. "Everypony loves Hearth’s Warming, don't be ridiculous."

She tugged at the tails of her coat with her mouth. Straightened it over the waistline of her iron pony suit.

"Oh."

Being sufficiently tidy, Colonel Wormwood turned and approached the cluster of little rectangular windows behind her desk. A few moments later she glanced over her shoulder at me, and threw me a well, what are you waiting for look.

I hopped off of the chair and approached. You could see the whole damn Crap Town from up there. Even the trenches. They looked like deep violent gashes in the earth. And of course, there was The Wall. It was as much of a breathtaking mindfuck to look at as before.

"When this conflict first began," she said. "We had a choice. We all agreed that trench warfare was better than the alternative."

I turned to the colonel in disbelief. But she wasn't looking out the window at all. That stareitty bitch had never stopped sizing me up. Never stopped measuring.

"Um, Colonel Wormwood...Ma'am?"

She looked down her muzzle at me with what I could only guess was suspicion. The last thing she expected was to be addressed with respect.

"The trenches kinda suck." I said honestly.

The colonel turned away from me. Looked out the window for real.

"We have the bomb." She said all matter-of-fact-like.

"What?!"

"The bomb. The megaspells. The materials. The know how. We're a push of a button away."

"Luna fuck me with moon rocks," I whispered to myself.

"And the corns have megaspells of their own. Devices." Wormwood watched the crap town below in silence.

It was a terrifying thought. Going down that road all over again. No toaster repair pony to catch you when you fall. No princesses.

It was stupid. So fucking stupid.

* * *

A long, heavy silence later, I asked the obvious question.

"Are you fucking nuts?!"

"The modern world is about balance." She said after a long, long breath. "They have the bomb. We have the bomb. They have the science. We have the engineering."

She looked down. Locked eyes with me.

“The Twilight Sparkle Society has always hoarded their little secrets, held themselves above the rest, believed themselves to be the ones worthy of carrying the torch. But the Crystal Empire is a horse of a different color. It was the epicenter of both arcane research and technological development during the war."

She let that sink in for a minute.

"Knowledge like that," She concluded. "Power like that - it's too dangerous for one nation to hold."

There was sadness in her voice. Fear. I got the strange impression that when she'd asked me “what now,” at least part of her had actually hoped for some kind of answer.

I had none.

* * *

No matter how many different directions I tossed it in my head, Wormwood was right. About the bombs. About the megaspells. About the world teetering on the edge of armegelding. But she also hadn't seen the truce. The Songs. Our tree!

All that stuff had seemed impossible, but we did it. Cause there was a strange magic on our side. A faith that we could do better. That we could be better. Our ancestors had believed it. Littlepip had believed in it. And hundreds of hardened soldiers had come to believe it too, all at once.

I just had to get that magic to touch Colonel Wormwood. There had to be a way to make her see.

"Things can be different now," I pleaded. "Go down there. Look around. Please. It can change. We just have to try."

Like Pinkie Pie had said.

The colonel turned to faced me once again. Surprisingly enough, she conceded my point.

"That might very well be so."

"What?"

"I believe you, Rose Petal." She spoke with brisk military formality.

"You do?"

"I would be a fool not to believe that we are capable - that we can overcome our worst natures. And if I were you, I would very much like to, as you say, try.

“But what of the millions back home?" She continued. "They have no idea how bad it's gotten down here. How much worse it could get in the blink of an eye. They are busy stuffing stockings. Baking pies. As well they should. Would you gamble their whole world on try?"

She didn't give me a chance to answer.

“There are 2,742 soldiers down there right now under my direct command." She said. "Thousands more in reserves. They place their lives in our hooves in good faith every day. They trust our orders. I wouldn't gamble even one of their lives. Not on try."

I could suddenly see myself in the truck again. Escaping Trottica, blowing away targets without ever stopping to be sure they were enemies. But what were we supposed to do? One wrong move, and it would have meant the end for us all.

We'd had no way of knowing for sure if any of the villagers we'd shot at had been good guys after all. And even if they did turn out to be all bad, how many families had we destroyed?

How many friends had we left behind, babbling to themselves, crying, "It should have been me. It should have been me. "

How many new priestesses did we create? Embittered by loss?

It was awful. Truly awful. But no matter how I ran it through my head, it had still been the only possible way.

"What do we do?" I echoed back the question that Wormwood had asked me a minute earlier.

She sat back down in her big chair. Rolled it forward. I could see the accordion folder under her desk. Thrust hastily there, most likely when she'd heard the knock at the door.

I rushed to follow Wormwood's example. Took my seat again before she could notice me noticing the folder.





She straightened her things, and lifted her reading glasses. Affixed them haughtily on the tip of her muzzle.

"Insubordination, fraternization with the enemy - these are crimes. If I were to simply overlook them, then I myself would be in dereliction of duty." She rounded up another stack of pages. "I am, unfortunately, obligated by law to investigate and punish such infractions."

She was so casual. So matter-of-fact about it.

Not me. I'd reached my breaking point. That jerk was gonna punish every pony! For trucing without her permission. I didn't care how scary she was, or how skilled at making me feel stupid. I didn't care what horrors she had the power to unleash on me. That fucking cuntwaffle was a hypocrite. And it made me see red.

"You bitch!" I shouted. "Your soldiers mean sooooooo much to you that you're gonna lock them up? For having a Merry Hearth's Warming?!"

She didn't bat an eye. But I kept going. I was on a roll.

"You hide behind that chain of commandy stuff when it's fun for you, but everyone knows you're up to something. No one fucking trusts you. You're not protecting those potatoes by sending them to die. You're…You're…You're…Sending them to die!"

There were tears streaming down my face again. I hate it when that happens. I wanted to fucking kill her for that reason alone. But she didn't wince. Not so much as an eye twitch. All she did was sit back behind her desk, and watch me freak out. If anything, the bitch was amused.

I panted, totally out of breath from all the shouting. She just cleared her throat. Slid the manila envelopes to the front of her desk.

"Is that all?" She said.

I looked at her defiantly, head held high. But I couldn't think of anything else to say.

"Good," she nodded. "I'm glad that's finally out of the way. I do appreciate your honesty."

She let that one hang there in the air. A long silence trailing behind it, broken only by the sound of pencil scratches.

Then, like a brick to the face, it suddenly hit me. The first question she had asked - why I had "such a low opinion of her?"

I'd just given her her answer. After all that crazy stuff we'd talked about? It had all came back to that. And I had given her exactly what she wanted.

"You...you..." I stammered in disbelief.

"Moving on." She said, having made her point. "If you would be so kind as to run these over to the clerk's office at the end of the hall on your way out, I would be much obliged."

She plopped her last envelope on the pile. Straightened it out some more. Gestured at me. I was apparently supposed to take it.

"What?"

"It's two doors down. You can't miss it."

Silence. Stareitty, unblinking eyes.

"So you're...letting me go?" I panted, still a little winded from my rant.

"You're not a prisoner. You've sworn no oaths to Applejack’s Ranger Corps, and committed no civilian crimes that would obligate or permit me to detain you."

Applejack? I thought. The farmer?!

I filed that little piece of what-the-fuck away in my brain for later.

"The trenches are not, at this exact time, an active war zone, either," She said. "So technically, I can't keep you from it - at least until the fighting resumes. But I would still strongly advise you to stay away."

"Strongly advise" was polite colonel talk. What she meant to say was that if I set one hoof in those trenches, she would personally set fire to all of my internal organs, toss them in the air, and have a Flaming Organ Jamboree.

"Um..."

I grabbed the envelopes. Dropped them down on the floor. Gave them a good hard look.

"Why are you trusting me with your papers?" I said.

"Because they are Hearth's Warming pardons, and you care deeply about the potatoes down there in the trenches, or so you called them."

"But you said--;"

"There's a loophole in the regulations." Wormwood whipped out a whole new stack of forms. "It took me four-and-a-half hours to find, thus the aforementioned headache."

"Oh." I said.

I hung my head in confusion and embarrassment, and even though her face was hard as granite, I could tell it amused Colonel Wormwood to see me humbled like that.

"So what now?" I asked.

It seemed to be the eternal questIon.

"Come dawn," she said. "My little ponies and I will make a trip to the trenches, and offer all the insubordinates their pardons. The best present should, of course, always be saved for Hearths Warming morning."

Her real intentions were clear.

"And they all go back to the trenches," I said to myself in disgust. "And carry on like nothing had ever happened."

"Clever." She said.

It was that hard yellow line. With something to lose, they'd all go back. They'd have to.

The truce would be remembered as a glorious moment that had passed, and Colonel Wormwood praised for her holiday spirit. When the time came, we would get back in those trenches, relieved to have dodged an insubordination charge.

And we'd all live to kill each other another day.

Wormwood watched me again. Not measuring or calculating. Just waiting. Because she already knew what I was going to do.

I looked down at those envelopes. It made me sick to my stomach.

If Colonel Wormwood still wanted me to, I would do exactly as I was told, and take those pardons over to the office. See that they got filed. She knew it.

Because I wanted those potatoes to be free.

"Please," I threw myself at the front of her desk and clutched the surface of it.

Her empty tea cup banged after the impact.

"Just come down there. Have a look." I pleaded.

If I couldn't get through to her, then maybe the magic of Hearth's Warming could. There was a chance, however small, that the beauty of our truce - the joy of our celebration - would make her see.

And if, after the holiday spirit had had a crack at her, she was still intent on being a bitch, the potatoes and I could stand against her. With that Hearth's Warming magic fresh on our side, we could force a lasting truce.

'Cause that place - that moment in time. There was power in it. Just standing in the paradise that had once been No Mare's Land, you could feel this energy in the air. The war, the moment – the whole fucking world was up for grabs.

If ever there was a time and a place where the brown coats and the gray coats could rise up against the fucking cockgoblins who said they had to wear different colored coats in the first place, it was that night. Down there in No Mare's Land.

It was just plain pivoty.

"Please, Colonel" I said, staring into her hard eyes. Right up close and personal.

"Come down. Do it for your troops. Do it just to see."

But the colonel did not respond. Only watched me some more.

"Do it for your son," I pleaded at last.

Those cold, emotionless eyes flickered instantly to life. Like coals on fire.

"Don't." She roared.

A sound so loud I had scramble backward just to escape it.

"You speak."

I cringed when I reached the foot of the chair.

"Of my son."

She didn't have to come at me to make her intent clear. She just rose to her hooves. Slowly.

I had looked into the eyes of slavers, murderers - wrestled with shadow monsters from in-between-the-fucking-dimensions - but none of it compared to the hate I saw in Colonel Wormwood at that moment. It radiated off her like a furnace.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." I said a thousand times over.

But she didn't say anything in response. Just burned.

I lunged for the papers and bolted for the door.

"Let me just go and file these for you." I said, sobbing.

As I ran, I got the feeling that a giant flaming net would be cast, or that great big spikes would pop out of an iron door, and the shadows themselves would suddenly swoop in and steal away everything I saw, and leave me in blackness. Or worse yet, I would be left alone, and forced to talk with Colonel Wormwood some more.

But when I reached the door, they were no tricks or traps. Just a handle. When I put a hoof on it, she growled to me from behind gritted teeth.

"Rose," she said.

"I'm sorry," I mumbled, halfway to freedom, mouth full of envelopes.

"When you get back, there is one more thing we need to discuss."

"When I get back?" I whimpered.

"Your friend, Private Sterile Field."

I froze, faced with the grim realization that I couldn't just cut and run after I was done with the clerk and the pardons. Even at her most hot-headed and impulsive, Wormwood still had me right where she wanted me.

She had The One I’d Come to Save.

It was a haunting realization - the position she had me in - that she had poor Sterry in - and one that didn't need to be expressed in words.

"Do hurry back, child." She said, back to her brisk, practical, cordial office persona once more.

Calm as could possibly be.

But her words may as well have been acid. Do hurry back.

* * *

Once on the other end of the door, I had a proper freak out. Closed my eyes. Sobbed silently, clutched the papers to my chest while I pressed my back against the door.

I opened my eyes, and there were two iron ponies standing over me. I clutched the envelopes harder, afraid they might try to take them from me.

"Kid," One of them said, raspy and coughitty - oblivious to my panic. "Is it a…bad time to go in there?"

I nodded.

The two iron ponies looked at one another and gulped.

As I started past them, and headed for the clerks office, the two of them got to bickering over who would knock first. Pulled the old one, two, two-and-a-half routine. That was when it dawned on me where I had heard those voices before.

"Did you ever get the transmissionizer working?" I stopped.

Spat out the envelope.

They both got these totally freaked out looks on their faces. If some little girl was onto them, who could even guess how many steps ahead of them Colonel Wormwood was?

"How? How did you--;"

They didn't answer me, of course. Couldn't give me details. Confidentiality and all that stupid crap. But the way they looked at that big old door in total abject fucking terror told me everything.

Those transmission thingies worked perfectly. They'd even said it themselves when they'd thought they were alone.

And now they had to go deliver the news to the colonel.

* * *

Something was wrong. Very, very wrong. And I was losing valuable time.

Papers still in my teeth, I crept down that hallway and knocked on the door.

I was met with a gentle reply, "Come in."

I went inside.

The clerk’s office was a wonderland of boring grown-up desk stuff. Computater consoles. Stacks of paper, neat and orderly. A meek gentlecolt, about four hundred billion years old, was filing folders away.

"What's a little girl like you doing around here?" He said when he saw me.

Ordinarily, I hate that kind of talk, but coming from a guy who had probably been there at the first Hearth’s Warming, it was hard to take offense.

"I'm fine," I mumbled. "I got these for you."

I dropped the envelope on a nearby table and nudged it with my nose.

He snatched it up. "Well, let's just have a look."

He slid the papers out onto the desk, and leaned in real close, like he was gonna sniff them, or kiss them, or something. He was actually just straining to see.

"Excited to finally get access to paper again." He said to me, ignoring the pardons. "Never thought I'd see the day. Wave of the future - paper."

He winked at me.

"You can't hack a folder. Can’t destroy evidence - not without getting your hooves dirty. The Age of Accountability. That's what I call it."

The old stallion looked at me blankly for a moment. Then suddenly realized what he was supposed to be doing. He dipped down and squinted at the paperwork once again. When he finally saw what they were, his face widened into a great big wrinkly smile.

"They're here." He laughed. "They're ready!"

He snatched them up, and whisked them behind another table. He moved way faster than I would have thought possible, and got right to typing on one of those computaters.

Typitty. Typitty. Type. Type-type.

"She chewed you out, didn't she?" He said, multitasking harder than an octopus DJ.

"Well, not really." I fidgeted. "I'm fine. Really, I'm just, uh...Really, really...Fine."

When I was done making a total ass of myself, I spoke my mind.

"Is Colonel Wormwood actually pardoning everypony?" I asked.

"I should hope so," he said hastily, running over to one of those computaters. "Took us long enough to find the clause."

"She's been acting kinda weird though, right?"

He stopped punching buttons for a moment and craned his neck to look right at me. "That's not for me to say, young lady."

"Oh."

Type-type, typitty-type.

"Well," I pressed. "What do you think of her?"

"Also not for me to say."

He plopped a folder down off a shelf and kept computating.

"But you just said--;"

"Whoa, there. I made an observation about the behavior of other officers in her presence. Not the same as an opinion. A pony don't get to be head clerk of the 107th for thirty years and running by gossiping about commanding officers."

"Ok, um..."

I had to struggle to figure out what to say.

"What about the potatoes? I mean soldiers? I, um...call the soldiers potatoes sometimes. It's a long story."

I realized that I still didn't know a damn thing about how Wormwood actually felt about her troops. Just a bunch of bullshit about the chain of command and her duty to protect them. How could I tell the truth from her manipulations? I got to wondering if she even cared about them at all? Or had all of that just been talk?

The clerk grabbed some new papers and stamped them.

"The colonel would never ever brag about this sort of thing, and I would never ever offer a prejudicial opinion.” He said. “But in her two decades of service as an officer, Colonel Wormwood has buried over nine-hundred soldiers. That's a matter of public record, you see. And of the condolence letters that have crossed my office, there was not one that came from her that she had not written by hoof, and personalized."

I struggled to reconcile this with the cold manipulative bitch I had just met.

"That is also a matter of public record." The clerk threw in for good measure. "Not the content of the letters, of course, but the fact that she declined the templates."

"Thank you," I nodded to myself.

I couldn't help but smile at the clerk's helpfulness - the kind that insisted upon avoiding being helpful in any official capacity.

"You know, the soldiers are just going to go right back to fighting tomorrow."

I had to be honest with him.

"Reckon so." He said sadly.

He pounded at the computer like a regular Strawberry Lemonade. 'Til it hummed and spat out a piece of paper. He stuck it in a small envelope, wet it, and sealed it.

Once that was taken care of, the old stallion took a moment. Stopped.

With a sigh of resignation, he said, "I know this all must sound silly to a filly like you. Rules. Regulations. Orders."

"No." I protested to be polite.

"It's alright." He said. "Everyone wants to be Littlepip. As well they should. But you get to be a certain age, and you realize you're just not cut out for it. Made too many mistakes. Too many Arbu's."

I shook my head, not having a clue what he was talking about.

"Littlepip is what you call a moral compass. Great to look to. But the real reason we need her is that, if everyone was their own compass, they'd all spin off in different directions. It wouldn't be five minutes before the whole wide world couldn't tell North from South."

I tried to absorb what he was saying. Tried to soak it in. And it was a reasonable, logical argument for the importance of conformity. To a degree.

But I didn't care. Because conformity is fucking dumb.

I smiled sweetly and did my best to disagree with courtesy and respect for the old stallion.

"And if your commanding officer is wrong?" I said.

“It happens less than 50% of the time."

"I don't like those numbers."

"A whole lot better than a platoon full of folks all thinking they’re lightbringers. That spells trouble every time.”

I stared into space. Thought about it long and hard.

"99% of the time, what the world really needs is a good background pony." I whispered to myself.

"Come again?"

"Oh um, I was just....I don't know. I can’t. I really hate it when..."

"I’m sorry." He backed off when he saw me getting all worked up. "You’re a good kid. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“No, it’s not that.”

“Don’t you worry about it.” He said. “You fight your fight. That's your job. Just promise me one thing.”

He smiled at me sweetly.

“What?”

“Try not to be so hard on the rest of us." He winked.

A strange buzzing sound came from behind the desk. The clerk whipped around, disappeared to the drawer where the buzzing was coming from, grabbed a sticker that only a printing press could have made back home, slapped it on the envelope, and slid it to me.

"Hurry up and get this to her, please. We don't want anypony's pardon status slipping between the cracks when they call this war off."

"When they what?"

"Oh," the clerk laughed a shrill high-pitched nervous little laugh. "Forgive an old stallion. It's not official--;"

"Wormwood? She's calling off the war?"

That couldn't be. I may not have trusted the colonel, but she still seemed really genuine about the whole not-letting-the-corns-get-another-bomb thing.

And if the war was almost over, what would have been the fucking point of interrogating me?

"No," said the clerk. "The colonel doesn't have the authority to do that. But rumor has it the folks back home are talking it out. Also a matter of public record, I might add, though not something most folks down in the trenches have heard about, and nothing official as of yet."

"So there is hope?" I said, more confused than relieved.

"Just waiting on word from above. The transmission should be here any day now."

“The what?” I said.

I felt like I was going to throw up.

“The transmission from High Command.” The clerk repeated.

The one that Wormwood refused to admit she'd already received.

“I see.” I backed away toward the door, scarcely able to breathe.

“Thank you,” I added.

My throat felt like it was full of quicksand.

"What is it?" Said the old stallion.

Wormwood was going to do something crazy to stop the peace. But I couldn't tell him that. Not without proof. I looked up at his kind face. Wanting to trust him. Hell, my heart already trusted him. But my brain couldn't muster the words. Or the nerve.

My only advantage against Wormwood was that she didn't know I was on to her. I couldn't blow it.

"The transmission," I croaked at last through my chokeitty throat. "Who gets to see it?"

“Don’t you worry. It’s secure. Goes straight to the colonel. She decrypts it manually. On paper.” He winked. “Wave of the future.”

“Oh.”

We were fucked.

“Here!” The old stallion rushed toward me, waving the envelope with a smile. “Don’t forget this.”

He plopped it on my back. Stroked some loose strands of hair from my face when he saw my worry.

“Don’t fret, child.” Said the Clerk. “You’ll do fine. But please hurry. The potatoes are counting on you.”

He nudged me out the door. Closed it behind me. Next thing I knew, I was looking down that long hallway again.

I should go back and tell the clerk she’s hiding something. Said one voice in my head.

What good could he do? Everything’s by the books with that guy. Said another.

It’s better than nothing, said Rose Petal Number One.

Yeah, but we need that accordion folder first!

Then there was a brain silence. Mind Voice #2 was right. Hearth’s Warming Eve. Sterry. The War. It all hinged on exposing Colonel Wormwood. I couldn't risk it.

* * *

I moved on ahead. Got into another one of my staring contests with the door at the end of the hallway. The colonel was more dangerous than I’d thought, and I had been terrified of her from the get-go. What the fuck was I supposed to do?

“Psst.” Came a voice from behind. “Little girl.”

It was the clerk, poking his head out from behind his door.

“What is it?”

The old stallion looked around to make sure he couldn’t be heard. “I said that you would be fine with Colonel Wormwood. And that is true, but only 97% true.”

“What do you mean?” My damn heart was pounding so hard I could barely hear him.

“Whatever you do,” he said. “Do not mention her son.”

The colonel's door at the end of the hall flung itself open. Out came those transmissionizer-repair ponies, fleeing like there was a dragon on their tails.

They ran right past me.

“Mr. Clerk, Mr. Clerk, what do I do if--;”

I turned, and he was gone. Hiding behind his own door again.

Meanwhile, Wormwood’s door was slightly open. It seemed to be waiting for me now. I couldn’t turn back. Couldn’t even hide on the other end of it, and count to three. I was pretty sure she could see my every move.

“Rose, we haven’t got all day.” Came a voice from the inside.

I took a deep breath, and crept nervously back into the colonel's office. The sound of my hoofsteps echoed through the hallway.

Author's Note:

Special thanks to Pony Joe and Seraphem for your proofreading, and your story advice.

Special thanks to Princess Luna, guardian of lost children, angel of our dreams, for giving Rose Petal a second chance. You are Best Pony!

Happy Full Moon, everypony. Hope you enjoy this chapter. I'm already working on wrapping up the No Mare's Land adventure in the next one.