• Published 27th Feb 2013
  • 7,238 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 Last Resort

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - A LAST RESORT
"Surrender. Surrender. But don't give yourself away." - Cheap Trick








When you lose somepony close to you, theres a terror that sneaks up on you - a need. All their suffering. All your loss.
You get hungry for answers. Desperate for them.

You have to know there was a reason.

The bullet that killed Twinkle Eyes had kept on going and ripped a hole in my heart a mile wide. But, at the very least, I knew that it had happened for some kind of reason. I had no idea if I would ever find out what that reason was, or if it was even a good one, but that One I'm Supposed to Save stuff? It was just too fucking weird to be senseless.

Wormwood had recently buried her son. I'm not going to pretend to know how that feels. But that poor guy had gotten torn up in a razor wire deathbed. 'Cause of a bone fucking stupid war. A war that she was in charge of. A war that was about to get called off anyway.

* * *

I watched the colonel, typitting away at her desk. Glaring at me here and there as she worked. There was pain behind that mask. Rage. Hatred.

Wormwood was prepared to drag that war on 'til every last corn and potato was dead, just to prove it had happened for a reason.

And I just sat there. No idea how to stop her. Waltzing up to that desk, stealing her secret incriminating documents, moseying down to No Mare's Land, and convincing everypony to rise up against her was the best plan I could think of, and I just couldn't envision it working out.

"You're awfully quiet." The colonel said coolly.

I suddenly realized how suspicious my thinkiness had made me.

"I just don't wanna distract you." I said. "From your important...desk stuff. I wanna make sure everypony gets their pardons."

"They will." She looked down her muzzle at me as she typed.

Fuck! She was on to me. Think, Brain! Think! You're acting strange. Knock it off, knock it off, knock it off!.

Rant about the war. One voice in my head suggested.

Demand to know what she did to Sterry! Screamed another.

Give her something she expects to hear. Anything! Pleaded a third, not terribly helpful voice. And do it quick!

I fidgeted all over my seat. I had to sit on my hooves just to keep them still. Even though it made me all the more obvious. My brain rattled panicky thoughts around the inside of my head like popcorn until I felt like my skull was going to explode. My mouth, sick of my brain and all its bullshit, finally spat out words at random without bothering to consult me.

"I'm sorry." I said.

Colonel Wormwood stopped typing. Stopped messing with her papers even. She pointed her attention directly at me and me alone. I would rather she have pointed a gun in my face.

"Sorry for what?" She asked.

"Well, you know..."

The clerk had warned me not to bring up Wormwood's son. And there I was. Bringing him up. Again.

I turned away from her death glare. Hid behind my mane.

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

"Nevermind." I muttered.

"You aren't sorry, then?"

"No! I didn't say that."

"Either you have something to apologize for or you don't."

"I'm sorry about your son." I blurted out. "I was way out of line. I--;"

The words escaped me. I turned away and cringed. And not just because the colonel made for terrifying company. Because I was wrong.

If some stranger came into my room in my home, and tried to sway my course of action - my beliefs - by invoking my mother's name, or Twink's, I might just kick their teeth right in.

"I...had no right."

I fought to keep my voice from trembling. Tears were backing up behind my eyeballs, running through my skull, and pouring straight down my throat. But I sucked in a raspy breath and looked her straight in the eye.

"I had no right." I said again firmly.

"Apology accepted." She replied.

I braced myself for the coming storm. Squeezed my eyes shut as tight as they would go. Swallowed an entire bucket's worth of skull tears. Then I realized what she'd actually said. How matter-of-fact she'd been.

"Come again?" I looked up in confusion.

"It takes a mare of integrity to admit when they're wrong."

"Thanks." I said shyly.

Then, just like that, the colonel was quiet again. She'd said all she had to say on the matter.

* * *

It was a long, long, long, long quiet. But at least the elephant in the room was finally spoken of. One small load off my mind. I fucking hate conversation elephants.

Focus, Rose Petal. Focus! I told myself.

I had to find proof. I had to get that folder. I had to stop the fucking war. I had to find out where she was keeping Sterry!

"Your friend is being held in the basement," said Wormwood totally out of the blue.

"Really?"

Pumpkin had guessed right!

"Yes." She said dryly.

My twitchitty mouth fought back a smirk.

"Why are you holding him?" I asked.

"He's under arrest. I had hoped better for the boy, but...."

She shrugged. Left her statement hanging. Waited for me to ask the obvious question.

"Under arrest for what?"

"A series of minor infractions. Don't worry, he's not facing the gallows."

"What infractions?"

"That information is classified." She replied. "For his own privacy of course."

Bullshit. I thought.

I had only known Sterry a short while, but one thing was damn certain: that kid committed minor infractions all the time. He comes to her office on the same night that she conveniently misplaces an important transmission. And next thing he knows, he is getting arrested?

Something didn't add up. And it pissed me the fuck off.




I ground my teeth together in anger.

What had that fucking cockgoblin done with Sterry?

I fumed, threw her my nastiest glower, but Wormwood just looked at me like I was one of those gross squiggle-majigs you peep at under a microscope in science class. Her little experiment. Behaving predictably.

I would rather she have gloated.

* * *

A voice came at me from inside my head. Not the kind of voice that gives hints about the future. A crueller voice. A feeling. An urge.

"Leap across the room." It said. "Scale the desk. Grab the colonel and beat the secrets out of her with your bare hooves."

And I could see it playing out in my mind's eye, too. Very clearly. I could feel every satisfying punch like an itch in my hooves being soothed.

"You can do it." The voice said to me.

A reassuring whisper.

But I shut my eyes and sat on those itchy hooves. Swallowed my rage till it turned my stomach into a chamber of blurbley horrors.
Stewed there. Shaking. It took everything I had to keep from attacking Colonel Wormwood. But I managed. I was no Commander Hurricane. I was the girl who panicked during tackle hoofball games and got tripped over.



"Please." I whispered to myself out of the blue.

I didn't even know who I was asking, or what l I was even asking for. It's just one of things my mouth said without consulting me.

"Please," I said again through gritted teeth, and hoped Wormwood didn't hear me. "Please."

Then I stopped. Thought about what I should be wishing for. And remembered what was really important. In that moment, I hoped, and prayed, and begged every last brain hornet in the universe that Sterry was ok. That he actually did know something. That he really could prove something.

I pictured Pumpkin Scone in my mind and sent my hopes out into the wind.

If he was as good at picking locks as he'd said he was - if he was a good enough friend not to druggo-drop Sterry - we might maybe kinda possibly be able to pull this thing off.




Okay, Rose. I said to myself. There's no way to get to those papers under her desk. You've got to quit your stupid fantasies. Do something doable. Something useful.

You've got to distractify her.

“I don't believe you." I said smugly.

If I goaded her on just right, maybe I could buy them just a little more time. I had to pick a fight. Start an argument. Keep her eye off the ball.

"I know you don't believe me." The colonel replied with disinterest.

And was content to go on multitasking.

"Oh...um..."

Fuck.

I apparently wasn't very good at subtlety. The last time I had created a diversion, I'd run onto a fucking auditorium stage and waved hello to a town full of child-fearing ponies. But it didn't matter, cause Wormwood, out of the blue, just sorta stopped. Quit her scribbling. Quit her typing. For just a moment, focused her attention on her Pip Buck. As though it had poked her by surprise.

There was a strange flicker in her eye. She tapped a button on her wrist and threw me a checkmate glance. My second ever glimpse at the real pony behind the poker face. I didn't like it.

"Have I been secretive?" Said Wormwood, dryly playful.

"What?"

"Have I answered all of your questions? Do you feel that I have been straightforward?"

I shrugged. How do you even answer a question like that? But I did think about it, and Wormwood was right. She had been straight with me so far, giving out all the answers that I had asked for. Technically speaking anyway.

"Can you do me a favor then, and answer a question of mine?" She said. "Something that's been irking me?"

"Uh...depends on the question."

"Why did Private Pumpkin Scone refer to you as a corn?"

"Oh. This stupid blanket." I replied, somewhat taken aback.

"He detained you for wearing an enemy blanket during a truce?"

"Um..."

Every feuding voice inside my head screamed at once.

"Uh...I wasn't in No Mare's Land like the others." I thought quickly. "I was in the Ranger trenches! Like Pumpkin said."

"Mmmhmm." Wormwood glanced at her Pip Buck.

"Hey!" I snapped.

Trying to distractify her. Draw her attention away from that stupid thing. 'Cause whatever she was doing on her Pip Buck was bad. Really, really, really, really bad.

"You're Queen Straightforwardpants," I snarled at her. "With your if-you-have-something-to-apologize-for-then-do-it talk. Are you accusing us of stuff or what?"

"Us?"

She lowered her forehooves off the desk. Ignored her Pip Buck like I'd wanted. But with a new found interest in me that I didn't. Fucking. Want. A thousand screaming alarms went off in my head.

"Uh. You know, that jerk who captured me, and...uh, you know...me. One plus one equals two? Get it? Us."

I wished with all of my heart that she would go back to looking at her stupid Pip Buck.

"In the Academy," Wormwood explained. "Private Scone excelled in one area, and one area only. Lock picking."

Uh-oh.

"That's nice." I said.

"He mastered every technique in the field manual."

"Good for him."

"A few minutes ago, he attempted to use those techniques to break Private Sterile Field out of the brig."

I leapt to my hooves. Charged with a sudden urgency.

It was all on me now. Pumpkin had fucked up his end. Sterry was still stuck in the basement brig.

The evidence under Wormwood's desk was all we had left. Pumpkin and Sterry's only shot at freedom. The potatoes' and corns' last chance for peace.

I needed that fucking folder.

"Rose, " said the colonel out of the blue. "I'm placing you into protective custody."

"What?" My hooves started shaking again .

"It means you stay here."

"No!"

"Yes."

"But you said I was free to go?"

Half of my brain screamed at me to run up to her, push her aside, grab the folder, jump out the window, and hope for the best. The smart half nailed my hooves straight to the floor. I'm no Commander Hurricane.

"You have given me reason to believe that you have been cavorting with Private Scone, a known traitor."

"What?!" I shouted. "He's just a spaz!"

"Your testimony may be required at his court-martial, and being a minor in the eyes of the law, I cannot in good conscience let you go until a doctor has examined you, signed off, and confirmed your well-being, to assure that Private Scone has inflicted no lasting harm."

The biggest load of bullshit in the history of ever. But Colonel Wormwood had me right where she wanted me - locked up like a Trottica mine-o.

That checkmate glance she had thrown me earlier suddenly made sense.

I ran up to the side of her desk, shouting, "Please, please, please."

Pleading. Groveling. Trying to sneak a peek under that desk.

"No hysterics." Was Wormwood's only reply.

She braced herself for a megaspell of a tantrum. Took a step back into a defensive hai-ya stance.

That's when I saw it. The folder. Right there under the desk. Exactly where it had been before.

My heart quickened. My breath shortened. The sight of it was a jolt to my system. Like a gust of cool, tingly, refreshing air straight into my forehead.

Get it to No Mare’s Land. The cool air whispered once safe inside my skull. Get it to The Door.




I looked back up. There was the Colonel, strong and tall, and ready.

But she didn't suspect that I knew.

"No hysterics on my office," she repeated. Gentle. Sincere. As though informing me the rules of her office would be some kind of a comfort to me.

I looked her in the eye. Nodded. Focused on the colonel's face. Anything to keep from letting my wandering eyes give me away. And now that I'd finally forced myself to confront her intimidating stare, I noticed something.

She didn't hate me. There was no cackling. No gloating going on underneath that mask of hers. Colonel Wormwood had simply gotten the job done. Plain and simple.

* * *

Thud. Thud. Thud.

A knock at the door cut our staring contest short.

Wormwood raised a patient eyebrow at me. It made me all self-conscious-like about my outburst. Even though I knew I'd been in the right.

"Mmm." She cleared her throat. Gestured at the door with her eyes. Hint number two.

She was giving me a moment to get up off my knees with dignity.

"Oh!"

I laughed an awkward little laugh and stood the fuck up. The colonel nodded her approval and ignored me from there. Rose to her hooves, ready to receive her latest prisoner.

Every inch she backed up was an extra inch of wiggle room I might get if I decided to go for it and rush on in there. But it still wasn't enough. I counted her steps and kept my eyes peeled for a fragment of a chance.




"Rose! Rose!" Came Pumpkin’s voice from the other end of the door. "It's a trap!"

"I know, Pumpkin." Facehoof.

Wormwood closed her eyes and let out a long, heavy sigh

"Come in," she said.

The door swung open. Pumpkin stumbled in, and behind him, were two iron ponies.

Their presence instantly whittled my chances for dashing out the door down to nil.

Panic ridden, Pumpkin looked left and right and all around, like a equiolithic cavepony who had never seen an office before.

"Where's Sterry?" I asked.

I had assumed all this time that they would, at the very least, be together.

"I, I..." Pumpkin stammered.

"Is he okay?!"

"I don't know." Pumpkin Scone rambled. "I never got inside."

"Yes." Colonel Wormwood said dryly. "That's what happens when you try to pick a lock designed by the same ponies who wrote the field manual on lock picking."

Pumpkin hung his head, not just in regular old shame, but the kind of defeat that cuts you straight to your very soul. I got the impression that in his entire life, he had only ever been good at one thing. And even that he'd managed to fuck up.

"Is Sterry okay?" I repeated.

Wormwood looked down at Pumpkin, pointedly not offering any information about Sterry. I couldn't tell if it was because he was actually not, in fact, okay, or if Colonel Wormwood simply refused to respond to "hysterics".

"The Court-martial hearing is set for next Thursday. The charge is felony Breaking and Entering, Obstruction of Justice, Corruption of Youth, and Treason."

"Treason?" He whimpered.

The room fell silent. The guards even hung their heads.

Pumpkin was left standing there, babbling like a foal. "Treason?"

It was all he could muster the wits to say.

He looked to me. Desperate. Terrified.

I had gotten him into this. Now he was the one who was more fucked than me.

Please. He seemed to say. Help me.



I couldn't bear to look. I shut my eyes instead and tried to think. Dug around my mind for something - anything at all I could do to give him some hope. But I came up empty hooved. When I opened my eyes back up again, poor Pumpkin's head was hung low. He wasn't looking me in the eye either.

It was my first night in the Wastelands all over again.

"No." I whispered to myself.

I had to do something.

"Treason," Pumpkin babbled.

You're not fucked yet. I yearned to tell him, but I didn't know how.

I gritted my teeth again and reassured myself. We still stood a chance. Pumpkin still stood a chance. Sterry still stood a chance. The corns and the potatoes might even come together for good.

If I could get my hooves on that folder. Get it in No Mare's Land. To The Door. Like the brain-wind had said.

I took deep breaths and tried as best I could stop stay calm, reminding myself again and again and again that we hadn't lost yet. There was still one tiny shred of hope left.

Because Wormwood didn't know we were on to her.

"We're onto you!" Shouted Pumpkin Scone.

Oh, sweet Celestia. No.

"You're the one committing treason."

Fucking scream at him to shut up! Said a voice inside my head.

If I scream at him to shut up, it'll just prove that what he's saying has merit! Said another.

I don't care! Said a third Rose Petal voice in my brain, even more hysterical than the others. Do something!

Shut up, shut up, shut up! I told my brain, but it didn't listen.

"It's you!" Growled Pumpkin Scone. "It's you! I heard all about the transmi--."

But before he could even finish, before he could say the word transmission - I interrupted with a great big scream.

"AaaAAaAaaaAaAaahhh!" I said, and threw myself at Colonel Wormwood flailing.

She slid backward into a defensive stance, ready to strike me down, or subdue me, or whatever it is that Colonels are trained to do in situations like that. It gave me about eighteen more inches of maneuvering room to get to the folder. But it wasn't enough. So I freaked the fuck out. And freaked the fuck out. And freaked the fuck out some more. Cause freaking the fuck out was the entirety of my plan.

"Aaaahhh!" I flung myself at Colonel Wormwood, but my hoof snagged on the blanket-cape tied around my neck. The next thing I know, the world is spinning, and I've got a floor smacking me in the face.

I look up, and there she is – Colonel Wormwood jumping backwards. Actual shock - panic written all over her face.

"Luna fuck me with moon rocks!" she exclaimed in horror.

I followed her eyes. She was staring intently at my hoof. My inky black evil-looking hoof. The bandage had come undone.

"Oh no!" I shouted. "It's um...It's...spreading again."

"Medic! My office! Stat!" Wormwood hollered into her Pip Buck.

Then she turned to me. "Let me see it."

Shit!

Wormwood came at me.

With nothing clever to say, I just freaked out some more. Scurried under that desk and belly-flopped onto the accordion folder, scrambling around, and around, and around, rambling, "My hoof, my hoof, my hoof, my hoof, my hoof! My evil fucking hoof!"

"Stop fussing and let me see it." Wormwood crouched to my level.

Fuck! She could see my every move.

"Don't hurt me!"

I spun around, and wiggled backwards, sweeping the folder with me.

"I'm not going to hurt you," she snapped. "Now let me see it!"

Wormwood proffered a genuine helping hoof.

I didn't dare take it. My back was pressed up against the corner. The folder in between the two.

I was fucking stuck there and out of options. A dead end only two feet wide. I had to come out.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!

The folder was still hidden - wedged against my back - but that didn't help all that much. One wrong move, and it would slide right out from behind me.

I looked to Wormwood, who was still holding her hoof out to me. Patiently. I nodded at her and shimmied a little. Then I shimmied some more. There was no fucking way to position myself to swipe the thing without arousing suspicion.

I looked into those stern sharp eyes of hers, and what little hope I'd had drained from me like water. Everything I needed was right there in my grasp, just inches away. Pressed up against my back! But she was watching me like a hawk. And I just couldn't.

"Are you sure it won't hurt?" I asked with a trembly voice.

Wormwood nodded.

I took a deep breath and sighed, stroking the folder behind me with the tip of my hoof. Praying silently that I would get another shot at this before the day was done.

Then the door swung open, and heavy hooves galloped in.

Wormwood stood up and barked, "She's under the desk and won't come out."

I didn't waste an instant! I tore my cape blanket off with my teeth, swept the folder up in it, and hugged it against my chest. I limped out, holding it at my side. Just another bundled up blanket.

And there was Wormwood, waiting. Beside her, a great big iron clad, but helmetless zebra with a red cross patch on his coat. He knelt down to me.

"Does it hurt?" He asked. There was kindness in his voice.

I shrugged at both of them, too terrified to speak.

The colonel eyeballed me pretty heavily, but kept her suspicions to herself.

"It doesn't hurt?" The zebra pressed.

"Yes, I mean no, I mean..." I looked back to Wormwood again, but couldn't bear the eye contact. "I mean...it did."

"But it doesn't anymore?"

I slowly put the black evil hoof on the ground to test it out. I knew it was fine, but I had to put on a show.

"I think it's okay." My voice cracked.

They seemed to be buying it. Not because I'm any good at faking, but because my terror was quite real.

"May I see it?" Asked the zebra medic.

I looked to Wormwood, then back at him. I nodded slowly and held out my bad hoof.

"Is that frostbite?" asked Colonel Wormwood.

"What?! Is she okay?" Pumpkin Scone shouted from somewhere out of sight. The iron ponies restrained him. I could tell 'cause the struggle sounded like a drawer full of silverware getting knocked around.

"It's covering most of her leg. How can she walk?" Wormwood was disturbed and perplexed.

I was willing to bet she'd seen a lot of actual frostbite in the field, but my hoof defied description.

I closed my eyes. Begged the universe that the zebra wouldn't wig out and take my coat off. I wasn't sure how long I could keep the blanket full of evidence looking casual.

"No," he said at last.

He looked down on me, joyless. Rummaged through his saddlebag, and produced a small bundle of leaves tied up with twine.

"I am going to crush some herbs against your hoof. It will not hurt. Do you trust me?"

I nodded again. It sure beat actually saying stuff.

The medic did exactly what he said he would do, and like he promised, it didn't hurt a bit. It felt just like plants rubbing against my hoof for no reason.

"Your saucer, please."

Wormwood passed the medic a tea saucer from off her desk. The zebra nabbed it quickly, placed it on the floor and produced a blade. He cut the tips of the herb into the saucer. Splashed a few drops from a flask over it, whipped out one of those flicky-firemajigs, and up it went.

Burning gray.

Me fidgeting all the while to keep the folder balanced.

"What is it?" Wormwood asked.

The zebra stopped, and gave me a weird look. He was on to me. He knew that the inky blackness on my hoof didn't just start hurting and spreading right there out of the blue. He knew.

"No way to be sure." He lied his stripey balls off and never took his know-itty eyes off of me, even as he addressed the colonel. "Permission to take her to sick bay, ma'am. I need to run some tests."

"Permission granted." Said Wormwood without hesitation.

But the second the medic moved toward me, she threw a leg in front of him.

"Rose Petal is a witness, and a flight risk." She added.

She could have said a whole hell of a lot more, but she didn't have to. She just stabbed the zebra with her eyeballs instead. Stabbed him right in the soul. He nodded back at her, and swallowed hard. The message was unspoken, but clear as crystal: If I made a break for it, it was his ass.

"Can you walk?" The zebra asked me.

I looked to Colonel Wormwood for approval. But she didn't so much as blink. Just watched me with that stone hard face of hers. Somewhere behind that mask was a bunch of feelings. Like an ice cream swirl of different flavors: Actual concern for my well being. Anger. Desperation. Ambition. All topped with colorful rainbow sprinkles of distrust for me.

But she hadn't figured out what I was up to. So she watched, and grudgingly allowed the medic to continue.

“I can walk," I said, more than ready to get the fuck out of there.

Grabbing the blanket with my teeth, I inched nervously over to the medic and hid behind his hindquarters so Wormwood could see less of me. Played the frightened child. It didn't matter that she knew I was up to something, so long as she didn't figure out what I was up to.

Zebro, as I decided to name him, guided me with a gentle hoof. I stumbled and limped a little bit just for good measure. Plus it helped me balance the folder. Mostly I focused on keeping my cool. It took every ounce pf strength I had not to panic and holler and gallop straight the fuck for the door.

Come on, come on, come on! Said The little Rose Petal in my head.

But we just strolled out of there. Calmly. Every hoof step felt like a year.

Clip.

Clop.

Clip.

Clop.

Clip.

Clop.

I swear, we could have built a whole new civilization, decline-ified it and blown it up all over again in the time it took to get to that fucking door.

And I could feel her watching our every move too. I was so nervous, I had to remind myself to breathe.

"It's ok," Zebro said.

He looked down, waited for me to meet his eyes and repeated himself. "It's. Okay."

Somehow, that made me feel calm again. He opened the door for me.

Almost free.

Wormwood didn't stop us. But she sucked the joy out of my escape, cause just as we left, she turned her attention to Pumpkin Scone.

"Have a seat, Private."

When Zebro spun to close the door behind him, I got a teeny tiny peek inside. Pumpkin lowered himself into that chair. He was looking right at me, tears running down his cheeks. There was nothing at all that I could do for him, and he knew it. But that just made the whole thing so much worse.

It was the last I ever laid eyes on him.

* * *

Zebro didn't say a word at first. Neither did I. We were deep in the stairwell before he finally broke the silence.

"How long has your hoof been like this?"

I shrugged the world's tiniest shrug, afraid I would drop the folder.

"Ponies have no words with which to mark this," he said, reverting to a thick zebra accent. "Tu'kamba, is what we'd call your hoof. Touched by Darkness."

"You have seen it before?!" I reeled a bit. Stumbled at the shock of what he'd just said. Then stared at him when I got my hoofing.

Zebro just shook his head. "Only in texts that survived the war."

He gestured for us to keep walking. I stuffed the blanket and the folder firmly under my coat. Buttoned it up good and tight.

"You can cure it though, right?"

"No."

And down the stairs we went.

"What about the zebras before the war?" I pressed.

"I don't know. I never met one. "

"But they could, right?! They wrote the book."

There was hope. Because I had access to Zebras before the war! Sort of. One at least. Maybe.

"What makes you so sure that curing it would be the best thing for you?"

I couldn't believe my ears.

"Because it's fucking evil. Duh."

Zebro shook his head. "Then you don't understand zebra magic. Even if they could have cured it, it is doubtful that they would have."

"Why the hell not?"

"Darkness cannot be destroyed or killed or blown apart." He said, talking funny yet again. "The path begins and ends in your own heart."

I paused to think about what he was trying to say, but Zebro spoke again before I could make any sense of it.

"Look at my face," he said. "Am I black or am I white?"

"What?"

He didn't say anything else. Just awaited a reply.

"Uh...You're kinda, I dunno... both-ish. White mostly, maybe black."

"And ponies? Would you say that they are good?"

I looked around at the stairwell of the big beat up old building. Ruins of a stupid fucking war. I remembered the cold surgical gaze of Colonel Wormwood - her dedication to perpetuating a war perhaps even more stupid – even more senseless. Then there were the potatoes. Frustrated. Afraid. Hateful when they weren't thinking. And prone to acts of kindness. They had a faith in the hearts of their fellow pony so profound, that I would not have even thought itpossible.

Are ponies good? I had asked Blueberry Milkshake the same question only a week ago - a week that felt like years. But after all I’d seen and learned - in Trottica, in the trenches, in the hospital - the answer still hadn't changed one bit.

When we want to be, I whispered myself.

But Zebro hit me with an out of nowhere proclamation before I even had the chance to formulate a reply out loud.

"You are not a good pony, Rose Petal."

"What?! How can you say that?" What a jerk! How did he know? What I'd seen? Where I'd been? What I'd done? I wanted to set his stripey ass on fire. "I. I--;"

"You are not a bad pony either."

"Great." I glowered at him. "That just makes it all okay. The Zebras can fucking cure me, but they won't because I'm what?! Too mediocre for them?"

"No. The soul of every pony is as black as it is white. You cannot defeat your fears - your darkness - by hiding it from the world. No more than I can defeat my stripes with paint."

"But your stripes are cool."

He laughed. "Thank you."

I looked down at my hoof. Shook my head in anger and disappointment. Zebro didn't get it. That stain was more than just a metaphor to me. Moral failings I wanted to hide out of vanity. What the shadows had done - what they were trying to do – it was personal.

"I fucking hate it," I said.

The medic cracked a smile. "Shame." He said. "It is the best weapon you have against them."

* * *

Before I could ask any of the five million questions running through my head: Why? How? What the fuck? My evil hoof helping me fight shadows?! Wuh??? Zebro's Pip Buck went off.

"Bring the girl back here." It said.

Colonel. Wormwood’s voice.

"Ma'am, but--;"

"Now!" Her panic and rage poured out of the medic's Pip Buck.

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

And while he was busy fidgeting with his wrist-a-majig, I leapt down the stairs. Tumbled onto the landing and thwack! Slammed into the wall.

"Hey!"

"Sorry!" I called out behind me, and really, honestly, I was.

I didn't want him to get in trouble. But I darted down the next batch of stairs anyways, around in circles. Floor after floor. I had been found out.

I ran, and ran, and leapt, and ran, and ran some more, but it wasn't enough. Zebro was bigger than me, and faster, and I could only get so far for so long before he caught up.

"Rose!" He shouted just inches behind me.

He chomped at my tail. That's how fucking close he was. One wrong move - one wrong tail swish, and he would have me.

So I made for the hole in the stairwell. That big gaping hole in the wall with the freezing wind and the fifty foot drop. I leapt for it just as he caught up with me.

"No!" He shouted from behind.

But it was too late. I was out in the open. Soaring. Falling.

WHAM!

I landed on that giant vein thing that ran from the building into The Wall. I landed so fucking hard I tumbled forward, and almost fell off.





I found myself on my belly. Squirming. Two of my knees dangled over the side. I couldn't bring them back up again. Warm tingly magic pulsed through that cable, and it made me jittery and disoriented.

"Get back in here!" Zebro cried.

He was stood at the edge of the hole in the wall, watching in horror.

"I promise I won't hurt you, just please get back in here."

Three more guards came up from behind him. Iron ponies. They looked at each other, then at me.

Above was Wormwood’s window. She'd spotted me too. I don't know why it made a difference one way or another. She had already sent her guards after me, and there was nothing she could do from up there anyway. But when our eyes locked I felt like I was going to vomit.

Something about her.

I rose to my hooves. Backed away from the building. Toward that big weird Crystal Empire Wall. I was careful to keep my eyes on the cable I stood on. It was wide as a Manehattan sidewalk, but tell that to my poundy heart, freaking out at the idea of being fifty feet in the air with no guardrails or safety net.

I patted myself down. The blanket and folder were still tucked snuggly under my coat.

"Rose Petal," said Zebro calmly, “Please?"

And I really, really wanted to. But I didn't trust the guards standing next to him. And what I had concealed in my coat was way too important. Wormwood's tangible rage and fear only confirmed that.

I shook my head at him, mouthed the words, “I'm sorry,” turned, and ran up the cable.

* * *

The giganto cable was squiggly and weird, but not hard to make it to the wall. I had no idea what was waiting for me when I got there.

At first, it was a maintenance scaffold. "Oh fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!" I said as I rushed up the cable.

And when I finally reached the thing - the bars – the safety rail – I hugged it like crazy and caught my breath. I was so happy to be away from the drop, that I would've slapped a bow tie on that beam, called it my special somepony, and made it my husband.

But I didn't have very long. Two iron ponies were tip-hoofing up the cable, and not far behind.

I broke into a gallop. Enjoying the safety of the scaffolding while I could. I was in that slot where the cable ran in between the giant panels of the wall, like a piece of yarn snugged in the space between bathroom tiles.

I ran, and I ran, and I ran, and I ran, and I ran, but the space between the cable and the wall just kept getting smaller. Eventually I just plain ran out of scaffolding. I whipped around. The iron ponies were catching up fast.

There were only three ways out of there. One involved a plummet to my death. Another: getting scooped up by those assholes. And then there was the last option - the worst of all: a tunnel.

The crease between the cable and the wall had shrunk down to a crawl space. A spot so tight, those iron ponies wouldn't be able to reach me. It seemed to keep going too.

I poked my head in but saw only pitch black. Maybe the tunnel lead to freedom, maybe death. All I knew for sure is that it was fucking dark in there, and I wanted to cry.

The iron ponies made it to the scaffold. They were at full gallop now. It sounded like a roller coaster the way their hooves rumbled over the metal floor.

I poked my head into the crawlspace. Still pure black.

"Luna fuck me with moon rocks!" My voice squeaked.

I kicked the wall. "Damn stupid wall. Damn stupid darkness."

I was sobbing - damn near ready to give up even - to go with them and take my chances with Wormwood. But then I actually saw her up there. Just a figure in the distance, sticking her head out of that office window. She radiated this wild fear - this hate - an anger so palpable I could feel it even from where I stood.

The iron ponies closed in on me. I had only seconds to spare. But seeing Colonel Wormwood clearly fuming, flailing, freaking out - for once as vulnerable and desperate as she had made me feel - as she had made Pumpkin feel - it made everything all of a sudden become so clear.

I took one last moment to raise my hoof to my lips and shout, "Fuck you!"

I knew that bitch could hear me, even over the mechanical hum, so I sucked in another breath and let 'er rip one more time.

"Fuck! You!"

And disappeared into the unknown.




* * *



It was dark in there. Real fucking dark. I hated it. And I had no idea how deep the hole went, where it lead, or even if it stopped. There could be pitfalls. Gears. Pointy bits! Dangerous machinery.

There could be shadow things.

I was confronted with the very real possibility that I might end up stuck in there, crawling through miles, and miles, and miles of living nightmare sauce.

Come on, Rose, you can do this.

I tried to turn around. Just a little. To get my bearings. But there was no room. WHAM! I whacked my face simply from trying to crane my neck. It made me see spots. Little purple splotches dancing around my vision, ebbing and flowing through the dark.

"Ow."

I couldn't get my blanket out of my coat, stuff it in there and come back for it later. I couldn't even get up off my knees. Nothing. It was forward or back. And either way I couldn't see a thing.

"Hello?" I hollered into the void, though I don't know why.

There was no reply of course. I heard only the hum of the walls' machinery coming at me from all directions.

"It's okay, Rose." I said out loud. "It's just a tight space. A pain in the flank. Nothing more. You'll go, you’ll follow the tube, it'll suck, and it'll let you out…somewhere. Well, eventually. "

Thunk.

I whacked my head against the wall, this time on purpose. Out of sheer frustration. I sucked in a deep breath of surprisingly warm air.

"You can do this." I told myself one more time,

But my legs didn't even fucking move. My muscles had seized up. All of them. Useless as rocks. I had been standing there like an idiot, barely fifteen feet past the entrance to the tunnel. It wasn't 'till the iron ponies shined a beam of light at me from behind that I realized just how little ground I’d covered.

"Hey, kid!" A voice shouted at me from the mouth of the crawl space .

"Ah!" I startled, banged my head yet again, and my legs finally just took off, moving all on their own.

One of the iron ponies tried to reach inside. He couldn't get to me but they were still way too close for comfort.

I scurried further inward out of reflex. They were right the fuck behind me, and I was just barely out of hoof's reach.

"What are you doing, kid?! Are you nuts? Get the fuck back here."

But I didn't stop. Those cowardly muscles had sprung to life again. And I didn't dare re-lock-them-up on purpose.

The iron ponies kept yelling, and banging, and clanking around behind me, trying to reach in. Trying to see. Shining bright ass lights down my tunnel, even though the space was too twisty.

But I squirmed along, and got the fuck away, dragging my knees over the itchy tweed of my trench coat as I went. I squirmed, and squirmed, and squirmed 'till every last trace of those assholes was gone. The light. The shouting. The banging.

Just gone.

I was alone. In the dark. Again.

I fucking hate the dark.

Author's Note:

This chapter is dedicated to BangBoom and Ray.

Special thanks to Pony Joe and Seraphem for your help editing and proofreading, and to Kkat for your kind encouragement, (and of course, for writing the original FoE source material).