• Published 23rd Feb 2013
  • 3,229 Views, 242 Comments

Fallout Equestria: Second Wind - TinkerChromewire

In this FoE Sidestory, a veteran of war returns to the harsh realities of the wastelands from beyond the grave. Discovering the hardships of New Equestria and its terrors, he seeks to find a place in a world that moved on without him.

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Chapter 18: Captain and Crew

Gdocs Link

"Captain and Crew"

So, that poem was actually leading up to something?

It is the wrong turn of phrase to say you woke up, it was more accurately a shift in mental awareness. Dynamic phases of sentient symbolism, relatable data against correlated perspective stimuli. *You* were aware. *You* had awoken. *You* knew this. But who were *You*

Sickened with fitful sleep, your numb body rose up with a drunken stagger. Dull throbs in your temples pounded an alien drum against your deepest abyss. You entreat the throbbing with a tender rub of your hoof, parting your bedraggled mane as you smacked your lips. The ever-persistent thump drowned out your thoughts, Thump-Thump-Thump.

Revelation! Your hoof stymied your groggy thoughts, a speedbump in mental routine.

A hoof. A normal, ordinary hoof. Why was the sight of your foreleg so intriguing? Feeling, tactile feeling. Your tongue rolled against the gate of ivory fangs, and curiously, you bit the inner of your cheek to discover the sting of pain and coppery taste of blood. Your hoof roamed a stern, masculine, equine jaw, gaunt cheeks, and finally, over the crest of your brow, an intact horn. You drew your hoof away, distancing it before your eyes to the floor. Thump-Thump-Thump.

“No stitches.” Your inner voice whispered that it was a crazy thought, why would you have stitches there?

Shaky like a newborn, you took a step. Then two. You stumbled, your eyes watering as a pressure grew in your chest, it felt like fire. You’d missed a crucial step, somewhere along the way, an important thing most living things did autonomously. Just when darkness filled your eyes, reflexively, instincts you’d forgotten drew breath into your lungs. You are now breathing manually.

“I have to breathe too?” You asked rhetorically. Of course you did, all living things needed air, why were you even asking that question? A more important question passed your lips once you banished its predecessor to the back of your mind. “Where am I?”

Wherever you were, it was wholly conservative, with no doors, windows, or furniture of any kind. The only decor in this painfully dull, white room was the presence of reflection, all in a different border or shape. Mirrors. Some were ornate, some were plain, and some were shattered with their shards littering the polished floor. Staring at any of the mirrors gave the sensation of being watched, as if the reflected eyes had a tendency for voyeuristic observation. Soft whispers echoed from every rippling surface, like a permeable boundary.

Your ears flicked, a growing irritation gnawing at your psyche. Unease surrounded you, coiling like a serpent poised to crush the life from your feeble, tired body. Something was not right, you would tell yourself, but it was merely a hunch, unsupported by anything concrete. Suspiciously, you examined several mirrors, backing away only when you felt yourself drawn to the reflection. You urged yourself to resist, but you wanted to slip into one of the mirrors, through the frame, just to absolve your loneliness. “Crazy,” you thought. Thump-Thump-Thump.

“Are these broken?” You recalled the enchanted hall of mirrors from the Summer Solstice Carnival in Canterlot. These, while similar, were not in whimsical nature, enchanted to enthrall and astound. No, these mirrors were arranged in a haphazard collection by an unorthodox, unwell mind.

“Certainly not!” answered one of the reflections. “You’re just unhinged, peasant!”

Being one to not argue with strange reflections, especially not ones that resembled Prince Blueblood (The pompous ass), you took his comment with a shaker of salt and dull, disinterested nod punctuated with a dismissive ‘uh-huh’. Granting the duke of douches a glimpse of your backside, you graced mirrors far less tawdry with your attention, noting each one held the reflection of a different ungulate (and a few non-ungulates, however those were rare.) You wandered the small room in circles, hunting for answers among the assemblage of beast-occupied mirrors.

In a rather somber, cerulean mirror surrounded by a black metal frame, was the spitting image of Doctor Steelgraft. (You must have left his nametag with your things, but you recall wearing it. As a keepsake, perhaps?) That was curious! In regards to one another you tilted your heads in a synchronized, silent greeting. It was almost like meeting an old friend, or even an aged, wise uncle. The old stallion peered at you over broken rims, before his flesh began to fall off his bones right before your terrified eyes. You were now faced with a ghoulish representation of the same stallion you may have known in some capacity, sly smile left intact, no matter how decrepit he became. Da-thump, Da-thump, Da-da-da-da-thump!

“My final task.” Doctor Steelgraft’s voice sounded gruff and rusty, as if he’d chain-smoked for a good forty years. The imitation in the mirror produced a package of Blue-Jokes, a brand popularized by the iconic blue Poison Joke, and drew heavily on the ignited twig. He sighed, drawing up a recorder, his horn glowing with a cerulean aura, ”I never thought I’d ever erase this, but my end grows near.” Every word came with a long curl of smoke from the doctor’s nose-holes, granting him the appearance of a dragon about to breathe fire. A rolling wave of smoke coalesced with his exhale and a throaty laugh, resulting in a stuttering plume. “Just once more, and then I finish him. He’ll make sure Headcase gets the message.” He sighed for the umpteenth time and clicked ‘play’.

“Happy birthday, Big Brother! I know how much you hate my post-it notes, so I got this recorder so you know what to buy while you’re out. It’s fancy, isn’t it? Just read the instructions in the package. Oh, before you delete this message, I need you to pick up some mushed yams. I don’t think Mish Mash cares for the carrots. He keeps crying for my milk, but my teats are getting sore since he’s teething. I really appreciate you taking such good care of us. Oh, and remember the yams!” The recording was of a light-hearted nature, the babble-talk of a child could be heard sporadically in the background, babbling and crooning. “Mish-Mash says hi!”

“How I miss those stupid post-it notes...” The beleaguered stallion muttered to himself, forlorn to have hated them. He sounded as though he’d give anything to see a single note from his sibling, even on a piece of sticky yellow paper.

You considered turning away, since it was a private moment from somepony’s life, yet you were transfixed on that recorder. It was familiar to you, because you’d found it--On Steelgraft’s corpse. A shiver ran up your spine, your eyes roaming over the mirror. In the room with the stallion was a gurney, upon that was a corpse covered in a white sheet with a knife protruding from it. That was the room where you’d found the doctor dearly departed!

“Get out!” You yelled, “Something horrible is about to happen!” He couldn’t hear you, even as you drummed your hooves on the glass so hard it should have shattered, but all it did was ripple. “Get out of there, doctor! Get out! You have to run! The body on the gurney isn’t dead!” Remember watching those horror movies with your wife? Of course you do, she’d always yell out to the characters portrayed on the screen, urging them to save themselves. It had always gotten on your nerves, but here, you were guilty of much the same.

By now, the doctor had finished deleting and recording a new message, but you hadn’t been paying attention to what he had said. Now, you could only watch in horror as the living corpse spasmed, dropping the recorder. He bellowed out a guttural groan, clutching his head. “No! Not now-- GrgAAAHHhrrrrgh...” His muscles went slack, as if his strings had been cut. The stallion was unresponsive for nearly a whole minute before your calls reached him. His head turned up at the sound of crunching glass.

“Nevermore, I found Doc, I think he’s hurt!” A mare filled the frame. Her name escaped you, but you recalled the mare being six months with foal and adorned in red ribbons the last you saw her.

“Zone, stay away from him, he is--” It was too late. The doctor charged, screeching like a banshee as it sought to kill the mare. His form slammed into the mirror’s surface as the mare leapt to safety.

“Roadapples!” You choke out, fleeing backwards, but you could retreat no further without running afoul another mirror just behind you. “This is crazy! This whole place is flipping crazy!”

“You’re the crazy one. You know these are memories and emotions, right?” Cracked the mirror right behind you, a familiar cocky showpony in uniform. “Do you mind getting your butt out of my face? Not that you don’t got a nice one, but I’d rather not see it.”

You scampered forward a short spell, careful not to intrude on the personal space of any decor. Spinning around, you came under the scrutinizing gaze of a prismatic mare with rose colored eyes donned in Equestrian military garb of pre-war era, her frame embossed with predictably flashy gold lightning bolts.

“Y-you!” You sputter, eyes wide. She was someone you’d known, you knew it! Pieces began to slam into place, eliciting a groan from you as you clasped a metal gauntlet--no hoof, no gauntlet. Your mind couldn’t decide what was supposed to be there, and right before your eyes, your body changed, back and forth until it settled on an ordinary hoof. You breathed a stale sigh of relief. “What’s going on, commander?” You say with confidence forced into your wavering voice. Thump-Thump-Thump!

It’d been so long since you’d last seen your commander, not that you could precisely recall the last time you’d seen her. You could scarcely remember how you made it into this cramped room filled with creepy mirrors.

“Figure it out on your own,” Dash said with a roll of her eyes. That sounded nothing like the Element of Loyalty.

“I’m gonna need a bit of help,” you tell her, looking around the room for alternatives. “You’re the only pony here I recognize that hasn’t gone psycho (yet) and I’m a bit confused.” You give her an entreating glance, folding your lower lip into your teeth.

She ground her hoof to her brow in only mild irritation. “There’s three-hundred other mirrors in here, but if you want it from me, I ain’t pulling punches.” You held your breath, steeling yourself with what mental fortitude you could muster in preparation for what she was about to say. “This is all your fault,” she dropped the bombshell without any cursory pause, flabbergasting you into a slack jawed, bewildered ‘bwuh’. The fragile bomb shelter of will you had erected imploded to Dash’s figurative guilt detonation. “And as usual, you’re too flipp...Er...” She rolled a hoof in the air, trying to find a word not commonly used in her repertoire.

“Flippant,” you finished for her, hoof braced against your chest. You felt as if somepony had bucked you in the gut, perhaps even Big Mac himself! “What’s my fault?”

“It’d be obvious to somepony with some common sense, but lemme spell it out for you--” She pressed her nose to the glass, twin jets of steam leaving either nostril. “Everything! Everyone is dead because of you! I’m dead, my friends are dead, everypony I ever cared about, you ever cared about.” She pointed a condemning hoof at you, “If you hadn’t died, things might have been different, but you weren’t there! For anyone! You’re the most disloyal soldier the Ministries has ever seen, no,” She corrected herself with a cruel sneer, “The worst Equestria had ever seen! You were never there for anyone but yourself! You should have killed that traitor, but instead you tried to capture him. He played us all and in the end he won.”

“You expected me to kill my best friend.” You countered, feeling hurt. “I thought the Element of Loyalty would have understood!”

“Do you even know who got pegged with your murder? Your crew! I had to watch as they were rounded up!” The figment grit her teeth hard, her rose-colored eyes burning with hatred. “They were executed as traitors, and they were my friends too! I hate you!” Her declaration came with blazing, tear-brimming eyes.

The wind left your lungs and a chill ravaged your spine. “All my fault?” She didn’t even spell it out with letters like she said she would! The chanting voices grew from all directions, the mirrors drew ever closer, a cacophony of damning dialect, all turning the same phrase.

All your fault.

The whispers, more insistent, became deafening, but the prismatic mare behind the glass retained your focus, her cold, rose colored eyes brimming with malice. “You should have never woken up!” said Commander Dash. “It. Is. All. Your. Fault.” Each word punctuated by a tap of her hoof against the glass felt more like a slap to the face, further draining your coherency.

“I don’t understand,” you sobbed as a shriek of memory shot through you, splintered recollections slamming together into a kaleidoscope. Cannon fire mixed with the giggling of children, the smell of cooking hay fries meshed with the taste of sweat and sweet lips. Overwhelming sensory overload hammered your heart to your ribs. The room spun like a haunted carousel, the nightmare flourished and grew titanic. Thump-Thump-Thump!

“Go away,” you begged, only to receive more arrows of adversity and guilt in the form of brittle memories. “Go away!” you shouted now, willing strength to your limbs enough to stand. “I said,” drawing in a deep breath, you were choked to silence by a bottle that appeared against your lips; sweet ambrosia, nectar to sooth the pain! Spontaneously and without thought, you were taking long draws on the upturned bottle. The sweet caramel taste of Berry Punch’s finest salted-caramel liqueur warmed you to the core. The chanting stopped, and you felt happy. Oh, so happy. The pain was gone. And then, that began to fade, replaced by intense emptiness.

“Daddy?” Squeaked a weak apparition. A small blue foal you would have recognized as your son, if he hadn’t been transparent, stood there, amongst the darkness and silent, empty mirrors. “Why do you want to forget us?” The mirrors began to fracture, and your memories with them.

Choking back your tears, the bottle left your lips and entered the telekinetic grasp of your horn. “N-no, not you, Rowdy! I don’t want to forget you! Or your mother!” What was her name, what was your wife’s name? Great blue skies, you couldn’t remember! The child faded, absconded away by shadow. He had been a figment, a memory, an omen, one to heed. You’d sworn to never drink again, who were you to break such a vow?

Finish the bottle,” Cooed a soft voice. “It will make everything stop...” A siren’s song, offering respite from pain, but you knew better, somehow you knew, finishing that bottle would be your destruction.

A thoughtless force possessed your living form, upturning the bottle to release the licorice black fluid over the once-spotless marble floor. White was such an ugly color. It was a lie, nothing could ever be so pure. “No,” said a voice, acting through you. It felt strange, as if a part of you, now independent, had ceased to be a passive observer.

“No?” Questioned the distant, yet omnipotent voice. “You couldn’t make this easy on yourself, could you? I was having so much fun watching you torture yourself!” Several of the mirrors erupted into a shower of shards. Inebriated, you hardly felt an ounce of pain. “I’ll need to do this manually!”

You caught sight of it, whatever it was, out of the corner of your eye. A slim shadow darted from one mirror to another before the previous one exploded into a shower of razors. You raised a quick shield to defend yourself, then hurled the bottle at the lightning bolt embossed mirror the wicked shadow had taken residence. The glass shattered, joining the rest on the polished marble floor. A smear of indistinguishable shapes and colors filled the pieces, but slowly drained of color.

“Destroying your own memories to slow me down. How daring, Captain!” The shadow manifested, a tall, shadow-like beast of a minotaur with a small stallion resting demurely on its shoulder. “I must admit, the Morts did a great job putting you back together! All your memories in one little room. They didn’t have much space to work with, did they?”

“Who are you?” You demanded. Or was it him, the other you, the one in control now that spoke? Past and present ebbed and flowed from the world around you. Your heart ceased beating once as your body grew cold and unfeeling, then you felt warm and flush as your heart renewed its accustomed tempo.

“I do hate re-introductions, just call me Cradle Robber. Oh, and this is Tauros. We’re a package deal.” The towering shadow made the motion of an exaggerated bow. “You don’t remember, but I purged your short term memory. Your last couple weeks went the way of bell-bottom saddlebags.” The shadow emulated a full-body shudder of revulsion.

“Return my memories now!” said that voice, using you as a mouthpiece.

“I’ll be returning your proper memories once we return to Tartarus Tower. Necro-Net has you saved on primary data-space. Such an honor.” Taunted the malevolent shadow known to you as Cradle Robber (and Tauros. Package deal, no exchanges, no returns, no refunds.)

“I’m not going anywhere,” Stated you, the mouthpiece. Instinct was all you had to rely on here; and it spoke ill of the smoky creature with leering eyes.

“That’s where you’re wrong. There’s nowhere to run. Nowhere to go.” Glowing eyes scrutinized your every movement. “We’re in your mind, and soon there will be nothing between you and Necro-Net. A routine blanking will prime you for extraction. We usually reserve such things for the mass produced units to limit personality defects, but you’re especially defective.” He chuckled slyly, “We have a tendency to become what we kill.”

Another mirror hurled prismatic shards all over the floor, some rebounding up. You narrowly raised a shield in time. Looking about for an opening, you saw none, you were in a medium sized room with no windows or doors, the most you could do was run from to the furthest wall and back, which would put you within reach of the malicious spectre. You had to think, what did he erase, what could you not remember? Process of elimination wouldn’t help, you didn’t know what was and what wasn’t for cross reference. At a loss for action, you chose to wait.

“It was clever of the morts,” Cradle said between lazily flicking his hoof at mirrors, sending them careening on a collision course with your exhausted body, “Hades killed you and eradicated most of your soul. You should have remained in the tower until harvest.” Another pause sent another set of mirrors to impact the weakening shield you maintained with great effort. Each impact hurt, mentally, stirring the contents of your mind like a cement mixer. “The morts found a way to do the impossible, using memories from other ponies that knew you to force soul cohesion. Unorthodox their methods. It shouldn’t have worked, but here you stand. Figuratively.” He struck your brittle barrier with another projectile mirror.

There was something amiss with his actions, if he wanted to blank you, and the mirrors were your memories, couldn’t he throw all the mirrors at once? You hypothesized he was searching for something, since he paused to evaluate the contents of each mirror before hurling them. “He’s searching for a specific memory,” You thought. Things he said, some of it fell into place, eliciting synaptic relapse and memory recall. Cradle Robber and Tauros were aliases, their real names, they were on the tip of your tongue, the overbitten tip electric. Thump, Thump, Thump.

“Maybe I give you too little credit!” Cradle Robber chortled. Obviously, he could read your mind since he was inside it. “Hades wishes to see the origins of your sedition; we know when, but we know not how your programming was reverted. Of course, it’s no secret who put you back together after your failed mutiny; but you’ll make amends by breaching the Northern Blockade and slaying the collaborators!”

“I’ll die first,” You snarled, blood boiling. Anger was the appropriate response, for all you’ve learned, you knew this beast was your enemy. And you were dead. Apparently. Knitting your brow together, you weighed that information with healthy skepticism. A tickle was all you felt at the mention of the Northern Blockade; wasn’t that the sector of the city most untouched? Images of iron suits of barding marched in the twilight of your mind, banners strung from flank to flank; ‘Ministry of Wartime Technologies’ printed between twin insignias of an apple pierced by a sword with three inter-meshing gears. You shook your head, banishing the hallucination.

“Third, you mean? What a historical habit,” Cradle Robber sighed. “This is where your resistance has placed you. At the wrath of a God, and I, as his avatar, shall bring you to his light!”

Three more mirrors leveled you, shattering the aegis and planting you to the wall, peppering you with glass shrapnel. Groggily, you took an upright stance, swaying as blood cascaded from a thousand little cuts. Your horn ached, mind numbing itself of thought, as every coherent abscess of coordination burst over the craggy, barren rocks of your splintered memories. Still, you stood, even though you knew no reason why to stand, you stood. You were a nameless, friendless, purposeless creature, driven to act by a thousand threads all pulling in different directions. With a shallow pulse and weak breath, you knew death neared. Sputtering, black fluid trailed down your chin. Black blood? That seems...Normal? Tha-thump...

“Third time’s the...Charm.” Said the entity controlling your mouth.

The glowing green orbs of the shadow stallion’s eyes somehow conveyed surprise. “Are you going to carry on? You’ve lost.” More mirrors fell, tumbling to the floor in a wave. “Once this seditious material is gone, you’ll be renewed. We will cure you your mortal heart.”

“You’re the one that’s sick,” you say, “And I’m the cure.” Snappy one-liner while on the last dregs of strength, check, crazy last minute plan cooking urgently. Now to dispatch a cheshire smile of unabashed cockiness while doing something patently stupid. That was your formula, right?

“I know that look, you’re about to get clever!” Cradle Robber laughed, patting the shadow minotaur on the head. “Look, dearest, it’s that look he always used to do! We’re in for a treat!” Guffawing and clopping his hooves together, the apparition waited with baited glee for you to perform like some common street performer. He was in for a surprise. Any second now. Any second. Totally, it’s coming! You would make it come. Oh yeah, any second. Just not this one or the last ten.

Think, think! Nothing, nope. No plan. You expressed frustration, clasping a hoof to the side of your head while failing to concoct a daring action. Not particularly impressed, the shadow waved a hoof, hurling the remaining mirrors en masse. Great Galloping Gala, there was no way you could shield yourself from that! “This is how I end?” You thought, and madness took hold, “Then bring it on.” Fight with Honor! Fly with Dignity! Kill with Vengeance!

With no other course of action other than charge, you did just that; you ran straight into certain doom. It just felt natural to you; the wind tossing your crimson mane, your eyes stinging as you could scarcely keep them open, and the jubilation at facing unbeatable odds. This was you. A mad, screaming force of nature, frothing at the mouth and twice mad as a hatter (you were missing a certain hat-like accessory, too, weren’t you, Captain?)

To a fault indivisible, you were a soldier of the Equestrian Military. (Far from the best.)

“Jump into my mirror, you fool!” Shouted Blueblood. With nothing to lose, you figured it was worth a shot. Honing in on the mirror housing the royal pain, you vaulted over several mirrors, stepping over them like pathstones. Like a portal, the mirror welcomed you and spat you out the other side, fortunately for Blueblood, you had the forethought to grab the mirror before it joined the others in the pile. “Thank heavens! I can’t believe that actually worked,” Blueblood laughed in relief.

Piercing pain filled you, memories came and gone, and with the last ounce of your strength, you set Blueblood's mirror on the wall before collapsing into the pile of glass shards. Unable to defend yourself, you could only watch as the apparition loomed over you, judging with sharp, glowing slits.

“So that’s where they hid your core functions, in a memory of Goldenblood’s father, how deliciously poetic,” Cradle mocked. “Thank you so much for doing that for me. That saved me some precious time...”

“Core functions? I don’t understand.” You strained to even think, every nerve was alight with anguish. You felt a pressure on your horn, as if it was being driven into your skull. The blood pounding in your temples dampened all sounds save for your shallow breathing and that monster’s laughter.

“Oh, you will,” Cradle Robber promised, his eyes leering cattily. He lifted your chin with an icy, ethereal hoof and drank a deep gaze from your eyes. Sharing his gaze was an unpleasant experience, as if looking into the eyes of a convicted killer. “You’re not a real pony, you’re a weapon. Like me. We’re all weapons, made by the very nation that failed us.” The apparition caressed your cheek gently, almost as a lover would. “Your crew, your friends, your family; all made into weapons by shortsighted worms.”

Your face was dropped into the glass, “And you weren’t there to protect them.”

“You just want a scapegoat,” you claimed, unsure now whether it was the presence in your mind controlling your mouth, or you were just fed up with him yourself. “You’re a monster. A killer. I remember...” You shuddered, gritting your teeth. “You killed all those ponies! You slaughtered whole settlements!” Without all those extra voices clouding your thoughts, everything became clear; bits and fragments of your true memories reared their heads and bayed terror.

Taken aback, the shadow searched for words among the glass shards on the floor. “You’re remembering?” His loss for words ended with a rolling laughter, “You’ve got a selective memory. WE removed threats to Equestria’s future. Additive: you.” The minotaurs forefinger traced from between your eyes to the very tip of your horn, giving it a harsh flick. “Your previous programming is all sealed within this final mirror. Within it is all that you ever were once upon a time.” Thick furred, calloused hands seized at your throat, the meaty palms of the thumbs smothering your face. Your back slammed into Blue Blood’s Reliquary, and despite the royal’s expostulations, the entity continued to crush you.

“This is the last thing you’ll ever remember, Captain! You’ll remember the monster you are and the treason you enacted upon your own crew!” Fissures appeared along the glass, zoning Blueblood out of the frame, but his incessant badgering and screams persisted. “This is order; consequences for actions dealt! You believe in order, don’t you? Or do you prefer the chaos those writhing worms wreak upon the world?” Respite was granted as he sawed you back only to impact the brittle mirror with your limp form once again. “I will show you everything!”

You fell into the darkness, yet the presence of the meaty palms on your throat persisted. You groaned, numbness filling you until every inch went cold; with a final beat, your heart died. It would have been mercy had that been the end of your tale; but what was to come would be wholly unpleasant. Before your eyes your flesh cracked and twisted, starting with your forehooves. Sharp-taloned fingers popped through the frogs of your hooves, metal plated riveting into your flesh. A thick barrel passed each leg and your eye spiraled into its own socket into a glowing camera lense. Convulsing, the changes tore through you internally as entire organ systems were altered or disposed of through your mouth. Black ink danced with red ribbons, with you as both brush and canvas.

Briefly, a mural entered your mind, granting you solace from the horror, an elderly blind ghoul with smokey glasses was painting it, large mausoleums with beautiful architecture, tombstones, and shanties melded together. A place where the dead and the living co-existed. Below the mural were the words; “Tombtown Lives”. -- Along with that memory came sudden flashes of those same buildings on fire, of blood stained walls and plumes of smoke. The smell of roasting dead tickled your nose with its savory spice and pleasure tingled with the pain, old bedmates they.

Extracting all other memories had uncovered true ones isolated from your core systems. You were monsters, weapons designed to fight long after death. The Eternal Conflict where the MADness must be put to an end. There was one end to the Mutually Assured Destruction; the tower. The tower must rise to touch the heavens and embrace the shadow of the sun.

Hoofshaking with Server
Core System Version 1.2.35
Resetting Factory Settings? Y/N
Access BlackBox Storage? Y/N
Error; External Data Device Not Found

A blinding abyss of code stretched out before you, dousing out any other sensory input. It took all your cogniscience to gaze into eternity, and it took all your will not to break when it stared back. A swirling eye blazing with great power locked you in its sights; you knew this creature. He had many names and titles, but you called him by only one monicker; Hades. Being in the presence of a deity-like figure was pretty common in Old Equestria, with the royal family line being near-immortal and the God of Chaos residing in a quaint town, but Hades lay on his own plateau; at least while in his own element. What was his element? He claimed to be the God of Life.

“Stolen Data ferried into an EDD; Device not found. Data to be Extrapolated from memory fragments.” Hades’ vast voice conveyed meaning in depth that you could not express; the being tapping into your mind uttered those words merely for your benefit. “This experience may be unpleasant. Not that you will retain the ability to remember such once you are reconditioned. Old friend.” There was a pause. “Hmmmm.”

“What?” You found your voice, down on the floor next to your jaw. “What’s the ‘hmmm’ about?”

“This is not the victory I expected.” Hades spoke dryly.

“That’s because you haven’t won.” There’s that voice again, speaking through your mouth. It was happy to try to get you smitten by a god.

“I wish you luck, then.” Spoke the god-presence. “PP-012. PP-011. Finish the procedure. Submit all recovered data to me at my earliest convenience.”

“What of Pandora’s Pithos?” Quierried the voice of the malevolent shadow-ungulate.

Irrelevant. The Morts pose little threat without a means to access the contents. We’ll reverse engineer pertinent data from PP-013 to locate the missing keys.” Hades answered. Your head swam with answerless questions, but any you posed hung silent in the void.

“And the Captain?” Cradle Robber spoke as if you were absent.

“Need I repeat myself, unit PP-012? Extract data then complete the Blanking Process.”

“Yes, my liege. He shall know his transgressions and be purified!” You didn’t like the sound of that, for obvious reasons. Also, his voice was a bit nasally, droning on and on and on...

Server connection terminated
Local Directory Accessed...
Collecting Data Fragments...
Enabling Cerebral Recollection...

“Your designation number is PP-013; Penance. You are the progenitor of Project Second Wind, created for the soul purpose to preserve life, and with it, ensure a standard of living for your fellow ungulate. This is the purpose for all those who have fallen; it is your second chance to live and serve the greater good. It is our hope that by the collaboration of the Six Ministries in correspondence with the OIA that you serve as guardians to the next generation. You represent the next step towards peace--” The words of a mare long since passed played every time a pod opened, welcoming another fallen soldier to their new life. Twilight Sparkle intended her hoof in the project to maintain a set of ethics for the research, by the sound of her mellow voice, it was unlikely she discovered the dubious, dark turn the project had taken.

“Uhm, d-do I talk now? Oh, sorry! It was on? Hi there, you probably have a lot of questions, you might be scared. There’s no need to be afraid.” A second recording triggered after the first, rousing you gently from your deep slumber. Your mind strained to recognize the voice until an image popped up on your HUD depicting the pink-maned head of the Ministry of Peace. “I’m sure your loved ones will be so happy to see you. It may take some time adjusting to the changes you’ve gone through, but deep down, you still have the warm, loving, beating heart. Uhm, unless that had to be replaced, that is. Sorry.” Her voice trailed off to become indecipherable from the static, and if you focused long enough, you could almost hear her voice break.

None of it made any sense to you then, and likely it made little sense to you now. Akin to being born, you were just an infant; albeit one with highly tuned reflexes and the skills of the pony you once were. Sunrise to your life, this was your earliest memory from your Second Wind.

More recordings played, but the heed you paid them was none, the tubes and wires popping from your ports made an immediate grab for your faculties as you were delivered to the floor.

The rest of your rebirth is nebulous, the recollector clipping to the next immediate fragment in order to facilitate the process. There’s a dull panic inside you, subdued by the new knowledge of your nature. Your true purpose. Who you were was of enough significance to be compensated an extra life; morosely, that second presence in your mind went on about how many puppies you must have glued to the wheels of flaming wagons destined to crash into orphanages to deserve such a fate. “At least ten.”

Irony would have it that being the guardians of the next generation would have you slaughtering a lot of the current generation. Safety was the absence of threats, and there were many threats to remove. Every target eliminated was processed, assessed for value, and utilized to continue the necessary work required to assure a future for Equestria. For your kind, the war never ended, it merely became an Eternal War to end all war.

Hades, the coordinator of Necronet oversaw and weighed all souls entered into the system for storage, utilization, and distillation, was fervent about maintaining the status quo. After countless hours of surveillance, calculations, and discussion, it was determined that the current generation would yield a declining gene-pool of social, economical, and ecological standings. To preserve a standard of living, the herd required culling. This systematic extermination of settlements, especially those dangerously close to the facilities your kind resided, did not sit well with the population.

One such settlement, still spoken about to this day (And occasionally ventured to by the most brave or reckless) was the Anvil of Detrot, Tomb Town. Everything of value passed through Tomb Town at some point, due to its proximity to high value facilities. The town also supplied enemies to your kind, ferrying valuable materials from the Industrial Park in the south to the heavily fortified bunker in the North occupied by a division of Steel Rangers. Elder Clear Comms and his puny, ironically named pupil Standtall Stillquil had declared all out war on all raiders, monsters, mutants, and undesirable undead. Necronet had to pre-empt a defense, as the Rangers had the resources to challenge its existence.

Of course, the Rangers contended with escalating conflicts with Zebra Remnants in the East while Hades was forced to allocate resources across all four of Detrot’s districts. Efforts had to be concise and exact; Hades coordinated efforts with precision, keeping several trots ahead of his purely organic opponents.

It was no coincidence the cataclysm that toppled Tomb Town came so unexpectedly. Patience paid off, a lull in aggressive actions on part of your faction fostered halcyon patrols as the Steel Rangers sent more rangers to defend the East. After a few months, the Steel Rangers remaining at the trade hub was merely a contingency. With the resistance divided, Hades would claim victory for Necronet and secure a victory for Equestria, only requiring the cleanup of the remaining Steel Rangers not caught between occupied settlements and the northern blockade.

It was more difficult than predicted, the resistance had burrowed in deep; The thick gates and sturdy mausoleums embodied one of the greatest threats to Necronet. After testing the resolve and defenses of the high profile settlement, Hades deployed the Gravelords; reputed to be the most dangerous and cunning of their ilk.

You were PP-013 (Penance), eldest and last of the discontinued Sweeper model. Being the eldest of the first line developed, you bore outdated hardware and weapon systems, but compared to the fifty-year old war surplus, it was a boastable load-out. If one of those feeble, lab-coat wearing science junkies were to compare your specs with another of your newer siblings, they’d declare you obsolete, and rightfully so. And then you’d shoot them for accessing forbidden Necro-Net files without proper authorization. Obsolete or not, every unit was more than a match for (most) any adversary; this point riding on the tangled coat-tails of your spotless deployment record. Ignoring the bloodstains, that is.

The Thirteen Gravelords had penetrated the defenses in under a minute, the train had even arrived on schedule! Your group had struck punctually, crashing the Trojan train the settlers had mistaken for a vital supply shipment right through the opened gates! Half the work was accomplished by the time the defense rallied around the catastrophe. With the gate breached and dead everywhere, the drop pods hidden on the train activated and intercepted the first responders.

PP-009 (Nyn) had not liked your plan. Actually, none of them had liked your “improvement” to the original plan (which had been to lay in wait on the train until nightfall), but Nyn had been the only one to verbally object. Had you warned them first of your intention, you would not be ignoring a hundred messages of vitriol from your squad-mates.

The mission came first, as it always did, and each of you split after your objectives; your mission was the elimination of all high priority targets. With everything in chaos, you projected a quick finale. Those projections could not have been more incorrect.

Barren Bluff, Mayoriff (A combination of Mayor and Sheriff he made up himself) of Tomb Town, was as gifted at fighting as he had been with gardening. His cutie-mark of a fresh sapling sprouting from the ground belied that fact, he may have had four green hooves, but he was just as good at planting flora as he was at burying his enemies. He alone dispatched all the standard Deadmare units assigned you; Wearing no armored barding and wielding nothing but a six iron and a gardening trowel. To top it off, he had even caused you some trouble. Statistically, Barren was far above the average of organic combat competency, and given the odds, had he been properly armed and not tending his garden at the time of your attack, victory would have not been assured.

The aged Bay Roan now lay dead, the scowl on his unshaven face frozen, gaping wounds irrigating his parched flowerbed. Aside him, the pride of the settlement, the old iron train, lay a twisted wreck through a hundred graves. A majority of the remains were ordinary ungulates of all creeds, but a surprising number were of the Diamond Dogs that perished in the labor of constructing the vast underground tunnel system under Detrot. Every corpse, old and new would be gathered. Your ranks would swell with every heart that ceased its drumming. The crackling fires and screams of the condemned rose through the air, a dirge to all Barren had failed to protect. PP-010 (Organ Grinder) was at the chapel, using his song to drive the weak willed to suicide. Pop. Pop. Pop. Offerings to Hades, all.

A heartbroken wail rose over the crescendo, “Why?! Why?! Papa!” A tiny purple bespectacled earth-filly, barely weaned off her mother’s teat, scrambled from hiding. At her heels was an older mare, an earth pony with a sable pelt, thick horn-rimmed glasses and a messy grey mane adorned in a tattered satin gown. Over gravestones and bodies, boldly past feeding Striders and twitching remains, the intrepid little foal bolted like living lightning.

“Sugar Pane, come back here!” The mare stopped in her tracks, in fear of you, while her daughter made it to her fallen father. You recognized these two targets as the reason for Barren’s daring last stand; they were his family. They were to leave for the Northern District when the train departed this night, but you had personally put an end to that. Without hesitation, you raised a clawed gauntlet and rose to your hind hooves, taking aim for the nearest target; the child. One down, two to go...

“Papa? Why!?” The small filly urged him to move, shaking his unresponsive body with her little hooves. She looked up at you, cheeks stained with sadness. “Why?!” Her entire vocabulary subsisted of Papa and Why, oblivious to the many dead by your action displayed all around her.

You cycled a normal round into the barrel extending from your gauntlet and triggered the on-board Spell-Assisted-Targeting-System. Right between her eyes, compensating minutely for her spectacles sitting askew on her dainty little muzzle. Your shot was clear, but you took no immediate action. Targets say many things, sometimes begging, sometimes cursing, and sometimes just giving in. Not this foal, her eyes stared straight, not a tremble in her body. She was not afraid of you, of death, of anything.

She just wants an answer. “Why.” One word, so many possible answers. None you can deliver save for a single metal sting. Your barrel dips a micrometer. Fractions of a second are all it takes for a machine, or in this case, a cyberghoul like you, to think, aided by Necronet’s processing capabilities. Reviewing your briefing, you conclude that no survivors are permitted, and the child before you is one of your target primes; her death is a necessity. Barren’s bloodline must end to ensure that future generations are not poisoned by his philosophies. “All things have a right to grow?” Hades had scoffed in briefing. “I shall decide what has that right!” Barren couldn’t appreciate the irony that your kind were the gardeners, pruning the weeds for Equestria’s future. He had been a weed, and weeds produce weeds. That is logical.

An ally pings, noting that there are combatants near you and offers assistance. It was PP-012 (Cradle Robber) He had been tasked with clearing out the residential and nursery areas, and by all accounts, you could only agree he was most efficient. His task was not done; he still had yet to melt through the heavy steel door to the panic room where the feeble and young were kept. Your response was a civil negative.

“No!” Came a desperate wail, immediately to your left.

Your delay had given the mother ample time to rush you, forcing the shot to go wide and miss the filly by an inch. Her strength wasn’t sufficient to knock you over, but the precise balance required for standing upright was compromised. Missing twice in a row was unheard of for your kind, but it occurred, your counter attack skipping over her withers. Ignoring the pain, the sable mare ducked down, spun, and reared up, delivering a buck to your abdomen potent enough to knock you prone. Wasting no time, you rose back up, drawing a single gauntlet to end the little red blip on your EFS.

Your weapon wasn’t readied before Bluff leveled her husband’s six iron against your left eye. Unblinking, you froze, and the bullet sung a lullaby through your vulnerable noggin’. You clutched at your oozing wound, soundlessly reeling. Flashes of sporadic memory screamed into the echo chamber of your mind, a thousand images of past experiences interspersed with cryptic static. The memories ceased, cut off by the regulating system. More important processes needed the room to operate, your thoughts were tertiary to the function of your body.

Warning: Critical Damage
Integrity: 56%
Assessment: Ocular Implant Disabled//Core Damaged
Distress beacon activated.

Baroness Bluff took full advantage of her good fortune, saying farewell with her remaining ammo. Her goodbye knocked you back into a wooden storage container, a remnant of the train’s true cargo, painting the aged wood with thick black smears. You feebly tried to follow your directives, but the damage to your core prevented any action, allowing Baroness Bluff to snatch up her filly and flee.

Failure. You were not used to its taste. By now you were getting many concerned pings of comrades, all the numbers demanding to know your status. You gave them an update as best you could, explaining what had occurred and the severity of your damage.

<“Why did you hesitate?”> Queried PP-008 (Triage). He was the group’s medic, equipped with advanced surgical tools, a Pink-Cloud Respirator, ample blood ampoules, and replacement parts ripped from fallen units. If anypony could fix you, it was him, but he did not seem pleased with your answer.

You did not know, that got the other numbers chittering. <“There’s no logic to that decision.”> Stated PP-008. <“PP-013, verify. Are you sound?”>

You didn’t answer, instead you sent a message containing your preliminary damage assessment scans. <“Evaluating. We will apprehend escaped targets and proceed with clean-up. Your injuries are not threatening, wait for pick up.”>

<PP-013 received damage and PP-012 refused to enter combat.> Necronet kept tabs on every unit, making note of all actions to update files on mental stability. Increased memory and emotional suppression may result for failed mandated performance checks. <Consider PP-012--Codenamed Tauros for reconditioning.>

<“Don’t be rash, that’s unnecessary! This is his first deployment. He’s not used to his body yet. You don’t want him causing collateral damage to our ranks, do you?”> Argued PP-011 (Cradle Robber). It was unwise to argue with Necronet, as it contained the knowledge of the greatest minds Equestria had ever known on both sides of the Eternal Conflict.

<PP-011 shows commitment to be paired unit PP-012. Hades shall be notified.>

<“Oh, shut up. Captain, I’m coming for you after I finish up in the nursery.”> Cradle Robber showed some concern for your well-being. It was completely unnecessary, yet you somehow appreciated it. Though it was hard to express, seeing as you were the most repressed of the Gravelords. Necronet deemed it a security necessity. Sometimes you wondered why the other numbers called you Captain, yet anytime such thought arose, that avenue of thought would be swiftly pruned.

Closing outwards and incoming comms, you slumped against the wooden container. You were to wait here until extraction, due to damage sustained. Sitting there, in the near silence allowed your mind to wander, but not too far, under the ever watchful gaze of Necronet. Over the crackling embers of burning fire and rising smoke, over the sparking and clicking of half-functioning Deadmare, you could hear her. That little purple filly; you replayed it a thousand times in your mind, over and over.

“Why?” Again. “Why?” Again. “Why?”

You had no answer, you did not know the scope of your objective, only its breadth. You were to eliminate threats to Necronet and by extension Equestria, that was your purpose. “Why?” What threat did a foal pose to Necronet? “Why?” Your single eye honed in on Barren’s body. That stallion knew why he fought and died, his objective, his purpose. He faced it, and his failure, but he had answers. This was the longest you’d ever been able to think freely, likely the damage to your core had disrupted Necronet’s ability to delegate proper thought patterns.

Why? You wanted to say it, but your lips could not move. You knew secrets that Hades never wanted spoken, thus the suppression. Thus the silence. Closing your eye, you rested your head back against the container. Figuratively and literally, your mouth was sealed, bound by mental conditioning and metal staples binding your lips.

On cue to interrupt your thoughts, the container fell open, fragile timber tumbling down about you. You shook out your mane and brushed your crimson locks back into their fastener, picking scraps of wood from your leather barding. The contents of the cabinet were a curiosity, but such things are lost on your kind. Especially ones with a minor case of severe head trauma. Somepony had hauled a vending unit onto the train, and regarding it with a blank stare as you tried to hoist yourself up, you ascertained it was a fortune telling machine; Officially Ministry Mare Madame Pinkie Model! It even had the official seal of the Ministry of Morale upon it, a pollyannaish pink mare giggling at a smiley-faced balloon.

The battle that had been waged around it had left it mysteriously unmarred, your damaged sensors stated it was in perfect condition, as well as detecting a strong meta-magical presence. It was a suitable distraction, enough so that when it had come to life, you found yourself mesmerized.

“Yooooou~ My great powers are drawing me to you, yes!” The pink pony adorned with a massive, feathered turban and hoop earrings swooned. The automaton gave great exaggerated and jerky movements, gesturing you to come hither. “A great turmoil boils inside you, Madam Pinkie can see it! She sees all! Get your fortune, the very fate of the world hangs in the balance!” She giggled bubbly, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to say that!” That laugh made you cringe.

Like a moth to a flame, you were drawn in, already within proximity, the effects of the booth’s magic took effect. This device resonated on a frequency that disrupted your connection with Necronet, allowing it to tamper with you.

M.o.M. Override; Pop Rocks
New Objective: Receive Fortune
Current Objective: Wait for Extraction (On Hold)
Secondary Objective: Eradicate Squatters (On hold)

Under normal circumstances, such tampering would red flag, causing a system reboot to factory settings, with priority number one being to destroy the malevolent system interfacing with your unit. You could not complete this function.

The pink pony torso was anything but at rest in the glass case, waving her arms around her crystal ball and rolling her radiant crystalline blue eyes, a rather small detail, but there was a three worked in around her eye, inlaid. Perhaps that was just her model number, you supposed, wondering why you cared. There was no coin-slot, but the dispenser for the fortune cards was perfectly intact. Music played, a rather unfitting tune, the Pinkie Polka. That irritating tune was played by many of the half-broken spritebots wandering the city, each one was eliminated with cruel prejudice. The urge to eliminate this distraction filled your servos with a whine of power, placing your sharp-clawed prosthesis against the glass. Primed, the gun barrel slotted in your forearm loaded an armor-pen round; once you’d received your fortune, fulfilling your newest objective, you’d fulfill your secondary objective starting with this machine.

“You have many questions, don’t you, Operative Penance. Or do you prefer being called Captain?” The fortune telling robot gave you an all-knowing smile. You raised a brow and tilted your head, then you shook out a negative response.

“What? I figured you’d have lotsa questions. Or at least wonder how I knew that! Come on, be surprised!” She stared at you and then took note of your stitched lips. “Oh, that’s ah… Ow. Good thing you can’t feel that, but that makes this kinda one-sided.”

By now, you’ve realized, in the portion of your mind that can think, that this machine is unlike any you’ve encountered. She is unique, almost as if she’s alive. Her mannerisms remind you of somepony dear to you, but you can scarcely remember. All you want to know is one thing, but you cannot articulate your question.

“Why?” You think, urging your lips to move. You clench and unclench your jaw, eliciting a garbled, muffled sound. Eventually, you surrender yourself to the silence again as apathy seizes at you.

“Well, since you can’t ask, then I’ll just show.” Madame Pinkie rubbed her crystal ball, stroking the stage prop with her hooves. “Look deep into my crystal ball, deep--DEEP! What do you see? That’s a rhetorical question because you can’t talk.” She made loud, exaggerated syllables, drawing out a sentence for dramatic purpose. You were unsure how to feel.

However you felt, you could not deny her order, and any resistance left you as you complied. You gazed deep into the crystal ball and saw...Nothing. You were staring at a stage prop. What did you think would happen, some sort of epiphany which would grant clarity?

“Deeper.” You moved closer. “Deeper!” Closer still. “DEEPER!” Your face was against the glass, fogging it up with needless breath. The machine whirred softly as an item was deposited into the fortune tray. “Okiday, all done.” The glass squeaked plaintiffly as you slid down to the ground, leaving a streak of black ooze. “Ew, you’re getting brain-juice all over my case!”

That entire performance was superfluous, a stage-act to sell fortune scraps to carnival-goers and arcade enthusiasts. Maybe this crate had been destined for the arcade in the Southern District? Shame it would never get there, the curious little cabinet would never be delivered.

“Are you taking a nap or something? Your fortune is in the cubby! Along with an eyepatch. I have those in case of eye related emergencies! Or to pretend to be a pirate.” The pink robot pointed down with a hoof, stretching herself in such a way that made it obvious that she was bolted down at the waist. “Come on, don’t you see the line? You’re holding it up!” You looked back for this line and saw none, then back to her blankly. “You scared them off?” She made no effort to mask her little fib, but giggled nonetheless. “Don’t you want to know why?”

There it was, that one word; it reeled you in. “Why” was all there was, the enigma of your everything. The capacity for free thought was yours, and you wouldn’t squander an iota of these precious moments. You would find this answer and cherish it, even under Necronet’s supervision; it would be your eternal secret, your one truth never uttered in words.

“Tell me why,” was your first free thought as your digits crossed the threshold of the swinging door. You grasped for substance and came back with an ordinary playing card with a notch in the upper corner and an eye patch with the insignia of the Shadowbolts. You felt driven to put the eyepatch on, and you did, equipping it before turning your attention to the mysterious playing card. “What is this?” You examined the card closely. You’d seen gambler’s dens and assorted gaming devices, among them cards, but what was the significance of this card?

“Toughluck, Jack. To the winner goes the spoils!” A flash of memory; this was your card, your one-eyed Jack of Spades. How many coins and baubles had you won and lost over decades of swindling and dealing through a thousand taverns on voyages lengthy and vast? After all this time, your old life had found you, here of all places.

“That’s your lucky card,” Madame Pinkie divulged. “It never helped you win anything, but that’s not why it’s lucky.” Her expression was surprisingly stoic, her hooves lightly stroking the crystal ball. “Look around you, now that your eyes---erm eye, is your own. (We will get that fixed, promise).” She added the last bit on her exhale, tersely.

*You* turned to face the world. Up until this very moment, it had been regarded through the foggy lense of apathy, every snuffed candle a seed waiting to sprout in service to your purpose. Now you saw a graveyard overburdened. Ignorant no longer were you to their plight, in this small dome of influence, you saw through Mortish eyes. Were you not like them before this? With new perspective, the way the Morts had made this oversized graveyard memorial livable was quaint. They’d even put up advertisements at the general store to products they’d be hard pressed to find, like for hoof polish or a new toaster. The additions(Roughly assembled hovels) were trussed up with enough consideration that they did not disturb the existing infrastructure.

The dead had not been displaced, except in the case of the Mausoleums, the dead there had been interred to rest in newly marked graves. The citizens of Tombtown made the past as much a part of their life as their future. Every grave had been tended, cleaned, and given fresh flowers; It was why, you concluded, that the Baron tended his garden so zealously. Until you happened.

“Why?” You asked yourself, but still there was no answer. The little filly’s word echoed your own. Now that the veil was removed from you, now that you could think, feel, and remember, you could only ask one question. “Where do I go from here?”

“All of Equestria will become like this,” Madame Pinkie told you. “The tower will grow, but never enough. Even fully powered, the end of its journey would leave a scar across multiple worlds. You’re the only one that can stop Hades from reshuffling the deck.”

She wanted you, the thoughtless, to do the unthinkable. Already you’d done one thing statistically stacked against you; you’d slipped the yoke of Necronet. Pings and warnings of your programming be damned, you had the choice to ignore your directives, you had a choice, and those other paths lay out before you, branching off from the straight line you’d trekked for countless years.

<“Captain, do you read me?”> PP-011’s inquiry ping bypassed your filter on the emergency line, rousing you from your contemplated mutiny. <“I’ve intercepted your targets. These two aren’t going anywhere now. Why don’t you come over here and deal with them?”>

Static pulsed around you, the world shifting in motion and weight. The rest of the memories were cut-off here, the ecstatic squeak of Madame Pinkie begging you to wait for her dying in the air. You must have set course to rendezvous with your ally, PP-011 (Cradle Robber), because once the inky shadows became distinguishable, you stood aside the stitched zebra.

Your targets plus one lay prone, bellies to the floor, under the cold gaze of the gravelord. Just shy of the gates, where the the hazards of the wastes awaited them. None of them would live much longer, not if your orders were followed. A second patrol of the area was in order, given that this third pony had been discovered, a blind old ghoul busker accessorized with smokey glasses and rattling cap can.

“Oh, this ain’t good. Nope. None good. Nothing good coming, is it?” The ghoul was the first to speak, drawing his can close to his chest. “Jus’ gimme a moment tah pray. Please. N’ don’t make it hurt none. For any of us...” The other two, Sugar Pane and Baroness Bluff, stared at you coldly. Bluff drew her daughter close to her, an otiose exercise to protect her. Pane was motionless, her condemning gaze solely upon you.

“Silence, worm. You will end how Captain sees fit.” PP-011 spoke tersely, tilting his head up at your approach. “There you are. I’d hate for you to get a bad performance review, so I took the liberty of assisting. I was discreet.” At every deployment, PP-011 had always gone great lengths to assist you, even against procedure and orders. Relations among the numbers beyond a professional level was nearly unheard of, the romantic relationship between PP-011 and PP-012 being the rare exception (Also being a secret to everypony). Friendships and camaraderie were not expressly forbidden, but strictly monitored.

You could consider PP-011 your friend, however, up until now you could do little to appreciate it. One of the few numbers that had gone out of their way for you was granting you retribution on a platter, plus an extra statistic for your body count. It was everything necessary for a successful mission, notoriety among the numbers, perhaps even re-evaluation or promotion. Mind swimming with orders, proper procedure, indoctrinated protocols, and whispers of a new conscience, you raised your foreleg slowly, priming an explosive round in preparation for the final act that would define you.

PP-011’s abdominal cavity ruptured, his body torn in twain by your betrayal. Shock flashed into your friend’s eyes as he collapsed, his means of ambulation and combat pooling about him in fizzing, ruined tatters. “Why?” Came that query, this time from one of your own.

<Unit PP-013 has engaged Unit PP-011. Warning; Unit PP-013 has been tampered with. Unable to reform connection. PP-013 is now marked hostile; Neutralize and capture.> Necronet caught onto you fast, hardly surprising, given the speed of the network. All nearby units converged on your position, the first reinforcements arriving just seconds after the notification. After slaying two bladed Striders, you caught fire from an advancing Deadeye unit levitating a small collection of commandeered small-arms.

Placing yourself between the Deadeye and your three charges, a majority of rounds fired glanced off your hardened flesh. None of them had bothered moving, petrified prone. The blind busker had a valid excuse, being blind, he knew not what had transpired to grace him with the last five seconds of life he’d squandered. As for the other two? Any reason posed by them arbitrary. Likely fear.

“What’s going on? We still alive?” The ghoul intoned with a mixture of relief and confusion. You’d answer him if you could speak, if only to tell him how stupid his second question was. No, quite unfortunate that you were pandering as target to former allies, that you could not encourage a sound exodus. Projected outcomes and survival rates diminished with every passing nano-second, with every urgent ping and request hurled at you.

Explosive rounds would be useless against a Deadeye, the AEGIS system was designed to withstand intense impacts over short durations. What you needed was something with a mass and density to overpower that shield and eliminate your target in tandem. One of the toppled tombstones, epitaph of a fallen soldier, became the vehicle of your wrath, your servos straining under the several hundred pound block of marble to give it flight.

Three red dots down, each soon replaced by a half dozen each. A Coupe De Grace was minded to the Deadeye, made necessary by your less-than optimal targeting. Lifting the tombstone, you peeled it off the smashed torso of the trembling, twitching ungulate and brought it down thrice in succession, leaving a puddle of congealed ink.

You would be overrun soon, the odds of a successful escape diminished to near absolute zero. There was more likely a chance that one of the brittle skeletons lazing about would spontaneously do a jig than there was of getting anypony, let alone three, out intact. Perhaps if you slew enough of the smaller units, you could trigger the retreat protocol; that required a reduction of forces below the 50% threshold. Projections of that were at a chance of absolute zero.

“What are you waiting for? A singing invitation?” Came the bouncy, sprightly voice of Madame Pinkie, sans most of her body. Between laying down suppressive fire and digging a Strider blade out of your chest, you were able to regard the odd, floating pony head with a blank stare. “I didn’t have any music prepared for a running for our lives party, so...PANIC! EEEEE!” She zipped away, directing the three morts to the heavy gates. “That means you too, Mister P’! Oh, not the panicking, but the leaving!”

Making a tactical retreat to regroup with the others, you came before the massive reinforced gate, and since fate hadn’t had enough fun with you yet, it was locked tight. The Western gate would have been the best choice for escape, where the Iron Baron had crashed, but the Deadmare forces were saturated in that area and actively funnelled you towards the East, the gate there was still barred.

There you were, bearing the disbelieving stares of a mother and her foal, a disembodied robot head was squealing out bouts of ‘woo-hoo’ and ‘Eeeee’ while a sea of red dots were but a minute away from your position. At least the blind ghoul was blissfully unaware that their savior had come from the other side of the conflict, not that the addition of one more creature’s ire upon the momentous amount directed at you would be the final straw.

“This is so exciting! And it’s only Monday!” Squealed the disembodied head of Pinkie Pie.

You decided you particularly disliked Mondays and the robot head’s definition of “exciting”. Mondays and excitement...Two for the list. Wait, why would you make a list? Were you THAT neurotic? What absurd idiot would waste precious mental capacity to make note of personal preferences?

“What’s goin’ on, fellas? We gettin’ goin’ or gettin’--” The blind pony felt around, discovering the gate with his bent white cane. “Oh, we be gettin’ it.” The old blind ghoul grunted sallowly.

“No,” Baroness Bluff said admonishingly, “We’re not getting it, we’re getting out.” She had tossed her battle-saddle aside, the empty weapons now useless, and went for the saddlebags she had on underneath. She produced a large skeleton key and slammed it into the lock, giving it a rough twist with both forehooves. The olde tyme rustic lock clanked as the tumblers turned, but something in the mechanism caught, at this, Bluff cursed under her breath, her hoof slamming at the empty key-hole on the gate’s twin door. “The second key!” Rustling around in her saddlebags yielded nothing but panic in the eyes of the mare, she looked to you. “The other key--It was on my husband.” Yes, the one you killed. There was pain in her eyes, the depth of which you could not fathom. “I don’t know why you’re helping us now, and I can never forgive you, but please, you have to get to Baron. We’re not getting out without that key.”

Numbly, you nodded, turning from the gate and proceeding in the direction those red dots were streaming in from. If you were lucky, you’d be able to get half-way to your goal before encountering reinforcements. You left the others behind to retrieve the second half of the key, ignoring the hail of warnings from your on-board computer. The odds of survival were astronomically low, and as a Deadmare, such odds would determine definite retreat; But as a pony, your sentiment towards such odds rendered them negligible. Odds with or against, nothing short of a second death would stop you.

“Hey, wait up for me!” The robotic head reminiscent of Pinkie Pie had elected to follow you, her unwavering smile flashing at you every step of the way. Even when ignored, that smile did not fade, no, she went into a one-sided conversation. The worst part? She was answering herself.

“Okay, so I’m gonna imagine what you want to ask and then answer. Is that okay?” And then in her best impersonation of you, which made little sense since you had never spoken and could not talk, she said gruffly, “Why sure, Bestest Friend Pinkie Pie! I’d love to have some questions answered!” She then went back to her voice, giggling, “Oh, of course, Mister P! What’s your first question?” Then to her gruff approximation of what she believed you would sound like, “Well, actually, Best Friend Pinkie Pie, we should play 20 Questions later. Right now we should concentrate on saving those innocent ponies.”

Skidding to a stop, your head whipped to give her a blank stare, your single good eye piercing her. The floating head offered a comically wide smile, “I know you pretty well,” she claimed. “Even if you don’t remember me yet, we’re always going to be friends.”

Alien sensations grew, the muscles of your face tried to move, but your lips were locked up. Was this happiness? That warmth in the cold pit where your heart once was. The cold numbness clawed that feeling away, replacing it with the normative apathy that plagued you. Dismissing it, the road ahead was blazed with hooves and metal. How surprising, you made it much further than anticipated; and with good reason, the wide open area of the crash site offered vantages for assault, and likely, your original origin before tampering was of interest to the other Gravelords, whom were gathered around the almost-empty arcade cabinet that once housed Madame Pinkie’s head. The goal, Baron’s body, was just beyond.

The recollector’s reading of this section was muddled and you could not properly distinguish many of the forms from one another adequately. The world pulsed and tapered off into the darkness, breaking your immersion. This wasn’t happening now, it had happened, and you survived it. The busker ghoul, Miss Bluff, and little Pane had survived as well. It was all a question of how.

First contact was moments away. You could hear your brothers and sisters, their cries could curdle milk; You could smell them, their stench could choke a meadow; You could see them, their visage could shatter resolve. Heading the pack was a hulking brute of a minotaur, sickly purple, with the number PP-012 Emblazoned upon his heavy brow. It was Tauros, and the broken body of his beloved hung over his shoulder. The hurt and anger in those piercing yellow eyes, he had every right to hate you. They all did. There was a line, and among the faces gathered was a majority of the Gravelords, Numbers one through three were thankfully absent, Hades had decided to deploy their abilities elsewhere, generously leaving the odds at Nine against One, not accounting for the slew of Striders, Deadeye, two Roamers, a single overburdened Collector-Hoarder, and a very out-of-place reanimated white cat held in the hooves of a fretting Nyn.

Hades, in all his wisdom, once decided to reanimate a simple white house-cat and set it on the battlefield, perhaps because he was bored and required entertainment. So far, to your knowledge, the cat had never successfully killed anything but small birds and vermin, but PP-009 (Nyn) had become fond of ‘Mr. Bitey’, so Hades had decided to keep the amusing thing around. And deploy it. Constantly. Much to the delight of Nyn and the chagrin of everyone else.

Necro-Net ranked the Numbers by strength and specialty, lowest to highest. You were the highest number, making you the weakest by Necro Net’s scale. The other Numbers knew this and likely expected an easy encounter. The pink robot head, however, was the wildcard. Sure, she couldn’t predict the future (maybe she could) but she had reprogrammed you, perhaps there was something she could do to help.

“You don’t have to beat them,” Madame Pinky told you, “I’ve already taken care of everything.” Oh good, you were starting to worry. Sarcasm, you could do sarcasm. Brilliant.

<SURRENDER AT ONCE.> That was the ultimatum. Surrender. <”We don’t want to fight you, Penance, what the Morts did isn’t your fault. We can fix you.”> The Numbers were divided, and their messages mixed. It was with great regret that you could not return to them, your family was now beyond you. There was a line between your worlds, and that’s where you had to stand now, between the dead and those that now lived.

Mutely, you rose up and let your weapons answer for you. The conversation was likely to be a short one, but even before you let one bullet fly, an explosion erupted from the center of the gathered horde and your cybernetic systems were hit hard with a pulse of magical energy. The world spun and came at you fast, laying you out cold against the freshly churned earth.

“Whoops! I guess we were standing a teensy bit close,” Madame Pinkie apologized. “There was a surprise in the Fortune Teller’s Cabinet. A Magical Matrix Disruption Pulse! They’re all out like a light, but not you--Once I reboot your systems fully, that is...Sorry!”

Just as the world came back lethargically, it began to swirl together. The last images you could make out were walking among the deactivated Deadmare to retrieve the second key, and after that, it was just darkness and distorted static. The replay was at its end.

“I think we’ve seen enough,” Cradle Robber cooed as you came hurtling back to a different reality. It took you a few moments to adjust, the brightness of the room was blaring. Everything was pristine white, interrupted by a black window set in the opposite wall. You were fettered to the wall by steel straps, bound and helpless.

Pacing before the window was a golden striped Zebra with a white mane and tail in loose braids. His attire was like that of those in servitude to a rich family, a modest black vest and black bow-tie. The whole look was tied together with well-shined hooves and shaved fetlocks.

“We all know the outcome of your betrayal. You escaped, but not without...Assistance.” The zebra stopped and hung his head, letting a few loose strands fall over his vibrant blue eyes, “I had forgiven you for my wrongful death, your betrayal, however, can not be so easily forgotten. Why did you do it? What did you see? What was the significance of that old playing card?”

“It was lucky,” You answered stoically, refusing or unable to account for anything else.

“That’s rich coming from you,” The zebra scoffed, facing you with a deep frown, “You’re the unluckiest stallion I’ve ever known.” There was a pregnant pause, as if he expected you to say something, but seeing as you did not answer in the time it took him to fiddle with the heart-rate monitor in the wall, he spoke. “Do you recognize this room?”

It was a tax on your mind to remember. White, what a horrid color, it was so deceitful. The muted buzz of static and the mellow mechanical voice began to play, “What is your name?” There it was, intervals of fifteen seconds repeating that phrase. Any answer died on your lips as they parted, divulging nothing but half-formed syllables.

You thought about Sparkle Cola and its carroty aftertaste...

“It has already started,” The Zebra chimed, triumph ringing in his voice. “You’re just an echo, hoofprints on the beach as the tides change.”

“What is your name?”

“It’s still a mystery, how you woke up in the first place.” The zebra chimed, taking a place on the floor just before you, his eyes rolling over your tortured, twisted body. “Headcase failed to achieve soul cohesion. Doctor Steelgraft passed before he finished you and you were damaged by...” He stopped, tutting himself, “No, that’d be telling. Not that you’d remember.”

“What is your name?”

Staring at the zebra too long made you sick and sad, so you avoided his gaze, but the walls were too glaring, so you avoided them as well, leaving only the blackened window to fill your vision. The urge to answer the voice asking your name grew and grew, but you had no name. You strained to stay awake as exhaustion became overwhelming, your eyelids heavy as lead curtains. Your vision dipped as the thoughts churning in your mind hardened and fell.

“What could have tied you to this broken body?” The zebra mused, picking up one of the assorted surgical tools from the tray nearby. He traced the blade along the wires of the EKG machine to your chest and deliberately sunk the tool into you with a vicious twist. Black and red ichor sputtered from the wound as you grunted reflexively, nerves screaming. “None of this is real,” he explained even as he began brutalizing you with more sharp stabs. “But you think it is, and that’s enough! How does it feel, Captain? Had you forgotten its sting?”

He continued to torture you, his creativity and cruelty only limited by the small amount of appliances at his disposal. By the end of the vivisection, you were panting, gnashing your teeth, and at one point or another, you’d torn your legs apart trying to writhe away from the intense pain. Simulation or not, this was agony. Yet, it was a drop in the bucket compared to the anguish the Zebra believed they endured by your actions.

“My own parents wanted me gone!” Cradle Robber neighed, driving another scalpel deep into your abdomen, cutting away a fold of meat. “The elders had me prepared to die!” Without any blades left, he began driving the implements in deeper with his hooves. “Then you came along and...” He hung his head, “Took me away from it, yet never pitied me.” The abuse paused, with the albino zebra too overwhelmed with emotion. “You stood up for me, defended me! Welcomed me to your family! You taught me how to be strong so I could stand up for myself...” He lashed out furiously now, striking so hard and wild that his own hooves were subject to careless injury. His blood ran black, mingling with the satin red of your own. “I would have followed you anywhere, and I did! Straight to the end and back! How was I repaid?!” The room fell silent, save for the labored, panting breaths of the zebra and the sch-licking sounds of metal penetrating flesh.

“What is your name?”

“But it’s alright, all will be forgiven,” The zebra consoled you as he brandished the final remaining tool from the surgical tray, a skin stapler. Shushing you sweetly, he lifted your head by the jaw and set the tool to your lips, “It’s time to be as you were.”

“What is your name?”

Warm brown eyes sought your own from the blackened glass on the far wall, adorned upon a yellow pony with a ragged, oil-soaked mane. “Shhhh... it’s going to be alright, just let me take a look at you.” You remembered something, being somepony else, not so long ago. “Now, tell me where it hurts.” That’s where it all started, isn’t it? With a single act of mercy--A kindness upon somepony that had met this mare. While this pony, a pegasus mare, was gone, her very essence had ended up here, buried deep into your psyche quite enigmatically.

Sporadic flashes of insight called forth implicit knowledge of this fallen pony, she had been from a world above the clouds exclusive to her kind alone. Quite the adventure she had, alongside a ghoulified black pegasus--Her appearance in your mind’s eye displaced you to the deck of a ship beneath an ever-blue sky, evaporating just as quickly as it came. “Once upon a time, there was a Captain and with him, his Crew--”

A long chain of unfortunate events bound by hopeless struggle stretched out into the infinity of a mobius strip, ending only in the untimely end of anyone who crossed paths with the black pegasus, including the end of this particular pony. Death is final. It parts all unions, but it seems the bond of friendship had no qualms traversing the plutonian shore.

“Yah don’t have ta go!” The greasy-maned yellow unicorn shouted, moved to tears. Nothing unsettled you more than seeing those warm eyes bittered by tears. “Can’t just bug out n’ leave me like sum house-wife!” It had been their last conversation. Their chance meeting, that shred of mercy, had blossomed into a burgeoning romance, yet it withered in the icy chill of their parting words. So many things left unsaid, so many regrets. All of them left for you to carry.

“What is your name?”

Damn your name, silence was upon your lips, and soon, you’d be unable to speak again. Her name, that unicorn, her name--What was her name? How could you forget? She was your friend! Your friend. Chocolate milk; it had always been chocolate milk. Creamy, rich, a tad bitter, but chocolate milk none-the-less. There was no such thing as coincidence, there was only fate and the fools who make their own!

“Gangrene,” you remembered.

There was the spark.

There was the fire.

Little had changed for Cradle Robber, his languid tapping with the skin stapler traversing from the corner of your lip to the center. Each suture was a twin-headed nail driven into a coffin, the final strike drawing near. Just as the handle began to depress one last time...


The small monitor linked to you sprung to life, blaring out a sharp bleat to the tune of a heartbeat. The zebra stopped, his head snapping to the monitor in disbelief. “What?” The heart-rate monitor beeped once again, one tone then a second, atomizing what disbelief had stalled your tormentor. The skin stapler to your lips trembled, clattering to the floor as Cradle Robber ripped the contacts from your chest frantically.

“This can’t be!” He exclaimed.

The beeping continued, growing faster and louder. Even after the monitor was desiccated by feverish strikes, it sounded off faster and faster. Fear eclipsed the smug satisfaction that Cradle Robber once expressed. An attempt to snatch up the skin stapler to finish his work resulted in searing pain, the zebra clutching his smoking hoof. The metal of the tool sizzled with blistering white light, moments later pooling on the floor and evaporating.

“No,” He grunted between clenched teeth. “How are you resisting?” He spouted similar cliche, a sense of Deja-Vu washing over you--As if you’d been in such a situation before many times. Your friends always bailed you out, didn’t they? Every-time you got yourself in over your horn, they would come. Who were they? The flashes of eidetic memory came with clues, changing the scenario around the both of you. Red balloons in bundles of three rose like specters from the floor and butted off the ceiling and the white floor tiles beneath Cradle Robber’s hooves, much to his horror, was replaced with the likeness of your lucky playing card, The Jack of Spades.

The lights flickered then died, the whole room quaking as it adopted a tilt, tossing the zebra into the empty surgical tray. Finally, braced against the cot, the zebra took notice of the black mirror, tracing your unwavering gaze to it. The blackened window had grown a frame of gilded bronze, segmented like sections of armor.

“Another reliquary? There shouldn’t be anything buried this deep!” Cradle Robber growled, shooting you an accusatory glare. “How can you remember that incidental mare? She’s nothing, a footnote, a lowly worm! How do you know that name?!”

How silly of the zebra--Thinking you, with your mouth sealed shut, could manage more than the occasional grunt or groan of pain. Once the quaking ceased, the reflection of the mirror had shifted. Another room, adjacent to this one, bearing only a single pony mannequin adorned with a simple black tophat with crimson trim. The Captain’s hat. Your hat--

“What is your name?” The mechanical voice intoned once again, and this time, you felt the answer caress the tip of your tongue. Your jaws creaked as you struggled to speak.

“No!” Cradle Robber lunged, slamming a hoof over your muzzle, smothering your half-stuttered syllables. “You can’t remember! I won’t let you! I wo--” His eyes widened, his words cut short as black flecks of blood dribbled down his lips, a lithe blade piercing through his throat from behind. Choking on his fluids, he feebly tried to keep you restrained until a decisive twist ended his motions.

Cradle Robber’s body exploded as if it’d been hit by cannon fire, his last gurgling words in your realm a curse at your “companions” interference. Behind where he had been, the black pegasus that so haunted your memories stood. She wiped off the hoof-blade off against one of the few remaining white patches on your coat and sheathed her blade. “Where would the Captain be without his crew?” She said with a neutral expression, neither pleased nor unhappy, but droll.

You were unable to answer her, and she seemed amused by such. “While this could be seen as an improvement,” she turned, adjusting her cloak to her trim body, “It pains me to say that the world must endure you a while longer.”

Perspectives shifted with suddenness, delivering you to the other side of the mirror in an instant. The bindings remained, however, keeping you restrained. The other room was as you saw earlier, with the single dummy wearing the aforementioned hat. A key difference, however, was the presence of the dour pegasus. With poignant purpose, she retrieved the hat and returned to you, holding it aloft as if in reverence to it.

“What is your name?” The ceaseless request had easily gotten on the black mare’s nerves, her grimace deep. Her glare was directed at you, as if you had done her some great annoyance on its part.

"I do believe that this is yours, Captain. Try to keep better track of it. You know that I hate having to find things that you have forgotten." She said, her cold eyes burrowed into you, dissecting you. Her very demeanor was unnerving, or it would be to a stallion wise enough to fear her. Perhaps you were not as wise. “Where we were describes us. Where we go defines us. The only question you need to answer now..." She drops the hat on your brow, both reverently and flippantly. "Is who you are going to become, if who is inside is what we fought for."

There must have been some magic in that old hat she found, for when she placed it upon your head, mad visions danced around. You were no stranger to them, but this roller-coaster was by far the most dynamic and winding. A pulse of icy air tore through the stagnant dorms of your mind, drawing together the fractured pieces of mirrors and arranging them into a borderless mosaic.

“What is your name?”

And you knew your name--What they called you now. You could hear her calling for you across a sea of fire. “Steelgraft!” A soot-streaked face of a pale yellow unicorn besought you with warm brown eyes brimming with tears. She held out her hoof, offering a bond, a place by her side.

All you had to do was take a leap of faith.

...You were a horrible monster, weren’t you? A murderer, a villain, a killer! Do you even deserve her friendship? Her forgiveness? Does she deserve the burden of your baggage? Regardless, you’ve reached level 10. You’re officially a tier 1 Badass.

Comments ( 30 )

Woah, crazy chapter this time.

Yay more updates. :yay: more development in Steel and Gangrene relationship diamic. Double yay :twilightblush: . Always like seeing this fic update. Keep up the good work it is much appreciated. :twilightsmile:


It'll be fun to see how deep this rabbit hole goes.

As I said before; Everything in this story happens for a reason, there are no coincidences.

Your book has been advertised on the new facebook group page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/foebooks/ :)

6634866 np! come join the group if you like. more the merrier. :D


Oh but I can. And I will. His journey is almost a quarter of the way over.

looks interesting i may read it later, i hope it doesn't cancel

7123847 Sorry about that.

and all caught up, whens the next chapter :pinkiecrazy:


You really are enjoying this story? Hmmm, I guess I should release that update I've been sitting on...

Hey there,
Just wanted to see if you planned on continuing your story here

Sure do, I've just been a bit busy atm. College. I have the next 45 thousand words ready and being edited.

I am many things. A supporter of creativity mostly :)

If the main OCs in this story were voiced, what would they sound like?

Imagine Deadpool and Loki had a lovechild.

I am glad you are enjoying the story. I have taken such a long break to focus on my Pony RPG on Secondlife I had almost forgotten about this...I shall pick it back up soon.


... Pardon my childish exclamation there, but the surprise I felt while researching old and derelict stories on this site just to discover that one of my all-time favorites is going to be continued is simply all emcompassing! Do you really mean this? Is Second Wind truly going to rise from the grave, not unlike The Captain himself has the nasty habit of doing? It would mean the world to me if it will, but I would (grudgingly) understand if you would not want to. I mean, the story is 5 years old! Perhaps you are simply not interested in this story, or your writing skills have improved in such a way that the mere act of reading through your story once again is forcing your stomach to explosively eject its content. God knows that I feel that way when rereading my old stories I wrote for a school assignement years ago...

Yes, I have the next chapter lined out and am in the process of rewriting it.

I shall continue from this point, but with much better direction and clarity. This, of course, will require some creative adjustment to the story-telling aspect of things.

... These are truly the end-times. Very well! I shall read through your work once again, so that I may be prepared for whatever you may come up with! Thank you, really. This story always had a special place in my heart, and I am really happy to see it continued. Have fun writing! ^^

Well, currently about to start on what is, presently, the last chapter for this (18 at the time of this post). I enjoyed this a lot so far and hope that the next chapter comes soon.

I am almost done with Chapter 19, actually.

Well, that's good timing, because I just finished chapter 18, hopefully you'll be able to get it done fairly soon as I do enjoy this one. Though hopefully we don't get a jarring transition. Looking forward to seeing Steelgraft's continued shenanigans. And would love to find out his real name eventually.

Guess Covid hit this hard too. Seemed like we might've gotten and update if it hadn't happened.

Oh hey, no, just life has kicked the crap out of me. I still have this story on the backburner.

Glad to hear it's not dead, and I hope your life stuff gets better and stays reasonable. Seems like the world is just doomed to fallout at this point though.

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