• Published 25th Jun 2012
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Fallout Equestria x Wild Arms: Trigger to Tomorrow - thatguyvex



A young tribal pony tries to keep his moral center and ensure the survival of his friends while facing the many dangers of the Detrot Wasteland and beyond.

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Chapter 27: Understanding the Vastness of the World

Chapter 27: Understanding the Vastness of the World

It never ceased to amaze me the bountiful number of places on my body could experience pain. The torture might have now been over and done with, but I was going to be feeling the results of my run in with Redwire for days, healing potions or not, and that was just the affects on my body. How the rest of me was faring I was less certain of.

I was collapsed on my bed in Stable 104. About half a day had passed since my friends and I along with a score of battered and tired survivors of Redwire’s insanity managed to crawl our way out of the depths beneath Skull City. Since it was impossible to house all the refugees at the Skull Guild without serious questions being asked and caps being spent it only made sense to bring them here to the Stable using the portal device. It also made for a safer feeling place for us to recover, especially Arcaidia, whose missing leg was a image that was plaguing the overactive parts of my brain, making it hard to find sleep despite being dead tired. Between the physical torture, the emotional drain of the death I’d both witnessed and caused, and the final hammer of guilt over Arcaidia’s lost leg... well it was a miracle I got any sleep at all.

I did manage a few fitful hours of rest here and there, my dreams filled with shadows and the smell of blood. I would’ve welcomed a visitation to one of my friend’s dreams at that point, or another cryptic dream about the Hyadeans, but I wasn’t so lucky and only nightmares awaited my tired mind. After a particularly unpleasant episode involving the repeated, slowed image of Arcaidia’s leg being torn off by shards of her own ice, I decided I’d had enough sleep and instead just laid on my back, staring at the ceiling and letting the events of the past day sink in.

I occasionally glanced at my flank, blinking at the fresh cutie mark that was stamped there brightly and clearly. It was still hard to believe I’d finally earned it, or that the way I’d earned it. I never wanted to have to end somepony’s life. It was the one thing above all else I’d striven to avoid since walking into the Wasteland alongside Arcaidia. Redwire had taught me when to recognize and accept when I had no better options. I suspected she might have wanted somepony to kill her, a kind of weird suicide by proxy. In performing that act I’d come to accept that it wasn’t always the most wrong course of action to take a life, if it meant saving others.

Or ending their pain.

Braindead was buried now, his own soul hopefully set to rest. I’d seen to that myself before allowing myself any rest. I’d picked a spot at the top of the canyon above the Stable, with a halfway decent view, using a local boulder to mark the grave. It was difficult work compared to creating a funeral pyre, but I didn’t feel quite right using my tribe’s methods on others unless there wasn’t time for proper gravedigging. I’d had help with the grave. Along with the survivors from Redwire’s hellhole another had joined us at the Stable, Waunita. The female griffin had a dour silence about her as she’d helped with laying Braindead to rest, beak clenched tightly and her face a hard mask that made it hard to tell if she angry, saddened, or some volatile mix of both. The only thing she’d said when she’d learned what Braindead had done, both the betrayal and the last act of redemption, was that she wasn’t surprised. Binge also helped with the burial, not even tossing any quips or innuendos my way while doing so. She’d actually had a wane look of melancholy as we’d filled the grave. The only words she said after we were done were, “Sleepy time now BD. No more fear or hurting, just a nice nap.”

Myself, I had little to say, other than a sincere prayer that wherever Braindead was now, he was at peace.

There were other burials that day as well. Of the ponies that had fought to escape Redwire's clutches five had died, and another four badly injured enough that they were still in the medical lab alongside Arcaidia. Copper Shell had taken charge of the refugee group and had organized a burial for their dead while I'd been taking care of Braindead. Those graves were just north of the canyon mouth, and after I'd finished burying Braindead I went and visiting those graves as well. I might not have known those ponies, but I'd be damned if I wasn't going to offer respect to those who didn't make it, but still gave their lives for friends and family to be free. The wind through the canyon was cold, and is dry whistle reminded me chillingly of whispering voices.

After that I’d spent a lot of time in the medical ward with Arcaidia, or in the mechanic bay to check up on LIL-E. The remainder of my time had been spent with the aforementioned fitful sleep. Arcaidia was holding up, but Misty Glasses had already informed us that they didn’t have the resources to just re-attach her leg, or build her a new prosthetic. Cybernetics were out for awhile too. It was Stable 105 that had the equipment for building cybernetics, and they’d been out of touch with that place since losing contact seventeen years ago after Odessa’s raids. Stable 106 might be able to handle a simpler medical prosthetic, but it would be a day or two at least before a team could be sent there to recover what was needed, and our own schedule was tight already...

Arcaidia was insisting we go without bothering with the prosthetic. It left a sour feeling in my gut and I wasn’t sure what to do. LIL-E was being repaired, and the spider pony techs assured me she’d be operational again by morning, so there was that at least.

We did need to be back in Skull City by morning. The plan to turn myself in for my own bounty was botched, but before we’d gone through the portal to the Stable Crossfire had told me to meet here at Knobs’ room at the Skull Guild tower and that she’d “clear up some issues” then. I wasn’t certain what she meant by that, but if she was going to try and pull anything, well, I’d deal with it when and if it happened.

You should attempt to get more rest. It is still four hours until dawn, said Gramzanber’s voice in my mind, the spear resting against the wall next to the bed. I nearly jumped out of the bed, startled by the sudden voice in the stillness.

I did not think my voice warrants such a reaction, Gramzanber said as I took a few steadying breaths.

“N-not exactly used to you being chatty, yet,” I said, shaking myself and rolling out of bed, streaming my sore limbs with a wince, “Besides, I’m not sleeping well.”

I have noticed this. It is important that you rest, to regain your lost strength. Even with my abilities I will be of little use to you if you are too drained to fight properly.

“If I could sleep, I would,” I said, somewhat irritably, starting to pace, because walking seemed better than standing still, “Just can’t right now. I keep thinking about Arcaidia.”

She is a trained member of the Veruni Space Fleet. Suffering grievous injury, even loss of limb, is part of what she was indoctrinated to face in the course of her duties. Give her more credit.

I cast a quizzical glance at the ARM, “You sound like you know a lot about her. I mean, about where she comes from and stuff.”

I am a Veruni Weapon-Class ARM, and was in 1st Rank Specialist Arcaidia Luminariaso’s possession prior to her evacuation of the Long Range Exploration Cruiser ‘Ark of Destiny’. While unable to connect to the Veruni Galactic Communications Array to download more extensive data on Veruni culture, military, and technical specifications on equipment including my own classified functions, I do possess a smattering of knowledge about the Ark and its crew prior to the ship’s crash on this planet. Would you like to know more?

I rather desperately did. Arcaidia was still such a mystery to me despite the many challenges we’d faced together. 1st Rank Specialist? What did that even mean? And her family name was Luminariaso? That was a bit from her long, long introduction, as I recalled. Yet a part of me felt like seeking this kind of information from a second party like Gramzanber was a little dishonest.

“If Arcaidia wants me to know this information, she’ll tell me herself,” I said, shaking my head, which made the room spin for a second before I steadied myself on the foot of the bed, “I mean, I’m curious, yeah. I want to know more about her. She’s been there for me so many times, saved me so many times, and has just sacrificed her leg to protect us. Of course I want to know her better, as a pony and a friend. But it's not right for me to get it out of you when it's clear she doesn’t want to reveal this stuff herself, not yet at least. Do you understand where I’m coming from?”

Admittedly, no. It seems more sensible to obtain whatever information you want in the most direct and simple manner available. However there is much of your species interactions I don’t understand, such as your regret over slaying an enemy, or your refusal to mate with a compatible partner who shows interest in you. However I will not go against your wishes in this matter, and truthfully my knowledge is not that extensive. I know things such as Arcaidia’s rank and role on the ship, but not the ship’s actual orders or mission in exploring this world.

“That’s probably for the best,” I said, “She’ll tell me when she’s ready, and given where we’re going next, that might be soon.”

I sensed a change come over Gramzanber, a sort of easing back, like a unwinding of muscles even though the spear certainly didn’t have any muscles to unwind.

The NCR. A goal you’ve been seeking since the start. We will both need to be ready, so for now I’ll enter standby mode.

“That your version of sleep? Well, rest easy Gramzanber. Since I’m having trouble with sleep myself, think I’ll go grab a bite to eat,” I said, trotting out of the room while doing my best to ignore the aches and sores consuming my body.

The Stable was a fair bit more lively now, and I passed more than one former refugee pony who was settling into their new home, cleaning or rearranging quarters for themselves, or going about errands to help the spider ponies with Stable maintenance. I even bumped into a couple of my tribemates on the way to the cafeteria, a stallion and mare sporting fresh hunter’s tattoos and carrying along a dead gecko strung up on a pole between them, spears tied to recently cured leather harnesses.

The mare was Stone Carver, her bulky body seeming even larger in the cramped corridors of the Stable. She gave me a small smile as I passed by, patting her spear, “Good hunting in these parts, and while our new hosts are strange in shape, they know interesting ways to cook fresh meat. We shall eat well tonight.”

For a moment a painful wave of homesickness hammered into me, at just how simple and familiar it was to see hunters coming home from a fruitful excursion, bringing home food for the tribe. I hoped my smile wasn’t pained as I said, “Looks like you’ve gotten a good feel for the land, then.”

The stallion, Snapped Twig if I recalled correctly, a short sandy colored fellow who was remarkably stealthy, making the name seem all the odder to my mind, made a sour face and said, “I miss the waters of Shady Stream, but I suppose this land isn’t too bad. The geckos are plentiful, and there are these other creatures as well that burrow in the ground, little naked rat things that they are, but they make for decent eating as well. It’s the giant sting-tailed creatures I fear.”

I tilted my head, “Radscorpions?”

Stone Carver nodded gravely, “There are packs of them out there. I’ve given each hunter strict instructions to avoid them, but Rock Roller...” she trialed off, shaking her head, “Since Snowdrift’s death he has been seeking his own, I think. He tried to hunt one of these ‘Radscorpions’ and was badly hurt as a result. Our eight legged friends have healed him, but he seems more and more determined to find his place among the Ancestor Spirits, so he can be with Snowdrift. It is foolishness, but I know his grief.”

She looked at me hopefully, “Has your quest to recover our kin made any progress?”

I found myself wishing I could tell her that I was charging off right that instant to rescue them from the clutches of Odessa, but as short as the actual timetable for that rescue was, it still felt a long ways away as I had two whole countries to cross before I even reached my father to enact that plan. To Stone Carver and Snapped Twig I said, “I’ve discovered where they are, and am working on how to rescue them, but it's going to take time.”

“Where!?” asked Stone Carver, large body nearly knocking me over as she leaned closer, “Where are our tribe being held? We can all go to mount a rescue!”

“It’s not that simple,” I said, taking a step back, and hitting the other side of the corridor wall as a result, “The flying tribe, Odessa, has them held inside their fortress. A fortress that flies in the sky. I can only reach it with the help of...of my father.”

Snapped Twig’s eyes narrowed, “Your father the outsider? Your father who is of the very tribe that has stolen ours?”

A bead of sweat broke onto my brow and I gulped, “H-he’s not blindly following Odessa. Near as I can tell he’s at the center of some kind of, I don’t know, rebel group inside of Odessa. He wants to save our tribe, and will help me do it. I just have to reach him. He’s, uh, he’s really far to the north.”

Stone Carver took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, the sound like a heavy night wind, “Then I shall pray that your father is a truthful stallion. Excuse us, Longwalk, we must get this catch to the kitchens.”

As they departed down the corridor I didn’t follow them, despite the fact that the cafeteria was the same way they were going. I’d suddenly lost my appetite.

----------

My wandering through the Stable eventually brought me to the medical lab. I’d been there plenty of times to check on Arcaidia already, but I was still drawn there with thoughts of just taking a seat by her bed and perhaps shooting the breeze for a bit if she was awake, or trying to take a nap if she was sleeping.

As I approached the doors I heard voices, and paused, ears flicking as I listened in.

“I ain’t comfortable wit doin’ that, Arc, I’m tellin’ ya fer the last time,” said B.B’s twanging accent.

“Esru di shobal, ren bruhir! You are almost toaster headed as Longwalk. If it make you strong, and I offer, what reason to say no?” replied Arcaidia in a stubborn, frustrated tone.

“Look, it took me a’ long time ta learn ta live without the blood, an’ I aim ta keep it that way. Arc, ya don’t know what the stuff’ll do ta my head iffin’ I start makin’ it a habit ta suck some, ‘specailly if yer the one offerin’ it up.”

“Yet you say your Family is coming and they strong. Strong with blood. You need be strong with blood too, if we are to win all the many battles we head towards. My leg gone, slow you all down, must make sure we all strong.”

I could hear a certain level of stubborn desperation in both mares voices, and it sounded like they might have had this argument already. I heard a stamp of hooves and B.B’s voice raise, “I’ll deal wit my ol’ Family when the time comes, don’t ya be frettin’ over that. Just drop it, will ya! I ain’t sucking yer blood, or Long’s blood, or even Binge’s blood again iffin I can help it. I just... blast it ya darn icecube head don’t ya git its like touchin’ a pool o’ water through an oilslick! I could do it, an’ git what I need, but my hoof would still git dirty in the process. More I drink, the more I... I’d remember what I was, Arc. My pa went through a’ lot ta teach me ta be somethin’ better n’ that.”

I heard Arcaidia sigh, a long winding down sound of defeat, “I know, ren bruhir. You love your father much. You want to be much better than dirty past, put smiles on pony’s faces rather than terror. I admire that about you, crazy mare.”

“Heh, ain’t half as crazy as you, Arc. Gettin’ yerself all tore up ta save our hides. Ya tryin’ ta steal Longwalk’s schtick?”

“Pfft, I much more sensible than that. Longwalk have harder head for such things. Also doesn’t know when not to drop bees.”

I blinked, confused, then B.B said, “Drop bees?”

“He be listening at door.”

“Ooooh, you mean drop eaves, otherwise known as eavesdroppin’. Hey, Long, ya can come in now, I smelled ya the second ya got close,” said B.B with a dry chuckle.

Guilt, for two reasons, swept through me as I entered the medical lab and saw my two friends in there. B.B was standing by Arcadia’s bed, the unicorn sitting up while propped up on her one fore leg. Both mares looked at me with small, amused smiles. I just felt more out of sorts as I slowly trotted to them, nodding. My guilt was only in part due to my eavesdropping on them. The other, more important bit of guilt was because I hadn’t yet spoken to B.B about her father.

“Hey guys,” I said, working up my courage, “I didn’t mean to listen in, just kind of, uh, habit?”

“Sure, Long, sure,” said B.B, “Come ta’ keep Arc company fer a bit?”

“Well, yes, but... but I’m glad you’re here to. B.B, I need to talk to you about something,” I said, looking towards one of the small sitting stools strewn about the medlab and parking myself there, “It’s about your father.”

Before I could say more B.B raised one of her wings, holding it up in a quieting gesture, “Ain’t no need, Long. LIL-E was reactivated less n’ an hour back an’ she told me ‘bout what happened.”

“LIL-E’s better!” I near shouted, jumping up from the stool, “I thought she’d be down until morning?”

“Seems like the bot’s got a’ more durable an’ quick ta’ repair internal system n’ the spider pony techs thought. They were able ta git her turned on an’ talkin’, through she ain’t yet ready ta float around,” said B.B, “Now like I was sayin’, LIL-E, she tracked them refugees and my pa ta the same Ruin that Hyadean, Alhazad, was at wit Redwire an’ Braindead. There was a brawl, an’, yeah... my pa lost,” she grit her teeth, nostrils flaring, but shook her head and went on, “Only he didn’t croak it. LIL-E found him hangin’ on ta a spire down a’ pit, and helped float him ta safety. Right now my pa’s in Skull City, chekin’ in wit his ol’ buddies at the Drifter’s Guild. We’ll probably see him tomorrow.”

A cool wash of relief flooded me at those words. I hadn’t looked forward to telling B.B I thought her father was dead, so it was good to hear the old stallion was alive. It was also good to know LIL-E’s repairs were going faster. It sounded like we’d all be ready to go back to Skull City come morning and finally get ourselves off to the NCR.

“That’s great, B.B, I’m happy for you. Heck, I’d like to get to know your father sometime.”

“Well, ya might git a chance then, an’ I bet he’ll be happy ta chat it up wit ya,” said B.B. Meanwhile Arcaidia was eyeing me up and down, a small frown passing her features.

“You no look so good, ren solva. You not sleep? Grr, is it shivol bir causing trouble again in bed?”

I coughed, taking a deep breath to clear my thoughts before I said, “No, no Binge is causing no problems in bed. Or is ever even in my bed! I just... um, I’m too antsy to get to sleep. Figured I’d stretch my legs.”

“Rest would be better,” said Misty Glasses synthetic voice as the spider pony clicked her way into the medlab, her many legs skittering her black and orange body along with smooth grace. She looked at me with her two pony eyes and six additional glittering black eyes and smiled with only a hint of fang. “Still I’m glad to see you up and about. You surface ponies certainly can take a beating and keep right on going.”

She laughed, and there was a slight nervousness to it as she went over to a computer terminal and began to click away at its keys. Something was scratching at the back of my mind and it came to me rather abruptly as I blurted, “Hey, didn’t you say you had something you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Huh?’ Misty Glasses, had to turn her rather bulky body to look back at me, “Oh, uh, yes, that.”

She paused, running a long spidery leg over her flaring orange mane, “I suppose I did, didn’t I? To be honest I’m not as certain of it as I was just the other day. It's probably for the best you just forget about it.”

I frowned, exchanging looks with B.B and Arcaidia. B.B just shrugged, but Arcaidia had a curious, intrigued look on her face. I looked back at Misty Glasses, “Are you sure? I mean, just what was it about?”


“Nothing!” Misty Glasses said, far too quickly, and the spider pony twitched in an agitated manner, but she seemed to calm herself fast enough, “I mean, it's not nothing, exactly, but I don’t know if it’s something I need to bother you with yet. Not without more conclusive information. About your body.”

“Misty,” I said, “If there’s something wrong, please, just tell me. I’ve got a lot of my mind, yeah, but ignorance isn’t always bliss.”

“I too want to know if Longwalk has problem with body,” said Arcaidia, curiosity transmuting into worried creases across her brow, “More than is there already.”

Yes, like the ticking down time limit until I died from overexposure to my ARM. It was nice being able to talk to Gramzanber now but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly miffed that the spear was still technically killing me, bit by bit. Then again, my survival day to day was constantly in question, so it wasn’t too hard to shove the larger time limit to the back of my mind. What was one more issue on top of that, whatever it was? Misty Glasses still had a reluctant look on her face, but I saw that slowly resolve to a nod as she said, “Very well, I’ll try to keep this simple.”

She clacked a few more keys on her terminal and turned the monitor to show it to me. On the screen was a green and black rendition of my own body, and a side screen showing what I could only guess was some kind of up close look at... my blood?

“Longwalk, ever since we first medically examined you here, my fellow scientists and I noticed an anomaly in your blood. The recent incident you had with Binge only made me further believe that this anomaly represented a fundamental difference between your body and that of other ponies. Look here,” she pointed to the image of a bloodstream, with little ring-like cells flowing along naturally.

“Your bloodstream has all the normal characteristics it’s meant to have, save for one addition,” Misty Glasses clicked a few buttons and the image zoomed in more, to reveal that amid the blood cells were several star shaped objects, metallic and of a dark gray color. I felt myself turn cold.

“What in the name of the Ancestor Spirits are those?” I breathed.

“Nanomachines,” said Misty Glasses plainly, “Specifically they’re nanomachines of the exact same bio-metal type that can be found inside a Hyadean organism.”

The room couldn’t have gotten more still and chilly if Misty Glasses had turned the place into a freezer. Arcaidia said something in her own language that I was pretty sure had to be very unladylike, and B.B gulped, saying, “What’re ya tryin’ ta tell us, that Long somehow got alien machines stuck in his blood? How? When? When fighthin’ them weird critters them aliens use as soldiers?”

Misty Glasses shook her head, “No. When Longwalk was wounded by that scavenger pony after the battle with Midnight Twinkle , that was when we first noticed these nanomachines in his blood. I didn’t want to say anything back then because I wasn’t entirely sure of what I was looking at. These nanomachines are bonded to him different than they are in us.”

I blinked at that, “Wait, you spider ponies have these nanomachines too!?”

“Of course. The Hyadean you just encountered, Alhazad, was the one who created us. Transformed us from normal ponies into these arachnid shapes. It was with these type of nanomachines that he did such grisly work. The basic structure of the nanomachines is the same in my body as they are in his, the only difference is that the nanomachines are bonded to his genetic structure in a manner that’s utterly seamless and may well serve several functions beyond what they do inside us arachquines.”

I was shaking my head, feeling dizzy and abruptly sat down on my haunches, “Then how did I get these things inside me?”

“If I was to make a guess, Longwalk, they’ve been a part of you since birth. Perhaps introduced at the moment of conception. I can’t be entirely sure on that point, but the manner which the nanomachines interact with your body in pure symbiotic balance suggest to me that they’ve been there for your entire life.”

“What this mean?” asked Arcaidia quietly, “You say Longwalk have Hyadean filth in his blood, but why!? How!? He... he’s...” Arcaidia seemed furious and terrified at the same time, looking at me with her silver eyes so wide I thought I was looking into twin pools reflecting the moon.

Misty Glasses sighed, “This is why I didn’t want to bring this up. I just don’t know enough to make any real educated guesses beyond what I’ve said. The only other thing I can say is that Longwalk’s rapid recovery rate is largely thanks to these nanomachines. They accelerate his natural healing rate rather impressively. Its why he’s been able to recover from wounds that should have kept him bedridden for weeks in just a day or so. I also suspect they’re responsible for his rapid rate of skill growth in such a short span of time.”

My head felt like it was about to crack but I still had enough sense about me to look up with confusion, “Wait, my... skills? What are you talking about?”

Misty Glasses waved one of her legs at me, “Well, consider this. Two weeks ago you were a young hunter from a low tech tribe, and your experience with combat were minimal at best. Now, today, you’ve bested in combat trained soldiers, experienced bounty hunters, faced down a Hellhound, various mutated monsters, and even defeated one of Odessa’s elite Cocytus officers after enacting an escape from the depths of one of their airships. Do you really thing any of those feats would have been achievable by a pony whose only experience prior to that was hunting geckos?”

At my blank look Misty Glasses scratched her head, but B.B stepped in, saying, “I git what yer tryin’ ta say. Yer sayin’ them nanomachines are somehow helpin’ Longwalk learn skills to survive, right?”

“Essentially,” Misty Glasses said, “Each of these nanomachines contains vast amounts of information. It's impossible for me to even come close to decoding just how much, or of what type, of information they contain. However, large clusters of these nanomachines are lodged around his brain, all along centers controlling memory and learning. They’re literally helping build pathways of knowledge inside his brain. My guess is that for every battle or new experience he faces Longwalk learns faster, becoming a more capable fighter in a span of time exponentially shorter than what it’d take him to normally learn. All of those battles he’s been involved in have given him the kind of training that would have otherwise taken years.”

I felt an uneasy queasyness through my whole body, and even my skin felt itchy, like it wasn’t mine anymore. I licked my lips, trying to get some moisture on their even though my mouth had gone drier than the Wasteland. My brain scrambled to absorb and make sense of what i was being told, and my brain pony had decided the best solution was to lock itself in the closet with the rest of my fears.

“Okay...” I said, “So... short version is, what? I’m not a pony?”

Misty Glasses made a snorting sound, that coming from a spider pony sounded more like a wheezing clack, “That's not what I'm saying at all. No, not at all. Genetically you’re as much a pony as anypony else. Your D.N.A hasn’t been altered, far as I can tell. It wouldn’t even be accurate to call you a hybrid. What you are is a normal, healthy young earth pony male who has had alien nanomachines incorporated into his body like... like a natural enhancement process. Whoever or whatever did this to you at conception seems to have done it to increase your abilities without changing your underlying nature. Honestly the blend is so seamless we wouldn’t have detected it if our medlab wasn’t already set up to search for these kind nanomachines already due to our work with the Hyadean Specimen we had held here all those years ago.”

“So who did this ta him?” asked B.B, a little heatedly, “Ya said this had ta be done when he was conceived? Don’t that kinda narrow down the possibilities?”

I looked over at her, still feeling numb from shock, “You’re saying my parents did this?”

B.B’s face tightened in shame and concern, but she still nodded, “Ain’t sayin’ it’s the only possibility, but it does figure, don’t it? Unless yer parents had someone else fiddlin’ with yer ma’s plumbin’ while she was pregnant, who else could’ve ‘sides yer pa? Might’ve been possible some sneaky bastard was able ta’ do it without them knowin’ but...”

“All smoke,” Arcaidia said firmly, voice still as a iced over pool of water, “We just talk of smoke. Nothing solid. Longwalk is Longwalk... yes, no matter where Hyadean filth come from. Not make Longwalk different.” A part of me wished she sounded less like she was trying to convince herself, but I still appreciated the words and gave her a small nod of thanks.

“Ain’t gonna hear nothin’ ta gainsay that,” said B.B, who then fixed her eye on me, “How ya holdin’ up wit all o’ this, Long?”

I just blinked at pegasus, and I imagined I must have looked rather rattled if the dry mouth and slight shake in my limbs was any indication. I then looked over at Arcaidia again, who's expression was difficult to read even when she managed a reassuring smile. I took a deep breath, still feeling like I wasn’t entirely connected to my own body anymore. What am I, then? Father, did you do this to me? Why? Does mom know? Too many questions. Too much, on top of everything else. Suddenly I felt a lot more tired than I had a moment ago.

“I don’t know, B.B. I really haven’t a clue how to feel about this."

What are you supposed to feel when you're told your body isn't quite what you thought it was and that its very likely one or both of your own parents were responsible for it? That you were used as a test subject before you were even born? Mostly I just felt kind of numb, like my mind and heart were both on shutdown, just to keep the overflow of crap that'd I'd been through over the past day or so from overwhelming me.

"I... I just need to get to my father. He can explain it to me. He has to.” I hung my head, laughing helplessly, “On the bright side, least now I’ve got an idea why I keep trying to fight on two legs.”

“Hm?” Misty Glasses leaned forward, “How did you come that conclusion.”

“Well, it figures, doesn’t it? You said these nanomachines are helping me learn to fight, but they’re Hyadean in nature. Well... I know at least one Hyadean who uses a spear like mine, and fights on two legs, using his hands.” I said, thinking of the Specimen that’d escaped Stable 104, the Hyadean I now knew was named Zeikfried. The one Alhazad had referred to as ‘Lord Zeikfried’. One who I’d already had dreams of that seemed to be his memories. Misty Glasses had said that the nanomachines contained vast information inside them, and that some of them had attached to my brain’s centers of memory.

Even a relatively dim pony like me could connect those dots.

“When they raided the Stable back then, did Odessa take any samples from the Hyadean you had here before it broke free?” I asked, recalling that raid had happened about seventeen years ago. Only a year or two before I was born. I felt my jaw tightening.

“Well, yes,” said Misty Glasses, “The Colonel who was conducting the raid took the samples himself, departing before the Hyadean broke free of its containment.”

“You don’t happen to have a video record from the security cameras of the event? Perhaps an image of this Colonel?” I asked, knowing full well the rank my father held then, and still held now.

“Oh, um, yes, let me pull it up. Here, a video image of when the Colonel and his troops entered the Stable,” Misty Glasses said, showing me the monitor. I wasn’t surprised to see a squadron of heavily armored Odessa troopers marching through the front doors of the Stable, several other pegasi and griffons in lab coats flanking another stallion in a stark white officer uniform. A stallion I instantly recognized from the memory orb I viewed just one day ago.

I closed my eyes, shaking my head, feeling as if the floor was gaping open beneath me.

“Dammit all, father, what else haven’t you told me?”

I felt a strong hoof squeeze my shoulder, soon followed by another hoof on the other side. I opened my eyes to see B.B and Arcaidia both holding me, Arcaidia nearly leaned over double in her bed to reach me. The feeling of near falling was replaced by a sense of finding some solid ground and I was able to pull my mind from a spiral of questions, managing a wane smile for both my friends.

“Me and my father are going to have a lot to talk about when I finally meet him face to face,” I said, trying to get out a light hearted laugh, though it came out sounding heavy as lead.

“Both us have much to say to father,” said Arcaidia with a fire in her silver eyes, “Not know what toaster headed thoughts make him use you for experiment, but I give him much earful!”

“Ta be fair, an’ not sayin’ I’m defenin’ him or nothin’,” said B.B, “But we don’t rightly know what’s goin’ on with these nanos inside Long or why his pa decided to stick ‘em in there, iffin it really was him that done it.”

“It is possible,” said Misty Glasses, “That your father merely acquired the nanomachines from the Hyadean Specimen and another took them for their own research without his knowing. I’m afraid speculation is all we have at this point.”

Speculation, and educated guesses, yes. It didn’t change the fact that my body suddenly didn’t quite feel like it belonged to me anymore. A part of me just wanted to go crawl back into bed and pretend I hadn’t learned this. Another part of me was both sick and furious at my father for altering me without my consent... or mothers? Did mother know about this? Had she agreed to it? So many questions, and the ponies I desperately wanted to ask were so far away.

I took a very deep breath and let it out slowly, only somewhat relieving the knot of stress building inside, “In the end, we still have to focus on what’s in front of us. As long as you're sure these nanomachines aren’t hurting me, I can learn to deal with this. I mean, I’ve lived with them my whole life, apparently, so I’m still the same me. If I start sprouting alien appendages, I’m sure you’ve got a salve for that, right?”

Misty Glasses body shook in a laugh, “If your sense of humor remains intact then I’d say you’re as fit as usual. I will endeavour to continue my research here to determine more about these nanomachines. One last thing to note, in case you did not make the connection... I believe these nanomachines are also now inside you’re friend, Binge.”

That got me blinking all over again, “Binge, but how-...oh. The transfusion.”

“Yes, I believe these nanomachines entered her with the blood transfusion to save her life. I confirmed it during the medical examination I did on all of you after returning here. They don’t appear to have bonded with her the same way they are in you, but that could just be a factor of time. For the moment I don’t believe they are a threat to her, but I can’t be certain exactly what they may or may not do to her body over time, either.”

That was more than a little concerning. I didn’t save Binge’s life just to have my blood be what killed her down the road, “Is there any way you can remove them from her?”

“To be honest I wouldn't want to risk it without a lot more research on just how these nanomachines operate,” said Misty Glasses, “Give me time and I may come up with a few ideas, but for now, I can only recommend you keep a close eye on her.”

B.B chuckled dryly, “We try ta do that anyway. Ain’t always easy, with that one.”

“Have you told her about this?” I asked Misty Glasses, not wanting Binge to be in the dark about something concerning her own body.

“I have, but as you can imagine that one has a mind that does not respond to things like most others,” said Misty Glasses, shaking her head, “She if anything seemed pleased, rather than worried.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Binge,” I said with a small, helpless laugh. Binge wasn’t one to worry about much of anything, but at least she knew, and if something started to go wrong with her body we’d both know the likely cause.

Afterwards, when Arcaidia had lain back down to rest and B.B had left to go stretch her wings in the vehicle hangar, I stayed behind with Misty Glasses, having one last thing I wanted to talk about. My brain felt already swelled to bursting with all I’d had done to me and learned about both that day and the previous with the whole business with Redwire, but I still couldn’t imagine getting any rest right now.

“Tomorrow we’ll be trying to work out a way to get the NCR,” I told the spider pony scientist in a quiet voice as not to wake Arcaidia, “I don’t know what kind of trouble we’ll run into there, maybe none. But afterward I still have to get to my father, then rescue my tribe from Odessa. There will probably be a lot of fighting involved.”

“Yes, that is very likely true,” Misty Glasses said, her spindly spider legs picking at her keyboard as it looked like she was typing a report on Arcaidia’s condition and ideas for limb replacement.

“I’ve had to end a few ponies lives since I started this journey,” I said, glancing back at my cutie mark, “I’ve learned sometimes it has to be done. Even so, my responsibility to myself, to my own morals, is to always strive to save lives that don’t have to be lost. I can’t keep being reactive in that responsibility. I have to be proactive. So I wanted to ask you about a couple of things. First, do you think there might be something you smarter scientist types might be able to build that’d let me use Gramzanber more effectively a non-lethal weapon? Like a shock device that’d let me knock ponies out?”

“Ah, was it that shock stick you brought back that made you think of this idea?” asked Misty Glasses, referring to the taser I’d recovered from the cavern after the battle with Redwire.

“Yes, actually,” I said, smiling at her guessing at what I wanted, “I’m keeping it as a backup, but I thought it’d be useful to do something similar with Gramzanber. I mean, how much easier would it be to take down ponies if all I had to do was give them a quick whap or cut and shock them unconscious?”

“It might be harder than you think, Longwalk. Many armors insulate against that kind of shock, and even then particularly tough or adrenaline filled ponies can keep fighting even while being tased. Amping up the jolt only risks actual injury or death. Hmm, I have a better idea.”

As Misty Glasses talked she opened her mouth, exposing her fangs, which dripped venom. I backed away, gulping, but she closed her mouth and chuckled, “Our venom you’ve felt yourself. It weakens a pony until they can barely move. With a little chemical tampering I can increase its effectiveness to act as a quick paralytic agent you can apply to your spear. One cut ought to slow down if not outright paralyze most normal ponies. The process shouldn’t take long and I could whip up an experimental batch for you to use before you left tomorrow.”

“That...” I paused, thinking at first that it’d be slightly creepy, but the more I thought of it the more the idea sort of sounded neat, “That actually sounds like a plan. Don’t suppose you guys have more smoke and flash grenades? I pretty much tapped myself out already.”

“Stock up all you need. Was there anything else?”

“Um one last thing... have Trailblaze and Whetstone been back, lately?”

Misty Glasses’ tone, through synthesized by cybernetics in her throat, still held sympathy, “Not since they last departed. We did receive an update from them from our ponies working to restore Stable 106, but it was brief and not very descriptive. They found a Guardian Shrine at the mountain summit they were going to, but also encountered a Hyadean themselves. They survived the battle, but so did the Hyadean. Trailblaze said she was able to contact the Guardian in the Shrine and from them learned another Shrine existed in the waters south of Port Needle. That was where they were heading next.”

“At least they’re still alive,” I said, happy enough to know my friend was managing to keep herself safe out in the Wasteland, but worried now that her own journey seemed like it was filled with its own dangers, including attracting the Hyadean’s attention, “Did she mention anything about this Hyadean they encountered.”

“Only a little, and it didn’t sound like Alhazad,” said Misty Glasses, “The report’s description was of a bipedal armored creature wielding a boomerang-like weapon and... and with a large wolf creature as a companion.”

At first I’d thought she might have been speaking of Zeikfried, but he didn’t use a boomerang or have any kind of wolf monster as a companion. A new Hyadean then? How had Trailblaze survived running into one? Well, she was Trailblaze. She was a lot tougher than I was, and had the power of the Fire Guardian, Moa Gault, to aid her. I should probably have been more worried about Whetstone, following Trailblaze around.

“I guess I won’t see them for awhile,” I said, thinking of how I was soon leaving the region, and how Trailblaze’s own travels were taking her to new places as well. How long might we be traveling apart on our own respective quests? When I saw her again, if I ever saw her again, would we be two completely different ponies by then?

“You will see her again,” Misty Glasses said, adjusting her glasses, “She is a very resilient young mare. They both are, and they now have a capable medical robot with the A.I of a Ministry Mare with them.”

Ah, right, I’d almost forgotten about that. Well, Trailblaze was gathering her own cadre of oddballs it seemed, and I was happy enough to know she wasn’t alone out there. I gave Misty Glasses an agreeing nod, “I know. There are just times I wish I...”

Wish I what? Wish I’d convinced her to come with me instead? I shook my head, banishing the notion, “I wish I could get to sleep easier.”

Misty Glasses absentmindedly reached for a drawer and pulled out a bottle of pills and gave them over to me, “Try these. Knocks me right out when I need to make my brain stop spinning for a spell.”

I was dubious, but took the offered bottle, and since I’d lost my appetite I decided to return to my room. As it turned out the pills worked just fine, more than fine. The sleep I fell into the moment I hit my bed was so deep that my nightmares were only passing globs of shadow that couldn’t quite catch me as I sunk into a slumber that was, for once, restful.

----------

Crossfire met as at the steps leading up to the Skull Guild’s front entrance. The gray sky was already turning from darkness to pale light with the sunrise, and the air had a frigid coolness to it that made my fur rise. The Inner City was already alive with noise, and I saw a few rare functional autowagons rolling along the mostly repaired streets. The noise from the Mechanics Guild’s factory to the south filtered in like a steady river of buzzing and clanks.

The Ursa was still parked in the Skull Guild’s basement. We wouldn’t need it today, or so Crossfire had said. Myself, B.B, Arcaidia, Binge, and LIL-E were all gathered there on the smooth stone walkway right in front of the steps, as Crossfire walked up to use, her red jacket marking her out in the dawn gloom. She was of course still armed with her rifle slung across her back.

I opened my mouth to greet her, but Crossfire cut me off with a sharp, “Here.”

With a glow of red magic she tossed me a bag that clinked with caps. Crossfire had a sour look on her face as if parting with caps physically hurt her. “There’s just under fifteen hundred in there. That’s all the cut you got left after paying back Knobs what you owe her, and a modest accounting fee for me.”

I peered at the caps, surprised. Honestly it’d been more than I’d expected to get, “This is from those weapons you sold?”

“No,” she said, jerking her head, “Follow me, I’ll explain on the way.”

“Is that gonna be safe?” asked B.B, “Ain’t we still worried ‘bout bounty hunters?”

“Not anymore,” said Crossfire, “Now shut up and follow. Or don’t. At this point I could care less what happens to any of you.”

Shard gave us an apologetic look as Crossfire brushed past him. It was a tad odd seeing the unicorn without his face scarf, the odd tattoos on his chin and neck plainly visible. Arcaidia shuffled forward. She had a simple, metal leg crutch and harness around her missing leg. It was far from a proper prosthetic, but it let her walk, albeit much slower than normal and I doubted she’d be able to move more than a canter if it came to it. I couldn’t look at the crutch without a sharp cut of guilt. It wasn’t right that she’d been the one to lose a part of herself, while I was the one who came with her on this journey to protect her.

“Here, estu dol balvirae mi gricai. I return to you what you use to aid me,” Arcaidia said as she floated from her saddlebag the long black scarf Shard had used to tourniquet her wound. It looked freshly cleaned. Shard looked taken slightly aback, but smiled and nodded his thanks as he took the scarf in his own yellow magic aura and wrapped it back around his face.

“I appreciate this, miss Arcaidia. I’ve never liked walking around with my Baskar marks showing.”

“Baskar?” I asked, but at that same time Crossfire’s annoyed voice rang out.

“What are you all doing, sharing life stories!? Get a move on!”

Shard shook his head ruefully, “Another time, kid. Another time.”

Off we went, trotting down the street openly, apparently with no fear of attack from bounty hunters. The street was already filling with a few ponies, living and ghoul alike, going about their morning business. There were still heavy patrols of the grim faced and armored Enforcers, but they gave us no trouble as we moved along the winding sidewalks, passing storefronts opening for business.

I caught up to Crossfire, who was trotting like a mare on a mission, and said, “Okay, what’s the deal? Why aren’t there swarms of bounty hunters after my tail right now?”

Crossfire glanced at me, golden eyes glittering, but her expression unreadable. “My boss has arranged for that bounty to be taken off your head.”

“Your boss?”

“The head of the Drifter’s Guild Whiteheart. He’s been in contact with the Labor Guild, and sorted out a deal with them, a deal I’m not entirely privy to the details of. Part of the deal was removing your bounty. Before you ask, I don’t know what the cost of that is going to be. That’s part of why I’ve been asked to escort you to the Guild. Whiteheart wants to speak to you, personally.”

That nearly made me stumble in my walk. LIL-E floated up beside me, swiveling to face Crossfire as we walked. “Why is Whiteheart interested in Longwalk? I’m not interesting in seeing a friend get coerced into being used.”

“Relax, rustbucket,” said Crossfire with a snort, “Far as I know the big boss just wants to talk to the buck. Any deals that get made through that is going to be between them.”

“Do I need to be worried about being coerced?” I asked, feeling more and more uncomfortable with the idea of meeting this Whiteheart.

“Depends on what this fella’ is gonna be tryin’ ta talk ya into,” said B.B, taking wing and flying to slowly hover beside Crossfire, looking down at the mare suspiciously, “How’d this Whiteheart learn ‘bout Longwalk’s bounty an’ that he was at the Skull Guild?”

Crossfire didn’t even look back at the pegasus, “I told him, obviously. That’s where I went yesterday.The buck plans to join the Drifter’s Guild, so I went to smooth that over by...” she grunted out a sigh, lips pulled back in a sour grimace, “So I decided to sponsor him myself. I set it all up with Whiteheart, and that’s when he decided, on his damned own I’ll add, to contact the Labor Guild’s leader and hash out the bounty situation. I didn’t plan any of that. Couldn’t even believe it when I saw it. Soon as he was done arranging that, Whiteheart asked me to bring you to him when I got a chance to.”

Gears started turning in my brain, comparing times. Crossfire had vanished yesterday for a bit, maybe an hour or two before we’d tried to enact my plan to turn myself in for the bounty that led to the whole debacle with Redwire. My face became shadowed by a deep frown as I realized something.

“Crossfire... are you saying Whiteheart arranged for my bounty to be removed before we left to turn myself in.”

“...Maybe.”

The whole party stopped, all of us staring at Crossfire’s back as she walked on a few more paces, only stopping when she noticed we were all staring at her, even Shard who looked as surprised to hear this as any of us. Crossfire looked between eyes, yellow eyes challenging, unapologetic.

“It would’ve taken at least a day for the news to trickle down to the Bounty Guild,” she said with a fierce, defensive tone, “We could’ve still gotten your bounty, and not long after they would’ve had to let you go anyway when news of the bounty’s cancellation hit. We could’ve gotten paid and you wouldn’t have been in danger on top of that, so don’t you all go giving me those dirty looks! That bounty was worth a lot of caps! I had to take a shot at it...”

She flicked her tail angrily. B.B had put a hoof to her face, shaking her head, while Arcaidia had a cold look in her eyes, only somewhat counterbalanced by a equally tired strain in her face. LIL-E hovered silently for a moment, before saying, “Conniving bitch.”

“Sit on a fucking electrode,” shot back Crossfire, “It was the buck’s own dumb plan anyway, and it would’ve worked just fine if he hadn’t gotten his ass captured. Don’t blame me because shit went south. I did my part, and dammit I’m still trying to help you, against my better judgement!”

I held up a hoof, “It’s... fine, Crossfire. I get it. You smelled caps slipping away and you wanted to make a grab for them. I might’ve agreed to go with the plan even if I’d known about the bounty being canceled, because the fact was we still needed to pay back Knobs and needed the caps. So,” I looked at my companions, “Let’s all try to get along here.”

LIL-E made a sound that might have been a scoff, but was hard to tell with her robotic tones, “Right. Get along. I can do that. I’m the most getting along pony controlling a flying robot you’ll ever bucking meet.”

For a second I thought it strange the way she referred to herself that way, but I had to remind myself I was the only one in the group that knew LIL-E’s secret. B.B settled back down to walk, grimacing slightly but seeming to quickly accept things. Arcaidia still hardly looked warm towards Crossfire, but she strode on at her awkward pace, seeming content to focus on relearning how to walk than brooding on Crossfire being Crossfire.

We resumed our trek across town, the tall, old buildings around us keeping the early morning cloaked in shadow even as the sky turned brighter shades of gray. We passed several clusters of ponies around exterior dining areas or outdoor bars, all wolfing down their respective breakfasts as they chatted among themselves. Though most of these groups quieted down as we passed a few ignored us entirely, gossiping away as we trotted by. I caught a few snippets that stood out in my mind.

“-heard they lost the bridge. Damn Raiders are pouring around to the north and might threaten the farmlands.”

“-are the damned gangs thinking, not sending more ponies? You’d think those violent nutjobs would jump at the chance to fight some-”

“-just glad the V.E.C is out there. Always kinda thought the Labor Guild’s army was a bit scary, but if they’ll fight where the gangs won’t, I ain’t gonna complain.”

“Heard that Protectorate ‘princess’ is still in down. Why the Guilds talking shop with some tart from those bastards? They forget what happened in the war?”

“-telling you those monster attacks aren’t normal! There’s gotta be some Ruin below us one of the Guilds fucked with. Where else do Goddess damned living skeletons come from?”

The conversations floated in and out as we walked, leaving me to wonder at the bits and pieces I heard. Was the fight with the Raiders going poorly? It kind of sounded that way, but it was hard to tell. The V.E.C I recognized as the Labor Guild slave army Shale had been a part of. Seemed ponies were gaining confidence in it as a force to combat the Raiders, mostly because the gangs weren’t sending as many fighters as usual. I wondered why that was? The Protectorate princess I knew was Purity, the mare I’d met in the Skull Guild. It didn’t sound like too many ponies were happy she was here in the city, but I could only remember that she was very kind, and had been doing nothing by trying to help ponies who were hurt.

I noticed Crossfire flinched when the ponies we passed had mentioned Purity, and I asked, “Is something wrong?”

“Not a damned thing,” muttered Crossfire.

“Do you feel the same way they do? That the Guilds shouldn’t have a princess from the Protectorate here?” I pressed, genuinely curious.

“I couldn’t care less about the Protectorate, now will you kindly shut it, buck?”

I sighed, and fell back a few steps to let the brooding mare lead us along. Any time I thought maybe I could break through and get Crossfire to soften up a bit she just seemed to draw in on herself harder. A part of me wondered why I cared. Then I reminded myself of what Knobs had told me. No matter how jagged her edges, there had to be something decent buried underneath all that snarling and cap obsession. Even if she hadn’t told me my bounty had been canceled, she had gone to the Drifter’s Guild to sponsor my membership there.

Passing underneath the wide concrete pillars and bridge of a raised highway we reached a set of broad avenues where most the buildings were shorter, many with faded flecks of paint still clinging to their concrete bodies. One building out of this cluster stood out the most, much taller than any of the others. I could tell at one time this building might have been as tall as any of the local skyscrapers, but its top half was a jagged skeleton. It wasn’t hard to see where the broken top half had gone, as that part still lay broken across the ground, through still occupied and rebuilt with scrap metal and concrete slabs. Both buildings, the part still standing and the fallen half that lay on the ground in front of it were strung with bright lights and clearly occupied. I saw ponies coming and going from both buildings. On the tall, still standing half there was a sign forged from painted and welded together pieces of sheet metal.

Drifter’s Guild - All parties welcome.

Arcaidia looked at the buildings with her cold look gradually fading to curiosity, “This be Drifter’s place of business?”

“The standing portion is,” said Crossfire, nodding her head towards one building, then the other, “The bit that fell over is the lounge, bar, and barracks. Lower class Drifter’s sleep there, but if you hit A-rank or higher you can move to a suite in the standing portion. Way better beds. And drinks. Move it. Don’t want to keep Whiteheart waiting.”

The road up to the Drifter’s Guild wasn’t quite as well maintained as the others of the Inner City, perhaps because it was closer to the massive wall that enclosed the whole area. Just beyond the guild building the Inner City wall rose like a small mountain of concrete and metal, several bonfires burning at regular intervals along its length, tended to by guards. The road we walked went right between the two halves of the guild building. The fallen top half had its entire side exposed, though awnings of cloth attached to metal poles provided extra shade and protection from the elements. Within I could see countless tables set up filled to the brim with ponies, griffins, ghouls, and even a few more of those strange minotaur creatures, all going this way and that in a boil of carousing, drinking, and playing at cards or dice. I saw multiple bars buzzing with patrons, and servers rushing about keeping each table filled with flowing liquor.

Binge made a small, eager noise, “No fair so many ponies getting to have fun so early in the morning when Bingey hasn’t had a drop for herself.”

“Well,” I said, “If you really want you could go have some fun. I mean, I don’t know that we all have to be there for this meeting.”

“Technically only you are going to meet with Whiteheart,” said Crossfire, “So the rest of you can do whatever you want.”

“Now hold on a’ bleein’ sec!” said B.B, “Why can’t we stick by Long fer this meeting?”

Crossfire’s glance backwards was filled to the brim with exasperation, “Because that’s what Whiteheart wants. Now try to wrap your bird brain around this, but what the leader of the Drifter’s Guild wants, on his turf and in his own home, he tends to get.”

“Can’t you just ask him if it’s alright if some of my friends are with me?” I asked plainly.

“Ugh, okay, fine, I’ll ask.”

Binge blink, “Does that mean I’m going with you, bucky, or can I go get plastered and play?”


I nodded towards the bar, “Go, knock yourself out.” I paused, glancing questioningly at Crossfire.

“It’s fine,” Crossfire said, “The Drifter’s Rest is open to the public, the front half anyway. Back of the place is members only, but long as your filly friend doesn’t light the place on fire, she can do whatever.”

“Awwww, but fire is so pretty,” said Binge.

I looked at her with a level stare, “Behave, Binge. Enjoy yourself or whatever, but I want the building intact when I come back out, okay?”

She made a tugging gesture at her neck, “I feel the leash, Longykins, nice and tight. No fires, no blood. I promise.”

After that Binge happily bounced towards the bar. B.B, pursing her lips and sighing, said, “Guess somepony oughta make sure she don’t git inta no trouble.”

I nodded, “Good thinking. Don’t worry, B.B, I’ll be fine.”

“Think I’ll join them,” said Shard, “You need me for anything boss?”

Crossfire shook her head, “Do what you want, I’ll let you know if I need you.”

After B.B had floated off after Binge, Shard trotting along in her wake, that left myself, Arcaidia, and LIL-E to follow Crossfire up to the front doors of the Drifter’s Guild, the main building having a wood and metal welded gatehouse of sorts built around the building’s main doors. At least six armed ponies stood guard at this makeshift gatehouse, each wearing a rough assortment of armor and weapons, no two exactly alike. One stallion, a wiry fellow with white and brown splotched fur and a messy black mane, carrying a long sniper rifle over his shoulder looked us over and then said to Crossfire, “This the pony you were talking about? He’s a fucking colt, Crossfire. How the fuck did he give you any trouble.”

Crossfire paused in front of him, glanced back at me, then turned and with a swift hoof strike knocked the wiry stallion to the ground with a punch straight to the chin. “I don’t know, guess he just doesn’t have a glass jaw like you, Hawkeye. Now open the fucking door.”

The stallion, Hawkeye, spat out blood and a swift curse, rising with an angry look in his eye, but one glance at the other guards, none of which so much as made a twitch in response to Crossfire punching him, he just growled, “One of these days, Crossfire, you’ll catch a bullet and I won’t have to deal with your shit anymore.”

The gatehouse opened up and we were allowed to trot through. I noticed that while each guard eyes our weapons, especially Gramzanber set in its harness at my side, there was no call for us to disarm ourselves. There was no reception room or any kind of formal spot for us to check in once we were inside. The well lit halls on the interior almost immediately split between a more subdued and quieter lounge on our left and a set of broad stairs on the right, while to the front of us were door leading further into the building.

“This way,” Crossfire said, leading us to the stairs.

Unlike the other building with its packed, loud tavern, this building was almost disturbingly quiet. I did see ponies trotting about, here and there, and each of them eyed us sharply as we went by, but nopony stopped us as we ascended the stairs, which switched back upon each other again and again heading further and further up, each time reaching a landing on each floor while still going up.

“These floors correspond with Drifter rank,” Crossfire said, “Bottom floor is open to all D-ranks to collect their missions and pay. Higher up is C-rank all the way to the S-rank suites near the top. Beyond that is Whiteheart’s penthouse. Those boards you see just beyond these landings? That’s each individual rank’s job board.”

I did notice those, big boards set up on the wall at each floor’s landing where papers and fliers were posted, some with what looked like pictures others with just written text. Many had big numbers circled at the bottom, presumably the payment for any given job. The higher the floor we went, the bigger those numbers got, but also the fewer the jobs.

The one that supposedly corresponded to the S-rank hunters didn’t have a board at all, and at my curious look Crossfire said, “The S-rankers get their jobs straight from Whiteheart. There’s only four of them, and they get this whole floor to themselves.”

She sounded almost envious. We continued on, until the stairs ended at a landing with a single pair of double doors at the top, flanked by two heavily armed guards much like the ones from down below at the gatehouse.

“This here is Longwalk,” Crossfire said, “Whiteheart is expecting him.”

“He is,” said a mare, bright red with a bright blonde mane cut short, her unicorn horn glowingly slightly with a green aura that brushed one of six revolvers holstered along her chest, “But not the cripple or the bot.”

Arcaidia bristled at the word ‘cripple’ and I found my own face tighten in a scowl, but the blond mare didn’t seem to care, or even notice. Crossfire simply said, “They wanted to ask if the boss would see all of them. Would you pull the icecube out of your ass and go ask, Sunshine?”

Sunshine? That mare with the eyes like deadly flint, with a face that looked like it’d never once smiled, was named Sunshine? Somepony’s parents were waaaay off the mark. Sunshine’s eyes narrowed lips drawing down in a deep frown. She stared at Crossfire, and Crossfire stared right back. After almost a minute of this uncomfortable scene Sunshine gave a quick, sighing hiss, and opened the door, going inside and slamming it behind her.

The other guard, a plain gray stallion who looked more amused by the proceedings than anything else, didn’t say a word.

After another minute Sunshine returned, holding the door open, “Boss says it's fine. You can all go in.”

The way she said it sounded like she was dropping rocks with her words. I wondered if every Drifter was some kind of attitude case. Then again most the laughing had been happening down below in the other building. Maybe it was just the upper ranks that attracted the ponies with issues? Either way I did my best to ignore Sunshine’s death glare as I followed Crossfire past the doors, Arcaidia and LIL-E right behind me.

Beyond the door’s threshold was a remarkably clean and well kept office that was not as large or ostentatious as I was expecting from somepony who ran one of the city’s Guilds. Aside from a few bookshelves and filing cabinets the only furniture was a plain metal desk behind which was a high backed, swiveling leather chair. Behind this there was a window that looked out on the city, the view seeming to frame the stallion in the chair with the rising spires of the Inner City skyscrapers.

The pony in the chair was a unicorn, his coat almost painfully white, and his mane hung long past his shoulders in well groomed waves, its color a washed out, off red. Eyes even more intensely gold than Crossfire’s looked up at us from a stack of papers he was reading through and he smiled. It was a simple smile, yet it seemed to contain a hint of sharpness to it, like the stallion just saw some particularly tasty treat to sink his teeth into.

“Welcome,” he said in a smooth alto voice, “I apologize that I don’t have much seating in here. Last set of chairs were broken by a rather unruly client, who is no longer a client. In any case, please, make yourselves comfortable.”

The best we could do was sit on our haunches in front of the desk, which suited me just fine. Arcaidia shifted uncomfortably as she tried to figure out how to sit with her crutch, but she stubbornly kept shifting until she found a somewhat comfortable position. LIL-E remained floating just behind us, and Crossfire stayed standing, leaning against one of the filing cabinets.

We sat there for a minute, the white stallion starring at us. I felt uncomfortable under that stare, as if this pony was peeling away my skin and looking at everything underneath. His eyes trailed towards Gramzanber, but his expression didn’t alter from its small, eager smile. Eventually I cleared my throat, “Y-you wanted to see me?”

“Yes, my apologies if I stare. It’s rare to see a pony willing to risk death to make use of an ARM, rare enough weapons as it is. Moreso, I’ve been hearing of the ripples of your presence in this part of the Wasteland ever since you first stepped into Saddlespring. Did you know the Labor Guild was convinced you were an agent working for the Skull Guild, trying to sabotage their operations?”

I licked my dry lips, “I, uh, hadn’t heard that.”

“Oh there’s other rumors as well. That you’re working for the NCR as a spy. That you’re a foreign mercenary with delusions of taking over the local Raider tribes to to carve out your own little kingdom. I think my personal favorite is that you are an alien invader from the stars in the guise of a mere pony.”

My head felt light and dizzy as I shook it, “I have no idea how any of those rumors could get started! I didn’t even set hoof in this city until a couple of days ago!”

“True, but the destruction of Saddlespring was no small event, my young friend. It was the largest of the southern settlements besides Port Needle, and there were spies, agents, and friends of almost every Guild living in that place. The fact that you entered the settlement, and no less than twenty four hours later Saddlespring burned, well that alone put you on the radar of every Guild in Skull City. Despite your efforts, Longwalk, it still became known that you entered the city recently, and that alone increased the rumors of who you were and what you intentions might be.”

The stallion leaned forward, crossing his hooves in front of him as he leaned on his elbows, placing his chin atop his hooves. “Now, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Whiteheart, guildmaster of the Drifter’s Guild. I have decided to lend you aid in clearing up the fog of rumors around you, including pulling in some favors among the Labor Guild to have their guildmaster remove the bounty she placed upon you. I have also considered Miss Crossfire’s request to sponsor your membership in my Guild. Do you know why I am doing these things?”

“N-not exactly. I mean, I’m grateful, I really am. But I’m guessing there’s going to be a price tag to all this. Nothing’s free, right?” I said, then blinked as certain things he’d said sunk in, “Wait, it was the guildmaster of the Labor Guild that put the bounty on me!?”

Whiteheart laughed lightly, “Yes, well, Begonia has always been a rather salty mare. I do think she took the loss of her operation in Saddlespring a bit too personally, and very much wanted you in chains and a bomb collar. I imagined, had she caught you, you would have vanished into the deepest, most deadly mining shaft she could find and let you work yourself to death... after amputating a few of your legs for her collection.”

Arcaidia spat, “Sound like charming mare.”

“She has her positive qualities, but we’re not here to discuss my fellow guild leaders. As you say, Longwalk, my aid is not without its price, but I think you’ll find the cost well within the range of what you’ll be willing and able to pay.” Whiteheart said. “First of all, I trust Crossfire has already provided you with some caps in compensation for your part of the bounty.”

I glanced at Crossfire, who coughed and looked away, “What bounty?”

Whiteheart raised an eyebrow, “Oh, she didn’t mention that? Crossfire you really must learn to share pertinent information. I am referring to the mare you killed beneath my fair city. Redwire, was it? Yes, that was the name. You see, Crossfire gave a full report on what happened in the those abandoned salt mines. We’ve been suffering seemingly random attacks from both Gobs and strange creatures that most suspected were stemming from a Ruin beneath our city. The Guilds had combined some resources to place a bounty on the root cause, to be paid to anypony who dealt with the matter. Since you dealt with the matter by driving that ARM of yours through this Redwire mare’s heart, well, that bounty got paid out. The caps you received were what was left after deducting costs of having Begonia remove your other bounty, and paying your membership fees, not to mention several other expenses. I suppose Crossfire didn’t think it needed to be mentioned, but I wanted to thank you personally for removing such a burr from this city’s hoof.”

After a moment I simply nodded, “I only did what I had to. Nothing more.”

“So what is Skull City going to do about the Ruin that is down there?” asked LIL-E, suddenly. “That tower is gigantic. It's hard to believe nopony knew it was down there.”

Whiteheart tilted his head to regard the eyebot, “Oh, ponies know, just not many. You see Crossfire herself discovered that tower Ruin over six years ago, which was when it was brought to my attention. I think a few others might know of it, but it makes no difference. Nopony can enter the tower. It is protected by a magical barrier quite beyond any means we possess to bypass. Besides, Odessa occupies the area around that tower now.”

“Odessa!? You know about them!?” I shouted, nearly leaping back.

Whiteheart just blinked at me, smile amused, “You are an excitable one, aren’t you? Yes, I know of Odessa. My Drifter’s Guild has even had a few dealings with them in the past, though not so recently. They’ve become even more reclusive the past few years. Such an odd bunch of pegasi and griffons. I usually don’t credit their paranoia of an invasion from space with much thought, but perhaps after hearing of what happened in those salt mines I’ll have to revise that opinion.”

I sucked in a deep breath, trying hard not to think too much about my encounter with the Hyadean called Alhazad, or the recent knowledge that inside my blood were Hyadean nanomachines. I had to push those thoughts down hard and focus on the matter at hoof, “Well, as long as you’re not working for Odessa, we’re good. So, what is it you want me to do for you? That’s where this is leading, right? You have a job for me and my friends?”

Whiteheart’s smile deepened, even warmed, “Smart colt... or should I say stallion now? I see the cutie mark you have now. Earlier reports had you as a blank flank.”

“I... just got it,” I said, “Now, about this job?”

“It’s simple enough,” said Whiteheart, “I’ve already arranged the paperwork.” His horn lit up with a golden hue and a drawer in his desk opened, removing a small leather bag. From inside it he floated out a hexagon shaped metal disk, upon which was stamped the image of a spread winged hawk, the letter ‘B’ etched onto the center. He showed me the back, upon which was etched my name, and an image of my cutie mark.

“Normally there would be tests to ensure your capability, but given Crossfire’s report and sponsorship, that won’t be needed. As of this moment you are a B-rank Drifter of the Drifter’s Guild, Longwalk, with all privileges and responsibilities this entails. The first of those privileges will be access to all B-rank resources, such as the provisions store and a room on the B-rank floor for yourself and companions, if you want it. The first responsibility will be a mission I have for you, that begins this evening, so I hope you’ll take advantage to supply yourself and rest before then.”

I took the offered badge, unsure if it was going to be an asset or a leash, but placing it in my one of the pockets of my security armor, “Alright, glad to be working with you, but what is this mission, exactly? I need to get the NCR and am kind of on a tight timetable.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that, Longwalk,” said Whiteheart, “You’ll be departing for the NCR before the sun sets. That’s where the mission takes you, after all.”

---------

I had to give Whiteheart credit, when he said something, he meant it. I was almost dazed by how quickly things seemed to be going, because it was still the afternoon when I found myself alongside my friends atop the upper flores of the Skull Guild, right where the burned out portions of the building’s upper floors took on the shape of the skull. I saw that the lights within that skull shapes eyes were formed from bonfires kept magically burning by a unicorn tender. The area wasn’t entirely open to the sky, but the top of the building had been burned off in the flames of the Great Fires, leaving many of the metal structure beams burned black and melted to points like old wax candles. Tarps and tent canvas was strung up to form a rough roof that kept the rain off.

There was plenty of open space on this top floor. There were stairs at either corner of the floor, built straight into the ground and wide enough to allow for cargo crates to be moved through to the roof. That was what was happening now, with a number of ponies actively loading crates of supplies aboard a vessel that was docked along the side of the tower. It was a long, wooden airship, its long cigar shaped canvas balloon sporting several long fins. Underneath the balloon was the airship’s main body, a familiar fish shape of thick wooden planks with large, rounded windows placed along the hull. Two decks high and easily over a hundred paces long, the airship was quite the sight, and one that had only just arrived. I’d watched it sail over the city from the south before reaching the Skull Guild’s headquarters tower, tying itself down with long chains while ponies went about loading it across a wide, thick docking plank forged from welded sheet metal.

It was an airship I’d seen before, from a memory orb. The Sweet Candy, the very same airship that the mare called Trixie had sailed on in the time before the Great Fires. I had no idea what to make of the fact that not only was the airship from two hundred years ago still intact, but was here in front of me, my ride among many others for what was a mission of the utmost importance. Or at least Whitemane certainly made the job sound that way. I still felt like my head had been stuffed with wool, trying to absorb it all.

Myself and my companions were, among several other Drifter’s, including Crossfire and her team, were assigned as escorts for what was going to be a diplomatic delegation consisting of representatives and leaders from not only every Guild in Skull City, but several of the most prominent gangs in the Outskirts, and the Crown Princess Purity of the Protectorate.

They were traveling to the NCR to participate in talks of what Whitemane described as a alliance of mutual protection and trade that would solidify the ties between the Wasteland’s three largest powers in the region; NCR, the Protectorate, and Skull City. If talks went well it’d apparently clear up bad blood between all three budding nations, between the Protectorate and Skull City for the war a number of years ago, and between NCR and its neighbors due to the NCR closing its borders to any and all immigration.

I barely understood the politics but I grasped that it was a big deal that the NCR was willing to host these talks and try to work out an alliance with its neighbors. The job of the Drifter’s Guild would be to provide protection to the delegates both on the way to the NCR, and during the talks there. According to Whitemane the talks would likely take several days, and that during that time there’d be some opportunity for the Drifter’s assigned to the task of security to also explore the NCR somewhat, since they’d be expected to work in shifts. I had no way of knowing for certain how much time we would have, but I had to hope it’d be enough for me to help Arcaidia track down the signal her sister had been sending.

We were waiting off to the side, as much out of the way of the ponies working to load up the Sweet Candy. There was thankfully a safety railing around the edge of the roof area, so I could put up my hooves and peer over the edge without too much fear of falling. It was quite the vista to see, the relatively intact and clean buildings of the Inner City stretching out below me, encased inside the bounds of the colossal wall that separated the Inner City from the Outskirts. The Outskirts themselves were a blur of hazy lights, a morning fog blanketed much of its boiling mass of uneven shanty shacks.

Lots of ponies just trying to live their lives the best they can. If I can look past the violent gangs, bounty hunters, and the fact that there’s a giant alien tower of unknown purposes buried beneath it, I could actually learn to like this city.

“It very strange place,” said Arcaidia beside me, her own silvery eyes gazing out at the view.

Behind us LIL-E floated around in a slow, unceasing pace, flying ten paces one way, then turning and floating back ten paces the other way. Not far from there Binge and B.B sat on their haunches, playing a card game, one in which Binge only seemed to half know, or care, about the rules, much to B.B’s increasing chagrin if the little growls and mutters coming from the pegasus were any indication. Still, the two seemed to be getting along, and I was glad for it.

“I don’t know,” I said to Arcaidia, “I haven’t seen any cities besides this one, so can’t really say if it's strange or not. I just find it amazing so many ponies can live in one spot and build all of this. A few weeks ago I couldn’t have even imagined a place like this.”

Arcaidia let out a light giggle, a sound that both made me feel relieved she could still laugh like that, and punched me with guilt that I just hadn’t been able to keep this mare completely safe from harm.

“In time, ren solva, you see much, much bigger city place than this. Just wait bit more of time,” she said as her eyes cast wistfully up towards the sky, then she seemed to shake herself, “I need stop thinking of home. Not good form for me to get... hmm, B.B, what phrase for thinking of home place fondly but with pain?”

“Homesick, hun, that’s the term yer lookin’ fer,” said B.B, then grimaced at Binge, “Got any fours?”

“Go fish.”

“Grr, are ya sure? This is the tenth time ya aid ‘go fish’ an’ I’m pretty sure I’m workin’ through every dang type o’ card there is! Ya ain’t cheain’, are ya?”

Binge just smiled wide with a flash of yellow teeth, her tail wagging, “Well we’ve been playing this game for half an hour, birdie, and you haven’t caught me a single fish yet! When you do, maybe I’ll give you a card.”

While B.B groaned, rubbing her forehead, I kept my attention on Arcaidia, “You’re, uh, homesick? I know a bit about how that feels. I think a lot about Shady Stream. I guess maybe you’ve got it worse, given how far away home is for you.”

I pointed a hoof up at the sky, and Arcaidia gave me a small, content smile, “Someday, Longwalk, I show you home. When this all over, you come with me to see it, yes?”

“You can count on it,” I said with resolve.

At that point it seemed the loading of supplies aboard the ship was nearly done, and I saw a mare appear at the top of the stairs following the last crates up. She was a dark shade that seemed to me a blend of dull purple and red, not quite either color. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Her mane and tail were a light gray in color, her mane done in two neatly tied back pigtails. She wore a long leather coat a shade darker than her own fur, lined in white, and across her back was a wide bladed sword. The weapon itself wasn’t the rusty, cobbled together variety I was used to seeing a lot of Wastelanders carry, but rather something that looked professionally forged from high quality metal. I didn’t see a hint of a firearm anywhere on her.

This mare, rather than join the ponies loading the last of the supplies, instead began to trot our way. Not just our way, but ours and the several other gathered Drifters. Crossfire and Shard were a dozen paces away by the other set of stairs, Crossfire leaning against a concrete support pillar and seemingly napping on her hooves while Shard busied himself sharpening one of his knives. They were the only Drifter’s I knew, but there were four others, including the skinny stallion Hawkeye who all milled about bored until the mare with the sword showed up. At that point everypony, Crossfire included, rooted their attention to the mare, some looking nervous, others, like Crossfire, looking on with calculating eyes.

When she got within a few paces between the various Drifters the dark coated mare stopped and looked among us with golden eyes that didn’t seem harsh, but were far from soft, as if she was measuring everything and everypony that she saw. When she spoke it was in a strong, almost cultured voice.

“The delegates will be boarding now. As at this point anything can have the potential to go wrong I am going to have us begin our duties immediately. The ship was swept clean for bugs and explosives already, but we’ll do one final check before the first delegate boards. After that we’ll rotate guard shifts while we’re airborne, starting with Crossfire’s team, followed by Hawkeye’s team, and then Longwalk’s team. I’ll take final watch. Two hours apiece. Questions?”

Nopony spoke, but I couldn’t help myself, I raised my hoof, and then felt exceedingly self conscious as most the other Drifters started at me.The mare looked at me and said, “Yes, what is it?”

“Um, well, just curious is all, but... who are you?”

Crossfire actually snorted out a laugh. If the gray maned mare felt any insult towards me not knowing her she showed no sign of it as she said, “My name is Applegate. I work for the Drifter’s Guild as one of the S-rank Drifters. Whitemane has placed me in charge of this operation, so you’ll be taking your instructions from me. As I understand it you’re just inducted into the Guild this day, so I’ll formally welcome you into the fold. If you have any more detailed questions about the Guild I can try to answer them, but for now we have work to do.”

I hadn’t known quite what to expect from an S-rank Drifter, but I found it easy to follow along with Applegate, who seemed to have a fairly formal but still friendly enough attitude. She led us aboard the Sweet Candy and assigned each team a part of the ship to search for a final sweep of any suspicious objects or activity. As we crossed the metal docking ramp I noticed LIL-E dragging behind a bit and fell back to walk alongside the eyebot.

“You okay there, LIL-E?” I asked cautiously. She’d been repaired, but still had a slightly battered look about her. It was clear to see where the metal had been patched up, not unlike the scars we flesh and blood ponies could get.

“I’ll be better once we get past the border,” said LIL-E, her volume lowered so even I could barely hear it, “I don’t think a lot of ponies know about me, even in the NCR. Most danger will be getting through any inspections at the border. Don’t know how thorough they are there. Plenty of eyebots still around, even if I’m not a standard model. Still, part of me is wishing I’d just sat this out and stayed at the Stable.”

I frowned a bit, wondering why she was so nervous about going the NCR, “Well, I’m glad you decided to come. And don’t worry, we can keep your secret safe,” I whispered, then Applegate was directing our search and I didn’t have much time for talking.

Arcaidia seemed to have a much clearer idea of what to look for than the rest of us, and took to the task with the kind of speedy, cool efficiency of somepony well trained in what she was doing. We’d been assigned the bottom deck, which was mostly filled with cargo rooms where the supplies had been just loaded. There were a few ponies aboard who I assumed had to be crew, trotting about and securing lines of cord or rope around the piled crates, tying them down tight. We checked every little nook we could find and B.B even went outside to fly around the exterior of the hull. We found no suspicious devices, certainly nothing that looked like a bomb. I wondered who would want to blow up the ship in the first place. Wouldn’t everypony benefit from an alliance being formed?

Well, I didn’t claim to understand how political matters worked, and my only job was to help keep the delegates safe, not reason out why somepony would want to sabotage this diplomatic mission in the first place.

LIL-E had taken the lead for the search, her robot body much better equipped with the kind of sensors that saw much and missed little. Arcaidia ensured we triple checked everything. Binge mostly hummed and whistled off key tunes. When we were as sure as we could be that the job was done we reported back with Applegate, who was waiting up on the deck. When we saw her she was speaking with a male griffon whose bulk made him almost twice as wide as I was, though he held a steady grace despite his girth. He wore a dark blue if faded and tattered uniform shirt and a white cap with a black bill, and underneath the clothes I noticed his fur and feathers, both a light shade of brown, were also molted or missing in places alongside the rotted flesh that indicated the griffon’s state as a ghoul.

When he spotted us the griffon gave a quick smile and a boisterous voice said, “Welcome aboard! Happy to have as many of you Drifter folk as I can on this voyage. The skies are safe enough between here and the New Canterlot Republic, but can’t ever be too careful I always say. Captain Bartholomew at your service folks, and once more welcome aboard my precious Sweet Candy.”

I halted a moment, blinking. It was less Bartholomew’s quickly friendly demeanor that caught me off guard so much as the name. I’d heard it before. I had to pick at my memory for a sec to recall where. The memory orb from Silver Mare Studios. Bartholomew was the name of the Sweet Candy’s captain back then, too... and he was a ghoul. Could he be the same captain from two hundred years ago? While it might not have had any immediate bearing on what me and my friends were presently doing, I had to admit I was curious what had happened back then to Trixie and Money Shot, and what had become of the movie they’d intended to film up north.

Both Bartholomew and Applegate gave me strange looks and I felt Arcaidia tap my shoulder.

“Ren solva, introductions?”

“R-right! Yes, uh, hi! I’m Longwalk, and these are my friends.”

Names were given, Arcaidia stepping forth first to give a saluting gesture and her full name. I wondered what all it truly meant. Luminarisio was a rather pretty and elegant sounding family name. It suited her. But what about the rest? Her rank, maybe? Still, Bartholomew took the long name in stride and bowed to Arcaidia, B.B, Binge, and LIL-E in turn, the smile never leaving his face or his eyes. However I did notice that when he looked at Arcaidia there was a spark of recognition followed by confusion that Bartholomew quickly wiped away to resume smiling jovially.

“Applegate was just telling me that the other Drifter’s hadn’t found anything lurking to blow up my ship. I’m hoping the news is similar from you?”

“I didn’t detect anything that could be explosive,” stated LIL-E, “And no listening devices either. I’d say our search was thorough. If we blow up mid-flight, feel free to blame me on our way down.”

Bartholomew chortled, “A robot with a sense of humor. I like it.”

LIL-E paused, then said, “I’m... not really a robot. I remote control this robot from... elsewhere.”

“Really?” the griffon’s eyebrow shot up, “Well, among Drifters I suppose it takes all kinds. At any rate we’re casting off as soon as all our VIPs are aboard. Feel free to enjoy the view from the deck, or I can have one of the crew show you to your cabins.”

At a glance I could tell most of my friends wanted to stay on deck. B.B seemed to be enjoying the height and fresh air. Binge was all but bouncing off her legs while giving the deck rails a look like she wanted to perch on them, and Arcaidia held a glint of curiosity in her eyes that said she wanted to enjoy the sights as well. Only LIL-E accepted the offer of a cabin, and floated off to leave the rest of us to find spots around deck that would be out of the crew’s way. Applegate stayed up top as well, but I think more to keep guard on things. Her eyes remained sharp and seemed to drink in everything around her. She moved with a strange stillness that seemed both smooth as running water and hard as stone at the same time.

I found myself wondering how skilled she was with that sword. I didn’t really have a good sparring partner among my friends. Even Binge, the only other melee fighter, was a little haphazard in her style for me to really get a lot of good practice in with her.

I located a nice spot near the corner of the ship’s stern where a set of small steps led up to a raised portion, a forecastle I later learned, and I could nestle up against the forecastle wall and railing. Skull City stretched out to my right and I could watch the boarding ramp to my left. B.B and Arcaidia made for the ship’s bow, while Binge hefted her upper body onto the rail near me, licking her lips and closing her eyes as a breeze blew by, ruffling her messy poof of a mane.

My eyes wandered and I almost didn’t realize what I was doing until I starting thinking how nice she really looked when just leaning there on the rail, looking content rather than crazy or bloodthirsty. If she cleaned up a bit more... and she wasn’t too skinny. If she ate healthy and regularly those bones might fill out with a few curves, and what was there was hardly bad to look at; the scars were actually kind of fascinating.

“You shouldn’t look unless you also plan to touch,” said Binge with a playful lilt to her voice and small, happy smirk.

I coughed, looking away, “Sorry, I was just, um, thinking. My mind was wandering was all, and you happened to be there, that’s all.”

“Mmmhmm,” she hummed, flicking her tail playfully.

I pointedly didn’t look back at her, fixing my attention instead upon the boarding ramp, which thankfully gave me something else to look at as the first of the delegates began to board. Most of them were ponies I didn’t recognize, though many stood out in various ways, allowing me to mentally guess at which Guild’s they represented.

The first batch were a trio, two mares and a stallion, all earth ponies, who wore heavy, soot stained clothes and even though they looked as if they’d tried to clean up there were still smudges of oil here and there on their coats. Not a one of them had a cutie mark that didn’t involve a tool or gear or something similar. Mechanics or Blacksmith’s Guild, surely.

The next was a pair, griffon and unicorn pony. The unicorn was a mare with a short cut blond mane that was straight as razors, but not half as sharp as her eyes, blue gems that looked at everything with hostile scrutiny. She was clad in matte black combat armor and had several weapon holsters for pistols and a snub nosed sub machine gun. The griffon, if anything, looked like he was half asleep, yet somehow that didn’t change the air of ready violence that covered him like a cloak. He was dark gray upon his lion lower half and white with dusty brown tinged feathers up top. He wore a leather poncho with short tassels, and the only visible weapons he carried were a large chambered semi-automatic pistol with a curved leather wrapped grip holstered on his left hip, and a sword at his right that caught my eye because, much like Applegate’s larger blade, this sword looked professionally forged from steel rather than carved from rusted metal.

“Wonder who they are,’ I said aloud, and Binge made a small humming noise as she glanced at the pair out of the corner of her eye.

“Enforcer’s Guild. Hmm, no, both Enforcers and Security Guild.”

I wrinkled my brow, “What’s the difference?”

“Enforcer’s guard the Inner City like happy little watch dogs, chewing on the bones of the citizens that make the Guilds unhappy. Security Guild are plucky cats that strut as mercenaries; direct competition to the Drifter’s only they do guard work exclusively. Fought Security Guild ponies lots of times back in bloodier, messier days. Always guarding caravans or tiny settlements. They strut, but scream the same as the rest.” Binge frowned slightly, her eyes casting back over the railing to look at the sky, “Mr. Happy could tell you stories, bucky, but this is too nice a day for it. Not until the rain comes.”

I gave her a quizzical look, then resumed watching others board. More and more came, until I wondered if the Sweet Candy had enough room for them all. There were ponies in clean suits, flanking a heavyset mare whose graying mane was done up in an intricate bun like wasp nest, who wore all black and white in her slim cut suit. She had gray fur as well, and I spotted a unicorn horn sticking from her bun. I also noticed her cutie mark was a set of chains wrapped into a pair of interlocking circles; the symbol for infinity.

She had a glaring look, but I barely noticed her as beside her, among the ponies following her in suits, I recognized somepony and nearly stood up.

“Iron Wrought!” I didn’t quite shout, but I was loud enough that the procession of ponies, including Iron Wrought himself, all looked my way. He looked well, with his black mane clean cut and combed and wearing a set of well tailored leather armor that looked in much better condition than the last set he had. He was the only one in his group that was armed, his 10mm submachine gun slung over his back.

His blue eyes regarded me with wide recognition and something almost like panic for a moment before he wiped the look on his face and replaced it with hardened calm. The mare with the gray maned bun eyed me and Binge like we were piles of unpleasant slime she nearly trod underhoof, then turned to Iron Wrought.

“Do you know them?” her voice was as smooth as sweet honey and didn’t fit the sneer on her lips.

Iron Wrought nodded, and I could see his sigh from across the deck, “Yes, Guildmistress. He is the one in my field report. Longwalk. The mare with him is a... former Raider, named Binge.”

He didn’t sound like he was enjoying saying even that much but it was clear who his boss was, and I felt my mouth turning dry. So this was the Guildmistress of the Labor Guild? What had Whiteheart named her? Begonia? The name did not suit her. At Iron Wrought’s words she flicked her tail, which was done up in intricate braids, and turned her nose up towards me and Binge. She said nothing, and didn’t have to. Whatever deal Whitemane had made to have my bounty removed there was a promise of retribution burning inside that mare’s flat, black eyes. I suddenly realized I’d need to watch my back on this trip.

Iron Wrought said nothing to me, and seemed to pointedly not look my way as he and his comrades from the Labor Guild went below decks. I breathed a little easier with Begonia out of sight, but felt a pang of regret my reunion with Iron Wrought was so overshadowed by his boss seeming to still want my head on a platter.

“She’s filled with spit and brimstone bucky,” said Binge, her eyes narrowed to slits, “Another Redwire waiting to happen. So much better if she falls off the ship on the way to make a hefty splat on some poor radscorpion’s nest... that’s what Mr. Happy says,” she pulled out the dirty sock puppet, which nodded at me, and I swear I thought I saw the thing wink. My imagination had to be getting to me. Not enough sleep.

“Well, tell Mr. Happy that we want this diplomatic mission to go smoothly and mid-air assassinations probably won’t help with that. Also, no murder. Didn’t I explain to you no murders?”

“Not murder, just a... friendly accident.”

She was keeping her voice down but I still looked around, just in case. Luckily there was nopony listening in, but I gave Binge the stinkeye just the same and she gave up with a playful laugh and a shrug. I sincerely hoped she wouldn’t try anything. No matter what trouble Begonia might cause, murder was off the table. Self-defense, certainly, but only when and if it came up.

I heard the sound of heavy hoof falls, the distinct clank of heavy metal and hydraulics preceding the arrival of a set of ponies clad in encasing shells of power armor. It was the honor guard for Crown Princess Purity, the polished metal of their power armor seeming to stand in defiance of the grim of the Wasteland. Of the four armored ponies one was wearing a cloak over their power armor that was deep blue lined in cornflower yellow, and bearing a sigil of a bird in flight clutching a flower, also stitched in bright yellow.

This pony spoke in a deep stallion’s voice, only somewhat scratchy from being piped out through a speaker built inside the muzzle of the power armor, “Make way for her Highness!”

A polite voice then said, “Please, Phalanx, you don’t have to bark at them. We’re not back home, remember? We must strive to be more understanding.”

The speaker was the small, wispy Princess Purity. She was wearing a similar, elegant but simple black dress to the last one I saw her in, though this one was joined by a thick, black wool cloak that draped across her form. She glanced about the ship with her wide gold eyes and had a happy smile on her face. “We don’t have anything like this in the Protectorate. What a wonderful relic of the old age.”

The power armored stallion, Phalanx, made a grumbling noise, then, “Please, Princess, we must secure you in your cabin. There are too many ponies with... ill looking countenances on this ship.”

Though I couldn’t see the stallion’s eyes I could swear he specifically swept his gaze over me and Binge when he said that. Purity herself also looked our way, and her smile widened, “Oh! Sir Longwalk! Hello!”

She took a step towards us but Phalanx’s metal shod hoof came up to gently stop her. “Princess, your cabin is this way. If you wish to socialize with the locals perhaps it can wait until after you’ve settled?”

I saw Purity’s lips purse into a tight pout, her eyes giving her apparent caretaker a stiff glare, but the impassive stance of Phalanx seemed to gradually subdue her. She gave me an apologetic smile, calling out, “We will speak soon, Sir Longwalk. I’d like to meet your friends as well.”

As Phalanx led her away alongside his fellow armored ponies I heard him say, “You should not use the honorific ‘sir’ with one who is not a knight, Princess. It is not proper.”

I didn’t hear Purity’s reply a they went below deck, and I was left blinking. Beside me Binge gave a tittering laugh, “This ship is being stuffed full of all sorts of pretty ponies, isn’t it?”

“I don’t think the big guy was very fond of us,” I muttered, wondering what had that Phalanx guy in such an uptight mood. Maybe he was just trying to keep his charge safe. Still, the guy could stand to loosen the rod from his rear end. Thus far we had one pony on this trip who clearly still wanted me dead, and another one that looked as if he’d scrape me off the ship like I was a bit of stray trash as soon as speak to me.

The last group to board, however, made me forget about the rest for a moment. First was Whitemane, but I’d expected to see him, as he’d already told me he’d be coming to represent the diplomatic end of things for the Drifter’s Guild. It was other ponies in the group that surprised me.

One was Knobs, moving along with her somewhat awkward skill as she pulled herself along on forelegs, balancing her rear prosthetic leg wheels with remarkable ability. I hadn’t expected to see her, but she gave me a wide grin when she saw me and Binge. She was wearing her black Skull Guild coat, laden with saddlebags. More surprising than seeing her was that Blasting Cap was perched on Knobs’ back, looking almost content, until she saw me at any rate. Blasting Cap’s tiny faced scowl was the polar opposite of Knobs’ grin, like a bizarre, twisted mirror.

There was another pony in the group who arrested my attention even further, one who was speaking softly with Whitemane in a smooth, almost regal voice that carried far even though I got the impression she was trying to speak softly.

“It shall be as I say, Whitemane. You are more suited to these talks than most, and I do not wish Begonia or Rupert running roughshod over the other representatives. You shall lead these talks, and I shall support you,” this pony was saying, while Whitemane was nodding slowly, his own expression unreadable.

The pony who was talking was taller than any I had seen, twice or more the height of even big ponies like Brickhouse. However she was also slender, with long legs and sharp, defined features. Beautiful, in a strangely unreal way, like she was a painting or drawing instead of a real, flesh and blood pony. Her coat was a dark shade of purple, with a long, straight mane and tail just a shade lighter, the same as her eyes. A vast horn sprouted from her forehead... and a pair of equally large, sweeping wings extended from her back.

I blinked, stunned. What was she? I’d only seen ponies like that once, in the mosaics of the church I’d battled Shattered Sky in. But it couldn’t be... the Princesses, the Goddesses of old Equestria were dead.

Beside me Binge had gone very quiet, her eyes glittering as they fixed on the... on the alicorn as well. Binge’s tail had gone still and I noticed her ears had flattened against her skull.

Whitemane was replying to the alicorn, saying, “I understand, Star Soul, but I’d prefer not to be caught between the other guildmasters as the sole vanguard of reason.”

“If I step in too much you know what will happen Whitemane,” said the alicorn, Star Soul, her voice filled with calming reason, “They will accuse me of attempting to take control, again and everything will fall apart to more pointless infighting. I shouldn’t even be coming along with all of you. I was cast out of the Followers, and I know my sisters will not be happy to see me again.”

“The Followers of the Apocalypse do not rule the NCR, no matter how well loved their mistress is,” said Whitemane, “And I need you here. If you stayed behind it’d just give the other guildmasters the boost of ego they need to try taking over. All Guilds must be represented, and you are the Guildmistress of the Skull Guild.”

“Be that as it may, you are still most suited to leading the negotiations...” Star Soul said, then trailed off as her eyes fell on me. I felt suddenly exceedingly self conscious, as if I was covered in too much dirt and my mane wasn’t properly brushed. But the look passed and all Star Soul did was gain a small, knowing smile, and lean over to whisper something to Knobs, who all but nodded her head off. Star Soul gave me one last look, and I heard Binge growl slowly under her breath, before the alicorn continued on with Whitemane towards the door to the lower decks.

Knobs in the meantime wheeled herself over to us with her smile never wavering, just the same as Blasting Cap’s glower never faltered. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Arcaidia and B.B returning from the bow, trotting towards us.

“Heya Longwalk, Binge! Good to see you guys here. Oh, hey, looks like the crews all here!” said Knobs brightly as Arcaidia and B.B joined us, “Is LIL-E around too? Crossfire told me you guys managed to find her. I’m happy for that...”

She quieted for a moment, mood seeming to slightly somber, “Crossfire also told me about what happened beneath the city. I’m sorry you had to go through all that, Longwalk. If I’d known that would happen I would have never agreed to you trying any crazy plan to pay me back a few lousy caps.”

“Knobs, it's fine,” I said, all too aware of the lingering pains in my body and trying not to recall all the ways I got them, “Things might not have gone how I’d planned, but the fact is, if I hadn’t been caught by Redwire, then there’d still be dozens of ponies trapped down there, being forcibly turned into monsters. We were able to put a stop to that, so even if I’m coming out of it with a fresh set of scars, I can live with them because we got some good to come out of it all.”

“Besides, Longykins looks good with scars,” said Binge with an appreciative grin, to which B.B gave her a smack upside the head with a wing. “Ow, birdie, what? He has a nice butt, and the scars make it look better!”

Arcaidia turned flat eyes towards Binge, raising her crutch leg, “I have metal peg for leg now to smack with, so behave, otherwise bath time moved up to today, when we find nice rain cloud to toss you through.”

“Yeesh, the protective big sister act doesn’t suit you at all, Icyblue.”

Knobs just laughed, “Glad to see you’re all still getting along as well as ever. It’s good to know you guys will be working security for this trip. Makes me sleep easier.”

“Yeah,” said Blasting Cap in a leaden tone, “Just don’t trip and fall over the railing, now. That would be terrible.”

I looked to the filly, frowning, “I already have a pony on this ship who wants me dead, so what’s another? Just if you’re going to sneak up behind me and push me off the ship, could you do me a favor and wait until we’re actually in the NCR? I want to feel like I accomplished something before dying.”

Blasting Caps tiny face scrunched up, her little forelegs crossing over her chest in a surly gesture, “Are you making fun of me, asshole?”

‘No, I’m just really tired,” I said truthfully. Even with Misty Glasses sleeping pills I hadn’t gotten that much sleep the other day. My excitement at the prospect of flying on an airship to the distant NCR was helping keep me awake, but I was going to hit a bunk as soon as it was possible.

Knobs had a soft frown on her face, an expression that didn’t suit the mare’s usually smiling features at all, and looked back at Blasting Cap, “Let’s go inside, hm? You’re hungry, right? We can get something to eat.”

“...F-fine, I guess, if it means I don’t have to look at his ugly face,” growled Blasting Cap.

“Before ya’ll go ta feed the little hellion, I’m kinda curious Knobs, what’re ya doin’ on this whole diplomatic mission?” asked B.B, “Not that it ain’t a good thing ta have ya around but I’m curious why the Skull Guild would bring y along.”

“Oh, well, I’m kind of an important witness,” Knobs said, rubbing her hoof in circles on the deck, “You see Guildmistress Star Soul wants to impress upon the NCR the dangers many ponies still face beyond its borders, and, well, I’ve been both involved in helping refugees get away from the Raider army, not to mention the recent Ruin monster attacks in the city. The Guildmistress felt having a pony who witnessed it all and could give a personal account might help the NCR understand our plight and be willing to open up their border again.”

“I guess bringin’ the little bundle o’ violence was unavoidable, eh?” B.B said, nodding at Blasting Cap, who just growled like a tiny canine creature.

“Well, she’s my charge now, and I can’t just leave her by herself. Besides I thought seeing the NCR might do her some good, right Blasting Cap?” said Knobs, smiling back at the filly, “There are clear skies in the NCR. You’ve never seen the real sky, right?”

“...No,” the filly said with a grumble, looking torn between wanting to keep glaring at me and almost looking excited at the idea of seeing a sky that wasn’t made of gray, brooding clouds.

After Knobs trotted off to go to the ship’s mess hall the rest of us stuck together to watch the last of the passengers boarding. I didn’t take too much notice of them, save for one mare, who gave me an appraising look as she cantered across the deck. She had a granite gray coat, and a long wave of honey gold mane. She wore a tight fitting black set of leather barding, and I noticed her cutie mark was a string of musical notes. She didn’t quite seem to fit in with any of the other delegates, which was part of why she stood out. However other than the one look she shot towards me and my friends she didn’t say anything, just passed by and went with all the other delegates below decks.

The crew ponies brought up the metal ramp and secured it to the deck, then Bartholomew strode around, giving quick orders to his crew and glancing towards us, “We’re about to cast off. Anyone is free to enjoy the view on deck, but be watchful of the railings. When the Sweet Candy moves, landfolk like yourselves can get a little unsteady on your hooves.”

“We’ll manage, Cap’n,” said B.B with a wave, and I added, “I’ve only fallen out of one flying machine so far, so I’m good.”

We were joined on deck by Crossfire, of all ponies, who strangely enough looked a tad harried as she came up on deck, glancing back at the hatch behind her. Curious, I trotted over to her. “Something up?”

“What? Ugh, no. Not that it’s any of your business if there was,” she said with a gruff tone, brushing past me, “I just need some fresh air. It’s way too crowded down below.”

Watching her head to the back of the deck, I just blinked in wonderment. What had gotten under her hide? Well, perhaps I was overthinking it. Crossfire being grumpy wasn’t exactly a new thing. Even if we seemed to have something of a tentative truce going on between us I supposed I couldn’t pretend that we were actually friends. Setting her from my mind I just gave my friends a shrug and then tilted my head towards the bow of the ship, where if there was going to be a good view, it’d definitely be there.

They joined me there, though I noticed B.B was gazing at the sky with a critical and nervous eye. Seeing my look she said, “Keepin’ an eye peeled fer any Odessa pegasi or griffons that might be flyin’ about. You haven’t fergotten they’re still lookin’ fer you an’ Arc, right?”

I actually kind of had, for a moment. Being reminded of it made me suddenly quite nervous, glancing around at the skyline, half fearful of seeing an Odessa patrol raining down from the clouds. “I hadn’t thought of it, sorry. Do you think me and Arcaidia should go below deck? Keep out of sight?”

“We should be alright,” said B.B, “I’m thinkin’ if they got any spotters posted around that they’re all focused on the city below us, an’ ain’t paying much mind to this rickety skyboat, and iffin they were, we’d already be gettin’ swarmed by Odessa troops by now. Nah, I think we’re good.”

I tried to relax a little, though I kept eyeing the sky as the chains keeping the Sweet Candy moored to the Skull Guild tower were one by one unhitched and reeled in. There was a guttural blast of air from the engines as the propellers mounted along the hull and balloon flared to life, pipes spewing gusts of black smoke. On the aft deck there was a wheelhouse with a wide open window in front, inside which I could see Bartholomew at the helm of a large wooden wheel, and several crew members at smaller instrument panels beside him.

The griffon ghoul was looking at Arcaidia, for just a moment, before his eyes focused on the helm and he turned the wheel in a long spin that shifted rudders all over the ship. Pace by pace the Sweet Candy rolled away from the tower, and picked up speed as it glided along past the few remaining skyscrapers of the Inner City. I felt the wind pick up, rushing past me and ruffling my long mane, in desperate need of a cut, but I’d come to actually rather like its length at this point. Beside me B.B ruffled her wings, clearly enjoying the feeling of flight even if it wasn’t her doing the flying. Arcaidia had a wistful look in her eyes, fixed upon the horizon ahead of us. Meanwhile Binge had her eyes on the ground below, humming a sketchy tune under her breath.

Slowly I let my fears and worries, built up over the crush of the past few days drain out of me. There’d be time enough for all of them later, for now I just enjoyed the view. The hundred pace high wall that surrounded the Inner City passed beneath us, and I could clearly make out the heavily armed guards that patrolled the rusted metal spine of welded metal and concrete. Many were looking up at us, an airship a rare enough sight, and a few ponies even waved up at the Sweet Candy as it flew overhead.

The vast boiling expanse of the Outskirts stretched around the city, a carpet of metal shacks and huts, built into and atop of one another like metal waves in a roiling sea. The dirt streets like muddy veins teamed now with thousands of ponies, ghouls, and griffons, even more that it had seemed just a few days ago when I’d passed through. Fires and electric lights both dotted the Outskirts and filled the air with a smokey haze. Even as the Sweet Candy passed over I could hear the distant pop of gunfire, one gang or another fighting over territory, even as the city faced the threat of the Raider army to the east.

Soon the Outskirts gave way to the expanse of dead ruins of what was once Detrot’s miles and miles of suburbs. I could still make out the piles of skeletons lining the roads, and seeing the forest of broken concrete and burned out homes I could see the roaming packs of feral ghouls now and again picking through the ruins like specters.

Then, when I gazed east, I could see in the far off distance the battle lines where Skull City’s forces still held a line ten or so miles east against the Raider horde. I could see no details, just the faint pops of light from the occasional explosion and the coiling bands of black smoke from campfires. The large river that fed Skull City’s reservoir snaked out that way, with its two bridges, one of which was apparently now held by the Raiders if rumors I’d heard were true. I hoped that the Raiders didn’t make any headway in the time I’d be gone, or that the fighting might be done by then. I didn’t like the idea of the Raiders breaking through to reach the Outskirts. Even if the gangs would fight back viciously and make the Raiders pay in blood for every inch of street, there’d be far too many deaths, far too many ponies caught in the fighting, for me to want anything other than for that to be avoided.

“Outta your hooves, bucky, out of all our hooves,” said Binge, seeing my look, to which I just gave a sad sight and smile.

“I know. Even if I stayed, I’m not sure there’s much I can do against an army.”

“Not yet,” said Arcaidia with a light laugh, silver mane getting in her face from the wind, to which she brushed it aside, “We find sister, find Ark of Destiny, get you fixed. All make more sense and be better then, ren solva. You see.”

I hoped she was right. It was almost surreal, finally being on our way to the NCR. How long ago was it that I’d first left Shady Stream with Arcaidia with that simple goal in mind? Two weeks? More like three, now. I was losing track of the exact days. Such a short span of time, but so much had changed for me, and I’d seen so much.

Thinking about it, I turned my eyes back to the world floating by below us, and realized something that both amazed me while at the same time made me feel rather small. As the Sweet Candy climbed higher, keeping just below the ceiling of thick gray clouds, I got a very wide view of the landscape below us. I could pick out the lay of the land and though the details were limited at this height, I could see almost every step of my journey so far.

To my left, far to the east and south, I saw the huge range of mountains that stretched north to south like a wall. Somewhere in those mountains was Stable 106 and the Guardian Shrine Trailblaze had found, but more than that, I could spot the small valley pass where my home of Shady Stream was. Empty now, but I had to fervently hope I could rescue my tribe and bring them back to that valley. To the west of that I could spot the highway Arcaidia and I had first met Crossfire on, her caravan of Labor Guild slaves being attacked by Balloons. From there it was easy to turn my gaze a little further west and south to see the remains of Saddlespring, like a blackened patch in the reddish brown desert of the Wasteland.

I suppressed a sigh and a feeling of regret for the town’s fate, and looked a bit north of it, where suburban ruins became thicker. I couldn’t quite figure which building was the school I’d had my first fight with Raiders in and had run into Binge... and both Braindead and Redwire. I never would’ve imagined sparing those lives would have had so many consequences for my life, both terrible and... I turned my glance towards Binge briefly... and good.

Much further west of Saddlespring’s remains I saw the stretch of canyons that melded into the hills at the base of a smaller range of mountains than the eastern ones. Among those canyons was the hidden entrance to Stable 104, a strange new home for myself and my friends, with interesting occupants who had started out as enemies but now were both allies and friends. I gave a fond pat on my saddlebags, where I was freshly stocked with various grenades, and Misty Glasses recently concocted jar of paralytic toxin. The spider ponies had really gone above and beyond the call of decency, not only helping us, but housing refugees from both my tribe and Saddlespring, turning the Stable into a growing community probably more diverse than anything in this slice of the Wasteland.

I had to shift to the other side of the bow to look back eastward and a bit north. I couldn’t spot Silver Mare Studios, but I thought I recognized the general area it was in. It’d been such a impulsive decision to go there to answer a plea for help from Odessa, yet I couldn’t regret the choice. Glint and his squad had needed the help, and thinking of him now, and his mother Sunset, perhaps my only real allies inside the organization that was hunting me and Arcaidia besides my father... well I’d willingly face down a Hellhound again if it came down to protecting others.

From there I had no real idea where the church I’d battled Shattered Sky and Black Petal in, though I knew it was a good deal further east and just a bit south of Skull City, which by now was just a distant line of metallic brown and red. And on the Sweet Candy flew, leaving it all behind.

“It wasn’t very far... was it?” I found myself saying, wonderingly. So much had happened, yet seeing it all now from this height, I realized I’d only seen the barest fraction of the world. It was so vast, so unbelievably large, it almost made me lose my balance.

I felt a steadying hoof on my shoulder, Arcaidia next to me, a knowing, wry half-smile on her face, “Be steadfast, ren solva... it gets bigger still. The world, the galaxy, it is all bigger than you can know, but be steadfast. You can see it all, one day.”

Looking into her bright silver eyes, I could only nod, “Together, I hope.”

She just laughed, nodding in return. Then suddenly Binge was beside us, grinning in crazed delight, “Okay, now kiss!” Her hooves came up and tried to shove me and Arcaidia together, but B.B was on the ball, hopping over and sliding behind Binge, managing to get the mare into a double leg bar that swept Binge to the deck with a grunt.

“Now now, ain’t no need ta be playin’ jokes on ‘em, Binge! Besides ain’t ya the one always tryin’ ta git Long inta bed wit ya?”

“Well, duh, but c’mon,” Binge pointed at Arcaidia, “She’s hot too. Threesome!”

B.B groaned and gave Binge a smack on the head, while me and Arcaida had stepped back from each other. I could see her scrunching her muzzle and looking away with her mane hiding the red in her face, while I didn’t need a mirror to feel the heat in my own.

“Well, that was awkward,” I said.

“Yes, awkward is word that fits,” Arcaidia agreed, eyes starring icy daggers at Binge and face still red in a way that was hard to say if it was embarrassment or anger.

“Awww, they’re so cute, like tiny kittens booping snouts,” said Binge, giggling while still held by B.B, “This is going to be a fun trip. All nice and cooped up like packed sardines rotting in the same can.”

“I could toss her overboard, ya know,” brought up B.B, sounding only half joking. Arcaidia waved a dismissive hoof.

“No, ren solva only complain at us if we get rid of silly green one. If she so heated, we give her cold shower.”

Before Binge could get too far in her protesting whines about the idea of showers, cold or otherwise, if they didn’t involve me, we all heard a loud clearing of a throat nearby and turned to see Applegate standing at the head of the steps up to the bow, looking at us with incredulous amusement.

“I’m not interrupting anything am I?” the mare asked, an eyebrow slightly raised.

I rubbed the back of my head, grinning sheepishly, “Uh, not really. This is pretty normal for us.”

“Far as ya can stretch the term ‘normal’,” said B.B, narrowing her eyes at Binge, “Ya gonna behave so I can let ya up?”

Binge’s face scrunched up a look of what could either have been serious thought, or desperate need for the little filly’s room, “Hmmmmm, I suppose I can pretend to not be mentally envisioning a scenario with me, Longy, Bluefrost, and a tub of unidentifiable lubricants.”
That was probably about as good a response as B.B was going to get and by the look on her face, she knew it, and let Binge go, who sprang to her hooves like a snapped rubber band. Applegate was still giving us an odd look, but slowly fixed the gaze on me.

“I came to talk to you about two things. One, now that we’re leaving the relative safety of Skull City airspace I’ll be having each Drifter team working sentry duty on deck for alternating six hour shifts. It's not likely we’ll run into any trouble, but it's not impossible that we might run afoul of either a rogue dragon or pirates.”

“Pirates?” I asked, unable to hide my ignorant, blank stare, which soon turned into an even more wide eyed look, “Dragons?”

“Ah, yes, you haven’t traveled much, I understand,” said Applegate, “In brief, dragons are rare, but not unheard of dangers that are highly territorial and will randomly stake their territory just about anywhere. As for pirates, they too are rare, but ever since the Enclave fell apart there have been a few bands of former soldiers or citizens among the pegasi that turned to banditry of the skies. Most have been driven from NCR held airspace, but we’ll be crossing uncontrolled parts of the sky before reaching NCR borders, so it’s possible we may encounter a group of such brigands desperate enough to attack an airship.”

“I see...” I said, not quite holding back a sigh, “Guess no matter where we go there’s going to be ponies getting desperate.”

“It is my firm hope to avoid such a complication to this journey, but vigilance is a small price to pay for safety,” said Applegate, her eyes flicking towards my side where Gramzanber was sheathed, “Now, the second thing I wished to talk to you about. Whitemane has explained to me that you are experienced in combat with your unique weapon, but lack any formal training. As a favor to the Guildmaster, I have agreed to extend an offer to provide a few...lessons, during your off time during this mission. If you wish.”

“Huh, that sounds like a pretty good idea, actually,” I said. Even if the strange nanomachines floating around inside my head were imprinting information there that helped me learn how to fight faster than normal through the battles I’d been going through, I’d be crazy to say now to a few actual lessons from somepony who probably knew a lot more about combat than I did. “So Whitemane asked you to do this?”

Applegate’s face remained politely formal, but I saw a quirking twitch in her eyes, as if she was resisting the urge to look behind her. But the only pony back there, pacing around the aft deck, was Crossfire... and now that I was looking at Crossfire I noticed she was stiffly trying not to glare at Applegate.

Okay, what’s going on there? I wondered, but shook off the thought.

“Whitemane hinted at it being a good idea to help our guild’s newest member survive his first assignment,” said Applegate, “But I will also say that I have an interest in teaching you some skill myself. Or at least seeing how skilled you are and how I can steer you towards improvement. It will be just under two days to reach the NCR, then we shall be there for at least three more. We shall train two hours on each of those days, at your earliest convenience. While not much time, it should be enough for me to aid you somewhat.”

She made an oddly formal bow to us, “With that, I take my leave. You all have the third guard shift, so I suggest you get some food and rest before then.”

With that she departed, leaving my friends and I to own devices. One by one hunger called my friends below deck to the mess hall, B.B going first while dragging a reluctant Binge nearly by the tail. Arcaidia stayed on deck with me a time longer, as the ruins of Detrot gave way to a wide plain of dry red desert Wasteland, and ahead on the horizon was a shining white belt of bleached dunes, still many miles off.

We didn’t say anything to each other, just enjoyed some companionable silence that reminded me of our first day trotting into the Wasteland. When Arcaidia glanced over at me with a small eager smile, she raised her Pip-Buck, its shiny smooth screen showing it’s map. The map that had a dotted line leading steady south, where we were now traveling. The line that’d lead to Persephone, or at least a clue as to the fate of Arcaidia’s sister, somewhere in the NCR. It’d taken a lot of twists and detours, our journey, but we were finally on our way.

Next stop, the New Canterlot Republic.

----------

Footnote: 25% to next Level.

Author's Note:

So yes, at long last Longwalk and Arcaidia are actually going to the place they'd originally set out to go to in the first place. It'll be fun to get to the NCR and deal with a different environment than the Skull City Wasteland. Keeping in mind this story takes place roughly eighteen years post the original Fallout Equestria I can explore ideas on what the NCR would be like with that much time to develop.

For this chapter's story spotlight I'd like to toss a recommendation to check out New Roam: Innovatus, written by Delvius. Its a rather interesting take on the zebra lands that puts a strong emphasis on the Roman influences in the culture, which makes it pretty unique. The main character also has more of a introspective and philosophical bent than most FoE protagonists I've seen, and I dig that.

I want to thank you all for reading and hope you folks continue to enjoy the story. As always I thank my prereaders, Dommande and referee (now going by a slightly more sans-ish moniker) for their help with the chapter.

Of course leave any and all comments, critiques, or questions you want, I appreciate any and all feedback.

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