“Welcomzzztt tooooooo Kkrrrzzttre’s zzzztttloooooooow!”
Jury Rigger winced at the warbling, static filled voice crackling out of a snow covered speaker box, the unicorn filly’s heart hammering in her chest at the eerie silence being broken. The squealing of the rusty iron gate to the walled town of ruins she’d stumbled across had been bad enough, but that bizarre automated message playing along with the movement was much worse.
Raiders or monsters might overlook a squeaky gate moving in the wind, but a cheerily raised voice, even filled with pops and hisses making most of the message indecipherable, was just advertising her presence. The crunch of hooves in the snow behind her proved the point and the pale orange filly’s bright green eyes widened in fear, shaking her brown and yellow mane from her vision and scanning the dead woods she’d blundered through to find the place.
She couldn’t see them yet, but the gravelly voiced moans and snarls echoing back to her brought a cold sweat to her coat beneath her tattered winter gear. Feral ghouls.... Just perfect! Even if she had more than a hoofful of rounds for the .44 revolver floating up in her emerald magic, the poor gun was held together with little more than duct tape and hope at this point, it could break down on any shot.
Rather than fight, Jury turned back to the gate and went to widen the narrow gap she’d opened that had caused the stupid dinner bell message to go off to begin with. It was tall and still sturdy despite the decades since the war, the wall it was set in dense brick that would hold off most wasteland monsters short of a hellhound.
“Welcomzzztt to-Welcomzzztt to-Welcomzzztt to….” Unfortunately the damn automated message still functioned well enough to go off. Every. Single. Time. that she moved the heavy gate, shoving frantically as the shuffling noises of the undead rose to a gallop behind her.
The drifts of snow concealed years of rotten leaves and soil burying the bottom of the gate, along with the skeletal corpse of a pony pressed against the inside that Jury’s panicked shoving uncovered. She wrenched at the frozen foreleg reaching under the gate towards her to get enough movement out of the barrier, absently noting the faded blue and yellow barding sleeve and nearly freezing in surprise when she found what had blocked the gate so firmly.
A pip-buck! Whoever the Stable-pony with the 19 on their back was, they’d gotten caught doing the same thing she was apparently, only trying to get out instead. The valuable, foreleg worn, arcano-tech computer was wedged under the gate tight. Jury turned to buck at it when her magic wasn’t enough to pull it free and gulped, spotting the first of the ferals charging out of the woods with guttural growls and roars.
“Welcomzzztt to” CLANG! “Welcomzzztt to” CLANG! “Welcomzzztt to” CLANG! Clenching her eyes shut behind her tattered Wonderbolts goggles, Jury bucked hard behind her over and over, nearly falling on her belly when the gate finally popped free and moved a few more inches.
Giving a yelp as she caught herself, Jury scrambled around and dove for the narrow opening. For once she was grateful she was so underfed, her clearly defined ribs under the tattered winter coat squeezed through with no issue. She couldn’t help an exasperated snort when her flanks got caught for an instant, of course she still kept some padding back there… She came loose with only a moment of scrambling however, prancing around to snatch the pip-buck up in her telekinesis and throwing her body against the gate ahead of the zombie horde charging her.
Jury slid the latch on the gate shut with a bare moment of relief, then screamed when the first of the ferals slammed into the barrier and the latch snapped off in a shower of rust, forcing her to remain inches away from the snapping teeth of three undead ponies with more on the way. Being skinny and scrawny might have helped her get through the gate, but it also meant she didn’t have the weight to hold it long, already her braced hindlegs were trembling.
Thinking fast, Jury’s terrified green eyes swept all around her, settling on another pony corpse half hanging out of a little guard shack by the gate. This one was nothing but bones in white and yellow rags, the tattered remains looking somewhat similar to the first body somehow.. Their skull had been caved in, leaving a blackened stain on the weathered wood shack that led down to a snow covered lump she clutched at with her magic.
Surprised at the weight when she finally yanked the rock loose, Jury dragged it close and nearly got knocked off her hooves for her trouble. More zombies had joined those reaching through the gate and fumbling at her barrel, a glance over her shoulder showed the next several to hit the gate would be too much for her to hope to keep it shut as she just barely managed.
Straining with effort, Jury threw her meager weight against the gate again and slammed the… rather odd looking rock where the pip-buck had been wedged. Thankfully, it seemed like the dense stone (that for some reason looked like a loaf of bread?) was as good a fit and indestructible as the pip-buck was, allowing her to cautiously pull away from the gate and breathe a sigh of relief at the ferals snapping and shoving against each other to no avail.
“WelcomWelcomWelcomWelcomWelcomWelcomWelcomWelcom….” Jury pinned her ears back as the gate speaker went bonkers at all the ferals pushing to get in, dusting the pip-buck off and trotting towards the hidden village she’d found.
Hopefully there’d be good salvage, enough to keep her going another month, or week, or even day… She was definitely here for the time being, short of finding another exit or climbing the wall elsewhere. Judging by what she could make out down the lane she followed, her view inside supported what she’d seen from the tree she’d climbed outside the gates to spot the secluded village.
She had hopes it was as abandoned as it looked at least. No raiders, no monsters, no settlement of somewhat rational or not ponies, just an empty ruin. The sign she’d uncovered buried in the snow at the roadside a few miles back that led her here was the only advertisement she’d seen and that was prewar. If she was lucky, Sire’s Hollow was a hidden gem just waiting for the salvaging.
Trotting into the center of town, Jury’s head panned back and forth trying to make sense of things and not making much headway. It was a fairly intact complex of ruins for the wasteland, lots of cozy little homes she’d passed on the outskirts leading to a main street of businesses and a central fountain full of frozen, scummy water.
What was weird was most evident standing before the cracked stone fountain however, it looked like the town was divided right down the middle, and that the two sides had fought a war… She turned her head left to go over it again, eyeing the sturdy and very old fashioned looking businesses, spotting a dilapidated book store and bakery right off. Turning right, she saw upscale and cutting edge wartime buildings in the style of the big city ruins she’d explored before, including a smoothie shop and what looked like a perfume shop by the oversized spray bottle shaped sign.
There were numerous corpses scattered around just in eyesight, most centered on the fountain as the bizarrely marked and fortified border between the two halves. Walking about slowly to dust these free of snow for a closer look, she saw most were frozen in the act of combat with each other.
There were tangled piles of ponies who’d fought hoof to hoof, knives and other crude melee weaponry, along with a few firearms rusting away to ruin as she paced further out in a widening circle. The buildings on the left showed scorched burns of magical energy weapons fire, while those on the right had more of those weird, bread shaped rocks lobbed through the walls.
After checking it all over, Jury scratched her mane through her tattered red sock hat and frowned, the ones of the left were all dressed in white, while the ones on the right were wearing blue. What was the same however was the yellow accents to the familiar barding, including the faded number 19 each wore… These were all Stable-ponies, but Jury thought they all only wore blue, like that silly little cartoon Stable-buck on all the Stable-Tec ads.
On the one hoof, she felt disgusted and sad for all these idiots who’d come back to the surface she’d grown up on. As a filly, she often prayed to the Goddesses asking why she couldn’t have been born one of the lucky few to come from a safe place like they did. It obviously took no time at all for them to repeat the mistakes of the past and for the wasteland to corrupt them like it did all ponies.
On the other hoof however, Jury couldn’t help an internal squee at the prospect of finding a Stable nearby. Even if these ponies had abandoned it and left little behind, just the location of such a place could go for a ton of caps to the right buyer. It may be close by if she was lucky, but it probably wasn’t too far off even if she wasn’t. All she had to do was poke around and hope for clues along with the supplies she’d hoped to find here.
That left picking where to start, so Jury turned right without much debate. The fancier and newer looking part of town was more likely to have valuable salvage after all, plus she could see the glow of flickering gem lights in the shops that would make searching easier. With a rumble in her tummy, she made for the smoothie shop first, while making a mental note to hit the bakery on the other side of town soon after.
Unfortunately, the awful reek of rotten food assaulted her nose as soon as she opened the cracked glass door. The counter bearing a trio of rusting, heavy duty blenders was heavily laden with a pile of fruits and vegetables that had dissolved into an amorphous heap of stink that made her gag.
Jury held her nose and poked around behind the counter anyway, the empty ache of her belly making even the pile of rotten refuse tempting. She was relieved it didn’t come to that at least, finding a couple jars of Zap Apple preserves and peaches in heavy syrup. She nearly inhaled the latter, looking around the back and following the mellow green glow of a terminal coming from the manager’s office as she munched the heavenly, decades old food.
‘Things have been getting worse with those damn Celestials, I heard there was another fight yesterday. At least back in Stable 19 they stayed in their half and we stayed in ours, ever since we came back to the surface though, things have been getting tense. Overmare Flare told us to do the same up here, but we have to listen to them proselytizing across the border about sticking to the old ways and worshiping Goddess Sunbutt instead of glorious goddess Luna. The war wasn’t her fault, it started under their precious Celestia! Why should we praise her and abandon the goddess who brought us into the modern age? Why, we wouldn’t have survived at all without the Stable and all its technology they turn their noses up at now. I know we shouldn’t fight, but how much blasphemy are we expected to take? Every day things get a little worse, it’s all falling apart slowly but surely. I’m worried all it will take is a spark for things to get really bad, so Essence and I have been thinking of heading out on our own somewhere. We’ve been putting supplies aside in her safe and I’ve got my key safe in the register so…’
Jury’s eyes lit up as she perused the journal entries on the unsecured terminal. Jackpot! She often read little scraps of the past for opportunities just like this, ponies leaving little treasure maps behind. As she fumbled at the register to find the key mentioned, she had to admit it was partially curiosity too, mulling over what she learned and not liking it.
It took bashing at the bullet ridden register with her hooves to get the drawer to finally open with a loud ‘Ding!’ while she ruminated on the thought, but Jury gave a victorious whinny when she pulled the tray of useless old world bits aside to find a tarnished silver key. That done and with nothing more of immediate use to scavenge in the smoothie shop, she trotted back outside and looked around in thought. Which shop belonged to this ‘Essence’ mentioned in the terminal entry?
The answer leapt out at her when she glanced towards the shop next door with the giant perfume bottle sign. Most of the letters were scorched or rusted away, but she saw several Es had survived and the shadow of where the other letters once were was enough to puzzle it out.
She barely made it halfway in the door when a clanking noise made her ears flick warily, locking on to a rusty robot making its slow way out from behind the counter of the shop that still smelled strongly of… everything actually. All the broken bottles littering the shelves had combined into one fantastic stink.. At least it was a Ponitron cashier clomping out to greet her, the least dangerous and most often harmless model of Robronco robot. Jury still drew her revolver in her magic and pointed it towards the potential threat, slowing to a stop as it spoke in a staticky voice.
“Greetings Customer! Would you care to sample our newest essences today?” The Ponitron bellowed in its halting electronic voice, leaving Jury annoyed as she trotted cautiously in the shop and made to look for this safe.
“No, umm… just browsing, thanks.” Jury huffed and tried to sidle around the slow moving robot, making for the rear of the shop.
The robot gave a negative sounding beep from its glass domed head, then spoke in a cheery voice and turned towards her as she came close. “Oh please, it’s free and the very latest from Mistress Essence. Try a sample of our tangerine tear gas!”
Jury had a bare moment to blink in confusion at the robot’s happy shout, then the nozzle mounted in its chest spewed out an orange cloud of choking gas that made her fall back in pain and revulsion. She’d never seen or smelled a tangerine as a child of the wastes, but she seriously hoped they weren’t really so sickly sweet. The closest she could come to the smell was the nasty orange flavor of Rad-Away, in gaseous form, and 20% more vile. It was also 1000% more painful, her vision blurred with tears and her eyes burned immediately, her gasp of surprise only taking more of the horrid stuff down her lungs, which instantly rebelled at the treatment and started coughing it back out uncontrollably.
She backpedalled away from the clanking torture-bot happily trying to corner her, barely able to hear it warble proudly “Wonderful isn’t it? One of Miss Essence’s newest line of designer essences! Custom made for our Celestial neighbors, try Apple Acid next!”
Judging by the name and past experience, Jury had no desire to try another ‘fragrance’ and dove aside, barely avoiding a puff of green gas that drifted over to a rusty set of shelves that corroded on contact with the noxious stuff, spilling more bottles to the floor that added to the stench and only made breathing harder..
She couldn’t see much through her burning and puffy eyes, but Jury fired blind at the thing to make it stop. Half the quartet of .44 rounds missed entirely, while the last two managed to hit center mass with a ping against metal and the more satisfying sound of sparks and grinding metal as it fell to a heap.
Staggering toward it twitching on the ground, Jury coughed and sniffled as she reared back and stamped on its glass domed head repeatedly, not stopping until it was a broken ruin under her hooves. That done, she wove her way to the back of the shop and curled up behind the counter with tears streaming from her bloodshot eyes, angry and still scared by the close call. She’d dismissed it as mostly harmless when it did as so many robots did and acted like the world hadn’t ended around it, nearly paying a high price for letting her guard down around a piece of the old world winding its way down to ruin..
The safe turned out to be just what she was hoping for. Jury exited the Essence shop with a full belly and bloodshot eyes some time later, roaming her way over to the other side of town. While the half of Sire’s Hollow she had explored so far had been full of prewar ruins in the most modern style of architecture around before the end, the other half looked like something out of a storybook of ancient times.
Of course being constructed of such crude materials meant the ruins were in a worse state of destruction than the other side of town, many nothing more than the burnt husks of foundations that had crumbled away in the decades since the war. The bakery and nearby bookshop were made of sturdier stone with traditional earth pony craftsponyship however, giving Jury a couple more places to look over.
She passed the remains of several old fashioned catapults around the bakery, nearly tripping over a pile of more of those bread shaped rocks waiting to be loaded and lobbed towards the other side of town. When she poked her head in the bakery itself, she gaped at the piles of more of the rocks and realized they weren’t bread shaped, they were bread…. Sort of…
An experimental bite nearly chipped a tooth and she tossed the heavy lump away. The faded, hoof painted sign she passed on the counter reading; ‘Made with 100% Ancient Pony Grains’ made her hopeful the ingredients were more edible and still around in the back. Jury made her way where the looming bulk of a huge stone oven took up most of the kitchen and started poking around.
What she did find still rattling around in the various ingredient tins was more like gravel than food, though she did find a few things she had to think on near the oven. Numerous metal molds had blackened chunks of more of the stone like bread in odd shapes, which she eventually recognized as the strange pieces of armor the skeletons in the white Stable barding wore outside.
With her curiosity getting the better of her, Jury blew the dust off a heavy open book on a small table in the very back, reading over the blocky script mouth written by the earth pony skeleton she found huddled on a small cot in a back room. Knowing what happened here wouldn’t really do her any good, but there was always the chance for another clue to something useful at least. Plus she was genuinely interested now, how had these Stable ponies fucked everything up so completely, turned on themselves when there were so many other threats in the wasteland?
‘...One of those uppity Lunites complained about my bread again today, suggested I ‘tweak’ the recipe so there’s less crust! Overstallion Firelight’s right, they’ve got no respect for tradition over there, the crust is the best part!
As if that wasn’t enough, then they started harping on about Luna being the better Princess right in my shop! Well I put Mocha in her place alright, told her it was Luna’s fault the world went to hell, she was in charge after all. Goddess Celestia never should have left the throne to her sister I says. 1000 years of peace and harmony under our goddess after all, when it only took Luna a couple decades to blow it all to hell. Well, she didn’t have nothin’ to say to that, let me tell you! She got all snippy and red faced, said she’s never comin’ back for my delicious bread again, well good riddance! Got plenty of loyal customers on this side of town already, don’t need Lunites coming over with all their fancy modern ideas to ruin things like their goddess ruined Equestria!.’
The random journal entry she read over just confirmed her initial thoughts about this weird town, they really had all lost their minds arguing over the best goddess. The entries she skimmed over after that just got worse, tensions rose to the breaking point with the other side of town, eventually turning from squabbles into scuffles, then a fight here and there. Finally one fight over their twisted beliefs went too far and ended with one of the dead baker Cracked Wheat’s loaves of deadly bread smashing a pony’s skull open.
After that most of the journal was filled with short entries concerning how much work the baker took on for the war effort, cooking up ammo and armor both in his shop that supplied the old fashioned ponies here the means to fight their modern armed counterparts on the other side of town.
“Idiots…” Jury muttered under her breath as she slammed the book closed and scooped up what usable odds and ends she had found, huffing bitterly at the senseless stupidity of it all.
She’d seen communities fall apart on these lines before. Holy war… No wonder the place was a ghost town, these fools got to fighting each other over which Princess was best. These Stable ponies had every advantage, came back to the surface after riding out the last couple decades of hell, built what had been a thriving, well defended settlement, then they tore it apart from the inside.
It was all so stupid and pointless it made Jury angry and sad as she made her way to the last mostly intact building, flinging open the heavy oak door to what had been a huge bookshop and slamming it shut behind her with a forceful buck.
Jury barely had time to take in the musty, open room full of shelves on all sides before an ominous creaking sounded out all around her. A moldy book bonked her on the head, drawing her eye up to the nearest shelves shaking and shuddering above her.
She squeaked and dove aside just ahead of the whole thing coming down on top of her, then was forced to prance on as the crash set off the other shelves all around her. One after another fell like dominos, shaking the whole building as she scrambled nimbly through it all. Jury skidded to a halt inches away from one shelf coming down in front of her muzzle, then leapt out of the way of another coming down on top of it, the whole while getting pelted with more heavy books falling like rain.
When the dust settled, Jury was buried under a mountain of musty books and bruised all over, but alive and able to slowly dig her way out. The bookstore had fared less well, making her groan in frustration and despair as she took it in. The door out was blocked....
Several of the heavy oak shelves had fallen on top of each other against it, presenting a major obstacle to getting out as just an experimental telekinetic tug with her horn proved even the rotten wood was too heavy to pull free. Books littered the floor, making her progress through the room difficult as she searched for another exit with increasing panic.
By the time she reached a gloomy corner of still intact shelves labeled ‘Antiques’, Jury was despondent, trudging to the clear little nook that looked like it had been made into some kind of camp and falling to her haunches with a fearful whinny. She was trapped… She’d been lured in to this rotting town that seemed determined to fall apart around her and get her killed, now it looked like it may have succeeded. She had a little food and water now, but that would only last so long, hopefully long enough to find a way out…
Sniffling miserably, she eventually looked up and saw she wasn’t alone. A cracked and worn leather chair had been dragged behind the small desk for looking over books in this section, the surface littered with a lantern, piles of thick tomes, a few snack cakes and bottles of water she scooped up wearily, and a white barded skeleton presiding over it all from the seat. It was a unicorn, a pool of blackened blood staining the seat it was propped up in, sitting before a large book held open with a ratty quill pen lying on the brittle pages.
Giving a tired sigh, Jury took a look at the flowing script written there. She’d already poked around in this hellhole enough it got her caught in this mess, she may as well read what this pony had written in what looked to be his last moments.
‘...were all wrong, fighting over one goddess or another. How could we have all been so stupid? Was it just because of the Stable? Following Stable-Tec’s experiment about living in balance and harmony with another community just kept us separate and distrustful. Maybe it was my fault, mine and Stellar Flare’s… We were always squabbling before we went underground, time just made it worse. If it wasn’t bickering over Celestia and Luna, it would have been something else.
Here at the end, I see now neither one is the true deity of this wasteland we found ourselves in after coming back to the surface. Luna and Celestia both were goddesses of order, day and night, push and pull, balance… Harmony. No, what rules this world is neither of their blessed souls. Chaos rules here, disorder, disharmony, dissonance… Discord, he’s the true god of this world now..
My Punkie-wunk taught me a word from all her fancy arcane theory and spellcraft that stuck with me all these years, Entropy… I looked it up again to write here for whoever finds this. The first definition was probably the one she meant, she loved egghead stuff like it anyway. It says entropy is; A thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system's thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.
The second definition is simpler for old bucks like me though, a lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder. A gradual decline...that’s what happened here. We got so caught up fighting over which half of a pair meant to balance each other was best, we became unbalanced and descended into chaos, we fell to discord.
Blaming the spirit of chaos sounds better than us just being stupid enough to let a disagreement disolve into fighting another miniature war after surviving the big one anyway. I thought about coming here for the entrance to our side of the Stable, but I don’t have much time left and I don’t want to die down there. Maybe I can leave behind a warning for any other survivors out there trying to rebuild after we’re gone before I die though.
Discord or not, always be mindful of the tendency of things to fall apart over time, like this whole sad, ruined world. Fight back, try to remember the magic of harmony and friendship, fix what’s broken and remain ever vigilant against entropy. Be better than we were.’
The last words trailed off into an unsteady ink blotch and Jury’s lip quivered at the stallion’s last words, reflecting how they applied to her and the situation she was in now. Entropy… Just as he said, everything about this town was run down and falling apart, dissolving into chaos that had now trapped her.
After a few minutes however, she bucked up and took heart in the warning he tried to leave behind. The ruins of the old world may be run down and falling apart, but there were still ways to take the rotting bones of the old and build something new, to survive, to fight back.
Wiping her eyes and putting on a determined expression, Jury stood and started sorting through the detritus of fallen books and broken shelves, bringing order to the chaos as she sought out the entrance to this Stable he’d mentioned. The dead stallion’s final message did what he hoped and may even save her life, providing not just the information that there was a way out hidden somewhere here, but hope too.
Everything about Sire’s Hollow may be crumbling away to chaos and trying to kill her, but she wasn’t going to die here. Jury was going to live, somehow…. Entropy wasn’t going to be what killed her.