Castle of Glass
Written by Napalm Goat
When was it? When was the first time?
Was it before or after my first assignment? So long ago. A year? Two? A decade?
It was summer.
I remember… I remember standing there and looking at it all. Clean. Freshly renovated. Was the furniture in there already or did I bring my own? The Agency, I got it from them, I think. They care for their people. They have to. Especially after that mess with-.
Poor girl. Couldn’t handle the pressure. Hopefully her family moved on.
What was her name? Cloudy? Sunny something?
I was so proud of them, one fully grown and potted under my foreleg and a couple of saplings resting in the basket. I couldn’t wait to settle in and plant them, and the others too of course. Maybe hang them on that wall over there? I’d have to order some hangers then. But maybe it would be best to go out myself? Find the local flower shop, get acquainted with the neighbourhood?
No, not in this heat. I had enough heat for the whole year after that survival exercise.
Heat? Not heat. Rain.
The flash of lightning shook me out of my musings. Beyond the window I could see the far away city, its brightly lit buildings shining through the darkness. The flowing droplets on the other side of the glass made the huge hanging neon signs appear to dance and weave to the drumming of the rain.
I leaned back on the seat, sipped from the glass and listened to the rain. The storm outside occasionally banished the room’s darkness with a distant flash. My nose picked up a hint of fresh dirt from the recently hung pots. My limbs were slacked pleasantly as I lounged on the soft cushions.
Easel was right; it was worth it. And how convenient!
I looked over my shoulder at my guest. One of the most handsome bats I had ever hooked up with, if not the most. But now he was leaving.
Tall, fit, but not overly muscular, with that amazing roguish smile. If I had a normal job I could see myself falling for him.
He put on his leather jacket and winked with one of those slitted emerald eyes. “I’d stay for the night, but I have a job to do, pretty.”
Giggling and nearly spilling the cocktail, I half turned and pointed a hoof at him. “We had our fun charmer. You can drop the act!”
He just shrugged and walked over, the lightning illuminating his silhouette. “It’s not an act. I am one hundred percent genuine.” He stopped on the side of the chair, extended his neck and gently pecked my cheek.
I giggled again, but it was cut short as I felt his leathery wing brush the inside of my thigh. “Now you are getting cheeky.” I regained my senses and playfully swatted with my foreleg. “Get out of here!”
I watched him strut towards the door. No, I did not just watch. I ogled his flank like a starving mouse would a piece of cheese.
With a roll of my eyes I put the wine on the table and followed to see him out.
The door opened with a hiss. He stopped in the threshold, turned around and watched me come closer with a smile. Once I stopped before him, he wiggled his eyebrows and simultaneously flapped his wings once. Then, he leaned close yet again, as close as before. His eyes were the only feature I could see as he whispered, dead serious. “What do you know about Snowdrop?”
Lightning struck right in the park under my windows. I winced at its roar and shut my eyes tight out of reflex. When I opened them again my companion was as blank as before, its featureless faceplate staring through my head.
“Thank you for using our services. If you enjoyed this unit’s performance we can offer you a discount on the monthly sub-”
I pressed the button and shut the door in the pondroid’s face. Easel was right, it was worth it. But it lacked something. I chuckled to myself in amusement. “A goodnight kiss most likely.”
Slowly I walked back to the living room, made myself comfortable in the seat and idly rubbed my fetlocks, then grabbed the glass and took a sip of my whiskey. “Resume playlist.”
‘The lunatic is on the grass…’
Downtown looked beautiful covered in snow.
This getup sure was a new experience. I didn’t mind, not at all. How often did I get to wear something that annihilated the notion of function?
Worn khaki poncho?
Tight iridescent one piece?
Baggy rainbow sequin pants (with obligatory generous cutouts for cutie marks)?
Fluorescent paste on said cutie marks?
Silvery reflective horseshoes?
Perfectly placed face jewels?
Animated optical fibers running through mane and tail?
Attenuation filter ear plugs?
And a very special necklace.
It was quiet. A little self discipline, and you could filter out any noise. After this short moment of clarity, I decided it was time to get going. I released my breath and focused my senses outwards.
The world regained its sounds one more time.
Like a freight train, the roar of music and the noise of over three thousand people filled my ears. Screaming, yelling, talking and laughing. Despite this, the thumping electronic beat was palpable.
‘You get a phone call from the queen with a hundred heads.’
I took a deep breath and opened my eyes.
All the colours of the rainbow, periodic table and the galaxy were before me. Ponies, griffins and zebra among others. Their coats and their outfits were just as extravagant as mine, if not more so. Towering colourful chapeus, flowing floral robes, obscenely high platform boots, vast amounts of intricate jewelry and the ubiquitous chemlights.
And above them all, a stadium-sized glassteel skylight ran over the sea of people, offering a view into the cosmos.
Space. Infinite, black and red and blue and green. And right in the center, an apple sized disc, made of smudged colours from the ether around it, with thousands of tiny white dots packed tightly in a thick ring surrounding it. The further from the muddled center they were, the less cramped the dots appeared, until they finally transitioned into normal starscape, far enough away for light to escape the insatiable appetite of the cosmic devourer.
And below it all, sheltered by mere inches of glassteel was a sea of people partying on the edge of infinity. There were the searchlights, lasers and holograms, flickering, spinning and weaving to the rhythm. All of them constantly shifting patterns, colour and intensity, changing the floor into an ecstasy fueled kaleidoscope that perfectly blended with the music. And between all of this equipment, in the middle of the stage a hundred meters before me, a duo of bat pony stallions behind a huge table, headphones on, forelegs dancing on the consoles.
The air was filled with soap bubbles lazily falling down, heedless of the crowd’s collective energy. I smiled as I watched the colourful stage lasers reflect in those small shimmering orbs, like miniature supernovas.
All around me, huge metal bulkheads - easily thirty meters tall - were covered in sound absorbing material. Here and there, an archway or other passage led into one of many side corridors and rooms.
The ship used to be a bulk cargo transport long ago. Now it was repurposed as a mobile festival and concert arena, currently orbiting Light’s End at a distance most space travel agencies would find in grave violation of the widely accepted common sense and ship operation safety standards.
I took another breath and began walking, bouncing my body to the music. It was surprisingly easy; as soon as others saw my outstretched foreleg they took a step to the side, just enough to let me pass. Amusingly, no one tried to ‘accidentally’ grope me. A welcome change in comparison to the last job at a similar event.
“What were they called again? Something about a metal boot.” I spoke loudly to myself, not that I could hear it.
The beat intensified, and the crowd reacted in turn. Even I stopped limiting myself to just bobbing my head and shoulders up and down, and began swaying. Hips and all.
It took me a good five minutes to get to my destination, but finally I approached a duo of gruff looking minotaurs flanking a large open hatch labeled AC1609. They looked hilariously out of place. Cheap black uniforms covered them from head to hoof. One of them looked down at me questioningly. I showed him a simple red synthetic band on my fetlock. He squinted his eyes at it, barked something I couldn’t hope to hear and motioned for me to enter as I gave him a sweet smile and went in. Behind the doors, a set of short metal stairs led me up and above the main floor, and onto a relatively small, open platform. A crowd of people was here too, all wearing the same bands as I.
I quickly scanned the area. It was quite a sight. Not only was it a miniature copy of the crowd below, it also had quite a few unique amenities the main floor did not possess. Namely, tables with bottles of champagne in sleek ice-filled buckets, standing right next to neat lines of white powder arranged by length and thickness. Quite a few of them clearly in various stages of consumption. Young waiters and waitresses in brave clothing patrolled the floor, refilling the buckets and contractually giggling at an occasional haughty look or slap to the flank. On the sides, large circular cages held mares and stallions who bent and weaved in tune with the booming music. Right above the middle, just barely out of reach from the floor, a slim zebra mare was suspended upside down. Her hindlegs spread horizontally in a perfect line, somehow holding onto a hanging hoop above her. A red semi transparent ribbon was barely wrapped around her body, covering what little modesty she still had. She held a part of it between her teeth, grinning at an infatuated deer buck who was fruitlessly trying to bite down the very end of it.
The deer buck I came here for.
He appeared young for a deer, mainly because of his modest antlers which were entirely covered in pinkish glitter. His coat was light gray, almost white in colour, though most of it was hidden by an unbuttoned shirt with a floral pattern. Other than that, he wore what appeared to be a standard set of accessories for such an event. A pair of shutter shades with colourful animated LEDs, simple pieces of expressive jewelry; mostly plastic and glowing or reflective one way or another, and to top it all, his hindlegs were covered by sporty shin guards.
An increase in the music’s tempo shook me back to the present. I instinctively resumed swiveling before looking around. A large bar counter with a trio of tenders on the other side was nested opposite the main stage. I made my way towards it, and waited for the buck to have his fun.
Thankfully the space by the counter wasn’t crowded. Enough to blend in, but not enough to lose sight of my quarry. I stood sideways to be able to see the main stage, and by extension, the deer.
Even in this VIP lounge it was obvious the music was the main attraction, with people dancing and cheering, no doubt their enthusiasm fueled by alcohol among other indulgences. I couldn’t say it was my type of tune, but I couldn’t lie and say the universal energy radiating from the crowd and the performers did not put me in a giddy mood. It was… infectious.
“What'll it be miss!?”
The bartender’s shout got my attention. I leaned over the counter and yelled back. “Ring up a Vesper!”
The griffin nodded in an overexaggerated manner, making sure to signal to me that she understood, then quickly started prepping my drink.
I turned my back to the counter and leaned on it, then grabbed a strand of my mane and twirled it playfully. A large unicorn in a colourful blouse walked right beside me. He was moving slowly, bouncing and bobbing his head only very slightly.
I let go of my mane and giggled before muttering under my breath. “A for effort, soldierboy.”
As the stallion walked past, I rolled my eyes and shook my head in amusement. If you were trying to stay undercover, do not watch everyone like a hawk. And most definitely do not pack anything bigger than a thirty-eight.
I threw my head back, closed my eyes and listened.
‘That he could wish himself health on a four-leaf clover.’
I could have sworn I heard those lyrics in some ancient and very different song before. No matter.
The beat that came right after did the trick, and I heard the excited yelling of the crowd all around me. I couldn’t help but lightly throw my loose mane around. Partially to blend in, but mostly because it was just plain fun.
A light tap on my back broke me out of my reverie. Reluctantly, I looked over my shoulder to see the bartender pointing at my now filled glass. I gave her a quick nod before swiping my bracelet on the portable terminal in the griffin’s hand and grabbing my cocktail.
A sip of the bitter liquid, just enough to feel its coarse burn, and it was time to go.
I took off and made my way to the opposite end of the platform. The buck was by the railing, stomping, swaying and tossing his head around. Lost in trance. I really could not blame him.
Weaving between other party goers, tables and the staff, I managed to get to the railing. With friendly smiles and a bit of elbow grease I finally reached the very front, stopping right next to my target.
One more step and an accidental tumble later, the contents of my glass landed straight on his shoulder.
He jumped, startled, looked at me through his flashing LED shades, and made a surprised expression.
I quickly grabbed the edge of my poncho and started rubbing it against his coat. “I am so sorry! I am such a goof!”
He looked annoyed for just a split second, just long enough before he noticed my rich golden eyes. As he did, his expression became neutral. Then, the corners of his mouth went upwards. The song was ending by now, but I still barely registered what he said.
“Hey! No problem!”
I’ve put on my best innocent smile I could muster. “Sorry, sorry! I shouldn’t have come all the way here! It’s too tight to just stand and drink!”
His smile grew into a grin as he waved a foreleg, dismissing the notion. “You should really fasten your seatbelts in this place girl! Come on, stay and have fun! I promise I will get you a new one later!”
His obvious wink was all the confirmation I needed to know that he thought I was his now.
More precisely, it was what I wanted him to think.
After one of the burly unicorns the deer waved over took my now empty glass, I graciously nodded and smiled some more. I then put a hoof on his shoulder, drawing him close enough to not have to yell. Once I got his attention, I pointed the other hoof towards the stage. “Who are these guys anyway!?”
He looked at me briefly, then at the stage. “Oh them!? I am not sure, first time hearing them! Some kind of art bats!”
“I think I like them! Are they going to go on for long!?”
The buck glanced at his multiband and tapped it twice. His response was drowned out by the roaring cheers of a couple thousand throats as the tune passed its climax. “...nding! The next set is the bomb! You don’t want to miss that!”
I gave him a few quick nods. “Oh yeah! I am not alone in that! That’s what I’m here for!” I had little knowledge of what he was talking about. “You want to get me that drink before it begins!?”
Out here, there was no such thing as the beginning or end, just periods of slowdown for resting. The event was running for three days in a row, but right now was the ultimate concentration of the party. The peak of freedom. The depths of hedonism. The supernova of pleasure. I’ve spent the last three and a half hours looking for this deer. No intel, be it Republic or Imperial, could have tracked him down this precisely. Not in this place. Torann Corcra, also known as the Fading Halo, eldest son of the owner of the most powerful big pharma megacorp in Avalon. Ninety nine point nine percent of all the drugs at this party were made in his father’s laboratories.
But that was not why I was seeking him out. Arrest him for drug trafficking? I was not here to play cops and robbers. A month ago, one of our missing Avalon agents was finally found. More precisely, his hindlegs and a roach infested torso had been found. In three separate waste barrels no less. Sloppy, not something a rival agency would do. But a mob? Section Twelve finally found out who was responsible. Looked like daddy decided to change sides.
It was time to return the favour.
I flashed my eyebrows. “Come on! Before they start playing the good stuff!” They were already playing the good stuff, but I had to take my chance before Torann was lost in the zone again.
Tugging at his antler playfully, I headed for the counter. He quickly followed.
Of course he would.
I reached the bar first, turned around and waited for the buck with a playful smile. Once he rejoined me, he waved one of the bartenders who dropped whatever she was doing and immediately approached the deer. She knew who he was, that much was obvious.
“Hey Ringo! Aquileian Light!”
The bartender nodded and yelled back, eyes still on the buck. “And for the lady!?”
He looked at me with a coy smirk. I held his gaze with a smile. “Lake City Coup!”
The bartender disappeared as quickly as she appeared, not that he noticed. I think he was lost somewhere between yellow and gold.
The music was picking up again, but it was obvious it was just a slower piece intended to let the crowd rest since the last performance.
I grabbed a strand of my mane and played with it in my hoof, all the while staring into the buck’s soul. “You’re a regular, aren’t you!?”
The sound of his chuckle was covered by the fast beat. “I’ve been around! Here, Highlands, Radar, Yesterdayland, Sunset, Moonburn… The list goes on!” He puffed his chest out proudly.
I opened my mouth in awe. “Wow! I haven’t been to any big ones yet! Unless you count this! You’re a vet!”
The deer was beaming; that did the trick. “You won’t find this kind of fun anywhere else!” He lowered his eyes for a moment before looking at me again. This time however, Torann wasn’t looking at me like he would have had at a new toy; his gaze was focused inwards. As if he was reflecting on a philosophical dilemma, or lecturing a neophyte. “In this kind of music the beautiful thing is that it is not hurrying along! There are no verses, no chorus, no refrain, everyone can just experience it as they please! It's just... music!”
Before I could have answered, our attention was grabbed by the bartender. We took the two tinted glasses filled with with our respective orders.
The deer spoke again. “Are you going to finally tell me your name or do I have to get you more drinks?”
I brought my drink to lips before giggling at his question. “Oh yes! I am Memory Lane!”
He nodded, tapped his glass and smiled charmingly. “My name’s Torann Corcra, Purple Noise in deerspeek! A pleasure!” The buck raised his drink with a wink.
Half closing my eyes with a warm smile I brought up mine and we clinked our glasses together.
“Well, Miss Memory Lane!” He downed his entire drink in one go. “Let’s PARTY!”
“Woohoo!” I followed suit and threw one of my forelegs into the air.
This was bad. I was supposed to drop the pill into the drink and conveniently vanish. Not get smashed and listen to whatever the fuck kind of trance this was with a soon to be a very stiff druglord.
Torann put his glass on the counter, then did the same with mine. Then, he grabbed me by my shoulder, before gently pulling me into the crowd.
I habitually touched the piece of jewelry on my neck. I had to try again later, or come up with another option. Close enemies, I supposed.
As he pulled me along between the colourful partygoers, I felt the warmth reaching my stomach. The last time I drank anything stronger than a beer was… I didn’t remember. The blasting music’s tempo quickly matched my own heartbeat. This time it was faster than before, even more energetic. It didn’t take long for it to unfurl. I could hear the crowd singing in unison.
‘Reach up to the sky above. Higher like you can't get enough.’
He pulled me along. There were noticeably more people here now. Figures. It was the hour where the really good stuff started. Soon, we found ourselves surrounded by partying people.
But we weren’t going to the platform’s railing. The deer was dragging me towards the stairs leading out of the VIP lounge.
“Where are we going!?”
Torann yelled without turning around to look at me. “That was just an entrée! We’re going to the main floor! Trust me!”
I quickly looked around, trying to spot the heat packing stallions, but they were nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t remember if that was good or bad. But I knew I had to stay close to the deer.
We gracefully weaved through the crowd, running down the stairs two steps at a time. Then, headed for the main floor, right under the massive glassteel roof. The buck held my hoof gently, but securely enough to not lose touch. Minute after minute, drop after drop, beat after beat, we made our way into the middle of the huge crowd, perhaps twenty meters from the stage.
The crowd here was dense, but there was enough room to stand freely. More importantly, there was enough room to throw oneself around, which Torann immediately started to do.
I couldn’t afford to stand out.
‘And then you bring it back.’
We couldn’t get drinks here. How was I supposed to give him the poison? I had to figure out something, and fast.
I was probably the only person on the floor right now that was thinking. Not that others were incapable. They were just… gone. Consumed by rhythm, lights and each other’s bliss. The closeness of another, be it lover, friend or a total stranger. All were lost, heedless of the world at large. Their daily burdens, issues, monotony. All were away, far from here. Just for this weekend. It was good.
I drew in a sharp breath as the beat slowed down.
Closeness. That was it. Risky. Extremely so. But I had a job to do.
Alternating between my four legs weaving, stomping and twisting, I sidestepped closer to the buck. Close enough to brush my side against his coat.
He looked at me with a smile and turned it into a grin. “This is awesome! COME ON!” With a quick reach, he hooked his foreleg over my shoulder and began swaying left and right in tune.
My laugh was drowned out by the music as I followed suit. “YOU’RE RIGHT!” Turning to the deer, I lidded my eyes and grinned. “I’m glad I’m here with you Torann!”
He lifted his LED glasses and looked into my eyes with an expression of gratitude. It took him a short moment to finally escape the sea of gold. “The night’s still young! But something already tells me it will be unforgettable!”
I couldn’t help but cover my muzzle with a hoof and laugh. It’d been a while since someone looked at me like that.
We embraced each other and laughed as the song transitioned. But instead of letting go, I pushed the deer away forcefully and laughed at his confusion. “How about that other drink you promised me!?”
He balked at me for a split second before bursting out in laughter. “Oh so you are that kind of mare!? Don’t worry! I have something better!” He slowed down his swaying and reached a hoof into the small satchel around his midsection, rummaged there for a moment and pulled out two tiny wraps of tinfoil.
I could see them clearly. I instantly knew what they were. After all, he was a specialist.
Torann slowly unwrapped one of the packages, licked his hoof and put it into the foil. Then he lifted it and pointed at my muzzle. A small pale orange pill was sticking to it. Shaped… like an owl?
“Nothing serious, not some insane tranquilizer! Just enough to make you fire on all cylinders!” He turned the hoof around, opened his muzzle and started to move it to his mouth.
Quickly, I reached out and grabbed his foreleg. He looked at me in surprise as I turned it around, gave him a devious smile and licked the pill off it.
It immediately sucked out all the moisture from my mouth, and was by far the single most bitter thing I ever swallowed.
The buck raised his eyebrows high before chuckling, at least I thought he was chuckling, not that I heard anything. “What about me!?” He leaned down and began to carefully unwrap the other packet.
That was my chance. I turned to the side and grabbed my necklace. A small, wooden crescent moon on a linen string, holding a shiny gemstone. Grabbing it with both hooves I clicked the gemstone and from the other side another pill fell out. This one white and round. I quickly put it in my mouth. I knew it was safe; the chemical compound was tailored to deer DNA. An earth pony like me would end up in a street corner and puke for the rest of the night, but for a deer like Torann it would be lethal. After all, it was made by his own father’s company.
Turning quickly back to my quarry I called out. “You fed me mine, how about I feed you yours!?”
I could see the cogs in his head turning. Once he got it, he grinned and passed me his pill.
Quickly, I grabbed the owl and deposited it in my mouth.
I was going to regret this later.
Holding the necklace pill between my teeth, I swallowed the disgusting drug, then shifted the white pill between my lips… And threw myself at the buck. Forelegs around each other’s shoulders, our lips met passionately and I wasted no time in pushing my tongue, and the pill, deep inside his mouth.
We stood like that for a long time. He was busy trying to feel the inside of my muzzle. I was making sure he swallowed the pill. I would have lied if I said I did not enjoy it. He was a cute young buck.
But a job is a job.
Finally, once I was certain Torann had gulped down the pill, we broke off, breathing heavily and shaking. He grinned at me like a colt who just had his first kiss.
I smiled and waved my mane in return. “Wow! This thing is really dry! Get us some water, will you!?”
The buck nodded eagerly, leaned in close and gave me a smooch on the cheek before leaving. “I’ll be right back!”
As soon as I was sure the deer was out of sight, I turned towards the stage and began pushing through the crowd. All I had to do was extract without him finding me, get a gastric lavage, and it was back to the NLR for some well earned rest.
I had to take the long route back. Get to the stage, then to the side, and skirt the edges of the crowd as far away from the VIP lounge as possible. I did not want to run into his bodyguards. They would surely be on the lookout for his lovebird once he realised I was not waiting for him.
The crowd was even denser here. No matter. The less obvious the route, the better.
I could hear the shift in the music’s tempo; a new piece transitioned, and judging by the crowd’s ecstatic reaction to the high, almost coy female voice, it was a banger. Stopping briefly, I cast my sight backwards to where I last saw the deer. There was no sight of him. Instead, I saw hundreds if not thousands of grinning, blissful faces. I couldn’t help but crack a smile at the scene - it grew and grew. As soon as the lyrics started, I saw nearly everyone following along.
‘Our hearts tend to wander’
Such a fascinating place.
Facing the stage again, I looked at their idol. A griffin female, barely visible from behind the huge console. Fortunately, her station was televised live from multiple angles on the many screens hanging all around the venue. The ashen red griffin’s image alternated between colourful outlandish visualizations and shots of the colourful crowd.
I stood there, staring at it all. Even as an outsider I felt like I belonged. There was no judgement here, no prejudice, no hate or ridicule. Everyone could enjoy the event, everyone was welcome.
It made me feel happy.
My legs felt like they were made from putty.
And my face was graced with the biggest smile I’d ever felt.
I was certain.
I threw my head backwards and stared at the madly spinning spectacle behind the tinted glassteel. The pale blue jets of the pulsar’s emissions weaved as only a young filly’s braids could. In the middle, where they met, a tiny dot of brightest white radiated like no ordinary star ever could hope to accomplish. I was hypnotized.
‘Set yourself free!’
The crowd EXPLODED.
I was swept away by their ecstasy, yelling and cheering like so many others around me. Finally, I unglued my eyes from the distant star’s red glow and looked towards the stage, at a multitude of screens. The pegasus was still at it, then the image on the screens shifted. An overhead shot of the whole crowd. Then it shifted again. A heavily stylized negative colour visualization of what I guessed was the ship itself, floating through a psychedelic rendition of the cosmos.
With wobbling muscles I hefted myself up to stand on my hindlegs and threw my forelegs up.
A golden rush.
The bright moving lights of the stage had an almost perceivable aura around them, as if I could have touched the shine. I balanced on my hindlegs and reached out to touch it.
‘Welcome back agent Whisper Step, ready for another round?’
The smooth, brazen male voice echoed through my skull.
Smiling, I look at the gigantic screen behind the stage, the only one present. It was clearly visible, the whole floor was dark, with only occasional, electric hot searchlights shifting through the blackness.
On the screen, a pair of emerald slitted eyes.
Peering straight at me.
The chorus exploded again.
‘Snowdrop. Tell me what you know about Snowdrop.’
I grin at the eyes. They are beautiful.
My fetlocks start to itch.
The job was supposed to be a simple snatch and grab. Get to the university, quietly grab the professor - by force if necessary - get back to the extract point and wait for pickup.
Of course no one expected a squadron of hyper advanced pursuit robots to crash our plans. I was on the run from the moment I snatched the zebra, at least fifteen minutes ago. We managed to make our way out of campus and into a more isolated area, but they were not letting up.
I could hear the flechettes hit our cover as I shouted into the radio. “Damnit Sir, I need some help!” The rushing wind all around me made it hard to hear anything else.
The voice in my ear was calm, but the level of intensity it carried only reinforced how serious the situation was. “We’re working on it Paladin. Get to the top of the temple, we’ll have a dropship pick you up.”
I nodded, knowing well that the many telescoping cameras watching me from the orbit would not be enough to let the voice know I understood. “What in Luna’s name are those three legged freaks?”
The voice was quick to reply. “Unknown. Their profile doesn’t match anything the Caliphate might have in service.”
I let out a blind burst from my SMG over the pile of construction materials I was using for cover, then pulled out and primed my last EMP grenade before lobbing it over towards my pursuers. The electric zap of an explosion was clearly heard from here. “Empire?”
“Unlikely, nothing suggests they are involved in this operation.” The voice paused, then continued with a tinge of annoyance. “We don’t know who made them or who sent them.”
I took a deep breath and counted what remained in my ammo pouch. It should last. “Great.”
Finally, for the first time since the tireless hunters appeared, I properly regarded my mission objective. An elderly zebra, wearing pure white flowing robes with golden filigree, now a little dusty from the chase. He was thin, nearly emaciated, I was not sure if that was because of some sickness or old age. His milky white eyes were staring into space, somewhere I could not hope to perceive. Every time I looked at them, I felt like I was being dragged in deeper and deeper. Something was telling me I would not have liked where I would end up at. Was that how others felt when they looked at me?
I did not know who he was, other than some high ranking scholar the Agency wanted to have. Frankly, I did not care, and even if I did, there was no way to know. The stallion did not speak a word of Equestrian.
“Paladin, looks like they retreated. Keep moving.”
“Roger that Emperor!” I peeked over our cover. The pursuers were gone, at least for the moment. With a slight nudge I brought the zebra up and we started moving again. He wasn’t resisting, even though I had just kidnapped him straight from his lunch break. All we had to do was to extract. Easy enough.
That had been the case until those things appeared out of nowhere. I had counted at least eight, but once we get out into the open, Emperor had confirmed it was just five. They were just very, very good at teamwork and misdirection.
They were also nearly bulletproof and could take full advantage of the urban terrain thanks to their agility and articulated limbs. With some effort, I'd managed to down two of them with EMP grenades, but the others seemed to have gotten wise to my tricks.
That is why we had run here. Al-Bayir, the biggest and oldest university in the Caliphate. A prestigious centre of learning and knowledge, both secular and religious. A shining pearl of early post-colonization zebra architecture, its three hundred plus meter golden dome we were currently climbing dominated the city’s skyline and, conveniently, offered the biggest open space where our pursuers could not exploit their strengths. Fortunately, the building was undergoing renovation and was currently covered in scaffolding and repair gantries. The machines had to follow them to the top, same as we. It was also devoid of any workers thanks to an important holiday.
I quickly checked again if the robots were gone. Once I was sure I didn’t see any, I helped the old stallion along. He mumbled something I could not understand in protest, but started moving anyway. We quickly followed the narrow path made of prefab support segments, drawing closer and closer to the temporary landing platform at the very top.
The scaffolding was spiraling around the bulbous dome, but fortunately we had already passed the point of biggest diameter. Each bend of the upwards spiral was becoming shorter and shorter. I had to stop every now and then to allow the zebra to catch his breath; each time I expected an inevitable ambush. It never came.
After a few more rounds I spotted a platform extending from the scaffolding that held workers’ equipment and supplies. We crouched down behind bags of dry plaster. “Emperor do you have a visual on the hostiles? I cannot see any of them.”
“We’re scanning all spectra but so far nothing, it’s like they vanished. Stay alert.”
“Understood. I have to hold here so the VIP does not kee-”
The serene zebra suddenly whipped his head to the side and stared into empty space with alarm. I followed suit, but there was nothing.
Then, in a blink of an eye, a form took shape. Pale white, I saw an inverted conical body shimmer into being. It lifted up, standing on three well-articulated legs, until it stood easily over a meter taller than I was. A glowing robotic eye was mounted on a rail around the middle of the cone and a flechette launcher was attached to its top like a turret. But for all the uncanny valley in that shifting eye, it was the small pair of eerily organic griffish talons hanging from the bottom of the cone, grasping and feeling the air that sent shivers down my spine.
I brought up my weapon and dumped the whole mag’. They were nearly bulletproof, but that did not mean they were invincible. Majority of my bullets ricocheted off the conical body, but those that hit managed to hurt it. It’s robotic eye was shattered and one of its leg servos was torn at its base. The machine staggered, screeched, and after a few shaky steps fell to the ground. I winced as I watched the small griffish arms still reaching out and clutching helplessly, even after the rest of the robot had been ruined. Two down to EMP, one to plain old bullets, two to go.
I took a deep breath.
Less than a second later.
‘Thwip! thwip! thwip!’
It was a distraction.
I felt a sharp pain in my side as the force of impact made me gasp for breath. The flechettes embedded themselves in my carapace and started glowing, faster and faster. Frantically I attempted to dislodge them, but I was too late to get them all.
As I reached for the third one, the glow became constant and the blue end of the projectile exploded in an electrical discharge.
Over a blink of an eye I could feel the wave of the shock travel from the flechette’s tip through skin, through muscle, searing every nerve it found along the way, then all over my side, spilling over my torso. I whipped my tail as all my muscles spasmed. I felt the insides of my teeth cry out in pain.
I don’t know how long I screamed.
I fell to my knees as the shock ended and my muscles gave up. I found myself staring forward, eyes wide. Drawing in fast and shallow breaths. My heart was racing. The machine that shocked me was gone.
“-adin respond! What is your situation!?” Emperor’s concerned voice thundered in my left ear.
“Dey hafe-” I balked. My tongue was burned. The shock must have boiled my saliva.
I forced myself to swallow. “They have some sort of cloaking device, that is why you couldn’t see them!”
“Shit. Get to the landing pad right now. Exfil in three minutes.”
“On it!” I turned to the zebra and grabbed his robes, pulling him along. “Come on old man!”
Two more levels. We ran as fast as the old stallion’s legs allowed, far below the speed I'd normally keep when being hunted. Every now and then the zebra would start mumbling something under his breath. After a minute, I realized he was chanting, words I couldn’t understand, nor cared for. All I needed from him was that he cooperated and followed me to the top.
We ran and ran. I didn’t bother checking every nook and cranny of the extensive scaffolding. If the robots were capable of cloaking, all I could do from now on, was to anticipate their moves and react to their ambushes.
The curve of the dome revealed another platform ahead. I stuck out my foreleg to tap the zebra and we slowed down. He looked at me with his piercing eyes, then at the platform and said something questioningly.
“That is where I would wait too, old man.” Checking my ammo I started to move slowly ahead, my weapon’s holo-sight close to my eye. Despite the howling wind and the hustle and bustle of the metropolis below I found myself whispering. “Emperor, anything on sensors?” The zebra wisely held back.
“Scope’s clean. They are hiding.”
“I don't think that is much better. They know you are watching. I am pushing in.” I just hoped there was a limit on how long they could stay hidden.
The platform was maybe the size of a typical living room. My left side was covered by the golden wall of Al-Bayir’s dome; ahead were stairs to the next level. On the right, beyond the platform’s railing, open sky.
I stepped carefully onto the platform, prefab components groaning under my weight. There was no sight nor sound of the prowling robots. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, relaxed my muscles and focused. The distant hum of the city and the rush of the wind slowly dulled out into silence.
I could hear the zebra’s quiet chanting.
The creak of a floorboard, two o’clock.
Immediately I opened my eyes and leapt to the side.
‘Thwip! thwip! thwip!’
They tried the same trick again, but this time I was not there.
Bringing myself up, I aimed at the machine I heard. It hadn’t finished decloaking yet, and I was not planning to let it. Thirty rounds later it collapsed in on itself on the platform. I could hear its brother galloping away on the scaffolding above.
I stood up and walked over to where the zebra was hugging the golden wall. “Downed another one, Emperor. There is one hostile left, it ran away.” Reaching out I pulled the stallion’s robe and lightly shoved him along, then with a quick move I swapped the empty mag out.
“Understood. Continue to the top. Dropship ETA ninety seconds.”
“Any chance of it supporting me?” It was a fair shot.
“Negative. It’s unarmed.”
Of course it was.
And so we started moving again. Now that I knew there was only one drone left I played it safe. It had to face me directly without its allies to misdirect me.
Two more sets of short stairs and we finally reached the small temporary landing pad at the top of the dome. It was simple, just a metal rectangle built over the top of the dome, big enough to allow a light dropship to land, deposit supplies and takeoff. “At the landing pad. Hurry up, will you?”
I could hear Emperor’s muffled chuckle. “ETA ten seconds, approaching from the south east.”
Sure enough, in the corner of my eye I could see the sleek form of a small unmarked coal-black dropship, it’s two vectoring nacelles maneuvered as the onboard programming actively counteracted the drag.
Keeping both the mission objective and my weapon close I had nothing to do but keep watch and wait for the automated craft to land. There was no sign of the last remaining cone freak.
With the clang of landing gear the dropship touched down and a door on its side slid open. Grabbing the zebra by the scruff of his neck I led him towards the passenger compartment. “We are boarding now, Emperor.” It was not easy to haul an eighty-something year old stallion into a tiny black ops dropship designed to hold four ponies at most.
The zebra started to reluctantly climb aboard; I had to help by pushing his flank into the dropship. Once he was inside, I grabbed the handle and started climbing in myself.
‘Thwip! thwip! thwip!’
I let go off the handle and jumped down. The flechettes embedded themselves in the hull exactly where I was half a second ago. Turning around I brought my weapon high and aimed at the opposite end of the platform.
The last remaining machine was only a few meters away. It scanned me with its single eye and adjusted its stance.
‘Thwip! thwip! thwip!’
This time I was faster, diving ahead and rolling right in front of it. The shock projectiles flew overhead. I brought my weapon up again and depressed the trigger at almost point blank range.
At the same moment, the drone fired again. This time however, its salvo was cut short by the damage done by my submachine gun.
A sharp jolt of pain in my left foreleg signalled that a single flechette hit its mark. I looked at the blue glowing tip and quickly pulled it out. That gave the drone an opening - it swiped one of its long legs and hit me square in the muzzle.
I can hear my nose cracking.
The force of the swing spun me fully in place and made me drop my gun.
I was not sure how I managed to stay upright. But I wasn’t going to waste it. With the flechette still in my left hoof, I threw myself at the machine. It was preparing to swing at me again, but I was swifter.
We crashed together. I stabbed the projectile into the robot’s front, but before I could withdraw, the glow at its tip became constant.
Lightning inside my foreleg.
Crawling slowly, deep under my flesh.
Higher and higher, to the shoulder.
My foreleg bends as all the muscles tighten.
Along my neck.
I feel a vice grip my windpipe.
I felt it reach my face.
My eyes bulge - I feel like they are going to fall out.
It hurts so much.
I can feel the darkness suffocating me.
No. Don’t give up. They are counting on you.
I snapped my eyes open, feeling like I just woken up from a nightmare. My head was pounding and I could feel the blood from my nose making its way down my face, neck and under my armour. I could barely stand.
Before me, the three legged drone lay on the ground. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Just in time to see it stir and start getting up. Its singular eye sharply turned through ninety degrees to face me.
I let out a painful whimper. Then, I screwed my eyes shut and roared.
I ran straight at it.
It didn’t have the time to stand up properly; my body slammed into it. I used my stronger right foreleg to punch and batter the singular eye as the drone desperately tried using its frail griffish hands to grasp at me. The machine was trying to steady itself but it was for naught with my full body weight constantly pushing it back.
Finally we stopped. I took a step backwards, crouched down and swiped my hindleg low, clipping two of the robot’s articulated legs. It wobbled like a spinning top.
Before it could regain its footing I stood up and threw my hoof square at its eye, finally shattering it with a crack.
The machine leaned back from the force of the impact. That was enough to send it over the edge. It tried to balance, but it was too late.
No programming could beat physics.
I stood there, breathing heavily. Only the sound of running engines and the rush of the wind could be heard. Just a few moments more and all of this would be over. I’d drop off the VIP, debrief and then crawl into nice comfortable bed aboard-
“Paladin, you okay down there?” Emperor’s voice brought me back to reality.
I moved my left foreleg. The muscles were still taut, so I had no choice but to keep it close to my body and walk to the dropship on three legs. “Perimeter clear, let’s get out of here.”
“Roger, get on board and it will get you to orbit. We’ll pick you up in twenty minutes. Emperor out.”
I slowly made my way to the awaiting dropship, the door on its side was still open. Inside I could see the zebra. He was sitting calmly on one of the folding seats, eyes closed. For someone currently being kidnapped, he was suspiciously stoic. Or maybe he knew there was nothing he could do. Smart guy.
As soon as I climbed in and secured the door, I fastened the stallion’s seatbelts before sitting down and doing the same for myself. Once that was done, I tapped the green button on the console nearby. The muffled whine of the engines intensified as I felt the dropship take off.
After the console informed me that we were underway did I lean my head against the headrest and let out an exhausted moan. As I slacked my muscles and began to relax, I could not help myself from thinking about what happened.
Who sent those drones? Who BUILT those drones? How did they know I was here? Why did they want the zebra? Did they really want the zebra? Or did they want me?
I had no answers. Probably for the best - it looked like something way above my paygrade.
I decided not to dwell on it and attempted to rest as much as possible. I’d have to request at least a month off after this mission. Two if I also wanted to get my head back together.
Just as I felt my eyes slowly closing on their own, the dropship’s lights turned from white to red. An alarm shrieked. Before I could gather what was happening the cabin turned pitch black and quiet.
No console. No lights.
Immediately I was fully alert, my body summoning last reserves of adrenaline.
“Emperor come in! The dropship lost power!”
“Paladin, verify. All green on our end.”
“We are going down! No damage! It just… turned off! I have no te-”
I screamed and threw my head as the small receiver in my ear burst into deafening static. Quickly I pulled it out and turned it off. Then, I heard the groaning of the dropship’s hull. Without power its flight characteristics were on par with a dead swallow.
And just like a dead swallow, it fell to the ground. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel the blood rushing into my head from the negative G force affecting my body.
There was nothing I could do.
Blindly I checked if my seatbelt was properly secured. I looked where the zebra should have been, but in the windowless inside of the dark dropship I couldn’t see a thing. I wasn’t sure if he was there; no sound was coming from the old stallion.
Just as I was about to yell out to him, the dropship shuddered. I could hear something scraping on the other side of the hull. But we weren’t done falling. A few more hits like that, and then a humongous crash followed by a white hot spike of pain drilling into my flank mercilessly.
How long was I out? I couldn’t tell, but mercifully I started feeling my pounding head again.
I opened my eyes slowly.
I saw a large blue rectangle with white clusters of fluff.
I was looking at the sky through the ripped out door. Outside I could hear the noise of a busy street. My head was pounding. I couldn’t focus on the clouds above nor the noise outside. I decided not to.
Looking to the side I spotted the zebra. He was still in his seat, fastened and secure, lying nearly motionless with his eyes closed. Only the slight rise and fall of his chest suggested that he'd survived the crash. I tried yelling at him, but that only made me realize my ears were still ringing as I couldn’t hear my own voice. At least that was what it felt like.
There was also the matter of dull pain in my right upper hindleg.
Not being able to do much from there, I unfastened my seatbelts and crawled out of the seat. What was left of the dropship was lying on its side, the only means of exit was the ripped door above. Once I made sure we were in no immediate danger I inspected myself for injuries.
Cuts and bruises, nothing serious. Then I stood up.
I squealed in pain as my right hindleg settled on the ground. Quickly I moved it up, holding it close to my belly.
It was broken. I didn’t need a medibot to know that. It also meant I had to use my other wounded limb if I were to walk anywhere.
Gritting my teeth, I hobbled over to the zebra and leaned down. A tiny wound was visible on his left temple, the small amount of blood he lost staining the elder’s pure white robe.
I quickly checked for any other visible injuries or dangers - fortunately there were none. None I could have seen at least. Regardless, I got up and shuffled to the back of the transport cabin. A first aid kit was attached to the wall with a three point strap. I grabbed the plastic box and moved back to the stallion, then sat down carefully, still mindful of my own injury.
The kit was rudimentary at best; painkillers, antiseptics, bandages and so on. I singled out a few items and began to dress the zebra’s wound. He was still out and it didn’t look like he was waking up anytime soon.
“Please don’t be a brain hemorrhage.”
If it was, there was nothing I could do. We couldn’t just go to a hospital.
Once I was done with the zebra, I popped open a cap from another stimshot applicator and slapped the needled tip into the base of my neck. The device let out a quiet hiss of pressurized air and momentarily I felt the pain in my body numb. I tossed the applicator aside and began to secure my broken limb with bandages and elastic bands.
There was little time to be thorough. The crash surely drew attention - we couldn’t have cleared out of the metropolis in so little time. And I didn’t want the local officials to get close. With the upper half of my hindleg wrapped in elastic bands and splints I settled down again and pulled out my communicator, turned it back on and inserted it into my left ear.
“This is Paladin. Package is secured but the dropship has crashed. I need an immediate evac.”
“Emperor, are you there?”
“Emperor. Paladin. Are you reading me?”
I hung my head and mouthed a curse. How could this have gone so wrong? Who was after me? This was not a quick reactionary play by the Caliphate. It was too precise, too well planned.
Biting my lip hard I looked up and pulled out my weapon, then checked the magazine.
Halfway. I had two more spare.
Whoever planned to ruin the mission would also have planned what to do once the dropship was brought down.
Carefully I unstrapped the unconscious zebra and threw his limp body over my back. Then, I started climbing out of the wreckage. It was no easy task with a broken hindleg, a shocked foreleg and an elderly scholar in tow. But thanks to the many handles inside the dropship and my regular workouts, we made it. It still took much longer than I liked.
Finally, I climbed out and onto the ruined dropship’s side. The craft had crashed into a deep artificial channel, about thirty meters across, now nearly empty. Only a lazy stream flowed at the bottom. It was fetid, most of the water’s surface was covered with junk and refuse, the rest was covered with thick mushy plant matter. At least I hoped it was plant matter.
It certainly did not smell like plants I was used to.
The vertical sides of the canal ended at the same height as my head, and I was standing on top of a small spaceship, wrecked in the middle of the structure. Additionally, an imposing wall extended above the right side of the channel, at least three stories tall. Further above it, rich highrise buildings, clearly the edges of a different, wealthier district. There was no way I could have gone over that.
A small crowd of zebra wearing simple clothes were gathered at the left edge of the canal; they were lively, talking and watching me and my wrecked spaceship. Some were taking photos or filming me with their hoofheld devices. None of them looked like they were eager to come closer.
From my perch on the fallen dropship I could see that behind them, was a narrow street running along the canal. Small utility trucks, smaller city cars and what looked like dozens, if not hundreds of mopeds; most of them running on antiquated internal combustion engines.
And all of them honking.
Whatever parts of the street were not filled with vehicles were filled with pedestrians. Dozens of zebra walking one way or another, carrying huge packages, stacks of fruit or tall clay jars. All on their heads, and all mares.
More often than not, the two areas intertwined. This it seemed, was the source of the constant honking.
Beyond the street, I could see small shanties haphazardly cobbled together from sheet metal, loose cinder blocks or other jigsaw construction materials. Even further, a scattering of low buildings. Dilapidated, dirty and looking as if they were about to collapse. Every structure was adorned with a multitude of old signs and advertisements, many of them hoofpainted, no doubt by the owners themselves.
We were in the slum district.
Balancing on the mangled hull of the dropship I stepped down into the fetlock deep water with my quarry on back, then made my way towards the wall and the shanties. Fortunately, the wall of the canal had steps cut into it allowing me to climb out relatively easily. That said, given the stallion’s weight, my wounds, the shining sun and the length of the stairs, I was sweating once I reached the top. After steadying my breath I looked up and froze.
The zebra from before were gone, dispersed into the flowing crowd nearby. Only three remained.
Two fillies and a colt.
The trio watched me with blank expressions. The oldest - a pre-teen at most - had a smoking cigarette stuck in the gap where her front teeth used to be. Her mane was a clogged mess; I suspected it had never been cleaned. The middle one - also a filly - was peeking out from behind the cigarette kid; I could see her closely clutching a decapitated head of a plastic doll. The colt, whose age gave an impression of a recent escapee from daycare, was dressed in an oversized hoodie bearing a washed out Imperial Sun crest.
I knew my stare had an effect on people. But the stares of these three?
I didn’t know.
I didn’t want to know.
But I instantly knew I would never forget it.
A loud shout somewhere off to the side grabbed mine and the foals’ attention. Another zebra ran over to us. This one was an adult, a mare, perhaps ten or fifteen years older than me. But then I couldn’t tell - she was too grubby-looking to make sure. Disheveled, just like the foals.
The mare shouted again, something I couldn’t understand, and something that made the three foals instantly bolt back to the adult and far away from me. As soon as they rejoined the adult zebra, she reached out her forehooves and held the trio close. Then gave me an accusatory stare and vanished with the kids back into the crowd on the other side of the street.
Only then I realized. Everyone was giving me a wide berth, which was no easy feat on such a busy street. It felt like I was the most alone person in a slum.
The zebra of the Caliphate and the rare, more adventurous individuals living abroad always had a very defined cultural identity. If two zebra living on the opposite ends of the Core met each other for the first time, the separation didn’t matter. The tribes had their shared customs, language and traditions long before they had spaceships. One of the most basic pillars of social life for a zebra was their tribal identity and blood ties. The tribe helped an individual as much as an individual helped the tribe.
That was, of course, unless a zebra was one of the Manaeat.
The Barred Ones.
There was a slum like this in every major metropolis across the Caliphate. Filled with Manaeat, the zebra without a tribe. Outcasts mostly, for one reason or another.
Of course, there was also another way of becoming one.
Being born into it.
I quickly filtered out any further thoughts about it; this was not a place nor time to think about their misery. Of course, I had to go into that misery if I were to get out of there. The slums were not safe to outsiders, especially after nightfall. It felt more like a wild frontier than a city.
After a quick check of the unconscious stallion on my back I started moving into the narrow alleyways between the shacks. Finding a place to catch my breath and properly treat myself was my main goal now.
“Emperor, this is Paladin, do you read me?” No reply, but it was not impossible that only I was being jammed. “I am somewhere in the slum district, looks like north quarter. I am wounded and I have no means of extraction. I am going to look for someplace to stay low. Proceeding on hoof, over.” Briefly I worried that the message could be intercepted by whoever was chasing us, but then I decided that I had no other choice if we were to leave this place intact.
If any reply came, I couldn’t hear it over the constant noise of the street.
“Damnit.” I looked at the old stallion as we rounded a corner and proceeded deeper into the shantytown. “You better wake up soon or we will both suffer for it.”
He was as talkative as my communicator.
I had no choice but to look forward and walk in silence.
The ‘streets’ here were nothing more than narrow, uneven asphalt pathways allowing pedestrian traffic between the shanties; none of that stopped anyone from driving their mopeds through though. Nothing in this part of town was regulated, supervised or maintained in any official capacity, and it showed.
Most of the shacks were made from bleak cinder blocks - bare, save for an occasional piece of spray painted graffiti or street art. The buildings were stacked on top of one another without rhyme or reason, which made it obvious how frequently they were built, rebuilt and modified. It wasn’t uncommon to see a structure where the first floor was made out of blocks with each following floor being constructed from a different material. Many of them lacked doors and windows, and instead used tarps, old pieces of furniture or plastic covering to block my sight.
If the buildings were a mish mash of random crossed with accidental, another thing was nearly universal. As I limped along the street everyone was watching me. Wherever I went, conversations died. Vendors protectively covered their wares displayed on simple pieces of clothing laid out on the ground. Street craftsmen stopped their ancient noisy machines and tools, and watched me from under furrowed eyebrows. Oncoming passers-by swerved to the other side of the street just to not get too close to me. Mares, stallions, colts and fillies watched from many windows above the street.
All stares were on me.
All stares were fearful.
No one dared to approach me.
I was growing increasingly concerned as more and more zebra began taking notice. A block later I noticed a small mob had started to follow me.
I was a stranger there, but this place should not have been like that. Indifferent, yes. But not openly hostile.
It didn’t matter - what mattered was that I had to deal with it. And fast. As soon as I spotted a thin alleyway I turned into it and started hobbling faster. It was barely wide enough to allow two ponies walking side by side. I could see and hear doors slamming as I walked past them, the curious onlookers frightened by my proximity. Only a scant few kept them open, but just enough to only peek at the pony with one eye covered in shadows.
The alleyway was so narrow that the buildings above blocked sunlight, but I could clearly see sunshine at the end. With a quick glance I confirmed that I was still being followed. At least six young stallions. All holding gas-pipes, knives or other brutally simple weapons.
Two and a half mags.
How many of them were out there?
I winced painfully as I began to trot. My shocked foreleg was barely usable. The pain followed like hot burning wire deep in my tissue all the way to my clavicle.
Grinding my teeth, I pushed on.
Finally, I reached the end of the alleyway. Upon exiting the narrow path I was nearly blinded by the sun. As soon as I regained my sight I saw a zebra holding a metal chain standing in front of me. She was shorter than me, but well built, a black ornamental eyepatch covered her left eye. Her neck was adorned with ornate metal rings and she was wearing a spotless bright orange robe with golden filigree. Not unlike the robe of the zebra on my back.
At the other end of the chain was a snarling creature roughly the size of a large dog. It looked like a dog too, but something was off. I couldn’t really settle on what exactly. It’s brown-gray coat had distinctive black spots all over the creatures body. Its jaws looked like they could bite through my bones with ease.
I could have sworn it laughed as it sniffed the air towards me.
The zebra was standing in the middle of a rectangular yard, surrounded on all sides by tall dirty buildings. Corroded rainspouts adorned the walls. Above I could see tiny barred balconies around every wall, and beyond, a depressingly small rectangle of blue sky. All the doors on the ground level appeared closed tight.
There was no way out.
I grabbed my weapon and brought it up, aiming at the mare. The chained creature snarled.
“Fire that gun and your spirit will wander these streets forever, looking for the pieces of your vessel.” She didn’t bat an eye as she serenely spoke in heavily accented equestrian. Her eye was locked with mine.
I glanced over my shoulder at my pursuers. They were standing at the end of the alleyway I just left, weapons ready.
“Let me leave in peace, I am not here by choice.” I indicated the big double doors behind her with the barrel of my weapon.
“That is why your foregoers guided me here.” She pointed a hoof at the armed thugs. “They do not want him around and will do anything to get the rot out of here swiftly.”
I looked at the stallions, then at the unconscious elder on my back. “Then tell them that I want to leave. I need to get out of the city.”
The mare lightly tugged on the chain, making the creature pant and retreat to its mistress. “They won’t help you, they will not help anyone who deals with the Shayatin.” She pointed a hoof at the stallion on my back. “And he does. They think you and your friend will doom the souls of everyone in here.” The mare paused, looked at the creature and said a single word in a language I could not understand. The furred beast obediently sat down and let out a monstrous yawn, giving me a full view of its bone crushing jaws.
“The cleverest out of you and me is I. For I am the one with the evil eye. Your soul is pure.” She chuckled and nodded at my raised submachine gun. “At least when it comes to demonic possession.”
The mare took a few steps forward and her bestial companion closely followed. She smiled and extended a bracelet covered foreleg towards me. “I will-”
Her words were drowned out by a sudden crash of wood and metal. I saw it clearly.
The double doors on the other side of the yard were pulverized.
Between the pieces of shattered wood and other debris I could see a frightening sight. Dozens of segmented metal limbs, flailing around, breaking through what was left of the door.
“GET DOWN!” Mercifully, the zebra and her companion dashed out of the line of fire, giving me a clean shot. I let out a long burst, but it had no effect on the machine.
It strode into the yard on its many arms, each of them making a loud clunk as it anchored itself in the ground or nearby walls. The thin appendages were attached to a rotund torso, roughly as wide as two ponies. In the middle of it hung what I could only describe as a face of a mechanical arachnid, with groupings of optical sensors of various shapes and sizes. They scanned the immediate area.
I wasn’t going to stay and find out what it wanted.
Running shoulder first into the narrowest door I could spot, I broke the weak lock and we tumbled into a dark building. I landed on my back on the old tiles, staring at a winding staircase leading upwards. Doing my best to ignore the brief pain in my third limb now, I got up and turned around to where the stallion was lying in a heap; he was still unconscious. As I moved again to pick him up, I noticed one of the metal tentacles reaching in through the narrow entryway, snaking its way towards one of elder’s hindlegs.
I pulled on the strap of my SMG, brought the weapon to my eye and fired what I had remaining in the magazine. What bullets hit seemed to make the machine reconsider as the tentacle retreated hastily.
I wasn’t about to waste time either. Picking the stallion up I started to make way to the staircase and upwards. Once I set a hoof on the first step, the sound of shattering glass and wood rang from above. Pieces of skylight dropped next to me with a crash as I saw another octopus-like machine enter at the top of the staircase.
Its many eyes glowed crimson as they locked on me. Its tentacles expertly anchored the robot in the walls and the staircase’s structure, making it hang three floors directly above me. For a second it looked as it was going to jump down on me. I slapped in my penultimate magazine and aimed up, steadied my racing breath and depressed the trigger.
The octopus instantly swerved to the side, hugging the wall and using the banister as cover as I kept firing short bursts at it. It moved faster than I could have tracked it. Plaster on the wall bulged and ripped, wooden stairs broke and splintered, the banister’s metal rods bent and warped as its tentacles propelled the technological horror in a downwards spiral towards me.
I turned around only to see another set of tentacles reach in through the door which I had entered through. Dumping the remaining bullets at it, I frantically looked for a way out.
The stairs lead below the ground level, to the cellar.
There was no time to look for alternatives. I had to hope that the doorframe would be too narrow for the robots and hobbled inside.
Into the darkness.
With a flick of a switch I turned on the flashlight mounted on my weapon and descended down the stairs. I could hear the thrashing of the machines behind me, their long manipulators not stretching down the basement entrance far enough to reach the zebra on my back; we were too deep already. The robots couldn’t fit.
The cellar was pitch black, cold and damp. It was sizeable enough to allow a couple branching corridors leading deeper into the structure. The shine of my light revealed rows upon rows of open storage units. Most of them were empty, while those that weren't held mostly junk. Anything from rusting machine parts, through stacks of rotting furniture to plain trash.
I picked a direction at random and began walking carefully, weapon to my shoulder. Once I rounded a corner I could no longer hear the robots above. This dark place was nearly silent, only my own hoofsteps and the squeaking of rats rummaging through the abandoned items could be heard. I had to find a way out; put distance between me and whatever those mechanical freaks were.
What were they? Who sent them?
I let out a quiet curse as my left foreleg reminded me of the previous adversaries I'd faced on this mission.
Were they sent by the same people?
I didn’t know.
I really don’t know.
I tried my communicator again. “Emperor, if you are listening. I need help urgently. I am being hunted. I am in the slum, in a...” I stopped, lowered my weapon and let out a pained moan, my voice cracked in the middle of it as I shuddered.
“A dark place. It’s full of… things.”
I turned the SMG and shone its flashlight at the knocked out zebra. No change.
“I don’t know if I can take it any longer. Paladin out.”
He was heavy, my lungs burned, my head was pounding and my two healthy legs were nearly buckling from the strain.
I need rest. Please.
There was a storage unit right beside me - a couple plastic bags filled with trash were visible thanks to my flashlight. I limped over there and lowered the stallion onto the pile. I needed a way to move freely to locate an exit that was hopefully not guarded by the robots. Sliding my last remaining magazine into the gun I closed the door to the storage. There was no padlock or other means of securing it, but I didn't have much of a choice.
The doors were marked with bold digits.
I took a mental note of the number and began looking for a way out.
The dry air of the cellar irritated my nostrils as I carefully limped along the hallway. More storage units and no sign of exit. This place was a maze.
Turn after turn, I found nothing to give me direction. Looking up and down, I spotted piping attached to the ceiling. It had to lead somewhere. At the very least, it was something. With every step, my left foreleg ached more and more. Electric aftershocks ran along my nerves, from the tip of my hoof all the way to my neck.
It wasn’t as bad as it was before.
Well, it was.
I’d just stopped caring anymore.
I didn’t care much about anything by now.
Except the mission.
Emperor would get that stripe and give him to the nerds at Silent Bo’s Institute to do Princess knows what.
I frowned and scolded myself mentally. Focus. Keep alert. It was getting dark; what little light entered the cellar through the tiny ground level windows was fading rapidly. There had to be another exit.
I had to make best use of the still available daylight. My movement became more rapid - as much as my body hated me for it. I had to push. I had to pull myself together. I had to keep on holding on.
Room after room, corridor after corridor.
A deep corner of my brain was starting to think that I was lost in an impossible maze; imagined days passing by. Infinite gray concrete corridors for hours, filled with nothing but trash and darkness. It felt colder than the vacuum of space.
Then, suddenly, a sound of scraping metal nearby.
Instantly I turned to the side and aimed the shotgun at the source. The flashlight revealed a slowly rolling can and a sickly black rat, rummaging through the trash. I let out my breath and furrowed my eyebrows at the scavenging rodent.
A miniscule piece of plaster dropped from above and bounced off my muzzle.
I drew my eyes upwards, only to spot a dozen red dots appearing in the darkness on the ceiling.
My brain told me to raise the gun and shoot, but my reflex forced my body to throw myself to the side. Just in time to avoid being struck by a metal tentacle. I rolled to my back and fired a long burst.
The rifle’s noise was deafening in the tight confines of the cellar.
I didn’t have the time to see if the bullets did any damage. Getting out of this place was more important. Seeing as I was not skewered by a robotic limb, I thought it was safe to say that my attack gave the drone pause.
I ran as fast I could have with one broken limb and another battered. There was no sign of pursuit as I retraced my steps.
Turn after turn, corridor after corridor. Everywhere I turned, the cellar looked the same. It was a labyrinth.
Then, I could hear it. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. The cellar’s corridors and bare walls reflected and distorted the noise too much. A clunking of metal on concrete. Faster and faster.
They were coming for me.
Faster, I had to move faster. Get the zebra. Drive them off.
More turns, more corridors, more darkness and the all-present noise of the machines chasing me. Every now and again I looked behind me as I turned a corner. Nothing.
They were too smart to go after me directly.
My foreleg was already numb. The muscles of my hindleg ached from constantly having to keep it off the ground.
My breath was running out. The throbbing pulse in my head was pounding.
Get out of here.
My heart was racing. The clunking noise was ever present. They were relentless, and they were coming for me.
Get out of here now.
Another turn, I almost fell as I ground to a halt. There it was.
I reached for the handle.
Only for the door to buckle and bend. Then, with a screech of rusted hinges giving way, it flew straight at me.
The wood hit me hard, knocking me down on the floor. Before I could get my bearing and stand up, I heard the noise of a robotic appendage reaching out and grabbing what was left of the door. Then it pushed on the debris, pinning me down.
I failed to choke down a desperate scream as my limbs flared in pain.
Through teary eyes, I saw the unconscious zebra’s white robes flow as he was raised by a metal tentacle, its claw holding him by the neck. It lifted the stallion through the door, and behind him an oblong shape with red glowing eyes followed, its other tentacles anchoring into surfaces all around and pulling itself toward me.
The machine hoisted the stallion all the way up to the ceiling, then moved its torso under the zebra. A jawlike apparatus I previously hadn't seen extended from below what could be described as the robot’s face.
With a snap the jaw split and widened, to easily thrice its previous size. I saw a semi-transparent skin like membrane between the jaws. The machine threw its head upwards, then lowered the stallion down into the jaws. As soon as the victim touched the membrane, it started expanding. More and more as the body was shuffled inside the macabre sack, then it started filling with liquid.
Barely half a minute later, entire stallion was inside a bulbous container. Full of liquid, and with a hapless zebra inside, the machine now looked like a honeypot ant. It slowly turned and stared at me with its multitude of eyes.
I couldn’t. The mission.
Those things will hurt you.
I was in no shape to move, no shape to resist.
Do you understand?
I screwed my eyes shut. I felt the tentacle grab my foreleg and make its way along it, then it started coiling around my chest. Then it squeezed. I could feel my ribs grind on each other.
The grip loosened. I felt myself being brought up - my limbs dangled freely as the robot held me high.
I dared to open my eyes.
A smudged sight full of red lights greeted me. Only after I blinked the tears away I saw that they were cameras and other optics of all sizes arranged in a pattern at the front of the robot’s body. The machine held me merely a hoof’s reach away.
I watched helplessly as the lenses on the cameras turned and hissed, scanning me closely.
This… this was the end.
The eyes turned green.
Then they started to move, no, flow; swirling and joining together. I could see irises forming. Until there were only two left.
Finally, two slitted pupils appeared.
I could feel their gaze drilling into my thoughts.
“Now Agent Whisper Step. Relax and let’s try it again, shall we?”
Darkness. Only the soft orange glow of my HUD stood out from the blackness of the cosmos beyond the tinted glass.
I carefully watched the AR path displayed on my helmet’s visor and followed it with gentle moves of the throttle and the joystick.
“Three hundred meters.” The synthetic voice confirmed what my HUD was showing.
I reached over to the side console and flipped a switch.
“Silent running.” The hum behind me eased as the ships systems powered down. Only drives, short range sensors and life support were left online.
I watched the speed indicator drop slowly as I eased on the throttle. My target quickly filled the canopy. An unassuming old freighter. Easily a hundred meters wide and twice as long. I locked the throttle on neutral and let the momentum carry my ship forward. According to the blueprints on the monitor, the service access was right ahead. Last quick visual check and I was ready to go. “Regulus, Initialize EVA procedure.”
“Initializing EVA procedure.” The ship’s voice was quick to reply. Slowly, the hum of the reactor eased as atmosphere was pumped out of the cockpit. Soon, all I could hear was my own breathing through my personal life support system. As it was happening, I was eyeballing the access hatch; a small rectangular door marked with a dim light right above me.
With a quick flick of my wrist I fired the retro thrusters and the Regulus came to a halt.
“Cockpit atmosphere expunged. Ready to initiate EVA.”
I took a deep breath of the recycled air. “Regulus, initiate EVA.”
The tinted canopy soundlessly slid up and behind, exposing me to open vacuum. I unbuckled my belt, grabbed a bag containing my gear and stood up from the pilot’s seat. As soon as my upper half cleared the cockpit I grabbed the side of the canopy and gently pushed myself out of my ship. The freighter’s hull was about ten meters away. That gave me enough time to tap a button on my suit’s multiband and initiate my magnetic horseshoes.
Once that was done, I carefully turned myself around, legs first toward the freighter.
My legs snapped to the metal hull. Almost on target too. Not bad at all. Three silent steps forward and one to the side and I was looking at the access hatch. The lock was simple enough. I just had to plug my hacking device into the control panel and it would do the rest. Carefully I pulled it out from the bag and reached to plug it in.
The hatch opened.
A wave of violently escaping atmosphere and debris blew the device out off my hooves, some of it bouncing off my visor with a loud audible tinkling noise.
Before I gathered what was happening, a shining metal tentacle reached out from the freighter. It grabbed me by the neck and pulled, overcoming my magnets. Then, with a swift motion it ripped me off the hull and held me away from the ship. I watched as the rest of the creature crawled out of the now open corridor. Yellow spinning alarm lights blaring a depressurization warning.
The tentacle was one of many attached to a young buck. No, not attached. They were coming out of his torso through numerous holes ruptured in his nearly white coat and tissue. The buck was not wearing any protective gear. His body just dangled, suspended on the macabre limbs.
I struggled, but the mechanical claw’s grip only intensified. It started to choke me.
Despite being exposed to hard vacuum and having many robotic tentacles bursting out of his torso, the deer appeared fine. That was until I looked at his face.
The buck’s emerald green eyes were bulging out, almost as if they were going to fall out at any moment. His nose was covered in long-dried blood. His blue tongue was out and his mouth was covered in foam. A long, red, semi transparent ribbon was tangled around his antlers, flowing freely in zero g.
I watched with horror as the buck opened his mouth and began to speak.
Even through the vacuum, I could hear the voice.
As if it were echoing out inside my skull.
“Reaching vision. Everywhere. You will die.”
The mechanical tentacle on my neck eased off.
And then pushed me away.
I yelled and flailed haplessly as my body began drifting away from the creature, the freighter and the Regulus.
There was nothing I could do. Nothing.
Faster and faster, the monster, the freighter and the Regulus were growing more and more distant. I quickly looked for my bag containing my pneumatic anchor launcher. It was my last hope.
The bag was nowhere to be found. I hadn't even registered when it had went loose.
I threw my head up in panic towards the monster again. It was already gone. So was the freighter and the Regulus.
It was just me and the distant stars. I was alone.
Then the stars started to go dark.
I began spinning wildly, looking around. Distant nebulae and constellations, dimming and vanishing. Everywhere the space around me was quickly becoming solid blackness. There was no point of reference left.
Finally, the last remaining source of light gave out.
My helmet’s HUD.
Solid, infinite darkness.
Was this how dying felt? A dark void? There were so many things left to do, so many things left to say. I thought of the Agency. My friends. My family.
I’d do anything to spend one last moment with them.
The voice pierced through my brain. Through my soul. As if it was always there, a piece of me.
I opened my mouth to reply but I found it full of liquid. Water.
My helmet was filling with water. Panicking, I grabbed it firmly with my forelegs and undid the seal, then ripped the helmet off.
Deadened noise became a roaring crash, and a wave struck me in the face.
I was swimming with my head poking out of the liquid. I could feel the resistance as I frantically paddled with my legs, but I could barely keep my muzzle above the surface. It was still dark, I couldn’t see anything. But at least I had a point of reference. If there was water, that meant there was a surface and a bottom.
I aimed to keep as far away as possible from the latter.
It was a struggle - the surface was not calm. Every time I managed to get my head above it, another wave splashed over and brought me down again, even if just momentarily. I had enough strength to keep my muzzle and my eyes above the surface, but with each wave it was becoming harder and harder.
My chest was pounding.
My muscles were aching from the strain.
My head was spinning.
There was no surface to breach.
I pushed and pushed, but I couldn’t reach the surface again. I reached a hoof before me. Maybe.
Someone grabbed it. Then squeezed and pulled me up.
I breached the surface and immediately started coughing up water. My lungs burned. It was still dark. The only reason I was afloat was because of what was holding me. I could feel it through my suit, it was someone’s foreleg. Despite the darkness I looked up. Two glowing, emerald slitted eyes peered straight at me.
“What do you know about Snowdrop?”
It was the same voice from before.
I choked and forced myself to speak through the pain. “I don’t know... what you are talking... about!”
The foreleg let go. I went back under instantly.
Again I tried swimming upwards, to the surface. Maybe if I told the voice something, this would end?
My hooves hit a wall.
There was no surface here.
I somehow managed to not cry out and lose valuable air. I must have gotten disoriented and reached the bottom. Instead, I turned, planted my hindlegs on the wall and pushed myself off it. Then I swam in the opposite direction.
A few strokes later and my hooves hit a wall again.
My chest was on fire. Again I turned and pushed myself off the wall. I extended my forelegs to start the first stroke, and they hit a wall.
I reached to the right.
It’s a cube.
It’s a cube. With no way out.
With me inside.
I am done.
I give up.
I relaxed my limbs, there was no sense in trying anymore.
I opened my muzzle. The water rushed inside. It burned, but quickly stopped.
I couldn’t feel anything anymore.
The darkness enveloped me.
A female voice.