It's not that I was surprised by the shotgun going off.
Of course I'd seen the things used before. The ENDF walked around waving the things at anyone and everyone who so much as looked at them funny. Hell I’ve even had a couple pointed at me in my time.
I was surprised at how quickly the force of it knocked me on my ass.
In my defense, the enders made the damn things look like toys. I suppose the Augments they've got running through them help with that. Most of the weapons they wander around town with were attached to their armor, or built into a prosthetic, they were built for the pony using it.
I however, had no such luck. The shotgun I had hoisted into my hooves didn’t belong to me, so when I leveled it forward and fired at the slummer jumping at me with the knife in his mouth, I flew back a good few feet.
When I scrambled back up, I looked around to make sure I was the only one rising. Needed to make sure I wasn't going to have any more trouble with my unexpected junkie buddy.
I wasn’t, not with him on the ground laying there. And there... And there.
I held back the bile rising in my throat and stepped between the chunks of the pony I had created. At the very least, this was now a good reminder to never have one of these bloody guns pointed at me again.
Behind him, against the half decayed wall was the case I was looking for. I knelt beside it and gave it a nudge with my hoof. It clicked open, the lid popping up slightly.
That wasn’t good.
I pushed it open fully and cursed under my breath. In front of me were three vials of Heliodryl. I looked back at the body behind me. There were no traces of it on him. Nothing I could see that would mark him as having taken any. Our informant had lied to us.
Sighing, I scoop up the vials and place them into my coat pocket. Tugging at a string on the side of it the pocket slowly constricts, a small hiss of air escaping as it collects the vials together, leaving them secure.
Pushing up from the floor I turn to take the room in. Places like this were common in lower Canterlot. Abandoned and left behind, the walls were covered in layers of filth, a sick grey-green that didn’t look applied to the walls so much as it was smeared across it. The whole place itself was destroyed and crumbling, I could see the other room from the hole in the wall across from me. The floor was covered in a thick layer of dust, undisturbed for years, aside from where I and the dead pony on the floor had tread. Scattered everywhere were bits and pieces of debris; broken chairs, overturned beds, tattered clothing and blankets. Remnants of what this place once used to be.
I blinked once and the room I was standing in begins to fade away, the walls, already half crumbling, begin to warp and bend, shifting away as my eyes adjust to the holo-image. A pristine replica of the wall I was staring at now took form in front of me, translucent in appearance. I blink twice and the walls begin to unfold around me. Behind them, more restructuring, and before long, I can see the halls and rooms of the entire floor. The whole of the building was slowly fitting itself before me, starting to piece itself together as I turned my head, scanning the paths leading out from where I stood. I breathed out slowly as I gathered my thoughts. How much longer till our place crumbles away like this one did...
As the world advanced, so too, did our cities. Brick and Mortar stores were replaced with On-Demand Drone delivery. Street signs and Posters were replaced with Holographic displays. Barber shops were replaced with Augment shops, and your traditional mom and pop shops were either bought up or run out by corporations looking to expand and lay claim to whatever spot of land they could.
It's no surprise then, that with how quickly we developed, there was suddenly no more room around us to continue building. So… with nowhere else left to go, we built up.
Upper Canterlot became our new home, and since the corporations had a blank slate to work with, it was everything you expected it to be. Neon and Chrome. Flashing lights and holograms, all promoting the next big thing. Everywhere you looked was a tribute to the new. It’s as if we had decided that the Red-Light District didn’t deserve to be just a district, so we stretched it out across the whole of the city. Brothels, Clubs, Casinos, Aug shops, Weapons vendors, anything you could ever want. Walk down any street and you’re bound to find something to satisfy a vice.
But... With the main areas built for the corps, we needed to find our homes. So, we built around them. Our homes became the back alleys of the city, and the places ponies were too lazy to climb. Up above the shops, the glow of lights seeping into our windows. We built anywhere we could get to before someone else got there first.
And I say homes, but they’re not… not anymore. Apartments and Rent-A-Pods, that’s what we’ve got left. Building a home? Now? Here? Too much space. Corps wouldn’t let it happen. Need that space for another UrsaBucks. We need our cuppa joe!
Of course, It’s still not finished, the building I mean. It never will be, I don’t think. Just as soon as we start to think there's no more room left to expand, construction sites go up, and so to, does Canterlot. Won’t be long before there's Upper Upper Canterlot… Or maybe where we are now becomes Middle Canterlot. By then of course, It won’t matter. Everyone will have moved on up. And the only creatures left will be the ones who can’t afford the move, the ones who got hooked on a drug and couldn’t let it go, ponies left to rot in a city that abandoned them, because it was too busy chasing the next big thing. Ponies like…
I turned to look at the body behind me.
“Sorry…” I mutter.
Shaking my head I focus my thoughts and scan the holo display I summoned up, looking for the exit.
“Dead end, dead end, dead end… There.” An exit back out onto the street. Outside this room, through the hallway, down the stairs, and out the lobby.
“Hey, Glow, I heard a gunshot, you still among the living?” A feminine voice drifts between my ears. I blink again and the walls shift, the dust and grime of the world welcoming me back to reality.
“Yeah, some junkie with a knife came at me. Turns out you were right, it was a good idea to bring that shotgun we found a few runs back.” I pick it back up and shove it into the holster under my coat, turning to make my way out of the room.
“Ha! Glow, I’m always right, you just never want to admit it.”
A sigh escapes me, I could practically see the smug smile that was waiting for me when I got back.
“Yeah yeah, can it Syn. How's it looking out there?”
“Streets are empty, lucky you. Either nobody stupid enough to come take a look, or our Intel was right and this place is fully deserted now. Er… Minus your buddy with the knife.”
I turn out into the hallway, the sound of my hooves deafening against the quiet. Taking a deep breath, I exhale slowly, and begin to make my way down the corridor.
“We’ll we’re gonna have to tell Case when we get back the Intel was only half right, the heliodryl was here, but nowhere near the amount they told us. I only found three vials.”
“Three? Sun save us. That’s a joke yeah? That’ll last us a week, IF we ration it.”
“Afraid not. Lucky we still have a few in reserve. But I hear you. We’re gonna need to follow up with this guy. If he’s expecting a cut of this, he ain’t getting it. Not for how much we had to cough up just to get here.” I turn out of the hall and look towards the stairs, slowly making my way down.
Access into Lower Canterlot is hard to get. There’s only a few gates that lead in and out of Upper Canterlot, and those are heavily guarded by the ENDF. Of course, money is a great negotiator, and nearly all the gate guards will turn a blind eye to any comings and goings, provided you can afford it.
The voice in my ear huffs in annoyance. “Well, hurry up and let's get outta here. I don’t like not being able to see the sky.”
I stumble a bit as one of the planks from the stairs gives way to my weight, and I have to hop to the floor below to keep my balance.
“Yeah, I hear you. I’m in the lobby now. Making my way-”
“Hold up, I think I just saw someone.”
“Could just be my imagination? Stay put for a second.”
I do. The second turns to a minute, then another. Fidgeting nervously I lift up my coat and check the shotgun. The barrel runs along my side. The gunmetal gray is a stark contrast to my indigo fur. I can smell the gunpowder coating the inside of my jacket. Giving a sigh, I let it fall loose against my side.
My thoughts center around the pony that jumped at me, and a brief pang of guilt washes over me. It wasn’t the first time I had needed to do something like that. But it was still unpleasant.
“Not home yet, focus…” I mutter into the hall.
Syn’s voice chirps into my ear. “Alright, I haven’t seen any movement since. Must have been seeing things.”
“Alright, I’m heading out.”
Pushing the door to the house open I wince at the street light glaring down at me, its bright glow a stark contrast to the dead halls I had just left. I hop down the steps and turn, making my way along the street.
Lower Canterlot itself fared no better than the home I had walked away from. All around were buildings left forgotten and abandoned, half-crumbling and littered with graffiti. Corner-side stores all but pillaged; the decrepit banners hung low, still as the air around them. I rounded the corner and made my way into the barren market, the streets all connected here, one of them back towards Upper Canterlots closest gate.
I look up, and a small sigh escapes me as I gaze to the now forgotten high-rises. Impressive how quickly we gave them up. Higher and higher, until at last, a flat steel plate; as far as the eye could see. Support beams and pillars were scattered around the entirety of the base of Upper Canterlot, extending downwards towards the lower, I blinked once and my eyes zoomed in on one of the supports. Around it, little mechanical flies wisp back and forth, I could see the sparks coming off the beam. Maintenance bots, keeping the city stable and secure. No chance of Upper Canterlot ever deciding to visit the Lower with them flying around.
I blink again and my vision normalizes, and as I lower my gaze I see a tuft of red fur on one of the roofs ahead, waving and pointing ahead of me. Guess someone was desperate to get home.
I chuckle quietly. And then I hear the cough in front of me.
I stumble backwards, half reaching for the gun, half trying to regain my balance. Failing miserably at both I fall backwards and find myself tripping into an empty stall.
I look up in a panic, hoping I wasn’t about to see a barrel pointed at me, and find the pony ahead of me just... standing there. I breath slowly. Seeing as how I don’t hear any movement, and there were no new holes in me just yet, defusing was probably the best option here.
“Listen man, I dunno what you’re doing in this part of LC, but there ain’t nothing here. Me and my partner’ve spent the last couple hours scouting this place out and we didn’t find anything.”
As I begin to rise to my hooves I get a better look at the figure I was dealing with. They were clad in a black cloak that fell loosely against their sides. A small twitch on their side shifted the fabric slightly and I grimace.
Wings. Or a gun. This could be bad. I stand and center myself, looking up to meet their gaze. But I don’t get much, it’s covered with a mask.
A simple thing. Jet-Black and vacant. No marks or notches of any note marred it’s surface. The eye’s were covered with a thin layer of some fabric, which made seeing the eyes of the wearer impossible.
The figure stood stock-still, staring at me.
“Alright… well, I’m uh… just going to get-”
“Well done! We must admit, we didn’t expect anypony to take the job! Let us be honest here. A case of Heliodryl, out here in Lower Canterlot? Sure, sure… Look hard enough, you’ll find them scattered throughout, but mostly for black market deals or smuggling.” The pony lifts a hoof, gesturing around him as he talked.
“Never would you ever just… FIND one. The idea is laughable at best! You’d either have to be stupid or foolhardy to think that. The risk’s down here are hardly ever worth the payout. Or maybe…” He lowers his hoof and takes a few steps toward me.
“Maybe you knew the risk and decided to take the chance anyway. After all, if you could get to it before some washed up stallion collected his cache and inflated the price, well, why not, right?”
I eye the stranger warily.
“Who the hell are you?”
Another step back. A quiet cough. “Hmm, perhaps We gave you too much credit.” Putting a hoof to his chest, he bows slowly. “We are your employer, dear boy, and we commend you on a job well done. Now, where’s your friend eh? We know you types never work alone, can’t very well discuss business without both of you present now can we? Why don’t you call them out?” He turns and begins to look down alleys and scan the roofs.
I stare blankly. Employer? Here? What the hell was going on? Glancing around the area, I try I see no one else in hiding. I’m wary of the situation, but I’d rather someone watching my back in the event things go south. I flick my ear and trigger the sensor, speaking aloud.
“Hey Syn, it’s safe. Looks like our employer wanted to meet us personally.”
A few seconds pass, no response.
“Syn? You alright?”
The pony before me chuckles.
“Ah, apologies, this is our fault.” I turn and watch as he lifts his foreleg in front of him. His hoof opens up, and a series of electronics whirs to life as he makes a few gestures. He looks up and I can feel the smile on me.
“You may want to turn down your audio.”
My ear pops as a familiar voice pounds verbal abuse into it.
“GLOW WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON!? I SWEAR TO THE MOON AND BACK IF I GET OUT THERE AND YOU’RE A CORPSE ON THE GROUND I'M GOING TO FIND A WAY TO BRING YOU BACK TO LIFE JUST SO I CAN KILL YOU AGAIN!”
“AUGH, Syn! I’m fine! Stop! Sun above, you’re going to make me deaf.”
“That's not all I’m going to do if you don’t tell me what the hell is going on!”
I could hear her galloping down steps, rushing to get to me. It was nice to have a partner who cared.
“Radio jammer, I think. That guy you were pointing at? Our contact. Wants to talk to both of us. No rush though, I’m safe. Mostly…” I eye the pony in front of me again. His back to me, humming to himself.
“Oh, good. I’ve got someone to direct all this energy toward then. I’ll be there in a minute.” I could hear the anger in her voice, and I was thankful that it wasn’t directed at me.
True to her word, a minute later, the doors to the apartment burst open, and she storms towards the masked pony. Her rust red fur bristled as she approached. Her slender tail flicking back and forth in annoyance, her wings furling and unfurling in frustration. Her talons clicked along the gravel, growing louder as she approached in what felt like a storm getting ready to unleash.
She stops inches from the strangers face, leveling her gaze at the mask. “You’re going to start explaining yourself right now, or by the sun above you’re going to be leaving here in a body bag.”
The masked pony looks from her, to me, and back again. They take a step away and leaned towards me.
“Is she… always this hostile?”
“Well, when you’re told to expect a case of Heliodryl, and you end up only getting a tenth of what's promised. It kind of puts you on edge.” I step towards Syn, standing next to her. “For what it's worth, I echo her sentiment. Even if I’m not showing it.”
The stranger sighs, head drooping. “Ah yes… that. We really must apologise, but you see, we had to make sure you were willing to accept. AND pull it off. We weren’t about to leave a full case of Heliodryl out for anyone to just come and find!”
Syn scoffs, “Make sure? Willing? What, was this some kind of test?”
“Yes, exactly! Oh we knew you lot were quick to catch on.”
I stood, dumbfounded, turning to Syn I saw her face was an echo of my own.
“A test? You sent us down here to test us?”
“Indeed we did! Needed to make sure you were up to snuff before we started giving you the real requests you know? Bit silly if you ask us. We know what you four are capable of.” His giddy attitude was beginning to annoy me. But he says something that troubles me.
“How do you know there’s four of us?”
He turns to look at me, and there's a tension in the air as we stare each other down. I could feel Syn next to me curling her talons, and it was at that moment the realization of what we were dealing with sinks in. A faceless identity. Someone who looked to know more than they were letting on, while we were drowning in the dark.
That faceless mask was suddenly more unnerving than I gave it credit for.
“We know a great deal about you, about all of you actually! But we’re not here to discuss the past, or even the present! We’re here to discuss the future!”
I turn to look at Syn, eyeing me warily, not sure what to do. I sigh, looking back to the masked pony.
“Listen, We needed that Heliodryl, and your little ‘test’ only gave us three vials. What future do you think we’re going to have with some loon who sends us down here for barely a week's worth of Helio?” I stare at him coldly. This may be just a ‘test’ to him. But For us, the Heliodryl is a lifeline.
“Oh yes, yes. Of course, forgive us! As We said before, We needed to make sure and all that yes? And here you are! Done as We asked yes? Time for us to hold up our end.”
As he says this, he brings his foreleg in front of him and the hoof opens once more. Another series of gestures and he sets it back down. Within seconds, the low hum of a drone makes its presence known behind him. It rises up from a building to the north and moves towards us, a small case underneath it.
The drone flitters between us and drops it payload, the masked pony steps forward and taps a button on the side of the case. As the lid rises, I feel my breath hitch and Syn gasps beside me. Inside the case is more Heliodryl than we’ve ever seen in one place.
“60 vials. Double what we originally said, for a job most assuredly well done. Hopefully this should suffice in showing how serious we are in our… continued business together.”
I look up, and see our employer staring at me, almost expectantly. I frown, closing the lid firmly. Syn turns to say something, but notices the newly formed contest happening in front of her.
“I don’t know a lot of ponies who can get their hands on this much Heliodryl at once, and the ones that can are not the kind I’m fond of…”
The masked pony chuckles.
“We can assure you, we are not someone who plans to use you and your crew for disdainful activities…At least, not ones that you already have quite a knack for.” He turns and begins to make for one of the side streets, laughing to himself, “Still, that much Helio is enough for anyone’s convictions to waver. But we trust your crew to stay as you’ve been. We expect it, actually!”
“Hey! We never agreed we’d keep working with you!” I shout out, watching as he rounds a corner.
“We will be in touch. Expect a job from us in the near future, decide then if you wish to continue our friendship.” An echo travels as he disappears from view.
Syn looks from me to the case, then towards the spot the masked pony vanished.
“I can tail him, see where he goes?”
I mutter a curse under my breath. “No, I don’t want you going out alone, the guy called in a bloody drone for suns sake. Who knows what else he’s got hidden away… Besides, we have more pressing matters to worry about.” I look down towards the case of helio again, still impressed at just how much there is. “Like figuring out how to get all this through the gates…”
Syn glances once more at the corner, then shrugs, turning to smile at me coyly, her mood suddenly improved now that we were discussing how to get home, “Y’know Glow, I’ve got an easy way to get all this shit in without anyone noticing.”
“Oh yeah? How’s that?”
“Simple, just turn around, bend over, and let me shove’em all up that fat as-”
My hoof catches air as it flies over Syn’s laughing head. She bounces back, pointing and cackling maniacally.
I hang my head and sigh, then smile and look up at Syn’s wide grin.
Suppressing a laugh, I hoist the case onto my back. I walk past her, nudging against her side.
“Come on Syn, lets get home.”