The rain had thankfully slacked off by the time we’d reached the canyon where Stable 104 was supposed to be. By ‘slacked off’ I meant it had gone from a soaking deluge that turned the earth beneath our hooves into a slurry and had become a drizzle that just left our bones chilled, and our manes sopping in front of our faces. We were cold and we tired from the fight with the radscorpions and the subsequent walking, but other than that the group’s spirits seemed… high. High-ish. Not being in a life threatening battle for the better part of the day seemed to be doing wonders for everypony’s mindset, mine included.
B.B was working with Arcaidia’s language barrier, flying along next to the unicorn filly and trying to teach her new words by pointing out objects and repeating what they were. There wasn’t a lot out here to act as a reference, so while Arcaidia was getting down the words for ‘dirt’, ‘rocks’, ‘mud’ and ‘clouds’ there was some difficulty in teaching other terms. Still, it was good just to see the two smiling at each other, as opposed to that bit of tension that had resulted from their rather odd first meeting.
Iron Wrought was still being pretty morose, but he had a driven look on his face. He was still giving Binge the occasional death glance. It bothered me, but could I really blame him? I didn’t know the full extent of what the Raiders had done to him for the short time he’d been captured, so I had little room to judge. As for Binge herself…she was playing with the colts.
I was bringing up the rear of our group so I was having an easy enough time keeping an eye on her, and when she’d approached Fresh Pear and Crumb Trail I’d gotten looks from their parents. Sweet Pear had worn a worried, but firmly protective expression as she’d adjusted a lead pipe she carried in a loop around her neck for easy access, while Fine Eye kept a light telekinetic grip on his shotgun. They’d both looked to me as if to ask ‘is she safe?’ and honestly, what could I tell them? I had no idea just how safe Binge was to be around. Just yesterday she’d been part of Raider gang that’d tried to kill me and my friends…now she was traveling with us, seemingly out of her own insane whim and incomprehensible attachment to me.
I had given them the barest of nods and pointed a hoof at my eye, then at her, indicating I was keeping a close eye on her. That seemed to have appeased the scavenger parents, but I noticed they never took both eyes off of their colts as Binge joked and played with them, seemingly harmlessly enough. It was near mid day and Binge had pulled out that odd little sock puppet with the bloody smiley face.
“Now kiddies, listen to your good Auntie Binge and her smiles-a-minute friend Mr. Happy as they tell you a super fun story! It’s about a nice little filly who goes on a magical quest-“
Well, that sounded harmless enough.
“-to find the Bloodaxe of Torturous Mutilation, so she could wreak her terrible vengeance upon the murderous slavers that captured and ra-“
“Binge, Binge, hold it!” I said hastily, “Stories are good. Just that, maybe, you should, uh, tell a different story? Something less murdery?”
“Oh, but this is a real good one! It has lots of action, and has a valuable moral about the magic of vengeance!”
“I’m sure it’s, er,” I struggled for the right words to communicate with the not-all-there mare, “A classic. Just, um, perhaps those two are a little outside the story’s intended audience?”
Binge smiled at me as if I was the one who was not all there, “Don’t be such a silly pony, plenty of stories can be enjoyed by those outside the original target demographic!”
Target demowha? I was sure she was just making terms up now to try and sound smarter than me (not a hard feat, but hey, buck’s gotta have his pride!) and I fixed her with a stern look, trying once more to emulate the ‘mom stare’. I suppose technically I needed to be emulated a ‘dad stare’, but I never knew my father and didn’t know how one was suppose to stare, so ‘mom stare’ it was. Binge just giggled at me, but I went on and said, “Yes, well, keep your demo-whatevers to yourself and don’t fill those poor foal’s heads with any stories involving…stuff that to you is normal. Okay?”
“Please,” said Sweet Pear, “I don’t mind if you want to play with my foals, but do restrain yourself, miss. Or I’ll be forced to introduce you to my smiles-a-minute friend, Mr. Pipe.”
Binge blew out a sighing whinny but nodded, smiling down at the two foals, saying “Okaaaay, I’ll be a good, clean little pony. No juicy bits. Nice and wholesome like fresh Mint-als it is. Ooh, I know a good one, with no blood or guts at all. Once upon a time there was a cheerful unicorn named Charlie-“
I decided that Binge was toning herself down and only paid half attention to a less than coherent tale about a unicorn getting dragged along on some nonsensical quest for a mountain of candy and focused on what lay ahead of us. Mostly a dead muddy landscape of desiccated brown and red muck, slow hills sloping up and down like boils on the earth’s surface. Back home the land had also been a dead, dry thing without much color…but somehow my tribal lands had seemed brighter, somehow more natural. Was it the fact that the Great Fires of the balefire bombs had not only destroyed life then, but burned out the very essence of the land itself, and otherwise warped and tainted what was left? I didn’t know, but I felt myself longing after the sight of my home valley, the small village of tents crowded around the clean and clear mountain stream.
I shook the feeling off. LIL-E was at the very head of our procession and had halted at the top of the hill we’d ascended, mechanical face slowly turning left and right as if looking for something.
As I trotted up towards her I noticed Fine Eye joining me, trotting alongside, double-barrel shotgun still in a side holster on his left shoulder but being loosed a bit in a soft purple glow of his horn’s magic. I noticed his eyes were alert, keeping a sharp scan around us. He was expecting trouble, even though LIL-E hadn’t made any mention of sensing anything on her scanners. It occurred to me that for Fine Eye, who was born and grown up in the Wasteland, being ever watchful for danger must have been as second nature as breathing was to me. I suddenly felt rather embarrassed that by this point I’d been spending most of the walk letting my mind wander. Would’ve made me an easy target if something had surprised us.
Now Fine Eye was looking at me.
“Still don’t feel like I thanked you proper enough yet, for coming to me and my family’s aid,” he said to me, looking…embarrassed? Not exactly, more just uncomfortable.
“Um, well,” I began, not at all sure how to respond, “Its fine. Really. We noticed some ponies in trouble, we helped, you and yours are still alive. That’s all that matters.”
He didn’t look like he was understanding me, just giving me that same uncomfortable expression as he said, “That’s just it though. You helped. Against a large pack of radscorpions. When you had no reason to. You just did it…Do you know how many other ponies I know who would’ve done the same thing, even among my friends in the Salvage Guild? None. Not a one. Nopony I know would have come to our aid, not under those circumstances, with such a high risk to their own lives. So…just…thank you.”
How was I supposed to respond to that? I just blinked at him, rather dumbly I imagined, as I said, “Sounds like you need better friends.”
Again with that uncomfortable look. Fine Eye looked away from me, looking back at his family, Sweet Pear letting Crumb Trail and Fresh Pear ride on her back so they could rest their legs while Binge finished her story. Even Sweet Pear seemed to be getting into the (former?) Raider mare’s tale. Fine Eye smiled slightly.
“Friends are hard to come by,” he said, “I’ve counted myself lucky to have a family at all, let alone many friends. Try to understand, Longwalk, that a friend out here is somepony that will, half the time, still turn on you for caps. But only half the time.”
I didn’t have any comment on that. Seemed a bleak assessment to me, but maybe I’d been lucky so far, meeting ponies like B.B and LIL-E. Well, okay, I had no proof other than her word that LIL-E was a pony, rather than a floating eyebot. Speaking of LIL-E, we’d caught up to where she’d stopped and the rest of the group came to a shuffling halt behind us. The hill we were on slopped down to a short plain of dirt and rocks (gotta love that varied Wasteland scenery) before leading to a sharp rise in the landscape. Through the middle of this tall rise was a narrow space, a small canyon. Then I noticed that it wasn’t the only one, that further to the north were two more, similar canyons.
“Why’d we stop?” asked B.B as she flew over to us, “Tryin’ tag it the lay o’ the land or somethin’?”
“Something like that,” said LIL-E in her mechanical buzz, “Just doing some mental ennie-mennie-minnie-moe over which canyon we should search first.”
“Which one?” I asked, “Don’t you know which one the Stable is supposed to be in?”
“Not exactly. I know it’s in a canyon around here. Was kind of hoping there’d be just the one. Should have figured this wouldn’t be as simple as that. So I’m feeling pretty good about the middle canyon there.”
I frowned, “Well, any problems with taking our time to search all of them?”
“Not specifically,” said LIL-E, “Except that those radscorpions we ran into back there make me think we’re in pretty heavily infested part of the Wasteland, and radscorpions love to nest in canyons.”
“Right enough,” said Fine Eye, “That’s how we got caught by those bugs before. Spotted an abandoned set of shacks in a smaller canyon back there and thought it’d be worth the risk to take a peek. Should’ve known it wouldn’t be worth it.”
I pondered, weighting options. We’d proven ourselves capable of handling a pack of radscorpions, though it’d still been a rough fight and I was still aching some from it even after a little healing attention from Arcaidia. Even if we ran into radscorpions or some other Wasteland monster and dealt with it, it’d be a drain on our limited supply of ammunition. Best to avoid it if at all possible…and thinking back to my first day in the Wasteland with Arcaidia I recalled her doing something that could help.
“Hey Arcaidia,” I called, and the blue unicorn looked my way and cantered over. When she got to me I pointed my hoof at her Pip-Buck. She raised it, used to my gestures by now and willing to let me fiddle with the knobs on it. I brought up the map feature. Pointing at where we were I tried to imitate the sound of her using magic, not very well I might add, and then made a small circular motion on the map around the point we were at.
She raised an eyebrow at me, obviously not immediately getting what I was asking, but she was a smart filly and I could see after she pondered a moment the light of understanding sparking in her silver eyes. She pressed a button on her Pip-Buck and from a slot that small metal rectangle she’d put into back then slide out.
“Cresviali? Estu tu avari di cresviali, nes? Make…map?”
I nodded and she smiled, putting the metallic rectangular object back into her Pip-Buck and started to charge her horn with magic.
“What’s she doing?” asked Iron Wrought and I raised a hoof.
“Just watch, it’s one of her spells. Not sure how it works, but it’s pretty useful.”
The crest of symbols appeared around her horn like before and the pale blue glow of her magic intensified until it seemed to collapse along with the crest and the same concussive wave of force shot out, mostly up into the air. It made the two foals jump a bit, but Sweet Pear calmed them quickly, though she gave Arcaidia a bit of a glare.
“Okay… ” B.B looked at me with a shrug, “What did that just do?”
I went up to Arcaidia and nodded at her Pip-Buck, which she happily raised so we could crowd around to view the screen. The map was updated, just like before, with a big circular space of land around our point on the map now being revealed. There were actually several tags there now. One to our south east was marked ‘Three Shacks’ and Fine Eye cocked his head.
“Three Shacks… ? That’s what the sign on that little shanty town me and my family checked out said the place was called. Thought it was odd because there were actually five shacks there instead of three.”
There were three other markers on the map, one of which was a few miles to the north called ‘Silver Mare Studios’. Another, just west of that was marked ‘Mysterious Excavation Site’…okay, how did the Pip-Buck know it was mysterious? The final marker was the one we wanted to see, in the nearest canyon just to the west, ‘Stable 104’.
LIL-E made a small buzzing noise that I think was the pony on the other end going ‘hmmm’ and said , “A spell that interfaces with a Pip-Buck’s mapping system to reveal an wider area? Pretty specific magic. I wonder where she learned it?”
“I’m more wondering how this thing always knows what to call stuff… ” I said, shaking my head.
To that LIL-E laughed, a very strange sound coming from her buzzing speakers, “Try not to think too hard about Pip-Bucks and how they do what they do, Longwalk. You’ll hurt your head.”
“Nooo, not his head,” cried Binge, “That’s where his brain pony lives! Longwalk, quick, stop thinking about anything before you cause a headsplosion!”
“Why do you care?” said Iron Wrought, rolling his eyes, “You were trying to kill him yesterday.”
This got some odd looks from Fine Eye and Sweet Pear, to which I gave Iron Wrought a look that I hoped communicated my want of him to not bring up Binge’s…previous (possibly still current) occupation. Binge for her part just got uncomfortably close to me and patted me on the head as she grinned at Iron Wrought. Did I mention she was still wearing those spiked hoof wrappings? I was just glad she wasn’t patting my head too hard, but it was uncomfortable just the same.
“Now now, I wanted to cut him up and play doctor with him and show him all the different shades of blood there are. Then he’d know how to play dead like me and we could have fun. Now I know he’s a much longer term case. He’ll see though, and it’ll hurt him when he does see. Then Big Sis Binge’ll be there to pet him and hold him and make it all better. See?”
Iron Wrought stared at her a second before looking at me with a deadpan expression, “Yeah, this, this right here? This is why you should’ve just killed her.”
“Um, something we ought to know about?” asked Fine Eye, standing protectively between his family and Binge.
“Nothing,” I told him, slowly pushing away Binge’s hoof from my head, “Binge is…a little special.”
“Aww, that’s so sweet of you to say,” she grinned, yellowed teeth flashing. I was going to have to introduce that mare to the concept of teeth cleaning via roots. My tribe had harvested roots not just for food, but the thinner portions of the roots could be chewed on to keep your choppers decently clean. Too bad I hadn’t seen any such roots since coming out to the Wasteland.
“Don’t think he meant that kind o’ special, hun,” B.B said with a sigh.
“Anyway, she’s my problem, and isn’t a threat to you and your family,” I said, hoping to the ancestor spirits, and possibly even this Goddesses everypony else seemed to hold to, that my words were the honest truth, “Now that we know where the Stable is, let’s just focus on getting in there, everypony agree?”
There were mostly murmured agreements to that, though Iron Wrought was mostly doing his best to ignore me now. I also noted Arcaidia, while seeming as generally energetic as ever, was also giving Binge an odd look. Not wary, or tense. More faintly displeased. I didn’t think my unicorn friend liked the way Binge acted around me. I vaguely wondered why for a moment, but we had work to do and I was glad to have a solid task in front of me.
Following the Pip-Buck’s map we made quick progress to the canyon we needed. Its steep walls reminded me briefly of the small cliff Shady Stream had been nestled under a brief wave of homesickness washed over me as I turned my head to say to Trailblaze that this place looked like home…and realized she wasn’t there. It was an unpleasant hoof to the gut feeling and I thought back to my conversation with LIL-E last night. I felt a near overwhelming desire to want to find an excuse to return to my tribe, if only for a brief time, just so I could speak with Trailblaze…work out how I felt about her.
It was impossible though and I knew that. There was no way I could go back, not until I’d finished what I’d started with Arcaidia.
“Ya alright, Long?” asked B.B, coming down and landing to trot next to me, “Got kinda a’ sour n’ distant look on yer face.”
She hesitated a second, then asked, “Is it ‘bout Shale an’…what Crossfire said?”
Huh? Oh, right, that. I shook my head, “No, just thinking of home. I do want to know more about this Volunteer Enforcer Corps, if only because Shale wanted me to know, but I wasn’t going to press you to tell me.”
“I guess I shouldn’t be so hesitant,” said B.B, “It ain’t like its all some big secret. Just didn’t wanna have ya all distracted while we were goin’ into danger, like wit the Raiders, or here wit this Stable. Seems like ya distract yerself enough as is.”
I smiled at her in as much a reassuring manner as I was able to manage, not wanting her to worry, “It’s all good. I’m good. Just missing home a little. Once we’re done here we’ll have a pretty long trek to meeting your father at Skull City. Feel free to tell me then.”
Was I just putting it off? Did I really want to know the details about what the VEC was? I already had an inclining based off of what Crossfire had said, and it hadn’t painted a very pretty picture. Would learning more about what this private army of the Labor Guild did change anything about how I felt concerning Shale? Would I…think less of her, if I knew about what she’d been a part of? I truly wished to believe it wouldn’t change a thing, and that I’d always think of Shale as a friend, one who’d saved my life and the lives of B.B and Arcaidia by giving up her own. So was I just trying to stall, then, hearing the whole truth from B.B?
I didn’t want to think so, but given all I’d gone through lately I wasn’t giving my own mental and emotional state a lot of credit. Honestly I was surprised I was still managing to put one hoof in front of the other without having some kind of breakdown. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact I hadn’t had a lot of downtime, not enough time to really sit, rest, and let the events of the past couple of days fully sink in. Deep down I was rather terrified of what might happen if I did stop for any real amount of time.
Luckily we had a Stable to explore, so I could put other thoughts out of my mind for now. Hooray for mental distraction!
The marker on Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck led us to a small cavern entrance not far from the canyon mouth. It was narrow, only wide enough at first for us to walk in two shoulder to shoulder, and it got rather dark within just the first dozen meters. The unicorn’s of the group, Fine Eye and Arcaidia, lit up their horns, while LIL-E produced a soft green glowing light from a panel on the side of her robotic chassis. Soon enough the cave opened up a bit, enough that we could get a little shoulder space, but the ceiling got uncomfortably close at the same time.
“LIL-E, you said that its possible this Stable will be closed,” I said, my voice sounding loud in the closed space even though I was trying to keep my voice low, “If it is, is there any way to open it?”
“Stable doors were designed to withstand anything short of a direct balefire bomb strike, and even those they might stand up to,” replied LIL-E as we came around a bend in the rocky cavern, “They’re not exactly the kind of thing you can…just…holy Luna’s gleaming clit…”
“Huh?” I asked, following the floating robot around the bend, and paused in my tracks as I saw what she saw. My companions filed in behind us, and were all silent for a moment, until B.B broke it.
“Well, guess the doors open…real open.”
“What could have done that?” breathed Sweet Pear fearfully as her foals huddled around her legs and her husband placed a comforting hoof on her shoulder while drawing his shotgun.
“Ooo, I can smell the blood and fear still lingering like balloons,” said Binge as she smiled wide, “Something bad happened here.”
“Buck me, do we really have to go in there?” asked Iron Wrought, and then sighed, “Right, dumb question.”
Our hesitation and comments were stemming from one simple fact. The massive thick metal circular door of Stable 104 was laying in two brutally cut halves, the metal wall from which it had once set battered and torn outward as if some great force had ripped it asunder. Even the rock walls around us looked cracked as if hit with some extreme force.
LIL-E slowly floated forward, light shining over one of the sundered halves of the door, “This should be borderline impossible. You’d need…a lot of force to damage a Stable door like this. A lot. Like, not physically possible to produce through conventional means.”
“It looks ta me like them doors got hit from somethin’ inside too,” said B.B, face going grim, “Like somethin’ came out.”
“Well, whatever came out is obviously long gone, right?” I said, trying to sound optimistic, “At least with the door open we can get in to find what we’re looking for.”
B.B nodded, taking a deep breath and adjusting the straps on her foreleg revolvers, “Guess there ain’t no point standin’ here shakin’ our hooves. Let’s git in there and git this thing done.”
“Estu di mervare ren bruhir, dol eriavae vi givir mas,” said Arcaidia, bringing out her starblaster and letting it float at her side as she stepped up, adjusting her dress and shining her horn’s light in a more focused beam into the dark gloom of the open hole in the Stable.
I took everypony else's queue and drew Gramzanber from its sheath at my side and took a step forward as well, “Right then, in we go.”
“Just a second,” said Fine Eye before we went in as he turned to his family, “Dear, let’s get the boys geared up.”
I quirked an eyebrow at that as I watched Sweet Pear nod to her husband and get into her saddlebags while Fine Eye lined his two colts side by side and began speaking to them.
“Okay boys, repeat to me the rules,” he said in a strict but somehow warm tone, one that sounded so similar to my mother’s own stern voice when she wanted to teach me something. Firm but, encouraging.
“First rule; stay within eyesight,” each colt said at the same time, having obviously gone through this routine before.
“Second rule; do not point our guns at anypony unless we intend to pull the trigger.”
Sweet Pear had gotten out two little sets of leather barding and was fixing them on the two colts as they stood still, continuing to list off rules in unison under the watchful gaze of their father.
“Third rule; no touching anything unless mom and dad says its okay.”
Out came a pair of small pistols, sleek little black things I recognized as probably being 9mm caliber. Hey, just because I absolutely sucked in using guns didn’t mean I was starting to pick up on a few things. I’d never be a true Wasteland gun nut who could point out the make, model, and specific modified components of a firearm at a glance, but I could at least tell a general type by now.
“Fourth rule; don’t get lost.”
The guns were given to the colts and Sweet Pear passed each of them a spare clip of ammo and a pair of little green plastic sticks.
“And the final rule?” Fine Eye asked, tone still firm.
“Fifth rule!” each colt said, “No matter what, if something bad happens, if mom or dad tell us to run, we run, and don’t look back!”
Fine Eye nodded, a small smile pulling at his lips, “Good boys.”
I was…honestly a little jealous. I could hear the pride in Fine Eye’s voice as his colts had gotten equipped and shown they knew the rules he’d taught them. I wondered how many times this family had gone through this routine, how many times they’d delved into dangerous places to salvage useful items to sell and keep living their lives together as a family. Children, mother…father…
I took a moment to mentally bludgeon my jealousy with big mental hammers and tossing it in closet. I replaced the feeling with a strict resolve to ensure this family stayed a family, whatever dangers Stable 104 held in store for us.
LIL-E insisted on going in first, and I followed close behind, B.B and Arcaidia beside me. Binge went in next, the dark green mare practically skipping and seeming to soak in the quiet, dead atmosphere like it was her element. Fine Eye and his family entered next, his wife pulling out a small lantern she attacked to her side and drawing a small block shaped weapon I recognized as a magical energy pistol that fired those thin red beams, like some of the Odessa ponies used. Her foals stayed close to her, both of them taking out small little sticks they shook a bit which made the sticks begin to glow. Iron Wrought brought up the rear, pistol in his mouth, his eyes flicking about as if expecting an attack at any moment.
The chamber immediately beyond the opening was wide and circular, with a domed ceiling. The entrance was in a lowered floor, but a ramp ahead of us led to the upper section of floor that encircled the room. Machinery, presumably originally meant to move the massive Stable doors, hung from the ceiling above us. Up the ramp were three doors, big heavy metal affairs with valve handles in their middle, though one of them was hanging partially open and with a section of its top half sheared off with the same smooth cut as the big main doors.
There were corpses here, well, more skeletons in any case. I wondered if the musty and dry smell was from them or just the way the Stable was supposed to smell. There were half a dozen of the skeletons, all wearing a dark blue and black armor with the word ‘SECURITY’ etched on the backs in white. From the fallen weapons and numerous shell casings littering the floor it was pretty clear a fight had occurred here…and not a one of the bodies was fully intact, with cleanly cut through limbs, or decapitated skulls, or their entire body neatly sliced in half. Dark red smears and streaks of old dry blood marked all surfaces like somepony had decided to decorate with buckets worth of the stuff. It was, overall, a less than encouraging sight.
“This isn’t right…” said LIL-E.
“I know, I’m thinkin’ Binge is right, somethin’ real bad happened here,” said B.B, eyeing one of the bodies with her nose wrinkling in disgust. Fine Eye and his family didn’t seem to mind it, which was a little disturbing to see, as they all, the two foals included, immediately went to work checking the bodies to see if their weapons and armors were salvageable, and if they had any other valuables on them. A part of me felt guilty, watching them loot the dead, but some practical part of me realized this was their job, how they sustained themselves in the Wasteland.
“That’s not what I mean,” LIL-E replied, floating around in a slow circle, light flickering left and right, “I mean this room, it’s not right.”
“How do you mean?” I asked, not following what she was getting at.
“Stable’s almost universally followed similar design pattern. Some variation was normal because some Stables needed to be built differently to accommodate whatever special experiments Stable-Tech had planned for them, but even then rooms still looked the same, hallways looked the same. It was a modular kind of design. This, though, this entryway, this doesn’t look like any Stable entrance I’ve seen before.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” asked Iron Wrought, spitting out his pistol briefly to speak. I noticed he’d attached a small tether to it that allowed it to hang around his neck so he could talk, then easily snatch it up again when he was done. Clever pony. It reminded me I still hadn’t found a solution to my issue with throwing Gramzanber and retrieving it. I might just have to find the material to fashion some additional spears just for throwing. Another item to add to the check list of ‘stuff to do when not busy avoiding horrible gruesome death’.
“No idea,” admitted LIL-E, “But it means I might not be able to rely on my previous knowledge of Stables in here, if the layout turns out to be serious different. Means there’s more chance of running into something…unexpected.”
“Fun,” I said, then got curious, “How do you know so much about Stables anyway?”
“Used to live in one,” LIL-E replied, a little fast, “Was a long time ago.”
“Did you use eyebots back then too?” I asked, “Were they part of whatever you did in your Stable?”
“Hm, oh, no, no this eyebot thing came way later.”
Suddenly one of the colts chimed in, Fresh Pear, “Eyebot? What’s that? I thought you were a sprite-bot. You look like a sprite-bot!”
“Fresh Pear, dear, it’s not polite to interrupt a conversation,” said Sweet Pear.
“Now, it’s alright,” said LIL-E “The kid is right, sort of. My model is based on the sprite-bots used by the Ministry of Moral that you still tend to see floating around. Eyebots, like this one, are newly designed by the NCR for…specific roles. If you’re familiar with sprite-bots you’ll notice I’m about twice the size? Don’t have the little mechanical wings? That’s because I’m using refined levitation talismans and have expanded capacity to carry modular weapons and additional features.”
“Are there a lot of eyebots in the NCR?” I asked, wondering if we’d run into more LIL-E’s if/when we ever got there.
“Not like this one,” LIL-E said, “Like I told you when we first met, my model was built specific for my use by a friend. The other eyebot series were limited in production, mostly as experimental attempts at creating a security and enforcement robot to keep the roads safe in places we lacked enough volunteers to patrol against Raiders and monsters. Turned out President Grimfeather’s didn’t think the eyebots were cost effective and had the lines discontinued.”
I felt a burning curiosity to keep asking questions but sensed my companions getting a little antsy to get started with the Stable, so I changed the subject.
“So if this was anything like a normal Stable, were would be the place we could get those disks copied?”
“Either the Overmare’s office would have a terminal for the purpose, or one of the maintenance workshops would probably have something similar. I’d go for the maintenance shop first, because the Pip-Buck technician’s stall is usually near there too, so we can maybe nab a Pip-Buck. I need to get to the Overmare’s office anyway to check this Stable’s files, but I’m in no rush.”
“That fine by us,” said Fine Eye, “We’re here for salvage. Where’d we find the most valuable stuff, like weapons or medical supplies?”
“Armory and med-lab respectively. Armory is probably locked and is usually on the third level. Med-lab would be on the top floor above the arboretum, not far from the Overmare’s office. Again though, I don’t know if that information is any good.”
“Just how big do Stable’s git to anyhow?” asked B.B, “It gonna take us awhile to search this place?”
“Why, thinking of splitting up to cover more ground?” I asked her jokingly, and laughed a bit as she gave me a small smirk.
“Course not ya dolt,” she said with a light laugh.
“Actually that might not be a bad idea,” said LIL-E, earning surprised looks from me and B.B, to which the robot just continued, “Normally splitting up is less than smart but with a crowd like ours, if something does go wrong and we’re attacked, there isn’t going to be a lot of room to maneuver. Too many narrow hallways or small rooms. We’d be tripping over each other, getting into each others fields of fire, that kind of thing. Also if something goes wrong it might help one group if the other isn’t caught in whatever ‘trouble’ happens and can come help, rather than all of us getting into trouble at once.”
She was being rather vague about what kind of trouble we could expect, but I mulled over her logic and found it made some sense. Tiny compact little corridors and small closed in rooms did not make for a lot of space for a crowd of ponies to fight in, and if something happened to trap us we’d all be screwed if we were together. On the other hoof, if we were split into two groups, and one group ran into trouble, the other group could potentially come and help.
“Okay, so let’s do this as two groups then. One works with Fine Eye’s family to get salvage, the other focuses on getting to maintenance and the Overmare’s office...whatever an Overmare is.”
“Leader of a Stable. Think the equivalent of a tribe chief,” said LIL-E.
“Why not just call her the Stable Chief then?”
“It’s just a different kind of terminology Longwalk.”
“But why ‘Overmare’? What is she over? And why a mare? Are there Overstallions?”
“Longwalk, seriously, not the time for this conversation.”
I still didn’t get it, but I relented, “Okay, okay, so now we just need to figure who is going with who?”
I felt a hoof wrap around my shoulder as Binge pulled me close, teeth flashing in a yellow smile, “I’m going with my very special little pony-project. If he got all hurt without me around I’d be oh so sad and disappointed! I mean can you imagine missing out on that kind of fun?”
I didn’t push her away but I did sort of shift uncomfortably. B.B made a small snorting sound, “I’m goin’ wit Longwalk too, no question there.”
Arcaidia seemed to grasp that there was a grouping going on here, looking over from where she’d been examining some of the machinery in the ceiling and trotted over to me, standing with head held high and giving me a simple nod. Her eyes lingered a little longer on Binge’s hoof around me and I think my unicorn friend actually gave me a small amused smile. Glad somepony was finding Binge’s attachment to me funny. Me? I was a little unnerved, yes, though so far she’d been fairly harmless.
“That’ll work,” said LIL-E “The ice totting filly there’s Pip-Buck should be something I can use my own radio signals to tap into and keep communications open between us, so I’ll go with Fine Eye’s family.”
“Guess that just leaves you then, Iron Wrought,” I said, looking at the green earth pony stallion, “Which group you want to go with?”
Iron Wrought gave one derisive look at Binge and said, “Think I’ll be fine going with the robot and the salvagers.”
That all settled we began our search of Stable 104, LIL-E and her group heading through the door on the far right that was marked with a sign that said ‘To Living Quarters/Administration’. Myself, B.B, Arcaidia, and Binge went through the partially slashed open door, its sign damaged but clearly reading ‘Maintenance/Terminal Access/La-‘. We didn’t know what the last word was, but the maintenance part was what we were after anyway. As we stepped through the threshold to go deeper into the shrouded darkness of the Stable I felt a small chill run along my back and crawl up the length of my neck, making my mane bristle.
“Long, ya alright?” asked B.B.
“Um…yeah, yeah I’m good. Just…let’s get this done quickly.”
I suddenly felt quite certain none of us wanted to be here, and that the sooner we got out, the better.
I was starting to realize I wasn’t all that fond of closed in spaces. I’d been fine in the Saddlespring Ruins, so it occurred to me this might be a recent development, but I just didn’t like having walls so close on either end of me, with a short ceiling making me feel like it could collapse down on my head at any second. Didn’t help this place had zero natural lighting and we were entirely reliant and Arcaidia’s horn and Pip-Buck light to keep our way illuminated. It felt like the shifting blackness of the shadows themselves were trying to close in around me and smother me, held only at bay by those small points of light.
As we explored forward we’d found several branching corridors beyond the doorway from the entrance, and all the while we’d found signs of a fight. More skeletons with sliced apart limbs and weapons, with the steel walls having large, long smooth gouges torn out of them. More bullet shells littered the floor, scattering before our hoofsteps with soft plinking sounds. A darker blast mark at one point indicated where a grenade had gone off. Binge kept pausing to poke at the skeletons, and before long the dark green mare had a small jingling collection of caps and spare bullets.
“Why not take the guns?” I found myself asking, curious.
“All broke, old, no good at all. Won’t make anything go pop and drop with little toys like these! But everypony loves bullets and caps, so keep a lot of them on you, and everypony loves you, see?”
“That’s ‘bout the most sense I think I’ve heard her make since she started taggin’ along wit us,” said B.B. She was constantly turning back and forth, floating in the air so she could keep her forelegs open to aim her revolvers up and down the corridor. She was clearly as jumpy as I felt. Binge didn’t seem nervous at all, and for that matter neither did Arcaidia, who was just curiously examining our environment. I wasn’t sure why, so far there hadn’t been much to see. Arcaidia was a curious sort though, and would pause at anything that seemed remotely out of the ordinary. One such oddity was a series of posters that spanned the bleak and otherwise dull corridors. Most of them depicted ponies in blue jumpsuits doing various mundane tasks with motivational slogans like ‘Work – It’s only for the rest of your life’ and ‘Teamwork – When in doubt, get more ponies’. There were also a lot of posters that depicted a particular unicorn, an aged violet coated mare with a darker purple mane, straight combed with a streak of color through it, almost but not quite pink. She was usually depicted wearing a lab coat or suit, and her posters often involved slogans like “Read Books!” or “Learning is Fun!” or “Friendship is Science!”.
“Someponies were fans o’ the Ministry of Arcane Science,” commented B.B, eyeing one such poster that showed the violet mare holding up multiple beakers of glowing multi-colored liquids, seemingly mixing them at random, with the slogan “Never be afraid to experiment!”
“That’s the one that…uh…” I tried to recall, “Did all the magicy and sciency stuff, right?”
“…Yes, Longwalk, magicy and sciency…anyway, seems like these Stable folk had a thing fer that Ministry. Not seeing posters for any other one ‘round here.”
I agreed, it did seem odd, especially considering if I was remembering right LIL-E had told me this region saw very little presence from Equestria’s Ministries. I shrugged it off though. At the moment it didn’t seem to relate to our objective here.
Though we peeked down the side corridors we kept to the main hallway, and it wasn’t long before we reached a door that lead to a set of switch back stairs heading down. Shadows flickered and danced down the stairwell as Arcaidia’s horn light shone down it. It was enough to see the collapsed rubble blocking the way. We doubled back and tried one of the side corridors. This led to a door that was sealed shut, but a little application of brute force courtesy of Gramzanber’s unnaturally sharp edge and we managed to cut through the bolts keeping it locked which let Arcaidia levitate it open.
Inside was a workroom, or what I could only assume was one from all the tables littered with machinery I didn’t recognize but certainly looked like it was meant to build things. There were certainly enough parts laying around for the purpose.
“Thinks this is where they made spare parts fer the Stable,” B.B said, flying over to one of the tables and picking poking at a plug shaped object, “Like spare light-bulbs an’ stuff like that.”
“Not what we’re looking for then?” I asked.
“Not unless ya feel a mighty powerful need ta learn how ta make spare piping.”
The far side of the workroom was fashioned into a rough barricade of overturned tables and piled crates. The barricade had been torn apart, and while there weren’t any skeletons here there were old black stains covering the ground here in wide smears.
“More ponies went dancing off with death here,” said Binge, “Hmm, why are we always late for the fun parties?”
Arcaidia was toying with one of the machines on the table, poking at it with a hoof and looking disappointed when the switch she flipped didn’t do anything. With a huff she gave me a look as if I could make the offending machine work, to which I just gave her a shrug. I grew up throwing sharp sticks at lizards, technically proficient I was not.
“Hey Arcaidia, mind comin’ over here a sec?” asked B.B as she floated around the barricade, pointing at something. We all gathered to see B.B was hoofing a square disk with a circular reel on it that looked similar, if more bulky, to the data discs with Dr. Lemon Slice’s research on it.
“Audio recorder. Copies an’ stores sounds. Arcaidia can play it wit her Pip-Buck.”
“What’s it doing here in the first place?” I asked.
“Some ponies really, really like to talk,” said Binge, “They like to talk so much that even with blood in their throats and their bodies going cold they’ll still just chitty-chat away. They love to do it with these little guys that’ll talk for them forever and ever so anypony can hear their voices even after they’ve long since gone to sleep.”
“Morbid, but makes sense,” I said, and looked to Arcaidia, pointed at the disk, “Think you can get your Pip-Buck to play it.”
I was curious, I won’t lie. While it seemed a little creepy listening to the voice of a long dead pony, I figured that whatever the pony said to this disk thing it must have been important to do it even facing whatever horrible event must have happened here. Seemed right to try and give that pony’s voice a chance to speak, one last time.
Arcaidia connected the disk to her Pip-Buck and flipped a few knobs. In moments a mare’s voice, raspy, tired sounding, began to speak with a faint scratchy quality to it that I could only assume was because it was a recorded set of sounds.
”Time Sheet here, I guess. Day…buck if I know anymore. Eight? Nine? I…uh, well I’m recording this because Slick Wrench says it might do me some good. Me and him are the only ones left, since Brass Bolt put a bullet in his brain. Guess he didn’t want to die the slow, starving way. Can’t say I blame him, but I just can’t bring myself to put the barrel to my head. I keep thinking if I do that, if I pull that trigger…what if they come back? What if I’d just held out one more day? Maybe somepony would come through, cutting through that damned sealed door and get us out of here. Can’t give up hope, right? Heh…hahah, listen to me, trying to convince myself we’re not screwed straight up our tail holes. Shit…shit it pisses me off so much. Those Goddesses damned, Luna cursed eggheads down below just had to keep digging, didn’t they? Don’t know what they found, but damned if it hasn’t done a number on us. Blew out the primary power, then the secondary generators went. Hence why our damned door won’t open! Heard the gunfire after, and the screams. When both of those stopped, and nopony came cutting through the door, I’m left assuming everypony else died. Only hope me and Slick Wrench have left is that, if the doors got left open, somepony will wander in. Might be those pegasi will come back…”
There was a scratching sound on the recording, like something shuffling along metal. Time Sheet’s voice came back, suddenly fearful.
”Buck, those noises again. Slick, Slick wake up.”
“Hm, ummm, what…? What is it TS?”
“I’m hearing those noises again in the ducts. I’m telling you there’s something in there.”
“Radroach TS, just a radroach. Hope it stops scuttling in there and comes in here. I’d even go for eating radroach meat now…we only got about another two days of food left…”
“Buck, stop reminding me. Lucky this shit all went down during our lunch break, but rationing out a few lunches to last over a week…I’m starving. I don’t want to die like this dammit!”
“TS…just…just chill. Maybe, maybe we can try the vents again?”
“Nearly lost your leg in there last time. They’re too narrow for us to fit Slick.”
“That was at the start. We’re kinda skinnier now. Maybe we can make it.”
“…Shit, it’s worth a shot. Let’s do it. C’mon. Oh, wait, gotta shut this thing off-“
The recording stopped and we were left looking at each other. Our eyes went up to the ceiling and I saw an open grate that I hadn’t noticed before. It wasn’t large and it was hard to imagine a pony fitting in there. I certainly wouldn’t. But those two ponies had clearly tried. It also hadn’t apparently gone well for them, if the dry blood on the grate was any indication.
“Cheerful place,” said B.B, “I ain’t so keen on hangin’ ‘round longer than we gotta.”
“Tell me about it,” I said as I mulled over what we’d heard on the recording. It sounded like somepony had found something? Eggheads? What did that mean? I mentally had the picture of a pony with an egg shaped head. I very, very quickly shook my head of that disturbing image. Time Sheet had mentioned they were digging for something? Why? What would be the point? Then that mention of pegasi…what had Time Sheet meant by that? Too many questions. Always more questions.
Since this room seemed a dead end we went back to the main corridor and found another side hallway to explore. After hearing the recording all of us were a little more tense, even Binge, who’d drawn out one of her knives and was playing with it. Nopony was speaking, so of course it made all of us jump when LIL-E’s voice suddenly spoke from Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck. Well, okay, I jumped, I couldn’t confirm if anypony else did. My ego just wanted to think everypony else did. Stop judging me!
“Hey everypony, you all okay?” LIL-E’s voice crackled out of Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck.
Arcaidia gave her Pip-Buck a look, then sort of waggled it at me while pressing a button. I lowered my head to the Pip-Buck and said, a little unsure of myself because I was basically talking to Arcaidia’s leg, which in my brain pony told me looked silly, “Uh, yeah, we’re okay here. What’s up?”
“Just wanted to do a status check, and test out to make sure my com system could reach that Pip-Buck, in case there was something that might interfere with it. My scanners are…acting up. I’m getting a lot of sensor ghosts. How’s your group’s progress?”
“Not much,” I said, frowning. Sensor ghosts? Did she mean…nah, probably just a turn of phrase? Like she was sensing things that weren’t there? I hoped so. Didn’t need to add spirits of the dead to my list of things to deal with in the Wasteland.
“We found some stairs, but they were blocked. Got into a machine shop, but there wasn’t anything there we could use, though we found a recording that…well it was interesting. Freaky, actually. Suggested somepony found something bad, dug it up or something. Right now we’re checking a different hallway, trying to find another way down.”
“Wish I could help you out with finding one, but the more we explore this place the less its layout looks like a Stable. We’re in the medical lab now, but it was an entire floor lower than it should have been, and I’m not seeing anything that looks like an Overmare’s office from here. It’s weird, found a few more skeletons of security ponies closer to the entrance, but haven’t seen any bodies of normal Stable ponies. There’s a big set of elevators across from us we’re going to check out next, but this place doesn’t have any power, so we might need to fix the generators before we can get much further. At least the medical lab here is pretty well stocked. We’re not going to be hurting for healing potions, once we link back up with you.”
“First good news I’ve had in awhile,” I said, smiling at the thought of having a decent stock of healing supplies for once, “You and everypony else be careful, and we’ll meet up soon. We’re going to keep trying to find a way down to the next level. Oh, and LIL-E, I just realized, even if we find the right machines to copy the disks I don’t know if anypony with me knows how to use them.”
“Don’t worry about that, I can walk you through it over the radio. You all be careful too. Sensor ghosts aside my instincts are telling me we’re not alone in here.”
“…Are you trying to sound ominous on purpose?”
I found myself wanting to bop the pony controlling LIL-E over the head, but I mostly just appreciated that LIL-E was willing to joke. She probably heard the tension in my voice and was trying to help break it. Granted she could’ve done it in a way that didn’t make me want to look at every flickering shadow like it was about to come to life and attack me, but I imagined her heart was in the right place.
The hallway turned to the left up ahead and as we rounded the corner we all paused. There were stairs before us, only these ones went up rather than down. Seemed counterintuitive for a Stable to have a floor above its entry level, but even as I had that thought Arcaidia strode forward. She had her silver eyes locked on strange circle shaped protrusions mounted in the wall on either side of the stairway entrance, like tiny nodes with red glass lenses. Arcaidia examined them, illuminating one with her magic and started to fiddle with it, using levitation to try and pull one of the node’s apart.
“Arcaidia I ain’t sure ya oughta be fiddlin’ wit that,” B.B began to say cautiously.
Arcaidia ignored the pegasus mare and got a look of heavy concentration on her face as she pulled one of the node’s out of the wall. I noticed all sorts of small white fibers connecting the node to its fixture in the side of the stairs. Arcaidia began to frown as she looked closely at these fibers, then at the area where they connected to the node, making a little ‘cluck’ sound with her tongue.
Binge was shuffling on her hooves, one of them bouncing her knife up and down, “Getting bored now. Why don’t the ghosties come out to play? They’re watching us, but they’re acting all shy.”
I glanced back at her. Her dark green coat seemed to fade into the background blackness like a wavering shroud, only her shining eyes clearly visible in the darkness along with the flashing metal of her knife as it bounced up and down on one hoof.
“We’re being…watched?” I asked, trying to not sound as suddenly ice cold nervous as I felt.
“Uh-huh!” Binge said, “In the walls, in the ceiling, in the floor, all eyes are on us, but its like they’re holding their breath, waiting, waiting, waiting. Soooo boring.”
“Waiting for what?”
“Oh don’t pay her any mind Long,” said B.B, “She’s just talkin’ like that ta git our tails in a’ bunch ‘cause she ain’t got nothin’ ta stab.”
“Neither do you, and that makes me kind sad. Why doesn’t the bird of prey indulge in her kills?” Binge asked, wide smile like a shark’s grinning up at B.B, “Must be getting awful hard, playing at being a sparrow, when all you want is some fresh, bloody meat.”
I gave Binge an utterly quizzical look, and then switched over to looking at B.B as the pegasus gave a small, strangled sound like she was about to say something and just barely managed to swallow it back. B.B was looking at Binge with eyes slightly wide, lips pressed tightly shut, and oddly her tail swished over to cover her cutie mark. Right, the cutie mark, the one with the red petal rose being fed by a pool of blood. I’d never gotten around to asking her about it, though I wasn’t too sure I wanted to. It seemed to make B.B uncomfortable, and honestly I was willing to let the matter drop. After all it wasn’t like my companions pressed me about my blank flank, so I ought to be willing to return the favor and not pester them about personal life details like where they got their cutie marks…not matter how odd they were.
“There ain’t nothin’ I’m pretendin’ ta be, an’ you just drop that subject right now missy, or I’m gonna forget real quick like that you ain’t nothin’ but a Raider Longwalk decided ta keep breathin’.”
Binge just kept smiling, but stopped bouncing her knife and tucked it away, where I couldn’t say, she was still in the rim of the light from Arcaidia’s horn, bathed in black.
“Okie Dokie Lokie,” she said, and went silent, but that smile never left her face.
With, well, that having just happened I was just as happy to see Arcaidia give up on fiddling with the device in the wall, which she’d thoroughly taken apart, and looked to be about to walk right on up the stairs.
“Hey Arcaidia wait up-“ I started to say when there was a sparking sound from the wall and I saw an arc of blue electrical magic energy surging from the taken part node and cascading to the other ones along the wall. The lenses all began to glow and I felt my hairs raise, instinct telling me to act and that I only had a second to do it.
I was rushing forward, throwing myself at Arcaidia. Arcaidia was only just starting to raise her head and look back, realizing something was wrong. I saw a sheet of blue energy snapping out from the nodes along the wall, starting to form a barrier between the entryway to the stairs, a barrier that would cut right through Arcaidia’s mid section…if I wasn’t barreling into her with a flying tackle.
Arcaidia wasn’t heavy, so pushing her aside…I probably used more force than I needed to, in my panic. She went sprawling up the stairs just as I landed inside the closing barrier. The heated blue sheet of energy slice off some strands of my tail, which was only just starting to grow back some length from when I’d cut it down in the Ruins. I was breathing hard and got to my hooves just as Arcaidia did, the unicorn looking at me with shock, maybe even a little anger, until she saw the barrier that’d almost caught her and she blinked, looking a tad embarrassed and nodding her head to me in thanks.
“Estu…mi vili arivae, Longwalk.”
“Danku,” I said back to her, earning a small laugh from her. I wondered if I got the word right, I was pretty sure ‘danku’ was meant to be ‘you’re welcome’.
B.B and Binge were on the other side of the field of energy that had cut us off and I could hear B.B pretty clearly as she said, “Ya alright over there you two!? How’d this little bugger suddenly switch itself on? Thought this place was outta power?”
I saw B.B as an indistinct form across the flickering field of blue. It wasn’t entirely intact, one of the nodes projecting it having been taken apart by Arcaidia, but it was still solid enough that I didn’t think I could just push past it. I tapped it experimentally with Gramzanber’s tip and the entire thing sparked and sent a jolt into me, throwing me back to lay at Arcaidia’s hooves. I blinked up at her, coughing a bit.
“I think we should avoid touching the glowing blue barrier thingy. It might hurt,” I said, wondering if that was smoke rising up from my now slightly frizzled mane.
Arcaidia sighed, shaking her head, and called out, “B.B, estu ti matra es ovilri. Retir…avi…wait. Stay?”
“Not a’ lot o’ choice on that count, assumin’ I don’t feel much like wanderin’ ‘round this place wit just Binge at my back,” replied the pegasus mare with some exasperation, “Longwalk okay?”
“Fine. Touched the barrier. Wasn’t smart of me, but what else is new?” I said, slowly getting back to my hooves, shaking myself, “You and Binge just sit tight, we’ll get a hold of LIL-E’s group and let them know what’s going on. Might be able to meet up with them.”
“What ‘bout you and Arcaidia then? Wait, Long, don’t ya tell me yer just goin’ ta keep explorin’ ahead, just you two!? This place is getting’ dangerous. Let’s just sit tight until LIL-E an’ the others show up, an’ we can figure how to disable this field.”
“Noooooot a goooood ideeaaa,” cooed Binge, “They’re moving now.”
“Movin’? Whose movin’? Speak straight ya blasted mare!” shouted B.B
“The Stable ponies silly. They’re scuttling around excited, can’t you hear them? This is what they were waiting for, the party ponies to get all broken up in the fun house. Now they want to play with us,” I couldn’t be sure past the blue field, my companion’s forms beyond it a sort of off-blue blur, but I think Binge had gotten her knife back out, “Now Longwalk you go on and play with little Arcy! Have fun you kids! Big Sis’ Binge and B.B will go find the other living ponies before all the dead ponies do.”
I was rather worried at this point. I wasn’t hearing anything like Binge seemed to, and it occurred to me she might just be trying to mess with our heads for her own amusement, but I wasn’t about to take the chance of ignoring her. I was giving the walls, and especially the ceiling, very wary looks, eyes lingering on each vent cover. I remembered all the blood in the workshop, the dried red on the vent cover Time Sheet and Slick Wrench had apparently made their last bid for survival to get through. Something had to have caused all that blood to be spilled, and it didn’t seem like it was the same thing that had escaped the Stable by slicing those huge balefire bomb resistant doors in half.
“Longwalk,” B.B said, “This mare, she’s nuckin’ futz.”
“I’m noticing,” I said dryly. Meanwhile B.B turned her attention to Binge.
“Now look here, Arcaidia’s our only light source an’ I ain’t keen on walkin’ ‘round in the dark wit no idea where I’m goin’!”
“Not to worry pretty pegasus, Big Sis Binge is real good with the darkness, we’re old palsie walsies!” Binge punctuated her words with a face splitting grin and a squeaking ‘squee’ sound that I couldn’t even fathom how she made it.
B.B blinked at the mare grinning at her with a look of utter non-confidence.
“Yeah, that’s not comfortin’. It’s the opposite of that.”
“If I promise to play soft and no touchies will you feel better? You can smell if I’m gonna be a naughty nelly, riiiiight?”
“How do ya…? Ugh fine, I’ll go. Longwalk, me an’ her will go hook up wit LIL-E an’ the others. Just, just don’t do nothin’ crazy ‘till we can all link back up, alright?”
“Will do. Be safe,” I said and motioned Arcaidia over, gesturing for her to let me see her Pip-Buck. It took me a little time fiddling with the buttons before I figured out how to access the radio and tab over to the broadcast feature. The design was intuitive enough that even my lack of technical knowledge was little barrier to operating it. Fortunately my tendency to jinx machinery wasn’t kicking in yet, unless you counted the barrier activating like that.
“Uh, LIL-E? You there?”
LIL-E’s response took a moment, “Right there Longwalk. Something happen on your guy’s end too? This place is starting to act up.”
I frowned, answering “Yes, me and Arcaidia got separated from B.B and Binge by some energy barrier that just activated out of nowhere. Binge is saying something about this place having dead ponies in it watching us and moving, and she and B.B are going to be heading down the path you all went to try and catch up to you. Think you might be able to disable this barrier?”
“Not exactly equipped for it but I could try. We’ve been having doors trying to close on us too, but we’ve managed to avoid getting separated. I thought this place lacked power, but it seems like it’s running off of some tertiary generator that’s routing power to specific places. I’m pretty sure now somepony’s here, trying to break us up.”
I found myself sighing, “Where are you now?”
“We’re across from the medical lab, down a flight of stairs that leads to what looks like living quarters. Fine Eye’s family are just sort of scavenging around, and Iron Wrought’s guarding the stairs. I’ll let him know to keep his eye out for B.B and Binge. What are you and Arcaidia going to do?”
“We’re moving forward, see what we can find. I won’t let us go too far though, in case you manage to get the barrier down. Still getting those sensor ghost things?”
A pause, then “Yes. More of them too, but still not actually seeing anything.”
Buck it all I was not liking this. If something was going to attack us I wished it would just get it over with and come on already. All this creeping around, being there but not, making doors and barriers close to keep me and my friends separate, it was starting to drive me up a wall.
“Right, well, just keep your eye…sensor…things, peeled,” I said, then turned back to the barrier, “Okay, LIL-E knows you’re coming. They’re across from the medical lab, so find that, you can find them. Iron Wrought should be watching out for you. Be careful, you two.”
“Same ta you Long,” said B.B.
“The dark, it’ll look back at you my little bucky, so poke it hard in the eye when it does!” said Binge merrily.
After I watched the two’s blurred shapes vanish beyond the barrier I turned back to Arcaidia with a heavy sigh, worry for my friends making my mind feel heavy, but I felt immediately better, seeing Arcaidia giving me an encouraging nod.
“Well, looks like it’s just us again for now.”
The stairs were switchbacks just like the ones we’d seen going down earlier. They took us up to a single door that I gave a suspicious look as it opened for us easily upon turning the valve. LIL-E said they’d had doors closing on them, and I didn’t want to take chances, so I kept Gramzanber ready to prop the door open as Arcaidia stepped through first, followed by me.
The hallway beyond was short and curved, a window along the right side showing a dark room beyond. Me and Arcaidia walked around this bending hallway, as I peered into the window. There was a crack at one point, and a smear of something darker than the normal shadows pasted across the glass. You know, because that was comforting.
The end of the hallway had two doors to be seen, one on the actual hallway, another leading into the dark room. Markings on the doors were painted in sterile white and I read the one on the door to the dark room aloud, sounding out the unfamiliar words, “Arti…artifact…la..bra…laboratory? Huh, so what do you think Arcaidia, door number one, or door number two?”
As I gestured at either door with a hoof Arcaidia breathed a small chuckle as she brushed past me and tapped one of her own hooves on the door marked as the ‘Artifact laboratory’.
“Vi es aria di vorae, nes?”
We tested the door, finding it locked, but I made use of my universal lockpick (ie Gramzanber) to slowly cut away the door’s locking mechanism. Then it was a simple enough matter to pry the door open, Arcaidia shining her horn’s light into the gloom. I looked about warily as we entered, eyes darting back and forth for any signs of movement or hidden danger.
The room was perfectly circular and was filled with tables and shelves lined with apparatus’, gizmos, and other assorted random descriptions of machinery of so many different sizes and shapes I was having trouble even starting to guess their purpose. One wall had a bank of terminals though set up along a series of desks, many of which were piled with scattered papers and books. In fact the entire room was a bit of a mess, more papers and random debris like little writing pencils and broken glass vials littering the floor. There were blood smears as well, dark like the one on the window. It was scattered in random splotches across the tables and floor, though at one corner table there was a much larger pool that had been smeared in a way that made it look as if something had been dragged through it. All the blood was old, dry, and practically black. The room had the same dead dryness to its air that was prevalent through the rest of the Stable.
Arcaidia didn’t seem to notice, or if she did she didn’t mind, the blood. She cantered into the room with her horn glowing brighter, bathing the room in lighter shades of pale blue light. She went right up to the first table and began excitedly examining one of the objects on it, a square container of glass that contained a fragment of metal in it that shone with hexagonal patterns under the glow of Arcaidia’s light.
“Ava! Esri vi tivilae mi Veruni! Estu dol carae shir?” her words carried a happy chiming tone to them that matched her smile. Whatever this stuff was, she sure seemed fired up upon seeing it.
She swung right over to another object, practically bouncing on her hooves. This was a small metal disk being suspended in the air by a grasping apparatus that looked like a scaled down metal radscorpion claw. Arcaidia picked this item up with her levitating magic, the metal disk shrouded in blue as it was pulled from the metal arm’s grasp and floated before Arcaidia as she examined it closely.
“Glad you’re finding some neat things to look at, but we need to focus on either finding a way to shut that barrier down or moving forward,” I said as I walked past the center tables in the room, gingerly stepping over shattered glass, and began to make my way to the other side of the room where the terminals on the desks were.
I hadn’t seen another door out of here besides the one we’d entered, so I thought I’d see if my luck with machines felt like turning around at all and try my hoof at one of the terminals. It’d help take my mind of the creeping sensation in my neck that the shadows were watching us. I was as alert as ever, Binge’s strange words about dead Stable ponies fresh in my mind. That alertness, however, just reminded me of how limited my vision was with only Arcaidia’s light to see by, and how easily anything could be lurking in those softly shifting dark places in the room without me being able to tell the difference between a threat and a shadow.
It had to be much worse for B.B, with no light source at all. But then again, didn’t she have her amazingly keen scent to work with? I had yet to ask her about that. Revealing that she could even do it the first time had made her pretty nervous, and I had promised not to press her for answers on it. Didn’t stop my curiosity, though. I still worried about her and Binge. About her being alone with Binge.
If you can’t get yourself to trust her then you shouldn’t have let her join you in the first place. That or done what any sensible pony would have in that situation and finished the Raiders off.
I firmly ignored that frosty, practical voice in my head.
The first terminal I checked was black and dead, no response at all as I fiddled about typing with one hoof. How had B.B pulled this off? I kept hitting multiple keys and was having trouble angling my hoof to just strike on button at a time. Huffing to myself I moved to the next terminal, which turned out to be dead as well. I was about to give it up and see if I couldn’t pry Arcaidia away from fiddling with the random items on the table when I heard a buzzing sound and looked to my left. The terminal on the far desk had just turned on, and was making a few clicking and buzzing sounds.
“Right…because that’s not creepy,” I said to myself.
“Avra?” Arcaidia looked up from where she’d been poking a hoof at a big metal cylinder laying across one of the tables. I had no idea what she’d done with the little metal disk, but she looked quite pleased with herself, even as she looked at my curiously.
“Oh, nothing, just machines turning on at random. I’m going to go touch it and hope it doesn’t explode. Wish me luck.”
Arcaidia might not have understood the words but she got the tone and rolled her silver eyes at me, “Estu di wavari, ren solva.”
I waved back at her as I cantered over to the terminal, “If it blows up on me I’ll completely accept you saying ‘I told you so’ or whatever your language equivalent is.”
The terminal’s screen was blank save for a single blinking green square. A little disappointed I sat myself at the stool in front of the desk, setting Gramzanber to lean against the desk after brushing the stool off of old dust. I raised a hoof to the keys, finding it awkward having to angle my hoof just right to poke the keys I wanted…though at this point I had no idea what to type. I just tried hitting one of the bigger keys, one that said ‘enter’, though enter what I couldn’t fathom. If I got magically sucked into this thing I was going to be very displeased.
Well, no getting zapped into magical terminal space and it didn’t explode either, so things were going well so far. Indeed the blinking green square had vanished and was replaced by a set of scrawling text. Reading it over it looked like a menu page giving me a series of options, but any one I tapped the arrow keys towards and tried clicking the enter button on just gave me the same message of ‘SYS.ERROR FILES UNAVAILABLE’, until I got to the ‘Messages’ section. Then I got a list of options headed under a series of numbers the purpose of which I had no idea, but looking it over…it seemed fairly systematic. It took me a minute or two of picking at my rather slow mind to realize the pattern of numbers was an ascending order, with lower numbers at the bottom of the page, and higher numbers at the top.
Not that I had any idea what ‘dates’ where back then, but even for an uneducated tribal I gathered that the messages were being numbered from oldest to newest.
I clicked on one of the older ones, just to get an idea of whose terminal this was.
FRW: Hey Misty Glasses
Sorry to drop this on you at the last second but do you mind switching shifts with me tomorrow? The maintenance mare I was telling you about last week finally said yes to lunch but her only day off is tomorrow! Please sis do me this solid, pleeeease!? You know your bro’s a pony of his word, so you help me out here I’ll totally take a double shift from you down the road, like next week, month, whatever. Anytime Director Twinkle’s on your flank and you need a break, you can count on me. Just please do me this one favor. I cannot emphasis enough how hot this Time Sheet is. I mean, daaaaamn, and she actually agreed to do lunch. With me! This. Is. Monumental. So, please, favor, yes, pay you back.
-Your awesome bro, Figure Eight
Subject: Fragment Analysis 12 Thoughts
I agree that the object in question follows a similar design pattern to, say, or own solid state matrix storage materials, but so far we’ve lacked any way to confirm that. The reactions to magical fields suggest a built in matrix of its own, but every attempt to interface any of our own arcane matrices has resulted in that matrix collapsing almost immediately. Blue Wine is still in a comma from her attempt to interface herself. Can’t believe Director Twinkle ordered that. In any case I had an idea, given your analysis. You said you noted an increased amount of activity in Fragment 12 when it was in the same lab as the Specimen, during the whole transfer fiasco when our new lab was built. What if we tried taking a piece of the Specimen and did a few tests to see if we can get it to interact with Fragment 12? I’m pretty sure you spin the idea the right way Twinkle will go for it. She’s hot to please our “guests” from outside and to make the higher ups in Center happy. Heard about the inspection that happened in Stable 105? Not exactly stuff to boost one’s confidence. Anyway, get back to me soon as you can, I want to start getting some results from this research before Twinkle blows a gasket and makes our lives harder than they need to be. Seriously, why put such a stress ball in charge of a Stable?
I leaned forward on the rather uncomfortable and cold metal stool, peering over the message again. I knew time was a factor so I couldn’t spend too much time messing around with these messages, but my curiosity was getting scratched in just the right way to make me want to keep searching. I glanced once over my shoulder just to make sure Arcaidia hadn’t wandered off. She’d removed that metal cylinder she’d been looking at from the table and had set it on the floor. It was about half the size of a proper sized pony, with an indent along one side that looked like a hatch or door where the cylinder was meant to open, with a small control panel near the top with a number of little buttons. Arcaidia was ignoring the buttons and instead was casually sending a small jet of ice along the seams of the cylinder. Ancestors, and she wanted to chide me for messing with terminal? She was the one screwing around with random cylinder things.
“Hey Arcaidia,” I called out, pausing only long enough to make sure I’d gotten her attention, “What’s got you so curious about those… whatever those are?”
I sort of waggled my hoof at the cylinder, then at the other assorted items strewn over the laboratory tables, then shrugged my shoulders at her while putting on a quizzical look.
She blinked at me, then strangely enough got an embarrassed look on her face, rubbing a hoof in circles on the floor as she said in a tone that sounded defensive to me, “E-Esru… tu vod dol Veruni mundri. Esru vi shir vira tas.”
She raised her Pip-Buck and ejected the metal disc I’d seen her insert in it to perform that map revealing spell of hers. She wreathed it in the soft blue glow of her magic and floated it over her head. Then she floated out the little circular disk I’d seen her take from the table. Other than slight differences in size and shape I noticed both discs had an identical, slightly silver sheen to them, and were both roughly as thin as each other.
My eyes widened slightly with realization.
“Those are the same kind of item. These Stable ponies were studying stuff that’s from… wherever you’re from!”
Word barrier or not my expression and tone clearly got across that I understood and Arcaidia put away the small silvery discs in her saddlebag, giving me a brief nod before she gestured her hoof at the cylinder before her and looked at me expectantly.
I waved to her in ascent, “Go ahead then, if you think you’ll find something useful. Not like I’m not doing the same thing over here. Just keep alert, in case of…” I gestured at all of the old blood splatter and pointed a hoof at my eyes. Her lips quirked in a small cocky smile as she floated her starblaster in front of her. She’d be alert, and probably more ready than me for danger.
Satisfied I returned my attention to the terminal and clicked on the next message.
I paused. Was that click me? I clicked another key.
Okay, must have been me. I went back to reading the message, the most recent one left in the system.
MG, there’s no time. Get your brother and meet at the Terminal Station tonight, 0200. They’re going to try it, the bastards. They’re coming for the Specimen. It’s going to be Stable 105 all over again and Center’s not going to do shit about it! All the research staff are going to be targeted, even their families. When the train gets to 106 my friend will meet you there and get you to the surface. I know it’s bad up there, but it’s got to be better than what those pegasi will do to you. And no, don’t tell anypony else. I know you got friends in those labs, but I can’t get anypony else out of there but you and FE. Wish I could do more. Wish I could come with you. It’d look to suspicious. Thank you, MG, for giving somepony like me the time of day, even if it was just a short-term thing. Stay safe.
More mention of this ‘Specimen’, whatever that was supposed to be. I wished there was some way for me to copy these messages down, because I did not feel like a smart enough pony to pick out much of anything useful from this. LIL-E or B.B or Iron Wrought, they could probably point out all manner of useful clues from this, but me, I just found myself scratching my mane with a hoof in confusion as I tried to figure out what any of that meant. What happened in Stable 105? Wait, weren’t Stables all isolated from each other anyway? And what was Center, or the pegasi being mentioned here? My brain pony was busy having a little seizure in a corner of my mind from question overload. I’d just have to remember all this as best I could and ask-
… Oh… that wasn’t me this time.
I slowly bent my head over and wrapped my mouth around Gramzanber.
Glancing behind me I noticed Arcaidia’s ears were twitching and her eyes were scanning around. Good, she’d heard it too. She caught me look and we shared a nod.
Where was it coming from? The sound wasn’t loud enough to have a distinct direction of source. Not yet. It was a light, scratching tap, like how the tip of my spear had sounded when laying against the cold metal floor. Every time the sound filled the silent room it felt like it was sticking a pin lightly across the base of my neck. I backed away from the terminal and started walking slowly towards Arcaidia, winding around the tables towards her. Then something plinked off my head, landing on the ground with a cold and tiny metallic ping.
I glanced down, which was stupid of me, but it was reflex. The thing on the ground was barely discernible in Arcaidia’s pale horn light, but it looked like a metal spoke, kind of like the screws I’d…seen…holding up vent grates.
I looked up in time for another screw to bounce off my forehead and to see the grate above me swing down, and something drop out of it right onto my face. Something with bristly coarse fur, far too many small, scratching legs, and emitted a high keening shriek.
For the sake of my stallion’s pride I’d like to think my own shriek was only a few octaves lower pitched than that of the creature’s, but honestly I wouldn’t take that bet. My immediate reaction to this many legged, scratching screeching thing landing on my face was to start bucking and whipping my head about like I was on fire. In fact I’m fairly certain I might’ve reacted with greater calm and dignity if I had been lit on fire instead.
The thing on my face managed to maintain its grip for a second, but my wild head whipping managed to dislodge it with only a few small cuts along my muzzle from its sharp pointy legs. I caught a faint view of a many legged, pink pastel…thing fly into the darkness and heard it land lightly, then bloody well skitter into the deeper darkness of the laboratory before I could get a proper look.
“Longwalk! Estu vi goval!?”
Arcaidia was at my side in an instant, the unicorn filly swinging her starblaster towards the area where I’d tossed the… whatever it was, and lighting the area brighter with her horn. I crinkled my nose and muzzle, licking at one of the scratches with my tongue. Not deep. I was mostly just scared shitless. What was it!? It. Had. Way. Too. Many. Legs!
We heard a light skittering to our left and both turned instantly in that direction. Just the shadow painted scenery of the blood specked laboratory greeted us, a single half broken beaker of class lazily rolling across the ground from where something bumped it. I was breathing fast past my teeth tightly clenching Gramzanber. I kept wanting to shift my hooves, not wanting to stand still. Arcaidia looked much calmer than I felt, cold silver eyes scanning the darkness around us as her horn seemed to focus the light coming from it, shining it about in a concentrated but bright pool of pale blue.
I felt something brush my tail and yelped, swinging about and smashing Gramzanber into…the table I’d bumped into, cutting a huge gouged in the metal lab table. Arcaidia gave me a look, which I returned sheepishly as I pulled my spear out of the offending table. Stupid table.
Taking a calming breath I turned around. And came face to face with the creature.
It was on top of another lab table opposite the one I’d just nearly chopped in half, looking right at me with its…eight…eyes…
Fillies, gentlecolts, I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this, but I’ve never seen a spider before, though I’d later learn the term. Insect life was a non-existent factor in my life back with my tribe. The radscorpions had been horrific enough, but manageable to my psyche because I’d faced them in broad daylight and had all of my companions at my side.
This was just me and Arcaidia in a dark abandoned Stable.
The creature before me wasn’t a stereotypical example of arachnid life. No, not at all. This creature was about the size of an older foal, had coarse, bright pink fur covering its bulbous form, with splotches of creamy white fur forming spot-like patterns on its back. Eight incredibly long segmented legs sprouted from its sides, sharp hook-like tips making those clicking noises I’d heard before. The face of the creature…yes that was what got stuck in my mind the most. It was vaguely pony-shaped, with a mane, an actual mane, of shiny bright yellow. Six of its eight eyes, arranged around the forehead, were black, beady things. The final two were wide, round, and all too pony-like, with bright blue irises.
I screamed. So did it…her? Kind of looked female in facial structure. The spider…pony? Spony? Pider? Either way, when it screamed its jaw unhinged and broke apart in a grotesque wide mouth with four curved fangs dripping a thick pale green liquid. It then leaped at my face. In pure panic I tried to bat at it with Gramzanber’s broad blade, but all I ended up doing was twisting my head in a way that the spider pony landed on my neck instead of my face; which by the was not any better in my opinion.
I felt its hooked legs scrabbling away at my neck and visions of it plunging those ichor dripping fangs into me sent shivers through my whole body as I scrambled with a hoof to try to dislodge it. With a forceful shove I sent the thing flying, and I cringed as I felt a sickening crack and a shrill whine fill the air. Feeling my neck I noticed that while I’d knocked the spider pony off of me, one of its legs was still hooked into my neck. I pulled the leg off my neck and with a grimace tossed it aside.
I still heard that loud, keening whine, and both me and Arcaidia walked around one of the lab tables to see the little spider pony was laying on its back against the wall, curled up with its remaining legs and…crying? It wasn’t quite like a natural cry, it was too high pitched, but the pain in it was all too evident. Green blood pumped from the stump where its leg had come off. What disturbed me most was that I actually saw tears in the pony-like pair of eyes the creature had. If I’d just been looking at the eyes alone I’d swear I was just looking at a foal wailing in pain.
Now I was horrified by more than merely the creature’s appearance, but now by the notion that I may have just inadvertently badly injured a…well the equivalent of a foal. Arcaidia didn’t look like she felt the same, however. Her eyes remained calm, cold, though her brow was arched in curiosity as she looked at the little spider pony. I realized I’d seen a similar look on her face before, though I hadn’t recognized it at the time; she’d looked at the Labor Guild slaves the same way. When Arcaidia pointed her starblaster at the crying spider pony I put a hoof up, stopping her.
“Wait, Arcaidia, I don’t think it was trying to hurt me! We…we need to help it…uh…her?”
I wasn’t sure on the little critter’s gender, but I got the impression she was a she. Either way I went and found where the removed leg had been dropped and carefully got it lifted with one hoof, awkwardly moving on three legs back over towards the crying foal…spider…pony…thing. Arcaidia was looking at me like I’d sprouted an additional head. I lifted the limb, then nodded my head at the wailing child creature, then looked at Arcaidia pleadingly.
I was pretty sure she understood that I wanted her to use her healing spell to try and help me get the leg reattached. The problem was she wasn’t moving, she was just staring at me like a pony who’d just lost his last vestige of sanity.
I found myself biting back a growl. I wasn’t…angry, per se, at Arcaidia, but come on, she didn’t have to look at me like that!
“Look Arcaidia it’s just a foal…creature. It probably was just scared, so please h-“
A loud, angry and chilling hiss cut through the air, interrupting my words. Arcaidia and I both looked to our left at the doorway into the lab. Standing there, full sized as an adult pony, with the same pink coarse fur, was a much larger spider like creature. Same mane color, bright shiny blond, but different eye color, a sort of light sea green. Mommy spider. I looked between the crying foal spider (monster?), and the big, very angry looking adult spider (pony?) in the doorway, then at the severed limb I was holding in my hoof.
“Um…this isn’t what it looks like?”
Mommy spider didn’t seem to care for my words, as I found myself getting bowled into by the extraordinarily fast creature before I barely finished my sentence. Only the metal armored barding on my chest kept the creature’s fangs from piercing into me as it tried to slam me into one of the lab tables. I braced my hooves and stayed upright, hitting the back of the table hard and scattering lab equipment, but not falling over. A hooked leg stabbed down at my neck and I turned my head to the right, using Gramzanber’s shaft to block the leg, which proved much stronger than its spindly form suggested. I was afraid, but not panicking, experience at this point taking over and keeping me focused. As the creature kept trying to pierce my metal barding with its fangs, getting close to one of the leather seams, I steadied my hindlegs, shoved with Gramzanber’s shaft to push the creature back, then reared up and kicked out with my forelegs. I hit the large spider pony square in the face and it staggered back, right next to the smaller spider pony which was still curled up, crying.
“Okay, now listen to me! I didn’t mean to hurt the little one, and we-“
A scorching zap of burning air followed by a silver streak of light interrupted me as Arcaidia’s starblaster fired, cutting a brilliant path right into the adult spider pony. The line of energy burned through the spider, not disintegrating it, but causing it to flip over and start howling in pain, its many legs flailing in the air. The adult spider pony’s cries were joined by a desperate wail from the smaller one as Arcaidia fired again, just as I was turning to try to get her to stop. The second line of death dealing light did its work with brutal effectiveness, cutting right up down the center of the adult spider pony, turning its form into silver light, then a pile of ash.
“Arcaidia sto…p…” I just sort of trailed off, staring forlornly at the ash remains of the spider pony.
Arcaidia cocked her head at me, looking confused.
“Estu dol rivalae, nes? Estu vi dolor tu martriv…”
Arcaidia didn’t look regretful, just concerned, like she was worried about there being something wrong with me. When the small spider pony’s wails started up again I turned back, gritting my teeth at the sound. The small creature had righted itself, standing wobbly on its seven remaining legs, and was looking at the pile of dust where the adult had been. The little foal spider pony poked a single leg through the ash pile, its beady eyes black and unmoving, but its pony eyes wide with shock. Then the tears welled again and the little creature began to wail even louder.
Damn. Just…damn. I’d been scared. I’d panicked and just slapped the little critter off of me. How else could I have reacted? Wouldn’t any of you done the same thing, if some random spider looking creature had jumped on you all of a sudden? For all I knew the little spider pony had been trying to eat me! But now…?
Hard to think that now though, looking at the pitiful sight of the creature crying over the ash of its probable parent.
Also hard to think about it now that I was hearing a series of more loud hisses coming from the hallway. A lot more. I backed up to where Arcaidia was, and gave her a look. She was still giving me that worried look as if she was wondering if I was alright, her starblaster never once wavering from pointing at the tiny spider pony. She just wasn’t taking any chances. Should I admire her practicality over my…whatever it was I was?
“I think we need to go,” I told her and she nodded in apparent understanding.
Without any hesitation she snatched up the cylinder she’d been fiddling with in a levitation aura of magic and we both ran for the door out of the lab, past the still crying little spider pony. Out in the hallway I heard loud clicking sounds I’d come to realize now were many hooked spider legs clattering on metal surfaces. I looked down the hallway where me and Arcaidia had originally come from to see a mass of shadowy many legged forms marching down the corridor, at least half a dozen, probably more.
I put my moral concerns on the backburner as best I could, understanding just how much danger both I and Arcaidia were in right now. I immediately went to work ‘unlocking’ the next door with Gramzanber while Arcaidia opened fire with her starblaster, while at the same time solidifying a piercing hail of icicle shards and launched them down the corridor. Pained howls and angry hisses accompanied us as I tore open the door and both me and Arcaidia flung ourselves into the next hallway beyond at a dead gallop. This hallway curved in the opposite direction as the previous one, following another blackened window into what I could only assume was another laboratory. Unfortunately there was no time to think about exploring that one as I galloped down the cold metal corridor, ignoring the splashes of old blood on the walls.
Blood, but no bodies. Only bodies at the entrance. The thought entered my mind and left it just as quick, but somehow struck me as important. What had happened to all the Stable ponies? Why did these creatures have pony features? I had a sinking feeling that those questions were directly connected, if not the how or why of it.
Up ahead the hallway widened to a larger set of sealed metal doors that didn’t have the normal valve I’d been used to seeing, but rather a small metal pedestal with a complex looking keypad on it. I ignored the keypad and charged the door. Ultimate unlocking tool Gramzanber go!
I found myself laying on my back, head ringing. I raised my head, seeing Gramzanber partially planted in the door, but its blade only having sunk in a few inches into what was apparently a very thick door. I rubbed my mouth, feeling a loose tooth towards the back of my mouth.
“Not getting through the easy way…” I muttered, glancing behind us. I couldn’t see them, but I heard them. A scratching, maddening wave of clicks and hisses echoing down the hallway. We didn’t have long. I shared a look with Arcaidia, who’d set down the cylinder she’d been floating along.
“Ice?” I asked.
“Vril,” she replied, then added with a nod and smile, “Ice.”
I may have been a tad unnerved by how she’d killed that spider pony without any hesitation, but I couldn’t really blame her either. Time and again Arcaidia had shown herself to be far more adept at dealing with hard situations than I was. She perceived a threat, and she dealt with said threat in the most efficient means available to her, to protect herself and me. I just didn’t get how she did it so effortlessly. Be merciless one second, smile the next. Made me wonder what kind of life she led before me and Trailblaze had found her in that pod.
As Arcaidia went to work on the corridor entryway with forming an ice barrier I went to retrieve Gramzanber, and then went to examine the keypad on the pedestal. I tapped a few keys experimentally, but I didn’t get any kind of response. Maybe it didn’t have any power? I growled in frustration. The doors were too thick for me to be able to cut through them with Gramzanber, at least not without an hour or two to go at it. With no power to the keypad, though, I’d never get them to open, even if I had any skill or knowledge with machines.
I heard a sharp cry behind me and looked back. Arcaidia had gotten half her ice barrier up, but the last top portion was still open, and a spider pony with dark blue fur had shoved several of its limbs through the opening and slashed at her. Arcaidia had a cut along her brow which was coating her silver mane red. She wheeled her starblaster up and fired several point blank lines of white energy into the spider pony, causing it to burst into ash, but another one took its place just as fast.
Galloping over I swung my head and Gramzanber cut an arc through this spider pony’s leg as it tried to grab at Arcaidia, the limb clattering off in a spray of green fluid. I forcibly swung my head back the other way, slamming the spider pony’s face, causing it to fall back. Arcaidia resumed sending out a stream of ice, sealing up the opening more. Blood covered her face now but she blinked past it and sealed the opening all the way while I kept the creatures outside back with thrusts from Gramzanber.
Even with the ice barrier in place I could hear the fast repetitive sound of digging and picking at the ice like the sound of rain falling on sheet metal as the spider ponies began tearing at the barrier.
The two of us were safe for the moment, but essentially trapped.
LIL-E’s voiced coming from Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck sounded like a blessing from the ancestor spirits to my ears.
“Longwalk, Arcaidia, we got a problem.”
Well, her voice sounded like a blessing. Her words, not so much. I could actually hear the sound of gunfire crackling over the speaker. I went up to Arcaidia, reaching out a hoof to check her head wound, but she waved me off, shoving the Pip-Buck at me instead. Right, talk to LIL-E first, worry about injury later. Again, she was the more practical of the two of us.
“I think I can guess what it is; big critters with a lot of legs, kind of got pony-ish faces?” I asked.
“Oh, you’ve made friends with them too?” LIL-E asked on the tail of a loud series of gunshots and a pained hissing wail, “Started crawling out of the Celestia hoof-fucked vents just as we were getting done with the living quarters.”
“Are B.B and Binge with you?” I asked nervously, trying to ignore the noise of the spider ponies chipping away at the ice barrier.
“No,” was LIL-E’s flat reply, her mechanical tone somehow carrying a heavy weight to it, “And we got pushed back to what looks like the Administrative level. Cubicles everywhere. Nothing like the Stable’s I’m used to. We’ve barricaded the main entrance but these things are coming in from the ceiling- Fine Eye on your right!” crack of a shotgun, “Whew, close. I don’t know where those two are at, but I’m seeing a big office above this floor that looks similar to what an Overmare’s office might be. I’m trying to get us in there so I can access the terminal, maybe get control of parts of this place.”
“But there’s no power-“ I began but she cut me off.
“There is here. And in a few other places. Things’ have been turning on for us, same way doors were trying to close on us. Like there’s two forces in control of parts of the Stable, one trying to kill us, the other tying to help. Either way, the Overmare’s office is our best bet for finding a way out of here. And finding your friends, if I can access the Stable’s intercoms. What’s your situation?”
I glanced at the dwindling ice barrier, then at the big sealed doors.
“Pretty fucked,” I said, wincing a little at my own swearing. I didn’t do it very often. Was LIL-E rubbing off on me? “Me and Arcaidia are trapped between her ice keeping these pony bugs-“
“Spiders. They look like spiders,” LIL-E said.
“The buck is a spider?”
“Take our new friends, minus the pony looking bits and replace them with eldritch fucking horror, and you got a spider.”
“…the Wasteland sucks.”
“Long, spiders were common before the Wasteland.”
“…the Wasteland still sucks.”
“Point. Anyway you were saying?”
“So the spider ponies are being kept back by Arcaidia’s ice, but we’re stuck between that and a big set of doors too thick for my spear to cut through. Without any power I can’t even fail at using the pad thingamabob I’m assuming would open the doors.”
“Aren’t you just a barrel of hope and sunshine today,” commented LIL-E between sounds of gunfire and what I think was Iron Wrought yelling at one of the salvagers to watch where they were shooting.
“Okay now I’m certain you’re just bucking with me. You know what sunshine is!”
“Well, I’ve heard of it. In tales of my tribe. The stories say it was an amazing thing, taken too much for granted,” I said while wondering just what sunshine had to do with a barrel of hope? Pony sayings could just be weird sometimes.
“In any case just sit tight. Once we’re in the Overmare’s office I might be able to get into the system and open those doors for you. Think you can manage?”
A particularly loud cracking noise was followed by a small chunk of ice being knocked out of the barrier and bouncing off the side of my head. I sighed, replying to LIL-E “Not a lot of choice on our end. Don’t take too long.”
I felt worry clenching my gut as I let go of the Pip-Buck, Arcaidia reinforcing her barrier where the spider ponies were managing to start to break through it. I was less worried for me and Arcaidia though than I was for B.B and Binge. They were out there somewhere in the dark and there was no way to tell if they were okay or if they were at that very moment fighting for their own lives against these creatures. Amid the worry I felt a familiar fire starting to burn in me as well. I may have had my doubts about whether or not these spider ponies were just mindless monsters, or if this wasn’t the result of some misunderstanding I caused when I hurt the little one, but with my friends lives at risk I would need to get over my hesitations.
Arcaidia stopped working at the ice barrier once it was replenished in thickness. She quickly went back to the cylinder and pointed at me with a hoof.
“Longwalk, estu dol grenz vril silvol,” she pointed at the ice barrier, then at me, or perhaps Gramzanber, then back at the barrier. Then without another word she began fiddling with the buttons on the cylinder, wreathing it in her aura of magic and pulling at it with a look of extreme concentration on her features.
I understood what she wanted me to do; she wanted me to guard the barrier in case the spider pony’s got through while she was working on getting that cylinder open. Why she was so intent on getting it open I had no idea, but I trusted her enough not to question it. I let her do her thing while I faced the ice barrier, watching the black inky silhouettes of the spider ponies tearing at the ice with a ferocity that I found unnerving. With nothing to do but stand there in wait with that constant scratching and scrabbling at the ice as the sole noise to be heard I began to get more and more worked up.
I felt, for a fleeting second, the sensation of a hoof on my shoulder, and swore I almost heard a mare’s voice telling me to calm down. I glanced back. Arcaidia was still working with the cylinder a few meters behind me, not even looking my way. What had I just…? I shook my head, confused, but oddly feeling calmer, regardless.
Minutes stretched on agonizingly, and bit by bit the ice barrier began to degrade. First a few cracks, then with small chunks being knocked out again. Still Arcaidia made no move to reinforce the barrier again, all of her focus on the cylinder. I tensed as spider pony legs with their sharp hooked ends began to tear away a widening hole in the center of the barrier. I told myself to not think of them as ponies, regardless of their facial features, regardless of the fact that one of them cried at the death of its parent, regardless of my suspicions concerning their origins. Just think of them as…obstacles. Obstacles between me and getting all of my friends out of here alive. If I just thought like that…
I shook my head again, harder. What was I thinking? I’d fight, wound, and if I had to… I thought I could kill…but only if I had to. Trying to think of these spider ponies as just objects to be removed from my path though, that felt uncomfortably like the way I’d seen Odessa operate.
The hole in the ice barrier was torn wider with a large top chunk falling off and being knocked aside as a purple furred spider pony with a black mane crawled through and opened its wide fanged jaws to hiss at me. I closed the short distance, already prepared to attack even as the spider pony was coming through the hole, and swung Gramzanber’s with the broad end of the blade facing out to smack the spider pony hard in the face. I felt the muzzle of the spider pony crunch under the blow but even as my momentum pushed it back its legs lashed out, cutting at my metal barding and unarmored neck. One of the hooks managed to snag a leather strap on my armor and tear through it, causing the left shoulder plate to start hanging loose.
At the same moment I felt freezing bits of ice landing on my head and shoulders as chunks got torn out of the barrier above me. I swept Gramzanber up at the sharp, stabbing spider legs that were ripping through the new hole. I clipped off a few, green brackish blood raining on me, but even as the injured spider ponies pulled back others replaced their wounded kin. To make things worse the hole in the middle of the barrier was widening, and another screeching spider pony was crawling through it.
“Arcaidia, whatever you’re doing with that whatever it is, please do it faster!” I yelled as I spun on my hooves and planted my forehooves down to deliver a hefty buck at the spider pony crawling through the hole.
While I felt my hind hooves connect nice and solidly with my target, I grunted in dismay as I felt more of those hooked legs grap around those same legs and yank. I turned my head around seeing that the spider pony, with a half crushed bleeding face, had grabbed onto my legs, and its companions were dragging it, and hence me, back through the hole.
“Notgoodnotgoodnotgood!” I yelped as I wheeled my head around and slashed Gramzanber, but my hesitance at the possibility at doing as much damage to myself as the spider ponies kept my from swinging my head with full force. Before I could figure out how to adjust my attack I found myself being pulled clean through the hole, the remaining bits of the top of the barrier falling down on top of me as I went.
There was rough spinning sense of disorientation as I was sent rolling into the corridor. I had a split second to have the unpleasant realization I was now stuck alone in a small passage with at least a dozen of these spider ponies all around me, some of them even clinging to the ceiling with their hooked legs. Then I didn’t have time for much of anything as my world suddenly became a dark, terrifying blizzard of sharp tearing claws and fangs. Needless to say, I didn’t stay still for this. I won’t say I kept control of the panic instinct that shot through me, but I kept my head enough to immediately back towards to the wall to keep the amount of ways the spider ponies could come at me limited.
Gramzanber was little more than a whipping blur as I tried to lash out in every direction, desperate to keep the fangs of the creatures away from my exposed flesh. I didn’t know for sure that the green dripping goo was poisonous, but it wasn’t like I was in any eager rush to find out from first-hoof experience.
It was so dark without more than a trickle of Arcaidia’s light to see by, so all I could make out around me were a writhing mass of hissing shadows that flowed around my slashing spear and came at me from all sides, even above. Sharp digging chitin hooks ripped at my metal barding, cut at my face and head, lashing burning lines of pain wherever they dug at me. I’d managed to brace my legs to keep myself from getting dragged down again, and at least one of my ancestor spirits seemed to favor me enough that none of the spider ponies had managed to dig their fangs into me yet. My heart was a rapid pounding thunder in my chest and my eyes were blinking past rivulets of blood from my slashed up brow, but I was doing remarkably well for being all but surrounded.
That was until one of the spider pony’s out there in the dark reared up, a spindly mass of unnatural darker shadow on the background black of the corridor, and from somewhere in its abdomen fired a strand of white webbing that coated my right foreleg. The force of the strands hitting the limb shoved the leg right up against the wall. I was stunned for a second, then tried to move my leg, shocked to find it stuck fast by whatever sticky, cord-like material was now plastering it to the wall.
Taking advantage of my distraction another spider pony rushed right up onto me, shoving its fangs at my face. I barely managed to duck, tucking my head under the spider pony’s chin, avoiding the fangs. I angled my head down, Gramzanber of course still in my mouth, and thrust, not really aiming for anything except the spider pony’s center mass. The spear sunk in with little effort and I felt warm blood spray over my hooves as the spider pony screeched and fell off me. I didn’t know if the wound I’d given it would be fatal or not, but from the noises it was making it was still alive, if hopefully out of the fight. Great, one down, ancestors alone knew how many more to go.
The thought to use Accelerator had just entered my mind when the corridor suddenly became much brighter as Arcaidia poked her head over the half dismantled ice barrier, horn a beacon of blue light. She took one look in my direction, eyes wide, but then she smiled and floated something out in front of her. It was a small vial with a familiar blue glowing liquid. One of those magic restoring potions! Arcaidia’s horn was already glowing with a strong over glow and the vial I noticed was half drained. The air began to turn cold and Arcaidia’s voice reached me over the hissing of the spider ponies descending on me.
No need to tell me twice.
I intended to use just a short burst, my vision turning brilliant deep blue and everything around me slowing. I imagined a few seconds would be all I needed. I sliced through the web on my arms, being careful to not slice my own leg off. I then began to barrel my way through the small gaps between the spider ponies that had surrounded me, pushing aside or weaving around slow slashing limbs and open fang filled maws. The extra time gave me an uncomfortably long moment to see clearly how disturbingly emotive the eyes were of these creatures. There was desperation in those eyes as much as anger. A few that were hanging towards the back of the group even looked…conflicted, as if they didn’t even want to be involved in this.
I was then and there certain I wasn’t just dealing with mutated Wasteland monsters, I was dealing with ponies. Ponies that had been changed somehow into what they were, but ponies all the same.
I didn’t stop, however, and in my Accelerated mode broke through the pack of spider ponies and jumped over Arcaidia’s head, landing back behind what was left of the ice barrier. I ended Accelerator immediately after that, returning to normal speed, the cobalt hue of my vision bleeding away to norm, though Arcaidia’s light still bathed everything in a wash of frosty blue light.
Arcaidia didn’t waste a second after I was safe and her freshly restored horn was wreathed with a complex circle of arcane crests before sending forth a thick burst of consuming ice down the narrow passage. I cringed as I heard spider ponies scream, watching as their bodies turned blue and white from the blast of sub zero magic. A part of me hoped the more hesitant spider ponies in the back of the group managed to avoid the worst of it.
Pain seized through my body, the after affects of using Accelerator. I knew it was coming and was braced for it, and the convulsing waves of pain, while acute, weren’t nearly as bad the first two times I’d used this strange new ability of mine. If I hadn’t figured it out before it was now pretty clear to me the trick to Accelerator was to be careful how long I let myself use it. Shaking myself as the pain in my muscles faded, but still left the sharper pains of the actual lacerations from the spider ponies’ wickedly hooked legs, I walked up next to Arcaidia.
“Another save from the ice filly,” I shook my head, wiping blood from my face with one hoof while giving her a wane, helpless smile, “Keep this up and I’ll be stuck owing you for life. Gotta let me save you sometime in the future, just to even things up a bit.”
Arcaidia shared my smile, though hers was a lot wider, and polished off the last of the blue magic restoring liquid in the vial she had and made a small pleased ‘mmmm’ sound as she did so. I titled my head a bit, “Where’d did you get that anyway?”
She put a hoof to the side of my face and pushed my head to look back into the room, specifically at the cylinder she’d grabbed from the lab. It was now cracked open, hanging open by a seam through its middle. Inside was a dark padded interior that contained ten little indents. In nine of those indents were more blue glowing vials of the liquid. The tenth was empty, presumably the one she’d just consumed. There was a engraved plaque on the inside of the cylinder, and as I peered at it I read it aloud, “Unknown Substance Sample 4 – Research tag 102479, live testing permitted…”
Seemed like the ponies of Stable 104 had gotten their hooves on all sorts of weird things. I wondered where they’d gotten them from, though, and why so many of the items the Stable ponies were studying seemed to be things Arcaidia was so familiar with. The unicorn filly in question was levitating out the remaining vials and slipping them into her saddlebags when the corridor began to fill with more echoing hisses. One glance showed that, while Arcaidia had managed to freeze three or four spider ponies solid, the passageway was getting crowded once more by the creatures. They were advancing slowly, though cautiously, as if wary of another blast of magical ice.
Arcaidia had a somewhat irritated look on her features as she noticed the spider ponies returning and rather than reform the ice barrier she instead levitated up the now empty cylinder and launched it like a spinning wheel down the corridor. I heard it bounce into one of the spider ponies with a metallic clang and a short, pained cry that also held a note of annoyed shock. I suppose I’d be annoyed and in pain as well if somepony just pelted me with a big metal tube.
“Arcaidia, can you stop provoking the multi-limbed poisonous web spewing mutant ponies?”
“Thought not, but it never hurts to ask.”
I was really hoping LIL-E would get those doors open soon, though that hope was laced with concern over how everypony else was faring. Fine Eye’s family didn’t deserve to get stuck in this kind of danger, though at least I trusted LIL-E and Iron Wrought to look after them. I had to keep convincing myself that B.B and Binge were both capable of taking care of themselves. Perhaps between me and Arcaidia we were drawing enough of the spider ponies’ attention that those two weren’t being attacked as well? Groundless, wishful thinking, but for the moment it was all I had.
While the spider ponies continued their slow advance down the corridor Arcaidia let out a hefty sigh and aimed her horn at the remains of the ice barrier; making me wonder if she was getting tired of using this same method again and again.
I saw several of the spider ponies rear up just seconds before Arcaidia began to rebuild the ice barrier, and only got out half a shouted warning before multiple fast strands of web darted across the darkness. Arcaidia hadn’t seen the earlier use of this web, so was caught completely off guard as one strand struck her in the chest, another on her left shoulder, and the final one wrapped right around her forehead and horn. There was a vicious yanking on the webbing and Arcaidia was almost pulled bodily through the air, but was halted as I was there, hooves wrapped around my friend’s barrel and holding her in place. I had to angle my head to the side to keep Gramzanber away from her body, and widened the stance of my hindlegs to brace against the remnants of the ice barrier as I held us both in place.
“Arcaidia, you alright!?”
Well, at least her mouth was uncovered so she could still breathe, and her eyes remained unobstructed. I was struggling to keep her in place against the pull of multiple spider ponies, and I saw even more of the creatures getting ready to send more webbing at us. They’d just barrage us with web until neither of us could move unless we got out of here now! Arcaidia’s levitation had her starblaster floating nearby and it began to shoot well aimed streaks of light into the spider ponies, buying us a few precious seconds. I managed to cut one strand of webbing by twisting my head at a uncomfortable angle, but even by the time I cut that one strand, two more had been shot out at us, one nailing my left foreleg, practically gluing it to Arcaidia’s barrel.
The webbing was coarse and smelled acrid, and I had to resist the urge to pointlessly try to scrap it off with a hoof. Instead I redoubled my efforts to pull on Arcaidia, just trying to break the strands off of us through brute force. The spider ponies that weren’t shooting web were only barely being kept back by Arcaidia’s starblaster, and those that were shooting the webs were aiming for the small, floating weapon. Arcaidia made it spin and shift about in the air, avoiding the seeking strands. Even so, it was clear it was only a matter of time before it too got snagged.
“Longwalk, Arcaidia, we’ve gotten into the Overmare’s office,” LIL-E’s static laced voice said from Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck, “What’s your situation? I’m trying to hack my way into the main terminal now.”
I saw a faint glow of blue light trying to break through the strands of webbing around Arcaidia’s horn, and the webbing itself began to start to slowly freeze over while at the same time I saw the little knobs on the Pip-Buck get encased in tiny globes of blue magic and start to turn. That, while keeping the startblaster levitated and firing. I was impressed by her sheer magical multi-tasking skills, though granted I didn’t have many other unicorns to compare Arcaidia to. I’d seen Crossfire just levitate her rifle around, but then the hardened Drifter mare had also somehow transferred me from one spot to another instantaneously during our fight with Shattered Sky. I was a tad envious of those versatile little horns unicorns had.
Right, about to be devoured by spider ponies, think about horn envy later.
Thrusting Gramzanber at a particularly rambunctious red spider pony that’d slipped past Arcaidia’s startblaster fire I started shouting, probably louder than I needed to, at the Pip-Buck.
“Door! Open! Now!”
“What? Say again Longwalk, there was some interference. What’s your situation?”
“Bad! Very bad! Door open now please!”
There was a short pause, “Hold on, I’m in the system now. Huh, the Stable generators aren’t damaged, they’re just shut off. Some kind of administrative quarantine protocol…alright, turning that off-“
“LIL-E! Doors! NOW!”
My panic was driven mostly by the fact that Arcaidia’s starblaster had suddenly stopped firing and I noticed that some of the little lights and tubes on the device weren’t glowing anymore. Had the thing finally run out of whatever was powering it? Whatever the case without the streaking bolts of silver energy to keep them back the rest of the spider ponies were now charging in at us and were going to be upon us in seconds.
“Got the cameras on, let’s see what’s up -Celestia’s combustible cunt! I’ll get the door!”
I didn’t know what a camera was but at least whatever it was got the message across more clearly to LIL-E that we needed a point of egress. I heaved with all my might on the webbing binding me and Arcaidia, making one last hefty slash with Gramzanber on the now taunt and pulled back strands. The serrated edge of the spear sawed through the webbing and with the tension suddenly gone both me and Arcaidia flopped back. Still somewhat stuck together we scrambled up just as a loud hydraulic chunking sound of machinery signaled the huge doors behind us sliding open.
A spider pony jumped over the remains of the ice barrier, legs splayed wide, mouth open with its four dripping fangs aimed for Arcaidia’s exposed belly. With my leg still stuck to her I rolled the unicorn filly under me protectively. I felt the spider pony’s body hit my back and fangs dig into the exposed part of my barding where the metal shoulder plate had come off earlier. While the fangs didn’t get deep I felt the prick of them pierce my hide even as I jabbed back with the spiked end of Gramzanber’s shaft. I felt the spike sink into and crack past the chitin of the spider pony and it’s pained cry fill my ears as it fell off me.
So much adrenaline surged through me that I don’t even think there was anything driving me besides pure paniced strength as I heaved Arcaidia back to her hooves and the two of us in a awkward tangle of stuck together limbs threw ourselves through the open doors and I shouted, “Close them LIL-E!”
I heard the enraged hisses and shrieks of the spider ponies behind us as the doors churned closed in a wash of heavy machinery, their closing signaled by a solid and very satisfying *thunk*.
For just a few seconds, still covered in sticky thick webbing that had us partially pinned together, me and Arcaidia just laid there beyond the closed door in a tired, panting, pile of exhaustion.
Then the poison hit me like a burning inferno in my gut. I seized up, teeth clenching as nausea, waves of it, wracked me from the very pit of my stomach. I heard Arcaidia saying something, tugging against the webbing binding us together, and heard further the soft crystalline cracking of her ice magic. LIL-E’s voice also reached my ears, but I could barely make out any words past the sound of my own sudden violent vomiting.
For a change of pace, however, I didn’t pass out. Mores the pity as all I could really do was lay there, alternating between shivering and throwing up more, until I was left dry heaving. I decided poison was not my favorite thing ever, and besides the sudden concern over my potential imminent death I was also worried those spider ponies might find a way past those doors and break into…wherever it was Arcaidia and I had ended up.
My head was now swimming and I felt like the world itself was slowly tilting, my head blanketed now by a crushing pain that only fed the nausea, not that I had anything left to throw up at this point. I felt myself being dragged, but only in the faintest sense, as trying to open my eyes to see anything left me reeling. There was a sudden cold chill on my left foreleg and after I moment I felt a hoof smack on the leg a few times, followed by the sound of ice breaking. With a forceful pull my leg tore away from Arcaidia’s side and I heard the unicorn gasp. Were we being attacked again!? I tried to stand, but felt firm hooves on my back, pressing me down. Arcaidia’s voice was hard and while the words were nothing but a faint blur in my mind, I got the hint and lay back down.
A few moments or a few hours of gut churning agony passed as I lay there, I couldn’t tell how long exactly. My mouth was dry and with a bit of panic I realized Gramzanber was no longer held there. Where had I dropped it? Needed to tie that thing to myself. On the heel of that thought I felt a cooling wave of relief wash over my body, pushing back the pain, if only for a few seconds. The pain would return soon enough, and like a tide surging up and down that was the way it went, cold relief rolling over me few a few moments, pain rushing back the next. On and on that went for a time I couldn’t even guess at…but at long last there came a moment where the pain didn’t return. At least not in full. The nausea receded, and I could finally open my eyes without my head feeling like it was splitting in half.
There was light now, not the soft blue glow of Arcaidia’s horn, but actual sterile white beaming light casting our surroundings in a dead white hue. Raising my head I saw Arcaidia standing over me, looking me over carefully as her horn glowed, bathing me in her healing aura. I saw an empty vial of her magic restoring liquid laying on the metal floor next to her. Just behind her was Gramzanber, the silver spear still shining despite the ichor and gore now coating it.
She let out a small sigh as she saw me stirring, then gave me a brief bop on my head with a hoof.
“Estu vi atama rilar tu mas!”
I rubbed my head, “S-sorry, didn’t mean to worry you. Ugh…water…”
I don’t really want to go into details as to how my mouth tasted right now, and I noticed with some embarrassment that what was no doubt some of my sick had ended up on Arcaidia’s hooves and dress. She noticed me looking and just shook her head with another one of those small sighs of her’s and put a hoof on my forehead. Seemingly satisfied I wasn’t about to keel over she stepped back and gave me some space so I could get into my saddlebags, now more than a little worse for wear with bits of webbing and unidentifiable gunk staining them, and fished out a waterskin. LIL-E had informed me the previous day to avoid using Wasteland rain to fill my waterskins unless I liked drinking radiation as much as water. This waterskin was still filled with a bit of water from the clean stream by my village, however, so it’d be clean. I had other water supplies from when I’d shopped in Saddlespring, little canteens and plastic bottles of clean water, but for some reason I felt a need to drink from the waters of my own home right now. I’d never been much for my tribe’s beliefs, yet I still found myself offering a small whispered prayer to the spirits of the water to fortify my body and help purge it of the poison’s remaining affects.
Once I’d cleared my palette and hydrated myself I tried to stand, finding my legs a tad wobbly but otherwise able to support my weight. Still a tad blurry eyed I slowly went over and retrieved Gramzanber, letting out a quick relieved breath at the spear’s familiar touch. I now finally took a look at where we were. I had to blink a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.
I’d seen trees before of course, but they were always black, or gray twisted things, barren of life, even in the relatively radiation free valley of my tribe. I’d seen plants before, though usually only dry yellowed grass or the exceptionally tough roots grown around my tribe’s land.
So seeing the tall vibrant green trees lining in neatly ordered rows growing from small closures of verdant grass was for a second quite mind numbingly shocking. The room we were in was a vast rectangular chamber with a high ceiling from which yellow lights shone down on the plants growing in rows through the length of the room. In between the rows the more sterile white lighting illuminated the rest of the room. The trees were short, with thick green leaves, and strange round bits hanging from its branches that were of various colors; green, blue, yellow, orange…and red. It took me a moment to realize the shape of these objects were like the grenades. What was the term? Apples? Is that what these were?
The apple trees weren’t the only plants occupying the rows. Some rows were dedicated to what looked like patches of tilled earth contained in sequestered metal barriers, walkways between the rows allowing access. I saw green plants growing from the top soil, like little bushy tails.
“What is this place?” I found myself asking.
“Hydroponics and Botany Laboratory.” said LIL-E’s voice from the Pip-Buck, causing Arcaidia to glance down at it and hold the device up, LIL-E’s tone continuing, “You two okay? Things went quiet after you pair went through the door, and the cameras in that area are damaged.”
“We’re okay, mostly. Got bit by one of those spider ponies, put me down for a little while, but Arcaidia got me back on my hooves. Now where are we again? Oh, and are you all okay? Any idea where B.B and Binge are at?”
“First question; the map I’ve accessed puts you in one of several laboratories. Seems all the upper levels of this Stable are for research. From the name I’m guessing the one you’re in is used for testing on plants. Second question; we’re all alive and kicking. A few light injuries, an Iron Wrought also got poisoned, but luckily the med lab had doses of antivenom, so he’s probably doing better than you. We’re holed up in the Overmare, or rather ‘Directors' office. This place is feeling less and less like a Stable the more I learn about it; it’s even got a vehicle bay just above what looks like some kind of train terminal, both with surface access. As for the third question; I don’t know. I’ve been cycling through the still functioning cameras, but I haven’t spotted them yet. I’m going to go with no news being good news here, as at least it means they’re probably keeping mobile.”
I appreciated her optimism and tried to let a little of it sink into my own heart as well. Looking again at the trees and their numerous colorful apples I wondered just what the ponies of Stable 104 could possibly have been experimenting on here. I said as much.
“This ‘Director’ Midnight Twinkle has files on a lot of the research projects Stable 104 was involved in here in her terminal,” said LIL-E “It seems this Stable was designed to function like a Ministry of Arcane Science hub…among other things…hmm, the lab you’re current in was experimenting specifically on strains of plants recovered from ‘Excavation Site Primary’, whatever that is. There are logs on things dubbed ‘Grow Apples’ and…’Force Carrots’? This might take me awhile to sift through Longwalk, and I doubt you and Arcaidia have time to wait for me to decrypt this stuff. You both need to keep moving, before those creatures find a way in there.”
I frowned, my curiosity burning past my physical weakness and worries. I really did want to find out what was going on in here. Maybe if I just snagged an apple and…carrot (weird name?) to check out later?
“Agreed. How can we get to you?” I asked as I went over to one of the trees and lifted my head, cutting one of the red apples off with Gramzanber’s edge.
“Map indicates if you get beyond the Hydroponics and Botany Lab there’s a branching corridor beyond. Take the right corridor and you’ll reach a Weapons Testing Range. Opposite that there’s a series of smaller individual research offices. Ignore those and bear left until you reach a service elevator. That will take you all the way down to the Terminal Station. There’s an elevator here in the Director’s office that leads to that same spot. That’s where we’ll meet up. From there we can regroup and figure out how to find our two lost ponies.”
“Weapons Testing… ” I said curiously, interest perhaps more piqued than it should have been as I put away the apple and went over to one of the dirt patches with the weird little green bushes. Arcaidia followed me, eyeing the plants with…wariness? She had a tight, vaguely disgusted look on her face. What was that about?
“Longwalk,” LIL-E said, somehow managing to put a warning tone in her otherwise monotonous mechanical voice, “Don’t get too many ideas. Salvage is one thing. Experimental stuff is dangerous. Mess with the wrong thing, push the wrong button, and you’ll be in need of a new muzzle.”
“Just curious,” I said, putting aside Gramzanber for a moment while I experimentally nipped at one of the green bushes, “I mean, given what I’ve learned about Odessa, any edge we can get our hooves on will be useful, right?”
“If any weapons in there were ready to use, they wouldn’t still be getting tested.” Said LIL-E flatly, “Just focus on getting to us. Alive and unexploded. I may be the last pony to be saying this, but you can’t afford curiosity right now.”
“One of these days I’m going to have to meet you face to face,” I mentioned with a small chuckle as I pulled at the bush, surprised when a strange looking orange root came popping out of the earth. So this was…a carrot? Arcaidia standing next to me gave the carrot a narrow eyed look and to my surprise levitated it out of my grasp and put it in her own saddlebag.
“Arcaidia! Hey!” I said, and she just gave me a wave of her hoof, as if to say ‘Don’t ask’.
“You might find that kind of hard to do,” said LIL-E in response to my earlier comment, “I’m not exactly the easiest mare in the world to get to.”
I was about to ask what she meant by that when I starting hearing shuffling and by now painfully familiar clicking noises coming from the ceiling and from the floor beneath our hooves. I looked up first to see the high ceiling with its fixed lights rattling a bit, as if something in the ceiling was pressing on the metal panels. Beneath our hooves the floor panels began to shift. I grimaced and quickly got Gramzanber back in my mouth while Arcaidia floated her starblaster up…then she briefly let out a sharp breath as she noticed the weapon was dead and quickly holstered it.
“LIL-E, you weren’t kidding about us not having time. Can you make sure there are no more closed doors in our way?” I asked as my backing up gradually became a trot, then into a full on gallop as me and Arcaidia began to dash for the opposite side of the chamber.
“Consider them open. Whatever was in the system before, trying to get us separated, isn’t trying anything right now. In fact most of the system opened up once I got into this terminal. I can slow them down for you, just keep running.”
“The running part is definitely something we’ve gotten good at,” I said past panting breaths. Despite my words the poison that had run through my system was leaving me feeling like my muscles had been replaced with brittle twigs. I was so lightheaded that I nearly ran face first into one of the trees if Arcaidia hadn’t yanked me aside with her levitation.
I chanced a quick look back as I heard metal grating falling down or crashing panels being ripped out of the floor. Spider ponies were dropping from the ceiling or crawling along it now, while others surged up through the floor. Just how many there were I couldn’t count, but the larger chamber certainly was lending to a small horde coming after us. Our only saving grace was our head start.
The end of the chamber was a similar thick set of metal doors that slid open moments before we reached it and slammed closed behind us as we galloped through the threshold. I didn’t believe for a moment that would slow the spider ponies down for long, though. They seemed to have an unnatural talent for crawling through tight spaces. Made me worry that LIL-E and the other’s weren’t all that safe in the Director’s office.
As we tore down the corridor I started to notice Arcaidia getting ahead of me, my own pace flagging as my vision spun a little, blackening around the edges. I shook my head and tried to force my legs to go faster, even as I titled a little and bounced off the wall, almost falling flat on my face. Arcaidia looked behind her at me and she drew in a sharp breath. Her horn glowed brightly and I felt my legs leave the ground as my body got encased in her levitation magic.
“Argh, h-hey, Arcaidia! Put me down! I can…I…” I had to shake my head to keep myself awake, and Arcaidia gave me a hard look, silver eyes flashing with anger, “…I can patiently shut up and let you carry me…” I finished lamely.
Note to self; don’t get poisoned if you don’t want to be a burden on your friends. Now I knew a little of how Trailblaze felt when she’d had to be carried around like this. At least in her case it hadn’t been in the middle of a life or death circumstance. I concentrated on just keeping my breathing even and getting the lightheadedness out as Arcaidia carried me.
It was less than a minute before we reached the doors to the Weapons Testing Range, which were already open courtesy of our eyebot friend with remarkable computer skills. I considered bugging LIL-E when time allowed to show me a few tricks with terminals. I may have been jinxed with it but I was fascinated with technology and wanted to learn more about how it worked. If only I could get into a place like this Stable without the imminent threat of death to me and my friends and just be able to relax and delve into its secrets!
What? Did that not seem like a healthy obsession to start developing?
I was about to have that obsession given an overdose as Arcaidia began to drag me through the Weapons Testing Range. It was a long but thin corridor with shelves lining the wall to our left alongside hefty metal lockers. The shelves alone had numerous devices that looked like sleeker, less boxy versions of the magical energy rifles I’d seen the Odessa peagsi using. Some were small, pistol shaped weapons, while others were larger rifles. Some shelves were filled with carefully placed spheres of varying sizes, that immediately made me think of grenades. More shelves yet had small circular devices with prongs coming off of them and obvious mouth grips whose purpose I couldn’t even guess at. But I wanted to find out!
“Arcaidia, Arcaidia, hey, can we stop? Just for a sec?”
“Pleeeease!? One minute is all I ask! Maybe two! Three at the tops, if we find something cool!”
“Di mas! Uvrai, Longwalk!”
“But just look at all this stuff! It’s so shiny and I just want to play around with it for-“
Magic clamped down around my mouth, stifling me talking any further beyond muffled “Mmmph! Emmmph!”
I took the hint and dropped my head and tail, letting Arcaidia carry me past all the awesome looking tech on our left. I noticed the right of the room involved over a dozen thick metal doors. Windows displayed the rooms beyond as alternating between long chambers with what looked to be targets at the far end, or smaller circular chambers where I could see a few faint blast marks marking their walls. Arcaidia ignored those doors and galloped towards the far end of the chamber. We couldn’t hear the spider ponies yet, but didn’t doubt they were in pursuit.
When we were almost to the end of the room, where I could see another door waiting open for us, I glanced to my left at the passing lockers and shelves. The very last locker was left hanging open. My eyes slid to Arcaidia, who was concentrating on where she was running and wasn’t looking my way. I licked my lips. Just needed to time it right…and…now!
I grabbed with both hooves as we passed by the open locker, not even looking at whatever it was I was snatching at. I came away with a strange ring shaped device about as wide around as a hoof. It reminded me of the general appearance of a Pip-Buck, but shorter, a little bulkier at the top, with a circular depression instead of a screen. There was what I recognized now as a recording disk attached to the device, and a little yellow piece of paper slapped on top of that that said ‘MG, play this before the next test phase please’.
I quickly shoved the device, recorder disk and note both, into my saddlebags before Arcaidia noticed me squirming about and looked back at me. I gave her a wide, innocent smile. She frowned at me. The smile faltered. Her eyes continued to bore into me as she turned left outside the exit of the Weapons Testing Range, seemingly able to navigate without needing to look where she was going. I coughed. Her look intensified.
I sighed in defeat and hoofed out the device sheepishly. Arcaidia rolled her eyes and muttered something under her breath that I was pretty sure was, if I could translate it, would not be flattering towards me. At least she let me put the device back in my saddlebag.
By the time we reached the elevator doors that LIL-E had told us about Arcaidia finally let me down. My legs still felt weak, but I wasn’t swaying about and my head wasn’t spinning as much. Arcaidia had gone up to the elevator doors and hoofed the button on the side of them before she turned to me and poked a hoof at my chest.
“Estu vi volaire dol karva. Estu mi ivir mas, ren solva.”
She lifted her Pip-Buck and shoved the screen at my face, her magic turning the knobs until it showed the ‘Objectives’ screen.
One in particular was highlighted now above the others.
Protect Longwalk from himself
I frowned, seeing both the anger and concern mixing in her eyes. I wanted to argue that she didn’t have to worry so much, but…what room did I even have to talk? I was worried about my friends too, it only was natural they’d do the same for me. It was made worse by the fact that I tended to do things to warrant that worry; shoving my spear into an energy barrier, trying to be merciful towards creatures that were trying to kill us, or throwing myself in the way of poison fangs when Arcaidia could have probably protected herself without me getting myself injured? Whether it was my curiosity, my tendency to throw myself into danger, or my reluctance to use lethal force, my actions put myself at risk, and by extension, my friends.
I opened my mouth to say something…closed it as I realized I didn’t know what to say…then opened it again as I just tried to force words out, not sure what I was doing, “I don’t mean to make things hard on you Arcaidia. I-“
She poked me with her hoof again, harder this time, eyes narrowing, “Shae…esru ren shae, Longwalk!”
“I…what do you want from me Arcaidia? I’m sorry I’m making you worry! I’m not trying to.”
She just shook her head, huffing and flicking her tail in clear irritation as the elevator doors opened and we both entered. I started to hear the echoes of multiple spider ponies hissing down the corridors as our pursuers began to catch up to us, but the elevator doors closed just as they were coming into view. LIL-E had told us to go to what she called the ‘Terminal Station’ so I had to take a few seconds to look over the displayed buttons with names of the levels the elevator went to displayed next to them. There was the sound of pounding on the doors that spurred me to read quickly and finding the right button I hoofed it and felt a sigh of relief escape me as I felt the elevator begin to descend.
The awkward silence between me and Arcaidia was broken by LIL-E.
“I’m seeing the service elevator moving. I’m assuming that’s you guys?”
“Yes,” I said, keeping my tone even, “What’s this Terminal Station we’re going to anyway?”
“Refers to a train terminal, far as I can tell. It’s the biggest area in the whole Stable. I want us to link up there because the armory isn’t far from it, and if we’re lucky, the train itself is still operational. It can get us out of here fast, maybe bypass dealing with our eight legged friends. We’re getting on our elevator now, we’ll meet you there.”
Silence returned to the elevator, leaving me to stand next to Arcaidia with a growing feeling of unease. I understood she was angry at me, and I thought I knew why, but the language barrier was still making it hard to find out for sure. Maybe I ought to start being more careful, avoid the kind of risks I’d gotten used to taking up until now. I was so used to just…doing my own thing. Trailblaze complained when I’d gone off on my own all the time back home, but she’d always backed me up as well. Arcaidia, B.B, the others, they did too…but unlike back home the stakes were a lot higher. Or maybe they’d always been high and I just never noticed. Traiblaze had nearly died because of my lack of caution. Others had paid high prices recently too. Shale, the ponies of Saddlespring.
Had I learned anything yet? I thought I was trying to be more careful, to not take risks that’d cost me or my friends dearly. But my curiosity was a part of me, as was my desire to help others and protect my friends. How was I supposed to balance those fundamental aspects of myself with the growing need to keep my friends and others around me from getting hurt or worse due to my actions?
My mind was still trying to piece together my thoughts on this when the elevator finally stopped and its doors opened.
Out Arcaidia and myself trotted into a truly cavernous chamber. The first thing I noticed was the thick blankets of webbing covering the walls and strung up around the ceiling. The next thing I noticed was the way the center of this huge square chamber was dominated by a long, rectangular vehicle consisting of several segmented boxes, set up on a pair of metal rails that lead to a switching station and several mouth-like tunnels in the wall. Metal catwalks led high over the rails, and high up on the wall opposite the elevator we walked out of was a hanging control room with a staircase leading up to it. This control room was also covered in webbing, a bridge of the stuff leading from this control room to the center of the ceiling. There, a huge dome of web extended down almost half the height of the room.
This dome shifted and an opening at the bottom of it widened, and from this opening two, long, bladed legs extended, covered in coarse brown fur and chitin. These huge legs were joined by others as a massive body pulled itself out and hung from the ceiling by a thick cable-like strand of webbing as thick as my body.
This spider pony was a giant among its kind, the size of one of the boxes comprising the vehicle I could only assume was the ‘train’ LIL-E had mentioned. Its mane was long, ragged, and white, and its huge eyes were a bloodshot red. As this monolith of a spider pony looked at us and opened its dripping maw to bellow a bone shaking and ear splitting hiss, I noticed many more normal sized spider ponies starting to enter the room from countless openings and holes in the ceiling and wall.
A more mechanical hiss next to me and Arcaidia singled another set of elevator doors opening and out floated LIL-E, along with Iron Wrought and Fine Eyes family trotting along behind. The eyebot paused as she floated out, the others halting behind her as they finally noticed the details off the room.
I heard Iron Wrought’s facehoof loud, clearly, and echoing in the huge room.
“Huh,” said LIL-E “I suppose I should’ve accounted for there being a nest somewhere in here.”
“So, is this how you’re luck usually goes?” Iron Wrought asked me.
I nodded dumbly, not able to say anything more intelligent than, “Eeyup.”
Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added – Pacifist Crush: You’re desire to avoid killing has led you to develop greater skill in non-lethal force. Any time you target the head or similarly vital point you can choose to deal half damage in exchange for having a chance to knock your opponent unconscious (the chance of success depends on your target’s Endurance stat). Note this does not work on robots or creatures that lack a discernible anatomy.
Current Conditions: Poisoned! You are currently suffering a -2 to Strength and Endurance until you receive proper medical treatment.
Bonus EX-File: Longwalk’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L Stats.
STR = 9 (currently 7 due to Poison)
END = 5 (currently 3 due to Poison)
PER = 5
AGI = 6 (currently 5 due to armor)
INT = 4