“We do not follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever marks the spot.”
Chapter Two: Off the Job
I don’t really know why I accepted to let Sunburn tag along on the trip back to Friendship City, but I think it had something to do with him being funny.
Plus, travelling with a living explosive arsenal had its perks, and the poor raiders who tried to ambush us two days from Hollow Shades learned that the hard way. The first three attackers went down the conventional way – namely, bullets in the torso and careless grenade tosses. The last two, though, tried to run away, and we ended up, spontaneously, having a little contest on ‘who could kill a raider in the most fashionable way’.
I used my hunting rifle for my entry. The target was already three hundred meters away, but still I managed to shoot him in the ass, making him jump in surprise – and then in the head, before he touched the ground. It was, without a doubt, two of the nicest shots in my life. Yet, Sunburn’s put me to shame.
He’d watched my raider go down, and he’d nodded in approval. Then, he took his time to change his right launcher’s shells, grabbed some kind of compass in his gear, aimed for the running pony, put the item back in its pocket, looked around to take note of the wind, and, as his target was almost a kilometer away, he pressed the trigger, once.
The shell went up, far away above the Wasteland in a lobbed arc.
Then, a few seconds later, the raider exploded in a rainbow-colored fireball.
My astonishment was probably showing on my face, because Sunburn soon started laughing.
“Pick up your jaw, girl, it’s dirty on the ground. What, never seen an artificer before?”
The following evening, I got to understand his insane shooting skills a bit better. We’d found a nice place to camp for the night, and I’d asked him where he learned to master his grenade launchers like that.
“I’m not so skilled,” he’d said. “I have had too many occasions to practice on live targets back in my days, and shelling from the ground is nothing compared to what we had to do while flying.
“You see, I’m a pre-war ghoul. And I don’t mean I simply was there when the bombs fell: I had a life before the Great War. Equestria was a nice place to live, really. Then something happened, and all of a sudden, we were at war with the Zebraska.
“T’was a funny war at first. The whole nation had shed tears for the Wonderbolts, and each Royal Guard lost in the skirmished was mourned in national funerals. But to us, Equestrian civilians, it was just another calamity in a far-away place. We didn’t feel concerned. And then…”
He had stopped his story, and his gaze had wandered to the stars above. The silence lasted, but I knew better than shattering it. Eventually, he’d carried on:
“Then it all changed with Littlehorn. It became the fight of the nation as a whole. And to me… well, it became personal.
“I enlisted in the Army when they drafted soldiers from everywhere. All of a sudden, the Royal Guard and the Wonderbolts weren’t enough anymore. We needed infantry. We needed artillery. But most of all, we needed air-to-ground shock troops, because the bloody zebra couldn’t fly to save their life. I was a Pegasus, but I wasn’t swift enough to join the Wonderbolt Academy, even after they loosened their standards. But I wasn’t a stranger to handling things with care, so I was enlisted in the First Airborne Artillery.”
Sunburn shifted from his sitting position, and showed me a dirty badge stitched into his vest. I could still make out the outline of two wings in front of two crossed canons. The text underneath was unreadable.
He continued his story, a nostalgic smile now on his lips.
“We soon became the zebra infantry’s worst nightmare. Most ponies would say it was Macintosh’s Marauders, or the Shadowbolts, but it wasn’t true. Those bloody zebras hated the Marauders with all their guts, but didn’t fear them per see – they just wanted to see them dead, and then stick some grenades deep in their arses. The Shadowbolts were the kings of air supremacy. By themselves, they shot down countless dragons hundred times their size, and they were the bane of the zebra airforce. But they never engaged troops on the ground.
“On the other hoof, the First AA targeted only the infantry, often during the night, or far away behind the frontlines. If you were a zebra soldier, you couldn’t go to sleep on the ground without the fear of waking up with your guts spilling out of your mouth. Even tanks weren’t safe from our strikes, and I got myself quite a reputation among my peers. Sure, I was happy at first, especially when it came with promotions and dismembered zebras. ”
He sighed, and grabbed a bottle of scotch in his bag. Without even a glance at it, he opened it, and took a long sip.
“The war had been lasting for five long years before I understood there was a reason I had ended up being one of the most decorated veterans in the First AA. Someday, I woke up in my barracks, and I realized all my pals from when the company was formed were gone. And so were the pegasi who replaced them, and most of the ones after them. The war had become a bloody slaughterhouse, and somehow I’d managed to survive it so far. When the zebra finally got Macintosh’s hide a few months later, I had given up the idea that I would even see the end of the war. I didn’t really care though. There was nothing left of the Equestria of old and of the life I used to have.”
He had an unearthly laugh, and down went a good quarter of his bottle.
“Turns out fate had something else in store for me. A few years later, the First AA was stationed on a choke point somewhere in the Badlands. I don’t even remember the name of this blasted hill – I guess it had seemed important at the time. We were there to terminate the Changeling threat once and for all. You know what a changeling is, right? It’s some kind of pony-shaped insect that can transform into any pony it sees. You can imagine the pain they were when it comes to counter-intelligence, because of course they weren’t on our side. Their Queen held an old grudge against Equestria for some reason, and allied with the zebra scum. Since their hive in the Badlands had proven to be a bloody fortress, a direct attack to wipe them out was kinda problematic. Then, one day, my superior received the order to move to this bloody hill with every soul in the First AA. We even had Thunderhead to drop us some big arse howitzers, and so many shells we had to dig underground shelters to protect them from the sandstorms. Then, we shelled the hell out of the bugs.
“Of course, we knew we’d only scratched the surface with those bombardments, but the higher ups were confident. I remember my superior being pissed off at some Earth pony scientist civvy who had been dropped there for Luna-knows-what reason. He and his team in white coats had been working in secret in our own base, and even he didn’t know what in hell they were doing. Then the good Doctor Trotteinheimer – because it was him in flesh – told him something that made him shit rainbows. Then my superior told me, being quite the bomb warfare expert, and I started shitting rainbows.
“Three days afterward, the first Equestrian megaspell detonated over the changeling hive, and just like that, their kingdom was gone in a giant green mushroom. T’was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life.
“No civvy ever known Ground Zero had been populated. Only a few really knew it was a double message for the zebras and its allies. Not only we could raze their towns – but even their best underground bases weren’t enough protection against balefire deep charges. The changelings never stood a chance. I don’t think we’d quite blasted everything all the way to the lowest levels, but what hadn’t been vaporized or burned to a crisp had been collapsed or irradiated beyond any chance of redemption.”
Sunburn paused, and took another sip. Then, he held toward me the now half-empty bottle, and I politely declined. He shrugged.
“Your loss, it’s one of the finest brand. Anyway, the zebra probably didn’t get the right memo, because a week afterward I woke up to the sound of the howitzers firing in battery. Those buggers – the zebras, not the changelings, of course, because they were still quite dead at the time – had marched from damn everywhere around us, and we were surrounded by a bloody army. Now, I know I said the First AA was a hell of a company, and it sure was, but this was well beyond our capabilities. They had Behemoth tanks. Armored dragons. Snipers and anti-pegasi troups everywhere. They shelled us for days, and they had somehow managed to disable our long range communicators. I suspected sabotage – we were inside the borders of the late Changeling Kingdom after all – but we couldn’t get our hooves on the culprit. Eventually, our troops and our ammunitions started running dry, and we all realized we were going to be overrun.
“We weren’t worried about dying on the battlefield though. Well, some of us were, but I for one didn’t give a damn shite, and everypony knew it. This is why it was a total surprise that I was designated to grab my gear, wait for the nightfall, and get my arse outta there to warn Equestria that there was a whole bloody army on its way. Turned out it wasn’t a favor my superior was doing me though, because I almost got killed a dozen time while breaching the blockade. When I landed in Appleloosa, I was more dead than alive, but I managed to get my bloody message to the right ears before passing out.
“I woke up months later. I had so much shrapnel and lead in my body that nurses in the Ministry of Peace though at first that I was one of those crazy cyborgs of the Interministerial Affairs. Nopony told me shite about the whereabouts of the FAA on the first three days. The fourth, a bloody general showed up, and immediately I knew. And since they had the decency to send a battle-hardened officer, I could see on his face that he knew I knew. We were soldiers, no words were needed. The First Airborne Artillery was gone, and the war was over for me.”
Sunburn took a last sip from his scotch, and tossed the empty bottle away.
“He told me my message allowed the Army to counterattack before those bloody zebra set a single hoof on the Equestrian soil. He also told me that the Manehattan Project – that’s it, the megaspells – hadn’t been compromised, meaning that the FAA sacrifice had given Equestria an astronomical lead in term of weaponry. Didn’t do us any good in the end though, since some arsehole from the MoP ended up leaking it all to the enemy anyway.
“I spent the remaining years as an instructor. The First Airborne Artillery never was reformed; instead, the Army decided to allocate more resource to the Thunderhead Cloudships. I’ve heard a few of them survived the bombs, but now they all belong to the Enclave. I guess it also seemed a good idea back then.”
“The day the world ended, I was in an airbase in the Hoof. Once again, I survived where everypony around me died of fourth degree burns or radiation sickness. Well, survived… I woke up one morning to realize my bloody heart wasn’t beating anymore, like I died in my sleep but my brain forgot to process it. After a while, once I realized I wasn’t going to decay any more, I started roaming the surface, and two centuries later here I am!”
He chuckled, and grabbed another scotch bottle in his bag. Luna’s tits, I would have been dead drunk at half a bottle already!
“Well, your turn I guess. How did you become a bounty hunter? No offence, but you don’t really have the muscle usually required for the job.”
“My story isn’t even half as interesting as yours, but if you really want to know…
“I was born twenty-six years ago from a family of caravaners, somewhere near Baltimare. I grew up on the road: Ma’ was a trader, so she taught me to read and to count; Pa’ was in the security, so he taught me to shoot. Turned out I was a terrible trader and an excellent shooter, to Ma’s great dismay.
“At nine, my parents offered me my first real rifle. Believe it or not, it’s the one I have strapped on my back right now. At the time, when the other caravaners heard I was going to take my first shot with a gun way too big for me, no one expected me to even hit the target. Well, the recoil did leave me in the dirt – but you should have seen their face when they realized I had scored a bulls-eye regardless. From then on, I spent my days killing imaginary raiders made of rocks and tin cans, or very real radscorpions.
“The good thing in growing up surrounded by caravaners is you end up learning tons of useful skills. Somepony taught me to lockpick and sneak on ponies, another to identify edible food or the basics of first aid, Wasteland edition. I ended up being fonder of doing burglaries than cooking or healing though: my small frame and my discreet colors were helping a lot. It was one of the best places a filly could grow up in, in this blasted Wasteland.
“Then, when I was around thirteen…”
My voice died in my throat, and I let out a shiver. It wasn’t memories I was very fond of recalling.
Without a word, Sunburn held out the Scotch toward me. This time, I gratefully grabbed the bottle, and took two long sips. The strong alcohol burned on its way down, but I was already feeling a bit better.
“I was around thirteen, when we got attacked by raiders. Pa’ was one of the first to die, but everypony soon followed. Ma’ got killed right in front of me by some punk raider with a machete. Then he turned toward me, and everything went into a blur. I grabbed my rifle, I took aim at him like he was some fucking practice target, and I blew his head off. Just like that, in a matter of minutes, I had lost my parents and killed my first pony. I think I killed my childhood along with him.
“Afterward, I ran away before the others could realize they had missed me. Driven by my thirst for vengeance, I spent the two following months tracking them, and killing them one by one. I didn’t know what was worse: that shooting them didn’t satisfy me in the least, or that killing was so easy. You know, I’d always been taught life was a gift from the Goddesses and it was to be cherished – killing another pony was one of the hardest acts somepony could do. Bullshit. In fact, all I needed was a gun and some ammo.
“As I was tracking the last surviving raider near Ponyville, my skills were noticed by a Pegasus. I needed caps, she needed somepony dead. It was my first job, and it went without a hitch: I just shot the poor bastard from the other side of a valley. He never saw it coming, and by the time his buddies realized it was a sniper, I was long gone.
“Seven months after losing my parents to a raid, I had finally had my vengeance. Still, I was very much alive, and I didn’t plan dying anytime soon, so I needed to find a way to earn caps. I did a few burglaries, carried some messages across the Wasteland, but soon enough I realized it didn’t pay as well as my first job. I remember going to Friendship City to bring some kind of casino trinket to somepony, and I found some wanted ads on the wall of a bar. I took them, and by the end of the week my fortune had doubled.
“Years passed by. I got myself some reputation in the Manehattan area, enough that ponies started directly coming to me a few years ago. Well, it also meant that guys in Tenpony knew my name and didn’t want me to put a single hoof in their bloody tower.
“A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a ghoul named Crowneigh, who had two targets to take care off. One was Cloud Vote. The other was named Black Toe. And that’s pretty it.”
I took another long sip of Scotch, grimaced, and gave the bottle back to its owner. He seemed preoccupied for a second, then took it and thanked me.
“I did warn you it wasn’t a very interesting story”, I apologized. “It’s kinda the standard childhood here in the Wasteland after all, give or take a few details.”
The day after, we were in Manehattan. It took us a few hours to cross the ghost city while avoiding pillagers, mutants, feral ghouls, bloodbats, irradiated areas and other joys of the Rotten Apple. Ironically enough, Sunburn taught me the name predated the war, because of the slight trace of corruption and organized crimes going on there. If only they could see us now, roaming the tainted ruins of what used to be the pride of millions ponies, weapons on our backs and blood on our hooves, maybe they would have realized a bank robbery or two wasn’t the end of the world.
The trip to Friendship City went without a hitch, though. Sure, we were attacked a couple times, but Sunburn was a tough veteran, and I was an expert marksmare, so we didn’t have any trouble brushing the assault off. I did complain about the lack of loot on the bodies nonetheless.
Once inside Friendship City – we passed security without a hitch, even if they seemed to be slightly worried by Sunburn’s explosive barding – we decided to part ways. He needed a place where he could find a job and buy some Scotch, and I directed him toward the Prancing Pony, one of the town’s taverns. I, on the other hoof, had some shopping to do, along with getting my pay for my latest job.
“Well,” I said, “I guess I’ll see you around someday, if you stay in the area.”
“I hope you never get a contract on my head,” he laughed. “Because it’d be quite a painful meeting.”
Then, his face grew more serious.
“Listen girl, I wanted to tell you something. Your boss’s name is Crowneigh, right?” he asked in a low voice.
I hesitated. When I let the name slip the night before, it had been the alcohol talking. Telling who you were working for was quite shunned upon in my business, and it could make a dent in my reputation if it went to the public’s ears. Yet, the harm was already done, so there was no use denying it.
“Yeah, that’s him,” I answered after taking a discreet look around me. “But don’t tell anypony I told you that. Some ponies like their privacy so much they could marry it.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anypony. I just wanted to warn you that I’d worked for him a few decades ago. He had hired a crew to excavate the entrance to a collapsed Stable, because he wanted something inside real bad.”
“Well, what he does with his caps is his business,” I shrugged. “I don’t see how it concerns me.”
“Let me finish. Honestly, do I look like a scavenger to you? Or someone who would dig to find some Old World junk? Nah. He’d hired me because burying the dig team alive was cheaper than paying them.”
I’ll admit, I may have paled a bit back then. The very reason I didn’t work with raiders or slavers was because they had a bad habit of killing or enslaving you instead of paying their bills. I thought back to what Cloud Vote had tried to tell me before I put a bullet in his head. It was something about the keys. I mentally kicked myself for killing him mid-sentence. Oh well, I wouldn’t have believed him anyway. People were ready to say anything to save their hide nowadays.
“Thank you, I guess,” I said after a pause. “But I don’t think he’d try to kill me for eight hundred caps.”
“Girl, some ponies would kill you for a bloody candy bar,” Sunburn pointed out. “And raiders would do it for fun.”
“… true enough. I’ll keep my eyes open then. Thanks for the head on.”
“You’re welcome. Take care, and see you in this life or the next!”
Then, we parted way.
I was sitting on a discarded crate, looking at the keys in my hoof. Why did Crowneigh want them so bad?
Cloud Vote’s key was looking every bit like the other one. It was kinda obvious they were opening similar locks, and my naughty drawer theory went down the sink. They weren’t simple ‘proof of death’ either, that much was obvious: it would have been too much of a coincidence. Alas, I had no idea what they were supposed to unlock.
The keys weren’t exactly identical either. Where the first one had been green, the second was deep blue. The bow was also in a better shape, and the writings hadn’t been scratched. It was reading ‘DERTA’, in capital letters, and underneath was engraved a little ‘III’. Looking back to the green key, I realized I still could make out what used to be a ‘I’ or a ‘II’. Anyway, the patterns on the blades were different, and I guessed whatever lock they opened required a third key. It meant I wouldn’t be able to unlock it even if I found it, because it was obviously picking-proof. It also meant they were worth way more than eight hundred caps if Crowneigh had the third key, which was likely. Unless he’d sent another bounty hunter to fetch it, in which case he’d have it soon enough anyway.
Anyway, I needed to figure out what this ‘DERTA’ was. For all I knew, it could have been the keys’ manufacturer. If I wished to blackmail Crowneigh, I was going to need more information as leverage.
I thought back to Sunburn’s warning. I was also going to buy some extra ammo, just in case.
A plan starting to form into my brain, I headed to my favorite shop in Equestria: Chrystal’s.
I exited the shop with more question than I had when I entered.
First, about the DERTA. Chrystal had told me it was a pre-war research center, and people usually weren’t looking for them because they had a bad case of Old World blues. They were often filled with considerable loot, advanced technologies, deadly security systems and un-ethical two-century-old experiments on fauna or ponies.
They were the very reason scavengers often didn’t live long, yet sometimes managed to make a fortune in caps. I, for one, wouldn’t spit on a big heap of caps, but most of Equestria unclaimed loot now lied in places hard to reach: Marypony, Canterlot, the Hoofington’s Core… you name it. I wasn’t crazy enough to risk my tail over there, when I could find well-paid jobs in the Manehattan area.
Yet, if the DERTA hadn’t been looted because its keys had been lost, scattered to the winds, then it was a million-caps opportunity just within my reach.
The second thing that had me thinking was Chrystal herself. She had me worried she could move out of Friendship City in search of greener pastures, or simply close her shop down and move on. I hadn’t lied when I said there weren’t any better gun dealer this side of Equestria; sure, the Silver Rush in Tenpony was filled with weapons of the highest quality, but the owner, Van Graff, abhorred powder-based guns. He hated them so much I’ve been told the bouncer in front of the Silver Rush was forbidding the access to whoever had a non-energy weapon. Not that I would know, mind you: I’d never been in Tenpony myself. Why would I, after all? Everything cost a leg over there, even the damn cheese, and there wasn’t any job for me. In fact, if the security had found out I was Spring, expert bounty hunter, I would have been shot on the spot for being a raider.
So, yeah, Chrystal closing her business in Friendship City would have been very uncomfortable for me. And I knew it was really serious, because Chrystal had spontaneously cut me a discount as being a faithful client. Unless she was hitting on me – which was a terrifying prospect given her reputation as a black widow – it meant she was desperate to keep me from going elsewhere to buy my stuff.
Not that I could, anyway.
The last thing I was worried about was my imminent confrontation with Crowneigh. Now that I knew for a fact the keys were worth thousands of caps, I sure wasn’t going to be content with the meager eight hundred I was promised. To renegotiate the contract was out of question, of course, but since he had sent me to kill two ponies, and retrieve their keys as proof, I actually didn’t have to give him the keys. It was a low blow for sure, but hell, the Wasteland was a scary place.
So, confident in my fortune to come, I headed to Mr. Crowneigh’s apartment.
Crowneigh’s office was exactly how I recalled: full of dusty books. They were everywhere: on the shelves, on the ground, on the giant desk facing the door. What little space wasn’t occupied by bookshelves was filled by maps, old newpapers, compasses, and old artifacts. It almost looked like an archeologist’s lair from Daring Do, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the adventurer sitting behind the desk, her focus deeps inside a millennial parchment.
Well, Crowneigh was sitting behind his desk, and sure was wearing a white fedora, but the comparison ended there.
First, he was reading a newspaper. That it was two centuries old didn’t seem to bother him the slightest.
Second, he was a ghoul.
Now I don’t have anything against ghouls. Sunburn is a ghoul – an ugly one at that. Yet, I go along with him just fine. I’d just rather cut off my own hoof than touching him, that’s all.
But Crowneigh was something else. Sorry, I should have said Mister Crowneigh. The decayed Earth Pony wore a white fedora, with a white suit, and it was obvious he was trying very hard to be attractive. Alas, when you had exceeded your best-before date by two hundred years, it just made you even creepier.
If Sunburn was an ugly ghoul, then Crowneigh was an ugly ghoul with a white fedora. It was like putting a cherry on a stack of shit. Cree-fuckin’-py.
As I entered his office, he tipped his hat, and looked up from his newspaper.
I’m pretty much sure it was just for the show.
“Ah, Spring,” he noted. “You’re back. I reckon our little business had been taken care off?”
“It had.” I approached the desk. “Black Toe was quite easy to get, but Cloud Vote proved to be more elusive.”
He shrugged in an apologetic, yet reserved, manner.
“Was he? It is a shame, but we had agreed on the price beforehoof.”
“Of course. And I am not one to come back on my pay,” I lied shamelessly. “I did notice you hadn’t been totally honest with me though.”
His surprise was clear on his face, but his denial made it even more obvious.
“Did I? My words, and I wouldn’t even know it! Pray tell, where did I wrong you?”
I couldn’t keep my eyes from rolling in their sockets.
“The keys, Crowneigh, the keys. It has never been about the two targets, isn’t it? All you needed was their keys.”
He seemed a bit relieved, somehow. “My, you are a sharp one. Why yes, I wanted back what was rightfully mine. You see, they had stolen them from me years ago, and I couldn’t open my old vault anymore.”
“So it has nothing to do with them opening the gates to the DERTA? Well I stand relieved then, I was about to believe you were going to pay me a misery for something worth a hundred thousand caps!”
All of a sudden, his stance ceased to be cordial and relaxed. It felt like an ice cone had blitzed into the room, and I recalled Sunburn’s warning. I discretely loosened the holster around my pistol, and removed its safety. Crowneigh stared straight at me for a couple seconds, then spoke with a tone that would have made permafrost look warm.
“You should have stayed out of this.”
And out from nowhere, he drew a revolver. I was faster, but he had a head-start.
We ended up shooting at the same time.
His bullet grazed my left cheek, leaving a trail of fire on my flesh.
My bullet hit him in the right eye, and down he went. His white fedora comically followed with a lag, and landed on its ugly, blood covered face like a last attempt to cover his misery.
I stayed there, standing in front of his desk, for a good five minutes. I was torn between my fear that somepony had heard the gunshot (mine was suppressed, but not his), and the realization I would have been a dead mare if he had aimed a few centimeters to his left.
Close quarter fights really weren’t my thing.
Finally, as nopony seemed to have noticed the noise, I relaxed. Then, well…
I looted the room.
Books, books, trash, books, books, books…
There simply was nothing of interest in this room!
I kicked Crowneigh’s dead body, and immediately regretted it as some kind of goo stuck to my hoof. I grimaced, and wiped my appendage on the worn out carpet.
There has to be something in here, anything!
My gaze drifted on the bookshelves, then to the giant pre-war map plastered to the wall. I noticed some kind of transparent plastic sheet rolled on the ground right underneath it, and I grabbed it out of curiosity. It seemed out of place in the office, somehow, and I unrolled it.
There were markings all over it, but I couldn’t make head or tail of them. Circles of color were disposed at random on it, and some were barred or underlined. One in particular stood out: bright red, it had been maniacally overwritten again and again. Whatever it was, it seemed important to Crowneigh.
I almost wished I hadn’t killed him.
Almost being the key word.
I frowned as I though back to his major overreaction when I mentioned the DERTA. I had the feeling there was a link between the plastic sheet and the hidden facility, but I couldn’t quite put my hoof on it.
I sighted, and put the item back where I had found it. I knew I wasn’t much of a problem solver, and while I was far from being stupid my approach to resolving my problems usually revolved around sneaking and shooting.
I went back to the corpse. I hadn’t looted him yet, and I wasn’t really thrilled by the prospect. I let out a long, tired sigh, and, thanking the Goddesses above for being a unicorn, I used my telekinesis to search Crowneigh’s body.
First was his revolver, chambered in .44 Magnum. I didn’t know what model it was, but I could recognize the sigil of Ironshod Firearms, and the gun was in an overall good shape. It was probably worth a few hundred caps, but there was no way I was going to sell it in Friendship City. Rule number one of burglaries: never ever try to sell whatever you just stole in the same city you stole it. Bonus point if you murdered somepony in the process.
I mean, seriously, you wouldn’t believe how many ponies tried to do that. Trust me: it doesn’t work.
Of course, Crowneigh also had some ammo for it, about twenty rounds. I put everything in my saddlebags, and carried on.
I found about a hundred bottlecaps in his rear pockets. I grimaced. Of course he wasn’t going to carry more than a kilogram worth of caps on him to pay me. He probably had a more consequent fortune stashed in his office, but where?
I didn’t have the answer. I pocketed the caps.
In his front pockets, I found a box of Mint-Als. I tossed it on the desk – there was no way I was going to eat something coming from that ghoul!
Finally, I noticed a silver chain around Crowneigh’s neck. I snapped it, and pulled it toward me.
Attached were two keys, and one golden ring.
The ring seemed to be made of gold, but I wasn’t exactly familiar with jewelry, so I couldn’t say for sure. It looked like an Old World wedding ornament. Assuming I could find a wealthy buyer, it was probably worth a good stack of caps – I doubted there were many jewelers left in the Wastelands, so whoever wanted to have an old-fashioned wedding would probably resort to buying used rings.
The first key was very plain. The blade looked a bit sophisticated, but it simply meant it opened a high-quality lock, possibly a safe.
The second one brought a smile to my lips. Aside from its red color, it was the perfect twin of the two DERTA keys I already had. My smile turned into a frown, however, when I realized it was labeled ‘IV’.
If Red was ‘IV’, Blue was ‘III’, and Green was ‘I’ or ‘II’, it meant I missed a key.
I groaned. Couldn’t the Wasteland give me a break for once?
I walked around the office one more time, trying to find a hint, but to no avail. I simply wasn’t perspective enough.
Slowly, my gaze turned back to the pack of Party Mint-Als on the desk.
Oh well, I might as well try! Nopony ever died of eating Mint-Als anyway, right?
Thankfully, the box was still sealed, and the pills turned out to be clean and pristine. No trace of ghoul goo on it whatsoever. On the back, it was recommended not to take more than one at once. I chewed three of them for good measure, and waited.
Thirty seconds later, the effects kicked in, and I felt fuckin’ smart!
All of sudden, I knew what was going on in this office! It was so obvious! Of course Crowneigh was not going to leave the subject of his lifelong obsession in plain sight, yet he probably needed to have his documents at hoof at any time.
I grabbed the plastic sheet, and with a goofy grin, I plastered it on the map.
Half the circles were over the sea. I froze for a second, then flipped the sheet. Noticing the drawing pins on a nearby shelve, I nailed it to the wall, and stood back to watch my handy work.
Of course he wasn’t going to draw on the map – he drew on an overlay! It was so simple, yet so clever.
On the newly formed map, I could clearly see what the circles were referring to. Black circles were all crossed, and seemed older than the others – they probably were the places Crowneigh searched for his own key. The circles in green and blue obviously referred to the two other keys, and I couldn’t help but notice the green key had been moving a lot.
There also was a yellow circle around the Tenpony Tower. I guessed the last key was there.
Finally, the large, red circle had to be the location of the DERTA. It was to the North. It was under the permafrost line, but still far enough that there was no city whatsoever. The Wasteland was harsh enough without deadly winters. The place was surrounded by the zombie wastes to the West, the tail of the Crystal Mountains to the East (and the sea beyond), the frozen wastes to the North, and the closest town to the South was two hundred kilometers away. It was remote – no wonder nopony ventured there.
I turned my gaze back to the office. Now, I needed to find Crowneigh’s safe.
My first guess was ‘behind the bookshelves’. But after throwing all the ageless books on the floor, I had to admit it simply wasn’t there.
My second guess was a secret compartment hidden in the desk, but I discarded the idea: the volumes didn’t add up.
I returned to the center of the room, and sat back on my haunches. Munching two other PMT (tasty!), I turned the problem in my head. If I were Crowneigh (I suddered at the thought), where would my safe be hidden?
I observed around me. The books, the shelves, the map. It really looked like a place out of a Daring Do novel. My Mint-Als-fuelled brain processed the idea. If I were a shadowy professor in archeology, wanting to hide my precious items from intruders, where would I put them?
Under the carpet.
I jumped on my hooves, and pushed the heavy carpet aside. Sure enough, there was a safe there.
And inside, I found the pot of gold.
To be honest, had I not known what the DERTA was, I would have discarded the centuries-old documents in the safe, and only cared about the heavy caps bag over it. But Crowneigh’s overreaction had confirmed my suspicions that the hidden facility was the real deal, and, Party Mint-Als helping, I decided to browse the documents. I locked myself in the office, threw all the useless junk on the desk away, moved the furniture so I didn’t have to sit in Crowneigh’s radioactive blood, and started studying. Oh, and I took another PMT, too.
Four hours later, my head throbbed of all the reading I had to do, and the PMT box had been emptied. Thankfully, most of the documents had been annotated by my late ghoul friend, so there wasn’t much to analyze.
The documents confirmed the DERTA was located in a crater, named Big Mountain. The name wasn’t original, but the facility itself definitely was.
DERTA stood for ‘Département d’Etude et de Recherche des Technologies Arcaniques’. It looked to be French to me, and it was. One particular report, thankfully written in English and intended for somepony in the Ministry of Arcanic Sciences, gave me some insights on the origins of the DERTA.
The facility was a pre-war research center dependent of the province of Prance. What it was doing on this side of the sea was anypony’s guess, but it turned out it shielded the DERTA from falling after the Bombing of Prance. The document begged the Ministry of Arcane Science to take them under their wing, since most of their homeland had been reduced to petit fours. I didn’t have the answer they gave them, but since the facility didn’t close it was obvious they accepted.
Then, there was a pile of technical sheets for items designed by the DERTA. I didn’t care for the details, but I noted every folder had been appended with a ‘Normalization Form’.
“Forwarded to Stable Tech… Forwarded to Stable Tech… Forwarded to the MoA… Forwarded to Marypony Facility… Forwarded to Flash Technologies… Canceled by Royal Order…”
I frowned and took a closer look at this particular folder. Sadly, most of the files were missing.
I didn’t know what to make of all this. It appeared the Equestrian government had been forging false identities for the things the DERTA had invented, attributing them its own Ministries or companies. It would explain why I had never seen any reference to the facility before, but I didn’t understand why they weren’t selling themselves the goods they invented. I shrugged – it simply was yet one more mystery to add to an ever growing list.
I skimmed most of the printed documents, until I found one named ‘Lockdown procedures’.
Lockdown procedures - revision
THIS DOCUMENT IS CLASSIFIED. UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS IS A FELONY.
With the recent change in management, the Department security systems had to be replaced. While the infrastructures themselves remained unchanged, all the access codes given to authorities in Prance had to be removed. It is likely they fell in the enemies’ hooves, or were destroyed. In either case, they were a liability, and are as of now unusable. New codes will be forwarded To Whom It May Concern.
It means we also had to change the lockdown security locks in Big Mountain. While they will not, in all likehood, be used anytime soon, they remain the only way to open the facility blast doors from the outside.
The previous set of keys was distributed between the late French President, the Prime Minister, the head of the French Secret Services, and a representative of the Department.
The new set of keys will be distributed (subject to governmental approval) between a Ministry of Arcane Sciences representative, a Ministry of Awesome representative, a Ministry of Inter-Ministerial Affairs representative, and the former French ambassador in Canterlot, Mr. Fancy Pants.
Those keys are to remain outside of Big Mountain AT ALL TIMES.
Should they be lost, stolen, destroyed, or compromised in any way, please inform IMMEDIATELY a Ministry. The set shall then be retrieved and remade, and the old keys shall be destroyed.
Note: As an Equestrian representative made me realize earlier, the DERTA capability to become impermeable to all threats is vastly underestimated. To be clear: should an unrecognized flying object go over the Big MT crater, it would be instantly annihilated by the automated Gauss Anti-Aircraft canons. Please remember those batteries are the same one which destroyed half of the Zebra fleet in a matter of minutes last summer on the Southern front.
Furthermore, should the facility be targeted by long-range ballistic missiles, an arcanic shield can be raised to protect it. Since it is not fuelled by unicorns, but by autonomous fusion reactors, it is dubious it would drop on its own even after megaspell-class strikes.
Capt. Aegis, head of security
As I read the document, I couldn’t help but find hilarious that they had gone all the way and back to protect themselves from external threats, yet didn’t seem to have survived the Apocalypse anyway.
Given the ‘effectiveness’ of the French defense system during the Bombing of Prance, I somehow doubted the DERTA shield was as tough as the document made it to be. Okay, Tenpony Tower did survive the utter destruction of Manehatten, but it wasn’t a direct strike. Ground zero was actually a couple kilometers to the South-East.
The remaining files didn’t seem to come from the same source. Most of them were hoof-wrote, and I realized they were Crowneigh’s research notes. The earliest was dated fifty years before my birth!
I quickly skipped to the latest documents. Without surprise I found Cloud Vote’s and Black Toe’s files. I didn’t learn anything of interest, except the Green key was the number ‘II’.
What did unsettle me, though, was to find a file with my name on it.
Turns out Crowneigh did his homework with great care, because most of my achievements were on it. The ghoul had annotated some, and had added a small synthesis on the back of the document.
“Seems fair and efficient,” I read, “but not sharp enough to realize what’s going on!?”
Even dead, Crowneigh managed to kick me where it hurt: in the pride.
“Probably capable of taking care of V.G.” I continued, “Sending her after C.V. and B.T. to see if she can handle the Tower.”
‘C.V.’ and ‘B.T.’ were probably Cloud Vote and Black Toe, my previous targets. ‘V.G.’ had to be the one with the key no. ‘I’. If it really was in Tenpony Tower, though, getting to them would prove to be quite the hassle.
I browsed the remaining files, looking for this mysterious ‘V.G.’: name, residence, potential threat.
Turns out I only needed the name, because I was no stranger to the stallion.
The last target was Van Graff, owner of the Silver Rush.
Quick Draw: you may not be the sharpest knife of the drawer, but you’re the fastest drawer of your knife! You now holster and draw you weapons 50% faster.
“Draw faster than your shadow!”