Chapter 12 > In which a ride is hitched
“It is a wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”
“Coin! Get up! We have customers coming in, and good little fillies don’t sleep ‘till the noon when there’s business to be had! Hammer needs your help making sure there’s no cheating on the floor!”
I awoke with a start. Ma’s voice was coming from right outside my room, and that meant that I had slept in for too long. “Coming, Ma!” I shouted, scrambling out of bed and, levitating the ski goggles that I had gotten from Mr. Opportunity onto my head. I wore them everywhere now, even if they were a little big for me. Quickly, I trotted for my door and opened it, smiling at Ma as I stepped around her to head downstairs to the casino proper. She looked down at me with… I could tell, mild disappointment. I would make sure to wake up extra early tomorrow to make up for it. That would make her happy, I was sure. I didn’t want to be sent down to The Rock again… I shuddered. The nightmares I was getting from the hisses and cries of those feral ghouls were just starting to go away too.
Things were looking up since the megaspell incident, where I had eavesdropped on Ma’s adult conversation with those two stallions that had brought in a megaspell through the Solaris tunnels under the casino. The new stallion Ma had hired, Hammer, said that he had dealt with them as Ma had ordered when I screwed up the courage to ask. I wasn’t brave enough to ask for details, though. Hammer was a bit creepy, but it didn’t seem like he was splitting up Ma and Pa like Fiddle had, so I was happy. Hammer wasn’t as smart as Fiddlesticks had been though, so he needed my help on the casino floor more often than not.
I looked around, surprised, as I hit the bottom of the stairs. The place was busier than normal, I could see why Ma had woken me up. Old Mare Withers was there at her slot machine of course, but the big surprise was that our whole two rows of machines were filled up! Every one had a pony at the seat pulling levers. I smiled… if nopony won a jackpot, we would make a lot of caps today. That would make Ma really happy. And I had modified the machines matrices so that jackpots happened even less than normal. Ma had told me to get rid of the possibility altogether, but when I was poking around the matrix of each machine I had discovered that that was impossible to do without breaking them. I didn’t want to disappoint Ma though, that’s not what good little fillies did. So I just made the chance for a jackpot so infinitesimally small that it wouldn’t happen in a million years.
“Hey there, filly.” Hammer’s deep voice said from behind me. I jumped… for such a brightly colored pin… lightish red stallion, he could be sneaky when he wanted to be. His super-sledge was strapped to his back, as per normal.
“Oh, hi Hammer. Busy day today, huh?” I said. I could see my reflection in his dark eyes again… he kept staring straight at me, and I was a little nervous. Good little fillies didn’t jump to conclusions, though, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, Ma wouldn’t hire somepony that meant me harm, Ma loved me more than anything.
“Yeah, in fact, Starry needs you to deal a poker game. She’s dealing the blackjack game at one of the tables, and your Pa is out on a scavenger run. I’ll keep an eye on the slots, make sure nopony’s trying to cheat your Ma.” The darkness in Hammer’s eyes went away as soon as we started talking business. He glanced over at the slots, narrowing his eyes. It was pretty clear he didn’t trust anypony at them. His first day here had been highlighted with a mare using a light wand on a machine, and he had… well, that super sledge was impressive, I had to admit. Ever since then, Hammer didn’t like anypony on the slots at all. Not even Old Mare Withers, who couldn’t cheat anypony out of a fried bloatsprite, much less a slot machine.
“Alright! I’ll be at the poker table if you need anything else.” I said happily. I liked being a dealer, but I didn’t get to do it often. Only when we were so busy that Starry couldn’t handle it.
As I headed over to the poker table though, (which already had five ponies seated at it… a full table. This was going to be exciting) my head started to throb… I grunted… something was wrong… I…
“Coin! Canst thou hear me?” a voice came from nowhere… time seemed to slow down… the world got darker… I was standing in a field of blackness, and a figure was there, a large star-bodied stallion with a strange gun for a head…
Memories came flooding back, all at once I was staring at Mezzer and gasping in agony. “Ow! I… Mezzer!” I said, holding my head in pain. I had never had such a splitting headache before. “Mezzer, I thought I told you to not dive into my memories again!”
“I did not do so without good reason, Coin.” Mezzer said, stepping closer to me and holding me in one of his starry hooves unexpectedly, giving me a hug. I unconsciously leaned into him, hugging him back… and for some reason started to cry, even though I didn’t feel sad at all. This made me feel really embarrassed, though. I tried to hide it as best as I could, burying my head against Mezzer’s starry chest.
Sniffling, I said, “Well… why am I here, then?”
Mezzer let me go… but I stepped forward, back into his embrace. Despite his body’s cold look, he was actually quite warm and… comforting. And I didn’t want him to see the inexplicable tears on my face. He sat down and continued to hug me. “Thou art… dying. On the outside. I have no doubt thou would already be dead, had I not done what I have done.”
My eyes widened in fear. “W-what do you mean, dying?” I stammered.
“I mean that… it’s a little confusing.” Mezzer said. “I have put thee into a… stasis of sorts. Thy soul has attempted to leave thy body. For all intents and purposes, thou hast tried very hard just now to die. Thou art even closer to death now than when thy back was broken. There was just too much blood spilt from thy veins during that fight with MG-MS14.”
Mezzer was right, this was confusing. “I… what? There was a fight, I remember that…” I said. “And… I was wounded, but not that badly… was I? And my soul tried to leave? What’s going on?” I asked, my head still pounding. I grimaced into Mezzer’s leg, burying my face into his star-patterned fur. Dear horseradishes this hurt…
Mezzer’s cool head nuzzled the side of my face… it felt a little weird being nuzzled by a magical energy weapon… but it was nice. “As far as I can tell, thy leg was pinned open by the crazed machine… and it may have cut one of thy arteries. We are soul-bound… we will be together forever… and I felt myself starting to fade out of the current plane of existence we are inhabiting. It’s… hard to explain to a pony… but… the nothingness that I remember before being bound with thee… that’s what I felt. And I was afraid.” Mezzer pushed me back enough to look into my eyes with his strangely expressive, hypnotic blank screen. I quickly wiped the tears away, embarrassed… I still didn’t know where they were coming from. “In desperation, I forced thy soul back into one of thy old memories by diving into it. The bond goes both ways, and thy soul was forced to follow me when I dived into a memory. So, we are still in thy physical body… hopefully long enough for thy medical robot to get us back to health. I am sorry I did this without permission again, but I felt it was the only thing I could do to stave off death. I know not what awaits us on the other side… And I fear death just as much as anypony.” he said. His normally calm, collected voice was trembling slightly… this was as rattled as I had ever seen the normally unflappable Mezzer act. Had I actually come that close to dying? Now the tears didn’t seem so random.
“I… thank you.” I said. “I don’t want to die yet either… and I don’t think this memory is a bad one…” I thought, trying to remember how this memory ended… but it was a blank spot in my mind! “Except… I can’t remember! What—”
“I don’t think thou can access thy memories while we are in them. My apologies if this is one of those memories that thou dost not want to experience again… I tried to find a happy one, but I was in a rush… and…” Mezzer went silent, hesitating.
“What is it?” I asked, frowning at him.
“I mean no offense… but thou dost not seem to have much in the way of happy memories concerning thy childhood… and those are the only memories deep enough in thy soul for me to have access to. It is as if thou hast buried them here…” he said.
“I had a much better childhood than the majority of the wasteland’s colts and fillies, and I know it.” I said. Perhaps a bit harshly, because Mezzer flinched back as if I had hit him. Still, I pushed on. “I had a Ma and Pa that loved me, a safe place to live, and three square meals a day. We were never short on caps, and had power and clean water nearly all the time. Most families fought tooth and hoof for what we had on the Big 52. I can’t and won’t complain about my days there. We… I… was blessed by the princesses.”
“Whatever thou says…” Mezzer said, obviously chickening out again. He was a typical stallion even if he was a gun, always avoiding the tough conversations. “Shall I continue the memory? It will need to run its course before we awaken.
“Go ahead.” I said, and my headache started to fade as the blackness re-focused back to the familiar casino floor…
“Alright everypony, are we all here to play an exciting game of poker!?” I said to the five at the table, hopping up onto the dealer’s stool and smiling at them.
The five ponies looked mildly surprised, but everypony knew that a filly worked here, or soon found out as soon as they walked in the door due to Old Mare Withers talking so much about me (I wondered if she had another bullet for me to add to my ammo collection) so there weren’t any questions as to why I was dealer. There were a few nods and grunts, but nopony was smiling except for a rather clueless-looking mare. There was her, another mare that looked bored, and three stallions all wearing cowpony hats. “Alright!” I said, pouring on the cheer. Happy fillies were good fillies, Ma always said, and ponies liked to bet on happy filly dealers. I dealt the cards. “How about some Texhays Hold-‘Em for the first game?” I asked. No complaints, so two cards went to each pony. “Place your bets! No limit!” I said. I always ran no limit games, they were more exciting if the players really got into it.
We were a few hooves into the game, and things were going well. The pots were growing steadily as the players got into the swing of things and some interesting and good hooves were being played… I could even tell the bored-looking mare was only looking bored as a bluff… her tail twitched every time she got a good hoof. And the house tax on the game would turn out a nice pile of caps by the time everypony decided to call it. It was Ma’s idea to tax poker games, since the House provided a place to play them. She didn’t want her dealers playing the game with the patrons, and we still didn’t have enough chips for them to play with. I made some piles in the pot that designated that if there was a cap in that pile, it was actually a 10 cap bet, and one that was a 100 cap bet pile, that way the players could keep caps in their bag and not clutter the table… or show off their wealth, which made some ponies nervous.
The bored looking mare was finally smiling, having won a rather large pot, and one of the stallions went off in a huff as he busted out. “Alright, Texhays Hold-‘Em again?” I asked the remaining four, who were all having a good time, buying drinks and food from the casino, chatting to each other… it was a good game.
Then froze as I heard a sound from the slot machines.
A jingling, happy sound. A sound accompanied by the sound of a lot of caps being poured out of a hopper. A sound I did not want to hear…
“JACKPOT! Oh baby!” Old Mare Withers crowed out in excitement. “Woo! Oh, my, my heart’s a fluttering!” I turned and saw her holding her cap bucket under the hopper as caps poured out of the machine… easily over a thousand of them. These machines were designed originally for single bits, which meant they poured out jackpots in single bit… and single cap… increments. And while I had set jackpots to be the lowest number they could possibly be, that number was still far too much for Ma to be happy with it.
“W-w-well… looks like L-Lady Luck is smiling on the casino today.” I nervously said to the poker players, who had all turned to watch the slots as Old Mare Withers caught the last of the jackpot in her bucket. They all smiled, and started the next round of betting. I watched over their heads as I dealt the hooves… Hammer looking over Old Mare Withers’s machine, seeing that there was no cheating going on, of course… him asking the old pony to follow him to Ma’s office… them going in…
I could do nothing but keep dealing the game I was running… my players were having a good time, the clueless mare was now drunk off her flank, flirting with both remaining stallions… they were probably going to stay the night here if she stayed this way… the no-longer-bored mare was winning nearly every hoof with cunning bluffs… the stallions were happy because of the drunk clueless mare, and I knew the casino was making lots of caps off this game, because they were betting high. Maybe enough to cover that jackpot… but I knew Ma wouldn’t see it that way…
Old Mare Withers walked out of Ma’s office with a big smile and her saddlebags, obviously weighed down by a bag of caps. Ma was following, laughing and smiling along with her as she escorted Withers to the door… I heard the old mare saying “Oh, don’t you worry about it, I’ll probably lose it all again sometime soon… this dear old casino is my favorite place in the wasteland to spend my retirement. I’m just glad I got this experience, I’ve never won a jackpot before!” Ma was all smiles and congratulations… then turned to glance my way.
“What’s wrong, little filly?” one of the stallions asked. I had started to cry.
“N-nothing… J-just something in my eye… here’s the river…” I said, dealing three cards down on the table and wiping away the tears. The look Ma had given me… that was the look that told me I had been a Bad Filly… It didn’t matter that Old Mare Withers would probably lose all those caps back to the casino eventually, nor did it matter that we were probably still making a profit today from all the other patrons in the casino, including the ponies at the game I was running quite well. I had still been a Bad Filly for lying to Ma.
I was probably sleeping on The Rock tonight. I hoped the shrieks of the ghouls wouldn’t keep me up all night… or give me nightmares.
“Fuck.” I heard a mysterious voice in my head as I continued the game…
“Ma… please…” I moaned.
“I think she’s waking up. Um, Coin? Are you okay?” I heard a young mare say. That wasn’t Ma… Crescent Wrench? What was she doing at the casino?
I opened my eyes. My vision was pretty bleary, but I could see that it was light out… sort of. Lighter than inside a building… it looked like we were outside. I rubbed my eyes and looked around again. Everything swam into focus… I was outside, lying on the ground next to Crescent Wrench. The General Atomareics building was in the background, they must have carried me out. We were already a fair distance away, far enough that my PipBuck was no longer clicking, a sound that I had gotten used to inside the headquarters building. I took a quick look at my radiation counter… no rad poisoning. Looks like they gave me some rad medicine when I was out, because I vaguely remember still having minor rad sickness during the fight. Everypony was here… Hiss, Shimmercoat and Matchstick Flare were looking at me, and MG-MS11 was hovering around in circles. Everypony looked fine, and slightly worried. “I… what happened? Oh… my head…” A splitting headache hit me, and memories of what had happened both before and after I had been knocked out came rushing back in an increasingly familiar and unwanted feeling. My memories were not toys, I didn’t like them being played with like this… “Ohhhh… ow.” I put a hoof to my head.
“Um, you were knocked out… I think you fell unconscious from blood loss.” Crescent Wrench said. “There was… a… a lot of b-blood…”
“You’re one tough mare, Coin! I ain’t never seen so much blood come out of one pony without them kicking the bucket!” Matchstick Flare said. “Course, it probably helped that right after you lost it MG-MS11 started to do his thing with his healing whatsit.”
I realized something. “Shimmercoat, you’re awake!”
Shimmercoat nodded. “Yeah, and with my own splitting headache too, join the club.” He said, rubbing his temple. Looks like I wasn’t the only one. “My magic overloaded, I can’t cast anything right now.” He scowled as he said this, kicking his hoof on the ground.
“Well, next time don’t overdo it, just protect what you’re supposed to and don’t try to do everything at once.” I said, and was about to continue when I was interrupted.
“I know, I know, alright? Matchstick already read me the riot act. I shouldn’t have shielded her, she’s fine against opponents who attack in melee. And I shouldn’t have tried to block that radiation when we still had all that radiation medication on hoof. I get it, I did too much, and now Matchstick has to suffer for it.” Shimmercoat looked down at the ground, and I eased off the gas a bit. I was going to scold him, but… Matchstick had already done it for me, it seemed. There was one thing I didn’t understand though.
“What do you mean, Matchstick has to suffer for it? I thought it was you who couldn’t cast magic.” I said.
Matchstick looked sadly down at the ground too, as Shimmercoat said, “Yeah, that includes my heat shield spell. I instinctively try to cast it when she touches me, but all my horn does is spark, see…” Shimmercoat reached out with a hoof and touched Matchstick’s side. His horn sparked, and he winced and quickly jerked his hoof back, as if he had touched a hot oven… which he basically had. “Because I was so reckless, she has to be alone again until I get my magic back. Believe me, I can deal with losing my magic temporarily myself, but the last thing I wanted was to upset somepony else because I overexerted myself.” Shimmercoat had never sounded so serious before… and I remembered that he had basically sacrificed himself as a child, not knowing that he would survive past his first year as Overstallion, in order to save his sister from the same fate he put so many outsider ponies through.
“It’s alright, Shimmer… a few more days without somepony to hug won’t kill me, I was…” Matchstick’s voice cracked, and she looked away from us, the tears she didn’t want us to see sizzling as they evaporated. “I… I’ll be fine. It’s not like I’m not used to it by now…” She finished, turning back to us with an obviously forced smile. Shimmercoat and Matchstick both looked completely depressed… Yeah, I figured Shimmercoat was getting all the punishment he needed for not following orders.
“Alright… so everypony is okay?” I asked, standing up. My head swam for a second, but I steadied pretty quickly. I checked myself over… not a scratch on me. Gotta love that M.E.D.I.-Gun. I was dog-tired though.
“Besides a few lumps and bumps, yeah.” Matchstick said. “The robot’s almost out of juice, though. We had to dump pretty much all our spare healing potions into him to get you healed up.”
“I’m pretty sure that thing eats through healing potions like a radscorpion through raiders.” I said, glancing at MG-MS11.
“Actually…” Crescent spoke up, standing. She had been crouched next to me… I think she was the one that carried me out. “He refines healing potions, makes them more efficient. There’s no way drinking potions normally would have healed your leg with no scars.”
“Indeed! The M.E.D.I.-Gun improves healing potions healing efficiency by 20%! At a burn cost of only plus 10% of the body’s normal potion burn rate! A net gain, brought to you by the good folks at General Atomareics, the only company in Equestria who cares enough about the war to focus all its manufacturing efforts on projects designed to bring it to a swift and decisive end, Hoo AH!” MG-MS11 spouted, ending with a fanfare and saluting with his saw arm. He looked better than ever… in fact, I think he was sporting a brand new coat of paint! That repair station had obviously done its job, even better than I had expected going in. Despite the hardships, it seemed our journey into the General Atomareics building was a success.
“Oh, um, Coin?” Crescent said. “While I was sneaking around with Hiss in there, I found this…” she held up her PipBuck so I could see the display. “It’s a file on something that sounded like your gun, so I downloaded it… if you’re interested.”
“YES!” Mezzer shouted in my mind, making me wince. “Oh, uh, sorry.”
“Yes, I could use that, I might learn something. That was quite proactive of you, Crescent, thank you.” I said, downloading the file from her PipBuck, mentally glaring at Mezzer for making my headache worse. “I’ll read it later tonight.” I told him. He wisely didn’t argue. “I’ll take that memory orb you found too. You’re good at finding those sorts of things, it seems.” I told Crescent Wrench, smiling. She put the memory orb in my pack, with her own small smile. “Keep an eye on MG-MS11, tonight I’ll go into his matrix and make sure he doesn’t go charging off again.”
“Alright… and thank you.” Crescent Wrench said.
One more matter to take care of. “Has anypony seen that blind Hellhound that chased us in there?” I asked.
“Nope. Which is alright by me.” Matchstick replied.
“Okay. We should keep moving then, we’ll want to put as much room between its territory and us as soon as possible.” I said. With that, we hit the road.
We traveled slowly for the next few hours, pausing frequently to rest and catch our breath. The highway grew increasingly urban as we traveled, the scattered wasted trees giving way to ruined buildings. The headquarters building had basically marked the edge of the city we were entering… in fact, we passed under an old highway sign, miraculously still standing, that said ‘San Fransiscolt, 2 miles.’ These days though, there was no San Fransiscolt, just a bunch of dilapidated gray buildings that were mostly collapsed or hollowed out. Occasionally the wind blew a pile of trash or tumbleweed past us, or a small drizzle dampened our manes (or caused Matchstick’s to sizzle) All in all it was quite peaceful for a change. That didn’t mean we let our guard down… we were on the highway after all, a main passage into the ruins. That meant it was a prime spot for bandits and raiders to lie in wait.
We were entering Auction House’s sphere of influence though, so we might run into slavers as well… which for most ponies would be something to also watch out for. That would be a good thing for us, however. It was Auction House law to not pester other slavers unless they owed a debt, and I didn’t owe anypony at the moment. I was half hoping we’d see a group of fellow slavers camped down for the night, so we could join them. No such luck however, it seemed like this stretch of highway was as abandoned as it looked.
“Let’s find a place to bed down for the night, it’s starting to get dark, and I don’t want to be out in the open when bloodwings start to fly around looking for food.” I said.
“There’s bloodwings around here?” Matchstick asked.
“I’m almost afraid to ask, but what’s a bloodwing?” Shimmercoat asked as well.
“Yes, Matchstick, there have been sightings from time to time, and one can assume they’re in all city ruins these days.” I said. “And they’re… basically giant vampire bats, Shimmercoat. Nocturnal predators, of course. During the day they sleep in ruined buildings or under bridges and overpasses. They’ll fly up and tear you apart and suck you dry, if they find you wandering around during the night They’re usually completely silent until they’re right on you. Nasty things, best to be avoided.”
“Yikes.” Shimmercoat said, looking up at the ruined buildings. He slowly spun around, checking his EFS. I did so as well… nothing sneaking up behind us, according to it.
“We’re good for a few hours, but I want to find shelter well before they start hunting.” I said. “Keep an eye out for old carts, or buildings that look halfway intact. If we can find a safe indoor spot to crash, that would be ideal.” I could set up a safe camp outside if we really needed to, especially with the flaming mare that would keep most wildlife at bay with her light and heat. That would be a last resort though.
We looked around, more focused on the surroundings than on moving forward like we had been, keeping an eye out for shelter. The best shelters had first and foremost, cover from exposure to the elements. A fortress from your enemies would do you no good if there was a big hole in the roof letting in cold, irradiated rain. However, in the wasteland, right behind cover from the elements was cover from hostile forces, be that predators like bloodwings, or raiders looking for a nighttime victim. Fires, while good for keeping ponies warm and comfortable, usually drew in raiders like moths. They did keep quite a few species of nocturnal predators away though, so it was a trade-off. Generally speaking, if it was cold enough, you wanted a fire. It didn’t matter whether or not you attracted raiders if you were going to freeze to death. And in our case, we didn’t really have a choice… even if we didn’t light a fire, Matchstick Flare still shone like one.
The third sign of a good shelter was water or food in close proximity, preferably both. Ideally, you didn’t dive into your travel rations and water unless you absolutely had too. Old buildings often still had plumbing that worked, (you had to give it to the ponies of the old world, they knew how to construct infrastructure that lasted) and you could find preserved food in city ruins pretty easily if you knew where to look. Most supermarkets have long since been looted, but old convenience stores were sometimes overlooked. Outside of the city, food and water might be harder to come by. I knew how to hunt and fish, though, so that wasn’t much of a problem for me… and hopefully still wasn’t, if my soul-bond with Mezzer didn’t prevent me from killing most animals. I knew I could still kill radscorpions, at least.
The last thing that was ‘needed’ was power. Buildings might still have electricity from small generators, or working power plants somewhere in the wastes. While it was nice when it was there, it really wasn’t necessary all the time, and sometimes wasn’t even used. You could charge a magical energy weapon with power from buildings, though (though Mezzer seemed to run on his own), and sometimes there were useful machines that made your stay easier. Loot was also a bonus when you sheltered in the city. Ammo was always a good find, and health potions were most often found in the bathrooms of city building’s first aid kits. The downside of sheltering in buildings was that sometimes something else that also thought that particular building was good shelter, and everything from animals to raiders might await you when you pry open a convenience store door.
“How about that cart over there?” Crescent Wrench asked after about half an hour of searching, down the road a ways. A large cart emblazoned with the brand name “Boxy Brown’s” was laying in the road where it had broken down. The wheels were gone, and the yoke was missing its magical energy engine, so trying to haul anything with this cart would be impossible, but it was big enough to comfortably shelter us all. No food or water unless we lucked out and Boxy happened to be shipping food that hadn’t been scavenged yet, but it was getting late and I really didn’t want to be out when the bloodwings were.
“Let’s take a look inside.” I said. “We wandered over to the back of the cart, which was open. The door had gone missing at some point. Probably it was being used by a small town’s wall or some prospector’s shack.” Inside the cart was no sign of whatever Boxy had been shipping, but there was a broken lantern and a couple bloodstained mattresses… looks like whoever had stayed here previously did not have a pleasant stay… or had come in wounded, and used the shelter to recover. One could interpret it however they wanted, the main thing though was the fact that the cart was empty. “Looks good enough. I’ve seen better, but it’s getting dark.” Indeed, the only light we were seeing by now was coming from Matchstick. “Let’s set up camp.”
“I will stand vigilant outside our temporary domicile, and repel any zebra infiltrators that dare approach!” MG-MS11 said as we all piled into the cart. Matchstick stayed near the entrance, so she wouldn’t heat up the confined space to unbearable levels, and I flipped over the mattresses so Shimmercoat, Crescent, Hiss and I might have a slightly cleaner and more comfortable place to lay our heads.
“Actually, Sergeant, I’ll need you to stand still for a second.” I said. I wanted to take a look at his matrix, to see what I could change to make him… less gung-ho. I didn’t want to mess with much, though. Most robots were completely insane after 200 years with little to no maintenance, and usually just identified everyone and everything as hostile. Ones that could tell the difference between friend and foe like MG-MS11 could were either refurbished by an expert, from a Stable, or extremely lucky finds. Messing around with him too much might push him over the edge, so I wasn’t going to change anything I didn’t need to. But he was our medic. I had survived the Wasteland so far without one, but recent events had proven to me that having one on our side was a good thing … I’d be dead twice by now if not for him. Perhaps meeting Price and botching that Maregaton job had been a blessing.
“Could you go on standby mode for a moment, Sarge?” I asked.
“Affirmative, sir! Standby in three, two, one…” MG-MS11’s arms folded into their storage position, and he landed neatly on his thruster, just outside the cart.
“Could you keep an eye on things while I take a look at him, Matchstick?” I asked the flaming mare.
“Sure, I’m not that tired yet. Was going to eat some grub…” she said. She sounded sad… then again, she had been excited for some… intimacy just a few hours prior. I could understand, it had been a while for me too… I had high standards.
“That’s a blessing, at least.” Mezzer said.
“Quiet, you. If I find the right stallion, you’re going to have no say about what I do with him. It’s still my body.” I thought.
“What if a mare I like comes along…” Mezzer started.
“Absolutely not. My Ma said only degenerates and Bad Fillies sleep with other fillies… uh, mares. She’d roll over in her grave if I did that. I don’t care if others do it… just not with me.” This wasn’t a topic I really wanted to discuss, but my stance on the issue was firm.
“Forgive me for saying this, but thy mother isn’t exactly…” Before Mezzer could finish, I cast my matrix modification spell, diving into MG-MS11’s inner workings. He shut up, catching on that I didn’t want to talk about it. Good thing too, I was about to go ballistic on him.
MG-MS11 started, as with most Robronco tech, with a simple switchboard that was easy to bypass. I surfed magically along the lines into his inner workings, not making any modifications yet. Just passing through. Even something as innocent as changing his boot order could ruin the delicate balance he had with the rest of the world. I wasn’t here to fix his perception… I was perfectly fine with him thinking the war was still going on, so long as he identified us as ‘Equestrian’ and our enemies as ‘Zebra.’ So far, it had been working out. The whole ‘charging headlong into battle’ thing just had to stop though, or he would get destroyed.
There was something different ahead, as the lines of the regular surface stuff started to converge. Normally they’d go to a motherboard or processor that could be modified by my magic to do different things… up ahead though was nothing but… a wall. A gigantic, intensely magical wall, with countless lines flowing in and out of it. I was used to seeing tangled messes of corrupt matrices, and thought at first that this was one of those, but… no, this was something different. It wasn’t tangled, it was solid. Immobile and unalterable, it could only be one thing. MG-MS11’s A.I. core.
I tore my magical senses away from the imposing structure, looking around. I obviously wouldn’t be able to modify MG-MS11’s personality even if I wanted to, that wall was the most protected matrix I had ever seen. It was probably built to survive even anti-matrix grenade blasts. What I was looking for was tactical subroutines… something that interpreted the things he saw, and applied it to analysis of the battlefield. That way I could modify him to be more cautious in battle… but I was having trouble finding it. There were just too many lines, too many variables that MG-MS11 took into consideration when making decisions. And I didn’t want to modify the wrong one and turn him into a psycho killer… well, a psycho killer who wasn’t on our side.
I drifted over to a set of blue matrix lines… these ones seemed to help him with his motive drive and controlled his levitation talisman. This I could work with, it wasn’t tactical subroutines, but I could make a workaround that would hopefully have the same result. I focused, creating a new line that emerged from my horn… red and blue striped. It was identified as part of the controls of his thrusters, so I could plug it in here, but it’s true function was a threat-recognition subroutine. The theory was that I could attach this matrix line here, and whenever MG-MS11 saw a threat that this line in the code deemed too much risk to take on alone, his thrusters wouldn’t activate to push him towards it. However, if he had help, the thrusters would work fine. It wouldn’t affect this personality any… in fact, he’d probably be confused as to why he couldn’t move forward to attack the fifty ‘zebras’ behind fortress walls… but it’d keep him alive, and keep us from having to visit that irradiated headquarters building again.
Modifications complete, I unfocused my magic, exiting MG-MS11’s matrix. “There… Sarge, if you could wake up again…” I asked.
MG-MS11’s levitation talisman fired up, and he floated up from his shutdown stance. “Fully active and reporting for duty, sir! Ready to kick some zebra tail, sir! What’s the situ..”
“At ease, soldier. We just need you to keep watch for us while we rest here in this cart.” I said, sighing in relief. It didn’t look like my excursion into his matrix had changed him any. We’ll see if it worked if we run into another situation like with those raiders earlier.
“Yes, sah! This soldier needs no sleep, I will keep watch all night while you all get those batteries charged! Patrol pattern initiated!” MG-MS11 said, and started to hover back and forth in front of the entrance to the cart.
“Keep an eye on him… hopefully I fixed it so he wouldn’t charge off into the night, but I can’t be sure.” I told Matchstick.
“Will do… I probably won’t fall asleep for a while.” Matchstick said, chewing on something she had taken from her pack, looking out into the night. I nodded, and left her to think. Sometimes a pony needed space, and I’m pretty sure Matchstick was at that point right now.
In the back of the cart, Shimmercoat and Crescent Wrench were already asleep on one mattress, with Crescent curled up in a tight little ball next to a sprawled out Shimmercoat. I stifled a small giggle… those two must have been tired, it had been a long day, and they hadn’t been out in the wastes as long as Matchstick and I. Hiss was curled up as well… right in the middle of my mattress. “Move over, you big lump.” I said, poking the sleeping nightstalker until he scooted over, giving me a small growl. “Don’t talk back to me, I need some room too.” I said to him, lying down on the mostly clean mattress, and slowly petting Hiss, scratching behind his ears. He stopped growling and pushed his head against my hoof before settling down and falling asleep.
I tried to sleep as well… but for some reason, I couldn’t close my eyes for more than a few minutes before hearing the cries and guttural throat-noises of ghouls. However, a quick check with MG-MS11 and Matchstick revealed that there wasn’t any activity at all in the area, ghouls or no.
“Thou art suffering from flashbacks of The Rock. Fighting ghouls all day probably brought back those memories of being perched above a pit of them as punishment for hours on end.” Mezzer said as I woke with a start for the third time in the past fifteen minutes.
“I am not. The Rock was good for me, Ma said so.” I said, aloud. “I just need something to help me calm down…” I dug in my pack, and pulled out the memory orb Crescent Wrench had discovered. Now was as good a time as any to take a look at it, and it would at least force my body to rest, if not my mind. And for the moment, I was in as safe a place as I could ask. “Here goes nothing…” I said, and focused on the orb with my magic…
The world washed away as a strange whooshing noise accompanied my journey into another reality… one that resided in the past, in a different pony’s memory. I knew that my real body would be knocked into a sort of protective coma… at least protective for my mind. My body would still be quite vulnerable on the other side. I had heard many a story of curious salvagers meeting their end while in the memories of a long dead pony, all because they hadn’t waited until they were in a safe place to view the memory orbs that they had found. I was determined to not be amongst their number, so viewing it in a shelter guarded by our sleepless robot was probably the best chance I was going to get to see it anytime soon.
My hooves faded into focus in front of me… I was a yellow pony. In the memory of a yellow pony, I mean. I couldn’t move or look around, of course. This was a memory… a pre-scripted event ripped or recorded from the memories of a pony in the past using memory magic. I was just along for the ride. I didn’t feel any… extra appendages, so I was most probably in the memory of a mare. Her bangs fell in front of her face, and she wiped them away with what was probably a practiced motion with her hoof… her mane happened to be lime green, by the look of it. “Alright… have the engineers figured out those hardware issues yet?” My host’s mouth said, a slight country accent decorating my speech. My host was looking at a clipboard right now, so I couldn’t see much detail of whatever room I was in right now.
“As far as they know, Ms. Line. Software tests can begin in earnest… in any case, we’re on a deadline.” A stallion’s voice next to… Bottom Line? I was in the pony I had gotten the I.D. badge from! I mentally winced… it was always hard to look at the pony as a pony before they became… not pony. I could only count it as a slight blessing that our passing through the headquarters building had ended her suffering… after 200-some-odd years.
“Excellent.” Line said, looking up. Fifteen gleaming, shiny Mr. Gutsy chassis were all lined up in a row of charging stations right in front of her. They were all painted red with yellow highlights, and looked exactly like MG-MS11… and MG-MS14. “I’ll start the procedure then. Memory record number twenty-six… what’s today’s date?”
“Is that necessary, Ms. Line?” the stallion walking next to her asked. She looked at him. He was blue, with a black mane and tail and a rather striking fu-man-chu style mustache. He was also carrying a clipboard in his magic, unlike Bottom Line, he was a unicorn. She was an earth pony. They were both wearing lab coats, I noticed. “We all know what’s going on, and it’s being recorded on the cameras and our notes. Why would we need a memory orb record?”
“Because, Mr. Flux, we’re a company that is thorough in it’s recording of every high-profile experiment we do. This is a joint venture of both the Ministry of Wartime Technology and the Ministry of Peace! We want to make sure all our cute little duckies are in a row for this one. Plus, this is primary research for A.I.’s with this function… I’m sure the history buffs will appreciate our thoroughness in future generations. And they’re my memories anyways, what I do with them is none of your concern.” Bottom Line said.
“Suit yourself. It’s the fifth. Of April.” Mr. Flux… Quantum Flux? I think his name was in the terminal in Square Notch’s office.
“Right. The fifth of April, 2077.” Line said. “Our engineers have worked out the mechanical kinks in these fifteen Mr. Gutsy models of robot, and even given them a new splash of paint, I see. They’ve been equipped with our patent-pending Medical Extraction and De-fragmentation Injector Gun, heretofore referred to as the M.E.D.I-Gun, and are about to receive their also patent-pending A.I. cores. General Atomareics has given each one the rank of a Field Medic of Sergeant standing, giving them clearance to operate in all battlefield situations and all but the highest security medical facilities.”
“Yawn. This is all in the reports already. Our clients already know this.” Flux said.
“Shush, you.” Line snapped back, giving him a glare. I couldn’t tell who was the boss here… “In order to observe which type of personality core will work best on the field, we have made fifteen distinct… personality types, I guess you could call them. Fifteen different individuals that all work as far as the designs are concerned, but have yet to be tested in real-world scenarios. We will be installing one in each chassis, and run each one through a series of tests to see which one will be the best to manufacture on a larger scale for the war effort. Each Mr. Gutsy has been given the designation ‘MG-MS,’ or ‘Mr. Gutsy, Medical Sergeant.’ The number that follows was the order they were built.”
“You finished?” Flux asked.
Line ignored him, giving one last look down the line of MG-MS’s. All of them were here, with what looked like large, glowing gems with wires lacing through them in position to be plugged into an alcove in the center of each robot, through an access panel. Probably the A.I. cores, if I were to hazard a guess. “All of the personality cores have the knowledge to be competent field medics no matter their idiosyncrasies, proven in the previous testing and simulations we have had. This is more specialized testing, after this, we’ll finally be ready to mass-produce these units. From one to fifteen, here are the personality types each robot will be receiving… Control, or no personality, just your standard Mr. Gutsy programming enhanced with the ability to run its new equipment, Pessimistic, Optimistic, Uncaring, Caring, Scientist, Businesslike, Morale Officer, Doctor, Nurse…” she paused in front of the eleventh robot… MG-MS11. “… Patriot, Dissenter, Mother, Sadist, and Co-Dependant.” Line finished trotting past the units she was describing, and turned to face Quantum Flux. “Now I’m done.”
“Finally…” he said, checking something off on his clipboard. “Ya know, I wonder why we even made some of these personality cores. In any case, I’ll get the guys in here and we’ll begin the installation process. It’ll take a few days for the personalities to solidify before they’re ready for testing…”
“What?! I was told they’d be ready for testing today!” Bottom Line seemed surprised, and she took a step back. “No… this is bad…”
“Is there a problem? I thought you already knew everything about the installations…” Flux started, a small grin on his face.
“Don’t be so smug! I invited representatives from the Ministries to witness the first tests! They should be here in a few hours! For all I know, it’s the Ministry Mares themselves that are coming, who knows what their schedules are! Ohhhhh…” I could tell from the feeling of her screwed up gut that Bottom Line was starting to go into a panic attack.
“Hey, easy. It’s okay, just a minor screw-up.” Quantum Flux put a hoof on the hyperventilating Bottom Line’s shoulder. “I’ll go talk to Mr. Notch with you once we get the guys working, and we’ll sort this whole thing out, no problem. Besides, what are the chances the Ministry Mares would visit little-old us and our little-old project?”
“Um… Excuse me? I was told… um…”
“Howdy there, this is where y’all are testing them new A.I. cores, right? Betcha didn’t expect us in person, heh.”
Bottom Line and Quantum Flux froze, and then slowly turned towards the door. An orange earth pony with a cowpony hat was standing there, with a yellow pegasus with a slightly graying pink mane hiding behind her. If I wasn’t mistaken, these were a pair of the Ministry Mares that ruined old Equestria… pardon me if I wasn’t enthused. Dear ol’ Ma had always said that no good had ever come from them.
“Our schedule’s were clear fer once, and Fluttershy and ah thought it’d be a good chance to catch up, and see what our Ministries are doin’ together. So what’cha got fer us?”
“I… you… here… oh… oh my…” Bottom Line said, and the world started to fade away, as she dropped her clipboard and fainted.
My eyelids fluttered open… it was still dark out. That memory orb had been… interesting, to say the least. Now I knew more about MG-MS11’s history then I probably needed to… though it could come in handy if we were to meet more of his brethren. That ‘dissenter’ personality had me a little worried… but not by much. “So he’s the Patriot, huh? Could have guessed…” I looked out of the cart we were all sleeping in. There he patrolled, as faithful as ever.
Hiss yawned, and a cute little squeak came from his scaly mouth as he stretched. He got up and turned in a circle a few times before plomping back down next to me, his eyes remaining closed through the whole exercise. I pet him, and smiled… looking up, I saw the flaming form of Matchstick, providing a soft light at the entrance, and Shimmercoat and Crescent Wrench hugging each other (probably unconsciously) as they slept, looking almost like father and daughter. I wondered exactly how closely they were related… Stable ponies generally had somepony in common in their family trees.
“Thou art back. I was wondering when that orb would end. Dost thou feel better?” Mezzer asked.
“I… yeah. A little.” I said, yawning. Tiredness was just getting to me… and if I wasn’t surrounded by friends… then I could at least call them companions, even if they were technically my slaves. I would make sure nothing would do them harm, and there was no way I was going to sell any of them. These ponies were special… more so than other slaves. I had sold many ponies before that fateful encounter in Stable 11, but all of them had been basically investments to be bought low and sold high. I had a feeling that I could make so much more if I held onto these ponies… longer than normal, anyways. And even Shimmercoat hated me less than the ponies I usually hauled around… in fact, I was beginning to wonder if his collar was even necessary. That was something I had to think through carefully though, no snap decisions there.
I drifted to sleep, knowing that if anypony, in Auction House, Fillydelphia or otherwise, tried to separate me from my property in any way, they would pay the ultimate price. Good little fillies paid their debts, as my dear ol’ Ma always said.
The morning was pretty uneventful. We ate breakfast, made sure the area was safe, and started our journey towards Auction House once more. The highway branched off into a clearing that was mostly flat rubble, after about an hour of travel. It used to be buildings, but the bombs from the war and the erosion from time had flattened the surrounding area into a dusty trap that could easily break an ankle if you put your hoof in the wrong place. Even the streets were covered with rubble, but there wasn’t much of a choice but to go through it if we wanted to reach Auction House within any reasonable time whatsoever. The field of collapsed buildings was only a few blocks big… but the going slowed to a crawl trying to get through it. On the plus side, I’m pretty sure nothing nasty lived in the rubble, if only because it was so tuliping hard to get through. A PipBuck tag popped up in my EFS, labeling this field of rubble as ‘Pony Square.’ How nice.
“Ugh, this stuff is awful. I think I’ve breathed in a quart of plaster dust.” Matchstick said, spitting.
“I’m pretty sure all this dust isn’t healthy.” Shimmercoat said.
“Yeah I know, but what do you expect me to do about it? If I had dust masks I would have passed them out, don’t you think?” I asked. I was also having trouble breathing as my hooves kicked up clouds of rubble dust.
“It’s probably fucking radioactive, too.” Matchstick said, clearly not in the best of moods. Shimmercoat still couldn’t use his magic, we had discovered quite early in the morning.
“Hey, what’s that?” Crescent Wrench said. Hiss perked up as well, looking in the direction she was pointing.
A dust cloud was approaching… a large dust cloud, like one from a big caravan. Caravans didn’t come through here though… it was too tough for Brahmin to get through the rubble. And it was coming straight for us… and fast. Really fast!
“Hide!” I commanded, looking around for a suitable hiding spot.
“Where exactly? Under a pile of trash? Or how about this slab of concrete, that’ll work!” Matchstick Flare said. Hiss turned invisible. “Oh, well that’s nice, your dog will make it, good to know.” She coughed, and spat again. “Ugh! I hate this! Why didn’t we go around?!”
“If we went around, we’d probably run into something that wanted to kill us, and it would add a whole three or four days to the journey, because there are more collapsed buildings than just this place that are blocking the routes through. This is actually the quickest way through.” I replied, trying not to breath too hard.
“Well, lets hope that thing doesn’t want to kill us, because it’ll probably be here pretty shortly…” Shimmercoat said, squinting at the cloud of dust headed for us.
He was right. In a few moments, I could see that the dust cloud was coming from the wheels of some sort of large vehicle, and it was clearly headed straight for us. Whoever was driving had already spotted us, it seemed. “Alright, get ready… but don’t shoot first, we don’t want to piss them off if they aren’t hostile.” I said, drawing Mezzer.
We stopped trying to run and hide, there really wasn’t any point to it. Eventually, the vehicle got close enough that we could hear the loud roar of the engine. It was some kind of transport-looking vehicle on eight huge tires that easily rode over the bumpy, rocky rubble that covered the ground. This vehicle was clearly designed for off-road driving, as it had individual shock absorbers for each of the wheels. The main part of the body of the transport was a large uncovered bed. The cab of the vehicle was mounted on the back of the bed, so whoever was driving was actually at the rear of the vehicle instead of the front.
As it got closer I could see that mounted onto the bed of the transport was what looked like a magical energy turret… pointed right at us. It started to slow down as it got close to us, and the large machine came to a stop about twenty feet away, the turret’s targeting talisman gleaming in the muted sunlight from behind the clouds. Dust whirled around its huge wheels. I prepared for the worst… but I was surprised to see, however, that there were two markers on my E.F.S. that were yellow. One corresponded with the turret, and the other with whoever was in the cabin of the transport. They weren’t hostile… this was a good sign. Why were they stopping though?
“Should we attack?” Matchstick asked, looking nervously at me, and obviously in a battle stance as the vehicle just sat there for a while.
I realized she was the only one of us without E.F.S. to tell her when enemies were hostile or not. “No, they seem to be friendly. For now.” I answered, and she nodded, holding her ground.
“Hello? Hello down there!” came a voice from the vehicle’s cab, and I heard the slam of a door, and the clanking of hooves on the bed of the transport. A elderly tan earth pony stallion with a white and brown striped mane came into view, wearing an old-world style hat and carrying a sawed-off shotgun in a light battle saddle. He stood next to the turret still trained on us. “Does this day find you as friends, or foes?” he said, looking down at us. His voice trembled a little, but with age, not fear. And for good reason I would say, not many ponies have the resources and skills to maintain a vehicle like this, he we pretty much guaranteed to have the skills to protect it too.
“Friends, if you want to make new ones. My name is Coin Slot, and we’re just headed through here towards Auction House.” I answered, coughing again as more dust got in my throat. “Ak… sorry.”
“A fine how-do-ya-do, Coin Slot. My name is Tilled Fields. And Auction House, you say? Does that mean you’re a slaver?” the old stallion’s eyes narrowed, flicking over to Shimmercoat’s collar.
Son of a biscuit. There was no point in trying to hide it if he had already seen the collar. “Yes, I am. I’m an independent contractor based out of Auction House though, and we’re different from other slavers you might have heard of.” I said quickly, hoping he wouldn’t immediately open fire, and already set to dodge to the side the second his icon on E.F.S. turned red.
“Oh, excellent! Would you and your… group? Slaves? Anyways, would you all like a ride? I’m going to Auction House as well, looking to… um… make a purchase…” he looked excited for a second, but then the old pony’s eyes looked away from us and his ears drooped. He seemed pretty ashamed about something.
“A ride?” I asked, surprised. That was not what I was expecting. “On your… what is that thing?” I gestured towards the vehicle.
Tilled Fields instantly perked up, and hopped down from the bed of the transport, which was quite surprising, considering it was a good seven or eight hooves off the ground. He was pretty spry for an old guy. “This is my pride and joy, Miss Slot!”
“Please call me Coin.” I asked. It made me feel awkward when ponies called me just Slot.
“Miss Coin then. This here’s the E-98 Earther All-Terrain Transport! A military vehicle from the war, it was used to ship around robots and turrets and deploy them on the front lines! Even hauled around power-armored troops, if I got my history right. It was designed for speed and swiftness of unloading whatever it was carrying.” Tilled Fields look positively ecstatic. I caught a glimpse of his cutie mark… a pair of gears. “I found it and fixed it up myself when I was but a young pony like yerself, and it’s served me well!” he said, confirming my suspicions about what kind of skills he had. I looked over at Crescent Wrench, she was positively drooling looking at the thing.
“Ah, a transport! Finally, Sir, these ponies are tiring out due to the rough terrain, and we urgently require your assistance! The General here has ordered you to take us on and get us to the frontlines where we can kick some zebra tail!” MG-MS11 said. Hiss reappeared next to him, sitting and panting.
“Heh, looks like you got some old-war tech on your side as well, Miss Coin.” Tilled said. “This thing probably transported quite a few of his ilk, there are even grooves in the bed to mount turrets and robots onto so they don’t fall off. Coincidentally good for moving farming equipment around too.”
“Yeah… well…” I said, pondering. I looked towards Matchstick Flare and Shimmercoat. Matchstick was nodding vigorously at me, and Shimmercoat looked at her and just shrugged. “If you’re offering, we’d be more than happy to ride with you to Auction House. You said you were making a purchase?” I asked curiously.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m afraid I am…” he said, his cheer at describing his vehicle going away and his ears drooping again. “Git onboard outta this wretched dust and debris and I’ll tell ya why. You know the area, right?”
“I do.” I said. “If you’re lost, I could direct you right towards Auction House.”
“I ain’t lost! Just a little turned around right now is all.” He said. I didn’t press the issue, and he lowered a ladder from the Earther’s bed to the ground, and climbed aboard. MG-MS11 simply hovered up to some sort of clamp on the edge of the vehicle, and it grabbed hold of him and smoothly lifted him up, latching him to a cargo groove embedded in the base of the transport. Apparently a part of his thruster was designed to integrate with transports like this… which made sense if what Tilled said was true, and I had no reason to doubt him.
“Well… looks like we have a ride.” I said, turning towards the others.
“Isn’t that a little convenient?” Shimmercoat asked. “The last time something ‘lucky’ happened upon us, we were stronghoofed into trying to blow up a town with a megaspell.”
“A ride on this thing will get us to Auction House within a day, instead of the week it would normally take us.” I said. “And we don’t have to walk through this… rubble… anymore.”
“I’m sold, all aboard!” Matchstick Flare said, swarming up the ladder.
Shimmercoat sighed. “Whatever you say, ‘Master.’ Just don’t let your trust of strangers get us all nearly killed again.”
I looked at him in surprise. “I think that’s the first time you’ve called me your master.” I said.
Shimmercoat blushed, and quickly said, “It wasn’t meant that way, I’m just… you’re… just don’t be stupid, alright? You’re responsible for more lives than just your own now.”
“I know.” I said. I smiled at him. “And thank you.” I climbed up onto the Earther, Shimmercoat making exasperated noises behind me.
“Argh… mares… C’mon, Crescent. Crescent? Are you okay?” Shimmercoat asked.
I looked down towards the young mare. She was just sitting, looking at the transport with a gleam in her eyes. “It’s… beautiful…” she said in an awed voice.
“I remember a certain mare saying that about a certain part of Shimmercoat…” Mezzer started.
“Shush, you!” I scolded him, receiving a mental chuckle in reply. “Well, get aboard then, Crescent! Hiss! Here boy!” I called out, holding my hooves out towards the nightstalker. Hiss quickly bounded up the ladder and tackled me onto the bed of the transport, licking my face. I laughed. “Down boy! Down!” Hiss halted his assault and went to sit next to MG-MS11, lying down and flicking his tongue a few times. There was plenty of room up here for all of us.
Crescent and Shimmercoat climbed aboard, and Tilled said from the open windows of the transport’s cabin in the back, “Alright, everypony hold on!” and the engine started to rumble. I trotted over to the outside of the window and sat with my back against the outside of the cabin so I could talk to the driver while we were traveling. This was a major boon, this thing would get us out of the rubble of Pony Square easily, and make a week long journey into one of a single day. I was already getting excited.
The Earther lurched into motion, and everypony got settled as we sped across the rubble surprisingly smoothly. The wind pulled at our manes as the scenery started to blur by at speeds I’ve never seen before. This thing was definitely well maintained. “So, Miss Coin?” Tilled asked. “What… how… Auction House. How does one go about doing business there… I heard it was different than other slaver towns…”
I had a flash of insight. “Mr. Fields, is this your first time purchasing slaves?” I asked.
He sighed. “Unfortunately, Miss, it is. I’ve fallen a long way…” he sighed again, and looked as crestfallen as I have seen anypony… he probably would have been looking at his hooves if he wasn’t paying attention to where he was driving. “I used to be a prospector. A scavenger of means, miss! Not some pony rooting around irradiated mine shafts for the odd unlocked safe. I got this old thing running, and could haul junk from anywhere I could find it to anywhere it was needed. Got myself a fair amount of caps from the business. Even ventured into Hoofington and got some stuff there.” he said. I was impressed. Hoofington is, and always has been, bad news from the stories I’ve heard. “It was there I got more than just treasure…” he smiled, a genuine smile, full of warmth. “I met the love of my life, sweet Mary Pine. Rescued her from raiders in the Hoof, and brought her back to more civilized country. We settled down, started a family farm, and now I provide food to quite a few caravans and villages round these parts. Thing is, the kids have all moved on or passed on…” sadness found his eyes again, but he pressed on… death was part of life in the wastes. “And we just don’t have the hooves to work the fields anymore. And we can’t do it ourselves, not at our age. So if I want to keep my farm up and running, I need to… hire… some workers. Tried the locals, but none of the young folk these days want to settle and work on some old codger’s farm.”
He looked at me briefly before turning back to pay attention to where he was driving. His eyes gave me the distinct impression that they had seen a lot… more than I had, that’s for certain. “So I’m in a bind. I heard of this ‘Auction House’ place, a place where slavers and slaves have built a town that isn’t all whips and oppression. A place about as unlike Filly as you can get and, well… still be a slave town. ‘Sides, Filly apparently doesn’t sell slaves, just buys. Or takes. Had a fun conversation with some of their slavers, lemme tell you what.” The way he said it made me suspect that the conversation had been punctuated with buckshot.
“Auction House sells slaves, and you heard right.” I said. “Most ponies there who capture and sell slaves don’t excessively punish them if they’re a little uppity. We have a philosophy. Slaves aren’t tools to be used, broken, and discarded like Red Eye does up in Filly.” I spat the name Red Eye. Worst pony in the wastes, in my book. He had no idea how to use ponies to his advantage. The scenery sped by as I continued, and I shivered a little. It was getting a bit chilly suddenly. “Slaves are investments into the future, hours of labor that should be completed correctly and efficiently. Only healthy, strong ponies are capable of doing work quickly and efficiently, so we make sure to take good care of them. A good slave will be able to do any job you require of them at any time, and will be loyal to your cause. The best way to get a pony to be loyal to you is to make sure they know you’re the master, and as the master you are responsible for them and will take care of their needs. Another motto of us Auction Houser’s is ‘feed the slave, feed yourself.’ We take care of them, so they can take care of us.”
“Really? That… well that sounds… don’t they want their freedom, though?” Tilled asked.
“Oh, quite a few. We have escapes, and some who lash out and unfortunately kill either themselves or their masters. No philosophy is perfect.” I said. I didn’t like it, but it was the truth. “But when we capture slaves, the first thing we do once we’re able to get them back to town is give them whatever medical care they need, and fresh food and water. Auction House slaves get three square meals a day, as much water as they need, and a day of rest each week where they are not required to work at all. At least those are the rules within the town’s sphere of influence.” I said. “What customers and masters do with their slaves outside of Auction House isn’t our concern, but we do try and impress upon them that slaves are worth more than just a pair of hooves.”
“Well… I know quite a few ponies who would kill… and do kill… to get three square meals a day.” Tilled said. He sounded pretty pensive.
“Is freedom worth it if you’re starving to death?” I asked. “We even enslave families.”
“Wait, what? Ain’t that…” Tilled started, and I backpedaled.
“That came out wrong. I’ve seen quite a few families, husbands, wives, and little foals that come into the town starving, their ribs showing and everything, because they simply can’t find what they need to survive in the wastes. We capture them, bring them in, and in exchange for their work, they get their health and… well, their lives back. Is it so wrong to suggest that they owe us their lives?” I said. “And we… well that’s not true.” I paused, and sighed. “Sometimes families are split up in the various transactions that go on… but I make sure that I personally never, ever split up a family if I capture one. I don’t think that’s right.”
“Well, missy, you make a strong case as to the whole… morality of the issue. There are a few holes in it that I’d point out, if I was younger and not in the bind I’m in now. But it’s a sight better than the other slavers I’ve talked too these past few weeks. Half the time they’d just try and capture me, and the other half they’d bring out some poor souls that are beaten half to death and sick as bloatsprites. Certainly not fit to till fields and work the farm. Even if I bought and freed them, they’d die without my care… and I can’t afford to feed mouths that don’t work.”
I frowned. “I would advise against buying then immediately freeing slaves, but it’s your call. Other slavers sometimes don’t like it at all when customers do that, but Auction Houser’s don’t care. Is it getting colder all of the sudden?” I shivered.
“Yeah, it’s feeling like it. Yer friends have scooted all ‘round that strange mare with the light show for a mane.” Tilled said. I looked, Shimmercoat, Hiss, and Crescent Wrench were all sitting close to Matchstick, who looked less than pleased.
“I don’t like being used as a campfire…” I overheard her say. They were apparently also discussing the sudden cold snap.
“I got a heater here in the cab, if you want to snuggle in. It’s a bit cramped, but two ponies can fit in here if ya need too.” Tilled Fields suggested.
“I think I’ll be fine, but thanks anyways.” I politely declined.
“Hm, there’s a fork in the road up ahead, right or left?” Tilled asked suddenly. I looked ahead, and indeed, there was a divide we were approaching fast. I recognized it… we had made great time, Auction House wasn’t far from this fork at all!
“To the left, then just keep going straight for about five miles, then you make another left to avoid a big raider camp, then there’s a right turn at the ruins of the old overpass and you’re there.” I said. We had left Pony Square long ago, and were driving down the relatively clear roads of the inner city of old San Fransiscolt.
“Alright, thanks.” He turned left. “So, Miss Coin, does Auction House only sell slaves in auctions?”
“No, but they’re generally where you can get the best deals, and the top city slaves are always saved for them. Slaves get a few extra privileges if they earn the right to be auctioned off, so the best ones generally make it there. If you’re just looking for hooves to work your fields, though, you could probably get away with just visiting the markets. Perhaps picking up a nice family of slaves? Some slavers give deals on large orders.” I answered.
“You make it sound like I’m going to go pick up some ammo or something. It’s kind of creepy, I’m not going to lie.” Tilled said. I shrugged.
“They are considered property, no matter how good we take care of them. Oh, and you should probably know that the gate guards will probably watch your vehicle while you’re in town, and they’ll take down your name as a customer, so you can be let out without being suspected of being an escapee. You’ll need to show a receipt to them when you buy somepony. The town doesn’t like ponies smuggling slaves out, it’s bad for business.” I said, trying to think of other things that a new customer should know if they were visiting Auction House for the first time, to make his visit as easy as possible.
“Will I be able to take my weapons in?” Tilled asked, turning a knob up on the control panel in front of him marked ‘heater.’ I wrapped my hooves around my shoulders… I could see my breath at this point.
“Yeah, but you’re responsible for your actions while in the city. Try not to break the law… one of our punishments for troublemakers is enslavement. The city has its own farms to keep running, that’s where it gets most of its food.” I said.
“What kind of laws are we talking about? Anything special besides ‘don’t kill, don’t take what ain’t yours, don’t be an ass?’” Tilled asked, making the turn to avoid the raider camp that was in this area. Sometimes they tried to assault the city, but it was well fortified, and no real problems had come from it. The camp actually made a good harvesting ground for slaves… if you didn’t mind having slaves with raider temperaments. Some slavers went for it, but that kind of thing wasn’t for me personally. It just took too much breaking in to get them to work for anypony.
“Well, there are special laws for slavers like me. I can’t beat slaves or punish them too severely while in city borders, and have to give receipts for purchases. I follow those laws anyways, but they’re actually enforced inside the city. Basically just act like you would want somepony to act on your farmstead and you should be okay. Geeze… I’m going to go sit next to Matchstick, if you have any more questions, just holler at me.” I said. It was colder than I ever remembered this region being… did winter hit and I just didn’t know it?
“You got it. And thankee miss. It was a good thing I decided to pick you up!” Tilled laughed.
“Why did you pick us up, if you don’t mind me asking?” I asked. I was curious.
“This thing has it’s own E.F.S. It showed you folks as friendlies, so I figured I’d stop and ask.” He answered. It made sense that a military vehicle would have the same sort of thing that these little PipBucks had. I heard power-armor also had E.F.S. integrated in it. It was a useful system, that was for certain. “I also got one more question I’m curious about. Those folks are your slaves?” he pointed to Crescent, Matchstick, and Shimmercoat.
“Yeah, they are. I’m not planning on selling them, though, just rental at most. They’re incredibly useful… they’ve saved my life already multiple times.” I said.
He nodded. “Alright. Jus’ wondering.”
I trotted over to Matchstick, who was nice and warm once I got close to her. She still looked disgruntled.
“I get that you’re not just a pile of burning wood, but I really don’t see what the big deal is.” Shimmercoat said. Apparently I was walking into a conversation.
“It’s the principle of the matter! I’m on fire, yes, but that doesn’t mean I want to be treated like I’m on fire! This is a special case because we can’t really build a fire on a moving transport, but if there’s firewood or other stuff to burn around, I just really prefer if we use that instead of roasting marshmallows over my ears, thanks!” Matchstick said in a huff.
“Alright. I get it, I’m sorry for saying you’re a good smore-maker. It was in poor taste.” Shimmercoat said, from what I could tell he was quite sincere… about whatever it was they were talking about. I sat down.
“What’s with all this cold all the sudden?” I asked.
“You mean it’s not like this all the time?” Crescent Wrench asked.
“No, Auction House doesn’t have any special weather at all…” I said, brushing something from the front of my face. “To be honest… I’m a litt… what is this stuff?”
The stuff I brushed from the front of my face fell down again… from the sky. I looked up, and then around us as we sped through the city. White powder was falling all around us, piling up on the ground and creating some sizable drifts. The Earther plowed through them, no problem though. If we had been going on hoof, things would have gotten a lot harder.
“I think… I think its snow.” Shimmercoat said. “I read about it back in the Stable, back in 11. I didn’t think snow existed anymore though… snowflakes are supposed to be hoofmade by pegasi and dumped over Equestria during the winter. Is it winter?”
“No, and pegasi don’t control the weather anymore beyond making sure none of us see the sun again.” I said, holding up a hoof. The… ‘snow’ was cold, and melted into water soon after making contact with my warm hoof. “This is weird…”
“Look!” Crescent Wrench said, and I was… stunned. We had broken past the ruined high-rises and were on the final approach to the hill overlooking Auction House. Around here, was the farms that fed Auction House, slaves and slavers alike. Slaves worked the farms of course. The massive fields covered what used to be a park in the middle of the city. This vast field was… white. Whiteness blanketed the land as far as the eye could see. My head twisted back and forth, taking it all in… and even in the low sunlight from the cloud cover above, the glare off the ground was enough to force me to squint. The cold in the air was biting even through the heat Matchstick Flare was giving off… and I could see ponies in the fields! Wrapped in cloths and rags, slaves were still tending the fields! In this weather?! I was… shocked. Sure, they were wearing more clothes than normal, but the ground was covered by this snow stuff, surely the Council of Auctioneers at Auction House would try and takes steps to remove it before forcing ponies to work in it… wouldn’t they? They were the ponies that made the laws, after all.
I looked up again. Clouds swirled above us, dropping more and more of the white stuff. “Something is wrong, I think…” I murmured.
“We almost there?” Tilled Fields shouted from the cab.
“We… yes! There it is!” I shouted, jumping up in glee. Even the weirdness of the snow covering everything couldn’t disguise Auction House from me. We had crested the hill that blocked it from our vision, and were now looking down on the large town… one could almost call it a city, at least by wasteland standards… surrounded by the old-world city park-turned-farmlands. Auction House, in its center, had a large hall that almost looked like a palace. An old world courthouse I think, but it was now the auction house of Auction House, the big hall where all the wheeling deals that gave my home its name took place. A wall with four gates surrounded and protected the town, with dozens of shacks and rough buildings sheltering inside it. The wall was massive, a huge undertaking that took place before my time, made up of everything from huge billboards to massive chunks of collapsed high-rises. Everything was coated in a blanket of white right now… and there weren’t many ponies out besides the slaves in the fields. Normally the place would be bustling with activity. I could see the merchant quarter from here, a section of the city that was mostly tents or small lean-tos, and the place where you could buy just about anything, if it was available in the region. Including slaves, of course. I was going to try and find space to rent Shimmercoat out there to make a few caps… but if everypony is inside due to this snow, I might have to do something else…
“It’s right there, Tilled. Let’s go!” I shouted, excited despite the weird weather. We had finally made it. Tilled accelerated forward, the big wheels of the Earther driving through the snow towards the gates of Auction House.
Level up! (Lv. 13)
New Perk: Neutral Mediation: You’re good at seeing both sides of an issue, and can get points across to multiple parties, no matter their affiliation. So long as you keep a neutral karma level, you gain a +30 bonus to speech checks.
Quest Perk Added: Soul Shackles: Mezzer does not want to die. Should you find yourself at the brink of death, Mezzer will grab hold of your ascending soul and force it into a memory of your childhood, putting you in stasis for an amount of time equal to your endurance score in hours. Hopefully your body can receive medical attention within that time, otherwise your soul will break the shackles and move on, in which case Mezzer will die as well.
Author’s Note: It’s a Hearth’s Warming miracle! A chapter out before two months has passed! My goodness! Turns out I had time and inspiration on my side recently, which was great! College term will be picking up soon, but hopefully I can keep up the pace! And YAY! We finally made it to the place I’ve been trying to get to since, like, chapter 8! Woo!!
And now for my chapter-ly advertisement for myself! Self-promotion ho! My paypal/email is firstname.lastname@example.org. A million, billion thanks to those who donated. Seriously, you have no idea how much that helped this week, I got to eat! WOO FOOD! (*cough* And the speed of this chapter’s delivery may have been influenced by the donations. Turns out money can be a good kick in the pants to get inspiration. ;) *cough*)
Also, I remind readers that I make pony plushies! If you want to purchase one, go and check out my deviantart at sirleadhead.deviantart.com and see if you like what you see in my gallery. Prices are, of course, completely negotiable! And I make whatever you want. OC? FoE pony? Mane 6? Just tell me and I’ll make it for you, no problem!
Thank you for reading, and if you got any questions or comments, feel free to slap a comment on down there at the fimfic entry for this story. That’s another thing that kick-starts me into inspiration, is feedback! I’m not a changeling at all, I swear! :I
HUGE thanks to Kkat for writing Fallout: Equestria and giving us sidefic writers a great big sandbox to play in. Also thanks to Lesolan, Shimmercoat, and Wirepony for help editing and proofreading this slog to make it something enjoyable. Really couldn’t do this without you guys. And thanks to all who hang out at the Sidefic Compilation doc for providing feedback and inspiration to write my own story. Also thanks to Bethesda and Hasbro for two great franchises. Hope you enjoy!