Chapter 05: Butterfly
“Hustle up, Dodo! It’s a wonderful view here!”
My striped companion was already on the top of the mountain pass, while I still struggled to climb uphill, with a huge duffle bag behind, breathing heavily.
While I recovered from our adventure in the plane, Jester managed to craft a comfortable harness, using pieces of rope and belts she scavenged. It kept the bag pretty well balanced on my back and was comfortable enough. It took some getting used to, but still it was much better, than dragging the bag with my teeth. We shared the weight evenly, but Jester could still move much faster than me. She gave her snowshoes to me but her natural agility and low weight made up for it: even with the loot, her hoofprints were not deep.
“Where are you?” she shouted impatiently, “you’re going to miss such a sunset!”
“Sunset? Is it ever possible here?” It took all I had to finally reach the top and drop the bag right into the snow. Enough, we’ll make a halt here.
Standing next to Jester, I could feel chilly wind flowing by my face. Fortunately, my new aviation jacket kept me from cold. The wind messed my companion’s long mane, and the frost made her cheeks pink; it was so strange to see a colour play on her monochrome fur. I guess I looked very much the same now.
She kept looking at the long golden patch that illuminated the grey clouds and the distant mountain chain covered with snow.
The sun! With every moment the pale glowing disc went lower and the golden pikes went dim. My thoughts went back to the Sun Princess - where is she now? I totally was not sure it was her magic that lowered the sun below horizon now. If she was here somewhere, there would be no cloud curtain. Whatever those pegasi may think of themselves. Celestia would simply not allow them to hide the Sun from everypony else.
I wanted to get a better look around via the griffon binoculars while there still was a bit of sunlight. But, be it fast walk or our recent adventures that finished it - I could not see a thing through the monocular, and something rattled inside the thing. I put the broken binoculars back into the saddlebag and kept looking around on my own.
A small valley lay ahead of us, between to mountain slides. There were trees here and there on the slides, but the surface below was almost free of trees. I could see, however, a black patch of forest far away. In the middle of the valley was a massive and solid building. Actually, this was a whole complex of buildings. When Jester mentioned Butterfly, I imagined it to be a shantytown of old wagons or scrap shacks, but nothing like a full-size fortification built entirely of wood and surrounded by a high palisade made entirely of tree trunks! Really, what I saw was not much of a village, but rather a fort.
“Wow.” I muttered.
“I haven’t seen such sun for a long time.” Jester replied. Apparently she happened to be to Butterfly often so she could not comprehend a true source of my amazement. I decided not to elaborate and just watched the last rays of setting sun.
“Well, grab the ice-pick and onward?” I asked merrily when the sky turned back to its usual grey.
“Yep. Just not like the last time, okay?” She definitely meant my rapid descend towards the plane wreck, and I had no intentionally to pull that stunt again.
While we crawled up out of that plane bowld, using the rope line, Jester taught me how to use an ice-pick properly. Whenever one goes up or down the mountain, they should always keep the tool ready. If your hooves start to slide away, you’re going to have a moment or two to ram it into the ice or snow and stop your fall. Or, if you’re lucky, even hang yourself over an abyss.
Yuck, I had enough of that feeling when I crawled down from that cliff. So, Jester only proved my own guessing to be true. More interesting was the fact that Jester treated it as a melee weapon. On a second thought, it made sense. I would not envy a guy who gets this thing into his head. But now I was going to use it the way it was supposed to be, and I started my descent.
* * *
I stumbled upon a tussock and veered into the snow, followed by a duffle bag into the back of my head. Fortunately, this happened on a flat surface, not on the slope. Just lost my focus again.
“Ah, horsefeathers!” I sworn, and wondered why should this word be a profanity? There’s literally nothing special about it!
“Why are you so clumsy?” Jester asked, suddenly appearing aside.
“Gosh, her comments is the last thing I need right now!” I wanted to snap back, but as I picked the most vicious words, I realized that in fact I was angry because I was hungry and tired. And, it seemed that my sense of hunger appeared just when I catched a scent of cooked food in the air. And Butterfly side sure smelled of fried potatoes, with mushrooms! We’ve got to get there!
I shook off the snow and turned my PipBuck light on to see what cause my fall. It was a tree stump, sawed off neatly, and I could see tree rings clearly. The Pony Scout Hoofbook said one can determine the tree’s age by counting them. And one of the Daring Do books mentioned that they should be thicker on southern side. And now I could check it was true.
It wasn’t. The EFS compass pointed directly to the South, and the rings were thicker towards the West.
“You have such a serious look one may think you’re up to a serious scientific research.” Jester said, hanging above me. “And no, they are not necessarily thicker at the South. Let’s go.”
Butterfly’s yellow lights beckoned, and the smell of food tickled on my nostrils, so I left the stump and followed Jester obediently. Soon we were surrounded by such stumps and it became clear that they remained from trees that Butterfly was built of. The closer we came, the more I was amazed by what I saw.
A village, huh? A true fortress with narrow embrasures in wooden walls, high iron gates and sturdy, almost cubic tower that raised over the whole complex. This was roughly what earth ponies’ settlements looked like back when they were a separate tribe, according to history books reconstruction attempts. And probably, the builders of this fortress used the very same books as an example.
We went up the slope towards the settlement. As we proceeded, I could hear sounds: some animals screaming. And just when I realized what exactly I was hearing, I’ve been hit by a rust-colored ball of fur, so hard I fell back on the ground. Lying on the ground I could feel somebody licking my nose. “A dog! They survived!” When I opened my eyes I saw this ancient noble animal.
As far as I knew, there were dogs in the Stable for some first thirty years or about so. They had to accommodate the confined space and synthetic food but soon they degenerated and died out. This fate, however, befell on all other animals, too, with the only exception of tortoises and snails. The latter, I must admit, could digest almost everything only to fall asleep for half a year inside their aquariums. And, of course, there were radroaches. Those ate everything at all, including rubber cord insulation, keeping me busy with collection their roasted carcasses across the Stable.
I hugged the red ball of fur with one hoof and shuffled her withers.
“Samantha! There you are!” An unknown female voice.
Hearing its name, the dog jumped aside and a couple of pony faces appeared in my field of view, examining my disastrous situation. The faces were Jester and two other ponies. The voice belonged to the beige, almost white, mare with freckles and ginger mane. She wore a free canvas dress of warm grey colour with its collar decorated with... white feathers. Two red braids were tied together beneath her chin - quite exotic. Judging by Samantha playing at her hooves, this was the dog’s mistress.
The other pony was a huge grey stallion with a long black mane and furry hooves. He wore a plate armor over a robe of the same canvas as the mare’s one. And behind I could see - there could be no mistake - a spring crossbow! Obviously, the antique technologies I knew only from “Archaeology annual” were of wide use here.
I twitched to the side a couple of times, trying to get back on my hooves, but without any support I could only stir my hooves in the air in a most hilarious way. Then the grey stallion bowed his head and simply took my scruff with his teeth and put me on the ground without any visible effort.
Back on my hooves, I was ready to kill Jester for making her share of fun of all my embarrassment. But, when I saw a smiling and friendly face of the ginger mare, I chilled down. She stepped closer to me and stretched her hoof, almost as furry as the stallion’s, towards me and introduced herself:
“Helga Eulenfeder, a sentinel. I see Samantha liked you a lot.”
I freed my hoof from a snowshoe and gave my new acquaintance a hoof bump.
“Dodo. Pleased to meet you.”
I decided not to clarify my occupation. Actually, I wasn’t entirely sure the Butterfly dwellers knew what “electricity” basically was. I managed, however, to catch a piece of chat between Jester and the second sentinel:
“If I may ask, who is this lady with you?”
“And this, Olaf, is your new engineer.”
Here it is. I’ve just been negotiated without my agreement. I approached them and tried to insert a word:
“Actually, I...” but I catched a piercing look from Jester that intelligibly read “Shut up!” and did just that. Well, she even did not need to nudge me with her hoof, although I could swear she was ready to do it.
“Well, yes, I was not quite right. Dodo is an electrician. But I believe, that with some right books from the library, she can handle mechanics as well. Right, Dodo?”
When I heard ‘the library’, I nodded, realising there was no way out of this.
“Great!” - the stallion summarized and gestured us towards the village. Helga followed him.
Samantha was overjoyed and circled around our procession, sweeping next to me every now and then. Jester and I, with our heavy duffle bags, proceeded behind, and this was good because I really was not happy with Jester’s improvisation and had a whole heap of rude objections.
“Why have you invented all this nonsense?” I hissed as quietly as I could.
“Filly,” she sighed, “it’s for your own good. As we both know, you are not high on caps, right? Neither am I. Surely, will be able to push some loot on the market tomorrow, but the rest will end up at the warehouse. They sell stuff first, and pay caps later. Don’t know about your underground life, but that’s how business is conducted here.”
“We’ve got our daily fee of food coupons. You insert one of those into a dispenser and...” I did not finish, because Jester covered my mouth with her hoof and replied angrily:
“Whatever, filly. What I mean, is that there’s not many fools in the Wasteland. You know what happens to the fools. So if you want some tasty mushrooms before you sleep, you’ll have to work for it. As I can remember, you were ready for more when you were hungry.”
Reminding of that situation confused me.
“Well, right... But it is still not right to decide anything for somepony without this pony’s agreement.”
“Well, next time I’ll provide you with full freedom of action, okay?” Jester was annoyed now.
I guess, she was right again. But how is this? General experience? Probably. She was the only pony I knew on the Surface, but she saw dozens, if not hundreds, of Surface dwellers. Of course she knows better. I guess.
Okay, engineer it is. After all, it’s a chance to dig into local library, as poor as it is. I wouldn't be surprised to find there some unknown technical books. And maybe they have some story books, too. But there was something else that I was actually interested in. I cleared my throat and said:
“Okay, Jester, I’ll do it.” She looked surprised. Wow. I continued. “But on one conditions: you’ll negotiate with the locals to let me take a look at that Sky Bandit Hack Wrench tried to repair.”
“Now we’re talking.”
Our escort stopped at the main gate - a solid steel plate, raised some six feet above ground. The opening was fenced by a wooden wall with a narrow door and a square window. I could see a bored sentinel inside who looked very much like Olaf. After a brief talk with the escort ponies he opened the door and let us inside.
A wide courtyard opened before us, cleared of snow and lit up by warm light of wall-mounted torches. To the right was a tent with lumber and firewood, with two tiny figures on top.
“Told you, it’s Jester! You never believe me.” a tiny voice said.
“Look, she is not alone!” a second voice replied, “Have you ever seen that mare?”
“Nah. Look at her muzzle, she’s so grimy!” the first voice chuckled.
“You know, Jester looks no better. They must have fought the fire.” the fillies - and those undoubtedly were fillies - looked at each other and burst into laughter.
“Or, probably, we’ve started one!” Jester said loud and clear.
The little sentinels realized they were discovered and dashed to the ground. And then half a dozen of filles ran from behind the lumber tent, shouting “Jester! Jester!”, and we were immediately surrounded. Wow, it looks like my companion was a local filly attraction! Interesting.
A tiny little filly with funny short hay-colored braids rolled out of this pile of chaos. The young ones went silent and the little filly asked, looking straight at us:
“Jestel’, tell us about youl’ adventules. Pleeease!”
“Yeah, yeah! Tell us!” others cathed. And the chaos went on.
A door bashed open to my left and an angry mare with a ruined mane appeared on a doorstep of what I initially mistook for a warehouse because of lots of wooden barrels standing next to the building.
“Now, children! What time is it, huh?” I heard a loud annoyed voice “Get home this instant, all of you!”
A brief silence followed then one of the filles shrieked: “Guys, scram!” and in a second or two the courtyard was empty and quiet like a grave. The door shut angrily and here came the silence.
Helga looked at Olaf expressively and said:
“Alright, Dodo. We need to patrol the wall. Jester will show you around. It was nice to meet you.” And she smiled in a broad and open smile. Unlike Jester, she had no need to hide her emotions.
I smiled back. Helga turned around a made a loud whistle. Samantha appeared from around a corner and waved her tail in delight. The dog paused by me for a moment and then rushed to the mare. I watched her disappear in the dark and then turned back to Jester:
“So, what’s about the engineer’s dinner?”
“At the expense of the engineer. Let’s go.”
* * *
We sat at a wooden table and ate in silence. I chewed on a piece of fried potato, trying to understand how different it was from what we synthesized with food talisman. The difference was, actually, slight - the Surface potatoes were a bit more sweet and a bit more nutritious. And it was mushrooms what was really nutritious. Unlike the Stable half-stuff these were fat and hard, almost crunchy.
When I saw such a delicacy, I followed Jester’s example and ordered a double serving. Why not, if regular costed 3 caps and double was 5. But I soon realised that greed took better of me and found myself sitting before a half-full plate. Jester, however, had no trouble finishing her meal and I was quite sure she was eager to add mine above, too. But I was not yet ready to part with a fairly purchased dinner - my latest adventures told me that there is no dinner time schedule on the Surface, so it’s wise to stock energy whenever you can. To win myself some time, I decided to bomb Jester with questions. Maybe that will buy me some time to empty my plate, after all.
“Listen, Jester. Tell me about Butterfly. You seem to come here often, don’t you?”
“What do you want to know?”
“Everything. What kind of place is this?”
“Well, let’s start with that there was nothing at all no so long ago.”
“How long is not so long?” I was surprised, remembering powerful outer wall, sturdy log houses and that massive steel gate.
And Jester told me that just some ten years ago there was a thick coniferous forest around a couple of ruined buildings, inhabited by a raider gang. They raided the more civilized places and, unlike those pricks from the Wreck, posed a real threat.
After a couple of such raids, the local hunters discovered the gang’s hideout and wiped every last of them. The hunters wanted to settle this place a long ago, so the ruined remains came in handy. Once, these buildings were a Ministry of Peace sanatorium - a recreational facility for long-term illnesses. This was that very “camp” Maney Brown mentioned in his diary. The Ministries always built their buildings to last, so much of buildings’ communications were still functional. That helped a lot to recover the place initially. But for the hunters, this was not enough. Unwilling to bite onto remains of the past, they constructed a genuine fort, designed for autonomous existence. The main principle behind Butterfly was resource management and independence from external trade. Yes, they conducted trade with caravans from both North and South willingly, but in case of the attack, the steel gate fell firmly into the ground and the fort went to the state of siege. The most envious neighbors to attempt to attack this place, but to no avail.
The inhabitants sticked to the ‘Earth Pony Way’, that is, they relied on collective labor and mutual aid, and in fight, they prefered cold weaponry or simple mechanical devices like crossbows. Such choice was obvious: most of Butterfly’s settlers were earth ponies. During the summer they farmed and gathered crops, and during the winter, they resorted to hunt.
The important thing was that the sanatorium was built in proximity of geothermal sources. That meant there always was hot water in the village. Every single house had steam heating embedded in its structure. Some settlers even enjoyed electricity, produced by a small turbine, also powered with steam. And above it all, there was a mushroom farm next to the sources. For those ponies who rejected meat consumption, this was a blessing.
Of course, such an infrastructure required maintenance. So when Hack Wrench left, malfunctions and breakdowns started. The settlers tried to maintain something by themselves, but other places required a specialist. And Jester believed I was just the pony for the job.
As I munched on my potatoes, I examined a wall of the diner - a wooden one, with small windows with darkness outside. The mare on the street was right: it was dead of night already. The diner was almost deserted, with the exception of a slouching stallion of unknown age with a mug of booze and the mistress, occupied with drying the plates with a piece of cloth.
“Listen, Dodo. If you can’t finish your serving, you’d better say so.”
With my mouth full, I silently passed the plate to Jester.
“No, you can just ask the mistress to wrap it up and take it with you.”
“Uh-huh,” I finally answered, choking the food. “But, you know, I could use something to drink.”
Jester rolled her eyes to that and then got up without a word and trotted to the bar. I heard some caps drop and then she came back with a large pitcher of berry brew.
“Jester, you shouldn’t have...”
“Drink it already, filly!” she interrupted, “And I’m going to find out something meanwhile.”
And Jester left me alone with the pitcher in an empty diner. The late customer already left and there was only the mistress mare, who silently cleaned the tables.
When I finished the drink, I suddenly felt incredibly sleepy. I think I would have fallen asleep right there, if the mare hadn’t hailed me up.
“Hey, Stable child, do you need your food wrapped up or not?”
“Uh?” I replied drowsily, “S-sure.”
Just when I finally received my dinner wrapped I saw my stripped companion outside, talking lively with some stallion. Finally, the stallion passed her something, that blinked in a torch light.
Jester trotted inside the diner and told me the news: she managed to get us a cheap bed. The stallion Jester used for loot sale was also a local warehouse storekeeper. He dropped a hint that for a cap or two we could spend the night in one of ancient Sky Bandits that once belonged to the sanatorium and now served as a warehouse. Jester agreed to carry the loot bags herself, but passed me the key and commanded to go ahead - to unlock the wagon and set up the bedrolls.
Following her puzzled directions I, obviously, got lost and now stood before the Main Gate trying to comprehend where I made the wrong turn. Of course there were nopony in the streets in the middle of the night, and I was too shy to ask ways from sentinels.
I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I realized that it was Jester who made me feel calm in this alien place. And then I remembered I had a navigation software in my PipBuck! Surely, there were no new buildings on the map, but I managed to find a marker labeled ‘Butterfly Sanatorium’. And a ‘Sky Bandit parking lot’ was just next to it; I decided that the locals would unlikely drag them elsewhere, so I headed right there.
Well, it was a lucky guess. When I finally reached the wagon, I found Jester sitting by the door on one of the loot bags, entertaining herself with trying to spit far enough to hit a nearby burn barrel. She jumped on the ground as soon as she saw me coming.
“You surely know how to take your time, filly. Got stuck in a snow pile again?”
Gosh, she called me a filly again, for educational purpose, undoubtedly. It was obvious now that she called me by name every time I was acting right from her point of view. I looked down and explained I’ve got lost.
The warehouse lock opened unwillingly and we entered a confined space, almost completely filled with wooden crates and metal barrels.
“Eeeeh?” I raised an eyebrow in confusion. “And where are we supposed to sleep now?”
Jester illuminated the far corner of the warehouse with her Lightbringer, where a wall of crates was not high enough to touch the ceiling.
“You will sleep up there. And I, so be it, will sleep on the floor.”
Seeing a shocked and confused expression on my face, she went on:
“Well, if it’s too high for you there, we can do an exchange, but who’s the pegasus here, after all?”
She didn’t get it. After all these falls, flights and hikes I imagined to see a bed or, at least, a lone mattress, filled with hay and sleep, like, forever. How could one sleep on boards, with only a single blanket to cover oneself, I had no idea. Jester, however, seemed to be okay with that.
I flipped on a switch and lit up a lonely lamp under the ceiling and walked to the far corner, where I found a pile of sacks, stuffed with something that smelled far from pleasant, but was soft enough for me.
“Jester, this is my spot.”
“Well, alright, but flip off the light first.”
I nestled atop a pile of sacks, with my leather jacket as a pillow. I decided to stay dressed for the night. Yes, the iron pipe of steam heating emitted steady warmth, but the floor was still cold and humid. I rolled myself into the blanked, turned off my PipBuck light and fell asleep.
* * *
I was flying above clouds with my hooves stretched ahead. I soared just on top of the Cloud Curtain and the Sun warmed me from above. The Curtain looked like an endless sea, with grey and brown islands here and there, casting shadows on barely moving cloud surface. I knew these were the mountain peaks, the highest mountains of Equestria. Sometimes I saw other pegasi: red, yellow, purple coloured... My brethren soared lightly, minding their own business, or just layed on clouds, bathing in rays of the sun. On the one hoof, I was angry with them, remembering all the cold and grey and snow below, but, on the other hoof, this was not their fault; this all was something their ancestors have done centuries ago.
I remembered why I was here. I wanted to fly to a big city above clouds and tell everypony about the Surface below. This was a bit naive, but what if the pegasi would listen to one of their own kind and change something?
The sun was getting hot. There were more clouds above the Curtain, too, but they were white and almost transparent, compared to the heavy grey and snowy ones below. It seemed like a weather team has just cleared the sky and it was piercing blue and endless now.
I decided to take a rest. Landed on a mountain peak, I poked the cloud with my hoof. The white substance sprang back and I poked stronger, with all my body weight. The cloud bore my weight, so I jumped onto it and fell on my back. It was fluffy and felt so soft and pleasant. I thought I finally found what I belonged to - my element.
I stretched all four legs aside, trying to take as much cloud space as I could. I turned on my belly and stuck my nose into a cloud featherbed. And then something strange happened. First, something punched me in my shoulder from below. And then the nearby cloud started to rise like a small hill. In a split second I saw something I expected the least to see in this place. Jester’s head poked from below the cloud, with a broad smile, and said “Hi, Dodo!”. Then, she disappeared, only to emerge again a couple feet from me, breaking a hole in a cloud with her striped body with ash-gray wings on her back. The wings looked huge on her tiny shape.
“Wow, Jester, where did you get those wings from?” I asked merrily. Jester flew closer, just next to my face. “Wings? Are you nuts?” The Cloud Curtain shivered, flickered and... I found myself lying on the floor. I opened my eyes only to squint to the bright daylight coming from a hatch on the ceiling. It was morning on the Surface, apparently.
Jester towered above me, holding my blanket in her teeth and looked at me with disapproval.
“I’ve afked to forket apout this winf nonfenfe alfeady.” She mumbled and then squinted as if examining something next to me.
I was still lying on the floor, partially on the sack I was sleeping on, partially on the floor and watched my companion in severe confusion.
“What? I’m not buying your nonsense jokes now!”
“Who’s joking? Just sniff. As if it wasn’t enough that you smelled the whole trip like soot and... ahem, alcohol, now you stink with raw potatoes.” Jester made a face of disgust. “When you undress, shake your clothes well, tie it together and take it outside. I’ll talk to the bathhouse attendant and see if we get hot water and hoofful of soap.”
* * *
To be honest, I had no intention to leave a wooden tub, filled with hot herb-fragranced water ever in my life. Comforting myself in the tub, I watched the fogged window of the bathhouse and realized this was the first time on the Surface when I could feel really relaxed and unusually clean. We had to waste more than a single bottle of herbal soap, made of saponaria root, to wash my hide to its natural colour.
To my deepest tragedy, Jester had a lot of errands planned for this morning, so in just an hour we were already trotting past the wooden buildings of the village, heading to the warehouse where we’ve spent the night. According to Jester, there was a roaring trade going on every sunday at the marketplace. Should I tell you that she was itching to sell our loot as fast as possible, and I was itching to see what exactly she looted back in the airplane.
I shivered with cold, because for the first time I’ve been naked on the Surface. Now I had only my PipBuck and an orange towel on my not quite dry mane.
We’ve taken all our outfit to the laundry next to the bathhouse. An elderly unicorn marked every piece with a label and then tossed it into a common pile of clothes of the same indefinable colour as ours. When I asked Jester how we were going to find our clothing, she told me that all labels have numbers. That calmed me down a bit.
It was the laundry when I first saw Jester’s cutie mark. Well yes, being a half-pony, she had one, even if not quite regular for a pony. It looked more like a zebra folk ornament, just like on that Nightmare Moon wartime poster. The cutie mark was monochrome and looked like as if it was drawn on her flank with ink. It was an eye, but it was neither a pony’s eye, nor a zebra’s. Maybe it was an eye of some other creature? A griffon? Anyways, there definitely was something avian in it. I remembered my last dream and let a smile on my face.
Between her clean and brushed black mane, looking a bit longer than usual, and shiny, slightly striped hide, Jester looked particularly unusual. Her tail swayed from side to side as she trotted gracefully. And even her eye-shaped cutie marked appeared impatient and ready for action.
Jester rolled out a piece of canvas before the warehouse door, brought several plywood crates and then pulled out the bags, stuffed with loot.
“And now let’s see at our gifts!” She exclaimed joyfully, untying the first bag with her teeth.
Honestly, I’ve lost my breath when I saw all kinds of spare parts, jewelry, books, stationery, some electronic devices and clothes. And I actually felt like a little filly who got a whole load of gifts for a Hearth’s Warming Eve. Forgetting about everything else, I dug into the goods, fumbling every single item in my hooves and, actually, dreaming to leave it all to myself.
I was fascinated by absolutely everything: contemplating every item, I touched that Old World, that existed before the Catastrophe. Even back at the Stable, reading pre-War books and magazines, I hungrily studied all the items that were in use during those ancient times. There were almost no such things in the Stable itself, and we mostly enjoyed items that bore the StableTec logo on them: sturdy, rough, but almost indestructible. And now I faced things of completely different design. I’ve picked a small wooden chest, decorated with gems, and discovered a stock of photographs, somepony’s valuable memories.
The pre-War Equestria was so incredibly diverse: some photographs featured rural landscapes with crude wheelbarrows and country ponies, trotting before neat wooden houses. Some others depicted a multistoried conglomerates of concrete and glass cities, with aerodynamic flying vehicles, profusely decorated with chrome and curved glass, glimmering with sunrays. I think, these photographs belonged to a scientist of some sort. Many photos featured the same stallion - a unicorn with reading glasses, demonstrating different technical inventions, be it a sophisticated medical apparatus, blinking with colorful lights, or a hoof-free radio wirelessly connected to a wall-mounted terminal, and even a jet plane, stunning with its exotic shape. The stallion devoted his whole life to building the future of Equestria. The last photo showed him in his elderly ages, surrounded by his children and his children’s children, and backgrounded by a humble two-story house. His glasses were raised above his horn and his hooves held a newspaper headlined “Manehatten celebrates Doctor...”. The stallion smiled.
When I finally emerged from other pony’s memories, I found myself surrounded by books Jester retrieved from the bags. Science almanacs and physics textbooks, and next to them - colourful fillies’ fairy tales. These books were not as ancient as I’d prefer them to be, as they have been printed in Modern Equestrian typographic font and were not quite different from the Stable library pieces. Previously, I would have read all of them, but now I did not have enough time for all of them. In the end, I’ve picked about a dozen books regarding mechanics and electrics and some fiction books, and stashed the rest in a plywood crate. Anyways, I’ve already had a perfect subject for examination: the ancient manuscript of Barbara Seed, the griffon scriptures notepad and, of course, the Daring Do comic books bundle!
The pile of items grew larger and larger, and the items were so completely different, both by the look and by the purpose. Apparently, the airmail was the main way of communication between the North and the mainland, so ponies used it to deliver absolutely everything. But the most amazing was how few items reminded about the War: either Jester left them behind or this far north the War had a much weaker impact.
There was, however, a separate pile where Jester stashed everything related to weapons. Those were spare parts, mostly, except for a pair of light pistols and several magazines from a more serious weaponry.
Initially, Jester tried to make fun of me whenever I picked one or another spare part with my teeth, but soon stopped doing that and started telling me names and purpose of the parts.
Before I could lose my interested in her lectures, she tossed me a couple of strange items. Both had cylindrical shape, one with a some kind of mount, and the other - without one. Seeing me puzzled, Jester explained that these are pistol silencer and laser sight. I brought my pistol and tried to attach the modifications. The silencer had fit into place just perfectly, but there was no place for the laser sight. I’ve told Jester about it and immediately got a sarcastic look and a roll of duct tape.
We used the same in the Stable.
When both modifications were more or less in place, I’ve holstered the gun and switched to examining the pile of clothes Jester left right on the snow.
The outfits were mostly civilian and were of little use for adventures. I’ve immediately sorted the most ridiculous of dresses aside. There were a couple of nice outfits I could use, if only they were of my size, and an almost perfect military jumpsuit had a terrible hole - it has befallen a victim of humidity. I had an impression Jester stashed all these clothes only to prevent all other things from pounding on each other.
“And this, I believe, we can use.” Jester handled me a tiny electronic device, similar to a pocket music player or a voice recorder.
“What’s this?” I fiddled the tiny device with an earphone in my hooves.
“A walkie-talkie. A pocket radio transceiver. It only needs a fresh battery. It’s a nice thing, actually: voice activated, with a radius of a couple of miles. It even has a manual intact... mostly. Well, shall we push the wares?”
I made a pity sigh and nodded. Seriously, we can’t take it all, after all.
The marketplace was located on both sides of the Main Gate. Some vendors have brought a folding tables along, while others used empty crates and barrels for counters. Some have even displayed their goods right on the ground, on canvas or card box remains. The goods were of different quality. One could find everything there: from holey shoes and pierced canteens to once perfectly functional grandfather clock and worn “Royal Canterlot Voice” radio with half the knobs missing.
Jester, however, preferred a different kind of trade. She was coming to one or another trader and started a lively talk, trying to push the ‘hot goods’ right away. She called ‘hot goods’ items and spare parts the were in most need on the Surface. Some deals were incredibly fast, while others took a lot of talking and arguing, with one pony pointing out the advantages and the other one arguing on its flaws. Against my expectation, Jester has been denied a couple of times, but that did not seem to disappoint her even a bit.
As I strolled along the market, I discovered that there were three kinds of currency on the Surface: bottle caps, pre-War coins called ‘bits’ and gems. There was some barter, too, although it was not quite popular: nopony wanted to drag home new stuff instead of a sold one.
But it was not the trade what was most peculiar. Apparently, these ponies knew each other long enough: they discussed their deals and even boasted to each other with little rarities they’ve acquired or sold. Their speech was usually straight and rude and their look was not exactly refined, but these were bright and outstanding personalities. Two ponies were especially notable: a stallion with an eye patch and a short cut mare who drank a suspiciously looking booze and swore an eternal friendship to each other, and a silent old stallion who just sat there and silently waited for somepony to buy a pile of water pipes and a couple of brass valves with scratched porcelain levers.
And a customer was just there. It was a stalwart earth pony in a worn leather jacket with high collar and a flat cap low on his eyes. He took the water pipe with his teeth, swinged it powerfully in the air and tossed a purse of caps to the old stallion, saying “keep the change”. Then he took three more pipe pieces and went away. I had a strong impression that this fellow had no intention to go plumbing anytime soon. The old stallion, however, was happiness itself.
And then I saw them. Among a pile of random junk stood a pair of high beige rear boots - with handy magnet clasps. Noticing my interest, the seller perked up immediately:
“Come closer, young lady. The sole is spiked, they don’t get wet, with fur lining and well preserved, too. You won’t find another one in the whole Wasteland. Gonna take ‘em?”
“Who would have thought.” I thought skeptically, but asked:
“How much?” and got a disarming response:
“How much you give?”
I truly hoped to hear a fixed price, high enough to prevent me from bargaining. And this was something I was not prepared for. Unfortunately, the pre-War economics books bored me to death, so I had no idea about how prices are set. I kept low attention to Jester’s bargaining, too, so I decided to start with a double price of yesterday’s supper.
The vendor sneered.
“Come close, young lady, you know this is no price for such a wonderful boots.”
I lost my bearings. Between “young lady” and my own apparent silly action, I was knee-deep in bewilderment. There was no retreat, though, so I went on:
The stallion shook his head.
His grin became wider.
“Thirty?” I asked, completely discouraged.
The vendor looked bored.
“Still not enough.”
And then I remembered how other vendors tried to bring down the price for Jester’s wares, pointing out the flaws, like scratches and dents.
“I need to examine them. I need to know what I am buying.”
“Oh, come on then.” The stallion replied.
I took one boot and started fumbling it in my hooves, then the second one. Once or twice I was ready to pick on some minor flaws, but then met the gaze of the vendor who watched me all the time and kept silence. Honestly, it was embarrassing to pick at some insignificant flaws: all in all the boots were perfect.
And I gave up. I put the boots back on the counter and sighed heavily, which caused my mane to fall on my eyes. I was ready to die of embarrassment.
If only Jester was near, she’d say something like “Come on, filly”, and my fiasco won’t have been so humiliating, but she was far away and was not going to be near anytime soon.
The vendor looked disappointed. He scratched his chin with his hoof for a full minute before he sighed, rammed both his hooves into the counter and tilted towards me, making me to recoil involuntarily.
“So, young lady. How much are you actually ready to pay for them?”
I blinked several times in confusion.
“I see you need them alright. You bargained so hard you forgot to try them on!”
And then I sticked my hoof in my face, smearing a snow grime I stood in. “Idiot!”
“So here’s what we’ll do, young lady,” the stallion interrupted my seance of self-deprecation, “you name the price one more time. And if it’s good for me and the boots fit you, you get ‘em. Otherwise, sorry.”
I retrieved a candy can with my caps and put it on the table, and then put some pre-War coins above.
“It’s all I have.” I said.
The stallion opened the can, emptied it on the counter and counted them. Then he pushed the coins away.
“You can keep the bits. I hate to deal with it. The course is unstable as shit.”
He straightened himself and continued:
“So, young lady, it makes forty-seven caps. Not much, of course, but it’s not the price that matters, but a satisfied customer, right? Go on, try them on.”
I could not tell if this was an irony, a mockery or some other weird kind of attitude, either to the situation or to me.
I got the boots on in silence and paced there and back again. The boots fit well, if not quite perfectly. And I actually failed to slide along an ice puddle. Now I had a good friction to keep me on slippery surfaces.
“They fit you like a stocking, young lady.” the vendor said. “I tell you, they were waiting for you.”
“Yeah, I take them.” I smiled and let my breath out. Finally, this game I was too lame to play was over. But I remembered Jester’s lessons and whatever I’ve learned on my own to understand there must be a reason for such a cheap price.
“So, what’s the trick?” I asked the stallion, who was busy stashing my caps in a steel box he used as a cash register.
“The trick?” He replied.
“It was too smooth. There must be reason for you to accept this unprofitable deal.”
“See, young lady, the deal was actually profitable for both of us. Seriously. It’s been a long time since I’ve got them I’ve gone desperate to sell ‘em. It’s not easy to find a pony with such a small hoof around here. Even mares look chunky next to you... mostly. So, you’ve got lucky indeed. And for being curious, you get a prize.” He pointed towards the box containing all sorts of smaller clutter. “Pick yourself a souvenir.”
He acted weird, if you ask me. However, something was telling me that all these ponies at this makeshift marketplace were not aiming for pure cap income. This was something more, a lifestyle, if you please, with its own codex, rituals and traditions.
After a brief excavation, I’ve picked myself a harmonica. My parents used to say I’ve got a musical ear, and my favourite style of ‘moon’ music always involved a harmonica solo, so I decided to try and learn to play this little one.
“Nice choice. It’s higher reeds are a bit off, but you still can do something simple with it.”
I thanked the vendor and said goodbye, but I made only a few steps when he hailed me again:
“And remember, young lady. Next time you get into something, think through the pros and cons. Don’t count on your luck, alright?”
This was a good advice, but for somepony else: it was not the first time when impulsive and risky action served me well.
I’ve found Jester with her bag half empty already, somewhere in the far end of the marketplace. She looked at me not without interest and asked:
“Nice boots. How much?”
“You’re kidding! Can’t be that cheap.”
“So, it’s cheap alright.” I thought and calmed down, telling Jester the whole bargain.
As we talked, we reached a two-story building with a bright yellow signboard over the door. The name, pierced with bullet holes here and there, read “GUNS! ‘n stuff.”
The shop owner was a fat unicorn stallion with brass-colored hide, in a grey military vest with a dozen of pockets and in huge orange eyeglasses. He was reading a catalog of... gun ramrods. I had no idea there were ramrods catalogs. The unicorn glanced at us above his eyeglasses, and my grey companion retrieved the twin pistols I saw earlier.
“Hey Backfire! How much for these two?” Jester chirped, and I knew this was a start of another bargaining, which in fact was more of a friendly chatter than actual caps earning.
After my recent boots achievement, I had no interest in their trade now, so I decided to survey the shop on my own.
Basically, this was a general store, selling many kinds of goods: from pocket radios and “Lightbringer” light gems, to tin tableware and clothes. Their condition, however, was much better than of goods from the marketplace.
But all this was a mere decoration for the main merchandise: the main showcase and a couple of racks were devoted to weaponry, both cold and firearms with a wide set of ammo types. Even the wall behind the cash register was decorated with all kinds of carbines, assault rifles, and even a high-caliber machinegun, picturesquely placed across a banner of some Equestrian infantry division. I remembered Jester loved big guns.
“Like it?” The stallion shouted across the whole shop.
I faltered. I had no idea what to say. My knowledge of weapons was too poor, and a mere ‘like’ was not enough. I had to admit, this big gun was beautiful, proportional and menacingly elegant.
“Awesome thing. I mean... As in ‘awe’.”
“It’s a legend.” he replied, “MWT mark II ‘Storyteller’, a 20 mm heavy machine gun, production of Ironshod Firearms. It packs quite a punch, I’d say. It was used both in air and on the ground. A pair of those have been usually mounted in the rear of a ‘Cloud Brigand’ aircraft. It’s only flaw is weight: you can’t use it from a battle saddle. It’s recoil will most likely send you flying in reverse. It’s rate of fire is low - hence the name - but it can tear a power armor in pieces. I’ve heard a story of a solitary zebra legionary who captured a firing point with one of them machineguns. He took away a whole squad of Steel Rangers before a sniper pegasus exploded his head into a pulp of blood...”
Jester cleared her throat loudly.
“Ahem. Backy, are you going to buy these two or not?”
“I thought we were though this already. I’ll set them for sale.”
“Oh, okay. Then I’ll just push them at the gate and save me a lot of trouble.”
Backfire’s face expression changed abruptly.
“What? These guns for those losers?”
“Well, why not?”
“You’ll break my heart... twice!”
“What a tragedy...” Jester said flatly and reached to put the guns back in her bags. I admit, watching Jester treating somepony else was more fun than being treated like this. Of course, Backfire could not handle this and, with a sharp motion of his hoof, dragged the guns closer to himself. Their eyes met.
“Caps, Backy. Caps.”
And then Backfire suddenly talked to me.
“Just take a look, miss, at the unspeakable deed of this heartless kin!” Then he got a bag, apparently, full of caps and then another one. He even took half a dozen caps from his cash register.
“Here, you bloodsucker. This is your advance. You get the rest after these two are sold. I’ll take care of them this evening and we’ll see about the rest. This is my last offer.”
“Deal.” Jester was calm as a rock.
Having reached her goal, Jester made an innocent smile and then talked to me:
“Imagine, Dodo, this fellow does have a heart, which is incredibly rare thing in the Wasteland. And this heart starts beating faster every time he holds a gun in a need of repair. He spends nights disassembling them almost down to every screw, cleaning and oiling them, polishing stocks. This is his great passion. And I must admit, with his natural talent to trade, he settled himself well. Don’t count this for ads, but if you need a gun, go to Backfire. His guns do work properly.”
Judging from Backfire’s face, he did not expect to hear that from Jester. To smooth the awkwardness of the moment, I decided to ask him about one rifle that got my attention. It featured a curved black body, a large optic sight and a bipod in the front. Other guns were fine, too, but this particular one begged to come in my hooves.
“Mister Backfire, this is a sniper rifle, isn’t it?” I pointed to the object of my interest.
His eyes sparkled, predictably.
“This is the “Scout”. An interesting model. It’s good enough for both hunting and fighting a war. But more for hunting, rather than for fighting. It’s not the most powerful rifle, but I like her for ergonomics and easy aiming. See, how low are the sights are above the barrel? This allows you to make no altitude correction. Also, it is easy to carry, because its length is proportionate to an average pony body. And a composite body makes it lighter. I could leave this one for myself, but I prefer automatic weaponry.”
“But how should I handle it?” Obviously, a pony could not hold such a long weapon in their teeth, but I could not figure out how this rifle was supposed to be operated. I kept praying inside not to look like a complete moron, but, despite my fears, Backfire replied calmly:
“It’s best to shoot from prone position. You need to unfold a bipod for that. This will prevent barrel from swaying. You can mount it on a battle saddle, too, but that would be uncomfortable as hell. After all, this is not an SMG to spray the area with brass. Let me show you how to aim properly.”
With that he took the rifle and carefully set it on a counter. But I had no chance to look in its sight, because that very instant the shop’s door bashed open and something huge, feathered and heavily breathing rolled inside. A huge griffon! I shrieked with surprise and almost sent a weapon rack flying.
“Jester!” The griffon’s voice was so low! I’ve never heard such a bass voice before. “There you are!”
Jester’s attention was drawn to our new guest completely, but I failed to read any emotion on her face, except for worry. Jester looked worried?
“Basileus! What’s going on?”
“We’ve got trouble. And who is this filly?”
I flushed with embarrassment, but before I could say a thing, the griffon was right above me.
“Basileus.” He stretched his huge claw to me.
“D.. Dazzling,” I was so shocked I forgot my own nickname completely. “Dazzling Dusk.”
LEVEL UP! (6)
New perk added: More pockets! Now you know better than stashing all your loot into your saddlebags. Instead, you disperse smaller items across your outfit pockets. Now every item with a weight of 1 or less makes only half its weight for you.