Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 2: The Dead Flag Blues
“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the End.”
|*| Half Full |*|
I climbed into the stone throat of our nation, letting Equestria swallow me: letting it choke on me. And, if only for the dust that crowded around my hooves, it felt like I might have stepped out onto a dilapidated planet. The Stable was sterile - naked and cold - as if it had just been prepared for an operation, but this place was built before there were empires, by the same tools that had hollowed out the oceans and pulled up the sky. And now, like a bull, the earth had shaken off our grip on its reins, our place in its saddle, and I could almost feel it gloating, as pillars of rock bowed over me from either side of the tunnel.
I fell into it, knowing that any lifeline binding me to the Stable had already been cut, as if I was stepping off the side of a ship, and into the raging sea. The door groaned behind me, like an animal rocking itself through a feverish sleep, and I turned to watch as the old world was buried. As it rolled shut, I found myself forgetting all that lay behind it, pinning down pages of memory for each of the cog’s passing teeth.
This would be a new beginning, a chance to make something of the destiny that my Stable had shrugged off, like a comic book hero throwing out his cape: a chance to heal the wounds that had spread so far, and now ran so deep, as black veins across Equestria's face. I almost thought that I was the first; that none had crossed this line before me, but dry and discolored blood painted a set of maroon hoofprints, which trailed off into the dark. They were the steps of the damned, and I made sure not to match them.
A part of me wanted to stay behind, to take shelter before the Stable's tightly sealed lip, like unwashed villagers might before the steps of a temple. The safest place in all of Equestria wouldn't have been so easy to give up, if I couldn't remember the anger in their faces, the madness that they had seen smeared over me: if I hadn't begun to understand the doorway behind me as the hearth before a fire.
With a telekinetic paw, I patted the dust from my haunches, and shuddered at the thought that I might've been sitting in some old sinner’s blood. Reclaiming Equestria had seemed so simple, bundled up in our steel cradle, with those fluorescent lights wrapped around us like a blanket, but now, as the black rolled on and on around me, something thick and inky came bubbling up into my throat. It was Fear.
Without even thinking to keep my horn lit, I forced myself on through the darkness, even as my hooves disappeared, and the steps of the damned spilled out black beneath them. I was meant for the country outside, not to be beaten down at the bottom of some cave or plundered gem mine.
I was a drowning mare, seeing sunlight through the ceiling of the sea, and only then, did I start to feel it. On my face and hide, coiling around my legs and creeping into my lungs, came tides of air so clean that I could almost taste the naked sky. I stopped to take off my father's coat, for it felt like it was being pulled back into the black water, and I nearly stumbled over my own hooves at the sight of a frail rectangle, which looked to have been cut from the stone, left to bleed out for the jagged scars of light at its sides.
*** *** ***
As doors went, this one looked like it might have been built in an arts and crafts class, by a horde of kindergarteners who ate more of the glue than they used. Where the wooden framing met its hinges, there ran veins of gold and white that I was tempted to start lapping at, as if they were milk and honey.
And my thirst for them only became worse, as I struggled to get that primitive blockade to go away. I knew that doors were supposed to slide, and yet I couldn't see any rift or crevice into which this patchwork thing could disappear. There was no button to push, no bell to ring, and I caught myself thinking that I should knock, as if Princess Celestia herself would come running, with her mane wrapped up in a towel, to tell me that the country was not interested in buying whatever I was selling, be it a set of knives, or a God.
There was only a rusty handle, which I abused to no effect. But then, after reconsidering the hinges at its edge, I knew that this door would behave like those that played guardian to all of the Stable's bathroom stalls, and began to push against the wood, with one hoof pressing down on its handle.
Almost as soon as I felt the door shift out of place, I was struck blind, as my final shield against the sky swung clear and away, leaving me as naked as a newborn under the shining eyes of her father.
I went scrambling away from the doorway, and came to bow before the light of a distant sun, just as the Faith might happily have cast themselves into the dirt, to kiss at the shadow of either Goddess. Equestria had its horizon laid bare, as a great incision was cut between a belt of choppy mountains and the crumbling vanguard of an enormous storm, which tore into itself as a tantrum in the sky.
The galaxy might have been looking down at us, as stone and cloud beat at the horizon like a black ocean at the sides of a pristine sandbank, and the eye set upon the world slowly closed.
I couldn’t help crying then, as my tears might have come to a boil for the fires on the stage of the sky. I looked out into the maelstrom, as the great fleet of clouds collapsed into a shipwreck over the horizon, and the mountains looked to have been broken only by the weight of the sunset. I was searching for its heart, but the sun had been buried, hidden somewhere in the folds of its own bleached and brilliant gold.
With four hooves planted firmly before the fall of a wide cliff - whose earth was anemic and naked, as pale stone faces crowded around it, and rare patterns of grass ran grayer than they did green – I knew that I might have missed this. If my trial had run for even an hour longer, I might have stepped out into a much calmer place, like a church without its preacher, or a stage without its star.
But now, daggers of light fanned out over the earth, as the storm tore into itself like a rabid animal: quiet and fitful and angry. And I knew that Equestria was alive.
I stood over a valley, which found its opposite wall of mountains in between the tombstones over the Stable and those terrible, black silhouettes that held up the sun. The tallest of them came painfully close to laying a finger on the storm, and so drew an incomplete bridge over that strip of unclothed sky. It threw its shadow over the country, as if to remind us that our pithy nuclear wars meant little to such old and disinterested idols of stone, to those that had let every apocalypse roll off their backs.
Between us, the soil looked to have become ash, and the trees stood naked, like burnt matchsticks and brittle splinters. The valley had every one of its colors drained into something bleaker, something bloodless. Equestria was a desolate nation... but my heart spun like a ballerina on a music box, as if I was watching somepony beautiful disappear into the margins.
If only they could see it, if only they could know how much they were shutting out: how much they were giving up… maybe then, they would listen. Maybe then, they would come. This was a dying world that refused to die. And now, I was a part of it.
I decided that I would follow the sun, and stepped a little farther across the stripped highland. A path veered off to my left, beaten clear by our queuing ancestors, as their hooves, quickened by the fires of war, could once have carved through mountains. I only had eyes for the open sky, though, as schools of lazy sunlit motes swam through it, as if the far side of the storm could be the surf to a crowded sea.
There was enough silence to fill a library, though the mountains were breathing like sleeping giants and the storm was screaming like a baby behind soundproof glass, and it was enough to stay my hooves for just a little while longer. With the swirling above me and the bristling ahead, with the soured earth below me and the setting sun beyond, I could barely do anything but stare, as if in a trance.
My quarters would fit into this place more than a few times over, and a part of me wanted to stay - to build a shelter from the rare pine trees and pillars of stone, to watch over Equestria as it took its shallow, disparate breathes. But, before I could decide where I might put down roots, I noticed something near the tunnel's ramshackle door, something that I could only have missed for meeting the world.
A skeleton lay slumped against the mountain, to use it as his throne, with an unhinged and hollow skull that spoke of deserts and drought, as if to say that any who lingered here would be burned away by the very fires that had brought me to tears. And, like those dark hoofsteps before the Stable, it made me shudder, as I couldn’t escape the stare of its black, sinner’s eyes.
Leave, it seemed to say, in a voice that was not commanding or cruel, but one that might fit the encrusted mouth of a beggar. Please... leave.
*** *** ***
The pass quickly became narrow, and I could only imagine how bright it must have seemed, with hundreds of ponies filling it as the ripples to a stream of rainbows. I must have looked a little underwhelming, as even silver and gold could not hope to match the peacocking of so many pastel-colored Equestrians, all clutching their tickets to sanctuary.
My hooves were dirty, for tracks of pallid ash and sand colored dust, which would curl around one another, to cover the earth in patterns that mirrored the clouds. The air became static as I entered the valley, as there were enough leaves and needles around me to put a hand over the mouth of the wind, and suffocate it. I turned, to see my path wind over itself, broken up by ridges and irregular pine trees, which cast tall shadows for the sunset, to leave the mountain with war paint running down its face.
After turning back to the north, I froze, as the sound of hooves passing through brittle grass and shifting the smallest stones out of place came before I’d fallen back into my march towards the sun. I shrank back towards the mountain, with my tail between my legs, as I imagined a dozen monsters to match the callous steps that closed around me, like a lasso drawing taught around the neck of some unruly piece of livestock. And, more like a startled cow than a rearing bull, I was caught.
Two came from my left, and another from my right, though they all blurred together for the uniform of studded brown leather and ruinous plate armor that covered their filthy, and so clearly diseased bodies. Their manes might have been helmets, for how unreal - how fantastical – they were. And whatever colors they might once have worn were washed out, made offensive by dust and dye.
They had to be wearing masks, as no face should be so damaged. But all shared the same sickly blemishes: scars whose edges were spoiled and unclean, a tortured look in their overcast eyes, around which thin rings of red and black had been drawn. Their teeth were yellow at best, and missing at worst, leaving behind dark pits that spoke of mistreated gums.
Still, I didn't think to draw my father's pistol, or go running back to that skeleton's enormous throne over the valley. For all the dirt and the ruin at their sides, I couldn’t know if they had more than a few knives to their names, or if those few strips of silver were the bayonets to misappropriated army rifles.
One of the bucks, of which there were a pair, stepped in a little closer, and I found myself backing into the mountain, just as a shy filly might press against her mother’s hoof. His mane was greener than all the new earth's grass and foliage, and had either been blasted back outside of this windless valley, or had simply come to be weighed down by the grime of a thousand pillowless nights.
"Don't worry: I'm here to help." I said, not knowing what they were after. Their dank, nearly poisoned, appearance might be what was expected out here, and besides that: I was coated in more blood than any one of them. How could I judge these ponies for their scrappy hides and weary barding, when tracks of red Overmare ran up my neck and hooves? "I'm not looking to start any trouble."
"Started without you." He said, in a voice that bounced out every word, as if leading up to a song. The other buck followed as he crept forward, and their shoulder blades rolled like those of predatory animals.
"Hold it!" Their smiles soured, as the third pony barked another order. “Don’t hurt her.” I might have thanked the mare for reining them in, but her eyes looked no kinder, and no less hungry, than their own.
"Aw, leave us to her." The first buck pleaded, with his voice rising to a whine. "It's been days since we got to have any fun... And I’m itching under my skin… I need a bullet in me!" If she was any closer, it looked like the mare would have taken the buck by the shoulders, to rattle the madness out of his head.
"Let us play with something that breathes for once... Something that fights back!" He went on, as the other buck nodded. I couldn't help but notice that half of the latter's tongue was missing, as a lifeless stub did an unmelodious dance in his mouth. "I promise we'll leave her alive... not standing, maybe. But alive."
"She'll go for twice as much without your filthy hoofprints all over her, so back the fuck off!" It was becoming all too clear that I didn't stand to make many friends here, and if it weren't for my father's pistol, I might have bolted, in the hopes that they'd keep arguing even as I escaped into the arms of the sun.
"Every dent you leave in that girl is another stack of caps off the payout." The bucks stayed frozen in place, and I worried that their leader would only have to call out Green Light! to turn them loose on me. "She's a Stable pony, you idiots... do you know how much they're fucking worth?"
I caught myself tilting my head up in pride, as if to say: Yes, it's all true. "And if you try any of the bullshit that Mumbles over there tried with me..." She nodded to the voiceless buck, using him as evidence to her artisan flair for mutilation. "Then I'll cut off something just a little bigger than your tongue."
She turned to me again, and I almost wanted to salute the tattered commander, to prove that we were fighting on the same side. "You are a Stable pony, aren't you sweetheart?" She spoke to me as if I was a child, and I nodded obediently, doing nothing to change her tone. "Then listen up..." I tilted an ear to her, to show that I could follow orders better than her two renegade bucks. "I'm going to sell you."
My heart sank, as I remembered the word that had so often been whispered of the world outside: Slavery. "I don't know where you’ll end up after that, but I'm not letting so many caps slip out of my hooves. You're fresh from the oven... and I bet you go like a fucking hot cake."
These weren't victims to the fall of civilization, to be pulled from the rubble. These were the ponies that had kicked Equestria's legs out from under her, those that would push down our country's new dawn, just as they might the head of a drowning pony. And, for all the light in the Stable, we couldn't fix them.
No. I was jumping to conclusions. I had to be. "This isn't right." I said, scrunching up my nose as if the smell of the bucks had only just hit me.
"Eugh." She stuck out her tongue, and I thought I saw the quiet buck look at it with longing in his puppydog eyes. "Save it, goldilocks." Her own mane was an electric maroon, which almost seemed pretty as the last beads of daylight put a sheen to it. "Get her shackled... and slap a gag on her, would'ya?"
And then, the world was turned on its head, and I found myself facing, in place of weary tribes made up of hapless victims and would-be patients: hostiles. I floated the automatic pistol out of its holster, though it quivered in my magic, as the weapon tried to fight its way out. "Hold on now…"
The first buck was almost skipping in place, and I could have sworn that he was mouthing the words: Shoot me, shoot me, shoot me, shoot me! Like a high-hoofed student begging to be called on for an answer. "Don't try and pull this shit in front of the buyers." The mare drawled, as if I had only bored her. "They like 'em stupid... but not this kind of stupid." She waved at me, with all the energy of a teacher, frustrated by the sight of all the same hooves. "Hit her where we can hide the wounds."
The tongueless buck threw himself towards me, with a knife rattling between his teeth, and I heard his partner curse as a cloud of dust was kicked up between us. His battle cry was almost pitiable, as it was fumbled by his severed tongue, and I almost let him have me. But, before I knew what I was doing, I found myself rearing back, with the automatic pistol swinging out in a flurry before me. It was a tactic most often seen in the throes of a filly-fight, but pride seemed to mean very little to me now.
Even with my eyes clenched shut, I didn't stop drawing golden arcs in the air, or kicking up with my front hooves, until a weighted thud almost threw me off balance. My assailant had been knocked to the ground, and as I opened one eye to take a look at the limp buck, I knew that he was unconscious.
I hurried to examine him, no differently than a nurse would any soldier that was wheeled up to her station. The pistol's hilt had come down across his temple and, apart from a splotch of purple that spread across his face like a gathering storm; it had left the buck no worse for wear.
My legs almost buckled out from under me, as a wave of relief washed over me. My heart was beating against the hollow of my chest, and I felt a strange charge coursing through my blood, as if it had been laced with electricity. "Did you just... pistol-whip him?" The mare was almost laughing now. "Fuck me."
As the first buck stared down at his brother's purpling temple, taking in the bruise as he might a work of art, or a flower coming to bloom, I saw her plucking a pair of shackles from her saddlebags, moving lazily, as if she was only unpacking a picnic. Both ponies knew that I wouldn’t shoot them – that I couldn’t – and to try fighting them off with nothing but the butt of my pistol, would be madness.
I needed a better plan. But I could look back to what I'd learned from the Stable's database, and its library to our generations: from the accounts of our ancestor’s breaking down the world, to the exchanging of crowns that had kept the lands before Equestria in the throes of chaos and the coldest winters. Through an emerald screen, I had watched centuries go by; I bore witness to entire kingdoms crumbling into the sea, to nations rising out of the dust. And would prevail for it.
Throwing the wisdom of a thousand empires and old worlds up into the wind... I ran away.
*** *** ***
The Broken Hills might have welcomed a city of monks and monasteries, for how little they wore, and how humble they seemed. And, as the sun set, they lost all that was left of their color, as if giving blood and milk to a hundred leeches and calves. And even though lines of rock had come to undercut the earth, and pine trees rose as companies to a frail and naked army, I had nowhere to hide.
North, north, north. The word was all I had, as even the sun and its light had slipped away to make their bed behind the black mountains, leaving only a backless, pale empty that stirred up a kind of sickness in me. Some unwritten law kept the clouds from crossing that northern wall of sky, and even after the day had ended, I might have the pinprick of the stars to guide me, just as they had for so many of the lost.
The ground was anything but flat, but now I veered around a pool of ugly, thick water in the sink of surrounding hills, and was left uncovered by the folds of the valley. "There she is!" I could hear them scrambling after their own words, but I couldn't stop myself from slowing down to what was almost a trot, as the cold air seemed to be grating on my lungs like sandpaper, even as my legs begged me to stop.
Something bit at my tail, and even from the warmth of its breath, from the weight of lechery in its panting, I knew that it was not the mare, but her mad companion. His crude lance of a weapon might have been able to skewer me in place, but he seemed far more interesting in nipping at my flanks.
"Take her down you idiot!" She sounded so much colder, so much less like an animal, and might have been riding in a chariot behind the buck, as her voice was left unbroken by frantic hoofsteps and a body in toil. “Before she runs us into a fucking raider's nest!"
But he was having too much fun, and kept me a tail’s length away, if only to fuel my panic, and feed off of it all at once. Just as my legs began to quiver, I threw myself over the cover of one last ridge, and saw a stretch of even highlands that threw me back into the very world that I'd been exiled from.
All that remained of the small, if thinly spread, settlement was a neighborhood that had collapsed like a house of cards, and the roots from which pillars of smoke would once have risen. If it weren't for the metal in the wreckage, and the streetlights that had only just woken up to the sunset, I might have mistaken the town for someplace ancient, even pre-Equestrian: the victim of a siege or temperamental fleet of dragons.
The town's southernmost arm ended in a hollow radio tower, though it was narrow and, from the right angle, could be mistaken for the enormous frame of a pine tree, with its needles stripped and its arms torn off for the sake of building bonfires. Across the highway, which rolled off into the east and the west, I could make out a sign, strung up as flattened children’s blocks before an immense saltlick of a building – a concrete giant sitting in a nest of broken bones – that read: Acheron Supermarket.
A chill passed through me as I watched an old Equestrian flag wave, still proud at the top of its pole, though its face had lost so much color, and let the light of sunset pierce it in a dozen places. It was as if all else had fallen away, leaving me to these abandoned houses: this abandoned country.
And only then, did I realize that I could not have been shunted into some safe place, some sanctuary, simply by stepping back into the gray, and wondered why I was suddenly so alone, left unmolested by the buck who had been toying with my tail like a lion might his battered and disconsolate food.
I looked back at it, expecting to find its tip as frayed as the end of a rope, and found, in the place of spittle, ash and embers dotting its tassels like rhinestones, as if I had only narrowly escaped from the den of a dragon stirred from sleep. As each of their little lights went out, my ears pricked up, as a new, and strangely familiar, sound came riding into the wounded town on the back of the wind.
We’d recited it as children, all casting ourselves as Steel Rangers against the shadows that came creeping in from under the Stable's door, those fingers of fallout. And then, it came again... Pew-pew.
I hopped around in a neat half-circle, and charged over my own hoofsteps, thinking that the ash in my tail was no different to the sight of banners, all flushed over in friendly colors, rising from the hills around a battlefield. I nearly went tumbling over a narrow ridge, but managed to dig my hooves into the dirt, and watched as a fresh picture of war was painted, in violent streaks of red and black, over the hillside.
Something heavy was barreling through the air, and though it came close enough to make my collars flutter, I didn't have the time to give it a name. I thought it might be a bird, or some overgrown locust, but slowly came to realize that I had witnessed something far rarer. With wings clad in the same carapace armor that sent the mare-merchant's bullets glancing off like so many spat-out seeds, the Pegasus drew an arc back towards the earth, and began to burn it in a parade of smoke and laser.
It spun around the tired march of electrical pylons, which seemed only to have burst up from the earth, though they were already crooked and old, to put on an air show that matched that of its light. The sheen of its armor caught the light that now came creeping under the skirts of the storm, across which great purple splotches had spread as if blood vessels were bursting behind the skin of the evening sky.
I climbed down the hill, taking steps that were far too slow to match the frantic crossfire, as stilted gunshots and erratic pillars of energy sounded off the sunset. The mare-merchant stood alone, and twisted her neck after the terror above us. Every now and again, she had to skip over narrow streams of gold, if not colorless, grass even as they burst, and were turned into torches.
I found myself all too ready to raise a hoof and cheer for her, siding with a familiar face over the demon that tore across Equestria's unsteady skies, and carried the night on its wings.
A fine storm of dust collected around me then, though it drifted off with the wind almost as quickly as it had come. I recognized it as the same pale refuse that had spoiled the end of my tail, and traced the rising waste to a pile that was falling over itself: trickling down the hill.
It didn't take me all that long to understand, as images straight out of Future Weapons Today flashed through my mind - from a soldier pressing his hoof into the ash that had been his enemy, to a housewife with her very own Tri-Beam laser rifle slung over one shoulder, and a sheepish smile on her face, serving up the powder that was left of dinner. That yellow-eyed buck, who had seemed so eager to abuse me only moments ago, was dancing away in a thousand pieces on the wind.
And all of a sudden, I was sad to see him go, as if that insect of a Pegasus could be a common enemy, pushing us all to one side of a war. The mare wasn't holding up very well, and now lay bunched up under one of the great, rickety colossi that crossed the valley, with electric wires binding them together at the neck. I came to the bottom of the hill, and let my magic tease the trigger of my father's pistol.
Now and again, a rift of neon sky set off the Pegasus, and I found myself hating it for how much it put to waste. This was a creature that could have flown up as far as up goes, to see the sun and the moon and the stars proudly breaking up the sky, but instead: it was here... scouring the earth for victims.
As another beam of crimson started a small wildfire around my hooves, and dry patches of grass were left as black and brittle thorns, I had my Pipbuck reach out and stop the world. S.A.T.S. gilded everything in silver, and made the now crystalline flames at my sides that much more blinding, though this was a small price to pay for how easily it found me a target. A white, and eerily still, shape was cut from the material of the flare and the clouds alike, like a chalk drawing at a crime scene.
My chances weren't good, but the Pegasus had only just dipped his hooves into this hollow between the hills, and would only get farther away if I were to turn him loose. I lined up two shots, going for the hostile's guns, and my Pipbuck loosened its grip on the gears that turned the world.
The first bullet missed our mark, and charged off into the storm, alone. The second, as if guided by the horn of some kindly Goddess behind the clouds, dug into the Pegasus' battle saddle, and made it groan like it was a living thing. I thrust a hoof over my head, even as the devil in the sky went careening off course, and let something silver come falling out behind him. .
Our common enemy had been clutching another weapon in the close of his muzzle, but abandoned it for the sake of the sputtering machine at his side. Steam, all clean and white, came hissing out of a severed cable, which was far too small, and too rampant, to be caught by even the deftest hooves.
And then, with wings that now beat to the rhythm of a child's drum set, and not to that of the even drums of war that had once followed armies through this very valley, the creature began to retreat, heading farther up than anywhere else. With one final effort, for which his body coiled into an unsettling shape, the Pegasus gave up on his battle saddle, and let himself drift away on the storm.
With a thick splash, the pistol that had been so cruelly left behind, cried out as if to tug on the strings of its master's cold heart. The mare-merchant, who came limping out from under a nearby electrical pylon, looked to have worn out her own weapon, and beat at her saddle with an angry and aimless hoof.
She had been carrying a pipe rifle, and just knowing that she'd never trained its barrel on me, had me thinking that I'd made a friend. "What was that thing?" I called over to her, even as I caught my breath.
She didn't answer, but let her next hoofsteps sink into the same stagnant pool that had swallowed up the Pegasus' sidearm. As she glared into the displaced grime, chasing after glimpses of silver just as any old world fishermare or prospector might, a shiver passed through me, and I hesitated before holstering my father's automatic. Her eyes met mine, and then darted back into the black water.
I hurried over to her, and started groping for the weapon with my magic, worried for how frantic her movements were. She dunked her head into the surge, with an open mouth despite all the years of filth gathered there, as if she were bobbing for apples. But my magic closed around the pistol, and I wrenched it out of the little pool, fighting the urge to hit her over the head with it, just as one might take a newspaper to an untrained dog. "What are you doing!?" I asked, though my voice was high and flustered.
She only stared, as tracks of mud sloughed off of her face, and dark water ran down her hair. "I think," She began, after spitting, and staining the earth with a thick streak of mud, which was bruised red in places. "I was trying to put the ice on this whole fucked up dance." She started backing away. "But you know what? ...Screw this. You already cost me a lot more than you're worth." Her eyes were locked on my father's automatic, but jumped over to the laser pistol that hung limply at my side. "I'm done."
She spun on her hooves, though one had become almost entirely discolored, and took off before I could even think to go after her. "Wait!" I cried, after staring into the sloshing waters that she'd left behind, as if they were imbued with all the magic of a hypnotist's pocket watch. But it was too late. She was gone.
Aiming the pistols her way had been stupid, I thought, even as I holstered the new just across from the old, and started back up the hill. She might even have thought that I could use them both at once, that I could do anything more than hold them in threadbare cradles of gold. Equestria had become a nation of lone wanderers and tribes scattered on the wind, like their own herbs and flower petals, all darting away from the shadows of passing devils in the sky, seeing a monster in every mare. Of course she had run.
With the darkness closing in around me, the warm haze that shone out like a crown over Acheron made it seem like nothing short of a holy place, and I counted myself lucky for having stumbled into the remains of an old civilization. I could only hope that the raiders those three Equestrians were so afraid of hadn't carved themselves a kingdom here, as I'd slowly let the name slide over that jousting Pegasus.
And if one single raider could reduce a buck to ashes, what would an entire nest of them make of me?
*** *** ***
After stringing together a few words from the faces of burnt pages, and tapping at the keys of a barebacked terminal, I stepped back out into the street, leaving a house whose entire upper floor had come tumbling down. Back inside - if it could even be called an inside, without a roof to weigh down its corners- a bedframe lay bent over kitchen counters, and the remains of a porcelain bath were scattered among couches and a television set whose face was painted in salt and pepper static.
I skipped from one pool of light to another – as plump stars in glass cases shone down from atop the crooked poles of streetlamps- as if I would bring all of the night's anger flooding down over Acheron, if so much as a single hoof touched the coming darkness. My saddlebags jingled, for the tower of bits that had no doubt fallen over since I'd lowered it into a side pocket. I couldn't put much value to these golden coins, but I'd heard it said that every pony's road to the Stable was paved with them.
And, as I looked over the soon to be extinguished fires of the horizon, and the purple hematoma that was slowly spreading through the clouds, I had to wonder: What had the Stable's makers been planning to do with all that money, even as the world came to roll around the edge of apocalypse?
I came up to the highway, and couldn't help myself from looking both ways before I crossed. In one direction, the east, the trees spilled out into forests across pale flatlands, but in the other, they huddled together in tall pine clusters, that stood out even as the earth softened away from the broken hills and their shelves of stone. There was a still a little gold left to the west, though it was sliding away as if two friends on either side of the planet were fighting over this blanket of sunlight.
I hurried over to the parking lot just beyond its northern bank, as if this concrete riverbed might soon be overrun by the hard, white fluorescence that had washed the color out of so many hollow jalopies.
The chain of streetlights stretched on all along the highway, and concrete buffers lay broken, bent out of formation, through its middle. The road itself was riddled by shallow cracks, and looked more like a scar than anything else. I noticed that it rose to the west, lifted by beautiful support pillars as it stretched upwards and onwards over the unpredictable terrain, like a bandage being peeled from the earth.
My Pipbuck chirped up at me, and presented a bleached chessboard of a map, with me in the middle.
Thinking that the tower at Acheron's southern rim might still be speaking on behalf of a frightened nation, I dialed over to the radio page of my Pipbuck, and found a new name replacing the Stable's PA system: Galaxy News Radio.
After curling up under the crooked trunk of the supermarket's nearest floodlight, where I knew the darkness could not follow, I tapped into the frequency, hoping to get to know this later day Equestria a little better. At first, there was only static but then, only just pushing through it, came the howl of a tin wolf.
"Hell-llooooo Equestrian Wasteland! This is D... J... Pon3! Coming to you loud and proud from the middle of fuck-you Avenue in downtown Manehattan!" I turned back to the largely unmarked map, but apart from another settlement to the north - which seemed to have been built in the confines of a broken circle - I didn't get the feeling that one of our largest cities could be anywhere nearby.
"It's time for another Public Service Announcement! So strap yourselves in and listen up fillies, 'cause this shit's important." I held my Pipbuck a little farther out in front of me, and let it explore the air in search of a cleaner signal. "Now we all know what a Raider is, and anyone who's so much as peeked out from behind the blinds could tell you that there's a helluva lot of those psychos out there. But if you're lucky - if you haven't run into one yet - let me give you some advice. 'Cause it's only a matter of time." I had started to shiver, but didn't fish out my father's coat, as if the winter might pass by the time I'd put it on.
"Leave your pride out of it. Your life is worth a lot more. These psychopaths don't play to lose. Hell, they don't even play to win. They're the assholes who slam their glasses down on the table, and then sweep all the cards clean off. Celestia isn't looking over your shoulders children. So run, hide... and if you're gonna shoot: shoot first. These ponies don't care a lick about mercy... and they sure as shit don't deserve it."
It was starting to seem like these raiders deserved a great share of the blame for keeping Equestria's wheels from turning, and I felt a strange urge to remove them, as if they were parts to a malignant tumor, or so many thorns in some lioness’s paw.
"If you see a fall-weather pony covered in bloody spikes, wearing some poor bastard's body parts like jewelry, and you aren't thinking that it's not really the time to start making friends... then try to keep your distance from here on out." That didn't seem right. The Pegasus had looked like a soldier, a devil in uniform, and his armor was anything but crude. "Stay quiet... but if you can handle yourself, or if you're just a betting buck: it wouldn't hurt to have another raider with a bullet through that soup they call a brain."
A shadow passed over me, and I jumped to my hooves, thinking that the Pegasus had returned to shrug off the name Raider, and introduce himself as something far more terrible. "Thanks for liste-ning chil-dren!" The voice sang, as I squinted up at a lazy silhouette, which had only stirred for a passing breeze. "And in case you forgot: This is DJ Pon3, bringing you truth..." What hung over me then, caught in the fire of the supermarket's floodlights, was no hostile thing, but a corpse. "No matter how bad it hurts."
*** *** ***
I slumped against the supermarket doors, even as they came to a close behind me, and let myself breathe, as if I'd only just escaped a waterlogged abattoir, an ice room left to the mercy of the sun.
The bodies outside were stiff, and for the flares above them, might only have been cardboard cutouts, balloon bucks or paper-mache mares, put in place for the sake of some ancient advertising campaign. And, after running with this idea, I found that my chest began to rise a little slower: to pound a little softer.
My Pipbuck was playing me a song, though the static still got its fingers into the fat of it every now and again. I let the music fight its way through, because, no matter how deeply it was buried in that gray sand, the swell of so many instruments helped me feel less alone.
The supermarket made it seem as if there was no difference between night and day, as there was faint greenness to its air, which came spilling out of sickly light fixtures. Most of the windows had been boarded up, and even if the clouds were to part, only narrow beams of light would be allowed to fall over the shelves of Acheron's supermarket. Even the door looked to have been barricaded once, as several sheets of wood and a ring of crooked nails lay all around my hooves.
On my right, was a vending machine named Sparkle Cola! that flickered in a far kinder shade of red. And, when compared to those of hostile life or lasers, it almost seemed warm for it.
I made out a labyrinth of shelves, all guarded by a line of checkout tills, in the large room beyond my nest in the nails. It all looked so empty, and so ravaged, as the desperate ponies of Equestria would have torn through this place over so many decades, leaving it barren and unimportant.
After setting up a crude alarm at the front doors, and pulling a screwdriver out of Sparkle Cola!'s side, I hugged the wall, and followed it into the supermarket. I'd left a number of empty sparkle cola bottles and tin cans by the entrance, so that any devil from the sky could only come after me with broken glass playing a song behind it, like a monkey with symbols for hands.
Once I'd glanced down a few of the aisles, ducking in and out like a mare on a diet, I let my horn draw a circle of light around me, though I kept it no brighter than a lantern, and let its edges flicker as I walked. Somehow, this waning light made me feel more like an explorer, as if I had just pulled a torch from the wall of some jungle empire’s tombs.
After finishing my first lap around the shelves, I knew that there was a cluster of ammunition boxes on one side of the hall, and a pharmacy on the other. I was taking things slow, trying to get it right. Because for some reason, it felt like I had someone to impress: like Princess Celestia really was looking over my shoulder, just as that Karma counting buck had watched the Stable from behind his emerald curtain.
But I was already in exile, and there were no more doors that could slam shut behind me, no more locks that could shut me out. I was safe. And I started skipping along with the music that still struggled out of my Pipbuck, knowing that I was free... Anything goes.
With staves of sheet music trailing out behind me, I headed back over to the boxes of ammunition, as if I would need to disarm a fleet of flocking Pegasus. A counter ran all around those rusty treasure chests, but I came to a doorway beside the far wall. And, though I didn't know it yet, some sick inheritor had worked, with the malice of decades of forethought, to pull my bliss out from under me.
As I walked into the kitchenette, for all its fridges and food stores, something chirped at me in a voice that was far less polite than that of my Pipbuck. I lifted a hoof, as if I had just stepped on some small animal, and saw a familiar face - the star of more than a few full-page magazine ads - blinking up at me.
A fragmentation mine! The thing began to speak a little faster, and I threw myself around the door's frame, setting down the groundwork for a narrow bruise across my flank as I went.
With my eyes shut, and my ears covered, I felt ready for a trial by balefire, even though there wasn't a desk over my head. The room lurched, and I could feel the hairs of my tail being pushed apart by angry bits of shrapnel, even as a tide of hot air passed me by like summer over the Crystal Empire.
Once the fallout had cleared, I peeked back into the room; eyes lined up with the countertop, and picked out two undetonated mines through the dust. I already had a pretty good idea of how to disarm them, and couldn't help feeling as if it was a shame that some celestial scoreboard wasn't keeping track of these little victories. I scooped the nearest one up in my telekinesis, and fiddled with the gear, making sure to keep the explosive well out of range. Eventually, its one red eye went out, and I prodded at the thing, just to confirm that it was really dead. Once I was sure, I slid the mine into my saddlebags.
The second one didn't go so quietly.
I triggered it in midair, and before I could even think to duck, a fragment of the broken ring that was once its side came screaming past my left cheek, leaving a deep scar just below my eye. I took a moment to tend to the wound, as my mane recovered from the passing season, and then crept out into the now uprooted minefield. I was starting to think that some spirit of evil might have sown its seeds here, as no pony could be so needlessly cruel, so draconic in their defense of such small treasures.
After turning the first case upside down, I gathered up the 556 millimeter rounds and Microfusion cells – which Future Weapons Today had named as fodder for any laser rifle, Tri-beam or otherwise - that had spilled out over the counter. Despite the fact that they wouldn't get along with either pistol in my weapon's array, I almost needed to take them, if only to spite whatever cruel hand had planted them as bait.
The second case was shut up tight, and apart from stabbing at the lock with my screwdriver, I had no way to open it. Looking for a key or making an attempt to pick the lock, if that were even possible, seemed like a little less than I could get away with. In the face of Acheron's crude and brutal lawlessness, I thought I might try something that would have made a younger Equestria frown and cross its hooves.
And, to be honest, a part of me still needed proof that the buck on my leg or the princess on my flag would not grab me by the collar if I were to step too far out of line, only to throw me further into exile.
*** *** ***
I pressed my father's automatic pistol against the counter, lining up its barrel with the mine that I'd left, blinking like a rabbit waking up to the end of winter, beside the second case of ammunition. After a good deal of fussing, I took the shot, and was startled away by another storm of dirt and debris.
The box went sailing, and I heard it land somewhere over by the abandoned tills, having shut off my Pipbuck's radio to listen out for more traps. After dusting myself off and trying, in vain, to shake the ringing from my ears, I hurried after it, as if it were a wounded soldier who needed to be cared for.
I found it bleeding ammunition out over the tiles, with its lid hanging on by a single hinge, and its side bent in like a collapsed stomach. The rounds that had been locked inside of it were rolling out of their boxes, but I gathered them up easily enough, along with three silver grenades that, somehow, hadn't gone off.
After cleaning up my mess, and scavenging some colorful packages of food from over the counter, I made my way towards the pharmacy, thinking that I was getting quite good at this independence business. And, for a short time, I wondered if the rise of slavery, of Equestrian savagery, wasn't that mad a thing to imagine, if they might fit this changed nation like apples to orchards.
But, even as I broke so many old laws, I knew that there had to be a line drawn in the ash, which both that devil in the sky, and the mare merchant who had been submit to its red parade, had crossed.
Figures that could've been anything from mangled shopping carts to misshapen skeletons almost had me running through the aisles, even as a carpet of newspaper pages and washed out flyers kept me unsure of my own hooves, like a mare on ice. Thanks to the light of my horn, I managed to skirt around a litter of rusty metal jaws, which might have bit up at me like so many hungry nestlings.
The pharmacy had run dry, and even the shelves set aside for only the most obscure vitamins had been picked clean. After shaking out a few empty pill bottles, I made my way over to the nearby terminal, and let its green light swallow away my gold. It had once served as a lock for the door just behind it, but somepony had punched in the word Super-Duper, leaving the storeroom victim to a century of looters.
Before slipping into the room to see what I could find, something occurred to me: This place would have been here since before the bombs... and all the Damned might already have come to visit it, to circle it like vultures around something dying. It might have been us.
With that in mind, I walked around the storeroom's thin metal shelves, and looked over stacks of junk and salvage - made up of everything from the hose of a vacuum cleaner to pieces of a leaf blower - as if they were exhibits in some nationally acclaimed museum. I only had the courage to take a scalpel, a leather belt, and two medical braces, that I couldn't believe had been ignored by so many.
The most distinct feature of the room was another terminal system, wired to an open casket.
Beneath this sleek, enlightened case lay something that, for a moment, looked like a body, which would draw a circle of, if not vultures, then magpies in around itself. The equine machine might have been a mannequin, though it wore metal plating and an expressionless visor instead of anything like a face. Still, it had taken a bullet to the temple, and could have passed for a corpse gilded in silver.
I played hyena, and left the thing a little more naked, with a few pieces of scrap metal and electronics, a sensor module, and a fission battery in my saddlebags. After I was done, I curtsied to the room - as if to thank it for putting up with me and all the damned that came before - and left.
Junk and ammunition, that's all there was left here. And I almost felt sorry that I had found Acheron, that I had disturbed it. Like that same adventurer, prying open the tomb of some old king, only to find that the air’s touch was enough to turn his centuries-old body to dust. I scattered the junk guards that I'd set in place before the doorway, and pushed myself out into the parking lot.
The ponies above me would forever be remembered as both corpses and cutouts, as I couldn't bear to look up as I trotted back to the highway, on hooves that seemed to be racing one another. The night had swallowed everything but Acheron. The streetlight’s stars fell away in either direction, like a march of fireflies, and though I knew that I could follow them, that I could wander east until east was over, it was as if enormous black walls were keeping me from roaming my own open country.
Without letting a hoof sink into the depths of the road, I hurried over to a strange overhang that curved out over a hollow in the earth, like some kind of steel ribcage. After coming to a run, as imagined monsters bit at my tail, I ducked into the staircase that had been carved out from under it.
It felt like I'd escaped, like I’d won, though I had now come to the last streetlight of Acheron's western frontier, and could only gather up the courage to throw myself over its edge, and into the empty spaces between the stars. But, even as I poured over the sky, looking for a guardian or guide in the light behind its bruised skin, my Pipbuck chirped up, and offered me the easy way out.
You have discovered Acheron Metro Station!
Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Wasteland Medic: You are capable at performing triage, and with the right supplies you can tend to broken limbs or moderate wounds. Anesthetic spells allow you to dull even severe pain. In addition: your knowledge of the pony anatomy makes you more deadly in combat: a bullet in the heart is worth two in the spleen.