Chapter Ten: Course Correction
“Yeah. It’s a good thing they aren’t paying me to agree with them. Holy Flame, my ass!”
Pinkie Bell (no, Silver Bell -- I really should think of her as Silver Bell) called it fireworks; she had been saving it until her Pinkie Pie Museum collection was complete. Of course. If you were going to throw a “party to end all parties”, you would need fireworks.
“Is that what I think it is?” Railright moaned, staring at the strange object full of pulsing, twisting colors from the open barn door. Not willing to take a step inside. Outside beyond him, I could see Ditzy Doo helping the little filly into her delivery wagon. (“I Deliver Absolutely Everything!” was emblazoned on the side, along with the constellation of circles that I supposed was the ghoul pony’s trademark.)
Watcher had come through again. A sprite-bot had silently wandered into the farm deep into the night. Watcher was keeping an eye out for us. My slightly creepy guardian stranger. It had taken considerably less persuading to get Watcher to contact Ditzy Doo again for help. Maybe it was because Velvet Remedy’s warning had been still fresh in my head, and I had asked nicely, saying please this time. More likely, it was because Watcher had totally freaked out the moment I had lead the sprite-bot into the barn.
Watcher’s panicked reaction at the object in the barn had been unexpected and frightening. Rather unlike Velvet Remedy’s more refined freak-out when she met Ditzy Doo. Once I had assured her that the ghoul pony was a friend, and not a ravenous zombie-pony like the herd which had chased us down yesterday, Velvet had smiled and acted perfectly polite. But she was still keeping her distance and giving the ghoul horrified looks. I think the medical pony inside of her was having an allergic reaction to the very existence of pony ghouls.
I had expected Ditzy Doo’s personal arrival. Silver Bell needed help, and we couldn’t provide it ourselves. There was a possible place in Manehattan that could help the poor filly, if it still existed. But as my oh-so-uneventful trek across the Equestrian Wasteland had already proven, it was far too dangerous to drag somepony like Silver Bell along. She needed love and comfort, safety and prolonged therapy. Wandering the wasteland wouldn’t provide that, and another hostile encounter might scar her even worse. I worried that her pain and wounds were too deep to heal already. I couldn’t risk that. And with the lack of alternatives, New Appleloosa was the only real option I saw. And with what I knew of Ditzy Doo, it would be hard to find somepony better to help her, outside of a professional psychiatrist pony. And I knew Ditzy Doo would really care about her.
I had not expected Railright to arrive on the wagon. And although he had seemed pleasant before, something about this visit felt foreboding.
I turned away from him and back towards the strange object, careful to look slightly above and to the side of it rather than right into the swirling surface.
“Ayep.” Calamity was standing just inside the barn, having pulled the door open. He too refused to get much closer, although out of reasonable caution rather than abject fear. “That’s a balefire bomb.”
Pinkie Bell had an undetonated megaspell in her barn.
*** *** ***
Shafts of pure sunlight pierced the air from hundreds of tiny breaks in the omnipresent cloud cover. It was like the night I first stepped out of Stable Two, only instead of a fathomless abyss sprinkled with stars, what shown through above was a sky of the most beautiful blue. I wanted that sky so badly. But the breaks closed up even faster than they appeared. By noon, the grey covering would be solid again.
Ditzy Doo had wrapped Silver Bell in a blanket and was strapping herself to the front of the wagon with practiced ease. She caught me watching her and smiled back, her one odd eye rolling up. I tried not to shudder at that, and gave her my best smile back. Then cast a mildly reproachful gaze towards the stack of barrels that Velvet Remedy was trying to remain in the vicinity of without actually hiding.
“What in tarnation d’ya plan t’ do with that thing?” Calamity was asking Railright as they clopped away from the barn. “Ah’d suggest collapsin’ the barn on it, but that might set it off. Hell, fer all we know, movin’ it might set the gol-darned thing off!”
Railright neighed. “Ah have no idea.” He held up a hoof to block Calamity. “Y’all mind if Ah have a word w’ Littlepip? Alone-like?”
Calamity shrugged and trotted over to Ditzy Doo. Railright approached me. My sense of unease increased.
“Y’know, if ya keep sendin’ us folks, we’re gonna hafta build a bigger town,” he began casually, but I detected a stern tone underneath.
“Well, I’m hoping to be freeing a lot more ponies from slavers,” I admitted, thinking once again of Fillydelphia. “But I’m only sending them to you because you’re the kindest, most decent folk I’ve met so far.” In all honesty, I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable sending ponies to live in a town that had a history of trading with slavers. I only hoped the influx of mistreated slaver captives might swing their view.
“Don’t get me wrong. We admire what yer tryin’ t’ do. You’re out there savin’ lives, an’ there ain’t nopony complainin’ ‘bout that. We’ll give ‘em a good home, and see the little filly an’ the others from old Appleloosa are cared fer right.”
Here it comes, I thought.
“But...” Railright grimaced. “Y’all are reckless an’ dangerous. Ya got six of our best train ponies slaughtered, some of ‘em bein’ friends o’ mine fer longer than Ah can remember. Ya destroyed one of our only functionin’ trains, and y’all pretty much set fire t’ any peaceful relations New Appleloosa had managed with the slavers. Ah’ll hafta be puttin’ extra guard ponies on all the walls now, an’ we’ll need t’ be sendin’ more guards with the caravans. Honestly, Ah’m worried if we got enough ammo in the town iffin they should decide to take things out on us fer what ya ponies did.”
I fell back onto my haunches, ears flat. My heart was sinking.
“So Ah’m sorry t’ tell ya this... Ah truly am... but y’all aren’t exactly welcome back in New Appleloosa anymore.” He tried to soften the blow. “At least, not fer a good long while.”
I felt a little numb.
Railright glanced over his flank to where Ditzy Doo and Calamity were stomping hooves, bartering over the scavenged goods that had begun to weigh down our saddlebags. Railright rolled his gaze back to me. “Ditzy Doo has been damned insistent ‘bout tradin’ with ya. But Ah have convinced her t’ conduct her business with y’all at the gates.”
*** *** ***
The cloud ceiling had fully mended itself, casting the Equestrian Wasteland once again into a dreary grey. Velvet Remedy and Calamity trotted ahead of me, deep in discussion over song lyrics; Velvet had somehow manages to persuade Calamity to try a duet with her.
My heart felt like lead, but I was surprised that Railright’s news didn’t hurt a lot more. I did not feel like a rug had been pulled out from under me. In my mind, I had forged no real ties to New Appleloosa, save perhaps a fond respect for the author of The Wasteland Survival Guide. I had never considered making it my home, particularly not after learning why Calamity had refused to make it his. So I was no more adrift now than I had been last night.
I checked my PipBuck. Its automap had several new locations flagged now, including the one towards which we were traveling: Manehattan. Calamity had bartered quite well, gaining us medical supplies, food, canteens and even ammo for Little Macintosh; he had also bartered to let us look over some maps from Ditzy Doo, recording the information in my PipBuck. It was from those maps that I had obtained markers for Manehattan (which was less than a week’s trot) and Fillydelphia (which was not). The Bell farmhouse had possessed a small water purifier, allowing us to fill our canteens for the long walk ahead.
Silver Bell was leaving behind her Pinkie Pie Museum. I had asked her permission, very quietly, to look at her Party-Time Mint-als recipe. It was now stored in my PipBuck. For some reason, I hadn’t felt like mentioning that to the others yet.
Fatigue was beginning to take its toll on all of us. We hadn’t slept, staying with Silver Bell until Ditzy Doo arrived. Even when the filly cried herself into a nightmare-filled sleep, we had stood vigil.
In the distance, I could see a very narrow white tower rising up into the sky, so high it pierced the clouds. Part of me was strongly tempted to divert towards it, just to have a look, but it was miles away and would add many hours to our trip.
Instead, I’d try to sate my curiosity with the small series of buildings up ahead. I trotted faster to catch up to Calamity and Velvet.
Velvet Remedy had paused in her songwriting, bothered by a question, “Calamity, if the pegasus ponies live in the clouds, what do they eat?”
Calamity answered nonchalantly, “Oh, they grow their own food up there.” He looked at her, “Haven’t you ever heard of cloud seeding?”
Velvet Remedy stared at him. To Calamity’s credit, he held the deadpan expression for quite a few seconds before breaking into a grin.
Velvet chuckled. “Very funny. Fine, have your secrets. But one day, I’ll expect a real answer.”
I tried to float my binoculars out and take a closer look at the buildings, but I was barely able to get past opening my saddle bags before my levitation was exhausted. By Luna’s grace, I needed sleep.
Calamity launched into the air, zooming forward to do an aerial sweep above the structures. He came back, looking grim. “Raiders.”
*** *** ***
Another raider pony went down, most of her head splattering on the wall behind her, mixing with the graffiti. I dipped back behind the apple cart (the apples had long rotted away and the raiders had taken to decorating it with pony skulls). Little Macintosh had two more shots left. I had more bullets, but I wasn’t quite sure how to reload it without relying on my magic. It was strange enough firing the gun in my teeth.
Velvet Remedy crouched beside me, tending to a gash in Calamity’s side. To her credit, she’d actually tried to talk to the raiders. They returned her hello with some extremely perverted suggestions, at least one of which involved necrophilia. That’s when Calamity started picking off the ponies who had taken sniping positions on the roofs.
“Hook me t’ the cart,” Calamity insisted.
“Excuse me?” ,Velvet looked at him questioningly.
Calamity hoof-tapped the apple cart. “Instead of hidin’ behind it, let’s use it. Hook me up an’ climb in!”
I looked between the cart and Calamity. “Wait... you mean you’re going to pull us through the air as we shoot these guys? You can do that?”
I blinked. It would certainly make for a novel combat. I nodded to Velvet, and she began strapping Calamity in.
Moments later, we were in the air. It was exhilarating. The wind blowing through my coat, the ground no longer holding me. It was like falling, only fun. A little bit terrifying, but fun.
“Don’tcha forget t’ shoot back!” Calamity called out, realizing that I was enraptured by the experience. A raider pony’s bullet thudded into the bottom of the wagon. I suspect it hadn’t been the first. My mind snapped back to the battle, and I took aim.
Down went another raider pony. I lined up on a third with the scope and tongued the trigger. My target fell, blood pooling under him. This was almost too easy.
Only now I had to reload or switch weapons. The combat shotgun was going to be useless at this range, and I had lost my assault rifle in the train battle. That left the sniper rifle, a weapon so large it required either telekinesis or a mounting to fire. I looked at the cart, figuring I could brace it on the posts.
“Whoa!” Calamity shouted as the sky filled with bullets, one coming close enough to scrape his battle saddle. “Pesky varmint! Li’lpip, see if ya can’t take that one hidin’ behind them mailboxes. Ah’ll bank so’s ya c’n get a better shot.”
I lined up the sniper rifle, bracing it as best I could, then aimed down the scope as Calamity swung the cart around. I spotted the raider unicorn, an ugly mare with only scraps of purple left in her mane. She was mostly protected behind the row of mailboxes, floating a scoped assault carbine, a serious upgrade to the assault rifle I had used before. I held my tongue until Calamity’s maneuvering gave me a better shot.
The raider dived almost fully into view, unleashing a torrent of bullets up at us. Slipping into the targeting nirvana of S.A.T.S., I barely noticed Calamity’s cry as I tongued the trigger and sent the raider to the Goddesses’ judgement.
I felt the wagon tilt dangerously. “Calamity!” Velvet Remedy cried out beside me. The wagon turned sharply in the air.
I gasped. Calamity had been shot, clean through his right wing! The wing was seeping with blood and he grunted in agony as he tried to keep the wagon aloft. “Ah’m sorry, folks,” he whinnied painfully. “Y’all might experience some turbulence...” The wagon dropped five feet, eliciting a yelp from both Velvet Remedy and myself. Calamity caught the fall, pulling up, trying to make it to the roof of the most intact building.
He made it. Mostly. My friend crashed down onto the roof hard, skidding along the broken tiling, the wagon slamming down behind him at a bad angle, one of the wheels snapping off as it threw Velvet Remedy and me. I found myself airborne in the not-fun falling way. I hit the roof once, bouncing, pain bursting in my shoulder, and flew into a pile of crates and ammo boxes (the former splintering on impact).
I looked up in time to see the apple cart roll over Calamity, jolting off the lip of the roof with a loud crack, and proceed over the edge, dragging Calamity along with it! Blood smeared the rooftop from his shot wing. The wounded pegasus gasped and kicked out with his legs, catching and bracing himself against the lip of the roof. He stopped, trembling, the weight of the wagon pulling at him through the still-mostly-intact harness. “Help!”
Velvet Remedy moaned nearby. The lucky mare had managed to land face-first on a nice, soft mattress -- raider bedding (on second thought perhaps not so lucky). I pulled myself to my hooves, wincing in pain from splinters and scrapes and a brutal bruise in my shoulder, and dashed towards Calamity. Velvet galloped past me, her longer legs carrying her to the pegasus’s side where she started biting at the strained harness. I swiftly joined her. Calamity groaned.
After only a few very long seconds, harness cut, the cart fell down the side of the building and smashed on the fragments of sidewalk below.
*** *** ***
Velvet Remedy knelt on the mattress (which she had tried flipping over to a less grossly stained side, only to be deterred by the colonies of bugs living beneath), and contemplated the memory orb we had found in the wreckage of Ditzy Doo Deliveries. She hadn’t actually played it yet.
Velvet had taken care in cleaning and mending Calamity’s wounded wing as best she could, then wrapping it in healing bandages, assuring the pegasus that he would be ready to fly again by the next morning. Presuming, of course, that he follow her advice and stay earth-bound until he could get some rest.
Likewise, she had treated the rest of our injuries with healing potions and poultices. Once again, our medical supplies had been reduced below what I would have wanted; I was counting on scavenging more from the buildings. Surely the raiders had been hoarding some.
There was a hatch down into the building. Moments after we had cut the apple cart loose, a single raider pony had burst up out of it, armed with a metal rake whose tines had been sharpened into deadly claws. He was felled by a twin-shot from Calamity’s battle saddle. Even at the edge of passing out, Calamity was still a perfect shot.
“Why a balefire bomb?” I asked as I reclaimed my sniper rifle, struggling to put it back into its harness without levitation. (It turned out that reloading bullets into Little Macintosh had been within my capabilities still, but only so long as the beautiful gun was held in my mouth.)
My companions both looked up, startled. I clarified, “I mean, why was it a bomb? I thought megaspells were cast.”
Calamity, who had curled up near the roof hatch, simultaneously resting and keeping guard, answered, “Unicorn ponies cast spells. Zebras did not. They mixed their magics into potions and phylacteries and fetishes. Their megaspells were either worked into enchanted missiles, like the one which obliterated Cloudsdayle, or snuck into population centers and detonated, like the balefire bomb which annihilated Manehattan.”
I nodded at that and turned my attention to pulling ammo from the raider’s ammo boxes. One locked box provided me with several grenades. Nice.
Looking up to Calamity, “Ready to brave the building?” I was hoping that all the raiders were already dealt with, and we could scavenge freely. But that was probably wishful thinking.
Calamity nodded, getting onto his hooves. Velvet Remedy got up, moving past me towards the hatch. I leaned forward and bit the end of Velvet Remedy’s tail (trying not to think of what it tasted like) and reined in her forward trot. “Stay here,” I whispered. “Let us scout it first.” Velvet nickered at me unappreciatively but stopped.
Calamity gripped the hatch handle with his teeth and flapped his wings (getting a disapproving sigh from Velvet Remedy) pulling it open. The warm, flickering light and acrid smoke of burning trash barrels greeted us. Crouching down, I made my way down the stairs. Calamity followed.
There were three raider ponies inside, barricaded and waiting nervously for us to show ourselves. I waved Calamity back, then backed up myself. A moment later, I sent several of my new grenades down to see them.
“oh fuck!” came a voice from below, followed by three rapid explosions, then a silence marred only by the sound of falling debris.
Creeping back down, I found three bloody corpses and a hell of a mess. The rest of the building was raider-free, although Calamity and I had to clear a few tripwires and “disarm” a bouquet of grenades hanging over the front door before I was ready to declare the building safe for looting. (Sadly, neither Calamity nor I had the sort of finesse with explosives and traps that would allow us to safely collect the grenades. Disarming the grenade bouquet was done at a distance, and involved a thrown bucket and a lot of running.)
I returned to the stair, calling Velvet Remedy down.
“Oh, I can come down now? How nice.” Velvet gave me a flat expression and trotted down past me.
Below, I heard her suck in a breath at the slaughter below. I closed my eyes, wincing, then opened them and walked down after her.
*** *** ***
The buildings had included a postal office, a grocery and Equestrian Army Recruitment Center. The last of those had taken a direct hit, leaving only two freestanding walls, one of which still boasted a large recruitment poster. (“You too can be a Steel Ranger!” it proclaimed, with an image of a rearing pony... or at least a rearing pony-shaped suit of fully-enclosed armor, complete with a shining lamp on its forehead, towering over a rock-strewn landscape littered with dead, bloody zebras). The rest of the building had collapsed into a crater at the bottom.
We had crash-landed on the roof of the post office. It turned out to be the most scavenge-worthy, as the raiders had stored everything from cartons of cigarettes to most of the various odds and ends I would need to build a poisoned needle gun. No medical supplies however. That hurt.
The grocery had long since been looted of any foodstuffs and the raiders had turned the interior into their camp; the disemboweled bodies of their victims hung from the ceilings between filthy mattresses and pots full of disgusting food. Pornographic and blasphemous graffiti covered everything. Velvet had insisted on coming into the grocery despite our warnings, but swiftly fled, vomiting into one of the mailboxes across the street.
Trotting to the corpse of the unicorn, I picked up the assault carbine with my teeth and struggled to put it into my saddle bags before giving up and carrying it around my neck by that strap along with my canteens. Calamity had stripped the other raider ponies of weapons and goods, leaving their barding behind; and now he was tearing apart their firearms and rebuilding better ones using the best parts. I trotted over to watch him; I had done the same thing before, but he was much better at it.
Velvet Remedy, looking a little worse for wear, called out to me as she trotted up. “There’s a safe in the crater that still looks intact, dear. Do you want to have a go at it?” I let her lead the way.
Mercifully, bobby pin and screwdriver was still within my abilities. As I tried to pick the lock, I asked Velvet, “We need a place to rest. What do you think of sleeping here?”
“In a raider town?” she asked incredulously. “Have you seen their décor? Beyond being unbelievably disgusting, it’s exceptionally unhealthy. I half suspect that the reason they were such easy targets for you two was that they were all impaired from disease. No offense.”
I nickered and focused on the safe.
“Besides, there could be more out... raiding. Do you really want to be asleep here when they come back?”
She had a good point. As tired as I was, this was a horrible place to bed down.
The safe opened with a click. Looking inside, I found another Stealth Buck and a copy of Zebra Infiltration Tactics (“Know Your Enemy!”), as well as several badly-aged documents and a number of slightly glowing magical energy grenades. A recorded message was tucked into the back. I downloaded it to my PipBuck and listened.
“I’m sending you one of the devices recovered from Shattered Hoof Ridge. Intelligence suggested that the zebras had developed invisibility spell fetishes, but this looks like something designed by the Ministry of Magic. It’s even PipBuck compatible. I hate to say it, but it looks like we’ve got traitors in our midst. If somepony in M.A.S. is leaking arcane technology to the zebras, the Princess will need to take action.”
No voice I recognized, but this was the third Ministry I now knew by name. Third of six. Six heroic best friends; six Ministries. The Ministry of Morale and the Ministry of Peace were the only others I knew anything about... or were they? No, there was one other, although I hadn’t learned its name. The orange bucking pony statuette was clearly one of the limited edition magical artifacts that Pinkie... no Silver Bell had told us about. The cutie mark of three apples was identical to the design on the handle of Little Macintosh. The fact that I could mentally draw a line from one of Watcher’s heroines to a weapons factory guarded by pony-shaped robots with living brains in them made me cringe a little inside. I got the feeling I wasn’t going to like a lot of what I was bound to learn about these Ministries.
At least the Ministry of Peace seemed benign.
*** *** ***
A curving set of train tracks cut a swath through the rolling, rocky hills and intersected with our path, so we had begun to follow it. It wasn’t exactly the right direction, but it was close, and I suspected the tracks would wind slowly back, probably leading all the way to Manehattan. Plus, it had the benefit of being relatively flat. All the hills were sapping me.
“No more living in this gilded cage,” Velvet began to sing. “Shackled to what is supposed to be.
“I am ready to exit this stage; it is time for this bird to fly free.”
"Ah’ve been blinded cuz Ah’ve closed muh eyes,” Calamity stepped in. His voice was no match for Velvet Remedy’s but he carried a tune amazingly well. “Seein’ just what they told me t’ see.
“Time t’ get up an’ shake off the lies; break their rules, stretch muh wings and just leave!”
Wow. For the second time that morning, I fell to my haunches, my mouth hanging open. Velvet Remedy and Calamity continued their song, unaware that I had stopped and was staring at them. I threw myself back to my hooves and trotted to catch up.
There was a part of my spirit that was just welling with happiness, seeing my friends like this. A part of my mind that was in constant squee at hearing Velvet writing a new song. And there was an annoyingly earth-ponyish part of me that insisted these two were alerting everything in our vicinity that we were here. I suspected Velvet Remedy didn’t know any better -- for having been in the wasteland several hours longer than I, she had less experience with traveling through it; and her mind seemed more inclined to other paths of thought. Calamity, on the other hoof, probably just didn’t care. There weren’t many threats out here that he couldn’t just fly away from, and I assumed he sometimes forgot he was traveling with two earth-bound ponies.
I studiously ignored that part of me. For now, the song was helping me keep my legs working.
As we rounded a steep hill, Velvet Remedy and Calamity’s song reached an abrupt end. “I have no idea yet what to do for the bridge,” Velvet admitted a little sheepishly. “But the chorus is strong.”
Calamity agreed, having taken a real shine to the project. Spreading his wings, he swooped up to land on a tall rock jutting from the hilltop then crouched down. “Got somethin’ ahead” He glided back down to us. “There’s a batch o’ ponies clustered ‘round a heap o’ vehicles all mashed together.” Calamity checked the load on his battle saddle. “They look like they could be raiders...”
“Look like?” I said warningly.
Calamity paused, blushing. “Yeah... well... um, better t’ approach cautiously. Safer rather than sorrier an’ all that. Fortunately, they ain’t seen us yet, so...”
“You sure about that, pony?” said a gravelly voice from the air above us. The armored griffin thudded down in front of us in a battle stance -- talons sharp as razors, a jagged scar running up her beak and across where her left eye had once been, and a tri-barreled magical energy shotgun in a quick-draw holster under her breast.
*** *** ***
The battle-scarred griffin was named Gawd, and we were her “guests”. I must admit, I found her... impressive.
Gawd marched us up the tracks towards what my PipBuck labeled Junction R-7. Calamity’s “heap o’ vehicles” turned out to be an old, rusted train and a stack of wagons forming a barricade over the tracks. The train cars were strange -- I had never seen cattle cars before. The wheels on the engine were missing. From the cactus vines growing over much of it, Junction Seven hadn’t seen moving traffic for at least a decade.
Ponies had converted the trapped train into a guard outpost. Rusty sheet metal formed sheltered huts jutting out from the wagon stack. From the stench of manure, the old switchhouse on the opposite side was their outhouse. Velvet Remedy lifted a hoof to her nose, eyes watering.
Calamity noticed me eyeing the cattle cars. “Ah’ve heard stories of slavers usin’ those t’ transport slaves long distances over the rails,” he muttered, adding after a moment’s thought, “Never seen it with muh own eyes though.” Taking in the size of the cattle cars then the number of them on this train, it struck me: that’s a lot of slaves!
On the other hoof, these ponies were certainly not using them for the buying and selling of ponies. They were dressed in the same sort of makeshift armor that I had taken from the raiders, but a closer look revealed that several of them carried magical energy weapons of one sort or another. And as we neared, most of those weapons were swiftly pointed at us.
My ears flattened as I remembered one of the train ponies vaporized, leaving only glowing pink ash behind. It occurred to me only now that I had seen the same effect my first day outside -- the Watcher-controlled sprite-bot had used a similar weapon on the bloatsprite. (So maybe the sprite-bots weren’t entirely earth pony engineering after all.) Despite our situation, my thoughts jumped-track. What did Watcher say about bloatsprites? When you mix parasprites and Taint. Which is magical radiation, right? Or is it something different?
“Hoi!” Gawd called out. “Let ‘em pass. Me an’ these little ponies are going t’ have a talk.”
Hooves raised in greeting, several ponies echoing responding “hoi”s before returning to what they had been doing before. One brown mare with a missing leg was using her peg to jam spark batteries into the array for mounted multi-barrel magical energy cannon. A pink unicorn pony had several barrels stripped out of the cannon and was cleaning them with his horn. He moved slowly, like his motor skills were impared, but his telekinetic hornwork was fluid and precise. I could see old scars -- dozens at least, possibly over a hundred -- all down his back and legs. He’d been whipped to the edge of death. Many times.
I looked to my companions. Calamity had slowed down, giving the mounted weapon a curious eye. Velvet Remedy was more concerned, if not downright appalled, at the condition of some of the ponies.
A half-starved foal trotted out of a shadowed alcove of rusty metal, carrying a canteen around his neck which he offered to the each of the half-dozen ponies I could spot.
Velvet leaned close, whinnying nervously, “What are we getting into?”
With talon and wing, Gawd directed us into the single passenger car on the train, nestled up against the crippled engine. From the reek of dander inside, this was clearly the house of Gawd. Or, at least, her office.
“Close up the door,” she ordered a blue-coated earth pony as she stepped inside behind us. The door swung shut with a metallic squeal, and I could hear braces thudding into place. We were locked in with the griffin.
Ironically, in better circumstances, I realized this would be a big tactical mistake for the griffin -- three against one, and at least two of us could handle ourselves in combat. (It was odd, and somewhat uncomfortable to think of myself as somepony who could face a fight with confidence. Not for the first time, I had to wonder if the wasteland was changing me for the better, or just changing me.) Right now, however, with my levitation magic at its most feeble, we were probably hosed if this came to blows and guns. It was the same reasoning that had prompted me to accept Gawd’s “invitation” in the first place. Things hadn’t changed.
The room was spartanly furnished, save for the desk with a glowing terminal and a tattered black flag on the back wall showing wicked talons coming out of darkness. Gawd strutted around behind the desk, placed her talons on it, and faced us. I shook my head, trying to clear the webs of too little sleep when I caught myself musing that she’d look really attractive if she was a little closer to my age and, you know, a pony.
“First things first,” Gawd glowered at the three of us. “Who are you ponies, and who do you work for?”
Calamity bristled. “Ah could ask ya the same thing!”
“Mind yer manners, pegasus! You’re in our territory and in my home. I ask, you answer.”
I put a steadying hoof on Calamity’s flank, indicating that this was okay. Stepping forward, “I’m Littlepip. This is Calamity and Velvet Remedy. We’re just passing through.” We also had an increasingly desperate need for a place to sleep, but I wasn’t going to reveal that, much less suggest we sleep anywhere near here.
“Did Mister Topaz give you permission to cross our territory?”
Something made me suspect a trick question. But before I could formulate a strategic response, Velvet Remedy asked, “Who’s Mister Topaz?”
The grizzled griffin leaned over the desk and locked Velvet Remedy with her one good eye. “Say again?” She stared at Velvet appraisingly.
Velvet Remedy stood up straight. “You asked us about Mister Topaz, somepony I’d never heard of before. I asked you who that was. What’s so difficult about that?”
I had to force myself not to facehoof.
However, Gawd apparently saw something in Velvet that impressed on her that the unicorn was sincere. The griffin sat back, “You really don’t know, do you?” A smile slowly crossed her beak, her scar turning it into something unpleasant. “Well now, isn’t that interesting!” She tapped her talon-tips together as she considered us.
“Well?” Velvet Remedy prompted.
Gawd leaned back, smiling quite a lot now. “Mister Topaz is the lord and master of Shattered Hoof and all territories adjacent.”
Calamity nickered. “Ah call horseapples. This ain’t anywheres close t’ Shattered Hoof Ridge.”
Gawd rolled her eyes. “No. But you are less than half an hour’s flight from Shattered Hoof, the rock-breaking compound, which was named after Shattered Hoof, the battle.”
Gawd facewinged. “Really? Surely you understand rock-breaking.” She stared at out uncomprehending faces, then sighed. “Sometimes rocks have gems in them. Unless you got a unicorn who can tell you which ones do and which ones don’t, y’have to break them open to see what’s inside. Fer crying out loud, you had to have passed at least one of the rock farms in order to get here.”
Velvet Remedy raised an eyebrow, confused. “How do you farm rocks?”
“Ugh. Easy. You pick a plot of land where rocks have shown a higher likelihood of hiding gems and you farm them!” We were clearly not impressing the griffin with our ignorance. Waving a talon, “Some ponies even used to rotate the rocks around from one field to the other to help improve the chances of gems...”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I blurted, interrupting. It wasn’t like the gems grew in the rocks like seeds, after all. My mind twinged.
Calamity only made it worse by suggesting, “Ah think it’s tradition.”
“Well it’s a stupid tradition,” I argued back. “These are rocks. Gems aren’t magical; a rock isn’t going to be any more likely to have gems in it if you give the rock loving care, or extra sunlight or better dirt to sit on.”
“Well, gems could be magical. Ah mean, how many magical artifacts use gems? Y’need gems t’ build magical energy weapons. They use ‘em t’ focus an’ amplify th’ energies.”
I stared. First, that was way more technical expertise on anything related to the arcane sciences than I ever expected from Calamity. Second, it had never actually occurred to me that gems might be magical.
Gawd sat in front of us, impatiently waiting. After a silent pause, I turned back to her. “I think we’re done now. Please continue.”
*** *** ***
Gawd had a job for us. Promised bottle caps and safe passage in return.
Naturally, we had some questions. Starting with, “Why us?”
“Because you ponies aren’t from around here. You’ve got no loyalties t’ any of the people hereabouts. An’ that makes you free to operate where I can’t, do things a member of Mr. Topaz’s employ couldn’t get away with.” She gave us a narrow look. “You getting me?”
I nodded slowly. “You want us to do something that you can’t do without being disloyal to Mister Topaz.”
“But isn’t it still disloyal to hire somebody else to do your dirty work?” Velvet Remedy questioned.
Gawd glowered. “Now look here. I have only two loyalties. To the contract, and to bottle caps. And in that order.” She leaned back, looking over her shoulder at the flag behind her. “My old crew learned that when they decided t’ take up Red Eye’s offer and turn over the caravan we were hired t’ protect t’ Red Eye’s slavers.” She turned back to us. “Talons don’t break contracts. Not even for barrels of caps. They learned that the hard way when I shot ‘em in the back.”
Her smile turned grim, “It was a point of honor.”
Shooting your friends in the back didn’t sound like any code of honor I could understand. Still, Gawd’s words opened up a whole flood of new questions from us, stampeding one after another. Gawd was gracious enough, for a little while, to answer.
“Red Eye, that guy on the sprite-bots, he runs the slavers?”
“Yes. Ironic isn’t it. He preaches all that horseshit about peace and unity and building a better tomorrow, and he’s been building it on the backs of hundreds of slaves. I can’t understand how so many of you ponies buy into his hypocritical rubbish.”
“But griffins don’t?”
“Hell no. He couldn’t pay enough to make me bite into his poisoned apple.” Gawd grimaced, adding, “Not that he’s offering. No Unity for griffins. We’re just hired wings to him.”
“And the griffins will work for him?”
“Yes.” Gawd seemed to take that as either offensive or stupid. Or possibly offensively stupid. “The Talons will work for whoever pays. Slavers, raiders, good little townsfolk, caravans. Whoever’s got the caps. We don’t play politics and we don’t takes sides. Unless, of course, it’s in the contract. That’s been the griffin way for over two hundred years. Red Eye, he gets that. And unlike some folk, he has no reservations ‘bout strengthening his forces with our kind.”
“The Talons,” Gawd boasted, looking back at the flag, “Have been the best mercs in the Equestrian Wasteland since before Equestria was a wasteland.” She thumped her armor proudly. “Can’t hire yerself any better.”
But Gawd had finally reached the end of her conversational composure. “Enough! I’m not your fucking teacher. I’m the one who is hiring you to perform a service. Get it done, and done right, you can ask me everything you want to as I lead you safely out of here.”
I looked to my companions. The chore itself shouldn’t be too hard. It was, after all, right in my skill set. I’d barely need the magic I barely had.
Gawd clicked her talons together again. “Oh, one last thing.”
Why did I know I wasn’t going to like this? “What?”
“Collateral.” Gawd smiled, a cold and friendless smile. “Not that I don’t trust you. But I need to make sure you don’t plan t’ march in there and tell Deadeyes all about our little arrangement. So... one of you is staying behind with me.”
“Oh hell no,” Calamity all but growled.
“Or, maybe instead...” I suggested reasonably, “You could sit on my horn and spin.”
Gawd actually smirked at that. She opened her talons in a wave. “If you decide you don’t want the job, yer free t’ go. I’ll just have the ponies outside open up that door, and tell them you’re not under my protection anymore.” She raised an eyebrow, pretending to give us time to mull over the non-choice. “You do the job, this is the way you do it.”
Okay, not so attractive. I glared at the griffin. “Fine. You can have me.” I winced a moment later, and clarified, “As your prisoner.”
Gawd contemplated that for less than a moment. “No.” A razor-sharp talon jabbed the air in Velvet Remedy’s direction. “She will stay.”
My mind echoed Calamity’s words: oh hell no! I opened my mouth, expecting the stream of profanity working its way to my tongue would shock even a raider. But Velvet Remedy pre-empted me.
“What?!” I turned towards her, aghast.
Velvet merely nodded. “There are ponies here that I might be able to tend to. And your special skills are needed for this undertaking...”
“Wait,” Gawd interrupted. “’Tend to?’ Don’t tell me you’re another Preacher.”
Velvet Remedy fixed the griffin with a stare of her own. “Maybe you should have asked more about me before insisting that I stay here with you.”
*** *** ***
Calamity passed me the binoculars and crouched back down behind a formation of boulders lining the hilltop. I took them and looked down into a small, unnatural valley surrounded by ridges.
Several rows of tracks cut through the valley, ending at the iron-gated mouth of a fortress. Walls of concrete and barred windows rose up from the ground surrounding a courtyard, most of which was barely visible through a roof of razor-wire (although there was a gaping hole in the razorwire towards one side that somepony on a better day could drop boxcars through). The broken remains of a road, cut up by multiple concrete barriers, terminated at a second gate of thick metal beneath the watch of a guard tower. I could see a scarce few ponies walking between it and the towers.
Shattered Hoof Re-Educational Stockyard
“Reforming aberrant morality through hard work and loving care.”
We had been warned that the surrounding valley had been mined. The road would be a killing zone. And even if I went it alone using the Stealth Buck, I doubted I would be able to get through that door. It looked like it only opened from the inside. If we were going to sneak in, there was only one way to go. I looked at Calamity and saw that he had come to the same conclusion.
“Ah figure we wait ‘till it gets a bit darker, then Ah fly you in.”
I nodded. “Are you sure your wing’s up for it?”
Calamity stretched out his bandaged wing and gave it a few flaps. “Ayep. Good t’ go. Take more’n a bullet t’ take me out of the sky.” He quickly added, “When Ah’m not pullin’ an apple cart, at least.”
A shadow passed over his expression as he looked at his bandaged wing. Flying in still had risk. A dark, pony-shaped blotch against the sky -- somepony might spot that, particularly if they’re on the lookout for griffins. I didn’t want to risk Calamity getting shot again. And the Stealth Buck couldn’t conceal both of us. I mulled over the problem until an idea struck me. It could help, but I hated asking Calamity to fly on his wounded wing. (Even if he had just suggested it.)
“Calamity, remember those mattresses back at the grocery?” I asked.
An hour later, with the clouded sky darkening, Calamity gently circled down towards the huge hole in the razor wire above the rock-breaking yard. His forelegs wrapped around me. And I in turn strained my telekinesis to keep the cover sheet from one of the raider outpost mattresses flying along beneath us. The mottled, mostly-grey color of the rectangle camouflaged our shapes against the sky.
Shattered Hoof had become the home of escaped slaves, many from the train that had been ambushed at Junction R-7, who had turned to a life of raiding the local farms. The very idea made my stomach tighten. Having fought to save several captured ponies, risked my life and those of my friends (not to mention the lives of innocent train ponies) to give them freedom, the mere idea that some former slaves would turn to the most vile sorts of barbarism made my skin want to tear itself off.
Their leader was a pony named Deadeyes, who spoke for a supposedly higher pony whom no one but Deadeyes had ever seen: Mister Topaz. It was for Mister Topaz that Deadeyes organized raiding parties out of Shattered Hoof and kept the rock-breaking yards in operation.
Inside that fortress, Gawd had told us, secure in Deadeyes’ office, was a safe. In the safe was a ledger. Gawd wanted it. She didn’t say why.
Honestly, I had my own reasons for wanting to take a look at that.
Deftly, Calamity arrowed through the torn section of razor wire and landed us gently at one edge of the yard. “Y’see?” he whispered cockily, “Nothin’ to it!
Not more than a heartbeat later, two Shattered Hoof Raiders trotted by. Calamity and I backed into the shadows, and I pulled the mattress cover over us. We held our breaths.
“Didja hear something?” I heard one ask the other.
“Yeah. My stomach. Growling.”
They seemed to pause there for several long seconds. The stench creeping off of the fabric began to make my eyes water and my stomach twist in knots. I was afraid I would sneeze or vomit.
Finally, I heard their hooves clop away. Tossing the wretched cover aside, I sucked in fresh air. Then Calamity and I slid along the wall to the first door we could find. It was locked. That didn’t last long.
*** *** ***
“Not the safe yer supposed t’ be pickin’,” Calamity commented as he stood guard by the door.
We’d managed to break into the Visitor’s Center of the re-educational... let’s face it, prison. The posters on the walls had pictures of smiling, happy ponies bucking at rocks and revealing beautiful gems, or carrying said gems to facility matrons who just glowed with approval. (“Here, we teach those poor ponies who have lost their way how to reconnect with ponykind!” one banner boasted. Another: “It’s not long before our guests find themselves taking pride in good, hard work that supports the war effort!”)
There simply weren’t enough facehoofs in the world to express my feelings.
Two vending machines stood side-by-side next to Calamity, their lights flickering. Both had been pried open and emptied of Sparkle~Cola and Sunrise Sarsaparilla respectively (the latter machine bearing an image of the Goddess Celestia raising the sun over happy Sarsaparilla drinkers.) We had, however, managed to loot a fair bit of old pre-war coins from both machines.
“It’ll just take a moment,” I replied, floating up bobby pin and screwdriver. The safe I was working on was not Deadeyes’; it was the storage safe for valuables in the Visitor’s Center Lost and Found. This part of the building didn’t even connect internally to the prison proper. We would have to brave the yard again and try another door.
Calamity shook his head. “Honestly, Ah don’t feel right. Ah don’t know why we’re doin’ this. Ain’t we helpin’ raiders?”
I paused. The feeling had occurred to me too. “We’re doing this because we’re not in any condition to fight these people. It would be tough if we were fully rested and healthy.” I took a deep breath, “Plus, this is a chance to dig a little into what’s going on.”
“Ah don’t really care ‘bout what’s goin’ on in a raider camp. ‘Cept for how Ah c’n put a stop t’ it.”
I turned to Calamity and shook my head. “No, not just here. Everywhere.” I was beginning to put together something in my head that I didn’t much like. “I’ve been seeing things that suggest that this isn’t situation normal for the Equestrian Wasteland. My first night outside, I was captured by slavers. They marched right up to a raider bridge expecting to have to pay a toll, and instead the raiders started shooting. At the time, I just took it as luck; but I don’t think so anymore.”
Calamity gave me a considering look, weighing the ideas I was putting forth.
“That pseudo-goddess at old Appleloosa, she was new. The slavers there hadn’t seen anything like her before. But somepony named Stern sent that bitch here from Fillydelphia to oversee things. And that happened, what, a week or two ago?”
I returned my focus to the safe. “Something’s going on out here, and that pony Red Eye is in the center of it. Whatever it is, it has been building up for a long time...” I searched for the right words; with a mental lightning flash, they came to me. “It’s like a river in a storm that is just now on the verge of breaking its banks and flooding everything.”
Calamity sat down, tipping his hat back as he and gave that a good pondering.
“Ah suppose that makes sense.” Calamity chuckled, “’Sides, how often c’n Ah say Ah’m on a mission from...”
Calamity nickered. “Ah guess not even once.”
My bobby pin broke. Slipping out another, I tried again. I had a distinct urge to see the contents of this safe, based on one of the last prewar entries on the Visitor’s Center terminal. The terminal itself had been encrypted so tightly that the Shattered Hoof Raiders had never been able to access it.
Just got word that Shattered Hoof will be closing down the Visitor’s Center portion of this facility. The Ministry of Morale has decreed that the friends and family of ponies who have been determined guilty of sedition or treason will no longer have the right to visit our guests until rehabilitation is deemed complete, for fear that our guests might spread their poison to their loved ones. As such, this is going to be my last entry.
Fortunately, the severance package will be generous. I plan to take my family and move to Cloudsdayle. The world below is just a little too ugly for me to be raising my foals in.
We’ve done our best to contact ponies with items still in the Lost & Found, and most of what remains will be mailed out today. Unfortunately, we’ve had no luck reaching our recent guest entertainer. Sweetie Belle has apparently fallen off the face of Equestria. I’ve taken care to store her belongings in the safe.
It amuses me that we shut this office down just after we repainted. If somepony had said something sooner, we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble. (Not to mention Tiara’s new dress, although the rest of us are upset about that. That mare is unbearable.)
It cost me a bobby pin, but the safe finally opened. (I would discover later, to my chagrin, that I could have just opened it via the terminal had I been more patient.)
Inside was a single package. Carefully, I pulled it out with my teeth and set it on the ground. I gave a tug on the drawstring with my teeth and it opened easily. I was stunned to see a statuette of a jaw-droppingly gorgeous white unicorn with a sensual purple mane and tail, and a darling three-gem cutie mark. (There were other things in the package too, but I totally forgot about them.)
“Are ya done visually molestin’ that statue, girl?” Calamity’s words disrupted my reverie. He looked impatient. I blushed hotly.
“She’s a looker, Ah’ll give ya that. But Ah’m guessin’ she wouldn’t much appreciate the way yer lookin’ at ‘er.”
“I was... just... looking...” I stammered, then focused all my energy to floating up the statue and slipping it into my bag. I knew I was risking burning myself out completely, but just had to keep her! And I didn’t want to risk marring the statuette with my teeth. The statuette trembled, not wanting to rise from the ground. Then I felt a surge of magical energy, and the statuette floated up gracefully. Whatever blessing this one had bestowed, it had rejuvenated my horn. Just a little, but enough to float the statuette and even Little Macintosh. I turned the hot, gorgeous mare around in the air until I could read the engraving.
Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Stable Shot – Your attacks are smooth, graceful and precise. You have a higher chance to score a critical hit on an opponent in combat, equivalent to 5 extra points of Luck.