Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Thirteen: Voices of the Past

Chapter Thirteen: Voices of the Past

“It is a ghost story. They’re all made up.”


“Relinquish your rights to the contents of the vault, and she’s all yours,” Gawd explained as she pointed a wing at Junction R-7. “Do you accept?”

A vault full of memories torn from the minds of ponies two hundred years dead… or a place to call my home.

“Won’t you need it?” I asked cautiously. “For defense?”

"Now that I'm running the show, I'll be moving into Shattered Hoof proper. We don’t have the numbers to effectively spread between all the outposts anymore. We have t’ consolidate and build up new defenses. If we’re lucky, Red Eye’s slavers will scurry back t’ their dens and lick their wounds. I don’t trust in luck.” Gawd gave a hard smile. “I prefer t’ count on people being greedy. Tends t’ work much better.”

I nodded slowly. “And the ponies here, they won’t loot it while I’m away?”

Gawd smirked. I was getting good at asking what she seemed to consider the right questions. "Not if I tell them not t’, they won’t.” With an uncharacteristic touch of warmth, she added, “Everyone acknowledges what you did for them back there. Those that don’t feel like they owe you at least have the good sense not t’ draw the ire of the local dragon slayer."

I looked at the disabled train and scrap metal shacks, seeing it in an entirely new light. This could be my home. Our home, if Calamity and Velvet Remedy were willing. A place to rest. For Calamity to hang his hat. (Figuratively, at least, considering he even slept with it on, just like he slept in the underbarding for that battle saddle.)

I trotted around it, drinking it in.

There was a water pump out back. Grills for cooking. A small water purifier in what had been Gawd’s private quarters. As well as the passenger car, the train included several lockable cattle cars and two boxcars -- we could each have our own space, plenty of room for storage. A generator in one of the shacks kept the lights on at night and the refrigerator in the back boxcar running.

I glanced at the guard platform over what had been Gawd's office. Calamity waved his bandaged wing back at me. He was almost finished mounting the tri-barreled plasma cannon in its position. I wondered... Calamity was the only one of the three of us who had any skill shooting that monster manually, but would it be possible for me to rig it up like an automated turret? Thinking of the sky-camouflaged convoy, I knew a perfect place to get the parts.

True, the place was rusted, filthy, full of moldy hay -- but most of that could be set to rights with a lot of hard work and a little TLC. The horrible reek from the station house, its bathroom overflowing with manure, was another matter entirely. I glanced over to it, gagging slightly. That would be an arduous and entirely unpleasant task to fix.

Velvet Remedy caught my expression and sing-songed, "Don't think of it as years of piled-up ponypies, Littlepip. Think of it as free fertilizer. We could start a garden."

We! The word filled me with more warmth and joy than direct sunlight possibly could.

My home in the Equestrian Wasteland would be the former house of Gawd. Including her office.

Any hesitation (or concern about why Gawd suddenly wanted a vault full of memory orbs), was washed away by that wonderful “we”.

“I’ll take it!”

*** *** ***

"Ah don't get it," Calamity muttered. "She's helpin' raiders now?"

Together, Calamity and I walked through the rock yard of Shattered Hoof slightly behind Gawd. Velvet Remedy was elsewhere, insisting that she do what she could to mend the injured, despite having completely run out of medical supplies (both our own and those of Shattered Hoof) the second morning after the battle. And even though it was entirely possible that the vile monsters who killed Silver Bell's parents were amongst the wounded rather than the dead.

"Won't be raiders anymore." The voice of Gawd held a finality that was hard to question.

Calamity, being Calamity, did anyway. "Don't change the horrible things that some of 'em did." He shook his mane. "Ah still don't like it."

"That was under Deadeyes." Gawdyna Grimfeathers had led the embattled ponies of Shattered Hoof to victory against Red Eye's slavers. Now, with both Deadeyes and Mister Topaz eliminated, she was the one the ponies of Shattered Hoof were turning to for leadership. "I've got big plans for this place; there won't be any room for honorless monsters in my Shattered Hoof."

I watched her, admiring her words and the way she moved. I didn't like Gawdyna, but I couldn't help but respect her. And yes, she was sleek and powerful and very attractive for a non-pony. (And so what if she’s a griffin? There's nothing wrong with just looking.) Gawd herself had taken on both of the enemy griffins, felling them with her magical energy shotgun and her talons. She'd picked up a few new scars in the battle. I thought they only made her look more impressive.

I hoped other mares could find them so; I was wearing a scar of my own now. Burns, however horribly painful, could be healed fully with magical remedies. But the malignant damage caused by warping and destructive magical power could not so easily be undone. The small line of corrupted flesh where the magical energy lance had touched my neck would be with me for the rest of my life.

"...will have a few rotten eggs, but they'll be dealt with." Gawdyna was speaking to Calamity. I realized my attention had drifted; I'd been admiring her flanks (in a perfectly respectful way) and lost part of the conversation. "Every other pony is realizing they've spent the last years breaking their hooves for a dragon who intended t' eat them as a reward. They're reassessing their life paths and most will be ready for a change.”

Gawdyna smirked, looking at Calamity. “I’ll put the fear of Gawd into any who aren’t."

Over the last few days, I had learned that Mister Topaz had lowered the cargo lift and was just emerging into the rock yard when I set off that alarm. The dragon’s voice was loud, and had carried all the way into the yard. While no pony had been privy to my side of the conversation, several dozen had heard everything the dragon had to say.

Word had spread amongst the survivors. Every pony knew my companions and me by name now and had formed an opinion…

“Hey Littlepip!” a shout rang across the yard from a group of ponies sorting armors stripped off the dead. “Found any good bullets of dragonslaying yet? Did you try Mister Topaz’s pantry?”

…some less empowering than others. I rolled my eyes and tried to ignore them.

Focusing forward, I broke into the conversation. “What ‘big plans’ do you have?”

Gawd stopped and turned, looking me over appraisingly. Clearly, I’d tried to pry at secrets she preferred to keep close to her breast. After a long moment, she gave me as much of an answer as I was going to get, and nothing more than I would have learned naturally in a matter of weeks.

“In the wake of Mister Topaz’s untimely splattering, we have enough gemstones to entice caravans and establish trade routes. Shattered Hoof lies within a few days’ caravan travel of both Manehattan and New Appleloosa.” Gawd fixed me with a knowing grin. “And I hear the Appleloosians are looking for some new trade partners.”

I tried not to wince. Just how much did Gawdyna know?

“An’ Ah’ve got a barn in Canterlot to sell ya,” Calamity scoffed, giving Gawd a wry smile. “If ya expect me t’ believe a hardened mercenary like Gawdyna Grimfeathers is lookin’ t’ settle down an’ play mayor.”

Gawd laughed. It was a rich and seasoned laugh. “Yer right. I’m also sending out…” She paused, finding the right word. “Invitations to Talons not currently under contract.”

She didn’t elaborate further, but I was beginning to get the picture.

“And the memory orbs?” I asked, mostly out of curiosity.

As pleased as I was with the way Junction R-7 was shaping up (especially now that we had sealed up the vomit-inducing stink and started turning my designs for a turret array into a reality), I had begun to suspect that I had gotten the shorter end of the deal. The idea didn’t upset me; I had my saddlebags full as it was. If anything, I admired how shrewd Gawdyna appeared to be.

Gawd’s eyes narrowed. “None of your concern.” About what I expected.

As we reached the end of the yard and stepped into the guard tower, I could hear a radio playing. The ending of an ancient song by Sapphire Shores gave way to the voice of DJ Pon3.

“Good evening wastelanders! How’s every pony doing? Got some great news for you today! Remember that little Stable Gal who took on the slavers of Appleloosa and saved all those ponies? Well don’t ask me how, but she survived takin’ a nosedive off a cliff in a speeding train. That’s right, fillies and gentlecolts: she’s back!“

Gawd had kept walking, but Calamity had stopped and was staring at me, eyebrows raised and hat tipped back. I felt myself blushing hotly and not knowing why.

“And what’s she been up to now, I hear you ask? Well, sit down an’ put on your listening ears, cuz it’s time for DJ Pon3 to tell you a story. Ready? Good. This is the story of a little filly named Silver Bell…”

I looked to Calamity in distress. I did not like getting credit for what was really Velvet Remedy’s good deed. All I did was push Watcher into recruiting Ditzy Doo’s help.

“Wait ‘till he starts callin’ ya dragonslayer,” Calamity made merry at my discomfort. DJ Pon3 didn’t mention my pegasus friend at all, and Calamity seemed unduly pleased by that.

I looked back over the rock yard and the ponies hard at work in the aftermath of the battle. A slightly melancholy feeling took hold in my chest.

The end of the week, I thought. By then, I would have the turrets scavenged from the sky convoy up and running. By then, we would be fully mended and rested. My coat was growing back nicely over where it had burned off. Velvet Remedy had already stopped fussing over Calamity’s wing.

Calamity was already getting restless. He had joined me because, like him, I wasn’t content to do nothing while others were being abused and murdered. He respected the idea of Junction R-7 as a base of operations, and was already drawing up plans for a workshop in one of the cattle cars, but my pegasus friend was never going to settle down and play happy homemaker.

Velvet Remedy was still fretting over the most gravely injured whom she had been able to save, but I could tell she was beginning to accept there was nothing more she could do which other ponies were not capable of. Soon, she too would desire to leave this place. The nightingale wasn’t done flying yet.

I, myself, wanted to stomp out the cruel shadow of Red Eye’s slavery that darkened the soul of Equestria -- but that was a goal both vague and absurdly ambitious. I had proven I could save individuals, but I wasn’t so arrogant as to believe I could actually change the course of armies and economies. In truth, the only tangible goal ahead of me was meeting with DJ Pon3. I was rather counting on him to point me the way. Plus, after listening to his radio broadcasts for the last few days, I really did fancy the idea of getting Velvet Remedy’s music onto the airwaves.

By the end of the week, it would be time to go.

*** *** ***

We were ready to go. Except, that was, for Velvet Remedy. I watched her laying on the floor of the train car she had claimed as her own, batting the memory orb we had scavenged from the wreckage of Ditzy Doo Deliveries between her forehooves.

“You still haven’t viewed that?” I asked with surprise.

Velvet Remedy looked up at me with a cutely meek stare. “After what you found in the vault? How can I? I’ve been hoping that it’s about Fluttershy… but now.” She caught it between her hooves and brought it up to her eyes. “What if it’s a confession? What if it’s bad?”

I could understand. I remembered my reaction upon realizing Velvet Remedy was not a prisoner of the old Appleloosa slavers. And even though that had turned out to be for laudable reasons, I knew how much it hurt to see the pony you idolize fall from the pedestal you put them on.

“Would you like me to view it first for you?” I offered.

Velvet Remedy smiled gratefully and nodded. She set the memory orb down and backed away.

I took a deep breath, swallowing back a sudden hesitation. I’d never actually viewed a memory orb before. Logically, I knew what to expect: a reliving of some other pony’s experience. I’d been told such memories were visual, auditory, tactile… even taste and smell were preserved. But would it be crisp and vivid, or blurred by age? Would I see things as they had really been, or would it be filtered by the perceptions and biases of the rememberer? Would I sense the pony’s thoughts? And would I be able to tell them from my own?

I felt a little weak, but also intensely curious. Velvet Remedy was watching me; her presence reminding me why I was doing this.

I knelt. Leaning forward, I touched my horn to the memory orb and focused ever so lightly.

A strange flushing sensation washed over me as the train car, Velvet Remedy and the entire Equestrian Wasteland was obliterated and replaced with an entirely different reality.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

I was standing on a stage, or more precisely the pony whose eyes I was seeing through and ears I was hearing through had stood on a stage.

It was strangely like being paralyzed; I could feel what she (?) felt, but I couldn’t move on my own. I suddenly had the urgent desire to bite my lower lip, a desire followed by a flash of panic when I couldn’t.

I was looking out over a crowded auditorium in a large and rather nice indoor theatre. Many ponies in the crowd were engaged in conversation, and a low storm of overlapping voices filled the room. Everything was slightly muted and out of focus, but I could still make out the faces of each individual pony – a level of detail that defined this as a raw recording of the events by the brain of the pony I was, for lack of a better word, “riding” rather than what the pony could have naturally recalled on her own. I wanted to take a closer look at the walls of the auditorium -- I had the distinct impression that they were not wood paneled but rather actually formed from growing trees, much like the Ponyville Library. But, of course, I could only watch what this pony had watched.

She concentrated on an elder (yet adorably cute) yellow pegasus with a flowing pink mane falling over much of her face, and a matching pink tail, who walked reluctantly past her towards a podium standing front and center on the stage. The yellow pony stared at the floor as she walked, as if afraid to make eye contact with the crowd before she had the podium between her and them like a shield.

I was struck by the distinct similarity between this pony and the one on the billboard I had seen a week ago, although what string of fortunes could take a pony from being the spokesmodel for carrot-flavored cola to serving as one of the most powerful mares in government was beyond me.

“um… h-hello? Can I have your attention, please? If you don’t mind?”

The massive speaker system of the auditorium magnified the pony’s voice, boosting it up to what nearly reached the volume of normal conversation. And yet, the crowd hushed instantly. Every buck and mare in the crowd turned their attention fully to the yellow mare with the three pink butterflies as her cutie mark. I immediately recognized the pattern. Velvet Remedy had hung the medical boxes in her Appleloosa boxcar so their butterflies would look exactly like that.

“Thank you,” the pegasus squeaked, seeming surprised at being so abruptly the focus of so much attention. It dawned on me that she didn’t have the assertiveness to command their attention like this. The ponies in the crowd didn’t listen out of obedience, much less fear, of the mare on the stage. No, in fact, this wasn’t even respect that I was seeing. This was love.

“Now…um… I know everypony is really, really busy. So I’ll try not to take too much of your time.”

I got it, but I didn’t think she got it. Fluttershy was worried about offending them, or inconveniencing them. From their expressions, I doubted that was even possible.

“Princess Luna has given us… that is… she’s allowed us to… We have a new project.”

I heard a few nickers and neighs rippling through the crowd. No matter how much they loved the mare on the stage, this was clearly not welcome news.

The yellow pegasus eeped, cringing slightly. “Please… it’s okay. I know we’re all overworked, and everypony has so much to do already… and you’re all doing just wonderful.” As she added that last statement, she smiled warmly at all of them. If all the water in Stable Two had frozen, that smile could have melted it.

“But… this is really important. I’ve been talking with Princess Luna, and.... I really, really want to do this project. I’m behind it completely, and I really hope you will be too.”

The dissenting sounds stopped. Everypony listened.

“This horrible, terrible war has gone on far, far too long and hurt so many people.” I could hear the sadness and hurt in her voice. Sweet, merciful Celestia… I wanted to gallop over and give her a hug. I wanted to lie to her and tell her things would be all right. “So Luna says the Ministry of Peace should work on a way to end the war, and bring everyone, pony and zebra alike, back to the table of diplomacy.”

Some pony (whom I had the distinct urge to buck in the face) actually asked, “If the war ends, won’t we all be out of a job?”

I heard Fluttershy whisper the prayer, “From your lips to Celestia’s ears.”

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

I stumbled, gasping as if I had been holding my breath, as my own world burst through, flooding over me. I spent a moment steadying myself.

Velvet Remedy was looking up at me with big, beautiful eyes. I smiled to her, levitating the memory orb back to her, being careful to focus around it rather than directly at it so as not to be lost in the memory again.

“It’s not bad.”

*** *** ***

We had traveled for most of a day under the slate grey skies. The cold, dead bones of Manehattan loomed ahead, still at least a day off. But even this far out, the balefire bomb’s destructive power had been felt. The flames had not reached anywhere near here, but the massive shockwave had flattened trees and caved in homes.

We approached a small, very humble home set apart from all the others, a few miles farther from Manehattan than the rest of the suburbs which had surrounded the city. The front door of the hut faced away from the city, as if the home itself felt shunned by the urban monoliths in the background. Because of this, the front door had survived entirely intact while most of the hut beyond had collapsed into itself. At this distance, damage from the bomb couldn’t have been more than that of a strong windstorm, but it had weakened the other side of the home enough for the decaying effects of age to ravage it.

As we got closer, Calamity whispered, “Somepony’s home.” He lifted off into the air, stealthily flying forward to get a better look. A moment later, he returned with a smile. “We’re good. Got ourselves a wanderin’ merchant who’s holed up in the ruin. Don’t mind the owl; Ah’m pretty sure it’s tame.”

Calamity spun on his wings and flew ahead to greet the merchant. Velvet Remedy trotted after him, moving around to the small building’s (lack of a) west side. As I followed, I noticed that somepony had nailed a recording to the front door. It looked ancient and badly weathered; I suspected it had been there since the owner of the hut had died. I change course, trotting towards the door, and my PipBuck flashed an enigmatic notice on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle, letting me know that it had decided to label this particular ruined hut “Trixie’s Cottage”. I had long since given up trying to understand why my PipBuck kept marking seemingly random locations.

The recording was in horrible shape. I pulled it down, intending to work on it while Calamity haggled with the merchant. In the back of my mind, a voice insisted that this might be hard enough to call for some Party-Time Mint-als. I knew the voice was lying, and I tried to ignore it.

As I rejoined the others, the merchant (a grizzled unicorn stallion with a dust-colored mane and wearing trader barding) was telling Calamity and Velvet Remedy tall tales of the Manehattan Ruins. From the looks he kept giving Velvet, it was clear he had not seen so lovely a mare in… well, a very long time, if ever.

“Ghosts?” Velvet Remedy asked skeptically.

“Yep. That’s why I don’t venture any further than Fetlock myself. Well, them and the manticores.”

“Manticores?” Calamity questioned. “What would forest creatures like those be doing in the ruins of a major pre-war city?”

“Dunno. But the place is lousy with them. Best steer clear.”

Velvet wasn’t going to give up, “And with… ghosts.”

The merchant unicorn nodded. “That’s what they say, at least. Keep in mind, Manehattan isn’t like Canterlot, where the ponies died slow and painful. In Manehatten, it was like nothing. Happened so fast, the ponies’ spirits didn’t even realize they were dead.”

“Nonsense,” Velvet neighed.

The pony finally noticed my approach and gave me a big grin. “Ah, and another customer. Welcome to…” he waved a hoof at the collapsed building around him, “…the Luna-Damned Shithole.” Behind him, a robotic owl whirred and hooted from the top of a doorless cabinet. When it opened its metal beak, I could see the gleam of a small magical energy weapon hidden inside. “It ain’t much, but it’s all mine.”

Curiosity got the better of me. “How much for the bird?”

The merchant pony laughed roughly. “Sorry, miss. Old Gearwing ain’t for sale. A merchant don’t live long in the wasteland if he travels without backup.”

I nodded. I passed Calamity the magical energy lance to add to his bartering load and sat down to work on the recording. These things were designed to be ridiculously hardy, but this one had taken one hell of a beating. As I floated out a few of my precision tools, I realized it would be a small miracle if I could get anything off of it.

I had just started working when Velvet Remedy gave a stomp. “No, no, no.” I looked up, wondering why she objected to my efforts, only to realize she was neighing to Calamity. Lowering her head, she pushed him away from the merchant.

“What’s got yer tail in a twist?” he huffed.

“You’re letting him rob you, that’s what,” she retorted. “Here, let a pony who knows a thing or two handle this.”

I watched my companions, bemused. The merchant pony was staring at them with a slight frown. Velvet Remedy returned, and while Calamity watched from behind, she ignored the pile of goods he was trying to sell the pony, not to mention everything he had been hoping to buy; she fluttered her eyelashes at the merchant, giving him a look that sparked a twitch of jealousy in my breast, and asked, “That dress over there, the one in the spring colors? How much is that?”

She haggled, turning on the charm while demurely noting the poor condition of each dress he floated over to her. Before long, she had purchased four dresses for the cost of two.

Trotting over to Calamity, her dresses in tow, she asked him politely, “Now, would you be a wonderful dear and use the fabric from these to fix the damage our awful fight with that dragon did to the magnificent gown Littlepip gave me?”

I felt my heart do a little leap. Calamity was just staring at her, nonplussed. The merchant slowly mouthed “fight with that dragon” as he watched her.

“Whatcha do that fer? Ya didn’t even get any medical supplies.”

Velvet shrugged off the question. “Pretty please?” she added smiling at Calamity, who got quickly to work.

I went back to tinkering with the recording. After the better part of an hour, I was pleased by my progress. I realized the contents of the recording wouldn’t be worth the effort, but by now it had become a challenge. The actual message didn’t really matter.

Calamity had finished repairing Velvet Remedy’s gorgeous dress. I was impressed. It almost looked as good as new. Velvet smiled and gave him a small kiss on the cheek (eliciting another flutter of jealousy from me), then took the dress and trotted around behind some rubble to put it on. (Which, truth be told, made no sense to me.)

My PipBuck made its last scan of the message, reconstructing it. I had salvaged almost the entire thing. I slipped in my earbloom and listened to what an hour’s work had gotten me. I knew better than to expect much, but if it turned out to be a door-to-door advert recording for ties, I was going to be a little miffed.

“Whitelip, I’m sorry to miss you this week. You know that seeing you is one of the high points of my week, but I just got the most amazing call. Twilight Sparkle, yes the Twilight Sparkle, called me. Right out of the blue. Isn’t that amazing? I mean, I knew her back when she was nothing and I was…

“Nevermind. I’m just so surprised she even remembers me. But no, she invited me to Manehattan this weekend to talk about a proposal. Can you imagine? Me, working for the Ministry of Magic! And when the Mare of the Ministry herself personally calls you up to pitch the offer, you know it has to be important.

“I… I hesitate to say it, but I’m back. Oh yes, Trixie’s life is about to finally turn around!

“um… I don’t know how long I’ll be in Manehattan; but just to be safe, go ahead and leave my usual order on the doorstep: three bottles of milk and a carton of butter. I’ll pay you next week. I promise.”

All of that effort, and I’d salvaged an order to the local milk-buck? I’d promised myself I wouldn’t be bothered, but I kinda was.

Velvet Remedy had re-emerged, looking impossibly stunning. I’d already seen her in this dress and it still made my legs weak. The merchant pony had not, and was clearly smitten.

“Now then, let’s get down to business,” Velvet said with a gracious smile, floating the magical energy lance from the pile of goods Calamity had been trying to sell. “Now, I’m not sure you have the caps for something like this, but I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.”

“N-not sure I have…?” The merchant tried to regain his footing. “Lady, I’d say that’s worth…”

“Quite a lot,” Velvet smiled. “Consider: all the power of a magical energy weapon, but in the form of a lance that anypony could use without special training? A devastatingly effective weapon that will never run out of bullets or sparkle packs. No spending your hard-earned caps on ammo; no threat of having to stop and reload at a critical point in battle.”

Velvet Remedy lifted it up dramatically. “And just look at its condition! Why, the gemstone alone is worth more than the meager medical supplies your delightful little Shithole has to offer.”

She paused, eyeing the magical energy lance. “Why, on second thought, I can’t imagine parting with it. Sure, it’s a little heavy, but…”

“All right, all right,” the merchant unicorn broke in. “What do you want for it?”

I looked over to Calamity. From his expression, he was thinking the same thing. From now on, Velvet Remedy would do all our bartering.

*** *** ***

The body of the radroach crunched grossly under my hoof. I quickly scraped the radroach gunk from my hoof using a collapsed road sign. We’d slept at Trixie’s Cottage the night before, and had made good time over the course of the morning.

According to my PipBuck, the maze of blackened, ruined homes we were pushing through had once been the suburb of Fetlock. We were taking it slow; such a large area meant that there were still a dusting of scavenge-worthy items to be found, even outside of locked safes and trunks. Sadly, no medical supplies. Velvet was trying to use the few supplies we got from the merchant sparingly, cutting healing bandages in halves or thirds, but still insisted on cleaning and dressing cuts and scrapes to avoid infection.

Velvet Remedy squealed happily as she opened up an old refrigerator and found several bottles of still-pure water inside. Our canteens were almost empty, and the few working faucets I had found made my PipBuck clickity-click at the radiation levels in the water. Her find was a blessing straight from Luna.

There was no shelter to speak of, and red spots were always crawling across my E.F.S. compass. Mostly radroaches or the occasional giant mutant hedgehogs. The magical radiation that had soaked into the water had twisted a multitude of wasteland’s animal inhabitants into grotesque and often monstrous versions of their original species. Most creatures had not survived the transformations.

But at least it wasn’t raiders or slavers. It was a relief to not be battling other ponies. Velvet Remedy was beginning to develop skill with her needler pistol; her moral reservations about killing clearly did not apply to ravenous and hostile beasts.

Calamity swooped up to us, having been scouting ahead. “We’re in luck. Ah think Ah’ve spotted someplace fer us t’ crash fer the night.”

Velvet Remedy and l let him lead the way. Two blocks later, we came upon the hulk of a passenger skywagon. This one was in far better shape than the one I had taken a shortcut through back under the Cloudsdayle outskirts. The paint was blackened by fire and flaking away with age, and what lay beneath was as much rust as metal. But it was fully intact, having been resting at the wagon-stop when the megaspell went off rather than having fallen from the sky.

It had also been loaded with passengers who, along with the wagon pony harnessed to the front, had been burned alive by the rolling wall of bale flame that had swept through Fetlock. The passenger wagon was full of charred skeletons and burnt luggage.

“You want us to bed down in there?” Velvet Remedy asked, looking appalled. “Calamity, that’s grim. Even for you.”

I stared at the wagon full of pony skeletons and found myself wondering who they had been. What had their lives been like? Had they been happy? I wondered if the wagon had been heading into Manehattan. Were these ponies all heading into work. Were some of them friends, chatting about the shopping they would do?

I squelched those thoughts under a strong hoof. The apocalypse was already a daily assault of horror and sadness without making it worse by actually thinking about it. Doing that could only drive a pony to suicide or madness.

Looking away, I felt a tiny ember of joy as I spotted the flickering light of a Sparkle~Cola machine tucked into a nook just around the corner from the wagon-stop. “I’ll be right back,” I announced, leaving Calamity and Velvet to clean out the passenger wagon. Or argue about it. Whichever.

I trotted around the wall and into the nook, which I immediately realized was much larger than I had imagined. The red dots on my E.F.S. had become so ubiquitous that I’d stopped paying attention to them. Big mistake.

The manticore turned, took one look at the intruder who had just blithely clopped into its den, and let out a roar that blasted my mane back. The carrion stench of its breath let me know I was dinner.

I stared up at the huge, brutish monster with its mighty forepaws, huge wings and venomous tail and was very glad I hadn’t had anything to drink in several hours.

I didn’t have any of my weapons ready; I hadn’t wanted to waste precious ammo on things I could kill with a buck or a stomp. The manticore certainly didn’t fall into that category, but I spun, throwing a kick with both hindhooves at its nose.

It was like bucking a brick wall. Instead of knocking the manticore back, I sent myself forward in a faceplant. The manticore lifted a paw full of large claws and swiped at my back. If it hadn’t been for Ditzy Doo’s armoring, the blow might have cut through my spine. Instead, pain spashed through my bruised back. I scrambled onto my hooves and ran.

The manticore gave chase, bouncing after me. I am short; it was bigger than several stacked apple carts. The chase was brief.

The manticore headbutted me, sending me flying. I hit the street hard and rolled until I hit what was left of the wall of the hardware shop across the street. The manticore charged at me as I struggled to me feet, dazed.

The sound of Calamity’s battle saddle cracked through the air. Blood erupted from one of the manticore’s front legs and it stumbled, missing me to crash instead into an old lamppost. The lamppost tore out of the ground and toppled with an iron thud.

As the manticore recovered, a half-burned dress that must have come from the luggage littering the wagon flew through the air on a field of Velvet Remedy’s magic and tied itself around the manticore’s head like a blindfold.

The manticore lashed out blindly with its poisonous, scorpion-like tail. One of the strikes hit the broken sidewalk less than a foot from me.

Calamity fired again, this time into the side of the creature. I floated out Little Macintosh and took aim, backing away. The manticore shook it’s head violently, tossing the blindfold. I got one good shot off, hitting it’s tail. The power of Little Macintosh cleaved the manticore’s tail in two.

It roared in pain and launched itself at me. This time, I was ready, and dodged swiftly out of the way. I turned back towards it, leveling Little Macintosh at the manticore’s backside. The monster spread its wings and launched itself into the air, flying towards Calamity.

Calamity got one more shot off, blossoms of crimson sprouting in its chest, before the creature plowed into him, knocking Calamity from the sky. Worried for my friend, I turned to see where he had fallen as it circled back. Calamity groaned, not getting up but at least looking intact. His hat was laying on the street not far away.

Velvet Remedy trotted up to me. “You’re the telekinetic expert -- try these.” She was levitating along with her a stack of sawblades from the hardware store.

As the manticore swooped towards us, I filled the air with spinning death.

*** *** ***

Velvet Remedy finished watching the Ministry of Peace memory orb (for at least the twelfth time) and was now pretending not to watch me cooking manticore meat. According to my PipBuck, it was relatively healthy… at least as far as meat went. Velvet was eating our last can of corn.

Calamity had polished off our last two cans of beans the better part of an hour ago and then crawled under the passenger wagon to “look at somethin’.” He had yet to come up for air. It was getting quite dark. The wagon was still the best option for a place to sleep, but we would have to do it in shifts.

My whole body ached from getting knocked around by the manticore. I was almost getting used to being in a constant state of pain. Calamity had gotten worse, but his concussion seemed mercifully minor. Only Velvet Remedy made it through unscathed. Still, the fight was worth my aches and pains; the venom sacks from the manticore’s stinging tail were the last thing I needed to build a poisoned dart gun from the schematics I’d found in the old Appleloosa armory.

With a sigh, Velvet Remedy clopped over to the wagon and crouched down, peering under it. “Oh, come out. There’s nothing under there that could be this interesting,” she judged. “You took a really bad fall back there and you still haven’t let me examine you.” With fierce determination, she added, “And this time, I want you to strip completely out of that saddle and let me give you a full examination.”

I popped open one of the Sparkle~Colas I’d found inside the vending machine after the battle and took a sip. Warm, but not quite flat, and deliciously carroty.

Calamity crawled obediently out from under the wagon, a big grin on his face. “Great news,” he announced. “It’s pretty much intact.”

“Whatever are you talking about,” Velvet Remedy asked, cocking her head.

Calamity nodded back towards the passenger wagon. I found myself questioning his definition of intact. The windows were all shattered and there were several gaping holes in the roof. A spot the size of two hooves had rusted through on the left side.

“What Ah’m talkin’ about is that unlike the one y’all saw before, this beauty is more than just an explosion waitin’ t’ happen.” Calamity turned to the wagon and smiled. “Ah could fix ‘er up. All she needs is a flux regulator.”

“She?” Velvet whinnied.

“Ayep.” Calamity flapped his wings, lifting into the air.

I raised an eyebrow. “A flux regulator? That’s a pretty specific piece of equipment. Not something we’re likely to find just laying around.”

Calamity came back down to earth. “Yeah, Ah know. But jus’ think. If we did, then Ah could pull alla us, plus any equipment we wanted t’ carry, all over the Equestrian Wasteland. No more mutli-day trots across infested landscape.”

Velvet Remedy nickered. “Oh yes. Because your track record with vehicles has been stellar so far.”

I remembered the train. And the apple cart. Maybe climbing into one that was also a bomb wasn’t such a good idea. I didn’t say so however. No reason to smother Calamity’s enthusiasm. It wasn’t as if we had the part he needed to fix it, and any further hesitations could be put off until we did. Which, in all likelihood, would be never.

Velvet, meanwhile, was prodding Calamity to get out of his battle saddle and barding. “I know you made it yourself, and you prefer to wear it, but really… I’ve been with you two for over a week now, and I still haven’t seen your cutie mark. There’s fondness for sense of fashion and there’s just plain being ridiculous.”

My attention had turned towards my dinner, but I perked at that. Come to think of it, I’d never seen Calamity’s cutie mark either. He was always wearing at least his barding and saddle bags, except when he bathed. And I’d always given him privacy for that, albeit mostly out of disinterest in watching a stallion clean himself.

“That’s cuz Ah don’t have one.”

What? No way. My own cutie mark had taken forever to show, but I’d still had it for years. How could a grown buck not have his yet.

“Oh,” Velvet Remedy looked away, seeming unsure of how she should respond to that.

Calamity gave a low, humorless chuckle. “Ain’t like that. Ah used t’ have one. I just don’t anymore.”

“What!?” Velvet Remedy echoed my thoughts, albeit more dramatically.

Calamity looked at the two of us then let out a long sigh. “Well, hell, Ah suppose y’all might as well know.” He shucked himself out of his battle harness and started tugging at the straps of his barding. “It’s been branded off.”

“What? Why?” Velvet stammered. “Who would do that?”

“Muh brothers,” Calamity said, less evenly than he intended to. “Look, that’s just what they do t’ pegasus like me.”

“Like you?” I asked, remembering he’d said that before.

Calamity nodded. “Ah told y’all ‘bout the pegasi. Well, they say that when that megaspell wiped out Cloudsdayle, all the pegasus ponies abandoned Equestria and hid behind their ceiling of clouds. All, that is, except one.”

I had stopped eating; it seemed disrespectful. But I still took a swig from the Sparkle~Cola as I listened to what was obviously going to be a story.

“They say that Rainbow Dash saw what the other pegasus ponies were doing, and turned away from them just as they turned away from all the ponies below…”

“Who?” Velvet Remedy interrupted as politely as she could.

Calamity smiled. “Rainbow Dash. The best of us, in some ponies’ opinion. The one who trained the pegasi inta the most elite and feared fighting force both in and beyond Equestria. The mare of the Ministry of Awesome. The one who…”

I swear Calamity had waited until I was taking another drink to say that. I coughed violently, Sparkle~Cola spraying out of my mouth and nostrils. I would be smelling carrots for a week.

“The Ministry of WHAT!?” I gasped, tears in my eyes. I knew I was further derailing Calamity’s story, but I didn’t care.

Calamity grinned at my reaction. “The Ministry of Awesome.”

“And what, pray tell, did they do?” Velvet Remedy inquired.

Calamity shrugged. “As far as Ah know, nothing.”

He elaborated, “Remember when Watcher told us ‘bout the Ministries? Well, Ah’d heard it a bit different. The pegasi never told ‘bout any of those other mares, but they talked ‘bout Rainbow Dash. An’ the story Ah heard was that when Princess Luna told her that she would be given her own ministry, Rainbow Dash immediately proclaimed, ‘Well, then mine will be the Ministry of Awesome!’

“And when asked what such a Ministry would do, she replied, ‘Oh, they’ll figure it out.’ Rainbow Dash herself was too busy fightin’ t’ win the war t’ be bothered with runnin’ some gov’ment office.”

I just stared. There were simply no words.

“That’s… interesting,” Velvet Remedy finally stated. “So this Rainbow Dash was a hero to the pegasus ponies.”

Calamity’s eyes narrowed. “Emphasis on was. She didn’t cotton to their closin’ up the sky an’ retreatin’. So she flew off. Never was seen again. An’ the pegasi? They tossed their opinion of her faster than a filly whose hat is on fire…”

Calamity finished unstrapping his barding. It fell away, revealing a flank marred by a magical brand. His cutie mark had been obliterated, replaced by a gruesome scar that looked like a cloud with a lightning bolt.

“I’m a Dashite,” Calamity said. “To them it means ‘Traitor’.”

*** *** ***

Thunder rumbled overhead.

It wasn’t even noon, and the sky had grown dark enough to be mistaken for early night. The first drop of rain touched down on my nose, followed by a second on my left ear.

We had moved beyond Fetlock into a rolling area of grassy hills occasionally marred by incongruous patches of sand. There was a lake visible at the bottom of the next hill, with a shack and several sunken rowboats on the shore. As we approached, my PipBuck ever-so-helpfully told me it was “SteelHooves Shack” and that I had found it.

I floated out Little Macintosh and used the scope to get a closer look. There were tools lined up against the wall, and I could see the glow from an operational terminal in a sheltered outside alcove. And… were those turrets? There were metal things on the ground near each corner of the shack, hidden by camouflage. It might have just been my recent work on Junction R-7 that had me thinking that way; if they were turrets, they were mostly buried.

“Wait!” I called out, now spotting marred holes in the grassy hillside all around the shack, the aftermath of mines that had exploded. The grass was just high enough that the mines would be fully concealed until you were standing on them.

Calamity and Velvet Remedy both stopped, looking towards me with concern.

I opened my mouth to explain about the mines, but another voice cut me off.

“Well, look who we have!” The voice was regal, majestic and terrifying.

The winged unicorn suddenly appeared directly in front of us, shimmering into existence. Velvet Remedy let out a short squeal.

“We remember you from Appleloosa.”

My jaw dropped. No. No way…

But as I stared, I knew that this was a different pseudo-goddess than the one in the slaver town. Her coloration was nearly identical, but there were differences in her face, mane and flanks.

Patches of air on either side of us rippled and two more of the wicked winged unicorns appeared.

“Invisibility spells?” Velvet Remedy complained, apparently beginning to join in my conviction that the wasteland simply hated us.

The pseudo-goddesses surrounded us. Each one was different, but only subtly, like they were all siblings. I looked around frantically, but the rolling hills were completely bereft of boxcars. A sunken rowboat wasn’t going to cut it.

“You’re not the prize we were looking for,” one of them said.

“But it will be a joy killing you anyways,” the third almost purred.

Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Counter Canter – Your fancy hoofwork (or agile flying if you are a pegasus pony) keeps you out of harm’s way. Opponents suffer a -5 to combat skills when attacking you.