Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat


Chapter Fourteen: SteelHooves

Chapter Fourteen: SteelHooves

“The Stables were never meant to save anypony.”

Explosions!

The world around me was rent apart by a cacophony of violent light and bombastic sound, shocking heat following a roar beyond the might of thunder. The twilight darkness was annihilated by too-bright brilliance.

Time slowed to a crawl, as if sensory overload was causing my own brain to lag. Fire and shrapnel tore at me, sparks of pain igniting all over my body. The roar that filled the world died with a high-pitched whine as I lost my hearing. I was rooted in place, unable to make my body move. Blood splattered across my face as the pseudo-goddess standing in front of me tore apart, the parts of her body savagely flung in every direction.

I felt myself thrown to the ground. Velvet Remedy covered me with her body, her shield forming around us with aching slowness. I could feel a sticky warmth as her blood seeped down, mixing with mine. Only belatedly did I realize that I was not the one being attacked. The second pseudo-goddess was turning, wide-eyed as she brought up her own magical shield. But it was too late for her; the rapid-fire explosions that were killing Velvet Remedy and me just by proximity were ripping directly into the creature. The pseudo-goddess’s shield rippled, fluctuated and died before it could fully manifest. Then she too was consumed in a mutilating blaze.

Time snapped back as the rain of explosions momentarily stopped. My vision was warped with afterimages of the creatures, their obliterating bodies flash-burned into my sight. My ears still heard nothing but a distant, nauseating buzz. But now I could see the source of the massive attack. And I had seen this thing before. It was the poster from the recruitment center, come to life before us. A pony completely concealed in steel-grey armor, even its tail. It was a mighty relic from the war, a “Steel Ranger”. A bright lamp on its forehead spotlighted its target, and the huge gun on the right side of its monstrous battle saddle began to fire again.

But the last pseudo-goddess had been given plenty of time to bring up her shield as her sisters were slaughtered. And the explosions -- which I now saw were metal apples similar to those I had used on the dragon, only being fired at terrifying speed -- detonated against the shield while she stood inside, looking cozy, unconcerned, and only mildly pissed. The flames illuminated her midnight-blue coat and sickly green hair, and made her eyes sparkle like gateways to hell.

Again, the Steel Ranger’s grenade machine gun stopped. And now a large box on the left side of its battle saddle sprung open, unleashing two rockets which arrowed through the air towards the creature, leaving contrails of smoke in their wake.

The pseudo-goddess merely lowered her head, a spark of light bursting from her horn. In an instant, the two rockets had reversed course. The Steel Ranger tried to step back, but there was no time. The rockets impacted directly into our armored would-be savior, the explosion tossing the massive body back down the hill. The grass erupted in smoke and dirt and flame as the tumbling body bounced over several mines before coming to a stop, motionless and seemingly lifeless at the foot of the shack below.

Velvet’s weight bore down on me. We waited for the Steel Ranger to get up, and the world seemed to wait with us. When after long moments it did not stir, the pseudo-goddess strode forward towards it. I could hear her laughter, even though my ears could hear nothing but that awful ringing. In the back of my mind, I realized I must have been right -- telepathy played a part in the pseudo-goddesses’ threat.

“See now, how the so-called ‘Mighty Alicorn Hunter’ has fallen!” the majestic and cruel voice of the pseudo-goddess purred in my head. “The Goddess will be most pleased.”

The impact of bullets created twin sparks on the pseudo-goddess’ shield. Limping and bloodied from the storm of fire and shrapnel, Calamity strode forward. I could see his mouth moving. Undoubtedly, he was saying something snide and witty.

The pseudo-goddess (or alicorn, by her own title) turned and snorted derisively.

Calamity shot again to just as futile an effect.

I shrugged my haunches, trying to tell Velvet Remedy to get off of me, but she did not. Her body was warm, dead weight. I realized her shield spell had dropped, and felt a surge of panic. I heaved, rolling her off, and turned to find my beautiful companion unconscious, her hide flayed by shrapnel, bleeding excessively. With a flare of my horn, I opened one of her medical boxes and started pulling out what supplies we had left. My heart screamed at seeing how little it was. I may have screamed too, but I couldn’t hear.

I pulled open the other, hoping for more, but all that was left in the second medical box was her dress, a bottle of Buck and…

…the Party-Time Mint-als!

That voice in my head roared. Velvet Remedy was counting on me. She’d die if I couldn’t help her. I needed to be smarter right now! I needed to be better right now! I needed those Mint-als!

The little memory orb rolled out and fell into the grass as I tore the tin of Party-Time Mint-als from her saddle box and floated it to me. A craving hit me, and I had to force myself to only take one. Make them last. One would be…

The world became so much brighter, clearer, cleaner. I was aware of each raindrop as it struck me. I was aware of each pain, each bleeding gash in my own body. My mind sped down pathways of thought.

Once again, brilliant light burst all about us, this time carrying a choking stench of ozone as the alicorn summoned lightning from the thunderclouds and struck Calamity to the ground. I turned, trying to cry out, but I had no voice. Or I did, but could not hear it.

Calamity shuddered, twitching on the ground. He was not dead, not even yet unconscious, but he was in no condition to fight. The alicorn didn’t seem to care. A malicious smile broke over her features, cold and wicked, as motes of pinkish-purple light ignited around her head, growing and shaping into magical arrows.

I tried to get to my hooves, but my legs wouldn’t work. A wave of felling nausea dropped me. I knew I too was suffering from loss of blood, and the ringing in my ears was shredding my sense of balance. But I also knew that Calamity and Velvet were about to die. So might I, but I would die saving them.

And in the sheer brilliance of Mint-al-enhanced acumen, I knew just how to do it.

My telekinesis did not fail me, even when my body did. I brought my sniper rifle to me as I simultaneously lifted the memory orb and floated it towards the alicorn, moving it so that it approached from her flank. I felt a pang of conscience risking something so precious to Velvet.

The pseudo-goddess turned, catching the movement out of the corner of her eye. She reacted before she recognized it, expecting a grenade, focusing her magic against it to send it hurling back at me.

The memory orb glowed softly as the alicorn touched it with focused magic. Her eyes went wide, her shield dropping and the forming cascade of magical arrows evaporating as the alicorn was lost inside the memory.

Slipping into the targeting zen of S.A.T.S., I lined up the headshot and pulled the trigger.

*** *** ***

“No!” Velvet Remedy intoned harshly, her voice sounding distant and muffled through the buzzing in my ears. She floated the tin of Party-Time Mint-als away from me before I had a chance to take yet another. I’d taken two already, one before killing the alicorn and a second to stave off the massive depression that I knew would come when the first wore off.

“But…!” I tried to come up with something that Velvet Remedy would buy. I was amazing now; I could talk anyone into anything. “At least let me hold onto them. I might need them.” And yet somehow, I couldn’t convince the most beautiful mare in the wasteland to let me keep a tin full of medicine.

I’d administered the last of the medical potions to Velvet Remedy. The magical liquid seemed to work achingly slowly at closing her wounds. Now she was left with just the healing bandages to aid Calamity and myself. We didn’t have anywhere near enough. She was still very weak from the loss of blood, and was having trouble standing. Calamity needed a medical brace to fix his leg; Velvet Remedy didn’t want to risk a mending spell until it was properly set. More, he needed serious bed rest to recover from the lightning strike.

There was one more.

I had to wave Velvet Remedy back before I approached the unmoving armored figure crumpled against the shack below. Harnessing my levitation, I could pass over the minefield safely. Velvet Remedy could not.

Between the alicorn’s thought-words and the label my PipBuck had spontaneously given the shack, it didn’t take Party-Time Mint-al-enhanced smarts to realize that this had probably been SteelHooves.

The great alicorn hunter… meaning there were more of these. Possibly a lot more. The thought was frightening. SteelHooves had exterminated two of them with a combination of surprise and epic firepower. It was by wits and luck that I had killed the third before she slew us all. Last time, I needed a boxcar. These creatures were not invincible, but they were powerful and very hard to kill.

The metal stallion (or, at least, I was assuming stallion based on the form of the armor) had not moved since the battle. I crouched down next to the fallen Ranger (several of my bandages shifting and coming undone as I did so, my wounds oozing blood). Up close, the armor was even more impressive. It had its own air filtration system, complete life support, even mechanized drug injection. The damage from the rockets was far less than it had any right to be. Still, the armor had cave in at the point of impact, gruesomely crushing the pony inside.

I tried to find a way to remove the helmet. If there was one, it was well concealed. But I found a jackpoint that would allow my PipBuck to interface with the helmet’s own arcane technology matrix. I pulled out a tool from my utility barding, already suspecting that the helmet included its own E.F.S. and S.A.T.S. equivalents, if not more. Whoever had designed the armor must have worked tail-twined-with-tail alongside Stable-Tec.

“Don’t do that.” The voice from inside the helmet was low, rumbling, exceptionally masculine.

I jumped back, startled. There was somepony alive in there! Fueled by Party-Time confidence, approached, trying to reassure him. “I’m a certified Stable-Tec PipBuck Technician,” I lied, but only a little, “I’m sure I can help.”

“No. You can’t.” The voice spoke, but the body still did not move. The helmet did not even turn to look at me. “My armor took a crippling hit. Everything is off-line. Medical, self-repair… the entire spell matrix has crashed.”

I sat back on my haunches, wincing as several sharp bolts of pain lashed up through my flanks. “Can you…”

“Without magical power, I cannot even move. I will die here. I am, truly, already dead.” The low voice in the armor sounded resigned to the idea, and at peace with it. “But I took them with me. And, if I am not mistaken, I saved the Stable Dweller. As a final act, it was a good one.”

I was taken aback. My overblown reputation. A deep discomfort stirred inside me. It wasn’t right for other ponies to risk their lives for me, thinking of me as something special.

I stared at the Steel Ranger, not dead but paralyzed. If the armor had no power, jacking into it wouldn’t do any good. I looked back towards Velvet Remedy, wishing I had actually taken some time to learn more about medicine from her rather than just relying on her skills. I contemplated lifting her over the minefield.

Turning back to the fallen armored pony, “Okay… SteelHooves, right?”

“How did you… oh. Of course.”

Of course what? Shaking off the confusion, I continued, “I’m bringing our medic over.” Without another word, I turned and focused my magic on Velvet Remedy. She floated into the air with a shocked eep. She started to float through the air towards us.

“Littlepip, put me down!”

“Minefield,” I said casually.

“Okay, move me, then put me down.”

A moment later, she had joined us. She gave me a ladylike nicker and turned to look over the armored hunter. As I informed her of what he had told me, my mind flashed to the poster I had seen on the wall of Candi’s clinic: “You don’t have to be a Steel Ranger to be a Hero. Join the Ministry of Peace today.” I looked at Velvet Remedy, knowing she must be familiar with the same poster from somewhere, and wondered if she was remembering it as well.

*** *** ***

“You need not bother,” SteelHooves insisted. “There’s nothing to be done. I’ve had a good gallop…

“Nonsense,” Velvet Remedy neighed, brushing off the Steel Ranger’s morbidity. “Now we just have to get you out…”

“No,” the low, gravelly voice said again.

“Sorry?” Velvet asked, confused. She had spent several minutes examining the armor, looking increasingly worried. “Even if the armor protected you from burns and slashes, you’ve suffered massive blunt trauma. The internal damage could…” As she spoke, she began to wrap the armor in a soft magical glow.

“Don’t remove my armor.”

Velvet Remedy whinnied. “Oh please, I just went through this with Calamity. I can’t treat you if I can’t see you…”

“If you remove my armor, I will die.”

I blinked, gaping at him, eyeing the huge dent crushing into his side. I didn’t possess Velvet Remedy’s medical insight, but I could imagine that the armor was the only thing holding him together.

Velvet pulled back, canceling her spell. “Well, that seems like a design flaw.”

“The armor is meant to keep me alive,” SteelHooves said a touch defensively. “Open the armor plate over my left flank.” Velvet Remedy did so, revealing a system for administering drugs and medical potions, everything from Buck to…

“I don’t even recognize some of these drugs,” Velvet said, in surprise.

“The armor has a doctor enchantment. If it was working, I would be fully healed already.”

I was still looking over the injection system, casually observing, “It doesn’t have a system for Party…”

“Littlepip!” Velvet Remedy scolded, silencing me.

I stepped back, cowed. I turned my mind from the drugs, instead focusing on the failure of the magically powered armor’s spell matrix. If this was a PipBuck, I could easily…

“Wait,” I blurted, already knowing exactly what to do.

Velvet Remedy gave me a look. “Littlepip…” she hissed dangerously. I couldn’t blame her. It had been only a second since I made that other observation; she didn’t have any appreciation for how fast I could think right now. (If she did, maybe she wouldn’t be so fast to take my Party-Time Mint-als away.)

“No, I know how to fix him! I can restore power to the armor and reboot the spell matrix.” I beamed. “The suit designer obviously incorporated Stable-Tec arcane technology. It’s really not that different from fixing a PipBuck.”

Velvet’s expression softened. “Well then, don’t just stand there,” she smiled, backing out of my way, careful not to move closer to the minefield.

I trotted forward, and came crashing back to reality. Recognition of my mistake mixed with the crushing depression that flooded me in the wake of Party-Time Mint-als wearing off. In a moment, I was stupid, ignorant and dumb.

“I-I can’t,” I moaned.

“But you just said…”

“I don’t have the tools.” I felt like crying. The Steel Ranger was going to die, imprisoned in his armor, because I wasn’t a certified Stable-Tec PipBuck Technician. My utility barding didn’t include a spell matrix master key. Reluctantly, I admitted as much.

Velvet Remedy walked to me, wobbling a little, still faint from loss of blood. She wrapped her tail over me, whispering comfortingly into my ear.

“A spell matrix master key?” The voice of SteelHooves sounded hopeful rather than resigned. “You might be able to find one in Stable Twenty-Nine.”

*** *** ***

We were going into another Stable. I felt myself tremble at the thought. From apprehension more than physical weakness, I assumed; Velvet Remedy had rebound my wounds.

Calamity limped up to me. “Remember, Littlepip. This isn’t your Stable.” I nodded. I was still in the grips of post-PTM depression. I knew I wasn’t in any condition, mentally, to be doing this. But SteelHooves needed the help, and we owed him.

“I’ve changed my mind,” the Steel Ranger protested. “I cannot allow you to go into a Stable for me.” His sense of hope had swiftly been squelched by a stubborn nobility that I both understood and rejected. I wasn’t the only one.

“Oh? Well then, come right over here and stop us,” Velvet Remedy suggested. Then added, “Oh right. You can’t.”

“Your bedside manner is horrible,” the voice from inside the armor reported.

I looked at the three of us. We were in no condition to travel into unknown and likely hostile territory. Each one of us could barely stand.

“I won’t tell you where the entrance is,” SteelHooves said dissuasively.

Calamity whinnied. “Ponyhole cover marked Stable Twenty-Nine? Near the Fetlock passenger wagon stop?” SteelHooves pointedly said nothing. Calamity leaned over and whispered, “And Velvet Remedy thought there was nothin’ interestin’ under the passenger wagon.”

It took us much longer to reach it than I remembered. We were moving gingerly, avoiding marks of red on my E.F.S. compass. Right now, I felt a few radroaches could finish us off.

Calamity was flying, keeping all weight off his leg. He looked at the passenger wagon and announced too-cheerfully, “Well, I hope your levitation is back to its full impressiveness, Littlepip. Unless we’ve found a flux regulator and nopony’s told me, moving that thing will be up to you.”

I laid down. I needed to focus fully on the passenger wagon (Sky Bandit Stages, I noted pointlessly), and that meant not diverting my energies to remaining upright. My horn lit up as I concentrated on the huge wagon. Magical power enveloped it. I pushed, converging all my will onto moving the vehicle. My horn flared. A layer of overglow burst around it. The wagon began to rock, groaning. Sweat broke across my forehead. I began to have trouble breathing. Somewhere distant, Velvet Remedy was being concerned, but I blocked it out. A second layer of overglow erupted around my horn, and the whole wagon lifted several feet into the air and was shoved back onto the sidewalk.

I let it down gently, then collapsed, exhausted. I could see the ponyhole cover. Yay. Sleep now.

*** *** ***

“How long was I out?” I asked, aghast.

“Long enough to get some much needed sleep,” Velvet soothed. “I rested my eyes a little myself.”

We were in a short maintenance tunnel. On one end, a door led to even more maintenance tunnels that snaked all under Fetlock. On the other, three steps led up to the massive door of Stable Twenty-Nine. Calamity was standing on three hooves (his crippled foreleg lifted) and staring at the control mechanism.

“Well, this was a bust,” he proclaimed. It looked like Stable Twenty-Nine had never opened. And without an override password, it was unlikely that we would be getting in. Still, I went to work at it. My mind still felt sluggish, and I considered munching a Mint-al (even the non-Party flavor would help), but I didn’t want Velvet Remedy or Calamity to think I needed them. I didn’t. They just made me a better me.

After invading the control system and thoroughly probing it, I found something interesting. “I… think I’ve found a backdoor.”

“Where?” Calamity asked, looking up at the ponyhole. “Is it far?”

I shook my head. “No, I mean, into the system. A three-part key is required to bypass the normal security.”

“What kind of key?” Velvet Remedy questioned.

“Voice recognition. Three different voices are required,” I informed them. Then, before anypony pointed out the fact that there were coincidentally three of us, I explained, “It has to be the right three voices. What is being said doesn’t seem to matter, just who’s saying it.”

It was a very interesting backdoor at that. I wondered just what prompted such a design. And if all Stables had the same security hole.

‘Whose three voices?”

I thought a moment, and cursed how slow my brain was. “I… um…” Then I remembered Stable Two’s override code. CMC3BFF. “I think I know.”

The first voice was the one that took the longest, simply because I didn’t have a recording of it. Instead, we sat there listening to DJ Pon3 on the radio, waiting for his selection of songs to cycle through. For the first and only time, I was actually grateful that his radio broadcast had such a limited selection of music.

“Good evening, everypony! This is your humble host, DJ Pon3, master of the airwaves. And it’s just about time for me to turn in. But first, the news! Looks like our wasteland crusader from Stable Two is an equal-opportunity savior. From the reports I’m getting, she and her companions helped out a bunch of raiders up at Shattered Hoof from being enslaved and decimated by an attacking slaver army. And then, because you can’t have a cupcake without icing, she killed a dragon!”

Luna dammit, why wasn’t it ever “Calamity and his companions?” Or Velvet Remedy and her entourage?

“Don’t know if I agree with you on this one, kid. Saving raiders? Some monsters deserve to be enslaved.”

Perfect.

“Also in the news: got another report of hellhounds attacking travelers in the wasteland between Manehattan and Fillydelphia. Honestly, ponies, if you have to travel that way, make sure you have a heavily armed escort. And if you don’t, just don’t. This has been a DJ Pon3 pony survival tip. Tune in for more tips in this series, including ‘Grenades aren’t for eating’ and ‘Raiders do not want to be your friend.’ But first, it’s Sweetie Belle singing, ‘The Dark Days Are Over’…“

I leapt up. “Here we go, ponies!”

Back at the controls, I fed the voice pattern recognition spell the first few lines of the song, mentally noting to record the song for use if I had the deep misfortune to have to enter a Stable a third time.

I followed with snippits of two recordings:

“The override code for opening the door to Stable Two is... CMC3BFF.”

“Hello! My name is Scootaloo. You probably know me (since I am pretty famous) for my awesome performances at events like last year’s GALLoPS, or maybe just as the founder of Red Racer…”

With a mighty hiss and a draconic groan of protest, the door to Stable Twenty-Nine began to move.

I turned to find Velvet Remedy walking past me to face the door. The gorgeous mare had donned her beautiful dress and groomed her mane. I shot a look to Calamity, who merely shrugged. “um… Velvet?” The dress hid most of her bandages.

“We’re meeting the ponies of another Stable for the first time. We want to put our best hoof forward,” she said aristocratically. “Especially if they’ve never had outside visitors before. We want to look like diplomats,” her eye moved to look at me without turning her head. “If you two went in first, we’d look like invaders.”

The vast metal door swung away and Velvet Remedy stepped into Stable Twenty-Nine regally and without hesitation. Calamity limped up to me as I watched her disappear inside. “She’s really somethin’, ain’t she.”

“Yes…” I said, feeling a little dumbstruck. I glanced at Calamity, who was staring through the door at Velvet. “…she…” I did a double-take. Calamity wasn’t looking at Velvet Remedy, he was looking at her. Something broke in my brain. “…no!”

No, that was just… no.

“No?” he asked, confused, his eyes not leaving her haunches.

I stammered, recovering. “no, not no. I mean… yes. Yes she is. She’s…” Mine.

Dammit!

*** *** ***

This was not fair.

I loved Velvet Remedy. I had since long before Calamity ever met her. Yes, yes I knew I didn’t actually have a chance with her. She was… her! And I was just… me. And I knew all about swinging barn doors.

But… arrugh.

I took the mental image of Calamity successfully wooing Velvet Remedy when I could not and shoved it into a deep dark hole. Then filled in that hole. Then built a house on top of that hole and moved into it.

I focused instead on the pristine but extremely gloomy interior of Stable Twenty-Nine. At first glance, it looked perfectly preserved. A gasp from Velvet Remedy shattered that illusion.

Velvet was backing away from the remains of a skeleton dangling overhead from part of the door mechanism, its midsection pulverized.

Velvet wavered, looking about to faint. I grimaced, looking to Calamity, who rushed over to steady her. This was an ominous start.

Two metal doors offered us two options: Maintenance or Atrium. My Eyes-Forward Sparkle was clear of any red. For that matter, it was completely clear of anything other than my two companions. There was no life in this Stable. At least, not within the range of my PipBuck’s spell. The Stable was utterly silent, save for the ever-present high-pitched hum of the lights and the gentle rumble of the generators.

“This place is a tomb,” Calamity voiced.

Maintenance should take us directly to the PipBuck Technician’s stall. But the Atrium would lead to the clinic, and we were in desperate need of medical supplies. On the off chance there was something lurking in Stable Twenty-Nine, we needed the medical supplies before we did any wandering. I passed my logic by Velvet Remedy and Calamity, and they both agreed, Calamity wincing as the hoof of his injured leg brushed the floor.

I stepped forward and the door to the Atrium slid up. Stepping in, my eyes immediately fell on the skeletons of at least three dozen other ponies. They were strewn about the room, but the highest concentration was right at my hooves. I had to use telekinesis to create a path through the bones of the ponies “lucky enough” to have made it into a Stable before the megaspell destroyed Manehattan. I felt anger biting at the back of my head. I reminded myself it wasn’t my Stable.

There was a lot of other debris in the Atrium as well. Bottles of beer and whiskey, scotch and wine, most of them empty and many shattered. Dresses and gentlepony-wear turned greasy with decay. In the far back, a sound system was riddled with bullet holes.

“Do you think they…?” Velvet’s voice trailed off. She was looking behind us, just above the door we had come through. Two automated security turrets were mounted on the wall. They had power, but didn’t seem to be tracking us. My E.F.S. claimed they were not a threat. The room suggested that had not always been the case.

I looked up towards the circular window of the Overmare’s office, only there wasn’t one. The wall was blank and featureless where that window should be. The stairwell that should lead up to the security center and Overmare’s offices was there, but it was simply labeled: Security.

I found myself getting irrationally upset at the incorrectness of the Stable’s design. Again.

Behind me, I heard Calamity whispering to Velvet, “She’s had bad reactions to a Stable before.” What, was I that obvious? “We better keep an eye on her.”

Oh perfect. Now they were going to be my parents. Arrugh. “Okay, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate danger. We should split up to save time. Velvet, why don’t you raid the clinic.” It was safe. I could see into the clinic through the Atrium window. Calamity and I will head down to maintenance.”

Velvet Remedy argued, “No, Calamity should stay with me.”

I barely kept myself from stomping.

Velvet Remedy continued simply, “I want to mend that leg as soon as possible. I can use my magic to heal the bone once I have it set properly.”

Fine, I groused mentally. Then, sounding as pleasant as I could, “Of course. No problem. I don’t need any help finding the PipBuck Technician stall anyway.” That is, assuming any of the rest of this place isn’t laid out bizarrely. “I’ll be back before you’re done.”

I started to trot back through the door. Velvet Remedy stopped me with a soft voice. “Littlepip? Are you all right?”

I waved a hoof. “Oh yes. I’m just… feeling a little drained. Blood loss, you know.” I put on a good smile. She looked like she was trying to be convinced. “Okay, I’m a bit surprised. But I’m happy. It’s a good thing that my two friends like each other.”

Calamity coughed. “Wait, what?” He nickered, “She’s a self-righteous, self-idolizin’ elitist who’d rather fix up our enemies than shoot ‘em.”

Velvet Remedy shot him a scowl. “And he’s an impulsive ruffian who thinks he can fix the wasteland by drowning it in blood.”

By the Goddesses, could they be any more obvious!

I left before I screamed.

*** *** ***

I spent the rest of the trip down through Stable Maintenance reminding myself that it actually was a good thing that my friends got along, that it was stupid to be jealous when I’d had no real chance to begin with, and that if I wanted to keep those friends, I’d best bury these feelings in that same dark hole.

I wondered just how long this had been going on. Was it new? Had there been signs that I was too oblivious to catch? Or had I just not wanted to catch them?

The idea of “catching them” brought an entirely unwanted mental image of Velvet and Calamity to mind that I quickly shredded and burned. This was going to be hard.

You know what would make being cheerful for them easy? A little pony in my head waved a tin at me. Fuck that little pony. I wanted to wallow just a little longer.

A little light appeared on my E.F.S. compass. It was not hostile. Did one of them come down here after me? If so, how did they get ahead of me?

A moment later, a maintenance bot hovered out of one of the stalls, its multiple limbs bobbing as it cleaned the wall. No wonder this place looked spotless. I felt a spark of annoyance that we didn’t have a wall-washing robot in Stable Two Maintenance. I’d had to wash the walls of my stall by hoof.

The robot started to clean in my direction. I decided to get out of its way by ducking into the Robotics Technician stall. The room was filled with maintenance bots in various states of disrepair. There were enough tools in here to upgrade Calamity’s workshop plans. I began looting.

The Robotics Technician’s back office had been burned black. I found the charred skeletons of two ponies along with a partially-dismantled medical bot. From the looks of it, somepony had made a fatal error while working on it, causing the sanitary flamethrower to go off wildly.

The maintenance bot passed by in the hall.

At the back of the burned office was a safe, the paint on the wall around it bubbled and peeling. The safe itself had feared nothing from the fire. I slipped out my screwdriver and a bobbypin, only to discover the safe wasn’t locked. Already in a bad mood, I felt cheated.

Inside was a flask of apple whiskey, a pouch of two-hundred-year-old (Old-Fashioned Gourmet) Honey Drops, a tin of (sadly normal) Mint-als, several maintenance clipboards and a recording. Leaving the clipboards, I downloaded the recording into my PipBuck and gave it a listen.

“This is Mender, reporting on diagnostics progress for Cannikin’s household utility bot. Stayed up all night probing through this thing’s programming; wanted to have this report ready in time for the funeral.

“From what I can tell, looks like the robot suffered a glitch while receiving an automated update to its subroutines from Stable-Tec. That’s really the only explanation I have of how it gave Cannikin a cup of steaming hot industrial solvent rather than coffee.

“All those ponyfolk who whispered old Cannikin was going to drink himself to death are probably choking on their words right now. If not, they should be. I saw the poor fellow before they incinerated him -- his whole mouth and throat were eaten away. I’ve had nightmares about it for days.

“I plan to talk to Shadowhorn later today; I want all the house-helpers to be shut down until we can check each one of them. Of course, that’s going to take some doing, and a lot of time.

“I know it’s uncomely of me to use Cannikin’s death to push my own agenda, but this is just another example of why I think we need an in-Stable authority. How can the ponies of Stable-Tec possibly expect to properly govern the Stable if they’re not here, seeing what’s going on?”

That was unexpected. And gruesome. I tried to shove the mental image of Cannikin out of my head, centering my thoughts instead on the idea of a Stable without an Overmare at all. A Stable run remotely by Stable-Tec.

*** *** ***

The PipBuck Technician’s stall was right where it was supposed to be. I was surprised, relieved, and a touch annoyed that I should feel either.

The Technician’s spell matrix master key was locked away in a cabinet along with a dozen other enchanted precision tools that mere apprentices like myself were not allowed access too. I floated out my screwdriver and a bobby pin once more.

A few minutes later, my armored utility barding was fully-loaded with everything I could need for advanced PipBuck repair. And, at least in theory, everything necessary to restore the flow of magical power to SteelHooves’ armor. And just in case, I packed several spark batteries and a small magical field conducting array.

The office of this Stable’s head Technician lacked the hammock that had so often bore my teacher’s weight back in Stable Two. I shook my head, giving the stall one more look before leaving to rejoin my friends. I spotted an audio journal amongst the items scattered across the Technician’s desk.

Sit here and play the journal? Or trot back to find Velvet Remedy and Calamity. Together. Hopefully not kissing. Okay, journal it was.

“Shadowhorn called us into a meeting this morning. We nearly had a major disaster yesterday. That idiot Buckbright built his colt a BB gun for his birthday, then brought the kid down to the reactor level for target practice. What was he thinking? Kid missed a radroach and punched a small hole in the environmental system. Actually nicked the water talisman. Thankfully, it’s working fine, but another half an inch and the whole Stable would be in serious trouble.

“As head of Maintenance, Shadowhorn laid down a whole new series of safety protocols. They aren’t official until she gets them passed through Stable-Tec, but we’re going to follow them anyway. If Stable-Tec doesn’t like somepony giving the orders for them, well they can trot themselves down here and say differently.”

*** *** ***

Velvet Remedy pushed three jars of extra-strength restoration potion over to me. “Drink these. You’ll be in perfect health in ten minutes.”

I was shocked. “Shouldn’t we take these with us? Use them sparingly?”

Velvet Remedy shook her head. She was looking a lot better. She had stowed away her dress and removed her bandages; her hide was perfect, her coat looked pristine and healthy. She had a couple IV bags draped over her haunches, with surgical tubing running to a spot beneath her left shoulder. “No need. I’ve already stored a dozen more away for our travels, plus plenty of bandages, some braces, blood packs and more. For the first time, we’re positively flush with medical supplies. I’d say this clinic was a gift from the Goddesses, but I know better.”

I raised an eyebrow as I floated the first potion to my lips. Velvet Remedy slid me a recording. “I found this while I was… requisitioning supplies.” I smirked at her reluctance to call it looting or scavenging.

I downed two of the extra-strength restoration potions and slipped the third into my saddlebags. Memories of Velvet, her hide shredded and bloody, had resurfaced in my mind. I could handle being mostly healed if it meant I had one of these ready in case of an emergency.

Calamity was also looking much better. He complained that after Velvet Remedy’s mending spell, the brace wasn’t really necessary, but she insisted he keep it on for at least another day.

I walked about the clinic, looking for a good spot to sit down and listen to the recording. I frowned at it, expecting bad things. Recordings so rarely carried good things in the Equestrian Wasteland. Especially, it seemed, in Stables.

I found a chemistry lab in the back of the clinic. For a moment, all thoughts of the recording fled my mind. Looking over the drugs and supplies, I realized that along with what I had already, I had all the ingredients to cook up my own batch of Party-Time Mint-als! And having the ability and opportunity, I couldn’t resist. It would have been silly to.

As I started work, I remembered why I had come back here. I let the recording play as I ground down the regular, boring old Mint-als into a fine powder.

“Oh…”

The voice was so filled with raw despair that I quickly shut the recording off. I didn’t want to hear that. I concentrated on my chem cooking for several long minutes, the recording just sitting there on the counter staring balefully at me. Finally, with a huff, I turned it back on.

“How could this have happened?!

“The doctor and I just stepped out for a few minutes. When we came back, the clinic had sealed itself and the fire suppression system had activated, flooding the entire clinic with… with…

“It took us over an hour to get it open again. We tried breaking through the window, but it’s armored. Why would they armor the window? Everypony inside had choked to death. Lemongrass had only been in there to have her stitches out. She was planning for her daughter’s Cute-ceañera this evening, and had been talking to me about what flavor of cake to get from the dispensers. The Orange’s new colt was still in the clinic nursery! Oh gosh! I don’t think anypony’s told them yet!...”

I shut it off again. My heart was twisted up in knots. Part of me wanted to cry. Part wanted to rage at something. But there wasn’t anything obvious to rage at. So I raged at the faucet, beating my hooves against it for refusing to give me water. It was stupid, but it felt good. Finally (after pouring water from my canteen), I finished mixing the concoction and set it to bake.

The sound of machine gun fire snapped my attention away. All thought of journals, Mint-als and chemistry evaporated when I heard Velvet Remedy cry out. My friends were in trouble!

As I turned, two red spots lit up on my E.F.S. compass. The turrets had become hostile. Dashing back into the central clinic, I saw Calamity and Velvet ducking under an overturned medical bench as the two turrets outside (above the now-closed door) peppered the glass window. Pock-marks and spiderweb cracks covered every inch of it, the armored glass about to give.

Floating out Little Macintosh, I positioned myself where I would be able to target both of them the instant the glass came down. I didn’t have much cover, but if I was fast and just a little lucky, I wouldn’t need it.

The window broke apart in a tinkling cascade. I felt the first bullet slam into my chest, not quite punching through my armor, as I girded myself with S.A.T.S. and targeted both turrets twice. A second bullet ripped through my foreleg between my PipBuck and my knee as I fired off the first shot. And the second.

BLAM! BLAM!

The first turret exploded. The second swept its arc of bullets away from Calamity and Velvet Remedy and towards me.

BLAM! BLAM!

One last bullet struck my side, bouncing off the handle of my combat shotgun with a loud crack, as the second turret exploded.

I collapsed, suddenly realizing that I was yet again in a truly bad amount of pain. But this time I had no worries at all. I had Calamity and Velvet Remedy right nearby, and we were in a clinic. If I had to be shot, I couldn’t think of a better place or better company.

But as soon as I hit the floor, I struggled back to my hooves, ignoring my injuries. Limping, bleeding badly, I tried to push back towards the chemistry lab. I had to make sure my Party-Time Mint-als didn’t overcook. Now that my friends were safe, my mind locked on what had become a decidedly second but still important priority.

*** *** ***

The Atrium door had closed and locked. We were sealed inside.

It was more of an aggravation than a real worry. I knew that I should be able to override every door in this place from the Security station. But reaching it meant getting past several more points where the suddenly trigger-happy security system could attack us.

I looked to my companions. By now, I was beginning to think of us as seasoned warriors of the wasteland (well, at least Calamity and I). I hadn’t been out here long, but the time had been a forging fire if there ever was one. A few turrets shouldn’t pose much threat to the slayers of dragons.

I quickly checked myself. That kind of thought was dangerous. The last thing I needed was to start buying into the hype on the radio.

Velvet Remedy was looking at me sadly. I think I was fast enough, but I was guessing that she suspected what I was up to in the chemistry lab. She hadn’t taken her eyes off me since, and the reproachful look was burning into my soul.

Calamity was gazing over something on the wall. At first, I assumed it was another pre-war poster -- he was studying it with the same intensity that Velvet Remedy usually reserved for anything involving the Ministry of Peace. But as I moved closer, still slightly limping on my own mended and bandaged leg, I saw that it was a map of the Stable. My eyes followed the path up the stairs to the Security station. The armory was up there, as well as a series of rooms that in a proper Stable would have been the Overseer’s personal and family quarters. Here, it was labeled as V.I.P. (Very Important Ponies) rooms. There was a big area of absolutely nothing where the Overseer’s Office was supposed to be.

My brow furrowed. “I really hate these Stables.”

Velvet Remedy was looking back over the skeletons, while keeping me within her line of sight. “Was… was the other one you found this bad?”

“Worse,” neighed Calamity.

We moved towards the stairs, stopping at a bulletin board covered in the usual notices. I shrank back; somepony had written “STOP KILLING US!” across the board in what looked like blood.

“Oh my,” Velvet whispered. To my surprise, she magically tugged one of the notices off the board, floating it closer for inspection. The notice had been between a posting of new safety regulations and a flier for two missing fillies whose smiling faces had stared into an atrium of corpses for centuries. The bottom part of the “N” was painted on the sheet Velvet had taken. I stared from the bulletin board to her, wondering how by Luna’s Mane she could find anything more noteworthy than the giant plea for mercy written in a dying pony’s own bodily fluids.

Velvet Remedy turned the flyer so that Calamity and I could see.

Third Month Survival Party!

Tonight in the Atrium!

10 o’clock to 16 o’clock

Stable 29’s own Vinyl Scratch hosting

(alcohol will be provided after twelve)

Calamity whistled, tilting up his hat. “Vinyl Scratch. The original DJ Pon3… least accordin’ t’ some. So, she survived the Manehattan balefire bomb after all.”

I shot Calamity a look that suggested he needed to revisit his definition of “survived”.

I really hated these Stables.

*** *** ***

Between stealth and Little Macintosh, the other turrets proved little threat. I reloaded as we pushed into the Security station. I sat down to hack the terminal, trying to be respectful as I floated the pony skeleton off of it and laid it down in the corner near the others. Velvet Remedy had begun saying prayers over them.

Calamity trotted to the armory in the vain hope he could open it without my skills. Discovering he couldn’t, he turned away with a disappointed expression. I waited until he took a step away before opening the door remotely from the easily-hacked terminal. He jumped, then shot me a grin and disappeared inside. A petty but good-natured revenge; I was still smelling carrots.

I turned back to see a huge mass of security logs. Tentatively, I brought up one of the later ones.

Entry 67:

This is insane!

Over half the population is dead. At first, we thought they were freak accidents, but now it’s clearly malevolent. It’s like the Stable itself has turned against us! Yesterday, the school sealed itself and plasma was vented into the room. Twenty-three colts and fillies were murdered horribly, their bodies literally melting away! We could hear their screams! My nephew was in the class. He’d just gotten his cutie mark; he was going to grow up to be an artist!

My sister can’t stop crying. She’s locked herself in our room with all the pictures she has of him. Somepony has to be responsible for this. Somepony has to pay!

I found myself shaking, and not from pain. I commanded the security terminal to play one of the older ones.

Entry 43:

Shadowhorn passed away last night from complications after being nearly electrocuted early yesterday morning while trying to access the junction behind a security panel with her PipBuck. This, so soon after Buckbright and his son were killed in that accident with the lift! This Stable’s a death trap.

I hit another.

Entry 72:

It’s Stable-Tec. It has to be! Those fuckers at Stable-Tec have locked us all in their little fucking death maze and are killing us off. It’s not even one-by-one anymore. They’re slaughtering us in groups!

What kind of sadistic bastards could do this!? They’ve killed children!

Don’t they realize we’re the only chance for ponykind? These Stables are supposed to save us! What kind of evil saddlefuckers play murder games with the last surviving members of their own species?

We can’t even get at them. It’s all done remotely.

I brought up the next one, ignoring Velvet Remedy’s plea for me to stop.

Entry 73:

Ha. Ha. The jokes on us, isn’t it? It occurs to me that we don’t actually know that the megaspells went off. We believe the world above has been destroyed because that’s what Stable-Tec told us to believe. But what if it’s not? All of Equestria is just going on about their daily lives in the sunny world above us while we scream and cry and die down here in some depraved amusement for the sick, soulless ponies at Stable-Tec.

It’s the only thing that makes even a breath of sense in this horror.

I reached to trigger another when Velvet Remedy physically pulled me away from the terminal.

“WHAT!?” I yelled in pure rage, my body shaking so hard I felt like I would explode.

“Littlepip,” she said, and I realized she was crying, “You need to stop.”

*** *** ***

Calamity and Velvet Remedy sent me off to look over the last two rooms, the V.I.P. rooms, while they turned off the security systems and opened all the doors. That was good. They wanted me to catch my breath. Calm down. I wanted to find a place away from them and something to violently destroy.

I was seeing red like never before, and I couldn’t even attack the source of my anger because they were all dead. Dead decades and centuries ago. My body hadn’t stopped shaking.

The first room had a banner lit up above it: Vinyl Scratch. This was her room then. The original DJ Pon3. I stepped forward and the door slid open.

The room inside had been untouched since the night of the party, three months after the door of Stable Twenty-Nine closed, trapping everypony inside.

I walked about, staring. Stacks of records. Turntables. Recording equipment. A rather luxurious if small space to eat and sleep. A private lavatory with a full-body bath.

I could throw quite the rage in here. The records would shatter beneath my hooves quite enjoyably. But I couldn’t do that. Destroying the things that had been loved by the ponies who lived here (ever so briefly) didn’t feel like railing against the vile ponies that had created this place; rather, it would be a continuation of their work. Instead, I collected a few records, slipping them into my saddlebags. When I returned to the others, I would have Velvet Remedy lock them in one of her medical boxes where it would be safe from bullet fire. I still remembered that apple.

There was a safe in the room. I hesitated. Somehow, it felt a little odd breaking into the safe of a celebrity, even a long-dead one. But with a long breath, I brought out my tools and set to work. Inside I found an old child’s toy, several framed photographs and a handful of posters. And one box that looked like it had been rescued from a fire. Inside were four memory orbs. One caught my eye. It was labeled: Pinkie Pie’s Last Party. I took it, slipping it into my saddlebags and walked to the next room.

The sign over the door announced: Shadowhorn.

The mare in charge of maintenance was a V.I.P. in the Stable? Even in the midst of my barely-reined fury at Stable-Tec, my pure hatred towards whom could not be told, part of my brain recognized that seemed odd.

The door slid open for me and I stepped in. This room was more disheveled. There were parts and scrap metal everywhere. Half-finished projects covered the table. Schematics of different Stable systems were pinned to the wall. One of them had been torn away to reveal this room’s safe. Once again, I set to work. When the safe opened, it revealed another recording. This one looked startlingly similar to the one I found in the Overstallion’s office.

I needed to hear it. But part of my mind screamed for me not to. I didn’t pay attention to that voice. Instead, I played the message, and another familiar voice burst to life in the tomb of Stable Twenty-Nine. The voice sounded determined but weary and filled with sadness. She sounded like she was reading a script that she had grown to hate.

“Hello, Shadowhorn! The following is for your ears only. I am speaking to you because you have been selected for a very important job, due to your sense of loyalty and duty both to this company and the ponies around you.

“My name is Scootaloo. You probably know me… oh who cares. I’m sick of these things…

“…try that again…

“Hello, my name is Scootaloo, and I’m the vice-president of Stable-Tec. If you’re hearing this, that means that the Omega-Level Threat Protocols have been enacted and the citizens of Equestria chosen for Stable Twenty-Nine have been safely sealed inside the most state-of-the-art apocalypse-survival facility ever created.

“I’m very sorry. I wish there was more we could do.

“Hell, I wish this whole thing could have been prevented…

“…But instead, it falls to us to save who we can, and try to prevent it from happening ever again. To that end, your Stable has been selected to participate in a vital social project. The first goal of Stable Twenty-Nine, like any other, is to save the lives of the ponies inside. But…

“…but there is a higher purpose to your Stable, beyond saving individual ponies. We here at Stable-Tec understand that it doesn’t do ponykind any good to save ourselves now only to annihilate each other later. We must figure out where we went wrong. We must find a better way. And we must be ready to implement it as soon as possible once the Stable doors open. And survive what our current leaders have managed to do to Equestria...

“…dammit. How did we come to this? Dammit, dammit, dammit!...

“We… I guess we came to this… maybe… because we’re ponies. We try our best. We have the best intentions. But when things go wrong, we get flustered or confused. Or upset. Or angry. Our ability to make smart decisions is impaired the most when we need it the most.

“Bad decisions, emotional decisions… they’ve dragged us into a war nopony wanted. They’ve pushed us to the brink of extinction… and if you’re listening to this…

“…beyond.

“…dammit all to hell. Damn us all to hell.

“…

“Sorry. I hate this whole thing. I wish the world was the way it was back when I was a filly. But wishes are just wishes.

“…dammit, I can’t seem to get through one of these without going wildly off-track. I’m sure you’re wondering what, if anything, does this have to do with you? Why am I telling you this? Don’t worry, there’s actually a point; this isn’t just the rantings of some Stable-Tec pony who has… already died… haven’t I?

“…

“Your Stable has a very exceptional design. Despite the official documents, this Stable has no remote connection to Stable-Tec whatsoever. Instead, replacing the normal Overmare position, we have fitted Stable Twenty-Nine with a Crusader-class computer system.

“The Crusader-class Maneframe is the most advanced supercomputer ever created by ponykind, using the greatest available improvements in arcano-technology. The Crusader is capable of independent thought, creativity and learning. We’ve only built three of these, and the other two are currently in the possession of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences and the Ministry of Awesome respectively.

“The goal of this social experiment it to remove the emotional, fallible pony from the equation. To see if we can do better through a pragmatic and logical system of government that is not subject to our own faults.

“As always, just in case something goes wrong, there is a backup. And that backup is you. Provided with this recording are the codes to shut down the Crusader Maneframe in case of emergency. Doing so will unfortunately also shut down all the automated systems, so this should only be done in a matter of life and death for the general population of the Stable. There is an access junction between the Security station and the V.I.P. rooms through which you can access the Crusader Maneframe.

“As a last resort, the programming of the Crusader Maneframe can also be entirely overwritten via magically transfer-mapping the brain of a pony into the Maneframe itself. This would allow you to effectively become the Crusader, taking control of the automated systems yourself. However, this is untested and the effects on the pony initiating this transfer are unknown, so I really, really don’t suggest it.

“In any other circumstances, however, it is crucial that you keep to the ruse, as per the directives provided.

“Thank you. From all of us. From all of Equestria. Best of luck, and may Stable Twenty-Nine and all its ponies live long and well.”

*** *** ***

Finding the security access junction was easy. I was replaying the message again, this time in my earbloom. It made no sense. But it had the singular benefit of not being overwhelmingly evil. I had to know more.

Pulling away the security panel, I found a maze of tubes and wiring. And set into it, a small yellow-orange box with a black jackpoint. It struck me that the last pony to try this was effectively electrocuted. Hooking my own PipBuck into the junction could be a death sentence. Fortunately, I had another option.

I pulled out Velvet Remedy’s PipBuck for the first time since shortly after I found her. It was a thing of beauty, but I realized it had a less pleasant meaning to her. Holding it by levitation only, I jacked her custom PipBuck into the junction.

Minutes later, I was looking though streams of data. One string caught my eye:

> Error Detected:
> Water Talisman functioning at 98% capacity
> Analyzing Damage
> Chance of restoring Water Talisman to full functionality: 0%
> Analyzing Options
> Surface Radiation level 1300% above survivable level
> Preservation of Pony Life requires water rationing and 0.02% reduction of Stable population
> Initiating water rationing
> Analyzing population for most expendable 0.02%
> Initiating population reduction

The strength went out of me. I stared at what I was reading, my rage melting into cold despair. There were many more strings of similar data. Over the course of a season, the damaged water talisman continued to deteriorate, and every time the degradation reached a new threshold, the Crusader running Stable Twenty-Nine culled a portion of the population in a coldly calculated attempt to preserve “Pony Life” in the Stable as a whole.

After three months, the water talisman failed altogether. The Crusader acted accordingly. To preserve Pony Life.

*** *** ***

I poured what was left of a bottle of apple whiskey down my throat, enjoying the burn. The rage had drained from me, replaced by a numbness that was even worse.

I decided to escape this horrible place through the memory orb, at least for a little while. Setting it down gently, I focused my magic on the orb.

Instantly, I was overwhelmed by bright flashes, a horrible thudding roar and gut-wrenching nausea. The memory orb had decayed somehow, and I was trapped inside a nightmare of sensory feedback and vertigo. I tried to escape, but there was no way out.

Then the world righted itself. But it wasn’t my world. I was quite certain I had vomited all over myself, but I wasn’t myself, so I couldn’t tell.

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

All around me spanned a massive party. Colored lights, festive decoration, and a dance beat that grasped hold of your soul and made you want to move. I was at the turntables, bobbing my head to the beat. And everywhere, ponies. Ponies dancing, ponies eating, ponies doing things in corners and behind potted plants that would make their parents blush and faint.

A gracefully aging, light blue pegasus pony with rainbow-colored hair fluttered towards the turntables with a slight swagger and looking a bit sloshed.

“Awesome beat, Vinyl Scratch!” she grinned, “Your rhythms always makes for the best parties!” She wore her years well, and must have been a damn cutie in her youth. I wanted her hair!

And, whoa, was Vinyl Scratch checking her out? She had my gaze going up and down… No, wait, that’s just headbobbing.

“Yeah,” said a familiar looking orange pony with a cowpony hat on her yellow mane, and red ribbons in her tail that matched her three-apple cutie mark. She was significantly older than her statuette portrayed; she looked even older than in the news article, and had not aged quite so gracefully. I wondered if her looks were more from stress than years. “Fluttershy an’ Rarity are gonna be hatin’ they missed this.”

Her accent reminded me a lot of Calamity.

The orange earth pony sauntered up to the turntables, looking at the blue pegasus who swayed slightly as she smiled back. “Are ya safe t’ fly home, Rainbow?”

“Aw hell no!” the rainbow-maned pegasus clopped the orange one on the shoulder. “I haven’t left one of Pinkie Pie’s parties safe to fly in… nearly twenty years now!”

The orange pony gave her an odd look. “Ya ain’t tried any of the… harder stuff… ‘ave you?”

“Hell no,” Rainbow stomped a hoof as she repeated herself. “You know…” She dropped her voice, which had been getting loud, “…I don’t touch any of that stuff.” She held a hoof to her breast with slightly wobbly pride. “Rainbow Dash doesn’t need enhancements!”

The orange pony looked relieved. I realized I was looking at the mysterious mare of the Ministry of Awesome, the one whose rebellion gave Calamity his title of Dashite. I didn’t know what to think; although I had to admit, she certainly had the right hair.

“I heard they’ve got stuff back there called dash!” Rainbow Dash said conspiratorially. “Which Pinkie says would make me even faster.” She landed with a heroic stance, her voice filling with extra bravado. “Of course I don’t do that stuff, AJ. Dash on dash? That wouldn’t just break the laws of Equestria. That would break the laws of physics!”

An apple-green coated stallion trotted up and whispered something in the ear of the orange pony (apparently named AJ). Rainbow Dash stopped with a stare. “Sooooo AJ, who’s the new buck?”

“Ya don’t have t’ ask it like that,” AJ bristled.

“Aw, if you wanted some company,” Rainbow Dash clopped the orange pony on her cutie mark, “You could have just asked me.”

The earth pony fixed Rainbow Dash with a look. “My barn door don’t swing that way.” Something stirred in me. “An’ neither does yours.” The stirring died. “Yer drunk,” the orange pony added unnecessarily but accurately, stepping out of the way of a green mare whose plate was loaded with cakes.

Rainbow Dash just giggled. “So, are you gonna introduce your new buckfriend or not?”

AJ rolled her eyes before introducing him. “This here’s Sergeant ‘SteelHooves’ Applesnack. Served with Big Macintosh. Apples, dear, this is Rainbow Dash, the old friend Ah war… told ya about.”

No way.

“No way!” Rainbow Dash echoed my thoughts. Then proceeded to derail them. “You’re dating a buck named Applesnack?” The pegasus, who had just begun to fly again, collapsed onto the floor, rolling in laughter.

The elderly orange earth pony rolled her eyes. Not looking at her laughing companion, she nickered, “Don’t hurt yerself.” Somewhere else in the room, an argument had broken out.

“Applejack and Applesnack!” Rainbow Dash tried to get up again, but broke down in a fresh wave of laughter. “Oh it hurts too much!”

I was thinking that his title had to be a coincidence. I’d know for sure from his voice, but so far he hadn’t said anything. He was watching his date’s old friend with a gracious wry amusement.

My sight was torn away from the two as Vinyl Scratch looked up to the balcony, where the argument I’d barely noticed earlier was beginning to draw everypony’s attention. I immediately recognized Pinkie Pie, although the purple unicorn who was trotting determinedly away from her was not familiar.

“Not this again,” said Pinkie Pie, bouncing after her. “You wouldn’t expect me to bake a cupcake without tasting it to make sure it’s goooood would you?”

“I’m leaving,” she said. “I shouldn’t have come.” She was barely audible through the clamor of the party.

Pinkie Pie’s voice however could somehow be heard clearly over the intense rock music. “Oh, don’t be like that, Twilight! It’s a paaaar-teee! Have fun!” She sang it like a mantra.

The unicorn glared forward, ignoring her until the surprisingly bouncy pony dropped herself right in front of the purple unicorn. “Have fun! Have fun! Have fun! Have fun!” She sang it like a mantra.

The unicorn stopped, one forehoof off the ground, and stared. She seemed to struggle with an inner urge. For a moment, events could have gone either way. But then she stomped the hoof down.

“I’m not having fun, Pinkie Pie,” she said, her voice dangerous and loud. “And do you want to know a secret? Neither. Are. You!”

Pinkie Pie giggled. “Of course I’m having fun! There’s cake and ice cream and cupcakes and the best party music and drinks and party favors and…”

“And these?” The unicorn floated a tin off a nearby table. I knew immediately what they were.

“Yep! Especially those!” The pink pony was nearly beaming. I heard Applejack groan next to me.

Twilight opened the tin. Then turned it over, spilling Party-Time Mint-als all over the floor. Some bounced over the side of the balcony, some down the stairs. The pink pony gasped and jumped for them, scooping them up. Part of me wanted to join her, but I was just along for the ride.

“I’m sick of lying for you,” Twilight scolded loudly. “For covering for you with the Princess. Everypony is. And I’m not going to do it anymore.”

Pinkie looked up with a glare as she picked up her Party-Time Mint-als. “You didn’t have to do that, you witchy-twitchy-rhymes-with-itchy.”

“You’re not a party pony anymore, Pinkie; you’re just an addict. Like half the ponies at your parties.” The purple unicorn stared at the pink pony, unleashing a level of mad that had clearly been building up for some time. “Well this is it. I want my old friend back. I want my Pinkie Pie. You are not her. But if you should happen to find her, have her give me a call.”

The song ended. The beat stopped. The whole room fell into silence.

“Twi…”

“No, don’t ‘Twi’ me. It won’t work this time. Either clean up and fess up...” The unicorn took a deep breath clinching her own eyes against what she was about to say.

“…or this friendship is over!”

Twilight turned and walked away. The pink pony seemed to deflate. Even her hair fell limp.

Beside me, Applejack moaned again. “Oh gosh, Twi.”

Rainbow Dash, who had long stopped laughing, flapped her wings. “She’s kinda right.” And then the blue pegasus slowly flew towards the exit. She still beat Twilight out the door.

Twilight turned back, looking not quite at Pinkie Pie. In a voice I’m not sure reached the balcony, she said, “If you decide to be my Pinkie Pie again… really do… and need help, you know where to call.” Then she walked out the door into what looked like a rainy Manehattan night. It swung shut behind her.

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

One thought hit me as I collapsed from the memory like I had been kicked in the stomach. (I had, in fact, vomited on myself.)

Leaning against the wall, I assured myself, “I’m not that bad…”

“But I have to be careful with you,” I said to the Party-Time Mint-als in my saddlebags. “I can’t let Calamity or Velvet Remedy get to thinking I have a problem with you. I don’t want to lose my friends because they think I’m addicted.”


Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Tough Hide (level one) – The brutal experiences of the Equestrian Wasteland have hardened you. You gain +3 to Damage Threshold for each level of this perk you take.