Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Fifteen: Whispers in the Darkness

Chapter Fifteen: Whispers in the Darkness

“Psst! Pinkie Pie, are you asleep yet?”


Sleep came in fits and starts. I seriously, desperately needed rest, but every time I closed my eyes, fevered dreams of wasteland horrors dashed themselves against my mind’s eye.

I saw ponies loading into a passenger (Sky Bandit Stages) wagon. In my mind, they were families on their way to a day of laughter and fun at a Ministry of Morale amusement park -- parents smiling warmly as their colts and fillies pranced in place with anticipation. (I don’t know why, but I was certain that MoM had built amusement parks, and that they had been regularly packed full of screaming kids.) I saw mothers urging their colts not to climb on the seats, fathers checking to make sure their cameras had film. And a great wall of green flame with a sinister rainbow sheen rushing towards them that somehow nopony could see.

I saw a pony named Trixie leaving a message on the door to her cottage, grinning as she assured herself that her whole life was about to change. I saw her walking away from that door (which in the dream I had somehow become) even as I called out to her to come back, knowing that if she left, she would never live to see her little cottage again. I called, pleaded, cried. But she could not hear me and walked away.

I saw ponies giving their loved ones the great news that they had been selected for a Stable. I watched as they -- bright and colorful and living ponies -- trotted into their new home, the clock on the wall above them counting down the minutes until an accident would doom them all to horror and death.

I awoke with a fit.

I was laying… somewhere. A bed. But every time I tried to remember exactly where I was, or how I got there, the memories slipped away. I opened my eyes. The room was dark, but light poured in through a cracked-open door. I didn’t recognize the walls with their shadowed posters or the roof with its still and silent turret.

My body felt wrong. I ached, I felt horribly weak. I had chills when I wasn’t sweating profusely. My stomach churned. My mouth tasted strange and mushy.

Shadows trotted near the door. I heard Calamity’s voice. “Do ya think she went an’ picked up somethin’ in the Stable?”

Velvet Remedy’s voice, soft and clear, responded, “Or it could be brought on by stress. I’m worried about her. I think the wasteland is getting to her.”

“Y’all seem t’ be doin’ well,” Calamity observed, his voice low so as not to wake me.

Velvet gave a wry (yet very feminine) laugh. “Not as well as you think, my noble outsider.” Was that sarcasm? Or affection? I couldn’t tell, and trying to think about it made my thoughts swim. “And I should do better than Littlepip; I’m over a decade more mature than she is.”

Great. I’m a child to her. Beautiful. I’m a fucking filly. The same filly as the first time we met at some older filly’s Cute-ceañera. My life just couldn’t get any better.

“And all those drugs she’s been taking… they’re certainly not helping.”

My stomach convulsed violently. I wanted to cry. My eyelids were too heavy to look around anymore, and I didn’t fight them as they closed on their own. I turned away from the slice of light coming through the door, falling again into fitful sleep.

*** *** ***

“Are ya gonna stay in here with ‘er all night?”

Calamity’s voice was a whisper, very close to my bed. I wasn’t entirely sure that I was awake, much less at which point the tides of dreaming had deposited me on the shore of awareness. I vaguely recalled a change in the darkness, a fluctuation of light, perhaps the opening of a door.

“At least until her fever breaks,” the whisper of Velvet Remedy’s voice sounded from near my head. My ears twitched.

“She awake?”

“She’s been in and out. She’ll sleep better once the fever’s broken.”

Wonderful. My body felt alien to me. My mind was a horrible, shifting haze. I said a silent prayer to Celestia, begging her to take my sickness from me and cast it to the moon.

“Ah’m more worried about you,” Calamity said. “And not just ‘cause ya need t’ sleep too.”

Celestia, do you hate me? My sickness and misery was giving them time to bond. My mind started tormenting me with images of how they might be spending their time together now that I was effectively out of the picture.

“Oh?” My fevered brain insisted that she sounded pleased as well as oddly condescending.

“Yer shield spell ain’t anywhere near as strong as them…” Calamity paused. “…Alicorns, Ah guess we’re callin’ ‘em now.” Was that disgust in Calamity’s voice? No, not disgust. But something else. Something unpleasant, as if the word didn’t taste good.

“Your point?”

“If ya gonna be makin’ a habit o’ usin’ yer body t’ shield other ponies, ya need t’ start wearin’ armor,” Calamity insisted. Yay Calamity. I was going to tell her that too. Just… never quite had the chance…

My head was feeling heavy. Just listening seemed to take effort. My body was too hot, the blanket drenched in sweat, but my limbs were too heavy to move. Sleep was creeping up on me like a manticore ready to pounce, wanting to drag me off into nightmares again.

“…won’t get me into anything worn by one of those nasty raiders,” Velvet was saying. I realized I’d missed part of the conversation.

“Wouldn’t want ya to. Slaver armor neither. Bad idea. Ask Li’lpip when she’s up an about,” Calamity whispered firmly. “But when we get t’ Tenpony, we gonna buy ya some proper duds fer the Equestrian Wasteland.”

My despondency evaporated at those words. A strange sense of relief, twisted by illness, washed over me. Part of me, I realized, had been afraid that they would leave me.

I felt doomed to wander until either I found my place in this hellish outside, or… or I fixed it. At least, as much as I could. I supposed I was searching for my virtue, as Watcher had suggested, like a filly trying to invoke her cutie mark. But Calamity and Velvet Remedy were not burdened by my quest, or my sense of being utterly lost. Why wouldn’t they leave me to it on my own once they had found some place to stay? Tenpony Tower, for instance. Why shouldn’t they?

To hear them speaking of getting Velvet Remedy armor (something I firmly agreed with Calamity that she needed, even though I couldn’t picture my elegant idol wearing anything other than classy dresses) -- to know they were planning for a future wandering the Equestrian Wasteland, presumably with me -- filled my heart with assurance and hope.

But despite the warmth of these feelings, as I drifted back to sleep, my mind began to venture again down dark paths. I found myself wondering what, if anything, could have been done to save all the ponies of Stable Twenty-Nine. With exposure to the surface fatal and their water talisman dying, all I could see was hundreds of ponies trapped in a sarcophagus under the ground. Already buried, waiting to die.

They did not, my mind insisted, need to die with such violence and horror. But the only way I could think of to save even one of them…

No, that would have been too abhorrent to consider.

…the only way to save even one would have been to make sure the strain on the water talisman was so minimal that its deterioration would have taken several decades. Something that could only have been done if, instead of initially reducing the population by that minimal 0.02%...

I cringed away from myself, revolted that I could even think such a thing.

I awoke again hours later with a silent gasp, drenched and chilled with a cold that sank into my soul. My sense of what I had been dreaming collapsed into a dark pit that was swiftly sealed by wakefulness. Only a few shreds of memory remained; I was fairly certain it had something to do with the Ponyville Library, dead cats and being burned alive by a dragon.

I found a canteen had been hung by the side of the bed. I drank greedily from it and then fell back into the horrors of sleep.

*** *** ***

“No! Don’t go! I’m trapped!”

I cried out, my hind legs crushed under a fallen wall, but Velvet Remedy and Calamity just walked away.

“Please… Don’t leave me here!”

Velvet Remedy leaned her head against Calamity’s mane and nuzzled. The ground was stretching between us. They were barely walking, but they were getting further away. The clouds were boiling down, becoming fog, surrounding and obscuring them as my heart threatened to seize. I knew that when they disappeared, I would die…

I awoke crying and beat a hoof against my pillow.

Despair tainted my hope, like a cupcake with ashes mixed into the batter. They were staying with me, but I was losing them to each other.

My ears perked. There were no voices. Oh Luna… I was alone! They’d left me! I still felt trapped. My head jerked up, looking around frantically. Grey daylight seeping between heavy curtains (were they armored mesh?) raised the ambient illumination in the room. Something heavy pressed against my side. Turning, I found Velvet Remedy asleep, her head having fallen onto the bed beside me, pinning me under the blankets.

Relief was like a flood of painkiller, numbing the irrational fears of my night terrors which clung to me like leeches. I was happy for Velvet and Calamity. No, I really was! I was just… lonely.

Lonely, and…


I looked away from Velvet and found myself staring at a huge wall poster, garishly pink, advertising the Fillydelphia Funfarm Amusement Park. (“Everything the Grand Galloping Gala should have been,” endorses Pinkie Pie, “Every day, forever!”) Well, now I knew where that notion had come from.

On the opposite wall was another copy of the recruitment poster. (“You too can be a Steel Ranger!”) I realized where I must be. Lifting my PipBuck, I checked the automap. SteelHooves Shack. I collapsed back onto the bed, feeling unbearably exhausted, physically and mentally.

And, even worse, I felt horny. Which was not a sensation that mixed well with illness. Maybe it was having Velvet Remedy so close, her head pressing against my flank as she slept partially on my bed. My stomach twisted in warning. I didn’t care.

I was too hot, too sick. But still, as I lay back, I tried to summon up daydreams that would relieve at least one of my symptoms, my hooves beneath my blankets. I turned to face away from Velvet Remedy in shame.

I contemplated Candi, but her face and features were already faded in my mind (and the ending of my relationship with New Appleloosa would sour any fantasy). I considered the rainbow-maned mare from the memory orb. But no matter how well she had aged, she was still older than I wanted to fantasize about. And even if I pictured her younger, the link between her and Calamity would just make it… weird. Finally, I settled on daydreaming about the mare from one of my statuettes, the breathtakingly alluring white unicorn pony with her dreamy purple mane and tail.

I enjoyed that as much as my sickness-addled body would allow… for maybe half an hour. Then, like a splash of cold water, I realized the mare I was fantasizing about was Velvet Remedy’s great, great, something-or-other grand-aunt. That murdered my fantasy, and danced cruelly on its corpse. The weight of Velvet Remedy’s head was suddenly more present than before. I could feel the warmth radiating from her, and my stomach knotted with guilt.

Suddenly, I felt a heaving inside me, and the taste of bile. Pushing to the edge of the bed, I vomited into the crevasse between the bed and the wall.

Still retching, my mouth foul and burning, my eyes shedding tears, I heard Velvet Remedy stir awake. My fall was complete. Now, instead of being a child in her eyes, I’d be vomitpony. I had no chance of stealing her away from Calamity now… not that I ever did. (Or ever would! I’m not that kind of jealous, selfish pony. But… just saying… if I was that kind of pony, this would be the final nail in the coffin of any chance I had.) I felt Velvet’s weight lift from the bed as she pulled back from me.

“Oh… Littlepip, are you okay?” What a stupid question. Yet I nodded, my head pressed against the wall. “Let me get you some water…”

I waited for her to go, crying just a little against the wall, my coat matted in sweat, my head burning against the wall.

“Goddess, I’m pathetic.”

Velvet Remedy returned to give me water, to clean the wall and floor of my vomit, to bathe me and replace the sheets on my bed. I was in no state to enjoy any of it. But I could properly marvel that she took the time on somepony like me.

*** *** ***

My fever finally broke sometime that evening, and I finally slipped into a restorative, dreamless sleep.

I awoke feeling like I hadn’t felt in days: sane.

My body was weak but not feeble, and I was warm and thankfully rested. My mouth tasted pasty, but my stomach was settled. And I found I was quite thirsty.

I rolled over in the bed, wondering how long I had been half-delirious, and spotted Velvet Remedy curled up on the floor fast asleep. My heart went out to her, recognizing how much I owed the older unicorn. Her head rested on an old jacket, and somepony had pulled a blanket over her while she slept. I was sure it was Calamity, and I was pleased.

As I floated the canteen from the bedpost, the deep, resonating voice of SteelHooves carried in from the other room. “Sorry, but I just don’t buy it.”

“Ah don’t get ya,” I heard Calamity respond. There was something in the tone of both ponies that caught my attention. My ears perked, and I drank quietly as I listened.

“Your group is like the beginning of a bad joke,” SteelHooves elaborated. “A covert agent, a princess descended from pre-war aristocracy and an outcast from an advanced civilization trot into a saloon and try to tell ponies that they’re completely normal.”

I nearly choked. Swiftly and without a sound, I plugged the canteen and rehung it on the bed.

“Y’think we’re lyin’?” Thank you, Calamity, for sounding offended.

“I think either you’re lying to me, or they’re lying to you.”

I heard a stomp I assumed was from Calamity. “What makes ya think…?”

“Because I was conscious, if barely. I saw all of us down for the count. That alicorn was at full strength, unimpaired, her magical shield shrugging off grenades. Then, a moment later, she was dead,” the low voice gave a grave accounting of our meeting battle like a schoolteacher reading test scores. “A single bullet hole, right through the brain. You want me to believe some innocent young mare just weeks out of a Stable did that? Do you even believe that?”

I didn’t like how quiet Calamity was before saying, “Yeah, Ah do. Cuz that’s what happened.”

“An innocent young mare,” SteelHooves repeated, “Just out of a Stable. With refined criminal skills that let her pick every lock and hack every computer, even when nopony else in two hundred years has managed the feat.”

I frowned. I had to admit, I’d wondered about the lack of other skilled lockpickers myself. But then, I also knew that I had honed my skill in precise telekinetic lockpicking over years as part of my attempt to conjure my cutie mark. My C.A.T. proved that my natural talents were focused towards mundane and arcane sciences, and my studies as a PipBuck technician and the tools of my trade gave me the education to manipulate terminals that few outsiders would have. But most of all, I knew that I hadn’t been anywhere near as good at either of these things when I left Stable Two as I had become since. I had been reading books and getting a lot of practice.

SteelHooves continued, “For that matter, a Stable that is still in closed operation? It’s hard enough to find a Stable whose population survived.” A dark cloud threatened my mind at that.

Calamity’s voice was low, and perhaps a little dangerous. “Are ya suggestin’ they ain’t from a Stable?”

“No. I’m sure they’re from a Stable.” The voice was cool and even. “I just find it more believable that they are highly-trained agents on a mission… perhaps from someplace akin to a Ministry of Awesome black-ops facility… than wide-eyed tourists from a repository for civilian ponies.”

What? I thought Calamity said the Ministry of Awesome didn’t actually do anything.

Calamity nickered. “That’s… ridiculous.”

“Really?” SteelHooves asked. “She survived a train jumping off a cliff.”

“Ah caught her!”

SteelHooves paused, and seemed to concede that one. “How did you meet her?”

My friend hesitated. Then, with a sad breath, “I nearly killed her.”

“She’d jus’ come outta Ponyville, where she’d cleared a nest o’ raiders,” Calamity explained. “She was covered in blood an’ wearin’ armor she’d scavenged from ‘em, so I mistook her for a raider ‘erself. Swooped outta the sky an’ started shootin’.” I could hear the regret in his voice.

I felt a pang in my heart for him. But I also winced at his description. Even Calamity seemed to do a double-take at how that sounded, because after a pause, he quickly followed with, “They were raiders, mind ya. Raiders ain’t that hard t’ kill.” Then, seeming to remember the wagon crash, he amended, “If yer at least a li’l lucky. An’ the terrain is on yer side.”

“I see,” SteelHooves deadpanned. “So she’s not a secret agent death pony. She’s just lucky. How about the other one?”

“Velvet Remedy? She’s…” Calamity chuckled, “She’s a civilian. She’s a medic an’ a singer. How does that fit inta yer covert ops stable theory?”

“Any other talents?”

“Does being the most beautiful pony I’ve ever met count?” I could hear the smile in Calamity’s voice. “Other than that, no. I mean, well… she does have a freakish knack fer getting’ what she want. Barterin’ Ah mean. An’ talkin’ folks inta stuff, when she’s not bein’…” Calamity shut up.

Good buck, Calamity. Don’t finish that sentence.

“A direct descendant of one of the three founders of Stable-Tec. The founder who, I believe, was Stable-Tec’s face of public relations and also the sister of one of the eight most powerful figures in the pre-apocalyptic government. A descendant with skills in seduction, trade and diplomacy.” SteelHooves intoned wryly, “No, you’re right. That does sound like a civilian pony.”

I groaned inside. How the hell did SteelHooves manage to do that? I was beginning to doubt my story, and I’d lived it.

I heard Calamity sigh. I hoped it was out of exasperation. “Okay, let’s pretend, just fer a minute, that my companions ‘ave been lyin’ t’ me through their teeth.” Oh no. Calamity, please don’t. We’ve been honest. I know it sounds bad when he says it like that, but…

Calamity finished, “T’ what end?”

“Well,” the deep, masculine voice rumbled, “They marched into the center of a battle between raiders and slavers, somehow got the heads of two factions to sit down in the short one’s crosshairs, and then proceeded not only to eliminate the one they didn’t like, but to kill the dragon running the show, assuring the one they wanted was in charge…”

Calamity interrupted, “Ah dare say ah had a might t’ do with that muhself.”

SteelHooves continued, undissuaded. “To me, that sounds a lot like a special unit rearranging local power structures to suit their purposes. Whatever those purposed might be.”

Goddesses damn it. Is this what ponies were thinking? And I had been chagrined by my reputation when I was supposedly just a hero. This was… insane.

At least Calamity seemed to agree with me on that. “Riiiiight. Okay then, how about this? If Li’lpip was some sorta special black ops pony, how in tarnation could Ah ‘ave nearly killed ‘er?”

“Because underground training facilities aren’t exactly the best place to learn to fight aerial opponents. I doubt you’d be able to get the drop on her again.”

Calamity was fighting not to fall for it too, bless him. “Look, Ah’ve been with them. Y’all haven’t. Ah know they’re… surprisin’. But if ya got t’know ‘em…”

“I’d see that they’re not spies at all?” SteelHooves’ deep voice seemed on the verge of a chuckle.

“Ayep.” Thank you, Calamity.

“Not a sly, sneaky hair in their manes, then?”

“Not a one.”

“Did you know that when Littlepip sleeps, she has a cute little snore?”

I do not sn… oh crap!

*** *** ***

“Come again?”

I was just finishing dressing myself, and was levitating my saddlebags into place when the pony in magically powered armor had stepped in and made his announcement.

“I will be accompanying you to Tenpony Tower. After risking yourselves to save my life, escorting you safely to your destination is the least I can do.”

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

SteelHooves, however, put his hooves down. “I insist.”

I frowned, looking about the room while I thought. The shack had three rooms, the bedroom, the main room, and a workroom in the back. Upon seeing the whole of it, I realized that SteelHooves had given me his own bed to sleep upon, and that everypony had slept on the floors save for me. It made me feel grateful and guilty.

This was not the bedroom I had spent the last several days sick in, but the main room of the shack, featuring a dinner table, rows of metal lockers, a desk with a glowing terminal, and a few scattered trophies as decorations. Above the desk was a banner: a half-apple with an inlay of three magical sparks ringed by gears, held by crescent-shaped wings and overlaid by a sword of war with a mouth-brace hilt. It was the same emblem that adorned the flank of SteelHooves battle armor, right where his cutie mark would be hidden beneath.

The Steel Rangers.

I sighed. “You’ll have to ask the others,” I said, cinching my saddlebags tight. I started to strap on the holsters and slings for my weapons.

“I already spoke with them on this. They claimed you’re their leader.”

What? Why? I was really the least qualified to be in charge. Because the radio kept saying so? I added that to the list of things to talk to DJ Pon3 about when we arrive to Tenpony Tower.

I looked over to Velvet Remedy, but she was laying on the floor, her mind lost in the Fluttershy memory orb.

In the back room, I could hear Calamity working on the weapons he had procured from Stable Twenty-Nine’s armory. Our pockets were now filled with common, low-caliber ammo that fit none of the weapons we preferred to use, and Calamity was swapping parts and doing repairs on small pistols and low-powered rifles meant to use those bullets. Not that we expected to use them -- only the armory’s supply of shotgun shells was likely to be of service to us -- but both weapons and ammo would be valuable trade goods.

A radio in the back room played DJ Pon3’s radio station. The sounds of a quartet of ponies gave way to a melody of sorrow, fear and hope and the vocals of a pleasant-sounding buck who was two hundred years dead.

“I want to calm the storm, but the war is in your eyes.
How can I shield you from the horror and the lies?
When all that once held meaning is shattered, ruined, bleeding
And the whispers in the darkness tell me we won’t survive?”

Strapping my sniper rifle into place, I finally looked to SteelHooves. But my answer faded when I saw he was looking away, his gaze focused on a small picture in the corner of the room that I hadn’t noticed before. The picture of an elder orange mare, her yellow mane salted with grey under her cowpony hat. He swayed slightly. I felt a gravity in the room that told me not to speak.

I did move forward for a closer look, but I already knew I had seen this mare before. Many times. Her statuette was in my saddlebags, as was the memory of her at what had been Pinkie Pie’s last party. I was certain now that the memory of SteelHooves was in that orb too.

Beneath the picture was a display safe. Inside, perfectly preserved, was yet another statuette of the bucking orange pony (“Be Strong”) in the glory of her youth. On top of the case was a small, silk-lined box, much like the one I had found in Vinyl Scratch’s safe, within which sat a single memory orb.

SteelHooves only stirred again when the song ended, the last refrain echoing into nothingness.

“You knew her, didn’t you?” I asked softly, gently.

SteelHooves turned towards me. “How could I have? She died two centuries ago.”

I gazed at him, not judging, just knowing. He stood rigid against the gaze for several minutes, until finally I looked away.

DJ Pon3’s voice erupted from the back room. “Got your ears up, faithful listeners? Cuz I’ve been talkin’ and some of you ain’t been listenin’. For years now, I’ve been reminding you that ghouls and zombies ain’t the same thing. Ghouls are ponies who have had the misfortune of soaking up a major dose of magical radiation and not dying. That stuff twists and rots their bodies, but unlike zombies, their minds are still like those of any other pony, and they deserve t’ be treated as such.

“Well, some of you ponies up in Tenpony Tower didn’t get the message. And when Sheriff Rottingtail kept pressin’ for him and his ghouls t’ be allowed inside, just cuz they were sick of being hounded by manticores an’ slaughtered by bloodwings, Chief Grim Star, the head of Tenpony security, responded by hiring a bunch of mercenaries to scour the tenements along the Celestia Line and wipe them all out.

“In an interview, when asked how he had managed to be such a supreme douche bag, Chief Grim Star had this to say:”

Another voice, gruff and irritated, came through the radio’s speakers. “Fuck off. I did what was right by those I swore to protect.”

DJ Pon3’s voice returned. “Just warms the heart to know that there are ponies steadfastly defending prejudice and bigotry, doesn’t it? Thank you, Chief Grim Star and may Celestia bless you with a kiss from the sun.” The last certainly sounded like it was said through gritted teeth.

I shook my head. On the one hoof, I actually felt relief to hear a news report that wasn’t about me. But on the other, I had experience with both ghoul-ponies like Ditzy Doo and actual zombie-ponies. I knew the difference. And the idea of somepony endorsing wholesale slaughter of innocent ghouls because they couldn’t be bothered to discern between them made me hurt and tinged my vision with red.

The deep, masculine voice of Steelhooves nickered from within his metal helmet. “Not a fan of ghoul-supporters, I take it?”

I looked at him in confusion that bordered on several darker emotions. My disgust had clearly been evident in either my face or body language; it hadn’t occurred to me that my reaction could be easily misread as directed towards DJ Pon3 himself.

“One of the wisest, kindest ponies I’ve met in this blasted hellscape is a ghoul-pony!” I spat at him. “Her name is Ditzy Doo, and she’s easily worth any three Steel Rangers put together. Not for fighting skills or fancy weapons, but for the quality of her character.” I stomped a forehoof hard enough to sprain it. “DJ Pon3 is right. And if you don’t get that, then you have no place traveling with us.”

SteelHooves said nothing. But began to pack.

*** *** ***

I gazed at the leftover parts strewn across the workbench in Calamity’s wake. Now that I had all the parts to build my poisoned dart gun, I should use this opportunity to put it together. Invoking my single magical ability, I started to clear away a space while simultaneously pulling the schematics out of my saddlebags.

“Mornin’, Li’lpip.” Calamity trotted into the room. “Good t’see ya back on yer hooves.”

I smiled a little thinly, giving him a nod. The conversation from the night before still cast its shadow in my mind. I knew what Calamity and the Steel Ranger had talked about, and just how convincingly SteelHooves had woven doubts. Calamity knew I’d been eavesdropping. But neither of us had said anything.

“Looks like we got ourselves a new travelin’ companion. Least fer a li’l while,” Calamity said conversationally. “Whatcha think of ‘im?”

I shrugged. I still wasn’t sure what to make of the Steel Ranger. I’d seen the shadows of both good and bad in him, but it was too soon to do anything more than to hop, skip and jump to conclusions.

From Calamity’s cautious tone, I could tell he was having doubts about SteelHooves. “Ah’ll admit, we could use the firepower,” he offered graciously. “Be damned useful havin’ an explosive ordnance specialist like that in the saddle if we run inta any more o’ them… alicorns.”

I nodded, having begun to worry about the next time we encountered those creatures. If my suspicions were right…

“On the other hoof,” Calamity started to say, then stopped as if questioning whether his opinion was worth voicing. I turned to look at him and lifted a hoof in a wave for him to go on.

“Well, let’s jus’ say that the Steel Rangers ain’t exactly got a reputation as champions o’ the common pony.”

Ah yes. Reputations. The night’s conversation loomed in my mind again. My eyes looked over Calamity, taking in the distance between us. I wondered if the gap was more than just physical. My memories pulled back the sheet on an almost-forgotten dream of being trapped under a wall and watching my friends just walk away.

“Hey, Li’lpip, are you okay?” Clearly, I bore my worries like a cutie mark. I snorted at the dark humor of it: some secret spy I’d be.

Calamity clopped up next to me and put a hoof gently over my back. “Now don’t ya worry. Nothin’ said by that lot is gonna sow seeds o’ distrust ‘tween us.”

I looked up at him, wide-eyed. He smiled at me. “Ah’ve seen yer heart, Li’lpip. Y’all genuinely want t’ help folk, an’ ya put yer own life at risk t’ do so, even when some of ‘em don’t deserve it. I ain’t gonna start questionin’ what I know ‘bout ya just cuz somepony who don’t know what he’s yappin’ ‘bout can get it twisted all up.”

I could feel tears gathering in my eyes. I tossed my forelegs around the big, rust-colored pony and hugged him for all I was worth.

*** *** ***

“You can look into it if you want.”

It was the first thing SteelHooves had said to me since my outburst over an hour ago. Velvet Remedy was in the room looking over our provisions. Calamity was refilling our canteens from SteelHooves’ water purifier. I had finished my packing and had been staring aimlessly; my curious gaze had eventually fallen on the memory orb sitting enthroned under the picture of Applejack, mare of the Ministry of...

I realized I didn’t really know which Ministry of Luna’s government Applejack had been in charge of. I just had enough clues to make a few educated guesses.

“Go ahead,” SteelHooves encouraged. “It hasn’t been viewed in a long, long time. Somepony else should remember.”

I regarded first the Steel Ranger, then the orb. I had to wonder why any pony other than a unicorn would be keeping one, since only unicorns could access the memories stored within. It made no sense, I realized, unless that pony was keeping it so that it could be shared. Or safekeeping it -- but even safekeeping it was the just the same as throwing it away if nopony ever witnessed what was kept inside.

I nodded, respectful of what I was being offered. Then leaned forward, pointing my horn towards the sphere and touching it with my magic.

My world fell away.

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

I was harnessed to something.

We were standing offstage, concealed in darkness by a heavy curtain. Applejack stood next to me, staring out at the dark stone stage, the podium with microphone and speakers, the mumbling throng filling the auditorium in front of it, the huge brass MWT logo on the wall behind it.

I (or at least the pony whose memory I was riding) only had eyes for her. She looked nervous, not to mention uncomfortable in her formal business dress.

“Ah can’t do this.”

I felt myself speak, heard the words coming from my mouth, “You’ll be fine.” The voice was deep and strong, like SteelHooves’ but not nearly so gravelly.

“They hate me. Half of ‘em already been saddlesore cuz Ah started puttin’ all my hooves inta the Ministry ‘stead o’ jus’ lettin’ ‘em do what they wanted. But bringin’ in Twilight’s ponies?” From her tone, that had apparently not gone over well at all.

I wrapped a foreleg around her neck (allowing me to glimpse the apple green color of my coat) and nuzzled her gently, a sensation that I found quite pleasant. “And after today, they’ll all understand it, and they’ll admire you for it.”

I (or more precisely, the pony I was “riding”) leaned close and whispered into her ear. “Now go on out there and make history. Or I’ll be forced to spank you.”

Oh goddess Celestia!

The orange pony blushed and gave her encourager a look that I would have paid almost anything to have a mare give me. “Later, loverboy.” She smiled, at least more cheerful now, and strode out before the crowd. The pony I was riding watched her stride, his eyes straying repeatedly to her flanks, taking my gaze with his. As much as I couldn’t blame him, it was making me feel distinctly uncomfortable. This was an odd memory to be sharing.

Then I noticed that she had a holster strapped to one leg, mostly hidden beneath her formal attire. The ivory handle flashed three red apples as she walked.

The reception was not the respectful and admiring silence which Fluttershy received. But Applejack stood up straight at the podium, cleared her throat, and spoke slowly and clearly.

“Now listen up. Ah know y’all been a bit sore ‘bout havin’ ponies from the Ministry of Arcane Sciences workin’ with us. Ah know y’all are dedicated t’ improvin’ Equestria the earth pony way, an’ magic kinda flies in the face of alla that. But there are some things that’re jus’ too important t’ let stubborn pride get in the way o’ askin’ for help. Trust me. Ah know.

“An’ Ah want y’all t’ know how proud Ah am t’ be standin’ here today, able t’ finally show ya the fruits of yer efforts. Most of ya don’t know whatcha been workin’ on. T’was important t’ keep things…” The next word did not seem to come naturally to her, “…compartmentalized t’ keep this project outta zebra hooves. What y’all have accomplished in just one year… ain’t been a buncha earth ponies do more good work in less time than when we built Appleloosa.”

Until this point, her words were undercut by resentful rumbles of whispered opinion. Now, her voice dropped into a tone both somber and deadly serious. The ponies in the audience began to hush. Not for her, but out of reverence for what she spoke of.

“When Ah was young, my big brother, Big Macintosh, was always there fer me. He was muh closest kin, an’ he never let me down. And when Equestria needed him, he didn’t let us down neither. He served heroically in our army, fighting for our way o’ life for three years. And then, when we needed him most, he made the ultimate sacrifice.

“When that zebra bullet punched through muh brother’s armor an’ pierced his heart, it broke muh heart too.” I could see Applejack’s eyes start to tear. Her voice trembled, but she pressed on. The room was now dead silent except for her.

“One year ago, we buried muh brother, Big Macintosh. And that day, Ah swore an oath that no one other pony would die needlessly in battle. They’re riskin’ their lives out there fer us. We owe them better. An’ now, startin’ today, we give ‘em better.”

My memory escort started walking onto the stage. I felt the ropes trailing from me lift and pull taut, the harness digging into my flesh. I felt the resistance and heard the wheels of the wagon I was pulling begin to move.

“Ponies of the Ministry o’ Technology, Ah give t’ y’all the Steel Ranger!”

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

Moments later, the memory collapsed, the last sight lingering in my mind as my own world reasserted itself: a glance back at the display wagon and the magical power armor it was carrying. I looked to SteelHooves, sensing I now understood him far more than I had moments ago.

*** *** ***

The light grey of the clouds had descended, shrouding the landscape in fog. All around us, the rubble of blast-flattened and age-demolished buildings created shadows and obstacles. I regularly had to check my E.F.S. compass to make sure we were still headed in the right direction. Even Calamity was grounded to avoid losing us.

We were entering the outskirts of Manehattan now. I felt a pang of disappointment that I couldn’t properly see the city. Calamity and Velvet Remedy had taken the lead. My frequent attention to my Eyes-Forward Sparkle was as much to spot hostile creatures as to navigate.

Another red spot flared up in front of us and just off to the left. “Calamity, seven o’clock.”

Calamity nodded and crouched down, sneaking forward. The fog wrapped about him, concealing him from my vision, but my E.F.S. compass marked his position. Velvet hung back a little, but kept him locked in her sight, her horn glowing faintly as she prepared to throw a shield around the orange-maned pegasus in the black desperado hat.

A moment later, a single twin-shot rang out.

Calamity returned. “Giant radhog.” One of the mutated pig-like creatures I had encountered under the train bridge.

“I do hope you’re not planning to cook and eat that,” Velvet Remedy intoned disparagingly. “I can’t imagine all the meat you’ve been eating did you any good over the last few days.”

I shot her a look that she probably couldn’t see and said nothing.

“Y’see, now that’s why y’all are a vegetarian,” Calamity laughed. “Y’ ain’t never had bacon. Trust me, if ponies were meant t’ only eat fruits, oats an’ grasses, then the existence of bacon would be the proof in the pie that the world was just cruel and evil.”

Oh great. Now I had to try eating radhog.

A few moments later, we had a cookfire started and Calamity was explaining to me just which parts of a radhog were the most delicious. Velvet Remedy had chosen to join SteelHooves in ignoring the two of us.

Her silky voice sliced through the air as she told SteelHooves, “Now, if we get into a battle, I do hope you have the good sense to let Calamity and Littlepip handle it. No offense -- I really am thankful for your coming to our rescue -- but I came closer to dying from all your explosions than from the alicorns.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but Velvet Remedy had a strong point. SteelHooves’ weapons were all extremely… excessive. And while that was very good for fighting manticores or alicorns at a good distance, it could be lethal to everypony in close quarters or enclosed spaces.

I’d have to convince SteelHooves to keep himself in reserve until he was needed. I wasn’t sure how that would go over with the Steel Ranger. Traveling with others and having to take precautions to keep his own companions alive was not, I suspected, something SteelHooves had been required to deal with for a long time.

*** *** ***

“…old song,” Calamity was saying to Velvet Remedy as the two of them took the lead once again. “If Ah sang a little bit o’ it (badly, probably) could ya magic up some music t’ go with it?”

“Well,” Velvet said uncertainly. “I could certainly try.” Then, with a reassuring smile, “And your voice is quite good. If you took some singing lessons, you’d be very pleasant to listen to.”

I rolled my eyes. That’s my Velvet.

No, that’s Calamity’s Velvet, I reasserted to myself. And then wiped the whole thought clean; Velvet Remedy was Velvet’s Velvet, and would be until she said otherwise. And even then, only so long as she allowed it. Calamity was going to be Velvet’s Calamity.

And I was not going to be a jealous third wing.

SteelHooves was bringing up the rear. I dropped back, choosing to engage him in discourse rather than dwell on the two ponies in front of me. Trying to strike up conversation, I told him I had a question about the memory I’d seen.

“What question?” His voice suggested there were a great many questions he suspected I might have and that most of them were not really my business.

“The Ministry of Technology -- why M.W.T.?”

When the unseen pony spoke, I could hear a touch of relief in his voice. “Officially, it was the Ministry of Wartime Technologies. But Applejack hated that name. She was always the first to point out that the technological innovations that M.W.T. championed and subsidized benefited all of Equestria, not just the war effort.”

I nodded, listening intently. It was a subject that SteelHooves had some warmth for. But a small flash of green in the sky above us distracted my gaze. I looked up, but saw nothing. I turned to ask SteelHooves if he had seen anything, but he was continuing to speak about Applejack’s Ministry; I doubted a skywagon crash would have diverted his attention.

“Under the Ministry’s guidance and support, dozens of innovative technology industries blossomed across Equestria, and existing ones became a lot more powerful, their products becoming part of every pony’s daily life. Companies like Ironshod, Four Stars, Equestrian Robotics and even Stable-Tec.” He turned his helmeted gaze down towards my PipBuck. “So why use a name focused on war? It should have been the Ministry of Technology.”

I heard music. Not Velvet Remedy or Calamity. Patriotic gala music whispering out of the mist. I stopped, turning in place until the little blip of light appeared on my compass.

“Everypony, please hold up. I want to check something.”

“Alone?” SteelHooves questioned.

“Yes,” I nodded. “It’s okay. I’ll be right back.”

“She do this a lot?” I heard him ask my companions as I slipped off into the mist, following the sound.

“Do what?” Calamity snickered. “Wander off? Break travel to explore random ruins? All the time.”

*** *** ***

I was approaching a building. Half of it was a huge barn with vast shattered windows. The other half loomed castle-like in the mist. My PipBuck flashed a name across my E.F.S.: Four Stars Grand Terminal and Central Offices.

The music cut out with a static-laced pop. “Hello Watcher.”

“Hello, Littlepip. I see you’ve made a new friend.”

“Maybe,” I said, not committing either way.

As if on cue, SteelHooves’ deep voice resonated through the mist. “Littlepip, you okay?” Wow. Stealthy he was not.

“Hey,” the mechanical voice of Watcher expressed, “That voice sounds familiar.” That didn’t surprise me. SteelHooves’ voice was very distinctive. And if Watcher had been snooping on the Equestrian Wasteland for any length of time, it may very well have spied on the Steel Rangers.

Watcher: now there was somepony who deserved to be suspected as a covert ops spy pony.

I looked around for the sprite-bot, but the fog concealed it expertly. Instead, I spotted twin vending machines: Sparkle~Cola and Sunrise Sarsaparilla. And a third set just a few yards down from them: Ironshod’s Ammo Emporium. The last had been torn open and thoroughly looted. I felt a chill, imagining the kind of pre-war world where you could buy ammo along with your soft drinks at a street-side machine. No pony interaction necessary.

“Watcher, was there a Ministry of Awesome?” It was just a lead-in question; clearly, I already knew.

“Ah yes, Rainbow Dash.” The disembodied artificial voice somehow managed to sound amused even though it had no inflection at all. “Yes, one of Equestria’s heroes did decide that her Ministry would be the Ministry of Awesome. They even built a Ministry Headquarters for it on Ministry Walk. I assume Calamity mentioned it?”

I nodded. Then, realizing Watcher possibly couldn’t see me any better than I could see the sprite-bot (although it would truly surprise me if that was the case), I stated, “Yes.”

Ministry Walk. I’d heard of that place before, but I couldn’t quite put my hoof on where or when.

After pondering it fruitlessly, I finally asked, “What did the Ministry of Awesome do?” I hated (loathed) questioning something Calamity had told me, especially based on something SteelHooves had said. Even more so after Calamity had not done the same.

“Not much,” Watcher said to my great sense of relief. “I mean, Rainbow Dash did throw two or three projects their way -- the Single Pony Project was one of theirs, for example -- but for the most part, they just lounged around and did nothing. After a few years, Luna ordered it crated up, and they began using the M.Aw HQ for storage.”

Another question came to me. I activated my PipBuck’s inventory arrangement spell and opened my saddlebags. Then stopped, checking to make sure: “Can you see me?”

“Yes, Littlepip. I can see you.”

Thought so.

I floated out the two statuettes I had found. “What are these?”

Of course Watcher knew the answer. “Limited Edition Ponies of Harmony. Those are some pretty nice little magical artifacts you have there. Only forty-two were ever made.”

“Forty-two?” I was expecting closer to six.

“Equestria’s heroines, the six pony friends whose virtues matched the Elements of Harmony. There were seven sets made -- one for each of them, and one that Luna kept for herself. The ponies mostly gave them to each other, although a few of the statuettes were passed on to loved ones or family members.”

That made sense. Sweetie Belle had her sister’s. Applejack would have given one of herself to her buckfriend Applesnack. I wondered if the one I found in old Appleloosa had originally been a gift for Braeburn.

“Oh. Now I remember who your new friend sounds like.” The name Watcher told me made me glad I wasn’t drinking Sparkle~Cola again.

“Who was…?” I never got to finish my question. A crack of static replaced Watcher with the voice of Red Eye, who was in the middle of telling everyone that raiders, ghouls and hellhounds were bad. His voice faded as the sprite-bot wandered aimlessly away from me until it was swallowed entirely by the mist.

*** *** ***

Four Stars was an elevated train company which had once provided public transportation for the Manehattan metropolis. SteelHooves suggested that, if the monorails were still intact, it would make the easiest route through the city, carrying us over the maze of rubble and away from most of the radiation-twisted aberrations and occasional raiders that lurked in the ruins.

It sounded like a good plan, so I stopped at a still-illuminated sign mapping out the rails. This station was part of the Luna Line. The Celestia Line, which crossed it at several points, lead straight to Tenpony Tower.

Calamity finished rummaging through the garbage bins, returning with a surprising collection of sellable items and a few dozen bottle caps. Velvet Remedy rolled her eyes. “Well, I hope that’s enough for you to buy a bath once we get to Tenpony.”

I looked across the waiting station towards the heavy doors into the more castle-like office structure. There were blackened panels that looked like turret emplacements which had been destroyed ages ago. Curiously, I trotted over to the door and tried it. Locked.

Well, that was just begging for me to open it.

“What are you doing?” SteelHooves asked as he and the others joined me.

“I want to see what’s inside,” I said simply, focusing on the lock. This was a hard one. Four Stars did not want to give up its secrets easily. Which only made me all the more intent on learning what those secrets were.

I heard Calamity make a snicker that clearly translated to “told you so”.

The lock clicked. Triumphantly, I swung the door open.

In an eye-blink, I registered the expanse of the grey lobby, its semicircular desk fortified with sandbags and makeshift barricades. In that glimpse, I saw the scattered bodies of a dozen Steel Rangers -- suits of magical power armor holding skeletal pony remains. And I saw the three scorched holes in the ceiling which had once held turrets.

The remaining turret on the Four Stars’ lobby ceiling swung around and opened fire. I was taken by surprise, but Velvet Remedy had been prepared. Her shield burst around me even as the air was filled with the rat-tat-tat-tat of machine gun fire. However, the shield gave no protection; the bullets ripped right through it. Then through my armor and through me. My body tore apart in agony, dozens of things going horribly wrong inside all at once as at least six shots passed clean through me and buried themselves in the station’s floor tiles.

I barely heard the explosive roar of SteelHooves’ grenade machine gun as I collapsed, sound and light fleeting from me. It was as if I was falling down a well. Through the distant ring above, I could see the ceiling detonate in a mass of fireballs, then come raining down with a distant thunder, collapsing into the lobby below.

*** *** ***

I returned to the wasteland of the living, alert and in pain; Velvet Remedy was pouring another extra-strength restoration potion down my throat. I choked, gasping.

“Welcome back, Littlepip. We came very close to losing you,” Velvet’s voice was stern with worry.

“W-what happened?”

Calamity’s voice called out from somewhere further into the rubble. “Armor-piercing bullets.” His voice sounded disbelieving and alarmed.

“Stop!” ordered SteelHooves. I panicked, wondering what I was doing that I could stop, but his exclamation was directed towards Calamity. “I will not let you loot the bodies of fallen Rangers.”

“Hey,” Calamity shot back, “In case ya didn’t notice, they ain’t usin’ this stuff anymore. An’ the ammo that ridiculous battle saddle of yers throws around ain’t cheap and ain’t the sorta stuff ya find in raiders’ ammo boxes or the desk drawers of office buildin’s. We need t’ scavenge it from wherever we can, whenever we can.” Calamity quieted a moment, then trotted into view with a missile in his mouth. “Fhrusf meh, ‘hey ain’ whissen if.”

He spat out the missile into a pile he was collecting, shooting a glower at SteelHooves.

I looked to Velvet Remedy who was prodding me to drink more. “Right. From now on, sneak into buildings that might not be friendly.”

SteelHooves made his way back to me. I wondered how covert-super-deathpony-like I looked to him now, my armor full of holes and covered in my own sticky blood. (I would need to have it cleaned and mended when I got to Tenpony Tower. Or maybe sooner. I was guessing I didn’t look much better than I had coming out of Ponyville.)

“You definitely got my attention,” he said and turned towards the nearest dead Ranger. “Now I want to know more about this building too.”

I nodded. “Okay. Let’s split up.” I considered keeping Velvet Remedy at my side, but realized it wasn’t the best play. “SteelHooves with me. Velvet, would you mind staying with Calamity? You two look into the rest of this floor and the basement. We’ll check out the offices upstairs.”

Velvet smiled. And then fixed me with a harsh stare. “Be careful. A lot more careful than this was.”

I promised.

*** *** ***

Attention All Four Stars employees:

In conjunction with new safety and security protocols, all employees will be issued a standard military-class firearm. This firearm is to be worn at all times while on company property. Failure to do so, or failure to keep your firearm well-maintained and properly loaded, will be grounds for termination under employee uniform policy 13-B.

In the unlikely event of incursion onto Four Stars private property by government forces, all employees are required to defend Four Stars proprietary property and executive personnel. All employees are therefore required to attend at least one of the three Four-Star-Defense and Teamwork-Building weekend training programs this month. Failure to do so will be grounds for termination under employee attendance policy 6-F.

Daisy May will be providing some of her lovely homebaked flower cookies for refreshments after the FSDTB exercises. Yum!

I’d read that same message before; it was on each terminal I’d hacked into. It didn’t make any more sense to me now than the first time. I looked over to SteelHooves, checking to make sure everything was all right, before I clicked the next one.

I figured now was as good a time as any to ask, “SteelHooves, have you ever heard of someone named Flutterguy?”

SteelHooves whinnied. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, I heard somepony say your voice sounded like Flutterguy.”

SteelHooves gave a little stomp. “Heard that before.” My ears perked. I’d figured it was a long shot at best that SteelHooves would have knowledge about the pony Watcher had mentioned. I opened my muzzle to ask, but he silenced me. “It’s just a joke.”

Oh. So much for insight. I turned back to the terminal messages.

Evacuation Policy, Employee Version:

We here at Four Stars value your commitment to the company. In the extremely unlikely event of a federal raid, or worse, a megaspell attack, it is every employee’s duty to bodyguard key personnel and ensure the safe evacuation of all employees in the following order:

1) President of Four Stars and any Shareholders on property
2) Members of Executive Management
3) Head Researchers
4) The President’s Secretary, Daisy May
5) Members of Mid-Level Management
6) Research Assistants with Red, Black or Gold-level clearance
7) Research Assistants with Orange or White-level clearance
8) Floor Supervisors

Once all the above have been safely evacuated from the property, we encourage you to seek your own safety.

To ensure your protection, we are issuing military-class armor-piercing ammo to all employees above the Supervisor level.

I sat back from the terminal and promised myself that if ever I was somehow hurled back in time, I would never go to work here.

There was a surprising amount of still-functional arcano-technology in this building. Or, at least, there had been. SteelHooves was not subtle, and every time he took out one of the security brain-bots or spider-like guard bots, he did massive damage to everything nearby. Scavenging had been reduced to finding things inside metal desks or looting boxes of ammo.

Fortunately, there were quite a few of each. Nobody had safely broken into this place in centuries, and the sheer number of ammo boxes alone could have supported a small army. Calamity had been right. Not one of the boxes included missiles or grenade ammo. But we had enough of just about everything else, including a lot of armor-piercing rounds, to last a good long time. With extra to sell. The prevalence of armor-piercing ammo had SteelHooves convinced this place had been fortifying specifically against the Steel Rangers.

There was one more. And this one seemed a private message, not duplicated on any other terminal yet.

Re: Satin:

I hear that the Ministry of Morale got her. Charges of sedition. MoM agents broke into her house in the middle of the night last weekend and hauled her away.

Management is throwing fits on the floor above me; they seem sure Satin will say something, or worse, remember something. All I know is, I’m expecting armored Ministry goons to buck in the doors any day now.

Fuck these appleseed shooters. I’m going to start bringing my gun from home!

*** *** ***

SteelHooves turned away, protecting my flank, as I snuck forward. I split my attention between the hall and my E.F.S. compass as I scouted ahead -- checking rooms, digging into desks and looking through bookshelves, until another splash of red lit up on my compass. Backtracking, I pointed SteelHooves in the direction of the next hostile; then I lingered back in a side room, not wanting to be caught in the backwash that accompanied any attack he made in a narrow hallway.

A robotic voice called out, “This is private property, federal pigs! Surrender and be annihilated!” It was immediately followed by the whoosh of a rocket. The hallway erupted in flame. To my surprise, I heard SteelHooves hit the floor.

Luna shitting moon rocks! That was from the security robot! What kind of robot fires missiles?

I pulled out my sniper rifle, loading armor-piercing bullets into it. Then, crouching low, I took a peek around the corner.

The robot took up most of the hall, and looked like the mutant child of a Steel Ranger and a tank. Its four legs ended in tredded balls that propelled it slowly down the corridor. I counted at least three weapons, including a missile launcher turret and a minigun set into a swiveling chest mount that could rotate 180 degrees around the robot’s frame.

My mind searched for an appropriate level of profanity, but came up blank as a newborn’s flank.

The thing was rolling towards SteelHooves, who was moving but down. The chest minigun swung towards the fallen Ranger. I was quite certain that it had armor-piercing ammo of its own.

Leaping around the corner, I swung the sniper rifle and stared down its scope. That minigun stopped pointing towards SteelHooves and began to turn towards me as I slid into S.A.T.S.’ targeting nirvana. The sniper rifle roared off three shots in quick succession.

The first two bullets punched small holes in the “head” of the tank-like sentinel, seeming to only slightly impare its targeting. The sentinel’s minigun tore up the wall, a single bullet tearing into my armor for a deeply grazing hit across my left flank.

My third shot hit struck into the missile turret, which promptly exploded. The rockets had been designed to take out a Steel Ranger; they were just as effective in rendering the sentinel inert.

My left hindleg felt wobbly, fresh blood mixing with the matted, sticky mess of my coat. I hobbled over to SteelHooves. His armor was administering healing potions and bolstering drugs. The armor’s self-repair spell was consuming scrap metal from an armored compartment over his right flank, rebuilding itself. I stopped a moment to marvel at what Applejack and her Ministry had created.

“Will you be okay?” I asked. SteelHooves nodded, stalwartly not moaning. “Then I’ll be right back. I want to know what that monster was guarding.”

*** *** ***

The sentinel robot had been guarding the office suite of the President of Four Stars. The desk was armored, designed for use as a barricade, and there was a hidden panel in the wall… well, it would have been hidden if it had been closed. The desk was locked. Picking it cost me a bobby pin and netted me what looked like a security passcard. I nickered at the irony, suspecting the card would have let us freely pass by all the robotic security we had to fight through to get here.

Several locked boxes of ammo were hidden under the desk. As I opened the first, I found half a dozen matrix-disruption grenades. I knew immediately that they were designed to disrupt the spell matrixes of Steel Ranger armor, rendering them helpless just as the alicorn’s attack had done to SteelHooves. But I couldn’t help thinking how such grenades would also disrupt the more mundane technologies of most robots, including the one guarding this room. “Magical shotgun of dragonslaying in the dragon’s chamber, indeed.”

It took me several tries to hack into the computer, each time backing out before it could recognize the intrusion and lock me out completely.

Evacuation Policy, Executive Version:

When Manehattan suffers a megaspell event -- or worse, if the Ministry of Morale stages a raid on this property -- all executive officers of Four Stars are to proceed to the basement stable in accordance to evacuation procedures ZS 1A – 5D, listed below. Please keep to your assigned routes.

The Four Stars Stable is guaranteed to keep you safely protected in the event of either catastrophe, and has food, water and medical supplies to outlast even a complete megaspell event -- nearly twelve whole weeks’ worth!

The FSS also includes an armory, firing range to keep in practice and plenty of reading material to keep you occupied. These include instruction manuals on how to acclimate yourself to the new exterior environment once aftereffects of megaspell detonations have subsided, and proper etiquette for greeting our ruling zebra benefactors.

Okie. Dokey. Lokey.

Steel Rangers were not Ministry of Morale. Somepony had called in the big guns. And worse, the ponies in charge had been expecting it. What were they doing?

According to the attached map, the “hidden” stairs would lead us right down to the basement. We should be able to meet up with Calamity and Velvet Remedy swiftly from there.

I began picking the lock on the weapon’s cabinet. Like the terminal, it pushed the limits of my skills. I was tempted to use one of my Party-Time Mint-als to give me that extra edge. But just before I gave up and did so, the cabinet opened.

Inside was an armored dress unlike any I’d seen before -- red and black with golden trim, perfectly preserved. I pulled it out and draped it over my back, thinking Velvet Remedy would look stunning in it. The armor also came with a helmet, but I was tempted to leave it. The flourish of red feathers almost screamed “target”.

Also inside were several assault carbines of a peculiar and impressive design. One of them was scoped and fitted with a silencer. It had a custom wood-carved handle stained with stripes of white and black.

*** *** ***

“Been waiting for you, Li’lpip.” Calamity smiled at me as I joined him in the basement. He and Velvet Remedy stood before a door sealed with a terminal. Looking at the terminal, I was pleased to discover that it had a magic eye for scanning passcards. Damn thing would be useful after all.

I offered Velvet Remedy the outfit I had found. She shunned the helmet as “garish”, but soon had Calamity helping her into the armored dress. I turned my attention to the terminal, floating up the passcard.

“Where in hell did you find that?” SteelHooves’ voice boomed as he finally caught up with us. I turned to look at him as I telekinetically held the passcard in place. SteelHooves had stopped at the bottom of the stairs and was staring at Velvet Remedy.

“Littlepip found it in a locker upstairs,” Velvet Remedy answered, prancing. “How do you think it looks on me?”

“Beautiful,” answered Calamity with a breath. “The red and gold matches the streaks in your mane and tail.” Then with a sheepish grin, “And I’ve never seen anything like it. Which means nopony will mistake you for a raider or slaver and accidentally shoot you.”

The terminal’s magic eye looked over the passcard and bleeped happily. “Welcome Missus President!” Inner mechanics began to hiss and grind as the door began to open. This wasn’t anything as sophisticated as a Stable-Tec door, but it was certainly a few grades above anything I’d seen in the wasteland.

“I might shoot her,” SteelHooves grumbled. We all shot him perplexed and nasty looks.

“That,” he explained, “Is a Zebra Legionnaire’s uniform.”

Calamity whistled. Velvet Remedy suddenly looked uncomfortable. I turned away, choosing to look instead into the darkness of the open mini-stable in front of me.

Gleaming in the darkness, the eyes of at least a dozen zombie-ponies stared back at me. Then I did a double-take. Zombies, yes. But not ponies.

Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Action Filly (level one) – You know your targeting spell like the back of your hoof, making you about 20% cooler in combat. For each level of this perk, you gain +15 action points in S.A.T.S.