Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Sixteen: Towers

Chapter Sixteen: Towers

“You see? We remain the very picture of courtesy, even in the face of such impolite accusations. We have nothing to hide here.”


Just over two hundred years ago, it was a thriving, bustling metropolis. Manehattan was hailed as the most cosmopolitan city in all of Equestria. Millions of ponies lived or worked in the city, and it was home to some of the most elite circles of Equestrian society.

Then, in an instant, Manehattan was gone. Millions of pony lives were consumed in a flash of light, heat and magical energy. Hundreds of thousands more were killed by the shockwaves and the eldritch green fires that incinerated virtually everything that was left standing.

Now, all that remained of Manehattan in the aftermath of that apocalypse were the Manehattan Ruins: miles upon miles of maze-like urban devastation and ashes under the shadows of skeletal skyscrapers that rose out of the wreckage like monolithic tombstones.

A pony might wonder how such a holocaust could have been allowed to happen. How could Equestria’s enemies have smuggled such a cataclysmic weapon into the very heart of our grandest and largest metropolis?

I found it was much easier to understand now that I knew that the most significant public transportation company in Manehattan was run by traitor ponies loyal to Equestria’s enemies, and that the basement of this very facility had been the staging ground for zebra operations within our homeland.

I stared into the eyes of the zombie-zebras and realized that this was how they had gotten the balefire bomb into Manehattan. That these zebras had been responsible for the murder of millions.

I also realized that the mini-stable under Four Stars fell far short of Stable-Tec’s quality -- for all the harm Stable-Tec’s playing around had done, those ponies really knew how to build a survival shelter. This inferior stable had not been able to stop magical radiation from bleeding in, transforming the zebras (and almost a dozen ponies) it had been intended to protect into the ghoulish creatures before me.

And yes, I realized they might not be zombie-zebras so much as ghoul-zebras. I’d say I didn’t care, but part of me actually hoped they were ghouls as I stepped back out of the way.

“SteelHooves! Give ‘em everything you’ve got!”

*** *** ***

The fog lifted by mid afternoon, revealing the graveyard of the Manehattan Ruins beneath a sky of rolling, angry grey. We walked above it, traveling single-file along one of the twin monorails of the Luna Line, looking down on the blocks of city rubble below. In all directions we saw collapsed and gutted buildings, blackened chariots and wagons, detritus and blown litter that congregated about the metal shafts of shattered streetlamps. No skeletons, though. The living creatures of Manehattan had been reduced to nothing more than ash, mixing with the ash from a billion other sources as it was carried by the wind.

I was beginning to spot a few small places where green balefire still burned. I wondered how even balefire could have survived for centuries.

The wind carried particles of rust and ash, as well as the smells of the urban graveyard. A symphony of creaks and groans haunted the city, mixing with the sounds of shifting and crumbling concrete and the hammering of wind-blown metal. Occasional staccatos of gunfire, usually distant and carried on echoes, reminded us that there were raiders, scavengers and others ponies lurking in hidden streets and darkened structures.

A flash of green and gold shot past us from behind -- a magnificent bird both terrifying and graceful which spread its wings and circled as if taking in our measure. Its eyes seemed to glow and licks of balefire fell from its beak.

“What is that?” Velvet Remedy asked with a tone of awe before I could find the words to ask for myself.

“Balefire Phoenix,” SteelHooves replied, whistling slightly.

The green and gold bird completed its circle, then swooped down and away, disappearing from sight as it threaded through shadowed alleys.

We began to move again, all except Velvet Remedy who just stood there as if mesmerized. She turned to SteelHooves, breathily demanding, “Tell me about them.”

Whinnying, we all halted again. (Interesting fact about traveling single-file: if one pony stops, unless they’re at the back, travel tends to stop with them.) I found myself staring at a ruined billboard whose bottle of Sparkle~Cola RAD seemed to actually glow. (“It’s like a buck to the face! With radishes!”) Billboards littered the sky along the Luna Line like weeds.

“The Manehattan Gardens was the largest wildlife sanctuary of its kind, home to the most exotic and admired creatures. All of which were instantly cremated when the zebras’ balefire bomb detonated,” SteelHooves explained. “Of course, a phoenix doesn’t exactly have the same relationship with being turned to ash that most creatures do.”

SteelHooves chuckled. “I wouldn’t be thinking of trying to domesticate one. They breathe fire.”

*** *** ***

A battered sea-blue mare fled out of a doorless storefront and started running down the street, tears streaming from her eyes as she screamed.

A dozen raider ponies, each carrying a brutal weapon and wearing an old roller derby helmet, came tearing out of the building after her, jumping out the windows and charging out the door, whooping and laughing.

Help me!She stumbled as she ran, her gait hobbled. Blood ran down between her thighs; I could see her bleeding through my scope. “Please somepony help me!” She’d already been raped repeatedly. Now they had let her go and were chasing her for sport.

From the height of the Luna Line, we were too far for S.A.T.S. to effectively lock on, so I trailed the scope in front of the first raider -- a mottled brown and grey pony with a cutie mark of a skull with burning eyes -- aiming for where he was about to be as Calamity instructed.

“Good, now keep ‘er steady an’ squeeze out a burst.”

I magically pulled the trigger. Three shots spat out of the scoped zebra assault carbine. Silenced weapons, I learned, were not really silent; but the dampened sound was lost in the wind, and the weight of the silencer helped soften the recoil and keep the rifle on target between bullets.

The raider pony burst into flame. He fell to the ground, screaming and thrashing.

I stepped back, floating up the rifle to check the clip while Calamity took a shot. No, I hadn’t accidentally loaded magical bullets. The zebra rifle had enchanted the bullet itself.

Stick a horn where Celestia don’t shine! If this was the sort of weapon that zebras had been carrying onto the battlefield…

The screams of the victim mare below wrenched my attention back to the battle. Calamity fired off a second shot. Pulling the scope to my eyes, I saw that three of the raiders were now dead (one of the corpses burning in the street), and the others were scattering. The panicking mare screamed, her hooves catching on a toppled streetlamp, and fell, skidding across the debris-strewn street.

One of the raiders was still charging towards her; I swung the scope towards him. And froze as I really saw him -- one of the rapists had been a blank-flanked colt!

I stared, following the very young pony with the zebra rifle’s scope, trembling slightly. He was wearing a colts roller-derby helmet and clenched a serrated knife in his mouth. I could see her blood on him. I focused, the trigger of the zebra rifle moving slightly…

I couldn’t. It was a colt!

Horrified, I watched as the colt reached the fallen mare dodging the kicks she threw at him. I heard the crack of gunfire feet from me, and saw the colt’s body rupture bloodily in two places, hit with enough force to fling his corpse against a nearby mailbox.

I lowered the zebra rifle and turned to stare at Calamity in shock. On the other side of him, Velvet Remedy’s eyes were wide.

“What?” Calamity asked before flying down to help the mare. “Did Ah steal yer shot?”

*** *** ***

Ponies love laughter. Zebras do not understand joy and fear it.

Ponies are honest. Zebras tell only lies.

Ponies are loyal. Zebras will knife you in the back.

Ponies are generous. Zebras are selfish and greedy.

Ponies care about each other. Zebras care only about themselves.

I stared up at the billboard and thought: wow.

“That’s… that’s just wrong,” Velvet Remedy said, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had become our traveling companion since Calamity shot the raider colt.

The twin monorail tracks took a graceful curve, and the billboard was mounted across the flying buttresses of a squat skyscraper, placed so that the train ponies would see it as they approached the turn. It would have dominated the view out one side of the elevated train as it took the bend.

Calamity had flown off ahead, more to give us space than out of a need to scout. The Luna Line seemed free of threats.

I really wanted a Party-Time Mint-al. I didn’t have any particular need for one, but I felt myself craving the effects, especially the intellectual boost. I could just think so much faster, so much more clearly while benefiting from a PTM. I was more aware, my senses more acute.

If that’s what Party-Time Mint-als did for me, I began to wonder what they did for Pinkie Pie?

I found myself thinking about Four Stars again. Based on what we had found in the mini-stable (which wasn’t much after SteelHooves’ ordnance was finished with the zebras), the Ministry of Morale raid must have happened the same morning that the balefire bomb was set off. It occurred to me that the megaspell was probably in transit when they attacked.

The Ministry of Morale had brought in Steel Rangers; they knew what they were heading into called for the big guns. Knowing where to look, who to interrogate… did that come from the skill of the ponies in her employ, or did Pinkie Pie herself discern these things with the power of PTM-enhanced acumen? Biased, I presumed the latter.

No matter what negative effects she might have suffered from PTM addiction, Pinkie Pie had intuition that bordered on precognition. The traitors were terrified of her Ministry; she had them paranoid and scurrying. And no matter what anypony might say about either her or her Ministry, Pinkie Pie had come heartbreakingly close to saving Manehattan.

I stopped, looking out over the desolate urban maze. Millions of ponies had died here, their salvation racing the clock and losing.

I had to find something else to think about. I switched on DJ Pon3’s radio broadcast, listening to it in my earbloom. It was merely a distraction; I knew all the songs by heart now. I hoped DJ Pon3 found something in the records we carried worthy of expanding his musical repertoire.

“This just in,” DJ Pon3 announced between songs, “Just got a report that a weak distress signal can be heard near Horseshoe Tower. Seems like Blackwing’s Talons have managed to get themselves in over their beaks. Well, don’t worry, Blackwing. Horseshoe Tower’s pretty close to Sheriff Rottingtail’s territory. Maybe some of his ghouls will be willing to lend you a hoof. Oh, wait, that’s right, you and your mercs slaughtered them all. Well, good luck with that.

“This is DJ Pon3 reminding everypony in the Equestrian Wasteland: you reap what you sow.”

Calamity was flying back towards us. I turned off the radio on my PipBuck as he landed on the monorail, “Y’all gonna love this.”

Several minutes later, we had trotted far enough along the curve to see what Calamity had told us about. Ahead, the Celestia Line crossed over the Luna Line. About twenty feet above the Luna Line, running perpendicular to the twin monorails below. The dark underside of the twin Celestia rails struck me as bizarrely textured, giving me the creeps.

“Well how do we get up there?” Velvet Remedy scoffed.

Calamity rolled his eyes and fluttered his wings. “Ah carry y’all up is how. ‘Cept Ah’m thinkin’ our Steel Ranger friend is a might heavy for me.”

“I can levitate him up as you carry me,” I offered.

Calamity nodded. “All right then. Jus’ be careful, Li’lpip. Ya don’t wanna disturb the bloodwings.”

“Bloodwings?” I floated out the binoculars, peering through them at the Celestia Line, and cringed with a gasp. The shadowed underbellies of the monorails were covered with the grotesque, leathery forms of dozens of giant, mutant bats.

“Ayep. Ah figure we best make good time t’ Tenpony. Reckon we don’t wanna be outside in the open come nightfall.”

*** *** ***

As difficult as it was to get onto the Celestia Line, getting off the monorail was easy. Twilight was falling as we rounded a bend and were met with a graceful arch of tarnished silver which flowed up and over the monorails. Through the arch, we could finally see Tenpony Tower in its surprisingly well-preserved splendor. We had been catching glimpses of it above and between the buildings for hours, but only now could we really take in the size and ornateness of the structure.

Light glowed behind more than half of the windows, most of which bore fractures but were fully intact. The building narrowed every dozen stories with a level ringed by a patio balcony, the fencing around each spotted with crude repair. One whole side of Tenpony Tower was blackened and sagging, bulwarked by patchwork reinforcements added over post-apocalyptic decades. The original name of the building had collapsed into the cobblestone courtyard below. A huge radio broadcast tower rose from the roof towards the sky.

The monorails passed under the archway (which would once have been dazzling in the sun) and right up to Tenpony Tower, where they ran through a Four Stars embarking station built into the side of the tower many stories above the ground.

From the tarnished arch hung a sign proclaiming:

Ministry of Arcane Science

Manehattan Hub

Entering the station, we saw guard ponies barricaded behind massive steel walls, watching our approach through narrow slits as they followed our progress with their guns. The walls of the station were decorated with life-size paintings of ponies. Once, the paintings had been protected by fields of magical energy similar to Velvet Remedy’s spell. Now, most of the paintings were blackened, damaged or defaced beyond repair, the shields having failed and the gemstones which held their enchantments stolen. All save for one: a painting of a familiar purple unicorn, the once pink and violet stripes in her mane mostly changed to grey.

I hopped onto the sidewalk that ran along the wall, giving the painting a closer look. The edges were charred and the paint had blistered in the heat, but the protective field still held.

The others paused, watching me, but I waved them on. “I just want to look. I’ll catch up.” Each of my companions nodded and trotted on, none of them seeming to possess my curiosity.

While no spring filly, Twilight Sparkle looked at least a decade younger in this painting than in the memory of Pinkie Pie’s last party, and considerably happier. She was surrounded by crisp autumn colors, a number of hazy, barely-rendered ponies creating colorful blotches around her in the background. Her cutie mark was hidden, covered by a flank-blanket bearing the number 10.

“The Running of the Leaves,” a voice announced from behind me, startling me so badly I nearly jumped back to my death. I turned to glare at the sprite-bot which had seemed to materialize out of nowhere.

“Twilight Sparkle ran it every year in Ponyville. Never won.” To me, the mechanical voice sounded… nostalgic? “That was, until the Ministry demanded all of her time.”

I gazed at the purple pony with the “10” on her flank; then I looked up to the mostly intact skyscraper which had once been a Ministry of Magic hub, the massive letters that once advertised its name fallen and shattered on the ground below. And then looked back.

“Heh,” I smiled.

Turning to the sprite-bot, “How did you know Twi…” But with a crack of static, Watcher was gone, the sprite-bot suddenly spewing tuba-music. I scowled as I watched the spherical robot bob away. Was it just me, or were conversations with Watcher getting shorter?

*** *** ***

“Ponies don’t simply walk into Tenpony Tower,” the guardpony informed us, scowling through an armored window as he spoke through the intercom. The words NO ZOMBIES! were painted across the gate in huge red letters.

“We have business with DJ Pon3,” Velvet Remedy stated loftily. “Although if you want to explain to him that you turned us away…”

“DJ Pon3 is expecting you, then?”

“Absolutely,” Velvet Remedy lied silkily. “And if I were you, I would not keep him waiting.”

“All of you?” the voice was skeptical.

Velvet Remedy gave an overly dramatic sigh. “This is my bodyguard,” she claimed, pointing to Calamity. “And I’m sure you recognize a member of the Steel Rangers.”

“I-I do…”

“And…” Velvet looked to me and seemed to draw a blank.

Hastily, I offered, “Toaster repairpony.” Everypony gave me a strange look. “His… um… toaster’s on the fritz?” Velvet Remedy looked pained.

The guard contemplated us silently. Finally, Velvet Remedy said, “Look, as much as I’d love to just stand here outside while you get in trouble for not letting us in, it is getting dark. Would one hundred bottle caps help move this along?”

“Two hundred.”

“One-hundred and twenty-five. And I don’t tell DJ Pon3 that you tried to extort his guests.”

“Fine.” The gun slot opened in the door. “Slide the caps through, then you can come in.” I started pulling out and counting bottle caps. I was going to have to start bundling them into small pouches of twenty to make this sort of thing easier. Two hundred was a large chunk of the bottle caps we’d managed to acquire, but I wasn’t worried. We had plenty of guns and ammo to sell once inside.

“Oh,” the guard added, “And you’ll have to disarm before passing through the checkpoint.”

Stick a horn…

“Y’all ain’t gettin’ muh battle saddle less ya pry it offa my cold, dead…”

The guard scoffed. “Wouldn’t expect to. You don’t have to turn in your firearms and battle saddles. Just your ammo. All of it.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. Unexpected. That also severely cut our trade goods, but at least left us with the more expensive and heavier objects to sell off.

As we passed through the checkpoint, a unicorn stepped out of the guardpost and waved her horn over us. Every clip, bullet, grenade and missile flashed, visible even through SteelHooves’ metal armor. “Toaster repairpony,” she repeated with a demure smile as her gaze passed over my sniper rifle, combat shotgun, zebra rifle, assault carbine…

I facehoofed.

“And a Steel Ranger?” she asked as she removed the missiles from the left side of SteelHooves’ battle saddle. “What is your story?”

SteelHooves whinnied. “I’m just here to make sure you don’t have any more nasty ghoul problems.”

“Oh, that is no longer a concern,” she smiled. “But thank you for the concern.”

“Indeed. Can’t have a filthy ghoul just walking in anywhere.”

Calamity was shooting SteelHooves dark looks. Velvet Remedy nickered under her breath, just loud enough to make sure she was heard, “Oh yes. They’re unsightly things. Can’t imagine anything worse, except maybe a colt-killer.”

Calamity neighed and rolled his eyes, lowering the brim of his hat.

In minutes, we were divested of all our ammunition. “You will get all of this back when you leave,” the unicorn promised primly as she collected it all and floated it into the guardhouse.

“Ah feel… strangely nekkid,” Calamity complained. At least my weapons had only been reduced to fancy clubs.

“You can probably buy some rubber bullets from Chief Grim Star if you really feel you need to,” the unicorn informed us as the guardhouse door slid shut behind her. Calamity and I exchanged surprised looks. It was the first I’d heard of anypony utilizing non-lethal ordnance.

There was a loud CLANK as something released inside the ornate, armored double doors in front of us. They opened, swinging inwards and revealing the marbled, chandelier-lit station lobby of Tenpony Tower.

*** *** ***

We were getting looks. The idea of high society was completely foreign to me. We’d had nothing like this sort of bizarre elitism in Stable Two. The wasteland was a dirty, broken, rusted place that was completely at odds with stuffy behavior; the only reason a pony might walk around with their nose in the air in places like New Appleloosa was because they didn’t want to smell what they were walking in.

“Let us hurry and find a place to make bed,” Velvet Remedy pushed. “I need a bath.”

“Hell, these folk’re makin’ me feel like Ah need a bath,” Calamity said, his head low, feeling the weight of all the stares.

“You do.”

I nodded, wondering just how we would find a place to stay. We were walking across a mezzanine filled with high-class shops (or, at least, high-class relative to the rest of the Equestrian Wasteland). If we wanted to buy or sell anything here, Velvet Remedy had her work cut out for her. I suspected that she was the only one with enough mercantile savoir-faire to get these ponies to even talk to her.

Velvet Remedy seemed to read my mind. “Once we’ve bathed and rested, we should split up. I’ll take our goods to sell first thing in the morning, and then purchase us some new formal wear that will help us blend in. Littlepip, you should look into meeting with DJ Pon3.” I agreed.

“Ah want t’ find a workshop. Ah want t’ modify muh battle saddle. Until travelin’ with Li’lpip, Ah never had more’n one type o’ ammo. Want t’ set up a quick way t’ swap ‘tween ammo types. Be nice t’ be able t’ use rubber bullets when the situation calls fer it.” He looked at Velvet and me. “Y’all should give me yer guns so Ah can do them some proper maintenance while Ah’m at it.”

Velvet Remedy floated her needler pistol over to him. “Situations like shooting a colt, perhaps?”

Calamity neighed. “Nope. Ah see a raider, ah’m gonna take ‘im down.” The rust-colored pony stared defiantly at Velvet Remedy, proudly insisting, “It’s muh policy.”

“It was a child!” Velvet Remedy hissed, giving a stomp.

I looked around; my companions were beginning to make a scene. “um… maybe we should save this for…”

“Anypony who chooses t’ be a filthy, murderin’ raider gets tried an’ perforated as an adult,” Calamity asserted.

“And you think a colt or filly in that situation had any actual choice?

Calamity’s eyes narrowed and he cocked his head. “Well, maybe not. Damn tragedy. But that don’t mean Ah’m gonna give ‘im a free pass t’ rape and murder till he gets his cutie mark. His would-be future victims don’t deserve that.” Calamity’s voice was rising dangerously. “In case ye didn’t notice, My Little Rapist down there…”

“Shut up!” I finally ordered. “I swear to the Goddesses, I’m going to put you both in corners!”

Velvet Remedy and Calamity both bristled. But the interruption was enough to get them to look around and realize that this was not the place to be having that particular fight. The two of them remained silent for the rest of the evening while I found us a place at Goldentail’s Luxury Suites. It was a beautiful room, the marble walls only slightly cracked, the twin bathtubs were only lightly stained and the sheets on the beds were not too worn or frayed. I probably paid double what Velvet Remedy would have gotten it for, but I was happy just to get them away from the public.

*** *** ***

Tempers were more even the next morning. We had all bathed and washed our clothing. Calamity spent the first part of the morning sewing and patching our armor. My armored utility barding had been crusted with blood and punctured with bullet holes. Meanwhile, Velvet Remedy packed up the weapons and scavenged items for trade and headed out before the stores were open, wanting to look over her options.

I spent the morning hungry. We decided that we would wait until Velvet Remedy returned with proper Tenpony attire before heading out to buy food. There were several swanky-looking restaurants that we had passed on our way to Goldentail’s Luxury Suites, and I was sick of canned and boxed pre-war food (which, as Velvet reminded us, we were almost out of and would need to stock up on).

I took the chance to relax, laying on one of the beds and reading. I’d nearly finished all of the books I had collected, and I had contemplated giving most of them to Velvet Remedy to sell. But in the end, I decided that I would rather keep them back at my Junction R-7 home. Start a library.

When Velvet Remedy returned, bringing us all new clothing (even a stately cloak for SteelHooves), I nearly fell out of bed at the sight of her. She’d treated herself to a new coiffure and ponypedi, and she was wearing a classy new dress with matching new jewelry along with a demure touch of blush. She fluttered her longer-than-ever eyelashes at me and I felt faint. Part of me hated her for making me want her so much.

“Wow… Velvet you look…” Calamity flushed, looking a little overheated. But he stammered something about hoping she had saved enough bottle caps for us to have breakfast.

She turned up her nose at him, “Of course I did.” Looking to me, she broke into a gleeful grin, clopping her hooves. “And we have plenty extra to do a little shopping.”

“What do they have?”

Velvet Remedy smirked, rolling her eyes. “Oh you wouldn’t believe. These ponies have taken full-of-themselves to a whole new level.” She snickered. “Two floors down, there is a shop that sells only cheese. Right across from a shop that sells only wine.”

As classy as she could be, Velvet Remedy didn’t put any more value in being snobbish than the rest of us. “But of course, half the fun of shopping is just looking. Why, was there something you were looking for?”

“Some new books. And rubber bullets.”

Velvet Remedy sighed.

*** *** ***

The restaurant was classy and filled with prim-looking ponies. I looked at my plate of “food” with a touch of depression. I don’t know why I had expected much more; it wasn’t as if the ponies of Tenpony Tower were farmers with fields of fresh grains. Instead, we got the same pre-war foods, only cooked in new ways and served in tiny but artistic portions.

It didn’t take long to eat. And I was still hungry.

After breakfast, we split up. Calamity and SteelHooves went to find Chief Grim Star, hoping to purchase bullets and possibly a suit of armored barding more suitable for Velvet Remedy. The zebra legionnaire suit was stored away in SteelHooves’ packs. Velvet Remedy didn’t feel right wearing it, especially as we walked over the graves of countless ponies the zebras had murdered, and I didn’t blame her. But I hated to just leave it or sell it when it could be useful.

Velvet and I went to purchase supplies. Food was a high priority. (Especially since I had no intention of eating at a restaurant again for as long as we were here.) Looking at the rows of cans and boxes in Fine Edibles, I cringed at the prices. “Maybe we should just get the minimum we will need for the next couple days. We’re bound to find more if we do a bit of scavenging.”

Velvet Remedy agreed, but only because she had other intentions for the caps we would save by doing so. We stocked up lightly, then I watched as Velvet Remedy haggled with the shop clerk until she got us a discount. As soon as we left Fine Edibles, I found myself being shoved into a spa where Velvet Remedy absolutely insisted we both get full-body treatments.

I was resistant at first, but as I began to unwind in the steam room, feeling muscles loosen that had probably been tight since my last night in the Stable, I found myself letting out a grand sigh of relief.

A couple of delightful spa-ponies gave us an absolutely heavenly massage. This was easily the best caps I had ever spent. And, truth be told, the spa mare hoofing my back was beginning to really turn me on.

“I heard that Fluttershy went to one of these places every week with my great, great… add a bunch of greats here… grand-auntie,” Velvet Remedy confided as the lovely spa pony rubbed her hooves on my shoulders. I suddenly felt extra-awkward.

Later as we lounged in a mud bath, my eye spotted a book sitting alone on a counter. Curious, I floated it over to take a look. “Principles of Proper Pony Speech,” I read aloud. “Refining how we think by refining how we speak.” I opened the book and looked down the title page. At the bottom, in small words: Official guidelines from the Ministry of Image.

I decided I’d ask the spa pony if I could buy the book.

*** *** ***

We were returning to our room after the most delightful morning I’d had probably ever, and my attention was focused on slipping my newly purchased book into my saddlebags, when I collided with a stallion who was backing out of the cheese shop, knocking him over. My book fell to the floor along with a number of boxes full of cheese.

I recovered and began to offer him apologies and assistance when my eyes fell the cheese-shaped cutie mark on his beige flank. “You!”

Monterey Jack stood up, dusting himself off. “Oh. It’s you.

A short grey unicorn wearing a refined full barding trotted out and looked at the scattered cheese. Then at us. “Is there a problem here?”

“Yeah. This… pony… tried to rob me! After I saved his life!”

Now I was the one creating a scene, and I didn’t care. Velvet Remedy was staring. Monterey Jack started picking up the boxes of cheese, lifting them with his teeth by their wrapping strings. He ignored me like I was small, yapping animal.

“Is that true?” the grey unicorn asked, looking to Monterey Jack.

Monterey just snorted and finished stacking the cheese boxes, then focused, floating them towards the grey unicorn in the suit. “Sorry about that, Homage. I’ll credit your account ten percent for the rough handling.”

“Yes, it’s true,” I supplied for the beige unicorn. Of course his cutie mark looked like cheese. Monterey Jack ran the cheese shop.

A guard pony in old M.A.S. Security Armor and a LSW battle saddle was trotting towards us. Turning towards him, I pointed at Monterey. “Sir, I’d like this pony arrested.”

The guard pony looked both of us up and down. “On what charge?”
“Attempted robbery.”

The guard chuckled. “Monterey Jack’s prices may be steep, but that’s a stretch.”

I shook my head. “No. I rescued him from raiders and he repaid me by trying to rob me.” Turning a glare on Monterey Jack, I added, “They were going to shoot your hooves off, if I remember correctly. Maybe I should have let them.”

The guard looked at me skeptically. “When was this?”

I paused, and double-checked the date on my PipBuck. “Three weeks ago.” Had it really been only that long? I felt like I’d been outside a lot longer.

“Sorry,” the guard said finally. “But it’s your word against his, and frankly, seeing as you aren’t a Tenpony citizen, your word doesn’t mean much here.”

I fumed. “You mean he gets away with it?”

“Littlepip,” Velvet Remedy said softly, putting a calming hoof on my shoulder. “Put it in the past. He may have tried to rob you, but he didn’t succeed.”

I shrugged off her hoof and rounded on Monterey Jack. “So, you’re going to just stand there and deny it, are you? Well I…”

“No,” he said firmly.

“…am not going… wait… what?”

“Monterey?” Homage was looking at the beige cheese shop unicorn, her purchases momentarily forgotten. The guard pony had suddenly stiffened.

“I have two colts and a filly to look after. I had to make it home safely, and those supplies would have been wasted on you. You weren’t even smart enough to loot corpses. You wouldn’t have survived the week.”

“Clearly not,” Velvet Remedy deadpanned.

“Monterey Jack,” the guard said dangerously. “Do you realize what you are admitting here?”

Monterey Jack snorted, staring at me. “I’m not a liar. And I’m not ashamed of what I tried to do. Making sure my children still have a father is more important than some foalish little stranger who doesn’t have the good sense not to walk into a slaver camp.” He looked to the guard, “After Clarinet was killed, I’m all they have left.”

The guard pony neighed. “Well, probably not anymore. You know the law. Banditry will get you executed.”

Wait, wait, WHAT?!

Velvet Remedy gasped. The guard clamped the bit on his battle saddle and I heard the light support weapon reload. “Sorry, Monterey Jack, but you’re going to have to come with me.”

“um… I’ve changed my mind. I’m not pressing charges. Nothing happened.”

The guard scowled at me. “Sorry kid. But it’s your word against his. And like I said, your non-citizen word doesn’t mean the dirt on my hoof around here.”

*** *** ***

I paced back in forth outside the elevator. This was insane. They can’t kill a pony for trying and failing to rob somepony, could they? Goddesses, why didn’t I just keep my stupid mouth shut?

The elevator doors opened. I’d left Velvet Remedy looking into the laws of Tenpony Tower, hoping she could find something while I attempted to talk to DJ Pon3. Stepping into the elevator, I added this to the list of things I wanted to ask him about.

For that matter, why couldn’t Monterey Jack have just kept his own mouth shut. In the Equestrian Wasteland, honesty was not always a virtue.

The elevator began to glide upwards. I took a deep breath. I was about to meet DJ Pon3. I wondered what to expect. I hoped he’d be willing to talk with me. If not, this would have been a long walk for nothing. Well no, not nothing. It was a long walk for a spa treatment.

Actually still somewhat worth it.

The doors opened, and I stepped out into a rich marble foyer, the center of which was dominated by a water fountain. A huge alicorn made of age-darkened brass reared up before me, wings spread out over the foyer. The necklace around the alicorn’s neck bore a water talisman with a large sapphire set into the center. Thanks to the talisman, the fountain still flowed with fresh, clean water even two-hundred years after the apocalypse. I remembered the pure, non-irradiated water we had enjoyed in our baths and in the spa, and I wondered just how many water talismans the M.A.S. hub had. And how many could benefit from them if they weren’t all hoarded together in this one place.

Stairs wrapped around the foyer to a mezzanine level. Inset in the balcony were matching bronze letters: Ministry of Arcane Science -- Manehattan. Beyond the fountain was a large set of double doors bearing the title: Twilight Sparkle Athenaeum. Above on the mezzanine was a second, nearly identical set of double doors.

M.A.S. Emergency Broadcast Station

Authorized Unicorns Only

I took a deep breath and stepped towards the stairs. A second pair of elevator doors slid open behind me. I turned to see the grey unicorn mare, Homage, step out and look around. I smiled, trying not to look nervous. “You’re here to see DJ Pon3 too?”

The other unicorn nodded. She was about my size, the only other adult pony I’d seen who was born with a similar small frame. I waved a hoof for her to go first. She was a citizen, after all.

When we reached the landing, the double doors to M.A.S.E.B.S. swung open quietly, making me think of the wild tale of Manehattan ghosts the traveling merchant had told us.

Inside were multiple maneframes and walls of computer screens giving a bird’s eye view of… the vast majority of the Equestrian Wasteland as far as I could tell. Homage clopped past me as I stopped to stare. Searching about, I spotted New Appleloosa on one of them.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Homage asked.

I nodded, noticing that while most screens had clear, sharp images, several flickered and suffered odd distortions, and one large set of screens was dead black. “You’ve been in here before?”

“Oh, a few times.” She walked over to a bank of buttons and lights, raising a hoof to press one. She turned and trotted back towards the center of the room where a microphone was raising from the floor. Homage’s horn glowed and her voice changed by magic.

“Good morning, wastelanders!” Homage cried into the mike, her voice now male and very familiar. “How is everypony doing? This is your pal, DJ Pon3 and, well, it’s that time again… that’s right, time for some news!”

I fell to my haunches, staring as the little grey unicorn’s voice belted over the airwaves.

“I hear rumor that Monterey Jack, cheese shop owner up in that oh-so-hoity-toity Tenpony Tower, has been arrested for deciding that being a thieving jack-ass is the appropriate response to an act of kindness. Remember what I keep telling you, my little ponies: treat each other with kindness and respect. Or don’t and watch it come back to bite you in the tail.

“In other news, somepony’s finally arrived to fix my toaster. Hallelujah! It’s breakfast time! Here’s a little Sapphire Shores to get you through the morning.”

*** *** ***

Ten minutes later, I stood on the windswept roof of Tenpony Tower as Homage made a refining adjustment to the gemstone set into the center of one of the dishes on the broadcast tower.

I stared out over the grey labyrinth of Manehattan. From here I could see another Ministry Hub building which was considerably worse for wear, Horseshoe Tower, and even The Pony of Friendship out in the harbor. Breathtaking blue oceans stretched out until the waters vanished under offshore fog.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” Homage asked, her voice no longer that of DJ Pon3. “I’m told that statue was a gift from the zebra folk generations before the war.”

I turned to look at her but caught sight of something far off on the horizon that grabbed my attention. A needle-like white tower rose all the way into the clouds. I blinked, realizing I’d seen it before, but not over there. Before, when I’d spotted it in the distance, it was…

I turned to look out in the direction I knew the tower should have been and saw. There were two of them. I pulled out my binoculars and slowly turned, scanning the horizon. Far off, protruding from the mountains near old Appleloosa, I thought I spotted a third.

How many of those towers were there?

“I see you’ve spotted them,” Homage said casually.

I lowered the binoculars. “What are they?”

“No idea,” Homage admitted. “Something pre-war and really sophisticated. What I do know is that each one has a station house at the base and observation eyes about a third of the way up. DJ Pon3 managed to hack into one of them. Between those eyes and reports from loyal listeners, every DJ Pon3 since had been able to keep ponies informed about dangers, uplifted by the tales of heroes, and generally appraised of what goes on in the wasteland. And give them beautiful music to help make life out there more bearable.

“It’s all I can do to help everyone. But I figure the most I can do is the least I can do.”

I looked to Homage with amazement bordering on reverence.

“You, on the other hoof, it seems can do a lot more. And so I’d like your help…”

Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: How We Do It Down on the Farm – In combat, your critical hits are more devastating. Your damage from critical hits, including Sneak Attack Criticals, is increased by 50%. This does not affect the chance to cause a critical hit.