Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat


Chapter Seventeen: The Villain of the Piece

Chapter Seventeen: The Villain of the Piece

“Bringing you the truth, no matter how bad it hurts.”

Answers.

For weeks, I had been holding onto the illusion that all my questions would be answered if only I could get to Tenpony Tower and talk to DJ Pon3.

Sitting across from Homage at her tiny table, talking over ice-cold Sparkle~Colas, I found myself wondering how I had convinced myself. For instance, she hadn’t been able to tell me anything about Red Eye; apparently his operations were in one of the few places she couldn’t look. If anything, Homage had more questions than I did. By the time I had finished giving her the inside story on what had really happened at Shattered Hoof and why I had made the choices that I did, the only real revelation was the realization that hanging all your hopes on an assumption was going to get you nothing but hurt.

"Thank you, Littlepip," Homage said, offering me another slice of watermelon fresh from the tin can. "I always tell it to my listeners as accurately as my resources allow me to. You have no idea how grateful I am to have somepony fill in the gaps."

I nodded. "And I'm grateful for the chance to tell my side of the story. My... reputation seems to be getting out of control."

Homage smiled, "Undeservedly?" She pointed a hoof at me. "You might not think of the things you do as anything special, but they are. Simply by treating the way you risk yourself to help others as something anypony would do, you show the wasteland a way to be better."

Homage lifted a slice of centuries-preserved watermelon in her hooves and nibbled at it before continuing. "You're right; that's how ponies should treat each other. But in the Equestrian Wasteland, it's rare enough for a pony to be willing to expend valuable ammunition from afar to rescue a stranger, especially when they know that they might need those bullets tomorrow to save themselves or their families. Putting life and limb in danger?"

Homage shook her head sadly. She had a beautiful mane of short blue hair that fell into her face as she did so. I reached up to brush it out of her eyes so she didn't have to put down her watermelon. "I'm afraid the Equestrian Wasteland has no shortage of Monterey Jacks, but faces a crippling lack of Littlepips."

*** *** ***

"Why would he do that?" I paced in frustration. The mention of Monterey Jack had derailed the previous conversation. "I just don't understand it."

Homage watched, surprised at my agitation. "Pride would be my guess. From what you've said, he doesn't really seem sorry about what he did."

"It's a stupid law," I asserted with a stomp of my hoof.

Homage didn't seem to agree. "Tenpony Tower has extremely strict laws regarding anything that falls under 'raider activity' to act as a deterrent. Try to remember, we're stuck between the raiders of Shattered Hoof and the slavers of the Fillydelphia Crater. Tenpony doesn't just want to keep undesirables out, they want to send a clear message to anypony from either group that might think of setting hoof near this place."

Dammit. I hated to admit it, but that made sense. What still didn't make sense to me was why Monterey Jack had confessed. The hope that Monterey Jack would be set free because he hadn't been a successful bandit wilted.

I stopped and looked to Homage, "He... he had to have known about..." I felt unsure, like I was grasping at straws. And worse, I felt responsible. As Homage had pointed out early in the conversation, Monterey Jack was the one who tried to rob me, and he was the one who made the damning confession. As far as she saw, I had no reason to feel guilty. But that didn't change how I felt. The moment I had seen Monterey, all the feelings of betrayal flooded back laced with righteous indignation. And I had thrown a tantrum. "Was there any chance he didn't know that they could execute him for... what he admitted?"

Homage shook her head. "Every citizen of Tenpony knows the laws here. Getting permanent residence here takes a lot, and knowing the law is one of the easier requirements to meet." I groaned inwardly, confused and upset. Homage added firmly, "Monterey Jack's had that cheese shop here for five years now, and before that he was a caravan guard for the merchants that the former shop owner got his supplies from. Monterey knows the law."

Dammit.

*** *** ***

Homage and I walked together through Twilight Sparkle’s Athenaeum. Every wall was covered with shelves, save for a couple reading nooks and three large, vaulted windows that allowed cloud-greyed noonday light to spill into the library. Each shelf was filled with tomes, manuals, novels and collected volumes of written works. Every pillar was ringed with more books. There was a large table in the center, standing not on legs but a ring of bookshelves. Each chair had spaces under the armrests filled with even more books. Under the windows was a bed with neither books nor shelves, one of the scattered pieces of furniture (along with the table, refrigerator, chairs and an old phonograph) that told me this was where Homage had made her home.

“That’s… a lot of books.”

Homage trotted over to the table, where an ancient terminal sat pouring out its green glow through a haze of dust. The pretty grey unicorn poked at it with a hoof and an elegant voice floated out.

“Twilight, darling. We really must get together soon. It’s been ages. And, may I speak honestly? You need a rest. If any pony knows overworking herself, it would be me. Please, why don’t you just take a morning off? Join Fluttershy and myself this week. We’ll even make the trip to Manehattan; no need to come back to Canterlot. I’m sure they have lovely spas in Manehattan too.

“Now, the reason I’m calling on the restricted line: I’ve just heard my Ministry is about to purge the Ponyville Library of ideologically incompatible books, and I knew right away that you’d want to keep them for yourself. So I’m having this shipment diverted to you as well. I do hope you have enough room. I know the Ministry of Magic on Ministry Walk has a much bigger library, but we can’t get away with diverting these wagons to Canterlot, now can we?

“If you are running out of space… now don’t get mad… but you could ask Pinkie Pie for help. Her Ministry has a hub in Manehattan too, after all. And she always seems to find enough space for everything. I don’t know how she does it.

“Anyway, I’m sorry to cut this short, but I’ve got to run. The designs for the covers of the revised books are ready, and I just can’t let them go to the printers without making sure each one is perfect.”

I looked from Homage to the shelves with new respect. Not only a lot of books, but a lot of preserved, original versions of books.

Homage glanced up to one of the few walls that were only mostly covered in books. Above the bookshelf was a framed painting (depicting a panoramic view of a desolate valley of dirt and rocks) and sitting on the shelf was a small clock of wood and brass. The big hoof was already halfway between the eight and the one, the small hoof jabbed straight down at the four. “I’m sorry, but I really have to get back to the radio. There are reports to go through, and I have to check if the screens caught anything. But please, feel free to stay here and browse the books until I get back. I’d love to talk some more… if you don’t have anyplace pressing to be.”

I did not and said as much, although I knew I should probably let my companions know what I was up to. I excused myself, promising to be right back. As I started to leave the Athenaeum, I remembered the records. Turning to Homage, I pulled them out and floated them towards her. She stared with wide eyes, like a birthday pony realizing that one of her presents was just the right size for that toy she had been begging for.

“I found these in one of the Stables,” I said, trying not to break into a huge grin at her expression. “I thought you might find a good use for them.”

She bounced up and down, letting out a squee of delight. For the first time since the cheese shop, I felt happy with myself.

Homage’s horn glowed as she took possession of the records. “You have no idea how much this means! Not just to me, but to Equestria!”

I was smiling brightly as I rode the elevator back down to my floor.

*** *** ***

I was still feeling happy as I trotted up to the door of our suite. But the voices inside stopped me cold.

“…doctor here says he has a treatment that can remedy addictions,” Velvet Remedy was claiming. I felt the happiness drain from me, replaced with crossness. Seriously, they were talking about this? Behind my back? They’d even talked to a doctor about it? A stranger, no less?

“What, like jus’ givin’ Li’lpip a pill?” Calamity’s dubious voice erased any question that they were indeed talking about me. “Swallow this an’ all yer problems go away?”

“Oh no,” Velvet Remedy replied. “First, it’s more… involved than that. And will take the better part of the day. Second, Doctor Helpinghoof was clear that the treatment only cleaned the patient’s body of the drug and reversed physical addiction. The psychological elements of addiction will probably be with Littlepip for the rest of her life. But this will make it a lot easier for her.”

I raised my hoof to stomp it in fury. But then set it down, not wanting them to hear. There were so many things wrong with this! First, how dare they?! Second, what addiction? Easier how? I was perfectly fine. I hadn’t had a Party-Time Mint-al in what, two days? What kind of addict can say that? And three… “Helpinghoof”? Really?

“Ah’m not so sure ‘bout this…” Thank you, Calamity. Now tell her to fuck off.

Instead, he neighed, “Li’lpip don’t exactly handle feelin’s of betrayal well. Ah’ve seen her reactions to the Stables we’ve been in…”

“Oh yes. And that’s nothing compared to the way she flew off at the cheese shop owner,” Velvet Remedy agreed. Perfect. So was that what she was doing when I asked her to look into the laws and Monterey Jack’s impending execution? Talking to doctors about problems they’re both pretending I have?

“…We’ll have to be very careful in how we approach this,” Velvet Remedy was continuing with her absurdity. “Even if we can get Littlepip treated, it won’t do any good if we lose her because of it. Without friends, who will help her from just taking…”

That was enough. I was headed back to the library. If Velvet Remedy and Calamity didn’t know where I was and got worried, well, they deserved it.

*** *** ***

Homage was a gracious hostess, which I was especially grateful for since I had no urge to see Velvet Remedy or Calamity anytime soon. The pretty grey unicorn helped me find a few books I was interested in, then left me to read as she disappeared up into the broadcast station.

For the next few hours, I pored over the original editions of the Big Book of Arcane Sciences and Today’s Locksmith, doing comparative readings with the copies I already owned, making notes, and learning quite a lot about both subjects. Apparently, making books “ideologically compatible” also involved removing the sorts of advanced information that could inspire troublemakers. I smiled a little, realizing that the cutie-mark questing activities of my youth would have definitely put me in the “troublemaker” category.

Homage trotted into the Twilight Sparkle Athenaeum a little over two hours later; floating alongside her were the records and an old phonograph that I had spotted before. While I read, she sat and listened to the music, her head bobbing softly to the beats.

Only once was my study interrupted. Homage got about halfway through a rather energetic song (about mending friendships, notably -- the assertion in the chorus that life without friends, quite bluntly, sucked struck home pointedly enough that I wasn’t able to focus on my reading anyway). Suddenly, Homage stopped the song and restarted it from the beginning. The thought crossed my mind that maybe she was feeling a connection to the lyrics as well, but it was erased with her proclamation:

“Okay, okay. I can’t just listen to this song. I have to dance to it.”

I looked up and nodded politely. Then started reading again.

“Oh no,” she stomped. “I’m not going to dance in front of a guest who isn’t dancing herself. That would be way too awkward.” The whisper of a thought had barely begun to form in my head when she obliterated it with, “So get up.”

My head shot up, startled. The song didn’t really make me feel like dancing, no matter how bizarrely upbeat the music was in connection to the lyrics; and I felt awkwardly shy about displaying my complete lack of dancing skills in front of Homage. But I didn’t have it in me to say no to her, especially considering that this library was her home and I had given her this gift.

So… we danced.

And while it was awkward at first, Homage wasn’t much of a dancer either, making up for lack of skill with creative vigor. Her smile and energy were infectious, and I found myself letting go. By the end of the song I was really enjoying myself, and I felt a twinge of sadness when the song ended.

The next song was much slower, and for a moment I felt awkward, but I distracted both of us by asking about the painting above the clock.

“That’s a painting of Splendid Valley,” Homage stated, wiping her hair out of her face.

I lifted an eyebrow. “It doesn’t look splendid.”

“Oh it isn’t. It’s a terrible place. Makes camping in the Everfree Forest look as inviting as a day at the spa.” Homage put a hoof on my shoulder. “Stay well away.”

I had never heard of Splendid Valley, much less had any desire to go near there. But that made me wonder, “Why would Twilight Sparkle have a painting of such a place in her library?” I felt marginally foolish for asking -- certainly it wasn’t terrible before the war. On the other hoof, it certainly wasn’t splendid, or even pretty. It was barren and uninviting. And the painting didn’t fit with the rest of the Athenaeum, neither in palette nor in mood. It was like an unwanted visitor.

“There’s a Ministry of Magic facility out there,” Homage answered.

“Not a hub like this,” Homage clarified. “There’s a huge network of caves and caverns under Splendid Valley. Early after the Ministry’s inception, the M.A.S. cleared the natives out of those caverns and set up a gem mining operation out there. After they had cleaned the valley of gems, they started using the empty caverns as a disposal site for some of the… by-products of the Ministry’s magical experiments.”

My mind conjured up images of monsters and grotesqueries. Homage seemed to sense the direction of my imagination and kindly redirected it. “Barrels full of weird magical toxins. In the last months of the war, the Ministry of Magic was apparently retooling the facility for something else, but I don’t think they ever finished. Splendid Valley was center of the second megaspell hit. Most ponies… well, those who bother to learn about history at all… believe that Manehattan was the second. But Splendid Valley was hit minutes before.”

I made a note to avoid. Weird magical toxins and megaspell radiation probably did not mix well.

*** *** ***

The afternoon was bleeding into evening; Homage had returned to the broadcast station to take on the guise of DJ Pon3. This time I followed, watching her transform both in voice and mannerisms as she stepped to the mike.

“…and it’s time for another DJ Pon3 pony survival tip. Today I want to talk to you about two of the biggest threats you might stumble across in the Equestrian Wasteland. No, not radigators, bloodwings or even hellhounds. No, children, today I want to talk to you about their mothers. That’s right, pull up a chair, cuz it’s time for DJ Pon3 to talk to you about the dangers of radiation and taint…”

There was something amazing about watching this equally little unicorn pony become the voice of the Equestrian Wasteland.

“…Magical radiation, as we all know, is a side effect of powerful and wicked magics released violently on Equestria. Naturally, the biggest and worst zones of radiation are found in places like the Fillydelphia Crater, the Manehattan city center… pretty much everywhere the megaspells hit except for Cloudsdayle and Canterlot (both of which should be avoided for other reasons). But even a recently exploded skywagon can be radioactive. Fortunately, so long as you always carry your radiation detectors, kids, these places can be avoided.

“The more insidious threat of radiation is that it bleeds into food and water. Always drink purified water whenever you can. Make sure you carry several canteens whenever you travel, and fill them at every safe water supply. Keep a healthy supply of RadAway…”

Most of this I already knew, thanks to the Wasteland Survival Guide, so I was only half-listening. I had to admit that, despite Monterey Jack and the stupidity of my friends, this had been one of the better days of my life. But it was getting late and my anger towards Velvet and Calamity, while still very present, had dulled around the edges. It was time to return to them.

“…Taint, on the other hoof, is a zebra of very different stripes. Nopony knows exactly what the taint is or where it comes from, but we know its mutative effects on monsters and the fatally malignant repercussions on ponies. Remember, folks: taint don’t care what you’re wearing. No protective suit keeps it out. And there’s no cure. Only way to safely tell if a place is tainted is by reputation. Discover one by any other means, it’s probably too late …”

Sounded to me like the best way to hide something was to stick it in a cave and hang a sign saying “Danger: Taint” outside.

“And in the news, one of the smaller settlements in the Manehattan Ruins, Gutterville, has gone silent. If anypony is traveling through that way, please pop a head in and see what’s going on. Then let your ol’ pal DJ Pon3 know.”

Eventually, DJ Pon3 wrapped up the news with a special announcement:

“Now, I know what all of you are actually wondering: what about that Equestrian heroine from Stable Two? What’s she up to?”

I winced, giving Homage a pleading look. But asking her to tone it down when she was being DJ Pon3 was like asking SteelHooves to take off his armor -- it just wasn’t going to happen.

“Well, I’ve got incredible news: the Stable Dweller loves you! That’s right, all of you! And you know how I know?...”

I was cringing now.

“…because she sent a little toaster repairpony to me with a special delivery. Starting tomorrow, there will be some new songs added to our broadcast. So keep yourselves tuned in, faithful listeners, because you don’t want to be the last pony around to have heard the discs I’ll be spinnin’ for you tomorrow! And now, once again, it’s Sapphire Shores singing that the sun can’t hide forever.”

The glow of DJ Pon3’s horn’s horn faded, and once again I was in the room with Homage.
“Laying it on a little thick aren’t you?”

Homage smiled brightly. “Just telling the truth like I always do.”

I laughed. “Well, except for the whole secret identity gimmick.”

Homage fixed me with a serious look. “Do you think the stuck up ponies of Tenpony Tower like the idea of having a ghoul sympathizer living in their tower? Much less broadcasting from it? If they knew who I was, then I wouldn’t have the freedom to tell it like it is. In fact, they would probably ban me from the tower altogether.”

“Sometimes,” she said, “being honest means knowing when not to be.”

*** *** ***

There were two things left that I wanted to ask Homage, and only one which I could bring myself to voice, so when we returned from the broadcast station I finally brought it up.

“This morning, you said you needed my help?”

Homage blushed. “Well, was kind of hoping you’d risk your life on an errand for me, but it’s a bit ridiculous of me to ask now.”

I raised an eyebrow, my curiosity piqued. “Go ahead.”

The remarkable grey unicorn with the blue mane that kept falling into her eyes seemed to ponder that, then shook her head.

“Tell me,” I nudged.

“um… I’d rather not. It’s silly now.”

“Tell me,” I pushed, her refusal making me even more curious.

Maddeningly, she declined.

I stopped a little. “Tell me. Tell me. Tell me!”

Homage waved a hoof. “Okay, okay. Since you really want to know…” She took a deep breath. Then let it all out in a rush. “I want you to get some new songs for me. Specific songs. I know that Sweetie Belle was really close with the other two founders of Stable-Tec, one of whom was Scootaloo. And Scootaloo also founded Red Racer, whose office and factory is right here in Manehattan. I came across information a few years ago that told me Scootaloo’s office safe should still contain a few demos for music that have never been heard before. I’ve been wanting to get them and listen to them ever since. But I can’t because it’s really dangerous. The place is just lousy with manticores.”

Wow. Okay, yes, I could definitely see why Homage would consider that a silly request, considering the records. And she didn’t even know about Velvet Remedy yet.

Which reminded me that I had to return to Velvet Remedy and Calamity, the friends who had been skulking around behind my back, and tell them I had no better idea what to do next than I had before we got here. I needed a distraction. And, really, it was for a good cause. Not to mention I really wanted to see Homage’s face light up again.

“Okay. I’ll do it.”

Homage was staring at the floor, digging at it with her hoof. At my words, her head shot up, staring at me with disbelief. “W-why?” she stammered.

I considered trying to make my reasoning sound more noble, or falsifying it all together. But a bigger part of me felt that lies had no place in DJ Pon3’s domain. So instead, I told her, “Because I have no idea what to do next. And my companions are expecting me to come back with a plan. And, really, because you asked me to.” Gilding my words just a little, I added, “I would love to do Homage a favor.”

She blinked. “Okay, did you miss the part about the manticores?”

I chuckled. “No. But I’ve gotten a few new weapons since the last time we fought one. I think we can manage. And don’t worry,” I added, not wanting her to feel guilty, “if it looks too dangerous, we’ll back out.”

Homage nodded firmly, accepting this. Which caused her hair to fall into her face again. “Okay. But if you’re going to do something that risky for me, you’re not doing it without a reward. And I know just the thing!”

I cocked my head, not really looking for a reward and ready to decline her offer, but too curious to refuse without hearing it.

“I’ve heard that your friend Calamity has been asking around for a flux regulator. Well, I just happen to have one.”

*** *** ***

I wasn't sure I really wanted us to have a flux regulator. The idea of traveling around in a pegasus-pulled bomb had dubious appeal.

Before returning to my companions, I made one other stop. I suspected Velvet Remedy had been less than diligent in pursuing the situation with Monterey Jack (considering she'd been seeing doctors about me instead), but I knew I should give her the benefit of the doubt. And from what I had learned myself, Velvet Remedy may have hit a wall very early.

On either hoof, I needed to talk to Monterey Jack myself before making further plans, especially if those plans were going to amount to leaving him to his fate. Unfortunately, the Tenpony Tower constables weren't about to let a little non-citizen like me anywhere near him.

Not a problem.

A blast of mint flavor later, and the world exploded to vivid lucidity. Talking my way past the guardbucks was easy. I was a charming, intelligent mare; even if I had no interest in them, they naturally had interest in me. I was even able to talk one of them into giving me his pencil and clipboard. Which was great, because now that my mind was freed from its natural sluggishness, I was having ideas!

The flux regulator was going to be an astounding benefit. After finishing up business in Tenpony Tower, we would go back and fix up the Sky Bandit. Maybe take a trip back home to Junction R-7 for a little equipment maintenance and inventory housekeeping. Then we should be able to go straight to Fillydelphia, bypassing all the dangers along the way...

"What do you want?" The sour voice of Monterey Jack cut through my preoccupation with my Party-Time-enhanced brilliance. I looked up to find him standing in a bed of moldy hay at the back of an iron-barred cell.

I refocused on where I was and why I was here. Staring at the unpleasant beige stallion, I cut to the chase, "Why in Celestia’s name did you admit what you'd done? You knew you’d be jailed and probably killed for it.”

Monterey Jack fixed me with a cool stare. And finally, as if speaking to a child, “Because the Equestrian Wasteland demands sacrifices. You haven’t been out here long enough to get that…” He looked me over. “But I’m guessing you’ve started to. Not the innocent little filly you were just three weeks ago, are you? You’ve killed. And not just monsters, you’ve killed other ponies. Tell me, when you stepped out of that Stable, were you a killer?

I stepped back, shocked. I had no idea what this had to do with anything, but I knew what he was saying. I saw it in the way Velvet Remedy looked at me, like I was flank-deep in blood. The way I saw myself in dark times and bad dreams.

“I know you’ve looted corpses. How about stealing from raiders or other ponies who are so bad, who the wasteland’s made so twisted and mean that it’s easy to justify pretty much anything you do to them? How about stealing from those who it is harder to justify taking from… or is it just easy now to take from everypony?” Monterey Jack’s words stirred up memories of breaking into Silver Bell’s barn.

“You betrayed anypony yet? Left anypony to die just to save your own skin? Killed an innocent yet because it was the only way to protect you and your own?” He stared at me, reading the revulsion in my eyes. “No? How about lesser things. Ever just walked away?”

My mind flashed to the blue pony being chased down by her rapists. But that didn’t count! We’d saved her life. Calamity had even brought her healing potions. It wasn’t as if we just left her to her fate. We helped! …and then we left her. Velvet Remedy, I realized with PTM-laced insight, would never have let us walk away without seeing the girl safely home had she not been traumatized by the sight of Calamity slaying the colt. But why didn’t I insist that? What was wrong with me?

Monterey Jack was waiting. The only response I managed was a nod. I wasn’t nodding to any of his questions specifically, but that I followed what he was saying.

“The Equestrian Wasteland demands sacrifices. It makes you whittle away bits of yourself until you can’t recognize you anymore. So you find a virtue. You find something in yourself that you believe in, that you do not compromise. Ever. And as long as you can keep that part of you, that one good thing, then you can bear to look at yourself in the mirror each morning. It becomes your anchor, the thing that lets you live with yourself.

“My virtue, my anchor, is that I’m an honest pony. I keep to my word. I have never cheated a customer. I do not lie. And as long as I can look at myself and know that I’m still an honest pony, then I can bear everything I’ve ever had to do to provide a safe place for my filly and colts.”

“But…” I stared at him, not wanting to understand. “You could have said nothing!”

He glared, “For how long? I come back, and you’re all over the damn radio. My children listen every day for news of your Celestia-damned heroism. They idolize the fuck out of you. And every day, I know that I’ve met their idol and I tried to rob her. And I keep silent, but a lie of omission is still a lie. And that poison has been killing me as surely as any noose.”

Eyes narrowing, he leaned his muzzle against the bars, as close to me as he could get. “Don’t think I spoke up for you. I spoke up to save me. Even if it kills me.”

I backed up. I wasn’t sure if Monterey Jack was cracked, foolish… or terribly, horribly sane. I turned to go.

As I moved out through the door, he called out after me. “If you haven’t found your own virtue yet, you best hurry up. While there’s still anything left of you to save.”

*** *** ***

I was still running on the awesomeness of Party-Time Mint-als when I finally returned to the others. So convincing them to join me in a hunt for music had been a breeze. (I had been concerned about a confrontation; but when I arrived, Velvet Remedy was lost in the Flutteryshy Orb, giving me a chance to talk to the others first.) Calamity was in the moment I mentioned the flux regulator. I phrased it to Velvet Remedy as a chance to impress DJ Pon3 and maybe get to record some of her own music. She reminded me that she was a medical pony now, not some Stable’s songbird, but it was a half-hearted reluctance that I was able to overcome by suggesting this would allow her beautiful music to fly free. SteelHooves took no persuasion at all, neither eager nor reluctant.

The Red Racer factory was nowhere near either the Luna or Celestia Lines, so within half an hour, we were walking through the urban blight of the Manehattan Ruins. The crash from the Mint-als was worse than before, and the only thing that kept me from chomping another one was a promise to myself that I would the moment we got to Red Racer. I couldn’t fight like this, stupid and half-blind. I needed that edge. And if I took another one now, I ran the risk of crashing in the middle of combat. I couldn’t risk that.

I dropped back to walk alongside SteelHooves, noticing how Calamity and Velvet Remedy unconsciously changed their paces to put distance between each other. I rolled my eyes. They were bad enough before. Depression was setting in, and their stupid silent fight wasn’t helping.

“So… why are you still with us?” I asked SteelHooves in what I hoped was not a blunt or discouraging tone. “You escorted us to Tenpony Tower already.”

“Do you want me to leave?” the deep voice spoke from within the Steel Ranger’s armor.

I waved a hoof. “No, no, I didn’t say that. I just… I like to know why a pony like yourself would continue to travel with me.”

“Maybe I have nothing better to do.”

I stared ahead, not believing that at all. Why would he lie though? It seemed like all my companions were on the edge of turning on me. Was I being paranoid? Or was SteelHooves a threat?

Buried in dark contemplation, I didn’t notice that the others ahead of me had stopped. I bumped into Calamity’s backside, scraping his barding with my horn.

“Hey. Why…?” I started to ask, annoyed, but the words fell away from my mouth as my eyes were drawn to a large poster on a freestanding, crumbled wall.

The poster was of a pegasus fully encased in sleek black armor. The armor looked fearsome, almost insectoid. The battle saddle looked like an onyx carapace with two antennae jutting out, tips crackling with magical green energy. Like SteelHooves, even the pegasus’ tail was protected by segmented armor; but unlike Steel Ranger armor, this tail also served as a weapon, ending in a vicious, glowing spike. I felt I was seeing a nightmare version of Steel Ranger armor. Beneath the pegasus, who hovered in a most threatening stance, were scattered zebras, dead or fleeing.

FEAR NOT, EQUESTRIA!

WE WILL SAVE YOU!

Calamity finally nickered, scoffing. “That’s right. One day, the Grand Pegasus Enclave will come swoopin’ down outta the skies t’ rescue all y’all little ponies. Maybe after they’re done with their naps.”

He leaned close and whispered loudly. “Don’t hold yer breath. Never. Gonna. Happen.”

“Calamity...?” Velvet Remedy began, seeming to forget she was mad at him.

Turning away from the poster in disgust, he began trotting off. “Lazy. Arrogant. It’s like they took the greatest of us, stripped away everything t’was good an’ admirable ‘till they were left with nothin’ but her flaws, and decided ‘hey, let’s go with that!’”

*** *** ***

“I think we’re being followed,” SteelHooves announced as we passed through a broken courtyard, approaching a towering building black and half-eaten by the apocalyptic blast. I was staring at my PipBuck’s automapping spell; the Red Racer factory should be directly in front of us. At the Steel Ranger’s words, I turned around, eyes moving to my E.F.S. compass, more confident in it than my own eyesight in the waning light.

The courtyard was covered in wind-blown litter; scraggly grass burst through cracks in the grey stonework. I looked out past the platform that formed the centerpiece of the courtyard; a platform that had once boasted statues of several ponies. The statues had shattered and crumbled; now only the hooves of the ponies remained, sticking grotesquely up from the surface of the dais. I turned, taking in a full view of our surroundings until I was looking back at SteelHooves and the inferno-torn building that towered above us. But neither I nor my Eyes-Forward Sparkle detected anything. This time.

I was certain SteelHooves was right. Several times earlier I’d spotted it too, something which was probably a small miracle with how murky all my senses felt. But no, there was somepony or something hovering on the edge of the Sparkle’s ability to detect. The light on my compass labeled it as non-hostile, leaving me to wonder if it was keeping its distance out of shyness, or because it comprehended the limits of my Stable-Tec arcano-technology.

As if on cue, a notice flashed across the upper edge of my Eyes-Forward Sparkle. I had discovered “Hoofbeats”. I turned back to look at the building again, eyeing it with surprise. I knew what this skyscraper had once been: this was the Ministry of Morale’s Manehattan hub. I’d seen it from the roof of Tenpony Tower. Yet sure enough, the façade before us proclaimed itself (in sheer audacity of style as well as neon lettering) to be the center of loud, musical urban rebellion.

Unlike the Ministry of Magic’s local hub, the Ministry of Morale didn’t announce itself with signs along the Celestia Line or even a name in small font somewhere on the wall. It was a nameless, faceless skyscraper. Unassumingly monolithic from the third floor up. The first two floors, however, were dedicated to what I had already come to think of as one of Manehattan’s most popular dance clubs (remembering Velvet Remedy’s passing acknowledgement that Pinkie Pie and Vinyl Scratch had performed music together at Hoofbeats at least once.) Even my PipBuck didn’t label it as a Ministry hub, as if it was a secret… but one that everypony already knew.

In its time, the Ministry of Magic’s hub had been exactly what I expected of a Ministry building, down to the insane magical defenses that protected it from the balefire bomb. From the MoM hub’s apparent lack of defenses to its perch atop a public party-house, this was assuredly not.

I walked forward, drawn to the gaping, shattered-glass front of Hoofbeats. I tried to imagine it full of ponies, dancing to that song which Velvet Remedy had started to sing on stage at Shattered Hoof. As I trotted past Calamity and Velvet, a red light appeared on my E.F.S. and then a second. And a third. I stopped, waving for them to hold back. Crouching down, I moved along the front of Hoofbeats until I reached the corner where the sidewalk was littered with the burnt metal husks of magazine venders.

Several more dots appeared as I peeked cautiously around the corner.

Did you miss the part about the manticores?

The Red Racer factory was literally right across a back alley from Hoofbeats. The red and orange bulks of manticores roamed all over the facility. I watched as several took off from a terrace twelve stories up and began to circle the building before one-by-one landing on new perches. There were two of them in the back alley alone, one had its back to me, its tail inches from my muzzle. The other was digging through a trash bin further down.

I cringed back around the corner and shot the others a distressed expression. They all stared back at me expectantly. It was mere luck that there weren’t any in the courtyard. I suspected I now knew what had happened to the pony statues.

Luna guide me. Now what? Think. Think…

What I needed was another Party-Time Mint-al. I was sure that with just a chew, the burst of reasoning and perception would solve the problem. But after the behavior of my companions, I couldn’t risk them seeing me take another. They wouldn’t understand.

I turned away, trying to block their view as I activated my PipBuck’s inventory arrangement spell and then floated the tin out. I kept my head down and hoped the light from my horn wasn’t bright enough for them to notice in the odd grey twilight of dusk. I levitated one PTM out and sucked it greedily into my mouth.

As expected, the taste was delicious and I had no more than swallowed, slipping the tin away, when the grey film was pulled from my eyes and the world was so much brighter and better. I took another peek around the corner, even more cautiously this time. The manticore had not seemed to move. Even its tail was in almost the same position. His companion dropped down from the trash bin and wandered over to the next.

I looked up into the sky. I was smart enough to handle two manticores. No problem. But even like this, I couldn’t possibly handle the whole herd. I had considered having Calamity fly us up to one of the ledges, but the manticores could fly too. They were heavy, lumbering creatures, and never seemed to fly very high, but…

My eye caught something red in the sky above. Something that wasn’t a manticore. Not at all.

Red Racer was a factory that made, amongst other things, scooters. It was, from what I could tell, best known for its little red scooters. And clearly Red Racer was quite proud of them, for the factory had once been adorned by a gigantic red scooter over ten yards long. The giant, symbolic scooter was no longer perched on its rooftop scaffolding. The scaffolding had rusted and collapsed; the scooter had fallen and gotten wedged between the Ministry of Morale and the Red Racer factory about fifteen stories up.

Creating a bridge.

I knew how to get into the Red Racer factory.

*** *** ***

“You really are crazy,” SteelHooves finally commented after hearing the plan. Velvet Remedy was giving me looks, as if staring at me hard enough would explain to her the change in my mood.

“That there’s a might big and unstable-lookin’ buildin’, Li’lpip. Ah think maybe we best split inta pairs t’ try an’ find the best way up. Otherwise, it’ll take us forever.”

I agreed. Not only did I want to move swiftly so that my PTM wouldn’t wear off before we got up and across, I really didn’t think the floors in that building should be stressed with the weight of more than two of us at a time. Especially when one of those was SteelHooves.

“I’ll go with SteelHooves. I’m the lightest, and I can use levitation when necessary.”

Velvet Remedy took one look at Calamity and interjected, “No! I… I should go with you and SteelHooves should go with Calamity. He flies. No weight at all.”

Calamity nickered and rolled his eyes. “Whatever ya want, princess. So, Ranger, fancy a bit o’ scavenging?”

“Not as long as you’re carrying,” SteelHooves stated plainly and followed Calamity through one of the nearly glassless frames of Hoofbeats. Velvet Remedy stuck her nose in the air, pairing up with me as we followed.

As we stepped into the darkness, Velvet Remedy focused, lighting up her horn. The first thing I noticed was a gumball machine. The gumballs inside had melted and boiled, and were now a solid block inside the warped housing.

The center arena of Hoofbeats was three stories of mezzanines over a dance floor that took up most of the basement. The musician’s platform had once been hung from the ceiling by cables. Now it lay at a wild tilt, one end smashed through the dance floor like a ship beginning to sink.

“Is it bad that I’m jealous of this place and the ponies who got to perform here?” Velvet Remedy asked me as we passed under rows of hanging speakers, each larger than a full-grown stallion. “Or that I feel so upset to see it destroyed like this?”

I shook my head. “Just because your dream is to be a medical pony doesn’t mean you didn’t love singing any less.” Somehow, I just knew the words were right. It must have been the insight and social graces that PTMs granted a pony, for I wasn’t sure I could have understood what was bothering her on my own. “You’re not cheating on your dreams or your freedom to long to sing.”

Velvet Remedy paused. Then whinnied, smiling. “Thank you, Littlepip.”

I smiled back, sidestepping a charred skeleton. Then stopped, looking at it. Unlike the streets outside, where the ponies were vaporized in a flash, the ones in here were burned alive. I winced, trying not to imagine rushing flames tearing through the dance club, a flood of fire. I realized that the Ministry of Morale hub must have had protections of its own, but just not as magically strong as those around the Ministry run by Twilight Sparkle. They must have held just a moment, probably only for an eye-blink, before they failed. The inferno that consumed this place was no less final a holocaust

*** *** ***

The balefire bomb the zebras set off in the heart of Manehattan was detonated in the late morning. The population of Hoofbeats was probably at its lowest ebb for the whole day. The same could not be said for the Ministry above. I focused my own magic to plow a path through the blackened pony skeletons that covered much of the floors.

Red dots speckled my E.F.S. compass. Foalishly, my first thought was of the ghosts that the merchant pony with the mechanical owl had told us about. In a way, I wasn’t entirely far off.

“Who?” demanded the little robot owl as it soared into the hallway. I froze. Not in fear but utter astonishment. Hostile robot security owls? Really?

The mechanical owl opened its beak, and a thin line of pink magical energy sliced the air, striking a smoke-blackened vase on a magazine counter next to me. The vase flew backwards, glowing fiercely pink, and disintegrated into a fine glowing ash before it could hit the floor.

So yes, really.

I heard Calamity’s battle saddle firing somewhere else on the floor. I slid my combat shotgun from its holster, floating the muzzle towards the mechanical bird and nearly shot Velvet Remedy as she charged in front of me, spearing the metal creature through with her horn.

I felt myself trembling -- caught between panic, relief and anger -- as Velvet Remedy drew up to a halt, her eyes locked on the now inert robot impaled on her horn She shook her head, trying to dislodge it.

“Littlepip?” she finally said, sounding desperate and looking comical. “A little help please?”

“Only. If you promise. Not to run. In front of a loaded gun again.”

She stopped, looking at me with that dead robot owl on her horn, her eyes wide as her gaze fell on my floating shotgun. “Oh dear.”

“Oh dear indeed,” I said grimly even though my anger was bleeding away. I wrapped the skewered owl with my magic and pulled it free. I wanted to be mad, but she just looked so cute like that.

*** *** ***

Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt.

The bullet tore through the first owl, setting its internal components on fire as it went. Two more passed harmlessly through the air, impacting the kitchen wall beyond with flashes of flame. As the mechanical guardian fell, I switched targets with the practiced perfection of S.A.T.S. Pulling the trigger again, I sent three more bullets at the second owl.

A razor line of pink struck my back, burning painfully, but mercifully not turning me into fine pink dust. Without even waiting to see the second mechanical owl fall, I glided the barrel around to point at the one behind me and telekinetically pulled the trigger again. Three bullets, a foosh of flame, and the third owl fell to the floor ablaze. The air smelled of ozone, burning wiring and bubbling robotic innards.

Exhausted, the targeting spell fell away. I looked around, but I had gotten all of them. I checked the clip on the zebra rifle.

I was quickly using up the armor-piercing ammo that the zebra rifle could use. The weapon didn’t seem to have the ability to shoot just one bullet at a time, and it only took one to punch through these creatures. I needed to change weapons, but the combat shotgun had already proven too inaccurate at the ranges I preferred to engage these creatures at. They were easy to kill, but their magical energy weapons had a chance, even if slim, of disintegrating anything they hit. I didn’t want them to get close enough to have a good shot.

I suspected Little Macintosh had more than enough power to punch through the metal skin of these things without using armor-piercing ammunition. Which was good since Little Macintosh was the only weapon that I didn’t have armor-piercing ammo for. (Other than the dart gun, which was completely useless against these little things.)

Switching weapons, I started towards the wall of refrigerators, intent on finding out what goodies the Ministry of Morale had packed with an eternity’s worth of preservatives on this floor. Every other floor of the MoM hub had a kitchen, even if it was just a small one. There were more kitchens than bathrooms, which I couldn’t imagine was logistically sane. And some floors like this one were nothing but kitchen. The posters on the walls in here were all brown and flaking, or burned away entirely, but the ones that were just a little readable had me convinced that Pinkie Pie actually made a government industry out of churning out birthday parties for good little fillies and colts. You were good this year, Littlepip. (Trust us, we know!) So here’s your cake, sent straight from the Ministry of Morale. With a birthday card signed by Pinkie Pie herself!

What I imagined was ridiculous and impossible, but I somehow also believed it was actually true.

Velvet Remedy stopped me, insisting on looking at the wound on my back before letting me move another yard. So I sat onto my haunches and stared longingly at the first refrigerator door.

“You and Calamity,” Velvet Remedy tut-tutted. “When I dreamed of being a medical pony, it was to spend my life helping ponies. Multiple. Not just two, over and over again.”

“You could always just let me OW!” I flinched as she pressed something that stung onto the burn before pouring a pleasantly cool gel over it.

“There, it will be good as new in no time. A little pink, maybe, and it may take a few days for your coat to grow back, but it won’t scar.” Not like the line left on my neck, she meant.

*** *** ***

“…and just trying to get him to take a bath is like trying to shove an apple through the eye of a needle…” Once Velvet Remedy had gotten onto the topic of Calamity, she just didn’t stop. I wanted to cover my ears with my hooves, but I couldn’t do that and walk. At least her voice had dropped now, made more timid by the hallway’s décor.

We had made it up to one of the many floors that had been dedicated to sifting through the massive amounts of intelligence garnered through having tapped into every “private” conversation transmitted by arcano-technology like the terminals. The Ministry of Morale had been listening.

All along the dark corridor were smoke-blackened posters of Pinkie Pie. They were watching us, the eyes seeming to follow us as we moved. The bold word “FOREVER” glared from the bottom of each poster.

Creepiest. Most disturbing. Hallway. Ever!

I floated out one of the cupcakes we had found in the fridge and took a bite. It was a little stale, but still surprisingly edible after two centuries. Whoever had made them was either a goddess of cooking, or a very dark enchantress.

“…shoots without thinking. Like he shot the dragon before we could even try to talk to it. Like how he shot you…”

I was still ignoring her as we reached the end of the hall. Left, right or through the doors ahead? I felt myself beginning to come down from the Party-Time Mint-als. First chance I got, I was taking another. I really couldn’t risk crashing in someplace so dark and… freaky. Or, for that matter, around Velvet Remedy when she was being such a…

“Whoa!”

I’d pushed open the doors, and found myself staring into the sky. An office room three times the size of a Stable Atrium spanned out in front of us, filled with rows and rows of desks with terminals, then dropped away into empty space. The sun was just moving down below the cloud-cover, painting the sky an apocalyptic orange. I’d somehow forgotten half the building was gone.

For the first time in weeks, I was hit by massive, crippling vertigo. I’d become accustomed to the hugeness of outside, but to have it suddenly and unexpectedly thrown in my face awoke the agoraphobic filly inside me. Carefully, shaking slightly, I closed the door.

*** *** ***

“…could actually like a brute like him?” Velvet Remedy stopped for a breath. I thanked Celestia for the moment of quiet, viciously praying that she could send Velvet Remedy’s voice on a lunar vacation.

By my estimation, we were a floor above where the scooter had gotten caught. Collapsed stairwells had forced us to ascend higher and now we were looking for a way back down.

“It’s just that he makes me so… so… mad,” Velvet Remedy burst out with a stomp. So much for the power of prayer. “You know, I really think I should reconsider my options. There’s plenty of other stallions in the Equestrian Wasteland…”

I felt a pang of jealousy. Started digging a hole to bury it in.

“…Or,” Velvet Remedy said with a sudden sweetness. I froze. I could feel her breath on my left ear. When had she gotten so close? With a sultry voice as smooth as melted chocolate, she suggested, “Or maybe a mare?”

I felt my knees go weak. My heart skipped a beat. My insides became flushed with heat and my stomach filled with butterflies.

Then cold hard reality crashed over me, dousing the heat and killing the butterflies with frost. I turned on her, instantly and coldly furious.

“NO.”

Velvet Remedy took a surprised step back.

“No. You are too perceptive to not know I have a crush on you.” I stepped forward, my voice cold and sharp. “You do not get to play with my heart, offer me what I’ve yearned for, just to try to get back at Calamity.”

Velvet Remedy backed up, ears back, stammering.

“For the Goddesses’ sake, Remedy!” I barked. “You are a follower of Fluttershy. You don’t get to be that evil.

Velvet Remedy’s eyes were wide. Her ears were pasted back against her skull and she was cringing from me.

Good.

I turned and walked away, not wanting to look at her again. I left her still standing back there as I turned the corner. Something was tearing apart inside me and I didn’t want to let her see it.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” called out a voice that sounded disturbingly like a mechanical Pinkie Pie. “You’ve been a bad pony!”

A sprite-bot’s grill glowed an angry reddish-pink and it aimed its magical energy weapon at me.

*** *** ***

“Where are they all coming from?” cried out Velvet Remedy as five more sprite-bots rounded the doorway and started vaporizing our barricade of tables and refrigerators.

I knew the answer, but I didn’t have time to explain it aloud. It was obvious, really. Before there was Watcher watching everyone, there was Pinkie Pie. Of course the sprite-bots were hers. I imagined them floating along the streets of pre-war Ponyville, Appleloosa, Manehattan… ubiquitous. Everywhere. Bobbing along playing cheerful tuba music and all the other happy little nonsense songs that they played. Little ambassadors of good cheer from the Ministry of Morale. Little spies.

I fired off shot after shot, ducking down only to reload. The waves were coming faster now, and there were enough of them that my targeting spell was draining before I could finish them all off. Fortunately, they were easy targets. They didn’t seem to understand evasion.

The clarity of PTMs had faded away, leaving my brain sluggish. Every moment not spent aiming and firing was spent hoping for a chance to eat another Mint-al. But with Velvet Remedy crouching right next to me, there was no way to do so. I was still coldly angry with her, and the last thing I wanted to do was give her the satisfaction of seeing something she would interpret as proof she was right.

I did have to wonder why this floor though.

Four more swooped in through the shattered window. I threw a refrigerator at them. Three were crushed by it. The fourth one was knocked away. Beside me, Velvet fired her needler pistol over and over at it. She was a bad shot, but finally hit it. The needle bounced off the armored bot harmlessly.

The bot returned fire, slicing through her mane.

“Fine,” she bristled with lady-like resolution. I was surprised to feel the combat shotgun float out of its holder. “Let’s try this one.”

BLAM!!

The sprite-bot exploded in a shower of sparks.

*** *** ***

The office had, at some point, actually been quite nice. A huge window gave what would once have been a panoramic view of Manehattan. The window was shattered inward, the frame ringed with jagged glass teeth. Four safes, blistered but intact, were built into the wall beside the window. There was a melted desk in front of it.

In the far corner was a small half-kitchen. On the counter, a terminal gave off a soft pink glow. I had never seen one before which didn’t glow that sickly apple-green. The casing was warped and charred, and it took some of the special tools I had retrieved from Stable Twenty-Nine just to interface with it, but the screen was still readable.

In the other far corner of the room, opposite the kitchen, was another blackened skeleton of a pony. I was just sitting down to try my hoof at hacking the terminal when I noticed it, and something buried within the bones.

Curious, I got up and trotted over. What I had glimpsed was a spot of color, clean, unmarred by the balefire that engulfed this place. Looking closer, I could see a statuette amongst the long dead pony’s ribcage. A young purple unicorn with pink and violet stripes in her lavender hair. Twilight Sparkle.

Gingerly, I floated the statuette out of the ribcage and took a closer look. Immediately, I felt a strange wash of clarity that pushed away the cloud that had settled over my brain. The sensation was nowhere near as powerful as eating a Party-Time Mint-al, nor as flavorful… but I couldn’t deny that it felt cleaner somehow.

On the base of the statuette: “Be Smart”

Smiling a little, I slipped the statuette away and returned my attention to the terminal.

This one was beyond my skill. Not even with the new tricks of the trade that I had learned from comparative reading was I able to crack it.

“Littlepip…” Velvet Remedy started, approaching me gingerly as I gave up in disgust. “…please, about before…”

I stared at her warningly. “Look, just don’t talk about it.” Biting back a harsher retort, “In fact, why don’t you go stand outside for a little while. I need some fresh air.

I could see her deflate a little more at that. She nodded, saying no more, and walked into the office outside the strangely cupcake-shaped door.

The moment the door swung shut, I floated out my Party-Time Mint-als and swallowed one. I went for the safes first, picking each one easily. And to my joy, the contents of the third safe held dozens of tins of Party-Time Mint-als! I was actually feeling even happier about the find than the two StealthBucks I found in the fourth.

Then I turned my attention to the defiant terminal as my mind soared to new heights of intellect. It took four more times, forcing me to repeatedly back out of the system before it locked down. But I finally got it. I let out a whoop!

“Littlepip?” Velvet Remedy’s voice sounded through the door -- timid, cautious.

My shoulders slumped. I sighed. Getting up from the terminal, I walked over to the door and opened it. “Okay, look. I know you’re sorry. And that you didn’t mean it. But it doesn’t change the fact that you tried to do it. And that’s not going to stop hurting anytime soon.”

She nodded, tears in her eyes. I felt bad. Why did I feel bad?

I closed my eyes and sighed again. I was seeing the situation more clearly now. Even though I didn’t want to. Party-Time Mint-als were an equal-opportunity revealer. “And for what it’s worth, I get it. I know what it’s like to put your faith in what you believe something to be rather than what something actually is.” I looked for an example that didn’t reveal that I had gained effectively no insight from DJ Pon3. I didn’t want to admit that yet. And fortunately, it didn’t take much for me to find an even better example.

“When I stepped into the outside, I was completely lost. I didn’t understand any of it. The only thing I understood was Stables. Or, at least, that’s what I assumed. In reality, the only thing I understood was Stable Two. And when the other Stables didn’t live up to my expectations, I… couldn’t handle it well.” I kicked at the floor, stirring up ash. “Hell, it didn’t even take all the bizarre and fucked-up social experiments… I get upset when the architecture isn’t ri… isn’t the same. Isn’t what I think is right.”

Velvet Remedy was staring down at me thoughtfully.

“When something, or somepony, doesn’t live up to your assumptions of who he is, then you either have to accept that you didn’t know him as well as you thought you did, and strive to get to know the real him better… or you start, well…”

“Doing what I’m doing now?” Velvet Remedy offered.

“Yeah.” I smiled at her. Then rolled my eyes, “And I am totally the wrong pony to be giving this advice when I can’t even manage it myself.”

“Thank you, Littlepip,” Velvet said earnestly as I disappeared back through the cupcake door to look at the terminal once again.

*** *** ***

There was only one retrievable bit of data on the terminal. An audio message:

“Hi Twilight. It’s me …

“I’ve tried sending messages to you at both your Canterlot office and the one here. Everypony says that you are in Splendid Valley again, so now I’m trying you there too. I really hope you’re not just avoiding me. I… I wouldn’t blame you if you were.”

The voice was anxious, sad and cracked. I knew Pinkie Pie’s voice; I’d heard it in Vinyl Scratch’s memory. This was almost the same, but much more fragile. Possibly even broken.

“I went to the get-together at Spike’s place and brought It just like you asked. All of my friends were there but you… Spike said it was because you couldn’t get away from your work, but… Was it because I was gonna be there?

“Twilight, I’m so sorry. You were right. Totally right. I’ve known it for a long time. I just…

“I can’t.

“I mean, I couldn’t. But I will. I’ve made an appointment at the Helpinghoof Clinic. For tomorrow. They’re supposed to have stuff there… medicine that can help make… addictions… go away.

“Do you think they might be able to bake the medicine into a cake? Or maybe a pie? I like pie!”

On the recording I heard the sound of a knock and a door opening. A second voice interrupted.

“Miss Pinkie Pie? The Ministry of Wartime Technology has sent us a dozen Steel Rangers. They’re in position with our agents.”

Again Pinkie Pie spoke, but addressing the intruding pony. She didn’t bother to edit the recorder; she just let it keep recording.

“oooh, those Four Stars ponies are some bad ponies! They need to be banished. Then locked up in the place they were banished to. But first we need to get their secrets from their bad, bad pony heads to make sure there aren’t any more of them. So tell my ponies that we want them alive…

“OH! I know! Have them go in with one of my Pinkie Balloons!”

The intruding pony seemed unsure, taken aback by this suggestion. “Miss? You want us to raid Four Stars using a… giant blimp shaped like your head?”

“uh huh! I want them to know I’m coming for them!”

I couldn’t keep my mind from envisioning a giant pink balloon with the same staring face as the one on the gigantic billboard. I wasn’t sure if that was ingenious or insane.

On the audio recording, I heard the click of the door closing. Pinkie Pie returned to addressing her (former?) friend, Twilight Sparkle.

“Sorry about that. You… wouldn’t believe what’s been going on. But don’t worry. If we get through today, everything will be okay.

“After today, I can do what you wanted me to do. I can try to be your Pinkie Pie again. I’m sorry I haven’t before… but I just couldn’t. I know you won’t believe me but… try to remember the parasprites.

“I’ve done bad things, Twilight. Awful things. And I’ve let the ponies in my Ministry do even worse things. And I’m really, really sorry. I don’t know if I can be your Pinkie Pie again. But I’ll try. That’s a Pinkie Pie Promise!

“I…

“Party-Time Mint-als are bad. They mess ponies up. I know I’m messed up. More than ever. But I’ve needed them. Normal old Pinkie Pie is smart and she can sense when things are coming. But Party-Time Mint-als make me… more. Not better. I know that now. But… more. And we need more. Equestria needs more.

“On Party-Time Mint-als, my Pinkie Sense is way, way more Sense-y. And it’s the only thing keeping us a hoof ahead of really, really bad things. My nose has been burning all day. It’s like an itchy nose only way, way worse. There are bad ponies, Twilight, and they mean to hurt us. To hurt all of Equestria. And just normal Pinkie Pie can’t stop them…

“But after today, it’ll all be okay again. I just know it. Just have to get through today…

“…And tomorrow, I’ve got that appointment. And… and…

“And Twilight? Do you think… maybe… you could go with me? I’m… kinda scared. And it isn’t the sort of scared that goes away with giggling.

“I mean, I have you with me now, so you’ll kinda be with me anyway. But it’s not the same. I want the real Twilight Sparkle. I…

“I want my friend back.

“Please?

“I’ll do anything…”

The recording ended. I sat there stunned. There was a whirlwind of thoughts in my head, but none of them quite came into focus.

Party-Time Mint-als mess ponies up.

Pinkie Pie herself said that. But she also said they made her… more. I knew that was true; they were making me more right now.

Pinkie Pie had wanted to be rid of them. But she couldn’t. Not just because she was addicted, but because she had become reliant on the boost in order to do her job. To try to save the lives of millions of ponies. How could that not be more important than one friendship?

The Equestrian Wasteland requires sacrifices.

The audio recording had an attachment:

Error. Connection to Maripony terminal #42 failed.

Message not sent.

Twilight Sparkle had never received Pinkie Pie’s last call.

I have you with me now…

My eyes fell on the pony skeleton from which I had retrieved the Twilight Sparkle statuette. A sadness welled up in me. I felt tears falling down my cheeks.

“Celestia and Luna be with you, Pinkie Pie,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

*** *** ***

The sun was dipping below the horizon, painting the clouds above with streaks of pink and purple. Twilight colors.

Calamity and SteelHooves were already waiting for us when Velvet Remedy and I reached the floor below and found where the front end of the oversized Red Racer scooter had lodged tightly into what had once been the frame of a huge window, canted slightly. The massive red model groaned in the wind.

“Oh yes. This looks safe,” SteelHooves commented.

Velvet Remedy had pulled up when she saw Calamity, staring at him until he looked back, then averting her gaze.

“Okay, I think this time Velvet Remedy and Calamity should go together,” I suggested firmly. They had things they needed to talk about, and the sooner they did, the better for them and for me. “I’ll go with SteelHooves and help levitate him across the scooter.”

The sky above was growing perceptibly darker. We needed to hurry. I stepped up to the ledge and made the mistake of looking down. Massive, paralyzing vertigo hit me. We were fourteen stories above the alley. The tiny red dots of manticores spotted the ground far, far below. Another flew through the alley about halfway between me and them. I felt cold sweat break out across my forehead.

I didn’t think I could do this!

“No offense, but I don’t want you levitating me, kid. You look like you’re about to pass out.”

“Change of plan,” Calamity announced. “Li’lpip, get back from the ledge. Catch yer breath. Velvet, you go first. Don’t worry,” he added, seeing her fearful expression. “Ah’ll be here t’ catch ya if y’all fall. Li’lpip, when yer ready, use yer levitation t’ help lighten SteelHooves’ load. After that, Ah’ll fly ya across.”

We all agreed. Once away from the ledge, I felt much better.

Velvet Remedy went first, testing the scooter. It vibrated slightly in the wind, it groaned alarmingly as she made it halfway, but it held. For a moment I wondered why Calamity didn’t just fly her across too. But I realized that there was no way he could carry SteelHooves. And it was better to have somepony lighter cross first, with Calamity waiting to swoop in, than to subject the scooter to Mister Heavy Pony right off.

Velvet Remedy jumped off of the back end of the scooter which stuck up about a pony’s height from the Red Racer terrace it had fallen against. She smiled weakly and gave a little wave. I waved back. That’s when I first noticed them.

I spotted the broken scaffolding that had once held the giant Red Racer scooter several floors above. Nesting within it were the dark, leathery shapes of bloodwings. The sun had sunk fully beneath the horizon, the light was vanishing from the sky, and they were beginning to move.

I levitated out the zebra rifle, thinking that if I could shoot them while they were all nested together, the fire might take out the whole nest. But SteelHooves was stepping onto the scooter; it let out a bone-shaking whine of protest and I turned my focus on wrapping him in a telekinetic cocoon, negating the weight of his packs and armor. He probably weighed less than I did now.

The first bloodwing spread out its wings and took to the air, hunting for prey.

Calamity shot it. The form lurched in mid-flight, then dropped gracelessly from the sky. The report sent all the other bloodwings fluttering into the air!

Calamity swooped, firing again, and another fell. But two more angled towards him, sensing dinner. The pegasus spun about in the air and flew, drawing them away from us.

Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt.

I split my focus between firing the zebra rifle and keeping most of SteelHooves’ weight off the scooter. Focusing on two different tasks wasn’t like lifting two objects, but I could do it -- just not easily. And I couldn’t use the targeting spell without losing my grip on the Steel Ranger.

Most of my shots missed.

I could hear the boom of gunfire from Velvet Remedy’s position. She still had my combat shotgun, and with her second shot one of the bloodwings exploded in gore. I saw another flapping high into the air above her. A curving trail of smoke rushed up to met it, SteelHooves’ missile exploding on impact. The leathery wings fluttered downward; no sign remained of the body they had once been attached to.

With a thud, my view of the battle was consumed by the face of a bloodwing as it landed on the tip of the Red Racer scooter and snapped at me with dagger like fangs. Unable to see him, I lost my grip on SteelHooves. The scooter gave a painful howl of metal scraping concrete.

Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt.

I missed. It was right in front of my face, I could smell its rancid breath, and I missed!

The bloodwing curled in its wings, pushing through the window as it bit at me. I felt the huge bat-creature collide with me, the foulness of its stench making me choke. Its blood-seeking fangs scraped against my armor, trying to sink in.

I heard a shot from Calamity, and the bloodwing let out an ear-rending screech. It backed out of the window, looking for its attacker, and flowers of blood blossomed from two holes in its head as Calamity fired again.

“Figured ya might be wantin’ a spot o’ help there, partner!” Calamity called out, tipping his hat as he flew by. Now four bloodwings were chasing him!

SteelHooves had just made it across. I stared at the scooter. It had shifted from SteelHooves’ weight. It looked even less stable than before. But, Calamity was busy; I had to do this myself.

“You can do this,” I told myself aloud. “It was your plan.”

I stepped out onto the scooter, my legs shaking weakly.

*** *** ***

I was halfway across, drenched in sweat, moving an inch at a time, when the bloodwing swooped down at me. I swung the zebra rifle up at my attacker and pulled the trigger.

Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt.

The bloodwing screeched, bursting into flame. My eyes widened as the burning bat hurtled right at me. Breaking into a panicked gallop, I raced for the end of the scooter.

The burning corpse of the bloodwing slammed into the scooter behind me, dislodging it from the Ministry of Morale window with a terrifying squeal. I felt the bridge I was racing across lurch away beneath my hooves, leaving me in freefall.

Wrapping myself in my own magic, I tried to push myself forward, adding to my momentum.

By Luna’s grace, I was diving towards a window rather than a concrete wall. And, because the Equestrian Wasteland hated me, it was one of the only windows in the entire Red Racer factory with a still-mostly-intact pane of glass.

Glass slashed at me, my body erupting in points of fresh pain, as I crashed through and landed hard, bouncing off a table and crashing through several chairs. Everything went black.

*** *** ***

When I came to, I was in the remains of a conference room. My whole body ached. I was several floors separated from my friends. Enough time had passed for the Party-Time Mint-al to wear off.

And a manticore was sniffing at me.

I moaned. I tried to push myself to my hooves, but it was too hard. I wondered what it would feel like to be eaten. And if the manticore would sting me first.

The manticore leaned down and bit into my mane. Then lifted me up by it and started carrying me like a kitten. It hurt, the back of my neck and scalp burning, but I was hurting too much everywhere else to protest.

The manticore turned and started walking out a hole in the wall. I spotted my zebra rifle amongst the splintered chairs and focused, floating it to me. The manticore either didn’t notice or didn’t know well enough to care.

I realized I could just shoot it; but it was taking me someplace, and I was curious where. (I needed to go someplace myself, and with any luck it would be the same someplace. Either way, as much as being carried by my mane hurt, I didn’t want to walk anywhere either.) Two floors later, I found out as the manticore stepped out of a stairwell onto a balcony that overlooked the factory floor. Little, normal-sized red scooters were scattered everywhere in various states of assembly. Between the decayed conveyor belts and ancient, dilapidated machinery, somepony had set up cages. Many of them were filled with ponies. Most were filled with horrifically bloated, twisted and deformed corpses that used to be ponies. The sight of them twisted my stomach and stabbed through my heart.

Manticores moved freely between the cages like guard dogs.

My captor leaned over the edge of the balcony and opened its mouth, dropping me through the open ceiling of one of the cages. I landed in a thin layer of hay with a heavy, painful thump.

Gingerly, I accessed the inventory-sorting spell in my PipBuck and floated out the extra-strength restoration potion I had pocketed back in Stable Twenty-Nine. I drank greedily, and rested as my body began to mend.

“No way,” I whispered as I looked at the cell across from me, on the other side of a conveyor belt full of scooter wheels. Inside was a familiar-looking sea-blue mare. I whimpered. This couldn’t be happening.

She spotted me. Which really wasn’t surprising given my entrance. “Hey!” She pushed herself to her hooves and waved at me through the bars of her cage, whispering loudly. “It’s you!”

I looked up sorrowfully and nodded. “I’m sorry! This is my fault. I should have stayed with you. Seen you safely home.”

The blue pony looked about fearfully. “No. He was waiting for me there.”

He? He who?

“He took everypony in Gutterville,” she hissed fearfully. “Rounded us up with these monsters of his.” She looked me over. “You still have your guns! When he comes back, you have to kill him!”

My mind was fogged from post-Mint-al depression and stupidity. I raced to catch up. “Who? What?” And finally, “Why?”

“The doctor. He’s torturing us to death!” she told me urgently. “He says he’s experimenting on us! He takes a pony back into that other room, and then they scream awful, horrible screams. And when he brings them back, most of them are dead. The lucky ones are. Some are still breathing and feeling, but not for long. Their bodies are all twisted and wrong.”

Celestia have mercy.

I stood up, looking down the rows of cages. Dozens of pony faces stared back at me, most with expressions of horror and despair. Some looked to me hopefully. Other ponies looked at me with pity and a heartbreaking acceptance that soon they would die, desecrated and screaming, and there was nothing to be done about it. Two ponies stared at nothing, their minds unable to deal with what was happening in here.

Not while I was still breathing!

The manticore, this doctor’s “monster”, had put me in a cage. Cages couldn’t hold me. And it had left me with my weapons. I focused, lifting first the zebra rifle and then the poison dart gun, floating one to each side of me. I hadn’t been prepared for mechanical owls or swarms of sprite-bots or bloodwings. But I had planned for manticores. The bars just made this easier. The only way they could get at me was above.

I slid into S.A.T.S. I’d never used two weapons like this before, but how hard could it be? The poison from a manticore’s tail was paralyzing to ponies, fatal with enough of a dose. I didn’t know if the manticores had any immunity to their own sting; if not, the poison should slow them at least. Bullets enchanted with fire should do the rest.

I reloaded the clip on the zebra rifle and began to choose targets.

*** *** ***

Picking the lock to my cell would definitely have been easier without the dead manticore in the cage with me. But I managed.

That manticore had been the only one to land inside my cell before I could kill it. The poisoned darts did no more to the manticores than to the sprite-bots and owls, so I had tossed it aside for Little Macintosh. The manticore had managed to rake me rather badly, leaving several bloody gashes across my breast, before Little Macintosh filled it full of noisy death.

The dart gun and the zebra rifle were quiet. Little Macintosh was loud. But then, burning manticores were loud too. The factory was now filled with smoke and the smell of cooked manticore meat.

My cell door swung open and I rushed to the sea-blue mare’s cell, working the lock as fast as I could without breaking a bobby pin. “This time, I’ll see you home,” I promised. But first, “Where’s this so-called doctor’s lab?”

She pointed the way. But I didn’t go until I had opened the lock of every cell that held a living pony. I encouraged those who seemed more mentally fit to help the ponies who didn’t have the ability to leave their cells on their own. I stalwartly prevented myself from looking too long or too closely at the dead ones.

“Everypony stay in here. I’ll be right back, and then I’m getting you all out of this place and back to…” I looked to the sea-blue pony and she mouthed the name of her village, “Gutterville.”

With that, I crouched down and begin to move towards the lab. As soon as I’d left the factory floor, I activated one of the StealthBucks. This doctor wasn’t going to see me coming.

*** *** ***

I slid past another manticore, making a mental note of where it was so I could kill it after dealing with the doctor. I didn’t want to make any more noise now than I already had.

At the end of the hall, I could see the double doors that lead to what had once been the Red Racer factory’s on-site emergency clinic. (What did that say about the original factory’s safety levels?) Light poured through the little square windows on the doors and between the cracks.

Cautiously, I nudged the door open, being as quiet as possible, and slipped inside.

The rotting form of a ghoul earth pony in a lab coat was puttering around tables of chemistry sets and medical equipment. Several medical beds lined one wall, stained darkly with what was probably not just blood. On the farthest one, a brown earth pony lay strapped, eyes wide and dead, a huge bubble having malignantly grown out of his chest. In the center of the room were the corpses of flayed-open manticores. They looked like they had been dissected. Along one wall hung dozens of manticore tails. In the far corner, barrels were stacked two-ponies high. Each bore a yellow, diamond-shaped label with dark purple warning symbols.

Toxic Magical Byproduct.

Property of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences.

DO NOT TOUCH, BREATHE or STARE AT.

“No, no,” the ghoul doctor muttered to himself. “I’m so close. That last batch almost worked. What am I missing?”

He trotted over to a terminal, looking over screens of data. Then turned towards the pile of dead manticores. “Look at you. You look exactly the same as you did before the bombs...”

Except, I was guessing, not so dead and autopsied.

“…Radiation doesn’t touch you. Taint doesn’t harm you. You’re the perfect creatures.”

I floated Little Macintosh out. Ghoul doc wasn’t a sadistic raider type; he was totally cracked. I hesitated to shoot, letting him finish his disturbed rant. I wanted to know what these ponies had died so horribly for. Even if I knew it wouldn’t make any sense.

The doctor stopped, staring at the end of one of the tables. Amongst the clipboards and hot plates sat a memory orb. He reached out and touched it, rolling it under his hoof. Then turned away. “I know the secret is in your poison,” he announced to the flayed manticore bodies. “I just haven’t perfected the formula yet. A few more tweaks, a few more tests… But I will crack this!”

He spun to the dead buck on the medical bed. Trotting up to him, the doctor whispered encouragingly, “Won’t be long now. Every pony is going to remember you. All of you. And, most of all, me. We’re going to give the ponies of Equestria the cure for Taint! I think I’ll call it Taint-Away…” He paused, as if the pony corpse had responded. “No, you’re right, that’s a silly name.”

Stepping back, he waved a hoof at the corpse, smiling. “No, no, not at all. No need to thank me. I was happy to let you do your part!”

Good. Goddess. Celestia.

The doctor paused in a moment of revelation. “I’m going to need more ponies.”

*** *** ***

Curiosity got the better of me. I was invisible, and this psychopath wasn’t going to hurt anypony else right away. I figured I had time.

I moved to the far table, lowered my horn, and focused on the memory orb. The real world fell away from me…

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

…replaced by a luxurious office. Trophies lined the shelves. A much smaller oversized model of a Red Racer scooter hung from the ceiling. Everything had an odd reddish tint to it, and my view kept bobbing and tilting, making me seasick.

Behind a large desk crafted from dark wood stood an older mare with an orange coat and purple hair that showed the first solid streaks of grey. “Anything yet?” The voice was damningly familiar.

“Just one so far,” came a voice not from me but from near me. I suddenly realized that this memory was distinctly and terrifyingly different. I could see and hear, but I couldn’t feel or smell or taste. I had no sense of a body at all.

My perspective suddenly tilted crazily, leaving me looking at the ceiling. Then it righted itself again. Much more of this and I would vomit, possibly giving away my position. But I was locked in the memory until it was over. I realized I had made a grievous tactical error.

I was bobbing towards a bookshelf. Then I was staring at the wall above it through the haze of red. Slowly my view pivoted until I was looking into the face of a stern white unicorn with scarlet hair and a matching scarlet glow around her horn. She stared right into me. Then her horn stopped glowing and the red haze vanished, leaving the room in sharp and perfect color. The unicorn trotted across the room, her horn beginning to glow again as she scanned over the furniture on the far side. When her horn passed near one of the lamps, there was a gleam of brilliant pink from it. The pink gleam flashed with the sound of a popping balloon and was gone.

“This is the last one, Miss Scootaloo. Your room is clean of any Ministry of Morale snooping,” the unicorn said. “Shall I send them in now?”

Scootaloo nodded, grimacing. “Please. My friends have been waiting long enough.” She watched the unicorn walk out of the office then looked around with a sigh. Her gaze caught me.

“Oh, Peek-a-Boo!” she called out after the unicorn. “You left your…” Her voice trailed off with a sigh, “…Sparkle~Cola.”

I was a Sparkle~Cola? No, wait… I was a spy device planted inside a bottle of Sparkle~Cola. Scootaloo trotted over to me, leaning up and grasping what I now assumed was the top of a cola bottle, lifted it, and carried me over to her waste basket. My vision twisted weirdly as I fell, landing face up amongst her trash. She stared at me through the circle of the waste basket, then trotted out of sight.

I heard the door open. All I could see was the ceiling.

“Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, it’s so good to see you two. I mean, you have no idea!” Scootaloo said, sounding relieved. Then a tenseness crept into her voice. “You weren’t followed, were you? Nopony saw you?”

“Good to see ya too,” Apple Bloom said with a bit of cheer. “And no, we were careful. But do ya really think it’s a good idea to have a secret meeting a block away from the Ministry of Morale?”

“You know, I chose this place thinking they would never expect anypony to plan something right under their noses. But Peek-a-Boo found two more Ministry bugs in my office just before you got here.”

“Who’s Peek-a-Boo?” asked the sweet voice of Sweetie Belle.

“Head Pony of my personal security,” Scootaloo answered. Then stomped, “I hate this!”

“Scoots?”

Scootaloo growled with frustration. “I hate all this hiding and sneaking around. It’s not fun anymore!”

“It was never fun,” commented Apple Bloom.

“No. You’re right. It’s sick.” Scootaloo stomped partially into view, waving her hoof towards her office window. “We’re having clandestine meetings, creating new types of dual encryption, lurking about in unfinished Stables just to be able to talk freely to each other. These are the ponies I respect the most, two of them are your sisters, and we have to hide from them to get anything done!”

“Hey now, nothin’ wrong with Applejack!”

“Rarity’s… just under pressure.”

Scootaloo sounded like she spit her bit. “Okay, granted, Applejack hasn’t really done anything bad. And I’m proud to say that Rainbow Dash is still good too. But the others? Pinkie Pie? And really, Sweetie Bell… the Ministry of Image? What. The. FUCK!

“Stop talking about my sister like that,” Sweetie Belle asked with an edge of warning in her voice.

“Yeah. We all know the score. No need t’ rub it.” Apple Bloom suggested, “Let’s talk ‘bout somethin’ else.”

“Like the Manehattan Stables,” Sweetie Belle prompted. “I hear you’ve started sending ponies into them already…”

“Yeah, or why you keep changin’ the designs t’ my Stables.”

Scootaloo sighed. “We’ve been over this, Apple Bloom. We have to sometimes change the Stable layout and features to accommodate the Experiments.”

“But my designs were perfect!” complained Apple Bloom.

“Exactly,” retorted the purple-haired orange pony. “Your designs are always perfect. That’s why everypony uses them. Your designs have single-hoofedly put terminals in every household…”

“pfft. The terminals were an early design. PipBucks are much better.”

“…But,” Scootaloo persisted, “Every Stable can’t be perfect. Not for the Experiments to work.”

“But why not?”

Scootaloo groaned, walking out of sight. Apple Bloom followed her, moving into view. I only saw part of her head, but she was a pretty, pale yellow pony with a brilliant rose mane. I guessed she was the same age as the orange mare.

“I mean, I know that if we ever have to use the Stables, it’s important t’ make sure ponies don’t jus’ make the same mistakes after they get out. But it’s just as important t’ make sure they get out, right? So why change a design meant t’ optimize the chances of that? I just… I don’t get why…” Apple Bloom glanced down at me. “…hey, when didja started drinkin’ Sparkle~Cola again?”

I couldn’t tell if Scootaloo was annoyed or thankful for the change of topic. “I haven’t. You know I can’t touch the stuff after hearing about that accident at the plant. That was Peek-a-Boo’s.”

“oh,” Apple Bloom said, looking away. “An’ what is this ‘bout you callin’ ponies into the Manehattan Stables already. The Omega Protocols ain’t been activated yet.”

“I… well, you know how things are headed. Do you really think that we’ll get much warning when they do? Enough for an evacuation?”

Sweetie Belle answered. “No.”

“And… okay, I’ll be honest. I’ve begun to have second thoughts about some of the Experiments, especially in the Manehattan Stables. They’re… risky,” Scootaloo admitted heavily. “I’d like to do a dry run, just to make sure there aren’t any problems before the real thing.”

Apple Bloom cocked her head. “But… won’t that tell everypony what we’re up to? That will ruin the Experiments.” She didn’t sound like she wanted that any more than Scootaloo did.

“I know,” Scootaloo stomped morosely. “So we’ll keep the Manehattan ponies in their Stables until the threat of this war is over. After that, it won’t matter anymore.”

“I… don’t think I can spin that,” said Sweetie Belle cautiously. “They’ll see us as evil ponies experimenting on helpless captives. How can we justify that if it turns out it wasn’t needed after all?”

“Don’t worry,” Scootaloo said solemnly. “I’ve arranged things so you two are in the clear. It will all look like my idea.” With a humorless chuckle, she noted, “Really, it kinda was anyway.”

“Scoots…”

“Yeah, we can’t let you do that.”

A hoof hit the desk with enough force to shake the trash basket. (I was now staring at a wrapper from Cupcake Emporium.)

“Yes you can. Because you have to,” Scootaloo’s tone was fierce and, I suspected, on the verge of crying. “We can’t let this happen again. Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie… all of them. I love them too. But this thing they’ve created is out of control. And it’s hurting everypony. And I can’t let it happen again. Ever!

“This isn’t our Equestria anymore! It’s not the happy, safe, pleasant world any of us grew up in. I don’t understand how it could have gotten this way. H-how… how it c-c-could have gotten this bad! Somepony needs to figure it out! And fix it! And… and… and…

“And if I have to become the villain of the piece to do that, then I will.”

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

Reality reasserted itself without forewarning. And I immediately knew I was in trouble. The memory had been far longer than the others. The invisibility spell had worn off. At some point, I had simply appeared in the room, transfixed by the memory orb.

Now I was on the medical table, bound in chains. My weapons had been removed and stashed, probably nearby but still out of sight. I was still wearing my armored utility barding. It was soaked in blood from the slashes across my chest and I was woozy from loss of blood.

The ghoul doctor trotted up to me. “Oh hello there? Back with me now? Good. Don’t worry, you’re going to help a lot of ponies…”

The doctor leaned out of sight then returned with a syringe in his mouth. He stared down at me.

And continued to stare.

And kept staring, frozen in place, until the sea-blue mare walked up, my poison dart gun in her mouth, and tipped the paralyzed doctor over with a nudge of her hoof.

I gave her a thankful look.

She turned, looked down, and started stomping furiously on the ghoul doctor. I heard the skull crack and splinter. The pony seemed to be taking out all her hurt and rage on the ghoul, stomping and stomping and stomping long after he must have been dead.

It took me time to float out my screwdriver and a bobby pin and unlock each of my chains. They were easy locks, but I was wounded and alarmingly lightheaded. I broke three bobby pins before I was through. All that time, the sea-blue pony slammed her hooves down on what was now more paste than a body.

She didn’t stop until I wrapped her in a hug and held her.

*** *** ***

I sat on a ledge, overlooking the depressing town of Gutterville as the early morning sun broke over the city. Below, Velvet Remedy was caring for the ponies we had helped back here. Calamity and SteelHooves had been discussing possible defenses that could be added around the collection of hovels. Calamity was explaining now about the turret array we’d put together back at Junction R-7.

I had met up with my friends in the Red Racer factory about half an hour after the death of the ghoul doctor. They had managed to find the safe that DJ Pon3 was interested in, but had no way of unlocking it. Instead, SteelHooves had blown apart the entire wall around the safe and had been dragging it around behind himself with a harness. Calamity had looted everything else.

Inside were two demo recordings. “Hush Now, Quiet Now (Manehattan Never Sleeps Rendition)” by Sweetie Belle, and a song called “Sing It” by the Cutie Mark Crusaders. I hoped that Homage liked her prize.

Watcher floated silently next to me. After the Ministry of Morale hub, I wasn’t sure I would ever see those little sprite-bots the same way again.

“It’s not enough, is it?” I asked, breaking the silence. “Knowing your virtue, I mean.” I remembered Watcher’s list of Great Virtues of Ponykind. But those virtues, I’d come to realize, weren’t great on their own; I had seen dark, stunted versions of many of them. Pinkie/Silver Bell’s mirthless, sorrow-born laughter. Gawd’s loyalty only to contract and coin. Monterey’s honesty out of desperate self-image. I’d almost collected a set.

“No,” Watcher replied in that toneless, mechanical voice which Watcher hid behind. “There’s a… spark that’s needed. Without it, a virtue isn’t anything special.”

“What’s the spark?” I asked forlornly. I didn’t even know my virtue. Now I needed a spark too?

“Friendship,” Watcher said simply.

I looked up at the floating spritebot, the shifting of position making the bandages on my breast rub. “Friendship?” I turned to watch Velvet Remedy bandage the leg of a pink stallion. I saw Calamity laughing good-naturedly at something SteelHooves had said. Friendship.

I had friendship. I felt a pang of joy as the acceptance of that cut through the petty jealousy and creeping paranoia that had threatened to overwhelm me. I had friends.

“You could say I’ve made a study of the subject,” Watcher admitted. Then, before I could ask, a static pop heralded Watcher’s disappearance. The sprite-bot floated away on tambourine music.

*** *** ***

Homage smiled, floating the two demos away from me. “Thank you. All of you. DJ Pon3 has been waiting to hear these for a long time. He can’t tell you how much he appreciates this.”

“Well, he could start by telling us himself,” SteelHooves suggested dourly.

“Sorry,” Homage apologized. “He’s very busy preparing the next news segment. But he sent me to make sure you knew how thrilled he is. And to give you this.”

Homage’s horn glowed as she guided the flux regulator to rest at Calamity’s hooves.

“Aww,” intoned Velvet Remedy with clear disappointment. “I was hoping to meet him. And sing for him.”

I flinched, realizing I hadn’t mentioned that to Homage yet. The pretty grey unicorn shot me a questioning look. “um… tomorrow,” I stammered. “I’m sure DJ Pon3 will have time for us tomorrow. And it has been such a loooong day, do any of us really want to meet him without getting some rest first?” I swallowed, looking hopefully to the others. “And a bath?”

That sealed it for Velvet Remedy, who nodded primly. “Oh, right! Whatever was I thinking?”

“And don’t you want to give that… thing,” I pointed to the arcane device as I spoke to Calamity, “a good look-over before we go anywhere?”

“Ayep.”

I looked to SteelHooves. I had nothing. But he seemed to get the hint and turned to leave. “Coming with us, Littlepip?”

“Um… I’ll catch up,” I offered, needing to hang back at least long enough to pitch the idea of Velvet Remedy’s music to Homage.

My friends walked into the elevator and turned around. Velvet was smiling to me, letting me know once again how thankful she was for our talk earlier, and for my forgiveness. Calamity gave me a tip of his hat.

The doors slid closed. The elevator began to descend, taking them down towards our suite.

“Thank you, Stable Dweller,” Homage said softly. “And not just for the demos. I’ve already heard from Gutterville.”

Remembering Watcher’s trick when we first met, I felt a pang. “Did you… know?”

But Homage’s eyes went innocently wide. “No. If I did, I would have told you. Because if I had known, and had told you, I know you would have gone in just to help them.”

I nodded and smiled gratefully. I wish everypony treated me like Homage.

“So, Velvet Remedy… she any good.”

I grinned. “The best. Direct descendant from Sweetie Belle.” That caught Homage’s attention. “And she’s not only inherited the skill, I think she’s surpassed it.”

“Well, then this I’ve got to hear.”

I poked my hoof at the floor, thoughts of Velvet Remedy filling me with melancholy. There was something I hadn’t had the courage to ask before. And now my heart was aching to know. “Homage… can I ask you a favor?”

“Sure,” the grey unicorn smiled brightly. “What, have a request?”

I took a deep breath. This was going to be humiliating. But Homage had eyes almost everywhere. If anyone could find anything for me, it was her. “You watch all over Equestria… the parts you can see. Have you ever spotted a mare out there who… well… who might like me?” I closed my eyes, almost drowning in embarrassment. “I mean, a mare who likes mares who might like a mare like me?”

Every second Homage was quiet felt like an anvil falling on my head. Followed by a hay cart. Followed by a piano.

“I might…” Homage said cautiously.

I sagged, feeling both relieved but mortified. “Then… could you point me in the right direction? Tell me where?”

I felt a hoof gently touch my shoulder.

“Littlepip, I said I might.”

I turned to look at her, not comprehending. Then, looking into her eyes, I felt a spark of understanding. “oh….” I blinked. Her expression softened… sensuously…

The spark ignited into a fire. “OH!”

Homage smiled beautifully.

Thank you, Celestia!


Footnote: Level Up.
Skills Note: Science has reached 100%
New Perk: Action Filly (level two) – 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.