Chapter 18: Shadowbolt Showdown
"This isn't what I wanted."
Trotting through the no-mare's-land of rainboomed devastation ringing Nellie Air Force Base, our ragged band of survivors were treated to a buzzing by two pegasi. When I waved, they sheared away, one looking back with a hoof pressed to the side of her goggled headgear. By the time we reached the main gate, Doctor Fly Right was impatiently standing behind the red-and-white stripes of its completely useless traffic barrier.
Flanking him were a gaggle of Zoomer militia, none of whom were wearing the black jumpsuits or silver insignia favored by DeLoup's troopers. These seemed to prefer wannabe-style patchworks of pre-War uniforms that they'd probably scavenged from the base itself, all khakis and bomber jackets held together with campaign and unit patches. Their battle saddles carried equally-irregular weaponry, packing anything from like-new rocket launchers to plinker rifles more beat-up than my old varminter.
Fly Right was so furious his white whiskers --- didn't I mention those? No? He had these huge bushy sideburns, white as chalk, wiggling ridiculously with pent-up rage. Weirdly enough, he had not a scrap of white anywhere else on him... not in his orange hide, not in his faded brown mane, and not in the gold-winged bonesaw of his butt-tattoo. Only his lab coat matched. Maybe he dyed them.
Can't imagine why I didn't mention all of that nine chapters ago. Guess I was too busy vividly remembering how many drugs had been pumped through my system at the time.
"Mister Pie," the good doctor grated through clenched teeth, "where have you been for most of this last week?! Nevermind! I'm not even going to ask where you picked up these louse-ridden hooligans. I'm just going to hope, for your sake, that you've brought what you were sent for!"
"No thanks to Bitchy McCrackwing, Doc," I grated right back, stepping into nose-on-nose territory across the barrier. Some welcome, after everything I'd been through! "Your 'commander' claimed you were following her. Were you so far back you couldn't see all those Fun Suits detonating, about a mile up? That was her, trying to destroy this."
I nipped the AutoDoc module from my pack, then booped his nose with the squarish block of super-tech while he stood there with his jaw hanging open. The sudden contact set him to sputtering.
"Th-that's insane! You were moving out of our radio range... she took off after your collar's signal to stop it from igniting your suit!"
Pink-E bobbed up, all smiles. "Oh, that wasn't necessary! I was repeating your deadswitch signal over that frequency the whooooole time! No WAY Cherry's collar would have gone off! But thanks anyways!" Stifling a groan, I pushed her back a pace and returned the module to my pack.
Fly Right blinked at Pink-E, opened his mouth (most likely to ask a stupid question about why the robot head of a Ministry Mare was following me around), then shook his head with a woggawoggawogga sound. "What is... that doesn't make... why would she..."
He stopped himself with a whinny. "Nevermind! We'll sort all that out later. What's important right now is that module, and a mare's life!" He took off towards the hangars at a hard gallop.
We began to follow, only to be stopped by the clacking of upraised rifles. "Hold it right there!" shouted a mare, evidently the one in charge of this militia detachment. "Authorized personnel beyond this point only!"
Hard Way and I exchanged glances, then gave her matching grins.
I pointed a hoof at the big beige. "He's with me!"
He pointed a reciprocal hoof at me. "We're with him!"
And the lot of us charged after Fly Right together, leaving the surprised goons to fluster and bluster in a thundering wake of dust. What else were they going to do, take potshots at the buck with the Irreplaceable Widget? We ended up with a face-saving "escort" to Mother Matrix's hangar, a couple of the militia even relenting to give our walking wounded rides when they began flagging. Shrapnel in your flank might be manageable when you're just trotting around, but going flat-out for a quarter mile or so like that is a great way to permanently lame yourself.
The old base still had a fair number of intact buildings between the gate and our destination, many of which were homes, storage or workspace for Zoomers trotting about their business. Most just stopped and stared, or alternately bolted as though going for help. A small flock squawked with surprise as our mob careened past, flapping backwards with shouts of complaint before alighting on the cracked tarmac once more.
That nagging notion from before bubbled its way back up, finally breaching the surface this time.
Why weren't any of the pegasi around here flying?
With an emergency in the offing, you'd think Fly Right and his goon squad would want to get some more speed on, but no, they just galloped along like earth ponies. And it wasn't just them; nopony else in sight was flying around, either. As we were nearly to our destination I decided not to break the pace by bringing it up, but damned if I wasn't going to trot out a few questions when I got the chance...
There was no angry mob shouting about "dirt-pounders in the sanctuary" when we arrived at a hatch to one side of the hangar's giant double-doors. Fly Right wasn't about to wait for one to get started, either. "Tech Sergeant Chrysanthemum, secure this building. If anypony asks, and only if they ask, Mother Matrix and I are holding audience pertinent to Rule Thirty-Four." The militia mare saluted crisply, then turned and began ordering her troops around.
Fly Right unlocked the hatch, favoring me with a glare and a hoof outstretched in mimicry of a welcoming usher. "All of you, get inside and out of sight. And be quick about it! With any luck, saving the Mother won't require another riot."
* * * * *
Eight Vikeans, plus myself and Pink-E, had survived our short trip.
One dragon, Crag. The lanky green had been the one trying to flambé the Diamond Dogs in their machine. Ever since his post-battle bout of vengeance on the sole surviving Dog, he'd gone all silence-and-business, grunting when spoken to but otherwise aloof. I was keeping an eye on him.
Two unicorns. Sun Bright, an orange mare, kept fussing with her golden mane and steam pistol. Her occasional fits of shaking suggested the fidgeting was more about keeping occupied than anything else. Her polar twin, Bright Son, was everything in reverse: an orange-on-gold stallion who kept a stoic eye on his sister at all times. Only their emerald eyes truly matched.
Two earth ponies, maroon Typhoon and his silver-coated, hoof-catching compatriot Ricochet. No family names to either of them; they'd been drifting mercenaries hired into the wrong side of a scrap with the Vikeans. Both claimed to have grassroots in Standling, a village between Latigo and Hipshot in central Coltifornia, which was awfully specific for such a thin cover story. I'd been all over that region with my dad and never heard of any such places. Taken as Labor Associates, the pair had worked their way up to being respected Sailors in House Way's service over several years, sticking together like wonderglue the whole way. As far as Hard Way was concerned, they'd proven themselves, no matter where they really hailed from.
First Mate Gore-Nest kept ruffling and smoothing down his brown feathers, obviously not happy to be amongst the ponies who'd sunk three of the Sjönhäst's sister longships last year with an errant hurricane. Meanwhile Flap-Jack, the ship's kittybird cook, looked perpetually torn between wanting to soothe her ship-mate's anger and worrying that trying might provoke it to greater heights. She mostly settled for a combination of wringing her talons and frustratedly whipping her tail back and forth.
And of course there was Hard Way, who'd had to suck in his gut and squirm a bit to make it through a hatch originally built for pegasi. Despite having been through the same storm Gore-Nest held a grudge over, he seemed to be entirely calm and collected. To him, it was like traipsing through Zoomer territory was an every-other-day occurrence.
Now we all stood, loosely grouped about a triple-row array of tall, coffin-like pods, the air smelling faintly of sterility and ozone. Doctor Fly Right had snicked the AutoDoc module into place and was now hunched over fiddling with its settings, muttering and cursing to himself the entire time.
"Set for Equus Volatilis... female... yes, diagnose and correct for long-term emergency stasis already, you Mother-humping case of carbonized crystals..."
Finally he stood back up and sighed, brushing down his lab coat. "That's as good as we're going to get without breaking it altogether, I think. In a few minutes, we'll know one way or the other how much your delay has cost us."
My delay?! I rounded on him with narrowed eyes. "You wanted to 'sort this out later', huh? Fine! It's later!"
And I proceeded to tell him the story of how the Gang-Pressed Little Pony escaped the Casino Royale before the whole place blew straight to Tartarus by using a bunch of chained-together Fun Suits to float away with the Mark VII AutoDoc Module safe in his saddlebags, and he stopped me right there and said,
"Mister Pie... why not just return with Commander DeLoup at that point?"
So then I proceeded to tell him the story of the Backstabbing Pegabitch who tried to rob the Gang-Pressed Little Pony so Mother Matrix would die and the Happy Pegasus Ponies could all fly off to join the Grand Pegasus Enclave, ending with the Gang-Pressed Little Pony sending the aforementioned Backstabbing Pegabitch down in a ball of flames, and he stopped me right there and said,
"Mister Pie... assuming that's all true, what took you so long to make it back?"
Well, I was halfway through the story of how the Gang-Pressed Little Pony unwillingly fathered a whole new generation of Lake-Lurking Abominations, when he stopped me right there because he was starting to feel physically ill.
And then Pink-E proceeded to tell him the story of the eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and the paragraphs on the back of each one, explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us.
After which we all just stared at the floating, smiling pony-head robot for a few moments of uncomfortable silence.
It would have been longer, but Mother Matrix's pod chose that moment to pop its seal, hissing as it vented pressurized atmosphere directly behind me. And there goes the All-Republic standing-high-jump record! As soon as my hooves found concrete again, I spun about to see what everyone else was staring at.
The literal mare of my dream, eyes closed, forelegs folded across her chest, lay wreathed in a dissipating sheen of half-frozen fog curling out and down from the steel-grey pod. Tiny droplets clung, diamond-like, to the feathery tips of wings wrapped almost protectively about her belly. Mother Matrix looked so innocent, so defenseless, so frail...
My brief meeting inside the pods' virtual world had been with a young, vibrant, energetic mare of many colors. My thoughts of that being conceit were borne out by the harsher reality. Her bright cyan hide was a darker azure in the here and now, and the rainbow mane (so that wasn't a computerized dye-job?) was faded nearly gray, each band of color split by thin silvery ribbons. The black PipBuck, so slim and trim that it made mine look clunky by comparison (I want it! I need it!), hung almost loosely from the ankle it was clamped to. Her jaw was as gnarled and wrinkled as her limbs... which at this point looked hardly capable of supporting a pony's full weight. I supposed it was a good thing, then, that she'd gotten so thin you could see every contour of her ribcage.
And ye gods, could she snore!
Once the respirator mask popped free of her muzzle, the still-sleeping mare started ripping lungfuls like she was tearing air from the sky. It wasn't quite so bad as to make me pin my ears back, but I wouldn't have wanted to put her in the same hotel room as Harry Thimble. The NCR's President was pretty legendary in the snoring department himself, and the pair combined would probably qualify as an industrial-class sonic hazard.
But at least she's not dead. Yay me!
Fly Right was already by her side, comparing her condition to readings off the pod's new module. I caught snatches of his remarks in between beats of the Mother's rip-roaring rhythm:
"Much imp.............ank Celestia. Heart ra....................essure low but steady, ..................lacerations or bruising. Even the pancreas has reconstructed!" It took a moment for my ears to realize that the snoring had been replaced by a much-quieter smacking of wrinkled lips.
Mother Matrix yawned, stretching her emaciated limbs into an orchestral movement of the sounds snap, crackle and pop. Ignoring Doctor Right's vociferous warnings to stay put, she braced her forehooves on either side of the pod, bringing to mind the sudden notion that she might actually tear herself apart like ancient tissue paper. To my eternal surprise, she managed to hoist herself up onto her hindlegs.
She stood and stretched wide, shaking out faded rainbows of mane and tail. One hoof rubbed gunk from her eyes. Both wings fluffed out, exposing every bent and mangled feather that'd been cooped up for two hundred years without a single preening. In a sandpapery voice, barely recognizable as female, she managed:
"Not dead yet, huh? Awesome..." Then she fell out of the pod.
Right onto me!
I managed to grab the collapsing crone in my forelegs, cushioning her fall with my body before she could crack her skull on the hangar floor, but when the dust settled her rheumy violet eyes were twinkling with laughter. She'd meant to do that, the decrepit old whorse!
"Nice catch, Tank old boy... best... ninja turtle... ever..." And then she was snoring again, drooling and blowing snot-bubbles on my chest. Oh Luna, why!?
Pink-E bobbed over, looked down at us, and whirred, giving me an inscrutable look.
"I didn't think she was into stallions."
* * * * *
First order of post-stasis business: feed the pony.
The hangar's adjoining mess hall more normally served the Zoomers' flight cadets before entering their pods for training in Mother Matrix's virtual coliseum, but it was now well after breakfast hours and its kitchen was abandoned. Flap-Jack knew her business, though. Inside ten minutes, Fly Right had taught her the wonders of electric ovens and Mother Matrix was chowing down on a bowl of hot grits. It wasn't long before we all got settled in for a good solid meal, which the Vikeans seemed to take as a way of drowning their lost-comrade sorrows. The total lack of alcoholic beverages just meant they ate more to make up for it.
And I didn't stutter when I said "feed THE pony". Fly Right wanted Mother Matrix to get as much down her gullet as she could stand, and after so long in a pod she could stand a lot. She and Hard Way were both putting it away as fast as it came. That circumstance soon developed into a side-by-side challenge match. Before long, Flap-Jack had a second pot of grits on the stove just to keep them both going. Not long after that, they tossed aside their spoons in favor of gulping straight from the bowl.
In her case, it looks more like "inhaling". Where the hell does she put all that? A magical Stomach of Holding?! I could understand Hard Way's appetite --- he was just plain huge. But the Mother wasn't much taller than Fly Right, and yet she barely paused when somepony tossed another helping in her direction.
This, of course, absolutely delighted the Vikeans, half of whom cheered on their captain while the others seemed smitten by the feisty old feather-butt.
I took the chance to pull Fly Right aside.
"All right, Doc, we had a deal. You got your Mother alive and well, and Mister Horse gets his alliance." When he began to protest, I shoved my hoof in his mouth. "Shaddap. I know it's not your call. But you owe me and my employer on this one. Not to mention that, as I recall, you weren't exactly opposed to the idea in the first place. The least you can do is endorse the request."
He nodded, I removed my hoof, and he huffed. "Zoomers are free to have and exposit their own opinions, Mister Pie. My own has not changed."
We both blinked, then turned in unison.
Mother Matrix looked exceptionally pleased with herself, rubbing one hoof across her mouth while patting her overstuffed belly with the other. Pregnant with manticore twins was the phrase that leapt to mind. On the floor beside her lay a groaning Hard Way, who'd managed to down enough that his gut had pushed him right off the bench. When he let go his answer to the Mother's belch, it rattled -
[SYSTEM ERROR 947: EXCESSIVE SOURCE AUDIO - PARAMETER VIOLATION]
- finally picked myself back up, she was still grinning, her mane having been blown back like a bad bomb-disposal technician's. "Ooooh, yeah! I win again!" Hard Way shook a defiant hoof at her from the floor as ceiling dust continued to settle all around.
"Not the Belching Contest, you didn't!"
* * * * *
Second order of post-stasis business: establish authority by ordering everypony else around.
Mother Matrix pushed Fly Right's stethoscope away. "I've been stuck in bed long enough! Besides, I need to get out and have SOME exercise... you, there! Thunderlane! Tighten up that formation! I taught you better than that!" Her voice had definitely recovered well so far, despite a permanent quavering note. She might have outrun death, but not old age.
The chartreuse pegasus stopped flapping against his tether, dropping to the tarmac and puzzledly raising his eyebrows. "Ma'am? I'm Air Biscuit..." He pushed up his goggles to look down at the nametag on his black jumpsuit, like he was making sure. The rest of his little squadron continued beating the air a few lengths above him, moored by identical tethers to iron hooks in the runway. Supposedly this was how Zoomers learned to keep precise positioning in groups without zipping all over the place in the process, which for some reason seemed to be a big deal.
"You're Thunderlane for as long as I want to call you Thunderlane! Now move those wings!"
He gulped audibly, came to attention, and snapped a salute before leaping back into the air with a hasty "Yes, ma'am!".
It was just me, Fly Right and the Mother, walking around the base and making sure every pegasus saw her up and about. He worried over her like a hen with a hatchling, which was more likely about delaying any attempt I might make to bring up the alliance before she was ready to hear about it. I didn't mind; it was a nice day out, and I got to corroborate locations on the ground that I remembered from Horse's overhead map against their actual contents and functions up close. He'd probably appreciate the confirmation.
The Vikeans, we left in the kitchen so they could have a little time to rest up. Hard Way would have followed, except for two reasons: Fly Right didn't want any more earth ponies running around in public than absolutely necessary until things got settled, and he could no longer fit through the hatch despite making a good try of it anyway. The situation was resolved, without having to create a new doorway, when the Mother clapped a foreleg around his shoulder and smilingly promised to drag me back in chains herself if I tried to run.
Apparently, loyalty was a big thing with her.
After having made the one comment about the Mother's presumed sexual proclivities (the Ministry of Morale used to keep that kind of info on random Equestrian citizens?), Pink-E had quietly drifted into the background. When we went out, she remained behind with Flap-Jack, watching the cook at work and mumbling singsong snippets about cups of flour and teaspoons of this or that. Well, at least she seemed to be in good condition and spirits --- such as a robot can have any --- so I didn't feel too bad about leaving her in the Vikeans' company for now.
One thing to say about Double-M --- she had stamina on loan from the gods. She didn't move fast, but she did move. And she kept moving. Three hours after ending two centuries in a steel tube, and she wasn't any worse off than if she were walking off a hangover. Anypony who could figure out how to tap and bottle that endurance would be a rich buck overnight.
Fly Right kept griping about it, too, notating on a clipboard held in the feathers of one wing. "I wish you'd at least take some Cloudpack, Mother. It would assist in regeneration and heighten your pain threshold while you recover."
She gave a derisive snort. "Pfft! Rainbow Dash does not do chems, Doc. Never have, never will!"
Wait, the Rainbow Dash? The super-speedster they named the drug for, and she doesn't chem? Not sure if ironic, or just stupid...
Fly Right gawped at her, then stared at me. What the hell was his problem?!
The ancient pegasus wrapped one bony foreleg around my shoulder, giving me a creepy chill up the spine. This was a little too forward from a mare who could have been my several-times-great-grandmother! "Don't sweat it, Doc. I made the Rules, remember? Do you remember why?"
He bobbed his head deferentially. "For our protection and yours, Mother. Which makes me wonder why you'd let a dirt-pounder know - "
"Hey!" she cut in, frowning darkly and poking his chest with a hoof. "My Rules have nothing about setting up pegasi as better than anypony else. Most of my best friends were 'dirt-pounders', and don'cha forget it!" He visibly clamped his mouth shut (so much for free opinions!), earning a curt nod as we moved past a throng of fillies and colts doing wing-ups. Most of them tried sneaking peeks of adoring fascination, which she at least had the grace not to bask in. Instead, she shot Fly Right a cunning look. "Besides, why don't you ask Tank here what he thinks about my real name?"
"It's stupid," I said, not missing a beat. "Sounds like something a hoity-toity fashion model would use."
The old azure mare cackled. "Hah! Rarity would've spit her tea! I can see the ads now: 'Rainbow Dash Always Dresses in Style'! Hee, hee, hee! Maybe we should've swapped Ministries for a day..." She stopped for a moment to rub her chin. "Mmm... nah. I'd've gone nuts trying to deal with Image's detail-freaks, and she'd've killed herself trying to work up a color scheme for stealth suits. Still pretty funny, though."
This old biddy? A former Ministry Mare?
I recalled something about "Rainbow Dash" from a war-era newspaper I'd read one day during some particularly nasty business. Business I'd finished up by wiping with it. Never trust a Freemane food-stall vendor to admit what he puts in his tacos!
Plus, Pink-E had told me a fair bit about the "Ministry Mares" during our travels, enough that I picked some of it up despite having tried to ignore what I thought was inane chatter at the time. They'd run six big government bureaus tasked with managing the war effort, and all of them were supposed to have died during (or shortly after) Balefire Day. If Rainbow Dash was the real deal, that definitely made her somepony worth protecting. According to Doc Right the Zoomers were formed to do exactly that, after finding her stuck in that stasis pod.
But the "single wounded mare" story sounded fishy to me. Even after the bombs, anypony that powerful should have had bodyguards and backup. Not to mention access to better medical care than hiding in a VR tube, out in the Moohave Desert, for a couple centuries.
Talk about getting your beauty sleep... not that it helped!
The medical pegasus blinked at her, then at me, then blew out a long-suffering sigh. "All right, all right already. I suppose the cat's out of the stewpot one way or the other. But can we at least get you out of the sun before you have a heat stroke? I can have the status summaries brought to my quarters."
She eyeballed him suspiciously. "No bedrest?" He shook his head firmly. "Weeeell... okay. I think one lap around the base is good enough, for now. Got any Gummy-Ade in your fridge?"
* * * * *
Mother Matrix --- or, I guess, Rainbow Dash --- seemed to take DeLoup's betrayal personally. Once she wrangled it out of Fly Right, that is. The doctor seemed bent on trying to give the absent Commander every consideration, but the old flapper wasn't having any of it.
"I just knew it!" she barked, pacing up and down the thread-worn carpeting (which led her to repeatedly stomp on a now-empty pre-War juicebox). The room had once (and apparently always) been assigned to Nellie AFB's chief medical officer, so there at least was decent space for the activity. Maybe one day the Zoomers would give the steel-gray metal a real paint job again; bare outlines remained of what once had been cloud-themed murals. Otherwise it was pretty utilitarian, consisting of bunk, closet, hooflocker, desk, and a small adjoining bathroom. We'd had to drop by the Zoomers' supply room for the Gummy-Ade.
She stopped and gave the hooflocker a solid punt, then winced, clutching the hoof to her chest. "Agh! Shouldn't've done that, I guess... but Sombra fuck me soaring! Thirty years of trying to buck this 'Shadowbolt' nonsense outta their heads, and I knew she wasn't letting it go! Stupid, stupid, stupid!" Despite having already hurt herself, she glowered threateningly at the hooflocker again.
Fly Right took the extremity under examination, trying to project a reasonable demeanor. "Calm yourself, Mother, she's dead now. With any luck, her lieutenants will knock each others' brains out trying to fill her horseshoes."
Apparently, there was an ongoing schism in the Zoomers between those pegasi who wanted to keep guarding Rainbow Dash, and those who wanted to head back East to join the Enclave. DeLoup had headed up the latter group, which had taken to wearing uniforms patterned after the legendary "Shadowbolt" strike wing and copping a far more militaristic attitude. Rainbow had put her hoof down, leading to incessant arguments about her Rules, her origins, and whether or not the Enclave was right to preserve the pegasus race if it meant leaving the rest of Equestria to die.
That said, it was still a shock to the two that DeLoup intended to murder Rainbow and present her head to the Enclave. Me, I just figured that was business-as-usual for the Wasteland.
"I'm not going to let it go that far, Doctor Right. I've already let it go too far as it is! I was so worried about keeping everypony together that I didn't nip this in the bud like I should have." She collected herself, standing tall as though posing for a photograph. I looked around for the nonexistent paparazzi. "They wanna be Shadowbolts? Fine! I'm the last of the real 'Bolts, and still their Captain! They'll fly on my wing, or not at all! OW!"
Her glower refocused on the doctor bandaging her hoof, which he professionally ignored. "What they'll do, at least for now, is lay low until everypony stops fan-gasming over the fact that you're alive and trotting about. Hopefully that'll give you some time to get your strength up... because you know as well as I do that they'll challenge what they see as an old grey mare for your authority, and they'll do it the second you pull rank."
She disgustedly blew a pale orange strand of mane out of her eyes. "I made up that rule so our troops were led by only the best. Now it comes back around, to bite me in the flank." A second later her swaggering attitude returned, full force, in a beaming grin. "Assuming, of course, that your friendly neighborhood Rainbow Dash isn't still the best!"
"At least the spirit is willing," Fly Right muttered as he finished wrapping.
"So," I interjected, apropos of nothing, "how about that alliance thing you and I were talking about, Doc?"
Both pegasi turned their heads to stare at me. Fly Right's expression could curdle milk; Dash just blinked those huge violet eyes like she'd been asked to solve world hunger. As one they turned back to stare at each other, swapping looks with a synchronicity almost too perfect to have really happened.
Her face scrunched up as she growled out, in low, menacing tones, "What. Alliance. THING."
"I did mention something about this, during our last briefing - " He shot me a hateful glance.
Ignoring it, she crowded in until her muzzle bumped his. "WHAT. Alliance. THING."
He backed onto his haunches, not wanting to retreat, but also unwilling to give in. "I didn't want to bring it up just - "
"WHAT. ALLIANCE. THING?"
I hopped off the bunk to push the two apart before he fell over backwards. "That was the price for getting your AutoDoc part, Dashie." Before either could say anything more, I replayed the audio of Horse's offer on my PipBuck.
She sat there, looking stunned, throughout the whole thing. Thing was, she was looking at me, not the speaker playing its tinny audio. "...we can work out the details at your convenience and leisure, but remember --- while I am a patient stallion, neither President Thimble nor the Herd's so-called 'Caesar' can be counted upon to wait forever."
After I turned it off, there followed a rather pregnant pause.
She coughed into a hoof. "Doctor Fly Right, please leave us. We have business to discuss." He bristled, seemingly ready to argue --- then spun on one hoof and stormed out, without another word. After the door slammed, Rainbow Dash quietly walked over and slid the deadbolt home.
"I saw that robot zipping around the mess hall. Yours?" She didn't even look at me.
"Such as it is. Yeah."
Her head drooped, a sigh smacking of resignation escaping her lungs. But when she turned back around, there was a smile. A sad one, but still a smile. "Such as it is, right. Heh." It took visible effort, but the old Zoomer drew herself back up, a measure of steel firming in the spine. "If she thinks you're worth it, so do I. But this doesn't come without strings, turtle-buddy."
I groaned, facehoofing. "Are you still on that ninja-tortoise-whatever kick?"
Now she was in my face, prodding my chest with a wingtip. "Nevermind that now! Second thing: have you actually met 'Mister Ed', or are we talking face-on-screen kind of stuff?"
I backed up a pace, trying not to scowl at my employer's likely new ally. "Nopony's ever seen the buck in person, not even No-Pony." Okay, that was random of me... I pressed on despite her confused look. "When I met him, he was exactly that, a face on a computer monitor." Forestalling the triumphant glint lighting her eyes, I raised a cautionary hoof. "That said, he's been actively running New Pegas since the War."
Much to my surprise, that didn't faze her a bit. Instead, she started pacing again, verbally working herself through it. "So he perfected that machine of his, then. The Crusader maneframes were capable of containing a pony's mind, and he was working in that direction on one of his own projects. Had a pretty impressive tech demonstration too, as I recall... even if it ended up a big mess at the time. Gotta wonder if that's really him in there now, or just a copy?"
She stopped pacing and shook her head, tossing that faded-glory mane. "Either way, Horse is as dangerous as they come. I don't like shacking up with him, not one little bit! He's had two centuries to recover and rebuild, while I've been cooped up here on Nellie. If there's anything left of Interministry Affairs, he'll have looted it clean by now, but I don't even know how much of Awesome survived the bombs. Which reminds me, my PipBuck's not pulling up any connection feeds. I need to find an MAw terminal and..."
Rainbow Dash gave me a flat look. "Why're you looking at me like I'm an idiot?"
I was agape. "How is it you don't KNOW any of this?! I mean, I don't know squat about these 'Ministries' of yours because they never really had a hoof in things out here. And sure, you've been in a pod for two hundred years, but it's not like you haven't been working with the Zoomers for most of that. Hasn't anypony been telling you anything?"
Her eyes narrowed with annoyance, one ear flicking backwards. "Maybe they would have, IF I'd been enough of a jerk to send them out scouting on my behalf." She gestured widely with a hoof, as though to take in the whole base. "These ponies took me in. Protected me. Spent more than a century trying to save me. If anypony should know the value of that kind of loyalty, I'm it."
Now she was back to pacing the floor, ruffling her wings out. A few tattered old feathers drifted to the floor. "Ever since they got through to me in that pod, I've made it my job to keep them safe. Especially from," and here she dropped into exaggerated sarcasm, complete with a set of hoof-quotes, "the 'Grand Pegasus Enclave'."
A snort of disgust blew from her nostrils. "Pegasi for pegasi and screw everypony else, just like there was never an Equestria to begin with. Zipped up the sky over most of the continent, so they could use my Towers to help farm the clouds... then called ME a traitor when I wouldn't go along with abandoning all our friends! ME!"
That last word broke her voice, from quavers into pieces. Coughing, she lifted a withered hoof to her face and turned away, shuddering in spite of her best efforts to stifle it.
Instantly my mind went back to the Casino Royale, what I'd done to God, and my own little breakdown following. I knew the shame of letting somepony else see my loss of control. The least I could do was pretend not to see hers. I performed an about-face and planted my rump on the floor, respecting the old mare's peace in her moment of crisis.
Words fought out from between her not-so-silent sobs. "All our friends... all my friends... the others just watched... from on high... while it all burned... and... and... and when I said we should help, because that's what ponies DO, oh goddesses TANK...!"
Suddenly she was clutching me from behind, knobby forelegs wrapped around my barrel. The sensation sent my spine into rock-rigid shock as hot moisture began soaking my neck, like Hoofer Dam had blown a steam assembly.
Luna spank me with a power hammer! Why the hell is she crying on my shoulder...?
A little dark-pink pony in my head, wearing a battered old stormchaser hat, was just starting in on the injustice of having to put up with everypony else's mental breakdowns and weepy personal stories, when another one in a much nicer fedora stomped in and kicked his flank offstage. That one brushed off his forehooves, folded them across his chest, and gave me a look which brooked no arguments. That stage of my life was done.
I curled around, tucked her head in close, and just held on. It wasn't a good hug, maybe, and maybe it was really awkward to be hugging a pony as old as my great-great-grandaunt and maybe I didn't know how I should feel about myself right now. But what was important, was that she was hurting, and there was no reason I couldn't help her in this small way.
"They had no reason they couldn't help, Dashie. No reason at all."
* * * * *
From the moment she was branded a traitor, she knew every pegasus refusing to hoof the line would be treated the same. That went for the Zoomers too, from the moment they chose to stay behind, even before they decided to save and keep her secret as "Mother Matrix". That was why she'd subjected her devoted protectors to military discipline, with rules about not leaving Nellie AFB, not fraternizing with raiders, not flying too high and so on. It was why Zoomers didn't fly around except for patrols and practice, even while on-base.
Their isolation kept them safe, but also largely ignorant of the world beyond their perimeter fence. They only knew the broad strokes, and that mostly from interrogating survivors who'd tried jumping their fence. Getting your news from the occasional scavenger or raider only goes so far, particularly if you almost killed them with tactical sonic rainbooms.
So I held and nuzzled and let her cry until she was ready to talk again. Then, for the next few hours, we talked about everything I knew. About Horse running New Pegas through its casinos, themselves run by "families" like the Silver Slippers, Trotters and Oh-Merdes. About nations with armies, like the Republic and Herd. About the Lords, the Vikeans, the Cossacks, the Friends, even the Mite-y Gang and stories I'd heard about small groups of Steel Rangers calling themselves "Renegades". I gave her what little news and rumors there were out of the East, most of it bad of course. Which included confirmation of the Enclave's continued existence.
She sniffled one more time, wiped her nose, and then angrily stomped a hoof. "It figures those bastards would've survived all this. I was hoping by the time I got back on my wings, they'd've imploded on their own selfishness."
Now that she'd finally had a chance to work out a little bit of her long-suppressed grief (VR pods couldn't exactly set their phasing crystals to "hug") she was getting back to being a fair semblance of her feisty-old-nag self. From what she'd told me, there'd been no time for grief before she went into the pod, either.
Once the bombardment of Canterlot began, communications with the Princesses were effectively cut. The Ministry of Awesome had contingency plans to disrupt the zebra military hierarchy and communications in turn, but Manehattan's destruction by an infiltrated balefire device meant cutting landlines and overloading radio frequencies was no longer enough.
While her own hometown of Cloudsdale burned, Rainbow Dash and her Shadowbolts were streaking behind the lines to wipe out hundreds of enemy missile batteries before they could receive orders to launch. By the time she got back, most of her wingmates having been shot from the sky, the 'Enclave' had declared itself sole masters of everything above and including the cloud layer --- which they were already expanding in their effort to shut away the world.
She'd refused to go along with it. Asserting her Luna-granted authority as Equestria's Sky Marshal, she reminded them of her wing's sacrifice in keeping all those other missiles from finishing everypony --- including them --- off. They expressed their undying gratitude by calling her a "traitor to the race" and putting a bounty on her head. A griffon merc called Gilda took the contract, pursued her all the way to Cloudsdale's irradiated wreckage, and left her a badly-wounded fugitive. She was almost dead before she got to Nellie Air Force Base, which had already been abandoned, and managed to crawl into one of its flight-instruction stasis pods.
All within the space of a few hours. No time for goodbyes, or funerals... or even crying.
A knock sounded, followed by Fly Right's worried voice. "Mother Matrix..."
Rainbow Dash ran a hoof through her mane, coughed. "You can come back in now, Doctor. I think we're done."
The door opened onto a whiskered face, whose expression said we were most certainly not done today.
* * * * *
Nopony had yet begun shooting, which was a very good thing for Fly Right's small militia detachment. They were easily outnumbered five-to-one by black-clad Shadowbolt wannabes in full battle harness, and still stubbornly holding their positions on the hangar's cordon.
Meaning they had no cover whatsoever, and would be massacred the moment shots were fired.
"Mother," Fly Right was neigh-saying, "this is exactly the opposite of 'laying low'! What do you hope to accomplish here?!" He looked about ready to rip spacetime open with his bare wings and stuff her into a pocket universe for her own good.
But Rainbow wasn't having any of that. When we pulled up just lengths from the Shadowbolt lines, her expression could have lit kindling. And not only could she snore like a monster, but even wide awake she could definitely punch up the volume:
"What in the wide, wide, world of Equestria is going on here?!"
Tech Sergeant Chrysanthemum made as though to gallop over, but a flurry of rifles being sighted in changed her mind. Instead, three Shadowbolts fluttered over from what looked like an impromptu command meeting, whose other members dispersed back into their lines as they left. The centermost, a red-maned stallion, landed primly before his Mother and snapped to attention with a sharp salute.
"Ma'am, we have intelligence showing a large group of dirtpony infiltrators holed up in the Tactical Assessment Bay. We are readying an assault to retake the hangar, and would appreciate your ordering these traitors protecting them to surrender for trial." His black-maned partners landed to either side, but said nothing, nor did any of the three remove their goggles or headgear. Apart from their manes, nametags and muzzles-tips, they could have been interchangeable.
I looked to the old azure mare, noting the way she bristled along the nape of her mane. It was like she carried a charge of lightning, waiting on her word to be unleashed.
"Brevet-Lieutenant Sparkwind, as Captain of the Shadowbolts, I am relieving you of command here."
If he batted an eye, I couldn't tell from this side of his goggles. "Under Rule Fifty-Three, ma'am, I must request the reason for relief being ordered during an on-base crisis."
"The only crisis," she said in an annoyed tone, "is with you turning weapons on our own troops."
"Traitors, ma'am," he punctiliously corrected. "Per Rule Thirty-Seven, any pegasus actively preventing the detention or termination of infiltrators, aside from those meeting Rule Thirty-Four's guidelines, is deemed a traitor until such time as a trial may determine their innocence."
Sparkwind seemed totally unperturbed at the prospect of arguing with the legend he'd spent his entire life defending. In fact, he sounded like he was reading from a prepared script. I shot Rainbow Dash a warning look, but she only had eyes for her insubordinate underling.
"They would only be 'traitors' if the ponies you're talking about are 'infiltrators', Brevet-Lieutenant. All earth ponies currently on this base, and their immediate associates -"
He cut her off without so much as raising his voice. " - ran the front gate without first being cleared for entry, ma'am." Now he broke from his stiff pose of respect to look at me. "Not to mention that, for all we know, this dirtpony has rigged you with an explosive device or otherwise compromised your authority in some way. Under Rule Fifty-Four, I must refuse your orders until command authority can be re-verified. I must ask you to submit for physical and psychological examination."
Rainbow Dash --- commander of the Shadowbolts, author of the very Rules being thrown in her face, and Mother Matrix to every one of these pricks --- stood aghast. I didn't think a pony's face was capable of extending the lips beyond the horizon of their own chin. Fly Right was sputtering about being perfectly capable of performing those examinations here and now, not realizing there was no real intention of carrying them out. The old greying mare was just in their way.
In the time it took for Sparkwind to nod at the pegasus on his left and say "Detain th -", I had That Gun out and its barrel to the side of his head. This time, nopony'd had the chance to search my bags beforehoof. And, apparently not wanting to accidentally shoot their "Mother" (yet), his flunkies still had the safeties on their saddle-mounted weaponry.
Flipping my own safety off made the weapon snick and whine with the sound of its five-round cylinder powering up for semi-auto fire. "I don't believe that I heard the lady stutter, Captain Numbnuts," I snarled from around the pistol's grip, "did you?" Five rounds of five-point-fifty-six, a rifle's caliber stuffed into a much smaller package, would be more than enough to axe him, most likely one of his flunkies, and maybe even all three before they could return fire.
That didn't stop the militia from being surrounded and massively outgunned, which Numbnuts seemed to think granted him immunity. "Merely proof of who holds the reins on our dear Mother, I'd say. Kill me, and my troops will carry out their assigned mission. After which, they will take her into protective custody, over your very dead body. Check and mate, I'm afraid."
"Well," I drawled through my teeth, "that would assume I play chess. Poker's more interesting. And when it really comes down to it, you're honestly saying you'll die for this power-play of yours... or you're bluffing." I slid the barrel down his cheekbone, under the chin, and applied gentle pressure until I could feel and hear his breath catch.
His eyes flicked back and forth. I didn't need to look around; I could hear shouting back and forth, each side ordering the other to stand down. I could hear a Ministry Mare hissing at me: "Are you crazy?" Was that in my ear, or in my head?
Sparkwind addressed her directly, almost managing to eliminate the tiniest squeak from his voice: "Ma'am!... ahem, ma'am... I'm afraid I must challenge your authority, under Rule Number One."
Instantly, the rest of the Shadowbolts lowered their weapons and began talking excitedly with one another, as did the militia troopers. I hesitated, keeping That Gun right where it was until Rainbow put a hoof on my shoulder.
"That's enough, Tank." From the corner of my eye I saw she was relaxed, even eager, a grin spread across her wrinkly muzzle and blue wings fluttering with anticipation. I turned my head, spat That Gun back into its spot beneath the holdout flap of my saddlebag, and caught Fly Right's facehoofing.
He said, "Mother, you know you're gonna drive me to drinkin', if you don't stop hammering your heart-lung linkage."
Have you heard the story of the pegasus race, where the buck and the mare were keeping the pace? That story is true, I'm here to say, 'cause I was watching it all that day.
Sparkwind stood there and barked like a pup, he had Rainbow Dash's pride riled up; laid out his argument eight Rules wide, you could tell that she wanted to tan his hide.
Well, according to Zoomer Rule Number One, a change of leadership required a run; it's four full laps flyin' round the base, plus obstacles all up in your face.
Zoomers and Shadowbolts lined the track, the Vikeans and me at the front of the pack; when the starter fired at a quarter-to-five, both pegasi went straight to overdrive.
Sparkwind dug down and put on speed, opened things up with an early lead with Rainbow Dash way back in his wake. I wondered if I should pull up stakes.
The Shadowbolts jeered her for being behind, as Lap One passed, she paid no mind; she was on her back and swimming along, and I swear that mare was humming a song.
Lap Two passed, the lead got wide, I wondered when Rainbow would hit her stride? Now Sparky smiled with vicious glee; he'd almost lapped her on number Three.
I was worried about that old grayed mare, she was losing bad, didn't seem to care. I yelled, "GET A MOVE ON! LAP THE COURSE! YOU'D BETTER WIN, YOU FUCKING WHORSE!"
She leered at me and then flipped the bitch, and as Sparkwind passed, she bucked his hitch; he squalled, and fell, and hit the dirt, she sped away shouting, "I BET THAT HURT!"
Their contrails left a trail of smoke; through the triple-loop, they were go-for-broke. She had color, he had fire; cool-and-smooth against raging ire.
He closed it up, nipping at her tail, his eyes swore murder that could not fail; she yelled, "Watch me boy, I've got a license to fly!" And shortly after, she tore the sky.
You could see the air was compressed around her body beyond the speed of sound. Her wings were blurred, no hanging back; the aftershock was a rainbow-slap.
It hit the crowd like a ring of doom, and blasted the Shadowbolts to the moon, and the doctor said, "She'll drive me to drinkin', if she don't stop hammering the heart. Lung. Linkage."
* * * * *
And she did, too.
When he was finally done administering bandages, potions and diagnoses, plus a few glares at Hard Way (who, along with the rest of the Vikeans, had been some of the biggest post-race hug-offenders) the good Doctor proceeded to get as hammered as anypony else. Slumped sidewise on his barstool, only the counter's eternal solidity kept him and his white whiskers from a date with the floorboards. Two empty bottles of scotch lay alongside the half-full remnant of the original triplets, the latter of which he managed to still sip from while doing his best to mimic the former.
It was late into the evening before the celebrations at Nellie's "Officer's Cantina" broke up, so Rainbow was pretty hammered too. For the fifth time in as many hours, Fly Right had examined her for not only imminent organ failure, but also all the comradely pats, slaps and hugs she'd gotten from Zoomers, Shadowbolts and Vikeans alike. Her performance had a lot of folks thinking she was in top condition despite her age, but in reality she'd torn herself up out there. Now she had an extra battery of bruises around the shoulders, back and ribs to go with muscular distortions and fractured bones.
Not to say she didn't endure it well. And it was clear that alcohol wasn't on the list of chems "Rainbow Dash doesn't do". The schnockered mare leeeeeeaaaaaned over, extended a hoof, and carefully booped Fly Right on the nose.
"Dunno whad I'd doo wivoucha, Doc," she slurred through wrinkly lips.
"Die," he morosely intoned. That could have been an honest answer, or a request. Probably both.
The old pegasus cackled and slapped his back, which was too much force applied to his house-of-cards posture; he tumbled directly to the floor, in a flurry of feathers, and lay there. Rainbow Dash blinked at him, stupidly, until he began to snore. Then she bent back and laughed, nearly toppling over to land on him before I could catch her by a wing.
"Hee hee hee... he'll be waxin' the boards wi' drool and those sideburns by mornin'... ahhh, thanks, Tank. Moral 'n phys'cal support, trackside or bar, thassyou." She turned a teasing look on me, but booze-goggles only work one way. Mine were off for the night --- for once, I was going to abide by my Pinkie Promise and stay sober.
I'd say how much that sucked, to be the one guy at a party not getting blitzed, but in retrospect it probably kept me from waking up next to an ancient pegasus crone the next morning. Brrrrrrr... Now that was a thought to get you sober, all by itself! I muttered something supportive-sounding and kept a hoof on her slumping shoulder. Eventually, she'd decide to go to bed, and then I could get some well-deserved sleep too.
She shifted bar-ward, crossed one foreleg over the other as a pillow of sorts, and curled her wings up. Rather than nod off, though, or ask for help getting back to the officers' barracks, she toyed with Fly Right's still-standing bottle, as though debating whether or not to finish it off.
"Yer name ain'Tank, izzit."
"I think," she said, frowning as she struggled to work her brain cells through the fog of inebriation, "it was... Dead-somethin'? Doc tol'me while youwaz off savin' m'flank."
"The working name's Dead-Shot."
She turned one bleary, tired eye my way. "Thassa terr'ble name for a poneh. I'd'a callja... dunno... Cherry'r sumfin."
A week ago I might have punched her for that. Today... well, I chuckled. Actually chuckled. "That's it."
Both eyes went wide, staring from under washed-out rainbow bangs. "Yer shiddin' me."
That openly surprised expression made me smile. "Honest buffalo," I replied, tipping my hat. "Cherry 'Dead-Shot' Pie, at your service."
"Pie," she said, suddenly all seriousness. It wasn't a question. "Yer name is Cherry Pie."
"Uh... yeah." That old feeling of embarrassment came crawling back up my spine, and I looked away, scowling. "Forget it. I've always hated that name. Sounds like I should be served in a box of preservatives..."
"No, no..." Her hoof touched my foreleg. "No, thass... thassa fine name. Really."
I turned my scowl around to let her see it, but her face wasn't full of the mockery I was expecting. It was pleading. That hoof grabbed more insistently, shaking a little. Unaccustomed to this kind of reaction, I think I was too.
"Ya called me 'Dashie' t'day. Twice, I think...? Yer robot, yer name, that weird random thing ya said... yer her kid... or grandkid... whatever. I mean... yer related... arn'cha?"
"I..." My voice caught. Was I? An animatronic robot told me I was the descendant of a Ministry Mare named Pinkie Pie. An even dumber name than mine. I'd sort of accepted it over time, for what it was worth: who were my real parents, anyways? Nopony to be proud of, just a couple of strung-out junkies who'd sold me as a foal. Wasn't it kind of a nice, if idle, fantasy that I'd secretly be related to somepony who used to be important?
But now somepony else actually seemed to care about it. If I'd been bluffing myself all along, now somepony else was calling me on it. If I really had to put my cards on the table...
Pink-E floated up from behind the bar, rotating to face Dashie. "Mas-ter Pie is - boop boop - directly related - beep - to the Pie Family through - beep boop - Marble 'Inky' Pie. Reference source: - bip - Ministry of Morale datafiles."
I'd never seen her so utterly emotionless. Not a muscle moved, like she was one of those junky old spritebots wandering out of the Eastern wastes. Even her eyes seemed dull, soulless. Like you'd expect any other robot to be.
Except she wasn't making beep-boop-bip sounds... she was saying them.
Rainbow Dash gave Pink-E the most deadpan look I'd ever seen on anypony, drunk or sober. After a long moment, she transferred that look to me, nodded in the robot's direction, and said, "Well... if SHE trussts ya enough t' hang out wit'cha, thass good'nough fer me."
The exchange seemed to decide her on finishing Fly Right's scotch, the bottle of which she tipped up and started knocking straight back. She swallowed hard, thunked the bottle down, and made a noise somewhere between a yawn and a battle snarl. "By Dagon's snotrag, that's the stuff! Gah. Brings back every rotten memory I wish I never had."
That hair-of-the-derp swig seemed to have gotten a few of her senses back for the time being... strangely enough.
"Like today. Wish I could forget about today. Wish everypony and dragon and griffon would." She sighed, propping her head up on one hoof, twiddling the empty bottle against its buddies with the other.
I blinked. "Forget? Are you kidding? That was one helluva show out there! You pegasi could make a mint in Pegas, just reopening the old Hippodrome for aerial races!"
Her violet eyes went all misty, and a smile crept up her face. Another one of those sad ones, dammit. Where was Pink-E's good humor when somepony else needed it? "I'd like that, Cherry. I remember going there when I was just a filly, with my dad. All those speedsters, the cheering crowds.. they even had the Wonderbolts flying overhead for the opening ceremonies. There was hardly even a city here, back then."
She dropped her gaze and stared at her hooves for a minute. "I won't shame that memory by thinking what I did here today was worthy of the Hippodrome. I'd've been disqualified before I ever hit the track."
"For what?" Pink-E silently brought me a cold bottle of sarsaparilla from somewhere. I popped the cap, absent-mindedly pocketing it before taking a long swig of sweet cold refreshment.
"Because I had Dash stashed in my tail. Popped it on the fourth lap."
I spat my soda all over her. It might have been funnier, if half of it hadn't gone out my nose...
Didn't faze her a bit: she just sat there, dripping like nothing had happened. "That's how I could do a full rainboom on the horizontal just three seconds after leaving a triple-loop. Chemmed to the pinfeathers. Just like any other loser."
Without warning she stood up, grabbing the bottles.
"AND I!" SMASH! went the first, dead-center of the cantina's full-length bar mirror, turning a near-perfect circle of glass into powdered crumbly mess. A spiderweb of cracks ran from the impact down to either end.
"HATE!" SMASH! went the far end, broken to dagger-shards that tinkled hitting the floor.
"LOSING!" SMASH! finished the job at the near end. Until somepony swept up, serving anything from the bar would now be a great way to lacerate the fuck out of your hooves... it was end-to-end glass disaster back there. All that remained to the mirror were the sawtooth pieces lodged in the edges of its frame.
Now we were back to being morose. That's one thing about alcohol: whatever you're feeling, you feel more of it. And Rainbow Dash had more ose to get out of her system than most ponies I'd met.
"I can't win, Tank - I mean, Cherry.... I can't win without cheating. Whenever the chips have been down, I've resorted to being a dirty, lousy cheater! Maybe if I'd taken my lumps when I deserved to... things might've turned out different..."
Something told me this wasn't about the race anymore. "What in Celestia's fiery cunt are you talking about?"
The reference paid off; she snerked in mid-sniffle. "Funny. Sh- she probably woulda laughed at that one. Luna woulda kicked you to the moon, though..." The booze helped milk that little uptick into a more level emotional plane. She blew out a long sigh.
"Maybe I'll tell you all about the war some other time, Cherry. But this one war story, I have to tell somepony, and..."
I rolled my eyes with an exaggerated sigh. "I know, I know, I was drafted. Feel free to regale your captive audience."
The glimmerings of a twinkle returned to her... not just the amethyst irises, but the edge of her smile, too. Somehow, I felt like that had been worth the effort in itself. "You know I fought a duel with Gilda the Griffon, right?" She didn't wait for an answer, but I noted the capital-G in the species there. Not just a griffon, then. "Well, I bet you don't know we were once the best of friends. Practically grew up together, went to flight academy and the Junior Speedsters... yep. We were pretty nearly inseparable."
She peered dubiously at another nearby bottle, as though trying to resurrect its contents by willpower alone. "Eh, well, we had a pretty bad falling out. She got really possessive, started hassling my other friends, especially Pinkie Pie. There was a round of pranks that went bad and..." The bottle ended up joining the mess in back with a light, almost disinterested push and smishing noise.
"Yeah... I guess she never really got over it. So when the 'Enclave', hoofquotes, put a price on my head --- seriously, they wanted the whole head, intact --- she was first to jump on it. Tracked me all the way to Dragon Mountain, not like I was trying to hide at that point. I'd known I was being followed for miles, just wanted to know it was really her."
The old mare began rubbing an itch on the ankle opposite her PipBuck.
"At first, we tried to be kinda decent about it. She gave me fair warning, we sang an old song together, then we went at it. No weapons, just hooves and talons, griffo-a-pono. Gilda was the toughest griffon around, and I was the toughest pegasus."
She paused in rubbing that ankle, lost in memories for a moment, before starting up again. "Just being tough wasn't enough. For most of twenty years, Gilda'd been specializing in nothing but killing ponies. Me? I'd been running the Ministry of Awesome, which kinda cut into my flight and combat time. Before long, I had to run for it."
Frayed azure hairs began drifting to the floor. "Stuck to me like ticks on a dog, all the way to this derelict airship, still making its touring rounds on autopilot. By then, there wasn't anything noble or pretty or fair between us. It was just two people trying to do each other in, any dirty old way we could, until the airship parked itself. Right over what was left of Cloudsdale."
I slid her the remnants of my sarsaparilla, which she grabbed reflexively in the feathers of her right wing. I'd been hoping to distract her from rubbing that ankle raw, but the idea of being foiled by prehensile feathers had never occurred to me. Could all pegasi do that? I vaguely recalled Fly Right holding a clipboard that way, so...
A sip later, she was back to her monologue. "Up to then, I'd never seen any ghouls. From her reaction, neither'd Gilda. Our ruckus attracted every gone-crazy deadhead in earshot. Dozens came screaming and thrashing through the airship's windows."
She chuckled, a little hoarsely despite the soda's lubrication. "Gilda wanted to live more than she wanted me dead. The instant she let me go, I was out of there, with her hot on my tail and all the ghouls on hers. I had speed, she had endurance, so my best shot was to run for what was left of Cloudsdale's outskirts."
Another long sip, another dry bottle, another round of breaking glass. She stopped rubbing at her ankle and spent a minute or so rubbing at her eyes. I was decent enough not to interrupt.
"So," she said at length, pausing only to snork up whatever grief had momentarily collected in her sinuses, "I led the whole mob right into the nearest piece of screwball clutter I could find. The Cloudsdale Public Midden."
There followed an extremely pregnant pause.
Which I finally broke with: "If I just heard you right, you said Cloudsdale had a sewer. IN THE SKY."
Rainbow Dash curled her wings tightly to the sides and pressed both hooves against her temples, looking genuinely embarrassed. "Well, um... us pegasi? The only gas we pass is helium, so our manure... floats." Was she flushing red under all that blue?
"We can fertilize and farm clouds with it, just --- just not really well." She began to illustrate the idea with hoof-motions, which honestly I could have done entirely without. "Our cities funneled it all into big cloud-middens for an, um, 'strategic reserve'. Not just for farming, though. We could move that cloud over an enemy, see, then siphon off the helium..."
If the last pause was pregnant, this one was the equivalent of an NCR heavy cargo lifter, gasbag to gondola. Again, my shining wit and intellect finally won through with an appropriate simile.
"...a literal shitstorm?"
She seemed to shrink into a ball of self-loathing, this time wrapping not only hooves but wings around her burning face. "Yeah," she muttered miserably. "So I lured Gilda into the Cloudsdale midden, let her chase me around in circles. The ghoul pegasi followed. Round and round, faster and faster, slowly coiling towards the center and lapping the ghouls on the inside. Just when she thought I was in her talons... I bailed out of the tornado. Left her to drown in dead ponies and radioactive horseapples."
The ending to her sorry tale came on the tiniest, most adorable squeak I had ever heard.
That was all I could take. "Baaaa-HA HA HA HA!"
Flank for fetlocks, I laughed myself right off the barstool.
Footnote: Level up.
New Perk: S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Somepony (+1 CHA) - You've become less self-centered, more considerate of the needs and well-being of others. Pinkie Pie would be proud of you! (You're still kind of a douche for laughing at poor RBD, but that's nonetheless an improvement...)
Skill Note: Mechanics (50)