Chapter Twenty: Behind the Curtain
“Can I do something for you? ...Or to you?”
I couldn’t save Monterey Jack. I couldn’t stop SteelHooves from murdering Chief Grim Star.
I was letting down my friends and everyone who needed me. The realization of what I had been doing to those closest to me with my damn addiction cut deep. And as much as I wanted to rage at Velvet Remedy, it was my fault that Monterey Jack was dead. I’d killed him with a mint. Actually, I’d killed him with a whole lot of them. I had been eating them like… dammit, they actually tasted like candy; how fucking wrong is that?
I was physically exhausted and mentally overwhelmed, on the verge of crying.
It took me a long time to pull myself up off the floor and make my way back. The basement was huge, cluttered, maze-like. I took a wrong turn and found myself in a room full of spark-powered generators, half of which were running, making the whole room seem to throb. A bank of them on the far wall were burned and blackened, their metal skins ruptured. One exploded generator was randomly sparking, making the air taste like lightning. The skeleton of a pony, severed in two by a hunk of metal shrapnel, rested forever on the floor a few yards from them. An engineering schematic on the wall told me these had been the generators which powered the Ministry’s mystical defenses. They had given their lives saving the building and its inhabitants from the Manehattan balefire bomb… well, all except for one very unlucky maintenance pony. I wondered what her (or his) name had been. Did the pony have a family? Did they know what happened?
All moot two hundred years later. Just one more tear.
I backtracked and finally found my way to the exit. As I stepped out through the basement doorway, I was greeted by two of Tenpony Tower’s guard ponies.
“Littlepip. You need to come with us.”
I stared at them, then back to the open basement door. Was I being arrested? A weight sunk in my heart. They must think that I was responsible for the disappearance of Chief Grim Star. That was… fast. But then, I had been running around like a madpony earlier. And here I was, leaving the scene of the crime.
Because today just couldn’t get any worse.
I nodded to the guards, saying nothing, and let them escort me to the constabulary offices. I’d been here before. I wondered if any of the ponies I had played seductress with in order to get a private audience with Monterey Jack would be there. They wouldn’t need to execute me; I could simply die from embarrassment.
One thing was for sure. I wasn’t going to say anything. I knew what SteelHooves had done, but what would be the use of pointing a hoof? I’d learned that lesson with Monterey Jack.
Ponies turned to stare as they marched me through the Tenpony Constabulary. I could half-hear the whispers that followed in my passing. I recognized a few of the guards on duty, including the one I had sweet-talked into giving me his pencil so I could write down all the ideas that my PTM-fueled brain had been devising. I dropped my head, wanting to crawl.
I glanced up as we passed several guard ponies talking with SteelHooves. From the look of things, he was here of his own volition. That did not bode well.
“In here, please,” one of my escorts demanded. To my surprise, the door he swung open for me wasn’t to a cell, but to a nice-looking office paneled in fake wood and full of bookshelves. “Take a seat. And don’t wander off. Somepony will be with you shortly.”
I looked to him in confusion.
“Sorry about the delays. We’ve had a situation with the Chief; you’re not our first priority today.”
*** *** ***
I was so weary that I sank onto the little couch in the office and didn’t move, waiting for what seemed like hours. I checked my PipBuck. It was getting late. I was hungry. And confused.
There was a small radio on a desk corner. I turned it on, wanting to lose myself in DJ Pon3’s music. Instead, I was shocked to hear SteelHooves’ deep voice rumble from the box.
“I’m no hero.
“If you’re looking for a hero, look to Chief Grim Star. He bravely sacrificed himself to save all of you. I only wish I could have saved him.
“Sheriff Rottingtail had been gathering a veritable army of zombie-ponies in the maintenance tunnels surrounding Tenpony Tower. There is a door in the basement through which the Sheriff was going to unleash them upon the innocent residents of this tower. It would have been a slaughter. The Talons hired by the Chief learned of this threat, but were not pleased with how things went down (when I encountered the Talons there were considerably fewer of them than when Chief Grim Star hired them) so they neglected to inform the Chief of any of this, leaving all of your lives in jeopardy.
“When I informed the Chief, he insisted we go down to investigate the Talons’ story. We found the door and ventured through with the intention of making sure it could not be opened from the outside. We were destroying the terminal that controlled the door access from the maintenance tunnels when the zombie-ponies attacked us en masse. Only my armor saved me.
“I still remember the Grim Star’s last words, ordering me to flee, close the door, and make sure it was disabled from inside the Tower as well. He stayed back, fighting to the bitter end, sacrificing himself to give me the time needed. To make sure Tenpony Tower was, and is, safe.”
I stared at the radio. By Celestia’s mane, he was actually going to pull this off, wasn’t he? There was so much truth woven into the story that it would hold up to investigation. And anypony who questioned it would be questioning the heroism of Chief Grim Star. I knew different, but I was the only one, and it would be my word against his. My very non-citizen word. Not that I would say anything. I’d already made the mistake of going down that path.
DJ Pon3’s voice was now on the radio. “…from an interview an hour ago with one of my faithful assistants. The Tenpony Constabulary has confirmed the Steel Ranger’s tale based on a computer entry left by Chief Grim Star…”
Oh. Wait… was that why he trotted into here? My lockpicking skills seemed virtually unique, but I doubted my ability to hack a terminal was nearly so rare. And if anypony could do it, who was more likely than a “knight of the Ministry of Technology”? It was just a guess, a suspicion, but it struck me that SteelHooves was covering his bases. Part of me almost admired what he was capable of. Part of me was angry that he was using Homage’s broadcast, dedicated to the truth of the wasteland (no matter how bad it hurt), to spread his lies.
I turned off the radio.
*** *** ***
Somepony finally arrived to speak with me. The debonair gentlestallion who took his place on the other side of the desk was a mottled brown unicorn with glasses perched on his nose and a scroll for a cutie mark.
“Sorry to keep you waiting. Let’s get down to business, shall we?”
I nodded glumly. I was no longer curious why I was here. I just wanted to get whatever it was over with so I could go.
The unicorn levitated several scrolls onto the desk and opened them.
“Now you should be aware that there are expenses that have to be accounted for. The cost of the rope used to hang Monterey Jack was thirty bottle caps… fine stuff, premium made. Cost for the executioner was twenty-five bottle caps. Then there are cremation expenses…” The stallion looked over his glasses at me. “Unless, of course, you would rather they just throw his body out into the street for the birds.” His tone suggested that would be looked on as uncivilized, but that he was required to give me the option. “Cremation itself is one hundred caps, plus an additional fifty-seven for the basic box…”
I stared with dawning comprehension. I was going to have to pay for Monterey Jack’s execution? I was dumbfounded. How in Equestria did that make in sense?
But, I thought as I sank into depression, it did make sense… it was my fault that he was dead. Why shouldn’t I have to pay for it? I listened dispiritedly as the list of fees and expenses and legal charges grew and grew.
“…one year’s rent for both the cheese shop and his private quarters. Amounting to seven thousand and two hundred bottle caps. All together, required expenses and fees amount to a total of nine thousand and fourty-seven bottle caps.”
I stared vacantly for a moment. Then nodded. With a sigh, I asked, “How long do I have to pay this? I don’t have that kind of money.” As a group, we had easily more than double that, but I couldn’t feel right about draining such a huge amount of bottle caps from what was Calamity and Velvet Remedy’s money as well. (SteelHooves’ too, although I felt less of a pang about that.)
The gentlestallion just blinked at me.
Perfect. By their standards, I was poor. “I mean, I could probably pay about half of it now…”
Giving me an odd look, the stallion informed me, “It’s already been taken out of the accounts. Unfortunately, Monterey Jack didn’t have sufficient funds to pay for all of it in caps, so a fair amount of personal property was confiscated for auction in accordance to…” he droned off legalese that went completely over my mane.
Confusion scrambled my thoughts. So I didn’t have to pay for Monterey Jack’s execution? Then why pull me in here to tell me all this? Did they just assume I wanted to know? So I could gloat? Was I legally required to gloat?
The gentlestallion was staring at me again. A frown broke across his face. “Well, I just lost that bet,” he muttered to himself. Then, addressing me, “You have no idea why you’re here, do you?”
I shook my head.
“Monterey Jack was convicted of attempted banditry. You were the pony he tried to rob. Therefore, upon his death, all of his properties are legally yours.”
What? Wait… WHAT!? It was bad enough when I thought I was being punished; I had made peace with that because I deserved no less for my stupidity and failure. Now I was being rewarded for it? No! The world did not get to be that fucked up! I refused to let it.
The stallion considered me. “Honestly, there are a number of ponies who suspected that Monterey Jack’s confession might have been more from the magic of your horn than the weight of his conscience,” he informed me. I remembered the whispering as I passed by. Of course they did. Anypony who knew about this twisted bit of legalese would suspect me. Even I hadn’t been able to comprehend why Monterey Jack had confessed until I’d talked with him privately.
The legal stallion continued, “I personally had laid good caps that this was some sort of plot cooked up between you and Monterey Jack.” Again he frowned. “Clearly not.”
I started at that. “What? He died. What kind of plan would that have been?”
The stallion shrugged. “We all know Monterey Jack hadn’t been right since his wife died.”
After Clarinet was killed, I’m all they have left.
“Clarinet, right?” I asked, and the legal stallion nodded. “He mentioned his wife. What happened to her?”
“There’s a rumor that there is an untouched Stable somewhere in Fetlock. Few months back they were trying to find it. Never did; nobody has…”
My heart sank. It was absurd to feel guilty for having found Stable Twenty-Nine myself, wasn’t it?
“…She was killed by a manticore. According to Monterey Jack, he killed the thing, but not before it had stung them both and torn her up right bad. Poor fellow only had enough anti-venom for one and she insisted he use it himself. With her wounds, according to Monterey, she probably wouldn’t have made it even if he had given it to her.” The stallion shook his head. “Of course, that’s just how Monterey’s told it. But I’ve never known the stallion to lie before.”
Sweet, merciful Celestia.
The legal stallion cleared his throat and turned back to the documents in front of him. “Returning to the matter at our hooves: even after fees and deductions, you are still left with the private quarters, the deed and business license of the shop, and a modest amount of home furnishings. Of course, there are two matters which must be attended to.”
This was so wrong. I couldn’t be gaining property from Monterey’s tragedy. I just… I couldn’t accept this. I didn’t deserve this.
“First, of course, is the simple fact that you are not a citizen of Tenpony Tower. And as such, you are not permitted to operate a business within the Tower. Normally, it takes several years to earn citizenship. But with the legal standing of these properties, if you started applications now, you could possibly achieve citizenship within little more than a year.” He looked over his glasses, fixing me with a stare. “Still, it is this office’s recommendation that you sell off the deed and business rights to the shop to some mare or gentlecolt who is a citizen. Make yourself a tidy little sum and be done with it.”
I nodded. I wondered if Homage had any use for an ex-cheese shop?
“Second is the matter of Monterey Jack’s children…”
My ears shot up. What was this?
“…who are legally allowed to remain in the private quarters until the end of the month. So while you do legally own the property, I’m afraid you won’t be able to kick them out until the first of…”
I felt like I’d been hit by a piano.
By the twisted legal fuckery of Tenpony Tower, I was the one bucking Monterey Jack’s filly and colts into the deadly wasteland!
I felt I was finally seeing behind the curtain. Monterey Jack’s execution made me, the heroine his children worshiped, into the pony stealing their home from them just after their father died. The ultimate buck when they’re down. Unless, of course, I did something about it….
…exactly like I had already done. I’d taken care of them even before this trap had snapped shut.
I looked up at the stallion as a new feeling burned away my depression: anger.
*** *** ***
“He played me!”
I screamed at the walls of my suite, telekinetically overturning all of the beds. My eyes were burning with tears. My heart pounded with rage.
“He set me up!” I made the blankets tornado about the room. “I was the goody four-shoes filly he knew he could manipulate. And he was right!” I stomped on all hooves. The blankets soared at the window and rebounded off the glass.
I hated Monterey Jack. I wanted him dead. But he was already dead, and I wasn’t somepony who could change her mind and take my frustrations out on his children. He was so right about me. So instead, I took my fury out on my room and was thankful that none of my companions were around to see me do it.
It was too much. The shame of my addiction, the pain of how I’d hurt my friends, the betrayal of Velvet Remedy’s actions, and now Monterey Jack’s four-hooved fucking of me from beyond the grave.
I hurled one of my saddlebags against the wall. If levitation could have any real force behind it, I probably would have punched a hole in the room. As it was, the saddlebag just clanked against the wall, opening and spilling its contents. A lifetime’s worth of Party-Time Mint-als rained down on the floor. The stash from Pinkie Pie’s safe.
I stared at the pile of tins, frozen in place.
It took only a moment to transfer all my rage and sorrow onto the drugs. Before I knew it, I was in the bathroom, dumping tin after tin into the toilet water, cursing them and myself for everything we had done to my life together.
Flush. There went a months worth. Flush. There went dozens more.
I was throwing way countless bottle caps’ worth of them… and good riddance. They would never have the chance to hurt anypony else.
Flush. There went what I allowed myself to become dependent upon.
Flush. What I had let come between me and ponies who were closer to me than any family had ever been.
I was crying so hard I could barely see what I was doing. But I didn’t need to.
Flush. Flush. Flush.
*** *** ***
The last tin of Party-Time Mint-als floated in front of me, hovering over the toilet, open. I just had to tilt it and flush. Easiest thing in the world. Telekinetic child’s play. A tilt and a flush.
The tin hovered there, not tilting.
The last tin.
For all the damage they had done… that I had let them do… Party-Time Mint-als had saved my life, and the lives of my friends. More than once.
Should I keep just one tin? Just in case?
But if I took even one more, I could become addicted again. It only took one the first time. And I couldn’t do that to myself. I wasn’t Monterey Jack. I wasn’t willing to screw me over like that.
The tin started to tip.
But what if that mental clarity was the only thing which could save my friends? What if it was Calamity’s life on the line? Or Velvet Remedy’s? Or SteelHooves? Wouldn’t they be worth the sacrifice of myself?
Yes. Yes they would.
The tin leveled and began floating back towards me.
But… could I do that to them? Put them through it all again? And wouldn’t it be a betrayal to even keep one tin?
The tin stopped, floating above the lip of the toilet.
“Littlepip?” Homage’s voice startled me from the bathroom doorway. My magic imploded, dropping the tin into the toilet, metal case and all.
I looked at her, startled, eyes red and puffy, knowing I looked like a completely ugly mess.
Homage stepped into the bathroom, looking peaceful and elegant in her dress. I cringed back, not wanting to accidentally touch it with my filthy body. She didn’t let me get away. She grabbed me, pulling me against her breast. I couldn’t contain myself anymore, and broke into open weeping.
I heard the metal tin as Homage levitated it out of the water and dropped it into the pile with all the empty others
*** *** ***
At some point, Homage nudged me from my suite up to the Athenaeum where she lived. She played soft music and stayed close to me, leaving DJ Pon3’s broadcast on a news-less loop of songs.
“How long before this makes the news cycle,” I asked wearily as the sun was beginning to set.
Homage gave me a gentle but reproachful look. “Toaster Repairpony Kicks Addiction -- more at the top of the hour?” The pretty grey unicorn gave me a nudge with her nose. “Really? I don’t think that’s something for the airwaves, do you?”
I smiled gratefully to her.
“Let me cook you something to eat,” Homage said before she dared leave my side. I realized how badly I was starving. I hadn’t eaten for… the better part of two days?
Homage put to shame the restaurants of Tenpony Tower with their woven fried banana puree and whatnot. Simple, delicious cooking. And she didn’t mind cooking more when I finished off everything and was still hungry.
After dinner, I was feeling tired and emotionally drained, not to mention very full, but I now had enough energy to help her clean up.
“Where did you learn to cook like that?” I asked, wishing we had someone with even half her skill traveling with us. I was sorely tempted to suggest she join us (and not just for her food), but I knew she was needed here. All of the Equestrian Wasteland depended on DJ Pon3.
“My delinquent youth,” she hinted with a wink. I pressed her with a hoof, and she elaborated. “I really was an assistant to the last DJ Pon3. That’s how I took up the mantle when he fell ill; I was the only one who knew him. The magic voice spell has been passed down for at least five DJ Pon3’s, so the wasteland never knows there has been a change.”
I nodded, having suspected as much.
“I spent several years after getting my cutie mark running around the Manehattan Ruins and beyond with Jokeblue, a close friend…” The friend, I realized, that she had mentioned before. “…The area between here and Fillydelphia wasn’t as deadly then as it is now. I hunted for recordings and memory orbs to give to DJ Pon3, in the hopes that they would have new music or useful news for the broadcasts. Did other errands for DJ Pon3. Earned my way into the Tower. Learned how to survive along the way. Cooking, weapon maintenance, a lot of practice hacking computers to get into locked doors and safes.”
I thought of all the hacking and lockpicking I had done, driven largely by curiosity and a need to explore and to know. Even if what I learned didn’t mean anything. Like keeping the memory was an acknowledgement of and tribute to the past.
“Jokeblue was the one who knew her way around weapons and had the skill to disarm traps…” Homage trailed off as a clearly painful memory hit her.
“Do you… want to talk about it?”
Homage smiled, a tear in her eye. “…most traps. Some cruel bastard rigged up a baby carriage with explosives, used the corpse of a newborn colt and a recording of a baby’s crying to lure victims in.” I cringed, horrified. “By the time she was close enough to realize the baby was dead, it was too late to run. She tried to disarm it, but…” The dear unicorn’s voice broke off, choked.
Now it was my turn to hold Homage.
*** *** ***
I stretched out on Homage’s bed as she gave me a massage. Either she had learned a lot from our visit to the spa, or she’d had practice. Either way, it was wonderful! If I was a cat, I would have been purring.
I felt her press against me as she leaned close to whisper in my ear. “I know you’re under doctor’s orders to relax and not exert yourself. You listen about as well as most of his patients.”
I nodded, not wanting to really talk about that. Or really about anything. What she was doing with her hooves was divine. She was pressing them in circles against the back of my legs at the base of my rump. Not as skilled as the professional spa ponies, maybe. But unspeakably more delightful because it was Homage doing it.
“So I won’t apologize for helping you break them further.” I had no idea what she was… oh HELLO! I gasped as I felt her tongue someplace I had only imagined it before. Pleasure burst through my whole body.
And she was just getting started. This was definitely going to qualify as strenuous activity.
*** *** ***
I sat up, startled, my gaze drawn to the dark window.
Beside me, Homage stirred in the bed, opening an eye as she magically shifted the covers. “Littlepip?” she questioned sleepily.
I told her I thought I’d seen a flash of green outside the window. It reminded me of the flash I’d noticed in the fog nearly a week ago.
“Probably just a balefire phoenix,” Homage dismissed, nuzzling close. “There are several of them in Manehattan.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “But I think this one has been following us.”
*** *** ***
We spent the next morning together. Homage left the bed long enough to cook us breakfast. And then again a couple hours later to poke around in the Emergency Broadcast Station above us. The news this time included a retelling of my “brave and daring rescue” of Blackwing’s Talons, including congratulations from DJ Pon3 on once again stomping two eggs under one hoof -- apparently I had taken out three alicorns single-hoofedly by blowing up a raider compound. I buried my head under the sheets. It shouldn’t have surprised me. (In fact, I would have been surprised if Calamity hadn’t given her express permission to lay that at my hooves.) Homage had proven she really did enjoy making me squirm. Every way she could.
She was gone for the better part of an hour, leaving me to my thoughts. When she returned, I had reluctantly decided to broach an uncomfortable topic. The Black Opal.
“That thing?” she asked, immediately knowing what I was talking about. I expected her to ask why I wanted it, but instead, “How did you know I had one of those?”
I bit my lip. “A... and acquaintance wants me to ‘procure it’.” I looked away, then back into her eyes. “I was very tempted to tell the pony to just fuck off. But I figured I would ask. Please, feel free to say no. I don’t want anything to come between us right now. Or, really, ever.”
Homage regarded me for a painful moment, then smirked. “Dear, the only thing coming between us for the last several hours has been sweat. But even I had to attend to business, as much as I wanted to slack off. I’m not going to begrudge you doing the same.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“And yes, you can have it.” She caught my eyes with an earnest gaze. “I have a gift for you too. But the Black Opal… think of it as a down payment. I have a quest I want to hire you for.”
My eyes widened in surprise. “Anything.”
She laughed. “You might not say that after I tell you what it is. But… you and your friends, you are planning to head towards Fillydelphia aren’t you?” The laughter in her voice died as she spoke that name.
I nodded firmly. “I’m still convinced that something is escalating in the Equestrian Wasteland. Something involving Red Eye and the alicorns. I know they’ve been around for quite a while,” I told her. Long enough for SteelHooves to become known to the monsters as the Mighty Alicorn Hunter, sarcastically at least. Questioning my theory, “The alicorns have been around a long time, right? But, I’m guessing, they’ve gotten a lot more common?”
Homage considered that. “Hadn’t even heard of them ten years ago. Now they’re all over the place in Canterlot, and this last year I’ve noticed groups of them showing up in Manehattan too.”
I nodded again. “When I uncover what’s going on, DJ Pon3 will be the first to know,” I promised.
“And all of Equestria will know soon after,” Homage swore. “Although I might get a foreleg up on you…” I suspected the innuendo was intentional. “…if you complete this not-so-little task for me. You remember that bank of blank screens in the E.B.S.?”
I had taken note of them when she first allowed me inside the M.A.S.E.B.S. and let me look around. I told her so.
“Those are the feeds from the Fillydelphia tower. Red Eye has taken control of that tower, or at least the three percent of the tower that I normally have access to, and locked me out of it. If you are going that way, I want you to attach an override to the maneframe in the tower’s station. That will allow DJ Pon3 to finally have eyes in that horrible place. Red Eye has operated long enough in the shadows.”
I put a hoof down (although stomping a pillow didn’t have nearly the effect). “Agreed.”
*** *** ***
Homage pulled down the picture of Splendid Valley, revealing a wall safe with a door made of thickly armored glass. It opened for her magic with a click.
There were three items inside, two of which she floated out, giving to me. The first was the Black Opal. I gazed at the item full of memories that Watcher wanted so badly.
“I want to give this to you as a gift,” Homage said with a soft smile and a warm but insistent voice as she floated out the brightly pink statuette of a very familiar pony. I had never seen Pinkie Pie look so young and so alive. I half-expected the statuette to jump up, animated by the sheer energy in her expression, and start bouncing around the room. This, I realized, was the real Pinkie Pie… Twilight’s Pinkie Pie. In comparison, the mare I had seen in the memory seemed like a shadow.
“It was a gift given to me from the previous DJ Pon3, who got it from the one before him. I’m told it was given to the original DJ Pon3, Vinyl Scratch, by the Mare of the Ministry of Morale herself.” The figurine gave off such an aura of unbridled happiness that I couldn’t imagine anypony’s morale sagging around her. “It has served me well. And now, I want to give it to you.”
I looked at Homage, feeling a startled reluctance. I couldn’t! This was an heirloom! It was…
“I know what you’ve been through. And I know that she went through it too. You… you beat it. She didn’t. I want you to have this as a reminder; as something to look at any time you feel the urge to bite down on another Mint-al.”
I swallowed hard. And nodded solemnly, understanding the gravity of this gift. I reached out with my magic, wrapping the little Pinkie Pie in a telekinetic sheath, and immediately felt a jolt. Everything became clearer. My body became more alive. It was more than a little like biting into a Mint-al, but it tasted like candy apples and cupcake frosting. (“What did?” part of my mind insisted. It wasn’t like I had just put anything in my mouth.) Between the Twilight Statuette and Pinkie Pie, I felt almost like I was on Mint-Als without them. Only cleaner. Better. More… wholesome.
I turned the statuette around to read the base. It didn’t match the others. Of course it wouldn’t match the others.
“Awareness! It was under ‘E’!”
I felt joyous and heartbroken at the same time. The statuette was a reminder, both of what I had done wrong and of the cost had I not been pulled from the abyss by my friends. A sorrowful acknowledgement of the damage I had done and now I needed to repair. And a messenger telling me that I had the strength to not do it again. And, perhaps most of all, a keepsake from Homage letting me know she understood my weakness with acceptance and forgiveness. “Thank you, Homage. This means… more to me than you can know.”
I floated it into my saddlebag (which Homage had apparently floated up here with us while I was too emotionally out of it to notice). Opening the flap to the pouch which held three other statuettes, I took a piece of cloth and tied Pinkie Pie next to Twilight. Now, they could be together again. It was silly, but it just felt right.
*** *** ***
As Homage closed the safe, I took notice of the last item mounted inside the safe. It was some sort of magical energy pistol, but not of any make I had ever seen, and with a grip that wouldn’t fit in any pony’s mouth.
Curiosity sparked, I asked Homage about it.
“Long story,” she told me. “One night, Jokeblue and I were poking our hooves around Fetlock, trying to find a Stable we’d heard rumors about, when there was a strange explosion that lit up the clouds above. At first, we thought it was thunder, but then all sorts of debris started raining out of the sky. Chunks of the strangest sky-wagon you ever laid eyes on. We took cover in a burned-out passenger wagon. When it was over, I found that thing amongst the rubble.” Homage chuckled. “Okay, maybe not that long a story.”
“What is it?”
“Nastiest magical gun the Equestrian Wasteland has ever seen to my knowledge. One shot from that thing will turn whatever you hit into vapor. And not like the magical energy weapons you’ve seen, which do that only once in a blue moon. Every. Single. Time.” Homage actually sounded scared of the gun. “I believe you could kill a dragon with one shot from that thing.” And with those words, so did I.
“Where did it come from?” I wondered aloud. The idea that there were ponies… the pegasi maybe… with weapons that devastating chilled me tail to forehooves.
“Jokeblue figured it was from some sort of flying tank that the pegasi were experimenting with that blew up on them. Me…” Homage swallowed. “I know I’m being foalish, but I can’t help but think it fell from a lot higher than that.”
“Higher?” I had the strange mental image of items falling to Equestria from the moon, emptying from Nightmare Moon’s toy chest.
Homage looked a bit embarrassed, “You’ll laugh.”
I promised I wouldn’t. And resolved not to, no matter how hard it was.
The beautifully sexy grey unicorn took a moment to gather her thoughts. Then, starting cautiously, “I once met a zebra.”
That wasn’t what I expected her to say at all. My ears shot up. I leaned forward.
“They… don’t have the same relationship to the sky that we do. Obviously, since they have no pegasi. But it’s more than that. Before the apocalypse, we ponies had always looked to the sky with a sense of joy and safety. We saw the sun, guided through the sky by Celestia during the day. And the moon, Luna’s charge, keeping an eye on us during the night. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna were our benevolent rulers. And even though most ponies never met them personally, the sun and the moon were symbols of their kind presence everywhere and to everypony in Equestria.”
I felt my body leaning closer, wanting to catch every word of this. I’d never heard Celestia and Luna spoken of this way.
“When they perished in the apocalypse, and the pegasi closed off the sky, stealing the sun and the moon from us, we turned them into deities to keep them always with us. Even those trapped underground in the Stables seemed to do so. A sort of parallel evolution.”
What she was saying was almost blasphemous, but I bucked away the desire to admonish her, leaning precariously closer to hear. Homage had a perspective that I wanted to hear, even if I probably would not have listened to it from anypony else. She made me wonder, ask questions. For instance, would this explain why Calamity did not believe in the Goddesses? Was atheism a pegasus trait? Unlike us, they had never lost the embrace of the sun and the moon.
“The zebras, though, they cringe from the sky,” Homage said. The statement was something I would have expected from a propaganda poster, not a pony who had learned this directly from a zebra. But I knew Homage, and it would not be like her to not speak objective truth as she knew it. “The zebras look up and see the stars staring down at us from a great black emptiness. And the stars, they know, are not benevolent.”
I leaned further, tipped over and fell on my face.
Homage stopped, covering a chuckle with her hoof. When I’d gotten back up, probably looking as sheepish as I felt, she continued. “There is intelligence up there, the zebras believe, from the stars themselves. The stars burn with cold, malicious fire. No number of them could warm the sky at night. They wish ill on our world. And sometimes they will act, not against us directly, but to enable us to harm and ruin ourselves.”
I opened my muzzle, the suggestion that the zebras were a bit batty dying on my lips. Yes, it sounded insane. But didn’t we have legends that suggested the same? I recalled the story of The Mare on the Moon. (The real version, not that “Stallion on the Moon” nonsense.)
The stars will aid in her escape.
“In particular, they tell of four malevolent stars with hearts of cruelty and chaos which yearn to taste our pain and destruction, wrought by our own hooves.” With a grimace, Homage added, “If there’s any truth to the zebra mythology, I’d guess we’ve given them quite the banquet.”
Four stars helping destroy Equestria. Now why did that sound familiar.
Homage shrugged off the eerie atmosphere that had settled in the room by her tale. “Anyway, like I said. Foalish. Jokeblue was probably right. Some pegasus experiment that blew up in their faces.”
*** *** ***
Cautiously, Homage at my side, I lowered my horn towards the black opal. If I was going to give this to Watcher, I wanted to know what was on it first.
It was only reluctantly that I touched the opal with my magic and let it take Homage and her Athenaeum away from me…
I felt strangely wrong.
We were in a darkened hallway, wide and elaborately decorated, walking towards a brightly lit room with a decorative, curtained partition hiding half of it. There were four ponies walking in front of me, a fifth leading them. The Mares of the Ministries.
The first pony I recognized was Pinkie Pie. While every other pony was walking sedately through the hall, she was bouncing like a fanfilly on her way to her idol’s next performance. The pony was a little younger than I’d seen her before. The candy-cane look was still going strong though.
I felt a pang of deep embarrassment as my gaze fell on the lead pony, the beautiful white unicorn I had… fantasized about. And the pony I was riding just wouldn’t stop staring…
Celestia’s solar-flaring mareheat!
The creature I was riding wasn’t a pony. He (and he was most definitely and unbearably a he!) was as big as a stallion! I felt… things that were not hooves at the ends of my legs. And wings folded to my back. And a tail!....
“Spike,” Fluttershy asked timidly, turning around and looking at me. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
My attention was drawn to something tight and metal squeezing my head. The recollector, I assumed. It did not seem to be designed for… whatever I was.
I opened my mouth (which felt all wrong) and answered, “Naw. Barely feel a thing. Besides, Rarity wanted a memory of this.”
“She could have worn it herself,” Twilight Sparkle muttered under her breath from directly in front of me. I saw my eyes go once again to the white unicorn with the perfect purple mane. She didn’t seem to hear it, being engaged in conversation with the pony I knew to be Applejack. The orange pony with the three-apple cutie mark looked a little younger and not as weary as she had at Pinkie Pie’s last party.
“Ah sure hope this ain’t nothin’ t’ do with… that… thing we never talked about,” Applejack was saying with nervous caution.
“Oh no, darling. I gave that project up ages ago,” Rarity replied with graceful dictation.
“Oh,” the orange pony sighed with clear relief. “Good.”
As we approached, we walked across a fancy carpet woven with gemstones. I felt a cold shock as the creature I was riding stepped over it. Twilight Sparkle had stopped just ahead and turned to eye the carpet, as Rarity and Applejack talked. But her attention was drawn by Rarity loudly clearing her throat.
Fluidly, Rarity shifted the subject, speaking up to address all four of the ponies she was leading. “Now this really is just a first design. But I think you’ll all be impressed.”
“Always thrilled to see one of your designs, Rarity,” Twilight Sparkle encouraged.
Rarity smiled with businesslike thankfulness. “And this is just the light suit, not the fully powered version.” She turned to Applejack and smiled demurely, “And I do want to make it clear that I’m not trying to step on your hooves here. This armor isn’t as strong as your Steel Ranger suits, and doesn’t offer quite the protection…”
“Then what’s the point?” Applejack interrupted. “Ah don’t see the use in creatin’ armor that is less protective!”
The group had reached the ending of the hallway. There was a large mirror to one side of the room, and the other was filled with sewing machines, bolts of cloth and dress ponies. Designs and schematics covered the walls. At Rarity’s motion, they stopped, each turning her attention towards the partition. (Except for my alien ride, who only had eyes for the white unicorn.)
“Well, because there is more to an outfit than just how well it stops bullets, of course!”
Applejack looked ready to disagree strongly, but bit back her comment.
“Okay, Rainbow Dash!” Rarity called out. “They’re ready for you!”
Around the curtained partition stepped the shadow out of a nightmare. A blue pegasus pony who was encased in a black, insectoid carapace, with only the front of her muzzle and the undersides of her wings showing. Her tail was hidden within a scorpion-like sheath with a vicious, barbed stinger. The ebony suit of armor was sleek and wicked. Yellow-orange protective goggles with a bug-like compound eye-pattern completed the look. Built into the sides of the suit were antenna-like protrusions; the crystals that tipped those magical-energy weapons shimmered with shifting rainbow light.
The reactions of the other ponies were immediate.
“That looks… demonic.”
“Oooooh. Dashie, you look scary!”
The creature I was riding turned to watch Rarity suddenly take off. “Fluttershy! Come back! It’s only Rainbow Dash!”
I (we?) turned back in time to see Rainbow Dash push up the goggles with one armored hoof. Her eyes narrowed, a smirk running across her muzzle as she lowered her body into a menacing battle stance in front of the mirror. She growled menacingly, the armor making her look positively sinister.
“Oh yeah!” she said. “This is cool!”
Reality reasserted itself, leaving me feeling very strange. It was good to be back in my own hooves. I didn’t ever want to be that… thing again.
*** *** ***
SteelHooves approached me as I trotted across Tenpony Tower’s monorail station. “You’re headed to meet that… sprite-bot friend of yours, right?”
I nodded, eyeing the armor-concealed warrior.
“Watcher,” he said, surprising me.
“You know Watcher?” I blurted out. Then mentally bucked myself in the head. I had to remember to start actually asking SteelHooves questions.
“I know of Watcher,” SteelHooves intoned. “You don’t live as long as we have without crossing each other’s wake.”
It took me a moment to parse what he had said, but then I nodded. “So… Watcher really has been around that long. Who is Watcher… and what is she, or he… or it… doing?”
“Who? That I couldn’t tell you.” SteelHooves lifted a foreleg, looking to it. “Watcher lets ponies know less about Watcher than I let them know about me. Not without good reason.” He put his hoof down. “As for what: Watcher has a habit of finding ponies with a… who are…”
I wasn’t aware I was staring at him until SteelHooves returned the stare. “Watcher finds ponies who are better ponies. And sets them on a path to find others, to create teams of friends.”
I found myself feeling nervous. I didn’t like looking at my adventures from the outside like that. “And then?”
“Well, most of the time, they disappear. Or end up dead.”
That. Was not. Comforting.
SteelHooves stayed behind at the station as I trotted out alone on the Celestia Line. I didn’t have far to go. The monorail curved around a ruined building, Tenpony Tower disappearing from sight. And there was Watcher, the sprite-bot floating silently. Waiting.
“I have it,” I said flatly.
“Thank you, Littlepip. I knew I could trust you. Now, this sprite-bot has a compartment for spare batteries. If you could just…”
The sprite-bot floated silently for a moment. “Huh?” Watcher sounded perplexed.
“Trust goes two ways, right?” I challenged.
“Well… yes. I relayed your message, just like you asked. Before you got the Black Opal.”
I nodded. Made sense, but not what I was after. Not now. I felt a fierce determination set in. “Answer’s still no.”
“No? You got it, but you’re not going to give it to me?”
“Oh, I’m going to give it to you,” I said forcibly. “In person.”
Watcher fell silent again. This time, I didn’t wait for a response. “You talk a lot about virtues and friendship. Well, friends don’t run away every time a conversation turns personal. You can’t have friends if you hide behind robots and never let anypony see the real you.” I snorted. “Hell, even SteelHooves does better than you do. You want this? I want to meet you.”
“Because I want to know if you’re actually my friend or if you’re just playing me too.”
Watcher bobbed silently a moment longer. I wondered just how much the stranger behind the curtain wanted this black opal with the interesting but seemingly insignificant memory. Then, just as I was convinced that Watcher would tell me to go take a jump off the monorail, the toneless mechanical voice said, “Fine.”
I blinked. It was the response I wanted. But…
“You’re right, Littlepip.” I heard a beep from my foreleg. “I’ve uploaded my location into your PipBuck. I’ll see you soon.” There was a burst of static and the sprite-bot floated away on a drum solo.
I lifted my leg to look at my PipBuck. There was an icon on my Equestrian map. Far, far away from Manehattan. In the middle of nowhere. It would take weeks to travel there on hoof.
But if Watcher thought this would dissuade me, or even delay me, then Watcher was wrong.
*** *** ***
I had spent one more night in Tenpony Tower with Homage. After which, sadly, it was time to leave. Our first stop was Fetlock.
Calamity spent several hours underneath the Sky Bandit installing the flux regulator and making sure everything was in working order. By the time he was done, it was getting rapidly dark. “Ah got great news, ponies,” he said as he crawled out, looking greasy. “We all got ourselves transportation!”
Velvet Remedy, SteelHooves and I stomped in thunderous applause.
“Now this beauty is powered offa an array of spark batteries, an the last two centuries ain’t been kind. So we’ll have t’ swap ‘em out pretty regular t’ keep ‘er running.”
“Wait!” Velvet Remedy said with alarm. “Do you mean this deathtrap’s ability to say afloat behind you could cut out at any moment?”
Calamity looked at her almost sympathetically. “Naw. She’ll start t’ sag first. Become hard t’ steer. We’ll have plenty o’ warnin’.”
“And,” I assured Velvet Remedy, “if that happens, I think my telekinesis is strong enough by now to keep us going long enough to land safely.” There was no way I could lift that much for a prolonged period, not enough to travel anywhere at least; but I was completely confident that I could keep us aloft even if the spark batteries died and Calamity fell asleep. For a few minutes.
The others began to gather inside the Sky Bandit. Already, Velvet Remedy was cleaning it with her magic and discussing how to decorate it. Neither of the boys seemed inclined to participate.
I floated out a spoon and can of sweet potatoes, opening it. I was hungry again, and I intended to eat lunch as I planned the next three moves. With the Sky Bandit, we could be on Watcher’s doorstep in less than two days.
“uh, Littlepip?” Calamity called out. “Are ya gonna hang out there in the rain?”
I paused, a spoon of sweet potatoes lifted halfway to my mouth. “What? It’s not...”
Thunder cracked directly overhead and water came down as if somepony had turned on a giant faucet directly above me. I was soaked in an instant, my hair sagging over my face. The can filled with water, floating chunks of sweet potato out onto the ground.
Leave it to a pegasus pony to know.
Tossing aside the can (now full of mostly water), I galloped into the shelter of the passenger wagon. Calamity and Velvet Remedy took shelter behind SteelHooves as I shook hard, flinging water everywhere.
There was a beautiful, piercing cry. And the balefire phoenix swooped in out of the rain through a shattered window. It landed on the seat next to Velvet Remedy whose eyes went wide. She let out a squeal of delight.
*** *** ***
“You’ve named her Pyrelight?” SteelHooves asked, echoing my own thoughts as Velvet Remedy fed the bird before curling up under her blanket. We’d been traveling through the air for a day now, ever since the cloudburst had ended. The balefire phoenix had remained with us, or more precisely with Velvet Remedy.
I personally found the name a little morbid. It made me wonder about my friend.
We took turns sleeping and watching, passing around my binoculars. So far, nothing had shot at us. By now, we had a good idea where we were headed. It was hard to miss the giant mountain jutting up over Equestria like one of those spire towers.
Once SteelHooves was certain Velvet Remedy was deep asleep, he stepped over to me and whispered in my ear, “You should persuade her to spend less time in that memory orb.”
I looked at Velvet Remedy. In the last sixteen hours, she’d disappeared into the Fluttershy memory twice. It was like she had an addiction of her own.
“That’s not a good memory,” SteelHooves rumbled, surprising me. I looked to him, wondering how a non-unicorn could know what the memory was. As if reading my thoughts, he answered bemusedly, “I asked her.”
Oh. I felt like facehoofing. “What’s wrong with that memory?”
“Fluttershy wasn’t like the others. Rainbow Dash wanted to win the war. Applejack just wanted to protect other ponies. Especially after Big Macintosh died. Twilight Sparkle wanted to please the Princesses, especially Celestia,” SteelHooves intoned. “But Fluttershy just wanted the war to end. That memory is the moment she put her whole Ministry to that purpose of finding a way to end the conflict. And she did.”
I felt a shudder.
“In a world where not everyone is sane, it is the height of insanity to believe you could create a weapon so devastating, so horrible, that no one would dare use it.”
I looked at Velvet Remedy as she slept. The same urge that made me discard the memory orb from Horseshoe Tower returned, grown an order of magnitude. She loved Fluttershy. Modeled herself after the sweet, shy yellow pegasus pony. She couldn’t ever learn this.
“Wait,” I said slowly, “You said no one?” His odd word choice reminded me of my first conversation with Watcher.
SteelHooves answered dreadfully, “Perhaps the only thing more insane than believing such a weapon would bring peace is creating such a weapon… and then giving it to both sides.”
SteelHooves turned to me behind his helmet’s visor. “That memory: that is the beginning of the end of the world. Ultimately, Fluttershy killed us all.”
*** *** ***
We were circling the mountain, pushing upwards. It was night, and Calamity was taking the ascent slow as I guided him with my PipBuck’s map.
“All right,” he called back. “Ah was ‘fraid of this. Looks like your Watcher friend lives high enough up this peak t’ be above the cloud level. We could be okay, but… Well, t’ain’t safe traveling above the clouds. Least nowhere there’s civilization above.”
Everypony was awake. (As was Pyrelight.) We all nodded, readying ourselves. I had no idea what to expect when we pushed through the cloud cover, but I doubted it would be a cheerful welcoming party with smiles and muffins.
Calamity flapped his wings, carrying us upward into the cloud curtain. It was like being plunged into a slightly damp fog. All I could see of the rust-colored pegasus pulling us through the sky was a hint of his orange tail.
A moment later, the Sky Bandit burst up through the cloud curtain and the night sky expanded infinitely around us filled with (evil?) stars. A beautiful full moon hung in the sky behind the mountain peak, silhouetting it like a vertical rip in the universe.
Velvet Remedy let out an awe-filled, “Ooooooooooooooooh!” Pyrelight gave a musical cry.
The jaws of vertigo clamped down around me. My legs went weak, my knees giving out. Irrational panic told me that I would somehow be sucked out one of the windows and fall endlessly up through space. Maybe one of the stars would get me.
I clutched the side of the passenger wagon, looking down at the clouds. That was much better and just as beautiful. The clouds were laced with silver from the moonlight, glowing with a gentle, calming light.
My eyes (“It was under ‘E’!”) spotted a glint of metal on one of the cliffs. I asked Calamity to pull us closer.
I had expected it was Watcher, or at least another sprite-bot. But instead it was an audio recorder. I floated it into the Sky Bandit.
“This had better not be from Watcher…” I said, starting to feel a touch pissed.
“Ah don’t think so,” Calamity said from in front of the wagon. I slipped the audio recorder away, looking out to spy what he saw. I kicked on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle.
Just in time, too. According to my PipBuck, I had found “Dragon Cave.”
*** *** ***
“I think maybe your friend sent us up here to get eaten,” Velvet Remedy said aloud, staring up at the huge, dark opening. The Sky Bandit lay parked on the cliff behind us. SteelHooves was helping Calamity out of the pulling harness.
“The PipBuck’s data is two hundred years old,” I assured her nervously. “So it was a Dragon Cave two hundred years ago. Anypony could live in there now.” Well, anypony with wings, anyway.
A freed Calamity trotted up to join us. “Well, y’all plan on waitin’ outside ‘till the sun comes up?” Then, just in case we were, “Ah don’t recommend it.”
Velvet Remedy shook her head. “Of course not! Littlepip, you go first.”
Oh thanks a lot! I shot her a look.
“Well, Watcher is your friend.”
That remained to be seen. I took a step forward.
There was a heavy thud from inside. Something moved in the darkness, coming closer. Something big!
“Ursa Majors don’t grow wings, do they?” Velvet Remedy asked nervously, making me want to buck her. Hard. I was frightened enough already.
A dragon poked its head out of the cave! A huge, gigantic, fully adult dragon who could easily eat two ponies in one bite, even if one of them was SteelHooves. Three if two of them were Homage and myself.
“Hello, Littlepip. I’m Spike!” the dragon said in a voice that was neither as terrifying nor booming as I had expected.
“And don’t worry. I’m not going to eat you.”
Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Pathfinder – Travel time to remote locations in the Equestrian Wasteland is reduced by 25%. The drain on the Sky Bandit’s spark batteries is likewise reduced.
Quest Perk added: Pony Sutra – You are experienced in the art of giving and receiving physical pleasure. You are more likely to have sexual encounters with specific characters.