Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Twenty-Three: Patterns of Behavior

Chapter Twenty-Three: Patterns of Behavior

“Well, my child, it's quite dangerous to explore places where you do not belong. Where were you headed that you ended up in my private chambers?"


I halted, bobby pin and screwdriver hovering between me and the wall safe, at SteelHooves’ muttered comment. This safe was the only container within the Helpinghoof Clinic which hadn’t been successfully scavenged by ponies before us. Anything that could hold valuables had been already looted; brighter spots on faded walls showed where medical boxes, probably locked, had simply been torn away from their mountings.

“Huh?” Eloquent as always, Littlepip.

SteelHooves whinnied, “Your little friend Homage asked me what I thought your defining characteristic was.”

“What? When?” Oh Goddesses, what did SteelHooves tell her? Please don’t let it be bad. Or embarrassing.

“While you were hospitalized,” SteelHooves responded bluntly. “Do you really find it surprising that she would ask your companions about you?”

No, not really. She was probably trying to get to know the real me more, especially before taking our relationship to a new level. It was… wise. I just wasn’t sure SteelHooves was the pony I would have wanted her getting a reference from.

“What did you say?” I asked nervously. And then felt immediately stupid. He’d just answered that, didn’t he? “I mean… okay. Curiosity. That isn’t so bad. Yeah, I’m curious. I don’t think you could call it my defining characteristic.”

“We’re walking into hell,” Velvet Remedy interjected, “And Littlepip is sightseeing.”

“No,” I argued. “I’m not…” I stopped talking at her knowing smile. “Hey, the Clinic was right here; right on our way. And you know we could use the medical supplies, if we find any.”

“Ayep. Y’all should ‘ave seen Li’lpip in Stable Twenty-Four,” Calamity agreed. Mimicking my voice (poorly, I might add), he called out, “Dangerous critters? Let’s explore!”

“Hey. You’re the one who wanted to go on the next adventure with me.”

“Ah figure she’s been like this ever since steppin’ hoof outta her own Stable,” Calamity concluded. “Reckon’ Ah can’t blame ‘er. Livin’ in a box…”

“Oh no,” Velvet Remedy chimed in. “She was like this inside the Stable too.” I sighed. Apparently, this was going to be Tease Littlepip Day. I turned away, choosing to focus on the wall safe. Let them have their fun.

Velvet continued, “When other colts and fillies decided to try new things in an effort to provoke their cutie marks into showing, they’d try soccer. Or ballet. Littlepip? She tries to invent the art of breaking into other ponies’ private things.”

I broke the bobby pin. Which was really frustrating since this lock was well beneath my skills.

I took a deep breath, looking in a random direction that was neither the safe nor my friends. Pyrelight had perched on an IV stand in the corner near a medical bed. Behind her was a Ministry of Peace poster of a smiling Fluttershy with a white rabbit sitting on her head and colorful birds and butterflies flocking around her. The top of the poster read simply “Remember:” but the bottom half was so badly damaged that I couldn’t tell what it was trying to say. There must have been some gentle but insidious power in Fluttershy’s image, for I found myself feeling ashamed that we had forgotten what she told us not to.

“Well,” I grunted, hovering out a replacement bobby pin. “Maybe curiosity is my virtue then.”

My three companions looked at each other quietly, skeptically. Pyrelight let out a soft whoop as smiles broke across their faces (or, at least, across the muzzles of Calamity and Velvet Remedy). Simultaneously, they turned to me and told me that no, it was definitely a vice.

*** *** ***

“Well, that was unexpected,” Calamity noted, staring through the open safe into the building adjacent to the Helpinghoof Clinic. The entire back of the safe was gone, as was a significant amount of the other building’s wall. Judging by the damage, it looked as if a large magical energy weapon on the scale of the Junction R-7 cannon had been used to melt through the wall. “Somepony had a hard-on fer this safe.”

“They were stupid then,” I commented. “That blast probably destroyed anything that was in here.”

SteelHooves spoke, “I don’t think this was the safe they were intending to use that weapon for.”

“How do ya figure?”

“First, this safe was hidden. It’s likely they didn’t even know it was here.”

SteelHooves was right. The safe had been hidden behind a large, framed sign; most scavengers wouldn’t have thought to pull it down and look behind it. But ever since Homage revealed her safe behind the Splendid Valley painting, I’d fallen into the habit of peeking behind frames. Something which undoubtedly added fodder to my companions’ discussion of my so-called vice.

I glanced over to where the sign was propped against a medical rack. It was very much unlike the posters I had grown used to. A more forthright and clinical warning from the past:

Wartime Stress Disorder

For over a thousand years, ponies have known only peace.

It should be no surprise then, that so many are not able to cope with the harsh realities of war.

Wartime Stress Disorder is a very real illness that affects thousands of ponies each year.

Know what to look for:

• Depression
• Anxiety
• Lack of Sleep
• Loss of Appetite
• Unpatriotic Thoughts
• Suicidal Impulses

If you, or any of your loved ones, are experiencing two or more of these symptoms, it may be WSD. If so, ask for help. No pony needs to suffer alone. Knowledgeable and Caring Ponies trained by the Ministry of Peace are waiting to help.

I spared it only a glance before turning my attention back to SteelHooves. (Having read the sign before floating it down, I didn’t need to read it again.)

“Second,” SteelHooves continued, having apparently paid more attention to our surroundings than I had, “the building next to the clinic was a bank.”

I had admittedly dismissed the building next door after discovering the doors were blocked by interior rubble. I could see now (through the safe) that a fair amount of the interior was intact. And a bank promised to be interesting. “Okay,” I said, floating out the zebra rifle. “I’m going through.”

I started to climb up into the safe only to feel teeth bite down on my tail and pull me back.

“Oh no y’aint!” Calamity said, letting go. “Ain’t no way any o’ the rest o’ us c’n wiggle through that thing,” he said, pointing a hoof at the wall safe. I opened my mouth to protest, but he cut me off. “Ah ain’t lettin’ ya brave the place alone. Whatever destroyed that wall might still be lurkin’ in there.” Calamity smirked, “Besides, y’said yer next adventure would be with me. Ya promised an’ Ah’m holdin’ ya to it.”

I slumped. He had a point. Then I brightened. “Once I’m inside, I’ll be able to see the rubble blocking the front door and levitate it out of the way. I can let you all in through the front. It will only take a moment.”

They looked at each other again and I could read on their faces a begrudging acceptance that this was going to happen. I’d set my hooves to it; there was no stopping me (short of a tranquilizer dart to the breast).

I floated the zebra rifle ahead of me, my current weapon of choice. Calamity and I had spent time in the early morning looting the locked ammo boxes from the surviving convoy chariots on the overpass; as a result, I was no longer worried about ammo for the zebra rifle. (I had been surprised to find that, even up here, everything that wasn’t locked up had been looted. But Calamity reminded me that he wasn’t the only flier in the Equestrian Wasteland.)

I counted us lucky when we had moved beyond hellhound territory and into the jagged hellscape of the Fillydelphia suburbs without any encounters. During our trek, Calamity and I had scouted ahead, being by far the stealthiest members of our group. I had kept my PipBuck radio off. Only the tiniest amount of noise leaked out of my earbloom for others to possibly hear, but I suspected the keen-eared hellhounds might notice even that. I was yearning to turn it on again and hear what else Red Eye might have to say.

With a second look at the safe, I decided to shuck my saddlebags. It was going to be tight and I didn’t want to get stuck. I could float them through behind me once I was inside. Or, worst case, go back into the clinic and get them after I cleared the bank’s front door.

No encounters also meant I still owed Calamity an adventure. And I wanted to pay off that debt before we got into the heart of Fillydelphia. We were looking at trotting into slaver territory, and I feared for my companions’ safety. It’s not that I doubted their ability or courage. But… the anxiety I felt didn’t lend itself easily to words. I suppose I feared that my friends were not only dear to me, but would be dear to them in an entirely different and unpleasant way. In the eyes of the slavers, what kind of prize would a pegasus be? Or Velvet Remedy?

The Goddesses only know how they would react to a Steel Ranger. And the last thing I could afford to do was launch an assault on the entire damn slaver army.

Honestly, I was almost to Fillydelphia and I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there. My entire plan was to get there, take a look, and pray that what I saw would tell me where to go next. With dismay, I accepted the very real possibility that I might get there only to turn around and slink back home. My friends were counting on me to be better than that. All those slaves were counting on somepony to stand up for them.

I suddenly pictured myself trotting up to a gate, knocking and telling the guard on the other side, “Hello, I’m here to stand up for the slaves.” The daydream ended with the image of me getting shot in the head.

So yeah, maybe I was sightseeing. Distractions to give myself time.

I pulled myself up into the narrow black rectangle of the safe and slithered through.

*** *** ***

“A mare approached me just the other day. ‘Thank you, Red Eye!’ she said. ‘You have given my life meaning. I was wretched before, but now I am part of something great. And I know that something even greater waits for me. The opportunity of a lifetime.’

“Of course, she was only saying this in an attempt to get close to me so that she could use the crude knife she had crafted out of stolen metal. But still, her words moved me. So I did not have her killed on the spot.

“Instead, I sent her to The Pit, where she would have the chance to exercise those murderous impulses for a more worthy goal…”

Velvet Remedy had darted into the mares’ room off of the bank lobby, and we were all politely pretending not to hear her. The lobby radio helped, Red Eye’s words adding to the buzzing of the flies. Looking around, it pained me that my stomach wasn’t rebelling nearly as hard. The stench made my eyes water. But I had seen too much, too often. I could tell I was becoming numb. And it scared the horseapples out of me.

I heard water start to run in one of the restroom’s sinks, and I felt the sudden urge to dash in. We hadn’t checked the local water, but I was sure that it was radioactive. Velvet must know that, but I doubted she was thinking clearly.

“Splayed pony bodies and profane graffiti,” Velvet said with a weak smile as she rejoined us. “Raider chic.” She turned to me, “Let me thank you again for taking me to such lovely places.”

I honestly felt bad about this one.

Once, the lobby been a place for ponies to mill around while waiting their turn with one of the tellers whose counters lined one side of the room, or who had business in the back meeting rooms like the one I had crawled into through the safe whose backside had been obliterated. But the raiders had taken a perverse glee in defiling this place, the extent of which I hadn’t seen since the Ponyville Library. The crucified dog hanging from the ceiling lamp was a particularly revolting touch.

“Ah agree with Li’lpip,” Calamity noted, having taken a look at the rear meeting room which had abutted the clinic. “Raiders livin’ here tussled with some invaders who were a heap more dangerous. Lotsa raider bodies, none of their attackers.”

“Well, one,” I corrected him. “Sorta.” The pile of ash at what had been the center of the magical destruction had still been glowing slightly pink, suggesting the battle wasn’t that long ago.

Calamity nodded. “Muh guess? Lucky shot,” he said. “From the way that whole wall was disintegrated back far ‘nuff t’ touch the safe next door, muh guess is that one o’ the invaders was carryin’ a saddlebag fulla magical energy grenades or somesuch, and one o’ the raiders put a bullet through it.”

“Well, they obviously didn’t get in through the front door. Or the safe. So that means there’s another way in here.” I looked to SteelHooves. “Do you remember what the building on the other side of the bank was?”

Noise from somewhere above us killed the conversation. Dust rained down from the ceiling as pony hooves clopped over the floor above. The hanging lamp swayed as they passed over it, a rotting piece of the crucified dog falling to the floor with a meaty sound. I floated my rifle close. Calamity gave his battle saddle a reload kick.

“Honestly,” Velvet Remedy whispered. “Has it ever occurred to either of you that they might be friendly?”


“Stand back,” SteelHooves growled. Gleaning his intention, I dashed for the bathroom, wrapping a surprised Velvet in a levitation field and pulling her in after me. Pyrelight dove through the doorway over our heads. Calamity swooped back towards the meeting room.

Cha-pwoot. BOOM!

The shot from SteelHooves’ grenade machinegun detonated against the ceiling in a flash of fire and stucco. With a rending crash, the ceiling came down, bringing five raider ponies crashing into the lobby. One buck with mangy coat and a flaming skull for a cutie mark landed hard on a teller counter and bounced out of sight. A mare with a spiked pink mane got herself tangled in a gruesome exhibit fashioned out of at least three colts’ entrails, a zebra sword falling from her muzzle and clattering across the floor. It slid to a stop at Calamity’s hooves.

One last raider pony stood above us at the edge of the collapsed floor, a hunting rifle floating at his flank. His gaze fell on me, sliding down my body … and now I did want to vomit. His eyes suddenly widened, and he darted out of sight.

The other raider ponies tried to scramble to their feet. SteelHooves rapid-fired six more grenades into their midst. I saw Velvet Remedy’s shield flicker around the two of us, just in time to save us from the blast of shrapnel and bloody body parts. The eyeball of a raider pony splatted against the magical field inches from my face and began to slide down it.

I ended up violently emptying the contents of my stomach after all. Canned corn does not taste as well coming up as it does going down.

*** *** ***

“The one that fell over here got away,” Calamity called out, hovering in the air on the other side of the teller aisle. A doorway into the bank’s back offices marked the raider’s most likely avenue of escape.

Spitting out another mouthful of water from my canteen, I replied, “Had another one upstairs who bolted too.” I felt weak and embarrassed, but tried to focus on the danger at our hooves. The surviving raider ponies could be getting reinforcements, assuming there were any to get. I was more worried they were setting traps.

Calamity snorted. “Raiders run from us now?” He flew up into the room above. “Course, they could be fixin’ an ambush.”

Velvet Remedy looked up at Calamity’s underside. “Oh come now. Are you really that surprised?”

She poked a hoof at me. “The smallest of us is a walking arsenal. You’re a pegasus with a custom-built battle saddle, and SteelHooves… is SteelHooves. By Luna, we look like grim reaper ponies.”

Velvet Remedy trotted towards the carnage. “Any raider this well armed…” she said, floating a bloodstained baseball bat with gruesome nails driven through it out of the rubble, “…is going to take one look at us and gallop for the hills if she has any brain left at all.”

I grimaced. Not that I minded looking like a reaper pony to raiders (I damn well ought to!), but because Velvet’s comments brought back memories of the twisted view of us that SteelHooves had once professed to Calamity.

SteelHooves was looking at the zebra sword. The gemstone in its hilt was cracked and blackened; whatever enchantment the weapon had once held had died with that stone.

“Okay...” I said, collecting my thoughts. “The main vault is in the basement. The other way into the bank is probably upstairs, coming across from the next building.” I looked to my companions, giving them an opportunity to disagree. “Velvet, SteelHooves, you two head up. Between the two of you, I’m sure you can greet anypony you find up there with the appropriate levels of loving kindness or overwhelming force.”

Velvet Remedy shot me a wry look but nodded. (How in Luna’s Name did I end up the defacto leader again?) After seeing how my fellow Stable Dweller handled a hellhound, I wasn’t so worried about her safety.

“I’m the safecracker, so I have to head down. Calamity, you’re with me.”

*** *** ***


A well-placed twin-shot from Calamity’s battle saddle caused the magical energy turret to explode, flinging shrapnel across the hall. Slipping into the zen of S.A.T.S., I targeted the two remaining turrets and unloaded two rounds into each of them. They barely got a shot off, scorching an armor plate on my utility barding and giving me a painful but bearable burn beneath.

We crept up past the guard desk and peered down the hallway beyond. It had a few doors that opened to side rooms, and at the end was the massive metal door of the vault, a terminal glowing on the wall beside it.

As Calamity started into the hall, I paused at the desk. I spotted a book which had slid down behind it. Increasing Your Sales Figures. The picture on the front was a satisfied customer eating an apple. I floated the book into my saddlebags, having exhausted my current book collection and left it at Junction R-7. I trotted into the hallway, catching up with Calamity.

A scorching bolt of green energy shot past me, hitting the wall behind us and melting a hole, turning the faux wood paneling and bricks beneath into glowing green goo.

“There’s nothing better than the smell of melting zebras in the morning!”

Crap. One of these.

“Back!” I shouted to Calamity. The two of us barely made it to the corner when the multi-limbed hoverbot floated around the corner. I felt flame lick at my tail as the robot hosed down the hallway we had just been in with its flamethrower.

“Ow! Ow ow ow!” I pranced, flames licking at my tail, until Calamity stomped the fire out. “AAAAAoooooooow!”


I whimpered, tears in my eyes. “Thanks.”

On our way down, Calamity had prodded me to unlock every ammo box, coin till and desk. His saddlebags were now virtually overflowing with golden pre-war coins as well as packages of cigarettes and bubblegum and other things he considered worth the weight. I wasn’t really expecting to find a merchant we could trade with in Fillydelphia, but I said nothing. I had taken most of the ammo, including a prince’s prize of four magical energy grenades.

“Well, grenades did the trick last time,” I whispered, floating two of them out. “And unlike alicorns, I’m pretty sure I can trick these things the same way twice.”

*** *** ***

I sat on my haunches before the wall-mounted terminal next to the vault door, the smoldering wreckage of the hoverbot in the hall behind us. The door to this vault was almost identical to the one under Shattered Hoof, except that this one had no exterior lock, rendering all my skills at lockpicking useless. However, by hacking into the terminal, I was sure I could tweak the spell matrix and get the door to slide open.

Calamity stood guard over me as I worked. We both looked up when the muffled sound of an explosion echoed from somewhere several floors above.

“Not loving kindness, then.”


“If I survive all of this, one day I’m going to sit down and write a sequel to the Wasteland Survival Guide, covering all the things Ditzy Doo managed to leave out.” I loved the ghoul pony, but… seriously, a whole section on radhogs and barely a mention of hellhounds? And the chapter about making robots work for you was completely hoof-fucked.

I concentrated on the puzzle before me, working my way through possibilities of code until I settled on the right one. This was almost as hard as Pinkie Pie’s terminal. Almost.

With a series of loud clanks, the vault door slid down into the floor. I raised an eyebrow at that, then stepped into the vault.

Somepony had already been in here. Only a scattering of pre-war coins remained, and most of the smaller safes that lined the walls were open and empty.

“Well, now Ah’m depressed.”

I took note of three smaller safes and one large one which still seemed intact. The locks on these suggested a level of skill required that was beyond… was this the work of the same rival lockpicker who made such a mess of the Hippocampus Energy Plant #12?

No, that would be absurd. But the little pony in my head wouldn’t give up the notion.

I started on the largest safe first, confident in my ability to beat it, and eager to show up my imaginary rival.

It took effort to open the safe, but the tumblers finally fell into place. The large door nudged open. I pulled it back with my telekinesis enthusiastically, driven to see what was inside.

Inside were two objects, one of which I had seen before, recently, through binoculars: an anti-machine rifle. Only this one was pristine, with golden, flame-styled filigree, a custom bit, deep citrines embedded in the barrel and an embossed nameplate that read “Spitfire’s Thunder”. It was also broken down to fit in the safe. Some assembly required.

Calamity whistled at the sight of the massive gun

My own attention was drawn to the small box next to it. The box had a familiar apple insignia on it, although just one rather than the three on Little Macintosh. I floated it out. The box had its own lock, but it looked significantly easier to pick.

“Them gems on that there barrel? Ah’ve seen gemstones like that b’fore,” Calamity was saying behind me, still fascinated by the gun. “They hold an enchantment that sucks up the buck of the gun. Makes it so’s a Pegasus can fire it without getting’ knocked off course.”

I chuckled. He probably thought he was being subtle. “You want it? It’s yours.” I grinned. “I’ve even got some bullets for it.”

The box with the apple clicked open. I realized I’d seen a box like this before as well. In Vinyl Scratch’s safe. Like that one, this held four memory orbs.

I set the opened box down. Behind me, Calamity was doing his best not to squee. “Thank ya, Lil’pip. That’s mighty gracious of ya…”

“Calamity,” I shushed him with a smile. “Stand guard. I might be gone for a bit.” The orange-maned pegasus spotted the box of memory orbs and nodded, turning to face the vault entrance in a battle-ready stance.

I tilted my horn down towards the box, picking a memory orb at random, and focused. The bank, Calamity and the entire Equestrian Wasteland washed away.

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

Applejack was looking at me like I had lost my mind.

“And just what the hay d’ya think yer wearin’ that fer?”

I had really hoped to learn more about the past… and, with any luck, the Mares of the Ministries. But to find one of them addressing me, up close and personal? This seemed beyond the stroke of fortune.

The room around us looked very much like the suites in Tenpony Tower must have in their prime. This was a Ministry Hub, perhaps? There was a song playing in the background that I had heard before:

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

It took me a moment to place it, but I had once seen SteelHooves virtually entranced by the song.

“To remember tonight,” I felt my mouth say. The words came out in a smooth, low rumble. Oh Luna… it was SteelHooves’ voice! More urbane and not nearly as gravelly as the ghoul’s we knew, but it was definitely him.

How the hell had this memory ended up here? In this bank? It only now occurred to me that maybe SteelHooves had known what the building next door had been not because he had noticed it today but because he remembered it.

“Ah hell no. Ah ain’t doing nothin’ with ya while yer wearing that ridiculous recollector, Applesnack!” Applejack put her hoof down. “Now take it off.”

Wait, what? Oh no. I really, really shouldn’t be here. This was… private. And…

“I’ll tie you up. With your own lasso.”

Applejack’s eyes went wide, a blush forming on her freckled cheeks.

Oh sweet Celestia have mercy. Not only was I invading SteelHooves’ private memories, but the buck was aroused. I could feel a hot hardness that I fought to escape from. I prayed to the Goddesses to pull me out of this memory, spare me this. And my ghoul companion too. He didn’t deserve to have me here. And I very much didn’t want to be here.

Eyes narrowing dangerously, “An’ jus’ what makes ya think ya have what it takes t’ best me w’ muh own lasso, soldier-buck?”

(Part of my brain paused to marvel that the country filly turned major political figure had fallen for a city buck turned soldier.)

SteelHooves… no, Applesnack leaned forward (that hot pressure in his groin becoming unbearable to me) and whispered huskily, “Because I know it turns you on.”

Way too much information! Please, Celestia, Luna, anypony… stop the memory… need to get off now! Aaaah! I mean leave. Need to leave now!

I almost felt my prayers were answered when a loud chiming sound rang out from a nearby, glowing terminal. Applejack shook off her deer-caught-in-sleigh’s-lights expression. “Still no,” she decided, turning away towards the terminal. “Now, Ah gots t’ take this. And ya best not be wearin’ that thing when Ah’m done. Y’look ridiculous!”

I felt my host sigh, then trot slowly towards what I recognized as the bathroom door. A sudden shot of horror went through me. Applesnack was still sporting his… hardness. Goddess, please don’t let them have a full-length mirror in there!

A cry of dismay from the orange-coated older mare solved my concerns with startling quickness. “What’s wrong?” I felt myself say in Applesnack’s voice.

The mare of the Ministry of Technology was scrolling through information on the terminal’s screen as fast as her hoof would let her. “No…” she moaned. “No, they wouldn’t!” Her voice was becoming louder and more strained. “No! They… they… How could they?!”

Again, more firmly, “AJ, love, what’s wrong.”

Applejack turned towards her soldier-buck with the start of tears in her eyes and a frightening edge in her voice. “Ironshod’s what’s wrong!” She spit as the other emotions struggling behind her face lost out to fury. “One year! The Steel Rangers ‘ave been around for one year, and Ironshod Firearms has gone an’ built a gun designed t’ punch through their armor! They’ve build a gun to kill our own!”

I felt Applesnack go rigid at the news.

The blond-maned mare was strutting back and forth in barely contained outrage. “They’re callin’ it the anti-machine rifle. But what it really is… is the anti-magical-power-armor rifle!” She spun, tears in her eyes. “How long before the zebras get ‘hold o’ this? They’ve just killed our own!

I felt my host swallow. He was doing amazingly well at keeping his heart rate down, but while I couldn’t sense Applesnack’s emotions, I could feel the physical toll.

“Ah put everythin’ Ah had inta findin’ a better way t’ keep our soldier ponies safe,” Applejack raged. “Ah sold muh farm! Ah fought the ponies of muh own Ministry t’ get this done.”

She turned, her wide eyes filled with tears. “Ah. Sold. Muh. Farm!

A lump formed in my throat. My heart hurt for the mare, and my hooves wanted to lash out at the evil ponies who could be so thoughtless.

The orange pony spun and bucked her bureau so hard it shattered into splinters and piles of clothing. “This is a betrayal! They can’t do this!” My host watched as his mare looked around for something else to buck; then she seemed to have a better idea.

“Ah’m goin’ down there!” Applejack decided abruptly. “Ah got family down in Ironshod. Braeburn will listen…”

I felt a sinking sensation in my heart.

“SteelHooves,” Applejack barked, addressing my host not by her lover’s name but by his military designation. “Call Wingright. Tell him t’ be on the roof in two minutes an’ t’ have my personal chariot ready. If Ah leave now, Ah c’n make it t’ Ironshod b’fore mornin’. Maybe Ah c’n head this whole thing off b’fore…”

“AJ, love…” Applesnack offered slowly, trying to be reasonable, “If they’ve already invented it, then you can’t put that apple back on the tree.” I knew he was right. The other item in the safe had been proof enough of that.

Applejack shot us both a look (or, at least, it sure felt that way). “Well, somepony ain’t gettin’ any fer a good bit.” If I could speak, I would have told her that such expectations had long passed. “Now make that call!”

The orange pony turned back to gaze at the scattered fragments of wood and dresses. “Great. Now Ah’ve got t’ find somethin’ official-lookin’ t’ wear.”

Less than three minutes later, SteelHooves was saying goodbye to Applejack as she stepped into the elevator outside their suite. The call to Wingright had been made and the Ministry Mare’s chariot was waiting on the pegasus landing platform.

“Ah’ll be back b’fore ya know it,” Applejack insisted, dressed in a stiff, formal suit-dress (that did not appear to get much use) and looking slightly less murderous but no less determined. “Ah’m sorry this night ain’t gone like ya was hopin’ fer. Ah’ll make it up t’ ya. Promise.”

She turned and raised a hoof, touching the button for the landing platform. As the ornate doors slid closed, she cocked her head. “An’ take that recollector off. Ya look…”

The doors closed. A soft whirr could be heard as the elevator began to ascend. My host looked up, watching the arrow above the elevator doors slowly glide across the numbers. Floor four. Five. Six…

Applesnack turned back towards the door of his and Applejack’s suite. The recollector was actually starting to itch.

A loud TWANG sounded from inside the elevator shaft behind him. He spun back towards those ornate doors as he heard Applejack’s elevator carriage rumble downward past his floor, gaining speed.

Then there was a loud, horrendous, metal-twisting THUD.

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

I burst back to the real world, shaking from the memory, still feeling Applesnack’s scream as if it had come from my lips.

Looking up, I found SteelHooves’ visor staring down at me. I cringed back, wanting to crawl into the safe.

His low, gravelly voice simply stated, “Definitely a vice.”

*** *** ***

“What is Unity?” the voice of Red Eye sounded in my earbloom.

Calamity and Velvet Remedy had naturally taken the lead as we worked our way back through the bank. My hooves felt heavy, like mine were the ones wrapped in steel. I couldn’t look at SteelHooves. I could feel him staring into me, not saying anything. It was so much worse than being yelled at.

“Unity is you. Unity is your family. Your mother and father. Your brothers and sisters. Or, at least, it will be. I have seen it. And yes, Unity will be me as well. But for now, I am merely its, and thus your, humble servant. The Goddess has gifted me with the vision of Unity, and it is She who will bring peace to this troubled land.

“Think of me as nothing but a courier, delivering the message of evolution. We follow the Goddess in Her great quest to heal this land and all the good ponies within it.

“No pony dies in Fillydelphia unless they choose to. And in the New Equestria, no pony will need ever die again. When the time has come for your toil to be over, you have but to submit yourself. Already, the Goddess is taking those who come to her, pulling them to her bosom, and transforming them. Their old, weak, sick bodies are peeled away, replaced by a new, transcendent form…”

As we were passing the open doorframe of an office, SteelHooves lifted a metal-clad hoof and shoved me inside. He followed. Clearly, he wanted to be alone with me. Looking anywhere but him, I stammered an apology. He ignored it.

“Which one did you see?” he asked coldly.

I looked up at him, startled.

“Which. Memory. Did you see?”

I flushed with icy embarrassment. “The… one where…” I fought to find the least intrusive description. “…Applejack learned about Ironshod making anti-machine rifles?”

“Oh,” SteelHooves said. The other three memories were locked safely away in his pack. “The ‘accident’.”

I recalled Apple Bloom’s strained voice:

Some folks ‘re sayin’ that maybe t’wasn’t so much of an accident. They say… that maybe t’was somepony within ‘er own Ministry.

“The biggest row Applejack had was over the anti-machine rifle,” SteelHooves informed me. I sensed that, having seen the memory, he wanted me to have a touch of context. It was abnormally forthcoming of him. Even more odd considering how deeply in the wrong I was.

“On one hoof, I couldn’t really blame them,” SteelHooves admitted. “You wouldn’t either if you saw some of the robots the zebras had begun to deploy on the battlefield.”

I found myself nodding, despite the ache in my heart for Applejack. I remembered that tank-like sentinel robot in Four Stars. I’d fired on it with armor-piercing bullets from a sniper rifle at a distance of yards, and only a precision shot to a volatile area had managed to stop it.

“But I knew how bad that hurt her, and how deeply personal she took it. Only made it worse that she had family in Ironshod. Whole thing just about tore her apart…” He nickered behind his helmet. “Damn thing was, the zebras came out with armor-piercing ammo a few months later anyways. Not as effective as an anti-machine rifle at taking down my fellow Rangers, but a well placed round from a rifle could punch through a Ranger’s helmet.”

SteelHooves looked me over until his visored gaze stopped on Little Macintosh in its holster. “Truth is, with AP ammunition that gun could do it. Little Macintosh is possibly the most powerful firearm of its size,” a touch of nostalgia crept into his voice. “Designed with the kind of buck to the teeth that only a mare like Applejack could handle easily.”

Despite how low I was feeling, a snort of laughter escaped me. According to Spike's story, Applejack was strong enough in the tooth to haul not only her own weight but that of all five of her friends with nothing more than a bite on a dragon's tail.

I had just begun to notice that all the context I was getting was about the firearms, and none about the accident itself, when a thunderous gunshot rang out. Was that Spitfire’s Thunder? How far ahead had Calamity and Velvet Remedy gotten, and what had they run into?

I darted around SteelHooves’ bulk, dashing out of the room and towards the sound. I could hear the heavy hooves of the Steel Ranger fall in behind me.

*** *** ***

“That was a warnin’ shot,” I heard Calamity state ahead, his voice muffled and slightly mumbling. “Ah don’t give two.”

“Warning shots are supposed to miss!” Velvet Remedy barked sternly.

“Ah didn’t hit anything vital,” was his response. He was speaking slow, his words sounding like they came through clenched teeth.

“That weapon,” a gruff mare’s voice insisted, “Is the property of the Ministry of Wartime Technology. Surrender it, tribal, and we’ll let you live.”

“Horseapples!” Now I could tell why Calamity’s voice sounded so warped. He was talking while holding Spitfire’s Thunder in his muzzle. He was better at it than the slaver with the shovel-spear whom I had encountered my first night out, but not by much. “The only reason ya ain’t blown us ‘tribals’ t’ bits is that ya don’t wanna hurt the pretty gun.”

I heard Pyrelight let out an alarmed squawk.

“Damn!” SteelHooves muttered from behind me as he broke into full gallop, leaving me swiftly behind. I lowered my head, charging forward, trying to keep up. Little Macintosh floated beside me, ready for action.

I came barreling into a lobby full of ponies and stumbled over the severed hindleg of a raider, losing my balance and face-planting into the rubble of the collapsed ceiling. Little Macintosh clattered into the rubble.

“uh… She tripped me!” I offered weakly, getting up. My eyes widened as I took in the five Steel Rangers in the room, only one of which was SteelHooves. One of the four new arrivals had taken a shot through the leg, and Velvet Remedy was fussing over it to the pony’s chagrin. Calamity seemed intent on staring down the other three. Without the massive Spitfire’s Thunder, my companions and I would have been helplessly outmatched. Even assuming SteelHooves remained on our side.

SteelHooves was standing rigid, staring from Calamity, the unique anti-machine rifle held in his teeth, to the Steel Ranger he had shot through the leg. It was as if Applejack’s fears were playing out right in front of him. Calamity’s habit of shooting first couldn’t have reared at a worst time.

The lead mare of the Steel Rangers quartet was splitting her focus between Calamity and SteelHooves. Addressing the latter, “What are you doing with these primitives?”

SteelHooves ignored her, staring at Calamity. “You shot a Steel Ranger.”

“Them friends o’ yers came at us with intent t’ murder.”

Velvet Remedy spoke up again. “Calamity’s right. The moment they saw us, that one’s missile launcher opened up,” she said, pointing a hoof at one of the other Steel Rangers. “And this one charged at us with a magical energy lance.”

“I ask you again,” said the lead mare, stepping forward, “What are you doing here? Soldier, report!” The two uninjured Steel Rangers behind her changed their battle stances to better cover the room, one of them targeting me. I cast my eyes to the floor, searching for where Little Macintosh had fallen.

SteelHooves growled at Calamity, “We will have words.” Then, bothering to spare the mare his attention, he answered. “You are not cleared for that information. You need only know that I am on assignment and that you are interfering. Now order your knights to back down.”

The tension in the air was nearly suffocating.

“I am a Senior Paladin in the Ministry of Wartime Technology. You will address me with proper respect befitting my rank!”

“As will you,” SteelHooves replied with gravelly calm, “When addressing a superior officer.”

A younger buck’s voice sounded behind the helmet of the missile-launcher Ranger. “Elder SteelHooves?”

The question was met by a still room. I spotted Little Macintosh but didn’t dare float it up from the floor, certain that somepony would start shooting.

Calamity broke the silence. “Elder? Well, guess who’s been holdin’ out on us.”

“My apologies, Star Paladin SteelHooves,” the senior paladin said carefully. “I did not recognize you. Your armor is that of a much lower station.”

SteelHooves nickered. “Apology accepted.” He turned to the younger buck, “And I would thank you not call me above my station. If you know of me, then you know I refused that position.”

The leading mare was not done, however. “You are far from your stomping grounds, Star Paladin SteelHooves. By protocol, I shall lead you to meet with Elder Blueberry Sabre.” The light on her helmet swiveled to illuminate each of us in turn.

“As for the disposition of your… friends,” she began.

“They are with me,” SteelHooves said firmly. “Lead. I shall follow.”

The steel-encased mare turned and trotted out of the bank. Velvet Remedy stayed close to the wounded one as he rose to his hooves, favoring his injured leg.

As the rest of us began to follow, I floated Little Macintosh to me. The gears in my mind were beginning to turn again. And while I knew better than to start asking questions in the middle of a tense diplomatic situation, it was clear that SteelHooves and I needed to have a big talk.

*** *** ***

“Star Paladin SteelHooves, sir,” the young knight called out, trotting closer to SteelHooves while the other uninjured knight covered Calamity and me with the light machine gun of her battle saddle. “Again, my apologies for before.”

“The matter is passed,” SteelHooves said flatly. I sensed this was not a conversation our ghoul companion wanted to have. I found myself mentally cheering the young knight on.

“Permission to ask a question, sir?”


“oh…” The knight stopped in his tracks, letting us pass him, then trotted to catch back up. “In that case, permission to speak freely, sir?”

SteelHooves’ head drooped just a little. “No.”

The knight slowed but did not stop this time.

“Permission granted, Knight Boom,” proclaimed the senior paladin. To SteelHooves, she whinnied, “My troops. My territory. My rules.”

“Sir, I just wanted to say… there are a lot of Steel Rangers who felt the same way you do. About following in the path of the Ministry’s Mare, I mean. If you had taken your rightful place as Elder, a lot of us would have gladly followed you.”

SteelHooves remained impassive.

The silence stretched out as we trotted through the suburban wreckage that surrounded Fillydelphia. Slowly, the young knight dropped back into position behind us. I heard his last words, muttered to himself before he fell quiet for the rest of the trip.

“We still would.”

*** *** ***

“When I was a young buck, I was taught that somehow, some ponies were inferior to others. That those not born as earth ponies were weak, frail, unsuited to labor. Incapable of pulling their own weight without relying on magic.

“You, my children, prove every day that the only ponies who are inferior are those who choose to be. Unity is more than just the blessing of the Goddess. It is our search to transcend the laziness and weakness of our ancestors, to reach a higher level of existence. Unity with our fellow ponies, not tearing each other apart, but building each other up, and Equestria with us. And you, my children, are already halfway there.

“In you I see that Unity already lies within us, should we just choose to embrace it. The glorious evolution that awaits us is just icing on the cupcake…”

Explosions ripped through the street. SteelHooves stood alongside the other Steel Rangers as they tore into the slavers taking cover behind the ruined chariots and carriages and even behind the wagon full of slaves that they were transporting into the heart of Fillydelphia. Red Eye’s voice died when the grenade barrage from our ghoul’s battle saddle obliterated the slaver’s radio.

Through the din, nopony heard the shot from above that tore through Knight Buck’s helmet, ripping it off his torso, his head turned to jellied mush inside. A Pinkie Pie Balloon floated overhead, turned a raging fuchsia by the dipping sun.

“Take cover!” the senior paladin yelled and the Rangers scattered.

At the turn of events, the surviving slavers began to press forward, filling the street with suppressive fire. I hid behind a trash barrel as bullets riddled it. If the bin hadn’t been full of another age’s refuse, the bullets would likely have tore through it and perforated my body. As it was, the few which punched through were stopped by my saddlebags and barding.

“Ah got this one,” Calamity called out, soaring into the air, Spitfire’s Thunder strapped across his back, intent on going one-on-one with the Pinkie Pie Balloon. From behind a mailbox, Velvet Remedy focused on invoking her shield spell, bringing it to brief life between our pegasus and the slaver ponies who turned their guns to fire at him.

The moment their guns were trained away from me, I dove around the trash barrel, slipping into S.A.T.S. and putting shots into the heads of three of them, courtesy of the zebra rifle. Their heads erupted in flame as they fell. Two more were doused in flickering green balefire that sent my PipBuck clicking. They stumbled, screaming, as Pyrelight flew over the slavers.

I could hear shots exchanged above.

The slaver pony who had been hiding behind the slave wagon, a lavender and green unicorn mare, wrapped the remains of Knight Boom in a levitation field and floated it towards herself. S.A.T.S. died only to activate again, partially refreshed. I looked down the scope of the zebra rifle, but couldn’t get a clear shot with the wagon of slaves in the way. They were cringing, trapped in the open. I saw one tan-coated mare mouth “don’t shoot me!”

Wait… what was I thinking? I focused, wrapping the entire wagon in a field of my own, and gently hauled the slaver’s cover out of my way.

One of the other slaver ponies opened fire at me, forcing me to dive back behind cover. I felt the levitation field slip, but caught it before I dropped the wagon full of helpless ponies.

A hoot and a flash of green flame announced the death of the slaver pinning me.

I turned to look back into the street just in time to see the lavender and green unicorn floating Knight Boom’s rocket launcher and firing a rocket through the display window of the store where the wounded Steel Ranger had taken cover. The storefront blew out in smoke and rubble. A moment later, the Ranger mare with the light machinegun tore at least a dozen holes in the unicorn slaver.

The unique sound of Calamity’s battle saddle rang through the air, coupled with an explosion. “Hoo-rah!” The pegasus swooped down to hover over me. “Ya see that? Shot the grenade right outta her mouth! While doin’ a triple summersault dodge!” He pumped a hoof in the air. “Who’s the best shot in the Equestrian Wasteland?”

I waved a hoof at him, urging him to take cover. A crackling whooooosh sound filled the air. My shadow leaped across the ground as the sky above us suddenly lit up.

Pointing at his breast, Calamity indulged in a bit of gloating. “Winner o’ the Best Young Sharpshooter competition four years runnin’, that’s who!”

“Oh dear,” Velvet said, staring up into the air from behind her mailbox. Her face was painted with flickering light.

I felt a splash of dread. Calamity, still hovering in the air above me, turned his face upward, his voice trailing off.

He was watching, astonished, as the Pinkie Pie Balloon was consumed in flame. His mouth hung open. “Flammable gas?” he finally mouthed. “The fuckin’ slavers fill their dirigibles w’ flammable gas?”


“Littlepip… Calamity…” Velvet whimpered, waving for our attention. “It’s falling our way!” I knew I should move, but the holocaust above transfixed me. Bits of burning material started to rain down around us. My trance was broken when a blazing swath of thick cloth landed on the trash barrel next to me, draping it in flame.

Celestia clop my clit with a hoof-full of sunfire!


I dove round the bullet-filled trash barrel, running down the street as fast as my short legs could take me. The light above was getting brighter and I could feel waves of heat pushing down at us.

“Ah didn’t know. How could Ah have known?” Calamity shot past me. “What fuckin’ psycho pony would do that?

The imprisoned ponies turned towards the inferno in the sky and screamed. The air burned in my throat. Mercifully, I still had my levitation field around the wagon. I floated it off the ground, towing it with me as I galloped down the shattered street, trying to put distance between all of us and the massive ball of fire (shaped like Pinkie Pie’s head) that was slowly crashing to the earth.

*** *** ***

I gave a prayer of thanks to Celestia and Luna. All of my companions had survived. Two of the Steel Rangers, however, had not.

“Why?” the paladin mare asked as I unlocked the wagon to set the captive ponies free.

I looked to her in surprise. I started to ask what she meant, only to recall Homage’s words of warning about the Steel Rangers:

Honestly, most of them would be more interested in saving your PipBuck than saving you.

I realized the Steel Rangers probably engaged the slavers for a motivation completely different than my own. The revelation tasted sour.

“Because it’s the right thing to do. And because, if I was in their place,” I said, remembering that at one time I had been, “I would want somepony to do the same for me.”

Velvet Remedy’s ears perked. She listened in on our conversation as she moved to give aid and comfort to the ponies who had been trapped in that wagon cage for what looked (and smelt) like weeks. They were malnourished, scarred and had slept in their own filth. One of the ponies was dead, had been long enough to begin to smell, but the slavers hadn’t bothered removing the corpse. I felt a simmering rage.

Turning from the sight, I stared into the impassive mask of the Steel Ranger. “Why did you?”

“The more Red Eye’s forces advance, the more ground we lose,” the senior paladin explained. “He covets the technology of the past that is rightfully ours to protect. We cannot engage his army directly, so we attack his supply lines.”

Part of me wanted to scream at the metal-clad pony about her priorities. Instead, I scowled at the news; I had not expected the outskirts of Fillydelphia to be a war zone.

“Fillydelphia was home to major hubs for both the Ministry of Wartime Technology and the Ministry of Morale. But we lost our Hub to Red Eye’s forces three years ago, and have been forced to fortify in a secondary position.”

My scowl increased. “Any imminent plans to take it back?”

I felt the Steel Ranger mare glare at me behind her mask. Presumably, she was taking me to their fortification, so there was no cause not to tell me about it; but that freedom of information did not extend to anything tactical.

SteelHooves, however, stepped up and answered. “No.” I heard the mare nicker, bristling inside her armor, but SteelHooves didn’t care. “Why should we. By now, the building has been stripped of anything worth reclaiming.”

Stepping closer to me, SteelHooves demanded, “Come with me. I wish to talk with you alone.”

Perfect, because I wanted to talk to him.

*** *** ***

“Why are you with us?”

We were in the burned-out husk of a small diner. SteelHooves remained, as always, hidden and expressionless behind his armor.

“And not that hogwash about having nothing better to do this time,” I demanded. Once we were alone, leader-SteelHooves had vanished. Once again, I was inexplicably in charge. Only this time, I really wanted to be. “You said you were on assignment. What assignment?”

SteelHooves’ tail swayed. “Remember when you eavesdropped on my conversation with Calamity? The picture I painted of you and your friends?”

I nodded tightly. He surprised me with his next words.

“I don’t believe any of that,” he told me. “You’re not a spy or a secret agent of some Ministry of Awesome black ops stable. You’re a good pony who is a victim of her own good nature and incessant curiosity.”

Sitting on his haunches, SteelHooves continued, “In my assessment, you have survived through luck, growing skill, and the unusual fortune of having capable friends who are willing to stick by you even when you are amazingly stupid.”

Well gee, thanks.

“I follow you because you are a better pony than I am. And you remind me of somepony else. You honestly strive to help and protect other ponies. I believe…” He paused. There was a hitch in his voice. “I believe she would have approved of you.”

SteelHooves dug a hoof at the red and black tiles, charred and shattered, that covered the floor.

“I told you before, not every Steel Ranger has the same view of our Oath. I have always believed that we should follow in the example of our Ministry’s Mare, Applejack. That we should be pledged to her goals and priorities. That we should protect other ponies, both with our technology and our fortitude. We weren’t meant to steal and hoard. We were meant to defend.”

I nodded slowly.

“I haven’t been faithful to my Oath for a long time. But at your side, I can be again.”

I looked away, the ghoul’s words sinking in. When I turned back, I fixed him with a stare. “That was the most heartwarming cart of horseapples I have ever heard.”

He stopped digging. “It’s the truth.”

“Of course it is,” I said, “That’s how you lie. If you recall, I’ve seen you do it before.” I started walking around the Steel Ranger as he continued to sit. “You tell enough truth that anypony would buy your story. But here’s where the saddle rubs: all of that assessment had to have happened after you insinuated yourself into our group. If anything, you just explained why you are still with us.” I stopped in front of him and pointed. “So I ask again. Why. Are you. Here?”

“All right,” SteelHooves nickered, standing up. Repeating his words almost verbatim, “Do you remember when you eavesdropped on my conversation with Calamity? The picture I painted of you and your friends?” Again I nodded.

“That’s what my Elder believes you are. And my assignment is to assess the potential threat that you and the other residents of the Stable you come from represent.”

*** *** ***

No more secrets. That was my condition for not abandoning SteelHooves. He responded by giving me the box of memory orbs as a token of submission. I had not expected that, but he insisted. After all, we both knew I really couldn’t just take his word.

I focused on one of them, showing him trust in return by allowing myself to become helpless in his company. The world melted away.

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

I was wet. Rain was coming down in sheets from the blackness of the night sky. I was wearing a rain-slicker, but the wind buffeted at it, pulling it away. Only the top of my mane was remotely dry under the hood.

Lightning flashed, illuminating the pegasus landing platform, over two dozen floors above the bustling lights of the city below. I recognized the form of a giant scooter hovering over a well-lit building in the distance. This was Manehattan.

“Sure ya want ta be flyin’ on a night like this, Applesnack, sir?” a dapperly-dressed grey pegasus buck asked as he shimmied himself into the harness of a sky chariot. It was a particularly beautiful chariot, adorned with a very familiar three-apples design.

“Very important business,” I heard myself say in Applesnack’s voice. “Has to be tonight.”

“Well, that’s whatcha pay me for, right?” the pegasus smiled. “Although it’s likely ta be a beastly ride.”

“I’ll survive,” Applesnack said as lightning flashed across the sky.

The pegasus gripped the harness strap in his teeth and pulled, drawing it tight. “An’ how’s Miss Applejack? I was really sorry ta hear ‘bout her accident. The ponies who were supposed ta be keeping those elevators in top shape ought ta be sent ta jail.”

I felt my jaw tighten. But Applesnack kept his voice pleasantly even. “Strapped in tight, Wingright?” I both felt and heard him ask. “Don’t want you slipping free in the rain now.”

“Yeah,” the pegasus laughed. “That would be one unpleasant fall.”

Applesnack stepped into the chariot, pressing as far forward as he could as if afraid he might slip out the back the moment the pegasus launched forward. The grey pegasus spread his wings, rain dripping off of the feathers.

Applesnack moved with alarming speed. I felt myself lurch forward, biting down, grasping the pegasus’ wing in my teeth. My host drew back, pulling, drawing the wing back over the metal front edge of the chariot as he raised up a hoof.

“Applesnack! Whatcha…?” the pegasus squeaked in surprise before I felt my hoof come down on that pulled wing with a bone-crunching blow. The pegasus screamed!

Spitting out the feathers of Wingright’s now-crippled wing, SteelHooves growled, his low voice like thunder. “Only three ponies knew exactly when Applejack was going to be riding up that elevator!”

“Aaaah! My wing! My wing! What the hell…?!”

“I checked your finances. Your account got a sudden influx of coins three weeks ago. And an even bigger one less than eight hours after Applejack’s accident!” I was staring into the widening eyes of the blubbering pegasus. My voice was dangerous low. My heartbeat wasn’t raised at all. “Really, you should choose something other than your filly’s middle name as a password.”

“I-I can explain!” the pegasus wailed, cradling his shattered wing. “My sister died in the war. That was an inheritance!”

“I don’t think so.” Applesnack turned and stepped down off the chariot. Then I felt as my host lifted his back hooves and planted them against the rear of the chariot. Slowly, he began to shove, pushing it across the rain-slicked rooftop and the hapless pegasus along with it.

“What?! No! What are you doing? Don’t!” the pegasus cried out, trying feebly to push back as he was shoved closer and closer to the edge.

“Please! I have a family!”

SteelHooves grunted, stopping. “Maybe you should have thought of them before you made your choice.” He gave a final, hard buck to the back end of the chariot, sending it toppling over the lip of the roof, pegasus and all.

I could hear the winged pony scream right up until the chariot bounced off the first outcropping on its way down to the streets below.

I felt utterly stunned, numb, as my host’s legs carried me towards the nearest door at a casual, splashing trot. I felt him rehearsing under his breath,

“There’s been a terrible accident. No, I have no idea where he was flying in from. I could tell he was coming in too low, but I expected him to pull up before he hit the building. It was horrible. I feel it was my fault; I shouldn’t have asked Wingright to fly in this weather. I should have known that the wind sheer would be too much for him.”

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

The memory ended.

I stared at SteelHooves in horror.

He stared back calmly. “No secrets.”

*** *** ***

“…We are not primitive tribals, striking our hooves against stone, hoping to create fire. We are building a better tomorrow for our children. And our children’s children.

“We build it through the sweat and blood we spill to restore the foundations of industry to our great nation. Because without industry, there is no progress. And we are not content to allow another two hundred years to go by with ponykind reduced to scavengers!”

Red Eye’s speech ended, his voice replaced by what sounded like carnival music.

Twilight was descending over Fillydelphia when we crested a small hill and I could glean where we were heading.

Nearly two-thirds of Fillydelphia had been cut off, sealed up from the ruins beyond by a great metal wall. The bulk of the industrial center, the amusement park whose roller coaster towered in the fading light, and Fillydelphia Crater itself all hid inside. Not only did towers just inside the wall harbor guardponies, but griffins patrolled the skies around. The glaring dirigibles above provided additional sniper cover.

The “secondary position” of the Steel Rangers was obvious: the largest and most defendable building still intact outside of the wall. The massive, gear-shaped emblem on the front of the building proclaimed what it had been even better than the crumbling, two-story letters that cut through it. The Steel Rangers had taken over the headquarters of Stable-Tec and converted it into a citadel.

Calamity flew casually past me to hover near SteelHooves.

“So, ya ain’t an elder cuz ya chose not t’ be?” he asked curiously. “Maybe we ain’t so different after all.”

I felt ice water run down my spine.

SteelHooves turned to Calamity, studying the rust-colored pegasus for a moment. “No. You flew towards your responsibilities in defiance of your own kind, heedless and ignorant of the consequences.”

Calamity flapped backwards a bit, a frown forming across on his face.

SteelHooves continued. “I ran away from my responsibilities because I understood exactly what the consequences would be if I did not. I knew there were ponies who would follow my example, and I was not willing to risk a civil war amongst the Steel Rangers.”

Turning away from Calamity, SteelHooves said firmly, “We are nothing alike.”

Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Tough Hide (level two) – The brutal experiences of the Equestrian Wasteland have hardened you. You gain +3 to Damage Threshold for each level of this perk you take.