Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Twenty-Four: Dances of Light and Shadow

Chapter Twenty-Four: Dances of Light and Shadow

“Mmm! I can smell the muffins baking now!”

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


The battlefield was strewn with bloody corpses under a charcoal-grey sky that heaved and threatened rain.

I was dying. Or, more precisely, my host was dying. And, trapped in his memory, I was along for the ride. Part of my mind remained coherent enough to wonder about that. I could feel the press of metal against my host’s head, a helmet which could easily hold a recollector. Was I going to experience death?

The rest of my mind was overloaded by the pain that tore at my abdomen. My host had fallen against the wall of the trench, head propped up just enough to see that most of his body below the stomach was no longer as attached as it should be. I could see his intestines and internal organs spilling out onto the recently dug dirt. Mercifully, I couldn’t feel that… my host had lost all feeling below the top of the wound.

He was already dead. He must have known it, but his body just hadn’t gotten the message yet.

Who was I? I had assumed this was Applesnack’s memory, since it came from one of the orbs in his memory case. But that seemed unlikely now. Between the armored barding and the blood, I couldn’t be sure.

Several pegasi flew back and forth over the battlefield, searching, relaying messages or calling out names. For a moment, a familiar sky-blue mare with her shockingly brilliant rainbow mane and tail swooped over my trench. She hovered, looking about frantically. Her blood-stained purple suit looked nearly black in the light and her battle saddle was scorched. Her eyes fell on me and she winced. Then she was off again.

“Hey!” The large form of a particularly statuesque red stallion in similar military barding slid down into the trench next to me. His eyes went wide as he took in the morbid reality of my wounds.

“So… Sarge… we drive those striped bastards back?” I felt my muzzle move, and the words came out in a low, masculine voice.

I felt a drop of wetness hit our cheek. At first, I thought the other pony was crying. But then another raindrop fell out of the sky, and another, and another.

“Ayep,” the red pony nodded, wisps of orange mane fell from under his helmet, caked a dark red by blood. He spoke slowly, “Ya did good, soldier. Mighty good. They’ll make ya Sergeant after this.” Rain was beginning to soak into his coat, washing caked blood out of it.

My host choked, coughing up blood. The taste was warm and coppery in our mouth. “Post mortem, I’m afraid, Sarge.” My host’s voice was eerily calm and even. He had minutes left to live, if that. And he seemed… at peace with it. “I’m afraid I won’t be joining you when you go after all.”

We felt cold. A chill deeper than that from the rain. I felt drops of rain kissing the seeringly painful wound. I was thankful I couldn’t feel drops landing inside me.

“Don’t talk,” the big one said, looking deeply wounded. “Ah ain’t ready t’ let ya go, buck.”

“Think the zebras had different to say.” My god, my host actually chuckled. He was in utter agony… I hadn’t felt pain like this since the dragon set me on fire; I was sure that my own body was screaming… and he just chuckled. Like it was nothing. “Don’t worry, Sarge. We won the day, right? No regrets…”

The big red stallion looked like he was fighting tears. My host just grinned, his muzzle full of his own blood. “…Well, one regret. Never did get to meet that hot sister of yours.”

The stallion frowned dangerously, and I suddenly realized that his mane was the same color as Applejack’s coat. And they had similar freckles. Big Macintosh bristled, then burst into a gruff laugh. “Now ya got t’ pull through,” he grinned, “So’s Ah c’n buck yer backside, boy!”

It was too late. Darkness was already creeping into the edges of my host’s vision. The reaper pony had come to take him home. Wherever home was before Celestia and Luna were goddesses. My host tilted his head back, staring into the darkening sky, feeling the rain on his face for one last time…

A flock of pegasi soared in from overhead, two of them pulling a passenger wagon full of other ponies, mostly unicorns. All the newcomers wore barding of yellow and pink and carried saddleboxes with little butterflies on them, just like Velvet Remedy’s. All except the lead pony. She didn’t need the uniform… Fluttershy already was the uniform.

“um… oh…. Oh dear!” The shy pegasus pony looked out over the hills and trenches full of dead and dying. Her eyes filled with tears and she began to tremble. But she stomped a hoof down, and forced herself to find her voice. “Oh… okay. Everypony, everyone… please be calm. We’re going to help.”

Fluttershy turned and called out to her team, “Please, if you would, take your positions. And hurry. Thank you.”

Seeping shadows had nearly engulfed my host’s vision, and his other senses were fading fast. I was looking at the world from the bottom of a deep, dark well. Thankfully, the pain was at the top of the well, far away from us. We closed our eyes.

It was hard to open them again. Our eyelids were heavy, like they were made of gold. When we did, there wasn’t much to see. Just clouds and rain. Barely visible. We were in a much deeper well.

Fluttershy’s head moved between us and the clouds, looking strangely upside-down, cringing at the sight of my host. “Ooooh… Oh no.” She dashed up to us. “I… we… I think we can help. Just, please, hold on!”

We strained to speak. It only came out as a whisper. “…bit beyond you. Go help the… ponies who can...” Our words trailed off. There was no more energy to put behind them. That was enough, hopefully, to get the point across.

A unicorn in a yellow and pink dress stepped into view. “Fluttershy,” she said, her voice the whisper of a whisper, “We’re ready for the test run…”

The world faded to black. A black that was all-encompassing. No sight. No sound. Nothing to smell or feel. Even the taste of blood was gone from our mouth.

We were dead.

We should have been dead.

But a pleasant warmth was spreading through us. I could feel it all the way to my host’s tail. The world came rushing back like we were being released from a memory orb. There was no pain. It was replaced by the bone-deep chill. Our body was soaked in rain. The trench had become squishy with mud.

We opened our eyes. Our body was healed. Complete.

It was a miracle. It was impossible!

“What did you do?!” I heard a mare’s voice cry out from above. I looked up to see the rainbow-maned mare dive out of the sky, a rainbow-colored wake stretching out behind her. “Fluttershy! What. Did. You. Do?!

Rainbow Dash stopped, hovering in the air, staring in utter shock at her fellow pegasus.

“We healed them,” Fluttershy said graciously, her voice somehow filled with happiness but not a hint of pride. Several of her unicorns were trotting up to stand by her side.

“I know that,” Rainbow Dash assured her. “But… how?”

Fluttershy blushed, looking pleased. “We call it a ‘megaspell’.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “A what now?”

One of the unicorns cleared her throat and Fluttershy took a meek step back, allowing the mare to explain. “It’s a new, underlying spell framework that allows smaller spells to be augmented in scope and intensity.”

The blue pegasus looked lost. And worried.

“This way,” Fluttershy claimed, “We can heal everyone on the battlefield with a single spell. No one has to die because we couldn’t get to them in time.”

“Every…” Rainbow Dash turned her stare over the battlefield. My host did too. Everywhere, ponies were getting to their feet with expressions of awe and bewilderment. Only the dead remained dead, their corpses strewn across the hills and filling the trenches. The wounded, even those at the very brink of death from impossible wounds, were healthy and whole.

Like my host.

“…all of them?...”

And like the zebra who was pulling herself from amongst the bodies, a zebra sword clutched in her mouth, crackling with electrical fire.

Rainbow Dash shouted at Fluttershy, “You healed everyone!? Indiscriminately? Even the zebras!?!”


“Do you know what you’ve done!??”

“I… we…”

“Do you know how many ponies died here today?” Rainbow Dash bellowed. “And now we have to fight the damn battle all over again!”

I could hear the yellow pegasus squeak, beginning to cry. My heart broke at the sound. I wanted Applesnack to turn towards her… I wanted him to comfort the mare who had just saved his life. But he didn’t even spare her a glance. Instead, my host lowered his head, sinking his teeth into mud to pull up his rifle, ignoring the slimy texture and earthy taste.

Shots began to sound across the battlefield outside the trench.

“Fluttershy, get down!” Rainbow Dash cried out a moment before the blue pegasus tackled the yellow one, sending them both rolling into the trench next to me, her wing catching the wake of a missile as it shot over the trench and exploded, raining dirt down on us.

The battle was engaged. Again.

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

*** *** ***

Velvet Remedy stopped as we approached the massive gate that the Steel Rangers had built in front of Stable-Tec Headquarters. The armored plate looked like it had been taken from a battleship’s hull. It was slid down into grooves in a concrete wall that bisected what had once been the squat skyscraper’s courtyard.

Steel Rangers stood guard along the roof and in the open half of the courtyard, accompanied by two of the tank-like sentinel robots that had ironically helped prompt the creation of the anti-machine rifle.

This outer half-courtyard was a mess of cracked steps and shattered cobblestones, concrete planters where nothing grew, and a dried fountain. Above the fountain rose a cracked and badly-weathered statue of a once-beautiful white unicorn with a curling purple and pink mane and tail. The statue had suffered from not only weather but generations of graffiti before the Steel Rangers had taken possession of the building and began fatally discouraging raiders and miscreants from approaching their base of operations.

Everypony else was focused on the guards in magically-powered armor and sentinel robot in front of the gate. The senior paladin mare trotted forward, addressing them. I perked my ears to listen, but felt a sudden hoof-nudge from Calamity. He pointed a hoof and turned to see Velvet Remedy walking up to the fountain.

“Hello, great grandmother,” she said softly. “Great, great, great, great, great…” She paused, blushing. “I’ve sung your song. And I just wanted to say: you saved us. I’m here because of you. Stable Two worked.”

The Steel Rangers had quieted, themselves strangely interested in my friend’s almost internal conversation with the statue. Calamity moved away from us, flying quietly towards her.

“You got it right.” Velvet dug at the ground. “I… just wanted you to know.” There was a tear in her eye as she turned and stepped away, moving to rejoin us. Calamity landed next to her, wrapping a foreleg about her in comfort.

Velvet Remedy stopped, leaned into the embrace, and sniffed once. Then broke away, wiping a tear, and returned to her place behind me.

Pyrelight fluttered out of the sky and landed on the statue, causing the Steel Rangers to fall into battle stances.

“At ease,” SteelHooves rumbled. I was willing to bet that, behind his mask, he had rolled his eyes.

“Those things are dangerous,” one of the knights explained.

I chuckled grimly to myself. “Yeah, she might lift your visor and breathe, baking you.” The mental image was grotesque -- having seen a pony killed cruelly like that was horrifying - but somehow the image of Pyrelight pulling the same trick struck my funny bone. Goddesses, there really was something wrong with me.

The knight mare next to me (the one with the machine gun battle saddle) giggled in her armor. “You can’t lift the visor in these helmets.” She turned to me, “That would be a serious weak point in the armor. I can’t imagine such a design getting through the Shield Committee.”

I didn’t know exactly what she was talking about, but I gleaned the general idea. “It wouldn’t,” I agreed, “If protection was the primary goal of the armor.”

“What other purpose could armor have?” she scoffed.


Behind us, Calamity had flown up to look Pyrelight in the eyes. “Ya crap on it, an’ she’ll kill ya. Fair warnin’.”

A sky-rending squeal tore the air. Above us, the giant arm of a crane swung into view from behind the wall. The massive steel talons on the end of it lowered and grasped onto the metal gate. Slowly, with the tortured cry of metal grinding on concrete, the gate to the Steel Ranger’s citadel in Stable-Tec Headquarters lifted to allow us access.

“Poppyseed,” the knight mare next to me said.

“Hm?” I blinked, confused.

“My name,” she said. “I’m Knight Poppyseed.” At my continued blank expression, she expounded, “Poppies are a flower from zebra lands. They have seeds.”

“Oh.” I smiled back. “Littlepip.” I lifted my right foreleg, showing off my PipBuck. “Pip is short for PipBuck,” I told her, choosing to conveniently forget my name was my mother’s play on ‘pipsqueak’. “All the ponies in the Stables have them.” Even as I said that, I wondered if that was true considering the often-fatal strangeness of other Stable-Tec stables. I looked beyond the lifting gate, a sudden lump in my throat. “…well, in my Stable, at least.”

“Really?” Poppyseed commented. “I’d always heard that to pip somepony meant to shoot that pony with a firearm.” I had never heard that before. And really, what do you say to that?

The rest of us started to move forward. Pyrelight seemed intent on staying outside in the Fillydelphia outskirts. I wished her well, expecting she would still be nearby when and if we left. She had survived on her own for a long time. I was more concerned about the rest of us.

Calamity looked back at the base of the statue, bent his head forward and snatched a bottle cap out of the dry fountain bed. He flew back to us, taking his place walking at Velvet’s side, dropping the cap into one of his saddlebags as he did so.

*** *** ***

The sounds of sporadic gunfire danced in the air. Steel Rangers trotted laps around a track running along the towering wall which encircled the lower floors of Stable-Tec Headquarters. In the inner half-court, a senior paladin was barking orders at initiates as they struggled to master movement in their suits of magically-powered armor.

“Ah get it,” Calamity said to SteelHooves as one of the initiates bucked at a badly dented steel plate, leaving hoofmarks nearly half a yard from her intended target. “Yer armor’s spell matrix enhances yer strength an’ endurance t’ compensate fer the bulk o’ it, right?”

SteelHooves nodded without a word.

“Interestin’,” Calamity mused. “The enchantments in an Enclave suit negate its weight. Kinda like one o’ the enchantments on Spitfire’s Thunder.” SteelHooves glanced back at the unique anti-machine rifle strapped to Calamity’s battle saddle. The thing was almost twice as long as he was when fully assembled, so he kept it broken down while traveling. “Differn’t approaches, but still… it’s all about keepin’ the weight down.”

SteelHooves had slowed, staring at Calamity. This was the first time he had witnessed Calamity’s freaky knowledge of magical engineering, rarely seen as it was.

The senior paladin mare led us up the steps to the once-grand doors of Stable-Tec. What had once been gleaming, polished bronze inlaid with richly varnished wood was now tarnished and discolored metal with inserts of warped and rotting timber. Above the door, the gear-shaped Stable-Tec logo was embedded into a mantel over a pair of decorative nooks where fires had once burned. Ashes from the nooks had stained the wall and doors below in streaks, making the building look like it had been crying.

I shuddered, feeling a chill.

Cocking his ear towards the gunshots, Calamity asked SteelHooves, “Ah take it that’s a shootin’ range out back. If your friends here ain’t inclined t’ kick us out or shoot us anytime pressin’, think Ah could take a few turns at it?”

“Trying to impress the Rangers?” our ghoul companion retorted.

Calamity laughed. “Hell no. That ain’t it a’tall.”

I trotted closer, my own curiosity waking. “What then? Surely the four-year-running sharpshooting champion doesn’t need lessons. I’ve never seen you miss…”

Velvet Remedy snarked, “Even when he was supposed to.”

“…so why the shooting range?”

The leading mare had stopped at the front door and was speaking to somepony on the other side through an intercom. Poppyseed trotted in place next to me, looking anxious. Or bored. Hard to tell without being able to see an expression.

“Y’see, this new gun, Spitfire’s Thunder, is a magically enhanced anti-machine gun. Made fer a pegasus sniper.” Calamity tipped the brim of his hat forward. “It’s enchanted so’s to weigh only a few pounds an’ t’ have only a feather-brush of a kick. Fires more like a magical-energy weapon than a firearm. Even has a lightnin’ gem fuelin’ her insides -- that’s why she sounds like thunder when she’s shot. She fires probably twenty percent faster than the non-magical model and won’t never jam. No moving parts.”

Now it was my turn to whistle.

“Alla which means she’s more magical energy rifle than firearm. But she still uses bullets, just like muh battle saddle. An’ bullets are subject t’ wind and gravity. So that makes for an odd combination.” He smiled to me then looked frankly at SteelHooves. “An’ that means Ah best get some love in with her on the firin’ range before takin’ her inta battle proper.”

The door into Stable-Tec was opened from the inside.

Velvet Remedy pushed past us, rolling her eyes and tossing her mane. “Do you and your gun need some alone time?” she shot as she passed Calamity.

He blinked. “Well, yeah. That’s what Ah jus’ said.”

I facehoofed. Velvet Remedy nickered and trotted inside, ignoring the confused pegasus.

*** *** ***

“Does the news today make you anxious? Worried about what might happen to yourself or your family should the megaspells fall? I know and understand your fears because I share them…”

My companions and I looked around, startled. The lobby of Stable-Tec had been designed to be a welcoming self-advertisement. The sad, sweet voice seemed to come from right in front of us, no matter which way were were facing. It filled the air.

“That’s Sweetie Belle,” Velvet Remedy whispered, searching for the speakers.

“Like you, I hope for the best… but like you, I need to prepare for the worst. I want a safe place for my loved ones to survive if that horrible day should ever come where our beautiful Equestria falls beneath a megaspell holocaust.”

“It’s automated,” Poppyseed told me. “Starts up every time we go through that door. Didn’t use to, but then we tried to disable it. Only made it worse.” She pointed to the large Stable-Tec logo embedded in the floor. “There used to be an image standing there of that unicorn from the statue out front. Made out of dancing lights -- looked like a damn ghost. Killing that also killed the interface for the tour presentation.” She giggled wryly inside her armor. “Enjoy.”

Explained why neither our guide nor the Steel Rangers milling about seemed to be paying the voice of Sweetie Belle even the slightest bit of attention.

“I too need to know my family will be safe. But more than that, I want them to be happy. I don’t want them locked away in a dark, cramped shelter for the rest of their lives. That’s no better than a prison. No… I want my family to be safe and secure inside one of Stable-Tec’s magnificent Stables.”

Our guide lead us past display cases, most of which were destroyed and the displays plundered, and framed posters on the wall, all badly faded. The posters ranged from terrifying portents of armageddon (all of which somehow managed to be more wholesome and pleasant than the post-apocalyptic reality they attempted to prophesy) to pictures of a smiling Sweetie Belle urging parents to trust their children to Stable-Tec’s promise of long and happy lives. All of them had a unifying message, although rarely put into these exact words: We care. You need us. You will die without us. Buy your tickets for the Stable-Tec lottery now.

We were approaching the end of a hallway, passing a pristine Sparkle~Cola machine (this one with a large, back-lit plate showing an orgasmic Fluttershy drinking her favorite carrot-flavored drink) and an ammunition vending machine which had been broken into and thoroughly looted. The end of the hall was adorned in false rocks, so the hallway would appear to transform into a small, darkened cave. The illusion would have been effective if chunks of plaster from the “cave wall” hadn’t broken loose, revealing the wire mesh beneath.

As our leader stepped into the cave, loud clunking vibrations echoed through the hall and display lights came on, revealing a huge mock-up of a Stable door.

Sweetie Belle’s voice came to life around us again, the recording playing at a strangely low speed for the first few seconds, making her voice briefly sound similar to SteelHooves’.

“Stable-Tec welcomes you to our new line of subterranean stables, featuring our patented S.A.S. arcano-technology. S.A.S. technology is the product of years of dedicated, uncompromising effort by our Stable-Tec scientists to bring you the most advanced and enduring designs based on the three pillars of post-apocalyptic survival: Safety, Amenities and Sustainability.”

Velvet Remedy and I exchanged looks.

The mock-Stable door (numbered “0”) swung open on hinges as we approached while a soundtrack played the sounds of an actual Stable door being pulled open. Spinning yellow lights topped off the simulation, something that hadn’t been present in Stable Two.

“You and your loved ones will be able to sleep in peace, knowing that our impenetrable Stable doors are built to survive and protect even if zebra invaders detonate a Balefire Bomb directly outside of your new, safe and secure home. (With only a projected seven-percent failure rate under even those extreme and unlikely circumstances.) Stable-Tec’s mighty Stable doors are guaranteed to protect you and your family.”


Velvet Remedy stifled a giggle. Before I could stop myself, I whispered “Velvet Remedy’s barn door doesn’t swing that way.” I gasped and quickly corrected myself, “I meant, Stable Two’s.” Too late. The charcoal-coated unicorn with the scarlet and gold streaks in her white mane was fixing me with a stare that told me I wouldn’t be hearing the last of this for a long, uncomfortable time. Dammit, sometimes I hated my mother. Not that my slip-of-the-tongue was really her fault… but it was her fault.

“Still thinking of that dark, cramped cellar that you feared would be your family’s home? Let the magical light of S.A.S. technology burn those fears away! Through the magical power of your Stable’s appointed Overmare, each Stable will enjoy fully realistic sunlight even underground, with all the warmth and joy it brings,” Sweetie Belle’s voice boasted. “And at night, a softer light will fill the halls, provided through enduring earth pony technology.”

So far, the most accurate part of the exhibit was the hall lighting with it’s ever-present, high-pitched whine. Of course this “night-time lighting” had been sixteen hours a day, every day, all the time. The realistic sunlight promised through the Overmare had been reserved for the underground apple orchard. And based on the color and taste of the things we had called apples, I had my doubts about how “fully realistic” it was.

“Concerned about security? Fear not. Each Stable is supplied with a security level and a fully-stocked armory. Our ‘Friendly Pie’ camera system allows the Overmare to keep an eye on every pony in public areas, without prying into your private affairs.” Sweetie Belle’s disembodied voice seemed especially pleased with this feature. “We here at Stable-Tec believe in returning your life to the level of respectful privacy that you deserve without compromising your safety.”

We began to trudge through the bizarre mock-Stable. Its layout was nothing like the real thing, designed more like an amusement park ride than a functional shelter. Every few yards we would pass a large window. As our leader approached, lights would flicker on inside eternally sealed rooms where mannequins would play out scenes of utopian underground life. With each room we passed, Sweetie Belle’s ghost would regale us with some other aspect of how wonderful and safe living in a Stable would be.

After the other Stables I had been in, I found that this was creeping me out. I couldn’t stop thinking about how so many Stables had apparently turned into lethal traps, very not like these promises. Somehow, the reaction I saw on Calamity’s face made it even worse.

“Here at Stable-Tec, we have taken the time to think of everything. We know that, in the event of the worst kind of megaspell cataclysm, it may take Equestria not months but decades to recover. Those of us who choose to survive the destruction may have to live most of the rest of our lives underground and see a new generation born without knowing the world outside. So each Stable includes a Stable-Tec Apple Orchard, providing not only more than enough food for a growing underground community, but complete with grass for your children’s hooves and mist fountains to simulate rainbows, run off one of our patented S.A.S. water talismans.”

Did other Stables run out of food? Stable Two’s Apple Orchard was, simply put, vast. Which may explain why the rest of the Stable never enjoyed magical sunlight. Did Stable-Tec actually design the other Stables with orchards that could only support a generation or two of growth? Or was Sweetie Belle purposefully downplaying the horrors that she and her two friends anticipated?

“Of course, we all hope and pray that these Stables will never be needed. But can any of us afford to take that gamble and not seek a place of safety and joy for our loved ones and ourselves?”

Velvet Remedy seemed on the verge of tears at the parting words of her ancestor whom we both knew had become the first Overmare of Stable Two -- the Stable whose special purpose was to keep us down there, safe, forever.

Or, I knew, until Spike could find the right ponies to cast Gardens of Equestria.

“Ah can’t believe you lived yer whole lives in a place like that,” Calamity said as we walked up the steps that lead out of the exhibit. “Ah mean, one that actually worked. This… explains so much.”

I opened my mouth, but couldn’t find words. Only a little squeak escaped.

“We here at Stable-Tec hope you’ve enjoyed the tour today. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask at the lobby desk. One of our friendly staff would love to tell you everything you need to know.”

*** *** ***

We were made to wait in the long hall of rotting wood paneling outside Elder Blueberry Sabre’s office, under the watchful glares of armor-encased ponies, as SteelHooves spoke with the Elder in private.

I tried to engage Poppyseed in conversation. That worked until I misstepped by asking what she thought of the Steel Ranger’s Oath, wondering whether she felt the same way as Knight Buck had about following Applejack’s principles. What I learned instead was that talking of the Oath to outsiders (or ‘tribals’ as she called us) was forbidden. After that, she ignored all my further efforts to chat. I couldn’t tell if it was because I had deeply offended the knight, or because there were other Steel Rangers watching.

I contemplated trying to eavesdrop, but then realized the guards wouldn’t let me close enough to the door. And I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to know what was being said. I was sure there were some elements of the conversation that I would do well to hear, particularly anything regarding us or SteelHooves’ mission. But there was probably more than a bit of discussion about internal politics and current affairs within the Steel Rangers. Such things were none of my business; and after entering one of SteelHooves’ memories without permission, I didn’t want to stick my hoof into his affairs uninvited so soon again.

Furthermore, I found that I really didn’t want to know. The Steel Rangers were… distasteful.

SteelHooves was a Steel Ranger. Not just a former member who still wore the armor because (for some reason I didn’t quite understand) he couldn’t remove it, but a current and still active part of the organization. A Star Paladin at that. Which, although I didn’t quite know what that meant, sounded impressive.

Between this side-trip and the memories in his memory orbs, I was beginning to learn a lot about my newest companion. (Well, newest four-hooved companion.) And I found I could accept most of it, although not always easily. I felt I could trust him… within certain parameters… and call him a friend. But I did not envy his karma, and I was apprehensive about where his loyalties would fall if the hooves met the apple tree.

Learning about him had also meant learning about the Steel Rangers. I was interested in them as they connected to SteelHooves... and to Applejack, a mare in that special circle of friends whom Spike had personally known and whom I had grown to care about regardless of the centuries between us. The notion of defenders still sworn to the values of Applejack was like a light in the sea of darkness that the Equestrian Wasteland often seemed to be.

But the Steel Rangers themselves, or at least a great many of them, struck me as little better than well-equipped, more principled raiders. They didn’t go about raping and torturing. No bodies hung mutilated from their walls. But they had no compunction about just sitting back and letting ponies suffer and starve and die when they had the technology to do some good. They were like Spike, only without the noble and self-sacrificing reason that justified their actions.

I frowned and turned my thoughts away from internal contemplation and back into the hallway. Having decided not to eavesdrop, I slipped my earbloom into one ear and tuned my PipBuck back into the Fillydelphia broadcast. But instead of Red Eye, I got another iteration of “March of the Parasprites”. I looked towards my friends. Velvet Remedy and Calamity were sitting together, occasionally casting furtive glances at the door to Blueberry Sabre’s office, as Velvet helped divorce Calamity from the more egregious misconceptions of Stable life that the tour had planted.

I contemplated joining the conversation, but I had missed a fair part of it, and both Poppyseed and the guards seemed more interested in them than me. So instead I sat, growing restless (bored). I stared at the pictures on the walls, tattered and age-darkened oil paintings of buildings. I recognized one of them, barely, as the Red Racer factory.

I got up and started to walk the hall, giving the paintings a closer examination. There were pedestals as well, set at regular intervals, each holding a small architectural model. Most of the models had collapsed, overcome by the weight of at least twenty decades. But a few were still standing, mostly intact -- an amazing testament to the model builder.

When Stable-Tec built something, they built it to last.

I was just about to pull the earbloom from my ear when the current song ended (something both patriotic-sounding and yet heavy on the use of an oboe), and Red Eye’s voice spoke into my ear.

“My friends, let me share with you a secret, just between you and me. I was not always like this. No, once I was a young colt, irresponsible and carefree. I did not understand the need to toil, to labor. Nor should I have. For I was but a child, and childhood is the time for innocence. For exploration. For happiness and growth.

“I was lucky, fortunate beyond my deserving, to be blessed with safe places to roam, security from the fiends and horrors of the Equestrian Wasteland, and companionship in the form of my beloved dog, Winter. Oh, the adventures we had.

“Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it. A time of peace and joy that I can return to in my mind at the end of the day after the Equestrian Wasteland has thrown at me the worst of its horrors and despair. Between the visions of my peaceful past and our gloriously bright future, I find the strength to go on, no matter how hard the path or heavy the load.

“But… my childhood, picturesque and ideal and safe… is that what your own children enjoy? Tell me, Equestrian Wasteland, how many of our children today are truly happy? Truly carefree?

“Sadly, we both know the answer. None. Today, Equestria is a hard, miserable, unforgiving place. Our colts and fillies live with fear, violence, rape and death. The bleak and poisoned world offers our children only meaningless struggle and, all too often, a cruel and terrifying end. There is no joy out there, no hope.

“No more! This ends here. This ends now. One day, yes, the New Equestria we are building will offer them that same utopian security that I once enjoyed… but we cannot wait for that while our children suffer. The leaders of our past may have forgotten how much each colt, each filly, is to be cherished when they unleashed their arrogant wrath upon our world, but we who have lived through hell know better. And we will not wait another day.

“As those living within lands already being reclaimed know, our nation’s young ones are, and have always been, my highest priority. All that we sacrifice, we do for them, to give them a better place. And in the meantime, we strive to give them what safety and security our hooves can offer.

“And more than that, dear friends. Oh, much more. We provide schools where they can learn, medical centers where they will obtain free treatment -- the best medical care in all of Equestria, and homes where they can live together with other children, making friends, all under the watchful care of loving, approved mares and stallions.

“Soon, the armies of the Children of Unity will come to your town. Not as an invading army, oh no. But as an army of engineers and teachers and doctors. They will rebuild your schools, establish hospitals that will provide the best care in this ruined and tortured nation, and bring to you the Words of the Goddess, so that you too may know Unity.

“And once again, our children will be able to play.”

The door to Blueberry Sabre’s office opened. SteelHooves took a step out.

“Littlepip, could you come in here for a moment?”

*** *** ***

Elder Blueberry Sabre was the first Steel Ranger I had actually laid eyes on. She was a rather pretty older mare. I suspected that, when she was closer to my age (or even Velvet’s), she must have been quite cute. She had a pleasant blue coat and her mane and tail had once been a berry purple before it turned mostly silver-grey. There were still a few wisps of the original color. I couldn’t see her cutie mark; her robes concealed a modest portion of her body.

SteelHooves guided me in, closing the door behind him with his metal-sheathed tail. Blueberry Sabre stood in front of me beside a heavy iron table whose interlaced frontal design reminded me oddly of scaffolding. She had one hoof up on the table, although with a closer glance I could see that her hoof was not actually touching the metal surface. Trapped between hoof and desk was the round black ball of a memory orb.

“Littlepip,” SteelHooves said, his voice oddly strained. “I need you to look into that orb and tell me what is inside there.”

I looked at him, puzzled. Then at the Steel Ranger Elder. She nodded with a smirk that looked ugly on what should have been a pretty face.

“All right,” I said, approaching slowly. I was a little surprised at my own hesitation. Something in the room just felt off. Still, I did as SteelHooves asked, lowering my horn towards the orb and focusing. I felt the odd washing sensation as reality slipped. Part of me panicked, suddenly thinking that they were incapacitating me. A memory of my own -- that of Velvet Remedy shooting me with my own dart gun -- flashed through my head.

And then I was no longer with them.

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

The first sense I gained was smell. Even before I could see the barn, I could smell the rich scent of hay, overlaid with other, less pleasant, earthy odors. Sight came next. I wanted to blink as dazzling sunlight, beautiful and pure, filtered into the barn through an open hayloft. Then came touch. First the touch of the cloak I was wearing, a rough but not unpleasant cloth. Then…

I felt odd.

The body I was in was different… but I couldn’t really put my finger on how. I had been in earth ponies before; the lack of a horn was no longer startling to me. And the body was less alien than that of a horny male, much less my exceptionally freaky experience as Spike. But I still felt wrong somehow. And it was like an itch that wouldn’t go away.

My host was standing in a bed of hay, watching as two familiar mares walked into the barn. They ambled right past me without so much as a glance.

“Now what’s this ya wanted t’ talk about, Rarity, that we needed t’ hide out in the barn fer?”

“Well,” the elegant white unicorn said, looking at her freckled friend with the frazzled blonde mane, “Rainbow Dash said that last week at the Summer Sun Celebration, she came on to you, and you didn’t mind…”

I wanted to snicker. Rarity had managed to strike a perfect tone between gossip and suggestiveness. Yet I could tell, without a doubt, that she was only playing with the orange mare with the three-apple cutie mark. Call it intuition, but I just knew that Rarity only had eyes for the stallions. And that made Applejack’s expression all the funnier.

“Oh hay no!” Applejack nearly shouted, backpedaling. “Gauldangit, not you too! Rainbow Dash was drunk. Again. An’ I told ‘er…”

I really wished my host would laugh, because it was hard to be in stitches when your body wouldn’t cooperate. But in the very least, I could tell Applesnack that whatever he had been afraid I might find in here was rubbish.

Applejack regained her composure as Rarity fluttered her eyes but failed to stifle a ladylike snicker quite fast enough.

“Oh for the love’a…” Applejack stomped. “Didja drag me all the way back here jus’ t’ mess w’ me.” She put a hoof to her freckled face. “Aw hell… did Rainbow Dash put ya up to this? This is one of her practical jokes, ain’t it?”

“Actually… well yes,” Rarity admitted. “It was her idea…”

“Ah knew it!” Applejack huffed, stomping again.

“…but I really do have something I need to talk to you about,” the graceful unicorn said, abruptly turning quite serious.

Applejack could tell the mood had changed. Fun, even that at her expense, was over. “What is it?”

“I’ve… come across some new magic,” Rarity said cautiously. “Zebra magic.” She stopped, measuring the country mare’s reaction.

“Ya mean, like the things Zecora used t’ brew?”

“Not exactly, no.” Rarity lowered her voice. “Have you ever heard of a soul jar?”

Applejack stared at her purple-maned friend. “No. An’ Ah ain’t sure Ah want to.”

But Rarity wasn’t ready to stop. “A soul jar is an item… it can be any item really, it doesn’t actually have to be a jar… that you put a soul into.”

Applejack looked taken aback, but the unicorn continued. It was as if, now that she had started talking, she couldn’t stop until it was all out. “Putting a soul into a soul jar changes the object. It becomes effectively indestructible, for one. And you can use the soul to hang other enchantments on…” The unicorn stopped at a thought, then added, “It becomes a foundation. Not unlike a megaspell framework, I suppose.”

“Rarity!” Applejack gasped. “What the hell has gotten into you, girl! Where did you even get this magic? This is…” The orange mare’s voice lowered to a hiss. “This is necromancy!

Rarity looked to her friend and nodded, her own eyes wide. “I know.” Then, in answer, “It’s from a zebra book called The Black Book.” Again she paused, thinking, “Well, the Black Book of… something I can’t pronounce. A name, but it doesn’t have vowels in the places it ought to. It has all manner of extremely icky things in it. Soul jars. Bypass Spells. Magic to tear souls apart…”

With each word, Applejack’s expression became more horrified. Rarity seemed not to quite notice. She gave a smirk like she was revealing a particularly juicy bit of gossip, “If you buy into the more colorful background of the book, they say that it was written by a mad zebra alchemist who communicated with the stars through dreams.”

“Who is ‘they’?” Applejack asked, but never got an answer.

“Now, I know all of this is perfectly dreadful, and my first instinct was to burn the book and be rid of it,” Rarity said. For the first time since the conversation turned dire, Applejack looked a little relieved. That relief was short lived.

“But the top magician in my Ministry says that he ought to be able to take that soul-shredding magic and rework it, turning it into a precision spell that would allow him to cut off just a small portion of a pony’s soul. Enough to create a soul jar without doing any real damage to the subject of the spell.”

“And… why would you want to do that?”

“Think of it, Applejack! What soldier wouldn’t be willing to give up just a small bit of her soul to be put into her own armor, making it completely impervious to any bullet? Any weapon?” Rarity was positively glowing in the rapture of her Idea. “And it wouldn’t have to be those ugly metal things your Ministry has been working on. We could make perfect, impenetrable armor out of dresses. Beautiful dresses!”

Applejack was reeling.

“And not only would our soldiers look absolutely fabulous, and be immune to the weapons of the enemy,” Rarity continued, “They wouldn’t be weighed down, encumbered. Until now, armored barding has always come at the price of mobility, but now...”


The unicorn stopped, putting her hooves on Applejack’s shoulders. “Applejack, just think. None of our family would have to die in battle anymore. If Big Macintosh had…”


Rarity dropped back, stunned by Applejack’s sudden outburst. But the orange earth pony wasn’t done. She advanced on her friend, jabbing a hoof at her breast. “Don’t you dare bring my brother inta this blackness!

Rarity gasped, eyes wide.

”This talk stops now!” Applejack demanded. “Ah don’t wanna hear another word. This is… vile. No soldier would give what yer suggestin’. An’ even if they were willin’, how could we let ‘em? Some prices are just too high! Don’t ya think, if there weren’t horrific consequences t’ playin’ wi’ these things, we’d already be facin’ zebras with impenetrable armor? Or bullets what could shoot through anything? Or worse?”

“I…” Rarity stopped. She turned her gaze away from Applejack, a flush of embarrassment on her cheeks. “Oh… you’re so right. I… I don’t know what I was thinking!”

Applejack let out breath in deep relief. “It’s okay, sugercube. Ya got wrapped up in a notion an’ didn’t really think it through. Happens t’ alla us now an’ again.”

The unicorn looked up to Applejack, smiling weakly. “Well, then… I’m lucky I have a good friend who can slap me out of it.”

Applejack gave a chuckle. “No harm done then. Now Ah want ya t’ go back t’ Canterlot and continue workin’ on your designs. Ya have a heap o’ work on yer plate as it is. An’ neither o’ us will mention this ever again.”

“Like it never happened,” Rarity said, genuine thankfulness in her voice.

“Like it ne’er happened,” Applejack agreed.

Rarity and Applejack embraced each other in a hug. Then the unicorn slipped elegantly away and started back for the barn door.

“Hey,” Applejack called out. Her friend stopped, looking back. “An’ when ya get back, burn that book. Or better yet, have somepony else do it fer ya,” the orange pony suggested. “Ah get the suspicion that even readin’ it was messin’ with yer head.”

Rarity lifted a hoof to her chin in thought, then nodded. “Yes, I do think you are right, Applejack.” She gave a lady-like frown. “That book is dangerous.

Applejack watched Rarity push the barn door open with a hoof and walk out. Finally, my host moved, stepping lightly so as not to make any noise, following the beautiful white unicorn.

“Hey!” Applejack called again, galloping past me fast enough to make my cloak flutter. She stopped at the door, calling out, “An’ fer whatever nonsense Rainbow Dash put ya up to, that hug does not count!

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

I was back. Back in my own body, and back in the presence of SteelHooves and Blueberry Sabre, both high-ranking members of the Steel Rangers. The wearers of those “ugly metal things” Applejack had gone ahead and designed. Gears were starting to move in my head again. The pony in my brain was busy shoving puzzle pieces into place. And the first one that clicked was the memory of Applejack and Rarity talking in Spike’s memory:

“Ah sure hope this ain’t nothin’ t’ do with… that… thing we never talked about.”
“Oh no, darling. I gave that project up ages ago.”

SteelHooves interrupted my mental puzzle-solving with an uncharacteristic tone. “Well. What was the memory?”

I blinked. I was no longer thinking that the issue was Applejack’s fidelity, which should never have been in question. But I was at a loss as for what had SteelHooves on edge. Clearly, Applejack had talked her friend away from that horrifying course. Otherwise, such perfect armors would be still around today.

“It was… a conversation,” I offered, my brain working to figure out how to pull the information I wanted out of them. “Between the mares of the Ministry of Technology and the Ministry of Image.” I wondered if I should have called it the Ministry of Wartime Technology, but it was too late to change my wording.

“It was a long conversation about several things, most of them trivial,” I said, not exactly dishonestly. “What specifically were you looking for?”

SteelHooves shook his head. “Telling you would bias your answer.”

Elder Blueberry Sabre snorted. “Well, if you won’t, I have no problem telling her.” The elderly mare smiled at me. “Tell him that this memory proves the values of the Ministry Mare he so stubbornly clings to are a fiction. This memory proves that she didn’t really care about the lives of the soldiers, but only about advancing her own designs. And when some other pony came up with a much, much better armor design, she made sure it never saw the light of day.”

Oh. That’s what this was about.

I blinked, feeling angry now. That’s what this was about? Of all the much, much worse things in that memory, the Elder of the Steel Rangers was focused on this? I about spit my bit.

Standing up as tall as my little frame would allow, I huffed, “How about I tell you what I didn’t see in that memory?”

Blueberry Sabre blinked in surprise. SteelHooves took a tentative step towards me.

“What I didn’t see was my host!” From the blank look in the Elder’s eyes, I realized I was using terms I had come up with myself. I had no idea what the proper term for a memory’s host was. Not that it mattered. The Elder was an earth pony. She couldn’t see into a memory orb without a recollector anyway. It seemed increasingly likely that she had never actually seen the memory herself, or that she had many years ago and lacked a clear recollection of its contents.

So I tried again, keeping my anger at this nonsense tightly under control. “I didn’t see the pony whose memory it was. Not even a forehoof. And while that’s not entirely unusual, I’m quite certain that the two Ministry Mares couldn’t see her either. I don’t think they would have had that conversation if they knew somepony else was present.”

Both the Elder and SteelHooves were still for at least a moment, actually paying attention.

“What I saw in there was that somepony was spying on the Ministry Mares. Invisible.” I remembered the itchy strangeness. “And I don’t think it was even a pony. I’m pretty sure I just shared the memory of a zebra.”

Another puzzle piece slotted into my head. I lifted my PipBuck, saying, “I found this in the rubble of a recruitment center out near the Shattered Hoof facility.” I played back the old recording, removing the earbloom attachment so that both of them could hear:

“I’m sending you one of the devices recovered from Shattered Hoof Ridge. Intelligence suggested that the zebras had developed invisibility spell fetishes, but this looks like something designed by the Ministry of Magic. It’s even PipBuck compatible. I hate to say it, but it looks like we’ve got traitors in our midst. If somepony in M.A.S. is leaking arcane technology to the zebras, the Princess will need to take action.”

*** *** ***

What followed the recording was much discussion; but in the end, the only thing resolved was that I had gotten at least a bit of the Elder’s trust while managing sidetrack both of them from their earlier argument.

It was over an hour later when Elder Blueberry Sabre got up and trotted to the window, staring out at the angry red glow coming from the walled-off portion of Fillydelphia.

“If you’re going in there, you won’t be able to do it like that,” she said. “Not with armor and an arsenal and a squad of companions.”

“Why not?” I asked. “I’m not worried about getting past the wall. I can just float us over when there is a gap in the patrols.” That was, at least, my plan.

“Because,” Blueberry Sabre turned to me, “You will never get close to Red Eye that way. He’s always protected. In the very least by a flock of griffins if not by a wing of those damned alicorns. The first sign of trouble, and he’ll hop his sky chariot and leave the city. You’ll lose any chance you have of taking him down before you even know it.”

Damn. I was confident of being able to sneak close until she mentioned the alicorns. I should have figured this couldn’t be so easy. But I was damned if I would just give up and go home. Not after the fresh reminder of what these slavers were doing to innocent ponies.

“I can help you,” the Elder offered. “If you agree to help me in return.”

Oh. This was going to be one of those days.

The Elder laid it out for me. She could get me and maybe one of my companions into the walled section of the city… stripped of our possessions and dressed in the rags of slaves. I’d have to work my way to him from there, preferably by gaining his trust rather than by body count. The latter method was likely to backfire for the same reason a covert assault would.

“You may have more to fear from the inmates than the guards,” Blueberry Sabre noted. “Red Eye’s armies have started rounding up raiders and putting them to work as slaves along with the rest. Some of the ponies you’ll be stuck with in there are exceptionally nasty refuse.”

This plan just kept getting better.

“And what do you want from me in return?” I asked finally.

“Two things.” Blueberry Sabre walked round the office as she spoke. “First, Red Eye has managed to develop some sort of engine fueled by radiation. He’s been having the slaves mine the Fillydelphia Crater itself for irradiated debris, which he can turn into usable energy to run his factories.”

SteelHooves nickered, “Well, that’s a game-changer.” Red Eye’s claims of building a New Equestria, at least on an infrastructural level, suddenly gained a lot more authenticity.

“Indeed,” Blueberry Sabre agreed. She turned to me. “I want the plans for that engine.”

Okay. Plans for a Radiation Engine. That was one. “And number two?”

The Steel Ranger Elder frowned even more deeply. “Our intelligence states that Red Eye has gotten ahold of research into something called a Bypass Spell.”

I felt a jolt. I had heard of that sort of magic not two hours ago, and not in a pleasant context.

“I want you to find his research on Bypass Spells. Confiscate what you can. Destroy the rest.” The Elder stomped both her forehooves. “Thoroughly obliterate it.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Since when is the Ministry of Wartime Technology interested in spell research?”

SteelHooves stepped in. “Since it’s a matter of survival.” He explained, “The zebras created Bypass Enchantments midway through the war. A Bypass augments another magical effect, allowing it to ignore one specific type of thing. The zebras, for instance, used it to create balefire bursts… the much smaller version of the megaspell you are familiar with… with a zebra bypass. With that, a zebra could trot into an area crowded with ponies, set off the blast, and kill everypony within a block or two without being harmed herself.”

The mental image of an invisible zebra walking into a crowded Stable atrium during one of Velvet Remedy’s performances suddenly lodged in my mind and refused to leave.

“The unicorns of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences failed to crack the enchantment before the megaspells fell,” Blueberry Sabre informed me. “But it’s impossible to know how close they were. And thus how close Red Eye is. I think, however, that you can grasp why it is in everypony’s best interest that Red Eye is not allowed to finish this research.”

I nodded, now imagining spells with an alicorn bypass. By the Goddesses!

“So,” the Elder asked, “Do you agree to my offer?”

As much as I hated to, I didn’t see another way. Not now, now that simply killing Red Eye wasn’t enough.

*** *** ***

“This is a stupid plan.”

I sighed, looking at my friends. “Almost definitely, but it’s the plan we’ve got.”

“Ah ain’t lettin’ ya go in there alone!” Calamity insisted. “Especially unarmed!”

I smiled at his loyalty. “I won’t be totally unarmed,” I assured him. “They won’t be taking my horn. And they can’t take my PipBuck either.” Instead, we would be wrapping my forelegs in bulky rags to hide its presence.

“Why do you have to go alone?” Velvet Remedy asked, almost pleading. If anything, she seemed to like this plan even less than Calamity.

“Because…” Because I don’t want the damn slavers to get their hooves on you. You’re gorgeous. And in there, beautiful is a really bad thing to be. “I need you out here. You’re a non-combatant, and that place is full of enslaved raiders.” Please, please don’t make me explain further!

Velvet Remedy scowled, clearly hating every word, but said nothing more.

“One o’ us needs t’ be with ya!” Calamity demanded. “Why not me?”

At least with Calamity I felt comfortable with a direct answer. “Two reasons,” I said, feeling bizarrely like Blueberry Sabre for a moment. “First, because you are a pegasus. And Luna only knows what they would do with a pegasus. You folk aren’t exactly a common prize down here.” I pressed my lips together in chagrin. “I don’t think we’d be able to stay together past the gate.”

Calamity was not at all satisfied. “Ah don’t care. Let ‘em try t’ do what they think Ah’ll let ‘em get away with. Ah’m not abandonin’ ya cuz o’ that!”

I had expected that, but I still felt a wave of genuine gratitude. But before I could move on to my second reason, Velvet Remedy interrupted.

“How about SteelHooves?”

“I can’t go,” SteelHooves said simply. “A Steel Ranger is a bit… conspicuous.”

Velvet sighed with exasperation. “We all know you’re a ghoul now. You don’t have to hide in your armor. You can take it off.”

“No. I can’t.”

Calamity cocked his head, giving SteelHooves a querying look.

“Why not?” Velvet Remedy pushed.

“Because my body is fused into it,” was the ghoul’s answer, eliciting several gasps (one of which was from me).

“Oh!” Calamity took a few steps back. “Yer that kinda ghoul!”

Wait… there are types of ghouls now? Other than ghoul-pony and zombie-pony?

Velvet Remedy looked equally surprised by Calamity’s reaction. “What kind of ghoul?”

“He’s a Canterlot Ghoul.”

SteelHooves nodded. Velvet Remedy and I were still in the dark.

“Would somepony care to explain?”

No more secrets.

*** *** ***

Ponies who suffered massive amounts of magical radiation and survived were forced to endure the cruel deterioration of becoming a ghoul-pony. Since the zebras had employed different kinds of megaspells, it only stood to reason that there were minor differences in the effects. In most cases, these differences were barely recognizable except between the ghoul-ponies themselves. But Canterlot ghoul-ponies were an entirely different sort. Because the megaspell unleashed in Canterlot was unlike any other.

“When the bombs started to fall,” SteelHooves told us, “Princess Luna threw up a magical shield over the entire city. Canterlot was bombarded by hundreds of missile strikes. None of them were megaspells, like the missiles which hit Cloudsdayle or Fillydelphia, but they would have been devastating all the same had they struck home. But the Princess kept the shield up.”

Velvet Remedy and I sat, listening, almost entranced. Calamity paced off to the side fretfully.

“I was stationed in one of the hamlets that surrounded the city, just outside the perimeter of the shield. My squad’s orders were to evacuate the hamlets, getting as many of the ponies to shelters or Stables as we could. The blast-wash from those missiles exploding against the shield wiped out hundreds in the first few minutes. The bombardment lasted hours.”

SteelHooves took a deep, trembling breath and pressed on. Even hidden in his armor, I could tell he was shaken. Although at the time I thought it was by the memory of those deaths. I would realize later it was because of what happened next.

“Applejack was with me. But when strikes started, she fled back to Ponyville, leaving us to do our work while she tried to ensure all her family got safely into Stable Two.”

I suddenly wondered if Applejack herself had made it. Had she been in Stable Two when it closed? I saw Velvet Remedy glancing at me and suspected she was wondering the same thing.

“But the missile strikes were just part of the zebra’s ploy. The megaspell was already in the city. A special one… after all, this one was meant to kill Luna and Celestia, not just three-quarters of a million ponies.”

“The Pink Cloud,” Calamity said abruptly, stopping.


Calamity momentarily took over the tale. “The Pink Cloud is… was… a great radioactive cloud of entropic, necromantic gas. Like taint, it didn’t care if you had gas masks. Nothing protected against it. Everything it touched, it seeped into and rotted. I’ve heard horror stories of bodies found partially melded into sidewalks, or with their saddles fused to their bones. Canterlot is still toxic today. The streets and buildings soaked it up like sponges and are slowly releasing it as they decay.”

“The zebras wanted the shield,” SteelHooves continued. “It kept the Pink Cloud concentrated in the city, strong enough to fatally poison even Celestia and Luna. By the time they comprehended that they were dying, it was too late. But still, they kept up the shield. I’m told they took turns, one powering the shield while the other tried to regain a little strength. That, in the end, they were holding each other for support.”

“Why?” I asked, feeling tears forming in my eyes. “Why didn’t they just let the shield fail? The city was already doomed! Why didn’t they escape?”

“Would you have?” SteelHooves asked simply. “I was still in one of the more remote hamlets when the shield finally came down. The city had soaked up enough of the Pink Cloud that the exposure wasn’t fatal, but…”

Calamity again added to the tale, a tone of disgust in his voice. “By the time Luna and Celestia realized the Pink Cloud was killin’ them, the first attack had been hours ago. The pegasi had already closed up the sky. The wind was beginnin’ t’ go wild.”

With a sad flap of his wings, our Dashite friend explained, “If Celestia and Luna had let that spell o’ theirs drop, they probably woulda survived… ‘though most likely at only a fraction o’ their former selves. But a whole heap o’ other ponies woulda been doomed as the uncontrolled winds blew Pink Cloud out over all them evacuating hamlets, over farms… t’would ‘ave destroyed all life far as Ponyville. Maybe farther.”

Mournfully, he informed us, “Ah’m so sorry. T’ both of ya. Ah really am. But… Luna and Celestia ain’t Goddesses watchin’ ya from the heavens like yer Stable teacher taught ya. The Princesses gave their lives so’s that yer ancestors could make it inta that Stable and live.”

*** *** ***

It was a long time before Velvet Remedy and I were ready to talk again. For a while, we just moved away from the others, found a corner by ourselves, and held each other in silence.

In that time, I decided that I was damn well going to keep praying to Celestia and Luna anyway. It didn’t matter if the accounts didn’t match my beliefs. I still believed in my heart that somehow, Luna and Celestia were up there. Watching us. Caring about us. Giving us guidance.

I just didn’t know if what I believed was true. I realized it probably wasn’t. But I could choose to believe anyway.

Finally, we gathered together again for round two of everypony not going into Fillydelphia with me. I have to admit, with my faith shaken, I no longer felt as confident. But I plowed on anyway.

“Second,” I told Calamity, picking up where we had left off, “You’re a pegasus.”

“uh, Li’lpip? Ah think that was the first one.”

“Well, it’s also the second one. Because you’re my escape route. My lifeline. Nopony else can swoop in and rescue me if things go bad. I need you out here so you can do that.”

Calamity frowned but seemed to find that more palatable. “Wait!” He looked at me like I was trying to dupe him. “How the hell am Ah s’posed t’ know when yer in trouble, or where t’ find ya, if Ah’m out here an’ yer in there?”

Fortunately, I already had this planned out. “These slavers, at least the rank and file, don’t seem to be the most educated lot. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to tell where my PipBuck ends and a peripheral begins. So I’m confident I can get in with a slotted attachment.” I smiled. “That means either a StealthBuck or the broadcaster we got from the griffins.”

I floated out both. “I’ll take the broadcaster. You take the StealthBuck. SteelHooves can activate it for you when…”

“Ah know how t’use a StealthBuck,” Calamity interrupted, holding up a hoof to the device. “So, how do Ah get yer call, genius girl. Case ya missed it, Ah don’t have one of them PipBucks of muh own.”

I grinned as I next floated out Velvet Remedy’s custom PipBuck, still in my saddlebags after all these weeks of travel. Velvet Remedy gave me a pained expression.

“Yes, I kept it,” I told her before she could say anything. “And yes, I know you don’t like wearing it. You shouldn’t have to. This is just the backup plan if the main plan fails.”

Calamity raised an eyebrow. “An’ that is?”

Finally, I levitated Homage’s override device out of my saddlebags. “I have a very important mission for all of you to complete while I’m gone.” I looked my companions over and decided that there had never been a better team assembled for such a job. “I need you to take this to the Fillydelphia Tower and attach it to the maneframe in the base station. Once you do, it will give DJ Pon3 both eyes and voice in Fillydelphia, kicking Red Eye out. And that will free up the receivers in the station to pick up my broadcast.”

“Red Eye’s almost certainly got some heavy forces guarding that tower,” SteelHooves noted. “I expect we’ll be in for a battle.”

“Then you’ll definitely need a medical pony,” Velvet Remedy asserted.

Calamity tipped up the brim of his hat. “Well then. Looks like we got ourselves a plan.”

*** *** ***

“Go ahead,” SteelHooves said, holding the last of his four memory orbs out to me on an armored hoof. “You’ve seen the others. You might as well see the last one before you go.”

I didn’t think I was ready for another trip into Applesnack’s memories. The day had been too much of an emotional maelstrom. I felt weak and fragile, like another gust could cause me to break. I put up a warding hoof, shaking my head.

SteelHooves grunted. “Compared to what you’ve seen, this one is gentle.” He pressed, “You trust me, don’t you?”

“To very specific extents,” I admitted. “It’s not… you and Applejack having sex, is it?”

SteelHooves stared silently. Then he put the orb down, letting it roll towards me on the floor. “You have a dirty mind.” He turned and walked out.

I stared at the orb as it rolled to a stop against my right forehoof.

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

“This isn’t fair!”

I recognized the voice of Rainbow Dash almost a full minute before I heard her.

I was SteelHooves. Not Applesnack this time, not with the heavy armor pressing all around me. My vision beyond the inside of the helmet was limited to the view out my visor, but I was graced with an exceptionally complex and sophisticated Eyes-Forward Sparkle. Within the helmet, I seemed to have access to everything my E.F.S. and PipBuck provided… and more.

Breathing inside the armor was unpleasant. My muzzle was pressed into a rebreather. The air was cool and fresh, likely supplied by a minor air talisman, but the mouthpiece was simply uncomfortable.

The armor itself was bulky and weighed down on me, but I felt strong. Stronger than in any memory I had experienced before. The weight, however heavy, felt no more taxing than carrying a light pack.

My hoofsteps were heavy, like my hooves were… well, encased in steel armor exactly as they were. It was, all in all, an enlightening look into SteelHooves’ existence. And while I could see the advantages, I did not envy him for it.

I trod down a hallway, focused on the wooden double doors at the end. This, I guessed, was an office building of some sort. Not, mercifully, a battlefield. There seemed to be no imminent threats.

I felt myself raise an armored hoof and push open the door with measured gentleness.

Inside was a barely-furnished office that looked almost unused. A few shelves and a desk. And this was where Rainbow Dash and Applejack seemed to be having an argument. Applejack was standing behind the desk, dressed in a suit that she looked distinctly uncomfortable in. Rainbow Dash, on the other hoof, was wearing that same purple and black uniform I had seen her in earlier today and years ago. Or, rather, a pristine new version of the same basic design. It had a jagged yellow neckline and a skull-shaped cloud on the flank shooting a rainbow-colored lightning bolt, covering where Dash’s actual cutie mark would be.

Both mares turned to look at me. Applejack nodded, giving SteelHooves a smile of gratitude. Rainbow Dash only seemed to size up the metal warrior, clearly unable to recognize the pony beneath. I recalled that the pegasus wouldn’t learn about Applejack and Applesnack until a party that, I suspected, was still a year or two away. Her attention returned to her orange-coated friend.

“It’s just not right!” the blue pegasus spat with righteous indignation. “The Ministry of Awesome is putting up almost fifty towers -- as tall as the clouds -- all over Equestria and here you are having to sell Sweet Apple Acres just to get a suit of armor built? How does that make sense?”

Okay, maybe not an argument.

“That’s cuz buildin’ those towers is all y’all seem t’ be doin’,” Applejack explained patiently. “Meanwhile, muh Ministry is helpin’ fund over four dozen industries, givin’ them the subsidies they need t’ keep runnin’ until they c’n pull a solid profit. An’ next year, there’ll be twelve more.”

Rainbow Dash gaped. Then cocked her head. “Don’t you sometimes think the Ministry of Technology is a little too successful?”

Applejack nudged her cowpony hat and smiled.

“No, seriously,” the blue pegasus claimed, spreading her wings. “It’s gotten so sometimes I can’t even recognize Equestria anymore.”

The orange pony with the graying blond mane gave her friend a look. I hadn’t noticed the grey in the other memories, although the difference in age was at best a few years. I realized with amusement that, at some point, Applejack had started dying her hair. I wondered if, at that age, I’d feel the urge to. But then, I’d be a lucky mare to live that long in the Equestrian Wasteland.

“For example, do you really need all those roads?” the rainbow-maned pegasus asked.

“Some ‘o us ain’t got wings, remember.”

There was a clop at the door. SteelHooves trotted to Applejack’s side like a bodyguard. Rainbow Dash scowled but moved to the side.

“Come on in!” Applejack called out.

The door pushed open and Apple Bloom walked into the room. She was beautifully groomed and wore a business dress of mahogany and rose that went well with her mane. She looked infinitely more comfortable in her dress than her older sister did in the suit. There was a business bag strapped to her side.

“Wait…” Rainbow Dash said, looking between the two sisters. “You’re selling your farm… to your own sister?”

“Technically,” Apple Bloom said in a politely professional voice. “She’s sellin’ Sweet Apple Acres to Stable-Tec.” The younger sister turned her head, pulling open her business bag and pulling out a clipboard with her teeth. She offered it to Applejack, who took the other end, then set it on the desk between them.

“Ah think you’ll find everything is just as we promised,” Apple Bloom told her sister. I noticed her voice was a touch more urbane than her older sister’s, the country accent not as strong.

SteelHooves moved towards Apple Bloom, leaning close and whispering into her ear, “You’re not going to plow the place and build a mall, are you?”

“Oh heavens no,” Apple Bloom whispered back, looking uncomfortable. Almost… guilty. Her older sister caught the look.

“Hold on. Yer not gonna kick me an’ granny off the farm, are ya?”

Apple Bloom looked wounded. “How can you even ask that? Ah’m your sister!”

“Cuz Ah know that look,” Applejack said sternly. “An’ it’s cuz Ah’m yer sister that Ah do. Now spill it.”

Apple Bloom sighed, then pulled out a set of blueprints, unfurling them on the desk in front of her older sister and the two (three, really) guests.

“You’ll still have rights to the trees an’ the apples, jus’ like we promised. Stable-Tec is only buyin’ rights to the land. But you’ll have t’ move all these apple trees in this section here. And you won’t be able to use the barn until next spring.”

“What?” Applejack cocked an eyebrow at her younger sister. “Why?”

“Cuz we’re gonna be buildin’ a Stable there.”

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

Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: A Little Dash – While wearing light armor or no armor, you run 20% faster.