Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat


Chapter Twenty-Five: Generous Souls

Chapter Twenty-Five: Generous Souls

“We stand at the dawn of a new golden age. Where others merely survive, we thrive! And while I have led your efforts, it has been by your own strength... Because, yes, freedom is what we all work towards.”

Alone.

I had given my possessions, even my barding, to Calamity. Knight Poppyseed had brought me soiled, filthy slave cloths to wrap myself in. Thick wrappings had gone around my right foreleg to hide my PipBuck, complete with twigs and bloodstains to suggest my leg had been cruelly wounded. (If anypony asked, I intended to tell them I’d been run through with a piece of rebar.)

Then I had been shackled. (As with the slavers before, Knight Poppyseed had been unable to shackle me properly at the hoof thanks to my PipBuck, so she had locked the manacles above my knees.) I had floated myself into the cage of a slave wagon and bedded down in moldy hay filled with small, itchy bugs. It had taken only minutes to become wretchedly uncomfortable. Between that, and nearly getting fucked in the tail by a giant flaming Pinkie Pie the evening before, I had been deemed to look decently pathetic.

I had been allowed to attach a few bobby pins to my rags, but I would have to hope I could find a screwdriver somewhere on the other side of The Wall.

Then, with worried goodbyes, my companions left me alone. I was to lay there and wait for a member of Red Eye’s slavers whom the Steel Rangers had sufficiently bribed (or perhaps ensured the cooperation of in less wholesome ways) to come and get the slave wagon.

I’d forgotten what it felt like to be alone. I had spent my whole previous life alone. I hadn’t had any friends growing up; and my mother, as much as I loved her, wasn’t the sort of parent a filly could feel “together” with. Alone is cold and dull and miserable. It is a void that aches to be filled. And the little hobbies and distractions that I had turned to had never really filled that hole. Because it was a hole that could only be filled with companionship.

Growing up, the closest I had come to that was music -- the singing on the Stable Two broadcast. At least with music, there was another pony involved who was trying to make a connection. And I could pretend that pony was trying to make a connection specifically with me, not just anypony who was listening. The illusion was never perfect, and it couldn’t be held beyond the song. But while the music was playing, the mirage of friendship helped protect me against the cold.

Needless to say, it was the songs of Velvet Remedy which I had cherished the most. I had even fallen in love, I think, with my dream of her. I still remembered the hurt when my ridiculous and unrealistic mental image of her was shattered by the real thing standing in a train car, a non-prisoner in a slaver town. And even then, I think, I still clung to little fragments of my dream-Remedy until the day she shot me.

That said, I wouldn’t have traded my very real friendship with the actual pony for anything, much less for a relationship with my two-dimensional daydream. What I had was better. Far better. Because it was real.

When I left Stable Two, my life changed forever. And the most drastic change wasn’t the vast open wasteland, or the sickly sunlight that pushed its way through the clouds. It wasn’t the horrors and wickedness and cruelty I had seen, or the daunting amount of pain I had suffered, or even the growing river of pony blood drowning my hooves.

The most drastic change was friendship. And it started just a few days out of the Stable with a pony named Calamity.

Calamity was unlike any pony I had ever met. He was fearless and noble and just in a way that I could only aspire to. And he cared about me in a way nopony, not even my mother, ever did. He was willing to stand by me, even when I was being foolish and wrong. Not that we never disagreed, because we did often enough. But he gave me the benefit of the doubt. He trusted me and he was somepony I knew I could trust in return.

I freely admit that I had been jealous when Calamity and Velvet Remedy had started to gravitate towards each other. (And, in retrospect, I have to wonder: was my conviction that they were a couple already accurate or a self-fulfilling prophesy?) How foalish I was to feel that way. But friendship was and is still new to me, and I had many lessons to learn about it. (And many, many more to go, if the sheer number of Spike’s stories are to be believed.)

Only after I had come to accept their closeness, and take comfort in it, was my heart really open enough to embrace Homage. I had friendship, but the void goes deeper than that. I wanted more than companionship. I yearned for love and physical intimacy.

I will also admit that when Homage first opened the possibility, I was drawn to her out of desperation. But that changed. She changed that. Likewise, I would not blame a pony for thinking that our relationship had been fast and brief. But while it is true that I had not met her in coat and mane until Tenpony Tower, I had gotten to know much of her before seeing her face-to-face, as she had gotten to know me. In truth, I have known Homage almost as long as I have known Calamity.

True, I had not known her deeply and personally until Tenpony Tower, but who really knows their friends well in the first few weeks? And I can safely say that the connection we had built before meeting was laid on a solid foundation. I can say this thanks in great part to the honesty that I realize Homage embodies. The Homage that I grew to know as DJ Pon3 was and is the real Homage. Not all of her, granted, and not without trappings. But real all the same.

Homage knows of me at my best, but has also seen me at my worst. And instead of being scared away, she has embraced me and let me in. She has held and comforted me. And she has done so much more, allowing me an intimacy that I had only daydreamed about before, and usually to my private shame. With Homage, I don’t feel ashamed.

Having seen the memories of SteelHooves, a melancholy realization had crept into my thoughts. He was the only of my companions who has been in a similar relationship. (Yet… unless Calamity and Velvet Remedy have managed to be up to things with a far greater degree of sneakiness and stealth than I attribute to either of them.) Like me, he had a companion whom he could trust to be open and honest with him. And, like me, he chose to keep things from her. I am quite sure he did not reveal to Applejack the murder he committed. Whereas, in my case, I have kept from Homage… well, another murder SteelHooves committed.

Thinking on these things, I suddenly found the parallel downright creepy.

SteelHooves once told me that I would learn that he wasn’t a “better pony” -- which I certainly have seen is true -- just like she did. And while I can only guess at what befell their relationship, I do know that he and Applejack were together the day the bombs fell. I must assume they at least worked at mending any damage his dark secrets had caused. And I also know that, ultimately, she left him. She chose her family over him, and she left him behind.

And he’s been living with that abandonment for two hundred years. Alone.

With an aching heart and a sense of unease, I found myself desperately needing to talk to Homage. With any luck, I would be able to do so as soon as my friends had the override installed. I wondered if I would be able to speak to her just by talking to the air. But from what I had heard, it seemed more likely that I would need to get to the station myself to have real communication with her. Either way, I was determined to come clean. For better or for worse.

Unlike the hobbies and distractions of my lonely youth, friendship really can fill the void enough for a pony to be happy. And while I wouldn’t normally consider my experiences in the Equestrian Wasteland to be happy ones, I really have been happier out here than I ever was in Stable Two.

Being with friends is a blanket against the cold. A bulwark that makes you stronger. A connection that makes you bigger. Without friends, I was exposed, weak and small.

And, on an unrelated note, itchy.

*** *** ***

Chain-link fencing crackled with energy, surrounding a barricaded outer gate. Guards watched with amusement as the slaver pulled my wagon up to The Wall.

“Only one?” a guard mare called out. She was heavily barded and wore a battle saddle bearing four combat shotguns. The sight made me cringe. “A whole wagon for just one? Been slacking, Gnash?”

The slaver pulling my wagon just grunted. I scratched at my neck with a hindhoof and tried not to wince every time the wagon jolted as it rolled over the broken, rocky streets. I unrealistically hoped that slaves were given baths.

“And such a small one too,” a guard buck in similar barding called out. I noticed that I couldn’t see any weapons on him, save for his horn and hooves. I wondered if that made him less or more dangerous? “If it wasn’t a unicorn, I’d say toss it back in the lake.”

Itching badly, I really wished I would be tossed in a lake. It occurred to me, however, that this was not the first time a slaver had suggested unicorns were considered an extra-valuable prize. Not entirely surprising, considering that the unicorns in Stable Two were often expected to go into technical work thanks to the fine manipulation our magic allowed. I wondered what work Red Eye was putting us to. I’d probably find out soon enough.

While quadruple-combat-shotgun-pony kept aim on me, her male counterpart threw a lever, killing the electric crackle of the chain-link fence. He hoofed a button, and a section of the fence began to roll open with considerable clatter. Quadruple-combat-shotgun-pony continued to keep her battle saddle trained on me, a single unicorn pony shackled and caged, as did two snipers hidden within steel bunker towers on either side of The Wall’s inner gate. The heads of patrol ponies could be seen walking the parameter of the wall on a raised platform just behind it. Even knowing me, it felt like a ridiculous amount of overkill.

A griffin arced overhead, checking out the latest arrival, and flew away laughing.

“By the you-know-who, Gnash, when I first saw this one, I thought you’d bucked your horseshoes and actually brought in a filly!” the mare snickered, making me feel ever smaller. “I was thinking maybe I ought to blow your head off before Stern got ahold of you.”

Gnash, my “chauffeur”, merely grunted again.

“What’s this?” the guard buck asked, peering in at me. His horn glowed and a jagged, rusty spear jutted between the bars at me. I cringed back. The unicorn frowned at me and tipped the spear so the head of it caught on the blood-soaked wrapping around my PipBuck and pulled it away.

Crap! I wasn’t even in the gate and the plan was falling apart.

“Oh,” he said with a smiling grunt. “Think you’re a clever pony, do you?” He gave me a cruel leer. “Let’s see how clever you feel inside.”

Inside? Did he intend to rape me, I wondered with a shot of panic, or just let me through the gate?

The guard mare shot him a look and then gave a cruel laugh. “Oh please, do it! Hell, here, let me help hold her down!” She gave her companion an evil smirk, “Fifteen minutes of fun… if that… and you’ll be scratching at the haybugs biting your sheath for a week!”

I felt suddenly thankful for the infested hay.

The buck backed up with a fearful look, then scowled at the mare. “You’d really enjoy that, wouldn’t you?”

“More than life itself.” What a disgusting couple.

“Bah!” He hit the button to close the outer gate and waved a hoof towards the sniper ponies. “Let it through!” He gave me one more look, this one barely containing revulsion. His eyes moved to my PipBuck, now partially visible through the wrappings. “Oh, and tag her to see Doc Slaughter. She’s got one of them leg terminals that are a bitch to get off.”

For a pony who had been so sorely disappointed that she had a PipBuck for a cutie mark, I was remarkably terrified at the thought I might lose it. As best I could parse the buck’s attitude, these slavers had seen PipBuck’s before. And had ways to remove them.

The buck threw the lever and the fence around us once again crackled and hummed.

With a rending grind, the huge metal inner gate of The Wall began to lower on massive chains -- a drawbridge, complete with a moat on the inner side of The Wall. My PipBuck began to click urgently as it picked up radiation seeping out of the sludge. The Wall was clearly meant to keep anypony from getting out as much as prevent ponies from getting in.

Beyond, I got my first glimpse of inner city Fillydelphia. Slave masters stood guard over mesh-covered workpits, wearing barding and gas masks, pointing weapons down to where poor ponies labored beyond the point of exhaustion. I couldn’t tell what work they were doing, but I could tell they were filthy, sick and trembling.

A chimney rose out of the nearest workpit. Hellish, red-tinted exhaust poured out of it. I gagged on the stench of unwashed ponies and noxious fumes.

A swath of bright yellow and green fluttered around the chimney before perching on a nearby pile of rubble. Pyrelight! She cocked her head at me.

I was not alone.

*** *** ***

“Behold!” called out the voice of Red Eye. “We stand on the threshold of a new dawn. With every factory we recover, every mill we rebuild, we move one big step forward towards an Equestria where our children can live in the safety and comfort of modern cities, not grovel in the dilapidated ruins of the past. With the stone and glass and steel forged by these, we can rebuild the homes and towers and lanes of mass transportation that will bestow freedom and prosperity upon generations to come! This, my children, is the very last generation that needs to cringe in caves and scramble for two-hundred-year-old scraps of food.”

The Fillydelphia broadcast poured out of speakers everywhere. The messages and music were non-stop, the constant companion of both slave masters and slaves.

Gnash pulled the wagon past several more workpits before drawing to a stop in what had once been a chariot lot. I coughed. My PipBuck was not shy about informing me that the gas pouring out of the workpit smokestacks was poisonous. The guards had gas masks, but they apparently couldn’t spare any for the slaves. I trembled with anger. The rate of attrition here must be unconscionable.

The lot was full of cage wagons, most of them recently emptied by other wagon-pullers who were amassing slaves in an open area of the pavement. The gate I had come through was not the only one, and I was not the only new arrival.

Gnash opened my cage and stuck his head in, biting on the chain between my shackles and hauling me roughly out. I was dragged into a throng of suffering ponies, each of whom had clearly been through weeks of torment before even getting here.

A large, black griffin in dark-grey Talon barding landed on the roof adjacent to the chariot lot and turned her white-feathered head to scowl at us. Above her head rose a banner that fluttered in the wind: the Red Eye flag. She had a whip curled under one wing and an anti-machine rifle strapped to her back.

“The work is hard, yes,” Red Eye’s voice continued out of the nearest speaker as the griffin above scanned the miserable group of ponies beneath her. “But only through the generous gift of our efforts can our children, and our children’s children, have a better world. We must selflessly give all we can so that a New Equestria may rise. And that is not an easy thing to ask.”

Honestly, Red Eye, I don’t see much asking going on.

“Tribals care only about their own small groups, unable or unwilling to view a larger picture. Raiders and Steel Rangers are the epitome of selfishness, caring only for their own base desires and outdated codes, taking what they want from the rest of us and giving nothing back.

“But here, today, and every day, we give back. We create. Where others only know how to tear down, we build! And that, my children, is how we pave the way for…”

One of the other wagon-pullers shouted at us, making many ponies cringe and one actually burst into tears. “Make yourselves presentable, you worthless mules!”

The griffin’s expression suddenly turned from something resembling mild contempt to cold anger. She drew the massive anti-machine rifle faster than I would have thought possible. The report of the gun was like the righteous anger of Luna. The wagon-puller was ripped in two, the bullet punching though the asphalt and burying itself deep in the ground.

A few of the ponies screamed. A magenta mare with an orange mane began backpedaling, trying to keep her hooves out of the spreading pool of blood, her terror-stricken face splattered with what looked like part of the dead slaver’s stomach lining.

“…We are not animals. We are not zebras. We are ponies! We have a better nature, and a higher calling. We know that the road is hard, and yet we stand and face the challenge. We know that many of us may suffer and perish and never taste the sweet fruits of our labor. But out of generosity and hope, we give of ourselves anyway, so that others may know a better future. Because that future is worth any sacrifice! And yes, the New Equestria does demand sacrifices.”

Okay… but pony sacrifices?

Red Eye’s speech ended. The music began again, uplifting and regal. The griffin looked not at us, but at the cowering slavers.

“You do not interrupt when Red Eye is talking!”

She then turned to us. “My name is Stern,” the griffin stated, looking down on her new slaves. “And this is my town.”

*** *** ***

“You are workers,” Stern informed us as she paced along the rooftop above. “You work towards the building of a brighter tomorrow, towards the New Equestria which will be populated by the Unity. Your work is the gift that you give to the future. And you can either give it willingly, or Red Eye will give it for you.”

I found myself conflicted. I seethed at the treatment of the slave ponies, which amounted to nothing short of slow and torturous murder. And yet… I understood Red Eye’s goal. Maybe not all of it. The whole Unity thing was getting downright creepy. But the progress? The striving to make the world a better place at any cost? The same drive had left me flank-deep in blood, and I was not apologetic for it.

Red Eye will put you to work doing things we probably should be working together towards anyway. (Although by choice and in safer conditions!) Me? I’ll put a bullet through your head if you are a raping, murdering blight on ponykind. In both cases, we had decided that ponies who don’t choose to live their lives the right way had forfeited their right to live freely, if at all.

There was a difference. There was a line between Red Eye and me. It just wasn’t as thick as I would have liked. Even so, it didn’t change the pain I was seeing and hearing all around me, and that these horrors had to stop.

“But most of you don’t really care about the future, do you? I can see it in your eyes. You don’t give a crap about other ponies. You just care about your ‘freedom’. Well, then, listen closely, because I’m going to tell you how to free yourselves,” Stern said, her voice gruff with disgust and conviction. Part of me wanted to cry out that I did care. But a much stronger part of me listened intently. Unless I could find a screwdriver and an unguarded place to hide, this might be my best chance.

“You earn it!” Of course you do, I thought. But Stern was quick to expound on that concept. “You can toil in the mills and the factories and the workhouses until you drop. Or you can volunteer for more dangerous jobs. Those who do are rewarded. Red Eye is a very generous stallion. He gives you three options.”

The griffin held up three razor-sharp talons and began ticking them down. “You can choose to work on a Stable Recovery Team. There are a lot of Stables in the Fillydelphia area, each rich in resources. But Stables tend to be dangerous. They often have their own security or their own… unique dangers.”

I shuddered, feeling a fresh wave of fury.

The griffin scowled. “And of course there are the Steel Rangers, who are also after the same prizes. And before you start getting any wrong ideas, let me warn you: the Steel Rangers have adopted a slaughter first attitude towards anyone that stands in their way of reclaiming old Stable-Tec property for themselves. They will slaughter you just as quickly as they will slaughter us. And in those rare cases where the Stables have still-living residents, they usually slaughter them too. At least Red Eye gives them the same options he gives you.”

My eyes went wide, my jaw dropping. Luna rape them with Her horn!

“You work two years on a Stable Recovery Team and survive, and Red Eye promises you freedom. You’ll be tagged and will be allowed to live whatever life you chose.” The griffin gave a knowing smirk, “So long as you don’t decide to become a bother.”

Two years. That… was not an option. But I wasn’t really thinking about that. I was thinking about how Blueberry Sabre and I were going to have some very, very harsh words. I was already considering what ammo to use as punctuation.

Curling her second claw, Stern continued, “You can work in the Fillydelphia crater. Red Eye has need of radioactive materials, and that crater is a treasure trove of them.” If Blueberry Sabre was to be believed, and it would have been stupid for her to lie about my objectives, then I knew why Red Eye was mining the crater. He needed material for his Rad-Engine. But working at ground zero of a megaspell strike… even in radiation-protective barding, that was a death sentence!

“Red Eye has stated that any pony who works for six months’ worth of full work days in the Fillydelphia Crater will be treated for radiation sickness and freed.” A falsely kind smile crossed her beak. “But since he is such a charitable stallion, Red Eye has recently reduced it to only four months.” I suspected most ponies suffered fatal poisoning within three.

“Your third option,” Stern informed us, holding up the remaining talon, “Is to fight in The Pit. The Pit is arena combat, pony against pony. Each Event has six rounds, and there is usually an Event once every week. More if Red Eye himself graces us with his presence.”

The griffin stared down at us, assessing the pathetic herd of new slaves. “If you survive six consecutive events, not only do you gain your beloved freedom, but you gain an honored place in Red Eye’s army!” She stood up tall, glowering. “But frankly, none of you lot look worthy of such an honor.”

The black-bodied griffin snorted. “Still, I am honor-bound to give you the option. Just try not to make it too easy for your opponent if you do.” Then, scowling yet again at us, she warned, “These are the ways to earn your freedom. But there are two more ways to gain it. You may, at any time, choose to join the Unity. If you do, your fate will be in the hooves of the Goddess,” she said the word as if it was distasteful. “Or, of course, you can gain freedom through death.

“Try anything stupid, try to rebel, try to fight, try to run… any of those are fine ways to die horribly.” Stern fixed us all with a stare. “But that is all they are.”

*** *** ***

Welcome to the Fillydelphia FunFarm!

A weathered, oversized image of Pinkie Pie’s head and forehooves peeked over the top of the arched, wrought-iron gateway. Beyond lay the decaying ruins of what had once been a massive amusement park. I remembered it from the poster in SteelHooves’ shack. (“Everything the Grand Galloping Gala should have been! Every day! Forever!”)

We were herded through the gateway. A fair bulk of the old amusement park had been converted into the slaves’ quarters. I had been assigned a straw mat somewhere in an enclosure where ponies once galloped around in mock-ups of plow wagons, ramming into each other for fun. (Being new, I didn’t rate four walls, only a roof. And I was told to be glad for that. The rain in Fillydelphia, they warned me, burned.)

On the path up to the gateway, I had spotted slaves harnessed to actual plow wagons, pushing mounds of rubble as they pulled a chariot behind them, carrying the slave master pony who whipped them if they weren’t going fast enough. Or if the slave master liked the sounds the poor pony made when struck brutally with the lash. Or if she was just bored.

I wondered if any of those tortured ponies spent their nights sleeping in the Bumper-Plow Pit. Sometimes, irony sucked.

Once, colts and fillies would drag their parents from miles around to romp and play in the silly rides and spectacles the Fillydelphia FunFarm provided. Now it was a monstrous monument to slavery and death, wrapped in garish, peeling paint.

Pinkie Pie wouldn’t approve.

Above us, three Pinkie Pie Balloons floated, in constant orbit over the decayed amusement park. One moved freely. The other two were anchored, one apiece, to the two tallest buildings still standing within the curtain of The Wall. The first was leashed to an old hotel, beaten but unbroken, which towered just a few blocks beyond the eastern edge of the Fillydelphia FunFarm. The huge lettering on the twentieth-floor balcony was nearly rusted away and had long ago lost its lighting; but even without it, I would have recognized the Alpha-Omega Hotel from its small picture in that old news article I’d seen a couple days ago.

The second Pinkie Pie Balloon was bound to a building rising out of the FunFarm itself. It was clearly stylized as a barn, looking like nothing so much as a colossal version of the old building on Sweet Apple Acres. The first floors were covered in gaily-colored murals and fairytale characters, most of which had slid from the Precipice of Childlike Frivolity into the Valley of Disturbing Imagery. The roller coaster that looped all about the amusement park actually passed through the building on the sixth floor. A huge radio tower jutted up from the top, modified to look like a comically oversized weathervane.

I realized that I was looking at the Fillydelphia Hub of the Ministry of Morale.

I should have known. Pinkie Pie and her Ministry had created the sprite-bots. The source of the sprite-bots’ broadcast had to be a Ministry Hub somewhere. It wasn’t powerful enough to reach all the way to Manehattan, but with each sprite-bot re-broadcasting the signal, the Ministry of Morale’s reach had been effectively infinite. When Red Eye had taken the Hub, he had simply added his sermons to the playlist. The music itself was the same songs that the Ministry of Morale had been broadcasting since before the war.

As if mocking me for my revelation, the plucky harpsichord number playing over the speakers suffered a sudden influx of lyrics:

“You gotta share. You gotta care. It’s the right thing to do!”

I really, really wanted a gun.

“Oh look,” called out a blood-red mare whose dark green mane was done up in spikes. She was lounging on the spectator railing of the Bumper-Plow arena. “Fresh meat!”

The slave master ponies walking with us took their leave. Gnash gave me a parting look that I couldn’t interpret. Then we were alone with the other slaves. Many paid us no mind. Most that even spared us a glance did so with sad, resigned expressions.

I felt sickened at the sight of several of them -- many were shedding their manes and coats, revealing boils or discolored flesh beneath, or suffered from withered limbs or sloughing facial features -- the slowly dying victims of radiation poisoning.

And then there were the bullies.

The blood-red mare slid from the railing and stalked towards us. “Listen up, my little grubworms,” she barked. Her cutie mark looked like an eyeball on a pike. I shuddered, wondering just how you end up getting that as a cutie mark. Blueberry Sabre had warned that I might have more to fear from the inmates than the guards.

Another pony joined her: a hulking, piss-colored male pony with an ugly scar and the cutie mark of a very angry yellow flower. (I got the absurd feeling that the flower wanted to kill me.)

The school in Stable Two had bullies, and these ponies reminded me of them. No matter how powerless we all were, they could find power by making the rest of us even more miserable. It was contemptible at best. With everypony suffering, I felt it was vile that some of the slaves themselves would go out of their way to make it worse for others. I had learned that best way to gain strength was through friendship. Shouldn’t we all be working together? But… this was faster and easier for the selfish.

“I’m Blood,” the appropriately-colored mare with the spiked mane announced. Then, introducing the over-muscled buck, “And this is Daff.” The lug stared at us, his eyes lingering on the mares.

“I know y’all just heard Stern’s big spiel ‘bout how Fillydelphia is her town,” Blood said. (Which I bet she wouldn’t have dared if the griffin was anywhere nearby.) “Well the Bumper-Plow Pit is our domain!”

“What a glorious empire you have there,” I snarked under my breath before I could stop myself.

Blood looked like she’d been slapped. “Ex-cuuuuse me?” She trotted up, eyes narrowing. “Did you just talk? Because it sounded like you talked, but I don’t remember telling you to.”

Why couldn’t I keep my mouth shut? Well, at least maybe if she kicked the crap outta me, she’d manage to crush all the biting bugs in my coat while she was at it.

Then again… maybe it was a good thing that I’d gotten her attention. If I became the bullies’ new chew-toy, then that would spare the other slaves at least some of their attentions. I’d faced a dragon; I could take the crap these two could dish.

Okay, I ran away from a dragon. But that’s just getting nitpicky.

“Well, did you just talk?” Blood demanded sticking her snout against mine. She had to lower her head a little to do so, something I could see she enjoyed. My small stature made me a particularly appealing target.

“I…. I just said… what a glorious empire you have. You know… with the crumbling amusement park ride,” I stammered, cringing back. “You must be s-so proud!”

Her eyes widened. “Oh… you. Are. Begging. Me to mess you up.” She lifted up a hoof and brought it down on the chain of my manacles, driving my face into the dirt. “Okay, filly, this is life from now on. You speak when I tell you to speak. You lick where I tell you to lick. And you give me half of your food rations every night. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll keep you for myself rather than letting Daff here have you every Luna-damned night until he splits you in two!”

I looked up at her, putting on a pitiful expression.

“Daff,” she called back to the piss-colored brute. “Fuck her up bad!”

The lumbering buck approached me with a nasty grin. “With pleasure!” He spun and kicked. HARD!

Pain exploded through my breast. I found myself flying back through the air. I crashed through the rotted remains of what had once been a hot dog stand (with a picture of Pinkie Pie slathering on the mustard).

I was struggling to get onto my feet when he slammed into me at full gallop, sending me sprawling. I thought I heard a rib crack. Breathing was becoming painful.

The buck trotted up to me as I fought to catch my breath and reared up. Without armor, I was afraid he’d break my back, so I twisted. He compensated, his hooves coming down in my stomach, knocking any wind I had out of me. I coughed, tasting blood.

The huge buck positioned himself over me.

My horn glowed softly as I wrapped a very tender part of him in a telekinetic sheath and gave him a warning squeeze.

Daff stopped abruptly.

“Here’s the deal,” I whispered, half moaning in pain. “You decide I’m not worthy of your… attentions. That way, you get to save face. And in return, I don’t show you just how good I am at this particular trick.” I squeezed a little harder and the buck jolted with pain, sweating now. “And you keep… yourself… to yourself and away from all the other slaves, or the deal’s off.” A slight bit tighter and Daff nodded fervently, tears spilling from his eyes as he tried not to scream.

“Deal?” I asked, even though I knew he had already agreed as I gave the telekinetic field a slight twist. His reaction was utterly worth it.

“Good,” I growled, my mouth tasting of warm copper. I released him, dropping my head back as my vision swam. I needed a medical pony. I needed Velvet Remedy.

Shaking himself, Daff made a show of staring me up and down, then dismissing me with a huff. “Fuck that!” he said too loudly. “She’s so tiny it would be like fucking a kid!” He turned around. Blood was looking at him with one eye narrowed in disbelief.

Daff glanced back over his shoulder at me, snorted, apparently deciding what he could and couldn’t get away with. He drove his right hindhoof back with a gruesomely hard half-buck that landed directly between my hindlegs. Then trotted away, basking in the blood-colored mare’s obvious approval.

I’d never screamed so hard in my life.

*** *** ***

“I have walked through the streets of Fillydelphia, cleared of rubble, and seen the steel mill producing steel, the textiles mill producing cloth, the power plant producing power.” Red Eye’s voice sounded proud through the tinny speakers on steel poles that jutted into the ruddy evening air. “It is a start, but such a glorious start. And we owe it all… to each other.”

“What is this?” I asked, half whimpering, as a bowl of indescribable mushy stuff was shoved in front of my nose. The smell made my deeply bruised stomach convulse in revulsion.

“Oatmeal,” the slave pony claimed flatly, scooping up a bowl full of the same discolored glop for the next pony.

“Oatmeal? Are you crazy?” I stared in disbelief. “This doesn’t look anything like oatmeal! Or smell. Or…” I added as another portion of the muck sloughed from ladle to bowl, “…sound.”

I gave half of the “oatmeal” to Blood, feeling like I was the one being cruel. Then I limped around until I found another pony who had been bullied out of his share and gave him the rest. I was in too much pain in tender places, including my stomach, to attempt eating anyway.

In turn, he gave me very depressing advice on continued existence as a “worker” in Fillydelphia. Don’t choose the Crater. Most ponies who go there don’t live even three months, much less four. Don’t choose the Pit. You’ll have to survive as many as thirty-six battles against other slaves to make it, and the battles were always to the death. I moaned at that. I couldn’t see myself taking the life of another slave. Well, maybe Blood and Daff. But not the innocent ones.

He himself worked in the scrapyards, using a tool he called an auto-axe to cut apart chariots and other large hunks of metal for melting down in the steel mill. It was dangerous work, and they were kept under supervision by guards in high places, but there weren’t any whips. No slave master was going to get into a scrapyard with a slave wielding a spinning blade magically enchanted to slash easily through metal.

He regaled me with the many ways to die in Fillydelphia. One of the least pleasant was the work pits I had seen on the way in. “But fortunately,” he said, “Those are reserved fer ponies who try t’ escape, or worse, sabotage Red Eye’s work.”

“What are they?”

“Fillydelphia has a bit o’ a parasprite problem,” the pony told me as he ate the remainder of my glop. “Apparently, there was a massive infestation maybe three or four decades before the megaspells. S’posedly, they wiped it out, but parasprites are really persistent.”

He licked the bowl while I tried not to gag.

“Couple years back, Red Eye’s bucks were blasting their way inta one of the Stables that was pretty close t’ the crater and cleared open a pocket full of the damn things, all irradiated t’ hell and nastier than ever.”

“Bloatsprites?” I asked, but he shook his head.

“Naw, bloatsprites is what happena t’ the parasprites that get themselves tainted. Big an’ mean, but don’t tend t’ reproduce. An’ that’s a blessin’, y’ trust me on that.” I looked at me gravely. “These little buggers are irradiated. Big difference.”

“So… what do they do?”

“Same thing they’ve always done. Eat an’ spit out more,” the pony fixed me with a stare. “Only now they’re carnivorous.”

They eat… ponies? Oh Celestia!

“And those chimneys?”

The buck cocked his head. “Well, that’s where we incinerate the nests they find. Only way t’ make sure they stop reproducin’ is to kill ‘em with fire.” He scowled, “Problem is, sometimes there are ones deep in the nests that don’t get properly cooked by the exterminators. They wake up from the heat, fly out… the mesh over the work pits makes sure they don’t get too far, an’ one o’ the guards always has a flamethrower. Especially after that one mare had one o’ them buggies fly inta her throat. They ate her from the inside out.”

Pure nightmare fuel. I really wished I could unhear that.

But as bad as that was, on the top of his list of ways to die was Unity.

“Ah know what that bastard Red Eye says, but Ah’ve known plenty o’ ponies who volunteered fer Unity, and not one of ‘em ever came back,” he confided in me. “Accordin’ t’ some ponies, the Goddess, whatever that’s s’posed t’ be, is turnin’ them into those big alicorn critters we sometimes see hereabouts. But if that was true, then Ah figure there would be a lot more o’ them. And you’d think one would bother t’ come back an’ say hello t’ old friends, bein’ as they c’n fly an’ all.”

I didn’t think it helpful to tell him that there were probably more of them than he thought. My mind was already processing the other information. The pseudo-goddesses had no cutie marks and were at least guided through a telepathic source. My mind reeled at the possibility that transformation removed their individuality and sense of self completely. Doing that to a pony would be… worse than murder!

*** *** ***

Night was chilly, and I had no blanket. I lay on the rat-chewed old mat which had been bed to slaves before me, most of whom were probably dead now. The mat was so worn it felt harder than the cement beneath it, and so stained that I didn’t really want to touch it. But it was all I had.

My body was badly bruised, and it still ached to breathe. My rib had been cracked but thankfully not broken. I tried wholeheartedly to ignore the worst of the lower pain. Part of me wanted to kill Daff as painfully and bloodily as possible. Part of me wanted to curl up and cry. I fought down both. Considering what I did and threatened to do to the piss-colored bastard, I think part of me wanted to show that I could take what I was willing to dish out. Mostly, though, I had told him he could save face; and as much as I hated it, I had to acknowledge that is exactly what he did.

The sky above was black with reflected tinges of orange and red. With the fall of night, all the forges and fires and other glowing things were more pronounced, giving the Fillydelphia Ruins an infernal cast. The worst was the subtle red tinge to the air that became a luminescent glow within the massive pit where the megaspell-carrying missile had struck, missing the massive industrial sectors of the city to find the heart of the civilian housing. Darkness never truly fell in the core of the Fillydelphia Crater.

A gust of wind brought a deeper chill and a choking, acrid smell with it from somewhere deeper in Fillydelphia. A few of the other slaves coughed in their sleep. I shivered and tried to breathe without inhaling.

I missed my friends. I wondered if they were okay. In my mind, I had begun playing through all the mistakes I had made, all the ways my plan could have gone wrong…

Somewhere not far away, I caught sight of a small burst of green flame.

Getting up, I slipped quietly out, bringing up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle to help me find the balefire phoenix. My heart felt thankful for the company as I spotted her perched on a sign shaped like a smiling Pinkie Pie holding up a hoof. (“You must be this tall to ride the FunFarm Wheel.”) Behind her, the massive iron structure of the wheel rose above the park like a mechanical eye, watching us balefully.

Pyrelight hooted musically at me.

“Thank you,” I told her earnestly. I didn’t think I could make it through this trial alone.

I considered asking her questions, or requesting that she ferry a message to Velvet Remedy, or half a dozen other things that I dismissed in turn. Instead, I chose to just sit there, resting my head against the two-dimensional Pinkie Pie, and enjoying her company.

*** *** ***

“Well, let’s put you to work,” Mister Shiny said, looking me over. Mister Shiny was the slave master pony in charge of assigning work to new slaves, and I thought he had a deceptively kindly voice. “I see you’ve got a PipBuck, and you should be tagged for a visit to Doctor Slaughter, but I figure we can hold off on that.” He gave me a smile that seemed personable but had no real warmth. “What do you say we put that thing to use instead?”

I was still terribly sore and walked with a slight limp, but he didn’t seem to notice, or at least not care. I was sure he’d put ponies to work who were in much worse shape. “What do I have to do?”

“Well, there’s a building in town that’s been infested with parasprites. But this time, we can’t just go in with flamethrowers. So we could use a pony with a PipBuck,” Mister Shiny explained. “That thing can spot targets for you, right? We’ll send you in there in environmental barding and with a low-powered magical energy gun. Shoot the damn things until they’re piles of ash.”

“How… how many are there?” The fretful nightmares of the night before replayed themselves in my mind.

“Shouldn’t be more than fifty. They haven’t had anything to snack on since the infestation was discovered, poor Whitetail.”

Within half an hour, he had me equipped and ready to go. Except for ammo. I’d get that after I entered the building. They’d shove it through a mail slot.

*** *** ***

Beams of bright magenta magical energy lanced through the air at me from the security turret in the hallway ceiling. One of the blasts struck my environmental suit, melting a hole in it the size of a hoof just below my cutie mark and burning my flesh underneath. As I threw myself behind a desk, I hoped it wouldn’t scar like the slash on my neck.

The terminal on the desk glowed softly, that same sickly pale green that almost all of them did. I hid myself behind it as I began to hack the system. It only took me a moment; the terminal’s security was pathetic. And I was in luck! The terminal could shut down the turrets.

The turret let loose another barrage of pink energy. Several lancing bolts struck the backside of the terminal. It exploded in my face with a blast of sparks.

I would have been permanently blinded, if not outright killed, had the environmental suit not included a gas mask and heavy goggles. I cringed back behind the desk and considered my options.

Until now, the bug hunt was more frustrating than dangerous. The barding had made me effectively immune to the parasprites, and I had become so practiced in the art of stealth that I could sneak up right behind one before the half-blind things spotted me. Which was good, since I had almost no skill with magical energy weapons. Even at close range, even with S.A.T.S., I missed as often as I hit.

As the turret spewed out another barrage, a little yellow parasprite flew towards me, drawn by the smell of my burned flesh. I slipped into S.A.T.S. as it drew close, aiming the laser and firing. I hit it with the third shot, and it disintegrated in a flash of turquoise ash. I dropped the targeting spell and then kicked it back up a second later to help me take down two more parasprites (one of which was approximately the color of dead flesh).

“I think I’m in trouble.”

I checked the magical spark pack. Those second two had taken me five shots to vaporize. Better, but still not good. According to my PipBuck’s initial scan, there were fifty-two parasprites in the building that I had to wipe out, and I had just killed parasprites numbered nineteen through twenty-one. That left thirty-one more to go, most of which I knew were swarming around the building’s factory floor -- an area I had been avoiding, choosing to clear out the rest of the building first. Only now they smelled flesh.

I had seven shots left.

“Really in trouble.”

The turret poured out even more magical energy, trying to strike me down, not smart enough to realize there was a whole big metal desk in the way. The desk was getting warm to the touch.

If I didn’t find more ammo in this place… or, even better, another weapon…

I opened the desk, just to check.

Bottle caps. Three of them. I let out a scream of frustration.

I looked around, spotting a door marked “maintenance” nearby. Wrapping the desk in a field of levitation, I carried it alongside me as shield while I dashed for the door. It was locked.

I still didn’t have a screwdriver. Looking towards the heavens, “If either of you two are actually up there, I’m really sorry for doubting. Really sorry. I apologize! Now… could you please send me a break?”

The turret fired again. The desk was no longer just warm. It was beginning to radiate heat. Three more parasprites flew into the room, drawn to my smell.

“Well then fuck you too. Both of you!” I shouted upwards. “Go lick each other’s…” I slid into S.A.T.S. and sent a flurry of targeting spell-guided shots at the parasprites. Two turned to ash. The third was struck, falling to the floor but not dying. The other shots missed. And now I was out. I panted, my rib injury burning and making it hurt to breathe.

Dammit!

The turret fired again. The desk was now glowing. In frustration, I snapped, “You want this so much? Here! Take it!” Keeping the desk between me and the turret, I floated it up to the offending machine and slammed at it over and over until it stopped working with a crunch.

I then floated it past me the other way, flipping it over and dropping the glowing metal surface on the wounded blue bug.

*** *** ***

I managed to close myself in an office above the building’s main floor. The hallway that the turret had been protecting had lead to this room -- the equivalent of an Overmare’s office. There was a small door on one side that probably lead to a closet and massive plate-glass windows that looked out over the main work area. I stared out one of the windows at the mass of cute, colorful predators swarming between the catwalks above and the printing presses below.

Same aesthetic, I noted dourly. It was like the world before had a hard-on for industrial accidents.

I also now understood why going in with flamethrowers was not so much an option. This building was a printing house. And a lot of it was full of books, posters… a veritable cornucopia of fuel for an out-of-control fire. Such a fire would probably destroy the very things I was sure Red Eye was after: the presses.

I had to applaud the stallion. He had power, steel, textiles… and now he was working on bringing back mass publication. As far as I could tell, the only book that had been written and distributed on any significant scale since the apocalypse was The Wasteland Survival Guide. Getting this place running would be a major step forward.

Those schools he was promising suddenly began to look real.

I spotted several more automated turrets covering the main work floor. Damn things ignored the bugs, but I knew that they’d attack if I so much as stepped a hoof into that room. I was in no shape to deal with that many parasprites, much less the damn turrets.

The room had a desk with a still-functioning terminal. I sat down and began to hack, hoping that I could turn off any other turrets from here. The password, interestingly, was “Generous Souls”.

Welcome to the Ministry of Image, Fillydelphia Hub, Miss Periwinkle!

How are you this fine morning?

It has been 202 Years, 37 Days, 1 Hour and 13 Minutes since your last log-in.

Would you like to check your messages?

Wait… this was a Hub? But… there wasn’t anything here! It was a small building, little more than a print shop. There was nothing here.

That… made no sense. This wasn’t a tower; it was two stories tall. And I’d seen enough of the building to be pretty sure it didn’t have secret sublevels. There weren’t many offices, nothing more than what would be expected from a small publishing house.

I got up and started looking around. There were posters on the walls of the office, and many more visible down on the printing floor below. I had seen most of them before. Everything from the “PROGRESS” posters of the Ministry of Wartime Technology to the image of Twilight Sparkle above the words “Reading is Magic” (the poster I had seen in the Ponyville Library, only without the disfiguring graffiti).

I glanced back to the terminal and noticed something else. On the desk was an old album. I opened it and began magically flipping through the pages, all full of collected scraps: old newspaper articles, flyers, public notifications. Most were decayed beyond readability. Of those that weren’t, many were familiar. The clinic warning about Wartime Stress Disorder, for example.

One of the barely-readable newspaper articles caught my eye:

Dragon Over Hoofington

The Shadowbolts, lead by Rainbow Dash, engaged the dragon Brimstone over the skies of Hoofington last weekend as zebra forces managed their deepest strike into Equestria in the War’s thirteen year history. All rumors that the zebras have enlisted the aid of the dragons native to their homeland have been confirmed. Princess Luna vows to expand Equestria’s pegasus…

The rest was supposedly continued on another page. The rest of this one was a picture of Rainbow Dash standing proudly on the head of the fallen monster.

It was the sort of image that would have branded Rainbow Dash as a national hero in the minds of ponies for generations.

I closed the book and looked back at the screen. And I began to understand.

I thought back to the Pinkie Pie poster that first alerted me to the existence of the Ministries. If I had been asked, I would have said that the Ministry of Morale had been the first one I had seen.

I would have been wrong.

The Ministry of Image was the first one I had seen. Only it hadn’t gone by that name. It almost never went by that name, at least not externally. In fact, I suspected that Principles of Proper Pony Speech was supposed to be an internal document.

The Ministry of Image didn’t seem to do projects of its own. It worked in service to the other Ministries. It created their materials, their books, their posters, their flyers… and in one case even their armor. Every poster associated with one of the other Ministries… hell, probably every time I had seen or heard anything from any of them, I was seeing the Ministry of Image.

The invisible Ministry… that was everywhere.

*** *** ***

I downloaded Miss Periwinkle’s messages into my PipBuck for later perusal, then moved on to the more pressing task of dealing with the turrets. I had hoped I could turn off the turrets through the terminal in what I considered the Overmare’s office. But the terminal had allowed me to do one better. It allowed me to reprogram the turrets to wipe out the parasprites!

I crouched behind the desk, listening to the barrage of turret-fire fill the main floor of the M.I. Hub. The parasprite kill-count on my PipBuck had shot up to thirty-nine and was only now beginning to slow. I realized I would have to hunt down the last ones, the ones in rooms and spaces the turrets didn’t cover. But suddenly my job was a lot easier.

My luck just kept improving. There was a bathroom off to the side of this office. The toilet water made my PipBuck freak, and the sink was completely non-functional… a plumber pony had been working on it when the megaspell hit. Her skeleton was still in the room; she had been killed by a chunk that fell from the ceiling.

There wasn’t much left of her maintenance uniform, but it was enough to patch the hole in my environmental suit with the aid of wonderglue. And there had been several bottles of the latter in the pony’s toolbox. Along with a wrench and (squee!) a screwdriver!

There had also been a feebly locked medical box with a few healing bandages and a couple extra bobby pins. And a tin of Mint-als.

I stared at the tin for the longest time, fighting the urge to just go ahead and take one. Just one.

It took effort to shut the box, leaving them inside. I relocked it. Never again.

I was finally out of those damn shackles! I’d noticed that most of the other slaves weren’t wearing them, so I was fairly certain that I could get away with not wearing them. But if I hadn’t gotten them off myself, I suspected there wasn’t anypony here with both the know-how and kindness to have helped me out.

I really hated Fillydelphia.

The turret fire stopped. To be on the safe side, I shut them down completely before stepping out of the office. My PipBuck said I had five to go. And I was still out of ammo. I needed a plan.

Moving back the way I had arrived, I tried unlocking the maintenance room I had been kept out of earlier. With any luck, there would be more magical spark packs inside.

The door clicked open, but my streak of luck had ended. There were no magical spark packs. No weapons or ammo of any kind. Instead, there was the skeleton of a pegasus pony who had locked himself inside, alone with a now-empty bottle of buck and a case of painkillers. From the position of the skeleton and the disarray of the room, I suspected he died in severe convulsions… but hopefully unable to feel them.

There were a few posters, well preserved, on the wall of this room that I had never seen before. A rather fantastic poster for a pegasi aerial acrobatics team called the “Wonderbolts” whose bright blue uniforms were clearly copied from the darker, militaristic Shadowbolts design.

Or was it the other way around? A framed newspaper article on the wall read:

Wonderbolts’ Heroic Attempt to Free Zebra Captives Leaves Four Dead

This morning, Princess Celestia announced the successful rescue of the seventeen ponies held captive for two weeks by Zebra gem pirates. The Wonderbolts, Equestria’s greatest fliers, volunteered for the secret mission that sent them into Zebra waters. However, success came at a grave cost as four members of the elite pegasi team were killed in the ensuing battle. Thankfully, none of the captives were killed and only one received serious injury.

Throughout this two-week crisis, the Zebra Caesar repeatedly denounced the actions of the pirates and offered support to Princess Celestia; but He denied permission for Equestrian ponies to enter Zebra territories, claiming it would “increase existing tensions” and insisting that His army’s intelligence indicated that the pirates were operating in international seas. The Zebra Caesar continues to disavow any knowledge of where the pirates’ ship had anchored.

Princess Celestia claims that the Wonderbolts’ operation in Zebra territory was the result of a “happy miscommunication” and apologized personally to the Caesar…

The article clearly pre-dated the beginning of the war. One more thing to think about later, when I wasn’t trying to find a way to disintegrate parasprites without a magical energy weapon, or incinerate them without fire.

The maintenance room included a workbench, and a variety of odds and ends, including the buck’s “Wonderbolts” lunchbox and a sack filled with somepony’s badly-decayed porn collection. Mostly, old copies of Wingboner Magazine. I managed not to look. No, really.

Okay, maybe just a little. Pegasus mares are kinda… exotic, after all.

Inspiration struck. I dumped out the magazines and set the sack aside. Then I emptied the lunchbox of the muck that the food inside had rotted into. I brought up the schematic that Ditzy Doo had given me as a gift. I didn’t really expect a homemade mine would be any good against parasprites, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t find a use for one later.

I was about to put my new mine into the sack when I had another idea. I couldn’t set the damn pony-eating bugs on fire inside the building, but…

Half an hour later, I trotted out of the printing house, a sack full of angry parasprites floating next to me.

“Oh, Pyrelight!” I sing-songed with a smile.

*** *** ***

Mister Shiny was most impressed, and I felt myself flush with pride. Only for the pride to be swiftly followed by shame and anger that I was letting myself feel happy about slave work. And worse, thankful to one of the slavers for praising me.

The reward for my efforts was to have the magical energy gun taken from me, but in return he offered me a set of ragged slave barding. It offered little protection, but little was better than none, and it would help against the chilly nights. The former wearer, according to Mister Shiny, was no longer able to use it due to decapitation.

Working swiftly did not lead to rest but to more work. I was assigned to the scrap yard for the rest of the day. I spent all of ten minutes getting instructions on the use of a gruesome-looking auto axe before the yard foreman, a slave himself, decided he just didn’t want such a dangerous tool in the hooves of such as small and weak-looking mare. I pointed out that, as a unicorn, I was more than capable of wielding the metal-cutting saw regardless of my physical size or strength. In response, he put me to work gathering the bits of scrap that the other workers (slaves, dammit!) were slicing off of old passenger wagons and other sizable metal artifacts of the past.

I trudged into the ear-splitting din of the scrap yard. Dozens of ponies were pitting those spinning, magically-edged blades against metal. At least a dozen more were on scrap collection duty. I looked up to see the slaver guards staring down at us, armed with battle saddles or assault carbines, keeping well out of range of the auto-axes. A daring unicorn could try to float one up at them, but she would be gunned down before she could kill more than one. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the gorgeous yellow and green plumage of Pyrelight as she circled, a Wonderbolts lunchbox clutched in her talons, before soaring out of sight.

Smiling to myself a little, despite my dreary situation, I got to work.

Enslaved ponies, crying out under the whips of the slavers, pulled wagons piled with scavenged metal into the steel yard for slicing. I was shocked when several ponies trudged wearily into the scrapyard, pulling a wagon laden with the massive gear-shaped steel door from a Stable.

My work was much easier than theirs thanks to my magic. And it afforded me the chance to speak with the other slaves. They were not a chatty bunch, quick to remind me that too much talk made the slavers nervous and was a quick way to get your tongue cut out. But I was still able to glean a few tidbits which convinced me that the only places likely to find either the schematics of the Rad-Engine or Red Eye’s research into Bypass Spells were the Alpha-Omega Hotel or the Ministry of Morale hub.

The Alpha-Omega was being used to for “special housing”. For the lower floors, this meant housing for Pit fighters. Being on the fast track to brutal death at the hooves of other slaves didn’t come without compensations: a much nicer place to bed down, shorter work hours, and (if rumors were true) access to a still. Who, or what, was housed in the upper floors was apparently a closely guarded secret.

“Ta only other place t’ get booze in alla Fillydelphia,” one of the slaves claimed as she let her auto-axe cool down before going again at a three-yard long section of what had once been a Stable wall, “Iz the Roamer Bar. Uh slaver hangout on ta other side of ta Wall.” A shame, as I decided that I could definitely use some apple whiskey. ”Stern hates ta stuff. Sayz booze makes slavers stupid an’ she ain’t got uh use fo’ stupid.”

The slave mare with the really strange accent chomped down on the bit of the auto-axe, kicking it on again, and started cutting. I hung around long enough to bundle the first chunks cut from the wall, and floated them back to the waiting bins. Then I moved on.

From the ponies willing to talk, everything about the comically barn-shaped MoM building was a mystery save that there was always a Pinkie Pie Balloon anchored there, that Stern roosted in the upper tower and that Red Eye himself had private chambers somewhere within.

I found myself speaking with another of the slaves, this time a unicorn buck with a cancerous eye and only three legs (the result not of an accident or cruelty but a birth defect from having been born to a tribe who had lived too close to the Fillydelphia Crater before The Wall). Our conversation was interrupted when, one by one, the slaves paused their work to look up into the sky of black clouds. Several pointed. Many whispered.

I turned my own head upward, trying to spot the cause of the commotion. It wasn’t hard to spot. A sky chariot was flying overhead, pulled by two griffins. Surrounding it was a wing of alicorns.

“Whelp…” the deformed buck muttered, “Looks like Red Eye’s here.”

*** *** ***

I stood in the same lot where I had stood yesterday The blood of the slaver executed by Stern still stained the ground. All around me, other slaves had gathered, pressing close. The rooftops around us were lined with griffins in Talon armor. Stern took her favorite spot and stared out over us. Her anti-machine rifle was slung to her back, but I remembered the speed of her draw.

The speakers fell silent, March of the Parasprites cutting off in mid-song.

A couple of the ponies beside me whinnied nervously. I spotted Blood and Daff in the crowd. Blood looked bored, inspecting her hoof. Daff looked grim.

And then I finally saw him. Red Eye.

Flanked by an escort of Alicorns, the pony whom I had come to blame for a great deal of the Equestrian Wasteland’s wrongness walked up from a ramp on the right side of the building where Stern was perched.

Red Eye was a strong, able-bodied earth pony stallion with a crimson coat and a few light scars around a blank flank where his cutie mark should have been. He had a jet black mane and tail which were practically groomed, and he wore a black cape that was slung to droop off his right side. I could only see the left side of his body clearly as he strode towards the center of the roof, but his left eye was distinctly blue.

I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting. Hell, I think I had been expecting an alicorn monster the size of a Pinkie Pie Balloon, twisted and evil, radiating explosions of power. Or something equally as absurd.

Red Eye was… just a pony.

I could end this all now! I just needed something big and heavy. I could float it over his head and drop it. Even if the griffins spotted me, even if Stern gunned me down, I could accept that just so long as I could take him with me.

One of the alicorns looked out over the crowd, her eyes quickly finding me. She spread her wings and took to the air, keeping a protective watch. Dammit. They remembered, and they weren’t going to let me pull the same trick twice.

I realized with a chill that the alicorns knew I was here. And so did their Goddess. Which, I suspected, meant Red Eye did too.

This was a stupid plan.

In the middle of the roof was a strip of railing which had once held a sign. Red Eye trod up to it, the other two alicorns taking positions on either side of him. He turned towards us, putting his forehooves up spread out on the railing as he stared down. I gasped, my world suddenly lurching out from under my hooves.

“Workers! Welcome, and thank you for joining me.” Red Eye was even more charismatic in person, his words oily smooth and devilishly persuasive. But I was barely hearing them, my gaze transfixed on the red glow that came out of the metal sheath around what should have been his right eye socket.

A cyberpony?

Red Eye was a cyberpony!? I was staring in the face of a level of technological advancement that soared way beyond terminals and sprite-bots. Red Eye had cybernetic implants! How? Where did he get them? When did that sort of technology even become possible?

My gaze traveled down his body, searching for other signs of augmentation, and locked on his right foreleg. Red Eye was wearing a PipBuck!

Red Eye was a Stable Dweller.

“I have demanded a lot from you in the name of the future,” Red Eye was saying as I shook myself out of my utter stupor. The crimson cyber-augmented stallion even wore his PipBuck on his right foreleg, which was uncommon. Just like me.

“But I would not call for anything from you that I would not demand from myself,” Red Eye claimed, looking over us. The red beam of that targeting eye flashed as it swept over me.

“As you can see, I was gifted, through no merit of my own, with a privileged upbringing that the good ponies of our Equestrian Wasteland could only dream of. I lived in a Stable where such luxuries as safety, food and clean water were taken for granted. Our water talisman alone could have given life-sustaining nourishment to thousands, but was instead being used for frivolous joys like our atrium’s fountain.”

He frowned, shaking his head. “Observe my eye. My Stable offered medical and technological advancements far in excess of even pre-war civilization. Ponies in the highest ranks of Stable-Tec conspired to make my Stable an experiment in rulership through the earth pony way…”

Celestia suckle me!

Stable Two had always known a unicorn Overmare. I tried to imagine a Stable under earth pony rule and driven by the same push for progress and industry that had dominated the thinking of Ministry of Technology. What could they accomplish over two hundred years of isolation?

Well, cybernetic implants, for one.

I realized I had lost track of Red Eye’s speech, and chided myself for not paying closer attention now that he was actually right in front of me. But I couldn’t help the oozing sense that I was looking into a dark and supremely fucked-up mirror.

“…saw the Equestrian Wasteland for what it is. But more than that, I saw what it should be. And what it could be again! That night, for the first time, the Goddess whispered to me…”

I found myself resisting a facehoof. The idea that the alicorn’s Goddess was speaking to Red Eye, or at least that he could be under that impression, made a lot more sense. I knew a pony in Stable Two who would sometimes pick up the Stable broadcast through metal-work in his jaw. Celestia only knew what all that wetware in Red Eye’s head was capable of receiving, by intentional design or otherwise. The Goddess communicated telepathically with the alicorns. Was she communicating with him too? Or was he just picking up stray signals?

Preacher had suggested to Velvet Remedy that Red Eye was getting garbled messages.

“…And the first thing that She showed me was how wrong my Stable’s teachings were. How actually repulsive our beliefs in earth pony supremacy. No breed of pony is greater than another. We are all slaves to the Equestrian Wasteland. And it is only through our work that we can be free.”

As Red Eye talked, I remembered the twisted versions of stories and history that I had seen in Stable Twenty-Four. Even the tale of The Mare in the Moon -- the tale of Princess Luna’s thousand year fall to madness as Nightmare Moon, a madness she had been rescued from by the group of friends who Luna had subsequently chosen to be the Mares of her Ministries -- had been altered into the tale of a fallen prince. I could only guess, if this is what Stable-Tec had done to ensure a male-dominated experiment in that Stable, what the teachings in Red Eye’s Stable would have been.

“But that work is worthless unless it is shared! Until we are all free, none of us are truly free. Nor do we deserve to be!” Red Eye glanced away, looking strangely ashamed. Then, with a fierceness I hadn’t expected, he told us, “And that is why my Stable was the first to be dismantled. Its doors and supports torn out and melted down, its concrete walls and floors cut apart to make the foundation stones of the Cathedral, the fortress we are building on the site of my former home, to be the new capital of our New Equestria, and the new home of our living Goddess.”

I reeled.

“The ponies of my home were the first to join the army of the Children of Unity. Or, in the cases of many, they became the first workers in these very yards where you work today. I saw the bounty of our Stable shared, the water talisman given to a struggling town which now knows the joy of clean and pure water. I focused the great minds of our best science ponies towards the task of the coming new age.”

“The only thing that remains of my home is the cloak I wear as a reminder,” Red Eye claimed, smiling down at us. “Everything I have ever had, I have given. As you do today…” His eyes, both mechanical and natural, looked over the ponies in the crowd. His voice was paternal. “And I could not be prouder of all of you.”

He glanced back to Stern. The black-colored griffin nodded her white-feathered head, but her beak twisted in a scowl of dislike the moment he turned away. The alicorn in the air continued to circle, keeping her eyes out for unidentified floating objects.

Looking to us again, bathing us in his smile beneath the slate-colored clouds, Red Eye announced, “And so I come bringing the gift of respite. Tomorrow shall be a day of rest. None shall labor. Furthermore, the bounty of the Roamer Bar stills will be made freely available to you, for those who wish to taste the finest horse whisky Fillydelphia has to offer!”

The words of the leader of our slavers was met with clopping applause and shouts of joy. It was insanity. The gratitude of the crowd made as much sense as our oatmeal. I looked around and found a few ponies who were not celebrating. One of them was Daff, although Blood seemed to be cheering for the both of them.

Red Eye grinned kindly, and then waved his hoof for quiet. The roars and stomping died away uneasily, as if strangled. “And I have also arranged for entertainment. Two full Events in The Pit, with seating for everypony to enjoy!” He looked down over us. “That is, of course, if I can get some volunteers.”

The quiet became a hard silence. The slave ponies looked to each other.

“And we have one!” Red Eye announced as he looked into the crowd. “Any more?”

I looked around to see which pony had volunteered for the blood sport. Daff was holding up a hoof. Blood was staring at him in shock.

Then, slowly, in a show of companionship that I thought beyond the vicious ex-raider mare, Blood stood next to the piss-colored stallion and raised her own hoof, lowering her head to sigh.

“Fuck you, Daffodil,” she muttered. “I hate you so much.”

Red Eye’s voice counted out, “That’s two!...”

*** *** ***

Everything went to hell about an hour after Red Eye’s speech.

I was making my way back towards the Bumper-Plow structure when a mare’s scream jolted me into a run. The scream was coming from inside a building whose decaying paint job proclaimed “Fillydelphia FunFarm Mirror Maze and House of Wacky Reflections!” The mare screamed again, and I charged inside.

The interior of the building was dark and dusty, the air filled with motes, the floor covered in shattered glass. I levitated myself a little as I moved, not wanting to cut my hooves. The place was a maze, just as advertised, but very few of the mirror frames held anything more than a few nasty shards jutting against their backboards. Old graffiti suggested that a raider band had once used the place for “fun” of their own design.

“No! Get off me!” the mare cried out, and I skidded to a stop as I recognized the voice. It was Blood.

I heard laughter. And a buck’s voice, husky and cruel, ask, “Now why shouldn’t you have some fun tonight? It’s only right, seeing that you’re going to die in The Pit tomorrow!”

I heard a grunt that sounded like Daff. And then the sound of wood impacting pony flesh.

I trotted forward until I caught the scene reflected in the remaining third of a shattered mirror. Two slave master ponies had Blood pressed back against a wall. I could see blood flowing from her back where the jagged fragments of the mirror behind her were cutting into her tail and flanks. One of the slavers was a unicorn, and he was floating a lever-action shotgun at Blood’s face as he pressed lewdly against her. The buck next to him covered her with a sawed-off shotgun almost identical to the first firearm I had ever seen.

Three more slavers were piled on Daff. One, a mare, was trying to beat him into submission with the butt of her rifle.

My heart flared with rage. I felt my nerves ignite. A pony in my head tried to remind me that I couldn’t start killing slavers. That my only chance to get at Red Eye required keeping a low profile until I could get close. That I still had a lot of work to do…

…that I really didn’t want to save that sadistic bitch and her rapist buckfriend anyway. What the hell was I doing risking my life, risking everything, for them?

And absolutely none of that mattered, as the slavers learned when the glare from my horn was matched by the light that flooded over hundreds of deadly-sharp shards of mirrored glass.

The slaver pony with the sawed-off shotgun managed to get a shot off before the room became a cuisinart. He missed.

*** *** ***

The particularly bloody murder of five slavers was not going unnoticed. The one shot fired had drawn attention, and now I was running through the maze, trying desperately to figure my way out while slaver guards in heavy barding and battle saddles gave chase.

I’d left Blood and Daff alive and in shock, the corridor decorated with a scene so bloody it would have made raiders envious. I had snatched up the lever-action shotgun and the mare’s rifle, but I hadn’t had time to search the remains. I had only the ammo currently in the firearms. According to my Eyes-Forward Sparkle, that wasn’t much: two shots in the shotgun, twelve in the rifle.

Red marks on my EFS compass told me that two more guards were ahead of me. They undoubtedly had the building surrounded outside. My only hope was to get out of here and change terrain before there was enough time for more than the closest slavers’ forces to be brought to bear.

I wished I’d chosen to bring the StealthBuck after all.

The red marks moved, weaving through the maze, drawing closer. I crouched down, hiding, shotgun ready. The moment the first guard’s head appeared in the corridor, I slid into S.A.T.S. and opened fire. The slaver guard went down hard, bleeding from a hole torn in her throat. The second was right behind her. I put the only other shot I had into her face, centered on her left eye. Then I discarded the lever-action shotgun and galloped ahead.

I heard shouts and the galloping sounds of armor-shod hooves on shattered glass behind me.

Ahead, I spotted an open doorway, twilight pouring in around the slaver pony positioned there. She was a unicorn, and was floating a riot shield in front of her as she finished setting up a chain gun in the entrance. Fuck!

I dove into another passage and backed towards a dead end as I weighed my options. The slavers behind me were getting closer.

I bumped into the mirror behind me, a splash of cold washing over my body from the touch. I turned, looking into the only fully intact mirror in the House of Wacky Reflections and froze.

Staring back at me was me… but not me. The Littlepip staring back at me was wearing cobbled-together raider armor. She was shot to hell, dying, her body giving out as she glared at me in a swiftly deteriorating battle stance, her gaze daring me to make another move.

I shrank back in horror, turned, and ran.

Right into the path of the chain gun.

I would have been bloody giblets if my sudden appearance hadn’t completely surprised the unicorn mare. The moment it took her to recover was just enough for me to telekinetically grab the gun and spin it around, opening fire. The riot shield was sorely insufficient to its rather awesome firepower.

I paused a moment in a futile attempt to pull the chaingun off its mounting and take it with me. Then dashed out the door.

A sniper in one of the Pinkie Pie Balloons took a shot. The bullet whizzed past me, tearing into a ruined popcorn cart. I started weaving, making myself as difficult a target as possible. I needed someplace safe, preferably someplace high. It was time to call Calamity. This whole plan was a bust.

A griffin swooped overhead, strafing at me with a submachine gun. I changed course, hoping I wasn’t being corralled.

I was. The path in front of me dead-ended at the wrought iron fence that surrounded the amusement park. They had maneuvered me into a trap.

At least, that was their intention. As I galloped past an overturned confectionary stand (“Pinkie Pie’s Pink Pies!”) I magically scooped up a dozen scattered pie tins, floating them ahead of me. I levitated them each higher than the last, forming stepping stairs. Wrapping myself with a levitation field to virtually negate my own weight, I ran up the stairway of pie tins and leapt over the fence.

The Pinkie Pie Balloon sniper fired again, putting a hole through the last tin just as my hoof left it. The griffin turned and continued the chase. But at least for the moment, I had reduced my opponents to two.

I dove, rolling, and brought up my targeting spell, unleashing half the bullets from the rifle into the griffin’s armored underbelly as she flew over me. Talon armor turned out to be very good. She was not dead, not even bloodied, but the impacts knocked the wind from her, driving her to land roughly.

I rolled back to my hooves as another sniper shot struck the ground right where my head had been. I needed to get out from under this sniper pony! She was no Calamity, but she was a frighteningly good shot. And it would only take one hit.

I ran for the nearest intact building, firing the last of my bullets into the two guard ponies standing watch in front of it. I tossed the rifle, telekinetically swooping up one of the guards’ automatic pistols as a replacement, and burst through the front doors of the Alpha-Omega Hotel.

*** *** ***

The hotel which had once hosted the Summer Sun Celebration had seen better centuries. The aura of ruined opulence clung to the interior like its faded and peeling wallpaper. The air was dingy and filled with little motes of dust and decay. Small rains of plaster occasionally fell from the cracks in the ceiling.

The hotel was home to ponies who knew they were on a glorified death row.

Ponies sat along the bar, drinking their night away, knowing that tomorrow most of them would be slaughtered in bloody spectacle for the amusement of the crowds. Crowds full of fellow slaves who could somehow look into The Pit and not see themselves. Who could look… and actually cheer.

My heart felt sick as I walked quickly through the small throng of silent slave ponies. They glanced my way briefly, if at all. They didn’t care. Why should they? We were, apparently, incapable of caring about each other.

I brushed dampness from my eyes and looked for the stairs. If I could make it to the roof, I could call Calamity and get the hell out of here.

I made my way up the Alpha-Omega, hooves plodding on rotting carpet. My EFS was picking up a host of friendly marks, but no sign of anypony (or griffin) who was hostile. I passed a painting of Celestia standing gracefully in what looked like a grand ballroom, a kind smile on her face, surrounded by colorful ponies in the fever of a party. The Summer Sun Celebration in full swing.

The painting was graying from age and dust.

“Goddesses, this is a depressing place,” I muttered, almost wishing for more guards to come charging up behind me, if only so the adrenaline would shield me from the blanket of despair that was beginning to smother me.

Why weren’t they? I should have all of Stern’s armies on my tail by now. It’s not like that sniper didn’t see where I went.

Maybe they considered me trapped? But even then, I can’t imagine they would just sit back and let me make a home in here. Why weren’t they coming in?

I found the next flight of stairs and started up.

I was just clearing the top when all the friendly lights on my EFS started turning red. I was picking up dozens of hostiles now. Far too many; the lights burred together, making it impossible to identify the positions of individual opponents.

I floated up the automatic pistol and crouched low, hoping I could sneak past most of them.

The door opened, not by my horn or hoof, but by the telekinetic pull of a unicorn pony on the other side. I immediately slid into S.A.T.S., targeting the colt before he even saw me. And froze again.

A colt!

The child, who was floating a single-shot shotgun next to him inexpertly, wasn’t even old enough to have a cutie mark.

Beyond him I saw other children, young fillies and colts all looking well-nourished, well cared for… and annoyingly well-armed. The room itself was brightly lit and recently painted in cheery colors. The worst of the cracks had been repaired (I suspected by magic), and the air was considerably cleaner. Unlike every other building used by either slavers or slaves, this floor had been restored to a fair reflection of its former glory. My eyes widened further as I spotted what was clearly a school room through the doorway opposite this one.

Red Eye’s words echoed through my head:

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.

The scene before my eyes was simultaneously wonderful and horrifying.

Young children, ripped from the homes of their families and given to the care of “loving, approved mares and stallions.” Their real families were dying in the city below, trapped and enslaved behind The Wall. While they themselves were being given the best possible care… probably the best possible life in the Equestrian Wasteland.

And they were being taught. Education. Indoctrination. Of course they loved him. They would be ready to kill for him.

Red Eye was building schools. And he was about to have the ability to print his own textbooks.
This scene was going to be repeated everywhere.

I couldn’t do it. I killed S.A.T.S.

I couldn’t sneak past all of them. And I couldn’t, just couldn’t, fight them.

“Hey!” the colt called down the stairs. “She’s up here!”

I turned to flee, only to see a midnight blue alicorn moving silently up the stairs towards me.

I would have facehoofed if I had been given the chance. I had actually wondered why no one was coming in after me. By the Goddesses, how could I have forgotten some of these monsters can turn invisible?

The alicorn’s horn was glowing. A metal apple floated towards me, the pin pulled. The alicorn would survive, but even if I did, the colt next to me would not. If there was time, I might have stopped to wonder why the alicorn would threaten a child if they were so clearly precious to Red Eye. But there was no time. Instinctively, I lashed out with my magic, trying to knock the grenade away.

I realized my mistake as the world started to slip away from me. The last thing I saw in this world was the alicorn drop the illusion that surrounded the memory orb.

They remembered. They learned. And I had been bested by my own trick.

*** *** ***

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

Everything shot into almost brutal sharpness. Colors were more colorful. The lines around objects almost vibrant. The sunlight was sunnier than I had ever imagined it could be. Bright and warm and glorious beyond belief. I could smell the bush I was standing behind, the flowers nearby, the grass. I could smell the two ponies I was watching. The sweat on Applejack would have made me stir in recently wounded places if this had been my own body.

It was not, however -- a fact to which I was hyper-aware. I could feel a slight burning on my left forehoof, as if I’d recently touched a hot stove. I had an itch on my cheek, an odd pain in my hindlegs that was barely noticeable, a tingle along my back. There was a familiar and delicious peppermint taste on my tongue.

Oh no…

With dawning horror, I realized that my pony host was high on Mint-als.

Oh please no! I can’t take this!

The effects were nowhere near as pronounced. I was getting the heightened perceptions, but none of the other effects. Still, it was too comfortable, too alluring.

“Howdy, Fluttershy,” Applejack said, greeting her friend with a smile as the yellow pegaus landed gently on the grass as if worried about hurting it.

“Hello, Applejack,” the pegasus said meekly.

“So, what brings ya about these parts?”

“Well…” The shy pegasus looked down, crossing one leg over the other. “I… um… that is…”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Good gravy, girl. Spit it out, already. Is something wrong?”

The pegasus took a deep breath and then said in a rush, “Are you looking for a close marefriend? Because, if you are, we could… um… you know?” She paused, all too obviously having no clue what good marefriends did in the privacy of their own beds.

My host stifled a giggle as Applejack’s eyes went wide. Then she scowled, trotting past the deeply blushing pegasus to slam her head repeatedly against a tree.

When she finished, she turned on Fluttershy. “All right. That’s enough. What is it with all muh friends hittin’ on me, pretendin’ Ah’m a fillyfooler? Y’all know better. And y’all are straight.” She took a step forward. Fluttershy eeped and took one back. “Fluttershy, Ah know you. So be straight with me.”

The pun was probably not intended.

“Well…”

“Did Rainbow Dash put ya up to this?” Applejack demanded.

“oh!” Fluttershy squeaked but shook her head. “No.”

Applejack looked dubious. “So yer sayin’ ya just thought this up all by yer lonesome?”

Fluttershy shook her head.

“So Rainbow Dash did put ya up t’ it!”

“No,” she insisted softly. My host began to move, silently creeping out from behind the bush.

“But… somepony did?” Applejack sussed out. Her yellow friend nodded. “Who?”

My host had moved up behind Applejack so quickly and stealthily even I hadn’t seen it happen. Still, it bewildered me how we could be standing this close and neither of the ponies seemed to notice us. Were we invisible? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time I had found myself in a magically hidden being who was spying on the Ministry Mares. But I was clearly in an earth pony…

Applejack turned around only to find herself nose-to-nose with my host. Spooked, she jumped away so fast she toppled onto her back. “Pinkie Pie!”

“Hiya!” I felt my muzzle say, hearing the words in a high-pitched but pretty voice. “Aww! Ya caught me!”

“What in tarnation are…” The blonde-maned orange pony stopped. Then facehoofed while still lying on her back in a most undignified position. “You! This has all been one of yer and Rainbow’s practical jokes, ain’t it?”

“Yep!” I heard myself say happily as I began to bounce. Bounce!?

Applejack pulled herself back onto her hooves, staring at me and my host crossly. “Care if Ah ask why?”

“Well, you’ve been totally a mopey-pony since the funeral…”

“Of course Ah have!” Applejack shot. “Ah buried muh brother!”

“…and you’ve been working really, really hard,” Pinkie Pie plowed on. “An’ ya haven’t been getting out, or going to parties, or seeing your friends. And you haven’t even talked to a buck in, like, for-ev-er!...”

Applejack huffed. “How would ya know if Ah’ve…” She stopped abruptly, realizing just how stupid a question that was considering who she was asking. Fluttershy had slipped back a ways, almost hiding.

“…and you’re all worked up and stressed and you’re gonna burn yourself out if you aren’t careful, and you really, really need to get laid!

Applejack hung her head. Pinkie Pie was… incorrigible at best. “This ain’t gonna end until Ah get myself a buckfriend, is it?”

“Nope!” Pinkie Pie announced bouncily. How the hell could she bounce on all hooves like that? I was inside her, and I still couldn’t figure it out.

“Well, would it help if Ah said there is a buck Ah’ve had muh eye on?”

Pinkie Pie stopped bouncing and stared off into space. The itch on the side of her cheek migrated to her chin. She looked back to Applejack, “Yep, that’s the truth. But itchy chin means you haven’t told him yet. You gotta talk to him!”

Applejack sighed. “An’ if Ah do, this nonsense stops?” I watched the world rock as Pinkie Pie nodded enthusiastically.

My host started chanting “Do it!” rambunctiously as she bounced in circles around Applejack.

“Fine.” Applejack reached out a hoof and stopped Pinkie Pie. “On one condition!”

“What?”

“Y’all got ta swear…” Applejack turned to look at Fluttershy. “…Both o’ ya, that Rainbow Dash don’t hear a word o’ this!”

“But…” Pinkie Pie started, “If Rainbow Dash doesn’t know, how will she know that it’s time t’ stop the prank, silly?”

“Ah can deal with it from Rainbow,” Applejack said sternly. “Least, now that Ah know where it’s comin’ from. But this possible buckfriend o’ mine?… well, he’s got a kinda funny name… an’ Ah think Rainbow might not be able t’ keep herself from messin’ things up.”

Wow, that came out badly. Applejack seemed to realize it too. “Look, Ah’ll tell her muhself when Ah’m ready. Not b’fore.” She looked at her two friends. “Now y’all Pinkie Pie Swear it!”

Pinkie Pie Swear?

My host’s reaction was immediate. I struggled to keep track of the odd motions (which ended with sticking a hoof in my eye!) that accompanied the little singsong that Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy managed to do in perfect synchronicity.

“Cross my heart and hope to fly. Stick a cupcake in my eye!”

Applejack breathed a sigh of relief. The three friends began to walk, my host falling slowly behind.

“Oh… there it is again.”

Applejack and Fluttershy both stopped, looking back. “There what is?”

“Burning hoof means Littlepip’s watching me,” Pinkie Pie blurted out impossibly. “Or will be watching me. I’m not sure yet.” She bounced after her friends. “Who’s Littlepip?”

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

*** *** ***

“The furnace pits?” Stern suggested, glaring at me. I was bound and shackled to the floor. And, as if that was not enough, two green-coated alicorns stood frozen beside me, trapping me inside a shield.

Not only had I done most of the things that Stern considered a death sentence, I had done them with aggressive results. I had still failed, but she took the time to name each slaver I managed to kill before my inevitable capture.

“No,” said Red Eye, eliciting a look of shock and displeasure from the griffin. The cybernetically-augmented stallion walked up to face me. “I’m feeling particularly generous today.”

I doubted I would much care for his definition of generosity. But the horrific tale of a pony being devoured from inside by an ever-growing number of parasprites left me thankful all the same.

Addressing me directly, Red Eye asked, “Do you think I’m a monster?”

Bluntly, I answered, “Yes.”

He shrugged. “Because, of course, I am. And you, Stable Dweller, can probably see it more clearly than most. Because you and I are a lot alike, are we not.”

“Not even slightly,” I hissed, lying through my teeth.

Red Eye chuckled. “I’ve heard of your exploits. I think we are more the same than you would like. You’ve just had it easy so far.”

Enraged, I spat, “Easy!? You think what I’ve been through out here has been easy!?

Red Eye gave me an almost fatherly smile. “The fact that you can still stand there and judge me tells me so. You have had hardships I am sure. But you’ve never been forced to give up your principles for the greater good. To sacrifice yourself and become a monster because it was the right thing to do.”

Oh how I disagreed!

“You couldn’t do it even to escape,” he noted. “For which, by the way, I am very grateful. Had you harmed a hair on even one of those children…” He paused, then simply said, “Thank you.”

Red Eye turned towards Stern. His cape fell into view, a rough rectangle made from Stable security barding. The number 101 was visible in yellow against the black cloth.

“Take her back downstairs and keep her under shield. Tomorrow, she fights in The Pit.”

*** *** ***

Lined up in the darkness with five other ponies, I spent an hour rummaging through the recorded messages of Miss Periwinkle. Most were worthless, but one was actually from a Ministry Mare… and not the one I had been expecting.

“Dear Miss Periwinkle,” the voice began. I found it very odd to hear an audio message addressed like it was a letter.

“It was a pleasure to hear from you again. The new posters for the libraries are absolutely perfect. I hope it will not be a burden to have two hundred produced by next week?

“I also have a… more delicate matter to ask you about.

“Let me preface this by saying that for decades now, ever since she taught me her gem-finding spell, Rarity and I have gotten together at irregular intervals to swap magical spells.

“I must admit, and please believe I do not say this to brag, it has been a long time since she brought anything that I hadn’t already learned myself. That is, until three days ago.

“I was thrilled to see that she had learned a trick I had never seen before. She had enchanted a small mirror. To look in it, you would see your reflection, just as with any mirror. But if you touched it, or focused your magic on it, then a spell within the mirror took… well, the way she put it, the mirror took a picture of your soul. Then a second enchantment allowed the mirror to show that image. As Rarity told me, the mirror could show you what you looked like on the outside… or on the inside.

“I must admit... I wasn’t ready for what I saw. And I’m still not sure about it. But that’s… personal. Rather, I wanted to ask you if you could give me any clue as to where Rarity may have learned enchantments like that. I know Rarity would re-fashion any magical spell until it was customized to her wishes; but honestly, I’ve been scouring my books, but I’ve found nothing that even remotely resembles these spells. I know you have worked closely with her the last few months, so I hoped you would have an idea.

“Also, it’s hardly worth mentioning, but the spell felt… cold. Not like Rarity’s spells at all.

“Anyway, this is mostly just a matter of rampant curiosity, and I ask that you please not mention this to her. But if you have any idea, I really would appreciate it if you let me know.

“Your friend,
“Twilight Sparkle.”

I deleted the messages from my PipBuck, but kept that one.

I sat in silent darkness with five other marked souls and waited.

*** *** ***

The noise outside told me that the seating around the arena was quickly filling. I heard Stern, her voice magnified over the speakers, welcoming everypony to the bloody show. I heard hooves pounding bleachers in applause.

My face twisted in disgust. How could they? This was sick.

Earlier, a slave master pony had attached a sheet to my flank, covering my cutie mark. She had snarled and whispered to me her fondest desires that my suffering be deep and excruciating and very slow. She had known one of the rapist slavers. The only reason I survived being numbered was because Stern was watching, but she still got away with covering the bottom side of the sheet with some sort of stinging powder that was making it hard for me to concentrate.

I was number three.

Blood and Daff were numbers one and two, respectively. They sat closest to the gate, looking out at the arena -- a large plot of broken cement underneath a cage from which several barrels were suspended. I could see pressure plates set up like mines all over. Neither of them had spoken to me, going out of their way to ignore my existence. I couldn’t decide whether to be hurt or relieved.

“Used to be an ice skating rink,” the blue-colored buck with number four on his flank said conversationally. “Apparently, the owner of the FunFarm had a thing for ice skating. Just be thankful that Red Eye removed the water talisman and put it to better use. These fights are brutal enough without having to do them on ice.”

I tried to imagine that and just couldn’t. Outside the crowds began to chant for the first fight, their hoofstomps falling into a unity that would make the Goddess proud. Part of me wanted to hurt them. And these were the ponies I was trying to save.

“Hey, consider yourself lucky,” the blue buck joked. “Being number three ain’t bad. Has anypony told you how these things work?”

I shook my head. The roar outside rose to a crescendo. There was a loud buzz, then a clanging sound as the gate was levitated up by a unicorn nopony inside could see.

“Round one!” Stern’s voice boomed.

“From the Red Gate: all the way from the Rock Farms, we have Cinderblock! This is his second Event, so you know he’s got some hooves on him! And from the Black Gate: she’s tough, she’s mean, she’s a raider with a body count higher than the spikes in her hair… it’s Blood!”

Blood got up, looking dejectedly at the open gate for a moment, then held her head up and trotted out, putting on a brave face that I didn’t believe even a little bit.

“You see,” Number Four was telling me, “There are two gates. We’re Black Gate. Each gate has six fighters, randomly numbered. If you survive your first round, you will be pitted against the next opponent from the Red Gate. Event lasts until all the opponents from one gate are dead. The survivors from the other gate live fight in the next Event.”

I looked at Blood and winced. “So, basically, it sucks to be number one.” I couldn’t believe I was feeling sympathy for the vile raider mare.

“Well, it’s a give and take,” Number Four said. I looked at him quizzically. “I mean, true, if you’re a high enough number, it’s possible you won’t have to fight at all. And anypony who survives six Events is set free. Doesn’t matter if he actually fought or not.” I got the feeling that Number Four had made it through at least one Event just that way.

“You even get a spot in Red Eye’s army!” he added enthusiastically. I considered pointing out to him the sort of position Red Eye would likely appoint him to if he never won a fight. But I kept my muzzle shut.

The sudden roar of the crowd snapped my attention back to the arena. Blood was down, soaking in a pool of her own… well, blood. Cinderblock, an athletic-looking light grey buck, was rearing his hooves in victory. The fight had lasted seconds.

My heart sank.

“What was the benefit of being first again?” I asked dully.

Number Four leaned close, apparently unable to comprehend personal space. “Well, you see those barrels? And you see those plates?” I nodded to each. “Step on a plate, the barrel above drops. Now the barrels are full of nasty stuff. Usually radioactive goo, but sometimes its something worse. I heard they once had one filled with tainted ooze.”

I shuddered, looking up at the cage that had been constructed over the arena and the barrels hanging from it. A few griffins flew high above, watching the show with binoculars or through rifle scopes. My eyes caught a swinging door built into the cage, kept closed by a simple padlock.

“Round Two!” Stern cried out.

“From the Black Gate, we have Daffodil!” The crowd broke into snickers and chortles as Daff got up and stepped out into the arena. He took one look at the bloody corpse of his companion and then locked Cinderblock with a hard stare that I could almost feel from behind him.

Daffodil charged at the light grey pony. Cinderblock ran… not towards him, but towards one of the pressure plates. The barrel above didn’t exactly drop. Rather, as the grey pony raced across the plate, the underside of the barrel swung open and a dozen mines rained down, hitting the ground and bouncing in all directions. Daff changed direction with a deftness I would not have expected.

The mines were rigged for fast detonation, only beeping once before exploding in a flash of smoke and shrapnel. Cinderblock had almost been fast enough, but his hind legs were peppered and torn as he was flung forward. He was still struggling to get back on his bleeding legs when Daff reached him.

I knew how hard those hooves hit. But seeing this, I suspected that Daff had held back when he bucked the living fuck out of me. Even with his last, low blow.

The crowd beat their hooves and cried out for more as Daff pummeled the other buck, breaking first his legs, then every other bone he could before killing him.

I tasted bile.

“Mines,” Number Four mused. “Well, that was a new one.” I shot him a dark look. “Hey, like I was saying, those barrels have nasty things. But they also always have a weapon or two in them. So if you’re first, you get your pick of the prizes. And if you go last, well… you go up against an opponent with their choice of weapons, in an arena filled with ooze and Goddess knows what else, and all you have are your hooves. Fighting last sucks.”

“Round Three!” Stern finally announced after Daff had stopped brutalizing Cinderblock and started just beating a dead pony.

“From the Black Gate, we still have Daffodil, after a surprising and entertaining first performance. I don’t think any of you ponies are snickering at his name now, are you?”

The crowd applauded the crimson-splattered buck whose angry-flower cutie mark was now partially visible behind his number two patch, which was sagging and wet with Cinderblock’s lifeblood.

“And now, the one I know you’ve all been waiting for!”

The crowd hushed with gleeful anticipation.

“From the Red Gate: she’s demonic, she’s exotic, and she has never lost a fight! Give it up for our Champion four-Events-running! Xenith!”

My first thought, struck in my brain at the word “exotic”, was a pegasus mare. The idea of facing a flying opponent in this arena was terrifying. And, if she was as good as advertised, I would be facing her as soon as she finished killing Daff.

The Red Gate opened and Xenith stepped out into the arena to absolutely thunderous, overwhelming applause. From her grim expression, she wasn’t enjoying it one bit. From the look she gave Daff, she was going to kill him, she knew it and it brought her no pleasure at all.

From her lack of wings, she wasn’t a pegasus. From her stripes, she wasn’t even a pony.

“She’s a zebra!”


Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Cooler Under Fire – You regenerate Action Points faster. How much faster? You guessed it: 20% faster!