Chapter Thirty-Four: Edge of Night
“Aaaaallrighty. What do you say we get on out of Creepytown…?”
Everything had gone black. Even the junction terminal was completely dead. Well, fuck.
Okay, not entirely unexpected. The message left for Shadowhorn by Scootaloo warned that shutting down the Crusader Maneframe would shut off all the automated systems. And since the Crusader Maneframe ran virtually everything, that meant all the systems were automated.
I had stopped Elder Cottage Cheese. I just hoped I hadn’t cost the Outcasts their base in the process.
I turned on the lamp of my PipBuck. Its light seemed somehow ghostly in the reigning quiet. Checking my PipBuck’s automap, I was pleased to find that interfacing with the junction had revealed the entrance into the Crusader Maneframe’s secure room. I pushed myself up and started towards the entrance. With speed, I could get there and reboot the spell matrix in Strawberry Lemonade’s power armor before SteelHooves finished cutting his way in.
I fought a niggling sense of panic. If I just broke the Stable, I was going to be in so much trouble.
The quiet didn’t last long. Shouts echoed down the halls. As I trotted into the atrium, I passed the two knights I had overheard talking earlier. They were galloping towards the security station, the spotlights on their helmets cutting swaths of illumination, one of them still pulling a trash bin behind her.
Emergency lights came on throughout the Stable, bathing the halls with pale orange. I exhaled in relief. Thank you, Apple Bloom, for thinking of everything!
“Hello, residents of Stable Twenty-Nine,” a sweet-sounding mare’s voice called out over the Stable loudspeakers. “My name is Sweetie Belle, and I am… was one of the founding ponies of Stable-Tec…”
I cast a look at one of the speakers as I passed by. What was this?
“If you are hearing this, it means that the Crusader Maneframe that has been running Stable Twenty-Nine since it was sealed was shut down moments ago because it posed a threat to the ponies under its care.”
Sweetie Belle’s voice was calming. I slowed to a walk.
“Emergency subsystems have been activated to take care of vital life-sustaining and security-related systems,” the voice of Sweetie Belle informed us. “Unfortunately, these subsystems have a limited lifespan and will only function for five years.”
For ponies trapped in a Stable beneath an irradiated hellscape, five years would have been a major problem. For us, it was virtually a gift from heaven.
“I’m afraid you will have to figure out what to do from here on your own. But don’t panic. You are good ponies, and you can do more than you think if you just put your minds to it. I know you will do just fine.
“Good luck, my little ponies.”
*** *** ***
I rounded the corner into the maintenance wing only to see a machine gun turret lowering out of a sliding ceiling panel, silhouetted hellishly by the orange emergency light behind it. I slid to a stop, eyeing the turret. Calamity had shut down all the security turrets last time we were here. But the subsystems must have brought them back online. Still, without the Crusader trying to wipe out the Stable’s population, they shouldn’t be hostile, right?
The turret clicked, beeped, and spun towards me.
I dove back around the corner as bullets sparked off the walls. What the fuck?
A new automated voice came over the speakers, this time an anonymous mare. “Crusader Maneframe emergency shutdown successful. Security subsystem attempting to discern the nature of the emergency and provide assistance.”
I heard more gunfire from deeper in the Stable.
“Analysis: dead water talisman. Celestia-Tier Emergency. Contacting nearest Stable-Tec supply house for delivery of replacement talisman… Contact failed. Supply house not responding or no longer exists. Attempting to contact secondary supply house… Contact failed. Secondary supply house unreachable.”
I floated out Little Macintosh and checked the load.
“Analysis: hostile takeover. Luna-Tier Emergency. Anti-intruder measures have been engaged. All residents of Stable should retreat to one of the safe rooms until threat has passed.”
I slid into S.A.T.S. as I jumped back into the hall. My targeting spell locked onto the turret, and I fired four shots into its hull. The turret exploded in a shower of sparks with the third hit.
I broke into a gallop, sure that the Crusader Maneframe was in a “safe room”. I wanted to get there and get Strawberry Lemonade back up on her hooves before the room sealed off. Fortunately, the secret entrance that Cottage had used was on the maintenance level, just around the next…
I skidded to a halt as I turned the next corner and found myself facing two more sentry guns. I scrambled back the way I came as bullets tore at the air behind me.
“Identifying resident locations via PipBuck tags. Number of Stable Twenty-Nine residents: zero,” the voice said dispassionately. “Number of Stable Twenty-Nine residents still outside of safe rooms: zero. Safe rooms sealing now.”
I didn’t have time to reload Little Macintosh. Instead, I drew out both the zebra rifle and the sniper rifle. I hoped my skills in marksmanship had improved enough to target multiple stationary targets on my own. S.A.T.S. was not designed to aid with multi-weapon telekinesis, especially with such different weapons.
I spun around the corner, aiming as swiftly as I could. The hall filled with bullets flying in each direction. I felt the impacts as several shots hit my armor but did not penetrate. I felt a burning graze on my left cheek, and a much more serious pain as a bullet punctured my right hindleg.
The sniper rifle fired twice, punching holes through the hull plating of the first turret. The zebra rifle tore at the second one as it set the turret on fire. The turret exploded, taking its wounded twin out with it.
I wobbled, pain lancing up my hindleg. I wasn’t going to make it now, not when I couldn’t run.
“Safe rooms sealed,” the mare’s voice announced, informing me that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. There had never been enough time. “Deploying neurotoxin gas.”
I remembered Knight Strawberry Lemonade calling for me to take out Cottage by gassing the room, but I didn’t realize that was actually possible. But Stables tend to be dangerous, Stern had warned us in Fillydelphia. They often have their own security or their own… unique dangers.
I turned frantically, looking around. I needed to get out of the hall. But where could I go that would be safe? The safe rooms were already sealed. I suddenly felt very tired.
Having no better choice, I started hobbling back down the maintenance wing. I wanted to get to the PipBuck Technician’s stall. There was no logic behind the choice. It just felt like the best place for me to be. I probably wasn’t thinking straight. I felt so tired.
Tired… and heavy.
I wondered what kind of gas was going to be released. Would I hear it? Would I be able to smell it? Would it burn my eyes and lungs? So far, there was nothing, not even a haziness to the air. A flutter of hope moved in my heart. Maybe, after two hundred years, the intruder counter-measures no longer worked. Maybe there was no gas. The idea made me feel better, but also a little dizzy.
Dizzy. And tired. And heavy…
And then I was falling back in the darkness again. I didn’t even feel my body hit the floor.
*** *** ***
I woke up in the Stable Twenty-Nine Clinic. Not my favorite room in any Stable, and particularly not in this one.
“Welcome back, Littlepip,” SteelHooves’ deep voice rumbled. “We’re situated to leave for Bucklyn Cross whenever you are.”
My mouth felt dry and cottony. My voice rasped as I asked, “Why am I not dead?” I could feel a throbbing pain in my right hindleg, beneath the compressive wrap of healing bandages.
“The toxin was designed to incapacitate, not kill.” The voice was Velvet Remedy’s, but I barely recognized it. She sounded as bad as I did. “Either Stable-Tec didn’t want to trust the threat analysis of their subsystem with something that could wipe out the Stable… or they expected the inhabitants to want prisoners.” She sounded like she was quickly reaching the same level of dislike for Stables that I had. “I can’t believe they gassed the Clinic.”
“Well,” I grunted, unsurprised that Velvet Remedy’s response to the power shutdown had been to push her way to the Clinic -- the place ponies would come to for help. “Maybe they just gassed the Atrium. After all, there is that big hole where the window used to be.”
I pushed myself upright. A nauseating wave of dizziness nearly knocked me off the gurney I had been laying on. “unnngh.” I looked to Velvet Remedy. “Are you okay?”
“I won’t be singing again for a few days,” Velvet said dourly. She looked a little haggard, but thankfully uninjured. “But otherwise, yes. Everypony is fine.” She added, “And zebra.”
“And the Rangers?”
“Environmentally sealed armor with rebreathers,” SteelHooves said, sounding just a touch proud of Applejack’s technology. “Gas never got us. Well, those of us in our suits, that is.”
“Cross?” I asked, my throat hurting. “Strawberry?”
“Both fine. They were in Stable safe rooms. I rebooted Knight Strawberry Lemonades’ armor myself.”
I nodded. Made sense security would qualify. Or at least the armory. And Star Paladin Crossroads would have had plenty of time to step into it before it sealed. From the tone of SteelHooves’ voice, I guessed that Strawberry Lemonade had shown more thanks than he was comfortable with. I wished I could have seen it.
“Was anypony… shot?”
“Well, you were,” Velvet Remedy rasped snarkily. Then, with a more somber tone, “Yes. A few others. Mercifully, no fatalities, but there are some ponies here who won’t be walking around again for a few weeks. In one case, I’m afraid, the damage was permanent.”
The weight of the damage I had caused pushed me back down onto the gurney. I stared at the ceiling, wondering how many ponies had been hurt and how long they would be in pain.
“Good work with Cottage,” SteelHooves told me although I certainly didn’t feel like I deserved any congratulations. “The Elder is still alive, but comatose. His fault, not yours. We have him in his life-support pod, ready for delivery.”
“Comatose…” I whispered as a dull pain settled over me that had nothing to do with my injuries. “Will he ever…?”
“Probably not,” SteelHooves replied bluntly. He made it sound like a good thing.
*** *** ***
“I… I’m sorry.”
A lump caught in my throat as I stared up to a knight stallion laying on a gurney. He’d been shot up pretty badly by one of the suddenly-active turrets in the men’s dormitory. He hadn’t been in his armor; he’d been off-shift and had curled up to sleep... only to wake up as bullets tore into his back, screaming in pain as two of his fellow Rangers leapt to destroy the turret.
I imagined myself in his place, and I wondered if he’d ever be able to sleep easily again.
“Fer what?” the stallion asked bitterly. “Hey, ain’t yer fault. Ah blame Cottage, if anypony.”
I didn’t. Blinking back a tear, I put a hoof on his shoulder. “Is there… anything I can do?”
“Think you’ve done enough,” he retorted, then looked apologetic as I winced.
I nodded and turned to go.
Calamity and Xenith were trotting down the hallway towards me. I stopped in shock as I saw Xenith’s horn. For a moment, I thought the zebra had been transformed into a unicorn… badly. But I quickly saw the straps holding the metal plate to her forehead, the curving, wicked horn jutting out of it. I chuckled despite my melancholy.
“So, you finally got a chance to build the hellhound helmet, I see,” I said to Calamity as the rust-coated pegasus paused to tip open a trash bin with a wing. I recognized now the product of the schematics we had discovered at Hippocampus Energy Plant #12. Several hellhound claws were wonderglued together to form the exceptionally lethal horn.
“Ayep!” Calamity said proudly as he fished an old pack of cigarettes out of the trash. Xenith looked mildly less thrilled.
“Using such a weapon is not proper Fallen Caesar Style,” she commented, her exotic voice taking a dour tone. “But the pegasus has argued well that hooves alone are no match for an alicorn’s shield.”
I blinked. “Are we… expecting more trouble with the alicorns?” I asked hesitantly. I seemed to remember a warning about alicorns in the Canterlot Ruins. “I thought we were on a mission from the Goddess? Surely, they’d let us pass.”
Slipping the cigarette pack into his saddlebags, Calamity frowned with a look of grim discomfort. “Well… Let’s jus’ say we just ain’t takin’ any chances.”
*** *** ***
The storm from the night before had given way to a light drizzle as Calamity wove the Sky Bandit between the dark, skeletal husks that had once been Manehattan’s skyscrapers. We were heading to Bucklyn Cross in a part of the city that I had not yet seen.
Velvet Remedy stirred, coming out of the Fluttershy orb for what was the second time since we left Stable Twenty-Nine this morning. I looked away, not meeting the gaze coming from SteelHooves’ helmet. Everypony deserved their little retreats.
“There’s something I don’t understand,” Velvet Remedy admitted, looking to me as she put the memory orb away. Her voice was still raspy, but not as bad as it was a few hours ago.
I wasn’t in the mood for conversation. At my insistence, I had been led around to all the Outcasts who had been hurt when the security systems activated. I apologized to each one. Most were polite, and some even thanked me for dealing with Cottage and possibly revealing two locations for backup water talismans to boot. Only one of them snapped at me over it. More should have.
“Littlepip, you said that Red Eye talked about controlling the sun, the moon and the weather. But not even the Goddess Celestia was able to control the weather all across Equestria. Does he really expect that mimicking what Trixie has become will make him more powerful than Celestia?”
I shrugged, not feeling like speaking. And honestly, I really had no idea.
Velvet Remedy shook her head. “For that matter, why focus on the sun and the moon? Either Celestia and Luna are up there somewhere, guiding them like They always have…” Velvet glanced towards Calamity, her eyes meeting with his as he looked back over his shoulder at the conversation. “…or Calamity is right, the Goddesses are simply dead, the sun and moon are doing just fine on their own.”
Which would mean that the Goddesses were never really needed in the first place.
“Sure, being their guide would be a status symbol,” Velvet said. “But Red Eye seems… practical. Why turn himself into… something like her to do something that doesn’t need to be done?”
Calamity veered away from the blackened husk of a building as dozens of pigeons burst out. I slipped off my bench as the passenger wagon tilted, thumping my right hindleg hard enough to bring tears to my eyes. Pyrelight leapt from Velvet’s side, soaring out of one of the windows into the open air, giving chase.
Blinking, I considered crawling back onto the bench. The bench was more comfortable but laying on it risked another spill. I decided to just stay on the floor.
“Is it not obvious,” Xenith said. “He wishes to be worshipped like a God. How better to become one than to take on the role of your Goddesses?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think that’s it.” Red Eye had talked as if he was removing himself from the equation. Like doing this was akin to dying. He was many things, but not a megalomaniac.
“Ya’ll are makin’ an assumption that jus’ ain’t so,” Calamity called back.
We all turned towards him. “And what would that assumption be?” Velvet asked in a voice that would have been a purr if not for the aftereffects of the gas.
“Y’all talk like the sun an’ the moon are doin’ what they’re s’posed to,” Calamity replied, swooping beneath a crumbling and dangerously canted walkway that stretched between two tilting towers. Several bloodwings were nesting underneath. “Way Ah heard it, Celestia would raise the sun at the beginnin’ o’ day, then lower it at night. Luna would bring out the moon, then put it away at dawn. That was s’posed t’ be the order o’ things, right?”
“Well, yes,” Velvet Remedy replied. “Of course. But clearly that’s still happening. It was night before, it is day now, and it will be night again, just like clockwork.”
“Oh it’s happenin’, but it ain’t nothin’ like clockwork. Ah can’t tell ya how many times when Ah was growin’ up that Ah saw the sun an’ the moon in the sky at the same time.”
Velvet and Xenith gasped. I reeled. The very notion was… like something out of a doomsday prophecy. The sun and the moon never shared the sky. It was unnatural. Blasphemous.
“Usually, it was in the early mornin’, like they couldn’t decide which was s’posed t’ be out. They’ve gone wild, Ah reckon. Like the weather.” Calamity began a graceful turn that tilted the Sky Bandit, giving us all a view of the slate-blue expanse of the ocean beyond Manehattan’s harbor. I could see a few lights shining from the Pony of Friendship on her little island out in the bay. The storm clouds darkened as they stretched out across the sea, and the horizon was obscured by the heavy grey of rain.
“Don’t happen that often, but happens enough that no pegasus ever forgets that there ain’t nopony guidin’ ‘em anymore.” Calamity snorted, “An’ it ain’t always in the mornin’. Once, middle o’ the day, ‘bout a generation after the war, the sun an’ the moon weren’t only both in the sky at the same time, they were in the same spot! It was like they collided or somethin’.”
I was in shock, horrified by what Calamity was describing. The pony in my head tried to come up with an epitaph, but no lewd reference to the Goddesses could match the profanity of that event.
“Ah wasn’t there, o course,” Calamity told us. “But Ah’ve seen pictures. Sun turned inta a big black disk pourin’ out reddish light like it was the end o’ the world. Plenty o’ pegasus folk thought it was. There was riotin’. Ponies got killed. Enclave stepped in, restored peace. Ah think that was when they really took control.”
*** *** ***
It was late evening when I first laid eyes on Bucklyn Cross.
The skyscrapers had fallen behind us, and the Manehattan Ruins had become a grey maze of crumbling structures and flattened buildings radiating out from the Manehattan Blast Zone. We could clearly see where the Balefire Bomb had gone off. What had once been Manehattan’s city center had been scoured to the foundations in a huge radius. The Blast Zone was almost uniformly smooth save for odd lines where underground tunnels had channeled the blast. It glistened like glass.
Beyond the Manehattan Blast Zone, beyond miles of shattered city, a murky river cut through the land. Its shores marked the boundary between Manehattan and Bucklyn, one of Manehattan’s largest suburbs. The Bucklyn Bridge had once spanned the river. It has been one of Manehattan’s crowning landmarks -- a massive, multi-tiered suspension bridge with huge brickwork piers that included rentable living spaces. The Bucklyn Bridge had collapsed from both ends, leaving only a single freestanding pier in the middle of the river, a stretch of roadway hanging out over the water in each direction. When viewed from the right angle, it did indeed look like a giant cross. Little rivulets of rainwater were pouring off of each end; the wind caught the water in misty sprays.
The meeting point for our exchange with the Steel Rangers was on this side of the river. So I was alarmed when Calamity flew past it, swooping out over the water. “Hang on!”
“What?” I asked, crawling up onto a bench and floating out my binoculars. I looked first downwards towards the cracked remains of a wagon hitching lot I believed was our destination. And indeed there were several Paladins looking back up through the rain at me with upturned visors. And more waiting in the ruins beyond. I spotted at least a dozen.
Were they planning to ambush us, or were they protecting themselves should we try to double-cross them? I pointed out what I’d spotted to SteelHooves.
“Make sure your guns are loaded,” he replied. Then turned to Calamity. “Where are you going?”
I turned my gaze to Bucklyn Cross, noting more Steel Rangers moving between the wreckage of wagons and defensive barricades. There were multiple turrets (including several mounted on the bottom of the bridge which clearly kept it free of bloodwings), and I noted a few tank-like sentinel bots rolling about on patrol. Structures had been built between the tiers and between the columns of the pier, supplementing the living spaces already inside the pier. A line of cranes held several small boats over the edge of the bridge railing. All in all, the Steel Ranger’s Manehattan citadel looked cramped but ridiculously secure.
It would take them considerable time to send reinforcements. They would have to do so by boat.
I noticed other boats in the river -- small, light craft pushed over the water by huge fans. A hoof-full of them skimmed about like insects near a small settlement huddled along the shore in the dim shadow of Bucklyn Cross.
Once, in the old Equestria, the buildings had been a strip mall, apparently dominated by two competing coffee shops. The two shops had fought to out-advertise each other, cumulating in each building a giant billboard over their respective corners of the mall. The billboard for Java’s Cup had collapsed, crushing through the roof of the adjacent Sunny Suds’ Laundromat. The opposite billboard had suffered severe damage from smoke and age, leaving only four letters of the sign clearly legible: arbu.
The residents of Arbu had ringed the asphalt field that had once been the mall’s complimentary parking with passenger and delivery wagons, using scavenged plates of scrap metal to fortify the barricade. It was a passable defense, but in comparison to the fortifications of Bucklyn Cross, the little village looked like a target.
Several of the signboards from above the strip mall’s shops, including a sign for Java’s Cup the size of a schoolroom chalkboard, had been cobbled together to create a gate which could be opened and closed through a system of chains and pulleys. Above, the ponies had fashioned a sign: Arbu. Friendliest town in the wasteland! The gate was being slowly drawn upward to allow a merchant caravan to exit from the town.
I knew what had drawn Calamity’s attention even before I saw them.
The rain-soaked ponies I saw moving between the rubble, setting an ambush for the caravan, didn’t look like raider ponies. They lacked the fucked-up, “scourges of ponykind” motif. No necklaces of pony bones or cutie marks of bloodied weapons. They just looked like bandits.
“Uh… Calamity? Maybe we should just scare them off?”
“So they c’n jus’ attack the next caravan instead?” Calamity asked gruffly, kicking the reload bar of his battle saddle. “Plan t’ go ‘round ‘pologizin’ t’ everypony they kill after we let ‘em go?”
That stung. I shut up.
There were nine of them. I watched several taking aim down rifles pointed towards Arbu. One, a slate-blue unicorn mare, floated a heavy assault rifle into position. If we didn’t intervene, this would be a slaughter.
Calamity lined up on the first of the bandits and opened fire. One double-shot from his battle saddle and the pony fell, missing part of his head.
The bandits all turned about, looking for where the shot had come from. Only one of them thought to look up into the sky. Calamity fired again, just as the pony pointed upwards and cried out a warning to her companions. One of Calamity’s bullets tore into the bottom of her pointing hoof, wrecking her foreleg. The other hit her thick leather armor. She fell back, badly wounded.
Pyrelight swooped in front of us, diving down towards the bandit. The magnificent huntress let out a blast of green flame, setting the wounded bandit ablaze. I could hear her screams as she burned to death.
The remaining bandits, seven of them, dove for better cover, turning their weapons skyward. One black-coated earth pony with a sawed-off shotgun swung his weapon towards Pyrelight.
BLAM! The beautiful balefire phoenix let out a squawk of pain and fell from the sky, bouncing off a freestanding wall and landing in a trash bin. Velvet Remedy cried out in dismay.
“Calamity, get us down there now!” she screamed.
Dozens of bullets sparked off the Sky Bandit, echoing metallically. I floated up the zebra rifle and peered down the scope. The other ponies were shooting back at us, but the black stallion’s shotgun didn’t have the range. Instead, he was crouching behind a mailbox, looking for better cover. I brought up my targeting spell and took aim. His cover was good; it would be a tricky shot to get him…
I paused. And slipped away the zebra rifle, bringing out the sniper rifle instead. I reasoned that an armor-piercing shot would go right through the mailbox. But the real reason is that I didn’t want to set these ponies on fire. It felt wrong to kill them like that.
But I was still going to kill them. Did that make me “corrupted kindness” after all?
Calamity banked, firing again. One of the bandit ponies learned the hard way that her cover was just not quite good enough. She screamed as one of the bullets clipped her in the flank, the other pinging off the concrete she was hiding behind with a shower of white dust.
“Dammit, move where Ah c’n see ya!”
SteelHooves’ deep voice wryly commented, “I don’t think she’s looking to oblige.” He moved up to one of the passenger wagon’s broken windows, warning us to get back. The missile launcher built unto his battle saddle opened up. Two rockets whooshed out, the backwash of their launch filling the wagon with choking smoke. I threw myself to a window, more to breathe than to see, and watched as the missiles struck home on the bandit mare’s concrete shield, blasting it apart. The mare’s body was bloodily torn by chunks of blast-propelled concrete.
More shots. This time neither from the bandits nor from us. Several armed ponies were charging out of Arbu, firing pistols and rifles at the bandits. Others were moving to protect the merchant.
The remaining bandits were forced to split their attention. The slate-blue unicorn bandit turned her assault rifle towards the incoming ponies of Arbu and opened fire, spraying wildly. The townsponies dived for cover amongst the hulks of old chariots and the crumbled walls of what had once been a dentistry office. At the gate, one of the ponies knocked the merchant out of the line of fire, taking several bullets in the side. More hit the merchant’s heavily-laden, two-headed cattle who mooed in fright and pain.
That broke my battle stupor. I floated the sniper rifle in front of me, peering down the scope, and sent three armor-piercing bullets through the mailbox. The black stallion toppled, laying on his side, his sides heaving with each breath as he slowly bled out.
Calamity had maneuvered us close enough in his efforts to land for Velvet that I could hear the cry of the colt who suddenly galloped out from under a pile of metal boxes. “Daddy!”
Oh no. No. Celestia rape me with a solar flare, no.
The colt ran right up to the fallen stallion, throwing himself on his dying father... and right into the line of fire.
What had I done?
Velvet Remedy’s shield spell flashed up over the colt and his fallen father. I slipped my weapon away, feeling an icy numbness pass through me. They are bandits, I tried to tell myself. But I was not ready for bandits with family.
Please, I prayed to Celestia, don’t let the father die. The father… I put three bullets through.
Below, a rifle shot from one of the bandits caught an Arbu mare square in the chest. She fell, coughing up blood once, twice… then never coughed again.
SteelHooves’ grenade machinegun tore at my eardrums as a swath of explosions ripped through the bandits’ defenses, killing two of them and sending the others scattering. Another twin-shot from Calamity felled one of the bandits as he ran, blood painting the broken wall beside him. Another took several shots from the Arbu townsponies. Most of the bullets impacted the bandit’s armor with little affect, but a lucky shot pierced her eye. The shot knocked her head back, the black socket of her eye, ringed with blood, stared vacantly upwards towards us. Unbidden, the nightmarish vision of the sun and the moon sharing the sky, becoming a black disk ringed with fire, blossomed in my mind. I shuddered uncontrollably.
As the mare fell, the last bandit turned and fled into the ruins. Two of the Arbu ponies gave chase. I could tell Calamity wanted to as well, but Velvet was desperate to get to Pyrelight. The passenger wagon wobbled in the air as Calamity made his decision. Then we turned, dropping down in the nearest stretch of road.
Velvet Remedy leapt out through one of the windows before we had touched down. She too had a decision to make. Both the father and Pyrelight might already be dead. But if either lived, it was unlikely they would live long enough for her to care for the other first. She paused, looking in the direction of one, then the other. I could see the tremble pass through her legs. With a tormented cry, she made her decision. And galloped towards Pyrelight as fast as she could.
As she ran, her horn glowed, opening one of her medical boxes. Healing bandages and potions and drugs spilled out. “Xenith, Littlepip, please help him!” she begged us at the top of her voice as she left us behind.
Telekinetically scooping up the dropped medical supplies, I ran towards the father and his colt, Xenith galloping at my side.
*** *** ***
“You can’t… have… my son…” the black stallion rasped weakly as two of the Arbu townsponies pulled the colt off of him. The boy’s wet mane hung in front of his eyes, the water dripping from it mixed with his tears as he struggled to be reunited with the stallion.
“We’ll take good care o’ him,” one of the Arbu mares promised kindly. “Treat him as one o’ our own.”
Xenith and I were doing what we could. But the two of us did not equal one Velvet Remedy. And seeing the extent of the damage made me think that not even she could save him without the aid of a full Clinic. Instead, the painkiller was at least dulling his pain. His last breaths were shallow. His eyes glazed and not truly seeing.
I could barely see him through the tears in my eyes.
“I… won’t let…” The rest of the sentence was lost in a final exhalation.
The stallion was dead.
I stumbled away, breathing heavily, tears falling from my eyes. I’d killed him. I’d killed a colt’s father.
I was having a hard time breathing. I tried to think of anything I could do to make this right. But you couldn’t fix dead. There was no way I could make this up to either the father or his colt. I knew it, and it felt like it was killing me. I deserved it.
My ears caught the sound of creaking wheels and hooves clopping through puddles. I turned as a pony approached from Arbu, hitched to a wagon. She was a stout apricot unicorn with a wagon for a cutie mark and a scar just underneath it. Her coat showed signs of radiation poisoning. She waved a friendly hello that I half-returned. Her horn glowed with a soft brown light that enveloped the father and floated his body upwards and into the cart, placing the black-coated corpse on top of several other pony bodies. Arbu was collecting the dead, their own and bandits alike.
“What?” I asked weakly.
“Well, somepony’s got to bury ‘em,” replied a green-coated Arbu mare with shockingly orange hair. I felt another shot of pain as I realized the good ponies of Arbu treated the dead of their enemies better than I tended to treat the bodies of ponies I had grown to care about. The images of Pinkie Pie’s skeleton and Apple Bloom’s both floated in front of my mind’s eye.
I realized how utterly unworthy I was of Homage’s affections. I didn’t deserve the friends I had found. I couldn’t keep going like this. I couldn’t keep doing this. I needed to do better.
I needed to be better.
Velvet Remedy appeared, tears in her eyes. Oh Goddesses no. Not Pyrelight too.
But this time my worries were in vain. “She’ll live,” Velvet announced. “If the shotgun was in better repair, it would be another story. But she’s in bad shape. We should get her to someplace radioactive in the next few hours so she can begin healing properly.”
“If yer lookin’ for radiation,” one of the Arbu ponies (a milk-colored mare with a stringy tan mane and a birth defect that left her with only one eye) said as she trotted up, shaking Velvet’s hoof in a friendly greeting, “You can look ta the GRHAS breedin’ facility just up the river. Mind the radigators. And don’t go killin’ any of ‘em.”
“Gerhas?” I wondered quizzically only to be answered with a sharp nod.
My eyes strayed to her flank. Her cutie mark looked like several sharp teeth, radigator teeth perhaps. She too had a little scar beneath her cutie mark. A small brand, it looked like, reminding me of the brand that had obliterated Calamity’s cutie mark.
“Breeding facility?” Velvet Remedy asked. “Breeding what?”
“Why radigators, of course. Weren’tcha listening?” the mare replied.
“Oh,” replied Velvet politely. “Littlepip… we should go.”
I nodded numbly, ambling towards the Sky Bandit. SteelHooves was still there, keeping an eye on the life support cocoon strapped to the roof. The status of Elder Cottage Cheese had not changed. Calamity was pulling an old suitcase out of the rusty husk of a chariot. My little scavenger.
“Come back now, y’hear!” the green mare with the orange mane called out. “We’ll have dinner.”
*** *** ***
“Third time this month I’ve had to break up a yelling match between Mr. Beans and Jamocha Joe. Ever since Joe opened that new Starbucked across from Mr. Beans’ Java’s Cup. First it was just the two of them trying to undercut each other’s prices. Then that shipment of coffee beans went missing and Jamocha Joe started throwing some nasty accusations. Totally groundless, as it turned out. Shipment got rerouted to Fillydelphia because of some ‘glitch’ in the Starbucked terminal system. Can’t stand those things. They seem downright un-pony.
“Yesterday, though, Jamocha Joe unveiled a new ad for Starbucked Steamy Coffee, and hoo-wee. Never felt more like buying a cup of coffee in my life, just to show my appreciation. Now I don’t know what makes ‘steamed’ coffee so different from any other type, but Mr. Beans was sure steamed about the ads. Called it ‘blatant use of sex to sell coffee’, and I reckon he was pretty on the nose about that. Mr. Beans rallied together a flock of local ponies to stand in front of Joe’s place decrying the poor guy as immoral and degenerate -- the whole think-of-the-children routine -- and harassing customers. When I arrived to break it up, one of the old mares hit me with her protest sign. Jamocha Joe came out to help, and before I knew it, Mr. Beans and Jamocha Joe were in each other’s muzzles, and it looked like it was going to come to bucks. Didn’t help that Mrs. Weather’s stupid, yappy poodle got loose and was adding its own head-splitting noise to the ruckus.
“Got them settled, and went right to Qwik-Kare for some stitches. I can’t believe I quit my job in Manehattan for this crap.”
Calamity’s suitcase had been locked. Opening it, I found an old security guard uniform, a cattle prod, a Four Stars month’s pass on the Luna Line and a comic book (Sword Mares, the cover featuring a mare who was rendered to be ridiculously hot to the point of deformed, wearing equally ridiculous flank-baring armor and holding a sword in her muzzle as she faced down a monster that looked like a cross between a giant yao guai and Nightmare Moon, a wide-eyed buck cowering behind her). In addition, there were a whole mess of audio logs. Most of the logs had deteriorated beyond salvation, but I was able to download eight of them into my PipBuck.
My PipBuck was clicking at me with a chiding voice.
Calamity circled the Sky Bandit around the ruins of the garish pink-and-green hatchery building with the cartoonish, smiling alligator statue out front. The hatchery sat between the Manehattan edge of the gloomy river and a set of train tracks which crossed the street leading up to it. All about were strewn tank cars, most of which were leaking a glowing toxic sludge. When the Balefire Bomb had detonated, the train had derailed, spilling its shipment of radioactive waste across several blocks. The hatchery had gotten the worst of it. Several train cars had been flung into the building and its water pens, smashing them apart.
Gummy’s Retirement Hostel & Alligator Sanctuary
I spotted at least a dozen giant radigators milling about in the water pens and along the shore. Through a shattered wall of the hatchery building, I saw the shadowy movement of a legendary radigator easily the size of one of the train cars.
“We’re not going inside,” I announced. The mare from Arbu had asked us not to harm the local wildlife. I wasn’t sure why, as the radigators posed a clear threat to the town just downstream. I suspected the bridge underturrets along Bucklyn Cross regularly had more to shoot at than just bloodwings. “There’s a big one in there that looks like he could swallow me whole.”
Velvet Remedy nickered, “We shouldn’t need to. Just set us down on the roof, Calamity. I’ll put Pyrelight someplace cozy to rest.” She looked down sorrowfully at the wounded bird wrapped in blankets. The phoenix coughed and shuddered, sending a twinge of worry through my friend.
“Gotcha,” Calamity called back. “But be quick. Ah don’t think that roof is held up by much more’n wishful thinkin’.”
“Why do you believe the ponies wish us to keep these beasts alive?” Xenith pondered.
“Ah’ll tell ya why,” Calamity laughed. “Cuz radigator is good eatin’!”
Velvet Remedy made a face and Xenith looked vaguely ill. I, on the other hoof, felt like I had missed an opportunity back on my first day outside. I hadn’t even thought of killing and cooking one of the radigators near the Big Macintosh memorial.
Calamity flew us in for a landing on the rooftop. He touched down with a clop of his hooves. There was a warning groan and the roof sagged perilously. I suspected Calamity might be right.
Velvet Remedy got out, floating Pyrelight’s wrapped body next to her, and began to cross towards a set of crates on one corner of the building, moving cautiously on the unstable surface.
“I’m going to leave you right over here for a while,” Velvet cooed softly. “There’s lots of nice, warm radiation here. You’ll be feeling your old self in no time.”
The click-clicking of my PipBuck insisted that she was correct. And that we should all drink some RadAway as soon as we got away from here.
Velvet didn’t see the pressure plate. To be fair, neither did I. The damn thing was well camouflaged. She was nearly to the crates when she stepped a hoof onto it. One of the crates burst open with an explosion of colorful streamers, confetti and party glitter. The sound of trumpets blasted through the air and several two-hundred-year-old balloons… did nothing but lie there in the bottom of the crate, deflated and greasy with rot.
Velvet Remedy jumped back several feet in panicked surprise. She landed on all four hooves with a soft thump.
The roof collapsed out from under us.
I felt an awful, lurching weightlessness as the Sky Bandit tilted and began to fall into the empty space where half of the roof used to be. Calamity flapped his wings quickly, lifting us into the air again as I lashed out with my magic to wrap Velvet Remedy and Pyrelight in bubbles of levitation.
Several chunks of ceiling splashed into pools below or clanged off of metal walkways as they fell. A crumbling rumble belched up from the building below us.
Velvet and Pyrelight slowly floated back towards the waiting Sky Bandit. Obviously, we would have to choose someplace else to cradle Pyrelight while she recuperated.
The hulking head of the legendary radigator snapped up through the opening. I barely pulled Velvet and Pyrelight out of the way, the creature’s scales brushing against Velvet Remedy and knocking her out of the levitation bubble.
Velvet fell. The charcoal unicorn hit the side of the creature, sliding down its scales and splashing into a pool of much smaller radigators below.
The mammoth radigator twisted about and opened its maw, snapping at the Sky Bandit. With a mixture of comedy and horror, I realized the monster had no teeth. The huge jaws closed into our ride, threatening to drag us down as the monster gummed at the Sky Bandit. Calamity yelped, his body slamming into a bent girder as he was swung around helplessly in the air, barely sparing his wing.
Velvet Remedy splashed, struggling to keep her head above the water as the smaller radigators closed in. Swimming was not a skill normally developed in Stable life. The closest radigator opened its maw, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth. Frantically, she threw her anesthetic spell at it. Then flung her forelegs over the paralyzed creature like it was a life preserver.
The behemoth radigator was pulling us into the hatchery. Still not wanting to kill this thing, I drew out the poisoned dart gun for the first time in ages, firing shot after shot into the soft tissue of its gullet.
The legendary radigator released us, tottering and collapsing back into the pool below. The splash hurled Velvet Remedy over the side of the pen, along with several extremely not-toothless radigators. Calamity grunted, flapping his wings as he regained control of the passenger wagon.
I threw another telekinetic field around Velvet Remedy, pulling her up from the floor as several radigator jaws chomped at the space she had just vacated.
“Plan B?” Xenith asked, not missing a beat.
*** *** ***
“I was just starting to soak in a luxurious bath when I got an emergency call from the mall. Mrs. Weather was reporting a robbery. I get there, soaking wet, my uniform clinging to my coat, only to hear that the thief was the Sunny Suds’ new Sparkle~Cola machine, and the theft was a single bit. Apparently, she’d hit the button for one of those new Sparkle~Cola Rads, and the machine dispensed a normal Sparkle~Cola. Oh, the horror.
“The operator at Sunny Suds naturally had no way of getting into the machine. I could probably do it with a crowbar, but then I’d probably be fined for the damages. I instead just gave her one of my bits. Which she promptly put into the machine, hitting the same button and getting the same damned result. I feel I should receive an award for refraining from using the cattle prod on the old hag.”
An hour (and a couple packets of Rad-Away) later, the Sky Bandit flew over the designated meeting spot. The Steel Rangers had changed their configuration. Many of the backup rangers were now hiding in places that couldn’t be targeted from the air. Either that or they had left, but I didn’t believe the latter was at all likely.
I licked the inside of my muzzle. Rad-Away tasted like rancid orange juice and it left an aftertaste that was, somehow, even less pleasant. I suspected that somepony had decided to make Rad-Away fruit-flavored as a marketing technique. I wished I could meet that pony so I could shoot her with a poisoned dart.
Pyrelight was resting on one of the broken tank cars, bathing in radiation. The giant radigators shouldn’t be able to reach her so long as she doesn’t roll off the tanker. Velvet Remedy had planted herself a safe distance away, just out of the radiation zone, keeping watch through my binoculars. She had her anesthetic spell in case Pyrelight should fall or one of the radigators should figure out how to get up to her hiding spot, and combat shotgun and plenty of ammo in case the spell wasn’t enough.
As Calamity circled the lot, the rain finally let up.
We landed, minus our medical pony, on the edge of the parking lot, facing eight Steel Rangers whom we could see, and several whom we could not. According to my E.F.S., one of them was outright hostile, a spot of red in the sea of lights on my compass, even though she stood her ground patiently like all the others.
We waited as Calamity released himself from the Sky Bandit’s harness and shook the rain out of his coat. Then he flew up and released the chains binding Elder Cottage Cheese’s life support pod to the roof mounting. As I floated the pod down to hover behind us, Calamity grabbed Spitfire’s Thunder and took off into the air. SteelHooves grunted and took the lead. I followed, floating the pod. Xenith behind me.
The atmosphere was like a rubber band, stretched to the point of fraying, about to snap.
“Goddesses, I don’t like this,” I muttered under my breath. I had telekinetic sheaths around all my weapons even though they were still in their holsters. Armor-piercing or magical rounds were loaded into each. My ears swiveled, trying to pick up the sounds of the Steel Rangers we couldn’t see as they moved into better positions, their little lights sliding back and forth on my E.F.S. compass.
Two of the Steel Rangers approached. One of them was a unicorn scribe wearing robes of pre-war armored mesh. The other was the red light on my compass, a paladin whose battle saddle held what looked like two anti-tank guns. The others stood at the ready, weapon ports open on their battle saddles.
“We were expecting Steel Ranger Traitors, not one traitor and a bunch of tribals,” miss hostility growled. Then her head bobbed as she took in SteelHooves. “But it seems they did grace us with SteelHooves himself. So tell me, Hoovy, are they actually calling you Elder now?”
“I have accepted the position,” SteelHooves said shortly. “I believe you have somepony who wished to join us in exchange? Send her out now, take your Elder and go in peace.”
“Oh, Knight Ant Meat?” the unicorn said with a note of regret that didn’t touch her eyes. “I’m afraid she won’t be joining us after all. Took a gallop off the short end of the bridge while trying to evade incarceration.”
I felt my skin tighten around the hairs of my mane. SteelHooves’ stance didn’t change. His voice seemed unmoved by the news, although I suspected he had to be enraged inside. Were they trying to provoke something?
“More is the pity,” SteelHooves replied evenly, standing very still. “The Elder had a bit of an accident of his own before we could depart. He is unconscious, but alive.”
A few of the Steel Rangers bristled and stomped, but nopony made a foalish move, and the two addressing us seemed to shrug off the news as inconsequential.
“Paladin Amaranth,” the unicorn scribe said in a tone that only pretended to ask, “Would you please check Elder Cottage’s pod and make sure all is in order?”
The armored paladin with the anti-tank weapons trotted forward a step, stopped, then took several steps back.
“Paladin Amaranth?” the unicorn questioned.
“This is a problem,” Amaranth intoned. “These aren’t just any group of tribals. These are the Stable Two tribals. That’s the Stable Dweller.” She nodded towards me.
“Yes, I realize that,” the unicorn said impatiently. “But I don’t see how that matters.”
“It matters,” Amaranth growled, “Because DJ Pon3 has a boner for her.” I cringed at that, the mental image being all manner of wrong. “And he’s got the whole wasteland believing whatever she says. If it was just the Outcasts, anything that went down here would be our words against theirs. But with her…”
The unicorn scowled. “And what, pray tell, do you think is going to happen here where the truth wouldn’t favor us?’
Paladin Amaranth took two more steps back. “This is blown. Kill them all.”
The moment she spoke, every spot on my E.F.S. compass changed to red. Except for the unicorn.
“What?!” the unicorn shouted, spinning around to face the others. “Belay that order!”
It was too late.
SteelHooves had been standing still, targeting Steel Rangers with his armor’s targeting spell even as he talked. Before any of the Steel Rangers could react to the words of either Paladin Amaranth or the unicorn, our Applejack’s Ranger was firing loads of high-explosive grenades at them. Three of the Steel Rangers were blown into armored giblets before the unicorn had finished saying “order”, the word drowned out from the host of detonations.
Paladin Amaranth fired at SteelHooves almost point-blank, the rounds from her twin anti-tank guns punching through his armor and flesh and exiting the other side in perfect holes. SteelHooves fell to the ground with a metallic thump. His light on my compass winked out.
Amaranth turned back towards me with a swift canter only to find herself looking down the barrels of a sniper rifle, a zebra rifle and Little Macintosh. I pulled every trigger. From the way blue sparks erupted from the holes I blew in her armor, the magically-enhanced bullets in Little Macintosh were probably the ones which killed her.
The world around me erupted as the three remaining Steel Rangers launched grenades and missiles at us, neglecting the safety of the Elder and the unicorn alike. Mercifully, most of the first volley missed. They had been targeting SteelHooves, and the moment he went down, their targeting spells lost their lock. I felt shrapnel and fire slash at me as I was knocked to the ground, my ears ringing. The magical grip I had on my weapons evaporated.
Even through the near-deafness caused by the explosions, I could still hear Spitfire’s Thunder echoing across the Manehattan shoreline. Two of the Steel Rangers dropped, dead before they hit the ground. The third fired two rockets. I watched as Xenith galloped past me, dodging between them, and planted herself on her forehooves, swinging about to buck the knight’s helmet with such force that it broke his neck.
As she looked at me, I saw she had a vial clenched between her teeth. She dropped it. The vial shattered against the ground and the lot began to fill with fireless smoke.
I pushed myself to my hooves, pain lancing through multiple parts of my body. My PipBuck was sending me medical warnings. Some of my cuts were pretty deep, and I was bleeding badly. My inventory sorter immediately placed within reach the remaining medical supplies I had taken from Velvet Remedy earlier. I administered the last of the painkiller and downed a healing potion.
More explosions tore the ground near me, throwing me back. My head hit the concrete hard enough to daze me. The Steel Rangers who had remained hidden before had now moved into positions that gave them clear lines of fire. My ears were ringing and my vision blurred, but I could still tell the sound of machine gun fire.
The smoke and dust were obscuring my vision as much as anything else, but my E.F.S. was still picking out targets. I had no idea what had happened to Xenith. I looked around, blinking concrete dust out of my eyes, but I couldn’t see her. Not even the friendly light that should be her on my compass.
Another light flared up, a friendly one, as a terrible sound warped the air. SteelHooves got back to his hooves in a vortex of unseen necromantic energy. Canterlot Ghoul’s don’t stay dead. You have to turn them to ash or dismember them to keep them down.
I was at once thankful and horrified, fearing even more our trip into the Canterlot Ruins.
Somepony was crawling towards me. A friendly light on my compass. I turned, expecting to see Xenith. It was the unicorn scribe. She was dragging herself across the broken asphalt, a swath of red smearing out behind a tattered flank. An explosion had torn off one of her legs.
“I…” she said weakly, focusing on me as if her life depended on it, “…don’t… understand…”
Her life didn’t depend on me. It was already over. For the second time that day, I administered painkiller (all that I had left) to a pony who should have been my enemy.
*** *** ***
I found myself laying down on a straw bedroll in the common lot of Arbu, watching colorful ponies trot about. Many of them stopped to wave hello, or trotted up to great me. “Friendliest town in the wasteland” had been the claim on their sign, and they seemed determined to live up to that. As one pony (a fairly ugly puce-colored mare with a withered left hindleg and a cutie mark that looked like a stew pot) told me, “Well, we got t’ be good at somethin’. And everything else ‘bout this town sucks. So it might as well be us that’s the good part, right?”
Most of the store fronts had boarded-over windows, except for the Helpinghoof Qwik-Kare (whose windows were covered in aged fliers and posters) and Virtue Comics (which no longer had a front wall, much less windows). Still, the entire place was clearly in use, the home for a half a dozen pony families.
We would be spending the night here. The good ponies of Arbu insisted on being gracious hosts after we came to the merchant’s rescue earlier today.
I was too numb to argue. Or, really, to feel anything. Part of that, I knew, was the painkillers that Velvet Remedy had doped me with before wrapping me in enough bandages to be a museum exhibit. Come see the mummy of the rare Stable Dweller. Beware the curse.
I couldn’t remember how the fight ended. I couldn’t remember much past holding the unicorn scribe as she passed from this life. I had a concussion. Velvet Remedy warned that I might have blacked out.
“Thanks again for your kind help, stranger,” the merchant pony was saying to Calamity. “That might have been the end of me if you hadn’t stepped in.”
Velvet Remedy trotted up to me, seemingly from out of nowhere. She gave me a gentle kiss on the horn as if I was her little filly. “How is your head?”
I grunted in response. My head was full of crying shadows.
“You’ll be okay, Littlepip,” she said soothingly. “Just rest.” She sighed as soon as she said it. “Why do I even bother saying that?”
“Where were you just now?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Helping patch up the merchant’s brahmin,” she replied, indicating the two-headed cattle. “One of them took a few bullets and the other had a sliver of glass wedged in her hoof. It will be another day or two before the first brahmin can travel, so the merchant will be joining us here for dinner.”
I nodded. “That was nice of you.” I wondered how the hell you could notice a sliver of glass in the bottom of a creature’s hoof. I mean, they were standing on it, right?
“Oh, she told me,” Velvet said casually as I vocalized the last question. Then she kissed my head again, informing me, “I’m going to go sit with Calamity.” She trotted off, leaving me wondering when she had picked up an ability to communicate with animals. The gears of my mind felt broken, and I was sure I was missing something.
Getting up, I started to look around. I had nothing better to do, and my usefulness seemed to be limited to shooting things. I played another of the audio logs of an unnamed mall security guard.
“Spent the day at my niece’s birthday party. First time I actually wanted to be called away, so naturally nopony had any problems. I was tempted to feign a call anyway. I know that is awful and selfish of me, but Darling is suffering from Wartime Stress Disorder, and there’s really nothing I can do to help. I hated just standing there feeling useless, sharing worried looks with my sister as Darling went on and on, muttering things like 'So what if it's my birthday? We could all be dead tomorrow. I hate this war! Why does it have to be like this? Is it really too late to come to a peaceful resolution? I'm sure not all zebras are bad.' Nopony was enjoying the party.
“According to sis, Darling has been depressed for months now and nothing she does seems to pull her out of it. She was really hoping the birthday party would raise the girl’s spirits, but if anything, it seems to have made her even more withdrawn. Sis is at her wit’s end. I advised her that it was time to call the Ministry of Peace. Darling needs help that we can’t give her.”
One of the Arbu ponies trotted up to me, a canteen around her neck. “Would you care for some water?” I realized I was parched and nodded. My PipBuck clicked softly as I levitated the offered canteen close. The mare looked apologetic.
“I’m afraid all we have is dirty water here. The purifier’s down again. Been down all week. We’ve captured as much rainwater as we could, but we’re saving that for the children.”
I nodded, understanding, and took a small drink. Just enough to be polite and to wet my mouth. Then, remembering that it might be a long time before I had water even this good again, I took a deeper sip. The Goddesses only knew what the water would be like in Canterlot. Velvet Remedy had loaded up on canteens of pure water before we left Tenpony.
“GIT! GIT YER SORRY HIDES OUTTA HERE! Y’ALL AIN’T WANTED HERE!”
I jumped at the voice booming from the loft above what had once been a Custard’s Cakes shop.
“Grandpa Rattle, you get back in yer room!” the mare with the canteen shouted back.
“GIT OUT! GIT OUT AND DON’TCHA EVER COME BACK!” the crotchety old buck yelled, levitating a stick and wiggling it in a threatening manner. “I’VE GOT A SHOTGUN!”
He had a stick.
The mare looked abashed. “Please don’t mind Grandpa Rattle. His mind’s a bit gone.”
Above I saw the green mare with the orange mane whom I’d spoken to before appear at the old buck’s window and gently but forcibly guide him back into his room. The canteen mare gave me an embarrassed smile as she reclaimed her canteen, and trotted off.
I shook my head, feeling a bit woozy, and looked around for my friends. I glanced towards where Pyrelight was sleeping, perched on an old vendor sign above where the brahmin were tethered. She was glowing softly, mostly healed and sleeping off her injuries. I trotted closer, admiring the subdued majesty of the sleeping phoenix.
I clicked another audio diary entry.
“Today has been the latest chapter in the continuing war between Mr. Beans and Jamocha Joe, and I must say, I really don’t like where this is headed. Jamocha Joe is threatening to sue Mr. Beans over his latest advertising campaign, which features the assertion that ‘all our beans are Equestrian grown’. According to Jamocha, the ads are trying to paint Starbucked as unpatriotic, suggesting that some of their beans might come from zebra lands. I tried to point out that the ads said no such thing, but he wouldn’t listen.
”I talked to Mr. Beans about the new ads, and he said (and I quote), ‘Hey, I’m not sayin’ his beans are zebra beans. I’m just sayin’, y’know, do you know where his beans come from? Cuz I don’t. But our beans are pure, 100% patriotic pony beans. That’s all I’m sayin’, okay?’
“Just awesome. Mr. Beans reminded me that winter was almost here and that winter makes or breaks a pony in the coffee business. He needed every edge he could get against Starbucked. I told him that maybe he should instead try to make coffee that didn’t taste like it was filtered through something used to wipe a mule’s backside.
“’But that’s how coffee’s s’posed t’ taste!’ he told me.”
*** *** ***
That was the name of the black-coated bandit’s son. I kept watching him from across one of the picnic tables in the Arbu common lot as I ate from the meaty bowl of stew that the good ponies of Arbu had offered us.
Sandy Shore was lethargic, slow to respond, and very withdrawn. His eyes were red from crying, but he wasn’t crying now. He was staring at his stew with very little interest. I empathized. It was an absolutely delicious stew (radigator is good eatin’), but I just didn’t have any appetite. I put another spoonful into my mouth, chewed and swallowed mostly from rote memory.
My PipBuck clicked slowly at me. The stew was made with mildly irradiated river water. After the radiation exposure at Gummy’s, I wasn’t so concerned about the negligible amount I was ingesting from the “dirty” water used in the stew. I was a touch worried about the colt, but I had to imagine he had ingested worse. Often. And at least the water in his glass was pure rainwater.
“So, what’s the market here?” I heard Velvet Remedy ask. She and Calamity were chatting amiably with several of the Arbu ponies and the caravan merchant at the next table.
SteelHooves was sitting nearby, keeping watch over Elder Cottage Cheese in his medical pod as the repair spells enchanted into his armor slowly patched up the gaping holes created by Amaranth’s anti-tank guns. I’m not sure what SteelHooves planned to do with the Elder now. I didn’t think he knew either.
“We’re always lookin’ fer parts to keep up that damned piece o’ shit water purifier,” Emerald Fire (the green mare I had met before) told her. “And more RadAway, especially fer when it’s broke. Which is like every day that ends in ‘y’. Beyond that? Basic supplies. And, by the fucking Goddess, if we could just get some toilet paper!”
By the Goddess? Which one? Or did they actually follow that one here?
Velvet Remedy had caught that too. “The Goddess?” she asked politely.
“Yeah, ya know. Unity and all that crap. We’re all going to be together as one, ain’t we?” Emerald Fire’s raised voice brought laughter from nearby picnic tables. Lowering her voice, “We had one o’ her wanderin’ preachers come through a few years back. It was a bad year fer us, so we took some solace in him.”
Velvet Remedy nodded and then redirected the conversation. “So what do you barter with here?”
“Meat,” the milk-colored mare spoke up proudly. “Come from generations of radigator hunters.” She thumped a hoof on her chest. I understood now why she didn’t want us killing the monsters in the hatchery. The giant radigators were their livelihood.
I faded out of the conversation. I was having trouble keeping focus. I looked down at my stew and realized I’d eaten more of it than I thought. My head was throbbing even behind the painkillers.
Sandy Shore had pushed away from the table and was wandering off towards a section of the strip mall which had once been a Helpinghoof Qwik-Kare. Amongst the faded posters and fliers papering its windows, I spotted a grey one with black block letters:
Remember what Separates
Ponies from Zebras
Not Stripes. Not Cutie Marks.
But What is Inside
THERE IS GOOD IN ALL OF US!
No pictures. No Ministry affiliations. It almost looked like it could have been locally made. Embarrassment pushed through my numbness. I hoped Xenith hadn’t seen it. I looked across the lot to where she was eating food of her own cooking. Alone, save for the merchant’s cattle, one of whom had bandages wrapped around its leg courtesy of Velvet Remedy.
“What are the marks on yer flanks?” I heard Calamity ask as I got up from the table and made my way over to Xenith. “They look like brands.” There was an odd tone in his voice.
“Yep. It’s an Arbu mark,” a mare told him proudly. “We get it after we eat the heart of our first kill. Only ponies with an Arbu mark can vote in the town council…”
I settled down next to Xenith, tuning out the conversation the others were in. I was having trouble following it anyway. Probably the concussion. Or maybe it just didn’t seem so important. It was hard for such little things to seem important when I kept seeing Sandy Shore hugging his father, crying. Or the mare whose eye had become a horrific black moon-sun thing. Or the unicorn scribe murdered by her own Rangers in some sort of political move I still didn’t understand.
I looked at what Xenith was eating. “Please tell me they didn’t refuse to offer you food,” I said, my hackles rising.
“No,” she said simply. “I cooked for the medical pony and myself. Neither of us cares for stew of meat. I just hope I did not offend.”
Oh. Oh yeah. That makes sense. “We should be apologizing to you,” I replied earnestly.
“Well… because…” I glanced back in the direction of the poster. Maybe she hadn’t seen it.
“You did not write that.” Dammit, she had. “Nor any of the ponies alive today, here or elsewhere. You should not apologize for what ponies who are not you did long before you were around to stop them.”
My head swam a bit, and it took me a moment to realize we weren’t just talking about ponies. I nodded, understanding. “None of us would blame you for what happened in the war.” I paused, realizing that wasn’t correct. “Well, SteelHooves would, but I think even he is coming around.” My thoughts returned to the poster. “They could have at least painted it over though.”
“They are hunting their prey to extinction,” Xenith informed me. “Soon there will be no more meat to barter with. I do not begrudge them for not spending what little they have on such luxuries as paint.”
I thought of the number of radigators we had seen at the hatchery. When I had been thinking we might have to fight them, there had been a lot. But when viewed as both food and trading supplies, there were hardly any. I hoped the river held significantly more and found myself wondering what a “bad year” amounted to here in Arbu.
My brain seemed to slip. I felt like I had lost a bit of time. Back at the tables, I heard Calamity asking where the new graves where. I felt a sudden urge to pay my respects to the bandit I had killed, no matter how ludicrous or meaningless the act would be.
“Oh we ain’t buried them yet,” an Arbu buck replied. “Ground’s too muddy. Got the bodies locked up in the clinic cellar fer now.”
Emerald Fire shot a dark look at the buck. Calamity nodded. Velvet Remedy coughed with alarm, “Hey, isn’t that where Sandy Shore was headed?”
“Don’t worry, miss. Got the cellar locked up tight. Nopony’s gonna get in there without the key.”
Yeah. Because apparently the only pony in the entire wasteland who can pick a lock is me. No, wait, there is at least one other. Probably part of the Fillydephia Steel Rangers. Or maybe somepony who works for Red Eye.
I stopped, suddenly suspicious that my lockpicking rival must be Red Eye himself. I had no facts to base such an assumption on, but it felt right. The sense of duality was too perfect.
The certainty slipped from my wounded mind almost as quickly as it manifested. I found myself staring at a puddle and not knowing how long I had been doing so. I looked up swiftly enough for my head to pound. But everypony was where they were when I last saw them. Except Sandy, who was sitting morosely in the corner between the clinic and a dark vertical wall-sign for Starbucked, the coffee shop that wasn’t Java’s Cup.
As the first rays of sunset dipped below the cloud cover, the wall sign suddenly lit up, bucked on by some ancient timer miraculously still running. Other lights flickered on, about a third of them still functional, illuminating the mall in patchwork pools of light. My eyes caught on the sign and lingered there: an image of two very attractive mares -- twins, one with a cream-colored mane and a coffee-brown coat, the other with the same brown for her mane and a creamy coat -- who were entwined around each other almost as much as their tails were entwined around a cup of steaming coffee with the Starbucked logo, all backlit by lights that flickered and threatened to go out.
My mind supplied a logo for them: “Buy our coffee and we’ll let you watch us make out.”
“What was that?” Xenith asked. I flushed with embarrassment as I realized I’d said that out loud.
“Um… nothing. Just looking.” I winced and quickly clarified, “At the coffee shop over there.”
Xenith followed my gaze. “Are they bucking the stars, or are the stars bucking them?”
“I think they’re bucking each other,” I replied before I realized she wasn’t paying attention to the lesbincestuous mares. I thought about turning to see her expression, but my eyes didn’t want to leave the sign.
“Are you all right, little one?”
“Concussion,” I answered. Then, in a transition that only made sense to me at the time, “Velvet Remedy talks to brahmin now.”
“Ayep. She’s a real kind pony, that one,” one of the brahmin responded. “Polite too.”
I began to nod. “Yes, she really… hubazawha?!” I jumped up, stumbling backwards over Xenith, and fell on my tail.
The brahmin’s right head smiled at me while the left one continued chewing its cud obliviously.
“Y-you can talk?” I stammered, then flushed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know brahmin were… well…”
“Smart?” the brahmin head asked as I picked myself up, looking at Xenith apologetically. The zebra just shook her head.
“um… yeah,” I admitted, feeling foalish.
She chortled. “Not many pony folk even try t’ talk t’ us. Not that I blame ya. Most of us are dumb as posts. Ain’t that right, Herbert?” she said, looking at her other head.
The other head kept chewing. I looked to Xenith, but she was just watching me with amusement.
“Yeah, Ah don’t really get any good conversation from him,” she said dourly.
“You… um… I…” I felt stupid. “Sorry. Concussion. Brain no work-y. um… I’m Littlepip.”
“Well howdy there, Littlepip. Ah’m Bess. And this is muh other half, Bob.”
“Bob?” I asked, wondering how one head could be male and the other female. I looked Bess over. She sported several bandages including a bandaged leg in a medical brace courtesy of Velvet Remedy. Definitely a female brahmin, judging by her bulging udder. Although I couldn’t recall if I’d seen any male brahmin. Not that I had been paying enough attention to notice if I had.
“Ayep. Bob,” the brahmin told me. “I jus’ call him Herbert t’ get on his nerves.”
“Oh.” From the looks of Bob, nothing much could get on his nerves. I didn’t think Bob was even aware that a conversation was going on.
“Most brahmin got two heads but only half a brain between ‘em. I’m one of the lucky ones,” Bess claimed. “If you c’n count being saddled for life with Bob here lucky. Anyhoo, tell that mare friend of yours thanks again for patchin’ up muh leg. Did a real fine job, she did. Polite too.”
*** *** ***
“A mare from the Ministry of Peace took Darling away yesterday. Apparently, she’s being held at a WSD treatment facility in Manehattan. I’ve picked up a renewable one-month pass on the Luna Line so that I can visit her regularly.
“Had our first snow today. Winter brings its own set of problems to the mall. Now I’m in charge of shoveling snow from the sidewalks and rooftops, keeping the lot salted so nopony has an accident. Business is picking up for the coffee shops, but most of the other stores are suffering the normal drop in customers. Only the regulars are up to braving the snow.
“Caught a couple hoodlums spray-painting disparaging things about Princess Luna on the backside of Sunny Suds. One of the delinquents tried claiming WSD as a defense for his actions. That pissed me right off. Having a family member who is really suffering, I’m sick of seeing ponies use WSD as an excuse for what’s really just bad behavior. Then the other little bastard turned his spray can towards me and I finally got a chance to use this cattle prod. He was still shaking when the police ponies arrived.
“Spent the afternoon giving statements. Mrs. Weather’s damned poodle peed on my leg while I was talking to the officer. I really wanted to club that little monster with the prod as well.”
As the audio log ended, I trotted slowly over to the table where Velvet Remedy and Calamity were still chatting with the Arbu ponies. The merchant had finished eating and was rolling out a sleeping bag just inside the shattered storefront of what had been a comic book shop (sandwiched between Sunny Suds and Custard’s Cakes). I could see another Sword Mares poster on the wall above rows of empty shelves.
“This is the fifth time this year that the damn water purifier has burned out. Honestly, Ah think the little bastard is simply beyond hope. We keep fixin’ her up and jury-riggin’ her together, but there’s only so much we c’n expect,” Emerald Fire was telling Calamity. “Once its gone, Ah don’t know what we’ll do. We’ve tried negotiating with the Steel Rangers for access to their water talisman, but all they do is shoot at us.”
I came to a halt, blinking. “Wait…” I looked up at the dark silhouette of Bucklyn Cross, scattered lights illuminating small bits of the shadowed pier that towered out of the water just downstream of Arbu. Turning to SteelHooves, I asked, “That bit of bridge had a water talisman built into it?”
“No,” SteelHooves replied with a slightly derisive tone. “But Elder Cottage Cheese brought several back with him from his raid on the Ministry of Peace hospital out near Friendship City.”
“Friendsh…” I paused, “Hold on… several?”
“Yes. Even then, I think he was planning ahead.”
“DAMMIT!” Grandpa Rattle screamed out from his loft. “YOU FUCKERS STILL HERE? GIT OUT O’ ARBU BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!”
Emerald Fire facehoofed. “Will somepony shut him up?” A couple of ponies, including the one-eyed, milk-colored pony, scooted off.
“I’VE GOT A SHOTGUN!”
I ignored him, turning to Emerald Fire. “They have several water talismans in there, and they won’t give you clean water?” My mental haze was fading, sharpening into deadly focus.
The green pony (with a cute little flame for a cutie mark above her Arbu brand) nodded. “We don’t have much. Radigators have been gettin’ scarce. But we’re willin’ t’ trade what we’ve got for good water.”
I felt a simmering anger. “Why should you have to? It’s water! You need it to live.”
SteelHooves bristled. Calamity jumped up. “Whoa there, Li’lpip.” He neighed as he flew over to me, “Nothin’ wrong with sellin’ necessities iffin that’s whatcha got t’ sell.” He whispering hastily, “Do remember these folk make a livin’ sellin’ meat.”
SteelHooves nickered under his breath. “Applejack sold apples. Got a problem with that?”
I stopped, checking myself. In the Stable, the needs of life were provided by the Stable. Basic food, water, a place to stay, even barding. Work was assigned too, according to our special talent. We paid only for luxuries, either from the allowance that the Overmare assigned, or from the gains of profitable hobbies. That worked for Stable Two, but it was not the way of the Equestrian Wasteland. Still, I couldn’t help but feel angry at the Steel Rangers’ refusal.
“That’s different,” I insisted finally. “You’re talking about ponies who work for what they sell. The ponies here risk life and limb hunting. Even gardeners toil to grow their vegetables. But the Steel Rangers… this is a water talisman. It provides water freely. They didn’t even create it. They stole it!”
“Scavenged,” Calamity correctly curtly.
“Fine. Scavenged. So they worked to get it too. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t share!” My voice was rising. Unbidden, a stupid song started playing in the back of my head. You gotta share. You gotta care. It’s the right thing to do! I hated the song, but at the same time it struck me as impossibly sage.
Sandy Shore’s glass had been filled with pure rainwater. But what would happen when the rainwater ran out and the water purifier still refused to function? I killed the poor colt’s father. The least I could do was make sure the water he was drinking wasn’t fucking poison. I owed him that much. I owed him a whole hell of a lot more.
“Littlepip,” Velvet Remedy asked cautiously. “What are you thinking?”
“Load up Elder Cottage Cheese,” I barked to SteelHooves. If I was the leader here, then I was damn well going to lead. “We’re heading to Bucklyn Cross. But this time, we’re not giving their Elder back for free. We’re bartering.”
SteelHooves neighed. “Judging from what happened this afternoon, what makes you think they even want their Elder back?” He walked towards me. “I’ve been thinking about this all evening, Littlepip, and I am convinced they were hoping he would die at our hooves. Or, at least, that they could claim so with little opposition. Dead, he is a martyr for their cause. Alive, he’s the Elder who keeps sending Steel Rangers to their deaths in the Canterlot Ruins and whose leadership led to the crippling of the Manehattan contingent in his efforts to take Stable Two and Stable Twenty-Nine.”
I stared back at him, taking that in. “Think they’ll attack us again?”
“Good,” I hissed.
“Littlepip!” Velvet Remedy gasped.
I turned to her, “I didn’t start this. But I’m itching to end it. One way or another, we’re coming back from Bucklyn Cross with a water talisman.” I scowled. “No, make that two. We’re getting one for Stable Twenty-Nine too.”
Calamity shook his head. “Li’lpip, think this through. Do that, ya sign Arbu’s death warrant.” I stepped back, stunned by his words. “Right now, they’re nothin’ t’ the Steel Rangers. Give ‘em a water talisman, an’ you give ‘em somethin’ the Steel Rangers want. An’ you know the way they’ll come t’ take it.”
I grimaced, thinking of the Steel Rangers’ attack on Stable Two. “Oh, I have. Not. Forgotten.”
Velvet Remedy cringed, her voice soft and still slightly raspy, “Littlepip… I know where this comes from. There is part of my heart that wants revenge on them too. But this isn’t right.”
“No,” I stomped. “I think it is. And I think it’s about damned time.” I looked over my friends. They were eyeing me with concern. Maybe even fear. “I understand if you don’t want to come with me on this one. I won’t think less of you.”
Xenith had held her tongue as she had done for years. Still saying nothing, she trotted to my side. Calamity shook himself, spreading his wings. “Ah ain’t sayin’ Ah don’t wanna go. Ah’m just sayin’ we do it smart. Friendship City ain’t too far from here. We take the first water talisman there and Velvet Remedy talks ‘em inta a trade that includes water rights fer the Arbu ponies.”
I nodded. Calamity’s plan was much more sound than mine. “So you’re in?”
“Hells yeah,” Calamity grinned. “Y’think Ah’d pass up a chance fer an adventure with ya? After all muh whinin’ ‘bout bein’ left behind?”
Velvet Remedy facehoofed. “Somepony should stay here with Pyrelight…” she began. Then sighed. “But you ponies are going to get yourselves killed without me.” She looked to me sternly, “But I don’t like this. And I’m going to do the negotiations. I don’t think any of you are diplomatically inclined towards the Steel Rangers right now.”
“Are you?” Calamity asked her.
“No,” Velvet admitted. “But unlike most of you, I can fake it.”
*** *** ***
“Spent time with sis today filling out applications for a place in one of the Stable-Tec war shelters. The non-refundable deposit took most of my paycheck, but it will be worth it just to take one worry off of my sister’s head. Ever since Darling was taken, she’s been slipping from me. I think she’s been drinking, although I can never smell it on her breath when I’m over.
“I’ve been to visit Darling twice this month. She is definitely looking better and has some of her cheer back. Whatever the Ministry of Peace is doing to treat her, it seems to be working. She’s almost like her old self now. Only thing I’ve noticed that seems a bit off is that she seems to have forgotten things. I asked her about her birthday party and she got strangely quiet, then told me she doesn’t remember having one this year. The mare I spoke to at the hospital says that temporary memory loss is a side effect of her therapy.
“Honestly, it was just so good to see Darling smile again that I was fine with that.
“Saw one of those little hoodlums that I caught spray-painting a couple months ago. He was dressed up fine, mane combed, looking presentable. He stopped on the street to thank me for helping put him on the right path. I was so stunned I told him it was my pleasure. Asked him how that other buck was doing, and he looked away, saying something about trying not to think about bad influences.
“Things at the strip mall have been interesting. Mr. Beans and Jamocha Joe have stepped up their advertising war. I fully expected to get an earful from Mr. Beans last week when Jamocha erected (no pun intended) that huge “hot and steamy” Starbucked sign with the twins Espresso and Latte laying all over each other surrounded by steaming cups of Starbucked. But he seemed almost cheerful about it.
“Found out why yesterday when the new Java’s Cup sign went up. Not as much sex appeal, but the billboard was huge! Easily twenty-percent larger than the Starbucked billboard. And the whole thing is done in patriotic colors with an image of Princess Luna in the corner endorsing it as ‘The best thing to keep you up all night!’ I have to wonder if he had permission to use her image like that.
“Jamocha Joe spent most of today trying to persuade me that the Java’s Cup billboard was too big, against regulations, and a hazard come the next windstorm. I told him to file his complaints with the zoning office.”
The sun was setting as the Sky Bandit flew towards the black form of Bucklyn Cross.
“Whoa nelly!” Calamity shouted, pulling up sharply as half a dozen automated turrets turned our way. Velvet Remedy threw her shield around him as the guns opened fire. Bullets and lances of colored light filled the air around us.
I focused, my horn glowing, as Velvet Remedy cast her disintegration ward over us. The light of my magic flickered around each turret on Bucklyn Cross -- not just the ones shooting at us, but all of them. For good measure, I extended my spell over the sentinel robot I could make out on the bridge.
Calamity danced in the air, trying to keep the Sky Bandit from taking more than a few minor hits by putting himself between the guns and us. The shield around him was taking so many bullets it looked like a sparkler.
I focused harder, working as fast as I could. I knew I could do this; I’d effectively done it before. Just yesterday I crawled under the Sky Bandit and swapped out the spark batteries. I had the technical expertise. This was easy… but it was taking longer than I wanted.
Calamity’s shield went down, a stream of bullets tearing through it and slashing across his side. Flesh wounds, little more than scratches, but over a dozen of them. He yowled. We suddenly dropped several yards as he briefly forgot to keep flying. Calamity spread his wings and caught air again as Velvet Remedy threw up another shield as quickly as she could.
All the turrets shut down simultaneously. I had unscrewed their maintenance plates and pulled their spark batteries. They were dead. The sentinel robot as well.
I scowled, floating several dozen spark batteries back to the Sky Bandit. I was going to give the Steel Rangers every chance to do the right thing. But if the exchange earlier today was strike one, then this was strike two.
Calamity lifted us back up and flew in for a landing.
*** *** ***
“Responses came back from Stable-Tec today. Sis found them in the mail. She was weeping over them when I got home from work. I’ve been accepted. She has not.
“I’ve been given a special broadcaster. When the call comes, I’m to make my way to Stable Thirty-Four. The broadcaster will be my proof of acceptance according to the letter, which warned me not to lose it. I offered to give my sister the broadcaster and thus my place in Stable Thirty-Four. But she refused. She says she should be out here anyway. If the warning comes, she’ll try to make it to Darling.
“I spent most of the evening pleading with her as she drank herself into a stupor. The rest I spent crying and trying to convince myself that it doesn’t matter anyway. The Stables will never be used, after all. There’s no way the zebras would dare use weaponized megaspells. It would mean their destruction as surely as ours. I have to believe that.
“It’s bad when work has become the high point of my day. But I’m not sure how long that will last. Java’s Cup is still losing a lot of business to Starbucked, and Mr. Beans is getting desperate. Today, Mr. Beans added a new vending machine to his coffee shop, an Ironshod’s Ammo Emporium vendor. Now you can buy your caffeine and your bullets in one easy stop.
“No good can come of this.”
As we landed, Velvet Remedy tossed up a shield in front of the Sky Bandit, molding it between the ruins of several chariots and then stepped out.
Several Steel Rangers came charging towards us. A rocket whisked out of one of their battle saddles, impacting on the shield, which immediately collapsed in a stark reminder of the limitations of our unicorn’s magical power.
“Greetings, Steel Rangers!” Velvet said, magnifying her voice magically. “We come in peace to negotiate the safe return of your esteemed Elder.”
I was willing to forgive the missile. But if they shot at her after her greeting, that would be strike three.
The Steel Rangers slowed to a brisk trot. They were not firing. At least, not yet.
“Bucklyn Cross is the property of the Steel Rangers,” one of them called out, her own voice magnified by the armor she wore. “Leave at once. Any negotiations will commence afterwards.”
“I know what this place is, Knight Riverseed,” SteelHooves announced, stepping out of the Sky Bandit and striding up to Velvet Remedy’s side. “And you would do well to mind your place. You are in the presence of two Elders, one of whom is speaking to you.”
“St-star Paladin SteelHooves?” the knight mare asked, clearly recognizing SteelHooves’ unique voice. She stammered, trotting in place a moment. “W-we d-don’t recognize your authority anymore. You’re a traitor.”
“No, I am a loyalist to the Ministry Mare and the true purpose of the Rangers,” SteelHooves told her flatly. “And you are a wet-behind-the-ears knight barely graduated from initiate, Knight Riverseed. Send out the pony in charge here!”
“um… That would be me, sir.”
SteelHooves stood silent. Then, calmly, “You’re kidding.” The Steel Rangers stared back at us, three more joining the three already facing us. I spotted two more stepping out of doorways high on the stone arches above, taking sniper positions. SteelHooves’ voice couldn’t hide his disbelief. “You’re kidding, right?”
“N-no sir,” Knight Riverseed said, shifting hesitantly into a battle stance. “And I’m afraid I h-h-have to ask you t-to leave.”
“I can see you are afraid, Knight Riverseed,” SteelHooves replied. “We have come bringing Elder Cottage Cheese, whom we will return to you in exchange for two of the water talismans stored here in Bucklyn Cross. After that, we will leave. Not before.”
Velvet Remedy was looking uncomfortable. Clearly, her intention to be the negotiator had gone up in smoke. I brought up my Eyes-Forward Sparkle and slipped out the sniper rifle, targeting the two ponies in sniper positions. Even with my skill and targeting spell, it would be a tricky shot to hit either of them. But even if I missed, I could at least pin them down.
The Steel Rangers looked as taken aback as they could considering they were completely concealed behind metal armor. “I-I’m sorry… what was that?”
“After the disgraceful actions of Paladin Amaranth at the previous exchange, you are lucky we are asking so low a price for the return of your Elder,” SteelHooves informed her flatly. “Whom your own ponies shot at, so be careful whom you call a traitor.”
Knight Riverseed hesitated once more, then took a step forward. “W-we can’t comply with those demands and you know it. Request denied. Now get off our citadel!” The two light machineguns on her armor’s built-in battle saddle clicked as they reloaded, pointing threateningly at us. But my E.F.S. was not registering her as hostile. It was a bluff.
“Are you really going to attack an Elder with two hundred years combat experience, backed by a team of wasteland heroes who have defeated a dragon?” SteelHooves asked warningly. “You. Can’t. Win.”
“I can’t give you one water talisman, much less two,” she spat back. “Your offer is absurd. And you are trespassing!”
This sounded like it was going downhill, but nopony was red on my E.F.S. compass yet. We could still talk this out. I was beginning to really hope we could. I hadn’t realized how badly the losses at Stable Two and Twenty-Nine had depleted the Manehattan contingent of the Steel Rangers. The battle earlier today must have taken out their remaining hierarchy. All that were left were the knights left behind to guard the fort and probably a hoof-full of scribes.
These weren’t the ponies who attacked Stable Two. They weren’t the ponies who attacked us earlier either. They weren’t even the ones responsible for refusing water to the civilians of Arbu.
One of the snipers fired at SteelHooves. The knight wasn’t even red on my compass. I think it was an accident. The bullet ricocheted off the ghoul’s magically-powered armor and struck Velvet Remedy. She fell with a yelp, bleeding out of a hole in her flank, her blood running down over her nightingale cutie mark.
Everything went to hell.
*** *** ***
“Stop shooting at us!” I yelled. “Surrender!
The two unicorn scribes were clearly panicked. With all the alarms and the explosions outside, I wasn’t surprised. One of them cast a blinding spell that filled the stairwell with strobing lights. I closed my eyes tight and fired blindly with the poisoned dart gun, not wanting to kill these ponies. Unfortunately, they weren’t showing the same restraint.
A crackle of lightning cut the air, making my coat hairs all stand on end and filling the stairwell with the smell of ozone. I backed up the stairwell, pressing against the wall, nearly tripping on the steps. One of the unicorns had combat spells. I fired again, hoping that if I couldn’t hit them, I could at least keep them from getting any closer.
The two water talismans we had come to procure dangled from my horn on chains. They were amazingly small things, no bigger than a particularly gaudy necklace. They radiated a cool power from the large sapphires in the center of their golden latticework, but were otherwise almost unremarkable. I had braved the internal rooms of the pier and picked one of the hardest locks I had ever come across in order to get them. But my relatively stealthy entrance was obliterated when the alarms went off.
I felt a cold breeze and could clearly hear the sound of SteelHooves’ grenade machinegun as he battled knights with a fraction of the skill but just as much ridiculous firepower. When I dodged into the interior of Bucklyn Cross, Calamity had been swerving through the air, dealing with the two remaining sentinel tanks, the ones I’d missed.
Another bolt of electricity lashed out, this one hitting me square in my breast. My body locked up in intense pain. My magic imploded and the dart gun went tumbling down the stairs. I teetered, gasping, and fell back through the window.
Freefall, just for a fraction of a second but long enough for the pony in my head to be convinced that I was falling to my death. Then I hit the metal girder. I opened my eyes, blinking, my vision still swimming with foreign colors and shapes from the blinding strobe spell. I was laying on one of the understruts that had formed a latticework beneath the Bucklyn bridge, looking up at the underside of street.
A cold wind blew across me, carrying the first drops of another rainstorm. I turned my head and immediately regretted it. It was a long way down!
Okay. Being very, very still. Just float myself back into the window, I told myself. Not a problem.
The two unicorn scribes appeared at the window above me, their horns glowing. Motes of magical energy formed around one of them, forming into eldritch daggers.
I whipped out Little Macintosh, slipping into S.A.T.S. and fired twice.
*** *** ***
Calamity flapped his wings and the Sky Bandit lifted away from Bucklyn Cross. The rest of us huddled in the Sky Bandit, which was now considerably more riddled with bullet holes. Next stop, Calamity insisted, we would start putting on armor. While we still had much of a passenger wagon left.
Xenith was tending to Velvet Remedy, who was breathing heavily as she slept. The bullet had lodged inside her flank, and Velvet had spent the battle digging it out while Xenith applied healing potions and zebra poultices as needed. Velvet would be okay, but she had lost a fair bit of blood and needed to rest.
In the end, only two of the Bucklyn Cross ponies surrendered. We let them go in one of the Cross’s boats. I watched them as the crane lowered them, shuddering under waves of deep hurt at how very few ponies were in that boat.
We had stripped the fallen knights, scribes and initiates -- fourteen in all -- and built a funeral pyre. They deserved that much. I wondered if the Outcasts would claim Bucklyn Cross for their own now. We would take our two water talismans to Friendship City and Stable Twenty-Nine. But first we needed to rest. Arbu had offered us sanctuary and I was eager to take them up on it.
The light from the pyre danced into the sky. As if summoned, a streak of green and gold appeared, whirling and pirouetting amongst the flames.
I played the final audio log that I had been able to recover as we flew through the darkness.
“I woke up in the hospital this afternoon. Apparently, I’ve been in and out of surgery for two days. Fortunately, the company is paying for most of the costs, seeing as I was injured on the job. I’d gotten a frantic call from Mrs. Weather who was screaming about murder. I rushed to the mall as fast as I could, telling her to send a terminal message to the police.
“We had had a doozy of a storm the night before. And when I got there, Sunny Suds’ Laundromat was a complete disaster. Turns out Jamocha Joe was right about that fucking huge-ass billboard of Mr. Beans. Damn thing came crashing down this morning, a good three hours after the storm had passed, tearing through Sunny Suds’ roof. The ‘murder’ victim, turns out, was Mrs. Weather’s fucking poodle. She was screaming and hollering at Mr. Beans, so red-faced I thought she would explode, claiming that he murdered her poor little walking piss-dispenser. Like he was the one who left her damn dog in the laundromat while she popped out for a cake. I can’t say I didn’t laugh.
“I didn’t even see the batty old unicorn produce the firearm. I still don’t know whether she was actually trying to shoot me, or if the bullet was meant for Mr. Beans and her aim is just that bad. I’m told the police have her in custody.
“While I was in surgery, my Stable-Tec broadcaster went off. I missed the call, but that’s okay. According to the message, this is just some sort of test run, like those fire drills they used to make us do in school. I’ve decided not to mention it to my sister. She’s already too much of a mess.
“Sis is here, looking more depressed and anxious than ever. I don’t think she’s been sleeping. I told her the doctors all say I will be fine, I’ll be up and about, good as new, by the end of the week, but I don’t think she was really listening. I’ve been shot, and that’s all she seemed to be able to focus on.
“Well, that and the other thing. Apparently, while I was in surgery, ponies from the Ministry of Morale paid her a visit. According to Sis, they were asking all sorts of questions about Darling. Weird things, like what she’d said at her birthday party and about her internship last year with Four Stars. Sis was freaking out. I think… I think she’s losing it.
“I’ve seen this sort of thing before. As much as I hate it, I think it’s time to call the Ministry of Peace. They’re the only ones who seem to be able to deal with Wartime Stress Disorder.”
*** *** ***
“Where is everypony?” I asked, trotting out of the Sky Bandit. “Hello?”
“It is late,” Xenith intoned. “They are likely all asleep.”
I nodded. Night had fallen during our battle on Bucklyn Cross. I looked about. All the stores were closed up, but there was light pouring between the boards covering the windows of Starbucked. I contemplated heading there, but decided that I didn’t want to break into anypony’s home. Instead, I made for the comic shop with its collapsed front wall. I could hear the snores of the merchant, but I was so weary and emotionally exhausted that I could sleep through a firefight.
I was not a good pony. I wanted to be a good pony. I tried to be a good pony. But today… today…
“Hey!” a voice hissed at me from the darkness. I turned to see Grandpa Rattle huddled in the shadows. I looked for any sign of a shotgun, and by that I meant a stick. Instead, I noticed the red marks above his hindhooves. I knew such marks well. They meant he’d been shackled. And recently. My eyebrows raised in alarm.
“Shussh. They don’t know this old man c’n still pick a lock,” he told me, astutely judging not only what I had seen but what I had made of it. “You and yer friends wanna high-tail it on outta Arbu. This is a no-good place.”
I blinked. “Wh-what do you mean? They seem perfectly nice to me.”
“Take a look in the basement, iffin ya don’t believe me. But don’t say I ain’t warned ya.”
The basement? In the Qwik-Kare. Where they kept the bodies they were going to bury tomorrow. I had a sudden, dreadful, sinking feeling in my heart.
Grandpa Rattle looked about nervously. “Y’all git. Hear me. Git!” Then he shambled back into the shadows. I considered following him, then turned and galloped silently for Helpinghoof.
*** *** ***
There were three ponies in Helpinghoof Qwik-Kare. They were chatting around bowls of stew, cigarette butts and a game that involved black chits with white dots. They looked like a family, one of them a mare hardly older than a filly, just barely old enough to have her cutie mark. And, I noted, her Arbu mark. They also looked like guards. Either way, they never saw me pass.
The lock on the basement door was a surprisingly expensive one for a struggling town like this. Not that I didn’t figure they could have scavenged it from somewhere, but I would expect such a valuable would have been sold during their last “bad year”. It was still the easiest lock I had picked that evening.
The smell hit me immediately, followed by the sound of flies. But then, I was expecting to find bodies. I closed the door behind me without a sound and descended the steps cautiously, turning on my PipBuck light. The two water talismans clinked together softly, still hanging from my horn. One of them I had procured for this town, risking my life and the lives of my friends. Killing ponies I didn’t want to kill. Self-defense didn’t make them any less dead.
The basement was an abattoir. Blood both new and very old stained the tile floor in splatters and streaks, running towards the drain embedded in the center. Bodies of ponies lay on the tables, carved not just open but apart. Skinned and flayed, the meat removed. I recognized the dead from Arbu and the bandits alike. The remains of more ponies were piled in barrels in a corner.
Beside the barrels were the refrigerators. They were lined up like soldiers wearing uniforms of discolored white except where they were stained with blood. Trembling, I approached one of them, my skin crawling as I stepped onto the sticky, wet floor. I reached out telekinetically to open the first refridgerator, feeling a sick terror at touching it even with my magic. It was locked.
So were the others. That didn’t stop me.
I unlocked the first one and braced myself. I swung the door open. I saw the meat.
I turned, reeling. My gaze caught a pony skull hung on the wall next to the stairs where I couldn’t see it before. The skull was mounted on a plaque. Beneath it, somepony had soldered the word UNITY.
We’re all going to be together as one, ain’t we? It was a bad year fer us, so we took some solace in him.
They ate him, I realized, my mind teetering on the darkest edge of night. They killed the preacher and they ate him.
The black stallion who had been Sandy Shore’s father lay on one of those tables. His ribs were cracked open. They’d cut out his heart.
It’s an Arbu mark. We get it after we eat the heart of our first kill.
But I killed the colt’s father. And I certainly wasn’t going to…
I felt suddenly and violently ill. I stumbled against the wall, retching, trying to purge myself of every last bit of the evening’s meal. My head began to pound again. I felt dizzy. My concussion.
And I’d killed for these ponies…
I shuddered and vomited again. Then spit repeatedly, trying to clear the taste from my mouth. I wanted to wash my mouth out with Rad-Away.
The water talismans knocked together. Clink.
The feeling of illness passed, leaving me just feeling violent.
*** *** ***
“You’re cannibals!?” I shouted as I burst back into the Qwik-Kare, telekinetically lifting all three ponies and choking them. “What the FUCK is WRONG with you! The wasteland isn’t fucked up enough!?”
The mother of the family, the same apricot unicorn mare who had been collecting the bodies, levitated a knife from the table. I knocked it away with my own magic.
“You fed the colt HIS OWN FATHER, you sick monsters!?!” I raged, seeing nothing but red. The youngest mare was passing out. The other two struggled, the father trying to buck at me even through I was across the room. He only succeeded in kicking over the table, spilling black chits and pony stew all over the floor. There was a rifle holstered on the underside of the table. The apricot mare focused, turning the whole table to fire at me.
I felt the bullet impact my armor, bruising badly as it failed to penetrate. It hurt, but I didn’t let myself even wince.
“Where. Is. The. COLT?” I growled. I needed to find him. To save him from this place. Him and anypony else here who could still be saved. As for the rest…
The father weakly pointed towards Starbucked. “Thank you,” I hissed as I pulled the zebra rifle.
Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt. Pffatt.
I dropped their burning bodies and trotted out the door.
A pony stumbled towards me from the darkness. I swung the zebra rifle around but stopped as I recognized the merchant.
”I heard a shot?” the merchant pony said, looking worried. “Are the bandits back?”
I studied the pony a moment before asking, my voice dangerous and low, “Did you know?”
The merchant froze, reassessing the situation. “Know… what?”
“That Arbu is full of cannibals. That the meat they are selling you is pony meat. Did. You. Know?”
The merchant pony blanched, looking immediately ill. The pony swayed, fighting to stay on all four hooves. That was answer enough.
“Go look in the basement,” I said, pointing back the way I came. “Mind the bodies and the fire. Then go tell everypony you meet.”
I turned towards Starbucked where light still poured out behind the boarded-up windows. I could hear my friends galloping towards me but I ignored them. Instead, I marched towards the door of the coffee shop.
The righteous fury of hell followed behind me.
*** *** ***
“DJ Pon3 here, and I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know what to make of this one, children.
“For weeks I’ve been telling you of the heroic deeds of the Stable Dweller, our Heroine in of the Equestrian Wasteland, our Bringer of Light in this time of darkness. But today…
“Another village in Manehattan has gone silent. Arbu is dead. Reports have reached me that every pony in the town, over two dozen, have been killed. And listen children, I don’t know how to say this… but…
“But it looks like it was the Stable Dweller who was responsible. A witness from Bucklyn Cross reported seeing her opening fire on ponies in the Arbu commons.
“Now children… I don’t want to believe this. I don’t want to believe our heroine has turned on us. There must be more to this story than what I’m hearing. If you know anything about it, please contact my assistant Homage at Tenpony Tower. Anything at all…
“I don’t know exactly what went down or why. But I’m not going to stop until I find out. And when I do, you’ll know too.
“This is DJ Pon3. Bringing you the truth. No matter how bad it hurts.”
Footnote: Maximum Level