CHAPTER NINE - WHAT GOES AROUND...
"You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a dew drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty." - Gandhi
Bit by bit, Peach Cobbler rounded the kids up onto this great big old platform. It was like a cave-within-a-cave, only high up. The metal staircase leading up to it was rickety as all get out, so we could only go up the stupid thing a few ponies at a time. It looked like a Manehattan fire escape dangling from the wall of the cave by a thread.
"Twenty minutes!" Shouted Strawberry Lemonade.
"We don't even have ten minutes." Shouted Misty.
Not this again. I thought.
I couldn't tell if Strawberry was counting down how long we had before the cloak-o's got to us, or how long she had left to do…whatever the heck it was that she wanted to do. Hesitant to interrupt, I approached her slowly from behind.
"Does Strawberry still want to kill me?" I whispered to Twink.
"Naww." Laughed the little pink unicorn. "After the first couple of kids came hollering for tech support, she was ready to fucking skin you."
"I'm right he-ere," said Strawbery Lemonade in a sing-songitty voice.
She hunched over the console. A familiar sight.
"Are no-ot," sang Twinkle Eyes right back.
Twink wasn't being unfair either. Strawberry wasn’t exactly being very present. She just sorta punched buttons and ignored us.
I found that to be a relief actually, not just cause it meant that she didn’t want to fucking skin me anymore, but cause I was starting to feel more than a little off. The stampede, the shadow. The lack of food and water.
Running for your life as fast as you possibly can, stomping on an injured hoof – it comes with a certain heart-pounding rush, but that was wearing off. Underneath, I pretty much had nothing left.
Click a click a click clickitty click.
"Am too,” answered Strawberry at long last.
I cringed. It felt weird being caught in the middle of this stupid argument.
"Oh yeah? If you’re paying so much attention,” said Twinkle. “What color is Rose's hoof?"
Great. Bringing that up really didn't help.
Strawberry spun around. I think it’d finally dawned on her that I'd made it. That I was standing right behind her safe and sound.
"Whoa, you're alive!" She said.
Before I knew it, I found myself in another painful embrace. My poor ribs. Strawberry laughed and squeezed me as tight as she could. Then, out of nowhere she just sort of stopped, tried to bite down her own smile to feign seriousness, and held me at hoof's distance.
"I'm still gonna kill you." Strawberry said sternly.
She was bad at hiding her smirk. "Some of these kids couldn't even find the ON button."
I looked at her blankly. "Um, yeah,” I said. “That's pretty stupid."
"Ooh!" Said Strawberry Lemonade just before she whipped back around and threw herself into her work yet again.
The sound of her voice echoed in my brain. “Ooh. Oooh. Oooooh.” It wasn’t that what she had said was all that important. It was just a stupid vowel sound. Something wasn’t quite right upstairs. I was starting to getting seriously dizzy.
"Pfft. Don't worry about Strawberry." Twink reassured me. "You shoulda seen her when the first mine-o's came down that tunnel."
Mine-o's. Twinkle had stolen my nick-naming-of-things method.
Meanwhile, Strawberry occupied herself scanning through images and symbols and words and numbers, looking at pictures of console after console, digging for signs of life. Anypony who might still be stuck down there. When Strawberry found that the screen was black, she even pressed her ear against the machine, hoping for a rustle or a peep to reveal itself from the other end.
Helping other ponies is like zap apple jam, I thought, as my hooves wobbled beneath me. Addictive.
Watching her go, it was clear that Strawberry wasn't just scared and reaching out for a lifeline of hope anymore. She was on fire.
The way she's meant to be. That little voice in my head again. The one that sounded like me but said stupid garbage about the way things were and were not supposed to be.
"Sure, now you speak up, you fuck."
And that’s the last thing I remember just before my legs gave out beneath me. I reached out, flailing like a flailitty flailing flaily thing, but there was nothing to grab a hold of. Nothing to catch myself with. In desperation, I chomped down on Misty’s nasty unwashed tail, but it still wasn’t enough. Down I went. Into a pale pass-out-ish sort of sleep-but-not-sleep land, with the taste of Misty’s ass on my teeth.
All I could hear was the distant barking of dogs. It was a sound I recognized. In my first dream - my first night in the Wasteland, I heard them just before I woke up screaming. Now they were back, and they were coming for us. Things were finally starting to happen the way they’re meant to.
* * *
After a blackness washed over me (that could have lasted a few seconds or a few thousand years for all I know), I opened up my eyes. Cobbler, Morning Flower, Misty and Twink were all standing over me in a great big old circle o’ friend.
“Did it work?” Said Twinkle Eyes.
Damnit, she’s worrying about me again.
“Ain’t’cha never had a potion before?” Said Cobbler. “Of course it’s working.”
She smacked him. The sound of hoof on skull, at just the right velocity and angle, sounds an awful lot like two 2x4 blocks of wood knocking together.
“Ow!” Said Peach Cobbler.
"Ten minutes, guys!" Said Strawberry Lemonade, predictable as ever.
“No mind dee Twinkle.” Said Misty. “She ees slave whole life. Of course she has not had rejuvenative eleexir.”
He wagged his hoof at Peach. “You should learn to be more sensitive, Meester Cobbler.”
The enemy may have been several minutes away, separated from us by several thousand tons of rock, but I was pretty sure that even they could feel the smugness of Misty Mountain’s smirk. It was finally his turn to dish out condescending sensitivity lessons.
“Well, gee, I’m really sorry—“ Cobbler yammered, but I cut him off and went straight to the point.
“Potion?” I rubbed my head. “How does that even work?”
We didn’t have a whole lot by way of healing potions back home. I knew there were such things as magic drinks, but to be honest, they were kind of mysterious. The sort of thing you would expect to see in a Starswirl the Bearded museum, or a zebra hut.
“How do you feel?” Said Twinkle.
I thought about it. Tired. My bones and bruises still ached from the stampede. My entire right hoof felt cold as a windigo’s dick. Thanks, Twinkle, for your wonderful influence on the Equestrian Language. But I was well enough to pick myself up off the floor and stand on my three good hooves.
I wondered if such medical magic could have helped Mom.
“Where did you get this?” I said.
“Plucked it off a slave driver back in the mines.” Said Cobbler. “Given the condition we left him in, I reckoned he wouldn’t be needing it anymore.”
He meant dead.
I looked around. Druggos. Wounded mine-o’s. Tired, meek slave children. The applications of this were mind-boggling. I squee'd.
“Well, what are we waiting for? Pass it around, and let’s get out of here!” I giggled.
They all looked at one another all awkward-like. I didn’t like where this was going.
“How much did you give me?” I snapped.
“Just a few drops,” said Cobbler.
I sighed relief, but the looks on their faces told me I was sighing too soon.
“How much do we have left?”
“Um...none?” Cobbler replied.
Wounded, wounded everywhere, and not a drop to drink. I looked around at the stumblers, and the hobblers and those being carried. It was my turn to smack Cobbler.
I stormed off.
I was off in a corner crying my eyes out when Twinkle came up behind me. I wasn’t in the mood to be consoled. As luck would have it, she had no intention of doing so.
“You mind telling me what all that bullshit was about?” Twinkle scolded me.
I didn’t face her. I wasn’t sure what I’d end up saying if I did.
“Other kids need it more,” I whimpered. “You know it.”
“Fuck them.” Said Twinkle. “If I picked some kid at random, for all I know, he’d be a douchebag like Misty.”
I couldn’t help but snort a little laugh.
“What if somepony dies?”
I was shaking. I wasn’t sure anymore if I was acting out of fear or just plain pissed off. Probably both.
“What if you fucking died? Do you even care anymore?”
I turned around to look her in the eye.
“Cause I do,” Twinkle added. “Call me crazy but I care about shit like that.”
Go ahead, Twink. Twist the guilt knife. I don’t have enough of that right now.
“You what?” She snapped.
And that was all I could take. I threw myself at her sobbing. Whatever she’d been trying to do, it had worked better than she’d expected. She ran her hoof through my mane.
“It’s all I have.” I moaned. “It’s all I have.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“The idea that I helped some of these kids. It’s all I have.”
“You helped all of us, you dumb fuck.”
I froze. I’d said too much.
“Who in this mountain didn’t you help? Huh?”
I lowered my eyes in shame.
“Seriously who? Name one! Was it that guy?” She pointed. “The one heading out of the cave all ‘look at me I’m breathing fresh air for the first time in months’?”
Twinkle Eyes pointed at another pair of faces in the crowd. “Oh, look, those poor twins over there. Life sure does suck for them. Bet they wish they were getting their asses kicked by cloak-o’s right about now.”
“You’re right.” I said softly.
Anything to keep from spilling the beans about the massacre at Sub Mine F. She didn’t need that.
“Damn skippy I’m right.”
She saw me slouching, retreating into my head, and smacked me.
I looked up at her, aghast. “What the hell was that for?”
“Nopony picks on my friends.”
I wasn’t sure whether to be scared of her, indignant, or just plain confused.
“Yes you did.” She said. “You’re my friend. And you’re picking on yourself. And if I ever catch you doing it again, I’m gonna kick your ass.”
“But that doesn’t even--;”
“Nopony picks on my friends,” Twinkle growled. “Nopony.”
I couldn’t help but smile. She was doing it again. Being so kind and so harsh at the same time.
“Seven minutes.” Shouted Strawberry Lemonade.
Everypony was really starting to get a move on. There were more kids up on the top platform now than on the stairs or the clearing below.
Meep! Twink and I had been whiny pirating so long, that we were practically alone.
“What are you even counting down for?!” I snapped at long last.
Strawberry Lemonade actually heard that one – probably cause it had something to do with one of her stupid countdowns.
“The cloaks are coming!” She snapped. “Now quit bickering and get up there with the rest.”
“You get up there.” I barked right back.
Twink and I broke into a gallop.
“Can’t.” Said Strawberry. “I’m staying.”
Type typitty type type type. Click, clickitty click click click.
I skidded to a halt. Strawberry Lemonade was staying behind?!
"Fine!” I said the last thing she expected. “Why are we running at all? There are, like…a billion of us. We have, like…a trillion of those…"
I waved my hooves around, pointing at the arsenal my friends had pilfered from the Priestess' super special clubhouse.
"…Blam blam kapow…things."
Twink raised an eyebrow.
"Can't we just..."
"Shoot our way out?" Said Cobbler who was still busy herding refugees up those rusty old stairs above us.
I had just casually suggested we massacre our enemies. Luna help me, the mines had scrambled my brain.
"Half of these kids are half dead." Pleaded Cobbler. “They won't last a giant showdown.”
I wondered how many of them could have benefited from my potion. Then I caught Twinkle eyeballing me. She knew I was on the verge of beating myself up again. I threw my hooves up.
“Don’t hit me!”
“Do you have any idea how many of these kids we had to drag straight out of the brig?" Said Cobbler.
"Brig?" I said. "Like the kids that got captured outta Mine B?" .
I bit my lip and tried to choke back the feeling of hope. It couldn't be true. Those drag marks in the dirt! The kids who'd been snatched away kicking and screaming before they'd had a chance to revolt. Had they actually gotten free?
"Yeah those kids, and from Sub-Mine M, and R."
"They're all from the brig?" I laughed with excitement.
Everypony was starting to look at me funny.
"They are from the brig!" I cheered. "They're from the brig! They’re from the brig!"
I must have looked like the world’s biggest asshole, cheering about their capture and torture, but really, I was just amazed that they’d made it out alive.
"Well, like, ah reckon we ain't no good to these folks if we’s daid." Said one nearby pony in a slow and inscrutable drawl.
I could tell just by his grim tone that he was one of the Brig Kids. Victims of a failed rebellion.
"After a while,” he continued. “The cloak-o’s got to shooting, seeing as how things was getting’ outside-a their ordinary comfortin' zone.”
The stranger smiled.
“They was quite rightfully spooked too. All you fellers with your guns and yer dyn-o-mite. But that wasn’t for a while. Us lucky ones just got all brigged up good and tight.”
They’d only shot when they’d realized we were a bucking army. It made sense. They wanted first and foremost, to keep us enslaved.
"But you're alive?" I said.
The stranger looked himself over, and carefully considered the question. "Last tahme ah checked."
I leapt up - actually literally leapt for joy, as weak as I was. (The landing wasn't so good though. I stumbled forward and hugged the colt who'd told me so. Hugged him so hard he fell down.)
"We seen better days though." He coughed.
As I lied there, propping myself up on my messed up legs, trying not to crush him, I got an up-close look of just how far the poor kid was from seeing “better days.” A mass of small burns were speckled all up and down his face like the chicken pox; his eye was bleeding. He had a wound on his leg that was all gross and oozing. It disarmed me to see anypony in that kind of condition.
"We gotta get outta here." I said grimly.
“Reckon, you’re right, Miss um…”
“Ah. Name’s Turnip Truck, the 14th.” Said the stranger. “After me pappy, Turnip Truck the 13th.”
"Five minutes," called Strawberry Lemonade.
The last of the kids were almost done making their way up the stairs. It was a small miracle that Cobbler and Misty had gotten them up in time.
"Yo Straw Lems. Got to go."
"I haven't found them yet." She'd gone from focused and excited to just plain afraid again.
I knew that look. The I Left Them Behind Last Time, But Dammit, Not This Time look.
“There’s more down there, aren’t there?”
Straw turned to me and nodded in blind panic.
I was ready to stay, but honestly, I couldn’t help. I couldn't even find the keyboard on those stupid console things. Plus, Twinkle gripped my shoulder and looked at me sternly. The message was clear: Stick with the group or I’ll kill you.
Strawberry Lemonade turned back to face the console.
“Come on, come on, come on,” she pleaded.
“Who’s still down there?”
“Sub Mine F!” She said.
I felt my throat drop into my stomach like a bowling ball.
"Sub Mine F?"
“I haven’t gotten a signal at all.”
“Twink’s right. We need to go.” I said in a whisper.
“Really?” Said Twink.
“They’re um...empty.” I said. “Sub Mine F. I passed by. There is nothing there.”
“Oh, come on!” Misty shouted from up above. He had just finished herding the relatively healthy kids out of the opening up there that passed for a door. By the time Turnip Truck the 14th moseyed by, laden head to hoof with weapons, the cave was pretty bare.
"The fuck is this?" Asked Twinkle.
"Reckon once we head off ‘dem daisy cape fellers, they'll come a-chargin' from this here tunnel, and run after us down yonder mountain pass." Turnip pointed outside. "You know, all downhill and advantageous like. Can't have that. Ah’ll hold ‘em back as they charge up yonder stairs."
He patted his weapon lovingly.
"Yeah whatever, Turnip," said Twink. "What the fuck is this? Everypony be a hero day? Get back upstairs you hillbilly fuck."
“No can do, ma’am.” He said. “Not with this here leg all infetcified.”
He shook his gooey leg at us.
“Ewwwwwww!” I said.
“Don’t stand a chance out there anyway, so I may as well blow those summabitches straight back to their precious Lord Baal.”
I tried not to think of the potion, and the good it could have done this kid and his leg, but that was damn near impossible with the taste of the damn thing still lingering on my throat, all coppery and nasty.
“This is crazy." I said.
Mine-o’s, druggo’s. The last of the kids' flanks made it out the big bright hole in the cave we called a door.
“Come on,” I said, putting my hoof on Strawberry Lemonade’s shoulder, trying to physically pry her away. “There’s nothing down there in Sub Mine F. I saw it myself.”
Strawberry swatted my hoof away and stared me down with eyes that could melt coal. “We didn’t find those kids in the brig. The system’s logs show that they were in Section F last anypony checked, and now you’re telling me there’s nothing there? Those kids are down in those mines and I’m gonna find them. Touch me again and I’ll fuck you up so bad you’ll wish the cloak-o’s had gotten to you instead.”
I stumbled back in shock, as much from the harsh words as from the fact that the hornets in my brain got all fired up and pissed off again. Strawberry Lemonade was, after all, The One I’m Meant to Save, and she was refusing to leave.
Twink stepped in. “What the fuck did you just say?”
“Guys, stop.” I said urgently. “Twink, I’m fine. Seriously.”
“What’d you say to Rose?” Twink snapped. “Go ahead. Say it to me.”
She was a whole foot shorter than Strawberry, but she went right to her, looked straight up, and stared her down.
“Say what you said to Rose. I didn’t quite hear you the first fucking time. Say it the fuck again!”
Misty came charging back in. "Guys! Dee cloakos are out there with trucks. Doink fishy thinks!"
“Go.” Said Strawberry. “I’m staying.”
She turned to face the console again.
Hornets, hornets, hornets. Why the Hell wouldn’t this bitch leave?!
I suddenly felt a tiny glimpse of what Twinkle Eyes must have been going through every time I’d thrown myself face first into danger.
I looked up at Misty, who was up on the platform,clutching his own head in pain. He had a bad case of brain hornets too.
Twink on the other hoof, wasn’t done making her point. She grabbed Strawberry, who turned around and smacked her right in the face.
“Don’t touch me!” She roared.
I saw Twink rubbing her cheek. I thought for sure she was gonna whip out a knife or something - carve Strawberry Lemonade up and drink her blood like it was actually lemonade. But something about the rage in Strawberry’s eyes caught Twink off guard. It kinda shocked all of us.
“I—“ Strawberry was shaking as much with fear as with anger.
“I don’t like it when ponies touch me.”
I suddenly remembered how much Strawberry Lemonade had cringed when I’d gripped her by the shoulder back in the cage room. Twink looked up at her with silent understanding. She nodded. Something was happening that I didn’t quite understand.
“Look, just leave Rose Petal the fuck alone, alright?” Said Twink. “Or I am gonna find a fucking brick and introduce it to your teeth. Capice?”
“Agreed,” said Strawberry Lemonade as she turned back to her console and buried herself in her work.
"We need to poosh through while we can!" Misty called down at us.
“Then go,” growled Strawberry.
Then there came this long tense silence. Strawberry seriously wasn’t going anywhere. The One I’m Meant to Save. The One I’m Meant to Save. The One I’m Meant to Save. The voices in my head were shouting at me all at once.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it!
“They’re dead, alright?” I said at long last.
Suddenly all eyes were on me.
“Sub Mine F.”
“What?” said Strawberry
“You’re not going to find them,” I said. “Cause they’re dead.”
“But you said--;”
“You all seemed so happy and I didn’t wanna bring you down, and--;”
I looked around at all of their shocked and mournful faces.
“They were just so fucking small,” I blubbered.
The one thing I couldn’t get over about Sub Mine F. All those kids lying dead in that mountain. They were all so small. Kindergarteners. They never stood a chance.
I completely came apart right there in front of everypony.
“I’m sorry.” I said with a sniff.
They all just sort of stared at me awkwardly. Even Twinkle didn’t have anything clever to say. She was busy pounding the walls with her hoofs in frustration and grief.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Strawberry sighed, and pulled a metal cover over the console she’d been working on. When the hook hit the knob and the thing was good and shut, I got smacked in the face with a sudden quiet. The hornets in my head were only whispering now.
I looked up at Misty. He nodded at me in silence. He felt it too. Strawberry was coming with us, and things were starting to fall into place.
Misty closed his eyes, and lit up his horn. Then, just like that, the entire bucking staircase wrenched itself from the masonry - all aglow with unicorn magic. All it took was a little loosening and the whole damn thing crumbled under its own weight.
Before any of us really knew what was going on - before the dust could even settle, Misty had lifted Twink, Strawberry and me up on to the platform. The very last of us. We were ready to go.
Those bucking dogs were barking again in the distance. We were finally getting close. I could practically taste it. In the vision, Strawberry Lemonade had been underground - in the dim. So once we left the mine, she would be safe - at least from what I’d seen in my head. That meant that whatever else may have been going down - whatever strange wheels may have been turning – things were finally starting to happen the way they're meant to happen.
Turnip trotted up to us and looked down at the wreckage of the staircase, which would delay the cloak-o’s better than he ever could.
“Well, how do you like that?”
He turned and whistled right on out the cave.
* * *
We galloped as best we could down the mountain pass. Me? I hobbled. Misty was busy leading, and Twink was too damn small to help me. So, like so many other kids, I just stumbled along and tried to keep up. Those few drops of potion, after all, could only do so much.
It started with a fall. Then I fell again on Twinkle. Then, finally, my bad leg just plain stopped working altogether, and forward we both tumbled. But I didn’t hit the ground. Instead, I found myself draped over a colt’s back.
“Whu?” I was already starting to doze.
I faded. I bounced around a little on his back, and though my focus was shifting and blurring, the one thing I could make out was the cutie mark on my ride’s flank. A guitar.
“Druggo?” I said.
“Hang in there,” was all Flutterstrings said. “Hang in there.”
“You fainted again,” said Twink.
“Did not,” I replied.
“Did not!” I snapped.
She smirked at me. For once, I was actually alright-er than I appeared.
She reveled in it a bit too much.
“Did bucking too!”
Everypony we knew stopped and just looked at her - even Flutterstrings. Twinkle had softened a curse word.
“Bucking?” I said.
“Blow me.” She replied.
I bit back a smirk.
“What? Maybe I feel like daintying it the fuck up every now and again.” She was blushing. “You got a problem with that?”
Up ahead were five great big old boxes on wheels, each with ratatat-tat-amjigs mounted on top. My friends corrected me when I babbled, and told me they were called trucks and guns respectively, but I liked my names better.
“Those the cloak-o’s that Misty was on about?” I asked.
“Not sure,” grunted Flutterstrings.
Carrying me couldn’t have been any easier for him than carrying him had been for me.
“I dunno!” Said a nervous filly. “They haven’t been doing much, just wheeling those trucks out one at a time. Do you think it’s a trap?”
I pretzeled my neck backwards. If I really strained, I could make out the way we came – just barely.
“Why don’t we just go the other way?” I moaned.
I kept pushing my neck muscles as far as they would let me to try to get a better view, until I couldn't hold it anymore. Then I just sorta collapsed backwards - bones like wet pasta. I could see Twink staring at me all upside-down-like.
“The villagers are that way.” She said.
“The ones who rebelled against the cloak-o’s?”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” I smiled, but Twink didn’t return my enthusiasm.
“We barely held them back the last time,” said Upside Down Twinkle Eyes. “Who do you think was doing all that shooting while you were off dicking around down there in the mines?”
“What?” I squirmed so bad that I fell and took Flutterstrings with me. “Why?!”
Twink stood over me and extended a helping hoof. Once I was up again, and hoisted back on top of Flutterstings, Twinkle said, “Not getting any help from those cockmuffins.”
So it’s like this: it turns out that the villagers had, in fact, revolted just like I thought – only they weren’t fighting for our freedom. They were fighting for the freedom to be the ones profiting from our slavery. At least that's how it was explained to me, and it made a certain kind of sense. If there was any truth in what the Priestess had said at all, without us kids to work the mines, the town was as good as dead.
Food first. Morals follow on (if at all).
This was bad news. Real bad. It wasn’t just about surviving the cloak-o blitz anymore. Even if we fended off every last goon – blew them all to bits – the mine-o slave kids weren’t exactly gonna find loving homes here in Trottica. What were they supposed to do?
Even if we managed to “poosh” past the “fishy” cloak-o activity in that giant docking bay down there at the bottom of the hill, we couldn’t exactly charge inside and demand to be treated well. That was the service entrance to the Town Hall, from whence my friends had escaped. There was still a great big old Civil War going on in there, and the only thing that any of the factions could agree upon was that we kids should keep on slaving.
I knew there had to be good grown-ups in that town somewhere. That it wasn't all kids: good; adults: bad like Twinkle Eyes seemed to think. It couldn't be! But if there were any friendlies around, where ever they were, they weren't doing us a whole lot of good as we tried to make our way down that mountain pass.
Further down the road, there was a naked gauntlet. If we tried to walk down it, we would be wide open to attack from the walls and buildings above, and left completely exposed – unable, even with all our numbers and badass weaponry, to defend ourselves. The townsfolk would be way too high-groundsy.
We were about three hundred kids trying to hoof it. Almost half of us were fucked up, drugged, or infirm in some way. Past “the gauntlet” were the great outdoors – the road to freedom. One-hundred-and-fifty straight miles of nothing.
To make a long story short, we were completely and totally fucked.
* * *
“I need to talk to Misty,” I said, but Flutterstrings just sort of grunted in reply.
I was the druggo now. Nopony ever takes what the luggage has to say seriously.
A chill breeze swept over our little company. You could hear shivering amongst the crowd of children. Chattering of teeth even. I wrapped that old cloak of the Priestess' around me and just sort of lied there, bouncing along on Flutterstrings’ back like a sack of flour. A piece of Misty Mountain's nasty old tail hair was still stuck in my teeth. Blech.
I tried not to think about what lied ahead. Instead I focused on that stupid hair. I was picking at it with my tongue, and picking at it, and picking at it, when out of the blue, came that old familiar cry.
Just once, I’d like to go one measly hour without having to hear anypony shout those words. Was that too much to ask?
I braced myself for a stampede, but this time, we were all pretty weak, and none of us were terribly anxious to rush forward into the cloak-o trucks. There was also a great big old cliff to our right, so for once we didn’t run around like maniacs. Apparently, mass panic isn’t blind. It’s opportunistic. Even in chaos and hysteria, fear’s still holding the reigns, like it’s got a mind of its own. This time, the beat up old cloak-o army (that had scrambled out of the mountain without help of a staircase) was actually a lot less scary than the eerie silence below - the wheely-box-y-things just sitting there. Waiting for us. We couldn’t even see the cloak-o’s anymore. It felt wrong –ambushy even, but what choice did we have?
The cloak-o’s were still a while behind us, and they weren’t worth wasting ratatatatat’s on, but they were closing in fast. They didn’t fire on us either. It looked like they were making to round us straight into the backs of those trucks. And there we were - obliging them!
We moved forward nervously. There was nothing else we could do. We couldn’t defend ourselves standing in the middle the way we were – no cover – no nothing. Our only hope was to dig ourselves into the clutter down there and hope we could fend them off.
Flutterstrings broke into a gallop. I was a little uneasy, but kinda detatched. I mean, all this danger, and still no hornets. Misty and I were meant to save Strawberry Lemonade, so there had to be a way out of this. Right? Or were the voices just a bunch of dicks who liked to show up, say a bunch of ominous confusing crap, and then ditch you?
One of those boxes down there revved up, and started charging up the hill at us. It was smaller than the other boxes, but it had a giant barrel on top - almost like a canon, except that I was willing to bet that it didn’t shoot confetti. We knocked into one another left and right. We couldn’t figure out whether we should grind our hooves into the dust and stop, keep charging and try to go around the thing, or just plain run backwards.
“I can’t go back there!” Said a blue unicorn filly nearby. “I can’t go back there!”
The thought of another moment driven back into the mines was too much for her to bear. She made for the giant cliff on the shoulder of the road, and jumped! Just fucking jumped! My jaw dropped at the sight of it.
Fwoosh. Twinkle caught her with her horn magic. This was getting crazier by the second.
“We’re still in this, you stupid cunt.” Said Twinkle reassuringly. “We’re still in this.”
“We are?” Laughed Flutterstrings nervously.
Since when had Twink become the town optimist?
Finally the truck stopped. It was close enough to be damn menacing, but just far enough away that we couldn’t make it down there in time to go around the stupid thing. The barrel of the canon lowered itself and took aim.
The cloak-o’s weren’t even out to preserve us anymore. That giant box was gonna blow us all away.
The entire herd skidded to a halt. There was just no room to gallop anymore.
Twink was beside me now, but she was no longer optimistic. She was as horrified and in shock as I was. The barrel on the moving weapon lowered.
Several other kids tried to make a run for it – to jump off the cliff, but those on the edge gathered their wits enough to lock hooves. To throw themselves in the way - to keep them from passing. We weren’t going to go out like that. We just weren’t.
The truck stared us down. It stood there - ominously still, even as we panicked. I reached out and grabbed Twinkle’s hair. It was the only part of her I could reach from way up on Flutterstrings’ back.
Louder than thunder, the Big One fired.
Hundreds of hooves shielded hundreds of faces.
Boom! Hundreds of girlish screams.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! It fired again and again and again and again and again till my brain felt like ear-explosion-pudding. Echoes of the death booms swept over the hills below, and then the rest of the sound just sort of faded away. We were left with nothing but the ringing in our ears.
One by one, we all lowered our hooves and looked around to survey the damage. The mine-o’s, the druggo’s, my rebel friends. We were all still there. Every last one of us! Still standing on that mountain pass - the opposite of dead.
Behind us, were scorch marks and scattered pieces of about sixty cloak-o’s. It had blown them to smithereens. The big death box stared us down. Inscrutable.
Nopony said a word.
Finally, the front door opened, and a pair of hooves held themselves out, waving a bloody white cloth. A sign of surrender.
Before any of us could respond, or even try to figure out what the hell was going on, a grown-up fell out and landed flat on his face. He was a cloak-o, and he looked even worse than I felt. For a while, he just sorta lied there wheezing. With a groan, he rose to his hooves, straightened out his daisy cloak with pride, and limped toward us with grim determination.
Crunch, thump, crunch, thump, crunch, thump. He hobbled over the gravel.
When he got closer by, I actually recognized him. It was the nurse who’d drugged all of those kids back in the cage room. I gasped and fell off of Flutterstrings’ back. My friends helped me back to my hooves, and I found that he was looking in my direction.
“Um, hello?” I said awkwardly.
I turned around to get a look at the crowd behind me. Twinkle had already disappeared.
The nurse just kept on limping. “Hi,” he coughed.
The herd parted silently for him.
Crunch, thump, crunch, thump, crunch, thump, crunch.
We all stared at him, but he didn’t look any one us in particular in the eye. He just sort of hobbled and marched as though we weren’t there at all. At least until he found Twinkle, who’d been hiding under some of the taller Trottica kids, who, frankly, weren’t very big. Twink looked up, and found Nursey’s battered face staring at her – a busted lip and broken nose that she had put there.
She rose to meet his gaze, and mustered up her best defiant glower. She’d done nothing wrong, after all. He’d had the beating coming. How was she supposed to know that this guy was gonna come along and save us all for no apparent reason!
“Twinkle.” I whispered to myself – hoping she wouldn’t do anything stupid.
I hoped even harder that the nurse wasn’t gonna try anything either.
They stared at one another long and hard before Nursey finally held out a hoof. Twinkle stared at it. He stared right back at her.
They both knew why she’d beaten the snot out of him. But things had changed, and blame no longer mattered.
She sighed. Her defiant pose cracked and sunk into a slouch. Hesitantly, she lifted her own hoof to meet his, and just like that – hoof bump.
I wanted to cheer, but it was too quiet.
Nursey nodded, and kept limping right past her. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. It was just plain painful to watch him grind and limp and drag himself up that path, but none of use were sure whether or not we should lend a helping hoof. In fact, Nursey shook his head whenever somepony even looked at him like they might offer.
So he just hobbled on up there, and the crowd continued to part for him, though the question on all of our minds was the same. Why?
“Hey, Nurse.” Twinkle said at last.
Leave it to her to call out the elephant in the room. Nursey, with some effort, stopped and turned around.
“What the fuck?” She said.
The nurse sighed. “’Ignorance, trust, the gullibility of good ponies – these are the weapons of the tyrants of war. Such innocence is sin.’”
By the look on his face, he did not expect to be received well, but still he quoted his scripture without shame.
“’…Blessed is he who strikes down the tyrants – who comes in the name of Hard Truth. Blessed is he who abhors ignorance.’ So sayeth Baal.”
We all looked at one another, not sure what to make of the wacko who’d just saved all our hides. He, in return, just sorta looked at us all blankly.
“But Baal is a lie,” came a small voice from the crowd.
It was a frail little earth pony colt - even younger than Twink.
“Not to me.” Said the Nurse.
He turned and hobbled further down the road.
“Come with us.” I said.
I just made a great big decision without asking anypony. I looked around. Thankfully, they all nodded silently in stunned agreement.
At me, Nursey actually smiled. Me - the girl who’d grabbed him and shook him as hard as I could in anger and frustration. Apparently not letting the others beat him to death distinguished me as some kind of super pony.
“Nah,” he grinned a wide grin – bloody, and almost toothless. “There are more tyrants in there that could use a blessing or two.”
He winked at me and patted a saddlebag packed to the brim with explosive birthday candles. I wasn’t sure precisely what he was gonna try, but I was pretty sure that it would be shitfuck crazy.
“Those trucks are for you.” Said the nurse. “You’ll find everything you need.”
He started hobbling back toward me. I trotted in his direction, just to make the trip easier on him.
“Good luck. And thank you,” He kissed my forehead. “But I’m going to meet with Baal. Become one with the Great Below.”
He looked out over the mountain range – possibly his last view of the vast and cloudy skies of the Wasteland.
“I hear it’s bliss.” He smiled, and limped the rest of the way up the road in silence.