• Published 13th Feb 2012
  • 13,792 Views, 103 Comments

Project Renaissance - Out of Service

Two men awaken from almost two thousand years of slumber and find the world they once knew radically changed. Together, they will lead a revolution against their alien surroundings in an attempt to remind the world of one thing: humanity is not dead.

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Chapter Two: A Day at the End of the World

Project Renaissance

Chapter Two: A Day at the End of the World

By Lucius Seneca & Stillmatic

Canterlot’s Royal Palace was quiet. Out in the gardens, a skunk rummaged through the undergrowth and an owl hooted to the bare face of the moon so far above. Corridors lay silent, torches burning throughout the night, their flickering orange fingers casting an eerie feel about the carpeted marble and granite floors. Prince Blueblood had long since fallen asleep in his own chamber and was content in his rest, finding that particular night to be without questionable nightmares. The serenity was not to last, however, and a loud banging echoed from his bedroom door.

Groggily, Blueblood arose and checked the clock on the far wall. It was three in the morning. What could anypony want of him at this hour? Opening the door, Blueblood was greeted by a young and anxious guard, probably on his first night alone.

Hiding his annoyance behind a tone filled with lethargy, Blueblood raised the obvious question, “What is it, recruit?”

Shuffling on the spot, the guard tried to compose himself, but ultimately failed, “Sir, I-uh, well, it’s about those sonar reports you ordered delivered to you.”

“What about them?” Blueblood felt a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Well, um…” The guard took a deep breath, “It looks like someone stole them in transit.”

Blueblood let out a long, defeated sigh and closed the door before rummaging through his wardrobe for some travel clothes. It was going to be a long trip.

The barkeep watched the stallion at the end of the bar. He had been sitting there for over an hour, features hidden under a thick brown cloak, its heavy hood pulled up over his head, soaking him in the shadows of dim lanterns. He carried a simple steel short sword on his hip and his chest was protected by a weathered leather vest. The barkeep would have thought of him as just another traveler if not for two subtle yet defining features: the stallion in question had two small daggers concealed under his cloak and he had yet to finish his pint. The barkeep had seen that particular trick done, in large, by those who wished to appear as anypony else, but without the hindrance of alcohol on the brain.

It wasn’t a difficult thing to do. The stallion made it appear as if he was taking a large swig of the beverage, but in reality, he swallowed very little. Of course, the true integrity of the illusion was based solely on the inebriation of every other patron in the room, and the barkeep was a far cry from being drunk. She continued polishing the tarnished mug in her hooves before setting it below the counter with all the others. The stranger had intrigued her. Of course, it was not unusual to see strangers in Camp Barrier, as the camp itself was the only major waypoint for further expeditions into the Deep South.

Camp Barrier lay roughly file miles south of the Appaloosan Mountain Range and, seeing the conditions there, most rookie explorers never went much further, deciding that the risk was not worth the reward. Explorers, robbers, trespassers, thieves, fugitives, murderers, treasure hunters, roamed about the Deep South and there were few honest folk to balance out the sheer amount of degeneracy. There had been no lawful presence in Equestria’s Deep South for over two decades. There simply wasn’t any point in patrolling the lands. Not only because they were vast and the majority were uninhabited, but because the Deep South was cordoned off by the Appaloosan Mountains, keeping the crime contained and - more or less - unnoticed by the rest of Equestria.

Furthermore, if any criminals wished to pass back through the mountains, they would have to avoid military patrols and checkpoints in order to fence any goods at border villages. Those particular patrols were conducted by mountain guards, swarthy veterans from their constant encounters with smugglers and bandits alike , but besides them, the only actual sign of law enforcement in the Deep South was that of the Royal Guard Watchtower which had been abandoned since the Zebrisian War and the Battle of the Gulf of Stripes. Why it had been abandoned, nobody really knew, but it was likely with the war ongoing and resources stretched, the troops from the watchtower would have been a breath of fresh air for weary soldiers at the front. Those troops had never come back to their old post and so the forest grew back around it. Some veteran explorers claimed that a pack of timber wolves had taken up residence there, but the claims were unfounded and nopony dared to go close to wolf territory, anyway.

But the stranger at the bar, a unicorn of white, seemed out of place. He was a seasoned fighter, obviously, but his presence in Camp Barrier threw the barkeep, an older mare, into a feeling of unease. The only ponies who carried hidden weapons were those on unsavory business and those who did not want to draw undue attention to business that had the potential to be unsavory. It was quite possible he was a drifter, a pony who roamed Equestria’s lawless regions in search of work, bloody or otherwise. They were a highly feared group of assassins and thieves, rumored to be without morals and conscience.

Unbeknownst to the barkeep, the hooded stallion was, in fact, a noble himself. Prince Blueblood took another sip of his now warm pint and studied a mare across the room. She was of average make and height, colored a deep gold, her black mane streaked with the same golden color. A faded red bandana tied around her forehead kept her bangs from falling into her eyes and her forelegs were protected by sturdy leather bracers. She seemed experienced enough to hold her own and Blueblood estimated the mare had been in the bar before.

“Are you done with that?”

Blueblood looked back, face still a mask of shadows, and realized the bartender was talking to him, pointing at the half full mug in front of him. He used his regular voice, contradicting the idea he always carried a posh tone about him, “No.”

The barkeep leaned forward, “Her name’s Pyrite Dreams. An archaeologist of sorts. Rumor has it she has a university education.”

Looking over his shoulder, he realized she was talking about the mare he had been watching, “What does she do around here?”

“Finds things, I would guess. She’s an archaeologist, after all.” The bartender shrugged and looked down at the hooded Blueblood, “What’s your name, mister?”

“I need somepony to do a job for me.” Blueblood ignored the question.

“What kind of job?”

“Recovery of a lost item.”

Smiling, the barkeep waved her hoof in the direction of Pyrite who was in a scuffle with what could have been a bandit judging by the piercings and scars, “Looks like you’ve found the right pony. There’s a tent ‘round back. I’ll tell her there’s a job offering.”

Blueblood remained silent and casually slipped off the barstool and exited the large pavilion to find the sun setting. Most of Camp Barrier was just that: pavilions and tents. It was an entire town made of waterproofed canvas. The bar was the largest structure, a thick brown and red pavilion located in the center of the camp. In fact, Camp Barrier reminded Blueblood more of a shantytown than anything and it had the crime rate of one, too. It wasn’t uncommon to come across a hastily buried body on the outskirts of town, courtesy of a robbery gone wrong. Blueblood had been here once before, several years ago, when he had first begun work as an agent of for the crown.

He shivered at the brutality back then and stepped into the storage tent that backed onto the pavilion. Shaky wooden shelves held barrels of alcoholic cider, beer, whiskey. Foodstuffs like corn, rice, and flour lay stacked haphazardly near the back of the tent. Blueblood watched as a cockroach skittered quickly across the sand and dirt floor before vanishing into a half opened bag of sugar. Hearing soft hoofsteps outside, Blueblood dimmed the small kerosene lamp in the corner and turned to face the entrance, his face hidden by the dim light.

Pyrite Dreams, maverick archaeologist pushed the tent flap aside and stepped into the tent. She examined Blueblood with a steady eye of ocean blue before speaking, “Maregarita said you have a job. She's my handler.”

Blueblood nodded slowly, noticing a very fine shimmer around Pyrite’s horn, “I need a set of documents returned to me. I've tracked them this far, but I have other priorities to attend to. I'll pay you two thousand bits.”

Pyrite was not a rookie adventurer. She had done jobs for questionable ponies before, but this stallion, cloaked and face hidden, gave her the creeps, “What kind of documents?”

“It doesn’t matter. Your job is to find the documents and bring them to me.”

A long silence followed the statement before Pyrite bobbed her head in agreement, “Okay. Two thousands bits, half now, half after I get you your papers.”

Blueblood removed a small, ripe pouch from under his cloak and handed it to Pyrite, “Twenty pieces of fifty. How long?”

Weighing the money in her hoof, Pyrite delicately balanced a stiletto behind her neck, her horn barely glowing, hiding the fact that she was ready to strike at any time, “Three days, maybe four if things are unfavorable." She paused again, "You know I could have just killed you and taken your money, right?

Smiling in the shadows, Blueblood felt the rush of adrenaline begin to flow, “I could have done the same.”

And with that, he brushed past her and vanished into the sea of tents. Pyrite watched him go and slowly placed the pouch of coins in her saddlebag. Paying in pieces of fifty was a rare occurrence. One piece of fifty was worth fifty bits and were usually carried by richer ponies. Two thousand bits for a simple snatch and grab wasn’t too bad, Pyrite thought to herself. Whoever the stranger was, he paid well and wanted results. But, there was an underlying feeling of mystery plaguing Pyrite. She shrugged broadly and left the tent, intent on discovering the fate of her employer’s lost documents.

Two days had passed since Pyrite had accepted her mission. Two days of searching, asking around, and general eavesdropping and Pyrite had found nothing. Not even a whisper of stolen papers or records or anything like that. It was like they didn’t exist. Pyrite was renowned for her ability to find artifacts, so a few sheets of paper should not have been that tricky to track down, but they had eluded her this far and it was infuriating to say the least. Ever since she had been a filly, Pyrite Dreams had proven incredibly adept with her ability to locate things underground and the specificity of that skill had translated into her special ability and her cutie mark: a vase being dusted by a small brush. It wasn’t long before she had been accepted into Canterlot’s Royal Archaeological University. From there, it had been a rather long and grueling path up the ladder of fame and fortune in the archaeological field and, despite Pyrite’s best efforts, she found herself nowhere near the riches and fame she had once hoped for.

Sitting in the bar, she scowled at her drink. What a bunch of cronies. They had no respect for the ability of youth and Pyrite had been known to butt heads with quite a few of the professors and dig site overseers. Where Pyrite was now, she was sure her parents would be disappointed, but there wasn’t much the young unicorn could do. She was under investigation by the university after being accused for stealing from dig sites and selling any valuables she recovered. Pyrite wasn’t about to lie to herself. She had stolen and had sold a fair amount of semi-valuable artifacts, but she didn’t have to admit to it. It wasn't as if she had stolen Princess Celestia's throne.

Besides, she wasn’t even sure if the investigation was open or ongoing at this point. She hadn’t been back to the university in over a year. For a year she had been prowling around the Deep South and she had found herself making a decent living. It wasn’t glamorous by any means, but she had enough saved to live comfortably and, secretly, she preferred this type of lifestyle, even if it was dangerous and potentially lethal in some aspects. Pyrite herself had never done anything extremely immoral, but she had ended up stabbing and killing a pony during one of her escapades.

Pyrite was surprised at how little she felt at the stabbing during the time. A year in the pits of the underworld of Equestria would desensitize anypony, regardless of background or walk of life. Finishing her drink, Pyrite readied herself to leave when two ponies entered the bar, beaten and exhausted. It was obvious they had just come back from an expedition or probably a raid, judging by the apparel of them. It wasn’t difficult to spot a bandit and the two who had just entered, a stallion and a mare, fairly reeked of criminality. More so than anyone else in the room, anyway. Examining them from across the room, Pyrite feigned drunkenness while casting a small spell to focus her hearing on the two who were now sitting at the bar. Letting her head droop unceremoniously, Pyrite angled her ear towards the bandits.

“You idiot! How could you have forgotten our water rations?” The mare hissed to her partner.

Snarling back, the stallion defended himself, “You said to focus on the maps. Well, I focused on them. I made sure we had them. Without them, we won’t even make it halfway into Froud Valley. I risked my neck to get them! You think knocking over a caravan is an easy feat?”

Now they had Pyrite’s attention and it took all of the archaeologist’s power to keep from jerking her head up in excitement. The conversation continued on with more talk about maps and an anomalous radius somewhere in the center of Froud Valley. Pyrite had found her marks. But they were probably murderers and, if their array of weapons was any indication, they were skilled murderers, too.

“We shouldn’t talk here. We’ll rest a night, get our supplies right this time and head back out.”

The two left quickly, pushing past several patrons and vanishing outside. Pyrite leapt out of her seat and dashed outside. She watched as a coat fluttered briefly as one of them turned a corner and disappeared behind a tent. Pyrite followed them at a cautious pace, ducking behind lean-tos, crates and the many tents along the way. There were literally hundreds of accidental alleyways in Camp Barrier, created by the partitions between small groupings of tents, which made it far more difficult to follow the bandits than Pyrite had expected. It was made even worse by the fact that if they turned and saw Pyrite, they would undoubtedly come to the conclusion that she was following them and, in the middle of night, in the back alleys of Camp Barrier, a lot could happen, and none of it would be good.

Luckily, their tent was not far and soon Pyrite was watching safely from behind a large cart loaded with rotting fruit. She gagged at the smell, but cast another spell, this one allowing her to see through the already thin cloth which made up the tent walls. It was filthy inside despite being a temporary residence. A lopsided wooden table stood to the side and a pile of garbage composed mainly of empty tins and bottles was stacked near the back of the tent while two simple cots rested against the wall. The bandits, however, were not inside and as Pyrite squinted in surprise, something slammed against the back of her head and her vision exploded into an array of whites and blacks. Pyrite hit the ground hard and stared confusedly up at the two bandits who were now leaning and leering over her, knives drawn.

“You lost, little girl?”

The mare grinned sadistically, “It isn’t polite to follow ponies, you know.”

Pyrite was still reeling from the blow, but she could see the tip of a scroll protruding from the stallion’s saddlebag. Those were the maps, the documents she needed, but if she didn’t act fast, they would probably be the last thing she saw. Pyrite’s vision went in and out of focus and she found her hearing fuzzy and distant as if there was a cloud of flies hovering nearby. The stallion was saying something, still brandishing a tarnished dagger, waving it near Pyrite’s face. Neither of them noticed the hooded figure rapidly approaching from behind them.

Pyrite watched dazedly as the stallion arched his back, head pulled up and to the side, as if he was attempting to stare over the back of his shoulder. The hilt of a dagger could be seen sticking out from the base of his neck. The bandit's eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed forward and into the sand. The mare was fast to react and had turned to face the attacker, but she, too, was quickly dispatched and went down in a spray of red as something silver flashed across her exposed throat. Pyrite shut her eyes as a warm liquid sprinkled down on her and she kicked out instinctively. Her hoof caught on something soft and malleable and there was an audible grunt. The figure fell backwards in surprise. Rolling, Pyrite snatched the loose scrolls from the bloodied sand and took to her hooves. Blueblood nursed his most sensitive of spots which was now afire with pain and watched as Pyrite sprinted and vanished from view. Climbing back up, he wiped the blood from his dagger on the cloak of the fallen mare and sheathed the weapon. It was time to enlist help from an old Canterlot friend.

Black and white checker tiles were the equivalent to a yellow-brick road to any "volunteers" within the facility. Typically speaking, they led to the much less intensive areas of testing or research, which was well preferred over the sections with concrete floors occasionally stained with an unknown substance. Another known fact was that the cleaner the tiles got, the more likely one was closer to the surface. The upper parts of the facility would occasionally have guests from the upper echelons of society and so janitorial staff kept better care of the most seen places as opposed to the dank dungeons below. So, when two surviving humans somehow managed to get to slightly less grimy tiles, they knew they were slowly making progress.

Soon, the gaping maw of the open elevator shaft loomed ahead in the darkness and both men took a moment to poke their heads in. Westin spied a glowing point of light near the bottom of the shaft, but said nothing, already connecting the puzzle pieces together in his head. Ulysses must have tossed it down there. As if sensing Westin’s thoughts, Ulysses silently pointed at the ladder rungs embedded in the far wall, opposite where they stood. Noticing a concrete ledge that ran right of the door and across to the opposite side, Westin began to shimmy onto it, Ulysses following him.

Thankfully, there was a decent grip for their footing on the concrete. Clamps welded into the sides of the shaft proved useful in keeping them close to the wall and away from the all-consuming blackness below. The two humans slowly edged their way to the ladder, with Westin grabbing on first and hoisting himself upwards. His shaky, still-recovering legs somehow went with his movements, Ulysses not too far behind, trying to climb and hold onto the bag of scavenged supplies at the same time. He knew if he dropped them, their chances of survival would plummet with them. Putting that aside, Ulysses wondered if Westin knew how much farther they needed to climb. That was answered shortly and both of them found themselves climbing onto another ledge, with a large "1" painted with a stencil near the elevator door.

Ulysses slowly climbed off the ledge and through the small gap between the metal doors only to find himself face to face with what looked like a cave-in. There was barely enough room for Westin to climb in behind and both men felt their hearts sink. So close to freedom and the outside world, they now found themselves at a dead end. The beam of light that Ulysses had seen earlier was actually a small hole in the mixture of concrete, rock, and dirt, presumably originating from the sun outside.

"What do we do now?" Ulysses asked

Westin shouldered away the doors into their fully open position, "I don't know."

He grabbed a section rebar poking out of the rubble and, while attempting to pull it out, had it crumble in his hand. The force of pulling back on nothing nearly threw him down the shaft, if it weren't for his other hand grabbing onto the doorway. Ulysses looked back for a moment before repeating what Westin had did, with the exception of nearly plummeting to his death. His fingers wrapped around a chunk of dusty concrete and sunk through entirely, turning the object into a loose array of crumbly debris. Westin saw Ulysses scrutinizing the remains of the substance on his hands before pulling his boot back and delivering a kick straight into a mound of rubble.

"What the hell?"

An explosion of concrete dust followed the hard kick and Ulysses waved his hand in front of his face, "How long have we been asleep, Westin? Concrete doesn't just crumble."

“I didn't see anyone around. No scientists, janitors, security..." He finally noticed Ulysses' uniform, "You one of them now?"

"What?" Ulysses looked down and realized he was still wearing his scavenged uniform, "I found it in a security locker with the glow-sticks. I don't get it. People don't just up and leave out of the blue. This whole place is falling apart."

Westin reached further into the rubble and pulled something out, "You think?" He handed Ulysses a fragile skull.

Setting the rapidly disintegrating yellowed cranium and plastic bag aside with an itchy hand, Ulysses kicked hard into the collapsed concrete and gravel, “I don’t like our chances here. Let’s start digging.”

The two humans steadily dug their way through the massive cave-in. What should have taken hours upon hours of heavy power tool use required only a few minutes of chipping away large pieces of rubble and dropping the residual matter down the elevator shaft. The process took a mere fifteen minutes or so before they were caked in dirt and the hallway was mostly open. As the last bit of barrier broke away, sunlight exploded inwards in its full glory. Westin let out a grunt as his eyes attempted to adjust to the invading light. The other man found it easier to blink it away and look with widened eyes at the destruction in front of him.

Between destroyed infrastructure and copious amounts of sand and dirt flooding the interior, the one place that everyone who had ever entered the facility was forced to see was well beyond an absolute mess. It looked as though several tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters had torn the area apart before nature itself had claimed it as its territory. Chairs were rusted into flimsy caricatures of their former selves, the center desk was nearly torn apart, and the light fixtures meant for the ceiling above were all littering the ground. The remaining walls were little more than studs sticking out sharply from the dunes of sand. Nothing salvageable remained and both men took it in with open mouths and expressions of disbelief.

What lay in front of them had once been sparkling clean, tiled floor, neatly organized desks and filing cabinets. But gone was that cleanliness now. Ulysses began to absently sort through the nearby reception desk while Westin pushed over the rusted skeleton of a chair, watching as it broke and lay engulfed in sand. Finally, the survivors noticed the heat of the sun above. It was early evening, perhaps four or five o'clock, but that didn't seem to have an effect on the blistering orb that floated far above their heads.

"My God..." Whispered Ulysses as he surveyed the rolling dunes all around him

Westin remained silent and continued to stare at a human femur protruding from the ground. Ulysses began to climb up a nearby hill of sand, sinking his fingers and feet into it as he struggled to reach the top. The sun seemed brighter now and the heat more intense, but soon both men were above the dip where the reception area lay and took in their surroundings. They were nowhere. They were no roads, no buildings, no one else in sight. Mountains could be seen in the distance and off to the left, a large waterfall could be seen roughly a mile away.

Westin sat down at the base of a dune, chin resting on his right fist, "I don't remember sand. I don't remember any of this."

Collapsing nearby, Ulysses ran a hand through his overgrown hair, "Where the hell is everybody?"

"Here's someone." The dark-skinned man grabbed a nearby skull and propped it against a flat rock. "I wanted to escape this place and now there's nowhere to escape to."

Ulysses ignored the macabre set-up, "We're out. All we have to do is get back to civilization, Westin." He pointed towards the distant mountains, "There might be a town there.”

"Climbing mountains without food or water? That's a great idea. How about we just head to that waterfall instead and lay low there?"

"I didn't say we had to go right away. But we should rest for a few days and get our strength back. It's a long walk."

Westin grunted, "Let's get going then."

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