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Chapter 9: Overnight Celebrity

Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 9: Overnight Celebrity
“Have you ever watched the moon rise over the Wasteland? I wish I could have given you something as wonderful as that.”

|*| The Great Cow Race |*|

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy Country, the new Equestria, coming down out of heaven from the Goddesses, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I had heard the old words, as I saw the number branded across the utility jumpsuit’s back.
21. Not one, but ten and ten and one: Twenty more doors to open, twenty more lights like stars in a sagging, polluted sky, where all others had long since been blotted out.

I thought of her – of Shady Sands – and how she had died for wanting to hold our last light up like a candle into the ink of the night, where it might so easily be blown out. I thought of him – of Saber – and how he had saved us: how history would call him a hero, and ignore my cries of villain, villain, villain.

The cart rattled, and as my bones shook as if rolling in the palm of some crouching witchdoctor, I could only stare into the low tide of sunset, and pretend that my eyes were only watering for the sake of those faraway fires. The cattle raced by on either side of me, and every jolt in the broken road seemed to tease out another tear, as coins from a piggybank being emptied out.

And I was ready for it, for a chance to become hollow: for my chance to be weak. There had been so many lights, so many candles pinched out, that I deserved my chance to be weak.

Thank You. That’s what I said, as Stockholm floated the blue uniform into my hooves. Thank You.
As if he had done anything but drive a pike into my heart. It fits. That’s what I said, as its collars came to grope at my neck, and the jumpsuit’s zipper was pulled in tight over my pounding heart. But I only wanted to put a match to its oil stains, and see it blown away from the cart as ash scattered over the sea.

Silo City’s Brahmin followed us, with their gray tongues lolling out, as the two bulls that Stockholm hired us left the town behind, and towed it with them all at once, making a cattle drive of the journey north. They didn’t care about the number on my back. They didn’t care about anything but the broken wall, the thumping of the hooves around them, and the jingling of their nose rings. And I envied them for it.

I tried to convince myself that we would have done better, that our clothes would not have been picked off of so many corpses, only to be crammed into the saddlebags of roving traders: That we would have been saints to Caliber and her wastelands, and not virgin sacrifices to Ash’s alien edition of the Goddesses.

But it wasn’t so easy to believe anymore, and I saw the Raiders making a grave of our Stable, and the Slavers plucking our darlings from their stasis pods, like winter had the berries from their branches. We would have opened our arms to them, trying to make it all better with our medicine and missionaries, just as they turned their arms on us, and made another wasteland of it all.

I didn’t feel like a hero anymore. And Shady Sands didn’t look so much like a martyr. She and I had almost damned the entire Stable. But still, there was a part of me, stubborn and mechanical, that wouldn’t let the tears come, that wouldn’t let me rewrite the story. It called Saber a murderer and a villain, and knew that we could still save Equestria: that our Stables would bring back the dawn.

Our Stables. That really didn’t sound so bad…

The cart tilted forward, and a high pitched scream pierced the rumble of a hundred hooves. Caliber and Ash looked back from their own bulls, and the ponies of Silo City pricked up their ears for the sound of metal grating against the highway. But the cattle didn’t care, though my carriage had lost its front wheels, and was now being worn down against the road in a flurry of sparks. Fear washed over me like so much medicine, and as the cart jolted forward, I forgot twenty Stables all at once. And, for one perfect second, I was in the air: with no metal pressing into my skin and no yellow lines tightening around my throat.

Then, I crumpled against the highway like an empty soda can, and the pain broke down my walls no slower than a trumpet’s call. That stubborn soldier in me was chased away, so that the flag that she had once taken up with pride was left staked in the ash. And Equestria was alone, as I curled up into a ball and became a baby abandoned on the highway, letting the thundering of the great cow race shake me.

I couldn’t know how long I lay there, though the dust was settling all around me, so that I could count the billboards that looked up into the last light of day like steel sunflowers. And I might have forgotten what I was crying for, had I not been drying my eyes on a yellow collar.

The next time I opened my eyes, I saw Caliber limping down the road, with the sunset running red behind her and one hoof bunched up against her chest. It looked like she had jumped out of her carriage.

“You had me thinking you figured it out already.” She sighed, and sat down next to me, as if I wouldn’t get out of bed, and she was about to touch my forehead and feel out a fever. “Couldn’t tell you how relieved I was when you took that jumpsuit… smiling like nothing was wrong.” But instead, she put a hoof to my cheek. The mercenary knew this story, she knew the lie, but I had to wonder who she had heard it from first: me… or Damascus. Had he warned her? Had he ordered her to keep the Stables secret?

“We were supposed to be all that was left…” My voice was shaking, as I stroked my tail like a harp string. “It was supposed to be simple: One last light, to turn it all back to the way it was.” Her eyes were soft, and shone as if by catching my tears she could cry them for me. “We were supposed to save the world.”

She didn’t say anything. She couldn’t understand. But for every tear she stole from my cheek, no other came to fill its place, as if she could pick this bitter season bare… and run my sorrows dry.

The world, in all its barbarity, was nothing new to Caliber. And, though the mercenary had forgotten our country’s name, and called it wasteland instead, there had to be some hope left in her. She pulled me up, and our battered limbs bumped together like clumsy oars. It was as if she had broken the ice, and saved me from drowning in some frozen lake, as I let myself shiver and choke against her chest.

“I’m not the girl I used to be, Lamplight.” My eyes wandered to the bandage at her temple, and I couldn’t know what was worse: to have your spirit broken under the weight of the world, or blown out like any other candle. “But you… we can’t let this change you. You’re the only thing that’s keeping me straight. More than the steps to this dance: more than any contract.”

She sat me up, and rubbed my shoulders, just as my mother had when straightening me out before a sermon. “I know the wasteland’s got a hold of you… But you can’t let it pull you down to our level, Grace. We need something to look up to through all this black and white: our little lights in the darkness. We need you… I need you.” And I knew then, as her eyes took on my pain, that the Stables meant more than the ponies inside: than the Shady Sands and the Sabers. They were the last pieces of a better world, an older world, and we were their instruments, like missionaries spreading the word of some ancient and everloving God, who had fallen into a deep sleep, and lost his grip on the world, long ago.

To see the lights go out was far worse than standing in the darkness, and even if twenty Stables had already been swallowed away, I had to show them that our light would not go out. If the old world couldn’t win, then how could she, and the ponies in this darkest hour before the dawn, even think to try?

“Thank you, Caliber.” I lit up my horn, and numbed our wounds, spinning rings of gold as if to bind us together. “Shady Sands might not have been right to think that we could bring out the dawn alone. But Saber was wrong to stop her from trying.”

She ruffled my mane, and I saw no tears in her eyes, though they had drawn lines like silver warpaint down my face. “Sounds about right to me.” She smiled, and I couldn’t help thinking that it was so very simple then: that all anypony had to do was make some friends. “Now let’s go save the world.”

*** *** ***

It was dark by the time the bulls came, and their bodies passing through the streetlights made them look like predators skirting around the narrow herd that had been our country’s last traffic jam. The rings in their noses shone, as the bells tolled around the necks of their wives and sisters, giving us time to climb onto the nearest jalopy, and watch them go thundering by us. We were china dolls that had only just been pieced together, and didn’t come down from our raft until the earth had stopped shaking.

Like the roar of a passing train, their voices and hoofsteps faded into the night, and the five towers of Silo City shone like the heart of a faraway city: or the palms of an oasis in the night.

As far as I’d gathered from the conversations that had passed me by in my stupor, the path to MASEBS had been blocked by a landfall long ago, and the only way to reach the tower was to come around from the north. We would have to leave Equestria: to hopscotch over the edge of the country’s chalk lines.

There was a breach in the border ahead, and we left that long traffic jam as it rolled away with the streetlights to our right. I looked back, and saw skeletons sitting patiently behind the wheel, still waiting.

“There’s Ascella.” Caliber pointed into the floodlights, which beat down on the earth around the wall from its surviving watchtowers. “I was starting to worry that she didn’t jump off before the cows turned.”

The pilgrim looked relieved to see us, but was soon glancing back over her shoulder, and up into the naked sky. I couldn’t blame her, for the first star was pushing its way through the folds of the night, as if to light our way into the darkness that no mare called nation.

“Your cow won.” Ash slid an old lunchbox over to the mercenary, who held it up, and whistled as she made it jingle like a tambourine beside her ear. “It did not take long for the ponies of Silo City to stop calling us heroes, once the Great Cow Race turned your way.”

“You gambled for her?” The pilgrim looked at me, and I could almost feel her staring in circles for the red rings around my eyes. “What about-“ I prodded at the stripped down heavens. “You know… them?”

“There is no such thing as luck.” We began climbing over the ruins of the broken wall, on our way out of Equestria. “And if Caliber did gamble with her ticket to the Kingdom in the Stars… at least she won.”

*** *** ***

It was as if everything outside of Equestria had fallen away, as if all maps that charted the land beyond our borders had been drawn in charcoal, only to be swept into an ashy black chaos. There were no stars, and the silhouettes of faraway hinterlands made patterns in the soot. There was one sour scar across the face of the north, though, as a wide gorge ran from west to east, and glowed green.

A starving mob of pine trees crossed it like so many stitches, though did nothing to close the wound.
“Try to hug the wall,” Caliber said. “Far as I know: that chasm was used as a dumpsite for all kinds of radioactive waste. I say we hurry on up to the tower before your Pipbuck starts clicking its tongue.”

We came to another hole in the border, as one of the watchtowers seemed to have slipped, and pulled the wall down around it like a shower curtain. Its crown of floodlights lay scattered, and with their slanted pillars of white light, held up the edge of the storm. The rubble strewn around them might have been sculpted into rocky hillsides, as they surrounded narrow valleys through which clusters of wire ran in place of rivers and roads. And it was bright, for all the electricity passing like traffic through the valleys.

To climb up onto the ruins of the wall, was to come onto a stage, whose curtains were sewn of black velvet, whose battens had collapsed, and whose spotlights might have been trying to find stars in the sky. I looked down at my Pipbuck, as if expecting to find an audience of white bars hidden on that southern hillside, but found only a few steaks of crimson: a posse of assassins.

“Red Bars!” I hissed, scampering over the nearest block of cement. Caliber was quick to come climbing after me, but Ash stood by, trying to puzzle out what I might have meant for just a moment too long, like a mare tapping her hoof to the siren’s song even as the balefire brought her city to its knees.

In a streak of mottled brown and ugly feathers, she went rolling down into one of the valleys, where cables waited as snakes in a pit. There was a screech, that pierced the silence like a needle would a balloon, and the mercenary and I leapt out of cover, as if throwing ourselves onto the stage.

There were more hostiles to the north, but all that mattered now were the bars of white and red that were lapping over one another like oil and water. One was a bird that might have been caught in the turbines of a passing airship, and it pinned down the pilgrim, raising an eagle’s claw as threadbare wings stretched out at its sides. The creature was something out of the tombs of a foreign history, as its tail whipped around leonine flanks, but its face would fit an exhumed corpse better than it did any animal.

As its shadow was draped over the wall, like a torn stocking, I knew that it was a griffon. But as Caliber tackled the beast, and knocked its feathers off as easily autumn leaves, I knew that it was a ghoul. The three of them were in a dog pile now, and both mares kicked at the creature as if trying to pluck it before a feast. I turned to face the bars that had been hovering in the north, and drew my laser pistol.

In a confusion of burning feathers and flashing lights of red and white, I emptied half a clip into the nearest ghoul, which had been clawing its way over the ruins. It closed the distance between us with the pounce of a lion and the scream of an eagle, even as smoke began to gather under its wings. I fell out of the way, though the pain shot through my battered limbs like nails being hammered into bone and flesh and keratin. The creature closed its talons around thin air, and a lion’s tail streaked by me, even as I pulled myself up from the rubble on legs like quivering stilts.

Another griffon had come to hover over us, though its wings were like two spider webs crowded with dead leaves. I emptied my laser pistol into its gut, while the thing swooped down, knocked me onto my back and held me down under powerful haunches. My lungs felt empty and sunken, as if the griffon’s talons had pressed through my rib cage and burst them, but it was screaming through a throat full of gravel as red rings spread over its body like so much rippling wildfire. And I kicked up at it with all the strength I had left, so that it flew off like an insect being swatted at, and threw its shadow up against the clouds.

It spun around the stage as if strung up on a baby’s mobile, but instead of firing wildly into the sky, I got up and hobbled over the ruins. Before I could get back to my companions, the second griffon sprang out from behind a low hedge of concrete, followed by the smell of burnt feathers and seared flesh.

It swung its talons at me, and I groaned as I backed away on exhausted legs, as if I had only come across some pet peeve. “You fight like cowards!” They were spinning circles around me like moths around a lightbulb, and would swoop in for just long enough to get burnt, before flitting away. And so I forced my hooves into the palms of its hands, rearing up so that my hind legs dug into the rubble, and our two bodies came into the shape of a pyramid, whose shadow was tall enough to touch the sky.

I found myself staring into the eyes of an eagle, though they were bloodshot and wild, both sunken into a face of pink skin poking out from behind pallid feathers. Its beak snapped forward, and left a single scar along the length of my left cheekbone, as if it had only been trying to kiss me. I pushed my laser pistol up into the space between us, and struggled to keep it steady as the griffon twisted its neck and beat its wings. But I kept floating the gun closer, like a scalpel towards an eye whose lids were being pulled open.

And, before the ghoul could let my hooves slip out of its palms and scamper off into the rubble, I fired. The fluid in its eye boiled over, and the organ had popped even before the red lights went low. I felt the blood spatter my face like hot oil, and the griffon went limp, so that our pyramid crumpled into the ruin.
Smoke came pillaring out of its empty socket, coming out of a skull that was hollow but for ash and boiled down brains. I skipped over the body, and shook myself off like a mare coming in from the rain as I ran.

I found Ash in one of the valleys, throwing buckshot up at the ghoul I had sent reeling in circles around the ruin. It was flying with what I could only call a limp, as one of its wings looked like a torn sail, only just clinging to the mast. “Where’s Caliber?” I asked, running out of breath.

She only tilted her head, and led me over the broken hills, as the floodlights cast us up across the cloud cover like shadow puppets. Just ahead, in one of the rare patches of naked earth, Caliber was working over what might as well have been a grindstone, as she slammed the first ghoul’s beak into a chunk of concrete. The limbs of lion and bird alike twisted and flailed, until one last crunch left them twitching, if only for feathers being tickled by the wind. Caliber backed away from the stone, staring down at her work, and smearing the bloody pockmarks on her cheeks as she tried to wipe them away like tears.

I pointed up at the sky, and might have been saluting for how long my hoof stayed in the air. Caliber didn’t seem able to look away, as if she wanted to let the violence soak in, until the last of the griffons cawed down at us. Its shadow came to the edge of the cloud cover, and went slipping out into open space, but Caliber unlatched her rifle all the same, and I could only find the griffon by following her eyes.

“Hold this for me.” She dropped her rifle, and I felt like I had the fingers of a Minotaur as I threw my magic at it. “I’ll aim.” Then, she planted her haunches just beside mine and leaned in close, so that we looked like a couple watching movies projected across the sky. The mercenary dipped her hooves into my magic, and swapped out the rifle’s clip for one that had flames that might have been drawn in crayon running up its side. She put her eye to the scope, as I kept the rifle bobbing like ice in apple juice.

Everything went quite, as if even the griffon was holding its tongue. Then, Caliber took the shot, and might have struck the night with a hammer. The rifle kicked back with all the strength of an applepicker, and its scope hit her around the eye, so that she crumpled over like a folding chair.

From the darkness, came a light, as if a match had been struck against the mountains. The fire burned brighter than the stars that had come out from behind their curtain, like the first few dancers stretching on a stage. Burning feathers spun out around the griffon as it fell, and so it came like a meteorite being torn apart in the atmosphere, or a firework that had gone off wrong.

“Caeli…” The fires were caught in Ash’s eyes, and danced across shimmering coals until the ghoul was unraveled into the ruins, landing without so much as the whispering of the wind through its wings. It smelt of smoke, and seared meat, and I couldn’t help thinking of those old world picnics and fireworks.

“Shit,” Caliber cussed as she rubbed her eye, and looked north. “That was stupid.” Then, I saw the greens of that radioactive chasm being warped, as the pine trees swayed from side to side as if in song, and dark figures pushed through their crowds. We had set off a flare, and woken all who made their beds in the wounds of that nationless earth, like maggots in a nameless corpse.

The sun was gone, and I felt like I was staring into the aquamarine belly of some ocean, where prehistoric creatures had been sleeping. Then, bloodcurdling screams came pushing out of from between the pines, though I only listened to one voice: the loudest and the most leonine. It spoke no language, but I couldn’t help imagining ugly and ominous voices to fill in the empty lines.

Diiiiieeeeee…..”

Suffffeerrrrrr…”

Grace, Graace Graaaccceee…”

“Run to the tower,” I said, talking to myself. I was becoming young again: a little girl turning corners as nightmarish claws groped at her tail. But this time, I knew that they were real. “Now!”

*** *** ***

FUCK YOU. Some frustrated hermit had spray painted the words over the lip of a tunnel into the satellite communications tower, as if to cut off an endless rhythm of knocks on the door, as solicitors and missionaries crossed over into Equestria from the north.

“Alright. Head on in, Lamplight.” Caliber rested her hoof against my chest, as if feeling for a heartbeat. “Me and the pilgrim will keep ‘em from coming up after you.” The ghouls wouldn’t stop screaming, and I could see them picking over the bodies of their sisters, like flies over the crust of leftover apple pie. “Just get to the DJ. We’ll follow as soon as it gets too hot out here.”

“They’re coming.” Ash whispered, though there was no fear in her eyes.

Caliber nodded down the tunnel, along which wires and pipelines ran like roots, and kept her hoof over my heart. “Caliber no. I won-“ Without so much as shifting her weight, she punched me, and I was sent tripping over my own hooves, like a ballerina trying to catch up to her music.

“Didn’t catch that!” She yelled, before hitting the switch, so that a wall of steel rebuilt itself between us.

I thought I would go back, that I would stand my ground and help them. But I didn’t. And, as I hurried deeper along the tower’s roots, I didn’t know what I was more afraid of: the griffons who might soon make their aeries out of its satellites, or the thought of her leaving another hoofprint over my heart.

*** *** ***

I climbed up the tower with one eye shut. Old feathers, bullet casings and bones from which the flesh and the fat had yet to slide off hung from wire mobiles, and the walls were crowded with bloodstains like brushstrokes, acid trip graffiti and the skeleton of an enormous Griffon. I heard my hooves clicking against cans that had been split open at the middle, empty whiskey bottles and the scattered pieces of a rifle.

And, though I bruised my hooves against the staircase that was carrying me up to the satellites, I kept winking at the corpses, and never knew how they had been mutilated. I didn’t need this tonight. I didn’t need it again. The Raiders were Hell’s parasites, and it shouldn’t have let them out of its quarantine.

Eventually, I came into a small room, where tired old consoles blinked up at me, as if I had woken them as I came stumbling up the stairs like a drunken husband. I found a hatch in the wall, and knew that it would open out over the walkways that I had seen stitched around each tower.

I poked my head out into the night, so that the hatch flattened my ears like a crown would a child’s. And it was as if I had been submerged in water, deafened to the roar of a shotgun, a rifle, and a swarm of winged lions. The largest of the satellite dishes was above me now, though it opened up to the sky, as if Equestria was pressing its ear to the spaces between the stars.

I clambered out onto the walkway, and froze up as the mesh creaked under my hooves, and the wind spun around tower. I looked out over a black sea, but found the door where Caliber and Ash had been standing their ground, as the shadows swarmed over them like bats. The ghouls were clogging up the tunnel, and had even turned on each other in their frenzy to get in. Then, their screams rose as a chorus, and rang off of the satellites, pushing me along the walkways and back into the tower. The last thing I saw before ducking into another hatch, were Griffons flying off into the north, with fire trailing from their wings

As I wriggled my way back into the tower, another hatch slapped my flanks, and sent me sprawling over the cement as if it were ice. After dusting off the jumpsuit, I rocked back onto my haunches, only to find myself in a ovular room lined with screens and consoles, and crowded for the sound of breathing machines. I stepped over the wires skirting the floor as if they were panther tails, knowing that they carried with them the most important voice in Equestria, and then came into the heart of the tower.

I remembered Damascus’ rose, as I stepped up to a microphone sprouting out of the room’s central pedestal, bathed in the light of the static on the screens. I tapped aimlessly at the nearest keyboard, until a satellite photograph of Equestria came to fill one of the screens, with each of the broadcasting towers tagged in white. I found myself at the country’s edge, and decided that, out of all those southern lights, Manehattan would be the one nestled beside a great bay. I mashed at buttons until the map closed in on that sleepless city, and then dialed onto its one surviving frequency.

ACCESS RESTRICTED!
BROADCAST LICENCESED TO: GALAXY NEWS RADIO
<REMOTE TAP UNPERMISSABLE>
---___---___---___---___---___---___---___---___---___---___---
EMERGENCY_SECURITY_PROTOCOLS: ENABLED
MILITARY OVERIDE IN EFFECT
FORCE ACCESS?
Y/N…

I pressed Y and, as if I had only sprung an ambush on myself, I was quickly surrounded by a single face, looking down at me from every wall. The music that had followed it soon died and, for a while, radio silence filled the room. “Well, children… it looks like we’ve got a visitor.”

*** *** ***

“You’re on live, sweetheart,” The buck crooned. His coat was the color of the sky, caught naked in the morning. His mane, which had been filled in a few shades darker, was blasted back, but looked to have been combed rather than molded by the winds of the wasteland. Like the magic around his horn, it was starting to fade: going white at its roots, and made him look older than his eyes, which were as red and as bright as an alarm. He peered at me over a pair of glasses, as if I was little more than a footnote.

“Got anything to say to the wasteland?” I thought I saw the beginnings of a smile, though it was one that might creep to the face of an amateur actor. “Better be good: Sweetie Belle was in the middle of a song.”

Oh!” I exclaimed, dialing Galaxy News into the territory of a radio soap opera. “I’m so sorry!” The world was listening, and I couldn’t help pushing out my tongue a little harder, trying to sound strong even as I apologized to a songbird long since buried.

“Well go ahead then, Lucky 21.” He toyed with his dials, and I could hear the satellite tower humming through faraway speakers. “What is your name anyway?”

I had my name on the tip of my tongue, when Caliber dove into the room like a frightened rabbit into its warren, letting the hatch clap shut behind her. “Hey!” She cried, as Ash dropped in after her, landing as quietly as a paper doll. The mercenary stormed up to the microphone, rolling a hoof around her ear and frowning, as if she had my name on the tip of her tongue. “Shepard!” She barked, all of a sudden.

“You killed a lot of ferals down there… but we just got done mopping up the leftovers.” She crowded the microphone, yelling lamely at the country like another hammy actor. “You barely left us any!” Her voice was lapping over itself, as it echoed out of the radio strapped to her vest. “Boy, did you kill ‘em… knocked ‘em dead is what you did.”

“I…” She stared at me with wide eyes, as if worrying that I might miss my cue, and only then did I see what she was trying to do. “You’re… right. I did do that!” I caught the DJ leaning in a little closer, drawn into our melodramatics. “Listen, mister Pon-three.” Caliber winced, as I butchered his name. “We walked a long road to be here with you tonight. But we’ve been fighting the good fight all along the way, and we want to carry the voice of Galaxy News with us as we march on to Calvary and the East.”

The mercenary nodded, egging me on. “It’s… It’s time to knock the Coltilde onto its side, and break the chain that has for too long hung heavy around the neck of the North.” Good, that’s good, Caliber mouthed. “And we need your voice…” To rustle up a few friendly guns. “To rally a new Equestrian army! And bring the Slavers to their knees…To bring Injustice to its knees.” Okay, just… just go easy now. “For justice will live again!” Wait. Justice? … What!? “This country will live again” There was a fire in my heart, and I let it burn until it reddened my cheeks, even as Caliber tried to blow it out. “They will not take this great nation away from us!”

He-ey! We got a force to be reckoned with here, children! This little filly has got that old world fever for war!” He laughed, and the sound of it made the fire in my chest go wild. “So we’ve got someone to deal with that whole Slavery thing… Can I get a volunteer to track down the kids who keep throwing eggs at my building? Come on, folks, there’s a lot of clean windows and some perfectly good eggs at stake here.”

I looked at Caliber, willing her to go off on the buck like she had Bodacious, but the mercenary only muttered out a string of insults. “You aren’t listening.” I said, letting her temper fan the flames, as I looked down at the yellow lines around my neck, and remembered Shady Sands. I had to make him listen. I had to be a missionary to the gods they had for so long called dead. I had to be the old world’s last light. “No one - No one - Is going to take this country away from me.”

I heard my own voice echo over the country - Me. Me. Me. – And knew that I let the wrong word slip out. “But we need you. The east needs you.” It wasn’t hard to push past it, as the DJ looked like a gambler clutching a ticket stub, watching his horse win. He wasn’t mocking me anymore. “They need the truth.”

He nodded, and I pictured him wearing the same look on his face, as he listened to an old record pulled out of the Manehattan wreckage, and realized that it would have the wasteland’s darkest hearts dancing. “And I’ll bet you anything it’s gonna hurt.” He began toying with his consoles, and turned the lights down low. “Sounds like Shepard wants to talk this out, kiddies. Maybe get some advice from this old adventurer. So how about I line up a couple of our best songs to tide you over in the meantime.” I watched his cutie mark as he worked, and knew it as the symbol that started off so many lines of music.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------
BROADCAST FREQUENCY: GALAXY NEWS RADIO
REQUESTING TERMINATION OF OVERIDE
Y/N…
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

As soon as the message popped up over the screens, I pressed Y. Then, music swelled up from the DJ’s studio, and came spilling out of Caliber’s chest. “When did you become a Shepard?” Ash asked, coming out of the dark as the buck turned his back.

“We saved this little girl from the Slavers this morning,” Caliber explained. “That’s what she called her.” The mercenary shrugged. “It’s all I could think of. If you’re planning to make a name for yourself… better to make it one that you can leave behind when this is all over. When the dust settles, and the survivors go slinking home to lick their wounds and pick at their grudges, you might just want to be forgotten.”

“Don’t invent any titles for me.” The pilgrim almost seemed afraid then, as if Caliber might slip a nickname over her like a butterfly net. “My name is my name.”

“Yeah… yeah, okay.” She seemed a little stunned, as if in admiration. “Damascus is the same way.”

Piano scales spun around us them, and the DJ turned, leaving the wasteland to its lullabies.
“We’re off the air.” He sounded different, but I couldn’t pin down the change in his voice. “But I’ll tell ya, boy… this is one hell of a job. You never know what you’re gonna get.” As the city lights blinked through the glass behind him, I had to wonder how, with a thousand stories scattered around the country like luxury chocolates, he chose which ones to tell. “The Wasteland sure loves its heroes, though.”

“We really meant it,” I said, quietly slipping back into bed with the plural, if only so it wouldn’t notice that I had left. “We’ll do whatever it takes to carry your voice to the East.”

“Sure sounds like you’ve got the will… finding a way, that’ll be your problem. All I know is: there was a relay right in the middle of the Great Plain, and another one in Calvary, but both of ‘em went out years ago.” Like birthday candles. “I can see ‘em on the old maps, but they both fell off the grid, so I can’t find out what’s wrong with ‘em from here. The towers are on lockdown. Somepony shut ‘em off or cut ‘em off. Point is: anything could have happened. You might walk all the way to Calvary, and find nothing but bones. Those relays could’ve been scrapped for parts for all I know.”

“So you need us to repair them?” Ash asked, and even the DJ looked surprised to see her speaking up.

“Flip a switch, plug in a cable, adjust a satellite… do something!” He threw both hooves up into the air. “For now, hook up your Pipbuck, and I can give you all the hard data I’ve got on the relays… Coordinates, schematics: that sort of thing.” I plugged in the rollout cable that I had once used to sip at the Stable’s databanks. “Once you’ve got either of ‘em back into the network, I’ll be able to talk to you from there.”

“And you’ll tell us what we want to know about Calvary?” Caliber asked, still standing at attention.

“Give me some credit.” She didn’t return his wolfish smile. “I’ll be hooked up to every security feed I can hack into. Government, corporations, old media: I’ll have their eyes. And you’ll have mine,” He crossed his heart. “That is: depending on the fight you’re fighting.” His eyes narrowed, closing in on the name at Caliber’s neck: Cerberus. “I hope whoever you get your orders from knows what he’s got here, Three Dog.” He was pointing at me, and I felt like I’d been caught doing something wrong. “I don’t want to see another Stable pony wasted: handled by the wrong hooves. The Wasteland needs her heroes.”

“Cerberus doesn’t have to prove itself to you.” Caliber hissed. “You’ll tell me what they want to know, the second they want to know it. And you’ll do it without trying to keep your own hooves clean.”

Only then, did I realize that the DJ must have had a hooficure in the last few days. “You’re such a wastelander.” He rubbed a hoof against his scarf, as if polishing an apple. “And wastelanders can be careless, they can be coarse. You’re looking after a glass lion. I’m just telling you to be careful.”

Careful… like you?” I wanted to have Ash show me how to disappear, how to fold myself away, as Caliber and the DJ danced their way down to divorce. “When’s the last time you came down from your ivory tower? When’s the last time you had anything more dangerous than a hot cup of coffee?” She was almost yelling now. “You shouldn’t even be talking to me. You’re just a louder version of the Enclave.”

“We should wait outside.” Ash had already backed her way up to the hatch, and seemed to be throwing a threadbare lasso around the steaming mercenary then. I was a little dazed, as she had come to a boil without so much as a kettle’s whistle, and I couldn’t even begin to understand the bitterness between her and the faraway buck: the veteran who had given our country a voice. “Caliber…” She pleaded.

The mare spat. “Some Good Fight.” And stormed after Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum, following her out into the night. She held the hatch open, looking back at me as if to say I’ll be waiting, and then let it slam shut. Once the ringing had stopped, the room went quite, but for one ancient voice.

Oh, she may be weary
Them young girls they do get wearied
Wearing that same old shaggy dress.
But when she gets weary…
You try a little tenderness.

I could almost see the music, passing over the country as a ripple from every radio tower. “Thought I’d seen it all. Even before this job. I wasn’t that much older than your mercenary when I put down my guns and picked up this old voice.” He didn’t sound angry, or even surprised, to have been left alone with me. “But now, thanks to this tower… I know we’ll never see it all. There’s just too goddamn much. And having to watch the worst pieces of it played out – again and again… that’s not a job I would force on anybody.”

“But you love it.” I couldn’t help smiling then, though I felt a little guilty for having stayed with the buck, as if he were a waiter who had just sent my date off in a huff, and I still had to wait for the bill. A part of me knew that she was being a little unreasonable, but this only made me want to apologize more.

“More than anything in this whole fucked up, beautiful world.” He looked back at his stacks of records, which stood like parapets to a castle, then at the studio around him, and on through a window that opened out over the great sea of city lights that was Manehattan’s harbor. There was love in his old and musical eyes. “You get me out East, and I’ll have your name on the tip of every wastelander's tongue,” He said. “You ever take down the Coltilde, and they’ll be carving your face onto the statues within a decade. Come the next century… they’ll be singing about you.”

My heart was pounding too fast for my hooves to keep time, as if playing out its own hysterical music against my ribs, and I couldn’t bear standing still any longer. I wanted to dance.

“You’d better go check on your friend.” He could see my hoof tapping. Maybe he could hear my heart beating. “Looked like there was smoke coming out of her ears.”

“Yeah… I should go.” I turned, and ended up twirling like a ballerina on a music box, with my eyes locked on the screens. “And don’t worry: I’m sure she’ll come around… You two can make up at the relay.”

“Here’s hoping.” He raised a hoof, as if making a toast. “Good luck out there, kid.” And with that, the screens cut out, taking the swells of music with them. So it was in silence, that I danced out into the night.

*** *** ***

Caliber was leaning out over the railing, as if over the gunwale of a ship, casting rings of cigarette smoke up to the stars like lifesavers. One hoof tapped at the sloshing darkness, as that old piano climbed its scales like a staircase, and the organs howled out from her chest. She wore the radio like a carnation, and I was surprised that she hadn’t thrown it off, and crushed it under hoof as if after a bad prom night. But she only played the sky like a drum, and mouthed the words, as the stars danced in the north.

Ash pressed her back against the tower, pushing away from the open sky, while Caliber did just the opposite, making me swoon as if for seasickness. “I’d trust any Cerberus merc before that pampered silverback,” She said. “He’s gone soft. Doesn’t know what it’s like down here: Not anymore.”

“He’s helping us.” She didn’t look back as I spoke, and only scoffed out at the East.

“He gave us a bunch of codes and blueprints... might as well be a riddle in the dead language.” I settled back against the tower, where it was safe, and rifled through the senseless data on my Pipbuck, seeing her point. “We know which relays to hit, but we’re going in with blinds on. Could end up being a complete rewiring of the place that needs doing. And then what? … You can’t just put an ad in the classifieds anymore, Sugar. And we’re looking for someone who can make sense of all that mechanical gibberish.”

“Check.” The pilgrim chirped. We both mistook it for some kind of hiccup, and watched her, waiting to see if it might happen again. “I can do that,” She said, with a hoof over her mouth. “I can do repairs.” We stared, squeezing another sentence out of her. “My old commune pulled a lot of the Enclave’s wreckage from the lake, and I was the only one who could get it running again. I was the mechanic.” She recited the title like a girl scout, picking out the badge that she was most proud of.

Caliber looked at me, with the cigarette hanging on to her lower lip for dear life, as if to ask: Did you know about this? “That’s the kind of thing you tell the ponies you’re travelling with!” She threw up her hooves. “Hell, it’s right up there with psychoses, contagious diseases and nut allergies.” I had to agree with her: even girl scouts wore their badges on a sash. Ash should have been proud. “I’m not firing off the cuff for fun, y’know!” She pointed at her eye, which was already going black, as if the rifle’s scope had been smeared in ink by some post-apocalyptic practical joker. “My battle saddle’s wrecked!”

“I’m sorry…” Ash tapped her hooves together, and flattened herself against the tower like wet newspaper. “I can take a look at it… if you’d like.”

“Yeah… I’d like.” Caliber rolled her eyes, and I wondered if she had gotten spoiled in working with the hundred year old veterans of Cerberus: the dead men who had tamed the wasteland. She began unbuckling her rifle, then stopped short, and let her hooves hang. “How ‘bout we leave it ‘til morning.”

“Somepony’s sleepy!” I giggled, more than a little pleased with myself for feeling so awake. But the mercenary only looked down, as if in disgrace. “You know… you’re allowed to be tired, Cal.”

“Hate to admit…” She let her hoof swing, and became hypnotized by it. “But I’m running on overtime here. Thought we could hole up for the night.” I skipped to my hooves, already imagining us throwing a slumber party in the frantic light of the static. “Hold on now. Can’t close your eyes in the wasteland; unless someone’s got theirs open wide enough for the both of you. One of us needs to keep wat-” I thrust a hoof up over my head: volunteering. “Figured that would happen… have fun.”

“Don’t you use your reverse psychologistics to try changing my mind, sister! I’m going to sit here, in the cold, on this rickety old walkway and keep first watch. Celestia herself couldn’t stop me!” Caliber giggled, and waved me off in place of a good night. She lifted the hatch, but held it open for the sake of the pilgrim, who had balled herself up like the same wet newspaper. “You aren’t gonna try fighting her on this, are you Ascella?” She asked. “Save yourself some time: Gracie’s really got a thing for volunteering.”

“No… it’s just.” She was struggling to find her words. “I’d rather come in later.” Caliber didn’t budge, clearly unsatisfied with her answer. “I just… it is difficult for me: trying to sleep with somepony -”

“You wouldn’t have to try all that hard, honey.” Caliber snuck the line in before the pilgrim could get over the hurdles in her voice, and she had her eyebrow arched higher than I had ever seen an eyebrow arch. “We could hijack GNR again: put on a real show for the wastes… traumatize some kids.”

“I meant!” She yelped, as best a mare like Ash could. “I can’t fall asleep with someone lying so close to me… It is claustrophobia, you know?” Not really, no. The Stable used to go out like a light: all at once.

“With my pilgrimage… I always had to lie there… waiting. I could not relax until I knew the others were sleeping. Until I knew that they weren’t listening for my breaths to slow.” Ash was trying to explain, though there was confusion in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’ll go in later… that room is too small.”

Jeez, I thought, though Caliber was nodding, as if any of that had made sense. “I won’t wait up.” Then, she burrowed back into the tower, like a rabbit retreating into its warren.

It took another few minutes for me to realize where this whole show of eccentricity left me: for me to look down at the mare curled up beside me. I was alone with her now, and couldn’t think of anything to say. Any second now, her dark – almost Saddle Arabian – eyes would swing down from the stars, and look up to me, as those of a child waiting for more story even after the last page had been turned.

On our first night together, Caliber had talked me through the story so far, and I had only felt at home with the mare since. But from the look of Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum, that magic trick could not be so easily performed again, though Caliber had made it look so easy. I had to wonder if she hadn’t tried it on the pilgrim, finding friendship while I was off smelling the roses in a Manehattan.

The walkway became small - claustrophobic - and only then could I see the sense in what she’d said.

*** *** ***

“And then… Wham! Caliber shot the submachine gun straight out of his magic!” I cheered, as one hoof played the part of heavy rifle round, and the other of a weapon sent spiraling out of place. “And the Raider was like: Hey! I was gonna use that to make trouble. And then Caliber said: Sorry guy, your troublemaking days are over… then Wham! Another bullet: straight through his mind!”

Despite my short supply of sound effects, Ash was watching me with her eyes wide, even as my puppet hooves danced around poor impressions. “So then… after my baseball bat had finished off the last Raider: Caliber stepped out from behind that pillar under the overpass, with… with a cigarette in her mouth.” She gasped. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I said.”

“Then what happened?”

“Well…” I was running out of story, but couldn’t bear to let her see it. “Caliber was breathing smoke, by the time she stamped her cigarette out on the ground. Then, she passed me the submachine gun and said: I do my killing down a scope, or at kissing distance. You give me a rifle with a long barrel, or a ballistic fist, and I’ll march into Hell with my contract pinned to my sleeve. That’s black and white. I like that.” I spun the story’s wheel, trying to steer it around the pitfall that was the mercenary’s next sentence: It’s everything in between that’ll have you slipping a noose around your neck.

It’s the shades of gray that make it so hard to see.” I had to rewrite it: I had to rewrite her. “So as far as I’m concerned: you can take those shades and stick ‘em where the sun don’t shine.”

She didn’t seem to care that I had missed a beat. “And that’s when you found me?” I nodded, and rolled a hoof through the air, as if to say: And you know how it goes from there.

“Trust me: With Caliber around, we don’t have to be scared of anything.” I swept my hoof over the country, as if clearing a chessboard of its pieces. “She’s the fastest gun in the west: The best mercenary money can buy! …It says so right on her flank.”

“What does a compass have to do with any of that?” She laughed, like a bird singing a made-up song.

“What does a compass have to do with the crosshairs on her flank?” Ash almost looked confused for hearing the word crosshairs, as if it I was spitting out some foreign curse. “They’re what you see when you look down the scope of rifle.”

“I’ve never been able to do that before.” Almost playfully, she bumped her flat forehead against my side. “I’ve only ever used a battle saddle.”

“Right, sorry.” What do I know? I might as well be a day old. “I wonder what Caliber thinks it is?”

“Yeah.”

It was quiet for a while after that, and we counted the stars.

“A couple of mares go on a quest,” I began, as if she had asked for another story. “And end up bound for a satellite relay that’s as big as it is broken. Luckily, somewhere in the great Equestrian soup, they happened to stumble onto a helpful mechanical genius.” I shrugged. “Coincidence?”

“I think not!” I started giggling, as she thrust a hoof triumphantly up at the sky. She might have been pointing at her Goddesses for all I knew, but soon enough, she was laughing harmonies around me. Ash was still a little girl, even behind her sometimes alien dignity, though that part of her was as hard to coax out as animals from hibernation, after winter was wrapped up.

We had lost count of the stars. But something about it all, about the hum of the tower and those little lights like candles in the windows of some paradise, made me happy, even in the face of twenty one Stables. And, as the Moon rolled over on a bed of black velvet, still softer than the sister whose light it took up in arms against the darkness, I knew that I was meant for this.

“I’m glad that I’m Gone.”

*** *** ***

I felt something nuzzling into my belly, and hit it over the head as if it were an alarm clock. The thing beeped, and started spinning circles around my head, mimicking church bells and songbirds and bugles. “Mmph…” I said. “Go away.” I saw the spritebot’s shadow dancing in the light of larger machines and, for a moment, forgot that we had ever been apart. “Hey!” I whinnied, as Okavango pushed me up onto sleeping legs. He bobbed away, leaving me to rub the sleep out of my eyes, and push down nightmares that I couldn’t remember but for the jaws of a lion tearing a hole in the dark.

The little security officer flew in a circuit around Caliber’s head, even as she swatted him away like a mosquito. She knocked Okavango out of orbit, and he came tumbling into my arms, so that I fell back into the pillows I’d made of wires swollen with white noise. I rolled from side to side, hugging Hell’s castaway.

I don’t want my arms around you, no not much.
I don’t bless the day I found you, no not much.
I don’t need you like the stars don’t need the sky.

He took off, and spun around the room, like a singer chasing his coattails.
I won’t love you longer than the day I die-eeee…
I did my best to stay in step, and skipped around the room, dancing with the shadows like a tribe of faceless children and folded giants, all gathered around that fiery mercenary.

Like a ten bit soda, doesn’t costs a dime
I don’t want you near me only all the time.

Okavango sang the song away, as the static on the screens crackled, and colored the room as an electric fireplace without color. I might have thought I was still dreaming, if Caliber hadn’t seemed so much like herself. “Little bastard just popped out of the wall like a pinball,” She said, as her words hit me like cold water. “Way he’s been tinkering with these machines… Well, I’d change out of my pajamas if I were you.”

I looked down at the utility jumpsuit, and knew that Caliber had just ruined its chances of being my uniform in the days of wrath. For hearing it called that one word, I could never do anything but sleep in it, for fear of looking like a hero who’d just rolled out of bed. I changed back into my father’s clothes, and felt stronger as I holstered his pistol at my side: as I felt the weight of it around my shoulder.

Okavango had plugged himself into the tower now, and I worried that the spritebot might go barging into GNR, to play his own favorite songs over the DJ’s small hour lullabies. But instead, the light in his eye went low, as the fire on screens came into its color: as the room was flooded with gold and turned into a chamber by faraway panes of glass into which lines of prehistoric scripture had been carved.

We were standing at the heart of a throne room now. His throne room, though I could not look down at the circles of Hell, but only wires and dusty concrete. And, as Damascus came to dot the middle of the screen like the moon in eclipse, I almost fell to my knees. We looked into his chamber at strange angles, from cameras that had been strung up in that abyssal place, but as Damascus looked down at us, I knew that he had sent the spritebot to us: like a messenger delivering a king’s summons.

“Shepard.” His eyes, the color of atmosphere even in the eclipse, fell over me, and I was suddenly thankful that he would know me by a name plucked from the scripture. A name without the optimism of Grace. “Based on the data you siphoned out of this tower, I gather you’ll be heading out into the East. That’s good. But you will walk a wide circle around Hell, or be burnt up in the heat of these new fires.”

As he spoke, I had to wonder what waited for him at the end of this audience: what terrible thing was closing its fist around his kingdom. There was no fear in his voice, but my heart beat a little faster for how blunt it had become: for the urgency in it. “The Middle Passage is only one of three bridges between the broken west and the plains where so little was left to break. You will follow the border, and shatter the glass around another of the lights dotting this country's northern wastes, so that it might be spread.”

Caliber had opened her mouth to speak, but even she couldn’t bring herself to interrupt the buck, and so it hung open as he slowed to a full stop. “They lay their heads to sleep on this country’s soil, but say its name like a curse. Tread lightly. It will be difficult to get them on our side.”

“I’m all for hitting the ground running on this.” She raised her hooves, as if to say she meant no offense. “But I think that’s taking it a little far, boss. As far as teams go: we’re getting good.” I couldn’t help puffing up my chest a little at that. “But things haven’t gone according to plan. Silo City was a sinkhole, and their sniper got trampled before we could get his gun lined up with ours. I don’t know if we’re ready for Zion.”

A chill ran up my spine, as I remembered the cold words that Caliber had put to that same name. “I’m not saying it won’t be dangerous. But we don’t have time to have you running in circles around the North. I’ll give you an outline of the valley and the tribes that butt their heads inside its walls once Shepard knows what she has to know. I wouldn’t make you go into this blind. You need to know what’s coming.”

And, from the way he looked at me then, I heard the words he’d left unspoken: But you don’t.
He didn’t want me to hear about what waited in Zion. He didn’t want me to go running off of the path he’d put me on. And, despite how much I wanted to ignore it, I could already feel a knot tightening in my throat.

“In the meantime, I’ll give you a breakdown of Silo City. You’re not gonna believe this one, boss.” Caliber looked back at me, as I was already drifting away from the two of them. “You want to stick around for a minute? Throw in your take on Bodacious?”

“No. That’s alright.” I surrendered, as I’d never been able to fight the feeling of being fenced out. And now, as Zion waited to be painted as something ugly and frightening, I almost felt like I needed to escape.

I wanted to walk into the valley with a smile for every shadow that danced along its walls, and have nothing more to fear than the night, even as it was flooded by the watercolors of a faraway sunrise, and pulled down by the weight of a sacrificial moon. I was less afraid of Damascus pulling the sheet off of some horror, than I was of how fear might break my spirit. So I would block my ears, and sing, if only so I could have the courage to walk into whatever slaughterhouse or glue factory they had named Zion.

“I’ll wait outside.”

“One more thing, Shepard.” His voice caught my first hoofstep, as if in a snare. “You might not know it yet. But you just declared war on a thousand nations: the sharpest pieces of a broken kingdom of glass. And when you put the alien colonies of Zion and the emptiness of the Great Plain behind you: when you come to look upon Calvary and its pillars through the clouds, you might find that the world has been waiting for you… be it with open arms, or open jaws.”






Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Baby Boomer: +20% damage with explosives.
It's a good thing too, you'll be doing some crowd control before this is over. You're going to be popular!