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Chapter 10: So Much for Everyone

Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 10: So Much for Everyone
“Probably would have died of natural causes anyway.”

|*| Back in Your Own Backyard |*|

I liked to think there were stars of many colors. That, somewhere up there, huddled constellations of neon and gold, shining out like the cities on our planet’s dark side. Before coming in from my turn to watch the watchtowers, I’d looked out along the broken line of floodlights that kept Equestria’s border standing through the night, more like beacons submerged in a blackwater lagoon than pinpricks through the velvet canopy.

Now, as the tower hummed around me, I stared down at another line of exhausted lights. Each was washed out through glass walls, but each kept enough of its color to stand out from the others. Red and Blue and Gold: Like the eyes of a faraway DJ, a spritebot drifting back to Hell, and the only mare left blinking at the lip of a sleeping nation. Pink, Purple, White: Like the sea that rocked Canterlot in its fever, the demon that stood like an idol sunken in the sands of its shore, and the moon that once wore the same nightmare as a mask.

Damascus might have left us, but these six pieces of him had been with me all along.
A set of six, begun in red. The first was passion, it was blood… it was roses.

As if Damascus had made bedtime stories of what waited in Zion, Caliber still lay dreaming against the consoles. And now Ash Ascella of Caeli’Velum was rubbing her eyes, so that they might stare out into the night, and make it known that we would not go quietly into it.

I heard the hatch slam shut behind her, but couldn’t look away from those six glassy eyes. I didn’t want to go back, to see what sat, like a city in a snow globe, hidden in the blue mist that clouded the heart of the second orb. But I would. If Damascus would not remember it: then I would. I had to. Maybe someday I could show him what I’d seen, and what he’d unseen. Maybe someday I could give him his family back.
.
My horn shone, and I poked my magic into the mist, as if feeling my way through some marsh with a long oar. But, as if I’d pricked a hole into the glass, the colors seemed to escape it, and swelled up around me. Then, all at once, it stopped, I tripped, and everything went black.

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

It felt as if I had been laid out on a bed of needles, as a prickling spread wildly up and down my body. The fire was still crackling nearby, and its smoke was flavored as if by spices and herbs. Our belly was empty, and so we were tortured by the taste our own seared meat as it was spread through the cave. We were old again. Burned again.

“What next?” The zebra was little more than a pair of eyes peering through a smoky grove, where embers raged like angry fireflies.

“I had a child.” We sounded terrified, like a teenager feeling something kick inside her, not knowing who had left it there. “A motherless child.”

“I see.” The eyes looked down into the fire, knowing something that he no longer did. “Then you must finish what you started. She will not fade on her own: like the light of a long dead star, being chased by the darkness behind it, never to be caught.”

“Where is she?” He asked, pawing through a book whose pages he had torn out, whose story he had made nonsense of. “Where-“ The zebra offered us another vial of the stars and the spaces in between them, and Damascus rushed it to our lips, as if it were liquor, or medicine. Our body became heavy, as the spice in the air was stirred into something sweet and hypnotic. And soon: Damascus was sleeping, and, for a while, I was left alone in his head.

*** *** ***

I shot through the Stable, moving more like a passing train than the mare who’d missed it, as Damascus paged through his memories and brought us into the great gray wastes of Equestria. It was as if someone was shading in the world around me with a pencil, and had started pushing down harder, so that the paper came close to tearing. It was almost dark by the time Damascus found his gateway memory.

My head hurt. And I imagined myself wincing in the radio tower, like a mare dreaming her way across thorn bushes and hot coals. Still, Damascus didn’t even lift a hoof to our temple, and instead went on sniffing through the cabinets of a gutted kitchen. The far wall had collapsed, but all I could see were the silhouettes of a washed out suburb, and a storm the color of dirty dishwater, which seemed to be inhaling, as ribbons of sand and ash were spun up to into it.

Picture frames full of broken glass were slapping against the walls, and it sounded as if a hundred doors were creaking, all at once and out of rhythm. But, despite the howling wind, Damascus climbed out of the ruin, and came to the edge of a great highway, whose lights were made blurry in the dust or cut to pieces by the sand in the air. The buildings on either side of it were now no better than the thicket that had once been cleared to make way for them, and would have to be bushwhacked before we could rebuild.

The storm looked to have been cut open along its belly, like a sack of flour, and there was nothing left to the world but for the highway and a block of shadowy houses to either side.

Damascus jumped a little, as lighting whipped across the sky, and made it bellow like an animal in labor. He looked left, and calmed his heart for remembering the city there: as its skyscrapers squinted through the storm like lighthouses with a thousand murky eyes. What I first mistook for ropes were hanging low between them, like empty clothes lines, and only after naming the city could I know what they were a part of: the monorail.

The lightning came again, and lashed at Manehattan, making Damascus run from the city whose sirens I had once heard through his ears. As our hooves pounded against the highway and our hearts pounded against our chests, the lightning seemed to come bounding after us, and I couldn’t help thinking that it looked nothing like loyalty.

In the distance, I saw hunched bodies coming towards us, holding down their ears and dragging their knuckles along the road. Even the closest of them, who stood as tall as any Princess, was little more than a blackened matchstick, swaying to the sound of the thunder.

Damascus slunk back to the side of the road, and tucked us into the ruins of a blown down brick house. We watched the creatures march by, and while I marveled at the rolling of their shoulders and their paws like swinging pendulums, I felt his lips keeping count.

They had come bursting out of a wall of inky rain, and so left puddles like paw prints on the road. I felt the tension in Damascus’ shoulders unravel, as we heard hooves clicking in between their soggy footsteps. And then, there came the groaning of carriages and carts, all weighed down with tightly wrapped parcels, sloshing barrels and bodies being blown dry.

Damascus stepped out onto the road, and we bumped our nose against a solid wall of foul smelling air. We recoiled, even though one of the creatures was grinning down at us. And then, as the sky blinked open like the shutter of a camera, I saw that the button at the tip of his snout had been twisted clean off. My Dog has no nose, I thought, remembering a tired old joke, as the creature turned its yellowing eyes back to the city. Then how does it smell?

Damascus pressed both hooves to his face, and squashed our nose shut. Terrible.

We stayed like that, with our stomach churning, until the storm had diluted the smell of them. The men were leading the pack, and we could only breathe once they had passed, and their wives and sisters came trailing along to take their place. One of the women, whose ears poked out two holes in her hood, glared at Damascus through diamantine eyes that had been colored as sheets turned pink for spilt blood. He stared back at her, though I didn’t have the courage to do the same, and felt as if I was shivering somewhere at the back of his mind.

There came the sound of wheels grinding to a halt, and someone spoke as a carriage creaked in tune with the suburbs. “They don’t take to ponies all that well.”

He smelt a bit like the Stable’s cafeteria just before breakfast was served, as a hundred heads of hair dried together. “Heard ‘em say it was us that brought the voice to their valley.” The buck shrugged, and the rain went running down his oilskin coat. “Don’t know about that. But we sure didn’t do ‘em any favors.” He tipped his hat to the apocalypse.

I heard a rustling from the cart behind him, and only as we tasted its trigger on the tip of our tongue, could I feel the weight of the rifle strapped to our side. “Whoa there.” The buck laughed. “There’s no need to get all worked up on account of the little Princess.”

We found her – little more than a ball of silver and two pink eyes peeking at us from inside the cart– and I could feel Damascus losing his grip, as if the coming rain was making it that much harder to hold on. “Picked her up near Maripony. Lucky thing, too.” He patted at a dent in his hat. “Papa Paws might’ve lopped my head off if she hadn’t been sitting right on top of it.”

Damascus became very still, as we stared at the diamond that the pup had been sucking at like a candy ring. It was almost bigger than her, though she pressed it against her chest.

The suburbs were torn to pieces around us, swept up into the storm even as it folded into itself, as if to wipe the slate for the sake of a new Equestria. Damascus was letting it all go. He had a diamond on his mind: A diamond that was as blue as the bluest eyes.

The sky became steel, and the lightning had its branches pruned, before being hammered out into even lines of gold: the very lines that bound all Stables together as one last light.

*** *** ***

“Daddy?” Her voice came like a light in the darkness, and we followed it, as someone lost in the black belly of the sea, seeing the sunlight come dancing through a thousand leagues.

Daddy?” Damascus stood in the mirror, with his mane paling around the ears, and a beaten black suit that must have seen better days thrown onto his weary body, as if onto a mannequin. He couldn’t be that much older than the last time we’d met him here, but he looked it.

“Hold on a minute, sweetheart.” We twisted our tie, as a flash of pale and pristine gold skipped around us in the mirror. She had her father’s eyes: colored in the bluest blue of atmosphere. And she had her mother’s hair. But Damascus couldn’t know that. “We don’t want everypony to find out that Daddy didn’t get any sleep before his big speech.”

I was allowed to speak her today… that’s right: allowed.” His voice came as if from an old record, just dug up from some crate and dusted off like a fossil. “Because your Overmare is scared. Because we are, all of us, letting ourselves become caught up in this climate of hate. Some of us might even look to our closest neighbor… and call them enemy.”

“You look very handsome, Daddy,” She said, still tripping over words. She was young. And I had to wonder if she and I hadn’t fallen asleep to the same songs, if we hadn't worded out the same lines of scripture as we learned to speak. “Do you like my dress?”

It’s that same old devil… in a new dress. It’s bitterness. It’s bickering. And there will be fighting.” The blonde haired, blue eyed summer sky filly danced around us, deaf to the voice in our head. “There will be war. Come to us with hate and pounding hooves, and we will meet you with the same. These threats, though whispered, will not go unanswered. If violence is the only language you would use to settle this… know that we’re more than ready to talk.

Finally, after giving up on the wrung out tie, Damascus turned, and watched his daughter twirling like a ballerina on a music box. Her dress was white: and its skirts rustled for being feathered by pages torn from some holy book. Stars of silver glitter and embroidery that might have been spun from the gold in her hair laced up the outfit from collar to belt, and shone.

The sight of her might have sent tears running down our cheeks, so heavy and warm that we would taste salt on our lips, but Damascus was strong enough to hold them back. “Of course I do, sweetheart.” She was his patchwork princess. “You look beautiful.”

We’re trapped together now - Trapped – to be squeezed for virtue as oranges in a press. But know that this isn’t virtue. That this isn’t fair. This Stable does not ask for goodness: it takes it as a thief with a club. Saying: You will be good, or you will be damned.” Was this speech what had gotten him thrown out into the howling dark? I wondered, as the filly tugged at my sleeve. “We live in fear. But it’s all that’s keeping you from burning the crosses we have made. And everypony in this Stable knows it. This is no way to live.

We can make it better. We can end this, peacefully, instead of letting a climate of hate hang in the air until our door rolls open for the last time, and church and state go their separate ways.” We lifted her in our hooves, and started to spin around the room, unsteady. “We need to love each other. To tolerate those who find their Gods in the book of the law, just as we do those who find them in the scripture.” We were laughing, as the filly’s mane came loose in crinkled curls of gold, and she became an eclipsed sun as we held her up to the light.

Then, the walls began to blur, the floor rocked under our hooves, and she was burning. Not as flesh and boiling blood, but a photograph, whose corners blackened, and melted like wax paper held to a candle. It was as if our eyes were bleeding, as the color of it washed away her smile, and she was left as a ring of pale gold, casting itself across a great, red sea.

When it was over, Damascus and I were alone, as our hooves were empty and burnt. It was as if the sun had plucked out from between the planets, leaving them to roll off into a night that never ended like marbles of many different colors.

It isn’t going to end like this. With the last light of our country being smothered under all the dust we’ve kicked up in this ramming of horns: this casting of stones. It is our right, and our responsibility, to be good for the sake of goodness. To be virtuous for the sake of virtue. And to love for the sake of love. Not for the promise of paradise, be it one that we must journey to through the stasis pods below, or one whose gates are kept by the Goddesses above.

His daughter was older now, and I touched her for the last time, wiping a tear from her cheek. I already knew the feel of the collar that was biting into my neck, and recognized the glassy faces of the guards who were pressed in close on either side of me. But, as I looked down at a golden haired little girl whose mother was dead and whose father was damned, I couldn’t know whose life was most like mine: the filly’s or her father’s.

Marie

.

I saw red. More of it than we’d ever seen: all over my hooves, all over my home. I could hear my daughter wailing in the corner, but she was quiet. She couldn’t know how frantically I was trying to put her pieces back together again. Like torn petals saying she loves me.

Rose

.

Somewhere out there, if love can see us through.” I stood by like a frightened housewife twisting the strings of her apron, and sang to myself, as Damascus wrestled with the guards. He kept trying to reach out to his daughter, though I yelped every time the batons spattered the floor with his blood. “Then we’ll be together, somewhere out there.” We were choking, as there was salt on my tongue, and iron on his. “Out where dreams… come true.”

Repent

.

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

I woke up singing. With Caliber leaning over me, resting her hoof on my chest, and whispering the words. It was as if I was lying in a cradle, or my death bed, as we traded lullabies for last rites. “Please…” I saw the look in her eyes, and felt like I didn’t know her. “Sing it again.”

She pressed her hoof into my chest, as if to squeeze the music out of me. So I sang, and didn’t stop until she knew the words. Then, without so much as a goodnight, the mercenary marched back to her side of the room, and threw herself into sleep as if into a chore.

When morning came, I tried to ask her about what had happened but the words were caught in my throat, so I fooled myself into thinking that it could have been a dream.

Caliber and I didn’t talk as she made us breakfast. She might have had a songbird in her pocket, as her radio chirruped and cooed. While she narrowed her eyes and peeled open tin cans like onions, I lost myself somewhere in the weary horizon. In the north, the storm clouds looked like great strips of wool being pulled apart, as each was made up of a dozen pieces, like staircases in the sky. The air began to smell like burnt skin, and I almost forgot who I was.

We ate beans in a thick, sugary sauce and strips of what had once been a pig. The age of the cans promised me that I would never have to look the animal’s mother in the eye, and that the rest of its litter weren’t all hanging their heads somewhere. The succulent smell of the meat was enough to keep me from wondering if pigs could be happy: or if they could fall in love.

It almost felt like I was eating alone, as Ash had excused herself, saying that she didn’t eat swine, and Caliber seemed to spend most of the meal drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. I didn’t mind. I had never tasted anything so good, and soon my belly felt like an oven, as my breath smelt like breakfast and was as warm as fresh bread.

Caliber packed up our things, as I lay back against the tower with my hooves on my stomach, like a mare feeling her baby kick. “Ascella can’t do anything for my battle saddle without some halfway decent salvage,” She began, after pushing the empty cans off the side of the tower like blindfolded mutineers off the side of a ship. “There should be some security outposts scattered along the border. They're bound to have something useful between ‘em.”

“All I know is: I’m not knocking on Zion’s door unless I’m sure we can hold our own against whatever answers.”

*** *** ***

We crossed back into Equestria without any fanfare, less like heroes returning home to fireworks and ticker tape, and more like dogs slinking back to a master who had never missed them. The Slaver’s machine was perched on the southern horizon, like a bird stripped to its bones, and even though it was as if we had stepped through the broken wall of a house in disrepair, whose keeper lay drunk or dying in their bed, I felt like we were coming home.

“Sometimes, on a clear day, you can see Canterlot sitting pretty around the corner there,” Caliber said, with her hoof pointed to the creamy soup in between the Middle Passage and the Slaver’s monster. I looked up into the clouds, from which the mist was creeping like steam, and wondered when last our capsized capital had seen anything but stormy weather.

Ash overtook me, climbing down the ruins of the border as nimbly as a mountain goat, and nodded her head at the symbol on Caliber’s flank as she went. “Caliber,” She began, though it sounded like the name had been rattled out of her. “How did you get your cutie mark?”

To the mercenary, the question must have seemed to come out of nowhere, but I was already waiting on her answer, like a mare who had called tails, watching the coin spin. “Well, children…” She began, never realizing who her wolfish grin might have been borrowed from. “I’ll tell you: Back when your grandfather and I were knee-high and bright-eyed, a terrible snowstorm came rolling across the north.”

“That was the coldest winter I’d ever had to live through. The taverns served every drink on a Popsicle stick, the saloons were charging by the cuddle, and you had to keep your ears down for fear of having ‘em snap right off!” She perked up her ears, as if to mock the season that was only just being stirred from sleep. “The air itself was bleached white. You couldn’t see the cart ahead of you in a caravan. And you sure as shivers couldn’t see the bastard pulling it!”

“The wind was gale force on the good days, and the littlest fillies had to be tied down and tucked in, or else be swept away on the back of the storm. Might’ve been the only time we didn’t have to worry about Slavers or Raiders or anybody. We were all up in arms against the elements: hardly had the time to rub each other wrong.” The storm had united them against a common enemy, and I found myself hoping the Slavers, if nothing else, would do that much for us.

“Now, whenever we went knocking at the bunkers of those metallic monks, or shouted up to the clouds and the cowards behind ‘em, we didn’t get much in the way of answers. Aside from the usual: Back away from the door! Or Stick it out, civilian!” Her brow became heavy, and her voice even steelier, as she aped the soldiers. “Ask ‘em now, and they’d probably have no recollection of the storm, so much as the bodies going numb at their doorsteps.”

“But to us: that was one of the most brutal seasons since the balefire years. It was cold, it was hard to see, and the prospects of prospecting were that much bleaker for it.” Like a brilliant white phoenix, one of the floodlights came swooping by us then, tied to its watchtower by only a few strained cables. “I was already taking whatever jobs I could find. Wouldn’t have called myself a mercenary, but I carried this same rifle, and for good reason too.”

“Wait…” I paged through the most violent chapters of my childhood, though I ran across them with nothing but a Tri-Beam Laser Rifle imagined out of cardboard boxes and half a broomstick, floating at my side as I fought back monsters sewn together from the shadows. “This is the memory. The first one you got back after…” I pressed a hoof against my temple, and it felt as cool as the barrel of a gun.

She nodded, smiling even though her eyes were quiet. “This one helped me piece something together out of the mess in my head.” So many of her pages were missing, the rest only just bound to a broken spine, their colors blurry. And I wondered how she felt, knowing that Damascus had gutted his own book as if with a scalpel, while hers had been torn to pieces by a stranger’s shrapnel. “Now, like I was sayin’…” She just shook it off, like a dog drying itself.

“We were out scavenging - me and a little colt whose Ma never made the time to name him. So he took to calling himself Candlewick. Anyway, we heard rumors of an old army shelter, spilling over with ammunition, comic books and a feast of dry cereals and MRE’s. Kind of rumors you’d only believe on an empty barrel and an emptier belly.”

The largest of the security outposts could be seen stacked like three black bibles of different sizes against the wall ahead of us, and Caliber frowned at it as if it had interrupted her story. There was a gate beside it, hanging open like a broken jaw just barely held together with wire.

“So me and this Candlewick kid are right in the middle of the soup of the storm now, right?” Ash and I nodded. “We think we’re going to die out there. And one of us is right. We’re slowing down. Limbs might as well be turning to stone. Blood’s running cold. We’re sluggish. Tired. And can’t hear each other holler over the howling white… Then, it gets worse.”

No. I almost let the word slip out, as if I could flip back to the very beginning the story, and rewrite it into something flowery and sweet. “We see these silhouettes, black bodies in the distance. All hunched over. Moving real slow, taking their time. Like us, but… wrong.”

“Ferals.” I said it before she had the chance. I knew them now. Like us, but wrong.

She nodded, turning the wolf’s smile in for its cold, brutal eyes. “They’re the only things that’ll hunt through the storms. We should have known…” I hadn’t noticed it at first but, outside of Equestria’s walls, the wind never seemed to howl. At least, not at all like it did then. “Candlewick was too slow. They took apart his legs before he could start running… like thieves shooting out the tires. Like they knew…”

Her voice was empty now. “They tore him to pieces. You know that old joke: With the two campers? Well one of ‘em asks the other: Hey, if it comes down to it, d’you think you could outrun a bear? And the other says: Doesn’t matter: I’d only need to outrun you.”

She sighed, though it sounded no more emotional than a machine venting hot air. “I stood my ground for a while: until my rifle ran on empty. Shot three of ‘em clean through the head. Just like we were taught. But I... I couldn’t hold on long enough to go for another round. Bits of him are sliding down my face. The snow’s turning to pink water under my hooves.”

“Cal, you don’t have to-“ She went on, ignoring me.

“So they mop him up. But, when it’s ferals… you don’t stop screaming until you’re dead. And I know he’s gone by the time they start fishing ribbons of him out of the snow. It’s funny… I don’t even think ghouls get hungry. But they were fighting over his scraps like wild dogs.” She scrunched up her face, puzzling it out. “I figure it’s the violence they like. Maybe it does to them what it does to us. Makes ‘em feel alive again.”

“They weren’t even chasing me. But I ran like Hell was snapping its teeth at my tail.” I pictured a copper-headed filly then, fighting her way through the storm as that All-Equestrian rifle warmed her side. “I’m lost. Everything’s screaming… spinning north to south and east to west. But then I get this feeling, clear as crumbs of gold all along the way we had wandered. So I follow it. Walk for what could’ve been forever. And might’ve come up for air at the other end of the world.” She turned, and I did nothing to hide the tears in my eyes.

One of us had to feel this. One of us had to be hurting.
“But… I came home. With crosshairs and a compass on my flank.”

I waited for a while, letting the silence gape, as if Caliber could say anything to make it better. As if she had to keep talking until we found a happy ending. After all, this was a story about a cutie mark. And they weren’t meant to go that way.

How could any one mare be told to live with that?

“I figure we’ll be better off splitting up,” She said, as if the world didn’t owe her everything it had left. Our hooves had started clicking against concrete, and I didn’t have to look up to know that the security outpost was right there in front of us. “Grace and I will go rooting around inside.” Even Ash, whose eyes were like dry coals and not pools of ink, seemed all too ready to move on. “I’m sure you’ll get more out of those old army trucks than we could.”

The pilgrim nodded, and drifted off into the parking lot ahead, where dilapidated vehicles sat like toys just waiting to be slipped on by some giant. I had to wonder how long it had been, since the end of the story, for it felt like I had fallen into the pit of some daydream. “Let’s head inside.” Caliber tilted her head, and smiled at me despite it all. “It’s getting cold out.”

*** *** ***

The outpost was a mess. Posters that had been peeled off of the walls like dead skin and coffee stained paperwork like autumn leaves had carpeted the tiled floor, and turned crossing the room into a game of hopscotch. A crooked line of desks ran along the walls, cooping us up in the center of the room, on the broadside of a wooden semicircle that a long escaped receptionist would once have used as her shield, just as a pen was her sword.

On top of each desk, there sat terminals like fat, nesting chickens, though most looked to have had their glass faces punched in by some bully. I heard a faint ticking, and after looking up at two clocks, both frozen with one hand up as if in salute, I realized that it was coming from my Pipbuck. The outpost was irradiated, though this came as no surprise, as its air had been colored in a watery shade of green, and specks of dust shone like emeralds in the light.

There was a staircase at the far side of the room, but I ignored it, and instead slid over to the nearest functioning terminal on paper skates. Across the wall above me, there hung a bulletin board: crowded by uncollected letters from famous cities and posters that had grown tired of trying long ago. Their colors were faded: their smiles sagging.

EQUESTRIA’S FIRST DEFENSE! One yelled at me, from above a serious looking mare, who held her rifle in a cradle of magic pink enough to dress a baby girl. She wore a freshly pressed military uniform, and a helmet that was a few sizes too big. She was dressed like a soldier, but might have passed for a supermodel, as if the war had come into fashion.
KEEP YOUR COUNTRY SAFE! It ordered, even as I saluted the mare. I’m on it, ma’am!

THIS IS YOUR ENEMY! A Zebra stood, like an animal angry enough to pounce, but too cowardly to risk its neck. His uniform was in rags, though he carried the weapons of half a dozen soldiers, as if to say that the Zebrican armies were not filled with paupers: but only the poorly dressed. It made them out as predators: below us, but worth being afraid of.
KEEP THE STRIPES OUT OF EQUESTRIA!

PINKIE PIE IS WATCHING YOU!
A single streak of gray came curling out over her face, as if the minister herself had sucked the color out of it. I had come to know her smile so well, that I knew it had been warped with the poster, if not by the heat of the balefire then by the green fog that slunk through the room.
FOREVER! And, for how often I’d been followed by those cerulean eyes: I believed it.

SHE MAY BE LOADED!
Here, another mare, who could not be mistaken for either a soldier or a politician, straddled a comically large pistol. Her makeup was almost clownish, and the outfit that ensnared her body might have been designed by an architect, for how it forced her back into an arch.
DON’T TAKE ANY CHANCES WITH PICKUPS!

There was a loud clang, as Caliber hit her head against one of the desks, and began muttering up at Celestia in what might as well have been an alien language, just as another mare might pray. As if she had jolted me out of another daydream, I began tapping at the terminal keys, trying to look busy. I bushwhacked through a wilderness of symbols, numbers and letters, backing out every now again as if to attack the forest from a different angle. Eventually, I had whittled the confusion down to a password: Gateway.

The terminal housed a collection of reports, which looked so delightfully military that I almost couldn’t help myself, like a plump mare sweating as she looked down at a box of chocolates. Most all of them had been logged under the username < FERN >

Communal Log: 104
Cpl. Fern: 3rd patrol regiment, Border Authority.

Equestria’s hasn’t been seeing much talon traffic lately.
Last report of any attempt at a border jump came in over two years ago.
We won’t need to watch the skies much anymore. The north knows better than to come here.

But that doesn’t mean we can let our guard down.
The soft-hooves down at Strategic Defense think we’re due for a few needlepoints pressing against the border. Nothing more than task force, maybe. But If they do decide to come circling all the way up to us, then they’re bringing something that’s worth the trip.

So keep your guns pointed out. We won’t let them past us. Not when we’ve been warned.

We won’t let them have another Littlehorn.
And with the chatter coming up from Arcane Sciences and Technology… those megaspells they’re testing? A body slipping past this wall could mean an entire city leveled. One, single Zebra soldier could throw this war over the edge, and take his whole country down with it. Maybe ours, too.

Be ready to march in the morning. We need eyes in the mountains: eyes in Zion.

Some of the logs were damaged, soaked halfway up their margins in static much like a book might be in water. There were naked wires poking out of the terminal, and it seemed to have the hairy ears of the elderly. But, while I could do little to repair the burnt out machine, I had learned to cope with data corruption, and knew I could string together the rest of the story.

Communal Log: 149
Sgt. Fern: Border Authority and Liaison

I just got word from command. Looks like we’re getting our own set of walking tanks.
But don’t go calling them new recruits when they get here, though. They outrank us… hard.
Things are bound to get a little tighter around here, and I say it’s about time.
There’s been talk of movement somewhere between us and the Crystal Empire.
And it’s the kind of talk we need to be paying attention to.

If they are coming, if they are crossing the tundra, then you can bet the Zebras aren’t going to pull over and put their hoofprints on the usual paperwork. And no wall is going to have them turning their tails. Not unless we’ve got our guns pointed down from on top of it.

Once the Rangers get here and put down roots, each of us will have to take a turn in Zion.
So get ready. We’ve all got some cold nights coming.

In my head, I had given Fern the body of the body of the beautiful soldier posted on the wall above me, if only to make it easier to salute her for being promoted to sergeant. To my dismay, the next salvageable log, which was dated only a few days later, wasn’t from her.

Communal Log: 1
Junior Paladin Orion, Border Authority.

Steel Ranger unit arrived on site at approximately 0700h
Command and comm. stations established within the hour. Protocol dictates action.

One Knight Commander dispatched to the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th division respectively.
Junior Paladin Orion and Journeymare Scribe Rigel dispatched to Sgt. Fern’s 3rd division.
3rd Division will spearhead the watch from this location, with word coming down the line.
Reports are to be given to your Commanding Ranger, who will then relay them here.

Protocol is to be followed monastically. It is your scripture. And you are its disciples.
We are the first and the last line of defense. And we will not rest.
Equestria is God.
And you are her instruments.

I looked back across the room then; remembering something I had seen through the chaos and the calm of the outpost: the gutted filing cabinets and the poison like dye the air. A poster crying Steel Ranger, like that of some horror show naming its monster, as a soldier in plate armor stood rearing over a field of stars.

I skimmed through the Paladin’s next few logs, and found little more than coldblooded reports spread out over what must have been the last few weeks of the war. Still, he seemed to be softening with every entry, as his Rangers slowly came to call the outpost home.

Communal Log: 34
Junior Paladin Orion, Border Authority.

Two unsettling updates from the South:
An anti-machine rifle, capable of tearing through heavy armor, has just been developed. Here. In Equestria. Ministry Mare Applejack reportedly tried to keep them out of production. Unsuccessfully. They’re already being shipped out to the front lines.
For the sake of the Rangers in the South: here’s hoping they’re worth the risk.

It has also been confirmed that the Zebras are developing weapons-grade megaspells.

Protocol is your scripture. And you are its disciples.
We are the first and the last. And we will not rest.
Equestria is God.
May God help us all.

They were getting close to the end. I could feel it.
But I went farther than watching them fall apart, then: I fell with them.

Sgt. Fern: Border Authority and Liaison

Orion and his Rangers were recalled last night. After the siege on the capital began.
We’ve got reports of the attacks. Long range missiles. Coming from who knows where.

Damn it. I can’t do this.
Turn around. You can see it happening. That ring of fire to the south? That’s Canterlot.
Those are the missiles wasting themselves against the Princesses’ shield.
There are so many of them. All you can see are the explosions.

Stand strong. The Princesses will hold the capital. And we will hold the line.

Reading through the last of her reports was like watching a doomsday clock, counting down to the end of the world. And I felt powerless, as if it was still happening, somewhere far away.

Sgt. Fern

Canterlot is nothing but a smoking pink bubble.
We still don’t know what’s happening inside. But the missiles didn’t get through.
Celestia and Luna are still standing firm.

We’re not picking up anything in the sky. No foreign airships. Nothing alien.
The Zebras are throwing stones from their own glass house.
We… we don’t know if their megaspells can come this far.
But we will not let them sneak a bomb past our borders. SO STAY IN YOUR POSITIONS!

As soon as this war is over, I’m going to have Flake court martialed for making tracks to the nearest Stable. And she’ll be staring down a firing squad if I get my way.

The next three logs were all posted on the same day: the day everything changed.

three…

They hit Cloudsdale! They wiped the entire city out of the sky!
Celestia. I don’t know what’s happening.
I think the Pegasus are getting ready to pull up the shutters.
To blindfold the bastards: block their lines of fire with one hell of a storm.

For now, we have our orders. And I’ll be damned before I leave this post behind.
We’ll hit them back! We’ll end this war.
Hold the line!

two…

Maripony just went quiet.
We’re alone now.
One last report came through before the static clogged up the comms… but it isn’t good:
Manehattan was hit from the inside. They got a balefire bomb into the country.
They got a bomb across our border.

The clouds are getting stitched up tight now… can you see the Pegasus?
Filling the sky like birds before winter.

I think something big is going on. But I can’t get a line to the Brass.

Report back to the Station. If you can still read this… then fall in.
The line’s been crossed. We need to move. To help with the evacuations.
We’ll go to New Calvary… unless they hit her too.
It’s like a thunderstorm out there. They can’t even pick their targets. Why won’t they stop?

We must have hit them back. So it’s going to be chaos.
But when we survive this, we’ll march over there and finish them off ourselves.
Now REPORT IN!

one…

The shield is down.
And it’s quiet. I think… I think the bombings are over.
Either the clouds were enough to throw them off… or we cooked them.
But I… don’t think I can care anymore.

The shield is down. The Princesses are dead.
All I can see of the Capital is a pink smear across the sky. Like a cloud.
That might be all that’s left of home.

I can’t even see the sky anymore. Here its ash. There its fire.
But where are you?

The military is gone… The Princesses are gone…
The line is broken. The border is burning.

War is over.
Now comes Fallout.

If any of you are still out there… if you’ll still follow me… then report in.
We’ll fight this thing together. We’ll wait it out. Then march on to Calvary, just like I promised.
Maybe she survived. Maybe we can survive.
If you’re out there… please… report in.

We don’t have to die alone.

I sat there, as still as someone being painted, even as absinthe tears swelled in the light of the terminal. There were so many of them – these stories whose endings I could not rewrite: like wounds I could not heal, tumors I could not shrink, or bad news that I could not take back. I leaked, one tear at a time, and it was all I could do to keep myself from breaking down. I was too late. Be it to save them or to cry and cross my heart for them: I was too late.

After all, I was a child of the war. And to undo it, would be to undo me. Under the ash where so many had shriveled and died, the seed of my family tree had been planted, and so fed on all the fear that saw the Stable built, and the fire whose skinny fists still beat against its door.

My face was dry. My back was straight. I didn’t shiver, though I was so cold.
It wouldn’t be fair to cry. Not when I had cried for so much less. But I didn’t want to know these stories, to carry them with me like knots in my chest. I didn’t know what to do with them. And my heart pounded like the drum at the end of the world.

“Grace?” I pressed my lips together, as if being painted, trying not to laugh and have my face warped into something twisted and wild on the easel. “Grace?” I could almost feel it: one hundred thousand years of war, dancing down my tongue; tickling me as I tried not to laugh. Then, in one big gulp, I let it all go rolling down my throat, and swallowed the apocalypse.

“Wake up, Sugar.” She was whispering over my shoulder, and I worried that she might be able to smell the smoke coming out of my ears. But I only watched as her ears perked up, and her eyes shot from side to side: narrow and paranoid. “I think there’s someone upstairs.”

*** *** ***

Ash burst into the Station, breaking the silence for what might well have been her first time, as we were poking our heads around the edge of the staircase, keeping our ears open and our voices low. Her hooves were soaked in an inky fluid, and each step looked like another struggle, as the paper on the floor clung to her like feathers to tar. Even her belly, and the bandages that were wrapped around it, wore a coat of the same burnt-black honey.

“Gasoline,” She said, as if announcing the designer of her dress. “One of the trucks still had a key in its ignition.” Caliber twisted her head back towards the pilgrim, forgetting the stranger that was shuffling around upstairs. “But when I tried to get it running, gallons of oil came spilling out over the parking lot. There must have been a hole… right through its insides.”

“Okay. So no smoking.” Caliber shrugged, and then thought better of it. “Know what, Ascella: you’d better hang back for a while. Grace and I were just gonna take a look around upstairs, and you’re practically a walking fire hazard right now.”

That hardly seemed to break her heart, and the pilgrim began to pace the room, molting in and out of paper skin as she went. The walls ahead looked yellow and sickly in the on-again, off-again light, and I was tormented by more thoughts of skin: shaved of its coat and rubbed in ointment as if before a last minute operation. Peeling off a lip after a long day in the sun.

I kept my eyes shut as we climbed the stairs, and the second floor was so dark that I couldn’t be sure when I opened them again. Soon, I found myself in a dense, nightmarish forest of cell bars, all throwing shadows into the shadows like pails of water into the sea. The detention cells were all around me, and though I stood on the outside looking in, I felt like a prisoner again. The light of day pushed its way in past ragged curtains and a film of spider web, and I found a row of bars that were warped: dented and chewed like the plastic of children’s toys.

“This must’ve been where they kept the border jumpers before the war,” Caliber mumbled, as I ran a hoof over the knotted bars. “Be careful. You can bet they bumped up the securi-“

Something moaned.
It was the sound of a moldered old forest bowing, as the wind pressed a foot down on its neck. But there were no trees here, and the breeze was so slight that specks of dust hovered at the window, unsure of whether they were going out or coming in.

It was breathing now, staring out at us from inside one of the cells. With a window behind it, the sunlight came to be draped over the creature like a blanket sliding off of naked shoulders. We had woken it up, and with my heart jackhammering, I felt ready to throw myself down the stairs, and away from this sleepy shadow. It was mumbling at us now, though it had the voice of a pony: a chain smoker who had coated her throat in ash. And the skin of a leper.

The prisoner’s mossy green eyes were stretched wide, as if a hundred years of insomnia had come as they forgot how to close. A few long, wiry hairs hung out of a round military helmet, like spider legs, and though her uniform was in ribbons, I knew she was a sergeant.

There was blood on the bars. And a ghoul stared out at us, though her body shook, as if the sun was only scrubbing saltwater over the naked, pink wounds on her back. And there, like autumn leaves and plucked feathers scattered all around her, was skin.

Before I even had the chance to shake her cage: the sergeant pounced at me, and I was sent tripping over my own hooves with a firm push. “It’s feral,” Caliber decided, keeping her hooves spread between me and the mare in the cell - who could only be Fern, though her teeth were snapping under wild eyes. I saw her own flesh like chewed up licorice, red and black, gumming up the corners of her mouth.

“On no.” I breathed out the words. “No, no, no.”

She threw herself against the bars, and grated herself against them.
“Who did this to her?” I asked, knowing that the sergeant was dead. That she had died alone, as the Fallout came stampeding across the country. “Who locked her in there?”
“Must have done it herself,” Caliber said, answering an unfair question. “Couldn’t have known what was changing her back then. Maybe thought she was losing it, maybe thought she was burning up with the world: watching her skin peel like that.”

Fern had become a beggar, pleading with me, pawing at the cell bars as if she only wanted me to take her hooves in mine. For how little of her was left, she looked like a child playing dress-up in her father’s uniform. “The isolation is what does it, though… She couldn’t have known, but…That cell is what turned her feral.”

“Open it,” I ordered, suddenly. “Pick the lock, Cal. We have to get her out.”

“Hold on, now. I don’t th-.”

“Open it.”

*** *** ***

“Fuck.” There was a click, and it sounded like the lock had something caught in its throat. But, before I could ask why she was backing away from the cell door, cursing as she went, the outpost began to hum. Something moaned. It was the song of a rusty old city bowing, as the wind pressed a foot down on its neck. But there were no towers here, and the air was still.

ALERT! Non-combatants are advised to leave the area. Security sweep in progress.” The voice came bursting out of the shadows, like a predator thrashing through black water. ”Lethal force may be used without warning!

A flat, red line shone out as the angry eye to some Cyclops. And the entire building seemed to groan as the thing shifted its weight, just as a happy drunk come home from some feast might make the legs of his bed creak. I pulled at the cell door, but it wouldn’t budge.

“I screwed it up.” Caliber said, in what almost sounded like disbelief.

Hostile Detected! Commencing neutralization.

Grace.” There was fear in her eyes, and I felt her butting against me, pushing me towards the door as if I was a cow-eyed piece of livestock. The sergeant was staring out at me from between the bars, and I could only watch as she pressed her hooves against them, tenderly, like some fairytale creature watching through the leaves, sad to see us go.

Caliber practically threw me down the stairs, and my hooves were pedaling wild all the way down. And, though my ears rang as I crumpled against the floor, I could heard gunfire like the churning of a cement mixer. In the corner of my eye, I saw what looked like a villainous action figure jammed into the doorway above me. It twisted from side to side, trying to wriggle both of its Minotaur arms into the stairwell, as Caliber got me back onto my hooves.

Then, we were running away, and went skating over an oilfield in paper horseshoes. Ash had left her prints everywhere, as if she had blood on her hooves. My legs splayed out around me, and so I went sliding across the room on my belly. The pilgrim helped me up, but as I turned back to the stairwell, I felt Caliber hoof pressing into my shoulder, less than tenderly.

“You make a run at that thing: we’re both dead.” Even with those belts of gunfire and the groaning of the machine, it was the look in her eyes that scared me most. “Dead. Me, then you.” So I let her slide me across the room, like a chess piece. “We’re leaving.”

If I threw myself against the old machine, if I went tilting at windmills, she would have no choice but to be my shield, if only to die before I did. I stared at her with empty eyes, and nodded, shaking the word loose like an apple from the branch. “Okay.”

*** *** ***

At what could have been less than a hundred paces from the border, we stopped, and made bleachers out of a barren hillside. I was sure that my lungs had popped, but the running had not been enough to distract me from what I was running from.

Fern was almost certainly dead by now, unless she had already been so broken that the sentry could not find in her enough life to stamp out, as with a wilted flower. Either way, the sergeant was gone. Her station would be her grave, whether hollow or haunted. And I wondered: What were the first ghouls, if not ghosts of the old world?

I caught my breath, and watched the building burst. That bullheaded guardian must have lost its patience, and fired a missile into the doorway, like a child punching through the wrapping paper. It was an avalanche, as boulders and cell bars like broken branches rained out over the parking lot, followed by a dozen phoenixes whose wings were burning pages.

“Caeli,” Ash whispered the old language, with her eyes mirroring the black pools that had spread around the trucks like blood from speared animals. And so the embers came eddying over a lake of gasoline, and I winced away even before the fires started. They spread in rings, like red ripples over the lake, and even the belly of the outpost seemed to brighten as hoofprints of oil led the fire to a feast of paper and wood. “The trucks…”

And then, the sound of a marching band scattering under thunderstorms, paper like burning doves and heat as if from a bellows as the outpost folded over itself. And smoke like a trail of survivors limping away, the morning going black as mushroom clouds pillared against the charcoaled easel of the border: an artist’s interpretation of the end of the world.
.
War was the insomnia that had kept Equestria awake even as the lights went out. And, even in fighting the good fight, we would always be a part of it. We would be soldiers, and could only find our peace in the pieces: our dawn in the darkness.

There, if only for the grace of her gasoline, went the burning doves and exhausted phoenixes, crumbling into the dust, and I watched them dancing in the dark eyes of the pilgrim. I could see the oil drying like blood on her hooves, and thought of Fern finding peace in the ruin.

Gravedigger.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Between the Lines: You may gain select skill points by entering memory orbs, being in the company of storytellers, or reading through terminal logs and assorted prewar media. If you aren’t going to learn from your mistakes, you could at least try learning from theirs.

END OF BOOK II: EXODUS