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Chapter 12: Atomic Cocktail

Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 12: Atomic Cocktail
“I've heard it's a bad idea to tempt the wrath of Caesar."

|*| O Daughter of Babylon |*|

Faces like skulls that had been stripped clean crowded in around me, their eyes frigid and unsmiling. My hooves might have been held up in birthing stirrups: as if these milky-eyed Zebras had gathered to find out which one of them was to become a father. Their bodies were striped behind white faces; as if each of them had bowed down to drink from Zion’s river, only to have its current peel the skin from their cheekbones and brows, and wash away their stripes.

They wore bloodied sashes and strips of thin, gold plate. They wore bone to match their painted faces, and carried small, tribal masks on the wires around their necks: these were the totems that had once been scattered through the ranks of their army, not unlike our own Celestial crosses. But some, whose narrow manes were not feathered in red, whose legs were bare and whose backs did not bow for the weight of chariots, wore barding that blended into the stones, and carried rifles that were surrounded by small rings of light: by glyphs and alien alphabets that chased after each other like carousel horses.

“Set the wheels in motion, Equestrian. Have your little one light up the sky.” The circle of striped faces warped, to let a mare come into it like a pin into a bubble. “You are lucky that we need her: that her touch can wake this place.” Her eyes were teal, and matched the runes that hovered around her rifle, like flies around an unfinished meal. “Were it not for that, we would have cast her down for the star on her flank.”

I heard Ash behind her, somewhere beneath the monument’s immutable tower, though the pilgrim couldn’t find her words, and spoke up to her Goddess in babbled tongues. “Only a pony’s hooves can stir the monument from sleep. Just as the great door of Stable 23, was sworn to open only to ours.” She had let her people’s rhythm and rhyme trickle out of her voice, but her accent was the same as that mare in Damascus’ orbs: that witchdoctor crouching beside the fire.

“A pity that there was no one to stop us then. To warn us of what would be unleashed. But we will use you, and the one who bears the star, to undo our mistake: to make it so the Stable’s door might have been left untouched. To make it so that hornet’s nest might never have been kicked.”

She lowered her voice, and let the wind howl. “When this place is lit: they will come, just as they have run to our flares and to our fires, just as they have thrown themselves into their own graves time and time again. After the slaughter that follows, we will leave this monument red.” As I tried to put together a picture of what was going on, I found a piece that didn’t fit: Why had we been told to light the monument, if it would only lead the savages like so many rabbits into a snare?

“And while we make our war on this stage, you, Stable pony, will do what we could not. And make Zion’s waters still. Only you can stop what we once set in motion…” The sky caught fire then, as some homecoming Goddess flipped a light switch, and turned night back into day. The sun itself might have touched down before us, to come sinking into Celestia’s Landing, and spill its light out over the valley.

I turned my head and covered my eyes, as I was sure that looking up into the glare would leave me blind. But I stood up, and saw a narrow cable of light tethering the mountains to the edge of the storm. That circle of bare faces had twisted their necks, to stare at the shrine that Ash was pressing her hoof against: as if rolling it down the spark wheel of an enormous lighter half buried in the stone.

“It is lit. We must begin.” Her face was being seared away before the beacon, and I could only see her eyes, like two gemstones in the fire. “You will go to the Stable, even as its warriors spill over themselves, and clog the mountain passes with their bodies. And, while the mares inside their den mistake you for a sister, you will creep down its throat, and burn out its light.”

The circle warped again, and another Zebra came into it. He carried a long-necked bottle in his teeth, though it looked to have been filled with colors scraped from the face of the sun. Ash came after him, with her muzzle tucked under her scarf, and her lavender mane like a hood throwing shadows over her eyes.

“To make tools of these things,” The striped mare said, as if Ash was a walking monkey wrench. “Even though they have both come from the fields of the night sky… in any other time that would have been a game for fools. But now, just as we must put our trust in you, Equestrian, so must we wield these instruments of the stars: This marked mare and this dark magic. Zion will not be ours without compromise.”

They set the bottle down, and I watched embers go dancing up its neck. “As the water of the maple is taken from its tree, so is this Celestial Flame taken from a balefire bomb.” The circle widened, as every one of the striped soldiers stepped back. “Break this vial in their orchard. Burn the seeds and the soil that has for so long kept that place alive. And even those that survive our fight will starve… they will die.”

“They’ll tear each other apart.” I said, as an expression of disgust crept onto my face. “The ones you send running home, the mares… the children: how long before the hunger drives them at their own throats?” The Zebra smiled, as if I was only putting one of her daydreams into words. “No,” I said, standing firm. “I won’t let it end like that.” That was no way to win: no way to call myself a hero.

The mare’s frown deepened, so that it looked like the bone of her brow was being cracked open. “Take care, Equestrian. You may be useful, but remember that your Equestria was once a friend to us: a sister. Do not make the same mistakes she made.” Do not tempt the wrath of Caesar, I thought, as if reading her mind through the cracks. She nodded to the valley below. “This is not complicated. They are animals.”

“And they need to be put down,” I said, trying to keep the Zebras steady, even as Ash shrank deeper into the folds of her mane, like a withering flower. With my magic in the shape of a blacksmith’s tongs, I picked up the bottle of Celestial flame, and packed it into my saddlebags. “I’ll go to the Stable,” I said, as the light of the monument began to soak into the clouds. “But I’ll find a better way.”

“This is our last chance, Equestrian. You are our last chance.” There was anger, tearing at the seams of her silken voice. “Our soldiers have stepped into that place before, but even for hoofsteps that made no sound, and cloaks like little more than ripples in the air, they were found. And they were devoured.” I could hear roars, like those of children pretending to be manticores, come bounding up the mountain. A pass had been punched through the monument’s western wall, and let the savage’s voices in.

“I may die tonight, Shepard.” The name came off of her tongue as something misshapen, and I almost didn’t recognize it. “But even now, your mercenary stands before the Decurion, trying to make a deal for her king in Hell. And if you fail… if this was done for nothing, then she, and her deal, will die tonight.”

Only then, did I remember how the mare and I had met: how her hoof had held me in unconsciousness as if in shallow water. “I’ll find a better way.” She scowled and, with a grunt, stormed off into the center of the monument, shouting orders in that unwieldy alien language. The soldiers followed, and soon began taking up positions around the great stone dais of Celestia’s Landing. The writing around their rifles seemed to spin faster and faster, if only for the quickening beat of our hearts and the hooves of the horde.

“Let’s get out of here, Ash,” I said, realizing that my first contact with Zion had been a hoof to the temple. I turned, and started walking away, but stopped as I heard the mare cooing over each of my shoulders.

She wriggled her way out of the scarf, and let the wind brush her mane away from dark, pleading eyes.
“I’m staying here,” She said, as if it was written in the stone. “I lit the monument. I called the savages to this sacred place. I can’t leave… I can’t let them have it.”

She stood there, as if turned to stone, to join the cherubs and that God’s feather on fire. “Come on, Ash. You heard what the Zebra said. If I don’t burn that orchard, they might hurt Caliber… they might hurt you.”

“Burn it, then.” There was a sound like a drumbeat, and it was as if Celestia herself had reached down, to strike the side of the monument like a taught animal skin. The whole world seemed to keel, and I found myself tripping over my own hooves. Explosive rounds had rocked the dais, as the coming swarm spilled out over the stone, like a wave of mud and bone bursting through a dam.

“They already took Caliber as a hostage!” I shouted, over the roar and the whine: the lions and the flies. The Zebra’s stripes were spoiled in an avalanche of brown and bloody red, as the ponies of the Stable crashed into those that had turned the key to their cage. “We have to stay together.”

“Caliber let them take her to the Decurion.” That stunned me, and I didn’t resist as Ash started walking me east: herding me off of the battlefield like a lost cow. “But you do not get to choose. If you die here: we all die.” Suddenly, we were far away from that sun in the stone, and the war that had spilled out over it. Ash was pressing the elevator’s call button. “Do you know what she said? … Before she left?”

I shook my head and, as the elevator doors pulled apart, Ash recited her words as if they were to be recorded in the new world’s scripture. “That girl better be smiling when we’re done here. Otherwise, I’m pushing the button on that bomb of yours, and tipping this whole godforsaken valley off the edge of the E-questrian Wasteland.”

*** *** ***

With my head down, I hurried past the powdered white feet of the mountain, even as smoke and sunlight and the screams of adults who had never learned to speak pillared far above me. My Pipbuck had charted Stable 23 on its map now, marking it with the very door that had rolled over and left me to Equestria. I followed it west, and scurried around the mouth of the mountain pass that was slowly being clogged up with so many dead and degenerate bodies.

Bursts of concussive magic punctuated the howls and the whinnies, and I heard a thud come from somewhere behind me, where a body that had been flung from the monument buried itself in the dirt. But I was not running out of fear, with my tail between my legs. I was running because I had found a better way: I had come up with a plan. I wasn’t going to burn the orchard. I was going to burn it all.

The savages who came slinking down from the mountain, with their tails burnt to a crisp and Ash’s buckshot studding their hides, would have nothing to come home to but a charred, hollow grave.

The lowest floor of my Stable, or Maintenance as it had come to be known, housed swarthy ponies who could often be seen playing games of cards through open doorways, or burying their heads in chugging machinery. I did not know it well, but would always remember it as a hostile place. There had been an accident once, one that had brought the Stable’s medical wing swooping down like some caped hero.

One of the pipeline gauges had been blocked up, and burst, venting steam onto two nearby worker mares. Nurse Clearheart, Doctor Cross and I were called down to tend to their burns, and the entire Stable had watched as we wheeled them, screaming and blind, back up the medical bay. The first mare’s mutilated face had been the worst injury I’d ever seen, and it was all I could do to keep from crying as I wrapped it in bandages, as if draping a tarp over a wax figure that had been left to melt. She was disfigured, while the other mare walked away from the accident with one eye blind.

But now, I was glad to have been there, as the accident had introduced me to the very thing that would see Stable 23’s light burn out: the pipelines. I didn’t know how I would get out in time, or how I would get gas leaking out through the entire den, but one thing was clear: it would be mercy: beautiful and clean and violent, a sudden, fiery genocide in place of plague and famine and drought.

I came to a notch in the mountain: a sunken path whose walls might have been made of a thousand pieces of broken glass, or an entire empire’s armory of swords melted down, only to be shaped into a single, clumsily molded gateway. Their faces shone, as the light of my horn and the weight of the moonlight went dancing over them, like a bride in gold and a groom in blue. Every wall was being washed under the mountain’s water, in tracks that were narrow and frail, as if to match those left by tears.

Soil became stone, and I had to steer my way around squatting thorn bushes, and sprawling, dead animals. Bird and beast lay crumpled up around me, all made blackened and faceless by their own blood. The water seemed afraid to touch them, and pooled in the spaces between each open grave. All were skinned, but only part way, as if the animals had been killed even as they undressed for bed. Their coats were torn and ragged, as naked flesh looked to have been chewed at by a hundred passing mouths.

As I stepped deeper into the folded rock, there came the sound of meat being slipped off of the bone, and a heavy, guttural breathing. Just ahead, I could make out the stooped body of a buck, and I watched as the high, feathered crest of his Zebrican helmet rocked back and forth, sawing into the belly of a great bear. From the look of its red plumes, it had been stolen from the head of a dead or dying centurion.

His scars ran deep and, from the side, it looked as if entire layers of the savage’s flesh had been peeled away in the ritual. I floated out my combat knife, and saw that, even in the moonlight, it looked dull for streaks of violet alicorn blood, which colored it to its hilt. “Hey!” I shouted, as if I could still rescue that gutless bear, whose glassy eyes turned gold as my light came over them like a rising tide.

“I’m… I’m going to burn your Stable down,” I said, trying to wrench some sign of compassion out of the buck, though his flanks were bare and his eyes had less wisdom in them than the bear’s. I wanted to make him care; I needed this pony – the only guard before Stable 23’s gate, the only one who could stop me – to care. I wanted him to fight me, out of something other than hunger or blind, misdirected wrath.

“I’m going to set your entire family on fire!”

He only stared, through pools of ink that had spread to the edges of his eyes. “Come on!” I yelled, though as I heard my voice thrown back by the canyon walls, it sounded more like a plea.

I swung the knife down to my side, almost burying it into the stone, and let its blade point up as if I were threatening to gut myself. I had his attention, though it was more for the shining scar that my knife had cut through the air, than my promising to turn his home into an urn full of ashes.

The debased centurion lunged at me, with trails of spittle and bloodless flesh hanging over his lips, and the galea helmet tilting over his eyes. As he came rearing over me, I buried the knife into his heart, sliding it in between the third and fourth rib, and washing out the alicorn’s blood under a fresh coat of red.

I guided the weight of his body, and let him collapse into one of the pools of moonlit spring water, like a tower whose middle had been whittled away under the callous hands of the wind. His breaths became shallow, and I watched as his heart folded in on itself, deflating like a red balloon. With the cradle of my magic in a nervous shamble, I rushed out my laser pistol, and kicked the helmet off of his head, so that I could press the gun’s barrel against his swelling temple.

I let the weight of my magic push down on it, as if to make the savage feel what was happening: to make him know that he was about to die. As if he could still remember where it had all gone wrong, and regret it: apologize for it. “Come on…” I begged.

But he didn’t speak. And I knew that it wasn’t for his sunken heart, but something far worse, something that had spread like a virulent disease, injected into the bloodlines of Stable 23 long ago. I holstered my pistol, even as his eyes came to match the bear’s, finding the peace, and the empty wisdom, of death.

His blood had kissed one of my hooves, and a trail of red circles followed me through the canyon.

At the end of the path, there was a spinning light, whose color was almost enough to make me lose my grip on Zion: to forget the valley and go sailing back to the beginning. I could see the Stable door now, though it had collapsed, fallen out of bed like a drunk king. It was as if the touch of Zebra hooves had been enough to wrench it off of its hinges.

The waters of the canyon were set on fire for the passing of those pirouetting lights, as if the Princesses were chasing each other around the planet, with day and night trailing along as their chariots. But, as I took one last look over my shoulder, and counted the chalk constellations spread over the canyon walls, and the stars of a naked sky reflected so clearly in the tears of some distant spring, I remembered Zion.

*** *** ***

I stepped over the door, and was glad, if only because it didn’t feel like I was coming home. And, even though I had put on my battered utility jumpsuit, knowing that the savages could not work out the difference between 23 and 21, I felt like a stranger: a wolf among the stars.

The air was rusty, as red as the panoramic blush that had been spread across my Pipbuck’s radar. The copper had been scraped from the walls, and left to hang like insect swarms, crowding in around me. The walls were dented, as if something with broad shoulders and a short temper had been trying to escape the Stable before its door came tumbling down. The lights here didn’t spin, but seemed to flicker out whenever I looked up to another crowd of chalk wardens, or the dirty, red god smeared onto the wall.

The Atrium had been turned into an abattoir, an untended hanging garden of meat, as bodies – all striped in one way or another – swung from the walkways, and lay piled up in the corners. I couldn’t see any teeth marks in their skin, as if the savages were waiting for them to rot, though each corpse looked as worn out as a ragdoll. The ponies here might’ve been starving, but they were still playing with their food.

On the floor, there was broken glass and paper like shredded dove wings. And only after skipping into the middle of the room, did I realize that I wasn’t alone. Two mares lay curled up in a corner, with their manes shorn, their bodies unscarred, and their bellies swollen. They were picking at one of the Zebras, as if plucking grapes from a vine, and wore jumpsuits whose hindquarters had been torn off.

In my eyes, they were only a little less unlike me than their fathers and brothers and sons, but they let me by as if I too were bald, unwashed and pregnant.

As I passed them by, they pulled their faces back into snarls, and their eyes burned as if a litter of children was suckling at each of their bellies. They couldn’t know what I was planning to do, or who had sent me to their doorstep, but the mares looked at me like the mothers of the hunted would a lion. I could only hope that they would not raise their voices, and cry out without language, like alarm bells ringing without melody, to bring whatever warriors had been left behind to run me out of their kingdom.

I softened my hoofsteps, as if walking through a church whose candles were still burning, and charted a wide course around the mares. They snarled and hissed, but soon went back to pulling black and white ribbons from the body of the Zebra, both caught in a lazy, nauseating maypole dance.

To look into the Stable was to see a place that I had once known well, warped as familiar faces wearing wax masks that had been left out in the sun. It was like I was treasure hunting, as I peeked around every corner and behind twisted sheets of metal, looking for something alien to remind me how far I was from home. There were posters like dead skin being peeled off of the walls, and I frowned up at them, as they painted the Zebras as heroes: as rescuers who would come bushwhacking through the fallout, to pull Stable 23 up out of it.

There were lights that had taken on the color of diseases, the splotchy shades of yellow that were like the body’s way of calling for help. The darkness pressed against the windows, leaving cracks as if it had the weight of an ocean behind it, but I knew that to light my horn would be to show the savages that I had learned to play with fire. After stumbling down another dark hallway, I came to stand at the Stable’s open epiglottis, and looked down an elevator shaft as if checking for lumps in a patient’s throat.

The light of the lower floors leaked into it, and I saw cables swinging limp like the muscles of a larynx: a voicebox whose strings had been clipped. Some of the cords were being pulled taught, and I wondered if the elevator could still climb the Stable’s throat, and pull me out of the fire.

On the wall, there was a list of the Stable’s floors and their functions, as if to give me direction.

1st Floor: Atrium - Command Center - Security
2nd Floor: Living Quarters - Medical Bay - Common Area
3rd Floor: Maintenance – Armory

I winced, for seeing how similar we had been, for how closely we might have skirted the same edge, as we all rolled around the great whirlpool that had swallowed civilization.

4th Floor: Orchard - Oxygen Recycling

That was it, one way or another: the fourth floor, the belly of this monster. That was where I would end this. I looked back into the elevator shaft, and saw the vehicle resting far below, under a crown of battered doors and limp cables. Its call button had been wrenched out of the wall, as if the wait had driven some traveler to wrath. Probably better to take the stairs for now.

There were some mares, sleeping on the steps, and I almost mistook them for corpses and piles of dirty laundry. Their flanks were blank, and their heads shaved. Their eyes were closed, and their coats had been colored red by the rust in the air. They were camouflaged as black fish at the bottom of the sea.

My radar was so clogged that, even when I stood completely still, to try making sense of the savage’s movements would be no easier than counting the stars at noon. And, as I came into Stable 23’s living quarters I understood that, wherever I went, I couldn’t know that I was alone. To be a Zebra, or even a mare who wore anything but blue and gold, would be torture, as every shaven head that went by might be the one that turned, and saw you for what you were: a foreigner.

As I hurried on to the medical bay, forgetting to soften my hoofsteps or catch my breath for the red that bloomed all around me like a rose garden, I began to wonder if these mares had ever left this place… if they had ever breathed anything but this rusty old air: drank anything but water speckled with copper, seen any stars that were not scratched onto the walls in chalk. The speakers would have churned out the same songs for the last one hundred years, all chopped up and twisted as if by the dust on the records. You could not lose your mind here. At least, not before it was stolen from you.

Most of the mares lay curled up into shapeless mounds, while a great number of them paced the halls, with their bald heads bobbing, like ants on patrol. Some groomed their neighbor’s coats, while others fought like junkyard dogs. And I couldn’t know if they were biting at each other’s throats, or kissing them. Some were as still as corpses, but all of them had the same inky, animal eyes.

Heads turned to follow me when I passed them by, as if I was the only mare running towards a burning city. And I skipped into pools of the white, sterile light that seemed to spread like a moss over all things medical. A long, narrow window stretched on towards the hospital door, and revealed a grim, sundered sister to the room where I’d begun to see medicine as an art: the place where I’d watched my mother die.

Their medical bay, like almost everything in Stable 23, was bigger than ours, and could almost compete with the hospital wings that I’d seen in Today’s Physician: the magazine that I’d most often studied at her bedside, in that quiet time, as I tried to tease my cutie mark out from behind blank flanks. But, like a pony dangling meat at the mouth of an empty lion’s den, I had made myself into nothing more than a fool.

I dove into the sinking hospital, knowing that there would be supplies that could still be salvaged, and Zebras that would come limping off of Celestia’s Landing with more than a few wounds to lick. Their alchemy was all well and good for demolishing old memories and bottling up the balefire, but nothing could stand up to Equestrian medicine. When this was over, and the healing began, the Zebras could just as well stick their herbs in a pipe and smoke them.

The medical bay was a mess. Mattresses had been tipped onto their sides, stripped of their sheets, and gutted. IV props and curtain racks lay scattered, lost to their stations, making the room no easier to cross than a thick patch of jungle, or the splintered insides of a wrecked ship. The lights flashed, and grainy pictures from the past came to replace the room as it went dark. I saw shadows slipping in and out of the beds around me, and ghosts hovering over them with their hooves clasped: promising that it would be alright, and praying that the Goddesses would not make liars out of them.

While picking through the overgrowth, I managed to gather a variety of pills and potions, like berries and pails of river water from some hostile forest. After finding some top-shelf supplies and realizing that my Stable had never seen the likes of them, I began to feel a little jealous, as if we hadn’t been the old world’s favorite child. It seemed to have served Stable 23 its medicine on a silver, sterilized platter.

The walls were dressed in more of those strange posters, and I had to get a little closer, just to make sense of the writing that had been garbled under flickering lights.

MINT-ALS!

It declared, over a Zebra who has dressed up as if to play doctor, complete with stethoscope and head-reflector. He held up a small case, as one might hold a piece of meat under the nose of an animal.

FEELING FOGGY?

GET A TASTE OF THAT All-NATURAL, ZEBRICAN CLARITY!

ASK YOUR DOCTOR ABOUT MINT-ALS TODAY

BUT DON'T FORGET TO THANK THE ZEBRAS!

After staring up at the posters for a while, stubbornly standing my ground, I began to feel as if I was being strung along by some transcontinental propaganda. The Zebras were being presented on that same silver platter: being painted as benevolent allies, caretakers even. But this couldn’t have felt any farther from the truth than it did in Zion. Than it did in a Stable whose Atrium was crowded by bodies full of Zebrican lead.

From the supply closet at the far end of the bay, I went on to gather medical braces, surgical tubing, gauze and enough cloth bandages to keep both Ash and Damascus neat and tidy for a month. I had found a cornucopia of medical supplies, but could only carry so much before becoming overencumbered. I felt cheated for having to leave so much, so many crates and cases, to become little more than kindling.

On my way out of the medical wing, I stopped behind the same desk that Doctor Cross had sat behind for so many quiet mornings, and wondered if I might find the liquor, or the electric cigarettes, that she had kept hidden in its top drawer. Instead, I found a small bottle of aphrodisiacs, which caught my eye for the striped mare that lay, with her back arched and her hair braided in golden beads, over bold, swollen letters – Crushed Rhinoceros Horn: More Bang for your Buck!

Beside the pills was a holotape, which I set aside, as if saving the best part of a meal for last. And just under that, there was what looked like an oversized inhaler: a clear capsule of orange fluid screwed into a mouthpiece. It had a yellow note folded over and taped to its neck.

Acres
Let’s try this again. Here’s the next sample. Put it together from old stimulant recipe tucked away in storeroom. Should give you an edge down in the orchard. But take things slow. Powerful stuff.

We need to prepare, stuff the Stable like a bear before hibernation. If we have to scrap these kids, throw the babies out with the bathwater, it won’t be long before we’re plumb out of sound minds or able bodies. Start hoarding. Going to take a lot of fruit to tide us over until we can raise a replacement generation.

But I have a feeling this is going to work.
I’ll try and get this to you before the end of your shift. We’ll talk tonight.
I was thinking I’d come over to your room, for a change. There are eyes on me.

The note wasn’t signed, but my Pipbuck named the strange medicine Dash.
I bundled up under the desk, and clicked in the holotape, thinking of babies and bathwater.

It began with a soft sort of scuffling, though I knew it wasn’t the sound of a fight, but only clumsy hooves trying to get a hold on the tape. I could hear music from somewhere far away, and knew that I had been right: The same songs for the last one hundred years.

It’s been a few months since the birth of the first… broken child. And more of them keep popping up. Like weeds. We need to start running our blood through the system. To figure out which branches of the family tree are,” The buck cleared his throat. “… brushing together. For now, we can only blame the jackass that sold the tickets to this slow ride though a shallow gene pool.

The voice was frustrated, short fused and intelligent, and even if I had heard it coming from a stranger, I would have called him Doctor. “This has to be some kind of genetic throwback: the fruit of seeds planted decades ago. It’s their fault. Those idiots. Throwing off their clothes in the light of the balefire. Climbing onto the closest warm body they could find. Celestia, if only they knew what they were doing. Just because you survive the end of the world, doesn’t mean you’re invincible…” He sighed. “Idiots. And now we get to see the idiot apples falling from that idiot tree. An entire harvest, a whole season of idiots.”

“Our jobs aren’t all that different, Acres,” He said, though it sounded like the doctor was alone. “What would you do? If all your trees bore strange and sour fruit? Would you cut down the orchard, and plant it again? Or would you put your trust in another summer, another spring?”

At least your trees aren’t so bloody stubborn. At least they can’t look down at their ugly, disfigured fruit and find a way to love them. Acres… if I can’t change their minds, if they won’t let me cut out this cancer… we’re going to start slipping, and I don’t know if we’ll ever stop.”

And then, as his voice was drowned out in another fit of scuffling and stale music, I looked up at the wall behind his desk, and saw words that might have been smeared on with the severed leg of a lamb.

Foal Killer

*** *** ***

As children, we had been turned loose, with crayons floating in watery magic or held between milk moustaches and candied lips, to leave abecedarian scripture on the wall that led us into our classroom every morning. And so a mural, a gathering of every color from Razzle Dazzle Rose to Atomic Tangerine, had grown under the tending of a century’s children.

I had spent an entire afternoon coloring in my sun, though it was no larger than a hoofprint. I checked on it almost every day, to make sure that no part of that pastel storm had come swooping in to cover it up. And, just as they steered themselves in wide paths around me, the other children kept their colors away, and the mural became a maelstrom, a celestial feast, as stick figures and kaleidoscopic cities were pulled into the sun. Though they never touched, and my colors were left alone in the chaos.

Stable 23 had no such mural. And I had to remind myself that it was somewhere else: somewhere better.

I couldn’t say why I had come all the way to the classrooms, though the words foal killer hung at the back of my mind throughout the trip. And, as I stepped through the door, I looked out over two dozen empty desks, as if hunting for tiny bones. Of course, there weren’t any, as education would have been one of the first things to be left behind in the devolution of Stable 23.

There was a different kind of music playing here, as promenade trumpets and gala orchestras gave the Equestrian flag, which was being projected across the classroom's chalkboard, something to sway to. On the board, the scattered pieces of a hundred equations could still be found, like the ruins of an old empire buried under the sand: under the grainy film of the projector. Symbols, both alphabetic and mathematic, rode the tide, as the machine’s white eye blinked a thousand times over, and its red light fluttered. I sat down beside one of the desks, as new pictures burst in and out the sand, like giant worms.

Celestia and Luna posed on either side of the screen now, though they had been made cartoonish: identical but for the shades of gray that colored their coats. And there, between them, was Canterlot like an eagle’s nest on the side of its mountain. EQUESTRIA, the slide announced, in letters that came onto the screen slowly, one after the other, as if they had been waiting in line.

Next, came a small gallery of ponies: a unicorn, a pegasus and an earth pony, all generic and beady eyed. The lines that shaped their bodies were sloped and soft, as if molded from clay by gentle hooves, and it was hard to see them as anything but mares. AND HER CITIZENS. The letters didn't change, even as stripes came to replace feathers and horns, as alien glyphs boiled over cutie marks.

Another slide unfurled over the screen, like a coffee stained piece of parchment, showing inky mushroom clouds like enormous religious landmarks across a horse-drawn map of Equestria. It was so childish, so hollow, and I wouldn't have been surprised if the word WHOOPS! had appeared as a caption to this comic book panel of the day the bombs fell.

STABLE 23: YOUR NEW HOME. Instead, that door came rolling onto the screen, and I looked at it like a face I could not forget. It was followed by scratchy photographs of everything from the medical wing, whose patients smiled as if death had gotten lost on his way to the room, to the orchard, which looked to have been stolen from a peaceful, faraway place: plucked right out of a travel brochure.

BUT WHAT ABOUT EQUESTRIA? The letters marched through a post-apocalyptic landscape, though its sky was arid and its sun was naked and cruel. It was as if they’d expected Equestria to keep burning, to boil, even after the fallout had torn itself to pieces in its tantrum. WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?

The Stable door had fallen open, and a flood of cartoon ponies came dancing out into the valley. There were no stripes carved into the bodies of their bucks, and no hoofprints on the hips of their mares. They looked surprised, even delighted, by something, like actors in a commercial stumbling onto some miracle product. SALVATION. Another three-piece set of Zebras stood before the gates of Zion, wearing halos that might have been stolen from under the heads of sleeping Gods.

THE NEW EQUESTRIA. They lead the ponies, like ducklings out of a freshly cracked egg, through a world that was being rebuilt all around them. Old cities had become the soil from which greater ones sprung, though their architecture seemed out of place in crowds of spruce trees and the shadows of an Equestrian mountain. Their lines curled, as if inspired by the stems of wildflowers and the trunks of savannah trees, instead of the even posture of pines and pillars of steel left behind for us to inherit. Runes were smeared over our frowning street signs, striped faces over our Ministry Mares.

OUR NEW LEADERS. A Caesar stood with his bird of paradise wife, both perching on the balcony that would overlook a new Canterlot, as if it were a coliseum. OUR NEW FRIENDS.

Ponies and Zebras made a circle with their hooves, and danced around discolored, alchemic bonfires, as ugly wooden masks rose up in rings around them, looking more like circling vultures than doves.

And for a moment, I believed it, and my heart became a stone in my chest.

Then, as the screens changed, I felt proud to have come from my Stable. Knowing that we were better: that we had been given a chance. This place could never have been one of our last lights, for this thicket of nonsense and the poison ichors of incest that had begun spreading even as its door rolled shut. Hope had been blotted out here, as if it were nothing more than a little, crayon-colored sun.

The ponies here must have known, before losing themselves, that this New Equestria, pieced together from the broken bones of two old and warring nations, could never be. And to live, knowing that your destiny was a pipe dream… couldn’t that be enough to leave an entire tribe sitting back as the ground began to shake beneath their hooves, as their village was swallowed up by some drought or natural disaster. Couldn’t that be why they had let this happen?

When Exiting the Stable, Remember:

We all have our own Magic:

This slide showed a unicorn preening the feathers of her friend under pale fingers of magic, while a zebra standing on two hooves conjured up pinwheels of smoke and fire in the air. Far behind them, an earth pony pawed at the soil, with his chest puffed up as if he was especially good at it.

And something that makes us Special:

A cluster of Equestrian fillies had gathered around a small zebra, whose size didn’t make her look like much less of an adult: like much less of a soldier. They watched as a rune was drawn onto her striped flank, as if by an invisible quill. Their faces were all split by toothy smiles; though I couldn't help imagining envy and distrust buried somewhere deep in their beady little cartoon eyes.

Stars and Stripes don’t Mix!

A lone Zebra, who might have been wearing a theater mask for the comical horror on his face, held a hoof up to the night sky, shielding himself from it. And even I had to admit that it was a little offensive to make it seem as if zebras could only cower from the stars, as if they were the bright eyes of a lion.

But we can all get along!

Postcards from that fake empire, where the Zebras ruled us as earthly and Arcadian Gods, flashed by, as if to plant the seeds of this inane thicket in my mind. And I almost felt smug for the war that was still echoing out over Zion, beating its walls like a drum, as if to say: Looks like you were wrong.

A Production of Stable-Tec

The last slide was a map of Equestria. But, this time, the entire country had been striped black and white.

*** *** ***

I made it to the lower floor without having to escape from much more than a sideways glances or a set of bared teeth, but as I came to the Orchard door, my Pipbuck blushed as if it had just been kissed on the cheek. I could only hope that whatever was prowling the orchard would see me as a stray from the harem above, and not a saboteur who had pledged allegiance to a striped flag.

I needed to see the Orchard, before turning it to ash in the savage’s mouths. I needed to see the greatest gift that Stable 23 had wasted, if only to make the light that I had long since left behind shine a little brighter, and cast my shadow a little farther.

The door wouldn’t open all the way, as a large dent in its middle had given it a potbelly, and it groaned as I leaned my weight against it. As it gave in, I stumbled out into the Orchard, and it was as if I had dug a hole through the planet, and come burrowing out into another country: the Zebra’s country.

The grass looked to have been bleached blonde, and the trees held up flat canopies like primitive shields against an electric sun. But, ever for a bowled blue ceiling that might have had Celestia herself sitting on its skylight, it was cold, and the air was still. The trees were more like statues, wearing laurels of amethyst crystals dotted with dull, canary colored bulbs. And, instead of Zebras, savages prowled the savannah.

One of them - an enormous buck whose neck never bent and whose hooves pounded at the fields, as if planting seeds, or stomping out saplings – wore a tattered red cape, and plate armor that caught the light of this counterfeit summer. On his shoulders and around his waist, were platted feathers, which might have been plucked from a brass phoenix. And over his avian helmet, whose crest was sloped back to imitate some tropical bird, rested a golden laurel wreath, though it was facing the wrong way, as if this Caesar to the savages had run backwards through his coronation.
.
With my belly sinking into the grass like the hull of a ship, I snaked my way over the nearest of the orchard’s rolling hills, trying to enjoy it. But the air smelt like rust, instead of soil or dew or burst fruit being spoiled in the sun, and even as I planted myself at the foot of an acacia tree, I couldn’t lose myself in it: I couldn’t make believe that it was real.

Acrylic clouds surrounded the Orchard, like a white army crowding its every horizon. Empty baskets lay scattered across the savannah, not unlike discarded helmets, and the savages picked over them, as if searching for the decapitated heads of their bannermen. Sacks of Stable brand provisions lay slumped against the tree trunks, like weary fieldworkers after a long day, and I knew that there was enough to last.

I hurried back into the Stable – as the Orchard felt like a piece stolen from another place – and followed the hallway back to the elevator, ignoring the two staircases that had been hollowed out on either side of it. To my left, was a sign that read Oxygen Recycling, and I didn’t give myself any time to think before following it. And, as I entered a room lined with whirring machines, whose walls were broken up by bundles of pipe, I understood that there could be no turning back.

I found a terminal, lit it up, and hacked it. I had been guessing at the password, stabbing at lines of letters without taking aim, and might not have thought to back out if I hadn’t struck oil. Or rather: gasoline.

STABLE-TEC OXYGEN RECYCLING
CONTROL TERMINAL
ACCESS APPROVED < WELCOME USER>

A few of the pipes that lined the walls around me were branded with a little black and yellow flame, and I scanned the screens that followed, searching for a way to make them breathe out all at once, and turn the Stable's air to kindling.

GAS MAIN: LINES 3, 4, 7, 14
ORCHARD… closed
MAINTENANCE… open [designate: incinerator, furnace]
COMMON AREA… open [designate: kitchen, central heating]
MAIN ENTRANCE… closed

REDIRECTS
Perfect: here was a list of every pipe, and the lungs into which they drew breath. Based on the spring from which lines 3, 4, 7, and 14 began, I found the gas main, and had every pipeline drink from its pool, going so far as to turn the water into another instrument in my genocidal orchestra.

REDIRECTING…
AUTHORITIVE CONFIRMATION REQUIRED
An empty line blinked up at me from the middle of the screen, waiting for the password.
I took a deep breath, and punched in Veni vidi vici.

CONFIRMING...

I could hear it happening, as the gas went hissing through the Stable, as if I had only pried open one of the ventilation shafts, and emptied out a basket of snakes. My chest hurt, but I knew that it wasn’t for the venom in the air. And, as I turned to run, planning to drop the Celestial Flame down the elevator shaft and use the Doctor’s spurring medicine to get out in time, the terminal signed off and started shutting down.

I looked back, and the words on the screen almost made me believe that it knew: that the Stable understood what I had just done.

THANK YOU

*** *** ***

The way ahead was blocked. Everything from the steel plating on the walls to the wiry mesh behind it, had folded in over the staircase, barring me from escape. This is it, I thought, This is Equestria telling me that I made the wrong choice: that I failed. Until some hapless animal clicked its hoof against the floor, and made a spark to start the fire, I would be trapped here, in the pinched-off stairwell between the fourth and third floors, waiting to be saved by my own genocide.

I almost sat down, believing that this gate had been closed over my path by the will of the God on the walls. I almost took it in my stride, and gave myself to him. But then I saw the gun, and the bones.

A Tri-beam laser rifle lay trapped in the ribcage of a disjointed skeleton, whose skin would once had been striped, clad in dark armor and a chalk mask. There was the very weapon that I had for so long been longing for. And, while I pulled the rifle out and held it in my arms as one might a child from fresh ruins, I realized that I hadn’t been here before: that I wasn’t being bottled in by the palm of some vengeful God, but had only taken the wrong staircase.

I was not being punished. I was being an idiot.

I strapped the rifle to my side, and skipped over my own steps, heading back to the elevator. I could hear the savages now, coughing and sputtering as the gas in the air began to trickle down their throats. But, worse still were the sounds that were coming from the orchard: the brittle creaking and the thunder of their hooves, making it seems as if those acrylic clouds had gathered into a storm.

I decided to try my luck, and pressed the call button for the elevator. I just couldn’t bear the thought of climbing halfway up the other staircase, only to find out that something was really trying to shut me in.

The doors slid open, revealing a small room whose ceiling had one of its panels punched in, and whose floor was covered in something like sand, as if the savages had been using the shaft above as a place to sweep a hundred years of dust. With my hooves leaving shallow prints in the sand, I hurried into the elevator, and set a course for First Floor: Decurions, Deals, and Valleys stocked with Super Weapons.

As the cables pulled taught, and the old machine hummed to life, I knew that the Caesar might be waiting for me at the top of his upside-down castle, that he might have come bolting up the stairs, stirred into a frenzy by the groans that I was rattling out of the Stable’s throat. But I couldn’t be afraid; I couldn’t think that the cables might snap or that the warriors of the Orchard might catch me, because I was getting out.

The elevator slowed and, then, I realized that something was wrong. It was too early, and I crumbled myself up in the corner, thinking that the Caesar – an idiot God peeled from Zion’s walls – would soon have me. But the buck who came leaping through the doors just as they parted, with panic in his eyes and a pregnant mare in tow, was no idiot. He had a stack of books for a cutie mark, after all.

I threw myself over him, using his face as a stepping stone and slamming my entire body against the button for the first floor. But as the doors closed, I found myself looking out over a sea of bald and furrowed faces, which swelled towards us like a sudden tide casting its shadow over the shore. They closed in around his mare, and she bleated like a frightened lamb.

“Hey!” I heard him shout, even as he pulled himself up out of the dirt. “Don’t let them take her!”

We fought for the cow-eyed mare like children pulling at either end of a doll, and I had to wonder how long it would be before she began to tear at her seams. But after a short struggle - throughout which the elevator doors kept coming together and pulling apart, as if chewing on the mare – we won: and all three of us collapsed back into the sand, as the elevator finally closed its toothless mouth.

The buck let her curl up against his chest, though she was bigger than him, if only for the swell of her belly. “The gas you let into the air… how are you going to light it?” he asked, after we’d caught our breath. I looked him in the eye, and pulled the bottle of Celestial Flame out of my saddlebags. “That’ll do it.”

I got to my hooves, and began beating the sand off of my jumpsuit. “Who’s she?” I asked, as we trundled past the Stable’s second floor, but the buck only shrugged. “Is this why you wanted us to light the monument… So you could come back while the warriors were away? So you could come and get her?” He shot me a sour smile, as the mare began to lick his chest as one might a block of salt. “Why this one?”

“Got her pregnant.” I could tell that he was about to say something he thought was funny, or tell another lie to cover up what she really meant to him, but his smile wilted, as I tried my best to look at him the way Caliber had. I could almost see his armor being whittled away. “I just… I need to keep her alive.”

Hooves thundered through the Stable around us, and the elevator rattled as if it were a bomb shelter, and the world was ending just outside. He went on. “At least until…”

"Until the baby comes.”

"Yeah."

"Do you think it might be… different?"

"Yeah... yeah, maybe."

Neither of us said anything after that. And when we reached the first floor, I let him take her.

*** *** ***

I set the bottle, and the vial of Dash, down before the lip of the elevator shaft, even as the Stable swallowed that old machine like an uncomfortably large pill. And then, with a tilt of my horn, I brought the inhaler to my lips, and let its orange medicine trickle down my throat.

The liquid seemed to slow down as it went, and my vision had already begun to pulse by the time it settled. I could watch the gas, pushing through the air like mountains rising out of the sea. I dropped the vial, but never heard it break. I wanted to shudder as the drug hummed on my tongue, but I couldn’t make myself shake. I would probably have preferred the taste of a cupcake, but I didn’t know how to bake.

Everything was molasses. And I was a shark. Swish-swish-swishing my way through it.
I was a sword, piercing the belly of a whale. A whale full of molasses.

Children would speak of me, they would whisper my name as if speaking it in vain, until they were adults: and then they would have children: just so they could name them after me. And this would happen more than once. Actually, it would happen a whole lot of times. Like in a cycle, or something.

But I had to go. I had to go go go. I couldn't wait for the rest of it all to catch up with me. I had to run. Until I was out of the frame, out of the panel: out of sight, out of mind! Until I had gone full circle, until I had carved the entire planet into dust, until I was going so fast that I could run on starlight and the spaces in between it. I kicked the bottle of Celestial Flame over the edge, just to show everypony that I was faster than the fires of an atomic bomb, that me and Equestria could outrun this thousand year war.

"Let's see who's faster." My words sliced through the atmosphere like a freaking missile, baby! But the bottle was falling like a feather. I mean It was falling really slowly. But other than that, it didn't have that much in common with a feather. It was more like a bottle. But a bottle that was falling really slowly.

I considered running down to the orchard, getting myself a nice apple to eat, then coming back and eating the shit out of it. After that, I would digest that sucker like there was no tomorrow. But I didn't do any of that. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. And if there was a doctor here: I could race him.

Now who the heck is this guy coming up the stairs? Some muscle-headed buck trying to step up to the chopping block, huh? Who do you think you are following me up here: some kind of smart guy? Some kind of egghead? What are you, huh: Caesar of the freaking savages or what?

Hold on there, loverboy. I'll knock your laurels straight in just a minute: I've got a fire to be faster than.

"That is a beautiful fire." I said, because I say whatever I want. Seriously, you can't censor this mare. Try it... just try it. "Seriously, I would hump its brains out if I didn't have to win this race and save the Princess. Or become a Princess. I forget which one I'm doing today."

The flames spread out into... an explosion, I guess. It was because of the gas in the air, is my theory.
You should have seen it. It had to be the slowest genocide I've ever seen. I am not even dicking with you.

The heat rose like a pillar, being built by midgets. But it made its way to the starting line eventually.

I smiled at the Caesar, who was getting closer by the hour. "I guess it needs some time to warm up."
What the hell that was hilarious.

"You know, Caesar, this place reminds me of a hive... except, instead of insects... You've got incest!"
By the early morning dew that gathers on Celestia's cunt, I should so be a standup comedian.
My cutie mark should be a pony dying of laughter or something.

"You make a terrible audience, Caesar." Motherfucker didn't even smile. "Heh... motherfucker."

Get it!?

The Sensexual Flame is here! On your marks... get set-
Hey... Stop that. That hurts.
Quit it! ...Okay, screw you: let's go!

I'm a freight train. I'm a bullet. I AM TERMINAL VELOCITY!
Cool, I'm at the end of the hallway. Looks like I won the race. What a freaking twist.

What the..?

“Sensexual... how could you?”

“He's a dirty savage! An idiot! He's an egghead and a scholar! Why are you touching him like that?!”

"You fool!" I cried. Not like cried... not tears and that homosexual shit. "I would have humped you!"

In her time with the Caesar, Sensexual had gotten enormously fat. Elephantine, even.
"You have gotten enormously fat." I pointed out, as it was the polite thing to do. "Elephantine, even."

I could barely see the Caesar anymore and, to be honest: I was starting to miss him.
He had always been my rock.

Now, Sensexual had spread herself across the entire Stable. For the Genocide, remember?
She would leave most of the savages as nothing more than ash, including my Caesar. And for him: I shed a single, stripy tear. Of all the things I would not have turned to ash. He was probably the fifth.
First came Equestria. Then me. Then Caliber. Then Ash.

Mmmmm... Ash.
I bet she tastes like a piece of cake.
A sad piece of cake. That’s when you have your cake, cry into it a little bit, and then eat it too.

"Did you hear that Sensexual? About me and Ash?" She was getting awfully close. "Feel free to slut it up all about the town. For I have found a new boo." I didn't need to yell anymore. The fire was close enough now to hear a whisper. "In fact: I think you two might be related." Get it? Ash and Fire? My God.

Whoops. Better back it up.
I turned my head, to look at my milkshake as I backed it out of the Stable.

My milkshake brings all the mares to the yard.
And they’re like…It’s better than yours.
Damn right! It’s better than yours.
I would’ve humped you,
but you got fat.

Lala-la la la
Warm it up!

Yeah.
That's right: You'd better run, tramp!

Caesar!?
You're alive!

My Milkshake has resurrected you!




Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Merciful Killer: You deal twice as much damage to foes beneath 25% health.