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Chapter 3: Sinnerman

Fallout Equestria: Begin Again
Chapter 3: Sinnerman
“If you aren’t getting your hands dirty, you aren’t making a difference. Welcome to the World.”

|*| Blaspheme Quarantine |*|

Guttural voices came dribbling out of the spaces in between their misshapen teeth, as the mole rats chanted chewed words and swallowed harmonies, like a choir with its mouth full. I hadn’t taken a dozen steps into the seamy underbelly of Equestria before seeing these overgrown maggots, all crowded in around a corpse like naked surgeons soaking in a pool of sterile light. I could hear them swallowing.

I watched them as they broke his body, as if tearing pieces of bread from the loaf. Their feet slipped over a bloody old baseball bat, and it rolled closer, begging me; tempting me. Its handle had been chewed thin, as the buck would have held it in his mouth as they gutted him. I swept up his hickory cudgel, and stepped into the ring with a cry that was more likely to have come from a baby than a barbarian.

My first swing caught one of the rats under its belly and, as it clawed at the bat, I dashed it against the metro wall, leaving a smear over the face of a filly and the box of Fancy Foal’s Snack Cakes that seemed to be making her smile. The bars on my Pipbuck turned red, as eight beady eyes turned to blink up at me over gaping, wet lips. I listened to their claws, tearing into flyers, metro tickets and flattened magazine pages, and saw their prints, so red that they might have been crushing grapes. I saw paper faces bleed.

I skipped over my hooves, turned my head, and swung the bat like a battleaxe out in front of me. I heard them hissing, heard myself sliding over so many ticket stubs. There was a crack, and then another. The blood came bubbling up out of their skulls, like yolk from broken eggshells.

I closed my eyes, and followed the wall into the nearest bathroom, though it had a stallion standing over its door like a faceless, black guard. I slammed the door shut behind me, and listened to them clawing at it, bumping their snouts as if to knock. One of them had been cut in half as the door closed, so that its body was split like a stick of warm butter, and its heart was left there, naked, painting the tiles red.

I shivered, as I pictured rounded red teeth breaking my skin, and filthy, fat bellies rubbing up against my legs. I tried to pretend that he was still alive. That he had rolled the baseball bat over, and whispered Save me, Grace. And then, once I had breathed life into the body, it was easy.

I threw myself at the door, like a mare charging into the orange mouth of a burning building. I came out screaming, and swung the bat as hard as I could. It broke one of their necks, and sent a carcass spinning toward the far wall. The mole rat hit it with a satisfying wet slap, like a trophy fish against a dock.

I killed the last two in the same way, and stood there, out of breath and retching, as the walls bled. With the baseball bat quivering at my side like a diving rod, I went back into the bathroom, looking for water.

I washed my face, and then covered the corpse’s with a newspaper. I couldn’t make him clean, or put him back together again. I couldn’t even give him a funeral. The body could not have been any more buried, and I had no way to burn it. While my magic walked over me like a lion carrying the darkness on its back, I had never taught it how to play with fire.

*** *** ***

I came into a tunnel that might have been left behind by a great worm, burying through a concrete apple. There were holes in the ceiling, and so moonlight hung like ghostly tapestries, burning the dust blue. In the light, I could see that there was another staircase below, that there was space below the station. The cluttered train cars made me think of clogged arteries, and the twisted rails of frayed nerves.

There was a mural on the wall, whose star was the silhouette of an alicorn, skipping over a field of gold. Her mane was streaked in the colors of a candy store, and ponies followed her over what could have been the surface of the sun. They looked like children, like ugly ducklings waddling along behind a swan they had confused for their mother. And though they had no faces, I liked to think that they were smiling.

I walked down the frozen escalators, after thinking better of saluting the Princess on the wall. The chamber felt crowded, as two trains lay in it like the skins of a great snake. There were bones as if to make its bed, and I might have been learning how to dance, as I skipped over spinal cords and twirled around jawless skulls. I followed the passenger cars, looking for color, like a mare picking flowers after a wildfire. This train could have carried a circus on its back once. It could have come from Canterlot.

The Princesses must have used it to come to the north, to explore the empty relics of those three tribes, the ancient civilization tucked behind all the forest and stone. I felt very proud then, as if I had the same blood that had run cold in the temples of Kings, that had been spilt into this hard earth again and again.

There was a map, plastered to a fat obelisk in the middle of the platform, and I could see the subway splayed out on it, like veins under the skin of the country. I couldn’t make much sense of it, but I found the Acheron station easily enough. There was a bright, overexcited arrow that said: You are here!

There was another station, just north of Acheron, and the rails that ran from east to west made a cross over it, as if to say that this was where some great treasure could be found. Still, I saw no signs that there were any more trains in the space below this terminal. And I had to wonder what was down there.

What had been buried under this lonely station, whose crown was made of wood, and whose hair was full of worms? I lit my horn. The moonlight had not soaked so deep into the earth.

*** *** ***

I kicked up clouds of dust, and they went spinning into the watery light, as sugar stirred into a drink. There were floodlights; come bursting out of blossoms in the mesh, and rubble clung to the naked wire like autumn leaves to their branches. The light put a shine to everything it touched, making white diamonds out of the rubble, fireflies out of the dirt, and a bride out of me.

This was some kind of terminal. There was line after line of uncomfortable looking benches, punctuated by ticket booths and strips of wreckage. I jumped back, as my light filled the hollow spaces of some traveler’s skull, like champagne. There were more of them, families of them, and I crept away as though they were all asleep, waiting to be woken by the whistling of their train.

Their suitcases had been ransacked and bled old country clothes across the floor. It looked like the Stable’s vultures had stuck their beaks deep into the earth, to pick at Equestria’s gut.

There was a parade of restaurants and newsstands crowding the far wall, stocked up with foreign coffee and local gossip. I had all but forgotten my body, and didn’t think to look for food or a place to sleep. Instead, I wove through a maze of yellowwood walls and thickets of barbed wire, heading for a sprawling mosaic of comic books, famous faces, punchy headlines, pulp magazines and soft pornography.

Princess Incest: The Bluebloods' Illicit Origins Revealed!
Shining Armor Pregnant: Magical Boosters in the Bedroom Go Awry!
King Sombra Voted Sexiest Monarch: Celestia Outraged!

The cover girls were dressed as nurses and nuns, as sailors and schoolgirls and soldiers. Silk and satin and lace clung to their bodies, and they let fur scarves, polished leather and peacock feathers slide off of their shoulders. I felt compelled to find a mirror, if only to see if, thrown out onto a runway that reached back into the old world, I could keep the beat of the crowd’s hooves going.

There were plenty of bucks, too. And I counted more copies of Inches than any other backshelf magazine. Homosexuality had once been a kind of heroism in the Stable, as there had been a time when we were at risk of spilling over the lip of the glass: of overpopulating. As far as I knew, some kids had been selling their own brand birth control from a stand, as if it were lemonade. When they were finally shut down, it turned out that they had been using sugar pills stolen from the hospital. That had almost burst the Stable’s belt, and was enough to make ashes out of their one way tickets to the new Equestria.

I took the time to pose with my hair over my eyes, like the mare on the cover of the pulp magazines, and flung back my coat like a hero perched on some skyscraper. Then I saluted the Ministry Mare of Wartime Technology, and made my way back into the industrial hedge maze of yellowing wood and twisted wires.

Tables lay scattered around a rusty old milkshake bar, like wheels around a bus that had run aground, and I swept up a few cases of shotgun shells on my way into the wreck. There were three rounds left in my automatic pistol, and that already felt like too many. I saw pink butterflies in the corner of my eyes, and found syringes scattered across the milkshake bar like chicken bones. I picked up the ones that had caught my eyes, and my Pipbuck listed them as Stimpacks.

I climbed into the milkshake bar, and went very still as my light lapped up the checkered wall. All across the tile, there were feathers of blood, fanned out like a peacock’s tail, or a red deck of cards. I looked down, and felt my stomach churn. There was a corpse slouched against the wall, and in place of a head, it was as if he had a mushroom cloud coming out of his neck. It was as if he had choked on a balefire bomb.
There was a sawed-off shotgun resting along the length of his belly, and a string had been laced around the weapon’s trigger, so he could set it off by letting his hoof hang, by letting go.

I threw myself out of the milkshake bar, and retched, so that stale tears came to my eyes. He had done it to himself. And there was nothing I could do to make it better. There was no one I could blame… but him.

I reached back into the bar with my magic, and slipped the shotgun out as if from under someone’s pillow. I was about to break it into pieces – if only to give myself a demon to take apart – when I saw the glow of a terminal coming out of the corner of the bar. Its light seemed as serene as a candle’s to me then, and I held my breath, thinking that I might blow it out. My heart beat a little faster. I could only hope that, though the buck had left his brains on the wall, some of his mind might be still found in the machine.

Seeing it made me want to laugh, like a mare stranded on a maddening island, watching a searchlight roll in on the back of the tide. The terminal would pull me out of this nightmare, and tell me a better story.

It had to.

*** *** ***

I met a girl today. Over by the Installation gate. She was {~}nice to me. She {~} so beautiful.
She was blue. Her mane, her coat {~} eyes. Pale like the stars up north. Where the sky is naked.
I think I'm in love. How long has it been [love] Since any of us wiped the dust off that old word [world]?

-

I am. [ really am] But I'm afraid of it. What if she won't feel the same way?
I go to her {~} every day. Sometimes more. The clock has stopped. So I can't tell for sure.
By the time the light is flushed down to this place. I know the sun is rolling over us. And I go to her.
But {~} never changes. Not even in the dark. If anything, the night makes her brighter. [starlight]
I need to see her. I always do. I can't remember {~} food. It's like I don't need it anymore.
She is my water [my wine]. And I'm drowning in her. I'm choking on her.
But it scares me. [don't tell her]

-

She got angry {~} can't go back.
She's still so close. If it weren't for the staircase, I could still watch her. I can't sleep without seeing her.
I should tear it down. [blow it up] . Trap us here. [together] .
Can one prisoner refuse {~} forgive another?

-

I pulled away from the terminal – though the words would not have been out of place on a crumpled piece of paper – and it seemed to whisper as I turned my head, and looked down his throat. I was sorry for blaming him, for thinking he was selfish, as if he’d killed himself just to spite the world. The voice in the terminal was obsessed, deranged. It was sick. And I could blame a sickness.

-

She's going to forgive me. [of course]
Everything {~} back to the way it was. [perfect] . I know what I did.
Gatekeeper {~} her machines. [friends] . And I upset them. I brought a gun {~} their doorstep.
The lights started spinning. She was yelling at me [Cerberus started barking] So I ran.
Home again, home again. Like the little coward that I am.
I don't deserve a mare like her.
But I won't let her go.

-

Something's wrong. The siren brought dead bodies up out of the dark. It [You] brought them here [there].
I watched {~}. Limping, dragging themselves around her machines. I was so angry. [afraid]
I think they're blind. They didn't find me. And they didn't find her. Thank {~}, they didn't find her. [yet]
I think I'll leave my {~} here. Maybe then she'll show me around the glass [kingdom] places.
She might be angry. But we're running out of time. [the walls are folding in on themselves]

-

No! [yes] NO! [YES!] nonononooo{~}ooooo...
They found her. They took her. Oh {~}, I think they [ate] took her.
I have to go north. I have to go after her. [ Into the mouth of the dog ]
But it wasn't my fault. She wouldn't let me have my gun. What was I supposed to do?
How could they expect me to save her? She wouldn't {~} with me! She wouldn't listen!
They [You] have to understand! She wouldn't run!

-

What if {~}? What if they change her? What if they peel off her skin and pull out her hair?
What if they blow out the starlight in her eyes? [like candles]
They could [they will] make her like them... [ dead dead dead ]

-

I am a coward.

-

She was {~} good to me. She was so innocent [clean].
But I can't [won't] go after her. This whole installation is sick with age. Except for her.
I can't go there. Not without [keys to the kingdom] a gun. And that would make the lights spin {~}.
Even if I saved her. She might not want me.
But it won't be {~} long now.
I don't know what to do.
But I know what I am.
[Coward]
Coward.

-

I've been here for days [years]. I think I'm dying. {~}, I [know] think I'm really dying.
She was the only thing keeping it away. But I ran {~} and never went back.
I left her. Because I was afraid of the dead.
Soon {~} I'll be just like them. But I'm not afraid of that.
I'm not too much of a coward to die.

[Prove it]

*** *** ***

I was going to save her. Just as I had killed the rats in the grave of that gutted wanderer, so would I go into the gate of the Installation, and find her. One of these dead bucks had been gutless, the other headless and heartbroken. I had to be what they couldn’t. I had to win. For them, for her… for me.

I started to imagine this buried place as the kingdom of Death. And I saw myself walking up to his throne, and snatching the girl out of his palm. I would cheat him, though his bony fingers were bent around every trigger, and had never coiled tighter than they did around the gun pointed at the head of the world.

I knew I was letting myself get too deep into the fantasy, that I was more like a filly in cardboard armor than a knight in some storybook, but I needed it. I needed to play pretend. The hero always won in the storybooks. Without that, I was just another wanderer poking her nose where it didn’t belong, into a place that my Geiger counter clicked its tongue at, a place for rats and madmen.

A bright hallway opened out on the far side of the terminal, and its white light spilled out over the benches and the skinless bodies. Their bones threw narrow shadows around the pillars and over the staircase, like the fingers of something being dragged into the Installation. Still, the hallway was clean, its tiles unbloodied and its glass unbroken, and the lights made me think of home, of the hospital.

Ahead, there was a security checkpoint: machines, humming and blinking like dragons half asleep. One let its mouth hang open, and its long black tongue rolled out, waiting for the wallets and necklaces and rings, for the coins and keys, of any traveler who chose to walk through the gate.

As I came up to it, a column of light sprung out of a plinth on the floor, and span on it as if on a potter’s wheel. It was massaged into the shape of a mare, and I watched her eyes come out like the first two stars of the night. The constellations seemed to have been stitched into her skin, and thought she shone like something out of the Crystal Empire; she might have been a closer cousin to an Ursa Minor.

A hologram.

“Hello. And welcome to the Installation.” I blinked, again and again, trying to make her come into focus. “Ma’am,” She said, through blurry lips, and eyes that were sparkling as a drunk’s. “As this is your –“ I shrank away from her, though her voice was clear and sweet. “- First visit. I will be acting as your escort.”

She didn’t blink, and her smile shivered like white static. “I’ll be with you, whenever you need me.” I stared up at her, as though I was trying to remember her name. I met a girl today.

But this wasn’t her. It couldn’t be. This was a million lines of code bundled up into our image, and couldn’t be loved anymore than a toy soldier or a ragged old doll. But to a child, or a hermit made delirious in all his time alone, couldn’t that be enough? I think I’m in love.

No. I decided. Nopony could give up so much for the love of a machine. Besides, she clearly didn’t need to be saved. If she was the girl, then there was no quest: I would have no reason to go on.

“Please place your wallets, belts, horeshoes, electronic devices, hair clips, hoof trimmers and spare bits into one of the bins.” Her eyes flickered back to the machine, telling me to feed it. “Alert. If one of our security officers pulls you aside, you may have to be a part of an intensive cavity search.” Which part, I wondered. “They can be very gentle. Or not. It really depends on you.”

I frowned right through her big, covergirl smile, and then stripped myself of anything that might set off an alarm, that might make the lights spin. When I was done, I walked through the gate, with my magic like a magpie just above it, clutching so much silver in its talons. I couldn’t set my guns down on that machine’s tongue. Not if it might take them into its mouth and then, like a stubborn child, refuse to spit them out.

*** *** ***

“Please don’t fire live rounds inside the Installation,” She said, without letting the sugar slip out of her voice. The Installation was shut away behind a blast door, and I had been trying to shoot out the glass of a nearby reception booth, as if the keys to this kingdom might still be hanging on a hook inside. My baseball bat hadn’t left so much as a scratch in the glass.

Please don’t fire live rounds inside the Installation,” She said, wringing all of the magic out of that magic word. “It’s not that we don’t trust you. It’s really just the bullets that we have a problem with.” She let out a nervous laugh and, for a moment, had me believing that she was real. “This wouldn’t be the most secure facility in all of Equestria if we had bullets flying all over the place.”

Before the bombs, I would likely have been buried under a few heavily armored guards by now, as even the digital mare seemed to be tapping her hooves together, waiting for someone big and strong and less concerned with good manners to come and grab me by the scruff of my neck. I turned to her, with the pistol pointed up at the ceiling. “Program, is this glass bulletproof?”

“Security!” She hissed, through the corner of her quivering smile. The lights began to spin, and an alarm came blaring out after them. While we might have forgotten them, the machines still remembered our laws. I saved the last round, as if to break the window now would leave a red stamp on my permanent record. Grace: a Troublemaker and a Disappointing Equestrian:

The wall started to rattle, and it sounded as if a clumsy windup toy was marching through the air vents. There was a crunch, as something that had come soaring out of one wall crumpled against the other, like a spitball sent to slide down someone’s cheek.

“Monitor unit is not responding!” I had almost forgotten how easily the hologram came and went, and was startled as she bleated in my ear, and pointed over my shoulder. “Alert: Spritebot is not responding!”

I hurried over to the battered little thing, thinking that I had to nurse it better just as I might a bird that had flown into a window. Its wings had been made of glass, and lay in pieces around it, like plucked feathers. Now, needlelike antennae poked out of its back, all bent out of shape for having been coughed up out of the Installation’s throat. I felt like I had seen it before, if only in a magazine or textbook.

The spritebot’s eye was empty, but for the steel rings that were still spinning around the hollow space at its heart. “Unit call sign – Okavango Delta – has suffered a complete loss of motor function.” I didn’t know why I expected her to sound upset, but she didn’t. “Please dispatch another unit if hostilities continue.”

I fished around in my saddlebags, hoping to come up with some kind of medicine out of all the parts I’d scavenged out of Acheron’s supermarket. “Would you like to talk about these feelings of aggression you’re having?” She asked, as I jammed the screwdriver into something like the hood on a jalopy.

“Please remember that this is not a government facility. If you need to work out any issues you may have with the magical land of Equestria, or would like to protest the war, you may have come to the wrong place.” I made out a name through the wire and empty battery ports of my patient, even as she said it out loud. “Cerberus should not be held responsible for: recent breakups, the deaths of any beloved animals, houseplants or family members, or the decisions of Princess Luna. If you are waiting for your train, I should also remind you that we do not have anything to do with the trains. Please stop asking.”

I slid the senor module and fission battery into place as best I could, and patched everything over with the scrap electronics, wiping my brow just as Doctor Cross had when she was operating. I had no experience with mechanics, or organ transplants for that matter, but with no blood, so much as an electric current, pumping through the machine’s system, the operation turned out to be clean, even therapeutic, work. It was more like solving a puzzle than saving a life.

There was a hum, as the same galactic light that had bundled itself into the shape of a mare began to shine in its eye, like the fire of a rum lantern. I rolled the spritebot around in my hooves, and saw a narrow console running over its belly. A scroll of angry, electric blue numbers flashed across it like headlights along a highway, and I saw the word Cerberus blinking out from in between them.

<TOTAL SYSTEM SHUTDOWN>
REBOOTING… RESETING LOCAL DATA

I could only hope that all my sins were being washed out of the spritebot’s databanks, so that I wouldn’t have to shoot it down again as soon as it woke up. It would be nice to have it hanging over me like a cherub, as I went on to stay Death’s finger, even as it curled around the trigger.

With a jolt, it lifted itself out of my hooves, despite broken wings. The rings around its heart began to spin faster, in orbit around a pale sun, even as the alarms stopped. I was forgiven. “Hostiles neutralized.” The mare chirped, before unwinding into windswept constellations, which were quickly blown out.

I stepped back, and it followed, tilting over to one side, inspecting me. “May I speak with you please?” I asked, trying to be polite. “What’s your name?” It didn’t answer, but I knew even before the words went creeping onto the console: Okavango Delta. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

“I’m Grace,” I said, as if I’d only just remembered. “From the Stable… The Last Light of Equestria.”

There was a burst of static, and the spritebot broke into a song of bold horns and swirling orchestras. I nearly started skipping in place as I realized what it was. “That’s a Circle of Friends!” The song that we had always sung together, the song of our country. “So you’re a patriot too, huh?”

I giggled, as Okavango Delta let out a string of beeps. Then, all of a sudden, he turned away from me, and bobbed over to those stern blast doors. “I was just trying to get in there,” I said, following close behind. “There’s a girl… I think she might be in trouble.”

He shone a light on the door, and I had to lean in closer to see that there seemed to be something swimming through it: lines of code like schools of fish. “Wait… can you get that open?” He didn’t answer, but slid the light in between the doors like a crowbar and, with a hum, they began to part.

A corridor of glass opened out before us, and I couldn’t help feeling enormously small, as the way ahead had been built in the shape of keyhole. We came into the kingdom as if it were wonderland.

*** *** ***

Are you lonesome tonight?

The corridor seemed to be humming, and when I looked down through the glass that split the floor, I thought I could see cerulean lights pulsing, as slow as the heartbeat of a sleeping animal. Okavango Delta hung far above me, like a star of the same color. He had found a way to tap into Galaxy News Radio, though my Pipbuck had lost the station long ago, and bobbed through the air as if it were water.

Do you miss me tonight?

I had tried to tell him what we were looking for, but he had only gone on digging through the static, looking for this song. Still, the corridor went on ahead, and it was not as though we had a chance of going the wrong way. If nothing else, I was little jealous, as Okavango seemed far more interested in being swayed from side to side in the arms of that old music, than he was in my mission.

Are you sorry, we drifted, apart?

I felt very small as I looked down through the glass, as I could see another hallway that was all but identical to this one. I might have been staring into a mirror, though there was no one staring back up at me, and no lights to match the sun perched on my horn and the star tucked into his heart.

Another blast door spread open in front of us, and we came into a small, circular room. That digital mare came up out of another plinth, and her light was bright enough to pierce the glass. I watched it exhausting itself in the labyrinth below.

"Hello again.” Even her voice seemed to shine. “There’s just one more scan we have to perform before you move on into the Installation. Please stand up straight, and try to keep at least one of your hooves under you at all times.” She laughed, and though I wasn't sure why, and her body stayed eerily still, I caught myself laughing right along with her.

The walls were coated in glass, but I could see strips of some kind of metal starting to spin behind it. I could hear her thanking me, though it was as if I was standing inside a whirlwind. I held Okavango Delta to my chest, as the roar died down, and lights flashed as if through the windows of a passing train.

“Congratulations!” The mare cheered. “You are extraordinarily fertile.”

Okavango wriggled loose, but I let a hoof linger over my storage, feeling as if I had just been invaded.
“And you appear to be in… acceptable physical condition.”

“… Thanks.”

“Please step out of the elevator.” Elevator? “There may be other Cerberus employees waiting to come through.” I did as she asked, though my hooves had begun to shake, for what I saw waiting outside of the room: A vast chamber, whose roof seemed to hang as high as the storm over the valley. “Thanks again,” She said, even as the wall came hissing down behind me. “And have a great night!”

I didn’t see her go. To walk into this place, was to paddle out to sea.

There was a pit in the middle of the chamber, where all those waning lines of light and the glass that they had danced over disappeared. There was a hole in the earth, which was so wide that the ruins of a city could have been swept into it. Four giant figures bowed around it like cold bodies around a firepit. They were holding up the ceiling on their backs, on their shoulders and their necks and the crown of their skulls. I could not tell, as they looked like no living thing, had no faces and no limbs. But I knew that they were bowing, made weary under the weight of the world.

“Celestia.” I had looked up, far above the pit, and seen a circle of glass. A pristine light came spilling out of it. But it was to the darkness here what a single pail of water is to a wildfire: what a single voice crying for peace was to a balefire bomb. “We couldn’t have done this,” I said, as Okavango drifted up and up and up, like a little blue balloon. This place was older than us. This place was beyond us.

“Come back!” I cried, as I watched his light getting smaller and smaller. “Don’t leave me…”

But he was gone. I was alone. And the silence seemed to be closing in around me, like a swarm of ants over something sweet – too sweet – something chewed up and spat out. I closed my eyes, wishing for some sound to come rolling into this kingdom: for storm sirens or wedding bells, for wild music or the laughter of children, for a voice to tell me that I wasn’t the only one left alive, or angels singing.

I couldn’t bring myself to step any deeper into it, and stood there, listening to nothing but my own breathing, my own heartbeat. I didn’t think of Celestia, or Luna, or the country that they had once fought for the love of. I didn’t pretend that my mother was there, holding me, rocking me back to sleep after some misremembered nightmare. All I wanted then, was her: that digital mare.

I met a girl today.

She could be here for me. Pale like the stars up north. Where the sky is naked.
Like she had been there for him. She is my water [my wine]. And I'm drowning in her. I'm choking on her.
I didn’t want to let myself believe it, but it had always been her. And it scares me.

I understood it then: how he could have taken his head off for a machine. When he needed her most, she hadn’t been there. When he loved her most, she couldn’t love him. And isn’t that how it always goes? There was no sickness here, just some kind of madness. It was love that had killed him: smothering him like a hospital pillow under hooves that he had held, hooves that he had kissed. And I couldn’t fight Love.

Death was not here, holding some princess in his palm.
And so I was alone. I was a hero with no one left to save, with nowhere to go.
I opened my eyes, and looked into the pit, knowing that I had no path to walk: that there was no destiny.

My knees buckled, like those of a King, whose cape was torn and whose crown was broken, as a crippled and alien army built a circle of spears around him, all pointed down from a pedestal of trampled bodies: quiet and still as his favorite toy soldiers. But I didn’t even have that much. There was nothing left.

There was nothing to win. There was nothing to lose. I lay down on the ground, and felt the tears in my eyes before I felt them in my heart. I was empty. I hadn’t eaten, I hadn’t slept. But I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t tired. And though my Geiger counter was still ticking, I couldn’t even be afraid anymore.

Get up, I told myself. Get up, I said, begging.
“Get up.” But this time, the voice wasn’t my own. It was ugly. And this time, it worked.

I looked up, and my heart fluttered. My stomach lurched, my eyes went wide, and I was afraid again.
What stood over me was a corpse. It was a dead body brought up out of the dark.

What if {~}? What if they change her? What if they peel off her skin and pull out her hair?
What if they blow out the starlight in her eyes? [like candles]
They could [they will] make her like them... [ dead dead dead ]

I didn’t know whether to smile, for knowing that I could still be in his storybook, or to scream. Its naked face, smiling like a cow skull in the sand, was enough to dry my eyes as if by drought. Its skin was so torn, that it covered up the monster’s swelling lungs and its twitching muscles like tattered curtains over the greatest show on earth. I wanted to run. I wanted to ask it to show me its heart beating.

I was shivering like a sick dog, as it leaned in a little closer. I could hear it breathing out of its throat. But its eyes were so wrong that I was sure the beast had to be blind. Pupil and iris had spilled into one another, so that I could see myself in a black lake, spoiled by swirls of a fungal shade of green. But you could still see the life in them, somewhere under the surface, drowning slowly.

“Get up,” It said, in a voice that was as wasted and as bare as its body. “Damascus wants to talk to you.” I felt light-headed, and the chamber was spinning. Its face had become blurry, so that it looked like some nightmare smeared onto a page by clumsy little hooves. The Faith had their demons to welcome the damned, their monsters on the dark side of the moon, and I began to wonder if they were right.

I would not have felt so alone, if I could just make myself believe, if I could choke down the scripture, and swallow what they had so often said to me - somewhere in the heavens… they are waiting.

But even then, as the world spun and my vision grew dim, I could not see Celestia coming with the clouds. I could not see this place as a library to our sins, or the monster that was bending down to pick me up as some ferryman into the pit. It was all just a part of the story.

*** *** ***

I lay slumped over his back, drowsy as a child being carried up to their room. I could tell that we went back into the elevator. And I listened as it hummed around us. I saw her light as though through closed eyelids, and heard her voice saying My goodness, I’m afraid you’re not in very good physical condition at all. I’ll call an ambulance. Please try not to die inside the Installation. The elevator came to a stop, she said goodbye to us, and I heard the wall hissing closed again.

“Talk to Damascus.” I opened my eyes as he let me slide off of his back, as his spine pressed into my belly and the glass steamed up under my breath. With my cheek squashed up as if against a car window, I looked down over the very chamber that I had just been standing in. Some kind of scripture ran around the glass circle like frost, though I could not read it. "Talk. To. Damascus."

I couldn't be sure whether the voice's master had shaken me off, as if I were some overloyal pet, or if I had pulled myself away in a fit of girlish disgust. I knew better than to look up - than to submit myself to the sight of that living cadaver - and so lay still until the scent of death had left the air.

The weight of that tricephalic sickness didn't leave me so easily, but I managed to climb onto uncertain hooves, and found my place in the middle vein of three, like rivers of ice that were clear enough to reveal the impossible depths below. I recognized the strikingly wide ring of glass then, as the very face that I'd looked up to from that nameless underworld, and as I rose, I saw another beast of the same blood.

An enormous window had been cut out of the ringroom's plated walls. It was wounded, and let in a tide of rich, primordial light, as deep scars ran around its edge and caught the colors of whatever bygone world had been shut away behind it. And even on my hooves, with my head held high, I felt like a beggar.

"Hell doesn't offer welcome to its visitors with any kindness. But the time for introductions, so much as kindness, is already running out. Yours is not a position that I would wish on anyone, as even on escaping this place, you will carry precious little in the way of answers. But for now... here you are."

His voice took root somewhere deep within the Stable, and every deliberate word it spoke didn't seem to fit with the leering threats and fearful cries, the wild gunfire and the howling cities, of this great Equestrian storm. It sounded so collected, so controlled, so unlike them.

I found the buck, standing near the edge of both windows, beyond that which opened out to the darkness below, and before that which held a flood of light at bay. His stance was firm, and I followed wounds that rose to coil around his body, as if sprouting from the seeds of damnation beneath us.

Much of his coat had been peeled away, almost as if the buck was more scars than he was skin. They ruled him, taking everything but the remains of his sandy, and now discolored, coat, to leave him standing before me as something long since burned away: A desert put to the torch, buckling before a season of plagues, stripped bare by a hundred passing locusts, trampled under a thousand hooves in exodus.

The shadows falling over his body only seemed to hide what little he had left, but, despite it all, I felt safe before his blue, atmospheric eyes. Flecks of that all too familiar starlight shone out of his irises like scattered diamonds, though even beside that digital mare, they might seem alien, as if plucked from the empty spaces beyond the edge of the sky.

"If I could give you anything: it would be time. But with the Slavers bound for this very station, and how close we've come to the end of our peace with them, I cannot even offer you that. We need to begin." This kingdom, for all its lies and labyrinths, was his. And, as I listened to his firm, familiar voice, I knew that he had tamed it. "Dies Irae venient, per verbum Deae."

"You're from the Stable." I said, as if our steel door had been the only thing to keep that dead language from being stamped out. "The days of wrath are coming, by the word of the Goddess." I couldn't make anything of the old words alone, as I knew them in pieces, but that phrase had left its mark on history.

"Very good." I might have felt like a filly again, standing in front of the class or before the pages of a hymnbook, if it weren't so hard to leave this place, to imagine myself away from him. "You still wear that place across your chest, over your heart. But I didn't think it could be found so easily in me." He lifted his hoof without flourish or flair, and I saw that he wore no Pipbuck. It didn't take me long to understand why.

The symbol on his flank looked like a brand, as it was black and burnt, and it was possible that it had been seared into his skin. It was a cross. The same cross that lay tilted across my father's coat, that the Faith would piece together out of scrap so that it might bear witness to their sermons. And then, a thought injected itself into my mind: A terrible, mad thought. And it left me so hollow, so afraid, that the buck, this sinner who could have beaten the path to my own exile, saw it, gathering like a storm around me.

"How long has it been?" He asked coolly. "How many years have passed since he was damned?" Damascus tilted his head, leaving me little to see but for the microcosms in his eyes. "Unless you're following old hoofsteps, unless they still remember me in there: I'm not the one you're looking for."

"My father." The words slipped out of my mouth, like pieces of hard candy, and I felt a desperate need to gather them up: to get them out of sight. "He stitched your cutie mark, the cross, into the side of his coat." But in truth, it had been Faith that left the mark on both of them.

"You aren't interested in finding him." I could feel him reading me and, for a moment, wished that the light might turn, like sunset to sunrise, so that it could be my face that was hidden, and his that lay bare. "That's good. History will leave more than its share of dirt on your hooves. Better to keep them clean..."

"For now." He added, as the window's light met the shine of his eyes, falling over a cheek that had been left shallow and purple by an unevenly stacked cairn of scars. "The Stable has already left us to this dead valley, forgotten our names as they have with all the damned. But, for you, to become a killer before the eye of the world, in the name of the Goddesses, is something that remains to be done. To them, your soul is white. And for them, it must be stained." I almost took a step back, as if frightened by the turn he'd taken. "This country will be clean again. Even if we must carry the weight of its filth on our own bodies."

It almost sounded like he was talking about the dawn, about Equestria's new beginning, though I had to work through the Faith that wove around his words, as if they were all drawn from that dead lexicon.

"There is too much that you need to know, things that you might not find out in time." I saw him glance back at the window, as if it had begun to groan for the weight of the light. "There is an evil that is pressing its teeth into the earth. And we have no choice but to face it. That your arrival so closely matches their own should not be ignored. You were meant to be used against them."

I could see his mane now, as the window lit up a neat wave of gray, whose breakers had lost their color. It might even have been combed, and I had to hope that my own hair looked half as well put together. After seeing so much of his face, I couldn't help thinking that Damascus was the old world, dragged through the new. The buck would have been very handsome, with the good looks that had become timeless when time stopped, just as Equestria would have been very beautiful.

Neither had lost their charm. It had just been changed, reshaped by the hands of Fallout.
"I wouldn't have left without trying to help." I said, like a mare poking fun at herself. "What can I do?"

"There is a train, the Coltilde, that runs a ring from here to Equestria's heart." To hear him call the country by its name, to hear it spoken in this glass kingdom, almost made me feel homesick. "It crosses the hinterlands of the North, carrying ponies, stolen from every settlement that is subject to its cycles. Those who fall victim to the disease and abuse that have poisoned the train's belly, are thrown from it, left to litter the earth along the rails. The rest are taken to a place called The Pens, in the west, and are hoarded in flea-ridden barracks and chain-link hostels. Kept as animals in the shadow of a crippled machine."

Slavery was an industry now, as if some sovereign had thrown our trains from the tracks, only to replace them with beasts of metal and chain and smoke. I didn't know what I felt then. If it was anger, I couldn't harness it. If it was despair, it wouldn't slow me down. But both sides agreed: this train, this Coltilde could not be left to leech of our country, like a dark haired monkey picking food off the bodies of its sleeping parents, stealing ponies to satisfy its ugly hunger.

"There are secrets buried here," He ran a hoof around the great, glass ring - almost lovingly - tracing the scripture. "Secrets that I have only kept safe with hired guns and scavenged power, that I must stop them from discovering. We came to a shallow sort of peace, the Slavers and I. We made a deal. But the time to put an end to their rule over the North, to take back the reins, has come." I shivered, thinking myself lucky for stumbling onto this young revolution. "And no tools are too foul to aid in paving our way to the dawn."

But for now, as the Faith so often said, luck looked to have very little power in the world. "Tools?" I found myself ready to take orders from Damascus, ready to look at this great chamber as a throne room. As one thing was clear: He was not the King bending his knee in that circle of spears. "You mean... killing?"

"When the Goddesses can be so dejected, when they can have fallen so far, as to need our help... we must be ready to do everything, and anything, just as they once did for us. The coming train would have sown its evil without me, but to house it, to feed it.... to use it: That takes another kind of strength." The light behind him seemed to grow brighter, and colder, as if its gold was wearing away.

"When the dawn comes, and it will come, it will not be as it was in the beginning. When a new sun rises as the carriage to a returning Goddess, it's face will not be white. The light at the end of this will be as the bodies and the hearts that it is cast over, as the country it will wake. Even the light - will be dirty."

The Kingdom of Glass came full circle then, as I followed the patterns of naked flesh, of lavender bruises, along Damascus' body like burnt sand. This place was not only his throne room, but his prison. And it occurred to me that, in the eyes of any doctor, his was a frame that would wear bandages in the place of skin, that could not be left so bare, except in a place like this.

Except in a place whose air was sterile, and whose architects might have built a thousand other holy cities in rehearsal: A place whose gates were guarded by machines and the standing dead, and whose light was galactic. “Just point me in the right direction.”

“I wonder if I am.” He came to where he had begun, where I imagined a throne might stand. "We all go through periods of darkness. In such times we can always turn to the Goddesses, but it is good to have friends.” He recited, turning away from the aureate wall of glass. “Friendship... There is a tool that can tend the soil, that can steer storms and pull the constellations across the sky, a tool that might truly be clean. And for that, to see us wielding that sword and that shield of a thing, you will serve."

I heard it then, like a panting animal, a sound that fell over itself as if it were a river swollen with debris. And over it, came the scream of a whistle, which might have shattered all these ancient faces of glass, to bring the kingdom tumbling down, like a castle made of sand.

"Charon will guide you to the surface." And then, all at once, I knew the sound, and felt it pressing against his window like a palm. I could only imagine the Coltilde as that enormous worm, tearing through the planet like an apple, following the tunnels that it had carved so many years ago. The train was coming. "When he leaves you, make your way along the highway. Follow it East. There is a gateway across the road. Go there. And, though it is a wild and unwelcoming place, it will be your Temple of Trials."

The turn of its wheels grew louder in swells, as if a narrow army were marching through the tunnel, with every soldier chanting the name of their King, raising their voices together, so that the sound of the front line hit us first, even as the others came rolling after it.

"But wars aren't won by diplomacy." At a gesture from Damascus, I felt death come to plant itself beside me, to prove that it would not pass like any other nightmare. "There is a church on the far side of Hell, and in it are all that I have to call allies: though they are only with me for their own avarice. Speak to the Quartermaster. He can prepare you for what must be done."

“Follow me.” Its voice said, bringing a threadbare muzzle close enough to send shivers down my spine.

“Wait." I managed, though I couldn't know if I had spoken only so that Damascus wouldn't turn his back, leaving me to the servant that I had named Death. "What's down there?" I asked, with one hoof tapping at the scriptured glass, and the chamber that it revealed below us.

"I don't know anymore." The damned of some primeval generation answered. "The Circles are too irradiated for anyone but the ghouls, and even they will only venture there when the path has been paved with gold. You barely made it out with your life, and had not yet strayed from its rim." I couldn't remember if my Pipbuck had been ticking, and if the majesty of it all was enough to leave me deaf to its warnings. "But the Goddesses would not have left it to us, they would not have steered us here, if its gates weren't meant to be guarded. This place cannot be surrendered: it cannot be lost."

With another, desperate scream, which sounded eerily like an animal trying to speak, a mist began to rise around the window's edges, and cast great, billowing shadows across the glass throne room.

The howl of the whistle, with its chorus of metallic chugging, spun down into silence. It almost felt like this bestial machine had brought all the cold and the dark of the night with it, as if it carried a part of that great storm on its back, and an inconsolable sense of dread took root somewhere deep inside of me.

The Coltilde was unlike any other Equestrian machine, any other Equestrian animal, and though I couldn't see it: I knew that it was black, as it drained the color in the air, and left us with white lights and choleric pillars of smoke. I found myself stepping back into the palm of death, and looking at him like a friend.

“We’re out of time.”



Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: My Little Leaguer: +5 Melee Weapons, +5 Explosives, +10 Damage when using Equestrian Baseball Bats