• Published 14th Mar 2012
  • 5,351 Views, 293 Comments

Fallout: Equestria - Just Like Clockwork - Starlight_Tinker



When the bombs fell, where was Doctor Whooves? Better question: where is he now?

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Chapter 2 - Run!

Chapter 2 – Run!

“This afternoon? As in this afternoon, this afternoon!?”


She was going to make this difficult...I just knew it.

My captive squirmed as I closed in on her, and her eyes shot wide with fear as she realised I was reaching for the survival knife in my utility barding.

A muffled whimper escaped her gag as I lay down beside her and set the knife on the ground between us.

“Shhh...” I breathed gently into her ear as I stroked her mint-tinted mane.

“No need to fear...” I smiled...she cried.

My demeanour couldn’t have been helping her to relax – even I thought that I sounded...what’s the word?

Rapey?

Is that a real adjective or did I just make it up?

Perhaps it was my physical appearance – I was pretty worse for wear by now - and there was also the small matter of my...ugh...horn.

Regardless, you get the picture – my first impression was far from positive; etched in her face was the desperate need to escape.

I knew the feeling...

__________

I had spent the next week finding any excuse I could to explore my strange new discovery. The room that I had found secreted inside the waste silo was revealing itself to be more and more interesting with every passing day.

For one thing, I still couldn’t figure out where that light was coming from. The rich, golden glow permeated the interior of the room without casting a single shadow, and I was as yet unable to locate its source. At first I had suspected the crystal column of projecting it about the place, but that was before I had tried to ascertain what it was made of – the thing’s refractive index actually changed while I was measuring it! I triple checked just to make sure, and it definitely wasn’t just me: the column was decidedly...well...wibbly, for lack of a better term.

Slightly lower down on my weird-o-meter (but still pretty high, all things considered) was the console’s machining. You can tell a lot about engineers from how they machine their goods; even the best design in the world can be let down by lazy manufacturing. This console...it had been made, no – crafted, with such mastery and care! Love had made this device - that’s honestly the only way to describe it! Every strange button was polished to a glittering shine, every mismatched switch flicked back and forth with well lubricated ease, every weird little light glowed brightly as if it were new, and as for the plunger handle: carved by a master carpenter and precisely toleranced to fit perfectly in its groove. I imagined that this was what you would see were you to enter the mind of a genius – everything was equal parts amazing and crazy.

Was there even a word for that? Cramazing? Amazy?

What was I saying? Oh, right – the weirdness...

My first action after pulling the warped panel off the wall had been to have a good look around the place, and peruse the console to get my bearings – no Compass jokes please (I’ve heard them all).

I had found a curious little tool sitting in a recess underneath an old fashioned typewriter keyboard – a small silver rod about a dozen centimetres long with a glittering arcane gem at the tip. Picking it up, I expected my Pipbuck to identify it (the StableTec inventory spell is a pretty neat little piece of arcane logic), but all I ended up with was a blank entry and an error message. That occurrence in and of itself was immensely unusual, as the inventory spell was one of the most robust I had ever come across – in fact, I’d never seen it fail to register an object.

In short, with regard to both the little tool and the console, I had no idea what they were, no clue who was responsible for them, and no inkling as to what their functions were. Good start, eh?

During my first investigation of the console, I had recognised a StableTec terminal on the near side and cautiously approached it, attempting to log in. Using my Stable ID, I quickly learned that the console was fully (and I mean fully) integrated into the Stable’s computer network.

I was able to access everything; things that I should never have been able to get at with my regular clearance. Like, for example, the fact that Bulkhead had been reprimanded five times for not keeping to the diet Medical had designed to help him manage his diabetes, or that Atom Spark had been refused further anger management therapy following a...oh, wow - a ‘biting’ incident.

What was even stranger was that I not only had access to files I knew I shouldn’t, but also to files that I had never even known existed!

There were thousands of them! Schematics, recordings, encrypted documents – gigabits upon gigabits of data that had seemingly gone un-accessed and undiscovered for over two hundred years.

There was one audio recording in particular that caught my eye. It was labelled ‘OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE - OVERMARE’S EYES ONLY!’, and had a special file tag that didn’t allow deletion. Seeing as how it was seemingly so secret, I avoided it outright...

...nope, couldn’t keep a straight face - I had that thing playing before I’d even finished reading the title! I didn’t know who this ‘Overmare’ was, but I doubted she’d have any problem with me snooping through her stuff...

The first voice was that of a mare:

“Right...Stable fifty-, uh...Hey, Applebloom! What one’s this again?”

Applebloom? Did I hear that right?

“Fifty-two! The file’s right there in front of you!” A sweet, south-western drawl replied. Was this the voice of the Applebloom? I leaned in, suddenly captivated by the terminal speakers.

“Oh, yeah...thanks.” She sighed and cleared her throat.

“To the Overmare of Stable fifty-two, if you’re hearing this then the worst has happened and the Stables have been sealed. On behalf of StableTec...no – on behalf of ponykind...and all of Equestria: I’m sorry. Sorry for what you and your foals...and your foal’s foals...will now have to go through.”

She sounded tired – I wondered how much the previous fifty-one or so of these recordings had taken out of her. There was a distinctly laboured breath. Shivery; like when you’re trying to keep a strong emotion from flying out of your snout.

And what was a ‘foal’? I’d never heard that term before...oh, well – must’ve been a pre-war thing.

She continued:

“As per the terms of your StableTec contracts, you and the residents of Stable fifty-two are now part of a series of vital social experiments, the outcomes of which could one day revitalise Equestria. Well...what’s left of it.”

“You can’t put that bit in there, Scoots. You sound so...depressed. Maybe take a break?”

Scoots? As in Scootaloo? The Scootlaoo!?

“Applebloom, I want to get these stupid recordings over as soon as possible. In case you hadn’t noticed, they’re what’s depressing me. Now hand me that bottle of Wild Pegasus and get ready to record again.”

“I didn’t stop the tape; I’ll just edit out these parts.”

The sound of liquid pouring into a glass gurgled through the speakers as I stared, transfixed, at the recording’s time index steadily ticking away the seconds. Applebloom and Scootaloo? I had no idea that they knew each other – I’d only ever read about them separately. It was such an honour to be party to one of their conversations like this – I felt blessed!

Another steadying breath wafted through the speaker:

“Right...ahem. Each Stable is going to run an experiment to find out what went wrong with our society that eventually led us to this Celestia-damned war. And then, when this has all blown over, you’re gonna fix it. Your task, Stable fifty-two...is to be better. Everypony in that bunker is to improve him or herself from one day to the next. You’re to adopt a...hoor-uh...hour-iss...umm...oh, for Luna’s sake – Applebloom! What the hay is this word!?”

“Ugh, what word? We’re gonna run out’a tape at this rate!”

“That word.”

“Heuristic. It’s pronounced heuristic. Yoo-ris-tik. Okay?”

“Yeah, yeah – I get it! Don’t patronise me, Miss ‘I invent shit’!”

“Just keep reading...”

“Where was I...oh, yeah. You’re to adopt a heuristic methodology with the eventual goal of improving yourselves to the maximum possible level. To aid in this, we’ve removed certain distractions. That means no recreational drugs and no alcohol. Literature and media stocks have also been appropriately limited.”

That wasn’t right – there was alcohol in Medical. I’d seen the bottles. Though, I wondered, how was disinfectant recreational? Was cleanliness more fun before the war?

“There are also measures in place for you to selectively improve your own genomes. The ponies in R&D call them ‘Pods’. They’ll allow your foals to be modified at the genetic level while they’re still in the fetal stage so that their potential can be maximised. Instructions for their operation are contained in your emergency brief. Finally, as we’ve told the other Overmares, if at any point your Stable’s experiment begins to endanger the lives of its residents, you’re to discontinue immediately and revert to the default societal model.”

There was a rustling of paper and another glass-full of something was poured. The fun disinfectant maybe?

“Well...that’s it for your brief, Overmare. All that remains is for me to wish you luck...”

There was a heavy silence - like something else was still to be said. Something important; something inspiring; something motivational.

But nothing came:

“...turn it off, Applebloom...”

A click signalled the end of the file. Wow – she’d sounded tired at the start, but she must have been positively exhausted by the end!
I smiled as I silently thanked those two brilliant mares for their efforts – they had ensured the existence of me and all of my friends with their intelligence and foresight.

I wondered: what became of them?

__________

I continued my cursory hoof-through of the database as the day went on – really, I should have been calibrating...something. But this was far more interesting!

Curiously, I found that old files were not the only ones that had seemingly been kept secret. While doing a little extra snooping through my friends medical histories (Wow...that doesn’t sound good at all, does it? Bad Compass! No fruit tonight and guilt for the rest of the week!) I had discovered additional data that I didn’t immediately understand.

Every StableTec personnel file had five sections: General, Professional, Medical, Psychological and Personal. The personnel files in this terminal had six.

The new section was simply titled ‘Oc’ and consisted of several thousand floating point numbers all of which seemed to have an impact on a very detailed and serious looking ‘Oc-time’ graph that took up more than three quarters of the monitor. I had been comparing Petri’s annual academic results with my own, silently cursing every score of hers that exceeded one of mine, when I first noticed it (I happily noted that my graph was slightly higher at some points than Petri’s, but, for the most part, they both showed the same upwards trend).

The same was true of Atom’s and Bulkhead’s curves: they started out low, close to the X axis and steadily increased with time (I guessed that here was a roughly geometric progression, but couldn’t be bothered to work out the equation of the trend).

I was about to put what I had found out of mind and move onto another, possibly even nosier pursuit, when I flicked past Valve’s file – his ‘Oc’ curve was different.

It would have been the same as my own and those of my other friends, had it not been for the massive dip near the end – his curve had taken one hell of a dive recently (I mentally pictured all the other graphs cheering and holding up little cards with ’10.0’ written on them).

As fascinating and liberating as this little taste of omniscience was, it was making me feel profoundly guilty, so I refrained from excessive snooping, opting instead to return to pouring over the archived items and ancient logs of Stable 52’s two hundred year guardianship of us.

“Let’s see...” I mouthed to myself while hoofing through an index page, marking the odd item for download to my Pipbuck so I could read them while working (well...pretending to work).

“’Applegrass cultivation’ – no...’EC-1101’ – not a clue...’G.E.C.K.’ – sounds like a throat lozenge...’Infinite Improbability Physics’ – ooh, maybe later...’Pilot’s manual’...”

Uh...what?

What was a ‘Pilot’s manual’ doing in the Stable computer system? And what was it for, anyway? Transport wasn’t exactly an issue down here – sure it took a wee while to get around, but we’d never had any vehicles in the Stable, let alone anything that would require a ‘pilot’ rather than a ‘driver’.

I pressed the return key with my hoof, leaning forward with curiosity as the screen went blank, the file slowly loading into the terminal’s local memory.

I almost bit my tongue with surprise as a flurry of motion erupted from the terminal. A cacophony of green light had rocketed into view from the depths of the monitor tube, organising itself into a large circular crest (I noted that it was vaguely reminiscent of an hourglass made of squiggles). The logo blipped out of view as hundreds of lines of text scrolled into existence.

Well...that was unexpected: the text wasn’t Equestrian. In fact, these symbols looked less like letters, and more like the particle trace diagrams that Boson (our resident particle physicist) had once showed me while I was recalibrating his equipment.

I scrolled through the document, taking sparse notes in one of my many notebooks as I went – I couldn’t make much sense of the unknown language, so I just copied out a few of the more interesting diagrams.

Were these maintenance instructions? Maybe the file had been damaged – it would certainly explain the weird symbols.

I stopped my perusal as an immediately recognisable diagram slid into view on the monitor. The console! I noted that one panel in particular had a very large number of annotations, and a small figure of a short rod with a blue orb at the end pointed directly at it.

These were definitely maintenance instructions - and that rod on the screen looked pretty familiar.

I picked up the curious little tool that I had found earlier, and hopped down eagerly onto the metal floor. Finally, I’d be able to get a decent look at what made this thing tick!

Trotting excitedly over to the left of the terminal, I pointed the device at the highlighted panel and pressed the button on the handle with one of my canines.

A shrill buzzing rattled my teeth as the arcane gem at the tip glowed a brilliant electric blue. The panel hissed and shook as it yawned open, revealing...

“Oh...my...Goddess...” The tool dropped to the floor as my jaw slackened in awe.

I looked into the light emanating from the opening beneath the console...and it looked into me!

This was the light that had led me here; the light that had seemingly been everywhere in the room, while coming from nowhere; the light that was now filling my head with memories that were not my own.

I saw the fall of worlds at the hooves of villains and victorious tyrants; I saw great fields filled with the dead, burning cities and broken lands.

My brain burned and my chest ached as I watched a series of faces, all different, yet all the same, flit in and out of the memories.

The visions shifted, a wave of searing warmth and agonising hope washing over me. I saw the rise of civilisations, famed hero after famed hero basking in their respective glories, monsters vanquished, innocents spared, great green, rolling vistas and towering cities more glorious than anything I could have ever imagined!

And then as quickly as it had begun, it ended.

The vision ceased abruptly as I fell back onto my haunches and flopped to the floor in pained exhaustion. The panel slammed shut, sealing the...light, if you could still call it that, back inside the console.

I wheezed as I attempted to catch my breath, and shakily raised myself to my hooves. Bringing my Pipbuck up to my face, I checked the medical readout and radiation meter to see how many minutes of life I had left.

Oh...all in the green. Then why did I feel like I’d just been forced backwards through one of the waste recyclers?

Medical...I’d have to get to Medical.

Propping myself up on the console, I managed to spare the terminal a glance.

The file! It was suddenly legible! I glowered at the screen, utterly unimpressed:

“Un-freaking-believable! You pick now of all times to resolve a corrupted file!? Stupid TARDIS, whatever the hay you are!” I weakly slapped the terminal casing as the annotations from before were revealed to be a series of staunch, harshly worded warnings:

“CAUTION: HIGH MAGNITUDE ARTRON CURRENTS PRESENT – DISCHARGES LIKELY IF EQUIPMENT IS HANDLED IMPROPERLY”

“DANGER: DISCONNECT TIME ROTOR FROM EYE OF HARMONY INTERFACE PRIOR TO INITIATING MAINTENANCE.”

“WARNING: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO ACCESS CONSOLE INTERIOR WHILE IN FLIGHT”

“IMPORTANT: CITRUS FRUITS ARE NOT TO BE INSERTED INTO TIME ROTOR COMPARTMENT”

Oh dear...apparently I had just done something very dangerous (Goddess, that terminal had bad timing! Had its programmer still been alive, I’d probably have killed him.) I shakily turned and began to make my way out of the silo, starting the trek to Petri’s domain – I definitely needed a doctor!

__________

A good fifteen minutes later, I arrived at Medical feeling like I could insult an Ursa Major’s mother and still have enough bones left afterwards to play hoofball (which would have been an amazing feat – I hated hoofball).

The pain was gone. The aches were gone. All I felt now was...was...awesomeness! At no point in my life had I ever felt so alive!

I had gotten progressively better with every step I took towards Medical, consciously changing the theme of my visit along the way from “Help me: I’m dying!” to “Hi everypony! Who wants lunch?”.

Ulna, a nurse with a bone shaped cutie mark, looked up from her desk as I sauntered over to her.

“Gooooood afternoon, Ulna! How’re ‘dem bones?” I asked exuberantly, expecting a chuckle.

I hadn’t noticed her eyes – they were red; bloodshot; puffy – she’d obviously been crying profusely.

“Goddess, Ulna! What’s wrong!?” I felt like such an arse –here she was, weeping like a willow, and I was bouncing off the walls with glee.

She sniffed and rose out of her chair, saying little as she looked me square in the eyes:

“I’ll get Dr. Dish. I’m so sorry, Compass...”

Funny...her gaze had lingered on my face for a split second longer than was necessary.

“...what’s going on?” I mouthed, catching sight of myself in the waiting room mirror. I trotted over, taking stock of Medical’s huge array of ‘Pods’ (what were foals?) as I closed in on the reflective surface. I realised that I hadn’t got a good look at myself since my exposure to the light a full quarter of an hour earlier.

“Let’s see, now...teeth – they’re fine; legs – one, two, three, four – very good; hair – still ginger, excellent.” I murmured to myself as I inspected my body.

“Hmm...everything seems to be in...what the-!”

My cutie mark! It was gold!

The neon blue carat that had once adorned my flank had retained its shape, but was now a lustrous, shimmering gold that gleamed like a polished metal.

When since could hair look metallic?

I had to be honest though: as much of a shock as this was, it was actually quite fetching - gold against dark blue was a good look for me!

Petri suddenly entered the room from the other door and approached where I was standing, seemingly not noticing the effeminate pose I had assumed as I admired my modified flank. Turning to face her, I angled myself so that she wouldn’t be able to see my cutie mark unless she was really trying to.

She had been crying too – but, why?

“Petri...what’s wrong?” I asked as I approached her gingerly, extending a supportive hoof.

“Oh, Compass...” Two glistening trails made their way down her face as tears leaked from her eyes.

“It’s Valve. He’s...he’s...” She took a steadying breath and continued.

“He’s dead, Compass...”

I wasn’t expecting that...I wasn’t expecting that at all.

There was silence as my consciousness reeled from the news - the floor had fallen out of my stomach and I was falling along with it.

More tears began to well at the corners of Petri’s eyes, readying themselves to travel down her already wetted face. I extended a foreleg and embraced her, my own eyes starting to glisten with sorrow as the gravity of the situation pulled me towards an awful realisation: Valve - my colleague and friend; a pony whom I had known my entire life...was gone forever.

__________

An hour later, I was back at the console. Leaning on the controls, I absentmindedly scrolled through the expansive database, trying desperately to occupy my mind and get my thoughts away from Valve.

It wasn’t working.

Everything reminded me of him – it was ridiculous! I’d look at a wall and think of something we’d once repaired; I’d look at a terminal and think of something we’d once had to look up; hell, I’d look at a pony and see his face smiling back.

Goddess, I was going to miss him...

Petri told me that he had died from complications due to the amount of reactor coolant he’d ingested. I didn’t care, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. Not now, of all times.

This wasn’t meant to happen; ponies were meant to die in bed, surrounded by their loved ones; in comfort and solitude. They were meant to be able to spend their last moments saying their goodbyes and remembering the best parts of their lives, not gasping for air as a cloud of toxic gas engulfed them!

I kept thinking back to the Pods...

Valve and I were birthed in the same week, and we should have been recycled in the same week, exactly twenty years later. But now that wasn’t going to happen.

Unnatural death just didn’t happen in Stable 52 – ponies got twenty years - always had, always would – and we weren’t in the habit of wasting our lives or the lives of others (Celestia only knows how ponies dealt with unnatural death before the Pods were introduced).

That’s what this was: a waste. A waste that was dragging my heart further out of my chest with every beat.

Come to think of it, my heart was beating pretty quickly...although I found that, much like when Petri had told me how Valve had expired, I didn’t care.

I kept looking at his file, staring at the smiling, low resolution image of him. Every so often, I’d flick through other parts of his personal data, but I’d always end up back at the ‘General’ tab, and that last pict-

“Hold on...hold...ON!” My eyes were practically touching the glass of the monitor as I leaned forward and stared in disbelief at what I had just read.

Valve’s date of death was listed as today...but the last time this file was updated was a full sixteen hours earlier!

That meant somepony knew Valve was going to die of his injuries before he actually did. But who could have done this?

Personnel files were managed by the maneframe – nopony else had access. Events, such as Valve’s death, were reported via terminal to the central computer, and only then were the files updated.

“...what the hay!?” I whispered. My haunches landed on the metal floor with a thud as I clumsily sat down.

I had to think – there must have been a logical explanation...right? Shaking my head, I slowly got up and morosely trotted out of the silo.

I spent the next two hours in Medical going back and forth with Petri. I asked her about Valve’s last hours, what her staff were doing at the time of his death, who made the report to the mainframe...and all the time she either shouted back or cried. She wasn’t used to losing patients. In fact, I think Valve was her first unnatural death.

Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to make much progress with my investigation – I couldn’t let anypony know about my discovery without revealing the existence of the silo (I didn’t know exactly why, but I had an overwhelming urge to keep it a secret).

Besides, if we did have a murderer in our midst, the terminal in that silo was my biggest advantage.

__________

I decided it was time to call it quits when I started shouting back and, as a consequence, Petri threatened to sedate me. I trotted back to my quarters, and once there I lay on my bed for hours, running possibility after possibility through my mind.

Apparently, my vehement questioning had distracted everyone from my new cutie mark. Staring at my flank, I shook my head and sighed – I was clueless...and I hated it!

My eyelids closed of their own accord as different motives, multiple suspects and chain after chain of possibilities rattled through my consciousness.

It was getting difficult to think; haziness and warmth cocooned me. By the Goddesses, I was tired.

Before I knew it, I was staring at Valve.

I greeted him. He smiled back.

This was nice – I was in the presence of a friend. I felt safe, and all was well...

A snake began to encircle his hooves, obscuring a little bit more of him with every revolution. It wrapped him in his entirety, but through it all, he continued to smile. Then it turned to me.

It opened its gargantuan mouth with a pneumatic hiss as a plume of coolant erupted from the constricting column that its body had formed around Valve. At the back of its throat was a sickly yellow light that made me feel ill at ease and acutely depressed.

I felt pain. The raw emotional agony of loss overtook me as I stared helplessly at the imagery of his murder.

It was at this point that I made a horrific realisation.

Snakes don’t sound like pneumatic doors!

In a moment of absolute panic, I shot bolt upright in bed and screamed in terror as I found myself staring straight into the glowing, yellow sensor bulb of medical spider-bot.

Acting on my first instinct, I slammed my hooves into its casing, causing it to drop the fat syringe it had been carrying in one of its manipulators.

The glass cylinder shattered, releasing a plume of blue gas as the contents flash froze a patch of the floor. Coolant! What the fuck was a medical robot doing with a syringe full of reactor coolant!?

Better question: what had it been planning on doing with it!?

I tried to duck around it, but the robot blocked my path with a deadly flurry of its built in scalpel. It hovered closer and closer, backing me into the corner of the room.

Was this it? Was I to die here, tonight? Was I to be sliced to bits by a medical robot that had clearly been reprogrammed by a murderer?

Apparently, the answer was yes.

I turned my head and squeezed my eyes shut as it closed in. I could feel the rush of air from its hover talisman. I could hear the whoosh of its tiny yet lethal blade. I could smell the oppressive, choking scent of the coolant puddle on the floor.

These were to be my last sensations...not exactly what I’d had in min-

A flash of memory burst into my mind: the console; the tool; setting 14B...

I was still wearing my utility barding, and I still had the unknown tool in my pocket. Yanking it out with my mouth, I pointed the gem at the spider bot, rotated the rings on the handle with my tongue and bit down on the button as hard as I could.

Only when I heard the clatter of metal on metal did I open my eyes.

The spider-bot was in pieces on the floor, sitting on a large mound of screws, bolts, washers and other assorted fasteners – every single component had been neatly separated and allowed to simply fall to the ground!

I stared in disbelief at the little arcane tool: how had I known what to do with it!? I hadn’t even needed to look at the handle to find the mode ring – I’d known where it was by touch alone...

“It’s like the world’s greatest screwdriver...what in Luna’s name is going on!? How in Equest- Ugh!” I grabbed my forehead as a sharp twinge erupted behind my eyes – I was apparently in no fit state to figure this out now.

Besides, I had more urgent matters to attend to – there was a murderer on the loose!

My next step was obvious: I had almost been assassinated by a medical robot, and I hadn’t exactly been subtle with my questioning that afternoon. I was fairly positive that I’d find the murderer, or at least a clue to their identity, in Medical.

At a sprint, I rounded into the corridor as I left my quarters.

Running as fast as my stout legs would carry me, I deftly navigated the familiar passageways on my way to Medical, and promptly slammed head first into Bulkhead. Already on edge, I screamed like a frightened mare from surprise.

“Sweet Celestia, Compass!” He grumbled as he rose groggily to his hooves (I think I hit him in the head).

“Where the hay are you going in such a hurry?”

“Thank Luna, Bulk, it’s good to see you!” I must have looked crazy as I grasped at his broad shoulders, steadying myself against my adrenaline induced jitters.

“What the buck is wrong with you!? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost!” Bulkhead wore a distinctly worried expression as he gently tried to back away from me.

“I don’t have much time – I have to get to Medical, and I’ll probably need your help. I’ll explain on the way!”

I grabbed him by his scruffy chestnut mane and pulled him towards Medical, despite his protests. As we awkwardly progressed along the corridor, I started to explain all about what had happened; my discoveries and my suspicions about the murderer (I still had the biggest desire to keep the silo secret, though. I should really have told him everything, but I just didn’t want to. Actually, no - it was more like I wasn’t allowed...)

I was about to describe my unnerving knowledge of the unknown tool I’d found earlier when a loud, squawking klaxon blared overhead. I heard a familiar click and beep as the pressure doors at either end of the corridor were remotely sealed.

A voice made up of pieced together phrases, recorded by a long dead voice actress began to make a mechanical announcement:

“FIRE HAZARD DETECTED ON LEVEL EIGHT, SECTION TWENTY-ONE. ACTIVATING FIRE SUPPRESSION SYSTEM.”

At that, jets of halon began to fire down from the ceiling ducts – I could feel the gas creeping into my lungs as I desperately tried to hold my breath. Bulkhead had been taken equally unawares, and was at that point rolling across the floor as he fought for breath.

In a moment of clarity that would have been impossible under normal circumstances, I yanked Bulkhead’s spectro-goggles from atop his forehead and pulled them roughly onto my face. I quickly flipped through the settings, turned on the visual stud finder and pulled out the Screwdriver.

Pointing squarely at a dense clump of metal set deep in the ceiling, I squeezed the button and activated the unknown device, watching with unparalleled relief as the glowing bolts and screws wriggled free before my magically augmented eyes, causing the fire extinguisher hub hidden above our heads to literally fall apart.

The halon ceased to flow as an emergency valve clicked shut, isolating the section we occupied from the fire suppression system.

Unfortunately, a good deal of the atmosphere in our sealed off locale had already been toxically saturated – we only had moments worth of breathable air left.

Turning my attention to the door, I pointed the Screwdriver at the control panel, reaching it in time for the casing to fall to the floor.

There were only a few wires inside, which was a blessing – I was never that good with arcane electronics: without a unicorn’s horn to manipulate the tiny components, repairs were usually very lengthy tasks for me.

Fortunately, this was not one of those times – I yanked one wire from its mount and roughly pressed it against a bare contact near the base of the control box.

The door hissed open as I hazily stumbled back to grab Bulkhead. However, to my surprise, I wasn’t the first pony to reach him.

Atom Spark rushed past me to support our mutual friend, propping up his comparatively huge frame using her tiny body.

“Heard the, oof, alarm from my quarters. Thought I could, ugh, lend a hoof!” She winced as the weight of Bulkhead’s semi-conscious form became more and more apparent.

“Atom, you’re a life saver. Literally! Let’s get him to Medical; there’s not much time!” I took Bulkhead off of Atom’s hooves, allowing my diminutive friend to run ahead and make sure there were no nasty, remote-controlled surprises awaiting us.

I tried to recant my tale to Atom while we walked, as I had attempted to do with Bulkhead, but she was too far ahead of us. She had assumed that the extinguishers were malfunctioning, and to be honest, as long as she kept doing what she was doing, I was happy to wait until later to clue her into what was really going on.

With Atom's help, we were able to avoid another two corridors with 'malfunctioning' fire suppressors and mere minutes later, had arrived in Medical.

I gently let the still unconscious Bulkhead slide onto a bed and was about to start considering the next move in my investigation (otherwise known as ‘The Deadly, Life-threatening Stable Gauntlet’) when I noticed a form sitting hunched over at Petri's desk. Oh, Goddess, not her too!

Galloping over to the body, I grasped it harshly by the shoulders and shouted:

"Petri! Don't be dead! Please!"

To my infinite relief, her torso shot upright like a lion tamer’s whip as she awoke with a shocked snort.

"AH! THE MARMALADE MONSTER! HELP M-" She flailed, awkwardly pausing and clearing her throat at the site of me.

"Oh, uh, Compass...Luna's horn, don't do that! You scared me half to death!" She stood up, trying to cover her blush, when she saw Bulkhead lying on the bed across the room.

"Good grief! Bulkhead!" She shouted, rushing over to his side and casting an accusing glance at Atom.

"For Luna's sake, Atom! You can't keep fighting everypony that looks at you the wrong way!"

"What!? Hey, don't blame me for this - I had nothing to do with it!" She responded pointedly.

“It was a malfunctioning fire extinuigisher – they’re goin’ crazy out there!”

Petri relaxed her gaze, allowing Atom to get down off of the defensive.

“The fire extinguishers? Then it’ll be halon poisoning. D-Fib, get me 20ccs of Vascu-shy and a healing potion!”

I backed away as a multi-limbed floating nurse presented Petri with the required drugs – there was no way I was EVER turning my back on one of those things again!

“Petri, I need to tell you something – something important.” I kept one eye on D-Fib as I whispered into her ear.

“Compass, can’t this wait? Bulkhead could have serious internal injuries!”

Was it just me, or did D-Fib just pause as Petri answered me?

“Petri, this is important! I think that one of your staff’s a murder-“

I didn’t have time to finish my sentence. I was cut off by another klaxon – a different one this time. Like the fire extinguishers, it was punctuated by the same pieced together mare’s voice:

“BIO-HAZARD ALARM! BIO-HAZARD ALARM! INSTIGATING EMERGENCY QUARANTINE PROCEDURE!”

Hiss. Click. Beep. We were locked in. Fuck – was I ever going to finish that sentence?

With total professionalism, Petri drew herself up and, in a tone that could command a dragon, addressed the faceless, disjointed announcer:

“Maneframe! Explain bio-hazard alarm!”

“BIO-HAZARD ALARM INITIATED AT 01:34 HOURS STABLE TIME DUE TO DETECTION OF CLASS ONE CONTAGION IN MEDICAL BAY.”

“Contagion!? Reset bio-filters and run a sweep of Medical – identify contagion source!”

“RESET COMMAND CONFIRMED – BIO-HAZARD SOURCE IDENTIFIED AS STABLE RESIDENT NO. 36360.”

Oh dear...

“Who?” Petri inquired.

“It’s not me, I’m 36451.” Atom Spark responded.

“Well, it’s not me either – my number’s 36324. What about Bulkhead?”

“No, I’m sure his ends with a 9...”

Petri and Atom looked to Bulkhead...then to one and other...and then, in unison, slowly turned to me.

“...what?” I defensively waved a forehoof. “There’s nothing wrong with me!”

“Compass, stay back - just keep to one side of the room. We’ll fix this, don’t worry. You’ll be fine!”

“There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m telling you! This has to be the murderer trying to get rid of me!”

“The what!? By the Goddesses, he’s delusional! Atom, get me that syringe: the blue one labelled ‘sedative’.”

Well, this just wasn’t my night was it? If they managed to sedate me, I’d be left to the tender mercies of the Medical bay robots – and if that happened, I was pretty sure that I would never see another day. There was no other option - I had to run!

Hold on...speaking of robots - where did that nurse go? Oh Goddess - something just moved out of the corner of my eye!

Nurse D-Fib had taken advantage of the diversion created by our exchange, and stealthily hovered behind me. Why? I didn’t really have to tax my mind to figure that one out!

In a panic, I pirouetted on one hoof and once again found myself staring deep into a sickly yellow sensor bulb. Oh, and look! Another deadly syringe! Joyous...

I bucked the spider-bot as hard as I could, sending it flying with an almighty clatter into a stack of bedpans. Before it had time to recover, I pulled out the Screwdriver and aimed at the door’s control panel, ready to attempt the fastest re-wiring in Equestrian history when, suddenly, a pang shot through my head, and another alien memory flashed before my mind's eye.

A door. Locked. A hoof; my hoof...but...with a brown coat? I was holding the Screwdriver. Setting 23C. Buzz. Click. The door swung open.

Whooshing back to reality, I deftly flipped the mode ring to the new setting that my mind had seen fit to share with me, and pointed the Screwdriver at the Medical bay door.

With a tooth-shaking buzz the door hissed open, and I sprinted toward freedom barrelling through Atom and Petri as they tried in vain to halt my advance. I could hear them running behind me, begging me to stop:

"Compass! Please! You need help - just come with us to Medical!"

"Come on, you stupid buck! We're only trying to fucking help!"

Atom's bedside manner definitely needed some work. Between strides, I turned my head and shouted back at them:

"You don't understand! I need to get out of here! I'm the only one who knows about th - OH, SHIT!"

Briefly glancing forward to make sure that I wasn't about to hit something, I found myself face to sensor bulb with a maintenance robot...a spider-bot model. It silently extended its oxy-acetylene torch and started moving towards me, the intense little flame glowing brightly with the twin promises of pain and death.

I was suddenly paralysed with fear – the distance between the robot and me was too great away for my ‘fight or flight’ reflex to kick in, so instead my intense, newfound phobia borne of the night’s near-death experiences took hold. There was nothing I could do – I was staring into the eyes of a Basilisk: it was as if its gaze had already killed me!

Just as I thought I would lose myself to that horrific yellow light, I suddenly snapped back to reality - in succumbing to my numbing fear of the spider-bots, I had neglected to keep an eye on Atom and Petri.

Apparently, it was now their turn to barrel into me! They promptly pinned me to the floor; Atom formed a vice like collar around my neck and shoulders, while Petri pushed down on my haunches with her rear hooves. From what little I could see, it appeared that she was readying a particularly unfriendly looking needle and what I assumed was an anaesthetic spell.

"I'm going to get an extra duty shift because you made me swear, you ars- I mean, idiot! You owe me one!" Atom shouted in my ear as her ropey little muscles threatened to constrict my wind pipe.

"Petri! Ack! Atom, too tight! Please, I need to get away from these robots - they're being controlled remotely! Somepony's trying to kill me!"

"Atom, hold him still! Now, Compass, you're going to feel a little prick, then this'll all be better." Petri cooed.

“Celestia’s ghost! Your cutie mark! Goddess, Atom, he’s mutating! We have to hurry!”

“Get on with it then! He’s not going anywhere!” Was that a tone of smugness? I swear, she had absolutely no concept of tact – for all she knew I was going crazy and dying at the same time! Honestly, some ponies...

The maintenance robot was just hovering there. Gloating. They’d won - whoever ‘they’ were.

All that they’d have to do now was wait – I’d be sedated, pumped full of restorative drugs, put in psychiatric care, and silently murdered.

As Petri pressed the needle into my flank, I found myself thinking back to the moment that I had awoken earlier that night: with a spider-bot readying its deadly syringe mere inches from my face. Oh, Goddess, those eyes - I'd never be able to look at these automatons in the same way. My mind reeled as the drug cocktail took effect, dragging me back to the few seconds that my would-be assassin had had me pinned against the wall in my quarters, its scalpel blade creating an encroaching wall of razor-sharp death.

And then I realised that worse things were about to happen.

The elation that I had felt upon escaping the first spider-bot; the gratitude I had felt for Atom as she helped Bulkhead and me; the relief I had felt when I realised Petri hadn’t been one of the murderer’s victims; all vanished down some bottomless hole in my mind as I found myself panicking like I had never panicked before.

I was restrained; about to die a horrible death - I couldn't move, I couldn't breath!

With renewed vigour, I started struggling again, and through my dazed senses, heard Petri and Atom's voices:

"How can he still be awake!? There was enough sedative in that syringe to fell a pony almost twice his size!"

"Does it matter!? Inject him again!"

I screamed, now even more aware of my fresh claustrophobia.

"No! Get! Off! Of! Me!"

With each word, I bucked my hind legs, trying to dislodge my friends. I felt a hoof connect with what I assumed was Petri's face (given the scream that followed) and turned my attention to my ‘collar’.

Now, Atom and I were the best of friends, having known each other for practically our entire lives. As a consequence, we had shared many experiences together, including, luckily, a few dozen sessions of hoof to hoof combat (they had ended suddenly following the dislocation of my left shoulder and the fracture of four of my ribs, but that, as they say, is another story).

The sessions had been our exercise in 'being better' and improving ourselves at the time, and by the time we decided to pack it in, we had both become quite proficient.

We had also caused one and other over three-dozen serious injuries! And I remembered quite a few of them.

In other words, I knew exactly how to get free of Atom’s vice-like grip.

Propping myself up on adrenaline infused forelegs, I swung her round my neck so that her entire body swivelled in front of me. Looking straight into her eyes, I was taken aback by her look of sheer determination – she was keeping me here, and that was the end of it as far as she was concerned.

“I’m sorry, Atom!” I shouted as I closed my eyes and forced one of my forehooves into her abdomen, pressing mercilessly on one of the only lasting injuries that she had ever suffered at my hooves.

Atom’s eyes shot wide as she fell to the floor, gasping desperately for breath. Maybe that had worked a little too well!

“Ack! Uhhh...you...uhhh...bastard!” She panted.

“Oh, Goddess! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I’ll get Petri-” I was interrupted (again!) by Petri’s booming, magically enhanced vocals:

“Medical emergency! Security to level eight, section fifteen! Compass, Stable resident three-six-three-six-zero has escaped psychiatric care! Be advised, patient is mentally unstable and appears to be actively mutating! Approach with extreme caution!”

Fuck! Did causality have a grudge against me or something?

“Petri, I’m not crazy! You’ve got to believe me!”

Holding a hoof to her bloodied nose, Petri kept her distance from me. She spoke with frightening seriousness, her authoritative tone pounding my mind into submission with every word:

“Compass, as your friends, it’s our responsibility to help you, even if we have to save you from yourself - and if that requires a bucket of sedative and a straightjacket, then so be it!”

She inhaled shakily, and narrowed her gaze, somehow becoming even scarier.

“I’m NOT losing another patient – not now, not ever!”

I looked from Petri to Atom (who was still trying to regain her breathing rhythm), and then to the maintenance robot still waiting patiently behind us. I was sure that if my friends hadn’t been present, it would’ve been on me in seconds, eagerly burning holes through my flesh.

In the distance, I heard hoofsteps – lots of them. Petri noticed my wandering gaze; my calculating look, and began to cast her anaesthetic spell.

Run!

Something flashed through my mind...

Run!

But my friends...I couldn’t leave them to the murderer. Maybe if I just explained-

RUN!

The urge was overwhelming - taking her almost completely by surprise, I drove head first into Petri’s chest and threw myself down the hallway as fast as my legs would carry me.

A security team blocked my path. They were shadowed by a spider-bot!

About turn! Quick march!

Another security team; another spider-bot. What was that white thing they were holding? Oh...Petri hadn’t been kidding – they were carrying straightjackets...exactly what somepony suffering from acute claustrophobia wanted to see!

Come about! All ahead full!

Wait. They weren’t chasing me, just blocking my path...I was being corralled! But where were they trying to put me? Where would the final ambush be?

I thought about it quickly: ‘If I were coordinating the pursuit of a crazy stallion, where would I want him to be when I finally made my move to capture him?’.

Logically, that led me to: ‘Where was the closest dead end?’.

Actually, given my apparent ability to now open every lock in the Stable, that probably should have been: ‘Where was the only door they were sure I’d never open?’

Easy: the Stable door – the only thing separating us from the irradiated, barren wastes of the outside world. Opening that would mean almost certain death – I’d have to surrender upon reaching it.

Or would I...?

Another security team blocked the hallway in front of me...

__________

I found myself staring at the massive steel cog far sooner than I thought I would – damn, those security teams were efficient!

Backing up to the metal, I felt my flank press against the door. There were ponies and spider-bots closing in from all sides – I saw at least five straightjackets and dozens of sedative syringes being readied.

They were creeping forwards, each and every one of them staring warily at me, as if I was about to start indiscriminately attacking them while foaming at the mouth.

I had to give it to them, though – they had done well in their pursuit of me. Every route had been accounted for. Every little gambit of mine had been anticipated. After trying no less than eight times to either hide, bypass the patrolling security teams or suddenly change tactics and go another way, I had still ended up exactly where they had wanted me all along.

I had gone through too much tonight; I wasn’t about to let my friends down and leave them at the mercy of some cowardly, murdering bastard while I was neatly drugged and wrapped for the corrupted spider-bots to do away with!

I needed time to think; to plan – whoever they were, I couldn’t just let them get away with what they’d done!

I needed to escape!

But there was nowhere to run to...apart from...

With a long, quivering breath, I realised that there was only one way out. Puffing out my chest, I spread my hooves in a threatening stance, making sure to keep my centre of gravity low in case somepony had the bright idea of tackling me.

Pulling the Screwdriver form my barding, I boomed at my fellow Stable ponies; at my family:

“All of you! Stand back!”

The sudden motion and vocal outburst had the desired effect – the entire room gasped as the dozen or so security personnel recoiled. Raising the Screwdriver to the ceiling, I bit down on the control and waited for the noise.

As expected, all Tartarus broke loose.

A harsh, grinding klaxon filled the room, making my teeth rattle almost as much as the Screwdriver. The massive drive pod mounted to the ceiling slowly swung down above my head and attached itself to the Stable door. It was actually quite satisfying to watch – every single pair of eyes went wide with panic as our cosy confinement was suddenly threatened.

“ALERT! MALFUNCTION DETECTED IN PRIMARY OUTER HATCH MECHANISM! CONTAINMENT FAILURE IMMINENT – CONTAMINATION DANGER!”

I was starting to like that voice. A little smirk crossed my lips as half the room emptied into the corridor beyond in fear. For a second, I thought that there may have been a possibility of sneaking back in behind them, but I knew I’d be caught as soon as I even tried to return inside.

Besides, where was I going to go? Fifty-two may have been massive, but I couldn’t have hidden long enough to fix all this.

No. I had to go.

Turning on the spot, I felt a rush of air as the door screeched out of its recess and rolled to one side.

As I had hoped, the remaining ponies were too stunned by the horror of the opening hatch to move and failed to follow as I rushed out into the darkness beyond.

Suddenly, an all too familiar voice pulled me to halt:

“Compass!” Petri! I stopped in my tracks and turned to see her still bloodied face contorted in panic. Goddess...what was I doing to her!?

“Please! Don’t do this! You’ll never get back in! Please, Compass! Please! We can help you! PLEASE!” She was screaming as tears ran freely down her face. Atom had arrived beside her, a similar look of shocked panic marring her expression.

I pursed my lips and clenched my teeth. My eyes wanted desperately to cry, but through some miracle of stoicism, I managed to hold it together.

“I’ll fix this! I promise!” I shouted back at them. Petri dropped to her knees and burst out crying. Atom put her forelegs around her, while her own tears traced wet trails down her face.

“I’m sorry...”

I turned and began to walk away from the door. I knew what was going to come next. Was I ready for it?

Was I hell...

The klaxon sounded again as the door slid back into place and secured itself with that same sickening screech.

And then...there was silence. I’d never heard so little sound in all my life!

Back in the Stable, there was always a hum or a beep or a hiss or...or...something!

Here there was just a vacuum. It flooded my ears; my mind, threatening to compress my brain. I could already feel my very being sliding into oblivion.

Just when I thought I would lose myself completely, a glorious fragment of noise pierced my madness.

In the distant depths of the night, I heard a scream. That meant somepony was alive out here! And that meant I could get help for my friends in the Stable!

Galloping towards the source of the distress, I spared a look back at the Stable door before it was out of sight. I closed my eyes and whispered inwardly:

“I’ll keep that promise. Petri, Atom, Bulkhead...I’ll be back...”

Gripping the Screwdriver in my mouth, I galloped onwards into the Wasteland.



...allons-y...