• Published 9th Apr 2012
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Fallout: Equestria - Memories - TheBobulator



One crazy pegasus, one roboleg, a contingent of Steel Rangers, and an adventure of infinite detours. Put all that together and what do you get? A rip-roaring mosh pit wrecking its way across the Wasteland, leaving nothing but confusion in its wake.

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Chapter 13: I wonder what Rumcake's up to?

Chapter 13: I wonder what Rumcake’s up to?

“And now for something completely different.”


“Hey! Hey, Frosty!” A red mare with a cherry cutie mark dashed up to me in the street wearing a pair of saddlebags on her back. Oh right, Cherry! I’d forgotten about her after the whole “got betrayed by a mercenary” thing. I flashed a tired smile at her. She skidded to a stop in front of me. “I didn’t get to thank you for saving us.”

“Not a problem. I’ve gotten used to waking up half-dead.” I yawned in her face. “Augh, sorry. So tired.”

Hey, brain. When was the last time I took a nap?

How the buck should I know?

Thanks, brain.

“Being a heroine isn’t as easy as it seems, is it?” Cherry laughed. “Especially being the blood angel, huh?”

Blood angel. There it was again. “So… wanna explain the whole blood angel thing?” Cherry cocked her head. “Why’d you call me that before?”

“You really don’t know?” Cherry pointed at my PipBuck. “Doesn’t that get radio reception?” The radio. For listening to the news. Duh. “DJ Pon3’s channel has the most reliable news in the Wasteland! Actually, I think he’s the only channel, come to think of it.”

“Who needs radio? I’m too busy with other things.” Or, translation: I forgot my PipBuck had a radio built into it. “Anyway, what’d he say?”

The Enclave had a terrible relationship with the anypony on the surface that didn’t share their ideas. I was a bit worried about what DJ Pon3 had to say about me. “So somepony saw what happened at the Rad Lad’s stronghold. Saw somepony doing good, and told DJ Pon3 about it.” Cherry waved her hoof in the air, trying to explain further with hoof gestures.

“Or saw somepony beating the shit out of their friends,” I muttered.

Cherry scrunched up her nose in thought. “I think he said something along the lines of ‘She was an angel out of the clouds, wreathed in flames and the blood of her enemies’ or something like that.”

My jaw dropped. Of all the things to have seen, that was it? I was pumped up on Doc’s super-crazy drugs and covered in napalm at the time. Hardly fair, considering the thrashing I’d been taking from everypony over the past few days. “What.”

“You’re so… Awesome!” she squealed. “Take me with you!”

I yawned again. “Look, I’ve basically died twice over the past three weeks.” Cherry’s face paled. “I’ve been shot, stabbed, drugged, exploded, abducted, and had more near-death experiences than the rest of my life combined.” She didn’t look too good anymore. “Considering your, uh, occupation, I don’t think this is a good idea for you.”

“H-how are you still alive?” Cherry stammered.

A little help from Death himself? “I ask myself that every day.” I sighed and rubbed the joint between my leg and claw. “I just lose myself, bit by bit.”

“Oh.” Cue awkward silence.

“Greetings, ladies! Your stallion in shining armor has arrived!” Rumcake showed up in his full suit of armor. Repaired and polished, I duly noted. “Ready to roll, Frosty?”

I shook my head. “Not really.” He looked confused. “As much as I’d like to, I need to sleep. I don’t even remember the last time I took a nap.” I flapped my disheveled wings to shake out some loose feathers. “I’m a mess, I haven’t cleaned myself up in forever, and I’m pretty sure I’m getting more crazy.”

“Oh. Uh.” Rumcake sounded disappointed. “Well, uh, I can take Sparkle Cola with me.”

“It’s fine. Give me a few hours.” First stop, find a spa. A look around made me realize Cherry was nowhere to be seen. “Lemme grab a power nap.”

Rumcake shook his head. “I’m moving out now. I want to finish this as soon as possible since the Inquisitor dropped another assignment on me and I think I might have to get on that right after.” I was disappointed that he wanted to leave without me, but at least it let me catch up on some sleep and other personal care.

“Sparkle’s a good Ranger. She’ll do fine,” I decided. “Ain’t nopony throw it down like me, though.” I grinned. “Go get ‘em, boy.”

If he could look doubtful through a helmet, he sure was right now. “Are you sure you’re going to be fine?” I rolled my eyes at him. “I’m just going to hazard a guess that was a stupid question.”

“No shit.” I hovered over to him and patted his helmeted head. “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself, and I’ve got all the Steel Rangers here to keep me safe.”

Rumcake nodded and started heading back to where he came from. “You know what? Sleazy and Soufflé can wait a damn day.”

“Wuh?” I blurted. “What happened to ‘I’m leaving now, harg bla-blarg’, huh?”

Rumcake stomped back to me. “I don’t think our first date went well. You know, crashing a slaver stronghold, getting backstabbed and crap like that. Wanna try again?” He held out a hoof and droned in a silly robotic monotone, “Come with me if you want to party.”

That got me laughing. “Sure. Let’s go, Termineightor.” I hoofbumped him and followed him down the street. “Where to?”

“How about dinner?” Rumcake stopped to check the time. “Well, how about a late lunch? I hear Peppermint Shots makes a mean basket of hay fries.” Sounded nice. I could probably stay conscious long enough for some noms.

My stomach growled. “Might need a bit more than that,” I sheepishly added.

“Oh, I’m sure he makes other things too,” Rumcake nonchalantly replied.

We threaded around the streets and finally made our way back to the Smashed Spritebot, apparently the only location in town that sold decent, non-packaged food. And alcohol, but that was probably irrelevant.

For the afternoon, the Spritebot was kinda full. As in, there were a few more ponies sitting at the bar and at various tables than there should have been during a working day. “Looks busy,” I observed, looking around. We secured a booth in the corner where we could have an area for ourselves.

“You want anything in particular?” Rumcake asked, dropping his helmet onto the table. I collapsed, exhausted, onto the somewhat comfortable cushions and just stopped moving. He shook his head hard, freeing his poofy pink mane from its trapped form. “I hate helmet mane.”

I didn’t even look up to check the menu. “Fetch me a sammich, robot,” I ordered.

Rumcake laughed. “One sammich for the cranky birdie. Got it.” He spun around and strolled to the bar to speak to Peppermint Shots. I could hear him ordering two sandwiches and some drinks. Moments later, he returned with two sandwiches on a plate, a box of cherry snack cakes (Yes!) and a tray with a bottle of Wild Pegasus whiskey and two shot glasses. “Lunch time!

I reached for the whiskey first. “Yay, drinks.” Rumcake placed the sandwiches on the table and pulled the tray off his back. “Gimme.” He picked up the bottle with his teeth and poured a glass for each of us.

“Figured you’d like pegasus whiskey.” Rumcake started pulling his gauntlets off. “You know…” He motioned to all of me. “Yeah.” I politely waited for him to take off his other gauntlet so he could pick up his glass.

A thought came to mind and I raised my whiskey. “To friends absent and lost.” We solemnly clinked our glasses and downed our drinks in silence. Both of us had lost too many friends recently. Recon Force Blizzard was gone, and the Diamond Seekers were nearly gone, too.

“I didn’t know what you liked besides painkillers and violence, so I got you a reconstituted daisy sandwich.” Rumcake pushed one of the sandwiches to me. “It actually looks okay, considering a lot of things. Especially food.”

I took a tentative nibble out of the sandwich. He was right! It wasn’t all that bad. “Hm. Not bad. It’s actually kinda good! What’s yours?” I asked around a mouthful of bread and daisies, referring to his strange brown things between the slices of bread. Strange brown things that I admit smelled quite good.

“This? It’s a radhog and lettuce sandwich.” Rumcake happily crunched on his sandwich. Yes, he crunched on it. “It’s amazingly delicious.”

Gears in my head turned. “Wait… isn’t radhog… meat?” He nodded and kept eating it. “Aren’t we vegetarians?”

“Says the pony-blood drinking berzerker,” Rumcake shot back, an amused grin on his muzzle. “Here. Try a piece.” He proffered a small chunk of radhog meat to me. “It’s heart-stoppingly good.”

I gave him a suspicious glare as I leaned forward and picked the piece of radhog meat out of his hoof. After a few chews, I finally swallowed and replied “You know what? That’s actually really good.” Greasy, meaty, and deliciously disgusting. I knew I shouldn’t be eating meat, but it was so good! The little bloodthirster in me rejoiced a little.

You know you liked it. Reach over there and grab me the rest of that sandwich!

Against Raider’s insistence, I picked up my decidedly non-meaty sandwich instead. I was disappointed to find that my meal now tasted far less impressive.

“Told ya.” Rumcake kept eating.

Another question came to mind. “So, what did our dear Inquisitor want from you this time? Fetch twenty bear asses for a new jacket?”

At least that made him choke on his sandwich. Once he had cleared his airway and washed everything down with a healthy gulp of alcohol, he croaked, “Oh, he wants me to go secure a radio uplink since somepony blew up the old one. Until then, we don’t have long-range communications with other Ranger contingents.”

Interesting. But not interesting enough to continue on that topic. “So… what’s your cutie mark, anyway?” I asked between bites.

“What? You haven’t been staring at my ass? I feel insulted.” Rumcake pouted. I faceclawed. “It’s really not that interesting.”

Truth be told, I hadn’t really been paying attention to anypony’s cutie marks. Just trying not to die. Cutie marks didn’t really matter, anyway.

“If you must know, it’s literally the Rangers logo.” I couldn’t see his his butt through his power armor. “Except the sword is a bottle of rum. Get it? Yeah.”

“Story?”

“No.”

“Aww.” I scooted closer to him and rubbed up against his neck. “Pweeese?”

Rumcake nudged me. “You first.”

I stared at my snowcloud cutie mark. “I got my cutie mark moving clouds. That’s about it.” Rumcake looked disappointed. “What?” A loose daisy from my sandwich found its way onto his face at high velocity. “Not everypony can have an amazing, thrilling, totally awesome cutie mark story.”

“Now I’m going to feel bad if I tell you my story,” Rumcake dejectedly mumbled, pulling the daisy off his face.

I hugged him. “Aww, I still wanna hear it. What’s it going to do? Bore me to death? Am I going to die from the sheer awesome of it? Just, plonk—dead.” I giggled at my own antics and I mimicked face-planting into the table.

Rumcake didn’t think it was funny. “Listen, Frosty. Please don’t make those jokes,” he sternly stated. Shock caused me to hop backward in my seat. “When you do that, it’s like a stab to my heart. I care about you, and things like that… things like that aren’t jokes for you. Not with your track record.” I… I hadn’t really thought of it. “I have watched you die.”

It was my turn to put on a serious face. “I’ve watched you eat it too, you know.”

“I’m not the one taking unnecessary risks,” Rumcake sternly chastised. “But I was there when it happened. When I met you, and in the fortress.”

Hold on. What? “What do you mean ‘when I met you’?” I timidly asked, cringing from his glare. “Could you fill me in on that?”

Rumcake sighed and calmed down. “Ever wonder if love can bloom on the battlefield?” He chuckled to himself and stared at the ceiling. “I didn’t think so. That is, until I ran across a dying Enclave soldier on my patrol.”

Sounded like me. “Then what happened?”

“I followed procedure. Brought her to a medic.” He started turning an adorable shade of red. “Prepped her for interrogation using a program another contingent found in a pre-war facility.” That explained the PipBuck. “But once I got that damn helmet off…” He dreamily stared into my eyes. “Let’s just say I had a feeling.”

“Aww,” I cooed.

“Not a thing that I would change. I knew I couldn’t hurt you. So I broke protocol and decided to take a risk on you.” I refilled the glasses and pushed one to him, which we instantly drank. “Turns out it sort of paid off.” Rumcake sat back in his seat and poured another round of shots. “And I don’t really know why, but I decided that I should keep you safe. Or as safe as possible, anyway. You didn’t really pose a huge threat, and you didn’t have any information that would have been useful to us.”

“Well, thank you for that, then.” I noticed a red mare sitting at the far end of the bar chatting to Peppermint Shots. “Hey, is that Cherry?” She was leaning forward, holding her head up by her forelegs. Peppermint looked like he was actually enjoying the conversation, judging by how long he’d been cleaning that same mug.

Rumcake sat back up and peered down the bar. “I think so. Want her to come over?” He was about to stand up and walk over.

I hastily grabbed his foreleg before he could stand up. No! We were having a good time! Sort of. “Let’s let her do her thing. I’m sure she’d like some time alone with Peppermint or something.” I just wanted to spend a more time with Rumcake, who nodded in agreement. He sat back down, causing the booth seat to creak in protest.

Both of us drank another shot as we both searched for a different topic. “Wanna play a game?” he asked, abruptly changing topics. The last bits of my sandwich disappeared into my muzzle.

“Sure.” I refilled the glasses again. “What is it?” Was the bottle already empty? I waved the mostly-empty bottle at Peppermint. Like a good bartender, he brought over a new bottle just for me. I pulled open the box of snack cakes and unwrapped the first one that fell out.

“Simple.” He asked Peppermint for a few more glasses. “It’s a game we came up with after we saved a small town.” Probably after the technology, but I didn’t say it. The glasses were filled with whiskey, then arranged into a diamond shape. I watched intently, idly fondling the snack cake in my hoof. Once we had eight glasses each, Rumcake dropped a small pile of bottle caps onto the table.

I took a bite out of the snack cake and immediately stopped in mid-chew. Unless the formula had suddenly changed in this specific batch, something was very wrong. This wasn’t ‘Tart Cherry 12’ that I’d come to know and love! I held back a grimace. “You aren’t cherry flavored! You lied to me!” I yelled at the half-eaten apple snack cake in my hoof. A few patrons shot dirty looks at me, and I sheepishly grinned back at them.

“Well, that was uncalled for.” Rumcake held back a snigger. “Are they really not cherry flavored?” I scowled at him and showed him the pale yellow-orange filling inside the snack cake. “Okay, so they’re not cherry flavored. Anyway, let me explain the game before you flip the table.”

Whatever this game was called, it was fun. It was a lot of tossing bottle caps with my mouth into the shot glasses, hoping that they would land in the whiskey. We were supposed to drink the glasses that our bottle caps landed in. Halfway into the first round, I realized that Rumcake was too good at this, but that also meant his aim got worse as we continued.

The next several hours passed in a blur of drinks, bottles, glasses, something involving a few napkins and a carrot. Which may or may not have involved acts that may or may not have involved his tongue. Yeah. It was amazing. At some point in my mild inebriety, Rumcake forced me to go home, against my desired wishes.

Once outside, I replied, “Yes, sir.” I did a lazy spin in the air to get my bearings, then proclaimed loudly, “Naptime, ho!” Somewhere, I’d gotten the idea in my mind that friendship was carrots. Good thing I liked carrots.

Somepony grabbed my hindlegs. “Not so fast, you.” I looked down and realized Cherry was holding me to the ground.

“Can I please go? I wanna sleep,” I whined.

Cherry pulled me down to the ground, hard. She was definitely stronger than she looked. “I’m not done with you,” she replied in a sultry tone.

“Uh.”

“I’ll help you get cleaned up and stuff. Mare stuff.” She abruptly switched to a more disapproving tone. “Your mane is a complete disaster.”

“Riiiight.” I ran my talons through my mane and they immediately snagged on tangled knots of hair. “Fine, fine. Come along, Cherry.” I floated off in the vague direction of Rusty’s house because I still didn’t own a home in the town I’d saved. I’d seen the Ranger barracks, and that was the last place that I wanted to bunk down. Why would I trade my pile of comfort for a stiff bunk? Cherry tagged along below me from the street.

After knocking on the door a few times to no reply, I opened the door with Rusty’s key.

You didn’t give it back?

Shut up. You dropped the ball on this one, brain.

“So this is where you live? It’s… cozy.”

“I share it with two other ponies,” I informed her. “Don’t mess with anything on the ground. None of it is mine.” Cherry pulled her hoof back from the contents of the shelf she was about to touch. “That’s my stuff up there.” I pointed at the rafters. My duster and my bag got tossed next to the door in a disorganized heap.

“Uh… how do I get up there?” I flapped my wings at her to make a point. Being a pegasus allowed me to buck physics and just fly up there. Let’s see… how did Rusty and Broken get up there before? I looked around the room. “Wait, do you have to like, parkour up there?” Oh right.

“I think it was… from this table, then onto this cabinet thing, then up to the rafters,” I uncertainly told her. “Or I could just carry you up there.”

“Yeah, let’s do that instead. I’m no athlete,” Cherry replied. “Except in the bedroom. Eyooo!” I resisted the urge to punch her. “Get it? Because I’m a—”

“Yes. I get it.” I groaned. Before she could make another pun, I forcibly picked her up and tossed her onto the pile of blankets and cloth I called a bed. “Now shut up and let me sleep.” The piles of cloth weren’t as good as a nice poofy cloud, but it would have to do for now. Cherry laid down along the edge of my bedding as I rearranged it for optimal comfort.

Cherry pulled a brush out of one of her saddlebags. “Settle down and I’ll get you brushed. Goddesses know when you last had a bath as well.” I sniffed myself and nearly choked on my spit. I smelled disgusting. She patted my head. “Yeah. Exactly.”

“I really do need a bath,” I grumbled to myself. “First thing first, I need to actually get to sleep. Just like, brush me while I sleep. And if you do anything else, somepony’s getting a hoof in the face.” I pulled a blanket over my eyes and calmed my mind for sleep.

~~~~~

Have you ever slept so soundly that you didn’t hear an alarm? Getting up at the crack of dawn for every day of my enlisted life made sure I didn’t have a good night’s sleep, if at all. Sleeping in after about three straight days of fighting and unconsciousness felt amazing. No lucid dreaming, no interruptions, nopony trying to kill me. I opened my eyes and continued to lie in bed in the relative comfort of my cushions.

“Mmm.” Cherry happily moaned into my ear. Wait, what? She was curled up along my back with her left foreleg draped over me. She then playfully nipped at my ear, causing me to flick it reflexively. “You awake?”

“Mhm.” I twitched slightly when Cherry laid her head on my neck. After a calm, awkward silence, I asked, “Why did you kiss my ear?”

She shifted her head and sleepily asked, “Why are you holding my hoof?” I looked down, and sure enough she was right. Why was I holding her hoof?

Logic caught up to my sleepy brain. “Where’s your other hoof?”

“Between two pillows,” Cherry sleepily mumbled, snuggling closer. Wait… I didn’t have any pillows in here, did I? Maybe one pillow…

A tickle from between my hindlegs got my gears turning. “Those aren’t pillows!” I screamed.

Both of us catapulted ourselves out of bed and screamed. More like I screamed, and Cherry yelped because I may have bucked her to the other side of the bed. After I’d calmed down a bit, she blurted “Sorry! After I finished brushing your mane, I got super-comfortable and I fell asleep.”

I stopped hyperventilating and restrained my hooves against accidental face-cratering. “You scared me, that’s all,” I finally answered. “I’ve woken up to a lot of weird things, but a morning with a callfilly is new.”

“A night at Past Four will change that real fast,” Rusty informed us from the ground floor. Both of us jumped at the sound of his voice. “Now go back to sleep. It’s nearly first whistle and I have cleaning to do at Doc’s.”

Broken also joined in. “I’d tell you two to get a room, but you’re probably too poor to afford a room at the Smashed Spritebot.” My mouth opened for a minute, then I closed it. I hadn’t looted anything recently, so she was probably right on that count.

“Go back to sleep, sis. You too, Frosty,” Rusty grumbled. “All the mares in this town are unbearable…”

Cherry and I rearranged my bedding into a more nest-like pile. “You. Over there.” I pointed at the other end of the pile. “If I wake up with you cuddling me again…” I grumbled, settling down comfortably at my end.

“Yeah, yeah. I know. Hoof in face.” Cherry plopped down opposite from me. “You’re no fun.” She pouted.

“All work and no play makes Frosty a crazy mare. Let me try to get some more sleep before the voices tell me to kill you.” I shoved my head under a blanket and attempted to go back to sleep.

~~~~~

Cherry returned with a small paper bag clutched in her muzzle. “Brought you breakfast.” She dropped the bag in front of me with a grim smile. “You were making all sorts of noise and ruckus. Bad dream?” A cold, nervous sweat covered my body and I was hopelessly tangled up in the bedsheets, so that was entirely possible.

The base of my stump also ached for some inexplicable reason. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t detach my claw just because I’d have to put it back on after. “You have no idea,” I muttered, nosing the bag open. It smelled hot, sweet, and overly delicious. “What…what are these, exactly?”

“Damned if I know.” Cherry shrugged, dropping back into the bed to help me untangle myself from the rest of the sheets. “Did you know that handsome buck at the bar sells breakfast, too?” I snapped at one of the round, soft cakey things in the bag and wolfed it down. “Like it? Didn’t really cost much.”

They were delicious, soft, and definitely freshly made. Hints of fruit and maybe vanilla drowned out any traces of hundred year old preservatives in the pastries. I liked them. A bit dry and starchy for my taste, but nothing a bit of coffee, whiskey, or maybe water would fix. “Tasty.” I simply stated, diving into the bag for another. “Wait, how much were they?”

“Like, fifty caps.” A long-range inspection of my caps pouch using my PipBuck told me I was fifty caps lighter. “I had it covered.”

“Apparently breakfast was on me,” I deadpanned at her. “So, should I know anything else before we continue?”

“Whatever do you mean?” Cherry replied ever-so-innocently.

“I think you know what I mean. Stay out of my stuff. Got it?” I poked her chest for emphasis. “It’s my stuff, not yours.”

Cherry snorted. “Keep your panties on, sheesh. I got it.” She fished one of the pastries out of the bag for herself and munched on it.

“I’m not wearing panties,” I grumbled, taking the last pastry.

~~~~~

After a somewhat enjoyable breakfast of mystery pastries, I started gliding out to the Steel Ranger section of town to the machine shop. At some point in the week, I wrote down a reminder to visit Baked Potato for some claw maintenance. The claw that had replaced my foreleg almost a month ago wasn’t running as smoothly as I remembered it.

A strangely garbed tan unicorn wearing the most peculiar of eyewear caught my eye and I had to go investigate. I was almost there, anyway. He seemed to be talking to himself, intermittently conversing with a small robot that was following him around. On a whim, I soundlessly landed next to him and said, “So… you hear voices too?”

He jumped. “Gah! Oh, jeez, I didn’t see you there.” One lens of his glasses was blue, the other red. I couldn’t wrap my head around why he’d wear those, let alone make the lenses different colors! “Uh, well, this is awkward. Who are you?” He regained his composure and smoothed down his short brown mane. He was wearing a trench coat with the letters “NCR" on the back, overtop a bluish pre-war suit with a red tie.

“I’m Frosty Winds, local basket case. You?” I replied with a grin on my face.

“My name is Durt, and this is zebra lands or bust!” Durt proudly announced. “My goal is to walk to the zebra lands on my own without any kind of aid whatsoever. Except my faithful companion Wolfie, of course.”

I stared at the little robot. I guess it did look a bit like a robot dog. “Woof!” Wolfie barked, wagging his little robot tail. Aww.

“Woof indeed, Wolfie. As I was saying…” Wait, were we even on the same train of thought anymore? “…could you point me in the proper direction of the closest supply depot? I seem to be low on scrap and wool.”

I automatically gave him directions to get to Scrap Bank’s shop. This erratic stallion was making me very confused, but his naturally charismatic nature kept me somewhat entertained. “So why are you walking all the way to the uh, zebra lands? I mean—”

“Charity!” he interjected. “For the foals! Would you like to donate?”

Oh conscience, why must you interfere with this? “Uh… I didn’t bring any of my stuff with me. Is there any other way?” My cheeks burned pink.

“Indeed!” He took out what looked like a chunk of radroach and fed it to Wolfie, who happily gobbled it up. “You can donate on—”

Panicked screams and cries of anger were coming out of the machine shop. “I gotta go! Sorry!” Durt smiled and waved as I flew up to the building. My trained military mind made the connection that there was a struggle in progress. I yanked my SMG out of my saddlebag and barreled through the the doorway. “What the buck is happening in here?” I shouted.

Suddenly, cupcakes. So my trained military mind was not ready for a food fight. Neither was my face when a particularly well-frosted pink cupcake hit me squarely in the eye. “Oi, now tha’s not fair!”

“Who the buck throws a cupcake?” I whined, wiping frosting off my face. “Oh dear Luna, it burns! Ow. Ow. Ow. The hell is in these?” The frosting did look very delicious, and I could use another snack…

“Whatever yer thinkin’, don’ eat it.” My frosted hoof paused halfway to my mouth. “Whatcha doin’ in here, lass?” Baked Potato stood up from behind a workbench, more cupcakes somehow hanging from a bandolier on his body. “An’ put the gun away, willya?”

My SMG went back into my bag. “Will I be better off not knowing what’s in these cupcakes?” I asked with dread. A dark orange mare wearing the Rangers scribe outfit poked her head out from around a bench press. Banana Pudding glared at me from over a dented suit of armor that he was probably working on before the cake fight broke out.

“Ha! Frosty’s got frostin’ in ‘er eye! Ah, the irony.” Baked laughed.

I waved my claw at him. “Yeah, yeah. I’m just here for a tune-up, seeing as I’m really bad at maintainence.”

Baked took off his cupcake bandolier and motioned me to come closer. “Let’s see.” We gathered around his workbench. He then walked around to my side of the workbench, deftly unlatching my claw from its connection point to my stump. “Looks like nothin’ a bit o’ grease won’ solve. Anythin’ you wan’ me to do?”

“You’re cleaning this up, Knight!” Banana Pudding yelled, most likely complaining about the cupcakes still sticking to many surfaces of the machine shop’s interior.

“Can it, ya old coot!” Baked shouted back. “Anyhow, whatcha need?”

“Well, an upgrade would be nice, but I don’t think I really need one,” I groused out loud as I stared off into nowhere in thought. “I guess a tune-up will do.” He walked back over to his end of the table and dropped my claw down onto the surface of the workbench.

…Wait, what?

Suddenly one limb short, gravity took over and I fell over with a surprised bleat. “A little warning would have been nice,” I grumbled from the floor.

“Don’ whine. Walk it off.” He started disassembling my claw, neatly grouping the individual parts in little rows.

I sputtered at him. “Walk? Really?” My balance was thrown off enough by my missing leg and my saddlebag to make me unable to stand. “You’re a funny stallion.” After a few failed attempts at standing, I decided that the floor was comfortable enough for me.

“Ye wimp.” Sounds of machinery clinking and clanking could be heard on the workbench itself. Baked was humming something to himself while he worked, and the orange scribe from earlier was nowhere to be seen. Banana Pudding was back at work on the suit of Ranger armor. “Ew. You’ve been gettin’ into a lotta fights, haven’t you?” Tools clattered around inside a toolbox, then it was followed by a lot of scraping.

“Yeah. You could say that,” I replied, resting against the workbench. “Do you think you can sharpen the talons more? Just the tips, mind you.”

Baked groaned. “If yer gonna use it on offence, I’m gonna hafta install some rubber seals so th’ blood don’t muck about with the machinery.” He searched the room for something in particular, checking inside boxes, behind toolboxes, and even lifting me up to check underneath the workbench itself.

Or under your big fat flank full of cherry-flavored snack cakes.

Thanks for that, brain.

No problem.

Although, it was impressive that he only needed to use one hoof to do it. Hey, brain, maybe I’m not so fat after all!

He gently placed me back on the floor and checked yet another box. “You could have just asked, y’know,” I muttered, slightly annoyed. “Can I help in any way, at least?”

“I think I got this in the bag, lass. Can ye grab the oil from the shelf you’ve been usin’ as a pillow?” Baked replied.

After a bit of digging, I tossed a small black oilcan onto the workbench. “How long is this going to take?” I whined. “I have things to do!” Okay, it was more like I needed to go somewhere within the short space of a month before I randomly died when my “contract” expired.

I was answered by the sounds of power tools and Baked yelling over them. “Sorry lass, this is gonna take a bit o’ yer time.” I groaned inwardly, burying my face in my hoof.

“I wonder what Rumcake’s up to?” I muttered dejectedly. “Probably having a better time than me…”

X~~~X

“How about now?”

I sighed. “No.”

Sparkle waited for a moment before asking again, “How about now?”

Once again, Head Paladin Chocolate Chip proved herself to be correct. Less experienced Rangers—usually the Junior Paladins and apprentices—were like foals. They got bored easily, and they needed constant attention lest somepony ended up missing a leg. Sparkle wasn’t an exception, as I’d repeatedly found out in the past several hours.

“Act your age, Junior Paladin Sparkle,” I groaned in exasperation for the ninth time so far. At least it shut her up again for now.

The street ahead seemed like a terrible place to have to pass through, putting it lightly. All the ruined buildings to our left and right had second floors that could potentially house ambushing forces. Any of these places looked like a potential hive of scum and villainy waiting to strike. Just in case, I kept good ol’ Decrusty out on display to ward off anypony that thought that they could overpower us. Similarly, Sparkle had her grenade launcher out and loaded.

I tried to keep my thoughts focused on the mission at hoof, but I found myself thinking of Frosty instead. What was she doing right now? Was she getting in trouble? Probably staring somepony down with those sexy green eyes, wings all aflutter in unprovoked anger. A quick shake of my head cleared that image away. There was a time and place for that, and this was neither.

“Blips on E.F.S., near blue wreck. Second floor at our three o’clock,” Sparkle calmly stated.

Finally, something to keep me focused. I caught sight of an unruly mop of muddy green hair disappear under a windowsill. “Confirmed. Stay frosty.”

“What am I, your marefriend?” she joked good-naturedly.

It took all my integrity as a superior officer to resist the urge to punch my subordinate right on the spot. Instead, I stayed quiet and let her have her moment for now. Later on I’d have better opportunities for payback anyway. I kept an eye on the yellow dots wavering along my E.F.S. bar.

“More movement, next building over.” A tail vanished around a support beam and down the furniture-strewn stairs. “This doesn’t seem right though. Don’t shoot unless fired on.”

“Yes sir,” came the reply.

Good thing, too. Out of nowhere, a little foal no higher than my knees darted out of a hole in the blue building and began to whale on my foreleg with a lead pipe. I paused in mid-step to allow the young colt to get a few good swings in that threatened to dent my armor.

“Get away from my turf!” the little colt squeaked, showing no signs of relenting.

I stared at the little tan-maned rascal. “Well, I can’t say I was expecting this.” Either no cutie mark, or it was the same color as his cream-colored coat.

Sparkle regarded us with a slight hint of humor in her voice. “You look like you’ve got the situation under control.”

Just like a pre-war comedy routine, I pushed the foal back and kept his pipe out of range of my legs by putting my hoof against his tiny head. “Shut up. More importantly, where’d this kid come from?” I scanned the ruins lining the street, hoping that the parents were somewhere nearby.

“Movement in the alleys,” Sparkle warned, protectively placing herself in front of the colt in front of me. “Looks like we’ve got company.”

A zebra assault rifle enveloped in a pale gray aura floated out around the corner, which was quickly followed by a tiny mirror. “Release the kid or we start shooting!” a hoarse voice yelled, presumably by the unicorn pointing the gun at us.

By “we”, he obviously meant the five other pistols and automatic small arms protruding from behind various bits of available cover provided by the ruins. None of them were particularly threatening, although I didn’t feel like taking the risk of a bullet to the knee. From what I gathered from the slightly visible ponies in the windows, they didn’t really seem very armored or geared well either.

“What now?” Sparkle asked, giving me a puzzled look. “We could totally take them.”

I nodded my head to the right, indicating that Sparkle should open fire on the three targets there in case things went badly. “What do you think about these guys? I’m inclined to think that they’re scavengers or squatters.”

“I’m getting this creepy slaver vibe from these guys.”

“Really now?” Huh, I would think that slavers would be angrier and better armed than these bumbling fools.

“Totally. Look at all that raggedy stuff they’ve got on.”

Until they decided to do something that validated their slaver status, I’d give them the benefit of the doubt. However, it wasn’t unheard of for slavers to disguise themselves in order to take their targets by surprise. Just in case, I kept on edge so I could spin up Decrusty at any given moment.

Some loud commotion echoed through the empty streets. “Heart Attack, you get over here right now or I’m taking away your dessert for a week!” a mare who was probably the colt’s mother screeched from the building on the left.

The foal I was holding back abruptly halted his struggles. “Aww, but Moooooom!” he loudly wailed, dropping his metal pipe as well.

I pointedly cleared my throat and mustered by best demonic voice. “Listen to your mother or I’ll eat you for dinner, you little scamp.” Obviously, that got the reaction that I hoped for.

The little colt blanched and bolted, crying for his mother. Sparkle and I watched him retreat down the street and back toward the hovering assault rifle, just in case that the remaining Wastelanders decided to change their stance on non aggression. Sans the muted yelling of the colt’s mother, the next few moments passed in relative silence.

“I’d hate to be that kid right now,” Sparkle muttered to me over private communications.

“Too much?” I asked as the mirror and rifle retreated. “Oh look, they’ve come to their senses.”

Sparkle shrugged. “Seemed reasonable. Blips are pulling back.”

“You think we made the right call?”

The Ranger beside me loudly stamped her hooves on the pavement. “Eh. Probably. I don’t really give two caps. Kids annoy me.”

“Hm.”

“Speakin’ of which, how’s it going with Frosty? She want kids?”

Hello, random segue. “Ehh… no comment,” I grunted, shoving thoughts of little winged Rumcakes and Frosties scampering about underhoof.

“Rumcake and Frosty, sittin’ in a bunk. B-U-C-K-I-”

Song time was suddenly interrupted on account of Sparkle being insufferable. “Enough. Shut it, Junior Paladin. I don’t wanna hear it. I want silence from now on unless it’s mission critical.” I didn’t always pull rank, but it was reasons like this why I loved being a Paladin Commander.

“Yessir.” Sparkle pouted.

X~~~X

“Damn, I’m bored. Are you done yet?” I whined. Baked had been working on my claw for the past few hours. I would have used the restroom out of sheer boredom, but trying to walk there without falling on my face was annoyingly difficult. I’d just resorted to idly gnawing on my fetlock.

“Calm down, lass. Almost done…” More tool sounds. “There! All clean, reinforced, an’ super-pointy.” Baked walked around to my side of the workbench and helped me up. “Ye wanna do it on the floor or on the bench?”

“Ooh, sounds kinky,” I purred into his ear, leaning up against him for balance.

Baked rolled his eyes. “Personally, I’d enjoy ye bein’ on the table,” he rumbled back. Too much information. I think. “No. Sorry lass, but the wings just aren’t my thing.” Well, at least now I knew. “Let’s just get ye forelegs on the table then.

I obediently propped my stump and my other foreleg onto the table. “I’m going to assume on three?” I asked, mentally preparing myself for one. Baked nodded. I took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s get this over with.”

Baked hefted my shiny refurbished claw. “One…” I squeezed my eyes shut and braced myself. “Two…” Any time now… “Three.” There was a sharp intake of breath from both of us, then nothing happened.

“Uh… did you forget something?” I asked, somewhat disappointed.

Baked looked around the table, looking for something. “I think th’ weight strut’s a bit loose…” He picked up a screwdriver in his teeth. “Hold still.”

“Why do I need to ho–AAAAAAGH! WHY DIDN’T I SEE THAT COMING?” I screeched. The second I moved my foreleg to hold down my claw, Baked moved lightning quick and plugged it into the socket in my stump. I knew better than most that reconnecting a receptive limb hurt a lot. I still wasn’t used to the pain, even after this many times.

Baked laughed. “Priceless! Outta colorful swears, are ya?”

I looked at him with tears in my eyes. “You have no idea how much this hurts.” But at least my claw felt like it was working much better now. And to my expectations, the ends of each individual talon were razor sharp. “Thanks.” I wiped the tears away and flexed my metal limb with delight. “I should name it Binky.”

I think he ignored my comment. “Now, lass. Did a few upgrades m’self.” He opened a small panel mounted on the side and pointed out a small purple gem lodged between a bunch of wires and steel parts. “That’s a recoil somethin’ or other.”

Against my better judgement I peered into the hole. “Do you mean a recoil dampener spell?” I guessed. It was wired up to a larger boxy, cylindrical contraption going down the center of my claw like a bone. “And what would I have to dampen, exactly?”

“Ballistic hoof mod.” Baked grinned proudly. “Holds two twelve gauge shells.” A slot on the underside of my claw near the hoof joint was probably where the shells went. “Fires ‘em one at a time. Flex yer leg all the way to pump it.” An experimental flex released a clicking sound from somewhere inside it.

“Cooool,” I breathed.

Baked dug out a pair of shotgun shells out from a pouch on a nearby toolbench and hoofed them to me. “I’ve rigged it to fire when ye punch things. Jus’ don’ forget to pump it.”

I hefted my mechanical foreleg with newfound glee. “Aww yeah.”

X~~~X

Ah, blessed silence for me to ponder about other things. Other, uh, teal and winged things. I shook my head to try to dislodge those thoughts; I needed to focus on my surroundings right now. We were still in dangerous territory, after all.

After an incredibly uneventful two hours of trudging and pushing through city rubble, Sparkle finally broke the silence. “It’s getting dark. We’ll need somewhere to hunker down for the night.” It wasn’t as dark as she thought it was, thanks to the cloud cover plus the shadows of the buildings around us, but she made an acceptable point.

“Keep an eye out. It’s not too dark yet, but let’s find somewhere defensible.”

Sparkle nodded. “Any of these buildings should do though, right?”

“Too many entry points and I don’t trust them to take more than a single grenade in case we have to go loud,” I pointed out, kicking a particularly large chunk of cinderblock out of my way. “We’re somewhere in the commercial district, so look for anything that looks like Stable access or the like. Lacking that, there should be an entrance to the underground train network somewhere around here. If all goes well, we might be able to use it as a shortcut to the alleged location of the radio tower we’re looking for.”

We arrived at a four-way crossing and stopped. A large barricade cobbled together from a delightful compilation of wrecked carriages, rubble, an entire wall from the three-story house next to it, and every single body-occupied spike in the Wasteland. Crude signs and imagery were painted all over it in a variety of colors. From the few legible bits of graffiti, we were about to enter "Skull Skinnerz territory (keepz otuz!)’’

The two of us stood by this massive pile of crap, unsure how to proceed. “Well, we could go around,” Sparkle suggested.

Severed limbs and loose organs lined the streets around the wall of twisted steel and gore. On consideration of the scale of raider infestation in this area, that seemed like an unnecessary risk. The spoils wouldn’t even cover the effort or ammo it would take to just pass through the area, even if it was faster.

“We’re going around. Watch for raiders that get too close; you know the drill.” They wouldn’t be a huge problem anyway—our armor could probably protect us from the majority of their heretically-maintained weapons. “This way’s probably faster. Come along.”

This new raider territory hadn’t been in the scouting reports from two months ago. Granted we hadn’t gotten much of anything done after the tragic “demise” of Elder Pizza Rolls and the consequent loss of the long-range broadcast array. I made a note to myself to update the maps back at base.

A covered stairwell going into the depths of the earth immediately caught my attention. “That looks like a good stopping point,” I said, taking note of the faded sign barely hanging on by a single chain to the overhang.

“What’s this purple circle for?”

I squinted at the faded text. “Oh. Purple line station.”

“Why’s it a circle?”

“Beats me. Let’s get in and find a place to fortify.” I immediately stomped down the worn stairs and toggled my helmet light. “Eugh. Looks like they got here too.”

Just like outside, the walls and floors had been liberally smeared with an assortment of blood, guts, and all the raidery goodness that they tended to leave behind after a slaughter. I swept my helmet light back and forth, keeping an eye out for anypony that wasn’t as dead as they appeared. From the bodies still mostly intact, it seemed like another group of Wastelanders had fought to their last pony and had also taken down a good number of raiders too. A large pile of pinkish dust at the very foot of the stairs gave me a little hope that this place was at least worth the trip.

“Police the weapons and ammo. Looks like one of ‘em had a laser,” I ordered Sparkle, who dutifully began to sift through whatever was left of the ponies. “Try to stay close if you can. Radio signal isn’t too good now that we’re under a pile of concrete and steel.”

I, on the other hoof, wandered around the bend and poked my head into the ticket booth next to the remaining few turnstiles. Predictably, I was disappointed in my findings. No weapons, caps, or anything worth taking. Just in case, I leaned in and gave the space under the counter a quick glance. Nada. Just a few empty cans.

Next stop, the bathrooms. It was a long shot, but it was completely possible that two hundred years’ worth of scavengers hadn’t checked the medical kits in there. I pushed my way past the turnstiles by simply bending the metal bars out of the way. Conveniently, there was a small junction that made up the bathroom entry off to the right of the main passage. As per the norm: left side mares, right side stallions. Old tiles cracked under my armored weight as I began to investigate the stallions’ room first.

Obviously, nothing. Every single stall had been destroyed, same as the glass and the sinks. The medical box that should have been mounted on the wall wasn’t even present in the room at all. I wasn’t really surprised as much as just plain annoyed that there wasn’t anything here.

“One bathroom clear,” I loudly notified Sparkle.

“Still workin’ on all this stuff,” came her reply.

“Copy that.” Hopefully the other restroom had something more worthwhile.

The mares’ restroom was in a better state than the stallions’. Only one destroyed stall and a pair of bodies decorated this one, not including all of the standard Wasteland filth and grime. Surprisingly enough, the butterfly-patterned box appeared to still be mounted on the wall and locked.

I was about to leave when I realized that one of the corpses sprawled in the corner was marked as aggressive on my E.F.S. How could that be? I tapped the side of my helmet where the E.F.S. sensors were mounted to dislodge any grime stuck to it. When nothing changed, I stared at my heads-up display in perplexion and wondered what was wrong.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that it took a lot longer than it should’ve been necessary for me to realize I was looking at a ghoul that was playing dead. It was hard to tell what its original form had been, besides the unhelpful fact that it had been a pony at one point.

“I’m going to stand here for as long as I need to stand here.” I began to spin up Decrusty and take aim. “And you can just stay right there. Sound fine?”

Apparently the ghoul disagreed. Moving almost in slow-motion, the ghoul detached itself from its corner with a wet plopping sound and tried to push itself up. It was mildly interesting to watch it attempt to stand, so I simply kept watching. Once it had finished standing, it turned to glare at me with its single eyeball. With a feral cry, the ghoul lurched forward and, presumably, attempted to chew off my face.

Of course, I say “attempted” because it barely took two steps with its mangled legs before I hosed its face off with lead.

Even though Decrusty was suppressed, the keening wail of the ghoul dying coupled with dozens of bullets crushing bathroom tiles was loud enough to alert whatever else was down here with us.

“Hostiles, comin’ in!” I shouted, watching my E.F.S. light up with multiple red dots. “Get ready for ghouls!”

By the time I crushed my way back past the turnstiles and regrouped with Sparkle, I could hear the oncoming undead masses roaring and screaming their way toward us. “Well, I have good news and bad news,” Sparkle told me, backing up the stairs behind us.

“Good news.” I followed her up since high ground was too much of an advantage to pass up. “And it better be a laser.”

“Uh.” Sparkle hesitated. “We have a bunch of laser ammo?”

It did bother me a bit that Sparkle could never give straight answers. “Let me guess—there’s no laser.” I sighed, hitting the reload toggle on Decrusty.

The first ghoul rounded the corner and got immediately torn up by a grenade from Sparkle’s launcher and a hail of fire from me. “I broke what was left of the rifle down for parts.”

Better than nothing. “Large group incoming! Grenades, now!” I ordered right as a surge of ghouls rounded the corner.

Sparkle followed orders down to the dot, firing a dozen grenades down the stairs in rapid succession. Ichor and dust flew everywhere, obscuring everything at the bottom of the stairs. There was no point for me to add to the mess with minigun rounds unless I wanted to waste some more ammo hoping to do what she was already doing fine at.

Although I still couldn’t see. “Hold your fire.” Smoke and dust still clung to the air, refusing to settle.

A much larger glowing ghoul burst through the smoke and charged at us much faster than anticipated. Sparkle was in mid-reload and I’d stupidly let Decrusty spin down because I’d assumed that the plastering of grenades would kill anything coming at us.

“Make some room and belay that order!” I yelled, just in case Sparkle got her reload finished in time. “It’s a glowing one!”

Both of us continued to retreat up the stairs. I finally got Decrusty spun up and I began to give the balefire ghoul every bullet I had. Each shot that landed caused the ghoul to stagger and stumble, but it didn’t show any signs of stopping. If it got any closer we’d have some major problems that even Steel Ranger armor wouldn’t protect us against.

With a heart-stopping crack, my minigun jammed. I swore out loud. By the time I could get the jam cleared, the ghoul would be way too close. In a fit of panic, I did what nopony should ever do—I took a step forward and slugged the radioactive ghoul in the face, so hard that its lower jaw melted away into rotten skin and bone.

Too bad it didn’t even notice and decided to tackle me right into the ground.

I gasped in pain as I collapsed on the floor, trying to push myself back up on my hooves. I thought I was heavy enough to resist a knockdown! My armor brightly reminded me that I had entered a highly radioactive zone and suggested that I retreat to a safe distance.

The ghoul got right up into my face and roared, dripping slime and goddesses knew what else all over my helmet. It incomprehensibly gargled in my face and probably tried to say something, but that wasn’t a concern as I tried to fight it off. I could feel it punching and hammering at my armor, and every time I attempted to get up it got smart and punched at my less-armored joints.

“Look out! Danger close!” Sparkle yelled, turning her grenade launcher right on me.

I made a note to myself that she had reckless tendencies, just like a certain pegasus I knew. In an act of desperation, I grabbed the ghoul in a huge bear hug and flung it down the stairs as it growled and kicked.

“Give it to him!” I yelled, scrambling backward out of range.

Six more grenades finally finished off the glowing ghoul, to my relief. Sparkle sent a few more grenades at the eviscerated corpse just in case it tried to get up again. All the red dots on my E.F.S. had disappeared, so I cautiously walked back down the stairs.

There wasn’t anything left of the ghouls. “Alright, we’re clear.” I poked at one of the more intact corpses, just in case.

“Whew. That was too close.” Sparkle sighed in relief.

Speaking of which… “Hey, next time no firing grenades at your superiors, okay?”

“We both know you would have been fine.”

“Just… be careful next time, would you? You’re lucky I don’t have another Paladin to replace you with,” I scolded her.

“Yessir.”

“What’d you find on the bodies?”

“Healing potion, a hoofful of caps, assorted ammunition, a Dash inhaler, a few damaged guns, and a busted laser rifle. Not a whole lot.”

I wasn’t too disappointed at least. “Well, it could have been worse. Go find us a good place to crash. I’ve got a box to open.”

~~~~~

“I’m never trusting your judgement ever again,” I groaned, taking my gaze away from the recently unboarded record shop. “Even if this does look like a defensible spot.”

Down the stairs, past the turnstiles, around yet another corner, and past a series of stairways that went down to the actual train station, there was a small roundabout filled with shops arranged around a broken fountain. The only two stores that had survived with minimal damage were the record shop in front of us and the souvenir shop to its right.

Too bad I couldn’t change her mind since the record shop was tactically sound. There was only one entrance and a hole in the left wall that went into the ambiguous shop that could serve as an emergency exit after a bit of force was applied to it. The interior of the record shop was trashed—bins and boxes of music discs in various conditions were scattered everywhere.

“You know what, I’m not going to argue. I’m tired, I’m all goopy and disgusting, and I just want to get some rest.” I wandered inside, shuffling my hooves so that I wouldn’t accidentally crush any of the records scattered on the floor.

“It’s okay—that gives me time to sort through all this MUSIC!” Sparkle cried in glee. “Speaking of sorting things, what was in the box you were going to go open?”

Right. The medical box. “It was empty,” I groaned, facehoofing at the contents that I had found.

Sparkle tilted her head in sympathy. “Aww.” I didn’t tell her that I’d actually found a note that had a crude drawing of a butt.

“You take first watch. I know you’re going to sort through all that old music anyway.” I cleared a small spot around me behind the counter so I could at least lie down. “Don’t get too carried away. If I wake up dead or missing, there will be words.”

“Yep, yep. I know.” Too late, she was already sifting through broken records and opening boxes in search of her next musical acquisition. “Sleep tight and whatevs.”

I yanked off my helmet and searched for the rag in my saddlebags that I used for wiping up miscellaneous messes. “Ugh. Right after this.” I began the arduous job of scraping off dried gunk off my power armor and helmet before they became any more unmanageable.

A small grin spread across my muzzle as I listened to Sparkle sort through things while humming some happy tune. Most of the other Paladins didn’t understand how I managed to be approachable and responsible at the same time. Little did they know that I made sure that I learned about my recruits and did my best to remember their individual quirks.

“Eeeee!” Sparkle squealed, holding an intact record aloft in her unarmored hooves. “The reprint of ‘Ain’t No Sleepies for the Meanies’ as performed by Corral the Pachyderm! I love this song!”

Junior Paladin Sparkle Cola really had a penchant for music. I’d won her over by “misplacing” a pre-war portable music player into her personal belongings. It wasn’t long before she’d established herself as the resident DJ and party mare—which got her in trouble a lot more often than I was comfortable with. But, hey, a happy soldier was a loyal soldier and that’s what counted to me.

Hmm, if I remembered how that song went, it was something along the lines of: “I said you're such a sweet young thing / Why do you do this to yourself? / She looked at me and this is what she said…” I smugly sang, a little off tune but it was close enough.

“There ain’t no sleepies for the meanies! / Bits don’t grow on treees!” Sparkle began to sing, a lot louder than I was expecting.

A rotten book to the side of her head was enough to grab her attention. “Shh! Not so loud,” I hissed, peeking over the counter to check if anything had heard us.

“Sorry,” Sparkle quietly apologized.

I waved my hoof casually. “It’s fine. Just take caution and think before you act, alright?”

“Yessir.”

Back to cleaning off bits of… “Is that a bottle cap?” I awkwardly asked out loud, trying to fix my gaze on the little curved bit of metal that happened to look a lot like currency.

Sparkle continued to search through piles of old cardboard and cracked vinyl for anything else she wanted to take with her. With a bit of effort, I picked off the bit of metal (not a bottle cap) and finally gave up on trying to stave off sleep. I made myself comfortable, locked up my armor, and I was out before I knew it.

~~~~~

Sleep wasn’t as peaceful as I hoped. All I could hear was the foreboding thrum of ominous chanting and shifty shadows in the dark. Every now and then, one of the shadows would coalesce into somepony I knew. They’d stamp their hooves in rhythm, make strange muted noises, then melt away again.

The next phantom that appeared before me just so happened to be Frosty. Strange thing was, she wasn’t doing much of anything at all. She cocked her head at me and did a cute little ear flop. I continued to stare, unable to make a move or make a sound. When I didn’t do much in response, she carefully took a few steps closer and sat down right in front of me.

“Up all night to get lucky.”

Her voice sounded funny, but I didn’t pay it much mind.

Frosty made a few mumbling noises that I couldn’t understand. “Ooh, you’re a keeper.” She abruptly giggled.

The low beat rose to a fevered pitch, echoing through my mind. My hooves wouldn’t budge, so I tried to block out the noise by flattening my ears against my head.

“Hey. What’s that? Wake up.”

I tried to block out the noise, maybe try to actually get some sleep once this surreal nightmare passed over.

“Yo. Wakey wakey.”

Something began to tug on my ears. Eh.

“Hey, this is important! C’mon!”

Important. Important could wait until later.

I was jolted awake by something warm and slimy worming its way into my ear. Beside me, Sparkle was giving me the most amused grin I’d ever seen on her as she wiped off her unarmored hoof. For a moment, I thought I was still dreaming when the low chanting didn’t stop, but I knew I was awake.

“You did not just wet willy me.”

Sparkle stifled a giggle. “Maaaybe,” she answered with a shrug.

Eww. I unlocked my armor and halfheartedly rubbed my ear before popping my helmet back on. “I assume we’re about to be under attack?” I asked, checking the load on Decrusty.

“You hear that chanting?”

Now that I was awake, I could sort of tell that it was the same phrase being droned over and over by many voices. “What do you make of it?”

“Sounds like… I don’t know. Point is, it keeps getting louder.” Sparkle began to tidy up her new acquisitions—five or six records in their packaging and bound with a combination of metal plating and utility tape for security. “I think it’s been going on for an hour or so. Thought it could be bad.”

I glanced at my blank E.F.S. “By the looks of it, they aren’t in range. Their voices are probably echoing because of the tunnels.” Once again, I checked the load on Decrusty in case she was going to see a little more combat.

Multiple individuals, probably a fifty-plus group by the sounds of it, meant trouble. Trouble usually devolved into altercations, and altercations almost always ended in casualties. Seeing as though there were only two of us, I had to decide whether to pull out before we were potentially overwhelmed.

“Hey, how many grenades do you have?” I asked, genuinely curious whether we could actually fight off an entire decently-armed cult or gang.

Sparkle donned her helmet and stared off into space for a moment. “Uh… enough.”

“Enough isn’t a number.”

She opted out to slam her hoof against the side of her helmet. “Apparently I’ve got squigglyblob-five-zero-zero-Q grenades left.”

Note to self, make sure Sparkle actually performed her mandatory maintenance checks.

A yellow dot appeared at the edge of my E.F.S. bar. “Down, down!” I hissed at Sparkle, complete with frantic gesturing.

Both of us squeezed behind the counter, only poking our heads up over to see exactly who or what was coming. Whatever it was, it barely made noise and it sounded like it was having a really difficult time trying to get up the stairs from the train platform. A second dot joined the first, this one much louder than the last. It grumbled with a distinctly stallion-esque voice about how much his joints hurt.

“Are we there yet? I’m gettin’ craaamps,” the voice groaned.

“No,” the other voice, a much softer feminine one, replied. “When I said that we were ‘almost there’, that doesn’t mean we are there.”

They sounded way too coherent to be raiders, and they weren’t other Rangers since they weren’t heavy-sounding enough. From the sounds of it, probably just more Wastelanders. Harmless, really. Unless they were packing firepower on Frosty’s scale, we’d be fine. I was more worried about the large group behind them that was slowly becoming louder and louder.

Wait… now that I could make out the chants, it quickly became clear that it definitely was a cult and the Wastelanders approaching us were probably their scouting team. It was that, or it was just a small collection of ponies with very loud echoey voices all saying “chugga” over and over again.

“Buckin’… eeew. Is that a leg?”

“No, it’s a candy cane.”

Ah, yes. The female was a sarcastic little shit. I knew somepony that might appreciate her humor.

“What’s a candy cane?”

I heard a hoof impact the backside of a head. “I wasn’t being serious, Tender.”

“Ow! You keep hitting me in the same spot,” the one apparently known as Tender whined. “I’m going to get bruises on my bruise.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be so dense.”

“What’s dat mean?”

The mare sighed in exasperation.

“OW! Are you qui—OW, stop!”

“We’ve got a little extra time before Ticketmaster Busted Dial will get angry for being late. Let’s check out these stupid shops and see if there’s anything worth bringing back.”

“But there’s never anyth—” Another loud slap. “Ow, wha’d I say?”

“Not the point. Let’s start with this one.”

The two worst scouts in the entire Wasteland finally passed our shop and glanced inside, only to freeze in terror. Only too late did I realize that a pair of Steel Rangers were really obvious when they were trying to hide, especially when they were peeking over their choice of cover. We all made eye contact for a fleeting moment before the two of them dashed off, shrieking and screaming for help.

Sparkle slowly turned to face me. “Great first impression, sir.”

I conked Sparkle over the head with my hoof. “Shut up. Now they’re going to run off and alert all their friends.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Besides, we’ve got high explosives, heavy armor, and bullets for days. What could go wrong?” Sparkle confidently replied.

“It’s the heavy armor I’m worried about. They’ve still got the numbers to simply overwhelm us and then they’ll have the advantage in close combat. We’ve got to get out of here before—”

“Greetings and salutations, honorable Steel Rangers. I hope our meeting finds you well?” A different voice, somepony much older and less whiny, called out. “The Train of Fate must be traveling in our direction; we could use your assistance in a matter.”

Damn, that was fast. At the moment, they seemed like they were willing to talk as opposed to immediately trying to sacrifice us to some sort of demonic eldritch god. As the Paladin Commander of the group, I decided to hazard communication with them and hope that I didn’t accidentally insult any of their misinformed beliefs. If that went badly, Decrusty was my Plan B.

I opened a private channel to Sparkle. “Keep quiet and do as I do. Safeties off. Don’t fire unless fired upon. Understand?” I curtly ordered.

Sensing the seriousness of the situation, Sparkle only nodded and stayed a few steps behind me as I confidently marched out of the music store. Patiently standing before us were a trio of bluish-gray robed earth ponies. Following the classic trend of leadership, the furiously huffing and puffing older one in the middle with the engineering cap and the gold-trimmed hood was most likely in charge.

Their leader (elder, commander, messiah, cult personality, whatever) couldn’t have been a more obnoxious clusterbuck of green. He was a pleasant puke-tinted green topped with a slightly more pale shade of barf for a mane. Similarly, a pale squarish patch of fuzz also stood out on his lower lip like a very small neon-green bloatsprite.

“Salutations, Steel Ranger. I am the honored Chief Engineer Soybean. How do I address you?” The robed cultist looked to me with a sort of reverence in his wizened eyes.

Well, this wasn’t the reception I was anticipating. “I am Paladin Commander Rumcake Rum and this is my subordinate Junior Paladin Sparkle Cola.” Sparkle made a hesitant waving motion at the the cultists.

Chief Engineer Soybean nodded and bowed his head. “These are my companions, Coal First Class and Tender First Class.” He motioned at the two hooded figures standing beside him.

So Tender was the larger stallion, and Coal was the abusive smaller mare to Soybean’s right. Disturbingly, both were the spitting image of the other besides the obvious gender difference. They had the coats the color of coal dust and the same emotionless orange eyes. Even their manes matched from the front—they were a good length longer than regulation with a thick orange stripe running down the far left side. Cutie marks were hidden under the boring coats they wore, so I decided to imagine that those were similar as well.

“So… Chief Engineer, what is this about needing assistance? We’re on a tight schedule with our own affairs,” I emotionlessly stated. “We do appreciate the amicable meeting. It’s nice to have a civilized chat in the middle of the Wasteland.”

“Let us hope it stays that way, Ranger.”

The way he said that sounded like a challenge. Maybe I was letting doubt cloud my mind, maybe it was just me being tired. “Are you testing my bounds, Chief Engineer?”

A shadow of fright flashed across Soybean’s face. “Let’s not make decisions that we’ll regret later.” He nervously chuckled.

I narrowed my eyes, the effect of which was lost thanks to my helmet. “Are you threatening me, Chief Engineer Soybean? Mind you that me and my subordinate can and will end you on the spot.” Just for emphasis, I gave Decrusty’s barrel a gentle spin.

“Eh, I think you mean ‘my subordinate and I’, as opposed to—” I increased the rotational speed of Decrusty’s barrel as Soybean spoke. “No, no no! Hold on, hold on—we can have a beneficial relationship if we just put our differences aside.”

“Explain.”

Soybean hastily pulled open Coal’s robe and dug inside before showing me a somewhat dented laser rifle. “I’ve heard you search for these? We’ve got a good number of these that we don’t particularly want to use since we don’t have enough ammunition to go around. If you help us with our slight problem, I can make a few of these yours.” Exposition done, he stood there and hopefully stared at us.

Darn it, he had my attention. “Alright, you have five minutes to fully explain what the problem is and what you expect us to do.” All three robed ponies almost began to prance for joy on the spot.

Realizing that his five minutes had started, Soybean quickly regained his composure. “A violent tunnel gang calling themselves the ‘Funnel Cakes’ moved into the next station on this rail line, which also happens to be our next stop. They have barred all passage through that area and are generally being a giant conglomerated nuisance about it.”

Assuming the raiders on the surface weren’t in the way, we wouldn’t need to use that path. “Have you tried asking what they want?” Never hurt to ask, really.

Coal loudly snorted. “Duh. That was the first thing we asked.”

“And?” Sparkle inquired.

“They kinda just want us to die, and stuff.” She stamped her hooves and shifted back and forth. “It’s that, or they like to say hi with bullets.”

Okay, so these “Funnel Cakes” characters were the shooty kind that didn’t care about making friends. “And I assume you want us to go bulldoze our way through their station so you can pass through?” I asked, heading for the obvious request.

“Essentially. I am partial toward the Love Train, but whatever gets the job done will do just fine. Secure us passage through to Central Station and you shall be greatly rewarded.”

A few more laser weapons would be a nice addition to our arsenal, for both personal and for the base armory when we got back. We probably had enough time to quickly do a little house cleaning for these Wastelanders and still maintain a somewhat feasible mission completion time. Maybe whoever was blocking the tunnel had some nice stuff to loot.

I made the command decision to go ahead. “Alright, we’ll do it. Point us in the right direction, and we’ll be back in a few.” Sparkle made a few annoyed grunting noises, but I didn’t really give her much mind since I was the one in charge.

Soybean gestured in a vaguely sort of leftish motion, away from the echoes of ‘chugga chugga’. “Look for the Station of Five at the junction of Street Nine and the Street of Flower. Once you see it, their fortification is just down the track.” He fished in his robe and offered me a little talisman on a string that looked suspiciously like a miniature steam gauge. “Some of our passengers have an aversion to Steel Rangers, but they might find you less daunting with a Blessing of Steam.”

“What’s it mean? Spend more money?” Sparkle frowned, watching Soybean loop it around my neck.

Normally I would have refused, but it seemed like going along with this crazy pony’s train of thought was a better idea. Train. Damn, they were getting to me. “It’s a charm that brings haste and speed to the wearer.” Soybean made sure to double-knot the little talisman in place.

“Does it work?” I asked, legitimately curious.

I heard Tender loudly snort. “Yeah, it gets you from zero to eighty-eight in about ten seconds flat.”

Sparkle thoughtfully tapped the chin of her helmet in mock thought. “I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or you’re stupid enough to believe that.”

“All aboard the Overreaction Train.” Coal waved his right hoof around in a huge circle and then made a tugging motion. “Choo choo.”

“Choo choo,” the other two cultists hastily added.

I quickly switched on a private channel to Sparkle. “Don’t provoke them. They’re willing to pay, so let’s see where this goes.” Warning issued, I switched back to speech mode. “I accept your mission and I expect due payment on our return.” I did note the heavy static and realized that radio communications wouldn’t work well down here.

Soybean eagerly nodded. “We shall be waiting in the station. Find me, or any of the other Engineers. They will also be able to give you your payment.”

“Easy enough. We’ll stroll on down, lay down some explosive, and come right on back. Bingo bango bongo. Bish bash bosh.”

~~~~~

When we arrived at the bend just before the location specified by the Cult of the Train, I started to feel that we were being misinformed just a tad. The barricade that we had been tasked with clearing was, in reality, more like a castle.

Cleverly enough on the Funnel Cakes’ part, they’d cut a train car in half and turned it sideways to block the entire tunnel, while still being able to have their sentry guns point out of the open windows. They had three standard M.W.T. automated guns, probably taken from elsewhere in the station. Those automated guns could do a lot of damage, even to Steel Ranger armor.

They even had four guards standing on top of the train itself, partially obscured by the train doors welded to their blockade’s roof that they were using as cover. Three of four of the guards weren’t particularly paying attention, idly chatting with each other or fiddling with their gear. Gear, meaning their strange bomber jackets and assorted casual headwear. As for weapons, they were all armed with zebra assault rifles that looked like they were in quite good condition.

I retreated back around the bend to meet up with Sparkle, who was busy adjusting her grenade launcher. “Okay, looks like four potential hostiles armed with assault rifles and three automated M.W.T. guns. Shouldn’t be a huge problem, but we have no intel on what they’ve got inside.” Just in case, I double-checked the load on Decrusty and my missile launcher. One hundred rounds in the belt and two missiles left. Good enough.

Multiple scenarios passed through my mind. What if they were friendly? They had some really heavy ordinance—meaning that they had something to protect. If they immediately opened fire, would we be able to survive the first onslaught? Assuming so, we’d probably have a good five seconds to unload our respective payloads and another fifteen before one of us went down from a lucky penetrating shot.

“I’ve got enough grenades to punch a hole in anything,” Sparkle replied, still busy trying to do something to her grenade-delivery device. “That is, if this thing will stop jamming every six grenades.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“One of the teeth on the main gears broke off. Like, every now and then I’ll have to manually cycle the next grenade in. It’s not too bad, but damn is it annoying.” We probably had extra parts back at base, but she’d probably have to deal with that for the time being. “Ugh, the things I’d do for a bench right now.”

“Well, you don’t. Buck up and gear up—we’ve got work to do.” I gave Sparkle an encouraging tap on the back. “We’ll move out once you’re ready.”

In the time it took for me to about-face and take a deep breath, there were a multitude a of mechanical noises followed by the cha-clank of a grenade being loaded into a chamber. Sounded like Sparkle wasn’t going to give me the satisfaction of waiting on her.

“Let’s get to the beatdown.”

~~~~~

“Hold it right there, turd. Not a step closer or you’re getting more holes than a slut after… uh… ah… Just stop right there!” one of the guards on top of the barricade shakily yelled, which also alerted the other guards to pick up their weapons and point them at us.

Obediently, I stopped in my tracks. “I don’t like him already,” I muttered sidelong to Sparkle.

The guard in question, a sort of panicky looking young colt barely old enough to have his cutie mark, unsteadily brandished his rifle in our direction. He had a weak courageous facade plastered on his face, which really annoyed me for no particular reason.

“You are obstructing movement in these tunnels to the Cult of the Train,” I flatly boomed. “Dismantle this barricade and disperse, or face the consequences.”

A different one, one I also immediately decided I didn’t like, magically swung an oversized knife as us in what I assumed was supposed to be threatening. “Or what? You’ll cry all over us? I’m so buckin’ scared.” I also assumed this one was also some variation of gray, seeing as his poorly fitting gray balaclava blended into his face.

Unfortunate, but I’d been waiting for an excuse to fire off this one-liner. “Cry about this.” Decrusty spun up and began spew hot death metal at the guards on top of the train car. Beside me, Sparkle caught the hint and rapid-fired grenades into the automated guns before they had time to activate properly.

Within the next ten seconds there was nothing left of the half-traincar except a flaming pile of wreckage. Of course, that also meant that the turrets that I had hoped to salvage had been reduced to a flaming pile of scrap as well. We were alive, there was a hole in the barricade, and there were angry shouts and yelling coming from the other side.

“Stupid thing’s stuck. Almost made it through an entire belt, too,” Sparkle angrily grumbled. “I’ve got turntables more durable than this.”

A bright red strobe light mounted on the tunnel ceiling was being particularly annoying, so I decided to shoot it to spare me the post-combat headache. “Looks like we’ll have to push through and clear the area. Doesn’t sound like they’re too friendly.” A stray bullet pinged off my armor, thus proving my point.

“Give it a second.” There was a loud clank, then four grenades suddenly streaked through the air and detonated somewhere behind the destruction. “Whoops.”

Some of the yelling abruptly stopped, probably in a shower of gore and explosives. “You know, we could probably just leave and they’d sort themselves out,” I mused.

“I like that idea.”

A pitiful smattering of gunfire pinged off our armor. “What we agreed on was to demolish a barricade. Barricade no longer exists. Problem solved. Let’s go get our reward,” I finally decided, doing my best to ignore the ineffectual attacks on us.

One bullet managed to shatter Sparkle’s helmet-mounted headlight. “That stupid gangster just shot my Ravemakerinator Twenty-five and seven-fourths! That cost like, a lot of caps!” She was obviously enraged, but justifiably so—she’d searched hundreds of pre-war ruins for the one that just got destroyed.

Much faster than I gave her credit for, Sparkle dove into the burning fray and aggressively dragged out the one pony that I had found to be a complete eyesore. Somehow, he was not only relatively unscathed, but he also managed to keep a grip on his assault rifle as Sparkle dragged him over by one of his hind legs. Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for him, he fumbled his only spare magazine and fruitlessly pawed at it as she dragged him farther away from it.

Maybe I could come up with something witty. Or possibly something more menacing to make this ugly sod pee himself a little. Maybe something Frosty would say, just to see his reaction.

Hm. I guess I had that devious little pegasus on my mind.

Perhaps I would try smooth intimidation first, just to see what would happen. Sparkle roughly threw our brand new captive right in front of me before I had time to formulate something that wasn’t “Tell us everything you know and maybe I won’t turn you into soup”. Or maybe I could say something a little more retro like “Your move, creep”.

“Y-you won’t take me alive!” the little guy stammered. Blackish-gray bits of mane protruded from under his threadbare kepi, which had an old Equestrian Navy logo stamped on it. His muted orange coat nearly blended into the pale orange lining of his dark bomber jacket. Still didn’t like him.

That definitely caught me off guard and threw my hastily thought out response out the window. “We just did.”

Hm. That wasn’t remotely close to intimidating. Darn.

His next action was to futilely swing his empty rifle at my legs. I would have let him continue doing that until he got tired had the action not been scuffing my armor. A valiant effort on his part, though. I easily swatted the gun away before another scratch could be put on my armor.

“That’s enough of that. You’re coming with us,” I growled, giving our new prisoner a quick cuff on the forehead. He immediately squealed in fear and began to cower, curling himself up into a whimpering ball on the ground. “Huh. And here I was thinking that there would be a little more resistance.”

“What do we do with him now?” Sparkle asked.

I kept an eye on the smoking wreck in the tunnel just in case somepony decided to come check on us. So far, so good. Nopony from Orangey Prisoner’s group or gang or whatever decided to come check, probably because they were absolutely terrified of the two Steel Rangers that just wrecked all their cool toys. Toys that I sort of wanted to bring back to the base, but it was a little late for that. Reminder to future Rumcake: make Sparkle pack some spark grenades and tear gas for special cases.

Back on topic. “At least one of us has duct tape. Truss this guy up and let’s see if these train guys want some funnel cake.”

Sparkle loudly facehoofed. “Boo, Rumcake. Boo.”

~~~~~

Somehow, the Cult of the Train had amassed quite the following—much larger than either of us had ever anticipated. It was as if we had walked back in time when we returned to the station, our brand new captive in tow. Garbage and litter were nowhere to be seen, ponies—most likely cultists, based on their identical gray and black striped scarves—filled the station and milled about in a sort of drone-like stupor. The only sounds were our armored hooves stomping the ground and barely audible muttering of the huge collection of ponies.

“Holy Celestia, this floor was blue?” Sparkle pulled herself up to the platform, unceremoniously dragging Orangey over a pair of equally-clean tracks and up the short ledge. “By the code, they’ve polished the floors too. Damn.”

I silently marveled at the cleaning ability of these cultists and sarcastically remarked, “My goddesses, it even has a watermark.” Maybe these guys weren’t too bad after all. I briefly entertained the thought of abducting a few of them to go give Happy Hills a good scrubbing before dismissing it as far too silly.

“Eh?”

Right, all she did was listen to music. “Bad joke. Let’s go find this ‘Engineer Soybean’ and get paid. We’ve got better things to do,” I curtly stated, casting a sweeping glance at the crowd again.

Several ponies wearing the same exact striped hat with the same pattern cued me into the early conclusion that they had to have some sort of authority or power position in their cult. It was either that or that they just had very similar taste in hats. Hazarding a guess, I made my way to the closest hatted one by pushing past the several scarfed cultists in my way.

I opted out for a more polite approach, just in case. “Pardon. My subordinate and I have returned from a quest assigned to us by…” What was it again? Ah, right. Chief Engineer. That was his rank. “Chief Engineer Soybean. We were informed that upon completion of our objective to report to him, or any other members of his rank.”

The yellow earth pony I was addressing spent a few seconds to process my question, continuing to give me the same blank glaze-eyed stare. “Uh… Chief Engineer Soybean is overseeing a grand mission from the Conductor himself.” Perfect.

Sparkle groaned, “Great. Where can we find another Engineer?”

“Honey Comb probably knows.” He began to fruitlessly look left and right, which did nothing but unseat the unruly mop of brownish hair under his cap. “Honey Comb knows. Honey Comb. Honey.”

And now he’d suddenly developed mindlock. “This is precisely why intelligence tests are mandatory,” I muttered to myself.

“What’s your name, kid?” Great thinking, Sparkle. Give him something else to get confused about.

He gave Sparkle a very confused and glazed look. “Uh… Wash. Steward Wash.” The pony, Wash, happily grinned as if coming up with his own name was an achievement. “Hi.”

“Is Steward your name or your rank?” Good question, Sparkle.

“Rank. One day I’ll be one of the Engineers. Imagine the honor of serving under the Conductor himself!”

“Okay, Wash, where can we find someone in charge? Think about this for a minute.” I pressed harder, hoping to the Elements that he actually knew. Lacking that, hopefully the other Stewards were a little smarter. “No pressure.”

“Well… Chief Engineers Boa and Trot are usually away conducting their own crusades. Very rarely are all four Chiefs together in the same room. With Chief Engineer Soybean out, your only other option is Chief Engineer Flying Fish. Although to be warned, he might be asleep.”

“And where, exactly?” I pressed harder, this being the most helpful that Wash could probably be.

Unfortunately, asking for anything more resulted in Wash’s brain getting fried. He added a slack-jawed confused stare to his already glazed expression. All that I managed to get from him was a sort of half-nod before he returned to his business of staring at the wall next to us in the exact same manner.

“There’s one over there to interrogate,” Sparkle suggested, which wasn’t a bad idea.

Without any other options, I followed Sparkle’s gaze and caught sight of the hatted pale orange mare she was staring at. “Oh good, it’s a unicorn. Maybe she won’t be nearly as stupid.” Harnessing the power of brute strength, I pushed through the loose crowd of lesser muttering cultists.

“Excuse me, ma’am. We’re looking for one of your many leaders in order to notify them that their mission assigned to us has been completed,” I sort of projected at the back of her head.

In the moment it took me to blink, the mare had turned around and faced me with a worryingly ecstatic grin. She didn’t even bother to adjust the tangle of green that escaped her white ponytail. Although, similarly, she did have the same sort of glazed-over look that the last one did.

“Hey there! Glad to see a new fa—er, helmet around. Heard ‘bout you two from the other Stewards. We’re all busy little bees here, so your help’s darn tootin’ useful.” She reached over and, in a surprising display of strength, lifted up my hoof and shook it vigorously. “Howdy there! Honey Comb the Steward!”

“Hi. Could you point us to your Chief Engineer guy?” I retrieved my hoof from Honey Comb after a forceful tug or two. Something about these two bugged me greatly, but I couldn’t really put my hoof on it.

“Why didn’tcha say so?”

Very simply, I answered, “I hadn’t gotten to it.” This wasn’t exactly the conversation I had in mind, although this was going better than speaking to Wash.

Another mare, this one of a midnight bluish coat and slightly lighter mane, edged into our conversation. “Honey Comb, leave the Steel Ranger alone.” Oh good, a different unicorn to talk to.

“Li’l Scrappy, you don’t tell me what to do,” Honey huffed.

Scrappy rolled her golden eyes. “I do tell you what to do now. I’m a Senior Steward as of two days ago.”

“No!” Honey gasped.

Scrappy gave a her a confident grin. “Yep.”

I stomped my hoof against the aging floor tiles to get their attention. “Not to ruin the congratulations here, ladies, but I’ve got somepony to talk to. Can somepony please tell me where to find one of your Chief Engineers?”

Our recent capture groaned. “Want a free crazy pony?” Sparkle added with a hint of amusement in her voice.

“I’m sure that Senior Steward Scrap Heap knows all,” Honey sarcastically spat.

Scrappy—correction—Scrap Heap grinned. “Yeah, I do. Your best bet is Chief Engineer Flying Fish. He’s probably either taking a nap in the ticket booth or reading his weird comics somewhere.”

As fun as it would be, splitting up to search both options couldn’t be an option because of the lack of comms down here. “Which of the two is the more likely choice?”

“Sleeping,” both cultists immediately responded.

I nodded. “Thank you for your help.” Before I turned away, I made a little circling motion with my hoof. “And now you can return to your previous conversation. Come along, Sparkle.”

“Yes sir.” Dutifully, Sparkle hefted our captive and slung him over her back. “C’mon. Stop dragging your hooves.”

Then it was off to the ticket booth, which was conveniently marked out by one of the many arrows printed on the floor and the signs on the walls. I was about to question how any of this signage had survived until I caught sight of several groups of ponies garbed in all different types of clothing—raider barding, bodyguard’s armor, Wastelander rags, slaver barding—all working together with cans of paint and cleaning rags to restore the station.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Sparkle muttered behind me.

The first thing I’d assumed was that all the small fry joined up in the cult and that was that. However, there was just no way that everypony got along together this well. There weren’t any dirty looks, no aggression, no nothing. I was at least expecting the raiders—especially the more raidery ones—to scream, yell obscenities, or get violent. One of them, still wearing his bloody war paint and necklace of severed ears, was happily assisting a tiny little zebra push his bucket of muddy water around. Something about this cult bugged me a lot, but I couldn’t exactly say what.

At least Sparkle noticed as well. “What’s your take on this?” I asked, hoping she had an answer for me.

We stopped in front of the ticket booth, which was basically a small tin box with shuttered windows, ticket prices printed on the lower half of the closed shutters. Through the cracks of the shutters, I could see an amorphous pony-shaped blob in the darkness behind it.

“My bits are on some sort of really compelling idea or something. Rudimentary religion, maybe?” Sparkle suggested. “Something’s gotta be holding them together.”

That made sense. “Maybe. I’ve got a feeling there’s something more though. Just a hunch.” I gently tapped against the metal shutters to get the inhabitant’s attention. “Knock knock.”

There was a groan, one not unlike somepony rising from the dead. “What else can you really do to make ponies listen?” Sparkle asked in the meantime.

“Mind control?” It was the first thing that came to mind.

“That’s stupid. This many?”

I shrugged at the same time as the shutters squeaked open. “I don’t know how magic works. Beats me.”

“W’dya want.” Presumably Chief Engineer Flying Fish—the robes matched Soybean’s—groaned. “M’busy.”

“We’re here to report that your job assigned to us has been completed.” What I didn’t mention was that we’d literally fulfilled the bare minimum of the job. “And we were told that you could supply us with payment.”

Our captive squirmed and fell off of Sparkle with a panicked squeal.

“Who’s that?” the Chief Engineer grumbled, rubbing his eyes. “Friend of yours?”

I glared at Orangey. “We nabbed him on the way out. Want him?”

The Chief Engineer squinted at Orangey. “Well, well, well. So the prodigal son returns. You finally crawled out of that hole you’ve been hiding in, have you?”

The duct tape wrapped around Orangey’s muzzle was finally ripped off so he could get a word in or two, just for fun. “I’ll never join you and your scum!”

Flying Fish—as we were currently assuming—flipped back his hood and we got a good look at him. He had murky blue eyes that were more focused on us than the pony he was talking to. His mane was roughly cropped, odd length silvery mane sticking to and fro. His pale blue coat, however, was in much better condition. If I had time, I needed to figure out how he kept it that way.

“Bargain bin Laden, we’ve had this argument before. In fact, we’ve had it on four separate occasions. Make it easy for us and just give up.”

“You’re a flying fish out of water, asshole. Never.” Thank you, context clues.

“We’ll break you one way or another.” Chief Engineer Flying Fish nodded to us. “We’ll take him.”

I made a curt gesture to Sparkle not to do anything. “And of our payment?”

Flying Fish stood up and shook himself. “Of course. Follow.”

And follow we did, literally ten feet over to a locked door that was simply labeled “Cleaning Supplies (Wet Paint)”. Of course, there weren’t actually cleaning supplies inside the room—they’d converted the room into an armory. Although after the door bumped into my shoulder and left a smear of green, I figured the other half of the sign was true.

“Looks like we dropped the ball on that one,” Sparkle blurted at the sight of all the weapons literally piled up by weapon and by ammunition type. “That’s a lot of bucking plasma.”

I eyed the short pile of miniguns and the much larger pile of ammunition crates. “This is an alarming amount of ordinance. Enough for a small army, even.”

“And that’s all my shit!” Bargain angrily wriggled on the ground and tried to gnaw at Flying’s ankles. “If you don’t give it back, my mercs are going to wreck you into next month.”

Hold on. “Mercenaries? You mean Talon mercenaries or the rent-a-merc caravan guys?”

A grin spread across Bargain’s stupid annoying face. “My Talon buddies. They’re probably waiting for their reinforcements right now.”

That threw a wrench in our plans. Horseapples.

Very calmly, thanking my helmet for blocking my slightly fearful expression, I droned “Junior Paladin Sparkle, a word. Outside.”

“Uh… okay.” Sparkle nodded.

And outside we went, to the dull thrum of chattering cultists. I waited for the door to close behind me before revealing the bad news. “This guy hired Talon mercenaries to protect his shipment, probably. The shipment that these Train guys stole, probably. And these Talons want the other half of their pay or—”

“Probably,” Sparkle interrupted. “What’s the plan?”

As cool as bringing back several hundred weapons would be, angering the Talon mercs wouldn’t be a wise move on my part. Even without these guns, they still had firepower and skill that rivaled the Steel Rangers, especially my Rangers. The smart move would be to liberate the merchant that we’d captured and bring back his guns as well, but that required more time, work, planning, and supplies we didn’t have. Hm.

“Idea.” I smirked under my helmet. “We’ll pass ourselves off as the goody goody horseshoes Rangers and bug on out before the Talons arrive for their guy. Sure, we won’t get our weapons but at least we won’t get wrecked. Time to make a hasty advance in the opposite direction, Sparkle.”

“You mean retreat?”

Wording was everything. “A tactical advance away from this place.”

I opened the door a crack and very diplomatically stated, “As part of our new direction, we, the Steel Rangers, encourage the everyday Wastelander to take up arms to defend themselves against the hostile wastes. And, uh, keep the annoying little shit.”

I let the door shut on a very bewildered pair of ponies, being sure to minimize contact with the door. No need to look more green than I already was. Sparkle quickly followed behind me as I weaved and pushed through cultists to get back to the tunnels.

“Hearing you say that crap made me sick,” Sparkle finally spoke up.

“Saying that made me sick.” And then we hastily hauled it out of there.

~~~~~

As it turned out, the remains of the barricade finally stopped burning. It also turned out that whatever was left of the Funnel Cakes gang had either pulled back and abandoned the station or full-on retreated after our previous assault. Possessions had been scattered around the tunnel and platform areas, and grisly carnage was still plastered all over things because of Sparkle’s grenades.

On the way up the stairs out, a little broken toy pony stared up at me. “You know, I think my dad tried to give me one of those when I was growing up,” I suddenly decided to bring up. “I think he really liked the yellowish one. The stupid looking one with the funny hat, if I remember correctly.”

Sparkle stopped short. “Came with a tiny fiddle, right?”

I tried to remember. “Probably?”

We continued up the stairs. “I have the little gray one with the big fiddle. She’s a little scuffed up, though.”

“Big fiddle,” I repeated

“What? I don’t know what it’s called.”

I snorted. “Said the music mare.”

“It’s sooo old! I don’t need to know what it’s called anymore,” Sparkle whined. “You don’t know what it’s called anyway.”

Not to be outsmarted, I randomly guessed, “It’s a tuba.” The second those words left my mouth I realized that wasn’t right.

“Tuba. A tuba?

Once again, I thanked my helmet for hiding my face. “Don’t even start. That’s an order.”

We emerged back out into the darkness of the Wasteland. Just as we were ascending the stairs, four Talon Mercs were doing the opposite. I should have caught them on E.F.S. but the “task” of coming up with the correct instrument had managed to take all of my attention.

I nearly walked right into one of them as I grumbled about Sparkle. At the same time, the griffon in front of me noticed me as well and squawked in alarm. A more precise term might be “piddling one’s combat fatigues while squealing like a little filly”, but that was difficult to apply to the menacing-looking tawny griffin falling over and squawking in front of us. Of course, it was easier to apply to Sparkle, who had decided to trip and bounce down the stairs we just came up from.

Being the cool, level-headed Paladin Commander I was, I firmly planted my hooves on the uneven stairs and unfolded Decrusty. Similarly, the other four griffins leveled their revolvers, shotguns, and double-barreled missile launcher. Two barrels!

“Oh shit!” one of the griffons—they all looked the same to me—swore.

“Hold it!” I yelled, at the same time.

Nopony moved, for once. Nopony fired or said a word. Well, except for Sparkle, who kept crying “Ow, ow ow!” as she bounced off more stairs, until she hit the bottom with a heavy clang and an “Oof”.

Finally, big fat armored griffin spoke up. “Lookit who we’ve got here! Tin ponies got lost.” He paused for a second to yell at the Talon on the ground, “Get off your ass, rook.”

“We have no quarrel with the Talons. You continue with your business, and we will continue with ours.” I made sure to keep Decrusty pointed at the rocket launcher griffin, just in case.

“Yeah. Buzz off, vultures.” Sparkle spat, having finally crawled back up the stairs.

Revolvers Griffin delivered a nasty haymaker to Armored Shotgun Griffin, who barely even reacted to the impact. “If Rangers wanted us dead, we’d be paste. Stow ‘em, boys. They ain’t fightin’ us today.” Shotgunny stumbled and comically tipped over like a turtle.

They did as they were told, so I retracted Decrusty as well. “What brings you to these parts?” I had a pretty good idea, but I would rather be sure.

“One of them caravans our boys got paid to watch got ransacked. The ‘ployer wants his shit back and my boys want their caps. I’m just here to keep my boys from doin’ something stupid.” She held out her claw. “The boys call me Big Fluffy.”

Behold the terror-inducing featherweight known only as “Fluffy”. How unironically creative. Being the polite stallion I was, I still reached out and shook it. “Paladin Commander Rumcake. You wouldn’t mind if I took a look at your contract, would you?”

Fluffy reached into the front of her vest and held a sheet of ragged paper in my face. “It’s a legit contract. What are you, Regulators?” At a glance, their papers were in order as per Talon bureaucratics.

“Blah, blah, blah, escort delivery of weapons, defense of goods and employees, blah, blah blah.” All of the standard boring crap that didn’t say anything out of the ordinary. “Hey, wait a second—I know that name.”

Ignoring the massive list of weapons and ammunition, the Talon Company had been paid to escort one “Bargain Bin Laden” and his caravan of goods to some backwater town I hadn’t heard of, on the payment of our very own Sleazy McCheapkins. Fortunate for us that we hadn’t taken the weapons for ourselves, otherwise we would have had a very interesting problem.

“Some crazy guys in the underground are taking him as a prisoner.” Not necessarily a lie. “Still alive, last time I checked.” Hopefully the Cult of the Train hadn’t decided to change that in the short time since we’d departed.

Big Fluffy victory-slapped Armored Shotgun Griffin and squawked, “Hear that? We got a lead, boys! Let’s get this done and we’ll be back in time for chow.”

X~~~X

“Since you’re Rumcake’s special little somepony, I guess you should be the first to know,” Instant Noodles idly mentioned to me while I lounged in the machine shop listening to Baked Potato’s silly stories and mindless prattle.

“Huh?” I roused myself out of my half-asleep state.

Eloquent as always, Frosty.

Shut up, brain. Hard enough focusing already.

“One of the other scribes told me Rumcake’s armor tag disappeared from our scanners a few hours ago. And Sparkle’s, too. It’s probably nothing, since they’ve missed a few maintenance appointments or they’ve just gone underground somewhere. If you want, I could tell you their last known coordinates.” Instant regarded me for a few more moments. “You look… off. Something on your mind?”

Worst-case scenarios flashed through my head. “No! Nothing at all,” I lied. “Just… didn’t really sleep well.” Damn it. I wanted to make sure if he was okay, but I really needed to get moving. I only had a month left, tops. No time to keep doing other things, Frosty! I was sure he could handle himself.

Can he, though? After him!

Dammit, brain!


Footnote: No new levels. Yes. Really.
Current Sub-perk: None.

Author's Note:

Okay, this one might have gotten away from me a little.

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