• 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 22: Did I do something wrong again?

Chapter 22: Did I do something wrong again?

”This is your chance to fly with the winners!”


“Sparkle, as your Paladin Commander, I order you to tell me how mares work.”

To my right, Sparkle Cola cocked her helmet at me and sighed. “There are a few things in this world that you don’t want to know, that’s one of ‘em. I understand how mares work and trust me—just don’t bother.” She vaguely gestured at me with the barrel of her grenade launcher. “I think you just need to learn to deal with mares without being an obsessive creep.”

The deserted landscape around us hadn’t changed in the past half hour, so I kept a wary eye on my E.F.S. because I was getting too complacent. “I am not a creep.” A quick look at my map told me we were still a few blocks away from the designated area of operations as per the extermination job.

“‘Obsessive’ is the key word here, actually. There’s a reason Knight Habanero broke up with you.” I’d gotten over her months ago, but Sparkle wasn’t helping at the moment. “Of course, it probably didn’t help that you eloped with her sister.”

“They look the same!” It’s a good thing she couldn’t see me turn red under my helmet.

“How? One of them is orange and the other is green!”

“Well, in the dark they do!” Not to mention they even took the effort to style their manes and tails in the same exact fashion.

“See, the problem is you’re a dumb stallion.”

I stopped in my tracks and stared down the Junior Paladin behind me. “I could have you demoted for that remark,” I threateningly snarled.

“You’re not petty enough to do that,” Sparkle instantly answered. “I’d also like to remind you that you thought I looked like Violet just because we share mane colors.” Unfortunately, that had been one of my dumb moments. “You have zero tact when it comes to deciphering the mysteries of Frosty and her infinite emotions.”

To think of a reply, I turned away and continued walking. “But I’m keeping her safe!” I finally shot back after a few steps.

Still following closely behind, Sparkle pointed out, “In the most controlling way possible, sure.” There was an edge of unfriendly sarcasm there, but I wasn’t going to nitpick right now.

“If she’s going to do something reckless—which is inevitable, by the way—it would make me feel a lot better if somepony was with her.”

“You put a collar on her.”

“For safety reasons! So that she can’t recklessly rush into situations without help.”

Sparkle made a noise that sounded somewhere between a snort and a chuckle. “I’m not sure you noticed the implications. Not only did you restrict her freedom, but this is literally the second time you’ve done it.”

“It’s for her own good.” Keeping Frosty close would dramatically lower the odds of her doing something stupid.

“Yeah, but that’s not what Frosty thinks. She’s probably thinking you just want an obedient little funfilly for when you need a little ‘stress relief’.”

Where would she even get that idea from?! I whipped around and harshly snapped, “I do not!”

With a simple shrug, Sparkle brightly replied, “Hey, that’s my two caps on the matter.”

We began to trudge along in silence, Sparkle finally giving me time to think. Why would Frosty even get the idea I wanted to take advantage of her? She should have known by now that she was too confident for her own good. I was simply giving her a reality check. I’d told her how much I loved her, how much I cared. She knew it, right?

“Maybe I did something wrong,” I lethargically grumbled.

“Maybe you did.”

So I found a tight-fitting collar and had gotten a skilled mage to enchant it, giving it the ability to chain the wearer to whatever—or whoever—I chose in order to keep them safe. And I’d tied it to the mare I loved and cared about, binding her to my will. Again. “I overreacted.” Realization dawned over me. “I’m stupid.”

“Yeah…” Sparkle trotted a bit faster and pulled up alongside me. “You’re what—zero for three on relationships, including Frosty? Maybe you should consider something more open. I mean, it’s working out for me.”

Pointedly, I responded, “But you’re a slut. I don’t want to be Paladin Commander Beefcake.”

“Rude.” As if to glorify the matter, Sparkle turned up her nose with a huff. “I prefer to call it… morale padding.”

Depending on how much faster that mare was getting around since the last time I’d heard, I made a quick assumption. “That means contingent morale should be at an all-time high.”

Haughtily, Sparkle huffed. “You’re just jealous.”

A low-pitched buzzing hum began to creep into the background static of my helmet speakers. Just to make sure they weren’t just malfunctioning, I gently tapped the side of my helmet and listened again. Yup, still there. That only meant that the radwasp nest was nearby, and there were a lot more of them than Stronghold’s job mare had told me about.

The map wasn’t giving me a more precise location than “somewhere within these five hundred meters or so”, marking the buildings around us inside a huge green circle. “We’re here. Keep an eye open for patrols, try to minimize noise. We’ve just entered their territory and I’d rather not corrode to death, got it?” Taking on a much more serious tone, I slowly treaded onward.

“Roger roger.”

Evidence of radwasp activity increased with every step we took into the ruined maze of buildings. Holes melted in walls, burnt corpses, holes melted in burnt corpses nailed to walls; the works. The barely standing acid-worn billboard advertised this place to be some sort of storage complex (Affordable! Cheap! Spacious!), but the overgrown insects had converted it into a breeding ground or something.

Alarmingly enough, my E.F.S. still didn’t register any hostiles save the errant radroach. I didn’t even dare rev Decrusty in case the noise would attract unnecessary attention. My armor was still damaged, so that was the only possible cause.

I manually raised my mic’s receive volume and whispered to Sparkle, “Is your E.F.S. working? Nothing’s coming up on mine.”

There was a muffled sneeze from the other end of the conversation before she replied, “Colors on mine are broken and the compass still doesn’t work. I’m using my standard-issue optical observing devices for tracking.”

That left one partially functioning E.F.S. between the two of us, but at least Sparkle had the power of area of effect grenade damage to make up for any failures in accuracy. Still, I had to ask: “What?”

Muffled snort. “Eyeballs. I’m using my eyeballs. Use your standard-issue memory storage unit.”

Of course. I groaned and turned my attention back to watching my E.F.S. and ignoring the ever-increasing buzzing. They were around, but why couldn’t we see them?

“I’m talking about your brain.”

“I wasn’t going to dignify that with a response, but I got it. Don’t worry.”

“Are you su—stopstopstop, on your three o'clock!” Sparkle urgently hissed. “Bug butt.”

The two of us froze. Sparkle had indicated a direction that must have meant the other side of the corner I was approaching since I couldn’t see anything. E.F.S. didn’t pick up anything either, which probably meant it was broken for the time being. Damn cultists and their spark battery traps.

A wickedly curved stinger stretched into view from around the acid-worn shed to my right. It shivered in the air, droplets of green slime dripping off of it and sizzling on the pavement below. With a deft twitch, it disappeared back around the corner. Moments later, the rest of the mutated insect crawled up over the storage shed and buzzed its wings.

Unconsciously, my breathing had quickened and I was fighting the overwhelming urge to either bolt or open fire. I’d seen firsthoof what radwasp acid did to ponies. Armor barely helped once the acid landed on it, and once it burned through the same would happen to the pony inside it. It was a painful death, one that I’d watched several initiates suffer a long time ago.

Very carefully, I began to spin up Decrusty—starting at low velocity—and watched for a reaction from the radwasp. The low-pitched whine of her motor was thankfully drowned out by the much louder buzzing in the background. She was suppressed, so hopefully if I had to kill the bug it wouldn’t attract more attention.

Thankfully, the radwasp didn’t seem to find the frozen Steel Rangers very interesting. It swished its wings and buzzed into the air, seemingly attracted to something. Once I was sure it wouldn’t be coming back, I released a sigh of relief.

“All we need to do is plant your demolition charges on their hive, then we can get out of here,” I muttered to Sparkle. “If we follow the buzzing, we’ll eventually find it.”

The grenade launcher on Sparkle’s armor folded up and retracted. “But what if the buzzing finds us?”

True to what Sparkle getting at, the low buzz was slowly becoming a cacophonous noise in my ears. “Uh… we go sit in a corner and cry.”

I kept Decrusty spun up as I rotated myself around to face the loudest of the buzzing. As the horde of radwasps descended on us, I belatedly realized that I should have switched to the incendiary rounds first.

X~~~X

“Would you just stop that already and find us a way out of here?”

“I’m having a great time.” For a ruthless killer, I was having an excessively good time rearranging the body for my own amusement. “Look, he’s trying to rub one out!” I just couldn’t stop laughing!

“He’s dead!”

“You don’t know that!” I breathlessly choked out.

“You gave me his larynx! He bled out two minutes ago!”

“Is that what it’s called?” I hiccuped, then continued to chuckle and choke. “Not like he was using it.”

“Do you even know—no, I’ll come up with a plan.”

Gasping for breath, I gleefully sighed, “Ahh, it hurts to breathe.”

While I laughed about repositioning the dead merchant so that he looked like he was trying to lick his butt, Tangerine was trotting back and forth from shelf to shelf searching for things. For now, I was having a disturbing amount of fun posing a corpse for my personal amusement. At least my spirits had been lifted, right?

“Uuugh. UUUUGH! Why do you make everything so dif—” I stopped trying to tuck the merchant’s leg around the back of his head to observe Tangerine staring up at the ceiling. “Wait, that’s it!” she exclaimed.

On a spur of the moment, I had a better idea what to do with this guy. “You’re a genius!” I seized the forelegs of the merchant and raised them in the air, turning his body to face her.

“I… I haven’t even told you the new plan yet.”

I enthusiastically wiggled his floppy legs in the air again. “Genius!”

“Just…” Tangerine took a calming breath. “Okay, do you see that vent up there?”

Sure enough, there was an air vent in the ceiling between the hanging light fixtures. I wasn’t sure exactly what the plan was, but I hoped she knew that air vents usually led to air conditioners rather than secret passages. Looking at the size as well, I noticed that I probably wouldn’t be able to fit into it. Regardless, I replied, “Yeah.” For comedic effect, I tilted what’s-his-face’s head back to look up as well.

“Okay, here’s what we do. If you can rip the vent cover off, then we could probably get away with framing somepony else with this whole ordeal,” Tangerine rapidly blurted. “Put the body right next to his caps and I’ll figure out a few things that’ll be missed.”

It was a good plan as any, but I really didn’t see a problem with simply nonchalantly strolling out. “Alright. Let me see what I can do.” Gently, I slumped the corpse onto the counter. I spared a second to scoot the body’s foreleg so that it looked like he had died while furiously humping the tilted soda machine’s coin slot. “Pfft. Perfect.” I chuckled, then flapped into the air to talk to a vent.

Tangerine was still trotting back and forth in a hectic frenzy, so I looked on in amusement instead of doing what I should have been doing. She seemed to have an odd fixation with wires on the walls and she kept muttering muttering half-baked plans to herself, frantically searching for something.

“If you dropped a contact lens, you’re probably not going to find it.”

“I’m a little worried about the guards outside executing me for your insanity. Just get to work on the vent—carefully remove the cover and hold onto it, okay?”

I rolled my eyes. “Got it.” Hovering higher up to the vent, I noticed it was already on the verge of coming off. Using the very edge of a talon, I squeezed it into the gap between the vent cover and the vent itself and used the leverage to twist and break the flimsy metal tabs holding it in place. Unsure of what to do next, I allowed myself to drift closer to the floor with the vent cover in claw.

Tangerine trotted up to me with a small box trailing frayed wires clutched in her magical aura. “Okay, okay. Just drop that right on the floor over there, and, uh—” She stared at my claw in disgust. “And clean that blood off of your leg. They’re gonna know what’s up if they see that.” She left the computer parts with me and quickly trotted around the soda-machine-counter and through a door I hadn’t noticed before.

Maybe the tacky coating of blood slathered all over my talons was actually a problem. Belatedly, I realized, “Wait, with what?” And then I felt a rumbly in my tumbly and the answer came instantly. “Never mind. I figured it out.” I licked my chops and inhaled the sweet scent of blood.

As I ran my tongue over the first talon to “clean up” the deliciousness stuck all over it, Tangerine trotted back in—presumably to ask me something—and recoiled. “That’s not… do you even know what kind of potential diseases you can get from blood?”

Undeterred, I kept licking. Some of it was actually starting to congeal and stick, which forced me to gnaw at it until it broke free. “I’ll be fine. Besides, we can’t get in trouble if I eat the evidence.”

“You don’t… I… that’s actually not a terrible idea,” Tangerine muttered in bafflement and exasperation. “I’m not even going to argue with that…”

“Crime tastes like forks and sugar.” I satisfactorily nodded. “I’m smart.”

Tangerine pointedly looked away from me as I kept cleaning myself up, moving onto the next talon. “Here’s the plan—there’s a Talon Company crate in the back that I took the liberty of emptying. Made a mess and everything, so all we need to do is walk out like we own the place and make sure the guards don’t decide that coming in is a great idea.”

I looked around at the stocked shelves and hummed thoughtfully to myself while I gnawed at a particularly thick patch of chewy blood. “Can we empty the place out?” I asked, genuinely curious whether I could carry everything I wanted out of this place.

“Can’t. They’ll notice that everything’s missing. We could probably get away with restocking some ammo and a reasonable amount of food.”

“How about his caps? He’s not using them,” I thoughtfully replied as I continued to lap up the evidence.

“Don’t even think about it. They might know what’s up.”

“Uugh. Fine.”

The whole time, Tangerine hadn’t stopped staring at me and my licking. “Okay, that’s actually starting to bother me a lot. Here’s a rag—just wipe off the rest of it.” A questionably clean shirt followed that remark into my face.

“But it’s delicious!”

“It’s unhygienic. And disturbing.” And then, while she turned away, I managed to hear her very quietly mutter to herself: “To think I wanted to kiss that mouth.”

Hold the homoerotic fun train! “What was thaaaat?” I singsonged at her.

The mare froze, and I could almost see the little hamster wheel whirr to life. “NOTHING!” A red-faced Tangerine hastily trotted off, complaining, “Why is my thinking voice louder than my whisper voice?!”

As the very embarrassed scribe trotted away, Gala Frosty appeared at my side and whispered, “Hey, I just realized something.”

“Yeah?”

“Does Tangerine know that we’re not, uh, open to her advances?”

Wasn’t I making it obvious? Hadn’t I made it obvious? “…I think so?” I hesitantly answered.

“You’re thinking of Broken Parts.”

“Am I?”

“Yes.”

Uh oh. “Shit, does she know?”

We shared the same panicked look. “She might?”

“It’s not like I’ve been hitting on Sparkle or anything, so she souldn’t have gotten the idea,” I muttered.

Gala thoughtfully tapped her cheek. “Well, Enclave standard policy dictates that all relationships are fair game. And to be fair, most pegasi tend to ‘play for both teams’ as it were, and because of it, she probably thinks you’re open to it.”

Out of nowhere, Toasty settled on my back and blurted, “That’s racist.”

Gala looked taken aback. “How? It’s stereotyping at the worst.”

You’re a stereotyping.”

“…What?”

To drive us back to the point, I blurted, “I still think it’s cute how she’s smitten about us.”

“You’re shitty at relationships. I’m shitty at relationships.” She threw her hooves in the air. “Who’s even driving this ship?”

Before either I, I, or I managed to answer that question, Tangerine calmly returned tugging a small wooden box behind her. “Okay, I took the liberty of getting a reasonable amount of supplies. Can you move the body a little?”

“But he’s in the perfect position!”

We both stared at the dead body, still doing its best furious humping impression. “No. Seriously. You can’t do that.”

“Fine.” No sense of humor on that mare. “How about…” Since I wasn’t allowed to have any fun, I decided to trot over and push the body off so it was on its back. “That?”

“It’ll do, I suppose.” A heavy-bladed knife floated out of the box by its handle and rocketed into the corpse’s gaping neck. “That’s probably as good as it gets.”

The gleaming Talon Company logo stood out on the knife’s hilt. “Did you get that out of the box? It’s a really high-quality knife.” I didn’t actually know—I just wanted one because it looked really cool to have.

“Just the one. Contain your excitement until we’re out of here—I think you’d like what was in that box.” Tangerine winked at me, giving the box a hefty shake. “Here, carry it.”

Grudgingly, I lowered myself so that she could shove the box onto my back. “Gah! My spine!” I mockingly cried out.

Unfortunately for me, Tangerine had gotten used to my sarcasm. “It’s not that heavy. When we walk out of here, just let me do the talking. Please.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine.”

~~~~~

Somehow, maybe with the help from a lunar miracle, Tangerine managed to bluff us past the guards outside the shop and get our guns back from their lockup. They were none the wiser, and we were halfway to the library where Violet was still undoubtedly reading when I couldn’t hold it in anymore.

“Pfft… Hahaha! They’re going to have the biggest surprise when they walk back in there. Can you imagine the looks on their stupid faces? It’s gonna be good. Can we hang out and wait for the reaction?” Since I hadn’t had to do anything but stand there with a box earlier, I was having a great time.

On the other hoof, Tangerine was a nervous wreck. “I thought they wouldn’t buy it. Thank the powers that they didn’t look inside. My heart is literally in my ears right now. This is not okay. I. Hate. You.” Those last words sounded like they could kill.

“You don’t mean that. I’m too adorable to hate.”

The only reply I got was a shaky, angry glare.

For some reason, I couldn’t understand why. “What?”

With a fire I wasn’t expecting from the little scribe, she cried, “I’m still not over the fact that you tried to kill me earlier!” Oh. Right. That’d been a thing.

Maybe it was my outstanding record for heart failure or maybe it was guilt, but a pang of something shot through my chest. It immediately faded however as I snarled, “Oh, and I’m not allowed to be upset about being called a dog?” Then sarcastically, I continued, “But I’m a pet now, and everypony knows that animals don’t have feelings.”

“I—”

“Or am I property? Because this—” I yanked the dumb collar. “—doesn’t make me a pony, now does it?”

A weaker tug on the back of my collar made me stop short and whirl around. “You made her cry, meanie-butt.” Filly jabbed my nose in response and tugged my ears until I was facing Tangerine. She was trying to remain stoic, but she looked away as a small tear rolled down her face.

I decided that shutting up for the moment was a good idea.

As we began to navigate the multitudes of shelves in the library once more, Gala Frosty piped up once again. “In all seriousness, maybe an apology is in order.”

“Why? I didn’t do anything.”

“You killed a stallion in cold blood.”

“To be fair, it was self-defense. Slightly premature self-defense, admittedly, but still. I murdered him in warm blood.”

“Warm blood?”

“I don’t know. I mean, it’s not really cold blood because there was a reason, right? Or that we’re all warm-blooded? Pretend I’m making sense.”

Gala rolled her eyes. “Just apologize—It’ll at least make her feel better. Look, she’s a mess.”

“Do I have to?”

“You’d be less of a monster if you did.” It was difficult to ignore the disapproving glare coming from her, so I arbitrarily took interest in the surprising number of intact books lining the shelves, then the sudden lack thereof as we wandered into the section where we had left Violet in.

With a disgusted and frustrated sigh, Tangerine trotted the last few feet and collapsed onto the floor beside a neatly stacked pile of books. “I’m going to pull a Frosty and take a nap because of how stressed I am right now.” Seeing as we were in the right place, I leaned over and slid the box of stuff off my back and onto a table-looking thing.

The top of the closest stack of books to me floated away to reveal Violet giving the two of us a bored, utterly nonplussed stare. “Took you two long enough.”

“Frosty killed somepony again.”

Violet simply blinked. “Hardly surprising, really. It was bound to happen.” Without another thought, she levitated another book to her and threw it open to a bookmarked page. “Oh, also I finished research on—” In one smooth motion, she rolled her eyes and sarcastically flourished her hooves in the air. “—the thing.”

“Did you? Omigosh! Tell me, tell me, tell me!” Suddenly, Tangerine didn’t seem so tired anymore.

Once again, Violet slowly blinked, probably contemplating a decision. “This is the most difficult and most impractical spell that I have studied. I don’t see why you couldn’t just ask the pony yourself.” Several ink-stained scrolls levitated into view, dropping into Tangerine’s eagerly waiting hooves. “You know what, I’m going to bill you for this. Yeah, I’ll figure out a going rate.”

“What?!” she cried, distraught and with scrolls in hooves.

“What’s the average pay scale? Frosty?”

It was my turn to blink. “I don’t know. Do ponies still get paid? I mean, Riverbed makes money from her ‘services’”—I made air quotes to push the emphasis—“but I don’t think she mentioned anything about getting paid. Though, I wasn’t really paying attention when she was talking. No idea.”

Violet facehoofed. “I don’t even know why I bothered asking.”

Which reminded me! “Oh, by the way, Tangerine…” I turned to face the mare in question, somewhat reluctantly. “Look, I’m sorry about causing all that trouble earlier.”

“Tangent much?” Violet sighed and returned the small stack of books to where it had been before, blocking her from our line of sight. “I’ll send you the bill. Continue.”

“Uh. Anyway, yeah. Also sorry about giving you that guy’s throat. Probably shouldn’t have done that.” Weakly chuckling, I scratched the back of my foreleg and awaited the inevitable reply. “Sorry?”

A few expressions crossed Tangerine’s face—anger, compassion, frustration. “You need to consider other ponies. It’s just really infuriating when you impulsively just… do things.”

“I can’t. Hubris is a pegasus thing.” An angry glare from Tangerine and an equally questionable look from Violet’s eyes peeking through a gap in the book stacks made me immediately respond, “What?”

“Frosty, you nearly got us both killed when you attacked that merchant. No, actually, let’s go a bit farther back to when you tried to kill me.”

The disembodied voice of Violet added, “What do you have to say about that, anyhow?”

Why was I the bad guy now? “Well, I wasn’t really trying to—hey, she started it with the bucking dog jokes!” I pointed an accusing talon at Tangerine. “It was justified. Considering what’s happened to me recently, no.” Daring Tangerine to try something else, I gently shook my red collar, making the little bell on it jingle. “I think not de-throaterizing her was already letting her off easy.”

For a second, Tangerine looked frightened, then regained her furious look. “You killed a merchant for no reason!”

“He was going to kill me!” I roared.

“This isn’t like you, Frosty.”

“Oh yeah? You think you know me better than me?” I challenged, closing the distance between us until I was nearly close enough to lick her eyeballs.

“Yeah, because you don’t even know yourself!” Tangerine snapped, which actually made me take a step back. “You argue with yourself more than you used to, and you just keep getting… weirder. And more violent.”

“I...“ What could I even say? “You don’t…” It hadn’t gotten that bad, right? Wasn’t it just my imagination?

Gala appeared beside me and gently stroked the side of my wing. “You’re in denial.”

“No, I’m not!”

Triumphantly, Tangerine pointed and declared, “There, there you go again! Frosty, do you hear yourself?”

So she wanted a fight? Two could play that game. “Do I hear myself? Yeah, I bucking hear myself all the time. In fact, I can’t stop hearing myself.”

“I—”

“Do you know what it’s like to have your own running commentary on all the time? Conscience is one thing, but the voice that says ‘kill your friends’ also happens to enjoy the idea of it.” I clutched the side of my face with my claw. “Every time I make a bucking choice, consider options, or even just think of something, one of them is there to throw in their own opinion.”

“You can ask us for help, you know,” Tangerine quietly replied. “Instant’s good at mental health things, and the rest of us are still your friends.”

Ha, what a joke. “Rumcake. Friend. Ha, don’t make laugh.”

“Frosty, he’s trying to help you, but you’re not letting him.”

“Yeah, the bondage isn’t helping.” I violently shook my head and made the little bell dingle again. “And that’s super annoying.”

“Frosty, you tried to kill me earlier. What would have happened if you had a gun? What if it was Sparkle or Violet? Or Rumcake?” Tangerine asked concernedly. “What then?”

“I don’t… I… I’m sorry?” I lamely whimpered.

With one last exasperated sigh, Tangerine buried her face into her hooves. “I’ll take what I can get. Let’s just calmly sit here and learn, maybe reflect on our mistakes.” As she began to unroll the first of Violet’s three scrolls, she paused and pondered out loud, “I wonder what’s taking Rumcake so long?”

X~~~X

Rounding a corner, I punched a hole in the bottom of the first storage shed’s gate and yanked it up and open. “Move it, Junior Paladin! Get in here!”

Wild-eyed and shaking, Sparkle tumbled past me and collided with the far wall. The second her tail cleared the threshold, I threw the gate shut and hit the emergency stop on Decrusty. Even though it didn’t do anything, I held my breath as the radwasps swept past us.

As the buzzing died down to an uncomfortable hum in the distance, I sighed in relief and took a step back to check on Sparkle. It was unfortunate that she had been forced to ditch her helmet, but at least now her face wouldn’t melt off. Her left eye was still shut from the gash dripping blood into it and part of her mane had been singed off, but we’d been lucky not to have taken much more than that.

“Am… am I…” Sparkle sat up and touched her forehead and weakly chuckled, “Am I missing an eyebrow?”

Good to know she was fine. I allowed her to patch herself up so that I could tend to myself. A few patches on my armor had been splashed by acid, but most of it had been auto-repaired. Since we’d been running from the bugs rather than fighting them, I still had plenty of ammo for Decrusty. I switched to the special incendiary ammunition I had been saving for a special occasion, which this had suddenly qualified for.

“Wow, you really weren’t joking about these wasps. Good thing I was wearing a helmet.” Little did Sparkle know, she was going to be in deep trouble once we got back to base for losing that helmet. “Aww, and all the mods on it! Why, Celestia? WHYYY?” Sparkle leaned backward, shaking a hoof at the ceiling.

“Keep it down!” I urgently hissed. “Those things are still around.”

“Sorry…”

On the topic of helmets, I realized, “I should be making Frosty wear her helmet.” If Frosty didn’t want to wear hers, I could make Sparkle wear it instead.

It seemed like Sparkle was ready to move again, at least. She had patched herself up and donned a pair of well-worn and unnecessarily pink sport goggles to cover her lack of helmet. Amusingly enough, she had also decided to tie up her vibrantly purple mane into a ponytail using a zip-tie. Unfortunately for her, she’d missed a bit.

“You’ve got a little, uh…” I gestured at the top of my helmet for reference to the errant spike of mane gracefully arching forward on her head. “You’ve got a little antennae going on,” I snickered.

Sparkle gave me this weird look that screamed “I don’t believe you”, but she passed her hoof over her head and found it. “Whatever. I think it’s cool.”

Now that she had said that, I desperately channeled my inner Frosty for a witty response. “It gets all the channels, right?”

“Huh?”

“Antenna. Channels.” Giving up, I sighed. “I tried.”

“Gold star, Rumcake. Gold star.” Sparkle stamped her hooves and stretched her forelegs with an audible groan. “Alright, so what’s the new plan? We rushin’ bums now?” Immediately losing interest without a snappy reply, she began to dig through the crumbling cardboard boxes packed against the walls and floor.

Getting caught had almost melted Sparkle’s face off, but as long as the bugs didn’t spot us we’d be okay. Normally, if it were a few of them, fighting them head-on was the best method. Unfortunately, we were dealing with a nest full of these things with unconfirmed numbers and there were only two of us with very limited ammunition. I glanced at her again and grimaced, realizing that the only chance we had was to hopscotch from shed to shed until we found the hive.

Sparkle interrupted me by blurting, “Ooh, I found a box of bobbleheads. Is Frosty still collecting these?” Gingerly gathering several of them in her hooves, she presented the largest of the group to me.

The only one that I found interest in was of the leader of ponykind herself, Princess Luna. Once again manufactured by Schtable-Tec, the younger princess had barely been able to escape ridicule by bobblehead. From the neck down, she looked exactly how pre-war documentation had described—elegant, stunning, vibrant, even. But for some reason, Her royal regalia had been replaced with gaudy red sneakers and a clock on a chain. An upended three-tier cake had replaced her crown, but she still seemed to be having a laugh about it anyway.

Maybe bringing this one back for Frosty would cut me some slack. Using some of the packing material inside its original box, I stowed Princess Luna (or, as the base proclaimed, “Princess Moonbutt”) into my armored storage boxes and patted myself on the back. “This’ll get me out of the weeds. Thanks, Sparkle.”

Apparently Sparkle wasn’t even listening because she was busy packing away the rest of them—presumably for herself. I did note that Frosty already had a few of them and the box held several duplicates anyway, so I didn’t bother trying to get any more. Curiously, there was a Ministry Mare Rainbow Dash bobblehead that sported a pitch-black coat instead of her familiar bright blue, but I didn’t snag it. Frosty probably didn’t want a miscolored one anyway.

Finally finished packing her loot, Sparkle clanged her hooves together and stated, “Okay, let’s not get melted and we’ll be in the clear.”

The plan was as followed: I’d peek outside since I was the only one with a helmet, give the all-clear, then one of us would break into one of the sheds to hide when the bugs showed up to investigate the noise. After nearly an hour of this pulse-pounding nonsense, we’d managed to locate the radwasp hive nestled in a junction, spilling out of one of the storage sheds. Two heavy-duty demolition charges later, under the assurance that a bug house wasn’t as strong as a casino, we cleared the area and added a brand-new crater to the Wasteland.

We parked ourselves in a burned down ruin so that we could rest and re-gear. While Sparkle desperately tried to fix her acid-shortened mane, I elected to lie flat on my back and stare at the clouds, praying to never see another radwasp again.

It was even becoming somewhat peaceful, just having a moment mostly to myself to relax, when I saw a pony fly by overhead. I blinked in surprise and willed myself to see farther. They began to make lazy circles in the sky, seemingly uncaring of who was watching. What was another pegasus doing out here?

I squinted at it. It had a familiar white tail and an even more familiar single whitish foreleg. Immediately realizing who it was, I yelled at her, “Damn it, Frosty, was it too much to ask you sit still for once?!” Not only did she dare defy me again, she wasn’t even wearing her armor anymore either! “Get down here right now and explain yourself!”

“What? Frosty’s here?”

Pointing at the sky for Sparkle’s benefit, I continued to yell at my defiant pegasus. “You’re going to have to land sometime, and once you do I’m going to kick your butt!”

Beside me, Sparkle had pulled her goggles down around her neck and was squinting as well. “Do you even know how far up she is? I don’t think she can hear you.” With a groan, she rubbed her eyes. “Some of that stuff might have melted through my goggles. Can’t see shit.”

Frosty abruptly stopped circling and began to hover, only to glide away. “She’s headed back to town, seems like. I’m going to clip her wings when I catch up to her, and you’re not going to stop me. I should have done it weeks ago.” I looked over at Sparkle. “Cut the gawking and double time it. Looks like Frosty thinks she’s hot shit, and that’s exactly what she’s gotten into.”

X~~~X

For the third time in the last ten minutes, I groaned. “This is boring.” Lounging on my back with my limbs haphazardly splayed was getting uncomfortable, especially since power armor wasn’t designed for extended periods of lying down. To entertain myself, I had been keeping one of my discarded feathers aloft by blowing at it when it got too low.

My time could have been better spent on armor maintenance or cleaning my guns, but I just didn’t feeeel like it. The collar around my neck was tight enough to be a nuisance, which only reminded me about being a slave to the Rangers again. Now it wasn’t too different, just lighter and with less boom.

I’d made myself sad, and I couldn’t pull myself out of that rut. At least I hadn’t broken down into tears yet. That was always embarrassing. Stupid emotions.

What I needed was another distraction. Lazily, I clapped my hooves together and caught the feather. “Puppy needs walkies,” I bluntly announced. If I was going to wear a collar from now on, I was going to passive-aggressive the crap out of everypony. Spreading the guilt around would slowly make me feel better.

From somewhere behind Skyscraper Bookfort, a particularly heavy tome slammed shut and was immediately followed with an exasperated sigh. “Tangerine, would you please entertain the pegasus? I’m trying to do your work.” Several books inched their way out of the gargantuan stack and neatly arranged themselves on Tangerine’s head by color.

“I’m not doing damage control if anything happens,” Tangerine flatly responded. “Why don’t you go get some fresh air with Frosty? Goddesses know you need it.”

Using the most droll voice I could muster, I groaned, “I’d go take a walk myself but we all know I need a hitching post.” Now that I needed to be chaperoned everywhere, I was also going to start making myself the biggest inconvenience possible as revenge.

“Ha. Fresh air. What a joke.” The giant stack of books shifted, allowing Violet to crawl out of the nest she’d made for herself. “Fine. Don’t blame me if you turn yourself into a turnip.”

“What?!” Tangerine exclaimed, halfway through one of the scrolls that Violet had made for her.

Lightly brushing out her mane, Violet replied, “Everything works in theory, but I didn’t bother testing.”

The two unicorns were silent, then I noticed that they were both looking at me. “We could test it on Frosty.” Tangerine brightly suggested.

Test subject? Nope. “Nuh-uh. I hate turnips.”

Turning back to Violet, she whined, “How are you sure it works then?”

Mockingly, Violet tilted her head and tapped her chin. “Oh, I don’t know. Math. Logic proofs. Research. More math. You know, just things that you’ve made me do that you could’ve easily done yourself.”

“Hey!”

“And the aether manipulation conservation formula hasn’t failed me yet. In theory.”

“Wait, will this spell really turn me into a turnip?”

“Only if you mess it up. I also can’t guarantee if you’ll be able to change back even if it works.” The stack of books shifted again and a thick leatherbound book launched itself at Tangerine’s face. She barely managed to snag it in her own magical field a mere inch from her face. “That one has reversals and counter-spells in it. You’re looking for something around chapter nine, but ignore section five.”

“Why?”

“Hexes.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” Violet turned to me and humorlessly told me, “If you’re on your best behavior, I’ll take you to the birdbath.” Before I could come up with a witty response, she smirked and flipped her hood up. “If you behave yourself, I’ll even buy you some cotton candy.”

“Cotton candy? That’s not even possible here.” I was actually more bothered that Violet had emotions that weren’t disdain.

As Violet trotted away from me and my lackluster reply, she teasingly shot back, “Not with that attitude.”

I rolled my eyes and galloped after her. “That attitude my ass.”

Unfortunately for me, there was neither birdbath nor cotton candy anywhere in the, what, “main square” area. Actually, for the middle of a town, it wasn’t as busy as it had been earlier. With Violet lazily following me around, I opted to hover over and around the ponies in my way. Every now and then I would perform a carefree loop, just because I was bored.

After deciding that the bandage situation on my wings were outdated and useless, I quickly landed to shed them before hovering again. I’d forgotten how calming it was to just fly when nopony was shooting at us. I pulled short of another loop and hovered so I could think. Somewhere in the trashed pits of my mind, a list of combat maneuvers floated to the surface—one of which I wasn’t sure that I could perform anymore. It involved a lot of exploiting natural pegasus agility and abusing the way physics didn’t apply to pegasi.

Once I made sure I had enough room to dash back and forth, I limbered up and practiced swishing my wings back and forth rapidly. In mid-neck roll, I noticed Violet curiously staring at me. This time, I wasn’t going to let her make me look like an idiot. “Have you heard of the Ground Blitz?”

Slowly, Violet levitated her book open and flipped it open to a page bookmarked with a little blue triangle. “With a ‘the’? No.” Her Frosty-feather quill floated out of the inside of her robes, followed by an inkwell. “Elaborate.”

“It’s a mobility maneuver that scouts and recon personnel are expected to learn for close quarters.” To demonstrate my point, I half-opened my wings and planted my hooves like I was about to take off. “This is about as far as I’d be able to safely spread my wings in a tunnel or hallway. The idea is a strong half-beat with a launch, and as you’re in the air, punch downward to stop momentum and do it all over again. It looks dumb, but it covers distance.”

Even after I’d finished explaining, Violet was still violently scribbling, even bringing extra sheafs of paper form somewhere in her robe. “I don’t believe you because that’s not how momentum works.” Apparently, I was going to be the one to make me look like an idiot.

I fixed her with a determined glare and snapped, “Look, it works in practice.”

Smugly, Violet allowed her book to close and she neatly stacked her writing supplies on top of it. “Prove it.”

“Okay, I will!” Without taking my eyes off of the doubtful unicorn, I pawed at the ground and smirked. “Easy peasy.”

With the practiced ease of a million takeoffs, I launched myself forward into the air. I rapidly pumped my wings twice, opening them just barely. Now the fun part—this trick depended on weight and momentum, but I was more used to using my now nonexistent left foreleg for the drop. All I knew was that my claw was “light”, but it didn’t feel the same.

My wondering was going to have to wait, because I collided face-first with another pony.

With my face full of surprisingly well-toned flank, I tried to regain my bearings through the haze of dizziness clouding my brain. Violet trotted up to us and asked, “Are you okay?” I was about to reply, but then Violet completely ignored me and went to assist the pony I’d collided with instead.

At least Gala Frosty appeared to help me up, holding out her hoof. “Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks for asking.” Ignoring Violet, I took Gala’s hoof and let her pull me to my hooves.

Upon observing the other pony, I almost thought that I had knocked all the color out of him. All that was left was two varying shades of gray on the earth pony and bored-looking red eyes. There wasn’t really anything about him that stood out, besides his saddlebags and lack of any sort of armor whatsoever. And what kind of cutie mark was a security camera, anyway?

“At first curiosity, he’s probably a local, but…” Gala trailed off, looking at the pony intently. “I just have the most peculiar feeling about him, I suppose.”

“Hm.” I kept her words in mind, mostly because she usually wasn’t wrong about much.

“Sorry about my friend. She’s not that bright,” Violet apologized to the stallion, even politely helping him up.

After brushing himself off and making sure that his saddlebags were still secured, the stallion simply responded, “No, no, I wasn’t paying attention. It’s my fault.” He furtively glanced around and cleared his throat. “I have somewhere to be. See you around, Frosty.”

Still slightly peeved about Violet, I was more busy hovering and practicing the last portion of my move rather than paying attention to the conversation. “See ya,” I distractedly replied, only hearing my name.

While I was trying to reverse the Ground Dash so that I could use my right hoof instead of my much lighter claw for momentum-canceling exploitation, Violet was making confused-sounding noises. I wasn’t really sure what she said, but at least I came to the conclusion that I currently lacked the technique to Dash until I figured out how to righty it.

As I was rotating myself to tell this to Violet, a familiar helmet beside a slightly less familiar-looking mare in the distance caught my eye. “Rumcake!” I hovered higher and waved at him.

The second he saw me as well, he tossed his helmet to the curiously un-helmeted and goggled Sparkle, and cried, “Frosty!” He began to gallop toward me, basically bulldozing anypony in his way.

He seemed happy to see me, which was a nice change in demeanor. “Rumcake!” Maybe he’d come to and wanted to apologize? Nevertheless, I glided to meet him.

“Frosty!”

What I’d thought was elation seemed to give way to incandescent rage. “Rumcake?” I slightly less enthusiastically called back, hesitantly flapping my wings to slow down.

With renewed rage, Rumcake bellowed, “FROSTY!” Somehow, he managed to speed up and stampede faster, determined to catch me and do… unspeakable things, presumably.

Fire burned from his eyes, and in that second I knew I’d done something horribly wrong. No doubt about it, that was definitely rage. With a fillyish scream that could shatter windows, I stopped all forward momentum with a flare of my wings and launched myself in the opposite direction.

I frantically beat my wings to build up raw speed, but right as I thought I’d made my escape, the collar around my neck heated nearly searing hot. “Ow! What th—” In the three seconds it took for me to realize that it hurt, the collar stopped right where it was. Physics demanded that I abide to its rules for once and the rest of me kept moving forward.

It was a damn good thing I hadn’t managed to make escape velocity while I was still freaking out, otherwise I would have snapped my neck from being stopped by the stupid magic collar. Confusion kept me aloft for a little longer until my wings gave out and I dropped to the ground.

Either getting suddenly stopped by my neck or hitting the ground flat on my back had knocked the air out of my lungs, leaving me gasping and confused. Sometimes getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air. At least the burning sensation from the collar began to subside as I tried to catch my breath.

A dark shadow loomed over me and blocked the meager light coming through the cloud cover. I attempted to choke out something witty like “You’re in my light”, but the only thing that came out of my mouth was pained wheezing. Weakly fluttering my wings, I somehow rolled myself over.

“FROSTY. YOU HAD ONE JOB.”

For some reason, Rumcake sounded really pissed. “Did I?” I coughed, hammering my chest to cough up the lung causing all my air problems.

“I TOLD YOU TO STAY PUT. WAS THAT SO HARD FOR YOU?”

“All I did was go sho—”

The backside of Rumcake’s hoof smashing into my jaw sent me reeling, landing me flat on my back again. When I tried to open my mouth to say something—retort, anger, indignation—pain lanced through the right side of my face. All I could muster was a shocked, frightened look.

What was happening? Did I do something wrong again?

A tongue ran up the side of my face and tickled the edge of my mouth. “You did sort of kill a guy earlier,” Toasty huskily whispered into my ear.

There wasn’t any way he’d already heard about it. What had I done?

Rumcake seized my collar and effortlessly lifted me up with one hoof, bringing me nose-to-nose to him. “At every single twist and turn, you ignore everything I tell you to do. Is this just another one of your harebrained excuses to do whatever you want?!” he viciously snarled into my face.

Still confused and frightened, I did the first thing that came to mind.

I gave his nose a quick smooch then innocently looked on, hiding a grimace behind my worried stare.

For a brief moment, all hints of anger vanished from his face. Brief being the key word, since he immediately regained his enraged gaze. “You think that makes everything better?” From my forced vantage point, I caught sight of Sparkle worriedly muttering something into a small hoofheld radio.

Without any idea what I’d done wrong, I desperately tried to defuse the situation at hoof. “We can talk about this, right?” Attempting to squirm away resulted in failure. How did he hold on so tightly with just his hoof?

“Who took off the collar? Huh? Did you threaten Violet to do it?”

What was going on? “W-what?”

“Drop the pegasus and nopony gets hurt.” I managed to twist my head to look and immediately confused myself. My savior, or rather, “savior”, was a slightly scrawny-looking black and whitish griffon with little to no armor, a sniper rifle strapped to his back, and some kind of cross-themed jewelry strung around his neck beside a tattoo of an “R”. Combat scars danced across the right side of his face, nearly obscuring an amber eye. An odd bird, especially with that black beak of his. Huh.

“This has nothing to do with you. Back off.”

“If you’re going to interrogate an Enclave agent, you should have done it in private.” I tried not to laugh as the griffon attempted to strike a stoic pose. “This is neutral ground, and I am obliged to take action.”

“Do you have a death wish, you dumb bird?” Rumcake finally dropped me to confront the griffon, which gave me ample time to regain my footing and retreat to Sparkle’s beckoning hooves.

She squeezed me into a sympathetic hug and patted the back of my head before letting me go. “I would have helped, but… you know, rank and stuff. You okay?”

“Uh. I’m actually just more angry and confused rather than upset. What’s the sitrep?” What was going on?

Both of us were distracted by a sudden outburst from the griffin. “Me an’ what army? Me and what army? Me and this army, bitch!” He snapped his talons and victoriously cried, “Say hello to the Ravenflight, asshole!”

Not much happened, thus ruining the built-up drama.

The griffin looked around and yelled, “I said, me and this army!”

A scattered squadron of griffins halfheartedly emerged from seemingly nowhere, a few even gliding in. They were all frighteningly armed to their beaks, one of the many trademarks of the Talon Mercenaries. Yet another griffin leisurely meandered up to the first griffin, sipping on the rubber tubing connected to the beer cans taped to his combat helmet.

“Duuude, you can’t like, assemble the Revengers every time it’s like, cool, man.”

“What happened to my ‘this army’, Blondie?”

“Chiiill, man. I, like, I don’t—” Blondie woozily chuckled. “—I just don’t even know, man.”

“I’ll… I’ll deal with you later.” The pale griffin groaned at his lackey, then pointed an accusing talon at Rumcake again. “Leave the mare alone or else your little Ranger friend back there is going to have to bring you back to your cave in a soup can.” With a fancy talon-twirl, he beckoned, “Maestro, if you would.”

Once again, nothing particularly impressive happened.

“Come on! Guyyys, you’re making me look like a scrub,” he whined at the rest of the decidedly bored griffins, most of which weren’t paying much attention anyway. “Is this what happens when Dad’s on vacation? All of you suck.”

You suck!” one of the griffins crowed, which caused the rest of them to cackle and guffaw with laughter. “Nobody likes you, square.”

“My name is Rhombus! A rhombus is not a square!” Ignoring it, the birdcat—Rhombus—raised himself on his hindlegs and threateningly unslung the rifle across his back. Unfortunately, he didn’t come off as imposing because of how much scrawnier he looked next to Rumcake. “Back off the mare and you’ll be free to go, if you’re lucky.”

Rumcake simply chuckled. “Do you really think that you can intimidate me? A commander that cannot be respected cannot be feared.” Taking advantage of the griffon’s hesitation and confusion, he continued, “And what I do with my Rangers is my business. We have no quarrel with the Talon Company or their subsidiaries, and I would rather you not ruin that relationship.”

“Is that a threat?”

“You tell me, pentagon.” The sound of shit-eating grin positively ooozed out of his helmet. “Is it?”

Muttering mostly to myself, I wondered, “Is it just me, or is Rumcake a lot dumber than I thought he was when I met him? The shape he’s looking for is a trapezoid, not a stupid pentagon.”

“Not a trapezoid,” Violet off-hoofedly chimed in.

“He’s a little slow sometimes, but he’s not stupid,” Sparkle remarked. While I processed and pondered that statement, she hopped on her hindlegs, trying to get a better look at the argument. She flashed a worried glance in my direction. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

I grumpily replied, “I told you already—I’m just confused and angry.”

Sparkle suddenly grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me away to examine my glum expression. “What you need is fun and energy.”

I arched an eyebrow at her.

“What we need is Dash.”

Using the opportunity given by Sparkle’s disturbingly ecstatic expression, I finally managed to break away from her and irritably flap my wings. “What I need is answers. What’s going on? What happened? Did Tangerine tell him about the guy I blew up?”

“You blew someone up?”

“Well, not literally.” Not technically a lie. “What’s gotten Rumcake so cheesed?”

“He saw you flying in our airspace earlier.”

What? “But I’ve been here the whole time.” To make my point I tugged the collar around my neck and grimaced. “Not like I’m allowed to go anywhere else.”

Sparkle tilted her head at me, then stared off after Rumcake. I followed suit, only because his argument with the griffon seemed to be escalating rapidly. They were arguing about the nuances of shapes and domestic violence when the huffing and puffing of a very fruitlike and out-of-shape scribe trotted up to us.

“Whew… okay… Sorry, I got… a little… lost,” Tangerine panted, pulling up the edge of her hood from around her shoulder to wipe her face. “I heard what… whew, what happened. Is Frosty okay?”

“I’m right here, you know. What am I, invisible?” Throwing my head back in disgust, I groaned, “Ugh. Thanks, guys. I feel so appreciated.”

At least Tangerine knew I was being overly dramatic, since she playfully tried to shove me. “Hey, we care. I care, at least. Woah, what happened to your face?”

A wave of déjà vu washed over me and I nearly forgot about firing back a witty remark. “Wow, your face is funny-looking too, thanks,” I hastily snapped back.

Surreptitiously, Sparkle leaned over and loudly whispered, “That’s why I didn’t point it out, Tangie.”

Completely ignoring the remark, Tangerine levitated a tiny bag-looking thing out of her saddlebags and bashed it once against Sparkle’s armor. “You’ve got a shiner of a bruise forming on your face. Here, at least let me put some ice on it.” The little bag slowly floated up to the side of my face and forced me to realize exactly how hard Rumcake had hit me. The cold from it stung as it gently rubbed against my face, which was only making me more angry.

I snatched the cold pack from Tangerine’s aura and mashed it against my face for maximum pain relief. “Thanks, I guess,” I muttered, wincing.

“What happened to you? I literally left you alone with Violet for ten minutes.” Sparkle, Tangerine, and I all glanced at the mare in question, who had sat down and had been preoccupying herself with whatever she normally did with her book. “Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.”

Even I wasn’t exactly sure exactly what had happened. “Rumcake discovered the wonders of having an abusive relationship.” I lazily flapped my wings to shrug since I was still holding onto the cold pack. “If he thinks he’s going to be able to sweet-talk me away from that, that’s gonna be a paddling.” The side of my face had gone slightly damp and numb, which only contributed to the slightly soggy anger building inside me.

“Seriously though, what happened?”

“Uh… long story short, Rumcake saw Frosty flying around our area of operations when she shouldn’t have been, so he whacked Frosty,” Sparkle quickly summarized. “And now here we are.”

“But Frosty’s been with me all afternoon.”

“Apparently not.”

“No, she was being a pain in the ass all afternoon. There wasn’t time for her to slip out at all in that time window.” Tangerine angrily glared at me, which I answered with a bashful grin. Returning to Sparkle, she asked, “Wait, did you see her?”

“Sort of. I think I got some acid in my eyes or something back there, because everything’s blurry as shit.” Pushing up her goggles and rubbing her eyes, Sparkle groaned. “My face hurts.”

Two black-armored griffons shoved Sparkle and Tangerine away from me, disregarding their cries of complaint. “Take a step back, Steel Rangers,” one of them growled, brandishing his assault rifle. The other weilded some sort of rocket launcher, which probably wasn’t a good idea considering the distance.

Rumcake and the dumb shape-themed griffon stomped up to me, both with looks of displeasure plastered on their respective faces. “Well? Are you with them?” Rhombus demanded, who obviously didn’t believe it.

I could capitalize on this for my own amusement. Maybe even get a little revenge while I was at it, if I played my cards right. Right on cue, Filly Frosty eagerly scooted into my mind and took over, all while thinking mischievous thoughts. Using the best frightened little puppy face she could muster, I looked the griffon right in the eyes and whimpered, “P-please don’t m-make me go back with him, m-mister.”

That was all it took to win Rhombus over, his gaze softening and the hints of a wry little grin forming on his beak. On the other hoof, Rumcake was going ballistic. “What kind of new bullshit is this? Frosty, cut that out right now! You’re a Ranger, damn it!”

Whether it was Filly’s foalish charm or being a damsel in distress, Rhombus sprung to my aid. “That’s all I needed to hear. Get these Steel Retards out of here, on the double!”

“You’re going to believe her?!”

I let my hold on the cold pack falter, showing off the shiny new bruise on my face to both parties.

Rhombus grinned. “Yep, I am. Scram, ‘tards. Unfortunately, seeing as you haven’t done much more than abuse this unfortunate pegasus, I don’t have enough reason to force you to leave Stronghold.”

“Just because she’s a mare doesn’t mean she’s not lying!”

“And I should trust you? You?” Rhombus doubtfully responded. “Yeah, right.” Looking over his shoulder, he shouted to the remaining griffons, “Make sure these idiots clear out.”

Taking the opportunity to rub it in, I victoriously sneered at Rumcake. Served him right. The victim card always won. Goody four-horseshoes “heroes” loved saving mares in distress, even if they weren’t as innocent as they appeared. So, as Square the Talon Merc gently ushered me away muttering reassurances, Rumcake, Sparkle, and Tangerine were being shoved in the opposite direction by the rest of the heavily armed griffons.

And of course, Violet hadn’t budged. Because she wasn’t paying attention. Great.

“Boss! Bossbossbossboss!” A griffin that looked decidedly different from the others raced to catch back up with us. Some sort of huge boxy radio-looking thing was strapped to his back, and all manner of devices and wires were haphazardly secured all over him. A pair of headphones sat on top of his reversed hoofball cap (Go, Oceania Otters!) and he didn’t even have a single weapon on him.

How’d I miss this guy?

“Dude, you’re making me look small-time here,” Rhombus groaned. “What could you possibly need this time?”

Completely ignoring him, this new griffin blurted, “Remember that Raptor that Delta team spotted?”

“Soundwave, I already told Hamshank that we’re not stealing it.”

“Shit’s goin’ down, yo! Pon-3’s on it, yo—here, listen!” The griffin—Soundwave—yanked off his headphones and presented them to us. He fiddled with a few knobs and dials on a nearly PipBuck-esque thing strapped to his arm and moved a few plugs. Eventually, a radio broadcast began to blare from the impromptu speakers.

“—ight and roll of thunder that a lot of you reported from the vicinity of Splendid Valley just over forty hours ago? The one a lot of you said was like a megaspell going off? Turns out it was a megaspell going off. Right in the heart of Splendid Valley.

“Now I don’t have a lot of details. But I can confirm that a whole mess of alicorns fled the valley less than half an hour before the detonation. And I can now confirm reports that our Wasteland Heroine was on the Ponyville side of Splendid Valley earlier that day. Now I don’t know yet if there’s any connection, but if I was a betting pony, I’d say our Bringer of Light had her hoof in what happened out there.

“Not really the light I was talkin’ about, Stable Dweller. Our prayers go out to you. I hope you’re okay. If you… or anypony has any further information… please let me know. Right away."

“Shit’s goin’ down!” Soundwave squealed.

Rhombus smacked him over the head. “Shh!” We all leaned in closer to hear better.

“As for reports of odd behavior from the alicorns in the wake of this occurrence, or claims of seeing odd black ponies flying through the sky, I can only…”

BZZZzzzzzzzzzzckht!

The broadcast abruptly cut out, and Soundwave muttered, “What the shit? Hold on, I can fix it. It’s probably just th—”

“Greetings, citizens of the Equestrian Wasteland. This is the Grand Pegasus Enclave. We have commandeered this broadcast to deliver an important message to all ponies:

“Do not be afraid. We are here to save you!”

Silence.

First thing that came to my mind was, “Oh shit.”

“Aw sheeit!” Soundwave was taking the news slightly more in stride. “We’re gonna have so much fun! Think of all the free shit and stuff…”

Rhombus ran his talons through his head-feather-things. “Uh—okay, okay. Uh. Soundwave, get Thundercane on the line. No, round everybird up, then contact her.”

The radio birdcat toggled a switch on one of the boxes strapped to his chest. “Roger that, beacon’s on.”

“She’ll want to know what’s happening and why she might not be getting her sapper team back.” After receiving an affirmative nod from the other griffon, he nodded to himself and added, “Oh, and call my dad.”

In mid-adjust, Soundwave gave him a weird look and cautiously asked, “Are you sure? I mean, the old bird did sa—”

Clearing his throat, Rhombus recited, “And I quote, ‘I don’t want to be bothered unless the sky itself falls or a balefire bomb blows up Tenpony.’ I think this qualifies as a little of column A and a little of column B.”

Why were the Enclave coming down? Hadn’t the permanent plan been “sit around and ignore everything” or something? With my security clearance, all I could remember was the periodic Wasteland Check to make sure nopony was trying to get into the Enclave with a rocket or something. A change of power, maybe? Had the goody four-horseshoe right-wingers finally decided that enough was enough?

While I had been panicking, Gala had been thoughtfully looking up at the sky. “Hadn’t desertion rates been steadily increasing? Maybe they’re trying to get all the rebels and Dashites back? Or do you think they’re here for something else?”

“Like what?” I tried to come up with anything worthy of coming down for, but all I could think of was a supply run on a galactic scale. None of this made sense!

“Wait.” That outburst made me meet Gala’s suddenly terrified gaze. “What if they’re here for us?”

What? “Why?”

A memory flooded to the surface, unbidden.

“So… like, you want me to shoot her, guy?” Riverbed ventured.

“Uh.” I paused. Weeks ago, that could have been me. Heck, as far as I knew this exact scenario could have happened to me. Empathy kicked in. “I think we should let her go.”

They looked appalled. “What? What if she gives away our position?” Riverbed objected. “Or even better, what if she grabs reinforcements, guy?”

I’d make sure that didn’t happen. I confidently strode up to number five and yanked her visor open. “What’s your name?”

She stayed silent, regarding me with angry, teary eyes. I didn’t blame her. Three insane maniacs had just destroyed her squad and their commanding officer in under three minutes. Months of psychiatric help wouldn’t even dent what she’d witnessed today.

“Alright, fine. I get it. But I’ve got my own plans, and you just happened to be in completely the wrong place at completely the wrong time.” I sighed. “I don’t expect an apology, but I do expect this: tell the Council what happened here today. Take your commanding officer’s recorder or whatever as proof.”

Tangerine levitated Major’s gauntlet to the pegasus. “The data should still be intact.”

"Oh, shit. They’re here for us.”

“Relax, relax. There isn’t a reason to send the whole military after us, is there?” Gala rapidly blurted. “I mean, it’s not like the Enclave to use such excessive force. Maybe they’re just here about the megaspell? I mean, they might think there’s more.”

Or maybe it was a way to flush me out. Panic, do something stupid, and fly right into a trap. That’s what they wanted, right? “So what, do we ignore it? Hide?

Toasty materialized on my back and snarled into my ear, “The backup finally arrived. You should have killed that bitch when you had the chance! This is why empathy is dumb, assface.”

Damn you, hubris. Now there was an army descending on the Wasteland, and it was probably all my fault. I’d gotten sentimentally cocky and let that mare go with all the evidence she needed to crucify the shit out of me, and she’d brought back all the fire and brimstone in the world.

And just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse today, somepony I hadn’t expected to ever hear from again trotted up behind me and brightened it back up a little.

“Haven’t seen you around for a while, guy! Like, small world, right?”


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Intimidation (Level 3) – There isn’t a problem that can’t be solved with violence. New speech options to certain characters have been unlocked. You gain a damage bonus against NPCs that are terrified of you.
Current Sub-perk: Foal at Heart – Growing up is overrated. You gain additional dialogue options with foals.

Author's Note:

Didja enjoy Rhombus? (Kimbley's silly birb.) Check him out over here!

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