• Published 11th Jun 2012
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Fallout Equestria - The Zone - Sweetwater



An ex-slaver named Buckler must survive in a very different part of the Wasteland.

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Chapter 11 - Heroes

Chapter 11 - Heroes

"But I’ve seen and heard about heroes too. Ponies who set out to help others and fight against anything that threatened their fellow pony."

Day 4

The sound of rushing wind greeted me as I woke. I yawned, stretched and turned my head towards the sound, then blinked as I found myself staring up at a window. I laid on a filthy mattress that sat beneath the sill and the sharp angle allowed me a view of the clouds above. The wind blew through the opening in the metal wall, shaking the walls of the shack.

I frowned. This shack seemed very familiar. I had definitely seen the arrangement of furniture before, including the fridge and cabinet against one wall and the bed pushed up against another. Lying on the bed was a slightly-framed earth pony with a charcoal mane that both stood in spikes on her head and flowed down around her shoulder. For a second I thought Burnt Fuzz wasn’t breathing, mostly due to my position on the floor. It was only after she shifted slightly and one of her pink hooves - the colour of raw flesh - poked over the side of the bed that I breathed a sigh of relief.

Pulling myself quickly to my hooves, I found myself forced to lean against the rusting metal wall as my head throbbed. My mind was cast back to the pained daze of last night, when I had been carried under the cloud cover and mixture that tasted vaguely alcoholic had been forced down my throat. As I rubbed my forehead I wondered just how much alcohol had been in it, or if what I remembered was even the limit to what I had been given to drink.

The pain was punishment for my failure. My gaze shifted again to the earth pony on the bed and I felt a pang of regret. Although my exact memory of the circumstances evaded me, we had somehow managed to survive our fight with Choke Hold.

No, I realised, catching myself. It hadn’t been a fight. The word “fight” implies that both parties have an equal chance of winning. Choke Hold had been completely in control of the situation. I had barely kept her from destroying the raider that now laid on the bed and then I had fallen to her myself. Only the intervention of Gravebloom and my rescuers had saved me from certain death.

It pained me, but it was now clear how stupid I had been in thinking that I would be able to reconcile with Choke Hold. The two of us were so vastly different, looking back I wondered what could have made me think that it was ever a good idea to pursue her. Perhaps it was the desperate hope of a pony who had lost everything, including the ability to follow his own destiny.

Ignoring the pain in my head, I wandered over to beside her bed. I considered the sleeping figure of Burnt Fuzz with concern. She didn’t seem to be in any pain, which meant our rescuers had seen to her as well as me. Indeed, she laid on the better bed and I wondered if this was due to the severity of her wounds. She had been thrown with quite a bit of force and her small frame was probably more easily wounded than my own. I hoped that the bomb collar she wore around her neck, the collar I held the trigger to in my bags, hadn’t caused a problem when healing her.

She shifted in her sleep and I was offered a clear view of her hind flank. The little fireball that was her Cutie Mark sat there to show off her special talent. I had the feeling that the meaning of the mark was more subtle than my own. The little shield was quite clear in my supposed talent to protect people. In contrast, I hadn’t a clue what the fire meant. Perhaps she was skilled in making fires, but that seemed like a strange one. Then again, maybe not. She had been a raider after all.

“Are you enjoying the view?”

A playful voice from behind me made me jump. I turned to find an orange earth pony leaning in the doorway. A wry smile sat on her lips as she looked me up and down and pushed her pink mane from her face.

“I like your new friend, Buckler. She’s cute, and the raider look makes her seem exotic.”

“Nimble.” I spoke the pony’s name with relief. I was glad she was one of my saviours. “You’re okay.”

She laughed lightly. “Of course I’m okay. Why would I not be?” I opened my mouth to respond, but the mare continued as I did so. “Oh, that’s right. You ran off while we were being chased and then decided to team up with raiders and nutjobs.” Her voice was still light despite the words, but her gaze was cold and even an idiot could see she was looking for an explanation.

“I was shot during the chase and managed to drag myself to safety. By the time I had recovered you and Soft Step were gone.”

She frowned in obvious concern at my words, but didn’t let up. “That doesn’t explain why you were travelling with those cultists.”

I hung my head. “I thought I could trust them. It was a mistake. I heard that somepony I knew was nearby and I set out to find them as quickly as possible. I let down my guard and almost got myself killed.” Her gaze stayed on me, seemingly expecting something. After a few awkward seconds I finally blurted out. “I’m sorry, I didn’t leave you on purpose.”

She melted instantly and her smile became one of genuine warmth, her green eyes losing the suspicion of before. “It’s okay, Buckler. We’re just glad you’re okay. Gravebloom has done much worse to ponies he doesn’t have a use for than leaving them for dead.”

“You’re lucky you were travelling with that raider.” A new voice sounded and a rust-red unicorn mare with a brown mane walked into view behind Nimble, who stepped into the room to allow her sister to follow her in. Soft Step, like her sister, was a welcome sight and I felt my heart jump slightly at the sight of her.

“You were spotted and reported to Death Toll. That’s how we were able to find you before you became a very dead little pony.”

“Death Toll told you to find me?”

“Not us.” Instead of elaborating, she beckoned to me with a hoof and walked back through the doorway. I shot a questioning glance to Nimble, who only motioned with her head for me to follow. I did so tentatively.

The second I exited the shack I knew why it felt so familiar. I stood in a clearing on the edge of a canyon that stood between the looming walls of the mountains around me. A downhill path sloped off to the south, away from the gaping gate that lead towards the Zone. This was the entrance that Soft Step and I had taken into the Zone and this had been the spot in which I had killed three hostile ponies in my first experience with the ponies of the Zone. It had been only a matter of days before, but somehow it felt so much longer.

The signs of my kills were gone, save for a few faint stains on the ground that a passer-by might think was blood. Instead, standing just off from the entrance to the canyon, I could see a familiar pale yellow earth pony. He wore black barding with red trimmings with a battle saddle that sported twin light machine guns slung across his back. As I approached he shook his head to adjust the thick strands of red mane that fell around his head.

“Haze?” I spoke the pony’s name tentatively as I approached.

“Buckler.” The Loyalist acknowledged my presence with a nod.

“Are you the one that Death Toll sent to find me?” It made sense. The earth pony was among the only ponies in the Zone to have spent time with me.

“I am.” Haze nodded before sighing. “Let’s get this out of the way, Buckler. Are you working for the enemies of Loyalty?”

My eyes widened and my mouth fell open with the abruptness of the accusation.

“Haze!” Nimble exclaimed the second the question left his mouth. “We’ve been through this, Buckler isn’t working for anypony!”

“I need an explanation from him Nimble. I’ve as much reason to believe Step’s story as you do, but that doesn’t explain his actions.”

“What are you talking about, Haze?” I asked cautiously. Clearly something bad must have happened to make this pony, a pony I had saved and worked with, distrust me. Not only that, but judging from his words Soft Step had told him and Nimble about her bringing me to the Zone. There must have been a serious problem if she had told them that, considering how she had wanted to keep it a secret.

The stallion sighed and rubbed his face with one hoof before replying. “Death Toll thinks you’re a spy, Buckler. He sent me to find you and get the truth. After that...” He trailed off. He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

“He thinks I’m a SPY?! That’s insane! I haven’t even been here a week and you’re saying he thinks I’m a spy?”

“He’s not the only one.” Haze said darkly. “It would explain why, after saying you intended to leave the Zone with help from Nimble and Soft Step, you abandoned them and walked first into a Freedom town and then into raider territory accompanied by known hostiles.”

I gaped, shocked by the accusation being made. I threw my head around to look for support from the mares around me. To my dismay I found no support from Nimble, who was looking awkwardly at the floor despite her earlier words. Only Soft Step was staring intently at Haze, anger written across her face.

“Buckler isn’t a spy. He’s just an unlucky pony who I found and captured because I needed him. In any case, his story matches mine, so if you’re calling him a spy then you’re calling me a traitor.” She stepped forward slightly, her tone dangerous. “Are you? Is that what you think?”

“I... I don’t know what I think.” Haze faltered in the face of the mare’s questioning. “I just want to understand.”

I was stunned. The problems my thoughtlessness had caused were piling up even more by the second. Ponies that just days ago were helping me now thought me an enemy. I needed to explain properly, but I wasn’t sure I could even explain it myself. The truth was that I could see how Death Toll would see my actions as suspicious. To appear out of nowhere in his town, only to run straight into a hostile town instead of leaving as I had intended. These weren’t the actions of an honest pony.

“I’m not a spy, Haze. I’m just weak and stupid.” I spoke quietly, my words bitter. Haze frowned but allowed me to continue.

“I don’t know what Soft Step has told you, but I’m just going to repeat what she and Death Toll have already been told. Hopefully you believe me.”

“I come from a family of slavers. For most of my life I’ve travelled the wasteland to find other ponies to sell to the highest bidder. I wasn’t even particularly good at that. I never fit in with the others in the crew, especially after Dad died. I was just the weakling to them, somepony to keep a lookout or do the bitch jobs.”

I paused and took a deep breath. The silence in the clearing was suffocating, every pony concentrating fully on me.

“And then a few days ago everypony died. We were attacked by raiders. They killed everypony. I thought I was the only survivor, so I took what I could and left. That’s when Soft Step caught me and brought me here. That’s when she sold me to those other slavers and I met you.”

“That doesn’t explain what you were doing in a Freedom town, or why the raider is with you.”

I nodded. “Soft Step and Nimble were taking me out of the Zone and we got separated. I had no idea where I was and I ran into an anomaly, one of those big electrical ones. It almost killed me.” Soft Step winced and lifted one hoof and I remembered how she herself had scraped one of those anomalies in our fight shortly after arriving in the Zone.

I continued. “The ponies who rescued me told me about how they had seen a pony that I knew to be dead: one of the members of my slaver crew named Choke Hold. She had been heading towards Dryside so I followed her trail, hoping to find her again. The Freedom ponies there pointed me in the right direction and I found Burnt Fuzz, the raider you found me with, who offered to take me into the raider territory.”

“That’s where you met Gravebloom.” Nimble said quietly. I nodded.

“He said we had a similar destination and I thought I could trust him since he didn’t kill me straight away. Even though Burnt Fuzz warned me against trusting his group, I let him take advantage of me and lead him to Choke Hold and then...”

I felt a lump form in my throat. I closed my eyes and breathed. “She hated me. We had lived in the same family for years and I came to find her so that we could leave together, and she hated me. I should have seen it coming, especially when I showed up with Burnt Fuzz. She attacked us and then she left with Gravebloom. He said that she was becoming part of the Zone and that he wanted her to help him. They left me for dead in raider territory, where you found me.”

I looked up, looking Haze straight in the eye. “That’s my story. That’s why I did what I did. Not because I’m a spy, but because I’m a naive fool who should have been killed so many times by now, because I’m not good enough to be alive when better ponies than me have died around me. If you don’t want to believe then find. Just kill me, or take me to Death Toll or whatever it is you do to traitors. I’m done.”

With that I turned and walked away from the three ponies. Suddenly very, very tired, I was vaguely aware of an awake Burnt Fuzz standing in the doorway to the shack as I approached it. She moved to let me walk past and I could feel her watching me as I walked back to the bed under the window and slumped onto it, throwing dust up everywhere as I did so. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about everything I had just told Haze.

*** *** ***

“I believe you, Buckler.” Haze’s voice cut through the silence.

“Thank you.” I replied quietly, keeping my eyes shut. I didn’t know how long I’d been lying here, but I guess that the three Zone ponies had been talking more about the situation outside. “So what are you going to do with me?”

“Nothing. After all you’ve been through these past few days I think you deserve to choose your own path for once. I’m going to head back to Barn with Nimble and report to Death Toll. I think he’ll accept my word if I say that I believe you.”

I pulled myself up and opened my eyes. Nimble and Haze were standing side-by-side before me and Soft Step stood in the doorway of the shack. Burnt Fuzz was nowhere to be seen. I was glad she was healed and up and about but I was worried about what the unstable pony was up to and made a mental note to check on her as soon as possible.

Thinking about the raider reminded me of something and I looked back to Haze. “I never thanked you for healing me up. That must have been expensive, thank you.”

Haze waved my thanks away with a hoof. “I didn’t really heal you. I cured you, you didn’t need much healing. Your artifact managed to repair you by itself. You would have died from the radiation poisoning, not the damage you’d taken - when we reached you you were approaching a lethal dose. We had to remove the artifact from you and pump you full of this.” He reached around to his saddlebags and showed me a clear glass bottle full of a clear liquid with an orange tint. I read the label and frowned.

“Vodka?”

Haze nodded sagely and took a swig from the bottle. “Diluted with Rad-Away. For some reason, if you mix one part Maremont vodka with one part Rad-Away it greatly increases the purging power of the stuff. It’s some sort of chemical reaction, and it means that you can get far more out of a single dose of Rad-Away.”

“Haze likes to mix his drinks.” Nimble explained cheerfully. “When he was little he snuck into his parent’s liquor and started trying everything.” She smirked and nudged the blushing pony. “Eventually he got his Cutie Mark when he started finding mixes that actually did things other than just get you drunk.”

“Most of them still do that though.” Soft Step intoned, clearly not approving as Haze took another drink.

Haze merely smiled. “Vodka also works wonders for keeping your cool in a tight situation. It’s invaluable in the Zone.”

I wondered just how much vodka he had given to me to remove all the radiation in my body.

“What about Burnt Fuzz?”

“The raider?”

“Yes. she looks healthy as well, so I owe you thanks for that as well.”

“You can thank Soft Step. I was happy to leave her, but she said that if you were with her we should probably bring her as well. I wasn't so sure, but helping ponies is what I do so I used the last of my healing supplies to make sure she was okay. I also took her weapon, just to be safe.”

I turned and thanked Soft Step, followed by Haze again.

“I don’t know the full story but she’s definitely no friend of the raiders we found. I’m not sure what she’ll do now but I’m glad that you were able to save her. After all, it’s my fault she was in that state.”

Yet another life that I had failed to protect, saved by these three ponies. “I’m not sure what she’s going to do now. I doubt she’ll want to come with me out there.” I waved a hoof in the general direction of the wasteland to the south. “I don’t think she has a home anywhere, and it doesn’t feel right just letting her go off on her own.”

Soft Step shrugged. “She can come with me if she likes. As long as she promises not to cause trouble and does as she’s told. I wouldn’t mind a companion.”

I frowned. “Aren’t you going with Nimble and Haze?”

She shook her head. “They’ve got Loyalty business in Barn and I have more leads to follow.”

“Leads?”

“That’s right. I’ve got more to learn from that information we found, little pony. I have a mission and I’m going to see it through.”

Nimble shook her head and sighed. “I really wish you’d just come with us. Death Toll still wants you to join up, and I’d feel better if you were with us.”

“I know what Death Toll wants, and if you remember it was these two who had to come rescue you after he sent you off to scout on your own.”

Nimble winced and lifted her leg slightly, the one that had been injured when I first met her. Her eyes fell to the ground and she spoke curtly. “That was a mistake. They came to rescue me at Death Toll’s request.”

Soft Step snorted. “Yeah well, I’d rather have that raider girl with me than have Death Toll interfering in my business constantly.”

Nimble shook her head again and glared at her sister. “Wanting everypony to work together isn’t interfering, Soft Step.” Her tone was stern and insistent.

“Maybe you two should stop.” Haze interjected calmly. “Nopony wants an argument here.”

Nimble stiffened for a second before relaxing. “You’re right. It’s time we left anyway.” With that she turned to me and her smile returned. “I guess it’s time for another goodbye, Buckler.”

“Maybe it’ll actually be true this time.” I joked.

She nodded thoughtfully before placing a hoof on my shoulder caringly. “I know you’ve been through alot, but I think life can only get better for you. You’ve got nothing to hold you back now. Just decide what it is you want from now on and go for it. You may feel alone in the wasteland, but I believe in you. You’re not as useless as you think you are. You just have to decide what you want.”

With that she turned and walked past her sister out of the shack. I stood to follow as Haze exited after her, Soft Step moving to allow me to stand in the doorway. The mare had already reached halfway across the clearing and was standing before the valley that lead from the world in which I was born to the world she lived in. She turned one last time before walking into the valley, waving and shouting “Good luck.” to me.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Burnt Fuzz watching as she and Haze left, clearly on edge. As soon as the two ponies were out of eyeshot she approached me.

“So what are we doing now?” She asked. “You got killing raiders out of your system or do you want to go look for more trouble?” She snickered but suddenly stopped and winced.

“Careful, don’t hurt yourself.” I warned and she shot me an angry glare.

“I’m fine.” Suddenly her features softened and she looked sheepish. “But thanks for trying to help me back there, and thanks for telling your friends to help me. I didn’t want to die.”

I was taken aback. It was my fault she had been in that state and yet she was thanking me. “It was nothing. I don’t want anypony dying because of me.” My voice dropped as I continued. “Thank you for standing up to Choke Hold for me. You didn’t need to do that. It’s the second time you’ve put your life on the line to save me.”

The pony snorted. “I couldn’t just stand by and watch her talk to you like shit after what you said. Didn’t expect her to lose it like that though. Anyway, we could’ve taken her if those bastard cultists hadn’t just stood by and let her beat the two of us.” She spat. “I’ll stick a pole up their ass and spit-roast them over a fire next time I see any of them.”

I chuckled darkly. “Well hopefully next time you’ll have somepony more useful than me around to help. I owe you a lot for everything you’ve done.”

Burnt Fuzz gave me a strange look and opened her mouth as if to say something, but shut it again slowly, apparently changing her mind. Suddenly she spoke again and the look vanished from her face. “So where are we going now?”

“We aren’t going anywhere.” I replied. “You’re free to go now.” My horn glowed and I levitated a screwdriver and bobby pin from my saddlebags. I casually slipped them into the lock on the collar around Burnt Fuzz’s neck and opened the lock. With a soft click the collar snapped open, falling from the raider’s neck to the ground.

“I’m heading back to the wasteland I know.” I continued. “If you want to come with me then you’re welcome, but know that I won’t be coming back to the Zone. If you want to stay in your home then Soft Step will take you with her for as long as you want to stay with her and help her with her mission.” I nodded towards the unicorn that stood watching us.

The small pony shrugged. “Okay I guess.” She turned to Soft Step. “Hey Softy, is your job gonna be any fun?”

“Fun?” Soft Step raised an eyebrow and smirked a little. “Fun how?”

“You know, explosions, hunting, killing assholes. That sort of stuff.” Again came the laugh that accompanied such statements from Burnt Fuzz.

Soft Step cocked her head a little and nodded slowly. “There’s a high chance of that sort of thing happening, yes.”

“Cool.” Burnt Fuzz smiled and nodded sagely before turning back to me. “Are you sure you’re not coming?” I could have sworn that a look of concern flashed across the raider’s face briefly.

I shook my head. “I can’t. I can’t stay in a place like this and I can’t keep putting ponies in danger with my inexperience.”

Burnt Fuzz sighed and frowned a little. “Well okay I guess. Don’t get yourself killed out there.”

“Don’t worry.” I smiled. “At least out there I know where I am.”

The raider nodded and backed up a little as Soft Step suddenly approached me.

“You know.” She said. “If you’re going to go out on your own, you might want to take this off.”

I heard a click and felt the weight of my own collar around my neck lighten. A glowing key floated past my face and slipped into Soft Step’s saddlebags.

“I thought you didn’t have the key?” I asked curiously.

Soft Step smiled and shook her head. “I said I didn’t have the detonator. I hid the key in a safe place, little pony - the stash where I hid the guns from the ponies we killed when we arrived.” She floated out her S.D.A, the little screen wrapped in her gold magic and showing a map with a small orange dot indicating the location of said stash.

I groaned inwardly as I suddenly remembered how useless the technology wrapped around my own leg had become. In the space of a few days it had been reduced from an invaluable tool to something barely more useful than Soft Step’s own equipment. At least it still had it’s uses though, it wasn’t as if it were just a dead weight.

“I was planning to release you on our first trip out, but that journey was interrupted before we could arrive.” Soft Step interrupted my thoughts with her words.

I nudged the collar lying on the floor tentatively. “Thank you. It’ll be easier going now without that thing wrapped around my neck.” I had planned to remove it first chance I got, perhaps even trying to pick the lock blind myself, but Soft Steps gesture was well received.

“Well that’s it then.” I said quietly. “Now that everything’s taken care of, I’ll be off.” I smiled at both ponies. “Thank you for all of your help. Good luck.”

“You too, Buckler.” Soft Step replied evenly. “Just make sure that this is what you really want to do.”

“It is.” I nodded and turned to start down the path away from the clearing.

Behind me I could feel both ponies watching me as I left. They were my final goodbye to the hell of the last few days, to the madness of the things that belonged to the Zone. As I descended down the path away from the two of them, and the entrance to the place they lived in, I could almost feel the world around me changing, becoming more normal.

A wave of nausea hit me suddenly and I stopped and shook my head, closing my eyes and rubbing my forehead to clear it. When I opened them the world seemed different somehow. I couldn’t quite explain it, but something just felt different, almost wrong.

Soft Step’s last words still echoed in my head and I suddenly found myself wondering if this was really what I wanted.

“Of course it is.” I scolded myself.

“I don’t belong there, I belong here, where I was born.”

With that I started walking again, down the path and away from the Zone.

*** *** ***

“Don’t take another step.”

The sandy-coloured earth pony leveled her rifle casually at me as I tried to look as innocent as possible. I had returned to the train station that Soft Step had captured me at, returning down a path that I knew. I found that in the few days since I had last been here it had been taken over by a group of ponies, traders presumably, who appeared to be using it as a temporary base. They had even erected rough barricades, behind which their guard was now eyeing me suspiciously.

“What do you want?”

“I was going to spend the night here.” I replied honestly, indicating the darkening sky. “It’s not safe to wander the wastes at night and I thought this place was empty.”

“Nope.” Came the simple reply. “It’s ours now.”

“Could you spare the room? I could pay.”

The guard pony scratched her head and I could hear whispering from behind the barricade before she spoke again.

“How come you’re on your own? You don’t find ponies walking alone this far north after all those rumours of raider attacks. It ain’t safe.”

“Raiders attacked my caravan.” No need to let these ponies know I was a slaver when they were already suspicious of me. “I’m the only survivor.”

The whispers started again and the guard turned her head slightly to listen. I watched her calmly, until suddenly a bright flash of white light made me start. I turned my head in the direction it had come from, only for my head to start to swim at the sudden movement and for my vision to blur suddenly, sending the scene before me into violent distortion. I shook my head and clutched a hoof to my forehead again.

I was tired, I knew. I had been walking without much rest since leaving Soft Step and Burnt Fuzz and I doubted I was fully recovered from my ordeal of the past few days. My legs were heavy and my eyes had been playing tricks on me for most of my journey, as well as dull constant throbbing in my head that wasn’t painful but still irritated me with it’s presence. Spells like the one I had just experienced had become commonplace as well.

As I recovered I became aware of the sound of words coming from the guard’s direction, although I didn’t quite catch what they said they were clearly directed at me. I took a deep breath to clear my head and concentrated on her again, just as she finished speaking.

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” I asked wearily.

She frowned. “Are you alright?”

I waved a hoof at her. “I’m fine, just a little tired.”

“Right...” She said, not sounding convinced. “Well the others said there’s no reason not to let you stay the night, but you’re sleeping on the far end of the platform away from anypony else. And you’ve got to pay.”

“Of course.” I nodded, happy they had even let me in. “How much?”

I balked as she told me. “Couldn’t you lower it just a little.”

She scowled. “Listen buddy, you’re lucky we’re even letting a lone pony like you stay with us. Don’t push your luck.”

I apologised and handed over the sum of money, the price of spending the night almost completely draining me of my caps.

“Thanks.” The guard said as she motioned to an unseen pony to move a barricade. “Come on in, but don’t try anything funny.”

I slipped through the gap that had been created for me and followed the guard pony as she guided me towards the end of the station platform. They had been decent enough to provide me with a blanket on which to sleep for the night and I happily slumped onto it.

“Thank you.”

“No problem. Just don’t cause any trouble.” With that she turned and walked off back to her post, leaving me to sit there and look about.

The empty station of a few days ago now held about a score of ponies sitting in groups around the station. It seemed that my assumption that they were traders had been correct - several carts stood just inside the barricades, bound with a tarp that hid their contents. Everypony was ignoring me, content to let me go about my business now that I had paid for entry. I briefly considered asking around for a chance to buy, but quickly realised that my meagre supply of caps wouldn’t buy me much, and that I wasn’t keen to sell what I had left.

Instead I settled down on my blanket and prepared to sleep. Despite the dark of night having only just started to arrive, my body felt so tired that I wanted to sleep as soon as possible. If I got a decent sleep then I could continue to recover and hopefully set out earlier in the morning. I yawned, my subconscious agreeing with my intent to sleep, and closed my eyes, letting sleep take me.

*** *** ***

My eyes flickered open and I rubbed them as they grew accustomed to the darkness around me. Judging from the light and the goings on around me I’d only been asleep a couple of hours. Despite this I already had started to feel the benefits, my limbs felt lighter and I didn’t feel as bad as I had earlier.

The traders had set up three small fire pits, around which many were now clustered. They were talking and eating by the flickering light and my stomach growled as I watched them. It had been a while since I’d last ate - I managed a small scavenged meal on my journey south but otherwise hadn’t eaten much.

I pulled myself to my hooves and wandered over to the group. As I walked I rubbed my eyes again, trying to clear the haze of sleep from my eyes. I wasn’t sure if it was the light or just me, but the fires seemed strangely dull as they flickered in their pits. I vaguely wondered if my last few caps would buy me food, or if the traders would let me use the fire for cooking.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. As I neared the circle of light a mare turned and smiled brightly at me.

“Hi there! Care for a bite?”

I was slightly taken aback as the mare shoved a kebab holding a non-descript meat in my face. She seemed young, although not quite a child, and continued to smile as she waited for my response.

“Thanks.” I mumbled in surprise as I took the stick in my magic and tore a piece of meat. “I didn’t expect free food.”

“Well you paid for board and you’re not making any fuss, so I reckon there’s no harm in giving you a little something.”

I nodded thankfully and looked around the ponies gathered around the fire. They all seemed engrossed in their own business, although occasionally I spotted one stealing a glance at me. It reminded me of how the ponies at Barn had behaved when Haze had brought me there. My stomach rumbled again at the memory of the sausage I had eaten at the bar there. None of the ponies around the fire seemed interested in talking to the strange pony who had paid to stay with them for the night so I started to stare into the fire instead, chewing on my meal as I did so.

“Hey, are you okay.” The mare’s voice pierced the night next to me as I continued to stare.

“Yeah I’m fine.” I replied, trying not to raise any concern.

“Oh, okay.” She said, not sounding convinced. “Where are you from?”

My mind raced for a second. I still didn’t want them knowing my previous occupation, but I didn't trust myself to lie. I settled with a misleading truth. “I’m coming from up north.”

“The north?” She echoed. “Didn’t know there was much up there, apart from...” She trailed off before exclaiming “Are you coming from the Zone?”

I winced and nodded. “Yeah.”

“I knew it!” She hissed excitedly. “I knew you were acting weird. Everypony knows Zone ponies ain’t comfortable outside.”

“What do you mean ‘weird’” I asked, slightly worried. I hadn’t thought my behaviour had been strange, but if this pony had noticed then I might have cause to worry. Especially if I was behaving in a way that suggested that I was from the Zone, despite having only been there for a couple of days.

“You know, just weird. When you were talking to me it was like you were looking through me instead of at me, plus you keep on clutching your head like you have a headache.”

As she said this I realised that throughout the conversation my hoof had indeed drifted to my head and I put it back down, blushing. Had I really been doing those things? I didn’t think I was, I was definitely looking at the ponies I was speaking to.

“So.” She continued. “Why’s a Zone pony coming this far south? Scavenging? I remember somepony saying they’re getting low on resources up there.”

“Nothing like that. I just needed to leave.”

“Oh? Ain’t never heard of a Zone pony ever wanting to leave that badly before.”

I sighed and looked around again. The ponies around the fire were giving the mare and I an occasional strange look as we spoke quietly, but they seemed uninterested in our general conversation. The mare herself was busying herself with maintaining the fire and digging through a pack that sat next to her as she spoke.

“Yeah well, I’m not a normal Zone pony. Look, I don’t want anypony thinking I’m trouble. I just want to go south.”

“Don’t worry.” She said cheerfully. “I ain’t judging you. Just, err...” She paused. “Just try to not look so weird. Some ponies don’t like it when you look through them like that.”

I nodded. “I’ll try.” I didn’t know how, I wasn’t even aware I was doing it, but I made a conscious effort to look at the pony as she spoke next.

“So how come you’re all alone? Ponies don’t tend to go about alone, especially not up there, from what I’ve heard. Having somepony around to watch your back is important.” She paused before continuing. “Being alone is kinda weird as well.”

“Maybe you’re right.” I replied hollowly as I continued to stare into the flames. “But it’s not my choice. Almost everypony I know is dead, and I left behind the rest to come south for something more normal.”

“Sounds a bit stupid if you ask me.” The mare replied frankly.

“Why’s that?”

“Well if everypony you know is either dead or in the Zone, leaving them behind seems like an easy way to end up alone and dead.”

I groaned. She was right, and I’d been thinking much of the same for a while, even if I didn’t want to admit it.

“I just don’t belong there. It’s not a place for me and I’ll just end up getting ponies killed.”

“I think you belong wherever there’s ponies you know and can count on. When you work together you can keep each other safe.”

I sighed and turned away from the fire. “Maybe you’re right. I need to do some thinking.” I turned to look at the mare, who was still organising her own things. “Thank you.”

She smiled at me. “You’re welcome. Did you enjoy it?”

I paused, confused. What was she talking about? “What?”

“The kebab. Did you like it?” Her rapid complete change of topic had taken me completely by surprise. It’s was if she had just forgotten the conversation

“Yeah, thanks. I’ll just be going back now.”

I shuffled off, glancing back at the mare as she watched me go. I returned to my blanket and laid down, thoroughly unsure of what had just taken place. It had seemed like a conversation at the time, but now that I had returned to my bunk I realised that some things were very strange about it. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen the mare herself talking at all, I had been instead staring into the fire. A chill ran down my spine and I pushed an unwelcome thought to the back of my mind.

Rolling over, I looked at the cutie mark on my flank. I considered the little shield and remembered what the words the mare had said. She was right, a good way to keep ponies safe was to stay together. Safety in numbers. Was leaving behind the only ponies I knew any more really a good idea?

The darkness drew in around me as the sounds of the ponies around the fire started to fade. I could feel the claws of sleep trying to pull me back, my body eager to continue to recuperate now that it had been fed, and I started to give in, relaxing and closing my eyes.

*** *** ***

The sky above me roiled as I stood alone in the train station. I couldn’t recall standing having stood up, but somehow I now stood alone on the platform, the traders who had camped here completely gone. The air around me crackled with energy and I shivered in the darkness as lights sparked around me, before disappearing into a barely visible distortion.

A howl sounded from the darkness around me and I took an involuntary step backwards as dark shapes suddenly raced into view, circling me at such speeds that they blurred with the night. Low growls and howls shot through the darkness as the shapes settled, only for more to appear just on the edge of my vision. Dozens of silhouettes of settled around me and I squinted to make out their forms.

One of the creatures in front of me stepped forwards, sounding a vicious snarl as it kept its head and body low. It was a dog, a feral animal that I had seen plenty of in the past few days, but never with this much ferocity and in this many numbers. Standing alone before the horde I felt terrified. My first urge was to run, but the dogs surrounded me on all sides. I drew my pistol and held it cautiously, sweeping across the crowd in front of me while simultaneously glancing back to check on the dogs behind me. The creature that had approached started to circle, keeping low as if it were about to pounce. I followed its movement with the gun, ready for an attack.

Suddenly it tensed and launched itself at me, jaws wide and ready to grab my throat. I fired twice and the body of the dog went tumbling to the floor. As if a spell had suddenly broken, more dogs began to stalk forward. My horn glowed and a silver shield flashed into existence around me. The dogs jumped and collided with the barrier before collapsing to the floor. My horn flashed again as more approached and my shield exploded outwards, smashing into the approaching dogs and sending them flying.

I winced as the feedback of exerting my magic shot through my horn and my shield flickered and died. I scrambled to re-cast the spell as the dogs around me began to pick themselves up and limp forwards, while the dogs on the edge of my vision started towards me to fill the space of those that had fallen.

The shield reappeared around me, smaller this time but still stable. The dogs began to bang against it, trying to smash through the magical barricade with sheer numbers. Each collision threatened to break the shield, but I was prepared and managed to just about keep it maintained.

Suddenly a new, louder howl sounded through the night. This was louder than all those before it, loud and clear despite the sounds of the dogs trying to get to me. It was a raw, wild cry that was very different to those of the dogs. It was a sound I heard many times in my few days in the Zone - the sound of a Timberwolf.

I couldn’t see the creature, but the howl had an instant effect on the dogs. They suddenly stopped attacking and backed away from my shield, even as it threatened to break from their efforts. A bead of sweat dripped from my head and my breathing was ragged as I looked around at the restrained animals. They were all eyeing me with the same animosity in their gaze as before, but there was now fear there as well.

Somehow curious, I walked confidently towards the source of the howl, the crowd of dogs backing off to let me pass as I did so. The sound had come from the North, and as I reached the edge of the barricades around the station and looked out I gasped.

The landscape before me was lit by a multi-coloured glow that filled the sky. Lights of every colour, from reds to greens to deep purple, filled the sky, spreading out from the ominous shape of the mountains of the Rim to the north. This type of light was called a rainbow, I recalled. It was as if the Zone itself was painting the world around it, and it was beautiful. I could only think of how wonderful it must look at the center, at the source of the glow.

A single form sat in the vast expanse between myself and the mountains. Despite the light the form was still dark, with a single set of striking green eyes looking out towards me. The timberwolf shook itself, and the wooden, branch-like spikes that covered its body flared before settling down agian. The creature stood and opened its mouth, probably to howl again, and I braced for the sound.

What I heard instead was a surprise. A scream of pain sounded from the maw of the beast and I shivered. It closed its mouth and the scream stopped, but the dogs around me suddenly opened theirs and I heard shouting.

“Help her!”

“What the fuck is this?!”

“Someone get him up!”

I backed up, looking around wildly in panic as the dogs continued to shout. Suddenly something struck my face and I fell backwards in shock as a new white light filled my eyes.

*** *** ***

Dark shapes filled my vision and I scrambled backwards, pulling myself to my feet from the blanket as I did so. As my vision settled the shapes focused and became the face of angry ponies looking at me.

The traders were carrying various weapons and behind them I could see more, clustering around a huddled shape on the floor.

“What happened?” I asked, panicked.

“You tell us. You’re the one who did it.” Spat back the guard that had admitted me yesterday.

“What?” I struggled to understand and looked around them at the group on the floor.

Lying on the floor was the mare that had given me the kebab yesterday, her face and side bruised as if struck by a heavy force. She seemed unconscious but still alive.

“You were making weird noises in your sleep and crying out so she went to check on you. Next thing we know there was a silver flash and she went sprawling across the floor.” The guard leveled her gun at me. “What did you do?”

“I don’t know.” I protested. “I was asleep, I must have done it in my sleep.”

“Maybe you did.” She shrugged. “But all I know is you’ve attacked a pony in my caravan and you’re dangerous. You’ve got five seconds to say something to stop me shooting you right here. Five.”

I had nothing. She wasn’t going to believe that I hadn’t done it on purpose, and I didn’t even know exactly what had happened. I started to step backwards as she aimed at me down her sights.

“Four.”

I still had my guns, I thought. If I started shooting could I get out safely? It looked like the guard pony was the only one with a weapon readied.

“Three.”

I didn’t want to shoot the ponies who had given me a place to sleep and some food, but this pony seemed set on my life. I felt sick with regret at what had happened to the unconscious mare already. My vivid dream had fucked with my mind and made me subconsciously summon and use the shields that I had used in the dream. What had been dogs in the dream was that poor mare in reality.

“Two.”

It was too late for regret now though. I had to act, I had to survive. My horn glowed and my magic wrapped my pistol in a silver glow.

“O-”

BANG

The final number was cut out as I whipped my gun around and fired once, hitting the guardspony in the side and sending her sprawling, dropping her gun and clutching at the bleeding wound. The traders were shouting and scrambling for their own weapons, but I was already off.

Running for the exit, I brought up a shield and shoved aside one of the barricades as I ran through it. I heard gunshots from behind me and brought up a shield behind me as I ran. Seconds later a salvo of bullets shot into it and the shield fell, broken from saving me.

I ran north through the darkness, taking no mind to what was around me and determined to keep going.

Nimble’s final words of goodbye echoed in my mind.

You just have to decide what you want.

I knew what I wanted now. I didn’t want to go south any more. The wasteland wasn’t a home for me any more and I couldn’t believe it had taken this long for me to realise it. Everypony I knew was in the Zone now and staying there was the best course of action. For a pony with no home, home is a place that feels familiar. Despite the strangeness of the Zone, its ponies were more familiar to me than anypony in the wasteland, even after a few days.

I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I was sure where I wanted to go. The absurdity of that idea almost made me laugh, but I was too busy sucking down the breath required to keep running to laugh. Even if I didn’t know where she was, I was going to to find Soft Step and help her. This was my goal now, to help the ponies who had saved me - to pay them back and make myself a better pony through them. I would protect others as part of a group and maybe find a place for myself again.

I smiled madly and ran, my exhilaration from my realisation and my near-death experiences both in reality and in a dream fueling me. Ahead of me the mountains of the Rim loomed closer and closer, until finally the path up to the entrance to the Zone was visible in the dark.

*** *** ***

Firelight and soft, playful music from a stringed instrument greeted me as I reached the end of the path. I squinted in the sudden light and moved towards it, looking for the owner of the fire.

As I neared, I could see two forms in the flickering light. Soft Step lay on her back, eyes closed and with her S.D.A. lying beside her, the source of the music I could hear. Burnt Fuzz was staring at the fire, squatting on her hind legs with her front hooves crossed in front of her, almost brushing the floor. Despite her strange position she showed no signs of instability, and was sitting like a statue, staring transfixed at the fire, the flickering orange light throwing odd shadows over her face.

I cleared my throat as I approached the pair and Soft Step spoke without looking at me.

“Welcome back, little pony. You took less time than I expected.”

She had expected this? “Were you going to wait here until I came back?”

“Of course. The Zone touches everypony who stays in it for long. It embraces them until they can’t stand to be away from it.”

“I don’t think I’m that bad yet. I came back because I realised that you guys are all I have now.”

“Are you going to propose to us next? It’s only been a couple days.” Burnt Fuzz suddenly chimed in, her voice laced with sarcasm.

Soft Step chuckled. “We’ll see, little pony.” She raised a hoof, her eyes still closed, and pointed at the raider by the fire. “I like this mare by the way. I think we’ll get along well.”

“As long as you don’t piss me off.” Burnt Fuzz replied, her voice sweet with a sharp edge.

“You too.” Soft Step said simply. She gestured to an area of clear ground by the fire. “You should get some sleep, now that you’re here we’re setting out first thing tomorrow.”

I shook my head in amusement. It had taken me ages to come to the realisation I had and Soft Step had just been waiting here, always expecting me to come back, and now she was just casually telling me when our next moves were, knowing already that I was going to help her.

“So what exactly are we trying to do now?” I asked, moving around and settling down by the fire.

“That’s easy, Buckler. We’re going to the center of the Zone.”

“The center? Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Of course. It’s the most dangerous place in the Zone to try and get to. But that’s our mission, to find a safe way through. Because the ponies who have got close say that the center has more treasures than anypony could imagine. They even say that at the center is something the Ministries were working on before the end, something that Gravebloom desperately wants, along with many other ponies.”

“So you want to stop him getting it?”

“That’s right.”

“But what is it?”

“Nopony knows exactly. Only three ponies have ever seen it. Only three have ever made it to the center and back alive and they won’t say exactly what it is, or tell anypony how to get there.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re scared of what it is.”

Soft Step paused and turned over, opening her eyes to look at me. Up until now I had wondered if she was being serious, but one look into her eyes told me that she was deadly serious. Across the fire I could see Burnt Fuzz out of the corner of my eye, staring at the two of us with an expression that suggested that she believed this fully as well.

“They say that at the center of the Zone is a wish granter. An object that will grant any wish that you ask of it, no matter what.” She turned back over to look back at the sky. “That’s why Gravebloom can’t get to it.”


New Quest Perk: Touched by the Zone (Rank 1) - Your time in the Zone has changed you in many ways and you've grown part of it. Animals in the Zone are now less aggressive to you and anomalies are easier to detect, but outside the Zone all SPECIAL values are reduced by 1 and initial NPC dispositions are reduced.


This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html

Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

More thanks to my pre-readers and editors.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged (They're good.)

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.

Comments ( 2 )

No matter if it's in Ukraine or in Equestria, the Zone is like Hotel California: you can check in, but leaving is a no-no.

Now for the errata: you called Choke Hold "Choke Chain" twice.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Quite glad I gave this a shot, glad its not bad.

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