• Published 27th Nov 2011
  • 14,303 Views, 278 Comments

The Dread Chitin - Karazor

Dimension travelling with Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash

  • ...

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Rainbow walked past the tall figure, into the anteroom. He was somewhat imposing that close up; with his bipedal stance, even outside of the suit he was nearly twice her height, and wiry though he was she estimated that he probably weighed half again what she did or more. But he had yet to make a single threatening move, even if she was now a bit worried about his mental state. She checked on Twilight, who was still snoring quietly, and turned to see Duran placing another cushion on the floor and seating himself next to it.

"Sit here, please." His voice sounded different outside the suit. It didn't have the metallic tone she'd heard before, and it was a bit higher pitched. A light baritone, rather than the harsh near-bass she'd heard before. It still had an odd tonelessness to it, though.

"Uh, why?" The biped looked confused, as though he'd never expected the question to arise.

"So I can treat your wound," he answered, and Dash finally realized what had been bothering her about the way he talked. He sounds like a bad actor reading memorized lines. Everything he's said has sounded that way. Why would he sound like that? She slowly walked over to the spot he'd indicated, watching him closely. He opened the case he'd brought in, which proved to be packed with gauze, medical tape, and various other first-aid items. Oh. I guess he was listening to what I asked earlier.

Rainbow seated herself gingerly on the proffered cushion, while Duran tore open a large, sealed packet and extracted what looked to be a damp sponge. It had a slight medicinal smell to it. Reaching forward, he gently pulled her wing away from the long laceration, causing blood to start flowing again with shocking suddenness. He carefully swabbed the wound with the sponge, cleaning it out, and before the blood could start to flow as freely again, he grabbed the cylinder lying next to the open case and sprayed something into the cut.

Rainbow twitched away from the sudden hiss of the spray, only to have the biped grab her gently but firmly, with one hand holding her body in place while the other grabbed her wing, preventing her from pressing it to the wound again.

"Hey! What was that stuff? What are you doing?" Rainbow yelped, starting to struggle.

"Neurotoxin antidote. Keeping you from re-poisoning yourself," came the calm, stilted reply. "Please hold still."


"Yes. Murderpede claws are poisoned. That was the contact antidote, I still need to administer the bloodstream antidote so please hold still and don't try to touch the wound this will sting a bit." Rainbow blinked, that last sentence had come out in a monotone rush, with no pauses. It took her a moment to sort it out.

"Okay, but do it quick. I've lost a lot of blood already, and I seriously need to patch myself up."

"No need, I'll do it. I've patched myself up often enough that I should be able to do it fast." The answer wasn't terribly reassuring, but Rainbow held herself still anyway. Picking up the cylinder from where he'd dropped it to grab her wing, Duran reversed the implement, pressed it to her shoulder away from the wound, and pushed a small button. Rainbow felt a slight sting, nowhere near as bad as she had been bracing herself for. She relaxed a bit, careful to keep her wing elevated so as not to touch the cut and stretching it a bit to relieve the cramp she'd developed.

The biped dug into his first-aid kit again, this time coming out with a roll of gauze, a series of small, flat, butterfly-shaped things that reminded Rainbow of Fluttershy's cutie mark, and a small, sharp-looking blade. The blade worried her, particularly since he seemed to be using it first, but instead of doing anything violent he used it to quickly and carefully shave her cyan fur away from her wound. He was done faster than she'd have believed possible, and he moved on to close the cut. She'd expected him to just bandage over it, but instead he used the little butterfly things. He dexterously peeled some sort of backing off each one, swabbed the blood away from part of the wound with the length of gauze, pressed the edges of the wound together, and stretched the butterfly thing across it, and then moved an inch or so along the cut and repeated the action. Each of the "wings" had some kind of adhesive on it, and the center was elastic, so once placed they held the wound closed. It was kind of interesting to watch, actually, though about halfway through the laceration was starting to really hurt again.

I should probably mention that, she decided. "Hey, I don't know if it's got something to do with what you're doing there, but it's starting to hurt some more."

Duran didn't pause in his actions, only offhandedly remarking, "That's good. Means the nerves weren't dead yet." The casual statement actually didn't have the weird, dead, bad-actor tone to it, making it the first statement of his Dash had heard that sounded like it came from someone alive. She just wished the contents of the reply hadn't been quite so frightening.

"It kills nerves? But that's right over my primary flight muscles!" If those muscles were paralyzed, even partially, she might never fly right again!

"Yes, that's what a neurotoxin does. You'll be fine. It takes a couple of hours for nerves to start to die, and they always start from the outside in." Well, that was a relief. And he'd sounded alive again. Was it because he wasn't paying attention to what he was saying?

Finishing with the butterfly bandages, the biped reached back into the kit. Blood was still seeping slowly out of the slash, though it was a lot slower than it had been. His hand came out with a sealed tube of something. Popping the cap, he started applying the thin, sharp-smelling clear liquid that came out to her injury.

"Um, sorry to repeat myself, but what's that?" Rainbow asked. It didn't hurt, but it smelled kind of weird.

"Wound sealant. Waterproof, lasts about a day." Drat, he sounds dead again. He was doing a pretty good job of patching her up, though. The sealant stopped the bleeding completely. As the biped was replacing the cap on the sealant tube, his gloved left hand started twitching. Rainbow watched as Duran dropped the small tube and glared at his hand in irritation, but it kept twitching spastically, and he finally lowered it to his lap and left it to twitch.

(I was even able to replace my lost arm with an artificial one. I think I messed up when I installed it; it just doesn't seem to work right.)

Ignoring his spasming hand, the biped replaced the container of sealant in the case, and removed another sponge packet. He tore it open using his working hand and his teeth, which gave Rainbow a good look at his tooth structure. Kinda wish I hadn't seen that. Those sure weren't herbivore teeth. It didn't bother her as much as it would have bothered most ponies though; her best friend in school had been an omnivore, after all. Even so, being this close to a strange omnivore, particularly a large and possibly crazy one, did make her a little jumpy. Removing the sponge from its packet, Duran began to carefully clean the clotted blood from Rainbow's shoulder and side.

"Hey, no need to do that." Feels kinda nice, though. "If there's a bath or something around here, I can clean myself up just fine."

"Need to check around the wound. Stuff gets left behind sometimes." What did that mean, left behind? She'd watched him clean and seal the cut, he hadn't put anything in there! Did he mean something left behind by the claw? He cleaned her shoulder and back within a few inches of the wound, dried it with a roll of gauze, and then, to her shock, started running his fingers lightly under her wing.

"Hey!" Dash yelped indignantly, leaping to her feet. "Getting awfully familiar there, buddy!" The areas right under and between a pegasus's wings were really sensitive, and a well-raised pegasus (which Dash would cheerfully admit that she wasn't most of the time, but in this case she did have the attitudes of one) would never let anyone but a really good friend anywhere near those areas.

The biped, however, seemed utterly clueless. He just looked at her with a vaguely baffled air, and repeated, word for word, "Need to check around the wound. Stuff gets left behind sometimes." In the exact same way he'd said it before.

Rainbow, feeling embarrassed and flustered, glared furiously at the biped. Is he messing with me, or could there actually be something dangerous? Her mind flashed back to the fact that the wound was right over her flight muscles. My wings are involved, and I gotta be careful, but… but!

She stared at his face, searching for any signs of a hidden motive. Angry rose-colored eyes locked with blue-green, but she saw nothing but confusion. Rainbow took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "Okay, listen. I know you've probably been on your own here for… for a long time. But you are seriously not my type. You get me?"

He blinked once. "I… if that talon left something behind, and I don't get it out, it's going to hurt. A lot." He rubbed at his side, as if to ease an old ache, and she still couldn't see anything in his eyes but growing confusion.

Rainbow ground her teeth. Aw, man. If he's serious, then I've gotta let him check. This isn't gonna be fun, though. Bad enough that I'm having to depend on someone else for this stuff, without having to add something like this…

"Fine." She gritted out between clenched teeth. "If you have to. You could've at least bought me dinner first, though."

Some of the confusion eased. "Oh! There's some food in the mess hall if you're hungry." She was, she realized, really hungry. But that was so totally not what she'd meant.

Rainbow continued to watch the biped, hoping for a crack in his façade, while she wrestled with her internal dilemma. Letting this weird, crazy omnivore run its hand over her in what was, for a pegasus, a decidedly intimate manner was seriously creepifying. If she didn't, though, and her left wing wound up permanently damaged because of it, that would permanently kill the dream she'd been busting her flank trying to fulfill since fillyhood.

"Fine!" Rainbow snarled again, plopping herself down next to Duran. "Do what you gotta do. But if I find out this is some kind of messed-up prank, you and I are gonna have a conversation where you lose all your teeth, 'cause it's not funny." Her stomach rumbled loudly, and she added as an afterthought, "And you're still gonna owe me dinner."

Duran simply nodded and picked up where he'd left off. Rainbow found herself trying hard to ignore the feeling, which after only a couple of moments proved to be really difficult. She hadn't even been on a date in months, much less had a relationship go that far. Worse, the biped's fingers didn't feel even slightly like a hoof would have; they were weirdly soft and flexible, more like a collection of small tongues, and Rainbow, that line of thought is not helping. With that thought, she cut herself off, feeling her wings stir involuntarily, and cast about frantically for something to distract herself with. Unfortunately, her gaze lit upon the sleeping Twilight, and she found herself really, really hoping the unicorn didn't wake up anytime in the next few minutes. Aw, man, if anypony ever hears about this, the rumors I've got running around about me are gonna be so much worse. Even worse than the worst ones about Fluttershy! Rainbow remembered a conversation she'd run into a couple of years ago back in Ponyville, where she'd overheard a pair of snickering colts saying such horrible things about her shy, nature-loving friend that she'd confronted them over it. She'd actually wound up beating both of them up pretty badly, and gotten in fairly serious trouble for it afterwards. Well, maybe not worse than the worst ones… She stifled a gasp. ooooh, crosswinds, that spot's really sensitive!

Numbers. Maybe that'll help. Nice, sterile, abstract numbers. Let's see, not divisible by two or three; one, five, seven, eleven…

She'd only made it up to one hundred fifty-seven when Duran gasped and scooted backward, barking, "Blood and thunder!" Rainbow started guiltily, thinking that her distractions hadn't worked and she'd experienced the normal pegasus response to… that particular kind of stimulation. She glanced furtively over her shoulder, but her wings were relaxed, showing no hint of stiffness.

Instead, she glared daggers at Duran again, even more ticked off with him now for making her think she'd embarrassed herself. His eyes were wide, and a hint of a flush was creeping up his neck. "Gods of fire, I just now realized what you were saying a moment ago!" Rainbow was startled; there was more animation in his voice and manner than she'd seen before. "I didn't mean to… I'm not… I mean, I'm sure you're a perfectly… oh blast me, I had no intention of, of, I mean…" He was waving his hands vaguely as he continued to stammer incoherently, ignoring the fact that the left one was still twitching like a half-squashed bug, and the slight flush that had started at his neck slowly crept up his cheeks, intensifying as it went. In seconds, his whole face had flushed a bright beet-red. It was pretty funny, actually; she'd never seen a blush on something that had as little hair as he did. When a pony blushed, it was sometimes a little hard to see under the fur, especially if the pony in question had dark- or vibrant-colored fur. It was pretty noticeable on light-furred ponies like Rarity and Fluttershy, but she'd never imagined what it would look like on a bald creature. Well, now she knew, and in spite of the situation, she had to fight back a snicker.

Enjoying the biped's discomfort as a piece of well-deserved revenge, she let him stammer on for a bit before she cut him off. "Woah, woah, woah. You gotta finish your sentences. I got no idea what you're trying to say." Rainbow put as much irritation into her words as she could manage, hoping to get the biped to shut up.

It worked remarkably well. Duran's mouth closed with a snap, and he looked down at his hands, then back to Rainbow and over to Twilight. "I… I'm lucid." He met Rainbow's eyes again, and she realized his expressions weren't actually all that hard to read, he just hadn't had any before now. She saw an almost childlike wonder in his face as he looked back at her. "I'm lucid, and you're still here." He reached out with his ungloved right hand, and Rainbow grimaced slightly and braced herself, but he only touched his fingertips lightly to her cheek before withdrawing his hand and staring at his fingers. "You're real." He looked up again, and she saw tears glittering in his eyes. "You're real." His voice had dropped to a near-whisper.

Rainbow was more than a little surprised at the sudden change in attitude, but decided to try and roll with it as best she could. "Well, duh!" she laughed, masking uneasiness with bravado in a way that came easily to her. "Of course I'm real! I'm way too awesome to be imaginary."

He smiled at her, a little unsteadily, and paused for a moment before saying, "I'm dreadfully sorry, but I cannot seem to recall your name, and I don't know if I've told you mine. Have we introduced ourselves?"

"Um, no." She sobered. "You uh… haven't been real talkative." Rainbow said, shaking her head. She didn't want to tell him she thought she already knew his name, because then she'd need to admit she'd been reading his journal. Dash was still ticked at the biped, but the irritation was getting harder to hold on to with his change of attitude.

"In that case, please allow me to introduce myself, and apologize for my dreadful rudeness. I am Duran Thirk, a male human from the city of Narrowgard."

Rainbow frowned. "That's kind of an odd way to introduce yourself. Is that the way… uh… humans usually do it?"

Duran answered her frown with a wry smile. "No, actually. The truth is that I have no idea whether to address you as 'sir' or 'ma'am,' and I was trying to find a way to ask diplomatically, since I thought lifting up your metaphorical skirt would be an exceedingly rude thing to do, and I suspect I've been rude enough already today."

Dash was starting to feel a bit emotionally whiplashed. In the space of a few seconds, Duran had gone from taciturn and grim to intense and shocked to talkative and cheery. She didn't really have a good grasp on how to deal with him yet, though she found she did prefer his current behavior.

"Uh, okay then. I'm Rainbow Dash, a female pegasus pony from Ponyville. Also a star athlete, and the fastest flier in Equestria!" She finished with a cocky grin, then indicated the slumbering Twilight with a forehoof. "That's Twilight Sparkle over there, she's a female unicorn pony, and she's from Ponyville too. She's a mage, one of the best around."

The tears welled up in Duran's eyes again. "I…" He actually choked a bit, then cleared his throat and continued in a slightly husky voice. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Rainbow Dash." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "You have no idea how long I've wanted to say those words to someone."

"Oh, well, glad you're happy!" Rainbow replied. She was a little uncomfortable with the way the human's mood kept bouncing around the emotional spectrum, and tried to think of a way to change the subject. She had about a million questions she wanted to ask, but one floated to the surface. "Hey, a minute ago when you were, um, checking for… 'stuff?' What exactly were you looking for?"

"Oh, you mean when I realized that I'd actually met someone who could talk back after First-Emperor-knows-how-many years, and that one of the first things I'd done was to basically molest you?" He'd apparently realized that he was making her uncomfortable, and had dialed back some of the emotional intensity he clearly still felt in favor of a light joking tone. He was starting to blush again, though. "You mean I didn't tell you what I was doing? I could have sworn…"

He trailed off, and Rainbow cut in, waving a hoof in his face and hoping he wasn't going to disappear into his half-dream again. "Hey! Focus! No, all you said was 'stuff gets left behind sometimes'" she quoted in her best imitation of his previous lifeless tone, "which wasn't really an explanation! What 'stuff'?"

His brow furrowed a bit. "I really didn't tell you? Huh. Well, there's these little things that seem to live on murderpede talons. Don't know if they're parasites, some kind of larvae, or something else. Sometimes, when they slash you, some of the little things fall off the claw and land in the wound. They burrow under the skin, and just start eating and growing. You need to get rid of 'em pretty quick; if they get big enough, they're really hard to dig out without taking a big chunk of meat with them. Pretty horrible, but par for the course for this place."

Rainbow listened in horror, a knot of queasiness growing in her stomach. "You're kidding, right? Tell me you're kidding! Something like that can't be real!" She said frantically, looking at herself and trying to spot anything moving under her skin.

"I'm afraid they're very real." His hand went to his collar, and unzipped his one-piece jumpsuit to the belly. Pulling the left side open with his still-twitching left hand, he pointed with his right. Rainbow was momentarily taken aback; the human's torso was seamed with a patchwork of dozens of ugly, knotted scars of widely varying shape and size, and it took her a moment to realize that the horrific, ovoid patch he was indicating was all from a single wound. It looked like something had dug a divot out of his left side just below the rib cage, and Rainbow gagged as she involuntarily pictured what that wound would have looked like when it was fresh. She would have vomited, but her stomach was completely empty.

When she regained control of her stomach, she saw Duran looking at her sympathetically. He'd already sealed his garment back up. "Sorry, guess I wasn't thinking. Not a pretty sight, eh?" He paused a moment, then winced. "Oh, right. I hadn't finished checking you for the little hitchhikers." He rubbed at his forehead, momentarily hiding his eyes. "Gads, this is going to be so much more awkward, now. Still needs to be done, though."

Rainbow gave a nod that was heavy with resignation. "Yeah, I really don't want… that… happening to me." She had to close her eyes and fight her gorge back again at the mental image. "I do appreciate the help, but it is kind of creepy."

He nodded as he knelt next to her again. "Agreed. No offense meant, and I'm sure you're a quite attractive pegasus, but you… don't do anything for me." Duran replied, as he began carefully running the fingertips of his right hand along her shoulder.

"Uh, wouldn't you get it done faster if you used both hands?"

He froze for a moment, and then covered his face with his hands. "Oh, my. I have a feeling anything either of us says is going to sound like innuendo in this situation." The human's voice was slightly strained.

Rainbow blinked as she tried to figure out what he meant, and then facehoofed. "Gah. Sorry. Be easier if neither of us talked."

"It is a fair question," the human said, pulling the glove off his spasming left hand. What Rainbow saw was nothing like the right hand; this one was made of gleaming metal and some odd, dull gray substance. "As an answer, this one's made of metal and plastic, and it doesn't have the nerve sensitivity of the real one."

Rainbow had never seen anything like it before. "Oh my gosh, what happened? And what's plastic?"

"Long story that I'll tell you later. And plastic's this stuff." He pointed at the dull gray substance. Pulling the glove back on with some difficulty, he continued, "If there are any parasites, they're going to be really small right now, and the artificial hand won't feel them." He glanced at the now-gloved limb with a grimace. "Sorry, don't really like to look at the fake one."

The human went back to what he'd been doing, silently. Rainbow perversely found it even harder to ignore this time, knowing that both of them were now feeling tremendously awkward. It got a little easier as the examination moved down and away from the double shoulder where her wing attached, but her wings had still stiffened slightly by the time he was through. By the slight flush on his neck, she realized he'd probably figured out what that meant, and her cheeks were burning as she started to get up.

Duran quickly ushered her back down, as he pulled his left sleeve back to reveal more of the metal limb. "Hold on, Miss Dash. I finished checking, but there are two of the little bastards in there. I need to get 'em out before they get big enough to hurt." He quickly pulled a flat, glass-faced object from a flank pocket, extended a wire from it, and plugged it into his arm.

"T- there are?" She frantically craned her neck, looking at her shoulder. She imagined she could feel a crawling sensation under her skin. She shivered in revulsion.

"Yes." He nodded, poking at the glass thing. His left hand stopped twitching, and he detached the wire and put the object back in his pocket. Pulling his sleeve back down, he continued, "Don't worry, at this point, they're tiny; you won't be able to see or feel them." The human spoke reassuringly as he picked up the small blade he'd used to shave her fur earlier, splashing something that smelled like alcohol on it, and retrieved a pair of tweezers from the first-aid case. "Okay. Your interlopers are here and here," he indicated two spots low on her shoulder, "What I'm going to do is just make a small cut and pull 'em out. They're close to the surface, and this knife is really sharp, so it shouldn't hurt much. You ready?"

Rainbow nodded, but the human paused and added, "You're probably going to be better off if you don't watch. I wind up with nightmares for weeks every time I have to do this."

Nodding again and swallowing nervously, she averted her eyes. She felt a quick sting, followed by another, then a quiet crunch from the floor, then the human's voice. "All done."

Blinking, Rainbow looked back again. She saw two small cuts, more like scratches, really, already scabbing over. "Already?"

"Yep. I've had practice." He pushed himself to his feet, and Dash followed suit, though fatigue was starting to make her a little wobbly. On the floor next to where the human had sat, she saw two small, crushed, chitinous things that she didn't look at too hard.

"Let's never mention this again, okay?" Rainbow really didn't want anyone to ever hear this story. Ever.

The human nodded, flushing again. "Agreed. Okay, let me get you and your friend set up with a place to sleep tonight. Like I said, there's some food in the mess hall storage area, but most of it… probably won't appeal to you. There's a place nearby where I can restock, so I'm going to head that way as soon as I get you both settled." He paused a moment. "When you introduced your friend, you said she was a mage, yes? What specialty?"

"Oh, Twilight can do pretty much anything. Her talent is magic." Dash grinned up at the human, happy that he was so quick to change the subject, and for an opportunity to brag a bit on her friend's behalf. "She even designed the spell that wound up dumping us here! Which, you know, sounds kinda bad, but I'm pretty sure she can get us home again."

Duran looked at the slumbering unicorn with new respect. "She's an Omni? An Omni Rift Theorist? Great Emperor, you're lucky, I can see why you were so willing to risk your life to save hers! I'd have traded both arms to have been sent here with a Rift Theorist in tow. You might even be able to get home!" Rainbow thought she heard a tiny bit of envy in his tone, but she couldn't be sure. The human carefully lifted Twilight from her pile of cushions, ignoring her mumbled, sleepy protest, and carried her to the door. "Come on, there are plenty of empty bunkrooms. There's a shower back there, too, so you can get the blood off of yourself."

A shower sounded really nice. The feathers on her left wing were all gummed up, and felt nasty. Not to mention the smell. Rainbow followed the human as he carried Twilight down the hall. After a bit of walking, they came to a long row of identically-spaced, featureless doors.

"How big is this place?" Rainbow wondered out loud. She hadn't really been expecting an answer, but she got one anyway.

"Pretty big. Far as I can tell, they had over a thousand people here. I really wish I knew what happened to them, but most of the logs and personal files are encrypted. Can't get to 'em."

"Encrypted? What's that?"

"You need a password to access them."

That… didn't really help Rainbow's confusion, (A password? Who's here to ask for a password?) but before she could say anything more, Duran stopped and turned to the nearest door.

"Okay, this is the closest empty bunkroom. That one," he tossed his head to indicate the door behind him, "is the one I've been using. I'm going to put your friend in this one here, want to see what they're like?"

"Yeah, sure." She replied, and the human opened the door by pressing a button.

The room wasn't huge, though it had the enormously high ceilings every room in the place sported. There were a pair of beds arranged bunk-style, larger than a standard pony bed, but Rainbow figured it was just because they were made for humans; it looked like they'd be a little on the small side for someone Duran's size, and she had no idea if he was average size for his species or not. There was a pair of doors in the opposite wall, and a desk next to the entrance that had another of those weird empty-picture-frame things on it, and that was pretty much it.

"Fairly basic." Duran commented, setting Twilight carefully on the bed, and pulling a sheet over her as she mumbled in her sleep. "Beds, those doors are closets, desk terminal. Do you want me to show you how to lock the door, or would you rather I show you to the showers?"

"Hold on, what's a 'desk terminal'?"

The human pointed at the picture frame. "That is. It's tied into the central library computer; you get full access to all of the base's unencrypted data files. Pretty neat, there's an amazing amount of stuff in there, though it can be a serious time-sink at times." He flipped a panel in the desk, revealing a collection of buttons similar to the one Dash had seen next to the outside door, these including letters and punctuation marks as well as numbers. The glass lit up as he did so, displaying the words Welcome to the NAIS Hell's Reach Outpost Library Mainframe. "There's the keyboard, and the screen's touch-sensitive." Dash was still confused, but that sounded like something that was way more Twilight's style than hers, so she just shrugged.

"Okay, whatever. Hey, you said there was a shower around here?" She fanned her wings a bit, trying to keep the feathers from sticking together too badly.

"This way." He led the way back out into the hall. As she followed him, he remarked, "I suspect your friend may wake up before too much longer; I could hear her stomach rumbling while I was carrying her. She must be exhausted to sleep so deeply on an empty stomach."

"Yeah, whatever went wrong with that spell drained her pretty bad." Dash replied. "It got me, too; I can't even fly right now." Her head drooped as she made the admission. She hadn't been ground-bound like this since she was a little filly. Well, except for a couple of weeks after that time she'd tried an inverted split-S way too fast and too close to the ground and wound up clipping the top of a tree; she'd barely even been able to walk away from that one.

"Just as well. Flying around here is death if you go too high."

"Death? How?"

"Well, most places I've been in this world have huge numbers of aerial predators. Some of them are the size of small birds and swarm in the thousands, and the size ranges all the way up to ones the size of buildings. All of them will cheerfully eat each other, or anything else in the air from what I've seen. But here, nothing flies." He paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts, and Dash interrupted.

"That's not that big a problem. There's some nasty stuff flying around the Everfree Forest back home, but nothing can catch me!"

The human shook his head. "Well, maybe you'd be okay somewhere else on this planet, then. Not here, though. The people who built this place came here in a starship, and it's still up there. The stardrive's useless, evidently, a fused mass of junk, but the weapons are fine, and they programmed it to watch the area this base is sitting in and destroy anything that flies too high." He looked back over his shoulder at her. "I've seen it several times. One second a creature will be flying, the next it's touched by a line of light brighter than the sun and explodes. It doesn't even leave a body." He stopped for a moment to turn and face her, his face serious. "There's no time to evade. There's no warning. Just death from the sky, instant and violent. Please, once you recover, make sure you're nowhere near this place before you try to fly."

Rainbow reflected for a moment that she should be getting numb to shock by now, but this was still enough to shake her. The prospect of not being able to fly weighed down on her like chains of iron, and she had to blink several times to clear the tears from her eyes.

"This place sucks." She whispered to herself.

"You have no idea." Duran's eyes were pointed at Rainbow, but he wasn't looking at her. They were focused somewhere far in the distance.

"Oh, hey, don't zone out on me again!" Rainbow shoved at the human's leg with a hoof. He blinked a couple of times, before giving her a small smile.

"Sorry, I wasn't really zoning out. Just thinking back some." He turned and continued the way they'd been going.

"How long have you been here, anyway?" Rainbow asked, before realizing that it might be a dangerous question. When am I gonna learn to think before saying stuff?

There was a long pause as they continued down the hallway, past row after row of bunkrooms. Finally, the human answered, a thoughtful tone in his voice. "You know, I'm not even sure anymore. I think the last time I counted it up, it came out to seven years or so, but that was a long time ago. Ten years total, maybe? Fifteen?" He sighed. "Feels like forever, some days."

"Kinda like this hallway." Rainbow blurted.

The human barked a laugh. "Indeed! I don't know why they put the showers and sanitary facilities all the way at the end of the dormitory blocks. But here we are!" He gestured theatrically to a door that looked different from the seemingly endless rows they'd passed already, if only because there was a long stretch of doorless wall beyond it. The door slid aside as he approached, like the doors Rainbow had seen earlier. Inside was a huge room, with racks of lockers close to the door and rows of showerheads over tiled floors farther in. Like much of this place, apparently, it wasn't quite like anything Rainbow had ever seen before.

Duran preceded her into the room, pointing out the towel racks and demonstrating quickly how to turn the water flow on and off, and how to adjust the temperature. He then excused himself, saying he had some things he needed to do before he headed out to gather food, and left Rainbow alone in the shower room.

Rainbow found and used the sanitary facilities first, though she found them amazingly awkward, as they were very clearly designed for someone with a radically different body shape. The showers themselves were much better, though she had to stand on her hind legs in order to reach the controls. She realized just as she started the water that she was still wearing Applejack's hat. Ha ha, I've been wearing that the whole time! She removed it and laid it on one of the benches, making a mental note not to leave it behind when she and Twilight got ready to go home, and returned to the still-running shower. Rainbow was more used to getting clean by flying through clouds, or standing in the rain, but she found the shower soothing. Setting it to medium pressure and a bit above body temperature, she spread her wings out, closed her eyes, and let the heated spray wash over her. The warm water felt wonderful on the bruises she'd gotten in the fight with the bugs, and she could feel it sluicing away the clotted blood in her feathers. As it plastered her multicolored mane to her neck, she had a chance to think about the situation she'd found herself and Twilight in.

Okay, so we're obviously not in Equestria anymore. Duran said he'd been here for years without having anyone to talk to, so he hasn't seen anypony. I should ask him, just to make sure. I should probably ask what a 'starship' is, too. Sounds pretty dangerous, whatever it is; I should have asked earlier, but I was too upset about not being able to fly. Which sucks, yeah, but I'll live, as long as Twilight can get us home. I'm sure she'll be able to; she's not Celestia's star pupil for nothing. She was hit suddenly by a strong wave of homesickness. Oh, Celestia, I want to go home. I want to see Pinkie and Applejack and Fluttershy and Rarity, I want to set up some pranks, I want to go see the next Wonderbolts show. I even want to go plan the weather for the next few weeks. I want to fly again.

But brooding and feeling sorry for herself wasn't accomplishing anything.

Opening her eyes, Rainbow checked her wing. The clotted blood was almost all gone, and her cyan feathers were finally looking clean again. The same for her fur, and the slice on her shoulder looked much less severe after Duran's work. The two smaller cuts the human had made (and she shuddered again, despite the warmth of the water, at the thought of what could have happened if those things hadn't been removed) looked more like scratches. She had a bunch of smaller scratches and abrasions, too; she'd probably gotten them when she'd gotten those bruises, rolling over the sharp rocks and thorns to evade flashing talons and grasping mandibles. They'd heal, no problem; she'd had worse before.

Shutting off the water flow, Rainbow shook some of the water from her mane, tail, and wings, and snagged a towel from the rack. She rubbed herself down quickly, reasoning that damp wasn't all that far from dry, and tossed the towel on a bench, not seeing anything else to do with it at the moment. She paused, seeing the hat still sitting where she'd left it. Ah, why not, she thought, plopping it back on her head. Better keep it with me until I can give it back to A.J.

She decided to try and catch Duran before he left. He'd said he was going to go out to try and gather food for her and Twilight, and she wanted to see if there was anything she could do to help. Fanning her wings to air-dry them, Rainbow trotted out into the hall and retraced her path to the entrance.

The pegasus found the anteroom easily enough, and though it was empty, she noticed that Duran's metal suit was standing in a different spot. There was no further sign of the human, so Rainbow decided to take the opportunity to examine the suit without distraction. Prodding it experimentally with a hoof revealed that it really was as heavy as she'd thought it was; even leaning her entire weight on it didn't make it wobble. She could see a collection of odd pistons and fibrous cables at the joints, and there was a large, boxlike unit that rode behind the wearer's shoulders.

She dragged one of the chairs over next to the suit. Hopping up on the seat, she was able to get high enough to brace her forehooves on the suit's chest plate and peer down into it. There wasn't much to see, just a smooth, padded interior where the wearer rested. She had no idea how the human would be able to move in the heavy metal suit, unless he was a heck of a lot stronger than he looked, and she wondered if there was something special about it.

It did look kind of cool, after all. Rainbow wondered if there was some way she could get into it to see how it worked, but she didn't see a place her wings could fit, and she was a little worried about getting stuck inside it.

She was arguing with herself about whether she should try just jumping in to see if she'd fit when the door opened. Duran staggered through carrying a huge box, made of the same nonreflective metal as the suit and dangling a couple of wires.

"Woah! Let me help you with that!" Rainbow exclaimed, dropping off the chair.

"I got it." The human gasped, as he turned toward the suit and leaned the box against its back. It fit snugly, wrapping around the boxy rear of the suit to contact its shoulders. Rainbow spotted that he was trying to simultaneously hold the box against the suit and move around to the suit's front. She snorted in amusement.

"Sure you do. But I can still help." Rainbow stood under the box, rearing up and supporting its weight with her forehooves. It wasn't actually very heavy; she suspected he was having trouble with its clumsy size and shape more than the weight. It was way lighter than the statue of Celestia she'd managed to catch at the Gala, anyway!

"Thanks," he said, nodding to her as he stepped around to the front of the suit. She heard a couple of clicks. "Okay, you can let go."

Rainbow dropped back to all fours and stepped around to see what Duran was doing. He'd secured a couple of latches that looked like they'd been designed to connect to the metal suit, and was plugging the hanging wires into ports on the suit's back.

"Hey, how does this thing work?" Rainbow asked, peering at the machinery in the suit's joints.

"What, the battle armor, or the cargo unit?"

"This metal suit thing."

"Right, the battle armor." Rainbow found herself mentally comparing the human's suit to the only armor she'd ever seen, that of the Princess's Royal Guards. The Guards' armor was bright-colored, flashy and ornate. It was designed to stand out, to impress and awe, and remind other ponies that the wearer was a personal servant of the Princess and spoke with her authority behind him. The light construction allowed a pegasus to fly, and protected against minor or accidental injury.

This? This was different. She hadn't actually thought of it as armor before, and realized that it said something about its makers. This didn't have flashy colors. It wasn't designed to impress. It hid its wearer, allowing them to move about unnoticed, while the massive plates would provide serious protection if the concealment failed. And battle armor? What kind of monsters did humans have to deal with, that they built this stealthy, brutal armor to battle it?

Oblivious to her sudden thoughtfulness, Duran was answering the question she'd actually asked. "The armor has a lining of sensors on the inner surface. When I move, it detects that movement and mimics it." He pointed to the joints where she'd been looking. "Those pistons are shock absorbers, and those cable bundles are something called 'myomer.' They're kind of like artificial muscles, and they move the suit. The armor plates would be way too heavy for me to do much with without them; I've had the power fail in one of these things before, and I can barely move at all, even with the shock absorbers' help and residual charge in the myomers. The suit weighs close to a ton." He glanced at the window overlooking the badlands. "I need to get moving."

Dash looked too, and saw that the sun was beginning to go down. "Aw. Do you have to go now? I've got, like a million things I wanted to ask you!"

"I really do have to go now, unfortunately. It's a long way to the wrecked greenhouse I'm planning on raiding, and travelling by night is easier than trying it during the day. Most of the really nasty critters sleep at night." He swung himself up and into the armor using the ceiling bar. As he settled himself, Rainbow heard the clicking sounds from the armor's joints that she'd heard when he got out, and the human started an odd series of movements that the pegasus realized after a moment was intended to test all the joints. "I should be back in about a day and a half," he continued speaking as he did so, "and I'd be more than delighted to have a long conversation and answer any questions you ask then." Taking a step and turning to face her, Duran grinned. "Believe me when I say I'm looking forward to it. I've got all kinds of stories I'd love to tell. Not to mention that hearing someone else talk is something I've been craving for years now! Once I get back, you two will have to chase me away to get peace and quiet!" The chest piece and helmet closed, and Duran spent a few moments instructing Dash on how to use the door controls in the metallic bass voice she'd first heard him use before picking up the odd tool he'd been carrying when they met, reattaching the box of brass spike things, and loping out the door, closing it behind him. (He'd explained as he'd detailed the door controls that he'd been leaving it open as a minor convenience, and reassured her that so long as it wasn't locked he'd be able to open it from the outside with no problems.) From the window, she watched the suit change color to blend in with its surroundings as the human loped off, alone, into the badlands.

*Author's note: Oh, god, I know I'm gonna catch hell for this chapter. I borrowed this part of the plot from a first-contact story I'd been working on, where someone doing first aid on an alien winds up kind of... turning the alien on. It freaks out both parties, who think it's kinda gross. That's what happened here; I needed something to shock Duran out of his half-daydream, and wouldn't it shock you to find out that while you were treating that alien, you were basically feeling it up? This is not shipping. There is no physical attraction between these two characters, and they'd both be repulsed by any suggestion that there was. I've seen enough nasty stuff on the internet that I felt compelled to point that out.