• Published 25th Jun 2012
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Fallout Equestria x Wild Arms: Trigger to Tomorrow - thatguyvex



A young tribal pony tries to keep his moral center and ensure the survival of his friends while facing the many dangers of the Detrot Wasteland and beyond.

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Chapter 12: From Anxiety to Impatience

I’d been distracting myself by trying to guess the use of the medical tools I saw scattered around the medlab. Perhaps that thing with the long tube connected to tiny plastic and metal disc was for checking temperatures? Ugh, that’d be uncomfortable. Hm, and what could that machine with the paddles be for? Giving soothing massages? Then there was big metal cylinder with the rubber mask. Could it be for-

Dead eyes, the deep crimson of fresh blood.

-…okay, time to find a new distraction.

I knew Misty Glasses had told me to get some more rest, but apparently laying in bed wasn’t going to cut it where my nerves were concerned. I needed some physical exertion, the opinion of medically knowledgeable spider ponies notwithstanding. I threw off the blankets, and though my muscles made little creaking protests at my movement, I rolled out of the bed and stretched all four limbs, hooves clicking hollowly on the cold metal floor. Taking a deep breath I started to walk around the medlab, giving curious looks at cabinets of apparent medicine and other assorted drugs, half of which looked more empty than it should. I suppose LIL-E had cleaned the place out pretty thoroughly. Surprising none of that stuff had been returned now that were were on friendly terms with the Stable’s eight legged residents. We were on friendly terms with them right? I wondered how many of them had really been keen on ceasing hostilities, given how many died in the fight with my friends and I.

Thinking on the fight, I wondered where Gramzanber was. The spear wasn’t in the medlab. A chilling sense of vulnerability passed through me as I realized the spear was nowhere near me, but at the same time I got a... feeling, that same familiar pressure in my mind that I now associated with the ARM. Focusing on the pressure, I noticed it seemed to stem from a direction, somewhere below me. Did that mean Gramzanber was down a few floors? If I focused hard enough I could almost pinpoint exactly where.

Was this just part of the bonding process with the ARM? It was nice to know that I could feel the spear’s location, but I didn’t like the feeling of weakness that came with not having it on me.

I passed by the desk Misty Glasses had been using a terminal at, giving the machine a curious look, but my eye was drawn to movement by the window. In the reflective surface of the window above the desk I saw the anger filled visage of Director Twinkle looming. When I jumped back, doing a double-take, the window was empty. It just showed a view of a lit promenade outside, flickering fluorescent lighting showing that there was nopony out there.

“Calm down Longwalk,” I told myself, rubbing a hoof on my head, “Just got to get it together, that’s all.”

Even as I tried to push down the thoughts my mind instantly recalled the way Gramzanber had broken through the protective chitin between Midnight Twinkle’s eyes, remembering in painful detail the meaty snap of sound and wet ripping of the silver spear punching through flesh. Mouth feeling dry, I glanced at the terminal on the desk, hoping to find something interesting there to take my mind off of things. The black screen was filled with a thick scroll of green text, an open file that looked partially finished.

>>>M-Files, 10.26.899, Subject: LW<<<

Patient Information

Name: Longwalk

Species: Earth Pony (?, see EX-File 011)

Gender: Male

Age: Mid-teens, 15 or 16

Medical History: Unknown

Injuries: Mild radiation poisoning, numerous lacerations and bruises on shoulders, crest, withers, muzzle, front and back canons,flanks, and barrel, severe shrapnel wounds on chest with internal damage to right lung, four fractured ribs, two broken ribs, fracture in left hind leg, signs of mild concussion, signs of drug overdose from combination of Buck and Med-X leading to moderate muscle tearing in limbs, unknown trauma to internal vasculature system, unknown trauma to epidermis, unidentified shadows in front temporal lobe.

Procedure: Applied healing alchemic drip via IV into bloodstream while removing foreign shrapnel from right lung. Assist by temporary nurse, Arcaidia, with healing magic (possible Crest Sorcery?) to accelerate recovery. Applied separate drip of RadAway to purge minor radiation. Applied synthetic flesh bindings to lungs and utilized bone growth spell in conjunction with intravenous nutrient supplement to provide for further body recovery. Performed medical scans while further application of healing spell took place, discovering abnormal strain on inner veins and arteries, as well as an unknown ‘shadow’ in subject’s temporal lobe. Further investigation failed to reveal nature of shadow or source of unusual trauma, but all vital signs show that a full recovery is to be expected within 72 hours. Recommend further observation for an additional forty eight hours post regaining of consciousnesses.

… Wow, I didn’t quite grasp all of the terms used, but that certainly sounded like a lot of me doing the opposite of what Trailblaze wanted; getting myself hurt. I was rather shocked I was feeling so physically fit, aside from the stiffness in the limbs. Certain things in the text got my eyebrow raising; like all these “unidentified shadows” in my... what was a temporal lobe, exactly? Did I need it? Was it normal for it to be all shadow-y? What was with the question mark by my species!? I was pretty sure I was an earth pony. Somepony would’ve told me if I’d spontaneously sprouted a horn or a pair of wings. There was mention of an EX-File 011 that might have more information, but when I tried clicking at the terminal’s keys nothing happened, as if the terminal was locked on this page.

I decided to let the questions be for now until I had time to ask Misty Glasses about it. She’d done a fine job patching me up so there was probably no reason to worry. The medical ability of this facility amazed me. My ears flicked down as I wondered how many injuries a pony might survive if only they had access to a place like this and a good medical pony to help them. If medicine like this was widely available, how many ponies would not have to die? If we’d had a place like this when Shale had been...

Shaking my head I blew out a huff of air, angry at myself. I was trying not to think about Director Twinkle, but all that accomplished was it got me thinking of other deaths I’d witnessed. Shale’s was just the most prominent in my mind, the one that cut deepest, but I remembered others. The Odessa trooper with green eyes whose name I never learned, gunned down by B.B. The Raider, Friendly Fire, stepping on a mine and exploding into pieces in front of me. The pink spider pony who’d tried to protect the foal whose leg I’d accidentally tore off, turned to dust by Arcaidia’s starblaster. Each death played through my head like a depressingly sick slideshow.

I wondered how many more deaths were to come. Seeing how things had been going… probably a lot. Odessa would show up again eventually. We’d inevitably run into more Raiders. Skull City sounded like it’d bring with it an entire host of conflicts, any of which me and my friends could easily get mixed up in simply by walking the streets. There was no way the path to the NCR was going to be a peaceful one.

So what did I intend to do when violence ensued once again?

My mind’s eye again saw my spear sticking out from between Twinkle’s eyes, and I shook my head.

What had made me do it? What made that instant different from any of the others where I’d hesitated to take a life? I remembered feeling so certain that Arcaidia was about to die, that all of us would have been killed, if we’d allowed Director Twinkle to get back up after disarming ourselves. I just hadn’t seen any other option. I was desperate. So, instinctively, before I even realized what I was doing; I’d acted. What I didn’t understand was if my action was a mistake born of fear and desperation, or a justified action that could be forgiven for being the only thing I could have done without risking my friend’s lives. There were no convenient answers to be found moping around the medlab, though, so I took another calming breath, turned from the terminal, and decided to head out.

I didn’t plan on wandering far, as Misty Glasses had gone to get my friends, but I wanted a bit more space to stretch my legs.

“Place seems less creepy now, at least,” I said to myself as I noticed that the promenade was filled with pools of light from ceiling lights that drew my attention almost instantly. The lights made this buzzing hum and I wondered what powered them. The light they made was strangely sterile, not at all like the warm lively light of the bonfires my tribe made. Still, the Stable had a homey feel now that it wasn’t a quiet, dark place filled with shadows.

I heard movement on a bridge that was passing over the promenade, apparently connecting to parts of an upper floor, and glanced up to see a pair of spider ponies passing by, dragging a crate between them. The spider ponies gave me a brief look, one of them giving me an odd half wave with one of its thin legs, while the other looked away from my gaze quickly. I couldn’t tell if that was due to fear or anger. I hesitated a second before I returned the wave from the one spider pony and watched as they continued on with carrying their crate.

Had either of those two been in the fight in the terminal station? Perhaps they had friends, or family, among those that had been kill-

I smacked my head. I knew that trying to avoid these thoughts was a losing battle, but I was going to push them back as best I could, at least until I had my friends around to take the edge off, to help me work through things. B.B had told me, back at the school with the Raiders, that if I ever needed to talk about my first kill that she’d be a willing ear. LIL-E was also somepony I was sure I could talk to, and might have a useful perspective, given she seemed the most experienced out of my companions. With Arcaidia there was a language barrier that’d made having a heart-to-heart difficult, and Iron Wrought was likely to just call me an idiot for thinking about the matter at all. Some part of myself wasn’t sure he’d be wrong to do so. As for Binge...

I’d probably try to avoid talking with Binge about it. I was fairly certain that her take on the whole affair might not be all that helpful. Interesting, yes. Helpful? Not so sure on that.

As I was going about stretching my legs, trying to work out the stiffness in them, I heard a slight clicking sound behind me that had the now familiar staccato of a spider pony’s gait, though this one was quieter than the others. I turned my head to see a tiny spider pony foal walking into the promenade from a side corridor. Her pink coat with the splotchy patches of white, the mane, bright yellow, and her pony eyes a bright baby blue. I also noted the one leg out of her eight that wasn’t organic, but was now a spindly cybernetic replacement.

The spider pony foal who I’d injured, and whose parent had been killed by Arcaidia, froze in place as she entered the promenade and saw me standing there.

I could see an entire stampede of emotions crossing her features in just a few seconds. First paralyzing fear, soon washed away by a twisting combination of pain fueled anger, hate, and sadness. Tears filled her eyes as she immediately turned around and skittered away down the corridor she’d come from.

“W-Wait!” I shouted after her, moving to follow. I desperately wanted to apologize to her, for hurting her, and for not being able to stop the death of her parent, but spider ponies were fast, and this little foal no less so. She’d vanished down the corridor before I’d even taken two steps to follow.

“Ya alright Lonwalk, what’re ya doin’ outta bed? Misty Glasses told ya ta take it easy didn’t she?”

I glanced back at B.B’s familiar drawling accent, seeing the white pegasus mare floating down into the promenade from an upper balcony. She brushed some of her light brown and pink streaked mane from her face as she landed and tucked her wings against her side, looking at me curiously. She was wearing clean clothes, as opposed to the grimy leather armor she’d had on when we’d entered the Stable. She wore a plain, light violet dress with white lacing covering her barrel, chest, and part of her flank, but leaving her cutie mark exposed.

I lowered my head, but realizing I must’ve made me look rather morose, I raised it again and tried to school my face into some semblance of normalcy, “Sorry, couldn’t keep myself still. Legs were begging for a stretch.”

“Heh, guess I can relate,” B.B said, her wings twitching a bit at her side, “Can’t stand lettin’ my girls here stay still too long either. So what where ya doin’ just now though? Ya had a look like ya got a punch in the gut.”

She paused, and then said, voice softening, “Is it what ya had ta do, back in that scuffle?”

I took a moment to collect my thoughts before saying, “I killed somepony, and that’s... I’m going to need to sort that out with myself. But what’s bothering me right now is that I ran into one of the spider ponies. A foal. One I hurt, by accident, when me and Arcaidia had been exploring the Stable. The foal’s mother, or I think it was her mother anyway, found us and attacked, probably thinking I was trying to kill her child and wanted to protect her. Arcaidia ended up killing the mother though.”

B.B’s eyes were kind as she approached me, giving my shoulder a small bump with a hoof, “It was a’ messed up situation fer everypony. I’ve been talkin’ a lot with Misty Glasses and some of the other spider pony folk. Lot of ‘em didn’t like what that boss lady o’ theirs was forcin’ ‘em ta do, but they went along wit it all ‘cause they were scared o’ her. There’s some sore feelin’s towards us, sure, but most of ‘em spider ponies are grateful ta be out from under Midnight Twinkle’s control. Ya shouldn’t go blamin’ yerself fer all the deaths that led up ta ya havin’ to put a’ end ta Twinkle.”

“I’m not. Not for all of them anyway,” I said, trying to give her a reassuring smile, though I doubted I was doing a very good job of it judging from her own expression, “I still… wanted to tell that foal I was sorry for what happened. Its all I can offer her.”

“Long, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m thinkin’ the last thing that foal wants ta hear is a’ apology. Take it from somepony whose seen a few things… folks, when they lose somepony close to ‘em, they don’t wanna hear no words from those they feel wronged ‘em. You’d just remind her o’ what she lost, if ya tried talkin’ wit her. Better ta just give her space.”

I couldn’t stop my head from hanging down now, knowing B.B was likely correct. What could I possibly say to that foal, or any of the other spider ponies here who’d lost friends and family, that would make things better? Sorry wouldn’t cut it but a wide margin. It didn’t stop me from wanting to, though. Even if forgiveness wouldn’t be forthcoming. With some effort I raised my head and said, “You’re right, but that doesn’t make things any easier, knowing that. Probably best we finish what we came here to do and leave as soon as possible.”

“Can’t argue wit that,” said B.B, her posture relaxing, seeing me at least trying to perk up, “Figure ya gotta be half-way ta starvin’, so everypony’s waitin’ down in the cafeteria. Them spider ponies Misty Glasses sent topside managed ta bag some grub.”

That immediately got my ears flicking up and my tail swishing happily, “Meat?”

“Ha, though that’d perk yer spirits a’ tad. Guessin’ yer tribe ate it pretty regular?”

I nodded, warming to a topic that was steering well away from death, “It was our norm, gecko meat. We had roots we grew too, for stews and soups, but gecko was what we lived off. Sometimes there were other animals, birds and rabbits, but they were really rare to see. Geckos though, they bred like crazy and were always packs of them around to hunt,” I said, glad for the distracting topic as B.B led me to a side door that opened up to some stairs leading up a floor. I was glad enough for the distracting topic, and it felt good to talk about home.

“Ain’t been able to hear much ‘bout yer tribe,” B.B said as we got up to the next floor, heading down a short corridor as we talked, “You don’t talk much ‘bout ‘em.”

I had to laugh a little, though it was a quiet, subdued sound. I felt better, talking with B.B, but I was far from ‘okay’. Every little step helped though, and I did feel more energy bleed into my tone as I said, “There’s just been so much going on, you know? We’ve barely had any time to rest since we met, and half of that has been because we’ve been recovering from horrible injury. Just hasn’t been a lot of opportunity to chat. I haven’t been avoiding it or anything. So, um what did you want to know?”

“Nothin’ specific, just figured you might be missin’ home a’ bit. Talkin’ might help.”

“You don’t always have to offer up to listen to me, especially every time I might have something to whine about,” I said, feeling guilty that B.B was so worried about me.

“Ah’, that’s a’ load a horseapples, Long. This is what friends do. If I ever got somethin’ on my chest I need sortin’, I’d expect ya to be there ta listen to me complain ‘bout it too! So its all nice an’ equal, no reason ta feel like yer imposin’. I totally intend ta use you fer spillin’ my issues with too, so ya best be ready fer it!” B.B said as she gave me a wry half smile.

I couldn’t help but return the smile, “Alright, alright, I’ll refrain from guilt tripping myself further for using you as a shoulder to cry on. Its okay though, I’m… I’m a bit homesick, but I don’t regret leaving. Helping Arcaidia is important to me. Its not as if I’m going to forget mom, or Trailblaze.”

“Trailblaze? Friend o’ your’s?” asked B.B.

“Mmhm, she was pretty much my only friend back home. Always looking out for me,” I said, feeling a warm ache in my chest as I thought about her. I could see her clearly, Trailblaze’s light brown coat, and dark mane, with blue eyes giving me a hard look even as she smiled at whatever dumb adventure I happened to be dragging her on. I remembered the way she looked at me, just as we parted that early morning, what felt like such a long time ago. She was so worried. Scared she’d never see me again. How many times had I nearly made that fear reality, through one crazy stunt or another, since following Arcaidia into the Wasteland?

I have to get back to her, no matter how long it takes, or how dangerous this journey gets I have to return to her. Tell her…

I blinked, realizing I’d almost run into the door to the cafeteria. One could tell it was the cafeteria due to the rather large, brightly lit blue neon sign hanging over the sliding metal doors.



“Whoa, ya alright there, Long?” B.B asked with an amused grin, “Kinda spaced out there, talkin’ ‘bout yer marefriend back home.”

I felt a bit of heat in my face, “She’s not exactly like that. She, well, I haven’t said anything, and I don’t know what I’d say if given the chance. I… don’t have any experience.”

“Figure that’s kinda how goes fer anypony,” B.B said with a shrug of her wings, “Don’t sweat it. Ya feel like that, it’ll come naturally, when the time comes.”

“I don’t even know if she feels the same way,” I said, in a small whisper.

A light smack across my head made me wince and B.B retracted her wing while giving me a stern look.

“None o’ that talk now. Gotta have confidence Long, but let’s shelve this fer now an’ git some grub!”

The cafeteria was a wide, rectangular room bathed in bright fluorescent lighting. Numerous long metal tables were neatly lined in ordered rows. Most of them were empty, but I immediately noted there were at least a dozen spider ponies gathered around one of the tables, chatting in what seemed to be their own odd language of clicks and hisses. A table down from them were a group of ponies; my friends. They had bowls of what seemed to be steaming soup in front of them, with a plate of what I recognized now as carrots and apples from that lab Arcaidia and I had found earlier… which made me question if they were safe to eat, but further grumbling from my stomach pushed aside any misgivings I may have had. I was wondering where the meat was though. B.B had said there’d be meat!

Iron Wrought was giving wary sidelong glances at Binge while the mare was playing with one of her knives, flipping it up in the air and balancing it by the knife tip on one hoof while she ate. Or did something that was the approximation of eating. The term ‘inhaling’ or ‘utterly destroying’ her food might be more accurate. Meanwhile Arcaidia serenely ate opposite them with a dignified air, munching on one of her snack cakes, while giving the apples and carrots strange glances as if the plants somehow offended her.

As B.B and I came up to the table Arcaidia turned first and noticed us, her silver eyes briefly going wide before she dropped her snack cake and practically galloped up to me.

“Hey Arcaidia, good to see-OW!” I winced and tried in vain to shield my head as Arcaidia proceeded to lightly clobber me with a forehoof, her eyes flashing with anger even as they were filling with tears of relief.

“Longwalk brain of mud!? Jump in gun think smart!? Shivol, estu dol hathir di bakir, ren solva!”

She glared at me, wiping her face, as B.B chuckled, coming up next to Arcaidia and putting a hoof on her shoulder, “Easy there hun, don’t be givin’ the poor fella no more head trauma, or he won’t ever learn. But yeah, shoulda known better n’ ta leap in front of a double barrel o’ buckshot.”

Arcaidia snorted, “Brain of mud. Good body, bad brain. Is… is… bruhir, esru ti volare mas.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout it Arcaidia, I think he gets the gist,” said B.B, patting Arcaidia in a comforting manner. Which I noticed Arcaidia didn’t seem to mind. I glanced between the two, slowly realizing just how much Equestrian Arcaidia had just used in that last exchange.

“I was only out for three days, right?” I asked.

“Huh? Oh, Arcaidia’s been workin’ real hard ta learn, an’ been shockin’ me how much she’s improved,” B.B said while giving Arcaidia a warm smile.

“Head not toaster,” Arcaidia said proudly, then resumed her glaring at me, “Your head toaster, ren solva! Estu dol atma di molvris mas.”

I grimaced, rubbing my sore head, “I was protecting Binge. I just sort of reacted, didn’t have time to think it through.”

“Not that it’s my business how you choose to get yourself killed,” said Iron Wrought as we came up to the table and I took a seat next to Arcaidia, across from Binge, who was now balancing two knives end to end on the tip of her snout, “But that was a stupid move.”

I was too hungry to want to argue with the green stallion, looking over at him, then at Binge. It was odd, though Iron Wrought was a darker green, both shared similar coat colors, both were earth ponies, and both had dark manes and blue eyes. Any casual glance and one would think they were siblings. I licked my lips and eyed the apples and carrots, grabbing one of the red apples between my hooves as I said, “Stupid, maybe, but I don’t regret it if it protected a friend.”

Binge flipped her balancing knives with her snout and deftly caught one with her hoof, and the other with her tail, of all things. In a flash the two blades seemed to just vanish, and I couldn’t tell where they’d gone too. She wasn’t wearing her spiked Raider barding anymore, and was just with her bare coat. It gave me a chance to see the condition of her far clearer than I had before. She had that same stained, mangy quality to her fur as most Raiders. Her entire body, from neck to flank, was covered in numerous pink, fleshy scars. They were from dozens of sources. Puckered holes from obvious gunshot wounds. Long, jagged cuts from blades. Multiple thick ripping scars I think may have been animal bites. I hoped they were just animal bites. Her body told of a lifetime of blood and pain and she sported her ragged, scarred coat with a relaxed and easy stance. The moment she noticed me staring Binge waggled her eyebrows seductively and snatched up a carrot, smiling as she began licking the tip in a way that made me quickly decide the table in front of me was very interesting.

“It was real sweet of my little bucky to play meatshield for his big sis, but the grumpy guss is right-“

“Grumpy guss?” Iron Wrought echoed with a bemused frown.

“-you didn’t have to tear up your clean, soft, edible flesh to shield me. I can’t play with you if you go to sleep forever and evers. Besides, it wasn’t needed; I could have sliced up the angry pony, easier than making diced apples.”

I blinked at her, “It’s a good thing you didn’t have to. Fine Eye was just angry. I don’t blame him for what happened, he just lost control for a moment.”

My eyes glanced about the cafeteria. Some of the spider ponies a table down had skittered away upon me and B.B’s arrival, and the ones that remained were either ignoring us or casting looks our way that were either guarded or just plain unreadable. I didn’t see Fine Eye or any of his family around.

“Where is he by the way?” I asked.

“As soon as Sweet Pear was well enough to move Fine Eye took his family and left. That was just this morning,” said Iron Wrought.

“Oh,” I said, feeling oddly disappointed. I’d wanted to at least apologize for dragging his family into this whole mess, “Did they even get any kind of valuable stuff before leaving?”

I didn’t have any hard feelings of him shooting me. I was starting to realize this kind of thing happened a lot in the Wasteland, so holding a grudge would be pointless. We’d teamed up with his family to help each other, which meant I wanted them to have walked away from this with something to make it worth the risk they’d endured.

“They were allowed to take some of the choice weapons from the armory, stuff the arachquines would have trouble using anyway,” said Iron Wrought and I cocked my head at him.

“Arachwha?”

“What them spider pony folk call ‘emselves, hun,” said B.B “Kinda a smash together of arachnid and equine.”

At my blank stare B.B just rolled her eyes at me, “Ya can just keep callin’ ‘em spider ponies I guess.”

Yeah, I’ll do that. Arachquines… just didn’t roll off the tongue right. I finally got around to munching down on the apple I’d grabbed, leery of anything that wasn’t meat, but finding the sweet, juicy plant won over my taste buds at a rapid rate. Before long I was on my second apple, though I cast B.B a sidelong look.

“So where’s this meat I was promised?”

“Hold yer horses Long, last I checked they were cookin’ it up fer everypony, but the arachquines don’t eat meat like normal,” said B.B, waggling a hoof at me in a chastising manner, “They use venom to all liquefy the gooey bits and suck it up like a juice, so they ain’t used to havin’ ta cook. Kitchen ain’t been used fer years.”

I accepted that and focused on my apple, happy enough just to get some food in me. I tried very hard not to think of the fact that the red of the apple matched the red of Director Twinkle’s eyes. Gah, gotta distract myself with something! I looked at Binge, who was… was it necessary to suck on the carrot like that before biting into it!? I looked away quickly, glancing at Arcaidia.

“So, Arcaidia, you’re learning Equestrian from B.B. Have you learned enough to maybe talk about a few things?”

“Things?” Arcaidia blinked at me with her bright silver eyes, head tilting and part of her face getting obscured by her long equally silver mane, “What things?”

I traced a small circle on the table with one hoof, wondering if I was about to be rude, asking her a bunch of questions when I’d already decided I would trust this filly and help her in any way I could, but there were a lot of things about her I didn’t know, and now that we could kinda-sorta hold a conversation...

“You don’t have to answer anything you don’t want to,” I said hastily, “I was just curious if you could tell me, well, where you came from? Why were you in that pod in the cave me and Trailblaze found you in?”

Iron Wrought was giving me a strange look, and it occurred to me he hadn’t heard anything about how I’d met Arcaidia. “Pod thing?” the green stallion asked curiously.

B.B remained quiet, already knowing this part of the story, and just watched on in interest as she nibbled at an apple clutched between her hooves.

Binge seemed disappointed that I wasn’t paying attention to her carrot abuse, so she snapped off a bite and chewed loudly while leaning against the table and watched as Arcaidia fidgeted nervously at my question.

“I from...“ Arcaidia paused a second, as if unsure, then said, “Esru di ricav. Big city. Manehattan.”

“Manehattan?” B.B piped in, “That’s in the NCR.”

Arcaidia blinked, as if not expecting that, “Hovir? Eh, sorvi dis morvitae...”

“Huh?” I scrunched my face up in confusion, “If you’re from the NCR how did you not know Equestrian?”

“I... shivol, esru si morvair dol respaza!” she shook her head vigorously, and gave me an apologetic expression, one that looked as strained as her tone, “Sorry. Very sorry. What told to say. For mission. Not from Manehattan... not from anywhere.”

She took a calming breath that seemed to steady her as she levitated out a small silver metal flask from her saddlebag and took a drink from it, “Longwalk, can’t tell. No ask, please? Sister very mad if I tell.”

“Your sister? Persephone?” I asked.

Arcaidia nodded once and said, “Vira, esru dol miruvi. Sister. Very strong. Very mad if I break rules.”

I leaned back in my seat, tail swishing back and forth as I took that in, thinking. Alright, so Arcaidia was on some kind of mission, or had been at least, and she wasn’t allowed to tell me certain things because it was against the rules; rules that’d get her in trouble with her big sister if Arcaidia broke them. She’d been given some story about being from Manehattan to tell so she wouldn’t have to tell the truth? Weird.

“Well, is there anything you can tell me about yourself? Like I said, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. I’m not interrogating you or anything. I’m just curious to know who you really are and how you got to be where I found you.”

Arcaidia stared ahead, not really looking at any of us, just thinking, ordering her thoughts I imagined. Binge had finished off her carrot and was giving Arcaidia’s flask a thirsty look, having drained her own cup already.

“Hurting yourself thinking too hard,” the Raider mare said with a lick of her lips, “Secrets and lies piled high, like too much yummy treats in the belly. Let it all vomit out in one big gush and you’ll feel better, special agent mare.”

Arcaidia gave Binge a sharp look, but quickly turned her nose up at the Raider with a small huff and looked at me with a sincere and solemn expression, completely ignoring the weird faces Binge was making at her.

“Longwalk beat you, ‘shivol bir’, lowest-caste. Give life. Serve now. Mud brain, though, let shivol bir talk much.”

“Ooo, heheheh, more funny words. What’s a ‘shovel beer’?” Binge asked with oddly innocent curiosity in her voice. Arcaidia’s eyes got frosty with her ‘kitten drowning’ look and crossed her forelegs over her barrel.

“Shivol bir. Lowest of low caste. Serve higher caste... as... B.B, word?”

B.B sighed, a sour look on her face and giving me a wary sidelong glance before answering, “The term is ‘slave’, hun, and it ain’t a’ good thing by our standards. Binge, she ain’t a’ slave. Not ta us, an’ not ta Longwalk.”

I could only nod at that, shocked at the turn of conversation, “That’s right, Binge is here because... well, I guess because she wants to be? I’m not forcing her.”

Arcaidia frowned at me, “Shivol bir di volmir; enemy. Longwalk beat,” she looked up in thought, clearly trying to string together what words of Equestrian she’d learned to try and explain this to me, “Longwalk beat... make own? Life owned? Yes, shivol bir serve Longwalk now! Owned.”

I shook my hooves in front of me, waving them in a clear gesture of denial, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I don’t own anything, least of all Binge!”

For one, I didn’t want to have anything to do with the idea of owning another pony. For two, Binge sort of terrified me. I still didn’t know where she kept those knives of hers!

“Ooooh, I’m not so sure about that, I’m thinking I’m getting the squiggly paths of the brain thoughts our fun icy friend has,” said Binge as she played with some of her dark green mane with a hoof, as she looked at me, eyes twinkling, “You did put a heavy leash around my pretty neck. You don’t tug on it hard, but its there. If I pull on the leash, tried to have fun like my old family had fun, you’d choke me with the leash, right?”

“Huh?” I didn’t get what he was trying to say, but Iron Wrought spelled it out for me with a small slam of his hoof on the table.

“She’s saying, numbskull, that if she starts killing ponies and wearing their hide as a dress you’d step in and put a stop to it. She’s not too far off from a slave. Doing what she’s told is pretty much part of the package deal of you letting her live and follow us around, right?”

I gave him a sour look, “Well, yeah, but that doesn’t mean I’m trying to make her do everything I say! She’s not my property. You’re not my property Binge”

The last was said as I looked at her, rising from my seat, breathing heavy as my tail flicked behind me in rapid, frantic movements. She actually giggled at me, as if me being upset was some kind of joke, “Heheh, you’re such a puppy. You want to be a good boy and get pets on the head, don’t you?”

“Estu dol kuvris nir?” Arcaidia seemed to have calmed down somewhat, her silvery eyes more confused than annoyed now as she kept glancing between me and Binge, “You not own her, but command? Make no sense, ren solva.”

I just shook my head in defeat, saying lamely, “It makes sense to me.”

B.B chuckled a bit, not condescending, just amused as she gave me a comforting pat with one of her wings, “Don’t git too wound up there, hun. ‘Sides, more food’s comin’ up.”

I quickly set aside being bothered by the argument over the semantics of Binge’s exact status in our little party as a smell reached my nostrils. A warm, salty and wonderful smell I didn’t realize how much I’d missed until that moment. The smell of fresh cooked meat. A yellow spider pony with spots of black on his(?) coat walked with his many clicking legs over to our table, pushing a tray cart loaded with smoking slabs of meat. The spider pony’s expression was hard to read as he gave us all a quick, nodding look, pale eyes not really meeting any of ours as he set the tray on the table.

I smiled at the spider pony, “Thanks, you have no idea how much I’ve been missing meat.”

The spider pony looked at me blankly for a second, expression unreadable, then walked away silently. I wondered if he had the ability to speak with the same voicebox Misty Glasses and Director Twinkle had if he would have at least said “You’re welcome” or something.

I didn’t think too much on it though, my attention entirely focused now on the feast in front of me, mouth already slick with anticipation. Even as I reached for a slice of the meat I heard Arcaidia gag. I looked over at her. The blue coat around her face had taken on a greenish tint.

“Ugh... boro, flesh, why eat, ren solva? Estu dol boro est vilro mas!”

“Because it’s tasty?” I replied as I began to happily munch away at the meat. Mmm! If that yellow spider pony had been the cook he knew his stuff! This was cooked just right to be juicy, but had not lost any of the flavor, and I could taste a tangy seasoning that complimented the texture just right... hmm... hey, this texture seemed familiar.

“You know, paranoia would tell me to question where this meat came from,” said Iron Wrought as he put a slab of the meat on his own plate and tried it, “But, hate to say it, I’m hungry enough to not care.”

B.B sighed, not touching the meat herself and eating one of the carrots instead, “Pleasant thought, Iron, pleasant thought. I saw them spider ponies Misty Glasses sent out ta do some scoutin’, an’ the beastie they brought back ta cook up. Looked like a’ gecko ta me, only it was a’ weird color, all gold an’ stuff.”

I halted mid-bite, nearly choking on the meat. I coughed a few times, smacking my chest as I forced the meat to go down the right pipe, my companions all giving me weird looks. Taking in a deep breath I looked at B.B, “G-gold, you said? A golden gecko? You’re sure?”

The pegasus mare nodded, brown and pink streaked mane falling over her eyes, “Sure as my own shootin’. Why ya ask Long?”

My mind instantly flashed back to that day, less than a week ago, when that pack of large golden scaled geckos had nearly killed me and Trailblaze. They’d been unlike any geckos I’d seen before and I’d assumed they were some random, freakish offshoot that had only lived in those foothills near Shady Stream. But the spider ponies had hunted one near here, miles and miles away from my home? Realizing B.B was still staring at me, in fact everypony was staring at me, I quickly answered, “I ran into geckos like that before, and I’m just surprised there’s more of them running around.”

My companions seemed to accept this and we all resumed eating, Binge digging into the meat with an eagerness that surpassed my own, making little satisfied growling noises as she almost ferally tore into the food. Arcaidia still had a disgusted look on her face but she made no further comment. B.B didn’t partake either and I got a little curious.

“Don’t like meat, B.B?”

I saw her tense slightly, wings pausing in their normal relaxed flaps, “Ain’t normal fare fer ponies, ya know Long.”

“Iron Wrought’s eating it, so is Binge,” I pointed out.

“Hey,” said Iron Wrought, “Don’t compare me to the Raider! Eating whatever food’s in front of you is just common sense, even if meat isn’t all that healthy for a pony to eat regular.”

I frowned, “My tribe is plenty healthy. Eaten geckos since forever and nopony ever seemed to get sick off it. And meat tastes good! I don’t see the problem.”

“It ain’t a problem, really. Ponies can eat just ‘bout anythin’ they gotta,” said B.B, “Just my pa raised me ta...”

She hesitated, and I wasn’t sure why.

“Ta eat healthy-like,” she said finally, “Nothin’ more to it.”

I decided to leave it at that and not press her further, though I was curious as to why she hesitated in answering. It occurred to me that I actually didn’t know that much about the ponies who were traveling with me. I found I wanted to know more, like maybe what their lives before meeting me was like, or what kind of things they enjoyed. You know, the basic kind of stuff friends ought to know about each other. Problem was I didn’t really know how to go about talking about that stuff. Trailblaze had been my friend for as long as I could remember, so knowing her well had just happened naturally. But I hadn’t had any friends besides her until now, so I was at a loss as to how to just make small talk with them.

Fortunately there was delicious gecko in front of me to occupy my attention. I’ll admit once I got over my initial shock I found a certain guilty and ironic pleasure in eating the meat of a golden gecko. Try to chomp down on my foalhood friend will ya!? Well whose eating who now!? Bwahahahah!

It was around that time that I noticed something. Or rather the lack of someone.

“Hey, where’s LIL-E?” I asked.

B.B’s brow drew up in a look of thought, “Ya’ know, I don’t know. Ain’t seen her since last night.”



“That robot was acting strange,” said Iron Wrought, “Has been since the fight.”

“Care to be more specific?” I asked, “Strange how?”

The other stallion gave me a sour look, his weathered features tightening, “She was damaged in the scuffle, a few gaps torn in her side from the shrapnel this one-” he jabbed a hoof towards Binge, who still had a mouthful of meat and growled at him as she hunched over her food, “-firing off all those missiles.”

“She alright?” I asked, feeling an odd twist of worry in me. I knew LIL-E wasn’t actually that floating robot, that she was a flesh and blood pony somewhere else in the world just controlling the machine, but it was just instinctive to worry about a friend who was ‘injured’.

“She’s a robot, buck,” said Iron Wrought, echoing my thoughts, “Isn’t like she’s actually hurt. Just was acting weird about it. Not letting any of the arachquine technicitans here look at her or help with repairs.”

“Feels a’ bit like she’s tryin’ ta avoid us,” said B.B with a shrug of her wings, “But it ain’t like it’s any o’ my business ta bother her iffin’ she don’t wanna talk none.”

“But nopony even knows where she is?” I asked, still worried.

“On surface,” said Arcaidia, pointing a hoof up at the ceiling, “Machine go up.”

“Huh, why would she go outside?” I couldn’t think of any reason off the top of my head that our robotic companion would want to leave the Stable, at least not without us, or even telling anypony where she was going or why.

“What do you really know about that robot?” asked Iron Wrought, “For all you know she’s nothing more than some crazy rogue A.I, or is being controlled by the that group of pegasi that destroyed Saddle Springs.”

“That’s crazy talk there,” said B.B, scowling slightly, “LIL-E ain’t nothin’ o’ the sort! My pa knows her from years back an’ he can vouch fer her bein’ a’ good pony who just happens ta have ta git things done via that robot.”

“And why is that?” Iron Wrought pressed, voice hard, “Why does she need a robot? Why not just come and do things herself? Must be nice, not having to actually risk your life for anything, just sending a robot into danger instead of putting your own blood on the line.”

“Ya got no clue what yer talkin’ ‘bout Iron,” B.B grumbled, then blinked and looked him in the eyes, “An’ yer a fine one ta talk ‘bout trust! Ya stabbed that poor doctor mare an’ tried to nick her research!”

“My family’s at stake, I don’t need to justify what I did!” said Iron Wrought heatedly.

“Everypony, stop,” I said, putting a hoof on B.B’s shoulder, “We don’t need to argue about this.”

“I don’t like hearin’ him talk bad ‘bout LIL-E,” said B.B, eyes flashing, “My pa trusts her. That ought ta be ‘nough fer anypony.”

“Hmph, fine, I’ll drop it,” said Iron Wrought, looking away.

I breathed a small sigh of relief. Didn’t much like seeing my companions argue, especially over the issue of trust. It reminded me of what Shale had said, that I trusted and befriended ponies too easily. I wanted to believe that ponies could trust each other without needing to have ulterior motives or taking a long, slow time in reaching that trust.

Binge had finished eating (a more accurate term might be ‘destroying’) her food and let out what I could only describe as a shockwave that if toned down by several octaves might have been a burb. She had a contented grin look and sighed, not having paid the brief argument between B.B and Iron Wrought any mind. Arcaidia was looking at the ex-Raider with her nose wrinkling. She then looked to me with an almost pleading expression.

“Longwalk, shivol bir travel with group, she needs clean.”

I cocked my head to the side, and Binge made a small strangled sound between a squeak and a gasp.

“Clean?” I asked.

“Clean!?” Binge echoed, sounding... worried?

Arcaidia nodded her head, holding a hoof to her nose, “No travel with shivol bir without her clean! Needs bath-”

Arcaidia had barely finished saying the word ‘bath’ before Binge was on her hooves and heading for the door like somepony had just suggested pulling her teeth out. Arcaidia’s eyes narrowed as her horn glowed and she caught the other mare in a field of blue energy, levitating her up. Binge howled.

“Noooo! Let gooo! I refuse to accept your social standards! My dirt and I have a close intimate relationship that will not be diffused by the tyranny of soap!”

Arcaidia was already trotting for the door out of the cafeteria, Binge helplessly struggling in the unicorn’s levitation field, but Arcaidia glanced back at the rest of us at the table.

“This take time. B.B, want to help?”

The pegasus blinked dumbly for a second before chuckling to herself and smiling, “Oh yeah, been thinkin’ that mare’s been needin’ a’ proper scrubbin’. Be happy ta help, hun.”

The pair left, dragging a desperately flailing Binge along with them, leaving both me and Iron Wrought behind with dumbfounded expressions on our faces.

“Should I have stopped them?” I asked.

“Why? Raider needs it,” Iron Wrought said, then sniffed at me, “Speaking of which, I think you could do with at least a shower.”

I frowned, giving myself a sniff. I didn’t know what he was talking about, it was just my normal everyday Longwalk smell. I’d bathed... at least a couple weeks ago. That was standard, right? By the look Iron Wrought was giving me, apparently not by the standards of some.

“I’ll think about it,” I told him, gulping down the last of the meat on my plate with a satisfied feeling of being full, “But first I’m going to go find LIL-E.”

“You don’t know where she’s gone,” pointed out Iron Wrought, “If she’s gone outside she could have floated off anywhere.”

“I won't go far,” I assured him, “Just take a look in the immediate area to see if she’s around.”

“Alright, but be careful,” Iron Wrought said, blue eyes narrowing as he subtly jerked his head towards the spider ponies still eating a few tables down, “We ended up killing enough of their kind that I wouldn’t trust them not to hold a grudge, no matter how polite they’re being now. Watch your back.”

I nodded at him, “I will.”

----------

It took me some time to find my way back to the entrance of Stable 104. The massive underground facility was no easier to navigate going up than coming down, and if not for asking directions from passing spider ponies I would’ve likely spent hours just trying to get back to the ground floor.

The entry room and the nearby hallways had been cleaned up, the skeletons and blood on the walls cleared away. While the door was still an open hole the severed halves of the Stable’s main door had also been removed. I wondered if the spider ponies were intending to try to repair the door? Thinking about it made me realize I really didn’t know the story of how any of that happened to the Stable in the first place. Something I’d have to ask Misty Glasses about when I saw her next.

The exit was guarded by a quartet of spider ponies, one of which was hanging from the ceiling by a strand of webbing, while her three fellow guards were clustered around the gaping hole where the Stable door had been. I assumed they were guarding, if only because they barred my way as I headed for the exit.

“Ummm, hi?” I said, smiling awkwardly. The spider ponies just stared at me, one of the males making a few clicking noises followed by a low hiss.

“Well, you see... I, uh, was looking for my friend, LIL-E.”

The spider ponies exchanged looks, and the female hanging from the ceiling making a sharp hiss that drew my attention. I watched her, a red coated spider pony with bright yellow eyes, make a series of gestures with her front legs. A circular motion, followed by a bobbing motion.

“Yes!” I said, nodding “Yes, the floating ball.”

The female spider pony nodded and pointed with one clawed leg out the door.

“Okay, so she did go outside. Um, is it alright if I go out too? I just wanted to check up on her.”

Another round of looks passed between the gathered spider ponies before the female shrugged, or rather lifted her forelegs in what I surmised might have been their equivalent of a shrug, and gestured towards the door. The three spider ponies on the ground skittered out of the way, allowing me to pass. I thanked them and trotted on by, navigating the dark cavern beyond with only one or two stumbles. I swear those rocks just loved to leap out in front of my hooves.

Daylight brightened the cavern floor ahead and I emerged into the rocky canyon. The sky was a light overcast, the brightest I’d ever seen that always present blanket of clouds. I almost thought I could see the point in the sky that was hiding the sun, a faintly pale orb just barely visible through the cloud cover. I wondered what the sky was really like, beyond those clouds. B.B might know. She was a pegasus, so perhaps she’d been up that high before?

Putting those thoughts aside I looked around, trying to spot LIL-E’s metallic form. I couldn’t track her, given that floating robots didn’t tend to leave tracks, but I didn’t imagine a floating spiked metal ball could be that hard to find. LIL-E did tend to stand out. The canyon stretched deeper to the west, twisting and turning out of sight, while the entrance was to the east. While it might have been more logical to think that LIL-E would’ve headed for the canyon entrance, to stick to familiar territory, I got an impulse to look deeper down the canyon. That, or I was just indulging my explorative nature, interesting in seeing what was down that way.

I thought about the possibility that it was dangerous to wander without a weapon, but had confidence in my ability to flee danger. I’d had plenty of practice at running recently, I figured I should’ve received some sort of achievement for it.

The canyon turned and twisted back on itself several times as I cantered down it, the canyon floor narrowing with each turn. The walls became less like sheer cliffs and began to turn into uneven slopes. In a few minutes I reached the end of the canyon, which by this point had become more of a shallow valley. I huffed out a bit of disappointment at not finding anything interesting and was about to turn around when I heard a mechanical voice from behind one of the outcroppings of rock nearby.

“Celestia’s cum-covered horn! Argh! C’mon... c’mon... Brrzzt- rugh, Luna anal lick a Diamond Dog! Who thought it was a good idea to make a combat model without self-repair skills!?”

“LIL-E?” I asked cautiously as I walked around the rocks.

“Didn’t even give me a long enough manipulator... Longwalk? That yo-kkrzzt-ou? Oh shit! Uh! Stay there a sec!”

It was a little late though, as I’d already gotten around the rock and spotted LIL-E. The eyebot wasn’t floating, but rather was laying on her side up against the rock. She had that little robotic arm extending from a hatch on the back of her, nestled between her antenna-like spikes, which was awkwardly bent up and around to get at her side. That side had several holes in it, burned and gashing, one of which was large enough to see inside her chassis. I saw wires and tubes, sparking, with several bits severed and damaged. The robotic arm had in its little clamping claw an odd multi-tool device that was currently glowing with a dull pink flame-like light that was slowly restoring one of the holes. Inside the hole I saw a gleam of a spherical object, small, about the size of...

“LIL-E, is that-?”

“Nothing! I’m fine,” the robot hastily hovered up into the air, distinctly turning so I couldn’t see her damaged side, “I mean, this robot is fine. Just needs some repairs and I didn’t trust the residents of Stable 104 to do it without screwing up LIL-E’s wiring. She, I mean, this is a delicate robot that I can’t just replace, you know?”

“-a memory orb?” I finished my sentence, still blinking in surprise. I was pretty sure, even though I’d only seen one other before. LIL-E had a memory orb inside her, seemingly built into her circuitry.

LIL-E was silent for a second, then said, “Yes, it is. Its part of how this unit’s targeting and other combat abilities work. I wouldn’t be half as accurate in a fight without it.”

“O... kay?” I said, not entirely sure I understood, but then I hadn’t come out here to grill LIL-E about how the robot functioned, “In any case I was just looking to see if you were okay. I’d heard you’d gotten damaged in the fight. Was a little worried.”

“Oh. Well, as you can see, I’m just dandy. Little light structural damage, but nothing I can’t fix myself,” LIL-E said, her mechanical tone as monotone as ever, but I noticed there was a slight pause between each word, as if she was selecting them carefully.

“Well, if you’re sure,” I said, shifting awkwardly on my hooves. My curiosity about that memory orb was a potent little worm in my mind, but it was pretty clear she didn’t want to talk about it. I had a strong feeling it was more than just something to assist with the robot’s targeting. Memory orbs contained, well, memories. Whose memories were in that orb, and why build them into a robot?

“Was there anything else you needed, Longwalk?” LIL-E asked, somewhat quickly, “Or were you just worried about me? Actually... how did you find me?”

“Huh? Oh, uh, just sort of luck, I guess? I headed down into the canyon on a whim, and, er, curiosity mostly. Figured if I was going to look for you I might as well check out someplace I hadn’t been before. Just happened to hear you talking to yourself, right before I’d been about to give up.”

“Hmm, okay. Thought maybe... nevermind. It’ll be about another hour before I’m done with repairs and I’ll head on back. No worries, I’m not detecting anything out here, so I’ll be safe.”

“Actually,” I said, “Do you mind, um, if we talk for a little bit? That is if you don’t mind,” I said, deciding that as long as I was here with LIL-E with nopony else around this would be a good chance to have a chat with her about... things. Midnight Twinkle related things.

“Not really. Mind, I mean. What’s eating you?”

I sat back on my haunches against the rock, LIL-E floating back down next to me, the soft mechanical whirring sounds of her manipulator arm the only sound for a minute as I gathered my thoughts. A dry, cold wind whistled through the canyon then, almost like a signal I should stop stalling and just start talking.

“LIL-E, you’ve... killed a lot, right?”

“You could say that,” was the terse reply.

“What was your first time like?” I asked in a quiet tone, hesitant but swallowing my worry and just getting the question out.

“A colt really shouldn’t ask a filly that kind of thing... ugh, okay, sorry, bad joke I know. You’re trying to be serious, guess I’ll do the same,” LIL-E said, then went silent.

Almost a minute passed and I was just about to ask her if she was alright when she spoke again.

“My first time was, honestly, fast and not really remarkable. I didn’t even see it until it was done. Grenade. Raider tossed it at me, I tossed it back. Reflex, more than intent. Didn’t really even sink in I’d killed the pony until a little later, and by then... it didn’t matter.”

“What do you mean it didn’t matter?” I asked, maybe a bit petulantly, “I mean, how can killing not matter?”

“Its not that complicated Longwalk. I was too busy trying to stay alive, and save ponies, to really register what I was doing. And quite frankly too pissed off to care when it finally did register.”

“Pissed off?” I asked quizzically.

LIL-E turned so her dark, metal grill was facing me, and I got the impression of the pony on the other side of the world looking at me through the eyebot’s view with intensity, “Longwalk, you’ve seen firsthoof what Raiders do. My first time I was stuck neck deep in Raider territory. I stumbled, well, more like I was led, into a nest of the bastards. The blood, the filth, the outright wrongness of those rotten ass-sucking pieces of shit... it ignited a fury in me I hadn’t known I was capable of. That anger, it drowned out everything. I didn’t think, I didn’t feel, I just eradicated whatever pissed me off. It felt right, Longwalk, to kill Raiders, slavers, and anything else I could easily see as part of the Wasteland’s evil. I didn’t question if I was going too far, or if I should show mercy.”

“Not... not even once?” I asked, feeling a coldness creeping into my bones and spreading to my hide, causing my hairs to stand on end. Even with that mechanical tone I could hear the simmering anger in LIL-E’s tone as she talked, and wondered just what memories I was dredging up in the pony on the other end of the robot.

“Not once,” she said, then paused, “Well, that’s not entirely true. There was one time I... may have gone over the line, vague as that line is in the Wasteland. At that point though, I had so many bodies under my hooves, up to my knees in blood, it was a little late to start feeling guilty.”

I took a moment, trying to process that, trying to imagine being like that. Was it really that simple? Allow my anger to override everything else and just kill, without feeling anything else other than... satisfaction at a job well done? It couldn’t be that simple. Could it? I couldn’t deny I felt anger as well, when faced with the evils that seemed so commonplace in the Wasteland. The Labor Guild’s casual enslavement of ponies, or the Raiders even more casual disrespect for simple common decency, or Odessa’s seemingly cold disregard for collateral damage. It did make me angry, and it would be... perhaps all too easy to just let that anger guide my actions, use it as a shield against the guilt of taking lives. It’d be a simpler way to live.

“So should I not feel... guilt? At all?” I asked, mouth feeling dry.

“Whoa, Longwalk, don’t go jumping to conclusions for yourself based off of my own experiences. We’re two very different ponies. Just because I could rationalize what I do doesn’t mean you should do the same thing. Let me ask you this; do you feel guilty? About killing Director Twinkle?”

How else could I respond?

“Of course I do! I... I don’t even know why I did it! I’ve been trying to avoid killing anypony since I set foot outside my tribe’s valley. I was-” I was... what? I thought back to that moment, with Midnight Twinkle’s fangs poised over Arcaidia, her demands for us all to disarm hanging in the air.

I gulped, throat constricted, “-I was just so sure that Arcaidia was going to die. That all of us would be killed if we gave into her demands. The instant that certainty hit me, I just... acted. I didn’t even realize I’d thrown Gramzanber until it was already... already done... I...”

Ancestor's damn it I thought I’d cried enough after Saddlespring’s, after Shale. Apparently I wasn’t done with tears yet. I was ashamed, looking away fro LIL-E as I wiped at my face.

“I didn’t want to do it. I couldn’t let it happen though. I couldn’t let Arcaidia die, but shouldn’t I have looked for another way to save her? Found some better way than to just.. just kill another pony?”

“Longwalk, its debatable just how much pony was left in that monster,” LIL-E pointed out.

“There was enough,” I said, voice sharp with hurt, “Enough that it should have mattered.”

“But it didn’t,” LIL-E said, “Midnight Twinkle lost whatever made her a pony when she started using other ponies as a food source. Any wastelander or scavenger that came into that Stable was hunted down and killed on her orders, then used as food. There isn’t a pony in the Wasteland that would blame you for killing her. Hell, there are few that would blame you if you decided to wipe out the entire Stable’s population.”

“Dammit all, I blame me!” I said, even though I understood what LIL-E was trying to say. I understood that Director Twinkle hadn’t been a good pony by practically any standards. But then again neither was Binge, right?

“I don’t want to kill anypony. Is that wrong of me?”

“Not wrong, but its not a realistic ideal, either. Sparing some lives can risk others. Personally, Longwalk, I feel some ponies deserve to die.” said LIL-E, “Like those raiders you spared. You think they’ll just turn over a new leaf because you showed compassion? I guarantee you that right this second those two are with another Raider band by now.”

“But... but if I’d killed them, wouldn’t I have had to kill Binge too?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” was the simple, quick reply, “Me, I’d have put a bullet in all of them and been done with it, but if you want to judge on a case by case basis, that’s your choice. Some might call you a hypocrite for that, but it's your decision Longwalk. I’m not going to tell you what you should do. You got to make the choice on your own.”

A heavy sigh escaped me, my head hanging, “That’s just the thing though, I don’t know how I’m supposed to make that judgement. Common sense says I should’ve killed those Raiders, Binge included. But... but if I did that... Ancestors so help me she may scare the shit out of me but I can’t see her as somepony that deserves to die. Besides, if I’d killed her she wouldn’t have been there with B.B to save us all in that fight. We’d all be dead now.”

“You don’t know that for certain. B.B might have saved us on her own, or we might have survived that fight some other way. More to the point, you shouldn’t forget what Binge is. She’s murdered ponies, Longwalk, done horrible things to them. Eaten them,” even with her mechanical tone I could hear the seething anger in LIL-E.

“We can’t be sure that-” I began with a hasty, shaking voice, but was cut off.

“She has, period,” LIL-E said with a hard finality, “She’s a Raider. That’s what Raiders do. Only thing keeping her in check right now, I think, is that she’s taken an interest in you and is playing it safe so the rest of us don’t simply kill her.”

The words created a sick, boiling sensation in my gut, one I recognized as a painful mix of fear and worry. Fear that LIL-E was completely correct, and worry of what Binge might do in the future. It was simply hard, though, to imagine her as a threat. She was strange, certainly, and had an air of deadliness about her, but we’d just shared a meal just a short while ago without incident. I even felt like laughing, thinking of how Arcaidia and B.B had dragged off Binge for a bath, the Raider mare wailing like a foal the whole way. I remembered the way she played with Fine Eye and Sweet Pear’s foals with obvious enjoyment and had a hard time reconciling that image with the blood and murder of a Raider.

But Binge was a Raider, who’d murdered who knows how many ponies before I came along. By the standards of Wasteland justice, she deserved death. Ancestors, by the standards of my own tribe’s sense of justice she probably would deserve death. So who was I to say that she deserved to live? That she deserved a chance to find a better way to live?

Am I wrong? Naive? Just a stupid pony who hasn’t accepted that if I want to save lives, I’ll have to take them... won’t accept it, even though I’ve already-

My thoughts were interrupted by LIL-E floating over and bouncing her hard metal chassis off my head.

“Ow! Hey! What was that for!?” I asked, rubbing my head where she’d struck me.

“Just snapping you back to reality. Look, I don’t like Binge. I think she’s a danger. I’m not trying to change your mind about sparring her, though. I just want you to realize that you’ve got a responsibility to make sure she doesn’t hurt anypony else. You choose to walk the high road, you take on all the baggage that comes with that, you get me?”

“I... I think so,” I said, still rubbing my sore head, “If I spare a life, I have a responsibility to see to it that the ones I spare don’t cause... problems. I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that though. Its not like I can force every Raider and slaver we come across to join our group and personally keep an eye on them!”

“Exactly,” said LIL-E, “That’s what I mean when I said your ideal isn’t realistic. Unless you plan on taking a few decades out of your life to cut out a bloody nation of your own where you rule as ‘benevolent’ dictator you’re going to need to make some compromises in those ideals of yours. Trust me, the last pony I met that tried fixing the world by forcing everypony around him to obey his will... things didn’t end well for him and his ideals.”

I felt lost, with a gaping hole in my own logic that I couldn’t rectify. I wanted to save lives, not take them. But the more I walked the Wasteland the more I met ponies who preyed on other ponies, and I didn’t know how to stop them without using force, and ultimately, if they couldn’t change their ways, death.

“What am I supposed to do then?” I asked, wishing I didn’t sound as pathetic as I did to my own ears.

“I can’t answer that for you. My answer has always been to deal out death, as long as I believe that doing so will save more lives than I take. But if that’s not your answer, you’re going to have to figure out another way. Until you find that way, you’ve got to either learn to accept that sometimes you have to take a life, like you did with MIdnight Twinkle, or be willing to let your friends do the dirty work.”

I felt my ears flatten against my head, “That’s what I’m afraid of though! LIL-E, when I killed Twinkle, it was so easy. It was too easy. One instant of deciding her life was worth less than the lives of my friends, that was all it took for me to just... just end somepony’s life. It’d be so easy to just let go and start seeing every pony I meet who does something I don’t like as just another problem easily solved by the edge of my spear. Just kill and forget, another corpse in my wake.”

I grit my teeth, trying to bite back the tears in my eyes as my heart clenched painfully.

“I don’t want to be that way! I don’t want to become somepony-”

An image of Shattered Sky slipped into my mind as the Odessa officer had casually ordered the bombardment that had destroyed most of Saddlestring, and with it so many of its inhabitants.

“-who sees life as that cheap!”

Because it wasn’t. Life wasn’t cheap. No matter how much two hundred years of the Wasteland’s violent existence tried to make it so. Because it was fragile, because it could be easily destroyed, life should be safeguarded with all the strength one had!

The moment I had that thought in mind it felt natural. Right. Intrinsic. I’d felt it when the golden geckos had nearly killed Trailblaze, and I’d been desperate to my very soul for a way to save her. I’d felt it when I’d seen the Labor Guild’s slaves and realized they were dying in the Ruins, and I could only think of how to free them. I felt it when I and my friends huddled close to Shale as she drew her last breaths, desperate to give her some comfort even as it became clear there was nothing I could do to save her. I felt it when I fought the Raiders, seeing twisted mockeries of ponies living as the Wasteland told them they should, but unable to kill them because to do so meant taking my first step towards becoming them. I felt it when surrounded by the spider ponies, fighting for my life and my friend’s lives, yet still holding back because I could see in their all-too pony like eyes that the spider ponies were no different than us.

“I know now that I’m capable of taking a life. I’ve crossed that line and there’s no taking that back. That doesn’t mean I was right to do it though. If I’m pressed into a corner, if I can’t find any other way... then I’ll do what I feel I have to, but killing will never be my first option. Not if there’s even a small chance I can avoid it.”

“Even against Raiders? In the middle of a fight?”

My stomach twisted up into knots, “Same deal. I’ll fight, but won’t kill unless I know there’s no other option. Raiders are... horrible ponies, and if its a choice between their lives and mine, or that of any of my friends, or another innocent pony... I’ll do what I have to. But if even one of them might be like Binge, capable of maybe living better, I have to give them that chance.”

“Like I said Longwalk, if it hurts you that badly to do it yourself there’s no shame in letting your friends do it. I’ll do it. One of my closest friends was a pacifist who wouldn’t kill during the battles we got into. That didn’t make me see her in a lesser light, if anything it made me see her as a better pony than I was.”

“I know. All I ask is that, if you guys have to do it, do it quick. And give me a chance, if I do see a Raider who might have a spark of something else in them.”

“You got it.”

“Also... if I start to slip, if it starts looking like I’m starting to think killing is the better answer... don’t let me go too far. I’m scared of that, LIL-E. Scared to death of how easy it might be for me.”

“Can’t speak for everypony else, but if I’m in a position to do so, I’ll remind you of who you are Longwalk,” LIL-E said, and her choice of words made me look over at the eyebot.

“And... who am I?”

“A naive, foalishly idealistic colt with a skull thicker than dragonhide,” LIL-E said, then patted me on the shoulder with her robotic manipulator arm, “And a good pony, despite it all.”

I let out a small laugh, not much of one because I was still a tight little ball of angst, but talking with LIL-E had lifted my mood, and helped me at least conclude that if nothing else I could count on my friends to be there for me. Uncertainty shrouded my future, but I wasn’t facing it all alone. Before I could voice my thanks to LIL-E though, a sound reached my ears; a sort of repetitious whump-whump-whump sound that vibrated through the air.

It was coming from behind us, beyond the canyon walls, and I looked around the rock in bewilderment. I ducked almost immediately right behind it as one of the same flying machines I’d seen Odessa using, a Vertibuck, fly by at high speed. It was over and past us in just a few seconds, skimming low at about fifty feet above the top of the canyon. I blinked in shock, then looked to LIL-E.

“You saw that, right? My hallucinations haven’t expanded beyond seeing Director Twinkle’s eyes glaring at me from the realm of the everafter?”

“... Not even going to comment on that, but yes, I saw the Vertibuck,” said LIL-E as she started to float up the rocky slope in the direction the Veritbuck had gone. I quickly followed after her, scrambling over the loose rocks.

“Wait, LIL-E, where are we going? Shouldn’t we get back to the Stable!? What if they saw us?”

“If they did they’d have already slowed down, but my scanners are still picking it up moving away at the same speed, I just want to see where they’re going,” replied the eyebot as we reached the top of the canyon slope.

Up here I could see that the land turned into a rolling sea of craggy foothills to the west, and even further distant in that direction I could make out mountains. Not as large or as the ones my tribe made their home near, as these mountains were small enough I could make out the dark, jagged tops off just below the cloud cover, but it was a long range that looked like a practical wall to the west. The Vertibuck was a rapidly shrinking dot flying north.

“Haven’t seen Odessa since Saddlespring... what are they doing out here? Did they follow us?” I asked.

“Doubt it,” said LIL-E, who was floating low next to my head, a series of mechanical whirring noises coming from inside her, “If they had any notion we were in the area we’d be seeing a lot more than one Vertibuck. Hm, they’re slowing down.”

I squinted my eyes and could see she was right, the distant dot of the Vertibuck had stopped getting smaller and now was hovering some miles to the north. It started to lower and I noticed that below it the foothills had thinned out around what looked like some kind of... crater? Hard to tell at this distance.

“We should go back,” I said, anxious, “Whatever Odessa is doing over there its not like there’s anything we can do about it right now.”

“You’re right, but can’t help it, I’m curious what’s got them landing over there. I remember that Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck had mapped out some of the land to the north. Tagged some kind of excavation site didn’t it?”

I picked my brain for a second, and nodded firmly as I remembered, “Yeah it did. ‘Mysterious Excavation Site’. Seriously, Pip-Bucks make no sense to me. Hey, was the plan still to try and get me one?”

“Didn’t forget that, I see.”

“Hey, you sold me on them when you first brought them up,” I said as we headed back down the slope into the canyon, “I’m pretty curious to see if they’re as awesome as you made them out to be.”

“I think you’re primitive tribal mind will be blown the first time you use S.A.T.S,” LIL-E said, and as if realizing her monotone inflection quickly added, “Joking about the primitive part.”

“I figured. Not sure if I’d feel insulted even if you weren’t joking. The more I see of technology the more I feel like my tribe’s way of life is kind of depressing. My people descended from ponies who built wonders like Stable 104, or machines that could let even an earth pony like me fly in the sky, and medicine that can heal a pony from the verge of death... how’d we lose all of that amazing technology?”

“That very same technology, bent for decades towards the purpose of waging war, with nopony able to stop it before it turned the world to dust and ashes,” replied LIL-E, and an ominous silence fell between us as we returned to the entrance of Stable 104.



Before we headed inside LIL-E stopped. I glanced back at her.

“Still need to finish repairs on myself,” she said after an awkward moment.

I frowned. I could ask her why she was so insistent on finishing repairs on herself without any help or anypony seeing her, but it wasn’t my business. LIL-E had helped me out, listening to my angst over everything that’d happened. I owed her to let her keep her secrets. Thinking the matter over, it wasn’t as if the rest of my companions didn’t have their own secrets.

Even I had my secrets. I hadn’t told any of my friends about the weird dreams I’d had.

“Alright,” I told her, “You’ll be able to find us when you’re done?”

“Easy. Besides, if I stay up here for a bit I can keep an eye out, in case whatever Odessa is doing sends them our way,” the eyebot replied as she floated down to the ground and resumed work repairing herself.

I turned away from her, allowing her to concentrate on the work she had to do as I trotted on back into the waiting dark entrance of Stable 104.

----------

I’d barely gotten back to the entry chamber where the four bored looking spider pony guards were still hanging out when the familiar voice of Misty Glasses spoke over the air, through what I assumed was some sort of interior communication device.

“Longwalk, if you’d be so good as to come to the Stable control center? One of the guards will escort you. Also, is wandering outside ‘taking it easy’ like I told you to?”

I grimaced at the invisible voice, or wherever I imagined the voice was coming from. I felt fine, really. Still sore in the chest a bit, and tired, but for a buck who’d been stabbed, poisoned, and shot a few days ago I wasn’t feeling too shabby. Emotional issues aside.

“Like to see her stay in bed all day, with nothing to do,” I grumbled under my breath as the female spider pony who’d been hanging from the ceiling dropped down. After exchanging a few hisses, clicks, and weird arm gestures with her fellow guards the spider pony turned to me and poked me in the chest with one spindly arm, followed by a drawn out hiss. Without waiting for me to reply she scuttled down to one of the doors leading further into the Stable, only pausing once to glance back at me with a ‘Well?’ expression on her face.

“Lead on, my good mare,” I told her as I trotted along in her wake.

It was little surreal, following one of the spider ponies that I’d been fighting and fleeing just a few short days ago through these very halls. Also a tad uncomfortable, the way the spider pony just silently moved down the corridors with jerking, clicking motions of her eight legs. It was mesmerizing watching those legs move. Hadn’t really gotten a chance to look, what with all the desperate fighting for the life earlier, but those legs moved with remarkable coordination. Wonder what it was like to have eight legs?

“How do you keep track of them all?”

When the spider pony paused and gave me a weird look I blinked and coughed, smiling nervously, “S-sorry, just wondering out loud.”

The mare rolled her eyes at me and kept on walking, and I followed, concentrating on keeping my mouth shut and my mind focused. Focused on what? Practical things. Like what B.B, Arcaidia, and Binge might be doing right now. I envisioned the three mares, Arcaidia holding Binge firmly in place in a pool of water while B.B scrubbed the Raider mare, whose struggles splashed water on all three of them. Manes and tails dripping, water running off of flanks-

I blinked. Okay apparently I needed to not focus my mind, because when I did that, it went weird places. So I went back to thinking about Midnight Twinkle. Hello guilt, you’re way more familiar and comfortable to think about than my various mare companions bathing.

Actually the talk with LIL-E had settled my mind considerably. I hadn’t known how good just getting out all my frustrations and fears would feel. It wasn’t as if I was, well, over it or anything. I’d killed somepony, and that just wasn’t going to sit well with me for a long time, but knowing I had friends like LIL-E who would listen to me and be willing to give me some honest advice, even if it wasn’t advice I was immediately able to follow... helped. It helped a lot.

I’d be so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t notice we’d run into a dead end at first. I had to pause in my trot and take in my surroundings. It looked like a storage room, with a number of metal boxes neatly stacked in rows branching out from the walls, but not much else. The only door was behind me, the spider pony mare having led me right into the middle of the room. She’d turned around and was looking at me, just staring right into my face. I suddenly became very aware of how unarmed I was, and unarmored.

“Um, so, this isn’t the control room is it?” I asked.

The spider pony mare shook her head, then made a quick, high pitched whistling sound. I heard clicking behind me and glanced over my shoulder to see two more adult spider ponies enter the room, with a smaller spider pony riding on the back of one of them. The door slide closed after they entered and I heard an audible clunk of metal that sounded suspiciously like the door locking.

I might have asked what was going on at that point, but the fact was, I already had a good idea. I recognize the small spider pony on the back of one of the adults, after all. The pink of her coat with the white stripes, her blonde mane, and most of all her bright blue eyes, glaring at me with unbridled anger and pain.

“Would it help if I said this wasn’t a good idea?” I asked, already going over in my head how I was going to get out of this without getting myself killed, or getting any of them killed. I might be able to just buck them all into unconsciousness, though that wouldn’t help me with getting the locked door open. I might keep one of them conscious long enough to force them to open the door for me, but I still needed to actually survive the fight first.

Did Misty Glasses set this up? No, there’d be no reason for her to. If she’d wanted to hurt me there would have been no point in patching me up in the first place. This was probably just a few of the more angry spider ponies looking for payback for all the one’s who’d died in the fight. They’d waited until they could get at one of us while we were alone, and probably could be brought to a part of the Stable where there wasn’t any kind of equipment to monitor it.

In response to my question the small pink spider pony foal opened her jaws and let out a pained, high squealing hiss, her wide blue eyes already filling with tears of anger. The two spider ponies that had entered through the door with her made small clicking sounds, one of them nodding his head as if agreeing with whatever the foal had said. In front of me the female spider pony who’d led me in her was still watching me, and I thought for a moment I saw hesitation cross her arachnid feature’s. So she wasn’t quite on board with this? I had to seize that chance, before it was too late for any of us to walk away from this.

“Look,” I said, turning to the side so I could keep on eye on all of the spider ponies in the room, “Whatever you want to do to me, hurt me, or kill me, it won’t change what happened. I’m sorry it did happen. Truly I am. Me and my friends didn’t come here looking to hurt others. We didn’t even know the Stable was occupied. That fight... that whole fight shouldn’t have happened, and I’m sorry it did. Midnight Twinkle shouldn’t have put you all in that position in the first place.”

I didn’t know how much of an affect my words were having. The female spider pony hadn’t moved, but the other two, both males, had started to circle around me, while the little foal had hopped off the back of the one she’d been riding on. She stayed by the door, glaring at me with clear hatred, more than I felt should ever be on the face of one that young. I know B.B told me I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help myself, I turned to face the foal and lowered my head. Even if I ended up getting killed here and now, I wasn’t going without saying what I felt I had to say.

“I... I know it doesn’t change things, but I am sorry that-” I didn’t even get to finish the sentence, the tiny filly spider pony leaped right for my face, her tiny legs giving her remarkable distance as she jumped straight for me.

I froze, feeling her land on my face and skitter with scrabbling claws over my scalp, heading for the back of my neck. Instinct said to smack her off, or rolling over and try and crush her, but I took a firm hold of that instinct and bucked it straight into orbit. I wasn’t making the same mistake twice and I refused to hurt this kid again!

With all of my willpower I forced myself to stay still. I felt the spider pony foal clamber onto the side of my neck and didn’t need to look to know she was about to sink her fangs into me. I looked straight at the female spider pony who led me in here and simply said, “I won’t hurt her.”

Then there was a piercing pain in the side of my neck followed by a fiery pain that spread right through me in a flash. I grunted and clenched my jaw, my heart racing as poison was pumped into my system. The intensity of the pain, plus the speed of its spread, felt far weaker than the previous time I’d been poisoned. Made sense, she was just a foal after all, the poison probably wasn’t as developed in her as in an adult. Lucky me her fangs weren’t large either.

I kept my gaze locked on the female before me, who was looking decidedly uncomfortable with the fact that I wasn’t fighting back. The other two also looked confused. They’d cried out and moved forward when the foal had jumped me, as if afraid I’d hurt her defending myself. They clearly hadn’t been expecting me to just stand there and take it.

“I... ugh... I’m not your enemy,“ I said, feeling blurry headed and a profound need to vomit. Weaker or not, poison was poison, but damn it all unless I was certain I had no choice I wasn’t going to hurt this foal!

“I’m sorry for everything.”

The adult female’s hinged jaw had opened slightly in what I think may have been shock. Her pony-like eyes were an interesting shade of orange, and they swam with indecision for several seconds. When I collapsed to one knee, still refusing to harm the foal trying desperately to take her vengeance on me, I saw a decision get made in the female’s eyes as they narrowed. The female spider pony hissed loudly and in a flash was at my side, her forelegs reaching up and peeling away the foal.

The foal wailed and screamed, and the other two adults also hissed. The female, still holding the struggling foal whose eight legs were kicking about madly, gave a sharp series of clicks and hisses at the other two and shook her head fiercely. The other two exchanged confused looks, clearly having expected this scene to go down quite differently than it was.

Just then there was a sound of a muffled gunshot, followed by a hydraulic release of air as the door slid open. I then heard B.B’s voice shout out, “What in bloody tarnation is goin’ on in here!? What’re ya bastards doin’ ta Longwalk!?”

Weakened limbs or not I was still able to force my legs to move as I turned around to see B.B floating in the air in front of the now open door, wings buzzing madly and her white coat tinged red with rage, one of her pistols still smoking while the other was pointed at the spider ponies in the room. She took one look at me and snarled, forelegs drawing back to start shooting. I barely managed to raise a hoof.

“B.B, stop!”

She did, but barely. Her entire body was tense, almost vibrating with anger. Even her eyes seemed... different, tinged slightly red around the rims, though I may have been imagining that. I had to be, right? Ponies eyes usually didn’t turn red, even when royally pissed. Her nose was also twitching her nostrils flared wide, as if she was smelling something, and her breaths were coming in short, intense gasps.

“Long, ya alright? Tell me yer alright, an’ I won’t plug these bastards full o’ holes!”

“I’m alright, just a little poison. Won’t kill me, mmgh, just feel a bit woozy,” I managed to say while swallowing back bile.

Just as I finished that sentence I heard a brief keening hiss behind me and looked back to see the female spider pony dropping the foal, clutching at her leg where a bit of blood oozed out. The foal had bitten the adult and was scrambling into the back of the room. I heard a crate click open and before anyone, pony or spider variants thereof, could react the foal had hopped on top of the crate with something clutched between her spindly front legs.

It was a magical energy pistol, similar to the boxy shaped one’s I’d seen a few Odessa soldiers carry. It was almost comical, the way the spider pony foal had to hold it so awkwardly in her tiny legs, but there was nothing funny about the crying look of frustration and fury she was directing at me as she pointed the weapon at my face. I heard B.B growl and I moved between her and the foal. The poison was slowing me, but the pain wasn’t getting worse anymore, so I was keeping myself on my hooves.

“Dangnabbit Long, move! How many times ya gotta git yer dumb self shot!? Ya ain’t gonna always be able ta git up again after!” the pegasus shouted desperately as she tried to get a clear shot around me. I didn’t budge, turning my attention fully to the foal, whose legs were shaking. Was I making a mistake? Probably. But I’d rather be wrong and try and save a life, than be right, and watch another die.

The other spider ponies seemed hesitant to move under the circumstances, as if not sure what to do. I ignored them, focused solely on the foal. My eyes and hers locked on each other, and I could all but feel what she was. It wasn’t hard to put myself in her place, because I had been in her place. Nothing in my life had hurt as badly as losing Shale. A pony I’d known for a day, yet had become my friend surely as Trailblaze was my friend. How much worse, if I had known Shale my whole life? Would the wound her death had opened in me have hurt more? Would the scar it left behind be deeper? It didn’t matter, pain was pain, and I’d had enough of seeing it and causing it for one day.

“I hurts,” I said, “I know it hurts.”

The foal hissed at me, but she didn’t fire, though half of that was probably just because she hadn’t quite figured out where the trigger was, and her aim was shaking terribly. She was fiddling with the energy pistol, looking to get a grip on the trigger while steadying her aim. It gave me a few seconds; gave us a chance, both me and her.

“She can’t be replaced. I know that! Mother, sister, friend, whoever she was, she was irreplaceable and she’s dead because of me and my friends. I could say sorry a thousand times and it wouldn’t be enough. But I am sorry. Sorry I hurt you, sorry I didn’t stop my friend from killing her...”

The foal had the weapon figured out now and was steadying it in her shaky legs, drawing a bead on my head. I didn’t take my eyes off hers. She was breathing heavy, taking in rapid, short, panicking breaths. I could imagine her tiny heart pattering away like a drumbeat in tune with her anguish.

“If I could undo it, give her back to you, I would. But I can’t. Even if you kill me, she’ll still be gone, and you’ll still hurt. I wish I could have stopped all of it, any of the deaths that happened.”

I’d taken a tentative step towards the crate the foal was standing on, the poison she’d injected me with making my muscles twinge with pain and my stomach roil acidically with every inch of movement. The foal tensed. Still the weapon didn’t fire. I took another step. Everypony else was silent as death, holding their breath.

“More than anything, right now, I don’t want you to be hurt,” I told the spider pony foal.

One more step and I was close enough that I could reach up and touch her if I wanted to. The spider pony foal was so still she may have been a statue, or a ghost. I didn’t look at the energy pistol, I just looked at her, those shimmering blue eyes. She must have known she couldn’t miss at this range. One tiny twitch of her leg and I’d be badly wounded at best, dead at worst.

I could see Midnight Twinkle, a phantom image in my mind’s eye, looking at me with mocking accusation. Why not kill this one too, just like you did me? that dead gray wraith asked me, Because she’s a child? Because she’s threatening just your life, and not your friends? Hypocrite!

No! I thought back, not sure if I was just arguing with myself, or a hallucination, the actual spirit of the one I killed, or some crazy fragment of my mind which may have started to break under the stress of all that had happened to me since leaving my tribe.

I don’t care if its hypocrisy! Its worth risking my life to save her! Its worth risking it to save anypony, no matter what the circumstances are! That’s... that’s what I’m meant to do! This is who I am!

My hoof raised with dream like slowness. I reached past the energy pistol and I saw the foal’s eyes widen as she shoved the barrel right against the base of my chest, fear now mixing with her anger. Then, gently as I could, I put my leg around her in an awkward hug, my own eyes finally brimming the tears that had been gathering in them.

“I won’t hurt you, no matter what you do.”

I felt the spider pony foal trembling against me, the cold metal of the energy pistol pressed loosely against me shaking. Then all strength seemed to just drop out of her as the foal sagged, a piercing, keening wail escaping her as she started to bawl. The energy pistol clattered to the floor.

In an instant the female adult spider pony was next to us, giving me a strange look as she made small, soft clicks and cooing noises as she carefully put long forelegs around the foal and took her from me. The foal buried her face in the adult’s, crying her eyes out, and the adult just patted her gently.

B.B was next to me, hoof on my withers, giving me a once over with a look that was both relieved and pissed all at once.

“Longwalk,” the pegasus said, “Yer a’ right idiot! What were ya plannin’ ta do if she pulled the trigger!?”

“Uh... dodge...?” I said, weakly, knees shaking. Ancestors, I had to stop making a habit of getting into situations like this. It just wasn’t good for my health.

“Dodge!? How!? By teleportin’!?”

“Okay so maybe I didn’t plan that one out very well, but hey, nopony’s dead, right? All’s well that ends... ugh... well...”

Dizziness overcame me and the sickness I’d been holding in from the poison and general stress of the day came up. I think B.B sensed the incoming issue because her eyes widened and she dodged to the side as I bent over and proceeded to give the storage room floor a new, smelly coat of paint. Lunch had been great the first time. Didn’t taste nearly as good though, coming back up.

B.B was hovering a little behind me now. The spider ponies had gathered by the door, the female still holding onto the crying foal. The two males were shuffling nervously, one of them speaking to the female in a series of quiet hisses and rapid arm gestures. The female responded with a sharp glance and fast, cutting gesture. I wondered what they were talking about. Probably what to do, now that the whole ‘help the kid get revenge on the bad murderous ponies’ plan had sort of fallen through.

Spitting out the last of the bile from my mouth, I craned my neck to look over my shoulder at B.B, who I noticed was giving me an odd look.

“How’d you end up finding me here anyway?”

“After a’ rough bit o’ work me an’ Arcaidia got Binge in somethin’ resemblin’ a’ clean state. Mare treats water like its radioactive waste. That done I thought I’d come find ya, see how yer were holdin’ up an’ if ya found LIL-E. Caught yer scent though comin’ back from the Stable door, an’ followed it here,” B.B looked over at the spider ponies, violet eyes narrowing, “An’ found ya gettin’ bushwhacked!”

At her tone the spider ponies looked over at her, the female holding the foal close as she looked between me and my pegasus friend. I put a hoof on B.B’s side, hoping to calm her, but she flitted outside my reach, giving me a sour look. I frowned, realizing just how much what I did upset her.

“B.B, it was a mistake. How easily could you keep your cool if you were told to make friendly with folk that’d killed your kin?”

B.B’s nostrils flared, and again I thought I saw that faint tinge of red around her eyes, but slowly the irritated fast flapping of her wings slowed and she landed. She took in a slow, deep breath, and brushed some of her brown and pink streaked hair away from her face.

“I’d be right pissed. I git that. Don’t mean I gotta like that they tried ta hurt ya, an’ worse let a foal in on the deed! That ain’t right t’all!”

The female looked at B.B, and to my surprise slowly nodded gravely, features abashed.The foal she set on her back, the little spider pony hiccuping little squeaking sobs. My chest tightened painfully seeing her in such a state. I’d already given her what words I could, and what else did I have but those words? I could only hope that eventually, someday, those wounds would heal for her. If the pain I felt every time I thought of Shale was any indication, though, the healing process was going to be a long one.

----------

Somewhere around twenty minutes later I found myself slowly slurping down a thin, pink concoction that supposedly was helping neutralize the poison that was still circulating in my system. The spider ponies that had led me astray to that storage room had, after some apparent browbeating and argument from the female, turned themselves over to their fellow spider ponies. I wasn’t sure what had been exchanged between them but the foal had been led off one way, and the adults led elsewhere. When Misty Glasses found out what happened and I asked what was going to happen she simply told me that the community as a whole would decide upon a punishment for those who broke the law of hospitality they’d agreed to in regards to me and my friends. She told me the punishment wouldn’t be too severe, but she as closest thing the Stable had to a leader at the moment had to enforce some kind of law, otherwise things would degrade to a state worse than when Director Twinkle was in charge.

I was reminded of Chief Hardtack, and the things she often had spoken of; maintaining the peace, doing what was needed for the good of the community. Being a leader wasn’t easy, and it occurred to me that having so many lives depending on your decisions probably created a lot of pressure to make the ‘right choice’ for as many of those under your care as possible. If I were in Hard Tack’s, or even Director Twinkle’s positions, would I have managed to do any better? Could I have found the right way to do things, without having to make any kind of sacrifice for the greater good? I didn’t have an answer, and way too much on my mental plate to really contemplate it. I was having a hard enough time just working out how to pursue my own sense of morality.

“Let me get this straight,” Iron Wrought said with a look that said he was wondering whether or not I had anything between my ears besides sand, “Somepony points a gun at you, and your response is to hug them? You do understand there are easier ways to commit suicide, right?

“She was just a foal,” I said, hanging my head. I’d already gotten chewed out by B.B, and Arcaidia had given me nothing but blood freezing glares since she’d gotten news of what happened. Didn’t really feel like getting the third degree from all of my companions.

“Amazing thing, buck, but foals can pull triggers just as easily as adults,” the green stallion chided, then snorted and shook his head, “Why do I bother? You haven’t listened to an ounce of sound advice since I met you.”

“Can we re-focus here?” I asked, “Misty Glasses, what did you need to talk to us about?”

We were all together; me, Arcaidia, B.B, Iron Wrought, and Binge. LIL-E wasn’t with us, still hanging outside the Stable working on repairing herself. I’d already told everypony about seeing an Odessa Vertibuck passing by and landing somewhere north of here, news that had been met with equally concerned looks exchanged between all of us. Odessa had shown its willingness to destroy entire settlements to get at Arcaidia. If they found out about us being here at Stable 104 then everypony here would be in serious danger.

The room we were in was what I was assuming was the Stables ‘control room’, though I could only guess at what even half of what I was seeing was meant to do. The chamber was a large half circle. We’d entered it through a single large elevator along the flat end of the room. The room was formed of two tiers, the upper one with banks of terminals circling around the lower tier, where a large mechanical apparatus rose like a metal flower of hydraulics and wires, all culminating in a control chair and panels where Misty Glasses was... not sitting, exactly, as her bulk was too large for the chair obviously meant for a normal pony, but she was poised easily on top of the apparatus with the ease spider ponies seemed to have with walls and ceilings.

Other spider ponies skittered around the room, checking monitors and flipping buttons, doing whatever it was ponies did in a Stable control room. Whatever it was, they were all pretty intent on their tasks.

“Yes, let’s,” she said in her somewhat distorted voice, “Though I can’t apologize enough for that incident. I knew some of us were holding ill will towards you and your fellows for the Director’s death and that of the one’s we lost in that unfortunate fight, but to think they’d go so far. At least Syringe had the good sense to see reason once she saw how far you in turn would go to avoid hurting Time Sheet’s daughter.”

I cocked my head, memory prickling, “Time Sheet... wait, wait, I know that name! She and another pony had been trapped in that machine shop. We found a recording when we were exploring.”

Misty Glasse’s blinked, “Hm, I see. She and Slick Wrench were among the last to be found and... converted into what we are now.”

“So ya’ll were made inta what ya are?” asked B.B as she floated up, the tall ceiling giving her plenty of room to stretch her wings. The thought occurred to me that she might not be very comfortable spending so much time underground. I wasn’t fond of it either.

“The first ‘generation’ was, yes. Others were born later,” Misty Glasses said, while my own mind went about the process of adding two and two.

The foal is Time Sheet’s... does that mean the spider pony Arcaidia killed was...?

Misty Glasses must have read my expression because a sigh escaped her, sounding odd the way it was distorted by the voice box, “Yes, Time Sheet was among those killed in the fighting. I’m aware of how it happened, but I don’t blame you or your friend. I blame myself for failing to get in contact with you all sooner. If I could have managed to do so, and explain things, so much death could have been avoided.”

Before I could respond Iron Wrought spoke up first, his tone tinged with suspicion, “Why didn’t you contact us? Why get in touch with the crazed Raider instead of, you know, the sane ponies who could have done more to end things without adding unnecessary explosions to the mess?”

“Explosions are fun, and how could fun be unnecessary?” asked Binge in a sweetly innocent tone, even as she scratched at her neck with a hoof and gave B.B and Arcaidia a withering look.

“I’m not dignifying that with an answer,” Iron Wrought said, then frowned, “And will you stop scratching yourself!?”

“No, I feel funny all over.”

“It’s called being clean!”

“It itches!”

“Being clean should make you the opposite of itchy!”

“Ahem, all that aside,” Mist Glasses said, bringing one hooked leg up to her nose to adjust her spectacles, “I was working under severe limitations on what systems I could access. Director Twinkle was quite paranoid, so making any attempt to control even the smallest of systems in the Stable took a great deal of patience on my part. Miss Binge and Miss B.B just happened to be in the right place at the right time for me to sneak a message to one of the terminals they were passing.”

“That was you with the terminal in the lab me and Arcaidia were in, too, wasn’t it?” I asked, and she nodded.

“Yes, I was trying to provide you with anything that might help you understand that we were all ponies in here, not monsters.”

“But how?” asked B.B, gesturing at all the other spider ponies at the various terminals, “How’d normal pony folk git all, er, spiderfied?”

“A question with no short or simple answer I’m afraid,” said Misty Glasses, who then looked down at Arcaidia, and then at me, “One that may well relate to both of you in particular.”

I looked over at Arcaidia, who was giving Misty Glasses a confused and reserved look of her own. The blue unicorn filly had been quiet since we’d entered the elevator, only giving a sharp reprimand about my stunt with the spider pony foal. There may have been certain threats to freeze particular stallion bits off if I continued to act in such a reckless manner. I was fairly certain she wasn’t joking, either.

“What do Arcaidia and me have to do with this?” I asked.

Misty Glasses hesitated, a couple of her legs tapping on the metal sides of the control station she was perched on. I could see her pale green eyes staring off, not at us, but at other things. Distant memories, I was guessing.

“I should start at the beginning. Give context to all of this. You are all aware of what Stables are, yes?”

My friends gave a round of nods, and I followed suit. Misty Glasses gestured at the side of the control station, where I noticed there was that same Stable-Tech logo as had been on the Mini Golem Binge had found.

“Stable-Tech created everything related to the Stables, but they were not the sole organization that built them. Their brand may be on many of the machines in 104, but as you probably noticed when exploring this place, there was another group whose trappings fill our halls.”

“The Ministry of Arcane Science,” said Iron Wrought with a twist to his lips like he tasted something foul, “Half the mutated freaks in the Wasteland are from their bloody labs.”

Misty Glasses’ head bobbed in a nod, “Yes, Twilight Sparkle’s Ministry of Arcane Science was the group responsible for building Stable 104; just as other Ministries were involved in the creation of our sister Stables, 105, and 106. Specifically the Ministry of Wartime Technology built 105, and the Ministry of Peace built 106.”

“What about the other Ministries, did they build stables in this region as well?” I asked, remembering LIL-E had said she was only aware of three Stables in the Skull City Wastes, but if there were more...

“Not precisely. Allow me to explain,” Misty Glasses said as her long legs spun a rapid dance over the controls in front of her and in a moment a circular glass eye-like device extended from a small port on the front of the spire and projected a thin ghostly beam of light. To my equal parts fascinating and surprise an image appeared in the air, not unlike the same manner in which that pony-like figure from the Ruin beneath Saddlespring had. Only this image was not a pony, but rather it showed what seemed to me a three dimensional map. I saw the role of the landscape, with mountains flanking either side of the circular map. Dotting it were what I could only imagine were small clusters of bumps that may have been the ruins of towns and cities like what I’d seen north of Saddlespring. These skeletal remains of the past covered a large portion of the middle right portion of the map, and if I was getting my scales right then... that city had once been massive.

“What you are looking at is a holoprojection of the city of Detrot and the five hundred or so square miles that comprises its environs, including the Whitehoof Mountains to the west, and the Eerie Mountains to the east. Most of the details of this map are based upon the last survey data we collected about twenty years ago, so there is no doubt a number of things that are incorrect, but for our purposes this will suffice,” Misty Glasses said as she manipulated a few controls, and a dot lit up on the south west portion of the map, “This is where we are, Stable 104.”

Another dot appeared, far to the north and east, a fair bit north of what I was assuming was Detrot itself, “This is Stable 105, and here,” another dot, this time in the eastern mountains, a little south of Detrot, “Is where Stable 106 is located.”

“Is it me or do them Stables make a’ triangle wit Skull City sittin’ right smack ina middle?” noted B.B floating down and taking a closer look at the translucent white map, “There a’ reason fer that?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” said Misty Glasses, flipping another switch on her controls and making another dot appear... this one directly in the middle of Detrot, “This is the location of Center, the core of the Combined Stable System. Unlike other Stables, the CSS was meant to be an interconnected system in which each Stable in the system would perform the needed functions associated with their Ministry. The nature of the Ministries of Image, Morale, and, uh, ‘Awesome’ were such that they were all combined in Center. However the other Ministries like the Ministry of Arcane Science required more space for their work, so sharing a single Stable with another Ministry would not be feasible. Also the nature of the work, the experiments and such, meant that having it based in a separate Stable acted as a safety buffer. That is why Stables 104 and its sister Stables were kept separate, but still connected to each other and Center via an underground railway. The terminal station you fought Director Twinkle in is part of the system that links us to the other Stables in the CSS.”

“O... kay?” I said, not quite getting it, “Why do all that, though? I thought Stables were basically supposed to be all self-sustaining and independent.”

“Conventional Stables, designed for the purpose of protecting a portion of the populace were designed to be singular, that is correct,” said Misty Glasses as she gestured at the map, a series of red lines criss-crossing the map to connect the three Stables and Center, “However the CSS was created to serve a different purpose. In the event of a megaspell war, in which both Equestria and Roam unleashed their megaspell payloads, there would have been three possible outcomes. The first was mutually assured destruction of both sides; which is what occurred. However there were two other possibilities. One was Equestria coming out ahead, managing to disrupt enough of the zebra megaspells for a large portion of the country surviving while destroying our enemies. In that event the Stables would have only served as a temporary shelter and their inhabitants could rejoin a triumphant Equestria in short order. The other possibility was that the zebras would come out ahead, stopping enough of our megaspells that Roam and a significant portion of its empire would survive, while Equestria would be devastated. In that event it could be decades or centuries before the Equestrian Stables would open, and in that time the zebras would move in and have taken over most of our territory. The CSS was created to counteract that possibility. A series of Stables, containing the needed research, industry, and governmental structures of the Ministries to function as a miniature version of Equestria itself. We would create and maintain a military force that would continue to grow technologically, and when the time came to return to the surface in the event of a zebra take-over, we could come out strong and effectively re-ignite the war.”

Silence reigned amongst my friends and I while we took all of that in. I was following what Misty Glasses was saying but wasn’t sure what this had to do with Arcaidia and myself yet. What the Combined Stable System was made sense, though it begged a number of questions. Questions I didn’t need to ask because other ponies among my traveling companions were already on the case.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Binge was hopping up and down, raising a hoof in the air and shaking it. Misty Glasses looked over the rim of her glasses at the Raider mare.

“Yes?”

“With so many pretty little ponies playing doctor down in the darkness why didn’t any of you come up to play with us sooner!? If I’d known so many new friends were waiting to be shown how to have a good time, Mr. Happy style, me and him would’ve invited you all up a long time ago!” Binge said with a far too wide grin that showed teeth in a way that reminded me of the golden gecko that had lunged for Trailblaze’s neck.

“Mr. Happy?” Misty Glasses asked, bemused.

Binge materialized the bloody sock puppet, “Yup! He likes to meet new ponies! Why’d you all stay down here so long, huh? Just thinking about it makes my inside bits hurt. But its okay now, because we can have fun and I can show my new friends how to party surface style!”

“Crazy as she’s talkin’ she’s brought up a’ good point,” said B.B, “Why did y’all stay down here so long if ya had a’ big bunch o’ Stables wit new fangled tech and stuff. Ya coulda been helpin’ out the surface this whole time!”

Before Misty Glasses could answer it was Arcaidia who spoke up, her tone level and collected, “Esru vi yuvire dol vorae mas, ren bruhir. No... gain? No good? Big risk. Surface ground damaged, bad, why risk go? Not good plan, yes?”

“That is essentially an accurate assessment,” said Misty Glasses with a small sigh, a few small clicking sounds escaping her followed by a soft hiss, “Ultimately the Center Council decided, after initial surveys of surface conditions, that attempting to re-establish Equestria on the surface was not a viable option. Too much risk to our own population due to the contamination of radiation plus the dangers of the extensive presence of mutated predators and... violent, unstable ponies. That decision was made over one hundred and twenty years ago, well before I was born, but it had remained the policy of the CSS to remain underground and apart from surface affairs while looking towards our own needs since that time.”

Iron Wrought scoffed, blue eyes closing in disdain, “So you’re the bloody Enclave, only underground instead of above the clouds? All the technological means to help, but too scared of getting your hooves dirty to risk coming to the surface!?”

I looked at him. I’d heard the Enclave mentioned by LIL-E, though I didn’t know anything besides the bare bones details. Regardless, I didn’t like his tone.

“Iron Wrought, I don’t think its that simple.”

“Isn’t it?” he glared at me, “Its always the same damned story with ponies like this. They got a nice, safe, secure place, with all the resources they need to survive, but are they willing to risk any of it to help others? Hell no! Why risk their own precious hides?”

“This coming from the stallion who harps on me for risking my hide to save others?” I asked. I didn’t understand why Iron Wrought was so angry about this, given he was usually the one advocating not taking risks.

“There’s a difference between you, one easy-to-kill pony, and a whole damned network of Stables with all the technology and resources of a nation behind them! You can’t make a difference. They could have!”

Well... ouch. Thanks Iron Wrought, I’m glad I can count on you to keep my morale high. Before I could get too morose about that cheerful statement, however, Misty Glasses cut in.

“Ahem, whether or not the CSS could have made any significant difference to the quality of life in this region of the Wasteland is a moot debate, given the CSS no longer effectively exists.”

That got our attention focused back on her. Seeing as she had our undivided attention Misty Glasses resumed, her mechanical voice taking on a grave note that I could hear even with the distortion of the voice box.

“Our policy of isolation remained in place until twenty one years ago. We had only sent small teams to the surface once a year, just to check up on conditions until that point. However, on August 12th of that year our annual recon team was discovered by an unusual group of pegasi possessing remarkably advanced technology. The recon team was initially held hostage, but after negotiations with these pegasi, the nature of which I am not privy to the details of, Center agreed to an alliance with the pegasi’s organization. This organization is what you know as Odessa.”

At Odessa’s mention I realized that while I’d told my friends about it, I hadn’t gotten around to informing Misty Glasses about the Veritbuck LIL-E and I saw.

“Misty Glasses, I should tell you that Odessa is in the area. One of their flying machines landed somewhere north of here.”

“We already know,” said Misty Glasses, waving a hooked foreleg, “They landed at our northern excavation site. A couple of our monitoring devices are still intact there, so while we can see them there, we can’t get a clear view of what they’re doing.”

The image of the map flickred, wavering like wind billowing through fog. The smooth circular pie of a map changed into an image of a crater, or similarly depressed area of land. Slabs of stone grasped up from the ground in two uneven rows, too smooth and pointed towards their tips to be natural formations. These stones formed a path towards the mouth of an open cave in the side of the largest and steepest of the crater slopes. The Odessa Vertibuck was sitting in the middle of the area, a insectoid beast of metal with its engines turned downward. A few pegasi in Odessa white armor stood guard in the area, and I could even see a griffin or two among their number. The guards were watching a team of unarmored pegasi hauling crates towards the cave mouth.

“What are they up to?” I asked, “What is that excavation site?”

“What they’re doing is unknown. There should be nothing left for them at that site, given when they were last here they took all of our research, and in the many years since they have not returned,” replied Misty Glasses with a wondering tone of her own, “As for the site, it is the location of a Ruin, one of many that exist scattered over the Skull City Wastes. This Ruin in particular we had used to acquire many interesting things to research. Part of the reason the CSS was established in this region, as opposed to any other, was because of the Ruins. It was the belief of the CSS’ designer and benefactor that the Ruins could prove to be a boon to our research projects.”

“An’ just who was this benefactor?” asked B.B, her eyes warily looking over the images of the Odessa troops at the excavation site, “Must’ve been a’ real high roller ta throw together somethin’ big as this CSS o’ yers.”

Misty Glasses laughed, a breathy series of short hisses, “You could say that she was a ‘high roller’. The pony who created the CSS was none other than Princess Luna herself.”

B.B blinked, the flutter of her wings slowing a bit, “That’d qualify as a high roller, yeah. So, I’m noticin’ yer not all that bothered Odessa is sittin’ in yer backyard. What’s up wit that?”

The spider pony shrugged, “They haven’t bothered us in the seventeen years since they were last here. That they’re back at the excavation site now after so long is concerning, but there’s little we can do to stop them. As long as they don’t come here we should be fine, and even if they do, I can evacuate my people into the caverns beneath the Stable.”

Binge had wandered underneath the floating images, what had Misty Glasses called it?

A holoprojection? She waved her hoof through the phantom images, like she was trying to grasp the Veribuck.

“Such a shiny, big, fat bird. Can we go take it? I’d like to see how high it can go. Maybe we could reach the moon?”

“Not sure we could fly that thing even if we did take it,” I said, actually a little tempted by the prospect Binge had brought up. I wasn’t eager to go fight the Odessa soldiers, but there was a certain attraction to having one of those Vertibucks. For a moment my mind imagined the freedom of being able to go anywhere, anytime. The feel of stretching gray sky above, the endless expanse of brown earth below, no restrictions, feeling nothing but air coursing over my wings...

Huh, that was a new thought. Never really fantasized about wings before. Must be the pegasus blood in me. Though if that was the case, why hadn’t I ever had such thoughts before?

“We. I like that tiny word,” said Binge as she looked at me with her tongue flashing across her lips, eyes boring into me, “It’s an easy feat, just saying ‘we’. If ‘we’ can’t take the pretty metal bird, what can ‘we’ do together, my little bucky?”

Iron Wrought’s ears hugged the back of his head as he looked at Binge with eyes narrowed to slits, “Can you say even one sentence without making it sound like you want to either kill him, eat him, or fuck him?”

Binge burst into a series of rapid, high pitched giggles at that, while my own face winced, giving Iron Wrought a sidelong look.

“Yeah, anyway, moving on...” I looked back at Misty Glasses, who just had a bemused expression on her spiderish features, “I’m assuming things started going bad for your Stable after the CSS and Odessa started working together?”

“Yes, and it happened quickly,” Misty Glasses said, flicking a switch that made the holoprojection fade away, much to Binge’s obvious disappointment as the Raider mare hung her head with a small sniffle.

“A few of us here in 104 were intrigued and excited at the possibility of sharing knowledge and technology with what appeared to be such an advanced group of surfacers. The pegasi and griffins from Odessa brought news of events all across the Wasteland of Equestria, and at first shared a great deal of information with us. Odessa had been studying the Ruins, the same as we had, and between our organizations we made numerous breakthroughs in our studies. Breakthroughs that Odessa wished to possess for themselves, and allow none else to have them. Our first sign of trouble was when Odessa pegasi started to perform ‘inspections’ of our research and stopped sharing their own research results in turn. Before long we heard rumors of ponies being... taken, from the laboratories.”

Misty Glasses looked away from us, her gaze slowly passing over the other spider ponies in the control room. Some of them had stopped or slowed their work, either meeting Misty Glasses gaze, or looking away, lost in their own thoughts. It occurred to me they’d been listening in on our conversation and that this was all bringing up bad memories for them.

“Center wasn’t communicating clearly with us,” Misty Glasses continued, “Not answering inquiries as to what was happening with Odessa and why ponies were going missing. We all got more and more nervous as the days went by, now afraid of when the pegasi and griffins would show up in their white uniforms and heavily armed power armored guards. Who might they take next? Before we knew it, an incident occurred at Stable 105. The M.W.T researchers there made a massive breakthrough in researching an ARM, one of the artifacts found in the Ruins. They’d succeeded in replicating the ARM’s nanomachine base form, albeit at a much reduced capacity to synchronize with a living organism. Not more than a few hours after news of the breakthrough spread to the rest of the CSS, Odessa moved on Stable 105 and confiscated not only the original ARM and the replica, but took all of the researchers involved in the project. We were all terrified! Odessa had even used force, killing several of 105’s security ponies when there was protests made against their actions.”

Misty Glasses spat, a small grimace of anger that marred her otherwise calm features, “And still Center did nothing! Director Twinkle contacted them I don’t know how many times! She all but pleaded with them to put a stop to Odessa’s actions! To protect us! Center was not helpless! They had the greatest concentration of our security forces including the elite Brionac platoon! But they did nothing... only told us to cooperate with Odessa, regardless of what the pegasi might do.”

I could understand her anger, putting myself in her place. How frustrating it must have been, being powerless to stop Odessa from doing whatever they pleased, to have the very leaders of your tribe refusing to lift a hoof to help! If it had been my tribe being threatened and Hard Tack had just been sitting on her haunches telling us to do nothing I imagined I’d have been furious.

Next to me Arcaidia had a confused look on her face, silver eyes thoughtful. Was she having trouble following the conversation?

“You alright Arcaidia?” I asked.

She flicked her eyes towards me, barely nodding, “Vira. Esru... I good. Thinking. Spider pony talk much, but no on me and Longwalk.”

Oh, that was it. Misty Glasses had said this all tied into Arcaidia and myself, but hadn’t gotten to what that connection was. I think Arcaidia was nervous about that. She was trying to hide her past because it was supposed to be secret. If Misty Glasses knew something then that might mean Arcaidia’s secret would get out and then she’d be in trouble with her big sister. I took a step closer to her and touched her hoof with my own, giving her a reassuring smile.

“Don’t worry, whatever we end up learning, won’t change I’ll help you however I can.”

She returned my smile, batting my hoof away playfully, “Mud brain, I not worried.”

“Soon enough Odessa did come to Stable 104 in force,” Misty Glasses was saying, “They already had our research notes on the Force Carrots and Grow Apple reproduction in our Botany department, or Director Twinkle’s development on the Full Tuned Gear, and the Crest Sorcery my Theoretical Arcane Physics labs were working on, but they had not yet been given our data on the Specimen.”

She looked now to Arcaidia and I, her look pensive, and I felt oddly tense.

“The Specimen was discovered in the northern excavation site, where Odessa is now. It and the Golem.”

“Golem?” I suddenly blurted, “Like... like a giant, bipedal thing of metal and mean?”

“Not the most scientific definition, but yes, the Golem we discovered was obviously at one time fully bipedal, similar in structure to a minotaur. It was damaged beyond our ability to repair, but the samples we took from it allowed us to create the Full Tuned Gear prototype that your friends found in our hangar bay. Advanced metal alloys unlike anything found in Equestria, with power systems that used magical energy more efficiently than our most advanced robotics knowledge. But the Golem was not what Odessa was after then, it was the Specimen. A... a bipedal creature of possible extraterrestrial origins. Like the Golem it must have been entombed in the Ruin for thousands of years. Unlike the Golem it was an almost perfect fusion of organic and machine qualities. Not merely cybernetic, not merely replacing organics with mechanical parts, but rather a complete mixture of machine and flesh, to the point where it was impossible to tell where organics and technology stopped and started. It was... dead, or at least we believed it to be dead, and had been studying it in our most secure laboratory. However it reacted on a metaphysical level to certain Ruin artifacts and I was trying to convince Director Twinkle that it was possible the Specimen could... revive itself. She would not listen, had become obsessed with studying it. When Odessa came for the Specimen she... she ordered all security ponies to stop them and tried to move the Specimen out of the Stable.”

One of the spider ponies across the room at one of the many terminals along the wall made a series of hisses, to which Misty Glasses replied in kind, shaking her head. The spider pony that spoke up fell silent.

“My apologies, there is... there is a lot of bad memories in this story for some of us. But this has to be told. Some of my ponies don’t trust you, Longwalk, or you Arcaidia. Not because of the fight with Director Twinkle, but because of what happened when Odessa came for the Specimen. You see, as Odessa was fighting its way down to the lower labs, Director Twinkle and her team was moving the Specimen to the terminal station, hoping to flee with it to the surface. I think Twinkle planned to run, run until she found a surface facility to continue her studies on the Specimen, abandoning the Stable. However, while they were moving it the Specimen... well, woke up.”

She shuddered, a tremble that ran in twitching shakes through all eight of her legs. I heard a crunching sound next to me and glanced, blinking to see that Binge was sitting next to me, holding one hoof up as if carrying something, and making gestures with her other hoof like she was scooping something up and popping it into her mouth. She was making the crunching noises like she was eating something, even though her hooves were empty.

“Want some?” she asked, offering me her empty hoof.

“Want what?” I asked in utter bewilderment.

“Popcorn, silly filly,” she said happily, eating more of her nonexistent... whatever ‘popcorn’ was.

“I’m... good,” I said and looked back at Misty Glasses. Sometimes you just had to ignore the crazy.

Misty Glasses had moved one of her forelegs to her console, hesitating over one of the switches. She looked at me, eyes growing serious, “You must have noticed we moved your ARM elsewhere. I had to have a look at it myself, to examine it and ensure it wasn’t... well, something else. You’ll understand why with this footage. Of the Specimen.”

She flicked the switch and a recording began on the holoprojector. I recognized the entryway of the Stable, the circular chamber and the huge cog-like thick door of metal that in the image was whole. I remembered finding that same door sliced cleanly in half when we’d first arrived at the Stable. Ponies in blue and black padded security armor, carrying pistols and SMGs, clustered around the door, forming a concave line of defense against one of the interior doors.

“The Specimen awoke and began to slaughter those around it. Director Twinkle barely escaped by crawling into a vent shaft. The Specimen retrieved an artifact we’d taken from the Ruin. We didn’t know the artifact belonged to it, though I should have known, given in our experiments this artifact reacted with the Specimen stronger than any other. Once the Specimen and this artifact were brought together... nothing could stop it. It walked out of this Stable, and killed any who stood in its path, whether they were Stable security, or Odessa.”

As she spoke I saw an Odessa griffin, clad in stark white combat armor, stagger into the entry room. The male griffin spun around, carrying a large multi-barreled energy weapon that spat a stream of red lances of magic down into the corridor he’d fled from. Then in a flash something stabbed out, spearing the griffin and pulling him back into the corridor. It happened so fast I couldn’t tell what it was, but I saw blood splatter from the corridor and all the Stable security ponies tense.

Then the Specimen emerged from the corridor.

I heard B.B take in a sharp breath.

“Sweet Goddesses,” Iron Wrought said in a whisper.

“Oooo, he’s adorable!” Binge cooed.

Arcaidia’s eyes were wide as saucers and I heard her growl deeply in the back of her throat. She uttered a single word, and I don’t know if anypony else heard it.

“Hyadean.”

I just stared.

The Stable security ponies opened fire, their guns filling the holoprojection with flashes of light and tracers. The storm of bullets was as impressive as it was useless. They just bounced off the steel blue armor covering every inch of the bipedal form that stood before them. Like the Golem I’d seen in the Saddlespring Ruins this creature had two legs attached to a horizontal and broad chest, from which two arms sprang with a pair of five fingered hands. Its head was a steel helmet, azure blue, with a single dark slit where eyes may have been, and a spike like crest flowing from the top. A cape of deep violet hung from its shoulders. It stood head and shoulders taller than any pony, easily eight feet.

It was no Golem, but that hardly registered to me. What shocked me, what caused my mouth to hang open as I stared, was the weapon the Specimen carried in its right armored fist.

A spear. A dark spear. I’d seen that spear in my dream.

I’d also become familiar with its shape as the weapon I myself had been carrying since my journey began.

The spear was shaped exactly like Gramzanber.

Its the same creature. It has to be. The one in my dream. But... what is it? Why does that spear look like mine? My mind was a reeling whirlpool of circular questions. Arcaidia had called it a Hyadean. I knew that term. The ghostly image from the Saddlespring Ruin had mentioned it, called it an enemy, alongside something else... the Veruni.

As my companions and I watched the steel clad bipedal creature in the holoprojection allowed the Stable security ponies to run through their clips, bullet casings raining upon the steel floor as the bullets themselves ricocheted harmlessly off the Hyadean’s armor. Then, surprisingly, the creature laughed. Not derisively, but... it sounded honestly rather happy. It raised its spear in front of it in some kind of salute, then, to my equal parts shock and fascination it spoke. Its, his, voice was much as i recalled hearing it in my dream, a smooth masculine baritone that spoke its words with strength and authority.

“Marvelous. Fear chokes you. Despair straddles you. Yet you fight on. Truly marvelous. How can I not reward such courage with befitting deaths?”

In a flash the Hyadean was amongst them, a form so large, yet moving with the fluid speed of river rapids. Ponies struggled to reload, or back away, a few brave ones trying to engage with batons. It didn’t matter. Whether while firing their guns, trying to flee, or desperately screaming while swinging their weapons the security ponies died. That dark spear was a cutting shadow, severing ponies in half, removing limbs, and plucking heads from shoulders with a sickening ease that I knew all too well. After all, Gramzanber held a sharp edge unlike any other.

It was over in less than a minute, the last security pony dying with a terrified scream on her throat as she blasted uselessly at the Hyadean with her SMG, the creature’s dark spear skewering through her barrel with a single thrust that lifted her off the ground. The Hyadean seemed to consider the mare impaled on his spear curiously as she shuddered her last breath out and went still.

“Hm,” a simple flick of his spear and his dislodged the body to land amongst the piles of her fellows, “Not Elw, but they bear the same genetic markings. How long did I slumber? Surely the Veruni did not win? No, this place doesn’t carry their stylings. But if they did not win, and we did not win... hah, then who did win? No matter, let us see what has become of this world since I last laid eyes upon it.”

With that the Hyadean turned towards the Stable door, the black slit in his helmet’s visor showing no eyes, but somehow I could feel him examining the door. Instinctually I understood he was gauging its thickness. With a slow deliberate movement he braced his spear before him, the dark counterpart to the Gramzanber I knew taking on a familiar flickering aura like fire. In an instant he struck, a heavy overhand chop with the large bladed spear. Light flashed, the holoprojection’s image flickered, and there was an ear scraping wail of rending metal followed by a roar of rushing air.

When the image cleared the Hyadean was already strolling casually throat the freshly destroyed Stable door, leaving behind him the piles of bodies that would later become the skeletons my friends and I would find when first entering this place. The image then died away as the recording came to an end. Misty Glasses looked down on us from her perch on the control spire.

“So, as you can see, some of my ponies are a little concerned, given you bear a weapon that looks so similar to the one that was carried by that... being.”

“The buck was that?” asked Iron Wrought, the hackles of his mane standing on end.

“Someone who really knows how to party and have a good time,” declared Binge, holding up her sock puppet, “Don’t you think he looks like fun Mr. Happy?”

“Misty, ya said yer ponies were studyin’ that thing,” said B.B, “They ever figure out what it was before it got all... stab happy on everypony?”

“Nothing more than what I’ve already told you I’m afraid,” said Misty Glasses, “Popular theory was that it is a creature of extraterrestrial nature. From what you heard it say yourselves it was sapient, and knew how to speak our language. We were unable to confirm any more information than that, but it used the terms ‘Veruni’ and ‘Elw’, which we learned from our studies of the Ruins were two other races that participated in a war on this planet some four to five millennia ago. Just as we find is strange your ARM resembles the weapon of the Specimen, we find it strange your companion Arcaidia can make use of Crest Sorcery.”

“Crest Sorcery?” I looked over at Arcaidia, who was rubbing a hoof over her Pip-Buck, almost protectively, “What is she talking about Arcaidia? You’re a unicorn, magics normal for you right?”

“Estu ti ricartae dol vivarz ren corvarl. Two powers. Two magics. Hard explain.”

“Allow me to elaborate,” said Misty Glasses, “Crest Sorcery is the term we used to describe a form of magic that stems from certain artifacts found in some of the Ruins. Small tablets of information compressed as microscopic glyphs. These glyphs, when charged with magic, react with a form of metaphysical energy that seems to exist alongside the world’s natural magic we’re all familiar with. This energy, which we’ve dubbed Force, is invisible and inert unless interacted with through a specific medium. Only when using these glyphs with our magic could we create reactions, spells that seemed to be created by combinations of different glyphs on these tables, which we dubbed ‘Crest Graphs’. Since Crest Sorcery utilized a new energy source there were many researchers here who theorized that it could provide vast possibilities for power and technomagic advancement, though few unicorns among our number could link their magic properly to a Crest Graph without damaging backlash. We could only assume there was a method to it we were missing. In any case, the fact that your friend there both recognized what a Crest Graph was, taking one from our labs, and can also seemingly use them without the same backlash others have suffered has led some of us to... wonder as to who, or what, she really is.”

Arcaidia held her head up, part pride, part defiance, as if she was daring Misty Glasses to keep going, “I am... me! Arcaidia Del Chevail Del Luminariaso Dol Graza Venti Veruni Halastra Mi Surta! Friend of Longwalk Del Sand Storm Del Shady Stream Dol Soval Equis Mi Hurita!”

She stamped a hoof as if to emphasise her declaration. Binge seemed to be mouthing all those words as if trying to taste them while B.B and Iron Wrought exchanged shrugging looks. I shifted my eyes between the blue unicorn filly and the spider pony scientist and said, “So, yeah, that’s what she says. Arcaidia is Arcaidia. Nothing more to it than that.

“Uh-huh,” said Misty Glasses, her spectacles nearly falling off her snout before she managed to catch them and push them back up, “And it doesn’t strike you as even remotely odd that the Specimen mentioned the Veruni, and we already told you that was likely a race engaged in warfare on this world thousands of years ago... and she just used the same term in her little self introduction?”

I blinked. Thought about it. Realized Arcaidia did have the word ‘Veruni’ in her full name.

“Huh... okay. What of it?”

“What of it? Do I have to spell it out for you?” Misty Glasses blurted while waving her legs at me, “Does it not seem likely to you that the pony standing next to you may not be a pony at all? That she is a Veruni?”

I looked at Arcaidia. She met my gaze with her own silver eyes, her expression beyond reading. I turned back to Misty Glasses, “Again I ask; what of it?”

Misty Glasses cocked her head to the side, and I decided to explain myself clearer to her, “Look, I knew from the start Arcaidia wasn’t normal. There is a lot about her I know nothing about, including where she comes from. I don’t think it matters though. This ‘extraterrestrial’ stuff, all this talk of some ancient war, its all way over my head. All I want is to help the pony who saved my friend’s life and also my own. Sure I’m curious about Odessa and why they’re after Arcaidia, or what in the name of the Ancestor spirits that Hyaden thing is and why it has a spear that looks like mine. Sure I’d love to unravel all those mysteries. But helping my friends comes first. Helping ponies in general comes first. If I happen to figure all this other complicated stuff out along the way, yay for me. If not, I don’t think I’ll lose a lot of sleep over it.”

Not more than I already have anyway. Why did I dream of that Hyadean? Was that all a vision of this war Misty Glasses is harping on about?

Misty Glasses looked vexed for a moment, but then let out a long, slow sigh, “Very well. I thought I’d bring this all to your attention, since it seemed pertinent to inform you of things that could affect you in the long run... but if it is ultimately something you are not going to be concerned with then I will consider the matter closed for now. I apologize if I came off as accusing.”

“Forgiven,” said Arcaidia with a satisfied nod.

B.B had her forelegs crossed over her barrel as she hovered closer to the floor, taking up a spot on Arcaidia’s other side. Binge had apparently gotten bored standing and had laid down on her back, stretching her legs spread-eagle and yawning.

“So cold heart filly is from outer spaaaaace and we have more squicky crawlies from beyond the stars walking the earth, but what about Big Sis Binge’s fun eight-legged gal-pals? You’ve been talking sooooo much about everything other than that! To much exposition already, make it snappy!”

Misty Glasses coughed, “I was getting to that. I wanted to give you all context. If I’d skipped to this part we would've spent hours just answering questions to explain how things got to this point. You see, when the Specimen left, we Stable 104 survivors tried to contact Center again, but all contact had been severed. The tunnel system connecting the CSS were taken out by explosives, presumably planted by Odessa. Odessa pulled out, and Director Twinkle tried to restore order. However our Stable’s reactor was damaged and was leaking radiation. Twinkle ordered the power systems shut down. This caused lock downs across the entire Stable, though most of us had evacuated to the atrium. Only a day went by before the Specimen returned, with another.”

“Another?” I asked, taking a cue from Binge and sitting down myself. Standing in one place for so long was making me feel a tad antsy as well.

“Another of its kind, we assume. It looked different, however. A floating creature with a ornate gold mask, its form covered in white cloth, with eyes a solid glowing red,” Misty Glasses shivered, “This creature named itself ‘Alhazad’, and it... it rather politely informed us that we were to be subjects in its work. We resisted, of course, but the creature’s power was immense. You saw what one Hyadean could do, with two of them, we were prisoners with no way to fight back. The blue armored one left, seemingly content to let its comrade do as he would with us. Those days were horror. Alhazad had countless insect-like drones to keep us in check, to move us where he willed, when he wished to experiment upon us.”

She laughed, a dry, bitter sound, “He was remarkably cordial for a sadistic bastard. Talked politely whenever we attempted to engage him in conversation, but never once granted us an inch of mercy or freedom. We were his ‘subjects’ and he made it clear that while he enjoyed intellectual discourse, we were nothing more than flesh for him to do with as he would. As it happened his desire was to combine us with what he called a ‘impressive local example of organic evolutionary design’. The spider. One by one we were converted, painfully, from the ponies we were, into the creatures you see before you. Midnight Twinkle was the first. She... she struck up something of a understanding with Alhazad, became his favorite pet, and received the greatest of his experimental changes. She was made our ‘mother’, the largest of us, the only one who could regularly and effectively reproduce, and with bio-machine enhancements that made her more powerful than the rest of us combined.”

“Wait, she was the only one a’ ya’all that could, eh, “ B.B blushed, “Git it on, basically, an’ make more spider ponies? I hear that right?”

“Director Twinkle was the one who could spawn regularly, yes, and a third of our population are second generation from her womb,” Misty Glasses said with a grimace, “But the rest of us can, with effort, bear foals. Our fertility rate is just very low. A two percent chance of pregnancy per coupling, under ideal conditions. That is why you see so few young among our number.”

“No wonder some of them don’t like us,” Iron Wrought said, “For a third of you, Longwalk basically killed their mother.”

I twitched, feeling a twinge of guilt, but not as bad as it probably would have been before I’d had a chance to talk things out with LIL-E. I still couldn’t help but think of that foal, Time Shee’s daughter. Between Saddlespring and Stable 104 I was starting to think I was cursed by the spirits to be an ill omen for any settlement or community I came across. Note to self; thank Iron Wrought for implanting that cheerful thought.

“Those who could not stand us turning on Director Twinkle have either fallen in line, or already left the Stable,” Misty Glasses said with a heavy tone, “It was never going to go well, removing her, but it had to be done. Alhazad, that monster, when he was done with us he simply left. Said the experiment was done and we would be left to our own devices. That was seventeen years ago. In all that time neither Alhazad nor the blue clad one ever returned here. Nor had Odessa, until today. Director Twinkle ruled us, kept us isolated from the outside, and had us prey upon any who ventured into the Stable... all until the lot of you arrived and put an end to that.”

She looked at me, black bead eyes all fixed on me, as well as her green pony eyes.

“Whether you believe it or not, you saved us from a life that forced us to prey on other ponies and have no future to look forward to. Now, with Director Twinkle gone, we survivors can start to pursue real lives and create a worthwhile community in this place. This is the reason I actually wished to speak with all of you. I intend to oversee the refurbishing of Stable 104 and establishing ourselves as a settlement in what you call the Wasteland. However this will not be an easy task, and there are many dangers on the surface, among which are Odessa and I have no doubt the Hyadean’s are somewhere up there as well. We want you, Longwalk, and your companions, to become a group that shall be our eyes and ears on the surface. You can find us resources, allies, and help us form eventual trade with other surface settlements. Furthermore, you are the only group with experience dealing with Odessa, and in fighting terms could even potentially counter whatever plans the Hyadeans may have been developing over the years.”

I gulped, “Wait, I, I’m still just trying to get Arcaidia down to NCR to find somepony she’s looking for! I can’t do all of that too!” I didn’t even really want to get involved in something so complicated. I liked the spider ponies, had more or less gotten over how creepy their forms were and realized that ultimately they were just ponies like any other. I did feel a sort of desire to help them, but Arcaidia was top priority!

“Awww, but I thought helping ponies is what you do to shield your tender soft insides against all the rust trying to creep into you?” asked Binge as she rolled to her hooves and gave me a searching, unblinking look, “They’ll all go to sleep forever without a few friendly faces. So many pretty ponies would come into this trove of forbidden treasures and rip it clean out of the bloody ground, crushing all the poor little twisted ponies within. Or roast them up. Crunch, crunch, crunch.”

“Much as I don’t be needin’ the imagery that’s conjurin’ up, Binge’s kinda gotta point. Misty and her spider pony folk ain’t gonna have an easy time o’ it if they’re lookin’ ta live proper on the surface. Few ponies gonna give ‘em the time a’ day, if not just shoot ‘em outright fer their looks. They’ll need help,” B.B said, frowning, “Though I know what yer sayin’ Long, ya started out ta help Arcaidia, an’ all ya’ll been doin’ is gettin’ sidetracked.”

“I assure you,” said Misty Glasses, “I understand you have priorities and goals besides assisting us. Be assured that not only will we do our best to compensate you for your help, but we will also enable you to better pursue your other objectives. First, we can provide weapons and equipment I guarantee you won’t be able to find anywhere else. You will also be welcome here at any time, as a place to rest and recover. We can also facilitate faster travel on the surface, through providing a vehicle, and through other means I will reveal if you accept this offer.”

My eyes went towards my companions. I wished LIL-E had caught up with us, as this felt like something I could use her opinion on, but she hadn’t shown up yet. Looking at my friends, I got a mix of reactions.

Iron Wrought snorted and waved a hoof, “Don’t include me in this. Once I leave here and get back to my family, our business is at an end, buck. Wish you the best of luck, but knowing you, you’ll be neck deep in somepony else's problems in a day or two, regardless of what you decide here. Either way, it won’t be my problem.”

B.B gave him a frown, before landing and tucking her wings to her side, “I’m fer helpin’ them. Gonna need ta tussle with Odessa sooner or later anyways. Might as well git some good gear ta do it wit, an’ have a place to fall back to if things go south.”

Binge was licking her lips again, her tail wagging back and forth eagerly, “Do it! Do it! The shy ponies want to be shown how to get out and have a good time, and I’d just love to be their chaperone! Heheheh, and we get party favors too! Can I have a chainsaw? I’ve always wanted one!”

Arcaidia looked hesitant, a tightness around her eyes and a small twitch at her lips. She was eager to go find her sister, and I think how far we’d gotten off that simple path south was starting to bother her. When she looked at me I felt like she was weighing something, possibly even me, as her eyes met mine.

“You not break promise? Find sister?” she asked. I found myself smiling slightly. As if there was ever any doubt?

“Of course. You give the word, we head straight south to NCR, even if I have to carry you across the entire Wasteland on my back!”

She returned my smile and her stance straightened, looking stronger, “Vira, vira. Esru sirac dol vanrish. You defeat many legged ponies, now they serve you. Good. No bad in help them. Make us strong, di orivah.”

Well, that settled that. I didn’t imagine LIL-E would have any real objections, and sort of like Iron Wrought she had her own things to take care of, so this decision only peripherally affected her. With my companions opinions on the matter having been said I turned back to Misty Glasses.

“Sounds like we’re the ponies you’re looking for. As long as I can still help Arcaidia get south then my friends and I will also be willing to help you and your ponies out too Misty Glasses.”

The spider pony’s hinged mouth turned upwards in a smile as her legs sagged in relief, “Good, good. With that taken care of why don’t you and your friends take some time to relax? We’ll maintain monitoring on Odessa, just in case they do anything that might threaten us here, but please, do get some rest. We’ll take care of properly equipping you and detailing exactly what I’d like you to do for us tomorrow before you depart.”

“Wait!” said Binge suddenly, holding a hoof up.

“Um, what?” I asked.

“We need a name,” the green mare declared.

We all stared at her.

“Who needs a name?” I asked, head tilting.

“Us silly billy,” Binge said, “We’re gonna be an official team now! Me, and you, and blue icy death machine, and the bird of prey in a sparrow’s dress, even the grumpy guss though he won’t admit it, plus let’s not forget the lost echo trapped in the floating metal cell. I feel so sorry for her. She just wants to be a real filly, but Big Sis Binge can’t make her bleed to show her she’s as real as the rest of us.”

I had no idea what she was talking about but B.B chuckled, saying “Grumpy guss.” under her breath, and Iron Wrought gave her a huffy look, grumbling.

“Okay,” I said, “What kind of name were you thinking of?”

The Raider made an exaggerated show of thinking it over, putting her hooves to her head and shutting her eyes as she started going “Hmmmm” and “Aaaaah”, leaving me wondering if she was actually thinking this over or if this was just Binge being Binge. The mare bounced between confusing me, making me laugh, and making m episs terrified of her so often in the short time I’d known her I didn’t know what to expect.

“That’s it!” she declared, suddenly having a knife in her hoof and posing with it, making quick slashes in the air as if drawing out what she was saying in the air, “ARMS! That’s who we are!”

“ARMS? Another one of those weird acronym things? What does it stand for?”

Binge blinked, as if not understanding the question, “I means ARMS. Duh.”

I groaned. B.B was shaking her head. Iron Wrought rolled his eyes, “What did you expect out of a crazy-ass Raider?”

“Well, ya got an ARM, Long, so it kinda fits I guess,” said B.B, “Might be somethin’ we can work with. How ‘bout... Agile... Remote... Mission... Squad?”

The moment she said it though the pegasus mare creased her brow, “That sounded a’ lot better in my head ‘fore I said it.”

“How’s this?” said Iron Wrought, “Absolutely Ridiculous Mental Stupidity? Fits us to a tee, I’d say.”

“Doesn’t roll of the tongue though, does it?” I said, thinking it over myself, “I kind of like the one B.B came up with. Didn’t sound too bad to me.”

“That’s because you have no taste,” said Iron Wrought, but he had a resigned, almost amused note in his voice, “Doesn’t matter what you madponies call yourselves. I just want to get those files and get home as fast as I can.”

I nodded, approaching him and offering him a hoof on the withers, “I know. With the Stable’s help we can probably get to Skull City faster, and this guarantees you getting the copies of Doctor Lemon Slice’s research. We’ll save your family. I pr-”

“Don’t make that promise,” he said, pulling away from my hoof, “You can’t make sure you’ll keep it, and promises turn to dust pretty quick in this world. I’m helping you only because I’m not sure I can even get back to Skull City on my own. Like it or not I’m stuck with you all until then, but that doesn’t make me your friend.”

I wished I could put Iron Wrought at ease somehow, but I could understand why he was having trouble with this. Every day could put his family in greater risk. But if Misty Glasses came though and gave us some kind of vehicle, then that would get us to Skull City that much faster. Just one more day.

“Alright, Iron, I understand. We’ll leave for Skull City tomorrow and do everything we can to make sure your family is safe.”

The earth pony didn’t respond, just brushed past me and headed to the elevator. After a moment of looking after him I started to follow, B.B muttering something under her breath next to me that I didn’t catch, but Binge laughed.

“But birdie, if you took the stick out, what would hold him up?”

----------

Footnote: 50% to next level! (What? You didn’t do anything this chapter, Longwalk! If this were a JRPG you’d only get xp for killing monsters anyway, so be glad you got halfway to next level through sheer dialogue.)

Bonus EX-File: Party Weapons “Arcaidia’s Starblaster”

Dmg: 70
Crit chance multiplier: x2
Capacity: 24 (unknown energy source)
Weapon spread: 0.3
Value in caps: 10000
Skill Req: Energy Weapons 50
Special Bonuses: Ignores Damage Resistance

Author's Note:

So first off I got to thank KKat for creating FoE in the first place, otherwise I'd never been inspired to write this. Major thanks now also go to doomande, who has now officially taken on the task of being this fics prereader! Serious round of applause for the man. And of course thanks to everyone whose been sticking with me so far! A story isn't really a story without someone reading it.

Now, this chapter, what to say? Its mostly reflection and exposition, hope it doesn't feel too slow paced after last chapters massive fight scene. Let me know what you guys think of things, I do so love to get feedback and comments.

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