• 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 13: Impatience Leading to Trouble

Dreams again. Knowing it was a dream did absolutely nothing to put me at ease. Then again the blackened rust covered corridors of Stable 104, spattered with far more blood than there had been when I’d first laid eyes on it, wasn’t encouraging me to feel relaxed either. I didn’t know if dreams were supposed to be this vivid but I could smell the thick coppery odor of blood mixed with the sour scent of decay.

Despite knowing this was a dream my body seemed compelled to move on its own down the corridor, shadows trailing me like wisps of smoke. The air was cold and clammy. It clung to my tan coat in a unpleasant sheen of moisture that made me want to shake myself dry. Before long I heard a hollow scraping sound, as if someone was dragging something partially metallic across the ground. It was coming from behind a door that appeared on my left.

The door was already part way open, and upon its rusty metal front were words drawn in bright, fresh blood.

Come on in!

Without any prompt of my own will my body moved, bringing my eye up to the crack opened door, peering into the what was a brightly lit room, one that looked much like the Stable cafeteria. Just as I took a peek within, the door flung open and strong hooves wrapped around my head, yanking me inside and throwing my bodily onto one of the tables.

“Surprise!” said many voices at once as I felt more hooves holding me down on the table. The smell of blood had intensified until it felt like I had the stuff pouring down my nose and I choked.

“Aww, the party buck is a little squeamish,” giggled the familiar voice of Binge, “But we’ll get ‘im used to it won’t we gang!?”

“Hell yeah!”

“He’s one of us now, so we’ll take good care of him!”

“Gotta make the killday buck feel extra special on such a big occasion~!”

A number of ponies were keeping me firmly held against the table. Ponies I recognized. Raiders. The Raider’s my friends and I had killed, or at least most of them. I could see Friendly Fire, missing all but one of her limbs and parts of her torso exposed, hanging from the ceiling yet still somehow holding a drinking glass of some dark liquid in her remaining skeletal hoof as she took a drink and winked at me.

“Still say I count as your first kill kid, but hey, these jokers want to celebrate the first one you did all on your own! Bottoms up pal!”

She tipped some of her drink down onto my face. The thick scent of blood made me gag, even more so after some of the partly congealed stuff got in my mouth.

One of the ponies holding me down was wearing a well made suit, a hole in his head that was still leaking brain, but that didn’t stop Bloodtrail from taking a sip and saying in his cultured tone, “As we’ve told you so many times, accidents don’t count. A kill is a kill only when you choose it yourself. Its so much more personal that way. Truly my young friend I am impressed. Hopefully this a sign of many good things to come from you.”

“What,” I said while spitting the taste of blood out, “What is this? I... okay, this is a dream. My brain is just messing with me.”

I was trying to calm myself but my heart was having none of that and doing its best to do an impression of a rabbit's, pounding away with a rapid and panicked beat.

“It is a dream my fun little softy fleshy puppy!” said Binge, who appeared at my head, leaning over me with a hungry look on her face as she licked her lips, her ocean blue eyes dialated to crazed black saucers, “My dream! I wanted to celebrate your first kill sooooo bad but nobody wants to party like I do! So here in my special place you’re-” she licked me “-All-” she then pressed her lips to my neck and purred, “-Mine!”

“B-Binge! Getting a little too close here!” I said in a panicked tone, feeling her nibbling at my collarbone, “Seriously! Personal bubble!”

Then I felt the knife dig into my gut and didn’t even know how it got there until I noticed that, in an eye blink, Bloodtrail had produced a very elegant curved blade and inserted it into my abdomen. I cried out, but Binge blocked my scream with her lips. My mind froze, feeling those wet, eager lips forcefully pushing against my own. I was shocked by how warm her mouth was, and she tasted like something sweet and rotted at the same time. Binge let out a happy little growl. Part of me was horrified my first kiss with, well, anypony was under these circumstances... the rest of me was saying ‘Hmm, this isn’t half bad.’ Then I remembered the knife.

If I’d been near panic before, the impromptu lip locking and knifing pushed me over the edge and I started trying to kick my legs and wrench my body off the table while screaming, or at least trying to despite Binge’s forceful kiss. Breaking the kiss Binge gave a disappointed whine and looked at Bloodtrail with a frown.

“Bad boss Bloodtrail, you’re doing the thing that I’m not supposed to do until he wants it!”

“Aaaah!” I said, adding my own two caps to the conversation.

Bloodtrail sipped his drink again and with a glow of magic from his horn casually twisted the knife, sending bursts of pain through me and causing warm blood to well up in my throat, “I’m doing this because its what you want, my dear. Don’t you?”

“Mmmm, mayyybe? I want his tasty bits, but I want him to want me to want his bits! And he’s just acting like a hurt little puppy!”

“Bi-Binge... why... what is...?” I couldn’t string my thoughts together, fear, pain, and confusion swarming my mind, but I coughed up some blood, grit my teeth, and forced my head up, “Let me... go. I’m not... I’m not your toy!”

Binge made another whining sound, and Friendly Fire groaned, “Geeze Binge, this guy is a real stiff. You sure you want him that badly?”

“Yes!” Binge stomped her hoof down, on me consequently, “He’s so awake and hurting and being silly about himself! He doesn’t know how to play and that’s so sad! If I don’t make him mine then he’ll just keep walking around awake, seeing all the bad things and hurting because of it! He’s got to learn to go to sleep like me. Like how all of us do! He’ll be safe there. Big Sis Binge will make him feel safe, and warm, and nothing will ever hurt for him again!”

“But he won’t learn,” Bloodtrail said, “He doesn’t want to learn. His kind never do. It’d be kinder to kill him. Put him out of his misery.”

He wasn’t looking, instead paying attention to Binge, and I took advantage of that to pull my hindleg out of the grip of the Raider holding it and kicked him square in the face. He went flying away and in that instant I lunged off the table, ignoring the gripping pain in my gut from the knife still embedded in it. I scrambled for the door as Friendly Fire swore and threw her drink at me and the other Raiders jeered. I heard Binge behind me as I hit the door.

“I just wanna help you bucky wucky... like you help me...”

Out in the corridor the door behind me seemed to slam shut on its own and I just laid on the cold rusted floor, catching my proverbial breath. The pain was gone and I noticed as I ran a hoof over my stomach that the knife was too. I shivered. If this was a dream (it had to be a dream right?) then I wanted to wake up now. I looked at the door I’d just vacated, recalling Binge’s voice. It had carried currents of sadness and hope, intermingled in a desperate manner. What had I just seen?

Again, as if my body was being pulled by strings I could not see or feel I was drawn further down the dark, rust stained Stable corridor. My senses felt like they were bending, warping as the corridor twisted into a spiral that certainly had never existed in the real Stable 104. In seconds the spiral became a slope, then a slide of slick, rough hewn rock, and before I knew it I was tumbling down and bouncing off the walls with sharp bruising thumps. Soon I felt my body be ejected into a vast open blackness and I flailed helplessly for a moment before falling into a shallow pool of what felt like warm water.

Dim and pale orange light bleed along the water in ripples, emanating from what looked like torches burning from grooves in the walls of what looked to be a manufactured cavern. The parts of the wall I could see were marked by cobbled stones and from the ceiling hung light fixtures long broken and useless. Like pitch black skeletal remains several, large skywagon husks were strewn around the floor, which was covered in about a half-hoof depth of oily water.

I got up and with hesitant steps explored this new place before me, wrinkling my nose at the damp, mold choked air. Here too was the faint metallic tang of blood on the air. Before I took more than a dozen steps, my mane prickling at the hollow echoing splashes my hooves made in the water, I heard a voice. It was a breathy, quiet sob, repeating itself over and over again.

“... this isn’t me... I won’t go back... this isn’t me... I won’t go back...”

I swallowed, a prick of nervousness rising in me at the desperate fear in that voice, echoing so it reached my ears from all around. Yet even then I felt a pull towards the nearest skywagon, its back door hanging open like a yawning mouth. Slowly, each step bringing with it a greater cold wriggling under my skin despite the warm, clinging wetness of the air, I made my way into the skywagon.

The dark inside was offset by the nearest wall torch from outside, washing the interior with writhing orange shades of light that played like running foals with the shadows rather than banished them. The skeletons of ponies occupied the many seats running either end of the skywagon, silent passengers who would never reach their intended destinations. Each black skull was turned to look towards the center of the skywagon, where a single white form sat huddling, clutching at something in its hooves. The sobbing voice sounded no louder, yet somehow it cleared in my mind like fog being pulled away from my thoughts as I noticed the streaks of pink in a light brown mane.

“B.B?” my voice, though I was trying to keep it low, still sounded loud as a gunshot to my ears.

B.B didn’t look up. Her face was obscured by falls of her mane. She wasn’t wearing anything, just her white coat stained with grime, her tail done up in an odd, intricate set of braids that I’d never seen her wear it in. Closer now, I halted in my steps as I saw that what was clutched in her hooves was another pony; a young blue colt with a black mane. The colt was dead; he had to be, with his neck torn out from shoulder to halfway up to his chin, half his body stained red with blood.

“Ancestors, what is this? B.B?”

Now she did look up, such a sudden, sharp movement. I took a step back, the cold feeling in me going frozen. B.B’s eyes were rimmed in red, the same color as the blood staining her muzzle, soaking it all the way to her cheeks. Those eyes, violet ringed in red, gleaming with orange flickering torchlight, looked at me without recognition; just predatory instinct. But only for a moment. Fear blossomed upon her features and like the body of the colt was on fire B.B threw it aside and scrambled away from me, screaming. As she babbled I suddenly realized her accent was gone, her voice as smooth as it was when she played the role of Mirage.

“No, this isn’t right! He wasn’t here! He hasn’t seen! He can’t. None of them can! I’m not this! I beat this... I beat this!”

She threw herself towards the front of the skywagon, flying with her ragged wings flapping so fast droplets of blood from the corpse she’d been holding flew off her like a small red shower. I followed after her, only hesitating for a moment. As confused as I was by what I was seeing, even if this was just some strange dream, I wasn’t about to just let my friend fly off! I galloped past the body of the colt as B.B went out the broken front window of the skywagon. I had to rip open the side passenger door to follow, splashing out into the water as I gave chase.

I didn’t have to chase her far. She hadn’t flown more than a twenty yards from the skywagon before she stopped dead in the air and fell to the water in a splash. I came up behind her, B.B sitting up and staring ahead with her ears flat against her head and a tremble in her form.

“Where are you going, child, in such a frightful rush?” said a dulcet feminine voice from the shadows, and I looked ahead to see another pony trotting into view from deeper in the cavern. I noticed with a little shock that this pony was walking on the water, rather than through it.

She was a mare, with a pale white coat just like B.B’s. Her rich blonde mane fell in smooth waves, curling only at the tips that nearly touched the water. She wore a cape across her back and withers that was not quite black but rather more a midnight blue on top, but a crimson red underneath. A red that matched her eyes, like two pools of fresh blood in a youthful face that didn’t match the mature tone of her voice.

“You’re an awful mess child. Did your parents not teach you to clean yourself up after eating?” the mare asked B.B, apparently not seeing me, or just not paying me any mind, and B.B was drawing in heavy, tear wracked breaths.

“I didn’t mean to do it, I found him wandering scared... I wanted to help him... but he was hurt, and the smell... Mistress, I couldn’t stop!”

“Shh, its okay child. Such a good child you are, trying to aid some poor soul. Do not forget what you’ve been taught though, little Blood Bloom,” the mare said, and in an eyeblink she was gone from where she was and was behind me. Hooves stronger than corded steel wrapped around me and held me tightly, and any struggle I made felt like trying to push against the strength of a mountain. I felt the muzzle of the mare tickle against my neck. “You cannot hate yourself for being born as you are. As one of the Family.”

B.B turned around, her red rimmed eyes wide as she reached towards me, mouth gaping. Her teeth... I saw the fangs, streaked with as much red as the rest of her, “No, Mistress! Stop! Don’t hurt him!”

I felt a soft prick upon my neck, two of them, just enough to feel the heat of blood trickle down my chest. The mare holding me sighed, like a disappointed teacher. I felt myself being shoved forward with harsh hooves, and I stumbled and fell before B.B. I looked up at her, water dripping from my face, and saw her staring down at me; a blood stained white wraith in the black... but still my friend, scared and confused. I reached up to her and she flinched away.

The mare, the Mistress, laughed, “You haven’t forgotten anything Blood Bloom. You don’t belong with them. You belong with the Family. You’ll remember, every day, every night. Until either you break, or you return to this place.”

“I’m not one of the Family. I’m not,” B,B said, though I saw her nose twitching at me and her body drawing closer to mine, even as it trembled in struggle to stay away from me. Her eyes were fixated on my bleeding neck, “I’m not. I’m not. I’m not.”

She was on me almost as fast as the Mistress had been, and her limbs were filled with a desperate strength, pinning me in the shallow water as her mouth went for my wounded neck with a scared, desperate scream on her lips. I felt the ground drop out from under me in my panic and felt myself sink into the black waters, spiraling further downward, leaving behind B.B’s frustrated and terrified sobs and an final sentence spoken by the Mistress’ knowing tone.

“You’ll always be a part of the Family, no matter how far away from the nest you fly.”

Being sucked further down into the warm, swirling embrace of black I felt a sensation of being strung through a pin prick space before being ejected forcefully onto something flat and hard that gave way underneath my weight with a splintering crack of noise.

I lay on my back for a moment, deciding that if this dream wanted to keep tossing me about from place to place I could afford to rest a second and catch my breath.

“What in Tartarus are you doing here!?”

Or not.

Opening my eyes I saw I was laying among the ruins of a wood table that was now quite splintered beneath me, some of said splinters probably having made their way into my sore hide. Broken plates and scattered bits of food indicated I may have just interrupted a meal. The room I was in was a plain, simple room, clean if utilitarian and lacking any real decoration of luxury. Around me and the broken remains of the table I’d apparently fallen on was a family of ponies. I say family because the resemblance of the young filly and colt to Iron Wrought was plain to see, though the colt had a strawberry blond mane that matched that of the older mare staring at me with wings protectively around her foals... oh, wings, she was a pegasus. Neat.

“I said, what are you doing here!?” I felt hooves lift me off the ground and I was wheeled around and slammed into the nearest wall with shocking strength. I was staring into Iron Wrought’s face, veins throbbing on his forehead, his eyes wide and bloodshot, and the dark green of his coat tinged with red.

“I... don’t know?” I replied nervously. Was Iron Wrought always this strong or was this just because I was in a strange psudo-dream? I still wasn’t sure what I was experiencing was a dream, though I couldn’t think of any other explanation for it.

Iron Wrought’s face was a rictus grimace of anger and, of all things, embarrassment. His green coat was brushed with rose heat as he glared at me. The pegasus mare, her own coat a rich dark brown and her doe eyes soft, subdued pink, spoke in a wavering voice.

“H-honey, protect us. Don’t let any bad ponies hurt us.”

“I don’t wanna be taken away,” cried the colt, huddling close to his mother’s wing.

“Make the bad ponies go away daddy!” sniffed the filly, curled into a tight ball.

Iron Wrought looked as if he’d been stabbed at those words, his eyes starting to water, “I won’t love. I won’t let anyone hurt you or the foals! I’ll take care of all of you!”

With that he hauled me bodily towards a nearby door. My own body felt weak, helpless to resist. “Iron Wrought what’s going on!? What is this? Are we all asleep or something?”

He wasn’t listening though, one hoof wrapped tightly around me in a grip as strong as his namesake. Before I knew it I was being thrown bodily through the wood door of the room with a loud cracking sound, only surpassed by Iron Wrought’s heated shouting.

“Never come into my home again! Its mine! My family! My home! Nopony else’s!”

His voice faded away, as if being pulled away to some distance place, until the last of his words were just a faint echo in the dark. I felt my disheveled blue mane falling about my face and blew it away from my eyes with an irritated puff of air. Mane was getting long, I ought to consider trimming it down a bit. Might get caught on something at an inopportune moment.

“Okay, now where am I? And whose next? I may not be the smartest of ponies, but even I can see the pattern here...”

Looking around to take in my new surroundings I found myself standing in place that looked wholly unfamiliar. Books. Books everywhere. Upon shelves lining the walls, packed tightly even against the three huge vaulted windows outside which I could see a dark night. There was a large table in the center of the room, its own ‘legs’ made up of more small shelves for books. Even the chairs had spots to hold books under the arm rests. There was a single bed underneath one of the windows, which wasn’t covered in books for a change of pace.

“Where is this...?” I asked, nervous as I trotted along the clean tiled floor, staring around at the countless books and feeling a powerful draw towards the nearest shelf. Before I could get to it though a female voice I didn’t recognize spoke; light, young, yet somehow carrying with it the weight of the world in its serious tone.

“This is a friend’s home. Was sort of my home too... I think. How can anypony know, though, if their memories are any more real than a half-remembered dream?”

I spun around. Standing near a set of doors that led into the room was a... mare? Her form was indistinct, as if I was looking at her through murky water. I got the impression of a gray coat on a small frame, perhaps what might have been a short mane of plain brown strands. Any other details were impossible to make out, other than she wore something blue and tight fitting.

“Uh, hi?” I said, smiling in lieu of letting how confused I was show on my face, “So, I might be gradually going insane, or just having the most bizarre dream of my life, but so far I’ve been seeing my companions one after another in weird situations... now I’m here, and I don’t recognize you. So no rudeness intended, but who are you?”

“That’s the million cap question isn’t it?” the mare said, trotting forward, going around the table as she made her way towards the bed. I caught a glimpse of her flank through the haze that surrounded her; trying to make out her cutie mark. I couldn’t make it out, other than some kind of black and green blob. The mare reached the bed, looking at it with a thoughtful tilt of her head.

“I remember this place. This bed,” I saw her reach out a hoof and run it along the bed, and did she just shudder? “I remember a lot of things here, actually. But are they my memories? Does just remembering them make them mine? Memories can be stolen you know. Taken out and put somewhere else. You’ve seen it, Longwalk, how memory orbs work.”

“You know my name?” I asked.

The mare laughed. It was... a good laugh. A little manic, maybe, but it put me at ease.

“Of course I know you. Only been looking after you since you decided to try skydiving out of Vertibucks as a new hobby. That was, what, three, four days ago? Still we had ourselves a pretty good talk earlier didn’t we? You don’t recognize my voice without it being all messed up by the bot’s modulator?”

“LIL-E?”

Amid the haze that surrounded her I saw the mare nod, “That’s the name you know. It’s the name I know too. It’s not the name they know, though.”

Sadness and uncertainty blended together in LIL-E’s voice as her indistinct form turned back towards the bed. I looked over and was startled to see two ponies on the bed, jumping back a bit. Then I blushed. They were, um, two mares, sharing an embrace. They hadn’t quite gotten into anything that would cause me to avert my eyes, but the affection between the two as they nuzzled together on the bed, and the amorous looks in their eyes, made it clear where they were intending to take their evening. Neither mare was moving, however, like I was looking at a still picture.

One was a dark gray mare with a blue, two toned, wild looking mane and tail. The other mare was lighter grey, her brown mane a match for the fuzzy image of LIL-E’s form. I couldn’t see either mare’s cutie mark, their forms too wrapped up in the bed sheets. I looked over at LIL-E with confusion plain on my face.

“LIL-E, what am I looking at here? Where am I?”

“Memory, or a dream, or both,” she said, not looking at me but facing the two mares on the bed, “I honestly don’t know. I don’t know how much of this is real, or mine. I want it to be mine.”

She reached out a hoof towards the pair on the bed, almost touching the dark gray mare with the blue mane. But she hesitated, pulling back sharply right before touching the mare’s face. She held her hoof close to her chest, hazy head hanging down as she whispered, “I want this all to be real, but I don’t... believe it is. I’m not me. Or I’m not the me I remember being. I’m... something else. An echo. Or worse, an imitation? How do I prove to myself I’m real?”

I didn’t know what else to do, so I trotted up to her and reached a hoof out to her to try and pull her into a hug. However LIL-E made a small ‘eep’ sound and skittered back from me quickly. I blinked, “Whoa, LIL-E, was just going to give you a hug. You sound like you need it.”

“What the- wait, are you actually here Longwalk? You’re not just something I’m dreaming?”

“I... don’t know? I thought this was me dreaming here!” I said, sitting down on my haunches as I ran a hoof over the back of my head. I was starting to get a headache.

“I thought I was just dreaming you in here,” said LIL-E, “I do that sometimes, when I’m in here. Ponies I’ve met, I talk to them, or my own mental image of them, to try and help me work things out. I’m more aware of my dreams than normal ponies. But if you’re here, the real you... well, how?”

I shrugged, “Ancestors burn me if I know! Wait, how does me trying to hug you prove I’m me and not, uh, dream-me?”

LIL-E laughed again, shaking her head, “I’d never dream you trying to hug me. I’m... kind of sensitive about getting touched. That and you were asking way too many questions. Celestia nuzzle my nethers this is weird.”

“You think this is weird?” I said with a helpless chuckle, “You should’ve seen what was going on in Binge’s dreams. Or B.B’s.”

LIL-E didn’t really relax at all, I could see her blurred tail flicking about, and hear her breathing hard. It was a little odd, hearing her do something normal like breathing. I’d gotten used to the robot, which didn’t make little noises we flesh and blood types tend to make. I still felt an urge to go up to her and give her some kind of comfort, but I didn’t want to upset her, especially if she had some kind of thing about no-touchies.

“Longwalk, don’t take this the wrong way, but do you think you could find a way to leave my dream? There's kind of personal stuff in here and I... I don’t really know what else you might end up seeing that I’d prefer you didn’t.”

As if her words were some kind of signal the pair of mares on the bed suddenly came to life and began rather loudly and energetically showing just how affectionate they were towards each other. I couldn’t help myself; I stared, wide eyed, face heating up like I was sitting before a bonfire. Was that... how... oooh, bendy...

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Longwalk, eyes down!” LIL-E shouted as she threw her mist-like form between me and the two mares on the bed, waving her forelegs like they were made of rubber in some attempt to obscure my vision of... events, “Oh for the love of Luna’s shining plush plot why does this memory have to be the one in my mind! Longwalk, do you mind leaving?”

I’d lowered my eyes, face still feeling as hot as a cook fire. Even not seeing it, I could still hear it. Were mare’s really that loud when... I shook my head, “I don’t really know how. I’ve just been getting dropped from one dream to the next!”

LIL-E sighed, “Try. The. Doors!”

I blinked, and looked behind me. There were a pair of large double doors leading out of the room. I coughed, “Of course. Doors. Right. I’ll just leave you to it then. Um, talk to you later?”

“Yes, later. Now go! Before she-”

One of the mare’s, the one who looked like LIL-E if I was guessing right by the voice, let out a long, high moan that set my mane tingling and caused all sorts of odd little warm feelings in places I was not used to feeling that way. I was pretty sure my face would melt off from the heat and could only imagine how red I’d gone.

“I’ll just, uh, be leaving now,” I said as I trotted to the doors. Opening them awkwardly with my mouth I saw there was little more than a bland hallway beyond them. I exited, hearing LIL-E mutter in a remarkably mortified manner as the doors closed.

“I really hope he doesn’t remember this when he wakes up.”

Oddly enough, I also heard another voice, I think it was the darker gray mare with the blue mane, say, just before the doors clicked closed, “Let’s see if we can’t get to forty four tonight.”

Huh? I looked back at the closed doors in bewilderment, ears flicking. Forty four? Forty four what? I shook my head. It was probably best I never found out. LIL-E’s business anyway, not mine. Turning my attention to the hallway before me I began trotting down it, wondering what was next. I’d seen the pattern of this strange dream, and figured if it was going to continue that pattern I was about to walk into Arcaidia’s dream... assuming the filly did dream.

The further I went down the corridor the more I noticed strange, silver lights playing across the walls. Looking I saw that the plain drywall was becoming translucent in places, with streams of light moving through it in complex patterns of constantly shifting right angles. As the walls and floor started to give way to more patterns of light, light I found I could walk on as firmly as solid ground, I felt a familiar pressure appearing in my head. With this pressure came words, floating through my mind as solid and real as a voice without being a voice. Voices, actually, I could feel two of them, speaking through me so fast I couldn’t interrupt or do anything but feel the conversation pass through me in an instant.

ASTRAL RESONANCE LINK AUTO-COMP!@#$%!@ROGRESS

ALTERNATE LINKS AT 23% EFFICIENCY: COMBINATION ART ASTR*&^%$##!RNS INACTIVE UNTIL 25% EFFICIENCY ACHIEVED

TERRA EQUIS HOST PHYSIOLOGICAL STATUS RE!@@#$% NSTABLE: ESTIMATED TIME FRAME OF REMAINING ACTIVE STATUS AT 2306.34 STAND(*&%^%&$$#!RS BEFORE CELLULAR DEGRADATION REACHES CRITICAL L!@@#$$%^S.

How long is that? I suck at math, c\\\\\\error data not found////rmal language for once!?

!@#^$#@TING TIME FRAME TO ESTIMATED ROTATION OF PLANETARY ORBIT: 91 DAYS EIG(*&^%^$@!N SECONDS.

Goddesses damnit! That’s only three months! There’s gotta be something we can \\\\\error data not found/////sure you can’t break the bond with him?

NEGATIVE. ASTRAL RESONANCE LINK CANNOT BE TERMINATED ONCE ESTABLISHED UNLESS ARM UNIT IS DESTROYED OR HOST !@%%##!!#!&. ATTEMPTING CALIBRATION WITH NEARBY ASTRAL PATTERNS HAS ESTIMATED 33.45% CHANCE TO S(*&^%$@!ONDITION.

That puts everypony at risk though doesn’t it? The only reason it helps with me is because I don’t \\\\\error data not found///// at about them? If being bonded to you is slowly \\\\\error data not found/////, won’t it also do the same to the others?

CONJECTURE; SPREADING ASTRAL RESONANCE LINK TO OTHER ASTRAL FORMS WILL REDUCE STRAIN OF ENERGY CON!@#$%$@!CESS. ESTIMATED EFFECTS ON ALTERNATE LINKED PHYSIOLOGICAL FORMS TO BE MINIMAL. ACCEPTABLE LEVELS OF RISK.

I don’t think they’d agree. What about tha\\\\\error data not found/////you were talking about? Lombardia? You said it could fix \\\\\\error data not found/////

AFFIRMATIVE. SERVANT CLASS ARM ‘LOMBARDIA’ IS CALIBRATED TO EQUIS BIOMETRIC DATA. CONTACT WITH LOMBARDIA WILL LEAD TO ACQUISITION OF PROPER CALIBRATION WITH T!!@#$%^^&!!NATION ‘LONGWALK’. PROBLEM: LOCATION OF LOMBARDIA CURRENTLY UNKNOWN. THEORY: UNIT IS INACTIVE ON PLANETARY S!!@@#$%$^^^!TRUCTION OF VESSEL ‘ARK OF DESTINY’. ACQUIRE DATA ON ORBITAL DEGRADATION OF ARK !!@@@#$%%^&POLATE LOCATION OF LOMBARDIA.

So we can’t find Lombardia without \\\\\error data not found/////have no way of finding out. In short; we’re boned.

QUERY; DEFINE ‘BONED’.

The conversation ended in my mind with the same instantaneous speed it had occurred and left me feeling light in the head. Parts of it had been garbled, just a burst of high pitched static in my brain, while other bits had simply been missing. My head hurt and the pressure was fading, but even so my thoughts reeled. Who was talking with who? I’d sort of figured that when I heard these voices before at least the one with all the fancy language was some sort of representation of Gramzanber, but I had no way of being sure. As for the other voice... I couldn’t really explain it. This wasn’t like hearing a voice with your ears where you could pick out tone and such, it was just... knowledge of what was being said. Even so that other voice felt familiar. I just had a gut feeling I knew it.

I’d been so caught up with wondering what that conversation had been about that I hadn’t noticed that things around me had changed. The hallway of light had become a vast, rolling plain, but unlike any plain I’d ever seen. It was covered in this thick blanket of strange white powder that crunched underneath my hooves and was freezing cold to the touch. In fact everything was bloody cold! My teeth began chattering as a wind blew across me, causing wisps of the powder to flow across the flowing rolls of the plain like sand.

More than the expansive plain of cold powder around me I was struck by the sky above. It was cloudless, and a deep midnight violet, speckled with a blanket of sparkling droplets of light like in a gleaming tapestry. I heard a thudding sound and realized I’d fallen onto my back gaping up at the sky. I quickly sat up, pinprick needles of cold covering my hide as I shook myself to try and get off all the freezing cold powdery stuff that I’d gotten on myself.

“Gah, Ancestor spirits, feel free to lend a hoof if any of you up there have any bucking idea where I am now!”

Getting to my shivering hooves I looked about, trying not to gape anymore at the admittedly incredible sight of the night sky above me. The amount of starlight (for what could those points of light be except those legendary things known as stars?) was reflecting off the white powder and making everything almost as bright as day. There were the distant sharp, tooth-like peaks of white mountains I could see far away in one direction. In another, opposite the mountains I saw... something strange. A glow, like a bright pink wash of light that lit up the whole horizon. In that distance I thought I saw a line of densely packed spires, but they were so far away I couldn’t be sure of what I was seeing other than those spires seemed to be the origin of the glow of light, and they covered the horizon from edge to edge.

“Wow...” was my own articulate and highly descriptive way of responding to the sight.

My staring was interrupted by the sound of crying coming from nearby. Frowning I trotted through the thick powder to the lip of one of the hills in this rolling plain and found myself looking down a small ravine. In that ravine were two figures; one I recognized, one I certainly didn’t.

The one I recognized was Arcaidia. She looked even younger than I remembered, the small blue filly rubbing at her face with her hooves as she cried. Standing before her the other figure shook its head, its stance both relaxed and exasperated at once, with one strange limb propped on its hip. What were those weird multi-digit extremities called... hands?

“Arc, you have to try harder. If you want to join the Fleet like your big sis you can’t cry over a little pain. The backlash couldn’t have been that bad.”

The creature that was speaking reminded me in some ways of the blue armored Hyadean I’d seen in Stable 104’s video records. It was bipedal, two long, slim legs, two arms, ending in five fingered hands. However that was where the similarities ended. This creature wasn’t large or bulky, instead it was quite... curvy. She? The voice was feminine, a rather rich dulcet feminine tone. She wore a rather tight, form fitting outfit of white and purple material that formed numerous intricate patterns on her form. The patterns were particular intricate around where the material hugged two large... mounds of some sort on the being’s chest. Wonder what those were about? Only her neck and face was exposed, pale white flesh forming a blunt, small nose and two small red eyes. This odd, flat face was framed by a long mane of deep purple hair, the brow of the creature’s head fixed with a strange white metal apparatus like a crown or helmet that covered her forehead and where I imagined her ears would be.

The bipedal female was looking at Arcaidia with what I thought might have been exasperation and sympathy, but it was hard to read the stance and facial features of this odd alien being. Arcaidia hiccuped and nodded, wiping her tears and getting onto all four hooves.

“I’m sorry Persephone, I’ll keep trying! I just... I just don’t know why this is so hard!”

It was so strange hearing her voice speaking clear in words I understood. She had a soft, bright, tinkling voice, I noticed; filled with energy. It was like the sound of the wind whistling through a narrow canyon.

“Its hard because you’ve never done it before,” said the bipedal female, Persephone, “If anyone could master Crest Sorcery in a day then we’d all be masters of the art. You’re problem is you keep trying to use that horn of yours at the same time!”

“Am not!” Arcaidia shouted back, then gulped as Persephone gave her a narrow eyed look and the little blue filly cringed in on herself, “I mean, I’m not doing it on purpose sister!” She gave the horn on her head a touch with a hoof, “It just comes on by itself! It messes up the Crest every time! I don’t even know why I have this thing. Why I’m not like... like you. I hate being so different!”

Arcaidia sniffed, tail and ears drooping. Persephone sighed and walked up to the filly. Her movements on her two legs were sinuous, fascinating. I had no idea how a creature could move around on two legs like that without falling over but Persephone moved in a way that made it look not only natural, but somehow seductively smooth. Well, either that or the memory of the two mare’s from LIL-E’s memory together was fresh enough in my mind that was easily suggestible. Either way, Persephone came up to Arcaidia and crouched down before her, head tilting a little coyly as she patted the filly on the head with one gloved hand.

“Hey, you’re a Veruni, whatever your body is shaped like. Don’t ever say you hate yourself. Remember; we’re sisters, in all ways that matter.”

Persephone held up her other hand, the fingers balled up in a fist. Arcaidia looked up and saw the gesture, and smiled lightly as she raised a hoof and bumped it against her sister’s fist and said, “Y-yes, we’re sisters. I’m sorry, I’m ready to try again! I’ll get it right this time for sure!”

I suddenly felt like an intruder, as if I didn’t belong here. This was clearly an important memory that Arcaidia was dreaming about, and I didn’t feel like I had any right viewing it. Granted, the same could be said for the others in my party, but I hadn’t quite realized what was happening before, but now that I knew I was intruding on my friend’s dreams I really just wanted this to stop. Curious as I was about what I was seeing, I just didn’t think it was right. Arcaidia, I respected her privacy, and her right to keep her secrets. This... strange world, and just seeing what her sister looked like, those probably counted as rather big secrets to her. I figured it’d be for the best if I stopped watching the two sisters and found a quiet out of the way place to wait for this dream to end.

I turned away from the pair and headed back down the hill, and as if my decision to turn away was a signal I felt the world around me turning into a shifting mist, peeling away like fog blowing away in the wind. I felt myself falling into that mist, being blown away myself... getting lighter and lighter until...

----------

I woke up in darkness, but I didn’t panic. I’d turned off the light in the room I’d been given in the Stable after locking the door on recommendation from Misty Glasses as a ‘just in case’ precaution. The room had been small and fairly basic, but the bed had been the most comfortable thing I’d ever slept upon, its soft plush mattress carrying me away to sleep almost as soon as I’d settled into it.

I remembered the strange dreams I’d had clearly, but before I could think much on what any of what I’d seen might mean I noticed something odd as I tried to move my hooves.

My forelegs were splayed out to either side and above me and were being restrained by something tight and leathery tied around them to the sides of the bed. Moving one of my hind legs I find the left was similarly bound, and the right...

“I tie him up real tight

so he won’t go away

when he wakes up soon

then it’ll be time to plaaaay

Longwalk Wrap Up Longwalk Wrap Up

Let’s get these bindings done

Longwalk Wrap Up Longwalk Wrap Up

‘Cause then we’ll have lots of fun!”

There was a warm body on top of me, wiggling around on my barrel and around my legs. I felt the brush of a bouncing, puffball of a tail on my face. The high, happy voice that was singing was undoubtedly Binge’s. I fought rising panic and said rather hastily, interrupting her song, “Binge... why am I being tied up?”

Binge made a squeak of surprise, and I felt her go still atop me, then heard her giggle and saw her two shining blue eyes in the dark and her wide grinning teeth, “Oh good, you’re awake! I was hoping you’d get up soon. You’re such a heavy sleeper my little bucky whucky! Did you know you talk in your sleep? That’s not a sign of good mental health, no sirree!”

“That didn’t answer my question,” I pointed out nervously.

“Hm? Oooooh, well, I was thinking you were so tense that I’d give you a helping hoof to unwind, but knowing you you’d get all scared so I’d need to keep you safe by tying you up nice and tightly so you couldn’t hurt yourself while I helped you relax. Now just stay still and I’ll finish up, then the real fun begins!”

She moved back towards my unbound leg, which I quickly jerked back away from the bedpost as I said, “Hey! No! No fun, okay? Binge, I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m plenty relaxed! See how relaxed I am!? I couldn't be more relaxed!”

Granted my rising voice to the point of yelling in hopes somepony would hear my distress probably wasn’t all that convincing. Binge made a small tittering sound as she shifted on me. I felt her soft fur brushing up and down my chest as she did so, the warmth of her body on top of mine making me suddenly feel rather self conscious. A second later I felt her hooves tickling my belly. I made a quick choking sound which soon became a burst of giggles at her relentless tickling.

“Ooooo, see? You need to have some fun! You’re so ticklish how can I not want to play with you!? Now, what else could I tickle you with?”

My giggling stopped dead as I felt a cold tip brush against my stomach. The memory of the knife going into my abdomen in the dream was so sharp for a second I felt my heart stop. My mouth went dry and I became very still.

“B-Binge...?”

“Hmmm?”

“Please... get off me. Now.”

She was silent for a moment, then she said, while idly tapping the flat of her knife against me, “I’m scaring you, aren’t I?”

“You’re holding a knife on me and have me mostly tied up, in a room where I’d locked the door. So, yeah, you’re scaring me.”

“... You don’t want to have fun with me?”

How was I to answer that one? I was more or less at her mercy. I didn’t know what it was she was trying to get out of me. If she just wanted me dead she had every chance to go ahead kill me while I’d been asleep. If she wanted to hurt me, well, no reason to go through the charade of asking questions and chit-chatting. She sounded oddly serious, for Binge, too. I decided I could only answer as honestly as I could.

“Binge, I’d be fine with having fun with you, sometime later... with other ponies around... in broad daylight,” did she just cackle-snort at that? I continued on, regardless, “But I don’t know what you mean by ‘fun’, really. My idea of fun, it doesn’t involve rope and knives in a dark room where presumably nopony could hear me scream.”

In response she turned around so she was facing me, her knife seemingly vanishing into her mane as she leaned over me, eyes wide and shining blue, holding me transfixed like a serpent with a rodent. She tapped a hoof to my nose, “You need to expand your tastes, before you starve, you silly filly. Let go. Its soooo easy, and when you do, it’ll feel good I promise. I’ll be there too, so you won’t be all lonely.”

“Binge... I think its time for you to let me get up.”

She paused for a moment, staring at me. I could feel the cold steel of the knife slowly tracing along me, in sharp contrast to the heat of her body. Hadn’t she just put that thing away!? How had she drawn it again without me seeing... and what was she moving it with, her hooves were all where I could see them! Wait, her tail was swishing about... was that holding the knife? I tensed myself, not sure if I was about to have to fight for my life, my virginity, or both... but then with a huge sigh she hopped off me, and with fast, deft motions of her tail almost faster than I could give credence to, I felt the bindings on my legs fall free as she cut them. The knife was gone again in an instant and Binge cantered towards the door of the room, her tail swishing about in a happy bounce as she opened the door, a door I knew I’d locked before going to sleep, and stepped out. I frowned as I sat up on the bed, rubbing my legs where the rope had cut off circulation.

“Binge, was my door locked before you came in?” I felt I had to ask.

She turned and smiled at me, a wide, toothy grin, “Yes indeedy!”

The Raider mare trotted away with a happy bounce, leaving me feeling more than a little nervous about the next time I went to sleep.

----------

That evening we were on our way out of Stable 104. The interior of the train was brightly lit, with remarkably comfortable, plush seats set in neat ordered rows along the sides of the passenger car, though the color scheme was all the same dull white and steel gray that dominated Stable 104’s hallways. I felt the soft vibration in the floor of the train car as the engine started up and looked about the cabin at my companions.

LIL-E was inside the control room, her bobbing form barely visible through a glass view-port in the door. Out of all those I’d seen in my dreams last night she’d been the only one who seemed to remember anything. The others had just given me odd looks, but LIL-E had just gone silent when I asked if she’d had any unusual dreams the previous night, only telling me to “Try not to think too much about it.”

Not too hard. I’m a champion of not thinking. Except when I’m trying to work out morality issues. I didn’t know what to think about those dreams anyway. Binge’s had disturbed me, but that had been eclipsed by waking up with her tying me to my bed, planning to do... I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what she’d wanted to do. I didn’t know what to make of B.B’s dream. She’d... been eating that colt... and that strange mare she’d called Mistress... I shivered and put that out of my mind. Some nightmares didn’t have to make sense, or be... based on memories, right? No way that B.B would do anything like what I saw in the dream. Iron Wrought had been dreaming of his family, and I could see why he was so protective of them. I didn’t know what it was like to have foals of my own, but I could understand the desire to protect. It made me wonder why he gave me such a hard time about trying to protect others myself. He ought to understand, right? Then there was Arcaidia. Looking at her sitting on the seat across from me, adjusting something on her Pip-Buck while humming her familiar tune to herself, I just couldn’t see her as anything other than Arcaidia, my friend.

Her being from some other world, raised by strange alien creatures called Veruni, well... that just didn’t seem real. Even though it plainly was. I just couldn’t get my mind wrapped enough around the idea to feel like it should change how I think about her. She’s a friend, that’s all there is to it. No reason to ask her a bunch of questions rapid-fire in a orgy of trying to satisfy curiosity.

Oh how I wanted to satisfy curiosity.

Fortunately I did have other things to occupy my attention.

Like the swanky new gear we’d all gotten outfitted with. Swanky. Blame B.B for teaching me that word.

The weight of the Pip-Buck 3000 clamped snugly against me left foreleg was a little odd, but also left me grinning like... well like a young colt with a shiny new toy. Not really an analogy there, huh?

For some reason LIL-E had chuckled at me when I’d put it on my leg, saying “Left? Pfft, typical.” Didn’t know what that was about but who cares; I got a Pip-Buck.

It wasn’t alone either, joined by the bracelet-like device I’d discovered in Stable 104’s Weapons Testing laboratory. My vision was bathed with a plethora of new images that I was getting used to, but felt a thrill at seeing. Technology had yet to cease to amaze me. Horrify me as well, but still amaze. The bottom left of my vision had this neat little bar that told me how hungry and thirsty I was, and even somehow measured my overall health! While I was impressed the Pip-Buck could detect those things, I found it curious the features were there. If I was hungry or injured I’d know it without needing a bar displaying how severe it was. Maybe it was for knowing just how close to starvation or dehydration you were? Because my stomach might growl at me and hurt, but maybe I couldn’t tell just how much time I had before I actually starved to death? There was another bar on the bottom right of my vision was some kind of measure for how much charge was in the Pip-Buck for activating that... what had Misty Glasses called it? S.A.T.S? I just called it ‘Awesome Time Stopping Spell of Flank Kicking!’

Misty Glasses had let me practice with S.A.T.S all morning in one of the firing ranges in the Weapons Testing lab. The range had used holoprojections to create facsimiles of just about anything. I wasn’t thrilled at first with the all-too accurate holoprojections of ponies that were created for targets, but I had to be practical about this. I was going to end up fighting ponies again, and I needed the practice.

It was thrilling and unnerving all at once, the way S.A.T.S just halted time, the Pip-Buck somehow calculating a percentile chance of my ability to hit a target with any given weapon. It was mind boggling the kind of information the device had to somehow sense, record, and process to come up with those numbers. Oh, and stopping bucking time! I mean, I was shocked somepony hadn’t worked out a spell like this for the purpose of dodging instead of attacking.

In practice I gave Gramzanber a good workout with throwing it at the holographic targets. The spear had been in one of the laboratories, but the spider ponies had given me no trouble in retrieving it; apparently they’d just been curious about the weapons. With Director Twinkle gone it seemed many of the spider ponies were interested in returning to the research they used to do, and Gramzanber represented a valuable object of research. I agreed to let them keep examining it during the times me and my friends would return to the Stable, but I needed the ARM in the field.

I’d gotten a little rusty in my throwing accuracy, what with all the melee combat I’d been doing, having been avoiding throwing Gramzanber until I had a way to easily retrieve it. Guns were... no good. At the range I not only managed to miss every single time with or without S.A.T.S, but I’d somehow managed to jam two of the guns I’d been trying to use. I didn’t do any better when it came to magical energy weapons; worse in fact. I somehow ricocheted a plasma ball off the ceiling and nearly fried B.B, who had come to the firing range to practice as well. She’d given me a bit of a stink eye, I think more because I managed to sizzle part of her tail more than the possibility I’d nearly injured her.

On the plus side I was good with grenades. Wasn’t going to impress anypony with my finesse but I could toss the little balls of death where I wanted them more often than not. The Stable had a decent supply of energy based grenades, but I didn’t think I could afford to carry a bunch with me. And plasma grenades did not sit well with me. I didn’t want to toss something that would turn ponies into piles of green mush. Spark grenade’s though, which let off streams of magical blue energy that shorted out tech like robots and power armor? I’d taken a dozen of those for the road, along with some more flash-bang grenades, and yellow striped grenades that apparently exploded with a tear inducing gas. All far more up my alley than actual explosives.

I’d also gotten a chance to practice with the bracelet device I’d taken from the Weapons Testing Lab when Arcaidia and I had fled through it during our exploration of the Stable. It was called a Grapple, a simple arcane-tech device developed with earth ponies in mind, to allow them to more easily traverse vertical obstacles and keep up with their pegasi or unicorn comrades. Of course soldiers had such equipment already, but the Grapple was something else, using a combination of levitation and weight elimination spells to make it so when the metal hook the bracelet fired latched onto something, the user could adjust their own weight or the weight of what they latched onto. This meant that, if they wanted, a user could lessen their weight to easily climb or be pulled up a wall, or lessen the weight of somepony else to make it easier to pull them. On top of that the hook and its spool of extra strong chemically hardened wire existed in a magically compressed space inside the bracelet, allowing for a hundred meters worth of wire to be stored in the compact device. Oh, and since it was designed to attach to a Pip-Buck it worked very well with S.A.T.S.

I couldn’t wait to give it a try! Iron Wrought had to practically sit on me to keep me from trying to scale the canyon walls before lunch. Too risky, with Odessa still out there, to go exposing ourselves so close to the Stable.

On top of everything else I’d acquired some new armored barding and saddlebags! I wasn’t too keen on going back to the metal armor I’d been wearing, too restrictive, but this new armor was a whole different story. I’d gone to the kitchens that morning for more tasty golden gecko meat and tasty carrots for breakfast. After some extensive pantomiming I’d communicated to the cooks that I wanted to see where they’d put the hide of the golden geckos they’d brought in for the meat. They hadn’t disposed of it yet and I found the gold scaled hides of the geckos stored in a freezing room that was apparently used to keep certain foodstuffs nice and cold. Taking all the hide I could carry I’d asked Misty Glasses if she could secure a place for me to cure it, and she’d given me a look like I was a few spears short of a full hunting party. I had to explain that the golden gecko scales were much harder than those of normal geckos, a fact I unpleasantly recalled from my fight with one of the beasts, and that my tribe made armor out of such hide. Once she understood she offered to help with some of the Stable’s researched alchemical processes to make the curing process take hours instead of days, and that they could fashion somthing for me using some Stable security armor as a base.

After an afternoon of work what we ended up creating was the unique suit of armored barding I was currently wearing. It was a suit of dark blue Stable security armor that covered my forelegs, chest, barrel, flanks, and hindlegs. Thick pads of cured golden gecko scale hide were bonded through alchemical means to major portions of the chest, knees, sides, and back. The armor was comfortable and didn’t restrict my movement at all and I just couldn’t stop grinning about it. The saddlebags I had on were larger than the ones I had taken from my tribal village, made from smooth dark blue material that Misty Glasses told me was fully waterproof. The bags were full of fresh water flasks, more gecko meat now treated into something called ‘jerky’ which I was looking forward to trying, and a nice little store of healing potions and caps, not to mention an assortment of nick-knacks I’d acquired from the Stable including a set of something called... magazines! I was stoked to try reading them. A rig of straps made from similar material was on my left flank where Gramzamber was firmly sheathed.

All in all I was feeling rested, refreshed, and decked out to take on the world.

Which probably meant something was going to go horribly wrong before the end of the day, but I wasn’t going to let a little Wasteland induced pessimism ruin my good mood.

Besides, I wasn’t the only one sporting new gear. My friends had all taken full advantage of Stable 104’s generosity. They all had resupplied on water and food, and I knew each carried a few healing potions as well.

B.B had not taken any new weapons, still keeping her twin .356 revolvers and the larger .44 magnum. However she’d acquired a large supply of ammo. Not just regular rounds, but a number of special bullets, including armor piercing, spark rounds, and high explosive shells for the .44. She’d gained a new bandolier for her bullets, now decked out with little cylinders she called speed loaders. She’d showed me how they let her reload her revolvers all six rounds at a time instead of round by round. B.B had opted to take some cut down security barding to wear under her new violet dress. I knew she’d acquired some more sets of clothing, including a few “Choice pieces ta dress ya up fancy-like in case we gotta impress anypony.” I didn’t know what she had in mind, and was confused by the idea overall. Dress up to impress? Why did ponies even need to wear clothes outside of barding for protection? B.B had also taken medical supplies besides healing potions; snagging a couple of first-aid kits, a bag of doctor’s tools for more complicated surgeries, and a book on medicine that she’d been reading between lunch and when we loaded up onto the train.

Iron Wrought had taken a 10mm SMG, and a larger automatic rifle, along with some heavier security barding and even a helmet with face guard. He was also sporting one of the Stable’s experimental energy weapons, a white rectangular barreled pistol that fired red energy beams like the ‘lasers’ I seen Odessa troops use, but this one apparently used something called a ‘beam splitter’ to produce a spread of five beams like a miniature energy shotgun. I wasn’t sure why he’d taken it, since I’d never seen him use energy weapons, but I wasn’t about to question him on it. Iron Wrought could do what he wanted.

Binge was also wearing securing barding, the same kind of heavier padded model like Iron Wrought had taken, but she’d... modified hers. I wasn’t sure how she did it but she’d taken a few dozen of the security combat knives, cut off the blades, and much like the way the gecko hide had been chemically bonded to my security barding, she’d used the same process to bond the blades to choice places on her own barding. Her flanks, elbows and knees sported blades like jutting spikes. Her back had a series of them like they followed the curve of her spine nearly to her tail. Even her armor’s chest piece sported a small array of knife blades. I could only imagine what would happen to some poor pony she hugged. She had new knives for her personal use as well. One was a strange, thick bladed affair with chain-like teeth. It was motorized and whenever she played with it the chain blades would hum and buzz with a throaty wine. The other knife was... a kitchen blade. Larger than any regular knife, curved for dicing meat or vegetables. I was confused as to why she wanted it for fighting until I saw her slice off the skin of an apple with deft ease.

“Fear the Cosmic Knife!” Binge had declared, hosing the knife up proudly in one hoof (nevermind how she kept the thing balanced there!), and I had only nodded dumbly.

Finally there was Arcaidia, who had not taken new equipment so much as she’d just raided the laboratories containing all the Veruni relics. I wasn’t sure what she was doing with some of those devices, but she’d acquired a number of those little metal rectangles, a number of small oblong bright gems which I think may have been ammunition for her starblaster, and all the remaining vials of her blue magic restoring liquid she could find. There was also a small metal cube she’d tossed into her saddlebag without explaining what it was for. She had not taken any new armor, but then her dark blue dress had seemed to... repair itself and was as shining and clean as ever.

I was still playing with my Pip-Buck, trying to sort out how it determined the pieces of golden gecko jerky were worth 10 caps apiece, when I heard B.B say from across the passenger car, “Hey Long, ya sure ya don’t wanna take a peek at what them Odessa folk’re up to?”

“Are you still going on about that?” snapped Iron Wrought, sulking in his seat.

B.B huffed and crossed her forelegs over her chest, “Ain’t been goin’ on ‘bout it or nothin’, just makin’ sure Longwalk is seriously alright just lettin’ Odessa do whatever they please up there without even takin’ a look!”

Before Iron Wrought could respond, with the angry glare in his eye indicating it wouldn’t be a pleasant response, I cut in, “Like I said at lunch, if everypony agreed on it, I’d be okay with seeing what they’re doing. But Iron Wrought wants to get back home as fast as possible, Arcaidia doesn’t care either way, and LIL-E thinks its too risky. I kind of agree with her. I’m curious, but if we got caught then, even if we escaped Odessa might suspect we came from the Stable. We’ve brought 104 enough trouble.”

B.B got a sour look on her face, lips pursing, “Figure we could avoid gettin’ spotted long ‘nough to just find out why they’re so keen on this excavation site. Remember part o’ the arrangement we got goin’ with 104 is we put a’ stop ta Odessa’s plan. Gonna be hard ta do that iffin’ we don’t know what them plans are.”

She had a point, I couldn’t deny that. However we’d just recovered from Stable 104, I didn’t want to throw my friends or myself into a fight so soon after that if it was completely avoidable; which this was. Besides, well equipped as we were now I wasn’t eager to pick a fight with Odessa soldiers. I was still shaken from killing Midnight Twinkle, and while I was feeling better after the talk I’d had with LIl-E, I wasn’t eager to throw myself into a situation where I might have to kill. If such a fight came to me, I’d deal with it then, but no reason to go seeking such fights out unless I had to, right?

“Whatever they’re doing there, is it more important to find that out than it is to get Iron Wrought to Skull City so we can get his family out of danger?” I asked, and immediately felt bad about it. B.B’s wings wilted and I saw her give me a hurt look.

“‘Course it aint! I wasn’t sayin’ that, I just...” she trailed off, then slumped in her seat, “Don’t feel right lettin’ Odessa be. Not after what they did ta mah home. I want ta do somethin’ that feels like we ain’t runnin’ from ‘em.”

Her wings were twitching now and I could see her tense up as she spoke. By now Arcaidia had stopped her humming, stopped paying attention to her own Pip-Buck, and without prompting she went over to B.B and sat next to the pegasus. Arcaidia smiled in a small, comforting way, placing her hoof on B.B’s shoulder.

“Not run. Chose... estu vi salral di vira mir, choose right time. B.B is no scared pony,” Arcaidia said, stumbling a little over her words but putting a lot of encouragement in her voice, “Time soon to battle enemy. Then they scared ponies! Frozen scared ponies.”

B.B chuckled slightly, one of her wings returning Arcaidia’s gesture by gently brushing the unicorn’s withers, “Yeah, soon ‘nough we’ll give ‘em a taste o’ their own medicine. Ain’t lettin’ Saddlespring go unanswered. Just wish I knew what they were plannin’!”

“I do too,” I said, feeling like I should offer some apology but not really knowing how to segway into it, “We’ll see what information we can dig up once we’ve settled into Skull City. Place that big has to have somepony who knows something about Odessa.”

Iron Wrought made a soft scoffing sound, “Most likely the only ponies who’d know anything would be the higher ups of one of the main Guilds, and getting information from them wouldn’t come cheaply.”

I shrugged, feeling a slight shift in the floor and hearing the subdued grind of metal on metal as the train began to move. There were flashing yellow lights from outside the window coming from the corners of the door the train was slowly approaching. The terminal station was better lit now, with the bodies from our battle long since cleared away. I never did ask Misty Glasses what they did with the remains of their dead. The train had detached all cars except for three, compact engine car, the long passenger car we were all seated in, and a flatbed cargo car. Upon that was a tarp covered form; the vehicle Misty Glasses had promised us.

The huge metal doors to the tunnel ahead opened with the grinding of machinery and hydraulic hissing, and just as the train departed the station, sliding into the dark tunnel beyond, the train’s speaker system flared to life.

“Good luck to all of you,” said Misty Glasses' voice over the speaker, “Stay safe out there, and remember you can contact us through your Pip-Buck, Longwalk. I’ve programmed our frequency into the radio and communication tab. Thank you again for all you’ve done, and for what you’ve agreed to do.”

I hunkered down in my seat, ears twitching, “We’ll stay as safe as we can Misty Glasses. Same goes for you too! We’ll be in touch.”

The tunnel we were going down was one that would, if we took it all the way, lead to the excavation site Odessa had troops at. The other tunnels were collapsed at points, blocking access to other parts of the Combined Stable System, and unfortunately the one that would’ve brought us closest to Skull City had been collapsed very close to Stable 104. Our best route was to take this smaller tunnel about halfway and use a surface access gate to unload the vehicle we’d been given and drive that to Skull City. LIL-E had said she knew a relatively safe route that would get us in range of the city, though she hadn’t elaborated much beyond that.

With luck we could avoid any trouble and be at Skull City in a day or two.

Binge had flopped onto her stomach and was curled up napping on her seat, looking for all the world like a little green ball of spikes in her new armor. I questioned my own sanity slightly as I thought the sight was kind of adorable as her tail flicked about and she made tiny motions with her legs like she was running in her sleep. Probably doing something in her dreams I didn’t want to know about.

B.B looked at the Raider mare with a curious look before turning to Arcaidia.

“So, Arc, back to language lessons?”

Arcaidia smiled, “Yes, learn more good. I become best speaker fast with good teacher.”

Iron Wrought watched the two for a few minutes as B.B started up a lesson on vocabulary, using objects in the passenger car for reference, then he turned his attention my way.

“Longwalk, want to ask you-” he blinked “-the hell you doing?”

I didn’t look back at him. I’d pushed down the window next to my seat and had clambered up to stick my head out the window. The train had started to gain speed and I was curious to see what this was like. I felt wind whipping my long blue mane about my face, getting a few strands caught in my mouth that I spat out before turning to face the front of the train. The wind made my lips flap about and on impulse I smiled wide as I could. I heard the gummy flapping of my lips and laughed at the noise.

“Heeey!~The wind makes my voice sound weird!~” I said, and heard Iron Wrought groan.

“Get you’re head back inside before something takes it off you idiot!”

“Huh?~” I asked, confused, before seeing something with another strobing yellow light approach fast around a bend in the tunnel. I just managed to pull my head back through the window before some kind of black and yellow stripped sign with a flashing light on it would’ve smacked into my head... probably with what would’ve been lethal force.

“Geez,” I said, “Can’t even enjoy a simple ride without possibly dying.”

Iron Wrought stared at me. B.B and Arcaidia had briefly glanced over from their lesson, and Binge giggled in her sleep. She was asleep, wasn’t she?

“Anyway, what I was going to ask before that bit of stupidity,” Iron Wrought said with a frown, “Is what do you actually plan on doing once you’re in Skull City?”

Again, Iron Wrought, with assuming I was a buck who made plans. Though in this case he was right... sort of. I did have a plan of action, it was just filled with a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘what ifs’ and had a high probability of going wrong very fast. So, basically every plan I’d ever come up with.

“If things go well with your family and we get that sorted out, my idea was to approach the Drifters Guild,” I said, earning curious looks from my companions, “Like you said Iron Wrought, only place we could learn about Odessa is from one of the big Guilds. I know for sure that the Drifter’s Guild has had dealings with Odessa before.”

“Alright, but how ya plannin’ on gettin’ them ta spill the beans?” asked B.B.

“Don’t know yet. Was hoping to get some advice from your father on that point, since he used to work for them,” I replied, flushing with a bit of embarrassment at the admission. What did they expect though? I sucked at plan making! I knew from Crossfire and Doc Sunday both that the Drifter’s Guild had dealings with Odessa. I wasn’t sure how I’d get the information they had, but I didn’t doubt there was a way. Probably involving copious amounts of caps. Caps are King. I didn’t like it but I had to acknowledge that Crossfire was probably right; you can get a lot more done if you have money than you can if you don’t.

Crossfire... was probably going to run into her again if I went to the Drifter’s Guild.

Was not looking forward to that meeting. There would likely be shooting involved.

B.B looked pensive, rubbing a hoof on her chin, “Pa might be able ta help out. Might not even haffta mess ‘round wit them Drifter folk.”

“That’d be for the best,” said Iron Wrought, “None of you could pay the price the Drifter’s Guild would want you to pay for their ‘services’. Caps or otherwise.”

“You have any other suggestions?” I asked, a little irritably. Seriously, did Iron Wrought enjoy to do nothing other than to point out what won’t work?

“No, but then I’m not going with you so its not my business to hoof feed you solutions. I told you already Longwalk, we get to Skull City, we’re done with each other. I...” the green stallion hesitated, face scrunching up in consternation as he wrestled with something inside, “I’m... grateful you’ve helped me. I’m just trying to... I don’t know, you just insist on keeping doing things that I know won’t work, that will get you or one of your friends fixed for an early grave. Wish to Tartarus and back that you’d just gone home before getting mixed in all this, because you have a habit of making poorly thought out decisions.”

There was silence for a few moments after that, save for the steady hum of the train moving along the rails. It was broken by Binge giggling in her sleep and murmuring, “Don’t run away, you tasty little treats.” She waggled her legs and made gnashing motions with her teeth, like she was eating something, or trying to. Iron Wrought looked at her, then looked at me.

“See exhibit A for an example of what I mean,” he said dryly.

Conversation petered out after that. Not like I had much I could say to Iron Wrought at that point. I decided to take my mind of things by checking out some of the magazines I’d snagged from the Stable. I’d grabbed a number of them at random, not really knowing what to expect, but with eagerness I started going over the stack I had. My tribe taught its foals to read, yet I’d never put much thought into why. We didn’t have any books, nor did we rely on the written word for any kind of communication. It was just something that was taught, usually by drawing out the letters in the dirt. Thinking about it I could come up with no logical answer as to why parents in my tribe would teach reading to their foals other than because it was taught to them by their parents, and so and so forth. Maybe, after the balefire bombs dropped, and my ancestors wandered to that mountain valley... they just taught their foals to read because to them reading was a common and important skill. Not knowing it wouldn’t matter to their tribal descendants they just drilled their foals in reading, making a big deal about its importance... and the tradition just stuck.

Whatever the case, I’m glad my mother taught me, because it would’ve been a shame to not be able to read all these neat articles. The first magazine I looked through was called Magical Miracles Monthly and was filled with tidbits about advancing magic and technology. I didn’t understand a fraction of it but it had a lot of neat pictures of bizarre devices, unusual diagrams of sparkly patterns, and plenty of ponies in white lab coats looking very enthusiastic about their work. There was even an interview piece with that lavender Ministry mare, the one on all the posters back in Stable 104. The interviewer was asking her a bunch of questions about recent advances in arcane technology as a result of the war, and while most of it went right over my head, there was one bit that really stood out in my mind:

QM: Miss Sparkle, as the war puts greater and greater pressure on brilliant minds such as yours and your colleagues the rate at which we’ve been creating new devices and weapons has reached a peak never before seen by ponykind. When the war ends, with Equestria victorious of course, do you think that streak of invention will end?

TS: Oh I don’t think it would! When this terrible, terrible war ends, I don’t think we... well I don’t think we could stop even if we wanted to! With the inventing I mean. Its really great, in a way, not the war obviously, but... but just the way its forced us to look at things in ways we never would have, or at least wouldn’t have for many, many centuries if we weren’t under pressure to do so. I firmly believe that once the war ends, once we win peace for ourselves, that the Ministry of Arcane Science will continue to learn and discover new things about magic, technology, how they work together, and how we can make everypony, indeed everyone’s, lives better through what we create.

QM: There are some, though, that fear this rapid rise of technology, that it may be causing a disconnect from our cultural identity. Do you have any words for those who fear what the future may bring?

TS:Yes... don’t. Don’t fear. Fear of the future, that’s the end of all knowledge. Its always a scary thing, dealing with what’s new, seeing things change around you. I get scared too, of some of the changes I’ve seen in the world. We can’t just stop, however. The future is coming whether we’re scared of it or not, so isn’t it better to try and face that future with all the knowledge you can and with heart and mind ever prepared to learn more? That’s the future I hope for, after the war. One where knowledge and hope for the future is stronger than fear and mistrust of the unknown.

I didn’t really remember much else of the articles in that magazine, but that exchange stuck in my mind and remained, even as I moved on to the next magazine. Don’t fear the future? I thought about the blasted Wasteland somewhere above the train tunnel, filled with its empty, broken, dead remains of homes. I wanted very much to agree with that lavender unicorn mare, the picture in the magazine showing eyes that were tired, yet still filled with energy, with hope. I wanted her to be right.

It just wasn’t easy when you were the one who had to live with that future.

Fortunately my morose mood vanished with curiosity over the next magazine. I looked over the title with a raised eyebrow. Wingboner Magazine? What in the world was a ‘Wingboner’? Well, the pegasus on the cover, a pink coated mare with a deep crimson mane and violet eyes lidded in such a way that made her look like she was sleepy, seemed interesting enough. I didn’t know why she was posed like that, or why she was wearing purple and black striped socks... but I was curious to see what the magazine was about. Mare fashion perhaps?

I opened up to somewhere in the middle of the magazine... looked at what was on there, and proceeded to make a noise that was somewhere between a squeak and a gulp.

“Longwalk? Ya alright over there?” B.B asked.

“Esru di coivai shai mas?” Arcaidia piped in as well.

I didn’t respond. My eyes were wide, glued to the rather wide angle picture of two pegasi mares and a unicorn stallion... who knew pegasi could do that with their wings? And was the stallion levitating... into the mare’s.... oh... my...

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a full-body blush, but I was told later by B.B that I’d been practically glowing like a stove top from the tip of my tail to the tip of my snout.

When B.B had come up to me saying, “What’re ya lookin’ at there?” I gave a startled yelp and threw the magazine across the passenger car. It hit Iron Wrought in the face. He gave me a disgruntled look, then picked up the magazine and laid it out with a hoof. He stifled a chuckle and said, “Oh, he’s just discovering the most prevalent form of entertainment among young bucks his age, and some mares too.”

I blanched as he rolled the magazine up and put it in his own saddlebags! I wasn’t done looking at it!... I mean... I had no interest in that...

... Okay, blatant lie, I had a very healthy interest. Unfortunately the only mare in the group who had any apparent interest in me might also have been just as eager to stab me to death. Even though she was rather cute, especially while sleeping. But then I still had this strong feeling of affection towards Trailblaze that I didn’t know if it would lead anywhere! Or if Traiblaze might feel the same! I shouldn’t just be looking or thinking about other mares, right? But those pegasi were amazingly lithe, and the way they posed with their flanks so perfectly sticking out-

I shook my head in mental denial as B.B gave the magazine a cock-eyed look, sighed, and went back to Arcaidia. The unicorn filly looked confused and whispered something to B.B that I couldn’t hear, and B.B just shook her head with a little amused smile and whispered something back. Arcaidia looked at me then, her head tilting slightly, then she got this annoyingly knowing smile and nodded at me as if she was giving approval! What the buck was that about!?

I turned my attention back to Iron Wrought, “Can I have my magazine back?”

“I don’t think you need anything clogging up you’re already overtaxed brain, buck,” he said, then grinned ruefully, “Besides I can get more use out of it than you.”

“B-b-but... you’re married aren’t you!?”

“Yes, and I haven’t seen my wife in over a week.”

I decided he had a point and let the matter drop. Not like I was overly interested in stuff like that anyway! Except those pegasi mares were so very, very athletically lithe, and could bend their wings in such fascinating ways. I shoved my face in my hooves as if I could scrub the thoughts out of my brain. Iron Wrought was right, I didn’t need my mind bogged down by thinking about mares! What was wrong with me anyway? I had been fine not thinking about them before. What had changed?

Well, up until lately you’ve only had Trailblaze around, and your mother. Most the other mares in the tribe didn’t even talk to you unless they had to, except Whetstone, and even her just because she was friends with Trailblaze. Now you’ve spent days on end traveling with a party of mostly mares. It's actually surprising its taken you this long to start noticing them.

Thanks brain pony, why don’t you provide such logical conclusions when they’d actually be useful!?

I realized I’d been staring at Binge’s flanks and pointedly turned around in my seat to instead watch the tunnel go by. And to think of anything else other than mares.

----------

I was bouncing around excitedly. The train had stopped at a section of the tunnel that was connected to a large cut-away platform supported by a number of metal pillars, lit up with fluorescent ceiling lights. A huge ramp lead to a smaller tunnel where I could see the distant dull white glow of daylight. This surface access point was about two thirds of the way between Stable 104 and its northern excavation site, far enough away that we should be able to slip out into the Wasteland without being spotted by Odessa’s troops there.

Right now Iron Wrought, B.B, and LIL-E, and I were working to uncover the tarp surrounding our new vehicle and get it started up. My excitement was entirely directed at the vehicle in question. The train was cool enough, but this was like a train that didn’t have to stay on the rails!

“What did Misty Glasses call this thing again?” I asked as the blue tarp covering the vehicle was finally pulled away.

“An Ursa-class All Terrain Wagon,” LIL-E said, floating over the top of the Ursa, “According to her it’s what the Stable used for its surface recons, before they decided to stop checking the condition of the surface.”

“So sad in my feels that they wouldn’t let us play any more with Geary,” Binge said with drooping ears, “Now he’s gonna be all alone and bored in that stuffy hole in the ground instead of partying with ponies across the Wasteland!”

Binge had made something of a fuss when she found out we weren’t allowed to keep that Mini-Golem, the Fully Tuned Gear. Needed crowbars to pry her off the thing’s leg. I wasn’t too disappointed though. The Mini-Golem had been too small to carry all of us comfortably, and the Ursa ATW looked far more rugged. Besides, I think Misty Glasses wanted us to help her people make peaceful relations with surface settlements... not blast them into craters.

I patted Binge on the shoulder, which was a delicate operation to avoid the knives sticking out from her armor now, but I managed.

“Hey, no worries, I bet we’ll have plenty of fun with, uh, ‘Ursy’ too.”

“Hmmm,” Binge squinted her eyes at the vehicle, as if trying to imagine the carnage she might be able to wreak with it, “I don’t know... he’s big, but doesn’t have any fun ‘splody bits.”

It was true, the Ursa ATW wasn’t armed. But then it didn’t look like it needed to be. It was a huge machine, with a thick, blocky front cabin with black tinted windows on front and wrapping along the side. It stood easily a good ten feet off the ground on six massive wheels, with door access on either side and on the passenger compartment on the back. The roof even had a small railed deck that you could stand on. The Ursa was made from solid, thick metal painted a rusty, subdued red that would blend in well with the terrain of the Wasteland.

“Ain’t no point gawking folks, let’s take a’ look inside an’ git going’!” said B.B, flying down onto the Ursa’s roof and popping open a top hatch, crawling in. We all clambered aboard, using a small metal step access to get up to the door itself, which you could open with a simple hoof press to a button.

The interior was dark and remarkably comfortable for such a rugged looking vehicle, with the driver cabin alone having four big plush chairs to snuggle into. The driver seat itself had a big wheel in front of it with grooves for hooves to fit in, and a few pedals on the floor which I figured was for getting the Ursa to move forward. The dashboard was a kaleidoscope of monitors and displays I didn’t understand, but was more than curious about. A door at the back of the driver cabin led to the larger passenger compartment. Back there was like a miniature living room, with a kitchenette, a small table booth, and a few bunk beds and cargo lockers. There was even a tiny lavatory on the corner next to the back exit hatch. The roof access were here as well, and B.B was already poking her nose into the kitchenette, “Hey Long, wanna learn how ta cook?”

I smiled, rubbing the back of my head, “If you got the patience to teach me.”

“Vi rimawl dol voltirsha est golis,” Arcaidia said, settling into the table booth, “We move better now, yes?”

“That’s the idea,” I said, turning my smile towards her, “Don’t worry, we’ll be in Skull City before you know it!”

She nodded, her silver eyes casting a glance towards her Pip-Buck. Much like the EFS allowed me to see little yellow bars indicating where my allies were, it had a special additional white tag for Arcaidia’s Pip-Buck. Misty Glasses had wanted to examine Arcaidia’s model, but Arcaidia had firmly refused. The sleeker Pip-Buck was still similar enough to mine, apparently, that one could track the other. Arcaidia’s horn glowed blue, and a few knobs on her Pip-Buck turned, and I could see she’d switched to her map screen.

“Persephone far down,” she said, then frowned, “Down map... south?”

“South, that’s right, hun,” said B.B, “Up is north, left is west, right is east.”

Arcaidia nodded, “Persephone south, across big... dessert?”

“Desert,” B.B corrected gently.

“Can new vehicle go?” Arcaidia asked.

I blinked, “Huh, good question. Could we cross that big desert to the south and get to the NCR using the Ursa?”

B.B frowned thoughtfully, “Don’t rightly know. It’d be risky. Rumors I hear talk ‘bout all sortsa nasty critters in the Bleach that could even tear up this big clonker. Be safer if we found ‘nother way.”

“I can put my ‘ears’ to the ground once we’re in Skull City,” LIL-E’s voice said from a small radio in an upper corner of the compartment, “See if I can give you a few leads. Everypony settled in?”

“Oh, we about to go!? Let me come up front,” I said hastily as I turned for the door, “I want to see how to drive this!”

I heard B.B and Arcaidia sharing a chuckle behind me as I opened the door back into the driver’s cabin and scurried through. I practically ran face first into Binge in my haste and we ended up tumbling over each other on the floor of the driver’s cabin, wedged between the two back passenger seats.

“Hiya bucky, you wanna play right here?” she asked with an impish smile, eyes twinkling.

“Aaaah!” I said, mainly because running into a mare who had dozens of knife blades sticking out of her armor was painful, even though my own armor kept any of them from actually penetrating (go golden gecko hide armor!). Still, it was far from a comfortable position to be in, especially with the way Binge wiggled around.

In response to my obvious distress Binge licked my nose. This did not help.

“Are you two done making out?” asked Iron Wrought irritably, sitting in the driver’s seat, “Because I’m about to start this thing.”

Somehow Iron Wrought driving distracted me from a knife covered Binge beneath me, “Why do yout get to drive!? I wanna drive!”

“Only adults get to drive, buck,” he said sagely. LIL-E, floating over the passenger seat next to the driver, bobbed as if nodding.

“I am an adult, mostly,” I said and felt Binge wiggle in a way that made my face turn into a burning red beacon.

“Oooo, I can atest to that,” pat, pat, pat, “Very healthy. Mr. Happy is jealous.”

I didn’t want to know why a sock puppet was jealous, or how, or what, or oh-dear-Ancestors-Binge-stop-that!

I was standing up and getting into a passenger seat in seconds, legs crossed firmly underneath me, and trying very hard to ignore Binge while the Raider mare also got up and sauntered to the other passenger seat. Too many knives, too many sensitive places on me that lacked the benefit of armor. Iron Wrought grunted in faint satisfaction seeing us both in our seats and I suddenly felt rather embarrassed, like I really was acting childish.

“This is part of why I never had foals,” said LIL-E.

“Mine are much better behaved,” said Iron Wrought firmly as he ran a hoof over a lever by the wheel and the Ursa’s engine roared to life, causing the frame to shake briefly before settling out into a throaty hum. I didn’t know anything about how the engine actually worked, only that it got its power from something called spark batteries, and we’d been given a hefty supply to keep the Ursa running.

The train was set to automatically return to Stable 104, and as the Ursa rumbled off the cargo car and onto the ramp-way towards the surface I could hear the train start rolling away. I sulked for a few moments in my seat before I started to feel too excited to worry about not getting to drive or fume over Binge’s teasing. We were on our way! The light ahead got brighter as the ramp sloped up and I saw a metal gate ahead begin to open for us as the Ursa rode up to it. Beyond was a short tunnel that led to a wide opening that took us out into the wide open Wasteland from the mouth of a natural looking cave set in a high, rocky hill. Anypony passing by probably wouldn’t have realized the cave was anything more than a natural formation, rather than an entrance to an underground tunnel system connected to a Stable.

In minutes we were rolling along the blasted red landscape, the broodingly dark gray and thick mass of clouds above sprinkling a light drizzle of rain. The Ursa handled the uneven rocky terrain without any trouble, the cabin barely shuddering.

I looked out the window, and while I knew it would get me yelled at my resolve wavered and I soon had the window open, my head stuck out and facing the wind as we rode.

I was yelled at, but I didn’t care. This was awesome.

----------

As it turned out traveling over large swaths of Wasteland is almost as boring in a vehicle as it is on hoof. Once the fun and novelty of having the wind of the Ursa’s speed whipping my mane about, I discovered I needed a way to occupy my time. Reading my magazines was a no go, however, as unlike the smooth ride of the train the Ursa jostled just enough to make me feel queasy if I tried to read anything.

So instead I learned a little cooking with B.B when dinner time rolled around. The light was started to turn the world into gloomy shades of long shadows, tinting the world dark, and we’d stopped the Ursa under the looming overhang of an old blasted highway that would block us from being spotted from above. Odessa was still active in the area and it’d be a serious problem for us if we ran afoul of one of their patrols.

B.B was showing me the fine art of soup-making, using carrots and strips of gecko jerky, when I heard Iron Wrought call from the driver’s cabin.

“Hey, we got something on the radio you might want to hear folks.”

We left the soup to simmer and squeezed into the driver’s cabin, which was a little crowded for all of us but Arcaidia stayed in the passenger compartment and LIL-E had floated out the window to make room. Iron Wrought beckoned me forward at my questioning look.

“They’re repeating the broadcast. Wanted to make sure I heard it all right before I had you listen,” he said as he adjusted a knob on the dashboard, causing some static to crackle over the speakers.

“Broadcast? From where?” I asked, confused.

“Skull City Radio Guild,” Iron Wrought said, and before I could question further I heard a resonant female tone, rich and deep, start to speak through the radio.

“Hope you all enjoyed that single ‘Only the Night Sky Knows’, our Skull City’s very own Wellspring Whistles. We’re taking a break from her lovely voice to recap our headlines and bounties before you day-shift folk turn in and the night life kicks off! Barret, you want to take this one?”

Another voice now spoke, a smooth, male tenor.

“Always a pleasure Grin. Today’s highlights; violence in the Outskirts as the Beastlords made a raid on the east end. Guards from both the Labor Guild and Security Guild pushed back the Raiders after a pitched firefight, but the Beastlords are still holding the offices in the east Deadburbs, so any of you Salvage Guild folk planning on making runs to that area, double think your plans. In case anypony living near the south gate were blind you probably noticed the column of power armored ponies trotting into town this afternoon, well we got it from our sources that the fancy carriage they were escorting was carrying some visitors from, get this, the Protectorate!”

There was a brief pause, I can only assume for dramatic effect, or perhaps the pony on the radio was just collecting his thoughts. He was a pony right? Never heard of a pony with a name like Barret, though.

“In case anypony out there’s been keeping their head in the ground instead of on the pulse of politics, that’s the alliance of the self-styled ‘Kingdoms’ of Neighlesius and Applehyde across the west mountains. You know, the ones that took a shot at us years back and we sent their steel clad flanks packing. Now rumors along the grapvine’s saying one of their big shots have come to town! No idea yet why, but they were met by representatives from the Skull Guild itself and escorted to the Skull Guild headquarters towers. Its anypony’s guess right now what our resident ghoulish overlords (I kid guys, I kid, don’t sick the revenants on us please) are chatting with the Protectorate about but rest assured the Skull City Radio Guild’s got your backs. Soon as we know, you’ll all know!”

A shuffling of papers was followed by a sight, Barret continuing in a more solemn tone.

“For those of you among our listeners who had friends or family down south in Saddlespring allow us at the Radio Guild to offer up our condolences once again. For those who haven’t tuned into our broadcast for a while then its my sad duty to repeat this bit of tragedy; almost a week ago the town of Saddlespring, a well known waystation for folk traveling south and one of the largest communities in the southern Skull City Wastes was destroyed. Flattened to the ground, with no known survivors.”

I stiffened at that. No known survivors!? Dozens had managed to survive Saddlespring’s destruction!

“But that’s not true-” I began but Iron Wrought put a hoof to my mouth, silencing me and shook his head. Barret was still going on the radio.

“Reports from both the Salvage Guild and Labor Guild investigation teams indicate the town was destroyed by a combination of fire and heavy ordnance. The perpetrators remain unknown, but based on the extend of the force used on the settlement most speculators suggest a large scale raid by the Bursters Raider gang. If anypony has any information concerning this tragedy we encourage you to come down to the Radio Guild studio. Alright, Grin, think its that time again?”

“I think our listeners could go for something more upbeat after that bit of downer news! For all you eager gun toters and justice (or cap) seekers out there its time for tonight’s Bounty Bonus Bingo recap! Quick refresher on the rules my little ponies! The Bounty Guild has scores of bounties available for anypony with the guns and the guts to snag and turn in, and once a week just for funsies they randomly draw certain bounties to get a double or triple bonus payout if you manage to turn in before the week’s done! For some bounties that’s a heap load of caps! So, let’s see which three lucky bounties are getting a nice bonus payout tag for you happy hunters to gun for!”

I gave Iron Wrought a confused look and he returned the look with a grave one of his own as Grin’s happy, smooth voice continued.

“First up we have the nefarious Schrodinger family! These bandits are wanted by the Mining Guild for grand larceny of valuable gems and their original bounty was 5,000 caps. With a double bonus that’s a payoff of 10,000 caps for anypony who bags the whole crew; headed up by the elder sister, True Illusion. Watch out though, reports say this filly packs a gatling gun up her fancy dress, and the rest of her family are no slouches either! Reports say her little brother’s a genius alchemist with explosives coming out the wazoo, that her butler is a master swordstallion, and that her pet cat breaths fire! Now it's entirely possible these reports are coming from folk who might be fooling around with Dash, but take no chances when engaging the Schrodinger’s, just the same!

Second bonus bounty for the week is an oldie but goodie, a bounty that’s stood for near on three years but hey, you never know, you might be the lucky one to bust this infamous beast, and its a triple bonus this time around! That’s right folks, its the Trask! In the north of our fair corner of the Wasteland is old Highway 70, a road nopony has dared cross since a nasty creature took up residence there and has attacked any with the courage to travel that way. Our few reports of this carnivorous critter is that it’s huge as a house, tough as a tank, and can even fly! Any of you willing to go after the Trask this time and manage to bring its head into the Water Guild gets the triple bounty of 30,000 caps!

Now, finally, a fresh new bounty, just put up a few days ago and now doubled for the pleasure of your purse! The Labor Guild’s put this one up, citing this stallion has responsible for attacking and killing one of their caravans just north of Saddlespring just a day before the town’s unfortunate demise. While we’ve not been given a name we have a fairly thorough description. He’s described as a young stallion of tribal origin. He’s in his teens, tan coat, blue mane, green eyes, and a blank flank to boot! May be traveling with companions, and has a posted bounty of 3,000 caps! That’s 6,000 to anypony who brings this tribal buck in! Specifically the Labor Guild wants him alive, so don’t forget to aim for the legs!

Well folks, there's our bonus bounties for the week, so get out there and get hunting!”

“And that’s also us signing off for a bit so you can listen to some more of Wellspring Whistle’s lovely vocals to ease you into your night! But don’t worry, we’ll be back soon enough with some caller commentary! She’s Grin and I’m Barret, and this is Skull City Radio.”

Their voices were replaced by music, a soft, bubbly mare’s voice accompanied by a fast paced, energetic guitar. I didn’t pay the lyrics any mind, too busy feeling brain-locked over what I just heard.

“So,” said Iron Wrought, “Might be a bit of a problem for you.”

“Why didn’t they report any survivors?” I asked quietly, fearful of what might have happened to the ponies I’d left behind. The Saddlespring survivors, and the Labor Guild slaves... I remembered Crossfire warning me that the Labor Guild wouldn’t let them go so easily. Should I have stayed with them, to guard them? My gut churned at the notion of something happening to those ponies.

“I was talking about the bounty,” said Iron Wrought, rubbing his head and huffing out an exasperated sigh.

Arcaidia waved a dismissive hoof, snorting, “Bounty no problem for Longwalk!” she then turned to B.B, tilting her head questioningly, “B.B, what’s bounty?”

“Its when somepony pays ta have others captured or killed,” B.B said, frowning thoughtfully, “Usually only folk that done ‘nother wrong get bounties on them, but Bounty Guild ain’t picky ‘bout who they put up a’ bounty on long as somepony fronts them the money for it.”

“It essentially means that there are now bounty hunters out there who will be on the lookout for a pony of Longwalk’s description,” chimed in LIL-E, “So they can capture him and cash in on the bounty. It’ll make things rough on you in Skull City, unless we work up a disguise for him.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, nor the way the mare’s in the party were all suddenly looking at me thoughtfully. It sent a chill down my spine. No, wait, that was Binge’s hoof. Binge get off me!

“I think my little bucky would look good in green!” Binge said, chortling with sparkling eyes looking over me as I jumped back from her. I started backing up towards the door to the passenger compartment as the mare’s started to move in on me.

“Hm, I ain’t sure, was thinkin’ somethin’ more in purple myself,” said B.B, her eyes somehow gaining an particularly evil sheen to them as she came in from the left.

I gave Arcaidia a pleading look, but the blue unicorn filly just had a thoughtful look on her face as she watched B.B and Binge, then looked at me with a dainty little shrug and smiled at me.

“Blue more his color. I do his mane. Sister always let me do her mane, so I am strongest at mane doing!” she declared and joined the other two mares in cornering me. Traitor! Turncoat! I gave one last look of desperation at Iron Wrought and LIL-E, but the two were ignoring my predicament, instead chatting with each other about how to best approach Skull City. Couldn’t they see my life, or at least my dignity, was at stake!?

I turned to flee, hoping against hope I could make it out the back of the Ursa and flee into the night, but it was too late. The mares pounced upon me as one and my fate was sealed.

----------

Some hours later, after much shouting and struggling, followed eventually by hollow acceptance, I found myself standing in the middle of the passenger compartment surrounded by three insane mares who were looking me over with appraising eyes. Since when had these three learned to team up so effectively!? It must have been the shower time they shared, I suspected. Somehow they had forged a secret alliance against me while getting all wet and clean and soapy!

“Weeeel,” B.B drawled, “Ain’t ‘xactly what I’d call a’ work a art, but given’ we didn’t have no proper material ta work wit I’d still say ‘e ain’t half bad lookin’.”

Arcaidia nodded her head firmly, standing tall and proud looking at me while she’d just crafted some sort of masterpiece, “Longwalk looks very pretty!”

Binge giggled, “We can’t call him that silly filly! This is a disguise, so he has to have a disguised name! Oh, I think I know just the one, too!”

Binge paused, as if awaiting a drumroll. She seemed genuinely disappointed when no drumroll was evident, but that didn’t dampen her enthusiastic tone as she declared, “I dub thee, Princess Blueberry!”

I was sincerely hoping I was able to communicate the sheer level of hate I was feeling at the moment simply through glaring, but this seemed to only amuse the mares! I suppose, to be fair, I couldn’t have looked very intimidating in my current… state of dress.

Dress being the key term.

There had not been any random fabric or cloth just laying around the Ursa, but B.B, for reasons I was not entirely clear on, had apparently acquired no small number of clothing articles from Stable 104. As it happens mares who were formerly ponies, but now eight legged spider mutations, didn’t have much need for their old wardrobes, so B.B had availed herself of the Stable 104 closets.

As such she’d had a remarkable collection of dresses for me to try on.

Whether I wanted to or not.

Arcaidia had demonstrated once again how useful telekinesis was in keeping a pony still who did not wish to remain still.

My new, awesome, and very masculine armor barding was sitting in a pile on the dining booth. I was now wearing a elegant and curve-hugging bright green dress that I had to grudgingly admit at least matched my eyes quite beautifully. Not that I cared about that kind of thing! It was at least tastefully cut, hanging well over my haunches and not showing off too much, really just more suggesting the curve of my flanks rather than exposing them (and rather cleverly hiding my lack of a cutie mark, I suppose). The chest was a neat button up that went up to mid-neck, but leaving a v-curve in front for a bit of chest tuft to be exposed, a good spot to hang a necklace… if you were into that kind of thing. The forelegs of the dress went down to the hooves, with green threads of a darker shade than the rest of the dress making an embroidered pattern of wings up to the elbow.

“Oh quit yer scowlin’ ya big foal,” chuckled B.B, “Ya make a fine lookin’ mare, though I’m thinkin’ Binge is goin’ overboard declarin’ ya a Princess. Still, Blueberry ain’t a’ bad alias! Yer mane’s kinda got the right shade fer it.”

Right… my mane. My nice, rugged, wild, unkempt, stallion’s mane! Less rugged now, wild, or unkempt, after excessive brushing from Arcaidia, who had then proceeded to tie it into two bouncy, short pigtails! Pig… tails! At least she’d left my tail alone save for straightening it out with more of that wretched brushing! Really, why did so-called ‘civilized’ ponies feel the need to brush everything! And bathe constantly! Once a week was enough wasn’t it!? I mean, I enjoyed taking a quick simple shower back at Stable 104. The past few days had gotten blood and other assort gunk into crevices I didn’t even know I had, so the shower of steaming hot water had been incredibly pleasant. However my companions were crazy if they thought this whole grooming thing was going to be something I’d be doing on a daily basis!

I whinnied my displeasure, refusing to talk to these three.

Arcaidia seemed confused with me, “Why is Longwalk making angry face? Need hide from bounty ponies, so this good thing, yes?”

“Hehehe, he’s not angry my little icy death wind!” said Binge happily, “He’s bursting at the seams with gratitude! See how red his face is! That’s the color of happiness! Or murder. I can’t remember which. Happy murder?”

Not. Talking. To. Them.

B.B looked at me with a critical eye, hovering a little bit even inside the confines of the Ursa’s passenger compartment, hooves on her hips. She then gave a sympathetic, small smile and said, “Alright gals, looks like we’ve had our fun an’ might’ve pushed ‘im a might far. Let’s git him back to normal sorts, ‘fore he pops a vein or somethin’.”

“Awwwww,” Binge pouted, holding up a set of crimson red ribbons, “I wanted to do up his tail!”

Where had she gotten those ribbons from? Arcaidia gave the ribbons a brief glance, then a haughty snort.

“Hmph, shivol bir not good with hair! I make mane and tail look best!”

As the two debated the finer points of how to best go about styling my tail (Arcaidia wanted to braid it!?) B.B came over to me and bowed her head apologetically, though I could see she was trying to hide a chuckle.

“Sorry Long, let me ‘elp git ya outta that dress,” she said as she started to tug the buttons open while I tried to keep up my glare. However her sincere tone broke down a fair bit of my indignation and I resigned to soften my look. I suppose it was a decent disguise...

Once the dress was off and my mane was back to something resembling normal we all settled down for dinner, with B.B finishing up with the soup she’d been teaching me to cook. LIL-E went up to the Ursa’s roof to “keep watch” while the rest of us ate. Dinner was rather quiet, with just basic chit-chat. It was sort of nice. No talk of impending doom, or worrying about what might happen with Odessa, me having a bounty on my head, what had happened to the Saddlespring survivors, or anything else.

I hadn’t felt this relaxed and at ease since before that day Trailblaze and I went over Ghost Ridge.

I suddenly felt a powerful urge to take a detour, crazy as the notion was, back to Shady Stream. With the Ursa it shouldn’t have taken us more than a day to return to the village and... and I just wanted to see my mother and Trailblaze again. I shoved the urge away, however. I couldn’t go back. Not before my debt to Arcaidia was repaid. Besides, with Odessa targeting us it was too dangerous to go back. If I ended up leading Odessa back to my home village...

Well, there went my good mood.

“Think I’m going to go get some fresh air,” I said aftering licking away the last of the soup from my bowl.

“Ah, ah, ah,” said B.B, waving a wing at me, then at the bowl, “Ya clean up after yerself first.”

I cocked my head at her, then collected my bowl and took it over to the sink. Strange how easily B.B mirrored my mother’s tone and manner. In short order the table was cleared and Arcaidia and Binge started fighting over who got top bunk of the two bunks the passenger compartment had available. B.B had already volunteered to take the floor, saying she was used to “roughin’ it”, and honestly I didn’t care and was fine with the floor as well. I just wasn’t feeling tired yet.

Iron Wrought retired to the driver’s cabin, presumably to recline in one of the seats there. The Ursa’s doors were thick and bolted, and according to Iron Wrought the vehicle had a system similar to the Pip-Buck’s E.F.S that would provide warning of approaching threats. Between that and LIL-E up on the roof we were about as secure as we could be for bedding down for the night.

As I cracked open the hatch leading to the roof I clambered up the ladder, a little awkwardly as I wasn’t used to going up a ladder. I got the impression the concept of these things were not really meant for ponies. Still I managed to get to the roof without breaking a leg and closed the hatch behind me. The Ursa’s roof was a wide smooth surface with guarded rails along the edge about to chest height. They’d serve as good cover in a firefight. The night Wasteland air was cold and muggy from the fresh rain that had just stopped an hour earlier. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I looked over the broken and rubble strewn landscape. We were getting back into the suburbs that sprawled away from Skull City like a twisted graveyard carpet of dead, hollow buildings and fallen highways, one of which we were parked under.

LIL-E was floating towards the back of the roof and didn’t turn to look my way. I saw the little yellow bar of her on my E.F.S, and felt a twinge of tension as I noticed a red bar somewhere to my right.

“Relax,” said LIL-E, “It’s just a radhog, scuffling around in one of the houses.”

I didn’t question how she sensed my tension, but did ask, “How can you be sure?”

“My sensors are a much better than your standard E.F.S. Don’t worry, nothing will sneak up on us without me knowing about it.”

I nodded, accepting that, knowing I could trust her. We enjoyed some silent company for a few minutes before LIL-E shifted, turning slightly towards me.

“It’s pretty late Longwalk, you ought to sleep.”

“What about you?” I asked, “You must get tired too, on the other end of that robot. When do you sleep?”

“I’m on a different sleep schedule than you lot in this region. Remember, I’m on the other side of the country. Seriously though, why are you staying awake? Too much on your mind?”

“Not really. Feel more at ease than I have in a long time,” I said, smiling, hearing a few muffled voices I was fairly certain were Arcaidia and Binge still arguing, followed by a shout of what was likely Iron Wrought telling the two to be quiet, “I don’t know why. Nothing’s resolved, and my future is as up in the air as its ever been... but for some reason I feel... good. Makes me think of home, actually.”

“Friends have that affect,” LIL-E said and I blinked.

Was that it? I supposed it must have been. Having friends, enjoying something as simple as a meal together, or something as silly as putting me in a mare’s dress... it did leave a solid, strong feeling of rightness in me. Like no matter what came my way I’d be able to handle it, as long as I could keep hold of this feeling. My smile deepened.

“Yeah, I think you’re right.”

Then my Pip-Buck started to beep at me. I frowned, raising the device to my face and nosed a few of the knobs.

“What’s with this thing? I won’t stop making this noise,” I said, shaking it, as if doing so would make the Pip-Buck stop. I heard a buzzing noise I identified as LIL-E sighing.

“Switch the tab over to the radio. You’re Pip-Buck just picked up a new signal.”

“How do you know that?” I asked as I did as she told me, carefully nudging knobs until the screen clicked over to the radio tab, showing me a dotted list of frequencies. A short list; with only three frequencies. One of them was Skull City Radio, and another was for Stable 104. The third frequency, however, I didn’t recognize, and simply read as; Unknown Distress Signal.

“I just picked up the same thing,” responded LIL-E, “You’d better listen in. Don’t know how you’ll react to this though.”

It took me a second to puzzle out how to get the Pip-Buck to actually play a selected frequency, but I soon had the distress signal selected and there was a burst of static followed by a voice. It was male, young, with a strong tone but cracked with stress and near panic that was barely under wraps.

”I say again, this is Corporal Glint, 8th squad, Odessa 2nd Recon. We’re trapped at the Silver Mare Studios building; 3rd floor! There’s something in here that’s picking off my squad. We’ve barricaded ourselves in one of the offices, but there’s no windows for us to get out and take flight from. Damnit somepony respond! We need evac! I’ve lost two ponies already!”

There was a muffled crashing noise, like something massive slamming into something else made of loose metal. A female voice could be heard shouting.

”Shitshitshit! Bernard, help me out here!”

This was followed by another male voice, different that Glint’s; a sort of gruff squawking voice.

”Scoot over Spring, I got this! You want some of this you ugly bastard!? Have some of this!”

There was the sound of booming gunshots, from a shotgun I thought, and the female voice cried out.

”I think you’re just making it angry! Stop making it angry!

Why did that voice sound familiar? Glint’s voice came back on, clearer, probably speaking directly into whatever communication device he was using to send this signal out.

”I don’t know who can hear this, and right now I don’t care! Command isn’t responding, Captain Francheska isn’t responding! Nopony is bloody damned responding! So anypony who can hear this, please, I’m asking you, help. I’ll pay you in weapons, armor, whatever, just get my squad out of here!”

The signal cut out there, but I’d heard enough and was already switching my tab over to my map. The soft green light of the Pip-Buck brightened as it brought up the full topographic map of the area around my position, showing the terrain in various shades of green and black. I zoomed in until I could scroll over to the location of Silver Mare Studios, which had somehow already updated with a chevron marker and dotted line showing the route there from our current location. It was as if the Pip-Buck had sensed my intent, and I somehow didn’t doubt if I’d checked the ‘Objectives’ tab I’d already find an entry there about rescuing the Odessa squad.

I didn’t notice LIL-E talking until she raised her volume.

“Longwalk! You want me to wake the others?”

I blinked up at her, “Huh? Oh, right.”

I’d been so focused on the idea of just running over to Silver Mare Studios I’d not even thought of needing to go wake the rest of my companions to fill them in. I shook myself, trying to regain my concentration. It was just... difficult. My relaxation had been replaced by a burning, tense feeling of haste in my heart. Every second counted. Couldn’t waste a moment.

“I’ll get Iron Wrought up and moving, you bring everypony else up to speed,” I said as I went for the hatch and opened it. LIL-E was right behind me.

“They might not want to do this, Longwalk,” she said, and I paused, glancing over at her.

She continued on, seeing my look, “It’s Odessa. I know why you want to help, but can you be alright with this? Taking them into a fight, even if they have no reason to care about what happens to those ponies?”

I thought about it. For a few seconds. Then grim determination passed through me, as I remembered my conversation with LIL-E back in the canyon. Life was precious. Anypony’s life. Those weren’t idle words in my head. They were convictions I wanted to live by. Wherever they took me.

“I’m going. They can follow, or they can stay. I won’t force anypony to come along, and I will come back, one way or another.”

LIL-E let out a short, huffing sound of static that might have been a laugh, “Figured that’d be what you’d say. Alright, let’s do this.”

----------

There was less complaining and arguments than I had expected. Arcaidia seemed more annoyed at just being roused awake after having just gotten to sleep than at the reason itself. Binge just laughed, stretching sinuously, and said, “Puppies’ll chase anything flashy, even skywagons. Gotta keep an eye on you so you don’t get run over.”

B.B and Iron Wrought were both less accepting.

“Don’t figure we owe no Odessa folk a rescue,” B.B said, but she was strapping on her pistols just the same, “After what they did ta Saddlespring, they ain’t deservin’ o’ help.”

Iron Wrought was glaring at me, jaw set in a firm grimace, “Its a waste of time anyway. Silver Mare Studios is a good twenty minutes away even pushing this wagon full speed. They'll probably all be dead by the time we get there.”

I kept my voice as calm and level as I could manage, despite the way my heart was pounding, “Even so, I’m going, even if I have to go on hoof. Rather use the Ursa, though, as twenty minutes is a lot faster than however long it’ll take me just running.”

B.B sighed heavily, “Ya can be such a darned thickheaded wool-brained mule Long. I’m comin’ wit ya though, no doubtn’ that! I don’t like it, but I git why yer doin’ this. Just don’t ‘spect me ta hold fire iffin’ these Odessa ponies ain’t so thankful fer us savin’ them that they don’t take a’ crack at us. Remember, they’re after Arcaidia.”

I remembered the way B.B had taken down the Odessa soldier from Saddlespring. I knew the risks involved with what I was doing, and accepted this might end in bloodshed one way or another. But I had to try. It just wasn’t in me to ignore a plea for help. Besides, if it turned out this squad of Odessa ponies was grateful for a rescue... maybe I could get some information from them. Learn why they were so interested in capturing Arcaidia.

Iron Wrought got in the driver’s seat when it was obvious there was no talking me out of this and in a minute we were bouncing along the uneven terrain, tearing across broken streets or crashing through burned, rubble strewn yards. The Ursa was one rugged all terrain vehicle, and it hardly needed roads to get to where it was going, but at the speed Iron Wrought pushed it even the Ursa’s impressive shock absorption still made for a very bumpy ride.

Corporal Glint had stopped transmitting, which made me nervous, and I kept switching between my Pip-Buck’s signal tab and the map screen, watching as the dot marking our location gradually got closer to the chevron marking Silver Mare Studios. I had no idea what to expect when we got there, and just gave a silent prayer to the Ancestor spirits to watch over those trapped ponies, to please let me and my friends reach them in time.

Strange, I’d rarely prayed much, or even thought about, the Ancestors spirits, or my tribe’s spiritual teachings... but recently it had become a habit. Made me wish I’d paid more attention to the shaman’s lectures when I was younger.

Iron Wrought’s estimate was fairly accurate, as it was just about twenty minutes of silent, tense driving before he brought the Ursa to a halt. Through the thick windows I could see a building before us, its front illuminated by the Ursa’s huge bank of headlights, which cut a blazing white path of light through the Wasteland night.

Silver Mare Studios was a four story structure of scorched wood and brick, but was remarkably intact in comparison to the rest of the blackened shells of buildings that shared the same cracked patches of concrete that used to be a street. There were few windows that were not boarded up from the inside, the ones that weren’t all open black holes on the bottom floor flanking the main doors. An arched sign above those doors displayed big plastic letters with busted lights that at one time were clearly meant to light up each letter during the days this building had been occupied. Though a few letters were missing, joining the debris strewn along the walls of the building, I could still make out the sign declaring the building to be Silver Mare Studios. There was also a faded, tattered painting above the sign showing a silver unicorn mare’s profile holding a bag of some kind of tiny food she was popping into her mouth.

I looked at the third floor, hoping to see some sign of life, but the place was quiet, at least from the confines of the Ursa.

“Right,” I said, taking a deep breath, trying to think this through despite impatience screaming at me to get in there, “Iron Wrought, I’d like you to stay with the Ursa and keep the engine going. If we need to get out of here fast, I don’t want to waste a single second. LIL-E, how high can you fly?”

“My hover talisman has a ceiling of about thirty meters before it gets too far from the ground to generate more lift, but as long as I have something like a wall to use as a surface I can keep going up,” the eyebot responded quickly.

“Okay, then we’ll go in through the roof. Must be a way in up there, and if not,” I patted Gramzanber, “I’ll make us a way in. B.B can carry Binge, and I’ll use the Grapple to climb up while carrying Arcaidia.”

“You ain’t used that thing much Long, sure ya can climb up while trying to haul Arcaidia as well?” asked B.B, to which I shrugged.

“Won’t know until I try.”

Arcaidia nodded firmly, exuding confidence, “I very lean! Like rock!”

I wasn’t sure Arcaidia was getting her analogies right, but let it be.

“Come on, every minute matters here,” I said as I opened up door and hopped down to the cold, muddy ground. One by one my companions joined me, save Iron Wrought who gave me one last grave look before closing the door of the Ursa.

For just a moment I felt a stab of suspicion. Iron Wrought had the copies of Dr. Lemon Slice’s research now. He could just drive away and abandon us here. He never once left it unclear he wasn’t fond of me and only cared about saving his family.

Could I trust him at all, then? I shook my head forcefully. No, I had to be willing to trust. If I started doubting those around me how long before all I could do was look at others with suspicion? Iron Wrought would stay... I hoped.

“Any idea what we’re dealin’ wit anyway?” asked B.B as she flapped her wings, taking off and hovering above Binge. The Raider mare had her blade covered barding on, of course, and her puffy green tail was flicking back and forth playfully and I caught a glint of metal; realizing that she was somehow holding the Cosmic Knife in her tail. How was she pulling that off?

“Blood, violence, squicky guts, and lots of screaming!” chirped Binge happily, “In other words; FUN!”

B.B gave me a flat look as she slowly floated down and gingerly started to lift the giggling Raider, taking care to avoid getting stuck on the blades, “I’ll remind ya it was yer decision to let her stick ‘round wit us.”

“In any case,” said LIL-E, “My sensors are picking up four non-hostiles in the building, on the third floor. Must be the Odessa squad. However I’m not picking up any hostiles.”

I frowned. My own E.F.S only showing the yellow bars of my allies. I supposed LIL-E’s sensors were better. Soon B.B and LIL-E were both flying up the side of the building, leaving me and Arcaidia to approach the wall. I craned my neck and looked up at the lip of the roof. The light from the Ursa provided just enough illumination for me to make out my target. I glanced to Arcaidia. The unicorn filly’s silver eyes gleamed in the dark, and I could make out the phantom of her confident smile. She wasn’t worried at all. Not like the churning, pounding feeling in my own gut.

“Up we go,” I said and Arcaidia came over, her small frame clambering onto my back and her hooves wrapping around my neck. Her long silver mane brushed against my sides like a silken sheet.

I raised my left foreleg and aimed, and as if it knew what I was intending, probably through the mysterious arcane science of the Pip-Buck it was attached to, the Grapple brought up a targeting reticule in my vision. It was a red little cross-hair that, when I brought it over a surface it could grip onto the cross-hair would turn green and even show me a ghostly outline of the trajectory it would follow.

Firing the Grapple was as simple as flexing my hoof in the right way, not too different from how B.B’s foreleg pistols worked. With a harsh but quiet puff of air the Grapple bracelet fired the matte black hook and long wire cord, sending it flying up with unerring accuracy at the spot I’d marked with the target reticule. When the hook attached to the lip of the roof I tilted my hoof left to signal the Grapple to pull me up. The spells in the Grapple activated, giving me a slight tingling sensation as my body’s weight was reduced and I found myself being pulled up along the wall. I was a little unprepared for it so awkwardly scrambled my hindlegs for a second as I was hauled upward, but soon found myself steadily aiding my ascent with an almost bipedal walking motion with my hindlegs.

It only took a minute to reach the roof, where B.B, Binge, and LIl-E were waiting for us.

Arcaidia slipped off my back and floated out her starblaster, her horn a pale blue light in the dark. Her expression had become chiseled ice, a look of concentration and focus. Now that we were going into danger she had no hint of her earlier levity. B.B was similar, though hers was less an cold mask so much as a weathered look of ready tension.

“We got a’ notion o’ what we’re rescuin’ these Odessa folk from?” she asked as she surveyed the roof. There were a few metal vents for fans here and there, but otherwise the roof was empty save a single shack with a door, presumably leading to stairs.

I drew Gramzanber from its sheath, “No idea, but apparently shooting it just makes it mad.”

“That’s encouragin’,” muttered B.B.

Binge tittered, her green coat blending with the darkness, “This place drips with fear. It likes to play with its toys!”

“Longwalk, we shouldn’t linger. We need to get moving,” said LIL-E.

“Okay,” I said, heading for the door, “I’ll take lead. B.B, you and Arcaidia are in the middle, and Binge will bring up the rear. That way whichever way we’re attacked from, the two of us can hold it off while you two blast it with guns and magic. LIL-E, I want you to stay here on the roof. If we need to retreat to here I want to make sure this spot stays safe. We find the Odessa pegasi and lead them to the roof here so they can fly away safely.”

“An’ report on us ta their bosses, ‘summin’ they don’t turn on us,” B.B said with her ears flattening against her head. In the dark I almost thought I could see that red tinge to the rim of her iris’.

I choked back a sigh, not wanting to start arguing over the matter, “We deal with that when and if it happens. Right now, they need our help. Let’s go.”

As we approached the door to the stairs a cold wind kicked up and swept over the roof; chilling me to the bone and bringing with it a shrill howl I couldn’t tell was caused by the wind itself... or something else. It triggered an instinctive fear, however, like some intrinsic piece of myself was telling me to flee before the source of that noise ate me.

I glanced at my companions. I could tell at least B.B and Arcaidia both felt it too, the pegasus frowning deeply to hide the fear in her eyes, and Arcaidia looking confused, as if she didn’t understand why she might be afraid all of a sudden. Binge was shivering too, but from the look on her face I didn’t think it was from fear. She was enjoying herself.

Before any of us could comment, however, there was the sudden sound of gunfire followed by the lighter snapping sounds of energy weapons firing; all muffled from the interior of the building. I also may have heard an actual voice screaming in pain or fear, but it was too subdued to tell. My fear was joined by anger; a warm fire pushing back the cold. Ponies lives were in danger! I didn’t have time to be locked up by fear!

With a determined grunt I rushed to the door, not even bothering to check if it was locked or not. I just sliced with Gramzanber and the simple wood frame and metal knob came apart under the spear’s edge and the adrenaline fueled strength surging through me. I heard LIL-E say something cautionary behind me, but I wasn’t paying attention. Before me was a dark stairwell switching back on itself and just opening the door made the sounds of gunfire from down below louder... along with the shrieking of someone who sounded like they were facing death itself.

No time to wait for anything! I have to save who I can!

With that thought alone in my mind I leapt down the stairs, rushing headlong into the dark, heedless of what horror might be waiting for me.

----------

Footnote: Level Up!

Perk Added - Can’t Lead From Behind: You have a rather reckless brand of leadership, but you make it work; mainly because your companions fight all the harder to keep your reckless flank from getting shot off. As long as you’re in the lead, all allies that have line of sight to you gain +10% to hit and +2 DT.

Bonus Ex-File: Arcaidia’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L Stats
STR = 3
PER = 6
END = 4
CHA = 6
INT = 10
AGI = 6
LUK = 5

Author's Note:

Freaky dreams, new gear, the obligatory radio show, cross-dressing for fun and profit, and the promise of impending violence! Just another day in the Wasteland. Once more all due thanks to Kkat for the creation of Fallout Equestria. Huge thanks to Doomande for pre-reading and helping me work out all those little chapter kinks that need working out. And of course thanks to all of you who keep on reading!

Questions, comments, criticisms? Fire away, I'm happy to receive them all!

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