• 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 24: Wild Bunch

The onyx crystal orb reflected the dull light from my Pip-Buck and I barely noticed Arcaidia jostling me with a hoof. Belatedly I blinked back to coherent thought and lavished Sunset with my most utterly dumbfounded stare, blurting out, “It’s a what now from my father?”

The red eyed pegasus mare’s face twitched in what I could tell was barely contained humor. Sunset didn’t strike me as a mare who laughed often, and it showed in the way she seemed to have small face spasms whenever she was feeling the need to laugh and wasn’t quite sure what needed doing. “Ahem, a message. Colonel Winter Sun recorded it few days ago after I transmitted a coded report to him about my encounter with you. A courier that’s loyal to him smuggled the Memory Orb to me, so I could give it to you the next time I managed to make personal contact with you, which your father knew I was going to attempt to do.”

“I… see,” I said, eyes transfixed upon the small pearl of obsidian as if it was both the most precious thing in the world and the most dangerous.

“... You can take it now,” Sunset said after I failed to move for several seconds, clearing her throat and extending her hoof a bit more towards me.

“Y-yeah,” I let her plop the object into my hoof, eyes never quite leaving it, “Thank you. Seriously. I know coming to find me like this has got to be dangerous for you.”

“Yer comrades got ta be least a tad suspicious,” said B.B, “After ya busted Long outta that airship o’ yers can’t imagine folks in yer command structure were too happy wit ya.”

Sunset’s tail lashed, an orange on yellow flicker in the gloom. “It’s fine. I made sure there was no evidence proving my involvement with the escape. There’s some who look at the incident with suspicious eyes, yes, but after Longwalk killed Shattered Sky it's added a lot of credence to my story that I was overpowered by the tribals after damage to the Varukisias caused a short in the prison cells’ security shields.”


A less than pleasant feeling settled in my chest. I didn’t really like being thought of as the pony who killed Shattered Sky, especially given it wasn’t actually me that did the deed. Yet I wasn’t too tempted to clarify the point with Sunset either. I didn’t want Odessa focusing on Trailblaze for any reason. It was probably inevitable that Odessa would target her, since she was going for those Guardian Shrines which Odessa also had an interest in, but I wasn’t keen to add fuel to the fire by advertising she’d been the one to kill one of their top soldiers.

“If there’d been a way to take him prisoner, I would have,” I said instead, looking away from the Odessa mare, “I don’t know how many times I can get away with bloodless fights if Odessa keeps coming after us like this.”

There was a long pause, Sunset’s posture going still as the mare’s eyes met mine. I wondered what she was thinking. Her scarred features had this unfocused look of a pony remembering things from long ago. Finally she spoke, and it was in a subdued tone that was backed by something hard as the concrete we stood on. “I’m a soldier. Most of the time, for ponies like me, there isn’t much ambiguity when it comes to killing in the line of duty. But my definition of ‘duty’ has changed a lot over the years, otherwise I wouldn’t be helping you, a pony I’m technically under orders to shoot on sight. So I don’t know what to tell you. You’re probably right you’ll end up having to kill Odessa soldiers sooner or later.”

It wasn’t exactly the most comforting of words, but they probably carried more truth to them than any words of comfort would have. Still, I resolved to prepare myself as best I could to keep unneeded deaths to a minimum. After all, Odessa was in essence my tribe as well. Okay, seriously estranged and highly aggressive tribemates who thought of me as a lesser being because I lacked wings, but hey, we don’t choose our family.

“Thanks for being honest, at least. Um, sorry if this is too personal a question, but why are you willing to… well, basically betray Odessa to help me so much? I mean, I get that you’re friends with my mother and father, but you’re taking a huge risk by helping me.”

She laughed, and it was at once both a nostalgic and oddly bitter sound as she tapped her hard, metal chest with one cybernetic hoof. “Ever heard of the Enclave? Don’t worry if you haven’t, it doesn’t exist anymore. I was a soldier of the Enclave, once upon a time. I was loyal, and proud. Had comrades I cared about, and a cause I believed was worth risking my life for. Lost all of that in a matter of minutes. I’ll spare you the gory details, but a snap decision during a mission left me with most my body torn to shreds. I should have died. The only reason I didn’t was because something extraterrestrial intervened. Something Odessa had been tracking, and they found me while trying to chase it down.”

“What was it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. To this day I’ve never gained the clearance to access the files Odessa has on whatever they were chasing, the day they found me. All I remember was being... cold. My body was torn up. My legs, my wings, my chest and face. There was blood everywhere and I couldn’t breathe. Everything was just so damned cold. Then there was this sound. I can’t describe it. Like the air being torn, maybe. My vision was already fading and I couldn’t move my head, but I thought I saw a... box. A blue box. Then nothing. I’d passed out, and would have died if an Odessa patrol chasing whatever that thing was hadn’t arrived minutes later. They took me, thinking I was connected to the blue box.”

I blinked, sparks of my own memory flaring at her words. I couldn’t be sure, but something about what she said about a blue box sounded terribly familiar. I couldn’t quite snatch the memory, the recollection dancing just out of reach of my brain pony’s grasping hooves. I knew I’d seen a blue box somewhere before. I kept the fact to myself. I didn’t see any reason to bother Sunset with a half grasped suspicion, and she was still going with her story anyway.

“Even after Odessa realized I wasn’t involved they kept me alive.I spent months being put back together while being hooked up to machines that preserved me, despite missing more internal organs than anypony has a right to have missing and still breathe. More than my body, my spirit was pretty damned shattered. I had learned the Enclave was gone, and after nearly dying and realizing my home didn’t exist anymore I had lost my sense of purpose. If it wasn’t for your father and Hammerfall I’d have never gotten back on my hooves. Hammerfall...”

A soft, fond look passed over her face, the deep crags of her scars contrasting with the expression horribly, “My husband taught me that I was still a pony, even if most my body was machine. As for your father. Colonel Winter Sun gave me something to be loyal to again. I’m an Odessa mare, but I’m dedicated to creating the Odessa your father wants to create. One that works with the landbound, rather than seeks to treat them as disposable resources. Your mother, my friendship with her, only solidified that goal. So, yes, I’m willing to risk a lot to help you.”

I was taken slightly aback by the sincerity in her voice, and looked at the black Memory Orb once more with curiosity. I wondered what kind of stallion my father was, that he inspired loyalty like that? I gave Sunset an appreciative nod.

“Well, then I won’t question you further. We’d probably get back to the Skull Guild before they wonder what happened to us down here. Was there anything else you needed to tell me?”

She seemed to hesitate for a second, then said, “There is one last thing. Hold out your Pip-Buck.”

I complied and she took her metal hoof and ran it over the device, and I heard the Pip-Buck let out a short beep. I looked at her questioningly.

“I just uploaded my personally encoded frequency to your radio. I might need to contact you again and I want to be able to do it without having to sneak off for a face to face chat. It’ll let me warn you about any movements by Odessa that might cause a problem for you.” Sunset explained.

“That’s... wow, thanks. That’ll be useful!” I said, finding a quick grin spreading on my face.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m wonderful, I know,” Sunset said, turning to leave. She glanced over her shoulder as she made for the far doors out of the room, “Just be careful. Don’t want to be the one to report to your father that you got yourself killed.”

With that she pressed something on her leg and her entire cybernetic body shimmered with electric blue light, and in an instant she’d vanished from view, as if by some magic spell.

By my side Arcaidia made let out a small whinny, “I still no like her.”

----------

Upon returning to the crater I found the site crawling with Skull Guild guards. Guns were turned on us but it was only a few tense seconds before Knobs quickly hopped to the front of the crowd, waving her hooves.

“Whoa! Whoa! Guns down, guys! They’re on our side!”

Some guards took longer than others to finally lower their weapons. I let out a breath I’d been holding, and beside me I saw Arcaidia’s horn cease to glow, the unicorn clearly having been ready to cast spells if any jumpy guards had been jumpy enough to shoot first and ask questions later. Knobs waited patiently at the top of the crater as we climbed out. I could see the bodies had been cleared out of the crater, mostly, but where I’d seen Hyadean monsters fall were now only strange piles of ash.

“Did something happen to the bodies of those things?” I asked Knobs as I clambered up out of the crater, dusting myself off.

“Yup. Weirdest thing. They all just kinda turned into char, like they were slowly burning from the inside out. Never seen a Ruin monster do that before,” Knobs said, looking with apprehension at one of the nearby piles of ash. “Find anyting down below? The guards wanted to send a team down but were holding off in case you guys found anything.”

“Nothing much,” I said, “Looks like they came up from the sewers. We found some busted down doors, but we didn’t explore too far. Didn’t the Skull Guild have any guards down there?”

Knobs frowned deeply, her voice melancholic, “That’s just the thing. We did have guards down there. You didn’t see any bodies?”

“No, nothing.”

The ghoul mare let out a quiet nicker, hanging her head, “Here’s hoping some of them are still alive. But if none of them radioed in we had monsters down below, chances are... well...”

I nodded solemnly, understanding her feelings all too well. These were ponies Knobs worked with. I didn’t doubt there were ponies she knew among the dead. Looking around I saw that just outside the remains of the market area a number of dead and wounded had been gathered in the parking garage. I spotted one of Harshcare’s nurses treating the wounded, and there were other ponies counting the dead. There were all too many covered corpses for my liking. I knew I wasn’t responsible for this, or for saving everypony, but the heavy weight of regret still hit me. I took a deep breath, embracing the feeling as best I could.

I didn’t see Crossfire anywhere, and I assumed the Drifter had left soon after the fight was over, though to where I couldn’t imagine. Hopefully she didn’t go far. What I did see, however, was an odd sight that had me poking at Knobs.

“Hey Knobs, who are they?” I asked, pointing.

B.B, landing next to me and folding her wings over her dress, cocked her head, “Now ain’t seen their like fer a long time round Skull City.”

Arcaidia shifted on her hooves, eyes widening with curiosity, “Fancy armor.”

Fancy armor indeed. Four ponies, or what I assumed were ponies based on the shape of them, stood in a rigid line not far from where the wounded were being tended. They looked like walking suits of armor, given vague equine shape. The dark gray steel was marked along the edges by steel rivets and the faces of the armor’s helmets had a black glass visor that reflected the dim lighting of the garage. Even the tails of the ponies within the suits were encased in segmented armor, and in place of manes the helmets of the armor had large crests.

The four armored ponies were standing near another pony who was moving among the wounded. She was a unicorn, surprisingly short and waifish even for a unicorn. Her coat was a dull black color, and she had a long wave like mane of white tinged just slightly with blue that was combed back to hang down one side of her neck in a neat pile. She was wearing a black and white dress smoothly and tightly cut along her frame. Button like features made her look young if not for the hard lines of mature concern on her face as she tended to the wounded, using her horn to wash waves of golden aura over wounded ponies. I saw wounds slowly close where that gold aura flowed.

Finishing healing a stallion whose face was covered in blood from a nasty cut along his forehead, the unicorn mare looked up and spotted us with a pair of large gold eyes. She blinked at Gramzanber and I saw a light of understanding flash across her features. Offering quiet words of comfort to the wounded she’d been tending she stepped away and approach us before my friends and I got more than a few steps into the garage area.

“Pardon my forwardness,” she said in a breathy voice that made me think she was somehow having trouble getting air in her lungs, “But are you the stallion I’ve been told helped drive back the monsters?”

I shared a glance with Arcaidia and B.B, neither of which were able to do more than offer me a shrug. I looked back to the odd black mare and said, “I lent a hoof, yeah. Wasn’t alone. In fact if you’re looking for the heroine then Knobs here is your mare. She charged in first, I just followed her lead.”

Knobs looked about, wide eyed, pointing a hoof at herself, “Me? Unless shooting a gun randomly and trying not to die counts as heroics I think you're exaggerating, Longwalk. Besides the only reason I charged in first is because I was closest.”

The unicorn laughed lightly, hiding her mouth with the back of her hoof, “Regardless, allow me to extend my thanks to you. The ponies I have been tending have spoken of how narrow their escape from death has been, and that it was the efforts of ponies, particularly one bearing a silver spear, that saved their lives. I hold great value in the sanctity of life and appreciate what you have done to preserve it.”

“Uh… okay...” I said, blinking dumbly. I felt a sharp elbow in my side and saw B.B giving me a rueful half smirk and I cleared my throat, “I mean, um, thank you, miss...?”

A short, graceful bow of her head was followed by a soft smile as the mare said, “Crown Princess Purity of the Neighlisus Protectorate Kingdom. It is a honor to meet you... Longwalk, was it? And Knobs?”

Knobs looked a tad flabbergasted as she stared at the mare in front of us, “Y-yup, that’s me. Knobs. Ghoulwrangler of the third tier, Skull Guild. I didn’t think the dignitary that’d come to visit us was Neighlisus’ Princess.”

Curiosity got the better of my mouth as I said, “What are you doing here?”


“Longwalk! Don’t just ask stuff of the Princess! It’s... rude,” said Knobs.

Arcaidia just blinked and said, “Ren solva make good point. What fancy pony doing in dead pony place?”

Knobs smacked a hoof to her face while B.B let out a quiet laugh, shoulder shaking as she hovered beside us. Princess Purity looked at us with blinking bemusement, and there was a metallic clang as one of the armored ponies took a step towards us but Purity raised a hoof, barely a fraction of a gesture, and the armored figure immediately returned to its original spot.

“It’s quite alright. I’m afraid I can’t discuss the particulars of my visit to your fine Guild, Miss Knobs. It is up to Guildmistress Star Soul to disclose that information to her ponies if she chooses. I will be departing... soon, but when I heard there was an accident down in this area it was my responsibility as a healer to lend what aid I could.”

Composed once more she bowed slightly to us once more, “Speaking of which, there are still those whose pain I can ease. Please, don’t let me keep you. I merely wished to thank you for your efforts. Good day.”

She returned to the wounded, bending over another to begin using her magic to wash away wounds. As she did so I watched her with open curiosity, although a small nudge from Arcaidia reminded me to get walking. Passing by the Princess I felt a strange sense of familiarity about her, but couldn’t place it. I did notice, however, that her dress had hitched up somewhat as she bent over her patient. I hadn’t intended to look, certainly not ogle or anything, but Purity’s cutie mark caught my eye as I walked by.

A blue gem, shaped like a tear.

A minute later, once we’d reached the ramp leading back to the room with the lifts I felt B.B’s wing give me a light whap upside my head. “You git a’ good look there, Long? Ain’t polite ta stare up Princesses.”

I rubbed my head, “Hey, I wasn’t looking at her like that. Just thought her cutie mark looked interesting.”

“If I had a’ cap fer every time a’ stallion made that excuse ta me... I’d probably still be poorer n’ dirt. Alright, I’ll buy it, yer were just starin’ at one of the Protectorate royal family’s plot ‘cause yer were curious ‘bout her butt tattoo.”

I let out a long, withering sigh, “She’s not even my type.”

“Do ya even got a’ type, Long?”

Arcaidia was now also looking at me curiously, which only increased my discomfort at suddenly being put on the spot. How had the conversation suddenly turned this way?

“Okay so I don’t know what my ‘type’ is, but I still wasn’t looking at that Princess because of that. Seriously, you guys are getting way too interested in my nonexistent love life, especially when we’ve got things that are several magnitudes more important to worry about.”

“And we can all worry about them in comfort and with full bellies,” said Knobs, “I’ve got one of the apartments set up for us to use, and I’m planning on cooking some lunch. Let’s get everypony together and we can try to unwind a bit. I think we could all use it.”

She didn’t get any disagreement from us. I could feel the Memory Orb inside my saddlebags, waiting for me.

----------

The apartment was rather cramped with all of us occupying it, even if it was one of the larger apartments on the seventeenth floor of the tower. It had two rooms, one a spacious living space connected to an open kitchen, and the other a sleeping area with twin beds. Between myself, Arcaidia, B.B, Knobs, Waunita, Braindead, Blasting Cap, and Crossfire occupying the space things were... cozy. Binge was still sleeping off her recovering injuries in Harshcare’s clinic, and there was no word yet from LIL-E, but otherwise the whole crew and then some were here.

The place was technically Knobs’, the kind of housing most Skull Guild ponies who didn’t own a spot outside the tower slept in. The one couch and few chairs in the living room were packed, with Knobs having taken Blasting Cap into the kitchen to get the filly to help her make some lunch from whatever they could scrounge from the cupboards. I hoped Knobs would make sure Blasting Cap didn’t snatch any more knives. I didn’t need to be worried about violent fillies looking for a little midnight stabbing of a Longwalk.

“I got business to take care of at the Drifter’s Guild,” said Crossfire, eyeing me as I sat on one of the twin beds, bouncing the onyx Memory Orb from my father between my hooves. “I’ll be back in an hour, buck, then we make with this plan of yours. Since you got all spear happy down in the basement the word is going to spread quickly that you’re here. We need to do this before any bounty hunters start setting up outside like Raiders clustering a juicy trade route.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, staring at the orb.

Crossfire narrowed her eyes at me, voice turning to a vibrant hiss, “Hey!”

I looked up at her, eyes gradually focusing on her as if I was just realizing she was there. Which wasn’t really the case, but my brain was a thousand miles away and I had only been paying half a mind to what the mare had been saying. “Huh?” I frowned, “Sorry, I heard you. Back in a hour. Bounty hunters galore. Fun times to be had by all.”

“Take this seriously, Mr. Hero. Your plan might just involve taking you down to the Bounty Guild and turning you in, but that’s not a short walk, and even with the threat of the Enforcers stepping in there are plenty dumb as bricks bounty hunters that’ll take a crack as us if they can. I don’t want to get my ass shot off, personally. So whatever’s got your head cloudier than usual, deal with it. I need you thinking, much as you can think, when we do this.”

She didn’t give me a chance to respond, just sharply turning around and slamming the door to the bedroom close with a sweep of her blue tail. I stared at the door, wondering if there was ever going to be a point in time where Crossfire wasn’t a cranky damned bitch. I took a deep breath, trying to push away the bad mood that tended to crop up where Crossfire was concerned. Knobs had odd taste in friends. I turned my attention back to my father’s Memory Orb.

My hesitation to view it was wrapped up entirely in the fact that I’d never known how to feel about the pony that sired me. He was such a non-entity in my life, yet his shadow had always blanketed it. First by marking me as blood of an outsider among my tribe, leaving me with just Trailblaze and my mother as the only ponies I’d truly connected to for most my life, until I met Arcaidia at any rate. Then when Odessa had begun to hunt us I’d only gotten more confused. Who was my father, really? What was he like? Was he as arrogant as Shattered Sky? Or maybe he was more like Odessa herself, seemingly reasonably but ultimately uncompromising? Or was he going to be something else, maybe worse? I supposed it was silly to think he could be that bad if mother had fallen for him. He had to have some good qualities... right?

I knew I was overthinking it, but I couldn’t help myself. This was the first time I’d be meeting this damn stallion who decided it was a great idea to leave his mate and only foal so he could keep playing army with a bunch of crazy alien fighting pegasi and griffins...

Why was my life this weird?

Well, the Memory Orb wasn’t getting any more watched by tapping at it with my hoof. I had to just swallow my worries and get this done. Before I could second guess myself further I pulled out the thin band of the Recollector from my saddleback and got it settled around my head. Then with a deep breath I held up the Memory Orb and plugged it in.

oooOOOooo

The body I was in felt rather too much like my own, save for the wings, which were flexing nervously. In fact everything about this stallion screamed nervousness, from his fast heart rate to his back and forth pacing, and the way he kept glancing at the mirror on the wall. The face I saw there was so much like my own it left me wanting to blink in astonishment, despite not being able to blink. He had my same coat color and his eyes were my own bright emerald. His face was a bit more weathered, his mane cut shorter than mine, yet he also had a neatly trimmed beard of blue. So that’s what I’d look like with facial scruff? Not bad.

My father was wearing a Odessa white uniform, and a lab coat over that. I saw the silver crossed lightning bolts, and four swords underneath that pined to the lapels of his uniform collar. His wings protruded from holes in his lap coat, twitching once more as he looked at the mirror. Abruptly he halted pacing and I felt his body go rigid for a second. His brow had a Recollector wrapped around it, with the black Memory Orb within.

“Right then,” he said, staring into the mirror, his voice a deeper twang than my own with a hefty accent that was very akin to B.B’s, “So... howdy, son? GAH! Nope, that’s a dumb way ta start this, Winter, ya dolt! This ain’t t’all how I wanted ta be startin’ this. Got not time. Supply Vertibuck’s leavin’ in twenty minutes an’ got ta git this message on there so Sunset’ll git it to you! She’s a solid mare. She’ll git this to you, I know it.”

He took a deep breath, and I could feel him trying to force the tension from his face as he smiled, albeit very awkwardly, “Names Winter Sun. Figure yer ma must’ve told ya that already, but might as well start this off proper. I’m yer pa, an’... an’ I’m sorry, son. Gotta git that out first. I’m sorry I ain’t been there fer ya none.”

He paused, I felt his jaw clenching. His heartbeat was still fast, and I could feel his mouth going dry, “That’s lame, ain’t it? Pretty much ‘bout as worthless a thing I could be sayin’ to ya, right? Wish I had somethin’ to justify it all to ya. I mean, somethin’ that wouldn’t sound like a whole pile o’ excuses...”

I watched as he seemed to take hold of himself, taking long, deep breaths, and looking back into the mirror with a face that changed from a stallion looking two steps from a nervous breakdown to the mask of conviction I’d seen on Odessa’s face when she’d tried to convince me to join her army.

“Longwalk, I know ya been through a lot. More n’ any young pony should haffta deal wit, but I’ve heard it all from Sunset that you’ve... you’ve done good. Survived the burnin’ o’ that settlement, Saddlesprings. Faced down one o’ Cocytus, an’ that ain’t no small thing. Ya yanked Sunset’s son out o’ that mess wit the Hellhound, along wit his squad. I know I can’t take no credit fer rasin’ ya, but that don’t mean I ain’t proud o’ what I’ve heard.”

He took a step closer to the mirror he was gazing into and I saw the lines at the edge of his eyes and the dark circles underneath. I suddenly realized just how tired his body felt, as if he hadn’t slept in days. There was a tremble in his body but I could feel him locking his knees to keep himself standing.

“There just ain’t time. Ain’t never been time. Not ta spend wit yer ma, nor ta even see the face o’ my son. Odessa, it’s a’ twisted thing ta be sure, but it’s mah family an’ my life’s work. Longwalk, Odessa is yer heritage. Our fight, it's bigger n’ the dirt and blood o’ the Wasteland. My life, all o’ it, every wakin’ heartbeat, has been fer makin’ sure when the fight from the stars come a’ callin’ we’ll be ready fer it. An’ its here. No more time fer preparations, no more time fer long term plans. Our enemies are makin’ their play an’... an’ all of Odessa’s weapons gotta be ready ta be used in the fight. I’m sorry, son. There’s a lot I gotta tell ya, but this ain’t the way ta do it. Some things I need ta say ta yer face.”

He let out a short, bitter laugh, “Both you an yer ma are gonna wanna kill me when the truth comes out, but I decided a long time ago I’d accept that an’ not hope fer forgivness. But... that’s fer when I git ya here an’ we rescue yer ma from Red Sector.”

His shoulders slumped a bit and he shook his head, “Damn bitch Borealis ain’t gonna git my mare fer long, I promise ya that, son. I’m workin’ a plan ta git Sand Storm an’ her kinfolk out o’ Heimdall Gazzo, an’ I’ll be needin’ the help o’ you an’ that crew o’ friends ya got.”

He pulled back and turned, and I saw that he was in, of all places, a bathroom. A neat, clean, shiny bathroom, but still a bathroom, complete with toilet stalls. I would have facehoofed if I could. Great, dad. Have an emotional message recording in the toilet. Why was he even in here? Couldn’t he do this in his quarters or something?

My father bent down and used his wing with incredible dexterity to pick up a folded map, which he rolled out and displayed to the mirror. It showed a large chunk of what I assumed was the continent of Equestria. I couldn’t make out much, but didn’t have to as my father began to point things out with his other wing.

“This here’s the Detrot area,” he pointed to a location between two mountain ranges along the northeast portion of the continent, “Yer a’ good two hundred or so miles from where I’m at, here.” His wingtip brushed a series of white locked planes near what appeared to be a series of plateaus surrounding what looked like a large lake. “Northern Research Facility, code named: Giant’s Cradle. We’re a’ underground facility, an’ gettin’ to us won’t be a’ picnic. Especially considerin’ I need ya here in sixteen days. That’s roundabout when the next supply Vertibuck is comin’ in ta roost an’ that’ll be our ticket ta gettin’ ya smuggled inta headquarters. Still figurin’ out the details, but I’m sure I’ll git it all sorted by the time ya git here. Now, thing is, walkin’ two hundred miles in sixteen days is a tall order, so if that don’t got a’ way to speed up here I got an alternative.”

His wing traced to west, past the mountain range on Detrot’s west side and to a desert area beyond that. “This here land is the Protectorate. Two major kingdoms o’ ponies that’re workin’ together fer mutual protection an’ the like. Applehyde and Neighlesisus. We Odessa folk got an’ outpost hidden there fer monitorin’ the locals, but not much else. However, there’s somethin’ useful there you can take advantage of ta git on up north easy. Ya see there’re these Ruins built by our ancient forbears, called the Elw. Some o’ these Ruins have what’re called Reflectors in ‘em. These devices transport matter from spot to spot, fast n’ safe like. Odessa cracked this tech a few months back an’ have been doin’ live tests to make sure it works. This here’s the coordinates fer one of the Ruins with a Reflector that don’t have an Odessa presence at it, so it’ll be safe fer ya to use, and the location is just ‘bout forty miles away. Giant’s Cradle is built on top o’ a Ruin with a Reflector, so you can teleport straight here. You could make a’ go fer one o’ the Ruins around Detrot, but the only one with a Reflector in that area is heavily guarded an’ can’t imagine you’d be able ta bust in without a’ serious fight on yer hooves.”

He underlined the numbers next to a circled spot within the Protectorate, “Just memorize these here numbers an’ plug ‘em inta yer Pip-Buck’s map.”

With a small sigh he set aside the map and looked back into the mirror, his expression turning awkward as he kept glancing away, then back as if trying to decide what to say. Finally he said, “Wish I had more fer ya, son. The rest’ll hafta wait ‘till me n’ you are face to face. Sixteen days, remember that. We’ll git yer ma safe an’ sound together, I promise ya. Then we’ll talk. But don’t want ya distracted wit any surprises so that’s it fer now-”

Suddenly there was a pounding on the door, making my father jump and his heart skip as a young sounding female voice shouted from outside the door.

“Dad! Hey! You in there!?”

I never wished more that I had my own body, just so I didn’t have the odd sensation of trying to drop my jaw open in surprise without being able to move an inch. My father for his part went utterly still and stared wide eyed at the mirror, sweat trickling down his brow. The voice from the other side of the bathroom door continued.

“If you’re in there dad just say so! I don’t get why stallions are so weird about talking on the can. Look, the spectrum analysis on the new samples are done and we need you in the main lab to go over the data. Dad... seriously did you fall in or something?”

With an audible gulp my father blinked, once, and said, “I heard ya, Longflight! Be out inna sec, just don’t let Gabriel touch the terminals ‘till I git out there!”

There was a light, tinkling laugh from the other side of the door, “Too late, he’s already plugging in his own theorems. Better hurry up before he has half the department jumping in six different directions, old stallion.”

“Ya talk respectful ter yer pa, girl, even when he’s in the little colts room, ya hear!?”

“Yeah, yeah. See you back in the lab.”

After a few moments of quiet my father’s breathing went from rapid gasping to something resembling a steady form as he looked apologetically at the mirror.

“So, uh… heheh... guess I’ll have some ‘splanin’ ta do. Later. Much later. Yup… takecaresonbye!”

I felt him reach up and pulled the Recollector off his head and then everything snapped away like it was on a bungee cord, throwing me headlong back towards my own body.

oooOOOooo

I came out of the Memory Orb with a jerk backwards. I couldn’t quite focus on anything. Even the Recollector on my head was forgotten for a moment as my brain pony went out for a coffee break and left me hanging with jumbled thoughts.

I’ve got a sister? How!? Well, I know how, but when!? Does mother know? She’d better, otherwise she’s going to kill father. A lot. Wait, maybe this isn’t what I think it is? Maybe she said ‘dad’ meaning to say something… else... okay that’s a stupid train of thought.

There certainly weren’t any other ways to interpret what I'd heard. It was pretty clear the voice I’d heard had called my father ‘Dad’. Did that mean father had cheated on mother with another mare!? Or had mother had a foal with Winter Sun before me? Or... twins? Adopted maybe? The possibilities threw me for a complete loop, dazed and barely able to get my head wrapped around everything else my father had said.

I had sixteen days to get to some Ruin in the Protectorate to use an ancient Elw device to teleport to my father’s research facility so we could try to rescue mother. I hoped it’d be enough time to deal with business in Skull City and get Arcaidia into the NCR. If we found a fast enough method of transport, perhaps it would be. I had no idea. Focusing was rather difficult. I kept hearing the sound of my sister’s voice. Longflight? That had been her name. Apparently my father wasn’t Mr. Originality when it came to naming his kids.

You’re right, father, you do have a lot of explaining to do when we meet face to face.

Rubbing my aching temple I pulled of the Recollector and placed it and the Memory Orb back into my saddlebags. Feeling an oncoming headache I got off the bed and exited the door into the living room. I was greeted by the smell of something warm and delicious. Everypony was chowing down on what appeared to be bowls of a thick, mealy substance that reminded me of stew.

Arcaidia was quick to wave me over to a chair. It seemed little fold out mini tables had been set up and one was already waiting for me with a bowl of the hot, yet unidentified food.

“Sit ren solva, the eating has commenced!” Arcaidia said with a welcoming smile.

“I made sure it's safe,” said Knobs, “Blasting Cap only tried to poison the bowl once.”

Why did Knobs sound proud of that? Blasting Cap was sitting on the ground next to Knobs with her forelegs cross and with a distinct pout on her lips as she muttered, “Woulda worked if the dumb pegasus hadn’t spotted me.”

B.B, sitting laid out on the floor near the door, eyed the filly sharply, “Yer lucky I don’t tan yer hide missy. Coulda let them Marshal gangers have ya, see how well they treat ya. Here’s a’ hint; them gallows o’ theirs ain’t fer show.”

“B.B, don’t try to scare her,” Knobs said.

“Why not? She ain’t no innocent little foal,” said B.B with a faint bristle, “Don’t fergit she was part o’ the group that was killin’ them refugees you were tryin’ ta save. Loaded the missiles that blew up more then a’ few poor folks.”

Knobs looked away, “I was there, you don’t need to remind me.”

“Little shivol bir already punished with no supper,” said Arcaidia, then eyed Blasting Cap with a dismissive glance, “She learn lessons or not. If not, Knobs deal with problem. Not concern of ours.”

I eyed my bowl of food, which guessing from the open cardboard box in the kitchen was something called ‘oatmeal’. It smelled pretty good, despite the lack of meat. I spared a brief look towards Blasting Cap, who was making a point of trying to look tough while her stomach gurgled. I would have given her my bowl if I hadn’t already known she wouldn’t want any charity from me. The glare she shot my way made that pretty clear.

Sighing, I took a bite of oatmeal. It was a little bland but hot and filling. I looked over to Arcaidia, asking, “How long was I out?”

“Not big time,” her silver eyes looked at me warmly, “How was seeing father for first time?”

It took me a second or two to work up an answer as I glanced away, “It was... interesting.”

I briefly explained the basics of what my father’s message contained, only leaving out the bit at the end about the mare who might have been my sister. I was still processing that and didn’t really see the need to bring it up with my friends, here. The important part was the sixteen days we had to get to this Giant’s Cradle research facility and the fact that our apparent fastest ticket there was a Ruin in the Protectorate.

“Should be plenty o’ time,” said B.B, “Protectorate would be only a day away if we use the Ursa, an’ I know the roads ta git there. Gettin’ across the border shouldn’t be too tricky. They ain’t closed up the way the NCR is.”

“Just how bad is the NCR border anyway?” I asked, “Hasn’t been a lot of chance to actually talk about how we’ll be getting in.”

Knobs chimed in on that one, “They don’t let ponies in who are intending to settle there, due to their food and water shortages. But they do let merchants in for trade, and you already showed you got a source of goods with that Stable or yours. All you’d need to do is pose as traders and you could get in on a business visa.”

Braindead suddenly spoke up, his voice jittery, “There’d be no way any of you would survive the crossing... the Bleach is too deadly for anypony to cross on foot, or even in some shiny autowagon. Even we Raiders aren’t crazyass enough to try living in those haunted sands. It’s suicide with one of those big Steamships.”

“Is it really that bad?” I asked.

Braindead shuddered as he stared at nothing, fidgeting on the couch next to Waunita, who eyed the Raider with a guarded expression. “Boss Bloodtrail, he had us raid along the edge of the Bleach, few years back. Small villages that spring up on the edge of the dunes, taking advantage of little watering holes. Easy pickings. Except...”

He trailed off, shaking his head back and forth, “We lost a pony or two each night. Not to villagers defending themselves, but to the... the things in the sands. I don’t know how the villages stayed safe, but it was like the creatures in the dunes just knew we weren’t supposed to be there. Remember seeing Gutspike the morning of our first day out there. He’d been dragged right out of camp, not a peep heard by anypony. He was skinned. Limbs all twisted wrong, like they’d been caught in a bunch of gears or something. You try to cross that place, you’re good as dead.”

“Mechanics Guild runs the Steamships across the Bleach,” explained B.B, “Ain’t heard o’ them havin’ much trouble. Big caravans do it too.”

Knobs nodded, “There are monsters in the desert, but they’ll avoid tangling with the Steamships, and a large enough caravan of ponies is usually pretty safe. Passage on a Steamship is expensive, but not unreasonable. It’d be your fastest way south. I can put out some feelers, ask a few questions, see when the next Steamship is sailing out of Port Needle.”

“How long does the trip usually take?” I asked, trying to work out the timing of it all in my head.

“One day to Port Needle. Then, I don’t know, maybe two days crossing the Bleach? I’ve never done the trip myself,” Knobs said, smiling sheepishly, “Rarely left Skull City, actually.”

“Sounds about right to me,” said Waunita, looking between us as she offered a shrug, “I read up on the trip, since I was planning on trying going south myself once I had the caps to get out of Skull City. Three days is a decent estimate. Price to get on a Steamship is around eight hundred caps a head. Less, if you bring some kind of skill to the crew, like being guards. Caravans will run you a similar deal, at half the price. Takes longer, but that’s the difference between brahmin pulling rusty old wagons as opposed to a giant mechanical monstrosity with sails and tank treads.”

“Is that what a Steamship is? Sounds pretty… awesome, actually,” I said, envisioning the metal behemoth in my giddy little mind’s eye. “Three days there, three days back... leaves ten days out of our window. If we spend five days exploring the NCR looking for Arcaidia’s sister that’d leave us five to get into the Protectorate and hit up these Ruins to go north... hot damn it almost sounds like a reasonable timeframe.”

“Don’t fergit we’ll need at least a’ day or two ta deal wit yer bounty here, an’ arrange a way to pay fer the trip south,” said B.B, “Figure take off two days fer dealin’ wit yer crazy bounty plan, then earnin’ some caps. Drifter’s Guild might be our best bet fer that. If yer serious ‘bout chekin’ them out, an’ odd job fer the Drifter’s Guild would line our pockets ‘bout enough for going south.”

“Sounds like you ponies have a plan then,” said Knobs happily, looking at me with a grin, “If there’s anything more I can do to help, just say so.”

I returned her smile, holding up a hoof, “You’ve already helped plenty. This all goes right, we’ll pay you back, and be out of the city by the day after next.”

“Do you have a plan for if it doesn’t go right?” asked Waunita, avian eyes looking at me frankly.

I couldn’t help but just shrug at her helplessly, “Not at all.”

----------

The shower felt pretty damned good. It was one of those communal affairs with multiple shower heads sprouting from a tiled walls. I’d tossed my gear amid the benches and lockers outside the showers and was letting myself just stand under a near scalding hot rain of water that was washing away the past few days of blood and grime. It was helping, but no lie, my tension was still high.

Crossfire had arrived not long after lunch with Shard, the unicorn she’d been partnered with back in Saddlespring. We’d be going to enact my whole ‘turn myself in for my own bounty’ plan as soon as I was done with the shower. I’d insisted on getting this done first, not just to clean myself off, but also to clear my head.

It wasn’t easy, the clearing my head part. Since the last time I’d showered I’d killed a filly’s mother, gotten one of my companion’s shot, cost a mare her home and most of her life savings, fought a small horde of rampaging space monsters, and learned my father was a very awkward stallion who was in the habit of keeping secrets; including a sister I’d never met.

Oh, and I had sixteen days to take my potentially alien pony pal down to a country I’d never been before to find her sister, who might well be dead, and track down a crashed spaceship that hopefully had information in it that would keep me from dying in less than a month... then go all the way back north to another country I’d never been to in order to use a Ruin built by ancient ponies to teleport to my father’s secret military research facility in the north so I could then rescue my mother and tribe from the flying headquarters of a massive military organization that had been hunting me practically since day one of my journey.

Suffice to say I felt more than a little… pressure. Leaning my head against the wall, eyes closed, I let the hot water flow over me and tried not to feel like the weight of the world was crushing me.

Abruptly I felt a warm, bony body hug me from behind. There was a pleasant but sharp nibble on my ear followed by a purring voice.

“Naughty bucky, you didn’t wait for me before stepping into the shower.”

“... Hello Binge. I thought you were still resting?”

I caught a flash of her bouncy dark green mane as she went for my other ear, giving it a tug with her teeth. Her hooves held me tightly from behind, and I could feel the steady thump of her heart through my back.

“Feeling more bouncy than I have in a lot of sunups and sundowns. Oh yes yes yes, the blood is hot and pumping strong in my tight little veins, almost like I’ve gotten an injection of the best kind of drugs. Do I have you to thank for that, Longy?”

I tried to ignore the way she was getting a little too bitey with my ear and carefully reached back to push Binge off of me. Thankfully she didn’t resist and let go. I turned to see her bereft of barding, just her and her scarred body and gleaming madlight eyes looking at me as she stood smiling at me in that way that always left me wondering if she saw me as a friend or a morsel on a hook. I could see her recent gun wound, its scar tissue a brighter, fresher pink than the many other dull scars covering her body.

“Are you sure you’re feeling alright?” I asked, trying to hide my tension, “You should probably just stay in bed until doctor Harshcare says you can move around.”

Her grin widened and she rubbed a hoof on my head affectionately, “Surer than a bone saw through a helpless neck. I feel like I could dance through a field of razors and have energy for a tango with an albino radscorpion. And I know you had something to do with that. I can… feel it.”

“Uh… feel what?” I asked, nervous at the look she was giving me. I had nowhere to back up, however, the shower wall right behind me.

“Your blood, bucky. It's in me, and I can feel it like a hot current in a cold sea. I wonder what it does in there? Is it playing tea party with the rest of my insides? Maybe, but right now all I know is that it feels good, I feel good, and I just had to give you a little ‘thank you’.”

“Th-that’s okay, I’m good. I, uh, I’m glad you’re feeling better,” I said, wanting very much to change the subject, “I don’t know what happened with my blood back there, but Misty Glasses told me she had a theory she’d tell us the next time we end up at the Stable. I was, well, I was really worried about what it might be doing to you, because it looked like it hurt, and I was seriously scared you were going to die-”

She moved faster than I could have expected. In an instant I felt her lips pressed hard against mine and my whole body went frozen and hot all at once. Her mouth was shockingly warm and she gave me a single, playful flick with her tongue. I was too shocked to really respond, and she pulled away from me almost as fast as she’d come in.

I just stared at her, blinking rapidly as if I’d just been punched. Binge giggled.

“You’re a terrible kisser, you know that, bucky?”

Before I could respond she went to the shower next to mine and turned the knob, letting a warm spray of water start to soak her body. A cheerful tune started to hum from her lips as she seemed to bounce in place, letting the water run over her. Her eyes slid back towards me with a lidded look, a half grin on her face.

Finally recovering my wits I huffed out a sigh and turned back to my own shower, “I was trying to be serious, Binge. I was really worried about you.”

“I know. It’s adorable. You just don’t see it. You don’t have to be afraid of me dying, because I died a long time ago. If my body goes to sleep, that’ll just be the end of simple, silly story. It’ll hurt you if you let it, but if if you don’t let the hurt in, then it won’t ever make you sad.”

“Is that how you put up with it all those years?” I asked, looking at the drops of water falling off my mane and trying not to see Binge out of the corner of my eye. The way she swayed back and forth was entirely too… distracting. I knew she was lifting her tail and bouncing it around on purpose. Why did she enjoy teasing me so much anyway? She already knew I wasn’t interested. Mostly. At the moment.

“Put up with what, Longy?”

“Being… a Raider. Being neck deep in all that. I mean, you did a lot of bad stuff, right? Is that whole ‘being asleep’ talk how you rationalized it all?”

She was silent for a moment, causing me to look towards her more fully, and I saw that she was looking up straight into the showerhead, the water rolling off her face. She wasn’t even blinking, even with the water hot in her eyes.

“Bad? Oh, you mean all the playtime with the other ponies we had. Stabbing and stretching, skinning and biting, screaming and pleading... I taught myself to laugh through it all. Smile, smile, smile. You do it enough and it’ll stick. It had to, Longy. We all do it. You do too, bit by tiny itty bitty bit! I’ve seen you, putting little parts of yourself to sleep so it doesn’t hurt so much when the blood gets on you...”

I grimaced, taking a deep breath, “I’m not trying to avoid feeling anything, Binge. I hate some of what I’ve had to do, and yeah, it hurts. I’m not going to pretend like I’m above the Wasteland’s dirt and blood, but I’m not using that as an excuse to roll in it. You shouldn't either.”

She raised a hoof and rubbed it across her face, smiling wide, “I know what you’re trying to do, bucky. You want to clean me up, polish me off, and put me on your shelf and say ‘Look! I made a Raider shiny and new! It can be done!’. But you’re wrong, my beautiful, silly puppy. You can’t clean off what’s stained. That’s not how it works. I can play by your rules, and take your leash around my neck, but Binge, the clean happy filly, died with her brother a long time ago. Big Binge knows how to play in the blood and shit and keep laughing it off, and she likes your spark because it reminds her of home...”

Her voice dropped to a hoarse, twisted whisper that almost didn’t sound like Binge’s normally bubbly tone, “But you can’t clean me up. It's pointless to even try.”

I stared at her for a long time. Then, with a hard look on my face, I reached down to a shelf set up by my shower. It had a small rubber cup that an earth pony like myself could hold with my mouth. It kept the soap from getting into my mouth as I snatched up the small white bar with it. Soap in mouth I trotted over to Binge, who tensed up as I approached.

“What are you-” she began to ask but I cut her off as I grabbed her, turned her around, and began to soap her back.

“Shut up.” I said, bluntly, scrubbing her shoulders, then down her back.

“H-hey! I said I’d shower with you but I didn’t say I’d deal with anything crazy like soap! Buuucky! Stopp iiiit!”

“No,” I said, holding her down as she started to struggle. Her struggles were somewhat half hearted, I thought, as she didn’t resist much as I kept her still and kept lathering her coat with a soapy wave of suds. “I don’t know what I can do to make things better for you, but I’m not giving up on you either. So just let me clean some of the dirt off, okay? I know there’s a pony underneath all that muck, even if she wants to pretend like there isn’t.”

I grunted as I started to scrub her mane, feeling a bite of something sharp on my fetlock. I saw a line of blood trickle from an open cut and the glint of a blade tied into her mane. I kept scrubbing, and Binge looked back at me, her eyes oddly sad.

“I told you, Longwalk. Trying to clean me will hurt you even if I don’t want it to.”

I ignored the cut and kept cleaning her, my strokes getting more gentle, “In case you didn’t notice, I can take some punishment. Now just sit still, there’s a lot of grime to get through, here.”

“... You have no idea how much,” she said, but I felt her tension gradually leave her as she laid down and let me work, “But if you’re set on trying, there’s no stopping you. I’ve figured out that much about you, Longy.”

For the next ten minutes I scrubbed Binge from head to tail. I… tried to be very respectful and polite around the plot-end of her, and while Binge kept quiet I could see her smirk the entire time at my discomfort, but my resolve was stronger than my embarrassment and in short order I had a mostly clean Binge laying before me.

“Mmm, I think you missed a spot,” she said, flicking her wet tail at me.

“Binge, we’ve been over this. I’m not doing that with you. Managing to steal a kiss when my guard is down doesn’t count.”

“Heh, you’ll hold a filly down to clean her up, but not to get dirty with her? You’re so weird. But...” she approached me, and gave me a quick peck on my cheek, a far more chaste gesture than her earlier ‘thank you’. “It's sweet of you. It's a rare kind of crazy. And-”

For a moment her coy, playful demeanour changed, turning into something else entirely. Her eyes went dull, as if they were a reflection of the gray bleakness of the Wasteland, yet there was a hint of warmth in there like the smallest of campfires set against the dark. Her smile was wane, a small flicker of a thing, and filled with a deep set sadness that tore at me, yet that one smile was a thousand times more real than all of her manic grins I’d seen up until that point.

“-thanks for thinking I’m worth trying to save. Even if you can’t, I know you’ll keep trying. I think that’s why I chose to follow you, and why I’ll keep doing it, until it kills me.”

With that her mask of cheer and crazed giggling was back, “Now I’m hungry! I think I’ll go find the birdy and bug her to cook me something tasty! Don’t worry, I’ll tell her about all the naughty things we did in the shower, heheh!”

She skipped off, tail bouncing about seductively, and leaving me a very confused little pony. I blinked blearily after her and put a hoof to run through my mane.

“One day I’m gonna make sense of you, Binge...”

----------

“Do the ropes really have to be this tight?” I asked, craning my neck to try and look at Crossfire despite my rather awkward angle laying slung across her back like a sack of grain. My legs were tied pretty thoroughly in what Crossfire described as a ‘hogtie’. It was far from comfortable. I was wearing my security barding, but not my saddlebags or the red coat B.B had given me. The coat had gotten a bit torn up in the fight earlier so B.B had taken it so it could be repaired later. I was leaving my saddlebags behind, along with Gramzanber, though it’d been a tough choice with the ARM. I didn’t know if I’d end up needing the spear or not, but since the plan was to turn me in I didn’t want to risk anypony taking the ARM. At least by leaving it here I knew I could trust Knobs to keep an eye on it. I still felt bad about it. Not because of the danger of leaving behind the ARM, but because I knew Gramzanber wasn’t just a weapon anymore. It had a mind of its own, and it wanted to help me.

Before I’d left the apartment I’d put a hoof on the silver surface of the ARM and whispered an apology to it, explaining that it was too risky to bring along. I wasn’t sure if Gramzanber heard or understood me, but I hoped it had.

“Shut it, this needs to look real, right?” grunted Crossfire as she checked the slide on her bolt-action rifle before sliding the strap around her neck to let the weapon hang snugly along her side, the barrel brushing near my head.

“If it makes you feel better those are nylon ropes so they shouldn’t chaff,” said Shard. The unicorn stallion’s face was obscured by the same black scarf I’d seen him wearing in Saddlespring, and his similar black vest was lined with small throwing knives. I couldn’t quite see if he was grinning or not, but there was a light in his eyes that suggested he found this all far too amusing. “Really you’re in a lot better shape than most ponies who’ve ended up in that position.”

“... That’s reassuring,” I said dryly.

We were standing in a side hallway that led to a maintenance entrance to the bottom floor of the central building within the Skull Guild’s headquarters. There were a lot of small exits like this along the exterior of the building and this one in particular led to a road the Skull Guild used to move cargo down to the shore of the lake on the Inner City’s east side. The large river I’d seen while traveling to Skull City fed into that lake, and had another branch that flowed north then west. We wouldn’t be following the road to the lake but instead going across the road and into the alleyways between the buildings directly north of the Skull Guild, which I was told were part of some sort of ‘red light’ district. I didn’t know what that meant, but apparently we’d be cutting through there to make our way to the west side of the Inner City where the Bounty Guild’s headquarters was located.

“Just keep your mouth shut and try to look unconscious,” spat Crossfire, “You’re lucky you already look beat up enough that I don’t have to rough you up more to make this look real.”

“I’ll do my best impression of a limp body. I’ve had lots of practice with the real thing, so this shouldn’t be difficult for me,” I said as I relaxed myself.

“Stop lolling your tongue! That looks ridiculous.”

I tucked my tongue back into my mouth, “I thought it was a nice touch.”

I heard Crossfire growl, even feeling a bit of the vibration through her back. “I have no idea how you’ve survived this long.”

“Friends, mostly,” I replied, “There might also be some mixture of skill and luck at play, and possibly help from the Ancestor spirits.”

“Going to go with dumb luck with an emphasis on the ‘dumb’, now pipe down and get back to being limp, we’re moving out,” said Crossfire, and she made for the door, but was stopped by the sound of clacking hoof beats behind us.

“Hold up there,” said B.B as she trotted towards us. Arcaidia and Binge trotted alongside the pegasus, while trailing behind the trio I could see, of all ponies, Braindead. He was walking with his shoulders hunched and his eyes nervously darting around, as if he was ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. What was he doing here? In fact, what were they all doing here? Wasn’t the plan for them to wait until I sent the signal? Arcaidia had already put her tracking spell on me, which had felt slightly odd, like having my fur buzzed briefly by an electric current. The spell had left a small, frost blue mark on my shoulder in the same geometric patterns as the Crests for her Veruni sorcery, which was currently hidden by my armor.

Crossfire eyed my approaching friends with narrowed eyes like slivers of gold. "What are you lot doing here? The plan is for you to wait until Mr. Hero here is 'safe' in custody at the Bounty Guild."

"Well, thing is, hun," said B.B as she idly adjusted one of her revolver bracers, "Me an' Arc talked it over, an' came ta this notion that we ain't got no reason to stay behind. Better we shadow ya'll an' be nice n' close fer when we gotta git our rescue pants on."

"That is correct," said Arcaidia firmly, shooting a challenging look at Crossfire as if daring the other mare to argue, "Best to be close in case of much troubles happening, or plan going to the toasters. This ren solva's plan, so high chance of that being the happens."

Shard glanced over the group with a skeptical furrow of his brow, "Not to rain on anypony's parade but can the lot of you actually shadow us without getting spotted? Thought the whole plan here revolved around this looking like boss Crossfire is turning in your friend for real."

B.B gave the unicorn stallion a knowing smile, "Not ta worry there, I ain't shabby at keepin' a low profile. Arc can follow my lead, an' I know from uncomfortable personal experience that Binge can go ghost fastern' a' squirrely radroach." She then eyed Braindead with a slight frown, "Ain't so sure 'bout this here fella, though."

"Yeah, uh, Braindead, what's up?" I asked the nervous looking Raider, "I get why my friends might want to do this, but why are you here?"

He flinched as if my words were physical blows, which left me feeling more than a little confused. I knew little about this stallion other than our very brief and violent past together and the fact that, against seemingly all evidence suggesting such was rarer than a well of clean water, Braindead wanted to be a better pony. And if I was being honest with myself I wondered just how much we could trust that, but I wasn't about to backpedal on giving him the benefit of the doubt. Still, the guy looked... scared as hell. He couldn't even look straight at me as he spoke.

"Want to help. Or just be away from... from the tower. I... look I still have thoughts in my head constantly about... things. Fuck. I don't know how to make words that make sense of it all but I still keep thinking about all the bad shit I can do. I need to be away for a bit. Away from Waunita. Don't want to hurt her, right? You need quiet? I can be quiet, just like Binge. Not as good as her, she was always Bloodtrail's favorite sneak, but I'm a, was, a, Raider. I know how to sneak around. So let me help, okay? It's better than being cooped up inside with my thoughts and Waunita. Also that foal is driving me nuts. Smells too much like home, you know?"

I didn't, really, but I thought I had a small grasp of his reasoning. If he was having that much trouble with whatever was going on in his head it might be better to have something to do. Still, I had to make things clear.

"This is going to be dangerous," I said, "I don't mind you coming, but pay attention to what my friends say. Follow their lead. And, uh, try to not get killed, okay?"

Braindead gave me a strange look, as if I'd just said something in a foreign language. Maybe he wasn't used to ponies showing concern for him? Regardless, he nodded his understanding and Crossfire let out a huge sigh.

"Don't like last minute changes to plans. Never a good sign, but whatever, you idiots will do whatever you want no matter what I say, so let's just get this over with. Wait five minutes after me and Shard leave, then follow. Don't do a damned thing unless we get ourselves into serious shit. I mean it, even if other bounty hunters show up and a fight breaks out, hold off getting involved unless it looks like me and Shard can't deal with it."

With that, we got moving. I let myself relax on Crossfire's back and kept my eyes mostly closed as she trotted out into the daylight of what I estimated to be late afternoon. The road to the docks by the lake were actually busy with a number of ghoul pulled carts and a few autowagons, including one or two large ones with huge flatbed trailers loaded with crates. A few gray clad guards let us out a side gate in the Skull Guild's fence line and then we were out into the open streets of the Inner City.

Crossfire set a brisk pace, Shard following behind us and a little to the left, his eyes keenly darting about. For my part I did my best to look unconscious while also trying to get a decent view of the city through slitted eyes. I hadn't been able to really take much of anything in the night before during my mad drive to get to the Skull Guild tower, so I now took the chance to really absorb the size and scope of the Inner City.

It contrasted sharply with the Outskirts in almost every fashion. The streets were clean and well maintained. Buildings still had the dull grim of age, but none of the husk like quality I'd seen in buildings out in the Wasteland. Shockingly there were actual plants here and there, though still stunted and faded yellow or a very pale and drained green. There was a feeling of life around the streets as ponies, ghouls, griffins, and other creatures I was less familiar with walked the sidewalks or crossed the streets on their daily business. Carts and the rare working, jury rigged autowagon rolled along the main streets, and while the city had a lively feel to it there was also a tension that was hard to miss. Ponies moved quickly and didn't linger long on the street. I noticed more than a few passing pairs of ponies in matte black armor, carrying rifles or shotguns on battle saddles.

Were these the Enforcers I'd heard Crossfire mention? Probably. They didn't seem to do much other than patrol the streets and cause a few wary looks among the locals.

It wasn't long before I noticed Crossfire taking us northward through several tight alleyways that were strewn with a bit more trash than the main streets. As if we were passing through some kind of misty barrier we emerged onto new streets that had a distinctly different feel than the ones we'd just been on. Here ponies walked with greater ease, and I saw more and more congregations hanging outside building fronts with glowing neon sings, some depicting mugs or glasses of amber liquid, or the shapely forms of ponies both male and female.

The signs weren't the only visible temptation. I quickly took note that more than a few mares and stallions in various stages of suggestive dress walking the streets or hanging from open windows on several buildings.

"Close your damn eyes," hissed Crossfire, "Try to remember you’re unconscious. You live through today you can feel free to come ogle the Entertainment Guild's workers all you want, but for now stop gawking before I knock you out cold for real."

I stiffened and hung my head, closing my eyes and whispering, "Sorry."

I had been staring, so I wasn't too stung by Crossfire's reprimand. But I couldn't help but be curious. Was this entire area owned by this Entertainment Guild? I could guess at what some of the offered 'entertainment' was but I did wonder if they had anything else besides the obvious? Maybe B.B could set up a magic show here? While I kept my eyes mostly closed I will admit I snuck a few peeks as Crossfire and Shard trotted through the Entertainment Guild's district.

I didn't see my friends anywhere, so hopefully that meant they were doing a good job keeping hidden as they followed us. I did note a few spots of interest here and there that I made mental notes to ask about later. One was a flashy looking two story building covered in flashing neon lights, with a sign that read 'Seamy's Gaming Stable: Classic arcades refurbished from the Wasteland, all mostly working (no refunds)'. I didn't know what an 'arcade' was supposed to be but my curiosity was piqued.

The other building that stood out to me was the only one in this district that was akin to the skyscraper towers of the Skull Guild's headquarters, although this one was only half the size. Despite its smaller size this tower screamed for attention, practically grabbing the eyes and making it impossible to not look its way. Dozens upon dozens of red flame torches burned from windowsills and cast the tower in a bloody glow that mixed with the neon pink electric signs that flashed across the tower's walls. These signs depicted garishly blunt carnal scenes that left my face burning as red as the torches lighting up the place. The front doors were filled with a constant stream of traffic as people of all races bustled in and out of the tower, many of them staggering drunk or looking oddly dazed and happy. A heart shaped sign above the front doors burned red with crimson fire, and there was a scent in the air that was enticing and cinnamon-like wafting from it.

"Old place is certainly jumping today, ain't it?" commened Shard dryly. I couldn't see the unicorn's face but I heard a note of bitterness in his tone.

"Lots of folk trying to forget there's a Raider army practically in the front yard," said Crossfire with matter of fact steadiness, "Bet Madame Red is making a killing off of all the tension that ponies need relieving. Relax, Shard, we're just passing by, and they don't care about you anymore."

"I wouldn't be so sure," said Shard, "I didn't leave here the most popular of stallions, and last I checked the Madame didn't have a lot of reasons to like you much, either."

"We're Drifter's Guild now, Shard. Madame Bitch can't do shit to us without provocation. Just stay frosty, we're almost through. Now where was that old tram tunnel? I know it was just east of the Pleasure Tower..."

"This way, boss," Shard said, trotting up past Crossfire and myself to take the lead.

"Tram tunnel?" I found myself asking in a light whisper. I felt Crossfire's tail swing around and flick at me.

"Quiet," she said, then after a second answered me anyway, "We're taking an old tunnel used by Detrot's subway system. Got converted into cheap housing for a lot of Madame Red's street workers. It actually runs straight out to the east side near Gunner's Heaven, which is a short walk to the Bounty Guild. It should keep us out of sight of any roving bounty hunters."

Made sense to me. I went back to playing dead and let the pair of unicorns trot along. I hoped my friends wouldn't have any trouble following us down the tunnel. It didn't take very long at all for Shard to find the tunnel in question, which was marked by a set of wide stairs beneath a archway with faded paint and letters I couldn't make out. The stairs led straight down into an underground area with tiled floors and walls, but surprisingly bright lighting. The light fixtures did look somewhat jury rigged, but were clean and not sparking, coating the entire underground tunnel in a stark white glow that was easy on the eyes.

Unlike above where ponies and other beings put themselves on display to the pleasure and attraction of the passing customers, down in these tunnels the ponies were more normally clothed, or if unclothed weren't trying to attract anything. Instead I saw mares and stallions alike, along with griffins and a few ghouls, moving around surprisingly well maintained camps that were set up along the sides of the tram tunnel tracks. Bright cloth created dividers between homes, and the area suddenly took on an aura of warm family living that I hadn't felt since Saddlesprings. Most ponies were sitting around patched up furniture while conversing or sharing meals, and there was a buzz from both the conversation and the half dozen or so working radios ponies had set up to listen to. Here, I saw that foals ran around playing between the legs of adults and unlike the Outskirts there was no sign of squalor or starvation. Yes there was some wear and tear on the walls, and a few ponies eyed us suspiciously as we walked by, but overall the atmosphere was rather relaxed.

It left me smiling for a second before a terrible thought crept into my mind and I whispered, "Crossfire, there's a lot of folk down here. What if bounty hunters do track us down these tunnels?"

She was silent, and I craned my neck to look at her face. It was set in a cold mask until she glared at me and said, "Will you quit breaking cover already? If a bounty hunter does see us you won't be helping things by looking concious! Just let me and Shard deal with whatever comes up, you understand?"

Shard was quick to add, “If we’re going to be attacked, it’d be further down the tunnel. Most the Entertainment Guild’s workers pack heat, and picking a fight in their home?” The mask obscured his lips but I could see the somewhat nasty smile in his eyes, “Yeah, you don’t wanna know what they’d do to anypony that started a fight in their home. Lots of places to bury bodies down here... or parts of bodies.”

Before we’d trotted far down the long tunnel of makeshift tents and cloth divider homes we were approached by a mare flanked by a pair of the stallions. The mare was tall and lanky, and while I could only see her through my mostly closed eyes as I slumped on Crossfire’s back I could tell this mare had a shapely, sharp angled face. Her coat was alabaster white, and her mane was long, cropped around a short unicorn horn and colored something close to black but with just a slight sheen of blue. The stallions by her side were wearing smooth, well kept black leather barding and carried pistols slung on shoulder holsters.

“Shard, my dear boy, haven’t seen you back home in months,” said the mare with a tone that was somehow both warmly welcoming while also carrying a keen hint of steel. Her eyes reflected this as, without seeming to care about Shard’s obvious discomfort, she went up to him and wrapped the other unicorn in a tight hug. The mare’s eyes then sharply focused on Crossfire.

“I do trust you’ve been taking good care of him, Crossfire?”

“She’s been doing fine, Electrum,” said Shard, “And I can take care of myself.”

“Of course you can,” Electrum said with that faintly sarcastic lilt that reminded me a bit of Trailblaze. In fact the way this mare looked at Shard was giving me serious deja vu and I got the impression these two had a relationship very much akin to what me and Trailblaze had.

“We’re just passing through,” said Crossfire tersely, “Much appreciate it if you didn’t snag Shard for any kind of family reunion. We’ve got a tight schedule to follow.”

“Oh, I can imagine,” said Electrum, and her eyes fell on me. I went dead still and tried my best to appear as listless and limp as possible. “Handsome one you’ve bagged, through a bit young I would think, for a mare your age, Crossfire.”

“Cute. He’s a bounty. We’re just taking him through here to bypass the main streets. He’s a hot item and I don’t want him being poached by any of the Bounty Guild’s more zealous and stupid members.”

“I see. Well I certainly have no cause to stop you, so feel free to trot along your way. That said, I must warn you that the tunnels beyond the edge of our little community aren’t as safe as they used to be.” Electrum paused, and I chanced a glance to see a shadow crossing her elegant features as she eyed both Crossfire and Shard. For his part Shard had a sour look in his eyes.

“Is everypony safe? What’s been going on?” Shard asked, the worry like a murky undercurrent in his voice.

“Monster attacks have increased over the past week or so,” said Electrum, “Not just the usual Gobs or Balloons. There have been stranger creatures coming out of the lower tunnels. Our perimeter has held and Madame Red has certainly provided us with heavier weapons to defend ourselves, but we have... lost a few ponies. We’re safe enough for now, but if you’re going to follow the tunnel all the way to the east side of town, then I just want you to be careful, okay?”

“I will, Electrum. And I’m sorry. Wish I could stay longer, but, well, you know...” said Shard, trailing off. Electrum nodding with a sad smile.

“Yes, I know. Madame Red doesn’t carry as large a grudge as you think, but I suppose it’s best to stay on the safe side. Do consider dropping by sometime when you’re not so busy, Shard. You still have friends here that wouldn’t mind catching up.”

To that Shard just nodded, and then glanced to Crossfire who adjusted my weight on her back and said, “Okay, great, thanks for the chat Electrum, and the warning. We’ll be careful. One last thing. We’ve got... backup following behind us. White pegasus mare, with a blue unicorn, and some idiot green earth pony mare and black stallion. Just pass them on by too, alright?”

“Backup? You? My my my, Crossfire are you actually growing up and accepting help these days?” Electrum teased.

“Cram it. Just let them by without trouble. They’re following in case any bounty hunters do get frisky with us, and I don’t want them delayed,” said Crossfire with a hard look, “C’mon Shard, let’s go.”

We moved on, crossing over a small bridge of sheet metal to the other side of the tracks as the way ahead got more crowded with a fully built interior building that looked like one large restaurant and tavern. Beyond that was an actual tram, its surface tinged a bit with rust but otherwise remarkably intact. It had five cars, all strung along one after another, and its sides had been modified to be open store stalls where numerous goods were being hawked.

Beyond the tram car was an open area with little to no ponies until we got to a clear barricade. Steel beams and sheet metal were built up and welded together along with sandbags, crates, and metal barrels to form a solid defensive wall. Here around ten or so ponies in similar black leather barding to the guards that’d been with Electrum stood ready and alert, though a few sat and played cards or ate. They were all armed with a combination of shotguns or rifles, but I noticed one pony who carried some kind of hose and nozzle device with a pair of tanks strapped to her back, and another was loaded up with a pair of heavy machine guns on his flanks. At least one missile launcher tube was propped up against the wall for ready use, and I saw one crate had a number of grenades in it. These ponies were armed and ready to repel just about anything, and it made the dark tunnel that loomed beyond the barricade seem all the more ominous.

Then again, I had a pretty good idea of what kind of monsters might be lurking beyond that darkness, as I’d just fought a bunch of them back at the Skull Guild. Not that the foreknowledge left me feeling much better. Gramzanber was back at the Skull Guild as well, so if a fight broke out I was a lot less equipped to deal with it. I tried to convince myself leaving the ARM behind was the smarter move, but it was hard to feel that when staring at a dark tunnel while unarmed and tied up.

At least I knew Crossfire and Shard weren’t pushovers, and that my friends would be following us.

We were let by the barricade without much difficulty. It seemed the ponies were far more concerned with keeping things out than with keeping ponies in, and some of the guards seemed to know Shard and Crossfire. Few pleasantries were exchanged, a portion of the barricade was hauled aside, and we were sent on our way. It was all too soon before the light and warmth of the community we’d just left behind was banished by the quiet, cold, and encroaching dark that pushed in all around us.

Shard and Crossfire both lit up their horns, washing our surroundings with an oily mix of red and yellow light. Within a minute the only noise was the dull, echoing hoof steps we made as we passed down the slowly curving dusty tram tunnel.

“Hey,” I said, my thoughts turning towards the possibilities of danger, “I know I got to be tied up for the ruse to work and all, but while we’re in these potentially monster infested tunnels maybe you could untie me? You can wrap me back up once we’re out of the tunnel, but down here I can at least lend my hoof if we’re attacked.”

Crossfire snorted, but after a second said, “Fine, makes no difference to me, and it’ll be easier to fight without your heavy ass on my back.”

We stopped long enough for her to undo my bindings. I rubbed at my hooves and looked around for anything I could use as a makeshift weapon. Seeing nothing suitable I sighed and resigned to rely on my hooves if it came to a fight, starting to regret leaving Gramzanber behind. Shard offered me one of his many throwing knives, but I shook my head.

“Used to something with reach and heft. Thanks, though.”

“Suit yourself,” the unicorn replied, tucking the small dagger back into one of the many sheaths he had strapped around his barding.

“Why do you use those, anyway?” I asked, “I mean, to each their own, but seems like a weird choice of weapon for a place where ponies have machine guns.”

“Heh, says the stallion who fights with a giant metal stick.”

I found myself chuckling, “Yeah, well, spent most my life only using pointy sticks, so call it a matter of familiarity. Also my shiny metal stick has some pretty neat perks attached to it.”

“I bet. But, yeah, familiarity. That’s why I use the knives, to answer your question. Never could shoot a gun straight to save my life, but I learned knives since I was a little tyke. Besides, never have to reload,” Shard said as he danced a few throwing knives around with his magic, returning them to their sheaths with smooth ease after they’d floated through a few complex maneuvers. I had to admit he certainly seemed to know how to handle them.

Crossfire glared back at us both. Her rifle was unslung and floating by her side, “Keep it down. You’ll give away our position to anything listening down here.”

The sharp reminder of where we were got the quiet she wanted and Crossfire continued to lead the way down the shadow choked tunnel. I noticed more than a few rusted doors along the side of the walls, perhaps for maintenance? The signs were far too faded for me to make them out. We reached a spot where the walls opened up into a set of side platforms like the ones where the Entertaining Guild workers had set up their homes, only here the area was dusty, dark, and partially filled with a wall of broken rubble from where something above had collapsed down into the tunnel. It blocked half the tram track, forcing us to climb up onto the other, clear platform to keep moving forward.

Pillars holding up the ceiling cast long shadows from the unicorns’ lights and I found myself growing tenser as we troted forward, our hooves making louder clicking echoes on the grimey tiled floor. I was getting bad flashbacks to exploring Stable 104, and found myself glancing up for any ventilation shafts. Every little noise started to make me swing my head about, though more often than not it was just an echo from our own steps. Damn it, this area looked way too good for an ambush. Too many spots to hide.

I could tell Shard and Crossfire were feeling the oppressive and skittish atmosphere as well. Shard had drawn some of his knives again, only instead of playing around with them he had the weapons poised around his body and the blades turned with his head as he looked with searching eyes at every twisting shadow we passed. Crossfire didn't swing her rifle around, but her eyes did dart back and forth, her tail giving an occasional flick as we cantered forward.

The platform went on for a few more dozen paces until the rubble cleared up enough to allow us access once again to the tram tunnel. We were peering down to get ready to jump from the platform back into the tunnel when a creak of rusty hinges that sounded as loud as a gunshot made us all spin around.

A small, skittering shape paused briefly in the light of the unicorn's magic, its antenna waving in the air. A radroach, small and very uninterested in us. Its red dot appeared on my E.F.S, its signature apparently so weak it hadn't even showed up until just that instant. The dot was red, but the radroach made no move other than to extend its wings and flutter away. The door it'd come out of hung open, a sign above indicating it was a restroom.

Crossfire let out a small grunt and Shard sighed, "Damn bugs."

The real gunshot was ten times louder than the door opening had been and it was only because Shard had lowered his head in relief when he'd sighed that the bullet went over his head instead of through it. Part of a concrete pillar behind him blasted apart, and more gunshots deafened us as we all scrambled for cover. Abruptly my E.F.S was lit up with dots, both in front of us down the tunnel and behind us clambering up the platform. I couldn't quite count but I guessed five or six behind and twice that ahead of us.

I ended up sprawled behind a pillar, and glanced over to see Shard taking cover behind the pillar just ahead of me, his face wincing as a bit of blood trickled down his blonde brow. I wasn't certain but I thought maybe some concrete chips had cut him from the near miss.

Crossfire had jumped for the restroom and had taken cover in the doorway. Her rifle floated around and fired back at our attackers, it's loud retort making me flinch.

"Whoooweee!" shouted a voice from the group behind us, "I think that's Crossfire taking pot shots at us. Hi there, we catch you at a bad time?"

"Never a bad time to waste some scrubs," shouted Crossfire, "Who's the dead pony I got the displeasure of talking to?"

I waved my hoof to get her attention and when her eyes flicked to me I pointed down the tunnel ahead of us where the larger group of red dots were and made a gesture at my Pip-Buck then at my eyes, then rapidly tapped the ground about a dozen times while making a mean, angry face. Crossfire actually smiled and gave me a nod, indicating she understood.

Meanwhile the pony who'd spoken before, a stallion whose voice was now getting familiar, replied, "I do believe this is our first time meeting face to face. I'm Double, of the Bounty Guild as you no doubt have guessed. The fine mares and stallions with me are part of the Wild Bunch. We'd much appreciate it if you turned over a certain colt to our hooves without any more fuss, Miss Crossfire. If you do my associates and I won't give you any trouble."

Crossfire spat, "Yeah, sure. You just tried to bushwhack us and would've killed us without a care if you'd gotten lucky. Not that I'm complaining, this is a fair ambush. What, you use the sewers or side tunnels to come out and box us in like this? How'd you guess we were coming this way?"

At first I wondered why Crossfire was talking instead of shooting, since that seemed more her usual way of doing things, until I realized she was likely trying to buy time for B.B, Arcaidia, Binge, and Braindead to catch up with us to help even the odds. I looked around, hoping to spot better cover. Shard had another pillar between him and the tunnel ahead but I was exposed if anypony from that larger group came closer. I saw an old trash bin nearby and reached out a leg to start pulling it closer. A gunshot rang out and hit the can, tipping it over and away from me.

"Might be we used the sewers and side tunnels to get here, yes indeed," said Double with a smug tone oozing from him, "As for knowing you came this way, well, I don't mind telling you we got a hot tip from a reliable source. Once we heard you planned on jumping this bounty, well, the whole Wild Bunch wanted to come show you how much we appreciate Drifter Guild trash muscling in on Bounty Guild business!"

"Right, because the Wild Bunch are just the epitome of the Bounty Guild's hunters," drawled Crossfire sarcastically, "Everypony knows you're a bunch of the most useless two bit gutter thugs the Bounty Guild would deign to let into their ranks and you can only get anything done with numbers! You asses are a laughing stock, and I don't mind putting any of you six feet under! Bring it!"

"Oh my, it seems negotiations have broken down. Kill them. Just remember we want to colt alive," Double said, and I heard hoof steps on the platform's tiles as red dots began to move both ahead and behind.

Seeing no choice I waited until Crossfire let loose with her rifle again before scrambling to my hooves and galloping for the restroom. Gunfire filled the old tram platform but the bounty hunters were trying to aim for my legs to capture me, which threw off their aim considerably. Tiles erupted around my legs, and I could feel one bullet graze me, but a combination of my armor and my momentum kept me going until I crashed past Crossfire into the cover of the restroom. I'd caught sight of Shard flinging a few of his knives down the platform and heard at least one mare's scream indicating Shard had caught a bounty hunter, but that was all I saw before I was in the restroom.

Crossfire glanced back at me while still firing her rifle, her crimson magic working the bolt with blinding fast fluidity, "If you can't fight just hide and stay out of the way!"

"Hold on,"I said, eyes rapidly flicking about the restroom, "I'll find something to use."

There wasn't a whole lot in here. Most the toilet stall doors were so old and rusted they looked like they'd fall apart if I picked them up let alone stop a bullet or bash a head. The toilets themselves were mostly broken bits of porcelain, and what little looked solid enough to use was so covered in unmentionable muck that even I wasn't desperate enough to consider putting my mouth on it.

Then I noticed a few things in rapid succession. There was a old yellow tub on wheels which also had the long yellow shaft of a mop. The mirror above the sink had been broken long ago and several large shards of mirror glass littered the floor. A tiny maintainance cabinet nearby was left hanging open, and inside I saw a roll of gray duct tape. Ideas formed and in my usual Longwalk fashion I didn't really waste time thinking too hard about the plan that sparked in my head. I rushed to grab the duct tape, the most appropriately sized and shape mirror shard I could find, and the mop.

"What in the Goddesses asscheeks are you doing!?" shouted Crossfire as she leaned out just far enough to aim and fire, the retort answered by a death gurgle from one of the bounty hunters. She yanked her head back as gunfire ripped at the doorframe, splinters of tile pecking at her cheeks.

"Making a spear!" I said as I unscrewed the mop head and began to thoroughly tape the glass shard to the mop's shaft. Knowing the makeshift weapon I was crafting wasn't going to be all that balanced or hold up to more than one or two strikes anyway I didn't waste too much duct tape; just enough to make sure the glass shard will hang there long enough and stay solid for one good throw or thrust.

It only took fifteen, maybe twenty seconds, but that was more than enough time for the cluster of red dots that had been up the tunnel to reach the platform and I could see outside the restroom door as shadowy pony shapes began to climb up onto the platform not more than thirty feet from us.

"Crossfire!"I shouted in warning and the mare immediately moved so that she was taking cover behind the wall before gunfire flashed and exploded from our new foes, forcing me to scramble as well to avoid the hail that started to tear up the restroom.

Remembering I still had some grenades left I searched my saddlebags while setting my newly made makeshift spear next to me. I'd used up all the flashbangs on Double and Trouble the day before (which made me wonder where Trouble was at, she really didn't like me much) but I still had a number of smoke and tear gas grenades. Selecting one of the tear gas ones, marked by its purple color band around the grenade's apple shape, I yanked the stem with my mouth and guestimating the angle I tossed it into the air and then gave the grenade a swift kick, sending it sailing out the door.

Crossfire saw this and waited patiently until there was a soft popping noise followed by the sudden coughing and swearing of many ponies. Then she whipped her rifle around and with a savage snarl began to fire into the white gas cloud that had formed. I winced in regret at the sound of several pony's crying out in agony as Crossfire's rounds hit home, but there was nothing I could do but hope that the other bounty hunters might decide to give up.

No such luck, though, as a fusillade of return fire answered us and forced Crossfire and me back into cover.

“Not to alarm anypony, but this is starting to look a bit bleak,” I said, scrambling back further into one of the toilet stalls as gunfire ripped up the restroom floor in front of me, spraying me with dirt and dust.

“You got any grenades that actually, you know, explode!?” asked Crossfire as she changed clips on her rifle, slapping one into the weapon that had a familiar red band on it. She’d just loaded some of those explosive flechette rounds she’d used back in Saddlespring.

“No, I’m the nice pony around here, remember?”

“Right, you mean you’re an idiot. I remember that just fine. Whatever, just toss another of those gas grenades. Shard! You still alive out there!?”

“Mostly,” came the hoarse reply, shouted over the sound of gunfire while I got out another gas grenade and Crossfire opened fire on the group of bounty hunters trying to get onto the platform. Her round burst into a shower of metal flechettes and I winced at the sound of more screams, and even more so as a few return rounds tore at Crossfire’s coat, one round tearing past one of her forelegs and leaving a red tear in her flesh.

“Fuck!” she swore, ducking back while using her magic to fire her rifle blindly, “Get your ass over here Shard, we’re pulling a blink!”

A blink? What did that mean? Well, I figured I’d find out in a moment. I lobbed another gas grenade out into the tunnel area, catching a glimpse of our attackers as I did so. There were at least eight or nine ponies using the edge between the platform and tunnel as cover to fire every assortment of gun at us. They mostly wore a motley assortment of patchwork armor consisting of metal shoulder or chest guards sewn into trench coats or leather armor barding. A few bodies, courtesy of Crossfire, littered the edge of the platform, splatters of blood framing their twisted and unmoving shapes. The flechette rounds had torn one unfortunate stallion’s arm clean off and I could still see him twitching slightly as his lifeblood pumped out onto the grimy titles.

The sight made my throat constrict a little with nausea. I knew I wasn’t directly killing anypony, but I sure was making it easier for Crossfire to do so. Why didn't’ these ponies just run? Were caps really worth losing their lives like this!? Even if they caught us, half of them might be dead by the time they pulled it off. I just didn't understand the mindset that drove them to keep at this, even as their comrades died or bleed out around them.

I gulped and ducked back behind cover, grabbing my makeshift spear as my second gas grenade went off, filling the tunnel with its smoky payload. This was followed by another round of cursing from the bounty hunters. Seconds later, amid a wild blizzard of bullets, Shard scrambled into the restroom. Half of his knife sheaths were empty, though he still floated half a dozen around himself with several coated with slick crimson blood. He had a black, bruised eye and was favoring one of his hind legs, but otherwise didn’t look too worse for wear.

“I don’t know how ponies can carry that much ammo,” he said between gasping breaths, “They nearly chewed that pillar in half! Boss, if we’re blinking, can I suggest taking us somewhere far away topside?”

“Can’t,” said Crossfire, aiming her rifle and popping off the head of a bounty hunter mare who’d tried leaping onto the platform with a well placed shot, brain matter splattered through the air like sick confetti. “The more ponies I carry, shorter the range. Get close, you two, and try not to lose your lunches.”

As Shard and I gathered close to her we all heard a sound akin to a sharp hiss of air, followed by a mare making a whooping shout. That was all the warning we had before the entrance to the restroom exploded from what I could only imagine was a hit from a missile or rocket. The blast threw me back and through a toilet, pain lancing through my body from the concussive force. Luckily the blast must have been at least a little off target as the missile had destroyed part of the wall, but not actually blown up inside the restroom. My head was ringing and there was a small stream of blood flowing into my eyes from a cut brow as I looked up to see Shard groaning against the back wall. Crossfire was worse off, shrapnel having torn at her hide as the blast had slammed her hard into the restroom’s sink. She was still moving, and slowly inching upwards, but from the glazed look in her eyes I could tell she’d taken a harder blow than any of us.

Outside I heard bounty hunters cheering but over that noise Double’s voice growled, “Blast it Trouble we need the colt alive! No more missiles!”

Trouble’s voice answered back with a sarcastic, “Oh, yeah, because we were doing so fucking well so far! I’m just ending this shit faster, brother. Now let’s rush them before they recover!”

Crapcrapcrap, gotta do something! I thought, brain scrambling to come up with something to keep the still dozen or more bounty hunters from just ganging up on us while Crossfire and Shard were still dazed from the missile blast. With not a lot to work with I started yanking what few grenades were left in my saddlebags out, pulling pins without even looking at what they were before tossing the apple shaped objects out onto the platform. There'd only been three left, and I was pretty sure at least two of them were just smoke, but anything was better than nothing and in short order I heard a few grunts and shouts of confusion as bursts of thick gray smoke filled the area outside the restroom. I could hear ponies colliding with each other or concrete pillars as they stumbled to rush through the smoke and get at the restroom entrance.

Among the other objects in my saddlebag I saw a small pistol. It took me a second to remember I'd picked this one up at Silver Mare Studios, intending to give it B.B, and had simply forgotten it. Brief hesitation gripped me. I was a terrible shot, and didn't want to kill anypony, but I still needed to buy precious seconds. With a sharp cry I snatched up the pistol in my mouth and poked my head out into the cloud of smoke that now obscured most of the platform. I aimed high, hoping it was high enough to avoid actually hitting anypony. My mouth bit the trigger and the small pistol bucked in my mouth, sending small caliber rounds out into the smoke. I was hoping just to keep the bounty hunters ducking for cover for a moment or two.

There wasn't an immediate return fire, and the pistol clicked empty as it clip went dry. I ducked back just in time to avoid a shotgun blast that splintered part of the remaining door frame next to me. Spitting out the pistol back into my saddlebag I reached over and grabbed the spear and got the shaft into my mouth just in time to meet the first bounty hunter to come out of the smoke.

His shotgun was floating in a grip of pale white magic and the stallion glared at me as I rushed him with the spear. He sidestepped and I saw the shotgun aim downwards. I jumped back just in time to avoid one of my legs getting taken off by buckshot. I heard a cry of "Duck!" behind me and reflexively hit the deck just in time for three knives to go sailing past me. Shard's knives impacted the bounty hunter with a trio of meaty smacks and the stallion let out a choked cry as he fell back into the smoke. Glancing back I saw Shard breathing hard as he supported himself with one hoof while leaning against the wall. Meanwhile Crossfire had also gotten to her hooves, though I could see her shaking slightly as she loaded a fresh clip into her rifle and worked the bolt to load the first round.

"Blink, now!" she shouted, and Shard and I dove for her. I saw Trouble appear out of the smoke, the ghoul mare's face a mask of sadistic glee, at least the part that didn't have bolted metal over it. She was levitating multiple grenades in her own magic and I couldn't tell what kind they were, but had no desire to find out. As she pulled stem on one of the grenades grenades I threw my makeshift spear just as I put a hoof on Crossfire's shoulder.

I saw the spear sail in and clip Trouble's shoulder, cutting a deep gouge as the glass spear tip shattered on her thick ghoul hide. She screamed and dropped the grenades around herself, including the one with the pulled stem, and then there was a red flash of light and the feeling of pure weightlessness and a twisting in my gut as Crossfire cast her teleport spell.

An instant later I felt us drop a bit through thin air before we hit the tunnel ground, and behind us I heard a concussive detonation. Looking back I saw that Crossfire had teleported us ahead to the part of the tunnel we'd been trying to enter before the ambush, and now a cloud of smoke wafted from the obscured platform accompanied by the groans of pain from a whole bunch of bounty hunters. Amid that I heard Double and Trouble growling at each other.

"Sister you idiot! Did you just drop all those stun grenades on us!?"

"Ugh, shut up brother! Only one went off… fuck, can't see shit. Somepony figure out where they went!"

This was shortly followed by one pony sticking his head out of the smoke our way, apparently trying to get clear and shake the stun effects of the grenade off as he wavered, but his eyes glanced at us and widened. He managed to shout, "They're over h-" before Crossfire's rifle silenced him by removing most of his lower jaw and throat in one gory blast.

"After them!" shouted Double, and my E.F.S was entirely too filled with red dots still for comfort given our state of injury, my lack of weapons, Shard being down to just a few more knives, and Crossfire starting to limp.

"Move it!" she said, urging me and Shard on as we began a haggard gallop down the tunnel. The Wild Bunch didn't waste any time coming after us, still near fifteen or so stallions and mares piling after us into the tunnel with guns blazing in the darkness.

Bullets zipped by our heads like irate hornets and nipped at our hoofs with stinging closeness. Only the dark conditions in the tunnel, I believe, was keeping us from being easy targets as we ran for our lives. Even Crossfire wasn't bothering to do more than fire back once or twice, her eyes mostly focused ahead. It was a challenge to just not trip over any debris in the tunnel.

Things went from bad to worse when there was the high, ear splitting shriek of another missile. This time it flew over our heads and snaked up ahead of us in the tunnel, detonating on the ceiling. With a rumble and resounding crash that knocked us off our hooves part of the ceiling caved in, blocking the way ahead with a large enough pile of concrete and dirt that it'd take far too long to climb.

Looking to my left I saw an open maintainance door and went for it while shouting, "This way!"

Crossfire and Shard followed without any argument, and we were through the door just as the bounty hunters caught up with us. Crossfire slammed the door shut with her magic, having waited for Shard to get through first, and then turned the rusted lock closed with a screech of metal. We were in a narrow concrete hallway now that led a short distance forward until it opened up into some kind of pipe filled chamber. I didn't bother looking around much as we galloped into the room, searching for another exit.

… Rather dismayingly we found none. We'd just trapped ourselves. Again.

"Nice work, genius," Crossfire spat.

"Hey, did you want to try climbing that pile of crap and get shot!?" I shouted back, "There wasn't any other way to go!"

"Boss, can you blink us again?" asked Shard, dropping to his haunches, sweat pouring down his face. His black mask had slipped from his chin, and to my surprise I could see that there were strange tattoos on his upper jaw and neck. The patterns looked faintly familiar but I couldn't immediately place them. I knew I'd seen them somewhere before, though.

Crossfire, also breathing hard, growled out, "I can, but I don't have enough juice to take all of us far. We'd just end up right back where we were. Fuck it. This is a narrow hall. We hold them here until Mr. Hero's friends show up. Where are those slow ass bastards, by the way?"

I shook my head, "I don't know!..." I paused, then felt like an idiot and held up my Pip-Buck, "I'll find out!"

Switching to Arcaidia's frequency on the radio I began to broadcast, "Arcaidia! Where are you guys!? The plan has officially gotten derailed!"

There was a pause, then Arcaidia's voice spoke back, "Understood ren solva. Will move with fast hooves. Was held up in street by ponies with dumb coats and guns who ask questions, but we follow you down into tunnel place. Hear much distant popping. That you?"

There was an explosion as another missile blew open the now formerly locked maintenance door, sending the door flying down the short corridor to cartwheel just behind me.

"Yup, that's us. Outnumbered and near death. Much appreciate some help!" I had to dive aside as gunfire tore by me, "Sooner would be better!"

"Coming with accelerated fastness!" was Arcaidia's reply before gunfire drowned out anything else.

Crossfire had taken cover by throwing over what looked like some kind of rectangular machine with gauges on it. A number of these lined the wall, old, rusted, and clearly unused for a long time, but they looked solid enough to stop bullets and Crossfire used her magic to toss one of them in front of the corridor for makeshift cover. Her rifle spat rounds at the advancing bounty hunters, who’d wised up and were having their own unicorns push debris from the ceiling collapse down the hall to act as their own cover. The bounty hunters traded shots with Crossfire as they kept advancing behind their mobile cover of cement blocks and rubble. Shard was hanging back, saving his few remaining knives for when the enemy got close.

As for myself I rushed around the maintenance room looking for anything else I could use as a makeshift weapon. My previous success with the glass/mop spear encouraged me as I threw open old utility lockers and rummaged around quickly through their contents. I didn’t see anything I could cobble together into a doomsday machine, or even a makeshift bludgeon. The most dangerous looking thing in there was a bottle of something called ‘Turpentine’ and that only seemed dangerous because I had no idea what it was and it smelled awful.

Unfortunately before I could puzzle out how to combine duct tape, some scrap metal, a lightbulb, and the mysterious ‘Turpentine’ into a miraculous weapon to save the day I heard Crossfire shout, “Take cover!”

I didn’t even question why and dove for cover behind a set of vertical pipelines that ran down the center of the maintenance room. There was yet another shriek of air from an incoming missile and I watched Crossfire and Shard rush away from the corridor entrance just seconds before Crossfire’s impromptu cover get blown to bits. Just how many missiles did Trouble bring!? She had to be running out of ammo sometime soon, right?

“HAH! Take that bitches! I got a whole pack full of death for all of you so you might as well just flash your asses at me so I got a better target, because I’m not running out of missiles anytime soon!”

Well, thank you universe, screw you too. I needed to do something about that crazy mare before she brought the ceiling down on us. Again. Going with my gut I quickly unscrewed the plastic cap on the bottle of Turpentine The vapors were like having tiny needles digging at my nose and eyes, but I grabbed the handle with my mouth and charged past Crossfire and Shard, who were heading for the back of the room to look for fresh cover.

“The hell are you doing!?” shouted Crossfire as I rushed the corridor.

I didn’t respond, focusing on the sights ahead of me. I saw a number of bounty hunter were using the present lack of Crossfire shooting at them to clamber over their cover and rush down the short hallway. I saw ten or more ponies galloping towards me, most switching out their larger guns for smaller pistols or melee weapons. However behind all of them at the doorway back out to the tunnel I could see Double and Trouble, the ghoul siblings directing the last of the Wild Bunch into the hallway to rush us. My eyes narrowed, even as the lead bounty hunters got within ten feet of me. They knew they needed me alive, so as I’d hoped they weren’t shooting at me, instead focused on closing on me, likely to just dogpile me. It bought me the one or two seconds I needed to gauge the distance, toss the bottle of Turpentine into the air, turn around, and buck it with my hind hooves as hard as I could.

The pale white plastic bottle spun end over end through the air above the bounty hunters, showering them with the irritating and terrible smelling liquid. More importantly, the bottle impacted squarely on the head of the laughing Trouble, who immediately howled and fell back, shaking her head and rubbing at her eyes, screaming.

My sense of triumph was exceedingly short lived as the lead bounty hunters didn’t stop for the light sprinkling of Turpentine I’d given them and no less than three of them ploughed into me like living battering rams. We all went down in a painful tangle of punching limbs and I felt myself getting pummeled from all directions. One mare was trying to hold my hind legs down and wasn't being subtle about aiming a punch for my stallion bits. I thrashed my knees around, throwing her off, but her two companions both had a hold of my upper body, one stallion yanking a foreleg back painfully behind my back while another had me in a headlock.

"Keep 'em still dammit!" snarled the mare, "One hit to the danglies and this little colt's done!"

One of the stallions groaned, rolling his eyes, "It's always the 'dangly bits' with you! Seriously if I wasn't ploughing you every other night I'd think you were a full on filly fooler."

"Shut up, it’s just the most effective way to stop a guy cold. I'm not fixated or anything!"

"Tell that to the last three bounties you kicked in the nuts. I swear, you've got an unhealthy obsession!"

"I can do without the fixation on my groin as well, honestly," said while kicking out with one of my hind legs to catch the mare in the stomach and send her flying backwards. More bounty hunters poured into the room, but couldn't dogpile on me as I'd feared because Crossfire and Shard were both making very convincing arguments as to why that would be a bad idea. Crossfire's argument involved a round of scattering flechettes tearing up one bounty hunter and sending the others scrambling for cover, while Shard had the more pointed argument via a knife spinning into the leg of another and causing them to go tripping end over end into one of the metal utility closets.

This just caused most the bounty hunters to charge those two, however, while firing wildly in the tight, confined space of the maintenance room. Before I had to concentrate on wrestling the two bounty hunters still on me I caught sight of Crossfire's horn blazing red and her vanishing in a red pop of light, only to blink back to reality above a cluster of bounty hunters. She dropped right on them, swinging her rifle and slashing a crimson wake through one poor stallion and then I was too busy fighting to see anything else.

One stallion had gotten his headlock on me adjusted into something more of a choke hold, while his companion appeared determined to snap my foreleg off if need be. I braced my freed hind legs and bucked as hard as I could, slamming the stallion grabbing my arm into one of the vertical pipes. The pipe bent with a screech, followed by a hiss of steam and a grunt as the stallion lost his grip on me. With my foreleg now freed as well I reached back to get a hold of the fellow choking me and tucked my body low into his barrel as I rolled him into a body flip. My throat was bruised by the effort but I managed to send him flying into the wall with a meaty smack. He hung there for a second before sliding down to the floor like an ooze, groaning in pain.

I barely managed to get to my hooves before I heard an unpleasant, deep buzzing sound and turned to see the mare who'd been determined to nut-punch me now wielding a baton in her mouth that had a pair of magic blue crystals on one end that sparked with electricity.

"Fugghn guhhnu shuck yur nuugts uuff!" she mouthed incoherently around the baton in her mouth. Why was it so few ponies learned to speak properly while mouth holding weapons? Was it really that hard? My musing was cut short as she leaped at me, electric baton swinging.

I ducked aside from its cobalt arc and flinched as an electrical discharge from the weapon sent sparks flying as it hit a pipe next to me. The mare came on, head flailing back and forth as she wove a blinding blue pattern of shocking pain that forced me to backpedal and bob aside. The stallion who'd been knocked into the pipes recovered enough to lash out with his tail, using it with surprising dexterity to trip me up and land me on my back. The mare tried to take advantage of that and slammed the electric baton straight for my groin, but I rolled aside. The discharge of magical lightning from the baton still shocked through some of the ground and buzzed me, causing my muscles to spasm painfully for a second. Surging to my hooves I swung a hoof and caught the mare across the face, hoping to slap the baton from her mouth, but she stubbornly held onto it and glared at me with eyes sparking with anger. The stallion that had tripped me hobbled to his hooves and with a yank unsheathed a knife from a chest strap and both he and the mare came at me.

I scrambled to duck and dodge aside, but felt hot pain as the knife found a weak spot in my armor and cut a bleeding line through the black cloth of the security barding. The mare's buzzing baton flashed at my head and I barely ducked under it, the hairs of my mane rising at odd angles from the near miss of electric current. I sidestepped quickly and then shoulder rushed the stallion with the knife, blasting the air from his lungs and sending the knife flying as I rammed him once more into the bank of pipes that dominated the center of the room. As he crumpled to the floor I spun to face the mare, but she had moved in faster than I had time to react and this time I felt the baton jab straight into my chest.

The world went white with pain and my brain locked up as my whole body jerked about from the blast of electricity that ravaged my nervous system. I dropped like a brick and twitched on the ground, smelling smoke from singed fur fill my nostrils. Coughing and letting out a pained moan I rolled onto my back, barely able to feel the world around me for the pain cramping my muscles.

Through watering eyes I saw the mare spit the baton into her ready hooves as she reared up on her hind legs, holding the baton in both her forehooves in a ready overhead swing that was, terrifyingly, aimed straight for my crotch.

"Say goodbye to your balls, bitch!" she cackled gleefully, and off to the side I heard the stallion from before say,

"Seriously, dear, you have issues."

Time seemed to slow down for just a hair, giving me a chance to see that Shard was barely holding off four or five bounty hunters who were shooting at the unicorn as he dove between pipes and threw utility cabinets and shelves in the way with his telekinesis. He only seemed to have one knife left and was bleeding from a bullet wound to his shoulder that was slowing him down considerably. Crossfire had three bounty hunter corpses lying at her hooves from viscous bayonet slashes and punctures, but half a dozen more, including Double and Trouble, had cornered her back near a computer terminal bank that she had to rush behind before Double's rifle barked and nearly caught the mare as she dove behind the flimsy cover. Trouble, eyes blazing red from irritation, no doubt from the Turpentine bath I'd given her, had tossed her missile launcher aside and was floating a pair of magic plasma pistols on either side of her, and fired repeatedly into Crossfire's cover, the very metal of the terminal station starting to turn bright green and melt from the discharge.

All this I saw in the split moment before the bounty hunter mare with the electric baton began to swing down to crush little Longwalk and forever end my debate on whether to consider Binge's repeated attempts to get me in bed with her. With a spike of raw adrenaline driving my still spasming muscles I did the only thing I could; I kicked up with maximum force straight into the mare's exposed groin.

That was the moment I learned mares are just as vulnerable down there was stallions are. The more you know.

Her eyes popped wide as a gecko's and a high pitched "Eeeeee!" flew out of her lips, and she felt back to the ground twitching as if she'd been hit with her own baton. Speaking of which, said baton fell from her grasp and rolled across the floor, and almost as if by magic it reached my hooves and seemed to nestle there in a manner not unlike a puppy looking for a new master.

I didn't hesitate and forced my still twitching body to obey, picking up the stun baton and tossing it to my mouth. I didn't care if it'd just been in another pony's mouth, I immediately recognized the value of a backup weapon that I could shock ponies into submission with. Non-lethal weapons for the win!

The mare was holding her ground and still making that high pitched noise when her coltfriend finally recovered from his journey to the center of the wall and got to his hooves, giving me the stink eye. "Hey! Nobody pounds her there but me!"

"Look, I'm sure you two are a lovely couple," I said, "Which is why I'm going to ask you nicely to run away before my friends show up, who are a lot less likely to leave you alive than I am."

I had to duck down against the pipes for cover, as a few of the bounty hunters with Double and Trouble had noticed me and turned their guns my way, firing some shots I think were aimed for my legs, but at this point I was starting to think these ponies were getting tired of trying to take me alive, bounty or no bounty.

Double and Trouble were similarly forced into cover as Crossfire cut loose with another burst of flechettes that tore at Double's armor, knocked one of his rifles from his telekinetic grasp, and burst one of Trouble's plasma pistols as the ghoul hopped behind a knocked over shelf. I heard Shard wrestling around with a bounty hunter that must have closed in on him, but I couldn't see what was happening from my current position.

We really needed Arcaidia and the others here, but it'd literally been less than a minute since my call, so it occurred to me this might be over well before they caught up with us. We were putting up a good fight, but the bounty hunters still had the clear advantage. I had to do something to purchase much needed time!

"Is this really all worth it!?" I shouted, keeping an eye on the stallion who was still glaring at me, but not advancing as he was apparently deciding which of his melee weapons, a blackened machete or gleaming hatchet, to draw. "I mean, am I worth that much? Is eight thousand caps worth dying for!? Not even eight thousand, as you all have to split the damn bounty, so at best, what, eight hundred caps? How many of you have already died today for such a stupid reason?"

I honestly regretted that so many ponies had been killed in this fight, so I didn't have to fake the sincerity in my voice. This really was stupid to me. Even if I'd been worth a fortune I couldn't see how it'd all be worth it in the end. There were ponies today who'd just lost any chance at being anything, let alone enjoying the fruits of capturing me. The waste of it left me pissed off and sick to my stomach at the same time.

There was a brief pause where I thought maybe I'd gotten through to a few of them, but Double's voice rose in a mocking and practically calm tone, "Eight thousand caps fixes many of us up comfortably for months, my naive colt. Even split to up that is a sum to keep food on the tables of families or one drunk in vice for no small amount of time. You'll find everypony here is more than willing to risk life and limb for the hunt, even die if need be."

"Uh, for the record, I'd much rather live..." groaned the mare who I'd kicked in the plot.

Her coltfriend looked at me, then at her, his expression measuring, before he called out, "Hey Double, what was the split gonna look like, again?"

"My sister and I found the bounty, so we get a finder's fee on top of the usual percentage so we'd be taking the higher cut, naturally. 40% is ours and the rest is yours to divvy up amongst yourselves."

"... That deals starting to look a lot less sweet than it did a little while ago when you were saying this was a sure thing."

A razor edge entered Trouble's voice as she screeched, "Oh go buck yourself, this is still a sure thing! Little dirt humper is just talking because he knows we've got him and his Drifter' pals cornered!"

The stallion had come over to his mare and had helped her up, letting her lean on him as he frowned deeply at me, then at his fellow bounty hunters, "Cornered, yeah, but they've still got fight in them and Gelda here is hurt. I'm thinking I'm out. This looked better when we were supposed to take them down fast and easy from ambush. Rather cut my losses and get my mare out of here."

I saw him turn, taking his hobbling marefriend with him towards the corridor. Then there was a green plasma flash that sent a bolt slamming straight into the back of his head. The mare, Gelda, gasped as the stallion who'd she'd just been leaning on turned liquid green and melted into a puddle of sludge right next to her before she could even blink. I gasped, horrified at what I'd just seen as Trouble laughed nastily.

"Nopony walks out on me and Double! You got that!? Anypony else wanna try skipping out on us!?"

I watched as Gelda put a hoof on the puddle that'd just been her coltfriend, trembling more than when I'd just kicked her in the groin. Her eyes were wide and teary, her mouth gaping.

Anger snapped through me and I suddenly cared a lot less about how tired and battered I was. Nevermind that seconds ago that stallion and I were enemies, or that I didn’t know him at all. Cold blooded murder still wasn’t something I was ever going to witness and not be affected by it. Why did Trouble even do that for!? Raiders I could understand pulling shit like that with so little provocation, but ponies living in the Inner City? Did crazy just spring up anywhere in the Wasteland, no matter what?

With a roar I leapt to my hooves and went around the pipes like a compacted furry ball of adrenaline fuelled fury. I don't think any of the bounty hunters were expecting any of these turns of events, as most of them were still dumbstruck by Trouble's murder of one of their own. None of them had the time to react to my sudden charge. Even Trouble, who saw me coming because she'd still been facing in the direction of her victim, had actually been aiming for Gelda first and didn’t have enough time to correct her aim, letting off a snap shot at me that flew by my shoulder. The magical emerald flame burned through golden gecko scales and seared my shoulder, but I focused past the pain and slammed into Trouble with my full weight.

I felt her lift off the ground as I continued forward and crunched her straight into the same bank of terminals that Crossfire had been using for cover. There was a crack of shattered glass as Trouble’s body smashed a terminal screen and she rolled off with a snarl, injured but hardly out of the fight. She’d kept a telekinetic grip on one of her plasma pistols and unholstered a boxy laser pistol as well, but before she could take aim I was back in her face, swinging with the electrical baton.

Trouble sacrificed her plasma pistol to block the baton, the discharge of lightning crackling over the pistol and causing some of its tubes to burst with vents of green fire. The small explosion forced me to flinch away for a moment, and Trouble got off a shot with her laser that burned my leg, causing it to buckle.

Double had backed up, firing with both rifle and shotgun at Crossfire who’d jumped from cover while I’d been tussling with Trouble to make a dash for Shard’s position. Crossfire evaded the shots by blinking a short distance once more, her teleport spell popping her next to where Shard had been wrestled to the ground by a bounty hunter who was trying to get a pistol aimed at Shard’s head. Crossfire’s rifle impaled that bounty hunter, the blade ripping through the stallion and erupting out his other side. Crossfire lifted him and the rifle together, aiming the barrel through the impaled bounty hunter and firing at another, who managed to roll out of the way.

As Crossfire shook the body off her rifle and pulled Shard to his hooves both ponies had to throw themselves against the bank of pipes as the only cover from both Double and the remaining bounty hunter’s gunfire while I still fought Trouble.

My wounded leg didn’t want to support my weight so I rolled forward instead and tripped Trouble’s legs up, causing the mare to swear profusely as she landed on her side. I didn’t waste a second, rolling over as well and slamming the baton towards Trouble’s barrel. The mare’s leathery hooves reached up and caught my swing, and she levitated her laser pistol towards my face. I batted the weapon with my hoof, knocking its aim off just enough for its red beam to sizzle harmlessly into the ceiling instead of my face.

Trouble swung a hoof and caught my jaw, causing spit and blood to fly out of my mouth, and in response I rolled atop her and slammed both hooves down into her chest, knocking the air from her lungs. There was little coordination or skill involved as we both started to pummel at each other, her ghoulish limbs smashing into my chest and face and my own hooves battering her barrel and smacking her head. We rolled around, exchanging who was on top or bottom several times in our constant storm of punching limbs. Each blow rattled my skull or strained my ribs, pain bursting through me with each punch, but I knew I was giving just as good as I was getting, perhaps better as I felt her slowing down and her punches weakening with every second.

I’d lost the electric baton somewhere in the scuffle, and she’d lost all concentration for levitating any weapons, so it came down simply to whose stamina would give out first in the contest of hoofticuffs.

My head was throbbing and I was feeling faint, blood dripping from my snout and mouth in steady red streams by the time I realized belatedly that I was on top of Trouble, and was the only one punching anymore. The ghoul bounty hunter’s face was even more blemished and purple than her normal necrotic flesh was meant to be, and even the metal plates bolted to one side of her face were dented, one having come loose to expose raw red muscle beneath.

She was alive and breathing, but her eyes were glazed and rolled up into her skull and she wasn’t resisting me anymore, having gone limp beneath me. I could feel a dull ache past the bleeding numbness of my hooves, and my chest felt as if it'd been worked over by somepony with a crowbar. My breaths were coming in raspy, pained gasps, and I was dizzy enough to feel the room itself tilting. I clearly wasn't much better off than Trouble was, but at least she seemed down for the count, so I rolled off her and glanced back towards the rest of the fight.

Things didn't look good.

Between Double and the remaining bounty hunters Shard and Crossfire were boxed in, the pair using bullet riddled utility closets as the last of their cover as gunfire sparked around them. Crossfire looked drained, her horn's magical aura flickering. All of that teleporting must have taken its toll. She was measuring her shots, forcing bounty hunters to keep back to their own cover, but I could tell from her slowed rate of fire that she must have been close to being out of ammo. Shard was worse off, his face pale and sweat slicking his mane and fur. Blood soaked through his leather vest and formerly white shirt from his shoulder wound and he was moving lethargically as he levitated his last knife, sending it weaving forward to slash at anypony who exposed themselves, but it was clear his slashes lacked strength as his own horn's magic flickered wanley much like Crossfire's. It wouldn't be long before the bounty hunters wore the two unicorn's out and would be able to charge in and finish the job, though from the blazing look of determination and snarling anger on Crossfire's sooty features she wouldn't go down without taking at least a few more bounty hunters to the everafter with her.

Double looked back and saw me laying next to the dazed and near unconscious body of his sister and I saw the ghoul stallion's features turn even more stiff and cold than I imagined they already were. His shotgun swung around and I had to scramble to get out of the way of the first shot that exploded a maintenance panel behind me.

"Keep the Drifter's pinned down," I heard Double command the other bounty hunters, "I'm going to bag this mark once and for all."

I had little choice but to dive away from another shotgun blast, buckshot tearing at my tail as I ran the length of the bank of pipes and went around the other side. The mare, Gelda, was still staring at the puddle remains of her coltfriend, hooves slick with the green slime, and I saw her body was shaking. I felt for her, but didn't know what to expect from the mare. Would she blame me and come after me again? She seemed off in her own world of shock and denial, for the moment at least.

I hear the mystical chime of magic and chanced a glance through the pipes to see Double levitating Trouble up and floated her over out of the way and into some cover. His voice was glacial as he said, "I don't much appreciate those who rough up my sibling. Rest assured I'll be taking special care to keep you alive, colt, but the bounty never said you had to have all your limbs still attached to you when you're brought in!"

I was out of weapons, out of breath, and near out of options. I had a clear path to the corridor that'd lead me back to the tunnels, where I could possibly run to link up with my friends, but that'd mean abandoning Crossfire and Shard. That wasn't an option for me. No matter how I felt about Crossfire I wasn't leaving her behind, and honestly Shard was growing on me. I didn't want to bury another pony before getting a chance to even get to know them.

My eyes wandered up to the pipes I was hiding behind. They were all old, but pretty solid for the decades of disuse. Still, the fighting had damaged a few of them, one dented inward, while another's top housing looked ready to fall off. Double was almost in the right spot, if I could just...

"Hey, whatever," I said, pouring some taunting mockery into my voice, "Your sis barely put up a fight before dropping like a sick, lame legged gecko. How much tougher can you be, the one without any balls between the pair?"

"You certainly are begging to have parts of you removed, aren't you?" Double hissed and took a menacing step forward, his shotgun now followed by a revolver in his magical aura as he kept my position covered. A few more steps would bring him to a spot where he could shoot me with ease, but before that his last step brought him to just the right spot for me to plant my forelegs down and buck upwards at an angle. My body sent surges of pain through me in protest, my injuries both slowing and weakening me, but luckily the strike of my hind hooves on the pipe with the flimsy top housing hit solidly.

The old, rusted screws holding the pipe in snapped off and the pipe went crashing down. Double bit out a sharp curse as he threw himself out of the way, or tried to, but the pipe crashed home before he could avoid it completely. The pipe smashed into his hind legs and pinned the stallion to the floor with a bone crunching noise that made me wince. However while Double was down, he was far from out. Howling in rage and agony he whipped his guns around, his magic levitating more from the holsters that were covering his barding, and in short order a storm of bullets from rifles, pistols, and shotguns alike battered my hiding spot. Sparks and ricochets showered around me and I forced myself prone, hooves covering my head as the lead hurricane tore the air above me.

Then I heard a voice, a beautiful and entirely welcome voice that left me grinning even with a storm of death flying above me.

“Estu dol griz sin mas! Calvary is being here now, ren solva!”

Arcaidia came charging into the fray, B.B and Binge flanking her. Each had a flicker of energy about them that I recognized as Arcaidia’s defensive barrier spell, so it wasn’t surprising when a few ricocheting rounds from Double flared and bounced of the shields as the mares entered the scene. Arcaidia’s starblaster floated at her side and she wasted no time, silver eyes locking onto Double as she fired a brilliant white beam that would have hit the stallion squarely in the chest if he hadn’t hastily floated one of his rifles in the path, the weapon turning into a charred husk.

B.B flew off to the left, coming in behind the surprised bounty hunters on that side of the room as the pegasus winged towards the ceiling and then fired down from on high, her bracer revolvers sending lead fury at the exposed ponies below.

Binge, cackling in her usual mad fashion, hopped that direction as well and I saw her tail had once more the deadly and downright insane looking knife-whip attached to it, only now its handle was made from a length of leather bound femur bone and the knives were more evenly spaced. She was wearing her spiked security armor, giving Binge the look of a green giggling demon more than a pony as she bounced towards the bounty hunters and like a playful cat lashed her tail around. The bladed whip flew with almost impossible, snake-like accuracy to fillet a chunk of flesh from an unsuspecting bounty hunter, whose scream made my teeth rattle.

Double, despite his crushed legs, managed to pry the pipe off of him with his magic while firing a volley of shotgun and pistol rounds towards the advancing Arcaidia. Her horn cast the entire room in a rime glow of deep blue and I felt the temperature plummet and saw the ground frost over with ice. A blue pillar of crystalline ice rose up from the ground in front of Arcaidia and absorbed the bullets coming her way. She then made a flicking gesture with her horn and the pillar broke off from the ground and levitated up, turning horizontal like an oversized javelin, and she hurled it at Double. He just barely managed to raise the pipe I’d dropped on him to knock the ice shard away, but it clearly took most of his magic to do so as he lost his telekinetic grip on most of his arsenal and the guns began to clatter to the floor.

The bounty hunters were confused and taken utterly off guard by the arrival of my friends, and Crossfire and Shard took full advantage of the fact to break from cover and plough through the line of the now disorganized Wild Bunch. Crossfire’s rifle twisted about like a boomerang, cutting the legs out from under one mare while Shard dug his knife into the shoulder of another as both of them broke through the ranks of bounty hunters and rushed towards where B.B and Binge were.

In seconds the fight had turned completely around, with the Wild Bunch being forced back and cornered, most of them rushing into cover to avoid B.B’s pistols and Binge’s seeking knife whip, while only being able to send back a few scattered shots in response.

Double had managed to crawl his way back behind the now mostly destroyed computer terminal bank where he’d left his unconscious sister, a few streaking shots from Arcaidia’s starblaster chasing him back there.

Soon B.B landed near where I was standing, Binge right behind her. At the end of the corridor I saw Braindead peek his head into the room, scared eyes looking at us as if to confirm none of us were dead. He seemed content to stay out in the tunnel and wait, despite the nod I gave him.

“You doin’ alright there, Long?” she asked.

“Alive. Surprisingly few holes in me, all things considered,” I said, coughing and spitting out some blood, “Uhh, gonna swell up like a bad allergic reaction in a few hours, and probably look more purple than your dress, but I’ll live.”

“Bucky, do I get to play with the catatonic little filly over here, huh huh huh!?” Binge asked excitedly while pointing at Gelda.

“No, uh, leave her be Binge. She’s... really out of it,” I said, not sure what else to say about the mare who was still blankly staring at her lover’s remains. It was a small miracle she hadn’t been hit by any of the exchanging fire, really.

Arcaidia, erecting a small ice wall for her own cover from the very sporadic return fire from the bounty hunters, glanced towards me calmly. “We here now, we finish dumb ponies that attack you? I can freeze whole room shut if need be.”

Crossfire, who had taken cover with Shard next to us by the edge of the room’s central pipes, gave us a hard look, “Best we finish the lot of them off now. This isn’t all of the Wild Bunch. Not even half. Double and Trouble probably just snagged any of the group they could easily talk into coming down here, but if any live to get word back to the Bounty Guild then we’ll have a lot more ponies gunning for us.”

“Wild Bunch?” asked B.B, “Why’s that name ringin’ a small bell wit me?”

“They sound like a breakfast cereal,” said Binge, tittering, “Party of a complete bloodletting.”

“One of the biggest bounty hunter teams in the Guild,” Crossfire said, “All quantity but no quality. They just succeed by overwhelming marks with numbers. Most of them are scum. Nopony’s going to miss them.”

She said this while eyeing the catatonic Gelda, and I found myself gritting my teeth as I said, “Look, just let me try talking this through again. Nopony else has to die today.”

Crossfire snorted, but waved a hoof, “Knock yourself out, but killing them will be easier.”

I cleared my throat and called out, loudly, “Double! Hey, you still conscious!?”

After a second I heard him respond in a voice tight with pain, “I am.”

He didn’t seem inclined to say more. I think even he realized just how tenuous his situation had just become and how rapidly the situation had just changed. Just moments ago he and his fellow bounty hunters had a trio of tired and wounded ponies cornered and at the ends of their proverbial ropes, but with the sudden arrival of allies fresh to the fight with powerful weapons and magic that suddenly turned the whole situation around. Now it was the Wild Bunch that was tired, wounded, and cornered, if still not outnumbered. Knowing this I think he was waiting for me to make whatever pitch I was going to make.

I wasn’t even sure I knew what pitch I was going to make, but I wanted to talk this out if I could and prevent any more loss of life. I’d seen more than enough ponies die for one twenty four hour period, thank you very much.

“I’m willing to give you my word that I’ll let you, your sister, and anypony else still breathing back there go. I’ll even toss a few health potions onto the deal to make sure anypony who’s critically wounded can, if not walk out, at least surviving being carried out.”

“And what, pray tell, are you going to demand in return for such a magnanimous proposal?” he queried back, voice wary.

My brain worked quickly, picking itself for several key details about this whole affair, “First of all; tell me who tipped you off that Crossfire was taking me down these tunnels.”

“An anonymous source I’m afraid,” he replied, “And before you ask, no I can’t prove that to you. The pony, if it was a pony, who contacted us did so via radio and kept his or her voice hidden with some kind of scrambler. All I can tell you is that the first tip to your plans came a few hours ago, and we didn’t know you were coming into the tunnel until half an hour ago, just enough time to set up the ambush. Whoever informed us must have been watching you closely, colt, to keep us up to date on your movements so thoroughly.”

What did that mean? Was somepony spying on us? Whoever they were they must have been watching us since we arrived at the Skull Guild headquarters. But who there knew about the plan to have Crossfire turn me in at the Bounty Guild and could follow us once we’d left?

“I’m smellin’ a’ rat,” muttered B.B, “Knew somethin’ weren’t right when ya’ll got bushwhacked down here.”

Binge chuckled, “Lots of eyes saw us in the ghouly pony’s Guild. Any of them could have followed us. Ooooh, maybe there’s more than one? Spies can work in teams too.”

“Doesn’t matter for now,” I said, “I was just curious if he had a name. Okay, Double, next thing; I need you all to disarm.”

It was almost a full minute, and I heard whispering wafting from over their way, before I heard Double say, “If we do what’s to stop you from slaughtering us?”

Crossfire groaned, rolling her eyes, “What’s to stop us from slaughtering you right now, asshole?”

“... Fair point, Miss Crossfire. Very well.”

There were numerous clatters as weapons got tossed our way, or at least to the ground between us and the bounty hunters.

“Right,” I said, “Last thing, I want all of you to come this way, slowly, one at a time, and once we’re all in a nice, big happy group, we can talk face to face and tend to each other’s wounds, because I’m not going to do this whole damned negotiation thing while shouting across a room!”

----------

About fifteen minutes later we were all gathered in one patchwork group out in the tunnel. Weapons had been gathered into a pile behind us while the bounty hunters were allowed to tend to their wounds. Double was mostly focused on his sister, who was conscious now and giving me a glare suggesting she was considering all the different ways she might skin me, but was keeping quiet at her brother’s insistence.

Off to the side I had B.B checking over Gelda, who was still uncomfortably unresponsive.

“How is she?” I asked as I trotted up to B.B, who’d been using a small flashlight to check the other mare’s pupils. B.B looked at me, features washed in gray shadows from the irregular light of several unicorn horns in the dark tunnel.

“In shock, but I’m guessin’ that’s now what yer askin’,” she said, wings fluttering as she floated back from the other mare, “She ain’t badly hurt none, but ain’t much I can say ‘bout her mental state. She’ll either snap outta it, or not, dependin’ on just how bad her loss is an’ how tough her heart is. Nothin’ I can do on a medical end, sorry Long.”

“It’s fine, I know you’d do all you could if it was possible,” I said, giving Gelda a worried look, “Just keep an eye on her while I talk with Double about what we’re doing here.”

“Will do, Long.”

The bounty hunters were being covered closely by Crossfire and Arcaidia, the two mares both sharing an almost disturbingly similar look of hard detachment as they kept their weapons trained on the surviving ponies of the Wild Bunch, who numbered only seven now, including Double and Trouble. I hadn’t been sure of their numbers at the start of the fight, but I guessed over a dozen ponies lay dead between the platform where the ambush had started and the maintenance room where it had ended. A lot of dead ponies for a mere eight thousand cap bounty, and a part of me felt a weight hooked into my chest like a barb wondering if this could have been avoided. Maybe if I came up with a better plan?

I took in and let out a deep breath, shoving back hard against those doubts. I had to focus on the present situation, which was still incredibly tenuous.

Double wasn’t exactly in any condition to stand. His back legs had been broken by the pipe I’d dropped on him, and though Arcaidia had at my request helped with a little healing magic it was clear he’d need to be carried out of here. He was currently propped up with his back leaning against the rubble pile in the middle of the tunnel, his now conscious sister standing next to him. Her face was like a tenderized piece of rotten meat, and it reminded me keenly of how bad off I was as well. Even with a healing potion and a zap of Arcaidia’s magic my entire body was bruised and sore. Every movement came slow and lethargic, with aching waves of pain. Arcaidia had explained to me that her magic still relied on my body’s own vitality to help it heal, and after all the injuries that I’d healed already from the fight with the Hyadean monsters in the Skull Guild’s basement my body was reaching the point where magic just couldn’t keep up with my rate of injury.

“Well, we all look like we’re having a pretty lousy day, don’t we?” I said to the two bounty hunter ghouls, “I don’t know about the two of you but I think I’ve reached my quota of being punched, shot, electrocuted, and exploded for one day. So here’s what I’m thinking. I still need to get to the Bounty Guild, and don’t really need anypony here tipping them off that Crossfire turning me in is actually a big ruse. She seems of the opinion we ought to put bullets in all of you and call it a day. I’m more inclined to think that’s not necessary. Now I don’t trust either of you further than I could throw you, which in the condition I’m in right now wouldn't be far at all. Here’s my solution that keeps you all breathing, and eliminates the need for me to actually trust any of you not to blab to the Bount Guild; we’re going to put you back into that maintenance room. Then Arcaidia’s going to freeze over the entrance. We’ll leave you some food and water to last a day or two, by which point Arcaidia assures me the magical ice will melt gradually on its own. By the time you get back to the Bounty Guild my friends and I will be long gone and then... well I suppose if you’re so damned desperate for revenge or whatever we can do this dance again. Maybe next time I won’t be able to stop my friends from killing you. Maybe I’ll be stuck doing it myself, because Ancestor Spirits know I’ve been stuck doing that several times already, much as I hate it. So, there’s the plan. Any questions?”

“Yeah, how much of a utter dumbfuck are you?” snarled Trouble, “You think this is over? The Wild Bunch won’t put up with anypony who’s fucked with us! This wasn’t even a quarter of the whole crew! Soon as we get back and tell the boss what you did, you’re a dead pony!”

I looked at her with tired, yet unwavering eyes, my voice strained by steady, “Might be you’re right and I’ll have to deal with you lot again, but I’m wondering, if your boss is going to care so much about the ponies killed today, what they’ll think about the fact that you murdered one of your own?”

That caused Trouble to blink then lose a touch of her ire as uncertainty spread over her face like a dark cloud, “Wrench was breaking contract! I had every right to off him for trying to skip out in the middle of a fight!”

“Well, that’ll be between you and your boss,” I said dryly, glancing at the other tired, wounded, and less than happy looking bounty hunters, “I’m just thinking that since this ambush was clearly you and your brother’s idea, and it’s cost this ‘Wild Bunch’ a lot of lives, that maybe the two of you should seriously consider how that’s going to reflect on you before you start making declarations about what the Wild Bunch is going to do to me. None of these ponies would’ve died today if you hadn’t come after me.”

“That’s part of the risk of the job,” said Double, grimacing, “Boss Holdem will understand that.”

He didn’t sound quite as convinced as I think he wanted to, but I wasn’t going to argue with him about it. It took a few minutes, but once the bounty hunter’s wounds were taken care of, at least to the point where we could be sure none of them would perish from blood loss or infection in the near future, we led them back into the maintenance room. We’d cleared the bodies out along with the weapons, so the place was mostly clear, and my friends and I double checked to make sure there was no other way out other than the short corridor.

The only pony we didn’t put in there was Gelda, who was too catatonic for my taste and I wanted to make sure was looked after. Arcaidia lit up her horn and I watched as she filled the open space the door had once occupied with a crystalline wall of ice as thick as my leg.

“You sure it’ll melt after a day or two?” I asked her, “I don’t want to leave them there to starve.”

Arcaidia snorted, holding her head high, “I know my magic much good, ren solva. Ice hold strong for at least thirty six of day hours, then melt so stupid bounty ponies can be free.”

She eyed me critically, expression pensive as she scrunched her nose slightly,”You not look very much of healthy. I think resting good idea before resuming plan.”

“We don’t have a lot of time, but yeah, I could use a moment to catch my breath,” I said, trotting back to the group.

“What’re we doin’ wit her?” asked B.B, one wing gently gesturing Gelda’s way.

Shard was the one who actually answered that first, “Electrum would probably be willing to look after her, if I asked.”

Crossfire looked at him sidelong, “Yeah, and would Electrum also keep the mare from wandering back to the Bounty Guild once she gets her senses back? She’s as much a danger as the rest of them.”

“If we explain the situation I think Electrum could keep her for at least as long as that ice is going to hold the others,” said Shard. He had put his black scarf mask back on, so those tattoos of his weren’t exposed, but I still wondered just what they were or where I’d seen them before.

“Okay,” I said, stepping forward, “B.B, Shard, will the two of you take her back to Electrum, then? We’ll rest up here until you finish, then we’ll resume heading for the Bounty Guild.”

With our plan of action set, I sat and watched as B.B and Shard led Gelda away back the way we’d come down the tunnel. The bounty hunter mare would walk if led, but her head was perpetually hung, eyes staring dully at the ground. I could understand to a degree. I’d gone into a similar state of shock when Shale had died. I tried to imagine how much worse that feeling would have been if the pony I lost was also one I loved. I whispered a quick prayer for her.

As Arcaidia had suggested the rest of us took some time to rest. Binge had found a perch on top of the rubble pile and was curled up there like a big cat, while Crossfire lay against one side of the tunnel and was cleaning her rifle and reloading ammunition clips. Braindead couldn’t seem to stay still, pacing about and constantly shifting his gaze around the tunnel. By the time Shard and B.B returned, reporting that Electrum had been willing to take in Gelda, I was only feeling marginally better in terms of my wounds, but I wasn’t quite as dizzy and ready for collapse as I had been.

I’d retrieved the stun baton before we’d sealed up the maintenance room and I’d spent most of the hour or so we’d been resting fiddling with it. The weapon seemed to have an easy, rubber grip that had a trigger underneath the rubber that if I bit down activated the twin electrically charged magic crystals that extended from the one end. The other end had a cap that if I opened it revealed a plug in for a small gem battery, near identical to the ones I’d seen fueling the magical energy weapons Odessa used. The baton itself was collapsable so it could fit easily into a pocket, then just be extended with a simple flicking motion.

“New toy?” asked B.B, noticing me fiddling with the weapon. Showing it to her the pegasus gave me a small smile. “Suits ya. Not a’ bad idea ta git armed wit somethin’ fer when you don’t got the super-spear to rely on.”

I felt a small stab of embarrassment, glancing away, “Do I really rely on Gramzanber that much?”

Crossfire huffed out a short laugh, “You barely took the damn thing off for most of the time I’ve seen you. So what’s the story with that? ARMs can be found in a lot of the Ruins around Skull City, but you’re the only one I’ve seen that wasn’t with Odessa that could use one without being killed by it after a few days.”

“I don’t know why I can use it,” I said, not wanting to really explain anything to Crossfire beyond that. I especially didn’t want to talk about my increasingly short expiration date. So far as I knew only Arcaidia knew about that, and I didn’t want my other companions to worry. “Maybe I’m just lucky.”

“Lucky isn’t among the words I’d use to describe you,” commented Crossfire with a half-smirk. Then to my surprise the smirk faded and she let out a long sigh, looking away from me as she said, “Suppose I’ll add ‘stupidly loyal’ to the list. You could’ve left me and Shard, back there, when the fight got bad. Smarter ponies would’ve made a break for the door when the opening presented itself.”

She looked back at me then, golden eyes unreadable, “Why didn’t you?”

I just stared back at her, “How am I supposed to answer that? Do I need a reason to not abandon ponies to death?”

“We’re not friends,” Crossfire said sharply, “So don’t act like you have a reason to care if we died.”

I rolled my eyes, “Fine, then if it fits your worldview better, assume I didn’t abandon you because I still need you for this plan of mine to work. That answer more to your liking?”

She was silent for a long few seconds, eyes locked with mine, before she shrugged and went back to working on her rifle. She didn’t say anything more and I couldn’t tell exactly what she thought. I almost wished I could read thoughts, just to pick at whatever was going on inside her head, but a part of me was afraid of what I might find.

Not long after that we were getting ready to move once again. We’d need to scale the pile of rubble to get to the other side of the tunnel, then according to Crossfire the tram tunnel would go on for another ten or twenty minutes before we’d hit a opening back to street level that would just be one short block away from the Bounty Guild.

“Before we go,” I said, jerking my head back the way we’d come, “I just need to answer a quick call of nature.”

“Make it fast,” Crossfire said.

“An’ be careful,” cautioned B.B, “These tunnels don’t smell right.”

“I’m just going to that restroom on the last platform,” I said, “If a creepy crawly comes out of the shadows while I’m watering the wall I’m pretty sure I’ll scream loud enough for you guys to hear it.”

It was only a couple of minutes to get to the platform, and I cringed at the bodies that were still strewn about both in the tunnel and on the platform itself. I wished there was something we could do to lay these poor ponies to proper rest, but we just didn’t have the time, not to mention any soft ground for burial. I paused, being cautious as B.B had warned as I went into the restroom, listening carefully for any unusual noises. I especially watched my E.F.S. I needed to get used to paying more attention to it, but it was always so periphery that I’d sort of learned to tune it out, especially in a place like Skull City with so many ponies on it that crowded the E.F.S with dots.

Relieving myself didn’t take long, but I certainly didn’t want to be bothered by this after I was turned in at the Bounty Guild. I somehow doubted whoever in the Labor Guild wanted me would allow me a rest break like this.

When I saw one of the yellow dots from my cluster of companions getting closer I didn’t think much of it other than to be vaguely curious. Finishing up I trotted back to the platform to see Braindead clambering up onto the platform as well.

“Braindead?” I asked, “What’re you doing?”

He looked at me, eyes wavering like little ghost lights, “Just thought I’d keep an eye on you, in case something popped up, you know? I, uh, I didn’t do much to help in the fight, so I figured...”

I chuckled, “Hey, no worries. Are you even armed? Probably smart to hang back in a fight like that. I’m surprised you even wanted to come along.”

He looked away, black coat blending so well into the shadows it was like watching a wild shock of talking yellow mane, “Yeah, well... I had to do something. Had to get... get away. From Waunita.”

I approached him, and he met me halfway on the platform. I could tell he tense he was, wound like a spring practically. Why was he always so nervous? Something was tickling my brain, a thought that was trying to get from the subconscious to the forefront of my brain, but just wasn’t getting there fast.

“What’s wrong with Waunita?” I asked, trying to focus on that stray, unformed thought.

Braindead’s ears drooped down, practically plastering to his skull, “You wouldn’t understand. Can’t just shut it off. Its... you don’t know how hard it is just standing here talking to you. It's like there’s a thousand little hooks in my brain, all pulling in different ways, all of them wanting to hurt something. There’s a reason Raiders don’t go back, don’t try to live normal; we really can’t. Not after what we do. Not after living like that. I don’t know how Binge is fooling you so well, and I just... I can’t stand the way Waunita looks at me now that she knows. I’d almost rather get shot at than deal with her eyes.”

I wasn’t at all sure what I could say to that, my tail flicking around as my brain tried to understand and not really being able to. Raiders had been a wretched mystery for me since day one of running into my first ones. I could never wrap my head around why they were so brutally, almost mindlessly violent, yet still seemed to have a cognitive understanding of just how messed up they were. It didn’t seem remotely sensible that ponies could even end up like that, even under the worst of conditions, but then I hadn’t lived my entire life in the harsh conditions of the Wasteland where food and water were luxuries and violence the easier way to survive than cooperation. Even cooperation had its hefty, harsh price, as evidence by the way the Marshals gang ran their turf in the Outskirts with brutal law. The Labor Guild could enslave ponies without reprisal, and even a good natured pony like Knobs was part of an organization that basically enslaved feral ghouls for labor.

Perhaps I was the crazy one, and the Raiders were closer to the true nature of things than I understood. It was a painful and unpleasant thought as I looked at Braindead, a Raider who was wrestling with even controlling his thoughts while among us “normal” ponies.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said, “I can’t pretend to understand. Waunita told me she was a captive of Raiders, once, and I’ve seen what Raider dens are like. I’ve seen what Raiders do.” I gulped, “It’s not something I think I can understand. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be...” he said, hoof rubbing at his chest and his face grimacing, as if in pain, “Nothing you can do about it. Nothing I can do about it. Everything was fucked for me since I was born, no reason this should be any different. We’d better get back to the others.”

He gestured for me to lead the way, and I didn’t think about it as I trotted past him. If I’d been paying better attention then perhaps I would have seen his yellow dot on my E.F.S flicker to red before he’d already reached into my saddlebag with his mouth. I turned, surprised and about to ask what he thought he was doing, but by then he’d already snapped out the stun baton he’d lifted from my bags and the electric crystals flashed blue.

He shoved the baton straight between my eyes, the electric discharge so white it felt as if the sun had been shoved into my eyes. There was no pain, just a sudden, utter disconnect from my body. I didn’t feel my body hitting the ground, but I could see the world go vertical as I crumpled. I could see my forelegs twitching around in front of me.

Blackness edged around my vision and the last thing I heard before passing out was Braindead speaking, but clearly not to me.

“Its me... yes Redwire, I have him.”

----------

Footnote: Level Up!

Perk Gained - Hit the Deck!: Things have been exploding around you a lot lately. Your increasingly intimate relationship with hostile explosions has taught you how to better survive them. You gain +25 DT against all explosion damage.

Author's Note:

It seems an unspoken rule with me that if I want to keep a chapter short, it will inevitably become one of the longest in the story. I just had a lot I wanted to fit in here. Longwalk's first glimpse of his father, the introduction of the Protectorate princess, more Longwalk and Binge awkwardness (this time as a shower sequence), then the inevitable complications in the tunnels beneath Skull City. A lot to get in but I'm pretty satisfied with it, hopefully you guys were too.

For this chapter update's side-story spotlight I'm going to be highlighting one of the earlier fics I'd started reading; Fallout Equestria: Brotherhood. This story is one of the few third-person written tales in the fandom and the author, Noakwolf, does a pretty decent job of telling a story about two oddly named brothers searching for their mother. It recently completed as well, so there's a bonus for you folks that are looking for a finished story to sink your teeth into.

As always my thanks goes out to KKat for the creation of the Fallout Equestria setting, and to my prereaders doomande and refferee, without whom there'd be a lot more typos and errors I'd be missing.

Also as always I'm open to all comments, questions, and critiques. Until next time, folks.

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