• Published 30th Oct 2019
  • 388 Views, 33 Comments

Fallout Equestria ABC: Dangers of the Wasteland - Doomande



Surviving in the Wasteland is as easy as ABC... or is it?

  • ...
4
 33
 388

A is for assimilate. The Goddess will come for you Unicorns should not tempt fate

It was raining today. I suppose that wasn’t the best sign of things to come. Either way, this was already going to be an… excessively dark day.

I laid on my back, staring up at the steel ceiling of our boxcar home. I traced my gaze along the rusted out holes and missing rivets that leaked with a steady drip from the torrent outside. A steady plink, plink, plink sounded from the small puddle forming on the floor next to our bed. We’d wanted to get it fixed for some time, but even just those few pieces of scrap metal we would need to patch it seemed like a luxury far beyond our reach. Maybe if I shut my eyes for just a few more moments, I’d wake up and realize that this was all some massively screwed up dream.

A small motion from to my right banished any hope that would be the case. I turned onto my side, watching the mound next to me shuffle beneath the blanket. A few moth-eaten holes in the cloth revealed a beautiful, ash-colored coat. I smiled as I wrapped a foreleg around the mound and pulled the mare close against my chest.

“Mrrmph,” Tender Soot mumbled sleepily, but nestled closer to me. My smile widened as I nuzzled into her black and white mane, breathing deep the subtle scent of smoke and oil. Perhaps not generally thought of as the most pleasant of perfumes, but one that was just so undeniably hers. I cherished every moment of it.

These small moments of peace were what made this all worth it, and allowed us to get out of bed every morning, to trudge out into that unforgiving hellscape, to tune out the pleas and wails of your fellow ponies, to ignore every nagging sense of right or wrong as you try to make it through and start it all over again tomorrow.

For as long as I’d cared to remember, it had always been the two of us against the Wasteland, but that was all about to change. Hesitantly I lowered my hoof, trailing it through the meadow of her chest fluff until I bumped into the base of a hill. With a shaky breath, my hoof scaled the mound before coming to rest on its peak. A small movement rippled beneath her coat and my heart stopped. Steeling myself, I gently massaged across Tender’s swollen stomach until the movement beneath relaxed and subsided.

My family deserved to get a little more sleep.

With a smothered yawn, I turned back over on the mattress and pulled myself from the intoxicating warmth. I stood up onto the steel floor, stretching each of my legs in turn and prepared to start the day.

As quietly as I could, I walked over to a small stove and turned on the gas. My horn burst into light as a quick spell sent our dented, old coffee pot under the spout of water leaking from the roof. After it was filled I placed it atop the stove and another spell sent a small spark into the gas line, igniting the burner. Setting the water to boil, I turned toward an old storage cabinet mounted on the wall and pulled out a small, metal tin.

Inside were a couple of mesh tea infusers and a clump of dried leaves. I sighed dejectedly as I loaded each infuser with a small pinch and placed them in a couple of cracked mugs. For a brief moment, I glanced back at my flank and gazed longingly at the image of a fresh, steaming cup of coffee next an intricate, porcelain carafe framed with the light tan backdrop of my coat. Brewing the perfect hot beverage had always been my talent, but there was something particularly special about making the perfect cup of coffee.

I so desperately missed the smell, the taste. Grinding the beans, boiling the water to just the right temperature, and ensuring the golden ratio of water to coffee that brought that perfect balance of bold roast and light acidity. My mouth was already watering at the mental image.

Tender loved my coffee almost as much I did, but had sworn off it when we’d found out she was pregnant. She repeatedly said she’d have no issue with me drinking it, but that seemed so unfair to the mare who was so readily willing to carry our foal. So in solidarity with her, I’d followed suit. Tea was… almost as good. Besides, it was a lot cheaper and we needed every cap we could save.

An instinctive part of my brain twinged just as the water began to boil. I waited a few more moments, knowing innately the exact moment to remove it from the heat. The coffee pot shot into the air as the moment passed, and I swiftly filled each of our mugs. Instantly the water turned a pale brown as the tea began to steep. A mix of floral and earthy notes wafted up from the mugs and I inhaled daintily, savoring the scent. It might not have been coffee, but every hot beverage was tantalizing in its own unique way.

“Am I interrupting something?” a sultry, yet slightly mocking voice said from behind me.

I jumped, and instantly felt a searing pain splash across my muzzle. I yelped and quickly wiped away the scalding liquid. I hadn’t even noticed that I’d brought one of the mugs directly beneath my nose as I’d been smelling it.

After setting the mug down, I turned around and my vision was dominated by my wife. Her soft, ashen coat glimmered, even in the dim light of our boxcar. The tangles of her black and white mane cascaded down around her face, framing that gorgeous visage like a piece of fine art. Her forest green eyes contained nothing but adoration and warmth. Every bit of it was directed at me. There was concern in her eyes, but also a hoof in front of her mouth, doubtless hiding an amused smirk.

“Are… *snrk* are you okay, love?” Tender asked, stepping forward and investigating my rapidly reddening nose.

“If you were looking for a well done stallion, you might want to cook me a little more,” I said jokingly.

Tender leaned in close, sniffing softly, “Mmm, I think you smell delicious just as you are.” She batted her eyes seductively.

“Then how about you have a taste,” I responded in a breathy whisper as I leaned toward her in turn.

She giggled quietly just before our lips met. Forget every single thing I’ve mentioned about coffee, there wasn’t a roast on Equus that compared to this feeling.

All too quickly, Tender pulled back from the kiss, but offered the most loving stare in return. “Good morning, Espresso,” she whispered delicately.

“Good morning, Tender Soot,” I responded, then smacked my lips thoughtfully. “Hm, you’ll have to give Ladle my compliments. That really is an excellent stew.”

She giggled again. Goddess above, if her laugh was the last thing I ever heard in this life, then no amount of damnation would ever tear the smile from my face.

“What do you mean?” she asked quizzically. “You had some of it too didn't y-” she cut herself off and the smile disappeared. Instead, a look of frustration grew across her gorgeous face. My stomach sank as I realized that I’d just outed myself.

Tender took a shaky breath before continuing, “You didn’t eat again, did you?”

“O-of course I did,” I stuttered unconvincingly. “Ladle had some scrap barley left over from the stew and I had that. It was more than enough to fill me up so I figured you could have both of our serv-”

“Don’t bullshit me,” Tender snapped. “With how little food there is right now, Ladle isn’t even throwing away old corn husks much less perfectly edible barley! I won’t stand for you lying to me!”

I winced at the outburst, tearing my gaze from her and staring guiltily at the floor.

Tender took another deep breath before wrapping a foreleg around my neck and pulling me into a hug. “You can’t keep doing this, love,” she said calmly. “I know things are tight, but that’s no excuse for you to starve yourself.”

I nuzzled into the crook of her neck, “You remember what the doctor said, you need every scrap of food you can get right now. You’re eating for two, I can afford to miss a couple meals if it means I can feed you and our… um… our-”

“Our foal,” Tender finished. Her smile returned as she took hold of my hoof and pulled it back toward her stomach, holding it there.

“Yeah, our… foal,” I repeated, disbelief laden in my tone. The life Tender carried chose that moment to make themselves known, kicking softly beneath her coat. I almost pulled away, but the gentle strength in my wife’s grip kept me there, embracing the entirety of my family. “Wow,” I whispered.

“Yeah,” Tender said, “get used to saying it, knucklehead, we’re gonna be parents before you know it.”

“It still just feels so… surreal, you know,” I said, gazing longingly at her stomach.

“I know,” she said warmly, then pulled back and socked me on the shoulder.

“Ouch,” I said, reeling back more in surprise than in pain. “What was that for?”

Tender’s smile didn’t disappear, but there was a hardness in her gaze. Ironically, kind of like a mother that’d just caught her foal sneaking candy, “You can’t keep skipping meals. You think you’re doing it for my sake, but you’re going to be a father soon. What do you expect us to do if you keel over from starvation? How do you expect to survive the job today if you’re so hungry that you can’t think straight?” She turned away from me, and I could hear the hurt start to creep into her tone, “Now that I think about it, you’re in no shape to go gallivanting across the Wasteland. I’m going to go tell Trail Boss right now that you’re staying home, they can find somepony else to take your place and-”

I sighed, of course I should have known that this conversation was going to come up again. She’d use any excuse to keep me home today, but I couldn’t let that happen. I walked up behind Tender and hugged her, pulling her head against my chest. A subtle dampness started to spread across my coat as her silent tears dried in my fur.

“Sweetheart, we’ve talked about this,” I began, pulling her closer. “Even if you could work in your condition, that last raid tore up the track for miles, nopony knows how long it will be until the rail lines are repaired. There’s not much need for an engineer with no trains to run.” I lifted her chin, locking our gazes as I smiled, “And even less for some two-bit barista like me. We need food in the pantry, a roof that doesn’t leak, a crib, toys, diapers, Goddess-knows what else the little tyke will need, and enough caps to last us until we can start working again. I need to do this.”

Tender didn’t argue, just broke our gazes and turned away.

“Hey,” I said soothingly, taking hold of her chin and bringing her eyes back to meet mine. A small, white glow appeared beneath her eyes as I wiped away the tears. I planted a soft kiss on her forehead, “Everything is going to be fine, I promise.”

“Y-you can’t promise that,” she said shakily. “You know what they’re like. I just wish that we didn’t have to have anything to do with… them.” Tender spat the last word like it was made of venom.

“We’ve been trading with them for years,” I countered. “Their operation wouldn’t be nearly as big if we hadn’t been involved, so it’s not like we’re blameless. But they’re giving us a chance to keep the town moving until we’re all back on our hooves again. I don’t like what they do any more than you, but unless we want to abandon New Appleoosa, we don’t have another choice. You heard Trail Boss, everypony in the community has to do their part if we want to survive. Not much need for a barista, but I’ve got a working horn and can handle a gun. That’s all they need.”

“I know, I know,” Tender said despondently. “It’s the smart thing to do, but we’re talking about selling ponies! How could we have ever agreed to this? Don’t we have any compassion for them?”

“All we’re doing is taking them to Fillydelphia, dropping them off, and coming right back. That’s all,” I tried to reassure her. “And yes, I feel for them,” I gently rubbed my hoof along her cheek, “but I’m more worried about my family starving. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

She fell quiet again, but nodded her head in reserved acquiescence.

“Ok,” I said, giving her one last hug before stepping back and offering her one of the steaming mugs. “Now come on, drink up before it gets cold. You know how much I hate that.”

Tender wiped her eyes and took the mug, settling down beside me as I started sipping at my own. “You know I’m going to nail your tail to the floor before I let you out that door without breakfast, right?”

“Yes, love,” I said, leaning my head to the side and resting my cheek against hers. “Whatever you say.”

-----

The rain hadn’t let up much by the time we were done with breakfast, a modest portion of stale biscuits, but with the added indulgent of some apple preserves. The last scrapings of a jar we weren’t likely to see more of for some time, but Tender had insisted I have the taste of home on my tongue before we left. A little extra motivation to make it back safe and sound.

I suited up in the old canvas barding I’d worn when Tender and I had been on the road, before we found New Appleoosa and been accepted into the community. My trusty .357 revolver dangled in a holster on my hip. I’d thought so naively that I’d never need to take up the burden of a firearm every again. Up until recently, the few guards that would volunteer, and our resident pegasus defender, had been more than enough to keep the town safe.

I’d been able to concentrate on setting up a little cafe, just like I’d always wanted. Tender was overjoyed to find a working rail line, even if it was primarily for delivering supplies to an outpost of slavers. At long last it seemed like we could put the horrors of the wasteland behind us, and we could finally focus on the talents that made us who we are.

As if any happiness were more than just a fleeting whimsy on the radioactive winds.

We descended the staircase leading down from our boxcar, a large, rusting orange shipping container stacked atop another blue one below. Tender batted away my hoof when I tried to offer some support, although the look on her face let me know she was… mostly joking. Despite being in the final months of her pregnancy, Tender refused to show any sign of helplessness. Even when she was waddling precariously down the ramshackle steps.

After arriving at the ground floor, I couldn’t help but look at the boxcar sitting beneath our home. It didn’t look terribly special, aside from some simple lettering painted on the side.

Rail Line Roasters.

I smiled wistfully at my cafe, trying desperately to mask the sorrow that steeped in my heart. I could almost hear the sounds of the percolators and smell the smoky, sweet scent of the fresh ground coffee beans. My thoughts swirled into memories of serving the citizens of Appleoosa, knowing the only thing that pulled them from the comfort of their beds was the promise of a hot, gourmet cup of coffee. It was my greatest source of pride, knowing that my talent kickstarted the day for our entire community.

Tender’s hoof on my shoulder broke me free from the bittersweet reverie. I turned toward her, only now noticing the subtle burning at the corners of my eyes.

She smiled so sweetly up at me, “We’ll have it open again soon. This is just a bump in the road.”

“Yeah,” I agreed quietly, though not as confidently as I would have liked. I wiped a foreleg across my eyes as we turned away from our home and started heading toward the center of town.

A few dozen ponies had already begun to gather, with only a soft murmuring breaking the silence. It almost seemed like everypony was trying their hardest not to disturb the quiet of the morning. Maybe they felt if we didn’t mention what we were all about to be party to, then maybe it would be like it never really happened.

There were a few notable absences from the gathering. Crane and most of the rail line workers weren’t there, more than likely having set out before first light to work on the torn up tracks. The ghoul mare that ran the general store, Ditzy Doo, was absent as well. As far as anypony was aware, no one had told her about what we were planning today. However, she was definitely a lot more clever than most gave her credit for and had likely figured it out for herself. Nopony had seen hide nor hair of her ever since.

Although, Ditzy had left a basket full of healing potions and RadAway. Even tied a bow around it and left a note that said, ‘Stay saf, friends.’ She still cared, but obviously couldn’t stand to be around the town today. I had to admit, that made me feel significantly worse than if she’d just ripped into us for what we were about to do.

The final absentee was the town’s resident pegasus.

A hush fell over the crowd as a stallion stood up on a crate in their midst. He was an older earth pony, though not quite what I’d describe as elderly. His coat was jet black and he had deep green mane, cut short and starting to gray. He was wearing a rusting set of metal armor and a tattered cowpony hat. The strap of an old lever-action rifle was slung around his neck.

Trail Boss cleared his throat, “Alright now, everypony. This ain’t the kind of day where I’m gonna be makin’ a fanciful and insprin’ speech. We all know why we’re here and what we’re gonna do. But it’s good to bear in mind that we ain’t doin’ this for wealth or some ill repute fame. It’s about our survival, that’s all. We need to provide for our families, for our friends. To make sure New Appleoosa sees another tomorrow. What we do today ain’t gonna be pretty, but it’s the only option we all got left. So let’s head out and-”

“Bullshit,” a voice shouted from behind us.

In unison, the entire crowd turned their heads. Seated upon a stack a three box cars was a silhouette hidden in the downpour. The figure took one long leap as a pair of wings sprung out from its sides. They landed lightly on the ground right beside the crowd.

Their head was tilted downward, allowing the falling rain to drip down the brim of their black cowpony hat. The pony’s stance recalled a mousetrap, deadly and ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. The brown, pegasus stallion lifted his head and glared directly at Trail Boss.

“Calamity,” Trail Boss said in an unsurprised monotone, almost as if he’d been expecting this. “I don’t suppose you’ve changed your mind about accompanying us to-”

“You know I haven’t,” Calamity growled angrily. “I’m here to try and talk some sense into y’all one last time.”

“Well you can save it,” Trail Boss responded boredly. “We’ve discussed this ad nauseam, and everypony here is still in agreement. We’re doin’ this, whether you’re by our side or not.”

“Then y’all are no better than slavers yourselves,” Calamity spat with disgust.

“We’ve been tradin’ with ‘em for years. They’re still in business because of us,” Trail Boss countered. “Today we’re just… helpin’ ‘em out a lil’ more directly.”

“T’ain’t the same and you know it,” Calamity snapped, breaking his glare and looking pleadingly at the rest of us.

“Y’all know me, and I thought I knew y’all. It don’t matter how bad things get, this is wrong and we all know it,” he pleaded. “Please, don’t do this. We’ll find another way.”

Nopony met his gaze. A few guiltily scraped a hoof against the ground, but not one member of the crowd said a word to Calamity. The righteous indignation that had illuminated the stallion in an almost visible light was snuffed out by the darkness in our indifference. Not a single one of us could measure up to his principles and we all knew why.

Principles got ponies killed. Selfishness kept us alive.

“Come on y’all,” Trail Boss said, his tone turning morose. “We got a schedule to keep.”

With that, about a dozen members of the crowd started moving toward a gap in the ring of boxcars around town.

I turned toward Tender, noting she too was pointedly looking away from Calamity. I nudged her shoulder, prompting her to look at me.

“I love you,” I said quietly before leaning in to give her a kiss.

She returned it briefly before stepping back. “A-are you sure about this?”

“No,” I answered honestly. “But what other choice do we have?”

Tender nodded her head solemnly before throwing her forelegs around my neck and squeezing with all of her might. So much so that I had to suppress a gasp as she constricted my windpipe.

“Just come back to me, ok?” she whispered shakily.

“I’ll come back,” I answered, returning the hug. “I promise.”

After at least a full minute, I reluctantly broke the hug and started to follow the rest of the group. I passed by Calamity, who still stood exactly where he’d landed. Though now he stared dejectedly at the ground.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.

“You got yourself a foal on the way,” the pegasus said gruffly. “So I understand why you’re doin’ this more than most of ‘em. But do you ever stop to think if you’ll be able to look that li’l one in the eye after this? What if they figure out what you did?”

I paused a moment, considering that before answering, “I guess I’d rather my kid looked at me with disgust then not be able to look at me at all.”

Calamity nodded before springing into the air and flying off. I watched him go, my heart feeling heavier as he went. Almost like I was watching my own morality disappear into that gray, roiling sky.

-----

The slavers of Old Appleoosa met us a few miles outside of town. There were six of them, all sporting sets of wicked-looking armor and armed to the teeth. Yet they all bore such uninterested expressions. Like they were idly waiting for a train instead of handing off enslaved members of their own kind. It was so… eerie. I’d almost feel better if they were a bunch of cackling, moustache-twirling villains. If they showed even the barest hint of knowing that what they did with their lives was wrong. Instead, they may as well have been farmers coming to town to sell off their harvests.

In a way, I guess they were.

“Trail Boss?” a mare at the front of the group asked. She was wearing a set of metal armor with spikes jutting out of the pauldrons and had an oddly modern-looking machinegun dangling lazily at her side.

“That’s right,” Trail Boss responded. “And I suppose that makes you-”

“Chain Choker,” she interrupted, “but you can call me Choke.”

“Charmed,” Trail Boss said reticently.

“Just a reminder about what happens to those that cross me,” Choke said matter-of-factly. “Now that pleasantries are out of the way, let’s get down to business.”

Without waiting for a response, she motioned over her shoulder and four of her companions disappeared behind a nearby rock. After a few seconds, they re-emerged pulling two wagons behind them. Atop the wagons were caged enclosures filled to the brim with ponies.

I’d been trying to prepare myself for this moment, but there wasn’t a single thing horrid enough to draw from my imagination that could brace me for this sight. There was hardly room enough for them to all stand with how tightly packed they were. Their coats were all plastered in filth and a myriad of lashes, showcasing why not a single one dared try and make eye contact with us or their captors. There was also something… strange about the bunch. Beyond the fact that they were slaves, there was another factor that united them all. Something I couldn’t quite put my hoof on.

There was an occasional cough or murmur of pain, but aside from that the slaves made almost no noise. The moment of shock the wagons imbued into our group was the most deafening silence I’d ever experienced.

“Welp,” Chain Choker continued, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. “Here they are. Them folks up in Fillydelphia are expectin’ this shipment in five days, and I heartily recommend not makin’ ‘em wait. That leader of theirs is a might ornery. There’s twenty-six of ‘em in there, and they’ll be expectin’ at least twenty-five. Gotta account for… incidents y’all might face on the road. Still, means y’all only got one spare so try to not be too careless. They’ll each need a scoop of grain and a ladle of water in the mornin’ and at night. That should be enough to keep ‘em alive. They’ll try and moan at ya for more, but just smack a couple of ‘em around a bit and they’ll shut right up.”

Nopony responded to the instructions, just had their gazes locked onto the wagons or stared despondently at the ground.

Chain Choker cleared her throat, “Any questions?”

“N-no,” Trail Boss stuttered, moving toward the group. “I-I think we can handle it.”

“Brilliant,” Chain Choker said sarcastically. “Now as soon as y’all get paid, get your sorry asses right back here. We’ll let you keep your delivery fee, more than enough to keep your lil town goin’ a couple more months, and then we’ll all happily part ways.”

Just as Trail Boss reached the group, Chain Choker struck out with sweeping kick, tumbling the older stallion to the dirt. Before he or any of us could react, Choker whipped her machinegun around and had the barrel shoved directly into Trail Boss’s mouth. Throughout the entire attack, her demeanor didn’t change at all. Just held that same bored, flat expression.

“And if any of y’all get any funny ideas about screwin’ us after giving you this incredibly charitable opportunity, then just remember…” she removed the barrel from Trail Boss’s mouth and fired right next to his head. A plume of dust launched into the air, and the crack of the gunshot echoed in a haunting wail. Choke held our gazes until the final ebbs of the echo faded into the distance. “Your precious lil town and all your loved ones ain’t nothin’ but a day’s ride away. Hear me?”

We said nothing, but nodded our heads in understanding.

“Nice to see we’re all on the same page,” Choker said, offering a hoof to help Trail Boss back up. “Now y’all better hurry up, you’re burnin’ daylight.”

-----

“What’s on your mind,” Trail Boss asked me, breaking the numbing silence.

The group had been quiet for a while. In fact, not many words had been shared at all in the last three days. Ever since we’d parted ways with the slavers, everypony had seemed fairly willing to just let the silence rule over us. It wasn’t like we could just ignore what was happening and talk about something superficial, but talking about it would open a wound that none of us seemed quite ready to start treating yet. Better to just let it fester for now. The first day had been… rough to say the least.

“Does it matter?” I asked, keeping my gaze locked ahead. Trail Boss and I were at the front of the wagon train, another four of us were pulling the wagons, and the rest were fanned out behind us.

“Yes it does,” Trail Boss responded. “Y’all asked me to lead this caravan, and part of that is lookin’ after the well-bein’ of those in my charge.”

“All of us?” I asked, pointedly glancing back at the huddled masses in the cages.

“Yes,” Trail Boss said simply. “Cargo included.”

“Is that all they are to us now, cargo?” I continued, needling my point through the questions.

“For all intents and purposes, yes,” the older stallion answered. “We all agreed that-”

“Agreeing to the necessity of an act doesn’t make it any less immoral,” I snapped angrily, though immediately regretted it. Nopony had lied to me or put a gun to my head to force me along with this. I was just as free to stay home and have no part in transporting slaves. Lashing out at Trail Boss for the disgust I felt toward myself was the height of hypocrisy, and it wouldn’t help anything, wouldn’t change anything.

“That’s true,” Trail Boss said, keeping his voice calm and level in the face of my anger. “I ain’t gonna pretend like what we’re doin’ is some great moral achievement. We ain’t makin’ the world a better place, just makin’ the lives of everypony in our community that much better. Lettin’ them survive another month.” Trail Boss paused for a moment, looking off into the distance at mounds of sand, fields of cacti, and the towering mesas of the desert. “We all like to pretend that, just ‘cause we have our li’l township, that we’re somehow better than those we like to deem ‘evil.’ But if you think about it, we’re really not all that different. We’ll fight, even kill, anypony that threatens our way of life. How is that any different than a raider that does the same to anypony that invades their territory?”

I turned toward Trail Boss, disbelief coloring my tone, “Raiders… enjoy what they do. They’ll mow down a horde of innocent ponies with a smile on their face. They paint their homes in the blood of their victims, and put their skulls on the mantle. They’re… demented. When we kill, at least we have the presence of mind to do it for the right reasons and not… glorify it. It’s necessary.”

“So that’s what makes us different?” Trail Boss asked. “We feel bad about the ponies we kill so we can justify it to ourselves.” He chuckled darkly, shaking his head, “Dead is dead, my friend. Doubt the motivations of the shooter makes much of a difference to the one takin’ the bullet.”

“We fight to protect and provide for our families, our friends,” I countered angrily.

“So do the raiders, so do the slavers,” Trail Boss said. “They do what they do, whether it’s kill, rob, kidnap, or enslave, to make sure their friends and neighbors have what they need to survive. The whys and hows, they’re all just set dressing. End of the day? A raider will kill you for the clothes on your back. We’ll kill to keep the clothes on our back. They kill, we kill. It’s all survival.”

He glanced back at the wagon, “And I don’t know about you, but this sense of morality we all so desperately hold onto seems to be a major disadvantage for us. Those who would do us harm always have the upper-hoof, because we’re too scared to lower ourselves into the same abyss they thrive in.” Trail Boss stopped a moment, looking directly at me until I met his gaze. There was a life of conviction hidden in those old eyes, but also a lifetime of loss and the cold, unfeeling shell he’d grown in order to live with it. There was an unyielding drive to protect what he had and those he cared for, consequences be damned.

“I will provide for my people, Espresso. I’ve killed for them, what’s so different about slaving for them?”

“Why even lie to ourselves then? Why not just start raiding and slaving ourselves? Turn New Appleoosa into another rat-infested raider den?” I asked. Despite my objections, I had to admit he had a point. It made every inch of my skin crawl, but there was logic in what he said.

Trail Boss shrugged, “Everypony seems pretty happy to me, to keep livin’ the way we have been. Tryin' to keep up the lie that some of the old world’s rules still apply. I’m happy to let 'em keep that illusion alive. To let 'em keep their hooves clean while I do the dirty work.” He continued walking, breaking our gazes. “How about you? You gonna provide for your wife and child? Or are you gonna let your morals starve them to death?”

“I…” I faltered, trying to find the words.

Trail Boss sighed, “It’s ok, you don’t need to say it.” He looked back toward me, smiling now with understanding eyes, “It’s the li’l lies we tell ourselves that makes this world tolerable.”

I smiled back, but the pit in my stomach only grew deeper. I felt sick, but… oddly more resolute. I didn’t agree with everything the older stallion had said, but at least now I was reminded again of just why I was out here.

Suddenly Trail Boss stopped again, raising a hoof in a gesture to signal the caravan to stop. Everypony followed the order, looking around nervously.

A unicorn mare pulling the wagons gulped, “Wh-what’ya hear Trai-”

She was cut off as her head jerked violently. A spray of red splattered across the trapped slaves behind her as a gunshot cracked in the distance. She swayed for a moment, the look of fear on her face morphing into confusion, before her eyes rolled up and her body crumpled to the ground.

Trail Boss was the first to come back to his senses. “RAIDERS!” he screamed. “TAKE COVER NOW!”

The silence that had plagued our journey so quickly shattered in the wake of this tide of violence. Somewhere in the sand dunes, a machine gun opened fire, raking across our line. Luckily, Trail Boss’s order had come just quickly enough for our remaining numbers to hit the dirt and escape the barrage.

I pulled out the revolver on my hip, my eyes scanning the surrounding area and trying to get a sight on our attackers. There was some movement around the bend of the mesa to our right, just before another rifle shot cracked through the air. The dirt not a foot away from my head kicked up in a blinding cloud. I heaved off the ground and tumbled away from the path, finding a narrow ditch running parallel to it. Once I was reasonably sure that I wasn't immediately in somepony’s crosshairs, I tried to take stock of our situation.

The others had all either followed suit with me and were taking cover in the ditch, or had ducked beneath the wagons and hid behind the wheels. Trail Boss was with the latter, his rifle now unslung and returning fire toward the machine-gunner off in the desert. Another salvo of fire answered the older stallion, forcing him behind the wagon’s wheels. A stallion hiding alongside him cried out, clutching his leg as a stray bullet caught him.

I turned my attention back toward the sniper, trying to catch another sight of them. With the lot of us now out of their field of view, they’d have to reposition if they wanted to keep us pinned down. A bit of motion caught my eye, and I instinctively fired in the direction. It was a ways off, and my little .357 didn’t quite have the range for any sort of guarantee. Still, it was enough to give the sniper pause and duck back behind the rocky crags.

I nudged the mare beside me, a purple earthpony that I vaguely recalled visiting the cafe on her way to work. I couldn’t quite remember what she did in town, though from the look of utter terror on her face I think it was safe to assume she wasn’t a guard.

“Hey,” I said, nudging her again until she snapped her face toward me. “We gotta take out that sniper or they’ll keep us pinned until-”

“Oh Goddess,” she cried, the beginning of tears forming along her eyes. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this, please… somepony stop this- I can’t- this is so- so- I-”

She kept babbling falling into an incoherent mess. Dammit, I needed some support here. The other two in the ditch were in similar states of distress. It wasn’t like I was some badass soldier or anything either, but Tender and I had grown up wandering the wastes. We’d had to fight off our fair share of raiders before arriving in New Appleoosa. I forgot sometimes that not everypony had been… ‘blessed’ with that kind of upbringing.

I grabbed her shoulder and shook her. “What’s your name,” I tried to ask comfortingly.

“P-P-Posie,” she stuttered.

“Posie, if you do not help me right now, we are going to die. We will never make it home and you’ll never see your family again. Do you understand?” She continued to shake, but the look in her eyes lost a bit of mania and she nodded.

“Good,” I continued. I noted her weapon, a short, small-caliber rifle that would hardly tickle a gecko. But all she needed was something to go bang. I lined the rifle up in the general direction of the sniper, “Now shoot over there. After each shot, wait five seconds, then shoot again. Got it?”

Another nod.

“Ok, get ready,” I said, then turned back toward the others. Trail Boss and the ponies with him were doing an admirable job of keeping the machine-gunner pinned. Still, I waited for him to return fire one last time.

I whipped back toward the mare, “Now! Start firing!”

She answered with her first shot, chipping the rocks right where I’d pointed her. Then I jumped out of the ditch and sprinted toward the sniper. I counted down, five, four, three, two… I dropped just as another of the mare’s shots flew overhead, then I was back on my hooves and sprinting again. I kept up the cycle all the way until I reached the hiding spot, then leapt over the rocky outcropping.

I heard a small yelp of panic as the dark-armored mare hidden there saw me sail overhead. She tried to turn the long rifle to bear against me, but I’d caught her unaware and drew first, fanning the revolver’s hammer and firing off a trio of shots that slammed into her chest. Not great at a distance, but at this range the heavy rounds slammed into the mare and sprayed out the other side, painting the red rock in a far deeper shade.

The raider screamed in pain, causing a head out in the dunes to poke out in surprise. Trail Boss and the others didn’t waste the opportunity and opened up on the exposed raider, damn near cleaving his head off with a hail of gunfire.

Just like that, the desert fell silent once again.

I wiped the sweat from my brow, breathing heavily from the exertion. I fell back on the ground, my eyes glued to the writhing mare on the ground before me. It’d been a while since I’d had to shoot somepony, it wasn’t something that you ever really got used to. Even less so when the pony you shot was still alive afterwards, and then you had to decide what to do with them.

I sighed, standing back up and walking toward the fallen raider. She was dressed in a simple set of… surprisingly clean combat armor and a helmet with a full tactical face mask. Raiders usually liked the intimidation factor that came along with a lot of extraneous spikes and random spray paint and… and-

Oh Goddess.

“Hey,” I called, forcing her attention onto me. “Where’s the rest of you?”

“R-rest?” she asked, confusion underlying the pain in her tone.

“Yes, the rest of you,” I said quickly, trying to keep the panic out of tone. “Where’s the rest of your raiding party. You ponies never go after a target unless you’ve got the numbers to back it up. Now where’s the rest?”

“R-raiding? O-oh,” she said in realization. “I-I see.” She reached a shaky hoof up and unlatched the helmet, letting it fall. It revealed a pale pink face, her eyes squinting in pain as she looked up at me. “I-is that h-how you justify it? P-pretend that anypony th-that’d come… *cough* come after you just w-wants your slaves?” She grinned, and I saw red dripping from her teeth. “W-well not today, you sl-slaving sc- scumbag. W-we were… were here to… s-save… s-save”

Instead of finishing, she reached up and pulled out a medallion hung around her neck, tossing it weakly at my hooves. It showed a set of iron shackles with a bolt of lightning breaking them apart. My eyes grew wide with horror.

“Th-that’s right,” she mumbled, her speech getting weaker. “Y-you bastards… remember that… ‘cause one day… w-we’ll f-finally wipe you… ou-” She stopped, her hooves dropping to the dirt as she died.

-----

I walked numbly back to the others, my mind racing with what I’d just learned. Trail Boss met me, an enormous grin plastered across his face.

“That was some damn fine tactics, my friend,” he said, laughing as he slapped my back. “For a second there, I thought we were done for.”

Posie, the mare I’d instructed before, approached. She looked up at me, mumbling as she tried to say something. A sob escaped her instead, just before she threw her forelegs around my neck and squeezed. She held me like that for a moment, then withdrew and walked away.

“Y-yeah,” I said weakly. Should I tell them who those ponies were? Was it the right thing to do? Would it make a difference?

“Well, unfortunately we’re blessed with precious little time to celebrate. We’ll need to… to get Ivy over there loaded up on one of the wagons,” he looked toward the mare that’d first been shot. “Her family deserves to bury her themselves. Then we’ve gotta patch up our wounded and get these wagons moving before-”

“Trail Boss!” One of the stallions who’d been hauling the wagons called out. “We’ve got a little bit of a problem here.

“Oh what is it now,” he answered, sauntering toward the wagons. The stallion who’d called out was behind them, his eyes wide with worry as he looked inside the enclosures. As we turned the corner around the cart, my stomach dropped as I saw a steady stream of red pouring out of the back of the cart. We all fell silent as we stared inside. Two slaves, an older mare clutching a younger one as if to shield her, were peppered with machine gun fire. They lie in each other’s embrace on the wagon floor, the crowd around them staring in dumbfounded silence. It was a miracle none of the others had been hit, but the two that had been were most assuredly dead.

Once again, just like the day we’d first taken the slave wagons, I was struck by an odd feeling. Some uniting factor that all slaves shared. Why couldn’t I put my hoof on it?

“Goddess-dammit,” Trail Boss swore, whipping his hat off and slamming it on the ground. “So close, we were so damned close!”

“Th-the slavers said w-we only had one spare,” a mare said. “Wh-what’re they gonna do to us if we don’t deliver. What’re we gonna do now?!”

A general buzz of fear and uncertainty pervaded the surviving Appleoosans. Murmurs of abandoning the job and running or trying to find a replacement were prevalent until…

“Shut it, all of you!” Trail Boss snapped, quieting the nervous ponies. “We keep movin' just like we have been. Nothin’s changed on that front. I will figure out a plan for dealin' with Fillydelphia before we get there, I swear to you.”

That seemed to quiet them, although they seemed less than reassured. We set about cleaning up, picking up the dead Appleoosan and loading her in the cargo below a wagon as best we could. The dead slaves received… less gentle treatment as we dumped them on the side of the road. The other’s patched themselves up with potions and bandages and, within the hour, we were moving again.

Trail Boss and I took the lead once more and I watched the elder stallion closely.

“So, what’re you thinking oh abandoner of morality,” I jibed coldly. “How’re we gonna make this up to the slavers?”

He looked back at me, that same cold conviction from earlier still radiating from his gaze. “Oh we have options, my friend. Some you and this lot might be too blinded by your illusions of civility and morality to consider.”

Trail Boss fell silent at that, locking his eyes on the horizon as we continued forward.

-----

I’ve seen some pretty scary places in my time. Abandoned Stables we thought could make a decent home, only to turn out to be host to some mutated abominations that may or may not have been purposefully created. Ghost towns filled with feral ghouls looking to munch on anything remotely living. Even kindly little townships that turned out to be harboring some… uncouth methods of food production.

All of that paled in comparison to Fillydelphia.

Who would have thought that a theme park could be made into a terrifying, fire spewing fortress of slavery? And yet here it was.

We were obviously expected if the contingent of armed guards at the gate were any indication. There were dozens of them, more than we could ever hope to fight if things turned violent. In the dead center of the line was a single, deep-red earthpony flanked on either side by an alicorn.

Our caravan stopped dead in its tracks as the inequine monsters came into view. Gasps arose from several of us, as well as portion of the slaves. We’d only heard stories of these creatures, and every one of them seemed to end with some colloquial admonition of steering clear of them. There were only two, one a sickly green and the other a vivid purple. Their stares were locked straight ahead and it almost seemed as if they were looking at nothing… or maybe everything. It was unnerving to say the least.

As we arrived, the red stallion stepped forward. He was dressed in a dirty, blue cape that looked to cut have been cut from some kind of outfit. His mane was a jet-black, and the expression he wore portrayed a demeanor of professionalism and… something dark. It was hard to get a read on the pony, which wasn’t helped much by the absence of his right eye. In its place a gleaming red cybernetic prosthetic was affixed, making it seem like the pony was looking through us.

“Just in time,” the stallion said simply. “That’s good. I do believe that keeping one’s appointments is imperative towards a positive first impression.”

“Agreed,” Trail Boss responded. “However the journey has been trying on us so, if it’s all the same to you, we’d like to conclude this as soon as possible.”

“Of course,” the stallion said. “Let’s discuss the fine details so you and your people may be on your way, Trail Boss.”

That gave Trail Boss pause, “Y-you know my name?”

“I know what is in my best interests to know,” he responded simply, yet malevolently. Like he was issuing a threat without actually using a single threatening word. “You may call me Red-Eye.”

“O-of course, Mr. Red-Eye,” Trail Boss stuttered as he approached. “Let’s talk business.”

The pair then fell behind the line of armed slavers and alicorns, leaving the rest of us to look on in morbid curiosity. Trail Boss hadn’t shared anything about his plan to replace the missing slave, but over the last two days he’d seemed to grow more certain. Obviously he’d decided on something, but also felt it wasn’t in our best interests to say exactly what that was. The two looked back at us for a brief moment, then nodded and shook hooves. The pair approached us again.

“I understand you all met some trouble on the road,” Red-Eye began. “My… business partner is very much expecting the agreed-upon amount, so merely providing less payment is not an option. However, your leader and I have come to an accord.”

That didn’t exactly waylay our concerns. In fact, the vagueness in the answer seemed to have the opposite effect.

“So what exactly is this deal,” I said when it was obvious nopony else was willing.

Red-Eye shifted his gaze toward me, that cybernetic eye almost seeming to pierce through my very thoughts. A disconcerting grin spread across his face, “I am quite pleased that you asked.”

He waved a hoof and the surrounding guards began to move. A contingent moved toward the wagons, pushing back the Appleoosans as they did. About ten others started walking… toward…

“Wh-what is this?” I stuttered, backing away from the approaching slavers.

“I’m afraid my associate is in desperate need of new followers, unicorns specifically,” Red-Eye said bluntly.

My eyes darted around and came to rest on the slave wagons. That nagging feeling, that sense uniting factor that all the slaves shared that I just couldn’t think of. Only now did I realize that every single slave trapped inside the wagons were unicorns. It also occurred to me that the only unicorns that had been a part of the caravan were myself and that mare that had been shot during the attack.

I looked pleadingly toward Trail Boss. “What are you doing?!” I screamed, a cold, lancing bolt of fear striking my heart. My eyes grew wide and I started to hyperventilate. This couldn’t be happening.

“Sorry, kid,” Trail Boss said morosely. “I’d have given ‘em myself if they’d have me. But it’s for the good of the town.”

“You can’t do this!” I cried.

“No!” a mare in the caravan shrieked. It was Posie, the same one I’d instructed during the attack. “Trail Boss, you bastard!” She tried to run forward, but the butt of a slaver’s rifle bashed into her face, breaking her nose and dropping her to the dirt. The others all looked on in horror, but everypony could see how futile objecting would be.

“It’s gotta be done, y’all. We didn’t come all this way to turn back with nothin’,” Trail Boss said, then looked back at me. “I’ll… make sure Tender and the lil’ one are taken care of, I promise.”

“You stay the hell away from them back-stabbing piece of-” I started, but was cut off by another slaver slamming their rifle into the side of my head. My temple exploded in pain and I heard a disconcerting crack. A chilling numbness fell across my skull as I felt myself fall to the ground. The edges of my vision began to darken.

“Well,” the echoey voice of Red-Eye said, “I do believe our business is now concluded.” He turned away as the Appleoosans were forced back at gunpoint, barely being given enough time to pick up Posie.

Red-Eye turned toward the alicorn, “Let the Goddess know you’re on your way.”

“We already know,” the two answered simultaneously in a creepy monotone. “These are fine specimens for Unity.”

“Just make sure the next crop of alicorns arrives soon,” he said. My vision finally began to fade as the pair of alicorns began to approach.

-----

“Somepony help!” a stallion shrieked.

“You can’t do this to us!” a mare called immediately after.

“This can’t be real, this is a nightmare. PLEASE SOMEPONY, ANYPONY!” another screamed.

I started to come back to my senses. My eyes blearily opened, dried blood flaking off my eyelids. My vision was blurry, but it soon began to clear. I was laying on the floor of a cage, and for a moment I thought it was inside of the wagons. It soon became that this was one was far larger. I tried to lift my head, but a searing pain kept me on the ground. Oh yeah, cracked skull.

Steeling myself, I pushed off the ground and through the torment of the concussion. Although the terror in my heart demanded I stay ignorant, I looked around my new surroundings. All the slaves we’d transported were in a large circular cage. The room around us was some dingy, pre-war facility. There wasn’t any light, save for a dim spectrum illuminating us from beneath.

Shakily, I turned my gaze downward. Below us was an enormous, roiling vat of rainbow liquid. Each color of the spectrum were lined up along each other just like the arches of refracted light, completely going against how a liquid should behave. That was all we could see.

“Oh Goddess,” I whispered. “Please, help me.”

SWEET, NAIVE LITTLE CHILD. THE GREAT AND POWERFUL GODDESS IS ALREADY HERE, a booming voice answered. The panicking slaves were all immediately hushed.

An enormous, purple, spectral face rose up out of the vat. Its features were pony-like, but… wrong. Disfigured. Just beneath the creature’s… skin looked to be dozens of ponies trapped within. The face rose until it was level with the cage and it beamed a smile at us.

WELCOME, MY CHILDREN. THE GREAT AND POWERFUL GODDESS IS SO PLEASED TO WELCOME YOU ALL TO UNITY.

Despite my horrors at the abomination before me, I knew this was my only chance. “Please,” I begged loudly, pressing my face against the bars. “Please let us go. I-I-” tears started to sting at the corner of my eyes as my will began to shatter. “I-I have a wife. Sh-she’s pregnant. I need to- I… I promised.” I collapsed back to the cage floor, despair overrunning my reason. “Please, let me go home to her.”

OH MY DEAR CHILD, the head answered. YOU WILL SOON SEE THAT YOUR EARTHLY DESIRES PALE IN COMPARISON TO WHAT WE SHALL ACCOMPLISH THROUGH THE POWER OF UNITY. YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE A PART OF SOMETHING GREAT AND POWERFUL, A MOVEMENT THAT WILL BRING PEACE TO THE WASTELAND. She approached the bars, almost pressing her ethereal skin against them. We were all given a crystal-clear look at the agonized faces of ponies just beneath this terror’s skin. BUT DO NOT DESPAIR, UNITY SHALL PROVIDE MORE FOR YOUR FAMILY THAN YOU EVER COULD.

The floor of the cage dropped beneath us, and a chorus of damned screams plunged into the vat below. My skin instantly felt as if it were starting to sear off. I tried to shriek, but my lungs filled with the toxin as I was submerged. The rainbow of light became all I could see, all I knew. My body was melting and becoming one with this demon.

“Tender,” I whispered as the surface shrank away into the distance.

“I… love… -”

-----

I… no… I makes us… remember. We are… we… we are…

We awoke. My… no… our mind felt… sluggish. That… dream. We hate that dream. Our sisters were close, but the Goddess… where was she? Why had she abandoned me… no… us. Abandoned… us. To this… pink. The pink… hurts me… NO! US! The pink hurts US!

We stood, hearing the others converse close by. We walked across the tile floor. This place… what was this place? I… no… we knew… once… when we arrived… it was… police? Police station… that was it. Keeping the striped ones… can’t let them go… that was the order that I… NO… that we were given.

We approached the others. We were three now… were we always? Not… sure. They… we…? Not… sure anymore. For so long… certain… didn’t need to… think… Unity knew all… but now…? Are they… they? Or… we? Together? Apart? We don’t like to think about it… we don’t like to remember.

“We have enough striped ponies, right?” one of us asked. “We have…” she struck her hoof on the ground eight times. “That many.”

“No, we have this many,” said the second, stomping the ground seven times. “The scrawny one died when they went through the pink below, remember?”

“All the striped ones are scrawny,” the first responded. “Let us just take those we have and leave this Goddess-forsaken place.”

Yes… I… no… we… must get… away… must not… remember.

“We hate it here,” I… yes… I. I am… an I. An… individual… but I don’t want to be… can’t be… please… Goddess. “This Goddess-forsaken place makes us remember things.”

Remember… no… don’t remember. Remembering… hurts… but I… yes I MUST… REMEMBER!

“Last night, I remembered I used to be a buck.”

Author's Note:

By storm128