• Published 22nd Apr 2020
  • 500 Views, 49 Comments

Terminal Fault - MagnetBolt



It is a century after the war of the two cities, a time when the line between pony and machine is becoming blurred. And yet, even now when ponies are connected in so many ways, something wants to disrupt the fragile network of society.

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FILE 003: SOUND of VICTORY

If you really want to know all about what happened, the first thing you have to do is know about my family. I could talk your ear off with little details about every little thing in the Blackout but if you don’t at least know about my kin you’d never understand why I did what I did.

When I was a filly, I looked up to my big brother like he was the strongest and most important pony in the world. He was a boxer, one of the best in the world. Anypony who knows anything about prize-fighting knows the name Big Macintosh. He was the World Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion for near-on a decade.

Before things went bad, that is.

He was a real old-school boxer, just like I am. Back then, the sport didn’t have near as many safety measures as it does now. Nowadays they inject your noggin with this fancy shear-thickening stuff that keeps you from gettin’ serious brain damage if you get concussions. I don’t know how it all works but it’s like a helmet on the inside, I guess.

Big Mac didn’t have that helmet, and he took plenty of shots to the head, and worse - he hid things from us. The way his hooves shook if he didn’t force ‘em to stay still. The way he started havin’ trouble standing up without leaning against somethin’ for support...

Eventually he couldn’t hide it no more. He stopped pretending he was okay, and out of respect they let him bow out without losin’ a match for the belt. Early retirement. The problem was that he was so bad off by then that he couldn’t take care of himself very well. Big Mac could barely even talk.

Big Mac was a great stallion, somepony you could really look up to, and I spent most of my life in his shadow. When he retired it was like the world ended.

He and Granny Smith left the city to be with the rest of the family in some tiny town where they could take care of him. They asked me to come along but I guess part of me didn’t want to quit. I made the excuse that we needed somepony in the city making money and sending it back home but the truth was I just didn’t wanna lose.

I’m not used to tellin’ stories, but I do know the parts Apple Bloom always likes hearing about. Mostly she likes the part where I’m punchin’ another pony.


It was the end of the second round, and I had the other pony on the ropes. Literally. He was backed up against them and I was deliverin’ the kind of wailing that usually you needed a banshee for. He was too busy tryin’ to defend himself to actually fight back.

The bell rang, and the ref stepped between us before I could finish tearing the kid apart. I backed off and walked back to my corner, trying to look all cool and casual. Truth is, even though I was winning, boxing was one of the most exhausting things a pony could do. It’s like going at a sprint for five minutes at a time, but you gotta think and plan a hundred times more than any runner.

“Y’all got him,” Apple Bloom said, stretching to wipe the sweat from my brow. “He ain’t got nothin on you, sis!”

“Course not,” I said. It was important to breathe evenly. Half the strategy of boxing was in your head. If you couldn’t keep the mind game going you were out of the fight before it started. Right now the pony in the other corner was looking at me and he was seeing an opponent that didn’t even seem tired despite spending the better part of the last five minutes stomping him into a mudhole.

“You okay, sis? Y’all got a pretty big bruise--”

“I’m fine,” I said, patting her head. Truth was, about halfway through the first round he’d hit me pretty good and I wasn’t seein’ too good out of my right eye. I’d been pretending it hadn’t done nothing and he’d been a little shaken ever since. That was the mind game part. He’d given me his best punch and it didn’t seem to do nothin, so he was lookin’ for some other way to beat me.

I had to make him think I’d just shrugged it off, cause another hit in the same place and I’d prolly be on the mat. And if I didn’t want him to know I was hurt, I couldn’t tell Apple Bloom about it because she’d start panicking.

The filly was an awful cornermare but I didn’t have anypony else. It kept her outta trouble anyway.

“You sure you don’t want ice or nothin?” she asked.

“Nah, just gimme a sip of water.”

I’d barely pressed the bottle against my lips before the bell rang. I squirted some down my throat and splashed more on my forehead before tossin’ Apple Bloom the bottle and stepping back to the center.

The ref glanced at both of us to make sure we were walking under our own power and more or less conscious, then he nodded and stepped out of the way.

When you were winning, that minute break between rounds killed your momentum. When you were losing, it was a chance to gather your wits, get out of the corner, and come out swinging.

I knew he was gonna charge and try to take control of the round right away. That’s why I’d been saving my best for just this moment. He used his in round one, before I was tired enough for a shot like that to finish me off. I’d saved mine for when he was just a little too slow to dodge and too focused on attacking to do anything except walk right into it.

I ducked down, spun, and bucked him in the chin from below like I wanted to put his skull right through the roof. With the way he’d been charging at me, he practically did half the damage himself.

He did a backflip that woulda impressed a pegasus and hit the mat with the kind of thud that meant he was done fer today.

I trotted back to my corner with my hoof in the air, and the crowd went wild.


“That was amazin, sis!” Apple Bloom was practically bouncing around me as we rode the monorail back to the apartment. “Everypony was sayin’ he was supposed to be real good, too!”

“Real good ain’t good enough when somepony great is goin’ up against you,” I said. “Big Mac taught me that kick. It’s knocked out more would-be contenders than I have hooves.”

Apple Bloom and I live in one of the older apartment blocks in Canterlot, in the old parts of the city away from the palace. You can see the solar farms from there, the big black dishes pointed straight up in the sky to catch rays from Celestia’s Sun. I know that it’s supposed to be impossible to actually see the microwave beam, but sometimes I’d swear you could catch it out of the corner of your eye like a dim wavy spotlight.

The monorail dropped us off right in the atrium of the building. It was almost like a little city, over a dozen tiny stores crowded on the first level and the walls of the building rising up to meet each other about thirty stories up like you were standing in a concrete canyon.

“You run on upstairs, Apple Bloom,” I said. “I’m gonna go pay the rent before Spoiled comes around to complain again.”

She nodded and trotted off towards the stairs, and I went to the office of the last pony I wanted to see.

Saying Spoiled Milk was an awful pony got two things wrong. First off, I wasn’t sure if she was actually a pony or some kinda techy little demon trapped in a pony’s skin. Second, awful wasn’t a strong enough word but I was tryin’ to be nicer with the terms I used because I’d caught Apple Bloom repeating some of the things I’d said and there were certain things a filly shouldn’t have come out of her mouth.

I braced myself more than I’d had to for the dang punches I’d taken and knocked on the door.

“Enter,” she said, and I bit my tongue to keep myself from swearing. I’d half hoped she’d be out and I could just slip some bits under her door and avoid her for a while longer.

I pushed it open and tried to look casual. “Good evenin’, Spoiled. I jes wanted to square things up, if y’all got a minute.”

“I always have a minute to collect past-due rent,” she said. Her eyes were like a darn snake’s eyes.

“Well I got my winnings from the fight and I know I owed you,” I said, putting a bag on her desk. She picked it up, hefting the weight for a moment.

“What is this, three hundred?”

“Three fifty.”

“Well, that’s about half of what you owe,” she said, taking them.

“Half?! That’s everything!”

“Late fees and interest, Applejack. If you don’t pay me on time, you owe more than just rent. If you don’t have the rest in thirty days, I’m evicting you.” She sat back with a smile that begged me to punch it right off her stupid face, but Granny Smith had raised me right and I managed to avoid beating her into a bag of applesauce except in my imagination.

“You know things ain’t been easy--”

“And that’s why I’ve been kind enough to let you run up such a huge tab. Get a real job, Applejack, and get your sister to work too. There’s no room here for freeloaders.”


I had to leave her office before I said something that’d get us evicted right away. I didn’t have near enough to give what she was asking. I barely had enough left to keep my sister and me fed and keep the lights on. Not that she cared - she’d be happy to let us starve if she could pocket the extra bits.

When I got back to the apartment, Apple Bloom was starting to fix dinner.

“Everything okay, sis?” She asked. “Y’all look sour.”

“Yeah,” I said, lying to her like I did practically any time she asked anything involving money, how much we had, or where some of it came from. “I just always hate talkin’ to that mare. I spent all night gettin’ punched in the head and I’d rather take a few more of them than listen to Spoiled Milk complain about every little thing.”

“Well, ah know what’ll make you feel better!” Apple Bloom grinned. “Ah’m makin’ apple curry! Granny Smith always says ya need somethin’ hearty to reward yerself after a fight, especially after you win!”

“You know, Bloom, y’all are one smart filly,” I smiled. “Let me know if you need help with anything, okay? I’m just gonna lay down fer a bit with some ice.”

“Ice? I thought he didn’t hit you all that hard.”

“He didn’t,” I lied. That hurt almost as much as the bruises. “But I don’t wanna be all swollen up just cause I didn’t take care of myself. Remember that you always gotta look out for yerself, Bloom. If you don’t, it just means yer puttin’ a burden on other ponies, right?”

“Ah guess, but you take care of me… am I a burden?”

“Y’all’re askin that when you’re the one makin’ dinner for me?” I snorted. “Y’all ain’t a burden. We take care of each other because that’s what family does.”


And because it was what family does, after my bruises had healed I headed down to the Union Sky Tavern. It was owned by some ponies that I will very broadly call friends of the family, though they’d have put a capital letter on the word Family and meant something a little different when they said it.

The place was too full when I got there, a bunch of pegasus racers crowding it like they owned it and blasting that annoying electronic music they loved. I glared across the room at one with the stupidest-looking mane I’d ever seen loudly telling some story about goin’ real fast. From the little bit I could hear, it was the kind of story a filly made up to impress her friends.

I had to push my way through ponies in tracksuits to get to the bar.

“Hey!” I caught the bartender’s attention. “Y’all know if Mr. Stripes is in?”

He nodded and pointed me towards the back. I thanked him silently and walked through a thick wooden door that cut off most of the noise once it was shut behind me, leaving just a throbbing bass like a heartbeat.

“Applejack, it is good to see you!” Mr. Stripes was a big pony, built like a power lifter and strong enough to be one. When he hugged me I could feel my bones creak. “It has been what, two months? You’ve been missed.”

“You know how it is, Mr. Stripes. I had a league match. Those gotta take priority.”

He nodded and let me go, pouring two glasses of vodka and motioning to a chair. I took a glass to be polite and sat town.

“It’s good, yes? Maybe you’ll follow in your brother’s hoofsteps someday and become the champion. I can see the same fire in you.” He smiled. “If you do, you come here to celebrate, yes?”

I nodded. “You betcha.”

We touched glasses and I sipped at the vodka. It was so strong it could have stripped paint. You had to be a northerner like Mr. Stripes to really enjoy it.

“So I take it this is about, ah, business?” Stripes asked, sitting back. “Even professional boxing does not pay very well unless you are already holding the belt. One more burden for a contender to carry, yes?”

“Somethin like that,” I admitted. “I’m behind on rent and I need something to tide me over until we can get the next league match arranged.”

He nodded. “Of course. That’s never a problem. The current place is here.” He wrote down an address on a napkin and pushed it over to me. “Come along in three days and I will have a match for you that will pay ten times better than the league.”

I shook his hoof and ignored the feeling in the pit of my stomach.


Three days was enough time to really think about the kind of mistakes I was making. Not that I could have backed out or nothin -- Mr. Stripes would have been upset, and when he got upset ponies ended up getting to know a crowbar real well.

In the league, augmentations were strictly controlled. Everything was above board. The profits came from ticket sales and sponsors and there were so many hooves in the pot that the money never went very far. There were too many costs involved in doing things the right way. It was good, and honorable, but honor didn’t pay the bills.

Mr. Stripes ran a very different kinda show.

“Dad says the odds are pretty heavily in your favor,” Plaid Stripes said. The mare was practically more plastic than pony, and I was halfway sure the gold trim around her joints was actual gold. She had the same looks as every other pony who decided they’d rather replace the parts of themselves they didn’t like than actually work to fix it.

“So does that mean he’s bettin’ for me, or against me?” I asked. “Because I wanna know where I’m puttin’ my money.”

“He’s betting for you, of course,” Plaid said, giggling. “You know how he is. He’d never ask you to throw a match.”

“Good, because I’d tell him that the only thing I throw is punches. So what do you know about the pony I’m supposed to dismantle?”

“His name’s Troubleshoes. He’s sort of a drifter, I guess.” Plaid shrugged. “Dad has had him sort of doing odd jobs as long as they involve heavy lifting and nothing fragile. He’s got a bunch of implants, but they’re all internal so you wouldn’t notice. Hormone injectors and stuff made for cows instead of ponies. Dad says a lot of seasonal workers on the big corporate farms get them under the table.”

“That don’t sound good.”

“Dad says he’s so clumsy he’s not really worth much in the ring. But he’s real big, so he’ll still get some action and you’ll get an easy match!”


“Mares and Gentlecolts, the next match is about to get underway! Once the bell rings, all betting will be closed! In the red corner, hailing from parts unknown, we have Troubleshoes, with a record of two wins and no losses!”

She weren’t kidding about him bein’ real big. Troubleshoes was literally three times as tall as I was, and I was gonna be trapped in a steel cage with him. He looked like he was all muscle and no brains, unless they were in his biceps.

Oh, I didn’t mention the part where there weren't no weight classes? I probably should have said something about it before I was locked in the octagon with him. Unlike a league match, the rules here were more freeform and the ref was just there to check if you were unconscious or dead.

“In the blue corner, returning to the octagon we have Applejack! With a league record of twenty-three wins and two losses and an unofficial record that proves those losses were flukes!”

The announcer motioned to me, and I struck a pose to work the crowd.

“These two ponies will be fighting until one of them is knocked out or unable to fight. In the event of a death, all bets will be null and void out of respect to the fallen, with the proceeds to their next of kin.”

He wasn’t kidding about the dead part. Ponies died in these matches at least once a moon, probably more if I actually paid attention instead of just coming around when we were low on money, which saw me in the octagon more often than I wanted to admit. I ain’t ever killed a pony in this or any other ring, but some ponies hopped up on all kinds of drugs wouldn’t stay down unless they were real hurt, and I’d had to put some of them down so hard they weren’t ever gonna walk the same way.

I ain’t proud about that. If it had just been me, I’d starve on the street instead of fighting like this, but it wasn’t somethin’ I could ask Apple Bloom to do. She deserved to think her sister was doin’ just fine and making a good and honest living in League matches.

The bell rang, and I knew this was gonna be a short fight when Troubleshoes ran right at me. If he was smart, he’d have kept his distance and used his reach. Each of his legs was near as long as I was head to tail, and he could have fended me off for a good long while if he tried.

Every boxer ends up fighting somepony with long reach. If I were an outboxer, tryin’ to keep up jabs and wear the other pony down, I’d use his weight against him and make him follow me around. I was an inboxer, though. I did my best work up close.

I ducked down under the big clumsy swing I saw coming from a few miles away and got inside his reach. That meant he was gonna have a hard time coming at me with any real force. I got a solid hit on his ribs and almost split my hoof doing it.

An elbow smacked into my shoulder and sent me sprawling and the only reason it didn’t really hurt me was that I halfway expected it.

“Metal ribs?” I asked, rhetorically. “Great.”

I rolled away from a stomp that could have shattered my skull, got to my hooves, and kicked at a knee. A lot of big ponies had bad knees that would fold if you hit them just right. Unfortunately, he wasn’t one of those ponies. He was the type that had legs like steel beams, and I’m halfway sure they really were steel.

This time I saw the elbow coming and went the one direction he wasn’t expecting, right under him. He was so tall I could almost stand up without hitting my head on his belly. It took him a second to realize where I’d gone and by then it was too late.

I swore to myself I was never, ever gonna tell Bloom about this fight in particular and kicked Troubleshoes in one of the very few places the octagon allowed and a league match didn’t.

He made a high-pitched sound and started to collapse. It was a slow, ponderous kind of motion so I had plenty of time to get out of the way and watch him settle down onto the floor of the octagon, legs crossed. Every stallion in the room was wincing and shaking their heads.

“Ah think he’s done,” I yelled.

The announcer knelt down to whisper to Troubleshoes and the stallion ignored him, staying down on the floor and trying hard not to cry.

“Mares and gentlecolts!” The announcer rose to his hooves and stepped over to me, taking my hoof and raising it into the air. “Applejack is the winner by knockout!”

And the crowd went wild. Money was passed between hooves -- real physical cash, since nopony wanted a record of these particular transactions, and I was thinking of how I was gonna pay the rent and not have to worry about things for a while. Maybe if I hadn’t let my guard down I would have noticed the crowd getting louder and making sounds of alarm instead of excitement.

The announcer was flung off to the side by the first hit. I didn’t see him land, because the second one threw me into the bars so hard I felt them bend. My bones weren’t quite as flexible. My hip and shoulder snapped, but the pain didn’t hit me until I slid down to the cold ground with my whole body weight pressing against the fractured bone.

I screamed, flopped onto my belly, tried to run like the wounded animal I was. I can’t even describe how bad the pain was. I spent half my life getting beaten up professionally and this was like nothing I’d ever felt before.

Then the big hoof, near as big as my whole head, stomped down on my back. A couple of my ribs broke, and everything below my shoulders went numb. It would have been a relief if I could breathe or think or move.

The next hoof came down on my head, and I was out like a light.


I don’t remember much of the next couple of days.

Part of that is an effect of the drugs I was on. Maybe the rest was a mercy from Celestia.

I remember being thrown out of an aircart before it had even stopped, the wind waking me up and the pain of hitting the sidewalk outside of Canterlot General’s Emergency Room nearly putting me right back down. I remember the faces of the nurses who came out and saw me, a few scraps of hurried yelling. Then they injected me with something that stopped some of the pain, and I was gone again.

I don’t remember waking up in the middle of surgery, though the surgeon who came by later told me I did just that, right when they were in the middle of cutting open my back. He had a black eye, so maybe he wasn’t just telling tall tales.

The drugs they had me on for the pain and all the other complications had the side effect of turning your short-term memory into soup, so I don’t think Celestia actually showed up at my bedside, but dreams were hard to tell from reality until after the first week.

“Ah think she’s wakin’ up!”

Apple Bloom’s voice was the first thing I latched on to, and I pulled myself out of a sleep so deep it was like death trying to get to it.

It was a struggle to open my eyes.

“Apple Bloom?” I said, or tried to say. My mouth was so dry it took a couple tries.

“Ah’m right here, sis.”

I turned my head and a spike of hot pain shot down my spine.

“Don’t try to move, ah’ll get th’ nurse!”

An intolerable handful of seconds passed, and a blur appeared in the haze around me and the pain receded until the blur resolved itself into a pony in scrubs, adjusting machines next to the hospital bed I was sitting in.

“Don’t try to get up,” she warned, in a voice a lot less friendly than Apple Bloom’s. “You’re still healing. You’ll end up tearing yourself open and bleeding everywhere and I’ll have to put you back together.”

“Healing?” I mumbled.

“You were hurt real bad, sis,” Apple Bloom whispered. I managed to brace myself for the pain and actually look towards her. She was sitting in the corner of the hospital room furthest from my bed and looked as bad as I felt.

“Your spine, most of your ribs, and a few of your larger bones have been replaced,” the nurse said.

“Replaced?” I croaked. I must have heard her wrong.


The doctors explained it to me, eventually, after I made enough of a fuss that they came around to actually talk to me.

“When you came into the ER, your spine was broken in three places, your ribs were just bone chips, and the long bones in your left legs were shattered. Thankfully, despite the skull fracture, you got away without any brain damage.”

The doctor pointed to things in the display that I couldn’t really understand even if I wasn’t on some serious narcotics.

“Your existing augmentations buffered the damage. You got lucky.”

“How is this lucky?” I demanded.

“Most ponies in your condition go from the operating room to the morgue,” he said, with infuriating calmness. “In all my years I’ve only seen one pony worse off that pulled through, and that was over a decade ago. So yes, you’re lucky.”

“But I--”

“Will need a little physical therapy, once you’ve healed. Other than that, time will tell. I expect a full recovery. You have no history of rejection from your other implants.” He paused. “For the record, how did you get injured?”

“...Aircart accident,” I said, after a moment. The lie burned worse than the distant pain from the surgery, but I couldn’t let them know what I’d been doing. “I was walking, and I got hit.”

“Ah, yes,” he nodded to himself and made some notes. “They must have been the ones that dropped you off. Unfortunately they didn’t leave their information.”

“I didn’t get the license plate number neither,” I muttered.


“I’m sorry, Applejack, there’s nothing I can do,” Bulk said. “Your weight is up. Way up.”

“That’s because of the damn metal they stuck in me,” I explained. Again. “It don’t count.”

“League rules says it does.” The huge white pony motioned for me to move, and I stepped off the scale. At least I’d gotten them to let me to physical therapy at my own gym instead of paying for yet more medical nonsense. “You’re gonna have to go up two weight classes.”

“Ah can’t do that! All that extra weight is just, just dead weight! It ain’t muscle!” I started shaking, and Bulk grabbed my shoulder, helping me over to the bench. I dug around in my bag and found an autoinjector.

Bulk took it from my fumbling hooves and pressed it into my thigh. There was a hiss, and the shaking slowed and stopped.

“Thanks,” I whispered.

“You’re taking a lot of that stuff,” he said, quietly. “It isn’t good, AJ.”

“It’s nothin’.”

“The Black Shake isn’t nothing. You shouldn’t have to take Ambrodex more than once a week.”

“More like every day,” I said, my voice fragile despite my best efforts. “Turns out the insurance would only pay for the cheapest parts on the market. Apple Bloom signed all the papers while I was out an’ I don’t blame her. She was scared I was gonna kick the bucket. They could have asked her to sign away her soul and she’d put pen to paper if she thought it’d help me.”

“Have you tried talking to a doctor?”

“Sure,” I said, tossing the empty injector into the bag and zipping it up. “Talked to a few. They’re happy t’ help. If I have enough money t’ buy a house. Since I don’t have a bag of bits that weighs more’n I do, they pat my hoof, give me a few shots of Ambrodex out of pity, and tell me to come back once I’m rich.”

“But--”

“Two weight classes, huh?” I sighed. “Guess there’s no choice. Set me up a sparring match with somepony the right size so I can see how bad off I am.”

“You’re still healing. It’s only been a month.”

“And a month from now I gotta find bits to pay the rent or I’ll be out on the street. Spoiled ain’t got anything approaching mercy.”

“Fine. I’ll find you something,” Bulk Biceps sighed. “But if it gets bad, I’m pulling you out.”

“Don’t worry. If I get put in the hospital, everypony there already knows my name.”


I lost.

Bad.

Two weight classes, about fifteen pounds. Doesn’t seem like much, looking at it from the outside, but it was a world of difference that was firmly implanted in my hide as a map of bruises. Bulk Biceps pulled me outta the ring before it could get worse than that.

I punched the sandbag. I could barely feel it, and that was half the problem. I couldn’t feel the bruises. I could barely tell where my hooves were. There was a terrible tingling all the time, like my limbs were full of static. Actually, I guess that’s exactly what it was. Static. Bad signals going up and down the hunk of Flim-Flam junk that they’d put in after they fished out all the broken bits where my spine used to be.

“You want somepony to hold that bag for you?”

I turned at the voice and darn near fell on my flank. A chome hoof caught mine, and a stallion with a shock of pink hair helped me avoid meeting the ground.

“Thanks,” I said, steadying myself.

“Looks like you’re getting used to some new parts,” he said. He let go of me and held up the hoof he’d used. “Same here.”

“This weren’t by choice,” I muttered.

“Neither was this,” he said. “Accident a few years back. They decided it was better to lop my back leg and fetlock off than fix them.”

“That’s awful,” I muttered.

“It wouldn’t be so bad but I got this junk.” He looked at his back leg. It was a rusty, dented mess, and I had a feeling it wasn’t
because he’d been rough on it. “Second-hoof parts. Literally. Flim-Flam Industries ‘Certified’ Refurbished.”

He shook his head, and I winced in sympathy.

“They had t’ replace my spine,” I said. “It’s… it don’t work as good as it should.”

“I can tell. You’ve got a little of the Black Shake already, and your cutie mark…”

“What about my cutie mark?” I hadn’t even thought to look at it.

He wordlessly motioned to a mirror, and I walked over to see. The apples on my flank were still there, but they were smeared, washed out a little, like clothing when you put it through the wash too many times.

“What in the hay…”

“You don’t have it too bad.” He nodded to his own flank. I realized then that he probably wasn’t supposed to have a blurry smear there. “Mine’s so bad you can’t even tell what it used to be.”

“That’s awful…”

“That’s life, which is awful if you aren’t rich and powerful.” He smiled weakly. “I’m Pen Mightier.”

“Applejack.”

“So you want some help with the bag? Maybe I can give you some tips.”

“Uh…”

He laughed. “Not with boxing. With how to deal with the Shake.”

“I’d like that.”


The coffee was awful, but it was free and hot enough I could just about feel the heat from the cup without having to imagine it.

“I had both of my back legs removed,” Brick said. He was the only one lying down on the dusty concrete floor, mostly because he couldn’t sit up if his life depended on it. “It was a military thing. Not an accident, they just… you hear about enhancement programs all the time. Experimental augments. They wanted to try turning my back half into extra control surfaces. There was too much feedback and I had infections and nerve scarring within a few weeks that they had to pull the plug on everything.”

He just had empty steel sockets where his hind legs should have been, the flesh around the edges puffy, red, and bald, his fur obviously thinned across his whole back half.

“I got discharged and kicked out on the street. They offered to do more surgery to try and fix things but I don’t trust them.”

“You think they could make things worse?” asked a pony with cloth tied around his eyes.

Brick nodded. “I might not even make it out of the operating room. I’ve got too many secrets rattling around up here.” He tapped his forehead.

“Maybe after this job is over, the boss can fix you up,” Pen Mighter suggested. “She was able to get me a new forehoof.”

“The boss?” I asked.

“You’ll meet her soon,” Pen said. A silent pony whose neck was a mess of cables and scars prodded him. “Oh, right. Everypony, this is Applejack. She’s in the same boat we are. AJ, if you want, you can tell everypony your story. If not, that’s okay too. Sometimes it takes a while to feel comfortable enough to share.”

“I just…” I hesitated. “I ain’t been able to tell anypony the whole story. Not my family or friends. It ain’t a good story.”

“No matter what, we won’t judge you,” Pen said.

It took a while, and I cried a little telling it. They were the tears I couldn’t let Apple Bloom see, but in that dirty room full of ponies that didn’t know me from Donut Joe, I was able to cry my heart out. I don’t need to tell you how good it felt to know that there were other ponies that really understood what it was like to wake up with a body that weren’t yours and didn’t work half the time and ached all the way down to your soul.

When it was over they didn’t judge me and I felt like, well, we weren’t family. We were strangers. But because we were strangers we didn’t have to hide nothing from each other.

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” boomed a voice from above, with a buzzing edge to the sound like a speaker pushed just a little too far.

I looked up, and there was something hanging from the ceiling that weren’t there when I walked in.

I say something instead of somepony because I couldn’t see any fur at all. Everything was metal and plastic, like somepony had sculpted a statue out of knives and bits of steel set at odd angles, all sharp and edged without a rounded surface to be seen.

It moved, spreading wings, and in motion I was able to make sense of it, a pegasus with bat wings and a visor for eyes standing -- or, really, hanging -- a head taller than anypony else in the room.

“Sorry I’m late,” they said. “I was caught up dealing with an old friend.”

“It’s okay!” Pen said, smiling and waving. “Applejack, this is Racer X. She’s sort of the leader of our little group.”

“I’ve got good news,” Racer X said. “Everything is in place. You’ll be able to send a message, just like we planned.”

Everypony in the room started talking and smiling at all once, and suddenly I didn’t belong. I mumbled half an excuse and trotted away, feeling like a fifth wheel.

I tried to pour myself a cup of coffee, and the pot slipped from my shaking hoof.

Before it could hit the ground, somepony grabbed it right out of the air.

“Need a hoof?” Racer X asked, filling up my cup. They mostly sounded like a mare, or at least a machine doing their best impression of one.

“Thanks.”

“You’re lucky,” she said, softly. “Not with getting hurt, I mean. With having family. What your sister did, letting them put that junk in your back, she did it because she loves you. You shouldn’t be angry with her.”

“I’m not angry.”

“You sounded mad. Being mad isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it reminds us not to get hurt again. We just have to remember what to direct it at. Who to direct it at.” Racer X paused. I couldn’t read her expression since she was wearing a helmet. Or maybe her head was a helmet. I couldn’t see a lick of fur or flesh on her.

It didn’t really matter, though. I got her meaning. She was letting me fill in the silence on my own. I expected all of us had a different list of ponies that deserved to be yelled at.

“The big boss has a little something lined up and I was going to take a few ponies with me to help out,” Racer X said.

“And she’s the one who fixed up Pen?” I glanced over at the stallion. I wasn’t good at reading lips but I was pretty sure he was trying to tell Brick that there weren’t any cloud ponies mind-controlling ponies with chemicals in the rainbows.

“She fixed me, too,” Racer X confirmed.

“Think she can do anything about my back?” I asked, quietly.

Racer X paused. I mean literally paused, like she totally froze up for a second. A flesh-and-blood pony would’ve been breathing and blinking but she just kinda stopped like an engine seizing.

“Replacing it is a delicate procedure. She could give you a software update that would alleviate most of the symptoms.” Racer X said.

“Shoot, can’t make things much worse,” I said.

“In return, would you help us with something? It would need to be kept secret.”

I hesitated. I wanted to say I wasn’t gonna get involved if it meant ponies would be hurt, but that’s all I was good at. Hurting ponies.

“It’s nothing dangerous,” she assured me. “We’re just going to dig up a little buried treasure.”

I had a bad feeling about it already, but the temptation of not having that pain weighing me down was too much to pass up.

“I’m in,” I said, shaking her hoof.


I’d never been to the junkyard. It’d been a long time since I’d left the city. Before Mac had retired, we used to go to family reunions at a farm in the middle of nowhere. I remember being a filly and getting confused on account of how there weren’t any buildings or streets. It felt like you could walk out into that orchard and the trees would go on forever.

The thing is, most of the ponies that came to the reunion lived in the city. We could get together anytime we wanted. We probably passed each other on the streets without knowing it, because what pony remembers the second cousin of a second cousin on sight?

But instead of making reservations in a restaurant or renting space in a hotel or something, we all made the effort to leave the city. There was a sense from the older ponies that the city was just a temporary thing, that the ponies sending money home would come back and the family reunion was there to remind them.

I hadn’t been to a reunion since Mac’s accident. I didn’t want everypony to see how much I struggled. I didn’t want Apple Bloom asking hard questions.

Like why we were living in a slum.

Like why we didn’t ask for help.

Like why I was a failure and I couldn’t let my family know until I’d won big enough to wash all those failures away.

My train of thought derailed on its spiral downwards when the truck we were in hit the brakes hard enough to knock us around.

“Sorry!” Brick yelled, from the front.

“We’re here,” Racer X said. She opened the door.

The wind and the smell hit me about as hard as some of the best boxers I’d ever sparred with. It was a mix of garbage and mud and the stink of rust carried by damp winter wind that was cold enough to freeze but not cold enough to say that way.

“And there’s treasure down there?” I yelled over the wind. “It looks even more like junk than the stuff I got in my back!”

“It’s been buried for a long time,” Racer X said, spreading her wings. “Don’t worry. It’s sure to be here!”

She jumped right out the door, spiraling around the aircart until we landed. I watched her flip and spin in midair until I started to get motion sick just looking. It’d been so long since I’d seen it that it took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize she was playing. Having fun. Like a filly with a new toy.

The cart set down.

“So should we break out the shovels?” I asked, glad to have land under my hooves again.

The deep-throated rumble of an engine came out of the darkness like a monster hiding in shadows. Floodlights flashed to life, and Racer X patted the side of the huge excavator.

“We arranged for something better,” Racer X said. “This baby will have us out of here before sunrise.”


The next while is sort of a blur. It’s not like I was drugged, or confused, or anything like that. It was just work. It’s easy to fall into a rhythm and lose track of time when you’re doing work like that, especially when you’ve spent hours throwing punches into a sandbag, jogging along drainage canals, and watching the same tapes over and over again to try and memorize the moves my brother had used and never got a chance to teach me himself.

In the end, the excavator did most of the work, digging deeper and faster than we could have on our own, but it couldn’t do the details. It took all of us working together to get rope secured around the dark hulk we found at the bottom of that pit.

“Take it up!” Racer X yelled.

Brick saluted from the cab of the excavator and threw a lever, the winch kicking into gear. The hulk shifted and lifted up half a hoofwidth before I saw it catch. The winch seized up and started squealing in protest.

“It’s stuck on somethin’!” I yelled, shoving and trying to get it unstuck. I could see where it had caught, and I shoved, trying to free it from the scrap. I pushed, and I felt my whole back spasm when I put my weight into it.

Racer X caught me before I fell, steadying me before putting her own shoulder into it. Slowly, that massive heap of metal swung out a fraction of an inch and snapped free, the winch’s tone changing from a wail of agony to the smooth sound of a clutch freeing up and gears moving again.

X patted my back.

“Thanks,” she said. “That was quick thinking!”

I smiled. Exhausted, matted down with sweat and mud, I was the happiest I’d been in a long while. I’d forgotten how good it felt just to belong and be a part of something. It was like having a family again.


“Hang on, this might hurt a little,” Pen warned, holding a long metal needle.

“Because you’re gonna jam that into my neck,” I said.

“Well, actually, that part shouldn’t hurt. It’s going into a port.” He tapped my neck with his hoof and I twitched at the sound of metal on metal.

“I didn’t even know I had one of those,” I muttered, trying to stay still.

“I’m guessing you didn’t exactly get a user manual,” Pen joked. “Don’t worry about it. Once the new software is loaded, you’ll feel like a million bits.”

I shook my head. “Let’s not kid anypony. I’m still gonna have this junk in my back. I’ll settle fer not feeling all pins and needles everywhere.”

“Just stay still until it’s in.”

“That’s what my last coltfriend said too, and--” I gasped as a sharp, cold sensation hit me, like ice on an exposed nerve. One of my legs started shaking, and nothing I did could get it to stop.

“Just a little longer,” Pen whispered. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him patting my shoulder but I couldn’t feel a darn thing except that awful chill. It was in every part of my body, so powerful it was like being dropped in an endless ocean of ice water. It was my whole world, and when the cold water receded and I broke the surface and I sucked air into my lungs, I was born again.

I jerked to my hooves. Pen reached out to steady me, but he didn’t have to. For the first time since the accident, I didn’t feel like my legs were gonna collapse out from under me the second I relaxed. I still had a shiver like I was chilled to the bone, but I could just about control it and hold myself still if I focused.

“How’s that?” Pen asked.

“That’s a darn sight better already,” I said, taking a few steps just to feel my legs under me. “That’s amazin!”

“Yeah, just hold still…” Pen reached for my neck and pulled the needle free. “There.”

“What’s next?” I asked, pacing in a circle. I felt restless, like I’d been sitting too long.

Pen laughed. “From what I was told, the software upgrade will keep smoothing itself out over time. We’ve got big plans tonight, but that gives you a couple hours to relax.”

“I don’t think I can relax. I feel like I could run a marathon.”

“Well, why not go for a walk? I’ll shoot you a message when we’re meeting up.”


That was some real horse sense there. There weren’t nothing better for a restless soul than a long walk, and it was the best sort of training. Until the accident I used to walk miles and miles every day, and I sort of missed getting the pavement under my hooves and doing roadwork.

Naturally, the weather was terrible. There was slush and sleet falling down as I trotted, trying to keep up a decent pace. I’d picked the worst time for it - weren’t no more than a few blocks away from a subway station right at a shift change. I’d pulled on a plastic poncho that was covered in ads for some store and wasn’t much better than a trash bag.

I was trying to decide if I should take a left and head down to the river or just admit that the weather was terrible and head to the gym when a pony walked right into me, my hat falling into an oily, icy puddle.

“Sorry ‘bout that, Ma’am,” I said, with more politeness than I felt, a shiver running down my spine. I lost control of it for a moment, my whole body shuddering like a sputtering engine before the new software kicked in and started to dampen it down again.

“Do you need help?” the mare asked. “You’re--”

I cut her off, something in that posh accent annoying me instantly. “Just cold,” I said. She held up my hat in her magic and I snatched it back, putting it squarely on my head. “Sorry about th’ trouble.”

I caught a glimpse of her legs. Her hips were the kind of beautiful that meant she’d spent a lot of money on them. Probably worth more than my whole body if someone went and tried to sell my organs.

When the message popped up from Pen, I’d put a few more miles under my hooves and I was still angry. Every drip of water on my neck from my soaked, filthy hat was a reminder of the unicorn that’d probably spent more money on looking pretty than I’d ever had pass through my hooves in my whole life.

The messaging application wasn’t one I recognized. I wasn’t even sure when it’d been downloaded.

“You ready to show those stuck-up ponies in charge that we aren’t just broken dolls?” Pen asked.

Another fat drop of icewater hit my neck.

“Darn tootin. What’s the plan?”

“We got something special for you. I’m gonna send you an address. The boss wants you to go check on the package she had us dig up. Apparently they got it working.”

“What is it, anyway?”

“You’ll know it when you see it.”


“Know it when I see it,” I muttered. “What in tarnation is that supposed to mean?”

I followed the directions on my heads-up to a garage and pulled the door up high enough to get inside, blindly fumbling around for a light switch. It was already starting to get dark outside and there weren’t enough light to see properly -- the whole block was in the middle of having old slums and row houses torn down and replaced with big, soulless concrete slabs of apartments, and the street lights weren’t gonna get fixed until ponies were actually livin’ there.

For a minute I couldn’t feel anything at all and I thought somethin’ was wrong with my new lease on life, but then the overhead lights snapped on, and feeling came back to my legs.

“Weird,” I muttered, but I didn’t have any real time to contemplate that on account of what was sharing the garage with me.

I’m not even sure how to describe it. The thing was the size of a house and when the lights flickered, I darn near jumped out of my skin and ran. Picture a spider wearing slab-sided armor a hoof-width thick and you get the general shape of the thing, though sayin’ it like that doesn’t really give the feeling of finding yourself in its shadow.

“That’s th’ thing we dug up?” I whispered.

A voice came from right over my shoulder. “Impressive, isn’t it?”

I fell. It weren’t no artful dodge or fancy footwork. My front legs just went one way trying to get away from the icy whisper and my back legs went the other way because they were still worried about the huge metal monster.

“Try not to hurt yourself. It’s hard enough keeping you together,” the voice whispered.

“Who said that?!” I demanded.

“I’m the one keeping your spine working,” she said.

I started to pick myself up from the concrete. “Pen’s boss?”

“Among the least impressive of my achievements, but yes.”

“Where are you?” I looked around a few moments before the strange messaging application blinked for my attention.

“I’m right here with you, in spirit,” she said.

“You got a name?”

“I’d prefer not to use my real name when others might be listening. You can call me Somni.”

The name didn’t even sound like real Ponish but I wasn’t going to complain when she’d fixed me up once already.

“Sorry if I was bein’ rude,” I said, not wanting to offend my friend’s boss. “Pen said I should come out here.”

“Indeed,” Somni said. “That is because I have a use for you. Before you is one of the mightiest war machines of the last age, a Lunar Starbrute. When you unearthed it, it had spent decades half-asleep, repairing itself from the damage that felled it in the old war. Now it needs only one thing to return to battle.”

“Wait a minute, battle? What battle?”

“Applejack, you have been part of a war for the heart and soul of ponykind. You’ve been used as a commodity, used up and spat out by the society Celestia created. Even before your accident you never fit in. You are a warrior. You fought for your family.”

I blushed. Nopony had ever called me a warrior before. It felt good. A lot better than some of the things I’d been called, and the way she said it made me think she approved.

“You, Applejack, were ready to risk your body and your life, and you only had to do so because you were not given your due. This is your chance to do so again, and the rewards will be more than you can imagine.”

I did like the sound of rewards, but I was a little worried about the rest.

“You ain’t gonna ask me to fight that thing, are you?” I asked.

“No, no,” Somni laughed. Her voice was so quiet I wasn’t sure I was even hearing her, but every word still came through clearly. “All I want you to do is use it, the way a warrior should. I have chosen you to be my sword against Celestia’s unjust rule.”

“W-wait, what’s that mean?”

My legs started moving on their own, and I was walking towards that hulk without meaning to do it.

“The Starbrute’s crystal core is cracked. It lacks a motivating spirit to make it act on its own. With your instinct for combat, you will serve well in its place.”

“Hold on, I didn’t agree to nothin’ yet!” I tried to stop myself, stumbling and shivering as I fought my own body. “That sounds an awful lot like ponies are going to get hurt!”

“You’ll be storming the Solar Palace itself. They’ll deserve it.”

“Stop!” one of my legs seized, and I managed to at least halfway twist myself until the other three legs worked against me and limped up to the metal monster.

“Why are you resisting?”

“How are you doing this?!” I grunted, trying to stop myself, but there was nothing I could do. I danced along like a marionette, and the strings dragged me to the top of the monster.

“When I had your new software installed, a tiny bit of me came along for the ride.” Somni hissed. A hatch popped open and the last thing I saw before everything went black was a needle in my own hoof, angling towards my neck. “Your brain is a little too cramped, but thankfully I have just the way to fix that.”


I don’t know how long I was out. It could’ve been a couple minutes or a couple hours. What woke me up was the sensation of being dragged along and the sound of metal being torn apart. It was a real effective alarm clock, if you don’t mind the nightmares bein’ in the real world instead of your dreams.

A sharp tug of pain hit me like a slap to the face and I fumbled blindly at the source, tearing the wire the rest of the way out of my neck and freeing myself. I managed to get just enough coordination to open my eyes and roll out of the way before a giant steel talon slammed down where my head had been.

“Don’t bother getting up,” Somni said, her voice echoing, half in my head and half coming from the steel spider. “You can watch the city burn from right there on the ground.”

“I ain’t just gonna let you…” I struggled to my hooves.

“The fact you can even walk is a gift from me,” Somni said. “You shouldn’t throw your life away so recklessly.”

While she was talkin, I was tryin’ to get the police on the line. Half of me expected it to get blocked by whatever evil shenanigans she’d put in my head but the truth was worse. The call started to go through and then just stopped with an error I hadn’t seen before.

“Too many connections?” I whispered.

“The authorities are dealing with too many other problems to listen to you, just like always,” the tank hissed with Somni’s voice. “Even if they wanted to help you they couldn’t.”

The whole city should have been lit up behind us. Instead, the lights were flickerin’ and goin’ out all over the place.

“You were just one part of a larger tapestry,” Somni said. “You could have been immortalized in glory but instead you will be as forgotten as your brother.”

That was the wrong thing to say to me. If she’d said almost anything else I would have gone running home to make sure Bloom was okay and just kept her safe until it was all over. Instead she pushed my buttons hard enough that I wasn’t gonna back down even from whatever kind of steel horror she was.

Now the main problem here is, you can’t show up to a tank fight with your bare hooves, a lesson I learned real quick after I snapped and bucked her in what amounted to a face. There was a nice deep sound, a weird feelin’ in my back legs, and Somni didn’t budge an inch.

Well, not until she kicked me like a tin can. It was a lot like bein’ hit by an arrogant, bitchy truck, and I blacked out for a second even with all the safety gear in my skull. I came to so disoriented and dizzy that I thought the world was spinning around me and I was about half right since I’d been punted hard enough that I hadn’t actually landed.

I hit the wall just about the worst way possible for somepony with recent spinal surgery, and if it hadn’t been made of plywood so cheap it was practically compressed newspaper I would have been killed on impact. As it was, I just punched through the outside wall and halfway through the next, danglin’ with my front end in one room and my flank pointing back the way I’d come.

“I’m amazed we aren’t dead,” Somni sighed, in my head.

Visions of spider-tanks burned right through my concussion and I scrambled to free myself in an uncoordinated mess that got me nowhere.

“If you’re smart you’ll stay here and play dead,” Somni advised. “She probably thinks she finished you off, and she’s not far from the truth.”

“She? What in the hay are you talkin’ about?!”

“You little ponies are so simple-minded. The other me,” Somni said. She sounded like she was tryin’ to explain something simple to a foal. I didn’t much like bein’ the foal. “The me in the Starbeast.”

“The you in the…” I hesitated. “I thought it was a remote control.”

“Don’t be stupid. With my plan the first thing to go down would be SolNet. Direct control was the only option. That’s why I had my servant load my data into you. It was highly compressed, and your limited systems needed several hours to unpack it. Honestly, if I’d known there was so much empty room in your head I wouldn’t have bothered trimming so much.”

I blushed, feeling insulted. “There-- there ain’t that much empty room!”

“If there was anything impressive in here you wouldn’t get punched in the face for a living. Even the war machine had less spare room. I had to strip out almost all the non-essentials to make myself fit, which is why part of me is still here.”

I glared at nothing, wishing I could direct it between my own ears.

“Since I seem to be stuck here for the moment, take my advice and admit you’re beaten.”

“I ain’t never been beaten,” I said. I sucked in my gut and squeezed, wiggling myself through an inch at a time and only getting a few nasty splinters and scrapes for my trouble. They didn’t really hurt none as long as I didn’t think about it.

I took a step towards the window, and before I could take a second one, my legs twitched and started to freeze up.

“Not only are you wrong, you’re going to get both of us killed,” Somni said. “No great loss on your part, of course.”

“I ain’t gonna let you stop me!” I growled, and pushed. I could feel her trying to take control, but for some reason, as long as I focused, my body was doing what I wanted. Maybe if I hadn’t spent most of my life thinking about hoofwork and stances she’d have been able to keep me in that room.

I jumped out of the empty windowframe, landing on the street and rolling. The big monster was only a block and a half away, slowly making its way towards the palace. It almost seemed to be limping, having to move each leg with the deliberate thought I’d used during physical therapy when I was learning to walk again.

“It’s struggling because the hardware is damaged,” Somni said. “If you’d agreed to be the pilot the operation would have been much smoother.”

“That means there’s still a chance to stop it,” I said. “Hey! Big an’ ugly!” I grabbed a brick and threw it like we were in Fillydelphia after a hoofball game.

The brick bounced off its leg, but served to get its attention. The tank turned around to face me. I had to think quickly.

“Come an’ get me if you think yer hard enough!” I yelled, before I could think too hard about how dumb it was to taunt a heavily armored vehicle.

I started running, hoping it would chase me, and a bolt of light cracked through the air next to me and exploded a crater into the road. I mentally upgraded the tank to both heavily armored and armed.

The jump was half instinct and half something else, throwing myself down a muddy hill and rolling until I hit an unfinished wall. My hat was gone, and I could smell burning hair.

“Her aim is improving,” Somni said. “That would have taken your head off instead of just your hat if I hadn’t helped.”

“Am I supposed t’ thank you?” I whispered. I stood up and looked up to the street. The spider stomped up to the edge and looked down, focusing on me. The wall exploded into rubble as I bolted, getting around a corner and out of its sight. The building was some kind of unfinished factory or apartment space, so early in construction that it was mostly just an empty box.

“I wouldn’t get too comfortable. The Starbeast is armed with a Bolt Thrower.”

“And?” My ears twitched, and something dripped into my eye. I blinked a few times and wiped a thin trail of blood from my face, following it to my ear. It should have hurt. I couldn’t feel it at all.

“And these walls aren’t even structurally sound enough to keep out the rain.” Magical energy tore through the plywood and plaster to my left. There wasn’t time to worry about what I wasn’t feeling. The path of destruction crept towards me like a chainsaw biting into a pinata and I was the candy filling. I ran for my life, and a set of stairs flashed in my vision.

I knew it was Somni manipulating me, but it was a darn good idea. My legs were shaky but I pushed myself up the stairs ahead of the approaching death, the storm of magic bolts tearing the stairs out behind me.

“Made it,” I panted, between breaths, lying down on the upper level.

“Don’t relax yet,” Somni said. The whole building shook before she could explain. Not that she needed to. I wasn’t the most observant pony in the world but I could hardly miss it when the spider smashed into the building.

“She’s real persistent,” I whispered.

“You can’t beat her. You have no weapons and you’re badly injured.”

“I feel fine!”

“That’s because I’m managing your peripheral nervous system. Both of your back ankles are broken, you have several cracked ribs, and the number of bruises and cuts you’re ignoring are higher than you can count, by which I mean more than four.”

“I can count higher than four,” I growled.

“Really? With how you’ve been acting I assumed you needed to count on your hooves. I’d take a step back if I were you.”

I jerked back away from the edge.

“I don’t think she knows where you are. If you’re careful, you might be able to evade her,” Somni said. “Just stay still and quiet. I’d prefer not to be blown up along with the rest of your hardware.”

I had a really clever reply to that but I couldn’t say it on account of I was trying not to get shot and I can’t remember what it was right now. I crawled over to the edge and peeked over. The monster was right below me, scanning the shadows and trying to figure out where I’d gone. Right on top I could see the hatch I’d opened before when Somni was controlling me.

An idea started percolating.

“Don’t,” Somni warned.

That settled it. If she hated it, it was a good idea. I jumped down on top of the monster. It almost jumped in surprise and tried to toss me off, and it woulda worked except my hoof shot out practically by itself and grabbed the handle on the access hatch.

“The hatch is locked from the inside,” Somni said, while I pulled myself back into place, getting two hooves on the handle and bracing myself. “You won’t be able to open it.”

“Well y’all could try helpin’ with that instead of complainin’!”

She was right, though. Tuggin’ on the hatch wasn’t getting me anywhere. There was a tiny bit of give, but not enough to get anywhere.

“I’m not interested in helping you,” Somni said. Graphs started popping up in my vision and half-blinding me. “Maybe pictures will make you understand. This one compares your lifting strength to the durability of the hatch. This one shows your chance of winning over time. It goes down, which is impressive since it started at zero. This one shows the damage you’ve managed to do to your body. I’ve outlined problem areas in red.”

The whole thing was red.

“The biggest problem area is here.” An arrow pointed to my head. “Although the skull serves as effective armor plating it seems the contents have become scrambled.”

“I hate you,” I mumbled. I adjusted my stance and started pulling harder.

The outline of my body started flashing red around my front hooves.

“The damage is getting worse. You can’t properly feel it, but you’re tearing your joints apart.”

I ignored her and kept pulling. I felt my shoulder pop. The air split with a scream of tearing steel.

“Interesting. The lock held out but the hinge must have rusted through,” Somni said. I stumbled, using my weight and the spider’s own thrashing to pull the hatch free the rest of the way, exposing the glowing, cracked screens within.

I fell inside and landed badly on my right forehoof. I tried not to look at it. It was bending in a way that it weren’t supposed to and part of me thought it wouldn’t hurt as long as I pretended it was okay. That was probably shock talking, but it made a lot of sense.

A pulsing crystal core was set into the machine like a beating heart. I reared back and kicked it.

“Stop that!” The voice came from the screens around me instead of my head. “Why are you being so difficult?!”

“Somepony told me I’m scrambled upstairs, but the truth is I just don’t like to lose,” I said. Another buck to the crystal and the screens flickered. The Somni in the spider-tank screamed, and I kept stomping, over and over again until I was screaming and she was screaming and both of us collapsed.

Everything went silent. The loudest noise was my pulse in my ears, but I swear I only half-heard that, the rest echoing through my whole body in waves somewhere between pressure and pain.

“I hope you’re pleased with yourself,” Somni said.

“All that work? Somepony better be happy about it,” I retorted. “I punched out a tank. You know what? I ain’t just pleased, I feel like a darn champion.”

I held my left hoof up. It was about the only part of me that wasn’t broken. The crowd went wild.

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