• Published 18th Jan 2012
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Fallout Equestria: The Ditzy Doo Chronicles - Ten Mihara



200 Years is a long time. It's time to tell my side of the story.

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Chapter 6: Hearts of Steel

Chapter 6: Hearts of Steel

“Let's just say the Steel Rangers ain't exactly got a reputation as heroes o' the common pony.”

Priorities.

One thing I learned early in my days as a mailmare was that certain items take priority. Sometimes the priority is determined arbitrarily, while other times it was fairly obvious which items, events or ponies were more important. Then, there are the times when it isn't so clear cut. How do you figure out what takes priority if all of the things that need to be seen to are important? In those moments, that which is truly important will make itself known, but it might not always be what you want.

After hearing the broadcast from the new DJ P0N-3, the priorities of May and I came into conflict. I wanted to be a good friend to May, and talk to her about her drug use. However, the ponies coming out of the Stables that were opening would assuredly be May's first and foremost concern. As well, the possibility of finding other groups of ghouls in Fillydelphia or Trottingham might give her the chance she needed to study more non-feral ghouls than just the two of us. Was her occasional dash huffing really a bigger issue than all that?

In the end I decided that, for now at least, it was not. May came down shortly after Remix's first broadcast, and I immediately filled her in on everything the new DJ had announced. As I anticipated, she was thrilled at the prospect of finding other groups of civilized ghouls. Even more so at the opening of the Stables, which to her was a sign that Equestria might be restored after all. It was the happiest I'd seen her in a long time. Perhaps if things went well, she wouldn't feel the need to escape through dash again. Wishful thinking, but at least it was a start.

Before we got underway, I gave Gizmo's revolver and Stronghoof's rifle over to May. She was disappointed that he had been unable to repair That Gun, but was grateful for his attempt, as well as his gift of a replacement. She slipped That Gun into its holster, then slung the rifle over her back using a strap of leather. We turned back for one last look at the Macintosh War Memorial.

As we looked on, Stronghoof emerged yet again from the cistern. He limped over to us, seating himself at our side and gazing upon the memorial. “Y'know,” he said, barely above a whisper, “I joined the Equestrian Military because of Big Macintosh.” May and I looked at him curiously. “I never actually met him, but as a younger buck I heard stories of the heroism of Big Macintosh and others like him. Marauders, fighting to protect the Equestrian way. I wanted to be a hero, just like him.”

Stronghoof's ears drooped, and he seemed on the verge of crying again. I placed a comforting hoof on his shoulder. “Even heroes like Big Macintosh make mistakes,” I said, remembering that Macintosh himself had been involved in the Smartypants squabble, among other small incidents of trouble in the past. “He'd have been proud of you for trying to fix things.”

Stronghoof gave me a small smile, then stood up. He reached around to a satchel hanging on his side. From within he produced a half dozen healing potions, a decent quantity of bullets for the rifle, and a small amount of food. For May and I, it would last a lot longer. As May moved to put the new supplies away, she remarked that her binoculars were missing. She'd probably left them in the library, but neither of us had any desire the retrieve them at this point.

“I was a locksmith before the war,” stated Stronghoof with a touch of pride. “I was able to get at some supplies from Ironshod and the clinic that nopony else could.” He smirked at us; “I also locked a bit away in the library, so if things don't go so well talking to my son, I can at least return here.”

“Wait,” blurted May, “you can't be planning on fighting anypony, can you?” She immediately trotted over to his peg leg and glance at it nervously. Her horn lit up, as though she was trying to examine it.

Before she could, Stronghoof bopped her on the muzzle with it. “I was not planning on fighting, no,” he stated simply. “I just wanted you to know that I would be able to handle myself. Besides, you've got bigger things to worry about than an old cripple like me.”

“But...” began May, before Stronghoof bopped her again with the peg. She glowered at him. “Fine,” she said, turning up her nose. I giggled. “Don't blame me if you get infected splinters.” Stronghoof gave a wry chuckle.

With a last, brief laugh shared amongst the three of us, we turned away from each other. Stronghoof moved back towards Ponyville, his pace slowed by the peg but filled with resolve. I wished him the best of luck. May and I turned away from the town, out sights set forward. We departed from Ponyville, but it would not be the last time I returned there.

***

May and I had decided to head to Fillydelphia first. Or rather, she had decided. She reasoned that the city housed the former headquarters of Stable-Tec, the very same site from which Gizmo had gotten his information on the Stables' successful sealing all those years ago. She believed that, if the building was still intact, then it might reveal which Stables had opened. From there, we could either go to those Stables ourselves or get the information to those in a position to help. I was inclined more towards the latter; Stable ponies seemed like the type to think ghoul ponies were monsters and I was sick of getting shot at just because of my appearance.

That said, the trip to Fillydelphia was going to be a long one. I could fly there from Ponyville within a day, but May was once again insistent on staying on the ground. Considering how often we nearly got killed by getting shot or blown up, I figured she would have gotten over her fear of heights by now. As a result, we had to make the trek on hoof. Getting from Ponyville to Fillydelphia on land meant going around the Everfree Forest (the place was bad enough before the megaspells, and neither of us had any interest in finding out how much worse it had gotten).

The trip was going to take nine days, maybe less depending on how often we needed to stop and rest. Just because ghouls don't need sleep, doesn't mean we don't get tired and worn out. While originally opposed to the long trip, I realized that it would give me a plenty of opportunities to talk to May about her dash usage. Or so I thought. As we travelled, I found that, even when we stopped to rest, bringing up the subject was difficult. I just didn't know how to bring it up without sounding pushy.

An opportunity finally presented itself on the fourth day out. May and I had circled around the Everfree Forest's northern border before heading straight south towards Fillydelphia. In doing so, we ended up in the arid western regions of Equestria. It was fairly easy to travel through the desert; train tracks leading south and May's Pipbuck mapping system kept us heading in the right direction. That was, until we came across the old frontier town of Appleoosa.

Forty years prior, DJ P0N-3 had informed the survivors on the surface that the frontier town, being well out of the way of any population centers, was largely unaffected by the megaspell blasts. What Turntable didn't know, and probably couldn't have anticipated, was the ferocity of wild desert windstorms. Without the pegasi around to keep things under control, the wild desert winds had blown huge amounts of irradiated particles from distant regions into the desert dust bowl. May's Pipbuck had been picking up large amounts of background radiation throughout the desert.

At first we didn't think much of it, considering that all of Equestria was at least partly irradiated. After forty years the levels had died down considerably, especially in more remote regions, but before that, it had been more than enough to be lethal to any regular pony. May and I found this out when we finally reached the town. At first we saw nothing; the town looked amazingly well preserved for how quickly it had been constructed decades prior. Then we went inside one of the buildings.

My eyes watered at what I saw in the former sheriff's office. Several small skeletons were laying around a pair of larger ones; a family that had died of radiation poisoning. We searched the rest of the buildings, but knew better than to expect any survivors. In all, we found the skeletons of two hundred and seventy-three ponies, at least fifty of which, judging by the size of their remains, wouldn't even have been old enough to have their cutie marks.

We found two dozen more skeletons in the area surrounding the town. Some were half buried by shifting sands, and there was likely a great number we never found. In all likelihood they had been heading towards the town based on Turntable's advice, and were killed by an irradiated sandstorm before they could reach it. We even found a train that had pulled into the town on the morning of the megaspell blasts, still half full of provisions that the town hadn't lasted long enough to consume.

While I was inspecting the train for anything that might still be useful to us, May excused herself to 'check something out'. The vagueness of the statement implied what she was really about to do. I nodded to her and let her wander off, but once she was a fair distance away I followed her. I flew twenty feet into the air and then after the path she had left in the sand. It was easier enough to catch her by air.

***

I caught up with May just as she reentered the old sheriff's office. I set down gently and quietly a moment later, then swung the door open. May had seated herself close to the family of skeletons, and had already taken an inhaler from her saddlebags. It was hovering less than an inch from her mouth when I opened the door. I glowered at her as well as I could, though my lazy eye started to roll again.

To my surprise, May did not shout, stammer or even try to hide the inhaler. She simply let out a resigned sigh. She set the inhaler down, then looked at me with a pained expression. Glancing at the skeletons, then back to me again, she asked. “How do you do it?” I was caught off guard, not expecting to be asked such a question. May continued; “How can you go through all of this, and not feel the need to get away from it?”

I was speechless. From what I knew of drug addictions, or at least what I had been told by the MoM, drug users tended to be violent, abrasive, and often in denial of what they were doing. May was none of these things. Did her experience as a medic give her some sort of advantage? Had she found some kind of balance that let her do the drug without becoming an addict? Or was it something else? “What do you mean?” I asked, not really sure of what else to say.

“I never touched this stuff before the megaspells went off,” stated May. Considering what I had seen in Manehattan all those years ago, I didn't think she was lying. May confirmed this; “We only even kept some at the hospital to ease the suffering of patients we couldn't save. The first time I used it was after we scavenged Manehattan General. I focused on trying to help ponies at first, which is how I met you, Stronghoof, Gizmo and the others. Somehow I was able to remove myself from everything bad that had happened by sticking to what I had been trained to do by the MoP.”

“You're still trying to help ponies now,” I noted. “You haven't changed at all these last forty years.”

“No, things have been pretty stagnant,” replied May, “but forty years ago in Manehattan, I changed. The hospital made it abundantly clear that things were never going to be the same. Seeing the building destroyed, Buttercup's corpse and the zombie buck that you killed, more than anything before that, drove home the inescapable truth that Equestria was no more.”

“That's not true,” I countered. “Equestria isn't gone! It's-”

“Isn't it?” cut in May. “Equestria was a luscious, fertile, green nation that was home to millions upon millions of ponies. Now look at it. Look at where we are.” May once again gestured to the family of skeletons inches away from her. “Equestria is gone. I'll keep doing what I can to save what's left, but... sometimes I just need to get away from it. To go back to the real Equestria, before those Zebras fucked everything up.”

I wasn't quite sure what to say. If I was bartering with a merchant, I'd have been able to figure something out real fast. This was an entirely different use of speech, and I had no idea if what I was going to say would be of any comfort to her or not. “I know it looks bad,” I began, trying to find words that wouldn't upset her, “but... think of the Stables! Pony life goes on. We survived; thousands survived on the surface and nearly a hundred thousand more below ground. Equestria might be scorched, but ponies can do so much. Once the Stable dwellers emerge we can rebuild! There must be a way.”

May looked up at me. A small smile touched her muzzle. She shook her head, letting out a soft chuckle. “I envy you Ditzy, I really do. That you can go through everything we've been through and still hold on to that hope.” I was surprised when May levitated up the dash inhaler, placing it back in her saddlebags. “Perhaps you can see something I can't.” She stood up, walking towards the door. “Perhaps I should at least wait and see. After all, we've got a long time ahead of us.”

As May walked out of the Sheriff's office, I pondered her words. According to her, radiation constantly heals our bodies. So long as it remains present, even in trance amounts, the effects of ageing were effectively negated. She had theorized early on that we might still be alive after a hundred years. Would that be enough time to see Equestria restored? I really hoped so. As much for May's sake now as anything else.

***

Despite our little chat, I still caught May taking that dose of dash after I finished gathering some supplies from the train. I wasn't pleased about it, but there really wasn't much I could do to stop her at this point. At least, not without putting our friendship at risk. I hoped that once we reached Fillydelphia, her work would keep her from going back to it again. I filled my packs as much as I could from the abandoned train. Although May and I might not need that much, there were probably going to be ponies who did, and I wanted to be prepared in case we found any.

We left Appleoosa later that same day, without any further disruptions of the town. Although it pained me to simply leave those poor ponies where they had died, the idea of disturbing them had its own lack of appeal. As well May wanted us to press onwards towards Fillydelphia. There, we might find the means to help other ponies that were still alive to be saved. May also reasoned that, since the radiation had since fallen below lethal levels, that other ponies would come to inhabit Appleoosa again. Hopefully they would have the luxury of seeing that the dead were properly seen to.

The only trouble we encountered on the rest of our trip through the badlands was a nasty sandstorm. However, we had nothing to fear from the radiation carried on the wind, and May's shielding spell kept us from being eroded by the thousands of tiny daggers that the sand was made into. It was quite plain to see how the deceased of Appleoosa had been so quickly stripped of their flesh after death. My heart wrenched, and I had to force myself not to think about it. Focus on those that could still be saved.

The storm lasted for days, as most seemed to without the other pegasus ponies around to monitor and control them. By the time it subsided, May and I were already at the edge of the badlands, less than a day's trot from Fillydelphia. The emptiness of the badlands gave way to the emptiness of the rest of the Equestrian Wasteland. The only real difference was the feeling of sickly grass beneath my hooves instead of sand between the train tracks we were following. That only lasted until the tracks curved to run along side a road, which May's Pipbuck indicated would lead us the rest of the way to Fillydelphia.

We followed the road south and east for another day, and the skyline of Fillydelphia loomed ever closer as we walked. It was neither as broad or as monolithic as Manehattan, but made up for that with a few traits all its own. Many squat builtings with massive smokestacks jutting out of their roofs could be seen. These were the factories that, even before the war, had seen the dawn of Equestria's technological revolution. No smoke came from them now; they were as dead as everypony who had been in the city when the megaspell struck it.

Before we could reach the city however, May brought us to a halt. She glanced at her Pipbuck intently, and I looked over her shoulder, curious as to what held her gaze. She was on the radio display, but instead of turning on DJ P0N-3's station, her hoof hovered over a broadcast that was labelled 'Stable 67'. She looked to me, wondering what I thought. I simply nodded, gesturing for her to go ahead and put it on.

“...Sixty-Seven. Calling all nearby Stable-Tec facilities and peripherals: Stable Sixty-Seven has activated an automated distress signal. Detailed message not found. Priority one danger alert issued; Stable residents in immediate mortal danger. Immediate assistance required. Message repeats: This is an automated signal from Stable Sixty-Seven...”

Before the message got past the word 'distress', May and I were already off galloping towards the source of the signal. May switched off the transmission to check her map, then turned on a dime when the tag for Stable Sixty-Seven appeared west of the city. Despite the fact that we were both rather old at this point, May was still younger and quicker on her hooves than me. I had to take to the air alongside her to keep up.

***

After a few minutes of hard galloping (or flight in my case), we came within sight of a massive quarry off the western edge of Fillydelphia. Apparently the Stable had been built beneath the excavation site after all of its resources had been mined for the city. Before we could get there, the sound of a massive explosion burst through the air from the direction of the quarry. The ground shook from the force of the blast. Fearing the worst, May and I quickened our pace. We gasped when we reached the entrance to the massive gravel pit.

From where we were, we could see wisps of smoke rising faintly from beneath a massive slide of rocks. One whole side of the quarry's entrance had been blown out, and had collapsed in a massive heap. May and I didn't see anypony around, but our attention was pulled upwards by a frantic mechanical whirring. A small mechanical owl was hooting at us. This struck me as a rather odd place for such a thing. I shook the thought aside as it dove towards the far side of the rubble, whirring and clicking hectically.

May and I made our way carefully around the rock slide, not wanting to trigger any further collapse. The mechanical owl drew our attention to a body, buried from the waist back in the rubble. From what I could see, he was wearing heavy armour made of metal that covered everything except his head. He was a unicorn with a tan coat, his mane a pale red colour that was giving way to grey, showing his age. An odd protrusion ran up from the neck of his armour, featuring a visor in front of his eyes and a bit mechanism just below it.

May's horn lit up as she checked the stallion over. He stirred slightly, indicating that he yet lived. There was a nasty gash on his forehead that was bleeding into his left eye, and May's worried look suggested the lower half of his body had been messed up pretty badly by the crushing rocks. The mechanical owl hooted frantically, and I assumed he belonged to whoever this stallion was.

May looked at me sternly. “He's in bad shape from the waist down, but I can still save him,” she said determinedly. “I need you to pull him out of there. I'm going to hold the rocks back so it doesn't collapse any further.”

“Got it,” I said, moving to the front of the half buried stallion.

May's horn lit up, and all of the rocks immediately surrounding the armoured stallion glowed softly, trembling slightly. I placed my hooves firmly beneath the buck's shoulders and pulled, using both my hind legs and wings for leverage. Whatever he was wearing was really heavy. The mechanical owl clamped on the scruff of my neck, trying to help me pull. It wasn't easy to pull the stallion out between his weight and the slippery gravel that covered the ground, but a few minutes later he was free.

The stallion stirred again once he was free of the rubble, and surprised both of us when he managed to stand up. No longer buried, I could see that the stallion was in fact covered almost entirely in his armour, even down to his tail. He was also adorned with a large battle saddle, one side of which bore a minigun, with a drum fed shotgun on the other. There was also a marking of a sword, sparks, wings and gears on the flank of the suit of armour where his cutie mark would be underneath. I recognized the symbol immediately; this pony wore the armour of a Steel Ranger!

The stallion began muttering to himself, not seeming to notice May and I were there. I wondered if he had a concussion. “Medical is down,” he stated obliviously, “but auto-repair is back up.” He stomped a foreleg, and the visor in front of his face lit up with numerous bits of information that looked like gibberish to me. “Prioritize repair of doctor enchantment, then locate the tags for Squire Noodles and Junior Knight Violet.”

May raised a hoof as though to admonish the stallion, but stopped abruptly. As we watched, the gash on his head started to mend all on its own. It was only when it had sealed completely that he seemed to notice May and I were there. “Whoa!” he exclaimed, jumping back a full three feet from us. The barrels of his minigun began to spin. I took an involuntary step back, not wanting to get shot by this terribly well armed warrior. “Non-hostile,” murmured the stallion, and the barrel stopped revving. “I take it that you're not zombies,” he stated cautiously, “considering that you aren't trying to eat me.”

I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding. It was quite a relief to see somepony that asked first instead of just shooting at us. “No,” I replied swifly, hoping to enforce that recognition. After all, ghoul ponies spoke; zombies did not.

May stepped forward; “We came here when we picked up the distress signal from Stable Sixty-Seven,” she stated firmly. “Your owl led us to you after that explosion.”

At May's words, horror spread onto the stallion's face. He turned on the spot, observing the pile of rubble we had pulled him from. “Luna damn it!” he roared. I saw something scroll across the visor, at which point the Steel Ranger clenched his eyes shut, tears pooling. “This was Noodles' first field mission, and Violet was one rank away from her full power armour.” The ranger stomped the ground hard enough to send more rubble tumbling down from the pile.

“What happened?” I asked, stepping closer to the armoured buck. “What was that explosion.”

The ranger turned back towards May and I, opening his now red and puffy eyes. “A trap,” he stated simply. “Noodles, Violet and I received word that this Stable had opened, and were coming as envoys to the ponies inside. We rushed in when we heard the distress signal, but didn't stop to check for hazards. Best I can guess, somepony buried a pressure plate under the gravel and rigged a bunch of dynamite to the quarry wall. I should have been more careful, and now they're dead because of me.”

I wrapped a hoof around the ranger's neck as he hung his head. Before I could tell him not to blame himself, May cut in. “We can mourn your friends later,” she said roughly. “But the ponies in that Stable are still in danger. We need to make sure no other innocent ponies die today.”

The ranger looked up at May and smirked halfheartedly. “You've got a pretty good attitude for a ghoul. I...” the stallion trailed off as he gazed at May. His eyes were drawn to the holster at her shoulder, which still held Gizmo's gun. The stallion's horn lit up, and That Gun was snatched from its holster, floating in front of his visor.

“Hey!” barked May, “give that back!”

The ranger looked at May, glaring coldly at her. “Where did you get this?” His tone was icy, with a hint of ferocity underneath.

“I said give it back!” May demanded.

“Answer me!” shot back the stallion. “Where did you get this? This arcano-tech is-”

“That was given to me by an old friend,” May snarled. I was worried; there was no way we could stand up to this buck, but May wasn't about to give up something so precious. “Now give it back!”

“An old friend...” The ranger looked intently at That Gun, then looked up at May. His eyes moved to her Pipbuck, then back to her face. He turned to look at me, startling me enough that my wings fluttered involuntarily. My lazy eye also started to roll downwards. “Ditzy? May?”

May looked shocked that the stallion knew our names. The identity of this stallion dawned on me as I looked at the way he held That Gun, and the silvery glow around his horn. “Gizmo!?”

***

Upon realizing the identity the identity of the Steel Ranger, I immediately pounced on him to give him a full bodied hug. Upon colliding with his armour, I winded myself, but wrapped my hooves around him anyways. He placed an armoured hoof over my shoulder as well, smiling at me. It was a little odd, as his eyes were still red from the tears he had shed for his companions that had been killed in the rock slide. May and I had thought Gizmo long dead, but here he was. I told him as much.

“Nope,” he said, smirking. “Came close a few times, but managed to keep on ticking. Frankly I thought you two would be long dead by now.”

“Ghouls age really slowly,” I stated, quoting May's simplified explanation. “Although the last time you saw us was before we were fully ghoulified.”

“It's very nice to see you're alive and well Gizmo,” cut in May, “but we can catch up with each other after we rescue those Stable dwellers.”

I released Gizmo from my hug and we both looked to May, nodding intently. Directed by her pipbuck, we made our way to the mine entrance, wherein the Stable was concealed. It was the site of a slaughter. Eight ponies, all wearing barding with the Stable-Tec logo and the number '67' emblazoned on the back lay dead in drying pools of their own blood. Four of them were wearing armoured barding that read 'Stable-Security', but they didn't appear to have any weapons on them. Several of them looked scorched and were missing legs. I felt sickness tinged with rage at those responsible. Their selfishness was inexcusable.

“Bandits,” remarked Gizmo. “Can't say how they knew this Stable was opening, but I'd wager these ponies were a scouting party.” He sniffed at one of the charred ponies; “More dynamite. Probably caught these poor souls by surprise, then gunned down the rest.”

“They're no better than zebras,” growled May. “I didn't think anypony here in Equestria would be this depraved, especially considering how few of us left there are.”

Gizmo let out a saddened sigh and shook his head. “No, but they do anyways. I've gotten reports of similar raids on at least two other Stables.” A look of stern determination fell across his face. “Not this time though.” He let out a whistle, causing the mechanical owl to fly down and perch itself on his shoulder. “Gearwing, I need you to check the entrance and make sure it's clear. Lethal force is authorized.”

The owl hooted and whirred, then flew into the open mine shaft. The shaft was dimly lit as far as I could see, oil lamps lining the wall. I watched Gearwing fly into the shaft, then disappear off to the side. It the tunnel remained deathly silent until a pair of voices, carried on echoes, reached us from the passage that Gearwing had taken.

“What the hell...” was all that was said before the air was filled with a strange zorching sound, followed by pained yelling. A few gunshots sounded off in return, but the sound of more blasts from Gearwing's magical energy weapon announced that they had missed. After a few moments, the yelling stopped, and all was quiet again. Gizmo's owl flew back up to us, hooting proudly.

“We're clear,” stated Gizmo. The three of us galloped into the shaft, then turned down the passage Gearwing had taken before.

The passage continued for a while until we came the the entrance to Stable Sixty-Seven. Just outside the door was the body of a bandit, his face marred by large, painful looking burns. He was dressed in crude armour that didn't look like it offered much protection. The skin and coat on one side of his face was completely burnt off, and the smell of it was choking in the enclose space. Near the corpse was a pile of glowing pink ash, a broken gun laying next to it.

Gizmo stepped over the dead bandits without a second look, making his way through the frame that would have held a massive steel door if the Stable had still been sealed. His turned quickly to the left as an internal door opened to the side of the entrance hall, admitting three more bandit ponies. Gizmo's minigun roared, quickly turning them into bullet riddled meat. He turned on the spot, looking intently at his visor. Once he had scanned the immediate area, he motioned for May and I to enter.

“Keep your E.F.S. Up,” Gizmo told May. She nodded and kicked her Pipbuck leg. Before going any further, Gizmo's horn lit up, floating out That Gun and a couple of tools from compartments in his armour. After a few minutes of tinkering, he floated the gun back to May. “There, that should do for now. I'll give it a proper tune up once we've secured this place.”

“Thank you,” said May, taking the gun from Gizmo's telekinetic grasp with her own magic. She quickly checked its load, then held it at breast height.

I had neither a weapon nor an E.F.S. “What should I do?” I asked. May knew full well I wasn't any good with guns, and without a Pipbuck to target for me, I was hosed if forced into a gunfight.

“Just a minute,” said Gizmo, once again scanning the immediate area with his visor. He led May and I into the room to the right of the Stable entrance, where a Stable-Tec terminal sat on a desk near the wall. Gizmo's horn lit up and a cable sprung from the should of his armour, plugging into the terminal, which blazed to life. Torrents of data flew across the screen, and also across his visor. Gizmo telekinetically tapped keys at an alarming speed as he tore through the information on the terminal.

“Okay,” said Gizmo as he disconnected from the terminal. “I hacked into the Stable's security monitoring. There's a dozen bandits in the atrium, and another dozen scattered throughout the rest of the Stable.” His visor lit up, followed immediately by a beeping from May's pipbuck. “I've uploaded the location of the clinic. There's a couple bandits there, but I don't think you'll have a problem.”

“The Stable ponies appear to be holed up in the underground orchard,” Gizmo continued. “There's six hundred of them, and they might need medical attention.” May nodded, checking the map information Gizmo had sent her. “I'll head to the atrium and clear out the bandits there.”

Our old friend finally turned to me. “Ditzy, I want you to start heading towards the orchard. May and I will meet you there once we've taken care of the rest of the bandits. Gearwing will lead the way, and if you fly you should be able to avoid getting noticed. If you do run into any bandits, Gearwing will take care of them.” Gizmo's visor beeped again, eliciting a whirring hoot from his owl.

I nodded warily. I wasn't looking forward to having to fight other ponies, but there were hundreds of innocents in need of our help. Convincing the bandits to surrender didn't seem possible either; there were almost no normal ponies that would even listen to a ghoul, let alone surrender to one. “I'll do my best,” was all I could say.

“Hold on,” said May before I could turn to leave. She levitated Stronghoof's rifle free of her back and floated it over to me. “I know you're not a good shot, but I want you to have it with you, just in case.”

I grasped the rifle in my teeth and smiled around it, secretly hoping I wouldn't have to use it. I tried to say 'thank you', but what came out was a bunch of mumbling as I tried to talk around the gun. I hung it by the strap around my neck, then repeated my thanks.

“One last thing,” said Gizmo, his horn glowing brightly. His spell became evident when his voice rang out throughout the Stable. However, Gizmo's spell was different from May's. Instead of amplifying his voice, it boomed out of every single speaker, radio and broadcaster in the Stable. Even May's pipbuck blared with his voice.

“ATTENTION RESIDENTS OF STABLE SIXTY-SEVEN. MY NAME IS GIZMO: STEEL RANGER AND FORMER STABLE-TEC ENGINEER. REMAIN CALM AND STAY WHERE YOU ARE; HELP IS COMING. THOSE WHO INVADED THIS STABLE ARE ADVISED TO LAY DOWN THEIR ARMS AND SURRENDER. THOSE WHO DO NOT WILL BE TREATED AS HOSTILE AND DISPATCHED WITHOUT LENIENCY OR EXCEPTION.”

***

After Gizmo's announcement to the Stable, the three of us split up. May went through the door to the left of the entrance hall, which would lead her to the clinic and Overmare's office. Gizmo went straight ahead towards the atrium, intending to clear out the better part of the bandits. That left me heading right. I would be able to follow a path set by Gizmo, as led by Gearwing, through the residential area of the Stable. It would eventually bring me down to the underground orchard.

As I hovered down the passages as quietly as I could, Gearwing flying equally stealthily beside me, I began to notice things about the Stable. The lights in the ceiling let out a constant, low pitched whine. I wondered how anypony could put up with it. As well, the walls were painfully dull; clean, sterile, and entirely grey, except when interrupted by the markings on doors. It also felt very narrow and cramped. I began to feel a little claustrophobic, and wanted to go back outside.

I couldn't though; Gizmo and May were counting on me to get to the orchard and reassure the Stable ponies, who were probably fearing for their lives after their home was invaded. They had also deliberately given me the path of least resistance. There were only two bandits in the entire residential area, and they could be avoided with a few turns in the right places. I wondered if Gizmo might have been wrong about that, as my progression through the Stable was rather linear, even if I was turning and descending at the end of each hall.

All thoughts about the Stable's layout fled when I finally reached the residential area. The endless grey of the walls gave way to splatters of red; the blood of the ponies who had lived here. If it hadn't been for that, I might have missed the slaughter I was now hovering over. Down this hallway alone, I could see the bodies of a dozen ponies, all of them wearing Stable barding. Trails of blood leading into a number of rooms spoke of numerous others I couldn't see. Bullet and knife wounds covered all of them.

I felt an intense sadness well up in me, and I had to fight not to be sick. I didn't want to unintentionally desecrate the hall of fallen ponies. These ponies had survived the end of the war; the holocaust that destroyed most of Equestria. They had been safe down here, they had been secure. Then the doors opened, and the wasteland was let in. Before the ponies here even knew what was coming, the horrors of the surface destroyed what their lives had been.

Gizmo had claimed that this had happened to other Stables that had opened. Had we ponies really become so depraved in only forty years? Images of Ponyville, barely recognizable now, drifted through my mind. I saw images of so many ponies I knew that were now dead fade away. Perhaps we had already been like this, and the war had just given us an excuse to show it. Perhaps, under everything else, ponies really were selfish monsters.

I shook my head violently; No! There were still good ponies out there; Stronghoof, Gizmo, May, DJ P0N-3, all of whom were doing their part to try and help ponies. The Stable ponies too; they didn't know the desperation of the wasteland, and would have grown up better for it. Once more of them started to return to the surface, things would definitely change for the better. And that started right here, right now.

“I've seen enough of this,” I said to nopony in particular.

I swallowed the traces of bile that had threatened to escape from my muzzle and flew through the Stable halls with renewed determination. I again lamented being unable to tend to the dead, but there were living ponies to see to, like May always said. If Gizmo was anything to go by though, the Steel Rangers would take care of things once the Stable was secure anyways. He had a will of steel and a heart of gold. He was suffering too at the loss of his two companions, but pressed on anyways. I couldn't do any less.

***

As I reached the lower levels of the residential area, Gearwing came to a sudden stop. I stopped as well, looking to the mechanical owl that was my guide. Its head turned a full one hundred-eighty degrees, scanning the surrounding rooms. From what Gizmo had said, it had something similar to May's E.F.S. Its head stopped turning when it gazed into a room to my right. It fluttered into the room, and began looking about sporadically.

I flew into the room afterwards, setting down on the floor as quietly as I could. There were two bodies in here; one mare and one stallion. Probably a couple, I mused. Both had been standing right in front of the door and taken a number of small caliber shots to the chest. Gearwing had flown past them, into what looked like a master bedroom. It was staring intently at the bed, it's beak open and magical energy weapon shimmering softly, but not yet firing.

And then I heard it. My ears perked up, catching the sound of small, barely audible sobs. It was the crying of a foal. I quickly trotted into the room and told Gearwing to stand down. Apparently his sensor thingies weren't very clear on what the entities they picked up were. I knelt down beside the bed, glancing under the frame. I lifted a trailing bit of sheet to see who was hiding underneath.

It was indeed a foal; a unicorn filly with a soft green coat. Her forehooves were pressed tightly over her face, as if trying to shield herself from the nightmare that had invaded the Stable. She chanced a glance when the light from the room entered through the lifted sheet. She took one look at me and screamed. “M-m-m-monster pony! Mommy! Daddy! Help me!”

The little unicorn, no longer attempting to conceal herself, scooted back and out the other side of the bed. She didn't watch where she was going, and her hindquarters bumped into the wall roughly. With no further space to flee, she covered her face with her hooves again. I stepped away from the bed and slowly made my way around to the other side. The filly was shuddering, and a tangy smell told me just how frightened she was.

Still, I wasn't a bad pony, or a monster. “I'm not going to hurt you,” I said, clearing my throat in an attempt to reduce the gruffness of my voice.

The filly's shuddering did not subside, but she chanced another glance at me. Her eyes betrayed the absolute terror she was feeling from the sight of me. Couldn't really blame her; at that age, even I had been afraid of the boogeypony, whom I was sure I now resembled. “Mommy taught me a spell to make bad dreams go away,” she said, glaring at me. “I'll make you and all this go away, just you wait!”

The filly's horn lit up, sputtering with a soft green light. Nothing happened, although I had expected that. The glow died and she panted, still looking right at me. “I'm sorry,” I offered, “but this isn't a dream.” I didn't have much experience dealing with children, but I hoped I could at least calm her down. “What's your name?”

“Mommy told me to hide under the bed,” she replied. “She said I would be safe so long as I stayed there and didn't come out. She was scared, and I wanted her to hide with me until the bad ponies went away, but she and Daddy went to try and make them leave.”

My heart broke for the foal, but right now I needed to convince her to trust me, even if just a little bit. If I could get her to the orchard, she would be safe with the other Stable ponies. “I'm here to help,” I said, trying again. “Did you hear Gizmo over the speakers?”

The filly nodded tentatively. “He talked like the Overmare; said he was going to help us.”

“I'm his friend,” I said, hoping I sounded believable. “He's making the bad ponies go away right now. He told me all your friends were safe in the orchard. He wanted me to take you down there.”

“But you're a monster pony,” protested the filly. “You might be playing tricks so you can take me away and gobble me up.”

I shook my head, causing my lazy eye to wobble around. The filly let out a small, involuntary giggle, then clamped her hooves over her mouth. “I'm not a monster pony, I'm a...” I paused for a moment, wondering what to say. There was no way I could explain ghouls ponies to her in a way she'd understand, at least not quickly. “It's a curse,” I blurted. “An evil enchantress hexed me to look like this.” It wasn't entirely a lie, since my condition was a result of a type of magic.

“R-really?” stammered the little green unicorn, putting her hooves at her sides. “You're not going to eat me or anything?”

“Nope,” I replied, feeling slightly more confident. To emphasize this, I took a box of single serve cake out of my saddlebags. “I usually prefer muffins, but this is all I've got right now.”

The filly's eyes lit up at the sight of the cake. “Can... can I have some? Oh, and my name is Emerald.”

“I'm Ditzy Doo,” I said, smiling. My eye rolled again and she laughed. It was good to hear. Now I just had to get her to safety. “I'll let you have the cake, but first we need to go find your friends.”

“And Mommy and Daddy too right?” Emerald said, almost pleading. “I'm supposed to ask them before I eat any sweets.”

I mentally kicked myself; I couldn't let her know her parents were dead, at least not until she was safe. “Maybe,” I said, not committing either way. “Most of the others are in the orchard, so we should look there first.”

Emerald nodded fervently. I felt bad for lying to her, but my first priority was making sure she stayed safe, just like her mother had wanted.

***

Between crying and wetting herself, Emerald was a mess. I allowed her a few minutes of privacy in the bathroom connected to the bedroom to wash up. I wasn't about to let her see the bodies of her parents, not yet. When she returned, I instructed her to climb onto my back so I could fly her the rest of the way. I managed to convince her to keep her eyes closed by telling her that flying was scary if they were open. She remarked that I could use a bath, but didn't say anything else.

With Emerald in tow, I started flying back towards the orchard again. There was only one more level of residences between where I was now and the sub level that held the orchard. I discovered this when I stopped to check a wall chart showing the Stable's layout. As I descended into the last residential level, the number of bodies of Stable ponies dropped to none. Apparently everypony on this lowest level had enough time to flee, and I was greatly thankful for it. The sight of corpses never grew any less unpleasant.

Before I could reach the end of this hall however, Gearwing began to hoot loudly. I came to a stop in midair, and I felt Emerald clutch at my back tightly. Two bandit ponies stepped out of the room at the end of the hall. One was a unicorn levitating a small firearm, the other an earth pony with a nasty looking knife in her teeth. They both sneered cruelly at me.

“Looks like we missed somepony,” crowed the unicorn. I suddenly felt very sure that these ponies were the ones responsible for many, if not all, of the deaths on the floors above.

I reared up in the air, Emerald clinging tightly. I heard her 'eep', and felt her shuddering again. I glanced at Gearwing; “Get rid of these bad ponies,” I said, without hesitation. They were clearly not looking to surrender.

The mechanical owl was happy to oblige, flying straight past me towards the bandits. Startled by the sudden action, the unicorn fired her gun a number of times in rapid succession. However, the owl was small, fast and moved sporadically. All of the shots missed. Gearwing returned fire with blasts of magical energy from its beak. The gun wielding unicorn had no further comments as her body dissolved into pink ash. The knife wielding bandit had just enough time to drop his weapon before a reddish beam struck directly into his eye, undoubtedly sizzling his brain inside his skull. He slumped to the floor in a heap. I found myself not really caring that he might have been about to surrender.

I was not innocent; in my forty years of wasteland wanderings, I had killed. Radiation twisted beasts, mutated animals, and zombie ponies had all died at my and May's hooves at one point or another. However, all of those creatures were not of sound mind, and had little control over their instincts. These bandit ponies ought to have known better, but chose to do these unspeakable acts anyways. They were much, much worse. I took no joy from their deaths, but I would reserve my remorse for those who deserved it.

“The metal birdy is cool,” I heard Emerald call from my back. “Can it make the pretty lights again?”

“Sure,” I replied, “but only when we need to make more bad ponies disappear.”

“Okay!”

***

I exited the residential area and came into one last hallway that led to the underground orchard. I could see a larger, open chamber at the end, but that was just the orchard's entrance. I slowed my flight to keep as quiet as possible, and instructed Emerald and Gearwing to be silent as well. If there were bandits trying to get into the orchard, I didn't want them to hear us coming.

My suspicions turned out to be true as, upon reaching the end of the hall, I saw two bandits at the entrance to the orchard. One was fruitlessly bucking her hooves against the door, while the other (at least marginally smarter than her companion) was tinkering with a terminal set into the wall. Considering the time it had taken me to get down here, I doubted she was any good at what she was attempting. Her 'hacking' consisted of pounding her hooves against the keys, probably without result.

I backed away from the wider chamber, wondering what to do next. I was in a narrow hall, and they both had guns. As well, they had more (if only marginally) room to evade any shots Gearwing or I could attempt to fire at them. For now, the best advantage I had was that they hadn't noticed me. I wasn't a clever pony, but surely I could come up with something.

Ka-blam!

Any attempts at thinking were cut short as the boom of a shotgun went off behind me. There was a series of small clanking sounds as buckshot peppered Gearwing. The mechanical owl dropped like a rock, landing in a heap next to me. I turned on the spot to face another bandit who had come from behind me. There were a few bullet holes in his armour, and a bleeding wound on his side. I suspected he had fled from Gizmo's minigun when the Steel Ranger cleared the atrium. Lucky bastard.

He was an earth pony, and the shotgun was clenched in his teeth. He had been clever, taking out the smaller, more agile opponent first. I pressed back against the wall of the hallway, trying to keep Emerald covered. She was shuddering again, and I wasn't about to let anything happen to her when I was this close to her safety. Unfortunately, there was little doubt that the other two bandits had heard the shot, and without Gearwing I was outnumbered three-to-one.

A realization hit me, and I smirked. Clever though he may have been, the earth pony bandit had made a mistake. I had done enough deliveries for Ironshod that I knew my way around most standard firearms. The shotgun he was carrying was a single shot model; one of the earliest firearms ever produced by pony kind. It was also in rough shape. Bastard was damn lucky that it didn't blow up in his face. However, since it only carried one shot at a time, he couldn't shoot again without reloading.

The way he held the shotgun threateningly close to me implied that he figured I didn't know better. His luck ran out. I flicked my neck, bringing Stronghoof's rifle up to where I could grasp it in my teeth, then pressed the barrel right into the bandit's chin. Terrible shot though I was, I couldn't miss this close. I tongued the trigger, blasting the bandit's brains all over the opposite wall with a resounding crack. His body collapsed slowly, his hooves slipping out from under him.

Without stopping for breath, I released the rifle from my mouth and turned back to the open area. I couldn't see the other two bandits any more. The loud crack of Stronghoof's rifle betrayed how powerful it was, and they didn't know I was a lousy shot. Taking advantage of this, I kicked over a nearby cabinet and tucked Emerald behind it for cover. Unfortunately, the bandits not knowing I was a bad shot didn't change the fact that I stood no chance of hitting them.

As I glanced up over my makeshift cover, one of the bandits was back in view. She was floating an SMG beside her, and I ducked down just as a rain of bullets impacted the cabinet. Mercifully, none of them punched all the way through, but the wooden cabinet would only take so much punishment. As she stopped to reload, I decided to take a chance. Hopefully my luck would at least let me save Emerald.

I propped Raider's rifled up on the cabinet and pressed my good eye up to the scope, shutting my lazy one. It was remarkable how much of a difference that made. With the scope focusing my vision and the distraction of my lazy eye negated, everything was so much clearer. Operating the bolt action of the rifle with my tongue was tricky, but I managed to pull it off. I pivoted the rifle on the cabinet, lining up the cross-hairs with the bandit's head just as she brought up her own reloaded weapon. Our shots rang out together.

Three bullets whizzed past me and two more dug into my shoulder. At the same time, the bandit mare's head exploded, her fire stopping immediately as her gun fell to the floor. I slumped back behind the cabinet, my viscous blood seeping from the two bullet wounds. Stronghoof's rifle clattered to the floor beside me. Emerald looked at me, then turned away and vomited, presumably at the sight of my wounds. Or maybe at the body of the brained bandit behind me. While she emptied her stomach, I plucked a healing potion from my saddlebags and drank it, sighing in relief as the wounds closed gently.

At the same time, I picked Gearwing up with my teeth and placed him in my pack. The owl had stopped functioning, but if anypony could fix it, Gizmo could. There was still one bandit between me and the orchard, and I chanced a glance over the cabinet. The other bandit was back, her fallen companion's SMG in her teeth. I was about to reach for the rifle again when her attention and mine was drawn by the sound of a door opening on the opposite side of the room. Two loud booms were followed by a pair of heavy twenty-gauge slugs tearing gaping holes in the bandit. Gizmo had arrived.

***

Upon being reunited with Gizmo (any May shortly thereafter), I had hugged each of them for all they were worth. It was easy enough to convince Emerald that May was under the same 'curse' as me, making introducing her much easier. I promised May I'd explain later, but she set it aside to check the filly over and make sure she was unharmed. She had also given Gizmo the affectionate title of 'Super Metal pony'.

Gizmo made his way over to the terminal that controlled entry into the Stable orchard. According to him, the bandit mare had gotten herself locked out of the terminal's security. While he was attempting to get around her blundering, May brought me up to speed on what she and Gizmo had seen in the rest of the Stable.

“Their leader was clever, or at least more clever than most of these degenerates,” May explained. “After getting the jump on the scouting party that came out of the Stable, he led the bandits inside and took the security level, preventing them from defending themselves and garnering better equipment for his subordinates.”

“Bastard got away too,” I heard Gizmo call over his shoulder. “used one of the Stable ponies for cover, then bolted. One other bandit got away with him, but only the leader managed to grab a weapon. Crap one too, thankfully; just a single-shot shotgun.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed, and informed Gizmo of the wounded bandit that had gotten behind me. “He used that one shot pretty well,” I said, retrieving Gearwing from my saddlebags and bringing him over to Gizmo. “Can you fix it?”

Without taking his eyes off the terminal, Gizmo wrapped the badly damaged owl in a telekinetic sheath, floating him towards his armour. A compartment sprung open, into which he fitted the owl snugly. “Don't worry about it,” he said, closing the compartment. “Gearwing's been through worse. I'll fix him up when I get back to HQ.”

I turned and glanced at May; “Gizmo said you found other Stable ponies alive, right? How many?”

May, finished giving Emerald her checkup, let out a sigh. “Only three. They're all in the clinic right now. One mare was raped several times, and I had to sedate her to treat her properly. They should all recover, physically at least.”

I nodded; it was almost better than what I'd had to fly over in the residential area. I told her as much, although I deliberately neglected to mention Emerald's parents. May however, seemed to comprehend that without vocalization. She spared a sad glance at the filly, who was amusing herself by admiring Gizmo's armour. The parts of it that weren’t covered in blood and gravel dust were rather shiny.

Emerald stopped when a bleeping sound came form the terminal. “Phew,” said Gizmo, “that was tricky. Had to deliberately crash the spell matrix and reboot it from my armour just to get it working again. Good news is, we're in.” He raised an armoured hoof and pressed the button for what appeared to be an intercom. “Attention Stable dwellers; this is Gizmo. The Stable has been cleared of the invaders. Please stand back from the doors.”

***

Gizmo tapped another key, and the door began to open with a pneumatic hiss. Gizmo stepped back from the terminal, placing himself in full view of the opening door. From where I was, I couldn't see too much, but I did notice two ponies in 'Security' barding aiming their guns warily at my armoured friend. I suspected they were the only survivors of the Stable's security. I doubted the guns they had could do any real damage to Gizmo's impressive suit of armour.

Still, I was relieved when they lowered their guns and allowed him to enter the orchard. May, Emerald and I followed in his wake. The security ponies gave May and I odd looks, but clearly did not look like they wanted to mess with the companions of such a heavily armed pony. Especially considering said pony had nearly single hoofedly liberated their Stable.

Gizmo stood in front of the mass of Stable ponies, the number of which, when all cramped together in this orchard, made the large fields feel much smaller than they were. “Is the Overmare present?”

Before anypony could respond however, a small yellow streak ran out of the crowd, plowing into Emerald. “Emerald!” squealed what I could now see was a yellow earth pony filly.

“Tulip!” cried the unicorn filly in return. They rolled around together for a moment, breaking the tension that seemed to have built up in the cramped space.

“I thought the bad ponies got you!” exclaimed Tulip, holding her friend tightly.

“They almost did, but then Miss Ditzy Doo found me,” replied the green coated filly. I waved awkwardly at the earth pony, and the rest of the stable dwellers who I realized were gawking at me. “She may look like a monster pony, but she's really nice.”

I was glad to see Emerald finding a friend. She would need her when she finally learned about her parents, and any other support she could find.

After the brief interruption, Gizmo asked the Stable ponies once more. “Is the Overmare present?”

This time, an orange coated unicorn mare stepped forward. She was barely more than a filly, probably about the same age Gizmo had been when I first met him. She had a cutie mark that looked like a wheel of cheese. “My name is Cheddar Cheese,” she announced. “The Overmare was my mother. She and my father were part of the scouting party that went out when the Stable door opened.”

“I'm sorry,” said Gizmo, “but they were all dead when we got here.”

Cheddar nodded solemnly, probably having already suspected as much. “You have all of our thanks, Steel Ranger, and your companions as well. Did you find any other survivors above?”

“Only three,” stepped in May, bowing her head to the Stable ponies. “Fumbles, Ginger and Rain are all recovering in the clinic.” A few sighs of relief came from the crowd at the mentions of those names.

“Is Doctor Syringe dead then?” asked the Overmare's daughter.

May nodded again; “I believe so. I found a white coated unicorn in a lab coat dead in the clinic. However, I am a former Ministry of Peace medical pony, if there are any of you who are injured, please come with me to the clinic.”

A few blank faces suggest not everypony understood what her title meant, but a dozen ponies with a variety of injuries made their way towards her, most of them helped by others. May began looking them over even as she led them out of the orchard and back up towards the clinic. Once she was gone, Gizmo once again addressed the crowd.

“Now then, how many of there are you down here?” he asked.

“I counted six hundred twenty-seven,” replied Cheddar, “plus the four you saved.” She let out a sigh. “According the last census, the Stable's population was eight hundred sixty-three. Fucking savages.”

I shuddered; the bandits had killed over two hundred innocent ponies in their selfish invasion. I gritted my teeth in frustration. One of them actually cracked, and another fell out. Both, I realized, had been knocked around by the recoil of Stronghoof's rifle. Damn thing had one helluva kick. It was fortunate that May’s repertoire of medical spells had something for repairing bones and teeth.

“Alright then,” said Gizmo warily. “I'd like to ask all of you to come with me; my friends and I will escort you to the surface.”

“Hold on,” came a voice from within the crowd, “we're not going up there! Not after this. The surface is too dangerous!” A few other voices murmured, most in apparent agreement.

Gizmo stamped a hoof, silencing the dissenters. “I'm afraid that's not an option. The resources of this Stable, as well as all of you, are needed on the surface.” I was inclined to agree; if Equestria was ever going to recover, it needed more good, healthy ponies. “As well, I cannot guarantee that something like this won't happen again. My companions and I might not be around to stop it if it does.”

“It's just as well,” chimed in Cheddar Cheese. The rest of the Stable dwellers looked at her in confusion. “This was supposed to be a secret kept by the Overmare, but that hardly seems necessary now.” She cleared her throat and continued; “Stable Sixty-Seven was never supposed to be a generational Stable. It was supposed to open after only ten years, but my grandmother kept it sealed because the radiation levels outside were still too high. My mother made the same decision twenty years later. Only now has the radiation dropped to tolerable levels.”

“You're also on the far side of the city from the impact crater,” noted Gizmo. “There's two more Stables closer to it that are still completely sealed off.”

“I see no reason why we can't keep going down here,” claimed the same buck from before.

“The Apple Orchard down here was being greatly strained to continue providing nourishment for all of us for this long,” barked Cheddar. “It was only because it was on the verge of becoming infertile that my mother dared to venture outside. Like it or not, it's time for us to leave.”

Despite her age, Cheddar's voice held a finality that was hard to question. Probably came with being the daughter of the Overmare. With that, the exodus of Stable Sixty-Seven began. May treated the injured ponies while the rest gathered up what they could carry. It wasn't much, but Gizmo assured them that the Rangers would return to salvage the Stable, as well as tend to those who had been killed.

***

Upon exiting their home, the ponies of Stable Sixty-Seven almost simultaneously shut their eyes and looked away from the sky. Even filtered by the perpetual cloud cover, the sun was brighter and more intense than anything the Stable's lighting could produce. Once the shock of being outside subsided, Gizmo began organizing them into ranks that would allow them to travel swiftly yet safely.

Due to the loss of most of the Stable's security personnel, Gizmo convinced a few of the other adult ponies to volunteer to help guard the rest of the herd. May was staying near the rear of the mass of ponies with those most gravely injured, tending to them as they walked. Gizmo and I were up at the front. He was leading the way, while I stayed by his side. I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask him. Although I would have to wait until he finished talking with Cheddar Cheese about a number of things that would come with life on the surface.

“Biggest problem up here tends to be food and water,” stated Gizmo. “However, with the water talisman of your Stable and what we can save of the orchard, things stand to improve on that front.”

Cheddar nodded affirmatively. “Thank you again Mister Gizmo; I shall start spreading this knowledge to the others.” After that, the orange mare hung back, starting to talk with others from the Stable of what she had been told.

With Cheddar gone, I finally had a chance to chat with Gizmo. “So,” I said, trotting closer to him, “how did you manage to survive all this time? May and I thought you died out here after reaching the Stable-Tec HQ.”

“I nearly did,” replied Gizmo. “I knew that the city had been hit by a megaspell, so I didn't come here right away. I went out in search of more remote Stable-Tec facilities, ones that I hoped might be safe to get to.”

I nodded, motioning for him to continue. I had waited a while to hear this story, and I didn't want to interrupt it too much.

The tan coated ranger sighed. “Unfortuantely, I couldn't find more than a couple facilities that were still intact, and those usually only had info on Stables that were nearby. So, after hunkering down through the winter, I decided to chance the Fillydelphia HQ. When I got there, the radiation had bled off some, but the inside of the city was nowhere near what any normal pony would call 'survivable'.”

“But you went in anyways,” I supplied. “We heard DJ P0N-3 got your message over the radio.”

“Yeah, but that was all luck,” retorted Gizmo. “I happened across a bottle of RadSafe and a few RadAway potions in a small MoP clinic. Downed the whole bottle before I even set foot inside the city. Even with it boosting my resiliance, I still had to drink the RadAway almost non-stop to keep myself from being cooked from the inside out. By the time I reached Stable-Tec, I only had one packet left.”

Gizmo gave me a hesitant smirk; “I got inside and sealed the door, but the radiation wasn't much better inside. There was only one pony body in the building, and the radiation had killed her and eaten away at her corpse long before I got there. I'd wager it was whoever sent out the Omega-Level Threat Protocols in the first place. Whoever she was, she saved a lot of ponies, and apparently had a taste for applejack.” He added that last part with a smirk

My mind instantly flashed to the orange coated mare of the MWT, but I caught myself, noting that it was also the name of a type of booze. Gizmo chuckled, probably guessing what I had been thinking.

“After I got the message out though, I was already starting to get sick from radiation poisoning,” concluded Gizmo. “I downed the last packet of RadAway, although at that point I figured it was pointless. I occupied myself by building Gearwing, but the radiation was making me sick and tired, and I eventually passed out.”

“Woke up in the care of a small group of Steel Rangers,” stated Gizmo, apparently just as surprised at the time as I was by his telling me. “Apparently they had been looking for a bunker in the area, and picked up the signal from my Pipbuck. I didn't get away unharmed though; lost a kidney, part of my pancreas and spleen, and suffered some nasty liver damage. However, my technical proficiency was more than enough incentive for them to help me pull through, and I've been with them ever since.”

“One thing though,” I mused after Gizmo finished his story, “I thought only earth ponies could be Steel Rangers.”

Gizmo smiled. “Normally, that's true, but the medical systems in this armour are part of what's keeping me going even after all the internal radiation damage. Biggest problem was the fact that, being a unicorn, I couldn't wear the helmet, and the suit would never be fully enclosed.” Gizmo gestured to the visor and bit apparatus in front of his face; “I rigged this up to access the suit's EFS and targeting system, as well as to use my custom battle saddle. Had to cannibalize three Pipbucks, but it was worth it.”

***

Gizmo and I continued catching up with one another while he led the ponies of Sixty-Seven to a temporary encampment that the Rangers had set up. It wasn't all that far away, but the number of ponies moving in the herd slowed travel, particularly those in the back that May was tending to. Emerald, Tulip and some other foals were running around throughout the herd, enjoying their first exposure to the sun, occluded though it was. I envied them a little, as the surface held no novelty for me anymore. I hoped that they would take the first steps in restoring the home I had once known.

Evening was falling as we reached the Steel Ranger compound. It was outside the city, as they only ventured into the still heavily irradiated city to scavenge. For now at least. May and I joined Gizmo when he went up ahead to report what had happened, curious about the Steel Rangers. From Gizmo's example, I expected they were decent ponies looking to use their technology to help get Equestria back on its hooves. I lament how wrong I was.

Gizmo was greeted at the edge of the compound by another Ranger, this one completely encased in his armour. His battle saddle bore a light machine-gun on either side. “Gizmo, welcome back,” he said. He was casual at first, but didn't stay that way for long. “What happened to Violet and Noodles?”

Gizmo shook his head. “I'm sorry, but there was an incident. Bandits invaded Sixty-Seven and set a trap in the quarry. They were killed in a rock slide. We should endeavour to recover their bodies when we return to salvage the Stable. As well, the bandits have been dealt with and I have the surviving residents of the Stable here with me.”

I couldn't see his face, but the tone of the other Ranger suggested he didn't care much for most of what Gizmo had just said. “What of the Stable? Is what we need still intact?”

“Yes,” replied Gizmo, albeit a bit grudgingly. “The water talisman and part of the orchard can be recovered, as well as most of the security armoury. Now then, about the Stable Dwell-”

Gizmo was cut off as the other Steel Ranger spotted May and I off to his side. He immediately rounded on us, his battle saddle loading with a 'click'. “What the hell are a couple of zombies doing here?” He growled dangerously.

Gizmo stepped between the other stallion and us. “At ease Grumble, they're with me.”

Grumble scoffed loudly, not trying to conceal his contempt. “Horseshit; you've got no business with zombies. Now get out of my way so I can put these freaks out of their misery.”

“Those 'freaks',” countered Gizmo, his voice growing dangerous, “helped me liberate Stable Sixty-Seven. Now stand down, that's an order.”

Grumble apparently didn't care; “I don't take orders from eggheads.”

I heard Gizmo's battle saddle reload, and it looked like this debate was going to come to blows. Grumble was larger that Gizmo, and his armour fully covered his head. Gizmo on the other hoof, had vastly superior weapons, probably thanks in large part to his own customizations. It would probably be a pretty even fight overall, but I didn't want it to come to that, not over me. I tried to think of something to say, but it seemed highly unlikely that Grumble would care for the words of a ghoul.

“What the hell is going on here?” The standoff was interrupted by the rumbling voice of a third Steel Ranger. Gizmo and Grumble both turned to look at the new armoured pony. His voice was probably the lowest, most gravelly one I'd ever heard, and exceptionally masculine. He was also very intimidating, with both a rocket launcher and the hybrid offspring of a machine gun and a grenade rifle composing his battle saddle. The look Gizmo gave this pony hinted that he held a great deal of respect from my old friend.

“Senior Paladin Steelhooves, sir!” stated Grumble quickly. “I-”

“I wasn't asking you, Knight Captain Grumble,” intoned the gravelly voice. The mention of both name and rank was apparently rather serious, and Grumble immediately shut up. Steelhooves then turned back to Gizmo, although I thought I caught him casting a glance at May and I. It was hard to tell with his helmet on.

“Sir,” stated Gizmo firmly, “I have returned from Stable Sixty-Seven. I managed to route a group of bandits that had invaded, and have brought the survivors with me. They have agreed to relinquish their water talisman and what can be saved of their orchard. Junior Knight Violet and Squire Noodles were killed in a rock slide set off by a bandit trap.”

The 'Senior Paladin' nodded at Gizmo. “And those two?” he said, gesturing at us.

“Old friends of mine who were in the area by chance,” replied Gizmo. “They pulled me out of that same rock slide and helped me liberate the Stable.”

“I see,” said Steelhooves, his tone almost irritatingly even.

Grumble chose this moment to speak up again. “But sir, those are zombies! They are abominations, and even the Elder has said-”

“I am well aware of what they are, Knight Captain,” cut in the Paladin. “What they are not, is a priority. We have a Stable to salvage, and a number of untainted ponies here, at least some of whom should be of use to us. We shall attend to them first.”

“But Gizmo-”

Head Scribe Gizmo,” stated Steelhooves, an edge of warning in his voice, “outranks you, and you are to follow his orders. Need I remind you that he has been with the Steel Rangers since before you were born? Any further outbursts and I will see you court marshaled. Is that understood?”

“Yes sir,” said Grumble, without enthusiasm. He stalked off, probably to find something to vent his frustration on.

Steelhooves turned back to May and I. His tone was slightly softer, although still quite stern. “You have my thanks for assisting Head Scribe Gizmo and the Stable dwellers.” He shook his armoured head; “However, as you can see, your kind are not looked upon well here. I'm afraid I must ask you to leave.”

Footnote: Status Update!

Current Status: Non-Feral Ghoul
Lucidity: Moderate

Ghoul Tip: Eat, drink and rest when you need to. Although ghouls do not need nearly as much food, water or sleep as normal ponies, they should endeavour to keep themselves sated anyways. Dehydration can leave a ghoul's dry, rotting skin in a bad way. As well, excessive sleep deprivation, chem addiction and especially starvation can cause a ghoul's lucidity to degrade more quickly, leading to feralism.

Bonus Perk Added: Dead Eye Derp – When using a scoped or laser sighted firearm, accuracy penalties due to physical affliction are negated, and you gain a +3% chance to score a critical hit. This effect does not apply to battle saddles, explosives, or magical energy weapons.

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