• Published 15th Mar 2013
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Fallout Equestria: Shades of Grey - Gig



Some of us aren't heroes. Does it make us the villains?

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Chapter Ten: Back to School

Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.



“The overall design is clearly reminiscent of prêt-à-porter and not true Prench haute couture!”

Chapter Ten: Back To School

Blood pounded in my ears as the world spun around me. Stars danced against a dark veil in front of my eyes; my whole body felt as it was assaulted by countless pinpricks and needles.

A sudden spasm made my stomach contract. In a haze, I tore my gas mask off to belch out what little my belly still contained. I coughed some more acid bile. I was slowly coming back to my senses.

“Spring? How did you end up here?” Saios’ surprised voice asked.

“Wha…?” I looked up. Around me the familiar scenery brought me up to speed in a matter of seconds. Somehow, I had landed up in my room back in Big Mountain.

“Goodness… Is that Princess Luna?”

My dizziness slowly dissipating, I spotted Evey sprawled on the concrete on the other side of the room. Gone were the sparks in her mane. A smell of charred horn made my nostrils frown.

Meridian was right there by her side, pale and coughing.

He waved toward me dismissively, brushing my concerns aside. He’ll be fine.

I half walked, half crawled toward Evey.

“Not exactly,” I finally answered the AI. I hardly knew what Evey was supposed to be in the first place, but Luna and Her Sister had ascended a long time ago, ruling the option out. “Her name’s Evey. She got us out of there, somehow. Teleportation or something.”

“Are you saying she teleported you all the way from Stable 87 to here?” Saios’ disbelief was obvious. “Impossible. Have you never heard of the Starswirl-Sparkle effect?”

“Oh, shut up,” I grumbled, softly tapping Evey’s cheek to wake her up, to no avail. “The whole bloody place’s a war zone. We almost didn’t make it out of there. Damn, I’m no medic, why isn’t she waking up? Do you think she’s gonna make it?”

“The energy consumed by a teleport spell scales up proportionally to the square of the distance traveled. There are about twenty kilometers from the stable to Big Mountain. Should we admit she effectively managed to make that jump without killing you all, she is probably suffering an acute mana exhaustion. By all means, that should have killed her!” Saios exclaimed. “Then again, my knowledge on alicorns is very limited. Who is she, anyway?”

“When I figure it out, you’ll be the first to know,” I groaned as I tried to pull Evey onto the couch. “Luna fuck me, she’s heavy!”

Meridian shook out of his torpor, but even with the two of us there was no lifting her.

“A little help over here?” I suggested, finally opting for letting our newfound friend lie on floor.

“I am sending a robotized stretcher to you,” Saios announced. “I shall bring her back to the infirmary; I already sterilized most of it.”

Something tilted in my mind at the mention of the word ‘infirmary’.

“Also, we’re going to need tons of Rad-Away and whatever drugs you got against heavy radiation poisoning,” I hastily removed my barding and immediately headed for a much needed shower. “I have no idea how much rads’ we got back there, and I’m not even sure I want to know.”

As I slipped out of my leather suit, my eyes fell on the omnitool in one of my front pockets.

“Here, wrap your mind around this while I’m trying to stop being phosphorescent,” I plugged the data storage in one of the wall’s terminal. “Got it in Stable 87. You may find something on Evey in there.”

The water for my shower hadn’t even started warming up that Saios shouted something in Prench I assumed to be one hell of a curse.

“Well, glad to see I’m not the only one to find they got a bit too far on this one,” I mumbled, water drenching my soiled fur. The irony of losing radiations while showering wasn’t lost on me.

“’A bit too far’ is a major understatement in my opinion,” Saios answered. “Stable Tech running social experiments was ‘a bit too far’, but this? This is monstrous. I am an AI and a person of science with a very grey morality profile, yet I cannot even begin to support what those ponies did.

“Told you the Wasteland had its lot of nasty surprises,” I chuckled darkly. Then, as I reached out to grab the soap, I froze in my movement.

“Wait a minute, didn’t you say there were no cameras in the private areas?” I accused. “How in Tartarus can you hear me?”

“… I may or may not have installed cameras in this particular bathroom as a personal initiative some time ago,” Saios answered awkwardly. “You know. Just in case.”

“You… you pervert!” I threw the soap in a random corner, hopping to hit a hidden camera. “Cut it off!”

“I assure you I had no intent to…

“CUT IT OFF!” I yelled.

(** **)

An energetic drying and a hail of expletives later, I stepped out of the bathroom. While I honestly couldn’t care less that somepony saw me naked, the very idea of getting caught with my pants down while showering made my fur stand on end.

I mean, damn.

As I shook whatever water remained in my mane, I noticed Meridian and Evey were already gone. I assumed the former headed to another bathroom somewhere – Saios probably gave him a room of his own while I wasn’t looking.

A few dozen packs of RadAway and some pills I couldn’t recognize waited for me on the table.

“I have perused and assimilated the data from Stable 87’s science team,” Saios told me as I closed on the table.

I chose not to answer and instead downed a full dose of the infamous orange fluid.

Ironically, it did very little to ease my radiation-induced nausea.

“To be honest, even though their lack of ethics was abominable, their studies were nothing short of spectacular. They knew their business. By the way, you may not want to take more than two of these pills at once,” he added as I opened a nondescript yellow box.

“I could talk for days about their findings and still not even begin to see the end of it, so I shall go straight to the point. Evey possesses a metabolism quite different from the one of the pony she used to be. For example, it appears radiations are not harmful to her kind. In fact, it strengthens them in a way diametrically opposed to how it acts on non-mutated beings.”

“You mean, the flowy-mane thing is not just for show?” I asked, swallowing my pills. They tasted like shit, but I, for one, was not radiation-proof. “Seems a bit… convenient to me, don’t you think?”

“Science is often about explaining very convenient things,” the AI shrugged. “I have little data on how the radiation affects those alicorns, but I conjecture their body specifically uses the increased mutagenic factor to renew the oldest cells in her body, creating energy in the process. In all likelihood, the very same process of selection through mutation allowed them to be transformed. Something baffles me though. Such a metabolism would render any individual totally sterile.”

“Wait, what?” I chocked on my RadAway. Great, now I had some ass-flavored orange good up in my nose, too. “How is that relevant to the conversation?”

“Well, I assume the original L-sample subject, named Lambda-13 by the science team, survived the fall of Stable 87, and had foals of her own, which in turn reproduced themselves, until Evey arrived. Yet,” Saios continued without letting me get a word in edgeways, “all the ponies whom got inoculated with the IMP turned out to be female because it was designed to make them resemble the template DNAs, which I suspect were the Princesses. As far as I am aware, neither were male. Had they reproduced with non-mutated males, the original strand should have been lost amongst the generations. Do you think those artificial alicorns are capable of self-fertilization, like some amphibians do?

“You lost me at ‘assume’,” I facehooved. “But I never saw or even heard of a male alicorn, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“This is… interesting.” Saios finally answered after a beat. “Sexual reproduction provides a powerful evolutionary advantage. It would have not come to my mind to take it away. Of course, an asexual reproduction should keep nearly intact the genetic material as it goes down the generations, which would have been good when it comes to engineered beings, yet the heavy mutation factor renders this hypothesis absurd. Unless, of course, they never expected the test subjects to reproduce.”

A long, undignified ‘slurp’ from the bag of RadAway I was sipping formed my only answer.

“… you did not understand a single word of what I just said, did you?” the AI let out a very, very tired sigh.

“Not a single word,” I nodded shamelessly.

“What I meant is…” Saios stopped, pondered whether or not it would be productive to continue his monologue. “Nevermind. Let us move out to a more pressing matter. Did you inhale or inject anything radioactive while you were out there?”

“I lost my gas mask once for a moment, but it was in a mostly radiation-free area,” I opened the last of my disgusting drug pack. “We got a massive radiation exposure in the uppers levels. It lasted maybe… ten minutes? Anyway, I’m feeling a bit sick but I got no burns, so I don’t think I’m going to drop dead anytime soon,” I threw the emptied pack into a garbage can and missed the bin entirely. “By the way, how’s Evey?”

“Still alive, still unconscious. I didn’t bring her to the infirmary.”

“Why’s that?” I frowned. “Sick mare, med bay, sounds about right to me.”

“After a further analysis of the data from Stable 87, it appears our guest is not sick, she is exhausted,” Saios explained as I sat down on the couch. The thrills of the recent events were starting to wear on me. “The research notes made me realize I had the perfect place for her to stay.”

I froze mid-yawn, and prayed the AI hadn’t noticed my hesitation. It may have earned Meridian’s trust, I still had my doubts. Stable 87 all too well reminded me of how science could and had gone wrong in the past.

“And… Where’s that?” I asked innocently.

“In a laboratory over B6.”

“You put her back in a laboratory?” Okay, now that AI officially had some screws loose. “You’re kidding. You’re kidding, right?”

“I am not conducting any experiments on her, if that is what you are implying,” I could feel the disgust in Saios’ voice. “Aside from watching her, that is. I simply needed a room with tight air concealment and a separate ventilation system. Her room is now flooded with radiations from the surface. Hopefully, it will help her recovery.”

It… made sense, actually. I eased up a little.

“Keep an eye on her, then. She was nice and helpful back in 87, but I’m not sure how she’s going to react when she wakes up. She may go berserk and try to kill us all for all we know.”

“I shall keep you informed.”

I muffle a loud yawn. My eyes dropped back on the mess I had left on the floor. Dust, blood and grim stained most of my gear.

“I did not dare take your armor away for cleaning,” Saios piped up. “I understand you are not very kind of being away from your combat gear.”

“If you had spent most of your life in the Wastelands, you’d do the same,” I deadpanned. Still, I had to scrub the radiations away from my leather armor, yet I couldn’t muster the will to do it.

“Saios, can I ask you for a favor?” I finally made my mind. Extra padding or not, I doubted the AI would have any difficulty getting rid of me if it wished so.

“If it is within the realm of my possibilities.”

“I need you to clean up my stuff.”

“All of it?”

“… I’ll keep my guns, if you don’t mind,” I chuckled uneasily. “I really feel naked without them.”

“Very well. I am sending a robot to pick it up.”

“Thanks.” Using my telekinesis, I removed my pistol holster from my barding and brought it to me.

The gun itself had seen quite a lot of fighting in Stable 87. The polymer casing had lived through the stress without a scratch; while it had been designed not to blow in the shooter’s face, I doubted its designers had expected it to still be in service two hundred years and a bit after its making.

I removed the clip I had engaged, then the bullet from the chamber. I unlocked the slide and sighed as I took a look inside. Usual powder-related grime aside, I could already spot early signs of wear. When I bought it back at Junction R-7, I hadn’t paid much attention to the gun mechanisms, because I knew I would be regretting not buying it at Chrystal’s. For some reason, that mare always had that particular gun or part I needed in pristine condition.

Of course, it always cost me a leg, but hell, I’d rather pay a few more caps than having my gun misfire during a skirmish.

“Mind if I use the workbench?” I asked the resident AI. I didn’t dare disturb the pile of scraps and tools for fear of accidentally awakening a crazy robot-killer or something.

After all, even the alarm clock yelled ‘EXTERMINATE’ instead of just ringing.

“For sure. I need to sort the mess on it though. Please move it on the ground carefully, I am certain I have irreplaceable things in there.”

I had just started cleaning a small area on the top, when my scavenger senses tinkled off. My gaze had fallen on a strange contraption actually without wires and components in the open.

“What’s that?” I levitated the incriminating item in front of the camera. “A skiing mask?”

“Goodness, I was starting to think I had lost it for good,” Saios exclaimed. I refrained myself from asking him how a computer could forget anything. “Those are EVG, or Enhanced Vision Goggles. Come on, put them on, you will understand.”

I shrugged and attached the rubber band behind my head.

“Great, now I have an orange-tinted vision of the word,” I deadpanned. “Is that your notion of ‘enhanced’?”

“We are not amused,” Saios answered tit for tat. Then, with a chuckle, he continued: “You need to turn it on first. There is a switch on the left of the frame.”

“Oh.” Feeling somewhat silly, I pressed the incriminating button.

Immediately, text started printing out superimposed on the glass. It didn’t feel like somepony had plastered a screen in my face though. The writings had some kind of depth to them in a way I couldn’t quite explain.

“Are those EFS goggles?” I asked Saios, mildly impressed. Sure, I had seen quite a few Pipbucks in the Wastelands, but I never really got to try one.

“Not exactly,” I could almost hear the AI wince, “EFS project a mental image right into the visual cortex, basically making you hallucinating the data. This method has its perks – for starter, you do not need eyewear and it even works with blind ponies. It also has its downside. The long-time effects of those permanents hallucinations are unknown and the Ministry of Peace actually hinted it may lead to splitting headaches, loss of visual acuity, pronounced schizophrenia, and of course visual hallucinations, among other things.”

“Honestly, you don’t even need a Pipbuck to go crazy nowadays,” I chuckled darkly. “It comes to you naturally.”

“Furthermore,” he continued, “the MoP noticed ponies working with an EFS detached from a protective suit – a Stable Tech PipBuck for example, or those computer-assisted turrets Ironshod Firearms built for battleships – tended not to use eye protection because of their already impaired vision. We designed the EVG you are wearing for battle, yet we needed them not to be integrated in the helmet for practical reasons. Hence, we choose not to use EFS. That allowed us to upscale the screens resolution, too. We can print out more data and images for example.”

“That’s… cool, I guess,” I hazarded. “Feels like reinventing the wheel, though.”

“Also, we really did not want to pay royalties to Stable Tech for the technology,” Saios added. “Those guys were real corporate vultures.”

(** **)

I was on a battlefield.

Everywhere around me, ponies screamed in anger and in pain as they charged toward unseen foes. Explosions from artillery strikes shook the earth and sent torrents of dirt cascading on the rampaging soldiers. Paths of smoke trailed through the sky. Acrid plummets of dusts attacked nostrils and eyes, and there was no hiding from the vomit-inducing stench of death and decay.

A cry for help shook me out of my torpor.

“Medic!” it cried, not too far from the still smoking crater of a recent shelling.

Running from makeshift covers to trenches full of mud and blood, I ran toward it.

“Medic!” it called again, full of desperation and suffering. It was the voice of a stallion alone in the dark, forgotten by his luck and his brothers in arms altogether.

I dove behind the remains of a destroyed tank, I jumped over corpses so decayed I couldn’t recognize friend from foe anymore.

Finally, I reached my patient. The poor colt was soaked in his own blood. Shrapnel had pelted his combat armor, shredding it to a nondescript rag of tissue and metal.

“Hang in there,” I knelt before him, grabbing my saddlebags without wasting a single seconds. “I’m a medic.”

“I… don’t want… to die,” he whined, grabbing my leg without much strength. “Please… help me…”

I eyed over his injuries. Multiple minor lacerations all over the body. Major lacerations on the legs, torso, neck. Numerous foreign small objects sunk in torso. No apparent major external hemorrhage. Probably concussion. Shell shock almost certain.

“You’ll be fine, soldier. It’s just a fleshwound,” I lied. He needed an immediate evac.

Then, lead started raining around me. I duck for cover as motes of dirt sprung over my head, missing me by a few hairs.

“I’m a medic, Celestia damn it!” I yelled over the gunfire.

The Zebra answered in their guttural tongue of their, and just kept firing.

I drew my laser pistol. When the hail of death slowed down, I leaned over my makeshift cover and took aim.

There, not fifteen meters from us, a young Zebra mare was reloading its assault rifle. She looked lost on the battlefield, fidgeting with her weapon and not even bothering with a cover.

I melted her face off.

“There, I got her,” I turned toward my patient.

He looked back at me with empty eyes, the bullet holes in his helmet all too visible to me.

“Damn it.” I looked up at the cloudy skies, my eyes driest than sand. “War. There’s no getting used to it…”

The rain began to fall, acid and unforgiving.

(** **)

“You really are not a morning pony,” Saios noted as I dragged my hooves from my bed to the couch.

I grumbled something unintelligible in response.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“I just can’t sleep well here,” I repeated a bit louder. “Don’t know why. I had spent better nights in caves surrounded by raiders and hellhounds.”

“Maybe you are not used to sleeping in a real bed,” the AI suggested. “I know most pegasi cannot rest on regular mattress if they are used to napping on clouds.”

“Maybe.” I grabbed the cup of coffee a robot was holding toward me. I noticed the oily aftertaste was gone. “Though I’ve been told there’s nothing comfier than a cloud.”

“For sure. I had the luck of sleeping on one, one day.”

“Wait, you were a pegasus?” I almost did a spit-take. “I wouldn’t have guessed, honestly.”

“Oh, no, I- Blue Shift was a unicorn,” Saios corrected. “But I- he worked with the Ministry of Awesome, remember? I supervised the integration of one of our fusion reactor into one of their massive cloudships. Well, more precisely, I had to patch up the interface between our software and their custom-made operating system.”

“And you had to stay overnight.” I continued.

“And I had to stay there for a full month,” Saios sighed. “Our hardware had been designed with unicorns in mind. Most of their stuff was made of clouds. Clouds! Somepony had to cast a cloudwalking spell on me every twelve hours so I could simply touch the damn things.”

I chuckled at the idea of a nerdy unicorn suddenly being cut in his lecture by going through the misty floor.

“It may seem funny in hindsight, but trust me I had never felt so frustrated in my life,” Saios continued. “To be honest, it made for a wonderful protection against Zebras. They couldn’t even walk on those things!”

“Eh, it didn’t do us much good, if the outside is of any indication. Talking of pegasi and unicorns, how’s Evey?”

“Still out cold. Her vitals are stable. She is… sleeping, for a lack of a better term.”

“Well, warn me if she starts moving.”

I spotted an innocent croissant waiting for me on a nearby trail.

Without wasting a single second, I jumped on the treat and gobbled it whole.

“Mmmh… Tell me youch can make more of thooche things,” I moaned in delight. “Theich damn good!”

“I shall, uh, keep that in mind.” For some reason, the AI seemed disturbed by my act of pastry-slaughter. “I fear the kitchens are quite unusable as of now. I can probably salvage some equipment from there and set it up in an unused laboratory.”

“By all means, do,” I waved a hoof in the global direction of the camera while picking the last crumbs.

“I will be short on ingredients, however. By luck, do you happen to know where I could find fresh milk, wheat flour, yeast, and fresh eggs, among other things?”

I froze midway in a huge lips-licking moment. “I… I have no idea, dude,” I frowned. “And I don’t think you should trust anyone in the Wastelands with that kind of stuff.”

“I reckon I will have to grow it myself then,” the AI concluded. “You know, it’s funny, last time I said something like that, I- Blue Shift was in college, and he wasn’t really talking about wheat and milk…”

(** **)

“Why in Tartarus would you need blood samples?” I asked, dumbfounded. “I mean, okay, you’ll have them if you want, but what are you even planning to do with them?”

“I would want to check on your internal radioactivity level,” Saios answered in the earpiece integrated to the techy goggles. “You had been exposed to massive amount of radiations since your birth, and I would like to know how your body is coping with it.”

“Like anybody’s body,” I snared darkly. “It doesn’t. If I don’t die of a violent death out there, I’ll end up sprouting a couple tumors, and ol’ Spring’ll be gone.”

“You seem to be quite calm about this.”

“Hell, it’s not like there’s anything I can do about this,” I shrugged as I walked toward the infirmary. “It’s not like I’m the only one either. Death is almost a blessing in the Wastelands, trust me. Nopony wants to live forever. Ask Evey when she wakes up. It sucks to never age.”

Silence fell back in the earpiece.

“Wait, what?” Saios finally picked it up. “Are you implying Evey is patient Lambda 13?”

“It’d make sense, wouldn’t it?” I wondered how the AI could have not noticed it. “I mean, alicorns are probably immortal anyway. The Goddesses had walked the earth for millennia. You even said yourself they couldn’t reproduce themselves! So, eh, my theory is simple: Evey got locked up in the cell I found her in by those mad scientists in Stable 87 two hundred years ago, she slept through the rebellion, then she woke up eventually and her colleagues outside gave her the cold shoulder. Afterward she didn’t get out of there until I stumbled upon her room during a gunfight. End of the story.”

“But nopony is immortal!” Saios exclaimed. “For sure, the Princesses did not age, or aged so slowly our lifetimes were smaller than their by a few orders of magnitude. But I cannot phantom the very idea of a pony turned ageless. It is biologically impossible.”

“Ghouls,” I pointed out. “Ghouls don’t age. They… rot, for sure, but they don’t age per se.”

“But ghouls are dead,” the AI retorted. “They look like ponies from afar, yet I am certain whatever drive them is not the pony they used to be.”

“That’s too bad, because I talked with a two-centuries-old ghoul not a month ago,” I cut him. “Used to be a soldier during the War, got caught outside when the megaspells hit. And he is not an isolated case either. Hell, even you lived two hundred years!”

Silence.

“Technically I had never been alive, Spring,” yet the sadness in his voice said the opposite. “Yet your point still stands. I am a pony of science; after all, I should not discard those facts based on my own prejudice. Well, ‘pony’… You understand what I mean.”

“Trust me, you seem more alive than most things I have seen out there,” I reassured him grimly. “Here we are. The infirmary.”

(** **)

Had I not known that was the same room I had visited two days earlier, I wouldn’t have believed it. Gone were the grime and the ghouls rotting in the darkness; now, the bleach white ceiling lights bathed a neatly cleaned up room. The broken furniture had been removed; the outdated drugs had disappeared in an incinerator somewhere.

“Well, damn,” I whistled softly. “You sure work fast.”

“All in a day’s work,” the AI proudly answered. “I don’t even know why we bothered with janitors before. Robots are so more efficient!”

“Yeah, but that’s because you control them,” I pointed out. “Unlike ponies, most can’t think by themselves.” I silently thanked the Goddesses above for that.

“True enough, but we are kind of short in supplies of equine workforce to clean up the two-centuries-old layers of dirt littering the place. I reckon you would not be too keen of the idea of grabbing a broom and sweeping the whole place inside out, now would you?”

“That’s not the kind of cleaning I do,” I chuckled darkly. “I remove scumbags, not stacks of dust. Anyway, you wanted me to do tests or something?”

“I do not have the equipment to do a full body scan anymore, so all I can do is a blood test. Go in the room on your left, it is already waiting for you.”

“Can’t we just use a Geiger counter or something?”

“I am not worried about how much radiation your body retained, but about how your body reacted to it. Furthermore, I need a blood sample from you for identification should you suffer an… unfortunate fate.”

“Charming,” I mumbled. Then I noticed something on the ironwood doors leading to the other rooms.

“Did you really cut the locks from those doors?” I asked in disbelief.

“I could not find the keys.”

“You do realize I could have picked them open, right?” I snorted, entering the examination room. It was as pristine as the other room.

“You failed to mention this skill on your CV,” the AI deadpanned. “Though I admit your roguish type should have tipped me off. What profession are you practicing already?”

“I’m a bounty hunter,” I answered truthfully as I sat on the examination bench. I spotted the (sealed) syringe on a stainless steel table nearby.

“As in, hunting criminals for a reward?”

“Uh uh,” I nodded as I peeled the syringe wrapping. I didn’t like the idea of planting its huge needle in one of my legs very much.

“Yet you told me there had been no central government since the end of the War,” Saios continued.

I winced as the needle pierced my skin. Slowly, the syringe began to fill.

“I reckon I did,” I mumbled absentmindedly.

“Then who judges the criminals and pay the bounty on their heads?”

“Well I… Uh…” I droned, focusing on the small volume of vital fluid going from my veins to the syringe. “Wait a second, would you? I’m kinda busy right now.”

“In fact, you are not a bounty hunter,” Saios continued anyway. “You are a private contractor.”

“I am NOT a mercenary!” I growled as I finally pulled the needle out. “Wait, what?”

“A private contractor,” the AI repeated. “As in, a hired gun with a sense of ethics.”

“… yeah, I guess you could say that,” I scratched my mane without thinking. Private contractor? I could work with that, if ‘bounty hunter’ just didn’t fill the bill. “But I don’t want ponies to think I’m just a damned raider, y’know?”

“A raider? Is that how you call bandits out there?”

“If only,” I chuckled darkly, hoofing my vial of blood to a nearby robot. “If the Wastelands were a body, bandits would be its asshole and raiders would be its hemorrhoids. It’s like they only exist to give us a reference of what an evil pony would be. A bandit would rob you, beat you up and leave you for dead on the side of a trail. A raider would beat you up, make you eat your belongings, eviscerate you while you’re still screaming and would end up using your bowels to decorate fucking Hearth Warming Eve trees. And then they would start raping your still warm body.”

(** **)

“You know, I still have this gift for you, Saios told me as I returned to my room. “Now would be a nice time for you to have it.”

“Well, you still haven’t told me what it is,” I remarked, stopping on my tracks.

“It is a surprise, of course I haven’t told you yet,” the AI laughed heartily. “Head toward the laboratories in B2 – that’s two levels right under the infirmary – and you shall see.”

A cold shiver crawled up my spine. I had yet to visit this area. Who knows what I would find down there?

“Are you sure you don’t want to tell me what it is?” I carefully suggested as I headed downstairs.

“Nope. But I can give you a hint,” the AI seemed particularly playful. “Had you notice anything different since you put the EVG on?”

I stopped in the middle of the hallway, and looked around me. For sure, everything had some kind of orange hue on it, but that wasn’t unexpected per see. Displays occasionally flashed on and off on the edge of my vision yet I couldn’t make anything of it. Most of them seemed to be error messages anyway.

“Not really, no,” I finally answered. “What about them?”

“Take them off.”

“O…kay,” I trailed before grabbing the headset with my telekinesis. I took them off, and…

Nothing.

I was surrounded by utter darkness.

Baffled, I put the glasses on again. I could see the end of the tunnel a dozen meters in front of me like it was basked in plain daylight.

“You turned the lights off?” I asked in disbelief.

“I never turned them on in the first place. You have been walking in the dark for the last five minutes.”

“Holly shit.”

“See, you asked me yesterday why not use EFS,” Saios continued with pride. “This is one of the reasons. Since we can project anything on the screens, we can use feeds from special cameras located on the frame. Low-light vision, external feeds… You name it. We even have an IR mode.”

As on cue, my entire turned in shades of blue and grey. I looked at my hoof; sure enough, it showed in bright red.

“Moreover, it allows mission control to remotely monitor the situation on the field,” he continued.

“What do you mean?” I took the goggles off again. I couldn’t even see my own hoof.

“Basically, what I have been doing since you found the EVG, and even before that since we met. I provide you with intelligence you couldn’t possibly have, I assist you whenever I can, I advise you on the obstacles you may encounter… In a nutshell, I see what you see, and you see what I want you to see. This way, you can focus on the short term while I focus on the middle term.”

“This… is a bit demeaning, don’t you think?” I did not like his assumption of me being stupid very much.

“I did not want to imply you were stupid,” Saios continued. Was I that predictable? “What I mean is simple: I have an excessive processing power, a lot of time and little to do with it. If you were stranded in a building, by the time you wondered which way was the exit, I would have already mapped your way out, hacked the local security system not to shoot you, informed you that the guy you hit five minutes ago had probably passed away by now and made you a cup of coffee. On the other hoof, I cannot even dream of walking out of the room I am confined to, because I do not even have legs of my own anymore. Our skills are complimentary.”

Wonderful. I wanted very hard to be mad at him for being so smug, but then I realized it was very hard to hate somepony for making a perfectly valid point.

“Fine!” I finally threw up my hooves to the skies. “I guess you proved up you’re the big brainer here. But please, just let me enjoy the illusion I am not a complete moron, okay?”

“I would never dare think that.”

(** **)

“What I am about to show you was still under heavy development when the DERTA went dark,” Saios said as I entered the lab in sector B2. “It is not even a prototype, but an experimental unit. And an incomplete one at that.”

I almost pointed out I had no freaking idea of what the difference between prototype and experimental unit meant, and then thought better. I sure didn’t want to have a three-hours-long lecture about semantics and whatnot.

“Still, it should be mostly functional. I am certain you will love it.”

I arrived in a mildly lit room with some sort of high-tech armchair in the middle of it. Wires of all size ran from it toward terminals lined on the walls. Workbenches everywhere crumbled under tons of discarded tools and electronic components.

Then, I turned my head, and I saw them.

In small alcoves embedded in a side wall, half a dozen full-size dummies were waiting behind thick glass panes. Most of them were only covered by half-rigged scraps of tissue and wires. One did stand out, however.

Unlike the others, its whole body was covered by what seemed to be some kind of combat armor. Thick plates of a hard, pale alloy had been stitched on a dense, darker material visible at the joins. Mesmerized, I closed on the very expensive-looking piece of gear. On the inside of the legs, and running all the way to the spinal structure, ran some kind of rigid skeleton, linking all the rigid parts together. Some more supple dark material covered the neck all the way up to the muzzle, protected by a respirator.

The centuries-old lights in the laboratory flickered. I blinked in disbelief. I could swear the suit’s colors had changed for a split second.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Saios shook me out of my torpor. “Spring, meet the Assisted Stealth Suit Mk I, or CAI for short. The DERTA designed it for the Ministry of Awesome’s Special Ops. It is yours now.”

I instantly threw every doubt I had on Saios through the window. This guy was now officially my new best friend.

“Dude,” I stammered eloquently. “She is beautiful…”

“Sadly, it never saw a single minute of action. Many things, including the helmet, never got finished,” the AI regretted. “It turned out the MAS had little resources to spare on a powered combat horn amplifier.”

“Wait, powered?” I frowned. “Assisted? You mean this is power armor?”

“Yes. The CAI would have been the next generation of power armor. The first one could only be used by Earth ponies; the second was clearly designed for pegasi. The CAI aimed to fulfill a need for the infiltration units, unicorns in particular.”

“Saios, I can’t use this,” I sighed, dejected. “I don’t have any kind of power armor training. It’d take months just to put me up to speed.”

“But that’s the great thing with the CAI,” he continued with excitement, slipping back in his Prench accent. “You don’t have to adapt to the power armor – the armor adapts itself to you!”

There was a blank.

“Wait, say that again?” I rubbed my ear with a hoof.

“Have you ever wondered why we didn’t start using powered harnesses everywhere once the MoWT rolled out the first models? The answer is quite simple,” he continued before I could point out I wasn’t even born during the War, they are bulky. As you know, users had to undergo some intense training to simply be able to use the movement assistance, and even the best of them couldn’t move as fast as they could without. To compensate, the designers simply added extra layers of protection. In the end, the version designed by the Army looked like an oversized tin can. It worked wonder though, until those bloody Zebras realized they could just use our anti-material guns against us.

Rainbow Dash, at the head of the MoAw, immediately saw the potential of a lighter, more flexible suit. With the help of the Ministry of Image, they designed a new version for the Air Force.”

“Yeah, I know of those. The Steel Rangers have the former. I heard the unicorns in their ranks have to cut their own horn to put their helmet on,” I shivered at the very idea. “And the pegasi in the Enclave have the later. Both are a nightmare to mares like me.”

“The Steel Rangers still exist!?” Saios’ surprise was palpable. I cursed under my breath for the slip. “Spring, how could you decide not inform me of that fact?”

“Don’t think they have anything to do with the ones you used to know,” I warned. “Those guys are inbred nuts. They believe themselves to be the righteous guardians of the technology of old. I had even been told they worshiped Applejack as their goddess or something and offered their spoils in offering. Don’t you even think of contacting them. They’d scrap the base to its core, and you’d end up packed up in a cardboard box in one of their bunkers somewhere. Fuck, even .50 cal rifles are ‘forbidden technology’ to them.”

“Oh. Fanatics. I see,” Saios seemed disappointed. “What about the Enclave?”

“Even nuttier, if you can believe it. At the end of the War, when they realized Equestria was going to get toasted, the pegasi just went ‘screw this, we’re outta here’, closed the skies and stayed there ever since. If you’re not one of them, then you’re garbage. And the Goddesses help you if you cross their path when they are in a bad mood.”

“More foes than friends then.”

“Indeed,” I grimly growled. “They almost got my hide in Stable 87. I still have no idea why. That’s how they roll: shoot first, and never even bother by telling you why.”

“I will try to intercept their communications, now that I have almost repaired our receiver,” Saios proposed. “If we get lucky, we shall find out why you were so interesting to them.”

“Thanks,” I smiled weakly. I didn’t see how knowing why in Tartarus they wanted my head would change anything to the situation, but I kept it to myself. For all I knew, they simply shot at me because they assumed I was with Unity when they spotted Evey. Or because they just didn’t give a damn shit.

My eyes fell back on the suit in front of me.

“Anyway, you were saying something about the CAI?”

“Right. The Airborne Power Armor did its job just fine, as you noticed firsthoof. Yet, the MoA also conducted many undercover operations with unicorn agents which required more finesse – sabotages, intelligence gathering, assassinations… The Zebra had their invisibility talismans, but we had nothing.”

“Yes, nothing could be farther from stealth than a soldier in power armor,” I chuckled softly as I mentally tried to picture a Steel Ranger hiding behind a tiny tree.

“Exactly. Stable Tech somehow managed to rip off the Zebra’s witchcraft with their StealthBucks, but a temporary invisibility device does not make a full armor. The MAS did its own tinkering in their labs I heard, yet since they had many other, more promising projects on their lap they did not make any breakthrough.

The MoA therefore decided to commission a new generation of power armor, which would not impede the user’s movements in any way and even increase their stealth abilities. Since the MoM had warned them that the MoWT was swarming with spies – Celestia knows how Minister Pinkie Pie knew that – they turned to us to design this suit.

Then, I – Blue Shift, I mean – had the idea of the century. Given the DERTA’s experience in adaptive neural matrices we could make the suit’s software very flexible. Since a computer can learn way faster than a pony, in the end we had our concept: the suit itself would adapt to the user, and react to its wishes just like a real muscle would. Even a newbie, after a couple weeks of training, could use that kind of suit at its full potential – and that potential would be far greater than any combat armor ever achieved before.

The MoA gave us countless top-secret reports on how the other powers armor really fared on the battlefield, and we learned those lessons. Do you know what happens when a pegasus’ armor gets neutralized in flight by an EMP? Well, they drop like a stone. The same goes for Earth Ponies: once disabled, the armor is a dead trap. We designed our in such a way that, even with the assistance disabled, the user could still move and get to cover to fix their gear up.

We also received reports (I suspect those were from the MoM too) on the usage of StealthBuck. It turns out they are not as stealthy as they seem. They have a magical signature so strong you could spot somepony using one from hundreds meters away, if you knew how to look. Since we stole the technology from the Zebras, and since their own stealth cape didn’t have that design flaw, we assumed they knew that too and we scrapped the design entirely. We used adaptive camouflage instead.

I could go on for hours on all the neat ideas we had for the CAI. Alas, we never got to try them out on the battlefield.”

“Well, damn, that’s a nice toy,” I finally whistled once Saios went out of nerd mode. “Does it make pancakes too?”

(** **)

“You know, for a stealth armor supposed not to impede movement, it is quite bulky,” I remarked aloud once I slipped into suit. It had soon become obvious it had been design with somepony slightly larger than me in mind. Plus, the motors in the joints opposed every single of my movements. “No offence, but did you even ever try it before?”

“Don’t be so impatient, the CAI is not even initialized yet,” Saios growled, clearly exasperated. “First, we need to connect the EVG to the suit itself.”

I blinked. I had completely forgotten about the goggles on my nose.

“Right. Plug the acronym-tech-thingies in the acronym-tech-thingy,” I strained to see the port between my shoulder blades. Fortunately I was quite flexible. “By the way, what does CAI stands for anyway?”

“Combinaison Assistée d’Infiltration.” Now that was some real Prench spoken by somepony from Prance! Too bad I couldn’t understand a word of it to save my life. To me, it sounded like ‘croissant croissant baguette baguette’.

“What, you couldn’t resist putting a small flag on it?” I chuckled hearthly. “I mean, come on, why didn’t you use the proper Equestrian acronym? What was it? Assisted Stealth Suit? A.S.-”

I stopped mid-sentence, wide eyed.

“You didn’t.”

“Believe it or not, the name went all the way through our engineer teams, to the MoA’s, to their decision board, then all the way back down and nopony noticed a thing until we had to paint it on the shoulder because we did not have enough room to write the full name.”

“You named your stealth suit… ASS?! I just can’t believe it!” I resisted the urge to roll on the floor at the sheer absurdity of it.

“And the puns about it are endless,” Saios continued with a chuckle.

“Let’s kick ASS!” I yelled as a battle cry.

“Careful, you got ASS all over you!”

“Damn, my ASS is full of shit!”

“Don’t be so anal about it!”

Then I really started rolling on the floor in hilarity.

(** **)

“Luna’s sweet tits, I haven’t had a good laugh like that in forever,” I finally managed to get over my ten-minute-long hilarity fit. My body ached all over from the loose parts of the suit but I deemed it totally worth it.

“It feels like centuries,” Saios chuckled darkly.

Well, at least he saw that with humor. I guess.

“So. Back to business,” I pulled the sloppy armor back on my shoulders. “That cable goes over there, right? I can’t really see the port.”

“Yes. It is now obvious in hindsight that that one plug should have never been put on the back of the neck,” I could almost see Saios taking notes on a clipboard, nodding solemnly behind his opaque glasses and his evil goatee. “This is why we make prototypes in the first place, see. Even the best engineers in the world cannot do without early feedbacks.”

“I guess I’ll do with the ‘experimental unit’ then, whatever that means,” I let out a mock sigh. “Anyway, I think I got it… There. All plugged in.”

On the overlay, walls of texts started rushing by. Then the suit started shrinking down.

“Uh, Saios? Is that normal? The shrinking, I mean.”

“The suit is adapting itself to your size. Since we wanted it to be like a second skin, we needed it to be a perfect fit.”

I could feel the odd material probing almost every square centimeter of my body. I squeezed uneasily.

“This feels so wrong I can’t even- EEEP!” I yelped as the suit started probing something I sure didn’t want it to probe.

“Sorry. As I said, it is a tight fit,” Saios apologized.

“Dude, that’s not tight, it’s invasive!” I protested. “I sure don’t like it when my clothes get it all up close and personal!”

“One second. I am tweaking the settings to make it less oppressive to you. Please understand the kind of ponies this suit was designed for had no problem pooping in diapers if they had to stay at their posts.”

“Don’t tell me I have to crap in my pants,” horror dawned on me. “Because I sure as hell don’t want to.”

“We scrapped the biological waste treatment unit in the earliest drafts. We simply did not have enough room to squeeze it in. You can open the suit from behind, when the need arise.”

“So the ASS opens if I want to crap,” I sniggered. “That’s convenient!”

“Oh, shut up,” Saios growled, mildly amused. “Good, I am done with the startup sequence. All systems report to be functional. Try to move one leg.”

I lifted my left foreleg. To my great surprise, it was exactly how it looked like: I felt like I had just lifted a foreleg with a medium armor strapped to it.

“No offence, but it’s supposed to be assisted, right?” I asked Saios, puzzled. “It doesn’t feel like it’s assisting anything.”

“The servomotors are all disabled,” Saios explained. “This is how the suit would behave if we were hit by an EMP, for example.”

I took a cautious step forward, then another. Before I knew it, I was jogging around the room.

“Careful not to trip,” Saios tried to ruin my joy.

“Oh, come on, don’t be such an ASS,” I probed my tongue at him. Then I realized I still had the muzzle mask on. “Can I get this off by the way? It’s a bit cumbersome.”

“What, the suit? Already?”

“Nah. The gasmask.”

“Oh. For sure. You should be able to clip it somewhere in your back.”

I craned my neck and chuckled nervously.

“Say, you did know ponies don’t have eyes behind their head, right?”

A full-screen image popped up on my display. I almost lost my balance in surprise.

“Whoa- What are you doing?”

“Well, I have a very clear view of your back. I am merely showing you.”

“That’s… incredibly disturbing,” I turned my head around, but the image stayed the same.

“It gets even worse with the optic zoom. Imagine turning your head a quarter of turn, just to feel you turned twice as much. It is vomit-inducing, really.”

“Well, at least warn me before you mess with my eyes,” I finally opted for sitting on my haunches. “I think I attached it. I can’t really see it though.”

“Looks good to me.”

“So!” I jumped back on my hooves. “When does the suit start training? I can’t wait to see what I can do with it.”

“We can start right now if you want,” Saios seemed a bit… hesitant. “I had wished you to keep in unassisted mode for a day or two, just to get a grip on your vitals.”

“Wait a minute, my vitals?” I didn’t like the sound of that a single bit.

“Yes. Heartbeat, temperature, blood pressure… It monitors injuries, too. I can apply some first aid from where I am, though we need to resupply it on drugs.”

“What… kind of drugs?” I asked hesitantly. I still had the Tenpony incident in my mind. I had little wish to be hooked up to combat enhancing drugs again.

“Different kinds of intravenous healing potions, painkillers such as morphine and Med-X, commons antibiotics for infections, and various other things.”

“Does it include things like… Dash?” I prompted, resisting the urge to bite my lip. Damn, girl, don’t even think about it!

“’Dash’? As in, that one methamphetamine which gives a distorted perception of time?” Saios seemed quite suspicious.

“I… guess?” I scrapped the floor in shame. “I’m not a doctor, so I can’t really tell.”

“Spring… Do you have a history of addictive behavior?”

“NO! I mean, no,” I shook my head vigorously. “I just took some once, not so long ago, during the hunt for the master keys. My own recklessness had cornered me in a very tough situation, I got injured pretty badly in the middle of a place I sure didn’t want to be caught in, and, uh, it got me out of there.”

“I see. Sadly, ‘Dash’ has a very, very high addictive rate. You should not be ashamed of having relapses from time to time.”

“Yeah. I got those… cravings, you know?” I sighed. “Well, no, you can’t really know. In good first of class, you’re just gonna lecture me about how drugs are bad and stuff like that. I saw the propaganda posters, y’know? And I saw many addicts first hoof. I know what I risk.”

“Actually, I do know how it feels like. Blue Shift used to be young, you know.”

“Ha, so you weren’t kidding about the pot earlier?” I chuckled. “Well, when I thought it is said to make people stupid…”

“Oh, actually, it does. I- Blue Shift was a very, very occasional smoker. He tried other things, too – alcohol, opiates, synthetic drugs… He quickly dropped out of it though.”

“But no Dash,” I pointed out.

“No ‘Dash’, indeed. He did have a few friends fond of amphetamines.”

“Oh. What did they become?”

I mentally kicked myself for asking that. They sure weren’t alive and kicking, two centuries later.

“They probably died during the Bombing of Prance,” Saios’ voice grew grim. “Or maybe when the megaspells hit. Or during the fallout that followed. They are all gone now.”

“I’m, uh, I’m sorry,” I bit my lips without thinking.

“Don’t be. If anything, you are even less responsible for the Great War than me.”

Silence fell back on the labs. My eyes wandered on the overlay in front of me. I noticed a small map had popped up on the down left; some kind of counter had appeared on the down right. The date and time was displayed up top, along with what I guessed to be indicator of the current vision mode.

I also noticed from the corner of my eyes that all those indications faded away when I wasn’t directly looking at them. Somepony had obviously taken great care not to hamper the user’s vision.

“So, training?” I finally suggested to break the ice. “Do you have an obstacle course or something?”

“Kind of,” Saios’ voice did not seem very confident. “See, the suit does not need you to actually do anything to learn from you. It just needs you to think about doing it. This is how ponies dreams, actually.”

“Wait, do you want me to dream of training?” I asked, incredulous. “I don’t think that’s even remotely possible.”

“Not exactly. Based on the technology we used for the SAIOS project and spells derived from memory orbs, we designed a new generation of simulation devices. At first, we wanted to sell it as a new generation of gaming platform, but the ministries realized they made for amazing training devices. Think about it: you can send even the greenest rookie into the most abominable battlefield one can imagine, without actually worrying for his life. It also helps desensitize them from violence and first-blood traumatic disorder.”

“Do I even dare ask why I had never heard of such a thing before?” I rolled my eyes. My caps were on ‘too expensive’, ‘arrived too late’ and ‘bad publicity’.

“It didn’t work.”

Wait, what?

“It turned out ponies are not as stupid as we wanted them to be. So-called mind experts predicted the frontier between reality and fiction would blend quickly, turning the subjects in bloodthirsty, rampage-ready monsters. It appeared this was definitively wrong. Ponies were aware they were in a simulation. In the back of their mind, they knew they were not killing Zebras by the dozen. Sadly, when they got sent on the battlefield, as they boldly charged toward their enemies as they were trained to, they realized, the moment they should have pulled the trigger, that the being in their sights was not virtual by any means.

By the time they got over that shock, the Zebra in front of them had already riddled them with bullets.”

“And you want me to go in there?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “Even though it doesn’t work?”

“Spring, no offence, but you are a battle-hardened, cold-hearted veteran. I do not think you will even hesitate for a nanosecond before using what you will learn in there for murdering ponies.”

“… point taken.”

“Furthermore, a simulation allows me to synchronize the suit with your thoughts way faster than a regular training. And this way I do not have to go out of my way to build you a makeshift boot camp.”

“Well, works for me.” A disturbing though crossed my mind. “Is it safe?”

“Unmonitored? Absolutely not. We are dealing with emotions and feelings that can break even the toughest mare. Psychological damage is expected. The subject may also have thermoregulation trouble, muscle contractions, migraines, or even enter cardiac arrest.”

“Uhh…” All of sudden, the idea did not seem very appealing to me.

“But do not worry; in this particular case you will be safe. As I said, you are a hardened veteran, so you already have the aforementioned psychological damage – no offence – and since I will be monitoring your vitals the whole time, I shall wake you up if I have even the slightest doubt about your condition. Furthermore, you will not spend more than two hours in the chair at once.”

“You know, you could have lied and said nothing wrong could happen,” I warily approached the techy-looking chair in the middle of the room. “So what, I just lie down there and start dreaming?”

“More or less. For starter, you should remove the EVG. You will not need them and they might bother you.”

“Don’t I need to ‘teach’ them too?”

“No. The suit itself handles it. You just need to lie on your back –” I did so “– grab the neural interface on the table next to you – yes, that – and put it on your head.

Now, there should be a large black cable coming out of the side of the chair.”

“Saios, there are dozens of wires coming out from there,” I deadpanned. The weird neural-thingy headgear was not exactly comfy, and I didn’t like the way it clipped itself around my horn.

“Look for one which does not go anywhere. There, you got it. Plug it in your suit now.”

I chocked down yet another pun about the suit’s name, and found the correct port.

“Okay, done. What now?”

“Relax. Take deep breathes. Concentrate on your breathing.”

I shuffled uncomfortably on the chair. Ponies were not exactly made to lie down on their back.

I exhaled deeply, trying to control my respiration rhythm. I told myself I was perfectly safe – and to my great surprise I did not have to lie to myself. What was the last time I had the opportunity to just lie down, relax and let my thoughts wander? It felt like an eternity.

“Good. Very good. With each breath you become more relaxed.”

I did not even distrust Saios anymore. Nor Meridian. Eck, I even had a very good feeling about Evey.

“Imagine a brilliant white light above you, focusing on this light as it flows through your body. Allow yourself to drift off as you fall deeper and deeper into a more relaxed state of mind.”

Maybe… maybe that was what friendship was all about? Being able to just… let go…

“Now as I count backward from ten to one, you will feel more peaceful, and calm. You will reach out with your mind toward the light.”

“Ten.”

Just…

“Nine.”

…knowing…

“Eight.”

… that out there…

Seven.”

… ponies …

“Six.”

… you trust…

“Five.”

…are there …

“Four.”

… to be …

“Three.”

… to simply…

“Two.”

… to just be your friend

“One.”



Oblivion welcomed me in its loving embrace.

(** **)

Main quest updated: Applied Phlebotinum
Objectives:
[X] Repair the DERTA's communication center (Primary)
[ ] Enjoy your stay at the DERTA (Primary)



Side quest added: Back to School
Objectives:
[X] Enter the void (Primary)
[ ] Survive the training course (Primary)




Level up!

New perk:
Here and now: even adults have to grow up sometimes.

"Adults are children who take themselves seriously."

Author's Note:

As always, special thanks to Lepking13 for his proofreading.
Cover art courtesy of Greeny-Nyte.

Read it on Google Docs for a better formating:
Fallout Equestria: Shades of Grey, Chapter Ten: Back To School

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