• Published 15th Mar 2013
  • 13,917 Views, 120 Comments

Fallout Equestria: Shades of Grey - Gig

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

  • ...

Chapter Eleven: Opération Amarrage

“Soldier, you're fixing to have a size 10 combat boot shoved up your candy ass!”

Chapter Eleven: Opération Amarrage

My lungs frantically gasped for air, as if I had spent a full hour underwater. My body screamed something was terribly wrong with my environment, clawing away at my skin as if it felt desperate to get out. Waves of boiling heat and chilling cold radiated through my limbs. It felt like I had been cooked alive and frozen at the same time.

Then, after a few everlasting seconds, everything glided back to normal. Saliva watered my dried mouth. My body stabilized at a comfortable, regulated warmth. My head stopped spinning. My heartbeat slowed down to a more reasonable level.

Slowly, I opened my eyes. A cold, harsh white light attacked my retina; almost immediately, the goggles adjusted to the ambient luminosity.

“Welcome to Big Mountain Enrichment Center, SUBJECT RANK SUBJECT NAME.”

I winced as the unnatural voice reverberated around me. It had started its sentence with a warm, comforting tone, only to switch to the bored drone of a technician asked to voice a placeholder.

“Sorry, the first connection to the simulation is always unpleasant,” I heard Saios apologize from everywhere at once. “It would have been worse had I warned you.”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I mumbled, struggling to get back on my hooves. To my surprise, the suit didn’t impede me the slightest. “It’s not the worst hangover I’ve ever had, trust me.”

“You were selected to be one of the first operators of the-” the warm voice began again, before being cut by Saios.

“We will not need those pre-recorded messages,” Saios chuckled. “Consider yourself lucky. You have an AI dedicated just to yourself!”

“Uh, thanks?” I proposed. I took the opportunity to look around me.

There wasn’t much to see. I found myself in a small concrete room. A single metallic door pierced a wall. Otherwise, the room was empty, save for a large button on a pedestal right in front of me.

As I looked at it, a text appeared on my overlay. It pointed toward the button, saying ”Press to proceed.”

“Uh, Saios?” I turned around the big, red button as if it would help me understand what it did. “Do I?...”

“Yes. Just follow the instructions for now, everything is scripted,” he answered. “Go ahead.”

Hesitantly, I pressed the ominous button o’ doom.

Immediately, the door in front of me opened.

“That’s it?” I asked, dumbfounded. “It just-”

I stopped mid-sentence as a pony appeared in front of me. Wearing a light military uniform, he stared right in front of him and otherwise ignored me altogether.

Then, in the spookiest movement I ever had seen, his four legs bent all the way over his head, he turned on himself without touching the ground and started levitating toward the door.

I backpedalled with a shriek, squeezing up against the opposite wall. The abomination continued hovering for a split, terrifying second, then disappeared without a trace.

“Oh, crap. I’m deeply sorry Spring,” Saios’s prenchy voice seemed sincere.

“Celestia’s anal flares, what in Tartarus was that?” I squeaked without a single trace of self-esteem.

“A glitch. I had not realized the animation files were missing,” Saios continued his apology. “Just wait a few minutes; I shall try to make it up for you with a more realistic guide.”

“That… that was terrifying,” I breathed out, slowly coming back to my senses. “I mean, I’m no coward, but that? Holy shit! Just, whoa…”

“You just encountered a nasty case of what we call the ‘uncanny valley’. The more realistic a pony, the more terrifying it becomes when you realize it is not a real pony.”

“Yeah… Sorry for overreacting,” I chuckled uneasily, scratching my mane with my hoof.

“Do not apologize. The blame is entirely on me. There, that should be better.”

A blue-ish stallion popped into existence where the previous one had disappeared. I found myself staring at his coat, wondering what in Luna’s name that color was. It wasn’t blue, not really, but it wasn’t grey either. It had some hints of green, but…

I shrugged to shake off my torpor. It didn’t really matter, I supposed.

Reluctantly, my eyes wandered to his face, afraid of what they would find there.

To my great surprise, unlike the previous model this one stallion had a somewhat expressive gaze. He looked at me with green-ish eyes like he actually acknowledged my presence.

“How does it look?” he asked with Saios’s voice. “I had to redo the animations from scratch. I hope they are fitting.”

“Yes, they are,” I grinned as realization dawned on me. He didn’t model any pony, now did he? “Though you should think about trimming your mane and cutting that beard. Facial hairs are so last century.”

Blue Shift did an honest-to-goodness eye roll, and idly scratched his blue beard.

“This is just a virtual representation, Spring,” he chuckled. The voice did not reverberate around the room anymore. “How is the sound? I just tweaked the spatialization engine.”

“It’s perfect,” I snorted. “You even sound like a nerd.”

“Guilty as charged,” he moved out of the room. His movements were a bit stiff, but nothing really uncanny. “Shall we continue?”

I trotted at his side. “Lead the way, partner!”

(** **)

“So, when do we begin?” I asked as we trotted down a seemingly never-ending succession of corridors.

“It started five minutes ago,” Shift looked at me from the corner of his eye. “The suit is learning from your casual walking already.”

“Wait, what?” I almost tripped on my hooves. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Could you walk casually if I asked you to?” he pointed out. “I don’t think so. It has to be unconscious, you see?”

“I think I can casually walk on my own, thank you,” I deadpanned.

“Really? Try not to think about breathing, then.”

“Brea-?” I immediately became conscious of the slow movements in my chest. I facehoofed in shame. “I walked right into this one, didn’t I?”

“Don’t worry, you are far from being the first one,” Shift chuckled. “Actually, it seems to be inherent to pony nature.”

“If you continue that sentence by saying robots are the master race, I am going to kick your simulated ass so hard even your processors will hurt,” I warned him with the most serious tone I could muster.

“Don’t be so grumpy. I can build you a PCB coffin like mine if you want to,” Blue Shift answered grimly.

I bit my lip, not sure what to make of that.

“Anyway, we just arrived to the next part of your test,” he finally continued as an unpleasant silence trailed by, hinting at a door I could swear wasn’t there three seconds before. “I will ‘watch’ you from the observation deck. It is merely a convenience, mind you, but some studies found out test subjects were more diligent if they had the feeling they were being... judged.”

“O… kay,” I answered, moving toward the door. It opened on its own without a sound. “See you soon, then?”

Blue Shift winked, and disappeared in a shower of sparks.

“Humrph. Show-off,” I mumbled.

“I heard that.”

(** **)

“Is that… the first test?” I asked doubtfully, gapping at the nigh-empty room before me. “Or did I end up in the maintenance area somehow?”

“This is the first obstacle course,” Saios’ voice confirmed. “We wish to assess your capacity at clearing fences. Hence, this obstacle course.”

“But… these things are pipes, not fences!” I pointed at the incriminating, bright-red, oversized plumbing appliance in my way.

“Yes, they are,” he answered unhelpfully. “Is something the matter?”

“No, it’s just…” I struggled to put words on my thoughts. “Why pipes, of all things you could have used as a fence? Why didn’t you use, I don’t know, a fence, or a wall, or something like that?”

“I do not really know the answer to that question,” Saios avowed truthfully. “I- Blue Shift did not design the training course. This was well under his paycheck. In all likelihood, the mapper assumed the test subjects would see a bright red industrial pipe as a potential danger, and would go out of their way not to touch it – as a matter of fact, by jumping over it.”

“Really?” I deadpanned. “If you had to create something as boring as an obstacle course, that’s what you’ll have on your mind? That I could simply climb over that knuckle-high obstacle? Pluh-ease!”

“Another explanation would be that a realistic-looking fence would take almost an hour to look convincing, while a pipe only needs thirty seconds and a very generic texture. If I- Blue Shift had been forced to do something boring like that, slacking off would have been without a doubt his first priority.”

“… that is both ridiculously credible and terrifying,” I let out after a few seconds of stupor. “Because it means I am, right now, standing in a botched simulation that could probably fry my brain at the slightest mistake. Wonderful.”

“Do not worry. I have checked all the critical components of the application before sending you in, and I only found a hoofful of potentially fatal errors. I fixed them all. You are safe.”

“Geez, I am so relieved right now.” I uneventful jumped over the ridiculous pipe. “Okay, done. What now?”

“I need you to do that again a couple dozen times. Then we shall proceed with other kinds of jumps.”

I groaned loudly in the most unladylike fashion I could muster.

(** **)

“Saios, I am not jumping over that one,” I stared at the huge pipe in front of me. “I can’t even see what’s on the other side! What do you think I am, a pegasus?”

“You are not supposed to go over it, but under it,” the AI pointed out with a sigh. I then noticed the narrow space between the concrete floor and the steel contraption.


(** **)

“Okay, I understand the idea behind ‘jumping’ and ‘crawling’, but what in Tartarus is a ‘crouching jump’ supposed to be?”

“I, uh…” even the AI seemed puzzled. “I have absolutely no idea. From the code, I assume it is some kind of jump, during which you, well, crouch.”

“Seriously?” I turned toward the shoulder-high ring in front of me. “This is ridiculous.”

“I concur. Just let me scrap the entire portion of code,” Saios grumbled. All of a sudden, I found myself in a different room entirely. “There.”

“Woaw-” I stumbled, completely disoriented. “What did you just do?”

“I moved you to the next area,” he explained. “Was it too sudden for you?”

“Yes, it was.” I closed my eyes so my head could stop spinning. “Please stop doing things that are not supposed to be physically possible, Saios.”

“Sorry. I assumed you were familiar with teleportation.”

“Not really, no.” I slowly opened my eyes. I was in a large, empty corridor. “I can barely lift more than four or five objects at once with telekinesis. I’m not nearly strong enough to perform spells like that.”

“Teleportation in itself is very demanding,” Saios agreed. “But Evey teleported you out of Stable 87 and it did not seem to unsettle you very much, confusion set aside.”

“Yeah, well, living in the Wastelands makes you grow a strong sense of priorities,” I walked down the corridor. I turned over the corner, and spotted the unique exit: a narrow ventilation duck. “You’re kidding. You’re kidding, right?”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“A vent.” I rather painfully facehooved. “Were you living in a spy novel or what?”

“I do not follow.” Saios seemed genuinely confused. “It is a bit stereotypical, for sure, but I understand those are a convenient way to enter or exit a building.”

“Look, they aren’t, okay? How do you expect to stay stealthy when each step you take makes that kind of noise?” I tapped the inside of the vent to make my point. “And that’s assuming, of course, it can withstand your weight and nopony shoots you from outside.”

“That… is surprisingly right. I always assumed those fictions had some roots in reality.”

“Well, not that one,” I deadpanned. “Still, I guess I have to get through that one anyway, right?”

“I could tele-”

“NO!” I cut frantically. “I mean, no, thanks. I’m just gonna… crawl through that vent and be done with it.”

“As you wish.”

I pushed from my hindquarters and dove into the narrow tube, grasping the wall with my forehooves. Thankfully, the polished tin was nowhere as slippery as it should have been, allowing me to get a solid grip.

With a grunt, I pulled myself into the duck and started crawling.

It was as bit as loud and uncomfortable as I had imagined.

(** **)

“There!” I panted, landing on the floor with very little grace. “I hope you took notes or something, because I’m not doing that ever again!”

“I have modified the rest of the training course in accordance. All vents have been removed.”

“Good,” I nodded. “What now?”

I had landed in a long room. I could see the exit on the opposite wall, but large pits barred my way.

“The following jumps are getting progressively harder,” Saios explained. “Do not worry if you fail, especially the last one. You should not be able to clear it without some assistance from the suit.”

“What.” I leaned over the edge of the first ditch. “Dude, if I fall in that I’m gonna break something! Probably my spine.

“Well, then try not to fail!” Blue Shift yelled from the other side of the room. Even from where I stood I could see the teasing look on his face.

“That’s easy for you to say that, you ain’t got no legs to break!” I yelled back. Then, realization dawned on me, and I facehooved rather loudly.

“Just remembered you weren’t really here either, uh?” Shift chuckled. “Come on. Once you are done with this, we’ll get to the fun parts.”

“All right,” I mumbled, backing up all the way to the wall. “Here we go!”

I cleared the first jump without much trouble. The second proved to be trickier and I almost found myself a few centimeters short on the landing.

Then, I reached the third and last jump and stopped dead on my tracks.

“Dude. No way,” I shook my head at the sight of the gap in front of me. “It’s at least nine meters wide.”

“Eight meters, actually,” Blue Shift corrected from the other side. “This is shorter than the world record, you know.”

“For sure, because I am obviously a world-class athlete,” I deadpanned. “Listen, I already did maybe fifty jumps since we started. Don’t you think you got enough data?”

“Golden rule of sciences: you never have enough data,” Shift shook his head. “But you are right, in a way. This last jump is not about gathering more information about your thought patterns. It is about you, not the suit.”

“If you’re going to say something about ‘conquering your fear’, just can it,” I cut him. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know the difference between having balls and having testosterone poisoning.”

“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that,” Shift dismissed with a wave of a hoof. “The suit was made for special operations, remember? Its operator would have probably been through hell and back already. Possibly, we could have tested their faith in their operator right here.”

I blinked, realizing the implications. “Well, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but…”

“…but it doesn’t look like remotely possible?” Shift finished. “I concur. It would be without the suit.”

“You think it could help me cross?” I lifted an armored forelimb in front of my eyes. With every movement, I could see the servomotors at the joints following the articulation.

“Here? Without a single doubt,” he replied, nodding. “It would be a bold move in the real world, but you are here in a controlled environment. With some assistance from the suit, this jump is physically possible.”

“Okay,” I gulped. “I can’t get hurt anyway, right?”

“You can’t break anything,” Blue Shift nodded. “That’s the point of doing a simulation in the first place.”

I flexed my limbs and walked toward the end of the platform to make the most of my running momentum.

I made up my mind.

I galloped as fast as I could with a standing start. My limbs flew over the ground in a second; my front hooves impacted the very edge of the concrete platform; my entire body flexed as I brought my hindquarters at the very same position, and in the blink of an eye I was away, soaring through the air.

Under me, the unforgiving black ditch sailed by ever so slowly. I focused on the other side, the landing zone I had aimed for. Blue Shift’s face, frozen in an eternal perplexed grimace, inched ever closer.

Then I started losing altitude.

My front hooves slipped on the concrete slab. My rear hooves slammed against the gap wall, failing to get a grip. Eyes wide, I felt the unforgiving pull of gravity as it attracted me in its cold embrace.

After an all too short eternity, I hit the ground flat on my back.

“Ouch,” Blue Shift commented.

(** **)

I exited the simulation gasping for air, my cheeks flushed crimson with blood.

I did not know if it was of shock or of fury.

“This should have not happened,” Saios said as I stumbled out of the chair. “The suit failed to help you make that jump.”

“Oh, you noticed too?” I spat a small glob of blood. I had somehow bitten my own tongue. “It’s funny, do you also remember you promising me I couldn’t get hurt?”

“I said you couldn’t break anything,” Saios coldly pointed out. “Pain, like any other sensation, is as real as you allow it to be.”

“Oh, fuck you,” I growled, legs still trembling under the onslaught of adrenaline. “That’s bullshit, and you know it!”

“Well, no, it is…”

“Shut up!” I yelled at the camera in a corner. Standing tall, I stormed out of the room. “Just… Shut up.”

(** **)

“Listen, Spring, I am deeply sorry for what happened in the simulation.”

“I’m not listening,” I removed the headset as I rushed down the corridors toward my room. “I don’t give a flying fuck about the words you say.”

“Please, if you could just…” he began on a nearby speaker.

I drew my pistol and blasted it to smithereens.

“… objection noted,” another speaker continued further down the hall. “We shall talk when you have cooled down, then.”

I almost kicked down the door to my room and sprawled on the bed in the darkness, fulminating against the AI for betraying my trust.

I was the one to blame in the end though. Why did I even trust him in the first place? That’s how you ended up being hurt. Trusting people. Making a leap of faith, but there’s no one to catch you.

I buried my head in the pillow and groaned. My whole body ached with a numb pain. I knew I was fine, but my nerves had a very different opinion.

Slowly, I breathed in and out through the thick fabric. The anger and the fear subsided.

“Hey, you okay?” Meridian slowly entered my room. “I heard you yelling at Saios. What happened?”

“Nothing. I just made a fool of myself,” I grumbled through my pillow. I felt him sit on the bed. “Again.”

Even though I could not see him, I easily pictured Meridian watching me with a fatherly gaze, waiting in silence for me to continue, to get my feelings out of my chest.

Finally, as minutes drifted by in silence, I gave in. I slowly pushed the pillow away and sat on my haunches.

“He gave me this suit,” I stared at my armored hoof, avoiding Meridian’s eyes. “It’s some kind of prototype. I didn’t understand half the things he told me about it but he seemed very proud about it.”

“That’s very nice of him,” Meridian nodded in the darkness.

“Yeah.” I sniffed. Damn air conditioning. “But there’s a catch. The suit’s power armor. A new generation, he said. It has to be trained in some kind of ultra-realistic simulation.”

“And you agreed to do it,” Meridian deduced.

“And I agreed to do it.” I glanced at him in the corner of my eyes. “It was weird. A thousand kinds of weird. It felt so real even though I knew it was just an illusion. Like, you know this is just an act, but after a few minutes you realize you had started believing in it, just like you believed in reality.”

“I know the feeling,” Meridian breathed out, almost imperceptibly. “Then something happened, didn’t it?”

“At first, it was nothing but frustrating obstacle courses,” I continued, a knot in my throat. “Jumping over pipes, dozens of times. Crawling through vents. Those kinds of things. Then… Then came the long jumps.”

I felt my whole body shake at the memory. It chilled me to the bones.

“You fell,” Meridian deduced.

“I… I thought I died,” I murmured, so softly I almost couldn’t make out the words myself. “He said I was safe, and he was right, but at that moment, when I realized I wouldn’t make it to the other side, I just… I couldn’t…”

I squeezed my eyes shut. I rubbed them with a hoof as if it could erase the terrifying memory. It came back moist.

“So when I returned to my senses, in this blasted chair, I just… snapped,” I continued, my voice still shaking. “I felt cheated.”

“I don’t think he made you fall on purpose.” Meridian slipped a leg around my shoulders. Thankful, I leaned back in his embrace. “As you said, it’s a prototype. Accidents happen.”

“I know,” I mumbled. “He seemed very sorry about it, too. I refused his apologies. I even shot a speaker on my way out.”

“That’s kind of harsh. Even for you.”

“I know, right?” I chuckled uneasily. “I was just mad.”

I sniffed.

“I should apologize to him,” I finally admitted. “That is, if he doesn’t blast me into next week.”

“I think he cares more about you than you realize,” Meridian pated me on the back. “Deal with it, you are adorable. Even when you throw a temper tantrum.”

“Hey!” I playfully punched his shoulder. “I’m not adorable. I’m a respected bounty hunter. I inspire awe and terror in my foes.”

“We all have our delusions,” he laughed, before swiftly dodging a pillow. Then, he pointed out the goggles, discarded on the bed. “Are those yours?”

“Yeah. I removed them when I didn’t want to hear what he had… to… say…” I trailed off, realization dawned on me. “You heard everything, didn’t you?”

“Sorry,” Saios shamefully answered through a speaker on my chest. He could do that!?

“Listen,” I bit my lip, choosing my words carefully. “My bad. I… I shouldn’t have snapped on you earlier. It was foolish of me. I should have…”

“No, you were right,” Saios interrupted me. “When I scrapped out the part about that crouched jump, I made a mistake. It confused the suit’s software. It was stuck in learning mode. I should have double-checked the code, but I was too busy chatting with you and making plans and doings things that should have stayed at low priority.”

“But I…”

“And I shouldn’t kept that pit in the first place,” he continued, spitting out words even faster, “Like you said, this whole course felt right out of an action movie. I should have cut out the drama and replaced it with a pool or something.”

“I made you scrap that stupid jump in the first place,” I pointed out. “I should have listened to you and stayed on the original course.”

“So…” Saios resumed hesitantly after a pregnant pause. “Would you please accept my most sincere apologies?”

“Only if you accept mine.” I smiled weakly.

In a corner, Meridian rolled his eyes at the goofy display.

(** **)

Before me stretched the dreaded gap. This time, however, even the gargantuan distance couldn’t phase out the azure waters that filled it, nor the comfortable-looking giant mattress that waited for me on the other side.

To my left, Blue Shift nudged me and pointed out a couple goldfish swimming lazily in the pool.

“Let’s not disturb them, all right?”

“I’m not even sure it counts as training anymore.” I rolled my eyes at his obvious efforts to make the jump less intimidating.

“I would have added cheerleaders too, but I couldn’t find a nice model. Plus, I feared you would be too distracted to actually, you know, jump.”

“Me, distracted by mares?” I lifted my eyes to the sky and shook my head. “Now I heard it all.”

I took out a deep breath, gauging the distance to my objective.

“How are you even going to cross, anyway?” I turned toward Blue Shift, a smirk on my lips. “I dare you not to teleport on the other side.”

“You’re on,” he smirked back. “Watch.”

He started walking toward the pool. He didn’t slow down as he reach the edge, and right when I expected him to fall face first in the waters, he continued forward, unfazed.

“You’re kidding.” I felt my jaw drop. “How are you even doing that?”

“Spring, in this simulation I am basically a god,” he shrugged, standing on the surface of the water midway across the pool. “Your turn.”

“What, you want me to walk on water?” I asked in disbelief.

“Not really, no,” he facehoofed.

“Oh, right. The jump,” I bit my lip at the memory of my recent failure. It didn’t seem nearly as impossible, though.

Then, seizing a brief surge of temerity, I galloped toward the edge. My muscles flexed under the effort.

And, right as I pushed back to take off, I felt it. I felt the whole suit expand, push me along. I soared through the air.

I landed smoothly on all fours, almost a meter from the opposite edge.

“Well, looks like you just nailed a new world record,” Blue Shift playfully teased. “Girl, we’ll make an athlete out of you!”

(** **)

“The obstacle course was only the first part of the training,” Blue Shift told me as we entered an elevator. I assumed he wanted to spare me the out-of-this-world instant teleportation. “Afterward, you should have trained your CAI to acknowledge more conscious commands, like engaging your camouflage or managing your heads-up display. I suggest we skip it entirely.”

“Why’s that?” I raised an eyebrow. “Sounds kinda important to me.”

“When we designed the suit, we didn’t expect the operator to be a fully-fledged artificial intelligence. What your software can do, I can do better, assuming I have some data to work with.”

“Wait, are you saying I didn’t have to get through that obstacle course in the first place?” I accused.

“You misunderstood.” Shift shook his head. “What I meant is quite simple: we can learn to use the suit on the fly. The original software had to be calibrated in a controlled environment but I can use my knowledge of the context to deduce what you want to do. For example, if you had asked it to zoom on something, it would have done nothing because it lacked the ability to understand you.”

“Oh, okay, I get it,” I quipped. “You couldn’t skip the obstacle course because I was acting out of reflexes. It makes sense.”

“Exactly,” Shift nodded. “So we can skip the second part of the training. It had some basic infiltration training, but I reckon you are no stranger to sneaking on ponies.”

“That’s what I do best,” I smirked.

“Then we have the third part.” Shift frowned. “We… will scrap it too.”

“What was it?” I inquired.

“Pain calibration,” he answered seriously.

“What!?” I jerked my head toward him in surprise. “Pain… calibration? What the hell?”

“The suit has a medical assistance module, and pain is very subjective.” He shrugged bashfully. “It cannot guess from your vitals how much pain you actually feel, and how much it impedes your judgment and actions. On the other hoof, too much painkillers would be downright dangerous, and I am not just talking about an overdose.”

“Oh yeah.” I shivered as I remembered the Tenpony disaster. “I see what you mean. Still, I’m not really looking forward to doing that. I’ll have plenty of pain out there already.”

“I concur. We shall cross this bridge when we come to it.”

“So, what’s after the sadomasochist training?” I asked. Internally, I noted we had been in the elevator for so long we should have been halfway to the Zebra Empire by now.

“Tactical data analysis,” Shift chuckled at my downcast face. “I’ll spare you that part too. Half of it concerned squad cooperation, and I can easily cover the other half. Basically, it teaches both the operator and the field agent how to use a map, how to hack or disable communication systems, and so on.”

“What has hacking computers anything to do with the CAI?” I reacted, puzzled.

“There is an omnitool embedded in your left forehoof,” Shift explained. “We weren’t teaching how to hack terminals, but how to interface with them. However, since we are talking about an infiltration suit, I don’t think they were going to use it to download movies or whatnot.”

Curious, I lifted my armored foreleg in front of me. As if on cue, a small connector like those on Pipbucks popped out.

“Cool,” I nodded with approval. “Does it mean you can hack whatever terminal I plug this into?”

“If you are talking about those Stable Tech terminals they shipped to the four winds, yes, in a matter of seconds,” Shift chuckled. “Their security software has more holes than Emmentaler cheese. Hacking into other systems may take a little while longer.”

“And he’s modest about it, too.” I comically rolled my eyes. “I do remember you promising me we were reaching the ‘fun’ part of the simulation though, so go ahead, and spill the beans. What d’you got for me?”

As I finished my sentence, the elevator suddenly stopped. The doors opened with a ding, and Blue Shift motioned me to take the lead.

“Ladies first,” he smiled coyly.

Eyes to the ceiling, I shook my head in mock despair and walked out of the elevator. Silently, I wondered how much of Saios’ antics were the AI playing pretend, and how much was genuine interaction he inherited from Blue Shift.

I had already noticed he tended to let his cold and reserved façade slip when he got excited or surprised, I thought as I walked down the hall. In the simulation, however, I had yet to see his avatar break character. Friendly, he seemed to guide me through the whole simulation as if he genuinely enjoyed being there at my side. It didn’t feel like being with Meridian, though. While the earth pony often watched over me with a fatherly gaze, for some reason, the AI tried to fill the role of the brother I never had. To think I had only met him a few days before, and yet I had blindly agreed to lie down on a couch to hook on my horn devices right out of a science fiction comic book. He had this knack of always being able to explain everything I asked him, and I had yet to find a reason to mistrust him.

Plus, AI or not, he was still the biggest nerd I had ever met. I sure wouldn’t trust Meridian with a computer when my well-being was on the line.

My train of thought got derailed as we exited through red double doors. All around us, green plains stretched to the horizon. Above us, shielding us from the summer sun, was a large arbor softly moving in the breeze. Rays of light poured through the skies, bathing the scenery in bright splendor.

Stunned, I staggered into the emerald immensity. Supple grass blades shifted and bowed under my hooves. Mouth slightly agape, I removed my mask. As I entered the sunlight, my whole face seemed to melt in delightful warmth. Tears of joy streamed down my cheeks.

“Saios…” I murmured, my breath taken away, “I have no words…”

The AI’s avatar stopped right to my left, a mix of surprise and wonder turning his lips into a small smile.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect you to be taken away by the scenery,” he answered softly.

In the distance, clouds rolled by hills and forests, casting their shadows on the world before moving on. On the edge of the canopies, so far away, the leaves waved in unison as an ocean of vegetation. Playful birds soared through the azure skies, chirping their feral sonata for the world to hear.

“Is that how Equestria used to be?” I had to ask, my gaze not leaving the horizon even once. I feared the heavenly vision would fade into oblivion, should I ever dare looking away.

“It was,” Blue Shift whispered. “I had hoped the world had healed. Two centuries… It seemed like an eternity.”

Fresh air filled my lungs as I took a deep breath. Unknown scents from this foreign universe tingled my nostrils in unexpected new ways.

Never before had I felt so alive, and yet everything seemed so alien. So far away.

“I had never seen the sky.” Tears rushed down my cheeks. I made no move to wipe them off. “It is so blue. So… clear.”

Slowly, I sat down on the green pastures. Without a word, my companion and friend joined me in my contemplative awe.

“Do you think we’ll ever get it back?” I finally asked. A ladybug buzzed in front of me and landed on a tiny, yellow daisy. “Radiation will fade out eventually, right?”

“It shall,” he nodded imperceptibly. “Eventually.”

(** **)

Hours passed by in what felt like minutes. Eventually, Blue Shift shook me out of my torpor, and gently pried me away from the never-ending picture of paradise.

I emerged from the simulation as one would emerge from a dream. The greys and the browns of the room seemed so tarnished, so decayed I barely recognized my desaturated surroundings. In a haze, I sat up and swept the damp fur on my cheeks.

I realized I had spaced out when I heard Saios saying something.

“Sorry, could you…” I waved my hoof in a most vague manner. Thankfully, he seemed to get my hint.

“Evey is waking up,” he repeated with a hint of worry. “You asked me to keep you informed about her whereabouts.”

“That’s… good, I guess,” I slowly started to get a grasp on reality. The endless pastures of the simulation had burned an indelible mark in my mind. “I should get over there. Just in case.”


I stood up. Under my hooves, the metal floor had never felt so cold.

(** **)

As I walked down the DERTA’s corridors, I progressively snapped out of my virtual reality-induced trance. The strange feelings evoked by the surreal landscape had soon led to a somber, dull resignation. Nopony but foals ignored what the War had done to what should have been rightfully ours; yet seeing it firsthoof was another thing entirely.

“On a bright note, your suit seems to be working as expected,” Saios said out of the blue. “Does it hinder your movements in any way?”

I stopped mid-step as I realized I had completely forgotten about the assisted armor I was wearing. When I had run off from the simulation a couple hours earlier, it hadn’t felt any different from when I entered training.

Now, it mimicked my every move so faithfully it could have well been cloth. Bullet resistant cloth.

“To be fair, I had even forgotten about it,” I answered truthfully, flexing a forelimb up and down in front of me. “It’s impressive.”

“We are not done yet with the settings,” the AI warned in my earpiece. “But we will talk about this later. Evey should be in this laboratory.”

(** **)

With a quick swipe of my hoof, I wiped away some of the grime on the thick security window. This particular lab had been divided in three separate, isolated areas sometime before the War. Saios had said something about toxic chemicals being manipulated daily in there; but all I cared about was the two centimeters of glass separating me from the irradiated atmosphere.

“I can barely see her,” I squinted at the blurry alicorn’s form on a bed. “Are you sure she is waking up?”

“It is likely,” Saios confirmed. “She entered REM sleep a few minutes ago. Unless she begins a new sleep cycle, she is to wake up very soon.”

“Unless she begins a new sleep cycle?” I repeated, raising an eyebrow. “And what if she’s still tired?”

“She had been sleeping for almost eighteen hours now,” the AI pointed out. “If she does not wake up, we will have a situation on our hooves.”

I mentally tried to imagine what we should do with an alicorn version of the sleeping beauty. Finding a prince charming in the Wastelands would prove to be quite difficult.

“Crisis averted. She just woke up,” Saios finally announced, breaking my reverie.

“I can’t see anything,” I tapped the dirty glass with the tip of my hoof. “You should have cleaned it up.”

“My bad. I overlooked this problem,” the AI admitted. “Surprisingly, even my massive processing power does not allow me to be both exhaustive when it comes to problem solving and running the virtual reality simulator.”

Suddenly, a frame popped on my glasses overlay.

“This is what I see,” Saios explained. “Our friend just got up. Sadly, the resolution of the camera does not allow me to analyze her expression, but she seems more curious than frightened.”

“Can you make her hear me?” I asked, my eyes riveted on the dark alicorn. “She seemed to trust me in Stable 87. If I explain the situation to her, she’ll probably believe me.”

“Of course. Patching you through in five seconds.”

“Evey? Can you hear me?” I finally said. It was quite disturbing to hear my own voice reverberate from the speakers around me with a slight delay. “It’s Spring. We got out of the Stable together, remember?”

“Of course. You freed me from my cell.” The alicorn looked around. Her gaze set on the window. She walked toward it, analyzing the environment around her.

“You put me in isolation,” she finally stated. Her voice was poised, not openly threatening yet cautious nonetheless.

“Well, we… err…” I trailed off, unsure of what to say. I didn’t want her to believe she was a captive, yet I couldn’t possibly let her think she could open the door and just get out. Not with the irradiated atmosphere she was basking in.

And not before I had the assurance she wasn’t going to murder me now that we were out of Stable 87. Alliances can be fickle like that in the Wastelands.

“You were suffering severe mana exhaustion from your long-range teleport.” Saios flew to my rescue. “I conjectured radiation would speed up your recovery.”

“I understand.” Evey nodded. She wiped the dirt on the window with a hoof, allowing me to see her. “Furthermore, if Spring’s first reaction to my presence when we met in Stable 87, I expect you to see me as a menace. Therefore, I will not get out of this room without your consent.”

“Is that a threat?” I asked in disbelief. “The door is sealed and this glass is so thick you’d need explosives to break it down. How could you get out anyway?”

“I could teleport out, of course.” Evey smiled kindly. “My old cell was warded against such spells. This room had obviously not been designed to be a prison, however.”

Saios cursed in my headpiece. In the back of my mind, I noted it had been his second major oversight in a matter of minutes.

To be fair, I hadn’t thought of that either.

Scenarios of a fight against the alicorn played in my mind. I had seen her shield stop shrapnel and lasers, but it probably couldn’t withstand a direct it a Gauss turret or my hunting rifle. Furthermore, she did not have a ranged weapon. As long as I stayed away from her, I had the upper hoof.

She could teleport in melee range however, which would prove quite dangerous. I had seen her firsthoof literally backstabbing a foe back in Stable 87. Would my suit withstand this kind of damage?

Furthermore, I had the advantage of knowing the terrain. I suspected she couldn’t teleport to places she had never been or seen before – but then again, she somehow brought us back all the way from the Stable with nothing but a fuzzy indication from my memories.

“Fear not, I wish you no harm.” Evey’s smile faded a bit. The genuine sadness in her eyes almost made my heart ache. Once again, for some reason, I found very hard not to trust her. “You saved my life, and I am lost in this new world. I am forever in your debt and at your service.”

That came as a shock. Somepony had just pledged her life at my service. Just like that.

It had to be a trap. Nopony did that. I mean, come on, selfishness was the way to go in the Wastelands.

Then, in the back of my mind, I wondered what in Tartarus I could do with a subordinate.

“I have extensive knowledge of medicine,” Evey answered. “While I do not remember my previous life, it is obvious I was a medic of some kind. Furthermore, while I do not enjoy fighting, I can protect you, like I did when we escaped that dreaded Stable.”

A medic? She had my curiosity, now she had my attention. Real healers were rare in the Wastelands. Even before the war, it took years of study to become a medic, and after two centuries this knowledge had slowly faded into oblivion. Most medics were now either affiliated to one faction or another. I did not trust them a single bit.

Furthermore, I had seen the DERTA’s medical bay. Unlike most hospitals in the Wastelands, it hadn’t been raided or destroyed by the throes of time. If Evey really lived up to my expectations, and if she could really be trusted, she would be an invaluable asset.

Of course, she had fought alongside Meridian and I when we escaped Stable 87, but we had been in a very perilous situation. Yet, she had come back to help us when the other alicorns had us pinned in a corner. She could have run away then.

“I understand your concerns.” Evey solemnly nodded. “This is why I will stay here and follow your instructions. Order, and I shall obey.”

“Spring, step back from this window!” Saios suddenly warned in my ear piece. I immediately complied and jumped a good two meters backward. My telekinetic grip fastened on my pistol, disengaging the safety.

Behind the thick glass, the alicorn stared at me, puzzled. “What is the matter?”

“She’s reading your mind,” Saios announced with an icy tone. “You obviously didn’t notice it, but she was having a very one-sided conversation.”

“Please accept my apologies.” Evey lowered her head bashfully, ears flat on her head. “I assumed you were aware alicorns were telepaths and dreamwalkers.”

I’m so fucked.

“Stop it!” I yelled, pointing my gun at the windows. “Leave my head alone!”

“I am not sure I can.” Evey sadly shook her head. “This is not a spell I am casting. It behaves more like a sixth sense, if you will. Could you decide to stop listening to somepony on a whim?”

“And you want me to trust you even though you’re invading my thoughts?” I accused, pistol still raised. I tried not to think of how I would get out of this situation, but it proved way harder than it seemed.

“I have already pledged my life to your service. I am afraid I have nothing else to offer you.” The alicorn lowered her head. “For as long as I can remember, I had never even met another pony, let alone befriended it. Please. Let me help you.”

Mentally, I forced myself to calm. Slowly, my respiration got back to a more a normal level.

“Saios? What’s your take on this?”

“I believe we should give her a chance to prove her intentions,” the AI answered in the earpiece. Evey’s head perked up. She did nothing to pretend she hadn’t read his words in my mind.

It was both disturbingly honest and frightening.

“I have one condition, however,” he continued on the speakers. “I wish to conduct extensive studies on your anatomy, biology, and psyche.”

“What?!” I interjected, shocked. “No way you’re…”

“Granted,” Evey cut me out. “In fact, I would have eventually asked of you to help me in those studies. My old cell lacked the tools I would have needed, and many an experiment requires the help of an unbiased supervisor.”

“Wait a minute, let me get this straight,” I stared at the alicorn, dumbfounded. “You are actually eager to be used as a guinea pig?”

“Of course, I am,” Evey answered with a little nod. “For starter, it should give you the assurance I have nothing to hide, and that I trust you completely. Furthermore, I admit I have a very curious mind when it comes to scientific fields anywhere close to medicine and biology. My own body is a marvel of genetic engineering, yet I know naught about it. The possibilities it opens are astounding. If its regenerative properties can be duplicated, then radiation could become a sound way of feeding and healing other ponies. I am also curious to see if my telepathic and empathic abilities result in an increase of understanding in other ponies’ psychology. The questions are endless. I wish to answer them all.”

I gaped at Evey. Great, now I had two giant, crazy nerds in my immediate entourage.

“If you are half the curious mind you pretend to be, then we will get along just fine,” Saios concluded almost cheerfully.

(** **)

To my credit, I made it all the way to my room before finally breaking down.

“Fuck, she can read minds!” I yelled, circling on myself. “How much can she read? How far can she get? Damn, Saios, I don’t know what to do!”

“Don’t worry. It is doubtful she can see more than your current thoughts. Your memories should be safe, as long as you don’t call them back to your mind. Furthermore, I am certain her abilities does not allow her to read my own ‘thoughts’,” Saios unhelpfully answered. “Even if she did, I don’t think she could think fast enough to keep up with billions of calculations per seconds. This gives us an edge over her, should the need arise.”

“Geez, what a relief,” I deadpanned, sitting on the couch and getting off of it almost immediately. “But I’m not so lucky. Damn, it’s my mind we’re talking about! As if, the most private thing I have! And she was just casually strolling through it!”

“I doubt she meant anything by it,” Saios argued. “I have studied the files from Stable 87. The alicorns obviously have some kind of telepathic or emphatic link. I reckon she naturally extended it to you and believed you had done the same. If anything, it is a sign of trust. She recognized you as a friend and welcomed you in her herd.”

“That’s… making a lot of sense, actually,” I said after giving the theory some though. “I knew alicorns communicated through their sheer power of thought. If she saw me as an ally, of course she was going to get close to my mind. It sounds like a very efficient combat tactic. Still, this is incredibly disturbing.”

I sighed deeply. I realized I could hardly think of the alicorn locked in her observation room as a foe. Had she wanted me dead, she would have killed me already, and unlike Saios I had nothing she could have possibly wanted. If I had come to trust the pony-gone-AI, why wouldn’t I befriend a lonely alicorn? Besides, didn’t an old saying say ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’?

“Saios, tell me, in all honesty,” I gnawed my lips, my decision almost taken. “What do you think of her, and how much of an edge on us would her abilities give her?”

“Honestly, had you been some random pony, I would have not bet a single bit on your survival in a direct confrontation,” Saios bluntly stated. “Her magic is obviously powerful, since she teleported you over a great distance without even having clear knowledge of the landing zone.

She also has some training in combat. I have access to the files on subject Lambda-13, if she really is her. Her name, along with all the personal information, had been omitted, but it says she used to be in the med corps back in the days. One of the best field medics there was, not afraid of killing hostiles to save her patients.

On the other hoof, it means she has a strong sense of duty. If we present ourselves as the good guys, she will be very likely faithful to our side. From what I gathered from you, the alternatives out there are not encouraging for an alicorn wishing to make friends.

However, we have some assets that could turn the tables on her should she decide to try and take us out. As I stated before, she cannot read my thoughts. The CAI is therefore the best protection you could have against her. You needn’t think to establish combat tactics, only to follow my instructions. Combined with the reflexes you acquired through your endeavors, it totally nullifies the edge her mind-reading abilities could have given her.”

“In short, you are telling me there’s nothing of interest in my mind?” I gritted my teeth. “That’s quite insulting, you know?”

“Sorry, it was not my intention to imply this,” Saios apologized. “Though, to be fair, most of the memories and thoughts you hold most dear are likely to be personal and of no interest to somepony else.”

I gritted my teeth some more, but in the end I had to admit he was mostly right, yet not for the reasons he had put forward. Neither he nor Evey had any knowledge of the Wastelands. They wouldn’t behave nor think like everypony out there. For instance, they wouldn’t rat me out about the Tenpony incident, because they didn’t care about the Tower and its riches at all. If I introduced all the others factions as dangerous and believed it myself, even with mind-reading abilities and insane analysis capacities they would only see the world as I saw it. They would understand they would have very few friends besides me and Meridian.

“All right,” I finally concluded. “So, what know? How long do you suggest we let her in observation?”

“At least a couple days. We first need to conclude your training.”

“I thought we were done with that?” I frowned, looking at my suit. It followed my movements so well I had almost forgotten I was wearing it.

“Not really. I removed large parts of the simulation because they were mostly useless. Instead, you will run through a reconstitution of a real operation during the War. It will allow me to tune the settings of the suit to your body under realistic stress levels.”

“All right,” I sighed, leaving my room in direction of the laboratories. “Let’s get this over with, then.”

My stomach loudly grumbled.

“… after a little snack, that is,” I sheepishly reached for some canned corn in a corner.

(** **)

“I will not bother you with a complete lecture of the context of the operation you are about to get thrown into,” Saios lectured in his typical fashion as I walked through the corridors of Big Mountain. “Still, you need to know a few facts.

Two years after Equestria declared war on the Zebra Empire, Prance, which shares a land border with the zebras, got invaded. The strategy, more than the army itself, was to blame, but this is beside the point.

Opération Amarrage was the first step in a long plan, with the long term objective of taking Prance back. It would have given Equestria a hoofhold right near to the zebra’s homeland. It eventually failed, yet the particular mission you are about to live actually succeeded.

Unbeknownst to the Zebras, three commando squads from the Special Ops, under the supervision of the Ministry of Awesome, took off during a winter night and landed behind the enemy lines. Their objectives were simple: they had to disrupt their communications, destroy their long-range artillery, assess their forces and overall do as much damage as they could.

Sadly, one of the squads got caught in an updraft as they arrived on their landing zone. Five of six soldiers died. The sixth, Major Snow Drift, found herself unharmed but alone. Against all odds, she succeeded in her mission, cunningly using stealth and infiltration tactics to compensate for her lack of firepower.

The success of this mission set a precedent in the history of the Special Ops. In fact, many of the characteristic of the suit you are wearing right now were inspired by what we learned from it. This is why we chose to use it as a training simulation.”

I reached the laboratory, which hadn’t changed since my last visit. Reluctantly, I lay down on the virtual reality chair.

“What happens if I get killed in the simulation?” I asked, removing my goggles and putting them on a nearby table. “Last time had been one of the worse times of my life. I don’t want to get through that again.”

“I won’t lie, it will be painful,” Saios warned me. “Had you ever been shot in the past?”

“More than I ever wanted to,” I grimly answered. As on cue, my back started to itch.

“Then it will feel the same to you. The simulation is not going to make you feel any pain, but your brain will associate the fact of being hit with the sensations you are used to,” he explained. “As soon as you are downed in combat, I will load a previous state of the simulation, meaning you will not feel this pain for very long. Still, I fear this will be quite unpleasant.”

“Well, at least now I am expecting it,” I grumbled, putting the sci-fi headpiece on. “Let’s hope my brain will get the message this time…”

(** **)

The blizzard whirled around me, blinding me and chilling me to the bones. Even though the suit had its own thermo-regulation system, it could do little against the mercilessly freezing winds.

Slowly, I put a hoof on the narrow path that winded on the icy mountainside. Snow and frozen rocks made any progression a very delicate matter. Gusts of winds threatened to push me over the edge at every step.

Yet, the thick blizzard and the camouflage of my suit – which had turned snow white on its own – offered me a welcome protection from possible watchponies.

“Your first objective is to gain access to the main bunker,” Saios debriefed me in the earpiece. Surprisingly, I had no trouble hearing him over the howling. “You will need an access card for that. Since we are not doing this simulation to test your plan-making skills, I can safely tell you where to find one.”

“So that means we’re cheating?” I asked, dumbfounded, in my gas mask. It had turned out to be a wonderful protection against the cold air, too.

“This is beside the point,” he dismissed. “The agents taking this simulation would have already learned all the details of the real mission. Furthermore, thinking and planning is the operator’s job, not the agent themselves. There’s no point in making you guess.”

“All right then,” I said as I finally reached a small concrete platform.

“Careful there,” Saios whispered in my ear.

I hid behind a rock and tried to make out anything through the thick, white veil in front of me.

“You should activate the infrared camera,” he continued.

I remembered his instructions on how those functions were supposed to be activated. Almost immediately, my vision became a blur of grey and blue lines.

Farther away, now clearly visible because of the heat it radiated, a zebra was standing guard.

“Kill him,” Saios ordered. “He has an access badge. The Zebras never expected somepony could land undetected on the mountaintop and proceed all the way down there.”

Nodding, I grabbed the pistol on my breast.

“Not with your gun,” my operator interrupted. “I need you to stab him.”

Puzzled, I looked over my meager gear, and confirmed my clear lack of a knife or anything remotely sharp.

“No can do,” I whispered in my microphone. “I don’t have a blade on me. Wouldn’t be easier to shoot him? This pistol has a silencer and I know the model, it wasn’t loud to begin with. Nopony is going to hear it through the blizzard.”

“Right, I forgot I had removed the combat training course,” Saios realized. “The CAI is equipped with retractable claws, with a design inspired by Princess Luna’s bat guards. You needn’t another weapon.”

Dubious, I stared at my right forehoof, imagining blades sliding from it just like that one comic-book hero. To my great disbelief, three ten-centimeters-long curved claws sprung in silence from unseen holes in the armor. The blackened steel seemed to absorb the light in the most peculiar fashion. I didn’t have anything to test their sharpness with, but just from the look of it I knew this was the kind of blade that would slice through a pony’s throat just like butter.

“Nice,” I mumbled absentmindedly. “Are they solid?”

“Quite, but do not try to pry anything open with them,” Saios warned. “The base is as strong as we could build it but with enough leverage it may snap. Also, they can be used as a nonlethal weapon.”

I waved my hoof around, slicing through invisible foes.

“Nonlethal?” I repeated, staring at the blades. “They were obviously designed for slicing throats. I don’t think I could neutralize somepony with them even if I wanted to.”

Suddenly, two bright arcs of electricity joined the blades with a sharp clack. Surprised, I jerked in surprise.

“Holy shit,” I cursed, smalls dots of light still dancing in front of my eyes. “Saios, careful, the guard might see me!”

“You are outside his zone of detection,” Saios dismissed my concerns. “The shock should be enough to take down a full-grown stallion on contact. It may also be used inside a pony’s body, increasing the lethality of the hit. Go on; make one of your own.”

I mentally pictured thunder bursting out of my hoof. On cue, the arcs made their comeback.

“This is amazing,” I giggled like a schoolfilly. “Totally useless, but amazing nonetheless.”

“I had figured out you were not one for sparing your foes,” Saios stated without reproach in his voice. “Now sneak on the guard and take him down. I need to calibrate the sound dampeners.”

Moving like an agile snake, I flowed from behind my rock. I had always been stalking around like a ghost when I needed to, but after a few seconds I realized I couldn’t even hear my own steps. The wind had little to do with it.

Pursing my lips in a tight smile, I closed on the zebra. He seemed completely unaware of my presence.

I reached melee range. In a swift move, I jerked his head up with a hoof, and effortlessly sliced his throat with the other. He fell to the crimson snow without a sound.

“I have a confession to make,” Saios said as I looted the access card from the corpse. “The ease with which you just murdered this zebra is downright terrifying. I have the statistics in front of my eyes, you did not hesitate for a millisecond.”

“From the Wastelands, born and raised,” I shrugged, and continued down my way, leaving the bright red blood flowing on the pristine white behind me. “What did you expect?”

(** **)

Unaware of my presence, the zebras downhill worked and patrolled haphazardly in the harsh weather, occasionally cursing in their guttural tongue of them. A couple of them were having trouble unloading an army truck full of heavy crates ; some distance from them, soldiers on duty watched them impassively.

“Do you think I should take them out?” I asked my operator in a low voice.

“No. There are only two guards down there. You can sneak in without being detected.”

“I see four zebras down there,” I pointed out the snow-covered truck. “They may be civvies, they still could raise the alarm or something.”

The goggles zoomed on the two blurry figures as they unloaded another crate. Through two gusts of wind, I managed to get a better look at their features.

“Wait, they aren’t even zebras,” I realized, dumbfounded. “What the hell? I thought Equestria was waging a total war against them?”

“Believe it or not, the entire population of Prance did not vanish into thin air the day the zebras invaded their home,” Saios explained darkly. “Those who stayed behind often had to work for the occupying forces. As much as it pains me to admit it, some also found golden opportunities in collaboration.”

“Traitors, then,” I concluded through my teeth. While I had little respect for the pre-War Equestrian government, it was the Zebra Empire who ruined my homeland. Anypony who willingly sided with them were assholes in my book.

“Some. But not everypony. Some, as the two stallions down there, are working for the zebras as laborers because the only other option is to let their family starve.”

“Sucks to be them, then,” I moved from my observation post. “All right. I should be able to get in behind their backs.”

“Good. The door you are looking for is right there, about one hundred meters on your left. Covered crates can provide you some cover, should you require it.”

Silently, I reached the ground level. A quick glance at my suit informed me it had changed its color pattern to match the new environment.

“I’m not too worried about reaching the door,” I sneaked behind a corner as a worker seemed to turn toward my direction. He didn’t seem to spot me. “The inside of the bunker should be crowded, right?”

“Not really. It is but an access to the plateau up ahead,” Saios explained. “Most of the garrison is already there, facing the plains. You are behind the enemies’ line. As long as you stay hidden, you should be fine.”

“Good,” I answered as I slipped behind the aforementioned crates. Large canvas sheets covered the military goods. I couldn’t get a good look at what was inside.

“Once inside, your first objective is to reach the stairs and make your way to the plateau. There, you will need to find the communication center,” Saios continued. With a last glance to the oblivious zebras, I sneaked from behind my cover, and leaned against the security door.

A quick sweep of the stolen access card, and I was in.

(** **)

Two zebra soldiers passed by, totally failing to notice the sneaky pony hidden in a closet two steps from them. As they turned by the corner, I smoothly got out of my spot and made my move toward the next room.

I landed on a railway overlooking a small break room. Six zebras, both male and female, chatted carelessly underneath me, oblivious of my presence. All of them were in combat gear, for some reason.

Invocating the bunker map on my display, I mentally followed a path from my position to my first objective.

“I need an alternate route,” I whispered so softly I couldn’t even hear my own voice.

“The only other option is to get back into the corridors you just left,” Saios had no trouble understanding me. “The risk of meeting a random patrol would be quite high.”

Silently, I nodded and stalked toward the far end of the catwalk. The metal softly gritted against my weight, but the soldiers downstairs were too enthralled by their discussion to notice me.

For a fleeting second, I pondered what in Tartarus they could be talking about.

Then, my gaze met the door I needed to reach. The catwalk didn’t extend that far. From where I stood, I could jump down behind a counter, and then crawl toward it.

However, the last three meters would be without any kind of cover. I doubted anypony – or anyzebra for that matter – had the kind of reflexes required to go from a cheerful discussion in a break room with some acquaintances to draw-and-shoot a random pony that just popped out of nowhere. I’d be out before they even pulled the trigger.

Still, surely they wouldn’t fail to raise the alarm.

“Say, how did the real life agent do it?” I asked Saios, puzzled. “I can see the door, and I can see at least two big red alarm signals from where I stand.”

“I cannot tell you,” my operator answered. “Remember, I am assessing your abilities. This part of simulation is more about me learning what you are capable of, so I can help you to the maximum of my capacities.”

“Wonderful,” I grumbled. Then, I remembered this was not the real life. I did not have to take it as seriously as if it was a life-or-death simulation. At worst, I would be in for a world of pain, but how often did you have the chance to live more than once?

“I’m gonna try something,” I drew my pistol, a large spooky smile creeping upon my face. “Usually, I’m not one for close quarters nor taking risks, but I noticed it happened to me more and more lately. I could use the exercise.”

Slowly, I primed my gun.

“Spring, are you seriously considering jumping in?” Saios asked in disbelief. “Well, it is your funeral, I guess. Your progress has been saved.”

I took a deep breath. Four zebras were sitting at a table, three meters from me. Two faced away from me. They wouldn’t see me coming and I had little doubt I could make a short work of their friends.

The last two soldiers standing near the coffee machine would prove to be more troublesome, I noted. They seemed more alert. They also were the closest to the alarm signals, yet they totally lacked any kind of cover. With the element of surprise, I could probably take them out before they even sighted me and returned fire.

I quickly pondered the possibility of shooting everyzebra from my vantage position, but dismissed it almost at once. My special talent was shooting things, yet I doubted even I could make a six-killstreak in a hoofful of seconds without exploiting fully the element of surprise.

“Watch and learn,” I lined my sights up with my first quarry.

Exhaling softly, I pressed the trigger. Before my foes downstairs even registered one of their friend’s brains had just been reduced to a pulp, I lined up his neighbor and gave him the same greeting.

By now, the two by the coffee machine were looking up toward the catwalks. Swiftly, I jumped over the railway. Mid-air, my newfound claws deployed as an extension of my will.

By the time my trajectory arched toward the ground, three more shots left my pistol toward a zebra under me. One bullet went wide; the two other hit her straight in the back and in the neck.

Then, I landed on another foe, breaking his spine on impact. Without wasting a single second, I sliced his throat out in a fluid motion.

My focus snapped back to the last two still standing.

The mare had reached for her assault rifle already. Her reflexes were astonishing, but I had been a marksmare for most of my life. By the time she cocked her gun, three lead bullets pierced her skin. She fell in slow motion, blood spurted out on the walls behind her.

The last zebra, this brave fool, made a run for the alarm. His legs gave away from under him as I peppered them. Slowly, he crawled toward the big, red button calling for him.

Without wasting a single moment, I kicked his helmet off and shot a bullet right into his head.

The whole assault hadn’t even lasted eight seconds.

“You know, the Ministry of Awesome would have given anything to get their hooves on a fighter like you,” Saios finally said after a pause. “I honestly did not believe it to be possible.”

“Had I been born before the War, I would have never been a marskmare in the first place,” I noted darkly, changing my pistol’s magazine. Then, I moved toward an embedded control panel. “Can you lock the doors behind me? I don’t really need to have a patrol stumbling upon a bunch of fresh corpses.”

“For sure,” Saios highlighted a post on the panel. I plugged the CAI into it and the lights above the door turned to red. “There. I launched a gas alert and reported the room occupants have been redirected to the infirmary already. It should buy you enough time to complete your objectives.”

“Good,” I nodded, walking toward the exit. “But now, pray tell: how did that major whats-her-name got rid of those guys in the first place?”

“Major Snow Drift sabotaged the lights’ power supply. Using her above-average spatial awareness, she sneaked out of the room without even being noticed.”

“Really?” I leaned in a new corridor. No zebras in sight. “It’s funny. That’s usually more my line of work.”

(** **)

I reached the communication room without much trouble. Cautious, I did not enter the command center proper. After all, it was bound to be filled with hostiles all too eager to report my presence. Instead, following Saios’s sound advice, I sneaked in the technical sector of the place. The door had an electronic lock, but the AI made short work of it.

Then, I gutted an unsuspecting technician as he was staring at a porn film on his terminal, and threw his body in a closet.

“Okay, what now?” I sidestepped the pool of blood I had carelessly created. Hopefully, nopony would notice before my business was done.

“You cannot cut the communications straight away,” Saios explained. “It would be too obnoxious. Instead, you need to find a way to delay the destruction of the relays.”

“Any suggestion?” I waved at the piles of wires and electronics around me. “That’s more your domain than mine. Can’t you use a virus or something?”

“We cannot simply disable the software. It would be all too easy to restart it.” Saios answered. “Actually, I would suggest a low-tech hack, which would be more destructive of the hardware. You should have what you need in your saddlebags.”

“Let me guess, I packed up a couple liters of water?” I chuckled, unfastening the tough belts.

Flabbergasted, I pulled out a satchel charge out of them.

“Wait a minute, is that your definition of a stealth operation?” I frowned, digging deeper in my bags. Sure enough, I had about a dozen more C4 packs in them. “You remind me of an acquaintance. His definition of a small diversion implied razing by night a two-stories building with PE-4, in the middle of a town, just because he could.”

“Those charges are remote controlled, you would be gone long before their detonation,” he continued, ignoring my sarcasm. “And your friend’s tactic is surprisingly viable. Ponies and zebras alike are oft distracted by explosions and deafening sounds of all kinds. ‘Shock and awe’, as they said in the military.”

“For sure. Everypony isn’t accustomed to having their own stuff blow right under their muzzles.” I rolled my eyes, a wry smile on my lips. “How much do I plant here, though? All of them?”

“Dear Faust, no,” Saios chuckled. “Those are five hundred grams C4 charges from Inky & Blinky. A couple of them in each corner of the room should be enough to pulverize most of the electronics.”

“Great,” I tapped a plastic glob under a very expensive-looking terminal with a lot of blinking lights. I plugged the blasting cap into it. A small icon popped up on my display.

Soon enough, it was joined by another as I primed another charge behind a server rack. With any luck, the potential interlopers would be too distracted by the ominous trail of blood leading to a nearby closet to notice the discreet explosives.

“Good. Now, you need to take care of the three long-range artillery pieces on the plateau.” Saios updated my mission objectives. “You should make haste. Someone is bound to notice your mess down in the break room eventually.”

I nodded and, silent as a ghost, I left the room toward the surface.

(** **)

Out in the Wastelands, snow storms were one of the most dangerous natural hazards one could find in the North. Anypony could deal with rain or a little radiation, but the freezing winds were another matter entirely, often catching the unprepared in its cold, deadly embrace.

Now that I had returned in open space, I almost regretted the warm atmosphere of the bunker. Still, I thought as I staggered from behind a snowdrift to a half-collapsed wall, at least I didn’t have to worry about being spotted. No zebra would be stupid enough to be out in this weather; and even then all they would see of me would be a white shadow blending against the snow.

Finally, I reached the last of the artillery piece and promptly eliminated the couple of zebras guarding it. The humongous cannons wouldn’t even be scratched by my meager C4 charges, but luckily with artillery often came explosive ordinance.

As in, lots and lots of unused shells, ready to blow the building halfway to the moon at the slightest provocation.

Careful not to trip on anything by accident, I placed my last three charges on stacks of shells half as large as my barrel. I didn’t know what the zebras hoped to destroy with those, but I could easily understand why Equestria wanted them gone for a hypothetical invasion.

“And, done,” I finally stepped back, admiring my work. “Now, all I need is get the hell out of here before-”

As on cue, alarms rang all around me. On the speakers, some zebra barked orders in his guttural tongue of them.

“Somepony noticed the mess you left behind,” Saios unhelpfully translated. “They are looking for you. Make haste.”

“Shit!” I cursed as I rushed toward the exit. A cursor popped in on my radar, I followed it without the slightest hesitation.

Then I realized the blizzard had worsened. Even through my suit, the wind chilled me to the bones. After a dozen meters, I tripped on a concealed rock, sending me straight into a snow pile.

“Your vitals are worrying,” Saios perked up. “You need to reach a building before you die of hypothermia.”

I moaned an unarticulated groan. Lifting my head and switching to infrared, I spotted a warehouse of some sort close to my position.

“Good thinking,” my operator encouraged me. “This is what your predecessor did.”

“I don’t think I have many others options anyway,” I stumbled back into my hooves. “Luna’s tits, no wonder half the commando got killed when they tried to land. It’s like Tartarus frozen all over!”

I finally reached the warehouse. A swift blow of the shoulder blasted the weak lock away. Screw subtlety!

I dragged my hooves inside. The wind instantly calmed down, as did the snowfall. Alas, the temperature stayed in a range way too low for my tastes.

“Hey, Saios?” I shook off a shill from my spine. “What happens next? I don’t think I can reach the LZ in that weather. What did Snow Drift do?”

“Her winter gear was nowhere as efficient as yours,” Saios filled me in as I strolled down the aisles. Crates marked of strange tribal symbols lined the shelves. I couldn’t make out any of it. “Unlike yours, her explosives were timed. She had completed her mission.”

All of sudden, doors burst inward from every direction. In the blink of an eye, dozens of very pissed-looking zebras stared me down, assault rifle aimed straight at my head.

Time seemed to slow down. I tried to draw my pistol in a futile gesture, but bullets started racing toward me before it even left its holster. On my display, the C4 icons suddenly blinked red.

From deep underneath my hooves, I felt the Earth being torn asunder.

(** **)

Side quest completed: Back to School

[X] Enter the void (Primary)
[X] Survive the training course (Primary)

Side quest updated: Ira Lunae

[X] Meet and recruit Evey (Primary)
[X] Find more about your new companion (Primary)
[ ] Make your mind about the alicorn in your custody (Primary)
[ ] Get rid of Evey, permanently (Optional)
[ ] Accept Evey’s friendship and what it entails (Optional)

Level up!

New perk:
Power Armor Training: you may now use the DERTA Stealth Suit at the maximum of its capacities. It now counts as light armor, provides a permanent increase to sneaking and otherwise obeys your every command.

“Will you love me if I help you hide?”

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 Eleven: Opération Amarrage