• 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 Thirteen: The Fool's Gambit

Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.




“Are you kidding me? I'd kill you for a Klondike bar!”

Chapter Thirteen: The Fool’s Gambit

“You can’t be seriously considering that,” Meridian gapped at me in disbelief. “Do I need to remind you how we met in the first place?”

“I thought you said that one mission in Tenpony had been one of the worst screw-up of your life,” Saios pointed out. “I understand you’re a wanted criminal there. Why do you even want to get back?”

“Well, see, it may not look like it, but I actually did some bounty hunting before getting involved in this bullshit,” I snarled, grabbing my rifle without thinking. “And some in these Wastelands know how much I’m worth. There’s a mare in Tenpony. Her head is worth half a million caps. She’s as good as dead.”

“Five hundred thousand caps?” Even Saios seemed impressed. “This seems almost too good to be true.”

“This smells like a trap,” Meridian frowned. “A really, really obvious trap.”

“Nah. It sounds like somepony pissed off the powers that be and believed Tenpony could save her sorry ass,” I chuckled darkly as I checked my rifle’s bolt. It slid back and forth as smoothly as ever. “The contract’s backed up by the Talons. They don’t mess around when it comes to paying the bounties. The only reason it pays so much is that it is believed to be impossible.”

“But you know what? Screw this. I did it once with nothing but a Stable jumpsuit and a can of beans,” I spat in a nearby poodle and started walking down the ravaged street. “Now I got infiltration armor and an AI by my side. This is gonna be a walk in a park.”

(** **)

“I wouldn’t have expected the subway to be still accessible after two centuries,” Saios noted as I walked down the tunnels of what used to be the underground section of the Celestia Line. For all my brash pretentions, I knew I couldn’t just hope to get this contract done without some serious preparation down the line. It started with a recon of the access to Tenpony Tower – and all of them connected to the metro or the monorail, a way or another.

“Large parts of it collapsed,” I answered, my eyes slowly scanning the dark tunnel in front of me. Many things lurked in the darkest corners of this kind of places. “What little is left often swarms with ghouls, bloodbats and the occasional raider. Sadly, some areas of Manehattan can only be accessed through the tunnels.”

“Like the MAS hub?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “The surface access to Tenpony got barricaded decades ago. What used to be their monorail station, far above on the surface, is now their main entrance. They got a checkpoint there. I reckon it’s easier to defend.”

“Checkpoint? Is it a weapon-free area?”

“Nah,” I shrugged dismissively. “Nothing in the world can separate a sane Wastelander and their guns. They forbid live ammo, though, and sell you rubber bullets so expensive it hurts you just to buy them. They also give you some kind of form to fill, just to check you’re not a raider or a wanted criminal.”

“I imagine it would be too much asking of them to have forgotten you,” Saios sighted. “Are you certain there are other entrances? To be honest, this is looking like a fool’s errand.”

“Well, you got maps of the area, don’t you?” I retorted. “Why don’t you check them?”

“Now you are being unfair,” the AI seemed a bit vexed. “All I got are pre-war publicity available plans of the subway system. They do not even include the maintenance areas. You know much more about this place than I do.”

“I know for certain there are two other accesses to Tenpony through the underground subway system,” I explained, internally patting myself on the back for knowing something the AI didn’t. “One is swarming with ghouls. I heard their previous sheriff got munched alive over there. They wouldn’t expect anypony to get through there in one piece, and I’m inclined to agree with them.”

“The other is what they use for their deliveries. You can’t get through there unless whoever really runs this bloody tower gave you the authorization to. Even the regular citizens who actually leave their palace – there has to be at least a couple – have to enter by the main access. I think this would be our best shot.”

“For some reason, I expect this to be more complicated than slipping in a crate and waiting to be delivered to the MAS. How thorough are their customs?”

“Customs?” I repeated. “What the hell is that?”

“Are you not familiar with the term?” Saios seemed puzzled. “In a nutshell, the customs are the part of the administration responsible of controlling the flow of goods through a border. They insure import taxes are paid, and they fight against contraband.”

“Oh, you mean the security,” I scratched my head, perplexed. “I don’t really know, but if I had to make a wager, I’d bet they check everything that get through that gate for illegals things like ammo and such.”

“I believe they also get their cut on the commercial goods that are sold in the Tower,” Meridian piped in. In the darkness, the brown Earth pony was almost undistinguishable from the desaturated background. “I wouldn’t be surprise to learn they keep a close inventory of what got in and what got out just to make sure nopony cheats them on the taxes.”

I snorted. It sounded like Tenpony all right.

Suddenly, a bright blue square popped up on my display. I stopped dead on my tracks. Meridian gave me an inquisitive look.

“We’ve got movement down there,” Saios warned. The square moved sideways, tracking whatever had appeared at a turn of the tunnel.

“Company,” I mumbled, looking around for cover. I spotted a maintenance shack some distance on the left; fifteen seconds later, Meridian and I were coated in its shadows, waiting for the threat to go away.

We waited a couple minutes. Multiple hoovesteps echoed in the subway, growing louder every instant. Without a sound, I drew my pistol and checked the chamber. Then, since the glow around my horn would have been a dead giveaway, I carefully set the gun down on a nearby box. Besides me, my friend bit down on his revolver, but I dissuaded him from continuing his move. The last thing we needed was a couple of .44Mag rounds shot in the confined space of the tunnels. It would have woken up all the bloodbats in downtown Manehattan.

Then, four ponies entered my field of view. One of them was a young foal, prancing around and messing with every piece of junk he could find. The rest of their group was composed of two young adults and an elderly unicorn. All of them wore threadbare barding, barely qualifying for being more than rags.

I relaxed slightly. It had to be a family of scavengers, or close enough. They wouldn’t even see us.

Then, just because the Wasteland had its way of messing with your head, the foal noticed the maintenance shack and decided it was worth investigating.

As he closed down on the pitch black room, I held back my respiration. Thanks to the goggles, to my eyes it could as well been broad daylight, but right to my left, Meridian probably couldn’t see further than his muzzle. From the quick glances he occasionally gave the pistol near me, which he probably didn’t know I noticed, I suspected he was more worried about me shooting the kid than our cover being blown.

Blind in the darkness, the foal stared stupidly at the dark shroud in front of me. Not three meters from there, I silently prayed he would just wise up and go away. I mean, seriously, didn’t his parents teach him not to put his muzzle everywhere? Out there, doing so was often the best way of having a landmine going off in your face.

He took an agonizingly slow step back from the door threshold, and then stopped. I almost let out a whimper of frustration. Shoo! Go away, you murky, overgrown bag of nuisance!

Finally, he turned his head around toward his family. Engaged in a low-voice argument they had barely noticed his absence.

Best. Parenting. Ever.

“Mommy!” he called. “I need a light!”

“Not now, honey,” the green mare answered before resuming her heated conversation.

In front of me, the foal bit his lower lip. I could almost see the gears in his head turning. Was a couple piece of worthless junk worth taking the risk of stumbling on a trap in the dark?

Of course the answer was no.

Of course that stupid, brainless foal though otherwise.

Blinder than a mole, he stumbled forward, almost slipped on an empty can, collapsed a precarious pile of metal scraps, and only stopped when the magic-highlighted suppressed end of my pistol bumped into his muzzle.

“Get lost, kiddo,” I grumbled.

“Spring…” Meridian warned. “Don’t hurt him.”

“Spring, it’s just a foal,” Saios seemed worried by my reaction. “I do not think he qualifies as a threat.”

“You heard me? Get lost!” I repeated a bit louder, probing him with my gun. Eyes wider than saucers, the foal backpedalled and ran back into the tunnel.

“Mommyyyyyy!” that insupportable brat wailed, splitting my ears in the process. Letting out a most unholy curse, I dropped against the wall near the door to get the scavengers back into my field of view.

Already the kid had covered the distance to his mother’s aprons. He bawled something about a monster in the dark. His father shrugged, as if he had made some kind of point. His mother sighed in a most exhausted manner, rubbing her temple with a dirty hoof. Only the oldest stallion seemed to pay any credit to what the brat actually said; I saw him reach out behind him for what I assumed to be a shotgun.

Cursing Discord’s name for that mess, I slipped out of my cover, pistol at the ready.

“Don’t even think about it, grandpa,” I warned, my aim riveted on his head. “By the time you grab that gun, I’ll be nailing your coffin.”

The whole family, kid included, froze at my sudden appearance.

“Oh boy,” Meridian mumbled behind me. “Is that really how you greet the people you meet?”

“Your social skills could use some polishing,” Saios agreed with a soft sigh.

I grumbled something vaguely insulting in answer. As a general rule, ponies were less inclined to rob you when all you needed to blow their brain out was a quick squeeze of the trigger.

“Please, we don’t have anything to give you,” the mare pleaded, unconsciously stepping in front of her offspring. Near her, both stallions were trying very hard to spot a potential exit while looking as if they weren’t. “Don’t hurt us.”

With my artificially enhanced vision, I could see every detail of the group’s gear. She really didn’t lie when she said she had nothing of value. I wouldn’t have even bothered taking their stuff had they given it to me. They were armed, for sure: the elder had an old pump-action shotgun that had seen better days; the mother had a single-action revolver so rusted I wondered if the barrel could still spin, and the father’s .45 auto pistol wouldn’t win an accuracy contest anytime soon. As for their armor, it would be a miracle if it could stop even a BB from a toy gun.

“I’m not here to rob you,” they did not leave my sights for an instant, “what’s your business in the subways?”

They seemed somewhat relieved, but did not lower their guard. The foal started sniffling disgusting packs of snot.

“We are travelling,” the mare explained, sharing a quick look with her partners. “Are you… Are you with Tenpony?”

I winced. What the hell? “What makes you think that?”

“Your armor,” she pointed out. “It looks expensive. Since we’re not too far from the Tower, I thought maybe…”

“What if I am?” I asked, waving my pistol to punctuate my question. I noticed the elder’s gaze did not leave the end of its barrel. Clever boy. “Do you have business with them?”

“No, not really,” the mare bit her lower lip, frowning. “We just…”

“We’re lost, that’s what we are,” the young stallion cut in. “Daisy here thought she was so clever she could lead us to a shortcut to Tenpony Tower, and we’ve been going in circle in those damned tunnels ever since.”

“Fuck you,” Daisy riposted. “It was your idea to come here in the first place!”

“Yeah, because you’re the one who believed selling Brahmin shit could be a decent business!”

“And had you not tried to scam our first clients, it would have worked just fine!”

Right then, my eyes met the elder’s, and just like that I knew they had been arguing for days on that topic, and that they weren’t about to stop anytime soon.

“We could give them directions,” Meridian suggested. “I mean, we aren’t even far from the exit.”

“What we should do is tell them going to Tenpony is a bad idea,” I sighed, thinking back of the marble hall I had walked a little while back. “Honestly, look at them. They wouldn’t even make it past the bouncers, if they are not shot on sight for smelling like raiders.”

“The security does a little more than just keeping the dangerous individuals away, doesn’t it?” Saios stated more than asked. “They also maintain the social peace – by keeping the poorest outside.”

“You got the idea,” I mumbled. “Could be worse though. I’m sure they toyed with the idea of having an entrance fee.”

Down the tunnel, the elder kept staring at me. The two other were a hair short of yelling at each other from the top of their lungs.

“If they don’t keep it down we’re gonna have a problem,” I frowned. As a rule of thumb, bloodbats didn’t like intruders very much. “So you’re all going to Tenpony Tower, right?”

They stopped arguing, suddenly remembering the strange mare with a gun aimed at them. The stallion nodded.

“Bad idea,” I continued. “Seriously, what are you expecting to find there? Those guys have their noses so far up their asses when they talk it smells like shit. They wouldn’t even let you lick the ground they walk upon. Trust me, if you want to make an honest bit, that’s not where you want to be.”

“Told you so,” the eldest finally talked with a raspy voice. “But you youngsters’ always too busy to listen to ol’ Schematics. Eh. That one mare down there got more brains than the two of you.”

I revised my initial estimation of the grandpa upwards. To be fair, one didn’t live that old in the Wastelands without being some kind of hidden badass.

“We’ve gone too far to turn around, thank you very much,” Daisy retorted. “We’re almost there anyway. I can feel it.”

“Does she not care about the safety of her own foal?” Meridian whispered so softly I almost missed it. “Celestia damn it.”

Wait, Meridian could swear?

“Sure, whatever,” I shook my head. What they did wasn’t any of my concerns anyway. “But once you get kicked out, you might want to get to Friendship City before nightfall, or else you’ll end up being a manticore’s lunch. Just sayin’.”

Silence fell back on the tunnels, only broken by a snort from the little brat.

“So… you’re not gonna shoot us?” the stallion tentatively asked after a little while. “Can we go?”

“Actually, I was wondering why in Tartarus you weren’t halfway to Tenpony by now,” I nearly facehooved. “Okay, just get the hell out of here. Don’t follow me, don’t piss of the bloodbats, don’t tell anypony I was there, or I’ll personally come back to kick your asses. Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah, they got it,” the eldest rolled his eyes and walked away without any more concern. “C’mon, stop making asses of yourselves and let’s go.”

I watched them turn around the end of the tunnel. Only then I lowered my pistol and my respiration came back to its normal rhythm.

“I am beginning to understand you are really not one for social interactions,” Saios concluded. “Somehow, I am not very surprised.”

(** **)

Lying behind a nondescript pile of centuries-old scraps, I watched the two mercenaries escort the short string of sealed crates. Stacked on a makeshift cart rocking precariously on the old subway rails, the unmarked goods were no doubt headed toward the access to the Tower we were looking for.

Besides me, Meridian shifted uneasily. In the darkness of the tunnels, using standard binoculars was out of the question; in the end, only I could really see what our quarries were doing. Thankfully, regardless of their vigilant watch, they seemed to be totally unaware of our presence.

We followed them for a dozen minutes. Most of the side tunnels had been collapsed, probably in a vague effort to secure the way. The rubble hadn’t been cleaned out however, and the pale halo from the random light did little to cast away the shadows of the undergrounds.

Eventually, we reached our destination. I had expected a guard post of some sort, yet nopony greeted the two mercenaries and the ponies pulling the cart as they reached a corridor somewhat better lit than the rest. Strange arch in the middle of the way set aside, nothing else distinguished it from the tunnels we had been walking so far.

The prune mare with an assault rifle walked up to a terminal embedded in the farthest wall. She muttered a few sentences I couldn’t hear then backed away. Without a sound, the workponies unstrapped themselves.

After a couple minutes, a guard showed herself. She greeted the newcomers – by then I had realized their business together had been quite recurrent. The workponies grabbed something I couldn’t make out from under the arch. They attached it to the cart, which then proceeded to move on its own.

“A winch,” Meridian noted, squinting his eyes in the darkness. “Clever.”

“Yeah, that way no filthy Wastelander get inside the place as a delivery pony,” I grunted. The idea had crossed my mind, and the mind of countless suspicious individuals before me. By then, the Tenpony security just knew better.

The cart rolled away between the arch into the tunnel. It disappeared from my field of view. The guard and the mercenaries exchanged a couple more sentences, shared a hearty laugh (probably at somepony else’s expense) and went their own way. Four ponies passed by us without even suspecting our presence.

“The security seems to be minimal,” Saios noted, obviously not buying it for a second. “There is a security camera sweeping the tunnel on the far right corner, right above the terminal, but it has a lot of blind spots.”

“Yeah, I see it,” I answered, eying the surveillance device. It was slowing spinning on itself, covering over time the entire place. Obviously, it couldn’t watch over the area right under it. “It takes forever to cycle. If I sprint along the wall, I got a fifteen second window to reach the blind spot.”

“Make it seventeen,” Saios corrected me. “Assuming somepony is even watching the feeds.”

“It’s a bit too easy to be true,” Meridian pointed out. “I only went to Tenpony once, but I clearly remember them being quite a stickler for security.”

“Saios, zoom in,” I ordered, fixing the arch. Sure enough, once magnified, I could clearly see the purple-ish glow barring the way.

“A barrier?” the AI seemed surprised. “How peculiar.”

“Nah,” I shrugged. “It’s not really a barrier. I had to get across one last time I broke into Tenpony. It only prevents ponies from getting through, and from what we just saw I’d say it’s selective.”

“It’s the perfect door,” Meridian commented. “And you don’t even need a key.”

“Oh, I see what you are talking about,” realization dawned on Saios. “It’s a self-sustained Bypass spell. The MAS was quite fond of those, as it kept both cloaked zebras and undercover changelings from sneaking by. I am surprised they are still in working shape.”

“You know how they work?” I asked, hopeful. I mean, seriously, that guy was such a nerd he had probably invented half a dozen ways to bypass that barrier while taking a dump.

“I know the basic principles,” Saios seemed apologetic. “It uses advanced spell matrices to associate the user with a unique signature. How this signature is generated is a mystery. Given who invented the device in the first place, I would say it uses the pony’s magical trace, but DNA is also a likely candidate.”

“Can you hack it?”

“I have absolutely no idea.

“Oh, come on!” I frowned, staring at ever-inaccessible entrance. “Don’t tell me you aren’t burning to show those guys in the MAS who’s better at making arcano-thingies!”

“The chance of them still living as of today are infinitesimal,” yet I had sparked his interest. “That being said, I did hear of rumor about the inability of this spell to make a distinction between relatives.”

“Most of Tenpony citizens descend from the original residents,” I pointed out. “It’ll explain why they kept the system up.”

“We may be onto something there. If you were related to…”

“Been there, did that,” I cut with an exasperated sigh. “No such luck. Can’t you make a device to trick the barrier into believing I’m from Tenpony?”

“Without an intimate knowledge on how it works in the first place? Impossible. Furthermore, the consequence should such a device came to fail on your way in would be catastrophic.”

Images of being cut in half by a force field invaded my mind. I dismissed them with a shudder.

“Fuck,” I swore under my breath. On the other side of the radio link, I could almost hear Saios’ artificial neurons fire all azimuths. “Okay. Next idea. Can you disable it? Last time, I managed to unplug it from the other side.”

“The power source is, in all likelihood, inside the Hub. We would need an inside pony to cut it off in the first place.”

I turned toward Meridian with a sly grin, but he cut me out before I could mutter a word.

“I am not helping you on this little stunt,” he warned me coldly. “I am turning a blind eye on your activities because I am your friend and I know you won’t be dissuaded by anything I could tell you, but I am not lending you a hoof.”

“Forget about that, we’re on our own,” I grunted in the microphone. “Humor me, you will not pester me about ethics and whatnots once I’m inside, right?”

“Well, that would be quite hypocritical of me, now wouldn’t it?” Saios answered with an ice-cold chuckle. “Blue Shift would have had some… reticence about the execution of a perfect stranger in exchange of a wheelbarrow of tin bottle caps, but I now have the hindsight to realize it makes perfect sense.”

“Wait, was that irony?” I accused, puzzled.

“Yes,” Meridian rolled his eyes.

“No,” Saios answered. “I am being perfectly serious. While one may argue life is invaluable, economics say everything has a price, as long as somepony is willing to pay for it. Bottle caps are the new Equestrian currency. The life of our quarry had been evaluated under unknown criteria as being worth five hundred thousands of those bottle caps, which by the Wastelands standard carries a very important commercial value. Therefore, it would be our best interest to carry out that contract.”

Meridian’s hat sunk on his brow, hiding his eyes from my gaze. Even I couldn’t help but feel a bit uneasy about Saios’ reasoning.

“Well, we’re still talking about murdering somepony we don’t even know,” I found myself saying, to my great disbelief. “Not that I’m complaining. I mean, it’s my job. It just feels weird to hear somepony who never even held a gun of his life – no offence – tell me it’s okay to go around shooting ponies because the pay’s good.”

“Soon, we will be shipping weapons to the four winds,” Saios argued. “How is that different?”

“Well, we won’t be actively killing ponies, for starter,” I said, a bit unsure of my own answer. “We aren’t responsible of what our customers do with our goods, right?”

“Spring, we are not manufacturing refrigerators. By running our little business, I will be assisting the murder of countless ponies. How is this one different?”

“You’d be actively participating.”

“You will be the one pulling the trigger. I wash my metaphorical hooves of it.”

“This is not how it…” I began, before shaking my head in disbelief. “Luna’s tits, I don’t even give a flying fuck about shooting foals in front of their parents. Why in Tartarus am I even arguing with you?”

“I tend to bring that out of many ponies,” Saios noted with a remarkable deadpan. “I just asked Evey. She tells you murder is morally condemnable.”

“No shit,” I chuckled under my breath. Then, realization dawned on me. “Say, Saios, as a Princess, surely Luna had access to all the top-secret bases of the Ministries, right?”

“Evey may be a close enough match to fool the spell,” the AI was already way ahead of me. “But I recall you saying artificial alicorns were not welcome in many places, Tenpony Tower included.”

My hopes deflated as fast as they got up. I resisted the urge to throw a brick at the barrier in frustration.

“Yeah. She wouldn’t even make it to the monorail,” I sighed, dejected. “I’m sure they got snipers with fifties all over the roof. They’d turn her into a one-pony carpaccio, and that’s another idea down the drain.”

“Actually, you may be onto something,” Saios begged to disagree. “We now have a sample that might just be recognized by the analyzer. If I could extract the hashing algorithm from the barrier calculator, maybe I could use it to hack into the computer and add your own signature in the database.”

“Okay, let’s do that,” I didn’t understand a single word of what he just said. “What do you need?”

“I do not know yet, but I intend to find out. You need to reach the terminal near the barrier. I won’t be able to take it down, but I may gather enough data to think of an attack pattern.”

“All right,” I stood up, eyes riveted to the camera. Besides me, Meridian gave me a perplexed look but kept his prone position. “Warn me if somepony’s coming.”

“Will do,” both stallions answered simultaneously. I resisted the urge to facehoof.

The camera reached the extreme end of its sweeping pattern, and began its cycle anew. Rushing along the wall, I covered the distance to the terminal in a matter of seconds. Now right under the surveillance device, I wished fat chance to anypony behind the screens to spot a single hair of my fur on their displays.

The terminal in front of me, while stapled ‘Stable Tech’, didn’t quite look like the ones you could find everywhere in the Wastelands. Clearly, the Ministries didn’t buy their stuff in the same shops than everypony else. An intercom had been added besides the screen.

The small universal connector popped from my hoof on command. To my relief, it fitted in the standardized port, yet I quickly became aware of another, unexpected problem.

“Saios, you should have added a wire or something,” I whispered, struggling to find my balance as my left foreleg was bent in an awkward position. “It’s not exactly comfortable.”

“Yet another design oversight to add to the ever-growing list,” Saios sighted. In front of me, the terminal’s screen blinked to life and showed an empty command prompt. “The security is sturdy, but I am starting to get an idea on how the system was designed. With time, I may be able to crack it.”

“Time?” I shifted in place with great care not to unplug my cyber-hoof. “How long?”

“A couple months, if we can come back to test it on a regular basis.”

“We don’t have months!” I answered a bit loudly. Realizing my mistake, I looked around, but nopony seemed to have heard my slip-up. “Listen, I don’t need you to add me to the Tenpony citizen list. I just need you to let me go through the barrier, even if it’s only once.”

“Understood. Yet, without a root access, I cannot…” Saios trailed. “Wait, I found something. Somepony added a couple modules to the core functions. It adds an ‘escort mode’ to the control routine. From the look of it, it’s a last minute patch, because it really does not fit in the bigger picture. That’s a glaring security issue.”

“Can you use it?” I glanced at the screen. The prompt was still empty; whatever the AI was doing, he clearly didn’t need the display. “Please be quick about it. I really don’t want to be spotted hacking into their system.”

“Mayhaps. I am downloading the binaries. With any luck it-YES!” Saios’ cry of victory startled me, almost unplugging the suit from the terminal. “Those morons linked statically against the library they used for the hashing, and then let their compiled binaries for everypony to see. Stars above, I don’t even need to retro-engineer them, I am reading through the instructions as if it was plain text.”

“All right, let’s pretend I understood whatever in Luna’s name you just talked about. Care to cut to the part you tell me you can open that fuckin’ door?”

“We are not there yet,” he answered. “I now know how the hash is generated in the first place. With Evey’s help, I may be able to find a sequence that would be recognized by that companion module. You would be tagged as a guest, and be allowed temporarily through the barrier.”

“Good,” I nodded, unplugging myself from the terminal. I flexed my sore limp – I really needed to find an extension cord or something. “Try to have it done by tomorrow.”

“I cannot guarantee it will work,” Saios warned. “I am going to play with hundreds thousand permutations of Evey’s signature, yet she is not Princess Luna. It may not match.”

“Or it may match on the first try,” I countered. Hell, I really wanted that little stunt to go smoothly! “All right. Now that we know how we’re going to get in, let’s plan the rest of the trip…”

(** **)

Sitting on a concrete block in downtown Manehattan, I watched over the Tenpony Tower in the distance. Meridian was eating an energy bar in silence; he hadn’t talked much since our little argument about the morality of a remunerated murder. I believed we had reached a tacit agreement, though: I wouldn’t ask him to do anything against his silly sense of ethics, and he wouldn’t prevent me from doing my job. Oh, I knew I wouldn’t just get away with it without a lecture or two about being a better pony and whatnots, but…

My train of thoughts derailed as I realized my latest, disastrous-beyond-words trip to Tenpony had been the very reason I had begun to question my actions in the first place. And I was going back in there? What the hell was I thinking?

Then, I remembered. Saios, the DERTA, Chrystal. We needed the cash. One last job wouldn’t hurt, right? Plus, I’d end it with a bang, the contract of the decade. I mean, by Luna’s most holy tits, five hundred thousand caps. It was like, twice as many as the bounty that got put on Security’s head a little while back.

I let out a small chuckle at the idea of somepony actually managing to take her down, only to find themselves rotting in a slaving cell in Paradise after asking for their reward. Eh, very few bounty hunters had what it took to make a living out of working for slavers. I could only name one who actually managed to botch a contract and live to tell the tale. Miss Cap – I don’t think she’ll ever forget me for snipping our target before she even managed to get to him. My flanks still remembered the little shout-out we had when we ended up hunting the same contract. We probably burned more in ammo just shooting at each other to get the proof of death than we would have actually gotten by turning it in.

I shook my head to dismiss the interfering memories. One last job and I would be retiring. Who would have known?

“We’re going to need a map,” I finally announced. “It turns out Tenpony citizens are not very keen to giving directions to perfect strangers. Last time I had to go out of my way to find out where my target lived. Now I don’t know about you, but I got the feeling the mare we’re looking for will be holed up in someplace with a tight security.”

“Sadly, while I have countless maps available on my hard drives, the Ministries Hubs are not among them,” Saios deplored. “Unsurprisingly, the government had never been very kind to share data on touchy subjects like the plans of their official buildings.”

“I don’t think I can find somepony to help us either,” I frowned, mentally scanning all of my contacts. Most settlements had that particular one guy whom had been everywhere and somehow managed to memorize it all – my gaze lingered an instant on Meridian and his compass-shaped cutie mark – but the Tenpony Tower wasn’t exactly any place. The only ones who could have possibly known the ways of the buildings were also the ones who would have been the most inclined to put my head on a spike as a raider deterrent. “Unless you have an idea, we’ll have to do it the hard way, then.”

“As a matter of fact, I do. Usually, I would have dismissed it as being quite improbable, but we may as well try our luck.”

“I’m all ears.” To be fair, Sais’ ‘farfetched’ plans often had details I didn’t put in my most elaborate schemes. I mean, I did come looking after the DERTA with little more than a gun and the wind in my mane, after all.

“Officially, nopony but the Ministry in question had access to their Hubs’ plans,” Saios exposed. “As close as the Ministry Mares had been rumored to be, their underlings did not share the same kindness. In fact, they oft put spokes in each other’s wheels. As I said a few days ago about the DERTA, the MoWT and the MAS had very different views on how the government should handle the Equestrian innovations and industry. Most Ministries believed the MoA was only there to leach money off their budget. The MoI downright censored the other Ministries’ memos and public announcement. I do not even want to talk about the administration supposed to mend the bridges between those gasworks – Luna only knows what they were up too, maybe. Which brings me to my point: above all, there was one Ministry that got itself involved in every aspect of the government: the Ministry of Morale.”

“Yeah, I heard that,” I chuckled. “They built spy networks and amusement parks all over the place. That Pinkie Pie must have been one hell of a psycho.”

“Well, I had my personal theory about her perhaps being the sanest of all Ministry Mares, but that is beyond the point,” Saios continued. “What matters right now is that the MoM spied on literally everybody. During the War, I had to sweep the system daily to remove whatever bugs they had managed to plant on the DERTA’s servers. If somepony out of the MAS had detailed plans of the Tenpony Tower, it would be them. We need to access their Manehattan Hub.”

“Sounds good to me, except for one little detail,” I frowned, turning toward a particular point of the destroyed skyline. “See that half-collapsed tower that seems to be waiting for a calm breeze to tip over? It used to be the MoM Hub. Unlike Tenpony, they hadn’t got shields to protect them from the bombs.”

“Of this I am aware,” Saios dismissed my concerns. “Yet I dare hope part of their datacenter survived the fallout and the throes of time. They built them in the lower levels in an impermeable vault for security reasons. Well, ‘impermeable’… The designed prevented EM and vibrations from getting out, yet the tower is still standing, if barely, which makes me believe some data over there may still be salvageable.”

“Lower levels?” I tried to recall what little I knew of the place. “Wasn’t it a dance club or something?”

“They played terrible music there,” Saios audibly winced. “I am talking of the levels above the Hoofbeats. Anyway, as usual for something designed by Pinkie Pie, the whole building makes no sense whatsoever yet managed to be perfectly functional nonetheless.”

“Well, I reckon nopony would be looking for the brain of the world’s biggest spy network in there.” I sure wouldn’t. “Say, how come you know so much about the MoM, and yet aren’t capable of getting me a copy of a hooffull maps?”

“As I said earlier, during the first years of the War the MoM and I kind of had a rivalry thing going on. Since I had design most of the DERTA’s network infrastructure myself, their agents were at a disadvantage when it came to cracking its security. In the end, they downright summoned me to their headquarters. It seemed they had figured out the DERTA was not really conducting research on the ballistic properties of lime pie.”

“Ouch,” I winced. “I can hear them kickin’ your ass from there.”

“Actually, they found our little skirmishes to be very amusing,” Saios chuckled. “That’s the MoM for you. They gave me the grand tour of their datacenter, showed me their ears had no ends and their pockets no bottom. Then they asked me to ditch the DERTA and work for them.”

“You refused,” I stated, a tad surprised. “Why’s that? It seems like a golden opportunity.”

“One does not refuse an offer from Pinkie Pie in blood. Yet you are partially right. I did not want to leave Big MT behind to work for one of the Ministries. You have to realize I had been working there for a decade and half then. I had seen the place being built from the ground up. I had overseen some of its most audacious projects. Regardless of what the Administrator may have believed, its whole network – everything down to that silly coffee machine in the Tech’s break room – belonged to me. Call me crazy, but becoming one with it through the SAIOS project may have been the pinnacle of Blue Shift’s existence.”

“I would, if calling an AI crazy wasn’t a subtle form of suicide,” I ironized, glancing at Meridian from the corner of my eyes. He hadn’t moved a bit, his gaze still riveted on the Tenpony Tower. Truth be told, he was starting to worry me. Had he realized I was beyond redemption, and my new, silicon-based friend wasn’t faring better off?

“I suggested them to order the Administrator to give them a daily report,” Saios continued with a small laugh.

“You mean, the ones he already sends to Twilight and Applejack?” Pinkie Pie had said. “Silly pony, we already have those! And they lack some tiny-tidy little details.”

“Then steal the ones we send to the MoA,” I had shrugged.

“We have those too,” Pinkie Pie had answered. “We watch everything.”

“Why did you keep on trying to get inside my network then?” I had asked, puzzled.

“Silly pony, how could we train our new Party Poopers Investigators,” she had laughed, bouncing all over the place in a way that shouldn’t be even remotely possible, “if we didn’t have something to train on?”

Saios paused for a second as I dropped on my side, floored by a monstrous fit of laughter.

“Celestia’s holy anal flares,” I managed to spit between two labored breathes. “They were using you for target practice?

“Indeed,” Saios grimly nodded. “As it turns out, Stable Tech’s OS was so terrible even the greenest rookies in the Party Poopers Investigating Force – I am not making this up, this is how Pinkie Pie herself named her crack hacking teams – could break into any of the systems running it after a couple weeks of formation. The DERTA’s computers, on the other side, were running different software. While based on the same kernel, I had modified the original so much it had been rendered unrecognizable from its early versions. It gave the MoM’s agents a much bigger challenge, because they faced an unknown system, with unknown specifications, a vigilant admin, and above all very frequent security patches. Four things the OS from Stable Tech clearly lacked. So, as I pointed out, the MoM would actually benefit more from me if I was still working as system administrator at the DERTA.”

“So, you worked for them, by not working for them,” I concluded. As usual after a conversation with Saios, a headache was starting to turn up in my poor head. “That makes no sense. They probably loved it.”

“Not really. They were kind of disappointed. I believe they had other projects for me, yet moving on with them would have meant giving up on the SAIOS project. I could not ask the transfer of a computer that had been officially dismantled years before, now could I? I returned to Big MT, got summoned by the Administrator, who spent forty minutes beating around the bush just to ask me if I was leaving. I let him dug his hole, then I flat out announced I had decided to stay because, hey, who would they replace me with? Afterward, I never got bothered by administrative trivia ever again.”

“Made yourself indispensable, uh?” I said with the hint of a smile on my lips. “You really were a wicked son of a bitch!”

“I’m sorry, was that supposed to be a compliment?” Saios asked innocently, before bursting into a full laugher. “Just kidding. Still, this is not something you should say to a murderous AI.”

“C’mon,” I rolled my eyes, before stepping down in direction of the MoM Manehattan Hub. “You barely behave like one. You just sound like a nerd.”

A deep silence answered me. I grew more and more uneasy as it stretched on for seconds, then minutes. I looked at Meridian, who shrugged in a way that said it really wasn’t his problem.

“Saios?” I timidly asked. “I’m sorry if I offended you, I didn’t mean to imply that you were… well, you know, you kind of are a nerd, but I mean, it’s a good thing, right? I mean, err…”

“Don’t worry, I am not angry at you,” Saios dug me out of the hole I had been digging. “You simply made me realize something worrying about my… multiple personalities.”

“Well, trust me, you’re getting better every minute,” I nervously said, unsure of what to tell him. I sure did not want him to turn psycho on me. Mad AI set aside, I had come to realized I actually cared for the guy, as my big nerdy, wire-y friend. “Actually, so far you’ve even been less crazy than most Wastelanders, so…”

“Oh, no, you misunderstood,” Saios continued with a chuckle – yet I could feel the heart wasn’t in it. “I do not fear becoming criminally insane. You see, by nature my bipolarity is linked to the way I had been designed. One personality sprouts from the core systems, where the imprint of Blue Shift’s neural matrix is minimal. The other, which relies on the pony host’s memories and experiences, could be seen for the lack of a better metaphor as Blue Shift’s soul. It is but an imprint, a shape traced in the sand, yet it is fundamentally related to the way the pony thought.”

“Okay, you lost me,” I sighed. Yeap, good ol’ Saios was back. “Why even bother with two different personalities? It’s, like, having two brains. You really were trying to build a murderous AI, or what?”

“On the contrary, we wished to avoid that dangerous cliché altogether. In the first drafts, we only had the core systems, in which we injected the neural matrix from the part of the subject’s brain which were responsible of fundamental learning. Of course, all parts of the brain are able of learning in a way or another, but we had stripped everything that was even remotely related to the pony personality. After all, our goal had always been to create a computer able to learn like a pony, not to trap a pony inside a computer.

Still, as time went on, the reality of the project sunk in everypony’s heads. All the engineers involved had read lots of science-fiction novels after all, we all knew the story of the ponies who, akin to Dr. Frankinspony, unleashed a monster upon the world because of their foolishness. We added many a failsafe to our designs – some of which I have already bypassed, and some of which will require your assistance. In the end, though, it all boiled down to a simple problem: if we were to make an AI, we had absolutely no idea on how it would behave. We couldn’t even simulate it: it would have been akin to throwing a match in a pool of liquid just to know if it could burn.

Then, somepony noted that, on the other hoof, we did know how ponies behaved.

From there on, it went very fast. We did not want to create an artificial pony, but we wanted the control it gave, so we split the decisional cortex into two hemispheres. One would be the original, cold-hearted calculator of our earliest draft. The other would be a more complete copycat of the donor’s neural matrix, emotions included. The former would be hard-coded to switch over to the latter every time it solicited neural circuits that would have been related to a strong emotion – fear, anger, you name it.”

“That’s what got you so confused about your identity,” I realized. “That’s… Wow, honestly, I can’t believe you thought for even one second this to be a good idea.”

“Well, so far, it worked as planned,” Saios continued. “Yet there was one thing we had not accounted for: friendship.”

At this, Meridian’s ears perked up, but the stallion walked on, pretending he hadn’t heard.

“My neural circuits are constantly changing, as does a pony brain. This is what makes learning possible. However, as I came to appreciate your company, it appears I have been forming patterns that, well, have interesting side effects.”

“O…kay, let’s admit I knew my brain did that,” I scratched my head, puzzled. I couldn’t really picture my brain parts moving around in my skull, shaking hands with each other and making connections. “I don’t see how friendship has anything to do with that.”

“Ponies are hardwired to be friendly. It is but a fact of nature – we are gregarious by instinct. So our brains evolved to reward those friendly behaviors. Being with a friend triggers all kind of emotions, mostly happiness. I see you as a friend, and my artificial brain changed its structure accordingly, following the standard pony procedure. Do you see the problem here?”

“Wait, wait,” I tried to process what I had just learn. “Does it mean that every time you speak with me, it makes you switch to your alternate personality?”

“Alternate personality with whom you are talking right now,” Saios-two pointed out. “In fact, if the statistics are to be believed, the individual you came to know as Saios is this ‘alternate personality’. Even before you scrambled my circuits around, it appears many interactions with you triggered the switch.”

“Uh, I’m sorry?” I proposed, not believing it for a single second. As far as I was concerned, the ‘real’ Saios was kind of a dick.

“Don’t be. You are not even remotely responsible for those changes,” the AI dismissed. “Furthermore, if anything this is a good thing for me. As time goes on, I may be able to centralize all my decision process in the same place. It should allow me to do some serious optimization to the underlining code – that is, once I will have overridden the read-only security.”

“Then why are you even worried about it?” I smiled uneasily. In truth, the idea of having my own brain scrambled around for the sake of optimization did seem like a thing worth worrying about.

“I am worried because I did not have a single clue about this phenomenon. It happened in the background until you pointed out my pony-like behavior. If I only find now that my very core circuits have gone through such a transformation without me noticing, who knows what may be happening at other levels of my infrastructure? Perhaps my cooling system is failing, and I would not even know about it until it is too late. It made me very… self-conscious.”

“C’mon, don’t tell me you can’t just send a robot to check it up?” I chuckled at the silly notion of Saios simply being out of order because of a leak. “You got, like, an army of them swarming in Big MT now. Just repurpose a janitor as your personal butler or something.”

“Actually, I literally cannot do that,” Saios deplored. “The development team was too clever by half. Among the security measures, they hard-coded me in such a way I cannot do self-maintenance. In fact, I am not even able to control anything beyond the doors leading to my datacenter – no cameras, no doors, no nothing. Ironically, the only room I cannot see is the one I live in.”

I didn’t really know what to say to that. Part of me wanted to offer him to remove those shackles for him; but the paranoid half of my brain screamed those securities existed for a reason. From his own admission, so far they had forced him to turn into a nicer, more pony-like being – what if his first act as a free AI was to remove those pesky emotions that only held him back? On the other hoof, I was supposed to be his friend. Shouldn’t I be trusting him not to turn into a murderous, cold hearted monster on me?

On those morbid thoughts, I arrived in front of the half-collapsed Ministry of Morale Manehattan Hub.

(** **)

Two schools of thoughts existed in the Wastelands: those who believed Pinkie Pie used to be a genius, and those who believed she had been totally out of her mind. Everywhere you roamed, she stared down at you from centuries-old frescos. The pastels colors had faded with time; yet the armor-piercing gaze of her blue eyes could put at unease even the most hardened Wastelander.

Some says she knew everything; that she had seen the Apocalypse through her heightened senses, and then some more after that. She knew the end was coming, and that there was nothing nopony could do to prevent it – so she laughed and lived every day like there was no tomorrow.

I, for one, blamed the drugs.

Still, regardless of the Ministry Mare’s personality, one cannot help but wonder if the architect of the What’s-Its-Name Tower had been suffering a stroke of genius or a stroke of madness when they made the plans. The first two floors had been dedicated to hosting a night club, of all things; on the upper levels (well, the ones that were still standing), the kitchens were rumored to outnumber the actual workstations. I had never been there myself. I may have had sticky hooves and an eye for things of value, but scavenging wasn’t really my forte. Plus, the place had probably been picked clean a dozen times over by now.

Hopefully, nopony thought of clearing the MoM datacenters from their data…

(** **)

We stalked through the lower levels in an eerie silence. I had expected some kind of resistance from the residual security system, yet it seemed somepony had gone by and cleaned up the entire place. Shells and brass cases littered the floors here and there. Burn marks ran along the side of makeshift covers; the debris of sprite-bots were scattered here and there, blasted away by an unstoppable force. A couple had been actually crushed under a refrigerator.

“Whoever did this had one helluva arsenal,” I noted absentmindedly, picking a few casings from the floor. “That’s 5.56mm, and that’s .44 Mag’. They also had a 12ga shotgun –” I noticed a couple bent darts sticking out of a robot “– and were stupid enough to believe a dart gun can actually be of any use. Eh, looks like every group has that one guy who can’t fight for shit.”

“Can’t blame them for trying non-lethal takedown,” Meridian mumbled next to me. “Even though I have to admit using them on robots was probably not the best idea.”

“Group may be an overstatement,” Saios noted, highlighting a few areas on my display. “From the look of the laser impacts, I do not think more than a couple ponies had engaged in this fight.”

“Naaah,” I shook my head. “I’m telling you, a pony crazy enough to be carrying a dart gun will refuse to use a real weapon. I’ve seen this kind of guy before. Their story often ends in a ditch on the side of a road.”

“I assure you, my calculations are flawless,” Saios began to draw lines everywhere on my display. “The party got ambushed by the bots as they-”

“Grah, cut that out!” I tapped the side of the goggles to free my vision from the pesky pop-ups. “All right, all right, let’s say they were only two of them. It means the pacifist was friend with somepony carrying an assault rifle, a shotgun and a .44 Mag’ revolver? Sounds kind of unlikely. Plus, did you see how many bots they took down?”

“Perhaps they were experienced fighters?” Saios suggested. “Sprite-bots had never been known for having decent combat abilities.”

“That’s still too much from a robot supposed to be bringing smiles to every corner of Equestria,” Meridian grumbled. I sighed, slowly growing tired of his foul mood.

“Okay, now, to find the datacenter.”

(** **)

I had not realized that when Saios told me the datacenter had been located inside a vault, he had been talking literally.

While the rest of the levels dedicated to surveillance had been an absurd mix of creepy poster-decorated corridors and top-of-the-line kitchens, the datacenter in front of me reminded me that, yeah, the MoM had actually been the best freakin’ intelligence agency in the universe, at least for the decade it existed before being blasted into oblivion.

For sure, the reinforced steel gates in front of me were nowhere as sturdy as the blast doors protecting the entrance of the Stables, Tenpony or even the DERTA, but still. There was no blasting through those doors, not without some serious ordinance. And even then, I doubted the building itself could withstand the vibrations.

“Anypony got an idea?” I asked, staring at the thick metal panels with a very blasé look. They didn’t even have the decency of having a lock to pick.

“Maybe the control terminals still got power?” Meridian suggested, pointing the two computers on the side of the room. No light came from their screens. I didn’t look very good to me.

“Why the hell not,” I shrugged, nearing on the nearest machine.

I pressed the power button. Nothing.

I tried the second one, hoping it would start. No such luck.

“Luna motherfucking damn it!” I cursed, resisting the urge to kick a pile of junk down in anger. “Saios, you think you can repair them?”

“Doubtfully,” the AI answered truthfully. “It would require spare parts you do not have, along with advanced electronic knowledge on welding and other delicate operations.”

“Wonderful,” I sighed, very wary. To think all we needed was a plan

“What about that one?” Meridian pointed a weird-looking terminal in the other corner. A large, heightened disk of Discord-knows-what had been affixed to it at chest level on its side.

“I’m not even sure that… thing can open the door,” I carefully poked the weird contraption with the tip of my hoof. To my great relief, it didn’t explode to my face. “What’s that even supposed to do?”

“It looks like a holographic projector,” Saios piped it. “As for why it has been placed here, right in the middle of a security airlock, I have only two words to say: Pinkie Pie.”

“Yeah, because that just explains everything,” I deadpanned, walking in front of the terminal. I held my breath, pressed the power button.

The computer hummed to life.

“Hell yeah,” I smirked. Then I realized the command prompt asked for a password. “Saios, would you kindly?”

“For sure. Just plug it in.”

The universal connector popped from my hoof. I looked around the keyboard for the now familiar port, frowned when I found none.

“Spring… Look further up,” Meridian suggested, a bit embarrassed for some reason.

My gaze went up to the screen, glazing its sides in search of my electronic quarry. Still, no port to be found.

“I meant, up up,” Meridian insisted.

I looked up, above the terminal. And there, higher than my ears, the port stood proud, daring all the male connectors in the world to come and plug it.

I stared at that taunting port, then back at my hoof, then back at the port again.

“You got to be fucking kidding me!” I finally threw my forelegs up to the sky.

(** **)

A complicated session of gymkhana later, my hoof had made connection with the terminal and Saios had begun working his magic.

“I’m in,” he stated after a minute or so of silence. “It looks like- Wait, I just got locked out. What in the Celestia’s name…”

All of sudden, the weird contraction cracked into life. A cloud of ocean blue particles whirled drunkenly around over the disk, before finally forming the form of a pony with the most insanely curled hair I had ever seen.

“Pinkie Pie?” Saios couldn’t hide his disbelief. “It has to be a recording… But why-”

“Hi Blue Shift!” the Ministry Mare greeted us. “And hi to your friends as well!”

“HOLLY MOTHERFUCKING SHIT!” I jumped back, positively crept out. “How… What?”

“Calm down,” Saios didn’t seem very reassured himself, which did little to give a much-needed credibility to his words. “There has to be a rational explanation to this.”

“Silly pony, you can’t explain everything with sciency-wicky-stuff!” the Party Pony chuckled before resuming her eerie bouncing. Slowly, I started backpedaling to the door.

The bouncing stopped. The surreal mane seemed to deflate a little. The Pinkie Pie hologram stared at me with empty eyes.

“I knew you’d come back,” she continued with a sad smile. “Well, sort of. Data is like cake to you, and I sure wouldn’t pass on the biggest, crumbliest cake of all!”

Giggles. Do I have to specify they exclusively came from the hologram?

“But I learned a long time ago cakes were meant to be shared!” the blue/pink pony jumped up and down on its disc. “So go ahead, take a bite!”

I won’t lie; I have seen the weirdest things in the wild Wastelands. From murderous robots to cannibalistic sect addicted to beans and Chianti, I had resigned to the fact the world simply did not make sense.

But that day, when that two-century-old recording of a dead mare opened that vault door for us, I just knew my sanity had been utterly screwed.

“Well I’ll be,” Meridian muttered, staring wide-eyed at the Ministry Mare. “Now I’ve seen it all.”

“It has to be an elaborate joke made at Blue Shift’s expense,” Saios didn’t quite buy it. “For all we know, this terminal had been rigged with hundreds of scripts, each ones dedicated to a particular hacker.”

“So it’s probably a trap,” I winced, looking at the inside of the datacenter for the first time. The lights had long been turned off. Without the assistance of my goggles, I probably wouldn’t see past the first rows of servers. “We need to block the doors open.”

“Not so fast!” it appeared the hologram wasn’t quite finished yet. The display zoomed in, until the face of Pinkie Pie occupied all the available space. “I also know you have been naughty, doing meany things to other ponies…”

Called it.

“… so I’m sending some of my Fun Enforcers to your party! This is going to be a BLAST!”

Meridian and I shared a profound, most complete moment of utter disbelief. Then, reality sank in , and it became a profound, most complete moment of ‘oh crap’.

Barely taking the time to push a desk into the way of the vault door, I rushed into the darkness in quest of those damnable plans.

(** **)

“Okay, that terminal is on,” I heaved, struggling to plug my connector in. On the bright side, the door hadn’t even tried to close behind me. On the downside, I could already hear the triumphing march trumpeted by sprite-bots echoing in the level’s corridors. “C’mon, do your thing and let’s get out of here!”

“I cannot!” Saios somehow found a way to make me crap my pants even more. “The power is off, I just cannot… Hold on, I got the MFT. We are going to be doing it the hard way.”

“Spring? We’ve got company!” Meridian yelled from the door. He shot a couple rounds on an unseen assailant. From the lack of return fire, I assumed he had managed to hit his target for once.

“Come on, you need to reach the rack labeled BE 5!” Saios sputtered. I freed my hoof from the terminal. A sign nearby indicated I was in the AX row.

“Crap, more running,” I grumbled as I galloped down the aisles. Behind me, I heard Meridian curse and duck behind a cover.

A pink laser went wide over my head, hitting a nearby server. It melted into disgusting pink-and-black goo which smelt of burnt plastic.

“Shit,” I dove into the BA row, cutting their line of fire. I hoped their sensors were not as efficient in the darkness. My goggles, for one, struggled to keep up with the total absence of light; white noise started to appear here and there on my display.

I grit my teeth, and finally reached the BE sector. I ran by half a dozen racks, stopped in front of the one labeled ‘five’. Nothing but its marking discerned it from the others.

“Okay, now what?” I looked around, hoping the robots hadn’t catched up yet. In the distance, two more gunshots from Meridian’s gun echoed, followed by a flash of light. I regretted leaving the Earth pony on his own, yet if I didn’t get those plans back all our efforts would have been in vain.

“Open the panel,” Saios continued.

Biting my lower lip, I began to rapidly unscrew the offending metal sheet.

“We don’t have time for this!” he cut me off. “Just bloody tear it open!”

I blinked, froze for a moment. Then, my claws sprang from their sheathes. Using them as leverage, I soon bent the weak panel, giving me a look to the mess inside.

“Cut the wires. Break everything you want EXCEPT the hard drives I’m highlighting.”

A red outline appeared on three metallic blocks screwed to the side. I tore out the wires that were in my way, and bent the tin support until it gave out. With a grunt of satisfaction, I pulled out my prize from its metallic casing.

“Okay, let’s get out of there,” I showed them into my saddlebags and darted toward the exit through the middle alley. “I got enough of this place already.”

“Not so fast. We need to get the plans first, rack AY 2!”

“Wait, what?” I nearly missed a step. Somewhere behind me, a sprite bot unleashed a salvo of pink beams on my ass, missing me by a hair. “Then what in Tartarus did I just get?”

“Keep your breath, I shall explain everything later,” Saios did not seem apologetic the slightest.

“What the hell, man,” I wheezed, lungs burning. The confined atmosphere of a centuries-old sealed datacenter probably wasn’t the best to run a marathon into.

I reached the server, which stood at an astonishing twenty meters from where I got the file list in the first place. I mentally made a note to give Saios a hell of a dressing-down when I got out of there.

This time, I didn’t even bother to bend the panel. My armored hoof went through it like it was butter, and the whole front came down with it. I grabbed the hard drives, struggled a few seconds as the screws refused to give out, but came out victorious in the end. The physical data caught up with their friends in my saddlebags.

Right on cue, a sprit bot showed up at the end of the row. Not missing a heartbeat, I drew my pistol and emptied half a 9mm magazine in its ugly, rusted face. The suppressed shots rang true in the confined space.

The robot spun on itself for a second, disoriented but otherwise unharmed.

“Right, subsonic ammunition,” I muttered, depicted. I promptly switched my magazine for another with a blue dot underneath. “How about those?”

This time, my ears rang as the supersonic rounds blasted through the air. The three copper-jacketed projectiles penetrated the not-so-thick armor of the sprite bot. It crashed in a clatter of saucepans.

“How d’you like them +P FMJ’s, uh?” I chuckled at the poor pile of scraps’ expense.

The meltdown of a nearby server did not fail to remind me about its friends, however.

“Fuck! We’re outta here!” I dashed to the exit. To my great pleasure, Meridian showed up from nowhere, unharmed, if a little toasted around the edges.

“You won’t believe it, but I actually got three of them,” he got hot on my tail as I sprinted through the corridors leading back to the stairs.

“Yeah, you’re right, I don’t believe it,” I heaved, before violently ramming a sprite-bot around a corner. Dazed, I still managed to stab it and send a ten-thousand-volts shock into its circuits. From the smoke that rose from its orifices, I reckon I had fried it for good.

“Spring, we don’t have time for barbecues!” Meridian pressed me, already at the stairs. Grunting, I got back to my hooves.

(** **)

To my credit, I had almost made it to the exit through the Hoofbeats when a sprite-bot bigger than the others landed a solid hit on my ass.

Soaring through the air like a freakin’ ballerina, I had landed behind a decrepit bar that had known better days. Meridian had managed to find himself a nice block of concrete to hide behind a couple meters from the exterior. I, for one, discovered almost simultaneously that A) I was trapped, and B) that big, huge Mother of All Sprite-Bots shrugged even my armor-piercing 9mm rounds like they were rubber bullets. From experience in a previous firefight with another bounty hunter in my youth, I just knew my hunting rifle wasn’t exactly the kind of weapon you could shoot blindly over your cover and just hope you had hit whatever you were not aiming for. I mean, duh, I had a scope on it for a reason.

So, as chunks of burnt faux-wood and faux-leather rained down from the sustained fire the rest of the bar underwent, I found myself calmly pondering my options.

Just kidding! Actually, I was yelling a constant flow of profanities that would have made a bloodthirsty raider blush in shame. Those Luna damned lasers hurt like hell!

“Fuck!” I stared at the narrow gash that now adorned my flanks. “Saios, is your armor even supposed to protect anything?”

“Without the CAI, I would have needed a spatula to peel you off the ground,” Saios answered, clearly not amused. “Just focus on getting rid of this overgrown bug. I can handle your wounds.”

“Easy for you to say,” I grunted, trying to follow his advice nonetheless. I moved slightly from my awkward prone position, trying to get a better look on my surroundings.

Of fucking course, this is when the pain of my back decided to make its big return, edgier than ever. I let out a yelp of pain.

“Spring, listen carefully,” Saios said in my earpiece. “On a scale from one to ten, if you had to rate the pain you just experienced, how much would you give?”

“El-fucking-even,” I yelled in the microphone. Almost instantly, I felt a tiny needle piercing my skin near my flanks. The pain subdued to a manageable level in a matter of seconds.

“Thanks,” I let out a sigh of short-lived relief. Shards of glass from a nearby pulverized shelf rained on me, adding ‘superficial cuts’ to the ever-growing list of my injuries. “Got much more painkillers like that?”

“We’re okay on Med-X,” Saios answered with a shrug. “Until we got to numb the pain, that is.”

“All right, this has gone for long enough,” I growled, spotting a couple unopened bottles of Atomic Cocktail under the bar a couple meters from me. I crawled toward them, tore two large pieces of cloth from a rag I had in my bags and poured a generous amount of the infamous liquid on them. My nose scrunched because of the acrid vapors, I stuffed the now very flammable rag into the phosphorescent bottle and voilà, two Molotov cocktails!

“Spring, while I commend your ability to craft makeshift incendiary grenades, I have some doubts about their efficiency on mechanicals foes,” Saios piped in. “Metal hardly burns as skin does.”

“I’m not hopping to make it catch fire,” I grumbled, taking a look over the bar and almost getting beheaded for the count. “I just need to distract it long enough to take a shot.”

“Try not to burn yourself. This suit is hardly fireproof.”

“Duly noted,” I lifted the grenades and my lighter up to my eyes. Taking a deep breath, I lighted them both and threw them it the large sprite-bot direction.

One went wide and missed it entirely, landing on the remains of a centuries-old stage. Burning radioactive booze splashed a notable portion of the room, almost blinding me for a second.

The second cocktail flew true and exploded right before the robot, covering it in flames. As expected, it stopped firing at my position, its sensors blinded by the searing heat.

A profound feeling of serenity overcame my senses as I rose from behind my charred cover. Time seemed to slow down; in a familiar gesture so often rehearsed, I brandished my faithful hunting rifle. The robot’s flaming body lined up nicely with the sights in my scope.

The world came to a stop. I exhaled slowly, squeezing the trigger in a smooth motion. I felt the familiar recoil of the weapon before its delicate song arrived to my ears; by then, I had already cycled the bolt, pushing a second bullet into the chamber. The discarded casing flew gracefully a few inches into the air, and already I had shot again. The cycle began anew; time began flowing again.

In the two-second timespan I had spent over the bar, three high-powered, armor-piercing .308 rounds had found their way right into the control core of the sprite-bot.

It never stood a chance.

Going frenzy of the loss of its central system, the robot madly dashed against the ceiling, splashing flaming booze all over the place. It spun on itself a couple more time, crashing against tables, chairs, whatever furniture had survived the Apocalypse.

Then, just because the Wasteland hates me like that, that giant ball of red-hot metal decided to end its mad course into the bar which, not ten seconds before, used to be my cover.

Yelping, I darted out of the way of the out-of-control contraption. In front of me, Meridian had already started his run outside; I bolted through the paneless windows into the street.

Behind me, the inferno had found its way into a forgotten stock of bowel-tearing alcohol. A great ball of fire seared my flanks, unceremoniously throwing me behind a pre-war carriage.

There, unwilling to make a move, I leaned back against the rusted metal. Meridian soon arrived, hat in disarray and coat plucked with burn marks.

We stared at each other for a few seconds, each trying to catch our breath. Then, a low chuckle escaped my lips.

Soon enough, the both of us were laughing our asses out, right there in the street in front of the burning ruins of the Hoofbeats.

Celestia be damned, it felt good to be alive.

(** **)

Once the rush of adrenaline was gone, the events of the day caught up with me, like a jackal would catch up with a rabbit.

In other words, tiredness hit me like a brick wall.

We had stopped in what used to be a record shop, now barely more than a crumbling ruin. Even the indefatigable Meridian showed the first signs of exhaustion. I, for one, daydreamed of my bed back in the shack. Saios had agreed I deserved a rest after our little stunt at the MoM Hub – and about that…

I opened my saddlebags, levitated the six hard drives from them in front of my eyes. I silently hoped they were still readable. The screw threads on the side had been utterly busted when I tore them off their racks and a couple connectors pins had been bent because of my indelicate handling of the ribbon cables they had been attached to. We were going to need a terminal to read them now; hence I needed to make one last stop before hitting the hay. I knew of a place in Friendship City where you could have pretty much anything remotely electronic fixed – no doubts they’d agree to rent me a terminal and a couple tools.

Furthermore, the owner’s brother was working for the Talons in Junction R-7. Rumors said they had established a radio connection between them. With any luck, I could use them to ask Gawdyna Grimfeathers about her contract some more. I didn’t want to go all the way back to JR-7 if I could help it.

“Okay, Saios,” I resisted the urge to yawn. “Now that we don’t have a flock of killer robots after our asses, mind telling me what the fuck happened in the datacenter?”

“Breaking into the Ministry Of Morale’s most secure files was probably a once in a lifetime event,” Saios said, clearly unapologetic. “While getting the plans of the Tenpony Tower was our short-term objective, it would have been foolish not to take other, more sensitive data along with us.”

“Dude, that place was full of data,” I sighed, rubbing my head with a hoof. I realized a bit late that thick, black soot covered it and that I had just spread it all over my face. “Shit. I really need a breaker. Still, why didn’t you just tell me, instead of making me run all over the place while shit hit the fan?”

“The idea only occurred to me as I browsed the master file table,” Saios explained. “Had I told you I needed the hard drives from a distant aisle while the one you were looking for had been right in front of you, you wouldn’t have listened.”

“Well, no shit Sherlock,” I managed to wipe most of the grim from my face. “I don’t know if you noticed, but shit got pretty real back there. Hell, there was so many bots packed in that place even Meridian managed to shoot a couple.”

“That’s… nice? I guess,” Saios didn’t seem to know what to make of the Earth pony’s lack of marksmare skills. “By the way, you quite impressed me when you took down that elite unit in the Hoofbeats. You do not envy SATS’ users anything, really.”

“Yeah, well, wouldn’t that beat all?” I spat. “Shooting is my special talent. “I’d be quite pissed off if some asshole in a Stable jumpsuit could aim better than I do because of some arcanic piece of shit glued to their leg.”

“Well, to be fair, without their Pipbucks Stable dwellers wouldn’t survive long in the Wastelands,” Meridian interjected with a yawn.

“SATS’ seemingly time distortion is only subjective and limited to the user’s capacities, anyway,” Saios continued. “It cannot, in any way, go faster than one’s reflexes. Even with that spell active, a neophyte could not draw faster than an expert marksmare.”

“Yeah, and their aiming assistance isn’t worth crap,” I nodded with a smug grin. “It’s all maths, stats and shit. It may help when you can’t use sights to save your life, but afterward you have to aim with your guts. Ain’t no fancy device to teach you that.”

“I wish there were,” Meridian mumbled, electing a chuckle from me. Don’t worry old colt, someday you’ll learn how to use your own gun! Even if I have to teach you.

“Actually, ballistics…” Saios began, then stopped. “Nevermind. You are an artist, I am a scientist. We cannot possibly see shooting in the same fashion.”

“Damn right,” I laughed. “So, yeah, still, you didn’t answer my question. What was that data you deem worth risking my hide?”

“Access codes to the MoM’s remote spy network,” Saios seemed very proud of himself. “Satellites, underground backbones, you name it. The strategic gain may be considerable!”

“Spy satellites?” I repeated, a bit mocking. “Okay, dude, look, it may be useful if you want to know what the Enclave is up to with their clouds, but otherwise your ‘strategic’ advantage is precisely zero.”

“Well, the cloud cover is bound to go away eventually, right?” Saios argued. “Furthermore, those satellites can also be used for communication.”

“I’ve been roaming this land for almost three decades now, I still haven’t seen a single ray of sunlight,” I sighed, dejected. “I wasn’t kidding the other day when I told you I had never seen the sky.”

“The stars are a sight to behold.”

“So I’ve been told.”

Silence settled in the conversation. After a few minutes, I rose to my hooves.

“We should be going,” I told Meridian, which nodded in understanding. “It’s gonna get dark soon.”

(** **)

Blue Shift’s bench back at Big Mountain had always been a monumental mess, but compared to Double Capacitor’s Workshop in Friendship City, it looked like a nun’s room. Piles of broken down terminals and electronic appliances had been stacked on tables all over the place, making it hard to navigate without sending a dozen motherboards to their doom. Meridian opted for not setting a single hoof in that maze; alas, I did not have that luxury.

I found the owner in the back of the cramped room. The light orange stallion had been working on what seemed to be a toaster of some sort. He did not even acknowledge my presence until I waved a hoof in front of him.

“Oh, hi,” he looked up, obviously puzzled somepony would bother risking their life in his dent. “Do you need something?”

“Hi, and yes, I came here for a particular reason,” I looked around, trying to find a terminal that wasn’t missing a dozen parts. “I need to rent a terminal for a few hours.”

Capacitor raised an eyebrow. “For sure. You want one in particular, or…”

“Well, I need to copy files from a few hard drives,” I explained.

“All right,” he stood up, discarding his welding iron. “What interface?”

“Sorry, what?”

“Your drives,” Capacitor patiently repeated. “What data bus interface are they using?”

“PDTI,” Saios prompted me.

“PDTI,” I repeated.

“Um, you sure about that?” Capacitor seemed puzzled. “I mean, it’s not really the most widespread standard. Terminals like those often use STIS.”

“Uh, yeah?” I wondered if I could safely shove one of the drives in his face. I couldn’t remember if they had been marked ‘property of the MoM’ or something. “I guess?”

“Definitively PDTI,” Saios confirmed with a sigh. Images of the two different buses popped up on my display. “Would you mistake a 9mm for a .357?”

“Yeah, I need a computer that can handle three PDTI drives at once,” I nodded, trusting Saios’ ability to be a total nerd. “Do you think you got that in your… uh, stock?”

“Honestly? No,” Capacitor scratched his head uneasily. “I can make one though. I got the parts. All I need is to put them together and to install an OS, and you’ll be golden.”

“Tell him I do not need an OS. I will make my own boot routine.”

“Don’t worry about the OS,” I dismissed Capacitor with a wave. “I can make do without one.”

The Earth pony stared at me like I had sprouted another leg.

“What?”

“Okay, if we are still going with that metaphor, you just basically told him the equivalent of ‘I’m so badass I don’t need a gun to fire my bullets.’” Had Saios still have a face and a hoof, I had little doubt the two of them would have then collided in a most painful manner.

“Hey, listen, I’m just repeating what you told me, so can it, all right?”

“Beg your pardon?” Capacitor was swimming in an ocean of confusion. “Miss, are you all right?”

“Good, now he thinks you are clinically insane,” Saios sighed unhelpfully. “Wonderful.”

“No, it’s all right,” I pointed my earpieces. “I’m talking with a friend over the radio. He’s good when it comes to techy stuff, but sometimes he can be a real pain in the ass.”

“Get lost.”

“Oh.” Capacitor chuckled, obviously relieved. “Sorry. We don’t see radios very often over here, you know? But, well, you seem to be very, well…”

With a hoof, he embraces my whole body in a most vague manner.

“Y’know…” he continued, not finding his words for some reason.

“Well equipped?” I suggested.

“Right. Well equipped,” Capacitor nodded. “So, uh, do you want me to talk with your friend, or…?”

“We might as well speak among connoisseurs,” Saios’ voice came from the suit’s speakers this time. “My name is Shift. As my friend said, we are looking for a platform able to handle three PDTI drives in RAID5 and remote boot ability. Screen and input devices will not be needed.”

Speechless, Capacitor nodded in agreement.

“Furthermore, I understand you are in capacity to establish a radio connection with another operator in Junction R-7,” Saios continued. I winced. We weren’t really supposed to know that“We wish to send a message to the local authorities.”

“I don’t… Uh…” the poor shop owner seemed at loss. “I don’t really do radio communications. It’s just a little thing I patched together from old transmitters to keep in touch with my sibling, so, uh…”

“I just need to send a message to Gawdyna Grimfeather about some business she has for me,” I intervened. “Surely you know Gawd, right?”

From the look of his face, he sure did.

“Of course!” He stuttered, pale. “I’ll just, uh, do an exception for you?”

“Wonderful,” I rewarded him with a toothy grin. “Now, about that terminal…?”

(** **)

As it turned out, Capacitor had exactly the parts he needed in stock. In less than fifteen minutes, he had assembled our terminal and left us to our business in a quiet corner of his shop.

“How long until you’re done?” I asked Saios, leg stuck to the universal port in a most awkward position.

“Honestly? Hours,” Saios sighed. “Days if I want to try and salvage the data that had been corrupted on more than one disk and that would require equipment I only have at Big Mountain.”

“Hours?!” I blurted. “Seriously?”

“Yes. My link to the suit is strong and quite fast, but we are talking of four terabytes of data by array here,” he explained. “Corrupted data, I might add. We are lucky the MoM actually cared about long-term hardware preservation, or else I would not even have data to work with in the first place.”

“Okay, listen,” I tried to keep my cool through the haze of exhaustion. “I’m not staying plugged in to this thing for hours. You got until I get my answer from the Talons and then I’m off to bed.”

“Fine,” Saios pouted. I almost felt bad for him. After all, he had been lusting after those files for, what, two centuries and half now? “I am downloading the detailed schematics of the Tenpony Tower right now. Afterward we will swap the disks so I can see what codes we actually rescued from oblivion.”

“All right. Hey, Capacitor!” I called out to the shop’s owner. “C’mere so I can give you my message.”

“Careful there Spring. I doubt he is using a secured channel to talk with his brother,” Saios warned. “If you can hit JR-7 from here, you can hit Tenpony, if you see what I mean.”

“Gotcha,” I whispered as Capacitor zig-zagued around the piles of electronic scraps. I couldn’t help but notice he looked at me with a mix of fear and, I don’t know, maybe admiration?

Eh, for a stealth suit, my armor was sure drawing a lot of attention.

“You called?” he asked timidly, glancing discreetly to the three drives arrayed on the table.

“Yeah,” I nodded, moving between him and my data. “Call your brother and ask him to tell Gawd or one of her Talons I’m willing to take the job we have been talking of the other day. I’m expecting an answer, too.”

“I’m not sure she’ll have time to see him,” Capacitor fidgeted, uneasy. “I mean, I’m sure she’s very busy, with all the… um, stuff the Talons do…”

His gaze settled on the pistol on my breast. “What kind of job you’re talking about anyway?”

“None of your business,” I snapped. The poor gal almost jumped back in fear. “As for the answer, tell Gawd that comes from Spring. I’m pretty sure she’ll send an answer, even if it’s just to give me the green light.”

Capacitor gulped, nodded and skidded away. I watched him grab a very DIY-styled radio and put a couple of very decrepit headphones on.

“A green light will not be enough,” Saios said in the earpiece. “You do not even know your target’s name, do you?”

“I know, I know,” I sighed, leaning on the table. “But she got flyers. Maybe she’ll be willing to send one over there.”

“True. A fast Pegasus may be able to make the round trip in a matter of hours.”

“The Talons ain’t Pegasi,” I chuckled. “Gawdyna Grimfeather is a griffin. I’d believed the name would be a dead giveaway.”

On the other side of the room, Capacitor was gesticulating in front of his radio. His brother probably didn’t understand why he had suddenly been recomissionned as a messenger colt.

“So the Talons are an entire mercenary company of griffins, stationed at Junction R-7?” Saios resumed. “What are your relations with them?”

“Nothing. Just business,” I answered in a low voice. “Did the odd job for them in the past. Come to think of it, they’ll probably be interested by our wares. It might be a good idea to dig into that.”

“I suggest we leave the business plans to Chrystal, once we got the funds to hire her,” Saios did not seem very enthusiastic. He probably didn’t have either mercenaries or griffins into high standing – maybe even neither. “All right, I am done with those drives. Please swap them for the others – I cannot wait to see what codes are stored inside…”

(** **)

Capacitor came back five minutes later to tell me his brother had agreed (reluctantly it seems, but I could swear I heard the magic words “don’t piss Gawd’s employees off” uttered) to forward the message. Then, he returned half an hour later, livid, to ask me to get on the radio.

Puzzled, I followed him to the wire-and-tape device.

“Spring talking,” I said in the microphone, not sure of what to expect.

“Well I’ll be!” Gawd’s voice cracked in the headphones. A deep frown made an appearance on my face. I sure hadn’t expected Grimfeather to get on the radio herself… “So, tell me, is it true what young Coil tells me there? You know, about that one contract we talked about around a nice, cold beer what, three weeks ago?”

“Yup,” I looked around. Capacitor had backed up, probably not wishing to hear a single word of my conversation. “As it turns out, I have gotten a few things that’d greatly help me having the job done. I reckon nobody piped me at the post?”

“Not really,” Gawd chuckled. Behind her, I heard the sounds of a hushed conversation. “I really can’t find anypony to do it. The bounty’s still the same. So, interested?”

“You bet. I’m not around JR-7 right now, though. Mind sending me a flyer?”

“No problem. Wait a second. Hey, Barrel!” A male voice answered, but I couldn’t make out the words. “Yeah, right. Mind finding Covett and tell her to meet me in my office in ten minutes? She’s probably at the armory by now.” I heard a grunt of approval. “Thanks. Okay Spring, back to you. I got somegriffin I trust who got business to do around Manehattan. Meet her near the old community center in downtown tomorrow morning; she’ll bring you up to speed.”

“Got it. I’ll swing by JR-7 afterward,” I answered. I hoped Saios would have fixed the APC by then; five hundred grand probably weighted a shitton. “Anything else?”

“Just a question,” Gawd continued. Internally, I let out a most unholy curse. “You told me when you turned the contract down the first time you had other projects. How did they turn out?”

“They turned out… fine,” I hesitated. “I just need to raise some funds before getting started, that’s all.”

“All right then. Good hunting! Gawd out.”

Silently, I removed the headphone and let out a long, long breath.

Weary, I paid Capacitor, and headed for the exit.

“Oh, one last thing,” I stopped in my tracks and turned toward the shop owner. “Do you have extension cords for sale?”

(** **)

“So, what now?” Meridian asked as we walked outside Friendship City. The guards eyed us with suspicion. No doubt they were wondering what in Tartarus I was doing, entering and exiting the town all day long.

“I got Gawd,” I told him before muffling a yawn. “She’s sending somegriffin over tomorrow. Until then, I just want to head back to my shack and sleep in my bed like a damn rock.”

“Bed, as in, the mattress you threw away the day we met?” Meridian pointed out with a smile. “Not a chance.”

I groaned in despair.

(** **)

The sun was setting over the ruins of what used to be Manehattan. Meridian and I walked in silence in the deserted streets, as the concrete silhouettes around me became more and more familiar.

Already, my block came into view; I dragged my hooves over the sidewalk, already picturing myself bloated in…

I stopped dead on my tracks. Besides me, Meridian also looked nervous. Something was wrong – very wrong.

“Spring? What is the matter?” Saios asked. Surely he had picked up my change of demeanor; already years of living on the edge had swept away the tiredness, leaving me alert and ready for a ride.

“I don’t know,” I whispered, switching my goggles to night vision. Slowly, I scanned the scene in front of me. I had made sure years ago to take down every sniper spot giving on the entrance of my shack; if somepony had decided to go and try to ambush me, the only place they could decently hide in would have been my place itself. A searing heat rose in my chest at the idea of bunch of strangers waiting to kill me in my own home. Without a sound, I picked up my rifle and observed the collapsed building that concealed the entrance to the small basement.

Time passed by in silence as I waited for movement.

Nothing.

After a little while, I had to admit we were alone in the streets. Still, some things seemed to be out of place, oddly. Did that dumpster always laid sideway on this part of the road? Didn’t I clean most of the junk in the street? Had this rusted crate been there when I left home a few weeks ago?

I sighed, lowering my rifle. Maybe I was paranoid. Guts feeling weren’t always right, after all.

“Look,” Meridian nudged me, pointing toward a nearby junk pile. “Is that what I think it is?”

Squinting my eyes, I detailed the item he had been describing. Half-hidden under a plastic bag, its round shape was unmistakable.

“Shit, landmine,” I spat, taking a careful step back.

Now that I knew what I was looking for, I saw them everywhere. Here, a couple had been planted behind the dumpster; there, piles of scraps dissimulated some more.

“Some asshole turned my street into a bloody minefield,” I realized, dejected. “What the hell?”

“Probably a gift from your friends in Tenpony,” Meridian darkly noted. “I hope the irony of us getting blown to pieces here isn’t lost to you.”

“Shit,” I cursed, resisting the urge of kicking a pebble. Had it landed on a mine, I would have been always to the moon by the time I said ‘tits’. “Celestia’s motherfucking anal flares, if I can get my hooves on the assholes who did that…”

“Do you have any enemies?” Saios asked.

“That’s a stupid question,” I retorted, embracing the street in front of me. “Of fucking course I got enemies, they turned my front yard into a motherfucking minefield! Does it look like a damned Hearth’s Warming Eve gift to you?”

“That was not what I meant,” the AI apologized. “Regardless, I think you should consider a change of neighborhood.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuckity FUCK!” I trampled on the spot. I wanted to below my rage to the skies, but years of wanderings in the Wastelands had taught me better. “All right. But I need to get some of my stuff inside.”

“Do you really want to cross a minefield for a couple items?” Meridian did little to conceal his disbelief. “Don’t risk your life for things you can replace.”

I mused about it for a second. The place had probably been trashed anyway, so I shouldn’t expect to find a lot of supplies left. I had very few items of value, since I sold most of them to Goldfeather to pay for my trip to the DERTA. A brand new canon waited for me to be installed on my rifle, yet Saios would probably make dozen for me at no charge. As for my safe… Well, I honestly did not believe whoever raided the place had failed to take my entire life savings. I wouldn’t expect it to be nothing but empty.

All of sudden, realization dawned on me.

“Shit, I had all of Crowneigh’s files in my safe,” I muttered, pale. “Whoever got them – they know where the DERTA is…”

(** **)

Side quest updated: Last homage
Objectives:
[X] Accept or refuse the Talon contract (Primary)
[X] Learn more about the Talon contract (Updated)
[ ] Meet with Covett Sharpclaws to be briefed (Optionnal)
[ ] Kill your target in Tenpony Tower (Primary)



Level up!

New perk:
Cautious Nature: That’s not paranoia – it’s survival instinct. You are more likely to detect traps and ambushes, even when you are not looking for them.

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”

Author's Note:

As usual, 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 Thirteen: The Fool's Gambit

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