• 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 Fourteen: Enter the Sandmare

“I’m not bad – I was just born that way.”

Chapter Fourteen: Enter the Sandmare

They say home is where the heart is. My home used to be a nameless basement under a collapsed building – what did it say about me?

And now I had lost it.

Oh, not literally. It was still there. Nothing prevented me from fixing the broken shelves, from finding a new mirror, from dragging another safe through the Manehattan streets. Yet, as the three dozen landmines planted in my front yard were keen to remind me, it did not feel safe anymore.

It did not feel like home anymore.

Staring at the mess in front of me, I wondered why I had bothered coming back. Navigating the minefield had been a real pain and my sharp reflexes were the only things that saved me from the trapped shotgun down the staircase. Somepony had really wanted me dead. I couldn’t help but find the thought… unnerving. I was a hunter not accustomed to being hunted.

As expected, my savings and Crowneigh’s files were missing from the busted safe. The hope of finding them discarded or destroyed gave way to a dreading feeling of impending doom. Big Mountain’s secret had been put in jeopardy because of my carelessness. Perhaps, if I had bothered to hide them better…

“I am sorry about your home, Spring,” Saios’s voice in my earpiece derailed my train of thoughts. “But you need to find a shelter for the night.”

“You don’t get it,” I sniffed. Damn dust. “I had a folder on the DERTA thicker than my hoof in there. Now somepony took it. We’re fucked.”

I gazed at the emptied safe in silence. His contents had not only linked me to Crowneigh’s and Van Graff’s murders, but they had also constituted most of my retirement plan.

“I do not think this is as bad as you seem to believe,” Saios finally continued with extreme caution. “What were those files about?”

“Everything,” I sighed, climbing the stairs up for the very last time. “The location, the keys, even reports on some projects of yours… Hell, Crowneigh had spent half a century gathering them from the four winds. The folder was full of his notes, too.”

“Then your fears are entirely misplaced,” the AI chuckled. “Let us imagine somepony found your files, bothered to read them and realized the place’s potential. Let us imagine they went as far as mount an expedition like you did. Let us imagine they arrived safe and sound at the DERTA’s gate. What then?”

“Well, they could…” I trailed, before blinking in realization. “They could do nothing. They’d be locked outside.”

“Indeed,” Saios nodded. “Only the master keys could override my own directives, and even then it would require an intimate knowledge on the way the security network had been designed. I sure would not make it easy on them.”

Without thinking, I put a hoof on the now familiar bump in the front of my barding. As long as I had the keys, Big Mountain would remain mine, and mine alone. Well, mine and Saios’, I guess, even though as an AI he was kind of part of the furniture of the place.

“I reckon you’re right,” I nodded. A heavy weigh seemed to lift from my shoulders. “Though there’s more. Should this folder fall into the wrong hooves, somepony might realize I murdered both Crowneigh and Van Graff.”

“Would that be so bad? After all, you are already banned from the Tenpony Tower, and the guards in Friendship City made no move to arrest you. You kill people for a living; surely they know better than charging you with murder charges.”

“It’s like everything else, it depends on who you mess with,” I shook my head. “Crowneigh was probably off limits. Still, you are right in a way. Ponies get killed every day in the Wastelands. I think Sure Shot has probably better things on her plate than looking for the culprit in a months-old murder case.”

“I assume she is the head of the security.”

“Not exactly,” I clarified. “Chief Lantern is, but Sure Shot oversees the law enforcement. So yeah, unless you’re the Stable Dweller, you’ll have to deal with the latter most of the time you do something you shouldn’t have.”

“You keep mentioning this Stable Dweller,” Saios noted as I zig-zagged along an invisible path in the minefield I used to call home. The night vision and the markers added by my overlay made it child’s play this time now that I knew I wouldn’t be stepping on a live mine. “And I am intercepting radio emissions which call her the Lightbringer and other nice titles. Who is she, exactly?”

“Beats me,” I mumbled as I met up with Meridian on safe ground. The sun had set for a little while by then. We really needed to reach Friendship City before a wing of bloodbats decided to make a lunch out of us, or worse. “The mare popped up in the Wastelands a year and half ago. Greener than paint, she came out from a Stable near Ponyville or so I’ve been told. What I do know, however, is that unlike most Stable dwellers, the Wastelands couldn’t break her. Most of them end up dead somewhere in a ditch, or just adapt and stop caring altogether. Yet, this Littlepip – yeah, that’s her name; her mother probably hated her or something – started kicking asses the very day she got outside. Raiders, slavers, monsters, she just got a knack of tearing them apart. It made her very popular among most Wastelanders, like a freakin’ Messiah or something.”

“You don’t seem to share their views.”

“Well, it’s only a matter of time before she gets killed,” I shrugged. “She basically declared war on Red Eyes, the Unity, the Enclave and every fucking raider from here to Hoofington. Skills, friends and luck can only go so far when you pissed off the wrong guys. Plus, I don’t really believe she ain’t doing all that ‘saving the world’ business for some personal reason. She’s either a nuthead or a tyrant-to-be.”

“It doesn’t hurt to hope,” Meridian sighed next to me. “So far, if DJ-P0n3 is to be believed, she has been nothing short of a saint.”

“The world ain’t white and black, buddy,” I retorted. “It’s all shades of grey, and that mare got a body count higher than mine. You probably don’t need to dig very far to find some unsavory shit about her.”

“Look at the pot calling the kettle black! Tell me, what was the last time you killed somepony for a reason that wasn’t profit?”

“Well I never pretended to be-”

“Sorry to interrupt, but would you kindly keep the volume down?” Saios cut me short, clearly anticipating a heated argument.

Meridian and I did not share another word until we reached Friendship City.

(** **)

The bridge had been raised for the night, but the security was kind enough to lower it for me. Friendship City really lived up to its name – even if they did not trust me a single bit, they still wouldn’t force me to sleep among manticores and other niceties of the Wastelands.

I rented a room at the Warm Smiles Inn. While I usually cared little for comfort, I had often been warned against sleeping in the Common Room if you had anything to lose and nopony to watch over you. For sure, you wouldn’t end up with your throat gaping like many shady places out there; still I knew I wasn’t the only pony with sticky hooves. My suit would without a doubt attract a lot of unwanted attention and I did not want Saios to monitor me for the night. A girl needed her privacy, after all.

Meridian, on the other hoof, refused to share a room with me. He pretended he wished to socialize a bit in the Commons, but I knew better. He was either broke or looking for a hooker.

Speaking of hookers, had I not been sleeping on my hooves, I wouldn’t have minded the company of some young and handsome stallion to wash away the stress. That would have to wait until my business in Tenpony was dealt with.

The mattress was dirty and worn threadbare, yet I slept through the night like a rock. I simply couldn’t explain why Shift’s bed back in Big MT gave me nightmares and restless nights even though it was probably the safest and the most comfortable place I had ever slept on. Figures.

The morning came all too quickly. Still sleepy, I found Meridian in the inn main room in front of a solid breakfast. I did the same; we ate in silence, our thoughts without a doubt focused on the day’s planning.

Firstly, I needed to meet Gawd’s agent sometime in the morning. I did not have a precise time, so I figured I should get there early to scout the terrain. Once, the agreed rendezvous place with one of my clients turned out to be a ghoul picnic party. Obviously, that guy had little desire to hoof me the caps he owed me – in the end I had to pay myself from his warm body. While I seriously doubted Gawd would try to cross me (why would she even do that?) the local fauna sometimes had weird notions of property.

(** **)

My worries proved out to be unfounded. Only a couple ghouls roamed near the old community center. I did short work of them from a distance. I never really told my newfound friends, but it really felt good to get a target to down with my rifle. After all, precision shooting was my special talent. I lived for that little moment of suspense between the squeeze of the trigger and the large spray of blood from some unlucky gal a couple instants later. It always left a funny sensation of belonging in my guts. How could it be wrong, when it felt so right?

It all ended too soon. Meridian and I took position in the ruins near a window with a clear view on the plaza. We did not have to wait very long.

A griffon arrived from the North, circled a couple time over the area, and landed not far from us. Tall, she sported the trademark armor of the Talons, mounted with guns on each side. Light machine guns, from the look of it. Not everypony could afford that kind of stuff.

I waved her and approached. No way she hadn’t spotted us from above.

“You’re Spring?” she asked, sizing me up. I could almost hear Saios doing the same with her. Patched-up holes littered her armor. She really didn’t seem like a rookie to me.

“I am,” I answered, stopping a couple meters from her. Friendly or not, it often paid off to never stand within any clawed creature’s reach. “I reckon Gawd sent you.”

“Yeah, I had some business to take care in the area,” the griffin nodded, before heading for a nearby flat concrete block. “The name’s Covett Bloodclaw. You’re still up for that contract?”

It didn’t ring a bell. Then again, I did not know every single of Gawd’s lieutenants. Besides, Covett was a fighter, that much seemed obvious. I doubted she spent much of her time idling around in JR-7.

“For sure,” I followed her. She took a couple folders from her saddlebags. “How much do you know about it?”

“Everything.” She dropped the files on the makeshift table. “Well, everything Gawdina knows. I’m a griffin of trust.”

“Good,” I sighed in relief, levitating the folder in front of me. I had half expected Gawd to send me a courier carrying a ‘for your eyes only’ report on the target, preventing me from asking questions to my contact. “All right, let’s see what we got here…”

A large claw landed on the thick cardboard, preventing me from opening the file. I looked up to find Covett staring at me, serious as shit.

“It ain’t just any contract,” she said, her voice low and menacing. “Gawd wouldn’t have sent me otherwise. If you fail, you’re in for a world of pain.”

“Is that a threat?” My voice had the chilly edge I had thought long gone.

“It’s a promise,” Covett seemed nonplussed. Her claws did not move from the folder. “I heard of your last stunt in Tenpony. You are to kill the target, and only her. Nobody else.”

“Can’t promise that,” I shook my head. Internally, I wondered in what fuckstorm I had gotten myself into. “Shit happens. Ponies get killed. You should know better.”

“Well, I did warn you.” Covett let me open the files at last. “If you mess up and shoot the wrong person, trust me there will be no shithole in the Wastelands deep enough for you to hide into.”

“Please, most guys out there would give me a fucking medal for blasting one of those Tenpony prick’s head off,” I chuckled, scanning the first page. “Well, DJ P0n3 excepted, I guess.”

I froze as a terrifying thought crossed my mind. Surely Gawd wouldn’t…

“Say, I’m not off to find and kill him, now am I?” I looked up to Covett.

“Nah, but close enough,” she tapped the picture of the smiling, dress-wearing grey unicorn mare on the page in response. “You’re going after his assistant. Got a problem with that?”

(** **)

Shit, DJ P0n3’s own assistant? No wonder somepony put such a bounty on her head.

For a split second, I wondered if that was really the right thing to do. I mean, fuck, now that I saw her face I remembered her from my brief incursion in that overpriced Prench restaurant. Homage, that was her name. She seemed to be a nice gal. The only reason somepony wanted her dead was her connection to the Voice of the Wastelands, as he grew accustomed to call himself. Collateral damage in a war in which she probably had no role to play but make a coffee or two and do the groceries for the ever-paranoid DJ-P0n3.

… Luna damn me, who am I kidding? Half a million caps. I’d kill anypony short of the DJ himself or the Stable Dweller. Hell, I would have probably taken a shot or two at Security for that kind of money.

It’s not like DJ-P0n3 lacked any groupies to fill the hole I was about to make in his staff. You couldn’t possibly have a voice like that and not be drowning in pussy all day long.

“Nah, it’s cool,” I finally answered Covett, turning the page. Somepony had put a lot of effort in making that file, still the lack of relevant intelligence almost burned the paper beneath. A spy had managed to take a few pot-shots at Homage as she was wandering around in the Tower. I recognized Fiery Red on some of the pictures. Oddly, my target’s flanks always seemed to be covered by a dress of some sort. I had to skim to the very last slide to spot her blurry cutie mark.

“What’s that on her flanks?” I squinted my eyes, unable to make it out. “Looks like a device of some sort…”

“It’s a loudspeaker,” Covett stated. “The guy who took those pictures stalked her for three days straight and that’s the closest he ever got to seeing her cutie mark. My theory? DJ Flankass up there is paranoid enough to believe somepony is after his assistant.”

“Now, don’t be silly, who would kill a sweetheart like that?” I grinned darkly. “Next time you see your agent, though, tell him to do his job right. He didn’t even write where Homage lived.”

“It wouldn’t pay so well if it was that easy,” Covett growled. “She only leaves the high security part of the Tower to do some shopping and eat with her friends. Otherwise, all we know about her is that she works at the MASEBS with DJ-P0n3.”

“Hm,” I mumbled as Saios projected a 3D representation of Tenpony on my display. “All right.”

“You’ll need to find your way to the very top of the Tower,” Covett continued, oblivious. “No matter how much money you put on the table, there is no finding a map of the place.”

“Don’t worry, I already got that covered,” I waved dismissively. Hell, I was looking right at it! “Anything else?”

“Yeah, one last hitch, and it’s a big one.” The griffin seemed puzzled by my answer yet let it slide. “They have installed strange doors made of purple energy in most of the restricted areas. Our contact says it only let direct descendants of the MAS’s employees in.”

“Already on it,” I smiled cockily, barely looking up to meet Covett’s disbelieving stare. “It’s not my first waltz, y’know? All right, does she have any relatives, any friends I should be wary off?”

“DJ-Save-The-World excepted? None that I’m aware,” she shook her head. “Trouble is, nopony knows how he’s supposed to look like. Don’t shoot anypony but Homage or else you’ll risk killing him instead.”

I winced as I understood the reasoning behind Covett’s earlier warning. Given his rep in the Wastelands, murdering DJ-P0n3 would be akin to a masochistic suicide. Even Gawd probably wouldn’t let me walk away with that.

“One last thing,” she added. “You are to bring out her Cutie Mark. One side or both, clean cut or not, it doesn’t matter as long as it is clearly identifiable.”

“Branding?” I asked in disbelief. “Really? Who the fuck is behind this contract anyway?”

“I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to.” The griffin frowned. It obviously didn’t sit right with her either. Very few clients asked for the target’s Cutie Mark as a proof. Those who wanted to see somepony dead enough to ask for a body part to be brought back often went for more symbolic bits. The head was a great classic. Tongue cutting was a bust against sweet talkers and con artists. Ears, you could bring back by the dozen. As for rape victims, they often asked for… Well, you got the idea.

But the Cutie Mark? It was downright… personal. To remove it was to destroy the target’s identity. The Enclave did that to the Dashites before exiling them. The slavers did that to runaway slaves, as if it wasn’t clear enough already they saw their ‘merchandise’ as mere objects. Poor bastards.

Then again, five hundred thousand caps. I reckoned that for that price you could indulge an ultimate spit in the target’s face.

“All right.” I closed the folder, hoofing them over to my contact. “Keep the files. I’ll swing by JR-7 in a few days when I’m done with this.”

“Don’t rush it,” the griffin frowned as I walked. “You’ll only get one shot at this.”

“You know, there’s a reason Gawd trusts me for this job,” I winked over my shoulder. “One shot is all I ever need.”

(** **)

“Please tell me you have a better plan than ‘waiting for the night, sneaking in and shooting your target’.”

I had left Meridian with the redundant part of my gear in a cache under a collapsed building near Manehattan downtown. The Earth pony wouldn’t follow me all the way to the door. This whole gig obviously didn’t sit right with him.

“Why, yes I do,” I smiled smugly, “We are going to wait until nightfall, then I’ll infiltrate the Tower through the back door. Inside, I’ll make my way to where Homage works. I will follow her home, wait for her to be alone, and then I’ll kill her. By the time anypony notices something is wrong, I’ll be long gone.”

“You just paraphrased me!” Saios sighed.

“Well, that’s probably because there’s not much to add,” I retorted. “My Dad taught me the elements of a good plan. It involves keeping it simple.”

“I think you misunderstood the paradigm. ‘Keep it simple’ means ‘do not add complexity where it is not needed’, not ‘ignore all unknown parameters.’”

“Gna gna gna parameters,” I grumbled. My plan was foalproof! “All right, Colstein, I’ll bite. What’s your plan?”

“For starter, I would advise you to get inside in the afternoon – possibly right now,” Saios said, letting my snarky comment slide. “It should increase your chances of success of finding your target and decrease the risk of being detected.”

I almost answered tit-for-tat that it was bullshit, but managed to stop before I made a fool of myself. The AI probably outsmarted me by a landslide or two. I pondered his idea for a couple seconds.

It made sense Homage would be easier to find during the working hours. After all, all I knew about her was her position as DJ-P0n3 assistant. In all likelihood, she’d be at the MAESEB, sitting between the coffee machine and the photocopier.

But I couldn’t quite see why he believed it would be easier to sneak around during the day. Ponies would be out in the corridors, and while the security wouldn’t be more present, it…

“Oh, I got it,” realization dawned on me. “I’d be just another face in the crowd, while with my plan I’ll have to stay hidden all along. If I get spotted during the day, I’ll have plausible deniability.”

“Beg your pardon?” Saios seemed puzzled. “Sorry, can you reformulate that?”

“What, you don’t know what ‘plausible deniability’ is?” I chuckled. Inside, my wits were awarding a golden medal to my brain for pulling that one. “It’s, like, having a rock-solid excuse to be there.”

“I know what plausible deniability is, thank you very much,” Saios retorted, unamused. “Besides, you had the definition wrong. Plausible deniability is not an ‘excuse’, it is a method of protection based on ignorance. Its core idea boils down to the idea you cannot be held responsible for something you do not know. By extension, in cryptography it names a way of protecting sensible data – if the attacker cannot prove those data exist, they cannot recover them in any way.”

Yeah, well, so much for outsmarting the nerd. Me and my big mouth…

“All right, you win,” I sighed. “Let’s do this. If we’re doing to get inside during daytime, we may as well start now.”

(** **)

“Stop right here!” a mud-covered earth pony with an assault rifle stopped me as I approached the tunnels. I muttered a curse under my breath.

“Tenpony?” Saios asked.

“Nah, too dirty,” I whispered. Two others ponies walked from behind some rubble. One had a semi-automatic shotgun and a rifle strapped to a battle saddle. The second was levitating an SMG in her telekinetic grasp.

“Well, well, well, what d’we got here?” The latter spoke with a thick Fillydelphian accent. Shit. Raiders. Or Red Eye. Whatever would be worse.

“None of your business,” I retorted, discreetly assessing a direct combat. They all wore a decent, matched set of leather armor reinforced with heavy steel plates. That could probably stop a few nine mil’ shots, but would be no match for the three-o’-eight. Cover would be an issue however. I hated being pulled into close quarter combat when I didn’t have the drop on the enemy. The decayed building on the right could have provided a decent vantage point to snipe them down. Then again, for all I knew, they had sharpshooters of their own up there.

“Eh, you hear that, boys?” the mare continued. Her goons cackled stupidly. Okay, so they weren’t the sharpest knifes of the drawer. I needed to take out the leader first. “If you wanna go anywhere near that tower, you betcha it concerns us!”

“Look, you obviously ain’t working for Tenpony,” I slowly strafed toward a dumpster I had just spotted. “And you don’t look like the type who likes the guys who lives in here. Stop me, and you’ll do them a favor.”

“Wait a minute,” she suddenly said, pointing a hoof toward me. “I know you!”

Fuck. I had killed a relative of most people who ‘knew me’. That did not bode well.

“You’re that mercenary who murdered some prick in here and got away with it, ain’tcha?” She chuckled. “Oh shit, yes you are, you magnificent motherfucker!”

I blinked. “Depends on who’s asking.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know the drill.” She blinked in a very obvious manner, before turning toward her goons. “All right guys, she’s with us! Get your asses back into your position!”

They disappeared back behind the rubble. The mare motioned me toward the tunnels.

“All right hot shot,” she smirked as I walked down into the darkness. “Wish you luck!”

“What the actual hell just happened?” I murmured to Saios.

“I have absolutely no idea,” he answered, as disbelieving as I was.

(** **)

From the shadows I watched the delivery ponies unload their burden onto the Tower. Their deed done, they left soon enough, leaving me alone in the darkness.

It was three in the afternoon. They wouldn’t come back anytime soon.

Sliding out of my hiding spot like a ghost, I hastily reached for the wall-embedded terminal in the camera’s blind spot. To my great relief, the extension cord I had bought the day before had not been damaged by the throes of time. It saved me from another awkward impromptu gym session to keep Saios plugged in.

The AI had started working his magic at once. For some reason, he’d thought displaying the number of permutations of Evey’s signature on my HUD would have been a nice addition to the process. Without a reference, I had no idea what they even represented.

Still, as the minutes ticked by and the counter reached the eight-digits figures, I grew more and more uneasy at the idea of our little hack failing. My faith in Saios’s abilities to be a computer whiz had been such I had not given much thought to a plan B.

“I got a match,” he finally stated to my great relief. It had taken eighteen solid minutes to crack it. In retrospect, the Bypass spell used to be the MAS’s best protection against intruders. It went down in less than half an hour. No surprise Equestria lost the War in the end – the Zebras probably knew more about the ponies’ government than the Ministry Mares themselves.

“I granted you a seven-day access pass,” Saios continued. On cue, I unplugged myself from the console. “I would have liked adding you to the permanent whitelist, but alas the security is too sturdy for me to do that. Furthermore, I fear we will have to hack every barrier one by one.”

“Wait, do you mean I’ll have to sit back on my ass every time I want to get through a door?” I asked in disbelief. Being a sitting duck outside was bad enough. Inside, that’d be suicide. “No way.”

“Of course not,” he chuckled as if I had cracked the funniest joke in the world. “Now that I have a valid signature, I will not need to compute it ever again. It would take but a couple seconds for me to hack another barrier. Still, I cannot do it from a distance – you will have to plug yourself in.”

“That’s a strange thing to say to a mare,” I mumbled under my breath with a sly grin as I made my way to the barrier. From up close, there was no missing the purple-ish glow of energy pulsating softly in my way.

“A dick joke.” I could almost hear Saios’ virtual eyes rolling in their digital orbits. “Hilarious.”

“Come on, don’t play prude,” I shook my head, still smiling. “Or do I need to remind you of the camera I found in my shower?”

“Technically, it was not in the shower, but above the mirror,” Saios sighed, obviously not wanting to go there. “Furthermore, I never got to put it to good use during my lifetime, and trust me I now couldn’t care less about what you would consider as sexual behavior.”

“It still makes you a perv’,” I teased him. To be honest, all males were perverts. It didn’t really bother me as long as they weren’t being assholes about it. After all, mares were not exactly angels either in that regard…

“Guilty as charged, I reckon,” he finally conceded. “Anyhow, this is neither the place nor the time for such a discussion. Stay focused on your mission.”

I nodded. A quick observation of the empty corridor beyond the barrier taught me no cameras watched over the inside of the threshold. Saios, ever observant, pointed out they had probably been removed over time for spare parts, since a few slots stuck out from the walls in strategic positions. The security probably believed the Bypass spell in itself was enough of a protection. All the better for me!

I took a deep breath and raised my hoof to neck level. Slowly, I pressed it against the barrier.

It went through without the slightest amount of resistance. It didn’t even tickle or anything – as far as my senses were concerned, the shield did not even exist. Very disturbing for an energy field as solid as a brick wall a few minutes earlier.

Not wasting any more time, I followed suit. Soon enough, I was back in the Tenpony Tower.

I took a quick look at the time on my display. Half past three in the afternoon.

“Well, well, well, look at the time,” I said as a vicious smile crept on my face. “It’s murder o’clock!”

(** **)

Keeping your head cool in any situation – now that was a trait I would very much like to have.

Oh, for sure, years of bounty hunting had taught me the value of patience and the vices of letting your feelings get the best of you. Still, as I stared at the four-meter-tall, minigun-dual-wielding monstrosity in front of me, I couldn’t help but regret having more emotions than an ice cube.

“You are in a restricted area. Please declare your identity,” the Sentry-Bot’s metallic voice commanded. “You have sixty seconds to comply.”

All right, the corridor’s corner was not that far. Miniguns needs a couple seconds to spin up to speed before firing; if I dashed fast enough to cover, it may not be able to hit me. Furthermore, 5mm bullets had never been known for their armor-piercing properties. Perhaps I could…

“Spring, you need to calm down,” Saios interrupted my escape plan. “Your vitals are off the chart.”

“No shit, I’m about to get toasted,” I mumbled, taking a step back. The sentry’s large guns followed me. “You’re not the one going to get turned into marmalade…”

“And neither are you. I can handle this,” Saios assured me before switching to the suit’s speakers. “This unit’s sensors are damaged. Requesting manual identification override.”

I froze. Manual override? That kind of thing only worked in bad fiction novels…

“Granted,” the Sentry stated flatly, to my great surprise. “Please proceed with manual identification on COM port 1.”

“What are you playing at?” I whispered in my microphone. “Is that the part I start running for my life?”

“Absolutely not,” Saios answered with great haste. “If you do so, I calculated your chances of survival to be… Well, just don’t run.”

“So what? I can’t fight that thing,” I looked around in search of an alternative. Sadly, the walls on each side of the corridor were solid, plain concrete.

“See that port over its right shoulder?” He highlighted a tiny area right under the Sentry’s head, over three meters high. “You need to plug yourself in.”

“Are you nuts?” I hissed, immediately regretting it. Thankfully, the huge-ass robot failed to react. “Trust me, those things are as trigger happy as any murderous machine has any right to be. And you want me to get closer?”

“They only shoot at intruders,” Saios pointed out unhelpfully. As it turned out, I did fit this category of unlucky ponies. “I can trick it into believing you are an employee, effectively making it an ally.”

“Shit,” I muttered, taping a hesitant step forward. The plan made sense – it didn’t mean I had to like it. “I swear, if your idea ends up getting me killed, I’ll come back to haunt your microchips forever.”

“A digital poltergeist,” he mused. “What an intriguing concept.”

I reached the Sentry. From afar, its steel-plated, black-painted four-centimeters-thick armor was intimidating. From up close, it downright terrified me.

“Please proceed with manual identification,” the war machine repeated in its soulless voice.

My throat felt very dry as I circled a minigun bigger than my hind leg. Thank the Goddesses above those monstrosities were hard to maintain, or else they would be scouring the Wastelands.

“I can’t see the port,” I realized, craning my head as high as my stature allowed. “I’m too short.”

“You have an extension cord. Use it.”

“Can’t plug it if I can’t see it,” I bit my lower lip. I knew what needed to be done. “Shit. The things I do for caps…”

Then, before I knew it, I found myself climbing over the Sentry-bot.

“Warning: Robocolt cannot and will not be held accountable for bodily harm and/or property damage resulting of an improper use of this unit,” the robot stated, turning its sensors toward me. It did nothing to shake me off his back, though.

“All right, got it,” I gritted through my teeth. The end of the cord found its way into the universal port. A frame popped up on my display, confirming the connection. “Now, to get do- Shiit!”

I slipped on the polished metal. My midsection hit the left minigun on my way down, taking my breath out. I landed flat on my back. Stars danced against a black veil in front of my eyes.

The robot looked down at me, miniguns centimeters away from my face.

Time went to a stop. I was so close I could see the glint of a bullet at the end of a barrel.

“Identification registered.” The Sentry suddenly righted itself. “Greeting, Security Officer Spring. Have a nice day.”

It turned on itself, and rolled away. The cord tensed before unplugging itself from the robot. Then, just like that, it was gone at a turn of the corridor.

“Well, shit,” I concluded, barely believing what I had just seen. “You know, if you weren’t made out of electric components, I would have paid you an eternity of drinks for that.”

(** **)

Guided by the plan on the corner of my display and by Saios’s occasional indications, I walked the private corridors of the Tenpony Tower as if I had been there all my life. Left and right, rooms and signs betrayed the true nature of the old building. How somepony could cram so many laboratories and libraries in such a small space was beyond me. I had heard of those gigantic underground structures seemingly bigger on the inside, but it referred to cathedral-like rooms dwarfing the beholder by their sheer size. No, the backstage of Tenpony was something more of a rat maze. Stairs would not take you further than four or five levels at once, which probably meant when you were the one writing the fire security architectural laws, you didn’t have to enforce them in your own headquarters.

I pointed it out to Saios, who answered something about security through partitioning. From what I understood of his ramble, you could work for decades in this building and still have no idea whether the room next door was a broom closet or a laboratory dedicated to cloning Pinkie Pie.

Goodness, I sure hope they never really did that. A century ago, the Wastelands had been thrown over its head before by some nut believing herself to be the reincarnation of that hyperactive drug addict. Some guys thought otherwise and ended up chasing her all over Equestria before cornering her near Friendship City. Needless to say, it ended poorly for all parties involved.

“Spring, are you daydreaming?” Saios asked softly. I shook my head, half in denegation, half to wake myself up. “Focus. We are bound to meet more ponies as we get higher in the Hub.”

“Yeah. Remember what Covett What’s-Her-Name told us,” I answered in the gas mask. While I cared little for having something on my snout, my AI friend insisted it could come in handy. “No killing, unless it’s our target.”

“Hello Pot, my name is Kettle. I’m black.” Saios replied with a tease. “On a more serious note, it is your call to make. Just remember bodies are not very easy to hide.”

“Yes they are, as long as there is no blood,” I reached yet another flight of stairs. “You just need to find an unused closet or an incinerator and… Shit, somepony’s coming.”

Hoovesteps rang true in the concrete staircase, coming from above us. Camouflage or not, there was just no way they could get at my level and not see me.

Taking a quick look around, I opted for sneaking out through the door to the level I was at. The corridor beyond was empty, but distant conversation echoed from a room down the left. In the background, the characteristic humming of computer filled the void with a static noise. I winced. It looked like somepony actually used this story for something.

“Spring, mind giving a look at the wall in front of us?” Saios asked in a whisper. I complied. Written on faded gold letters an inscription been written.

“Celestia Prime,” I read in a low voice. “I wonder what that was about to deserve to be named after a Goddess.”

“During their lifetimes, the princesses strongly objected to the idea of being deified,” Saios answered matter-of-factly. “But this is a conversation for another time. You need to move. Go on your right, we shall take another route.”

I complied without an objection. Behind me, the hoovesteps grew louder and stopped as they reached my level.

“Shit,” I cursed under my breath. I dove behind a couple large pipes running vertically against the wall and reached out to tear out the nearest light bulbs. With any luck, between the camouflage and the darkness I wouldn’t be noticed.

Ten meters away from there, the door I had just crossed opened to let a tan unicorn mare through. She wore a rugged lab coat and had her muzzle deep into a pile of papers.

“… maybe if we used a vacuum tube from a terminal…” she mumbled to herself, walking in my direction without even looking up. “… no, it’d fry before we reached a critical load…”

She stopped, suddenly realizing she couldn’t read her notes because of the lack of light. She glanced at the faulty light bulb.

“Wonderful. Even the most basic incandescent tubes fails us now,” she sighed, despair clear in her voice. “The Goddesses have mercy on us to fix that LMOD…”

She shook her head again. I was so close I could actually smell her faint perfume.

My blades slid out of their sheath in an eerie silence. The mare’s gaze arrived at the end of her paper sheet. She levitated the next one in place, started to look up.

I tensed. Readied my weapons, prepared myself to jump for the kill.

“Flare! Here you are!” A stallion’s voice echoed in the corridor.

Fuck. I backed up in the shadows as the mare’s attention focused on a lime-green earth pony who made an entrance down the hall.

“Where the hell have you been?” he continued, walking toward us. Thankfully, he did not seem to notice the assassin lingering in the shadows at a foreleg’s length of his colleague. “Bolt’s team had been giving me hell because of the catastrophic results of this morning’s tests, and you just disappear on me like that?”

“Well, sorry I have been very busy sorting out your mess,” Flare snapped, moving away from me. I retracted my claws and reached for my pistol instead. “In case you haven’t noticed, the matrix you blew up with your ‘within parameters’ bullshit was the very last we had. I turned the whole tower upside down and I can’t even find a decent replacement.”

“It should have worked, and you know it.” They met in the middle of the corridor. “I can’t be blamed for the fact some moron replaced the generators’ fuses with a solid iron bar!”

“Seriously, Wave? Those generators are two centuries old and powered up a shield that stopped a balefire megaspell,” the mare deadpanned, poking the stallion’s chest with a hoof. Luna fuck me with crushed glass, were they really having some kind of nerdy lover’s quarrel right fucking now? “An event during which half of them fried like a mole rat on a high-voltage line, and you didn’t even bother to check their fuse boxes?”

“Look, they were working just fine,” Wave backed up a bit. “Plus, honestly, something would have blown up all the same. The amps went off the charts during the surge.”

“Hence the fuses, you idiot,” Flare facehooved with a tired sigh. “They were there for a reason, that reason being surge protection. You know, like the catastrophic shitstorm that happened this morning?”

“Geez, all right, I get it.” The stallion finally turned on his heels. “Just remember it was your idea of plugging Celestia Prime’s power sources into the shields’ spark generators.”

“Yeah, because waiting for a ray of sunlight was the freakin’ idea of the century,” Flare retorted, following him in a side room. “Right after letting that little-”

The door closed on them and drowned out the rest of her sentence.

I let out a deep breath. Once again, I was alone in the corridor.

(** **)

At long last, I reached the final staircase to my destination. I walked up the flights in a slow pace, more out of exhaustion than stealth. I’ll admit it, I have never been a long-distance runner, thus being out of breath after thirty stories’s worth of stairs. Damn, one would think running right and left through the toxic, radiation heavy Wastelands would give you an iron constitution. Fat chance.

I landed in front of a heavy metallic door which had been absent from the previous levels. An old, faded ‘Authorized personnel only’ adorned the frame – in its corner, I could still make out the intricate logo of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences.

Grinning at the idea of being done going up, I reached for the handle with my telekinesis, pulled it up toward me.

“Of course. Locked.” I grumbled. A nasty cough resonated in my breather. “This has to be the place.”

“I concur. You are nearing Twilight Sparkle’s own Athenæum. The MAS’s Emergency Broadcast System control room is nearby,” Saios confirmed, the miniature map on my display rolling out as he spoke. I knelt down before the door’s lock and let my dearest tools do the work. “On an unrelated matter, I just checked with Evey and we agreed you should do a complete medical checkup once you get back to Big Mountain.”

“What the fuck are you even talking about?” I wheezed out, my focus not leaving the lock’s pins a single moment. Picking it was tough yet manageable. “I’m, like, the picture of health.”

“Can she hear me?” I heard Evey’s voice in my earset. Great, now there were two of them. “Spring, listen, you are not fine. While it may not be a concern as of now, your condition may worsen if not treated appropriately. In Stable 87 I dismissed it as an isolated occurrence, but it appears you have a systematic bronchoconstriction during effort.”

I resisted the urge to throw out the headphones. I had already enough on my plate with the science nerd; I really didn’t need to have a medical nerd to top it all!

“I don’t think she is listening,” Evey sighed after a few minutes of silence. “Spring? Are you still there?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m not going anywhere,” I whizzed between my teeth. My grip on the pressure wrench flinched and all the lock’s pins reset. “Fuck. Listen, I fine, all right? I’m just out of shape.”

“Perhaps,” Evey conceded. “However, from the sound of your wheezing, you are likely to have a light case of asthma, plus whatever diseases you contracted on your endeavors.”

“Celestia helps me, who died and made you my official doctor?” I crabbed. Would she get the hint?

“Nopony, and that’s exactly my point,” Evey stood firm. Crap, no, she wasn’t going to leave the matter alone. “We shall have a lengthy conversation about your well-being when you come back. In the meantime, Saios, does her suit have salbutamol shots?”

“Salbutawho?” I repeated, confused. Was she trying to help me, or was she trying to kill me!?

“Coltoline?” Saios mused. “Sorry, but no. It had been designed with top notch special ops agents in mind. Asthma was probably a debilitating factor for their recruitment.”

“Hey, does anypony pay attention to what I’m saying?” I interjected as the lock finally snapped open. “I’m fine. I’m not even wheezing anymore. Hell, I’m feeling great!”

The door opened on a well-decorated corridor. Not three meters from where I stood, another of those pesky pink force fields barred the way.

“Saios, would you kindly?...” I began, looking around for a terminal and founding none. “You got to be shitting me.”

“It looks like somepony dismantled the control console,” Saios noted matter-of-factly. “This may prove to be problematic.”

“Thanks you for pointing out the obvious,” I deadpanned. Where the terminal should have been, a hastily-screwed tin panel now stood. “Now what?”

“Let me take a look in the casing,” the AI instructed. “Since the force field is still standing, and since the terminal on the other side seems to be turned on, I dare hope they only removed the UI – the front-end, if you wish. Perhaps I can plug directly into the spell matrix and emulate the console.”

Aaaand back to the computer nerd again. Why did our conversation never include topics I mastered, such the delicate art of blowing somepony’s brains out?

“All right, let’s see what we’ve…” I trailed after removing the panel. The wires were everywhere. “…got. Shit, that’s a lot of cable. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“So am I,” Saios mumbled.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“Focus on the wires I’m highlighting,” he continued, messing with my display again. “Yes, those. Pull them out, carefully, and whatever you do, do NOT let them contact.”

“What happens if I do?” I asked, a small knot forming in my throat. I had heard of the stories of those ponies who walked onto ‘harmless’ bombs, which just blew up to their faces when the exposed wiring got in contact with, well, pretty much anything. A ‘ground short’, they called it. More like a ‘short straw’ in my opinion…

“I have a hunch an alarm will rang out,” Saios announced in a dark voice.

I froze. “Wait, an alarm?” I repeated. “Dude, seriously. This building is, like, two centuries old. I don’t think the burglar alarms are still working.”

“It may also fry up the interface and lock us out,” he continued. “There is exactly ONE other access to the MASEBS, and that is through the elevator I am sure everybody at this level uses at least four time a day. Do you want to take any chances?”

“All right, got it. No crossing the wires.” I stared at the five exposed pieces of copper in front of me. “What’s the next step?”

“Take your extension cord out of your bags.”

I complied.

“Good. Now cut it out at mid-length.”

“Wait, what?” I protested. “Dude, no way! I paid twenty caps for it not a day ago!”

“I need something to let me plug into the spell matrix. Unless you have a better idea, this is it.”

“Can’t I, uh…” I trailed, looking around for inspiration. “What if I shocked the whole thing with my electric claws? I mean, it’s like, ten megavolts or something. It’d fry it right up.”

“Firstly, the electroshock cannot deliver tensions beyond ten thousand volts,” Saios retorted. “Secondly, let me ask you something: in all your endeavors, have you ever managed to open a door by frying its controls?”

“… yeah, point taken,” I sighed, before reluctantly cutting the cord in half. Farewell, my friend. You will be dearly missed.

“Good. Now bare its wires. Yes, just like so. Connect each wire to one from the casing.”

“In no particular order?”

“No. I will be re-routing them anyway. Even though those com ports are supposed to be universal, we have left the domain of standard usage a long time ago.”

I did not answer. The makeshift connection established, I plugged the other, uncut end of the cord into my suit’s port. A small message frame warned me the ‘mass interface device’ (whatever that means) had been disconnected.

“All right, we should be good to go,” Saios stated. I removed the wires and closed the panel for good measure.

I walked through the barrier without a hitch. I entered the Athenæum.

(** **)

“Okay, let’s recap this one last time,” I whispered from my hiding spot in a dark corner. “Exits?”

“Two in total: the elevator, and the staircase you just came through.”

“Static defenses?”

“The MoM’s files only mention two turrets in front of the MASEBS. They are not likely to be online or to see you as a threat.”

“Show them on the map,” I ordered. Two red dots popped up in a corridor, along with a blue one labeled ‘MASEBS’. “You sure heading there is the best course of action? I really don’t want to run into DJ P0n3. Whom could be any stallion, FYI.”

“He is not on air at the moment,” Saios answered. “During his latest news reports, he mentioned having an errand to run and switched to a music interlude.”

“When was that?” I asked, hopeful. If the DJ had left his lair, I wouldn’t risk shooting him by mistake.

“Five minutes ago. Your window is open – for now. However,” he added with a hint of concern, “he may have taken his assistant with him, or perhaps his ‘errand’ does not involve him going downstairs. Be very careful.”

“‘Careful’ is my middle name,” I smiled as I walked out of my hiding spot akin to a shadow. The Athenæum proper (whatever that meant – I just read it on the map) separated me from the MASEBS control room. From what I had gathered, it had something to do with Sparkle’s obsession with books.

“And what would your last name be?” Saios prompted playfully. “You should take the door on your left if you want to avoid the elevator’s lobby.”

“… you really don’t want to know,” I grumbled. Sometimes, I had mixed feelings about my parents. On one hoof, they gave me life – but on the other, urg. You had to hate your children to name them like that in the Wastelands. I should have been called ‘Bullseye’, ‘Trigger Happy’ or something cool like that. Instead I inherited a bloody earth pony gardener’s name.

In silence, I pushed the aforementioned door open. To my surprise, I arrived in a tiny, yet functional kitchen.

Well, functional – whoever owned it obviously had a very profound aversion for doing the dishes. Still, it struck me as completely out of place.

“Mmh. I had heard rumors Minister Sparkle had taken to live in her office. I did not realize she had gone as far as set up living quarters here,” Saios mused. “Then again, studying was this mare’s sense of ‘fun’.”

“It got used recently,” I scrunched my nose at the sight of a nondescript stew cooking on the stove. “Though whoever… CARROT!”

I lunged on the large bowl I had spotted on a nearby table. Soon enough, I had removed my mouth piece and was gorging myself on the fresh orange delicacies.

“… I don’t even want to know what that was about,” Saios finally stated after a few seconds of astonished silence. “Carrots? Really?”

“Shut up,” I munched through the vegetables. “Shose arch fresh. Itch sho good!”

“This is not the point,” he sighed. “You just can’t eat whatever you stumble upon during a mission.”

“Like hell I can’t.” I dropped the now empty bowl back on the table. “Fuck, I just did! You think they got more in the fridge?”

“You are not here to raid their food supplies!” Saios growled. “Look, if you want I will look into setting up a small hydroponic farm to grow you toxin-free carrots.”

I blinked. “And clovers?” I asked, salivating at the prospect of having my own, private source of green stuff. “Could you grow clovers too?”

“Clovers. Sure, why not.” he sighed. “Just get on with the mission, will you? Your window is closing fast.”

“Geez, you aren’t handling stress very well for an AI,” I resisted the urge of blowing him a raspberry. The gas mask went back on. “This is the Wastelands. Shit’s going to hit the fan eventually. Might as well handle it with a full stomach.”

I exited the kitchen and arrived in a large, lavender-themed room. Three immense windows let the grey light of the Manehattan skies pour in. Furniture of all kind had been randomly set up over the place – a queen-sized bed, an old phonograph, a table, a couple mismatched chairs and an ugly-as-Tartarus painting.

Oh, and books. Books everywhere.

Somepony had stacked tomes of all sizes on wall-covering shelves, and had obviously run out of place. Books had then been stored in more improbable places – piled on the windows sills, stacked under the table, precariously balanced on every available square centimeter of surface. Out of reflex, I almost checked under the slightly worn-out carpet to see if the floor had been replaced with books too.

“Shit. Looks like somepony had a helluva reading addiction,” I whistled softly. It’s funny how it sounded like a total understatement.

“Yes. This was definitively Twilight Sparkle’s personal library,” Saios agreed, half-amused, half-deterred. “Goodness, can you get a closer look to that shelf? They look like original editions…”

“I thought we hadn’t time for that kind of stuff?” I teased, complying nonetheless. This entire row had been filled with thick tomes on arcane… stuff. That probably got his nerd senses a-tinglin’. “Come on. I’m pretty sure you already got all those on a hard drive somewhere.”

“Not likely,” Saios whispered with reverence. “The Ministry of Image raided all the libraries in the country to remove the ‘unsuitable’ editions of those books. Blue Shift managed to save a half a dozen against orders, but countless others were destroyed and believed forever lost. I should have known Twilight Sparkle would not have let anypony burn original books.”

“Don’t worry. They seem to be in good hooves here,” I spun around, looking for clues on the Athenæum’s current owner. “Whoever that is.”

“DJ-P0n3 would be the safest bet,” Saios suggested. “The MASEBS is right above us and the rest of the level is nothing but storage and datacenters. It’d make sense.”

“Then he’s not living alone,” I chuckled, noticing a pink, oblong object resting on the nightstand. “I really don’t picture him being into that kind of kink.”

“What are you… Oh.” Saios followed my gaze to the incriminating item. “Well, that is embarrassing.”

“Embarrassing? Try worrying,” I munched my lower lip. “Remember what Covett told us: she suspected Homage lives up there. If that thing is hers…”

“Then she is probably an item with DJ-P0n3,” Saios finished. “That would explain the ludicrous bounty.”

“Yeah. That fucking sucks,” I swore under my breath. “Whatever. The plan still stands. We’re taking care of her and then we’re gone.”

I left the literary wonders of the Athenæum behind and took up the spiraled stairs to the MASEBS control room. Showtime!

(** **)

It’s funny how different ponies may have different views on a specific yet simple subject. See, for me, an ‘emergency broadcast system’ was nothing but a fancy name stapled on a radio and a couple guys with binoculars. For the guys at the DERTA, it meant ‘build a fucking AI because we can’. And for the Ministry of Arcane Sciences, it meant ‘setting up cameras everywhere in Equestria and linking it to a single room so we can spy on everypony without moving our asses from our chair’.

Seriously, what the fuck? I would have expected to find that kind of shit in the tower next door, because the MoM’s job was to spy on everypony and their dogs. But the MAS? No way.

I had entered the control room half expecting to find a techno-savvy repairpony busy tinkering with an oversized lamp radio. Instead, I found myself alone, surrounded by dozens and dozens of screens. From the Hoof to Vanhoover through New Appleloosa and JR-7, whoever worked here had a complete overview of all the Wastelands. No wonder DJ-P0n3 could report on anything.

On the desk stacks of papers were spread out along with a couple pre-war records. Three or four emptied coffee mug had left stains on some of the reports. Others had been heavily annotated and scribbled in bright red. So this was what the Voice of the Wastelands’s work station looked like. Neat.

I spotted a single picture frame on the desk. I turned it toward me to get a better look at the short mare it featured.

“Homage?” Saios asked, dubious.

“I don’t think so,” I frowned, staring at the filly in front of me. The picture had obviously been taken without her knowledge. She had that thousand-yard stare of ponies who had seen too much too soon, yet – perhaps it was my imagination – a spark of hope and determination shined in her eyes. My gaze went down to the rest of her features. Her cutie-mark was obscured by a ragged, metal-reinforced Stable jumpsuit. She carried no less than four different weapons, plus a Pipbuck on her left foreleg.

“The famed Stable Dweller…” I whispered. A shiver rolled down my spine as if the simple mention of her name was enough to conjure her nigh-divine wrath upon scum like me. “I wonder if she knows her biggest fan has a photograph of her on his desk.”

“I have the feeling she is old enough to handle stalkers on her own,” Saios tried to end the conversation. “Right now, we need to focus on Homage. She has probably-”

Suddenly – call it a hunch, call it fate, call it whatever you want – I felt my attention turn toward a door at the opposite side of the room. The suit’s systems filtered the background noise, removing the low hum of the computers, dissecting the frequencies until only one sound, one almost deafening sound filled my earpiece.

Hoovesteps. Coming this way.

“Fuck!” I whispered, looking around for a place to hide. “Where-”

“Left, door, NOW!” Saios ordered. I complied in a split second, bursting into an adjacent room as stealthily as I could muster. It was filled to the brink with shelves of records and radio equipment. Nopony in sight.

I pushed the door closed, leaving only half an inch of space for me to peek through. I needed to know – was it Homage? Was it the famed DJ-P0n3? Was it somepony else?

The door opened. I held my breath.

A short grey mare entered.

“How convenient,” Saios muttered. I had him zoom on the newcomer. Electric blue mane, the same cute dress she wore last time I saw her.

Yes, this was Homage all right.

In silence, I drew my pistol from its holster and checked I had subsonic rounds engaged.

“Careful. She may not be alone,” my friend continued. I nodded. I needed to insure she was alone. Still, I had to move fast. If DJ-P0n3 came back…

Homage walked toward the desk, stopped in front of the picture frame. Silently, I hoped she wouldn’t notice I had moved it. She mumbled something I couldn’t make out and then gently nuzzled the picture.

I raised an eyebrow, perplexed. From the back of my mind, a forgotten memory floated right outside my reach. I tried to dismiss the feeling I was missing something important, to no avail.

She moved up to a control console. Lights turned on and off as she used a couple switches and turned a knob down.

“She just cut the radio transmission,” Saios said in disbelief. Homage grabbed something from the wall but her bright green magic aura prevented me from seeing it clearly. “Is she sabotaging the broadcast, or-”

“Good morning Equestria!” a deep, rich male voice boomed in the MASEBS sound system. “This is DJ-P0n3 for some news on the Wastelands!”

Oh Luna fuck me with a thirty-ton ham sandwich.

(** **)

“A pitch-changing spell! I should have known!”

“… -like those fellows in Stable 23 and Stable 32 are at it again. If you are unlucky enough to be in the Vanhoover area, be careful where you tread, or you might be caught in the crossfire! Closer to us, I had been told Friendship City-…”

I was too busy being stunned to answer Saios. Homage wasn’t DJ-P0n3’s assistant – she was DJ-P0n3. It all made sense in retrospect. Why she lived so close to the MASEBS. Why she almost never left her sanctuary.

Why somepony would spend half a million caps to hire an assassin to kill her.

“…faithful listeners.” Homage continued, looking up to a screen. “Looks like Red Eye's set his sights on Tenpony Tower. Fortunately for the folks in that place, it's built like a fortress. And the only entrance…-”

“Spring! SPRING!” Saios finally managed to shook me out of my torpor. “If you want to make a move, you must do it now!”

“Have you lost your mind?” I hissed. “I can’t kill her! Not for all the caps in the world! I care too much for my hide to do that!”

“Spring, it does not change anything,” he argued. “You hoped to get away with murdering Homage the technician, why Homage the speaker would be any different?”

“No, just… No.” I massaged my head with a hoof. Celestia damn me to the moon, could it get any worse?

“… -something a bit unusual. I don't normally read mail on the air, but I have a personal message here from my assistant Homage to the Stable Dweller.”

My ears perked ups out of reflex. What in Tartarus?...

“Ahem. Dearest Littlepip... aww, now ain't that sweet? I think somepony has a crush. Dearest Littlepip, I know things sound bad here, and I know it's your nature to try to rush to our rescue; but we're okay for now, and you have other more pressing matters closer to home. Do what you need to do, take care of them first. Then, later, we can meet where we met before, and I promise to give you so many orgas...Oh! Well now that's not something I'm comfortable readin' on the air. I think I'll be having a little talk with my assistant. Meanwhile, here are the silky-smooth tones of Velvet Remedy singing about what gets her through life in this post-apocalyptic wasteland!”

The last two pieces of the puzzle clicked together. A soundless scream of horror escaped my lungs.

Homage, also known as DJ-P0n3, the beloved voice of the Wastelands, had an affair with Littlepip, the Light Bringer and self-proclaimed messiah.

And I had been a hair away from killing her.

(** **)

“Breathe, Spring, breathe,” Evey’s soothing voice replaced Saios’ on the radio. “Everything is all right. You are going to be fine.”

No, everything was not all right. If I killed Homage, I sure wouldn’t be fine.

“I… need to get some air,” I mumbled, my voice drier than sand. “I… I don’t…”

“She’s having a panic attack. Saios, what analgesics does her suit have?”

“Only Med-X, I’m afraid.” Saios’ voice seemed so far away. All I could see was the oblivious mare standing at her desk in the room next door. Homage was reviewing the screens, one after another, occasionally taking a couple notes.

“Give her half a dose. Can you increase the oxygen output of her mask?” Evey sounded so serious. A pinprick stung my flanks, not that I cared. I felt so… numb.

“On it. Let me try something…”

A bright flash of light blazed my sensitive retinas. I backed away, swallowing a yelp of pain.

“What the fuck…” I cringed, shaking my head to dispel the all too bright afterimage. “What did you do that for?”

“You were having a panic attack,” Saios said matter-of-factly.

No I wasn’t. Spring did not have panic attacks, especially not on a job.

I opened my mouth to protest; took a deep breath.

The world went black for a moment. A profound sentiment of euphoria overcame my senses. I blinked. What was I about to say?

“Good. Your vitals are back to normal,” Saios approved, relieved.

“You are doing great,” Evey continued. Stay calm, and you will be out of here in no time. Forget Homage.”

“Gawd is going to kill me,” I chuckled. I was being perfectly serious, yet I found the thought… amusing. Somehow.

“Saios, stop the oxygen. We want her calm, not tripping.”

“I, uh, couldn’t change the composition of the air flow,” Saios sheepishly admitted. “So I used MDMA instead.”

“You WHAT?” Hey Evey, don’t be mad at him. I was… great. I’d hug them both if I could. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Well it’s the closest thing I had to a fast-action anti-anxiety drug,” Saios argued. I so needed a hug. Or a cuddle. Or a hug and then a cuddle. “I had to think fast. From my own personal experiences, MDMA can go quite a long way.”

“Goodness, why did you even have ecstasy loaded in her life support?” Probably in case of hug emergency, honey. Hey, I should ask her if it was true what they said about pegasuses wings. Pegasi. Pegasusi. Whatever. “Now we need to get her out of here fast. Since it’s an IV, the rush is not going to last very long. You don’t want her to still be in Tenpony when she crashes down.”

“I hear you.” Saios-buddy had a kind-of-sad voice. I didn’t want him to be grumpy. Sure, the Wastelands were a shitty place, but it was a wonderful shitty place! “Spring, are you still with us?”

“Well, no,” I chewed on my lower lips. “But I’d like to. I so want to hug you. You’re, like, the most cleverer pony I know. Person. AI. Whatever.”

“How much did you give her?” Evey sounded alarmed.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get hugs too,” I added. “Like, a metric ton of hugs!”

“Fifteen milligrams,” Saios answered. “I don’t understand. By all means, this should be a small dose.”

“I’m feeling just fine,” I interjected. “Don’t argue on me. Pretty please?”

“Let me guess: you are still talking from your ‘personal experience’.” Evey was… angry? How could Evey be angry? She was the super-duper-most emphatic pony in the world. Woah. Emphatic. I liked that word. “But did you take into account Spring’s body mass relatively to yours? Or even her sex?”

“Wait, what has my sex anything to do with anything?” I blinked, puzzled. “I mean, you can talk about my ass if you want, but… I don’t get it.”

“All right, all right, I fucked up,” Saios admitted. No you didn’t, silly. I fucked up. “You’ll berate me later. We need to get her out of there. Spring, girl, do you hear me?”

“Yeah. I’m peachy.” I stood up. My head spun for a bit, but I felt like I could run a marathon or two. And hug the universe! “To be honest, I’m not sure I’m thinking totally straight.”

“You are right. You are not in your normal state of mind.” My gaze drifted to my armored hoof. I wondered why so many ponies had gone so far to design weapons to kill ponies. Pinkie Pie had it right all along. Why couldn’t everypony just-“Hey, listen to me! Spring!”- I snapped to attention. I had to focus. Fuck, I was wasted wasn’t I? “Good. I need you to get a visual on Homage. Be careful not to touch the door.”

“Saios, no offence, but shouldn’t I be the one guiding her?” I heard Evey ask. Focus. Get a visual on Homage.

She was still at her desk, oblivious to my presence. No, she had moved! She was toying with some dials in front of a screen. She was watching… something.

Then, she stood up and stretched, before casually walking toward the door.

“I know I just messed up pretty bad, but trust me when I tell you I have quite the experience when it comes to handling ponies on drugs,” Saios answered. “You are doing great, Spring. She is leaving. You can go home soon.”

“And hug po- gah shit what’s wrong with me?” I shook my head. My breath felt so hot in that damn mask. I removed it, pulling it down on my neck.

“Nothing too serious. Don’t worry, you are fine,” Saios soothed me. It’s funny. I didn’t know AI could have soothing voices. Did they have programs to make their voices more sooth-y? “But you need to get out of here. Get into the control room.”

“All right, buddy.” I pushed the door open and pranced on the floor. Hey, I should ask Saios if he liked to prance. Prance! Get it? No? Okay, nevermind.

“Wait, wait, wait, give me a visual on the screen Homage was watching earlier,” Saios instructed. I turned my head.

I blinked. The room on the display seemed familiar.

I looked up to see the security camera in a corner, then down to the room I had been hiding into.

I felt just like I had been plunged into a pool of ice-cold water.

Fuck love and tolerance. That world was nothing but a huge stack of shit.

“She saw me.” This was a statement, not a question.

“It is likely.”

“Fuck me.”

Gun at the ready, I ran toward the door to the Athenæum – the very same door Homage had taken. I couldn’t use the elevator. I needed to get to the stairs. Then, I’d hug or shoot my way to the base of the Tower.

I rammed the door like a madmare; didn’t bother to take the stairs; just jumped to the lower level.

I burst into the library, hooves skidding to a halt on the carpet.

Homage was there, standing on a chair in front of an open mural safe. She brandished a plasma defender toward me. My pistol moved on its own volition.

The trigger squeezed under the telekinetic pressure. I felt the pistol recoil under the pressure; the spent case fly through the air; the bullet soar toward the very last mare I wanted to kill.

But I never miss. That’s my special talent. It founds its target all right; hit it spot on.

Homage toppled from over her chair. Fell down backward as in slow motion.

My pistol’s slide resumed its shooting position. The noise of the 9mm subsonic round had not even stopped echoing in the room.

Homage’s limp body hit the floor. Evey swore on the radio.

Far, far away, the plasma defender hit a book stack, a deep indent now adorning its metal frame.

Time resumed. I lunged forward toward the fallen mare, keeping my barrel pointed toward her.

Homage looked up, a mix of puzzlement and relief briefly flashing on her face.

“Don’t move,” I growled. She stared at me, frowning. Obviously, she did not fear me.

“Do me a favor and make it quick,” she gritted her teeth. “Then tell Red Eye he can go fuck himself with a cement truck.”

“I’m not…” I began, before doing a double take. “Wait, a cement truck?”

“Yes, a cement truck.” Homage repeated. She blinked. “You ARE here to kill me, aren’t you?”

“No.” I waved my pistol, scanning the room for other potential weapons. As I glanced over the nightstand, my drugged mind wondered if you could beat somepony to death with a pink vibrator.

“No?” She backed up a bit, sitting against a bookshelf. She froze once again when I sent a deadly glare in her direction.

“I said, don’t move,” I growled again. Luna fuck me, it’d be so easy to kill her right now. The aftermath, however, was another kind of shitstorm altogether. “I’m not here to kill you. I’m here to… rob you.”


“No you’re not,” she didn’t buy it a single second. “Tell me, how much is my head worth?”

I bit my lip. “Five hundred.”

“Five hundred caps?” Celestia damn me, she seemed offended. “Now you got to be shitting me.”

“No. Five hundred thousand,” I corrected, waving my pistol dismissively.

“Now that’s more like it,” she smiled smugly. “You are aware your patrons never intend to pay you, aren’t you?”

“Spring, she’s stalling for time,” Saios warned me. “You need to make your mind – shoot her or incapacitate her, whatever you want, but you need to do it quick!”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” I grumbled, ignoring him. “The contract never mentioned I was to shoot both DJ-P0n3 and the Stable Dweller’s marefriend. Get on the bed.”

“That had to be a shock,” Homage nodded, slowly sitting on the mattress. “I know it surprised Littlepip both times.”

I had to swallow back a low chuckle. It was actually pretty funny to imagine the legendary Lightbringer being hit on by a very cute mare.

My mind’s gears grinded to a stop. Nuh uh, I totally did not think that.

“I am not going to kill you,” I repeated a second time. I needed to find something to restrain her.

“How did you get in this time?” she asked, making me froze.

“‘This time?’” I repeated. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t play ignorant with me.” She frowned. “I know you’re the one who killed Van Graff and shot Liberty Shield. Autumn, am I right?”

“That’s not my name,” I mumbled. “That wasn’t me. You can’t prove it. Besides, it was an accident.”

“Accident?” Homage blinked in disbelief. “You break into Tenpony to murder two ponies… By accident?”

“Hey, shut up,” I waved my pistol in what I hoped looked like a menacing manner. “Believe me. I went in to get a key, and I went out with half the tower after me.”

“So, you went to Van Graff’s to rob him,” she resumed. “Just like you came here to ‘rob’ me.”

“Spring, you need to get out of here!” Saios urged.

“No, I came here to kill you,” I sighed, suddenly weary. I just wanted to talk with her, damn it. Why couldn’t she be nice?

“So you are here to kill me!” she exclaimed, triumphant. “I knew it! Though the stealth suit and the suppressed pistol were a dead giveaway.”

Was. As in, past tense. Look, why don’t you just…”

“Spring, I am dead serious,” Saios interrupted me. “You need to get out now.”

“All right, all right, I’m on it.” I mumbled. I swear, ponies those days… “Listen, Homage, do you have… Wait, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

‘The fuck’ included her standing up from her bed and casually moving toward the phonograph.

I threw a nearby book at her. My aim was off, but that got her to stop.

“What part of ‘Don’t fucking move’ don’t you understand?” I tried to sound intimidating, but the heart wasn’t there. Shit, I really didn’t want to be here.

“I just wanted to put some music on.” She pointed toward the antic music device. “You seem a little… tense. Besides, you said you weren’t going to kill me.”

“I can still blow your kneecaps off,” I frowned. “Get back on the bed.”

“The blood loss would be the death of me,” she pointed out with a smile but complied nonetheless.

“Then I’ll just bludgeon you into submission,” I shrugged. Then, I spotted the medical bag near the bed. I slid it toward me before tearing it open.

“What are you-” Homage began.

“Shush, you.” I cut her before emptying the medical supplies all over the floor. It wasn’t just any first aid kit, I realized. It had surgical tools I didn’t even know existed.

“Good thinking,” Saios approved. “Evey, what can she use as a sedative?”

“It’s not a sedative she need,” the alicorn answered. “There! The blue box and the white box with orange stripes.”

I levitated them in front of me. “Detomodine and Butorphanol,” I read aloud. The best-before dates had expired sometime in the last two centuries, it seemed.

“They’ll do. Find a sterile syringe.” Evey instructed. I didn’t know she could be so assertive. I kind of liked that. I wondered if she would agree to prescribe me a hug.

“Got them.” I walked toward Homage, pistol and medical supplies in tow.

“W-wait,” she backed up on the bed, suddenly forgetting her bravado. “What’s that?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” I chuckled. Oddly, that did little to calm her down. “Relax. This, my friend, is the alternative to ‘me shooting you’ and ‘you following me’. You’ll be fine.”

I plunged the syringe needle into the first bottle, drawing it out under Evey’s instructions. Meanwhile, Homage was growing restless as I plunged it into the second bottle, mixing the two drugs.

“Look, I swear I am not going after you,” she flinched when I brandished the syringe in front of her. “I won’t even tell a living soul you were here. Not even Littlepip. Especially not Littlepip. Consider it a ‘thank you’ gift for not killing me. Or, you know, drugging me.”

I hesitated. I wasn’t exactly the kind of pony who foalnapped targets. Bullets were easier to handle than needles, nuff’ said.

“All right. I trust you.” I said, lowering the sedative. “I just got one question.”

“Ask away,” she sighed, relieved.

“Is that dildo yours?” I pointed toward the nightstand.

Blushing pink, she turned toward the incriminating object, and that’s when I planted the needle into her sweet, curvaceous flanks.

(** **)

I threw the now empty syringe away. Whatever Detomodine was, it made Homage sleep like a rock.

“Well played. Taking into account how old they were, you have less than twenty minutes before she wakes up,” Evey congratulated me. Oh, the things I could do in that time~

“She is likely going to be quite angry, so I cannot stress enough the urgency of getting the hell out of here,” Saios added. “Spring. SPRING.”

I shook out of my torpor and realized I had been staring at Homage’s unconscious forms.

Form. Singular.

“Sorry,” my teeth gritted. My jaws felt numb for some reason.

“I don’t know what you gave me, but it… is…” I trailed. “I got… a feeling…”

“We are losing her again. Spring, focus!”

“Yeah, yeah.” I blinked. My head turned toward the open mural safe. “Score!”

“Damn, now is not the time, Spring,” Saios pressed on. “Just leave it al- wait, are those gold ingots?”

“Yup.” I was grinning like a schoolfilly. I had just struck gold! Ah, get it? Gold!

Oh, nevermind. I’m so fucking happy I could shit rainbows and hug the crap out of the Wastelands anyway.

“Are you two serious?” Evey’s voice asked in the earpiece. “Goodness, a psychologist would have had a field day with that kind of behavior.”

“Not listening~,” I sing-songed, levitating the empty medical bag in front of the safe. “Too busy getting rich~”

“She has a point, Spring,” Saios noted. “Make haste.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice.” I pulled the four gold bars into the bag. “Gah, those things are heavier than I suspected.”

“Carry them or drop them,” he answered, “either way, you should have been out thirty seconds ago.”

I attached the bag upon my shoulders and bolted out toward the stairs.

(** **)

Screw stealth. I galloped through the corridors, occasionally leaving a dumbfounded resident in my wake. By the time they’d realize I was on the run, I’d be long gone. Hell, perhaps they’d even make rumors about me – stories of that shimmering ghost who bolted past them a Friday afternoon, cutting through their security as if it wasn’t even there.

I laughed heartily at the prospect. Damn, I would have laughed at anything. I fuckin’ loved everything.

That reminds me – I should have hugged Homage when I had the occasion. Oh well. I had the feeling that wouldn’t be the last time our paths crossed.

I was running through the third level. One last staircase to go. I turned over the corner, and…

A stallion was walking in the middle of the way. Tall. Black coat, silver mane. Absurdly sexy flanks.

I skidded to a halt. Of course, of all ponies in Tenpony, I had to run into Liberty fuckin’ Shield. As in, that one guard I shot by mistake last time I came here.

Honestly, I had never been so glad of failing to kill somepony. He was a fine piece of a stallion that did not deserve to go to waste.

He heard the sound of my course coming to a halt and turned toward me.

I’ll admit the look of abject horror on his face right then hurt my feelings more than a little. Meh. He did seem to like me before I shot him nevertheless. Funny on some pony would hold up silly grudges like that.

I, for one, felt like I could hug and forgive anypony.

Especially Liberty. On a one to ten on the huggable scale, I’d give it a couple thousands. That’s how cute he is.

“Why hello there~” I sing-songed, drawing my pistol. He made a move to grab his, just to realize he was naked like a worm.

Not that I was complaining.

“You’ve come here to finish the job.” Liberty stated, standing tall. I noticed the long scar that ran along his neck. Even with a gun pointed in his face, he wasn’t flinching. Seriously, that stallion oozed virility.

“Depends on the job you are talking about~”, I answered with a coy smile. For some reason, Saios had decided to turn up the internal heating system. “You know, we did not part on the best terms.”

“Spring, what are you doing?” the AI asked as on cue. Duh, hot stallion emergency, smartass.

“On the best terms?” Liberty repeated in disbelief. “You shot me! Twice!”

“Yes. Sorry. That wasn’t my best day ever,” I sighed, biting my lower lip. “How about I make it up to you?”


“Weeell,” I strolled closer, poking his oh-so-manly chest with a hoof. I could see his jaw clench. That was a good sign… right? “Let’s say I owe you one. A favor, from me, to you. Anything you want.”

“I don’t want anything from you, murderer.” He took a couple steps back. Yeah, as if he hadn’t bludgeoned ponies to death by himself already. He was just playing hard to get.

“Murderer?” I took another step forward. “Please. I already apologized for shooting you. As for Van Graff, if anything, I did you a favor. The Twilight Society wanted him dead anyway. I was but a convenient scapegoat.”

Oh I so wanted to leap on him and just-

“The what now?” he interrupted my fantasy. Ooh, that’s it buddy, you’re so gonna get it. “All I see is an assassin ready to do anything for a quick cap! Tell me, who did you murder today?”

“Well, nopony, actually,” I frowned. He kept walking backward; I kept pressing forward. Bah. He’ll run into a wall eventually. “That contract was lined with shit. As you see me here, I am but an upstanding citizen of the Wastelands who wants to make it up to you for oh so carelessly harming you.”

“Celestia have mercy on our souls, Spring, what in TARTARUS are you doing?” Saios blurted into my earpiece. I had to find a way to turn the volume down on those things. “This is not the place nor the moment to flirt!”

“Ha, and what do you have to offer me?” Liberty finally hit a wall with his sexy flanks. I wasn’t used to cornering hot stallions. I didn’t know it could be so fun… and arousing. “You could, what, bring criminals to justice?”

“I could,” I poked his bare chest again. This time the hoof stayed there, against his warm flesh. “After all, I’m a bounty hunter. Come on. Use your imagination.”

“You know, we had a grand total of one murder in the past decade in this tower,” he growled. “You are the only pony I want to see brought to justice!”

“Well, that’s one of the few things I can’t grant you,” I inched closer. “My hide is quite valuable to me. I only got one.”

“But that,” I purred, “wasn’t the kind of favor I was thinking of.”

“Spring, seriously now. What. The. Fuck.”

Liberty face went blank as he realized where I was getting at.

“I’m married.” He flatly stated to my great disappointment. “With two children, to a wife I adore. If you want me, you’ll have to-”

I interrupted his nonsense with a deep kiss. It wasn’t as enjoyable as I had expected, mainly because of a total lack of engagement on his part.

Oh well. I guess a girl just can’t have it all.

I pulled back. There was shock in Liberty’s eyes. Oh yeah, he definitively wanted me. He just didn’t know it yet.

“Homage has probably woken up by now,” Saios warned. “Your window is closing very fast. And we’ll need to have a serious talk once you get to safety.”

“Fine,” I pouted. “My offer still stands, hot stuff. Give me a call when you’ve changed your mind.”

“I’ll find you,” Liberty breathed. “And when I do, I’ll-GAH!”

A ten thousands volts shock from my claws cut him short. He fell to the ground, unconscious.

“I’m counting on it,” I smiled devilishly.

(** **)

Side quest failed: Last homage

[X] Meet with Covett Sharpclaws to be briefed (Optional)
[ ] Kill your target in Tenpony Tower (Failed)

Side quest added: Don’t tread on the griffin!

[ ] Meet with Gawdina Grimfeather about the job you failed (Primary)

Level up!

New perk:
Chem Resistant: As it turns out, administrating drugs is a science. Who would have known? The presence of a competent medic in your team makes you less likely to feel the downsides of drugs. You are half as likely to get an addiction and unpleasant aftereffects.

“I don't do drugs. I am drugs.”

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 Fourteen: Enter the Sandmare