• 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 Fifteen: Afterglow

“Some people get so rich they lose all respect for ponykind.
That's how rich I want to be.”

Chapter Fifteen: Afterglow

Constancy. That’s what the pony mind lacked: constancy.

We lived our whole life in the false belief we were in control. Nothing could be more remote from the truth; and while my pure conviction in the sanctity of free will always kept a warm fire burning deep inside my chest, sometimes an unexpected turn of events would shake me down from my pedestal.

I would turn back upon myself in introspection and what would I see? A puppet, a frail construct battered by the harsh winds of Creation. Dirty secrets piled upon shameless lies; a blood thick with vices and sins. There lay the unforgiving irony of ponykind, in its impotence to rip itself from this original mud. To know of the light, to touch it perhaps, yet never to be free.

“Spring, are you feeling all right?” Saios asked, the poor fool. “You have been silent ever since you left Tenpony.”

“Why is the world so grey?” I whined. Gone were the joy and the communion with the world, leaving in my chest a frozen void that could never be filled. “What have we done with the Equestrian dream?”

“Yes, she is all right,” Saios sighed, insensible to my woe. “The MDMA has run off, leaving her… grumpy. So much for the afterglow.”

“I am not grumpy,” I growled before stifling a yawn. “The world sucks. It is but a fact.”

“You know, I almost liked her better when she wanted to hug the transistors out of me,” he chuckled. “Do you think I should?...”

“Do that, and I will personally make sure static electricity become the very least of your troubles,” Evey cut him out. Did I miss the moment the girl grew a backbone?

“I kid, I kid,” Saios backpedalled. “I sure would not want to reenact the Liberty incident.”

“The what now?” I perked up as the name triggered a memory in the fog. “Wait. Didn’t I… kiss him?”

“I would say he-” Saios began.

“This should wait until you are safe and sound,” Evey interrupted him. “In fact, this is a conversation I would like to have eye to eye with you, if you don’t mind. In private.”

“Yeah, I did kiss him…” I shook my head. My brain felt like half-thawed porridge. The more I tried to reach out to something, the deeper I sunk.

Yet, a feeling – the warm, soft sensation of Liberty Shield’s lips against my own, barely more than the wisp of a memory, lingered, pulsating slowly, sending chills from between my ears to between my thighs.

Alone in the tunnels, I suddenly felt nauseous. I reached out for the nearest wall, and down my breakfast went.

“Easy there,” Saios seemed uncertain. “Evey, perhaps you should?...”

“Of course,” the alicorn’s kind tone was back. “There, there. Let it all out.”

My mouth moved to formulate a response, only for a flow of bile and half-digested food to flood it.

Carrots. I couldn’t remember eating carrots.

Tears pooled in my eyes, dropping on my goggles’ screen. I removed them. My eyes blinked in the newfound darkness.

“I feel… empty,” I mumbled. My voice sounded barely more than a whisper, even in the eerie silence of those forsaken tunnels. “Moments ago, I felt like I could understand the world… And now it’s gone. The colors have faded. Grey is all that remains. Is that how you see us all, Evey? Is that how Equestria used to be?”

“Drugs often give us a false sense of understanding,” the alicorn nuanced. Yet, even in my sorry state, I could hear the doubt in her voice. A drunken mare’s speech is a sober one’s thoughts, indeed. “You are not well, but it is only momentary.”

“That wasn’t the question,” I chucked darkly. “What’s your take on the matter, Evey? What is somepony like you even doing with somepony like me?”

“I do believe there cannot be shadow without a light,” she answered after a short pause.

“There is no light in this world,” I whispering, closing my eyes for a second. “Not anymore. Not for a long time. Not with people like me living their life unhindered.”

What you do – what you see in the mirror is but a subjective perception. I sincerely believe you have a good heart, Spring.”

“Ha. I ain’t Meridian, Evey,” I whipped my mouth with the back of my hoof. It tasted like dirt. “You and him both, you should team up and save the Wastelands from us murderers.”

“I killed many a pony myself,” she answered after a short pause as I put my goggles back on. “Many a father. Many a mother. All of them were some zebra’s child.”

“You did?” I sniffed, resuming my walk toward the exit. “I thought you couldn’t remember anything from your past.”

“Amnesia is not a simple pathology. It goes far beyond the simple loss of memory,” Evey explained patiently. “I suffer from some kind of post-traumatic dissociative amnesia, one that I may never recover from. All my knowledge, all my memories are still there, somewhere. I simply cannot remember it.”

“Fuck. And here I am, complaining,” I whispered. How could she be so calm about such a topic? “Shit. I must really sound like an egocentric jerk, now ain’t I?”

“To be fair, you are the one in a dire situation,” Evey’s motherly tone was back for good. “I understand your concerns. There is no reason to keep them bottled up.”

Fuck, how did she do that? That tone, that voice, it beckoned to trust her unconditionally. After all, I had known her for what, a week? I would have spilled my guts to her if she had asked me to. Cradled between her legs, sleeping safe in her warmth. Fear no more.

Yes, indeed. In a mother’s embrace, fear no more.

(** **)

I hardly recall reaching the end of the tunnel, but there I was, standing right outside the underground’s shadows. The ruins of the city and of the world beyond lay before me. What shall I do now? I asked myself. Where would my path lead me? Should I run from the earthquake I would have no doubt created? Should I carry on as if nothing happened, meeting with Chrystal and working to be rich beyond measure?

Perhaps starting with the three raiders in front of me was the better option, though.

“Them again,” Saios noted, a slight hint of worry in his voice. Don’t you worry, friend. I couldn’t possibly be in a better mood for a bit of senseless bloodshed.

Then I noticed the rain falling upon my shoulders, soaking me to the bones even through the thick material of the suit. Thunder cracked in the distance.

Never mind, then.

“What do you want?” I barked toward the mare I recalled being the leader. A step behind her, the two muddy stallions shared an apprehensive look.

“Is it done?” she asked, eying me suspiciously. Her acolytes visibly strengthened their hold on their weapons. C’mon, shoot me, I dare you…

“Yeah, I’m done here,” I answered, moving to get around them. A stallion took a step in my direction. “Don’t get the fuck in my way, twat. Tenpony didn’t kill me, what makes you think you got a chance?”

Now that got him to back away.

“Hey, keep it cool, will ya?” the mare intervened with a forced chuckle. Oh, I’d cool you off all right. I’d cool you off dead cold. “The boss said we were to, uh, prevent any pony from exiting that tunnel, but ain’t applying to you, huh? I mean, we’re on the same side, so we’re cool.”

It was then I noticed the discarded chariot a few paces from there – the chariot, and the bodies that surrounded it. I couldn’t see their faces from where I stood, but there was no mistaking who they were. Looked like the delivery ponies I had seen on my way in hadn’t made it very far after all.

A fourth pony – a red mare with an orange mane and a deep gash running across her right eye – appeared from behind the hole-riddled cart.

“This shit ain’t worth a single cap,” she began before setting her eyes on me. “Hey, Cut, who’s that?”

“She… she’s the mare we’ve talked about earlier,” Cut – the unicorn mare – answered. “She’s done.”

“Oh. OH.” Realization dawned on her. “The boss’ gonna be happy. How d’you get in anyway? That place is locked tighter than my ex’s ass!”

“Trade secret.” They really didn’t need to know.

“Well, you don’t have to tell us, but I don’t think-”

“Guys! GUYS!” A unicorn colt barely high enough to reach my shoulders popped up out of freakin’ nowhere in between two concrete blocks further away. He was running toward us, a half-destroyed radio in toe. “You’re not gonna believe it!”

Everypony in the audience turned toward him with the same look of exasperation – but not for the same reasons. Unbeknown to the others, I stepped back behind Cut and un-holstered my pistol.

“Mash, y’all supposed to watch the fuckin’ road!” The red mare stepped toward him and almost lifted him off the ground by the ear. “We talked about this already!”

“But mooom,” he whined, waving his radio around. “The DJ! He’s talking about our killer! She chickened away!”

It is funny how a couple words can flip such a situation around in a few painful seconds of silence. Ever so slowly, all of Red Eyes’ raiders turned their eyes toward me. In their astonished gaze shone a wide spectrum of emotion, from anger, to betrayal, to an utter primal fear. Had they been given a few more seconds, I am sure the two stallions would have wetted their barding.

Sadly, as Cut realized a bit too late as she stared down my pistol’s barrel, they did not have that much time left to live.

“Well, back to plan A it is,” I smirked evilly before blowing her brains out.

Then, everything went lightning fast. I darted against a raider, gutting him with my hoof-mounted blades ; his body deflected most of the shotgun pellets his friend shot at me. A couple ricocheted harmlessly on my suit’s plating.

I promptly returned fire with much more success. Down he went.

Still holding the agonizing raider by the guts, I spun toward the last mare standing. She had dropped the colt, was reaching for her SMG. Bullets flew by, hitting the concrete behind me, grazing my mane, perforating my meat shield through and through.

Four quick squeezes of the trigger, and she was biting the dust.

My claw struggled to retract because of the gore now smearing my foreleg and my whole body in general. Grunting, I pushed the raider away from me. Amazingly, he had survived being turned into a bloody chunk of pony meat. Reaching out with a mutilated hoof from the crimson-covered mud, he muttered something, terror and agony in his eyes.

My gun put him out of his misery.

My legs were shaking from the adrenaline surge; the continuous hammering of the rain had been toned down to a distant hum. Then, time’s flow returned to normal, and I stepped back, overlooking my fine work.

“Holy…” Saios didn’t find the strength to finish his sentence.

“Ain’t the same when it’s for real, eh?” I chuckled, wiping some of the blood that smeared my goggles. To my great dismay, I only managed to spread it out a bit more.

I stepped over the corpse in front of me. Out of habit, I reloaded my trusty nine mil’; it was then I noticed the pain in my right shoulder.

“Ah, fuck, the bitch’s got me,” I winced as I eyed the damage between the suit’s bullet-resistant plating. Thankfully the thick material (and my unwitting meat shield) had absorbed the brunt of the impact, shattering the SMG bullets. I had been lucky she had been using hollow points. FMJ or armor piercing would have really gotten through and done some serious damage.

I looked up to her still warm body and froze up. There, bent over his mother’s body, the colt was crying her name softly, shaking hopelessly her lifeless corpse.

Luna fuck me to the moon and back, not again

He looked up to me; reached for the nearby shotgun.

“Don’t, kiddo,” I raised my pistol. Fuck, he pointed it toward me.

“He’s just a foal, Spring!” Evey’s voice stopped my trigger a hair away from a shot. I could caress the trigger break with the tip of my telekinetic grasp.

“Don’t,” I reiterated between my teeth. Shit, had I been alone, I would have shot him right there and be done with it. Why couldn’t I bear to act before the eyes of my newfound friends – to let them watch as I shot down a colt barely out of childhood?

“You killed her,” he stammered, the gun shaking in his weak grasp. The rifle was almost as big as he was. Truly, I would have found it hilarious if it hadn’t been aimed in my general direction.

“Didn’t have much of a choice.” Did he even know how to use it? Had I been much older when I had gotten my cutie-mark in sharpshooting? I couldn’t see his from where I stood. Moving would have been quite unadvised.

“You killed her,” he repeated, a bit louder. This was getting nowhere. Even if he did not find in himself to kill me dead today, it wouldn’t be long before I had to add yet another angry relative to my ever-growing list of mortal enemies.

“Just disarm him and let him be,” Evey pleaded. “He is but a child.”

Yet, perhaps she was right. If he couldn’t shoot me out of anger right now – then he would probably never be a threat to me.

“Listen, I-”

And that’s when the bastard shot me.

(** **)

I can’t remember the last time I took the full brunt of a twelve gauge shell. It may be due to the fact it had never happened to me before.

Nevertheless, this particular feeling of being both stabbed and bludgeoned at the same time is not one I would come to enjoy and look forward to in the future.

The sheer strength of the impact sent me tripping backward against a corpse. I fell in the damp mud, but I couldn’t feel it. A claw of steel was clamping my throat; I couldn’t breathe. An eternity went by.

And then I coughed, sending spasms of pain throughout my breast. My holster and my front pouches had been shredded – that idiot had shot me in the torso with birdshot. Fuck, without the armor, he would have torn me apart.

I looked up. The colt was fidgeting with his shotgun. Perhaps he was out. Perhaps he had managed to jam it. Either way, next time he’d probably aim for the head.

Stumbling on my knees, I looked around for my pistol. He noticed it, thrashed his gun’s pump some more, then weakly threw it at me. I deflected the blow with my foreleg and was rewarded with another wave of agony.

Meanwhile, that sneaky bastard had begun to make a move on his late mother’s SMG.

Still weary, I threw myself at him, pinning his head on the ground. I had the advantage of the size; still his blows against my bruised breast were strong enough to make me want to bash his skull in.

“Spring! Enough, you won!” Saios exclaimed.

But no. No more. I hadn’t survived so far in the Wastelands by being a two-caps pacifist. He had shot me. He was fair game.

That in mind, I cut his throat wide open.

(** **)

Meridian was sitting under a half-collapsed wall, waiting for me where we had agreed. I had half expected him to crack a joke at my sorry state – mud and blood and gore maculated my suit and my fur. It didn’t take a genius to guess I looked like I had been through hell and back – and if he had any doubts left, the way I dragged my hooves into our improvised shelter washed them away. Sighing of relief for being out of the rain, I slumped against a dry wall and closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, a full hour had gone by. Meridian was sitting a couple meters away from me, eying me worriedly. Oddly, I failed to spot any trace of the weariness he had when I left him earlier to assassinate Homage. If anything, he seemed almost… proud.

“This is getting old real fast,” I chuckled heartlessly. “You, picking me up after a screw up in Tenpony Tower. I’m not certain I want to make a habit out of it.”

“To be perfectly honest, you are faring much better than last time,” he smiled softly. Damn, in the darkness of the downpour, I could have mistaken him for my dad. Not that I remembered much of my parents, anyway. “I listened to the radio, you know. DJ-P0n3 has… well, you should probably ask Saios and make your own idea. He probably had it recorded.”

“Yeah, I’m a celebrity,” I cheered flatly. “Woohoo. The Stable Dweller’s probably already on her way to give me a fucking medal.”

“I’m afraid that is likely,” Meridian winced. “I don’t know if that’s why you stayed your hoof, but that mare you were after, Homage – she is LittlePip’s love interest.”

“It ain’t even the worst of it,” I sighed. “As it turns out, there’s a reason nopony knows what DJ-P0n3 looks like. He’s not even a stallion. Guess what her name really is.”

Meridian gawked at me in disbelief for a solid ten seconds.

“Homage.” He finally stated. “Homage is DJ-P0n3.”

“Yup. In retrospect, I should have known better. Half a million caps? You were right all along. That was fishy as hell.”

Silence fell back between us, only punctuated by the unending pounding of the rain against the century-old concrete. A weather tailor-made for my mood, really. Cold. Unforgiving.

An exhausted sigh escaped my lips as I resigned myself to remove my chest-held barding. A single close-range 12ga birdshot shell had utterly destroyed the holster and the various pouches holding my spare magazines and half my lock picking kit. Luckily, the pellets hadn’t set off the live ammo, but that was where the good news ended. All of my polymer pistol magazines had been damaged to some extent. One had been almost cut in half; another had been so bent I couldn’t even unload it anymore. The tin three-o’-eight clip had somewhat fared better – it was the only one still safe to use.

The rest of my stuff took the hit pretty hard too. My flashlight wouldn’t probably light anything anytime soon – not that I needed it anymore. Unsurprisingly, the lock picking set survived the lead onslaught. Honestly, I would have been quite pissed off to lose yet another kit to that Celestia-damned tower. As for the barding itself, I had seen colanders with fewer holes. Thanks Luna my pistol had not been in its holster, or else…

I froze and did a double take. I hadn’t noticed when I picked it up from its mud pit, but something was clearly off about the way the frame wiggled on its own. As I wiped it clean to assess the exact extent of the damage, entire chunks of pulverized polymer dropped on my laps. The frame had been utterly busted from the tip to the hammer. Shaking the chamber downward, I spotted two or three lead pellets falling from the firing mechanism. That gun wouldn’t fire anything ever again – it wasn’t even worth the repairs.

“Wonderful,” I threw the useless piece of junk away. Tenpony had reclaimed yet another of my firearms. As if I didn’t owe Chrystal a metric fuckton of caps anyway.

“What happened to you anyway?” Meridian inquired carefully. My terrible mood was probably not lost upon him. “The radio did not mention a firefight in the Tower.”

“Got attacked by raiders on my way out,” I mumbled, massaging my breast. It still hurt like hell. Hopefully I hadn’t broken anything important. “I had to kill the five of them.”

“Oh.” He tilted his head, frowning. “Still, that doesn’t explain your injuries. Really, I haven’t fought by your side for years, but I do know you are not one to let somepony hit you with a shotgun.”

“I hesitated,” I stated angrily, kicking a discarded round away. A jolt of pain startled me – but this time it came from my old wounds in my back. Just my luck. “And that was a mistake.”

“I see.” Meridian said simply. He waited for me to carry on, but I somehow did not want to tell him I had mercilessly gutted a colt barely old enough to hold a rifle.

“So, Homage talked about me on the air,” I changed the subject. “What did she say anyway?”

“I recorded it, if you wish to hear it yourself,” Saios intervened. His voice was unsurprisingly completely devoid of warmth. I just couldn’t wait to hear about Evey’s reaction…

“I really don’t want to, but what choice do I have?” I sighed. “It’s not like I can hide in a hole to let the dust settle this time.”

“Good afternoon Wastelanders!” DJ-P0n3’s masculine voice blared in my earpieces. Perhaps it was just my imagination playing tricks on me, but I could almost hear Homage’s accent in it. “I got breaking news from you. From the looks of it, Red Eye’s employment policy is so terrible even his assassins don’t want to work for him no more!”

What the…

“How do I know that? Well, you all probably heard the tale of that mare that shot two ponies in Tenpony and had the guts to get away with it. Don’t you know it, she came back to us! She strolled in my office, had a little chat with my assistant, robbed her blind and walked out like a Ghost!”

Okay, now that was clearly exaggerated.

“So, my faithful listeners, that’s my two cents: if you see a young mare in a fancy spy suit pop out of nowhere and point a silenced pistol at you, well that’s probably your cue to run. Oh, but I see something’s happening to our dear guests at the gates! I’ll be back to you with more news. Meanwhile, it’s Maybe, by Appaloosian Paint!”

Static replaced the cheerful stallion’s voice. I waited a couple dozen seconds but the record didn’t go any further.

“That’s it?” I lifted an eyebrow in surprise. “That’s all she said?”

“Yes,” Saios answered. “I assume she did not want her audience to know how close you came to killing her. As for the disturbance she mentioned, it syncs up with your firefight perfectly. It is safe to assume she did not miss a second of it.”

“You’re angry at me.” It was a statement, not a question. “For that colt, I mean.”

Meridian looked up from whatever he had been staring at. Yeah, he probably wouldn’t let that one slide…

“… no.” The AI finally answered. “No, I am not.”

“Really?” Well, color me surprised. “You do sound angry, though.”

“I… I don’t really know what I’m feeling, to be perfectly honest,” he admitted after a short pause. “On the one hoof, I cannot be angry at you for doing what had to be done, yet I’m revolted by the fact you actually did it.”

“What had to be done,” I repeated softly. “I wonder how much you can actually get away with that kind of excuse, really. And what about Evey? What’s her take on this mess?”


“Hey, Saios?” I repeated, “Are you still there?”

“Evey and I had an… argument,” he hesitated. “She left for the surface. I believe she wanted some time to herself.”

“She left!?” I exclaimed. “What in Tartarus did you tell her?”

“Nothing!” he claimed. “No, really. You were back in the tunnels, wondering whether you ought to spare that last raider. She advocated in favor, I made a case against. We did not go very far, though, because she got cut mid-sentence by a shotgun going off.”

“Yeah, I guess that made a pretty good point in your favor,” I winced. “I know that turned the table around for me.”

“This is no laughing matter, Spring,” Saios retorted, serious as ice. “We thought you died. She thought you died. Believed that you got killed because of her. I saw her face turn white. Then, she ran off.”

“Humor me, you did tell her I am alive and well, didn’t you?”

“Of course, but the harm is done.” He sighed. “She really cares about you, and so do I. Had I not been an AI, I would have punched the screen through and through out of anger and pain. I guess I should be glad she has more control over her emotions.”

“Shit. Having friends is really harder than it seems,” I hung my head low. An irrational part of my mind just wouldn’t stop repeating it was my fault, somehow.

“Spring, what really happened?” I looked up to see Meridian sitting right in front of me. Right, talking of friends…

“One of the raiders…” I hesitated. I was treading on ice there. “One of them was just a kid. He belonged to a playground, not a bandit squad.”

“So that is why you hesitated,” he nodded in understanding. “You gave him a chance.”

“Yeah.” I coughed uneasily. “Didn’t stop me from cutting his throat once he shot me.”

The earth pony stepped back a bit. There was no anger in his eyes – only sadness.

Then, he turned around, and sat a bit further, right at the edge of the rain. He stared at the misty silhouettes of the Manehattan streets, shaking shadows in the distance.

So, that was it. The crossroad. To him, I had gone beyond a point of no return – perhaps he had seen, at last, what had always been under his muzzle; that I wasn’t to be reformed, that there was no getting out of the depths I had sunk to. I had known all along, I realized, that I had never been a good pony. From the moment my eyes set down my faithful rifle’s sights for the first time, lining up to a hastily painted target on a broken down wagon, my fate had been decided for me. That day, in some nameless place between Baltimare and the Badlands, I had earned my cutie-mark in killing things. No good could have possibly come out from that. Perhaps I had a conscience, long ago, but I had lost it somewhere along the road.

“I should have come with you,” Meridian finally whispered. I looked up; his eyes hadn’t left the blank spot he had been staring at for minutes.

“Don’t be thick, Meridian,” I answered. “I went in there to murder an innocent. I’m actually surprised you followed me this far.”

“But Homage still breathes.” He shook his head slowly. “You changed your mind.”

“I almost killed her.”

“Yet you didn’t.” He turned his blue eyes toward me. There was… hope, in his gaze. Perhaps he hadn’t thrown the towel in, after all. “You chose not to. This is what really matters.”

“Yeah, well, it’s more self-preservation than anything,” I chuckled darkly. “Kill DJ-P0n3, earn yourself a personal piece of Tartarus, no extra charges.”

“If I may, I pointed out in the MASEBS you could have got away with it,” Saios intervened to my great surprise. “You alone decided it was the wrong thing to do. In retrospect, you were right. Given the circumstances, I don’t think you would have lived long enough afterward to spend your hard-earned bounty.”

“Yeah, but still…” I trailed uneasily. “I gutted that colt. Doesn’t it…”

“Why are you so eager to see yourself under a bad light?” Saios cut me mid-sentence. “Self-pitying hardly ever solved anything.”

“Tell me, Spring,” Meridian continued, tipping his hat up from his eyes, “a couple months ago, when I met you, would you have even hesitated killing him?”

I opened my mouth, let my jaw hang it there a few seconds, and closed it without saying a word. I looked away from his face. I couldn’t bear to watch him in the eyes.

“… no, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to it,” I finally admitted. “And I would have killed Homage too.”

“See?” Meridian gave me a tired smile. “You’re getting better every day. Trust me, the day I leave you is the day you’ve become the one you were meant to be. There’s hope for you yet, filly.”

“Yeah, I guess you guys have a terrible influence on me,” I sniffed. Damn rain, I probably caught a cold. “Come on, let’s get moving. It’s getting darker and I can hear the beds in Friendship City’s inn calling my name.”

(** **)

A few years ago, I would have literally killed anypony for the kind of fame that made assault rifle-wielding guards glance left and right for moral support. In my line of work, when you got a reputation as a ruthless badass, nopony ever dared crossing you; nopony ever questioned your prices or your ability to get the job done. Who you gunned down along the way mattered little when you were respected. Or feared. Depending on the point of view.

Yet now I had little to gain from making stallions twice my size squeeze their ass shut as I waited on the ‘welcome’ rug for them to clear me in. They wouldn’t dare arrest me. The skeptics wouldn’t believe I could have made fools of Tenpony’s security twice in as many months; the believers would fear me too much to do anything about it. So there I was, at Friendship City’s doorstep, taking refuge in audacity.

At last, the gate opened and two ponies stepped out. I muttered an unholy curse under my breath.

One of them was Sure Shot, Friendship City’s sheriff. Right behind her stood Chief Lantern, her boss.

They were obviously none too happy to see me. It did not bode well.

“Hey, Sure Shot,” I forced a smile upon my lips. “Long time no see. What’s going on?”

She exchanged a quick but meaningful glance with Chief Lantern. Internally, I cursed one more time at that colt who’d broken my nine mil’.

“We’ve been hearing rumors of Red Eyes’ goons moving in Manehattan,” she squinted almost imperceptibly. “One of them broke into Tenpony to murder DJ P0n-3’s assistant. You wouldn’t know anything about that, now would you?”

“Who, me?” I chuckled uneasily. “Look, I don’t work with Red Eyes and I love his raiders as much as you do. You got the wrong mare.”

“And what about that fancy armor?” Chief Lantern intervened. “I find it mighty suspicious a lone wolf like ya can find that kind of gear without getting into some dirty business.”

“Well, that’s because I sold it to her!” A marvelous voice sang from behind them. Sure Shot moved aside to face the newcomer, giving me a good look on the incoming alabaster unicorn. Turn up the heat, Chrystal’s in the place.

“Oh.” Chief Lantern gulped uneasily. “You did?”

“Of course, dear.” She pinched his cheek before turning toward me, leaving a very flustered head of security behind. “Where else would she find such fine equipment?”

“Yeah, where else?” I grinned sheepishly. Since all the ponies there but Sure Shot were all too busy getting an eyeful at Chrystal’s curvaceous forms, my terrible piece of acting went on unnoticed.

“Oh, my, whatever happened to you honey?” She crouched in front of me, eyeing my battered breastplate a bit closer.

Behind her back, Chief Lantern turned crimson. I even saw a couple mares bite their lower lip in envy, as their male counterparts uneasily crossed theirs legs to try in vain to hide the obvious. One could mistake Chrystal’s outrageous behavior as misplaced candor, but I knew her all too well. The moment she walked in, she owned the place.

“Got in a fight with Red Eyes’ raiders.” I took a deep breath to hide my growing discomfort. Chrystal’s scent was intoxicating – a subtle mélange of lilac, jasmine, and something else that I really did not want to think about.

But already she was standing back up again and turned toward Chief Lantern.

“Now, what seemed to be the matter, Chief?” She gave him a very warm and engaging smile.

In the background, the guards seemed both disappointed and relieved at the change of stance. Meanwhile, I found myself facing her back. For once, she was not wearing saddle bags, giving me a clear view of her… nicely… shaped cutie mark. Biting my lower lip, I averted my gaze. I wouldn’t want her to get the wrong idea about me, now wouldn’t I?

“Spring here is suspected of working with Red Eyes and committing heinous crimes in Tenpony Tower, among other things,” Sure Shot intervened. Surprisingly, Chrystal’s show had left her unfazed. Everybody else was going to need a cold shower very soon.

“Now that would be very surprising,” Chrystal let out a delicious chuckle. “You see, Spring is working for me, and I take good care of my employees.”

“And can you testify of what she does when your back is turned?” Sure Shot frowned. She really didn’t want to let me get away with that one, now did she?

“Oh, I know many things happen when my back is turned,” Chrystal gave her a devilish grin. “Yet, if you are referring to the morning Van Graff was so dramatically murdered, I can assure you I had been monitoring Spring’s back very closely, if you see what I mean. As I said – I take very good care of my employees.”

“Wow. Way to go, Spring!” Saios cheered in my earpiece. Right to my left, Meridian barely lifted an eyebrow, breaking the stoic façade he had been keeping since our arrival. I was pretty much sure Chief Lantern’s guard would be reduced by half by the end of the day – Chrystal was about to see a lot of hopeful applicants. Almost all of them were shooting me looks of envy, anger and incredulity.

Even Sure Shot had the decency to blush. She stepped back a little.

“All right, you’re clear to go,” Chief Lantern shot me an apologetic smile. It felt a bit forced – he was still sweating bullets. Then, turning toward Chrystal, he added: “My deepest apologies milady. I hadn’t made aware you two were….friends.”

“You are all forgiven,” she answered coyly, brushing seductively past him. “Come, Spring. Let us see if those ruffians haven’t damaged anything beneath that armor of yours…”

Absolutely not blushing like hell, I deftly followed her.

As I walked by her, Sure Shot gave me a deadly glare.

“Chief, you just can’t…” she began before being cut off.

“Enough.” Chief Lantern’s stern tone left little room for ambiguity. “Come to my office. Now. We need to talk.”

For a split second, it looked as if she was going to object a second time. Then, she swallowed her pride.

“Yes, sir,” she mumbled.

Behind Chrystal and I closed the gates of Friendship City. I was in.

(** **)

I have never been very attractive, nor ugly for that matter. Most ponies would have described me as ‘average’ – then again, I had never really tried. This kind of things really wasn’t my cup of tea, that is all.

Yet, even I couldn’t help but feel a tiny-tipsy pang of jealousy as Chrystal strolled through Friendship City like a midnight queen, her swaying hips irresistibly attracting dreamy gazes from left and right. Some stallions would shamelessly stare, until a mare – often a wife or a sister – snapped them out of their trance with a vigorous smack behind the ears.

Walking besides me, Meridian seemed unfazed, paying all in all very little attention to the outrageously arousing spectacle in front of him. Come to think of it, I didn’t even know if he was into mares. Then again, I, for one, was straight as a wooden board, and still I could hardly keep me eyes away from Chrystal’s oscillating tail.

Before long, we reached Chrystal’s shop. To my great surprise, the front windows had been almost emptied of their wares.

“I’ll wait for you outside,” Meridian announced as I walked in after Chrystal. I nodded in approval. Knowing him, he probably had some ‘business’ to attend in town anyway.

The inside of the shop fared no better than the storefront. Countless weapons used to adorn the walls, lined on metallic racks. Dummies in shinny armor used to stand guard between them. Now, very little remained on display. Heavy sealed crates were piled here and there, the care they had been packed with leaving very little mystery to their contents. Only a hoofful of the less valuable goods remained on the lonely shelves – article of clothing, pouches, spare magazines and other auxiliary gear, it seemed.

Entranced that I was from the change of scenery, I almost failed to notice the door close behind me. Chrystal casually walked out to the window and drew the store’s curtains.

Then, she turned toward me, and I took an involuntary step back. Gone were the seductive smile and the subtle manners. She looked like a queen about to bring down the unforgiving hammer of Justice upon me. A cold fury burned deep in her eyes as she stepped toward me in the semi-darkness.

Oh boy, was she pissed.

“You failed to tell me you were working for Red Eyes.” Her voice cut like solid steel. Not missing a beat, she levitated a sword from behind her desk.

“I wasn’t! I swear!” I backpedalled, almost tripping on a weapon crate. No doubt she had locked the door – not that Meridian and his improbable lack of markspony skills would be of any help. My rifle was useless in close quarter combat and the suit’s claws sure did not have the reach to be any threat to that very sharp-looking ninja sword. The irony of being trapped weaponless in a gun shop was not lost upon me.

“Don’t lie to me.” The blade’s tip was only inches away from my muzzle now. I could see its perfect edge glittering evilly in the dim light, as if it hungered for my blood. “I know you were at Tenpony.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know that contract was Red Eyes’!” I tried to swat the sword off my face, only for it to circle in the air right back to it.

“Really now?” Chrystal seemed somehow even more suspicious of me. “You are asked to take out DJ P0n-3’s very own assistant out of the picture, and you don’t even- how much were you offered anyway?”

“Half a million,” I gulped uneasily.

“Half a…” She stared at me in disbelief. “Seriously? And that did not ring any bell in that pretty head of yours?”

“Well, it was backed up by-” I bit my tongue just in time. Gawd wouldn’t forgive me for ratting her out on that one. “-By respectable individuals with a decent reputation. They got fooled in the first place. I just assumed some wealthy nutheads had pooled together to get DJ P0n3’s head on a silver platter.”

“DJ P0n3’s head?” Chrystal repeated, the sword’s tip now right under my chin. “You didn’t go in there to murder him, now did you?”

“No!” I vigorously shook my head. “I mean, yes. Kind of. As it turns out, DJ-P0n3 never was a stallion in the first place. Homage, his so-called ‘assistant,’ has been playing as him the whole time. Nopony told me!”

A pregnant pause fell back on the shop, not even disturbed by the crowd of passers-by outside. Chrystal, unmoving, gaped at me with her best ‘are you serious?’ face.

Then, she lowered her sword and burst into laughter. T’was a marvelous sound, really. Too bad it clearly was at my expense.

“Okay, I don’t get it,” I finally uttered once it became clear she wasn’t going to explain the joke. “What’s so funny about that?”

Chrystal motioned me to wait with a forehoof as she leaned against a shelf with the other. Her hilarity somewhat subdued, then she looked up at me – and there she went again.

“If that is of any consolation,” Saios whispered in my ear, “I fail to see the joke in this either.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Chrystal finally managed to catch her breath. “You truly are something, do you know that?”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” I narrowed my eyes, not sure whether she had just complimented or insulted me.

“Well, let me sum this up.” She bit her lower lip to fight back another fit of laugher. “You signed up for a totally legit fifty hundred thousand caps’ contract, broke into Equestria’s second most secured place behind the Goddess’s ass, somehow managed to get your target at gunpoint, and bailed out because that Homage told you she was DJ-P0n3?”

She snorted and brought a hoof up her mouth. “Oh, that’s just precious.”

“Homage didn’t tell me squat,” I answered in a flat and clearly unamused voice. Chrystal looked up, probably realizing I was serious. “I even got it recorded to back it up.”

“You know me all too well,” Saios mumbled. I paid him no mind.

“So, it is true?” Chrystal asked in disbelief. “Sorry, but I just find it a bit hard to… swallow.”

“I know, right? He wasn’t even a stallion in the first place. I could hardly believe my eyes…”

“What? No, no,” she dismissively waved a hoof in my direction, suppressing a new fit of laughter. “Trust me, I wrote the book when it comes to deception. Gender-swapping is a great classic.”

“No, what really surprised me is you,” she moved toward me, “strolling in Friendship City…” she was just a couple meters from me now, “knowing you were a wanted mare…” Her muzzle stopped inches away from mine. I was mesmerized – I don’t think I could have moved even if I wanted to. “Carrier of perhaps the most valuable piece of intelligence in Equestria…” Her left hoof sensually underlined the edges of my chin. I couldn’t look away from her pink, beautiful eyes. “And you gave it to me for free, just like that.”

Then she broke the spell and stepped back, chuckling.

“You know, it’s almost too easy bartering with you.” The room went back to its normal (if slightly above average) temperature. I shook my head to try and dissipate the fog that had fallen upon my poor brain. Chrystal sighed. “You are lucky you have hired me to be by your side, really.”

“I haven’t paid you yet,” I pointed out. “For that matter, how do you even know I can afford your overpriced services?”

“Call it a hunch.” She blinked seductively. Then, she turned tail and headed for the back shop. “Come. I got a little something for you.”

“Spring, I may sound like I am stating the obvious, but she is definitively flirting with you,” Saios intervened quite needlessly.

“Yes she is,” I mumbled. Honestly, I would have been more worried if she hadn’t been.

Right on cue, the mare in question shot me a glance over her shoulder, followed by a knowing smile. She was toying with me, that much was certain.

The back store had been filled to the brink with crates, dismantled weapons and gear of all kind. My scavenger senses went ballistic. There was a fortune lying right there just in shiny spare parts.

“You’ve been packing,” I stated more than asked. “So much for the loss of income. I guess I walked right into this one, didn’t I?”

Chrystal winked before digging into a crate. It allowed me to get a good look at her exposed cutie mark. It looked like a grey stylized spearhead, or perhaps some kind of silver crown. For the death of me I couldn’t get what it was really supposed to represent.

I realized the rummaging sound had stopped. Chrystal was looking back at me, devilish smile on her lips and rump shamelessly held up high.

“Like what you see?” Her predatory smile somehow got even scarier. She shook her hips left and right. “I have been told it’s a view to kill.”

“What? No, I… Just…” I facehooved, my cheeks probably turning crimson. “Get your mind out of the gutter, will you? I was just looking at your Cutie Mark. Nothing more.”

“Relax, honey,” she finally turned her smoking ass away from me. “I am merely teasing you. Don’t you think after all this time I am used to ponies staring at me?”

“Me. Looking. Cutie Mark.” I repeated, punctuating each word with a hoof for emphasis. “Seriously. I like my mates with more balls and less tits, if you know what I mean.”

“We shall see where you stand in a week’s time,” she chuckled, levitating a medium-sized black case in front of her. “As for my Cutie Mark, I could tell you many tales about it. Many of which are not true in the slightest. Let us just say it symbolizes my stature and my natural grace, and leave it at that.”

“It used to be an emblem for the highest class of nobility,” Saios didn’t seem any closer to solving this mystery than I was. “Somehow I believe there is much more to it than she let it show.”

And she already showed way too much, in my humble opinion. I wouldn’t be very surprised if her special talent was into defiling young minds with the most perverse thoughts.

“It was not lost upon me you are in need of a sidearm… again,” Chrystal chuckled, setting the case on a nearby crate. “You know, I am starting to believe you lose your weapons on purpose, just because you can’t get enough of me.”

“Trust me, I take very little solace in being scammed, however pretty the shop owner may be,” I mumbled under my breath.

“Why, thank you,” she winked playfully. I didn’t say that out loud, now did I? “Alas, I know my charms are wasted on you, so I had to get… creative.”

On cue, she opened the case.

Inside, sitting on a velvet pillow like a lily on a pond, laid the most beautiful thing I had ever see, save perhaps the armor I was wearing then. Chrystal inclined the case expertly, making the wonderful pistol – for indeed it was one – catch the dim light on its matte polymer. The finish was incredible; it shone softly before my eyes, begging me to load it and make it sing its deadliest song. Dark as the night from the threaded, chromed barrel to its tactical rail to the adhesive grip, it waited for me.

Shaking slightly, I extended a hoof toward that jewel, only for Chrystal to snap the cover on me.

“My, my, now that’s what I call love at first sight,” she sighed as I pouted slightly. “I wish you could give me that kind of lusty gaze.”

“How much?” I sighed, not even bothering to pretend I wasn’t interested. I needed a gun, I wanted that gun, and Chrystal was bound to scam me in the end anyway. Might as well cut to the chase. “For the pistol, plus six magazines and the best suppressor you got.”

“Mmh, well, this beauty is not exactly for sale,” Chrystal circled a hoof on the case’s top. “It is truly pristine. Never been fired, never been handled: it went straight out from the factory to a vacuum chamber in which it spent the last two centuries… untouched. And, I might add, some would have dared called it one of the best handgun in the world back in the days.”

I gawked at her in silence for a solid thirty seconds.

“You are evil.” I finally concluded. “You know that, don’t you?”

“Now, you wound me darling,” she answered in mock offence. “But perhaps I could bring onto myself to sell it to a mare who will love it as much as it deserves – says, a close collaborator...”

“I already owe you twenty-three grand,” my teeth gritted in my mouth. “Is there really no limit to your greed?”

“Don’t be such a spoilsport,” her toothy grin clearly answered by the negative. “Plus, you haven’t paid me yet.”

So there we were. No turning back now.

“But I will.” Craning my neck backward, I reached for my saddlebags – more precisely, to the unusual weight I had been carrying since Tenpony. “There. Happy now?”

I dropped a heavy ingot on a crate. It landed on the plastic cover with a loud bang which made the both of us wince.

“Mmh.” Chrystal hummed softly as she levitated the gold in front of her. She observed it from all angles, giving a particular attention to the symbols on the top. “Stamped by the Royal Treasury. Quite an oddity outside of Canterlot. Courtesy of your friends in Tenpony Tower I presume?”

“Well, you heard the broadcast, didn’t you?” I winced. I hadn’t realized the marking could trace them right back to the ex-MAS hub. “Still, it’s solid gold. And it’s heavy.”

Chrystal turned around and delicately put the bar down on a scale. It read three kilo, one hundred and ten grams.

“A hundred ounces,” the salesmare nodded in approval. “It matches the stamp. Now, it could still be filled with tungsten –” she eyed me from the corner of her eyes “– but I don’t think anypony in Equestria still have the knowledge to do it without leaving a single mark, let alone the furnaces to deal with tungsten.”

“Yeah. Obviously.” I chuckled uneasily. Didn’t Saios say something about that metal a couple weeks back? I reckon I would remember him telling me it could be used to make fake gold bars. “But one could use lead, right?”

“Not really, no,” Chrystal smiled knowingly. She reached for something under her workbench and handed it to me. It roughly matched the ingot in size. “There. That’s lead. Take it.”

I complied. It was heavy, for sure, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling something was off.

“Now lift this,” she hoofed me the gold. Almost instantly it dropped a few inches from my telekinetic grasp.

“It really feels heavier,” I noted, eying the two chunks of metal a bit closer. The lead bar seemed even bigger than the ingot, but I could swear it felt half as heavy. “Gold is denser, isn’t it?”

“One and a half times denser,” she nodded with a wry smile. “Honestly, if you are fooled by that kind of fakes, or even worse, by steel-filled fakes, you don’t deserve the gold bars in the first place.”

“Gold is 1.702 times denser than lead at 20°C,” Saios whispered the much not-needed information in my ear. “Steel is 2.4 times less dense than gold. Tungsten and gold have the same density to the third decimal.”

“So, we’re good then.” I hoofed the gold back to Chrystal. “That ought to cover all your expenses, and then some.”

“By weight? Oh, yes, surely.” She had her predatory smile back on – the same one she had harbored when she announced us her price and conditions the other day. “Yet, you see, there is an… issue.”

“It’s gold.” I flat-out stated. “Pure gold. In a gold bar. It’s as close to being the ultimate form of money as any form of currency have any right to be. Take it, or leave it. I’m done playing your little games.”

“Well, all right then.” She levitated the ingot right back into my saddlebags. “I wish you the best of luck selling your hundred-ounces bar of solid stolen gold out there. I am certain many ponies out there have enough caps in stock to give you change, and none are dishonest enough to kill you and rob your still warm body.”

I halted as I was crossing the back store threshold. Fuck. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Fine!” I finally turned around. Her smile hadn’t moved an inch. I swear, if she hadn’t been the one who sold me my guns in the first place, I would have blasted it right off her face with a three-o’-eight. “How much is it worth to you?”

“Ten thousands.”

“Twenty-five,” I countered.



“Eleven and half.”




“Twelve and half.”

“Eighteen, and no lower!”

“Deal.” She was grinning from ear to ear now. Wonderful. She wasn’t even bothering to hide the fact she had scammed me – again. “Now, I reckon two of those ingots of yours should stack up nicely to pay your bill. I’ll even throw the pistol of your dreams in the package.”

“Wait a minute,” I frowned. “I owed you twenty-three thousands for your so-called expertise-”

“Twenty-three thousands and five hundred caps,” she corrected.

“- twenty-three thousands and five hundred,” I resumed, shooting her a death glare, “but two ingots are worth thirty-six thousands. Are you really trying to sell me a pistol for eleven thousands caps?”

“Twelve thousand and a half more precisely,” she gave me the most shark-looking smirk I had ever seen since I had been chased by radigators a few years before. “See? You are getting better with numbers every day.”

“No deal,” I narrowed my eyes. “You wanted twelve grand up front, didn’t you? So here’s my proposal: you take one gold bar, I take the pistol, plus suppressor, plus a solid dozen mags, plus the best holster you have, and, hum…”

I looked around uneasily. Was I punching it too far, or?...

“You’re nowhere high enough!” Saios picked up on my hesitation. Thanks, buddy.

“So-” Chrystal began.

“I’m not done!” I cut her mid-sentence. “I want you to throw something else in.”

“Well, sadly most of my wares are already packed up,” she motioned toward the crates. “I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer as of now but a discount on your next purchase.”

“I saw something in the store proper,” Saios whispered. “Do you mind getting back there?”

Grunting lowly in approval, I returned in the shop and took a good look around. Chrystal followed me, a perplexed look on her face.

“There is nothing here,” she lifted an eyebrow. “Nothing that could spark your interest, that is. I daresay I quite managed to learn your tastes over the years.”

“Right there, on the left,” Saios ignored her, highlighting a dummy in a corner instead. Curious, I moved closer.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of the set of armor displayed there. Unlike most of Chrystal’s wares, it was covered in a fine layer of dust. While well preserved, it fit the dummy very loosely and it somehow lacked part of the protection a proper combat armor should have offered. The ceramic plates weren’t simply removed – they seemed missing by design around the back, replaced by large pair of saddlebags. I didn’t know what to make of Saios’ suggestion. It wasn’t camouflaged either. The only trace of paint was on the saddlebags – a faded trio of pink butterflies. Go figure.

It was then Saios popped a 3D rotating figure on my display. It took me a couple seconds to recognize Evey – the oversized armor fitted her large stature perfectly.

“I’ll be honest, if you were to take it you’d be doing me a favor,” Chrystal stopped right beside me, oblivious to my silent conversation with my silicon-based friend. “It is too large even for me, and bulky stallions have very little need for an armor designed for a pegasus medic. I had half a mind to strip it down for spare parts.”

“A pegasus medic, uh?” I repeated softly, my eyes not leaving the tiny rotating Evey a single second.

“Spring, I may not be an expert when it comes to apology gifts, but I think she would like it very much,” Saios argued. “If anything, it will show her you care.”

I opened my mouth to answer, then remembered where I was. Chrystal was eying me quizzically.

“Okay, I’ll take it,” I finally stated. “At the sole condition you keep it with you for the moment being.”

“Alright,” Chrystal blinked, puzzled. Now that she hadn’t been expecting. “If I may, what are you even doing to do with it?”

“It’s for a friend,” I answered cryptically, walking back to the back store. “A gift, long overdue.”

A lone gold ingot floated from my saddlebag onto the scale.

“Very well, then.” Chrystal barely glanced at the reading before pushing the pistol’s black case toward me. “I believe this is yours.”

So that was what getting a Hearth Warming Eve present felt like! Even if I paid for it, technically.

Shaking slightly, I opened the case. The weapon beckoned me. I lifted it from its velvet pillow; it felt very light in my grasp.

“Hello, beautiful,” I crooned, pulling the slide backward. It moved softly, without any kind of resistance. “I can’t wait to show you the world.”

Chrystal chuckled, but I paid her no mind. Instead, I focused on the writing on the side.

“Wait a minute,” I frowned. “It’s not even chambered in 9mm!”

(** **)

Someday, I shall walk out of Chrystal’s shop without the feeling of having been scammed the shit out of me by the ever-greedy shopkeeper.

Someday – but it wasn’t that day.

As I stormed out, Meridian followed suit without a word. He was wise enough not to ask me if everything went as planned. Then again, I reckon the way the corner of my mouth twitched sporadically gave quite easily my foul mood away.

We walked all the way to the Warm Smiles Inn without sharing a single word. I cut the innkeeper mid-sentence by dropping the twenty-five caps for a room on the counter, grabbed a key and directly headed upstairs. I was not until I had locked the door behind me and sat on the dirty mattress that I gave up pretending and dug my head between my forelegs.

“That bad, uh?” Meridian asked with a wince before sitting next to me. “I’ll admit, I have never met a mare quite like her.”

“That could’ve gone better,” I grumbled, not even looking up. “By Luna’s freaking moon, she even managed to charge me extra for ammunition! After I gave her a fucking three kilo gold bar! How did that ever sound like a good idea anyway?”

“I thought it went pretty well, all things considered,” Saios objected. “I had feared you would walk out poorer by three ingots.”

“Your faith in my bartering skills is legendary and has been duly noted,” I deadpanned. “Fine. Let’s talk about something else then. How are things going on your side?”

“Evey calmed down and moved back to her room. Do you want me to patch you through?”

“Not now.” I bit my lip. I really wasn’t in the mood to explain myself to her. “Just tell her I say ‘hi’. What about my drive? Is it ready yet?”

“The APC is almost done being reassembled,” Saios sent me a picture of the aforementioned vehicle. “So far, tests are conclusive. I still need to get it to pass a few bench tests, but I doubt there will be any glaring issues.”

“Good,” I nodded in approval. At least, something that didn’t go south as soon as it could. “Do you think you can pick me up on my way to JR-7?”

“Perhaps,” he answered cautiously. “Assuming I do not encounter too many obstacles on the road. I had hoped to use old military satellites to map the itinerary, but…”

“The cloud layer’s too thick,” I finished his sentence. “Told you so.”

“That, and I have yet to retrieve most access codes from the hard drives you are carrying,” Saios reminded me. There is little incentive to pinging stations I cannot control anyway.”

“I almost forgot about those.”

“Well, I have not,” Saios chuckled, eliciting a smile from me. Data was like candy to him. “Even if we cannot have our eyes in the skies, the communication array would be invaluable.”

“So, walking to JR-7 it is,” I sighed. “I am really not looking forward to seeing Gawd again.”

“Are you certain this is a good idea?” he inquired. “I trust your judgment and your combat abilities, but still, you are hardly bulletproof.”

“So I’ve noticed,” I grumbled darkly, all the times I had been shot or stabbed coming back to my mind. I resisted the subconscious urge to scratch my back and the scar I knew I would find there. “Listen, we’d be better off if we could tell them what really happened before anypony else get to tell their side of the story. She knows me, and I am usually not one to get back on a contract once I’ve agreed to it. She’ll listen, if only out of curiosity.”

“I sincerely hope you are right,” Saios sighed. “We almost lost you once. Please don’t put us through that ever again.”

(** **)

The night came and went without further ado. I wish I could say I had slept like a rock; but dreams plagued my mind, haunting my subconscious like fleas on a raider. While the details soon slipped from my grasp, the soaked sheets sticking to my fur in the morning left little doubt to their steamy content.

“Morning,” I mumbled to Meridian.

The earth pony had slept in my room this time – and I was glad he had decided not to sleep in the bed with me. The king-sized mattress was wide, and I didn’t mind sharing it with a friend like him – I mean, the way he looked out for me he’d probably chop his own balls off and eat them deep-fried than even thinking of touching me.

Still, having a couple wet dreams when you were sleeping right next to a friend from the opposite sex definitively scored under ‘awkward situation’. At least, by sleeping on the ground he wouldn’t have noticed my involuntary state of arousal.

“You moaned Chrystal’s name in your sleep last night,” Meridian stated tongue-in-cheek, obviously very amused. “Can’t live with her, can’t live without her, uh?”

“Oh, shut up.” I threw him the pillow for good measure. He dodged it effortlessly; the dirty pile of rags hit the wall in a soft thud and slumped pathetically to the ground. “You probably heard your own whimpers. I ain’t even into mares.”

“Don’t be so defensive. There’s no shame in having a few misplaced thoughts about her,” he shrugged. “Just don’t let her under your skin. There is definitively something off about her.”

“Tell me about it,” I mumbled. “Seriously though, how do you even managed to stay ice cold when she’s around? I mean, seriously, she’d give a boner to a gay tetraplegic.”

“I, uh…” Meridian hesitated. “I am not really interested in that kind of things, really.”

“Bullshit,” I laughed before heading for the bathroom. The place was dirty as hell, but I had some personal cleaning up to do. “Ain’t no such thing as a stallion not interested in sex. What, I can’t believe you never dreamt of settling down some day, with a lovely wife and an armada of foals running around.”

“Spring… I’ll never have children of my own.”

I froze mid-movement. He was a gelding? Really?

“I’m sorry, buddy,” I apologized truthfully through the thin wall. In my opinion, that wasn’t the kind of conditions you could laugh at. “I really am. I shouldn’t have brought that up in the first place.”

“No, it’s alright,” I heard him answer. “You couldn’t have known. Let us just never talk of this ever again, all right?”

I returned to the bedroom and nodded without a sound.

(** **)

I have been told Friendship City really lived up to its name – the kind of place in which sticky hooves and unclean bathrooms were your only concerns. Everypony was friendly, nopony was a bad guy.

Obviously, that mean the raider spraying lead left and right in the market district didn’t get the memo.

Near me, Meridian reached for his revolver, but a firm nudge in the shoulder interrupted him.

“Bad idea, buddy,” I whispered, backing up to cover. “The security’s gonna handle it, and trust me you don’t want to get caught in the crossfire.”

“But the civilians…” he began.

“No.” I cut him mid-sentence. “Listen, I am already treading on thin ice as it is, and you can’t aim for shit. Ponies here ain’t stupid, they’ll either return fire or get their asses the hell outta here.”

“I hope,” he mumbled.

Saios remained silent. I reckoned he trusted my judgment on that one.

The shooter trotted left and right, bucking store blinds at random. A white crust foamed the corner of his mouth – he was so far gone I doubted he’d even realized what the hell he was doing.

His weapon surprised me, to be honest. The kind of guys stupid enough to pull that kind of shit often didn’t have what it took to get decent gear. That was how I could make short work of raiders, really.

But that guy, somehow, had found himself a Luna-damned machine gun and, the weapon firmly clamped in its red TK field, he waved it here and there, almost shooting things at random in short bursts.

“Saios, did you count how many shots he burned already?” I whispered, somewhat concerned. Catching a stray bullet wasn’t exactly on my to-do list for the day.

“I would say between forty and sixty rounds,” he answered immediately. “Assuming his feeding belt was full when he started his rampage, he is nowhere near done.”

“Wonderful,” I mumbled sarcastically. Of all ponies to get a machine gun, it had to be one who knew how to use it even high as fuck. Somehow, I had the gut feeling this big joke of an attack was going to bite me back in the ass for some reason.

“Security! Drop your gun!” At last, the guards made their big damn heroes entrance. Half a dozen armored ponies rushed into the marketplace, and before I knew it they were falling back as the raider casually rained lead and death upon them.

“I AM INDESTRUCTIBLE!” he laughed maniacally. Did I look like that when I was on drugs?

A few brave souls tried to refute his boisterous claim by return fire with their energy weapons. Aiming beforehoof would have helped a lot though – they completely missed their target, and ended up blowing harmless shit up instead. A whole wooden stall collapsed, set ablaze by the deadly beams.

The guards attempted another sortie, yet that guy was clearly all out of fucks to give. Soon enough, he had them back behind cover.

“YOU CAN’T STOP ME!” he roared, tearing his vest off, revealing a crude explosive belt and allowing everypony else to shit a massive brick.

“Fuck. They ain’t gonna shoot him,” I realized. That was for the better though – given their total lack of success in hitting him so far, they surely wouldn’t fail to set the bomb off with their energy weapons. “We need to get the hell outta here – once he runs out of ammo, he’ll blow himself up.”

Everything was going to Tartarus in a handbasket. Then, an unassuming door opened on a side of the plaza – and Chrystal stepped out.

I swear to the Goddesses above, the world stopped that instant.

There she stood armorless, mane flowing freely down on her shoulders. Silence fell like a spell on the market, for her sudden appearance let everypony with very little breath to speak with.

She stepped forward.

“Hello, dear.” Her voice was sweeter than honey, hotter than the surface of the sun. “My, my. A real stallion. You belong to a dying race, sweetheart.”

“Who the hell are you?” The shooter was rooted in place. In the background, a guard lined him up with a laser rifle, only for one of her colleagues to rip it from her hooves.

Chrystal kept on walking, sliding over the concrete ground like a swan on calm water. I was but sitting on the sidelines, and yet, she had me entranced.

“Does it matter who I am?” she breathed out, betting her eyelids. One step closer. “I am a mare of simple tastes – but what is it that you want?”

“What I want?” the poor stallion repeated, his rampage all forgotten. Chrystal was closing in on him. “You’d give it to me?”

“Yes,” she smiled warmly, eyes half-lidded. “Whatever you want.”

“I want…” he stammered, at loss for words. “I want…”

In a flash, it was over.

Chrystal had suddenly danced forward, and a meter away from him she stood, her merciless eyes colder than ice.

The stallion staggered a second, as if he had lost his balance. He stepped uneasily forward, and his decapitated body fell to the side, lifeless. The head rolled about some more, frozen in an eternal mix of surprise and pain.

And then, only then, did I see the maculated blade rising up to the skies, as if it wished to pierce the heavens with its steel.

Time resumed its course; the guards snapped out of their stupor.

Chrystal barely spared a glance for them. She shook her sword, sending splatters all over the floor. Then, she wiped the remaining blood with a small cloth, and the blade slid back in its scabbard as if it had never left it in the first place.

I had half expected the suicide vest to go boom and litter the place with chunks of Chrystal’s body. From the way the security timidly popped their heads from behind their cover, the guards didn’t give much more credit. After a dozen seconds characterized by a complete lack of explosion however, they finally found it deep within themselves to finally close in on the beheaded corpse.

Chrystal obviously hadn’t planned to linger on the crime scene. A last disgusted glance to the dead raider and she turned tail, walking back toward her shop.

“…wouldn’t have happened if you’d voted the weapon ban as I suggested.”

My ears perked up to the sound of a mare’s muffled voice. She was entering the plaza the way the security came in. I had no trouble identifying the obese form of Raspberry Tart, head of the Commons. The shadow she casted everywhere in town had surprisingly little to do with the staggering amount of fat she packed with her – if there was something fishy going on in Friendship City, you could bet she was involved in a way or another.

“Such a tragic event, really, mayor, could have been avoided.”

Right behind her entered Chief Lantern and Black Seas, Friendship City’s mayor. Both sported an appropriate grim demeanor, perhaps more because of Tart’s monologue than the recent attack.

“Chief!” A security officer called from behind a ruined stall. “I found Lemon Pie. He didn’t make it.”

“Such a shame.” Raspberry wasn’t even trying. “Oh, and there is the hero of the hour! Tell me, Chrystal, do you still believe selling war weapons in the middle of a crowded city does not pertain to criminal negligence?”

The shopmare stopped dead in her tracks and turned around to face the newcomer.

“Hardly. I don’t sell to lunatics.” Her tone was sharp and dripping with venom. “But you knew that already. That is why I didn’t join your so-called union and refused to equip your thugs in the first place.”

“My boys, thugs?” Tart mimicked offence. “Oh, you wound me. Besides, you had little claim servicing a notorious criminal just yesterday.”

She lowered her voice as Crystal stopped but a few inches from her face. Meanwhile, everypony else was buzzing around the body and the explosive belt it still sported.

“I am certain our dear friends in Tenpony would be delighted to know where their mysterious Ghost finds all that fancy equipment,” Tart continued in a low voice. I wouldn’t have heard any of it, had it not be for the suit’s advanced sensors.

“True,” Chrystal answered, her voice dripping with acid. I couldn’t suppress a shudder. “As would Chief Lantern love to learn who has been smuggling all those cheap drugs into his lovely city.”

“Well, at least I am not killing anypony,” the yellow mare replied after taking a short look around. “The same cannot be said for your worthless friend.”

“Spring is thrice the mare you are.” I felt a warm tingle rise into my chest. “Then again, it shouldn’t be too hard – what you pack in lard, anypony else packs in brain matter.”

“Oh, attacking me on my physical appearance now?” Tart’s eyes narrowed. It looked like her face was melting – a very disturbing sight, really. “Quite understandable, coming from you. For the want of skills, your good looks are all you have.”

“When you always lacked both,” Chrystal retorted tit-for-tat. Then she noticed Chief Lantern approaching. The way the stallion walked – that is, as if he regretted every single step forward he ever had to take – he was facing a real dilemma.

“Good morning Chrystal.” His smile felt forced, even from my hiding spot twenty meters away. “Copper told me you’re the one to thanks for stopping that loony, so thank you, I guess. Still, you shouldn’t put your life on the line like that. That’s why the security’s here for.”

“I fear it was a necessary evil, my dear,” Chrystal’s suave tone was back. “Lasers against a suicide bomber? Really, Chief, you should get yourself a sharpshooter with a real rifle, not those toys of yours. I am sure I have a couple things in stock that would fulfill your… every need.”

“Yes, about that,” he chuckled uneasily. In Chrystal’s back, Rasberry’s triumphant face was hard to miss – it looked like a rotten heap of butter came to life. “The budget’s already too thin as it is, we can’t really afford a gear overhaul. And… there is something else.”

“That joke has gone on for long enough!” Sure Shot joined the conversation, her eyes shooting daggers at Chrystal. “We’re closing your shop down.”

“You can’t do that.” Chrystal stated, seemingly unfazed. Yet, as far as burning tones could go, hers would have been one hell of a balefire.

“I’m afraid you don’t have anything to say in the matter.”

“Oh, but I do,” Chrystal stepped toward Sure Shot, who put up a brave face. “Unlike you, sheriff, I know the law, and I know the terms of the lease I signed. You cannot forbid me from opening shop.”

“She’s right!” Lantern confirmed with a relieved nod. “It’s the law, you can’t fight the law, problem solved!”

“I don’t think you’d find many customers ready to shop in an armory completely devoid of weapons,” Mayor Black Seas joined the conversation, followed by a blue mare in a lab coat.

“Chrystal, it’s nothing personal. Really,” the latter – which I reckoned was Dr. Freshwater – continued in a very neutral tone. “But the needs of the many outweigh the business of one. Banning weapons in the city is not optional.”

“I’ve been told you were moving out of town anyway,” Black Seas said, visibly gauging Chrystal’s reaction. The mare stayed (beautifully carved) stone-faced.

“That is not true. I am here to stay.” She motioned toward Raspberry Tart. “Really, Mayor. You should know better than listen to the rumors peddled by some… individuals.”

“You are doing a lot of packing up for somepony who isn’t moving out,” Sure Shot countered. “One could even say you are planning a Prench leave.”

“I have important business to take care of out of town.” Chrystal gritted. “I am merely moving my stocks away for safekeeping – excuse me if I do not want to risk my wares to fall into the wrongs hooves when my back is turned.”

“Yes. A commendable precaution indeed.” Dr. Freshwater nodded approvingly. “Perhaps you could use this opportunity to widen your horizons. The Wastelands could use a trustworthy pharmacy.”

“As long as your weapons never come back to Friendship City, we are even willing to help you move your business on,” the mayor added. “Once again, it’s nothing personal – we just want to get rid of weapons in town and you happen to be right in the crossfire.”

“You are making a huge mistake, Black Seas.” Chrystal’s lips were pinched. “I can hardly believe you of all ponies are siding with Raspberry against me.”

“Such strong words!” Tart intervened in mock offence. “Really, now, why do you take the matter as a personal offence? We are only concerned by this city’s security.”

“And before you ask, no, an ammunition ban just wouldn’t cut it,” the mayor pointed out. “See how it worked out for Tenpony.”

Chrystal turned up to Chief Lantern for some kind of support but found none.

“Sorry, Chrystal.” His ears were tucked flat against his head. “I am afraid this is the reasonable option.”

“Fine then!” She huffed, turning tail and walking away defiantly. “Have it your way! But mark my words: we are living at the end of an era, the turn of the tide, the calm before the last storm. The Wastelands have reached its boiling point. The raiders are growing bolder with each passing hour. A day’s walk from here, Red Eyes’ empire grows stronger yet; and everywhere, the fires of war are lighted in heroes’s hoovesteps. The time will come you rue that very moment, and you will look back and whimper in despair to the sight of what could have been. I have seen it before – this fear in your eyes, this childlike behavior of hiding behind your hooves to make the danger disappear.”

She stopped right next to the beheaded raider’s body, and in a fluid movement pointed it with her bare sword.

“You believe I am the one to blame, when you lay trembling behind your walls, hoping the monsters outside will never find their way in?” she continued, drawing attention from everypony around. “That, perhaps, my greed and arrogance brought death to you? Truly you cannot see beyond your narrow horizons. How many lives did my weapons defend, how many deadly bullets did my armors deflect? Tell me, you who are so wise and know all of politics and the ramifications of your acts, how many fathers and mothers lived to embrace their children thanks to me? How many criminals fell from the very things I sold to better ponies? Time will come, I say, time will come you shall wish you had chosen your friends better. I, for one, now know where they stand.”

(** **)

All was silent in the Manehattan streets that morning. In the distance, a faint glow coming down from the cloudy horizon lined the faded silhouette of the Statue of Friendship with a faded hue of grey and bronze. Besides me, unmoving, Meridian stared at the decrepit symbol of the better times of old. Saios had been silent for quite a while, never once commenting on the situation or asking for my opinion.

I, for one, alternated between kicking small pebbles down the cracked concrete and fidgeting with my newfound breast barding. Each time my hoof patted the cool surface of the pistol, however, my focus drifted back to the matter we were all so valiantly trying to dodge.

“I can’t believe they’re closing her shop,” I finally uttered, put out. “Chrystal’s gun shop! Of all places!”

“They are understandably scared,” Saios answered. He didn’t take the hit as hard as I did – then again, it was a whole part of my life that was going away, not his. “Well, all except that Raspberry Tart individual. Clearly she has her own agenda. Do you know her?”

“By reputation,” I shook my head. We had left town like thieves, hiking away from the place as fast as we could without running. No doubt Sure Shot would have jumped on the opportunity to hang me fair and square. “She’s an asshole – the kind that runs crooked businesses without getting themselves wet. She always finds somepony else to do it, and Luna knows her smugglings and cut-throat deals give her the means to afford it.”

“You’ve worked for her, haven’t you?” Meridian’s question sounded much like a flat statement.

“Yes.” I sighed. “Never officially, mind you, but when a bouncer from the Commons asks you to find and terminate a debtor on the run, there is never much doubt on who’s really footing the bill behind the scenes.”

“At least it gives us an insider’s look on the pony. Do you know why she hates Chrystal so much?”

“Oh, you’ve noticed too?” I smiled warily. “Don’t take my word for it, but Raspberry Tart is the head of Friendship City’s merchant union – understand, they pay her not to wreck their business. I really don’t see Chrystal being pressured into buying that kind of peace though; as for ruining her shop, well, she owns the deadliest arsenal this side of Canterlot. You get in and piss her off, you are never walking out of there alive, and that’s coming from the mare who escaped Tenpony Tower twice in as many months. Plus, honestly? I think Tart is jealous of Chrystal’s body. If I were looking like a half-melted chunk of piss porridge, I know I would.”

“I can’t shake the feeling there is something else at stake here,” Meridian murmured almost inaudibly.

“True. There had to be an easier way to breaking down Chrystal’s shop,” I scratched my cheek absentmindedly. “Tart really seemed to want to go the extra mile and ban all weapons entirely.”

“If she really has a monopoly on the local black market, perhaps she wanted to get rid of unwanted competition,” Saios suggested.

“Perhaps. Anyway, that’s one helluva setback for us,” I slowly massaged my temples to try and lessen the growing headache. “Our businessmare is now out of business. Of course, it had to be after we made the first payment.”

“Actually, this may be for the best,” Saios countered. “Think about it: now, she does not have much of a choice anymore. Either she deals with us to expand her business, or she starts back from scratch or just about it. For her, it’s sink or swim. Even better, she does not need to know we are aware of her predicament. The ball is in our court, and when she tries to renegotiate the contract, we shall have the upper hoof.”

“Renegotiate the contract?” I repeated. “Why would she do that? She’s already making a fortune thanks to us – need I remind you we still owe her about twelve grand? Or that she barely agreed to assess the DERTA’s worth?”

“Come on, Spring, you are better than that,” he chided me playfully. “Chrystal never expected us to pay it in the first place. All she wanted was to be in position of force to set the fine print on the real deal, the one we shall make a week from now. Then, direct payment will hardly matter – she will ask for an outrageous commission indexed on our income. She told us so herself, don’t you remember?”

“I… think I would remember something like that,” I trailed, digging into my memory. Much to my chagrin, the times she had outrageously teased me had left a deeper imprint than my actual business with her.

“Odd. She was pretty straightforward in what she expected of your relationship.”

“I imagine many ponies found themselves in this situation,” I mumbled. “Poor bastards.”

“This is not what I meant,” Saios chuckled at my joke nonetheless. “She even called you her ‘associate’ and let you in some of her trade secrets. She trusts you so much she was already packing, even though we hadn’t even agreed on a date yet.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.” While I had made an appointment with her the day before so I could take care of my business in Junction R-7, this particular visit had been unscheduled. Yet, she had been expecting me.

“Do not worry too much about Chrystal,” he concluded. “For the moment being, you have a griffin to be concerned about.”

(** **)

Leaving Manehattan proved to be uneventful – at least, as uneventful as a trip in that crowded area could be. Meridian and I narrowly avoided a pack of feral ghouls, and the manticore which decided to make them its lunch. We spotted a few raiders bands from afar. None of them ever came close enough to be a menace – the ones we couldn’t avoid were quickly dissuaded from approaching by a couple well-placed three-o’-eight rounds. It was odd, really, what being picked on by a sniper half a kilometer away could do to cool their Dash-addicted heads off.

In a matter of hours, the Rotten Apple skyline had disappeared behind us, blending in the desaturated landscape. From there on, only the decayed bodies of roads and bridges reminded us that this flat, unending plain of scorched grass used to be, once upon a time, a place of wonders and amazement.

It was odd, I reflected, how the place now differed from the Equestria of old. I had never actually seen it myself, of course; yet I had listened to enough tales and seen enough faded pictures to know brown did not used to be the dominant color in this depressing painting; that trees had not always grown twisted and gnarled, their sickly leaves barely moving in the biting wind. Long ago, the skies had closed, dooming the earth to an agonizing decay. Yet, it did little to explain the Wastelands seemingly stared down at you, judging your worth and spitting in your face. The megaspells did far more than burning down Equestria – it corrupted it, destroying it to the core. The pony race had survived, for sure, yet ponykind had gone away, forever.

“I think I am growing into a depressed lump of a mare,” I chuckled darkly, shaking my head to chase the foreboding thoughts. “Soon enough, I’ll be ranting against the thing that sucked all the color from our world, leaving only behind some shades of grey.”

“Actually, you did say something about that and making the Equestrian dream disappear just yesterday,” Saios answered, bemused. “Then again, this landscape really is depressing. You shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself brooding.”

“Shoot some things,” Meridian chirped maliciously. “That’ll cheer you up.”

“Good idea!” I drew my pistol and looked around. Twenty meters from there, a half-rotten tree stood, as if it dared me to use it as target practice. “All right, let’s see what we’ve got.”

Chrystal had offered me quite a range of five-seven millimeter ammunition. Long ago, I used to believe military-issued FMJs could do anything, but while they were indeed very versatile, as I grew more experienced I learned to love to use different kind of ammo for my sidearm. The standards rounds remained, of course – after all, they were often the cheapest and the most available of all. It did not wear my pistols down very much and offered a very decent penetration through most kind of armor. Of course, now that I had downgraded from nine to five-seven millimeters, I expected it to have less penetration, even though the shopmare assured me the extended cartridge and the high-speed bullets made it every bit as effective as my old caliber. Perhaps I should ask Saios to help me do a couple bench tests, just to be sure.

Soon enough I found myself buying some +P+ overcharged loads, as I did for my rifle. It did a number on the inner mechanisms for sure, but hell, sometimes a thirty percent increase in firepower is all you need to reduce ‘bulletproof’ to ‘not even fucking remotely effective’.

Yet neither of those was adapted to use with a suppressor. I ended up in need of a very quiet type of ammunition, hence the subsonic loads. It didn’t pack as much punch as standard rounds, of course, but still it was notably enough to kill a very lightly armored target in a couple shots.

I decided to start with them. At least, if the pistol had a hidden defect of some kind, it wouldn’t blow up in my face too harshly.

Meridian watched in silence as I screwed the high-end suppressor on counterclockwise, then switched the magazine to the one containing subsonic rounds. Chrystal had been kind enough to lend me a couple marker pens right after scamming me on the ammunition, and I had marked my magazines in accordance of their type. Not mixing your rounds was a lesson I learned quite quickly when I found out that throwing underloaded rounds at a raider wearing body armor was akin to pelleting a tank with a BB gun. It’s embarrassing, really.

I racked the pistol and took aim. Exhaling slowly, I pressed the trigger, once.

The frame moved; some smoke escaped from the chamber. Puzzled, I took a closer look to the weapon.

“It looked like a misfire,” I noted, pulling the frame back. A round jumped from the chamber, I caught it in my telekinesis. “Weird, this one isn’t spent.”

“And here’s the casing.” Meridian pointed the empty brass on the ground right at my hooves.

“I do not think you misfired,” Saios said. “If anything, I believe you hit your target spot on.”

“Nuh-uh,” I shook my head, checking the barrel for obstruction and finding none. “It barely kicked and all I heard was the firing pin hitting the brass. It had to be a misfire.”

“Why don’t you shoot at something closer, so we can see the impact?” Meridian suggested.

“I think your weapon is actually working great,” Saios insisted.

“Fine.” I sighed. If anything, it’d tell me what the hell happened the first time over.

I aimed for a rock somewhat nearer. My gaze sliding back to the chamber, I squeezed the trigger.

Sure enough, I saw the frame slide back, a spent cartridge fly through the air, and a fresh one being cycled.

Sporting my eyes to the target, I fired once more. Then again. Twice, chunks of rock flew through the air near the point I had aimed for.

“When fuck,” I whistled. “Now that’s quiet. Way quieter than my nine mil’, that for sure.”

To be honest, I had undergone those little tests with a serious baggage of skepticism toward that smaller ammunition. Bigger is not always better, of course – my three-o’-eight was already pushing the envelope as far as handiness went. Still, the nine millimeter already provided a solid middle ground between sheer power and low recoil. I had little incentive to change. It would have stayed that way, too, if it hadn’t been for the savage beauty of the gun itself and the diabolical barter skills of Chrystal.

Yet, as the pistol happily barked when I fed him both the standard and the overloaded rounds, I had to bow to the evidence: that cartridge had potential. At normal pressure, the weapon barely kicked at all, leading me to scoring one bulls-eye after another, allowing me to make the most of the increased magazine capacity. However, it was the armor-piercing rounds that surprised me most. It kicked a bit, as much as my old nine mil’ – but it really did a number on the stump I used for target practice. I would have to test it on some raiders to be sure, of course, but by the end of my firing frenzy my new cartridge had earned my respect.

(** **)

Junction R-7. The settlement really grew by the day. I had last been there a month or so before, yet already new shaky structures had sprouted like mushrooms around the outer edge of the old railway hub. Everything buzzed with activity, and the air echoed of laugher and the sound of labor. Give the place a decade and it would become the Wastelands’ first real city in two centuries.

Sadly, I hadn’t come back for the scenery. I doubted Gawd would hurt me once I told her the truth behind the contract and her Talons wouldn’t dare lift a claw on me without her blessing. Still, so many things could go wrong. There was no doubt in my mind this was the best solution, since stalling for time would only give my enemies the proof of my supposed guiltiness. No, I hadn’t double-crossed the Talons, and no, I hadn’t chickened out. That much, Gawd needed to know.

That in mind, as Meridian and I arrived in sight of JR-7, I halted and turned toward my companion.

“You’re not coming with me,” I stated firmly. “I know you care little for the Talons and you didn’t even agree to this mess in the first place.”

“You might need my help,” he countered, his deep blue eyes staring down in mine. “You are doing the right thing – what kind of friend would I be if I wasn’t by your side?”

“The kind of friend that stays alive,” I poked his chest. “Face it: if push comes to shove, this place is going to be a nightmare. I can probably sneak out and handle a fair share of griffins, but you are not a fighter. I’ll be just fine, really.”

He looked like he was going to keep on objecting, then obviously decided otherwise.

“Fine,” he sighed, dejected. “Still, I don’t like it. Every time I am not around, you manage to get yourself in a heap of trouble.”

“True enough,” I laughed heartily. “But do I need to remind you that one time we got chased by a whole fleet of angry sprite bots?”

“That does little to raise my spirits, Spring.” He smiled nonetheless. The events in question were only a few days old, yet it already felt like an eternity ago. “I’ll accompany you in my thoughts, then.”

“And you in mine,” I winked before strolling down the road. I didn’t know what the future held there for me – yet I was going to face it head high.

(** **)

I walked toward the town’s gates with a determined canter, barely sparing a glance for the ponies I passed by. Most of them eyed me with defiance, nothing much unusual, but here and there, some pointed me to their friends, hushing hastily to their ears. Others turned abruptly into random directions when I headed their way. Mothers, eyes alert, held their newborns a bit closer; fathers, jaws clenched, mechanically reached for their weapons. None dared draw them on me though – as soon as I made eye contact, they backed down, all hints of heroism gone from their features. It worried me to no end. Was that how I was seen, a cold-hearted monster threatening every pony I came across?

“Stop right there.” A griffin guard stepped out from a makeshift post. “State your business.”

Well, that too was new.

“I need to talk to Gawdina Grimfeather,” I answered in an even voice, not breaking eye contact even once. The tall Talon seemed unmoved. “It’s urgent. She’s probably been expecting me.”

“That’s unlikely, filly.” Another griffin appeared on my left. That one was female, a bit shorter than her colleague. From the large scar she spotted all the way from her jaw to her breast, I had little doubt she was every bit as dangerous as him. “Word is that somepony double-crossed her before running for the hills. Now you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

“I don’t talk business with underlings,” I snarled. “Let me through. It’s Gawd I need to talk to.”

“Now listen you little shit-” the first guard began, before a shadow briefly passed over us.

“Enough!” Covett dropped from the sky like a fucking meteor, shaking the ground with her landing. She seemed equally pissed and surprised – a mix of emotion which, on an already fierce-looking griffin, was truly a sight to behold. “All of you. Crimson, you should know better than to answer to that kind of provocation. And you, Spring,” she turned toward me, fire in her eyes, “you have a lot of nerve to show your ass up here after the stunt you pulled.”

“Yeah, well trust me you don’t even know half of the story,” I shook my head. “Remember what we talked about when you hoofed me the file, that one thing I really wasn’t supposed to do, no matter what?”

Now that got her attention. She looked around, her eyes stopping an instant on her fellow Talons. Then, some kind of understanding dawned on her features and she turned heel.

“We can’t talk here,” she motioned me forward, to the guards’ great surprise. “Come with me. I’m sure Gawd will want to see you.”

(** **)

We walked through the innermost streets without even bumping into anypony. I did not know what of Covett’s imposing frame or of her uncommunicative face really drove passers-by from wisely staying away from our path. Then again, with me by her side they probably figured the town was but minutes away from an intense gunfight.

“That contract was lined with shit,” I grumbled low enough only my escort could hear me. “Whoever sold it to you in the first place deserves a one-way ticket to Tartarus in first class.”

“I don’t think you should tell me anything,” she shook her head slowly. Then, after a few seconds of silence, she continued. “I heard you had your target in your sights. Is that true?”

I didn’t answer at once.

“Yes,” I finally muttered. “I could have ended it right there and be gone before anypony be the wiser. But something more important showed up.”

“So you did chicken out.” She frowned.

“Listen, I had to mow my way through a whole group of Red Eyes’s goons because I didn’t kill my quarry,” I shot back. “Trust me, killing her would have been easier.”

“I reckon that’ll be left to Gawd’s appreciation.” We arrived in front of the Talons’s HQ. She turned toward me. “Don’t try anything. She’d tear you in half.”

“If I were stupid enough to try to kill her, I’d be doing it from a mile away,” I mumbled under my breath. Griffins were tough warriors in their own right, but Gawdina Grimfeather? Fuck, she was the Talons’s matriarch and she sure didn’t get there by fooling around.

“Well, well, well, I’ll be,” I heard a familiar voice whistle. I looked up – sure enough, there she was, clad in her black armor and ever sporting her scars with pride. Some other griffins spared me a glance, but soon averted their attention. Gawd’s business was her own. They wanted to have nothing to do with it if not explicitly invited. “The prodigal daughter is back. I must say, Spring, the radio brought me some heart-breaking news.”

“You’re here. Good.” I tried to look more confident than I really was. “We really need to talk about what happened out there. Seriously, somepony’s been fucking us dry on that one. We averted a major shitstorm by a hair, and I’m not even fucking kidding, that’s how close I was to doing it.”

“I knew you weren’t one to ditch a contract without a solid reason.” Her beak smiled a little. I didn’t even know she could do that. “All right. Let’s get to my office and talk about this around a drink. I bet this is a helluva story you got there.”

(** **)

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

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

Main quest updated: New World Order

[ ] Show Chrystal around Big Mountain (Primary)
[X] Find a partnership (Primary)
[X] Talk with Chrystal in Friendship City (Secondary)
[ ] Talk with Van Graff in Tenpony Tower (Failed)
[ ] Talk with Goldfeather in Junction R-7 (Failed)
[ ] Talk with Derpy in New Appleloosa (Failed)
[ ] Talk with Bottlecaps in Megamart (Failed)
[ ] Talk with Blood Ring in Fillydelphia (Failed)

Level up!

New perk:
Terrifying Presence: Your deeds precede you! Some may hate you, some may love you, but all shall fear your wrath. Live up to your reputation!

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.”

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 Fifteen: Afterglow