• 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 Three: Under Covered

Read it on Google Docs for an updated version.

“Now you can go get the marshall.”

Chapter Three: Under covered

Van Graff. His name alone proved there was something wrong with him. Most ponies choose, for better or for worse, a name with meaning for their children. While it is up to them to follow their pre-established destiny, still their name remains, like a remnant of a time long past.

But not Van Graff. His father was named Van Graff, and his father before him. For generations, they had borne the very same name.

More than a century ago, when the first Van Graff showed up at Tenpony Tower, nopony knew who he was, and nopony actually cared. He was an outsider, a Wastelander. When he asked for the ownership of a shop in the commercial levels, every Tenponite expected him to face a flat denial.

And he did.

He came back years later, a huge shipment of weapons and armor in tow. How he had managed to find so much equipment was a complete mystery, and, once again, he had asked for a shop.

This time, however, the situation had changed in Tenpony Tower. The Wastelands were starting to wake up from their nuclear slumber. Already raiders had tried to fight their way into their little piece of heaven, and they proved to be tougher than a hoofull of feral ghouls. But the old Tower was no fortress – not really. They had weapons for sure, but way too little. So when old Van Graff showed up again with enough guns for an army?

Well they gave him a shop all right, and four generations later I had to steal something from Van Graff junior.

His family’s story had become quite the stuff of legend in the Manehattan area. An Old War saying told something along the lines “If you can make it in Fillydelphia, you can make it anywhere.”

The revised Wasteland version was “If you can make it in Fillydelphia, you can make it anywhere – except in Tenpony, if your name is not Van Graff.”

If you are not familiar with the way Tenpony works, you cannot really understand how jaw-breaking the story was. It was hard enough to enter in Tenpony Tower as a guest – ghouls, criminals, scavengers, raiders, slavers, you name it, where shot on sight.

But to become a full fledged citizen, you had to acquire a property in the Tower. Should you decide to sell it, you’d lose your citizenship, and your rights. Therefore, property in Tenpony Tower was the most expensive thing in the Wasteland. And shops were the most prized possessions.

And Van Graff managed to have one for free. Now you understand why everypony knew the story, and why he was so envied by most Wastelanders.

(** **)

I had packed up the map and the heavy files from the safe, but there was one last thing I had to do before leaving Crowneigh’s office. While Friendship City was more lax in their security checks than, say, Tenpony, I was pretty much sure murdering (and robbing) a long-term resident was off-limits. Of course, from the corpse alone, there was no way they could know I was the culprit. At worse, they would know I had used a 9mm handgun – not really a big deal.

Trouble is, if Crowneigh had left any document about me somewhere in his office, there was a chance my name would end on the sheriff’s desk. I had a tacit agreement with her: she knew I was in wet business, but she was looking the other way as long as I wasn’t making any trouble in her town. I was, after all, a source of income for the local residents.

But should she ever realize I was working with the late Mr. Crowneigh, she wouldn’t take long to connect the dots.

Of course, I could go to her office, tell her my side of the story, and hope for the better. But I wasn’t going to take any chance with that.

Really, trusting the Wasteland’s justice system was pure suicide.

So I did the next best thing, and as the fire from my lighter started spreading to the dry books in front of me, I told myself I now had to get away with arson, murder and caps stealing.

(** **)

I hate Mint-Als.

I had barely left Friendship City when the effects of the wonder pills had worn off, and all of sudden I was left with a nasty hangover and the terrible feeling of growing dumber every second.

To be fair, I had it coming. When the box of some kind of temporary brain improvement warns you about eating more than one, and you end up downing the whole pack regardless, you should expect a backfire of some sort.

But this particular hangover simply wasn’t from this world. The pain seared my brain, and I felt like I had rusty iron scalpels clawing the inside of my skull.

Leaning against a decrepit wall, I puked what little I had in my stomach. I was in sorry shape, and I wondered what kind of maniac had invented the pills in the first place.

The wall didn’t have an answer, so I carried on.

I had a small underground shack in Manehattan. It was a non-collapsed basement in the Western part of the town.

It wasn’t really far from Friendship City – but it felt like forever.

(** **)

When I woke up, I was starting to feel a bit better. My head still throbbed, but the nausea had calmed, and I raided my personal first aid kit for a dose of Med-X. The pain subsided, and I relaxed at last.

There were many drugs in the Wasteland, and almost all of them had some interesting effects. Some of them turned you into a merciless berserker, while other would make you feel strong like a buffalo. Med-X, in particular, was a very powerful painkiller.

Trouble is, they also had side effects.

Ironically enough, most of them were the exact opposite of what the drug did in the first place. A lack of Dash would make you slow; an addiction to Hydra would prevent your body from regenerating.
Med-X was different, in that it didn’t have a high addiction rate. Yet, if you used it to much, you’d just end up not realizing you’d been wounded, and that you had been bleeding all over on the carpet for the last ten minutes. It made you immune to pain, not bullet-proof.

In short? Combat drugs ended up killing you more often than saving you.

But the most vicious of all drugs was Fixer. A shot of Fixer could help you compensate for the withdrawal effects of the others drugs.
The downside? Well it’s all in your head. You’re still addicted, it’s still chewing you inside, and once your dose of Fixer had worn off, you’d feel even worse than before.
Cherry on the poisoned cake: it also gives you permanent hallucinations.

And do you know what is worse than one of those drugs?

Taking several of them, at the same time.

The practice was known as cocktail making by the raiders. They are very fond of it, because a mix of Dash, Rage, Buck and Med-X was making you feel like a GOD.

That is, until your heart decides to go on a permanent strike.

This is why I hadn’t jumped the Med-X the day before. The Goddesses only knew what chemicals were in PMT, and how it was going to interact with the painkillers once in my veins. I was no doctor or chemist, I had no idea what could happen. And honestly? I really didn’t want to know.

(** **)

My shack sure wasn’t a palace, but it was mine, and that made me luckier than many ponies in the Wasteland.

It was a six-by-five meter room, located under a collapsed building. I had found the entrance by mere luck years ago, when I was still hoping to find some loot in this part of the town. I had lost my balance and fell into a hole, which turned out to be a staircase. Down the stairs was a metal door. It was closed, but I had managed to pick the lock, and inside I found a skeleton waiting for me. I don’t know who this filly was, and I didn’t really care. All it mattered is that she had the door’s key with her, and once I dumped the bones outside I had a place to call my own.

There wasn’t much furniture in the small basement to start with, only shelves covered by useless junk I soon threw away, a couple crates, and a dusty, cracked mirror. Soon enough, I had dragged a bed there (well, a mattress to be exact), along with a footlocker, and a small safe I found in an old vandalized shop a few streets away. The looters hadn’t taken the safes themselves, which was kind of moronic since a safe with a key was a rare occurrence in the Wasteland. It had been a pain to bring back to my shack, but now I could proudly say my fortune wasn’t stashed under my mattress.

Not that it would be confortable, come to think of it. Who in hell had invented this stupid expression anyway?

But the hardest piece of furniture to set up had been the workbench. I had to struggle to break him apart, struggle to move the pieces, and then struggle to put them back together. I ended up with more bolts that I needed, somehow, and I had lost a screwdriver somewhere in the process.

But now I had a workbench! That meant I could repair my stuff without having to pay an exorbitant fee to some con vendor. I still had to buy the extra parts, but Chrystal was happy to oblige, as long as I paid.

I swear, if this filly could marry a bag of caps, she’d do it without the slightest hesitation.

This being said, it wasn’t the reason I had come back to my shack. Sure, I had a pristine barrel in my saddlebags, but my rifle’s wasn’t really worn up yet. It could still shoot a good hundred times before starting to get warped.

No, I needed to empty my saddlebags of all the stuff that didn’t need to come with me at Tenpony, namely Crowneigh’s files, my rifle, most of my ammunition, the ‘obvious’ part of my lockpicking kit, and other things that would give away the nature of my usual business. There was no way I could sneak around the security in Tenpony, so I had to trick them into believing I wasn’t dangerous.

I undressed, and spread my leather armor on a crate. It was sticky with blood, sweat and dirt, and I noted I should take the time to clean it up, someday.

Then, I faced the mirror, and thought about my options to stay anonymous in Tenpony.

I wasn’t really standing out to start with. Grey coat, dark mane, brown eyes. No particular scars – though Crowneigh’s bullet would probably leave a dim one under my fur – nor birthmarks. I had a small frame, but I wasn’t short either.

For a moment, I thought about cropping and dying my mane, but I dismissed the idea. I didn’t have any dye, and changing my hair wouldn’t probably make a big difference.

Plus, I kinda liked my ponytail.

I turned sideways to have a better look on the rest of my body. My cutie mark was probably going to be the one feature I had that could betray my line of job. If the security took a good look at the stylized bullets on my hindquarters, they were probably going to be quite suspicious of me. While they probably wouldn’t connect the mark with I, Spring, Assassin Extraordinaire, it was unlikely I could make them believe I was a toaster repairpony or something.

Fortunately, I had a solution. I turned away from the mirror, and after a quick search I pulled an old Stable jumpsuit from a footlocker. I put it on, and soon enough I was looking like a dumb Stable Dweller.

Well, except for the lack of a Pipbuck, but I hoped I could get away with a lie on this point. Hopefully nopony was going to notice it.

Then, I emptied what remained in my saddlebags in the footlocker, and fastened them back on my hips. I filled them with two or three can of food from the shelves, a couple bottles of purified water, a survival guide in the Wasteland (the more they underestimated me, the better!), a flashlight, and a small bag of bottlecaps.

Finally, I removed my pistol’s holster from my leather barding, and braced it on my chest. I emptied the rounds from the pistol itself, and replaced them with some cheap, junk ammunition. I knew it was forbidden to enter in Tenpony with live ammunition, but I couldn’t show up with an empty weapon without looking suspicious.

I also added two dozen junk rounds in my saddlebags for good measure.

Now the filly in the mirror looked like she had just been kicked out her Stable, and had spent a rough week outside before arriving to Tenpony.

It was perfect.

There was one last thing I needed to do before leaving, though.

My grumbling stomach reminded me there were, in fact, two things I had to do before leaving.

I levitated a corn can from a shelve, and proceeded to open it. I groaned in annoyance when my telekinesis failed to remove the cap, and finally I used a screwdriver and a wrench to liberate my meal.

While I was munching my two-hundred-year-old corn (filled with so much conservative it probably wasn’t even organic anymore), I pondered the last step of my plan: smuggling some ammunition in.

Believe it or not, hiding a couple magazines of 9mm rounds isn’t as easy as it sounds. You simply can’t stash them in your mane, or in a secret pocket. People often underestimate the volume and the weight of a fifteen-round clip. Two fully loaded magazines, it’s two four-by-twelve metallic boxes weighing two hundred grams each. It may not seem much, but try to hide them in your mane, tail or wonder-secret-pocket.

Of course, you could still stick one of them in one of your body cavities, but I wasn’t fond of the idea at all. Besides, I had been told the security had scanning spells, so it wouldn’t work very well in this situation.

So, I had to be sharper than whoever was going to search me. But how was I going to smuggle my precious ammunition?

My eyes felt on the now empty corn can, and I had an idea.

(** **)

“Well, well, well,” the guard sneered, “look what we have here. Thought we wouldn’t see the cartridges in your mouth, maybe?”

“Youch can’ch forbid me to cawwy a weapon,” the other stallion literally spat. As the last bullets – it looked like some .22LR – fell from his mouth, his elocution returned to normal. “It’s my right!”

The guard shrugged, as two of his colleagues (Celestia’s holly nipples, they were huge!) arrived to kick the poor stallion out.

“Weapons are all right,” the bouncer answered. “It’s live ammo we don’t like. Take him away, fellas, I’m sick and tired of morons thinking we hadn’t seen everything yet.”

I gulped. It turned out the security was even tighter than I had imagined, and there was a whole waiting room dedicated to the ponies in want of access to the Tower. A talkative colt next to me had explained to his friends (and to whoever wanted to listen to him) it was because the new chief of the security hadn’t been very happy with the old protocols. He pretended the previous guards had let in the Stable Dweller herself without even recognizing her, and had totally bought the terrible excuse she had given them.

It seemed quite ridiculous to me, since the Stable Dweller was said to carry an absolute armory with her, along with companions so badass they shone of awesomeness in the dark.
In short, the kind of pony I wouldn’t touch with a thousand yard pole. They usually were bullet magnets.

My thoughts were cut short by the bouncers coming back to their post after kicking the poor stallion out. I could swear there was some blood on their heavy horseshoes, but it was probably only my imagination.

“Next,” the guard stated.

It was my turn. I stood shakily, and reluctantly headed for the examination room.

I stopped in front of the guard, who gauged me head to tail. Something glittered in his eyes, and my throat went dry.

“Hmm…”, he said, his voice unreadable, “Do I know you from somewhere?”

“I… I don’t think so,” I answered, hoping he wouldn’t notice the shake in my voice. “Sir,” I quickly added.

He circled around me, and I could almost feel his gaze on my back.

“Are you sure?”, he continued. “What is your name?”

“My name’s Autumn. Sir.”

“I guess you’re right. I wouldn’t have forgotten a name like that,” he chuckled. I relaxed a bit. “Do you have anything to declare?”

“I, uh… I have a loaded gun?”

“So do I, girl, so do I,” he mumbled.

He was still behind me, and a cold chill froze me to the bones. I turned my head, and was about to draw my pistol when I realized his plasma rifle was still securely fastened on his back. He was still looking at me, unmoving. I froze, unsure of what was going on.

Then I noticed his eyes weren’t exactly on my face.

“Hey, stop staring at my ass,” I snapped.

From the cheers in the waiting room, I may have yelled it a bit too loud than it was necessary.

“Go get ‘em, chap! She’s a wild one!”

“Sorry, I’m not into stallions”, I deadpanned. It was a blatant lie, but I sure wasn’t going to bed somepony who would throw me in jail as soon as he had seen my cutie mark.

The two other bouncers started laughing, and the guard furiously blushed. Uh, he wasn’t so tough after all!

“Ah, uhm…”, he stammered, struggling to find his words. Goodness above, if I was having such an effect on him, what would a mare like Chrystal do just by shaking her tail?

He turned his back to me, and grabbed a paper form on a nearby desk. Then, he started coming back toward me, halted, turned around, went back to the desk, and grabbed a plastic paper box.

He held it toward me, and explained:

“Please drop all the items forbidden in the Tower in this basket. I fear it includes the ammunition for your pistol, miss, but, uh, the place is safe, and you can buy rubber bullets pretty much anywhere. Don’t worry, they will be returned to you when you leave. Err…”

For a second, he seemed to have lost his train of thought. I hoped it hadn’t come back to my hindquarters.

“And what about the form?” I asked, feeling charitable.

“Oh, yeah, the form. It’s just a formality. It helps us know who gets in. So we don’t let dangerous ponies through, you see? You can use this room right here, if you want some privacy.”

He motioned toward a door on the side. I headed there without a word, and found a small desk inside. The guard followed me.

I started filling the form without a word. After a whole minute of silence, he added:

“Well, uh, I’m going back to my security checks. Call me if you need anything.”

Yeah, like I was going to need help to fill a stupid form!

(** **)

“44) Have you ever been or are now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in raider activities; or slaving; or in the last ten years were you involved, in any way, in events in Fillydelphia, Marypony, or implying the Unity, Red Eye, the Goddess or any of their allies?” I read. “What kind of question is that!?”

I ticked a big cross under ‘No’, and carried on.

“45) Have you ever been or are now involved in terrorist activities, including but not limited to assassinations, bombings, hijackings, etc., or are planning an involvement of some sort in the future?”

Uh, let’s say ‘no’.

“46) Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving moral turpitude or a violation related to a controlled substance; or have been arrested or convicted for two or more offenses for which the aggregate sentence to confinement was two months or more; or have been a controlled substance trafficker; or are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?”

What the hell does moral turpitude even mean!? I ticked another ‘no’ on the form. I turned the page, and groaned when I realized the questions carried on on the other side.

“47) Have you ever detained, retained or withheld custody of a child from a Tenpony citizen granted custody of the child?”

(** **)

Ten painful minutes later, I had finished filling the form at long last. Honestly, I felt a bit insulted by the questions. I mean, even if I was seeking entry to commit a burglary, I wasn’t dumb enough to admit it on a form! Even raiders weren’t that stupid.

I called the guard, and hoofed him the paper and the box. His eyes skimmed the form, and seemed apparently satisfied that I wasn’t a slaver or a child abductor.

“I now need to check your bags, miss,” he apologized.

I complied without a word, and soon a couple water bottle, a worn-out map, three food cans, some nightwear (the guard couldn’t hide his blush), the Wastelander Survival Guide, a flashlight and some caps were disposed on the desk.

He barely looked at them, turned toward me. His horn glowed for a moment as he was casting his scanning spell on me, then went out. He motioned me to put my stuff back into my bags.

“It looks like you’re clear. Just one last thing you need to do,” he stammered. “I need you to remove your jumpsuit, so I can see your cutie mark.”

Aaaaand I’m doomed. I was already picturing myself hanging from the top of the Tower with a ‘There be dumb raiders’ sign strapped to my chest.

Reluctantly, I started removing my suit. The guard’s eyes didn’t leave me for a second.

Then! A miracle happened.

As I was about to free my hindquarters, a bouncer popped his head through the doorway, and let out an unamused growl.

“Snap Shot, mind telling me what the fuck you think you’re doing?”

The guard jumped, and turned to face his colleague. I took advantage of the situation to pull my suit back on my shoulders.

“Oh! Shield… Well, I was…” he blabbered. “You know, standard procedures? I need her cutie mark for the paperwork, you know?”

The bouncer turned his gaze toward me, and his face softened a bit. Then, he went back to Snap Shot, and his scowl reappeared.

“Like hell you are! All you want is get an eyeful of this poor filly! Don’t you have any shame? We are the good guys, for Luna’s sake, and you’re traumatizing a lone Stable Dweller who probably doesn’t even how to use her gun! Damn it, just look at her! She’s shaking like a leaf!”

I was, but not exactly for the right reasons.

“That means I don’t have to undress?” I asked, hopeful. I was going to be all right!

“Well, no. It’s the standard procedure. You just won’t have to do it in front of this freak.”

“Hey, I’m not a freak!” Snap Shot snapped. “Can’t I flirt with whoever I want?”

“Not when you’re supposed to be on guard duty,” Shield growled. “Now get out. I’ll handle it from here. Or maybe you want me to report you to the boss?”

Snap Shot mumbled something unintelligible, but complied nonetheless. Soon enough, I was alone in the room with my ‘savior’.

“Now,” he continued, “let us see this cutie mark, shall we?”

Aaaaand I’m doomed.

(** **)

“Of course it’s a leaf!” I squeaked. “Why would anyone have a bullet for a special talent?”

“You’ll have to admit, it does look like a bullet. I don’t know, your special talent could be shooting ponies for all I know.”

“Me? A killer?” I croaked. Doomed, doomed, dooooomed!

The bouncer shrugged.

“Everybody’s a killer in this country. I’m afraid you’ll have to find it out by yourself sooner or later. The Wasteland is a harsh place, you know?”

He shrugged again, and motioned the ‘leaf’ on my hindquarters.

“In the end, cutie marks don’t mean anything, really. You could have a box of staples plastered to your flanks and still be a serial killer. Hell, those monsters from the Unity don’t even have one. It’s like they are all mass fabricated.”

He paused, lost in thoughts.

“Can I put my clothes back on now?” I pleaded. “I feel naked.

“Of course, of course,” he replied, taking a last look at my cutie mark. He scribbled something on a notepad, and gave me a warm smile.

“Well, everything’s in order, it seems. Welcome to Tenpony Tower, Miss Autumn. I hope you’ll have a nice stay.”

(** **)

Note for myself: next time I try to enter in Tenpony Tower, I paint over my cutie mark so it looks like a big, grinning sun, and not a freakin’ bullet.

Also, I try to be controlled by a mare, and not a stallion in heat! I mean, getting some attention is nice once in a while, but this one was seriously freaking me out. I don’t know how it would have all ended if it were not for his nice colleague.
Besides, aren’t mares the only gender supposed to have heat season in the first place? What was driving this guy anyway? Simple lust?

I winced. I’ll admit my knowledge in masculine anatomy and psychology was kinda lacking. Maybe Chrystal would accept to give me lessons to get rid of annoying wooers?

Well, anyway, I was inside now, and hopefully the worse was behind me.

I exited the security checkpoint, and stopped on my tracks, speechless.

I had entered a gigantic lobby, paved in white and pink marble. Far above me, a heavy chandelier was casting a soft, orange light shimmering like it was made of a thousand candles. Everywhere my eyes dropped, there was something leaving me in awe, and the whole room shined of a pristine cleanness. It was a marvel to behold, and suddenly I understood why Tenpony Tower was called by some the Jewel of the Wastelands. It was luxurious beyond reason, and I found myself daydreaming about retiring to such a place.

I shook my head to remove the silly idea. There was no way I was ever going to live in here. Even if I somehow managed to fool repeatedly the security about my special talent (“It’s a leaf!”, duh), I could never afford to buy even a closet in here.

And even if I did, I would still need to wait a decade to acquire my citizenship – because my name’s not Van Graff.

I put my mind back on its tracks. I had a job to do. Once the DERTA is cracked open, and its treasures in my hooves, I could think about becoming the next Van Graff. All I needed was the key, and then I’d be gone.

Still, as I passed under the huge golden chandelier, I couldn’t help but contemplate the wonders around me.

(** **)

There were very few things that actually drove ponies from the Wasteland into coming to Tenpony Tower, and the Mall was one of them. I do not know what the gigantic complex was before the Apocalypse, but I knew for sure it was now Equestria’s biggest shopping center.

Anything you wanted, you could find it at the Mall – given you could afford it. There were a few exceptions, for sure: slavery was strictly forbidden, and if you wanted to buy live ammunition your purchases would have to wait for you at the exit. But otherwise, it was a trader’s wet dream.

As I lazily strolled between the stalls, I eyed the over-equipped guards, barded in combat armor and sporting plasma rifles. Up on the walls, surveillance cameras swiped the area again and again, and I had no doubt there was somepony, somewhere in the tower, who was watching everything. It was unnerving to say the least, but not unexpected. Well, for one, I hadn’t done anything wrong (yet), so Big Brother in his Ivory Tower could watch me all day long if he wanted to.

I stopped in front of a stall featuring long rifles. One of them was a huge anti-material, .50cal sniper rifle, in pristine shape. The bolt had obviously been modified, but whoever did it was obviously backed up by serious skills. As I picked it up, I noticed it was lighter than it should have been – maybe the same ingenious handypony had also replaced some parts with composite materials. To my surprise, I could even handle it without using the bipod.

I think by then I had started drooling on it, because the shopkeeper unceremoniously pulled the wonder weapon from my grasp, and put it back on the stand.

“Girl”, he said, eying my worn jumpsuit, “I don’t believe you can afford this kind of equipment.”

I sighed. Of course I couldn’t afford it. Usually, it wasn’t really a problem – I would just come back during the night to steal it – but I was in the freakin’ Mall. There was no way I could just grab the gun and make a run for it.

I took a look at the rest of the stall. It reminded me a bit of Chrystal’s, yet something was missing.

And I wasn’t talking about the handsome shopmare.

I approached a Stable security barding strapped to a mannequin, and carefully touched it with the tip of my hoof. The plating was old, even if it had been painted over, and I still could see where some bullets had gone through the less armored parts. Come to think of it, I’d never seen any trace of use on the stuff I’d bought from Chrystal.

“It had seen a lot of fight,” I though aloud. “His previous owner probably ended his life in a painful fashion.”

“You’d be surprised to see how resilient those armors actually are,” the shopkeeped interjected. “Why, I have been told Security herself had been saved countless time by her’s!”

I shrugged. I had been told the Mare from the East had been traveling with a minigun-carrying goddess, an immortal Reaper, a psycho gay pony with a grenade launcher and a one-winged angel. If I had a bottlecap for each piece of bullshit I had been served, by now I would be rich and I would have opened a freakin’ restaurant!

“Well, if Security feels safe in her armor…”, I trailed, as an idea germinated in my head. “Do you have any energy weapons, by the way?”

The shopkeeper froze, and slowly shook his head.

“I fear not,” he apologized. “If you want that kind of weaponry, I’m afraid you will have to go to the Silver Rush, right over there.”

He pointed toward one of the Mall entrances.

I frowned, feigning being surprised.

“The Silver Rush?” I repeated. “The name seems familiar.”

“That’s not surprising. The place is owned and run by Mr. Van Graff in person. He is well known for his… oddities.”

Now my curiosity was genuine.

“Oddities? What do you mean?”

“Well,” – the shopkeeper grabbed a rag from his belt, and started shining the armor – “I am not one for gossip, yet I cannot help but be a bit… worried.”

He froze a second, then continued:

“I do not deny the Van Graff family had done great deeds for the tower in the past, and my own father was a close friend of Van Graff the third, the progenitor of the current Van Graff… Yes, I know their names can be confusing, but you get used to it surprisingly fast. But Junior is not like his father. He has no friends, no wife… And now that his father passed away, no family whatsoever. He believes everypony want to steal what is rightfully his. This is why I do no trade in energy weapons: I do not want to be in trouble with him.”

I thanked him, and moved on to the next stall.

To me, Van Graff seemed to have a serious case of paranoia. It wasn’t going to make the things any easier for me, yet from what I understood he was living alone, and was tending to his shop himself.

That meant I could raid wherever he was living during the day, while he was away, without any risk of getting caught.

Ironically, most people thought burglaries were done during the night, when everypony was asleep. When it came to shops, it was indeed true – but when it comes to emptying somepony’s home, it is way easier to do it during the day. Most of the time, nopony was there for hours: you could make as much noise as you wanted, and take your time to search all the rooms for valuables. “But there are people in the streets”, some would argue. “Somepony would try to stop you.”

Two words: watch me.

Most ponies didn’t give a damn about their neighbors getting robbed. It wasn’t their problem; besides, burglars always came at night, right? So the four ponies who were emptying the house were probably friends with the owner!

Boy, I love this job.

(** **)

I continued my window-shopping, but I soon come to realize there wasn’t much for me to do in the Mall. Most shops were overpriced, and I didn’t bring many caps in the first place.

I did see a lot of nice things, though, like a helmet with integrated E.F.S. and night vision (what’s better than having your enemies on your radar? Having your enemies, on your radar, during the night!), boots that suppressed your hoofsteps, food that hadn’t spent two century in a basement, knives that cut, grenades that exploded (delivered on your way out, of course), cheeses that smelled (though this particular shop seemed closed for some reason), and even, yes, a PipBuck for sale! Available for the discounted price of ‘one kidney, your soul, and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine caps’.

I’m not even sure the vendor realized a hundred thousand caps weighed about two hundred kilograms. How could anypony get so rich in the first place anyway? Sure, there had been twice as much cash put on the head of Security (or so I’ve been told), but when the bounty was to be given by Usury from Paradise Falls, it didn’t take a genius to realize she never had the intention of rewarding anyone in the first place.

It is the slavers’ kingdom, after all. They didn’t even have a good reputation to maintain, and while bounty hunters like myself weren’t especially loved in the Wastelands, slavers were downright hated. The only ones who drew more negative feelings were raiders – and that’s saying a lot.

Eventually, I grew tired of inspecting gear I probably never will be able to afford, and headed to the Silver Rush.

It was time to meet the infamous Van Graff!

(** **)

The Silver Rush wasn’t like the other shops in the Mall.

For starter, it wasn’t in the Mall per see, but closer to the living quarters. Why there, and not with the others? I had no idea. Maybe it had something to do with the Van Graff’s family history; regardless, there were fewer cameras here, but it didn’t make an intrusion any easier, which drove me to the second reason the Silver Rush was one of a kind:

There was a bouncer, and no shop display whatsoever.

It looked like anything but a shop, and I would have never known it was the place I was looking for if it wasn’t for the huge silver letters and the silver bolts painted on the wall.

Underneath had been added “Charged with no extra charges”, and “Energy weapons only – gunpowder can f-”.

Somepony had painted over the end of the sentence, but the message was pretty straightforward. No guns, duly noted.

Sighing, I made my way toward the entrance, only to be stopped by the bouncer.

He didn’t say anything, but glared at the pistol still strapped to my chest. As I levitated the incriminating item out of his holster, he motioned his head toward a footlocker behind him.

Reluctantly, I complied, and put my sole weapon inside the small crate. Then, I entered the Silver Rush.

(** **)

If I ever had any doubt about Van Graff’s paranoia, that instantly went down the sink as I took notice of the interior of the shop. There was no less than four laser turrets in the cramped room… and thick iron bars protected the weapons in the display. The cashier’s desk occupied the back of the shop, but a metal railing was cutting the place in half. Heavy locks closed the gates, and the floor had been covered with brushed steel plating. The place looked more like a prison than a shop, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit claustrophobic in there.

I was, after all, trying to rob the owner.

“Can I help you?” asked a male voice. I shuddered, and turned to see Van Graff.

He was not exactly like I had imagined. Where I would have expected an elderly maniac unicorn, I found an adult Earth pony in his forties. With his electric blue coat and neon green mane, he even looked like an energy weapon, and I was ready to bet a fair price his cutie mark was also related.

I couldn’t know, though, because it was obscured by a combat armor, completed by two frightening twin plasma rifles. The guy carried guns even in his own shop!?

“Hm, yes,” I blabbed, wondering how in hell I was going to rob this guy. “I need, uh, energy cells. For a plasma defender. Yeap, that’s right, a plasma defender.”

Van Graff seemed to gauge me for a second, and frowned when his gaze rested on the empty holster on my chest.

“It doesn’t look like it was made for a plasma pistol”, he snipped. “I don’t deal with lower grade merchandises.”

A trail of cold sweat started running against my neck, and I hoped my fur would hide the most of it.

“It’s for a friend,” I added, mentally facepalming for the terrible excuse. “He would like to come here himself, but he can’t enter in Tenpony.”

My mind blanked for a second, as I realized what I had just said. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

“He can’t?” he repeated, now clearly suspicious. “And why is that? I hope he is not a raider of some sort.”

“He, uh…”, I looked around, at lost for words.

“… he’s a ghoul,” I finished, Sunburn coming to my mind. He probably wouldn’t shot me for knowing a ghoul, right?

My gaze fell back on Van Graff and his terrifying battlesaddle.

“Besides, he wouldn’t agree to part with his guns,” I added quickly. “But he’s a great fan of your wares, so he asked me to buy him some ‘quality consumables’, as he put it.”

Van Graff looked surprised for a second, then smiled.

“Well I can’t blame him for not coming then!” he agreed. “Like I always say, a polite society is an armed society! Too bad those stuck-ups upper in the tower do not share our feelings, uh? Not to mention this whole ‘no ghouls’ business. I swear they are sometimes less rotten than some ponies around here!”

He turned his back toward a shelve, and opened the bars.

“So you need energy cells for a plasma defender. I reckon it is the model 86 from Glock?”

I nodded, too relieved to answer.

“Good. I have different kind of small energy cells compatible with the 86,” he said, motioning toward four stacks of ammunition. “The ones right here are standard cells, I sell them for three caps each. They’re cheap, they’re reliable, but they aren’t using your weapon’s full potential. The ones with the orange bands are overcharged, and those with red bands have the maximum charge you can put in a cell so small without making it unstable. They are more expensive, of course, but you’ll shoot truer and stronger. It’ll wear down your weapon more than standards cells though.”

I though back to my own (powder-based) over-loaded cartridges, and at the speed it munched through my rifle chamber. Given the price of plasma weapons, using those kind of cells meant you would probably ended up spending more caps in repairs than in ammunition.

“And what about the blue bands?” I pointed the last stack.

“Ah, those are my little babies,” Van Graff laughed. “They are optimized cells. They carry almost as much kick as the overcharged, but do next to no damage to the plasma emitters. I also noticed I could often shoot a couple more bolts than with the standard cells.”

He grabbed one with his hoof, and stared at it, pensive.

“My father invented the formula, decades ago,” he added, a tinge of sadness in his voice. “You won’t find them anywhere else.”

I took a closer look at the small cell, but blue band aside I couldn’t see any notable difference between it and the others on the shelves. To be honest, I never was a plasma aficionado.

“I guess those are the ones my friend wanted,” I said. “He asked for half a hundred caps worth of them.”

Van Graff shrugged. “Probably. He could have gone anywhere else to get the other kinds.”

He glanced at me.

“You know, it is kind of weird to send somepony here just for fifteen cells or so,” he continued. “Especially for such a common weapon.”

I realized he wasn’t buying it. I changed my tactic.

“I guess I just wanted to visit the shop,” I mumbled.

I looked at my hooves, scratching the ground in what I hoped was a decent imitation of shame. I wasn’t a very good comedian, but I didn’t really have to act to feel uneasy.

Van Graff bit the hook.

“And why’s that?” he asked, obviously curious.

“Wellll…” I trailed. “I, um, usually do not use energy weapons. I reckon I wouldn’t have even considered setting a hoof in here without an excuse to look around.”

It wasn’t a lie either, per see. The two facts simply weren’t connected.

For a few seconds, the stallion seemed too stunned to react, and then burst into laughter. At first I feared he was going to roll on the ground and start firing plasma bolts everywhere.

“Oh Goddesses above,” he managed between two breathes, “you mean you were too shy to just get here and take a look around?”

I nodded, and blushed when I realized it was mostly true. Of course he wouldn’t shoot a potential client! It was afterward I really should be careful.

Van Graff’s fit of laugher lasted half a minute longer, before he reverted to his salespony self, a grin still on his lips.

“I am sorry if I offended you,” he apologized, probably not failing to notice my embarrassment. “But you’ll admit it is quite funny you act like it is something to be ashamed of.”

“My family and plasma weapons never really got along,” I confessed. It wasn’t a lie either: my mother had a laser pistol, and my father was fond of the smell of burnt gunpowder. No plasma guns in my close family that I knew off.

“Oh. I see.” Van Graff put the energy cell back on its stack, and closed the bars. “I would have felt the same if I had found myself in front of a powder-only weapon shop, I guess.”

He smirked.

“But it would have been very unlikely,” he continued, “because energy weapons are simply better than those worthless junk most ponies call guns. You see…”

(** **)

I had left the Silver Rush about an hour later. Once Van Graff had started talking about energy weapons, there was no stopping him. It gave me plenty time to gauge the situation.

My conclusions weren’t very reassuring: if his home was anything like his shop, I was going to get toasted as soon as I set a hoof in there.

But fortunately, even through the thick security grids in the Silver Rush I could see he wasn’t living there. The only access seemed to be the front door, and there wasn’t any bed or kitchen behind the cashier’s desk, only unopened crates. It meant Van Graff had a house somewhere, and that he was leaving his shop by the front door. All I needed to do was to wait for him to get out, and then follow him home.

(** **)

I waited in a corner for Van Graff to close his shop. I had entered Tenpony in the early afternoon, but given the time I spent in security just to get to the lobby, the hour or so I spent taking a look around the Mall, and then the visit to the Silver Rush, I figured I wouldn’t have to wait too much.

Ninety minutes after setting up in my dark corner, Van Graff left his shop. He told something to the bouncer, who grumbled back. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I reckoned he was dismissing him. The bouncer left, and as he passed near me I squeezed up in the shadows, hoping he hadn’t noticed me. Then, he was gone, and Van Graff stood alone in front of his shop.

From behind a marble column some distance away, I observed him locking the door a first time… then a second time… then a third time. Then, with a satisfied grunt, he put the keys back around his neck, and walked away.

Sneaking from hiding place to hiding place, I followed him in the halls and corridors. He walked in a straight line, not giving a single glance to the ponies around him. Whoever he passed by discreetly razed the walls without making eye contact with the stallion. I gulped; even his ‘friends’ seemed to be afraid of him. The merchant’s words came back to my mind. Van Graff didn’t strike me as particularly unbearable when I saw him in the Silver Rush, but there was probably more to his character than he let on.

He only stopped once, to shake something from under his hoof. Otherwise, he didn’t engage in any conversations or distractions.

Soon enough, he arrived before an elevator, and entered the cage before pressing some button.

As the steel doors closed behind him, I cursed under my breath. There was no way I could follow him in an elevator: it would have been far too suspicious.

I looked around, but there didn’t seem to be any stairs. I cursed again, this time a bit louder.

I needed to find another way to find Van Graff’s place.

(** **)

Usually, when I am looking for somepony, all I have to do is finding some nice pony and ask them for directions. While most resident were wary of strangers, to them this kind of information was considered as public knowledge. Directions to some random’s pony workplace were harmless, right?

Then, I simply follow them home from afar, and get to work during the night.

Trouble is, I couldn’t simply ask somepony for Van Graff’s place. Most ponies would show me the way to the Silver Rush and tell me to wait for him to come back in the morning.

It was Tenpony Tower, after all. The residents were really wary of strangers.

I needed to find another way. And a map.

Thankfully, I knew the Tower was keeping a close track of its citizens. There probably wasn’t a single closet in this place that didn’t belong to somepony, and I reckoned a land registry of some sort existed somewhere. Its access certainly was restricted, of course, but with any luck I probably could break in, read the files, and get out without getting caught.

And while Tenpony’s residents were unlikely to give me directions to Van Graff’s, they probably would if I asked for some kind of administration.

(** **)

“Uh, excuse me, miss,” I called out some random pony near the Mall. “Would you mind giving me some directions?”

The mare looked at me, snorted, and walked away. I let out a long, tired sigh.

When I was little, Pa’ had taught me the elements of a good plan. “Never underestimate the pony factor”, he’d told me. I supposed he wanted to share with me the tricks he learned doing his job of head of the caravan security, maybe he even thought I’d be the one to take his place someday.

And now here I was, lost in a place supposed to be the most civilized in the Wastelands, because nopony was willing to give me a couple seconds of their precious time.

The pony factor in a nutshell: if somepony can act like a dick, they will.

Tenponites citizens were no exception it seemed.

Most didn’t even bother trying to find an excuse or something. They just kept their gaze straight ahead, pretending not to acknowledge my presence. Sometimes I wonder why I usually go such a long way to sneak around, when asking around for help instantly make you invisible.

I gritted my teeth as yet another pony walked by without sparing me the smallest glance.

“Can I help you, miss?”

I turned around. A tall, black coated stallion was standing in front of me. His face was oddly familiar.

“Yes, I believe you can,” I answered with a smile. “I am looking for the office handling the land registries.”

“I reckon it’d be Fiery Red’s office in the administration,” he replied, puzzled. “But I don’t see why an outsider could want to go there… Autumn, right?”

As he said my makeshift name, his identity suddenly clicked in my mind.

“You’re the kind guard who let me in earlier!” I exclaimed.

“I am,” he acknowledged with a smile, holding out his hoof toward me. “Name’s Liberty Shield.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I shook his hoof. “Ponies aren’t very friendly in this tower, are they?”

“Their trust is simply hard to gain,” he shrugged. “And some of them believe they are the new Equestrian nobility or something. But otherwise we got many good ponies in here, once they warmed up to you.”

“You’re the only one I saw,” I chuckled. “All the other ponies I met weren’t exactly pleasant to talk to.”

His grin fell a bit, and he seemed a bit uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry for my colleague’s behavior earlier,” he apologized. “Snap Shot isn’t a bad guy, but he can’t think straight when confronted with a mare he likes. He can become very… forward.”

I blushed, and stared at my left forehoof.

“I’ve noticed,” I mumbled, Snap Shot’s insistent gaze still in my mind.

There was a pregnant pause.

“So, this Fiery Red is the mare I’m looking for? Where is her office?” I continued.

“It’s on the third level. Follow the signs to the administration, you can’t miss it.” He paused. “But the whole area closed more than an hour ago. You’ll find nothing but closed doors over there now.”

I figured that much, but locks did little to worry me.

“Oh, wait,” he added all of sudden. “Look over there. You see the crimson mare with the half-burning scroll?”

He motioned toward two ponies crossing the hall a good twenty meters away from us. The mare he was referring to was engaged in a discussion with a dress-wearing, blue-on-grey filly.

“She’s Fiery Red,” I guessed.

“You should ask her directly,” Liberty Shield nodded, “or wait for the offices to open back tomorrow morning.”

He shifted on his hooves, and scratched his mane.

“I need to go,” he added. “I’m already late for dinner, and my wife will kill me if she learns I had stopped to help a pretty filly. Good luck!”

“Thank you again,” I answered, trying to phase out the ‘pretty filly’ part. I held out my hoof to him. “’till next time?”

“I hope it won’t be for another search at security,” he joked.

“Not that I would mind,” I answered in a chuckle.


“… that came out wrong,” I stammered with a blush. “I meant, that you’d be the one to search me, err… compared to your friend, you know?”

Okay, now I was looking like a moron. Great.

“Oh, Fiery’s getting away! Gotta go!”

I dashed off toward where I had last seen the two mares, leaving a dumbfounded Liberty Shield in my wake.

(** **)

A minute later, I had caught up with my targets. My breath was still ragged, and my short spring had little to do with it.

Was I really flirting with a guard?

I mentally slapped whatever part of my mind had come up with the idea. Was I getting suicidal?

To be fair, Shield had a good load of arguments for him. He was nice, kinda handsome, and had a stable job and a home in Tenpony Tower. He also did found me to be pretty, which was not a common occurrence.

Trouble is, the arguments against him were worrisome to say the least. I mean, come on, a guard. In Tenpony. To whom you gave a false name because you’re a criminal.

Oh, and did I mention he was already married?

‘Bad idea’ seemed quite the understatement in retrospect.

I shook my head, as my heartbeat returned to its normal rhythm, and focused on the two mares ahead.

Fiery Red’s parents didn’t strike me as very imaginative. With her crimson coat and her bright red mane, she looked like she had been set ablaze in a flameless fire. Her cutie mark represented some kind of scroll – a burning scroll. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, and I cared little about finding out. Two small saddlebags were hanging at her sides.

The second mare’s color didn’t stand out so much. Grey coat, electric blue mane. Her hindquarters were hidden by some kind of casual dress, and I couldn’t make out her cutie mark. A mischievous spark lighted her eyes. I found myself wondering what her job was. Clerk? Security? Shopmare?

For all I knew, she could have been the Stable Dweller.

I chuckled softly at the idea. She didn’t really fit the description, save for the grey coat. Besides, I had overhead DJ-P0n3 reporting her to be on the other side of Equestria not forty minutes before.

My targets were heading for a small restaurant, named ‘Le Gratin’ or something. French food? Yuck. Last time I ate croissants, they had spent two hundred years in a powered off freezer.

It tasted like radigator’s liver.

Culinary memories aside, they were obviously in search of a meal. A loud grumble from my stomach reminded me I hadn’t eaten anything since the morning.

Three options proposed themselves: I could either wait for them to come out, and eat some canned food to calm my hunger, and then follow Fiery home; I could drop the chase wholly, and directly head for the offices (and hope for the better); or I could follow them into the restaurant, have a nice meal, and try to steal her keys or something.

I wasn’t very fond of running blindly in the administrative level. While most locks probably wouldn’t stop me, I had no idea how many I would have to pick, and each second that I spent playing with a locked door was a second I spent vulnerable in the middle of some unknown corridor. Keys would save me a lot of trouble.

Not to mention many pre-war automated security systems identified friends from foes by looking at the badge they were wearing. The idea of getting shot at by a three-meter tall armored robot with miniguns didn’t strike me as very appealing, and while Van Graff’s home probably didn’t have huge freakin’ death machines guarding it, I didn’t want to take any chance in the administrative levels.

Following Fiery Red home would spare me from having to eat overpriced food in a French restaurant, but on the other hoof I didn’t want to repeat the disaster the Van Graff tracking had been.

Following her into the restaurant was the most hazardous option. Still, unlike Van Graff, they had never seen me in their life: for all they knew, I was yet another Stable Dweller enjoying a nice lunch at the table behind them. Getting the keys would be tricky for sure, but with any luck the two of them were involved in a relationship of some sort and would be too busy looking at each other to realize I was looting their bags.

Plus, if for some reason I couldn’t pickpocket her, the other options were still on the table.

Taking a deep breath, I entered the restaurant. What’s the worst that could happen anyway?

(** **)

“Thirty caps for a salad?”, I let out louder than I wanted to. From the blasé look of the clients around me, though, it was a common reaction.

“Yes, Madame,” answered the waiter with a French accent so counterfeit I wanted to choke him, “but it iz une zalade Armoricaine, prepared by our chef and grown in zis very tower in a non-polluted environment. It iz not a zalad – it iz ze zalad.”

I let out a very unladylike groan, and thought about the two mares right behind me. I didn’t dare take a look at them, but I reckoned I had their curiosity. Yet, if I could just stay in the restaurant a few minutes longer, I could probably drag Fiery’s bag toward me, snatch the keys, push it back, and be gone before the waiter came back with his ridiculous salade.

“Okay, fine,” I yielded, “but I swear it’s the last time I eat something healthy in my life!”

The waiter smiled and headed back to the kitchen. A long sigh escaped my lips. I grabbed the glass on the table, poured some purified water inside, and started sipping.

Then, casually, I leaned back, and started paying attention at my targets.

“… still don’t trust her.” was saying Fiery Red. “She knows too much. What do you think is going to happen if she starts talking about our speaker?”

“Well, I’ll just call her back and spank her for being a naughty filly,” the other chuckled. “Besides, this secret is not yours to keep, since I am the interested party.”

“It’s not a game, Homage!” hissed Fiery Red, softly slamming her hoof on the table. “What about the Society? The MAESEB? Celestia Prime? She doesn’t even like us!”

“I beg to differ,” Homage answered, unamused. “Accusing LittlePip of betraying us? You may as well say I’m sold to Red Eye’s cause.”

I took it as a clue to silently drag Fiery’s bag under the couchettes. It wasn’t very heavy, yet a cold sweat started rolling under my fur.

Slowly, I opened the latch, and began my search.

“I am not accusing her of anything,” the crimson mare continued, unaware. “I’m just worried. Rumors tell the Unity’s spawn can read minds, and I’m pretty much sure the Enclave has memories extraction devices. You are sheltered in the Tower, but your friend is roaming out there, trying to fight the whole world.”

Fiery had a lot of papers in her bag, but I couldn’t find her keys.

“It’d take a lot to bring her down,” asserted Homage. “Not to mention she’s not alone.”

“Oh, yeah, let’s talk about the Stable Dweller’s formidable companions,” snapped Fiery. “I did some researche, mind you. Calamity used to be Enclave, and three of his brothers are still high-ranking officers who’d give a lot to get a hold on Tenpony. Steel Hooves is a steel ranger, and I find suspicious he survived two centuries in the Wasteland by simply being a badass. Xenith’s the cherry on the cake: she’s a zebra, damn it! How do you think our ancestors would have reacted if they saw us letting an enemy roaming so close to our most sacred places?”

Finally, I took a hold on the keys, and dragged them into my jumpsuit. My heart stopped when I heard the two mares behind me move.

“That’s it Fiery, I’m not listening to you anymore,” Homage asserted. “I’ll take my meal elsewhere. There, I’m sure this filly has more interesting things to say than you do.”

“Have it your way,” Fiery Red snorted. “I know you have a knack for stable dwellers anyway.”

I promptly pushed back her back against her seat.

When I looked up, two curious brown irises were eying me.

“Hello there!” Homage smiled, “I don’t believe we’ve met already, haven’t we?”

I jumped back in surprise. What the?

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude”, she apologized. She waved toward the other end of my table. “Mind if I join you? My usual lunch buddy is being a jerkass about my fillyfriend’s friends, and I want to enjoy my daffodil sandwich without the nagging need to hammer her head on the table.”

“Uh… sure?” I answered, still trying to understand what was going on. “My, uh, salad is already on the way.”

“Good!” She sat on the banquette, and put an opened wine bottle on the table. “Name’s Homage, by the way.”

“Autumn,” I answered, before fixing a random point on the table. Slowly, I dragged my hoof tip in circle on the surface, not knowing what to do of the mare in front of me.

“You’re not very talkative, are you?” Homage continued after a long pause. “Are you from a Stable? I couldn’t help but notice your outfit, so I supposed you were a stable dweller.”

“I used to be, yeah,” I lied. “But not anymore.”

“Really? You know, I have a friend who used to live in a Stable, too,” she said, serving herself a glass of wine. “Then she got kinda kicked out.”

“Oh.” My curiosity got the better of me. “What did she do?”

“Oh, nothing,” Homage answered, sipping her wine. “She saved their asses a couple time, it didn’t sit right with them.”

I stared at her.

“And what about you?” she continued. “What are you doing out here, in our nice Tower, so far from home?”

“I got kicked out,” I lied, eying my now empty glass. “I broke a water chip, so they stripped me of my Pipbuck, gave me a pistol and twenty rounds, and sealed the door after kicking me out at gunpoint.”

Homage let out a small whistle, and filled my glass with wine.

“Well, I can’t say they went easy on you.”

I didn’t answer, and preferred trying the wine out.

I found it to be terrible, but I knew better than to spit it out.

Once again, an awkward silence fell on the table. I was grateful the waiter arrived with my salad, so I didn’t have to look at the weird mare in front of me. I simply hoped she would go away.

While I doubted it was worth thirty bits, the dish had nothing to do with the meals I usually enjoyed. My taste buds exploded in pleasure as the salad leaf melted on my tongue. The potatoes were moist, and the lamb’s lettuce on the side deliciously merged with the lime juice on my palate.

Yes, it was a good salad, but for thirty caps, I could easily buy myself a month’s worth of canned food. Ironically enough, that though left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.

Eventually, Fiery Red came over to our table. She didn’t seem to have noticed I had touched her bags.

“Listen, Homage,” she apologized, ignoring me altogether, “I know you trust them, but I can’t help but being worried. So much is at stake, you understand?”

The grey mare sighted, and finished her glass of wine. Mine had been left almost untouched.

“I know, Fiery,” she answered wearily. “But I feel this is it this time. LittlePip is the hero we’ve all been waiting for.”

Fiery shrugged, and finally seem to acknowledge my presence. “We should talk somewhere else.”

Homage nodded, and stood up from her seat. Then, she turned toward me.

“Well, it has been a pleasure making your acquaintance, Autumn. I hope you’ll have a nice stay in Tenpony Tower!”

“Thank you,” I answered with a smile, glad they were leaving at long last, “I hope everything goes along fine too.”

(** **)

The administration hadn’t been hard to find: all I needed to do was to follow the signs.

In fact, from where I was standing, I could even make out Fiery Red’s office door, and I would had found Van Graff’s file already if it weren’t for the force field on the way.

I’m not an expert in force fields. I had never been able to make one myself, and my knowledge of the self-sustained ones was limited to ‘shoot the generator to bring it down’. Yet, there was something odd in this particular force field and in how he behaved.

Namely, the only thing he didn’t let through was me.

A corn can? No problem. My pistol? No resistance whatsoever. My clothes? Went through like it was air. But me?

It felt like hitting a wall.

Obviously, it was a pre-war design. Tenpony Tower used to be the Minister of Arcane Sciences back before the Apocalypse. Crazy defense systems were to be expected. But it seemed like this one had been moved from its original emplacement, and hastily glued in my way between two walls just to piss me off.

From my side, I tried to make out the power wires. My eyes spotted a large, black wire going out the upper-left corner of the force field frame. It ran against the wall, disappeared behind a couple shelves, dropped to the ground, winded between desks, went back on the opposite wall, and ended its course there in an electrical casing.

Frowning, I realized only two bands of tape kept the box closed. Soon enough, my telekinesis had torn them, and I pulled the wire with all my strength.

It gave away almost at once, leaving me on my flanks, and sending sparks everywhere.

The barrier was down, and the way went free.

I must have sat there a dozen seconds, my mind blank. How could they have not realized the barrier could be unplugged from the other side? The original installation probably had the wires embedded in the walls, I get it, but couldn’t they at least hide the new wires as they moved the force field elsewhere?

I shrugged, and grabbed Fiery’s key set. I sure wasn’t going to complain that they made my life easier!

(** **)

Soon enough I found myself in Fiery Red’s office. A small golden plate on the door had announced it was the ‘Citizenship bureau’. In a place in which ‘owner’ and ‘citizen’ were almost synonymous, I reckoned I had found the place I had been looking for – feeling confirmed as the keys I stole opened the locks without a hitch.

The place was very plain and ordinary: a desk with a terminal, metallic drawers against the walls, a map of the Tower, and a potted plant in a corner.

Oh, and there was a safe, too.

I started my search with the desk. Piles of papers were stacked in a basket labeled ‘urgent’. I skimmed through those folders without finding any mention of Van Graff.

One retained my attention, however: the printed name on the first sheet had been crossed, and replaced by a hoofwritten name underneath. A memento was stuck to it.

“To reprint,” I read aloud. “Replace all ‘Monterey, Jack’ references with ‘Littlepip’. Citizenship lost after execution for raider activity (failed attempt at robbing said Littlepip). Gained ownership over shop and estate!?”

If Tenpony Tower considered a ‘failed attempt at robbery’ a raider activity worthy of the capital penalty, no wonder they downright disapproved of my job. I mean, seriously? What do they do to the kid who stole a candy, they cut one of his hooves off?

I put the folder back on its stack, and booted the terminal. Sadly, I was asked for a password, and I moved on to the drawers.

Thankfully, Fiery had the files sorted in alphabetical order. Surprisingly though, I found Van Graff folder was under ‘G’, not ‘V’.

As I lifted it, however, I realized it was empty, save for a memo. ‘Classified Twilight-level confidential. Use the safe.’

I glanced over to the safe. I wanted to keep it for last, like a threat after the hard work, but it seemed everypony I wanted to rob had decided to put the interesting stuff in their safes.

I chuckled, and opened it with one of Fiery’s key. What was the old saying already? ‘A safe is as strong as the one who carries its key?’ or something like that.

Inside, I found a stack of folders. Each of them had a purple stamp on the cover.

I levitated them out, and looked for Van Graff’s. I saw familiar names – Fiery’s, Homage’s… – and other I had never heard off. I didn’t read them; I cared little to know how many taxes Dr. Helpinghoof had paid in taxed last semester.

Finally, I found Van Graff’s file, but the first sheets weren’t referring to his estate.

“Security report on Van Graff,” I read, frowning. “… opened the door with maintenance pass… disabled the turret’s power by overloading the power grid… couldn’t find the incriminating documents… safe proved to be sturdy, professional tumbler required?”

I blinked. It was a mission report for a raid on Van Graff? Well, no wonder he was paranoid, especially since he didn’t seem to be warned about it.

The report carried on a several sheets. The next document had been printed from an electronic mail, and the contents surprised me.

It was a list, entitled ‘Van Graff known leverage on Twilight Society’. Then followed two or three pages of names with a couple notes. I realized I had seen most of them on the files from the safe.

“Doc Hoof, illegal drug dealing with raiders… Life Bloom, abuse of memory spell usage to gain confidential information from citizens… Homage (obvious)…”

I paused. Homage, ‘obvious’? Geez, thank you very much. The notes were probably destined to somepony who knew what it was talking about, but I wasn’t in on the secret.

The list carried on and on. The last item had been added in hoofscript: ‘Littlepip (probably)’.

Yeah, well if it was the same filly that Homage had told me about, and if a ‘failed attempt at robbery’ was enough to get executed, I had little trouble believing somepony could find a lot of dirt on her. Whoever she was, I doubted she could pretend to be a saint.

Then, the next documents went on and on, sometimes pondering the legal possibilities for kicking Van Graff out, sometimes downright suggesting sending an assassin and, I quote, “be done with it”.

My eyes rolled in their orbits. Somehow, working for those guys seemed even less safe than meddling with the slavers. At least the slavers didn’t kill their own!

Finally, I found a reference to Van Graff’s whereabouts. He had moved half a decade before, selling the familial estate for a smaller flat in a remote part of the Tower.

Looking at the map, I realized it was just a hundred meters away from the exit, but was otherwise surrounded by no neighbors.

“Clever pony…” I smiled. He had prepared his escape, should the need arise. And from the look of his files, it surely wasn’t paranoia.

I memorized the exact location and the potential exits, and put everything back into the safe.

Then, locking the doors behind me, I left, and on my way out I dropped the keys in a trash bin.

Tomorrow was going to be a big day.

(** **)

Level up!

New Perk:
Travel Light: who needs all this stuff anyway? You gain an overall 10% speed increase when you wear light or no armor.

“You can hit me, but first you’ll have to catch me!”

Author's Note:

As always, special thanks to my proofreader, Lepking13.

Google Docs version: