• 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 Five: Unforeseen Consequences

Read it on Google Docs.



“Where is the edge?”

Chapter Five: Unforeseen consequences

What make us who we are? Are our lives written from the start by destiny and our talents, or is our existence ruled by our choices and acts?

“… abominable crime in Tenpony Tower…”

Floating in an ocean of darkness, my mind wandered the paths of questions it had never really pondered before. Are some ponies good or bad by nature? If so, what merits or faults did they have in doing what they felt inclined to do?

“… death of Van Graff the fourth, known by all as the owner of the Silver Rush…”

Softly rocked back and forth by invisible waves, I had lost all grasp on reality and time. My body lay in a numb embrace, away from the world. Was I a bad pony?

“… ty Shield still undergoing surgery…”

I felt safe in this warm absence of feeling. The void surrounding me was not friend nor foe, and even its very existence wasn’t very clear in my mind.

“… the truth, no matter how bad it hurts…”

Yet, a nagging thought in the back of my mind wouldn’t stop pestering me. ‘You have to move,’ it seemed to say. ‘You cannot give up!’

Slowly, feeling started seeping back into my body. My heartbeat was thundering in my ears. Thousands of dulls needles were picking and tearing my back apart, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.

“Easy there, filly. You haven’t cleared all the drugs out of your system yet.”

All of a sudden, the support under me gave away, and I fell into oblivion.

I took a deep breath, and opened my eyes.

(** **)

Grey. All I could see were shades of grey. Every part of my being hurt, as if liquid metal had been poured into my bones and left there to cool down.

Minutes passed by as my vision slowly rolled into focus. Gradually, my others senses came back to me. Beyond the numb pain that ached and pulsed in my flesh, I realized I was laying down on something soft. A nondescript moisture soaked my fur and a dirty brown goo formed a sticky pool right under my nose. For a few seconds, I feared it was my blood, but from the acid aftertaste in my throat and the acrid stench that assaulted my nostrils I reckoned I had thrown up all over myself.

A foul reek of piss also taught me I was drenched in my own filth.

I groaned, and the growing discomfort gave me the incentive to look around to get my bearings.

As I did so, my head spun and my vision doubled, and I reached over the mattress to puke. But my digestive system had already been emptied all over myself earlier, so the painful spasms in my stomach only sent back on the floor some acid gastric bile.

Looking up through a veil of tears, I realized I had somehow made it back home. My bags had been thrown in a corner, and shelves were lying on the ground amongst spilled medical supplies. A bleach light was sipping from the opened door. Somewhere under the mess, a radio broadcasted some pre-war music. Overall, the small basement looked like a hurricane had went and gone through a couple times.

“Good, you’re waking up. How do you feel?”

Oh, and a stallion was sitting right outside the doorway.

I backed away against the wall, my hooves slipping on my mess and my eyes frantically searching for a weapon. My efforts were rewarded by a bolt of pain.

“Hey, easy there. I ain’t gonna hurt you. If I wanted you dead I would have just left you out in the streets,” he added, standing up.

I opened my mouth to ask something, but only a hoarse groan passed my parched lips. I realized I needed to drink, and I spotted a bottle of filtered water on the ground just a couple meters from me. I stretched out my hoof and reached for it.

A sharp, nerve-tearing agony seemed to split my back in back. I let out a muffled cry of pain.

Slowly, I crawled away from the soiled mattress, and, dragging the bottle along me, I curled up on the cleaner opposite side of my room. There, I struggled to open the cap, then downed the water. Precious fluid spilled from all over my mouth down to my body, but I didn’t care: the delightful bliss of a cold liquid running down my throat was overwhelming.

“Careful not to choke yourself, girl. That’d be quite the stupid death.”

Dropping the now empty bottle, I eyed the stranger. He was a brown earth pony with a dark mane tucked under a grey fedora. A dirty overcoat hid the rest of his body, I couldn’t make out his cutie mark, and he had a holstered revolver strapped to his chest. A half-smoked cigarette hung from his lips. Leaning on the doorway, he was observing me like he didn’t know what to make of me.

A quick verification showed me my own pistol was missing.

“Who are you?” I asked, my voice still coarse. “What do you want of me?”

“The name’s Meridian,” he answered, tipping his hat. “Meridian Fraying. I picked you up yesterday a couple blocks from here as you were about to collapse right in the middle of the street. You were delirious, but you managed to give me directions toward your… place.”

My brain struggled to process the information. What in hell had happened the day before?

“Why are you helping me?” I questioned, suspicious. There was no such thing as a Good Samaritan in the Wastelands – if he had really saved me, it meant he wanted something from me. And even if he really was some kind of altruistic hippy, my little show back in Tenpony probably did little to improve my good standing.

All of sudden, the events of the day before crashed on me with the force of a thirty-ton carriage. My shoulders dropped, my eyes went wide and I started to struggle to find my breath.

It all came back in a blur. The raid on Van Graff’s place. The stallion in question showing up. The short-lived gunfight. The explosions. The drugs.

The guy I shot on my way out.

Suddenly, I wanted to puke, but alas my empty stomach refused to provide me the relief of emptying myself on the floor all over again.

The whole sequence of events felt wrong, and if it weren’t for the total wreck I was then, I would have shrugged it off as a very livid nightmare. Everything that could go wrong went south and back, I had broken pretty much every single of my personal golden rules, I was now in all likehood wanted dead by Tenpony, and I apparently owed my life to a mysterious stranger.

Feeling through my chest pockets, I noted I still had my keys. The safe in a corner was still closed, and mess aside the room didn’t look like it had been ransacked. The money probably didn’t spark the stallion’s interest, then. I shivered when I realized what would have happened if he’d come across Crowneigh’s files. If I had been willing to assault Tenpony to get one DERTA key, this Meridian fellow probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at stealing mine when I was out cold.

He probably mistook my slightly panicked look for something else, because he immediately tried to sooth me.

“I didn’t touch you,” he motioned toward the mattress. “Except to drag you up to your corner and make you drink whatever healing potions and Fixer I could find.”

My gaze dropped on the numerous discarded phials and on the emptied Fixer box on the concrete floor. My ears folded in displeasure.

“You gave me a whole box of Fixer?” I accused. Great, now I had a probable schizophrenia to add to my ever growing list of troubles.

“Hey, listen, when I met you, you were breaking down so bad from withdrawal I thought you were going to die right on the spot,” he retorted. “Besides, I found the box among your own supplies, and only a couple pills remained, so…”

He scratched his mane under his fedora, and motioned toward my torn and soiled jumpsuit.

“I’m no doctor, so I didn’t try to heal you,” he added. “Now that you’re awake, you’d better remove those rags and take a good look at your back.”

The bandages from the day before had held through hell and back, somehow, but were drenched in nondescript substances. I hoped they weren’t coming from the inside of my own body, but somehow I doubted the Wasteland had any intention of giving me a break.

Levitating a pair of medical scissors from the torn medical kit on the ground, I carefully began to cut my Stable jumpsuit down. It had been destroyed beyond any recognition anyway. Furthermore, the prospect of moving the tight clothes over my oozing wounds did little to appeal me.

Soon enough, the only part of my body still covered was my midsection. Cuts and bruises covered my legs, neck, flanks, everything, but none of them went deep enough to be of any concern. Somehow the thin cloth armor had protected me from most small shrapnel.

Clenching my teeth, I then proceeded to cut the remaining tissue. An atrocious stench of cooked flesh filled the air, and some kind of pus oozed down my coat. As I delicately started pulling out the cloth from over the wound, I realized part of the jumpsuit had melted on my cooked flesh. I couldn’t even move the damn thing without feeling I was peeling my skin off.

I dropped the scissors. From a container in a corner of the room, I retrieved an old bottle of straight vodka.

Still observing me, Meridian thrown me a disapproving glance.

“I would have thought you’d know better than using more drugs after yesterday’s little party,” he deadpanned.

“That’s not drug, that’s alcohol”, I spat, opening the bottle. “I can’t use Med-X, now can I? But I need something to dull the pain, or else I’ll keep this piece of shit glued to my skin forever.”

I drank a fair amount of the infamous liquid. The alcohol made my sore throat burn, but soon enough a light buzz clouded my brain and dulled my perceptions.

“Well, there goes nothing,” I braced myself, reaching out the offending piece of cloth with my magic.

With all my telekinetically strength, I pulled it out.

I think everypony heard my scream all the way to Hoofington.

(** **)

“That’s a nasty-looking burn,” Meridian commented. “You’d better see a doctor or something about it. There’s so much healing potions and bandages can do.”

“Yeah, no shit,” I retorted, downing some more vodka. Out of pride, I sniffed back a few tears I had dropped.

While I was fairly sure Van Graff didn’t score a direct hit on me, the plasma bolt that dropped on my back had done some damage. I literally had a hole in my flesh almost as big as my hoof, and the skin around had been burned to a crisp. A disgusting-looking goo was oozing from the burn, but I didn’t seem to be bleeding. I didn’t know if it was due to the nature of the injury or to the healing potions I had downed earlier, but I was grateful not to be bleeding to my death.

“But I can’t show up in a hospital in Manehattan right now,” I continued. “That’d be…”

I stopped, as I realized I had almost let my tongue slip. I couldn’t let him know I was wanted dead or alive by one of the Wastelands’ wealthier society.

“You mean, because of the mess you did in Tenpony?” he asked, unperturbed.

My breath cut short, and a small ball of anxiety formed in my throat. A cold sweat rolled down my neck. Sighting, I let my head drop.

“So you know that,” I whispered, defeated. I reckoned it was game over, then – because even if I had a gun, I sure wasn’t in shape to fight anymore. The stallion had probably waited for me to die out, or in all likehood expected some company from the Tower to bring me back there.

The worse? I had even deserved it. I had crossed a line with Van Graff and Liberty Shield. I used to think killing ponies was okay, because I believed I had excuses. ‘They were the raiders who killed your family’, at first. ‘He raped your boss’ sister, he deserves to die’, for my first contract. ‘If somepony want them dead, they probably deserved it’, afterward. But then, gradually, the excuses faded, grew sillier and sillier. ‘She was about to scream and give away my position’, ‘I needed something from him, and I didn’t want to ask him’, ‘He was in my way, I needed to get out’…

The truth is, I always tried to solve my problems by shooting ponies. I had made the act so casual in my mind I didn’t even bother to check out the other options before.

Was I a bad pony? Was I… a raider? When did I cross the line toward the dark side of the world?

“Everypony in the Wastelands know,” Meridian answered. “DJ Pon3 had some harsh words about you earlier on the radio. Something about murdering somepony and seriously wounding a security guard. If I were you, I’d watch my tail. Bounty hunters are bound to come after your hide now.”

I looked up to see him casually lighting another cigarette. Noting my perplexed look, he added:

“I’m not your enemy, if you’re still wondering. Given the state you were in when I picked you up, I don’t think you were in your right mind when you did all those things, am I right?”

I swallowed, and looked away, anywhere but at him. “Yeah. It was the drugs talking. Probably.”

Meridian sighted. He entered the room proper, walked over the mess on the floor, and crouched before me to get to my level.

“Hey, listen, kid,” he said, his voice now carrying strong accents of seriousness. “We all mess up some day or another. But it’s okay. Shit happens. But if you don’t carry on, you can’t make it all alright over again, right? Sure, you can’t fix up the past, but, hey, the Wasteland is a crazy place. There’s so much you can do to make it better. You can be a better pony, you know. You just have to start acting better.”

I turned toward him. His blue eyes didn’t have an ounce of malice in them. They reminded me of my father, who died so long ago, leaving his unique daughter to a life a crime and assassinations.

“You’re not a bad pony,” he continued. “I wouldn’t have helped you if you were. I would have let you rot in the street like some diseased animal. Yet I know, deep down, that you can be somepony else. Somepony… better.”

“I don’t know,” I muttered, staring at the ground before me. “Being a hitmare is all I know. Hell, even my special talent is shooting people. What am I to do?”

“Well, for starter, some things deserve to get shot,” he answered, tapping his revolver with a hoof. “Some ponies, even. Trust me, you’ll run out of ammo before you run out of targets. Don’t think your talent is useless. You’re just… misusing it.”

I hug-tackled him.

(** **)

“Sorry, it’s not something I usually do,” I apologized as Meridian freed himself from the fallen shelve.

“It’s alright, I guess. You had a long week, after all,” he dismissed, shaking a soiled rag from under his hoof.

“You have no idea,” I chuckled. My laughter soon died down in my throat, however, when I remembered the thing that made me become so reckless in the first place.

Could I trust Meridian with the DERTA secrets? I only knew him for a couple hours, yet somehow I felt compelled to tell him. It would have been taunting the devil, though, and the Goddesses know I already had enough troubles on my hooves. I decided to play it safe, and keep it to myself for now.

“Name’s Spring, by the way. Say, mind helping me clean and bandaging my back?”

(** **)

Say what you want about vodka, but it’s a hell of a disinfectant.

Too bad it also tastes like disinfectant.

Soon enough, Meridian and I had my wound bandaged back, and we proceeded to clean up the room. The shelves returned to their rightful place against the wall; the trash was unceremoniously dumped outside, and I dragged the soiled beyond relief mattress to a nearby dumpster. While the garbage collecting system had been put on permanent hold due to the freakin’ end of the world, I sure didn’t want to have a piss-soaked, vomit-drenched piece of trash right in front of my house. Even in the Wastelands, there are standards!

A quick trip to a nearby almost radiation-free stream cleaned me up, and soon enough I was back in my black leather armor. Searing pain in the back aside, it was almost like the events of the previous days hadn’t happened at all.

Almost.

Soon enough, it became apparent I had a sheer need of fresh supplies. I had lost my pistol and half my lockpicking set somewhere in Tenpony. Somehow, I doubted they’d agree to give them back to their rightful owner, so I had to find proper replacements.

My medical supplies were at an all-time low. My wounds would heal by themselves, eventually, but still I needed new bandages, potions, and Med-X. I would stay away from the others drugs, though. While it had indeed saved my life, I doubted my body would react very well to another fit of stress like that. Meridian insisted I needed professional medical care, but I had little wish to put myself under the scalpel of a perfect stranger.

Finally, I needed to prepare my trip to the DERTA. My foalhood in a caravan had taught me the importance of planning ahead for this kind of things. I needed a few weeks’ worth of food, warm clothes for the freezing nights of the North, extra ammunition, maps, et cetera.

Luckily, I had enough caps for ten expeditions like that. Some of my past jobs had been paying quite well, so I ended up having some cash to spare. Plus, I could steal whatever I couldn’t afford. No, money wasn’t the problem.

What worried me were the vendors themselves.

I couldn’t go back to the Mart to buy my gear, but I couldn’t head to Friendship City either. While the two towns had some kind of rivalry undergoing, I knew for sure they both listened to DJ Pon3 broadcasts and believed them like gospel truth. They’d calm down, eventually – they all did – but for now I could consider myself banned from every civilized place in Manehattan.

That meant I needed to get somewhere else, where nopony knew me as the one who shot Van Graff.

To the West was Hollow Shades. While I doubted they’d recognize me as the one who blew up their sheriff’s office and murdered their mayor (plus daughter), a climate of xenophobia was to be expected over there. Pass.

If I headed to the South, I’d end up in Fillydelphia. For sure, they wouldn’t shoot me for being Tenpony-banned (hell, they’d probably give me a goddess damn medal) but I didn’t trust them a single bit. Red Eye and his goons were too clever by half. Should they realize I had the keys to a pre-war facility full of wonderful technologies, I’d be as good as dead.

Plus, slavers. Dealing with them didn’t strike me as something a good pony should do, somehow, and I had the feeling my karma was running dangerously low lately.

The best remote place to find my gear would be in the Hoof. There, somehow, you could find pretty much anything you’d ever wanted, as long as you could afford it. But I had little wish to cross the whole country back and forth, especially in my state. Besides, I heard Security had set the place ablaze in the last few weeks, and there was no saying I wouldn’t find the country torched to the ground by the time I got there.

Canterlot? No way. I didn’t have a death wish.

That left two places: New Appleloosa, and Junction R-7. I knew for a fact the former would have everything I need – after all, I had bought my previous lockpicking set from a crazy mute ghoul Pegasus there. Finding a good nine-millimeter pistol along with a suppressor would prove to be somewhat more complicated, but then again I could get something cheap until I get the occasion to buy one from Chrystal.

Junction R-7 was closer to Manehattan, though. On the bright side, it looked more like a permanent headquarter for the Talon Company, with whom I was in good standing. Well, ‘good standing’, as far as the relations between a freelance and a mercenary company can get. I did a couple odd jobs for them, when they didn’t want to make a big fuss about killing somepony in particular. On the down side, gear would be harder to get there than in New Appleloosa, but I reckoned it’d be manageable. There was a little fly in the paint though: I’d been told the fabled Stable Dweller had befriended the Talons. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to meet her face to face – because if there’s somepony who takes DJ Pon3 to heart, it’s her. If half the legends about her are true, in a fight between me and her, I wouldn’t bet a single bit on my sorry ass.

In both cases, though, I needed to head West, then South. I wouldn’t get through Manehattan on the way back: from Junction R-7, the path to Big Mt formed a straight line to the North. There was a mountain range on the way, but with a good pre-war map of the area it probably wouldn’t be a trouble.

Now, only one question remained: did Meridian intend to tag along?

(** **)

“Of course I’m coming,” the Earth Pony said over his canned corn. “That is, if it’s okay with you.”

Munching my own conservative-laden pre-war food, I pondered the idea. I sure didn’t want to share the DERTA with anypony, but on the other hoof we could go in different ways once in JR-7 or New Appleloosa. Besides, I knew my injuries had crippled my capacity to travel, and I sure wouldn’t spit on a solid shoulder to lean on. For sure, I found a tad suspicious this perfect stranger was now so adamant to tag along, but maybe he simply had befriended me? Honestly, I had no idea on how friendship was supposed to work in the first place, so I couldn’t tell. I grew up surrounded by adults, and got blasted into a solitary life before I really got to make any friends. Legends of old said the magic of friendship could move mountains and defeat tremendous foes – even surrounded by real, radiation-powered monsters, the foals of the Wastelands still feared Nightmare Moon and Discord like the boogeymare. The tale says the Ministry Mares in flesh had kicked their asses with nothing but the sheer power of friendship and a couple old artifacts. Obviously it was propaganda, yet I reckoned it had at least an ounce of truth.

“All right then, we’re leaving early tomorrow,” I finally settled. “I want to get out of Manehattan before anypony gets my smell.”

(** **)

At dawn, forty-eight hours after my infamous escape from Tenpony Tower, I was back on the road.

Exiting Manehattan proved to be uneventful. Meridian possessed an unsuspected ability to sneak around, and we travelled the ruins like two ghosts in a desolate landscape.

Beyond the city suburbs, flattened and burned out by the balefires and the throes of time, we reached the Wastelands proper.

There, as we were leaving the shadow of Tenpony, I finally started to relax a bit. My focus went back to my travel companion. I still didn’t know if I should consider him as a friend or as a foe, but in either case I had to play along, and additional intelligence about him sure couldn’t hurt.

Meridian Fraying didn’t speak much on his own, though. Prompted, he’d always give an answer, sometimes an honest-to-goddess sentence, sometimes barely more than a couple words. He promptly deflected any personal questions I threw his way. I soon gave up trying out to finding anything about his past or motivations by plainly asking him. Given my taciturn nature, we ended up traveling in silence.

It didn’t seem to bother either of us, though.

And then, sometimes, Meridian would let out a few words, a few sentences or ideas that’d left me very perplexed.

His insights on the Wastelands betrayed years of wandering. He wasn’t a Stable Dweller, that much was obvious, but I doubted he had been raised in a secured place either. He knew at least as much as I did about the dangers of Equestria, yet, somehow, I had a feeling there was something wrong with his behavior.

Nothing very obvious, nor worrisome, though. He simply didn’t act like he paid any attention to what mattered, pointing out little details I had never noticed before, yet dramatically failed to see the bigger picture.

Here, he stopped to stare at a lavished fresco from a forgotten pre-war era; there, he steadied up a small, grime-covered garden gnome, probably knocked down by the nuclear blast, oh so long ago.

But he cared little for the practical stuff. He left the shops unchecked; the safes, unopened; the resources, unlooted. His behavior puzzled me to no end. How did somepony like that even survive the Wastelands in the first place?

Put him in a room with a pink elephant, and he’d probably note the one who painted the wall did a very lousy job.

Maybe he used his nonchalance as a defense mechanism against the hardship of life. Maybe I was the fool, and he had been the one behaving normally all along.

Or maybe he was plain stupid and was a lucky son of a bitch.

He didn’t strike me as stupid, though. He simply looked like he didn’t belong there. Like he was missing something. His eyes lacked the hard edge all true Wastelanders had – the thousand-yard stare of ponies that’d seen enough. It was very unnerving.

Looking for answers, I asked him what his job was. We’d left Manehattan two days before, and he seemed to be warming up a bit, gaining a bit a depth. He had made quite clear my own line of work was no mystery to him, and I wanted to level the game field.

“I wander,” he answered cryptically. I though he wasn’t going to develop, but then he stopped on his tracks and dropped his saddlebags so I could see his compass-shaped cutie mark.

“I love to explore,” he continued, his gaze dropping on the horizon. “I want to see it all before I’m gone.”

“Well, you aren’t going to see much by sticking with me,” I laughed. True enough, I often tended to visit the same areas. “I don’t often get lost, and when I do, it often involves underground mazes.”

He stayed silent for a little while, his eyes still wandering the desolated landscape. A small, sad smile never left his lips.

“We all need directions, sometimes,” he murmured. “Sometimes maps aren’t quite enough.”

I shrugged it off.

“Never failed me so far,” I replied. “I know exactly where we are, and where we’re heading.”

We fell into the ambush less than two hours later.

(** **)

Pinned down by the fire of an assault rifle, I cursed under my breath and yelled toward my teammate, hidden with me behind a rock.

“Fuck, I can’t see them! What about you?”

Meridian popped his head to take a look, but a bullet soon ricocheted a few centimeters from his cheek. He promptly got back to cover.

“Can’t get a visual either,” he shouted back. “But you’re the one with the rifle, you should be the one getting your eyes up there!”

“Can’t shoot what I can’t see,” I answered, leaning toward the edge when the fire died down a bit.

I spotted two ponies behind a log, less than a hundred meters from us. The one with the assault rifle seemed to be reloading, and the other shot me with some kind of revolver as he noticed me.

Their shots didn’t land anywhere close to us, but I took the opportunity to line my sights up. Now that they had stopped pinning me down, I had a perfect visual.

Two seconds later, a bullet went clean through the first pony’s throat. I grunted, reprimanding myself internally for such a lousy shot. I had actually aimed for the head.

Oh well.

The second pony let out a panicked shriek as her comrade went down, fatally wounded. She ducked to cover toward him, either to help him, or to take his superior weapon.

Either way, she was now hid by a half-rotten wooden log.

I smiled, and put an armor-piercing hoof-loaded cartridge in the chamber. Taking aim with great care toward the place the pony had fallen, I shot clean through the worm-eaten wood.

A cry of pain told me I had hit my target.

As nopony rose from behind their cover to shoot me, I motioned Meridian, and we carefully proceeded toward our enemies.

(** **)

They were not bandits, but that did little to comfort me.

The stallion with the assault rifle had been killed on the spot by my first shot. The mare with him, however, had only been hit in the shoulders, but apparently immediately went into shock. I reckoned she had never been shot before, and as I noticed their armor I realized it probably was the case.

Both of them wore security armor from Tenpony.

“Oh boy,” Meridian commented, helpful as ever. “Well, now that’s embarrassing.”

The mare chose to wake up right afterward.

(** **)

Some ponies live only to see, over and over again, this mix of horror, fear and hatred on the face of somepony who woke up to face, disarmed, their eternal arch enemy.

I, for one, cared little for it, and I would in truth gladly spend my whole existence without having to face it again.

“You,” the mare snarled, trying to get up. “You filthy, damnable whore! I’m gonna…”

I silenced her by moving my rifle’s barrel right under her nose.

“You do realize you were the one who tried to kill me, don’t you?” I asked. “I should be the one insulting you.”

She spat on me.

“You are the only murderer here, cunt!”

Grimacing, I wiped the offending gob of spit from my left foreleg.

“Listen,” I snapped, feeling less and less inclined toward a nice and calm conversation. “You see your friend over there?”

I pointed toward the still warm corpse a couple meters away.

“He’s dead because of you,” I continued. “Now you got two friends to bury, because you were dumb enough to think somehow the two of you could kill the two of us. Still fancy calling me a cunt, huh?”

She spat again, but this time it stuck to her lips and pathetically dropped on her own fur.

“Ah, but don’t you know?” she croaked, “You didn’t quite get Liberty. He’s alive and under good care at the Hospital. What does that make you feel, murderer?”

I blinked.

“Relieved, actually,” I confessed.

That drew a blank.

“…what?”

“I’m relieved he’s alive,” I repeated. “Really. He seemed quite a nice guy when I met him.”

“You shot him!” she shrieked, shifting toward the rifle. “You’re the reason he almost died in the first place! How can you say now you’re glad he’s going to make it?!”

“Well,” I scratched my mane in embarrassment, “I didn’t plan to shoot him in the first place. Believe me or not, it was an accident.”

“An accident? An accident?” The mare went full on hysterics, and I stepped back a couple steps. “You… you… asshole!

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t my proudest moment, okay? What did you think, that I was some psychopath shooting at everypony on her path?”

Her deadly glare carried far more meaning than a thousand words.

“Oh.”

A pregnant silence fell back on the Wastelands. The three of us looked at each other, not muttering a word.

Then, the mare finally broke the ice:

“So, what are you waiting for?” she asked, calmer.

“What do you mean?”

“You are going to kill me, right?” She had lost all the verve in her voice. “Just do me a favor, and make it quick.”

I blinked. Had she been a bandit, or a raider, or pretty much anyone else in the Wastelands, I would have shot her on the spot and be done with it. She tried to kill me, she failed, fat chance, see you in the next life!

But now I actually faced a moral dilemma. Me, of all ponies.

Well, fuck me, that little stunt in Tenpony is really going to bite my ass for a long time.

Next to me, Meridian slowly shook his head in disapproval. Of course he wouldn’t me to execute somepony in cold blood like that. Celestia’s holy nipples, I would have done way worse in her shoes!

So, against all my instincts, I took my decision.

“Just grab your shit and go,” I said, slowly backpedalling from the guard.

She looked up at me, surprise and tears in her eyes. She just couldn’t freakin’ believe it, and neither could I.

“But I’m warning you,” I menaced. “If I ever, ever see even the tip of your armored asses after my hide ever again, I swear I’m gonna hurt you so much even your late ancestors will feel it. Got it?”

She nodded, and then, slowly, limped away from me.

Meridian and I stood there, watching her go in the dusty distance toward Manehattan.

“I hope she won’t get killed by a manticore in her state,” the stallion said.

“Eh,” I turned around to resume our journey. “I already let her live. Did you expect me to babysit her all the way back to Tenpony, too?”

A few days afterward, we reached Junction R-7.

(** **)

Junction R-7 was a very peculiar settlement, even by the Wastelands standards. Halfway between military camp and makeshift refugee town, most of its structures were made out of pre-war fret carts. A ring of them surrounded the place as a barricade.

The whole thing stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of nowhere, Equestria.

Many places offered a better natural shelter, or more pre-war resources to salvage. Yet, I’d been told that each day saw more and more refugees coming to start a new life in JR-7.

There was a very good reason for that.

The town also hosted the Talon Headquarters. Hell, before they started to accept ponies from everywhere a couple months ago, the whole place was their base of operation.

Indubitably, the Talons were the best merc’ company on the West coast. Maybe they could be challenged by the Reapers from the Hoof for the title of “Equestria’s most badass private contractors”, but each party kept their business to their own, and they spent surprisingly little time shooting at each other.

Hence, attacking Junction R-7 meant getting neck-deep in a barrel of radioactive shit. In laypony terms, I had never heard of anypony who had the balls to start an open war against the Talons and survived to tell the tale.

Otherwise, they were very decent people, especially compared to the other factions in the area.

(** **)

Meridian and I entered the secured perimeter without any trouble. The metal-clad griffin keeping watch over the North access barely eyed me and my gun before nodding sternly his approval. He didn’t even spare a glance for Meridian.

It struck me as odd. Then again, the last time I’d been there, JR-7 only hosted the Talons. Now that it had started blossoming into a proper town, I reckoned they couldn’t afford to keep an eye on everypony who walked through the doors.

Once inside, I bribed a famished-looking beggar for directions, and headed for the direction he gave me. My spirits weren’t to sightseeing, not that anything stood out in the first place. Ponies dwelled on the dusty trails they called streets, and here and there Talon griffins patrolled the area with a ruthless look on their face. Nothing really out of the ordinary.

My companion, however, seemed to pay much more attention to the people we met in the streets. Here and there faces and marks sparked his curiosity, and he looked around him like he was solving some kind of giant, life-like puzzle.

I, on the other hoof, was far more concerned about the weapons they carried.

Almost every single soul we bumped into sported a weapon. Nothing fancy, really: duct tape, fence wire and rust often were all that kept the guns from falling apart altogether; swords and axes had been replaced with broken pool cues and rusted kitchen knives. Yet, I knew better than dismissing them as no threats at all.

Sure, crappy pea-shooters with even crappier ammunition wouldn’t do much damage in a fair fight. What little lead landed on the target was often easily stopped by armor and barding. Yet, it all came down to luck, in the end, for even a low-power .22LR could kill you, should you get hit in the head.

Any bigger caliber would start getting real dangerous at close range, regardless of the gun which fired it. When it comes to small arms at close range, 9mm ammunition was enough to shoot clean through anything that wasn’t designed to be bullet-resistant, and even then the impact alone would be enough to send the target to the ground. .357 magnum would make your fancy metal armor useless, and .44 magnum would only be stopped by thick, heavy armors like the Steel Rangers’.

Rifles made the situation even worse. My .308 hunting rifle had enough penetration power to make most bullet-proof gear useless. The relatively low power of 5.56mm semi-automatic or automatics guns was easily compensated by the ability to rain death over your target. A burst of 7.62mm could break your ribs without even without getting through your body armor, in the very unlikely case it managed to stop the bullets.

Anything bigger, such as the infamous .50 cal, simple tore you apart on impact. Even Steel Rangers feared those kinds of ammunitions.

Thankfully, the bigger the caliber, the less likely you are to find a gun still able to shoot it. Oversized cartridges often did a number on the inner mechanisms, and as a result most people didn’t have the firepower to make combat armor useless.

Plus, most Wastelanders were terrible shots.

Still, it didn’t mean you could prance around without fear of getting shot if you’re wearing real armor. When it’s raining lead from everywhere, somepony is bound to hit you, eventually.

Bonus point if they weren’t aiming for you.

But, to me makeshift melee weapons definitely ranked as the most important threat. If hitting a running target at ten meters was hard, impaling said target with the pointy end of a stick wasn’t. Bullet-proof plating did little against blades, and pretty much nothing can save you if you’re getting trampled with a sledgehammer.

Add the fact I had absolutely no skill in close-quarter combats whatsoever, and you understand why armed crowds always made me nervous.

But the ponies in the streets didn’t prove to be very aggressive. If anything, some seemed to be afraid of me, shrinking away or backing up when they met my gaze. Silently, I hoped they feared my overall look, and that it has nothing to do with the Tenpony fiasco. Crazy vigilantes falling on me from the skies to make me pay for my crimes were the very last thing I wanted.

Eventually though we reached, unharmed, the place I had been told about.

(** **)

Goldfeather’s Emporium occupied one of the few buildings which hadn’t been built out of train carts. I reckoned it used to be a small warehouse of some sort; now, it hosted a nondescript conglomeration of price-stamped junk. From afar, one couldn’t be blamed for mistaking the place for an abandoned scrapyard. Piles of stuff formed a treacherous maze, and I wouldn’t be surprised if customers often found themselves buried under a metric ton of wares.

Meridian and I aside, only two other people populated the shop.

I reckoned the amber-and-cream griffon to be Goldfeather himself. Standing behind an overloaded desk, he was having a very lively argument with a teal-colored filly. I sure didn’t want to pry, but there was no escaping from their shouting.

“… but you got tons of them! Can’t you just give me one?” The filly half-pleaded, half-accused. I got to hoof it to her, it surely takes a lot of guts to yell on a lion/eagle chimera thrice her size.

Goldfeather, on the other hoof, seemed more composed, but the little twitches around the corner of his eyes betrayed his annoyance.

“For the last time, I cannot hand you over some of my wares for free, regardless of your reasons! Now, since you obviously don’t even have a single cap to spend, please get the hell out of my shop before I start losing my cool!” The griffin growled, his left claw dropping on a riot shotgun conveniently placed.

Noticing the lethal weapon, the filly backed up a couple steps. Her eyes were wide, and filling with tears.

“Sorry, kiddo,” the griffin added, a hint of guilt in his voice, “but I can’t help you.”

As the filly dashed off the warehouse, I heard Meridian sighting behind me.

“The poor girl’s probably looking for something to eat,” he mumbled, out of Goldfeather’s hear range.

“That, or a fix of Dash,” I replied, cynical. “Wouldn’t be the first time I saw a blank-flank hooked to drugs.”

He shot me a dirty glare.

“What?” I continued, unfazed. “It’s a crapsack world we’re living in. I wasn’t much older when I started bounty hunting. She probably ain’t a kid anymore, you know.”

“There’s no reasoning with you,” he shook his head. “I don’t even know why I bother, sometimes.”

With that, he ran after the filly. Goldfeather didn’t even seem to notice him, and instead looked over to me.

“Beats me,” I mumbled. On the bright side, if Meridian decided to leave the party now, I wouldn’t have to make a decision about letting him in the secret about the DERTA. Yet, somehow, I felt a tiny bit of regret at the idea of traveling all alone again.

“Welcome to Goldfeather’s Emporium!” the griffin greeted me as I drew nearer to his cashier desk. “Are you looking for something in particular?”

“As a matter of fact, I am.” I answered, grabbing my list from my bags. Had the situation been any different, I would have probably shoplifted a couple items on my way in already, but I simply had too much to get in so little time. For once, I’ll have to do my shopping like everypony else – that is, by paying for my stuff.

Besides, in this gigantic mess, only Goldfeather could hope to find whatever I was looking for.

“What 9mm pistols do you have? I want one in pristine shape, along with spare magazines,” I read, “along with winter gear, artic camping material, dehydrated food, a couple canteens, strong saddlebags because mine are falling apart, the best lockpicking set you got, and, um…”

A spot of grease had somehow made it way on the paper, and I struggled to make out the next item on the list.

As for Goldfeather, he now eyed me with a critical glare.

“I hope you have enough caps to afford what you’re asking for,” he growled. “As I said to this filly earlier, I don’t do credit, I don’t do gifts, and I don’t do refunds.”

I winced at the idea of spending thousands on gear, but then again, what choice did I have?

Reaching for my saddlebags, I grabbed two heavy pouches, which dropped on the desk with a satisfying metallic sound. Soon followed Crowneigh’s ring and revolver, along with other miscellaneous pricey items I didn’t have the occasion to sell.

A gleam now in his eyes, Goldfeather leaned toward me, and uncrossed his paws.

“I’m all ears,” he said.

(** **)

Half an hour and one thousand, seven hundred and forty-two bottlecaps later, I found myself to be the happy owner of enough gear to survive an expedition all the way to Cristal Wastes and back. Sure, I wouldn’t need to go that far north, and if my guesses were correct, when the winter snow came I’d be either safe inside the Big Mountain compound, or dead.

The latter would hopefully not come to pass.

When I first entered Goldfeather’s Emporium, I had three fears.

One, that he may antagonize me for the whole Tenpony fiasco.

Two, that he may not have the items I was looking for.

Three, that what I wanted laid somewhere in his warehouse, under half a ton of mess and junk, and that even the owner wouldn’t be able to find them.

Luckily, the first two proved to be unfounded.

Unluckily, it turned out winterized armor padding wasn’t often asked for in this place where the temperature during the coldest winters stayed well above ten degrees. Sure, the griffin did have a couple in stock.

But he didn’t know where.

Other than the lost clothes, his wares proved to be decent. The locksmith set he sold me was nowhere as good as my previous one, but I only needed a couple common picks and a new pressure wrench, after all. Most of it hadn’t followed me in Tenpony in the first place, and had stayed back in the safety of my shack.

The camping gear was… well, camping gear. Rope, safety blankets, dehydrated military food, canteens, and so on. I liked to travel light, but some things were essential when you wandered in the wilds up to the North.

Medical supplies consisted of half a dozen general purposes healing potions, some Med-X, bandages, and rubbing alcohol. I wisely shied away from the combat drugs. I didn’t know what in Tartarus they put in Dash, but the sole sight of one of the prismatic inhalators made my heart pump in arousal. Damn, and I only took a couple – no wonder so many ponies were hooked to the stuff.

The only fly on the painting came from the guns the griffin showed me. I quickly dismissed the ones not chambered in 9mm – I still had enough +P rounds with me to wear a couple stainless steel barrels down – and those which seemed to be falling apart.

Believe me or not, even though this is by far one of the most common calibers when it comes to small arms, even though a weapon was by design supposed to be able to fire more than a dozen rounds, even though Goldfeather’s Emporium was packed with hundreds of different weapons, once I did a quick filtering only three pistols remained.

On those three, only two had spare magazines.

None had threaded barrels for a suppressor, and both were Luna-damned expensive.

Off all the imaginable and possible criteria to choose the weapon, it all came down in the end to a simple question:

Metal or polymer frame?

To me, that was a no brainer. Plastic don’t rust.

I paid up front for everything. I needed that gear, and I reckon the idea of losing a client and making an enemy was enough of an incentive for him to start searching. Still, I now had a couple days to kill around Junction R-7.

(** **)

Outside, I found Meridian waiting for me, cigarette on his lips.

“You took your time,” he greeted me, somewhat upset.

“I had a lot of stuff to get,” I answered, motioning toward my brand new saddlebags. For good measure, I took my newest gun out his holster, and proceeded to load his magazines.

“You know, you never told me why you wanted so much gear,” he continued, eying the canteens at my side. “You’re going somewhere?”

“Maybe.” Two weeks we’ve been traveling together, and I still didn’t know if I could really trust him. I changed the subject.

“Did you find the filly?”

He grunted, and spat his mostly burned cigarette.

“She’s gone somewhere over there. I couldn’t go after her without you.”

“Couldn’t, or wouldn’t?” I teased. “Afraid of the big birds in metal armor?” Eh, looked like someone was scared by the Talons.

He rolled his eyes. “They’re mercenaries. I’d be quite stupid to trust them, now wouldn’t I?”

Somehow, I felt a bit offended by the comment. Didn’t know why, though – I’m not a mercenary, I’m a bounty hunter. Totally different thing, right?

Right.

I shrugged it off.

“By the way, I asked Goldfeather about that one filly,” I said, a small grin on my lips. “Turns out I was closer of the truth than you were.”

“Really? How so?”

“She didn’t want drugs, but she wasn’t there for food either. What she needed –” I patted my breast holster “– was a weapon.”

“Seriously?” Meridian mused. “Did you happen to know why?”

“Something about taking revenge on a gang of raiders, I think,” I recalled. “It’s probably a good thing she didn’t get what she wanted, or else she’d be either dead or pinned under a raider by now.”

He shot me the best ‘dude, not funny’ look he could muster.

“That’s all you got to say?”

“What?” I shrugged. “It’s not like there’s anything we can do about it.”

“Sometimes, I wonder if you are not dumb on purpose,” he facehooved, “because there’s no way you just said that.”

Noticing my blank look, he continued:

“Spring, for goodness’ sake, you’re a bounty hunter. You kill people for a living, damn it!”

“I don’t see what my job has anything to do with her,” I answered, puzzled.

“Unless… you want me to get her to hire me?”

Meridian threw his hooves toward the skies. “Yes, she understood! It’s about time, I daresay.”

“She can’t even buy herself a gun,” I deadpanned. “A pea-shooter is so cheap you could by one just by scramming in the junk around the town. How is she supposed to afford to hire me?”

“Simple. She won’t.”

The silence that ensured stretched for an uncomfortable minute.

“Wait, so let me sum this up.” I finally said, dumbfounded. “You want me to work for free?”

As he nodded, I resisted the urge to fill him with lead, and continued.

“Don’t you think getting shot at is hard enough when you’re paid to do it?”

“Oh, come on,” he insisted. “It’s not like a couple raiders are going to be of any threat to you.”

He had a point. “Still,” I carried on, sounding less assured than I wanted to, “bullets don’t grow on trees.”

“You’ll have the loot,” he reasoned. “Plus, wouldn’t it be great to do a good action, for once, just out of kindness?”

“Out of kindness?” I sneered. “Who do you think you are, the Stable Dweller?”

“I wish I were,” he laughed. Soon enough, I found myself grinning as well.

“Oh well,” I finally announced. “Let’s find this filly and get on with it.”

(** **)

Sidequest accepted: Birds of a Feather

Level up!

New skill: Mysterious Stranger

“Looks like you could use some assistance.”

Author's Note:

As always, special thanks to my proofreader, Lepking13.

The sixth chapter will be online very soon.

Google Docs version:
Shades of Grey, Chapter Five: Unforeseen Consequences