• 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 Six: Birds of a Feather

Read it on Google Docs.

“Well the difference bein’ one is a job, and the other is a mental sickness!”

Chapter Six: Birds of a Feather

“Meridian, just to check,” I asked as we walked down Junction R-7 dirt streets, “you realize we may be targeting innocents if we carry on with your idea, right?”

The earth pony shot me an inquisitive look.

“I though you said they were raiders,” he frowned.

“I said she said they were raiders,” I nuanced. “Don’t take me wrong, I’m aware I’ve been served a lot of bullshit in the past when it comes to reasons somepony had to die, and this one doesn’t cut it. It never really bothered me until recently, to be honest, but I’m pretty much sure it’s not your line of work, though.”

“That’d be quite… problematic indeed,” he answered after a while. “But we can drop the job if it gets fishy, right?”

“It’s not even a job in a first place, since I’m doing it for free,” I shrugged. If word got around I’d started working without a proper fee, I’d end up drowning in requests. “So yeah, if it smells funny or if anything seems wrong, we’re packing up and dropping the case. Nopony could even blame us for that.”

We continued walking down the street in silence. My gaze lazily scouted around for the filly we were so adamant to find. Meridian downright stared at everypony we met, but no one seemed to mind.

Eventually, we found her, sitting on a discarded old television casing, a rusted and twisted tin can in front of her. As we approached, the small pegasus looked up at us with huge, innocent green eyes, a puppy smile shivering on her lips. Meridian let out a quiet d’aww, and I had to call upon all my professionalism not to get moved by the cuteness overload.

“Hi, kiddo,” I waved her, taking a quick look into her tin can. Sure enough, she had already gathered a dozen bottle caps or so already. Damn, you’re gonna go far, kid. “You doin’ okay?”

The filly noticed my glaze toward her small fortune, and quickly dragged the tin can toward her in a protective fashion.

“Relax, I’m not going to rob you,” I chuckled. Seriously, did I look like a raider, or what? “I overheard your little argument earlier with Goldfeather.”

She eyed me with suspicion. “What do you want?”

“I’ve been told you had some trouble with raiders, correct?” I asked, watching her cute look melting away as I was speaking.

“It’s none of your business,” she answered bitterly. “Unless you want to lend me a gun.”

“Can’t do that, kid,” I apologized. “But I think I can do better.”

She shot me an inquisitive look. It was painfully obvious she didn’t trust me, but I could hardly blame her. She motioned me to continue. Damn, she wasn’t half my age, and already I felt like she owned the place and I was a con vendor or something.

“I specialize in solving these kinds of problems,” I leaned towards her, lowering my voice. “I’m a bounty hunter.”

She raised an eyebrow inquisitively. “You mean, like a mercenary?”

I winced. Would people never learn the difference?

“No, more like a hitmare, except I’m freelance,” I answered. “I could probably make short work of your… friends.”

She eyed me from hoof to ears. Her gaze lingered a bit on my newly acquired pistol, then she looked me straight in the eyes.

“I don’t have enough to pay you,” she finally broke away. “I can’t even afford a gun…”

And there it goes. No turning back now.

“I’m not asking for any caps,” I said. The words felt wrong in my mouth, but Meridian supported me with a small, yet genuine smile.

The filly looked dumbfounded for a moment, then suddenly backed away, an unspeakable horror clear on her face.

“I’m… I’m not paying with my body either!” she stammered, falling from her makeshift pedestal.

“What?” My brain processed her panicked refusal in utmost stupor. “What… Who in Tartarus would be sick enough to ask that of a filly who doesn’t even have her cutie mark!?”

Some raiders would, a part of my mind answered, but I quickly dispelled the idea. Of all monstrosities in the Wastelands, child abuses were among those that even the most sadistic, self-centered assholes despised. True, I often joked about it – I had quite a dark humor after all – but to be actually accused of it shook me to the bones.

She seemed to calm a bit as she noticed the horror on my face.

“I don’t know. Mommy always told me to beware of strangers who gave me nice things for free,” she answered as she gathered the caps she had spilled. Without a word, I helped her turning her pedestal back up.

“Can’t blame her for that,” I nodded. Then, with a low voice: “I’m not asking for any payment of any kind. Like, you know, a gift?”

From the look on her face, she still didn’t trust me, but a small spark of hope now shimmed in her eyes, along with a disturbing hint of sadism and thirst for vengeance. So young, and yet…

“Why are you doing that?”

Good question, kiddo. Good question.

“Because I feel like it. Ain’t that reason enough?” I dismissed. “Let’s say I’m on a personal quest for rediscovery, and that I want to atone for my sins.”

She shot me a nonplussed look.

“Really?” she deadpanned.

“It may have something to do with shooting raiders and your insupportable cuteness,” I added, my hoof ruffling my mane in embarrassment. ‘Quest for rediscovery’? Where in Tartarus did that come from?

“Oh well, it’s not like I have anything to lose;” the filly finally decided. “My name’s Feather. So, when do we start killing those assholes?”

(** **)

“Sorry, missy, but there’s no way I’m letting you coming with me,” I asserted with as much authority I could muster.

“But I want to see them deaaaaad!” Feather whinnied. Foals nowadays, I swear! They’ll be the death of me.

“You’re not helping your case.” I shot her an unimpressed look. “Besides, I work solo.”

“Then at least bring me their heads back!”

“It’s not as good an idea as it sounds,” I winced.

She started pouting.

“But I can cut their ears, if you want,” I quickly backpedaled. “Since I often aim for the head, they wouldn’t be very recognizable anyway.”

She pondered the idea for a couple seconds. Then, she lightened up.

“Can’t you cut their balls off instead?”

I almost choked on my own tongue.

(** **)

“Listen, kid, I kill people. I don’t chop their balls off!” I admonished. “Not to mention you’re far too young to say things like that.”

I mentally facehooved. I’d just told my eleven-year-old patron hiring somepony to commit half-a dozen murders was okay, but talking about something remotely sexual wasn’t. Someday, I should really focus on redefining my priorities.

Thankfully, Feather didn’t seem to notice the contradiction, and stared bashfully at the ground below my hooves.

“Now, I need some more intelligence on the targets. While it wouldn’t bother me the slightest to kill all the damn raiders in this country, I fear it’s well above my skills, so we’ll have to narrow down the scope to the ones you want to see dead.”

Feather nodded, and started her story.

(** **)

“Mommy and Daddy were scavengers,” she started with a small voice. “You know, scouting around old buildings for treasures and scraps, fixing old guns and armors, selling them back to merchants, those kinds of things. Mommy was born in a Stable, so she knew lots of techy stuff about electronics and other arcano-thingies. Daddy had a knack with weapons, fixing them, polishing them so they looked brand new.

“We lived in a small pre-war office building, ten kilometers from here. Nothing fancy, just enough to protect us from the rain and the beasts, but some raiders thought it would make a nice base or something.

“Two weeks ago, they attacked our home. Daddy grabbed his rifle and went out to fight them, and Mommy told me to hide in the rubble. She said to wait for her to come back.”

Feather sniffed a bit, but I could see no tears on her cheeks. I had been there, at her place, facing the death of both my parents long before their times. It’s true it makes you cry, at first. You weep and kick and wail for hours, days and nights. But eventually the tears run dry, and all you feel is emptiness inside your heart. The thirst of vengeance could drive you from then, but you never really get over such a traumatic experience. It always left a scar.

“But she didn’t come back,” she continued with a hollow voice. “The raiders didn’t go away. I’m not stupid, you know? I knew what it meant. But I refused to believe it. So, in the dead of the night, as they were too drunk to notice me in the shadows, I crept toward them to take a look.”

She went silent, and looked up to me. No words were needed.

“I’m sorry, kiddo.” I felt my heart go down my hooves. “Those bastards are going to get what they deserve.”

A tired, miniscule smile crept on her face, yet it was obvious her heart wasn’t in it.

(** **)

An hour later, Meridian and I arrived in sight of the building. Laying behind a rock on a small hill a couple hundred meters from the entrance, I scouted the area with my binoculars.

Sitting in the middle of nowhere, Equestria, the building seemed to be the last standing structure of what could have been a factory compound. Collapsed lighter steel frames were still visible under the rust and the dust. Whether the megaspells or time wore them down was anypony’s guess – but the stronger, concrete office block had stayed up somehow. Well, the first two levels stayed up, at least: from the rubble, it seemed the third and last story had collapsed, without taking the whole structure down.

I maybe didn’t have any particular knowledge in architecture and civil engineering, but the whole building looked extremely unsafe to me.

“Do you think we could bring it all down on them?” whispered Meridian.

“Sounds like a bad idea,” I murmured back, “because we still need their ears as a proof.”

Through the glassless windows of the first level, I could see the shimmering orange light of a campfire. Upstairs, two raiders were lazily attending their watch. Feather had told us they had been at least half a dozen when they attacked her familly, and so far the lack of any particular activity seemed to prove her right.

I mean, let’s face it: you can’t put more than six raiders in a place without having a lot of gruesome or loud activities going around.

Aiming with my rifle, I turned the magnification of the telescopic sight to maximum, and scanned the lower level. I could make out at least two different ponies from the little glimmer of their cigarette, plus another who moved across my field of vision. Sliding my scope toward the ground level, I noticed the metal door had been seriously damaged in the past, leaving it hanging sideway on its hinges. I doubted it could even be locked.

I nudged Meridian – who had grabbed the binoculars – and leaned toward him.

“Two guys on the upper level with guns, at least three on the lower with unknown weapons. There may be more, but none that I can see,” I murmured.

“Do you think you can take them out?” he asked, motioning toward my rifle.

“The two on the second story are goners, that much is certain,” I answered, taking aim once again. “Can’t say much for the two smokers downstairs. It’s too dark for me to see where they are, exactly.”

The sight slowly aligned with a little orange cigarette light. I pulled the bolt back and forth, and switched the safety off.

“Hopefully the second one won’t drop his when I shot his buddy,” I said between my teeth. “Meridian, mind keeping an eye on them?”

“Will do.”

“Okay,” I exhaled slowly, “here… we… go…”

I pulled the trigger.

A couple hundred meters away, a cigarette light suddenly spun in the air.

“The other’s three meters on the right.”

I ejected the empty shell, and aimed toward the other smoker. Thankfully, he hadn’t dropped his cigarette.

Another shot, and he went down.

“Nice one. The guys on the roof are moving.”

I moved my sights upward, and engaged another .308 cartridge. One of the stallions on the second level had taken cover behind a metal barrel, but apparently didn’t know where I was, since he left his whole left flank uncovered.

His head exploded in a pulp of blood, brain and bones.

By now, his colleague had realized staying on the roof wasn’t the best course of action against a sniper. He bolted toward what I supposed to be a staircase.

I missed him by a hair.

“Luna damn it,” I mumbled, taking out the empty casing and changing the clip. I slowly scanned the lower level for activity. A head popped up for a couple seconds on the right, then quickly hid back behind the wall.

“Oh no you don’t,” I gritted my teeth. I shot the wall; cinder block chips flew everywhere. With any luck, I had gone through.

I reloaded and shot an armor-piercing bullet for good measure.

“Okay,” I motioned Meridian as I got up, “let’s wrap this up, and we’ll be back at JR-7 for supper.”

(** **)

Pistol at the ready, I reached the building without any kind of problem. With any luck, I had killed most of them, and the survivors were drenching themselves in their own piss as they faced their impending doom.

That, or it could be a trap. It wouldn’t be the first time my targets were somehow waiting for me.

Slowly, I pushed the metallic door open. I had expected it to let out a sinister, metallic wailing, but instead it opted for breaking down for good and falling flat on the ground with a thundering sound.

Well, so much for the discreet entrance.

I leaned over the edge of the door frame, only to be greeted by a hail of hot lead. Encased in its TK field, my pistol retaliated swiftly, keeping the shooter under pressure.

Soon enough, an unholy curse told me they’d ran out of ammo. I took a quick look inside.

At the far end of a half-collapsed corridor, behind a makeshift barricade of rumbles and debris, a lone earth pony was fidgeting with an assault rifle. From the look of it, he didn’t have much experience with it.

In a blink, I shot him dead.

Slipping in the cool interior, I reloaded my pistol, and stashed the near-empty magazine in a pocket. As nopony jumped into from the shadows to shoot me, I motioned Meridian to follow.

He looked over the corpse, and tipped one of his limp limb with a cautious hoof.

“Yeap, he’s dead,” he murmured. “That makes four, five if you got the one behind the wall.”

Cautiously, I walked down the dusty corridor, keeping my focus on the ponyholes everywhere.

“It means we’re still one short, at least,” I answered quietly.

We reached another wooden door, this one still standing. I leaned back against the wall, and tried to make out sounds from the other side.

Sure enough, I could hear at least a couple muffled voices. I walked back the corridor to the cover of a large chunk of concrete. Meridian joined me, revolver in mouth. I had yet to see him shoot anything.

Taking aim at the door, I slowly turned the handle with my telekinesis.

The frame hadn’t made it halfway before two huge holes blasted through it, sending chunks of wood everywhere. What little remained of the door burst inward, and a crazed raider with a chainsaw jumped into the corridor, flaying his deadly weapon in all directions.

It took him a few seconds to realize we were safely hidden far beyond his range, and my pistol promptly made him bite the dust.

Another raider appeared in the doorway, a saw-cut rifle levitating in front of him. I ducked back to cover, but not before some lead pellets grazed my flanks. The wound on my back barked a wave of pain in my nerves, and I had to bite my lips not to scream.

As he shifted back behind a wall to reload, I jumped toward him, over the corpse, and before he could stick two more cartridges into his gun, he found himself facing the deadly end of a pistol.

A couple sharp detonations later, the confirmed body count reached six.

Yet, shots from the other end of the room taught me it wasn’t quite over yet.

“I’ll have your hide, you bitch!” somepony yelled. He punctuated his threats with three more bullets, which didn’t come anywhere close to me.

Taking a cautious look from my cover, I spotted a stallion in a weird sitting position maybe sixteen meters from me, leaning against an upside-down metal desk. From the holes in the concrete wall, and the dark trail of blood from there to him, I reckoned I did hit my target earlier, after all.

An old single-action revolver floated shakily over his horn. From the look of it, he didn’t have much time left, nor ammo for that matter.

And while I am a patient pony, I had little wish to wait for one of my target die of blood loss.

Taking a careful aim with my pistol, I lined him up with my iron sights. He shot a couple more times, but missed me by a good couple meters.

I, for one, didn’t.

Silence fell back on the Wastelands.

“I think we cleaned the area up,” Meridian finally stated, holstering back his Colt.

(** **)

We found Feather’s parents in different rooms on the second level.

And when I say different rooms, I don’t exactly mean the father in one room, and the mother in the next.

The stench alone made me want to throw up. Meridian visibly paled up behind his brown fur.

“I hope Feather didn’t have to see that,” he mumbled in a toneless voice.

Swallowing some acrid bile that had found its way up to my throat, I opted not to answer.

“Let’s find some fuel to burn this place to the ground,” I finally said, “right after we round up their ears and whatever valuable gear they had.”

The loot proved to be meager. The assault rifle from the hall proved to be in a decent condition, and I reckoned it had belonged to Feather’s father. The chainsaw, the shotgun and the cowboy revolver proved to be worthless, along with the raiders’ armor. One of the smokers had a rusted cleaver; the second had a decayed 10mm pistol which didn’t seem to be in working condition. On the roof, I found a varmint rifle of little value.

As I was about to start pouring fuel from a pre-war generator all over the place, however, I hit jackpot.

“Hey, Meridian,” I called, nudging the bloody piece of metalcrafting with my hooftip, “do you think it’s still working?”

“What did you found?” he trotted toward me. “Oh, I see. They probably took it from her mother’s leg, but couldn’t open it.”

It was a Pipbuck.

“Do you know how much that’s worth?” I asked him. The six-digit price of the one I had seen back in the Mall was spinning in my head.

“Much, but I reckon there’s a reason you don’t see them in every shop.” he answered, cautiously stepping around the blood smears to take a better look. “Stable dwellers usually make easy targets.”

“What do you mean?” I finally levitated the object in front of me. Here and there, bits of flesh still hanged around the fixations. I couldn’t help but feel a bit nauseous.

“I bet you couldn’t make it work, even if you wanted to,” he motioned toward the unlit screen. “There are probably dozens of securities on those things that prevent you from starting it again without the proper tools.”

“I guess you’re right,” I chuckled half-heartily, “and good luck to find a proper Pipbuck technician in the Wastelands. Still, we can’t leave it here, right?”

“Sure.” He paused for a moment, gazing at the dried blood on the stainless steel. “At the very least, we should return it to Feather.”

I almost chocked. “What? Dude, even if it’s not working anymore, a Pipbuck is worth at least ten thousands caps!”

“Yeah, but it’s not yours,” he pointed out, “If you keep it, you’re stealing it.”

“What’s the big deal?” I raised an eyebrow. “It wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last, for that matter.”

“Do you often steal from small fillies the last token they have from their parents, freshly deceased in a very traumatic experience?”

I opened my mouth, froze, blinked, closed my jaw, gritted my teeth, flapped my ears, opened my mouth again, shut it again, and finally stomped.

“You’re an asshole, you know that?” I spat toward Meridian. “Fine! Let’s throw away this nice, easy-made stash of cash!”

I stormed out of the room, grabbed the fuel cans, and started pouring everywhere in anger.

Without a word, Meridian put the Pipbuck with the rest of our loot, and left.

(** **)

On our way back to Junction R-7, we stopped by a small pond. Behind us, far away over the distance, a black smoke raised over the horizon. The sun had barely started his decent; overall, the whole job, trip included, had required less than four hours. Feather probably didn’t expect us to come back so soon – or even at all. There was one last thing I had to do before coming back to do my report, however.

Ducking near the slightly radioactive water, I took the Pipbuck out of my bags. I couldn’t really hoof over the item to Feather without washing all the blood and the gore from her mother from it, after all.

Using my telekinesis and some sand, I meticulously scrubbed the metal frame. As the task became repetitive and overall boring, my mind started to wander on the object itself. While I was aware of their uses, strengths and weaknesses, I never had the occasion to see one up close.

From what I could see of the disabled device, I realized PipBucks looked barely more than some fancy mapping device in the eye of the beholder. Polished steel formed the outer layer around a dark green screen protected by some kind of thick transparent plastic. A metallic edge allowed it to be readable even in broad sunlight. Under the screen, there were three unlabeled buttons that had seen better days. The device had an embedded Geiger counter in the upper-left corner, and the little arrow turned toward the yellow each time I plunged it under the water. Two other dial-buttons completed the interface. Lastly, I reckoned the part under the Pipbuck – that is, between the steel and the owner’s flesh – used to be padded, but neither the throes of time nor the fact it had been cut from somepony’s leg recently in a very messy fashion had been very kind to the padding.

Overall, it wouldn’t be very hard to make it look pristine again – the only trouble would be to find a way to restart it, and to strap it to his new owner. Maybe Chrystal had the knowledge to unlock it, but then again she’d probably squeeze me of all my caps to do so.

“You aren’t thinking of keeping it, now aren’t you?” piped Meridian.

“Maybe,” I shook the PipBuck to dry it up, and shot him a sideway glance. “Aren’t you even slightly appealed by the idea of making a big stash of caps by selling it?”

“And pray tell, what would I do with my weight in bottle caps?”

The stallion grabbed a cigarette from his outfit. Helpful, I held a lighter toward him.

“Thanks,” he muttered, puffing. “Money doesn’t drive me. Sure, I ain’t happy when I’m broke, but otherwise, as long as I have enough to get whatever I need, I’m content.”

My eyes went back on the PipBuck, and my thoughts drifted toward the four keys in my front pocket. Not driven by greed, uh?

“I can hardly believe that.” I said with a smug smile. “Everypony wants caps. It’s, like, a rule of the universe.”

“Two hundred years ago, everypony wanted Equestrian bits and a nice manestyle,” he retorted with a chuckle. “It’s not money ponies want, it’s the power it gives. Money is power, but power gets you killed here. Unless you become an asshole like Red Eye, but I’d rather die than doing that.”

“So you want to stay poor forever?” I asked in disbelief.

“Poor ponies with big guns don’t get mugged,” he blinked mischievously. “More seriously, it’s just that what I value, most people discard with disdain.”

“And that’d be?”

“Honesty. Generosity. Kindness. Laugher. Loyalty. Friendship.” He embraced the landscape around us with a raised hoof. “Did you know this country once revered those qualities as traits of godhood?”

I couldn’t help but roll in the dust of laugher at the silly idea.

My hilarity was short lived, however, as I rolled into the muddy, radioactive pond.

“Eeck!” I jumped out, half my body dripping. Great, now I was going to shine in the dark!

“If I was more pious, I would say the goddesses had punished you,” Meridian chuckled. He tossed his half-smoked cigarette in the water, and held the PipBuck toward me. “I agree the formulation is a bit cheesy, yet I have the conviction someday those virtues shall save these desolate lands.”

I shook my head. When the Wonderbolts come back from their graves, surely!

My eyes locked with Meridian’s. He didn’t shy away, and for a split second my father was here, looking at me and waiting for me to say something.

“I can’t say I share your beliefs,” I finally avowed, “but it’s your business, in the end. It ain’t like you are trying to coerce me into being the Mother of All Friendships, after all.”

“Well, I did manage to befriend you in the first place,” Meridian chuckled. “Though you shouldn’t worry about being the new incarnation of the Elements of Harmony. No offence, but you’re pretty much at the antipode of the virtues they are supposed to incarnate.”

“Damn, you sure know how to talk to a lady,” I snorted.

Then, I thought back to what he said. Friend, huh? Come to think of it, I reckoned it was true indeed, and while I still didn’t trust him all the way, it had been pleasant not to journey alone.

It was then I took my decision.

“Hey, Meridian, ever heard of the DERTA?”

(** **)

As I had expected, Meridian immediately accepted to accompany me in my quest for the DERTA. He showed little interest in the wonders of technology the compound was bound to host (pricey!), and seemed more interested by the background of the place. I told him whatever I remembered from Crowneigh’s files, but I sure didn’t study it all the way through.

After all, who cared about who owned the place two centuries ago? Now, it was going to be mine, and mine alone.

Well, with Meridian, now, I suppose. I reckon our partnership will have to extend over the wonders of the Big Mountain, yet given his total lack of interest in caps and expensive technologies so far I had little doubt it would be of little concern for me.

As we headed back to Goldfeather’s Emporium to retrieve the gear I had ordered my companion left to buy supplies of his own, and we agreed to meet back a couple hours later near the northern gate of the town.

It turned out the griffin didn’t lie about having military grade winter gear lying around somewhere. While most of the thick clothes and furs showed signs of a poor storage, they were surprisingly in an overall good shape. I sure wouldn’t look so good after two hundred years in a closet.

My equipment now complete, I felt ready to start travelling north, toward the DERTA. But while a little voice in my head urged me to take off at once, leaving both Meridian and Feather hanging, I shrugged off the idea. I had given my word, now I might as well live up to it.

Feather had vacated the spot we had met her at some six hours before. A couple well spent caps dropped into some beggar’s pocket later, I learned I had barely missed her. For some reason, she had decided to pay a visit to the Talon Headquarters. Oddly, I couldn’t shake the feeling I had something to do with that.

Truth to be told, I hesitated following her hoovesteps. My relations with the Talons were purely based on business. Sadly, given my little stunt in Tenpony, a price on my head was to be expected, and Gawd’s Talons were reputed for never, ever abandoning the contracts they have accepted. Should one of them decide I looked like an easy target, they’d pursue me until one of the parties had been entirely obliterated.

Yet, I doubted Tenpony would resort to mercenaries like the Talons to track a lone fugitive like me. I suspected the tower inhabitant had no idea of who I was, if the foolish ambush of the day before was anything to go by. Bounty hunters were to be expected, but mercenaries? Doubtful at best.

Taking a decision, I finally headed toward the Talon Headquarters.

(** **)

I heard Feather long before I got to see her.

Near the Headquarter entrance – if that gap between two train carts could be called an ‘entrance’ – a griffin clerk was arguing with the filly I was looking for. The former seemed to be losing his cool at top speed, while the later shouted probably with all the air of her tiny lungs.

The whole scene brought back a disturbing sensation of déjà-vu.

Then, a second griffin walked in. Tall, clad in battle armor, a thick scar adorned her face. She barked something to her colleague about losing his cool while talking to a filly a third his size, and dismissed him. She turned toward Feather.

“Hey there, kiddo,” she said, lowering her head nearly to the filly’s level, “sorry about Paperclaws. I’m Gawd. What did you want?”

“Earlier, a mercenary came to me and proposed to work for me,” Feather answered, calmer, “but I realized I had no idea where to find her afterward. So I reckoned she or one of her friends would be here.”

“You don’t really look solvable,” Gawd frowned. If you never saw an armor-clad griffin mercenary frown, then you don’t know how lucky you are. “No offence, but I don’t see how you could convince a private contractor that you had the caps to afford their service.”

“That’s just it,” Feather stomped, “this guy just before refused to believe me. She told me she’d agree to kill those raiders for free.”

“I’m sorry, but I think that, whoever she is, she’s been pulling your leg,” the griffin shook her head. Then, she paused, as if she just had an idea. “Wait, did you say ‘she’? How did ‘she’ look like?”

“She was a grey unicorn,” Feather began her description. Shivers went down my spine as I realized a vague description had a high chance to perfectly match the one DJ Pon3 had given on his radio a few days before. “With a rifle and an armor. I didn’t catch her name, though.”

“Did she have a Stable jumpsuit and a Pipbuck?”

“No, she wore leather, and didn’t have a Pipbuck,” the filly answered. “She didn’t look like a Stable Dweller, either.”

“Then I fear you’re out of luck,” Gawd sighed. “Only Littlepip would be selfless enough to propose something like that. But don’t worry, I will gladly bawl off the moron who thought it’d be funny to give a filly false hopes like that, or my name isn’t Gawdyna Grimfeather!”

It was then Feather, growing more and more desperate, took a good look around her and noticed me standing in the way.

“Hey, Gawd, it’s her!” she pointed out toward me.

Great. Now I had to deal with the big boss of the Talons herself. If there was a single person in Junction R-7 who could link the dots between the mysterious killer of Tenpony and my sudden appearance over here, it was her.

Stepping toward them, I tried to adopt a relaxed stance.

“Hey, long time no see, Gawd,” I waved, staying out of the griffin's reach. I half expected her to lunge at me to bury her claws in my throat.

But instead she opted to burst into laughter.

“… did I say something funny?” I turned toward Feather, who shrugged.

“Sorry,” Gawd breathed heavily, “it’s just that this kiddo right here told me some mercenary had promised her to do some dirty job for free, and then she said it’s you! I mean, come on, of all guns for hire in the Wastelands, you’re the least likely to ever accept working for free.”

I chuckled uneasily. “Yeah, sure. Hehe.”

“So you lied to me?” Feather gave me the puppy eyes treatment, tears and glitters included. Damn, she managed to make me feel guilty, even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, for once!

“I didn’t.” The pouch of severed ears fell on the ground in front of her. The filly stared at it blankly a couple seconds, before noticing the blood stains on the heavy fabrics. She backed away a bit.

“You… you killed them?” she asked, hope and fear mixing in her voice.

I took a look around me, and, as only she and a flabbergasted Gawd were within earshot: “All seven of them. Afterward, I burned the building to the ground.”

“Is that Daddy’s rifle?” Feather asked out of the blue, pointing to the assault rifle I had looted earlier. A good part of the assault rifle stuck out of my saddlebags, and I berated myself for not concealing it.

Then again, it’s not like Meridian would have let me keep it, either.

“Now it’s yours,” I answered, levitating the oversized gun toward its new, tiny owner. Then, I held the Pipbuck from my bags toward her: “And I believe this is as well.”

Tears of joy filled her eyes as she stared at the two tokens. I realized she, in the end, cared little for their commercial value; where I saw a big heap of caps, she saw two things that reminded her of her late parents. I almost felt like a monster for even thinking of keeping them.

Then, Feather tackle-hugged me.

“Thank you so much, miss!” she cried, burying her head in my neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“It’s okay, Feather,” I mumbled, uneasily. “Don’t thank me for that. I mean, that’s what I do for a living. For you, it was the day I avenged your parents and killed half a dozen raiders, but for me, it was an uneventful Thursday afternoon.”

Feather managed to chuckle a bit at my terrible joke, but didn’t loosen her firm grasp. Desperate, I shot a pleading look toward Gawd, who shrugged, half-amused, half-deterred. Finally, she settled for helping me.

“Hey, kiddo,” she said, “Feather, right?”

The filly looked up toward the tall griffin, and nodded.

“I’m sorry for doubting your word. Hey, you know what? I can have somegriffin take a look at your Pipbuck, see if it can be reactivated.”

Gawd then called out one of her subordinates. Soon enough, Feather was giddily prancing away, following a techy-looking brown earth pony.

That left me alone with Gawdyna Grimfeather, head of Gawd’s Talons.

“Well, shit, I didn’t know I’d live to see the day when Spring decided to run a charity,” the griffin finally whistled. “Then again, Deadeyes and Mister Topaz got their asses handed to them by a stable dweller, so I reckon it’s not the weirdest thing I’ve seen in the last two months.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d like you to keep it to yourself,” I winced at the idea of unwanted publicity. “You know how it is.”

Gawd nodded. “Of course. I noticed you didn’t even give her your name.”

“Why should I?” I shrugged, relieved the griffin didn’t seem to want to tore my throat out. “I don’t want her to get the wrong idea about me.”

“Ha, I can see that!” She gave me a huge pat on the back, almost sending me to the ground. “Well, why don’t you come inside, and have a drink with me while we talk business?”

Cold shivers went down my spine, but I reminded myself Gawd had little use for subtlety. Had she wanted me dead or incapacitated, by now I would have been halfway to Tenpony Tower already.

“Sure, but I’m not taking a lot of jobs at the moment.”

“Trust me, this one is going to spark your interest,” the griffin blinked.

(** **)

One would expect of a mercenary company like Gawd’s Talon to have enough goons to cover pretty much all kind of jobs, but the truth is, even they often hire freelance specialists for delicate tasks, be it a computer expert, a burglar, an explosive expert, or, in my case, a sharp shooter. Sometimes the big muscles of the Talons simply didn’t fit the job. I had worked with the company in the past – it was a win-win situation. While they had their cut of the bounty, I didn’t have to worry about not being paid in the end, nor getting backstabbed. Afterward, I had moved to Manehattan, but it seemed Gawd hadn’t forgotten me.

“Want a beer? It’s still cold,” she held a bottle toward me. Then, she grabbed a glass, and poured herself some schnapps.

Silence fell over the train wagon.

“Have you listened to the radio lately?” she finally broke the ice. “DJ Pon3 had been telling some intriguing stories in the past few days.”

I stopped the bottle right as it reached my lips. I couldn’t remember if it had been sealed when Gawd had given it to me.

“It isn’t poisoned,” she rolled her eyes. “So it’s true, you were the one who managed to make the guys in Tenpony look like fools with plasma rifles.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” I answered with a slightly shaky voice. What game was she playing at?

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Gawd sighted, sipping her schnapps. “Still, if you happen to know who did it, let her know the Talons aren’t going to pursue her.”

“Why not? I bet Tenpony had set a nice bounty on my – err, her – head, after all.”

“They did. Four thousands caps, quite impressive for a simple murder. Still, if we started hunting private contractors doing their jobs, we would soon make a lot of enemies. Enemies with damn good aim.”

I let out a deep breath, as the knot in my throat untied itself. Of course, if the Talons believed I had killed Van Graff for business, they’d just let me be – to them, contracts were a sacred thing, and as long you were a professional with good standards, they’d simply turn down any bounty on your head.

Hopefully, Gawd would never learn I had assaulted Van Graff for personal reasons…

“I can understand the sentiment,” I answered, finally tasting my beer. I almost moaned in pleasure as its cool amber taste flowed down my parched throat.

“Besides, it happens I have a client who’d like to have a friend of theirs taken care of.”

“Can’t you send one of your own?” I asked. “I mean, why would you wait for m- for somepony you might or might not know to do the job?”

“Because it would require a lot of… finesse, and skills my Talons do not have” she answered. I couldn’t help but be proud to have my achievements recognized by Gawdyna Grimfeather herself. “The target is a permanent resident of Tenpony Tower, and never gets out.”

“No thanks,” I sputtered, backing down on my chair. “I meant, this pony has probably no incentive to go back-”

“It’s a five hundred thousand caps job,” Gawd cut me.

“… come again?”

“You heard me. And it’s nothing but legit: half the sum had already been paid to us as a warranty. It has been sitting in our coffers for more than a month now, but it seems the client really wants her dead, no matter the price.”

“… well, fuck,” I blurted. Half a million? Half a freakin’ million? “Had I known, I would have taken it last week.”

“It would have been convenient, indeed,” the griffin sighted. “That place is a fortress. I didn’t expect anypony could just get in, deal with their target, and then just get out.”

“I almost didn’t make it,” I avowed. “I don’t think I’d be able to do it again.”

“There is no rush. As I said, the contract has been sitting in my drawer for quite a while now. But should you reconsider… well, you know where my office is,” she laughed, embracing the converted train cart around her.

“I’ll think about it,” I paused a couple seconds. “You said earlier somepony had managed to kill both Deadeyes and Topaz, couldn’t you send him on this job?”

“Who, Littlepip?” Gawd laughed. “No way.”

The name seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where I had heard it.

“You think she can’t handle it?” I asked. “Trust me, in the end it’s just a matter of sneaking some ammunition past the security, and finding the target.”

“Oh, I believe she would do even a better job than you, no offence,” the veteran answered, still chuckling. “The filly is a born war machine. Ever heard of the Stable Dweller?”

“Wait, you mean it’s her?” I spouted. “Holy Luna’s nipples, how in Tartarus did you manage to hire the unhirable?”

“She didn’t quite have the fame she has now,” Gawd finished her schnapps, and poured another. “To me, she was a private contractor like anypony else.”

“When did you find out you underestimated her by a landslide?” I chuckled. To use the Stable Dweller to eliminate a raider nest was akin to squash an anthill with a grenade launcher, if the rumors were to be believed. Anyhow, if she had survived this far, I reckoned the filly had serious skills to back her up.

“I believe it was when she slaughtered a freakin’ dragon by tossing him grenades,” she barely managed to blurt before giving in to another laughter fit.

“Celestia fucks me, so it was true?” I had to find support on the desk not to fall over. “I can’t imagine what in Tartarus a dragon was doing in Shattered Hoof.”

“T’was Topaz,” Gawd seemed to calm herself a bit. “Deadeyes worked for a genuine dragon.”

“No shit? Mister Topaz was a dragon?” I knew the guy by name only. I did a couple missions for Deadeyes in the past, but quietly left when he started talking about giving me a more permanent job.

“So it seems.” Gawd noticed my empty beer bottle, and swiftly grabbed me another. “Littlepip walked in alone and almost unarmed, burned the place to the ground, and walked out with a body pile five meters tall and a stuffed dragon trophy. We’ve been friends ever since. She keeps sending refugees and merchants over to Junction R-7. It’s thanks to her it started looking like a town, you know.”

“Yet you can’t send her on this job, because she’s also friend with DJ Pon3,” I deduced. “What a shame.”

“Indeed,” Gawd sighted.

Silence fell back onto the train cart. I sipped my beer in silence, contemplating my options. While half a million caps would set me up for life, my chances of success were slim at best. Besides, I still had in mind the reason I assassinated Van Graff in the first place: the DERTA.

“I’m sorry, Gawd,” I finally gave my answer, “but I have other projects at the moment. Should they prove unsuccessful, I’ll come back to you. That is, if you haven’t found anypony else by then.”

“It’s unlikely,” she shrugged. “You are one the few skilled hitmares who haven’t taken any side yet. Most joined Red Eyes, left toward the East, settled down as guards, or died entirely.”

“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door”, I chuckled. Still, I felt a bit uneasy at the idea of being one of the last freelance bounty hunter in the West. When I had started out, the competition had been quite fierce, and somehow I doubted the demand was going to drop anytime soon.

I finished my bottle, put it on the desk, and stood up.

“Well, thanks for the beer,” I held out my hoof toward Gawd. “I’ll warp my mind around this offer of yours, but don’t get your hopes too high.”

Her claws shook my hoof.

“Don’t worry. I didn’t really expect you to accept, truth to be told,” she avowed, taking me back to the door. “The radio said you were injured when you ran off.”

As if on cue, my back started itching.

“Just a flesh wound,” I lied, shifting uncomfortably in my armor as I stepped out. The sun was setting; I realized Meridian had probably been waiting for me for half an hour now.

Gawd hummed in a knowing tone, but said nothing.

After a last word, we parted way.

(** **)

“You’re late,” Meridian reproached me, sat on a rock outside Junction R-7.

“Fashionably so,” I answered with a tease. “I met an old friend as I was looking for Feather.”

“Let me guess, he’s a mercenary,” the stallion deadpanned.

“Wrong. She is a mercenary.”

Meridian’s eyes rolled in their orbits.

We headed North.

(** **)

Side quest completed: Birds of a Feather
[X] Deal with the raiders at Aerotech Offices (Primary)
[ ] Bring the raiders alive to Junction R-7 for a fair trial (Optional)
[X] Bring back Cazadores’ Bane and Cloudy Skies’ PipBuck to Feather (Optional)
[ ] Find a way to get paid for your services (Optional)

Mention: Mercenary with a golden heart

Side quest added: Last homage
[ ] Accept or refuse the Talon contract (Primary)
[ ] Learn more about the Talon contract (Optional)

Level up!

New perk:
The Professional: They can’t see you, they can’t hear you: how could they dodge your bullets? Your sneak attacks with suppressed or long range weapons deal an additional 20% damage.

“The closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client.”

Author's Note:

As always, special thanks to my proofreader, Lepking13.

Google Docs version:
Shades of Grey, Chapter Six: Birds of a Feather

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