• 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 Eight: No Signal

Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.



“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Chapter Eight: No Signal

“Pleased to meet you, Administrator Spring.”

The voice had come from speakers all around me. Meridian and I shared a knowing look.

“Damn,” he mumbled, “I bet it’s one of those crazy computers again.”

I did my best to ignore him, and looked around. Sure enough, hidden in a dark corner, a security camera had lit up and was now staring back at me.

“Uh, hello,” I faced toward the camera. “So, uh, you’re the base’s computer, right?”

“Not… exactly,” the disembodied voice answered, with pause and intonation and all. If I didn’t know it came from a computer already, I would have never guessed myself. “Though I reckon it is now my function, my… job, if you will.”

“… I don’t really get the difference.”

“Managing the DERTA never was my prerogative. However, unexpected circumstances have arisen, and I am now de facto in control of this base.”

In control? I didn’t really like the sound of that. Call me paranoid, but for me all AI were crapshoots.

No exceptions.

“Listen… Saios, right?” I bit my lip, trying to find a way not to sound like I was kicking it out. Even though I was. “This facility had come under a change of management lately. I am now the new and sole administrator. I’m afraid your previous owners passed away some time ago.”

“Well, I would have been very disappointed to see them still running around after two centuries,” Saios deadpanned. Damn, so much for ‘AI are stupid’. “I think you misunderstood my previous claim; let me reformulate: this base is mine. The computer may have mistaken you for the rightful head of the Department; but rest assured I know for a fact I am the closest thing to an heir of the previous administration.”

Well, looks like somepony was going to need to toss an EMP grenade or two in a maneframe very soon if she didn’t want to get toasted. I made my way to the door, which refused to open.

“It doesn’t mean we can’t be friends,” the computer continued. “I know you trust me about as much as I trust you – and I’ve spent most of my life conceiving artificial intelligences, I know the dangers of a robotized system going axe crazy. You will soon come to realize, however, that cooperation – an alliance of some sort, if you are the military type – could profit both of us.”

“And let me guess,” I started hammering the door with my hooves, to no avail. Damn you stainless steel! “If I refuse, you’re going to kill me.”

“Please. You would probably do the same, if your weapons are of any indications.”

I stopped hitting the metal frame, and blinked. Brute force wasn’t cutting it. “Yeah, I guess I would. Doesn’t mean I got to like it.”

I sighed and started rubbing my temples with my hooves. “Well, go ahead. It’s not like I have anything else to do.”

“My conditions are very reasonable,” Saios continued, “you would simply work for me. In the base, you would be repairing things I cannot reach and solve problems I cannot deal with, such as those rampaging hostiles at almost every level. Outside, you would be my consultant, since I reckon a lot of things have changed since the war, and you would represent me. You would be my voice, my eyes, and my messenger.”

“And what do I get for basically becoming your slave?” I spat. Internally, however, a wave of relief washed over me. Such activities would give me a lot of leeway to disable the AI or, if need be, take a Prench leave.

“You wouldn’t be my slave, you would be my collaborator,” the computer seemed half-offended, half-amused. To it, slavery was probably a very abstract concept, I realized. It didn’t know it had become a much tolerated business in the Wastelands, and I silently thanked the goddesses above for that.

“I’m not sure you can threaten to murder your collaborators in cold-blood when they refuse your conditions,” I sneered, immediately berating myself for possibly antagonizing my newfound jailer.

“If you only knew,” Saios punctuated the sentence with an honest-to-goddesses chuckle, “at the end of the War many corporate executive had little remorse killing their own blood just to get a promotion.”

“Times change, buddy. What’s in for me?”

“You would own the DERTA.”

Wait, what?

(** **)

“Sorry, I think I didn’t quite catch that,” I tried to remove whichever obstruction had landed in my ears by vigorously rubbing them with a hoof. “Did you just say you would give me the place?”

“Yes.”

“Even though you said earlier you didn’t want me to own it?”

“Yes.”

“… I don’t get it,” I facehooved rather loudly. I turned toward Meridian, who unhelpfully shrugged, and continued staring at the camera.

“Let me explain. You entered this place in hope to scavenge materials and equipment of high value, correct?”

“Uh, yes?”

“So you are not interested in the place, but rather in what is lying inside, right?”

“I… think you can put it that way,” I rubbed my mane, perplexed. “It’s not like I can sell two-centuries old concrete to anypony.”

“Then our objectives are not incompatible. For you, the DERTA is an Eldorado. For me, it’s home. I do not want anypony to own my own home, you understand? Yet, I attach little value for most of the items actually rotting in our warehouses. I have no use for them. If you agree to collaborate with me, I’ll even help you find whatever equipment you’d find most valuable.”

“You mean you wouldn’t mind me stripping the place to its bare bones?” I asked, incredulous. “Where’s the catch?”

“There will be things I will not allow you to take,” the AI continued, “because they simply cannot be replaced. They will become yours, but will remain bound to this place.”

“But uniqueness make the value,” I protested. Come on, even computer were scamming me now! “Besides, you need me. In a two centuries timespan, nopony had set hoof here but us. Don’t you think you are in a position to impose anything on me!”

If its chuckle was of any indication, it didn’t quite buy my threats.

“If it is value you seek, I have way more to offer to you than a couple old, dusty prototypes. Tell me, how is our industry faring nowadays?”

I blinked. “Industry?”

“Yes. Mass production of goods and materials, you know?”

“Uuh, I think Red Eyes have some factories running in Fillydelphia,” I scratched my mane, trying to figure out what could count as ‘industry’. “The Enclave probably builds all their own stuff, but they aren’t known for their good relations with us poor Wastelanders. Otherwise, there are many good tinkerers out there who can build pretty much anything out of scraps, but I’m not sure it qualifies for mass production.”

“Then you may become rich beyond imagination.”

My ears instinctively perked up.

“I’m listening.”

“As you are probably aware, this compound possesses several high-end manufacturing machineries. Given enough time, energy and adequate materials, they could build pretty much anything.”

I started to get what it was getting at. “Let me guess: you know how to operate them.”

“Better still: I know how to make more.”

(** **)

“So, let me sum this up: I play the technician and the scavenger for you, and in return you allow me to craft anything I want, which is equivalent to showering me with bottlecaps?”

I sure didn’t want to trust this AI, but damn, I knew a good contract when I saw one.

“While I do not understand your ‘bottle caps’ metaphor, yes, this is my proposal.”

“Caps are what we now use for money,” I explained, grabbing a few from my purse to illustrate. “It’s durable, light, and you can find them everywhere so it forces ponies to take risks and scavenge.”

“This does not seem very secure to me,” Saios noted. “I reckon we should be able to craft thousands of them from tin cans.”

“Counterfeit money?” I started grinning from ear to ear. “I like the way you think, partner!”

The door opened, and just like that, I was free.

“Wonderful! Now let’s get to work.”

Thirty seconds of uncomfortable silence followed. Then:

“It would seem I cannot change the hydrogen pile of our fusion reactor. The depleted canister is stuck in its slot.”

“Wonderful. Then it’s back to step one: start up the damn reactor,” I sighted, rubbing my hoof against my forehead. “Well, at least now we know what we’re supposed to do.”

(** **)

“Are you sure this is not radioactive?” I asked for the twentieth time as I circled around the combustible slot. Slightly larger than my hoof, it should have been unscrewed by a small electrical motor underneath, if the later hadn’t been totally munched away by rust and corrosion. While I wanted very hard to believe I wasn’t going to develop ugly tumors because I had manually removed it, I reckoned there was a reason it had been automated in the first place. As for Meridian, he had mumbled something about ‘taking a look around’, and had disappeared before I could even ask him to help me. Jerk.

“Even if the containment has been breached, it should be safe to handle by now,” Saios answered.

I backed away from the device. “So it is radioactive, after all!”

“It was radioactive,” the computer sighted. “in the sense that half the hydrogen fuel was constituted of tritium, which is slightly radioactive. But even if the pile had not been depleted – which is not the case – tritium has a half-life of twelve years. It means its radioactivity had been reduced by more than 262,144 times since the stasis spell went off two centuries ago. And even back then, 700 grams of tritium wouldn’t have hurt you even if you had ingested it. The case itself is more dangerous than the fuel, since it’s heavy and you could get hurt by dropping it on yourself.”

“Hey, don’t you go all egghead on me,” I rumbled as I started freeing the canister. “I don’t even know what tritium is.”

“It is an isotope of hydrogen. I will give you a lecture on how the reactor works if you wish.”

“No –” I grunted as I pulled the metal cylinder out of its slot “– thanks. If it works, then it’s enough for me.”

“As you wish. Now, we need to get a new fuel rod.”

“I hope you got spares,” I joked, “because I ain’t sure the local supermarket has one of those in stock.”

“We got a room full of them. Please proceed through the door to your right.”

“And what about the old one?”

“Bring it with you. I will find a way to reload it, once we have settled the most important matters.”

“Aren’t you afraid to run out of juice?” I asked, as I opted for dragging the heavy canister behind me. “I mean, I just have to weight it to know you won’t find that kind of things under a rock.”

“Actually, the fuel itself would have a mass of only one and half kilogram,” the AI corrected. “The rod is heavy because somepony went overboard on its canister design and decided to make it almost indestructible. Add the stasis spell matrix used to prevent the tritium from naturally disintegrating, and you understand why they weigh about twenty kilograms.”

“I sure hope I won’t have to do that too often,” I finally decided to roll the ‘indestructible’ tank over the floor. “A kilo sure doesn’t look like much fuel.”

“It would be enough to power up the reactor for a whole year, operating at maximum capacity.”

I stopped in the doorway, and looked back and forth from the depleted rod to the reactor.

“You’re kidding. You’re kidding, right?”

“Fusion is a very efficient source of energy.”

“I don’t buy it,” I argued. “If it’s really so good, how come I’ve never seen one like that anywhere?”

“It arrived way too late on the market,” Saios sighted. “By the time this first prototype was built, Miss Sparkle and her teams had perfected her Spark generator. Furthermore, while fusion is cheap and reliable for usage, the construction of the reactor itself costs a fortune.”

“So nobody bought it,” I deduced.

“The Ministry of Awesome built a few smaller models, to power up their Thunderhead-class cloudships. And we had a few vehicle refitting projects with the Ministry of Wartime Technology, but the end of the War cut them short.”

I finally reached the room Saios had been designing. It contained more than three dozen fuel tanks.

“Well, damn,” I whistled in wonder, “you were right, we sure ain’t going to lack power anytime soon.”

I grabbed one near the bottom, and opted to load it on my back. Not that I feared it would rupture…

I then staggered to the slot. The rod slid into it without a single trace of resistance. As I locked it into place, a small green light on the panel turned on.

“Rod locked and loaded. Please return to the control room, I’m going to restart the reactor.”

(** **)

The reactor control room was exactly like I had left it, except that Meridian was nowhere to be found and that hundreds of commands I had never entered now rushed by on the terminals’ screens.

The images changed, and instead they started displaying the feed from the cameras inside the reactor room.

For a little while, nothing happened, as Saios ran multiple checks of the two-century old systems. Then, the metallic arms lit up, and the central sphere started to rise. The whole construct began to turn on itself. Once it reached a constant, moderate speed, arcs of electric blue light sprung from the tip of each arm, toward the sphere and in between them. The arcs slowly spread toward the base of the reactor.

Then, like an irregular batter smoothed out by a knife, the arcs suddenly seemed to become solid.

I stood there five more minutes, staring at the big blue ball of light on the screen.

“And what now?” I finally asked the computer.

“Whatever do you mean?”

“The reactor. It looks like it’s stuck or something,” I pointed at the screen, even though he probably had the feeds himself already. “It doesn’t look like it does anything.”

“And yet it’s working perfectly fine.” One of the screens turned back to a command line, displaying the reactor status. “See? We have power.”

“Well, damn,” I frowned at the remaining video feed. “That sure was anticlimactic.”

(** **)

“I see you have restored the air conditioner system default settings,” Saios told me as I was making my way upstairs, “that was well-thought, but quite inefficient. We mostly need to vent things out, not in – I am fairly certain the atmosphere in some confined areas is now a serious health hazard.”

“To be fair,” I panted as I trotted up the stairs toward the command center, “I had other things on my mind. We were running on emergency power, and we had no idea how long it was going to last.”

“Technically, forever. The secondary power source is a geothermal plant using underground hot sources.”

“Doesn’t sound very efficient.”

“Yet it is efficient. It is just not running at full capacity anymore,” the AI explained. “Because of the seismic activity the plant had been scaled down when the fusion reactor started.”

“And what if the reactor had gone down?” I asked. The irony of the question wasn’t lost on me.

“We would still have had enough power to run the critical subsystems, as you probably already noticed. Furthermore, if the need arose, we could have used multiple underground power lines connected to a barrage nearby.”

“Wait, there’s a barrage around here?”

“It has probably collapsed. Concrete is less durable than most ponies would believe.”

I finally reached the command center. I peeked inside; now, most of the displays were turned on, and printed out flows of information on the status of the base.

I noticed almost all the subsystems were now listed as running.

“Surprisingly, most of the base has survived the last two centuries,” Saios commented as a giant version of the DERTA map appeared on a mural screen. “The most obvious damages are in the B and C sectors. From the sensors and the cameras, it would seem some kind of collapse happened.”

“That’s an understatement. The elevator’s gone, and so are the tunnels in the lowest levels.”

“This is… problematic. I reckon you went up through the infirmary when you realized the way was closed?”

“That’s… correct,” I frowned. “How do you know that?”

“I am following the trail of destruction and zombie corpses.”

I chuckled uneasily and scratched my mane. “Killing ghouls is a messy business. Can’t be helped.”

“Ghouls? Is it the official term for those frenzied, decayed corpses which seem very keen to come back to get a taste of your liver?”

“I don’t know if it’s official or anything, but yeah, that’s how everypony call them,” I explained. I started to realize how much the AI needed me – the world it used to know had been gone for centuries, and the Wastelands were like nothing it had ever seen.

“What we got here are feral ghouls,” I continued, leaning on a console. “They are incredibly dumb. Most can’t even open doors. Don’t believe they are no threat, however, because they are damn hard to kill. They are faster than any half-rotten corpse has any right to be, and they’ll just shrug off most low caliber bullets. To kill them, you often have to dismember them, or blow their brains off.”

“It means they cannot be reasoned with,” deduced the AI.

“Nah. Lead is the only thing they understand,” I patted the shotgun on my back. “But there are other ghouls. From what I’ve been told, ghoulification is a very painful process. Most just lose their mind, and become feral. However, some manage to keep it together, and in the end are just as clever as you and I.”

“Interesting. Do unicorns and pegasi retain their innate abilities?”

I rubbed my chin thoughtfully.

“You know, I have no idea,” I finally avowed. “I’ve never seen a unicorn ghoul cast a single spell. In fact, I’m not even sure unicorns can turn into something that isn’t feral. Pegasi, on the other hoof, yeah, I’ve met quite a few. Ferals can’t fly, because they often don’t even have wings anymore. Non-ferals can probably remember how to fly, but since their wings are as rotten as the rest of their body, I’m not sure they can achieve anything short of a glide.”

An overly long silence fell onto the command center.

“You aren’t planning weird experiments on them, now are you?” I asked, uneasy.

(** **)

“And I’m telling you –” I managed to say between two shotgun shots in a ghoul’s face “– studying ferals ghouls ain’t a good idea.”

I had started the ‘pest control’ part of my job by cleaning the first levels served by the massive industrial elevator.

“But if the transformation is, as I suspect, triggered by balefire radiation, you should not fear contagion,” the AI argued.

“You’re missing the point!” I stammered as I put my last 12ga buckshots into the gun. “For starters, even bites from not-yet-dead ponies carry nasty things, so even though I wouldn’t turn into a ghoul I sure don’t want to die of an infection or something. Plus, I am not going anywhere close to these things. I ain’t crazy!”

“Fine,” Saios finally threw the towel in, “But we are missing out good science. Who knows what we would have found?”

“Don’t worry, if you really want to dissect one zombie, you’ll find plenty more outside,” I deadpanned. “But you’ll have to hire somepony else to catch it.”

“I believe we are done here anyway. I cannot sense anything moving on the level.”

“Good, because I’m running very low on ammunition,” I finally got an occasion to take a good look around. “Where are we exactly anyway?”

“You are on the lowest of the manufacturing areas.”

“Doesn’t look like a factory to me,” I looked around at the dirty, unkempt corridor around me.

“You are in the maintenance access,” Saios explained. “The AMDR is in a room nearby. Since no ghoul had managed to find their way in there, you had no need to visit it.”

“Say, Saios, I was wondering something,” I slowly peeked around a corner, not trusting the sensors for a dime, “are you unaware I’m not a qualified engineer, or do you just enjoy pissing me off by using fancy technical words I can’t even begin to understand?”

“I do not understand. Are you talking about the acronym ‘AMDR’? It stands ‘Arcanic Molecular Displacement Reactor’.”

“See, you’re doing it again!” I whined.

“Of course. I apologize, I tend to forget I am not talking to somepony with a double science degree,” Saios continued. I couldn’t figure out whether he was sarcastic or not.

“The Arcanic Molecular Displacement Reactor, or AMDR for short, is the cutting edge of microscopic re-arrangement,” the AI lectured. “Using induced arcanic field with a precision of an angstrom, it allows our facility to manipulate molecules and pure elements to force chemical reactions or crystallizations, and to mold on a macroscopic level items with a literal atomic level of perfection. Our home-made CAD software is fully compatible with the reactor, and will optimize the process following different criteria of speed, efficiency and precision chosen by the user. While our own AMDR is only limited by the energy output of our fusion power plant and the size of the reactor chamber, our systems need no cool down nor extensive maintenance delays, meaning we are able to…”

I started banging my head against a wall.

(** **)

“It builds stuff,” Saios sighed. “That’s what it does.”

“See?” I triumphed, “everything can be put in laypony’s terms.”

“I feel... dirty. An AMDR is not a simple workbench.”

“Well, duh,” my eyes rolled in their orbits. “Mind giving me the abridged version of why it deserves an acronym of its own?”

“Basically, given the proper materials and enough time and energy, an AMDR can build anything.”

“Uh… So can a workbench,” I scratched my head, perplexed. “In fact, in those conditions even a screwdriver could fit the description.”

“Could you melt tungsten with a workbench and a screwdriver?”

I blinked. “What the hell is tungsten?”

“Exactly,” Saios pointed out, “nopony even know what it is anymore, because it is so hard to use. For your information, tungsten is a metal with the highest melting point of all known chemical elements. Tungsten carbide is so hard it makes steel look like clay.”

“So, it’s hard, and it doesn’t melt,” I resumed. “So what? Steel does the job just fine already.”

“If you dropped liquid tungsten into lava, you would freeze the tungsten,” he continued, some kind of excitement peeping in his voice. “Come on, this is fantastic!”

“If I had been told an AI could be such a nerd, I wouldn’t have believed it,” I laughed. I could almost imagine a pouty face appearing on a screen somewhere in a base. “Okay, I admit, tungsten is cool and you can make some. Then what?”

“You did not understand my point. We can melt and mold tungsten – about a hundred grams of it at once. Knowing that, how easy do you think it would be to craft anything from steel, titanium, copper, or whatever other interesting substance you might need?”

“Oh.” I started to get it.

“Indeed. For example, let’s take your shotgun,” the AI continued. “Every single piece inside had to be crafted using a specific mold, or specific tools. But not with an AMDR. The same tool can be used to make anything.”

“You really meant you could craft anything, didn’t you. But then, how come I had never heard of it before?” I asked, dubious.

“Remember the fusion reactor? We could have used it to supply electricity to a good quarter of the country, yet it was barely enough to process more than half a kilogram of alloys at once,” Saios explained. “As I said, I could craft anything, given enough time and energy. We had the energy for cheap, but not the time. Furthermore, the installation itself cost so much to build nopony wanted to invest in one – and I’m not even talking about the electricity bill. You would have to make your own power plant, which doesn’t come for cheap either.”

“But then why did the DERTA have one, if it’s so unpractical?” While I didn’t live during the war, I had no trouble believing the amount of cash injected in such a jewel could have been used to more down-to-earth applications, like showering the Zebras with lead.

“The research program actually started a long time before the war. Since the Prench government –” I couldn’t help but snicker “– didn’t believe they could compete directly with Equestria, they had to find their own way to shine.”

“So they built lots of useless machines,” I chipped in.

“Not exactly. They threw everything they had into an area of science in which Equestria had invested little, if any, resources: the arcanic-based technologies.”

“Didn’t the Ministry of Arcane Sciences do that already? And whoever was supposed to do research in magic before that?” I mean, duh, they did have ‘arcane’ in their name.

“That would be the Royal Academy of Arcane. Believe it or not, they left entire sectors unexplored because they simply were too narrow-minded to consider them, and while the Ministry opened up its views through collaborations with Earth pony technologies, they never really got around their old grudges. To them, arcane is a goal or a mean. For us, it was a tool or a part of a more complex process.”

This time, I didn’t even bother pointing out he was speaking gibberish again.

“We applied the ways of Earth ponies’ technologies to crystalize spell matrices. The AMDR is but one of many proof of concept that you can indeed use spells like very versatile electronic components able to interact with their environment in many ways. We applied those findings to many other things, like reactive armor, very-high temperature superconductors, or self-sustained shields.”

“Tenpony Tower had shields too,” I pointed out.

“While I never had access to their schematics, I strongly suspect they simply used a one-shot megaspell to amplify a million fold a simple nexus spell,” the AI nerded out.

“What’s the difference? Megaspells sound a lot like your arcanic thingies.”

“That’s because they are. But they were not invented by the Ministry of Arcane Sciences, but by the Ministry of Peace.”

“Wait, wasn’t the MoP the one in charge of hospitals and all that stuff?” I asked, bewildered. I had been told in the past they had been the one to leak the mass destruction weapons to the enemy, which seemed quite implausible, but I simply couldn’t believe they had also invented them.

I told Saios so.

“I know, right? Back then, it took everypony by surprise. We didn’t even have to ask for the schematics or nothing, we found them in our mailbox the day after their little feat of strength. They remotely healed more than a thousand wounded soldiers with a prototype fitting in a carriage, you know. On their first try. I had been told Twilight Sparkle spent a full week locked in her office trying to wrap her head around the how and the whys of those wonders.

“Ironically, Fluttershy herself – the mare at the head of the MoP – had thought such spells would level the battlefield, since it would mean no more casualties on our side. She did not realize it could be weaponized, or used for other purposes.

“In a couple months, a joined effort from the MAS and the MoWT had built the first offensive megaspell. Soon afterward, Stable Tech launched the PipBuck, and I’m fairly certain they used a variant of megaspells to miniaturize their spell matrix. Even here, in the DERTA, it widened our horizons. Our project of a fusion power plant became realizable, now that we could use megaspells to contain the core. In less than six months, we had a prototype up and running, and we boosted our AMDR’s output by ten thousand percent.”

“Wait, are you telling me that thing down there –” I pointed at the floor toward the reactor “– is a freaking megaspell?”

“Megaspells aren’t harmful in themselves, Spring” Saios tried to calm me, “they only amplify simple spells a few orders of magnitude. In our case, it allowed us to design a shield small enough to be fitted in the reactor’s arms, yet strong enough to maintain the fusion material under a sufficient pressure. Then, we used a second megaspell on a thermal shield which prevent the reactor from simply melting down.”

“So if they fail, we’re toasted,” I resumed.

“No. If the core shield fails, the fusion process will simply stop. If the thermal shield fails, redundant securities will cut the fuel and drown the reactor with cold inert gases.”

“And if both fail?”

“Report to the first case. The reactor would stop, and we’d just be in the dark again.”

“Which would be bad,” I concluded, resisting the urge to facehoof.

(** **)

When I first got my hooves on the DERTA’s maps, I had been surprised not to see an armory anywhere. After all, in the paranoia of the war, even the local grocery shop was expected to have three different kinds of shotguns in a closet near the cash register.

But in Big Mt, for some reasons, they had opted for another approach: the personnel accredited to carry a weapon were trusted to lock it safely in their own, personal lockers. The same could be said for their security armor.

In the end, it meant the DERTA’s “armory” was nothing more than a glorified closet with a steel door, a couple unused guns and a few thousands rounds of ammunition.

On the bright side, the whole place had been protected by the same technology of near-vacuum storage that had kept my own shotgun pristine for two centuries.

On the down side, damn, a freakin’ closet. Talk about anticlimactic.

Located near the command center, not too far from the collapsed area, the armory was quick to refill my own, depleted ammunition stocks. Now fitted with a nigh-unlimited stock of 12 gauge rounds, I went on to the next items on my ghoul-hunting checklist: a gas mask, and a freakin’ Geiger counter.

Saios guided me toward the warehouses on the fifth level. I had already been there on my way in; now that a bleach light poured down from the ceiling, casting away the shadows, the large rows of shelves and sealed crates seemed a bit less spooky.

There, I met one of the few maintenance robots still in shape to do anything besides beeping in a dark corner. The base AI told me it was doing its best to repair – or rebuild – them all, so I wouldn’t have to do the most boring maintenance job. While I was glad I wouldn’t have to mop the floors to remove the stains of ghoul goo, the idea of losing so easily part of my leverage against Saios worried me. If it couldn’t repair the compound by itself, then it would have an incentive not to piss me off; but if some pre-war robots could act as remotely-controlled repairponies…

Anyway, the robot in question proved to be very helpful to grab a two hundred kilo crate sitting far above me on some shelves. I doubted many unicorns could lift that much with their telekinesis – I recall somepony able to move a freakin’ train car somewhere around New Appleloosa, but that’s pretty much it.

The robotized forklift, however, had no problem securing the crate, bringing it down, and even carrying it all the way to the nearest workshop.

There, as it started unsealing the package for me, I found myself facing the puzzling, dismantled sentry gun once again.

“This is an automated linear-accelerating high-velocity defense module,” Saios said when prompted. “In other terms, this is a turret that shoots steel balls at a very high speed.”

Okay, now he was definitely making fun of me.

“Hey, cut that off, I ain’t stupid,” I snarled, stomping my hoof to the ground. To my great dismay, it probably looked more pathetic that anything. “Just explain the freakin’ scientific or technical words you use, don’t baby-talk me!”

“Sorry, I couldn’t help it,” Saios snickered. For a moment, I almost forgot I was talking to a computer. Damn. “Though you will find there is not much to say about those. We called them the Gauss sentries. It uses a linear accelerator to propel small steel bearings through pretty much any combat armor with ease.”

“Linear what?” I asked, puzzled. I still didn’t have a clue on how those things were supposed to work.

“Linear accelerator. Basically, the barrel is a succession of superconductor solenoids, in which we send current of a few hundred amperes. It generates linear magnetic fields, which repel and attract the projectile.”

I shot the local camera a blank look.

“Like a big slingshot, but with magnets,” Saios helpfully suggested.

“Oh.”

(** **)

“Okay, stop me if I’m wrong,” I resumed. “Electricity goes there, through this coil-thingy in there, and it creates a large electromagnet, which acts like a magnetic slingshot.”

“Correct.”

“So it’s like a gunpowder-based weapon, but without gunpowder,” I continued, puzzled. It made little sense to me to go such a way to sidestep something that seemed so natural to me.

“Kind of.”

“And let me guess, you never got around to sell it because it’s so expensive and shit,” I concluded with a little smile. I started to get the mentality of the guys down in the DERTA: make the best design possible, and then starts worrying about the price.

“Actually, the Gauss weapons were our best sellers,” Saios noted. “This particular model never attracted many buyers because Flash Industries and Ironshod Firearms had released cheaper and more economical sentries years before we even started the production. But we had other models.”

“Like, rifles?” I asked, suddenly interested. Sentries were too heavy to dismantle and move around to be of any interest to me, but guns? Yep, that I could sell.

“No, we scaled them up. As the Zebra aerial incursions became more frequent, the Equestrian government decided to fortify their borders with entire batteries of anti-air canons.”

“And you built them,” I deduced, my mind drifting back to some of Crowneigh’s documents. “How many?”

“We manufactured 7,127 AAGC during the war. We were still assembling them on the surface when the bomb fell.”

“Damn, now that’s a shitload of guns,” I whistled. “I sure hope they worked as intended.”

“Believe me, they did. One of those canons could take down a full-grown dragon in three or four shots in mid-air. The first batch we dispatched relieved the Shadowbolts so much the Ministry of Awesome paid us up front to put one every kilometer on the border, and some more to defend the cities, their cloudships and the strategic targets. It allowed them to bring the fight to the Zebra, at least from the air.”

With a long thud, the lid of the crate finally slid open. Curious, I peered into its contents. Sure enough, it was filled to the brim with hazmat suits, laboratory-grade gas masks, Geiger counters, and other gizmos I couldn’t identify for sure. It had everything somepony would need to dwell safely in a moderately irradiated environment.

As I lifted a suit up to me eyes, I realized I had yet to see a body or a ghoul wearing such equipment. I almost pointed it out to Saios, but held my tongue: while the AI had been helpful and quite straightforward so far, I couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong in the DERTA. Meridian’s words came back to my mind. Even though I had dismissed his concerns as pure paranoia, the compound started to look more and more like a military installation, and less like a research center. I could understand somepony would hide from its population shady studies on living beings, but antennas of the MoWT had weapons factories all over the place. It didn’t make sense to dig a freakin’ mountain just to set up another one, much less spend billions on stuff that ended up way too expensive and experimental to sell.

Then again, it had been designed by Prench engineers with too much budget far too eager to show off to their Equestrian neighbors. Even if they made half as much sense as their food, it was a wonder they hadn’t built the base on the freakin’ moon.

“Say, how come you could afford to do so many things, since Prance dropped… early… from the War?” I asked, feigning innocence.

“Well, as I said, we had a long-running sale on AAGCs”, Saios explained, “which gave us a breather. Otherwise, before the true Prench government fell, we almost had a white card to do whatever we wanted. Afterward, we gained Equestria’s support, and thanks to our unusual fields of study we ended up independent of both the Ministry of Magic and Technology. They had a little competition of some sort to ‘acquire’ us and gave us both a full envelope.”

The AI paused, as if it didn’t feel it should continue.

“On the side, we had a few trump cards,” it added. “The Ministry of Awesome often came to us when they needed something and didn’t want the rest of the government to know. Plus, during the first hours of the bombing of Prance, some of our national gold reserve got packed up incognito on boats. I still didn’t know if the guy who had given that order hoped to finance a guerrilla force to take back the motherland, or just hoped to disappear during the mess with almost a billion in gold ingots, but when the Prench captain landed somewhere near Manehattan, the tables had turned. He obviously had no idea what he was transporting, because when he learned Prance had fallen he simply forwarded his whole, sealed shipment to the last place on Equus still bearing the Prench flag: Big Mountain. Over the years we managed to sell it all, mostly thanks to the MoA.”

Called it.

“Why didn’t you build the base on the moon?” I asked playfully.

“Beg your pardon?” the AI seemed puzzled.

“Nothing,” I snickered under my breath.

I rummaged through the crate for a few seconds.

“Oh, I see. You were wondering why the place was built here in the first place,” Saios understood. “This is actually a funny historical tale. Do you mind hearing it?”

“If it doesn’t contain romance, espionage and daggers in the night, I’m not interested,” I tried to cut him off before he drown me under boring facts once again.

“I do not know about romance or daggers in the night, but it does involve some kind of espionage,” Saios answered, to my great surprise. Was he spilling the beans? It could be a trap to lure me into a false sensation of security, but then again if I didn’t hear what he said I could never know for sure.

“Well, then, go ahead,” I resigned myself to endure some more trivia. “It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”

“I will try to make it short.

Three centuries before the war – that is, two centuries from now – a young Prench entrepreneur named Sel de Roche decided she deserved her part of the Equestrian dream. Back then, Princess Celestia ruled your country alone. Sel showed up in the throne room one afternoon and dared Celestia to a game of chess. If the latter came to win, Sel would vow her life into the Royal Engineer Corps, which were back then nothing more than glorified bridgemakers. But if Sel won, the Princess would agree to give her any place she chose.

The tale says the cacophony afterward in the throne room had only been surpassed by the one when Princess Luna came back from the moon to her rightful place. Princess Celestia, amused, agreed to the challenge and they had their chess match.”

Saios paused. I realized I had dropped to my haunches to listen to the story. After a full minute of silence, I finally gave in and asked:

“And she won?”

“Are you kidding? You are talking about Princess Celestia. She was millennia old even back then. It is even said she invented the game of chess, though I like to believe Luna did. Sel played like nopony had ever played, yet she had lost the game the moment Celestia agreed to play.

However, when the Prenchmare’s king finally fell on the chessboard, the monarch saw an unthinkable despair shrouding her worthy opponent’s eyes. She took pity on her, and said with her motherly voice:

‘I am sorry, my little pony. But know owning a plot of land is not the best way toward happiness. What would you have done with a manor or a castle?’

‘I wished no manor nor castle,’ Sel had answered, tears flowing on her cheeks. ‘I wished a plot of land to farm, or a pile of rocks to mine. I wished to be a part of the world we are all building. But I am no lord, and I own no riches. I wished for a miracle’

Then, something marvelous happened and this is how the story became legend. It is said the Princess then softly grasped Sel in one wing. She lifted the fallen king up with a pinion, and said:

‘Consider your wish granted.’

Then, as the few nobles still present started whispering to each other how they would rip the land from the grasp of the bewildered Sel, the Princess proclaimed:

‘Hear us! From this day forth, we declare Sel de Roche here present as the sole owner of Big Mountain and the five miles of lands in the vicinity.’

‘But your Highness’, a clever noble protested, ‘No commoner can own Equestrian soil, and no foreigner could ever be an Equestrian noble.’

The Princess saw the truth in his words. She added:

‘Hear us! We hereby decree the place known as Big Mountain, and the five miles of lands in the vicinity, and the ground below, and the air above, to be given to the Kingdom of Prance as a sign of the friendship between our two nations.’”

“No way. She couldn’t do that,” I interrupted.

“Yet she did. Oh, I do not believe it was the misty eyes of young Sel that truly motivated her. The symbolic gesture both warmed up the relations with Prance, but also put the nobles where they belonged. It gave to Equestrian commoners – and as a matter of fact to every citizen in the world – the incentive to wish their own plot of land. Not fifty years later, under the pressure of the street the nobles had to give up most of their lands.

Afterward, Sel de Roche went on to her fief and dug a salt mine. Her family became rich, until they went out of business a century and half later, but this is another story.”

“You promised me some spies,” I pointed out.

“That only happened a long time later.

Eventually, Big Mountain was abandoned. It became nothing more than an oddity on the map. Everypony forgot it.

Until one day the Prench government – the monarchy had been violently put down for a while then – found itself in need of a secret place somewhere near Equestria. Nightmare Moon had come back, and then Discord after her, and yet we basically learned it in the newspapers.”

“They wanted to spy on them,” I deduced. “But why a permanent base? It would have been probably easier to simply send some agents or something.”

“Of course, and that’s what they did. By the time they started stemming spies all over the country, however, changelings had the bad idea of showing their chitin-covered face to feast on a wedding in Canterlot. Afterward, the paranoia pushed spies out of the picture.”

“Wait, those events really happened so fast?” I asked, incredulous. I had heard of all those events, but I had believe them to be set decades apart!

“It gets worse. Not two months afterward, the Crystal Empire shows up, out of nowhere. As you may be aware, them and Prance never got along very well. In fact, they had been at war for sixteen years before Sombra somehow managed to make his kingdom vanish into thin air. It meant that when they reappeared, well, we were technically still at war with them. You cannot sign an armistice with somepony who had disappeared, right?

So then we had two places to spy at once, but couldn’t send a single spy. This is when some government clerk decided to empty his drawers and find a folder about Big Mountain. He hoofed it to his superior, which immediately saw the potential of the place.

From there on, it went very fast. An undercover team went there to gauge the terrain. The report told of an isolated place, with galleries that went on for miles, and a summit from which you could see both Canterlot and the Empire. Additional readings showed the leylines under the place were non-existent, which prevented rivals from scrying it; that the rock composition was such that most vibrations created inside the place didn’t travel very far through the ground. It was the perfect place for a secret spy base.

Of course, there was no way they could have built it without Equestria knowing, so they pretended they were building a research facility. Then, they realized after a few months it would indeed make a wonderful research facility for all the little projects they wanted to keep to themselves, so they started sending their best engineers and researchers to found the DERTA.

Eventually, even the Crystal Empire became one of our closest allies in the war. The radio network got revamped as an emergency relay between the two nations and as a huge antenna to stay in contact with the MoM spy satellites network since the absence of leylines meant we had a clearer signal than anybody else.”

“So the DERTA is in fact a military facility,” I concluded.

“Equestria was engaged in a total war with the Zebras. You would have a hard time finding a corporation which wasn’t.”

(** **)

“So, what now?” I asked Saios as I finished putting my hazmat suit on. I wasn’t very keen on the idea of not wearing my leather armor anymore, but since we had no idea if the uppers levels were still viable I didn’t want to take any chance.

“We now need to reclaim the upper levels,” Saios answered in the small radio transmitter I had put in my ear. “Then, I will send repair bots to assess the structural damage. While we shan’t need those areas in the future, it is of upmost importance we check if they are safe, and seal them off otherwise”.

“And then I think I’m going to hit the hay,” I yawned. Down there in the artificial light, I had no idea how much time had passed since I last slept. It felt like days.

“Of course. I have a room being prepared for you.”

I stopped in my tracks. “Really? How so?”

“Some of the officer rooms had been quite well preserved in sector A3. I have sent a couple robots to clean up, change the bed sheets, and otherwise verify there are no ghouls in the closets.”

“How many robots do you have anyway?” I frowned. First autonomous forklifts, then repairbots, then change-the-bed-sheets robots?

“Right now, not so many,” Saios answered after a short pause. “I am doing my best to repair and adapt the remaining units, but it is an arduous task.”

“Adapt?”

“Indeed. We have little need for dishwasher bots or a battalion of mobile sentries. On the other hoof, I may be able to modify their lasers into a drill to unclog the lower levels.”

“A drill. From a dishwasher and some sentries,” I deadpanned.

“I will also need some bubblegum, your assistance may be required,” the AI added.

(** **)

“So, this is the infamous communication center,” I said, taking a good look around. Dusty terminals and chairs circled the room. “Doesn’t seem very impressive to me.”

“Would your weapons look impressive to somepony used to swords and clubs?” Saios picked. “Believe me, our surveillance equipment saved thousands of fellow Equestrian citizen – and probably indirectly killed ten times more zebras. We were the ones to relay the emergency population warning to the Crystal Empire, and we intercepted hundreds of radio signals addressed to inbound hostile aircrafts.”

I rolled my eyes. Equestria lost the war, didn’t she? And for all I knew, nothing remained of the Empire but ice-covered radioactive ruins.

“Whatever. We need to make it work,” I blew the dust away from a nearby terminal. It asked for my ID.

“All the breakers went off during the attack. This hardware is very sensitive to overvoltage and electromagnetic interferences. It received a quantity of both when the shield broke, I may have to rebuild some auxiliary, less protected systems from scratch.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” I rolled my eyes yet again. “Just tell me where you need me, Smartypants.”

“The room you’re in is only a secondary control room. Most of the communication equipment is in the next room,” Saios continued, unfazed. “The surveillance camera there does not seem to be working anymore, and the door was not fitted with motors. I need you to check the breakers inside. It should allow me to run at least a partial checkup of the subsystems.”

Shotgun at the ready, I trotted toward the aforementioned door. A faint odor of rot and burned plastic attacked my nostrils.

“Ten caps there’s a ghoul in there,” I bet, a smug look on my face. Not today, evil Wasteland!

“Careful not to destroy anything. Without schematics, I may be able to repair fried circuits, but not rebuild them from scratch,” Saios decided to pop my fun.

“Hey, relax. See the bullet on my butt?” I moved my barding sideway so the camera could get a good glance at my cutie mark. “I’m a marksmare. It’s my special talent. I simply never miss.”

“Just be careful, Calamity Mare.”

I puffed and slowly turned the doorknob. The frame revolved on its hinges with a sinister wail. Without a word, I lifted both my light and my shotgun.

Sure enough, a ghoul was there, snarling at me. Its eyes had been bleached out by the centuries of darkness.

I blew its head away.

“Gotcha,” I murmured with a sadistic smile.

Then, the small dust of blood and flesh settled, allowing me to get a good look to the neat, still smoking hole adorning the server rack behind.

My smile fell. Horror dawned on my face.

“Tell me you didn’t,” I could almost hear the AI facehoof.

(** **)

“Well done, you just utterly destroyed an invaluable chipset made of lost technology,” Saios scolded me for the umpteenth time. “No, truly, I found that fact to be very impressive. That ghoul had been trapped inside that room for two centuries and did not manage to break it; yet, you only needed to spend three seconds standing on the doorstep to pulverize it to smithereens! Smooth, really.”

“Hey, I’m sorry, okay?” I dropped the ruined PCB board on a nearby desk. “I usually never use 12 gauge guns. I didn’t realize it would over penetrate this much.”

I stayed there in silence for a full minute. I didn’t know if the AI was looking for a replacement part or for the best way to get rid of me, but I reckoned I should not antagonize it any more.

At least for the moment.

“I may have a solution,” the speakers finally broadcasted. “You will need to get out there, on your own. I wanted us to be in constant contact during our first excursion, but I reckon it is now out of the question. I did not have enough time to finish preparing a gift I wished to give to you either.”

“Gift?” I asked, my ears perking up at the magic word. “What gift?”

“You will see. I am certain you will like it.”

“What is it?”

“I am not telling you,” Saios teased me. “Consider not knowing your punishment for breaking my toys.”

(** **)

The slow tick of the Geiger counter softly resonated in the empty corridors. My shotgun raised in front of me, I silently advanced in the darkness. “You are reaching the surface,” Saios murmured in my ear. “While I cannot open the blast doors, there are emergency exits which do not require power to open. You should be able to get out through them.”

“Got it,” I answered softly. The silence was uncanny. The thick dust layer on the concrete floor muffled my hoofsteps, The only other sound was my laborious breathing through the cumbersome gas mask.

In the collapsed areas, each step was a challenge. More than anything, I feared falling on some sharp iron concrete reinforcement and puncture my hazmat suit. Wandering in the Equestrian Wasteland had never been a very healthy occupation, yet even the most deranged scavengers knew better than exploring a building that withstood a direct megaspell strike.

Even more worrisome were the total absence of ghouls. They usually feasted and prospered in irradiated areas.

At the turn of a dark corridor, I reached yet another reinforced firewall. This time, I struggled to turn the wrench to manually open it – the frame seemed to be slightly bent inward and two centuries of neglect probably didn’t arrange its case either.

After a few minutes of intense labor, I finally managed to open it just enough to squeeze in, and down the corridor I started to see some light.

“Saios, I believe I reached the exit,” I murmured in the radio. Still no sign of hostiles.

“Good. Somewhere on the walls, you should see an ‘emergency exit’ sign. Follow it, until you reach an airlock.”

I squeezed my eyes toward the light. “I can see the exit from here.”

“As I said earlier, you need to access an exit with a manual override,” he patiently repeated. “There is no power in this sector anymore; I cannot use the motors to open the blast doors.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I continued, carefully moving forward. “The blast door’s gone, Saios.”

The AI did not answer. I waited there in silence for a full minute.

“Saios?”

“What do you mean, ‘gone’?” he finally asked.

“I can’t really see from where I am, but it looks like there’s a whole chunk of it missing,” I answered. “There’s moonlight seeping through it.”

I finally reached the airlock leading to the blast door. My torchlight beam slowly swept the inside.

“Well, damn,” I whistled, taking notice of the damage. “What the hell happened here?”

The thick door had been blasted open, leaving a gapping, pony-size hole where steel should have been. On the other side of the room, part of the concrete wall had been pulverized.

As I took another step to take a look outside, something loudly cracked under my hoof. Sweeping the charred black soil aside, I realized it was a pony bone.

I looked around once again. It wasn’t very noticeable in the darkness, but most of the wall had been scorched by some kind of intense heat. Here and there, uneven piles of dust and soot betrayed where furniture and ponies had been standing when they got cooked alive. The door probably didn’t withstand the stress of a way-too-close balefire hit.

As I drew nearer to the frame panels, however, I realized it didn’t really add up. I had seen countless sample of blast damage in the past. Most of the time, the blast doors were simply torn away from their hinges and threw against whatever stood behind, or awkwardly bent by the mix of extreme heat and intense pressure. Yet, this particular door looked more like somepony had punctured it with a giant needle, and then tossed a grenade at it. The metal hadn’t even melted or bent: it just was torn away around a central hole.

Looking back toward the backmost wall, I realized some kind of projectile had flown through, before the bomb even detonated. It would have also explained the out-of-shape firewall down the corridor: it had probably taken more blast and heat than it had been designed to.

I shivered when I realized everything in the DERTA could have been burned down to smithereens had somepony not gone overboard with their fire plan.

“Hey, Saios, there’s something very wrong here. Something blasted the exit open before the megaspell detonated,” I finally said, my gaze lingering on the pile of soot here and there. “They didn’t make it very far, though. They got nasty sunburns, courtesy of our dear Zebra neighbors.”

“It’s impossible. That door is over sixty centimeters thick. To puncture it, you would need…” Saios trailed on. Silence fell in the airlock.

“Shit, I can’t believe it,” he suddenly continued, his voice slipping into a noticeable Prench accent. “Range, you magnificent bastard. Didn’t want to stay out in the rads, huh?”

Had I been drinking then, I would have probably done a spite take so monstrous I would have earned a cozy place in a book of record somewhere.

“W- What?” I stammered, backpedaling against the door by reflex. “My name ain’t Range, Saios. It’s me, Spring, remember?”

Oh please Luna don’t go axe crazy on me oh please Luna don’t go axe crazy-

“I know, all my apologies,” Saios’ accent had reverted back to his usual, neutral ways. “Conflicting emotions and a poor conception of my systems had me default to another, less professional personality.”

Fuck. What did I do to the Goddesses to be assisted by the one artificial intelligence in the Wastelands to be schizophrenic and bipolar?

“Do not worry,” he continued. “If anything, my alternate personality should like you even more than I do.”

“Uh, thanks? I guess?” I timidly answered. Then, turning back toward the punctured blast door: “So, mind telling me what you think happened here?”

“I cannot know for sure, yet I have a strong suspicion that somepony which used to be at the head of the ballistic research department used one of the canons at the other side of the valley to get inside. In all likelihood, he got locked outside when the base went under lockdown after the shield failed. Obviously he did not seem very happy with that.”

“Can’t blame him,” I mumbled, squinting my eyes to see through the gaping hole in the metal. “Nopony wants to die of radiation sickness.”

Outside, the moonlight barely shone through the thick cloud layer. I couldn’t even see the ground on the other side of the blast door. Curious to see how much had survived the megaspells, I lifted my torchlight and swept the landscape.

Dozens of yellow, angry eyes shone back at me.

“Oh, fuck.”

(** **)

“Spring? Spring? What’s going on?”

“What d’ya think?” I gritted between my teeth, blasting my shotgun all azimuths. “Bloody ghouls were all having a picknic on the surface, and looks like I’m the piece de resistance!”

The half-decayed corpses were now pressing against the gaping hole in the blast door. Letting out yet another curse, I started to fall back in the corridor.

Undeterred by the constant rain of lead I was dropping on them, the frenzied ghouls finally entered the airlock. I did not know if it was all the grime stuck on my hazmat helmet, or if I had started hallucinating because of sleep deprivation, but I swear some of them were shining in the dark.

As I blasted the head of one of the glowing ones, fluorescent goo exploded and covered the whole ceiling, sending the Geiger counter on my back into a clicking frenzy.

I took another step back. My shotgun clicked empty.

“Luna damn it!”

I fumbled to push a new cartridge into the loading port, but it somehow got stuck sideway in the cylinder. As a zombie reached out to get me, I threw the useless weapon in its face and drew my pistol instead.

It wasn’t until I emptied a full magazine in the frenzied mob now filling the airlock that I remembered why I needed a shotgun in the first place.

I gave up the idea of ditching the endless flow of ghouls. I bravely turned toward the other end of the corridor and took a Prench leave.

“Saios, I got a situation here,” I heaved, the zombies close on my tail.

“There is nothing I can do while you’re in the disconnected area,” the AI calmly answered. Damn, he sure wasn’t about getting eaten!

I grunted in response and dove into the narrow space I had opened in the firewall. I almost managed to get through.

Sadly, the hazmat suit had another idea.

The rearmost part got stuck against the jagged edge of the heavy frame. I heard the tissue rip and my whole momentum went into an abrupt stop. My flashlight slipped from my telekinetic grasp. It rolled away in the darkness.

“Fuck!” I struggled as half my body remained on the ghouls’ side. I twisted some more, and got awarded by another loud rip.

“I’m stuck! I’m fuckin’ stuck!” I yelled, uselessly flaying my hooves in the air. Frenzied moans were getting ever closer.

A sharp pain erupted from my left hindleg, I bucked with all my might in reflex. My hoof connected with something solid which quickly broke under the impact.

The extra adrenaline gave me just the kick I needed to tear off the rest of the suit and push myself to safety.

I crawled on the cold concrete for a few meters. Behind me, lavish ghouls were ripping what was left of the hazmat suit to shred. Disgusted, I threw the helmet at them.

Then I realized a small chunk of my leg was missing. As I turned around to locate my flashlight, the pain in my back started searing again like it hadn’t done in weeks.

“Great. That’s freaking great!”

I could barely stand on my hooves, let alone run. Behind the firewall, some ghouls realized they had been munching plastic for a few seconds now and that the living meatbag they had been hunting had gone through.

With a wailing belonging to another world, they started pounding their way through the narrow gap. Had they been anything remotely alive, I would have expected them to die under the formidable crowd pressure applied behind them. But ghouls cared little for broken ribs or gaping wounds: eventually, one managed to drop on my side of the firewall.

An ice-cold sensation chilled me to the bones. Limping on my three goods legs and leaning on the walls, I moved away from the hungry crowd. Another nine millimeter magazine took good care of the ghoul which had managed to get through, but it did little to deter the others.

“Saios…” I gasped, my throat feeling dry, “I could really use a hoof right now…”

“You have to keep moving!” the voice was less composed now – could an AI really panic? “You’re almost there!”

I staggered some more. Finally, I arrived in sight of the door to the next sector.

“Saios, I see the door!” I breathed out. “Open up!”

Behind me, ghouls started peeking around the corner.

“Open up, damn it!” I yelled, drawing nearer.

The large frame started sliding.

“Come on, Spring, I see you on the surveillance feed,” Saios encouraged. “Just don’t stop and don’t look back.”

Of course, I had to look back.

Right behind me, another glowing one tried to gnaw off my tail. I yelped, and jumped forward as far as my poor condition allowed me.

I landed on my bad leg. I fell right behind the firewall.

“Close it! Close it, damn it!” I yelped, half in pain, half in anger.

Agonizingly slow, the frame started to move in the other direction. And, right when I started to believe I was safe, the ghoul leaped through the gap and landed right on me, kicking my pistol away.

“AAAH! GET IT OFF, GET IT OFF!” I flayed and kicked and bucked it with all my meager strength.

The ghoul started munching one of my unprotected forelimb ; Saios screamed something I couldn’t understand ; and there was a huge flash. I found myself swimming in bright yellow goo, sprayed on me as a thick paste. On my back, the Geiger counter went ballistic.

“Firewall sealed. The hostiles are contained.” Saios said on the speakers. I doubted the radio had survived the ghoul’s explosion.

“Well, damn, filly, if I didn’t know better I’d say you love going medieval on ferals,” Meridian chuckled somewhere behind me. I spat a thick glob of Luna-knows-what and wiped my mouth.

“Fuck you,” I groaned. My back ached me like hell and I needed to disinfect my others wounds immediately. “And thanks for saving my ass.”

“Come on, let’s patch you up again,” the Earth pony said, taking my side to allow me to lean on his shoulder. He sniffed loudly and frowned his nostrils. “Also, you need a shower. Badly.”

(** **)

In the end, my wounds proved to be more bark than bite. The ghouls had not gone very deep into my skin, making it quite easy to disinfect and spray with some cure-all health potion.

Then, I somehow managed to found my way into a working shower. On this experience, I have only three things to say:

Warm, radiation-free water.

When the blessed stream of liquid fell down on my battered shoulders, I think I had an orgasm. Seriously.

After a good hour of pure delight under the water, I finally mustered the courage to step out into the moist air, cleaner than I had ever been.

There were even clean towels hung on a wall, waiting for me.

As I dried myself, my eyes lazily took notice of the bathroom around me. Clean, paved with white tiles, it featured a shower, a small sink, a toilet and little more. It felt a bit cramped, yet I had never seen a bathroom so… pristine. In the Wasteland, most of them were crumbling ruins, and the rest had to do with two centuries of usage without running water.

In a corner, a small crystal pulsed. I realized it was sucking out the humidity from the air.

“Hum. Clever,” I mumbled, staggering toward the door. The pain in my legs had subbed, but my back still ached like hell. Damn you Van Graff and you plasma weapons!

I pushed the wooden door open and landed into a medium-sized living room. On a sofa against a wall Meridian was sitting, humming quietly a catchy tune coming from speakers in every corner. A circular, hip-high table thingy occupied the center of the room; besides, in front of Meridian, a large screen adorned a wall. Everywhere, shelves supported hundreds of worn out books, worthless gadgets, centuries-old records, and huge piles of indiscernible items I couldn’t identify to save my life.

Oh, and for some reason a good quarter of the room had been turned into a makeshift workshop, complete with welding post, workbench, screwdrivers and a random collection of electronic components.

“Well, damn, that shower just hit the spot,” I yawned as I stretched my overworked muscles. The injury on my back vigorously protested, but I paid it no heed.

“Say, Saios,” I asked playfully, making my way toward the nerdy mess in the corner, “by chance, wasn’t the previous owner of this place named Van Graff? Because I met somepony who had this kind of stuff all over his kitchen not a month ago.”

“As far as I’m aware, I never had any offspring and my family died during the War,” the AI answered with a chuckle. “Any similarity with some other ponies you may know is purely coincidental.”

I tripped over some random gismo on the ground. A hasty bracing to the nearby workbench saved me from a painful fall into coils and other dismantled pieces.

“Wait, what?” I asked, incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘family’?”

Saios did not answer at once. I shot a sideway glance to Meridian, who frowned in return.

“This is a piece of information I would have rather kept for myself,” the computer finally sighted. “Oh well. You would have learned it anyway, sooner or later.”

Saios stopped again. In my head, I pictured him hesitating – but then again, who knew what a computer could think?

“My hardware structure is based on a neuronal-inspired design, doubled with standard procedural processing units. Given our total lack of understanding in the process of learning and data assimilation in biological entities, the team developing the Special Artificial Intelligence and Operating System – shortened to SAIOS – decided the software could not achieve the level of precision required to satisfy the project specifications if we decided to make it ex nihilo. We did find, however, that we could use pre-existing biological neural matrices from intelligent equines to imprint our own, artificial drives. We theorized the computer resulting from such a transfer would be extremely quick to reach self-awareness, yet would be able in a matter of seconds to assimilate the more standard parts of its electronic anatomy. As you probably noticed, at least those hopes were fulfilled by the practical experiment.”

I loudly coughed.

“Sorry, sometimes I feel like I am still filling out forms to explain why this project failed so miserably,” Saios apologized. “Bottom line: long ago, I used to be a pony.”

(** **)

Main quest updated: No Signal
Objectives:
[X] Reclaim what is yours (Primary)
[ ] Repair the DERTA's communication center (Primary)
[X] Deal with the base's AI, peacefully (Optional)
[ ] Permanently disable the base's AI (Optional)



Level up!

New perk:
Computer whiz: someday, nerds will rule the world. Good thing you got the biggest one of all by your side! As long as Saios can access the network or the terminal you’re targeting, he can hack it for you.

"His laptop’s encrypted. Drug him and hit him with this $5 wrench until he tells us the password."

Author's Note:

As always, special thanks to Lepking13 for his proofreading.
Cover art courtesy of Greeny-Nyte.

Read it on Google Docs for a better formating:
Fallout Equestria: Shades of Grey, Chapter Eight: No Signal

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