A young mare whose primary means of problem-solving is to kill things she doesn't like emerges from her stable to learn how to survive in a blasted, poisoned land... wait, haven't we seen this one before?
After unwittingly rescuing some prisoners from a band of raiders, Atom Smasher is hailed as a hero by the citizens of the little town of Colton, and ponies are falling over each other to sing her praises and send her on borderline-pointless errands. However, Atom might be just about the last pony the Mareseyside wasteland wants as its champion. Not because she just fell out of the never-finished Stable 512 - it's that she might actually have less of a conscience than the raiders, slavers, bandits and baddies she's been charged with fending off.
Who's this Little Pip everyone keeps talking about?
A satirical Fallout Equestria story where the messianic Stable Dweller turns out to be an unfettered thrill-seeker with no moral compunction. This story is also a NaNoWriMo challenge, in which I attempt to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Original by Kkat. Cover image by me featuring logo graphic by DotRook.
I mean, it must have changed at some point, right? I somehow doubt ponykind always had the ability to turn the entirety of Equestria into that charred stuff at the bottom of a barbecue. We probably don't have it now either, otherwise we'd just be blitzing it all the time.
Where was I even going with this? Man, if this wasn't the most pretentious fucking way to start off a story. Start with an Aesop about the brutality of war, that'll go down a treat! The hell with that. You're here to hear my story, not hear me spout nihilistic crap about genocide or whatever.
You've probably heard of the Stables, right? Those big bunkers with corporate-run social experiments that usually result in everyone inside dying or going insane, shoddily disguised as balefire shelters? Now that I think about it, there's not a lot of 'stable' about them. The big metal door at the front locks shut like a bank vault to keep the 'precious' life inside safe in the event of everything going tits up... 'vault' seems an awful lot more descriptive. It sounds like 'stable' was some marketese crap that a pre-war advertising agency came up with to try and sell the concept of spending the rest of your life in a hole in the ground to a retarded public. But whatever. Everyone calls them Stables, so in the interests of clarity I'm gonna stick to that.
I'm Atom Smasher, and I was born in Stable 512. The funny thing about Stable 512 is that it was so far down the list of Stables to be built that you can barely think of it as a Stable at all. Sure, it's a bunch of tunnels and they managed to plate the walls and floors, but there's panels missing everywhere, half the life support systems have never worked, and the outer door was never finished. Seriously, the only things standing between Stable 512 and the Mareseyside wasteland are two regular locked doors. It mostly did the trick I guess, because as long as I've been down there, we've never had anything nasty get in. But I'll get back to the top-notch security later. I have to talk about me some more.
I can only guess that I got the name Atom Smasher from being coloured like a radiation hazard sign. You can see me coming from a mile off, fucking safety orange coat and bright green mane. I came to embrace being lit up like a Hearth's Warming tree by genetics. Everyone down in the Stable was just so dreary and morose all the time. I mean, can you blame them when they're all like, grey and brown and shit? Sucks to be them.
I guess it behooves me (if these puns keep coming I'm just going to strangle myself) to say what I did in the Stable. All these Stable Dwellers that fall out of their cosy little cots and manage not to shit themselves for long enough to survive ten minutes in the wasteland are always like "I was my Stable's marriage counsellor! I was a hairdresser! I was a PipBuck technician!" You have to remember that Stable 512 is probably the least stable Stable that had ponies living in it (FUCK THERE'S ANOTHER PUN). There wasn't any formal settling in it or anything like that, a bunch of ponies just ducked inside when the shit hit the fan and waited for it all to blow over. And rough-and-ready as it was, for the longest time, it was still better in the Stable than it was up top. There were some plans around for things like social organisation, PipBucks, stuff like that, but ponies are fucking stupid.
They tried going on like they had before, just in the environment of a Stable. Immediately all the farming-type ponies were out of a job, because all the food came out of machines. Not ten minutes into the apocalypse and already there's an unemployment crisis. And it's not like ponies are good at upskilling either - they've got their destiny pictured on their butt, so whenever they try to do something else they're all like 'b-but this isn't my special talent' and get all depressed.
Then we have the staggering shortage of mechanic types. There was maybe one pony who had to keep all the life support systems going at the start, and there wouldn't be more until the first generation of foals born in the Stable. Then there was the complete disregard for proper operating procedure of a Stable, there was a coup or two by security, the fact that the jumpsuit dispensers didn't stitch a number in so someone had the job of sewing '512' into every one manually, and oh it was just a mess. Still better than the wasteland though.
So because of this unique Stable circumstance, I didn't really have a proper job. I had a talent alright - ever since I was twelve, I've had that atom from the "Duck and Cover!" magazines on my ass and the Stable has had unisex bathrooms - but blowing shit up doesn't have many applications in a long term bomb shelter. In fact, some sensible soul thought it would be a good idea to make grenades and dynamite scarce after this, and I had to make do with cherry bombs and a Nerf gun to amuse myself. In hindsight the logical thing to do would have been just to kill me, but they probably couldn't bring themselves to kill a filly. Spot the Stable Dwellers, eh?
Anyway. Now you have the late-teenage me with a dwindling supply of cherry bombs and a Nerf gun trying to find something to do. I was as depressed as a peach farmer watching their dinner being squirted out of a converted ice cream machine. I did a lot of exploring. Thing about the Stable is that after a while, ponies just stopped going to certain places. The layout wasn't confirmed when they moved in, so ponies just set things up along paths of least resistance. There were whole wings of the place that hadn't been touched for decades when I found them. I could blast stuff there and not be heard, which... it's not as fulfilling as turning the Overseer's chair into a moon rocket, but it's a vent. But this was hardly the most important thing about my exploration.
I would have been like nineteen or so when I found the Stable's front door. Or, rather, the doorway. It had taken me a couple of weeks to find a way to get through the last two doors - those two locked doors I was telling you about earlier. Cherry bombs don't cut it on blast doors and there isn't a normal door lock to pick, so it was a right pain in the ass, but I did it. After all this trying, I got this second door to unlock, and I spent a full two minutes just shoving and bucking at it to get the rusty old thing to open, and when it finally twisted off its hinges, I got hit with a wave of cold, wet air. I mean, most of the air in the Stable is cold and wet, but it's also clammy and recycled. This was weirdly fresh, but probably radioactive. If I were stepping out of a proper Stable, I might have had my PipBuck start clicking like crazy, but Stable 512 had maybe two working PipBucks ever, and one Geiger counter besides. The thing on my foreleg was a bit of scrap metal with a sticker on it. I'm not sure how happy those peach farmers were to find out that the Stable had a fully functional printer and stacks upon stacks of sticker paper, but all of the food was artificial nutrient goop.
Did I just spend a paragraph on walking through a door? If that's how this is going to go then this is going to be a really long story.
So I break down this door and I'm into the 'hallway' of the Stable, you could call it, and the big steel door is just... not there. It's not like it was opened and someone forgot to close it, it was just never put in place. Maybe someone stole it, if they wanted a gigantic piece of scrap metal to melt down for something. But hey - never assume malice when stupidity will suffice. I have more faith in the incompetence of Stable-Tec than the ingenuity of wastelanders. Marvelling at the staggering oversight of construction, I headed out, kicking the skull of some unfortunate late-comer as I went. Beyond where the Stable door should have been was a rickety little wooden door with some chicken wire across it with bright light filtering through. I ran through a quick checklist in my head. Trusty Nerf gun sidearm: check. Cherry bombs: blew the last one trying to get the door open. Trepidation at leaving a familiar world behind for a dangerous new one: completely absent. Nobody in that hole ever cared about me and I never cared about them. Not that I was that angsty or poetic about it at the time, I was mostly just like 'ooh, what's out here?'
Outside, I quickly found out why the air was so cold and wet. In Mareseyside, it rains all the fucking time. Seasons and weather just aren't a thing in the Stable, and now here I was in the Great Braytish summer. I miraculously emerged during a dry spell, but the ground was still wet and muddy. The sky was streaked with murky grey, which seemed to reflect the lifeless, soggy countryside. Husks of trees dotted the landscape of rolling hills, and some charred buildings sat in clusters on the horizon. But most of all everything just looked and felt wet. The air and ground were saturated with moisture, and even without rain, I could feel the omnipresent dampness beginning to claim me too.
Weather. Weather never changes.
I proceeded to abuse myself with the textures of the outdoors. The first thing I did was slip in the mud. Fucking smooth. I think I could feel my ass getting irradiated as I skidded down the hill on it, leaving a gouge in the yellowed grass. I stopped in a puddle at the bottom, having spun halfway around, getting a look at where I'd just emerged from. It wasn't exactly inconspicuous - the pile of rocks on the only hill in a field with a shitty door set in it. I was surprised nobody had come to loot the place sooner. It wasn't until later that I found out that it was just so far from other shelter that nobody had a reason to go that far.
It being the tallest point in my immediate vicinity, I decided it'd be a good idea to get on top of the rocks to get my bearings. It was surrounded by sheer walls, but despite sitting in a puddle half-covered in soil, I ain't no mudpony. I flapped my wings twice, and covered the other half of me in mud. With a grumble, I picked myself up and tried again, getting a couple of feet into the air before losing it again, and gouging another chute down the hill to the puddle.
See, in the Stable (am I going to be doing these 'back in my day' asides to Stable life all the time? I hope not) there wasn't much room to try and fly. I'd always known pegasi were supposed to fly from reading things they had around the place. It was just a sensible thing to assume, that ponies with wings were adapted to some kind of airborne travel. The most I'd ever used them for was a long jumping. Get a running start, and with a couple of flaps I could close distances pretty quickly. But actual flight was not something you could do in a Stable without giving yourself a concussion.
I stood up, shook myself off and stretched out my wings again. Damn, the books made this look so easy. I started flapping them just straight up and down. That just pushed me a few inches up and then a few inches back down again. Useful for forcefully stamping the ground and getting mud fucking everywhere, but it wasn't flight. I took a couple of moments to figure out what ways I could move my wings. There was some rotation at the shoulder joint, but the pinions didn't seem to do anything apart from fold and unfold... I tried again, moving them in circles. This was a bit more productive, but it was still uneasy flight. I got a bit of a hover going, before crashing to the ground and rolling backwards, so I landed in the puddle again on my back. Y'know, just in case I missed a spot in my previous two mudbaths. I contemplated looking for a couple of cucumber slices to finish the job.
Since staring at the infinite ceiling of this outside place was starting to make me dizzy, I rolled over and got back up. One more try, I thought. I reared back with a shake, ran a couple of steps forward and jumped, swinging my wings as I ascended. I was still going through the motions of running, but I couldn't feel ground. Success! I was even moving forward! I pressed my nose towards my target, the summit of this infernal rock. A moment later, I stuck it in the ground with a squelch. I stopped myself before sliding all the way back down. I pouted and just started climbing like a stupid mudpony. I'd get to the flying part later.
On top of the rock was kinda windy, and being covered in wet mud, this made for some pretty bad wind chill. If all the wasteland was this miserable, I was considering just going back into the Stable for the sake of it being warm and dry. I mean, if I'd come out somewhere nice and sunny, it'd be great. Maybe more irradiated, but radiation isn't uncomfortable. I had a pretty good view of the area, but it didn't mean a lot to me. I couldn't tell one cluster of bombed out ruins from another, and the only thing my 'PipBuck' was telling me was how happy the little guy in the illustration was.
I shrugged and jumped off the rock with wings outstretched, looking for any old direction. My first attempt at gliding went better than the flying, and with the height advantage I managed to get a whole ten feet before losing control and dumping myself in the puddle. My wings ached from effort. In hindsight it's not surprising, because I'd never seriously used them before, but man, my wings were weak. I huffed and started walking.
One thing that was becoming pretty apparent to me by now was how big outside was. I'd decided to head for one of the building-looking things, but fifteen minutes later it didn't seem any closer than it had when I started. Or it might have been fifteen minutes, the clock on my wrist was never going to say anything other than 12:34. I'd cleared a couple of hills and passed some trees with some dead stuff nailed to them, but nothing really interesting or useful.
A crackle startled me. I looked around for the source. The hills were bunched here, and the dips between them were a bit steeper. A hurried to the top of one hill and lay down. I was already caked in mud, what was a little more going to do? There were some more vaguely mechanical sounds. A voice and some hoofsteps approaching. As it got closer I could recognise wheels rolling on stone. I lowered my brow and slipped my foreleg into the straps for my gun.
We had a few guns down in the Stable (here we go again), but not much ammunition for them, so they were left to one side as mere curiosities. The pistols were clearly not designed with affirmative action in mind, because with the little trigger there was no way anyone but a unicorn could get it to work. There was also some mean-looking saddle-mounted minigun with a mouth trigger. There wasn't really a way to aim without turning your whole body, which is kinda cumbersome at the best of times, and plain useless in the close quarters of Stable tunnels.
And then there was my Nerf gun. I found it in a storage crate when I was eight, and never got tired of it. It was just so much fun to annoy ponies by shooting them in the face with little foam darts from a hiding place. But what set it apart from the other guns was that it was foreleg mounted. It had a holster and some straps, and was designed so that you just slip a hoof into the straps to take it out, and then holster it again to walk. It needed two hooves to operate and wasn't very friendly to moving and firing, but it was just so much easier to aim. I'm still confused as to why more guns aren't built like that.
Set up atop the hill, I gazed down the sights at the source of the noise, and pulled the pump. Two ponies rounded the corner, pulling a cart and chatting to each other. I waited for them to get a bit closer, raised my aim a bit, and fired. The wind made the dart swerve and curl, but it was inconsistent enough that it still bopped one of them on the forehead. They froze and lowered their stances. They had faces like a peppy teacher had just exclaimed 'pop quiz!' I pulled the pump and fired again, this time accounting for wind. I was able to hit the other one right between the eyes. He jumped and yelped, swatting at his own face. Maybe he was trying to bolt without untethering himself from the cart, or he just had a fit, but either way he fell forward and planted his face in the mud. I couldn't contain my giggle any longer at this point.
His companion screwed up his face, and looked on the ground. He levitated one of the darts up to his face and inspected it. "Come on Sandy, they're just foam bullets. Some joker is hiding in the bushes with a toy."
'Sandy' leapt up and started dancing anxiously in place. "What if it's just a distraction? We have no visibility! There could be raiders behind us! Run for your life!" He started heaving against the cart, again forgetting to untether before trying to flee. The other pony just looked at him with an armour-piercing stare. At this point I rolled over and laughed out loud. He must have spotted me then, because a few seconds later I was in mid-air without having opened my wings.
"There we go. Hey. Relax, it's just some Stable rat. I didn't even know there was one around here."
"Hey!" I swung a hoof at him from my useless magical hover. He brought me closer and examined me.
"How long ago did you crawl out of that hole?"
"Ugh, it's been so long that I'm not sure I remember. Twenty minutes?"
He frowned and dropped me in front of him. "You're lucky we're the first ponies you've come across up here. Stick with us and we'll take you to a town so you can get on your feet."
"Really? You don't sound happy to see me."
He picked up both my darts and stuffed them in my nose. "If you'd tried that trick on raiders they'd be ventilating your skull by now. I'm Hard Sell, and my jumpy pal here is Sand Dollar." Sandy stopped trying to run away and lowered his head with a blush. "We're traders. Now c'mon, we need to get moving before it starts raining."
"Right. Stable." Sell sighed and grabbed my head and tilted it up. "See those clouds? More often than not, they make water fall from the sky. Water that doesn't come out of a machine is probably irradiated. If radioactive water is falling on your head and you don't have shelter, you're probably going to die a horribly painful death of radiation poisoning. You don't want to be blowing all your caps on RadAway." I stared at him blankly. I guessed caps referred to currency based on context, but playing the part of the oblivious Stable Dweller was more fun to watch. He grumbled again. "Come on. The sooner we dump you in civilisation the better. The orange is just going to attract attention." He started walking, and Sandy started walking too.
"I'm Atom Smasher by the way," I grunted, removing the darts from my nose and returning them to my weapon.
"Say, Atom..." Sand started. "If you want to make yourself useful, I think we have just the ticket for you... Sell, get that jumbo revolver wheel. I think we found what it fits!"
Hard Sell rolled his eyes and rummaged in the cart. A roll of charred Nerf darts floated into view.
"Hey! More darts!" I went to grab them, but Sell lifted them away from me.
"Careful with those! Sell, show her what I mean." Sandy's lovely assistant picked one dart off the roll and tossed it down the road. Upon hitting the ground, the mud burst with a loud pop and flung little drops everywhere. "Nearly blew my leg off handling them. And the best part?" We came to the crater, and the dart was resting on the side. Sell picked it up and returned it to the roll. "I spent a good half a day just throwing them, and they work every time. Enchanted, probably. And if they fit in that toy, you've got yourself a pretty handy grenade launcher."
"Ah!" Sell, continuing to be a bastard, lifted the darts away from me again. "That'll be eighty caps."
"Oh come on! I just crawled out of a bunker!"
"Everything has a price. No caps, no darts." Sand Dollar frowned at him, and then at me. "Sandy, don't even think about giving away our stock. She's probably just going to get herself killed as soon as we let her out of our sight."
"Maybe we can work something out. We don't have security for this leg of our trip..."
"She hit us both between the eyes with the regular darts. Just sit her on top of the cart and we've got a short range turret."
"Until she gets hit by a sniper."
"Better than nothing."
Sell stopped walking and glared at Sandy. Sandy grinned hopefully. I kept my mouth shut. Eventually he lowered his head, started pulling again, and shoved the darts at me. "Fine. Get us to Colton in one piece and you can keep them."
"Deal!" It's not like I had a better plan. I mean, now that I had an offensive weapon, I could just pop them both in the head and loot their caravan, but then I'd still be in the middle of nowhere. I changed the regular darts for the explosive ones and crawled on top of their goods pile.
Maybe I'd wait until we could see Colton before offing them.
Level up! Wait, what? New perk: It's Nerf or Nothing!
"Sandy, I doubt the words have existed or ever will exist to properly convey my hate for you right now."
"I feel like you're talking about me, but not to me. Are we there yet?" I sprawled backwards over the heap of the cart.
"I can very easily take those darts right back, you little..."
"Sell, be patient with her." The cart stopped moving, and Sand Dollar leaned in close to Hard Sell. It looked like he was whispering something and touching his mane.
"Gaaaaay." I hurriedly scampered back up the heap as Sell reached for something. He was probably going for me, but he picked up a frying pan instead and was holding it high. He had a look on his face like a rabid badger. Sandy bopped him on the horn, making him drop the pan.
"Sell! Calm. Happy place."
Sell screwed up his face a couple more times. Like, looking halfway normal for a second, before tensing up like he was being zapped in the face with a cattle prod. Then he sighed, and just started pulling again. He levitated the dropped pan up to put it back with the rest of their junk.
Clang. The pan caved as a bullet struck it, and the still smoking lead spun into the air before planting itself in the mud. Sandy shrieked. Sell whipped his head around to get a look at the source. I followed his gaze to see four ponies galloping along the ground towards us, brandishing spiked bats, hammers, and... one of them had a board with a nail in it. They looked like manic hedgehogs with all the spikes on hodge-podge scrap metal plates tied together to form improvised armour, streaked with rust and dried blood. It was actually pretty metal looking. Two similarly barded ponies were a little further out, and I heard a gunshot, but nothing seemed to be hit.
"Shit! Raiders!" Sell untethered himself and Sandy from the cart, and they ducked behind it. Sell started rummaging in the goods. I inched back to get some more cover from the pile, and get better aiming support. There was no way I was going to hit the far away ones with this thing, but I figured I could make short work of the ones charging into melee range. With practiced movements, I pumped the gun and fired three times. Click-pfft, click-pfft, click-pfft. The first shot landed in the top of the bank as the first raider was cresting it. He yelped as the shockwave sent him flying. The second shot hit the same bank just behind him, and his hind legs bore the brunt of the blast. He sounded like Rice Krispies as he landed on the road - snap, crackle and pop. He didn't get up. The third shot sailed a little higher and went off between two of the others harmlessly, sending the rest of them dashing for cover.
Wow, combat description really is the most dense thing, isn't it? I mean that was two paragraphs spent talking about what, five seconds of action? I'm trying to be economical here but prose is just not friendly to that kind of thing. Based on how the rest of this goes, better brace yourselves for an awful lot of bullet time. Shit's gonna be like the Maretrix, just without the cool kung fu and the sharp suits.
While Sandy was cowering behind a wheel of the cart, Sell had fished a pistol out of their wares and was loading it. I scanned some of the trees and inched back for more cover. Seconds passed in silence.
"We're comin' to getcha," came the call from a clump of trees down the road. "I'm gonna make sure you're still breathing when I skin you!" Wow, they sounded just as metal as they looked. Could I join these guys? Sell was aiming at the trees the call came from when the other two raiders jumped out of the nearer cluster of trees. On instinct, I pumped and fired. The dart missed and hit a tree. The raiders had managed to land on the side of the cart and where now climing up it. I was hardly going to hit them with my gun, the plastic would probably break, and where the hell am I going to find another Nerf gun up here? I wasn't going to dig out something hard from the cart before they got to me, nor was I going to be able to wield it effectively. So I took a third option.
I cocked the gun, leaned forward and put the tip of my gun to the nearer one's head. They stopped climbing. "I know what you're thinking," I growled, mustering as much gravel in my voice as I could. "Did I fire six shots, or only five?" Never mind that it was actually four. "To tell the truth, in all this excitement I've forgotten myself. But being as this is a .44 magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: 'do I feel lucky?' Well, do you? Punk?" I had a feeling it was a safe bet that raiders didn't see many movies. The two of them just sat there for a couple of seconds, before the one without the gun at her head huffed and rolled her eyes.
"It's a toy you clod, get a grip!" She shoved him. I pushed at his head, and he lost his balance. I fired, and the dart landed in his open mouth. His head burst like a bubble, showering the side of the cart and the other raider in gore, and his body landed in a limp heap on the road. She stared for a moment, then looked back at me. I pulled the pump, pointed it at her and wiggled my eyebrows. She started backing off the cart.
Pew. I looked to the right. Sell had put a bullet in the fourth raider, who was approaching down the road. It must have hit his armour, because he was still coming. I turned my gun to a forty-five degree angle, adjusted for wind, and fired. A second later, he cried out in pain as it landed on his back, and the shockwave shattered his spine.
I rolled the cylinder out. Empty. I slammed it back in and swung my legs over the top of the pile. "Hang on a second, I've gotta pick up the darts." I hopped off the cart and landed with four legs on the raider's head, the only part of her where the spikes would cave rather than skewer me, using her as a stepping stone to get to the ground. She cracked her jaw on the side of the cart and crumpled to the ground in pain.
The nearest dart was the one in the remains of the raider's head. I awkwardly scooped that one up with a hoof and wiped it on my jumpsuit before chambering it. The red stain was going to be a helpful 'don't pick this one up with your teeth' sign. I climbed the bank to retrieve the one that hit the tree, and carried on along crest of the bank to fetch the other three. The craters made them pretty easy to find. Maybe they were designed as darts you couldn't lose, because they made a little bang where they hit. Only they were rejected because the bang was lethally huge.
The crack of a couple of gunshots echoed from where the last two raiders were. A bullet whizzed through my tail, and another one split a stone a few feet away from me. I snorted and shouted back to them. "You can see me from space, how hard is it to hit me?" Another bullet bounced off a rock and spun into a bush on the other side of the road while I went back for the sixth dart.
While I was sliding down the bank to the bloodied remains of the fourth raider, I heard a high-pitched scream and a crunch. The cart was on its side, with an exhausted looking raider standing next to it. I could only guess that the scream was Sandy being crushed. I couldn't see Sell either. I chambered the last dart and pumped the gun. I started running, gun holstered. The raider heard and started running to me, scooping a spiked bat into her mouth as she went. This part I hadn't thought out so well. She'd probably shred me if she got into melee range, but was probably banking on me being in a righteous rage after she'd just crushed Sandy and Sell... the bank!
I took a hard right with her about ten feet away and started up the bank. I kicked off it with wings outstretched and flapped for dear life, eyes closed and forehooves pulled up to brace for a hard landing. A second or two later I heard a squelch. I looked down. I was hovering three or four pony lengths above the ground, with the raider sitting directly under me. "Get down here, I'm gonna scoop out your eyeballs!" She'd dropped her bat and was trying to jump up the bank to get to me. Now I know how a cat up a tree feels. Except I'm a cat with lethal ordinance. I knew I couldn't keep hovering for long, so I pulled out the gun and took aim. My first shot hit the bank just after she'd jumped off, startling her and making her botch her landing. "Shit shit shit shit shit!"
She started running, and I pumped and hit the ground ahead of her, making her skid to a stop. I chuckled. She double-backed and started running up the bank, not to get at me, but to get away. I pumped a third time and prepared for a long arc shot. Why do they always run away in straight lines? It just makes it easier to get gunned down while fleeing. Wouldn't it make more sense to duck from side to side, or dive for cover or something? Still, I took no chances. Pfft, pfft, pfft, pfft. With wind, they scattered a little in flight, and she bounced around like she was going through a minefield. I stopped flapping and landed with a slide down the bank.
After recovering the darts, I came back to the cart. The mud underneath it was streaked crimson. I nudged it, and there was no response. "Guys?" I said. Still nothing. I knew I should probably feel something. Hell, I even knew their names before they died, so they were supposed to be halfway sympathetic too. But I wasn't getting anything. I mean, if we're using 'feel' in its broadest sense, I felt kinda cold and wet from all the playing in the mud, and perhaps a kleptomaniacal urge to tear apart the caravan for anything useful, but not a lot else. The worst feeling that crossed my mind was probably rage at myself for looking at the raider who ate a bomb and coming up with the line 'not a time to lose one's head'. Argh. That made me feel dirtier than all the gore and mud put together.
The caravan was mostly junk. Cooking utensils, industrial equipment, tools. There were a few guns, but they were all unicorn-use only. I recovered a pair of saddlebags, two grenades and a landmine. When I got to the bottom, I found Sell and Sandy's flattened corpses. I'd untied all the crap from the wagon by now, so it fell back upright of its own accord. After a quick search, I found bags full of Sparkle Cola bottlecaps on both of them. Must be what he meant by caps. Ah, good ol' ubiquitous megacorporations, providing semblances of civilisation with their legacies. With that in mind, I looked back through the junk a second time and found a couple of bottles of the stuff. I bagged one, and jumped on the cart to chill for a bit with the other.
I'd been out in the wasteland for about an hour and I'd already gone 4/0/0, 4/0/2 if you count Sell and Sandy as assists. Not a bad start at all. If everywhere was like this, I was gonna have a lot of fun out here. The sky had even stopped making me dizzy by now. I didn't like the look of it though. Apart from being all greeny-grey and miserable, I remembered what Sell said about rain. I couldn't be sure when it would start. I finished the cola and went back for another rummage. Sell had a bag labelled 'RadAway' on him, but it must have burst when he was crushed. It smelled pretty nice though. There were a couple of bottles labelled 'RadSafe' in the rest of the junk, so I pocketed them. The faded labels said something about radiation resistance, so it couldn't hurt to have them.
Before I left the scene, I had a look at a couple of the raiders. I wasn't going to bother taking their bats, they'd just be too bulky. One of them had a knife that I thought would be good for basic utility. After a quick scan, the headless one's armour seemed to be in the best condition, so I pulled it off him and shook off some of the fresh blood. Maybe I was just being prissy, but I ran through the junk one last time to find a plastic bag, took off my muddy jumpsuit and tucked it inside, and stashed it in my saddlebags, with intent to find somewhere to dry it later. The armour might be useful. Hell, if I was crazy enough, I might just pass for a raider.
Finally, after patting down the armour, I felt something on the inside. I reached in and dug out a pair of sunglasses with shutters instead of lenses. I shrugged and slipped them on, tucking the arms into the strap for my goggles. They actually made it hard to see, so I practiced flicking them up and down for visibility before leaving.
When I crested the bank, the two raiders with guns had left where they were hiding and were nearly at the road. They didn't open fire. I flexed my wings to get them ready. They stopped. "Hey, you're not Crossbones!" I heard. They started retrieving their guns and taking awkward mouth aim. I broke into a gallop, and with a couple of wing beats I was in the air. I heard a couple of shots and a scream. When I looked down, one of the raiders had shot the other in the head. I think it was less backstabbing and more TRYING TO FIRE A GUN WITH HIS TEETH. He missed me a few more times before I landed two forehooves on his face with a crunch. He swung a wild kick to nowhere. I stepped off him and kicked him in the head again. He stopped moving. I wiped the nose blood from my foreleg on his face, admired a job well done, and started in the direction they'd come from.
Within five minutes of walking I was starting to think that I maybe should have done a better job of defending the caravan, because I had no idea where I was going. Or maybe I should have taken the road. I took another look at the sky. The clouds were darkening in some places. I didn't know if that was good or bad, but I kept a brisk pace nonetheless. They were also pulling me so I didn't have to walk. I don't think I'd ever walked so far in my life. There's only so far you can walk in a Stable before you're just going in circles, y'know? I looked at the junk on my foreleg and frowned. I could live without most of the bells and whistles in a PipBuck - I hardly need to look at a wristwatch to know my legs are broken - but I would have killed for a radio about now.
Fifteen forevers later, I started seeing more raiders wandering around. These ones didn't bother me, and a couple even quirked a brow or waved in greeting. Not like, friendly greeting, just that really impersonal acknowledgement of existence that people who know each other do when they pass in a crowd, trying to maintain their civil inattention. I just kept a casual pace and followed the raiders into their settlement.
The camp was in a ruined stadium, with one half of the stands either collapsed or torn down for scrap, so I could see through to the other half. It was about now that I started noticing white and blue flags every now and then, with some circular 'CWFC' icon painted in blood on some of them. A group that I passed was kicking a skull about while one pony stood in front of two bones stuck in the ground. Suddenly, one of them kicked it at him, and he dived to catch it. It bounced off his head and past the bones, and the pony that kicked it jumped victoriously. This is what we call thematic foreshadowing, where I string together a bunch of related images in quick succession all like 'NOTICE THIS'.
"Oy!" A gruff voice grabbed my attention away from spectating the footskull game. Two of them had come up next to me, a broken-horned unicorn that looked like he ate for two, and an earth pony that looked like he'd blow away in the wind. "What's the toy?" He went to point at the Nerf gun in its holster, and shoved me in his carelessness. I forced a chuckle while I tried to copy his accent.
"This inn't no toy, mate. Check it." I sat back on my haunches, took it out and pumped it. I could try and blow his head off, but he was so fat that it might take two shots. Instead, I took aim at the skull the goalie had just booted into the air. Pfft, pop. Shards of bone rained. I caught the dart in my teeth as it spun away, and chambered it again. It might have been even more metal if I'd blown my jaw off in the catch, but I was content to maintain my mandibular faculties.
"Nice! Gizza go," the thin one sneered.
I hopped back and holstered it. "Haha! Eat an acre of shit."
The fat one thumped his companion in the shoulder and he fell over. "Yeah, Sticks, don't be a prat!" They started arguing, and I hurried along while they distracted each other.
I hung around the shanties of the Reebuck stadium for an hour, occasionally having completely incomprehensible conversations with the odd raider before starting to get bored. I mean, it was kinda fun just blending right in with a bunch of wackos, but the novelty wore off quickly. Hanging remains of tortured prisoners here, improvised buildings there... There was a spell of rain, and while I was taking shelter I dug an old watch from some junk. It didn't work, but I pocketed it to see if I could get it to later. I think I might have actually been around long enough to start seeing personality in some of the raiders. This was when I decided that if nothing interesting was going to happen in the next five minutes, I was out of here.
"Today is a good day, boys!" I heard from over a corrugated iron wall. With a wing-assisted jump, I hopped over to get a look. A bunch of the raiders were sat around a fire inside a large conical shack, with some shipping containers forming some of the walls. There were more milling around, so I looked busy while I listened to some jovial fat fuck pontificate while he waved a drink around. "There's some right beauties in this catch. I can see the trophy now: Colton Wanderers, FA cup champions!" The ponies around the fire cheered. "Drink up! Tomorrow we smash Balkburn!" They cheered again, and descended into drinking and chatter.
I bumped into someone with spiky armour and grazed my shoulder. I scowled and shoved him with a "Watch it, mate!"
"Oy!" a fat voice called. The toaster was looking right at me, and the chatter died off. "I'd recognise you if I saw you before. Where'd you come from?"
I climbed over one of the ponies sitting at the fire to enter the circle. I could smell this guy from across the room, but right next to him was positively toxic. "The question is, my good man, where did you come from?" I prodded him on the nose, and he went cross-eyed.
"Southie, eh? You want a sunroof in your skull?"
"Mate, the only way you're doing that is if you sat on me."
He blinked at me. I nudged my shades. After a few seconds, he cracked, and let out a laugh at 3.5 on the Richter scale. "I like this wench! She's ballsy. What's your name?"
"Not that it's gonna mean much..." I turned and flicked my tail in his face. I could hear his lewd chuckle, and stepped away before he could touch me. The flick gave me cover to open a saddle bag. "Because you're not gonna remember it for much longer."
On the far side of the fire, I dug out the landmine and armed it. "Atom Smasher." I tossed it in the fire, and vaulted over a pony for cover. Boom. Shrapnel burst from the fire, shredding the faces of everyone sitting by it, and lobbing flaming logs at others nearby. My ears were still ringing when I got up, and I immediately reached for the Nerf gun. Stunned raiders were reaching for their weapons. I was slightly quicker on the draw and was able to pick off the ready-looking ones first, click-pfft click-pfft click-pfft.
"What's going on in woah!" 'Sticks' and the fat one from earlier (I can only guess that he was imaginatively named 'Stones' in another horrific pun) were at the door. I swung my back leg at a precariously perched structure. It rattled, and a tree-trunk swung from the roof into the doorway. I must have missed it in the darkness. Maybe there were more traps around here? The trunk clobbered the fourth raider to ready a gun, and his body cushioned the blow that Stones got. Well actually his belly fat probably did more cushioning than the bag of raider bones, but every little helps, eh?
I stashed my gun and dived for some ammunition boxes, with one under each foreleg I swung into cover. One of them was open, and had magazines for guns I didn't have. I popped my head out of cover and threw them into the fire. I had to giggle with satisfaction at the crackle of the rounds going off in all directions. The other box was locked, so I braced it against the other wall and kicked the bottom of the box until it caved. Frag mines galore. Maybe kicking it open wasn't smart, but I still had all six limbs, right? I waited for the crack-ack of gunless gunfire to die down before poking up from cover again.
"Hey!" I called.
"What?" one of them answered. Retard.
"Catch!" I bopped a mine with a hoof and spun it to her like a frisbee. She was a pretty good catch, and I armed another one and threw it past her. Another raider caught it in his mouth. Then I ducked and waited for natural selection to take its course.
Boom, boom. I looked up, and with a third mine almost armed, I scanned the room. Nothing was moving, save for settling dust and parts of the structure starting to creak and buckle. I knew I wouldn't have much time, so I armed the rest of the stack of mines and threw them out the door. I twisted the log trap to form a partial barricade, and started looting.
First priority was picking up my darts. I got another grenade and a couple of health potions in the search, and two more mines to rig the room with. Then there were the shipping containers. I swung open the door of one and poked my head inside. Man, and I thought the raiders smelled bad... there were twelve ponies huddled in the far corner behind some crudely welded bars. They gasped collectively when they saw me, beady eyes quivering with trepidation. I looked down at myself. Duh, raider armour. They probably thought I was there to mince them.
I held up a hoof. "One sec." I ducked out and thought. I could mince them. In fact it might be fun. But it'd be shooting fish in a barrel, wouldn't it? It'd be fun in the same way that cheating at a video game is fun. It's all thrills and spills for about fifteen minutes, and then the novelty wears off and it's just unfulfilling. But rescuing these guys would be an escort mission, and based on the amount of thugs I passed on my way in, a pretty tough one at that.
I dug out the Stable jumpsuit. It was still a bit soggy, but it'd dry off with walking. I broke off a couple of bits of the raider armour and put them on over it. Best of both worlds! I dipped my head back in the stinky prisoner container. "Better?"
"Much," one of them said. I got a piece of scrap metal from around (these places are hideous tetanus hazards) and jammed it in the shitty door. The lock snapped with one buck of the makeshift lever. All these raiders and not a single decent handipony among them. Slowly, the pile of prisoners stirred and began a soulless shuffle out of the container.
I looked back out the door. There were some raiders gathering at the door, trying to delicately step over the pretty dense minefield. I'd need another way out. While the prisoners were grabbing weapons from the remains of the raiders, I examined the ceiling, and the junk the raiders had used to build this shack. "Don't go for the door," I announced. "We're leaving another way."
Level up! Hey, what the hell is this? Why is New perk: Soccer Hooligan
Your critical chance doubles when using footballs and improvised footballs.
Stones sniffed the air. He turned his fat nose skywards and sniffed again. He thought that, for just a moment, he could perceive some tickle of the nose besides his own putrid body odour. He turned to Sticks, two thirds his height and one third his mass, and gave a concerned look. The look was shared. Even in the prolonged presence of the planetoid known as Stones, Sticks still had at least one working olfactory nerve ending.
"Smells like... smoke."
I have to hand it to pre-war manufacturing. After a magical holocaust and more years of neglect and abuse than anyone can care to remember, there's an awful lot of stuff that just still works. I mean, not exactly firing on all cylinders, but the fact that it works at all is a miracle. I can't think of a time I was more keenly aware of this fact than when the shitty shack exploded, launching scrap metal, cables, ripped-off seats and raider giblets everywhere. Not an explosion of fire and gas, but of force - one of the shipping containers tore down the wall, shooting out like a bullet, and continuing across the camp. Let me break it down for you.
Among the wreckage the shack was built from were three pre-war motor vehicles, all three of them flying models. Between them there were seven working lift packs out of a possible twelve, three thrusters out of six, and one and a half engines. I say one and a half because one of them leaked shit everywhere when it started. The bodywork was rusted enough that stripping parts was as simple as kicking it. Combine with the shipping container, a mechanic prisoner with a welding spell, some vigilance for grenades tossed in by angry raiders, and the occasional reminder of 'well you can take the front door if you like' for motivation, and you have one improvised tank. We just needed to get it out of the shack.
Now, far be it from me to raise this point, a pony whose special talent is making things violently cease to exist, but for all the reliability of pre-war technologies, they seem to have this utter lack of health and safety considerations. Beyond 'you're going to put someone's eye out with the corner of that terminal' or 'waaah this coffee is too hot I have to sue someone', it's like some board of stuffy executives was presented with a doorstopper list of things that could go wrong and kill everyone and just wiped their asses with the pages. But we have to think of the bigger picture here. All of those people who were killed when their cars got rear-ended and exploded balefire across the highway aren't me, and my benefit from exploding car engines is far more recent than their loss. Net gain, right?
With everyone tucked inside the shipping container and scrambling for things to hold on to, I ducked out of the door and tossed a grenade behind us, then barred the doors shut. The container was angled up for launch, and there was some metal bracing the back end to help funnel the explosion. Moments of your life you never recall later: the infinite three seconds of silence between lighting the fuse or pulling the pin, and the thunder of something getting shredded. I filled these three seconds with, "Hang on, was I supposed to throw that inside, or out-"
I had no time to bathe in the terror. Gravity went all over the place. Failing beams and scattering scrap accompanied the bass rumble of long-overdue motor insurance fraud. Ponies just fell about the container, thumping into each other throughout the flight. I used our couple of seconds of free fall to fly to the ceiling. Last thing I wanted was to lose my loot from someone hitting me.
I landed on someone when the container hit the ground. There was no crash of the container embedding itself in the ground - just the occasional scrape of a pebble or weed, the pings of bullets peppering the shell, and once or twice the thump of a raider getting turned into pizza. The lift packs were just barely enough to keep the container afloat as it sped away. I pulled the bar from the doors and swung them open. Apart from anything it'd be nice to see where we're going, at the risk of us all getting turned into pin cushions by a raider armoured like a hedgehog being scooped up by the open doors. But mostly, I just wanted to hang out the front and scream abuse at them. They couldn't hear any of it, but more importantly, they couldn't hit me.
They couldn't hit anything for shit.
The container kept going for just over a mile. Or at least that's what one of the sadsacks told me. We had no steering or brakes, so once we stopped hearing gunfire, Weldy-McEngineerface cut the cords to the thrusters, and we coasted until the container bumped off a tree. When the engine went off, the whole thing just landed with a squelch in the mud. I cartwheeled out of the container.
"Woo! Yeah! Let's do that again!" The others filing out just stared at me blankly.
Some soulpatch dusted himself off, fixed his hat, and brushed past me. "Come on. Town isn't far. If we don't get moving they'll catch up." His accent stuck out like a leper in a swimming pool. Hot shit, he even has some description and a line of dialogue! Though, that didn't save Hard Sell and Sand Dollar. So y'never know.
They seemed to know where they were going, so I just followed them. I tried to make it look like they were following me, which wasn't hard, because they were mostly just doing this dead-inside shuffle. I mean, guh, I just saved you creeps, you'd think that might be something to brighten your day, y'know? I gave up on trying to keep conversation with them pretty quickly since all I was getting back were grunts and murmurs.
They got a little quicker when we reached Colton. The place didn't look much better than the Reebuck - crumbling ruins patched up with some really awful construction. I guess they inherited the pre-war contempt for health and safety. A perimeter wall ran around it, which seemed to be the most solidly built thing, but that wasn't saying much. I ran ahead to get a better look at the place. The rusty doors were ajar, and a security guard dozed on a tower.
"Hey!" I yelled up, tipping up my shades. He jolted awake, and batted his gun between his forelegs a few times trying to catch it. I chewed on my grin. "Do we just like, go in?"
"Where'd you come from?"
"Stable somewhere in those hills."
"Blimey... and where'd you get that armour?"
"Same place I got those guys." I pointed with a wing to the single-file shuffle making its way over.
"You..." He leaned over the edge of his nest, squinting at me, then at the prisoners, then back to me. He rubbed his eyes. "Did you just raid the Wanderers?"
I shrugged. "If you mean the guys wearing porcupines and playing football with skulls, then I guess. Seemed like they were all bark."
His jaw hung slack. He shook his head and raised a hoof before ducking inside. "One sec." He returned a moment later with a colleague and they whispered some things to each other. The other one gawped and started hopping up and down. They beamed at me in a kinda creepy way before disappearing back inside. The freed prisoners reached the gate by the time one of the guards popped his head out, with the other pulling it open. "Come in, come in!"
Inside Colton looked just as ramshackle as the outside, just with awnings and shelters over the streets. The streets themselves were just as dirty as everywhere else, but they were at least dry. A few ponies were milling about, minding their own business, while the guards ushered me along. I got a look over my shoulder at some of the prisoners entering the gate. The first one was immediately tackled, and they swung around in a hug. Blehhh, sentimentality.
I was practically thrown at this other guy with a hat and a badge you could cut open boxes with. Given the rush, I just crumpled in front of him. I looked up, and he grinned at me. I wanted to just shrug and move along, but some cosmic force kept my gaze trained right on him. I couldn't even tell him to fuck off! It was like the universe conspired to have me make conversation with this guy through limited dialogue options!
"I hear you've done some astounding things!" Guessing from his voice, the first pony these guards thought to bring me to was a jazz singer. I can think of worse choices.
"Really? From where I saw it raiders were just laying down when I looked at them."
He laughed, and helped me up. I adjusted my goggles and glasses to try and get the glasses to sit on the goggles. "Humble and sharp as a tack too. My, what ever did we do right to have you fall into our laps?" I masked my wince with a chuckle. "Oh, where are my manners! Forgive me. Name's Lone Star, and I'm the sheriff of this fair town of Colton. Mayor and Judge too when the need arises. And who might our knight errant be?" He offered a hoof in greeting.
I looked at him sidelong for a moment. For all this guy's pretensions to being some kinda cowboy, I liked the glowing praise. I could get used to this. I shook the hoof and deflected my gaze. "Atom Smasher. Really, it was practically an accident that I saved those ponies..."
"Nonsense! I haven't seen one of those jumpsuits in a long time. There's a nugget of good that you Stable Dwellers have inside you, a kind of courage and hope that the big bad wasteland has eroded from many of us out here. You're gonna go far, kid. I can tell already." I can't tell you how hard it was to keep from just doubling over laughing. As it was I had to funnel it into a staged grin. "Come on, we can't let a deed like that go unrewarded." He started walking, and the two guards ushered me on. Man, people really appreciate this hero business.
I couldn't tell one rusty shack from another around here, but Lone Star seemed to know where he was going. He kicked open the swing doors on a particularly dank dive of a place. Hat Accent from earlier was drowning his misery at a back wall, some guy with sunglasses the size of dinner plates was reading a newspaper (no idea where he got it), an obvious underager was hopping on his stool at the bar, and the bar was being tended by a pony with a raisin for a face. Lone Star threw a foreleg on the counter and set his voice to megaphone.
"A drink for myself and the hero of the hour, Atom Smasher!" He gestured at me. I cringed. The sultana behind the bar stared at me. He threw his towel on the bar in a huff, reached under the counter for two bottles and deposited them in front of us, all without breaking his gaze. I briefly looked at the bottles, then back at him. Still silent, he leaned forward, horn sparkling. He held the caps of the bottles. Just holding them. Not doing anything. Continuing to lean towards me. Being wrinkled in my general direction.
Eventually he popped the caps off and pocketed them. Lone Star was completely unfazed, and just scooped up the bottle to take a swig, and then deposited a bundle of caps on the counter. "So!" He was still speaking loudly enough that I was very slightly blown back in my seat. "What brings you out of that Stable? Broken water talisman? Scandalous discoveries? Love?" I was quite sure that when he said 'love', the reverberations could be detected by large animals through the ground, several miles away.
"Someone I had a crush on but never talked to ran away with my scientist dad and some documents detailing a chain of events orchestrated by a secret society from before the war. And broke the water talisman out of spite." I took a sip of the beer while his eyes widened. Eugh, it was warm. "No, I just found the way out."
He laughed again. I swear, he was going to knock one of these buildings down with that laugh at some point. "Ah, curiosity! You are an unending well of surprises, Atom."
"So yeah, I don't really have a gameplan up here. Got any jobs for a demolitions pony?"
The door burst open and a couple waddled in. I really do have to wonder about the physiques of some of these ponies. Despite seeing no farming infrastructure of any kind, I've met a startling amount of ponies that don't so much walk as roll. "Where is this adventurer from the Stable?" the mare yodelled, rolling her R's like an opera soloist. For fear that she'd come to eat me, I pointed at the conspicuously inconspicuous newspaper guy in the corner. Lone Star chuckled and nudged me in the shoulder.
"Atom, give yourself a little credit! I think Mezzo Soprano has a job that needs doing."
"Oh, goodie." I knocked back some more beer.
"I require an intrepid soul to assist me! I implore you to lend me your services!"
I took a deep breath and sighed. "What is it?"
"My finest laces and linens have been abandoned at a creek north of town! I was scouring them of filth when... creatures accosted me, and I was forced to flee for my safety! Oboe! Fan me, I think I feel faint!"
"Y-yes dear!" The stallion took out a handkerchief and started feebly whipping her in the face. She continued to look desperate.
"Right. Cool. I... yeah."
"Oh boy! You're an adventurer?" The universe again forced my gaze against my will, this time to the teenager sitting at the bar. My field of vision did a weird zoom, disorienting me for a second.
"I guess that's what I am?" Disgustingly warm as it was, I couldn't get this beer into me quick enough.
"Can I come with you? I've always wanted to see the wasteland, go on exciting adventures, get into thrilling fights..." I stopped listening after this. He spent a good forty seconds prattling on comic book nonsense before coming up for air. "So can I can I can I?"
"If I say yes, will you stop talking?" He exploded in a grin and punched both forehooves in the air alternately. I chugged the rest of my beer.
The kid's promise to stop talking held up for all of five minutes. He bounced around, asking me retarded questions, following up with another one he said was 'even better' before I'd even mustered the will to answer the last one. I took another look at the scrap metal on my arm, ruing the lack of a radio to drown him out with. There would be things to detonate at the creek, I had been assured. I kept my mind on that.
I could tell that we were approaching the creek by the smell. The mineral, clay smell of untold quantities of mud, a reservoir of near ice-cold soil, saturated with water, making it soft and impossible to cross at more than a snail's pace. Patches of grass were separated by smears in the ground, leading down to the river. What was this mare doing washing her clothes here? Was she one of those crazies that had an eternal cycle of going to muddy water to do her laundry, getting as far as the bank, realising that in travel she's completely undone any meagre amount of cleaning she might have achieved, and then immediately gone back in to start over? I was struck senseless with the sheer absurdity. Like, I actually stood there overlooking the river and the kid's incessant rambling vanished from my perception while I boggled vacantly at the laziest fetch quest ever designed.
When I finally emerged from my stupor, the brat had already gone to the riverside and fetched the basket. At least he was that useful. He was being followed by some crabs... crabs? Crabs. I think the guy back at the bar had bigger sunglasses than these things. I sighed, sat back on my haunches and rubbed my temples. Still, I'd come to make things explode, and make things explode is what I'd bloody well do.
I didn't feel like giving myself another mudbath trying to retrieve darts, so I got out one of the grenades from earlier and... I wasn't quite sure how I wanted to throw it. I'd used grenades before, but that was just rolling them with the pin out, instead of a proper throw. Considering we're the dominant life form on this planet, there sure aren't many weapons designed with us in mind. I rolled it from hoof to hoof, trying to get the pin to come out. The kid yelped from being pinched by a crab. I picked up the pin with my teeth, but then let it go. I'd just have a live grenade in my hooves, and I'd probably drop it at my feet if I tried to throw it.
"Hang on a second." I grabbed the pin in my teeth and tentatively let a hoof down to see how much weight it would support. It didn't slip out, so I started walking in circles. Inertia pulled the bulb to one side, but it still held on. I sped up, running in the tightest circles I could manage. I heard a soft metallic schling over the sound of the brat getting harassed by crabs, and I started running in whatever direction I stopped in that wasn't into the river. I swerved left, then right, then harder left again, and it wasn't getting any better from there. I tripped about twenty feet from the river and rolled on to my back. I heard a boom. A few seconds later, the kid emerged from the river with the basket, thoroughly soaked in mud and with a crab hanging off his ear.
"I got... the laundry..." He crumpled to the ground and panted. When I recovered, I got up and scooped the basket on to my back. I figured the kid had passed out, so I just went on without him. Crabs. Did Colton have some kind of mass phobia of crabs? They're not even mutated giant crabs.
A minute later he caught up, as full of chatter as ever. Sigh. "Did you just leave me there for Mirelurks? I don't know if that was a very heroic thing to do. Were you attacked? It might have been okay if you were attacked and had to go, but I didn't see anything there. Was that grenade you? I didn't see anyone else around before I went down to the river so it must have been you in which case you're really bad at throwing grenades and that might have hit me, an-"
Boom. I caught the dart as it span away, and chambered it again. I wiped the blood from the end of my gun on his side and carried on. "Nope. Do not have the time for that today."
"Hey lady! I've got your laundry!"
I could feel gravity shift as Oboe and Mezzo Soprano approached. "Wonderful! Simply marvellous!" Oboe took the basket while Mezzo leaned in to kiss the air either side of my face. I winced. She smelled like this weird mix of talc and body odour. Lady, all your attempted bourgeois crap is not quite covering up the lack of showers in this place.
"So what do I get?"
"My deepest and most sincere gratitude!"
"Wait, you mean..."
"Now do take care! We must be off! Come, dear!" Before I could properly articulate my disbelief at having been tricked into charity, the two moons of Colton exited the bar and blundered down the street to go back to their lives.
"Now you know why we don't get many heroes around here," Raisinface behind the bar said, with a smug smirk buried somewhere in the crevices of his wrinkles.
I yelped when something pulled me to the floor. A hoof was pressed to my mouth. I flailed, but it held firm. My hoof made contact with felt, and a face, producing a masculine grunt. Some seconds passed before I was released. I shoved whatever it was away and scrambled back up to dust myself off and fix my glasses.
"What the hell was that about?"
Hat Accent fixed his hat, replacing the three playing cards that were sitting in it. "They nearly saw you."
"They? My plot senses are tingling. Who's 'they'?"
He inhaled deeply and looked around the bar. Sunglasses had left. He started moving to the far corner. "C'mon. This needs to be quiet."
"Is it a conspiracy? I love conspiracies!" I bounced after him to a table at the wall. I watched his posture sink.
"Name's Full House. I don't know what you did, but you've got the Enclave lookin' for you."
"You are fresh out of the Stable, aren't you?"
"About eleven o'clock this morning."
He sighed. "Okay, here's a crash course on wasteland politics. There are all kinds of cliques of ponies for any cause you can think of. Raider tribes, technophiles, slavers, assassins, neighbourhood watches, you name it. But there's one that you don't want to put yourself on the wrong side of, and that's the Grand Pegasus Enclave. Remnants of pegasi that abandoned the war."
"Your accent is weird. You're not from here, are you?"
He frowned and ignored me. "They hoarded technology and built farms in the clouds. Now nobody knows what they're up to, but I can tell you this much: no good. Experiments. Crazy racial purity schemes. When the Enclave want something, you know that trouble's on the way, and two of their spooks just passed by looking for you."
"How do you know they wanted me?"
"They had a photograph. One of them was reading a newspaper when you came in earlier. Only one in print around these parts is their own Times. They like to think ponies read it, but it's just kindling in most places. If you see a pony reading a newspaper, it's a safe bet they're an Enclave agent."
"So, if one of their fronts for looking inconspicuous is to do something that nobody else does, how have they not wised up to that yet?"
His face went blank and he paused for thought. "Don't jinx it."
"But what could they possibly want with me? I woke up this morning in a Stable, I can't fly for more than fifteen seconds, and I'm armed with a Nerf gun."
"Back where I come from, Equestria..."
"Ah! The belligerent assholes that started the war! Bang-up job, guys!"
He sank his head to the table before continuing. "... the Enclave took a pretty bad hit from a Stable Dweller. There's stories from all over the wasteland of ponies coming out of Stables clueless and then pulling all kindsa heroics. There's something special about 'em. I'll bet they're thinking that if they can get one on their side, they can put them to use, or even figure out what it is."
"Sounds like a load of superstitious crap to me."
"That don't matter. If the Enclave believe it, then you better believe it, because you're gonna need all the luck you can get."
I sat back for a minute. I had two lines of inquiry I could press. There was a sensible one, and there was the one I went with. "Forgive my naivety, but aren't clouds kind of a volatile place to build on?"
"It never stops raining here. They have almost permanent cloud cover without even trying."
"Cloud cover that's constantly being eroded from the bottom."
"You've lived in a Stable all your life."
"You're a mudpony." He gasped. "Relax, I'm an equal-opportunities misanthrope. I could have said sparkle pony or featherbrain, but they're both inaccurate."
He grumbled. "Right. What's your point?"
"Presumably the Enclave have a base somewhere."
"Yeah, they have a Thunderhead over Manechester, but..."
"Then, Mr. Full House, I might permit you to discover why I'm called Atom Smasher."
Level up! There it is again! I'm not putting these here why is New perk: Jobseeker's Allowance
Every day that you have no active quest, certain offices will have a small stipend of caps for you.
I have a confession to make about Full House. I haven't been faithfully recreating his accent in this account. However, there is method to this madness. You see, if I had been accurately representing his particular set of inflections, it would be coming out all like "waell howdy doo missy ah lahk yur stahl" and it would just be a complete fucking mess. So, his lines have already been run through auto-translation to proper spelling. Who says I can't be nice?
With some degree of physical force, he got me to stay in Colton long enough to buy some supplies. He was surprised I had so many caps on me. I said I found them. He was suspicious, but I had a straight face. He asked what happened to the kid, now that he thought about it. I said he got distracted. Stupid kids. He bought that one too. We stocked up on food and water mostly. The shopkeeper was surprised that neither of us were buying ammunition. I was all too happy to give a demonstration, but Full House was playing his cards close to his chest. (I'm going to start taking a drink every time I say a pun, which should hopefully kill me of alcohol poisoning if I say too many.)
House picked up a bag of RadAway. "How much?"
"What? That's extortion!"
"Can't move on that, mate. Supply and demand."
"I'll give you sixty."
"I said I'm not moving, so don't even try. The next fool coming in here that got caught out in the rain will gladly fork over a hundred for the privilege."
"You're not exactly making a compelling argument."
I flicked House's hat. "Just leave it. We'll find some somewhere."
"Wait," the shopkeeper said. "Jumpsuit. How long you been up top?"
"I still get nauseous looking at the sky."
"Alright. Because I'm such a bleeding heart..." House snorted. "Five caps and I'll give you this." He floated down a roll of nylon on a stick. I tilted my head. He stood back and popped it open; the fabric was stretched taut on metal arms, propped up on a central beam. He closed it again. I shrugged and tossed out the caps. Might make a decent melee weapon.
"What is it?"
He gestured for me to come closer, and leaned in to speak in husky tones. "Let me tell you something. The Flankashire wasteland demands sacrifices. It drenches bits of you until you can't recognise yourself anymore. So you find an umbrella. You find something on yourself that you can shelter in, that you do not compromise. Ever. And as long as you can keep that part of you, that one dry thing, then you can bear to look at yourself in the mirror each morning. It becomes your anchor, the thing that lets you live with yourself." He stared seriously after finishing. I shrugged, twirled it in my mouth and tossed it in my bag.
When we left the shop, I flicked my bag open again and tossed a RadAway at Full House.
"Where'd you get that?"
"Pocketed two of them while you were arguing with him. You Equestrians make a show of everything. Perfect cover."
I quickened my step. "Now put it away or give it back, but don't just stand there looking at it."
He looked at the shop, then back at the RadAway, gulped, and slipped it in the pocket of his duster.
"So why are you coming with me? Everything you say gives me the impression that I'm pants-on-head crazy for even going to Manechester."
"I always pay my debts. Wastelanders don't have many principles, but that's mine and I stick to it. You saved my life from those raiders, so I'm sticking around to return the favour."
"Oh, don't tell me you're one of those poncey white-knight types..."
"Only once, and by the way you're carrying yourself, that won't take long at all."
"Hah. Thanks for the vote of confidence."
We walked some more without talking much. Full House just kept walking and seemed to know where he was going - not too hard, since Manechester was just a ceiling of really dark, concentrated clouds on the horizon. I took my time to inspect things we passed. Old road signs, wrecked vehicles, ruined buildings... I stopped to loot, but most things had been looted already. Fucking rude. How am I supposed to get by scavenging if some asshole's gone and taken everything before me? Every now and then I'd catch up to him.
"I just remembered what we should have got at the shop."
"You have a PipBuck."
"I have an imitation PipBuck."
"Otherwise I'd look like I just killed a Stable Dweller and took their jumpsuit."
"No, why don't you have a real one?"
"Stable 512 was really bad at a lot of things, among them, making working PipBucks."
"Is that a sticker? You actually went to the trouble of making something that looks like a PipBuck from a distance?"
"You have a lot of free time in a Stable."
We walked some more. I ate some food. I had a weird experience of eating something that actually needed to be chewed. I could feel the envy of my long-dead peach farmer ancestors weighing upon me from beyond the grave, so I remembered to chew conspicuously in their direction. Which was somewhere up, maybe. I remember trying to be smug but not having any particular target for my smugness.
Look, I don't know what you're expecting me to say about a long, boring walk. I mean, we could have stopped to investigate some of the things like a colt scampering around in charred rags, the settlement that had blood all over its sign, the Stable with its door rolled out and left at the top of a hill or the group of ponies that had all their skin rotting off, but if you stop to look at every little thing, you're never going to get where you're going. You need a bit of focus, y'know?
We were passing a sign saying Saltford when I felt a drip of water on my nose. I stopped and wriggled it. House assumed I'd gotten distracted again and kept walking. I felt another few drips, and decided to get out the umbrella. Between his wide-brimmed hat and duster, he probably didn't notice anything, so he kept going. I batted the umbrella's handle. Nothing happened. Was this thing designed with just sparkle ponies in mind again? Fucking self-serving jerks. There was a steady flicking of moisture on my ears now. I paused to wonder if House's duster was waterproof. Not that it would make a difference, since you'd still have a wet, irradiated coat... I took the umbrella handle in my teeth and started biting bits. I yelped when I managed to hit a button, and some part of it scratched my lip. I didn't have time to press the wound, so I just let it bleed while I picked up the umbrella, propped it up in my saddlebags and hurried back to House.
He caught a look at me out of the corner of his eye. I had to stop every couple of seconds to adjust the umbrella. It kept falling forward and getting in front of me. He frowned and looked up. A big splash of water hit his nose and made him flinch. I giggled. He grumbled, adjusted his hat, and started heading for a ruined overpass. It hadn't been raining two minutes and already water was cascading down the slopes either side and forming a stream at the bottom. We ducked underneath, and I spent five minutes trying to close the umbrella again.
The rain came down in spears. Daggers of ice-cold water, fired from the sky with relentless rapidity. It sapped the warmth from the air around. Even under our concrete bastion, we weren't safe. It struck the ground with enough force to splash fingers of water all around it, wet fingers that smeared moisture down everything they touched, like a dying pony clutching their killer with bloody hooves and staining them with guilt before they pass on. The sky was heaving its last breaths at us, rasping the words in our ears in the white noise of the rain; 'murder! Mur- Wait, who were those douchebags out walking in it?
I squinted to try and see. I ended up poking my nose out of cover and getting splashed. House chuckled, and I thumped him. The figures were still there, four or five of them walking in procession. Between sheets of rain I could make out some of the details: masks, or helmets with masks, and some of those stupid saddle-mounted guns. I took out my Nerf gun, pumped it back and took aim.
House knocked my barrel down. "What are you doing? Don't shoot them!"
"They're Steel Rangers."
"Is this another wasteland politics lesson?"
"They just go around hoarding pre-war technology and keeping records. They'd be useful if they ever shared it, but don't bet on it. If you don't trouble them, they won't trouble you. And with the laser saddles and power armour they're carrying, I wouldn't bet on us if you thought it'd be funny to use them for target practice."
I took aim again. "You wouldn't have bet on me in the raider camp either, eh?"
He grabbed my side and pulled the gun out of my hooves. After a bit of fumbling, he shot the ground at the bottom of the overpass to discharge it and tossed it in front of him. I stared at the gun and the crater.
"So, you just going to fuck off now?"
He licked his teeth while he thought. "I was saving myself that time."
I shrugged and picked up the gun and dart. I still didn't know what he was packing, but if he was sticking around, he'd at least be good for a meat shield.
The rain took another hour to ease up, and it continued to spit for a bit after we started moving again, so we stayed near shelter whenever we could. Everything as we got closer to Manechester got darker. Like, the clouds were thicker and it was later in the day so there was less light around, but there were also taller ruined buildings, lots of ash and scorched earth, and grislier remnants of unfortunate wanderers. We had been in city proper since Saltford, so we used the tram lines for navigation. They were mostly clear of rubble and puddles. There were fresh gouges and scratch marks in the concrete, and someone had patched up the overhead cables. It was almost like they were being maintained. House didn't think this was odd, but he was concentrating on listening.
We stopped about fifty yards from the river. A sign saying 'River Rearwell' hung lopsided on the far side, and below the writing, there was something illegible written in entrails. There were dozens of bridges in sight, but the nearest one had a sheer wall on the Saltford side. I can't say what the purpose of it was before the war, since you wouldn't be able to drive from one side to the other, but raiders had turned it into a pretty solid-looking bastion. A sign saying "City of Manechester", possibly pilfered from somewhere else, was perched on the end of the bridge, and above that was a raider... sculpture. The severed wings and head of a gryphon were attached to the sides and top of a piece of sheet metal hammered into the shape of a shield. Bits of Stable jumpsuit were used to cover parts of it, making a pattern of blue and reflective silver, and three heads sat high on pikes above and behind the shield, with horns and spikes stuck into them to make five-pointed stars.
While I was busy contemplating how 'Gryphon Bits on a Shield' challenged our preconceptions about the nature of art, Full House was looking beyond that, into the city of Manechester itself. There were quite a few half-towers and industrial-looking halls, but one thorn in the skyline remained; a storm-blasted pillar of concrete and steel, the top obscured by the clouds.
"Hah. Look at that. Rule of drama in action."
House had to parse my sentence a couple of times, and still couldn't make sense of it. "What?"
"The Thunderhead is over that tower, right?"
"The most obvious, striking-looking thing in our entire field of vision?"
"It always is, though. This isn't even a visual medium and our destination is still a piece of scenery porn."
"Atom, what the sweet crap are you talking about?" I sighed, and fluttered up to the bastion-bridge. Couldn't hurt to get a bit more flying practice. "And where are you going?"
"Don't get your panties in a twist..." The top of the bridge was deserted. The sign was probably just for scare purposes. There were a few fresh-looking bodies and some casings, so raiders were probably here recently. A rope ladder was rolled up near the edge, with one end tied to some tetanus hazards. I pushed it off. "Raponzel to the rescue!" I could hear his grumble from here.
As we got closer to the city centre, rain got more frequent. I could see from the bridge over the Rearwell that the rain near the tower was more or less constant. House said it was probably to stop ponies like me from getting near them. We'd been dodging little showers for about fifteen minutes, when lightning struck somewhere, and the rain intensified. We ducked under an old tram stop shelter. The buildings funnelled the wind along the street, making for intense wind chill where we had gotten wet.
Noise filled the air. The pounding of rain on the cracked streets, the broken glass, the blasted cars, echoed around us. The ghosts of ponies long dead jostled to be heard amid the static, forming nonsense words. The water streamed down the slant of the street in front of us, lapping at the kerb. Raindrops landing in the gutters sent splashes reaching for me, the damned souls lost in the balefire crying out to be sav-
"Now might be a good time to tell me what your plan is."
"What?" I shook myself back to reality and stood back from the edge.
"I'm guessing... well, hoping, that you have some kind of plan for when you get to the Thunderhead."
"Of course!" I lied. "All we have to do is..." Ding ding ding. It came from the right, up the hill. "Hold that thought."
"What in the..." The bell rang again. A metal box trundled down the tram tracks. There was an electrical whirring as it approached. A harsh screech began when it got close enough to the stop, and it coasted to a shuddering halt next to it. The doors hissed, and one of them slid open. The other was jammed on something. Inside, something pony-shaped was sitting in the driver's seat. I say something pony-shaped, because there was no way that that inorganic head-spin and the lighting up of the eyes was anything other than a machine.
A synthesised feminine voice rattled from the robot. "All ab-b-b-b-b-" Fizzle. The head spun again, and some nonsense chatter played in a tone ascending from subsonic to chipmunk pitch. "B-b-b-Piccafilly! I'm Tramway, your drrrrrrrr and tram car for today! Please have your ti-" A static stab interrupted her. "-s ready for the inspector!"
We stared. Neither of us knew where Piccafilly was, but the tram was pointing in the right direction. I looked at him. He shrugged. I shrugged back, and hopped through the one open door. He followed. Tramway waited a few more seconds for passengers that didn't exist to embark and disembark, before closing the door and starting up again.
The inside of the tram was actually quite clean. There was natural deterioration, yes - one or two windows were missing, there were bullet marks in the back of the tram, and the roof had rusted through in one spot, but it was devoid of raider 'artwork', or even pony remains altogether. I was kind of disappointed.
"Anyway, Atom. This pl-"
"I do not understand that instruction!"
"Shut up, Tramway."
"I do not understand that instruction!"
House continued, ignoring her. "Anyway. This plan of yours. How are y-"
"Track obstruction detected!" Tramway called out. "Please remain in your s-" Some whirrs and clicks. "-ile the obstruction is cleared."
I frowned. There was no screeching of the tram coming to a stop. I looked out the front of the tram. There was a flaming car across the track and some gunfire being exchanged, and the tram just kept going. A telescopic metal sheet advanced up the windshield, blocking my view. A second later, there was an almighty crash and a shudder of the tram as the shield scooped the car out of the way, depositing it to the right of the track. There was the crack-ack of assault rifle fire from somewhere in front of the tram, and a thump followed by a scream that moved left. I looked over just in time to see a raider sail through the air, limbs flying limply.
"Obstruction has been cleared! Next stop, Deansgait." The shield dropped.
I nodded. "Nicely done, Tramway."
By now, the part of the tower that disappeared into the clouds was no longer visible through the windows of the tram - we were too close. The track went up a hill that left street level, and coasted (with the deafening screech of the brakes) into a purpose-built station. When the mechanical wail subsided, the door hissed and slid open again, and Tramway turned her head back to the car. "Now arriv-riv-riv-riv..." The lights went off, and she went limp, then sprang back to life. "Now arrived at: Deansgait! Thank you for travelling with Manechester Metrolink! A division of Stable-Tec." We didn't waste time getting off.
The station was practically bare, having already been stripped of everything of value. There were just bare tiles where the turnstiles might have been, and shops had been stripped of even their shutters. A pony was asleep in the corner. I reached for my gun, but House stopped me and shook his head. The open front was a hundred yards from the bottom of the tower. The rain here was constant. Water pooled at the bottom of the tower, not just by drains and dips in the road, but everywhere - the bottom floor of the tower was flooded up to about pony height, as were all the streets around, right up to the steps of the station.
"My original plan didn't involve waders, so, gonna have to think of a new one."
Level up! Maybe if I ignore these they'll go away New perk: Commuter Ticket
All transport services that cost caps can now be taken for free.
I think I remember reading somewhere that you have to discount the obvious to get to good solutions. Get rid of the first thing that comes to mind, then the second, third, fourth, and so on. The first thing on my mind was 'well this is a dud, let's go home', then there was 'I wonder what Full House has in his pockets, maybe I should just blast him and take his hat', 'that pony in the corner might work as a rain shelter but she wouldn't be very happy about it' and 'maybe we should just make a run for the tower through the rain, it can't be that much radiation, can it'.
"You're a pegasus," Full House said, interrupting my increasingly pointless train of thought. "Shouldn't you be able to do something about the rain?"
"Uh, sure! Hahah, of course!" I stepped out under the awning and reared up on my hind legs, using my wings to keep balance. I spread my forelegs and took a deep breath. "Back, rain! Back I say!" There are times when I get so invested in my own bullshit that I can't tell when it's about to bite me. This is not one of those times.
A flash of lightning ripped across the sky, close enough that the accompanying rumble was almost instantaneous. I didn't see what it hit, but it was something just behind the tower. Clearly something with much less structural integrity, or else it hit an explosives stockpile. A smokestack tipped in our direction from behind the shadow of the tower. It creaked at first, like it wasn't sure if it wanted to fall, and then it passed a tipping point, after which it was just timber!
It clattered on the ground with a resonant thud, and the chop of concrete hitting water sent walls of water in both directions to the side. One end of the chimney was neatly parked on the steps of the station, a few feet in front of me. I shimmied to the left to make it look like it was right in front of me. The other end had broken through the first two floors of the tower. I clapped, and hopped into the chimney to start walking. "See? Easy!" House might have sighed, I couldn't hear over the rain. He probably did though.
The end of the chimney was flooded, but I was able to fish some scrap wood from inside the building to let House climb up without going for a swim. Where would he be without me? Inside the building was the same predictably bombed-out mess as outside, just not as wet. I got shoved before I could zone out and start internally monologuing about the rain, the constant oppressor of the land, the watery contact poison falling from the sky in unpredictable bursts, always when you least expect it, spreading like a virus until it claims your very being...
He shoved me again. "Get out of the window, this plank isn't gonna hold forever!"
The room we'd breached looked like an old hotel room. Mould and fungus had claimed a lot of the furniture here, so I didn't fancy picking through them. Stupid incessant rain, ruining my loot for me. House went for the door, which was soft enough to just lightly push through. I followed out into the corridor.
House stopped, and I bumped into him from behind. Ew, my head went kinda near his ass (even if the duster was in the way)! He sat back and threw a hoof back to silence my flailing. Now that I was listening, I could hear heavy steps too. He brushed his coat aside, and let his forelegs hang either side of him, like he was reaching for six-shooters that weren't there.
Thump, thump, thump. The steps of heavy armour on carpet drew closer. They were coming from around the corner, where our corridor joined another. Crack. "Careful, all these beams are rotten!"
"And we're still coming down here in power armour? Fantastic idea. Quit snickering and help me." There was another crack, and the ominous thumping resumed. A leg of clean metal armour rounded the corner, painted up in deep blue. A slightly less clean leg followed, smeared with rotten wood. Then came its owner, a pegasus with a brow flat enough to put a spirit level on. Her eyes widened when she saw us. "State your business!"
House, with his hat lowered over his face in a way that should probably preclude you from seeing anything, just smirked. The second mook poked his head from behind his superior. The first one made a particular shrug that made the laser cannons on her saddle click. "Last warning!"
House turned to left, drawing his right foreleg across himself, and then flung it back. A spinning square of yellow light zipped down the hallway, hitting the Enclave soldier in the nose, just as she was reaching for her mouth trigger. She growled and rubbed her bleeding face. House did the same motion but mirrored, throwing a red glowing square at her. It stuck in her forehead and pushed her to her haunches, and blood started spurting out around it. She crumpled to the floor, where it joined her companion's jaw. Before he could reach his trigger, House had thrown two more tiles of luminous doom his way, sticking in his eye and the side of his face. He went down screaming. After a couple of seconds, the glow of the shapes faded. I pushed past House to get a look at them. Still stuck in their faces were...
"You betcha." He held out his forelegs, showing two packs of playing cards mounted in chunky gold-looking wristbands. "They've got talismans. Picked 'em up from some travelling zebra junk seller. Turns anything you throw into a magic missile, but I've got them loaded with something more my style." He threw another one down the hallway. I made a louder yelp than I'd care to admit and ducked. It went right past me and got stuck halfway through the metal case of an ice machine mounted on the wall. "No-one ever sees it coming." He gave a hollow chuckle, and carried on past me. I heard him whisper something when he passed the two soldiers. I huffed, replaced my shades, and hurried after him.
The corridor led to an atrium that went up the entire height of the building. The floor below was flooded, and pipes were set up alongside the elevators. Based on the damage to the glass of the elevator shafts, some bright spark had already tried cutting the cords to have the counterweight pull them to the top, and based on the brown splatters here and there, it backfired. In the upper distance, there were a few Enclave milling around the top-most floors.
"Hang on, I've got an idea." I double-backed to the two dead soldiers. I didn't have to even look at House to know he was rolling his eyes. I went to the first one and nudged her. I rolled her over to her back and started poking at bits of the armour. She was still twitching. I gave her a whack on the head to be sure, and went back to poking the armour.
House came in a minute later. He stared and frowned. "You have no idea how to remove power armour, do you?"
"Of course I do, look, there's just a catch around here somewhere..."
"It doesn't have a catch."
"Yeah, no, it's a button, like, under the..."
He sighed and shoved me out of the way, and twisted parts of the forelegs. Similarly, wings and part of the waist had twisting rings, and the front legs, wings, and back half of the armour just pulled off. The battle saddle came off next, and the front pulled off over the head. He stood back from the pile of disassembled barding. "Y'know, I thought you were going to go in all guns blazing, but this plan might actually get you killed quicker."
"Relax, I got this..." I slid my bags, armour, jumpsuit and not-quite-PipBuck off, putting the latter three in the first one, and started putting on the power armour. House grabbed my shades off me and stuffed them in my bag. I pouted before continuing.
"I'll just wait around here for an hour, and if you don't come back I'll assume you're dead and I can just go home?"
I stuck out my tongue while I was screwing on the last bits. "Your endless support never ceases to amaze me."
Back in the atrium, I looked up at where the other soldiers were floating around. I gave my wings a beat. The armour gave me a boost, but it still felt like I was hauling around a pair of car doors. I got two or three beats into the air before I couldn't manage another, and I just fell and cracked the tiles on landing. I grumbled and picked myself up. How does anyone move in these things? I tried again, peaking even lower, and mashing the previous landing rubble. I was panting when I got up the second time.
"Fuck it. I'm taking the stairs."
"There's no way I'm flying up there in one go."
"Won't they think it's a little odd that a pegasus is taking the stairs?"
"Why would they use them in the first place?"
House was struck with thought long enough for me to get away.
I was halfway up the second flight of stairs when I was starting to think that this plan may have been equally bad. By the fourth, I was panting, and by the sixth I had to just flop on the ground and rest, a trend that continued for every level thereafter. Except for number seven, which for reasons that are beyond me, was thick with murky fog. I decided that stopping there was unwise.
On the tenth floor, I rolled to a stop under a schematic of the building. Forty-seven floors. I groaned. I looked at the shattered window and contemplated jumping. Knowing my luck I'd probably accidentally glide and end up being irradiated to death by the rain. Eventually I decided that pressing on would be mildly less painful. It took me twenty minutes to get to the forty-third floor, by which time I could hear activity. I crawled under a table to catch my breath, might have fallen asleep for five or ten minutes, and then I poked my head out into the atrium. I was still a level or two below where most of the soldiers were, and I didn't want to be caught completely failing to fly, so I took another few flights of stairs (and took my time about it).
This floor was lined with makeshift cells. Rooms had had their doors replaced with laser barriers, and there were terminals in the walls next to them. I peered in one, and some filthy wretch was curled up in the corner. The faint smell of burning and sheer science from the laser barrier must have been keeping out the fetid stench of what the cell must have been like. Sucks to be them!
I switched up into 'look busy' mode, purposefully striding down the corridor and out to the atrium. I did my best to copy the expression of my armour's previous owner: bored, irritable, impatient. It seemed to do the trick, with a patrol just passing right by me. I snapped something incoherent at them for good measure, and a helmeted grunt fell back on his haunches in fright. I allowed myself a smirk and carried on.
I passed the atrium, feigning patrol, and went into another wing of the place. The walls around the windows had been knocked through, and the corridor continued into the clouds outside the building. I didn't dare stop to look all curious, so I just kept walking. I mean, it looked like that was how it worked, right? I held my breath deep when I approached the edge, and sighed in relief when my hoof squidged on the cloud. I had no idea clouds were solid. They look so insubstantial and they blow away in strong winds, but here I was standing on one. Eat shit, Aunt Spanner, pegasi can so stand on clouds!
I kept my serious face on and barked at another skittish-looking patrol as I explored. The layout of this place was harder to memorise because all the clouds looked the same. I walked into the same broom cupboard twice, prompting some ensign to ask if I was lost. I slapped him.
While backtracking a corridor for the third time, I caught a static squeal. There was a smack, an 'ow', and the sound died off again. I moved toward the source - a direction I hadn't been yet. There was a tinny rendition of some warbly bitch belting out a marching tune over an orchestra. I must have been too far away to hear that before.
"What was that for?"
"Don't change it!"
"Oh come on, are you seriously telling me that you'd prefer to listen to endless repeats of Rule Braytannia and messages from the 'Queen'..." His sarcastic emphasis, not mine. "... than like, anything else..."
"If they caught us listening to RFM we'd be shot."
"Well duh, but there's bound to be at least one other station that's more tolerable than this..."
I poked my head through the wall. Good ol' clouds, solid when you need floors, malleable when you need doors. "Who said RFM?" I had no idea what that was.
"Nobody, sir-ma'am-sir!" Both of them had put-on grins and cheeks red as the lights outside a brothel. I stared at them for a little while to make them really sweat. Though, truth be told, I was just savouring the feel of clouds around my neck. They're like an infinitely soft, freshly-turned cool pillow, and completely frictionless. I made an 'I'm watching you' gesture, and slowly backed out of the wall, letting my face melt through it. The clouds closing around my face made me feel all tingly, so I had to stand there until the feeling passed.
Then I turned to face their wall and bit the trigger. The lasers shredded the wall, and the wavering aim peppered them and the furniture around them with burn-marks. The shots on their armour seemed to be more of an inconvenience than anything else, but enough hit their faces that they wouldn't be getting up. Some stray shots hit the back wall so I could see right through to the office behind them. Some old fart with a trench coat looked at me like he was going to have an aneurysm.
"What is the meaning of this, sergeant?"
"I heard them discussing RFM, sir." Still not a clue what that was.
He paused, looked at me, then the radio, then the two dead soldiers, and then back at me. "Very good. Carry on." I saluted and pocketed their radio.
I milled around the Thunderhead for another fifteen minutes, pretending to be an irritable officer, witnessing acts of cartoonish villainy to the point of inefficiency, occasionally participating in such, and generally being lost. I caught a glimpse of the outside. It was completely unhelpful for timekeeping, because I couldn't see the sun when we went into the tower, but the sun was getting pretty low in the sky anyway. I got the opportunity to snap at the corporal that disturbed me from staring at the sunset. I came away from that encounter walking kinda funny. Note to self: staring at sun, bad.
As fun as it was to mess with these guys, they were going to find me out sooner or later, so I set about finding a way to tear them a new ass. When I found an armoury, I went to the corridor behind the room. I tuned the radio to something that wasn't the Enclave's shitty propaganda loop, and pushed it through the wall. Then I strode in, made a show of pricking my ears and strode up to the clerk, snorting like a bull.
"What the fuck is that I'm hearing?" I forced my head through the window. He jumped out of his sleep and started gibbering. "Give me that radio right now!" He shook in his seat, looking around for where the sound was coming from. I squinted, and took the trigger in my teeth. He finally located the radio, fumbled it around, and tossed it to me with a yelp. I caught it in my teeth. I clicked it off and stuffed it in the neck of my armour. He was curled up in the foetal position in his chair. "Now don't let me catch you playing at insubordination again!" I barked. He squeaked some pitiful attempt at 'yes ma'am', and peeled his foreleg off enough to manage a trembling salute. I nodded and turned around, taking my pick of the stock before I left. Some frag grenades, some fancy tech looking grenades, and on the top shelf there were two menacing looking optical illusions that caught my eye. They looked like egg-shaped holes in reality. The label said 'balefire eggs', followed by a list of warnings. Too long, didn't read.
Now I had to find out where best to deploy my newly purloined ordinance. The schematics of a Thunderhead were just beyond me, so it was a case of following the wall on my right until I found something that looked volatile. I went up a level, then down two more, and up and down the ship for ten minutes, before finding something that looked like an engineering room. My hair started going 'fuck you!' to gravity as soon as I entered the room - made sense that all of the techies in there were wearing hats and helmets. Sets of tubes ran through the middle of the room, some going under a transparent section of the floor, some curving up to the ceiling, but all of them constantly crackled with lightning. There was none of the weird omnipresent light in the hallways - all the light in this room was from small lights on the floor, terminals, and the lightning cloud tubes. A chamber behind the wall they emerged from rumbled and flashed. Some of the ponies milling around had white coats and were talking to each other with long words. If anything was going to go kaboom on this thing, this would be it.
On my first pass of the control decks, I pretended to look at a terminal, while I pulled the pin on a frag grenade. I let it tumble discreetly into a wastepaper basket, and with step just a little quicker than normal, I walked away. I jumped just as high as everyone around me when it went off. Someone got thrown into one of the tubes, knocking a section out it. She got fried in a snap, and lightning started sparking off nearby surfaces. Someone else took a zap, but just seemed to be stunned. That made me feel a little more comfortable about being a walking lightning rod.
"Everyone out! Security alert!" I yelled. I reared up and fired a few shots into the air. The nerdy types started rushing out. Someone hit an alarm on their way out, and sirens started blaring. Actual guards would probably be here soon. As soon as the doors shut, I whipped out both the balefire eggs and hurled them into the thunder chamber. They got whisked along the tubes and disappeared through the ceiling. Not sure why, but I didn't want to stick around to find out. I pulled the pin from another couple of grenades and let them sit on the ground near the volatile-looking pile of machinery, and belted for the door. I went to charge through the wall, but I just bounced off it and dazed myself. Solid clouds? Blasphemy! Grumbling and rubbing my head, I went for the door instead.
I exaggerated my stumble out of the doors, with the grenades going off behind me. The thunder intensified. A technician raised a hoof to speak. Spotting approaching guards behind him, I turned the other way and opened fire, mowing down boffins to make my escape. I got about ten feet before I realised that escaping this place should be the easiest thing ever. I bounced once, twice (striking something with lightning), and dove at the floor the third time.
I fell through cloud for a couple of seconds - a feeling kind of like diving into bed, only the bed is ten feet deep - and then I hit concrete and crumpled. I was in a substantial amount of pain, and took a second to unfurl myself. I limped around and nearly fell through a hole in the floor. I was on the roof of the tower, with the clouds forming a mist around me. The hole was a skylight into the atrium, with the glass long gone. I jumped through and stretched out my wings, and started to circle the elevator shafts. I saw prisoners descending the tower in a hurry (or, as much of a hurry as their malnourished state would permit them), and Enclave mooks rushing around in a panic.
"See ya, nerds!" I yelled, and I let myself dive. I saw lasers zap some of the walls around me, but they were wildly off. A splash of water hit my face - I looked back to see one of the pipes had been shot out. Makes sense in hindsight - they must have been piping up the floodwater to keep the rain going. I eased up my path and braced for a rough landing. I ended up landing on the third floor, two above where Full House... might have been. I grunted - the landing wasn't as bad as the one on the roof, but I landed on my limp. I turned around started backing up. The two soldiers following me obviously made much more skilled landings than me, but I was ahead enough that I just gunned them down while they were taking aim. While I was aiming that way, I shot out the rest of the pipes. Might as well, y'know?
I was making my way through the corridors when the ground started shaking, and the air filled with a crescendo of rumbling. It was enough to knock me over while I was running. It spiked, then died off for a few seconds. My attempt at getting up was thwarted by a second spike. I shouted "FUCK" out loud. That must have been the balefire eggs, and I missed them. I kicked a window out and bailed. I was mostly covered in power armour and the parts of me that weren't were already wet, so it's not like it would change much. I glided to the steps of the station and hurried inside.
Lo and behold, House was waiting at the station with my bags. The pony at the station was blearily looking up at the tower. I looked up, and the clouds around the tower had been blasted away, punching a hole through to the dusk sky. There were fragments of denser cloud drifting through the layer of raincloud, still crackling with cloud-to-cloud lightning, with parts of them on fire. Could clouds even catch fire? That just confused the shit out of me. The pyrotechnics silhouetted some of the ponies fluttering around in a panic, trying to salvage whatever they could. I sighed and smiled. I closed my eyes, and the thunder of secondary explosions cut through the rattle of the rain. I love it when a plan comes together.
"All aboard for Picca-... Picca-... Picca-..." Everyone wheeled around. House bolted for Tramway with my bags. He stopped with a leg against the door to keep it from closing. The other pony took her blanket and followed.
I frowned. "Is she..."
"I'm not sticking around with that going on!"
House shrugged, and made way for her. I took one last look at the carnage, before hurrying back to the tram. Tramway garbled something in a cheery tone about how obstructing the door will result in vaporisation. House let the door close as soon as he could.
Level up! [muffled ignoring in the distance] New perk: Gentlemen?
You deal sneak attack criticals when disguised as an ally of your target.
While I was starting to unscrew bits of the armour, I took a look around at the group on the train. Hobo blanket was still waking up, just a head of long black hair, some glasses and a lilac horn poking out of a tatty grey blanket, and House was putting as much distance as he could between himself and Tramway.
"I feel like this is a setup. What's the punchline?" Nobody laughed. Wow. Tough tram.
"I... I wasn't going to say anything because I thought you were fleeing Enclave," she said.
"I seemed to pass for one alright."
"You don't come across many pegasi in the wasteland that aren't." She took another look out the window. The depth of rain between us and the tower was starting to obscure the mess of loose clouds that was now the Thunderhead. "I'm... still not sure if I'm dreaming or not. That was the Thunderhead Majesty."
"Ask hat accent at the back, he'd know better than me."
"And now it's in bits."
"To abbreviate this scene, yes, I infiltrated the Thunderhead with stolen power armour, nicked two balefire eggs from their armoury, detonated them on board and legged it. Hi, I'm Atom Smasher and I make things explode for fun. Can you get the wings on this thing?"
She sat agape for a moment. She snapped out of it and unscrewed the wings, and even slid them off for me. "Since it otherwise might take a few days for the messenger from Warreington to find you... I am Scribe Shooting Stars, and allow me to formally thank you on behalf of the Flankashire Steel Rangers..."
"Hey, House! She's one of those techno-armour douchebags we passed on the way here!"
Full House sat forward, training his gaze on us. She blinked. "Excuse me?"
"When we were on the way here, we passed five dudes in power armour, and he said they were Steel Rangers. Said they were useless technophilic hoarders or something along those lines." I crawled out of the last of the armour, and started pulling on the good ol' jumpsuit. I popped a health potion for the limp.
Her jaw hung slack. She looked down the tram, back at me, and then back down the tram again. "Where did you get something like that?"
"Oh, there's machines in the Stable that make these by the boatload. I'm pretty sure they actually violate the law of conservation of mass..."
"Not the jumpsuit! The horribly skewed view of the Steel Rangers." She glared at House.
He leaned over the seat in front of him and lowered his nose. "Ain't no Steel Ranger I ever met done anything worth a damn for anyone but themselves."
"Ah. There's your problem." She relaxed in her seat. "Equestrian, right? Most chapters of the Rangers haven't been in proper contact since the war. Some of them - like my chapter, based in Warreington - stuck to their principles. Preservation of knowledge and its charitable application. Others, for example, what seems like every chapter in Equestria, let the second part crumble in the name of self-preservation." House kept his eyes narrowed, and then sat back.
"Nice infodump, sparkleface." I slid on the shades to complete what I was wearing before I went in.
"Yes, these are, in descending order of surprise - order may vary based on personal preference - a Nerf gun, shutter shades, a thing with a sticker on it that looks like a PipBuck, and stolen raider armour parts." Got all that? Because I don't want to have to explain that all again.
"Should I ask?"
"Just roll with it. Go back to showering me with praise for blowing up the Enclave."
"Well... it'd be great if that was it, but the Enclave have much more influence further south. It's a blow alright, but not a killing blow."
I rolled my eyes. Probably blew the thanking part when I called her a douchebag. "But more importantly than that, check out what I swiped from them!" I fished the radio out of the armour and sat it on the back of a seat. House came forward to sit a couple of rows behind.
"You stole from them?"
I snorted and doubled over laughing. "I just killed probably a few hundred of them and you're complaining that I stole a radio?"
Stars sat up straight, and pulled that expression that ponies do when they get on the soapbox. Y'know, eyes closed, nose up, hoof to chest. "There is enough debauchery and corruption in the wasteland, and even if it would aid our goals, we in the Steel Rangers do our best not to add to it. We do not steal, we do not use violence unless forced, and..."
"Sounds boring. Let's see what's on the radio." I clicked it on, letting off a static fizz. Stars grumbled. I caught House pulling a smirk on the far side of his mouth. I twisted the dial for a bit, and the first thing that came on was a talk broadcast. Some fancy bitch pontificating in proper speech. The signal was so faint you could barely make out what she was saying, especially against the noise of the tram and the rain. Out of curiosity, I let it run for a bit. "What's that?"
"Can't tell." After half a minute or so, the speech ended, and some dreary orchestral melody with lyrics I couldn't make out.
Stars grimaced. "Enclave."
"They loop two songs, and some speeches from their leader, Queen May XII. Unmistakably rubbish."
"It's a lot fainter than it was twenty minutes ago."
"You just bombed their main relay in the northwest. That signal is coming all the way from Buckingham."
I nodded at a job well done, and started twisting the dial again. Most of the rest of the spectrum was static, except for one signal that I almost skipped straight over. I tuned back to it trying to get it clear, but the best I could do was mildly grainy. Rapid lyrics that I can't repeat for copyright reasons played out over a jaunty melody. Showtunes. "Now this is more like it! Can't get it any clearer than that though."
"That's probably Radio Free Mareseyside."
"So that's what RFM means!"
"You heard of it?"
"These two Enclave grunts were shitting their pants about being caught listening to it. I gunned them down, their superior officer commended me for putting down insubordination, and then I took their radio."
"You what?" House tapped her on the shoulder shook his head. Just let it go, his frown said.
"Well I could have let them go, they'd still be dead, and we wouldn't have a radio." She frowned, and backed against the window. "It sounds like their transmitter is made of wood."
"They're always having problems. Local raider siege. Alicorns playing frisbee with their relay dish. One time they called us up and it turns out they'd forgotten to plug something in."
"Brain cells seem to be a scarce commodity in the wasteland."
The tram pulled up next to a large building with lots of smashed glass awnings and shelters, timetables faded and rotted into illegibility, and the remains of what were once overpriced taxis. We were out of the rain, but the ground was still wet. Nothing was going to dry the ground. Ever. "Now arrived at: Piccafilly! Thank you for travelling with Manmanmanmanman..." Tramway trailed off.
"Where are you headed?" Stars folded up her blanket and stashed it in a bag. Instead of power armour underneath, there was just a robe. I was disappointed. I shrugged at her question.
"I got this far because I was bored, and this guy..." I flicked House's hat. "... hasn't got anything better to do than follow me around waiting for me to nearly get killed so he can save me."
"Hm. I suppose you can follow me if you like. I'm on leave from official duties to look for my brother, Paladin Comet. He fell out of contact somewhere in the Preak District - the hills east of here. He's probably fine. Not many ponies are going to mess with a Paladin, after all. Never hurts to make sure though."
I gathered the Enclave armour and carried it off the tram. I couldn't fit it in my bags, so I just left it. Nobody wanted the battle saddle either, so we left that too. I stuck the radio under the saddle of my bags. The song came to an end, and someone with her voice permanently set to 'loud' came on.
"Woah! Did you see that? Did you see that?"
"Cats and kittens, I don't care if it's raining balefire where you are, stick your head out that window and get a load of the mushroom cloud over Manechester! There cannot be much left of the Majesty after that! And I think. I think. I have an idea who did it." I looked at House, then Stars, then back around at the radio. "Remember the little saint from the Stable that sprung those ponies from the Wanderers near Colton earlier today?"
"Well! Some of my buddies in the Steel Rangers spotted her making her way to Manechester about two hours ago. Coincidence? I don't think so!" Wow, this bitch is loud. I was wondering if I was actually hearing her from where she was sitting rather than through the radio. "Cats and kittens, I think Mareseyside and Greater Manechester may just have its very own hero of the wastes! Call it premature if you like, but Stable Dweller - if you're out there - I have faith in you. This is Tribute and you're listening to 91.1, Radio Free Mareseyside, I'd tell you not to go anywhere, but who's honestly going to listen to that Enclave crap anyway?" When the fanfare of the next song started up, I stopped suppressing my laughter and fell forward, giggling uncontrollably.
"What's so funny?"
I put a hoof to my face to put a lid on it. This worked for all of three seconds, and I broke down again. On the next attempt I was able to form a sentence. "Okay, okay... I just... You guys up here are unbelievable. Up until, what, ten hours ago, I'd never seen the sky before, and since then I've done nothing but pursue my own whimsy, and now some bitch on the radio is hailing me as the messiah. I..." A chuckle slipped through. "It's too much."
"You destroyed an Enclave Thunderhead..."
"Out of sheer impulse, yes. I mean, it wasn't hard. They're so bad at what they do that it's almost as funny as how big a deal it seems to be. I'm supposed to be the naive one, and it's like nobody up here has thought of using a disguise before! I mean, that's the second time today I've infiltrated a group of baby-eating, moustache-twirling bad guys and they haven't figured it out until they're eating shrapnel! If you Steel Rabies weren't so up on your high horses..."
"... you'd get a lot more done."
Stars glared at me, and then at House. "And what's your story?"
"I'm just glad she's not aiming at me."
Being halfway up the stairs to the station, I whipped out my gun and pointed it at House. He jumped and made a noise somewhere in the high soprano range. I put my gun away with a cackle. "C'mon, let's go."
"She just pointed a toy at you and you were actually scared."
"It's a long story."
There wasn't much left to scavenge in Piccafilly station. I was still able to recover something processed and sugary from the remains of a newsagent. Stars said something about how stealing from the dead is still stealing. Was she always going to be this whiny? I remembered what happened to the last pony that got whiny around me.
We started heading east along the train tracks. We passed another sign like the one on the bridge - the shield with gryphon bits.
"Hm. We saw that before. Maybe it's some kind of plot token."
"It's a territorial marker for a raider tribe," Stars said.
"Most of the raider groups around here grew up around the grounds of pre-war football clubs. The ones you met earlier were the Colton Wanderers. This sign is for Manechester City. The other main tribes you have to worry about are Manechester United, out in Troughord, a little west of Manechester..."
"Because that's not confusing."
"... and Liverpole FC and Ewerton over in Liverpole, on the coast."
House frowned. "I thought raiders were all the same."
"Maybe they are in Equestria, but that's definitely not the case here. They may be equally brutal, but they're far more brutal to each other than anyone else. If you wander into the wrong place around here you might find yourself in an arena for their next 'match', but if you're wearing the wrong colours, well..."
"They sound like a fun bunch. I wonder if they do tours."
She sighed. "Just keep your head down until we get out of the city. We'll probably lose the RFM signal at some point, and the City raiders usually don't go much further than that." Great. Shooting Stars whines and dispenses exposition.
We gave the City stadium a wide berth, since I guess neither Full House nor Shooting Stars were anywhere near as comfortable as I was with throwing on raider armour and waltzing through incognito, and carried on out of Manechester. The RFM signal started dying when we reached the suburbs, and I turned the radio off to save battery. By now the sun was gone, and we were putting a safe distance between us and the city before finding shelter. Stars led, lighting the way with her horn. It's like we were starting some kind of racial diversity mural! We just needed a ghoul and a zebra to finish it off.
Am I really going to have to get into the droll details of setting up camp in a cave for the night? I mean, we boarded it up for safety, we lit a fire, we ate, I made some jokes that they didn't find funny, they went to sleep, I drew on their faces with the ash from the fire, then I went to sleep, they woke up, they still didn't find it funny, and then we got going. I mean, where do people get the idea that every part of an adventure is exciting and interesting, or at least important for later? There's actually a lot of walking and not doing anything and looking after mundane needs and not talking to each other because forced conversation is awkward and you don't have anything in common and if I was going to get into it it would just be really repetitive, y'know?
At some point I was just rescanning the airwaves for signals every ten minutes, but all I was picking up was the shitty Enclave signal, and eventually Stars took the radio off me and shouted at me for wasting battery before stuffing it at the bottom of my bag. Stupid unicorns.
The next day was clearer and the ground had dried up a bit, and Stars wanted to make the best of it, so she was practically power walking. I ended up lagging behind a couple of times, because fuck, this whole walking long distances thing is new to me. I got really frustrated at how I was getting cramps from walking. I wanted to go get some clouds and drift on those to spare my legs, but they were too high to reach, because of my stupid fucking weak wings, and... shit, now I'm whining. Who wants to read a few pages of me angsting about being physically unfit because of spending my whole life in a bunker? Fucking nobody! Oh hey, now I'm whining about whining. Let's see how meta we can make this! Isn't it fucking stupid that I'm going so far off the actual story to complain about things that I'm now whining about me whining about whining? Sure is a lot of whining in the wasteland.
The Preak district was pretty, I guess. I was too busy being in pain and exhausted and contemplating if I could blow Stars' head off from this distance to really pay much attention. She'd occasionally stop and point out something from the top of a hill, which mercifully gave me some time to catch up, because yeasty cunt-froth on a sandwich, I do not like hills. (Actually now that I think about it, I'll stick to concise profanity. The long ones bog down my sentence flow.) Apparently the megaspells didn't fall here, and the only contamination is secondary fallout from rain. Looked just as barren and lifeless as the rest of the wasteland to me, but there are crops of surviving forest somewhere in the Preak District, she said. I didn't really care.
I had to wonder how something that stuck out as much as a Steel Rangers Paladin could get lost up here. Even the time I fell so far behind that I didn't actually have a choice but to start flying or risk losing them, I could still see them two hills away. And their predominant colours were grey, black and brown, how hard could it be to see a walking tin can?
We stopped for a break at an old picnic site. There were skeletons and the remains of their last picnic lying around. Stars picked up a few foal's toys and said something mopey and poetic about life and death and war and childhood and shit. House had a stoic non-reaction, and I looked up from rummaging in a bin to say "What was that?" Prissy Whine grumbled and went off to make a grave out of toys or something.
I finished most of what was left of my food and water, and an unopened Sparkle Cola that I found there. I contemplated drinking my RadAway. When I thought about it, a cloud passed over the sun, like the atmosphere was saying to me, 'if you even think about it, I will shit in your cornflakes'. I gulped and put it back in my bag.
From where we were we could see the tower in Manechester, and the dissipating wreckage of the Majesty. We were far enough away that the tower was just a pinprick on the horizon, but the sky was clearing up very well. On the other side of the hill, there were just rolling moors into forever, save for a pillar of black smoke coming from beyond the next row of hills.
Stars grimaced. "Showffield."
"Looks fucking toxic."
"It is. Slavers got the old steel works there running again, and they keep it running on slave power. Between the industrial pollution and the radiation, it's a miracle anything's alive down there. Ponies that go in don't normally come out, but when they do, they're nearly always horribly disfigured with lesions and rashes, and usually on the brink of death."
"Like Fillydelphia then," House added. "Old industrial town run by slavers."
"The whole steel industry's just gone to hell. Say, we were going in that general direction, weren't we?"
"Uh, yes, Comet's last transmission was in the hills about six miles west-northwest of Showffield..." She gazed at the horizon and grimaced. I shrugged, finished the rest of this tinned crap and started walking.
The walk after the break was no less gruelling than that before, only this time Stars wasn't so infuriatingly enamoured with all the nature shit we were passing. Most of it was just as poisoned as everything else, so I don't know what there was to make a fuss over. We passed a lake that looked so bad, I took a RadSafe before we went anywhere near it. After another hour and a bit, we crested the hill overlooking Showffield. The place was a mess of smog, with the only thing punching through it being some faint orange glow. Probably open furnaces. There was a second hill just before it. It was bare.
Stars' pace quickened. It took us another half an hour to reach the lower hill, and she was going fast enough that even House was getting left behind. Being a mostly downhill journey, I was able to keep up by gliding every now and then.
"This is the site... this is the site," she muttered. "Comet?"
House was panting when he caught up. "There's nobody here. You're just going to attract attention."
"That's what I'm trying to do, get Comet's attention!"
He grabbed her by the shoulders. "Deep breaths. C'mon. Get a grip."
She did as instructed, and when she was ready, she nodded, and started investigating the scene. I just rolled over and sprawled on the grass for a rest. One of my bags opened and spilled its contents everywhere. I cursed and got to clearing it up while Prissy Whine threw a wobbly. "There's... there's some tracks. I can't make out the hoofprints, but there's a couple of gouges..."
"Spoilers, they go to Showffield."
"You weren't even looking at them, how did you..."
"I knew we were going there since we saw the smoke. The universe draws me towards dramatic repulsive scenery." I stood up and fastened my bags, and started trotting down the hill. "Now c'mon. Last one to get face cancer's a rotten egg!"
Level up! Fuck. They're still here. I wonder if they actually do anything New perk: Pack Horse
You can carry an additional 50lbs of equipment. Yeah, big fuckin' use this is after the hike over the Preak district!
The Wasteland Steel Industry Has A Horrible Reputation
Wow, we sure had a lot of name drops in the last chapter, didn't we? Queen May XII, Warreington, Radio Free Mareseyside, Tribute, Liverpole, Showffield, Comet... It's almost like the cosmic level designer had way too many ideas and is now realising that there isn't enough time in my short little story to fit them in, so now you get them all dumped on you at the same time, and then ten or twenty thousand words from now I can point back here and go "hah! Foreshadowing! See?"
To describe Showffield in a word, it would be shitty. The smoke from the industry blacked out the sky into permanent night, so the lighting was shitty. It filled the air with irritant particles, so the air was shitty. I ended up cutting a strip off one foreleg of my jumpsuit to make a mask, so now my jumpsuit was shitty too. (Shooting Stars used her blanket, and Full House had an actual scarf. Stupid prepared bastards.) We passed a lot of what used to be golf clubs and parks, so our cover was shitty. Comet's trail went cold as soon as we hit roads, so Stars' mood was shitty. And don't get me started on the ponies there.
The megaspells sure did a number on this place, because I don't remember passing a single intact building on our way in. The streets were criss-crossed with shoddy edifices built from scrap, but nothing currently inhabited, until we got to the wall. It figures that a slaver town would build a great big fucking wall to stop their slaves getting away. It was, however, just as shitty as everything else. I went up to one of the panels and wedged a hoof behind the corner. It came away with next to no effort, and soon broke off completely, it was so rusty. I pulled out my gun. House came over and pushed it down before I could pump it.
Stars frowned and tilted her head. "I still don't get what's with you and that toy."
"The darts explode. Watch!" I went to try again, and House grabbed the gun off me.
"Not now! You'll give us away!"
"Sheesh, fine." I snatched it back off him and holstered it. "Maybe you guys are learning something about subterfuge."
Stars came over to the bit of the wall I peeled off and peeked inside. She looked around for a second, then backed off. "Alright. Don't go anywhere..." She lowered her head, and then looked like she was constipated. Look, I know everything here is shitty, but do you really need to add to it? Before I could articulate that quip, stuff happened. A disorienting flash of light filled my eyes, and then I was somewhere else. The direction and colour of light had changed - instead of dim white daylight from around the edges of the smoke, there was a dim orange ambient glow. We were behind some barrels in an alley between two shitty shacks. House looked just as stunned as I was, but Stars was already surveying the scene.
I found the hole in the outer wall - the one fleck of white in the otherwise omnipresent dystopia brown. I clicked then that Stars had teleported us through the wall. "Hey, why did you make us hike when you could ha-" House jumped on me to muffle my shouting. Stars ducked. Plodding, menacing thumps rose from the industrial din in the background. They stopped, and something sniffed the air.
"Wossat?" Whatever it was, it had a voice like a truck engine. It was about as smart as one too, since it just walked away after a couple of seconds of drooling vacantly.
House let me go. Stars peeked around the side of the barrels again. When she was satisfied that it had gone, she turned back to me. "It would have exhausted me. The energy required for a teleportation spell is a function of distance and familia-"
"Yeah, okay, I get it, you suck. Good answer." She thumped me in the ribs and went back to checking out the scene.
It didn't sound like anyone else was coming, so we darted to the next cover, a wedge of railings and upturned concrete by the edge of the crater. Oh, did I miss the crater? Well actually I'm only just getting to the crater now. At the middle of the road, the ground just stopped, and beyond was sheer drop. I don't know if it was made by balefire or just excavated after the war (probably started by the former and finished by the latter), but the centre of town was entirely within the crater. The rim still had streets, the remains of buildings, and scrap to bridge gaps, and was being patrolled by what might as well have been tanks on two legs. They drooled, they had paired, curved horns on their heads, and they all carried pole implements big enough to comfortably play golf with an entire pony. Minotaurs, House said. He saw me reaching for my gun and stopped me before I even touched it.
In the crater was the entire industry of Showffield. Fragile-looking catwalks perched over bubbling vats of molten metal, casting a glow all the way up and all the way down. Entire buildings had been taken, probably from all over the city, and either dropped wholesale or reassembled brick by brick in the hole. Metallic impacts and mechanical roars echoed from the crater. It hurt to look over the edge, since all of the fumes were concentrated into a single column. Between the heat and the smoke, it was impossible to judge how far down it went, and even made judging the width a tough task - I couldn't properly see the other side, so ballparking from the curvature of the rim, I'd say the pit occupied the entirety of the former city centre.
"So. Plan?" The improvised mask concealed my glee at not being the one that blundered in underprepared.
Stars thought for a second, then turned to me. "You've got the goggles and keep bragging about how good at infiltration you are, why don't you go first?" I slumped. I wasn't sure how to feel about this. "If you get caught out, just glide over a crucible and the updraft should carry you all the way to the top. Even if you do suck at flying." I could tell she had a shit-eating smug grin under that mask. I wanted to blow her face off there and then, but I was close enough that I'd probably blow my own face off too.
I sighed, stashed my glasses, and pulled the goggles off my forehead. "Fine, I have to do everything myself..."
While the back of the nearest minotaur was turned, I dashed for the next alleyway and started checking doors. The first one was an ashy mess of a corner shop with skeletons scattered around. I found some packaged food, but in this place, I didn't trust it. While I was inside, the same minotaur had gone back across the alley, allowing me to skip across a makeshift bridge to the next one. I nearly slipped crossing it. Trust these guys to somehow make a steel mill less safe.
This alley was largely blocked up with rubble, so I climbed up it to crawl through a smashed first-floor window. I was in a stained bathroom. A skeleton was lying next to the toilet. What a way to go - on the can when the megaspells fell. He must have been taking one hell of a shit. I went downstairs. The floor was mostly caved in, with rotted planks and ruined furniture dumped on the basement. There were shelves full of non-perishables and other supplies. The back wall had been eroded off, by time or labour, and I had a clear view through to the smoke and crucibles. I dropped in to the worst balefire shelter ever and tested the flashlight. Still worked perfectly. I pocketed it and the spare batteries, and poked my head through the back wall. Storm drains and sewers criss-crossed the rock face, providing a framework to hang these ridiculously unstable catwalks from. I suspected they doubled as quarters for the slaves. There was a platform just below the non-wall that looked simple enough to drop down to. I turned back and flew upstairs.
Whoa, did I just fly? It wasn't very far, and I had some rubble to climb on to help me, but holy shit, I flew. Chuffed at my unintentional accomplishment, I went to a bedroom window and looked out. House and Stars were still hiding behind the same wrecked street utilities. I got the torch out and shone it directly at them. House must have seen it first, because he pointed, and then they started moving when the minotaur's back was turned. I returned to the bathroom to wait for them. They both looked queasy climbing over the toilet. I was just like, big deal, it's a dead guy and his hundred-year-old dump that's long since decayed into nothing.
We went downstairs to the missing wall, and one by one, dropped to the level below. At this edge, it was so dark that I didn't worry about the possibility of being seen. A foreman was silhouetted against orange-lit smoke about fifty feet down a catwalk. He looked like a pony with breathing apparatus, but it might have just been an equiomorphic gas mask. The noise was enough here that we could talk at a conversational volume and barely hear each other. We moved along the rim to a junction between some primary drains, cut open by the crater. The drains themselves were caved in, and had some supplies stashed in the short length there was. Some guns, some ammunition, a few bottles of what might as well have been used fryer oil, and some baton-looking things that strapped to the hoof. I pocketed one out of curiosity. Stars was too far into her tunnel vision to lecture me about theft and crap.
We lay down in a gutter to minimise our profile and talk tactics.
"I think I'll see if these guys have any cigarettes."
"Seriously, House? You want to smoke here of all places?"
"It's probably less toxic than whatever else is in the air."
"This is true."
Stars hit the ground with her forehead. "We're getting distracted."
"Alright, alright." I did that thing where you stare into space or look out the corner of your eye when you're thinking. Why do ponies do that? It's weird. "If I was a Speed Radiator in a steel mill..."
Stars sighed. "Steel Ranger..."
"Stars, don't be ridiculous, this is obviously a steel mill. Now where was I... Dammit, you've gone and derailed my train of thought. Good job. Now I'm thinking about wasteland economics." She slumped her head on her forelegs. "It's a valid question! How is an operation like this supposed to be profitable? Slaves don't need wages but they still need feeding, and then you have the capital investment of capturing them in the first place, and while you can recoup some of the losses from selling anything you find on them, they still have to provide a return on investment through labour. Then there's the fact that you can't use exclusively slaves, and presumably the foremen and guards and management have to be paid. And then there's the fact that you need a market for your product. I mean, I could be wrong, because I've only been up here for two days, but I don't think there's much of a market in the wasteland for raw steel. Unless that's where all this power armour is coming from. Say, are you Stone Radishes customers of these guys?"
Stars glared at me, then gagged me with my mask.
"More important to ask would be what would they do with a Steel Ranger," House said. "If you guys are the knights in shining armour you say you are around here, if they caught one of you they might have it in for you."
"That's what I'm afraid of..." I could hear the shake in her voice. "Come on. Let's find a way to go deeper." I'd just finished pulling cloth out of my mouth when she stuffed it back in. I must be getting predictable.
We didn't see a way down from our side of this level. There was probably some way down on the other side of this catwalk, but House and Stars didn't want to risk raising an alarm by dealing with the foreman. I didn't want to risk losing a dart in molten steel, so I agreed with them. After a couple of minutes of useless searching (House didn't find any cigarettes either), the foreman started walking towards us. We hid. I took aim, House took a prone version of his stance, and Stars... y'know, preparing to do magic doesn't look very interesting. I can only guess that's what she does, because there were a load of guns around she could have picked up, but no, she just sat in cover and squinted at the guy. Anyway, the foreman stopped next to the edge looked over the side. We waited. Stars pulled my hoof away from the trigger. Twice.
A cable pulled taut, bringing it into our view. The shimmer of heat made it impossible to tell what way it was moving, if at all. A hook came into view from the end of the cable, followed by four other cables, branching out in all directions. Then there was a large heap of shiny blocks, reflecting the orange glare of the crucibles below. The movement shuddered, and the steel ingots lowered a foot. The foreman jumped back in alarm when it tilted towards him. Two blocks fell off and rattled on the catwalk. The platform stabilised, and continued rising. The foreman kicked the ingots off the catwalk, and presumably on to the heads of the poor bastards who let it slip. There's another thing for the economics of the operation to consider! Counter-productive brutality! Those slaves are just going to end up dropping that platform, the job doesn't get done, and then they'll probably all get whipped until they can't work for the rest of the day.
The ingots must have missed, because they didn't drop it, the foreman went back to his station in the middle of the catwalk, and the platform came back into view a minute later, sans ingots. I broke cover and jumped on it, and reluctantly, the others followed. With the extra weight, it started dropping more quickly. Stars threw the spare length of her blanket over me.
"Oh... oh, I didn't know you felt like that about me..."
"I'm trying to hide your great big orange ass, you idiot, now get your head down."
"Did you just call me fat? You just called me fat! What the hell, Stars?"
She sat on her haunches and looked up at the sky. "Sun and moon give me the strength to refrain from casting this wretch into the fiery pit here and now..."
"What was that you called me there? Hey!" Before I could badger her further, House shoved himself between us.
We rode the lift most of the way down. The air didn't really change in quality. Even if we were below some of the more noxious crucibles and furnaces, we were further from (comparatively) fresh air. To make things worse, the deeper we went, the hotter it got. I was already sweating profusely, and House was probably baking in that long coat. The maze of gangways, platforms, suspension lines and catwalks only got more convoluted with depth. Occasionally a blue crackle would cut through the orange haze, inevitably followed by a scream. A volt whip, House said. They use them in Fillydelphia too. One of them was followed by a particularly guttural howl, and a metallic snap. A bleeding pony fell past us, limbs waving limply. I couldn't even tell if it was a mare or stallion before it simply wasn't - there was a wet slap and a shriek when it hit molten steel. The body burned away in seconds. Stars had to step back on the plate and cover her mouth. Maybe I overestimated the price of slaves? They seem pretty replaceable.
We held on until we could see the bottom and disembarked on the layer above, in an old sewer maintenance room sliced open by the crater. Stars jumped off first and ran into a corner. House ran after her, and I peered around out of curiosity. She heaved a few times, then yanked the cloth off her face and ejected her breakfast. House looked away, then at me, and waved a hoof at me with a glare. Maybe he was telling me to keep watch. Fuck that, this is way more interesting. Stars panted a couple more times before wiping her face and pulling the cloth back. House gave her some water, which she gulped down with gusto. She sat for minute while she recovered. "I do not want to stay here any longer than I have to," she said, shaking her head, and she got up.
We got lucky with the timing. We retreated down a low tunnel, shoddily carved out of the original sewer, and on behind some piles of steel. A few seconds later, a guard passed where we were, and stood where we disembarked, overlooking the loading of the next platform. It's possible some of the slaves saw us and just didn't care. We moved on quickly.
The lowest level opened out, with a lot of (probably unsound) overhang. There were much wider tunnels, probably excavated by slave labour. Torches lit part of the way, and then they just stopped. A cart full of coal sat at the mouths of each of these caves. The tracks continued to the floor of the pit, leading to a maze of ramps and winches and miserable malnourished ponies, but they never went into the caves. There was a skip nearby. A guard dragged a limp slave to it, then lifted him on her shoulders and tossed him in. There was a dull thump, but no pound of empty metal. I guessed there more bodies in there.
A group of slaves started heading our way. We hid behind the cart first, then realisation dawned that they were probably looking for the cart, so we ran for the cave. Stars led, horn lit and pointed to the ground. We hurried past the limit of the torches, and then slowed up. The whirrs and clanks of heavy industry reduced to echoes. Stars yelped as she hit a wall. She brightened her light, and we found that the cave turned. She hit me when I chuckled. Anger issues, girl!
We lost sight of the central pit, and stopped running. I took out the flashlight and started pointing it at stuff.
"The heck is this for?" House panted in a particularly accented moment.
"It looks like a mine... there's no tracks though. Maybe they just have ponies carry the coal..." I could hear the whimper in Stars' voice.
While they stated the obvious at each other for a few minutes, I strayed further into the probably-mine. I wasn't sure where I was going with it, but it was better than listening to the pair of them. I stopped when I heard something that wasn't annoying companions. I flicked the torch around, looking for it. It sounded like dull padding in a rapid rhythm. It was getting louder, so I stepped back and to the side. I turned the torch off and stashed it. Then I got a whiff of... was that wet dog?
The padding reached a crescendo, and I saw Stars' light glint in the eyes of something. Before I could react it had skidded past me, stopped and then turned back to direct its attention at me. Yep, this was definitely the source of the smell. I backed up to the wall, and it started sniffing me profusely. A wet nose got uncomfortably close to my chest and face. Then, it licked me. It was absolutely gross. Could have been wetter, but still smelled absolutely vile. The others must have heard this, because the light got brighter. When it hit the right angle, it lit up a pair of big blue eyes, looking right at me. They blinked. I realised that the rest of this thing was black, because I still couldn't pick out an outline. I caught a twitch somewhere above and behind the eyes - an ear perhaps? It was big and pointy, and it kept flicking between sideways and upright. I smacked myself when I put the pieces together.
"Oh hello!" I reached out and rubbed its nose. It blinked, and I could hear something brushing the dirt. "You are just adorable! Who are you?"
"Snowy!" I jumped when he spoke.
"You can talk?"
"Yeah-yeah! All the coal puppies can talks. Snowy real good at talking!"
"Yes you are! Yes you are!" I scratched him under the chin. His tongue hung out, and I heard thumping, which I can only guess was his leg hitting the ground repeatedly.
"Coal puppies?" Stars tilted her head.
"Maybe related to hellhounds? I don't know. Did you have diamond dogs here before the war?"
"I don't think so..." While they continued to debate the obvious, Snowy rolled over, and I started scratching his belly. He was easily big enough for me to use both hooves with loads of room.
"Snowy don't know. One day ponies dig hole. Then we make deal! Coal puppies dig lotsa coal, and give it to the ponies, and the ponies give us food!" That explains it! That's quite ingenious actually, one half of the slave's capture cost is recouped from sale of possessions, then the other is made up for in feeding contract workers.
I pouted and thought. Then I hopped up on Snowy's belly and started scratching under his chin again. "Say. Might Snowy have seen a pony in big metal armour somewhere around?"
He rolled back on to his front, throwing me across the cave. I threw out my wings in time to land mostly upright. "Yeah-yeah! Snowy see tin can pony come into caves. He no look too good. Then other ponies find him and bring him back, so it okay!" Stars stifled a squeal by throwing her hooves to her mouth. "They go upstairs to boss pony's house. Snowy no go up there because it bright and hot."
Stars huffed and heaved, but not like she was about to blow chunks. More the kind of, dripping absolute white-hot fury kind of heaving. "Snowy. Thank you."
"It Snowy's pleasure!" The big goofy mutt tilted his head, and I went back to rub his chest. It was so incredibly fluffy, like, right up there with clouds kind of fluffy. He made a happy noise and wagged his tail some more. A faint ringing echoed from the cave mouth. The ringing quickly spread, coming from points at regular intervals on the ceiling of the caves. There must have been bells on a chain, too dark to see. Snowy's face lit up. "Din-dins!" I took that as my cue to get out of the way before he bounded past us. House was less lucky, and he got bowled over. He was no worse for wear though. He cursed under his breath as he replaced his hat. I heard rumbling in the distance. Stars was already making a beeline for the cave mouth. House and I hurried after her, before we became din-dins too.
Now, see, this is what I mean about high-and-mighty types like Steel Rangers being too dumb for their own good. Stars just walked out of the cave and started looking for a way up without even attempting to be discreet. Since cover was just out of the question at this point, we tagged along with her. A pile of black and mottled grey fur was falling over itself at the skip. One of the carts of coal was just starting its gruelling ascent to the furnaces. Stars marched right up to one of the hapless slaves and hoisted her up by the collar. She barked something at her, and she pointed a quivering hoof upwards. A guard was heading for them. House reared up and flung a card at him in the same motion. He had another one sailing by the time the first one was embedded in the side of his head. The second one slashed his visor, and probably his eyes. Stars let the slave down gently.
She flashed her horn, popped out of existence, and reappeared on the far side of the cart. I looked at House, we shrugged, and vaulted it to follow her up the tracks. They spiralled in a sadistically steep fashion. I was wearing myself out just walking up them, and those poor bastards have to push a coal cart up here. They levelled out on a platform adjoining a drain with furnaces rebuilt inside. A guard spotted her. She'd levitated the volt whip from him as soon as he faced her, and had him on the floor with two smacks around the head with the handle. The string of crackling blue vanished. Unicorns OP, holy shit.
With the same stamina she'd walked the hills with, she was ascending staircases and ladders so fast that we lost sight of her. We climbed two more levels, on the first one finding two unconscious guards and lots of trembling slaves, and on the second... well. There was a prefab building set in the rock face above us, and from the outer wall there hung a pair of broken chains. Immediately below were the other halves of the chains, attached to shackles on a travesty of a pony. You could barely tell that he was originally white. His face and silver fringe were smeared brown, the darkest around the remains of his broken horn. He was smeared with black dust and splatters of red, fresh blood dribbling from his mouth and dried in many other places. Fur had fallen off some places, leaving weeping sores. His front was greyed from exposure to the smoke, and his forelegs hung behind him at a clearly incorrect angle, like they were only hanging on with sticky tape. Shooting Stars was standing over him, propping up his head.
"Comet! Comet, say something!" I moved closer. House stood behind me.
"Stars... I knew you'd come..." It was like thinking you could hear words from a rolling bucket of gravel. Stars sniffed and lowered her head, touching foreheads with him. She waved her horn at nothing. She had a grimace from ear to ear.
"We're gonna get you out of here, okay? You're gonna be okay, just hang in there!"
Comet attempted a chuckle. His teeth were bloodied, and it came out as more of a cough. "I think I've done enough hanging for one day." I can tell who got all the sense of humour genes in this family.
"No! Stay with me!" Stars dragged me over by the bags and took my last water. Bitch.
"Don't. Water is for the living." Stars growled, and shoved the bottle at his lips anyway. When she took it away, he coughed and spluttered, and most of it came right back out, stained red. "Stars..."
"Listen." She gave a long, wet sniff. "Forgive these souls. They know no better." Comet coughed. Stars might have said something else, but she trailed off. She held his head close and did the forehead-touch-not-quite-cross-horns thing again. Comet smiled, then his head rolled back, and he breathed no more.
"How is he?" House whispered back to me.
"Doing the fucking can-can, what do you think?" He rolled his eyes and resumed his watch. I was amazed we hadn't been bothered yet.
Heavy breathing drew my attention back to Stars. Her whole stance heaved. I lowered my head to try and see her face. She must have seen me out of the corner of her eye, because her head snapped up at me. Her horn sparked and crackled. I reached for my gun with a brow raised in query.
Level up! Fucking really? Way to break the mood, story New perk: Dog Lover
Canine wild animals will not attack you. Occasionally, objects you throw will be returned by one.
I should warn you now. What follows is not for the faint of heart. It is ugly, cruel, disgusting, relentless, utterly gratuitous, and completely unsuitable for anyone. I must now unleash upon you a complicated action scene forced into linear prose, and pray that I may be forgiven for my linguistic sins.
Something just snapped in Shooting Stars. She ran to the edge of the roof we were on and grabbed the nearest crucible. I don't know if unicorns can feel things they're holding with magic, but even if they can, she was probably past caring by now. She growled with all the throat and gravel of a bear as she tipped it. Molten steel cascaded down the labyrinth of scaffolds and catwalks, incinerating guards and slaves alike. War were declared.
I huffed and left my gun where it was. If she was going to throw liquid metal around like that, then I was never going to get my darts back. Why can't you be a team player, Stars? Why? Instead, I got out that baton that I'd plundered earlier. I strapped it on and hit a button. Parts of it lit up blue. Ooh, sci-fi. Since it was meant to be a whip, I sat back and flicked my hoof out like I was giving a high-five. A line of electric-blue glow followed the momentum of my hoof, and static sparked along its length. As if wound around a spring, it reeled back into the baton and vanished. I tried it again and got the same result. I nodded, and got the hell out of Stars' way.
At this point Full House was just looking for a way up, and I don't blame him. Stars tipped a second crucible, this time with a lot of the fluid landing in a third one below it. The excess caused it to tip, and that which missed melted the hinges, causing it fall entirely. I mean, I know I shouldn't have high hopes for construction integrity in a shoddy operation like this, but that's just an accident waiting to happen. Towers of rickety scaffolding supporting fragile structures on which to mount crucibles of metal at thousands of degrees, all stacked vertically. I talk a lot about how the wasteland seems to erode brain cells, but this is just ridiculous. Are they that desperate to keep the slaves from getting away that they have to stick them all in a giant hole and compromise the structural stability of their industry? Why not bomb collars? Mounted turrets? Hell, the wall should be enough! They're making all this steel, they should have plenty left over for making a sturdy wall! I figured I had to have a talk with the manager of this place.
The lash of a whip flew in Stars direction. She reared back. It didn't make impact, but it was enough to startle her. A second later, the owner of the whip appeared over the edge of the roof, lifted in Stars' magic grip. The whip retracted into its baton. The guard's ears flattened. Then, he flew high into the air. His scream left hearing range, then returned, followed by a crunch. I looked over to see his broken body on a cart track a few levels below. The startle had caused some slaves to let go of a cart full of coal, and two of them were crushed as it rolled back. A burst of purple light drew my attention back to Stars. Or, where she had been. I couldn't see where she'd gone, but presumably it was to go and stretch the definition of 'self-defence'.
A thunderous crunch of splitting concrete behind me made me jump. House, who was trying to scale the rock face Comet had been hanging from, fell back. One of the minotaur guards had been roused, and decided to join us. He was hunched over on one knee in a small crater, dug by his impact. The head of an improvised sledgehammer - a lamppost and a fire hydrant - split the concrete a couple of feet away. We backed on to the corrugated iron part of the roof. Behind us was a sheer drop to the bottom of the pit, all congealing steel and chaos.
I flicked out my wings and jumped away. "Well, it was nice knowing you!" House growled and grabbed my tail before I could get away. He pulled me back to the roof, and I landed flat on my back. One of my bags came undone and emptied its contents on deck. "Now look what you made me do! Dick..." I rolled to the side to stop the stuff sliding into oblivion and started packing it. House stood behind me, presumably because then I'd get mashed with the street sweeper first. What happened to saving my life to repay his debt? I rescued everything except a few caps (note to self: get bag for caps), which were lost to the madness below (does this make the cap go up in value? Who's backing the cap as a currency? Maybe it's just a consensus currency) and a grenade. I caught the grenade in my teeth a split-second before I sidestepped the hammer coming from overhead. It bent the metal, and the lever effect was enough to launch House a foot in the air.
While I was fastening my bags again (stupid fucking asscock shitty belts), House reared up and sent one, two, three, four, five cards at the minotaur. I guessed the fumes were throwing his aim off. The first glanced the shaft of the hammer and just grazed his side. The second and third stuck in his belly, the fourth went over his head and continued into fucking orbit, and the fifth stuck in his cheek. He lifted the hammer back over his shoulder and picked the cards out, one by one. He laughed (a sound so deep and hearty it put that wannabe cowboy in Colton to shame), and tossed them away. He reared the hammer back like a golf club. Two more cards embedded themselves in his shoulder and chest, and he ignored them. Then, the hammer swung around. I jumped with plenty of time (if his attack was any more telegraphed I'd have gotten a letter 3-5 working days in advance), and the hydrant cracked the rock face next to us. House spun another card, and it grazed his knuckle.
I growled in frustration, which reminded me of the grenade in my teeth. I dropped next to House and stopped him wasting more cards. I spat out the grenade, yanked the cards out of one of his bracers, and wedged the grenade in it by the pin. He looked at it, then at me with a quirked brow. I nodded with a pout. The minotaur had pulled the hammer back for another swing. House threw.
His throw was more of a push at nothing because of how the grenade was stuck in, but it did the trick. The pin stayed wedged in the bracer, while the bulb lit up red and shot across the gap between us and the minotaur. It hit him square in the stomach and penetrated about two inches. He hunched forward and huffed. He dropped his hammer behind him in his stun. He quickly recovered, and House and I ducked.
Boom. Minotaur guts rained. When the shower of sizzled gore stopped, I risked a look up. A pair of legs sat by the wall. The upper half of the ex-minotaur joined us a few seconds later, when it bounced on the iron sheet (levering House into the air again, this time with me) and then off the edge. I jigged in place and looked over the edge to watch it fall. House sighed, muttered something under his breath, and wiped the bloody mess from his hat.
There was no way up from where we were, House didn't trust me to carry him over a crucible and ride the updraft away, and every time I tried to leave he grabbed me back, so we had no other option but to descend and look for another way up. The tracks were considerably wobblier than they had been on the way up. Gaps in the platforms and blobs of hot steel made for a treacherous descent. We saw evidence of Stars' rampage on the furnace level. One of them had been completely blocked up with guards, with a few legs and tails sticking out of the door. A couple of slaves that had gotten in her way lay motionless around the deck. A second furnace had been ripped clean from the wall and used to tear down more of the scaffolds. The one we'd descended on gave way as we went to go further, stranding us by the furnaces. For a breather, we sat back and tried to find Stars amid the chaos. House couldn't look at the bottom without the smoke blinding him, so he scanned the cut-open drains above us. With my goggles, I could get a look at the mayhem directly.
Layers of molten and drying steel carpeted the dirt. Much of it was still glowing red and orange, and all of it was spewing smoke. Some ponies had been caught in the steel flow but hadn't had the good fortune to burn away instantly. The metal must have been barely liquid by then, or just simply too shallow to swallow them up, so it hardened around them. They screamed and flailed, but those still free were too preoccupied to put them down. A couple of coal puppies lurked at the edge of their caves, unsure whether to try and grab a free meal or just run.
House yanked me back from the edge, and a broken catwalk fell where I was standing. Miraculously, it held, becoming a ramp to somewhere, obscured by smoke. A guard slid down the guard rail and rolled off the side.
I sat and frowned. "So now you're just going to fuck off?"
He stepped around me and started up the catwalk. "Already gone." I grumbled and followed. He ran as best he could with the incline, and I just ambled at my comfort. I had a safety net, I wasn't worried. Why was I even walking up this thing? I could just bail now.
The catwalk creaked, with House nearly at the other side. It bent in the middle, and became too steep for grip. I was just past the bend point, so I just fell back on my haunches. House scrabbled at the surface, then started sliding back down. The catwalk bent again, this time lifting a few yards into the air. There was no way that was gravity. I clutched the railing. House bounced around for a second before catching on and doing the same. The catwalk rose and span, until it hung vertically so far above the madness below that it all blurred into a smoking orange glow. Even then, we still weren't out of the hole. I could see the rim, but not beyond. It twisted on its axis to face us toward the nearest wall. Stars stood in a cavity, surrounded by limp bodies, including one minotaur. Her robes and face were stained with red splatters. I waved. She glared, and lowered the catwalk as if to throw it.
"Enough!" I swear, it's like the wasteland has a competitive scene for deep, booming voices. This one echoed all way down the hole. The noises died off. Even the screaming. The catwalk shook up and down until neither of us could hold on. Something immaterial caught us and lifted us level with Stars. The catwalk was tossed aside.
Perched at the edge of a platform above us was what can best be described as a sheer anachronism. A white head with flowing mane and a lit horn poked out of a suit of armour. Not power armour - this was polished, gold-trimmed steel, reflecting the glow of molten iron below with almost mirror-like clarity. It was like he'd fallen right out of a history book. He soon identified himself as the source of the voice. "What three fools dare assault the industry of Cyfeirnod?" The voice actually made me tingle. If he wasn't so obviously running this place I'd happily pay to have him narrate my life.
"Industry of what now?" House muttered.
"Is this the part where you send us to some underground slave death combat arena to fight for our lives?" I called back.
He furrowed his brow. "No. An arena for slaves would be wasteful."
"Ah, I knew there was someone around here with an eye for efficiency!" I lay back in my magical hover and put my hooves behind my head. "You wanna do lunch some time and talk shop? I took an economics class in school, maybe I can give you a couple of pointers on streamlining."
"Atom, will you shut up!" Stars screamed. Cafango...Kafriendship... Caerfilly... I'm just gonna call him Charlie. Charlie okay? Cool. Charlie frowned, and bonked her on the head with nothing. I'm guessing it was just raw magic that he skulled her with because she squeaked and fell over.
"You are not the first to meddle with my affairs in this world, and I am certain that you will not be the last. However, as you may have seen..." He looked to one side and dragged Comet's dead deceased corpse over to wave at us. "... those who cross me do not meet merry ends." He let Comet tumble off the side and into the carnage.
"I know your type," House croaked. He pulled his scarf down to be heard better. He wasn't in any danger of competing with Charlie. "Y'get some vision in your head, and then everything else is secondary." I sighed. Was House really going to try a hero speech? "Bringing order to the wasteland, is it? That's what it always is. Building some brighter future on the backs of a million slaves, or on rivers of blood."
"And I suppose you have a better plan?" House opened his mouth, but then closed it again. "This land is ill, and its medicine bitter. You and the dozens like you are nothing but upset children, refusing the spoon."
"Ooh, he's got you there..." House thumped me.
"Can it, tincan." Not as creative as my facetious nicknames, but it's a start. "If I get rubbed out taking a stain like you with me, then that's a fair deal."
Charlie smirked. "And just what do you plan to do from there? You have no weapons." I took offence at my Nerf gun not being considered a weapon. Maybe I just confused him so much that he decided to pretend I didn't exist.
House smirked. "No-one ever sees it coming." He flung one hoof at Charlie. Nothing happened. Charlie indulged in a delectably deep chuckle, and House's smirk vanished. He looked at his bracer. Empty.
I hit my forehead. "Right! Right, I still have your cards. Try the other one."
House sighed, and flung the other hoof. With Charlie distracted, he indeed didn't see it coming. The card travelled in an arc and embedded itself in the base of his horn. It didn't come clean off, but it was enough to cripple him with pain. The glow vanished, and we dropped. House just stared up at him with a resigned look on his face. I thought, that's not a fun death, is it? Just, flat-faced, 'oh well, good game'. What kind of blaze of glory is that? I grabbed him under the forelegs and stuck my wings out. I nearly dropped him when I caught the rising air, and again, nearly crashed into the wall on the way back up, but with the aid of the updraft, I circled the pit until we were above ground again. Charlie screamed some archaic profanities at us, like cursing us to the nine hells and the infinite realms of oblivion or something like that. House just smirked and saluted. In his blind, frothing rage, Charlie put a foot over the edge, lost his balance, and tumbled off. The illustrious, imperious, ingenious archmage Charles: introduced and then killed within the space of a thousand words. It's a tough ol' wasteland, isn't it?
Once we were over the walls, I started dropping. I looked for a soft spot to crash. I dropped House on the soil strip of a boulevard, then came into land myself. I tripped on the landing and somersaulted twice before rolling up against a dead tree. My bags didn't fall open this time.
House sat up and fixed his hat. "What about Stars? She's still in there!"
"She's fine, she can handle herself..." I rolled the right way up and shook the soot off me.
"She was unconscious."
"I'd be surprised if there was a guard left alive in there. And besides, I saved your life again! You're going nowhere!"
He glared. Then he sighed, and reluctantly nodded. "At least give me the rest of my cards back."
"Oh. Yeah. Those." I flicked open my bag, and pulled them out four at a time. The neat stack had come loose in my bag, and a good number of them were bent. He grumbled, and began the task of tossing away the ones that wouldn't fit in his bracer anymore and slotting in those that did.
The wall exploded. There was no fire, no shrapnel flying around at lethal speeds, just poorly bolted-on panels being thrown aside. A big ball of black fluff skidded to a halt outside the wall, took a second to get its bearings, then spotted us, and started barrelling over. House stepped back so the tree would stop Snowy before he hit him. Snowy hit the brakes, and I started backpedalling. He came to a stop where I had been standing. Three sort-of white things fell off Snowy's back, rolling over his head. The first was a charred and crumpled Comet. The second was Charlie, bleeding from his horn and mouth. The third was Stars, who groaned when she landed.
"I found the pony with the big metal box but then he didn't have it anymore and then I found another pony wearing a big metal box too so I brought both of them because I didn't know which one you wanted and then I found the magic light bulb pony so I brought her too, and..." Snowy took a long gasp for air. "It smells nice up here."
I jumped over the pile to scratch Snowy under the chin. "Who's a good boy! Who is the best boy!" He sat back and wagged his tail, panting happily.
House poked Stars, and she stirred. While she was waking up, he turned his attention to Charlie. He flicked his hoof at his head again, using a card to sever his horn completely. He waited for it to empty of blood, then pocketed it. I tilted my head. Snowy did too, but then he tilted it the other way and started scratching behind his ear. House looked at the hole in the wall, then back at us. "I'll tell you another time. We need to put some distance between us and this hellhole." Stars was coming to. "Snowy, go home." Snowy just sat and made a single whine. House leaned over and said it again, louder and slower. "Snowy, go home."
"Other coal puppies chased me away. Says they sees me talking you ponies, and now there no ponies left to feed coal puppies."
"Oh." House grimaced.
I bounced in place. "Oh! Can we keep him? Can we can we can we?" My bouncing got Snowy excited too. He started running in circles, and then fell over because he's stupid.
House ignored me, because Stars sat up, rubbing her head. "Ow... What... what happened?"
"Where do I start?" She looked around. She saw Snowy leaning over to sniff at Comet.
"No, don't eat him!" Snowy's ears drooped and he whined. Stars frowned. She dragged Charlie aside with magic. "You can eat him though." Snowy jumped over to him and started picking apart his armour with his teeth. She sighed, and got to her hooves. She stared at Comet's remains. I yawned and looked at my not-PipBuck.
"We shouldn't hang around," House said. "Bury him quick as we can and let's get as far away as we can."
"We could bury him in Snowy's stomach, that's the quickest way I can think of." Stars pulled on my goggles and let them snap back in my face.
She lifted him up and folded him into a curled-up position. "Snowy, c'mere!"
"That means we're keeping him or you're going with my idea, so either way, score!" House nudged me and shook his head.
Snowy bounded over, muzzle still bloodied. He sniffed Comet's floating body. "Snowy, I'm going to put Comet here on your back. We're going to go into the hills so we can bury him. I want you to make sure you don't drop him. Do you understand?" Snowy's eyes looked in different directions for a second, then he nodded. Stars hung Comet from his neck and sighed.
"C'mon. Let's go." House led, and Stars followed with her head hanging low. I fluttered on to Snowy's back and scratched him behind the ear. He seemed happy enough to let me ride. I stashed the whip and cracked open a Sparkle Cola.
A new toy, a dog and a free ride! Today is a good day.
Level up! Y'know, I feel good enough about now to just let this pass New perk: Lord Death
You gain a damage bonus against everything, because you like killing everything.
We kept walking until dark, which was about six hours. I was in a substantially better mood for this because I didn't have to walk, and I had a big ball of fur to nap on. I had to keep Snowy from gnawing on Comet every now and then. Then there was that hour or so when they decided Stars needed the rest more than I did and made me walk, but we weren't being force-marched, so it was more bearable. They figured we were far away enough from Showffield to stop and rest. They took Comet and told me to go play with Snowy or something. I guessed they were going to bury him and didn't want me around making jokes. I was fine with this because one, Snowy is a big adorable retarded pile of fluff, and two, nobody laughs at my jokes at funerals, which is really frustrating.
We found another picnic site to stop at and camped under the rain shelter. I would have said something about them making a fire under a wooden shelter, but compared with where we just came from, it was like using water wings in a kiddie pool. Snowy was out like a light. I curled up to sleep on his back. House recommended using our RadAway now. It was only then that I found out it was intravenous, and was like fuck that and drank it. I was thirsty anyway. It actually tasted pleasantly of oranges. Based on how the bag was designed, I had to wonder whether it was actually a drip, or a sachet you punch a hole into to drink.
Stars stared into the fire blankly.
I slumped. "Oh, bugger."
After a second of silence, House indulged me. "What?"
"I just realised. I nicked one of those whips and forgot to use it."
"You say this like it's a bad thing."
"It is! Those things looked fun, and now that we're going home I'll probably forget that I even have it and just let it languish at the bottom of my bag until I forget it's there."
"What a shame." Sarcasm detectors blown, captain. There was another minute of quiet and Stars gazing into the fire. Comet was more lively than she was about now.
"Oh yeah, what was with the horn?"
House stoked the fire and paused. "Alright. I reckon I've been through enough with y'all..." Did he seriously just say 'y'all'? "... to let you in on it." He paused again. I swear, if you figured out a way to cut out the pauses in the dialogue, this story would be a third shorter. "You know how it is in the wasteland. The strong take what they want, and the weak get out their way or get crushed. S'just the way it is. But then, y'get something that changes the game. Just what it was is long story - and I mean a really long story - but something happened in Equestria that made some ponies start trying to change things. Different ponies had different ideas. Some looked into science. Some went around dishing out aid. And a few of us... we take out the trash." He held up Charlie's horn. "One mean bastard at a time."
"A secret society of vigilantes called the Garbagemen. I like it."
"Uhm... no, we're called the Regulators..."
"Eh. 'Regulators' sounds kinda bland and generic. 'Garbagemen' has a bit more flavour to it." House rolled his eyes and stoked the fire again. Nothing happened for a few minutes.
"He... he told me to forgive them." Stars sniffed. "And I didn't. I killed them all. Even the sla-"
"Actually that reminds me of something else that's bugging me about that, the whole thing with the ponies trapped in the burning metal, am I the only one who thinks that was more than a little bit unlikely? I mean, unless there was liquid nitrogen involved, or this was counterfeit 'steel' that was actually just tin, the temperatures involved should have just incinerated them in a flash. I mean, the resultant image of screaming, half-melted ponies being fried alive is pretty metal (pun definitely not intended), but-" I was interrupted by House landing an uppercut on my chin, and I was out like a light.
I woke up the next morning with a headache and my teeth hurting. We were already on the road - I was still riding Snowy's back. I pretended to still be asleep, otherwise they'd probably make me walk or something. I gathered from the conversation that Stars had tried to kill herself in the night. That would be a shame, because I think at that point she had a higher kill count than me. 'Only using violence when forced', my arse.
We'd reached the Manechester side of the Preak District in the night. Somewhere along the line Stars had stopped to clean up. The suicide attempt made a bit more sense considering that. Sleeping with the blood of your enemies caked in your fur is... actually now that I think about it, that's pretty metal too. When this is all over I'm going to start a band. We turn up to gigs in stolen raider armour and play fourteen minute epics about fields of burning monsters being slaughtered by rain made of depleted star metal and ancient knights running steel mills. We just need a name. Thoroughbred D? No, that's dumb. How about... Black Shoggoth! Maybe too obscure a reference.
"Judas Prix!" I shouted upon being returned to reality.
"Atom, get the radio. We're going to try it again."
"You can move stuff with your mind, why did you need to wake me up?"
"I thought it would be rude to go through your bag."
I exaggerated my fatigue with a yawn and an eye-rub. "Could say the same about waking me up." Stars shook her head, and decided not to press me further. I was disappointed. I sat up and pulled out the radio. Static made me wince as I adjusted the tuning and the volume. I found the Enclave signal first. Out of curiosity I held on for part of the Queen's speech.
"... those who would seek to keep our fair land mired in violence and chaos. Do not be fooled; the Steel Rangers' claim to continuity with the institutions of the past is a mere pretension. We would ask that subjects of the crown renounce these false pretenders and their perverse revision of history, and place their faith in the Enclave! We are the seed from which our nation will grow to greatness once again, and on to new heights of grandeur and majesty! We shall..."
"Turn that crap off before I break it."
"Gladly. Funny they should mention 'majesty', I don't think the news has gotten through to Buckingham yet." I twisted the dial until something else came through. Even then, it was still pretty grainy. Judging by the bouncy beat and the exuberant brass, it couldn't be anything other than Radio Free Mareseyside. I left it on.
A minute later, the song came to an end. I didn't turn it up to hear Tribute - she turned herself up. "Woah-ho-ho, there, cats and kittens! Put your seatbelts on, stow those tray tables and make sure all legs and wings are inside the vehicle because it's time for some RFM news!" She made noises with her mouth that may have been meant to sound like a high-energy news theme. It came off more like an infant babbling. "Man, do I have a tall tale and a half for you this morning! Now. Few and far between is the colt or filly who hasn't heard a scary bedtime story about Showffield. The burning pit of despair! The great black hole of the north! Hell, after the Majesty went up, I could see the smoke from my window. Well, my lovelies, I have good word that the industry of Showffield has ground to a screeching halt! I still wouldn't recommend going there, but if you do, all you're gonna find is an extremely toxic hole in the ground. One less thing to worry about in this big bad wasteland! Unless you're a slaver, in which case, the market just turned against you. Suckers!"
"Oh, but it gets better! The smoke stopped rising yesterday evening, and guess who was seen heading through the Preak District the day before. None other than the Saint from the Stable! Girl, that is one hell of a hat trick! I... I don't want to say anything in case I jinx it. But if you're ever down here in Liverpole, come on down and I'll buy you a drink or three! This is Tribute and you're listening to 91.1, Radio Free Mareseyside! Stay dry and stay listening, folks." The title theme to a movie long since forgotten started up.
Stars frowned. "Sun and moon. I think Tribute might actually be more aggravating to listen to than the Queen."
"I know right? It's like she's swallowed a megaphone..."
She turned and glared at me. "I mean the hero worship. It's just... argh!"
"I dunno. I don't really have a problem with it."
"'Course," House spat.
"Say, why don't we head to Liverpole so I can get those drinks?"
"You want to go through forty miles of raider-infested wasteland for a couple of lukewarm beers?"
I shrugged. "I'm still not paying for them."
Stars screwed up her face a couple of times trying to find some logical recourse. Then she just sighed and got back to walking. "Whatever. Warreington's that way anyway. If we go via Stockport we shouldn't get too much trouble."
"What I want to know is, how are they getting this news so fast?" House said.
"That's a really good question..."
I cut off this line of inquiry that I didn't care about with other news. "Oh! I got more batteries for the radio, by the way." They shrugged and nodded. I wouldn't complain about that either.
The journey continued quietly. Nobody felt like talking over the radio. Tribute delivered a PSA about keeping dry to avoid radiation poisoning, but otherwise kept her trap shut. For the first time, we saw another traveller heading the other way. It hadn't surprised me that the Preak District was devoid of hikers - it was a miserable, soggy pile of hills with nothing interesting in it - but even wandering around Manechester, apart from that one Steel Rangers patrol, there was nobody wandering around apart from raiders. He reminded me of that Enclave guy in Colton - the giant sunglasses, trilby, and neat suit that just screams "I am incognito". Who honestly wears sunglasses in Braytain? Apart from me, of course. Even then, these things are useless at blocking glare and just obscure my vision. They ended up on my forehead whenever I was doing anything important.
So this guy carries on up to us. He stopped next us and folded up his sunglasses. We stopped, because he was addressing us. "Ghrian agus gealach leat!" He put a hoof across his front in some kind of salute. He ignored House and Stars, and looked straight up at me. "I bring a message for the one known as Atom Smasher, of the Stable!" He had another funny accent that I couldn't place. It was much more endearing and homely than House's, and his words had force behind them, like each one was being punched out of his mouth. I was already considering trading one Hat Accent for another.
I raised a hoof. "How many times did it take you to find the right stable pony?"
He ignored my quip, removed his hat, and bowed his head. "My lady, the High King of the Scolts, Bravehorse has requested an audience with you." Stars pulled a face like she'd just eaten a bug. "He wishes to meet you at his field camp, not four miles north of here, near a reservoir. I would suggest that you respond to his invitation promptly."
I scratched my chin while I thought about the offer, and a few other things. "And who are you?"
"I am Siretanta, the Hound of Bravehorse!" Snowy perked his ears at the mention of 'hound', and leaned in to sniff him. He was completely unfazed.
"Now, I'm no mythology expert, but I didn't think Siretanta was Scoltish..." Stars yanked me from my perch atop Snowy's neck to whisper to me.
"Atom, I've heard of these guys. Bravehorse's horde pretend to be barbarians from ancient history and go around pillaging settlements! They're really, really bad news!"
"What's the worst that could happen?"
"What's the worst that could happen? What's the worst that could happen, Atom?"
Before Stars could finish that, I shoved her away and reclaimed my perch. "Sure, why not. I haven't got anything planned."
Stars grabbed me again. "Going through four raider tribes for the sake of a couple of free drinks is a better idea than this!"
I pulled House over. "What do you think Hatman?"
He frowned. He could probably tell from the respective expressions who wanted to do what. His eyes darted back and forth between Stars and I for a few moments. Eventually he backed up. "I'm staying out of this." How diplomatic.
I sighed and climbed back up. "What do you think, Snowy? Shall we see what the suit-hound-guy wants us to see?"
"Yeah-yeah-yeah!" He nodded with his tongue flopping all over the place.
"See? Two out of four majority."
"That's not a majority."
"Ugh! I am so done."
Before Stars could storm off, I grabbed her by the back of the cloak. "Look at it this way: they're inviting us into their camp. You're not in uniform. They know nothing. Do you know how open that leaves them?"
She huffed and paused. "Alright. I'll humour you. But the second it goes tits up, I am out of there, understand?"
I nodded, and turned back to Siretanta. "Alright Singapore, lead on!" I think it took him a moment to realise that I was in fact addressing him. Then he nodded, stuffed his hair back into his hat, and started down the way we were heading anyway. I turned the radio down in case Tribute learned about this by whatever telepathy she seemed to be using.
Two miles down the road, we turned on to a dirt track. Once we left the road, Snowy started sniffing everything and peeing on trees, and I couldn't hold on, so I had to walk, which sucked. The track led around the side of a hill. A chain of reservoirs ran along the valley. The first two were filled in with soil, and the only indication that they ever held water was the concrete rim around them and the dams between them. The upper two still had water, and I could smell them from here. What is it with the wasteland and smelling absolutely putrid all the time? If it's not rotting carcasses in the rain, it's effluent-filled bodies of stagnant water or industrial toxins. Maybe everyone else up here just has a dead nose.
"So tell me a bit more about you guys," I said, to break up the silent trudge. "Where did you come from? This is the first I've heard of you."
"We were once mere bickering tribes, barely surviving in the glens and moors to the north. We were no different from the degenerates that roam these counties. But then, through force of will, of presence, and of iron, Bravehorse of Stirrupling united the clans under his banner. It was not hard. Even their feeble minds could comprehend the choice he gave them; be behind his spears, or on them. His court is decorated with the skulls of the thirty-nine chieftains he has seen the end of."
"This guy doesn't fuck around."
"With the Scolts united, we marched south, to our a greater goal. To unite the Braytish tribes against the Roamans, and free this land!"
"The imperious conquerors from the southern skies. You have already displayed your proficiency in dealing with them, and this is what has attracted the attention of Bravehorse. He will certainly discuss this with you in more detail." Destroying things seems to land me with a lot of employment opportunities. I made a note to destroy more things later.
The path passed by a group of ponies slathered with face paint and wearing kilts, clutching bows and spears. The bows had tabs for holding them, but I wasn't altogether sure how they were going to load it. A sheer cliff was cut into the hill next to them. The scree was made up primarily of bones, and a few twisted bodies in various states of decay sat on top of the rubble. The path carried on down the side of the valley to a camp by the reservoir. The posts of sentries dotted the hilltops. Stars was looking around like a meerkat. House regarded the party-ready guards with a suspicious eye. I didn't feel threatened, I just grumbled when the radio lost signal halfway down the valley. I turned it off and stashed it.
The camp was all tarpaulins and big open tents. A few things looked like they were plundered from pre-war or wartime military bases, but there didn't seem to be much in the way of guns, or even armour. Lots of ponies with competitively intricate patterns of paint on their faces and bodies were milling around, sharpening swords and chucking spears and punching dummies and stuff. In a way it was even more metal than the raiders. Maybe my band should have someone who just goes on stage painted up like one of these guys...
I nearly walked into a tent pole. Siretanta held open a flap and ushered us inside. I hopped on Snowy's back before going in. A guard tried to stop me. "The mutt stays amach."
"Do you let Sir-Fanta in here?"
"He's the Hound of Bravehorse. Snowy here is the hound of... me."
"Uh..." The guard looked around Snowy's big fluffy ass at Siretanta. He nodded. "Very well then." Snowy practically had to crawl to fit inside. I bumped my head on another tent pole on the way in.
Thankfully, the inside of the tent was taller. Torches and lanterns bathed it in soft, warm light, a couple of bodyguards stood to attention around the tent, and two chairs sat in the middle of the back wall. A stallion sprawled back in one, his mane easily touching the floor. My eyes paused on the metal gauntlet on his foreleg. A PipBuck? Curious. In the other chair, a unicorn mare with an animal skull necklace and headband sat, looking constipated.
I waited for Snowy to come to a stop, then tapped him on the top of the head. When he looked around, I pointed down. He lowered his head. With forelegs crossed, I kept my balance while sliding forward. I slid off his head to land on hind legs, and then dropped to my forelegs, a few feet away from them. I lifted my shades. "'Sup."
"Aha!" The stallion exploded in a grin. His words seemed to explode out of him too. "You must be the one called Atom Smasher."
"Accept no substitutes."
He laughed. His accent didn't quite match the other Scolts. "Your reputation precedes you. I am Bravehorse, High King of the Scolts, liberator of the north, and this..." He gestured to the mare, who flashed us a smile. Well, more of a grimace, before going back to being bemused. "Is my wife and queen, Boudocka." At this point I realised that historical accuracy was not something they were even trying for. This also led me to a suspicion about the origins of 'Bravehorse' here. I kept it to myself for now.
"Alright, you have me. I'm all ears, kingy."
Boudocka snarled. "You will show your High King the respect he deserves!"
Bravehorse raised a hoof and smiled at her. "Please, dear, she is our guest, and practically a child."
"Hey!" Nineteen isn't child age anywhere! Except pre-war Equestria I guess, I've heard you couldn't drink until twenty one there.
Boudocka huffed, and sat back. Bravehorse resumed grinning. "I'm impressed by the tales I've heard of your exploits. In just a few short days you've caused chaos among the Roamans that almost rivals what I have achieved in a lifetime. You remind me of myself in some ways." A stable dweller, perhaps? "Unfettered. Resourceful. Full of energy. I used mine to unite the clans. Today I am wiser, but older. But you... you could be just what I need. I don't normally bargain with ponies I'm about to conquer without a spear in my hoof. But for someone of your excellence, I am willing to make an exception."
I shifted my weight to one side and furrowed my brow. "Those are the broad strokes, but I'm gonna need more specifics. I like to know the plan." Even I had to keep myself from laughing at that one. I could hear Stars' gulp from where I was.
"Business-like! I like it. Can't have some deadbeat fucking around on the job." He reached over to a goblet on a table beside him, took a long drag, wiped his mouth, and resumed his slouch. "If we weren't at war, I'd have you fight Siretanta for his job. However, we need all the strength we can muster. I need a pony to run errands around Manechester and Liverpole. Soften the place up for the rest of the army. Taking care of the Majesty was a good start, but I wouldn't underestimate the other locals."
"They haven't given me much trouble so far."
He raised a hoof and shouted, "That's what I want you for!" Hot damn, he was excited about this. "If you can put the squabbling tribes into disarray, then you can have the honour of leading my army into battle to conquer Manechester and Liverpole. And if you impress me with that - which I have no doubt you will - then you shall be bestowed with the mantle of the first Thane of Flankashire."
I pouted and nodded. "Not bad. Tell me more about the job."
"The tribes here are battle-hardened. They regularly weed out their weak. Pitting them against each other would do little to wear them down. But if you hit them one at a time, you should be able to temporarily cripple them, and give us a window of opportunity. Then there's the Steel Rangers..."
Stars squeaked. Everyone turned around to look at her. She started sweating, and took a step back. Bravehorse scratched his chin. "What's her problem?"
"We had some RadAway earlier, maybe she needs to pee, I don't-"
Zap. Where there had been just canvas behind the two thrones, there was now a smoking hole. Bravehorse and Boudocka were clutching their chairs in alarm. I heard a sword being drawn. I looked back at Stars. Her horn had a wisp of smoke rising from it.
I rolled my eyes, pulled out my gun and pumped it. "Well, it was a good run, eh?"
Level up! I still have yet to see if these do anything at all New perk: Living Folk Hero
Your reputation precedes you. Depending on your karma, certain NPCs will give you free stuff.
Now that I had my gun out, I was struck with a thought. I sat back on my haunches and scratched my chin. Behind me, a card flashed across the tent, embedding itself in the forehead of a guard charging at Stars. Bravehorse and Boudocka continued to look like deer caught in the headlights.
While I did have my gun out, I hadn't attacked anyone yet. Stars fired the first shot in a panic, so they were after her. House defended her, thus picking a side. But I could still pop them both in the head, dealing with them in about ten seconds, and probably earning praise from Bravehorse for disposing of a threat so close to him and demonstrating my ability and efficiency in combat. A card whizzed past my head at Bravehorse. Boudocka's horn lit up, and a barrier went up in front of them. When the card hit it, it lost its glow and span on to his lap harmlessly. I was actually really tempted by this. I felt like Bravehorse was on the same page as me. I didn't know what a thane was, but it sounded important and prestigious. Meanwhile, sticking with the two assholes behind me zapping guards left and right... I guess fighting my way out of this place could be kinda fun, but that was it really. Then I'd have to go amuse myself when they went home, and I wouldn't be a thane.
I turned around, and saw Snowy swiping at a guard. The guard was slashed from chest to chin, and thrown backwards hard enough to rip a hole in the tent. That made up my mind. I had to follow the fluff.
"Guards!" Bravehorse shouted. Was he related to Tribute? They both had the loud gene. He reached behind his throne and pulled out a saddle-mounted spear. He had it on a snap. With the tent cleared of guards, House turned his attention back to Bravehorse. In the time it took him to arm himself, three cards were on his way. Two of them hit canvas, and Boudocka shot the third out of the air. Funny how characters with names are orders of magnitude more competent and likely to survive, eh?
With the odds turning against us in here, I leapt over Snowy's back and shot the ground by the door. The three soldiers jamming it trying to get in at the same time got thrown on to their backs. I landed and scooped up the dart in my teeth. Siretanta looked at me, then resumed looking out at the camp. Then when it clicked, he looked at me again with alarm. This second look was met with a back hoof to the face. I pumped the gun and took aim at his head, but I was shoved by Snowy barging out with House and Stars in tow.
I fluttered up to jump on Snowy's back and reload. Bravehorse was charging at us, with Boudocka right behind him shielding him. As much of a crazy power-walker as Stars was, Bravehorse was probably going to chase her down anyway. I pulled out my last grenade and chucked it in the mud in front of us. We ran over it. Boudocka scooped out the mud it had landed in and fired it into the sky before it went off.
Snowy ducked, and a spear flew over my head. It sailed off into the bushes, and when he raised his stance again, it threw me off. I threw my wings out before I hit dirt, and swooped up to a hover. It took Snowy a couple of seconds to realise that I was gone, and when he did, he hit the brakes and gouged the mud. House and Stars carried on into his back and fell over. With Snowy stopped, some of the soldiers ahead formed a wall to block our escape. Bravehorse kept charging. House threw some more cards, and they still lost their magic boost on hitting the shield. Stars lowered her head, and created a wall of light in front of them. Only the wall was nearly horizontal, just slightly inclined. Bravehorse ignored it, and... charged up Stars' ramp and over their heads. The look on his face when he reached the end and sailed through the air over Snowy was priceless. He impaled his spear up to his side, and sprawled on his face and forelegs.
An arrow flew past me, and in the interests of safety I dropped to the ground. A couple more arrows sailed overhead, and then the three archers took five minutes to reload. In front of us, the wall of troops advanced. Stars winced, and a burst of light appeared in the air. In less than a second, it hit the ground, pushing two soldiers into the ground, and throwing smoke and mud everywhere. The concussive blast as it hit knocked two more over. (Oh now I get it, Shooting Stars. Duh.) The front line lowered their stances. A second line behind them started chucking javelins. This kept Stars busy knocking them out of the air. She missed one and it hit Snowy in the shoulder. He regarded it more with curiosity than anything else. He picked out and broke it while he was inspecting it.
House threw some more cards at Boudocka, they were still wildly off target, and she still shot them down anyway. I fired three darts - click-pfft, click-pap, click-pffthunk - and she shot them back too. They exploded in mid air and dropped in the mud. (Maybe they have a cooldown so they don't cause ricochet explosions? Sand Dollar died before I could ask him about it.)
"Bitch, those better still work."
"You'll be lucky if you still work when I'm through with you!" She fired a ball of light at us. We both ducked, and House threw a card to intercept it. It didn't neutralise it, but it knocked it off course. Instead of somehow blackening Snowy even further, it went into the sky and dissipated. I growled.
"House, keep her busy." I started searching my pack for Chekhov's gun. Umbrella? No. Radio? Not risking that near her. Volt whip? I was sorely tempted, but I wanted to use that on a less competent opponent. I pulled out one of the sci-fi looking grenades I'd taken from the Enclave. "Hey, what do these do?"
"You said keep her busy..." He did an unnecessarily energetic fling to send two cards at her. She was still shooting every one of them down. "... and it's keeping me busy!"
I shrugged. Behind me, I saw Snowy flip his front legs in the air, and two soldiers went flying. "Just make sure this gets through." I pulled the pin out and chucked it in the air in front of me to bat with my wing. None of this spinning around until the pin comes out nonsense. I missed, and hurriedly tried again. The slice threw it high in the air with a lot of backswing. Boudocka saw it, and fired a missile at it. House saw her seeing it, and sent a card to knock the missile off target.
The grenade burst not in fire and shrapnel, but weird blue light. Boudocka wasn't even knocked over, but she doubled over and yelled, and the missile she was preparing fizzled out. Stars looked over her shoulder at us. "You have silence grenades?"
"I guess?" Before I could ready another one, House had filled her face with cards. Two jacks and three eights. Now Snowy and I just needed to team up to make a nuclear winter wonderland and we'd all be demonstrating our names. I picked up my darts, and House ran over to her and took the skull around her neck. Fuckin' kleptomaniacal Garbagemen.
I reloaded and fired a couple of darts at the front line to drive them back. With no armour, the ones near the blasts dropped like flies, and the ones around them backed away. House cut an ear off with a card, and slashed a face with another. I ran past Stars and Snowy, jumped on Bravehorse's upturned rump to reset his progress in digging himself out of the ground, and went to pick up the darts. Since I was isolated, a couple of soldiers broke rank and charged me. Snowy flanked one of them, picking her up by the neck and shaking her around, and I ducked the charge of another to give House a clear shot. The limp body vaulted me while I reloaded. Snowy tossed his kill at the line, driving it back further.
Behind us, Bravehorse backed out of the mud and shook himself off. Instead of charging for us, he looked around. Since we were busy driving the line back and repelling missiles, we left him. That might have been a mistake, because he soon drew our attention to him with a baleful cry to the heavens. He was standing over Boudocka's body, tears streaking his silly face paint. I don't know why everyone stopped fighting to look at this, because it just gave me a window of opportunity to change from my gun to the whip. While I was circling it in the air, he started barking stuff at us in an accent so thick you could stand up a stick in it. When he was done, he reached to his side and pulled up a sword with his mouth. It cut the saddle away, and he charged at us again. The other soldiers took this cue to jump on us as well. At this point I lowered the circling of the whip to lash the entire front line of the circle. One by one in quick succession, the whip made contact with flesh or sword, causing them to yelp and spasm.
Stars scooped me up and put me on Snowy's neck. A second later, House was next to me, and then she was behind him. She tugged on Snowy's ears. "Go!" He tilted his head. "Snowy, go!" He continued to idle.
"Stars, get me a rock."
"Just get me a fucking rock and don't let go." A second later, a pebble dropped in my upturned hoof. I shoved it at House, and he knew what to do.
"Snowy, fetch!" The glowing blue rock fired through the air along the path we'd arrived by, and on into low Earth orbit. With mechanical precision, Snowy locked on to it and gave chase.
He cleared the front line with ease, and in landing, knocked down a good chunk of the line behind them. Stars hung to the side to repel spears and arrows. I trailed the whip alongside to try and catch some strays. All I succeeded in doing was knocking over an old mailbox, which was fun, but not helpful. Bravehorse leapt over the fallen front line with ease, and pursued us through the path Snowy had cleared. He looked like he was going to bite the handle of his sword in two. He kept pace without trouble. At least if Snowy decided to stop for a pee, it would be Stars that ate sword first. We left the camp with spears thudding into the ground either side.
Snowy veered off the path and down the bank. He stopped at a tree and started sniffing around. Bravehorse followed. Stars pulled another 'star' from the sky, and while it didn't hit him, the force threw him down the bank and knocked the sword out of his mouth. He rolled to a stop and growled. Snowy lay down.
"What is he doing?" Stars yelled. House threw a couple of cards down the bank. They delayed Bravehorse's charge at best. I hopped off to see what Snowy had found. He was chewing on the same rock House had thrown. When I went to take it out of his mouth he bit harder on it and growled. Of all the fucking times... After a couple of seconds' tug of war and a hoof covered in slobber, I got it free, and he immediately started sniffing at it. Stars levitated it from my hooves and fired it over the hill. Snowy bowled me over chasing it.
With Snowy departing the valley at speed, I was left as the nearest target of Bravehorse. He didn't look like he wanted to reconsider his offer. I rolled over to dodge a stab, and started running. It was pretty clear that he was going to catch me in a straight sprint, but then I remembered that I'm an idiot, and I had wings. I extended them and rode my momentum into a hover. Safely ten feet below me, he started hopping and swiping at the air beneath me, while I had all the time in the world to stash the whip and get my gun out. Now where has this happened before?
An arrow whistling uncomfortably close to my wing startled me. I abandoned the plan of blowing Bravehorse's head off, and started after the others. It was kind of a limp flop, a dive to the ground, a couple of steps of running and then taking to the air again. I still hadn't altogether gotten the hang of this flying thing, but it was enough to reach Snowy and glide past him. We went by the bottom of the cliff over the bones and bodies. The guards at the top might as well have been dropping the arrows for all the accuracy and force they had. Bravehorse took the high road, and by the time he reached the top, he stopped, dropping his sword and panting. I'd landed on Snowy's back, and we were already making a beeline for the road. He had one last scream at us that we barely heard over Snowy's excited panting. Oh well, who wants to be a thane anyway?
We didn't stop for breath until we hit the road. Or rather, that was when Snowy just ambled to a stop and collapsed, throwing us all off.
I sat up again. "There. That wasn't so bad, was it? Well, apart from the part where I wasn't going to be made a thane because you started shooting at them."
"You weren't seriously considering joining them, were you?"
"I kept my options open until they closed by themselves."
Stars sighed. After a minute she shook her head and got up. We started walking. "Well, I'm going home. You can go do whatever now. I'd offer to introduce you to the Steel Rangers command, but I'm afraid they might make me work with you."
"It's fine. The Sponge Roofies sound like they have too many rules for me." She sighed again. One of these days she's just going to run out of air completely. "Say, you said that Warporridge or wherever it was..."
"... was in the same general direction as Liverpole, yeah?" She groaned. "Be a good sport and show us the way, eh? I mean, I don't want to sound like I'm undermining Captain Accent's navigation skills, but he's not from around here. And Snowy's a dog." I jumped up and petted him behind the ear. "A very very good dog!" He was all too happy for the attention. I just liked the way Snowy was eternally happy, especially with these morose fucks around me.
"Fine... safer to travel in groups anyway. We should be able to make Stockport by nightfall if we start moving, and we can stock up on food and water. Just... try not to get us in trouble again, eh?"
While I was getting comfortable on Snowy's back, I thought about this. "So, I saved Lord Ten-Gallon from being the left back for Colton vs. Balkburn, destroyed an Enclave warship by myself on his suggestion, went to Showffield on your suggestion to watch you kill everything, and now I had a job offer blown because you panicked."
"I don't remember suggesting you do anything," House mumbled.
"It sounds less like I get ponies in trouble and more like you find trouble and bring it to me. Which is fine! I can deal with that. Just like, don't have it backwards. Don't blame me for your mischief." Just as I was sitting back, I felt the thump of a magically lifted radio being shoved into my stomach. She clicked it on and cranked it up. She wasn't going to tell me to shut up, but she damn well meant it.
We walked for a bit. "Oh, bollocks. I knew I forgot something." Nobody wanted to respond to me, so I just continued anyway. "We forgot to get a new party member."
"Every encounter so far has increased my number of followers by one. I went to the Reebuck and got House. We found you when I was in Manechester. We found Snowy who is the best boy yes he is in Showffield. But then we met with the Scolts and didn't get anyone. I doubt we'd get Septubo or whatever his name was because I feel like my party should have a one-dog limit, but we got nothing. Nada."
"Atom, what the blind fuck are you talking about?" House had to stop and fix his hat, because it was about to fall off from looking at me atop Snowy.
"Hang on. We can still fix this. Snowy, pull that sign out of the ground." I pointed to a small wooden sign at the side of the road. There was an astronomically racist pre-war poster on it, of a zebra face painted up to look like some kind of cartoon villain. Snowy stopped and yanked it up. The post broke, leaving him with the board and half the post. He handed it to me.
"How come Snowy understands complex instructions from you, but when I tell him to 'go' he just sits there?"
"Maybe if you didn't insult his intelligence by using one word instructions he'd be more inclined to listen to you. Isn't that right, Snowy?" He barked. I didn't know he could do that and still talk. I looked over the poster for a name. I didn't find anything. Most of the writing was too faded, and you could barely make out the zebra, her sneaky, sneaky grin and her eyepatch-scar combo. "Okay. Crisis averted. This is Xena. She's a zebra warrior princess."
"Say hi, Xena." I held up the sign. House quirked a brow at me, while Stars looked like a screw in her face had come loose. "She's mute."
Stars sighed. Again. "We can't get to Warreington fast enough."
Level up! Now that I think about it some of these are alarmingly specific New perk: God Save the Queen
So, at this point you might notice a change in pace. Xena is obviously a refreshing new addition to the cast and should provide hours of fascinating new interactions with everyone with her choice application of non-dialogue. No, I mean, the wasteland is a bit repetitive. This was about the time that I was starting to get bored. Everything is grey and brown and dead and just kind of samey, and we did a lot of walking to grey, brown, dead places through grey, brown, dead places. There's only so many ways you can say 'we walked through a ruined city, it looked like a pile of shit'. So now I'm going to endeavour to skip some of that.
Stockport was boring. We reached there around evening. Some foals came along and noticed my stable jumpsuit, and started chasing me for autographs, but Stars hurried us along. Their parents looked dead-eyed and hollow and generally uninterested. The town seemed to have escaped most of the megaspells, but it suffered a lot post-war. The current town is just settled raiders, which made all the spikes on buildings and punk hairstyles make a lot of sense. No grisly trophies of war anywhere though. Apparently they used to be contenders, but they just couldn't keep up with the Manechester tribes, so they went legit and settled. All the raider tribes will when they get tired of raiding, they told me. Most of the inhabited town is in the ruins of an old leisure centre by the town hall, a bus station and a big-ass train station. They told me that if I thought that was big, I should see Croup. Town was just entirely train station, before and after the war.
We stocked up on food and water again (we hadn't had any since that night in the Preak District). I asked about getting the watch from the Reebuck fixed, but they didn't know how. Some guy offered me three caps for it, but I held on to the watch. House bought like twelve packs of cards and some inhaler thing. A shady looking guy asked if I wanted to buy some drugs. He showed me some boxes of breathmints and steroids. I laughed at him and asked if he had any weed. Stars told me that cannabis has been extinct for about two hundred years, and that made me sad. At least now those old rap records in the stable couldn't be a bad influence, because they were asking me to smoke something every day that didn't exist anymore. It started raining some time after dark and continued until about midday the next day. I get the feeling that if it hadn't, Stars would have tried to leave in the night. We were only twenty miles from Warreington, and she could have made it by mid-morning.
When the rain eased up, we left along an old motorway, since it was the dryest route. Everywhere was saturated with moisture. We walked through the aftermath of a hydraulic massacre, a countryside pelted with wet bullets and bombs until the entire landscape was scarred. The fallout filled the air, leaving it cold and misty. The unrepentant clouds blocked the sun from clearing it, leaving us drowning on dry land. Supposedly dry land. The land would never be dry. This place was simply a magnet for the curse of eternal dampness. I felt it again, the seeping of moisture into my very soul, threatening to pull me into the wet ground like so many other victi-
"Get down!" At Stars' instruction, we hunkered behind a ruined wall. The grass was still wet, ew. A signpost with the pole bent in the middle said Altrickham. Snowy dropped in place and started wagging his tail. Then he rolled over.
I poked my head around the side of the wall to get a look. About two buildings over, there was a pony twice the size any pony I've ever seen. Well, twice the size in the vertical dimension. Stones was easily twice my mass, and probably four times that of Sticks. This thing looked like some teenager's drawing of a magical fair forest creature pony thing, sniffing about in the ruins. And with a red and nearly-black-but-still-kinda red colour scheme, it looked like it was coloured by a teenager too. Its mane and tail had an oddly clean and flowing quality to it, like it didn't give a fuck about gravity and was just doing whatever it wanted.
"The fuck is that?"
Stars looked up from her speed planning. "Alicorn."
House chanced a glance over the top of our cover. "I ain't never seen a red one before..."
"They're so rare, the Steel Rangers don't have anything on them. We only have anectodal reports to go on, so we dismissed them as hallucinations or mistakes, but this... dammit, I could do with a camera." Stars took out some paper and a pen and started scribbling.
House ducked again. "It seems to be just minding its own business. If we stay in cover and go around we should be able to pass without any trouble. There could be more around, but now we know to be care-"
"It's nerf or nothing!"
"Oh sweet merciful fuck."
I hopped over the wall, gun drawn, and charged with wings out to take to the air. I tossed a silence grenade and fired two darts, click-pap-click-pfft. They were parried before the grenade went off, causing explosions in mid air. The grenade burst in its sphere of blue light, and the alicorn screamed and screwed up her face. My third dart sailed over her head, exploding in the rubble behind her. I popped a fourth off and went to grab the first two and chamber them. The fourth went off in air too, and the alicorn had already recovered. The fuck? While I was going to reclaim dart number four, she was starting to lift chunks of rubble and growl. I attempted a roll to dodge the first. I got out of its way, but botched the roll and landed on my back. One bag strap went, and only a quick hoof stopped my stuff spilling. I made a note to get better bags later.
With a second, awkward roll, I dodged another brick and fixed my bag. I started running a circle around the alicorn, and got a glimpse back at where the others had been. They were still hiding like cowards, or had decided to abandon me. I pulled a feint to get enough time to reclaim the last dart and find a spot of cover. A toilet shattered on the half-wall I was hiding behind. I looked through the ruined door and through the alicorn's legs. I caught the tips of two twitchy ears behind the low wall opposite me - the one I'd jumped over a minute ago. I smirked.
I pressed my hooves to my cheeks and whistled. The alicorn winced. "C'mere Snowy!" I saw a ball of black fluff vault the wall, bounce once, and then the alicorn twisted like a spring being turned on its axis. Snowy bit her leg and lifted her in the air. She had a look of such utter confusion as she went up that I had to break down laughing. Snowy waved her around for a bit before letting her go. She gave a guttural wheeze when she hit the wall. She growled, and while Snowy was scratching behind his ear, she sent a magic wall his way. It whisked him into the air, and he gave a loud yelp and whine that made me wince. The throw was such that in less time than you can say 'Team Rocket's blasting off again', Snowy was but a twinkle in the sky. When I picked my jaw off the floor, I used her distraction to pump and fire, and a dart blasted her behind the ear. She fell forward and went limp. I waited to see if she got back up. After a good ten seconds, she didn't. I stepped out to fetch my dart.
"Fuckin' bitch." I kicked her body, then went back to the wall. When I hopped over, House and Stars were still crouching there. "Change of plans. We're going to find Snowy. He went somewhere... that way."
"I don't fucking know. I just saw her punt Snowy like he was on the fairway on the 18th."
"Uh... how did you deal with it? Alicorns go down hard."
I was already walking. Whether they followed was secondary. "I hit it in the back of the head. If anything can survive that, write me about it."
"I don't think you quite understand just how hard." I ignored Stars. There was a pause while I kept walking.
"Let's just go with her. Even if it's just stunned we can get away."
"But Warreington's the other way."
"You can go around later. Besides, the mutt's kinda grown on me." House chuckled and got up. "Let's see where he's got to, eh?"
A few seconds passed with just the sound of the two of them hurrying to catch up. Then a tumble of stone stuck out from the background sound. I stopped and turned around. They did the same. The alicorn was perched on the low wall they had been hiding behind. She let out an incoherent growl, and magic happened. I can only guess magic happened, because one moment I was looking at an alicorn, and the next everything was white and disorienting. There's not many other things that cause that, right? I've had concussions before and you generally don't stay conscious for all of them. This was confusing, but more in an 'oh fuck which way is up' kind of way. So the alicorn zapped us, and we went somewhere.
I landed on my back and both my saddlebags gave way. Fucking hell. It was dark and damp and smelled of mould in here. Whatever foul thing was in here, I didn't want it slobbering over my stuff. I heard two squeaks of surprise as House and Stars bumped into each other somewhere in the room.
"Where are we?"
"Are we dead?"
"Looks like a fucking boring afterlife." When I said that, Stars sighed. She thought she'd gotten away, didn't she? I spent a few minutes feeling around for my stuff. Stars lit her horn, which made finding things on the cobblestone floor immeasurably easier. Then I found something interesting: a few fleshy, fragrant lumps sitting on top of a wooden barrel. I say fleshy, but I don't mean raw-meat fleshy. It took me a minute to place the image, but I think they were the things they had on boxes of sugar apple bombs, only the real thing. I sniffed them. My mouth watered. I heard thumping from the floor above, and stashed them quickly. An orange glow highlighted a wooden staircase against a wall. The glow got brighter. The others hid behind crates. I just tilted my head. A pair of legs appeared, followed by an old lantern. The mouth holding it came after, and then the white-maned face it belonged to. He furrowed his brow and set the lantern down.
"How did you get down here? I don't remember seeing you come in." I should start finding a way to collect the funny accents I hear. This one had slightly weird intonation and stress, like it wasn't his first language.
I flicked down my shades. "Food safety inspector. We have our ways."
He jumped. "O-oh! I didn't..."
"Nobody expects the inspectors."
He grinned and gulped. "I take it you've found everything to your liking?"
I pouted and looked around. "I dunno... I think I'm going to need to take a few samples."
"Of course! Come on up and I'll provide you with everything you need!"
I leaned forward with a raised brow. The look made him tense his grin. Then I nodded and started up the stairs past him. "C'mon."
Reluctantly, Stars and House peered out of their hiding places. The old fart jumped in fright again. "There's more?"
"They were checking your crates for radroaches."
I shook my head and pretended to press some buttons on my knockoff PipBuck. "That doesn't sound good."
"Right! Yes! Rat... roaches." Based on his tone, I can only imagine what the image was doing to him. "Don't worry. All our supplies are quite securely stored."
"I'll see when they turn in their reports." The other two looked at each other, then shrugged and followed. The guy hurried past me to open the door at the top of the stairs.
The main room was only a little brighter than the cellar. The only light was through two tiny windows either side of the door, and a small fire. The room was rich with the smells of ale and cooking. A few ponies in colourful tunics and gowns were hanging around, eating or lightly chatting, and a few kegs sat on the counter. One of them cast me an odd look. Stars didn't look too out of place, and even House could pass for a local if he just acted natural. "Welcome to the Jennet View Inn, the finest public house in all of Brumare! I am Hobble Häst, proprietor of this establishment. Please, have a seat!" Playing along for now, House and Stars found a table. I went up to the window and looked out. There were some rooftops and a stone wall being patrolled in the distance, and beyond that was forest. I was struck by the lack of the green tint that seemed to be everywhere in the wasteland. The sky was even kind of clear. "What seems to be the matter?"
I turned and Hobble was leaning over to dote on me. "Where is this Jennet I'm supposed to be viewing?"
He laughed nervously and kneaded his hooves together. "Aha, well! Well. The Jennet mountains are actually behind the inn." I gave him the same eyebrow-raised look that made him sweat bullets earlier. Worked perfectly again. "But if you step to the right, you can see some of the end of the range, and if you step outside..." He opened the door and shoved me outside. "There! You can sort of see them, yes?"
I was too busy getting a load of everything else to try and find the mountains. I was on the steps of an cabin of wood and stone with a shingled roof. Tiled stone lined the streets - not even cracked. A guy in chainmail with a yellow tunic on top walked past. The city was on four terraced levels, with some slightly mucky houses below, and a castle on the one above. A fucking castle. Oh, and then there was the big huge cathedral dominating the profile of the downhill end, green-stained copper roof and everything. The entire settlement was ringed with stone ramparts, punctuated by towers. Beyond them was nothing but trees. Living trees. To the left were snow-capped mountains, and to the right was rolling hills, descending a slope into the green distance. I could make out a narrow white tower somewhere in the far distance. Another city that close?
The other thing that struck me was the smell. It was... fresh. Something sweet and faintly peppery formed the background scent on the cool air. A few thick green fibres blew into my face and gave me a spike of that smell. Was that what pine trees smelled like? Being used to the background odours of rot and rust and mud, I was overwhelmed with the cocktail of fruity, nutty, spicy smells coming from trace sources everywhere. I teared up a little.
"Are you alright?" Hobble shook me out of my daydream.
"Ah! Yes. You can see about forty percent mountains. That just about reaches the threshold."
"Good! Good. I'd ah... hate to have to change the name of the inn." I gave the living outdoors another look, and came back inside.
I sat down at the table with House and Stars. They were getting quite comfortable, but still looked utterly confused. House had even taken off his hat. I didn't realise his mane was that long. "What did you see out there?" I don't think I'd seen Stars that excited to talk to me since the tram in Manechester.
"S'just a bunch of trees and hills and stuff. Not that different to the Preak District really."
The excitement vanished. "Come on, Atom."
"It's like, some medieval city. You ever heard of Brumare?"
"Nope. I have absolutely no idea where we are."
I craned my neck over to the counter. "Oh, Mr. Hobo?"
Hobble ignored my malapropism and turned his attention from dealing with the cooks. "Yes, madame?"
"Do you have a map we can take a look at? We need to do a bit of route planning."
"There's a map of Sirediil on that wall, but that's the best we have I'm afraid."
"It should be fine. We just need the broad strokes." Stars floated the frame off the wall and over to the table. Hobble grimaced a bit, probably expecting us to get up and look at it, but fuck that, we had chairs and we were using them.
It looked like the map was mouth-drawn on parchment, with decorative mountains, trees and castles. Any map was going to be lost on me, but maybe Stars could make some sense of it. She screwed up her face and pulled off her glasses to examine it closely. I just made a quick scan of some of the names I was seeing. Sirediil, Imperial City, Skyrein, Corral, Hammerfoal... Stars sat back and replaced her glasses.
"I don't recognise any of these places."
House sighed. I shrugged and set down my bags. "I'm not complaining. Seems nice here." Hobble returned with a tray laden with bowls of fruit, soup and breads. "See?"
"To whet your appetites while the roast vegetables are cooking!"
Everyone looked at the food with a mixture of curious focus and slack-jawed awe. I took the initiative and picked up a piece of bread and took a great big bite. It was crusty and chewy and holy tits this was delicious and then I put it in the soup and took another bite and it was kind of hot but hot shit this is amazing. It was one hell of a change from food that passed its sell by date when my great-great-grandparents were pining for the peach orchards. Come to think of it, there might have been peaches in the fruit bowl for some added thematic bookending or some shit, but I couldn't tell, because I didn't know exactly what a peach looked like.
Hobble came over while we were stuffing our faces. "Would you ah... care for something to drink?"
"Uh, yeah, some of that..." House stalled.
I softened my voice. "Whatever it is that smells like angel's fire." He seemed suitably buttered up, because he went and poured ale into three generously sized steins and brought them over. None of us had any problem starting to drink at lunchtime. When in Roam...
For all I knew this could be a hideous dive, but for all we knew we were dining like kings. Once we'd had our fill, I told Hobble that he'd receive formal results of the inspection in the mail three to five working days after we got back to the office, and that just because the inspection was over he shouldn't let his standards slip, because sometimes we do double-inspections in quick succession to catch things like that. His forced grin persisted until well after we left. Another yellow tunicked guard passed us, giving me a curious second glance, before carrying on with his patrol. I tried the radio, but found nothing on any frequency.
"Y'know, now that I'm over the shock... I actually quite like this place." Stars went and sat on the edge of the terrace and looked out over the town. "It's civil. There's no war. No alicorns, no raiders, I... don't know about radiation, but it all looks pretty alive..." She looked down and chuckled. "Next thing y'know I'm gonna see Comet come around the corner." She sighed.
"Wouldn't you feel even a little bad about leaving the others behind?" House joined in the emo circlejerk. "I know my work back home is far from over."
"If they had the option, would they think twice about it?" He said nothing. "Hell, if they had to choose between having our help and putting us somewhere safe, what would they do?" He continued to say nothing. What the hell kind of personality type is 'reserved' anyway? "Y'know, Atom, even if you're reckless, impulsive, vindictive and alarmingly trigger-happy... you just seem to have this way of making things turn out for the best by sheer dumb luck." She looked around. "... Atom?"
At that point I was already somewhere downtown getting my bearings. I passed some general store, some clothes shop, then I went on the roves of the next level down and the guards told me to get down, and I didn't because fuck them, I do what I want. Then when I realised there was no way into some of these places without crawling down the chimney or breaking into an upper window I got down and found something called a fighter's guild and then something called a mages' guild. I went into the fighter's guild and it was the same kind of awkward as walking into a biker bar dressed in tweed, so I left pretty shortly afterwards. Some dude walked out of the mage's guild dressed in almost the same thing as Stars, just deep green with gold trim instead of deep grey with grey trim. Then I found a blacksmith, but I was still coughing up soot from Showffield so I didn't feel like going into it.
I noticed that all the guards I passed had only swords, chainmail, and metal helmets. There wasn't a single firearm in sight. The guards probably didn't even know what power armour looked like. There were an awful lot of earth ponies around, and even some of the colourfully dressed ponies hanging out by the mages' guild were earth ponies. Did they not get the memo, or were they just playing pretend? Didn't matter. I went back to the general store and cocked my gun.
I bucked the door open. Judging by the secondary thump and the shudder of the door, I must have knocked someone down with it. I shoved my way in and there was some chick passed out on the floor with a couple of others around her looking concerned. I pointed the gun at the unicorn behind the counter. "This is a stick-up!" Everyone just looked confused more than anything else.
"What... what is that?"
I responded by turning to some random pony and firing. The thing hit him on the side of the face. In half a second, he was on the floor, most of the flesh on that side of his face splattered around the room, and his skull shattered. Everyone started screaming. I pumped the thing again. "A saddlebag with all your money, now!"
Down the street, I can only imagine that House and Stars were still having their borderline emo conversation outside the Jennet-View-you-couldn't-see-the-Jennets-from. Then, I rushed overhead, firing darts behind me. Three of them hit, and two of them threw guards over the wall. "Stoh-" one of them panted. I reached the ramparts, double-backed, and swooped down to pick up my darts. I landed on top of the inn to reload. I slid the saddlebags full of gold coins on the roof, since they were heavy and made flying harder work than usual. I kicked off and glided away, sticking out my tongue at the pursuing guards. "Stop! You've violated the law!"
I could hear Stars' groan from on top of the mages' guild.
Level up! The results of hard work and dedication always look like luck. But you know you've earned every ounce of your success. Choose 3 attributes to increase! This is new
"I have the flag!" I shouted, just before using my momentum from a dip in the air to catapult myself over the castle and snatch the flag from the roof. I skidded down the tiles on the other side and kicked off the back so I could swoop around and climb to a tower. A couple of confused looking guards ducked. My speed had dropped, so I put one hoof on a parapet and swivelled on it to go back the way I came. Back down, back up the roof, slide down the shingles... first one came loose and gave me a better glide over the rest, so that when I kicked off I had a lot more speed. The momentum was such that I barely made it over the castle's outer wall and back over the city. I wedged the flag in between my side and my saddlebag. For some reason it stuck.
I swooped low over the uppermost level to tease the guards. Almost in reach, but not quite! I tapped one on the top of the helmet and the surprise floored him. The other two in that group redoubled their efforts to catch me. Not that it helped, because I was already speeding away to the ramparts. I perched on a turret and took the flag out to toss it from hoof to hoof. A blast of light next to me knocked me back. I only fell a foot or so, but I fumbled the flag and nearly dropped it over the edge. After catching it, I looked around for the source. A second blast crashed against the parapets. I was more prepared this time and ducked behind it. I looked out again and found Stars, teeth bared, bracing to fire a third bolt of magic. Maybe she thought that if she could help catch me they'd set her up nice here. I couldn't blame her - that's what I'd do in this situation. But then if I were her I'd probably then go and hold up a general store with magic.
I hooked the flag in a foreleg and jumped off to reclaim my loot before she got to it. I yelled, "take the flag from me!" and tossed the flag at House. The pole smacked him on the forehead and knocked his hat off, and he bounced it between his legs a couple of times before it swung over his back and he fell over. I almost crashed into the inn watching this. A flap of my wings in the nick of time stopped me violently making out with the wall, and instead I tripped on the gable and slid to a halt along the top of the roof. My landing threw a guard off balance. I'm guessing he was coming to recover the gold, but now all he was doing was rolling head over heels off the roof and back to ground level.
Stars picked up the flag and handed it to the guards. While they were looking at each other discussing how they were going to put it back, I thought about how to lighten my gold load a little bit. Honestly, the saddlebag was probably the most useful thing to me. The gold though... I'd have to spend it quickly. But I wouldn't be able to do that with the guards all running after me. I heaved the second saddlebag on and took flight. Stars fired a shot that came startlingly close to my face, and forced me to land in a stumble. When I got up, one of the guards was right in my face. My vision did that weird thing it did back in Colton. What was with that? Was there something funny in that food?
"Hold it! Your spree is at an end. I'll take any stolen goods you have. The next move is yours - pay your fine, or I haul you away!" He stared at me, unblinking. I chanced a look around. Everyone else had stopped what they were doing and was just standing there. Even Stars, who had stopped in the middle of casting something likely rather nasty. I looked down at the floating text that was now in the corner of my field of vision. This was just getting weird. Apparently I had three options - paying a fine of 3303 gold, going to jail, or resisting arrest. I didn't know if I even had that much gold on me, and the hell with jail. Just as well my slight step back seemed to be interpreted as 'resist arrest'.
The world started moving again, and the guards started advancing on me with swords. I turned tail and jumped off the terrace, gliding to get a head start on them. I turned just at the doors of the cathedral to make it look like I was cutting down the alley beside it. Instead, I turned on a hoof to head inside from the hidden door. The extra weight of the gold was making turning an exercise and a half, but it helped in pushing through the heavy church doors. Once I was through, I stayed a moment to stop it from swinging back and forth too much. Once it wasn't making noise anymore, I turned and bolted down the aisle.
Talk about high church! The pews weren't much to look at, but the windows were themselves colourful paintings of gods and saints I'd never heard of, and the main altar was decked out in colourful felt. I thought dyes were supposed to be rare in medieval societies (they sure are where I come from), but lo and behold, even a fucking church is a technicolour dreamland. It was even pleasantly warm standing in the light through the windows. Rather than boggle at the stained glass, I went straight for the staircase in the middle of the hall. I vaulted a mare who was ascending, making her squeal in fright. She gibbered a syllable or two of protest, but gave up when I ignored her. I performed eeny-meeny-miney-moe in my head in the space of half a second to choose a door from the three at the bottom of the stairs. I went left.
The room was all vaults and arches. It appeared to be living quarters, with barrels and food and a table set up. I took a bottle of wine while I was here and slotted it into the last space in my bag. I started checking doors. I went down another flight of stairs to some more doors. I stopped and listened. There was no pounding of hooves on any of the floors above - I must have given them the slip, at least for now. I put an ear to each of the doors. Two of them were occupied. I went into the third. It was an empty bedroom with a double bed. More wine? Praise fucking Tailos, I want to be in this religion. The cupboards were full of junk. I fought the kleptomaniacal urge to take it all anyway and moved on to the closet. Clothes of varying degrees of fanciness. After some inspection, I grabbed a robe and the plainest looking cloak I could find (I suspected that it may have in fact been a bedsheet) and threw it on over everything else. When I turned, I stepped on the corner and tripped. For my second attempt, I walked around in circles a few times to get the hang of walking in a cloak. After the third trip I started to get it, and went to leave.
I listened first. No footsteps. I opened the door and charged up the stairs, then through the door back into the main chapel. I hurried up the stairs. The mare from earlier was doing something at the altar. I don't know if she gave me a look or not, I was already going for the exit. I slowed my sprint to a sombre shuffle, pulled the hood as far over my face as I could, and nosed the door open.
The guards were still running around in a panic. A mage was trying to help the guards put the flag back up, but they weren't having much success. I giggled when the flag slid off and bopped one of them on the head. A house had caught fire, and House and Stars were answering questions. I headed downtown to lighten my purse before I'd hit the road.
Outside the fighters' guild, two guards stopped me. Not in the 'stop right there criminal scum' way they were at it earlier, more like...
"Excuse me citizen!" I stopped and tilted my head. The one doing the talking was tall and front-heavy, with a voice that projected twelve kinds of loud at the same time, and he looked like his armour was going to burst from sheer brawn. The other one was gaunt and bony, practically swimming in his chainmail. Why do I keep running into odd couples? "Have you seen a pegasus in the last few minutes? Orange, green mane and tail, blue clothes? She's carrying a device that seems to cast an unidentified destruction spell. She's incredibly dangerous."
I made a quick mental backtrack of all the other ponies I'd seen. Lots of earth ponies, a few unicorns, but no pegasi or zebras. I did my best to copy their accents. It came off kind of awkward. "Pegasi? In Brumare? I don't believe it."
"This one's orange... mind lifting the hood?" the other one said.
"Can't. Vows. You wouldn't want to be unintentionally persecuting me for my religion, would you?"
"And what religion would that be?"
I started to sweat. Fortunately, Big McHugeLarge came to my rescue. "Leave it. She sounds like a Redgrade. Ma'am, we're sorry for wasting your time." I smiled, nodded, and walked around them. The thin one kept glaring me as I left.
Out of curiosity, I entered the mages' guild. The guards were recruiting help from them, and a couple were leaving to assist them in their increasingly desperate endeavours. Since everyone here was busy, I just walked through like I had a purpose. Maybe there were some gems or other magical crap around I could loot for selling.
The lobby had locked display cases, and while the ponies around were deep in business, they were still around, so I didn't fancy trying to break into them in front of them. I went down the stairs to the basement. The whole place was quite plush - lots of fancy lab equipment, ornate books and the occasional gem around. I passed someone in the corridor. They gave me a wary look. I stopped and slowly turned my head towards them. They went wide-eyed and carried on swiftly.
I opened a door into a storage-looking place. Even their pantry was lavish - under barrels and crates was a deep red carpet. It probably wasn't their finest one, but it was still pretty fine by my standards. After a quick sniff around, the place seemed to be just for food storage rather than anything arcane and valuable. I nudged a barrel with a hoof, and a peach rolled off a pile on top. I caught it and slipped it down my sleeve, and used my wing to guide it into my bag. Or, I tried. It slipped out the other end of the robe the first time, so I tried the trick again and got it the second time. I took another one to go, and turned to leave. I was immediately met by an invisible wall of something, causing me to throw the half-eaten peach and fall over. My hood was thrown back. I knocked the door closed. Another voice said "Ow".
"Hey, watch it!" I punched where the invisible thing was.
"Ah! Stop hitting J'skar!"
"J'skar, eh?" I quirked a brow and retrieved the peach.
"Drat!" J'skar realised his mistake. Some dancing, faintly purple lights spiralled through the air in front of me, and a pegasus appeared in a plain robe. He had a bump on his face and was rubbing his shoulder. I saw what the guards meant about accents - he had these purring rhotics, hissing sibilants and extreme vowels that hinted at an exotic origin. Or maybe it was just the next country over, I had no idea. "Now J'skar's prank is over."
"Yes! The head of the guild is always lording it over us. So we play pranks. J'skar has been hiding from her for days!" He certainly smelled like it. Now that I think about it, why do ponies readily tell me everything about themselves within thirty seconds of talking to them? It's convenient, but it's really weird.
"Hmm. Here's an idea." I pulled back the robe to get at my bags, and fished out the last silence grenade. "This goes off when this pin gets pulled out. If you've got a spell or something to make the pin come out when she opens her desk, well... just make sure you stand well back."
"J'skar thinks he can think of something." He reached his skinny hooves for it, and I backed away.
"Ah-ah! You have to do something for me in return." He pouted and ran a hoof through his mane. That explained why it was all pulled-back and messy. I thought it was just a wizard thing. "Oh what, my good J'skar, can you do for me?"
He thought for a moment. Then, his eyes lit up and he cracked a smile. "J'skar could teach you a spell."
"A spell, eh?" I didn't know pegasi could do magic, but he can't have been bluffing. "What kind of spell?"
"J'skar specialises in destruction spells. Make things go boom." He gave a toothy laugh.
"Continue." I liked this guy already.
"Have you any magic training?"
"Hmm. J'skar knows the spell for you." He stood with his back to the door, and positioned me next to him in the same way. "Pegasus and earth magic has trick to it in mind. Not intuitive like unicorn magic. Hold out hoof, like this." He raised one of my hooves out horizontal. "Clear thoughts. Empty head of plans." That wasn't hard. It implied I had a plan in the first place. "Now think of fire. Imagine only fire." At first I pictured J'skar on fire, and that made me giggle, but then I cut it to just fire. I did want to learn the spell, after all. He paused, presumably while I was picturing the fire. "Now, think of a thing that makes you angry, then push anger through fire." I screwed up my face trying to get my head around this. It was a weird enough mental image to try and conjure, but I was having the most trouble with thinking of something that actually made me properly angry.
Raiders? Not really. They were actually kinda funny a lot of the time. Missing out on the opportunity to be a thane (which I still didn't know what that was)? I wasn't too bummed about it. Snowy? Okay, I was kinda frustrated about Snowy. I pictured Snowy throwing the alicorn through a fire by the neck. I felt a flash of warmth at the end of my hoof. I opened my eyes, and there was nothing there but a puff of smoke. J'skar frowned.
"Hm. What is your birthsign?"
"Uh, I dunno. My birthday was some time last week if that helps."
"Ah. The Steed."
"Why? I'm not sure what astrology has to do with it."
"J'skar once met fellow pegasus who was Atronach. She was very bad at many things, but she was gifted destruction mage and did not know it because she did not make her own magicka. Heheh. She used puns to ge-"
Fucking puns. I ran a decapitated head through the mental fire, followed by the words 'not a way to get ahead in life'. A spear of fire shot from the end of my hoof and left a scorchmark on the stone on the far side. J'skar jumped, and stared at the mark. I looked at him and nodded. "Not bad, J'skar." I blew the smoke from the end of my hoof and tossed the grenade at him. I opened the door. "Careful with that."
"My greatest thanks... tell J'skar, should we meet again, what is your name?"
I looked over my shoulder as I stepped out of the room. "Oh! Duh, I'm an idiot. Atom Smashe-"
"There she is!" I turned and looked at the door. Stars was pointing over the shoulder of Big McHugeLarge and his seedy sidekick Twiggy. I turned and legged it to the other end of the corridor. There were doors to bedrooms, but that was it. The two guards advanced on me. I tried the flare spell - it fizzled. Didn't have enough time to get good and mad. The big guy charged, sword out. In here it was just like the stable - too easy. I waited for him to get close, then I beat my wings once and I was sailing along the ceiling. I landed two-legged on Bony's head, then the other two legs followed, and I sprung from him to near the door. I couldn't see J'skar. House was at the back of the stairwell, looking unsure what to do. I was, however, face to face with Stars, horn practically on fire. I ducked, and the shot singed the tips of my ears. I reversed a couple of steps. My gun was still under my robe, and I was too excited to try the flare spell again.
She lurched forward. House was thrown into her by something, and the pair of them bowled me over. I looked up to see a unicorn in the doorway. She looked like she was panicking, and her horn sparked and crackled as spells were started but then abandoned. She bounced on the spot, looking from side to side. Then she just rolled her eyes and muttered something, and the air became thick with the confusing and plot-twisting aroma of wizardry.
I landed on my back after a bright white flash again. It wasn't dark. In fact there were clouds above me, on a greeny-blue sky. Whatever I was lying on was wet. I squinted and sat up. Grey. Brown. Cracked concrete. Faintly green colour to the air, most apparent when looking at the far-off, barren hills, covered in dead trees and bombed-out buildings. A wetness that would never be drained. A bent-over sign that said Altrickham. I sighed.
I turned around in time to start backpedalling from a muddy, red-faced, steaming Shooting Stars advancing on me. "Wait! What about... something, something, adding to wasteland... something?" She stopped. She was breathing heavily through her nose, with a frown that looked like it was made of concrete. While she was fuming like a bull, House got up, fixed his hat, and came over to us.
"I won't pull you apart by each leg on one condition."
"Hand over everything you stole."
I gawped. "What?" She raised a brow and lit her horn. "Okay, okay!" I pulled off the cloak and robe and flung them at her. She folded them neatly and stashed them in her own bags.
"Give me the wine." The top of the bottle was sticking out of my bag. I sighed and gave it to House.
"And the gold," Stars said. I emptied the saddlebags of gold in front of them. She caught it by levitation. "And the saddlebags."
"Hey! I need these! My saddlebags are shitty!"
"Well, if you don't want to do that, I can pull out your jugular and shake you by it until it snaps..." I groaned, and threw the bags down. She split the gold evenly between them and separated them. She hitched one to House's side and one to hers. "And the other things."
"What other things? I don't have anything else!"
"Are you sure about that? Because if I have to search you, I'm going to do it by incinerating you and sifting through the ashes."
I started rummaging through my bags. It wasn't too hard really, just look for any loot with a semblance of colour. Xena was still in here, amazingly. A few seconds later, I pulled out the three apples and the peach I'd nicked from various cellars, and just let them roll wherever. Stars caught them all. She glanced at them, then had to do so a second time.
"There. That's everything, I swear."
"I think they're called fruit, Stars."
"They're... these have seeds in them. Actual, fertile seeds! Do you know what this means?" The fury of a thousand suns had vanished. She was hopping from leg to leg with excitement.
"That you have to be careful eating them?"
She bopped me on the head with one. "We can start growing things again! We can rebuild!" She put most of them away. "This is... this is everything I was saying earlier! You just tear this swathe of chaos through everywhere you go and somehow the universe, like, makes the Moneigh Lisa out of the rubble."
I frowned. "Can I at least have the flesh?"
She took a bite out of the apple she had left. "No." She started walking.
House pulled the wine back out. "Care to celebrate?"
"Certainly." She took it, popped the cork and took a sip. House had to stop walking when he drank, so he took a substantial swig. "I'll have to put in a recommendation to the Rangers to look for more red alicorns. If we can deconstruct the spell that one used, we might be able to establish reliable contact with that other world. I was able to ask one of the town guards about Cyfeirnod. They know him as an... Altmer, I think was the word he used? Don't know what it means. An Altmer sorceror that went missing some years ago. You probably don't know it, Atom, but you might have just done the wasteland its biggest service yet."
"So, does that mean I can..." Stars floated the bottle over to me, but just used it to bop me on the nose.
Level up! Well at least this won't be bugging out anymore New perk: Oh, Shazbot!
Then, I learned what memory loss feels like. I woke up somewhere I was pretty sure I didn't fall asleep in - glowing blue lines crossed my field of vision, I had a pain in my neck from whatever awkward upright position I'd slept in, and my hooves were held to the wall by more fields of glowing blue science. I was having one of those really bad experiences of waking up - y'know, spending an hour beforehand half-awake and not really getting any rest but still too groggy to properly wake up, really dry mouth, slight headache... Just generally feeling like shit. The lights made everything that wasn't the lights hard to see, which only added to my headache, and I couldn't feel my goggles or glasses, which pissed me off. You haven't skipped a chapter, by the way, I'm just not even going to try and narrate the parts I can't remember.
I was going to shout 'hello', but that felt too cliché. That's what all the helpless victims shout. I wasn't helpless, I was just... indisposed. I took a leaf from the raiders I'd met and yelled "Oy!" as loud as I could. Nothing. I'd been dumped into the start of either a torture porn movie or a weird fetish video, and neither of those options appealed to me. I still had no working clock, so I might have been waiting ten minutes or two hours. It was really fucking uncomfortable. Eventually some asshole decided to make himself known. I couldn't see the door, but I heard one - a hydraulic-powered sliding door, I'm guessing - and a smooth, subdued voice, like a vodka martini. Actually I have no idea what a vodka martini tastes like, I'm just going on some vague pop cultural reference.
"Ah, Miss Smasher. You're awake."
"I have floodlights beaming directly into my eyeballs, of course I'm fucking awake."
He chuckled. "My apologies. The techies tend to leave these things on their default settings." The lights dimmed enough for me to see some other things in the room. It looked rather like a stable - metal plated everywhere, some grating on the floor, high-tech doors... then there was this asshole in a startlingly clean tuxedo. Where do you even find washing powder that's still good in the apocalypse?
"So who's the bad cop?"
"We don't play that kind of game." He had a smug look on his face that I just wanted to punch until his whole head was inverted. "I can tell that you might have a few questions about your current predicament."
"Yeah. Can I get some coffee in here? Black, two sugars." He frowned. "Okay, okay. I'll humour you. Oh no! Where am I?" He furrowed his brow at my mocking tone. "Okay, seriously. What is this place and what am I doing here?"
"You've caused the Enclave quite a few problems, Miss Smasher. You caught the Majesty with her trousers down. To which, I must say, excellently done."
I frowned this time. "Okay, you badger me for asking you the wrong question, and then when I ask the question you want, you don't answer it. What the hell, man?"
"Aren't you going to ask about my commendation or pester me to reveal my allegiances?"
"Cripes, you are following a script, aren't you?"
He sighed, and shook his head. "I am Agent Horse Brosnan of Her Majesty's Secr-"
"'Horse Brosnan', are you fucking kidding me!" I made a note to save that one for later.
The pun rage vanished from my face in an instant. "Continue."
He raised an eyebrow at me. Like, this guy had some impressive eyebrow control. When he was done staring at me, he shook his head and continued the bullshit. "Myself and a few of my superiors in the Enclave have taken your actions as a blessing in disguise, Atom. Do you mind if I call you Atom?"
"Do you guys serve breakfast?"
He ignored my tangent. "The Majesty was weak. Her crew were complacent. They were just waiting for someone like you to come along and catch them off guard. Natural selection has taken its course, Atom. The rest of the fleet has been reminded that weakness will be punished, if not internally, then by the brutal wasteland we watch over."
"I'm just gonna stop you there and make a few deductions. First, you haven't killed me. You managed to find me somewhere and put me in this tanning bed so you can, secondly, give me a rambling lecture about how me wrecking your shit was actually a good thing for all involved. This isn't the first time I've been presented with the not-being-attacked-slash-compliments combo. Next you're going to tell me that you've been watching my progress from afar and think I have potential, and then offer me a job. Is that what the script says?"
He paused. "Yes, actually. I was warned that you're sharp, but you're still sharper than I was prepared for."
I shrugged. "Okay."
"Well if I say no, you're going to kill me, aren't you?"
"That is standard protocol, yes. It's just that usually the heroic types try to hold on to some integrity when they're cornered."
"Heroism and self-preservation instincts tend not to go hand-in-hand."
He laughed. "You and I are going to have an excellent working relationship."
"Can I get that coffee now?" He ignored me and went to do something at the wall. My restraints opened, and all the blinding blue lights vanished. I fell flat on my face and burbled for a second before getting up.
"You're going to need more than just coffee. We have big plans. Your belongings are in the locker by the wall. We could provide you with power armour, but you'll likely need training before you can use it properly, and either way, we figured that someone like you would rather play by her own style." Seriously? They were just going to give me my stuff back? This was stupid evil in action. I staggered over to the locker and rummaged through it. Everything was here, neatly packed. Even Xena. I think they'd even washed my jumpsuit for me. I got everything together so I was kitted out as I had been. Brosnan led me out of the room.
The corridor was as grim and metallic as the room I'd just come from. A couple of uniformed pegasi were running about, looking busy. One of them was playing Gallopga on a terminal. I realised now that it contained the word 'gallop', and must have been a pun on something. Fuck you, J'skar, now I'm seeing puns everywhere. It was oddly familiar - it looked rather like I imagine Stable 512 was supposed to look if it was completed. "What is this place? It looks suspiciously like a stable."
"It was. Stable 16, underneath Runicorn. It's about ten miles southeast of Liverpole." The geography was meaningless to me, but I didn't interrupt. "It was the first in the region to open after the war. It was still being used as a settlement right up until a few decades ago, when we cleared it out for use as a backup base in the north."
"Precisely. Digging our own tunnels would have been a large commitment of effort, and already empty stables would have decay problems and be a health hazard."
"You're probably the first pony I've met up here who's even mentioned health and safety." He laughed. We went through a door to the atrium of the stable. They must have been using the intended layout, because I remember the atrium of my stable being used as a general 'eat and laze around' place. This one was literally just a great big hallway. I was a little disappointed. "You mentioned big plans. What have you guys got in store?"
"I'm glad you asked. Her Majesty has decided to capitalise on the destruction of the Majesty. Without the clouds in the sky, the wastelanders will, no doubt, be crawling out of their holes. This is good. We even have weather teams minimising the rain to keep them out in the open. Treat them to the Great Braytish summer. Then when they're at their most relaxed, we bombard the entire county into rubble. Her Majesty is personally leading the fleet to purify the wasteland, which will be departing from Buckingham any day now."
"Sounds like you've got that all down pat. Just roll the stable door closed, hole up, have a cup of tea, and wait for all this to blow over."
"We still have a few days to make the most of it. This is where you come in."
"Soften them up, right?"
"Less softening them up, and more smoking them out. Find shelters and render them... out of service in the short term. There's also an old airbase north of Liverpole. We don't know what condition it's in, but there's potentially some anti-air guns on-site that a local resistance could use. They probably wouldn't be much trouble, but if you could be a dear and take care of them, it would make life easier for us."
"Hang on, you have uncountable numbers of power-armoured assholes trained in all kinds of weaponry and engineering, and you're asking a delinquent teenager to take out a tactical objective?"
He laughed again. I wondered when it was going to get old. "For someone to whom discretion comes easily, you underestimate its value. Sending a squad to Formby would cause alarm. News spreads with surprising speed in this part of the wasteland. We don't altogether know why."
"Ah, prepared for that plot hole, were you?"
We went through a door, around a corner and through another door to the dining hall. It was no Jennet View Inn, but everything still smelled tastier than the last stable food machines I'd encountered. Behind the counter were fridges and grills and a microwave and some other food apparatus I didn't recognise. None of these looked like the Protapaste-5000 gloop squirters I'd grown up on. A few ponies were quietly eating as far away from the radio as they could comfortably sit. I had coffee for the first time and decided I didn't like it, but that I'd continue using it in quips. Then against my own better judgement I tried it again, just with a shitload of milk in it. It was better that way. The breakfast menu had a lot of meat on it. Brosnan said that a lot of ponies' first encounter with meat is one of revulsion. I just didn't care because it smelled so good.
The kitchen was open, so I went over and started poking around. There were a couple of gas canisters under the counter for fuelling the stove. There were drawers for cutlery, crockery, a toaster that certainly looked like it had seen better days... I pulled the toaster on to the counter.
"That old thing? It hasn't worked for months. Just use the grill."
"Nah, I feel like a challenge. Who says toaster repair can't be a useful skill?"
Brosnan laughed. Okay, now it was getting old. "Knock yourself out." It occurred to me now that he was wearing a tuxedo at what must have been some time in the mid-morning. I put the toaster on my back and exited to the left. Then I crossed the door to the right. Then I crossed the door again. "Workshop's through the atrium, lower floor, door underneath the overseer's office." I made a note of where the toilets were as I passed. It was weird, seeing two sets of functioning loos in a stable setting.
Now, I don't know much about toaster repair. They're not complicated devices. There's a spring-loaded tray that the bread goes on, which clicks behind a catch, which opens when a timer runs down. No problem with that - the popping mechanism seemed to be working just fine. The heating element was probably on the fritz. I got to the workshop and popped the cover off. The element was a blackened pile of ash at the bottom. This toaster had seen a lot of use in its day. I started plundering the workshop for strips of metal. I found an iron strip, and got to work sticking it in.
A technician looked at me with concern. "Is that nichrome?"
"Duh. What kind of idiot do you take me for?"
"It just looks kinda rusty."
"Have you looked around lately? Everything looks kinda rusty. Even the glass." I tapped the window. It rattled an awful lot from just one tap.
"Hah. True." I continued putting the not-nichrome strip in the microwave. I tested that it functioned as originally intended. With that confirmed, I started hacking apart the electronics. I rewired the toaster so that the element would be powered when the tray was up, not down. I stripped out all the resistors in the path of the element to give it maximum power. Then I took some scrap paper and stuffed it under the element. Thing was a fire hazard waiting to happen. Last, I changed the dial on the timer to two minutes. One minute to set up, and another minute based on the amount of gas and the size of the room.
I returned to the kitchen, stuck the bread in, and made sure to plug it in and press it down at the same time. I started counting in my head. I got a couple of kitchen knives out and jammed them in the valves of the gas canisters.
"What are you doing?"
"There's some grit here that's bothering my OCD." I heard a grunt, and they went back about their business. "I'm just gonna head to the bog while that's doing, okay?" Brosnan gave me a dismissive wave from behind his Times. Once I was through the door, I legged it.
Now, I didn't have a plan. I reckoned I had about thirty seconds before the mess hall became a furnace. It'd take me longer than that to find the armoury, get something explosive and bring it back to start a chain. Didn't mean I couldn't start more, though. I headed for the generator level.
As I opened the door, I heard a distant rumble. It was barely audible over the generator, usually a mere hum you hear throughout the stable, but when you're next to it, you can't hear a thing. A technician ignored me as I entered. There were three milling around. None of them were armed. I sat back and pulled out the gun. Click-pfft-click-pap-click-pop-click-pfff. First shot missed, but the next three had them floored before they could look twice. I collected the darts, then I went for the master terminal. They'd be sounding the alarm any second now.
First thing I did was look for the systems list. I cut the power to the alarm system first. No sirens started blaring. I probably wouldn't have heard any outside anyway, but there were none in the generator room. Next I cut the power to the overseer's desk. I pondered on how much of a security liability that had to be, the fact that you could just cut the power to what was presumably the only other workstation in the stable that had the authority to shut down my shenanigans. Then I started going through security systems and shutting them down: automated turrets (definitely an Enclave addition), the wall sockets in the security office. Presumably that's where they had the things that charge power armour. Was that how power armour worked? I wasn't sure. They certainly weren't going to be playing arcade games instead of working now.
Next I thought about how to make things explode. Actually, I thought about how if I was going to be shutting this place down properly I would have gone straight for the generator room rather than made the kitchen explode, and how the workshop probably had more things than the kitchen that can cause problems for the whole stable. Ever since I earned my cutie mark I'd been banned from going anywhere near the generator room. I thought this was because they thought I'd just make everything explode forever, or that somewhere in here there would be a great big red button marked 'DESTROY THE UNIVERSE' but now I guess it was just because if I made something explode next to the generator, then nobody would have any light or water or nutrient gloop.
I started twisting knobs until things started beeping and saying 'danger'. The light bulbs overhead exploded. The tone of the generators turned into a distorted, strained whine of machines doing things they really don't like doing. I don't know what I did, but I figured it was time to get the hell out of there.
In the corridor outside, most of the lights had burst like the ones in the generator room. The broken circuit had triggered the emergency floor lights. There must have been guards making a beeline for the generator by now, and I didn't have the time nor will to ditch all my stuff and try to sneak by in a technician's uniform. I got out the volt whip, thought of some awful puns, and got ready to tank some damage.
When I got to the stairs, I could hear two of them thundering down the other way. Armoured, by the sounds of it. A rumble, followed by a pair of thuds as their momentum carried them into the wall. I cast the whip into where I expected them to be. It connected with the armour of the first one, which absorbed the shock. He flinched, but then grinned when he saw it did nothing. He stepped forward to use the incline of the steps to aim his battle saddle at me. Mid-step, the smirk turned into alarm. I took to the wing to ascend the staircase. The whip must have fried something in the armour, because he started tumbling down the stairs. I sailed over him and touched down at the top of the stairs. Rather than stop, I used this touchdown to spring myself back to the ceiling. The guy behind him filled the wall with bullets. I dropped, planting two hind legs on his head. I fell over in the resulting collapse, but he didn't get up. I lashed his armour with the whip to be on the safe side.
It occurred to me that my way out of the stable would be past the cafeteria I'd just incinerated, which would be, no doubt, crawling with soldiers and cleanup crew. Others would likely be scouring the facility for suspicious looking ponies. Which, to be fair, was everyone. Maybe if I got lucky, they'd open fire on each other.
I crested the top of the stairs and slammed into the door. Duh, electric doors. They were probably going haywire with the generator on the fritz. The ones on the two levels below had been stuck open (guards must have come from the middle floor). I gave it a lash with the whip, partly out of experimentation, and partly out of frustration. The jolt of power made it shudder, then slide mostly open. Out of curiosity, I went back down - the door below was mostly closed now. I frowned. Dammit, Stable-Tec, who wires a door system to work like a puzzle when it's suffering a power surge?
I ignored the weird doors and moved on. The smell of smoke and gas was still thick on this level. It was probably pretty oxygen poor now, and both my means of self-defence had a danger of igniting leftover gas. I was right that there were ponies around by the cafeteria, but they were all passed out. That meant the ventilation was offline. I went for the apartments to try the door up that way. I must have skipped a couple of levels of the puzzle, because it was pounding up and down repeatedly on the remains of a now bifurcated pony. I didn't feel like trying my luck, so I went for another way. There were two more doors I could try. One was the next level up from the stairs I'd come up from. That would take me past the security office, which didn't sound fun. I jumped over the remains of a fridge to take the route out past the clinic.
A thump to my side broke my gallop and floored me. I caught my bags before they spilled my shit everywhere. It turns out the strap didn't actually go that time, but it was becoming reflex. "That was one hell of a bathroom break, eh, Atom?"
"You don't survive as long as I have without spotting IEDs before they go off."
"And you left those three other dudes there to die?"
"I could tell they were trying to sit as far from the radio as possible."
"Wow, if you guys were any more ruthless, you'd get standard-issue twirly moustaches!"
Brosnan lunged at me for another kick. I went to scurry out of the way, but it connected with my hind leg and dropped me again. I kicked back, and he cartwheeled out of the way. Damn. Stupid secret agents and their training. His next blow was a bit limp, possibly from asphyxiation. I capitalised by whipping his stomach and making a break for it while he was spasming. Nothing blew up from the whip.
I whipped the two guards standing at the outer door. They didn't notice anything except for an odd sound. I sprinted for the cave mouth. The two guards shouted some angry accented things and then fell over when they went to shoot me. I stopped at the exit and looked back with a smirk. Then the ground shook, and I started running.
The first time I emerged from a stable to Mareseyside's rain-stricken, soggy countryside, it was a traumatic experience. The second time around it was just anti-climactic and dull. Yeah, yeah, all-claiming moisture and infernal wetness and stuff. I broke into a brisk jog. The stable was set in the side of a hill in a park. Twisted trunks and blackened stumps lay everywhere, and from the top of one I had a decent view of the surrounding area. No more mudbaths when I'm just trying to get my bearings!
The Maresey estuary snaked around the ruins of Runicorn. Canals circled the town just inside river, and a rusty railway bridge crossed it - the only bridge I could see. I scanned the horizon for the tower in Manechester. I saw the top of it at least, but the bottom was obscured by a black hole in my vision slowly eating everything. It hit, and knocked the wind out of me. I then couldn't breathe for a few more seconds on top of that, because my face was being scoured by a smelly, wet roll of sandpaper.
"Snowy! Snowy, let her up!" He gave me another lick, before stepping back. I staggered to my feet and wiped my face in Stars' cloak. She shoved me off her.
"Ah! There you guys are. What happened?"
"We were going to ask you!" Stars actually looked halfway concerned. I must have been out for a while.
"Well, the last thing I remember before this morning was... walking. I don't know how long ago." I rubbed my temples. "I think it was maybe an hour after Altrickham."
House blew his hat. "Musta been one hell of a blow to the head."
"Atom, Snowy found us near Altrickham and we got to Warreington yesterday evening. Somehow you decided not to solo the entire base, though I don't remember you correctly saying 'Steel Rangers' once..."
"'Spoon Radigators' is hard to remember."
"Uh-huh. Anyway, you were missing this morning with evidence of breaking and entering where you were sleeping, so command told us to track you down. So, yes, I'm here because I have to be, not because I want to be."
"Love you too, Stars."
"What happened to you, anyway?" House stepped in front of Stars before she could get the temptation to murder me.
"Eh, wasn't much. Found a stable, repaired a toaster, messed with some terminals... oh! I was kidnapped by the Enclave too. Nearly forgot about that."
Stars shoved House out of the way. "There's an Enclave base around here?"
The ground shuddered, and a plume of smoke started rising behind me. "It's not really a problem anymore."
Level up! I'm actually getting excited for these now New perk: Toaster Repair Pony
Whenever you fix a broken toaster, you receive a bag of loot from nowhere with no explanation. I guess this might be handy to kill some time at some point.
Based on probabilistic analysis of things that had happened already, we decided that it was safe to press on. Liverpole was only ten miles away, a little further than Warreington, but still not very far. Because I'd gone and smoked out an Enclave base right under their noses that they didn't even know was there, news would somehow osmosis through to RFM and thence to Steel Rangers HQ faster than it would take to walk back there. Furthermore, there were free drinks to be had, and knowing my luck, I had a one in four chance of finding a cure for taint on this trip.
Stars had calmed down substantially from the turbo-grouchiness that had soured her demeanour for the last few days. I was starting to think that she was on drugs. Then I was reminded that I couldn't smoke weed every day because it was extinct, and that made me sad. House... I don't know what was up with House. He was just kind of following us at this point, waiting for me to get shot so he could jump in front of the bullet. My guess was that both of them had adjusted to my tempo a little, and after a few hours without me, they started to get bored. Snowy, of course, was enthralled to see absolutely fucking everything, because while you can have a simple conversation with him, he remains a dog. And Xena, being an inanimate object, kept to herself, content in the knowledge that her presence ensured our party was racially sensitive.
After an hour of walking through shitty suburban rubble, we had to slow down. We spotted a raider. I took out my gun, but Stars snatched it off me before I could open fire. We continued with discretion. We passed another few groups as we moved on. They all had red flags with logos we couldn't make out. One group was carrying a grisly standard - the remains of a coal puppy, skewered and nailed to a rusty shield in a rampant position, liberally splattered with dried blood. Snowy whimpered. I didn't care, because going on Snowy's description of how he was kicked out, the other coal puppies were assholes.
We stopped on the upper floor of a ruined building, overlooking a street where some of the groups were starting to converge. Stars squinted. "I recognise these ones. Manechester United. Only, Old Troughord is miles away from here..."
"Plot inbound!" I shouted. House slapped me around the head to be quiet.
"Which can only mean that they're here for a match."
"It's what the raiders here do to entertain themselves. They strap their prisoners with bomb collars, give them the crudest weapons and armour they can find, and then pit them against each other in teams in a game of extremely violent football."
House chuckled. "So, regular football then?"
"I think she means actual football, not that glorified tag team of wrestling and advertising that passes for Equestrian football."
"But the... the joke is that football is already violent."
I rolled my eyes and sighed. I looked at Stars and shook my head. She made a similar gesture. "Equestrians, eh?" House grumbled.
We tailed the groups of raiders until there wasn't a way we could proceed without being spotted. We were in the ruins of an old coffee shop opposite a park, where a structure had been built out of scrap. Stars said they used the pre-war stadiums as shells for settlements because they're not dangerous enough to play their extreme football in, and none of them feel safe going into the home ground of another tribe, so they built these arenas on neutral ground. Considering these are supposed to be base, violent barbarians, I thought this was a remarkable display of consensus-finding. Maybe these guys should have been in government before the war.
I was about to turn and leave to find another way around the throngs of raiders cramming to get into the Murderbowl (I didn't see that name anywhere because they were all illiterate, but they probably called it something like that), when Stars nudged me.
"Where are you going?"
"I was going around."
"Aren't you going to... y'know, do your thing?"
"So, when I go around being trigger-happy and impulsive it's 'ooh, Atom, you have a murder problem, stop it', but the moment I decide to take a sensible course of action, you want me to run in all gung-ho?"
"Well, maybe have a little more discretion than that..."
"Or are you trying to get rid of me? That's it, isn't it, you're trying to push me into acts so reckless that I haven't a hope of surviving?"
"But... you might actually be able to save some..."
House closed her mouth with a hoof. "Yes, that's exactly it."
"Well fuck you, I accept your challenge!" I leaned out the window to start thinking. House smirked at Stars.
"I'm not getting in."
"Why not? It was your idea that I do this in the first place." I slouched in the seat with one hoof over the wheel. The glasses were down, and I couldn't properly see Stars glaring at me from three feet outside the passenger door. I couldn't properly see anything else either.
"I told you to do something, not... this in particular."
"What, form a plan on the spot that doesn't go further than thirty seconds in front of my face in total ignorance of personal safety? I don't know what you were expecting."
"I just really don't trust you to drive safely." We were a couple of buildings down from the stadium in an old multi-storey car park. There were hundreds of abandoned cars in states varying from almost-intact to 'pile of rust'. I'd just spent half an hour hot-wiring vehicles in order of size from biggest to smallest until I found one that worked as far as letting me reverse out of its spot. I'd ended up at the wheel of a pickup truck with wheels instead of hover thrusters. The tyres were completely flat, but it looked hardy enough to be able to shunt through anything big enough to give the wheels problems.
"Okay, fine, how about you ride Snowy in my wake?"
"You're going to leave a wake?"
"That's the plan. C'mon Stetson, let's go for the home run."
House quirked a brow at me as he climbed in. "That's baseball."
"It's still not football." He shut the door. The door didn't close properly, so he tried it again. The inside handle didn't work and the window wouldn't roll down, so Stars had to open the door for him and try to slam it shut. I tapped on the roof and put it into first.
As we were rolling out, I rummaged through the stuff stored around the driver's seat. I tapped on the radio in passing, but it was dead. I found some cassette tapes, but they'd probably been wiped centuries ago by electromagnetic pulses. I shoved one in the machine and pocketed the rest anyway.
"Check the glove compartment."
House frowned, and popped it open. "What for?"
"Little card. Probably with a black stripe on it."
He rummaged about a bit, then came back with the ticket between his hooves. I grabbed it with my teeth. "What... why?" I said nothing as we descended the one level to the exit.
We rolled up to the meter at the exit. I wound down the window and stuck the ticket in the machine. Reluctantly, the barrier lifted. "Someone just picked up the bill for a two hundred year parking stay."
I was surprised at how many road signs were still intact and legible. I went over a roundabout and the wrong way down a one way street to spite traffic laws, and stopped around the corner from the street the raiders had been gathering on, just out of sight. I tried the radio again.
House chuckled. "Normal priorities, then?" I kept fiddling with buttons until something came on. I heard mechanisms start whirring, followed by distorted, wobbly music playing out of the speaker on my side. Well, music was generous - someone who sounded entirely too pony to rap was gunning out rhymes over the remains of a beat. House winced. The lyrics were utterly unintelligible, but that wasn't the point. I cranked up the volume until the cracked windows started shaking. "What the heck are we listening to?" House might have said, if I could hear him. I revved the engine and started driving again.
I swore loudly at the worst traffic jam in history (the gridlock hadn't budged for years), and then went around a block to find the crowd of raiders had all filed into the arena in the time I’d taken. In my wing mirror, I could see Stars clutching Snowy by the back of the neck and looking nauseous. Out the window to my right were the letters O and I walking past in spiky armour. Stragglers. The fat one still had a large circular imprint on his front. Having heard the truck, they'd come over to investigate and were squinting to see inside. House slouched in his seat and lowered his hat over his face. I wound down the window and stuck my head out.
"Can I help you, gents?"
"What..." Stones began, but that sentence was never going to go anywhere.
"Don't I know you from somewhere?" Sticks said.
"What, orange, two sets of eyewear, doing alarmingly peculiar things?"
"Yeah. Sounds familiar."
"There's actually a bunch of ponies hanging around with description like that. You'd be surprised."
Stones tilted his head. "Really?"
I grinned. "No!" I yelled, then I jammed down the gas and wound the window up. I saw them get bowled over by Snowy as he went past.
"What's your, uh... plan here?" House said as I floored it. The cabin was filling with smoke and I drove a bit too close to a parked car, knocking the wing mirror off our tetanus hazard on wheels.
"Ram it? That’s it?"
"What did you think I was doing with the car?"
He looked at me with a grimace. "I've changed my mind. I'm with Stars, let me out."
"Oh, we bail out before we hit it, obviously."
"There ain't nothing obvious about anything you do, At-"
"Now!" I yanked on the inside door handle as the shadow of the stands loomed over us. The door didn’t budge. House pulled on the handle on his side, and it broke off. He stared me some daggers, let me tell you. I gave my side another thump. "Oh, bollocks." I ducked and waited for the sound of tearing, failing metal to stop.
The truck rolled over at least once. When it stopped moving it was upright at least, and we were back in the light. I poked my head out and lifted my glasses. (I was amazed they were still in one piece.) Snowy was sitting in front of the car scratching himself. There was a cloud of dust and a pile of scrap and limbs behind him where I can only guess a stand had been. The rest of the crowd had gone quiet. I crawled out a little further and looked behind the truck. Three more stands full of confused raiders, and a box at the top of one stand with two more behind a microphone. A ball squeezed out of the rubble and bounced to the middle of the field. After a couple of seconds, one of them had a brainwave. He leaned into the mike.
The truck rolled over at least once. When it stopped moving it was upright at least, and we were back in the light. I poked my head out and lifted my glasses. (I was amazed they were still in one piece.) Snowy was sitting in front of the car scratching himself. There was a cloud of dust and a pile of scrap and limbs behind him where I can only guess a stand had been. The rest of the crowd had gone quiet. I crawled out a little further and looked behind the truck. Three more stands full of confused raiders, and a box at the top of one stand with two more behind a microphone. A ball squeezed out of the rubble and bounced to the middle of the field. After a couple of seconds, one of them had a brainwave. He leaned into the mike.
"A challenger appears!" The crowd erupted. I took a better look at the floor level. Some dirty, hapless ponies carrying spikes and chains and bats and hammers all turned their gaze on me. Some of them were in red. Some others were also in red. I wasn't quite sure how the teams were supposed to tell each other apart. Maybe that was the point. There were sets of rusty goalposts at either end, and sets of painful-looking defences set up - spiked walls, barbed wire, bear traps, probably land mines too. I shrugged and cocked my gun. While I was aiming for an advancing 'player', Stars grabbed it off me.
"Atom, what are you doing? They're the prisoners! We're trying to save them!"
I ducked inside, and the player brought her crowbar down on the window. Stars dropped the gun to shield us from the shower of glass. Snowy jumped at the player, and tossed her into the stands with a swipe of his paw. I grabbed the gun again. I quirked a brow at Stars.
She rolled her eyes and sighed. "Just concentrate on the raiders..."
I ignored her and started firing to keep players away from the truck. House couldn't get out through the door so he crawled through the windshield too. I guess Stars didn't want to play, because she just shielded up the windows after him. At least it muffled the rap again.
I spent all my darts in a few seconds, which bought me a few more seconds to pick them up. "Triple kill!" shouted the commentator. Instead of doing that like a sensible pony, I lamented my limited ammunition for a moment, then turned my attention to the ball. I turned around and put it between my hind legs. Then I jumped with them to stand on my forelegs and let the ball go. Instead of a throw in the air and a powerful kick, I managed to throw the ball on to my own head and unbalance myself by kicking nothing. The combination made me fall over. With a grumble, I got the ball back and tried again. This time the ball landed on my ass, and I fell over again. I growled. Snowy jumped past me to maul a player that had closed the distance to me while I was fucking around. I tried one last time to get somewhere with the ball. Since it was muddy, my legs slipped during the throw, the ball dropped, and I clapped my legs together just in time to slip flat on my face. Looks like I wasn't going to be a star striker for United then.
House put a card in the throat of an advancing player. While he was stumbling and choking, I got up and kicked the ball on the ground. It took off with a wildly disproportionate amount of force. A curve of red light followed it as it hit him in the face. The impact relieved him of his face, leaving only bone, and the ball ricocheted into the air. When it lost its speed from gravity, the light faded. I jumped to meet the ball and give it a kick towards the goal. On target this time, it shot across the field in a gentle arc. The goalkeeper - chained by the hind legs and neck to the posts and equipped with dented paddles grafted to his forelegs - winced. The ball hit the crossbar and snapped it, before bouncing into the crowd, where it splattered some raider against their seat. With his neck freed, the goalie ducked and covered his face with the paddles. The crowd cheered and threw the ball back in.
"House, I've got an idea."
"Just do it, I'm busy!"
"Rampage!" came the announcement as he tripped a player into a bear trap. Snowy had stopped to get some lunch. I shrugged and picked up my darts. While I was reloading, a player came up behind me swinging a chain in his teeth. I stepped back to kick him in the face. He dropped the chain. Then, I fired one of my loaded darts to finish him off. I finished reloading and holstered it.
I picked up the ball and tapped Stars' shield. She lowered it on my side. "Think you can put this at a weak spot in each of the stands?"
"Unstoppable!" Substitutes charged on from the sidelines, and House detonated a mine next to the first approaching wave.
"It's a football, how is that going to do anything?"
"Watch!" I threw it up in the air (forelegs this time), floated up by two wing beats, and... missed.
"Legendary!" I didn't see what House was doing because despite herself, Stars burst out laughing at the timing. I tried the trick again and punted the ball up the field. The red trail followed its path towards the opposite goal, ending in a splatter of mud. The keeper went to get it away from his goal but it was very slightly out of the reach of his too-heavy paddles. Another player cleared it with a half-hearted kick that failed to light the ball, and only made it halfway back to us. Stars said something I couldn't hear over the terrible quality terrible rap. "Legendary!" the commentator said again.
"Didn't he already say that?"
"Just get the ball, Atom, I don't want to be here any longer than I have to."
A couple of players went for me while I sauntered over to the ball. Interpreting this as them wanting a pass, I kicked the ball full force at the nearer of them. She botched her dodge and took the ball to the flank. The impact made a loud crack and she span a couple of times like she'd been hit with a car, and didn't get up afterwards. The ball bounced into the air and bounced a couple of times on the ground at the feet of the other player. He looked down, then looked up slowly with a grin, and then took a dart between the eyes. Only I'm allowed gloat as a free action.
I returned to Stars with the ball balanced on my head. I rolled it back and tried to hit it into the air with my back, so it would land on the front of the car, but I just dropped it. Stars shook her head and crawled out so she could target things properly. I sat back and thought for a moment while she did some funky mental calculations. Why weren't we cheese by now? Did they just forget to bring their guns? Did they have bouncers at the doors taking their shitty assault rifles to mitigate the damage of the inevitable riot? Maybe they thought we were part of the show, stand collapse and everything. I shook my head and decided not to question it further.
The ball shot across the park and dented a corner of one stand. It creaked loudly, and the cheering from that end of the stand died off a bit. A few seconds later, it caved. Was this kind of thing par for the course? I pranced over to retrieve the ball from the wreckage. Most of the audience there had been skewered on bits of rust, or were crawling away limping, or just lying there missing a limb and waiting to bleed out. I wasn't so much disgusted as plain weirded out. Maybe raiders can afford to be so flippant with their own existences because they appear from thin air as random encounters? It kind of goes back to the slave economy thing. How is it supposed to be sustainable? If these raiders are going to throw their own lives away cheaply, then there must be a staggering number of them. Then presumably all of these raiders need to be fed, and there's no agriculture and a limited supply of salvage food. Or maybe it's just the rate of raider birth? There could be a very high turnover in the raider population, which allows them to Zerg rush and basically be disposable while not really consuming much food overall. Though we should then see a disproportionate amount of children...
"Atom! Hurry up!" Stars called. I decided to think about Malthusian limits another time and kicked the ball back over to her. She caught it in the air and demolished another stand. Talk about flimsy.
"Legendary!" I liked that the commentator was just going along with it. He seemed to be running out of lines though.
I was about halfway to fetching the ball again when I stopped. There was the creaking again, but nobody had done anything. A loud crunch followed, and one end of the remaining stand tilted. I made a note not to hire any raiders as building contractors, ever. Another support beam failed, and the stand fell in a wave. It was the biggest stand by far, and the ground shook as it all came down, dousing the whole area in dust. When it cleared, there was just me, House backed up against the truck, Stars standing on the truck, Snowy cleaning his face, Xena being a token minority in my bag, and a box on some precarious stilts with two stunned commentators sitting on top.
"Ace." After this final transmission, the commentary box collapsed.
I retrieved the ball and returned to the truck. Someone had turned off the stereo. Stars was rubbing her eyes and head and generally being in shock. I couldn't fit the ball in my bag so I just bounced it on my head. "Well then! How'd I do?"
"I... didn't expect it to be so... murderous."
"You asked me to break up a game of murderball run by murderous barbarians. Were you expecting something else? I don't think talking was going to work." Seven, eight, nine...
"I thought you'd look for a balefire egg or something, not get so... personal with them." She hopped off the car. Snowy was sniffing around the ruins of the stands and peeing on a couple of things.
"I could say something about how that wouldn't be as much fun, but that's a really 'me' thing to say, isn't it?" House looked at me and nodded. My bounce count got up to fifteen. "So I'll play your game. How would bombing them from orbit be any better?" Stars looked at me in silence. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one... "You wanted the raiders put down and I put them down. You even helped. Do you feel dirty for being pragmatic or something? You're the worst technical pacifist evFUCK." I dropped the ball at twenty-six. Stars gesticulated for a few seconds, but words didn't come. "Fuck, why am I indulging your whining? Let's just go before you go full strawman."
Level up! New perk: Grand Theft Auto
You have a chance to get ruined cars working for a short time.
Is it pretentious to start off with a radio broadcast? I mean, it's jumping right into the action, but it feels kinda cliché and 'oh look at us we're important', instead of it just being a thing that happens. But it was just the next interesting thing that happened to us, so unless I insert some flashback interlude or suddenly decide to tell the story in anachronic order, I'm going to have to go with that.
The radio didn't have room for tapes in it, and everyone else was sick of listening to woefully time-distorted rap music, so we just left it on RFM. The signal was crystal clear by now, since we were only a couple of miles from the transmitter at the top of the Royal Liverpole Building. About ten minutes after we left the remains of the arena, the music gave way to Tribute's annoying voice.
"Alright cats and kittens, it's time for some sport news with Tribute!" A mouth sound effect followed. "Thanks, Tribute." I gestured putting an imaginary gun in my mouth and blowing my brains out. Tribute adopted a deadpan tone. "In football, the match between Manechester United and Liverpole FC was cancelled due to a pitch invasion by the Saint from the Stable. The stable dweller drove a hijacked vehicle on to the field and proceeded to demolish the stands. There were no survivors." She broke her act and burst out laughing for a few seconds, before proceeding in her normal voice. "You heard me correctly! Not satisfied with giving the local Enclave the boot and shutting down the steel mills with efficiency that puts Maregaret Thatcher to shame, now it looks like she's cleaning up the raider problem! Next I'm gonna get reports in that she's found a spell to purge radiation, or fresh seeds to start agriculture with." Stars looked at me and blinked. "But more importantly, I might actually have to pony up on those drinks since she's heading this way! This is Tribute and you're listening to 91.1, Radio Free Mareseyside! Voted best station in the country, eight years running!"
We stopped. Snowy was still licking the blood off his chops, it was that fresh. Stars was the first to start moving again. "The Royal Liverpole Building is only a half hour's walk from here. Maybe she'll start narrating your approach to the building."
"Oh boy!" I quickened my pace. Onward, to free booze and bootlicking!
As we approached the building, I concluded that Tribute had to be one of those ponies without a functioning nose. I could smell the sea before I could see it, and it was the nauseating smell of rot. House and Stars didn't seem bothered by it, and Snowy could probably smell it all the way from Warreington, and what worried me most was that I might be adjusting to the smell too. The sea, the mother of all moisture, corrupting me by mere proximity, after already being weakened by the peppering from its airborne spawn...
"Atom, what is it that has you spacing out like that every now and then?"
"What? Oh, nothing. Just the weather."
"The weather?" Stars looked at House. He shrugged.
The building was one of the few intact ones on the seafront. It had two towers and was about as long as it was tall, capped with statues of birds and a clock that was stuck at about five past twelve. It was a weird mix of function and style, being largely brutal, square concrete, but with some domes and arches and capitals, like the architect was told to make the most boring building in existence, but secretly put some stylish features into the plans when nobody was looking. It had fared a lot better than the buildings around it, most of which were just rubble. Some of this rubble had been stolen to block up doors on the ground floor, and the only way in was past two bored-looking armed guards. Stars waved a thing at them, and they let us pass. Snowy had to stay at the door, but he was okay waiting.
We passed into an atrium with a ruined marble floor, and proceeded to the stairs. Evidently, the lifts had been out of order for a while. A couple of ponies milled about, minding their own sharply-dressed business. "Hm. Usually when I come here I see Uran trying to negotiate his way in."
"Who the fuck is Uran?"
"He's a gryphon mercenary. There was a ghetto of gryphons stranded in Liverpole after the war, and all the gryphons in the area are descended from them. Since they're typically hardier than ponies, they can make a pretty penny hiring out their ser-" I yawned loudly. Stars rolled her eyes. "Uran's band of mercs want to retire and settle in the Royal Liverpole Building but they're not let because they'll spook the other residents."
"Really? A few bird-brains scare these ponies?"
"Twice the size and carrying flesh-rending natural weapons? Yeah! Most of these ponies don't go out in the wasteland. They're the closest you might find to 'civilised'. There's too much culture clash. A couple of them are ghouls too. Have you ever seen a gryphon ghoul? It's not pretty."
"So you're saying the residents are right to turn them away?"
"Not... not exactly. I mean, you can't blame the gryphons for wanting to settle. They don't really have a home, and aside from hiring them to kill things, ponies don't really want anything to do with them."
"So the gryphons are in the right?"
"Not entirely. They speak their own language, which makes it difficult for them to communicate with ponies..."
"So it's okay to segregate them?"
"Okay, look, it's complicated, alright? I'm not pretending to have the answers."
"So, because of that, we should ignore the problem until it goes away?"
Stars bopped me on the head. "Let's just get your stupid drinks and go."
We continued to the top floor of the building. I could hear music coming from a source other than our radio, so I turned ours off. Stars led us two doors down, and ducked her head inside. The rest of her followed, and I heard her knock. Then she leaned back and gestured for us to enter. The room was studio flat in the most literal sense - an single-roomed apartment with furniture and necessities across from a mixing desk and towers of vinyl records. Behind the desk, a pony's eyes lit up when they saw me. She nearly spat out her drink. It looked like cola, but there was a bottle of rum near her too. At a guess, it was twelve. I saw no problem with this.
She tripped over some junk trying to get out from behind her desk in a hurry. "Is this her? Are you her?" I recognised the voice as definitely Tribute. She looked mostly like I'd expected her to look - styled in pre-war rave fashion, down to the huge sunglasses, highlights and gratuitous belts. At first I was pleasantly surprised to find a pony who wasn't entirely some variant of grey, but then the bright green and pure white combo smacked of bad colour sense to me, and hurt my eyes after a little bit. So yeah - she looked like she sounded. Loud.
"Maybe? One pronoun only narrows it down to half the population."
Stars sighed. "Yes, Tribute, this is Atom Smasher."
Tribute shoved past Stars to grab my hoof and shake it vigorously. House found a couch to take a nap on. "Oh, man, is this an honour! I... is that a sticker?"
"I'm playing on hard mode."
She laughed. "That is hardcore!"
"Now, about those drinks..."
She doubled over and grinned. If she gushed any harder, she was going to start vomiting. "Of course! I'm a girl of my word. Let me just throw a couple more records on the changer and we can get a round in." She hopped over the pile of stuff she'd tripped on to get back to the desk and pick out some tunes to mount up. "I'd ask what you're drinking, but unless you feel like being relieved of all your caps downstairs, I think we should stick to the Captain Maregan's I have here, yeah?"
"Booze is booze. I am easily pleased."
She chuckled. "Crush your enemies, see them driven before you..." I looked at her blankly. "No? Sword Mares?"
I looked to either side, then shrugged. "What's that?"
"No comic books in the stable?" I shook my head. "Wow. Wow. I'm going to have to catch you up on your cultural education, young lady." I gave her an eyebrow. Bitch, if you think I'm going to be around long enough to do that...
A thump on the roof startled everyone except Tribute. A few seconds later, a pegasus landed on the balcony. I reached for my gun. "Relax!" Tribute finished with the records and jumped out from her makeshift booth to walk to the window. She opened it, and the pegasus stepped inside. Tribute locked it behind her. They shared a hoofbump. "Guys, this is my partner in crime, Grapevine. G, meet Atom Smasher."
"She gives me the scoop on everything happening in the wasteland. News as it happens, all the time." Ah. Mystery solved.
Grapevine removed a pair of bags and nodded at me. "I've seen you around. You have no idea how much easier my job is with that Thunderhead gone."
"I'm kind of hard to miss."
She had a more subdued laugh, more of a grin with air forced through it. "Ain't that the truth."
"So, G! What's happening?"
"There's some raider movements in Manechester. I think the City raiders decided to make a move on Old Troughord after they heard what happened." I smiled and waved. "There's a cloud front off to the southwest that's breaking up so there's a chance of light showers, and... that's it really. The morning route had a, eh, diversion, so there's probably some things I missed."
"Of course!" Tribute gave me a playful nudge in the shoulder on her way back to get the rum. She stopped when she reached the desk. "Actually... actually, I have an idea. Atom, how do you feel about doing an interview?"
This actually threw me off guard. I made an exaggerated display of thinking. "When?"
"You're here. I'm here. About two songs from now?"
"Can we drink on air?"
"I never don't."
"Excellent! Let's do it." Stars scoffed and started looking for a bathroom.
Grapevine frowned. "What's her problem?"
"Stool Razor. A bit uptight."
Tribute chuckled. "Sounds about right. Good security when Smith and Wesson at the door get overwhelmed, but they can be the worst whiteknights sometimes."
"Speaking of Security, it seemed kinda lax on the way up here. Two dudes at the door and that was it. I'd have thought you'd have more bodyguards."
Tribute fiddled with a second microphone and tested it before answering. "Only folks who know we're based up here are the ponies in this building and the Steel Rangers. As far as everyone else is concerned, the Royal Liverpole is just a gated community in a tower."
"I keep saying that most ponies seem to lack a concept of stealth."
I got myself comfortable behind the desk and we split the last cola as a mixer. It was room temperature, but fared better than beer. The last song hit its crescendo, then died off. Tribute started talking before it was over. Annoying DJ habits while I'm there in person? Fucking hell.
"Now then now then, cats and kittens! Do I have a treat for you? Of course I do. I'm Nightmare Night and Hearth's Warming all at once, treats non-stop, round the clock. But today is something special! Say hi."
She pushed the microphone at me. I paused. Then I lowered my voice into a smooth alto. "Hey." I furrowed my brow. I could just about hear myself through Tribute's headphones. "Do I really sound like that?"
She grinned, but didn't break her verbal stride. "I've got a surprise guest in the RFM studio! She dropped in unannounced and desperately thirsty. You might remember her from such wasteland hits as 'Thunder over Manechester' and 'Braytish Steel - the Implosion of Showffield'. Live on Radio Free Mareseyside, it's the one and only Saint from the Stable, Atom Smasher!" She leaned back from the mic and clapped. Grapevine, sitting across the room, chuckled and contributed to the no-budget sound effect. House was already asleep. Stars returned with a bottle of water.
"Thank you, thank you... I didn't say stop."
Tribute laughed. "Great to have you here Atom. So! Tell me. We see ponies popping out of stables every now and then, and it's usually the same story. 'Aah, where's the ceiling, I'm dizzy, why is everyone killing each other!' But you've really hit the ground running, and not only that but you ride around committing acts of wanton heroism in style. Where do you get that kind of drive and panache?"
"Well... this should be the part where I trot out the spiel from a sponsor, yeah?"
"A can of Red Dash every morning?"
"No, it has to be Cheesey Burger or something completely unrelated and obviously unhealthy like that."
"But nah, I just... I dunno." I sipped my drink. "I'm all for maximum fun, and wasting time being helpless and miserable isn't very fun. It's like, I could sit around looking for things to angst about, or I could make things explode instead."
"Fun?" Tribute coughed as her drink went down the wrong way. "Well aren't you Mrs. Unflappable!"
"Gotta do something to amuse yourself in the big bad wasteland, right?"
"And you might as well fight the good fight while you're at it?"
"I guess. I didn't really have a plan when I came out of the stable. I just kind of... went places, and things happened. If you look at it another way, say you're in school. You have all the wimpy kids getting their lunch money stolen every day, and the bullies lording it over them and living like kings. And then I enter this scenario. I could easily throw my lot in with either group. If I get behind the bullies, then yeah, I beat up a couple of dweebs, and that's amusing for like... five minutes. They don't fight back. But if I go against the bullies, now there's a challenge. That's fun."
Tribute paused while she processed this. I made the note that sociopath logic shuts her up. "Well, I'm not gonna argue with the results!" She chuckled and headed half her drink. "What was it like in your stable? Was it one of the experimental ones, did it have anything funny about it?"
"It was built entirely in a giant underground sweetroll."
"I had to leave because it was starting to rot through."
"I knew Stable-Tec did some weird experiments, but that's just..."
"I'm pulling your leg. You can't build stables out of cakes." There was a thud as Tribute's forehead hit the table. "But really, if you look at the entirety of my life, even though it takes up like, 99.9% of it, the part where I lived in a stable was the dullest part. There's only so much variety in a bunch of tunnels you're supposed to live your whole life in."
"I know a lot of ponies who would give anything to retire to a stable, but that doesn't really sound like you. Would you say you live for danger?"
"Sounds about right. I'd give directions to Stable 512 if anyone wanted to sneak back in and pretend to be me, but I've probably forgotten where it was already."
"I know sometimes the ponies that find their way out of stables are the ones that have a bit of a wanderlust, or, like yourself, just get bored with being safe and dry. Have you met any other stable dwellers in your travels?"
"There was one. When I was in the Preak District, there was this guy, easily twice, three times my age. He'd gone and rounded up the raider tribes in Scoltland to lead a purge of Braytain." Tribute sprayed the console with coke. She went into a panic to clean up the mess before it rendered the thing unusable. Stars tossed over the cape from Brumare. I was surprised she still had it. I didn't miss a beat talking about Bravehorse though. "I think the wasteland got to his head. They were styling themselves after Coltic historical and mythological figures with all the accuracy and consistency of a Mule Gibson movie. He even offered me a job, but itchy trigger hooves happened, and we had to leg it. Far as I know he's still out there."
Tribute nodded at Grapevine, and she started scribbling down some notes on a pad from her bag. "Cats and kittens, you heard it here first, watch yourselves in the Preak District..."
"Oh, also, batten down the hatches and shoot anyone in a kilt on sight, because they're still on the way. I could have been Thane of Flankashire if I'd taken him up on his offer."
Tribute clutched her head and mouthed a 'wow'. "You serious?"
"It's less of a stretch than a gingerbread stable, eh?" I chuckled, but I was the only one laughing. "Nah, I didn't see any other stable dwellers around, but I did find another stable. Actually it'd be more accurate to say it found me. This morning I woke up in Stable 16 after getting abducted by the Enclave. Turns out they were using the place as a secret base."
"Oh relax, it's fine. The place is rubble now." Grapevine made more notes. "It's funny. While I was there I managed to convince them I was going to join them, and they told me about their secret plan to bomb Manechester and Liverpole to dust in retaliation for scuppering the Majesty." Tribute and Grapevine looked at each other slack-jawed.
Stars dropped her water. "You didn't tell us this!" House remained asleep.
"It seems a bit misplaced, considering they were perfectly willing to hire the one who actually blew it up, and then they were going to bombard... everyone else? If you needed any further evidence of the Enclave being astronomical jerks for no good reason, there it is. I-"
"Atom, it's been great to have you but we're going to have to leave it there. Cats and kittens, this is Tribute and I've been talking to Atom Smasher on 91.1, Radio Free Mareseyside! Make sure all your stuff is nailed down, because I think we're going to have an explosive summer." With the touch of a button, the microphones went dead and the music started up again.
"What did you do that for? I was only on for like, two minutes!"
Tribute ignored me. "G, you get all that?"
"Swing over Runicorn and start scouting the Preak District. Four hours tops."
"Awesome." They bumped hooves over the top of the desk, and Grapevine left through the window.
Stars stepped over. "The Rangers should have heard that. They should be starting preparations already."
"Alright, cool. Are you guys going to meet up with them?"
"I dunno. I could really do with some lunch." Stars glared at me. "Also, I guess we could take a look at Formby."
"You know about Formby?"
"Enclave guy wanted me to knock out the anti-air guns there."
Stars went wide-eyed. "Atom, can you tell us these things?"
"Those guns are gonna be useful. If you could run ahead to the base and clear out any nasties at home, you could save the Rangers some grief."
"Is there somewhere to get food there?"
Tribute chuckled again. "You can eat before you leave. Just no three course banquets, alright?"
I threw my hooves in the air and stormed out. "Alright! Fine! Sheesh!" I heard Tribute getting the funny side of it, and Stars sighing as I walked out.
I also heard her waking up House. "Did I miss something?"
Stars insisted we eat quickly, and we were on our way in twenty minutes. Snowy jumped me as soon as I was out the door to cover me in slobber. I heard the click of a gun being cocked, and a few more clicks in response. When I fought my way out from being accosted by an eight foot dog, I got a look at what was going on; a gryphon pointing an assault rifle at us in a panic, and the two guards with triggers in their mouths. The gryphon tilted his head when he saw me climbing on Snowy's back. I put two and two together.
"Relax, Snowy here is tame." I scratched him behind the ear, and he made an appreciative noise. The gryphon hesitated, then lowered his gun. The guards stood down too.
"Get lost Uran, before you cause any more trouble."
"But I have not done anything! I only came here to ask for your Barmherzigkeit..." He had an accent thicker than cold definitely-not-peach-flavoured nutrient gloop.
"You do that every day, and you don't stop being a waste of oxygen. Now scram."
Uran sighed and started walking away. "One lives in hope that one day you will open your doors and your hearts to us."
I jumped off Snowy to catch up with him. "I'm not sure why you keep doing that."
"My people cannot live as hired guns forever. It is no way to be for very long."
"No, I mean just going up to them and asking them nicely to let you in. It's obviously not working, so why don't you try something more pragmatic?"
"Y'know, think about what your options are and do something that you know will work instead of trying the same failed plan day in, day out."
"Atom, Formby is this way," Stars called. I ignored whatever Uran said next and reclaimed my perch atop Snowy.
Level up! New perk: A Face For Radio HEY
You get a situational +10 bonus to Speech if the person you are talking to can't see your face.
It took us two hours of walking through boring, ruined Liverpole and boring wasteland between satellite towns to get to the airbase. We passed some places so run-down I had to wonder if they looked like that before the war too. We stuck to the motorway, and Stars was all too happy to regularly remind me that because of time constraints I was under a strict alicorn-engagement embargo. Also an anything-engagement embargo, but red alicorns particularly. Being force-marched to Formby made looking for one tempting, though.
The airbase didn't look like it was much use as an airbase anymore. The runways were cracked and grown through with weeds, that had since decided they didn't like living anymore and died, leaving husks of un-rotted plant matter poking through the tarmac. The few planes that remained were rusted into nothing. They were out of their hangars and had a couple of skeletons around them. I guessed that they had been scrambling to take off when the megaspells fell, but just weren't quick enough, and one fell close enough that everyone on the base died, but far enough away that it left it in once piece. That is, until time and rain got to it.
There wasn't any sign of raiders. No gory standards, no sign of football fields. There were, however, dozens of landmines littering the tarmac around the hangars. No effort had been made to hide these; this was an idiot trap and a 'keep out' sign.
"Should we just start popping them?"
"Don't," House said. "You get these kinds sometimes. They hole up somewhere with a sniper rifle and all the defences they can get. No reasoning with 'em. Don't want nothing to do with no one. If we pop 'em the bastard will start firing on us."
"So if they don't want nothing to do with no one, that means by filtering double negatives that they do want something to do with no one? That doesn't make any sense."
House shook his head and ignored me. "You've got wings. Fly over and scout ahead."
"We could just charge in. Stars puts up a shield, we climb up on Snowy and make a break for the hangar."
Stars sat back and crossed her forelegs. "I thought you liked to do things the hard way."
"One of these days, Stars, the dares you put me up to will come around to bite you." I reared up and hovered. I'd become reasonably confident in my flying ability over the last few days, but I was still a little uncertain about being able to stay in the air long enough to cross the whole minefield. As I was going, Stars grabbed my tail. When I looked around, she shoved about five disarmed mines at me. I took them and tilted my head. "If that was so easy, why don't you just disarm your way to the hangar?"
"I can do that, but it'll still take me ten minutes to cross what you can do in maybe... twenty seconds?"
I glared. "Ten." Then I flew the fastest I'd ever flown. I touched down just after the last few mines, and ended up rolling and dropping my mines. I gathered them up and started looking around on foot.
Inside the hangar, there were a couple more, slightly less rusted planes. The anti-air guns were mounted on trucks, ready to be deployed, and were in much better nick than the trucks themselves. The Stove Rangefinders would sure have their work cut out getting those into place. Everything else around the hangar was just decaying except for one control box that had a light on inside. I lowered my carriage and crept up to the wall.
The windows were blown out. I turned my head to the side and raised it to the window to see inside with a minimal profile. The control panels were being used as desks, and the room had been converted into a bedroom for one. A pony was asleep on a dirty mattress in the corner, and there were a few boxes of supplies littered around. I smirked and ducked behind the window again. I bopped a mine and tossed it through.
I heard a 'yowch' as it hit him on the nose. A slew of heavily accented swearing followed as he realised what was going on. Light sleeper, I guess. I looked around to the door, and saw him dive out of the room a split second before the blast. He growled when a shard of hot clay slashed his flank. He spotted me when he was getting up, and I threw the rest of the mines. He shouted something else that I couldn't make out because of his accent, and dived back inside. I took out my gun, but by the time I was armed, the tip of a rifle was poking out of the broken window. I slapped the rifle up averting the first shot, and giving me the duration of a reload to either counter-attack or find cover. The nearest plane was a good thirty feet away and my take-off would be an awkward three-legged hobble with a Nerf gun strapped to my arm, so I stood and pointed the gun inside.
I pumped and fired, but it went over his shoulder. In my reload time, he'd stepped back to put me back in his sights. I ducked. I heard the gun fire again. I shimmied back to fire another two darts through the window. He growled after the explosions - still not dead. I pumped and waited. I could empty the cylinder in the hopes of carpet-bombing him to death, but he was proving a tricky customer. A grenade flew from the window a couple of seconds later. I had no idea how cooked it was, so using my pro football skills, I kicked it in the air to send it away. Thing was hard and heavy so I hurt my hoof, but it went off far enough away that I was still alive. I got showered with hot shrapnel, but nothing dug in. I realised I should have tried to return it, but that would have been riskier.
I turned and backed up to the wall below the window. If I tried to bolt, he'd just put a hole in me. If I stood up, he'd still put a hole in me. If I waited, he'd realise that I was under the window and throw more explosives. Stupid camping snipers. I took off my gun and held it at the awkward angle needed to blind-fire into the room. I spent two darts this way before strapping it on and standing. The blind shots had dented the ceiling and staggered him. I fired off my last shot, aiming straight for his head. He heard the cock and brought his gun leg up. The dart hit the tip, and the blast bent it. He looked at it with a glower you could grate cheese on. I smirked. I cocked and fired again. Nothing happened. Empty. I guess in all this excitement, I did fire six shots and not just five. He dropped his gun and I holstered mine. He floated a box of grenades out, and I started running. I heard the blasts of the mines going off, but when I looked behind me, he was still coming at me and getting ready to throw the first grenade. Stupid cheating unicorns.
I took to the wing soon after. A grenade went off closer to me than I'd like. He was pretty good at cooking them - he was aiming to blow me out of the air. I glided out of the hangar and over the minefield. Another grenade went off even closer to me. I felt shrapnel nick my leg, not bad enough for serious injury, but enough to spook me into an early landing. I was still over the minefield, so I ran like hell and hoped I was faster than the fuse.
The first blast was close enough to physically move me with the shockwave. Shrapnel slashed my ear, but I dodged the rest of it. I gave a wing beat to get some speed. Between that and the force from the first mine, I was able to jump over a few, and be in the air long enough to target my landing away from a mine, giving me another split second's free pass. The last ten feet was a desperate sprint that detonated the mines I passed over, but I was able to clear them in time.
Once I saw that I was in the clear, I skidded to a halt and looked back. The sniper was still by the hangar, twirling a grenade in the air. He looked at his box, and I guess he must have had loads, because he just decided to throw one anyway. Then I heard blasts from an unexpected direction. There was a call of "Snowy, no!" from halfway through the minefield. The big idiot was charging across the minefield, detonating everything in his wake, but being fast enough and oblivious enough to get through unharmed. The grenade hit the ground with a metallic ping, and reminded me to back the fuck up. When I looked at the courses of the bouncing grenade and the bouncing... dog, I noticed they were heading for the same spot. Just over the edge of the minefield, Snowy met the path of the grenade and started stumbling to a stop.
The next part happened so fast I might as well have been standing there like an idiot. He must have caught it in his teeth, and he spent a second getting a good grip on it. I wasn't sure if I should yell at him or try and dive for him or whether any of those things would have made a difference, so I did nothing. He lifted his head with the grenade in his teeth and looked at me. As far as he was concerned, he'd just made an okay fetch, and now he'd try to hold on while I wrestle the ball from his jaw. It was all there in the goofy grin on his face.
I'm a good boy.
Then Snowy had no head. The rest of him took a second to catch up and remember to fall over. There was nothing left above the neck, now spurting blood like a super soaker. (I'd have said a fountain, but one, that's a cliché, and two, fountains don't lose pressure after a couple of seconds.) I sat back on my haunches and blinked vacantly. This was certainly new. I was actually feeling something over a death. I wasn't about to break down sobbing, though. What I was feeling was more like a surge of white-hot angry charge-across-the-minefield-at-the-bastard-who-just-killed-my-dog. I don't think I'd ever moved so fast, before or since. I didn't care about the mines. He might have thrown another grenade, but I was going so fast he didn't even come close to hitting me. I had no darts left in the gun, the whip would take too long to take out, and using his own grenades would be too quick.
I tackled him to the ground. He could have repelled me with magic, but I think I came up on him too fast. He landed flat on his back and then skidded a couple of feet. I was straddling his chest. I punched him in the temple first to stun him. He was dazed, but not unconscious. Perfect. I patted him down for a sidearm. He had a pistol in his belt. It was awkward trying to fire it, since it was one of those retarded things built just for unicorns. I eventually came on a highly unsafe arrangement where I held the body and bottom of the handle with hooves and pulled the trigger with my tongue. The first bullet hit the concrete beside him. The second hit his horn, and the pain was enough to bring him back to full consciousness. He swung a blind punch that knocked the gun away.
I elbowed him on the nose, and gave him another stunning blow to the side of the head. I brought the gun back and fired another shot into the air. Now freshly hot, I shoved it in his mouth so there was just the handle hanging out, and held his jaw shut. I relished the muffled scream. I put one hoof under his jaw and forced forward, so I was holding his jaw shut and his head back with a single motion. I leaned in and licked his neck. I let a laugh slip. He whimpered.
Then I bit as hard as I could. I wasn't sure what I was aiming for, but I just sank my teeth in and pulled until I felt something give. Then I did it again - it was hot and wet this time - and again, and two more times before I found what I was looking for. His jugular burst and leaked blood like a broken pipe. It got all over my face and dribbled down my neck. I considered diving again for the carotid, but then he'd bleed out too quickly.
I stayed on him for another minute until the flailing was weak and delirious. When I released his jaw, there was nothing more behind the muffled cries than soft wheezes and squeaks as his light faded. I waited until he stopped breathing, then kicked him in the head. I still had frustration to vent, but I didn't want to end his suffering prematurely.
Stars took another minute to cross the last of the minefield. I collected my darts while she was doing that, and stocked up on grenades and anything else I could find in the hangar. I downed a health potion and pocketed two more, found 25 caps, more batteries, and some of the breathmints. I didn't think I had any use for them, but I figured I might as well steal from him while I'm here. Fucker killed my dog.
She'd just cleared a safe path when I left the hangar. I walked straight past her to leave the airfield.
"Aren't you going to stay while we..."
"The guns are fine. Let's go."
They said nothing, but they caught up with me before I left.
The walk back to Liverpole was completely silent. The radio was off, and nobody said anything. I think they were afraid I'd kill them horribly if they dared agitate me further. They were probably right. Normally, my actual indignation would be fading into putting it on to fuck with them by now, but having to walk was a constant, repeated jab in the raw wound of not having Snowy anymore. So it was mostly still genuine.
Smith and Wesson weren't at the door of the Royal Liverpole Building. I thought this was odd, but I didn't really care. I just wanted to crash on Tribute's couch with the rest of her rum while she fanned me with a big leaf or something. House and Stars didn't hang around.
The smell of death hit us when we entered. They hesitated, but I wasn't fazed. In the lobby, there were... maybe sixteen? Twenty? I didn't stop to count. About twenty dead ponies in small piles. Uran was standing there with a clipboard, and a couple of other gryphons entered and dumped three dead foals on a pile. Now I see what Stars meant about gryphon ghouls being hideous. Uran caught me out of the corner of his eye and lit up with a smile.
"Ah! Pony with green hair."
"What's... what happened here?"
Just so this next sentence is accurate in your head, I'm going to break my convention of not transcribing accents. Also remember that Uran is looking absolutely pleased as punch while he's explaining this to me. "Vell. I sought about vhat you said, and vent back to ze camp. Ve talked about it, zen ve all came over and ve killed zem all! It vas very efficient. Pragmatisch, ja?"
House and Stars stood in the door with their jaws completely unscrewed. I frowned, and looked around at the bodies. I found Smith and Wesson, but nobody else I recognised. I put a hoof up. "One second."
"You don't live here, do you? Then we would have to kill you and that would be a shame."
"No, no..." I called back as I went up the stairs.
When I reached the top floor, I could still hear music. Two gryphons were at the end of the corridor, chatting idly to themselves. The music was good cover for sneaking past them. Tribute's studio was empty. Her rum was still there, so I pocketed that. The changer had a few dozen records lined up, including a few spaces. I sighed, and a knock on the window caught my attention before I could get my gun out. Grapevine was knocking on it. I let her in.
"I haven't seen her. Gryphons invaded the building. Bodies everywhere, but I haven't found her."
Grapevine started panting and pacing. "Shit. Shit shit shit. Shit." She checked the desk. "She left two days of music and some voice recordings on the changer. She had enough time to set that up, so she might have bailed out."
"The end of this building looks out on to the Maresey. Shit! I've gotta go look for her." She left her bags and went straight back out. I shrugged and cocked my gun.
Half an hour later, there were two piles of bodies in the lobby. Everything was a bit mangled because I was throwing grenades and shooting explosive darts, but there was still quite recognisably one pony pile and one gryphon pile. I threw the remains of two gryphlets over the second floor barrier to their pile (I think it was two, might have just been one in a lot of pieces) and jumped off after them. I went for a gliding landing rather than using the bodies as a cushion, because the gryphon pile was all talons and pointy beaks.
"Okay. I think I'm okay now." I wiped my brow and looked up. House and Stars were still in the doorway, staring at me. "What?"
"What? What, Atom? Where do I even start!" I looked around and shrugged. There was a rack of fliers by the door, and I went over to inspect it. Stars grabbed me to face her again. "Is this even coming up on your radar? Look at this! Look at this!" She forced my head towards the gore piles again.
I flailed until she let me go. "Yeah, I'm having a bit of a bad day. Ever get one of those? You wake up in a floodlit holding cell and it's just all downhill from there..."
"I was willing to let your extravagant murder of that sniper at the airbase go, because Snowy seems to be the only living thing you've ever been sincerely attached to and even then I suspect that that would only last as long as he was fluffy and made dog noises when you scratched him, but you just slaughtered an entire tribe of gryphons! You somehow took a moral dilemma and created a solution worse than anything anyone else had on the table!" She grunted and paced. "Why? This should be good. This should be a riot. What possible reasoning could you have for this?"
I shrugged. "I was irritated and I couldn't find Tribute."
"Well, I mean, she's probably missing because of the gryphons, so..."
"And you've killed the only free radio station in the wasteland. Just to put the bloody cherry on top of the murder cake."
Dammit, now I wasn't calm anymore. "It wasn't me, it was the gryphons!"
"At your suggestion!"
"How was I supposed to know 'pragmatic' meant 'kill everything'?"
"Pragmatic always means 'kill everything' to you!"
"You weren't complaining when I killed all the raiders! You even helped!"
"That's because they're raiders!"
"So raiders aren't people now? Is that why we stopped in Stockport?"
Stars paused, gritting her teeth. "I'm not pretending to know what's right all the time, but at least I'm trying! You just go around killing everyone you don't like!"
I took a deep breath through my nose and sat facing away from her. I could totally stay calm and be the bigger pony. "Well maybe you should try harder." She paused again. Did I win? I didn't look over to check. Then I heard a faint sticky sound. I looked down and saw the sticker on my PipBuck being peeled off. I pressed it down again and snapped back at Stars. "Hey! Quit it! Do you know how hard it is to find printers and sticker paper in the wasteland?"
"This is what I mean! Your priorities are so far skewed towards yourself that I bet you'd even kill if it made scratching your back easier!"
"Ugh!" She put her head in her hooves.
"If I remember rightly, you're partial to the occasional murderous rampage of anyone who happens to be in your way too..."
Stars picked me up by the collar and glared. Her horn was ready to incinerate me. "Don't even go there."
"Hoy! Garbagehat! A little help?"
House shook his head. "I'm with her on this. I've got half a mind to take your wing for a bounty."
"Ah! But you haven't saved my life yet! You're not going anywhere!" He glared. Stars looked back at him. They didn't say anything, but they nodded at each other. Stars dropped me, then reared back. Dancing lights swirled around her horn. House jumped at me out of nowhere, throwing me to the ground in time to miss a horizontal pillar of light from Stars' horn. The marble wall where it hit exploded.
"Yep, we're done here." The pair of them turned and started walking away.
"What? That's it? You're just going to leave me?" They kept walking at a decidedly brisk pace, and said nothing back. "Fine! I don't need you! I'll find some other straight man for my antics!" This made them walk away faster. I returned my attention to the rack of fliers.
Level up! Wait a minute, one of these got Snowy killed! Fuck. New perk: Lord Death of Murder Mountain
You gain a damage bonus against everything, because you like killing everything.
"Looks like it's just me and you, eh, Xena?" The sign didn't say anything. I covered my mouth and bobbed it around while talking in a muffled, lower-pitched voice. "Y'know, maybe they had a point and you should stop killing everyone. Or maybe I have a point and I should stop not killing everyone, starting with you! Oh, okay." I cocked my hoof and put it to Xena's head, then made an exploding noise with my mouth, and let the sign tumble out of my grip. I waited for a few seconds. "Now I'm alone."
After giving this all of three seconds sombre meditation, I picked Xena up and stuffed her in my bag, then looked at the fliers again. Some of them were completely ruined, but a good number of them were still legible. Ah, good ol' plastic-laminated paper. Survives nuclear holocausts. There were fliers for taxi services, amusement parks... I pocketed a couple of those. It could be a morbid thrill to go see what was left of Haltern Towers. There were day trip ideas like Chestnut Zoo, the Balkpool dance festival, and some pretty desperate brochures for North Whales (it's not crap, honest).
Then at the bottom there were the restaurant and take-away menus. I picked one up for the Jade Garden Chineighse Banquet & Takeaway (as incongruous as that sounds) and decided that I could really go for it, whatever the hell it was. The pizza was tempting too, but it looked a bit more like machine-produced gloop on a circular piece of bread and I might only have like two days max before everywhere here was going up like New Year's Eve, so in the interests of varied experience, I endeavoured to locate this Jade Garden.
There was a map on the back, but it didn't mean much to me. On top of having no idea where any of these streets were, there was nothing left by which to identify them, and a lot of the buildings had collapsed either on themselves or on the streets next to them, just to further confuse things. Still, there was no harm in trying. I left the piles of bodies behind, threw on the radio and set off on my quest for a Chineighse.
What followed was a rather repetitive series of events, largely being a cycle of me thinking I've found a road sign, using it to orient myself on the map, then finding out that I'd either misread the sign or it was a significant distance away from where it was supposed to live, and I'd just gotten myself hopelessly lost again. At one point, the radio played the same public service announcement about rogue autonomous farm machinery twice in a row, and I thought I was stuck in a time loop. Then I took a swig of Tribute's rum to remember her by and lament that she couldn't fawn over me anymore (probably), and because I was bored.
I encountered a place called Flankie & Benny's with pictures of pizza and pasta in the window. Seeing as I was going to need more than one meal before doomsday, and I didn't want to tuck into the canned goods just yet, I took a look. Well they were more like canned 'eh-okay's after I was spoiled by the food in Brumare - what are you going to do, peach-farming ancestors? Come at me! Oh wait, you're dead!
As might be expected from Liverpole, the place was in ruins. Are you getting tired of endless descriptions of ruins yet? I mean, there's only so many times you can shock people with familiar places laid to waste. Tiles out of place, skeletons everywhere, ruined books, blah blah blah I think I've even pointed this out before, how the apocalypse seems to be the great homogeniser. It makes everywhere look the same.
There was one interesting thing about this place though, and that was that any food I could see was perfectly intact. A couple of skeletons were sprawled on couches in front of a bowl of bread balls that still smelled faintly of garlic. There was even some of the garnish left. Their cups had lost moisture until the cola was a gunge at the bottom, and the ketchup was a dark brown. Though, that might have been some kind of horrid brown sauce that gastronomic masochists put on their food.
I went up to the service counter, and there was a pizza on a plate that looked just like some of the photos around the place. I called out to see if some joker was making fresh food and leaving it out, but there was no response. The pizza was cold, and when I went back into the kitchen, the boxes and ingredients all had pre-war sell-by dates. One of the patrons must have come here a lot, because his body hadn't decayed at all. You could probably still eat the pizza, but I decided not to. I just raided the fridge for some bottled colas and left.
When I left, saw two figures wandering around aimlessly with a sharp inequality of body mass between them. At times I wondered whether Sticks hung around Stones because he couldn't escape his gravitational pull. They spotted me and had some kind of startled reaction, but I just stood there. They said some panicked things to each other that I was too far away to hear. I tilted my head. There was some kind of animated, frantic conversation going on that I was only getting the gestures of. Stones sat and jiggled for a few seconds. Sticks waved his forelegs in the air wildly, then gestured an explosion and fell over. Stones shoved Sticks, and then he punched back. Stones looked down at where he was punched indifferently, having served only to prolong the wobbling of his abdomen.
"Oy!" I called. Both of them jumped a foot in fright. "Either of you lads know where the Jade Garden is?"
They looked at each other uncertainly. I guessed they were convinced I was going to scatter their guts across the street. Then Sticks shouted back, "Maybe?"
I rolled my eyes and walked closer to them so we could converse at a civil volume. "Well, any Chineighse."
"Because I want to go for a fucking Chineighse?"
Stones frowned. "Inn't there easier food to find?"
"There was, then you ate it all." Sticks burst out laughing, and Stones shoved him over again. "There's some pizza place just down there, but there's enough preservatives in it to mummify a whale." Stones raised his eyebrows so you could see perhaps a sliver of beady eye, then went past me to check it out.
Sticks rubbed his head as he picked himself out of the wall. "S'a bit like this Taco Belle place in the Arndam. There's pots of cheese where the cheese don't wanna come out, and I don't think they ever did. Naturally, fathead over there took this as a challenge and ate it anyway." A raider using a four syllable word? Maybe he was an undercover agent for... actually never mind. The only undercover agents I've seen around here have been so conspicuously undercover they might as well be wearing joke shop spy outfits. Stones emerged from Flankie & Benny's a minute later with barbecue sauce smeared down his chin and a couple of boxes on his back. "Alright, let's find this Chineighse."
"It's not like we've got anything better to do. I mean, we could try and mug you, but I don't think that'd go so well."
"No. No it wouldn't." I started walking, and Stones waddled along at the back, munching on plastic pasta. We got about ten feet before something occurred to me. "Wait, do you know where we're going?"
"Not a clue."
We wandered aimlessly for a few hours. Occasionally Stones would say something stupid, Sticks would demonstrate that he might have rented a brain cell at some point, then Stones would punch him, and Sticks would lose his deposit on said brain cell. Based on the fading sea smell, I could only guess that they were heading in the general direction of Colton. They were Colton Wanderers, right? I wasn't sure why they were in Liverpole to watch a match then. Unless I left that little of the Wanderers when I stormed out that the survivors just didn't have enough welly to be a competitive club anymore. Then I got thinking about how the raider football championship was supposed to be organised. I was about to ask them, but then I realised that I'd gotten separated while ensconced in my daydream, and I asked a postbox. Thinking nothing of it, I went to see if I could crack the postbox open, but then Stones burped so loud they probably heard it in Buckingham, and I used that as a beacon to track them down again.
We found a lot of places that weren't Chineighse restaurants. In fact I wasn't even sure if we were in Liverpole anymore - crappy ruined city had given way to crappy ruined suburb, and we were now walking through twenty minutes of cookie-cutter semi-detached houses between small nuclei of shops and cafés. On Sticks' advice, which I trusted slightly more than anything coming out of Stones' mouth (the balance of in versus out was very strongly skewed), we gave Handfield a wide berth. Apparently some bright spark had thought it was a good idea to build the grounds of Liverpole and Ewerton football clubs across a small green from each other, and now that both of them were inhabited by raiders, the half mile between the two stadiums was a constant warzone. I was a little disappointed.
At some point, a song on the radio cut short awkwardly, and there were some impact noises of the microphone hitting things. Then Grapevine came on. "Uh, hey. This is Grapevine on Radio Free Mareseyside because Tribute is... somewhere, and uhm... here's some more music I guess." I had to stop and laugh for a minute before we continued. Grapevine's stand-in broadcasts came at irregular intervals, and were always heralded by some 'oh crap I'm on' silence, some fumbling with the hardware, or a few seconds where she forgot to plug something in.
After clearing out two Cheesey Burgers (both with still-working milkshake machines dispensing still-pristine ice cream soup) and four Coltsta Coffee shops, we found ourselves reaching the edge of urban settlement in... somewhere. The road signs here were crap, and my earlier experience had broken my trust in them anyway. St. Haylans and Wingan could be fucking anywhere.
Now that I was spending time with them, Sticks and Stones weren't as amusing as I thought. I couldn't bring myself to put them down, because it was still faintly giggle-inducing when they had an exchange in accents as thick as they themselves were, that inexplicably ended in some kind of physical attack, and then they returned to being civil for a while before starting the cycle again. I'd come to the conclusion that Sticks just didn't eat. Stones took everything vaguely edible that we found, and I figured that Sticks was nourished simply by the aura of fat that Stones emanated.
It did make me wonder, though. These were two raiders. They were, certain radio personalities and knights-nouveau would have you believe, incurable barbarians, completely beyond any kind of civilisation. And here they were, not only happily wandering with me on an aimless quest for oriental cuisine, but also being less annoying than Shooting Stars, Full House or Tribute had ever been. I'm not sure if that said that there was a negative stereotype of raiders being perpetuated by the media and law enforcement, or that I was just a raider at heart. Probably a little bit of both.
Wingan was settled, but they were settled raiders, so apparently it was okay for us to pass through. With all the spikes and borderline BDSM gear around, we didn't look out of place. I was starting to wonder if there were any settlements around here that weren't just raiders or formerly such. Warreington perhaps? The Royal Liverpole didn't count anymore since its population at the moment was probably just Grapevine. I had my doubts about Colton. Speaking of which, I was starting to see signs for it with fairly low numbers on the distance part. The sun was getting low in the sky.
I stopped at a sign with a frown. "You were never looking for a Chineighse, were you?"
Sticks kept walking and shook his head. "Nah." Stones was close behind, happily scoffing down some mouldy bread.
"Where were you taking me then?"
"We were just going home. You can fuck off now, we just hung around you in Liverpole as a... deterrent." Crikey, Sticks must have swallowed a fucking dictionary. Maybe the Wanderers have a University Challenge team too. "Ain't nobody gonna fuck with you."
I wasn't sure whether I should feel flattered or used. Eventually a confused "Eh?" found its way out. "So now you're going to leave me too?" By now Stones was already coasting in the general direction of the Reebuck, with Sticks in a close orbit. I wasn't feeling bereft so much as frustrated that everyone kept buggering off. Also hungry, because I had adamantly decided to make the most of my Chineighse when I found it. Not if, when.
I took out Xena. "You'll never leave me, will you Xena? I can't, because I don't have any legs. Hahahah! Exactly. Stable 512 isn't far from here, maybe you should go back and settle down before the Enclave get here. Xena, don't be a fuckstick. I still don't have my Chineighse. I don't think there are any still standing... Well fuck you!" I hit her off the ground, and she stopped talking. The soggy grass made her paper a bit wet, and I wiped her off before I put her back in my bag.
Now that I was alone and bored again, I started looking through my pack for something to entertain myself with. I might forget about my quest in the process, but I didn't really care. Eventually, the breathmints fell out. Mint-Als, the box said. I still didn't understand how they were supposed to be drugs, unless some idiot decided that the fresh breath counted as some kind of narcotic hallucination. I figured I might as well find out. Drugs are a hobby, right? I popped two in my mouth and chewed. They were chalky and sweet with the slight tang of peppermint, slightly masked by an almost sawdust-like background taste, which I guessed was from them being two hundred years old. They melted pretty quickly, and they were gone inside a minute. I checked my breath. They slightly masked that I hadn't had a chance to brush my teeth since I left the stable, but as breathmints went, they were pretty mediocre. Then my vision went all weird.
In the minute following my swallowing of what was left of the mints, I got a sudden hit of brain, is all I can describe it as. My vision got sharper, and despite the half-light and the glare from the setting sun, I could see better than I could at midday. Sounds became crisper, to the point that I could hear Stones fart from a hundred feet away. That said, a sound like that probably travelled for miles anyway. I hoped this buff to my perception didn't extent to smeoh fuck, yes it does. I broke out the rag I used for a mask in Showffield, and stung my nose by putting a soot-encrusted cloth to it. Fucking hell.
I sneezed for a bit, and by the time I was able again, the smell was gone. Well that was an interesting trip. I did see something else while I was high on... sensory acuity, I guess? There was some pale green light over a hill nearby. It was a little off the course Sticks and Stones took, and it was vaguely in the direction of Colton. Why not, I figured. There's a lot of this, isn't there? Just doing things because I'm not thinking of a reason not to. Though, that implies I think about things before doing them. The things in question may have thinking involved, but none of that thinking finds its way into the decision-making process. That would be a waste of thinking.
The sun had almost fully set by the time I closed in on the light, meaning it was my only real beacon of navigation around. It was behind a copse of trees at the bottom of a hill. The trees obscured the source, but the light was bright enough around it to read by. After all, I had seen it from nearly a mile away. I heard voices from behind the trees.
"Here is kinda nice actually. With the light it's okay at night." Did I recognise that voice?
"It's still in the middle of fucking nowhere." I was pretty sure I did.
"Oh, hush. Other ponies would get freaked out."
I approached and poked my head around the side of the trees. The ethereal forms of two ponies were floating around, with faint trails leading to a glowing green stone on the ground instead of hind legs. They spotted me immediately. I squinted. "Hang on a second."
"Oh, son of a fuck, it's her."
I came fully out from behind the trees and trotted over. "It is you! Hot Sails and Sam Doodle!"
Hard Sell sighed. "Definitely her."
"You're looking a lot less flat than the last time I saw you. And a lot more translucent."
"There was this gem in our cargo that it turns out must have been a necromancy talisman," Sand Dollar said. "And now we're ghosts, I guess. Awooo..." Sell glared at him.
"Oh! Is this the part where you guys sing a musical number about how I have to change my ways and I'll be visited by three more ghosts tonight?"
"We're Marley and Marley..." Sell thumped Sandy before he got to the second line.
"Hm. I must have missed it when I was rooting through your stuff."
Sell through his forelegs up. "I knew it! No good bitch looted our goods!"
I took out a bunch of caps and held them up. "You can have it back if you like." Sell dove for the caps, and his forelegs phased through me like he wasn't there. His magic did nothing either. I quirked a brow at him.
"Fine. Keep it. You got us killed anyway. Enjoy your fucking spoils." He crossed his legs and floated back in a huff. Sandy blinked at him.
I put the caps back and shrugged. "Well, the raiders were there no matter what happened, and if I wasn't there they'd just have killed you quicker..."
"She's right, y'know." Sell ignored Sandy for a couple of seconds, then sighed and did what I can only guess was the ghost equivalent of a limp flop on to a not-there couch. "At least we got those darts to someone who could use them. How are those little hot potatoes anyway?"
"They've been immensely entertaining and useful." I nodded, and Sandy smiled. "See? Sandy can hold a civil conversation."
Sell grunted and turned a bit. It was like he was sprawled on nothing. Sandy grimaced, then leaned closer to me and whispered. "He gets a little cranky when other people call me Sandy."
"Oh, are you two, like..." I waved my hooves in some kind of criss-cross pattern. I'm not sure what I was trying to gesture.
Sandy looked at Sell with a little smile. "Yeah. For about three years, actually."
"Hm. That makes you the first couple I've met up here. Unless Dr. House and Specsavers hooked up after they ditched me in some kind of unholy tryst of righteous indignation..."
"Never mind. Say, do you know where I can find a Chineighse around here?"
Sell rolled over and grumbled, "If you want to make yourself useful, take that talisman to the Steel Rangers in Warreington and they might know what to do with it."
"Do they have a Chineighse?"
"Fuck if I know."
"Oh well. Nice seeing you again!" I shrugged and turned to leave.
"Wait!" Sandy called after me. "We'll find you a Chineighse, okay? I think there might be one in Wingan."
I turned back and nodded, and went down the bank to pick up the gem and toss it in my bag. "Now I know why they call you Hard Sell."
"So help me I will haunt the fuck out of those darts for as long as you live." I giggled, and set off for Wingan.
'Won't they have some kind of reaction to a couple of ghosts just walking into town?' said nobody. They probably knew what they were doing, or didn't care, and I certainly didn't care. Indeed, there were a couple of funny looks as we went back into town, but I guessed that most of these raiders were PTSDing too hard to care.
"Didn't we hear this rain warning on the radio before this song?" Sell tapped the radio, but he was clearly still unused to his intangible nature.
"Oh! Yeah, there's a reason for that, Tribute has gone missing."
"Oh." Sandy pouted. "That's not good." Thanks, Captain Obvious.
My peppermint-induced perception high was starting to wear off, but I was still able to catch the glint of a high-flicker fluorescent lamp reflected on a sign with weird letters I couldn't read. I stopped, and backed up to go down the side road I saw it on. And there it was: the Shang Garden Chineighse Takeaway. Well, the 'a' and 'n' in 'Shang' were on the ground, but I doubted it was supposed to be the 'Shnag Garden'. Better yet, there was a light on inside, and someone with an apron sitting behind the counter.
"See? Told you."
I tilted my head at the name. "Do they pick the names for these places out of a hat or something?"
"Well, far be it from me to get offended on someone else's behalf but these names might mean something in their own language."
Even Sell seemed mildly impressed. "I'm just amazed there's one of these still open after two hundred years."
I shrugged and opened the door. "Where there's a buck to be made..." Sell made some noise of agreement, and the two of them followed me in through the wall. They didn't have much of an option.
For the price of fifteen caps (Sell insisted on haggling it down from twenty-five, because even if they weren't any use to him anymore, they were still his caps, he said) I got duck and orange, fried rice and prawn crackers. I had no idea what any of those things entailed. The rice came out of sealed bags and the prawn crackers came out of packets in boxes, so it was probably pre-war supplies. The duck looked like it was definitely meat of recent kill, but since it also came out of a box, there was no telling just how 'duck' it was.
I cracked open a cola and sat back with the food in the seats that were only kind of dirty. Sandy mimicked sitting across the table from me, while Sell was content to sit in the air and look bored. I tried a bit of everything. I tried a bit more of everything, slower, with more scrutiny.
Then I sat back and frowned. "This is slop."
"I don't like this."
Sandy screwed up his face. "What do you mean you don't like it?"
"You just paid fifteen of my caps for it, you'd better fucking finish it!" Sell growled.
"You have to be the first picky eater in the wasteland ever."
"I could just leave you guys in the bin on my way out if you're going to berate me for having taste." They sighed, and backed off. I munched on a couple more prawn crackers, since they were okay, and I could stomach the duck pieces, but on the whole it was just an unpleasant, greasy, slightly-off mess. I left it half-eaten and washed it down with cola. It was filling enough, but I didn't think it was great value.
Then when I went outside, I blacked out.
Level up! Really? I did like, absolutely nothing in this chapter New perk: You'll Never Walk Alone
If your companions leave you or are killed, new companions will randomly join you.
The following is not my personal experience, because I was unconscious for the duration. (The bastards.)
A few Spool Reelers dumped me on a table under a spotlight, somewhere in Warreington. House had found another couch on which to continue his habit of sleeping through conversations that important ponies were having. Hard Sell and Sand Dollar floated somewhere off to the side while a couple of scribes marvelled over their talisman. Hard Sell seemed to be passively appraising everything in the room, while Sandy was still trying to get over himself. Lone Star's breathing caused some of the Sting Ringers' armour to rattle with its heft.
Stars must have had ditches in her face by now from frowning. "Are you sure about this? I'm not sure I want to trust her with anything more than a... y'know, I wouldn't even trust her with a bent spoon. She'd find some way to get someone killed with that."
Tribute opened her mouth, then stopped to pick some seaweed out of her mane. Then she continued. "Okay, look. I'm aware that she's an irredeemable sociopath who just makes whatever's in front of her explode, in total ignorance of any kind of consequences..."
"And steals anything that's not nailed down," Sell grumbled.
"And murders ponies that mildly irritate her," Lone Star rumbled.
"And she's vindictive and grudge-holding," House muttered in his sleep.
"And has creative murder methods on par with raiders," Stars said.
Tribute rolled her eyes. "Alright, calm down, calm down!"
"And she took your rum from off your desk," Grapevine said, hanging upside down from some shelf.
"Did she? Fucking..." Without regard for how many teeth she'd loosen, she turned me over to root through my saddlebags for the rum. Bottle safely in front of her, she resumed. "Despite all of those things. She's effective. When she wants to do something, she'll make it happen. She has the health and nutrition of a stable pony, and the unflinching drive of a raider. She's an unstoppable force of will." She paused and scowled. "Ech. I'm still tasting salt. Someone get me some cola."
"She won't be told, though. She's like an extremely deadly teenager."
I yawned and kicked the air a bit. "Mum, fuck school. Turn the lights off." A Stooge Rager floated up a small mallet. Stars shook her head at him and pushed it back under the table.
"This is why you don't tell her what to do. You make her want to do it. She blows up everything in front of her? Just put the right things in front of her."
Stars' face lit up for the first time ever. "Drop her off in Buckingham? Okay! Why didn't you say so earlier?"
Tribute slapped her own forehead. "No, not... that makes joining the Enclave the path of least resistance, and then we have a bigger problem. Try to think like her. She likes adrenaline rushes and getting her ego stroked."
Hard Sell drifted over. "And winding ponies up with extended lies."
"That's not... wait. Yes. That is relevant. She's blown up a thunderhead for fun before, how hard can it be to convince her to do it again?"
House didn't even look up. "The standard bounty is two hundred caps for every confirmed innocent life taken. So let's see: the Royal Liverpole had at least a hundred ponies, so we're already up to five figures... about the same again for the gryphons, if we're counting proxies then there's a couple dozen slaves to add to that, the kid in Colton, the traders... that's what, fifty times two hundred..."
Tribute sighed. "Okay, let me try this another way. The mob is outside and they want their money. We can cash our chips now and walk out, not even close to paying them off, or we put it all on black. Those are our options." House raised a brow high enough to pull his nose up along with it, then went back to sleep.
"Fine. You've got a point." Stars paced. "Let's see. Ego and adrenaline. Path of least resistance. What do we have to work with? Get the quartermaster in here."
I stirred again, this time stretching my forelegs. The grunt with the hammer pulled a look of alarm and reared up. Tribute went wide-eyed, and yanked the hammer away from him. Over the next couple of seconds, I almost threatened to wake up, but then pulled my askew saddlebag to my front and started cuddling it like a teddy bear. Look, I was nineteen, I liked my comforts!
Stars stared at this for a moment. "Tribute, you're... arguing her corner pretty hard."
"I... what do you mean?" she said, maybe a little too snappily.
"Don't something something, sexuality, tolerance, blah blah, I don't care, I'm dead," Sand Dollar rattled off, floating upside down somewhere above the table.
"Please, Stars, I'm a professional, I'm not about to let my feelings get in the way of my judgement." Grapevine raised a brow. "Shut up, you," Tribute muttered, taking a swing at her. She fluttered out of reach with a smirk.
The Sunday Roast parted to let someone more important through. The base's quartermaster, a stallion so tall and heavily-built his mother must have needed planning permission to give birth, arrived at the table with burlap of stuff. He set it down and pushed it to the middle of the table, pushing me off the far side like an air hockey puck. I landed with a yelp, but didn't wake. Somehow. Stars nonchalantly looked down for a second to make sure I wasn't impaled on anything. She patted my head, but it was more like knocking on a door. "You're fine."
The quartermaster pulled open the bag, and a collection of junk spilled out. Some heavy canvas, some paint, electrical junk like switches and fittings, some random magazines and battle saddle parts... A plastic bag labelled "melee personal self-defence arms" contained kitchen knives and candlesticks.
"I thought you'd bring us a list."
"This is literally everything not in use. It was quicker to bring it here than make a list. Some of our boys are going around with airsoft guns and hoping for the best."
"When you said we had a supply shortage... ugh."
Tribute started sifting through the stuff. "Okay. We've got the makings of a parade," she said, holding up some of the canvas. "And sci-fi movie props." She grabbed a button switch with a cap. "Hey, check this one out. A button this red needs a label like 'all of the missiles'."
"Hang on... hang on. I'm getting an idea." Stars paused, giving it a sanity check. Though at this point, all any idea needed to pass was a D. "Okay. Here's what we're gonna do..."
"Alright, go for takeoff." Wonderful. This made two days in a row I woke up in outrageous discomfort.
"Is this another Enclave secret base? You guys are giving me a lot of chances."
"Nope!" Shooting Stars appeared in my field of vision.
I frowned. "You're... chipper. You're smiling. I don't like this." I heard a deep bass roar and felt my weight shift as the floor moved. "What's going on? Where are we?"
"Take a look." I sat up. Man, I felt heavy today. Then I noticed that I was wearing armour. Enclave power armour specifically. That explains the pains of an awkward sleeping position. I looked out the window. The ground was moving. There were a couple of air vehicles on the ground. "Actually you won't remember Warreington, but there it is. Steel Rangers central command. We're in the back of a Vertibuck on the way to the Enclave fleet. They left Buckingham last night, and by the time we reach them they should be over Styoke."
I rubbed my head. I still didn't like this. "I'm pretty sure you didn't want anything to do with me last time I saw you. Something's going on."
"Yes! You're going to put this..." She shoved a little black device with a blinking red light at me. "... on the Queen's flagship."
I looked at it for a few seconds. This thing couldn't say 'I am a suspicious device' any harder if it tried. Then I tossed it over my shoulder. "Or I could just bail out of this flying bucket, because I have wings."
Stars' grin widened. "Or you won't, because there's a bomb collar under that suit and I have the remote!" She held up a little device with a red button under a cover. I dove for it, and she just floated it away. "Pragmatisch, ja?"
"Oh, fuck you!" I glared at her for a bit. Then I shrugged and stood up. I forgot how heavy this armour was. "You're not gonna press it."
She flicked the cap off and circled the button with a hoof. "For you, Atom, I totally would."
I stopped walking to the door and paused. I wasn't going to call her bluff. "Fine." I sighed, picked up the 'I am a bug' and sat back down. "What do you want me to do with this?" When I found a pocket to put it in, I noticed that all my stuff was inside. Even Xena. (But not Tribute's rum.) The pocket seemed to continue into my own body, but I could still feel my side. I didn't question it, because probably magic.
"There are two Thunderheads en route, the Imperious and the Carolingian. The Imperious is more heavily armed, and our scouts tell us the Queen is on board. You and Grapevine..." Grapevine poked her head out from the cockpit and waved. She was also in Enclave armour. "... are going to infiltrate the Imperious and plant this beacon in the engine room. The gunners in Formby can then lock on to this beacon to take it down in as few hits as possible."
"Why Grapevine? I mean, I'd have thought she'd be more suited to scouting and stuff."
"You and her are the only pegasi we have at our disposal."
Grapevine leaned back from the cockpit again. "In Equestria, when pegasi defect from the Enclave, they brand them and call them Dashites. Here they just execute defectors before they can leave. Helps them keep air superiority."
"Efficient. I wonder if they have gryphons advising them or something."
A static-laced voice chimed in over the radio. "G? Come in G, over."
Grapevine took the microphone. "Loud and clear. We're over Croup. We have a visual on the Thunderheads and are about to drop, over."
I furrowed my brow. "Is that Tribute?"
"She swam the Maresey and was holed up in the ferry terminal in Buckenhead when I found her. She's running comms at Formby at the moment."
"Did you guys get all this set up overnight?"
"Oh, that's nothing. Wait until you see what's going on in Manechester."
Tribute piped up again. "Guns are deployed and calibrated. The test shell came down just behind Stockport in 51 seconds, so anything inside that should be a safe hit, over."
"Alright. We're dropping and going dark now, over."
"Good luck, G."
Grapevine pulled on a helmet. Stars shoved one on me. I felt a sudden lightness as the craft dropped. "This armour has been treated to change colours once you get closer to our line in Manechester, so don't worry about ditching it on your way out."
"Any more exposition you'd like to drop on me at the last minute?" The door opened, and Grapevine crawled out of the cockpit. I guessed she wasn't the pilot.
Stars rubbed her chin. "There is one thing. I'll be monitoring the Enclave chatter, and if I can't get through to Grapevine..." She gestured an explosion with her hooves and made the noises with her mouth. She was enjoying this way too much.
"Oh! Also..." She bopped a part of the armour. It made some mechanical noises, and I didn't feel nearly as heavy anymore. "It's power armour, you have to turn it on before you can use it properly."
"Hm. That explains a bit."
Grapevine bailed out, and I followed. I didn't have to feign flying confidently, because I was. I looped and barrel rolled and swerved and dived and twirled and got completely lost in the rush. Then I got grabbed.
"Atom! Focus!" Grapevine let me go, and with a grumble, I took up a position in her slipstream.
Then Stars was speaking into my ears. Great, now she could be annoying at me from a distance. "Once I pop your Stealth Bucks, I'm going to remotely switch your radios over to the Enclave channel. Ready?"
"Ready," Grapevine said.
"I could really use some breakfast."
Stars sighed. "Stealthing in three, two, one..." Grapevine vanished from my view, save for a faint blur in front of me. So did my own forelegs, and even the helmet. It was like being a disembodied pair of eyes, it was really weird. I wondered what it would be like on Mint-Als.
The Enclave chatter had their crappy radio station in the background. Not particularly loud, just their two songs and pre-recorded speeches replacing the static in the absence of chatter. Consequently, there was a lot of meaningless chatter. It was like everyone had reached the consensus to find any possible reason to talk. 'Toaster has been activated. Toast ready to deploy in T minus ninety seconds, over.' It made me hungry. I followed the blur until we touched down on the deck of the Imperious. As soon as we were down, she tugged me along until we were in cover. She counted by tapping on my leg. She pre-emptively put a hoof to my mouth. No sounds yet. At about twenty, the Stealth Bucks timed out, and we became visible again.
"You know the way to the engine room better than I do, you lead the way."
"Sure I do." I didn't. My plan was to follow the wall on my right once we were below deck.
Further down the deck, there was a raft of clouds being assembled. A throne, maybe ten, fifteen feet tall, sat in the middle, and it was surrounded by conspicuously colourful guards. Among them were a couple in tuxedos. I strongly suspected one of them was Brosnan. That would be just like him to keep refusing to die. I guess I'll just add the Queen to the list of ponies with no concept of stealth. Out of curiosity, I led Grapevine past the float in my search for the way below deck. When I chanced a look directly at her, I thought I was mixing up ponies in my head. She couldn't have a horn with those wings, could she? I looked again, trying to make it look like a general scan of my surroundings. She did - poking through her crown was a horn the same white as the rest of her. Her mane flowed red and blue, and she was having golden armour assembled on her.
We got close enough to hear them talking. The Queen's diction was refined like it was on the radio, but there was an awful lot of volume behind it. Was she related to Tribute?
"Your Majesty, we're on track to reach Manechester in twenty minutes."
"Tell me, how far behind is the Carolingian?"
"Uhm..." The dude had a brief panic as he tried to find the answer before he got executed. "Ah! It's three and a half miles behind, Your Majesty."
She floated a china cup over and took a sip from it. After a pause to savour it, she said, "Shoot it down."
"E-excuse me, Your Majesty?"
She giggled. "If they're to lag behind like that, then they shall keep me waiting, and that simply won't do, will it?"
"Of course! Your Majesty!" He turned to look for someone to shout at. The chain of orders continued below deck, and in less than a minute, the ship's guns had roared into life. They peppered the Thunderhead behind us with shells. The clouds that comprised it lost integrity from the shots themselves, and the resultant explosions from volatile systems being hit only accelerated it. Eventually, something critical took a hit, and a colossal blast ripped the whole thing in two. The sheer size made the whole thing happen in slow motion. Secondary explosions continued on the ground as balefire eggs from the armoury found their way out. Grapevine had to prod me to keep us going.
Below deck, I continued to no idea where we were going. All the chatter about things like 'eggs ready for launch', 'coffee supplies reaching critical levels, backup requested' and 'abort the toast' was making me hungry. As soon as I could smell a kitchen, I made a beeline for it. It was empty, but Grapevine nudged me on. "We can't stop for food now, we don't have time! We have maybe fifteen minutes!"
"Loads of time for breakfast." I took off my helmet to steal some toast and scoop some jam straight out of the jar. I also took their toaster and stuffed it in my mysteriously spacious pocket. I replaced the helmet and left. "That was only two minutes, yeah?"
"Why did you..."
"It's broken. I need to fix it." I tapped my nose. I had no idea what Grapevine was doing with her face under the helmet, but she didn't question me further.
I was starting to recognise some of the layout from the Majesty. Not to the point that I could reliably navigate, but enough that I remembered that just around this corner was the armoury. There were a couple of soldiers milling around and getting battle saddles equipped. We blended in by taking a pair ourselves. Grapevine started scooping up balefire eggs. The clerk leaned through his window and raised a hoof. I went up to him and slammed my hoof on the desk before he said anything.
"We are under direct orders to take these class A high explosives to a secure location. Do you know how much of a liability those things are if they're still on board while we're deploying?" I barked.
"And if you have a problem with those orders, you can take it up with Her Majesty. Feel up to it?"
"N-n-no Ma'am!" He gulped and saluted.
With the helmet I was free to grin as I leaned over him until he started sweating. I backed off. Grapevine finished collecting the eggs, and I stormed out. "Come on Lieutenant, let's roll."
"That's not how you pronounce 'lieutenant'." When she said it, it sounded like 'left-tenant'.
"Do I hear insubordination?"
She looked back once we were back in the corridor, and whispered. "You can drop the act now."
"Hut-two-three-four move, soldier!" She sighed.
We spent another five minutes wandering back and forth through the ship until we found the engine room. Under the guise of a 'security inspection', I shoved the beacon under a console and slapped a techie for good measure. I wasn't sure if Grapevine was catching on to how you were supposed to act to properly pass for Enclave (attack everyone who isn't being dastardly enough for your tastes), but she didn't join in.
We got back on deck in time to see our approach to Manechester. The Queen's raft was preparing to take off behind us. It was a clear morning with the sun burning off the last of the dew, and the last intact windows in the tower shining brightly, and... I had run to the prow to get closer, because I had to get a better look. There were orange banners hanging from the tower, with... was that my cutie mark? Grapevine caught up and chuckled.
"I told you there was a surprise waiting for you in Manechester. You've kind of made yourself a legend. Even after Stars told central command about everything you've done, they still wanted you on their side, because of how much you've inspired ordinary ponies."
"They're calling themselves the Children of Atom." I had to break down laughing. "It is a bit of a goofy name, yeah?"
"It is, but that's not it. I'm just... it's like these ponies are so desperate for a hero that they've latched on to anyone with the slightest bit of initiative." I needed another moment to collect myself. "I'm an out-and-out bastard, Grapevine. I don't care about any of these ponies. I'm just doing this because this is fun. Also I have a bomb collar on, but the fun came first."
She looked at me and paused. "Then do it for the glory. Look at it this way: if you only blow up the bad guys, the good guys will ask you to blow up more stuff, and then you end up with a cult of personality."
"Hm." I thought about it for a moment. I couldn't fault her logic. "Pragmatisch, ja?" She chuckled, and nudged me on the shoulder.
I could feel the Thunderhead losing speed and altitude, and the raft took off using the inertia. It sailed over our heads and over the next few minutes descended with us to a point overlooking the city centre. From our spot I could make out the Manechester United and City grounds, some more stuff with my butt diagram slapped on it in Saltford, and a lot of the train and tram lines. The radio in our ears changed again, with the warbly tripe of Rule Braytannia giving way to static, and then the overdriven voice of Tribute.
"Guys, give us an update, over."
Grapevine got there first. "Beacon is planted and we're getting ready to book it, over."
Tribute laughed. "Technical military jargon, yeah?"
"Ah, good!" Stars was on the channel too. "My hoof was just hovering over the button."
"Love you too, Stars, over." I could do this radio thing too.
Grapevine continued the status update. "They shot down the Carolingian en route. Queen's taken a personal craft ahead of the Imperious, don't know why, over."
A couple of seconds of silence followed. "Say that first part again, over."
"They shot down the Carolingian en route, over."
"Their own vessel?"
I took over. "You are aware of how astronomically villainous the Enclave are, yeah? ... Over."
"I guess, but... wow. Doesn't matter. Just makes our job easier. Guns are ready to fire as soon as you guys are in the clear, over."
Grapevine nodded at me. "Should be done in time for lunch. Let's get out of here."
"Royal subjects and residents of Manechester!" The Queen's voice startled both of us. Some kind of amplification must have been at work, because we were getting it like we were standing next to a loudspeaker. They could probably hear her all the way in Saltford. "Today, I, Queen May the Twelfth, have seen fit to grace you all with my presence, for today is a very special occasion. You have heard my addresses on the radio; promises that the Grand Pegasus Enclave would come to lift us from the mire and begin a new dawn of civilisation. That day, my loyal subjects, has come! Today, we purify the wasteland!"
Grapevine nudged me. "Atom, we need to go." I thought about it for a moment, then I turned and ran back down the deck. "Not that way! Where are you going?" She didn't follow.
"Tribute, how long will the shell take to reach here? Over."
"About 45 seconds, why?"
"Grapevine, get the hell out of dodge. Tribute, fire on my mark."
Stars decided to be creepy again. "This big red button is looking awfully shiny, Atom..."
"Stars, give her some credit. What kind of collateral damage is she going to do from there? Over."
There was silence as I descended the stairs to the deck below, a large hangar. Pilots were getting into bombing chariots. "Fine. This better be good."
I went for a bombing chariot and pretended to be the pilot. I was quite obviously not in pilot's gear, but I was hoping that the techies wouldn't notice in their rush. Grapevine called in. "I just dropped out of stealth in the Breecham tower, and... we can hear bagpipes down here. Should we be concerned? Over."
As soon as the technicians started looking at me suspiciously, I kicked the tail gunner off the chariot and jumped behind the yoke. All the bombing controls were in front of me, along with a few flight controls. Given the weight of the chariot, I was surprised how easily it moved. Living in a world full of magic is great sometimes. "Mark." Panic ensued in the hangar. A couple of chariots were already out, but my premature takeoff threw the others into disarray. Five seconds, and I was out of the bay with a couple of alarmed technicians trying to run after me. Fifteen seconds, and I heard a couple of gunshots. One pinged off my flank armour. That's gonna leave a bruise. Twenty-five seconds, and I wasn't as far down the launch strip as I wanted to be. A technician jumped in my way to try and get me to stop. I jumped for the first bit of lift, and just knocked him over. The thump sounded pretty awful. Thirty-five seconds. Still running. Forty, forty-one, forty-two and I just clear the launch bay. I dove a bit to get some speed, like the ones that had gone ahead of me seemed to be doing.
I counted forty-five and stopped, because I had to concentrate on not crashing now. About two seconds later, I heard explosions behind me. The Queen stopped her speech. They hit spikes of intensity every two seconds for another ten - they must be firing every gun on the base. "Hit confirmed!" Grapevine shouted. "Give it another round, same heading, over."
"Already reloading, over."
"Atom, what's your status?"
"Thinning out the... hang on." I pressed a couple of buttons. Bombs fell and hit... something. "Thinning out some of the bombers."
"Think you can hit the sky tanks?"
"Actually, my status is now rapidly losing altitude because I don't know how to control a bombing chariot, over." I think I heard Stars slam her head on the desk next to her radio. I unhitched myself from the chariot and started flapping backwards. The chariot continued into the ground and erupted in a fireball at the bottom of the Breecham tower. (Last chapter and I'm still dropping names, eh?) I hit the wall of the tower and lost control. I held my wings out for some kind of glide, but I was spinning, and there was no way I wasn't going to wipe out on the steps of Deansgait station.
While I was lying there groaning, things kept happening. "We're on the twentieth floor and we felt that, Atom, come in!"
"I'm okay! I'm okay." I picked myself up and wobbled around a bit, and decided to remove the helmet. Stealth was secondary now. Just as well, since Stars had changed the armour colours - the off-black was replaced with scuffed silver with some orange trim. I couldn't deny, I was loving the ego trip.
"All abweeergh for Piccafillillilllilllilly!" I blinked and rubbed my eyes. The tram had pulled up in the station, and was waiting there with an open door. I didn't think, I just ran for it. Well, more of a limp. I jumped up and kissed Tramway. She span her robotic head at me. "Sexual harassment of Stable-Tec employees and property will be met with vaporisation!"
I rolled my eyes. "Guh, everyone wants to kill me today. Just move, Tramway!"
I took the opportunity to catch my breath and pop a health potion. My radio was in my pocket, and when I checked, RFM was still auto-playing. I guess Tribute didn't get the chance to go back and change it. I left it on my seat while I took out the toaster and examined it. The music made a welcome change from the frantic military chatter in my ear and the sound of a second barrage ripping through the remains of the Imperious. Bet the Queen was regretting her decision to bomb her own ship now, eh? I popped some more Mint-Als out of boredom.
I'm not sure why I was fiddling with the toaster. I turned the timer to ten seconds and pulled the tray down. Nothing happened, so I guessed the tray was electric, for some retarded reason. I turned the timer back up to thirty, emptied my gun of the explosive darts, and wedged all of them in the tray. I guess I made myself a toaster time-bomb because I was bored, and with the battle saddle, I didn't need the darts. I reloaded my gun with the regular darts, because, why not?
After the first stop, Tramway went into obstacle-annihilation mode, and I heard the dull thumps of ponies getting hit by the cow catcher at high speed. I looked out the window. Raiders were running past the tram. I recognised the blue and white as Manechester City. They were definitely fleeing in a panic from something. I wasn't puzzled for long though, because the next body flung to the side by the Stable-Tec Obstruction Obliterator was slathered with blue body paint and had a kilt. When I turned off the radio, I could hear bagpipes. This made things interesting.
I hopped off the tram at Piccafilly Gardens. Any further and it would be dropping me right into the middle of the Scoltish horde. The station was opposite a café, and what might have been the last intact window in Manechester, until someone got thrown through it. I recognised the tux and the slicked back hair. Brosnan got right back up and leapt through the window. Now I had to see what was going on. I hopped over a dead raider (or dying, I think she groaned) and went inside.
Brosnan and a Scolt wearing a coal puppy fur on his head were brawling. They stopped when I walked in. "Oh, don't mind me, I'm just getting some breakfast. Carry on beating each other to a pulp." They stared at me for a second, then Brosnan elbowed the Scolt in the face. He stumbled back and wiped the blood from his nose.
"That's just like you, isn't it? Taking every cheap shot and backstab you can get."
"I got out of the horde while I could because I could see it was doomed! You're living in a dream world! You're not Siretanta! Learn your history!"
"History lies. We've come to rewrite it."
"You're deluded, brother."
"I have no brother!" He lunged at him, and they traded deflected blows for a few seconds, until the Scolt threw Brosnan again. He reached for a blade, but Brosnan kicked him in the head before he could reach it.
I picked my head up from checking the cupboards behind the counter. "You two are brothers? Wow. That's... that's intense." I plugged in the toaster and took out a battery. "Hey Houndy! Fetch!"
The battery bonked Siretanta on the head, and he glared at me. "I'm not actually a dog, you kn-" Brosnan took advantage of his distraction to swing a roundhouse kick at him, knocking him to the floor next to the counter. He dived on him, and while they were scuffling on the floor, I bolted for the exit. I counted out; twenty-eight, twenty-nine, ding. Seeing all of my darts go off at once was beautiful. The blasts synergised, and possibly ignited some gas tanks, because I felt the need to duck and cover. Maybe coffee was explosive? I don't know. Pre-war safety restrictions on things that can go boom seem to have been pretty lax. Either way, I settled their argument for them.
While I was reclaiming my darts from the smoking wreckage and tossing them into my pocket loose, I got back on the airwaves. "Scolts are making a move on the city, anyone got any ideas? Over."
Grapevine got on to me first. "Shit, really? We've got our hooves full trying to hold the tower. Enclave are attacking it on wing. Can we get some Vertibucks up?"
"No can do," Stars replied. "All our Bucks are grounded in Saltford. There air is just too busy."
Tribute got on next. "We're firing as fast as we can, but it's pot luck from out here! I'm surprised we haven't hit the tower yet."
I thought for a moment. "As a matter of curiosity, where's Full House?"
"Him and Lone Star are coordinating the militia on the Saltford side of the river. They're not on this channel, why?"
"Oh, is Lone Star a Garbageman too?"
Stars sighed. "Yes, Lone Star is a Regulator."
"Hm. I'm learning all kinds of shit today. Okay, I've got a plan. Grapevine, how fast can you withdraw from the tower?"
There was an explosion on the radio. "We're probably going to have to do that anyway, I wouldn't put it past them to crash a Raptor into us if we give them enough trouble. Maybe ten minutes?"
"Get on that. Stars, get them to start blowing bridges, the one closest to the tower last."
"Why? They can just fly over!"
"The Scolts can't."
"And Grapevine, those balefire eggs?"
"One every two hundred feet along the bank on the Manechester side, rigged for simultaneous remote detonation."
I chuckled. "You'll know when." There was silence on the radio. A Scolt ran past my window on fire and screaming. "Now unless you've got a better plan, let's move!"
My attention was caught by a scream of rising volume. Not a pained scream, more like a charging warcry. On the other side of the café, someone was charging at the back door from across the green. (Well it was more of a brown now, but that's beside the point.) His face was caked in paint, half blue, half white, and he had a spear saddle. Yep, that could only be Bravehorse. His early cry gave me a full five seconds to step out of the door and take to the air. He skidded to a halt outside the café and started jumping at me like a dog trying to catch a treat suspended in the air.
"You! You filthy Roaman!"
"Excuse me, you live in a tent and don't have running water, and you call me filthy?" He jumped and batted at the air rabidly. I raised an eyebrow at him, and flew away. He charged after me.
"Hey! Come back! I'll put your head on a pike by my toilet!"
This side of Manechester was mostly the melee between raiders and Scolts. Despite the raiders having maybe one gun between three, they were still being overrun, and they didn't have anywhere to rout to. The Enclave were probably dominating everywhere south of the tower by now. I proceeded along the street at a leisurely airborne pace. I could faintly hear Bravehorse swearing at me as he tried to keep up. The other fighters on the ground just ignored me for whatever reason. They weren't looking up, I wasn't attacking them, they had more important things to worry about, I don't know. I passed a broken sign hanging precariously over an outdoor escalator saying 'Arndam Food Court'. So this was the Arndam? I landed at the top of the escalator to give my wings a rest. While I was walking through, I found Taco Belle. I didn't stop to check it out. I left through the broken window on the other side and continued in flight.
I reached the river and flew along it until I found a cluster of militia. They had all kinds of banners and flags with my atom mark on them, and crude armour painted orange and green. Heh. Children of Atom. That still made me giggle. House and Lone Star stuck out like coal puppies on a dairy farm with their hats and dusters. I touched down near them and grabbed a tall flag. It had a spike on the end. Perfect.
"Mind if I borrow this?"
"Where are you g-" I left before House could finish his sentence.
"I have the flag!" I shouted into the radio. Confused noises came back.
Backtracking, I found the street I'd joined the river from, and charged back down it, spike end of the flagpole pointed forwards. Still on my Mint-Als high, I could pick out Bravehorse rooting around in the Arndam food court looking for me. I dove a bit for some extra speed and beat my wings once to get extra lift, and came in through the window. He had about time to turn his head before the flagpole connected. He was a big lad, and there was enough inertia to throw me off the flag, even as it went right through his abdomen. I tumbled across the food court, and landed on my front by the top of the escalator.
I stood up and coughed, winded. I started walking over to reclaim my flag, when he stirred and got back up. Fucking hell! He was on his feet quicker than I could get to him (fuck being winded), and I backed up, wings outstretched. Just to put on a show of being a badass, he reached around and pulled the flagpole out of his own body. He was leaking pretty badly, but the smirk on his face told me he just didn't care. He said some stuff at me in that language they had that I didn't understand, probably something about me killing his wife and stuff. He charged at me. I took a quick glance at the escalator behind me. Not the brightest chap, was he? At the last moment, I jumped out of his way and into a hover just outside, shouting "Toro!" He continued off the escalator and tumbled down. He rolled head over heels all the way to the bottom. His spear got thrust from its saddle on the way down and hit the sign. He stopped rolling at the very bottom, lying on his stomach with his neck outstretched. The sign rattled, and finally, centuries-old screws failed, and the sign slid off its posts.
Then Bravehorse had no head.
I didn't stick around to mess with the body, which I really would have liked to do, because there was still a battle going on. I went back for my flag, wiped the bits of Scolt off and checked in on the radio. "Grapevine, how's the evac going?"
"We took some losses in the retreat, but we've got the last of us across. Most of the bridges are gone. What have you been doing?"
"Oh, just killing time in the food court while you guys do your thing. Also killing Bravehorse. In the food court." Tribute cheered. "I'll be over to help rig the eggs. Once the last bridge is gone, the Scolts will be penned in and the Enclave will mop up them and the last of the raiders."
We stood on the bank waiting for about half an hour. On my instruction, the militia had organised into a narrow column by the last bridge blown. The guns at Formby kept shooting, and the Enclave air presence thinned out by pure attrition to a raptor and a couple of chariots milling about with no bombs left. They took the tower and went to the trouble of tearing down our banner to let us know they'd taken it. The guns then demolished the tower.
House found me admiring the flag I'd taken. "So, tell me again, Atom, how is this supposed to stop the Enclave?"
"It isn't. Breathmint?" I offered him one of the last two Mint-Als. I'd been popping them like skittles. He shook his head.
Grapevine leaned over. "I'll take one."
We were standing where the bridge with the weird road to nowhere was (remember that, yeah? I bet you don't.) Eventually, a party assembled on the opposite bank. Enclave soldiers lined up, battle saddles at the ready. Most of them were splattered with blood. A few had City crests or shreds of tartan as trophies. They weren't shooting. The line parted, and a cloud litter came to the crest of the bank. Queen May XII sprawled on her throne, her golden armour just as blood-splattered. She quirked her brow.
"See? You're good subjects. You come quietly."
I spotted House going to move his mouth. I stopped him. "No one-liners. Just cards. You have got cards, right?" He turned his left hoof. Empty. In his right, there was one. "Make it count."
"Do be kind and maintain that file while we shoot you? It would be most..." She rolled her hoof in the air looking for the word. "... bothersome of you to do the running and screaming thing. We've had quite enough of that." She floated out a handkerchief and wiped some of the blood off her armour.
In one of the quickest motions I've ever seen, House flicked his leg in the air. The yellow card arced around and hit the horn in the middle. The whole thing popped off. There was no blood. The Queen patted her bare forehead. "Is... is my horn off?" The horn continued to glow, even stuck in the back of the throne. A unicorn poked her head out from behind the throne, with a bomb collar and the same colour magic as the fake horn. The soldiers looked at each other and at the throne. I clapped my forelegs, span on a hind one and slammed a hoof on the plunger behind me.
The whole opposite bank erupted in flame. It was probably an unhealthy blast of radiation for us, because we were close enough to feel some of the heat, but it was a calculated risk. It was also far less heat and radiation than the Enclave line took. At a guess, about half of their remaining troops in Manechester were on that bank, and now they'd been incinerated. Best atoms I'd ever smashed.
A couple of seconds later, there was a conspicuous splash in the river. Completely disregarding my own safety, I ambled over with my flag. Steam bubbled from the water. I waited. Maybe thirty seconds later, a golden hoof lurched from the water. The next minute was a horror show of a pony crawling up the bank and gasping for air. The Queen's face was burned almost beyond recognition. One cheek was completely missing, there was a deep, cauterised cut on her nose, and a substantial amount of her hair had burned away. She was shuddering as she climbed. She stopped from exhaustion and pain, and I put down the head of the flagpole in front of her face. She grunted, then looked up at me. I was standing on my hind legs, holding the flagpole like a golf club.
The Vertibucks made short work of the remaining Enclave, and soon the Steel Rangers moved in to secure the city again. House and Lone Star were trying to find bits of the Queen to claim as bounties, and argued about how they were going to cross the river to loot Bravehorse's corpse. Fucking Garbagemen. I sat at the broken end of one of the bridges, waiting out my Mint-Als high.
I slowly turned. Shooting Stars was there. "Come to lecture me about murder some more?"
She allowed herself a chuckle. "No. It's kind of weird in a way, but I actually want to thank you."
I blinked. "I appear to have died in battle at some point. Did you just say you want to thank me?"
"You could say I've learned a few... methods from you."
"Like..." She floated out the trigger for the bomb collar. I went wide-eyed. She flicked the cap, waited until I was good and panicked, then jammed a hoof on the button. Nothing happened. "There never was a bomb collar."
Once I realised that I wasn't dead, I sat back and frowned. I reached into my pocket for my gun. I was pretty practiced at it by now, so cocking and firing in the space of half a second was no problem. She squealed and covered her head. A dart bounced off her horn and rolled away. When she realised she wasn't dead, she stood up and blinked. I emptied the other five regular darts at her just to be annoying. She picked one up and frowned. I laughed.
"I didn't learn anything."
Level up! New perk: Apocalypse Ain't Got Nothing On Me
You gain a damage bonus against everything, because you like killing everything.
Now that you've completed the game, keep an eye out for the DLC!
TRAIN SIMULATOR 2299: With the deregulation of the railways after the war, the Steel Rangers and Enclave are competing to rebuild Braytain's railway infrastructure and take the lion's share of wasteland transport revenue. Travel to Croup, the centre of the railway universe, and shape the future of public transport by hook or by crook! Wow that one sounds really boring
STRICTLY COME WASTELAND: Turn on the lights and warm up the dance floor, because it's time for Balkpool's annual dance festival! The world may have ended, but the party sure didn't stop! I don't have any objections to this but unless it's run by raiders and the losers die I'm not sure how this fits with the rest of them
STEEL RADIATIOR: The Saddlefield nuclear waste facility has always been saturated with radiation, but since the balefire fell, it's only gotten worse. Even the Scolts knew better than to go here. But when a mysterious individual hires you to retrieve a valuable item from deep within the facility, you suit up and brave the atomic horrors of Saddlefield for fun and profit! This had better be one hell of an offer because this just sounds flat-out dangerous
PIRATES OF, UM, AMBLESEY: The wild north Whelsh coast only got wilder after the war, with clans of raiders taking to the seas to pillage the settlements on the shores! Will you curb the corsairs or join forces with them for ever greater plunder? Pirates? I am fucking there!