Fallout: Equestria - Memories

by TheBobulator

First published

One crazy pegasus, one roboleg, a contingent of Steel Rangers, and an adventure of infinite detours. Put all that together and what do you get? A rip-roaring mosh pit wrecking its way across the Wasteland, leaving nothing but confusion in its wake.

My name is Frosty Winds. I was just your typical, rank-and-file Enclave scout. I had an ordinary life, living in contentment among my loving family and good friends. Things were good.

At least, I'm pretty sure that was the case; I honestly can't say for certain anymore. One moment, I was being recruited to take part in a routine Wasteland scouting mission, and the next moment I wake up as a prisoner of the Steel Rangers.

On the bright side, I’m not missing much. Just all of my memories. And my left foreleg. Nothing important, really. Pile on a disease I’m not vaccinated against and being a few clouds short of a weather system probably doesn’t make any of this much better.

As if that wasn't enough, apparently I made a deal before I lost my memories. If I don't complete my task I agreed to within a month, I'll die. Of course, it would be helpful if I could remember what the agreement was.

So here I am, floundering aimlessly about the Equestrian Wasteland. I have absolutely no idea what happened, what I should do, or how to uncover the secrets that lie within my stolen memories.

Help. I need an adult.


(Read the official Prologue here!)


PDF DOWNLOAD

I'd like to thank Kkat for creating this amazing world of Fallout: Equestria!

Thanks to Toaster Repairpony for the awesome cover art!

Equally great thanks to my editors Unknownlight (all) and LeprechaunPoni (Chapter 29 and onward)
Previously edited by K4 (Chapters 1-21) and mikemeiers (Chapters 22-27)

Follow Frosty's out-of-universe adventures here!
But wait! Frosty's been spotted in other universes as well!
Somewhere in the Jerichoverse
Somewhere in King Sombra's Robotic Retaliation
Fallout: Equestria - Outlaw (In canon, too! Current rewrite isn't there yet.)
Fallout: Equestria - Frozen Skies (In canon, too!)

Chapter 1: What were we doing?

View Online

Chapter 1: What were we doing?

“Are you loco in the coco?”


I was sitting in a small dark corner office with my Commanding Officer, or C.O. I’d never actually met the stallion; the only thing I really knew was fact that he was the meanest officer that ever left Neighvarro, and that really made me worried because of how much trouble I was in. I think he just wanted to yell at the new recruits like me and watch us squirm. He glared at me again and I fluttered my wings nervously.

I’d just returned from a particularly disastrous run in the wasteland which had resulted in massive amounts of collateral damage, contamination, intelligence, and questionable decisions. Apparently the debriefing was for the sake of protocol, but there was one major difference. Somepony named Interrogation Officer Thundering Storm was listening in remotely through my C.O.’s terminal. Somepony wanted to know what I’d done in the wasteland and would stop at nothing to find out.

“Wait, so you want me to just dive in? From the beginning, huh? What about—”

“Just tell us what you know,” the voice from the speaker drawled.

“Okay, fine. Well, for the record, this is going to be the worst debriefing ever. Of all time.”

Please get on with it.

“FINE, fine.” I looked to my C.O., who nodded and motioned with a wing that I was permitted to take a seat. I settled into the stiff uncomfortable chair and began to tell my tale.

“We had just finished our second wasteland scouting mission to gather intel on those irritating, self-righteous Steel Rangers. I was ordered to bring back anything that was useful—movement patterns, bases, patrols, that kind of thing. I went with my wingmates…” I stopped. I thought hard and tried to retrace what happened that day. I had a vague feeling that I had been with them for a while, but couldn’t remember their names. Heck, I couldn’t even remember the colors of their coats!

Something wrong, airpony?

Must be my nerves again. “I… can’t remember their names.”

That’s fine. Continue.

“Uh… Well, anyway we were on our way to…” I drew another blank, stared at the ceiling and tried to remember, shaking my head in irritation. “Wait, I think we were also with some science officers, too. Maybe. There were buildings, and we were there to set up some kind of thing… that did… uh… stuff?”

My C.O. leaned over and harshly whispered to me, “Come on, I know you hate these guys more than I do, but they are in INTERROGATION for a reason! We need you to remember, girlie! Are you withholding information? Is that it?” He reached over his desk and tapped a hoof against my forehead. “We need you to remember, because some shady shit has been happening that the higher-ups just aren’t telling us about!”

Anything I need to know about?

“Yes, you do!” I yelled at the terminal. “I don’t remember what happened, or what I was doing! It’s like they’re missing from my memories! All I know was that we were ambushed, separated, and I have no idea where everypony else is! I remember walking through the wasteland with an injured wing and—” I stopped. I still remembered this part, though vaguely. I’d stumbled around aimlessly, then collapsed from… blood loss? Concussion? Something serious, but… what was happening? Why couldn’t I remember?

Anything you can tell us?

“NO! I. DON’T. REMEMBER.” I was incredibly pissed off. Were all officers this stupid? What part of it didn’t they understand? At that point, I could reliably say I was with a science team, setting up some kind of station that controlled… something, and then something happened, and now I was here! And then it struck me. How had I gotten here? I collapsed in the wasteland, and then I suddenly woke up perfectly fine with no memory of being in a hospital, not to mention arriving in this office.

I decided to look around the room, and suddenly things started to fall into place. Now that I was aware of it, the walls looked strange, the tiny window in the corner of the room was so bright that I couldn’t even see anything out of it, and the desk’s dimensions just looked… wrong. I was starting to get a gut feeling that this wasn’t real life. “What’s going on here? What is this? Is this a sim? Is this the best you could come up with?”

Damn, she’s figured it out. Sir?

Voices argued in the background. Aha! So I was RIGHT! Before I could figure out anything else, a different voice faintly came over the terminal.

Pull her out. We’re going to have to do this the hard way.

Everything popped out of existence and the first thing I felt was cold. Mind numbing cold. So, so cold. I blinked and watched as lines appeared, bit by bit until I was staring at what seemed to be the inside of a stasis pod. The pod doors slid open and I looked around the bleak darkness of the new room I was stuck in. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, and looked around again. There was a small blast door on the side of the room opposite to the pod, and behind my pod was a small bank of computers, presumably running the simulation that I’d just been in. The blast door opened with a whirr and a particularly loud thunk, and a large, armored Steel Ranger walked into the room with a wheelchair in tow. “Get in the wheelchair, Enclave scum. Don’t try anything tricky.”

“Even if I can’t fly in this room, I can still walk, you huge bucking ugly—” My insult was cut short as I suddenly fell on my face when I tried to lunge at the Ranger. I sat up, and noticed something I should have noticed first—my left foreleg was gone halfway up where my elbow should have been! I gave myself a quick once-over and noticed a few other things missing that I probably should not be missing. There was a massive boxy contraption clamped around my remaining foreleg, I had healing bandages in various spots all over my body, and small scars only barely visible because the surrounding teal fur was missing.

The largest problem for me, however, was half of the feathers on my left wing were missing. The thought of not being able to fly or walk for a long time nearly brought tears to my eyes. At least the wing itself wasn’t missing, I told myself. Worst part is, I’d managed to lose my Enclave Scout Armor. How would I pay for it when, or if, I got back? Crushed, I slowly hobbled my way over to the Steel Ranger and fell into the wheelchair. Well, at least they didn’t expect me to walk, so that gave me time to think about my current predicament in slight comfort.

After about three minutes of walking (okay, him walking and me wallowing in whatever ponies wallowed in), my hyperactive mind couldn’t take the silence anymore. “Can you at least tell me your name? Or something? I’m so booooooooooored…” I leaned back in the wheelchair and stared at the underside of his helmet, expecting an answer. “Or how about you take this thing off? It’s heavy, uncomfortable, and it chafes!” I pouted and proceeded to wave my remaining box-laden foreleg in front in front of his visor.

“None of your business, prisoner, and I’m not equipped to take that off anyway,” he gruffly replied. “We’re nearly there.” He swatted my hoof out of his face. After a few more minutes of silence, he decided to give me a little solace. “I am Paladin Commander Rumcake Rum, and I am currently acting as your jailer.” Was that malice coming from underneath his helmet? “As for the thing on your leg, it’s a PipBuck 2000 Plus, just because we decided you were worth interrogating on the grounds that your hat deemed you important. Don’t get too comfortable with it though, we only needed it to interface with the simulator. After digging around your brain, we—”

I stopped him there with an outburst of rage. “You bucked with my brain!? No wonder you idiots couldn’t get anything out of me, you STOLE THEM before asking!” I seethed with rage as I mulled this over. The inability to remember anything or anypony, plus the imprisonment by Steel Rangers, plus aforementioned brain-poking, all equals missing memory. “What were you expecting then? What else did you take? TELL ME.”

Rumcake stopped and looked down at me. “Hey, according to Senior Scribe Instant, we didn’t do anything! It was all you not knowing anything. Not us.” I gave him a blank stare, and he elaborated. “Instant Noodles is our most reliable scribe. She specializes in memory capture and retrieval. That’s the kind of things unicorns are good at, after all.” He looked up and continued to push me along to yet another tiny room that looked exactly like the other rooms we’d passed along the way. “We’re here, prisoner. Sit tight and wait for Inquisitor Soufflé to arrive, you Enclave whore.”

“Thanks for that, tankass.” I sunk lower into my wheelchair and just prayed that the mandatory interrogation training for all Enclave personnel would actually help. I stared at the door opposite from me, and took only a few minutes to become immensely bored. I craned my neck over the back of the wheelchair and stared at Rumcake upside-down. I winked at him, and the only reaction I got was an annoyed grunt. I heard a door thud open and I snapped my head back forward to see a gaunt unicorn wearing a tall, fancy greatcoat and a great big pointy officer’s cap, both of which had the gears-sword-wing logo of the Rangers on it. He spoke in the drawling tones of the voice on the speaker from the simulation.

“My name is Inquisitor Soufflé, and you will tell me everything, you stubborn, pathetic Enclave pidgeon.”

I barely suppressed a snort. Soufflé? Really? At first I thought Rumcake was joking, but Soufflé? A buck named Soufflé was going to interrogate me. Moment of hilarity aside, training kicked in. Name, rank, serial. Nothing more, nothing less. And maybe a taunt or two, just for personal enjoyment.

“My name is Frosty Winds, Scout Second Class, Serial 405937-5712. And you” – I pointed a hoof at him – “have the funniest name ever.” I burst out laughing.

“Listen bitch, you’re not telling us the truth. Heck, you haven’t told us ANYTHING remotely useful! You’re not even a scout, your field officer’s cap proves it!” He then proceeded to toss a cap onto the table and glare at me menacingly. The desired effect was lost however, because I was still too busy laughing my flank off. He slammed his hooves on the table and I immediately stopped and paid attention to him. “You. Are going to tell. Me. Everything.” He growled at me. “And I want nothing but the truth!”

“My name is Frosty Winds, Scout Second Class, Serial 405937-5712.” I shifted in my wheelchair as I tried to remember where I’d gotten the cap from. If there was a science team at the area of operations, then logically there was some kind of experiment. An experiment in a hostile area of operations, which meant that there was at least one combat team on site for defense. Although I wondered how we had managed to be completely massacred by hellhounds, given our probable heavy weaponry.

…Wait a minute. What? “Hellhounds?” I muttered to myself. “What were we doing?” I now pointedly ignored Soufflé as he became angrier and I tuned out his yelling so that I could think and try to remember.

Unfortunately, my train of thought was interrupted by a hoof smashing into my jaw. “Dammit, bitch, if you aren’t going to help us voluntarily, then we’ll just have to move on to more drastic measures.” He tapped his ear and yelled, “Go wake up Paladin Fruit Punch! I don’t care if she’s on break, just tell her to get prepped to handle a prisoner.” He looked back up to me. “Last chance, Enclave bitch. Help us, or maybe the Paladin breaks off your other wing.”

I looked back at my wings. The feathers would grow back soon, but I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if I was stuck on the ground for the rest of my life. I turned back to him and told him, “Look, you already stole everything out of my brain! You already know everything that happened and took it away from me! I don’t know anything else.” His expression of gleeful rage turned to puzzlement. “What, your little machine ponies didn’t tell you about that?”

He cocked his head, indicating more puzzlement, then countered, “There was barely anything in your head to begin with; our scribes managed to read bits and pieces of your memories, but without far more intrusive methods, we had nothing to go on. All useless in the end since you couldn’t tell us anything useful either.” Someone had stolen my memories, made sure I couldn’t remember and tell anyone what had happened. “Now,” he continued in a gentler tone, “try to tell us what you remember, and maybe we can help you.”

“Oh, I’m not falling for that good pony, bad pony thing, and you’re doing it wrong. You need another pony to be the good pony.” The Inquisitor gave me a dirty look. “Anyway, I couldn’t tell you anything else if I wanted to. Interrogations only go so far, you know.”

I glared at him and tried to cross my forelegs, but it didn’t have the desired effect because I still hadn’t gotten used to my stump just yet. I was just about to tell him to go buck himself when he suddenly turned and started to leave the room.

He sighed. “Paladin Commander, take the prisoner back to her cell. There isn’t anything we can get out of her.” He turned around to face me. “As a sign of good faith, I’m going to inform the engineers to expect you. No need to waste a perfectly good commander carting around a crippled Enclave rat.” He sneered at me then left without another word.

Well, that had gone better than expected, and I even got some information from that whole thing too! I leaned back and addressed Rumcake. “Take me back to my room, nurse!” He sighed and carted me out of the room. When we took a turn toward a more brightly lit hallway, I looked up at the bottom of his helmet and poked it with my hoof. “Hey, where are we going?”

He looked down at me and replied, “We’re going to go see—”

I interjected, “Let me guess, Banana Pie? Raspberry Tart?” These food based names! Why would you name your foal after food?

He paused and stammered, “Uh… well… you’re half right. Banana Pudding is our Head Knight. We’re going to get you a leg so I don’t have to push your lazy flank around.” He looked at me again, and I must have been giving him a you-totally-cannot-be-serious face because he said, “No, really! It’s Banana Pudding and Knight Baked Potato.” He continued to push me along the hallway in silence.

When we got to there, a short brown buck with a short yellow mane and tail was completely asleep and snoring on his workbench. He must have been asleep for a while, because there was a puddle of drool collecting around the left side of his muzzle. He muttered something unintelligible and shifted in his sleep.

“How am I not surprised?” Rumcake muttered, then moved closer to the sleeping buck as quietly as a pony sized tank could. He cleared his throat and then fiddled with a switch on the side of his helmet before taking a deep breath. “WAKE UP YOU WORTHLESS SACK OF HORSEAPPLES YOU AREN’T ON BREAK JUST YET!

I wasn’t expecting him to have a built-in megaphone in his helmet and my heart nearly stopped in fright. But the brown buck’s reaction was priceless, granted. Right after ‘wake up’ he jumped and turned in mid air to grab onto the light fixture hanging from the ceiling, so gracefully that if I ignored the lack of wings he could have easily gotten away with being a pegasus. I started laughing so hard that I nearly fell out of my wheelchair.

WORKS EVERY—” He paused and fiddled with the same switch, presumably to turn it off. “—single time. Never gets old.” He looked up at the light fixture with the buck hanging off of it in sheer fright. “You can come down now, Baked.”

“Ach, that ain’t funny anymore lad! The four’f time was enough!” He glared at the both of us. “And you lassie, you en’t in any position to laugh. I reckon yer here for something a wee bit more important.” He let go of the light fixture and landed on the floor, all hooves down. I swear, potential pegasus material. “So, whatcha need girlie?” I looked at him with confusion. I was still trying to figure out what he was saying after the word “funny”. He stared flatly at me and explained, “This is how I speak, do ye have a proooblem?”

“Uh… no?” I stammered. Wow, hard to understand and a temper. Just great. “I need a leg.” I waved my stump at him. “And is it possible to be a bit more understandable?” He had no reply, he glared at me and went into the maze of shelves and parts in the back of the room to presumably look for a leg for me. I turned to look at Rumcake and broke into an embarrassing fangirlish squee. “That was SO. AWESOME!” I blushed and covered my muzzle with a hoof. “How did you do that?” I said in a more normal tone.

I knew under that helmet he was grinning like a madpony, but he said in a normal tone, “I got a Canterlot Voice mod for my helmet. Best two hundred caps I’ve ever spent.” There was a crash from the back room, followed by a storm of very colorful swearing and more crashing. “I’ll go help Potato, you sit tight and don’t go… oh wait, you can’t go anywhere.” He laughed as he walked into the back of the room.

“Why put this thing on me at all?” I asked, staring at the metal socket at the end of my stump.

“We recovered a mostly working cyber-suite a few weeks back and the Inquisitor’s been waiting for an excuse to see whether it works without sawing apart one of my Paladins.” Rumcake simply replied. “You just happen to be the perfect test subject. Once we’ve got all the kinks worked out, we’ll put you under the knife to find out.”

“I’m flattered,” I sarcastically replied.

“Don’t be. Senior Scribe Brussel Sprout could have accidentally killed you.”

What a nice thought.

Later, after I had been issued with a temporary prosthetic leg that was strapped onto my stump and secured to my shoulder, I was taken back to what I assumed was my cell. It was a small room with just enough space to stand up and turn around in with a bunk on one side and a toilet in the corner. The only other furnishings consisted of a grimy cracked mirror on the wall across from the bunk and a small table under it.

Rumcake stood in the doorway as I attempted to make my way from the wheelchair to the bunk. I stumbled into the bunk and lay on my side. This prosthetic leg was tiring me out and it wasn’t very easy to use, let alone get used to. I got myself comfortable on the bunk as I asked him, “So what happens now? I stay here forever and get interrogated endlessly?” If this was how I’d spend the rest of my life, I’d rather just kill myself to spare myself the boredom.

“Frankly, I have no idea. Best case scenario, we chain you up to a post and milk you for information. Worst case, Soufflé kills you.” He turned around. “I’ll be down the hall if you need me. Baked gets to take over my guard duty later since I caught him napping again, so…yeah.” And then he left me in my cold, dark, tiny room with nothing to do. I huffed in annoyance; he could have at least given me a magazine to read or something!

I punched the wall next to me, and noticed one of the tiles near the bunk’s mattress rattled. I reached down and opened the box, revealing a small alcove with a few bobby pins, a screwdriver, eight caps, a well-chewed pencil, half a box of Fancy Buck snack cakes, and two shotgun shells. Underneath them was a small and well-folded note that listed the following: “Step 8: Open hooflocker underneath bunk. / Step 9: Hope it’s a shotgun. / Step 10: Acquire barding. / Step 11: ??? / Step 12: Profit.” Above it was a mass of crossed out words and scribbles that more or less summed up to a to-do list that led to some kind of breakout. I noticed one major flaw in this plan, however. The last occupant of the cell neglected to plan for how to defeat several fully armored Steel Rangers, but they did plan for a breakout during a full scale invasion of the base.

I checked the little nook to see if there was anything else buried in it, and finding nothing I tried sleeping for a bit. After a while, I realized that I probably spent too much time being unconscious to be tired anymore. I whapped my PipBuck against the wall when it suddenly burst into sickly green light. I stared at it, transfixed, until I read the text on the screen that said, “View new user tutorial? Y/N”

I shrugged and poked the ‘Y’ button with my nose. The text was quickly replaced with, “Factory settings detected. Check for updates? Y/N”

I couldn’t see the harm in it, my cloud terminal usually required software updates from time to time. I poked the "Y” button again and the text was replaced by the image of a happy generic colt with the words Stable-Tec behind him. A little progress bar and text box told me it had found an update, and was in the process of downloading it when it gave me another text box. “Errors in registry! This should not affect your Stable-Tec device, but some information may be corrupted or incorrect. Reinstalling the update should fix this problem. Reinstall? Y/N”

I poked the ‘N’ button. There was no way I was going to sit around for the same update again when it probably wouldn’t fix anything, anyway. I was then re-routed back to a slightly updated “New user detected, run tutorial? Y/N” page, complete with a rudimentary animation of the little Stable-Tec colt using the device.

I pushed the ‘Y’ button and watched as a little musical interlude complete with animations scrolled across the screen. “Welcome to the PipBuck 2000! If you are watching this tutorial at work or in a public location, please use the earbloom attached to the side of the PipBuck to privately listen to this. A large arrow pointed at a location on the screen. “Tap the button to continue.” I poked the button with my prosthetic hoof and listened on. “Now, onto E.F.S. and S.A.T.S. tutorial! Please find an open space where you can efficiently become accustomed to both of these functions.”

There was a knock at the door. I poked the pause button on the tutorial. The door clanked and dropped open, revealing a Steel Ranger with a small tray with a paltry assortment of boxes and a Sparkle-Cola on it. “I brought you some dinner,” the familiar voice of Rumcake said. He lowered the tray onto the small table in the room. I looked over the assortment of boxes with slight displeasure. Hay chips, mashed potatoes, and single cherry snack cake. I grabbed the Sparkle-Cola bottle in my mouth and downed a third of the bottle. Mmm… carroty goodness. I didn’t really know how hungry I was until I finished inhaling the crushed box of equally crushed hay chips. Rumcake watched me wordlessly as I continued to shamelessly stuff my face with preserved food. “The food here can’t be better than the fancy crap back where you’re from.”

I looked at him and wiped some crumbs off my muzzle. “We can survive just fine, it’s just that it doesn’t taste like much because we have nothing to flavor them with. I prefer hundred-year-old preservatives and artificial flavorings more than bland field rations, really.” I then ignored his questioning look as I enjoyed the cherry filling in the snack cake. Through a mouthful of deliciously sticky fruit-flavored gunk, I asked Rumcake, “Something tells me I have some special treatment here.” I took another drink from the Sparkle-Cola. “Care to fill me in?”

“Haha, I’d like to fi—” he started, but I gave him a death glare and he changed his comment. “You’re the only prisoner at the moment, so nopony really cares about a bottle of cola. The only reason you get two boxes is because you’ve been out for a while.” He sat down in the doorway and continued, “You’re also the first prisoner to not try to kill me yet, so think of this as a thank you, and hopefully…” He trailed off there, apparently at a loss as to how to complete his sentence. I quirked an eyebrow at him in amusement.

He eventually stood up and said waveringly, “Uh, I have a report for the Head Paladin so you can keep the boxes but I have to take the tray back.” I finished off the Sparkle-Cola. “Don’t freeze to death. Heating in here hasn’t worked in ever.” And with that he departed and shut the door behind him, leaving me in the dim light of the room again, alone.

Out of curiosity, I got up and pressed the button for the door. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened. I decided to continue with the tutorial because I had nothing better to do. I located the continue button on the PipBuck’s screen and listed to it repeat, “Now, onto E.F.S. and S.A.T.S. tutorial! Please find an open space where you can efficiently become accustomed to both of these functions.” Yep, this room was definitely a large open space, I thought sarcastically. “This will be a live demonstration. Place an item such as a cardboard box on a flat surface, and pick up a rock or ball.”

I took the crushed hay chips carton and propped it up on the small table. I took the bottle cap from the Sparkle-Cola bottle and tossed it in my hoof. “Activate S.A.T.S. and target your object. Some weapons will be more effective on a pony-to-pony basis. In the bottom right corner of your vision displays your Action Points bar. Again, some ponies will have more AP than others.” I squinted and felt everything slow down. The box was surrounded with a green outline with a little bar that read 95% next to it. I targeted it once and felt the spell deactivate, and I threw the cap at the carton so hard the cap went through the first layer of cardboard and bounced around inside the box. I was definitely impressed.

A little bar appeared at the top of my vision, and I immediately attempted to swat it on instinct. The PipBuck informed me, “This is the Eyes-Forward Sparkle detection spell. Enemies will appear as red markers.” A red dot appeared for a second then disappeared. “Friendlies will appear as blue dots” A blue dot appeared then disappeared as well. The icons and letters on the bar spun around a bit then settled. “This concludes the tutorial. Thank you for using Stable-Tec technology. Have a nice day!”

With the PipBuck now fully booted up, I could actually use it as something other than a bludgeoning device. I then noticed that there was an outline around the tile I had moved earlier. I moved the tile and it revealed the same nook that I had found before. It also assigned values to all the items in it, including the pencil for some odd reason. Wait, if it detected containers, then…

I rolled off the bunk and heavily fell onto the ground. I looked under the bunk and moved the large hooflocker under it closer to me. Sure enough, there was a well-bucked padlock attached to the hooflocker. I clambered back up to the bunk and collected the bobby pins and the screwdriver in my hoof. I left two of the bobby pins in front of me and hid the other four in my tail. I then picked up the bobby pin in my teeth and, with great difficulty, held the screwdriver in my hooves and began to pick the lock.

After nearly an hour and a half of failed attempts and the loss of two bobby pins, I finally felt the padlock click and drop. I pulled it off with my teeth and used my nose to open it. I reveled in my victory over the stubborn padlock and beheld my spoils. One old, worn copy of Batmare, a half-consumed pack of gum, a broken-down anti-machine rifle, and a saddlebag to carry it in. I’d only heard of them in intelligence reports, but this was the first I’d actually seen one. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to assemble one. Oh the irony, I knew how to reassemble a high-tech plasma weapon, but I had no idea how to reassemble a simple ballistic weapon.

I placed the parts for the rifle into their respective slots in the saddlebag and hoped that I would find someone that could put this together. With the proper ammunition and fully maintained, the bullets from this rifle could probably punch through just about anything. After packing the rest of the goods in the pack (after reading the Batmare comic book twice out of sheer boredom; yay Batmare!) along with the remaining boxes of my dinner, I placed the loaded saddlebag back into the the locker and closed it.

There was a knock at my door and I nearly had a heart attack. Couldn’t a mare get a little privacy? Or, according to the PipBuck, a little freakin’ sleep?

A voice with a thick accent came from the other side of the door. “Ach, girlie! Ye presentable in there?” Yep. Definitely Baked Potato. I got up and opened the door. Or actually, I got up, tripped then hit the door with my face. I rubbed my nose as the door opened with a clank and a thump and the familiar, not sleeping Baked Potato walked in with a package on his back. He grabbed it in his teeth and dropped it on my bed. “Well, if ye feel like gettin’ dressed anytime soon, Rumcake said ye’d probably like this back.”

I opened the plastic wrapping of the package and pulled out my light scout barding, slightly worn and torn. It had been cleaned and fixed in a few spots, but most disturbingly there was a straight, clean cut stained with blood where the left sleeve used to be. I looked at my stump where there was now just a metal replacement and looked at the uniform again.

“If it’s any consolation prize, ye did manage to hurt whatever gotcha a mite badly. Most o’ the blood we cleaned off wasn’t pony blood.” He nodded at the sliced sleeve. “That was a bit harder to clean out. Ye nearly bled out on us lass, and the last thing we needed was a dead prisoner.” I must have looked appalled, and he attempted to change the subject. “M’boy don’t show it, but me lad Rummy’s mighty sweet on ye. Maybe return the favor, lass? I gotta get back to pretending to work. Oh yea, this is apparently yours.” He dug in one of his side compartments and tossed a squashed Enclave Officer’s cap on the bed as he walked out. The door slammed shut after he left.

I examined my uniform one more time. Still in okay shape, only a little damaged, except of course the missing sleeve. I took a closer look at the bloodstained left sleeve. The cut was perfect, no fraying or tearing—just a slight singe. It was like whatever weapon it was cut through my foreleg and the light armor like it wasn’t ever there. I assumed that I had been attacked by something large and armed with some kind of bladed energy weapon.

I put away my uniform and turned my attention to the Officer’s Cap. This wasn’t mine, so I obviously got it from someone. I looked on the inside of the cap and found nothing but a tag that read “Dry clean only, do not wash”. Disconcertingly enough, there were still some bloodstains on the inside brim of the cap, and I wasn’t sure whether it was my blood or the previous owner’s.

I ran a hoof through my mane and stopped. I twitched my ear, then felt it with a hoof. Nononono please still be there, please be my imagination! I looked into the grimy mirror and moved my head closer to it. On my right ear, there used to be a small green earring that I’d received from… somepony. Somepony important? I couldn’t remember. It was starting to get really annoying not knowing anypony I’d met, anypony I’d talked to, and all for no discernible reason! I moved my uniform and my cap into the arms locker under my bunk. These questions could be answered another day. For now, I wanted some actual sleep because unconsciousness probably wasn’t the same.

~~~~~

I was rudely awakened by a hammering on my door in the dark and early hours of… 11:00 a.m., according to my PipBuck. It was Friday! I didn’t have a work shift until—

I looked up and glanced around the room.

Right, prisoner, Steel Ranger base. Not the barracks back at… where? Gah! Why can I only remember all the really useless stuff?

The door opened and Rumcake walked into the room. “Rise and shine, prisoner! I bring you breakfast and the morning news.” He brought in a tray with two more cherry snack cakes and a RadAway. “Senior Scribe Instant Noodles insisted that you get your share of radiation meds so that you don’t accidentally die on us.”

I groaned and groggily slid my way off the bed, starting with my rear legs then when I got completely out of bed and took a step, I fell flat on my face again. I looked wistfully at my mostly-missing leg and held back tears. I sat up and leaned against the wall as I made my way to the table.

“Still not used to it, huh?” Rumcake asked, a bit more gently than I expected. I shook my head. I looked back at my wings and took solace in the fact that the feathers were starting to grow back correctly. I quietly munched a cherry filled snack cake. Oh cherry filling, why are you so delicious? Rumcake continued, “You’re scheduled for another interrogation today.”

I rested my head on the table and munched the other snack cake. “I don’t know. What am I supposed to do? I had so much going for me at home, and then I get captured. I don’t even know if the Enclave is going to let me back in!” I looked at him, tears in my eyes. “I… I just don’t want to die here… alone.” I felt a tear roll down my cheek. Great… I was getting sappy in front of the enemy.

“Suck it up, pegasus. That’s what happens to deserters and traitors,” Rumcake curtly shot at me.

That was uncalled for, to say the least. I continued to heartbrokenly sob into the crook of my remaining leg. This was it, and there was nothing I could do about it. I heard the door crank open and shut, but I didn’t pay it much mind. Would there even be a rescue team? Probably not, considering the lack of Wonderbolt infiltration in this Steel Ranger base.

“Pull yourself together, Frosty. Maybe there’s still a chance.” I admonished myself, then scoffed and adopted a more sarcastic tone. “And maybe they left the door unlocked.”

I threw the empty Sparkle-Cola bottle at the door activation button and nearly fell off my bunk when the door actually opened. Escape? Not one to tempt fate more than a few times a week, I poked my head out of the door.

There was no alarm, no yelling Rangers, no shooting, just me in a dim, but slightly brighter, hallway with a penchant for drab architecture. The hallway gave me more space than my tiny room did. After I was somewhat sure I was alone, I retrieved the bag and its interesting contents.

I yawned and stretched my stiff, sore muscles. I really needed to move around because I used to fly and run on a daily basis quite a lot. After getting injured, losing my leg and then even losing my ability to fly, I’d pretty much stopped moving around. I stretched out my legs and experimentally flapped my wings. Even after pulling the damaged feathers, my left wing still felt too light and airy to be stable. I double-checked the straps on my metal leg and once I was sure it wouldn’t come off while I was moving about. I leaned back to loosen up my forelegs when I heard a familiar voice behind me.

“You’re not earning any points with your cute little display.” Rumcake called out. I stopped in my tracks and cursed my lack of foresight. Why couldn’t I have just taken off when I had the chance? “Turn around, very slowly.”

Obviously, I complied. He had his helmet off for once and dear sweet Celestia was he cute! His coat was a dark, rich coffee brown, and his lovely (albeit funny) mane was the most adorable shade of pink. Wait, I didn’t just say that, did I? “What’s in the bag?” he asked.

I attempted to compose myself and managed to blurt, “Blanket. Basic supplies. Towel.” Smooth, Frosty. Rumcake was not amused by this, but I continued anyway. “Changing topics, aren’t you going to tell me to go back into my cell? I’m new to the whole prisoner thing, but it’s kinda what we do in the Enclave.”

Rumcake grunted and walked over to me. “New orders, courtesy of the Inquisitor.” I pouted at this statement, but he ignored my expression and continued “I’ve been informed that you are free to walk around the base as long as you have an escort to keep you in check. Oh, and this.” He quickly slapped a heavy black collar around my neck and locked it in place.

“The hell is this?” I yelped, flapping backward a bit too late.

The collar lightly beeped. “Bomb collar. If you try anything funny, I have clearance to detonate it. It’s got a built in tracker so we’ll know where you are at all times. Can you fly yet?” Rumcake pointedly asked.

“I was hoping to stretch my wings, but I don’t think it’ll be possible yet.” I frowned and flapped my wings to emphasize my point. “So if you will, I’m going to walk around for a bit.” He nodded, giving me the go-ahead.

“For your information, in the event we are forced to exit the base, you are not allowed to fly at all. If you do, you will have five seconds before I am authorized to detonate your collar. Furthermore, if you leave the transmission range of the detonator, the collar will explode. I control the safety range that you are allowed to roam in. If your collar starts to beep, turn around,” Rumcake dictated. “Now, follow me.”

I obediently followed him to a set of familiar doors and we stepped through them. A few scribes milled around doing whatever scribe-ly things they were assigned. One of them was doing his best at repairing a heavily weathered assault rifle, another was doing his best impression of a ballerina while trying to replace the light above his workstation, and a few more were simply doing generic boring things that I quickly lost interest in.

Instead of sleeping on the workbench, Baked Potato was using some kind of power tool on a set of armor that had gashes along one side. Next to Baked, a larger yellow stallion with a graying mane was fiddling with several disassembled weapons. Both stallions wore protective eyewear and earplugs. Rumcake strode up to the old stallion and yelled into his ear, “Officer present!”

The old buck jumped and tossed gun parts all over the room in fright. The lightbulb scribe completely flipped out and fell off his workbench. All the way in the back corner of the room, a cute little orange number that obviously hadn’t been paying any attention at all literally threw whatever she was working on in the air and barely managed to catch it before it hit the ground. One of the parts that the yellow stallion had hit Baked and he stopped to look up. I tried my best, but I started laughing so hard I could barely stand.

“Good to know you’re still up to your shenanigans, Rummy,” he grumbled. “Baked Potato! Put that down and help me find that firing pin I just threw across the room.” He started searching the immediate area around him for parts that had rolled on the floor. “And I assume you’re the little Enclave birdie we picked up a few days ago. I’m Head Knight Banana Pudding, and that unintelligible pony over there is Knight Baked Potato. Seems you’re feeling better already.”

“The little Enclave lass and I ‘r already acquainted, thanks t’ Rummy over here.” He walked around the room, and from under a different workbench, “Aha! Found a cylinder for a .32, Banana!” He stood up with the cylinder in his teeth and dropped it on his workbench. “Somethin’ tells me yer not here to play, eh girlie?”

I gave him a withering look. “I’m here on account of not being allowed to do anything,” I sarcastically replied, carefully twisting and tugging at the explosive choker strapped around my neck to squeeze as much comfort as I could out of it. “Not like I really have a choice anymore.”

Rumcake began to sift through the mess that the Rangers probably called a workshop. “How’s the maintenance order coming along?” he very loudly questioned to the two other Steel Rangers in the room, who both glared at each other.

“Not very well, thanks to a certain somepony that keeps drinking the butane.” Banana Pudding raised his voice at the end of that sentence.

Tools clattered from the other side of the room. “Ye stored th’ blasted stuff in a drinkin’ bottle! Not me fault,” Baked shot back.

“Shut it, you two. Bakey, I need you to relieve the prisoner of our PipBuck.”

The Ranger saluted and retrieved a small crowbar from a small drawer. “No prob’.” He gently lifted up my leg—which I very cautiously consented to—and performed some interesting maneuvers with the metal bar. A few moments later the blocky device clamped around my leg snapped open and dropped to the table. “All done, lass.”

I quickly lost interest when their back-and-forth bickering started up again and I instead began to lazily peruse the parts of machinery littering the nearby table. There were bits and bobs of guns, pistol rounds, an energy coil, and what I was very sure was half of a balefire egg launcher. Maybe now would be a good time to ask how this gun in this bag worked.

“Question,” I suddenly piped up. “Any idea what this is?.” I nonchalantly hefted my saddlebag and let it hit the table with a resounding thump. I grinned as I took out the anti-machine rifle parts.

“Celestia’s rump, lass!” Baked exclaimed. He examined the parts carefully. “These ‘r in very good shape… maybe a bit o’ grease and it’ll be fully functional. Of course, there is the eensy-weensy problem that you don’t have any bullets…” He stuck his head inside my bag and searched for something. From inside the bag, he said, “or a magazine… or a scope.” He pulled himself out of my saddlebag and concluded, “Congratulations lass, you’re the proud new owner of a well-maintained club. The magazine and the bullets ‘r the most important, but the lasa’ scope is the funny part—this rifle has been custom fitted with iron sights. There was neva’ a mounting rail for a scope on this rifle. It does come with a bipod, so this was never meant to be battle-saddle mounted either.”

“Wait, why are we giving a prisoner a GUN?” Banana Pudding protested. “We should have the guns, not her!” He fumed and paced around the workbench to face me. “What’s your plan, eh?”

“Oi, Puddin’ lay off o’ her! Nopony on the base has ammo or magazines for that rifle, anyway. Unless she wants to hit us with with it, which she can’t cuz’ of her bum leg, let ‘er try!” Baked Potato yelled.

“Since you two can’t make up your minds, I’m going to repossess this weapon for the Rangers. It’s a powerful weapon and I’m positive that somepony will recover ammunition for it eventually.” Rumcake slammed his hoof on the table and pulled the weapon toward him. I felt a pang of jealous rage as he began to thoroughly examine my weapon.

“Um… can I add something here?” I asked timidly, mustering my voice. “I’ve always believed the Steel Rangers were diabolically evil death machines that stole technology from the other wastelanders. Considering a lot of things, I’m even starting to think Autumn Leaf wasn’t exaggerating at all.” I froze. Who? Everypony else in the room stopped and stared as well. “Why does that name sound so familiar? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Excellent, we’re going to have to report this. Knight Baked Potato will take your things back to your room.” Banana motioned to Baked Potato to pick up my saddlebag. “Rumcake, you better take her to Soufflé. He’ll hear one way or another.”

“Here we go again. Never a dull moment,” Rumcake whispered to me as we both left the engineers’ room and proceeded to take me back to interrogation. Who was Autumn Leaf, and what had just happened? “Just… don’t do anything stupid. Please.” He opened the door and ushered me in. Then the door slammed shut behind me and I was alone in this room, again.


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Enclave Training – Despite your memory loss, your training as an Enclave soldier has stayed with you. Good thing you paid attention in class! You gain +5 to your Science and Medicine skills.

- End of Chapter 1! -

Chapter 2: So, why am I here?

View Online

Chapter 2: “So, why am I here?”

“You see, I saw you when you first got here, remember?”


Here I was again, in this same dinky room with the same inquisitor who thought I knew something important enough to be kept here. I stared at the table in confusion, resisting the urge to prod at the Neighton’s Cradle on his desk. What had I said that had such an impact on Baked Potato, Rumcake Rum, and Banana Pudding? Who was Autumn Leaf? What, if anything, was I involved in? I was shaken out of my confusion when a pair of hooves slammed into the table in front of me. “Tell me, you flightless little birdie, how do you know Autumn Leaf?” He lowered his hooves off the table and paced to my side of the room. “You know more than you think, and we just need you to tell us. The faster you tell us, the sooner we can remove you from our base.”

“You mean kill me? Not a chance.” I stared into his cold eyes defiantly. “I’m not telling you anything more. Besides, you know more about me than I do!” I looked away and continued. “Even if you release me, I don’t have anywhere safe to go to. Once I lost contact and got captured, I was probably marked as KIA.” I stared at him again. “I have reasons not to tell you, and you have no reasons to make me tell you, because I don’t know anything else. Can I go back to my cell now?” I huffed indignantly and stared at the opposite wall.

“There has to be something that you remember. Something you can tell us,” Soufflé growled. I rolled my eyes in boredom. “Something we can use. The previous Elder poached some of the best experts in their fields from other contingents. We can help you.” He looked at me expectantly.

“Look dirtbrain, here’s all I can accurately remember. My name is Frosty Winds, Scout Second Class, Serial 405937-5712. That’s it.” Thank you, interrogation training. I exhaled and continued. “Everything else is just a mess of violence and things that don’t make sense. If you really want to know, the last thing I remember is that I was in a city.” I closed my eyes and tried to bring back the last thing I remembered. “Wait… what do you even need my information for anyway? I wouldn’t know anything that would be remotely useful.”

“I don’t believe any of that for a second. Any actionable information that you provide will be used in order to plan for the future,” Soufflé retorted. By the sounds of it, he’d said this particular line quite a lot. “Look. You tell me, and only then can I help you. That’s it. How about we start with this: tell me something, anything, and I might be able to make my Rangers be a bit more amicable.”

I facehoofed. Really? Wow, this was just like a really bad crime film I’d watched back at the barracks. “You’ve got to be kidding. You already know everything about me, and then some.” I leaned forward at him. “And the only thing I remember about Autumn Leaf is that he made some damn fine motivational speeches. Nothing else.”

Soufflé smirked. “I bet he’d have some fine words for me, now wouldn’t he.” I rolled my eyes again. Just words wouldn’t begin to sum it up. “Fine. Tell me this: what are you doing here, so far from your little safe haven above the clouds?” I had the urge to throw an insult his way, but I held my tongue. Soufflé continued, “The Enclave doesn’t send soldiers, not to mention officers down to the surface for no reason. So, why are you here?”

“Again, I don’t remember. You’ve already recorded my memories anyway, so why bother asking?” I grinned sarcastically at him. “Why don’t you waddle on out and go look it up for yourself?”

Soufflé scowled at me. “I suppose you have a point. My methods are not going to work here, because I expect my prisoners to have the IQ of a chicken, not of a turnip.” I glared at him, but he wasn’t paying attention. He tapped his ear (where I assumed he had an earbloom wirelessly connected to a hidden PipBuck or something) and said, “Tell Instant Noodles that she can do whatever she wants to the prisoner. I have simply stopped caring until she becomes more intelligent.” He left me in the room. I waited for a few beats, expecting him to come back, but when I heard a door in the distance slam shut, I realized he was finally gone!

I hesitantly turned to leave, when the door I’d come through clanked open and a yellow and green mare wearing a scribe’s outfit walked in. “Please, have a seat. This will take a bit of time, but I promise to be nicer than our dear Inquisitor,” she said gently.

Wow, her voice was so calming. So gentle and beautiful… Woah, okay! Enough of that. I snapped out of my very sudden and random daydream. My chair was surrounded with a soft yellow light and was turned to face me. Of course, they had to have a unicorn for memory readings.

Good job, Frosty!

Shut up, brain.

“Don’t be afraid to leave anything out,” Instant Noodles said as she conjured a clipboard out from somewhere. “Due to a previous arrangement that you need not worry about, I’m promoting you from ‘prisoner’ to ‘science project’.”

I dumbly sat down and my chair was turned to face the desk again. Instant Noodles walked to the other side and sat in the chair that Soufflé had recently vacated. “Now, I don’t need you to remember anything exact, I just need you to walk through your daily routine. Before all this started, that is.” Her voice was so soft and comforting. I nodded and closed my eyes. Let’s see…

So… starting from the beginning. Woke up, Made the bed, then…

“Frosty, darling, I need you to tell me what’s happening in there.”

Oh, right. “…Go hit the showers. Small talk with Lightning Chaser, then mo— wait, who?”

“Nevermind that,” I heard a faint scribbling. “Continue, and try to keep up some momentum. Just don’t think about it. Let your mind wander and do its job.”

“Okay… uhh… right, after the showers, got toweled off, brushed, and preened feathers. Talked to old annoying officer for daily assignments.”

“That’s good, Frosty. Now, walk me through what happened four days ago.”

It was four days? Wow. “So… it was just any other day. Woke up, got cleaned and brushed, then reported for assignments. That day… we got a special assignment? From the top?” I furrowed my brow in concentration. Did this count as treason? “Our squad leader gave us ten minutes to gather our gear. So I did, and they certainly had no complaints. I think we were going for the once-in-forever wasteland check.”

“The what?”

“The wasteland check is a periodic check to see whether or not the surface is habitable again and whether the Grand Pegasus Enclave should come and help rebuild. There’s probably a fancy name for it, but I don’t care. Anyway, we were dropped off in a Vertibuck and were told to scout the area, take measurements, and the like. But something wasn’t right. Wait… no, that was the original plan. We were told to escort these scientists or researchers or whatever to the surface and defend them until their work was done.” How did I remember this? How did Soufflé not get this from me?

Brain, why don’t you make sense?

Shut up, Frosty.

“Then what happened?”

“…I don’t remember. Blood, cloud terminals, screaming. It’s all a mess after that.” I opened my eyes and looked at her. “If it helps, we were on top of some huge buildings and I think we set up some kind of installation. I remember being there for a while and complaining to somepony that it was really boring.” She nodded and wrote that down too. “You won’t tell anypony?”

She fiddled with her pencil while she continued. “It’s all about how to deal with post-traumatic stress and all that stuff. You’ve actually helped me a bit so far. Anything else to add?”

“…Um… there’s bits and flashes of a bunch of stuff… mostly fighting and blood. I can’t describe it and I kinda don’t want to talk about it,” I muttered and rubbed my eyes with a hoof.

“Okay, that’s fine. You think you’re ready for something a bit more dangerous?” I gave her my not-very-amused face. She smiled sheepishly and said, “Oh, don’t worry, it won’t hurt!” And then she added quietly, “At least I hope not…”

I sighed and agreed. What could go wrong?

“I have a spell that will take me into your memories. Both of us will be there, and we will hopefully put things together. And don’t worry, I won’t tell anypony else what happens in there unless you want me to.”

Great. Of all the ponies in the wasteland, I had to find a therapist. What were the odds?

“Relax and lay your head on the table.” I complied, and she leaned toward me, horn glowing with energy. “Now, close your eyes. I want you to think back to what happened after you landed.”

<~~~>

A radio crackled in my ear as I felt like I was falling. I groaned. Why was I in so much pain? I opened my eyes and looked around. There was an armored Enclave pony laying nearby and another, obviously dead, pegasus scientist nearby. I looked around and saw that we had fallen into an alley between two buildings. “So this is what happened, hmm? Some of it makes sense now,” Instant Noodles whispered.

I really wanted to respond, maybe even tell her to shut up, but for some reason I wasn’t in control of myself. Instead, I turned my attention to the pegasus stallion. I poked his muzzle, resulting with no reaction. I rolled my eyes, and then I automatically leaned down and whispered huskily into his ear, “Wake up, sexy boy…” Woah! Where had that come from? Whatever the case may be, that sure got a reaction out of him, he shot up like a rocket and looked around, presumably in puzzlement. “Gimme a sitrep. You good?”

He nodded. “Well, now. This is quite the predicament,” he said, looking at the scientist… bits behind him. “Of course the squint is totally dead. Now what?”

Why would there be scientists on a wasteland check? Things weren’t adding up like I thought they would. “Find Ashtray. He’s still the ranking officer of this op if he’s still around.” Where was Ashtray? Better question, who was Ashtray?

My comrade looked around the alley and decided to quickly search the dead scientist for anything particularly valuable. “It isn’t looking good. Nothing on squad comms. Your call.”

Before I had time to think anything else, an earsplitting howling noise came from all directions, followed by the stampeding of many bodies charging toward us. “OH FEATHERS, RUN!” he screamed. I followed the nameless stallion as fast as I could, ignoring the incredibly confused scribe tagging along for the ride.

We flew into the second floor of a ruined building and stopped to take a quick breather. I noticed that I had a few minor cuts and scrapes, as well as some familiar gashes along one of my hindlegs. That explained the scars all right, but when did I lose my leg? I looked at my left foreleg, still attached and still flesh and bone. I looked up. “You still have your plasma rifle?” He nodded. “How’s your armor holding up?”

“A little worse for wear, but it’ll have to do.”

I switched to radio. “Nest, this is Snowmare. Respond!” Interference and static burst over the line. I growled and yelled into my helmet, “Nest, this is Snowmare! Half of my squad is MIA and I can’t find Ashtray! We need extraction, now!”

Finally, a response surfaced through the static. “Snowmare, this is Nest. We cannot get to you at the current time. Use whatever you’ve got to survive. Good luck, gentlecolts.” Damn it! They were abandoning us!

Before I could shut off the transmission, another voice broke through the static. “Snowmare, this is Goggles. Is the station set up?”

“Dammit, I have no idea!” I yelled into the helmet microphone. “Everyone else is probably dead! We need extraction, now!” The howling grew closer and it sounded more angry. “We’re about to get killed, and the only thing you care about is your little science project?” I motioned to the buck for him to take up a position facing the missing wall of the building. “Send evac, before we lose anypony else!”

There was scuffling on the other side of the line, followed by, “…gimme that! Snowmare, this is Nest! We have evac on the way, estimated time of arrival, twenty minutes. Hold out till then, and we’ll get you home.” And then silence.

I fumed. This was how they repaid us? Left us to die without hope for assistance?

“Snowmare, I have just been informed of a new directive. We can reroute a flight that will arrive in about twelve minutes, but be advised, it will not have heavy fire support. Additionally, try to return to the landing zone, the relay has not been activated. Goggles has informed me that the relay must be turned on, or else your squad’s efforts will be for naught.” I pondered. Would we make it? It was only a few buildings away. But could we survive? “Snowmare, I need an answer.”

“Do it,” I replied automatically. I felt that this would lead to terrible consequences that would result in my capture later on. “Okay, we have a rescue plan,” I told the other two ponies. “We need to get back to that relay, turn it on, and hold out. Let’s move.”

I leapt out of the building with Instant in my hooves and the other pegasus following me on my right side. Before I could tell him to cover me, a shot rang out and a bullet slammed into his wing. I instinctively dived toward the nearest building and hid. “Sniper! Get down!” I yelled, to nopony in particular at this point. I looked back toward where my wingmate had fallen. Please be okay, just fly onto the roof like nothing happened, please…

When nopony showed up on the roof, I felt a bit of me die on the inside, like I knew him well, but his name escaped me. Did I really know him? Or was he just one of my generic squadmates? Aargh! I need to know! I shook my head to clear the questions floating about. I crawled over to the edge of the building and looked down. He was nowhere to be found! There was a trail of blood that went around a building and out of sight. I prayed to Celestia for his safety and moved on.

I was about to peek over the brick wall I was taking cover behind when another shot rang out. The bullet smashed through a brick and my left foreleg. I cried out in pain as I started to bleed out. The wound burned and stung, and I had no healing potions left after what had happened before the memory started. My medical training kicked in as I attempted to not go into shock. As fast as I could, I fetched a gauze bandage from my tiny first-aid kit and wrapped it around the wound.

After that, I risked another peek above the bit of cover and was rewarded with a horrifying pinging sound, and the sensation of my right ear being torn out. I ducked again in panic and grabbed my ear, again to stop the bleeding. So that’s how I lost my earring! Some crazy dog had shot it! I felt the wound and was relieved it was only just a little nick. I could put the earring back if I ever found it again.

Instant Noodles looked at me in pity. “What now?” she asked. “It’s been seven minutes already, you aren’t going to make it.”

I didn’t want to remember this part. I mentally prepared myself to relive this part of my memory. Skip, skip! When I noticed everything starting to blur, I realized that if I thought hard enough, I could keep my memories moving without actually having to do anything! When the scene had settled, I was back onto the building where we had set up a satellite dish, several Enclave cloud-crates, and a cloud-terminal attached to the relay I had to activate.

I was tired, worn out, had lost several pints of blood, and about to break down and cry my heart out. But I had to survive, make it to the next day! I jumped on the terminal and automatically selected a blurry option. I must not have been paying attention, because the words were an incoherent blurry mess. I toggled my radio again. “Nest, this is Snowmare. Relay has been activated, please advise on evac!”

The radio crackled again. “Snowmare, this is Nest, evac is four minutes out, you’re doing fine. Hold on, you’re almost there!” The radio cut out with a massive crack and then it was followed by silence. I looked around and heard the howling return, followed by a torrent of smashing and digging sounds. I noticed a slowly spreading pool of blood coming from one side of the building. I crept over to investigate, and immediately jumped onto the radio again.

“Nest, Nest! Come in! This is Snowmare! Please tell me that evac has medicine onboard! Ashtray is alive, but he’s in terrible shape! I won’t be able to patch him up, we need a real medic!” I rushed over to the dying buck. I was crying now. He was bleeding profusely from a massive gash in his chest. He’d tried to stem the bleeding with a sleeve, but the blood kept soaking through. “It’s going to be okay, Dad… you’re going to be okay…” I hugged him tightly as he held onto life as long as he could. Holy crap. Dad died? Oh dear Celestia, Dad was Ashtray? How could I have forgotten?

“Frosty…” he wheezed, “we’re not going to make it.” I cried harder and held him tighter. “Those creeps… got what they wanted. We’re expendable. I love you, Frosty.” He coughed violently and spat some blood out onto the ground next to the ever-spreading pool next to his head. “You’re bound for greatness, little filly. You’re a good pony… make me proud. And if you ever get back to those bastards… tell ‘em Smoky Winds… told ‘em… Rainbow Dash was right.” And with that, the shine left his eyes and he joined Celestia and Luna in the heavens, hopefully in a better place.

“Dad?” I gently shook him. “Dad?!” I shook him harder. “Please don’t go!” I cried into his chest for the longest time, holding him tightly. I’d lost several good friends, a special somepony, and my father.

My radio crackled again, and my ear was nearly blown out from the interference. It started with the voice of Nest, but then it was replaced by Goggles’s voice. “Thank you for your service to the Enclave. Your sacrifice will be honored and your remaining family will be notified. Have a nice day.”

I yelled into my radio, “You insufferable featherbrained idiot! You’ve killed us all! For what? Some numbers? Damn it, answer me!” There was no response. I cried, and mourned the loss of all these good ponies. Friends, family, lovers. All of them gone.

The voice of Nest broke in. “Snowmare… if it means anything to you… Goggles took over the mission directives and scrubbed the op. He’s only interested in his data, so you are no longer on his agenda. I didn’t know… I… I didn’t know. I’m so sorry. If—if you survive, head toward what the wastelanders call Friendship City. Contact Radar, and get the emergency broadcaster from him. It’ll override all encoded comms, so contact me then. I owe you a really, really big one. My condolences about Smoky… He was… a father to me too, in a way. Nest… Nest out.”

I yelled in rage and stomped back over to the terminal. This little terminal had caused everything. Was this mission really worth so many good ponies? I cried out in sorrow and kicked the terminal as hard as I could…

<~~~>

…And I woke up with my face in my chair, forelegs on the ground, and my hindlegs on the table. I looked up and turned around to see that Instant Noodles had been knocked across the tiny room, her notes and clipboard scattered about the room. She was haphazardly splayed across an overturned chair and had a pair of hoof-shaped bruises forming under her muzzle. I winced and covered my face with a hoof. I tiptoed over to her side of the table and helped her up. “Ohmygosh, I am so sorry! I didn’t realize—” I started, then she interrupted me.

“It’s… fine,” she said, while collecting her notes. “Most of the time, there isn’t much physical movement during the sharing process; however, you managed to somehow overpower my spell with your… grief, shall we call it?” She shook her head and rubbed the rapidly darkening hoofmarks under her chin. I shrank back in embarrassment, but she smiled at me and continued, “Don’t worry, nothing bad will come of this.” She put a hoof on my shoulder. “Go back to your room. Relax for the day.” She smiled at me and exited.

I slowly made my way back to the little room I now called home, all the while staring at my hooves in deep thought. I watched the metal plates beneath my hooves slide past as I mulled over what I’d seen earlier. I’d lost so many… so many I knew. Tears welled up in my eyes. I’d been abandoned, left for dead, and my entire squad killed, all for some stupid science fair project that some “Goggles” had decided was more important than the lives of my squad. A tear rolled down my face. My head bumped into a wall, but I didn’t care. I leaned against it and let my tears fall freely. I cried, and cried, and cried. I sat down, and just let everything out. My life is over, everypony I knew is dead, everypony I cared about is dead, and there is just… nothing left for me. I sobbed into the wall.

I heard heavy footsteps draw nearer, then stop. “Hey… are you okay?” Rumcake asked. I glared at him with my puffy eyes and my tear-streaked face. “Okay… apparently not. Wanna talk about it?” he continued. I narrowed my eyes at him, still slightly crying. “I, uh… offer you my deepest condolences?” I said nothing and wiped my muzzle with the side of my right hoof. I pushed past him and kept walking.

“My dad is dead, my friends are dead, everypony I know is dead. Please, just leave me alone.” I slowly continued to my room, quietly sobbing all the way. I didn’t need anyone else, I just needed some time alone. I staggered into my room and lay down on my bunk to think, to cry, to mourn. I took off my metal leg and rubbed my sore stump. Everything hurt so much, everything was so dismal. The thick metal collar bolted around my neck didn’t help me feel any better either. My father, my friends, my squad, all gone, never to be seen again. I stared at my stump and a question popped into my mind. Had I seen the entire memory? When did I lose my leg? I was now dreading the next trip down memory lane.

I must have fallen into a depression-induced coma at some point since a knock at the door roused me out of my misery. Surprisingly, whoever was on the other side of the door was actually waiting for me to open it. I carefully got up and hobbled over to the door and opened it.

“Ah heard from Rummy aboot what ‘appened.” Baked Potato walked into the room. “Look, if you want to talk about it, Rummy’s there for ya. Th’ Noodles lass, even. If ye don’t, that’s fine. Grief is a powerful thing, an’ Ah know it all too well. But Luna’s mane, girl, you can’t wallow in it forever!” He sat down next to me on my bunk and poked my nose with a hoof. “Tell somepony. Get help.” His voice lowered and he continued, “You remembered, didn’t ye.” I nodded and sniffed. “How many…?”

“Five,” I whispered back. “I knew them all. Three were close friends… two of them were closer.” Flashbacks of our moments together played through my head. None of them seemed familiar, nor did they connect to anything I could accurately remember at the time.

“One of them, maybe. I don’t remember. The other was my father. I don’t want to talk about that,” I quietly said. The grin disappeared from Baked’s muzzle and he nodded solemnly.

Abruptly, Baked changed back to much more happy tone. “Ach, right! Don’ be too down. Me buddy Rummy’s gotta nice surprise fer ya.”

~~~~~

Nearly an hour and a half later, I was lying down on a medical table in the Steel Rangers’ clinic. Allegedly, Rumcake needed an excuse to test the limits of a cyber-suite that they’d recovered at one point or another. Additionally, he’d said the closer I got to normal, the less depressed and mopey I’d be. I wasn’t being mopey!

…Was I?

I distracted myself by looking over the room I was in. As was the norm with Steel Rangers architecture, it was all gray boring walls and metal supports running up the walls. The less-than-imposing form of Instant Noodles stood over me, poring over unidentifiable tools and things. I was about to wonder what that really big pointy spinny-looking one was for, but she interrupted my train of thought.

“Alright, I’m going to send you into your memories again, and hopefully it’s going to be a good one. I won’t be coming along because I need to keep you from bleeding out while Senior Scribe Brussel Sprout operates on you.” She patted my head with a smile, then turned away to check something on the other table. With that voice, she could tell me aaaanything. I stared at her dreamily from my vantage point on the table, and she noticed me doing so. “It’s just the Med-X working. I’m not sure whether the memory dive effects what you feel outside, so this is just for safety.” I nodded. Her horn glowed with magic, and she leaned in close and whispered to me, “This time try not to buck me in the face.” I smiled and dopily nodded. She touched her horn to my forehead and everything melted away into nothingness…

<~~~>

I was blasted by a wave of noise: music from a party. I looked around. I was in my base’s mess hall. There were streamers everywhere, ponies partying, and a large assortment of bland Enclave food scattered about a buffet table. Everypony was in their fancy dress uniforms (in various states of being on) and there was even a multi-colored pegasus playing music! Unfortunately, it was getting hard for me to focus, and the burning sensation in my right foreleg didn’t help. I took a few steps and noticed something else. I was incredibly drunk. I checked one of my pockets and found an empty bottle of Wild Pegasus, and another half-empty bottle next to it. Wow, this must have been some occasion for an extra ration of liquor. I was hungry, so I staggered over to the table for some apple slices. Before I could get there, I was intercepted by a an intoxicated, somewhat familiar stallion.

“Hey… Whaddya think about the party, Frosty?” the buck slurred. “It’s nice, huh? So cool for the C-Colonel to throw a party.” He giggled. “Frosty… I get it.” He stumbled around to my other side and put a hoof around my neck. I tried to escape, but he pulled me in closer. “Your callsign… it’s Snowmare… and you’re Frosty.” He broke out into a poor rendition of the holiday classic “Frosty the Snowmare”.

I rolled my eyes. After I’d been assigned the callsign “Snowmare” I’d never heard the end of it. I knew every lyric of that irritating song yet I loved it around wintertime, simply because the little fillies loved me for it. I giggled back at him and I even joined in, automatically. I still felt intoxicated, and I felt happy. The happiest since my life had fallen apart. I laughed and mentioned to my companion, “Wanna make this snowmare melt?” I giggled harder. Oh Celestia, I was so drunk. In my mind, I facehoofed and flushed red in embarrassment. I didn’t even know who I’d just flirted with! I made a mental note as I watched myself follow the stallion to his quarters. He did have a very nice plot, I might add.

Before we got to his quarters however, a voice floated through my mind. “Hey sleepyhead… wake up.” Wait, we were getting to the good part! “Wake up, Frosty. We’re done.” I groaned and tried to block it out. It’s so peaceful in here… and, heck, I was about to get some action! We couldn’t stop now!

<~~~>

I was poked and prodded awake, much to my annoyance. Why was it so bright… why did it have to be so briiiiiight… I curled up and covered my muzzle with my right foreleg. “Wake me laaaater…” I managed to groan. Someone poked me, and I curled up tighter. “I was having a great dream… I wanna go back to it.”

“I’m going to put this out right now, for the record. I thought it was prudent to push our testing schedule forward, and not because I feel bad for you or anything.” I immediately sat up. What did that mean, exactly? Rumcake quickly averted my gaze in favor of a curious looking smear on the wall. “Although allowing you to pick what you wanted may have been a poor decision on my part.” He off-hoofedly gestured at my shiny new limb with a frown.

I looked down and squealed in delight, turning my new addition to and fro to admire it. I’d told him to make me a replacement fashioned after a gryphon’s claw. My stump was now attached to a cybernetic limb port. Attached to that, there were a series of tubes, hydraulics and wires that attached to a claw that acted just like a gryphon’s claw. I hugged Baked Potato. “You’re the best! Thank you thank you thank you!”

“Girl, I’ve learned from yer antics… Keep yer hoofsies ta yerself.” He proudly grinned and turned around. “Anyway, yer arm thing is done. Keep it as dry as possible, don’t hit it on things, and don’t” – he pointed at the claw on the end – “maul anypony with those. They aren’t strong enough to hold up to… hoof-to… claw… combat.”

I stared at the metal contraption that was now my left leg and silently marveled at the soft whirrs and squeaks as I tested my range of movement. “So… how do I actually use the claw bits?” This was the part of my master plan that I hadn’t really thought through..

“In theory, all you need to do is to think about moving each individual talon. Thanks to the power of science and the intelligence of the Steel Rangers, we managed to attach small transmitters to your nerves—and we’re mostly sure we did it right—and allow you to move anything attached to your limb hub.”

Intently focusing, I thought long and hard to make any of my claws twitch. In order to somehow help that idea across, I flexed the unarmored wrist joint of my metal leg. For a second I thought I had moved the middle talon, but it was only because of my excessive shaking.

Instant Noodles intently watched me. “Maybe think of the talons as an extension of your hoof. Having unfamiliar extremities probably doesn’t make sense to your brain yet, but the cyber-suite should have filled in all the gaps when fabricating the spell built into your replacement leg. Just keep trying.” Her clipboard and pencil materialized at her side, ready for use.

When she put it that way, the feat I was attempting seemed to be a lot easier. “So like… pretend the tip of my hoof is bendy or something?” I asked, doing my best to do exactly that.

“I guess. You’re the one with the cyborg leg, so you’re the foremost expert in the field,” Instant replied, quickly scribbling something down. “I eagerly await results.”

One day, I needed to find out what the heck was written on that clipboard. In the meantime, I focused on trying to move my talons again. I managed to make a talon slightly wiggle, which made Instant joyfully gasp and quickly make a small annotation to whatever she was writing.

I returned to trying to get my mechanical limb working for me. My annoyance quickly turned to glee when I looked down and found that in my fright, I’d moved all my talons inward into a fist.

“Subject… adapts… quickly…” Instant muttered to herself whilst scribbling excitedly before addressing me directly. “Can you move each one independently?”

After a few moments of thinking at my artificial leg, I made my claw open. “Doesn’t look like it.” I forced more thoughts of movement and watched in entertained awe as I continued to play with my new steel appendages.

“And what does it feel like?” Instant inquired, eagerly awaiting my response.

“Doesn’t really feel like anything. I just like, think at it and it moves. I probably won’t know what I’m touching unless I can see it.” I shrugged. “Although it doesn’t appear that I get jitters on this thing, so that’s cool.”

There was an explosion from somewhere in the compound and everypony looked up and around. An angry mare’s voice yelled over the PA system, “We have a breach along the west hallway in sector D-2! Slavers have breached the base! Weapons free! Addendum from the inquisitor: try to keep collateral to a minimum. He doesn’t want to have to rebuild part of this place again.”

Everypony looked at each other for a fraction of a second. Suddenly, the Rangers in the room jumped into action. Rumcake ran out, presumably to his quarters to fetch his helmet-o-death and kill some slavers. Instant looked at me and then ran out of the room. No idea where she was going.

Baked looked at me hesitantly, looking like he was trying to make a decision about something. Eventually he spoke up. “You have been temporarily conscripted for base defense,” he enunciated with an official tone of voice. He slid a .32 pistol across to me. I picked it up in my teeth and squinted down the sight. Well, it was a functional gun at least. “I don’ keep it loaded much. Stay close, do as I say, an’ yer head won’ blow off. We’re going to show those slavers who’s boss!” In a lower tone of voice, “Don’t make me regret this.” He crouched under the table and came up with a helmet in his hooves. He slammed the helmet on his head and yelled “Let’s do this!”

We both ran out of the room and presumably toward the breach in the base. As we drew nearer, the explosions got louder and the yelling, screaming, and the lone cry of “Let our resolve be Steel!”. As we turned the corner, a slaver jumped at us. My twitch reaction caused me to squeeze the trigger once, twice, and watched as the slaver’s head exploded in chunky bits of gore.

The headless torso, however, continued on its destined path and into the wall behind us. I’d seen a whole lot of death, but really didn’t have to see that in slow motion. This wasn’t how I operated. Get in, survey, get out. Completely clean. No unnecessary fatalities. All stealth. “Nice shot, lass!” Baked laughed, his voice creepily distorted through his helmet. That distracted me long enough to regain my composure. “But we aren’t there just yet!”

I growled around the revolver in my teeth. “Hey, could you teach me how to rel—”

Before I could complete my request, we were spotted by a large group of slavers charging down the hallway. I was about to open fire, but Baked Potato motioned for me to back up. I complied, and I watched the signature Steel Rangers minigun pop out of his built-in battle saddle and roar in response. Needless to say, the slavers were not there for very long.

We continued onward through the gore of the slavers that charged at us moments before. “Almost there. Police th’ bodies fer ammo.” Of course, just in case I ran out of bullets for this tiny little pistol that nopony told me how to reload.

The word ‘Armory’ with an arrow pointing to a hallway on the left caught my attention.

“Follow me an’ ye won’ get lost,” instructed Baked Potato. Unknown to him, I had other plans. Hopefully amidst the confusion of the assault, I could put my devious scheme into action. The second he began to tromp forward down a different hallway and wasn’t looking my way, I bolted.

For once, the goddesses were smiling on me. In their haste, a Ranger with maybe about half of his armor on burst out of the armory, assault rifles in tow without closing or locking the door behind him. Into the room I went, quickly checking one more time for anypony that might happen upon me.

Guns lined the entire room to an excessive degree. Smaller weapons like assault rifles, pistols, and shotguns were mounted on the wall using some kind of fascinating modular system. Larger weapons, like rocket launchers, grenade launchers, and the like were leaning against the wall one next to the other. As much as I wanted to yank the gatling laser off the wall and take it with me, nopony had conveniently left behind a battle saddle to mount it on.

A little green spot of hope in this sea of gunmetal caught my attention. Sandwiched between a weathered minigun and a slightly dented grenade launcher was the anti-machine rifle that I had claimed for myself—and had been subsequently taken away by a very selfish Inquisitor. I snatched my prized find from the hundreds of other weapons in the armory. I spotted a leash attached to smaller sniper rifle and repurposed it into a strap for my anti-machine rifle so I could sling it over my back.

Once I had reclaimed what was rightfully mine, I did my best to retrace my steps all the way back to where Baked was hopefully still waiting. In the remote case that I did find myself lost, I could bank on the hopes that this entire facility was a giant mobius strip and I’d find him eventually.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I found the Ranger that I was looking for taking cover behind a support beam for absolutely no good reason. “So… why’d ya want a talon and not a hoof, anyway?” Baked asked, unaware that I had just silently reappeared behind him.

I rolled my eyes. “Wasn’t it obvious when you saw the rifle? First of all, the grip is custom-designed for talons to handle.” I pointed out the oddly shaped grip of the rifle and held it in my claw to demonstrate even though Baked wasn’t paying attention. Then I pointed at the modified barrel. “There’s a bipod and that’s also why it wasn’t meant to be battle-saddle mounted. The sight on the end is made of emerald, so there must be some kind of vision spell in it. The only problem I’m going to have is that the bolt is on the left side, so I’ll have to reach over to cycle the next bullet. And the other half of the sight mounted on the rail is emerald as well, which most likely means the targeting spells are linked.”

“About time you two showed up!” Rumcake shouted from ahead of us, somehow knowing without checking behind him. “Come on, let’s move! I got slavers to kill!”

“Le’s go then. Carpe natem!” Baked yelled, giving Rumcake an encouraging slap on the behind to get him going.

Ancient dead languages weren’t my strong point, but that didn’t sound right to me. “That doesn’t mean what you think it means,” I whispered back, barely keeping up.

He didn’t seem like he cared.

~~~~~

I dove for cover behind a fallen set of filing cabinets. Bullets sparked off the top of my impromptu cover and I crawled over to a slightly less dented location and covered my head. “Any time now, boys!” I yelled over the gunfire. The slavers shooting at me must have finally needed to reload, because the stream of gunfire had stopped and was replaced with the clacking of guns. I rolled my eyes. I’d have to do this all by myself, wouldn’t I? I took a deep breath, picked up my little pistol in my teeth, and poked over my barricade. I hastily aimed a trio of shots and watched in dramatic awe as two of the slavers simply dropped. Back to my filing cabinets for safety.

“Can I get some help?” I screamed at the hallway behind me. Seriously, where were they? I hopped up while the slaver was reloading again and charged at him. He backed up and fumbled with the assault rifle in his mouth, but before he could bring it back up to shoot at me, I placed my pistol against his eye and fired. I felt hot blood and tiny chunks of slaver splatter against me. I stared in horror at the remains of the slaver’s face. I looked up just in time to see another slaver jump into my face! I cried out in surprise and pulled the trigger on the pistol, only to hear the heart-stopping sound of the hammer falling on an empty chamber. Why didn’t anypony teach me to reload this! I stared in horror at the approaching slaver as he jumped on me. I cursed at myself.

“There’s no running if you’ve got no hoovies!” The slaver cackled, and he pulled out a large machete from his bag. I bunched up my hind legs under him and bucked him in the nads as hard as I could. He cried out in pain, causing him to lose his grip on his machete. As the slaver flew across the room, I felt the machete harmlessly clink off the edge my bomb collar. I felt a minor cut draw down the right side of my neck as the large blade slid away, but I didn’t care. I needed answers. I needed to interrogate this featherbrain. I stomped over to his prone form and I slammed my hoof down into his single uninjured leg.

I grabbed his throat with my claw. He chortled madly in a sort of pathetic, strangled manner. “What’s so funny?” More giggling. Blood started pooling under him. Oh, of course. I’d probably bucked him into some sharp implements in his pack. I shook him to instill a sense of impending doom.

“You call that a kick? My shits kick harder than that.” The rabid slaver laughed. He then did the exact same thing that I just did to him and he bucked me, hard. I flew across the hallway and into a wall. I heard something crack as I hit the wall then slid down it. Everything was blurry as I staggered up and something in my left wing didn’t feel right. The slaver slowly stumbled toward me with another bloody knife in his mouth. “If you won’t come quietly, then DIE!” he yelled around his knife and charged at me again. I managed to somewhat dive over to the right but not before he got a lucky gouge in right under my bomb collar.

I laughed at him through a haze of pain and numbness. “You got lucky that time!” I staggered to my hooves and claw once more and backed up from him.

He yelled back at me incoherently and charged. I dodged, and he cried out in pain as he collided with the wall behind me. I turned to find other routes of escape when I spotted a familiar armored flank sticking out from around a corner. This charade of dodging the slaver’s wild charges went on for several minutes as I taunted him closer to the Steel Ranger. I finally got him close enough so when I dove under the Ranger, I yelled “Nine o'clock!” and he responded by obediently turning and goopified the poor slaver with his plasma rifles. I patted the Steel Ranger’s stomach plates. “Thanks for the assist!”

The ranger grunted “no problem” in reply and turned back to laying suppressive fire down his hallway. I was about to go find something else to do, some information to collect, when I saw something irresistibly shiny calling to me.

I walked over to it in curiosity and poked it with a hoof. It was sitting in a pool of exploded slaver bits and parts of wall, but it still appeared to be intact. After wiping off the bullet to the best of my ability with a bit of spit and elbow grease, I dropped the large bullet into the chamber of my anti-machine rifle and bolted it closed. Surprisingly enough, it was a perfect fit.

Yay! My massive gun now had ammo! But it’s only one bullet, I reminded myself. There was some loud clanking and some disconcerting wet thudding coming further down from the hallway I had been in earlier. I dashed over and at the very end of the hallway, I spied the silhouette of a slaver with an assault rifle firing into a Steel Ranger with black and red embellishments on his armor. I drew closer and recognized him by his special additions to his armor. It was Inquisitor Soufflé! This was my chance at revenge! I grinned evilly and looked around. No slavers, it was perfectly secure there for the time being.

I unfolded the bipod on my rifle and carefully slid the blood-spattered bullet into the chamber of the rifle. I racked the bolt and lay down on the floor, guaranteeing a stable shot. I double checked my surroundings and it was still safe. I peered down the sight and my vision jumped forward several yards, where I could clearly see the slaver gleefully beating on the Inquisitor’s armor while the Inquisitor struck back with his hooves while trying to reach his ornate pistol just out of his reach. He spied me as he reached for his pistol, and he froze. I froze too. What was I doing? I shook my head. Everything was so foggy… so blurry…

I gritted my teeth and peered down the sights again. Soufflé’s fancy cap barely hung onto his head by an ear and he looked at me with pleading eyes. Buck! Why did I have to notice that? I felt something wet collecting against my elbow and I looked down. Blood. More blood. I sighed and scooted over more. I was about to look down the sight again, but the wetness was too distracting. I sighed and looked down. The blood pool was getting larger! I was suddenly drawn to the small pool rippling in the middle. I touched my neck with my hoof. By the moon, that slaver had nicked me! I was already feeling weak from fighting, tired from running, and I just wanted to go home.

I peered down the sights. I could really use a nap… I blinked several times to try to clear my vision. One shot. I can’t miss. I took a deep breath and felt my pulse hammering in my ears. One. I lined up the shot. Two. I began to squeeze the trigger. Three. I heard something behind me and I let out my breath and whipped around. A Steel Ranger was coming down the hall! I had to hurry! I took another deep breath. Four. I steadied my claw and re-aimed. Five. My mind flashed back to my interrogation. Uh… Seven? “I don’t care anymore.” He’d said. Eight. My father’s dying words echoed through my mind. “You’re bound for greatness, little filly.” Nine. “You’re a good pony.” Ten. I pulled the trigger and the bullet exited the chamber and blasted the stallion to kingdom come.

I heard a Ranger running at me from around the corner now. He’d seen what I was about to do. He’d seen what I’d just done. I didn’t care. I laughed weakly and lay on my back. One bullet. I’d only needed one.

I heard Rumcake distantly as my vision wobbled. “Damn it, Frosty! What have you done?” I flopped over and peered down the sight. Both of them weren’t moving. Good. “You’re in big trou… damn it! I need a first aid kit over here!” he shouted. He ripped off his helmet. “We’re going to have a long talk about this later.” I weakly nodded. It was getting cold. And dark… and he had such dreamy eyes… “Stay with me! I need you to stay awake!” I closed my eyes. “You’re not going anywhere!” he shouted.

I’ll be back, I thought to myself. I just… need a little nap.

“…No, give me it, now!” I faintly heard some clanking sounds. “Drink up, Frosty…”

~~~~~

“…Hey, featherhead. Wake up.” I groaned and pulled the sheets over my head. “Hey, c’mon…” Whoever it was decided to poke my nose. “Boop! C’mon… waaaakey wakey!”

I tossed the covers back and sat up. I blearily opened my eyes and looked around, and was surprised by where I was. I was in a picturesque version of Cloudsdale, with my bed just set up at the entrance of the city. I looked at who was speaking and froze. There I was, curiously looking at… me. Though the me that was standing there had all four hooves, a longer mane from before I cut it, and she was wearing the most beautiful dress I’d ever seen!

“Hi! You remember this?” She spun around. “It’s our imaginary Gala dress!”

Oh, that’s right! It was just as I remembered it. It was mostly white, with bits of light blue trim and darker blue along the bottom. I had little snowflakes in my long mane, and it was tied back with a bow in the shape of a big fluffy cloud. This was an amazing dress and I looked stunning!

I smiled. “Yeah… I remember. I… we thought it up after we read about it in the library… What’s going on, anyway?” I motioned at Cloudsdale. “I thought it got destroyed?” I stared at the city. We were standing on a vast expanse of cloud where the city was also sitting on. “So, why am I here?”

Gala Frosty responded, “I’m you, you’re me, and all I really care about is our collective well-being. I was hoping you knew.” She gently shook her mane and adjusted some of the snowflakes in her mane. “All I know is that this Cloudsdale” – she motioned around us – “is based on that little postcard in your barracks.” Both of us stopped at a medium-sized cloudhouse. “I think we’re here.” I opened the door and walked in.

And I was completely caught off guard by a little teal filly cannonballing into my chest. “Yay! Mommy’s finally here!” Wait. Mommy? I peered down at the incredibly energetic little filly hanging onto me. She was actually me, as a filly! She saw my claw arm and squealed. “Oh no, Mommy! What happened to you?”

I sat down. Wow, really didn’t see this one coming. “I’m not your mommy, I’m you! From the fuuuuuuture.” I waved my hoof and claw around. Filly Frosty giggled in delight. “Is anypony else here?” She shook her head. I turned back to Gala Frosty. “What’s the point of all this?” I asked as I played with Filly Frosty.

Gala Frosty replied, “Well, what else are you going to do while bleeding out and concussed?” It seemed to make sense. “You should probably go take a nap. Something tells me you’ll be back. We’ll be fine, obviously.” Gala Frosty rolled her eyes and I nodded. Wow, was I really this snarky? Well, I might as well take a nap, I was getting tired of this anyway. I went upstairs and found another bed.

I hopped into the bed and got comfortable under the covers. I patted the pillow next to me. “Hey, mini-me! Wanna take a nap?” She shook her head. Yep, definitely a younger me: never time for naps, just energetic bouncing. I smiled and told the two, “If there are any more of me when I get back, I’m going to go insane. Sound okay?” Gala Frosty and Filly Frosty smiled.

I snuggled under the covers and drifted off to sleep, dismissing it all as a very vivid hallucination.


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Gun Nut – Pew pew pew! Bang! Bang bang! You gain +5 to your Guns and Repair skills.

-End of Chapter 2!-

Chapter 3: Why does everypony have to pick me up?

View Online

Chapter 3: Why does everypony have to pick me up?

“Ultra Pony Roller Derby! Go!”


I gradually became aware of my surroundings as the dreamscape melted away. There was an antiseptic tang in the air, straps biting into my limbs and torso, and, worst of all, my head was a pounding mess of pain. I could feel the chill of the cold metal medical table spreading through my back. I didn’t even want to open my eyes because of the brightness in the room. I heard voices and faint hoofsteps, but couldn’t move to check where.

I tried to scratch my nose with my claw, but I only succeeded in hitting myself in the head with my stump. I managed to crack an eye open just enough to observe that my claw had been detached. I groaned and tried to open my other eye, only to shut it again after receiving an eye-searing amount of light that aggravated my poor brain. My neck itched too, on the side I couldn’t reach because of the straps. “Can someone turn the bucking light off?” I managed to groan.

The voices outside abruptly stopped and I heard somepony walk into the room. They turned on more lights in the room and walked over to me. I whined in protest and tried to get off the medical table, but the straps held me in place. “Rise n’ shine lass!” Baked Potato yelled. “Ye’ve got a lot of explainin’ to do!” I groaned again and slowly opened my eyes. I was greeted by Baked’s overenthusiastic face inches away from my own. “Ye feelin’ better yet?” he asked, somewhat quieter.

“I hate you. So much. Right now,” I whispered. I was wide awake now, and all the lights were making my brain hurt like crazy. Have I mentioned how much I hate bright lights? “How bad am I hurt? Am I missing anything else?” I didn’t feel like I was missing anything, but it never hurt to get a second opinion.

“Nah, but Rummy took yer claw away. Safety reasons, he said.” Baked looked skeptical. “I think he’s still a wee bit upset about that stunt ye pulled yesterday.” Yesterday? Why do I keep losing track of time? “Don’t look surprised lass, ye’re the heaviest sleeper I’ve ever seen!” I glared at him. “Ye passed out through another explosion, thrown about on Rummy, and ye’ve been out since we patched ye up as well. I’m surprised ye woke up at all!” he said with a grin.

“So what’s with the straps? And how beat up did I get?” I asked when I noticed all the bandages. Seriously, every time I woke up I was more injured than before!

“Let’s say most o’ the Rangers didn’t think it was funny when ye somehow happened to acquire one anti-Ranger bullet for your enormous anti-Ranger rifle.” He began to loosen the straps with his teeth. “And some of ‘em didn’t think it was safe to let a prisoner out at all, not that I can blame ‘em.” He loosened the last strap, allowing me to sit up onto my haunches. I stretched my foreleg and shook my wings hard. I wobbled unsteadily because of my missing claw and was about to ask Baked if I could have it back, when he continued, “As for yer fancy dandy claw, I took the liberty of makin’ it a bit more sturdy and fancy!”

I smiled at him. My Little Mechanic, what would I do without you? “Thanks! But… can I have it back?” He frowned at this. Not good.

“Bah, Rummy’s in a sour sort of mood, and since he’s yer jailer…” Baked trailed off. I knew what he meant. Rumcake probably didn’t appreciate me having the ability to kill a Steel Ranger if I had bullets, and taking my claw was a fitting way to prevent that for the moment.

“I know,” I mumbled. “So what happens now?”

“I have some good news!” Baked exclaimed. “I, uh, repossessed” – he made air quotes with his hooves – “yer claw and did some upgrades.” I squee’d. “Bad news though…” He sounded sullen with this statement. “I can’t give it back to ye unless Rummy clears it.”

I nodded. “It’s fine. I might have deserved that, I suppose.” I figured I’d get it back soon enough. After all, Rumcake couldn’t in good conscience keep my own leg away from me for long. More importantly, if I didn’t get it back soon, how was I going to get around?

“And some better news!” Baked added. My ears perked up. Better news? I love better news! “It’s time again for yer psych eval!” He grinned wider. I only had patience to glare angrily at him when Instant Noodles walked into the room. “I’ll leave ye ladies to it.” As he left the room, I barely heard him singing something along the lines of “Here I come, mess hall!”

I lay down and asked Instant, “So, how messed up is my brain?” She giggled at this. Aww, she was adorable. “And since Baked managed to forget to answer my original question, what happened to me this time?”

Instant Noodles stood next to the table and pulled out a clipboard and pencil. “I’ve decided to diagnose you with a recurring addiction to masochism.” I gaped at her. What. She ignored my stunned expression and continued, “You have demonstrated repeated attempts to grievously harm yourself, and each time has ended in disaster.” I couldn’t believe my ears! I was about to ask her whether or not I should be worried when she started laughing. “Oh Celestia, the look on your face was priceless!” She wiped a tear from her eye with a hoof. “I didn’t think you would fall for it that easily!” I attempted to faceclaw, but I forgot my claw had been taken away from me. Of course. Taunt the handicapped pegasus, because there was nothing better to do.

“No, but seriously, what happened?” I asked, once Instant had stopped laughing and regained her composure. “Once second we were under attack, the next I’m tied down in the medical bay!” I was starting to get a little depressed about my current situation.

Instant’s expression became serious. “Letting you run loose through the base was a lapse of judgement on my part. From now on, I’m keeping you on a tighter leash.”

Ha, leash. Collar. Bomb collar. Ha, she’d made a funny. What had I been doing though? I had been lying down in the hallway with the rifle… one bullet… I looked up and asked urgently, “Is Soufflé okay?” Conflicting emotions were running through my head.

Instant was actually surprised by my question. “He’s still out but he’ll live. Why?” I breathed a sigh of relief. “As for you, something cut your neck and it nicked an artery. You’re lucky you didn’t bleed out.” Instant must have noticed something, because she asked, “Why did you want to know about Soufflé?” She raised an eyebrow and waited.

I buried my face in my hoof. Can’t hide anything from a therapist, can you? “I… I considered killing Soufflé in that hallway…” I mumbled into the table. I looked up and nearly shouted at Instant, “This isn’t what I’ve been told all my life! Nothing’s gone right, you’re not supposed to be this nice, and I’ve lost so much. I’m supposed to fight Rangers and I ended up saving a Celestia-damned cake. I just don’t know what to believe anymore.” I broke down and cried into my hoof.

Instant put down her clipboard and wrapped her hooves around my neck. “I know it must be hard to be going through all of this, but persevere. If it makes you feel better, everything that the Grand Pegasus Enclave tells you is all propaganda. Of course, that also assumes our intel is correct.” She hugged me tighter as I cried into her shoulder. “What made you change your mind?”

I sniffled and looked up into her orange eyes. “My father told m-me I needed to be a better pony. It was… the l-last thing he…” I started crying again. I hadn’t cried this hard since I was a little filly. I was under a lot of pressure, so many things happening at once that just weren’t going my way, and simply because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

“Your father must have been a good pony… Smoky Winds, was it?” Instant asked. I nodded. My crying had devolved into quiet sobs. “What was he like, you know, when he wasn’t your leader?”

I answered forlornly, “I don’t remember.” Instant looked at me questioningly. “Yes, really. I don’t really remember anything about him.” I racked my poor damaged brain for answers. C’mon brain! Anything?

Shut up, Frosty. I have no idea.

Well, thanks for helping, brain. “It’s like all the important things about my Enclave life is gone… That can’t be coincidence.” Instant wrote this down while still holding me in her hooves. I was feeling much better now. She held me for a few minutes as my sobs turned into little hiccups.

Our quiet moment was interrupted when an armored head poked into the room. “Ma’am? Inquisitor Soufflé is up. He’s asking for you.” He looked directly at me and added, “And bring the prisoner too.” Having delivered his message, the Ranger turned and left.

Instant pulled away and put down her clipboard and pencil. “We better go before he gets angry.” She turned to leave, when she noticed me waving my stump at her. She looked around and sighed. “Since there’s no wheelchair, you can lean on me. It’s only three rooms away.” She walked back to the table and helped me down.

I leaned against her right side and we slowly hobbled our way out. I noticed a sign on the wall and I asked, “Is it okay if I stopped by the little fillies’ room? I need to empty my bladder and should probably get cleaned up.” I probably looked terrible right now. Last thing I needed was for Soufflé to ridicule me about me crying my eyes out. “I’ll be right back,” I said as I turned to trot into the bathroom, only to fall flat on my face. Damn you, brain. Missing leg, remember?

Shut up, Frosty.

“Help. I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

~~~~~

After I’d finished my business, with a bit of difficulty, we managed to make our way to Soufflé’s room. He was lying down in a big poofy medical bed reading something in his hooves. How come he gets a real bed? No fair!

“We need to talk,” he said without looking up.

Instant and I looked at each other. She nudged me, indicating that he was probably talking to me. “Uh… okay? What do you want to talk about?” I was very nervous about this meeting. Did he know? Was that why?

“I’d like to thank you,” Soufflé began. So he didn’t know yet. For the better, I guess. “You saved my life back there… Frosty.” Wait, Frosty? Not Enclave rat? Not prisoner? He’d actually used my name! We were really getting somewhere now! “I understand you had an attack of opportunity back there.” I flattened my ears against my head. Yep, he knew. He looked up at me in genuine surprise. “Why didn’t you just shoot me then and there?”

I pawed at the ground nervously. “Well, to tell you the truth…” I sighed. Let’s get this over with, I guess. “I really was going to kill you for a while there. I tried. Then I decided that killing you wouldn’t solve anything.” I sat down and continued. “I like to think that I’m a good pony, and letting you live was the right thing to do, whether I liked it or not.” Soufflé smiled. He actually smiled!

“Hm. I… I see.” Soufflé paused, seemingly unsure about himself. “Uh, status update, Instant Noodles?”

“Sir, we have three Rangers still recovering from the last assault and Panini is still in surgery,” Instant reported. Soufflé nodded. “As for Frosty, she needs time to recover after losing all that blood.”

The Inquisitor nodded. “I see. The two of you are dismissed. I have… repairs to oversee.”

“C’mon! Let’s go.” And then Instant picked me up in her yellow magical field and strolled out of the room with me in tow.

“Hey! Put me down!” I protested. I did not like being picked up at all, especially against my will! Instant complied, and put me down on the ground again, only for me to take a step and fall onto my face. Again. Brain, why must you fail me? “Ow. Pick me up please.” I was wrapped in a magical field again and lifted up. “Don’t. Say. Anything,” I growled at Instant. She was smirking at me and obviously trying to not to laugh.

I spent the next few minutes floating in silence. Instant spent the time snickering and trying not to laugh too hard. She finally stopped giggling long enough to ask, “What about your family?” I stopped fuming long enough to actually stop and think.

“What about ‘em? Dad’s dead and I really don’t know if I’ve got anypony else really waiting on me,” I glumly told her. “The Enclave has a policy… simply, anypony stranded on the surface has been ‘contaminated’ and will be removed from the population list. For all they care, my entire squad has been marked down as KIA and that’ll be that. A few someponies lucky up there probably received a certificate to have a foal. I might not have a place up there anymore, soldier or not.”

We got back to my room and Instant dropped me gently onto my bunk. I noticed my saddlebag had been placed onto my table along with a box of snack cakes, a slightly crushed carton of apple chips, and a poorly written note. Instant reminded me, “Get some rest, seriously. You lost a lot of blood and we frankly weren’t sure if any of our blood packs would work on pegasi.” I nodded. “Also, Baked said he had something else for you when you’re feeling better. Most likely he’ll stop by later or tomorrow.” After that she left, leaving me in my room with my thoughts.

I flopped closer to the table and examined the note. It read “Got ya sum dinner. Herd u like the chery ones. Also clean the rifle. The blood messd up the internls.” It was signed by Baked, followed by what I hoped was a coffee stain. Yay, cherry snack cakes! I hooked the strap on the saddlebag with my hoof and pulled it toward me. I opened it up, and inside I found the rifle neatly broken down and the parts tucked into their respective pockets. Along with the rest of the things I had hoarded before, there was a pamphlet labeled “Rifle Assembly and You! A Dummy’s Guide to Firearms!” along with a bottle of what I assumed was gun oil. There was an oily rag next to it with a tiny little note that said, “clean harder!”

I sighed and started cleaning. After studying the manual and comparing the instructions to my rifle, I got a grasp on what parts go where and how they were put together. I gripped the rag in my teeth and started cleaning the dirt and grime from the body of the rifle. When I got to the main assembly, I cringed. The blood that had covered the bullet dripped into the little cracks in the assembly, presumably while I was lining up the shot that saved Soufflé. I shuddered and started wiping the dried blood off of the mechanism parts. There was blood stuck to everything! Blood all over the breech, blood in the gas system, blood spattered all over the inside of the gun! As I cleaned, I thought back to the encounter that had saved Soufflé. I’d lined up the shot. I was ready to fire. Soufflé was too busy trying to reach his pistol to even attempt to try to run. I’d had an opportunity. I’d had a single bullet that could kill him. Why didn’t I do it?

“If you keep cleaning that breech, you’ll shine a hole through it.” I looked up to see Rumcake walk in through the doorway with a weak smile on his face. He didn’t have his armor on for once, but he still managed to look menacing without it. And, of course, his incredibly menacing pink mane. I smiled back with an exhausted expression on my face. I thought he’d never talk to me again. “I heard what happened, and I might have overreacted a little. When Soufflé wasn’t moving I assumed the worst. I never really thought you would be lucky enough to find a single anti-machine bullet. You and Soufflé don’t particularly like each other, and it only made sense to kill him when the opportunity arose.” He sat down in the doorway. “Only later did I realize that you’d saved Soufflé. Why?”

I exhaled in exhaustion. Why did everypony want to know? “I’m a good pony,” I explained again. “I’m better than just petty revenge.” I looked up from my cleaning. “Sometimes, sacrifices must be made for the good of the future.” I proceeded to start putting the body of the rifle together. I’d cleaned out all the blood I could and the mechanism was feeling a lot smoother. “You also owe me one anti-machine bullet.”

“What? Why?” Rumcake asked. “I don’t owe you anything!”

I feigned surprise. “Oh really? You don’t owe me anything for saving your boss?” Rumcake grimaced and folded his ears back. I made a sad face and scooted closer to him. “Not even a kiss?”

“What.” Rumcake was frozen in a combination of surprise and shock. I wouldn’t blame him for his word choice either. He managed to recover and stammer, “Why would I kiss you, anyway?”

I kept it up. This was comedy gold! “Not even a widdle smoochy woochy?” I cooed at him. I couldn’t stop, this was amazing!

He facehoofed. “If I give you a kiss, will you let me leave with my dignity?” His face was slowly matching his mane. He leaned closer. “Nobody. Hears. About. This. Ever.” I grinned and scooted closer. I closed my eyes and scooted closer. I could feel his breath on my cheek, the scent of gun oil an—

My little romantic train of thought was abruptly derailed as he suddenly shoved a snack cake into my mouth. “Thathsh not faaahr!” I yelled around a mouthful of snack cake. This wasn’t supposed to have happened! I was supposed to make fun of— Oooh, cherry filling! He laughed hysterically as I munched on the snack cake in an odd state between anger and bliss.

“Didn’t see that coming, did you!” he exclaimed. “Oh Celestia, that was perfect!” I glared at him as he continued to laugh. “You should have seen yourself!” He laughed harder. Before I could throw back a clever response, he leaned in and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. “That’s all you get, Frosty,” he whispered. Then he got up and left, leaving me alone. I could only sit on my bed, blushing and in slight shock. He’d kissed me!

Well, that went better than expected.

Shut up, brain. I put everything away while in a slight haze of happiness and then went to sleep, happy and content for once.

~~~~~

I woke up to the sound of clanking machinery and hammering. I groggily hauled myself into a sitting position. Why did it have to be so noisy? I squinted at the doorway. What was going on? I scooted my rear end out of bed and then swung my front legs off the bed… only to faceplant onto the floor. Brain, why must you fail me so often?

Shut up Frosty, I’m not awake yet.

The door crunched open and Baked Potato poked his head into the room. “Rise and shine, girlie!” he called out. I managed a groan. It was too early. He looked down at me in what I assumed was surprise. “You sleep down there all night?” he asked. I growled at him. Not funny. “Well, get yer pretty flank in gear! I gotta show ye something!” I could only shift around on the floor. Still tired. I was thinking about getting comfortable on the floor, until I was bodily picked up and thrown onto Baked’s back. I meeped in surprise. Why wasn’t I allowed to sleep anymore?

“Hey! Come on! Why does everypony have to pick me up? Put me down!” I cried. I immediately realized my mistake just as Baked was leaning over to drop me face-first into the floor. “WAIT WAIT WAIT!” I used my one hoof to try to grab onto his armored back. “Don’t put me down! Don’t put me down!” I could swear he was trying his hardest not to laugh. “Can you at least tell me where we’re going?”

Baked continued carrying me as if he'd never heard the question.

My impromptu taxi eventually stopped in a medium-sized living quarters area. “Well, ‘ere’s my room! There isn’t much, but make yerself comfortable!” he said as he dropped me onto the messy bed in the corner of the room. I surveyed the rest of the room with slight interest. The room itself appeared to be some kind of small machinist’s room. There was a workbench crammed in one corner between two other cots and a large metal table next to it covered with bits of machinery, tools, and miscellaneous metal parts. There was a metal storage locker and a small locker in the farther corner of the room. Baked trotted over to the other side of the room and dug around in the storage locker.

Imagine my glee when he returned with my new and upgraded claw! Yay! No more face planting! “Woah! That looks amazing!” I exclaimed. When he’d said he made it more fancy, that was a total understatement! “You even painted it! White with blue highlights, just like my mane!”

“Yep. Glad ye like it, girl!” He brought it over and plopped it down on the bed. “I’ve strengthened the joints in the claws, I wrapped it in a shell so at least the blood and dirt won’t get in the pistons, and it’s got a built-in compartment to store caps in!” he gushed. He was obviously very proud in his handiwork. “Now, I’mma plug it in so I don’t have to carry you anymore.” I nodded. I didn’t need anymore ponies dropping me on my face, that’s for sure. “I’m going to plug it in on three,” he said. I closed my eyes and braced myself. “Three!” he shouted.

Wait, wha—? “AAUUGHHH! LUNA’S FROSTY FLANK YOU’RE SUCH A CUNT!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. I felt my nerves connect to the signals in my claw. The connection point felt like it burned underneath my skin and all I felt was excruciating pain, and the raging feeling of I’m-going-to-kill-Baked boiling in my mind. A good ten minutes later when the pain had faded to a slight blur of rage, I opened my eyes and blinked the tears away as I glared at Baked. “That wasn’t fair. I wasn’t ready.” I mean, really! Who starts a count at three?

Baked grinned at me as he said, “I told ye I’d put it in at three!” I pouted at him. I was really tempted to attack him with my brand new claw.

Relax, Frosty. We’ll get back at him.

Thanks brain, that’s all you.

“Did ye remember to clean out that rifle?” I nodded solemnly. “Remember next time: bloody bullets will mess up rifles.” I nodded again.

We were both stopped by a purple and red mare sticking her head into the room. “So I heard you’re a cunt, ‘Tater! What’s new?” I stared blankly as she waltzed into the room and pointedly looked me over. “So you’re the experiment. Nice to meet you! I’m Fruit Punch!”

She raised a hoof. I hesitated. Why did she sound so familiar?

“What? I’m not going to punch you.”

Oh… right. This was the alleged “rip my wings off” mare. She looked at me funny. “Let me guess… Soufflé?”

I nodded. “Tell me the truth… are you really as evil as Soufflé claims you are?” I asked. She gave me a funny look. “He’d say you’d rip my wings off.” I flapped my wings to emphasize my point. Wait, I had wings! I’d totally forgotten over the course of this… week? I’d been walking around and passed out so much I’d forgotten to check how my feathers were doing!

Fruit answered my question before I could turn around and check on my feathers. “Oh, he’s just angry that I can out-wrestle him. And probably because I’m a Stampede junkie.” She grinned, and I gave her one of my what-are-you-talking-about faces. She elaborated, “Stampede is a combat drug that Steel Rangers use. Its amazing!”

Baked Potato leaned over and told me, “When the Stampede kicks in, she goes in like a manticore and backhoofs everythin’, guns or no.” I looked to Fruit and she nodded. “This one time this insane lass single hoofedly ran in and punched a raider stronghold apart. Not a single grenade fired. It was amazin’!”

“Well, I gotta run. Maybe see you sometime?” Fruit said nonchalantly. “Make sure Baked doesn’t go too overboard, ‘kay?” I gave her a puzzled look but she just smiled and left. I raised an eyebrow at Baked.

“What? It’s not my fault all I’m ‘llowed to do is fix things! Ya know how borin’ that is? I need somethin’ to dooooo!” He kneeled at my hooves and held my shoulders. “Let me work my magic on ye!”

I contemplated taking a few steps back… he could potentially be serious or he was making fun of me. This couldn’t possibly get more awkward.

As if called to action, Rumcake suddenly decided to walk in. “So, Fruit Punch tells me—” And he stopped in mid sentence when he saw Baked essentially begging in front of me as I stood there in shock. “Uh… am I interrupting something here?”

“This probably isn’t what it looks like!” I blurted. My cheeks burned. Oh dear Celestia, why did these things happen to me all the time? I could feel Gala Frosty facehoofing with me in my mind. Oh Celestia, why?

“Let me guess… he wants to play with your claw thing because he’s bored.” Rumcake guessed. I looked at him in surprise. He saw me and all he had to say was, “What? I know my Potato well.” They shared a brohoof and grinned. “So he gave you your claw thing back. I guess I can live with that,” Rumcake told me. “Think of it as an apology about the whole snack cake thing yesterday.”

Baked looked at us questioningly. “Don’t worry about it,” we both said simultaneously

A voice from the PA system interrupted our increasingly awkward meeting. “Head Knight, Head Paladin, Head Scribe, High Scribes, report to the conference room immediately. Paladin Commander Rumcake, put together a small security detail. Senior Scribe Instant Noodles, bring your pet with you.” Everypony in the room looked at each other. “Also, to the soldier that put explosives in the officer’s latrine, you will be severely reprimanded. That was not funny.”

A voice in the background shouted, “It was hilarious! Woo!”

~~~~~

For a meeting room, this was much less imposing than I was thinking it would be—peeling wallpaper, shoddy carpeting, equally shoddy lights, and a tiny projector on a table. Unfortunately, it was not large enough to fit ten mostly-armored Steel Rangers, five scribes, a pompous armored dessert, and a partly mechanical pegasus. We were all nearly pressed up against each other and the room was slowly heating up due to all the body heat circulating in here. I was getting a few dirty looks and blank helmet stares, and I was getting nervous from being trapped in the middle of my Rumcake–Instant sandwich. I tried to get at the itch right under my bomb collar, but I could barely move my forelegs as it was.

My inner pegasus was screaming at me “GO OUTSIDE I’M GOING INSANE”. I was nervously trying not to lean against either Ranger next to me. I knew they were big, but I hadn’t actually realized they were this big!

Or you’re really tiny.

Shut up, brain.

I tapped Rumcake’s armored shoulder. He leaned down and I whispered to him, “Can I stand on your back?” He raised an eyebrow at me. “I can barely see and I’m not very good with tight spaces,” I squeaked.

“You’re heavy,” he told me.

You astronomical wanker! I’m not that heavy!

He saw my steaming expression and smiled. “Gotcha. Sure, climb on if you want.” He bent down so I could hop onto his back. I was now getting a few strange looks, but Soufflé loudly and obnoxiously cleared his throat and most of the attention was focused in his direction. I managed to stabilize myself and now I could actually see over everypony. I shook out my right wing because it had fallen asleep, then I realized something. I could probably hover around for the first time in ages! I examined my left wing and observed that the feathers had grown back somewhat well, so I decided to attempt hovering.

I nervously flapped my wings, and imagine my surprise when I actually achieved lift! I kicked my legs in glee. I was flying again! Yay! I checked the ceiling height just to make sure I had enough room for my next stunt. I floated higher then quickly turned upside down. It was a bit strange at first, but I gradually got the hang of it again. “Hey, Rumcake! Check me out!” I whispered as I descended into his vision. From the top of his vision. Needless to say, it actually scared him a little and he actually jumped back a little with a clank. I giggled at him as he glared at me. I stuck my tongue out at him and floated up to stand on the ceiling.

“Gentlecolts, you’re probably wondering why you’re here. Don’t worry—so am I.” Soufflé looked around the room. “I have no idea why I’m here. All I was told was to get a meeting. That’s it. Where’s that idiot Star Paladin Cheese Puffs?” There was some muttering around the room. “Not here? Well—”

Everything suddenly stopped when a door opened and a blue and orange buck strolled into the room and announced, “Good evening, gentlecolts.” He calmly walked over to Soufflé and dropped something in front of him. “Here’s a fully intact water talisman I reclaimed from the degenerate rabble from down the way. I reclaimed it a few days ago, single hoofedly.” There was some scattered cheering in the crowd. “Yes! Yes! Thank you.” He then took that moment to look up in pride, only to see the incredibly confused and somewhat bored pegasus standing on the room’s ceiling.

We both stared at each other. I was debating how to explain my current predicament while he was probably trying to figure out how I’d gotten in. “Uh… hi?” I tried. Half of the Rangers in the room stared at me, probably wondering how I’d even gotten onto the ceiling. Who said pegasi didn’t have magic!

“Enclave Assassin! Get down!” he shouted. I was going to tell him to chill, but when the minigun on his saddle spun around to face me, I realized I needed to change plans.

“Woah, woah, WOAH, WOAH, WOAH! Hold on! HOLD THE BUCK ON!” I shouted at him. Obviously, he didn’t want to hear it because he quickly put his helmet on and his minigun whined into action. Rangers dove for cover, especially the scribes in the room.

I braced myself against the ceiling and then launched off of it with as much strength as I could toward the far end of the wall next to Cheese Puffs. Bullets slammed into the metal where I had just been standing as I firmly planted my hooves on the wall. One more burst of speed gave me enough momentum to outpace the Ranger’s minigun. I slammed into his side using my shoulder, half expecting to bounce off of him. However, I actually overcame his excessive mass and lifted him off his hooves, only to crash into the ground several feet away. I pounced on him, still in the spell, and backhoofed him hard enough that I may have dislodged his internal hamster wheel. I elegantly followed through by pressing my claw to his throat and holding down his minigun with my hoof.

“Yo, I need you to STOP!” I yelled at him. “And turn off the bucking minigun!”

Cheese Puffs grudgingly complied. “Any of you imbeciles want to fill me in on why nopony’s helping me?” He looked at me. “Madam, would you like to remove your weapon from my throat?” I slowly backed up, breathing heavily, wings flared. I was still pumped from that major adrenaline rush thanks to my epic takedown. Rumcake muscled past him and effortlessly picked me up, holding me in place. He shakily stood up and turned to Soufflé and motioned to me. “Want to explain?”

Soufflé sighed and facehoofed. “If you waited for somepony to say something, or maybe listened first, you’d know.” He motioned at me. “This is Former Enclave Scout Second Class Frosty Winds, also colloquially known as ‘science project’. I’ll personally debrief you on recent events, since you’ve been in the field for a while.” He then motioned at Cheese Puffs. “Science project, this is Star Paladin Cheese Puffs. Shoots first, ignores questions. Now shake hooves and get along or I kill both of you.”

Cheese Puffs snorted and held out a hoof in my general direction. I bared my teeth and growled at him. I wanted to kill him so hard right now, why can’t I just kill him?

Because that’s stupid, Frosty.

Thanks, brain.

Instant Noodles walked over and plucked me up in her golden magical field out of Rumcake’s grip, much to our displeasure. “Alrighty, you two might have gotten off on the wrong hoof—but we can get along, right?” We both glared at each other.

~~~~~

Once I’d been dragged back to my room and been placated with a few snack cakes, I was feeling much less angry and much more tired. “That guy is an ass.” I panted. “I think I hate him more than Soufflé.” For no particularly good reason, Baked Potato also meandered into my room, presumably to bug me and Instant.

“He’s actually a fine exam—” Instant Noodles began, then caught my withering glare. “Oh. Sorry. In other news, what’s wrong with your wings?” I gave her one of my patented what-are-you-talking-about looks. “You haven’t folded your wings.”

I looked down at my wings. Oh, that’s what she meant. My wings were still flared up behind me in combat stance. “Adrenaline circulating. Wings pumped. Gotta go fast.” I waggled my stiff wings to emphasize my point. “It’s a pegasus thing.” Everypony gave me funny looks. “What? It happens!”

“I actually wanna know where ye pulled those moves from!” Baked exclaimed. He made whooshing sounds and waved his hooves in the air. “That was amazin’! And the way ye took down that damned Cheese! I’ve always wanted to do that!”

I blushed and beamed with pride. “I… I really don’t know. I just kinda did my thing, ya know?” Baked raised an eyebrow at me. “It was the first thing that came to mind. Why?”

“Air combat in a small enclosed room? That takes a lot of skill, I assume.” Instant Noodles marveled.

Somepony stuck their head into the room. “Ah do like m’ mares with skill.” We all turned to impart our varying levels of glares at him. “What? I was passin’ by, and ah overheard your conversation.”

I asked him, “Who are you?”

He introduced himself. “Ah’m Knight Cabbage Stew. Ah fix walls.” I shot a deadpan look his way. “Okay, ah fix things. Ah’m in charge of fixing the breach in sector where’s’it. Watch your step over there, darn cement’s still dryin’. See ya!” As he walked down the hallway, a thought came to my mind.

“Hey, how’d the slavers get in here anyway? I thought you idiots fortified this place,” I asked. Really, super secure Steel Rangers base filled with super powerful Steel Rangers. How did they mess this up?

“There are a few places in this base where it leads to a tunnel system. It’s like this place was built inside a tunnel system, and the places where it leads into the tunnels are like the original tunnels,” Rumcake explained. We all gave him a blank stare. “Pretend I’m making sense, okay?”

Everypony stood around in uncomfortable silence. "I think we should get ba—" Instant began, but she was interrupted by a rumbling sound coming from within the base, followed by klaxons going off. An explosion! Wait, why didn’t the alarms go off last time? “It’s another breach! Boys, get geared up!” She looked at me. “And get Frosty a gun so she can actually fight!”

Distantly down the hall, we all heard the faint cry of, “Aw burnin’ hell and tarnation!”

~~~~~

I followed Baked with my saddlebag haphazardly around my neck as he urgently ran to the workshop. “So, whatcha know how to use, lass?” I paused. Uh… what? They were really going to give me weapons? “C’mon, lass! Quit yer gapin and decide!” He started to pull out weapons from cabinets, lockers, and even a trash can. Eww. “Ye want power or speed? Yer call!”

I stammered, “Uh… do you have a laser? Or a plasma rifle? I’m trained in those.” He gave me a look that basically said “does it look like I have those?”. I laughed nervously and said, “Well, I’m already pretty fast… I could use something that can keep up.”

“Now yer talkin’, lass!” He dug around in a different crate and pulled out a small boxy contraption with a crude flame drawn on the side. “This is a 10mm submachine gun. It’s a little worse fer wear, but it works fine fer now. Now, here” – he pointed at the long stick attached to the bottom – “is the magazine. Drop the mag, put in the new one, pull the slide. There, now don’t go on about nopony tellin’ ye how to reload.” He slid some more SMG mags to me. “There’s a few reloads. Careful, this beauty’ll go through rounds faster than Rummy eatin’ at the mess hall!” He chuckled.

I picked up the SMG and heard the base announcer drawl into the PA system, “We have a security breach, if you haven’t noticed. All Rangers arm up and head to sector D-2… again.” I turned to look at Baked, who had suddenly donned his helmet. “Also, if anypony finds Fruit Punch, make sure she doesn’t have all the base’s Stampede. Go get ‘em, gentlecolts.” I picked up the SMG in my teeth and looked to Baked Potato. He nodded, and together we charged toward sector D-2.

When we got there, the fighting had moved out into the tunnel beyond the breached wall. Rangers were taking cover behind rocks in the tunnel and in the hallway, while the attackers hid behind the crest of the tunnel. The Rangers seemed to be doing fine, when another announcement came over the PA system. “Alert! They’re cutting through the walls in E-4! Rangers not at the D-2 breach need to head over to E-4 right now!”

Baked yelled something at me, but I couldn’t hear it over the din of gunfire. He motioned to follow him and broke into a gallop. I jumped and flew behind him, SMG in my teeth.

When we arrived, the walls were flickering with heat. Sparks and saws were cutting through the concrete, with limited success. Several Rangers were already positioned around the cuts being made in the hallway. I jumped once more to stand on the ceiling above Baked. Rumcake showed up behind us with a mini-gun attached to his armor. “I miss the party yet?” he asked. “Where’s Frosty? Hiding in her room?”

I dropped down from the ceiling onto his grenade launcher. “Well genius, does it look like anything has ha—” And yet again, before I could finish my witty comment, the walls exploded and raiders rushed in. Some of them were instantly fragged, but many of them managed to dodge the splash damage of the flying grenades, minigun fire, and even a missile to engage the Rangers in close combat.

I flew backwards and opened fire with my SMG. I watched several shots hit their targets, but they did little to no damage. Some bullets also hit Rumcake and Baked, but the small caliber bullets just bounced off their armor. “Cover me, I’m reloading!” I instinctively shouted. I pulled the empty magazine and slammed a second one in. I pulled the bolt with my claw and fired a volley of shots at the first raider I saw. He cried out in rage and pain, then stopped moving as I opened up with another spray of gunfire. “Dammit, reloading again!” I called out.

“Is that a freakin’ rocket launcha’?” somepony yelled. “Oh buck it is a rocket launcha! Heads down!”

I mentally cycled through the targets in the room, desperately searching for the raider in question. The last thing I needed to add to my day was an explosive projectile to the face. Shotgun, assault rifle, another assault rifle, pistol, another shotgun. I secured a better vantage point using a tall crate to peer into the tunnel beyond. More pistols, an assault rifle, rocket launcher, pistol, ano—WAIT A SECOND. A huge burly slaver, nearly as large as a fully-armored Steel Ranger, carried a massive rocket launcher attached to the side of his battle saddle planted his hooves and took aim.

I unleashed my small caliber bullets and watched them collide with the raider’s face. With luck not wanting to associate itself with me, I watched in mild surprise as absolutely nothing happened. One of the many bullets managed to crack his faceplate, and all it did was cause him to turn in my direction. “Aw, buck.” I kept firing bullets, even as the rocket left the tube and flew toward me.

I was saved from my moment of stupidity when a lightly armored Ranger knocked me down to the metal tiles. “Get down!” he yelled into my ear. The rocket smashed into the wall where I’d just been floating. I made the mistake of raising my head to look and I was rewarded by a shock wave slamming my head into the floor. It was very shortly followed by a wave of fire and shrapnel. I lay there on the ground underneath the Steel Ranger for a while. There was a ringing in my ears and everything was shaking around. I tried to move, but the Ranger on top of me wasn’t moving.

I couldn’t hear myself or anything else for that matter, but I gently shook the Ranger and mouthed, “Are you okay?” No response. I wiggled out from under him and attempted to stumble to safety. Needless to say, I wasn’t doing too good either. Inhaling felt wrong, I couldn’t really see straight, and something felt wrong with my right hindleg. I peered back behind me, and noticed that there was a piece of concrete lodged in my leg, along with some metal shrapnel.

I slowly dragged myself using my forelegs to get around the corner. I was in a haze of pain and I’m pretty sure I was losing lots of blood, again. I saw my SMG lying on the ground in front of me, and I picked it up. I cried out in pain as I stumbled to my feet. Oh dear Celestia my leg hurt so much. Every breath I took was painful, and I kept coughing up blood every other step. I gasped for breath as I stumbled away from the combat zone.

Imagine my horror when I bumped into a slaver. He stumbled and, forgetting he had a pistol in his mouth for a split second, shouted in surprise. Unfortunately for him, this lead to the sudden swallowing of his pistol’s bit. Tears erupted from his eyes as he struggled to breathe, and he could only glare at me angrily. He choked for about three seconds, then fell over and ignored me as he tried to remove the pistol from his mouth.

I giggled as he struggled to choke up the pistol and moved on. I limped over to a Steel Ranger taking cover and waiting for their grenade launcher to reload. My hearing was starting to return, and I heard the Ranger ask, “What’re you doin’ here?”

I coughed out, “Got painkillers? Or first aid? I feel like crap.” I collapsed next to the Ranger. “Aw man, I’m hurtin’ baaaad…” The Ranger called for a medic, then opened one of her flank plates. “What’s thaaat,” I mumbled. The Ranger was taking out a syringe, loading it with something from her built-in medical box.

“All I’ve got is Stampede,” the Ranger yelled at me. “It’ll keep the pain away for a while, but you need to be careful. Also, prepare to get angry!” Wait… Stampede? Only Stampede?

“Wait… Fruit Punch?” I asked. The Ranger nodded. “Somehow that makes a whole lot of sense.”

Fruit Punch injected the Stampede into me, and immediately I felt better. The pain was washed away and was replaced with an overwhelming feeling of energy and power. I could beat anything! “Yeah, yeah! Thanks Fruit! Woohoo!” I flapped my wings and dashed off toward the fighting again. I felt unstoppable! In the back of my mind, Filly Frosty was reminding me my leg needed healing, but I ignored her for the time being and charged into the first raider I ran into.

He yelled at me and started to pull out a large knife, but I smashed into him at high speed. The collision knocked both of us to the ground, but I recovered first. I unleashed a hail of SMG rounds into his chest and moved on without another thought. My next target was standing on top of a downed Steel Ranger. I sprayed several rounds in his direction and grinned. C’mere, you! The raider looked up and spun to turn me. Oh, of course he had a shotgun where I couldn’t see it! I dived to one side and managed to dodge a majority of the pellets. I felt a few sink into my shoulder and my side, but I didn’t care. I had to kill him!

I rolled to my hooves and pounced on the raider. I screamed at him and slashed at him with my claw. “Nobody. Shoots. Me!” I yelled, punctuating with slashes to his throat. The raider weakly cried out in pain. Blood! Adrenaline! Violence! This was fun! After he’d been reasonably mutilated, I pounced on the next unfortunate slaver that happened to run into my path. He had no chance. I sliced into him with my claw without mercy. “Die! DIE! AHAHAHA!!” I cried gleefully.

After that gruesome scene I charged blindly down the hall and into another slaver. He opened fire with his pistol and two of his shots slammed into my shoulder. I screamed in rage and jammed my claw into his jaw in a deadly uppercut. “Tear the flesh! Ahaha!” I laughed madly. Where had that come from? I turned my attention to the slaver that had just galloped in, frozen in fear at the scene before him.

I knocked him into the ground and prepared to slash him to bits with my claw. I wanted to shoot him in the face, but I’d dropped my SMG at some time. “AHAHA! Die!” I screamed. The gray slaver covered his face with his forelegs. I lay into him, slashing over and over again. I laughed maniacally and took a short break when one of my ribs released a wave of pain.

Suddenly, I noticed the slaver was different from the ones from the last invasion. There was just… something about him that didn’t blatantly scream slaver. He lacked the somewhat trademark slaver barding and he lacked the angry-looking scars that most slavers usually sported.

“No… Oh no…” I whispered. “What have I done?” I got off the pony I’d been slashing. His forelegs were bloody and gouged from where I’d attacked him. Blood dripped from my claw as I sat there, comprehending what I’d just done. “I’m so sorry,” I told him. He was very confused by what was happening right now. These ponies weren’t raiders! They were wastelanders, just trying to get by. Cheese Puffs had said something about a water talisman… “You’re here for the talisman, aren’t you?” The wastelander nodded slowly.

My bones were killing me. My muscles were burning. I was getting lightheaded, probably because of the massive amount of blood loss over the course of the last few minutes. I climbed off him. “I’m… sorry,” I muttered before I leaned against the cool metal of the walls. So tired… the Stampede was wearing off and I was really starting to feel the full weight of the pain I was in…

~~~~~

Poke. Poke. Another poke. “Meehhhh… Whaaa?” I slowly opened my eyes, and was greeted by a disheveled-looking teal pegasus in an equally disheveled Enclave formal dress uniform. “Who are—” I started, then I noticed my surroundings. I was back in picturesque Cloudsdale, in the cloudhouse I’d entered last time. “Let me guess… you’re drunk.”

Drunk Frosty giggled. “Of cooooooourse, silly!” She stumbled around. “You look like me!” she exclaimed. I rolled my eyes. “Terrible!” Okay, that deserved a laugh. “Heeeeeeeeeey other me, me’s here and me’s really hurt!” I heard hoofsteps from somewhere.

Gala Frosty staggered out from a side room, several emergency first-aid kits in tow. Her formerly pristine dress was in tatters, her mane in shambles. The snowflakes decorating her mane were gone, save one or two tucked behind her ear. A strip of cloth, presumably from one of the dress’s former sleeves was wrapped around her neck and stained with blood. Many other spots on her dress were also similarly ruined.

“Ngh… I sort of noticed.” Gala Frosty groaned, collapsing onto the carpet by me. “Next time, you’re going to put a little more thought into your method of attack. You almost got us killed—and if you die, I die. Even if I might be imaginary, I don’t want to die.”

The first thing that came out of the first-aid kit was a nice large dose of Med-X. Half of it went right into me, and the other half was self-dosed by Gala Frosty. “Beep beep! Comin’ through!” Filly Frosty squeaked, holding onto the comically large band-aid plastered to her nose.

My miniature ball of fluff and feathers leapt into a first-aid kit and reappeared with a roll of bandages. “Wait, does this make me any better? As in, does this even heal me?” I somewhat choked out as Filly Frosty began to wrap the gauze around my throat a bit too tightly. “Ow! Hey, not too tight.”

“Nurse Fwosty knows what she’s doing.” Filly Frosty giggled, pointing at the little cardboard nurse’s cap she’d presumably dug out from the kit.

I rolled my eyes. “Hey, Drunky!” Drunk Frosty looked over at me, bleary-eyed and a good amount of drool leaking from the corner of her mouth. “Got anymore of that?” She pouted at me and tossed me a half-empty bottle. “Thanks.” She shrugged and careened into a wall. I smiled. Was I really like that when I was drunk? Drunk Frosty got up, shook her head, and crashed into the same wall.

“Well, it won’t really heal you but it’ll damn sure make me feel a lot better. You’ll just have to wait for Rumcake to help us,” Gala Frosty replied, squirming her way out of her ruined dress. “But seriously, you do look terrible. Take a look.” I peered into the mirror with a sense of horror and disgust. I was spattered with blood, everywhere. My claw was covered in blood, my ears had blood trails coming out of them, and the concrete bits in my leg appeared to have fallen out but there was still a lot of blood all over it. So much blood. I shuddered as I realized that most of the blood wasn’t even mine. An inexplicable urge to lick my wounds bubbled to the surface of my consciousness, but I pushed the thought aside.

“I’ve done something really, really bad,” I told the Frostys (Frosties?) in the room. “I think I killed some innocent ponies. I lost control.” They all looked at me questioningly. Except for Drunk Frosty. She was lying upside down on the couch, waving her hooves in the air. “Those weren’t slavers. They were normal ponies!” I cried. “They were trying to survive!” I felt the tears coming. “The Rangers took their water talisman! And they wanted it back!” I was crying now. “And I just killed them because I didn’t—”

Gala Frosty hugged me. “It’s alright. We know, but you’re going to have to get over it. Sometimes, mistakes happen. You didn’t know. But you’re a good pony, and hopefully you’ll figure out something to make this all better.”

Yeah, that was it. Fix everything and stuff. Right. I was a good pony. Good ponies did good things, like help the common folk and not disembowel them. I needed to be better. For me, for Dad, for… for…

I didn’t remember closing my eyes.


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Steel Claw – Not afraid to get personal, eh? You now deal an additional 5 points of Unarmed damage.

-End of Chapter 3!-

Chapter 4: Hey! Where’s my stuff?

View Online

Chapter 4: Hey! Where’s my stuff?

“Are you okay, Rainbow Dash?”


I slowly became aware of a whispering in my vicinity. Poke. More whispering. Poke. Poke. My ribs ached, my legs ached, and my head pounded with the intensity of a thousand suns. Why wouldn’t anypony let me sleep in? Poke. Po—Okay, the ribs are completely off limits! I growled and, ignoring all pain, tried to spring up and swipe at the closest source of sound. Tried being the key word, because all I managed to do was groggily flop off whatever I was lying on. Several bewildered bedraggled ponies were standing around me in a rough circle, eyeing me in mild curiosity.

In terms of places I’d found myself waking up, this looked and felt like something out of a bad spy novel. Dim lighting, crummy decor, non-fuzzy hoofcuffs, and the pokiest mattress in the wasteland. A broken lamp leaned against the far wall, its bendy light extension hanging by a few exposed wires.

“Please stop,” I murmured. “My ribs are broken, so stop poking them.” I groaned and clutched my sides. Ow. The group took a few steps back. “What happened?” The ponies in the group looked at each other. Eventually one of them stepped forward. He looked familiar… that gray coat and the brown mane… and the fresh bandages wrapped around his legs did begin to make sense…

“Why did you let me go?” he asked. “You had an opportunity. I was helpless. Why?” I hung my head. Of course the first wastelander to talk to me was the one I’d recently mauled.

“I just… I don’t work that way.” I looked back at him. “I used to be about helping ponies.” I gestured to his friends. “When you attacked the base, I thought you were trying wipe out the Rangers so you could occupy the base. I had no qualms.” I looked around at my surroundings. I was in a quite large ramshackle building made of metal sheets, tape, and bits of concrete. “You’re just wastelanders trying to live. I didn’t realize the Rangers took your water talisman.”

“Rangers just stormed in one day… smashed our defenses and just took it,” the gray wastelander said. “Killed a few of our militia, too.” He looked around forlornly at the surrounding ponies, some of which nodded. “What were you doing in there?”

I shook my head. “I got taken prisoner a week or so ago. Been hanging around ever since.” I waved my blood-crusted claw at them. “I’ve been trying to put my life back together. They helped me out and I’m just stuck with them.” I pointed at the collar still strapped firmly around my neck, catching sight of my claw in the process. I couldn’t even move it because of all the dried blood stuck to it. I shuddered to think of what the inside of it looked like. Oh, Baked Potato was going to kill me!

“…You hungry?” he asked. I was shocked. I’d nearly torn him apart who knew how long ago! I nodded eagerly anyway. “Follow me. And keep that away from everypony,” he said, pointedly looking at my claw. I nodded and obediently followed. The other ponies left the building through various doorways. “Wait… maybe we should stop by the clinic first, because of your injuries and all. Doc Galactic might be able to fix you up.”

“I like that idea.” I winced. My ribs were still dully aching. Hopefully they hadn’t set improperly while I was out. “Ow. Ow. Ow.” Merely under-exerting myself was already turning about to be a mistake.

“What’s wrong?”

To make my point abundantly clear, I carefully wagged my speared leg at him while giving him my most sarcastic glare. “Boy, I wonder what could possibly be the problem.” I did my best not to wince, as it would have ruined the overall effect.

The wastelander rolled his eyes. “You baby.”

Without his consent, I hobbled closer and draped my wing over his back so I could use him for balance.

The gray wastelander pony basically dragged me around the town. On that subject, “town” may have been an exaggeration. The shacks scattered about didn’t appear to follow any sort of organizational pattern, let alone construction code. Everything about this place just screamed “junk”. A few actual buildings still stood between all the shacks, right next to all the ruins and trash piles. As far as I was aware, the wastelander was following an arbitrary path that hopefully led to medical attention.

“So who is this ‘Doc Galactic’? Is he any good?” I asked. Please, please be a good doctor!

“Galactic’s a great doctor! He’s also the only doctor around.” He nervously grinned. We passed a small cluster of tents, a few of which looked oddly out of place in the wasteland. A huge spotlight placed up higher on the hill behind us pointed down the path and to what I assumed was the front gate. “He helps these ponies go on with their lives, no matter what happens. Sure, his methods are probably a bit excessive or strange, but he usually gets everypony back on their hooves.” As we walked, some of the ponies I passed shied away or gave me dirty looks.

I grimaced against the pain in my midsection. All this limping was starting to jostle my lower ribs, both of which were definitely broken. I was pretty sure that the second lower rib on the right side was broken too.

Hey, idiot. It’s broken.

Thanks, brain.

I gingery poked my ribs with a hoof. Ow. Okay, bad idea. “Hey, does he have any painkillers? My leg’s killing me, my ribs are killing me, and my head feels like somepony landed on it.”

He looked a little sheepish. “I might have dropped you while I was getting you back over to my group.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “What? It wasn’t my fault somepony cut me up!” Oops. I guess he had a point.

“I’m sorry. I lost control, and I should be responsible for what I did.” I stopped to catch my breath.

The waste pony abruptly stopped, nearly making me trip and fall on my face. “It’s not entirely your fault that those dirty tin cans are makin’ you do things against your will.”

I was about to honestly point out that I knew full well what I was doing, but his conclusion was looking like a better alternative than the one I had planned. “Yeah, bomb collars tend to do that.” Turn away and lie through your teeth, Frosty.

“I’ll have to go see if somepony I know can get that off you. It doesn’t appear to be active, but I’m no bomb expert.” My makeshift crutch tugged at a few of his bandages. “So, why’d you start attacking us, anyway?”

“I thought you were the slavers?” I awkwardly improvised, giving him an unintentional awkward grin as well. “What?”

“Slavers?” he asked, completely ignoring my worst poker face.

“Yeah. Why?”

“I saw a bunch of bodies piled outside in the tunnels. I thought they were raiders.”

“Raiders, slavers… Same thing, right?”

He shook his head. “It can’t be a coincidence…” he muttered. I gave him a questioning look. “There’s a band of slavers that operate out of a small camp. It’s about an hour’s gallop from here. They’re vicious, angry, and there’s tons of them. Oh look, we’re here!”

We stopped in front of a slightly less dilapidated building with a big dark red cross painted on it. “…Is that cross… drawn… in blood?” I hesitantly asked. “And why is there a skeleton on a noose? That’s not even possible!”

“I told you. Strange,” the wastelander said. I shakily followed him inside. “Yo, Doc! I got another job for you!”

The thinnest, scraggiliest unicorn I’d ever seen wandered into the room. His off-white coat was stained with blood and his dark blue mane was tangled and messy. He wore what appeared to be a reinforced medical uniform, complete with multiple weapon holsters. Disturbingly enough, his choice of weaponry happened to be bonesaws. He had several different varieties in all shapes and sizes strapped to him, all of which were crusted with blood.

“Hey, Galactic! Wanna fix somepony for once?” the wastelander greeted, hopefully joking.

“And lose out on the fun? Fine.” The doctor turned to look at me. “Oooh! A pegasus! Haven’t taken one of you apart for a while!” I backed away in fear. This guy was crazy! He wasn’t coming anywhere near me! “Ahhahaha! Just kidding.” He stepped closer and peered at me closely. “I’ve never gotten a chance to dissect one of you yet.” Somehow I didn’t think that should make me feel better. “So, my winged friend, what appears to be the problem?”

“Broken ribs, crippled limb, pounding headache,” I recited. “I need to requisition two doses of aspirin, one dose of painkillers, and an extra roll of bandages.” The doctor looked mildly surprised. I looked back at him impatiently. “I really hope you can fix broken ribs.” I huffed.

“Ooooh, we know what we need, don’t we?” He moved over to a drawer and levitated out a facemask. “As much as you know about field medicine, you can’t just sit there with broken bones. Your ribs I can fix, maybe. It depends on the extent of the damage.” His horn glowed with magic as he spoke. “If your ribs are cracked, I can set them. If they are broken, that might be a touch more tricky. Not out of my expertise, of course! Heh.” He walked over and touched his horn to my forehead.

“Now let’s see…” he muttered. An unpleasant tingly sensation washed through my entire body. Ugh. It made me feel so… unclean. After a few seconds, the glow on his horn faded away. “Okay, follow me, hop on the table and let’s get started!” he said ecstatically.

I dubiously agreed and lay on my side on his medical table. “Now what?” I asked. I heard humming from behind me. I became slightly worried when I heard the clanking of surgical tools followed by the quiet scraping sound of a bonesaw being drawn.

“Now, just relax and count down from… nineteen.” I rolled my eyes. “Well? Start counting! This is going to be much more painful if you’re awake,” he told me.

I sighed and started counting. “Nineteen… Eighteen… Seventeen…” I felt his horn poke the back of my head. “Sixteen… Fifteen…” I drifted off into a dreamy dark abyss as I continued to count.

~~~~~

And I’m back in Cloudsdale. Gala Frosty was there to greet me when I awoke. “Welcome back! How was your trip in real-land?”

“Uh… not much happened.” I answered awkwardly. “Any more me’s show up yet?” I looked around. Filly Frosty was nowhere to be seen and Drunk Frosty sounded like she was attempting to make out with a cloud.

“Do you think we can trust him? The doctor, I mean. He doesn’t come off as the kind of surgeon that earned his medical license,” Gala Frosty asked with concern in her voice. I shook my head.

“My kind of guy,” Drunk Frosty shouted from another room. Both of us glared in her direction. “And admit it, he’s kiiiiinda cute!”

We both ignored her. “Well, what do we do now?” Gala Frosty asked. Good question. I had no idea at this point in time. I’d been captured twice, essentially let go, and now I was passed out on a medical table letting some insane “doctor” operate on me.

“Well, I do owe them… maybe I can convince the Rangers to give the talisman back?” I suggested. Gala Frosty gave me a questioning look. “What? It could happen.” She continued to glare at me. “Okay, first I help these wastelanders out, then I try to get the Rangers to give the talisman back. Maybe then I can get something going.”

Filly Frosty slowly floated into the room, rubbing her eyes. “Wuh? What’s going on?” she asked groggily. She looked around the room and when she saw me, her eyes lit up. “Hey! You’re back!” She cannonballed into me and hugged me fiercely. She looked up at me with her giant green eyes. “The creepy guy with the hood says to stop bothering him.”

Both of us stared at her blankly. “Who?” Gala Frosty asked. “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?” I was confused. Obviously, all of us were confused. I didn’t know anypony who habitually wore a hood, did I?

“But Mort said to tell Big Frosty and only Big Frosty!” she whined. We stared blankly at her. She rolled her eyes. “The creepy hooded guy.” We both oh’ed in response. “He said to stop annoying him.”

“You said so already. Alright, other me’s. Anypony know who this guy is?” I asked the gathered Frosties. “How about you, Drunky?” I shouted. No reply. “Somepony go see whether she ate that cloud.” I facehoofed. Celestia, I really hope I wasn’t really like this when I was drunk. “I’m going to go take a nap. I’ll be back later, I guess.”

~~~~~

I slowly awoke to the sight of blood. Lots of blood. Judging by my orientation, the blood was on the ceiling. On the bright side, I’d been uncuffed at some point while I’d been knocked out so I had that at least. I was lying on my back in a surprisingly springy mattress in the town clinic. My midsection no longer hurt, but it was covered in bandages. My head no longer hurt as much and my hind leg appeared to be shrapnel-free and wrapped in a layer of healing bandages. I sighed in relief. I glanced at my claw and noted that somepony had done their best in cleaning it.

“And how are we doing this fine evening?” Galactic asked nonchalantly. “Now, I have good news, bad news, and some more good or bad news, considering what you con—” Activate death glare. “Right, anyway. Good news: I fixed you up! Your cracked ribs have been mended and set. Bad news: Treatment will have set you back quite a few caps. And the medium news: I decided to remove your two lower ribs! For science!” I gaped in shock. “Now, before you overreact, this is a win-win situation! I get some pegasus bones to examine, and you get to be more flexible!” A snarl escaped my muzzle. “Hey! I had no choice! They were potentially going to harm your internal organs! Okay, not really. Anyway, it’s just one rib on either side.”

“You cut me open. And cut out two of my ribs.” I growled at him. “Whatever gave you the right to remove them?” I was insanely pissed. Great, I lose part of a leg and now two ribs. What would happen next? The other leg? Then something occurred to me. “Wait, what do you mean a few caps?”

“Well, I’m charging you twelve hundred caps for the surgery.” I was horrified. Twelve hundred? Where was I going to get that kind of money? Galactic noticed the look on my face. With a grin, he continued, “But I’m willing to drop it down to eight hundred if you let me keep the ribs.” He even levitated my still-bloody ribs and dangled them in front of me. “Deal?”

I crossed my forelegs with a huff. “Six hundred and you treat them with a little respect.” He looked pained, but he nodded anyway. “So how do I pay you the other six hundred?” How would I pay him? I had no way to get caps!

Doc Galactic turned to leave the room. “Once you’re feeling a little better, get a job in the tunnels. You’ll pay off in two or three trips. Now get some rest.” He left me in the candlelight of the room. What would I do?

As if Celestia had demanded it, the gray wastelander pony slipped into the room. “I heard you’re off the table. Feeling better?” I harrumphed at him. “Had to make a deal with the Doc, I assume?” I nodded angrily. “How much?” he quietly asked.

“Six hundred,” I whispered back. “How am I going to pay him?”

“I have your answer.” He sat down next to my mattress and explained, “I work in the Underhill. We scavenge materials, resources, the like.” He raised his bandaged forelegs. “I can’t work because somepony tore me up.” I folded my ears back sheepishly. “So!” He grinned at me. Not good. “You get to take over my shift.”

“Menial labor. This is what I’ve been degraded to.”

“In Underhill, you’re paid one hundred caps for working, then another fifty for every five pounds of scrap you bring back. Since you’re working for me now, you get forty of those one hundred caps.”

Not bad. It could be worse.

Shut up, brain.

“And every fifty extra caps… I guess you can keep forty of those. Scrap’s getting hard to find, anyway.” He shuffled around in his saddlebags. When’d he get those? “Here’s my access card.” He held out a small card on a loop of rope. “You’ll be able to get into the tunnels and through the militia with it.”

I reached out with a hoof to take the rope, when I noticed my bare leg. “Hey! Where’s my stuff?” I looked around. “Hey! Where’s my bucking bag?” I glared at the gray wastelander. “WHERE. ARE. THEY?”

The wastelander backed away. “Scrap Bank’s got your stuff! We can talk to her later if you want!” I edged closer to him and growled. “She’ll take anything interesting we scrounge up and we trade to her for supplies and food!” He covered his head with his bandaged forelegs. “Please don’t hurt me!”

I caught myself and backed up. We’re not doing that again.

Thanks for the catch, brain.

“Okay. Let’s have a word with her. I want my stuff back.” The wastelander nodded. I blinked, then asked, “What’s your name, anyhow?”

He blinked. “I’m Rusty Parts. Welcome to Happy Hills.”

~~~~~

I barreled through the store’s doorway in a furious blur of fur and feathers. I caught a glimpse of a green and pink mare sitting behind the counter, and I immediately pounced on her. “Where’s my stuff?” I yelled at her. The poor mare was shaking in fright. I sort of pitied her, but I was angry and hopped up on painkillers. “Where’s my bag?” I yelled into her face. Before I could torture her further, Rusty Parts ran in and pulled me off of her.

“Hey! Calm the buck down!” he cried. “Look, I’ll handle this, okay?” He trotted over behind the counter and helped her up. “Scrap, I’m sorry about her but I’d rather not piss her off right about now. And she needs her bag.” Scrap Bank looked at me and I grudgingly nodded. “Can you let her have it back?”

Scrap Bank shook her head. “I… I can’t give it back to you!” I bristled and growled at her. “Eeeep! I really can’t! The mayor won’t allow it!” I snorted in frustration. “The only way I can give it back to you is if you buy it back!” Scrap Bank hastily exclaimed. She was getting more and more panicked with every passing second.

“You want me. To buy my stuff back. That you stole from me,” I enunciated. Scrap Bank nervously nodded. I sighed.

You’re better than this, Frosty. You can deal with it later.

Shut up, brain. I’m working on it.

I raked my claw through my mane and replied, “Fine, I’ll buy it back. But you have to hold it for me, okay? If somepony gets it before I do…” I flexed my claw. “Somepony might have an accident.”

Scrap Bank hastily pawed through the contents of my bag and pulled out my dad’s hat. “Here, you can take this back!” I reached out for it and she continued, “I can say I traded it off! The mayor won’t know! You’ll have to buy your bag and everything back for eight hundred caps.”

I rolled my eyes. How was I going to pay that? On consolation, I felt a little better now that I knew my dad’s hat was safely back on my head. “Now, where does a pony get some food around here?” I didn’t have to look back to see how scared poor Scrap Bank was after that confrontation.

Later, after we’d acquired some relatively inexpensive hay chips and a can of hundreds- year-old corn, courtesy of Scrap Bank (provided I left as soon as possible), we started to discuss what I’d be doing to pay off Doc Galactic’s medical bill.

“So you’ll be working the south tunnels with several other residents,” Rusty said. He pointed on a map, assisted by the flickering porch lamp hanging above us. “There’s a few passages down here” – he circled a portion with his hoof – “that I managed to hide away from everypony else.”

“So… you want me to go check it out?” I asked. He nodded. “Don’t you want the scrap to sell?” I felt a little guilty for preventing him from working.

“Don’t worry about it! Doc’s gonna pay me for helping around the clinic. I just need you to watch out for some things while you’re in Underhill.” He looked around and leaned in closer to me. “This place was built for a reason. I’ve seen plenty of crazy stuff in there. Labs. Offices. Machine shops. We’ve stripped out most of the usable scrap, but I’ve got questions.”

“I’ve got one for you.” I hoofed the edges of the map. “Where’d you get this from?” It was a somewhat detailed, mostly intact map of the tunnels. It was covered with a really tough plastic on the outside, but it was still flexible enough to roll up. There was a label in the corner and a few other random arbitrary markings, but I couldn’t muster the effort to decipher it.

“I pulled it off a metal frame that was attached to a wall in Underhill. As far as I know, nopony else has found one that they’ve been able to take, if they have.” He rolled up the map and tucked it into a pocket on his bag. He rummaged about and dropped some pins and twisted bits of metal onto the table. “Here. I’ve got quite a few of these. Can you pick a lock?”

I nodded. “I’d need the screwdriver from my bag. But yeah, I have experience in lockpicking.” Experience, as in multiple failed attempts at breaking one lock.

He looked confused. “Can’t you just use one of your claw blades?” I looked at my claw and examined it. I guess the end of the talon was thin enough to work.

“Hm. I guess so.” I gingerly picked up the pins with my claw and slotted them into my mane and tail. I stared at the metal sticks. “Where do I hide these?”

“Pockets?” He suggested. I made a show of patting myself down and flapped my wings irritably. “Right. You don’t have pockets.” He dropped the metal sticks in his bag and tossed out more pins. “We’ll have to fix that.” He looked at my wings. “And maybe we should hide those. Most wastelanders won’t tolerate pegasi, Enclave or not.” He sat in thought, then got up. “If you’re going to be working in Underhill, you need some work clothes. I’ll go see if I’ve got some extras lying around.”

Midway through eating a hay chip, I realized my recent exploits were getting rather surreal. I went from Enclave to Rangers to whoever these ponies were and the latter two were a lot nicer than I ever anticipated. “Lemme ask you a question. Why are you even helping me? You do realize that I was the one that did, uh…” I shyly gestured at his bandaged limbs. “Most of that. All of that, probably.”

Rusty didn’t stop shoving dried chips into his mouth. “Well, you had the slave collar look goin’ on and I decided to give you the benefit of the doubt. At the time, it seemed obvious—those walking soup cans probably took you hostage and are using your life as leverage to make you do whatever they wanted. You sounded pretty down at the time and I was a few pints light, but you seemed genuinely appalled at yourself. It took a little convincing, but I appealed to Ge—uh, a buddy to patch you up and bring you back with us. You’re free now. Er, free-ish.”

“Oh,” was all I could muster.

“What? Just an ARK. An Act of Random Kindness. My daddy taught me that one. Fighting will only get us so far, you know.” He paused as he located another chip to munch on. “Also something about kindness being an element, but we all know that’s a little stupid.”

“I… uh, appreciate your kindness and stuff,” I awkwardly mumbled back, unsure how to really respond.

“No problem. If you really feel bad about it, you’re paying my medical fees, so I guess we’re sort of even.”

Once we were finished eating, Rusty led me toward a shoddy row of what appeared to be living quarters nearby the shop. They were all very dilapidated and mostly held together with tape, glue, and metal sheets. A few of them were made of concrete and steel, but we weren’t going there. We headed to the middle shack that was marginally less rusty and walked in. “You live here?” I asked. He nodded. “It’s… cozy.”

His idea of cozy appeared to be the near exact definition of claustrophobic. Stuff was scattered everywhere except inside of the storage containers they probably belonged in. If I spread out my wings all the way, each wingtip could probably touch each wall, give or take a feather or two’s distance. At least it appeared that there was half of a second floor that wasn’t nearly cluttered as the ground floor. The only light in the entire shack looked like some sort of industrial-grade lamp rigged up to a spark battery.

“It’s a rust bucket.” He nodded. “But I call it home. I share it with somepony. Lucky for you everypony’s either working or sleeping right now.” He dived into a chest and rummaged through some clothing. “Nah… Nah…” He took one out and held it up to me. He immediately put it away. “I think she might have something in your size.” Both of us suddenly heard hoofsteps drawing closer. “Uh-oh. That might be the shift boss again. Quick! Hide!” he whispered urgently at me.

I looked around in panic. Where could I hide? I glanced at the clothes chest. Too small. Reflexively I jumped and flattened myself against the ceiling, making sure to tuck my tail under me. Nopony ever looked up, right? I motioned him to go open the door. “Just make sure nopony looks up!” I whispered back. This was a terrible plan!

You think?

Shut it, brain. This is all you.

From my perch above, I watched as an orange mare with wild, untidy brown hair strolled into the building and flopped down onto a mattress. “Hey, bro! I’m back! Anything interesting at the Doc’s?” she said. Rusty sighed in relief. “Somethin’ the matter?” she asked.

Rusty looked more relaxed. “Oh hey! It’s you.” He looked up at the ceiling. I frantically motioned at him to stop. “You could say that. Got a job at the Doc’s.” Why are you still looking up here? Stop! I kept waving at him. In my panic, I didn’t notice a loose feather slowly drift down to the ground. By the time I noticed it, it was halfway to the ground. When was the last time I fixed my feathers?

I watched as my beautiful, incriminating teal feather drifted to the ground, right into the line of sight of the other two ponies in the room. The orange mare picked it up. “Woah… where’d this come from?” She looked up. We locked gazes, and neither of us spoke. I nervously grinned. “Please tell me I’m completely wasted right now.”

“Uh… you’re wasted?” I nervously suggested. Rusty shot me a look. “What?” I shrugged. “I live to serve.” I looked back to the orange wastelander. “Okay, fine. You’re not wasted. I’m actually here hiding on your ceiling.” I looked between the two of them. “How was your day?” I added.

She looked to Rusty. “Want to explain?”

“Uh… well…” Rusty stammered. “Okay, I found her. Can we keep her?” The mare slapped him. “OW! Okay, okay.” He looked up. “You can come down from there.” I gently landed on the floor. “This is my sister, Broken Parts.” I waved at her. “Sis, this is… uh…” He looked at me desperately.

What? Oh, right. “I’m Frosty Winds, Former Enclave Scout. Uh… version two-point-oh.” I waggled my claw at them. “Nice to meet you.” I glanced at Rusty and sighed. Might as well get this over with now. “I also kinda mauled your brother a little. I’m sorry,” I said quietly.

She pinned me against the wall and slammed her hoof next to my ear. “This is all your fault! You hurt him!” She turned to her brother. “Why are you helping her?” He backed away nervously. “What have you done with my brother?!”

“It’s a long story. Basically, she helped me get that position at Doc’s so that might mean we can get this place fixed up a little,” Rusty piped up. “After she pays off the Doc and gets her stuff back from Scrap, we can figure things out from there. By the way, she’s taking over my shift so she’ll need some duds.”

Broken Parts held me against the wall, deep in thought. “Well…” She exhaled. “I guess you’re about my size. This town is also an equal opportunity refugee camp, so most of us won’t really care about you too much. Unfortunately, pegasi are a touchy subject for some of the old-timers hanging around here, so we’re going to have to hide your wings. At least you didn’t show up during the lunch rush.” She let me go and dug around in a chest. “Doc’s not the talkative nor believable type, so you’ll probably be fine for a while.” She took out a worn, dirty shirt with baggy sleeves and a pair of coveralls. “These should cover up your wings nicely.”

I grudgingly started pulling on the outfit. “So… when do I start working?” I asked, as I attempted to get the shirt on.

“My shift starts at three whistles.” I opened my muzzle to ask, but then he explained, “The day is divided into quarters. Each work shift is followed by recreational time, then overtime, and after that it’s nap time. The work shifts are staggered. One at one, one at three.” He opened a locker and scooted some kind of saw to me. “This is an auto-saw. Use it to cut up larger pieces of metal. You’ll need it.”

I gripped the bit of the auto-saw in my mouth. Light, maneuverable, and deadly in case of emergency. It was a worn yellow saw with a three-sided blade that looked very similar to a radiation symbol. “And I just cut things up?” I asked around a mouthful of saw.

“Yep, you’ll get a carrying bag when you show up. Broken’s got some pockets down the front of that shirt and a few more scattered about for all the other cool things you think you want to keep. Trust me, there’s some really cool stuff down there,” Rusty explained. “You’ll want to get some rest. Work starts…” He looked out the door. “Soon. Just show the gate ponies the card and they’ll let you in.”

I looked around the room. “Where will I be staying? Here?” They looked at each other and nodded. “Uh… Do you mind if I tuck myself in that dark spot in the rafters? It’s a… habit thing. Also, I’d hate to cause more problems for you two.”

“I’ll go procure some bedding material later from Scrap Bank. She’s got everything.” Broken said. “Go ahead and park yourself there for now. Rusty will wake you up when work starts, if the whistle doesn’t get your fat flank up.” I rolled my eyes and clambered up to the top of a locker. I’d seen the large panel lying over the top of the living area, right underneath the sloped roof and, for some odd reason, I found it to be quite fitting. I hopped up and found a dry spot to rest in, hopefully I could get some sleep before I had to work. I curled up into a ball and quickly dozed off.

~~~~~

I was rudely interrupted from my hallucination-free sleep by a loud, shrill whistle blasting through my ears. I slowly made my way to the edge of my sleeping area. “Is it time to go?” I mumbled. I peered over the edge. “Who wants to take me to work?” Rusty was nowhere to be seen, however Broken was looking around in various boxes and lockers.

“Yep! Just a sec…” She pulled out some kind of bulky chip thing from a crate. “You’re a smart Enclave birdie, right? Maybe you can tell us what this is.” I dropped down with a soft whump and took the chip in my claw. “According to the piece of paper it came with, it does interference stuff but we don’t really know what it attaches to.”

I was too tired to argue about where this had come from. A miniscule sticker stuck to the bottom corner of the chip just barely read “Electronic Disruption Device, Mk.3 Prototype”. I continued to squint at the faded text for a moment longer before I finally gave up trying to make out the even smaller fine print under it. I tucked it into a pocket where I hoped it wouldn’t get damaged. “I’ve got the card and this saw. What else do I need to go to Underhill?”

“You know where you’re going, right?” Rusty asked. “To my hidden stashy place?”

Vaguely probably wouldn’t cut it. “I don’t really remember,” I shamefully replied, scratching my head.

Rusty rolled his eyes. “Here, just take my map. Don’t lose it and try not to damage it. Bring it back when you’re done.” He sighed, tucking the rolled up map into a loop on my coveralls.

“That should be it. Follow me!” Broken sang. We left the room and walked through the town, following the flow of the other ponies also heading in the same direction. I was getting a few strange looks, but nopony really paid much attention. “Just don’t do anything too stupid,” she whispered. We stopped at a run-down building with a large door built in it. “This is my stop. I’m going to hit Scrap Bank’s shop. See ya!” She waved goodbye and wandered off.

I waved back and stood in the group of ponies all waiting to enter the building. There were a few security ponies checking the workers’ passes before letting them into the room. When I got to the front, I held up the access card Rusty had given me and showed it to the security pony. “I’m filling in for Rusty Parts.”

“Good to know,” he grumbled. He took a closer look at the card, then gave it back to me. “He explain the rules?” I nodded. “Good. Now get on the elevator.” I nervously entered. So this was an elevator, eh? I looked around. I’d never really needed to ride an elevator, because of my wings. I could just fly everywhere! I sighed. Just two weeks ago I was cleaning out bunks and running letters. Who would have known I’d end up like this? I stared at my claw with a pang of sorrow. I’d lost so much. How would I fit in if I could even get back?

I noticed a mare next to me also staring at my claw. “That’s really cool,” she quietly exclaimed. I looked at her. She didn’t look much different from many of the other wasteland ponies I’d seen today. Ragged, tired, disheveled, yet determined. She was a unicorn though, which was an interesting change. “How’dja get it?” The elevator squeaked and clanked into action. We slowly descended into the darkness and I suddenly became aware of a nervous sensation in my stomach. I was tempted to open my wings for stability, just out of instinct.

“I don’t remember,” I automatically told her. Should I socialize with these ponies? “I woke up without my leg and got a new one.” I turned to her. She rolled her eyes. “Wanna help me out? I’m…” I stopped for a second. I couldn’t tell her my real name! It was too… pegasistic.

What?

Shut up, brain. You know what I mean.

“I’m… Pat. I’m new here,” I lied.

She smiled. “You’ve got a silly name too?” I nodded. Sure, let’s go with that. “The ponies around here call me Trouble. I operate in the south tunnels. You?”

“Yep. I’m taking Rusty’s spot because he’s in the clinic,” I told her. No need to tell her everything just yet. “How does everything work?”

The elevator ground to a halt. A set of large doors opened and the group around us slowly moved into the large room that was in front of us. “This is the hub, the center of Underhill.” She pointed at a large pair of scales manned by several ponies. “You take metal there for ten caps a pound.” She pointed at the booth we were approaching. “On the way out, you’ll go through the other side. Show your pass and you’ll get paid.” We shuffled through the narrow gap between the booth and the wall to enter the hub. After getting a good look, I realized the branching tunnels were broken into four primary directions: North, South, East, and West. “When you head over to the South branch, the forepony will give you a bag for your scrap. You’ll turn it in when you get your caps.”

We walked over to the tunnel labeled “South Wing” and we spoke to the guard posted there. “Hey, Burly!” The guard slowly turned around. “Anythin’ new?”

“Hey there, Troubs! Who’s the new mare?” He stared idly at me. Kinda creepy, considering the circumstances. “She’s kinda cute.” I blushed a little. Wow, really creepy now. “Anyway, here’s your scrap bags.” He ambled over to a box and tossed each of us a pair of large saddlebags. “Careful out there. Somethin’s rocked the bloatsprite hive. Doc’s gettin’ more patients lately ‘cause of it.”

Trouble frowned. “The metaphorical bloatsprite hive or the literal bloatsprite hive?” He stared at us lazily and shrugged. “Wanna tell us?” Another shrug. I couldn’t tell whether he didn’t want to tell us of whether he just didn’t know. Trouble sighed. “Will I know it when I see it?”

“Yep, I’m sure it’ll find you. Happy scrappin’, fillies.” He turned to stare back into the tunnels. We scooted around him and made our way into the dimly lit tunnels.

After a few minutes of silence, I noticed that the tunnels and passageways were very similar to the ones in the Steel Ranger base.

“Hey… these tunnels… do they seem familiar?” Trouble gave me a flat stare. “Uh, let me rephrase that.” I faceclawed. “You notice all these tunnels look the same? It can’t be a coincidence.”

“Well, these tunnels are the only ones I’ve seen. But I guess you have a point—all the tunnels here are all identical in design.” Right. She hadn’t been in a Rangers base before. “I think they were mass produced and made modularly, so it makes sense.” She suddenly made a turn into an identical hallway and started going down it. “I’ve got some scrap here just waiting to be turned into caps. See ya!”

“Uh… okay! Bye!” I waved and moved on. I looked around and made sure nopony else was in the area before opening up Rusty’s map. “What the hay is Seapony Energy?” I whispered to myself after seeing the company’s emblem on the bottom left corner. A quick peek at the directional markings on the walls and floors helped me pinpoint my location. The map had identified my location as the eastern corridors, specifically the science division and reactor floor.

Thanks to the map, I’d easily located the area Rusty had barricaded with a large piece of concrete that had dropped from the ceiling. With great difficulty I shifted the barrier just enough to squeeze through and into the short tunnel behind it. “Energy Application Offices, B1,” read the plaque nailed beside the door. “Please keep all products and materials inside this room.” I unconsciously touched the little chip in my pocket. Is this where Rusty had gotten this? Around the room I spied some scrap-worthy pieces of junk and some power cells for a laser weapon. I pocketed the cells to sell to Scrap Bank, or maybe for personal use if I ever found anything worth powering.

After thoroughly looting the room and taking everything that wasn’t nailed down (if it was, I used the saw to liberate it) I decided there wasn’t anything else to take and moved on. The next room housed a broken-down Sentry bot and several sealed chambers housing several more dormant Sentry bots. I looked around in slight confusion. Who’d smashed this one? I strolled over to it and started gutting as many parts from it as I could. After procuring several more energy cells and a missile, I decided that I might as well chop up the metal body for more scrap.

As the saw blade slowly chewed through the metal, I had some time to think. What would I do after this? The Rangers had me on a leash—a leash that hadn’t decided to randomly explode just yet, so I was definitely thankful for that. Even on the random off chance that I managed to escape or whatever, what could I even do? Go back to the Rangers? Enclave life was over for sure at this point. I’d spent too much time on the surface. According to the political horseshit, I was “contaminated” and a threat to the health of others. I growled and threw a lump of slag at a wall in anger. I flicked my wings in thought. What would I do?

I heard the sound of metal scraping on metal and I spun around, combat mode engaged. I relaxed when I realized it was just a small keypad opening up on the wall. Strange, why would you hide a keypad here? I trotted over to it and squinted at the dim display. “Enter… passcode?” I ran my claw through my mane. C’mon brain! Got anything?

See which buttons are the most worn-out.

That… that wasn’t such a bad idea. I blew the dust off of the keypad and stared at it harder. A few of the keys were a little worn and cracked, but only one key stood out with its complete lack of numbering. “Okay, it can’t be this simple…” I mumbled to myself. “Here goes nothing.” I hoped it wouldn’t set off an alarm if I got it wrong. “One… One… One………. One.”

I heard a gentle beep from the keypad and a door at the far end of the room unsealed. I could only faceclaw. Really? Super-secure room with a secret keypad whose combination was a bucking series of ones? I ignored the toxic amount of stupidity I was currently experiencing and investigated the room. “It’s just an office…” Just your standard pre-war fare: desk, two chairs, a filing cabinet, and a terminal. I dug through the desk and was slightly surprised by the loot inside. Fifteen caps, a probably salvageable laser pistol, and three cigarettes! I shoved all these into various pockets in my suit and hoped the bulge of the pistol didn’t stand out too much. “What kind of pony hoards bottle caps before the war?”

I took a peek in the filing cabinet and found yet another bobby pin, along with some old dusty documents and several old bits. I stashed the bobby pin in my mane and dropped the bits into another pocket. After taking a look around the room, I shrugged and started sawing the drawers apart and shoving them into my scrap bag. After thinking for a few more seconds, I began the slow and arduous task of chopping up the filing cabinet itself, too. Scrap is scrap, right?

The terminal intrigued me. I idly poked the power button on the terminal on the desk and jumped in surprise when it booted up with an abrupt beep. I attempted to clean the dusty screen with my fetlock, with little avail. The words on the screen read, “Password?” I tapped my chin and guessed “password”.

The terminal unlocked. Shocking.

I scrolled through the entries on the screen. I paused at “Unlock” and pressed enter.

Somewhere, something faintly shifted and thumped—presumably in the open position, but it wasn’t in this room. Unsatisfied with the results of that, I highlighted “Message Center (1)” and pressed enter on that instead. As I waited for the text to finish scrolling, I took out my frustration on the remaining drawers that hadn’t been reduced to scrap metal.

After the last of the filing cabinet had been chopped up into movable pieces, I sat down and leaned against the side of the desk. That’s enough chopping for now, I told myself. I began reading the long message that never actually reached its intended recipient.

My Dear Director:

It is my regrettable decision that I must shut down your little science department so quickly. I understand your attachment to your various projects in your department. However, need I remind you we are supposed to be an electric company! Company stock has skyrocketed ever since the Neighagra Falls Hydroelectric Dam project was announced, and corporate doesn’t want anything to jeopardize profits. I do not know what you are currently working on, but it’s clearly costing the company too much from what the number-crunchers keep dropping in my tank. Again, I regret having to do this to you, but you have been shut down. Cease research at once and file all your findings. Destroy the rest and bury your connections to the MWT.

Your friend and boss,
Wavebreak

I sat back and deliberated on the message. Somepony had been working on some really top-secret stuff here! I checked my map again to find the quickest way out. All this sneaky stuff was already making my brain hurt.

I idly poked at my bulging scrap bags. They were starting to get uncomfortably heavy, so I grudgingly picked them up and headed out before I ended up with more stuff than I could actually carry back. If I thought a little creatively, I could definitely cram a load of other things in them before I had to leave. I poked my head into the hallway and spied another doorway I hadn’t yet looted.

I dragged my scrap bags over to the door and noticed the keypad next to it. “If only I could hack this keypad…” I complained to myself. I rolled my eyes and tried four sequential ones again, just in case. Imagine my surprise when that didn’t work. Okay, so we were dealing with somepony who was smart enough to have an actual numerical combination. I tried the next best thing. “One… Two… Three… Four?” The door beeped at me angrily and the keypad flashed red.

Wait… Isn’t the door metal?

Yeah, of course. Why?

Don’t you have an auto-saw?

I sat there in silence for a moment, then faceclawed. Of course. Shut up, brain.

I hefted the saw and chopped my way through the door, right between the words “No” and “entry”. After the door had been chopped up into small enough pieces for me to shove into my scrap bags, I entered the room and began to choke on the dust hurricane that greeted me. Once I had recovered my breath, I found myself in a large room lined with several desks, a multitude of filing cabinets, and what appeared to be a snack machine in the corner.

I was pulled out of my room analysis by the strange noise again. I perked up my ears and held my breath as I strained to identify the noise. I was definitely closer to it, that was for sure. There it was again! It was some kind of scratching, scraping, clanking sound in the walls somewhere. I dismissed it as a few giant killer bugs having a scuffle in a room somewhere and turned my attention back to the potential loot in the room. I could probably steal most of the drawers and maybe one filing cabinet before I was full on scrap.

One drawer after another, I checked their contents then cut them into little flat sections to shove into my bags. Most of the contents were just old outdated documents and papers I really didn’t care for, but at least there were a few bottle caps, pre-war bits, and three .44 bullets. I remembered the terminal from before, and I hastily checked the few scattered terminals on the now-empty desks. All of them were broken and inaccessible, except for one.

Lucky for me this terminal was still logged in to the home screen: Seapony Energy Security Services. I opened the menu and squinted at the options. “Open Surveillance Room”, “Recalibrate Turrets”, “Clear targeting data”, and “Deactivate Turrets” were the only options available. Why would this place need turrets? I clicked the “Deactivate Turrets” button, only to be greeted by an error message. Shrugging that aside, I selected “Open Surveillance Room” and heard a click from the snack machine in the room.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered to myself. A hidden room behind a snack machine? Really? I trotted over to the snack machine itself and forcefully relieved it of a few bags of hay chips in quiet rage. I then shoved the snack machine over to reveal a small, white room filled with monitors and a single chair. “Wha…?” I had no idea why an energy company would need so many hidden rooms, nevermind the turrets. Most of the monitors just showed a haze of static, but a few were still showing some shaky images. I dropped myself into the chair and scanned the monitors. The ones that appeared to be working were a few hallway cameras, one office camera, and a very shaky image from “RCT_SEC4”. I turned my attention to this monitor and attempted to figure out what was on it.

The image was slightly blurry and fuzzy, but I could make out what looked like a control room. There were terminals and computers along the left wall, and a large window covering the other wall. The camera was positioned so I could see through part of the window into the darkness of the next room beyond. A sudden movement in the darkness drew my eye. What was that? I scooted closer to the monitor. Some… thing was moving back there! I felt my heart involuntarily speed up. The thing was large, for sure. I tapped the monitor with transparent hopes that the image would clear up and just prove to be my imagination.

I felt something brush against my muzzle and I jumped back in fright. I exhaled in relief when I realized what I’d bumped into. It was a small black joystick with several buttons next to it, most likely to control the cameras. I pressed the corresponding button and pushed the joystick to the right. Sure enough, the screen slowly panned to the right, allowing me to get a better look at the shape.

It was shaped somewhat like a pony, if ponies were large, inordinately bulgey, and made entirely of steel plates. I turned the camera further and started to zoom in, when the shape suddenly stopped moving. I immediately stopped moving the camera and froze. I even held my breath in terror. It slowly turned its head and stared right into the camera with its one, large, glowing blue eye.

I screamed and fell out of the chair. Oh Celestia, I need to get out of here! I hurriedly grabbed my bags and proceeded to haul my plot out of the room. On my way out, I spied something shiny, orange, and tantalizingly lootable. I grabbed it and galloped all the way to the hub, never looking back.

~~~~~

“Hey, little filly… what’s chasin’ you?” Burly asked nonchalantly as I dashed past him. “Hey! That’s a nice haul. Be sure to bring the bag back, ‘kay?” I ignored him and galloped toward the giant scales. I had to get out of here! Had it seen me? I really hoped it didn’t! I stopped at the table where a bored looking stallion was idly scribbling on it with a large marker in his teeth.

“Drop the bag on that side. We’ll count it out.” I obediently and hastily dropped my fully-loaded bag onto one end, where a larger buck started dropping five-pound weights onto the other. He grunted in slight interest when he had thirty-five pounds on his side and kept adding weights. “So, my pretty lady, where’d you get all this scrap from?”

I shrugged. “Mostly filing cabinets and the better half of a Sentry bot.” They both looked somewhat shocked. “What?” I remembered something. “There’s a missile in there somewhere. I expect extra for that.”

“Why didn’t we think of that?” he muttered. “And yes, you will be compensated for the… missile.” He shuffled around in his desk. “As for the scrap…” He turned to the pony that was hauling the weights, who nodded at the large pile of them. “That’s an impressive sixty-five pounds.” He pushed several small bags of caps at me. “There’s your pay. Six hundred fifty caps for the scrap, One hundred for the missile, and another hundred for working. Now go away.”

I shoved the caps into several of my many pockets and started toward the elevator. Okay, time to go buy my stuff back! I didn’t notice Trouble chasing me until she grabbed me in a hug, nearly crushing my neck. “Heya Pat! Nice to know you’re back!” I resisted my first impulse to throw her off and stab her. “How much you make?”

“Uh… somewhere like eight hundred some caps. Why?” I asked. “Well, it’s more like I made around six hundred because I have to pay back Rusty.”

“Wow! I only usually manage to make around three hundred. What’s your secret?” she asked, while we both got on the elevator.

“Steal everything that isn’t nailed down. If it is, steal the nails too.” I grinned at her. “How else?”

“I dunno. Hey, are you doin’ anything later?” she asked.

Hmm. Well, I did have to buy my stuff, pay Rusty… “Yeah, I’m going to be pretty busy. You?”

“Nope.” The elevator shuddered to a stop. “Well, I guess I’ll see you next shift!” With that, she strolled out of the elevator and into town. She was annoying, but her momentary company was enjoyable.

I made my way over to Scrap Bank’s store. “Hey Scrappy! I’ve got stuff and caps for you!” She peeked over the counter. I waved my claw at her and she dove behind the counter again. I went over to the counter and peeked over. “Look, I’m sorry about before. I was really angry and I lost control a little. Apology accepted?”

She looked up and fixed me with a dubious glare. “Really?”

“Really.” I gave her my best sincere smile, which may or may not have come off as a crazed grin instead based on her reaction.

“I don’t… caps are caps I suppose…” She fixed her pink mane and forced a smile. “How can I help you? Wait. Nevermind.” She left then came back with my saddlebag in her teeth. “You’re here for this, aren’t you?”

I dropped the miscellaneous items I picked up onto the counter, including the laser pistol. As much as I’d love to keep it, I needed it as barter material and it wasn’t in very good condition. I didn’t trust laser pistols in bad condition. “How much for all this crap?”

She looked over my goods and sighed. “I’ll take the ammo for six caps and the fifty bits for five caps. The pistol’s seen better days but since it’s got ammo, I’ll buy it for eighty caps. Deal?” I did a little guesstimatory math in my head since I wasn’t entirely sure exactly what a cap was actually worth. Eh, close enough I guess. “Hey, what’s that?” she asked, pointing at a pocket on my left side.

I pulled the object in question out of my pocket. In my haste, I hadn’t gotten a good look at what it was, other than it was shiny and I wanted it. It was a well-preserved bobblehead of an orange earth mare wearing a cowpony hat at a rakish angle. She held several apples in her mouth and another in her right hoof. As funny as it was, her eyes must have been misprinted. They were both facing different directions and were different sizes as well. The base of the bobblehead read “Schtable-Tec Bobblehead” and underneath that was printed “I buck apples”. Hm. Strange, I guess. “I dunno. Some kind of bobblehead. You wanna buy it?”

She sat in thought for a second and waved me off. “You better hold onto that. There’s somepony in town who collects those, though. Go talk to him, he’s at the west end of town. You can’t miss him.” She sat back. “So you’ve got more caps?”

I pushed five hundred caps over to her. “It’s all I got,” I lied. “C’mon, gimme a break.” She rolled her eyes. Think fast, Frosty! “Do I need to give you extra encouragement?” I bared my teeth and flexed my claw. As if on cue, the whistle blew four times.

She flinched violently and tossed the bag to me. “Just take it!” she yelled. “Take it and leave me alone!” I grinned. Victory!

I opened my bag and checked its contents. All the parts for my rifle were in there, and all the other things that I tossed in appeared to still be there. I spied a slightly crushed package at the bottom and fished it out. I took out one of the two snack cake from the box and shoved it in my mouth, chewing happily. Oh, cherry snack cakes, I’ve missed you so much!

I left the store, happily munching on my last snack cake as I made my way back to Rusty’s little home. I got my stuff back, which was what mattered the most. On my way back, I ran into a sad-looking wastelander trying to sleep against a wall. He saw me and ran up to me. “Hey! Got a sec? Or a few caps to spare?” I stopped and gave him a once-over. He was grimy, scraggly, and he looked like he was some kind of addict.

“What do you want?” I asked him impatiently. “I’ve to to be somewhere right now.” I attempted to push past him, but he jumped into my way again.

“C’mon! I need like, a hundred caps. I know it seems like a lot—”

“That is a lot,” I growled, interrupting him. “What are you going to do? Buy more drugs?”

He shook his head violently. “Nah, I got this really great investment going! I just need a startup deposit, you know?”

Against my better judgement, I tossed him a hundred caps. “Here. Out of the goodness of my heart, I’ll help you here.” Be a good pony, a voice in my head echoed. I’m a good pony, I told myself. Be better. I smiled to myself as the hobo ran off, probably to spend it on drugs.

When I finally entered his home, Rusty got up to greet me. “Hey! How’d the first day of work go?” I fished around in one of my many various pockets and tossed him the rest of my caps. He peeked inside and his eyes widened in amazement. “Wow! This is, like, three hundred caps!”

“I know. I also bought my stuff back from Scrap and possibly funded a hobo’s drug addiction.” I waved my bag at him and smiled. “It cost me all my earnings, but I have all my important stuff back.”

“Like what?” he asked.

“I got my giant kills-everything sniper rifle back,” I boasted. “And some other miscellaneous stuff.”

“Woah! That’s so awesome!” he squeaked. “You could probably kill bunches of slavers with that!” I uneasily glanced at my claw. Last time, I’d simply torn them apart. “You have bullets for it?”

I stared at him blankly, then facehoofed. “I, uh, forgot.” Good work, brain.

Not my fault—that’s all on you.

He facehoofed. “You should probably buy ammunition for that. On another topic, how’d you manage to make so many caps?”

I shrugged off my uncomfortable clothing and fluttered up to my perch above his head. “As a pegasus, you learn that everything is valuable. Reuse everything. That’s what we’ve done for years.” I stretched and rolled onto my back, spreading my wings out. “You know… up there, in the clouds… it’s not all that good. Sure, there’s little crime and no radiation, but it’s like a prison. Everything is regulated. The military and the government control everything. Freedom is a commodity, not an entitlement.”

“Down here, it’s not so good. You’ve seen the raiders. You haven’t seen disease. Famine. Destruction.” I arched my neck so that I could stare at him upside-down. “It’s definitely worse down here. Freedom… Freedom is objective.” We sat there in silence. I wasn’t sure if we were having a really deep conversation or just pretending to.

I decided to change the subject. “Hey… lemme ask you something.” Rusty had worked the tunnels Underhill longer, he might know about that… thing. He looked up. “You ever see something weird in the tunnels? It’s huge and it’s got a big glowy eye.” I spread my forelegs apart as far as I could at an attempt at scale. “This thing was huge! Like, really really huge!” Rusty raised an eyebrow at me.

“Somepony’s been hitting the bar,” piped up Broken from under several layers of bedding next to me. I eeped in fright and flattened myself against the ceiling. She was quiet! She poked her head out and looked around. “Eh?” She looked up and laughed. “You just love that ceiling, don’t you?” I floated back down and glared at her. “Anyway, I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

“Me neither,” Rusty managed to make out, suppressing a laugh. He straightened up and replied “Well… there is some pretty strange stuff down there. Maybe it was one of their robots or something.” He had a point. Maybe, maybe.

“Sure, I guess I’m just going insane…” I muttered to myself. “I need to relax.” I shook my head to clear out the cobwebs. “Maybe I was just imagining it, right? I haven’t slept since…” I stopped. When was the last time I’d actually had a good night’s sleep? I’d spent quite a lot of time unconscious lately, but that really didn’t count.

A hoof waved past my vacant stare. “Yo… Frosty? You in there?” Poke. “Hey! You okay in there?” Broken Parts moved into my field of vision. “Bro, I think she’s in a coma. Better bring her to the Doc.” She continued waving as Rusty climbed up.

The slight mention of Doc Galactic made me snap back into focus. “Gah! I’m here! I’m here! I was… I don’t know. Thinking, I guess.” I continued to stare dejectedly off into the distance. “Ever since that day…” I mumbled. “My life changed. I’d always wanted some excitement, but this is really pushing it. I just want… I want everything to be normal again.” A tear rolled down my muzzle and I wiped it away. Stupid tears. “I just want to wake up in my barracks and find that this has all just been a bad dream.”

Broken turned to Rusty. “Got any more of those Sugar Apple Bombs?” He shook his head. “Go get some, will ya? They make me feel better, so hopefully it works on her.” Rusty scampered out of the room and Broken turned her attention back to me. “I don’t know what you’re going through right now, but everything will be fine.” She scooted closer and hugged me. “We all want something back… but the wasteland isn’t so forgiving.” I continued to stare off into the distance. “Take it a day at a time, and everything will be fine.”

“I am,” I whispered. “I just don’t want to wake up and find out something else has gone wrong.” I moved my claw and stared at it. “I never asked for this…but here it is, and I don’t know why.” I shifted and hugged Broken back. “I just…”

“Shh… no words… only dreams now.” She gently pulled my muzzle toward her and she planted a kiss on my lips. Woah! Okay! What? I was suddenly snapped out of my depression and sadness, and flung into a great big pit of confusion. A mare was kissing me! What? My cheeks and ears burned and my whole body was filled with conflicting emotions. What the hay just happened?

I pulled out of the kiss, my whole body turning a shade of red. “Woah! Okay! Uh, This is very sexy and all…” I awkwardly shuffled back a little. “But, uh, my barn door doesn’t swing that way.” She stared at me in confusion. “I’m into stallions,” I clarified.

“But… I thought all you heroine types were into the mares?” she said, sounding confused. “Right?”

I couldn’t come up with words at the moment. Brain! Is everything up there still working?

I don’t know what just happened, but I think I might have liked it.

I mentally punched myself. Our awkward staring contest was broken by Rusty’s return.

“Hey! I got a few more snack cake boxes from the Doc’s storeroom!” he exclaimed as he ran back inside. He tossed me a box, but it just bounced off my head. I was still sort of frozen in shock from the kiss, and my brain was still debating whether or not I enjoyed what had just happened. “Luna’s plot! I missed something, didn’t I?” He groaned. I shakily nodded yes.

“I’m uh… I’m going to go to sleep now…” I slowly moved myself on to a nearby pillow. “So… uh… yeah.”

She’s kinda hot.

Shut up, brain.

“Right! Uh… Big day ahead of us. Better go to sleep,” Broken proclaimed, and hopped back down to her bed. “G’night, everypony!”

As Rusty started putting out the candles, I wrapped myself in a blanket that Broken had left up here. I heard them whispering under me, and I had no choice but to listen as I tried to go to sleep.

“What the buck just happened?” Rusty whispered.

“Uh… nothing?” Broken replied.

“That was definitely not nothing.”

“Okay, fine. I might have kissed her a little.”

“What.”

“What? She’s cute, strong, and athletic! Plus, I couldn’t resist. She’s a bucking pegasus! I might not have another chance to make out with a pegasus!”

I heard Rusty facehoof and sigh in exasperation. “Just… just go to sleep.”

~~~~~

My dreams that night were confusing, to say the least. I did, however, manage to sleep through the night up until the wee hours in the morning when the first whistle woke me up. I was awake, but I didn’t feel like moving. I just laid there under covers as I heard Rusty and Broken start getting out of bed too. “Rise and shine, my little birdie!” Broken sang. I curled up and hid under the covers. I heard her climb up to my perch and rustle my covers. “Wakey wakey!”

“Meeeh.” I covered my eyes with my foreleg. It was still too early. Lemme sleep. I felt the covers above me fly off, and then the cold air of the morning hit me. I curled up tighter in a vain attempt to warm up again, but Broken wasn’t having any of that.

“You’re so adorable when you do that!” She cooed. I groaned in response. It’s early and cold. I’m not getting up. “C’mon, my little brain damaged birdie! Time to get working!” She fiddled with my ear while I tried to ignore her. “Does the little birdie need a smoochie?” she huskily whispered into my other ear.

I immediately bolted upright. “Okay! Okay! I’m up!” I angrily huffed at Broken. “You’re not giving up, are you.” She grinned and shook her head. I rubbed my eyes and stretched. “Well, I guess I’ll hit the tunnels again. There’s definitely something down there, and I plan to find out what.” I shook out my wings and did a quick preening to get rid of some loose feathers. “I guess I gotta talk to somepony that’ll take this stupid bobblehead,” I said, referring to the orange Schtable-Tec bobblehead.

“Oh yeah!” Rusty exclaimed from under us. “That’s, uh… Sleazy’s looking for them!” I scooted over to the edge and listened. “He’s down by the west end of the market. You really can’t miss it.”

Everypony was telling me I couldn’t miss it, which was starting to make me suspicious. “What’s with this pony that makes him un-missable?” Rusty and Broken exchanged glances as I pulled on my borrowed clothing.

“Well, he’s interesting. You’d have to see him to believe it,” Rusty told me. “Trust me on this one, you have to see him.”

“And where would that be, exactly?” I asked.

“West end of town. You literally have to be blind to miss it.”

Well, those directions seemed specific enough. Lacking that, I had the power of flight on my side in case I got too lost. I tossed on my gear, grabbed my saddlebag, and double checked to make sure I actually had everything with me. A quick goodbye and hug later and I was out and about, looking for a store that I couldn’t possibly miss.

Sure enough, near the west end of town I noticed a big gaudy sign with the picture of a laughing bearded pony. “They did say I couldn’t miss it…” I muttered under my breath. In big, mostly working neon letters the sign read “Sleazy McCheapkins’ Bargain Emporium”. I cautiously poked my head into the store and called out, “Hello?”

The first thing I heard was a sort of muted jingle in the background for ambiance’s sake. “Me bird's night's free and me car's a nutter / Loadsamoney is a shout I utter / As I wave my wad to the geezers—” And that’s when I stopped caring since none of it made sense to me.

Well, Rusty and Broken were right—you really needed to see him to believe it. For lack of a better description, he was falling apart. He was in a state of decay, yet he didn’t smell as bad as a dead body probably would. Patches of his hide and fur were missing, he had a few bullet holes in him, and most disturbing was the large steel bar wedged in his neck that slowly dripped… sludge. One thing that really stood out was his beard: it was neatly trimmed, well kept, and strikingly similar to the picture outside. “Hey there tresha hunter! What c’n I do for you?”

“Um… Sleazy?” I hesitantly asked.

“Yep! Tha’s me.” He smiled proudly, showing off his mostly-intact teeth. “I sell guns, gun accessories, ammo, ammo accessories, accessories, and bobbleheads.” He stopped and checked the wall behind him. “Well, I used to sell bobbleheads. Need a gun?”

I pulled out the orange bobblehead. “You mean these ones?” His eyes lit up and he gently picked it up and gave the head a loving tap.

“Aha! The Applejack bobblehead! I’ll give you top caps for it.” He rummaged about under the desk, then stood up again. A buzzer sounded and the steel door behind him opened. “Hop on over the counter!” I shied away, unsure. “Come on my tresha hunter! You want yer reward don’tcha?” The grimy storefront wasn’t that appealing, so I was very hesitant to see what was in the back rooms.

I jumped over the counter and followed him into the dark room. “Why’s it so dark back here?” I asked, a tad apprehensive. I heard him go over to the wall and the creaking of a lever being pulled. The lights in the room slowly came on, revealing a jaw-dropping assortment of weaponry. “That is so. Awesome.” I whispered, awestruck.

“I used to sell gifts, trinkets, and the like. Then the war kicked in and I started dealing in weapons. I’ve got bunches of guns, guns for all! Since you brought back one of my bobbleheads, I’ll give you yer pick! Nothin’ that shoots rockets, though,” he told me. He had guns mounted on walls, guns stored in large red crates, and even some hanging from the ceiling. “Heck, most of them come in several colors, too. Need some help?”

I walked through his selection of weapons with great interest. “I need something that has low recoil, and mouth-firable. You got anything?” He nodded thoughtfully and headed over to a display in search of a weapon. “Also, I need some buckin’ bullets.” I looked up from my examination of a particularly spiky pistol.

“What are your thoughts on submachine guns?” he asked as he turned around with a dark blue submachine gun in his mouth. He dropped it on the table in the middle of the room and explained, “It’s an E39 custom submachine gun. The barrel’s been replaced with a hollowed-out garnet with a weak freeze enchantment on it. The magazine’s been modified to hold twice as many bullets and the firing bit has a recoil damper built into it. Top of the line holographic sight, as well. Heck, I’ll throw in two free mags! Deal?”

I grinned and nodded. Hay yes! Bullets and ammo! Wait. Ammo! “Hey, do you have anything for this?” I pulled out my rifle parts one by one and laid them out on the table in a rough approximation of a rifle. His eyes widened in awe.

“That’s a griffon-pattern PGM Hocotate Mark Two! Where’d you get it?” He ran his decaying hooves gently across the parts, smiling with glee. “Super scope enchantment, custom stock, and… no mags.” He looked at me in disappointment. “Did you lose the mags? I am dissapoint.”

I held up my forelegs defensively. “Hey, hey! I didn’t lose them! I never had any. I was kinda hoping you had ammo and mags for it.” I idly shifted around the parts. “I pulled it out of a hooflocker in a military base, I think. Why?”

He started assembling the rifle carefully, pulling the part I was fiddling with out from under my hoof. “Only a few of these were ever made during the war, because griffons ain’t the sniping type.” He grinned at me. “I had such a hard time selling these off to those birds back in the day.” He turned his attention back to the rifle. “However, I didn’t sell this one. That is, if you’re interested, anyway.” He left and started tossing things about in a toolbox.

Wait…back in the day? “How long have you lived here?” I asked him. Maybe he knew about the thing in the reactor! Might as well try.

“I’ve been living here for the last two hundred thirty-one years,” he announced proudly. “Bein’ turned into a ghoul is the best thing that ever coulda happened to my business!” He motioned at the room around him. “I wandered the wasteland for decades, collecting weapons and ammunition. This is my arsenal!” He laughed and prodded my chest with a hoof. “And it could all be yours.”

I was astounded. A ghoul? And he was happy with himself, to boot. “Anyway… back to the original topic. You were here before the bombs fell?” I questioned. “You know anything about Seapony Energy?”

He rubbed his beard in thought. Did he know about the research labs underneath us in the tunnels? “Eh. Your guess is as good as mine about Seapony. I never got around to looting it as long as I’ve been here. I think the town got established… maybe eight years ago?” He scratched his beard and fiddled with the bar in his neck, causing me to involuntarily wince. “Tell ya what!” He whirled around and started opening and closing drawers. “Now you’ve got me interested, I got a job for ya. You find any sort of cool guns down there, I’ll buy em.” He dove into a toolbox and tossed two large boxy magazines at me; I caught one with my claw and the other with my face. “I’ll trade em’ one to one with anything in my armory. As much as I hate to say it, I’ll even throw in” – he shuddered visibly – “free… ammo.”

I looked at the magazines in my claw. “What are these?” I asked him, while rubbing my sore forehead indignantly.

“Nine bullets for your rifle. The lighter one only has two bullets in it.” He drew closer and continued, “Now, let me ask you something. What’s a pretty little pegasus like you doin’ in a place like this?” My heart froze. How did he know? “I’m willing to keep yer little secret. You don’t squawk about my little arsenal, and I don’t tell everypony out there you’re an Enclave spy.”

“How did you—” I started, but he interrupted me.

“Easy. Yer not a unicorn, obviously. You can’t be an earthie, because your build isn’t right. You’re not stocky or particularly tough-looking either. And also, yer sides are larger than they should be.” He leaned in close enough I could smell his rancid smoky breath. “I know my mares well, little pegasus. What’ll it be?”

I sighed. “Alright, I won’t tell anypony I don’t trust about your little ‘operation’ here.” I started putting things away into my saddlebag. “And for your information, I’m not a spy.” I exhaled in exhaustion. “I’m just…down on my luck.” I carefully placed my new SMG into my bag. “Thanks for the gun.”

“I believe ya. But will the rest of them?” He straightened up and his demeanor suddenly became jovial again. “Come back again! And remember—if it took more than one shot, you weren’t using a Steelpony!”

“Oh, before you go-” Sleazy loudly interjected a moment before I pushed my shoulder against the door. “Word is, some new crazy mare’s jus’ hit the scrappers’ caps hard. Mayor wants to know who’s do’s the voo-doos. Sounds like yer the mare to talk to.”

On hindsight, I may have gone a tad overboard on collection. “Sounds like you might be onto something.”

“Sounds like you need to talk to ‘im.”

“So, where does a mare go bug the mayor?”

~~~~~

“Get this mare outta my sight! She’s starting to annoy me,” a dark purple unicorn with a neatly combed red mane yelled. I held my ground and refused to budge as the large security ponies attempted to push me out of the room. I’d followed Broken’s directions and made my way into the mayor’s well-sized estate through the second floor. Obviously, estate security didn’t find this amusing at all. However, I managed to push my way to the mayor’s room before anypony managed to catch me.

“But weren’t you looking for the somepony that just got a nice payday from your scrappers?” I theatrically whined. He paused, then dismissed the burly security ponies with a wave of his hoof. “That’s more like it. Now, why don’t we talk like civilized ponies?”

The mayor walked from around the large mahogany desk in the room and stood in front of me. “So you’re the scrap whore.” The corner of my jaw tightened in anger. “So, how do you do it?”

“On the bed,” I snarked.

His expression showed confusion for a few seconds, then he sneered and let out a sarcastic little laugh as he finally got it. I facehoofed. “A quick tongue, eh? I like that.”

Can’t tell if—

Shut it, brain.

“But in all seriousness, how did you get all that scrap? You’ve set a new record in the employee ledger.”

“I just take anything I can. That’s it. Now, I actually wanted to know something else.” I inched closer to him. “You take in survivors and wastelanders, right?” He nodded. “Then why do you take their things and force them to buy it back?”

He calmly backed up and raised a hoof. “Now, now. It’s a learning process that all of us have endured. As a gesture of goodwill—” I snorted in disgust and he gave me a dirty look. “Their possessions are held as collateral while we provide them with medical care and food.” He turned around and picked up a small unpainted model in his hoof. It showed a mother and her filly having a picnic on a grassy plain, probably eating lunch. “This is my dream.”

“Making little models of things?” I asked. I was already starting to lose interest in him and I was actually slightly regretting breaking in. “Come on, that’s lame.”

“No, you fool!” He exhaled in frustration. “I am working for peace and prosperity for all of Equestria!” He gently placed the model back on his desk. “One day, we might just be able to return to what the land used to be—green rolling hills, quiet evenings…” He stomped his hoof resolutely and raised his voice. “Imagine! No radiation! No raiders! No struggling to survive.” He strode forward and poked my nose. “Don’t you see? I’m trying to put the world back together!”

“I think you’re insane. Really, you’re just a community of scavengers. You’re not doing good. You’re just trying to survive. The only reason ponies stay here is because of the trade and Doc Galactic!” I shouted back. His conviction faltered and he seemed to doubt himself. “The defenses here are laughable at best, you’ve lost your only water talisman, and for Celestia’s sake you’ve essentially glorified slavery.”

He was visibly seething with rage, but he managed to keep his voice level. “Common rabble like you wouldn’t understand.” As to make his point, he levitated a pistol out from under his desk.

Common rabble? “Oh, I’m far from common!” I yelled. I shifted my wings out from under the work shirt I was wearing and launched myself into a circling pattern around the room. “I’m from the bucking sky!” He gaped incredulously. I smiled to myself in satisfaction. Didn’t see that coming, did ya?

“You… you’re…” he stammered. The pistol was shaking in his magical field and he appeared to have lost his entire vocabulary. I landed gracefully in front of him and grinned threateningly at him.

“Yes, I am.” He pointed the pistol at me unsteadily. “Oh, why are you so serious all of a sudden? Can’t take a joke?” I cooed at him. He gibbered incomprehensibly as I confidently strode closer. I stopped and traced the tips of my talons along his muzzle. “Let’s put a smile on that face,” I whispered threateningly into his ear.

My little nightmare scenario for the mayor was abruptly stopped when a guard burst into the room. “Sir! There’s a—” He immediately stopped and processed the scene unfolding before him. “Sir? Is everything alright?”

He furtively glanced at me, and I backed off. “Yes… I’m fine.” He straightened up and adjusted his red mane. “What’s going on?”

The guard took his eyes off me and he snapped back into attention. “Our spotters have spotted Steel Rangers on their way to our location. What are our orders?” Rangers? The mayor moved back behind his desk and put down the pistol he’d been levitating.

“How many?” he asked urgently. “A hundred?”

“Nope,” the guard replied.

“You’re right, that is a bit ridiculous. Fifty?”

“Lower.”

“Twenty?”

“Go fish.”

“Ten?”

“Keep going.”

“Five?”

“Wrong.”

“Well, how many are there then?” he nearly yelled at the poor guard. “Gimme a number!”

“Uh… two,” he answered. “Just two of them.”

Two? Could it be? “I’ve got huge caps riding on me knowing those two Rangers.” They both stared at me in shock. “What? I get around. Lemme talk to them, and hopefully they aren’t here to kill anypony.”

The mayor nearly threw his desk at me. “Just go! I’m going to have a drink. This day has gotten far too ridiculous.” He turned to the guard. “Show the pegasus to the Rangers. Hopefully she doesn’t die, I guess.” Thanks for the vote of confidence.

The guard looked to me with uncertainty. “Uh… follow me, miss?” I flexed my claw at the mayor and smiled when he flinched. I followed the guard out of the building and over to the nearby wall. “I gotta ask… what was going on in there?”

“None of your business,” I immediately responded. “Where’s those Rangers at?” He pointed at a small dust cloud forming on the horizon. “Cool. Thanks!” I took to the skies and left him sitting there, gaping.

I didn’t realize how much I missed flying! The feeling of wind in my mane, the breeze under my wings, the sound of being heckled at…

What was that last one?

What? Good catch, brain. I snapped back to reality and looked around. Two Steel Rangers had stopped a short distance away and appeared to be staring at me intently. I waved at them in excitement. “Hey! It’s me, Frosty!” I called to them. One of them cocked his head and the other raised his hoof to his ear. “IT’S FROSTY!” I shouted louder. The one with the minigun perked up and waved back.

“Oi! Girlie! There ye are,” The familiar voice of Baked Potato shouted back. “Safe n’ sound, jus like I thought.” They were worried about me? I landed near them and hugged Baked Potato, then dashed to Rumcake.

“Took you long enough.”

“Hey, Frosty. It took long enough, but we finally tracked you down.” He cautiously hugged me back with steel-clad hooves.

“Aww, you missed me. That just melts my heart.”

“I was… uh… doing my job,” Rumcake muttered awkwardly.

“Oh, of course,” I sarcastically replied. “So you were taking your time then?”

“No, I searched damn hard for you! I even went and made sure the range detector was off so I didn’t blow you—”

“Oh, so you’d like to blow me too? That’s a bit up-front.” I foalishly giggled to myself, imagining his face turning the same color as his mane.

Rumcake let out a defeated sigh. “As weird as it sounds, I… uh…” He mumbled the rest of it.

“What was that?” I really wanted to tousle his mane, but he probably wouldn’t take off his helmet.

“...like you,” he mumbled slightly louder.

So he did have a crush on me, did he? “I didn’t quite catch the beginning of that,” I teased.

“I sort of like you,” Rumcake blurted.

“Really?” I conspiratorially whispered back. “I thought you didn’t really care.” Somepony in the wasteland actually cared about me!

Wait, what was my last relationship like? Who had it been with? Don’t freak out, Frosty. Oh goddesses, oh goddesses. What do I do what do I say don’t stare at his junk.

“I hate t’ break up this beautiful reunion, but we need ta get back to base,” Baked piped up from behind us. “Let’s get goin’, lovebirds.”

My brain finally caught up to the conversation at hoof and prompted a really good question: “Wait, what do you mean by ‘tracked you down’?” I asked.

Baked tapped the heavy collar bolted around my neck. “Two hundred gram of ‘splosives, monitorin’ an’, as Rummy an’ I found out, not a very accurate global positionin’ tracker built right into it. There ya go. C’mon. This way, lass.” He tried to politely nudge me in the right direction.

I resisted. “Not yet. I still have stuff to do still. Also, I think I figured out a way to solve all your problems with them for a while,” I told them. I could tell they were disappointed behind their helmets, but I was obligated to finish my business in town. I turned around and slowly walked back.

“Always gotta be the good pony, huh?” Rumcake rumbled through his helmet. “Alright. Let’s see what you can do.” He stamped his hooves and began to trudge beside me. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Eh, I got nothin’ better to do. Sure, I might as well come along.” The minigun hid itself back into his battle saddle and he followed us. “Gimme a moment- gotta call up the Inquisitor and report in.”

~~~~~

The three of us stood uneasily in the mayor’s office. We were surrounded by a lot of security ponies all armed to the teeth with heavy weaponry. I was facing his desk again, this time flanked by two Steel Rangers. The mayor was angrily surveying the rapidly-escalating situation in his office. “I’d like to think you have a plan, Frosty,” Rumcake whispered to me.

“Okay, so basically you” – I pointed at the mayor – “need a water talisman and some actual bucking security.” I then motioned to Baked Potato and Rumcake Rum behind me. “They need scrap metal for armor, bullets, and maybe an aboveground base. They also have your water talisman.” I looked to them and they nodded. “Each of you has what the other needs. We can make a deal, right?”

Rumcake thought for a moment. “Inquisitor Souffle has demonstrated an interest in your quaint settlement here. I could tentatively propose the following arrangement: You give us access to your scrap mines and we’ll step in for your security. And as a gesture of goodwill, we’ll throw the water talisman in as well.”

“The talisman you stole.”

“…Irrelevant. What’s past is past.” He motioned to Baked. “In the meantime, he’ll help you improve your security here until we get our forces moved in.”

Baked stepped forward and whispered to me, “I will?” I lightly punched his helmet and he backed away.

The mayor sat in his desk, thinking. The room was eerily silent, even with all the guns pointed in our direction. The mayor finally looked up and motioned the security ponies to lower their guns. All of them slung their various submachine guns and pistols while exiting the room en masse. “Fine. Under one condition.” He pointed at me, specifically. “If this is some kind of takeover plot… I will find somepony to get rid of you. Understand?” He smirked at us and waved all three of us off. “Now get out of here.” I nodded and complied.

As we left the mayor’s residence I nudged Rumcake. “Thanks for the help back there.”

“No problem,” he replied. “I’ll probably be able to clear it with the Inquisitor.”

“What do you mean by ‘probably’?” I asked, somewhat incredulous. “Wait, did you even have the authority to do that?”

I heard Rumcake make a sort of choking noise. “I wish. I’ll tell him something about how our current base is no longer secure—which it isn’t—and recommend that we take up the mayor’s offer. This place has got better defenses and a whole population of wastelanders to throw at anything.”

“That’s… that’s horrible.” Some of these ponies were nice, too!

Baked tromped up behind me and playfully body-checked me. “Like it ‘r not, lass, better them th’n us. Ye’ve got mil’try background—y’know how it goes here.”

He was right to a certain degree, of course. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s horrible.” Enclave or Ranger, the overall message was roughly the same in both factions. A soldier was more important than a random wastelander because training and gear was expensive, not to mention hard to immediately replace.

“At least we’re giving them some training and stuff. Might as well give ‘em a fighting chance,” Rumcake admitted. “That, and I’d rather not lose any more Steel Rangers.”

I duly noted the presence of Baked still by my side. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” I asked him, subtly trying to hint that I wanted a little one-on-one time with Rumcake.

“Well, some lassie thinks she c’n tell me what to do,” Baked sarcastically replied in our direction. “I guess I’ll show meself to their barracks for a surprise inspection.” He sauntered off to go do exactly that.

“Does he know where the barracks are?” I asked Rumcake. He shrugged. “Eh, maybe he’ll—” I was cut off by the third whistle blowing loudly. “Aw crap! I gotta get to Underhill for my shift!”

“What? You don’t really need to work for them, do you?” he asked. “What do you still need to do for them?”

I picked up the pace and headed toward Rusty’s shack to pick up my bag. “I still gotta pay off that bucking insane doctor.” A thought occurred to me when we arrived at Rusty’s shack. “Hey, wanna come with me?”

“Why would I want to do that?” he immediately responded.

“Well, there’s bunches of prewar tech just sitting down there…” I started.

“Eh. I’m in,” he agreed. Good! Now in case I ran across that creepy monster down there, I had my knight in slightly battered power armor to protect me. No need for him to know about my paranoia just yet, I told myself.

You just want an excuse to spend more time with him, don’t you?

Of course not! Right? Shut up, brain.

When we got to the elevator down to Underhill, the guard outside calmly asked me, “So, you bringin’ the tank down to the tunnels, then?”

“Bite my shiny metal flank, rent-a-merc.” Rumcake shot back.

“Whatever. Mayor’s radio’d in about you three. You start causing trouble though, and we will terminate you with extreme prejudice,” he casually replied. I had to give it to him, he was unshakable.

“As opposed to overwhelming kindness?” I shot back sarcastically. The guard only rolled his eyes and waved us in. The other ponies in the lift uneasily backed away from Rumcake as he backed in. “How you doing?” I asked the other ponies, feeling awkward. They all either nervously nodded or cowered in fear, sometimes both. I didn’t really blame them.

This time, the ride down was completely devoid of any noise, except for the squeaking and clanking of the elevator. I noticed Trouble standing a few ponies away. “Hey! Trouble!” She looked over and shrank away, most likely because of the imposing Steel Ranger standing next to me. “What’s up?”

“Uh… hi?” she uneasily replied. “What’s with the tank?” I glanced at Rumcake and he shrugged. Why does everypony say he’s a tank? He’s large, but I guess the armor probably gave off that vibe.

“Let’s just say I found him and he kinda grew on me.” I playfully punched his armored shoulder.

“More like the other way around,” he growled from under his helmet. I punched him again. “Stop that. You’re scuffing the armor.”

I rolled my eyes. “Goddesses forbid that I continue rending your armor with my brute strength,” I shot back, dripping with sarcasm. He huffed childishly in response as I allowed my hoof to simply bounce off his armored head.

The elevator grounded to a halt as we reached Underhill. “Come on, Tanky. I got something to show you. Bye, Trouble!” I quickly got out of the lift and dashed over to the South tunnels with Rumcake, leaving the other confused residents in our wake.

We quickly made our way to the collapsed piece of rubble leading to Rusty’s hidden little area and the reactor after grabbing my scrap bag. I wormed my way in and Rumcake simply smashed it under his armored hooves. “What’s so special about this place?” I pointed at the ‘Energy Application Offices’ sign. “Oh.” We made our way to where I’d stopped at the security room last time.

“So if we ignore the creepy room with all the cameras, we can follow this tunnel to the reactor room.” I told him as I consulted Rusty’s map. “First we gotta go through…” I squinted at the markings in the tunnel walls. “The South labs, I guess.”

“Wait, but didn’t you say this was an electric company?” Rumcake asked me. “Why do they need a reactor?”

“That’s what I want to find out,” I replied. There was that scratching sound again! “Hey, you hear that?”

Rumcake stopped and looked around. “What? The sound of you being an idiot?” I growled and punched him again. “No, seriously. What sound?” I pointed at the walls. “In the walls? I really can’t hear much outside of this helmet.” He tapped the side of his helmet. “Blastproof, fireproof, bulletproof, and apparently, sound resistant. What else could you ask for out of a piece of headgear?” He even toggled the built-in light for emphasis.

I dismissed the sounds as my imagination and we moved onto the South Labs. The room was in a great state of disrepair and the rear half of the room—where we had to go—was completely caved in. The rest of the room was mostly white-ish and covered in tables and broken glassware. “Well, crap. Now what?” Rumcake approached the rubble and shifted pieces of it about while I stuffed random bits of scrap into my scrap bags. “You find anything?”

He pushed several more pieces of ceiling and dirt around. “Hey. Here.” He tossed me a piece of scrap and continued digging. “So, what do you think is up with this place?” He continued to supply me scrap as he tried to dig a path through to the reactor room.

“I wanna say it’s some sort of pre-war conspiracy plot gone wrong. I mean, it’s an electric company! Why are they working on megaspell-level devices? Actually, it kinda looks like a micro—er, macrofusion… cell? Reactor? Thing?” I called back at him. “Besides, if the reactor is working, then you guys can probably get power out of it.” I opened a drawer and found a terminal inside it. What. “Hey! Look what I found!” Rumcake turned around in interest. I poked the power button and it powered on. “Oh cool, it’s logged in, too!”

He stomped over to look at the terminal. “Wait, why is it inside— you know what, I don’t even care. What’s on it?”

I impatiently tapped through the choices. Research data, reports, aha! One sent message! I opened it up and began to read.

Dear Wavebreak,

I would greatly appreciate your continued funding of the Seapony Energy R&D department for a few more weeks. We have nearly completed the MK4 supercompact high- energy reactor for the MWT. I require several more test subjects and some more equipment. Be sure you notify your normal employees that the high security zones are strictly off-limits. Let me remind you I helped salvage your career after that whole ‘bedroom secretary’ fiasco. I look forward to another check in the mail.

- Regards, High Class

Wow. To the point. “So… a tiny reactor? Interesting,” Rumcake muttered behind me. Looks like High Class never got the memo that his funding got cut off, then. “That would have revolutionized power armor technology! Imagine—I could have rocket boots right now!” I could tell he was almost giddy with joy at that thought. He downloaded the research files onto his face. Or helmet, wherever data got stored on Steel Ranger armor.

“Anyway, carry on digging that tunnel.” He gave me a mock salute and went back to digging.

We spent the next few minutes in silence. I scrounged up scrap from the rest of the room and Rumcake kept excavating in earnest. “You might want to see this, Frosty.” I made my way over to Rumcake and looked at what he was holding in his hoof.

“What is this?” I asked him. He was holding some kind of busted tube-shaped object that was covered with tape and wires. “Some kind of pipe?” I ventured. Looked like some random scrap to me.

“This is part of a junkyard rocket.” He dug around the rubble and picked out a few more parts similar to the one he held in his hoof. “Slaver workshops make these for their rocket launchers. Red Eye’s slavers.” I stared into his visor as he turned to me again. “The slaver gang is in the tunnels. The slavers are here.”


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Scrounger – Loot all the things! You will find considerably more ammunition in containers than you normally would.

Chapter 5: It was an emergency, okay?

View Online

Chapter 5: It was an emergency, okay?

“All right, that's it! We've tried persuasion, charm, whatever it is Pinkie Pie does…”


“No! That can’t be possible!” I shouted. “The slavers are attacking from the surface, right?” Burly’s words floated back into my mind. ‘Somethin’s rocked the bloatsprite hive.’ Before, I’d assumed it was the monster in the reactor room. Were the slavers leaking into the tunnels?

“As much as I hate to say it, this Red Eye character is one of the smartest commanders we’ve seen. He’s outsmarted us on more than one occasion, and some of his field lieutenants are just as smart as he is,” Rumcake calmly spoke. “I wouldn’t be surprised that they have some ulterior motives back there.” He pointed at the collapsed tunnel he was still trying to dig out.

“What do we do now?” I asked him. “The slavers are down here, bound to attack at any moment, and there are a whole load of somewhat ambiguously innocent ponies up there oblivious to the terrors down here!” I was getting more and more worked up about as I spoke. What would happen if the slavers took over the tunnels?

He stopped digging and grabbed me. “Calm down. We’re going to go tell the mayor.” I took a deep breath and attempted to calm down. “Now. Lacking that, we’re going to face them ourselves if they attack. I’m not going to let anything happen to this town.” He gently brushed my mane as I finally calmed down.

“Okay… okay.” Deep breaths, Frosty. “So, I guess we get out of here and head to the mayor’s?” I asked. He nodded, and we left behind the slightly excavated tunnel behind.

After much argument and a little weapon-brandishing we managed to get an express ride to the surface out of Underhill. After arriving on the surface, we immediately dashed off to the mayor’s residence. The guards let us in, and they also begrudgingly let us see the mayor after a few threatening insults involving a spatula. We barged into the room and Rumcake immediately told the mayor, “You have a slaver problem.”

“Yes… yes I do. That’s why you’re still here,” he replied in puzzlement.

Rumcake facehoofed. “Sorry, let me try that again: you have a slaver problem in Underhill.” He took out the rocket parts and dumped them onto the mayor’s desk. “I think they’re collapsing tunnels that lead to crucial portions of the facility.” The mayor looked over the parts with disinterest.

“Looks like a load of junk to me,” the mayor said with increased disinterest.

“These are Red Eye’s slavers you’re fighting.” Rumcake slammed his hoof onto the mayor’s desk. “Doesn’t it seem kind of convenient that you’re under attack from slavers at the same time we’ve found things in the tunnels?”

I butted into the conversation with my little revelation from earlier. “Even Burly knows what’s going on! Something’s happening down there. Something’s attacking your scavengers in the tunnels!” The mayor didn’t have a response. He just sat there, probably taking in all the information we’d just thrown at him.

“Fine,” he finally replied. “If you can find a good link between what’s happening under the tunnels and that pile of scrap you found, I’ll authorize a full-blown assault. Your insane friend is training our militia, and the Doc’s been working on something for a while for heaving combat.” He shoved Rumcake’s hoof off his table and continued, “Until then, know your place.”

We turned and left the mayor’s residence with a feeling of resentment. “He’s an ass.” I huffed the moment we were out of earshot of the guards.

“He’s actually a—” Rumcake started, then he caught the dirty look I was giving him. “Oh. Right. Anyway, I’ll go check up on how Baked Potato is doing. Why don’t you go talk to the town doctor?”

I shuddered involuntarily. “Do I have to?” I asked him fearfully. “That buck freaks me out.” After the first time, I’d developed an irrational fear of even speaking to him again. “I don’t want to talk to him.”

“He can’t be that bad. He’s a doctor! He helps po—” He stopped in mid sentence as he caught a glimpse of Doc Galactic’s clinic. “That shouldn’t be physically possible…” he muttered, most likely about the skeleton on the noose. “And is that cross—”

“Yes,” I interrupted. “It’s drawn with blood.” I actually saw him back away uncertainly. “Now you know why.”

“Wow. Uh. I guess I do.” We continued walking aimlessly, attempting to ignore Doc’s clinic. “Why are you so scared of him?”

“He took out two of my bucking ribs!” I yelled back. I stopped and lowered my voice. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. It’s just—”

“It’s okay. I can see why you don’t like him already. Why’d he do it?” he calmly asked.

“Back in the base…” I stopped. How long had it been since then? Whatever, I guess. “I got nearly exploded by a rocket, crushed by a Ranger, and speared with some steel.” He stared at me in silence, probably shock. Hard to tell what’s going on behind that helmet. “Some other stuff happened, and I got brought back here by somepony who gave me the benefit of the doubt. Doc Galactic fixed me up and did what he had to do. Probably more, knowing him.”

“So he removed your broken ribs, then?” he asked me. “Sounds reasonable.”

“Yeah, except he decided to take my ribs for payment. I still owe him like, eight hundred caps,” I grumbled. “I hate him and he scares me. A lot.”

“Now I never want to meet him. Ever. But anyway, you’ll have to talk to him about whoever’s been coming in from Underhill. We need to know what kind of injuries they’re having and what they’ve been attacked by,” Rumcake informed me. “Now get moving.” He scampered off as quickly as he could before I could protest.

“Dammit.” I hesitantly walked to Doc’s gruesome clinic. As I approached the doorway, I murmured to myself, “How does that skeleton stay together?”

“Lots of wire and glue, my little pony,” Doc Galactic shouted from the other side of the doorway. How did he do that? I didn’t say it that loudly, did I? “Come on in! We have something to discuss.”

I swallowed my fears and strode up to the scraggly unicorn. “So, uh… what’s up?” I asked as confidently as possible. He was bent over a microscope on a table with some slides and equipment scattered about the tabletop. “What’s with the science experiment?”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” He motioned for me to look into the microscope. “Take a look.” I peered into the microscope and observed the little platelets and other random blood-related junk floating around arbitrarily. “See it?” he asked.

“I know I’m looking at blood, but I don’t really see what I should be looking for.” I backed away from the microscope and rubbed my eyes. “I took enough science classes to get qualified to enter a field medic course. That’s as far as my science goes.”

“Lemme dumb this down for you.” He sat there and thought about it for a moment. “You’ve got a disease I’ve never seen before. It’s slowly moving through your blood and I have no idea what effect it has on the rest of you.” He went over to the examination table in the room, which currently had a massive amount of medical equipment and other various brewing equipment occupying it. “Feel strange lately?”

I raised an eyebrow and thought back to the past few days. Was there really anything strange going on?

You got kissed by a sexy mare.

Shut up, brain. “I don’t think so. Why?”

“Hm.” He wrote something down on a pad he’d pulled out from somewhere. “If you experience anything strange, or if you have any symptoms that could potentially tell me anything, tell me. I need to find out whether this is contagious, because if I haven’t examined it, I’m probably not immune to it.” He gave me an exhausted grin. “At least we’ll know in a few hours if it’s airborne-transmissible.”

“Wait, what have you been doing in here, anyway?” I asked, looking around the room.

“Call it a science project.” He picked up a beaker filled with a tiny bit of orange-red liquid in his dark blue magical field and swirled it around. “It’s something I’ve been working on for a while. It’ll hopefully be done in a few days, but it’s hard to tell at the moment. If you stumble upon any chems, I’ll take em.”

“Anyway, I actually had another reason for seeing you today.” Onto the million-bit question. “Burly said that some crazy stuff’s been happening in the tunnels.”

“Oh, that cavepony? He’s somewhat trustable, I guess. I would assume you’re talking about the sudden influx of injuries several days ago?” he lazily replied as he added some unidentifiable liquid to a flask. “Why?”

“What kind of injuries did they have?”

“Let’s see…” He scratched his scraggly mane thoughtfully. “Crush injuries from tunnel collapses, burns from gas explosions, and a few cuts and scrapes from other things.”

Explosions and collapses? It couldn’t be coincidence, could it? “Any of this seem consistent with rocket launchers?”

“Well, I guess it’s possible,” Doc Galactic mused. “Head into the back room and ask the patients. I don’t have time to help you right now.” He pointed at a pair of double doors at the back of the room that had another cross drawn with blood and turned back to his experimentation with urgency.

I pushed my way through the double doors and collided with a seemingly solid wall of antiseptic-scented air. The room was bleak and gray, but it was very clean to the point of shining. “Woah. Didn’t see that coming.” I took a look behind me into the front of the clinic. Grimy, falling apart, and occupied by an insane doctor. “How do you keep the back room this clean?”

Rusty walked into the room holding a bucket in his teeth. “Hey, Frosty! You break something again?” I rolled my eyes. “Told you I work here now! It’s so cool in here!” He dropped the bucket on the floor and hugged me.

I pushed him away and told him, “Okay, that’s enough contact for one day. You do all his cleaning around here now?” He nodded. “And he pays you.”

“Yep!” he confirmed cheerfully. “So, why are you here, anyway?”

“I need to get a question answered.” I looked around the room. “Know anypony from the tunnels who’s been here for a few days?”

Rusty pointed at an occupied bed behind a curtain. “He’s been here for a while. Cave-in, I think. Doc lost his patient file, so your guess is as good as mine.”

I walked over to the curtained-off bed and quietly pushed the curtain aside. “Hi. How are you doing?” I quietly asked the gray and blue pony lying on the bed. Rusty walked up behind me, listening in.

“Could be better.” The pony groaned. “Who’re you?” He shifted in his bed in order to get a better look at me. His blankets shifted and I noticed the bandages crisscrossing his torso and legs.

“I’m Frosty. You?”

“I’m Junk Yard. I work the East tunnels.”

“I’m going to assume you got flattened in a cave-in.” He flattened his ears irritably. “Can you tell me anything about what happened?” I asked. Hopefully he could give me insight about what was going on in the tunnels.

“Well, basically what happened is I was bein’ really stupid and the roof dropped down on me.” He grimaced and shifted in his bed. “I wasn’t paying attention, okay?”

“Anything else? Hear anything?” I pressed. There had to be something!

“Well… I guess once you mention it, there was a gas explosion somewhere beforehand.” He tugged at the bandages along his chest. “Lots of ponies had been running into gas back there. Sort of strange, once you mention it.”

“Why?”

“Gas either collects in small rooms or slowly dissipates. It doesn’t usually just randomly explode most of the time.”

Rusty nodded. “And gas explosions are pretty rare,” he added.

“So then we’ve got intentional cave-ins and explosions. Do you remember where?” I asked him.

“Sure, you got a map?” I held it out and watched him make an unnecessarily large circle around a specific spot. “Careful out there, those tunnels are more unstable than the rest of them.”

I thanked him and left. I waved goodbye to Doc and Rusty as I left to go look for Rumcake and Baked. They weren’t too hard to find because of the loud yelling and clanking sounds coming from the north end of town. As I got closer, their yelling became more understandable.

“Oi! Stand up straight, ye lazy slouch!” The familiar voice of Baked drifted over, followed by the Canterlot-voice modified bellowing of Rumcake.

You! The bullets go in the OTHER way! Hey! Mount that assault rifle on a battle saddle! NO NO NO! YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!” I smirked as the both of them continued to yell at the town militia.

I waved at Rumcake when I got close enough. “Hi! How you doing over here?” He was holding his helmet like a megaphone and he was yelling into it very enthusiastically.

He turned to me and nearly blasted my mane right off when he yelled, “Have you seen the idiots I have to work with?” I smoothed my mane back down and winced as the ringing in my ears intensified. Some of the militia looked over in embarrassment or anger.

He turned to the militia again and yelled, “Carry on.” He looked back at me apologetically and lowered his helmet. “Sorry about that.” He scratched his frazzled pink mane with his hoof. “Forgot I had that on.” I shook my head to clear out the ringing in my ears. “They can’t even point a gun. So, you found something, I take it?”

“Yep. Couple days ago, somepony was blasting the hay out of the tunnels.” I told him everything else Junk Yard and Rusty had told me. “So, should we investigate the tunnels then? I’ve got a location for where we might be able to look.”

Rumcake raised his helmet and yelled at the militia again, “Oi! Don’t eat that!” He grabbed me in his hooves and cried hysterically, “I can feel my intelligence dropping! HELP. ME.”

I laughed nervously and pried him off of me. “Easy now, you’ll be fine.” He grudgingly got up and continued yelling at the gathered militia attempting to get better at… everything. “They can’t be that bad, right?” I asked, right as a grenade went off and one of them slammed heavily into Rumcake’s armored side. Rumcake didn’t budge in the slightest, the iron wall he was. The militiapony, however, wasn’t nearly as sturdy as he was. I faceclawed as I watched the unfortunate pony flop to and fro in the dirt. “Well, I’ve got nine problems but this ain’t one. Have fun, I guess.”

He turned his helmet on and yelled at them. “Good work, idiots. Somepony get Doc, I guess.” As few militiaponies picked up their maimed companion, Rumcake put his helmet back on and toggled the Canterlot voice module off. “I say we go see what those slavers are doing. You up for some diplomacy?”

“Eh?” I blurted.

Nice save, Frosty.

Shut up. “What happened to cleaning them out of the tunnels?”

“Easy. Since these are Red Eye’s slavers, we can probably reason with them.”

“Really? What if it doesn’t work?” I was dubious. Would this really work? In my last confrontation with them, they’d seemed a lot more raider-y than slaver-y.

“Easy! We just resort to more… dramatic means of negotiation.” He whipped out his grenade launcher and blasted the targets the militia were using for target practice. “Any questions?” he asked me, as the militia looked on with awe.

“Ugh, this is a stupid idea.” I grinned. “Let’s do it.”

~~~~~

I lay on a short ridge with my anti-machine rifle assembled and aimed at a ragtag camp flying a tattered red banner. “This is a stupid idea!” I whispered to Rumcake and Baked. I peered down the sights and relayed what I was seeing to the Steel Rangers behind me. “Three—no, four sentries on watch at the front gate. Five more in the courtyard. Two tough guys guarding a large shack in the back. The commander’s probably back there.” I looked at the two of them standing there in their power armor. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“O’ course lassie! Anyway, as long as ye keep that rifle pointed in the right direction, we’re covered.” Baked laughed from under his helmet. “Now, if ye see anythin’ funny goin’ down you signal us, got it?” I nodded and loaded my rifle with the magazine with two bullets in it.

“If it gets really bad, haul your cute flank out of here and come help us, okay?” I blushed and nodded again. “Now, let’s tolerate and love the shit out these idiots.” They readied their weapons and moved out toward the camp. I watched them through the enchanted sights on my rifle as they strode towards the camp.

“Every step you take… Every move you make… I’ll be watchin’ you,” I breathed to myself, attempting to stay calm. Stabilize. Wind, four kilometers south. Four hundred meters. I shifted myself in order to correct for it. At this point, the sentries had noticed the two Steel Rangers carefully walking up to their camp. It looked like they were having some kind of yelling match with the sentries up on the gate. “C’mon, don’t mess it up already,” I muttered.

After a tense and lengthy exchange, the camp bustled into action. I swore under my breath as nearly thirty more slavers showed up from various tunnels, buildings, and tents. They were all armed, and all of the guns were pointed at Rumcake and Baked. “Their armor probably won’t stand up to that much firepower…” I murmured. A large, burly, heavily armored slaver with two miniguns mounted on his battle saddle slowly waddled toward my Rangers from the back of the camp.

I assumed that he was the leader, because two tougher-looking slavers trailed behind him and the others gave him a wide berth. I adjusted my aim and watched their exchange. Everything appeared to be going well and nopony looked like they were going to shoot. Okay, good.

Movement to the right, behind the orange pile of barrels on that wall-thing.

I scooted my aim over to where my brain had caught movement. Thanks, brain! Sure enough, there was a slaver moving as quietly as he could with a rocket launcher slung across his back.

“Dammit!” I cursed. They were up to something! What do I do? Was I supposed to shoot? What was the signal?

Wait for him to move out into the open. Teach the others a lesson.

Good call, brain. I slowly tracked his progress along the wall. I quickly checked the rest of the slavers, who were all still watching the exchange between their leader and my Rangers. “Cmon… go ahead, take your shot,” I whispered to the slaver with the rocket launcher.

After a few minutes of boredom, I noticed the other slavers were beginning to become restless. Rumcake and Baked were still talking to the slaver’s boss. I took a look at the sneaking slaver with the rocket launcher finally making his move. I quickly shifted my aim and prepared to fire. The gentle breeze tickling my ears from the south abruptly stopped and changed directions. Wind, east three kilometers. I angled myself again to compensate, took a few tense breaths and gritted my teeth.

Wait for it… The slaver struggled to load a rocket into the back of his rocket launcher. I took a deep breath and relaxed myself as much as I could. My pulse rhythmically hammered in my ears again and everything shifted into slow-motion.

One. I double-checked my aim. The slaver hadn’t moved much, so I was still on target.

Two.

Three. I slowly exhaled and the hammering in my chest became softer.

Four. I pulled the trigger.

Five. The shot rang out like thunder, and about half of a second of a second later the slaver’s entire head suddenly disappeared in a somewhat satisfying cloud of blood and gore. The bullet kept going and buried itself into the ground, but not before punching through another unfortunate slaver’s torso.

Both of the Rangers immediately jumped and deployed their weapons as the other slavers looked around in panic. The slavers were all jumpy and nervous after witnessing the gruesome demise of two of their colleagues. I could see the boss was yelling at everypony and the Rangers were probably doing the same thing. I grinned at my handiwork, until a particularly sharp-eyed slaver spotted me. “You can’t see me. You can’t see me. Nothing’s here. Move along and brush your mane,” I chanted nervously. He started yelling and pointing at me, smiling the whole time.

I wiped that smile off his face with the last bullet in my magazine. I sniggered to myself as I quickly broke apart the rifle and shoved the parts into my bag. The last thing I noticed before I packed away the sight gem was a huge firefight breaking out, with my Rangers in the center. I took out my brand new SMG and flew over to the firefight as fast as I could. As I got closer, Rumcake shouted, “This was a stupid idea!”

“No shit, Rummy!” Baked exclaimed, as bullets of varying sizes sparked off their armor. The two stallions were side to side, fighting off the hordes of slavers around them. “Stop movin’ ye daft ninnies!” he yelled as he tracked his minigun along a wall, attempting to hit several slavers hiding behind it. “It’s hard t’ hit ye when yer hidin’ behind things!”

I flew over the firefight and sprayed the slavers behind the wall with my SMG. “The cavalry has arrived, boys!” They cheered weakly in the midst of their gunfire. I kept flying and then banked into a hard turn while reloading to strafe the ones that were getting up. “Rummy! Your four o’clock!” The giant armored slaver was getting up and spinning up his miniguns.

“Say hello to my reasonably-sized friends!” the boss shouted in his gravelly voice. “Eat lead!” His miniguns flared to life, spitting 5mm bullets into Rangers and slavers alike. Rumcake cried out in pain and collapsed as most of the bullets penetrated his armor. Baked dragged him to safety as I attempted to distract the huge minigun slaver by spraying bullets into his back. Unfortunately, my SMG failed to punch through his obscenely thick metal armor and he barely noticed.

“Cover me!” I shouted. I dove behind a low barricade next to my Rangers and swapped out my SMG for my anti-machine rifle as quickly as possible. “Rumcake! Can you shoot back?” He nodded and shakily stood to his hooves, opening up with his grenade launcher. I quickly assembled my rifle and slammed in a new magazine. “Gimme five seconds of cover!” I shouted at Rumcake and Baked. They both nodded.

“Give’m the ‘tater special!” Baked cried with glee. Rumcake laughed weakly as both of them opened up their rocket bays and launched two missiles each at the slaver boss while firing their main weapons. There was a massive explosion as the barrage of ordnance exploded against, near, and around the giant slaver. “Take that, ye—” A large flying section of wall knocked Baked off his hooves. “Oof! I’ll be alright! Take th’ shot!”

I was already ahead of him. Right as they’d fired the missiles, I poked my head out of cover and braced the rifle’s bipod on the wall I was taking cover behind. Duly noting the relatively unscathed nature of the armored monster and the smattering of craters around him, I had a feeling that even I would survive a barrage from these Rangers. My pulse was going crazy and I was shaking like a foal, but I managed to take a deep, shuddering breath and slide into a sniper’s focus. I heard my heart thumping madly and I tried to control it.

Onetwothree.

I shakily lined up the shot as the missiles started hitting him.

Fourfivesix.

I raggedly exhaled as I squeezed the trigger.

Seven eight. Nine.

The rifle fired and I watched the bullet through my sight in super-slow motion as it sailed through the air.

Ten. Eleven.

I was rewarded with a high dinging sound followed the soft crack of the lead slaver’s head coming apart in a hail of gore and bone.

The battleground became silent as the dust cleared. The miniguns were no longer firing, and the remaining slavers stared on in shock when they saw their boss-leader-guy headless and spurting blood from his neck. As his body anticlimactically crashed to the ground, the slavers realized that they were in trouble. Some jumped off the walls, some ran past us, whatever the case they all fled from us. Rumcake groaned from where he was now lying on the ground. “Aww buck, I think they hit my spleen.”

After a quick looting of the bodies and the encampment, I managed to bring in quite a haul. Mostly assorted rifles, SMGs, pistols, plenty of ammo for all of them, two inhalers loaded with what I assumed to be Dash, a few Rage patches and four syringes of Med-X. The rest was just a variety of food and other random junk that I picked up anyway. Yay, kleptomania!

Before I could go loot any more buildings or tents, Rumcake groaned in pain. “Hey, you alright?” I asked him as his steps faltered.

“Okay, collection time’s over, lassie!” Baked shouted. “Rummy’s onboard med-suite ain’t gonna fix im’ up. How ye hangin’, lad?” Rumcake shook his head and grunted in response. Baked turned to me urgently. “We gotta get him back to the Doc! An’ fast!”

“You know your way back?” I asked him. He nodded. Good! “Okay, I’m going to fly him back to town.” I took out one of the Dash inhalers I’d picked up and took a deep breath out of it. My nostrils tingled with delight and a powerful shiver ran down my entire body as I emptied out the inhaler. “Wow! I feel really really really good I can do anything right now but first I gotta get Rummy out of here wow I feel good! I feel really really good!” I grabbed Rumcake by his sides and lifted with all my might. “Wow you’re heavy really really heavy!”

“Eh… ye okay there, lass?” Baked asked with concern. What was he talking about? I feel amazing! “Yer kinda… twitchy.” I shook my head vigorously. Twitchy? Nah! I was feeling really really good! Baked shouted.

“I’m totally fine! Wow is it getting hot I feel really hot how about you anyway I’ll see you back at town ‘cause I gotta go fast!” And then I zoomed off toward town in my Dash-fueled haze of speed and excitement. Even with a protesting and possibly airsick Steel Ranger in my hoof and claw, I was going faster than I’d ever gone before! “Woohoo! I’m going so fast I didn’t realize how much I miss flying with the wind in my mane the currents beneath my wings oh hey the town’s right there that was fast!” The words just spilled out of my mouth as I flew right onto Doc Galactic’s doorstep.

“Wow. That was… fast,” Doc observed, stepping out of the double doors. “Are you okay?”

“Oh yeah totally I’m fine I feel awesome hey is it getting hot in here I feel really hot I think I’m going to go outside and fly around some more see ya!” I blurted and took off again. So fast! If only this feeling never stopped!

~~~~~

I woke up in my lofty perch in Rusty’s room with more than a few bruises and a pounding headache. “Ugh… what happened?” Broken poked her head into my field of vision with a smile. “It feels my face got flattened by a manticore.”

“Well, you did collide with a building at high speed.” Broken giggled and climbed up and patted my head. “You feeling okay?”

“My face hurts.” I rubbed my muzzle irritably. I carefully stretched out my legs and winced at the burning sensations in my entire body. “And I’m sore all over.” I carefully stretched out my wings and and cried out in pain as a bolt of pain lanced through them. “Gah! Oh wow that hurts!” I winced and gingerly flapped my wings. “Ow. Ow. Ow.” I stood up and shook myself to loosen up my stiff muscles, all of which protested from being moved so much. “That makes me feel much better, I think.”

“You know, you’re adorable when you’re on Dash. Your friends told me all about it!” she exclaimed. Wait! My friends! I opened my mouth to say something, but she answered right away. “They’re fine. You got him to the Doc with time to spare, and now he’s recovering just fine.” I breathed a sigh of relief and I flopped down onto a pillow. “You should go visit your friend!”

“I don’t wanna move right now. I feel so tiiiiiiiired,” I whined, refusing to get up. I flapped my wings weakly to somehow demonstrate how tired I felt.

Poke.

“Stop.”

Poke.

“Stop it.”

Poke. Poke.

“Okay, fine! I’m getting up!” I painfully shuffled to my hooves and stretched again. “Guess I'm off, then."

"Oh, so soon? You don't even want a kiss goodbye?" Broken batted her eyes at me and made little kissy motions.

My eye twitched, and I raced out as quickly as possible, ignoring the sounds of giggling from behind me.

When I arrived at the clinic, Baked Potato was standing near the door to the back room and Doc Galactic was tinkering with his strange brewery contraption from before. He heard me walk in and he put down the bubbling beaker. “Hello there, Frosty! How can I fix you today?” I sighed in relief as I sat down, relaxing my sore, sore, muscles. “So I would assume the Dash high finally wore off?”

“Yep. I’m so sore all over! I don’t think I’ve ever gone that fast in my life. How’s Rumcake?” I asked.

Doc was nearly jumping with joy. “Oh, I had so much fun!” I cringed at him as he dug around a drawer for something. “It was like a scavenger hunt for bullets!” He pulled out a syringe with his magical field and started filling it with the mixture from earlier. “It was the most fun I’ve had for months! Thanks! You three are giving me so many opportunities to practice my medical expertise!

“What are we, guinea pigs?” I whined.

“Actually, you’re more li—” Doc started, but I wasn’t particularly in the mood to listen to scientific drivel, so I picked up the closest bottle and chucked it at him. That elicited a satisfying squeak of pain upon impact. “Okay, I guess I deserved that,” he muttered, rubbing his jaw.

“Yes. You did.” I growled. I stepped over to where Baked was standing. I took on a more friendly tone and asked Baked, “You been here all night?” I could hear him deeply breathing under his helmet. “You in there?” I gently tapped his helmet. He was probably just thinking about so—

I heard a soft snore from under the helmet.

No. He couldn’t be… I waved at him again. “Seriously?” I muttered. He snored again, this time louder.

Do it. You know you want to.

“Sorry buddy, but this is too good to pass up,” I whispered under my breath.

I tiphoofed over to his side and faced away from him. I shifted my weight onto my forelegs and gathered all my strength into my hind legs. Here goes nothing! I released all my strength and I bucked him as hard as I could. My hooves clanged loudly on his armor, but I’d hit him just hard enough to cause him to slowly tip over. “Eh? Wot?” he mumbled, right before he fell over and crashed into the floor. “Ye gigantic twat!” he cried as he tried to get back up.

I helped him up as I laughed hysterically. “Oh that was amazing!” I gasped. “You should have seen your face! I should have seen your face!” I attempted to mimic his accent “Ye gigantic twat!” I laughed harder. “You can’t put caps on that!”

“T’aint fair t’ ambush a stallion while he’s sleepin’!” Baked whined. “Yer an evil little lass, aren’t ye?” I giggled and he playfully punched me. “Ye feelin’ better?”

“Not really. I feel worse, but I know what you mean,” I told him.

“Next time, no candy fer ye,” he scolded.

“Hey! It was an emergency, okay?” I retorted.

“Shut up and get in here!” Rumcake shouted from the back room. I smiled and we ran into the back room. When we got there, I started laughing even harder. Rumcake was out of his armor and lying in a bed with his entire neck and torso covered in bandages. His right foreleg was wrapped up in a cast and he was giving me a dirty look. “Stop it. It isn’t funny.”

“No! It’s hillarious!” I continued laughing anyway. “Holy crap, what did Doc do to you?”

“I went bullet fishing in his ribcage!” Doc Galactic nonchalantly answered, trotting into the room. “I had a great time!” He poked Rumcake’s bandaged torso. “You, not so much I would assume.”

“No shit!” Rumcake yelled. “You made me bucking watch while you had me cut open!” Doc only smiled. Rumcake gazed at me sympathetically. “Now I know why you hate this guy.” I grinned.

Doc frowned. “It wasn’t all that bad, was it?” He gestured at me. “At least you still have all your parts, unlike her.” My grin disappeared.

“You made me hold your beer!” Rumcake shouted. “What doctor does that?” He turned back to me. “What did he make you do?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. I was passed out the entire time.” Somehow, I didn’t want to know what he’d done anyway.

“Why does she get a knockout spell?” Rumcake demanded. “That’s not fair!”

“Hey! Don’t judge!” Doc said defensively. “I’m not going to have a lady watch me cut her ribs out! That’s just cruel.”

I really wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or really disturbed. On one hoof, at least he had an—admittedly twisted—idea of chivalry; but on the other claw, something was very, very wrong with him.

“But you, you’re a grown stallion!” Doc continued, patting Rumcake’s head. “Who’s a big colt? You’re a big colt!” he cooed.

“Stop it,” Rumcake scolded. “Can we please just move onto more pressing matters? Frosty, why’d you open fire first?”

I felt a twang of worry lance through my mind. Was it the wrong thing to do? “I saw the slaver trying to flank you with a rocket launcher. I waited for him to make a move, then I shot him in the head,” I told him, projecting confidence. “He posed a possible threat, so I took him out.”

Rumcake nodded. “Okay, that makes sense now.” He turned to Baked. “Well, so we were half right.” Baked grunted and tossed a small bundle of caps at him. “Well, thanks for the quick save back there. Our barrage wasn’t as effective as I hoped, and he would have actually gotten us if you hadn’t taken that risky shot.”

I gushed with pride. “Wow, uh, thanks! I went with my instincts back there.”

“Yep. Anyway, turns out the slavers have no idea what they’re doing,” Rumcake informed me. “They’re trying to close off the tunnels between the sewers and the Seapony Energy underground sections.”

“Wait, what?” I exclaimed. “That’s not possible!”

“Lass, they’re runnin’,” Baked clarified. “Somethin’ in th’ tunnels got them scared wild.”

“But… I thought they were trying to mass in the tunnels! What could they be running from? Why would they just give up on all that potential pre-war weaponry?

The weird glowy thingy in the tunnels, maybe?

“Who knows? We don’t know what they were tryin’ to do,” Baked answered. He caught the confused expression on my face. “Somethin’ on yer mind, lass?”

“Uh… I don’t… Okay, well…” I stammered. How would I tell them? Would they believe me?

They’re your friends. Maybe. You can trust them.

“Spit it out, lass!” Baked exclaimed.

“Okay, there’s this really creepy monster thing down there in the tunnels.” I got some weird looks from the gathered ponies in the room. “I shit you not, this thing is scary.” I recounted my experiences in the security room that day. “Maybe they’re running from that?”

“Any other details you can remember?” Rumcake asked. “Armor type? Size? Weaponry? Anything?” I shook my head. “Any ideas, Bakey?”

Baked tapped his helmet thoughtfully. “Sounds like th’ camera ye were seein’ through was in th’ reactor room.” Well, that answered a question. “But I’ve never heard of anythin’ or anypony that’s got that style goin’ on.”

“Well then. We’ll just have to find out.” Rumcake pointed at me. “Go talk to Scrap Bank for supplies. Baked will give you some caps to pay for it.” I nodded and consulted my beaten-up saddlebag on its contents. “Baked, you go see to ammo.” Baked saluted. Rumcake pointed at Doc. “Get me out of this ridiculous getup and back into my armor.” Doc rolled his eyes but grudgingly complied anyway. “Who dares, wins.”

~~~~~

After I’d looted Scrap Bank’s shop for some food and a good amount of healing potions, I headed back to Doc’s clinic to meet up with my Steel Rangers. Baked was helping Rumcake load his grenade launcher and Doc was adjusting his bonesaw harnesses. “Uh, Doc, what do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m coming with you, of course!” He grinned and slid yet another cruel-looking bonesaw into a vacant slot on his harness. “I haven’t had a good jaunt in ages!” He went over to a butterfly-printed medical box and strapped it to his back. “Anyway—if you get torn up, I can fix you up!”

“And what happens if you get killed?” I asked. “Ponies here need you!” Doc only shrugged. “Think about it!”

“Eh, death is only an inconvenience.” Doc waved me off. “Pass me that trauma kit.” Again, something was seriously wrong with this pony.

I picked up a small package that was labeled “TRAMA KIT” in my teeth and dropped it onto the medical box on his back. “You know you—” I mentioned.

“Shut up. I know, I’m a doctor, not a dictionary.” Doc levitated a length of surgical tubing out and used it to tie the trauma kit to the medical box. “You need a medic, and I fit the bill just fine.”

I turned to Rumcake, who grimly nodded. “We might as well. The last thing I want to do to you is get you addicted to Dash.” I gaped at him. Really? We were bringing the only local medical professional in the wasteland into an incredibly dangerous tunnel system where we could all die?

I sighed and passed Doc Galactic the chems I’d found earlier. “Before I forget, here you go.” He took them and dropped them onto the table with his strange chemistry set on it. “So what do you need so many chems for?”

“It’s for a chemical cocktail that I haven’t tested yet.” He tapped the medical box on his back. “I don’t want to have to use it, but we have it if you need it.”

“Now that we’re all geared up, let’s get down to business,” Rumcake stated. All four of us got up and left Doc’s clinic. To the reactor room, this time with backup!

~~~~~

“Well, this is it,” I told the assembled ponies behind me as we stared at the collapsed tunnel in the South Labs. “The reactor room should be right back there.” I stared at my map, trying to figure out whether there was another way around. “I guess the only way is to start digging.”

“Okay everypony, stand back!” Rumcake called out. He whipped out his grenade launcher and aimed it at the debris blocking our path. We all realized what he was about to do and we all collectively dived behind various desks, tables, and walls. He firmly planted his hooves into the ground and opened fire, blasting away at the obstruction in our path. “Yeah! Explosions, woo!”

After a few seconds when the dust cleared, everypony peeked out from their chosen spots of cover. “Is it safe?” Doc asked tenatively. Baked nodded. “Oh good, because it would be a terrible shame if we all suddenly died because some idiot with a grenade launcher dropped the entire continent on us.”

“Would you have preferred to dig?” Rumcake asked indignantly. “Come on, follow me.” Without waiting for the rest of us, he stepped through the giant hole that he’d just made and disappeared into the darkness. We all looked at each other, then proceeded to file into the hole one at a time.

“I hate to mention this now, but in hindsight I realize I should have bought body armor,” I whispered to the rest of my group in the darkness. Rumcake groaned, but I swear I heard Doc giggle with delight. “Sorry!”

“Buy some when we get back,” Rumcake shot back, then he raised his hoof. “Hold up. Helmet lights on.” Rumcake and Baked both turned on their helmet lights, and even Doc focused and released a glowing blue light from his horn. The darkness in the tunnel disappeared, replaced with a sickly yellow-blue light.

“I feel a bit left out,” I mentioned to the others, feeling glum about my lack of lighting. They all turned to look at me, and suddenly I was blinded by every single light source being pointed in my direction. “Gaaah! The lights! They burn!” I cried, covering my eyes with my forelegs. “Get it away!”

Everypony immediately turned their lights away and back into the darkness. While my eyes adjusted back to the relative darkness of the tunnel, Baked asked me, “So, what’s the deal with this place, anyway?” He scanned the walls and ceiling. The room was cavernous and had a domed ceiling, and the walls were streaked with soot and grime. “And where’s the liiiiiii—” he yelled as he fell into a crater.

The rest of us just gaped in shock at the state of the room. “Okay, I’m no theoretical physicist or anything, but something tells me there should be a floor here.” Doc observed, breaking the silence. I double checked the map. This was the right room alright, but what—Clickitey. Eh? Clickitey. Clickitey. Clickitey. “Is that the sound of my Geiger counter or the sound of my organs slowly dying?” Doc asked rhetorically. “Just kidding! It’s both!” He shuddered and tightened his coat around himself.

Doc balefully looked around the room while the Steel Rangers appeared to go check their own state. “Yep, I’m getting like, one rad per second,” Rumcake told me. I pouted at him unhappily. “Armor. You should think about investing in some.” Doc levitated a Rad-X over to me and I immediately downed it, unsure if it would actually help. “Make sure you get a RadAway after this.”

Baked grunted from inside the crater. “Did ye say this was a reactor room?” I nodded. “Well, that don’t look like no reactor.” He shined his helmet light at the center of the room. Instead of what I somewhat expected, there was just a crater scattered with debris. “Looks like there was some kinda meltdown in here.” He trotted closer to the center and immediately backed off. “Woah! Okay! Lass, ye better not come down here!” He addressed Rumcake, “It’s nearly forty-eight in there! Definitely an old meltdown.”

A smashed window in the corner of the room caught my eye. “Okay, I’m going to just go around the giant room-sized crater and check in there,” I told Doc. He nodded, and continued observing Rumcake and Baked standing inside the edge of the crater. They were discussing something involving some Ministry or something, I didn’t really care.

I peeked through the shattered window. There was that scratching noise again! I perked up my ears as I investigated the room. It couldn’t just be me, right? In the top corner of the room I could barely make out a security camera in the corner.

The room slowly brightened up and Doc appeared behind me. “Hey, is it just me or do you hear something?” he whispered. I turned to him in surprise. “So, you hear it too. You have any idea what it is?”

I shrugged. “I have no idea,” I replied while carefully flying into the room through the broken window. “Come over here. I need to see what these buttons say.” Doc poked his head through the window, his horn illuminating the room with his pale blue light. Now, imagine how silly I felt when I realized all the words were burned off or obscured beyond recognition. “Well, nevermind then.”

I poked my head underneath the table with the buttons on it. “You find anything else back there?” Doc called out. “It’s getting boring out here.” I heard him pacing around outside. “Hey, what’s this?” I heard him walk away and the light in the room faded. When I looked back up, Doc was gone.

I stuck my head back into the reactor room. Baked and Rumcake were on the other side of the room examining a set of heavy doors that looked like they were really locked. “Doc?” I called out. No response. “Ha ha. Very funny, Doc. Where’re you hiding at?” I looked around. I couldn’t tell where he could possibly be hiding. I peeked into a small access tunnel off to the side. “Doc?” I called out nervously.

I heard the high-pitched whine of something powering up. Where’s a flashlight when you need one?

“Gotcha,” A deep, masculine voice growled behind me.

Wha—

I had enough time for my brain to register what was going on, and then something collided with the back of my head. Everything suddenly went dark and I don’t remember ever hitting the floor.

Great reaction time.

Shut up, brain.

~~~~~

Hello, brain damage. You in there?

Wait, isn’t that my line?

Wait, dammit.

I groaned weakly. “Ehh… what happened?” I squinted in the darkness I found myself in. “Anypony out there?” I coughed and tried to rub my muzzle, but my hoof was tied to my sides. I attempted to swing my claw around to cut the rope holding me captive, but all I managed to do was swing my stump. “Dammit, not again.” I groaned.

“Nice to know you’re awake,” Doc’s voice floated over to me. I looked around. “Up here, featherbrain.” I looked up and smirked when I saw Doc Galactic tied up and attached to the ceiling. “You okay there?”

I struggled against my bonds, hoping that my captor was really bad at knots or something. They didn’t budge and I sighed. “I could be better, but considering our circumstances I think I’m fine. You?” I continued my attempts to wiggle out of the rope, but I only managed to lose my balance. “No, no, no NO!” I lost control and completely fell onto my face. “Dammit. Now I’m tied up and face planted. Great.”

“Well, I’m doing fine. But it looks like you’ve been disarmed.” If only I could facehoof. Or faceclaw. Dear Luna, the puns. Doc laughed uncontrollably. “Wow, I’ve always wanted to throw that out there!”

“Well. It looks like you two are up and about,” a voice growled. “About time.” From my spot on the floor I could only make out a set of armored hooves. The strange part was, the armor appeared to have been custom-crafted from welded steel plates. The hooves stopped right in front of my muzzle. “Get up.”

“If you haven’t noticed yet, I’ve been tied up by some crazy idiot,” I sneered at him. “And if you’re a bit thick” – I attempted to wave my stump at him – “you haven’t noticed my other leg’s gone.” I was rewarded with the familiar white-and-blue tones of my claw being dropped in front of me. “Aww, thanks.”

As I wormed my way closer to it, the mysterious pony continued talking. “I guess I can trust you. The DJ think’s you’re hot stuff.” He stepped over me and whispered to Doc, “It’s good to see you again, old buddy.” I squirmed around and tried to get a good look at them. “How you been?” What? Doc knew this whackjob?

Doc shifted around. “Wait, is this about the whole skeleton thing?” He laughed nervously. “You know, I really do apologize about that. I mean, the shin bone doesn’t really have to be connected to the leg bone, right?” He struggled in his ropes. “No hard feelings?”

“Oh, this isn’t about that anymore. Though what I’m about to make you do will definitely make me feel better.” He went over to a dark portion of the room and suddenly Doc fell down from the ceiling. “Get your friend fixed up.”

Doc magically loosened his ropes and helped me untie mine while he spoke. “Look, all of this makes sense. In context,” he assured. He then paused and put a hoof to his chin in thought. “Actually, it still doesn’t. Pretend I’m making sense.” He finally untied my ropes and levitated my claw over to me. “You want help?”

I sat up and nodded. “I can’t really— BUCK YOU WITH THE GODDESSESDAMNED MOON YOU GIANT ASS!” I screamed when Doc decided to plug my claw back in. I was getting used to the pain of the nerves reconnecting and all, but damn it, it still bucking hurt! “You’d think I would realize it by now!” Doc burst into another fit of laughter.

“If you girls are done, I need you to come with me. There’s something I need your particular expertise for,” our captor said as he pointed at me. “Now, let’s go.” We obediently followed him out of the room and into another hallway.

Now that I could get a good look at him, he wasn’t as scary as I’d thought he was. However, he really was the thing I’d seen on the security camera that day. His armor was completely made of welded steel plates and his helmet was a scavenged combat helmet with a few attachments and gas mask attached to it. As for weapons, he had a pair of assault rifles strapped to his sides in a semblance of a battle saddle.

“So, Agent Tabber, how you been?” Doc nonchalantly asked him. “Still working for that idiot Roy Mustang?” Agent Tabber muttered something incomprehensible under his breath. Doc continued, “You haven’t changed, have you?”

“Shut it, Stitches,” Tabber shot back. “You’re a filthy deserter. That’s what you are.” He fiddled with something attached to his helmet. “You’ve got a fifteen thousand cap bounty on you back in Dise, and I’ve got half a mind to turn you in.”

“Now, you and I both know that won’t happen,” Doc quickly replied. “And anyway, nopony’ll believe you.” He flaunted his coat. “I’m just a doctor now!”

“I know. And as much as I’d like to haul your ass back with me, I still owe you for Canterlot.” He turned and kept walking. I gave Doc a questioning look but he shook his head. “We’re almost there.”

“So…” I awkwardly started. “You two know each other?” Both of them stopped and glared at me. “I’m going to assume nopony wants to talk about it.” Tabber huffed and kept walking. Doc glanced at him and sighed.

“It’s a really long story,” Doc finally groaned. “We were part of a team. Things went wrong and I bugged out. That’s all.” He stared at Tabber. “It’s just… everything went wrong. We were lied to, cheated, and left for dead.”

We stopped in what looked like a mostly-empty storage area. “That’s not how I remember it!” Tabber shouted, spinning around and nearly hitting me in the face with his rifles. “You ran!” He jabbed Doc (Stitches?) in the chest. “We had a job, and you decided to abandon the rest of us.”

“I… I don’t want to… talk about it anymore,” Doc stammered. I was actually somewhat shocked. I’d never heard Doc this scared before, even when he was being confronted earlier. “Just… let me stay in town. It’s nice there.”

“Come here, pegasus,” Agent Tabber growled, ignoring Doc for the moment. “I need you to open this.” He pointed at a cloud-locked metal locker.

I crouched in front of the locker and prodded the cloud-built keypad with my claw. Much to my surprise, my claw sunk right through it. “Huh. That’s interesting.” I prodded the keypad with my hoof and felt relieved when my hoof met the solid cloud.

“Can you open it?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah. Hold on,” I muttered. I shifted the patternized keys and numbers around in some of the most common combinations any pegasi would use. “There we go.” After a few moments of fiddling, pulling, and a bit of luck, I opened the chest and backed up. “Well, I can’t say I was surprised.” Hello, empty storage container.

He sighed and took off his helmet. His coat was a nice dark orange color and his mane was a deep red shade. He bore the scars of many knife fights and his ears were missing several slices. And his eyes! They were a beautiful, mesmerizing purple th— “What? Is there something on my face?” he asked.

“Gah! Ah! Eh, no,” I stammered weakly. Focus!

Smooth. Great recovery, ten out of ten.

Shut up, brain.

“Whatever.” Tabber turned to Doc and growled. “Well, I guess this is the end of our little reunion since this was all I was here for. You can go back to your friends now. Follow that hallway, turn left, second door on the right,” he said, pointing off into the depths of the room. Dejected, he turned away to leave, but suddenly paused. “Wait. Why are you even here, anyway?” he asked, performing a surprisingly quick pivot on his hind hoof.

“Well, we were originally going to figure out what the slavers were doing down here, but you’ve sort of answered our questions,” I explained to him. “I’m going to assume you kicked them out of here a few days ago?”

“Yeah. They kept interfering, so I got around to rigging traps and ambushes for them to run into. Didn’t take long for them to pick up and leave,” Tabber replied matter-of-factly. “So, you’re here to kill those slavers, eh?” We were?

“One more job? For old time’s sake?” Doc pleaded. Tabber rolled his eyes and prepared to leave. “Think of the loot they might have collected! You can’t return empty hoofed.” Doc reasoned.

Tabber groaned and stopped in his tracks. “Fine. Those slavers are in between me and my exfil at Old Olneigh, so I guess I can come with you.” Doc grinned with satisfaction. Tabber grimaced and poked Doc’s nose. “One time. Just because we used to be friends. And because I’m still technically under contract.”

Something connected in my brain when he’d said “Old Olneigh”. It seemed familiar, in a way. But where had I heard it? I filed it away for later investigation and turned my attention to the task at hand. “Well, we need to meet up with Rumcake and Baked Potato first before we go hit that slaver camp,” I told them.

“And then you can show us where the slavers are coming from,” Doc finished. “Now, let’s go find the rest of our group, shall we?”

After a few minutes stumbling about in the relative darkness, we finally encountered the familiar yellow glow of our Steel Rangers’ helmet lights. After a long introduction and a very careful explanation of a very convenient chain of events, we finally convinced Rumcake that Tabber wasn’t hostile to us. “I still don’t think this is a good idea,” Rumcake grumbled.

“Look, I don’t particularly enjoy doing this either, but I think he’s going to be really useful,” I implored. I steered him aside as Baked excitedly discussed something about crafting armor and weapons with Tabber. “I think we should work with him.”

“Better be a good reason. I’m not stickin’ our necks out fer some lunatic we found in th’ tunnels,” Baked countered.

“I think he knows something about my past. Or at least, something from two weeks back,” I whispered. “Something in my mind got connected or something when he talked about this place, Old Olneigh. Know anything about it?”

Rumcake grunted. “It’s just ruins. Nothing’s there anymore besides manticores, hellhounds, and more manticores. Also there’s hellhounds. Mostly hellhounds.” I closed my eyes and tried to remember. Hellhounds? Something about hellhounds? “You remembering something?”

Little flashes of a meeting and a Vertibuck ride flew past my vision. I growled and rubbed my forehead in frustration. “Just… random… things. I think I just remembered the ride over.” Nothing was making sense! It sure would help if my visions came with an audio feed.

Audio is overrated.

Dammit, brain.

“Everything’s all random and disjointed, though,” I continued.

Rumcake sighed. “Fine, he can come with us.” I followed him back to where the rest of our group was idly milling about. “Well, Agent Tabber. You can come with us for the time being,” Rumcake announced. “Now, let’s go destroy our mutually despised enemies and be completely done with it, yes?”


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Bloody Mess – Eww. Characters and creatures you kill now have a higher chance of meeting their end in a violent explosion of blood and gore. You also now do 5% more damage with all weapons.

-End of Chapter 5!-

Chapter 6: Time to blow the place?

View Online

Chapter 6: Time to blow the place?

“How dare you take the cake!”


“Okay, up this service tunnel here,” Tabber told us as we followed him. About halfway up the tunnel, there was a large section of roof that had collapsed, blocking our progress. However, next to it was a large gaping hole that led into the darkness beyond. We stopped at the edge and looked down. “This is where Seapony Energy stops and the sewers begin.”

With an impossible amount of grace, he jumped into the hole and landed several meters down in the darkness with a heavy thump. “Well, lasses first,” Baked said, motioning me to follow.

I rolled my eyes. “Chicken.” I flapped my wings and descended into the darkness. “Hey, can you turn on a light?” I asked Tabber when I landed next to him. It was hard to tell what was going on behind that gas mask, but I assumed he had a glare for me back there. Instead, he attached a gently glowing blue gem to one of the mask’s eye holes. “I’m going to take that as a no.”

“Whee!” Doc cried as he jumped in after us. He magically levitated a procedure mask out and fastened it to his face. Both of us gave him a strange look. “What? It’s a sewer. I don’t want to catch a two hundred year old disease.”

Our attention was diverted by Rumcake joining us in the relative darkness. He landed with a heavy crunch and turned on his headlamp. “I don’t know how you fairies jump with such grace,” he grumbled. “I don’t think the armor was designed with acrobatics in mind.”

Baked immediately demonstrated this by hitting the ground face-first with a loud crash. “Me spine!” he cried loudly, flailing his armored limbs in the air.

Doc paced over and placed his glowing horn against Baked’s armor. “You’re fine, you giant wuss,” he observed, shaking his head. “Now get up so we can actually get going.” He grudgingly helped Baked get to his hooves.

“If you bumbling idiots are ready, their base should be this way,” Tabber growled exasperatedly. Baked Potato turned on his headlamp as well, providing additional illumination to the arched tunnel ahead of us. We proceeded to follow the small elevated path along the right edge.

“How do you know where we’re going?” I asked skeptically. “I thought all you did was place traps up there.” I indicated the Seapony Energy tunnels we’d recently left behind.

“What do you think I did after they decided the tunnels were too dangerous to be any good?” he growled irritably. We kept walking down the tunnel, apparently ignoring all the other branching sections. “I waited for the last stragglers to leave and I followed them. Turns out they’re much faster when they’re scared.”

“Ye don’t say!” Baked said sarcastically. I giggled as Baked continued, “Of course they’re runnin’ scared! They’re no-good slavers!” He probably had a point. I started looking around the tunnel and noticed that the drab brown walls were sporadically smeared with blood and pockmarked with bullet holes. Every few feet the blood smears gave way to some very cryptic and very disturbing graffiti. The walls themselves were old and cracked, and if there was supposed to be water, there was only dirt in the central area.

We turned right into one of the branches. “Now we’re entering the slavers’ territory,” Tabber told us. “Keep your guard up. There’s enough side passages and tunnels to hide an ambush.”

I carefully reloaded my SMG and Doc magically drew one of his bonesaws. “Hey, I’ve got a burning question I’ve been waiting to ask you, Doc,” I said while the Rangers deployed their massive guns. “Why is it called a bonesaw?”

“Uh… you use them to… saw. Bones,” he explained, confused. “Ergo, bonesaw.”

“Why not a hacksaw?” I continued, waving my claw as if I was holding a bonesaw. “Because you hack at things. And it’s a saw.”

Doc rolled his eyes and shrugged. “Whatever. I’m calling it a bonesaw.” A grin formed on his face and he drew five more bonesaws with his magic. “Would you care for a demonstration?” He laughed maniacally, brandishing several of them at me. I eeped and immediately bolted to the ceiling.

Everypony laughed and relaxed a bit while I blushed from my hiding place on the ceiling. “Okay, let’s keep going before Stitches disassembles somepony.” Tabber smirked, opening a side gate. “Careful. Watch your step,” he whispered in a more serious tone. “Keep it down. I’m not sure if the guards actually pay attention to whatever’s going on down here, if there are guards.”

“Why would they guard the sewer?” Doc whispered back. “There isn’t anything good down here, so why would they guard it?” Doc made a good point. If they knew the tunnels weren’t safe, why didn’t they just barricade it up?

“I would assume the tunnels down here lead to other encampments or areas they still want to go to,” Rumcake replied. “Now, shut up.” We quietly snuck around to a service ladder that ended with a hatch. “Are we ready?” he asked us.

There was a round of muffled clacking and snapping as we all double-checked our weapons. On second thought, I assembled my sniper rifle and slung it across my back. “Okay, now I’m ready.”

“Wait—when did you get that rifle back?” Rumcake asked.

Caught off guard, I defaulted to, “Don’t worry about it.”

Rumcake grunted. “We will have words.”

“Hold up. Help me take this mess off,” Tabber whispered urgently. Doc immediately went over and started unbuckling and unstrapping Tabber’s armor. “Ah, that feels better.” He sighed as he dropped the last of the steel plates. Underneath all of that he was wearing black and dark blue light barding reinforced with some duct tape. His saddlebags were integrated into his barding for a seamless attachment.

“Why’d ye drop the armor?” Baked asked. “Ye coulda used it in a fight.”

“I’m not for heavy armor,” Tabber replied. “I rely on stealth. The armor is for the metaphorical plan ‘B’. Stitches knows.” Everypony turned to Doc for confirmation.

“Oh yeah, he’s a real silent assassin. Well, sometimes he’s more like a rogue asset. Anyway, he’s good at what he does,” Doc explained.

“Now, all of you stay quiet. I’m going to go check what’s up there.” He climbed up the ladder and carefully pushed the hatch open. He climbed out and we heard a loud snapping sound, following by a heavy, meaty thump. “All clear. Quiet now.” We all climbed out of the hatch one at a time and gathered around it.

We were standing in a small steel room accompanied by a very dead slaver lying on the floor. The walls were grimy and covered with illegible scrawling all over the walls. There was one door in the room that had a tiny viewing slot and a bar across it. “Well, he’s dead,” I stated blandly. “Now what?”

“Okay, here’s the plan,” Rumcake said. “Doc and I are going to go into the base and see what we can find.” He grudgingly started taking off his armor as he continued. “Somepony strip the slaver and give me his barding. Frosty and Agent Tabber will go stealthy.” Tabber calmly nodded and checked his equipment. “Baked, you’re on guard duty. Watch my armor and the door.” Baked saluted and somehow folded the armor up very neatly.

“Hey!” I protested. “Why do I have to go with him?”

“Look, you’re the only other one of us with any semblance of stealth training,” Rumcake calmly replied. “I’d love to send Doc with him, since Doc’s worked with him before.” He shot a quick glare at Doc. “…But you’re too obvious to be out in the open. A pegasus just stands out too much to be undercover.” I grudgingly agreed with him. “So you’re the only obvious pairing.”

Rumcake started pulling on the slaver’s patchy barding. “That smells… unhygienic.” Doc stammered unhelpfully. “Are you sure you want to do that?” Rumcake struggled to pull on the barding while keeping his pink mane under control. His chestnut coat really clashed with the slaver’s dark mostly-purple barding.

“It’ll be less obvious than a Steel Ranger walking around,” he replied. “Okay, everypony know the plan?” We all nodded. “We’ll go first, then wait fifteen and go.”

Rumcake unbarred the door and poked his messy pink mane out. “If all goes to hell, bring my armor to me.” He looked around. “All clear. Let’s go.” Doc and Rumcake darted out and disappeared into the darkness and commotion of the night. Wait, what? It was already night?

After waiting a short bit, Tabber gently tugged my wing. “Let’s move. Stay low, don’t be seen.” I nodded and followed him out into the base. Baked waved us goodbye and shut the door leading to the sewers behind us. The further we moved, the louder the noise got. The base was loud with the commotion of violence, sex, conversations, and shady deals.

We dashed down a small alley and crouched in the darkness. “How much can you carry?” he asked me with a hushed whisper.

“I can carry you for a short distance, if that’s what you’re asking,” I hissed back. “Why?”

“Good.” He adjusted his gear a little and pulled out a silenced pistol in his teeth. “Get me up to that rooftop,” he grunted through his pistol’s bit. I looked up. The roof was at least five floors up, but there was a giant hole around the third floor where I could probably take a break, if I needed to.

“Fine.” I flapped my wings and quietly floated over Tabber, making sure I wasn’t making too much noise. I wrapped my forelegs around his shoulders and under his forelegs and started flapping harder. “Gah! You’re really heavy!” I groaned as I attempted to gain altitude. “What the hay do you eat? Lead bars?”

“Chickens like you. Keep flying,” Tabber shot back. With much effort and a few minutes of flapping, I managed to drop him off on the third floor of the building we were standing next to. “Oh well, I guess we can take the stairs to the top.”

“You… are… so. Bucking. Heavy,” I panted, fully exhausted. I didn’t even want to move after flying him up this far! I just laid on the ground, wings outstretched, panting heavily. “Why… are you… so… heavy?” Wings… hurt… so… much.

“What can I say? Interdimensional saddlebags.” He grinned at me. “Thanks. Now c’mon you big foal. Let’s go.” I glared at him from my spot on the floor and grudgingly got up. “Let’s get to the roof and figure out what’s going on here.”

We located the rickety stairs and stealthily climbed up to the roof. There was definitely no way I was flying his lazy flank up there after I had to cart him around this many rooftops. I took a moment to catch my breath before pulling myself up for a quick peek at where we were.

“Woah,” I breathed. We hadn’t breached a slaver base—we’d breached one of their bucking fortresses! They’d taken over about two city blocks and fortified it to the moon and back! The walls were massive and heavily guarded, and the two gates on opposite sides had large cannons attached to them. As for the buildings themselves, some sort of slaver motif was liberally applied all over, except for what appeared to once be the post office. Various sections of the slaver's territory were very lit up and some were more abuzz with sound than others.

“Looks like the post office is now their headquarters,” Tabber told me. “At least these are Red Eye’s slavers,” he continued, pointing out the banners hanging from the roof. “Hopefully there’ll be somepony willing to just let us walk right in.”

“Wait, what?” I asked incredulously. “Why would they let us just walk in?”

“They’re always spouting their whole Unity crap. It’s great cover to just walk in saying you want to join, only to kill the leader here,” Tabber whispered back, surveying the area. “Oh shit, get down!” he urgently hissed at me. Both of us ducked down and flattened ourselves against the roof right as a dark purple blur landed on the roof of the post office.

“What was that?”

“Dammit… Red Eye’s got alicorns posted here.”

“Alicorns? Goddesses like Celestia?”

“No. Not really.” Tabber scooted closer and whispered to me, “They’re false goddesses. They’re like… re-engineered… things. Basically, they’re super smart, super fast, super strong, and they can telepathically talk to each other.”

“Okay, so they’re invincible,” I summarized. “Great. What’s the plan now?” Invincible alicorns, slaver strongholds, and a bucking sewer line. This couldn’t get any more ridiculous.

“Well… let’s just say they’re damage resistant.” He chuckled and tossed me a cylindrical sapphire gem with a hole bored through it.. “Here. It’s got a velocity enchantment on it, I think.” I examined it and noticed it would probably fit on my rifle. How oddly convenient. “Extra speed should give you that extra punch you need for instakills.”

“Where did you get this from?” I asked. It looked really custom-made, and really expensive. “One does not simply find upgrades.”

“Pulled it off a Hoofington assassin that tried to kill me this one time.” He dug around in his bags and pulled out a pair of orange sunglasses. “Got these off him too.”

We sat there in silence, waiting for the alicorn to leave. Tabber broke the awkward silence by saying, “So… a monster, eh?”

I grimaced and buried my face in my hoof. “It was dark, and hard to see. I panicked!”

“Mooooooonster.” He stifled a laugh. “That’s going in the record books.”

I rolled my eyes and then cautiously poked my head over the edge of the roof. “Hey. It’s gone,” I whispered to Tabber. He poked his head out too. “Now what?”

“Hm. Maybe we should have thought this plan through a bit more.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have any idea what your Ranger friend and Stitches are up to?”

I shrugged. “No idea. Why?” I replied, then faceclawed. We’d split up without actually coming up with a strategy on what we were doing. We had no way to contact the other team, and we had no idea we were supposed to be doing. “Wait. Dammit.”

“Exactly. If we just do recon, we have no way of telling them what we’ve found.”

“And sabotage is out of the question in case we accidentally blow them up,” I finished.

“Exactly.” We laid on the roof in silence, listening to the commotion of the slavers arguing amidst each other. “I say we go blow up their HQ. It’ll probably shut down the turrets and most of whatever security they have running.”

I pointed out a communication tower behind the post office building. “There’s a comms relay there. If we shut that down, they can’t call for help.” He nodded in agreement.

“Anything else you want to break before we level the post office?”

Wait. What were we doing? “Why are we blowing up this post office? Didn’t we agree that sabotage was a bad idea?”

“I lied.” He pointed out a fenced-off area with a shoddy tin roof. “With that many guards, that has to be interesting.”

I took out my anti-material rifle and peered through the enchanted sight. “It looks like some kind of ammo dump or something.”

I spied a few locked safes and containers, among massive piles of ammunition and explosives. “Yep. It’s their armory all right, and it’s fully stocked with explosives.” I took a closer look at some of the guards. They weren’t very attentive and frankly didn’t look like they really want to be there. “If you’re really stealthy, we could probably demolish the armory easily. But why the post office?” I pressed.

“I say we kill the guards, steal some ammo and maybe a few guns, and rig the place for a distraction,” Tabber said. “We disable the communications tower and then plant some explosives around the hall.” He put away the glasses and took out a bag with a bunch of wires and a timer attached to it. “Here. Hold onto a few of these.”

I unquestioningly took the three bags he gave me and shoved them into my saddlebag. “What are they, exactly?” I asked him.

“Satchel charges, all wired to a single detonator I have. Once they’re all set, we’ll have two minutes to clear the area.” He flashed a small device at me and put it away. “Now, let’s go crash this castle.”

“Why are we doing this again?” I hissed at him angrily as he scooted away.

~~~~~

We managed to sneak our way to the armory by a combination of jumping, flying, and in my case, carrying Tabber to other rooftops. “Why do… I have… to carry you… everywhere?” I gasped, dropping him heavily onto yet another roof. “I can’t keep flying you around.”

“You’re more convenient,” he flatly stated. “Now get down.” I flopped onto the rooftop and waited for Tabber to give another signal. “Okay, we haven’t been spotted yet.” We were now lying on the building right next to the armory, most likely waiting for the guards to pass. “Let’s go. One last one. It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump.”

“Ugh,” I groaned. I picked him up and quickly took off, flying over the armory’s fence and unceremoniously crashing into a pile of saddlebags that were… apparently there for fence-vaulting intruders to land on. “Ow! Okay, no more flying!” I hissed softly as I attempted to untangle myself from the lumpy bags we’d landed in and from Tabber and his gear.

“Nice landing,” he growled sarcastically. “Did you make sure every slaver in the stronghold heard us?”

“Hey!” I protested. “I think I sprained my wing flying you around!” I carefully flapped my wings and winced when a twinge of pain shot through my right wing. “Ow, ow, ow.”

Both of us froze as voices from the other side of the fence floated over to us. “Oi! Wot’s the big ruckus ‘boot?” an angry, male voice shouted. “Wot’s you doin’ back there?”

“Shut yer trap, mate. Breaka’ musta been lazin’ off ‘gain. It’s prolly just a box fallin’ ova,” somepony else replied lethargically.

“Go check it then, ya bloody git!” the first voice shouted back. Crap! We looked around and dove for cover between two large crates, one of which was labeled explosives. I started to move somewhere else, but Tabber grabbed me and put a hoof across my muzzle.

“Wait for him to come to us,” he whispered in my ear. We both huddled together in silence, barely even breathing.

Something was uncomfortably wedged in my back as we lay in wait. “Hey, move your pistol. It’s poking me in my back.” I squirmed about a little in an attempt to dislodge whatever it was.

“That’s not my pistol,” he grunted, holding his silenced pistol in his teeth. I looked up at him and paled.

“Then what’s…” I shuddered. Please, let it no—

“It might be my flashlight,” he calmly told me as he shifted a little.

“I really hope it’s your flashlight,” I grumbled.

“Me too. Now lower your head,” he whispered. I obliged and he propped the pistol on my head. “Perfect. Don’t move.”

I growled irritably again. “I should have seen that coming.” We continued to sit there, listening to the slaver grumbling and complaining to himself.

Tabber picked up a stone from the ground and tossed it, causing it to bounce off an ammo box and make a loud clacking sound. “Eh? Wot’s that?” the slaver mumbled. We heard him stomping over and continuing to mutter to himself.

The slaver had messy blue hair and grimy gray coat that looked flea-ridden and patchy. Strangely enough, the generic military barding that he was wearing was in near-perfect condition. His particular choice in face paint happened to be a big red X all over it. “Now stand over there,” Tabber lowly whispered.

I felt a thump from the top of my head, followed by a quiet pop, then the slaver collapsed on the ground with a clean hole through the side of his face. “Okay, he’s dead. Nice shot.” We jumped out of our hiding spot and I reflexively shook myself. “Time to blow the place?”

“Get some ammo first. Try not to pick up more guns, though,” Tabber whispered as he took out some of his satchel charges. “Meet you back here in three. If you meet any guards, remove them. Silently!”

I nodded and immediately went to work trying to find more ammo for my rifle. Let’s see… Some five fifty-sixes… seven sixty-twos… nine mill’s… Aha! Twelve point seven, my size of bullet! I immediately scooped up all fifteen bullets and shoved them in my bag. Next to them on a shelf was a blue-lined box with five more anti-material rifle bullets in it. I shrugged and looted those too. As I passed the other shelves with other ammo types, I mumbled to myself, “Oh, what the hell.” I started scooping ammo and two or three various rifles and shotguns into another saddlebag I’d picked up from the pile we landed in earlier. Might as well, right?

“What did I say about stealing everything?” Tabber hissed at me. “We need to move. Charges have been set.” I scraped the last of the magazines and bullets into the bag and followed Tabber to a small hole in the fence. “Through here!”

I pulled myself through the small hole and wriggled my way out the other side, immediately dashing to the shadows. Tabber quickly joined me and looked up at the roof. “Oh no, I’m not flying you up there,” I said, catching his look. “We’re walking, like it or not. Sprained wings are not fun to fly on.”

“I understand. Fine, stay to the shadows and follow me. Do not move until I move. Understand?” Tabber said. I nodded, and for the next few pulse-pounding minutes we snuck our way back onto the rooftops and all the way over to the side of the building with the comm tower on it. “Unless you have a better plan, speak now or forever hold your peace,” he remarked, peeking through the window of the building. “Two on the radio, one next to the door,” he relayed.

I smashed in the window and opened fire with my SMG into the room. Thanks to the freeze spell (hey, I forgot I had that!), the surprised slavers didn’t even have time to react before they were frozen, killed, or a combination of the above. “Problem solved!” I happily exclaimed. Tabber facehoofed and sighed. “All the ruckus is great for loud assassinations.”

“Come on, let’s go before somepony notices,” He sighed and tossed a satchel charge through the window. Then we picked up a large sheet of plywood out of a nearby scrap heap to cover the window. “That should do it.”

“Okay, how do we get to the post office from here?” I asked him, diving into yet another alley with Tabber. We’d deployed two sets of explosives in the base, ready for a distraction just in case so—

Alarms started blaring all over the base. “Oh buck! Did they find the bodies?” Tabber cried in panic. Wait… bodies, plural? “Let’s see what they’re up to first. Hopefully it’s your Ranger buddies and Stitches messing up. Can you get us on that roof?”

I exhaled and flapped my wings experimentally. “Calm down. That’s what, two floors?” He nodded. “I think I can do that.” I grabbed him once again and arduously flapped into the air. About halfway up, a familiar pink mane dashed into the alley right across from us behind a fence. “Hey, secret agent stallion, I think I found Rumcake and Doc.” I nudged Tabber and pointed with one of my hind legs.

“Get us over there,” he commanded. I obliged and careened over to the alley and dropped down next to them. “What the buck did you idiots break?” he asked Rumcake in a completely annoyed tone.

“Hey! It wasn’t really me this time. Doc gave us away when he tried to raid their medical supplies for some kind of project,” Rumcake told us. “What have you two been up to?”

“Planting explosives,” I replied. “Tabber’s got some really cool toys in his bags.”

“Okay, but where’s Stitches?” Tabber asked. I looked around. Good point, where was Doc? He wasn’t with Rumcake, and we hadn’t seen him lately…

“We got separated. He’s headed toward the center because nopony would expect it,” Rumcake informed us. “We’ll meet up again at the sewer.”

“I’m not letting that idiot out of my sight,” Tabber shouted. “I’m not owing favors to any dead ponies. I’m going after him.”

I grudgingly agreed. “Doc mostly saved my life once, so I guess I’m going too.”

“Crap. Fine, let’s get the good doctor back.” Rumcake sighed. “I need a weapon.”

I tossed my ammo and gun laden bag at him. “Take your pick.”

He picked out an assault rifle and gripped it firmly in his teeth. I helped him attach the belt feed to his back and loaded it. “Ihm reddy,” he grunted through the rifle’s bit.

“Let’s blow this place sky… bucking… HIGH!” Tabber shouted gleefully as he mashed the detonation button, highlighting the night behind him with the flames and shrapnel of the two explosions. “Yeeeah!”

~~~~~

As we charged down a now-deserted side-street, I had the time to ask Tabber, “Hey, I thought you had the explosives wired for two minutes, not two seconds.” As amazing as that was, If we were going to take down a building, I didn’t feel like dying from faulty explosives.

“There’s an alternate setting for instant detonation!” he answered. “How far are we from the post office?”

I stopped for a second and risked leaping into the air for a quick hover, regardless of the niggling twinges in my wing. After orienting myself with the surrounding architecture, I managed to get a pretty good idea of where we were. “We need to turn right, then head down three blocks and it’s on our left,” I informed Tabber and Rumcake once I landed.

“Let’s go! Clock’s ticking!” Tabber shouted back. “We’re bound to be spotted eventually!”

We dashed along, this time completely ignoring stealth. An unlucky slaver that strayed a bit too close to us received a free grenade to the face, courtesy of me. I kept a keen eye out for somewhere we could hole up or defend.

“We’re here! Into the whatever that door is!” I yelled, pointing out a small door built into the base of the building. I rammed into the door as fast as possible with my shoulder and thankfully broke it down without too much self-injury. “Anypony see us coming in?”

“Don’t think so,” Tabber replied. He started bracing the door with a bookcase in the room. “Better safe than sorry, though. Help me with this, big guy.” Rumcake grudgingly moved over to help, and I looked around the room we were now trapped in.

We’d jumped into a sub-basement or something of the post office. The bookshelves around us were covered in mostly-destroyed books and scrolls, probably important in another age. Surprisingly, the walls here were dirty but thankfully free of poorly-scribbled insults and other colorful graffiti. Heck, if the walls and floor were a bit cleaner, it could be like nothing ever happened. “What’s with this place?” I muttered. “It’s kinda creepy.”

“What?” Tabber panted, out of breath. “Oh wow,” he continued, finally looking back at the room. “It’s almost like a little time capsule, huh.”

Rumcake coughed. “It needs a dusting,” he complained, sniffing and rubbing his nose. I smiled and intentionally swept up a bunch of dust from the ground. “Hey!” He sneezed and whined, “That’s not cool!”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I coyly grinned. “Let’s see what kind of havoc we can wreak here.” I surveyed the room a little more. “Anypony see a set of stairs anywhere?” I wandered around the room and attempted to find a stairway leading up.

“We could always blast our way upstairs,” Rumcake said. He hefted his new assault rifle and pointed it at the ceiling in front of us. “We could bring the upstairs to us.” The rest of us facehoofed. “What? I think it’s a great idea.”

I walked around to the back of the room and noticed a set of double doors set into the wall. “Hey! Over here,” I called to the Rangers. They both plodded over to me and stared at the doors silently. I hopped over a broken bookshelf and pushed at it. “Dammit. I think it’s stuck. Can I get some help?” Rumcake stomped through the broken bookshelf and aided me in trying to open the doors.

“It’s not budging,” Rumcake grunted. “Let’s blow it up.”

“Hey idiots.” Tabber pushed a button on the wall and the doors opened, causing us to suddenly fall into it. “It’s a bucking elevator.” I pushed Rumcake off me and got up. “Now don’tcha feel silly?”

Rumcake got up and pushed a button next to the doors. “Shut up, merc.” Tabber jumped in and mashed the button as well. “Hopefully the power here still works.” The entire room lurched and a loud buzz rang through it. Momentarily, smooth jazz began to warble from the solitary speaker built into the wall.

Before I could really get into the groove of the music, there was a soft dinging sound and the doors slid open, revealing a bloody, grimy, dilapidated atrium.

“We’re here,” Rumcake grumbled and stepped out. “We gotta find Doc. That’s probably the hardest thing to do right now.”

“I really hate to do this, but I’m going to go off and start planting explosives,” Tabber whispered. “I’ll meet you here in about ten minutes.” With that, he melted into the shadows and disappeared.

“How does he do that?” Rumcake whispered to me. I shrugged. “Well, let’s get to the roof and see if we can find Doc with that rifle of yours.” I obediently nodded and followed him up the stairs in the center of the room with my SMG clamped between my teeth.

I heard voices coming from behind a steel door. I nudged Rumcake and motioned at the door. “Somepony’s back there.”

“Quietly,” he whispered, moving closer to the door. We tiphoofed closer to the door and I pressed my ear against it. “I’ll cover you.” I nodded and closed my eyes, trying to focus on the conversation inside.

“…find ya buddies n’ kill all of you,” a raspy voice yelled. I shook my ear and tried to find a thinner spot on the door to listen through. “…ou workin’ fer?”

“Nopony, really,” the familiar voice of Doc calmly drawled. “Again, I’m just here on business.” He laughed jovially and stopped when something slammed into a hard surface.

“Doc’s in there!” I urgently hissed at Rumcake. I turned my attention back to the exchange inside the room. Rumcake was doing something behind me, but I was too focused on what was happening in that room.

“…would that be?” the slaver finished. Doc laughed again. “Tell me, ya useless shitbag!”

Doc only laughed harder. “Untie me and maybe I’ll consider it.” The slaver cursed angrily and picked something up. “You know what they say about stallions with big axes…” Doc continued laughing. “You know, you really shouldn’t have let me down the painkillers.”

Before anything else could happen, the door suddenly exploded away from my ear and disappeared. I crouched there, frozen in shock as Rumcake flew through the doorway and punched the offending slaver clear through the window opposite of the doorway. What.

“That was awesome!” I cried. “Where’d you learn that from?:

“From a really old action movie I saw,” Rumcake muttered. “Yo Doc, you don’t look so good.”

Doc was tied down to a chair, his horn covered with some sort of cone. He’d been repeatedly bludgeoned and cut, but he’d managed to patch up what looked like a few serious wounds. “Yeah, yeah. Help me out, will ya?” he groaned. “I thought you’d never show up.” I picked up his bags and bonesaw harness and handed it over to him. “Thanks.” He pulled the cone off his horn and smashed it. “It’s great using magic again. Thanks for the save.” He sighed, levitating the harness onto himself.

“How’d you get captured?” I asked, looking out the broken window. I got a good look at the pandemonium outside in the camp itself.

“I got cornered, and then bluffed my way into not getting killed,” Doc explained. “Not much to it, really. They decided to try to interrogate me, and then you two saved me. That’s pretty much it.” He stumbled around the room and dug around in the desk across from where he was tied up. He levitated some vials into a pouch on his coat.

“You got everything?” Rumcake asked. Doc nodded and tightened his coat. “Let’s go.” Both of us followed him out to the stairwell again. “Where’s the insane bombomaniac?”

“What’d I miss?” Tabber grumbled. I shrieked in fright and jumped onto Rumcake. Doc was only mildly surprised when Tabber decided to show up.

“Not much. We got Doc back,” Rumcake replied, nonplussed. “As adorable as this is, now’s not the time. You can let go of me now,” he whispered to me.

I let go of his neck and blushed in embarrassment. “Sorry.”

“We gotta run. Charges are set, we’ll have two minutes after your mark.” Tabber looked to Rumcake for a reply. “Where to?”

“We need to go back to the sewer. I’ve had enough adventure for today, and we’ve caused enough damage at this point, I think,” he answered. “Let’s go.”

We dashed down the stairs, and for some reason, opened the large ornate doors that lead right out of the front entrance. We managed to get halfway down the staircase when suddenly dozens of slavers came pouring out of various hallways, buildings, windows, and tunnels around the four buildings surrounding the post office. Unfortunately for the rest of us, every single one of them was heavily armed. “I think it’s safe to say we’re surrounded,” I observed.

“We have you surrounded,” a very angry voice shouted. Well, no shit. “Drop your weapons and put your hooves over your head. You think you’re in control of the situation, but you’re not. Believe me when I say: we will not give up.”

I looked around at the assembled slavers. Mostly assault rifles, rifles, SMGs, and pistols. All the way in the back, nearly half a block away, a very fancily dressed griffon wearing full-blown pre-war parade regalia grinned in self-centered satisfaction.

“What’s the plan?” I urgently whispered to Rumcake. Doc and Tabber looked to him as well. We were totally surrounded, next to no cover, and definitely outmatched.

“The plan? Kill them all,” Rumcake muttered. The slaver leader continued counting down. “Tabber, we’ll provide covering fire so you can flank them. Start from the building on the right and work your way around.” He nodded and dipped a hoof into his bag. “Frosty, take cover behind the short wall around the building. Take out anypony that’s got a longer reach than you.” I started looking around, trying to identify the slavers armed with sniper rifles. “Doc, I need you to keep us not dead.” He nodded and immediately injected Rumcake with a painkiller. “Thanks. If we don’t survive this, it’s been an honor operating with all of you. Who dares, wins.” He saluted to us, and we saluted back.

A final stand, eh? I like it. It’s very cinematic.

I’d rather it not be my last, brain.

Rumcake opened fire right into the slavers’ front lines, catching them by surprise. The rest of us took cover behind the little wall in front of the post office. I pulled up my rifle and propped up the bipod against the wall. “Covering in three?” I yelled to the rest of our group. Doc dove into cover next to me and pulled out a shotgun with his magic.

I popped out of cover while Rumcake opened fire. Doc was blasting away next to me, and I took a deep breath.

One. I took careful aim right at the largest, shiniest badge pinned to the griffon’s jacket.

Two. I checked my peripheral vision for any potential bullets headed in my direction.

Three. I exhaled and squeezed the trigger.

The bullet flew across the street and buried itself into another slaver mere inches to the left and a few ranks ahead of my intended target.

“Dammit!” I swore as I cycled the next bullet. Damn you, physics! I turned back and realized Tabber was gone. Oh well, at least he’d gotten his covering fire. I looked down the sights and took another breath.

One. Two.

I liquified a slaver wielding a sniper rifle and cycled the bolt. I exhaled and took another breath.

One.

Another slaver picked up the same bucking rifle and I aggressively removed him as well. I exhaled and prepared another shot. A larger armored slaver waddled up with a rocket launcher battle saddle, preparing to fire.

“Dear Celestia take him out!” Doc screamed next to me.

“Got it,” I whispered to myself. “Three rounds left.” I took a breath and centered on his armored head.

One.

Two.

“Boom,” I breathed, and fired.

I didn’t have the luxury of watching his demise, because I was uncomfortably close to an empty mag. “Doc! Reload these for me!” I tossed him my mostly-empty mags and he nodded. He immediately started opening fire with his shotgun, holding it in his magic, while he slowly inserted bullets into my mostly-empty magazines.

I sprayed my submachine gun over the wall, just in time to watch more slavers show up. “Here! One’s done,” Doc shouted over the din of gunfire. He kept reloading the other as I dropped my SMG and picked up my anti-machine rifle again. “Go get ‘em!”

I took a deep breath the second I popped out of cover. Mechanically, I emptied the magazine as fast as possible. Each time I looked down the sight, I did my best to center my sight on a slaver and fired. I racked the bolt and repeated it with deadly precision. Each shot caused the rifle to slam into my shoulder like a sledgehammer.

“There’s too many of them!” Rumcake yelled. He popped out of cover and fired a few more shots, until his assault rifle clicked empty. “Buck! I need a reload!”

Doc stood up and prepared to run across to Rumcake. I rubbed my shoulder with a grimace. “I’ll do that. I’m not firing my rifle for a while. Collar doesn’t help breathing either,” I told Doc. Firing all those shots in quick succession had really hurt my shoulder. Doc nodded and sprayed more buckshot at the slavers while I ran across an open area and behind the wall where Rumcake was hiding.

“Oh Celestia oh Luna we’re going to die. What the buck was I thinking?” Rumcake muttered in a panic. I grinned wildly and reloaded his assault rifle. “Thanks.” He popped over the wall and fired at the slavers again. “Dammit, where’s that scumbag Tabber?”

Right on cue, the three buildings on the right simultaneously exploded and crumbled into rubble. “There’s my Agent!” Doc squealed with glee. “I knew he’d pull through!”

“Keep shooting!” Tabber shouted from a distant rooftop. I regained my composure and opened fire with my SMG. “That’s more like it!” He ducked past a roof and disappeared as the slavers turned their attention back to us.

“We’re trapped! There’s still too many of them!” I screamed as I ducked down and replaced my SMG with my anti-material rifle. At this point, I didn’t even try focusing. I found slavers with interesting weapons in my scope and eliminated them one by one. “Doc! Got any ideas left?”

“…Yes. Yes I do,” Doc replied, his tone of voice having turned rather creepy. He levitated a strange, orange concoction at me and grinned. “One last-ditch effort.” I shrank away from the vial as he stalked closer. “And you get to be the first test subject.”

I sighed in resignation and sat still. “Will it kill me?” Doc wasn’t paying attention because he was prepping the vial and loading it into a syringe. “If this kills me I’m going to haunt your ass all the way to the end of time.”

“You should be fine. I’ll make sure of it.” He tapped the syringe and floated it closer to me. “You’ll feel a slight pinch. Ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.” I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut. “Do it.”

He jammed the syringe into my flank and injected it slowly. I felt the concoction seeping into my bloodstream; for each little second it burned with the intensity of a thousand suns. In some corner of my sane mind, I realized he’d never explained what it actually did. I roared in pain as it flowed further and further through my body, inflicting indescribable pain. All my nerves felt like they were being smashed and squeezed and I screamed in pain again.

And suddenly, it was all gone. As in, everything disappeared. I could barely hear anything over my own heartbeat hammering in my ears. My mind was clearer than ever before, I couldn’t feel anything, and I felt strong! Powerful! Like I could do anything!

Destroy anything!

“You’re not dead yet! That’s good. Now, go get em!” Doc yelled into my ear. I nodded vigorously and jumped over the wall, directly into the line of fire. Bullets were smashing into me, but I didn’t feel pain. My wounds instantly healed and all the gunfire was only making me pissed.

“Yes! Yes!” I roared, jumping directly into the closest slaver and tearing him apart with my claw. I was aware of all the gunfire focused on me, but I shook off bullets like dust. A particularly large force smashed into the side of my head and I looked up at the offending slaver with a demonic expression on my face. “You want some?” I pounced on him and grinned. “You can have all of it!” I screamed and repeatedly smashed my hoof into his face.

As I pummeled the slaver underneath me, somepony was shooting me in the back. “Why. Won’t. You. Die?” he cried in between shots. I slowly turned to glare at him, grinning evilly. “Die!” he cried and shot me in between my eyes. I blinked and shrugged it off. “Wha— no…!”

I grabbed him and threw him into a building, embedding him in a wall. I pounced from one slaver to the next, either raking them with my claw or flat out punching them to death. A large, armored slaver stepped forward and confidently fired his twin-linked assault rifles at me. I slowly pushed toward him, through the hail of small caliber bullets that were doing very little damage. His grin slowly faded when I managed to step up right in front of him and grab his throat. “All ones, bitch,” I whispered, then I broke his neck with a simple twist of my claw.

“Burn, foal. Buuuuuuurn!” An even larger slaver in even heavier armor showed up, armed with a battle-saddle mounted heavy flamethrower. I froze and considered my options. I wasn’t sure whether the napalm would hurt me, but on the other hoof I really wanted this idiot dead. I dived behind the corpse of the recently-deceased assault rifle slaver. “Don’t run away! It’s just napalm!” he taunted.

An idea suddenly popped into my head. I grabbed the firing bit of the assault rifles out of the dead slaver’s mouth and looped my hoof through the slaver’s battle saddle strap. With as much strength as I could muster—

Hehe, mustard…

Not now, brain.

Anyway, I reared up on my hind legs and picked up the slaver, body, assault rifles, and all. “Why don’t you cry some more?” I laughed maniacally and opened fire with the slaver’s assault rifles. My heart was going crazy! It sounded like a zebra drumbeat going at lightning speed in my head!

“Wha—” the flamethrower slaver stammered, and was promptly torn apart in a hail of gunfire. Unfortunately for me, he managed to let out a single gout of flame that hit me. I screamed in shock and reflexive pain, but I was pleasantly surprised when there was no pain, only fire. I must have looked like a demon from hell, wreathed in flame and covered in blood.

“Who’s next?” I cackled. “Bring it!” I licked the blood off my claw as I waited for a new challenger. Warm, tasty blood!

I was surrounded by more slavers, with the fancy slaver in front of me. “Who… What are you?” he stammered.

“I’m a good little pony.” I giggled madly. I slowly stepped closer to him as I spoke. “I know a bunch of tricks. I know good. I know ball.” I was so close to him the flames coming off my hide actually started to scorch his uniform. “And I know rape,” I whispered evilly.

The fancy slaver didn’t even try to move; he was frozen in place with fear. “Uh… eh…” he continued stammering. “Kill her!” he hysterically screamed and ran away. I growled loudly at the slavers circling me. Feeling was returning to my body, the heat on my hide was starting to bother me, and my heart felt like it was going to jump out of my chest. I exhaled in exhaustion and jumped on the closest slaver, lighting him on fire and tearing his throat out. I grabbed the slaver next to him and repeatedly punched in his face. The other slavers started firing at me, and I realized my wounds were no longer healing as fast.

“Crap,” I muttered to myself. “This is it, brain. Nice knowing you.” I stumbled a few steps, trying to grab another slaver but I fell short. My entire body hurt, I was still on fire, and my chest was killing me. I slowly inched toward the slaver, but I realized he was already dead. I painfully turned and looked, realizing all the other slavers around me were all dead. “Oh. Good.” I mumbled happily to myself. I rolled over in the blood-soaked dirt in an attempt to put myself out. Maybe I just needed a nap. Yeah, that was it. As my heart rate slowed down more and more, I caught a glimpse of Rumcake and the others running toward me. “I’m… okay…” I waved at them drowsily with a smile on my muzzle. “Five… more… minutes.” I closed my eyes and descended into the abyss.

~~~~~

Your friends care about you, you know that?” a voice intoned into my mind. It wasn’t loud by any stretch of the imagination, but it had some kind of powerful force behind it. I was just trying to enjoy my little jaunt through the border between life and death, but this voice decided to butt in.

“They’re not my friends,” I told the voice. I twisted around, trying to find the source of the voice, but to no avail. It was dark, smoky, and completely impossible to see anypony. “We’re… colleagues. Associates. Squadmates. I wouldn’t really call it friendship, really.”

Then what do you call that?” the voice intoned with a hint of humor in his voice. Some of the fog cleared, allowing me to see again. The scene unfolding in front of me slowly became clearer. I had a bird’s-eye view of the battle, which was not unfolding well for my Rangers, Doc, and Tabber.

We were all pinned down halfway down main street where I’d collapsed. Baked Potato had somehow found us in the midst of combat and was bravely fighting off slavers that were charging at us. Tabber had collapsed one of the buildings across the street, providing all of us with cover. “What happened?” I asked the voice. My gaze was drawn by a blue magical dome where I’d collapsed. “What’s that?”

Your ‘colleagues’ are risking their lives for you.” I could hear a smile in his voice as he spoke. “Would associates do that?” I frowned in worry and squinted into the blue dome. Doc was pushing his magic to its limits, trying to maintain a shield spell and medical equipment at the same time. Wait, what?

“I guess they are my friends. But why?” I was lying on the ground in the center of the dome, and Rumcake was crouched next to me providing CPR. “Why?” I whispered mournfully. I watched myself just lying there, not moving, barely breathing.

You are the most dysfunctional team in the wasteland. But like it or not, you have each other’s backs. Not because of loyalties, but because of friendship.” I was nudged toward the bubble and I slowly floated toward it. “Look at them. They care about you.

Rumcake was crying with every breath he blew into my lungs, and each pump on my chest seemed to cause him physical pain. He was whispering something to me, but I couldn’t hear what it was. On the other hand, Doc had set up an IV drip and he had the trauma kit open. “Why go through so much effort to save me? I’m jus— HEY!” Doc pulled out a large bottle of Wild Pegasus whiskey and took a long draw from it. Doctors shouldn’t drink on the job! He took out a scalpel and started cutting me open. I winced and attempted to look away.

Okay, now I kind of see why you have your doubts. Wow, I didn’t even know you could use a ribcage like that.” I was torn between intense anger and crushing sadness. They were my friends, and they did care about me in their own little ways. Baked was standing right out in the open, soaking up damage to protect me. Tabber was methodically executing any slavers that got close to us. Rumcake was keeping me alive, and Doc was… using my ribcage as a bottle holder… but still trying to save me!

“So, what happens next?” I asked the voice sadly. “Am I dead?” I sure as hell wasn’t moving down there.

Depends how well your friend does.” The voice sighed, and suddenly sounded much, much older. “Look, if you want I can end it right here for you. I’ve seen what the wasteland does to good ponies like you. I’m giving you a choice right now.”

…I thought about it. I could just let this all go.

Wait, you’re considering this?! You have friends! You’d be throwing too much away here!

What would I be throwing away, really? I’ve already been abandoned, forgotten, even forsaken by the government I used to believe in. I’ve lost whatever family and friends I probably had. Heck, I’ve lost my mind basically—what’s left to lose?

You’d lose him.

I looked back at Rumcake, holding a healing potion to my muzzle. He was crying freely, with tears streaming down his cheeks. Damn it, I was right. Maybe, just maybe…

Looks like you could pull through. My offer still stands,” the voice insisted. Should I? I still had a chance to start over…

Do you really want to give up now? After what they’ve done for you?

But…

Hey! Don’t tell me you’re still thinking about it! This is madness! This is like suicide! Wait… this really is suicide. Don’t do it. Think of them, okay?

I mentally sighed and gave in. Okay, brain, you win this time.

Last chance.

I turned my attention back to the shadows. “I think I’ll stay here. It’s nice.” I smiled gently at the shadows. “I have friends here. Ones that care. It doesn’t matter if I don’t remember anything from my old life, I guess. They care about me and that’s all that matters.”

The voice laughed jovially. “You’ve made a good choice.” The shadows drew away and the battlefield faded out. “I’ll leave you and your split-personalities alone for now.” I sank down into the darkness and gently floated onto the familiar surface of a cloud. “Sweet dreams.

~~~~~

Poke. Poke.

“Geh… stop.” I groaned and rolled over.

Poke. Poke.

“Stop it.”

Pokepokepokepoke.

“Stooooop.” I sat up and looked around. “Back in Cloudsdale, eh? Well, it beats being dead, I guess.” I grabbed the teal ball of fur and feathers that was poking me. “Gotcha!”

Filly Frosty squealed in delight. “Hey! Put me down!” I grabbed her harder and tousled her messy mane. “Stooooop it!” She pouted and squirmed out of my grasp. “Heeeaalp!”

Gala Frosty ambled into the room. “Stop abusing yourself.” She grinned and shooed Filly Frosty into the next room. “How are you holding up?” I poked myself all over looking for anything out of the ordinary.

“I think I’m fine,” I told her. “So, while I wait for somepony out there to wake me up, what’s new in my brain?”

She looked worried. “Well… let’s put this a different way. Drunky?”

Drunk Frosty staggered into the room. “Whatshc up sisss?”

“Would you like to explain your amazing revelation to the original here?” Gala Frosty irritably asked.

“Well you scheeee~” She waved her hooves around in a semblance of… something. “When you” – she pointed at me and continued waving – “represhhd stuffs an’ all ‘round thin’s, we” – she then pointed at herself and Gala Frosty – “comesh into being t’help wif it.” She grinned widely and laughed. “Brilliant, hyuh?”

I gaped at her. Myself. Whatever.

“Oh wait! Alsho, if you do shceritan thingsss like, another one of ush shows up. Triggersh and thingsh.”

“Huh? What do you—” I began, but Filly Frosty grabbed my foreleg and pointed behind me. “Woah. Was that there before?” Either I really didn’t notice it before, or it had recently appeared. There was a steel door built into one of the walls of the cloudhouse.

“It’s been locked ever since you were here last time,” Gala Frosty explained. “Even Drunky couldn’t break in.” Drunk Frosty weakly waved from behind a couch.

“Well, that doesn’t look very locked to me,” I slowly replied, pointing at the steel door that was slightly ajar. “I guess should check it out. Stay here.” The other Frosties nodded and backed up.

I pushed the door open slowly, noting the fact that somehow this entire tiny room managed to not have any lighting whatsoever. In the corner of the room a gray-red pegasus was huddled in a corner, mumbling to herself incoherently. One of her ears perked up as I drew closer and she turned around. “Hi there…” She flexed her claw and grinned evilly at me. Wait, claw? On that note, I realized that this was another version of me! Her coat and mane weren’t red… it was blood! “I bet you taste good…” She licked her lips and continued to grin evilly at me.

“Uh… let’s not go there.” I backed up hastily and bumped into the now-locked door. “Can I please leave?”

“But you just got here!” the insano-Frosty (raider Frosty?) exclaimed in mock surprise. “Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?” she whispered, dragging a talon along the bottom of my muzzle. “Let me out.”

“Wha—?” I stammered. “What?” What was she talking about? They were part of my consciousness, right?

“Let me take over. I can kill anything.” She backed off and sat back in satisfaction. “Think about it. You’ll never have to be injured again.”

“Uh…” Good thing she’d inherited my logic patterns too, I guess. “I’m getting injured even if you’re taking over,” I pointed out. “Also, this is my mind. Mine.”

“Don’t you love that feeling, though?” She grabbed me and pushed me against the floor. “Power. Energy. Blood.”

I roughly shoved her back and opened the door, which had unlocked itself. “I did,” I admitted. I straightened up and glared at Raider Frosty confidently. “But I’m not going to let that control me. Now, stay.” She frowned and I slammed the door in her face.

“So, what’s the plan now?” Gala Frosty asked me.

“I’m going to slap a certain doctor in the face when I wake up,” I growled and then flopped onto the couch for a nap.


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Split Personalities – You’re not crazy. You’re insane! You may swap sub-perks when resting or when critically injured.

New Sub-perk: Diplomacy – Remember thy Charlamane. You gain +3 to Speech.
New Sub-perk: Foal at Heart – Growing up is overrated. You gain additional dialogue options with foals.
New Sub-perk: Alcoholics Obvious – Drink! Drink! Alcohol resistance is doubled, but effects will last twice as long.
New Sub-perk: Bloodthirsty – Blood for the Blood God! You gain +3 to Unarmed.

Chapter 7: Anything new on the insanity front?

View Online

Chapter 7: Anything new on the insanity front?

“TLC as in ‘Tender Loving Care’ or ‘Totally Lost Cause’?”


A liquid dripping sensation pattering down onto my face dragged me out of my impromptu nap. I lazily reached up and wiped them off before attempting to go back to sleep. “Hey! She’s waking up!” somepony cried. He shook me gently, which I tried to pointedly ignore. “We have to go! Come on!”

Somepony unceremoniously dragged me to my hooves and forced me to follow them via the socially-accepted method of pushing. “Huh? Whererewe goin?” I mumbled drowsily. I couldn’t really focus on anything; everything just looked like a hazy blur. As we raced closer to a blue wall blocking our path, I asked the armored pony that had galloped into my field of view, “Wha’z goin’ on?”

The pony dragging me stopped and turned around. “We’re not out of the fire just yet! Doc, drop the back of the shield!” The blue wall in front of us disappeared and we continued forward.

A sudden and tremendously loud explosion erupted from behind us, and I jerked my head towards it. “Gah! Crap!” I watched a lab-coated unicorn drop to his knees and focus harder on his magic. “I can’t hold the spell much longer!” he screamed as magic started sparking from his horn. Another similarly armored pony dashed over, draped the doctor-looking one over his back, and followed us out.

“Doc’s ‘bout to do drop it!” the armored pony yelled. “Move!” The unicorn draped over his back dropped his head and the blue glow from his horn faded away. The dome around us shattered in a ear-deafening crash. “Dammit! Run for it!”

About to do drop. What amazing wording. “Wait, what’s going on? Who are you again?” I asked the one dragging me.

“Oh Celestia’s mercy, not again…” he groaned. “We can figure this out later!” He roughly tossed me into a shallow trench. “Can you shoot?” I shakily nodded. “Here!” He tossed me my anti-material rifle and turned back to the slavers chasing us. “It should still be loaded! Keep those launchers off of us!” He limped forward and opened fire with his grenade launcher.

I started to panic when he gave me the rifle. What do I do? What did he actually expect me to do with this, especially against the number of slavers advancing on us? It took a harrowing moment for me to figure out how the scope worked on this again. Bipod, bipod. Deploy it, Frosty!

Calm yourself. Breathe. Remember your training.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Calm. Yeah, just relax. Imagine yourself in a spa. A battlefield in a spa, maybe. Inhale, exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I opened my eyes, feeling slightly less stressed. Reflexively, I ejected the clip and checked my ammo. Four rounds left. I slammed it back in and racked the bolt. “Call ’em!” I shouted back. “I’ve got four rounds!”

“Sniper at your two! Third floor!” a gas masked pony yelled from my right.

His instructions prompted me to shift my aim. My talon twitched, and I turned the sniper into a fine red mist. “Got him.” I racked the bolt again and peered down the sight. “Three left.” A large tube appeared in the corner of my vision and I immediately put a bullet in it. A fraction of a second later I was rewarded with a large fiery explosion and a lot of flying limbs. “Two,” I informed the rest of the group as I cycled the next bullet into the chamber.

“Rocket teams at your eleven!” somepony yelled. “Get them!”

I swung my rifle again and caught sight of three slavers wielding rocket launchers slowly advancing on our position. “I see them.” I placed another bullet into the middle slaver’s rocket launcher and watched it explode in a violent cloud of blood and fire. “One left,” I reminded them. “Make it count.”

The gas mask pony yanked me out of the trench the moment before an explosion blasted a crater in the trench I was hiding in. “Tunnel vision, newb. We. Are. Leaving!” he shouted into my ear. “Get up and move!” I staggered to my hooves and stumbled after him. “Through the hatch!” I wordlessly jumped down the hatch and landed at the bottom.

I was quickly joined by the armored stallions, the unicorn, and the gas mask pony. “How’s Doc doing?” the unhelmeted armored stallion asked the pony carrying the unicorn, presumably carrying the one named Doc. “He up and about yet?”

“I’ll be fine,” Doc grumbled and slid off the armored pony’s back. “What’s wrong with Frosty?” I was very confused about what was going on, and I was probably giving all of them my best I-have-no-idea look. Or at least I thought I was- my normal expression might have looked exactly the same.

“We were hoping you could enlighten us,” the unhelmeted Ranger said.

Uh, what’s going on up there, brain?

I don’t even—

“Well, I guess being that full of painkillers is probably leaning toward lethally comical levels,” Doc remarked, walking over to me. “Okay, what’s going on in there, Frosty?” He pulled a small light out of his lab coat and shined it into my eyes. “I need symptoms.”

“I don’t know. I can’t brain to this right now.” I groaned and rubbed my head. “Not a whole lot is making sense right now; I can’t remember a bunch of stuff either.”

“Crap. Well, that’s probably partly my fault.” Doc sighed and put away his light. “As far as I can tell, basic functions are working just fine. I think you have a little brain damage to go with your earlier brain damage.” Fortunately, I knew that multiple debuffs didn’t stack so I would hopefully be fine. “Judging by your confusion, you don’t remember your amnesia from before. Wow, that sounded smarter before I said it.”

“Basically what happened is you got a little brain damaged before we met you, then during the battle your heart stopped and you died for a little bit,” Rumcake told me. Aha! That was his name! Okay, at least I was making progress. Wait… what? “Turns out death is a side effect of Doc’s amazing battle drug.”

Doc held up his hooves defensively. “Hey! She’s a pegasus! I kinda thought her heart could take it. At least we now know that combining that much adrenaline and Stampede and Hydra and all the other things I tossed in there apparently only works in theory!”

“Wait, you pumped me full of what?” I screamed at him. “How did you not know about the side effects? Death is not an acceptable side effect!”

Doc sighed and sat down. “Tabber, cover our escape. They won’t be following us down here and I think Frosty deserves an explanation.” The gas masked pony pressed a button as the hammering on the hatch got louder. “At the time, it seemed like a good idea. Stampede for firepower, Hydra for healing, cranberry juice, healing potions imbued with a detection spell to speed up the Hydra, Med-X to keep you going, and a whole lot of other stuff to keep you alive.”

“Speaking of which, that reminds me,” I growled as I stomped over to him. “My ribcage does not also function as a cupholder!” I roared as I punched his muzzle as hard as I could. “Oh that felt good,” A decision immediately regretted, as I shook the uncomfortable tingles out of my hoof. Doc was lying on the ground with a hoof-shaped bruise slowly forming on the side of his muzzle.

“Okay, I deserved that,” he mumbled while rubbing his muzzle. An explosion on the surface shook the entire tunnel and dust fell from the ceiling.

“And now they’re gone.” Tabber laughed quietly while he put away the detonator. “Well, it’s been a blast working with you, but I’ve got to get to my extraction point. I’ll accompany you back to the Hills to restock, then I’m out.”

We sat there in an awkward silence, just breathing heavily and completely spent from the combat we’d just been in. Rumcake fiddled with his grenade launcher. Baked had his chestplate off attempting to scrape dried blood and gore off his armor. Tabber was just sitting there, staring off into the distance. “So… what happens now?” I asked my gathered group.

“Well, they’re all dead. Time to go shopping!” Doc happily exclaimed. “Back to town, then!” All of us got up and trudged off in the direction of Happy Hills, completely exhausted and ready to collapse at a moment’s notice.

After the hectic mess we had just gone through, none of us really felt like talking. I was too busy trying not to inhale too deeply, since doing so hurt quite a lot. The rest of me probably wouldn’t start hurting until later. Maybe I could take some time off to be angsty and brooding while I did absolutely nothing productive. Hm. That was an idea, I suppose.

—yway, finally some good news for my little ponies living north of Manehattan. Turns out some Steel Ranger spec ops an’ a plucky little pegasus have completely leveled the Rad Lads Slaver’s stronghold a few miles from Happy Hills.”

I wasn’t expecting the calm silence I was marinating in to be broken by Rumcake’s radio. Good to know that wastelanders had some sort of tilted propaganda to listen to in the spare time. Hold on, “plucky little pegasus”? Did I look plucky? Hopefully if I remembered, I’d see if the Rangers had saved a dictionary so I could look up the word.

Now, some of you might be askin’: What kind of Steel Rangers actually help ponies? My answer: I have no idea. Maybe they finally figured out that the wasteland needs their help? I like to think so, but most likely those slavers got their filthy hooves on some good prewar tech. Steel Rangers love that prewar tech. If you kind folks down at Happy Hills see them, go ahead and give em’ a wave. Well that’s the news, children! This has been DJ Pon3, bringing you the news. No matter how bad it hurts.

“Eh, I guess any publicity is better than no publicity,” Rumcake muttered.

“Steel Ranger special operative, eh? I like it.” Doc grinned at the Steel Rangers walking in front of him.

“I think the DJ was talking about them, idiot,” Tabber grunted, whacking Doc in the back of his head.

“I don’t know. DJ Pon3 sees everything, right? It sounds like he was talking about our group and Frosty,” Doc replied, rubbing the back of his head. “Otherwise… I don’t know. I just want to eat a ton of apple chips and take a nap. I’m tired.”

“Ugh. Same. Feels like all the bones in me body’s broke,” Baked groaned.

“Don’t lie. You didn’t do much anyway,” Rumcake replied. “I, on the other hoof, don’t want to move anymore.” He continued limping along silently.

We continued along in silence until we reached the exposed service tunnel which was our way back. Unfortunately, it was several meters out of reach from my groundborne companions. My chest ached and burned, reminding me that I might not have the ability to get up there either.

“Well, maybe we should have thought of that,” Tabber muttered, staring at the sheer wall in front of us. “Seapony Energy tunnels are up there. How do we—?” He turned to look at me. “Hey, can you still fly up there?”

I slowly flapped my wings and weakly grinned. “Sure.” I grunted with effort as I cumbersomely flew up to the hole in the wall. I climbed the last few feet using the exposed rebar and collapsed at the top. I inched my way back over to the edge and asked the rest of them, “So, how are you four going to get up here?”

Tabber pointed his hoof up at me and a tiny little hook sprang out of a wrist-mounted device that wasn’t there a moment ago. The hook buried itself into the concrete ceiling and then he began to be pulled up by his bucking grappling hook. “Yeah, how are the three of you going to get up here?” he gloated as he stood next to me at the top.

Doc sighed and closed his eyes. His horn weakly glowed with magic and eventually enveloped Rumcake in his blue magical field. “Hold onto your lunch.” He strained with effort and suddenly flung Rumcake at the opening.

“What the buuuu—” he squealed, before colliding with the wall next to me with a crash. “A little warning would have been nice,” he growled as he comically slid to the ground.

Doc sat there, panting and sweating from exertion. “Okay, you next!” He grabbed a protesting Baked in his magic field and flung him at the opening. Unfortunately, Baked bounced off the wall next to the hole and hit the ground with a crash. “Crap. Okay, let’s try that again…” Doc picked up Baked again and flung him one more time, this time missing the tunnel entirely.

“Stop! I think I can—” Baked started. He was cut off by Doc picking him up again. “No! NONONONO—”

“Hold on. Third time’s the charm.” Doc was struggling but he still managed a weak laugh. He flung Baked again, and finally managed to smash him into the same space Rumcake was occupying a moment ago on the wall. “There you go!” He collapsed and groaned “I’m completely spent. Somepony help me.”

I rolled my eyes and glided down to the bottom. “I got you. Hold on.” I wrapped my forelegs around his torso and painfully flew him over to the tunnel we were all standing around in. “Okay… we’re finally here…” I panted. So tired. Celestia, I need a break. Suddenly pain gripped my chest and I collapsed. What was happening? I couldn’t breathe!

“Hey! What’s wrong?” Rumcake asked urgently. I mewled in pain as the tightening in my chest became unbearable. “Doc! I need some help here!” He gently pushed me onto my back and held me in his forelegs. I gasped for breath as the grip on my chest continued to tighten.

Doc rushed over while I spasmodically writhed around in pain. “Crap. All that movement must have caused another attack.” He unzipped the trauma kit and took out a syringe. “Now, I knew I kept this stuff around for a good reason.” He injected me with it and the pain faded away. I let out a relaxed sigh and coughed. “Feel better?”

“Yeah,” I breathed. Doc offered a Med-X and I gratefully accepted it. A sudden realization struck me after the mind numbing happiness of Med-X washed through my system. “Wait. How much Med-X and crap have I taken today?” I asked as I clambered to my hooves.

Doc shrugged and slung the trauma kit back onto his back. “How would I know?”

“What?” I screamed. “How do you not know?” I lunged forward at him, but Rumcake grabbed me in an immobilizing bear hug. “Dammit, let me go!” Disregarding the potential health hazard to myself, I struggled to break Rumcake’s grip on me. “I have a doctor to kill!” I managed to wiggle my claw free and I swatted at Doc hopefully.

“Ah, ah, ah. None of that,” Doc chided. I growled and stretched just long enough to barely scratch the tip of his nose. “Ow! Hey!” He jumped back and held his snout in his hooves.

“C’mere, you,” Rumcake huffed. I flailed at Doc some more, until he grabbed my claw and pinned it to my body with his iron grip. “Play nice.”

I hissed and squirmed around. “Fine,” I muttered once I realized I couldn’t escape.

“What was that?”

“I’ll play nice,” I muttered louder. Sheesh. “Now let me go.”

Rumcake carefully released me and backed up. “Let’s just get back to town without killing each other.” I glared at Doc angrily. Rumcake stepped between us and steered me toward the edge of the group. “Enough with the angry glaring and more of the walking, okay?”

Convinced, I snorted and turned away from them. “If you keep that face up, it’ll stick like that.” Rumcake teasingly added.

Trying not to scowl at him was bothersome as I responded, “I’m not making a face.”

Doc gasped in mock horror. “We’re too late. It’s happened!”

~~~~~

The first thing I did when we got back to town was immediately collapse in the rafters of Rusty’s home, as opposed to seeking further medical attention since there was a very good chance I’d also get attention I wasn’t seeking in the first place.

Nothing like a nice long nap after a day of combat and heart failure.

Thanks for that, brain. Now that I thought of it, I’d noticed my chest twinged every now and then, but I hadn’t had another attack since the tunnels. Without specifically grabbing at anything in my pile of random soft things that I called my nest, I bundled myself up like a burrito of aches and pains and attempted to get some rest. Being surrounded by soft grubby cloth wasn’t anywhere as comfortable as a cloud mattress, but it still felt like it in my condition. I rustled my wings to get some softness under them as well. Soft Frosty, warm Frosty, purr, purr, purr.

Poke.

Dammit, not now.

Poke.

Stop it, I’m monologuing.

Poke. Poke. Poke.

“Dammit, why does everypony wake me with poking?” I whined, looking up to see who my current assailant was.

Lo and behold, I already had a visitor to keep me from getting any rest.

“Oh, hey, Broken Parts, what’s up?” Ugh, everything hurt so much… I weakly rolled into a sitting position and grudgingly stretched, sending small lances of pain through my body.

Broken Parts grinned at me and pulled out a small vial of Med-X. “Doc says you’ll probably need this,” she said, dropping it onto my pillow. I gratefully took the vial and injected it into my foreleg. “Feeling better?” I nodded with a small sigh. “That’s probably Med-X addiction kicking in.” I froze. What? “Don’t look so surprised. You’ve been using those for the past week or so, right? And being from the Enclave, I would assume you’ve used painkillers before.”

I groaned. She was right, and I couldn’t argue with the science. I’d probably built up a resistance to painkillers over the years, and recent heavy use was probably creating a dependency on the drug.

And whatever Doc had in that crap he injected us with.

Exactly, brain.

“Well, I guess it was bound to happen at some point.” I sighed and kicked the vial in disgust. “Where’s Rusty?” I asked.

“He’s working with Doc. Funny thing is, big bro’s got a thing for medicine.” She hopped back down to the floor and rummaged through a cabinet. “Who knew, right? Hopefully he doesn’t start taking everypony apart.” She pulled out her keycard and looped it around her neck. “You coming back to work anytime soon?” she asked hopefully.

I shook my head. “Ironically, I want to get a clean bill of health from Doc. Those are words that should not be in the same sentence.” She raised her eyebrow but didn’t say anything about it. “I’ll see you later, I guess.”

“Wait, where are you going?”

“Things and stuff. Don’t worry about it.” Broken Parts waved and left, off to do her own business.

“Well, time to see the Doc then. Wow, and now I’m talking to myself.” I shook my head and facehoofed. “Great job, brain,” I breathed to myself.

Shut up.

I sat back down and spread out my wings for a good preening. Let’s see… that primary’s broken. Yank. Loose tertials gotta go. Yank. Yank. Ya—“OW!” I spat out a few feathers that needed removing, along with the two next to them which should have stayed right where they were.

“Yo! What’s going on up there?” Rusty called. Eh? I peeked over the edge and gave him a friendly smile. “You feeling alright?”

I sighed again and ruffled my feathers a bit. “Just catching up on some grooming.” I flicked some feathers down at him and adjusted my wings. “When’d you get here?”

“Ran out of things to do and clean, so I just got back a moment ago,” He pointed at the space underneath my sleeping area. “There’s more down here, you know that? I sleep here.” Oh. Right. Wow, he could be really quiet. “Heading to Doc’s?”

I nodded and hopped down to the floor. “Yeah. Apparently he wants to talk to me and I gotta get some stuff figured out anyway. You got work?”

“Nah. Not really. Doc’s pretty much hired me as his assistant.” He smiled and pushed open the door. “Ladies first?” I rolled my eyes and grinned. Aww. He followed me outside and shut the door. “Anyway, a bunch of things changed in the day and a half you were gone.” Wait, what? Was our trip really that long? He didn’t catch my perplexion and continued, “Those Rangers you know brought back some of their friends and boy, are they happy.”

“What?” I asked, right as I caught the sight of a gigantic banner with the familiar winged sword and whatnot of the Steel Rangers. “Oh. I’m going to assume they moved in?” Rusty nodded vigorously and hopped in place.

“Isn’t it great?”

“I dunno…” Where they really here to help? Or were they here for the Seapony Energy ruins under the town? “They gave back your water talisman, then?”

Rusty nodded again. “Oh yeah! They also helped upgrade our defenses, but they did disband the militia. At least we’ll have more scrappers working the tunnels.” Okay, that was totally not suspicious at all. I filed that tidbit away for later.

We arrived at Doc’s clinic and I followed Rusty through to the back room, not before I idly greeted a familiar yellow mane on the way there. “Hey, Instant Noodles,” I automatically called out.

“Greetings,” she absentmindedly replied.

We pushed through the back doors and once again, Rumcake was out of his armor and propped up in a bed. “This is all your fault,” he huffed at me, pointing his cast-covered right foreleg. Baked was still standing in the corner from last time.

I attempted to sneak up on Baked and tip him over like last time, but before I could buck his armored flank, he growled. “Ye best not do that, lass.” His helmet slowly turned to face me. “Do I make meself clear?”

“Yeah, totally.” I sheepishly grinned and backed off. “So, what happened to you this time?” I asked Rumcake. “Fall down some stairs?”

He scoffed and replied, “I got shot up really badly while trying to get you to safety.” Ouch. Way to make me feel guilty for what happened at the slaver stronghold. “Honestly, this is worse than that time one somepony filled our bunker’s water with seahorses. Seahorses. Do you know how painfully those things thrash around in your stomach? And, did you know that seahorses live for months in your stomach? Because—and there’s the thing—they don’t. They were demon seahorses, I think. By the Goddesses, they bred in there! I had seahorses fucking in my stomach!” He sighed hard, rubbing his jaw. “Goddesses, why would somepony do that to our water?”

Baked Potato coughed. “Well, where else was I supposed to try out that ‘My Littlest Seahorse Creation and Raising’ kit?”

Slowly, oh so slowly, Rumcake turned his head to Baked Potato. “That… that was you?”

“Aye. I got that kit from some guy up in command who wanted to… I think they were trying to weaponize radioactive seahorses for… whatever reason, d’ya kenn?” He shrugged. “After they bred a whole family in your stomach and ye shat ’em out, command called the test a success. I got a raise from the whole thing for keeping me mouth shut, say true.” Baked Potato rubbed his chin. “I shudder to think of where my littlest seahorses are now.”

“I…” Rummy’s eye twitched. “You fished them out?”

“Aye, so I did,” Potato, tilting his head. “Why d’ya ask?”

“I… I…” He twitched ever harder. “I think I’m going to murder you for that. Right here. Right now. With my hooves.”

“You know,” I said, “I’m still here.”

“Good,” Rumcake growled. “You get to watch me murder our friend, Knight Baked Potato, on the grounds that he made me drink and then shit live seahorses.”

I sighed. “Hey, did you know that I now have an addiction to Med-X?” I yawned and scratched at my tangled mane. Wow, I needed a good brushing.

“And we can deal with that problem,” Rumcake said, fidgeting with his blanket, “after I murder him.”

Potato scoffed. “I’d like to see ya try.”

“Do you know just how damn much I outrank you?” Rumcake hissed, adjusting his bed pillow.

“Not nearly as much as that shadowy agent from an unknown but nevertheless menacing part of the Steel Rangers.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m tired and I feel totally out of it right now. I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone, but, uh, where’d our secret agent pony go?” I asked.

“He’s resting up in the Smashed Spritebot Inn,” Doc said while holding a clipboard in his magical field. “He’ll be here for a few days before he leaves for whatever he needs to do. As for the rest of the Rangers that showed up, I believe they took over the militia barracks.” He levitated one of his bonesaws out. “Now, let’s get that cast off, shall we?”

“No! Get that away from me!” Rumcake screamed. “I can do it myself! I can’t kill Baked Potato if I’m dead!”

I watched the two of them scuffle and wrestle with each other, and I lamented not having a recording device to record Rumcake’s sheer look of terror.

Wait… who was that in the front?

Eh? What?

Seriously. Go back in the other room.

“Hold on, I gotta check something,” I told everypony else. I let Rumcake struggle with Doc and his multitude of bonesaws floating around. I pushed through the double doors and double checked who was there.

What’d I tell you?

Shut up, brain, this is your fault.

“Wait, Instant Noodles? What are you doing here?” I hopped over to her and gave her a big hug right as she turned around in response. “How ya doing?”

“I’m great.” She hugged me back and bopped my nose. “How’s the noggin doing?”

“Not good.” I sighed and sat down. “Good news is, I’m not hallucinating.”

“That’s good.”

“Apparently I’ve developed a few split personalities.”

“That isn’t as good.” Instant levitated out a notepad and pencil and started quickly writing things down.

“I know. So far, they just live in my head.”

“Can I… uh… talk to them?”

I rubbed my forehead. “I don’t know. I think they just talk to me when I’m stressed or something. Maybe they come out when I start being more like them.”

“What do you mean?”

I frowned shamefully. “You know how I get when I’m hopped up on combat drugs?” She raised an eyebrow and gave me a strange look that prompted me to try and elaborate further. “There’s a side of me that… uh…” I cringed inwardly. “I don’t want her coming out anytime soon.”

“I assume you created a personality that thrives on violence and combat?”

I nodded. “She’s a bit on the unstable side, and I really don’t want to find out whether or not I can regain control if she gets out.” I was starting to get uncomfortable, so I decided to change the subject. “I need a favor.”

Thankfully, she understood my discomfort. “What do you need?” she asked.

“I need you to do that mind dive thing again.” Ever since Tabber mentioned the place he was extracted from, it was poking at my mind like something that was important. “Ever heard of this place called Old Olneigh?”

“It’s an old ruin that’s full of nothing but danger. Most ponies avoid the place like it’s tainted. Heck, it’s probably radioactive too. Why?”

“I… I don’t know. It just feels important.” I idly tugged at my mane with my claw. “I think I was there, judging from my last memory.”

Instant flipped through her notes attached to the clipboard. “I’d say you’re probably right. I’ve been near the outskirts once and your memory sequence appears to confirm that. So you want to go back?”

“Yeah. I want to know what happened.” My ears perked up to some screaming and swearing coming from the back room, followed by maniacal laughter. “Sounds like somepony’s getting their cast removed.”

“Well, let’s get started, I guess. You have a timeframe?” I shook my head. Instant shrugged and started charging her horn with magical energy. “I’ll just eyeball it. Get comfortable.” I laid down on the scuffed tiling and imagined that it was a plush couch instead. She rested her horn against my head and everything just melted away.

<~~~>

The noise of wind thundering around me caused me to snap into focus. I looked around the dimly lit area and it became familiar as the troop bay of a Vertibuck. “Well, you were close,” I whispered to Instant, who was sitting in a crash harness next to me. “Though I think we’re not close enough.” I looked myself over and noticed I still had all my hooves, and it somehow made me feel at ease.

“Why?” she asked.

“This is a Vertibuck, and by the looks of the spooks in coats—” I nodded at the three expressionless pegasi dressed in lab coats sitting across from me “—this is the penultimate ride to my demise.” I automatically patted myself down and tugged on the straps of my scout armor. I sighed. “You know, I was really hoping today would turn out better.”

“You said it. I was going to sleep today,” a similarly suited buck complained next to me. “Why’d command have to send us, of all ponies?” I awkwardly reached over through my crash harness and hoofbumped him. “That feel.”

“Cram it, dickwad,” one of the scientists yelled. “This is important.”

I ignored his outburst, but my companion felt like he needed to add something. “What? I can’t hear you over the sound of wind and bullshit!” he shouted. I giggled and hoofbumped him again. “Can it. You’re paid to read, not to lead.”

The scientist scowled at us and turned back to his colleagues in quiet discussion. “What do you think they’re talking about?” I asked my squadmate.

“Your guess is as good as mine. I can’t hear them from over here… how are you?” he half-yelled over the clamor and wind.

“I could be better. How’s your mom doing?”

“Eh. The doctors says she’ll live.”

A speaker in the wall blared to life. “Good afternoon, this is your captain speaking. You may notice we are slowing down and the small arms fire is no longer scratching my paint. If you look out the nonexistent windows on the port side, you’ll see we are approaching your landing zone. On the starboard side, you can wave at the rest of your squad in Vulture One-One.

“Weapons check,” I muttered to my squadmate. I patted myself down and made sure all my gear was all in place.

All crew, prepare for drop,” the speaker squaked. “Prepare to unload equipment from Vulture One-One. Thank you for flying Team Vulture. Have a nice day.

My squadmate and I unhooked ourselves from the crash harnesses and I assisted Instant Noodles out of hers. The back door opened up and we jumped down onto the cracked rooftop. I was back on the familiar setting from my last memory trip, but this time everything was still intact. “Let’s just get this over with,” I shouted over the noise of the rotors.

The rest of the squad was piling out of the other Vertibuck that landed nearby on the other side of the roof. “Move it, pegasi! I want this science crap outta this Vertibuck five minutes ago!” my father roared at the rest of my squad. I trotted over to help out when he pointed behind us. “You too! Get those analytical flanks in gear! I want you three moving your crap too!”

We sniggered as the three scientists dashed past us and immediately started unloading crates. My squadmate nudged me. “Ashtray really loves pushing around the squints, eh?”

“Hey! I’m the only one that gets to stand around! Get. Moving!” my dad yelled at us. Oh Dad, you so funny. Dad… I wiped a tear from my eye. I’d never see him again after this. We immediately jumped into action, moving more random crates and tables.

The scientists started setting up their equipment as we finally finished moving the last of the crates off. “So, why are you here?” Instant asked me. “What is your squad here for?”

I gently lowered a crate onto another crate. When in doubt, look busy and wait to be told what to do. “We just happened to be scheduled for a training run, but the Council decided that we should go into the field and defend these damn scientists.”

Speaking of which, the scientists finally finished setting up whatever their device was. “And what might that be?” my dad demanded at one of the scientists. “I wanna know what I’m risking my squad here for!”

“It’s out of your pay grade, oldie,” one of the scientists shot back. “You’re here for defense. That’s all you need to know.”

Dad growled and paced off, muttering about bureaucratic jargon and red tape. He always did hate the Enclave’s unnecessarily complex governmental system.

“Hey! This is a restricted zone. How did you even get in here?” a voice from behind me shouted. Eh? I whipped around and nearly ended up muzzle-to-muzzle with a very angry Enclave officer. “Airpony, how did you get in here? This. Is. Restricted. Territory.”

“Uh… magic?” I tentatively answered. I looked to Instant Noodles for help. “This definitely isn’t part of the memory,” I whispered to her.

“You will address me as SIR!” the officer shouted. “Atten-shun! Now, how did you get in here?”

“Magic, sir!” I shouted back, snapping into attention against my will. Crap! What was going on? “Awaiting orders, sir!” I couldn’t move! I struggled to even turn my head, but nothing was working. Help!

“So, who are you?” Instant Noodles asked him. “Not part of the memory, are you?” Out of the corner of my eye, I could tell the memory had stopped entirely. “Release her.”

“Missy, you have no idea who you’re dealing with,” the officer shouted. “I suggest you back away.”

Instant blasted him with some kind of magical beam, but it only bounced off him. “Dammit. Well, it was worth a try.”

“Your magic will not work on me! I do not believe in your magic!” He charged at Instant and backhoofed her across the roof. “Back. Off. Atten-shun!” he barked.

Instant squeaked and suddenly she snapped back to attention. “What th- Orders, sir!”

“Good, another soldier. Now, you will tell me how you got in here.” The officer smiled.

“Up your ass and around the corner, sir!” I shouted back. Oh good, at least I could still snark at him. “Is there another way, sir?”

“Shut it, scout.” He grimaced and turned around. “Off to the brig with you two.” The memory dissolved into a multitude of shifting lines and fog. “I’ll deal with you later.”

<~~~>

I think we were forced out of my memory by that officer. Next thing I knew, I was waking up on the clinic floor underneath Instant Noodles. “Ugh… thunderclouds, what happened? Did I just get kicked out of my brain?” Who was that in there?

“Why wasn’t I invited?” Rumcake whined when he saw us.

“Hey! Nothing happened!” I knew I was turning red. Instant Noodles started waking up above me. I nudged her urgently. “Wake up!”

“Wha’?” Instant muttered. “Woah! Sorry!” she clambered off of me and I stood up. “Wow, you have a really messed up mind.”

“So. You’re into those kind of things?” Rumcake smugly added. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

I turned even redder and hid my face behind my forelegs. “Why do these things happen to me?” I moaned. “Why?” Something in my chest fluttered and I winced.

“Wait, wha—?” Instant started, then she covered her muzzle with a hoof when she caught Rumcake’s grin. “Oh Celestia, I’m so sorry! I didn’t even—”

I sighed. “It’s fine. I’m getting used to it, I think.”

“So… what are you two doing?” Rumcake asked.

Instant and I shared a glance and simultaneously blurted out, “Girl stuff.”

“Right…” Rumcake nodded, pretending to understand. “While I’m here, what are you up to, Frosty? Feeling better yet?”

“Eh. I don’t know. I gotta get Doc to check out my health. You?” I replied. I was still shaking off the creepy feeling that somepony in my head just removed me from my own brain.

“Not much. I need to go check what’s going on with the Ranger outpost thing happening in town. Apparently we moved in, permanently.”

Instant pushed past us and mentioned, “I’m just hanging out in the clinic helping out Doc Galactic. Drop by if you’ve got anything else you’d like to share.” She smiled and started walking into the back room.

“Wait, where’s Doc?” I called after her. She pointed her clipboard back at Doc’s combination brewing/science experiment that had expanded slightly more since I’d seen it last. “What?” I trotted over to the other side of the table and faceclawed. “Seriously, Doc? It’s been, like, five minutes,” I groaned.

It’s been, like, an hour.

Doc was lying facedown in a large pile of alcohol bottles, soda bottles, assorted chip bags, and several boxes of snack cakes. I reached over him and helped myself to a box of cherry snack cakes and a Sparkle-Cola.

“Bwuh? Wha’?” Doc slurred, shifting around on his pile of trash. “Someone call for a Doc?” He flipped over and feebly waved his hooves in the air. “Help me up.” I grudgingly grabbed one of his hooves and pulled him up. “What can I do you for?”

“On a scale of one to five, how drunk are you?” I asked in exasperation.

“Floor. Definitely floor. Or hungover.” He stumbled over to the table and picked up a vial. “But really, what can I do for you?”

“I need to figure a few things out. And I’d like you sober,” I told him. Doc nodded and reached over to his contraption for a mysterious brown colored liquid in a beaker. He downed the contents in one large gulp. “Uh… better?”

Apparently not, as he asymmetrically blinked and continued to stand there. “Mn’mnt,” He drowsily grunted.

“I, uh, didn’t catch that.”

He yawned and flicked his tail. “Moment.”

So then I awkwardly stood there and watched Doc alternate between idle stretching and yawns that threatened to pass on to me. He chugged the rest of the liquid down and instantly perked up, looking much less bedraggled.

“Yeah. So! Whaddya need?” he asked, also sounding much less hungover.

“First things first. Why do I feel so tired? And sluggish?” I asked.

“That’s because your body is slowly becoming dependent on a whole multitude of chems. I’m going to assume you were in a lot of pain when you woke up?”

“Yeah. Broken gave me a Med-X to make it go away. Why?”

“Congrats, you’re addicted. Now, it’s partially my fault and I do apologize. Which also probably brings us to our next question. Turns out all the chems I used to make my super combat formula is not safe for your heart or liver.” He scratched his chin and fiddled around with a few tubes on his chemistry set.

“No, really.” I sarcastically snarked back. “So that explains the passing out bits, but why?”

“So, a select few chems, when used in conjunction, will cause your heart rate to skyrocket dramatically to a ludicrous degree. That’s also how I planned to circulate the chems through your system faster. However, I forgot to actually find out whether it was survivable. Or perform clinical trials.” Both of us facehoofed. “Sorry about that.”

“Dammit, Doc.” I punched my chest as the fluttering became more annoying. “What the hell is going on in there?” I growled, staring at my chest.

“That’s probably arrhythmia or something kicking in,” he answered, still fiddling with his pipes. He looked over and caught my blank expression and he continued, “Basically, your heart rate is unstable because I had to jump-start you with magic and a spark battery. I’m hoping your body fixes it on its own, but try not to exert yourself, just in case.”

“Fine,” I grumbled. Well, I guess that meant no more flying for a while. “So, besides Med-X, what else am I addicted to?”

“Let’s say you want to lay off the Med-X, Dash, Stampede, Rage, Buck, Hydra, motherly love, the screams of a mare in pain, flashbacks to wars you weren't in, chewing gum, sock puppets, the letter Q, and gypsies. Just in case. You know what? No more chems for you, and you’ll probably be fine.” My jaw dropped. Was that all the chems in existence? ”Anything else?” he added.

I nervously pawed at the ground. Did Doc really need to know about them? “Well…”

“What’s on your mind?”

“That’s the thing. What do you know about mental health?”

“Look at me. Does it look like I know about mental health?” Doc grinned, motioning to himself. “But I know enough, as a doctor. Why?”

“How do split personalities work?” I asked, staring at the ground. Goddesses, this was embarrassing. Oh the irony, being just as crazy as Doc.

“Well, you might want to talk to the Ranger lady. As far as I know, split personalities just kinda take up space in your brain due to stress or something.” Doc finished tweaking the pipes and pushed a button, causing some more brown liquid to flow around in his contraption. “Here, try some of this,” he said, levitating the beaker toward me.

“What is it?” I cautiously asked, taking the beaker in my claw. I sniffed it and took a tiny sip. I scrunched up my muzzle and pushed the beaker back at him. “Ugh! That’s really bitter! What the hell is it?”

Doc rolled his eyes. “Take a larger drink. It’s really good.” I sighed and downed a larger gulp. Bitter, kind of earthy, and sort of… sweet? “Like it?”

“I… don’t know. I think I like it.” I took another small gulp. “It tastes kinda good and weird at the same time.” A little tingle washed through me and I suddenly stopped. I felt less inclined to sleep and more inclined to question reality. “Wait… what did you do to me?” I peered into the beaker. “What’s in this?”

“Nothing. It’s called coffee. Somepony delivered some powdered mix to me that they found in a storage bin.” He pulled out a small packet from behind some other bottles, flasks, and jars. “Here!” He gave me the packet. ‘Instant Coffee with a Hint of Chocolate! Free Sample from M.O.M. Courtesy Desk.

“Coffee, eh? Only the officers get that,” I mused. “I kinda thought it would be more… sweet.” Back when I could still remember things, only officers were allowed access to the Officer’s Mess Hall where they had much more interesting food there. Wait. Brain, why don’t you remember more useful things?

Shut up. All this brain damage isn’t helping.

“What are your plans for today?” Doc asked, brewing another batch of coffee. Part of me wanted another beaker, but I didn’t think I needed another.

“I don’t know. Since I need to take it easy, I’m not going exploring or anything.” I mulled over the options in my mind. Rumcake and Baked were hanging out somewhere, Tabber was in the Smashed Spritebot Inn, Doc and Instant were in here. What to do? “You know what, I gotta get my brain sorted out. I’ll be in the back room if you need me.”

He nodded and went back to brewing another batch of coffee. I went into the back room and waved at Instant Noodles. “I assume you woke up Doc, then?” she asked.

“Yeah. He’s got coffee.” I grinned and motioned outside. “Turns out he knows what he’s doing with that contraption of his.” I hopped up onto one of the comfy clinic beds and laid down on it. “In more serious news, you wanna go clean out my brain?”

She took a look at her clipboard and nodded. “Sure. As long as this doesn’t last for six hours, I’ve got time.” She tucked her clipboard and pencil away somewhere in her robes. “Alright. You ready?” Instant asked as she charged her horn with magic.

“Let’s do this. I’m going to give this idiot a piece of my mind. Wait.” Damn you brain for making one-liners that don’t make sense. She touched her horn to my head and I dozed off again, ready for a fight.

<~~~>

“Welcome back, dirtbags,” the officer taunted. “Welcome to the brig. You get to stay here any time you drop in.” I examined my surroundings with slight disinterest. I had appeared in a small dark room made of steel with a tiny steel-barred doorway in a wall. “I’ll be back later. Have fun in there.”

I resisted the urge to re-enact a scene from a bad movie I arbitrarily recalled with an equally bad rendition of a song that sort of went, “Nopony knows the troubles I’ve seen…” or something like that. Since my knowledge of the lyrics didn’t extend past that singular line, I chose against a chance at an imaginary academy award.

The sound of his hoofsteps faded away into the distance. “Well, now what?” Instant asked from the cell next to me. “I’m trapped here with you.” From the sounds of clip-clopping hooves on metal, she was probably either pacing or performing a river dance.

“Uh… I got nada. I was really hoping my mental security wasn’t this good.” I tapped the bars. Very solid and secure. “You have anything?”

“Well… I’m going to try something stupid. I’m going to assume your cell looks almost exactly like mine?” she asked. “Boring steel walls, one tiny door?”

“Yep. What are you—” I started. I heard the sounds of hooves on steel, following by a loud high-pitched bang. Moments later, Instant suddenly appeared in midair accompanied by a shower of sparks and light. “Woah!”

“Hey! It worked!” she cried. Then she looked around and gravity caught up with her. She dropped to the floor with a squeak and grinned at me. “Duh nuh nuh nuuuuhh nah nah nah nah-naah! Yay, I can teleport!” she singsonged.

“Good work! Now you’re trapped in here with me!” I congratulated her. “Now what?”

“Oh…” She paused and looked crestfallen. “Well, my plan didn’t go that far.”

“Hmm…” What could we do? Sure, there were two of us. But we still couldn’t escape this little cell! “Can you teleport to that side and open the door?”

“Nah. The only reason I teleported in here was because I had enough space to do so. That hallway is too dark and narrow. I don’t want to find out whether dying in here kills me in real life as well,” she replied. “Wait, this is your mind… why don’t you just imagine your way out?”

I thought about that, which was itself a scary thought. That’d I actually trying thinking that, not that other part. “Worth a try, I guess.” I closed my eyes and imagined the door swinging open. “Anything?” I asked with my eyes still closed.

“No. Try harder.”

I focused harder. Door. Open. Break. Key. “Anything?”

“Nope.”

Come on, what can I do? How about a lockpick?

Wait! “Oh, dear Luna, I’m an idiot.” I dug around my messy mane and pulled out a bobby pin. “Durr.” I took a closer look at the door and swore. “The lock’s on the other side.”

Instant playfully punched me and snatched the pin out of my claw with her magic. “A unicorn brought you here, remember?” She patted down her robe and grunted in dissatisfaction. “Dammit, I don’t have any of my stuff with me. Do you have a screwdriver?” she asked me.

“Nah.” I waggled my talons at her. “I just use these.”

“You don’t have a screwdriver?”

“Nope. Never had one,” I replied. Excluding that one very lonely night when I ran out of candles, but I’d rather not get into that. Although now I wondered if my talons could... hmm… No, I’d rather not risk lacerating myself during me time.

“Huh. Everypony carries around a screwdriver…” She trailed off, mumbling something about ‘adventurers these days’ and ‘standard issue’.

“Anyway, what do I do?”

“Okay… uh… can you reach around to the lock?” she asked.

Was that the sound of a sexual innuendo calling to me? “You want me to do a reach around.” I couldn’t keep the silly grin off my face.

“Yes.” Instant insisted.

“That means you need to be in front of me, now doesn’t it?” I broke down into hysterics.

A hoof, one most likely belonging to the irritated mare behind me, conked me over the head. “You’re more mature than this. Stop.”

Wheezing and chuckling, I nodded and leaned against the door. I reached through the bars and eventually slotted a talon into the keyhole. “Good. Now, when I tell you, turn your claw slowly to the right.

After several confusing minutes and three pins, we finally managed to open the door. “Woohoo! Time to go!” I yelled. We shoved the door open and charged toward the door at the end of the hallway.

“Not so fast!” the officer yelled the moment we barged through the door. Turns out the door to the brig was located next to the square in Cloudsdale. “Stop right there, traitorous scum!”

“Run!” I yelled. “Find cover!” Hopefully this didn’t count as strenuous activity or else my heart was going to give out.

“Airponies!” His voice boomed across the square.

We dived behind a large rainbow fountain. “Hey! I think I have an idea,” Instant hastily whispered behind me. “Just keep him busy, alright?”

“I can probably do that,” I whispered back.

“I have an idea who he is, but I need to find out. Keep him distracted!” She darted away into an alley.

“Dammit,” I groaned. I poked my head out from behind the fountain and spied the officer pacing around behind a fruit stand. If only I could get that fruit stand to move or something…

The fruit stand shifted and the officer immediately dashed around to the other side, hoping to find me.

How… Oh, I get it! He controls the steel, but Cloudsdale is my territory. Fruit stand, attack!

The fruit stand rose into the air slightly and then crashed down onto the officer. “Oof! Did you think that would hurt me?” he shouted. I giggled and mentally threw a table at him. “Come out here and fight me like a stallion, you coward!” Scenes from “Attack of the Flying Furniture Again”, directed by Hayvid Cage, suddenly sprung to mind.

“I’m a mare, you blind idiot!” I yelled back and threw several chairs at him. “I have an excuse!” I commanded the fountain to cover him in rainbow when he stomped closer to my voice.

“Gah!” The officer snarled as he wiped rainbow out of his eyes. “Get out here!” He saw me dart out from behind the fountain and yelled, “Atten—”

Thundercloud. A thundercloud materialized out of nowhere and zapped him in mid-order. “Don’t know what went wrong?” I laughed and dove for the safety of a large crate. So far, I was distracting him just fine. But what was Instant doing?

The officer smoothed down his uniform and patted off the soot. “Now that’s just impolite. Come out here and maybe I won’t beat the everloving sh—” Hail. Another dark cloud formed over his head and rapidly discharged small balls of ice on him. “Ow! Ow! Dammit! Ow!” he yelled. He started running, and I commanded the cloud to follow.

I confidently strode out into the open. “You cannot defeat me. Not on my turf. Now, get out of here or I’ll have to beat you out!”

The officer strode to the opposite side of the square, little pieces of ice and soot trailing from him. The hailcloud had run out of ice and it just floated over him happily. “No. I will defeat you. Now, att—” I commanded a nearby crate to smash into him. “Stop! Atten—” The floor under him lurched upward and he stopped to regain his balance.

He spread his wings and flew down to the ground. “No wings! That’s cheating!” A section of wall suddenly extended and slammed into him, knocking him across the square. “Now, why don’t you just give up while you still can?” I taunted. “Is that too much for you?”

“Never! I will never give up to the likes of—” he started, then I dropped a flower stand on him. He slowly stood up and adjusted his cap. “Now, atten-shun!” he suddenly shouted. Crap! I wasn’t ready! I involuntarily snapped to attention and froze. “Now that we’ve gotten you out of the way…” Uh… cone! Save me! A sky cone flew across the square and hit him in the back of the head.

“There’s a cone on your head, sir!” I shouted at him. That meant he was special, and that it was unbecoming for me to continue whaling on him. He rolled his eyes and pulled it off his head. “Anything you need, sir?”

“Yes. I order you to st—” he started again, but suddenly a clipboard smashed into the back of his head. “You hit me… in… the same exact… spot…” he groaned and fell over.

Instant Noodles bounced over and waved her clipboard at me. “I found it! Turns out you just need to leave his control zone and all your stuff just kinda comes back. Hey, are you okay?”

I was still frozen at attention. She poked me repeatedly trying to make me move. I threw a bundle of hay at her head to try to signal her.

“Hey! Oh wait, you still can’t move?” she asked. I grunted in response. “Uh… how do I fix that?”

“Dismissed,” I told her through clenched teeth. I still couldn’t move or say anything until I was dismissed, if I was correct. “Help.”

“DIIIIS-MISSED!” she yelled in her best parade ground voice. My body finally started responding to me again and I immediately dropped my salute. “Better?”

“Yes. Thank you!” I rubbed my right foreleg and grimaced. “I was starting to get tired from holding that position. Luna, I’m out of practice. Wow.” I sorted the square back to what it used to look like as best I could. “So, what else did you find out?”

“He’s some kind of planted memory or something. I can’t do anything about it, but maybe you can figure out something later down the road,” she replied. “He’s pretty much built into your mind, like it or not.”

“Crap. Well, I guess I’ll figure out how to get rid of this idiot later.”

“How do we get out of here?” Oh right, Instant had never been part of one my insanity trips before.

“Easy. We go to my cloudhouse—” we were suddenly teleported to the front of my cloudhouse “—and sleep.” I pushed the door open. “Oh yeah, if you want to talk to my other ponysonas, go right on ahead.” I pointed at the steel door. “Just don’t open that. Insane ponysona is insane.”

She nodded and followed me inside. “Wow… it’s nice in here.” Wait till she meets the rest of me… “Uh… who’s that on the ceiling?”

I looked up and groaned. “Instant Noodles, meet Drunky.”

Drunk Frosty waved at us from her spot on the ceiling. “Greeeeetings!” She stood up and saluted. “My mane allows me to defy gravity!” She giggled and fell off the ceiling. “Wha’z goin’ on?”

“Where’s the rest of us?” I asked me. Drunk Frosty pointed into the living room. “Thanks.”

“How many of you are there?” Instant whispered. “If there’s one of y—oh dear Celestia, you are adorable.

Filly Frosty dashed straight past me and right into the waiting hooves of Instant. “Yay! Visitors!” Filly Frosty squealed energetically.

“Who did you bring?” Gala Frosty got off the couch and gave me a friendly hug.

“She’s a friend from outside. Instant Noodles, meet mini-me. Mini-me, Instant Noodles,” I told them. “So, anything new on the insanity front?” I asked Gala Frosty. Instant was too busy playing with Filly Frosty to pay attention to me anymore. That little ball of fur and feathers could use a new playmate.

Gala Frosty shook her head. “The raider’s been sleeping for a while. She wasn’t happy about being rejected like that, but we eventually got her to calm down.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Get more cherry snack cakes. She likes those.” Funny, I like those too. Mmm… artificial cherry flavorings and preservatives…

“You look like you’re ready for the Grand Galloping Gala,” Instant panted, pulling Filly Frost off her hind leg.

“Indeed I am. You could say I’m the leader of all these idiots,” Gala Frosty replied. Hey! “C’mon squirt. Get off her and hop up here.” Filly Frosty grudgingly slid off Instant’s leg and flopped onto the couch. “Anyway, you’re the one opening up memories?”

“Uh… yeah?” Instant hesitantly answered. “Why?”

“Thank you. Keep up the good work.” Gala Frosty tapped my head with a hoof. “The faster we fill in the holes, the faster life will go on as normal.” Well, as normal as life gets with split personalities. She turned her attention to the both of us. “Now, I assume you two are here for the escape rope?”

I nodded and followed her to the bedroom. “Give that cutie pie Rummy a kiss for me!” Drunk Frosty shouted from her spot on the floor.

“Shut it!” Gala Frosty yelled. She turned back to us and bashfully shrugged. “The ponies I live with, you know? Anyway, there’s only one bed so you two are going to want to squeeze in!”

Instant and I awkwardly got into the bed and managed to somehow squeeze on. “This could not get any more awkward,” I muttered to her. There was barely any space for the both of us, so we were pretty much pressed together side to side. My wings threatened to spring to attention from the close contact, which I was desperately trying to prevent. Both of us were blushing a little and trying to ignore the other in all the embarrassment.

“Now kiss,” Gala Frosty whispered. What? We looked at each other and then glared at Gala Frosty. “Okay, okay, it was worth a try.” As she turned out the light and closed the door, she helpfully mentioned with a grin, “We like being the big spoon.” I buried my face in the pillow and tried to block out Instant’s suppressed giggling. Damn you, brain.


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Psychological Warfare – It’s a real battle of the minds, folks. You gain +5 to Speech and Barter. You also gain 5% damage resistance when in Cloudsdale.
Current Sub-perk: Diplomacy – Remember thy Charlamane. You gain +3 to speech.
New Status: Addicted to Med-X – It isn’t your fault. When withdrawn, your Agility and Intelligence is penalized by -1.

Chapter 8: Got whiskey?

View Online

Chapter 8: Got whiskey?

“Good morning, Ponyville!”


I groggily sat up from the bed and rubbed my eyes. Instant Noodles removed her forelegs from the end of the bed and stretched. “Wow, you really need to get out more.” She giggled and picked up her clipboard. “Even your brain knows that.”

“Shut up.” I swung myself off the bed. I couldn’t believe my subconscious even told Instant about that! I pulled her closer and evilly whispered into her ear, “If you tell anypony about anything that just happened, I will kill you. Brutally. With a plastic spoon.”

“Okay! Tell nopony! Got it!” Instant squeaked.

I smiled and patted her head. “Good! I’m going to go see what Tabber and Rumcake are up to.” I walked out of the back room, leaving Instant shaking in her robes.

On the way there, I caught sight of the self-imposed town doctor doing his sciencey things. “Hey, Doc, where’s that inn we were talking about earlier?” Of course, I never really paid much attention in chemistry class, so I couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was making.

“Um, the Smashed Spritebot?” he answered, not looking up from his chemistry set. “It’s a few buildings down from from Scrap Bank’s shop.” Scrap Bank’s shop. I knew where that was. “You might want to be careful,” he added.

“Uh… why?”

“Tabber doesn’t like having visitors. Make sure you announce yourself before knocking,” Doc explained. “One doesn’t survive as a spy for this long without being paranoid as balls.”

“I’ll keep it in mind. Wait, what did he do before?” I asked.

“Hmph,” Doc grunted and looked away from his chemistry set.

Right. Sore topic. “If you don’t want to talk about it I understand. I guess I’ll see you later, then.” I moved to leave the clinic, but Doc stopped me.

“Wait.” I paused and looked at him. “There’s something you need to know,” Doc mumbled. He laid down on one of his examination tables and I sat down next to him. “He’s a pure mercenary. He’ll work for whoever has the most caps and he’s damn good at what he does.” He levitated a bottle over from the pile behind his chemistry set. “He doesn’t care. No conscience.”

Obviously something terrible must have happened between them. “Why’d you break up with him? And what about your team and stuff?”

Doc took a long pull from the bottle. “Roy called us up for a recovery job. Recover some kind of statue things from the castle. Whatever or wherever they were, we didn’t find them. We started leaving Canterlot and that’s when everything went wrong.”

“How?”

“… I…” Doc stammered. “On hindsight, I’m not ready to talk about it.”

I nodded and patted his shoulder. “I understand.” Wait, was he crying? Crap. What do I do? Uh… “Look, I’d love to share something from my past, but I don’t remember most of it.” He wiped a tear from his muzzle and smiled. “Well, if it’s any consolation…” Should I? “Let’s make a deal. I’ve got this crazy memory in progress that I’m still trying to complete.” I showed him my mechanical leg and sighed. “It’s all about what happened to me before all of… this. I’ll tell you my story if you tell me yours.”

“It’s a deal.” He shook my claw with his hoof. “Don’t die on me before then.”

“I’m counting on you to keep me alive then,” I teased. Before I left, I gave him a quick kiss on the head. “Think of this as a quick thanks. If only I’d taken the time to see his face.

Once I got outside, the town was looking very different. Those Rangers got busy, fast. The walls around the city were fully finished and even patrols had started pacing the walls. A few Rangers were patrolling the town itself and they were getting mixed reactions. Some of the townsponies were happily interacting with them, but most of them were avoiding the Rangers. “Hey! Hold up!” a high-pitched voice cried. “Birdie! Waaait!” I bristled a bit at being called Birdie, but I decided to let it go.

I stopped and turned around. A little scrawny filly ran up to me. Her long strawberry-colored mane was a mess and her white coat was more of a pale, muddy brown stained with dirt. “Uh… what do you need?” I hesitantly asked her.

She took out a bottle and presented it to me. “You are the birdie from the radio, right?” she asked dubiously.

“I think so,” I replied. I took the bottle and grinned. A single bottle of ice cold Sparkle-Cola. “What’s this for?”

“I know it’s not much, but it’s all our family could spare.” She shyly backed away. “So… yeah.”

I hugged her, of course. “Oh, it’s okay! I love it!” I dug through my bag. Aha! “Here. Take this with you.” I presented her with a box of snack cakes that I’d appropriated from Doc’s clinic. “It’s not much, but it’s tasty.”

She grudgingly took it. “But…” she protested.

“It’s fine! I have plenty of them.” I showed her the other box I’d taken from Doc. “Go ahead and take it.” She sqeee’d happily and dashed off. It’s like everypony loves snack cakes! I tucked away the bottle in a safe place in my bag.

Anyway, where was I… right! Gotta go see what Tabber’s up to. I passed Scrap Bank’s shop and reminded myself that I needed to get some supplies later, if I remembered. The Smashed Spritebot Inn was a few buildings down and across the street, right where Doc said it would be. The front of the building was adorned with several smashed spritebots to live up to its namesake.

I walked inside and was immediately assaulted by the stench of parties long gone and what smelled like a dead body somewhere under the premises. A few townsfolk were still idling about nursing their drinks, deep in thought or completely drunk. Behind the bar, a dark gray unicorn was idly cleaning the counter with a rag in his hoof. He lazily looked up and brushed his white mane out of his eyes. Along one edge, he had a thin red and green stripe running down it.

“Hey, where are the rooms?” I asked him.

“By the hour or the whole day?” he asked back. He continued wiping down the bar lethargically. “Discount for regulars.”

“What? Who rents by th— Oh, okay, never mind.” Of course. “I’m looking for somepony. He’s sorta tall, dark, gas mask. See him?” I queried. Why are inns so dark on the inside? Even my barracks were brighter than this.

He wrung out the rag while filling the glass he was levitating. “I’ve seen him. Who’s asking?” He glared at me suspiciously.

“Uh…” I flapped my wings uncomfortably. “Frosty?” I tried. The bartender didn’t respond. “The pegasus?” He continued glaring. I sighed. Did Tabber really have to go there? “How about the monster filly?” The bartender grinned. “You cannot be serious. That’s what he told you?”

“Oh yeah. Apparently it was a crowning moment in his career or something. Down the hall, room four. Knock first.” He waved me off and started stacking shot glasses and mugs in a cabinet.

As I approached the door, I remembered what Doc told me. “Friendly incoming,” I announced before knocking on the door. There was a quick flash of green light under the door followed by a whole cloudful of swearing and clattering. “Uh… you okay in there?”

Tabber opened the door, smoke curling off his armor and mane. “I’m fine. Had a little crafting mishap. Come on in, mind your step.” He backed up and opened the door wider. The room was littered with parts of weapons and tools, most of which were still somewhat intact. “If you see the muzzle tip of a zebra assault rifle, tell me.”

I carefully stepped around weapon parts and asked him “What the hay happened here?”

“I’m fixing weapons.” He pushed half an assault rifle out of his way. “You know how your weapons will eventually become harder to use? Yeah. Keep them in good repair and maybe you won’t die,” he said.

“Thanks for that enlightening tidbit,” I sarcastically shot back. “I know that already. Ex-Enclave, remember?” I nudged part of a shotgun away. “Where’d you get all these guns from?”

“I found them.”

“What? How do you hold all of these guns?” I motioned around the room. There were literally dozens of guns broken apart and scattered about, not including the ones that probably had already been taken apart and trashed.

“I already told you. Interdimensional saddlebags. They’re much bigger than they look.” He patted his saddlebags gleefully. “Most useful things ever.”

“I thought you were kidding! Now I want one.” I pouted and threw half of a pistol at him. “Anyway, I wanna ask you something.”

“Yeah?” He continued working on an assault rifle.

“Why are you here?”

“Hired to do a job. That’s it.”

“I find it hard to believe that you just happened to be in the area just as I showed up and you needed a pegasus.”

“Fate works in strange ways.”

“And spies work in even stranger ways.”

“You trying to imply something?” He bristled with annoyance.

“Just an observation.” I inched closer to him. “You know, spies. Bunch of bitchy fillies.”

“What do you want?”

“Who do you work for?”

“Why do you need to know?”

“Ponies tell me that you only do things under contract. And you even said yourself that you were hired to secure something under Seapony. So, who are you working for?”

“I answer to a contract. That’s all you need to know.”

I growled. He was leading me in circles and I wasn’t getting a straight answer from him at all. “How about you stop dodging and give me a straight answer.”

“Nope.”

“Dammit. Help me out here. Tell me something.”

He sat back and thought about it. “Fine.” My hopes rose. Maybe some answers, finally! “I’ll eventually tell you. In time. The truth hurts, and I don’t think you’re ready for it.” My ears drooped.

On the bright side, he’ll eventually talk about it.

“Now, give me the body of your sniper rifle.”

“It’s an anti-machine rifle,” I snapped, but I gave it to him anyway. “And what do you mean I can’t handle the truth?”

He took the body of my rifle and carefully started taking it apart on his table. “I’m serious. Heck, when I got the contract I could barely believe it either.” He pulled out the bolt and removed the firing pin from it. “This thing’s almost trashed. You’re lucky it didn’t break.” He tossed it aside and dug out a firing pin from another sniper rifle. “If you hear anything out of the ordinary, stop firing. That’s probably the sound of something going terribly wrong.” He reassembled the body of my rifle and handed it back to me.

“Thanks,” I grumbled and shoved the gun part back into my bag. “So if I can’t handle the truth, when are you going to tell me?”

“When the time is right,” he replied. How cliché of him. “I’m going to grab something to eat. You coming?” I shook my head. “Okay, your loss. Now get the hay out of my motel room.” I stomped out of his room and sat down in front of the bar. There were a few more townsfolk hanging out in the bar now.

“Yo. I could use a drink,” I told the bartender. “Got whiskey?” He nodded. “Great. Just one, please. I’ve still got things to do but I might be back later for more.”

He slid a shot glass full to the brim with whiskey. “First one’s free,” he droned when I reached for my saddlebags for caps. “You look troubled. A bit for your thoughts?”

“How do you know?” I nudged the glass idly.

“I’m a bartender. What do you think I do all day?” he replied with a grin.

That brought a smile to my face. “I just need to stop thinking so much. There’s just too much stuff going on right now that I really don’t want to focus on.”

“Do tell.” He poured himself a shot glass of whiskey and aptly listened.

“Two… three weeks ago, I think all I did was clean out my bunk and micromanage weather. In the past three days I’ve nearly died several times, actually died once, demolished a slaver base and even lost my leg,” I continued. I gently gripped the shot glass in my claw and downed the entire thing. “I just… I never thought something like this would ever happen to me.”

“Hm. I’ve heard better.” The bartender drank his shot and collected our glasses. “If you’re looking to get happy, you might want to head to the party tonight.”

“What do you mean you’ve heard better? And what party?” I demanded. My story wasn’t that boring, was it?

“Yep. Disco party in the generator room, tonight around four. Joint project between some townsfolk and a few Rangers.” He started unpacking bottles and arranging them behind the counter. “Bring a friend, and I didn’t tell you.”

“Tell me what?” I replied innocently.

“Exactly. Now, don’t you have something to do?”

“Huh? Oh yeah. I’ll be back.” I tightened the straps of my saddlebags and walked out of the bar. Okay, what next?

You need more bullets. Go talk to Sleazy.

Good thinking, brain. On the way to his store, a Steel Ranger stopped me. “Hey! Ah know you!” he exclaimed. “Science project! Ya survived, didn’tcha?” Science project. I hate that title so much. Note to self: kill Soufflé.

“Uh… yes. Yes I did. And you are…?” I uneasily replied. I really didn’t like being stopped in the middle of the street, nevertheless by a Steel Ranger. And being called “science project” really annoyed the hay out of me.

The Ranger grabbed my hoof and energetically shook it. “Name’s Cabbage Stew, remember?”

“Oh yeah. Sorry, it’s hard to tell you Rangers apart when all of you have your helmets on.” However, I remembered him from the Rangers base from before. “How’re you doing?”

“Nothin’ much. Ah patrol streets now.” He pointed in the direction of the barracks somewhere down the street. “If ya wanna talk to your pardners, they’re down at the barracks under arrest.”

“Wait, what?” When did that happen? Why did nopony tell me these things? “What happened to them?”

“I have no idea. Something ‘bout disobeying direct orders. They’re in deep water now.”

“Thanks. I’ll keep it in mind.” I sighed and faceclawed. “Always getting into trouble.”

“Ah’ve gotta get back to my patrol. Maybe ah’ll see y’all later.” He paced off in the direction I’d just come from.

The walk over to Sleazy’s shop continued uneventfully. Nopony really stopped me on the way there, but I did notice a heck of a lot more whispering when I walked past ponies. That DJ really got to ponies. News of the Rad Lads base might be spreading like wildfire in town, and that meant news about me was probably flying around as well. I mean, how many other friendly pegasi were there in the wasteland?

“Greetings! The PB&J philosophy is tech plus ammo capacity equals I win! Now, what can I help you with, my feathered friend?” Sleazy boomed. The bar in his neck was missing, and in its place was a large collection of bandages and gauze.

“I need to restock. Interested in more ammunition?” I offered, opening up my other saddlebag. Sleazy’s eyes lit up and he eagerly jumped over the counter. “Could we go into the stockroom for a little privacy?”

“Oh yes, yes of course.” He hopped back over the counter and pushed open the door to his armory. “Now, what do you need and what do you have for me?”

We spent the next several minutes or so scooping out assorted bullets and guns out of the saddlebag I’d filled from the Rad Lads base. “All these bullets and these two pistols and that rifle. I think that’s it.” I pointed out the blue-striped box. “You have any idea what these are?”

Sleazy picked up the box and examined it carefully. Then he opened the box and whistled. “Wow. I never thought I’d see so many of these in one spot.”

“What are they though?” I asked while floating behind him, trying to get a better look in the box. “They just look like bullets with blue tips.”

“These aren’t any normal bullets. These are shock rounds. Less effective at taking out armor, but they are deadly against infantry. Or in rain. Or infantry in the rain.” Sleazy carefully replaced the lid and placed the box back on the table. “Careful with these. They were removed from service because of how dangerously unpredictable they were.”

“Good to know.” I gently lowered it into my saddlebag and tucked it away between a snack cake and the other magical rifle attachment I got from Tabber. “I’m going to need all the anti-machine rifle ammo you have. And a bunch of SMG ammo as well.”

“Sure thing!” Sleazy dumped all of the bullets on the table into a bin. He reached over to a cabinet on the wall and dropped a small box in front of me. “There’s your SMG ammo.” Then he opened a toolbox and fished out several large bullets. “This is all the AM rifle ammo I have.”

“This doesn’t seem like a fair trade,” I mused, counting up the ammunition. “Does it?”

“Dang it, filly. I’ve got nothing else you need!” Sleazy nervously shot back. “What else do ya want?”

“Hm. Give me a fair price. How much are you keeping from me?”

“About two hundred caps,” he stammered. I glared and stepped closer. “Okay! It’s more like three hundred fifty!”

“And how are we going to fix that?” I demanded.

“Um… would you like… uhhhh…” He stumbled over his words, trying to put together an excuse.

“How about a discount for next time?” I suggested.

“Yeah…” He twitched. “Of… course.” He shuddered violently. “A discount. I think I’m going to be sick.” He staggered off into the depths of his armory. “Can you see yourself out?” he asked weakly.

“Uh… yes I can. You going to be okay?” I asked, turning for the exit.

“Just… fine.”

~~~~~

So after making Sleazy McCheapkins physically ill with a deal, I decided that I needed to find out what happened to Rumcake and Baked after they’d returned. According to the word of Cabbage Stew, they’d been detained after arriving. Time to find out what happened. I approached the barracks and was immediately stopped by a pair of Steel Rangers. “What is your business here, Enclave scum?” one of them growled.

“Hey, Frosty! What’s going on?” the other one happily greeted.

“You know her?” the first one asked the other.

“Yeah. Hey! I’m Banana Pudding, remember?” All these silly Steel Rangers with their helmets and food-based names. “Let her through. What are you here for, anyway?”

“I need to talk to Rumcake and Baked Potato. Any idea where they are?” I asked him.

“Second one on the left. Good luck getting through their security detail.”

Something suddenly occurred to me. “Wait, aren’t you a Head Knight or something? Doesn’t that make you more important than patrol material?”

Banana stamped his hooves in agreement. “Yeah, but guess who’s on guard duty and forgot to double-check the Inquisitor’s work orders? That’s right- me.”

“Sucks to be you.” I walked past them and stopped. “Wait. Security detail?”

“Yep. Went AWOL.”

“Away without leave?”

“Yep. They went to go take out a slaver stronghold without orders. ” He tapped his helmet and continued “Even if they didn’t get themselves killed and managed to level the place, they still left base without orders.”

“Good to know.” I eyed the Ranger standing guard at the barracks. How do I sneak past him? He appeared to actually be paying attention, occasionally scanning the area for threats. His gaze eventually landed on me and stopped. I casually waved at him and smiled. He kept his eyes on me at all times. Damn.

I got an idea. I walked over to the first set of barracks on the left and hid behind it. I peeked around the corner and breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn’t looking in my direction anymore.

Don’t they have built-in targeting spells?

Do they? Hmm. Regardless, I started sneaking around to the back of the second barracks, when the Ranger standing guard looked around. I dove behind the barracks just as he walked over to check the space between the buildings. Since I wasn’t called out, it seemed like I’d lost him. Good. I looked up and saw a wire screen built into the back wall of the barracks. How do I get up there?

Wings, idiot.

Right. I flew up to the window and tapped on it. Both Rangers inside were out of their armor and contentedly sleeping on their own bunks. I tapped harder on the wire screen, trying to get their attention. Still no response. “You two sleep like rocks, don’t you?” I hissed at them.

I ended up pulling the screen out by its frame and climbing in. Unfortunately, my wings got in the way and combined with the size of my saddlebag, I got stuck halfway through the window. “Oi! Who’s th’ idjit makin’ all this racket?” He rubbed his eyes and looked to the door. “This newbie don’t even know how t’ walk without makin’ a heap o’ noise.” Finally, he noticed the pegasus flailing about stuck in the window frame. “Well lookie here! If it ain’t me favorite birdie. “
I shyly waved at him and continued trying to escape the window.

“What the hay are you—” Rumcake started, then noticed me in the window as well. “Well, who do we have here?”

“Hi there,” I whispered, still trying to get inside. “I’m stuck.” I flapped weakly in an attempt to scoot my midsection through the window. “Help.”

“C’mere.” Rumcake came over to the back wall and stood up against it. “Give me your bag,” he said. With a little difficulty, I slipped the strap over my neck and tossed it to him. “Okay, now fold your wings and suck up that gut. I’m going to pull you through. Ready?”

“Hey! Are you calling me fat?” I whined. I followed his commands anyway and got yanked through the window. I slammed into the floorboards with a crash. “Ow! Gently, please!

“Sorry. Didn’t know how stuck you were.” He helped me up and gave my bag back. “Why’d you break in anyway?”

“I just wanted to find out what was going on with you two. Apparently you’re under arrest?” I asked. “Also, I need you to come with me to the disco party tonight.”

“The party? We can’t go. We’re trapped in here for the next few weeks because of that stunt we pulled last night.” Rumcake replied.

“But… I wanna go to this party.” I engaged irresistible sad pouty mode, throwing in extra fluffy wings for a boost to cute factor. “I’m so tired and exhausted from being tired and exhausted. And, uh, I kinda wanna go with you.”

“Uh… umm…” The color of his face was slowly starting to match his mane. “Maybe we could figure something out,” he managed to make out.

That was exactly the response I was looking for. “Yay! You get a boop.” And then I playfully reached over and bopped him on the nose.

“Now I’m feelin’ a bit left out,” Baked whined.

“Aww. I didn’t forget about you!” I flapped over and booped him too. “That’s for you.”

“D’awww lass.” He bashfully grinned and scratched his yellow mane. “Anyway, wha’s the plan now?”

“Well we could sneak out of the window,” I suggested.

“Th’ same window ye got stuck in?” Baked inquired. “Yea, that seems like a good idea.”

“We could cut open the back wall and go through it,” Rumcake suggested. “We’ve got parts here to put together a few saws.”

“Why can’t we just ask the guard outside if you two can leave?” I asked them. “Surely he’ll let you out for a night.”

“We’re not allowed to leave for two weeks. I really doubt he’ll let us out,” Rumcake grumbled. “Stupid rules.”

“Aye! I got an idea. If ye just get him inside, I c’n do th’ rest.” Baked exclaimed. “Jus’ think of somethin’.” He stood behind the door and waited.

“Hey! Rookie! Where’s my damn dinner?” Rumcake yelled at the door. “I’m starving in here!” He hammered the door a little to make more noise.

“Damn it old timer, I just fed you two hours ago!” The rookie roughly shoved the door open. “Sit down and shut the hell up!”

“Oi, Suzy!” Baked whispered from behind the rookie. The rookie spun around and got headbutted so hard he flew back a few feet and slammed into the wall. “Sorry kiddo.” He dragged the rookie into a corner into a sitting position.

“Did… did you just headbutt…a Ranger?” I stammered, dumbfounded. What the hay just happened? Wat?

“Yep. Well, where’s this little party o’ yours?” Baked answered, rearranging the rookie into a more compromising position where it appeared that he’d fallen asleep with his butt in the air. “Haha! Classic.”

“Did you just knock him out… through his helmet?” I continued. That should not have been possible. Baked Potato was unarmored and he just knocked out a fully armored Steel Ranger. How. The. Hay.

“I used t’ play ball back home.” Baked rubbed his forehead. “Was good at it, too.”

“You know what, I don’t want to think about it either.” Rumcake rummaged through the rookie’s saddlebags. “Got these keys for the lavatory but that’s it,” he told us. “Let’s just get to the party before this idiot wakes up.”

“Alright! I got me fancy dress uniform all ready t’ go.” Baked dived into his hooflocker and started digging around.

“So, Frosty… what’ll you be wearing to the party?” Rumcake asked. “You have a dress stashed somewhere? You’ve got to have something nice to wear on our date.” Wait. Crap. I didn’t think that far.

“If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been naked about ninety percent of the time.” I flapped my wings for added emphasis. “I’d normally wear my formal uniform, but that’s back in my barracks- wherever that is. As for my actual Enclave scout uniform, it got destroyed.”

“How have you survived this long without armor?”

“I haven’t. Remember?” I added, then realized what I’d said. The atmosphere in the room suddenly dropped into a much more somber mood. “Crap. Sorry.” I guess we hadn’t all gotten over my own exaggerated demise just yet.

“It’s fine. We can stop by Scrap Bank’s store and see if she’s got anything. Bakey, you find my uniform in there?” Rumcake added, similarly searching for proper attire.

Baked resurfaced wearing a fancy collar with a little blue tie attached to it. One of the lapels had a Sparkle-Cola Rad bottlecap attached to it and he had epaulettes attached to his shoulders. Wait. Huh? “Hold on, what are those epaulettes attached to?” I asked, before Baked could say anything.

He looked at his shoulders and was legitimately confused. “Ya know what? I’ve never really thought of it.”

“Magical uniform bits aside, let me find my uniform and we can go.” Rumcake dived into the hooflocker and suddenly shouted “Hey! Four caps! Sweet.”

~~~~~

When the four whistles had gone off, we hastily got ready and left the rookie unconscious in the corner in a slightly less silly pose. Rumcake had a similar uniform on, except his tie was pink. Of course I’d made fun of him about it, and his reply was “Tough guys wear pink. Tougher guys are pink.” He smoothed back his fluffy pink mane and grinned. “Gotta love pink.”

“I’ll see ye lovebirds at th’ party. I’m goin’ te get me drink on. No ‘Tatoe’s gonna be third wheelin’!” Baked headed off in a seemingly random direction and disappeared into the growing crowds.

“Is he going to be okay?” I asked Rumcake.

“He’ll be fine. Well, here’s Scrap Bank’s shop. Let’s buy you some clothes.”

We walked in and were greeted by Scrap Bank herself. “Hi there! Lookin’ for some armor and some casual wear for my friend.”

Scrap Bank took one look at me and flinched. “Uh… sure. Let’s uh, see.” She walked around the counter and into the store. “I would assume you’d be interested in light armor, then?” she asked me. “How do you feel about getting stabbed?”

“I’d prefer not to,” I replied. “Why?” I pawed through a stack of salvaged raider armor and various outfits.

“And do you get into stab fights often?” She tossed away some refurbished raider armor.

“I don’t think so. Most ponies just shoot at me.” I pulled out an armored duster from the pile. “How about this one?” It was dark gray, a little worn, but completely usable. I could cut some holes in it for my wings, and the duster had little pockets all over it for armor plates. “It seems perfect.”

“Go for it. How much?” Rumcake added, observing the duster carefully.

“Four hundred eighty. I’ll even throw in the armor plates for free.”

Rumcake and I both growled. “Four twenty,” I offered. “Five hundred is ridiculous for this.” She started to consider it, then she shook her head. “Come on!” I shouted. “Four thirty at the most.”

Scrap Bank shrank back from our combined glares. “Alright, alright! Four twenty it is. Sheesh, you ponies and your barter skill…” She stomped away to the front counter. “Tell me when you’ve got a dress picked out.”

“Alright.” Rumcake led me over to Scrap Bank’s motley collection of dresses. I looked over them with mild disinterest. They were pretty, but none of them really matched my mane. Or my coat. “See anything you like?” he asked. “This one looks pretty.”

He held up a green and white dress. “I guess it would sorta match if I still had Mom’s earring.” I flicked my right ear reflexively, not feeling the comforting weight of the green earring attached that used to be there. Wait… Mom? Mom’s earring?

Figure it out later, Frosty. We can dwell on the past later.

“Next,” I commanded. He held up a red and orange dress that was styled like a bonfire. Beautiful, but not what I was looking for. “It’s cute, but definitely not.” He tossed it aside and reached for a garish purple… thing. “No. Just no.” He stopped and reached for the next dress.

“Are you going to like any of them?” he asked in exasperation. “All of these look so pretty! What’s the difference?”

“You honestly don’t know anything about fashion, do you? At least try to find one that matches my mane!” Really, you would think a super soldier would know more than just kill and maim. “Do I really need to wear a dress?” I whined. “It’s not even a formal event!”

“We have to set an example. Also, the rest of us are showing up fancy, so you are too.” Rumcake held up another purple dress. “How about this one?”

“No. Why can’t I show up naked?” I huffed. “It’s just a small party.”

“Again, we want to set a good example. Anyway, everypony thinks you’re one of us now, so you gotta adhere to the Rangers formal code of conduct at least a little.” He held up a simple bright blue dress pleadingly. “Please? This is one of the only dresses you haven’t said no to.”

“Fine.” It looked nice, simple, and clean. There were long pale blue triangles running through various spots of the dress, giving it an angular feel. “It looks good.” And then I grumbled under my breath “If I was a princess, I could show up to my parties naked.” We paid off Scrap Bank and headed off to the party.

“Hey… where is the generator room, anyway?” I asked as I followed in Rumcake’s hoofsteps. I’d put on my new dress and I tied up my mane in a neat little bun using a giant anti-material rifle bullet before leaving Scrap’s shop. What? I wasn’t spending my hard-looted caps on a bow or maneband. We quickly dashed off to Rusty’s place afterward to drop off my bags and my newly-acquired armor. “It’s like everypony knows about the party,” I observed, noting the other ponies also heading in our direction. The Steel Rangers were the most noticeable in their little collars and ties. A few of them even had a full-blown suit coat going, and even the Inquisitor showed up as well.

“What’s Soufflé doing here?” Rumcake asked, voicing my thoughts exactly. Soufflé was ahead of us, his coat billowing out behind him and his large peaked cap giving him away. “I thought he headed back to HQ?”

“We could go ask him,” I suggested.

“No! That’s a terrible idea! Do you remember the last conversation that you two had?”

“Not really.”

“Ugh.” He facehoofed. “Let me remind you that even if the two of you are on equal terms, I’m slightly breaking the rules by being here.” Right. Probably wouldn’t be a good idea to talk to him, then.

Everypony was slowly filtering into a small shack was in front of us. “I assume this is the generator room?” Once inside the shack, we squeezed our way down a flight of stairs into a dark cavernous room flooded with colorful flashing lights. There was music booming throughout the room and it was all coming from a small booth at the far end of the room with two giant speakers attached to it.

“Yep. Wanna hit the bar?” Rumcake yelled in order to be heard over the music. There must have been forty or fifty ponies here! And none of them were trying to kill me! He pointed at the closer end of the room where a bar was set up. Through the pile of ponies I recognized the bartender from the Spritebot. “Might as well find Bakey while we’re here. Look for the crowd of passed out ponies. He’ll be there.”

We shoved our way to the front and I tossed a tiny bag of caps at the bartender. “Sup! Two whiskeys.” He smiled and filled up two glasses, then levitated one to me and the other to Rumcake.

“Having a good time yet?” He continued taking orders and magically pouring drinks while talking to us. Talk about skilled, huh? “Or are you just here on business?” He motioned at our attire. “A bit too stuck up, don’t you think?”

“That’s almost exactly what I said!” I elbowed Rumcake. “Told ya.”

He grumbled a little before quickly changing the subject. “So where’d you get these lights from? And who’s on the music?”

The bartender shrugged. “She’s one of yours.” A bottle flew over our heads and into the waiting hooves of a party guest. “As for the lights, they were here before we got here. All we did was hook up the generator in here.” He pointed at a large cylindrical-esque box behind the DJ booth. “Ergo, generator room. Also the unofficial nightclub known as ‘Past Four’. I work the nights here. Name’s Peppermint Shots. You?”

“I’m Frosty Winds. Former Enclave scout, part-time sidekick. My Ranger buddy here is Rumcake Rum.” Rumcake nodded curtly.

Hey there, party ponies! Who’s having a good time?” the speakers blared. A cheer went up throughout the room. “I can’t hear you!” All of us cheered harder. “That’s more like it! Woohoo!

“That kinda sounds like Sparkle Cola up there,” Rumcake told me. “Hm. Never took her as the music type.”

An older stallion limped over to the counter. “Evenin’ Mintley,” he drunkenly slurred. “One more beer, please.” He took notice of my wings and laughed. “So you’re the angel, eh? Great work.” Angel? Wat? “Ya know, I used to be an adven…” He passed out before he could finish.

“Thank Celestia. I don’t want to hear his damn story again.” Peppermint continued pouring drinks. “You still need more?”

I tossed a few more bags of caps at Peppermint Shots. “Keep em’ coming all night. Yahear?” He nodded and passed me another whiskey. Yay, parties! “Hey Rumcake, wanna dance?”

“I can’t dance!” he cried as I dragged him toward the group of ponies having a great time in front of the speakers. “I’ll just stand back there and watch.” He attempted to back away, but I grabbed on prevented him from leaving.

“Oh no you don’t!” I carried him into the air and dropped him into the throng of dancing ponies. “You’re not going to ruin tonight by being a wet towel. Just go with the flow. You’ll be fine!” I landed next to him and started dancing along with the crowd. “It’s so easy. Woo!”

I spent the next few songs trying to get Rumcake to do more than shuffle his hooves around. For a soldier that could live through a minigun salvo, he really couldn’t dance to save his life. After a while we headed back to the bar for a few more drinks. “Okay, that was kinda fun,” Rumcake panted. A ragged cheer broke out from the other side of the bar. “Hey, it’s probably Bakey drinking somepony under the table. Again. Wanna watch?”

“Sure!” I grabbed another whiskey from Peppermint and hovered over the scene. Baked was on his thirty-fifth shot and still going strong. On the other side of the table, several unconscious ponies were stacked up in a haphazard pile. “How’s it going?”

“Yahahaaar lassie! I’ve drunk all th’ filthy land rats under th’ table! Haha!” He downed another shot and slammed the glass onto the table.

“Uh… what happened to your accent?” I asked, puzzled.

“Yarr… I’m inconsistent,” he replied sadly.

The pony across from him collapsed in a drunken heap. Somepony rolled the unconscious pony onto the top of the pile. “Anypony else dare challenge the mighty Baked Potato?” he yelled into the gathered crowd.

“Bring it, sucker!” I yelled and dropped myself into the recently-vacated chair. “You wanna face off? Let’s go!” The crowd around us oohed and aahed.

What the hay are you doing?

I have no idea! Now shut up and let me party!

Say hi to the floor for me, then!

Another bartender floated a collection of glasses to us. “Lady pegasus, what is your choice of poison?” he inquired. “We have vodka, whiskey, be—”

“Whiskey. Wild Pegasus, if you’ve got it,” I immediately answered. “Prepare to lose, buddy. You underestimate my powers greatly.”

“I be not afraid of a little lassie like you!” Baked yelled back. “Show me yer worst!”

~~~~~

The sharp blare of the second whistle jolted me awake. Ugh. Everything was so bright. I shook my head and winced. And hellooo, hangover. I laid back down on the bed and cuddled closer to Rumcake. “Move over. You’re hogging the blankets,” I mumbled to him.

“Meeeeh.” He groaned and covered his head. “Too… early.”

“Ach, what happened las’ night?”

“Boys, how did I get up here?” a very scared voice called down from the ceiling. “I hate heights. Help me.”

“Shut uuuuup.” I threw a pillow at the voice and I was rewarded with an eep. Hold on. Back the fun train up. What? I bolted upright and surveyed the room. For starters, I was sharing a bed with Rumcake. Baked was passed out on the floor next to the bed and a small purple mare wearing massive green sunglasses was holding onto a ceiling beam for dear life.

“Up and at ‘em, you four,” Doc yelled from the next room.

I urgently shook Rumcake awake. “Wake up. Wake up. Omigoshohmygosh! What happened last night?” Panic mode engaged! “Did we do it? How drunk did I get?” I turned my attention to Baked. “Speaking of which, did I win?” I looked up at the ceiling. The little purple mare had a bright violet mane with black stripes in it, and she was still just as stuck as ever. “And who are you?”

Rumcake rolled over and hugged me from behind. “That’s Sparkle Cola. The DJ last night,” he grumbled. “You’re so soft and cuddly, you know that?”

“Thanks, I guess?” I blushed and decided to hold onto his forelegs anyway. “Don’t we have somewhere to be?”

“Do we?” He buried his face into my mane. “I jus’ wanna sleep.”

“Hey! How about getting me off this ceiling!” Sparkle screeched, causing everypony in the room to flinch. Ow. My head was still ringing when I grudgingly pulled myself away from Rumcake and flew up to the ceiling.

I held out my forelegs. “Grab on. I’ll fly you back down to the floor.” She uneasily inched toward me along the beam and slowly held out a hoof. “By Celestia, just get over here.” I reached over and simply yanked her off the beam. Of course then she started screaming and as all of us know all too well, high-pitched noises and hangovers do not mix. I lost control of my flight for a short period and Sparkle’s screaming increased in pitch. “Stop screaming!” I managed to glide down to the floor without losing control.

“You suck at flying.” Sparkle squirmed out of my grip and immediately over to a nearby trash can. “I’m gonna be sick.”

“Well, whose fault is it for screaming the whole way down? It was only like, twelve feet.” I grabbed the pillow on the floor and hopped back onto the bed. “Ugh… my head hurts. Thanks a lot.” I got comfortable again next to Rumcake and covered my head with the pillow. This moment was nice for now but sooner or later, I’d have to figure out what happened last night.

“Okay, you freeloading drunkards, time to leave!” Rusty yelled, prompting more hungover groans of protest from all of us. “Yes, all of you. Doc wants his room back.”

I disentangled myself from Rumcake’s forelegs again and slid off the bed. “Ugh. I’m up, I’m up.” I pushed through the double doors leading into the front of the clinic and dropped myself onto an exam table. “Doc, you got something for my hangover?”

Doc paced over and magically dropped a bottle of water in front of me. “Here.” He leaned over and lifted my right eyelid. I was really confused to what he was doing until he released a burst of light from his horn. Gah! The light! It burns! I attempted to scoot backward as fast as I could, but Doc was holding me in place with his magic. “Alright, you can have your eyeball back now.” I slammed my eye shut and rubbed it. Ow. Ow.

“What the hay was that fo—” I started to say, then Doc yanked my tongue out of my mouth and dropped a few tablets onto it. Once he released it, I instantly pulled by tongue back into my muzzle and glared. Doc floated the bottle over to me and I gratefully swallowed from it. “Anyway, what was that for?” I demanded.

“Science. And aspirin.” He jotted some notes down onto a pad. “It’s just a hangover. In other news, your heart should be doing fine. Your liver, on the other hand…” He grinned and pointed at a pile of empty whiskey bottles. “Some party, eh?”

Was that all me? Wow. Even for me, that much alcohol must have been deadly. “I really hope that’s our combined amount of drinking last night.”

“It is. The four of you really put a dent in Minty’s stock. Nearly drank him out of business.” Doc replied with a laugh. “Once you idiots are up and about, some big hat from the Rangers wants to talk to you.” Crap. I forgot about the idiot we left unconscious in the barracks. “I’ve seen that look before. You mess something up?”

“You could say that,” I replied. “Just a loose end we forgot to tie up. Literally, once I look back on it.” Rumcake loudly staggered into the room, attempting to cover his eyes. “Hey. Soufflé wants to talk to us.” He swore and punched a desk. “It doesn’t sound serious. If it was, he would have told us to show up bright and early.”

“Buck that. First stop’s gonna be for food. Actual food, not that boxed crap.” Rumcake picked up the water bottle and finished it off. “How’s Baked doing? And where’d we get Sparkle from?”

“Your friend is fine. How he’s still alive is beyond me or science,” Doc replied, levitating some more aspirin to Rumcake. “As for Sparkle, she showed up with you three last night.”

“Wait, you know what happened last night?” Maybe Doc could help me piece together last night. “What’d I do? Who’d I do, for that matter?” He shrugged and turned back to his experiments. “What do you mean you don’t know?”

“All of you basically barged through and headed directly for the back room. As for your nighttime activities, I don’t think anything happened.” He held up a vial to the light and shook it a little. “Unless, of course, you’re the noisy type.” He winked at me. I don— Oh I got it. Blush mode engaged.

“Let’s just get out of here before I’m tempted to murder Doc again,” I told Rumcake. “Once everypony wakes up, let’s get food and go see what the buck Soufflé wants from the three of us.”

~~~~~

After a somewhat satisfying meal at the Smashed Spritebot, we headed over to the Rangers encampment, dreading another encounter with Soufflé. On the way there I was very sure I saw the rookie standing guard outside. I mean, how many other Rangers had a large dent in their helmets?

Soufflé’s office was small, cramped, and nearly filled with just his chair, desk, and two other seats. “Good afternoon, Paladin Commander, Knight Baked Potato. You too, Frosty. Please, sit down.” Soufflé motioned to the seats across from his. “We’ve got a lot to discuss. Okay, not really.”

Baked dropped himself into a chair; Rumcake nudged me toward the other chair. “Nah, that’s okay. I’ve got wings,” I told him and settled myself on the ceiling. “Really, you take that chair. I love it up here.” He smiled and sat down in the vacant chair. “So, why we here?”

“You three geniuses rocked the hive. Good work.” He threw a stack of papers at us. “Now that you’ve solved our slaver problem, the slavers think they just need to throw more slaver at us. I’m getting reports from our advance scouts that I thoughtfully sent out, and the results are not good. Red Eye’s bringing his fire and brimstone.”

“Ain’t that a good thing?” Baked grumbled. “Less prob’s fer the other lads.”

“They’re coming here, you indolent nincompoop.” Soufflé slammed the table. “And we’re not going to be able to fight them off. Not without reinforcements.”

“What’s the plan, sir?” I asked him. Might as well work with him for now. He had the power to command all these Rangers, so I better not piss him off.

“We’ve got no other choice. They want a fight? We’ll give ‘em one. Circle the wagons, rile up the dogs, collect the torches and pitchforks. Let’s show these wimps what happens when you mess with the might of the Steel bucking Rangers!”

“Who dares, wins!” all three Rangers in the room chanted.

Feeling a bit left out, I raised my hoof in the air. “Fly, fight, win!” I weakly added.


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Fortune Finder – You just gotta steal everything, don’tcha? You will find considerably more caps in containers than you normally would.
Current Sub-perk: Alcoholics Obvious – Drink! Drink! Alcohol resistance is doubled, but effects will last twice as long.
Current Status: Addicted to Med-X – It isn’t your fault. When withdrawn, your Agility and Intelligence are penalized by -1.

Chapter 9: What’s a demand to a nonbeliever?

View Online

Chapter 9: What’s a demand to a nonbeliever?

“Secrets and lies! It's all secrets and lies with those ponies!”


We paced back to the barracks in relative silence. “What’s the plan?” I asked Rumcake. At least Soufflé had decided that he wasn’t going to give any ground—but there were serious problems of the implementation thereof.

“We’ll have to speed up our move, that’s for sure. I’ve still got Junior Paladins moving our stuff from our old bunker. I need to get orders down to them to bring our biggest guns and leave the servers for now. Reprioritize and regear for anti-infantry tactics.” Rumcake popped his head out of his helmet and scratched his head. “Those slavers will still have numbers on their side, so we need to thin them out if it ever comes down to close combat. Powerful as we are, they’ll chip us down bit by bit.”

“If th’ runts bring me Earthshaker, they won’t be a problem,” Baked boasted. “I’ll turn ‘em into paste.” He punctuated that with a stomping and grinding motion.

On that topic: “Do the Steel Rangers have sappers or do they not exist for you guys?” I asked.

“Sappers?”

Apparently not. “They’re the assholes that go around burying zap mines in the mess hall because the clouds just so happen to be the same color.” That was, of course, if my memory served me correctly.

“Oh, yeah. That’s what Senior Knight Donut Steel’s rookies are usually tasked to do. Breaks in the new blood, so to speak.” Well, that answered that. “My Paladins do much more important things.”

I fiddled with the bomb collar around my neck. “Does this mean I’m also being conscripted for defense?”

“Probably. Say, while we’re at it, mind doing a recon sweep of the area? I’d like your opinion since that’s partly what you did before, right?” Rumcake asked.

Coming from him, I couldn’t say no. “Roger that.” I unfurled my wings, gave Rumcake a salute and cocky grin, then rocketed into the air.

Happy Hills wasn’t a particularly large town, barely qualifying as such. I flew a clockwise patrol around the perimeter wall, taking note of all the little things that looked important. It was nice to feel the wind ruffle my feathers, pull banks and turns like I used to. Limited freedom felt nice. There was Doc’s clinic, then the gate, then the mountain where Underhill was. I completed my circle and landed right back where I had taken off from.

“An’?” Baked asked.

At least I still remembered how tactics worked. “If you’ve got them to spare, minefield the balls out of the slavers’ approach zone. It’ll make them think twice about getting closer and they’ll have to retreat to regroup since there’s little to no cover out there. Of course, they could always use the ‘send in the next wave’ approach. That’ll thin out their ranks.”

Rumcake blinked at me. “Wow.”

I held up a single talon. “Not done yet. The only glaring weak point is the giant bucking hill to our right, since the walls don’t go up it, for whatever reason. If they’re smart enough to flank, that’s where they’ll hit.” After that information was delivered, I tweaked Dad’s hat at him and proudly crossed my forelegs.

Baked snorted. “The more ye know.”

“That was good—amazing, even!” Rumcake gasped. “We’ve never had aerial recon before. Usually it takes a lot longer to do a perimeter assessment.”

“Pegasus master race,” I instantly blurted.

Probably not the right thing to say based on the edgy glare coming from Baked. He turned back to me. “Frosty, head back home. We’ll take it from here.”

“Right then. Uh… I think I’ll try to make myself useful.” I shrugged and left.

Without anything better to do, I walked back to Rusty’s house. What do I do? I guess I could just wait for Rumcake to come back with some information. I pulled on the door and found it locked. Hm. Guess he wasn’t home. I knocked on the door. No reply. I flew up to a hole in the wall and peeked in. Nope, nopony was in there. Huh. How was I supposed to wait at home if the house was locked? Hmm, where would Rusty be at this time of day…?

~~~~~

“Hey, Doc! Anything going on?” I yelled into the clinic, swooping in for a landing after my brief flight. Doc stumbled in from the back room, covered in soot. He pushed up the goggles he was wearing, leaving a comedic goggle-shaped clean spot around his eyes. “Wow, what did I miss?”

“So, turns out boiling Sparkle-Cola with a whole bunch of other crap I found in my medical stores is a terrible idea.” He let out a sooty cough and started wiping ash and bits of melted glass from his medical barding. “What brings you back here? I didn’t leave anything inside you again, did I?”

“No, I—wait, what?”

“Uh…” Doc looked left and right, stopping on a monstrous pile of junk in the corner which he promptly dived into. “Your authority is not recognized in Fort Kickass!”

I took a few steps and dismantled his fort with a well-aimed swat.

Doc fell on the floor and cried, “Noooo!”

“You know what? I don’t even care anymore. I’m looking for Rusty. He around?” I asked. Doc pointed back into the back room. “Thanks. By the way, I might need to talk to you later.”

“Talk to me when you’re ready. Also, can you walk around a whole bunch back there? I want to make sure there’s no more broken glass on the ground.” Doc wrapped a broom in his magic and started brushing himself down.

The back room was surprisingly intact, considering what might have happened. The beds were moved back into a corner and safely covered with a large tarp. The rest of the room was covered with bits of melted glass and soot. The table holding Doc’s little experiment setup was completely destroyed. “Hey, Frosty! What’s going on?” Rusty called, popping out from under some rubble.

“Hi, Rusty. Your house was locked, so I came here instead.”

“You want the house key?” He reached over and dug around in a little bag around his neck.

“Nah, it’s okay. Being here is actually fine,” I replied. Rusty shrugged and closed the bag. “You need a hoof?” He nodded. “Alright.” I flapped over and gripped his outstretched hoof with my claw. I strained and flew backward as hard as I could. “Dammit, what are you trapped under?”

Rusty squirmed around a little. “I think there’s a filing cabinet on top of me.”

I hovered over him and pushed some rubble out of the way. “I see it. Hold on.” I grabbed onto the edge of the filing cabinet and pushed it off of him. “You good?” Rusty wiggled free and nodded. Eh, what the hell? I rifled through the filing cabinet and pocketed a few caps and another bobby pin.

“Thanks for the help.” Rusty shook out his hindlegs. “Wanna help me sweep up all this crap? I’d appreciate the help. I’ll pay you a few caps to help me out.” We surveyed the state of the room. There was rubble and melted glass everywhere. A thin layer of sludge, dust, and ash covered everything else in the room.

I sighed. “Sure, what the hell. I’ll go steal the broom from Doc.” I really had nothing else to do. Hopefully Rumcake and Baked Potato were both handling the Rangers well enough to get their support. The slavers would show up whether the Rangers were ready or not. I was so absorbed in my thoughts that I paced right into Doc’s flank.

“Woah there! What can I do for you? Don’t you even dare touch my new fort.” Doc exclaimed. He caught my troubled gaze. “Something on your mind?”

“Yeah… Lemme ask you something.” Serious time, Frosty. “What’s so special about this place?” I sat down. “Like, what’s so special to you about this place?”

Doc scratched his chin in thought. “Well, I started out moving a medical cart around the wasteland for the longest time. I got raided a few times, and after that I learned how to defend myself.” He levitated a bonesaw out and dropped it on the table. “Eventually I somehow managed to make my way all the way to Dise. That’s when I met up with Tabber and his little mercenary team. Met Roy and all the insane stuff over there.”

“I assume this is when things went wrong,” I added, putting Doc’s story together. “Canterlot, desertion, that stuff?”

Doc nodded. “Yeah. After I left, I didn’t want to do anything involving shady deals and ill-earned caps. I decided to help ponies however I could. And that’s how I got here.” He proudly motioned outside. “Flimsy, on the other hoof, happened to be my first unfortunate criminal seeking some free chems. Haven’t had a looting since.”

Wait… I craned my neck and barely made out the hanging skeleton in the dirty window. “Hold on, you named the skeleton? And hung him?”

“Of course! What else would I do with the body? I needed somepony to show I meant business. And to keep the looters out. An example, as it were.”

“And the blood?” I continued, pointing at the front of the building.

“What? I didn’t have any paint.” He shrugged and holstered his saw. “That’s my life story in a nutshell. Anything else you particularly need? Actually, why did you ask in the first place?”

I awkwardly tapped my claw against my other hoof. “There may or may not be a large mob of slavers in varying levels of readiness coming in to kill everyone. I also may or may not be indirectly responsible for it.” Grin. Nervous chuckle. Roll for seduction. Fail miserably.

Doc wasn’t the least bit fazed, much to my relief. “Welp, it was bound to happen. I assume the Rangers aren’t interested in staying?”

“Surprisingly enough, they’re staying. My caps are on the assumption that Soufflé doesn’t have the time, ponypower, nor the patience to move all their crap back to their old bunker now that half of their crap is already here.” I snorted and grabbed Doc’s broom. “Anyway, I gotta clean up your mess.”

I spent the next hour or so with Rusty cleaning out the back room and moving everything back to its original places. The melted glass was the most difficult to scrape off of the surfaces they were stuck to. It was difficult and dirty, but I felt somewhat comforted by some good, honest work. Strange, I know. But it made me feel better about not killing for caps for once.

Once the room was cleaned up, Rusty handed me a small pouch of caps. “I know this isn’t much, but here you go. Thanks.” I took a quick peek inside. Fifty caps. Eh, whatever. “Take my house key too. I’ll get a copy from my sister later.”

“Thanks, Rusty.” I hugged him. “That made me feel a lot better.”

He looked totally confused. “What.”

Rumcake barged in. “Okay, I think I need your help.” He panted. “Bad news. Inquisitor Soufflé’s getting cold hooves.”

Well, crap. That meant we wouldn’t have Rangers without Soufflé’s support. “What in the name of Luna is his problem, then?” I asked.

“He’s got the idea that he can back off, let the slavers have their way with the town,” he explained. “Once they’re done, he’ll bring in the cavalry and mop up the survivors.”

“Well, it’s not a bad strategy,” I shamefully admitted. “Hit ‘em while they’re celebrating their victory, before they have time to regroup.”

“Some of these wastelanders are more useful alive than dead. The Sleazy fellow, the barmaid, the merchants… town’s nothing without them. Unfortunately, I don’t have the authority to argue with Soufflé any further. Good thing you aren’t an official Steel Ranger, so I need you to convince him to change his mind.”

Another chance to yell at Soufflé, huh? “I’ll do it,” I stated. “Where is he?”

“He’s still hanging out in his office, I think.” Rumcake looked around and hopped onto a bed. “I’ll just be here. Damn, I need a break.” He stretched and rolled over. “Call me if you need any help, alright?”

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever, lazybutt.” Off to see the Inquisitor, the wonderful Inquisitor of the Steel Rangers. When I got there, I was held up by the guards at the camp entrance. Again, they stopped me and tried to keep me from entering.

“No entry. Steel Rangers only,” one of them droned. “Leave immediately.”

I brandished my claw at them. “How many pegasi do you know that have one of these? I mean seriously, how many damn pegasi do you even know?” I yelled. “You have got to be the most oblivious Rangers ever!”

He silently stared at me through his visor. I swear I could hear the gears turning inside his head. Come on. Think harder. “Right. Go on ahead.” He idly sidestepped and let me through. Thank you, idiot. Time to give Souffle a piece of my mind.

I roughly shoved the door open and slammed my hooves onto Soufflé’s desk, causing him to jump backward in surprise. “Okay, we need to set something straight. Sit down, shut up, and pay attention.”

Regaining his wits, Soufflé shouted, “I could have you executed for speaking to me in su—” I interrupted him with a hoof to the jaw, sending him sprawling across his desk. “How dare yo—” I punched him with my claw, knocking him to the other side of the desk.

Oh, that felt good. Soufflé righted himself and rubbed his jaw, visibly pissed. “Now, listen up,” I growled. “I’m going to keep this as brief as possible.”

Hold on, I think this situation deserves a bit of delicacy. Let me handle this.

…How does that work, exactly?

Just go with the flow.

Uh, sure. Thanks, brain.

“I’m paying attention, whether I like it or not.” Soufflé sat back in his chair, silently fuming. “What the buck do you want?”

I exhaled and composed myself. Get his support. Try not to rough him up again. Maybe even give him a little respect. “Now, Inquisitor Soufflé. You currently hold command over the Steel Rangers occupying this town. All I ask is for you defend this town. Is that too much for you?”

“Yes. I can’t lose any more Rangers. I’m not taking a damn chance on the hopes that the slavers attacking are armed with soft spongy darts,” he retorted. “Let them settle their own score. We’ll be the damn heroes that the whole wasteland thinks we are. I stand behind my decision.”

My turn! Let’s beat a little sense into him!

Raider, get back in there. No playtime for you.

I’ll be gentle! And my gentle I mean maybe just a nosebleed. Several nosebleeds.

Well… he wasn’t changing his mind. Not without a little push. Fine, let’s do it. Thoughts of chronic and sustained cruelty began to flood my mind as I suddenly jumped over his desk and headbutted him as hard as I could. Ow. Ow. I’m going to kill you for that later, raider me. “How about I change it for you?” I hissed.

“Wha—” he started. I gripped his neck, just hard enough to leave marks.

“I saved your life, you inconsiderate prick. I’m starting to doubt my decision back there.” I sat down on his chest and grinned. “Maybe I should just fix it right now.” I ignored the dull ache all over my body as I squeezed a bit harder.

Soufflé began to choke, just a little. “You think… can… bully me?” Annoyingly enough, he didn’t even try to fight back.

“I like to think so, meatbag.” I lifted his head up and slammed it into the ground. “Change your mind yet?”

Groan of pain meant he was still conscious. Too bad that he wasn’t changing his mind. Time for a slight change in plans. “Well, I’ll just have to try a little harder.” I slugged him across the face, which made a really satisfying thwack sound. Part of me must have enjoyed it since I did it again, just for good measure.

A trickle of blood began to run from Soufflé’s nose. “You hit like a cow.”

I playfully pouted. “That’s not a nice thing to call your mother.” And for insulting his mother, I punched him again.

“I’d hate to hit a filly.” Soufflé coughed. “Don’t make me.”

“Already am.” To rub it in, I throat-punched him. After a moment, I sighed. “This isn’t working, is it?”

I allowed Soufflé to catch his breath so he could answer me. “No. It’s not.” He finally managed to choke out.

That meant Raider Frosty needed to go. It was time for a slightly more diplomatic approach. I felt a fleeting touch of calm wash over me, which also took away the invasive thoughts of yet more unprovoked violence.

“What’ll make this work then?” I sighed, allowing Soufflé to relax slightly.

“You want me to do something for you? Trading favors sounds fair.”

“How about this, then? I’ll owe you one, no holds barred, no whole-assery, favor.”

Soufflé cocked a brow. “Whole-assery?”

“Why should I half-ass two things when I can whole-ass one thing?”

“You see that bomb collar around your neck?” Soufflé reached up and seized the explosive device and gave it a shake. “I own you. What’s a favor to a demand?”

“What’s a demand to a nonbeliever?”

“What’s a nonbeliever to ten grams of comp four?”

I frowned. “You’ve ruined the joke with your serious threat. Either way, my proposition stands. Look at it as a moment to deploy a pegasus asset that you don’t normally have access to in return for your defense of this town. And as promised, she will carry our your orders to the word, and to perfection.”

To move negotiations along and to reduce farther awkwardness, I scooted myself off of Soufflé’s chest and helped him back onto his hooves. “You’ve got an unreasonable liking for this place. Why should I have have my Rangers stay? Convince me.”

“You risk collateral damage to abandoned items, not to mention potential greater losses once you charge back in to retake Happy Hills from the slavers. That is, assuming that the townsponies don’t repel the slavers first.” I rested my chin on my claw and began to absentmindedly tap my cheek with a talon as I thought. “Of course, both ways you’ll still look like the assholes you really are.”

Soufflé continued to give me his pointedly neutral glare. Unperturbed, I continued my—Gala Frosty’s—analysis. “You leave, the town survives, then you and your Rangers come slinking on back to an angry population that has quite possibly had it up to their eyeballs with the Steel Rangers. You’re half-moved in already, so why even risk the chances of losing all your technology and knowledge that you’ve no doubt already brought.”

Nothing more than an eyebrow quirk and maybe the slightest hints of a frown. “You could use the townsfolk as pony-shaped meat walls to reduce casualties among your own?” I hopefully suggested. “Even less risk than what you’re trying right now, I can guarantee that.”

“And if not?” Soufflé began to replace fallen objects onto his desk

“If that doesn’t work, we’ll all be dead any way you look at it.” I shrugged.

“Hmm.” Soufflé thoughtfully tapped his hoof on the desk. “Anything. Literally anything I want you to do, no questions and no backtalk?”

“Nada.” I’d severely regret it later, but the greater good wouldn’t save itself. “Any mission you want to task me to. Scout’s honor.”

“What’s keeping me from making you do that now?”

A valid point. “It’s a given fact that I’ll do whatever you want me to do because of my explosive jewelry. That doesn’t mean I won’t whine and angst about it the entire way, nor will I complete your mission to perfection. This in mind, I’m willing to take the risk that you won’t blow me up just because I’m a unique asset that you won’t ever have access to again. I’ll do your dirty work by the numbers, should you take my offer.”

“You’ve got a deal,” Soufflé instantly replied.

With that look he had been giving me before, it all seemed a little bit too easy. “Really? Just like that?” I inquired.

“Yes. You’ve obviously changed my mind with your very compelling argument,” Soufflé very sarcastically droned. “I concede. You’ll have your way.”

Something was up, so I narrowed my eyes at him and gave him my most fearsome glare. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” He made a shooing motion at me. “Don’t worry about anything. Now buzz off and feel lucky that I’m not blowing your head off. Go on.”

Not one to press my luck any farther than I already had, I cautiously nodded. “Thanks for changing your mind, although your condescending and suspicious tone has caused my opinion of you to drastically drop.” Obviously not the smartest thing I could have done, but the last thing I needed was being headless.

As I trotted out of Inquisitor Soufflé’s office, triumphant grin on my face, I heard something that caused my victory prance to falter ever so slightly. “Too damn easy. Looks like you can shoot a large caliber pony with a small caliber bullet. Probably only applies to stallions, then.” Just to rub it in, he began to diabolically chuckle. I’d missed something painfully obvious, I was sure of it, but I wasn’t sure what.

~~~~~

Now that the situation was temporarily resolved, I headed back to the clinic to inform Rumcake about Soufflé’s begrudging support. At least, I was pretty sure it was begrudging.

“Hey, Frosty! Wait up!” a familiar voice called out. I turned around and noticed a Steel Ranger running after me.

That gait… that happy voice… “Uh… Cabbage Stew?” I hazarded a guess.

“Eyup. Yer gettin’ good at this! Ah thought ya might want this.” He pulled out a small wrapped package. “Think of it as a thank ya gift from one special li’l somepony y’know.”

“Thanks. What is it, though?” I asked, addressing the package. I put my ear against the paper wrapping and gave it a gentle shake. There weren’t any particularly loud rattling sounds or sliding noises, so I couldn’t really guess without opening it.

“It’s not much. Needs a bit of elbow grease and some actual grease. Ahm sure ya can handle it, pardner.” Cabbage Stew paced off toward the Smashed Spritebot.

I carefully unwrapped the package and gasped in sheer awe. He’d given me a power hoof! Sure it was a little dented and scraped up, but I could probably find a use for it. A little engraving on the side brazenly dictated “Philomena’s Touch”, complete with gold leaf embellishments. How poetic. I slipped my right hoof into it and realized I also needed to get it sized down in order to fit. And I knew just the ghoul for the job.

After a few mistaken detours and a short flight over a row of shacks, I finally located Sleazy McCheapkins’ Bargain Emporium. Surprisingly hard to find from across town, believe it or not. The place was looking more dilapidated than usual, but I couldn’t place why. I opened the door and a speaker in the ceiling blared, “Four hundred percent more awesome! Also, Ironshod doesn’t make their guns out of bucking wood.”

“Sleazy? You in there?” I looked around the store. “I need something customized.” The shop was quiet. Really quiet. Not even the characteristic ghoulish wheezing of Sleazy breathing. Even the music from before wasn’t even present. A feeling in my gut told me something had gone horribly wrong and the ghoul was in trouble, probably worse. I heard the floorboards in the back room squeak. Gut feeling confirmed, I immediately jumped into combat mode and attached myself to the ceiling in preparation for an ambush. The squeaking drew nearer and I squeezed myself into the space above the doorway leading to Sleazy’s armory.

Soon, a helmeted pony popped his head out from the doorway. “Aaaanypony out there?” Sleazy fearfully whispered. He looked around. “Must’ve been my imagination,” he muttered.

Drop on him! That’ll give him a good scare!

Sure, brain. I waited for him to settle down behind the counter. Right as he was about pick up a well-worn “Guns and Mares” magazine, I let go of the ceiling and gently landed behind him. I crept as close to him as I could, then I whispered into his ear, “Boo.”

He screamed like a little filly and dived over the counter in panic. “Assassin! Help!” I burst out laughing and fell over. Oh, this was too good! “You little rascal!”

“That was totally worth it!” I managed to make out in between breaths.

“What in the name of Tartarus do you want?”

“Right.” I showed him Philomena’s Touch. “I need this a few sizes smaller.” His eyes widened and he reverently picked it up. “Can you do it?”

“Where’d you get it?” he whispered in awe. “This is good pre-war tech. Possibly even a Royal Guard’s personal weapon.” He started fiddling around with a few plates and screws on the underside of the power hoof.

I had a good feeling who’d given it to me, but I needed to confirm my suspicions. “Found it somewhere. Can you refit it?” I pressed.

“Yes, yes. Of course. These little things were made to be easy to use. Do you doubt the skill of the great Sleazy?” he shot back. “Huh. I could have sworn Dad worked on one of these before…”

“Are you saying you have no idea what you’re doing?”

“I know what I’m doing. I just haven’t worked on a power hoof in a while. Haven’t seen one in such good condition for a while, that’s all.” He took a screwdriver out from under the counter and started fiddling around with various panels and wires inside the hoof.

“Alright then. How long will this take?” I impatiently asked. Something on the far wall caught my attention. “Hey, what’s this?” I nudged a tattered, broken sign propped up against the wall. It was nearly unreadable given the grime and wear, but Sleazy looked up and immediately recognized it.

“Some time ago, my dad, Budget ‘Bob’ McCheapkins, owner and CEO of Budget Bob’s Budget Bargain Bombs ran into fierce competition with my mother, Grubby Gina of Grubby Gina's Great Greasy Guns,” he wistfully told me.

“Sounds like the start of something beautiful,” I observed.

“Shut up. This is my story. Anyway, Papa Bob was very surprised at meeting somepony who was even more money-grubbing than he was. Of course they undercut each other in this massive sales war, driving both companies into the ground and at the same time running nearly all other munitions salesponies out of business. It was love at first sight! Or more accurately, love at first sales war.”

Wow. That was really hard to top, even for most amazing love stories. “Awesome.”

“Of course! Their businesses merged together and they had me as their foal not long after. Of course, given my bloodline, I started up my own business and ran them both out of business. They were so proud that day. And that’s how the Bargain Emporium was made.” He stood proudly, motioning at the store around us. “Two hundred years ago, that is.”

“Do you miss them?” I asked quietly.

“Every buckin’ day,” he sadly replied. “It must be nice knowing your parents are around, somewhere.”

I sighed and dropped my gaze to the ground. “Not really. My father died a few weeks ago.”

“I’m sorry. Sorry about bringing it up.”

“It’s fine. It’s just… I haven’t… I haven’t gotten over it yet. I can’t accept the fact that he’s dead. I just keep thinking that when I get back home, he’ll be there waiting for me. Waiting to tell me that my bunk’s out of order or something.”

“Oh… do you have any siblings?”

“I don’t remember. I don’t know.” A sharp bolt of pain stabbed at my heart. “I can’t really remember my mom. If I did have siblings, they were Enclave military,” I answered. “Something happened to me between when I was backstabbed and when I was left for dead in the wasteland.”

Sleazy rummaged about in a chest under the desk and slid a large bottle over to me. “Sounds like you’ve had a bad run with your luck. It happens to everypony at some point, so here’s a bottle of my favorite scotch. Drown your sorrows. Works for me.”

I read the label and grinned. ‘Sleazy’s Super Special Scotch’, of course. “Thanks. Oh, one more thing before I go. No more sob stories, just business.”

“Go ahead. I’m listening.” He pulled out another bottle for himself.

I crossed my primaries and prayed to the goddesses that a second negotiation would work as well. “A slaver assault is on the way to Happy Hills, and I think the town would appreciate having a reliable gunsmith and armory available to them.” Sleazy’s eyes widened and he took a longer drag from his bottle.

“Assault? I’ve got rifles for that.” Sleazy grinned. “Get it? It’s a gun joke. Some of them shoot bucking acid. But really, I’m not sold.”

Not surprising, since I hadn’t expected it to work in the first place. “But do you know what the Steel Rangers like?” I needed a good hook to reel him in with.

“Technology, I know.”

“And they do love their guns.” My nervous grin muscles were really getting a workout today. “Once they find your stockpile, one of two things will happen.”

“I know where this one’s going. Sell to the tin cans or get steamrolled. Blah blah blah. Little pegasus, I’m upwards of two hundred years old. That gives me two and a half centuries of extor—er, business expertise under my belt.” Sleazy tossed the now-empty bottle over his shoulder and let it smash against the wall.

Welp. At least he’d saved me a lot of convincing to do. “So…” I hesitantly trailed off.

“I’ll have to sell to them, won’t I?” Sleazy responded. “There isn’t much I can do besides move my entire vault somewhere else. That’ll mean the town’s gone somewhere else and it’s dropped right out of the bottom.” He made an airy whistling sound and a spiraling motion with a rotting hoof. “Ha ha ha, that’s funny.”

“Vault? You have a vault full of guns?” I had a hard time imagining a room full of guns like my anti-machine rifle packed from floor to ceiling.

“Don’t you even try to hunt for it. The entrance is impossible to find. What I’ve got in the back there is a fraction of my collective firepower.” Sleazy rooted around for another bottle as he spoke. “There’s no use then, eh? I might as well make a few caps along the way. Beats dying again.”

Looked like my problem solved itself. “I guess you’ll sort it out with them, then?”

“Yeah. Sleazy Munitions doesn’t do refunds!”

~~~~~

“I hate my job,” Rumcake grumbled at me. He had his armor back on, and Baked was mounting an additional minigun to Rumcake’s armor.

“Quit yer bellyachin’ ye whiny little foal.” Baked whapped the back of Rumcake’s head with a wrench. “Stop movin’ about.”

Rumcake stopped fidgeting and continued talking. “I still can’t believe you convinced Inquisitor Soufflé to stay.” He shook his head and grinned. “Blackmailed him in his own office. Amazing. He even re-instated the town militia.”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.” I told him. How else did he expect me to get that idiot’s support? “You just needed his support. Didn’t mean I had to be polite about it.” I watched the two of them in slight disinterest.

“I didn’t know there were plans fer that. Huh,” Baked said around a mouthful of wrench. “How’d ye manage t’ get Sleazy onboard?”

“Don’t worry about it.” I nonchalantly waved my hoof. “Is he following through with his end of the deal?”

“He’s still working on it,” Rumcake answered.

A worried militiapony wearing a tattered red beret ran up to me. “Ma’am.” He sloppily saluted at me. “Somepony wants to talk to you.”

Uh… what? I confusedly saluted back and asked, “Who are you, and what’s going on?”

“That’s irrelevant. More importantly, some slaver showed up and just surrendered. On the condition they talk to you, and only you,” the pony in the beret answered.

“Uh… why me?”

Beret-head rolled his eyes. “They wanted to talk to ‘the pegasus’. Do you see any other pegasi here?”

“Good point. Where is he?”

She,” he corrected, “is being held in Doc’s clinic under heavy watch. He insisted. Care for the ponies, and all.” He snorted in disgust. “Damn slavers should get what they deserve.”

“Alright, I’ll go check it out.” Oh well, if Doc wasn’t dead, then she should be somewhat talkative by the time I got there. The militiapony expectantly stared at me. “Uh… dismissed?” He sighed exasperatedly and trotted off. When they hay did I turn into the leader? Whatever.

And Doc’s Clinic was once again characterized by the telltale horrified screaming of an unfortunate “patient” coming from within. “Git away from me, ya wanker!” I assumed that was the slaver that was currently reconsidering her surrender. The other, slightly more entertaining option, was that Doc suddenly decided to develop a fillyish voice and change his speech patterns.

“Calm down. The more you struggle, the more fun—I mean painful this is probably going to be,” Doc said, trying to hide his glee. He had his bonesaws floating around a scared-looking navy mare in the corner of the room. Her orange mane was disheveled and covered in a thick coating of mystery gunk. “Now stop cowering and let me properly treat you.”

I roughly shoved Doc aside and pulled the slaver out of the corner. “Lay off her,” I told Doc. Then I turned my attention back to the slaver. “I’m here. Now, you’re going to give me some damn answers or I’m letting the good doctor here continue with invasive surgery,” I growled into her ear. “Just get talking.”

“Don’ hurt me! Ya gotta listen to me. I got information fer you.” She started wiping off her striped red body paint. “We can be civilized, right?” She laughed nervously.

With a heave and a ho, I unceremoniously dropped her onto one of the examination tables and I sat down in front of her. “I won’t promise anything.” I crossed my forelegs.

“You’re the one that flattened the Rad Lads, aren’t you?” She continued wiping off her red stripes, with little success. I gave her a blank stare. “I’m going to assume yes. Anyway, the rest of them are comin’ back in force to make an example of you gits.”

“What do you mean the rest of you?” I asked. “I thought that was your only base.” Crap. There were more of them? “And what do you mean by Rad Lads?”

“Red Eye pulled out our main force and integrated them into his army. Big Benny called up the rest of our lads to hold the fort,” she explained. “Unfortunately, somepony with a wee bit too much time on their hooves blasted our camp to kingdom come.”

“So why are you here and not with the rest of your force?” I asked, suspicion edging into my voice.

She shrugged. “Th’ Lads don’t have anything for me anymore. I don’ have a home, nowhere to go, so I might as well do th’ decent thing for once and warn you.”

“We know the slavers are coming. Based on what you’re saying, it’s the rest of the Rad Lads out for revenge.” She looked surprised but nodded anyway. I continued, “But let me guess—that’s not all, is it?”

“Our main force is approaching from the north. They’re just th’ distraction.” She pointed downward and I looked down. “They know about the tunnels. Benny’s sending th’ Lefties in while you’re distracted.” Of course! Underhill was still wide open and full of scavengers, and we’d never closed the sewers off from the Seapony Energy ruins.

“Why are you telling me this?” I pressed. “How does this help you?”

She slumped and mumbled “I don’ have anypony left. Th’ Hoof Lads were my life, and now they’re gone. I got nothin’ left to lose.” She glared at me, tears in her eyes. “I realized I wanted a change in my life. I’m done with being a slaver. I want to start over. Things changed, yeah?”

“Starting over I understand. But… are you willing to set up your entire gang?” I asked. She looked doubtful. “There will be no survivors. I’m very sure about that.”

“…Yes. I’m sure,” she whispered.

“Alright, we’re done here.” I stood up and left. On the way out, I jokingly ordered Flimsy, “Keep an eye on her, alright?” Flimsy the skeleton shifted ever so slightly. A chill ran down my spine and I quickened my pace. Okay, creepy factor has been doubled. Leaving. Leaving. Don’t make eye contact. It’s probably just the wind. Yeah, totally.

~~~~~

I was jolted out of my afternoon nap by a gentle poke. Unfortunately, I was in enough pain to make that poking feel like a shivving. I ignored the poking as much as possible. Gentle prods escalated to something more vigorous. Jab. Stab. I growled and suddenly flopped onto the hoof poking me. I was rewarded with some frantic pawing and swearing. Without opening my eyes, I mumbled, “Broken Parts, if you continue annoying me I will break your parts.”

“That’s bucking morbid.” Tabber snorted. “You’re a violent, evil little mare.” He continued trying to retrieve his foreleg from under me. “Heavy, too.” Hey! I resent that. “Dammit, move your fat flank before my leg loses circulation!”

I grudgingly rolled over and let Tabber have his leg back. “Whaddya want?”

“We’re going on a field trip. You coming?”

“What do you mean by we?” I asked, rolling back over to glare at him. “I’m not moving until I get some bucking painkillers.” My entire body felt incredibly sensitive and tender, which meant pain. Everywhere.

“Stop whining. Just wait till the withdrawal kicks in.” Tabber picked up a pillow and hit me with it. Of course it felt like being hit with a bag of fluffy rocks. I whimpered and curled up into a ball. Why do the damn pillows hurt too? “Sorry. But come on, let’s go.”

I hopped out of the bed and gingerly shook myself. I pulled on my armored duster and reattached my saddlebag. “Wait, how did you get into Rusty’s house?” Even though I did end up borrowing his key, I was ninety percent sure I relocked it afterward.

“Picked the lock. It was urgent,” he said simply. I shot him a dirty look, which he noticed. “If it’s any consolation prize, I didn’t molest you in your sleep.” I death-glared at him and ignored that comment.

“What’s going on?” I rubbed my eyes and finally noticed Tabber’s insane getup. He was out of his standard armor and now he was dressed in some reinforced black leather armor. He’d painted himself up with a large amount of red paint. He’d even dyed his mane dark blue. “You look… insane.”

“We’re going into the slaver encampment. They’ve set up over the hills a few miles away to the north, right where our informant said they would be coming from. You’ll fly us there.” He motioned at the door. “Let’s go.”

“I’m not wearing whatever you are,” I flatly stated. “Especially that paint. It looks like it’ll stain.”

“Okay.” He turned to leave.

“Wait, really?” Wow, that was easy. Wait. That was easy. Crap.

“You’d never pass for a Rad Lad. Even better, you get to be the bait. Or the distraction. Your choice, really.” He held the door open for me. “Ladies first.”

I walked past him and whapped him with my wing on the way out. “I hate you so much,” I snarked through gritted teeth, pushing down a squeak of pain.

He followed me out and I locked the door behind us. “Good to know.”

~~~~~

I didn’t know whether to be shocked or pissed. The second we’d landed in the darkness next to the camp, Tabber tied me up and gagged me. He’d even tied my wings to my sides. That damn traitor! “It’s all part of the plan. Relax. You keep ‘em busy, I’ll go set the charges. And don’t worry, I’ll keep your stuff safe.” Somehow I wasn’t sure about that.

“Mphph sffpth am attho,” I tried to yell through my gag. Dammit, I really hoped this plan could have gone differently.

Next time, ask what the plan is, exactly.

Shut up, brain. You’re in here with me too.

“Don’t worry about it. Just do what comes naturally,” Tabber idly mentioned. He picked me up by my bindings and dragged me through the dirt and gravel to the circle of shacks and tents where the remainder of the Rad Lads were camped.

I squirmed against my bonds. “Hrgh. Hudda hmph worf?”

“Shut up.” He dragged me over to the edge of the camp and yelled at the closest sentries “Now lookit the little birdie that I caught in the hills.” He roughly tossed me over to them. “Collar’d her up, too. Get her to the rest of the lads.”

The two slavers just stared at me in shock. “Oi, who’re you and wot’s she doin’ here?” One of them yelled at Tabber once he’d recovered. “I ain’t never seen yer ugly mug around here before.”

“Some twat sent me on a fetch quest when everythin’ went to shite. Headed over here as soon as possible,” Tabber easily replied in an accent more similar to what the Rad Lads sounded like. “Wha’s going on here?”

The other slaver that hadn’t spoken grabbed the rope around my torso in his teeth and dragged me off. I couldn’t see where he was taking me, so I took this opportunity to look around the camp in case I needed a quick escape. I memorized the exact path, down to the details of each tent we turned at. In order: red stripes left, gray right, ripped tan another left.

I was tossed into a suspended cage with several other sad-looking captives. A few of them were chained up, tied, or a combination thereof. All of them looked beaten, bruised, and emaciated. They were weary and they looked at me with sad eyes. As soon as the slaver that dropped me in here left, a pink earth pony crawled over to me and started untying me.

“Are you okay?” she hesitantly whispered. Her red mane was cut up and missing in a few patches, but it was evident she was very beautiful once. “Here, let me help you with that.” She gently pushed me over as I struggled to tear off my gag. My entire right side ached from being tossed into the cage.

“Ah, that’s better.” I spat out bits of rope. “This is getting old.”

She gathered up the bits of rope and nudged them over to me. “Here. Hold onto them.” I gave her my best what-are-you-talking-about face. “The guards don’t care if you aren’t tied up in the cage. If they take you out, they want you to be tied up.”

“Thanks.” I tucked the rope behind a wing. “So… what’s your name?”

“Friends call me Cherry.” She hesitantly motioned at my claw. “What’s that?”

I sadly flexed my claw. “It’s a prosthetic. I lost my hoof from something.” All this time, it still made me uneasy thinking about it. I still didn’t know what happened and I still felt a bit of loss when I looked at it. “Wait. Wow, okay these slavers really suck at prisoner management.”

“Oh. Wait, really?” She drew back in surprise.

“You wanna break out?” I raised a talon and pulled a bobby pin out of my somewhat tangled mane. “I think I’ve got the skill.”

Cherry violently shook her head. “No! That’s a terrible idea!” she hissed. “What if the guards catch us?” Her eyes darted around the cage to the other captives, all of which nodded. “I don’t wanna die,” she whimpered.

The fear in her eyes was evident. I put away the pin. “Alright. I didn’t really have a plan for afterward, anyway.” Now, how does one escape from slavers when trapped in a tiny cage? I idly chewed my fetlock in thought. “What happens now?”

“We wait to be sold off and pray to the goddesses for a merciful owner. How are you in the hay?” Cherry worriedly asked me. Some of the other prisoners also looked worried. “You good at all?”

“What do yo—” I started, then instantly started turning red. Of course I knew, but that didn’t really mean I wanted to talk about it!

You’re hopeless.

Thanks, brain.

“Uh, I guess I’m passable?” I scratched my mane awkwardly. Everypony else in the cage sighed in relief. “Why?”

“You’re a mare. There’s a reason you’re not fighting other slaves for their amusement at the moment.” Oh. Okay, so that’s how these slavers ran. “If you try to escape, well… you know,” she trailed off, pointing at a small pile of bodies at the far edge of camp.

“Then I assume you’re… uh… particularly skilled?” I hazarded a guess. She proudly nodded. “And you’ve never gotten around to escaping?” She sadly shook her head. I sighed. “So what do we do in the meantime?”

“Clean ourselves up. Hope for something better. Do slave-related things.” Cherry looked resigned. “Nopony else likes to talk to me. Everypony just keeps to themselves, just wishing for the moment they can escape.” Wow. Talk about depressing stuff.

“Don’t worry. If everything goes according to plan—” Which it wouldn’t, most likely. “—you won’t have to wait for long.” I took a furtive glance around for guards reflexively. “Assuming my partner hasn’t been caught or completely abandoned me, we’ll be able to escape soon.”

Hope returned to Cherry’s eyes. “Really?” I nodded. “That’s great news!”

“Yeah. One problem, though.” I chewed on my fetlock again. “I wasn’t really informed about the plan, if we had one.” The hope faded a little. “Sorry.”

Cherry was crestfallen. “Oh… well, there’s always a catch, isn’t there.”

“Sorry,” I repeated. I heard voices approaching from the dim edges of my vision. “Crap. Somepony’s coming.” All the prisoners, Cherry included, laid down and cowered in fear. “Uh… am I missing something here?”

“Remember what I said? In the hay? Oh horseapples, your bindings!” Cherry hissed. “Rope! Tie your forelegs up. Here, let me help.” She carefully tied my forelegs up in a loose knot. “If you’re the blood angel, maybe we stand a chance,” Cherry whispered.

What did she just call me?

What did she just call us?

Great reaction time, brain.

I didn’t have time to figure out what was going on. “So, ‘eard we got a new one,” a voice said.

“Yep! Newblood got ‘er sneakin’ aboot,” the other gloated. “You’ll like ‘er. She’s got wings. Yeah, I know right?”

“I got first dibs on her,” the first voice excitedly squealed. “Where’s she at?”

“Right here.” The owners of the voices stopped in front of the cage. The one that spoke was a tawny yellow unicorn. His gray mane was styled into several cheesy-looking spikes. “Whaddya think, mate?”

His friend was a bright obnoxious blue and his mane just happened to be a darker blue as well. Surprisingly well-groomed, considering. “I love ‘er.” I could feel his leery gaze all over my aching body. He reached forward and I tried to chomp his reaching hoof. “Oooh, feisty one. I like that.” He motioned me forward. “C’mon. You’re comin with me.”

I looked to Cherry for a little support. “Go. The longer you wait, the worse it’ll get,” she whispered. A frilly neon orange collar was tossed through the bars and I picked it up, mildly curious. Cherry motioned at my neck. “Put it on.” I rolled my eyes and tied it around my neck above my other stupid collar. Ugh.

Spiky Yellow opened the cage while levitating a shotgun at me. I growled at Bluey as I indignantly stepped out. “For your information, I like to be wined and dined first.” I really didn’t want to be here right now, but I didn’t have a choice. At least my wings were free, so if I couldn’t fight my way out I could fly away. “Also, I like long flights along the clouds,” I added. One of them clipped a leash to my collar.

As I was led away by Bluey by my equally neon leash, he started talking about a bunch of random stuff I didn’t care about. I zoned him out to try and find some other exit plan or catch sight of Tabber. That is, until he mentioned the Enclave military. “…is just a bunch of wussy little fillies campin’ in the clouds. I just can’t imagine what you see in them.”

“Hey! My dad was military, so of course I’m going to join up,” I retorted. “And anyway, we have ponies trying to help the wasteland. There was an initiative to distribute genetically improved sustainable food to select locations.” Something about it bothered me, but I couldn’t really put my hoof on it. “At least our leaders are more organized than you idiots.”

“For somepony that didn’t get nuked to the choir invisible, sure,” Bluey said dismissively. We came to a stop in front of a somewhat fancy olive green tent. “We’re here. Come along, get that sexy flank inside.” He gave me an encouraging spank.

I cringed but I went inside, against my better judgement. For a tent, he’d furnished it well. He had a somewhat acceptably soft bedroll along one wall, and the other side had a short table, a hooflocker, and a small cooktop. Hmm. I eyed the back of the tent. I could cut my way through…

“Would you like a cup of tea?” Bluey unhooked my leash and tossed it onto the table. I indifferently shrugged. “I’ll take that as a yes.” He poured some water from a few plastic bottles into a small dented pot and turned on the camping stove.

“You treat everypony like this?” I quietly asked. I was really expecting something along the lines of “get on the bed right now” sort of thing. Bluey was taking off his armor and piling it up in a corner.

“Even if I’m a ‘dirty slaver’, I’ve still got standards. Especially for the ones that aren’t trying to actively kill me the entire time.” He dropped a small bag into the pot and turned the heat off. “I’ve got a bit of scotch around here somewhere. You want a dash of scotch in your tea?” He opened the hooflocker and looked around in it.

Being the smarty flank I was, I replied, “I’d love some tea with my scotch.” If this was really going to happen, I was going at least try to get a little drunk. Why was this happening to me all the time?

“Alright, a double for you then.” Bluey laughed. I hesitantly and nervously chuckled along with him. He poured the tea into two teacups (yes, actual bucking teacups) and added scotch to each of them, one more than the other. He pushed the one with more scotch over to me. “Cheers.” He raised his cup.

“Cheers?” I nervously raised my cup too and drank the entire hot mixture. I immediately decided I didn’t particularly like tea. It tasted a lot like disgusting leafy cheap scotch. “Ugh. Needs more scotch.” I grimaced.

“I agree it isn’t as good as our usual stock, but… well, you know what happened to it.” Bluey shoved me onto the bed. “You little wanker. I’m going to make you pay for all of that.”

“Betcha love your big wankers too.” I sniggered.

Nice one!

High five, brain.

“Shut it, slave.” He slapped me, hard enough to knock the cup out of my hoof.

I didn’t like the way he was looking at me, especially how Li’l Bluey was looking at me too. Panic! Panic!

Hold up, maybe we can twist this into our favor. Just go with it.

Are you insane?

Asked the crazy mare talking to herself.

Dammit. Hopefully we know what we’re doing, brain.

He got down on top of me and I suddenly decided to grab him in a tight hug, which surprised me. I didn’t particularly like it and I was positively shaking in my fur. “Alright, alright. If this is going to happen, at least be gentlecolt enough to let me enjoy this a little,” I whispered into his ear.

I used my wings as leverage to flip us over so I was straddling his chest. “You’re like that, are you? I love that.” Bluey leered. He grabbed my flanks and pulled me closer. I inwardly flinched. I just want this to be over, please. I wanna go home! “I like my mares feisty.”

However, I resisted the urge to punch him in the face. “Really now?” I murmured. Ugh. He started planting kisses upward along my body. Do not want! Do not want!

Just go with it. Wait for an opportunity.

I tolerated his fondling, teasing, and kissing for an intolerably long time. Worst of all, I couldn’t find a moment to tear him apart while he was doing this.

“That’s enough of that. Time for the main course,” he gleefully sneered. He forcefully slammed me face-first into the bedroll. Crap! Nonononono! He slapped my flank roughly and laughed again. I could feel him rubbing against my butt. Okay, that’s enough! I desperately reached out with my wing and bumped the table hard enough to knock over one of the teacups. “Dammit. You’re making a mess.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him turn away from me just long enough to pick up the teacup.

Now.

I suddenly sat up and spun around to grab him in a chokehold. “If you don’t mind, I’m just going to skip right to dessert.” I picked up the leash and tied Bluey up with it.

Really? Dessert?

“Shut up! It was the coolest one-liner I could come up with at the time,” I hissed at, well, myself.

I wrapped up his muzzle with the last bit of leash that wasn’t tying his forelegs in place. Bluey attempted to yell something at me, but I couldn’t understand him. He attempted to kick at me and promptly fell over.

Suddenly cheering broke out throughout the camp. “Aw, ponyfeathers,” I muttered. Really hoping it wasn’t a we-caught-Frosty celebratory cheering. “Well, time to go!” As a closing thought, patted Bluey on the head. “Don’t go anywhere,” I joked. He only glared at me as I effortlessly sliced through the back of his tent and darted off into the night.

I stayed toward the edge of camp, creeping around the random patrolling slaver. An explosion abruptly cut off the cheering. Where there’s smoke, there’s explosives. And where there’s explosives, there’s Tabber. I climbed up a short hill overlooking the camp and scanned for Tabber and his stupid disguise. Or at least my bags. The slavers were now actively searching the camp, some of them were just running about screaming, but a blue-maned one was calmly trotting away from all of it. There he was!

I ignored the pained complaints of my body and took flight. I gained as much altitude as I could before dropping like a rock and snatched him at high speed. “Holy crap!” Tabber yelled as I dashed away from the slaver camp. “Thanks for the save there. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to save you too. I didn’t really have an escape plan.” He squirmed in my grip. “Do we have to go so fast? I think i’m going to get sick.”

“Stop squirming! I’m not staying here any longer than I have to. Please tell me you did something besides blow stuff up,” I yelled into Tabber’s ear.

“Oh yeah. Terrible news, the battle is about to begin and their special troops left hours ago. They’re in the sewers right now probably,” Tabber yelled back, covering his ear.

“Crap. Any idea how long it’ll take them to get to Underhill?”

“Anywhere between two hours and eight. Depends on how many of them decide to wander right into my traps.” Tabber thought for a minute. “Actually, I’d say we have at least an hour or so before they reach Underhill. There’s only five entrances into Seapony, and three of them are inaccessible from the sewers.”

“Great. Just great,” I grumbled. Tonight was going to suck. I craned my neck to look back at the camp. Cherry… I’m sorry. I’ll be back. I promise.


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Strong Back – Because your teammates won’t carry themselves. Stupid teammates. You can now carry an additional 50 pounds of weight.
Current Sub-perk: Diplomacy – Remember thy Charlamane. You gain +3 to Speech.
Current Status: Addicted to Med-X – It isn’t your fault. When withdrawn, your Agility and Intelligence are penalized by −1.

Chapter 10: Can I have my body back?

View Online

Chapter 10: Can I have my body back?

“Well, it can’t get any worse.”


We arrived back in Happy Hills panting and shaking. More accurately, I arrived panting and shaking. Tabber was mildly airsick, but I didn’t really care. The second I found a clear patch of dirt, I dropped him and haphazardly landed next to him. I was in a massive amount of pain. My joints ached, my wings burned, and I could barely stand. I collapsed into a sweating, gasping, shaking, pile of fur and feathers.

Breathe, girl!

Trying. Hurts… to breathe.

Tabber staggered to his hooves. “I am not flying with you ever. Again.” He finally noticed me cringing on the ground. “Hey. Hey! You okay?” He looked around to the slack-jawed townsponies for help. “You!” He pointed at one at random. “I need a medic! Get Doc, now!”

I weakly attempted to stagger to my hooves. “I… think I’ll be fine.” I took a few shaky steps then I slammed into the ground. Ow. Ow. Ow. “Can a’ corn. Can of corn, I’ll… be… fine.” I passed out at that point, just in time to see somepony show up with Doc in tow.

~~~~~

“On the bright side, at least we made it.” I woke up to the sound of Gala Frosty’s voice. Okay, my voice. Whatever. “How are you feeling?”

I hopped out of bed. “At least I don’t feel pain here,” I replied, testing my movement. “You notice anything out of the ordinary recently?”

“Well…” She pointed at Raider’s steel door. “It’s still open, but at least she’s not trying to maul us.” Both of us peeked into the room. Raider Frosty was just huddled up into the corner muttering to herself. “She just kinda… sits there.”

“Right. Uh. How’s the rest of us?” I asked, backing away from the door with Gala Frosty.

Gala Frosty looked over into the living room. “Well, Drunky’s been really… out of it lately.” She pointed at the prone pegasus lying down on the couch. “She’s just been quiet. Too quiet.” Both of us went over to her.

“Hayyy giiiiirls….” Drunk Frosty slurred. “Waaaz happeninn?”

“Uh… what’s wrong with you?” I asked. I looked around the room. No empty bottles, no drool on the pillows. “Are… are you okay?” Her eyes were unfocused and she just laid there, staring at the ceiling.

“Tooootally. Howyaa dooin?” Drunk Frosty lazily rolled over and fell off the couch. She giggled and stumbled to her hooves. “Hehe. You know, I love me.” I suddenly became the recipient of a sloppy whiskey-scented kiss. Don’t blame me for not moving. Or reacting. How often do you get the chance to kiss yourself? I mean, really.

Gala Frosty pushed us apart. “Okay, lovebirds, break it up.” Drunk Frosty plopped herself back onto the couch with a giggle. “Look, whatever’s going on with you is going to affect us. Figure it out while you can. There’s no telling what’ll happen if—”

Both of us stopped when Raider Frosty stalked into the room. There was something about her that made me hesitate to speak. She looked more bedraggled. More bloody. More… insane, if that was possible. The gaze of her bloodshot eyes landed on me. “Hungry,” she growled.

“Look, I’m sorry I haven’t gotten to any cherry snack cakes recently. Things have been hectic, you know?” I explained, backing away from her slow advance. “I’ll munch on a few later, okay?”

“No.” She tapped my nose with a bloody talon. “Hungry,” she emphasized, licking the blood off of it.

“Uh.” I looked to Gala Frosty for assistance. “How do I…”

“Bring me out. Let me out. Fight. Give in.” She pushed me against the wall. “Kill.”

And then as suddenly as it begun, Raider Frosty slunk back into her room and closed her door. It didn’t click shut, however. She’d left it slightly ajar. Her incomprehensible mumbling started up again.

“She’s creepy.” Filly Frosty sleepily mumbled, floating into the room. “I don’t like her.” She perched herself onto my head and settled in.

“I don’t either.” I reached up and scratched her ears. “How are you doing?”

Filly Frosty murmured something and snuggled into my frizzy mane. “You smell funny,” she simply replied. Thanks, me. Note to self, get a damn bath. “What’s wrong with everypony?”

“I don’t know. I think I just need a break. Or something.” I sighed and continued scratching Filly Frosty. “Something’s wrong with me, and I’ll eventually figure it out. I think.”

Gala Frosty looked thoughtful. “I guess that’s the best we can hope for.”

“Hey, speaking of which, what’s wrong with you?” I asked Gala Frosty. She looked away. “Each one of me is ridiculous, completely bucking insane, or tired. What’s with you?”

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” Gala Frosty replied.

“C’mon. You know what’s going on in my head on a daily basis. It only seems fair that you tell me, right?” I said, patting her mane. “It’s not like you can be any more crazy than I am.” I grinned and she smiled a little.

“You know how I’m the representation of your sanity, hopes, and logic?” Okay, now I know. “Well, now you do,” she added, sensing my realization. “I think I’m going crazy. I see things.” Her voice dropped to a whimper. “Things that shouldn’t happen. Things that will. Things that don’t make sense.”

Filly Frosty climbed off my head and floated onto Gala Frosty’s head. “It’s okay. We’re all not feeling like ourselves. Yourself. Whatever.” She sleepily replied and stifled a cute little yawn. D’awww. I’m so adorable. “Everything’ll hopefully be back to normal in no time.

I really hoped so. I hugged Gala Frosty tightly. Was it possible for my split personalities to go crazy? I was a little scared that my calm, collected, smart version of me was panicking. “We’ll be fine. We’ll be fine,” I chanted. Would we? I closed my eyes and brushed Gala Frosty’s mane.

~~~~~

I woke up to the sound of arguing. The world was unfocused, blinding, and filled with pain. I was back in Doc’s clinic again, lying down in the beds in the backroom. I groaned and scooted myself toward the edge of my bed. Everything hurt, I had a cold sweat going, and my wings stung with pain. “I need a bucking drink,” I croaked.

The arguing voices abruptly stopped and then appeared in front of me. Rumcake was anxiously staring down at me. On the other side of the bed, Doc was surprisingly worried too. “Hey there, sport! Glad to see you’re not dead!” Doc enthusiastically blurted.

Rumcake reached over me and whapped Doc’s horn. “Hey. Get a little serious here, will you? Now, what’s wrong with her?”

Doc rubbed his horn irritably, then lit it with magic and placed it against my head. An unpleasant tingle washed through my body again. But at this point, it felt much better than the pain I was in. “She’s just going through some Med-X withdrawal combined with a little bit of complications from the last battle.”

“What’re my options, Doc?” I resisted the urge to retch when I tried to sit up. “Ugh. I feel like I got hit by a hailstorm.” Every little movement I made caused a little stab of pain.

Doc raised a hoof. “One. You ride out the withdrawal and stallion up.” He raised his other hoof. “Or two. I hit you with another Med-X. It’ll keep you up and running for a short while, but the withdrawal will be incrementally worse.” Okay, that sounds like a terrible option. “Or three.” He raised a hindleg. “I give you some Fixer. It’s only temporary, and I’m ninety percent sure it’s addictive on its own.”

“All of these sound like terrible choices.” I coughed. “Damn, I need a drink.” Rumcake gently pushed an open water bottle up against my muzzle. I eagerly slurped up the water, feeling a little more invigorated with each gulp. “Aaah. That’s better.” I sighed contentedly and the urge to throw up faded away.

“Well, the decision is all yours,” Doc continued, putting his hooves back on the ground. “What’ll it be?”

I weakly reached out for the Med-X on the far table. “Gimme,” I grunted, trying to will the syringe toward me. Anything to get rid of the pain. Damn these short legs! I waved my forelegs hopelessly at the Med-X. “Gimme.”

Rumcake swatted my forelegs disapprovingly. “No. The last thing I need is you turning into a painkiller addict.” He glared at me as he collected up the Med-X into a little pouch and stuffed it into of Doc’s pockets. “I need you clean.”

A whimper squeezed past my muzzle. “It hurts.” I curled myself up protectively. “Please.”

His expression softened. “Look, I know it’s tough. It’s painful, but I need you. I’m sorry.” His pink mane dangled into my face. If I wasn’t feeling like pounded crap, I would have been tempted to swat at it. “Oh, right, before I forget. Your callsign is ‘Pidgeon’, so don’t forget it.”

Of course it would be.

A fully-armored Steel Ranger burst into the room. “The Diamond Seeker squadron is geared up and waiting.” The Ranger shifted uneasily after a few seconds. “Sir, if I may ask, how many slavers are we expecting?”

Rumcake turned to the Ranger and patted his shoulder. “Too damned many.” Rumcake picked up his helmet off the ground and shoved his head into it. “Tell the Seekers I’m on my way.”

Rumcake left. I actually contemplated stealing the Med-X from Doc’s pocket the second he wasn’t paying attention. He noticed my sudden fascination with his pocket. “Look, going clean isn’t the easiest thing, I admit. But you need to kick the habit as soon as possible.”

I gave him my best sad filly eyes. “But…”

“Don’t look at me like that.” Doc tried to look away, but failed. “Alright, alright.” He looked around and pulled out an injection patch loaded with a familiar-looking orange syrup. “Here. Knowing you, you’re going to need this.” He tucked it behind my wing. “Try not to use it. Contrary to popular belief, I actually care about your health.”

Oh, really?

“Wow… thanks, Doc.” I held it tightly to my side.

“Don’t mention it.” He sighed and tiredly grinned. “Wait, seriously don’t mention it. Your coltfriend might kill me.”

Rumcake? My coltfriend?

Yeah. Totally. Get with the program.

I laughed anyway and instantly regretted it. Ow. Laughing hurts, too? Not fair. “He won’t kill you.”

He shrugged. “I’m not risking it.” He pointed at the ceiling. “I was informed by the Rangers that they need a sniper on a good vantage point. It turns out that my humble medical malpractice clinic is the perfect location. Your rifle is upstairs on the roof, Tabber’s waiting up there, and Sleazy left you a few things.” Yay. I laid in the bed and looked at Doc expectantly. “I’m not carrying you.”

After an intense staring contest, Doc gave in and levitated me up onto the roof. He refused to talk to me after that, though. I climbed the short ladder up to an elevated platform that seemed to formerly be a part of the second floor. Tabber absentmindedly waved at me while staring through a large pair of binoculars. “Welcome. I’ve been waiting for you.”

I stopped halfway up. “Wait, what?”

“Just kidding. Feeling better?” he asked, still scanning the horizon with his binoculars.

“Not really.” I winced. Even walking around caused slight discomfort. “Wow, where’d all this stuff come from?” I asked, finally noticing my beloved anti-machine rifle propped up by its bipod right next to an older model sniper rifle. There were several boxes of respective ammo lying next to them. My armored duster was neatly folded up in a small pile on top of my saddlebag, and right on top of my duster was a newly refurbished Philomena’s Touch.

“Sleazy really followed through. Pulled all the stops.” He pointed out weapons wielded by ponies as he brought them up. “Assault rifles. Shotguns. Rocket launchers. Even a few multiple grenade launchers. Everything battle-saddleable. Insane.” I tucked Philomena’s Touch into a pocket in my saddlebag.

At least he’d finally found the glimmer of generosity in his rotting heart. I pulled on my gear, holding back little whimpers of pain. Duster, check. I tucked the injector into an inner pocket before I forgot. Saddlebag, check. “Alright, how about a sitrep on our positions?”

“Blasters are at the barricades. Earthshakers are set up with their artillery inside the perimeter. Diamonds are heading down into the tunnels to wipe up the elite slavers. Rest of the Rangers are placed along the walls with the militia.” Tabber pointed out a spot on the horizon. “And… wait, what the buck is that?” he whispered in confusion.

If the team spy is confused, that’s not good. I laid down next to my anti-machine rifle (which had the enhanced scope attachment, thank Luna) and peered down the sight. Lo and behold, it was a glimmering shield blocking the path toward Happy Hills. “That doesn’t look good.”

He put down the binoculars, then took off his helmet, then took off his gas mask, then pulled off a glove so that he could rub his eyes. Huh, how tedious. “Looks like a unicorn shield on a much larger scale. I really hope they don’t have any damn super-unicorns.” He facehoofed. “Crap. Red Eye probably sent his damned alicorns.”

Strong, fast, and basically big fat cheaters on the battlefield, from what Tabber told me last time. The only one I’d spotted decided to pull a disappearing act, so I was going to have to hope that they’d go down without the velocity attachment.

I put down my rifle and examined the sniper rifle next to it. Didn’t seem very unusual at all. Just your run-of-the-mill earth pony sniper rifle with the massive button on the side for firing. “I suggest that you use this one for slightly less zealous overkill. After all, three-oh-eights are easier to find,” Tabber added.

While I examined the stock of ammunition we had and estimated how many targets I could fling into the sun as opposed to simply killing them, something pulled my attention away from the matter at hoof. “Oh hey, what’s that?” I tugged a slightly scuffed bright pink bobblehead out from under a few burned books and a large chunk of wall. “Don’t I have one of you already?” I mostly muttered to myself. That was a matter for later, so I pocketed the toy.

Tabber put all his gear back on. “Our best bet with the damned alicorns is to shoot them while their shields are down. Everything dies, after all.” I peered into the sniper rifle’s sight and attempted to make anything out behind the shield. At this distance, it was nearly impossible to see through it, even with the extreme magnification of the sniper rifle’s scope. Shapes were moving around back there, but I couldn’t see anything identifiable.

The sniper rifle was right-hoofed. Hm. I tested loading a clip, cycling the bolt, and just getting the feel for the gun. It felt weird, mostly because I’d been left-hoofedly firing my anti-machine rifle because of my claw. On the bright side, to switch weapons all I had to do was scoot over a few inches. “Wait, so are you here to keep watch or are you my spotter?”

“I’m your spotter,” he replied with disdain. “Oh, one more thing.”

Tabber produced a PipBuck—not any PipBuck, but the very same PipBuck that I had been strapped with all that time ago. “Here. I managed to snag this back for you, since it’ll probably help keep you alive.” PipBuck, PipBuck, PipBuck. And… now it didn’t sound like a word at all.

“Awesome!” I immediately snapped the PipBuck onto my right foreleg and watched the magical bars and stuff appear in my vision again. “What do you mean by ‘snagged’?” A warning box suddenly obstructed my vision, helpfully suggesting that I go through the tutorial once again. “What? No, I don’t want to read the tutorial.”

“The Rangers may not be aware that their quartermaster has an oddly disturbing attraction to socks and can be bribed to momentarily have a lapse of attention with them.” Tabber shrugged. “Keep your enemies close and your socially unacceptable kinks closer.”

Apparently I really needed to look at this tutorial, according to the PipBuck. “Go away already!” I tried swatting at the air where the ‘no’ button was still located, to no effect.

“That’s not nice.”

I took a turn to swat at Tabber as well. “Not you. Stupid window won— oh, there it goes.” Something I did worked, since the box went away.

“Now hold on a second, is this a bribe?” For all I knew, that was something he actively did, every gift—even the muzzle attachment for my rifle—seemed like it had an ulterior motive. “What’s your game here?”

Very unconvincingly, Tabber chuckled. “Hey, can’t a stallion be nice every now and then?”

I didn’t really feel like arguing as I looked over my PipBuck. There was a familiar-looking device plugged into the side of it, a device that I hadn’t had the time to thoroughly inspect when Broken Parts had given it to me. Why did she have it, again? “Oh, so that’s what the disruptionmajig thingy attaches to. Wait, you went through my stuff?”

“I pride myself on my ability to acquire anything I need.” Tabber pointedly ignored my disapproving glare. “I found it while I was going through your stuff. No, I don’t know what it actually does.”

Hold on a second, was that the sound of privacy violation? “You went through my stuff?” I narrowed my eyes at him.

I had a good feeling that Tabber was turning red underneath that stupid mask of his. “It was only to look for anything you may have needed.”

“You tell yourself that.” I was about to leave it there, but I was annoyed just enough for a playful jab. “Or does the big bad secret agent have a creepy crush on poor li’l Frosty?”

Without being able to see the look on Tabber’s stupid face, my little taunt didn’t really have the entertainment value that I hoped for. “What? You’re obviously seeing our professional relationship in completely the wrong light.”

Hmm. Suspicious stallion was suspicious, and I made a reminder to myself to keep an eye on him. “Aaaalright. Keep your nose out from where it doesn’t belong and we’ll be fine,” I brought us back on track to break the awkward silence. “So, where’s Baked?

“He’s down there with the Earthshakers,” Tabber replied, pointing at what passed for the town square. There were seven Steel Rangers sitting down with their legs apart to help balance the giant cannons mounted on their backs. I assumed they were sitting like that so when the guns fired, they wouldn’t fall over. Behind them were several piles of shells and ten scribes hurriedly cleaning the guns, making the Rangers comfortable, and the like.

“Those are some big bucking guns.” I whistled. “Impressive.”

“Yup.” Tabber looked through his binoculars again. “I’ll take first watch. I’ve got good caps they’ll attack at night.”

“I can’t sleep right now. I’m not tired yet.” I sighed and dug through my saddlebag for the velocity attachment for my anti-machine rifle. “I’ve spent too much time passed out.”

“Unconsciousness is not the same as sleep,” Tabber reminded me. “And everywhere is a bed if you try hard enough.”

“I know.” I rubbed my sore and stiff muscles in an attempt to reduce the pain. “I am not looking forward to shooting later.” Just touching my forelegs caused a little pain. I didn’t want to imagine the increased pain of rifle recoil.

A bottle was placed into my field of vision. “Sweet Apple Acres’ Hard Cider” was written across the label. “Here. Just a little. Just to take the edge off, but I don’t need you drunk.”

Hm. Cider, eh? I took a tentative sip from the bottle. Appley! Mmmm… a sort of warm happy tingling definitely made the pain disappear for a short while. I was tempted to drink the rest of it, but Tabber snatched the bottle back.

“Aww. But I want it!” I tried the sad foal eyes on him.

It wasn’t very effective. “That’s enough. Go to sleep.”

“I don’t wanna,” I pouted. “I’m not tired.”

Tabber gave an exasperated sigh. “Alright, fine. Help me keep watch then.” I hopped back onto my anti-machine rifle and continued monitoring the shield using the sight. I felt a hoof on my neck. “Sorry about this. Nighty night.”

“You’re not so—” There was a sudden pressure, then nothing.

~~~~~

I was brought out of my ninja-induced coma by an urgent shake. “Eyes up. Something’s happening out there.” Tabber pointed out toward where the shield used to be. “They’re gathering.”

I crawled over to Tabber and jabbed his flank. “You knocked me out!”

“Unconsciousness may not be as good as sleep, but it's better than nothing. You need to be in tip-top shape, but at least you’re looking a slight bit better now. How do you feel?” The pain was bearable, but still prodding annoyingly at my body.

“I could be feeling better if I wasn’t unconscious all the time,” I grudgingly replied. “So what’s going on down there?” I asked, looking down the anti-machine rifle sight again. Slavers were gathering on the road. There were so many slavers! So much red and blue striping everywhere! They seemed ready to attack, but they were just waiting for a large purple alicorn to finish wildly gesturing. “…Are they listening to a speech?”

“Looks like it, yeah.” Tabber settled into his corner. I double-checked the magazine and made sure there was a round loaded. “What are you doing?” He narrowed his eyes at me, probably guessing what I was about to do. “Targets. Purple in the middle, two greens, maybe a few more in the back. About nine hundred meters, southwest wind.”

“Doc Frosty’s diagnosis: Extreme Sociopathy,” I muttered, checking my aim. I adjusted for distance and wind. Deep breath.

One. The wind suddenly died down and I adjusted my aim accordingly.

Two.

Three. I slowly exhaled and squeezed the trigger. “Cure? Administer high velocity anti-everything lead therapy to the cranium.” The kick of the rifle slammed into my shoulder and brought tears to my eyes. Ow. Pain. Ow.

The alicorn’s entire head vaporized in a massive cloud of red. I cycled the bolt and wiped the tears away. “Woah. Talk about a show-stopper.” Tabber sniggered a little and continued. “Oh yeah, that got their attention. Green one, five meters to the right. Not happy.”

It was looking in all directions, its horn glowing with evil-looking magic. “Free samples!” I yelled, instinctively adjusting my aim for center mass. “Get some!” Boom, another alicorn down. Yay, super high caliber bullets! The cure-all for those damn shields. Unfortunately for us, the next green one looked right at us and began to charge a spell.

“To the left!” Tabber urgently yelled. “I don’t want to find out if they’ve got range to hit us.”

“I see it!” I yelled back, lining up the next shot. A fraction of a second before I fired, the damn thing disappeared from my scope. “Buck!” I cycled the bolt and located it for another shot. I fired again, and it dodged. “This thing is damn smart!” Apparently not smart enough to multitask. One of the Blaster Boys lined up a good shot and hit it with a rocket. The alicorn let out a keening wail and crashed to the ground.

I was about to confirm the kills when I realized I hadn’t been supplied with a two-way radio of my own. That also reminded me that I wasn’t actually sure what standard operating procedure for the Rangers actually were. Confirming kills didn’t seem to be a thing that they did, from my experience. I chalked it up to their armor keeping track of enemies and left it at that.

The rest of the Blasters laid into the downed alicorn with disturbing excitement, firing additional bullets and ordinance. “Well, if that isn’t overkill I don’t know what is.” Tabber scanned the gathered slavers. “Shock’s worn off. They’re regrouping and getting ready to charge.” He picked up a radio out of nowhere and calmly spoke into it “Earthshakers, this is Eagle Eye. Target zone Bravo. Hold five, fire for effect. Bring the pain.”

Something in the air pulled me out of my shooting trance. I turned this way and that, sniffing the air like a hellhound. It was something about the way the wind tickled my feathers and the faint tingle of moisture in the air. “Storm’s coming,” I said simply.

“Oh yes, indeed,” Tabber gleefully replied. “Watch.” The charging slavers were starting to spread out, but they were still a large semi-organized body heading directly at us. The Rangers stood there without reacting. The militia and townsponies were nervously glancing back and forth at each other and the Rangers. Suddenly the Earthshakers opened fire two by two (or three, for the last salvo of course) and a moment later large artillery shells smashed into the slavers, reducing their numbers greatly. “Yeah! Go explosives!”

I grimly watched through the sniper rifle’s scope. I’d switched after mentioning the storm because I wasn’t going to waste an entire army’s worth of anti-machine ammunition shooting slavers, as effective as it would be. “That’s not the storm I’m talking about.” I pulled my forelegs out of the duster’s sleeves and pulled the duster up over my head as a makeshift hood.

“What are you talk—” Tabber started, then was immediately assaulted by the freak rainstorm I was anticipating. “A little heads up would have been nice,” he dourly replied, trying to wipe rain off the lenses of his gas mask.

“I told you there was a storm coming,” I replied while I eliminated the largest, most flamboyant slavers in the charge. The Earthshakers were done for the moment, so everypony on the walls opened fire. “Keep an eye out for anything that seems to want to kill us.”

I had a sudden thought, thanks to the torrential downpour. “What if rain came down all at once and not in raindrops?”

“Just imagine thousands of ponies being pushed violently to the ground by a single sheet of water.”

And so I did try to imagine it, which caused me to miss a shot because I was giggling too hard.

The next few minutes passed like hours. Tabber pointed out targets for me, and I eliminated them aggressively. My stump felt like it was going to fall off. Every shot slammed the rifle’s stock into my poor aching shoulder. “This seems too easy,” I mentioned to Tabber. “A frontal assault is suicide, don’t they know that?”

“I think so.” Tabber pointed out a slaver armed with a rocket launcher. “Take him out.” That particular slaver had the other half of his brain removed with one of my bullets. “Flamethrowers near the gates.” I gave the three flamethrower slavers nosebleeds coming out of the backs of their heads.

“Wait… any word from the Diamonds?” I worriedly asked. Rumcake was with them! We hadn’t heard any news from the tunnels. As far as we knew, the slaver elite troops could have wiped out the Diamond Seekers.

“Relax. Their radios probably can’t get any signal. As far as I know—” Tabber urgently pointed at a pair of green alicorns that had erected a shield against the Blaster Boys’ rocket and grenade barrage. “Target sighted! Four hundred meters, green and angry!”

“I see them.” I scooted back to the left and picked up the anti-machine rifle. “Now let’s find out which one of you idiots has more blood in your head.” I took a deep breath and prepared to take two shots. One. Two. Three. I tensed my shoulder. Four. Five. I let the first shot loose and mechanically cycled the bolt for the next shot. The bullet removed the first alicorn’s entire neck.

My search for the next target was interrupted by a strange cracking noise that sounded disturbingly close to me. “Behind, behind!” Tabber shouted. I pulled out of my shot just in time to dodge a purple alicorn’s magical fireball laser thing. It was on the roof with us! How did it get there?! I scrambled backward, dragging my anti-machine rifle along with me. Tabber charged at the alicorn and actually caused it to stumble backward in shock.

It yelled at me. Or more accurately, it bellowed into my mind, “The Goddess tires of your petty attempts at combat!” I cringed. The last thing I needed was my brain to hurt as well.

Kill it! We’ll keep it out as long as possible!

The alicorn hesitated for a second. “What? How are you—

A second was all I needed. I flipped onto my back and dropped my rifle between my hindlegs, resting the bipod on either shin. “I’m going to throw you into the sun!” I giddily yelled, lining up the shot.

The purple alicorn must have panicked, because she let off a brilliant burst of light that all but blinded me. Worst of all, I’d been looking right at her the entire time and her image was burned into my retinas. “Why can’t I move?!

That looked like it hurt.

It did! I couldn’t rub my eyes or else I’d lose my aim on the alicorn… which hopefully hadn’t moved while I was blinded…

We won’t be able to hold her for long, so hurry up!

Alright. But first, a question.

Is this really the time?

Maybe I had a point. In the meantime, I attempted to blink away the blinding lights in my vision, to no avail.

You can’t even hit me—you’re blind!” the alicorn gloated.

“Wrong answer. I don’t need my eyes to kill you at this range.” I heard Tabber dive for cover to my right. I pulled the trigger and several things happened at once. I was sprinkled with blood and gore, the rifle butt slammed into my chest from the recoil, and I ended up sliding backward a few feet as well. As I woozily climbed to my hooves, Tabber was experimentally poking the neckless alicorn with what I assumed was mild fright.

“That’s one way to take care of that.” Tabber walked over and gently took my head in his hooves. “How’s your vision?” he asked, dangling the cord of his binoculars in front of me.

I backed away and coughed. My duster had fallen off during the scuffle, and I watched the rain slowly wash the blood off my coat. My vision was slowly returning to normal, but the pain was back in full force. “Getting better.” A sickening cough prompted me to stop and lie down. “I think that broke a rib.” Again.

“Let’s get you dry first. Can you walk?” Tabber picked up my duster and draped it over me. I nodded. “Good.” He looked back to the battlefield. “Get down to the clinic. There’s a ladder underneath that plywood there.” He motioned at a boarded up opening. “I can keep the place covered.”

I spat out a bloody glob. Uh oh. “Right. Got it.” I tore up the loose boards and pretty much fell in. “Ow.” I’d fallen into the front of Doc’s clinic. “Medic.” And, for what must have been the third time today, was about to pass out. Again. Good work, brain.

I was grabbed and dropped into a bed before I could totally pass out. “Oh no you don’t.” Doc growled. “Now, let’s see what’s wrong with you.” Unpleasant tingle. “Ribs again, eh? Minor internal bleeding…”

“Ugh… can you fix me without cutting me up again?” I mumbled. “Las’ thing I need is less ribs.”

Doc placed his hooves on my chest. “Don’t worry. I think I know what I’m doing.” A strong magical tugging sensation built up in my chest. “I’ve only done this twice, so give me a little credit here…”

“That’s not very encouraaaaauuugh!” I screamed. It felt like something was trying to jump out of my chest. There was a muted cracking noise, and the tightness in my chest loosened up. “Ahh. That feels better.”

Doc hastily shoved a healing potion down my muzzle, bottle and all. “Your rib should be back in position. Potion should take care of the bleeding. I gotta go, patients to treat and stuff.”

I coughed up the bottle and uncorked it first. Wow, he was really in a rush. I drank down the potion and immediately felt better. Everything was starting to come up, Frosty! “Thanks Doc!” I called after him. I flew back up to the roof through the hole.

The road outside was no longer remotely recognizable as a road. Blood coated the dirt, creating a swampy, gory mess the slavers had to wade through and take cover in. Body parts littered the crater-marked landscape. Part of the wall on the northeastern side was breached, but the Blaster Boys were giddily defending it with their rocket launchers.

“Status report, Tabbie,” I singsonged. Needless to say my mood was improving, mostly because the unbearable pain had decreased to a dull ache.

He fired the rifle again. “They. Are. Angry. And there’s a lot of them too.” He reloaded the sniper rifle and motioned to my anti-machine rifle. “I need a hoof here.” Suddenly, an idea dropped into my mind. I laid down next to him and went through the motions of reloading the rifle. “It’s already loaded. What’re you doing?”

“This might kill me, so be prepared for anything. I didn’t buy these because they were safe or stable.” I carefully loaded one of the blue-banded shock bullets into my rifle. Don’t use in wet situations? I cynically observed my surroundings. It was raining. The gun was wet. My claw was wet. Heck, I was wet. I aimed for the largest clump of slavers hiding in a blast crater.

“Why does this seem like a bad idea?” Tabber sighed and emptied another clip. He shook his head. “Sometimes I question your sanity.”

“I don’t. I know I’m crazy.” I took a deep breath and focused on the fancy-hat wearing slaver sitting in the middle of his comrades.

One.

Two. I did a last minute adjustment when he moved forward a little.

Three.

Four.

Fi-Hurugugugurrrrhk! The firing of the shock bullet caused arcs of electricity to jump down the body of the gun, up my claw, and directly into my body.

“Dammit, why does this always happen to you?” Tabber dropped the rifle and rushed over. I was spasmodically twitching on the ground, holding onto my rifle with a death grip. “The last thing I need right now is to have to get the defibrillator.”

I took a few huge breaths, attempting to not bite my tongue off in the process. “I-I’m okay. Wow, okay, let’s n-not do that again.” I shuddered and wrangled my limbs back into my control. “Okay, I’m not dead. That’s a start. I may have peed myself a little.” Just to check, I shifted my hindquarters. “Yup. I did, in fact, just pee myself.”

I immediately shoved the rest of the blue-banded bullets aside. “So, let’s pretend that never happened.” My right hindleg involuntarily twitched. Yeah. Never speak of this. You too, brain.

What?

Shut up.

A loud explosion rocked the building. Both of us looked at each other. “That’s not good,” Tabber said.

“No shit.”

“Sounded like that came from the elevator,” he continued, ignoring me. He looked around the battlefield. “I don’t see any heavy weapons out there, do you?”

“What else could it be? Sabotage?” I asked. Wait. That slaver that surrendered. “Damn, I should have seen that coming,” I muttered. I mentally beat myself up.

Ow!

Stupid, stupid Frosty! “I trust ponies too easily.” I sighed. Dammit, this was my fault now.

Tabber punched me in the jaw. Just a quick jab but damn, it hurt. “Quit your whining and do something about it!” I shamefully looked back at him. “Look, trust isn’t something that’s easily found in the Wasteland.” He shoved me toward the edge of the roof. “Go check it out. I’ll do fine on my own.”

I nodded and pulled all my gear back on.

Duster?

Check.

Saddlebag?

Check.

AM rifle?

I stared at my my anti-machine rifle and slung it across my back anyway. Might as well bring it into a small enclosed space. Check. Neglected short-range submachine gun? Check.

Common sense?

Check.

You sure about that?

Shut up, brain.

I took off from the roof and flew directly toward the elevator that led down to Underhill. Fortunately, nopony thought it was a good idea to shoot at the low-flying pegasus. I made it to the elevator without a scratch. The elevator itself was a mess. The building was blasted and thick black smoke was leaking out of the grated doors. A Ranger stumbled over to me and collapsed. “Hey, corncakes… I think ah need a goshdarn medic.”

“What happened here?” I urgently asked. Wait… that voice… “Cabbage Stew?”

Cabbage Stew nodded. “Damn dirty slaver ambushed me with a mountain of ‘splosives.” He groaned. “And by all things holy and Celestia, that no-good ninja bitch needs to go to Tartarus.”

“Down the elevator?” I looked at the smoke leaking from the elevator shaft. Oh, this wouldn’t be good.

Cabbage nodded. “Eyup.” He crawled over to the elevator’s ruined grate doors and held them open for me. “Go on, ladies first.” He weakly chuckled. “Give ‘er a little frontier justice for me, will ya?”

“Sure thing.” I stood at the edge of the shaft. My eyes watered from the acrid smoke that still billowed out of the elevator shaft, but I could at least tell there wasn’t any fire waiting for me at the bottom. “Uh… will you be okay?” Blood was slowly bubbling through cracks in his armor. Not normal.

He waved me away. “I’ll flag down a medic. Y’all don’t worry about me.” He grunted and peered down the shaft. “Looks dark. Good luck.”

“Thanks.” I gritted my teeth and dived into the darkness. “Here goes nothing.” When I was riding the elevator before, I thought the shaft was miles deep. Flying in headfirst was a stupid idea. It was hard to see through the smoke, and I nearly had a heart attack when an obstruction materialized through the smoke. I barely had enough time to flare my wings for a stop and I slammed into the roof of the elevator car after less than two minutes of diving. “Ow.” I stood up and shook out the unpleasant tingle in my hooves.

A tiny crack of light showed through bits of rubble. Most of it was too large for me to move. Now how do I get in there? I spied a small hatch on the roof right next to where I’d landed. I smashed it open and slunk in, keeping to the ceiling. Luckily, the elevator crashed in such a way that I could still enter the tunnels.

The hub was untouched, but dark. No signs of combat, no blood, no tell-tale Ranger craters, nothing. I cautiously dropped to the ground. “Hello? Rumcake? Diamond Seekers?” I whispered. My quiet voice echoed off the empty tunnels. Not good.

I was walking around the hub, trying to find some trace of the Diamond Seekers. An armored foreleg that was sticking out from underneath a collapsed section of wall deep inside the East tunnel caught my attention. I looked around for any obvious traps. I crept over to the unfortunate Steel Ranger and poked the hoof, half expecting movement.

The hoof twitched. I think. “You alive in there?” I hissed. I started shifting smaller bits of rubble off the Ranger. A feminine groan rattled its way out of the helmet. “You okay?” I slid a large curved slab off her.

She coughed violently. “Feels worse than the time I beat Baked Potato at shots.” Her armor was crumpled and dented in some places, but it was slowly pushing itself back into place. “Hey, uh, Frosty.” I grabbed her forelegs and pulled her out of the Steel Ranger shaped indent in the floor.

“Uh… Sparkle Cola, I presume?” I dug around in my saddlebag and offered her a healing potion. “Can you tell me what happened?”

She shook her head. “Thanks, but I don’t need it. Built-in med suite.” She pointed down into the familiar dim tunnels I’d traversed once. “Somepony smart decided to override the Sentry Bots that still work and reprogrammed them to attack us. One of ‘em fired a rocket at us and I got flattened by that wall coming down.” She angrily punched the wall. “Stupid wall. What are walls good for?” That gave me a giggle.

After fiddling with the controls a bit, I was able to turn up the backlight on my brand new PipBuck to use as a flashlight. There was an alert waiting for me as I cranked up the brightness. I tapped in the flashing button and a message furiously wrote itself into my vision. ‘Mk.3 Electronic Disruption Device recharged.’ Cool. So I had that. The message erased itself and it was replaced with ‘Surge Arc systems booted and charged. 72% stability. Authorize anyway? Y/N’ Uh. Wat?

“Hey, you alright? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Sparkle Cola waved in front of me. “Is there something I’m not seeing up there?” She glanced into the darkness ahead. “Anypony in there?”

“What?” I finally responded. I’d unconsciously stopped to read the text currently obstructing my vision. “What’s happening?” I tapped the ‘Y’ button. The message disappeared, allowing me to see again. I raised my PipBuck. “Sorry, my computer thingy was getting in the way.”

“My systems are still rebooting. E.F.S. say anything?”

“What’s E.F.S.?”

Somehow, even beneath her helmet I could tell Sparkle was rolling her eyes at me. “It stands for Eyes-Forward Sparkle. There should be a horizontal bar across the top of your vision. There’ll be little vertical bars inside that bar that represent living things. Blue bars mean it’s friendly, red bars mean it wants to kill you. Yellow means it’s an ambiguous threat.”

Huh, that’s convenient. I looked up. Just Sparkle-Cola’s blue bar. “Nope. Nopony here but us dust bunnies.”

“Good. Wait, where’s the rest of Diamond?” I heard her power up a pair of power hooves. “They’ve got to be in here somewhere,” she muttered, scanning our surroundings more vigilantly.

A new blue bar appeared at the top of my vision for a fleeting moment. I guess that meant somepony friendly was somewhere further down the tunnel and to the right. “Somepony’s up ahead. The E.F.S. says it’s not a hostile.”

“You lead. I have no idea where anything is,” Sparkle muttered, casting shifty glances at every shadow. “I’ll cover your six.” I followed the corridor according to my map in an approximation of where I’d seen the bar. Sparkle fell in line behind me, her charged power hooves stompity-stomping on the concrete floor.

Strange noises echoed off the walls. “Damn, this place gives me the creeps.” Even though I’d been here once, the dim lighting really changed the atmosphere. “Keep your grenade launcher away. Last thing we need is to get caved in,” I reminded, changing the subject.

Sparkle snorted. “I’m not geared with that stuff.” I looked back at her with mild surprise. Steel Rangers without grenade launchers? Preposterous! “Power hooves and a minigun. Perfect for close quarters combat,” she retorted with glee.

“Somehow I find a minigun for close combat a bit much.” I continued following the left wall of the tunnel, since doing that always brought you to your destination. “I think we’re getting close,” I notified her, dropping into a low crouch. The one blue bar had turned into a bunch of blue and yellow bars. “Uh… don’t call me paranoid or anything, but why don’t you go ahead and talk to the ambiguously friendly lines?” It just didn’t seem like standard Ranger protocol to stand about in a hostile area, and Sparkle was the armored one anyway.

“Are they friendly?” Sparkle hesitantly asked, her minigun popping out of her battle saddle.

“Uh, ambiguously? Blues are Diamond, and I assume the yellows are Diamond’s prisoners,” I deduced. There was only a wall separating us and the multitude of possibly friendly bars. “I’ll be here,” I quietly whispered, before attaching myself to the ceiling.

Sparkle stared at me in shock. “How are you doing that?”

“Pegasus magic,” I simply replied. She angrily glared at me. “Don’t ask me how it works. All I have to do is keep flapping. It’s a little awkward, but it just happens naturally.” I shooed her onward. “There’s a door a few yards down.”

“I don’t bucking use doors,” Sparkle growled. I curiously watched as she reared up onto her hindlegs and punched right through the wall. “Oh yeah!” she yelled, presumably surprising the ponies in the room. “Wassup guys?”

Nothing. Ah, the awkward joy of a ruined dynamic entry.

“Uh… hum.” The stampity-stamp of Sparkle’s hooves became fainter for a moment before a frightening crunching of metal nearly made me fall off the ceiling. “Oh, it’s dead. I can never tell with these stupid robots,” she muttered to herself, just loud enough for me to hear.

The mare herself reappeared a moment later. “Uh, sector clear? Hey, Frosty, we might be in the wrong room.”

I glared angrily at the misleading little bar at the top of my vision. “Well, I don’t really know how this thing works. Let’s just keep looking.” Maybe I’d figure it out later.

I heard some shuffling coming from a tunnel labeled “Maintenance access only”. Curiosity got the better of me, and I crept over to the door to investigate. I dropped down from the ceiling and pressed the button on the wall to open the door. The lights in this area were completely gone, but the backlight from my PipBuck provided all the illumination I needed.

Thoughts aside, I quickly returned to inspecting my new surroundings. A thick coating of blood covered the floor. Only the door’s threshold prevented the blood from seeping through into the next room. “By Luna…” I breathed. Five armored Rangers were piled up in the corner of the hall. “Well, I guess that’s where the geyser of blood is coming from.” I floated over the entire mess so my hooves wouldn’t splash in the blood. Sparkle disregarded all sense of cleanliness and basically waded in after me.

How warm is the blood?

C’mon, brain. Don’t… wait, you don’t sound like brain. Who is this?

…Uh, that was the maniac. Who else has an unhealthy addiction to violence and gore?

Oh. That makes sense. Are you back then, brain?

The blood! Tell me about the blood!

Apparently not. I hesitantly dipped my claw into the blood and licked it. Still warm. Eugh.

It’s fresh. Tastes like they’ve been bleeding out for less than an hour.

As I drew nearer, one body in the middle of the pile stood out to me. Even soaked in blood, that familiar pink mane was all too identifiable. Oh no. This couldn’t be happening! He had to be alive!

I performed a quick check of his vitals. His pulse was thready and weak, but he was still with me.

That’s good. Heal him up. He’s lost a lot of blood.

What about shrapnel or br—

Do it. He doesn’t have much time left. Doc’ll sort him out later.

I pulled out another healing potion from my steadily-dwindling supply. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Sparkle doing the same to some other Rangers with her own first aid kit. “Drink it, please. Please.” I uncorked the potion and tilted it to Rumcake’s lips, pouring a tiny bit of it into his mouth. Nothing happened for several heartbreaking seconds.Those seconds felt like hours.

I willed myself to be strong as I checked the other Rangers. Less luck there. Only one other Ranger was still alive, and just barely. I hooked my hooves around his chest gently and pulled him out of the pile of Rangers. From there I tilted the bottle back to his slightly parted lips, trying to get as much of the potion into him.

I couldn’t tell how Rumcake was doing. He was deathly still, apart from his chest moving ever so slightly from every uneven shallow breath he made. He was still losing a lot of blood. The potion was doing its work, closing up the little bullet holes and gashes. My hopes soared. He’d swallowed it! That means he wasn’t dead yet! My heartbeat quickened as I excitedly checked his heart rate.

I quickly realized my problem. My heart was beating so fast against my chest, pounding in my ears, thus making the task of hearing Rumcake’s own heartbeat nigh impossible. I couldn’t lose him. But I didn’t know how to help him. My eyes began to sting as my vision blurred, tears rolled down my muzzle and mixed with the thick blood all over him.

Good work not paying attention in med class.

Shut up.

If only you would’ve—

Shut up!

At this point I realized I hadn’t really spent much time with him. We’d joked around, we’d had our obligatory drunken fling, but that was it. “There could’ve been so much more…” I mournfully whispered. “I didn’t even get to hear your story…” My heart wrenched as I remembered my own near-death, and Rumcake’s anguished and panicked attempts to bring me back. “A-and you felt the same. I could have…” My voice cracked before I could finish, leaving room for a quiet sob to slip out of my throat. All I could do was sit there and pray.

After what seemed like hours, Rumcake finally started swallowing more of the potion under his own power. I could feel my heart rate calm down as I watched him drink. “Thank the goddesses.” I choked back another sob and watched his eyes slowly flutter open and adjust to the dim light. “Now, what have I said about not dying?” I jokingly chastised him through tears while giving him a small smile.

Rumcake weakly reached up and batted at my ear. “Well, I haven't died yet, have I?” he said weakly. “So stop the water works will ya?” He attempted to stand up, but I pushed him down. Instead, I grabbed him in a Frosty-sized ursa hug. “What’re you doing down here?” he grunted, nuzzling my neck. “You should be outside on a stupid roof.”

“Slight change of plans.” I pressed against him, unwilling to let go. “You sure you’re going to be okay?”

“I’ll be fine.” He attempted to wipe off all the blood he was covered in. “This is going to stain.”

“Shut up. My fur’s teal and the blood comes out just fine.” I giggled a bit.

Focus, nincompoop. See a problem here?

Wait. Yeah, I do. Who cleaned out my fur that last time?

…I won’t dignify that with a response. Think. Weren’t there more? The yellow bars, remember?

Crap. I relayed this to Rumcake.

“We were ambushed on the way back by some sentry bots. Sparkle Cola got flattened when part of the tunnel collapsed, then we pushed forward right into sentry gun fire. Next thing I know I wake up to your adorable face while lying in a pool of blood.” Rumcake tapped my nose. “They’re still around somewhere, no doubt.”

“Will you be alright? You’ve lost a lot of blood.” I was hesitant to leave him alone, especially in his current state. “I think Sparkle Cola should be able to handle it.”

Sparkle tapped Rumcake’s hoof. “Right here, commie.”

“Sitrep.”

“Pally Carrot Fries and Pally Fruit Punch are still alive, but Punchy’s down for the count. I’ve sort of stabilized them, but I’m out of medical supplies. The new kid and Orange Juice didn’t make it.

He sighed and closed his eyes. “Ugh… well, it could’ve been much worse. You alive over there Carrot?” A shallow groan floated across the pool of blood. “Close enough. You two get out there and figure out what’s going on.”

Sparkle cocked her head at Rumcake. “Are you going to be okay here on your own?”

“I’ll be fine. Have ammo; will kill.”

I wasn’t nearly convinced. “I can stay with you, if you want.”

“As nice as that would be, Sparkle’s in no condition to fight alone—yeah, I see that stupid limp you’ve got going.” Rumcake groaned, shifting himself into a sitting position. “There’s at least four other hostiles down here with us. Search and destroy, Frosty. Search and destroy.”

I nodded uncertainly and went back out into the hallway. My breath quickened when I heard several voices arguing amongst themselves. Thanks to the magic of sound, there was too much echo to discern what they were actually talking about. I instinctively climbed the walls and made sure Sparkle stayed a good distance behind, creeping toward the hole she made earlier. My talons hovered over the red button on the disruption device. Should I? And what the hell did the Shock Arc system do anyway?

“You may want to like, turn off your radio or whatever,” I whispered to Sparkle. “I’m about to start some feedback.”

“Gotcha.”

I pressed the red button, hoping that it would at least jam their radios, if they had any, before I started killing them off. I jumped when big red text scrolled across my vision. ‘Error. Shock Arc not activated. Disruptor not activated. Reduce distance and try again.’ Well, crap.

“Uh, never mind. It’s not working right now.”

Logic here. Let’s try to negotiate with them first. They won’t know you’re with the Rangers, hopefully.

Oh. Yeah, that sounds like a better idea. Good work, me. I dropped off the wall and took a deep breath, silently praying to Luna that they didn’t shoot first and not bother with the questions. Alright, let’s do this.

Wait. Keep the SMG in the duster. Just in case.

I took my advice and secured my favorite and only other bullet-based weapon to the inside of my duster.

I confidently strode into the room like I owned the place. I mustered up as much snobbishness as I could, using Soufflé’s mannerisms to the best of my abilities. “Gentlecolts. Seems like you great lumbering buffoons are good for something after all.” A room full of slavers all turned their attention to me at once and, thankfully, didn’t immediately shred me on the spot.

Somehow, somewhere, somepony had found these five slavers some brand-new heavy combat armor in matte black. Even their weapons looked brand new! One of them even had a set of night-vision goggles around his neck. What gives?

I’d just walked in without a plan, so I prayed that Sparkle could come up with something. “Oi! Who’ja think you are, prancin’ in like that?” one of the slavers yelled. “Drop yer guns!” The slavers flanking him shook their weapons threateningly.

“Don’t point your crude weapons at me.” I sniffed haughtily and continued. “Have you not been informed?” I asked, feigning surprise. “The Great Red Eye has requested Enclave assistance for this particular assignment. Besides, both of us need these degenerate Steel Rangers out of the way in order for plans to progress. Our deal was that the Enclave would supply weapons and Red Eye would allow us to have our way with things.”

The leader-ish slaver nodded dismissively at his henchmen behind him then fixed me with a glare. “Stan’ down, boyos. So what’re you doing here? I didn’t think officers got their hooves dirty.” Oh good, at least I was coming off as an officer. Although it wasn’t exactly what I was going after, I’d work with it anyway.

“Depends. Are you in charge of this shoddy operation here?” I snorted and motioned at them. “I mean, this is the sloppiest operation I’ve ever seen.” I continued to advance on the group, trying to get close enough for a sneak attack or something. I was still trying to come up with a better plan than ‘wait for Sparkle to wait for my signal’.

Way in the back, one specific slaver’s eyes suddenly opened wide with fear, as if she suddenly recognized me. Why would… oh shit, that's the slaver from earlier! This doesn’t count as rehab at all! “Oi! That bitch is trying to trick us! Kill ‘er!” she screeched, bringing her assault rifle to bear.

IT’S THAT TRAITOROUS BITCH! Tag me in! I wanna gut her!

Or I could shoot her.

That’s no fun. The penalty for disloyalty is death by de-throaterizing!

What? That’s not even—

They’re right up in our face anyway, so you’re out of your element. You know how it goes—snipers wear diapers. Let’s do this!

…As much as I didn’t want to admit it, Raider had a point. Close combat wasn’t exactly my forté. Oh well, I guess it couldn’t hurt…

I relaxed and felt control of myself slip away. My muscles twitched with excitement. My vision slowly edged into red and we silently giggled under our breath.

“Suffer not the traitor to live!” Raider Frosty hysterically yelled. She slapped the button on the disruption device, but this time something different happened. A high-pitched whine emitted from the device and then lightning erupted from it, arcing outward and connecting between all of us.

I received a heart-fluttering shock from my PipBuck, but apparently not as badly as the heavily-armored and highly-conductive slavers, who apparently didn’t enjoy one point two-one jiggawatts of electricity to the face. Little curls of smoke floated off their armor as they continued to shake and spasm violently from the electrocution my PipBuck was giving them.

“Yes! Yes! Unlimited pooowaah!” Raider Frosty screamed. She forged on, pushing toward the slavers with lightning streaming from our foreleg. The lightning abruptly tapered off and died with a sputtering spark. ‘Charge Depleted. Disruptor re-activated. Have a nice day’. The warning quickly flashed into our vision and disappeared.

Great timing, Raider.

Wait a minute. I was brain now. It was strange having backseat control to my own body.

“Shut up! All of you will die!”

Only two of the five slavers managed to get back up. Unfortunately for me, the power hoof-armed leader was one of the two getting up. The other one was still staggering to his hooves and trying to find where his weapon had skidded off to.

“Think again.” The leader simply sauntered forward and lazily swung at us with his power hoof. Raider Frosty reared backward to dodge, but he still managed clipped the right side of our ribs.

Dammit, I need those ribs!

“Lucky shot,” Raider Frosty growled. She drew several ragged breaths.

Damn ribs punctured our lungs. Finish ‘em quick!

I noticed the slaver in the back trying to aim his assault rifle, but thankfully Raider Frosty kept the leader in between us and him. “Get over here!” She charged at the leader, keeping low to the ground.

“Stale moves, foal!” he gloated. Raider Frosty feinted to the right, but he was anticipating it. He brought his power hoof around and caught us on the right shoulder. Raider’s charge was abruptly stopped as we were slammed into the ground. Just by standing back up, I could feel that something in our shoulder was seriously wrong. Bones didn’t bend that way, did they?

At least the armor took most of it.

Blood slowly trickled down our right foreleg. “Give up?”

“Nowhere close,” Raider Frosty grunted, favoring our claw leg. We stood facing each other not completely unlike duelists. One looking battered, bleeding, and gravely injured, and the other looking quite pleased with himself. Raider kicked up a small whirlwind of dust and debris at him, giving her an opening to escape to the ceiling.

“That was a cheap trick!” He looked around. “You never should have come here…” he muttered.

“Right behind you.” Raider Frosty dropped down onto his back and gripped his neck in a chokehold. He struggled and tried to kick us off. “Stop it!” He tried harder and even attempted to slam us into a wall. “Stop squirming!” Raider yelled, narrowly missing his face with a wild swing from Philomena’s Touch. He swung wildly, trying to punch us with his own power hoof with very little success. “Knock it off! You’re making this a lot more difficult than it needs to be!” Raider pushed aside the pain in our shoulder and broke his neck.

The slaver leader fell like a sack of ice and finally stopped struggling. Raider Frosty climbed off of him and immediately got shot at by the last slaver before she could get off a witty one-liner. Bullets punched into our armored duster and I could hear the little metal plates inside getting shredded. Some of them were blocked by the armor, but a good number of them made it through. She staggered and weaved through the slaver’s haphazard aim and attempted to dive behind a desk.

She didn’t really make it completely behind the desk, but at least Sparkle was very calmly sitting behind the same one. She bit our duster by the collar and pulled us the last few inches into cover. “Are you okay?” she yelled, noticing the dangerous amount of blood dripping from us.

“Where the buck were you?” Raider yelled back using our voice. “A little help would have been nice.” She looked Sparkle up and down, taking note of her lack of helmet and missing half her body armor. “And where the buck is your armor?”

The mostly un-armored Sparkle rolled her eyes. “You seemed to have the situation under control, so I went back and replaced some parts of Commander Rumcake’s armor to get his meds working. Question is, are you okay?”

“Frosty’ll probably be fine!” Damn, this was going to be hard to explain later. Raider wouldn’t let me have control back, which prevented me from immediately resolving the situation at hoof. “Frosty needs your help. In a few hours, we’ll probably have a little case of dead.” She started licking our wounds, and it seemed like she was enjoying it a whole lot.

“Uh… you’re getting a bit creepy.” Sparkle chucked a rock at the slaver still trying to shoot us though the desk we were still hiding behind. “Trying to have a conversation here!” she shouted at him over the din of gunfire.

“I’m going to charge him. If I can get into his minimum range while he’s reloading, he’ll have to deal with me hoof-to-hoof.” She grinned and flexed my claw. “Then I can get down to the de-throaterizing.” The siren song of Doc’s orange slime called to her ears.

“That’s too dangerous! What if you get killed?” Sparkle exclaimed, slapping us across our muzzle. “And Rumcake would never let me live either if he found out I let you do something so stupid!” She pointed at my anti-machine rifle slung across our back. “Why don’t you just use that?”

“Only Frosty knows how to use it,” Raider Frosty glumly hissed, holding our cheek. “Snipers are wussies.”

“But you’re Frosty!” She prodded our chest. “I’ve heard of your deadly accuracy. You know what to do. Do it. It’s not like this asshole will ever stop shooting! How much ammo does this guy have?”

Raider and I both weakly laughed. Come on.

Give me control back. I’ll put an end to this right now.

No!

Calm down. Relax. Clear your mind.

“I don’t do calm!” Raider Frosty screamed, holding my head in her forelegs. “Let me execute him! Up close and personal?” she whined.

“Uh… I’ll just be over here…” Sparkle shied away to the other end of the desk, allowing me to continue my mental instability in relative peace whilst she picked up a dropped rifle and began to fire back.

Nuh-uh. Maybe some other time.

I could feel her conflicting emotions flying around my head. She finally let out a resigned sigh. “I’ll trust you on that.” She slipped away back into the disturbed depths of my mind. My movements were my own again, and with it, the impact of my injuries finally caught up to me.

“Oh, Luna, I think he hit my spleen,” I groaned, clutching my stomach. “I feel like I flew into the pointiest hailstorm in the world.” I could feel nearly every bullet in my body shift with each movement.

“Are… are you okay?” Sparkle finally piped up, tossing the empty rifle away.

“No. But I’m myself, if that’s what you mean.” I pulled my anti-machine rifle off my back and did a spot check for maintenance. My professionalism took over as I slid my SMG over to her. “I’m going to need three seconds of cover. Can you do that?”

She took my cue and confidently nodded. “On your mark.” I loaded one more shock bullet into the chamber and prepared myself in every way possible. Last-minute, I swapped out the magnification attachment for the velocity attachment. I’d be scopeless, but at this range I wouldn’t need it.

I mentally mapped out my plan. Once Sparkle had his attention, roll out of cover and shoot him. Bodyshot should be good enough. I didn’t trust my ability to accurately remove his face in my current state. “Now.”

Sparkle gripped the SMG’s firing bit tightly and swung out of cover. “C’mere y’ lit’l prick!” She fired short, controlled bursts, weaving back and forth between bits of rubble.

At the same time, I combat rolled out from behind the desk and firmly planted my anti-machine rifle’s bipod on the ground. My heart rate was all over the place, so I decided to forgo my usual counting. Steady. Boom. My heart jerked as the electricity flew from my rifle directly into my body again. The bullets and little bits of shrapnel still embedded in me became little points of fire. I probably screamed, but the adrenaline drowned it out.

I think I passed out. I woke up a few minutes later a few pints lighter and more sore than I would have liked to be. The slaver’s hooves were exactly where they were before. The rest of him wasn’t nearly as cohesive—there was some of him along the wall, over there in the corner, and on the ceiling as well. Ew. Sparkle immediately jumped over to me and dragged me up into a sitting position. “Please tell me you’re not going to die.” She nervously checked my bandages. When did those get there?

“At this point, it’d be a blessing,” I managed to croak. My world was mostly pain, tightness, and the annoyingly familiar feeling of at least two cracked ribs. “Will I be granted the sweet release of death?”

“You’ve lost a lot of blood, but I patched you up for the time being. Luckily enough, I had just enough of a healing potion left over for you.” She looked around at the little pieces of gore sort of plastered everywhere. “Whatever you just did totally made that guy fry then explode. It was kinda cool, in this really fascinatingly gruesome way.”

Oh, okay. So that’s what those bullets do.

Did you really think they were made just to electrocute the sniper?

Shut up, brain.

“Wait. Are they still alive?” I pointed at the three on the ground, one of which was the traitor.

“They’re sort of fried,” Sparkle flatly stated. “Although somehow your thingy didn’t kill any of them, so...”

“Excellent.” I stood up, against the protests from Sparkle and my body, and purposefully stomped toward the one in the back. “Now she can’t go anywhere.” I stopped in front of the unconscious mare. “I have a deal to complete.”

Sparkle uncertainly stood next to me, looking down on the hapless traitor. “Are you sure?”

I glared at her, my expression darkening. “Either you help me or you join her.”

Poor Sparkle didn’t need any further encouragement. She jump-started the traitor with an adrenaline shot then tied her up. I impatiently waited for a whole minute before agitatedly glaring at Sparkle. “Well? Why isn’t she up yet?”

Sparkle shifted on her hooves. “Give it a minute to metabolize. You zapped her good.”

The mare on the ground, stripped of her armor and tied up, faintly groaned.

I slapped the traitor a few times to wake her up, which actually made her gasp and flop forward into a sort of sitting position. “G’morning, sunshine. Enjoy the toast?” I gently patted her on the head as well, just because I was in a taunty sort of mood.

“Wha? Wot’s…” The slaver tried to rub the back of her head and instead caught sight of my crazed grin right up in her face. “Oh, tits.”

“Glad you could join us.”

Suddenly very much awake and conscious, the slaver immediately spat in my face. I grimaced and wiped the saliva off my face only to smear it right back onto hers. In the back of my mind, I felt Raider trying to make me spit on her face to return the favor, but I had better things to do.

“Now that you’re paying attention, I’m going to ask you a few simple questions. I’m angry, cranky, and injured to the point where I have zero tolerance,” I nonchalantly sing-songed to the traitor.

“Whatcha gonna do? Cry all over me?” With defiant words like that coming out of her mouth, I needed to show her I meant business.

“Shut it.” I reverently placed Philomena’s Touch on the ground as to keep it as scuff-free as possible and then punched the traitor’s muzzle as hard as I could. “You hurt somepony I love. You betrayed my trust. You nearly killed an entire town.” She held her bloody nose, anger burning in her eyes as I raised my voice. “Why should I not hurt you?”

She was silent. “Frosty…” Sparkle tapped my shoulder. “Maybe—”

One more glare was all it took to shut her up. I turned my attention back to the traitor. “At this point, there’s no chance for you to come out of this alive,” I said as firmly as I could. “It’s more like… if you cooperate, I’ll make it quick and painless.” To make my point, I made a show of examining my talons. “Drag it on, and you might not be so lucky. Understand?”

Eventually, the slaver rolled her eyes. “Oh, you really think you're so tough, don't you? M’ boy toy hits me harder than that,” she snarked at me, although it was hard to take her seriously with a bloody nose and a growing welt on her cheek.

Let me at ‘er! She just needs a little motivation.

Go away, Raider. I’m trying to conduct an interrogation.

“Alright, a bullet to the head is no longer an option.” I nudged my rifle endearingly and set it aside. “Change your mind yet?”

Ironic choice of words, considering my state of mind.

Tag me in. She’ll be coughing up words and teeth in no time.

“You're not gonna do anything to me.”

“Aaaand no throat-slitting for you,” I said. The stupid cocky smirk on the traitor’s face was unchanging. “That’s all the quick ones. You may want to reconsider your answer. It’s only going to get worse from here.”

I know a thing or two about intimidation. C’mon, let me!

Raider, buck off. I’m busy.

“Ooh, I’m so bloody scared I’m gonna piss myself.” The traitorous mare sarcastically waved her hooves in mock fear.

Hit her again, make her bleed. I want to taste her blood!

Ugh… fine. There really wasn’t any other choice left. I needed to break her will before I got any more information out of her. Lives depended on it.

Using my claw this time, I delivered an uppercut that audibly made something crack, making me feel much better about both myself and my lack of sensation in my mechanical limb. So hard, in fact, the traitor nearly made a complete backflip assisted by her face. I was about ninety percent sure that the sound was her teeth snapping together and not something breaking inside my claw, but I probably had time to figure that out later.

The traitor sat up, cradling her lower jaw and yet she still managed to chuckle. “You're pathetic, you know that?" sneered the slaver. "I just waltz right into town, admitting that I'm part of the group attacking your town, and you just let me lead you all into a trap. We almost didn't bother trying this plan because we didn't think anypony would be stupid enough to fall for it, but you proved us wrong.” She spat out a broken tooth as she continued to gloat.

I needed to get this interrogation back on track before I lost my cool. Raider Frosty was pushing her boundaries harder than ever, but I couldn’t afford to let her out. If Raider had her way, she would brutally murder the mare without bothering to get any information out of her, all while feeling quite pleased with herself.

“Why’d you do it?” I managed to hold back another swing to break her jaw, since she sort of needed it for talking.

The slaver continued to stupidly laugh. “Fifty caps and a Sparkle-Cola Rad.” That momentarily confused me when I remembered the Rad-less Steel Ranger standing behind me with the same name.

My ears flicked backward and my right eye may have twitched in annoyance. “You did this for bits of metal and a drink? Are you bucking kidding me?” I yelled in outrage.

“It was so buckin’ easy, too. All you self-righteous hero types think you can fix anything with the power of being extremely gullible.” My punching bag coughed up a tooth fragment. “Bust out the water works, the sob story, and anypony’ll jump in to be the big damn hero.”

Rip it limb from limb! Show her what real heroes are made of.

“I’m going to tear you apart if you don’t start cooperating right now,” I growled, placing myself one step closer to her.

Somehow, she managed to simply laugh that off. “You’re so frickin’ stupid, you know that? You charge down here recklessly, imagining yourself as a hero come to save the day even while you side with the Steel Rangers. The Steel Rangers. The ponies who do nothing but steal everything of value, kill anyone who's in their way, and take all the technology that could be used to restore Equestria and lock it away so that nopony can use it. You know, the 'heroes'.”

“Does your ass get jealous of the shit that comes out of your mouth?” I shouted at her. Granted, I didn’t really know what I was defending, but she didn’t need to know that. “Don’t make me let you suffer.”

"You claim that you're going to kill me for what I've done. It's an empty threat. I know it, you know it. You hero-types would never kill in cold blood. I call your bluff." The slaver flashed a victorious grin at me. "So, what are you going to do now?"

I stared at her for what felt like a long time, my frown deepening further and further.

The slaver stared back at me, looking amused by my level of concentration.

Okay, screw it. She wasn’t going to say anything useful, and she’d even called my bluff. She was literally asking for it and I’d had enough of her. “I’ll think about it,” I said, a sly grin creeping across my face.

“Of course ya would.”

I began to loosen my mental barriers and eventually stopped resisting the pressure that had been building in my brain. One request… when it’s your turn, say something cool. Put this bitch in her place.

Slowly and gradually, a low rumbling chuckle bubbled from my throat.

Go wild, Raider. You both deserve it.

“What’s so funny?”

“I thought about it,” Raider Frosty informed her, an almost sultry tone to her voice. “And I’ve decided I‘m going to have some fun.”

“Wha–wha–?” The traitor suddenly started hyperventilating, clearly seeing the shift in our demeanor.

“Frosty gave you the option of a bullet to the head,” Raider whispered evilly. “Then she gave you the option of slitting your throat. I'm not a big fan of either of those. In fact—" Raider got our face even closer than before to the suddenly panicking mare “—I heard that dying from a broken heart is the most painful way to die. I’ve always wondered if that was true.”

The slaver’s eyes widened in terror. She tried to squirm out of the psychotic mare’s grasp, but Raider Frosty was faster and she swiftly drove our talons deep into the traitor’s chest, puncturing her heart. “Let’s find out,” she giddily whispered. We stared into the traitor’s terrified eyes as she slowly bled out, second by second. I could tell Raider was enjoying this to a disturbing degree, but I really couldn’t blame her.

It ultimately took over three minutes for her to stop twitching and whimpering. She extracted our claw from the ex-traitor’s body and contentedly lapped up the blood. “Uh… are you done yet?” Sparkle cautiously whispered. “She’s dead.”

“I know. Frosty knows,” Raider Frosty replied. “And Frosty needs a break.” She stopped in her cleaning and perked up our ears. “Somepony’s coming.”

Rumcake stumbled in holding a first aid kit in his teeth. He was looking much better and less perforated, but still just still as bloody. “Found one more!” He galloped over to me and wrapped me up in a wet, hug. “You’re alive! Thank the goddesses!”

Can I have my body back?

No. Raider Frosty nuzzled against Rumcake’s neck. “Sure am. All thanks to you.” She placatingly licked the slightly coagulated blood off Rumcake’s chest.

“What?” He looked to Sparkle for help. “Uh… is she okay?”

Sparkle snorted. “No. Not at all.”

He smoothed our mane while Raider Frosty decided to give him a tongue bath. “We’ll fix you up. I’m here for you.” Yep. Definitely going to be impossible to explain this later.

END OF ACT ONE


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Ruthless – There is no mercy, only overkill. Your damage resistance is increased by +50%. Additionally, your Strength temporarily increases to 10 whenever your health is at 20% or lower.
Current Sub-perk: Bloodthirsty – Blood for the Blood God! You gain +3 to Unarmed.
New Quest Item: PipBuck 2000 Plus – You finally got back that computer thingy that the Steel Rangers stole from you ages ago! Technically it was theirs to begin with, but that’s not the point. You can now access E.F.S., S.A.T.S., map, radio, and inventory sorting spells.

Intermission: Intrusion in progress…

View Online

Intermission: Intrusion in progress…

“Don’t worry. I’m not supposed to be here either.”


Several weeks ago…

Nopony ever looked twice at a lowly recruit dashing back and forth from office to office, coffee in hoof and mail bag flapping behind him. It also really helped that Severe Turbulence had the most generic-looking face possible, which in turn made him hard to remember. A little mane dye to paint his outstandingly yellow mane a more generic shade of pastel orange to match his equally generic sky blue coat, and suddenly he was impossible to pinpoint in a crowd—something that he used to his advantage.

One stolen coltfriend’s uniform and four stolen “venti” coffees (plus convenient holder) later, Turbulence simply rushed right into the auxiliary data center and picked up the first mail bag that he found, all without being given a second glance. Entry had been the easy part—obtaining the data that he’d been hired to find was the hard part.

He’d managed to already bluff his way past two NCOs and their lackeys, but the locked door in his face proved to be just enough to halt progress. There wasn’t a keypad to examine or even a pressure-sensitive cloud anywhere—this was a simple lock, which needed a simple key to get past. Ironically enough, the only reason he needed to get into this room was because he needed yet another key open yet another door.

As not to look too suspicious to the scattering of ponies still doing their work, Turbulence placed the coffee holder on the floor and pretended to pat himself down for keys whilst he thought of another option. Lockpick? Didn’t bring anything besides the PDA. Break down the door? Definitely a no. Steal the keys? It was harder to tell who would have the keys to General Silverbolt’s office.

“You there! ‘Scuse me!” somepony called out, obviously pointed in Turbulence’s direction, but he chose to ignore it in favor of digging through the pockets of the mail bag for anything he could use to knock out a fully-grown stallion.

A hoof landed on Turbulence’s shoulder and he spun around, hoof still resting on the box cutter he’d just found buried in all the mail. “Yo. How can I help you, sir?” Just in case he hadn’t been blown, a nonchalant greeting would do for the time being.

The pudgy old stallion expectantly held out his hoof. “I’d like my mail, please.”

Turbulence didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll see if I’ve got it on me right now, but don’t count on it. Some joker in Sorting thought it would be funny if they dumped all the morning mail into one box to save time. I’ve been goin’ up and down floors all day trying to deliver packages.” He took out a random parcel and waved it. “This guy is third floor, but these ones”—a few letters joined into the waving—“go to different floors as well. All my mail’s messed up.” With that, Turbulence dumped all the mail back into the bag before the officer could read any of the names.

“That’s too bad. I’m expecting a very important parcel.” The—Turbulence glanced at the rank patches on the pony’s lapels and gulped—Major sighed. “Darn.”

Since appearances needed to be kept, Turbulence pretended to carefully look through his stolen mail. “Yeah, I’m not seeing anything. How ‘bout this—tell me what it looks like and once I deliver the General’s mail I’ll personally go find your package and deliver it to your desk, asap. Sir.”

“The mail waits for nopony, I suppose.”

Turbulence allowed himself a grin as he thought to himself, Neither do spies.

The Major tilted his head. “Say, I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”

“Stormy Storm, fourth floor runner. I’m usually not up here most of the time,” Turbulence bluffed, shaking the stolen mail bag again. “You know, mail things today.” He made a show of patting himself down again. “You wouldn’t happen to have a key to the General’s office, would you? M’boss explicitly told me to leave this dossier on his desk.”

“That’s not standard operating procedure, is it?” the Major asked.

Of course it wasn’t, which was why asking was a huge risk for Turbulence. “Hey, not my problem. The boss tells me what to do and I do it. Don’t shoot the messenger, sir.” He shrugged anyway, as if it was actually true. As an afterthought, he gestured at the coffee on the floor. “Coffee, sir?

“I’ll pass, thanks.” The Major examined Turbulence, searching for any signs of deceit. Unable to find any, the Major shrugged and produced a key from one of the pockets on his fatigues. “Don’t all you mail runners have keys to everything?”

“Fourth floor uses those new card lock things. Haven’t had a physical key key since I got here.” Turbulence chuckled, one wing behind his head and a hoof firmly on top of the box cutter—just in case. “Like I said, today’s been a weird day.”

The door unlocked and the Major nudged it open. “There you go, airpony. I expect my mail on my desk by the end of the day.” With that, the old officer ambled off to do other things.

Turbulence trotted in, making sure to call out, “Will do, sir!” over his shoulder. He shut the door and, as a precaution, locked it as well. Ha. Chump.

Down to business. General Silverbolt always kept a backup keycard hidden inside the framed picture of his family, according to the information that Turbulence had purchased. Just in case, a search through the rest of the desk wouldn’t hurt either.

Let’s see if you’ve got anything interesting in here, General. Unfortunately, there was only so much paperwork that could be considered remotely engaging before even Turbulence lost interest in it as well. Without anything to copy physical files with, all the documents would have to go back exactly where he’d found them.

Taking apart the photo frame wasn’t even a challenge. The ID card slipped out from between the backing and the picture, right into Turbulence’s waiting hooves. “Huh. Cute foals,” he muttered, examining the photo a bit more closely. Sans freakishly large wings on the red one, it seemed like the General had a happy little normal family at home. Picture frame replaced, it was time to continue the job.

Turbulence mentally ticked off acquiring the General’s ID card and proceeded to the next step: accessing the data center on the sixth floor using the newly-acquired card. Even at minimum staffing, there were still enough ponies around that might take notice of a mailpony trying to get into the backup data storage room.

To avoid any chances of being seen by anypony, especially that Major, Turbulence decided to jump out of the window and leisurely glide down to the sixth floor, where he gained a few more property damage points and hopped into somepony’s office.

Unfortunately, the office was still occupied.

“Ma’am.” Turbulence fished a random envelope from his stolen mail bag and offered it to the surprised mare with a dramatic flourish. “Mail.”

The small reddish-brown pegasus, seemingly some sort of office lackey as well, hesitantly took the envelope without giving it a look. “Uh… thanks?” She wouldn’t stop staring at Turbulence like he’d just broken a window lock and swooped right on in, which really bothered him greatly.

Turbulence bowed and doffed an invisible cap at the mare. “Efficiency is our priority. Have a nice day.” Before she could get another word in edgewise, he was out the door and quickly trotting down the hall. Every interaction increased the chances of detection, so grabbing the data and bugging out needed to happen in the next ten minutes.

“Six twenty three. Where the buck is six twenty three?” Turbulence muttered to himself as he trotted past doors. “Six fifteen, fourteen, nineteen, twelve, who the buck labeled these doors? They’re not even in order.”

It took a lot longer than necessary to find the right door, especially since six twenty three was right between six fifty nine and a janitor’s closet for absolutely no reason. If somepony even asks me to go kill the bucking architect of this building, I’ll bucking do it for free. Who even puts fifty nine and twenty three next to each other?

At least the General’s keycard worked. The door beeped once and unlocked, allowing Turbulence inside.

The data room was dominated by a single massive supercomputer—not a cloud computer, but an old pre-war supercomputer kept in tip-top shape. Another security gate locked with a keypad stood between it and Turbulence, but that wasn’t a problem. The seven-digit codes were on a predictable rotation—not really high security, but it was a backup database after all.

“Seven… three… five… five… six… zero… eight.” Turbulence took a step back after stabbing the last button, just in case an alarm triggered, the door electrified, or if the room would simply explode. This better damn work.

Once again, his informant had come through. Nothing stood between him and the server now.

A horrible, unthinkable thought crossed his mind. Unless the reports aren’t even here, which would make me angry enough to strangle a small animal. It was the one thing he hadn’t been able to verify before starting the job. Still, bits were bits and the hookers wouldn’t pay themselves.

Thankfully, there wasn’t any security on the server itself. Turbulence plugged his PDA into the terminal built into the side of the server’s humongous case and let the programming do the work. In a matter of minutes, his PDA had copied fifteen complete files.

“That’s funny… there should only be four of you.” Turbulence sat down and opened the first and newest report. Most of it was still classified and the other reports didn’t appear to be in any numerical sequence, but the simple existence of the files on this server was all that mattered.

Sample ID: 209-79
Duration: 3 Days.
Test Status: Stopped after Stage I tests.
Notes: Mutation of strain 205-4B. Weak protein shell creates structural instability. Consider harvesting genetic viable material for further study. See detailed research notes that follow. Refer to “Nexus” specimen files for annotations.
Status: New sample created (SID209-80F), SID209-79 destroyed.
Additional note: New sample redundant. Report removed.

Once again, Turbulence began to wonder what he had gotten himself into. Contents still not verified, he moved onto the next one.

Sample ID: 209-42
Duration: 7.3 Days.
Test Status: Stage II testing complete, tests terminated during Stage III testing.
Notes: This new strain seems promising, although it is unstable and volatile when dispersed aerobically. Researcher contracted SID209-42 during testing, pending observation. Consider returning to SID208-11 for a more stable version of the virus. See detailed research notes that follow. Refer to “Nexus” specimen files for annotations.
Status: Contained. 7 units preserved in storage, blueprint and notes logged.

Next. None of these were the right ones.

Sample ID: 206-98 “The Bees”
Duration: 18 Days.
Test Status: Completed, pending approval.
Notes: Although this version of the virus has been heavily modified for more subtle effects, there is still a high probability of transmitting the disease to other unintended hosts through bodily fluids and liquids. Unintended side effects include lethargy and vivid hallucinations. Under-performs to requirements. See detailed research notes that follow. Refer to “Nexus” specimen files for annotations.
Status: Strain viable. 25 units preserved in storage, all relevant research catalogued. New samples created for further study. (See annotations)

Turbulence began to wonder whether breaking into their cold storage could be worth a bonus. Crates of beer didn’t pay for themselves, either.

Sample ID: 205-01
Duration: 0.4 Hours
Test Status: Failed Stage I testing.
Notes: Specimen expired in the incubator. No research notes follow.
Status: SID205-01 destroyed.
Personal note from the Head Scientist: What idiot put this one together? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN WHY DID I HIRE THEM WHO EVEN SIGNED OFF ON THIS ONE?

“Heh. There’s always an idiot somewhere.”

Sample ID: 203-33B
Duration: 2 Days.
Test Status: Stage I testing completed.
Notes: This strain of the virus functions no differently to SID203-30. Testing discontinued to save resources. See detailed research notes that follow. Refer to “Nexus” specimen files for annotations.
Status: Strain viable. 1 unit preserved for records.

This “Nexus” specimen seemed like the file Turbulence was looking for, judging by the many references to it. All the files were dated from newest to oldest, so he scrolled to the bottom of the list. Sure enough, the last file in the list appeared to be exactly what he was looking for.

Sample ID: 198-23 “Nexus”
Duration: N/A
Test Status: Complete.
Notes: This is the recovered specimen being modified. The virus appears to have a very low reproductive yield with a very high efficiency rate. However, due to what appear to be manufacturing fallacies by the previous creator(s), pegasi appear to be immune due to the unique nature of their semi-avian blood cells; the virus simply remains dormant within the body. Testing on non-pegasus test subjects reveals the following: Irrational thought, hallucination, increased hyperactivity and outbursts of unprovoked violence. As the virus progressed, test subjects repeatedly voiced that they were hungry but refused to eat food offered to them, instead attempting to bite the researchers themselves. By the end of Stage V testing, eight of the ten test subjects had resorted to devouring their own flesh to sate their hunger. The other two displayed potential of free thought through the medium of very colorful death threats once restrained. All subjects were terminated or perished by the end of testing. The corpses have been preserved for future study and reference. See detailed research notes that follow.
Addendum: Pegasi with any of several specific genetic defects (all ranging from uncommon to rare; see attached list) have been proven to be susceptible to the virus to varying levels of severity. SID201-88U created to study.
Addendum: The virus appears to respond positively to certain combat drugs. Subjects that had experimented with drugs (tests revealed recreational or otherwise) appeared to have a weaker immune response to the virus, regardless of drug. Additional study on multiple subjects have revealed that the presence of certain drugs can negate a pegasus’s natural resistance to the virus. SID203-81B, SID203-84, and SID 203-87 should be divided for modification and testing.
Status: Multiple units stored for further manipulation and research. (See annotations)
Personal note from the Head Scientist: When the recon jocks said they hit a fruit cart for this stuff, they really weren’t kidding. Guy brings me an apple in a hazmat box and says “Science this, bitch.” Unbelievable. Anyway, whoever made this shit went through a lot of trouble trying to secretly test this stuff using the “care packages” that’ve been going down to the dirt-munchers. After initial analysis, I’ve noticed that this stuff is heavily modified—and we’re the only ones with the resources and time to do so. Stiffy thinks it’s the Thunderhead nerds, but there’s no way to confirm without running into all the red tape in the galaxy. There are markers in the genetic material that confirm my suspicions, but that’s really not my job to worry about it. Somepony’s going to get fired for losing their deadly pathogen, that’s for sure.

Turbulence smirked and tucked his PDA away. Thanks to that scientist, he had definitive proof that somepony had indeed stolen the shipment, knowing full well what its actual payload was. The research notes attached to it would probably confirm that this was the same stuff that his employer was looking for.

Suddenly, a foreleg appeared around Turbulence’s neck, seized him in a chokehold, and tried to push him to the ground. Being larger than his assailant, he didn’t budge and instead tried to find the box cutter in the mail bag before he blacked out. Elbowing the pony behind him didn’t even cause a grunt of pain.

“Woah there! Stand down, stand down!”

His assailant immediately allowed him to fall forward and gasp for breath. “As you wish, commander,” she droned. This wasn’t part of the plan. A double cross, then?

“Huh. Didn’t plan on seeing you here, Turbs,” the voice remarked. “This just got awkward.”

Turbulence knew that voice. He’d been hired by that same pony in the past several times. “Eight Gauge, is that you? You sound different without my dick in your mouth.”

“It’s Twelve Gauge, you asswipe.”

“Whatever.” Turbulence pulled himself back up into an upright position to confront the two ponies in the room with him. Twelve was definitely the bluish stallion in the back, still sporting his really stupid bronze-colored crewcut with an annoyed scowl on his face. Turbulence didn’t recognize the little teal mare standing slightly in front of him, but the vacant stare she was giving him was curiously perturbing.

Being the charmer he was, Turbulence decided that he needed to introduce himself. “Name’s Turbulence. Severe Turbulence.” He held out his hoof to the mare and tried not to stare at the gaudy blue stripe running through her white mane. “And yours, madam?”

The mare didn’t respond. In fact, she seemed to not even notice that she was being spoken to.

Twelve took a step forward and shoved the mare out of the way, who simply tottered to the side and took much longer than expected to recover her footing. “Enough with the small talk. What’re you doing here?”

“This place is haunted. Would you believe I’m an exorcist?”

“…No.”

The box cutter seemed like a very good idea to Turbulence at the moment, but it was possible that he could still talk his way out of the situation he’d found himself in. “So… commander, huh? When’d that happen?”

“It hasn’t happened yet, but I still outrank you.”

Confusion set in. “But she just called you—”

“Oh, she’s just sort of stuck like that for the moment.” Twelve gestured at the mare who was pointlessly—and still just as vacantly—staring at the wall. “It’s her go-to response.”

There were many words to describe a pony, but “stuck” usually wasn’t one of them. Peculiar wording aside, Turbulence still needed a way out with the data he’d just stolen. Twelve and the mare probably didn’t know just yet, since he’d managed to tuck away his PDA just in time.

“Hold on, don’t you dare change the topic. I’m going to ask you one more time: what are you doing here?” Twelve snapped.

Turbulence smirked. “I’m just trying to download the latest episode of ‘Honey, Where Are My Horseshoes?’. I can’t stop watching that show.” He needed to buy time until a plan could come together.

“How do you even manage to watch that show? It’s just half an hour of some retard walking around a house yelling about his lack of hoofwear.”

“But that character development!” Turbulence briefly considered the air vents. No, that leads right into the air conditioner. That, and this mare’s smaller than I am so she’ll have the upper hoof.

“What character development? He literally does nothing but ask where his horseshoes are for the entire episode!” It was a mind-numbing show and a terrible excuse, but Twelve still hadn’t caught on. “Hey, stop changing the subject!”

Or maybe he did. Curses.

There wasn’t anything in the room that would function as a weapon to incapacitate a stallion, let alone two battle-ready pegasi. “Look, I’ve got places to go and ponies to k–meet. We done here?” It was only after Turbulence had said that when he realized that wasn’t his best attempt at ending a conversation.

“I’m going to ask you one more time. What the buck are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing.” An idea came to Turbulence’s mind which could potentially buy him some time. Maybe if I can trap them behind the security gate, I can get out of here scot-free. “I’m doing maintenance on the server, buddy. What’re you two doing in here?”

Twelve snorted impatiently. “That’s it. Airpony, apprehend.”

The mare suddenly snapped to attention. “As you wish, commander.” She turned and pounced impossibly fast, showing no sign of the clumsiness that Turbulence had noticed earlier. Before he knew it, he found himself face-first against the tile with his wings and forelegs pinned behind his back.

“Let’s face it, Turbs. I know how you work, and meeting you here isn’t a coincidence. You’re after our research notes, aren’t you? Because, coincidentally enough, so are we.”

Turbulence didn’t answer, on account of the increasing amount of pressure being put toward bending his wings the wrong way. With no way out, he hoped that Twelve would monologue long enough for an opportunity to reveal itself.

“Who’s paying? It’s somepony from Thunderhead, isn’t it?”

“C’mon. You know how this’ll work. I’ll say no, you’ll guess again, I’ll mislead you, you’ll believe it, then you’ll get into trouble and none of us are any better off. I have never failed on a mission, Commander. Any mission.”

Twelve tapped his chin in thought. “In that case, one of use is bound to end up gravely disappointed, because neither have I. Airpony, break his wing.”

“Your wish is my command.” The mare on Turbulence’s back twisted her body for better leverage. She gripped the base of his right wing in her teeth and pulled backward until it made a cringe-inducing cracking noise.

“Aaaugh!” Turbulence screamed. “My wing!”

Disregarding the other pony’s discomfort, Twelve groaned and facehoofed. “I meant the other wing. The one that you were already holding onto.”

What could almost count as disappointment surfaced in the mare’s eyes for a brief, fleeting, moment. “Right away, sir.” Obediently, she carried out the mirrored action for Turbulence’s other wing and forcibly dislocated it with a hideous pop.

The sounds of Turbulence screaming were drowned out by Twelve shouting, “No, no—that’s not what—ugh, never mind.”

Turbulence was starting to feel that he wasn’t being paid enough to die for somepony else’s cause. Well, it was that and his tortured wings sending waves of pain that kept him from coming up with any other methods of escape. It was time to spill the beans, in the name of being able to fly again.

“Buck! I don’t know, okay? You know how I work—no names, no faces. It’s somepony from Thunderhead and that’s all I know!”

Somepony at Thunderhead must have noticed something was wrong and was trying to find out exactly who was responsible for the string of “unfortunate accidents” happening to their research. Pieces of the puzzle were suddenly coming together in Turbulence’s mind with the reports he’d just read. Neighvarro operatives must have hit the Volunteer Corps’s caravan in transit, knowing full well what its true purpose was. They’d then gone and had their science ponies repurpose the virus for their own means.

“Anything else you’d like to share?”

This much pain wasn’t worth the money he’d been paid, that was for sure. “They knew how this tricky shit went. They set a drop point, backup drop, surveillance, everything. Big league stuff,” Turbulence cried. “Just heal me up and let me go on my way already!”

Twelve thought about it for a moment. “Alright. Turn over the uniform, the bag, and whatever’s up your butt.”

“There’s nothing in my butt!” Turbulence lied, trying not to bring attention to his hindquarters. “That was one time, and you know it.”

Of course, the last time the two of them were on the same “team”, and Twelve’s other operative that had tagged along didn’t really want to touch the handle of the flip-knife that Turbulence had produced. As uncomfortable as it was, a safety knife up the butt had actually saved his hide exactly twice.

“Airpony, keep him restrained. If he struggles while I confiscate his tools, we’re going to have problems.” Thankfully, Twelve hadn’t decided to have his lackey shove her hoof up his bum to verify.

“Yes, commander.” The mare on Turbulence’s back tightened her hold on his forelegs. Not that he was even struggling to begin with, since his wings were still killing him.

With nowhere to go, Turbulence was forced to painfully lie on the ground as Twelve finally found the PDA with the reports on it. “What’s this then? Looks like you’ve been busy.”

“That’s all I found, okay?”

“And I believe you. Airpony, tie him up and treat him. We’re bringing him with us once I get the data transfer done.” Twelve turned away and began to do things with the terminal.

“As you wish, commander.” The mare abruptly snapped Turbulence’s left wing back into place, making him cry out in pain.

Twelve chuckled. “It’s a good thing this room is soundproofed. Otherwise it might sound like somepony’s getting raped in here.”

“That’s not—ow, shit—funny!” Turbulence growled as the mare roughly pulled his right wing back into alignment. “Only assholes make ra—”

He was interrupted by the mare cramming a potion vial into his mouth. “Drink.”

As he drank, his wing mended itself thanks to the power of magic. The mare quickly produced a pair of cable ties and tied his legs together in the meantime.

“The reports have been moved and the existence of the project no longer exists.” Twelve returned to observe the mare’s handiwork, apparently finished with whatever he needed to do. “Good job, airpony.”

“Thank you, sir,” she emotionlessly droned.

“You know what? Have a treat.” Twelve tapped the mare’s jaw and pulled out a small pouch from the pocket of his fatigues, carefully shaking out a small red candy. “Open.”

Obediently, she opened her mouth and waited.

He tossed it into her mouth and pocketed the pouch while the mare contentedly sucked on the candy, finally showing another expression other than “neutral”.

Satisfied, Twelve headed toward the door. “Come along now, Frosty. Don’t forget the spy.”

The mare nodded and effortlessly threw Turbulence onto her back. “I understand, and will obey.”


Footnote: Memory unlocked.

Chapter 11: Do you recognize her?

View Online

Chapter 11: Do you recognize her?

"I hope you realize how fortunate you are to have me as a mentor."


Just like most of the combatants of the Happy Hills Holdout, I got thrown into the infirmary as soon as possible. At some point between points A and B, with point B being somewhere with rest, Raider Frosty got bored enough to give control back to me just so I could pass out.

Well, sort of.

Sitting around in the depths of my mind was a hell of a lot more boring than I thought it would be. “Wow, there is nothing to do in my mind. I wish I had a soda machine in here or something,” I muttered to nopony in particular. “And now I’m talking to myself. Great.” Why couldn’t things be like before all this crap happened?

<~~~>

“Daaaaad! Summer took my Soarin action figure and won’t give it baaaaaaack!” I wailed in my younger voice. “Tell her to give it back!” Oh, the good old days. What I wouldn’t give for them. And for some damn video to go with this audio.

“Summer Winds, be nice to your sister,” my dad calmly replied. Dad… I’d only hear him again in my memories. And even then, it just wouldn’t be the same without him.

“Why should I? She always gets to play with him!” my sister whined. “And her Soarin doll is cooler than mine!”

“He’s an action figure!” I corrected her.

I heard Dad laugh to himself. “Now, now, girls. Stop fighting. Your mother and I hate it when you two fight. Summer, give back Frosty’s doll.”

“He’s an action figure!” I cried. “You heard him, sis. Give Soarin back right now.” I heard myself stomp the ground impatiently.

Summer groaned, but gave in. “Fine, here you go. Didn’t wanna play with him anyway.”

“Now go ahead and play nice with your sister. Here, I brought something for you two. Lab colts at R&D left a few samples in the officer’s break room. Uncle Updraft grabbed a bunch for me.”

“What are these?” Summer and I both wondered.

“Dunno. Calls ‘em blueberries. Looks more like purpleberries or blackberries though,” Dad said, sharing our confusion. Our following squeals of delight faded away into the fog in my mind…

~~~~~

“Ladies and gentlecolts, your attention please...” a deep voice growled.

Huh? What? Who was that? “Uh… knock knock?” I hesitantly tried.

“Very funny. Moving on.” A scene suddenly popped up in front of my eyes. “Remember this?” I was back in the Wasteland. Two other pegasi wearing Recon Force Blizzard patches were crouched behind me. “Do you?” I was holding a strangely familiar laser rifle in my hooves. Having an actual right hoof now felt unfamiliar and alien to me. At least my scout armor was still intact. Note to self, get another set of this.

“Not at all,” I muttered, checking the energy on my rifle.

A short burst of static crackled out of my earbloom. “This is Ashtray. Radio check, over.”

“Stormfront, checking in.” Shadow Breeze, I think. Was he the squad medic?

“Tornado. Still bored.” Uh… didn’t ring a bell.

“Defib here. I’m online.” Lightning Chaser, the medic. Wait, if she was the medic, then what was… ah, never mind. Whatever.

“Snowmare ready,” I whispered, focusing on the caravan inching its way toward our ambush. It wouldn’t be here for a while, so we had time to kill. Hehe, kill. I made a funny.

“Powerlevel, checking in.” Aha, Tiny Wings! He was armed with the squad’s only heavy incinerator. Just because, I suppose.

“All units, target is approaching the kill zone. Do not destroy the package. That means you, Powerlevel,” the familiar voice of Nest commanded over the radio. “Be advised, we do not have intel on their weaponry.”

“Roger Wilco,” Stormfront acknowledged from behind me. “Anything else we should know?” He scuffed his hooves in the dirt. “I don’t want stuff like last time.”

“Hey! How could I have known they had a damn cannon?” Nest protested over the radio. “Anyway, Powerlevel’s helmet viewfinder is showing four hostiles. They can’t be that heavily armed. Just take them out.”

I sighed and finished up my weapon check.

“New plan. Powerlevel’s incinerator is useless since he can’t control himself— Oh, don’t even start!” Dad nearly yelled. “You remember last time?”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t burn it till it gets away. Or runs at us,” Tiny Wings mumbled. “I said I was sorry.”

“Good. Snowmare and Stormfront will provide covering fire from the ridge up there. Defib and I will hit the caravan if we can take ‘em. Powerlevel, move into a flanking position. If they run, burn them.”

“Roger.” A large, bulky pegasus in a suit of Enclave power armor at the bottom of the cliff stomped his way into a larger group of rocks further down the road. “In position.”

The caravan was made of a wagon being pulled by a large orange stallion and a small army of guards. I couldn’t make out what was in the wagon, though. “Uh… Nest? That’s more than four hostiles. More like eight.” I peered into my laser’s scope. “Maybe more. Wagon’s got doors on it. No windows, possible hostiles inside.” There were seven guards in a loose ring around the wagon with the one orange stallion pulling the wagon.

“Copy. All of you hear that?” Nest asked.

A round of “Roger that” and “Copy” echoed through the radio. We all sat in silence, waiting for the caravan to scoot closer. I took a few deep breaths, trying to relax myself a little. If I was going to administer aggressive brain surgery, the shakes in my hooves needed to stop. “Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand…” I whispered under my breath. Yay, addicting music.

“Showtime. Everypony ready? Snowmare, prepare to take out the guards in the front,” my dad notified us. “On my mark.” The caravan slowed down in front of our pile of rocks. One particularly sharp eyed guard had signaled them to stop. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

A marker appeared on my visor over the farthest guard from the caravan. Okay, so he’d assigned me a target that the rest of the squad probably couldn’t hit. Movement from the back of the wagon drew the attention of my laser pointer of doom. A little head poked out of a door in the back, only to be pulled back inside. Uh oh. “Nest, we have possible noncombatants in the caravan. Please advise.”

There was silence on the radio. “This is Nest. Eliminate all targets in the area.” I turned around and shared an uneasy glance with Shadow Breeze. “No survivors, no prisoners. Copy?” I sat there in silence, trying to come up with an excuse. Nothing. “Snowmare, Snowmare. Do you copy?”

“Copy that.” I neutrally replied. Just another black mark on my already stained soul. “Da–Ashtray, on your mark.” I mentally placed another marker over the other guard in the back. “I’ve got the two in the back.”

“Roger that. Tornado, what’s the ETA on your strike?” I looked up to the sky and squinted at a gray smoggy figure circling the area. “We might actually need your help on this one.”

“About time you asked, sir.” He carefully waved a hoof at us. “Plasma mines ready. Plasma grenades ready too.”

“Copy that. Okay squad, ground team goes with me to pull the guards away from the wagon. Snowmare and Stormfront, covering fire. Powerlevel, eliminate any hostiles that are retreating.”

A chorus of affirmative responses filled the radio. “Looks like one of them is getting a bit too curious,” Lightning Chaser mentioned quietly. “Orders?” The same guard was blithely trotting toward the clump of rocks where half our squad was hiding.

“On my mark,” Dad repeated. “Three.” The guard observed the rocks, not knowing what was lying in wait behind them. “Two.” She appeared to have picked a rock and strode toward it. “One.” She was about to drop her helmet when… “Mark.”

We struck as one. A plasma bolt vaporized the unfortunate guard that was probably about to do her business. I fired my laser at the farthest guard and instantly shifted to the next guard. Another laser from the rocks injured one of the guards at the front, but he managed to survive. The surviving guards bolted for cover in the rocks or behind the wagon itself.

Dad, and Lightning feinted a retreat down the road, forcing the remaining guards to scurry out of cover to shoot at them. I dropped my other target and moved to cover Dad and Lightning with my laser rifle. I put the injured guard out of his misery with a precise shot through the vision slit in his helmet. “Clear the area. Mines away,” Tornado informed us.

The portion of the squad on the ground scattered away from the guards that were still chasing them. I ignored that entire area and refocused my attention to the wagon itself. The orange stallion was nowhere to be seen. Most likely dead, but hopefully he ran. A little green colt dashed out toward the fallen shape of one of the guards. “No survivors,” Nest had said. The little guy was crying his heart out over the body.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Just business.” I placed my sight over the colt. I hesitated. Sure, I’d done this a few times before. Heck, they’d even told us right into basic. “I’m so sorry.” I squeezed my eyes shut and pushed the button. My aim was true. I instinctively knew it. My rifle shook ever so slightly with the force of the shot.

I opened my eyes. Nothing left but a pile of pink dust. I sent my prayers for the colt to the goddesses. “Never gets easier, does it?” I lifted my visor and wiped away a tear. I strapped my laser over my back and turned around. Shadow Breeze had his visor up as well and reassuringly placed his hoof on my shoulder. “Let’s just focus on the mission, alright?” He whispered, keeping his mic away from his muzzle.

I smiled grimly. “You’d think after five it would get easier.” We surveyed the carnage below. “I need to get over there.” I pointed to a clump of shrubs a few yards away. “You coming?”

“Yo! Drop the chips and get me some damn ammo!” Powerlevel yelled through the radio, cumbersomely stomping his way toward the last guard. Wait, how’d he use up all his ammo just sitting there? I thought he wasn’t supposed to be firing…

“Calm your tits. You can handle it.” Shadow snorted. “We’re on our way down.”

“This is Nest. Recon Force Blizzard, give me a sitrep. Still alive out there?”

“No. That’s why we’re still on the radio,” Dad sarcastically drawled into his mic. The whine of a plasma rifle came to my ears. “And that was the sound of an area secured.”

I waited for a good few minutes for the rest of our squad to check the area. “Area secure,” Tornado called out. He jumped into the wagon. “The package is secure. Squad, regroup on Ashtray.”

Shadow Breeze and I swooped down to the wagon. I arrived and was immediately ordered to secure the package. The rest of the squad formed a defensive perimeter outside the wagon. Dad flinched away from Defib’s helping hooves. “Stop farking moving! I’m trying to heal you, not tickle you,” she fussed, attempting to slap a bandage on a bullet graze on his thigh.

“Aww… did the biggie-wiggie stallion get a widdle gwaze?” I cooed at my dad. He gave me a look. As in, I-will-take-away-your-all-your-dessert-rations-forever look. “Sheesh. Cool off, Dad.” I dropped my sugar-caked tone and adopted a more serious tone. “I’ll keep the ‘package’ secure, as per your orders.”

“Watch your tone, young lady,” he growled, finally letting Defib apply healing.

“Can we leave family matters out of this?” Tornado groaned. “I don’t wanna hear anymore stuff about your personal lives. I think I’ve been mentally scarred.”

“You’re the one that can’t keep it in your pants,” Dad snapped back.

“Are you ever going to let that go?” Tornado whined. “I didn’t realize it was a locker room!” Yes. We were totally going to hold it against him for the rest of eternity because it was funny.

I let them bicker outside as I pushed open the wagon’s back door, making sure not to step in the disintegrated pile of foal. Unsurprisingly, the interior of the wagon was dark, cramped, and lacking in all description of ventilation or exterior viewing. True to standard Wastelander construction, the only other furnishing was the pair of benches bolted to either wall. Otherwise, there was simply a large steel crate occupying the center of the wagon. Most likely, this was the package we were sent to recover. I looked around. Nopony here? Alright. Curiosity got the better of me and I peeked inside the crate.

Carrots. Apples. A few stalks of asparagus. Food, fresh food. They all had the same off-ish tinge that betrayed its origin. “Cloud-grown food? What’s this doing down here?” Well, I was hungry anyway so I snatched up a carrot and shoved it under my wing. “Don’t mind if I do.” Then I reached in and pulled out on apple. I ate it on the spot, and by Luna it was delicious.

Though it did taste a little… off, even for cloud-grown food. I chalked it up to the Wasteland being the contaminating pile of crap it was and left it at that.

Or maybe it was just the Volunteer Corps taking all of the slightly out-of-date food and giving it away to the Wastelanders. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense, given the fact that most of us grunts would almost literally kill for a bushel of actual apples. Dried food and repackaged Meals Rejected by Everypony could only go so far. Knowing how the Enclave worked, it was probably either part of some charity scheme, tax break, or shady government conspiracy.

“So, what’s in here?” Lightning cheerfully asked, poking her head into the dark confines of the wagon with me. “Anything cool?” I hastily dropped the apple core in my muzzle and kicked it under a bench.

“Nofin’!” I blurted, wiping apple bits from my muzzle. “What’s the word?”

“We’re not out of the farking ‘Hoof just yet,” Lightning moaned. “I wanna go back to my bunk.” I completely agreed. My wings hurt from flying and I was just plain tired. “We’re going somewhere else apparently. Nest is sending somepony to grab this giant farking crate.” She fiddled with the straps on her plasma rifle battle saddle. “How you holdin’ up? Need anything? Pills? Bandages? Asprin? Mint thingies?”

I waved her off. “Nah. I’m fine.”

“Whatever. Your loss.” She popped open a tin of Mint-als and crunched one down. “Last chaaaance.” Of course she’d go as far as rattling the tin at me. “They’re gooood.”

I was doubtful. “I don’t think you should just be eating whatever you find down here. It could be toxic,” I pointed out.

“But where else can I play real-time hobo simulator and eat candy?” she pitifully whimpered at me. And of course she’d also use her sad eyes. Why did I even work with her? I mentally facehoofed.

“Fine. Just… don’t let D–Smoky see them. He hates it when we bring back random crap.” I uneasily shifted the carrot under my wing. Yup, nothing to see here. Nothing at all…

~~~~~

The scene faded away into the insanity-riddled depths of my mind. “Do you remember now?”

“Uh… I guess?” I tried. No idea what was going on. At all. “Can I at least get a name? Otherwise you get to be Creepy McStalkerpants.”

The voice groaned. “Is it too much to ask for some professionalism?”

“How about Chorwhacks Jigglebob?”

The soft tinkling sound of metal filled the air. “Fine. Call me Ice Storm.”

Alright, we have a name. “So, what exactly should I be remembering?”

Ice Storm sighed in exasperation. “Look, just… remember that, okay? It was hard enough keeping your mental walls busy, never mind trying to find the damn memory.” Wait. What? “We’ll meet again, at some point. Now piss off.”

<~~~>

Whether or not I liked it, I was conscious again. Everything hurt, and my head wouldn’t stop trying to kill me. Beeping. Antiseptic. Blood. Sound, smell, taste—things that told me I was still alive. I slowly realized I was back in the clinic. Again. I licked my lips, tasting crunchy, irony blood still stuck to my muzzle. I was thirsty and the blood coating the inside of my mouth was nothing compared to a morning after. “Watta,” I moaned, trying to use my saliva to clean out the blood. As much as I hated it, I opened my eyes anyway.

Instant Noodles’s head popped into my blurry field of view. “Oh, hey there!” She turned to somepony to the right. “She’s awake! And, uh, maybe another morphine.”

“Can’t risk it,” Doc muttered distantly. “Aha! Got another one. That makes it… fifteen to thirteen. Your turn.”

Instant patted my head. “Hold on. Be right back.” She screwed up her muzzle in concentration as she levitated an antenna with a magnet taped to the end of it past my face. “I need to beat a doctor at a game of operation.”

Huh? A sharp pinch in my gut caused me to whimper pitifully. “Ha! Point goes to me,” Doc gleefully cried. The pain withdrew and was swiftly replaced elsewhere in my chest. “Aww. That was stupid. You know, this would be a lot easier if your nose lit up.”

“What the buck are you doing down there?” I croaked. A snapping sound followed by a weak victory cry from Instant gave me a somewhat good idea.

Rumcake paced up to me, canteen in hoof. He tipped its contents into my mouth and grinned. “Now you know how I felt.” I greedily gulped down the refreshing water. It was a bit stale and funny-tasting, but I didn’t care. Water was water, and anything was better than the taste of hours-old dried blood. “Yay for bullet fishing,” he sarcastically cheered. “Look, I’ll be right here the entire time.”

I suffered through the pinching and victory dances for in indeterminate time period where I was being used as living board game. At least it wasn’t too bad with Rumcake comforting me the entire time through my whimpering and fits of colorful commentary. After I’d been sufficiently emptied of lead, I was healed up and allowed to carefully stand up.

Doc kept his aura wrapped around my wings and warned, “Don’t overexert yourself just yet. Go find yourself some apple juice or cookies or something to get your platelet count back up since I’m ninety percent sure that you’re going to reject all the blood I’ve got on stock.”

Cookies, huh? “Does this mean I need to stock up on snack cakes for medical purposes?” I giddily asked.

“Sure?”

My squeal of delight was rudely interrupted by a familiar mare suddenly storming up to me and seizing me by my collar. “I need to talk to you,” Instant demanded. “Sparkle Cola told me about what happened. Rumcake, too.”

I broke away, tripping over my hooves a little. “I’m feeling a little lightheaded,” I somewhat lied. “I guess I’ll just have a little lay down for a while.” I jumped back onto the mattress and feigned sleep, snoring loudly.

“Oh no you don’t!” Instant growled. I eeped as I was suddenly lifted up by an unseen force and pulled off of the bed. “We’re going to sit down and have a nice, long chat. All five of you.”

I was forcefully slammed back into the bed by Doc’s magic. “As her attending physician, I’m going to have to say… no.” Thank Luna that somepony had a little sense! “I don’t know how the drugs will react to any sort of magic treatment you’re thinking of doing.” Wait, what? Doc dropped a little tray that was nearly full of little bullets. “Have a souvenir. Or thirty.”

“Hold on, back the addict train up.” I pointed at Doc. “What the buck did you put in me this time?” Please, please let there not be more bits of me missing.

“Don’t worry about it,” he casually mentioned, carefully cleaning off one of his smaller bonesaws. “I’ve removed your need for Med-X. Or more accurately, you no longer physically require Med-X or other painkillers to properly function.”

“Oh,” I simply uttered. Doc, being helpful? What sort of magic was this?

“Though your mental need for Med-X is totally up to you,” he continued. “I’ll trust Rumcake and the rest of your fellows to keep you clean. Also, if you have an erection lasting longer than four hours, tell me. That shouldn’t happen.”

“Uh,” I pointed at my mare parts. “Hello?”

“Exactly. That shouldn’t happen,” Doc replied without looking. “Otherwise, don’t strain yourself. I don’t want to see you in here again for a while.”

“Or you could issue me a frequent visitor ca—” I began, before we were startled by a horrendous cry of pain.

“I’m just going to hazard a guess somepony’s coughing up a lung,” Doc said cheerfully. “Have a nice day!” And with that he trotted off to a curtained-off area near the back of room.

Instant shot me a dirty glare. “Look, I’ll explain it to everypony soon,” I consoled her. “But first, I have business to attend to.” I stretched my limbs out at Rumcake. “Carry me.”

~~~~~

“This isn’t where I wanted to be,” I whined.

This wasn’t even anywhere close to where I told Rumcake to take me. Instead, he brought me to Inquisitor Soufflé’s office. Well, that taught me to never take a nap during a pony ride ever again. The stallion himself was a lot more focused on using a lint roller on his fancy hat than anything else.

Rumcake sighed. “Just—please? It took a lot of effort on my part to even make Soufflé even remotely agree to this.”

“He’s right, you know.” Soufflé paused from his cleaning and replaced his stupid hat on his stupid head. “And as much as I don’t like it, he made a pretty good argument in your favor.”

And I still had no idea what was going on. “So… what’s going on and why am I here?” Hm. I felt like I’d asked myself this a lot more often than I should have for a normal pony.

Predictably, I was promptly ignored. Out of boredom, I tried to see what was doing on over Rumcake’s big head. For some reason, there were a pair of Ranger holotags that Soufflé was busy tinkering with on his desk. Nothing else his office had really changed, besides the freshly-repainted mural of the Steel Rangers logo behind him. The Neighton’s Cradle on his desk had somehow actually increased in size, taking up slightly more space than it used to.

Abruptly, Soufflé looked up and asked, “What’s your name?”

“Frosty Winds.”

“Your whole name.”

“Frosty Winds,” I repeated, a bit louder.

The driest look in the world appeared on Soufflé’s face. “Your real name.”

I felt blood rush to my face. “It’s, uh… Frostivus Kay Winds.”

Rumcake shifted as he tried to look at me. “What’s the ‘K’ stand for?” Yay for phonetics.

“Kay. K-A-Y. No idea if it’s special.” I shrugged and gave my wings a little shrug-like flap as well for emphasis.

Annoyingly enough, he chuckled. “Sounds like a stallion’s name.”

I covered my face and groaned. “Yes, I’m greatly aware of this.”

Soufflé did a few more things to the tags before lifting them and examining them against the single light fixture in the ceiling. He nodded in approval and placed them back on the desk again. A sword levitated out from under his desk and calmly hovered in the air beside him. “For this next part, I’m going to need you to stand.”

I shrank away and tried to worm my way into Rumcake’s armor. “What?”

“Just do it, Frosty.” Rumcake tried to gently scoot me off of him, but I wasn’t having any of that. I clung on as hard as I could. “C’mon. I promise it’ll be fine.”

Against my better judgement, I grudgingly obliged and managed to stand after a few awkward flaps. “Okay, what now?” I asked, still confused.

At the flick of a switch, some music began to softly play. It had an air of reverence to it, which gave me the tingling feeling that this was something really important that I should stop asking questions about. “Kneel,” Soufflé dictated, tags and sword hovering nearby. On closer inspection, the Steel Rangers’ emblem was engraved into the blade itself. Huh.

Obediently, I knelt and bowed.

“I, Inquisitor Soufflé of the Circle of Steel, am hereby present to bestow honors to those gathered here today.” The sword appeared in the corner of my vision for a second. “Do you vow to uphold the honor of the Steel Rangers?”

Uh… “Yes?”

Yet again, Inquisitor Soufflé got annoyed at me. “You’re supposed to say ‘I do’.”

I looked up at him. “What am I? Getting married?”

“Work with me. For the sake of tradition.”

“Ugh, fine. I do.”

“Do you vow uphold the integrity of the Steel Rangers?”

“I do.” Oh. I had an idea what was happening, but I wasn’t going to jump to conclusions just yet.

“Do you vow to uphold the Codex and—actually, we can probably skip that since you’re not going to read it anyway. Moving on.”

“Hey!” I began to rise, but a hoof on my back stopped me.

“Don’t interrupt,” Rumcake gently warned.

I had a feeling that Soufflé was also glaring at me again. “In times of need, do you vow to come to the aid of the Steel Rangers?”

“I do.”

“For loyalty, bravery, and performing above and beyond the call of duty, I hereby unshackle you from your mundane existence—” Abruptly, the weight around my neck vanished and the bomb collar hit the ground with a muted thud. Subsequently, I was having a really hard time keeping the stupid grin off my face for the remainder of the ritual. “—and enlighten you with the guidance of the Steel Rangers.”

The flat side of the sword touched my right shoulder. “We welcome a new squire to our ranks—” Then I felt it swish right over my mane and nearly clip my ears to touch my left shoulder. “—and a new member to our family.” Then the sword withdrew and the tags were looped around my neck.

“There we go. Now stand the buck up, Honorary Squire Frostivus Kay Winds,” Soufflé sighed. I stood and proudly saluted, which he unenthusiastically returned. “Congratulations. Now go be happy somewhere else. I have orders to distribute.”

Rumcake pulled me into the hallway after him. “You’re a Ranger now! Oh, I’m so happy!” He nearly crushed me in a bear hug that I couldn’t avoid.

My stupid grin still wouldn’t go away, just like my racing heartbeat. “I’ll be honest, this wasn’t something I was expecting,” I chuckled. “Why?”

“Since you’ve been on your best behavior and since you helped us at the battle, I thought that you deserved something for your efforts.” Rumcake squeezed me a bit harder, eliciting an involuntary squeak from me. “And I know you don’t like that bomb collar either.”

Was that the sound of my ribs straining or my lungs? “So you made me a squire?” I breathlessly gasped. “Also, you’re going to kill me at this rate.”

Grudgingly, Rumcake released me. “Yeah. You were basically one of us already, and now it’s official.“ I took a few steps and immediately tottered into a wall. He rushed to my side and allowed me to lean on him. “Huh. I think all the blood in your body went to your face. You’re super red right now.”

Yes, my face was excessively warm to the point where Rumcake’s face was actually much colder than mine. “I seriously have shit to do, so I guess it’s better if you carry me there.” I sighed in a sarcastically resigned manner.

“Whatever my little squire desires.” Rumcake crouched to allow me to climb aboard.

~~~~~

“I now realize that your desires happen to be along the lines of being lazy,” Rumcake groaned. “I should have seen this coming. Back on topic, that’s basically it. I mean, it’s not a really high rank, all things considered, but at least you’ll maybe get better treatment from the others. Although that does mean Inquisitor Soufflé might take advantage of the fact that he can actually order you around now…”

I was happily riding around on Rumcake’s back as I half-listened, half-ignored the things he told me about being a squire. His armor was a bit cold and dusty, but at least moving didn’t require effort on my part.

Rumcake abruptly paused. “When is it your turn to carry me around?”

I tousled his mane and replied “Never. Onward, wench! To Sleazy’s!” Rumcake dutifully tromped off toward the west end of the market. “So, anyway… what’s on your mind?” I asked out of boredom, resting my head on his.

“You, actually.” Rumcake sighed.

Uh… “Is that a good sign or a bad sign?”

Rumcake laughed. “It’s a good sign. I think. Seriously, though, I’ve been thinking…” He trailed off.

I blinked. “Well? What is it? Does your brain need a new hamster?”

“When we were in the fortress, you nearly died,” Rumcake whispered, abruptly spoiling my good mood. “For a while, I thought I would lose you forever. Part of me wanted to dismiss you as a loss.” Wow, thanks. “But… my heart told me that you were special.”

“Um…” My cheeks were burning. Where was he going with this?

“And then when I died… when I nearly died… I realized that I regretted not getting to know you better,” he wistfully told me. I floated off his back and landed in front of him. Was this really what he’d been going through this whole time? “Before, I just wasn’t really sure. You know, mortal enemies and all.”

The pieces came together and my breath caught in my throat.

Rumcake liked me.

Rumcake liked me.

I mean, sure, Rumcake was there for me from the beginning… he’d done his best to protect me… and he’d just gone and gotten me squireified… and we went on that date before… and there was that time we kissed, way back…

It really has been obvious for a long time, you know.

Shut up, brain.

I suddenly realized that I hadn’t said anything yet, and Rumcake was looking at me like a small kicked animal as the seconds ticked by.

It was adorable.

“When you were dying, I was thinking the exact same thing.” I smiled brightly at him. “The Wasteland is hell, and you really are the brightest part of it to me. I don’t remember if I had a coltfriend or marefriend before, but that isn’t going to stop me.”

“So this means that this—” Rumcake motioned to himself, then me. “—is a thing now?”

I nervously chuckled, half relieved and half… something else. “Yeah, I guess so.”

The two of us awkwardly stood in silence, not exactly looking at each other. “So, what now?”

“Damned if I know. I’ve never been a very good social pony.” My wings kept trying to spring to attention, but I was doing my best to keep them still.

Another moment of awkward silence. “Wanna bang?” Rumcake blurted.

My eyes widened in surprise, and then I laughed. “You know, most mares like a little subtlety,” I informed him.

“Says the tiny little mare with the largest bucking boomstick in the entire Wasteland that single-clawedly demolishes entire strongholds,” Rumcake retorted. Okay, I couldn’t really argue with that.

“Pretend I’m a normal mare.”

“That’s really hard.” Rumcake rocked back and forth, prompting me to flare my wings for balance. “You know, with the wings. And the claw. And the insanity.”

“I get it!” I whacked his head with my hoof. “I’m not totally normal. Or stable.”

Rumcake smiled. “You’re not like other mares, you know that?”

“What’s wrong with other mares?” My cheeks flared up again. And, for once, I liked the feeling.

“Anyway, so…” He scratched at the ground shyly. “Seriously this time. What do we do now?”

“Not me, that’s for sure.”

Rumcake’s expression flickered between looking like he was about to laugh and looking like he wanted to smack me. Luna, he was cute!

“So, uh, shall we have a real first date, then?” he finally asked.

“That sounds good.” I smiled encouragingly. “Have somewhere in mind?”

“Wanna kick it off at the Spritebot? Apparently Peppermint Shots isn’t such a bad chef, either. According to Bakey. Who’s usually drunk all the time.” Rumcake rolled his eyes. “Trust a drunk, am I right?”

“Well… at least it’ll get me a use out of that dress I bought a while back.” I bopped his nose playfully. “When do you want to get together?”

“How does tonight sound? I’ll pick you up, I guess?”

“Sure thing. I can’t wait.”

Ice Storm here. Are you forgetting something? Or, more specifically, somepony?

Oh ponyfeathers, Cherry… “Wait, crap.” I sighed. Go ahead and ruin my only day to myself, will you.

Rumcake looked concerned. “What? Did I do it wrong?”

I shook my head. “No, no.” How to do this… “I made a promise, and I need to keep it.” I told him all about our somewhat failed recon attempt into the Rad Lads forward base thing. Everything, including how I’d nearly been raped. Of course I got some disgusted and horrified looks from him, but I did manage to wrap up the entire story in a neat and clean-esque package.

“I still don’t understand why you didn’t just let me come along.” Rumcake pouted, still slightly perturbed. “You wouldn’t have to had gone through all of that if I was there.”

“Well, it was kind of a last-minute excursion,” I tried to explain. “I wasn’t really informed beforehoof. And as much as I hate to say, grenade launchers are not considered low profile.”

Rumcake had sat down during my story, and now he was crossing his forelegs in an unsatisfied manner. “No excuse to not bring me along. I do have experience in unarmored combat, you know.” He was a tiny bit miffed, but he did somewhat understand my reasoning. Hopefully.

“Well, that would have been useful to know a few days ago.” I rolled my eyes. “Could we get back on track? I have a base to destroy. Violently. If you really want, you can come with.” I snuggled up against him. “It could be like a day trip.”

From around the building, somepony shouted, “Come on! Just kiss already!”

Both of us bolted apart and looked around. Was it really so hard to get a little privacy in this damn town? “Show yourself!” Rumcake angrily shouted. “Is somepony out there?” A few townsponies gave us funny looks. A small trinket stand nearby rocketed away hastily, trailing little metal sculptures and flyers.

“Damn kids,” I muttered, snickering to myself a bit. “Well, back to our original plan.” I landed back onto Rumcake’s back again. “Carry me to Sleazy’s!” I pointed off to the facade of Sleazy McCheapkin’s Bargain Emporium. Rumcake whinnied and dashed off toward the crumbly store.

Once we were inside, we were immediately assaulted by Sleazy’s voice. A younger, more energetic, and less ghouley-sounding Sleazy. “From the ponies who brought you Pistol Jr, Pistol Sr, and Pistol Jr. Plus comes the Very Pistol. Full of Pistoley goodness and ready to deliver Very bullets into your very enemies' faces. All part of the summer catalog from Gunskill.”

Rumcake jumped in fright as soon as the impromptu advertisement blasted into the doorway. At this point, I’d gotten used to random bits of speech being thrown at me upon entry, but I was a little surprised at the voice itself. “You’re sounding much better,” I simply stated in the direction of the armory behind the front counter.

“Ah, those were the days indeed,” Sleazy distantly yelled from inside his armory, back to his ghoulishly horrid voice. “You like it?” I looked around and got a little confused by his sudden change in voice. What exactly was I supposed to be liking? His voice? “I refurbished my old vending machine!” Sleazy stumbled out of the armory and locked the door behind him. He looked a bit worse for wear, but at least he’d finally gotten around to removing the steel bar in his neck.

“Since when have you had your own vending machine?” Rumcake quizzically asked.

Sleazy pointed at a dimly-lit vending machine in the corner. Huh. That wasn’t there before. “A futile attempt at quadrupling profits,” he sadly explained. “Invested a massive pile of caps into fixing up one of my old gun vending machines. Turned out, most ponies didn’t carry around twenty-five hundred bits as spare change back in the day.”

“Hold on… you tried to sell guns. In vending machines,” Rumcake attempted to understand. “When was this a good idea?” He facehoofed.

Sleazy sat down in front of the machine and thumped its side. “Well, somepony I was competing against centuries ago decided to make machines that dispense ammo. Ironshod, I think.” My turn to faceclaw. “It seemed like such a good idea! Guns and ammunition, right next to your Sparkle Cola!”

“But nopony actually goes out thinking ‘Let’s go buy some soda and a gun!’, am I right?” I asked. I could see what he was thinking, though. Convenience over practicality, because we’re lazy like that. Or we used to be, anyway.

“Yeah. It was hard to turn a profit off them and sell cheap guns at the same time,” Sleazy wistfully replied. He suddenly brightened up. “Enough about the past. How about some guns for you, yes?” He happily clopped his rotting hooves together. “How can I arm you today?”

“I think you’ll be interested in this.” I triumphantly whipped out the pink bobblehead and placed it on the counter. “Also, I’m going to need some stealthy weaponry for the big guy.” I cocked my head toward Rumcake.

Rumcake analyzed the tiny pink bobblehead while Sleazy fawned over it. Just like the Applejack bobblehead, its eyes were off-centered and different sized. The little pink mare had an even pinker poofy mane. Little tins of Mint-als spilled all over the base, and her mouth was full of cupcakes and even more Mint-als. The edge of the base read “Schtable-Tec Bobblehead” and the word “PARTY” everywhere.

“Pinkie Pie! Oh, how I’ve missed you.” He hugged the bobblehead and placed it on the shelf next to Applejack. “That’s two of eight. Doing good!” He was prancing with glee. “Now, I owe you a bunch for that.” He looked over Rumcake appraisingly. “And I think I know what you need. Give me a moment.”

He disappeared back into his armory, singing something along the lines of smiling and stuff. Strange. “You know, I didn’t expect him to be the happy type,” I whispered to Rumcake. “More like the steal everything type, you know?”

“Maybe he was different before, right? You know, the Wasteland hasn’t been kind to anypony. Getting turned into a ghoul probably wasn’t good for his sanity,” Rumcake whispered back. Some loud clanking and very colorful swearing signaled Sleazy’s return. Both of us watched him drag a pallet into the room. “But slap me silly and call me Peaches, that is beautiful,” Rumcake breathed, ogling over the new arrival.

“Alright, Peaches, here you are.” Sleazy dragged the pallet in front of us and collapsed in front of it. “Enter the PB&J Decrusted minigun. Fully automatic, and five thousand rounds per minute. Best of all, it’s magically silenced.” He sighed and continued “Now, usually this comes with the PB&J Toasted Terror minigun as part of the PB&J Premium Platinum Lunchbox Edition, but I couldn’t get my hooves on it before the ponypies hit the fan. I did, however, get my hooves on the twenty thousand 5mm incendiary rounds for the Toasted Terror.”

Rumcake continued to stare at the minigun. I had to say, it looked amazing. The main body was a matte gray and the multiple barrels were painted a dark purple. It looked silly, but all five of the minigun’s barrels were fitted with pale brown silencers each embedded with a tiny orange gem. I nudged him. “Hey, Peaches. Stop drooling.”

“Wha—?” He wiped the saliva hanging from his muzzle. “I wasn’t drooling.” He ran his hooves across the Decrusted’s surface. “It’s so beautiful.” I bristled a little bit. Minutes ago, I was the subject of his adoration.

Colts will be colts.

Teehee. Thanks, brain.

“Now, the bad news.” Both of us perked up. “As much as I hate to say it, Pinkie Pie won’t be able to cover this beauty.” Uh oh. I shot Rumcake a look of panic. “Though we can work somethin’ out.”

“What did you have in mind?” Rumcake asked.

“I need you to go do something for me,” Sleazy said, standing up. “As fa—”

“We’ll do it,” Rumcake instantly piped up.

Hold on, what? “Wait, we will?” I blurted.

“Don’t worry. It isn’t anything we can’t handle.” I really hoped so. Feeling a tiny bit lightheaded, I simply leaned on him and let him continue.

Sleazy was shocked as well. “You don’t want any details?”

“Well, of course we want the details! But more importantly, we need this minigun.” Rumcake told Sleazy my story and what we had to do, minus a few insignificant details. “So we’re going to need to borrow this for a bit.”

Sleazy sat in thought for a minute. “I can work with that.” Well, that was a start. “How about this…” He thought about it some more, scratching at the hole in his neck. “I’ll mount the Decrusted and take your grenade launcher as collateral.” Both of them nodded in agreement. “I’ll give you the incendiary ammo once you’re done. I trust the Rangers have standard minigun ammo?” Rumcake nodded again. “Good! Then we have a deal?”

“Deal,” Rumcake agreed. “And the job?”

Sleazy rolled one of his eyes. I resisted the urge to vomit all over his store. Ewww. “I trust you to do what you think is right. Come back to me once you’re done.”

“Thanks for understanding.” I stepped forward to hug him, trying to not get his… ichor all over me. “How can we repay you?”

“You’re stretching my gratitude muscles as far as they’re willing to go, especially after the last battle.” Right. I’d forgotten about that. “My assignment will call us even. Trust me.” Sleazy shied away. “And you might not want to touch me. Seriously.” He motioned to himself. “This hasn’t been bathed in two hundred fortyish years.”

I reflexively gagged and backed away quickly. Ewww! “But that doesn’t make sense,” I protested. “Wasn’t the war only—”

…Oh, Goddesses.

Well, at least the radiation cleaned him off at some point. I hope.

You and me both, brain.

Rumcake hooked a foreleg over me and nudged me toward the door. “Go get some air. You look like you’re going to hurl.” I gagged again. He winced and smiled in sympathy. “Yeah, go outside. I can wrap everything up here.”

I gratefully stumbled outside. Air! I inhaled the dusty, stale-tasting air in huge gulps. Never again would I be able to see Sleazy the same way again.

What did you expect?

Shut up. I dry heaved in the street while I waited for Rumcake to finish fondling his brand new gun. At least now we were somewhat geared for one last confrontation with the Rad Lads.

~~~~~

“I can’t believe you have a silenced minigun,” Tabber muttered. We’d quickly stopped by the Spritebot to pick him up before departing to the slaver stronghold, since we needed somepony who had more explosives than anypony should reasonably have. “That should not be possible.”

“Buck logic.” I giggled. “We need firepower and stealth. Compromise, right?” We sat on the cliff overlooking the Rad Lads encampment. It was quieter than before and there weren’t nearly as many guards. Luckily, the slaves were still in their cages, so at least we didn’t have to go search for them.

Rumcake had his helmet back on at this point. “I have a plan.” He pointed at the back edge of the camp. “They don’t have a wall, so we’re going to walk in there and pull off a quick smash and grab.” Well, so much for stealth. “Secondary objectives are basically just kill everything and figure it out later. Questions?”

Tabber raised his hoof. “Can’t we just sneak in? I don’t want to mess with that.” He pointed at a large, heavily defended tent near the center of the entire mess. It had a few barricades going around it and even three sentry turrets scanning the immediate area. “If we can find the terminal that controls those guns we can wipe them out, easy.”

Rumcake sighed. “Fine. Tabber, hijack those sentry guns. Frosty, you stay up here and give us overwatch.” I nodded and double-checked my anti-machine rifle. The sight attachment was back on, and I had normal bullets loaded again.

Tabber pointed at a little gray box strapped to his shoulder. “I’ve got a radio on my frequency of forty one point oh one. I’ll radio in when the turrets are down.” A little message popped up in my vision that helpfully informed me a new radio signal had been located. I popped in the earbloom and fiddled with the volume settings.

“Where the buck is the mic sensitivity on this? Advanced?” I muttered to myself, flipping back and forth through the options menu of my PipBuck. “Is there even a mic on this? Oh great, there isn’t even a mic on this. Perfect.”

“I’m tuned in,” Rumcake informed us, tapping the side of his helmet. “I’ve got a two-way radio in here, too.” And of course that left me with the most complicated one-way radio in existence.

“Uh… how about me?” I asked, hoping for a radio. “How are we going to do this? My PipBuck doesn’t have a built-in microphone.”

Both of them stared at me with their blank, expressionless helmets. “Welp, I didn’t bring a spare,” Tabber groaned, patting himself down. “Any ideas? I’ve got nada.”

“Hmm.” My gaze landed on an empty Sparkle-Cola bottle. “I got it.” I picked up the empty bottle and stood it up on a chest-high rock. “Just ask me yes and no questions. If the bottle is up, that means yes. Down means no.”

Everypony agreed on our impromptu communication system. Rumcake trotted away toward the back end of the camp to set up an ambush. Tabber disappeared the second I looked down to place my second magazine somewhere reachable. No doubt he’d gone off to place explosives everywhere.

I kept my scope on the slave cages, just in case anything happened. There was no way I was going to let anything happen to them at this point. “Frosty, please tell me your rifle has a silencer,” Tabber whispered over the radio. I reached up and tilted the bottle over. “Well, buck.” I re-righted the bottle and refocused on the cages. “Two-pony patrol headed toward you, Rumcake.”

“Got them.” Two bandaged up slavers that were walking around the back section of tents were suddenly dragged into the shadows. “Is it safe to move up?” I scanned the camp and left the bottle up. There were still three more patrols circling the camp, but they were nowhere close. After a moment, Rumcake decided, “I’m taking that as a yes.”

He pushed through a tent and cautiously advanced closer to the center of the camp. “Oooh, shiny,” Tabber squee’d. “How many patrols are around me?” How was I going to answer that? “Just gimme a number.” I rolled my eyes. Really? I could hear him facehoof over the radio. “Okay, better question: are there any patrols?” I tipped over the bottle.

“I don’t want to hear fireworks just yet,” Rumcake growled, stomping through another tent. “We have things to do, and ponies to save.”

“Yeah, yeah. Got it.” All three turrets beeped for a split second before resuming their turning. “Good news. These turrets were overloaded in order to move them.” Okay… that didn’t really mean anything to me.

“Which means…?” Rumcake asked irritably. Thank you!

“Bucking noobs.” Tabber sighed. “The turrets think they’re looking at a beach in Zebrica for now. Basically, move fast before they notice it’s a still and reboot.” He dropped the volume of his voice in mid-explanation. “I’m cutting through the tent.” Silence. “Nopony home. Cover me. Going to hack the terminal.”

“Got it.” Rumcake moved toward the slave cages, neutralizing two more guards on the way there. “What should I do with the cages?” he asked, surveying the ponies within. Some of them looked to him hopefully, wondering if they would be saved. “Shh. We’re here to help. Stay quiet.”

Cherry was right there in the front. Still alive, and still clinging to hope. Thank the goddesses. The sound of crunching gravel behind me pulled me out of my rifle’s sights. Crunch. Crunch. Philomena’s Touch found its way onto my right hoof. “C’mere you,” I muttered to myself. Crunch. I pressed myself against a rock for cover. Crunch. A dirty purple leg stopped near my chosen bit of cover.

“Mhm… nofin’ ‘ere but a bottle,” Purple Leg muttered. “You’re seein’ things, mate,” he called to a pony nearby. Crap. So there were two of them. “Le’s get back to our post. Benny’ll be mad as bonkers if we’re not there.”

“Coulda sworn…” the other slaver replied. “One las’ poke around.”

“Fine! See ya back there.” The purple one stormed off.

I couldn’t see where the other one was. Somewhere on the other side of my rock, most likely. Carefully, I switched on the power hoof and watched the little rubies on the bottom light up. Hm. The walking stopped when he heard the low-pitched whine my power hoof turning on. Damn those powering up sounds! “What was that?” the slaver wondered out loud. Uh oh.

It turned out that he hadn’t exactly pinpointed where I was yet, so I still had a chance to pull a plan together. Think, Frosty, think! I glanced at my E.F.S. bar and duly noted that there weren’t any other enemies in close proximity, which meant I was—

…Wait, this stupid PipBuck also had its S.A.T.S. thing! I’d forgotten that this thing was more useful than just for inventory sorting. Remembering the tutorial, I quickly toggled S.A.T.S. on and off to check whether or not it worked. Sure enough, the targeting spell marked the slaver for me, saving me the trouble of having to actually aiming at him myself. It’s like I didn’t even have to try.

Thanks to the power of magic, he’d never see it coming. The drably olive colored slaver was about to circle around to the other side of the rock. However, he wasn’t expecting me to jump over it. A large blob circled his entire body with a little tag that read ‘95%’. I confirmed the hit and whaled into him in spell-enhanced slow motion.

The first punch smashed him into the ground. What I didn’t expect was for him to spontaneously combust. Violently. I nearly landed on top of his prone, burning form and punched him again. More fire! The spell faded away. Well, that was unex—

“Ow! Ow, ow, ow, ow!” I frantically attempted to put out the flames that wreathed power hoof and the fur around it. “Hot! Gah!”

My duster ended up getting singed a bit, but at least the fire was out. Philomena’s Touch was placed back into my saddlebag, and I licked my burnt hoof in an attempt to ease the pain. Sure, the burnt hairs were disgusting, but at least my cool saliva was helping the pain go away. Note to self: acquire burn cream.

Yo. Idiot. Purple Leg down there.

Right. Uh, how would I inform Rumcake and Tabber? I thought for a moment, then I simply removed the bottle. Hopefully they’d get it.

In the little scuffle, my earbloom had fallen out. I picked it up off of the rocky ground and popped it back into my ear after a quick brushing. “—thing’s gone to hell! A freakin’ scavenging party came back! Frosty? You there?” Rumcake yelled.

I couldn’t respond. I could hear his suppressed minigun firing off sporadically, but I couldn’t place where it was coming from. Wow, so that actually worked. I stormed off toward the entry where Purple Leg had headed off to, just in case he was thinking of trying to hurt Rumcake.

And, of course, Purple was actually coming back my way, and we collided with each other coming around a mound of rocks. Just great.

“Oi! Who’re y—” he started. He was right in front of me. I had no time to take out a weapon or even Philomena’s Touch. In our collision, he’d dropped his weapon. A pool cue. A bucking pool cue.

Being in a situation that could potentially cause my imminent death, I panicked and chomped down on it before he could finish his sentence. “Cue in yo face!” I screamed, swinging wildly. My first swing missed, but I caught him on the backswing as he lunged for me. He stumbled backwards in pain, clutching the top of his head. I didn’t let up, yelling in between strikes, “I said—” Thwack. “CUE.” Whack. “IN.” Squelch. “YO.” Crunch. “FACE!” Snap. I panted in exhaustion, discarding the broken pool cue onto the dead purple slaver, leaving the other half in his eye socket.

“That… went better than expected,” I wheezed.

The turrets inside the base beeped wildly and started hosing the area with bullets. Uh oh. Not good. “I love computers!” Tabber laughed inside my ear. Eh? Wut? I heard minigun return fire accompanying it. Not. Good. What the hell was going on in there?

“What th’ buck’s wrong wif’ th’ sentryguns?!” a slaver presumably screamed. “Stop shootin’ us!” Well, at least he’d hotwired the sentries to shoot at our enemies.

“Oi! Asshole! Tell them to stop shooting me, too!” I heard Rumcake yell through the radio. Sounds of bullets bouncing off his armor also made it through the radio. “Stop scuffing my armor! I can’t afford to keep buffing it!” By the sounds of it, Tabber must have deleted the targeting data instead of reprogramming it. Lazy bum.

After a quick dash back up to the crest of the hill to retrieve my rifle, I headed back down to the makeshift gate. A cursory search of Purple’s body revealed a healing potion, a nearly broken pistol with all of three bullets in it, and two entire bottle caps. Glee. My newly-procured loot was promptly shoved into my saddlebag.

“Cova’ me lads! I got one las’ pulse grenade,” a different slaver yelled. Sounded like one of the sentry guns was getting luckier than the rest of them, by the sounds of all the screaming and yells of bloody whatevers. “Ready?”

“Way ahead of you.” I determinedly stepped into the camp, catching sight of the harried slaver grimly holding the anti-spell grenade in her teeth. Three bullets, eh? I gripped the pistol I’d recently acquired and triggered S.A.T.S. The five visible slavers were all facing away from me, but they weren’t my target. Even with S.A.T.S. telling me I had “73%” on their torsos and only “21%” on their heads, I wasn’t going to take a shot that wasn’t at least a ninety, since I was just as better off just aiming at something else. A very specific something else.

You’re going to shoot the bucking grenade?

Yes, brain. No need to yell; I can hear you too.

Instead of the easy shot, you’re going to risk a nine percent chance to hit.

Yep. That’s about it, brain. Questions?

Why are we so bucking stupid?

‘Cause we’re so bucking awesome.

The spell-assisted bullet exited the barrel of the pistol in slow motion. Even with the pistol obstructing my right eye, I could tell my shot was going to hit the grenade. Yes. Yes!

Of course, nailing the grenade would have chewed up all of my luck for the week, so the Wasteland decided to save it for me. The bullet only ended up slightly clipping the grenade’s surface, disappointingly enough. At least the impact caused the grenade to fly out of the slaver’s mouth and over their impromptu barricade.

The two of the five that were paying attention whirled around (ironically, the grenade slaver wasn’t one of them). I grinned sheepishly and dived behind a tent. Sporadic gunfire was pointed in my direction, but I weaved my way through random tents and hallways before they could pinpoint my position.

An explosion rang out from somewhere in the camp. “Can we turn off these bucking sentry guns? I’m running out of bullets to shoot them with!” Rumcake yelled again through my earbloom, sounding weary and incredibly pissed.

“What if I told you I couldn’t turn them off?” Tabber replied, laughing uneasily. “Wow, that’s never happened before.”

I snorted. “That’s what she said,” I remarked to no one, before mentally faceclawing myself. Really? Was this what was going through my mind at this moment? Ugh, I was so disappointed with myself. The gunfire appeared to not be aimed at my direction anymore, so I slowed down to catch my breath. I couldn’t risk flying into the fray; I wasn’t armored enough and I’d be a huge target.

Another series of explosions finally silenced the turrets. “Alright, I think our friends finally turned them off,” Tabber called out in my earbloom. “Uh oh. Gotta go.”

“Status report!” Rumcake shouted, to no response. “Oh, you gotta be bucking kidding me…” I heard more minigun fire in the distance. “Frosty, check up on Tabber! I need to entertain our new guests.” A devastating-sounding fwoosh came from the direction of one of Rumcake’s guests. “Ha! I’m fireproof, bitches!” Which was shortly followed by, “Ow, ow, ow! Okay, I’m fire resistant!”

Let’s assume he’ll be alright. As much as I wanted to help him, Tabber probably needed my help more.

Hold up. How are you going to kill those five slavers in front of the command tent?

Is that what it was?

Yes.

Okay. Tabber was inside, and up to five hostiles were in there with him.

I carefully scanned the area, which meant repeatedly triggering S.A.T.S. until I’d almost wasted a bullet on a stray radroach. After that near misfire, I put the pistol away and pulled out my SMG. It looked like the four red dots and the solitary blue dot on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle were all inside the tent. I looked toward the slave cages, then grudgingly decided to help Tabber first. The slaves weren’t going anywhere.

I kept my eye on my E.F.S. and watched the dots disappear one by one, accompanied by soft paffing noises. I lifted the tent flap, making sure to stay out of the actual entrance. “Friendly, coming in,” I called out, noticing the last red dot disappear with an audible thump.

“Come on in! Can I pour you a drink?” Tabber laughed, glasses clinking. I entered the tent to the sight of four dead slavers and three tied up, bloodied, slavers in the corner. “I’ve got…” He swirled around some liquids in a whiskey bottle. “…Drinks to die for.” He slipped on his orange glasses over the gas mask he was already wearing.

I faceclawed. “No. Just… no.” I pulled his sunglasses off his face and put them on myself. And then everything became that much harder to see. “How do you see out of these? Everything’s orange!” So much orange! And yellow!

“I don’t. That’s why I don’t wear them much unless I’m trying to impress somepony.” He scratched his chin in thought. “You know, that’s probably why that assassin couldn’t find me.”

Rumcake stormed into the tent, his armor caked with soot, dirt, and what looked like baked-on blood. “You would not believe what happened,” he said with a huff. “Out of all the weapons to bring, they just had to bring a flamethrower with them.” He stomped his hooves and shook himself, hoping to dislodge some of the crud on his armor. Ironically, the only part of him that wasn’t dirty at all was his Decrusted minigun. Must have had a heavy duty cleaning enchantment on it.

I helped him scrape off the worst of the grime. “At least they didn’t have plasma weapons,” I pointed out, tapping his armor at the same time. “That stuff goes through everything.”

“I know,” he replied bitterly. “I’ve seen it firsthoof.”

Oops. Touchy subject. “I’m a laser mare, myself. Eh heh heh…” I added hopefully.

“What’s with them?” Rumcake asked, allowing me to continue cleaning up his armor. I looked over to the tied up slavers. Tabber really did a number on them—their heads were soaked with blood.

Mmm.

Hey! Shut it.

Wait a sec…

“Keeping unicorns tied up is hard, so I chopped their horns off,” Tabber pleasantly replied, oblivious to the shocked and horrified expressions on our faces (or possibly behind Rumcake’s helmet). “Frosty, don’t give me that look.”

He’d chopped off their horns! What kind of monster does that kind of thing?

Obviously this one.

Thanks?

Even for my enemies, I wouldn’t want that kind of pain wished upon them. “Uh…” I stammered. “Who are they?”

“I’d assume they’re the leaders of this operation.” Rumcake stomped to the unconscious unicorns and slapped each of them. “Up. Right now,” he growled.

“Wot’cha want with us?” the bright blue one on the left wailed.

“Information,” Rumcake simply stated.

“Oi, I’ll tear ye a new arse!” the somewhat gray-white dehorned unicorn in the center defiantly yelled.

“Make it go away…” the dark red one on the right whimpered, his blood nearly invisible against his coat.

“Uh… do we really need these three? I mean, we could probably find things out ourselves since they’re still slavers after all,” I suggested, somewhat sympathizing with the bound unicorns.

“Good point.” Rumcake revved up his minigun and messily executed them all over the wall with an unnecessary amount of firepower.

I recoiled at the atrocities that had just been committed before my eyes. What, why? That wasn’t what I meant at all! “What the buck did you do that for?!” I screamed, backing away from the rapidly spreading pool of blood before part of me decided I needed a snack. “What the buck?!”

“I put them out of their misery,” Rumcake remarked. I continued to look at him in horror. Who executes enemies with a minigun? “What? At least I didn’t do it with a grenade launcher.” Nearby, I could faintly hear Tabber failing to hold back uncontrollable laughter.

“Worst first date ever.” I mentally forced myself to ignore the headless gore pile in the corner. Out of sight, out of mind, right? “We didn’t need anything from…” I racked my brain for the Rad Lads Leader’s name. “Big Benny, right?”

“Nah.” Rumcake pushed the bodies over with his armored tail and focused on the map on the desk near the back where a terminal was still sitting. “Hm. Interesting.” He turned to me. “Go help the slaves. That’s why you came here, right?” I nodded. “Go ahead then. I’ve got things to analyze.”

I bolted to the still-locked slave cages. Many of the slaves looked up, renewed hope in their eyes. “Hi there!” I feigned cheerfulness as I saw the difficult-looking locks securing the cages shut. Cherry was still in the same cage, and she was crying tears of joy. My demeanor deflated when I realized that the locks were hopelessly beyond my skill level. “Back off. I’m going to have to shoot the locks.”

A diseased and sickly mare in the back piped up, “Just pull the pins on the door hinges.”

Oh, huh, that was a much better idea. Saves me a bunch of ammo and probably a whole lot of shrapnel in my face.

A few minutes of improvised levers and enough swearing to call down the goddesses themselves, the cages were finally open. About fifteen slaves were now milling about in the general vicinity of the center of the camp around the large tent. Cherry galloped up to me with a stern look on her face. She seemed a bit worse for wear with a few scratches on her flanks and a new bruise on her cheek, but at least she was still alive.

“So, you just get up and leave, huh?” She slapped my muzzle hard enough to spin me around since I wasn’t expecting it. “Not a word?”

I regained my balance and stamped my hooves in the dirt. “Well, excuse me for breaking out and coming back for you, then.” I rubbed my jaw. “There were unforeseen circumstances, and I had to make a really quick decision, okay?” Cherry let up on her angry look. “At least the Rad Lads won’t bother you anymore. I think the Steel Rangers have sufficiently eradicated them from the Wasteland.”

Cherry froze. Like, completely ice solid. Didn’t even blink. “You!” she yelled, looking past me. “What the buck are you doing with that monster?” I turned around. Tabber was slowly plodding up toward me with a bag over his back. Cherry turned back to me. “Are you trying to get yourself sold?” she hissed urgently. “Quick, give me a gun.”

“Uh.” Could I really give a gun to a mare that I’d recently met? “Why?” I didn’t take my eyes off Tabber as Cherry panicked into my ear. Why couldn’t everything be as simple as kill that, don’t kill them? “Er, have you met?”

“Met?” The way she nearly screamed that at me gave me a sinking feeling. “He bucking killed my family and sold me to this lot!” The sinking turned into a full-blown crashing. Uh oh. “Still feel comfortable with that… thing?” she growled.

I turned my body and surreptitiously dipped a wing into my saddlebag for the pistol from earlier. Cherry caught my movements and hugged me to reach my wings.

The pistol was removed from the grip of my feathers. “Thanks,” she murmured.

“Howdy! Getting a little friendly with the convicts, are we?” Tabber happily called out, unaware of the revelation I’d just been informed of. I tensed myself for anything at this point. “Anyway, we’re ready to roll. Just one more thing to take care of.”

“Hold on.” I trotted up to him, Cherry in tow. She’d hidden the pistol… somewhere. Despite not wearing clothing. Stop thinking about it, Frosty. Focus. “Question.” I pointed at Cherry, who was glowering at Tabber. “Do you recognize her?” I couldn’t see his expression behind the mask, but his body language betrayed nervousness.

“No.” Tabber swallowed and backed up as I advanced on him. “…Okay, she looks somewhat familiar,” he admitted. “Why?”

“I’m going to give you one chance before I crater your face for being a liar,” I quietly threatened. Tabber nodded. “Do. You. Know. Her?” I locked my glare on his featureless glass eye holes.

“Yes. I do,” he finally admitted. “But there’s more to this story.”

“I wanna hear this story.” Rumcake suddenly appeared behind Tabber. “What’s it about?” Who knew power armor could be so sneaky?

To Tabber’s credit, he didn’t flinch. “About a job.” He lunged at me lightning quick and pulled me into a headlock. A large blade sprung from a slit in his barding and paused next to my neck. Well, I guess I could’ve seen that coming.

Yes, you should’ve.

Now is a bad time, brain.

“I’m probably not going to make it out of here, but I sure as hell can make it hard for you.”

Rumcake spun up his minigun very menacingly. “Let her go, asshole,” he growled. “If you touch a hair on her mane, I will end you.”

A muffled step at the edge of my hearing cued me into Cherry’s movement. Come on, girl! Just a little closer. I could smell the gun oil wafting through the air. “Oh no you don’t!” Tabber shouted, shifting forward just enough to buck Cherry with his rear hooves. Cherry managed to fire off one shot, but it missed. Damn. I heard her hit the ground with a crash, followed by the slaves not involved with us backing away.

“Just shoot him! I’ve had worse!” I yelled.

The knife pressed closer to my neck, causing my pulse to rapidly escalate. “Aww. How sweet. Power down now and maybe I won’t have you watch her bleed her out again.” I’d probably survive it, with my luck. Rumcake took a half step forward. A millimeter of cold steel sank into my throat. Gah! That hurt! “Ah, ah, ah!” Tabber chided.

His minigun slowly spun down to a standstill. “Dammit! No!” I screamed. Why does love always make everything so bucking complicated? “Just punch him, then!”

“I’m sorry,” Rumcake said, resigned. “I can’t see you hurt again.”

“Good! Then you can watch him get hurt!” Tabber gleefully told me. What? A flashing red circle appeared under Rumcake’s hooves. “See ya, sucker!” Rumcake had a good second to realize what was about to happen. Tabber pressed a button on his barding and I watched my beloved Rumcake get blasted off his hooves.

“NO!” I screamed, beating at Tabber’s iron grip. “Why are you doing this?” Tears fell from my face as I continued trying to rush to Rumcake’s aid.

“Caps. Mostly caps,” Tabber simply replied. He held me tighter, pulling me back. Big mistake. The second I could see him out of the corner of my eye, I triggered S.A.T.S. My claw was ready, and I wasn’t going to hold back. The display placed an ‘18%’ next to Tabber’s face. Better than nothing! Four swipes to get revenge. My first attack helped me wiggle out of his grip. Two and three did nothing but scuff his armored face. My last punch was directed into his throat.

I was interrupted by a knife into the underside of my jaw. It was like fire spreading through my head, followed by a flash freeze. No words could describe my pain. My tongue was speared, I was bleeding heavily again, and I’d been interrupted once again during a glorious moment. The knife withdrew and I heavily fell onto the ground. My mouth was slowly filling with blood. I couldn’t speak. The knife sank into my gut once, then withdrew.

A twanging of steel strings and a gust of wind summoned an ethereal form that protectively stood above my prone form. “It’s showtime,” It chuckled. I could only see the form’s teal hooves. “Stay away from the light. Keep to the darkness,” he whispered to me.

“Wha–wha–wha—” Tabber stumbled backwards, drawing a rifle from his pack. “Whaaaa?”

“I am fear. I am terror. I am nightmare.” Ice Storm fearlessly strode forward. He was an unimpressive-looking buck. Even being slightly transparent, he shared a strangely similar color scheme to my own. His mane was a ghastly free-flowing white speckled with little… stars? The blue streaks in his mane were the same as mine, only more bold and solid. Major difference—he was a unicorn, unlike the rest of my personalities. His dark blue magical glow surrounded a tiny revolver hovering at his side.

“Eat lead!” Tabber shouted, spraying bullets at Ice Storm. Ice Storm ignored the shots as they passed through his ethereal body without harming him. I could imagine his horror as the rifle went click. “Wha—” Tabber fumbled with some switches on a console strapped to his foreleg.

In other news, Ice Storm had a really sexy butt. Just pointing this out since I had a great view of it.

“My turn.” Ice Storm’s revolver roared with unparalleled rage and firepower not characteristic of his choice of firearm. Smoke suddenly shrouded the area in darkness. “Damn.” He fired two shots into the smoke; the second answered with an ear-splitting crack and a wail of pain. “Grazed him,” he spat in disgust. “I missed! I never miss, unless…” He looked down at my fallen form. “…Oh. Right. That’s why,” he muttered, crouching next to me. “Uh… now is a bad time, but I’m no doctor.” He started to slowly fade away.

Well… crap. Couldn’t see anything, couldn’t say anything, could barely hear anything anymore. Breathing was getting harder. Thinking was difficult in between choking. My stomach hurt. My face hurt. I was hallucinating to the highest degree possible. Great. Ice Storm was gone, back into the very disturbed depths of my mind.

I became aware of fearful whispering from behind me. I couldn’t get my hooves to move, never mind gather enough strength to stand. “Are… are they dead?” somepony quietly whispered. The smoke started to dissipate. I attempted to choke out some kind of response, but I only managed to sputter and bleed more.

An armored body torn and cracked by an explosion was dragged next to me. “Get her to the medical tent with this one. I think there should be something left we can still use to fix them up. Where’s Stardust? By the space butterfly, I am not letting you die now!”

Watch me. Ooh, hey! A bottle cap!


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Mysterious Stranger – A guardian unicorn, just for you. You insane little lunatic, you. Ice Storm will periodically show up to finish off your target when using S.A.T.S.
Current Sub-perk: None.
Status Removed: Addicted to Med-X – Congratulations! Now try not to get addicted to anything else.

Chapter 12: I was dead?

View Online

Chapter 12: I was dead?

“Very well, I will fix it. I only ask one thing in return…”


Somepony once told me that, sometimes, you need to know when to give up. I’d never really understood why you would want to give up for any reason. Before, I simply decided giving up was overrated. But more recently, the Wasteland had changed me for the worse. It’s just… the Wasteland grabs you by force and grinds down your resolve until there’s nothing left.

“Wakey, wakey.” Gala Frosty gently nudged me. I groaned and buried my face deeper into the most comfortable pillow I could dream of. “Oh, come on. You can sleep when you’re dead.”

“Knowing my luck, that’ll be in about half an hour,” I muttered, sitting up in the bed. “Status report.”

Gala Frosty smartly saluted. “Your new friend is making himself at home.” Great. Another addition to my increasingly unstable mind. She leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “He’s a sexy, sexy stallion.” I blushed and hopped out of bed. Of course the rest of me would find him attractive if I did too.

“Anything else?” I smoothed down my ruffled feathers and walked into the living room. Drunk Frosty was still mostly passed out on the couch. Filly Frosty was playing with a little blue doll in the corner of the room. D’aww. Raider Frosty and Ice Storm were both sitting at the one table in the room having a hushed serious-sounding conversation. “What the buck?” I muttered, puzzled.

“Huh? What?” Gala Frosty noticed Raider Frosty sitting at the table with Ice Storm and not in her room. “Oh. That’s new.” She trotted over to them and cautiously poked Raider Frosty.

“What do you want?” she snarled, baring her teeth.

“Woah! Okay, just checking.” Gala Frosty backed off and stood next to me. “Sheesh. Touchy, touchy.”

“It’s going to be stabby stabby if you do that again,” Raider Frosty grunted. “Now, where were we?” she asked, turning back to Ice Storm.

“I say we leave her be,” I decided. “Last thing I need is a fight breaking out.”

“Actually hold on.” Ice Storm grabbed my leg before I could leave the room. “I have something to show you. Or more like something you need to remember.” He magically hefted his revolver and stood up. “You ready?”

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?” I sighed. “Alright. Let’s get this over with.”

“Good. Let’s go.” Ice Storm checked his revolver for ammo and snapped it shut, satisfied. “I can distract the Warden for you while you look for the memory point.” He closed his eyes and an overglow lit up his already glowing horn. “I’ve put a marker over the building. Follow your Eyes-Forward Sparkle to the destination. Once you’re there, you’ll be safe.”

For a moment, I wasn’t sure what EFS he wanted me to use until it suddenly appeared in my vision. A second later, my PipBuck appeared around my leg. Oh yay, this thing followed me around too. However, I still didn’t understand what was happening. “Wait. Can’t you just use your unicorn magic thingy that you did last time?”

Ice Storm shook his head. “The only reason I could pull it off last time was because your Warden friend wasn’t aware of my presence. Now that he knows I’m here, my limited power is being suppressed. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t shoot at him.”

“Warden?” I asked, even more confused than normal. “What the buck is that, exactly?”

“Your little friend? The one that stopped your memory before?” Oh. He was talking about the Enclave officer that had complete control of my memories, if he ever got into them. “He keeps everything outside this home under lock and key.” He edged the door open and poked his head out. “All clear. Ready yet?”

“Will I need a gun?” I asked, staring at my suddenly-materializing saddlebag. “A big gun?”

“Nah. Don’t bring anything with you. You might contaminate the memory with anything you take into it.” He motioned me forward. “When I put my hoof out of this door, run. Down the street, into the square, and find the glowing memory point. I’ll do my best to hold him off.”

“Alright…” I agreed, unsure of what his plan was. “On your go.” Ice Storm calmly paced out the door and immediately the city turned a foreboding shade of red. “I know this is a bad time, but can we un-go? I just realized I might want to use the little filly’s cloud.” I cringed in the doorway in slight fear.

“Not now! Run!” Ice Storm yelled, sweeping his revolver down the streets. “I don’t know how long I can hold him off in my we—” He was suddenly slammed down an alley by a large steel panel torn from something.

“Well. That’s not good,” I muttered to myself, flying down the long street toward the square. A whistling sound from behind me gave me good reason to kick my wings into overdrive. I didn’t want to turn around to find out exactly what was following me. “Buck buck buck buck buck buck buck buuuuuuck!” I squealed as something clipped at my tail.

I dived and swerved around the wide street and finally lost whatever was chasing me by forcing it to collide with a wall. My victory was short lived when the officer from before suddenly dive bombed into the ground ahead of me. I banked around his little crater as he climbed out of it. “You are not welcome in my world!” he shouted at me. An obscenely loud revolver fired and the officer was flung back into his crater.

“Lead! It’s what’s for lunch, bitch.” Ice Storm jumped into the crater after him, revolver in tow. At least he shared my sense of humor. A vicious hoof-to-hoof fight broke out in the crater and he was launched into the air by a strong kick. “Let’s see you do that again!” he yelled at the officer, then frantically motioned me to keep moving before jumping back into the fray.

I made it to the square in one piece. Unfortunately I couldn’t see where the memory point was. My E.F.S. was telling me the memory point was in the square somewhere. “Where is it?” I frantically looked around for it. “There is no way I’m going to die looking for this damn thing.”

Ice Storm rocketed past me and smashed into a fruit stall. “Oh, you can’t die here.” He reloaded his revolver, munching on an apple out of the stall. “You’ll just become a prisoner of your own mind until a skilled memory digging unicorn can save you.”

“Good to know,” I muttered. “So, wanna give me a hint on what I should be looking for?”

“The hell should I know?” Ice Storm shrugged and dashed back toward his duel with my mental dictator. “It’s your memory!” he shouted, firing his revolver again. “You’ll probably know it when you see it!”

Great. Just great. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be looking for. I darted around the square, looking through random boxes, barrels, and drawers. I even resorted to staring at the mini-map while running around to find it. After a few panic-ridden moments, I realized that the memory point could be anything.

I dug through the first crate of imaginary apples and found absolutely nothing of interest. Maybe I was looking for something important? But what could it be? I turned around to search the nearby benches for anything that stood out. An explosion shook the ground and something behind me was reduced to kindling.

“Holy tits, this guy hits hard,” Ice Storm grumbled, apple bits leaking out of his hat as he stumbled past me. “Hurry up, would you?”

Easier said than done. “I’m trying!”

“Try harder!”

Just like that, something mildly shiny and nailed to a table with a knife caught my eye. It was a tattered, dented medal that had its embellishments violently scraped away. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t recognize it. I suddenly knew exactly what it was, exactly when I’d seen it. I closed my eyes and began to remember…

“Dad?”

<~~~>

“This squad assessment meeting will now come to order,” a bored voice intoned. I opened my eyes and found myself in a large, unfamiliar room. I was standing at attention in a line with the rest of my squad. To my left, Shadow Breeze and Dad. To my right, Tornado, Lightning Chaser, and Tiny Wings. Opposite from us, three high-ranking officers glared at us disapprovingly. The one in the middle had spoken, and he continued, “Would you care to explain what happened out there?”

“The situation needed to be handled delicately, and I proceeded as I saw fit,” Dad reported. “Unfortunately, the plan did not continue as planned, and my squad needed to improvise for safety, sir.”

The three officers conversed with each other. All of them were old and should have probably retired years ago. I didn’t remember their names, and they were all sort of grayed out and covered in a obscuring fog. Probably work of the Warden or something. “Somehow, we find it hard to believe you were forced to demolish a high-value target for your squad’s safety.”

I stayed at attention, resisting the urge to look at what Dad was shuffling around for. “Look, you bureaucratic snots. I don’t know what your idea of safety is, but I want to keep as many of my pegasi alive as possible.” He stomped right up into one of their faces. “You got a problem with that?”

“We do, in fact.” The officer shoved him backward. “Back in line, airpony.”

“Yessir,” Dad growled between gritted teeth and stepped back in line.

“You had a priority one assignment,” the officer on the right said. “Not only did you botch an entire operation, you destroyed our relations with a surface asset.”

“In our defense, he was kind of an ass,” Tornado pointed out. I stifled a snicker and attempted to keep a straight face.

The officers didn’t find that amusing at all. “Just because somepony is unbearable doesn’t mean we can’t work with them. And that certainly doesn’t mean you shoot his bodyguards with an incinerator.”

Tiny Wings uneasily coughed from down the line. “They were threatenin’ ta shoot th’ boss. I had ta think fast.”

“An incinerator? Really?” the rightmost officer asked sarcastically. “Where did you manage to requisition one of those?”

“Wif much difficulty,” Tiny Wings said proudly. “If ya know th’ right ponies, ya can get anythin’.”

“Gentlecolts, back on topic,” said the middle one (who seemed to be the one in charge, no surprise). “Which one of you will take responsibility for your failure?” I shared an uneasy glance with the rest of the squad. “Anypony?”

Dad sighed and assumed responsibility. “I’m their commanding officer, and I was leading the task force. The fault is mine. My orders were unclear, and I wasn’t focused on the op.” The officers murmured among themselves.

I took a deep breath and stepped forward. “Sir, it was my fault for not relaying more accurate intel to the rest of the force.”

Lightning stepped forward and simply added “I was high.” I resisted the urge to facehoof.

Tornado also joined us. “I jumped the gun and started it.”

Tiny Wings admitted, “I dun goofed. Probably shouldn’t have burned them first.”

All of us glared at Shadow. “What? I just followed orders,” he blurted. The rest of us probably gave him death glares from hell. “Okay, I probably should have thought out the plan more before I agreed to it.”

Silence. “So, all of you are taking responsibility? Well, we can’t have that, exactly.” One officer mused. He turned to his compatriots. “Plan B?” They all nodded. “Ladies and gentlecolts, you have one option available to you right now. Voluntarily submit to a court-martial where we will re-evaluate your usefulness to the Enclave, and we’ll leave your families out of this.”

We kept our muzzles shut like good little airponies, repressing our anger and rage. Finally, Dad calmly said, “That’s not going to happen.” He took a step forward, and we all followed him in step. “You’d better come up with another option.”

“There is no other option,” somepony called out from a walkway. “Commanders, stand down.” The pony swooped down to the floor where we were gathered. The officers saluted at him immediately. The rest of us saluted only after Dad did.

“So, Harbinger, what brings you to our little meeting?” Dad casually asked. “Here to ruin the rest of our lives?”

Harbinger laughed. “So that’s what the grunts talk about, eh?” He circled us while we were frozen at attention. I didn’t really remember enough about him, but my fragmented mind told me he was really important in some way. “If these fine gentlecolts don’t have an appealing offer, maybe I can help.”

“Let’s hear it,” Dad replied defiantly.

“I have a high-risk job for you and your team. Due to the unfortunate demise of the rest of your task force, it only seems fitting to let you have a second chance.” My heart stopped. What? As far as I was aware, Alpha Two had taken some fire, but nopony had died! Bravo and Charlie hadn’t even been on task, had they? “You look scared. Why?”

“Wh–wh–what?” Lightning stammered. “All f-fifteen of them?” She dropped out of attention and collapsed onto the floor. “H-how?” Her hysterics kicked into high gear as her whimpering sobbing threatened to escalate into something louder.

I dropped attention and sat down next to her. “Hey. Shh.” I dug through her pockets, looking for the damn tin of mints she kept somewhere. I felt my hoof brush something small and noisy. I grabbed the familiar tin with the zebra on it and popped it open.“Uh… here, these make you feel better, right?” I held the tin in front of her muzzle. She picked one out and popped it into her mouth, giving me a sad smile. “Better yet?”

“Yeah. Thanks for that.” Lightning sighed and pocketed the tin again. She turned back to Harbinger with an angry glare.

“As I was saying, after a horrible Vertibuck crash, your entire task force was unfortunately wiped out.” He grinned, quite pleased with himself, and continued ignoring our horrified and enraged expressions. “I have a special assignment that will fix all of that.”

“You kill my team. You threaten us with excommunication. You threaten my family. Our families,” Dad stated, barely audible. He was pissed. Like, really pissed. Even though he was being quiet, the tone he was using made it just as effective as if he were yelling at the top of his lungs. “You expect us to fall in line, just like that?”

Harbinger was unfazed. “Actually, yes. Smoky Winds, I’m giving you an option because we used to be friends.” They went to flight school together, then? Must have been terrible, because Dad never talked about anything related to flight school. “For old time’s sake, eh?”

Dad glanced at us, then back to him. “Fine. What’s the op?”

“Simple escort mission. Finish the op, you all get clean slates. That simple.”

Shadow Breeze sighed. “Dammit, I like my slate.”

I inwardly sighed in relief. Good, at least the “Let’s put the frag mine in the officer’s latrine” joke wouldn’t be on my record anymore. Yay for me.

“Y-you mean I c-can go back into the med suite again?” Lightning sniffled. Oh right, I’d forgotten about that. She’d been banned from ever entering the med-suite when they’d found her passed out in a pile of painkillers and other assorted medication. Thanks to my slight experience in addictive substances in the Wasteland, it was probably because of her addiction to the Mint-als she kept eating.

“Yes, I can let you go back into the med-suite again,” Harbinger clarified. “A fresh start for all of you. Don’t waste it.” Lightning gave Dad the saddest face she could muster.

Dad grudgingly agreed. “Fine. we’ll take it.”

“Excellent.” Harbinger stomped his hooves on the ground happily. “The Vertibuck leaves in eighteen hours. I suggest you prepare your team before then. My liaison will give you the details later.” He produced a small medal out of his jacket pocket and proffered it to Dad. “Well, congratulations on your ‘successful assignment’, Senior Master Sergeant Smoky Winds.”

Dad wordlessly took it. “So, what now, boss?” Tornado asked. The officers plus Harbinger left through a door behind them. “Boss?” Dad continued staring at the medal. Tornado gave me a worried look. “I know I’m his second, and I should know, but does he normally do this?”

“No, he doesn’t,” I quietly replied, floating over to dad. “Sarge? Dad?” He didn’t react to my voice, which worried me. Tornado nervously hovered next to me. Somewhere behind me, Shadow was attempting to get Lightning off her butt and get a bit more presentable again. Judging by the sounds of arguing and whining, she wasn’t going anywhere.

“Look, I’ll leave you with the boss. I’ll go figure out whatever… that’s about,” he said, gesturing at the scuffle behind him. “Regroup at the lockers later?” I nodded in agreement. “Sir.” He saluted at Dad then pivoted in place to yell at the rest of the squad, “Listen up, idiots. Clock out for five, meet at the lockers after for briefing. Got it?”

“Yeah. Later, sarge,” I distractedly mumbled.

Everypony else stopped their squabbling and saluted him. “Yes, sir!” They flew off through the other exit behind us, leaving me and Dad alone in the large room. A Raptor hangar of some sort, as I just realized.

“C’mon, Dad. It’s time to clock out.” He still didn’t react to me. I floated closer and rubbed his neck in some kind of hope that he’d snap out of it. “Are you coming?” I braced myself for an angry outburst.

Dad finally barked a scornful laugh. “Look at this.” He waved the medal at me. “This is my reward. Stupid, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“A monument to our sins, in miniature.” Dad went back to staring at the medal. “After six years of service, this is what I deserve.” He pocketed the medal in disgust. “That’s just great.”

“Let’s get you back to your quarters. I need to get some rest, and Luna knows when you slept last.” Ever since I was young, he’d habitually replace sleep with instant coffee and alcohol. “C’mon, Dad. Let’s go.” I attempted to nudge him toward the exit.

“Sleep is for the weak.” He snorted. “If you insist. Let’s go.”

A burning question popped out of my mouth before I could stop it. “Whatever happened to ‘the Winds never stop’, huh?” I asked more aggressively than I meant to.

Dad whipped around and slapped me across my muzzle. I recoiled, holding my hoof against my face. He pointed at me, anger in his story blue eyes. “Look, sugarpuff, we can’t win ‘em all. You’re young, and I admire your courage.” He deflated and continued, “Thing is, sometimes you have to know when to give up. Can’t win them all, sugarpuff. When you’re older, you’ll understand.” I was still frozen in shock and horrified by his outburst.

“But…” I finally stammered. My vision blurred with tears.

“Oh, Goddesses. I’m so sorry, sugarpuff.” Dad dropped his hoof and wrapped me in a hug. I collapsed into him and hugged him back tightly. “It’s just…”

“The stress talking. I know, Dad.” I wouldn’t hold it against him. “Let’s just get you in your bunk, okay?” I allowed him to lean against me as we walked out of the hangar together.

“I just can’t believe it.”

“What?”

He scornfully laughed to himself. “I just sacrificed fifteen pegasi for the lives of three worthless dirt dwellers. Whoopity bucking doo.”

<~~~>

I was pulled out of the memory by Ice Storm’s magic field. “That’s enough of that!” I had enough time to grab the medal in my teeth before I was thrown into the air unceremoniously. “Have a good time in there?” He ran along the street toward the cloudhouse where the rest of myselves was staying. I flew along above him, juking and diving to avoid incoming plasma fire.

“What the buck did you do to him?” I screamed hysterically as an electric green plasma bolt singed the feathers on my right wing. “He didn’t have a gun last time!”

“Yeah, so turns out shooting at him only made him mad,” Ice apologetically shouted back. “And whoever added him to your mind did not give a single buck about the rule of threes.” The rule of three? What? “Good news, I’ve weakened him enough so he won’t be a threat for a while.”

“Don’t you wish I brought my massive anti-everything rifle with me?” I had enough skill to fly upside down, but could I fire it while flying? Nah, that was stupid. If the recoil could break my ribs, firing it while flying would be spectacularly disastrous. Damn, would it look awesome, though.

“That hailslinger is nothing compared to my magnum,” Ice smugly replied. Well, somepony sure was very secure about themselves.

“How is that possible?” I cried, diving right down next to him to avoid a particularly accurate shot. “This thing fires, like, ninety caliber bullets. Yours doesn’t even clear forty five!”

“Firepower works in mysterious ways, sugarpuff.” He laughed. Wait, sugarpuff? “Almost there! Don’t stop running! Flying! Whatever!”

“Wait, how do you know—” Only Dad calls me sugarpuff!

“I was paying attention,” he simply replied. Raider Frosty opened the door and urgently waved us in. Even if she looked like somepony out of a nightmare, it was a relief to see her for once. “Just a little farther…”

A last bolt spattered off some kind of force field surrounding my house. Ice and I jumped in and Raider Frosty slammed the door shut behind us. “Cuttin’ it close, are we?” she growled with a hint of amusement in her voice. “You complete the objective?”

“Yeah, yeah.” I showed her Dad’s medal. “Got it.”

“Not talkin’ to you, dork,” Raider Frosty snapped. Sheesh, somepony’s got a cactus up her butt. Was I really this touchy?

“Calm down. Done, and then some.” Ice flopped onto the ground next to the table. “I need a drink.” He was promptly whacked in the face by a mostly-full whiskey bottle expertly thrown from the far end of the couch. “Thank you,” he grumbled to the room, rubbing his nose. Drunk Frosty waved back from her crater on the couch.

I glanced between Raider Frosty and Ice Storm. “Uh, am I missing something here?” The fact my subconscious was working with one of my other subconsciouses scared me a lot. “Do you want to share something with the class?”

They looked at each other and laughed. Did I mention how creepy I, uh… she was when she laughed? Like, it shouldn’t even be allowed to have that much creepy laughter in one spot. Even Ice Storm had a malevolent-sounding laugh. Raider Frosty finally caught her breath and replied, “Don’t worry your pretty little mane about it, filly.”

“Uh… ooookay,” I uneasily replied. Due to Raider Frosty’s aggressive nature, I decided to agree with her for my continued survival.

Gala Frosty strolled through the room and pulled me aside in one swift motion. “I need to talk to you. Privately!” she added, shooting a look at Ice Storm. Once we were out of the room and back in what looked like her room, she pushed me into a sitting position on the bed. Her room was simply covered in crayon drawings of dresses I’d designed for myself over the years. Other than that, there was the bed, a small nightstand, the closet, and a lamp.

“So, uh. What’s up? Feeling better yet?” I asked.

“A little,” Gala Frosty admitted. “But that’s not the point.” She addressed the rest of the room with, “Get your ass in here, right now!”

The closet opened and a full-blown skeleton fell out of it, tangled in his cloak. A skeleton had just fallen out of my closet. Okay, my subconscious’s closet, but hardly the point. “NO NEED TO BE ANGRY, GEEZ. COME ON, LORD OF DEATH HERE. CAN’T I GET SOME RESPECT?

At first, the skeleton had simply alarmed me, but the second it started talking and identified himself, my heart froze. I simply stood and gaped, stunned into speechlessness. Nothing particularly witty came to mind. Don’t blame me for being shocked. Death himself just stumbled out of my closet.

All I managed to finally squeak was, “I’ve heard of skeletons in the closet, but this is ridiculous.”

If Death had actual eyeballs, he probably would have rolled them. “HA HA. VERY FUNNY,” he said sarcastically. Gala and I giggled anyway. “FOR A DEAD MARE, YOU’VE GOT A GOOD SENSE OF HUMOR. OH, WE HAVEN’T BEEN PROPERLY INTRODUCED. CALL ME MORT.

…Mort? Oh! Mort! This must have been who Filly Frosty was trying to tell me about a while back. If only I’d paid more attention! Wait, what did he just say? I abruptly stopped in mid-giggle. “Wait, what?”

YOU KNOW WHY I SHOW UP,” Mort simply stated. “WELL, THINK OF THIS AS A COURTESY VISIT. JUST FOR MY LITTLE CONTRACTOR.” For the second time today, my heart stopped. I was dead? And what did he mean by contractor?

Gala Frosty gave me a what-is-going-on look. “Wait, what? Are we dead? Or are we, like, dead but not really dead?” she rambled, unsure of herself. “Is that what a courtesy visit is?”

NO. YOU’VE GOT A GOOD CHANCE OF DYING. THEREFORE, HERE I AM.

Oh, joy. “…Okay, uh, and what do you mean by contractor?” I added.

Mort seemed genuinely confused. “YOU MEAN YOU DON’T REMEMBER?” He searched our faces for a hint of deception. “WOW. YOU REALLY DON’T. WELL, THIS IS AWKWARD. THIS REALLY HASN’T HAPPENED BEFORE.

Okay, that didn’t sound good. I sprang up and grabbed him by his midnight black cloak. “What. Did. I. Do?” I growled, taking a page from Dad’s book of intimidation.

WOAH, WOAH, WOAH. YOUR TITS. CALM THEM.” Mort struggled against my grip. “LET ME EXPLAIN.” I released his cloak and allowed him to explain. “THREE WEEKS AGO, YOU DIED. SERIOUSLY.

And cue heart attack number three. I gave Gala Frosty a sidelong glance and asked, “Did you know?” She shook her head.

IF YOU MUST KNOW, YOU BLED OUT. MANAGED TO FLY A FAIR DISTANCE AND SURVIVE A GOOD LONG WHILE BEFORE YOU ATE IT.” Mort sighed. “I’VE NEVER SEEN SOMEPONY SO DETERMINED TO LIVE.

“So what happened?” I pressed.

WHEN I ARRIVED, YOU STILL HAD FIGHT IN YOU. SO I DECIDED TO GIVE YOU A CHANCE.” Mort threw back his hood and settled down onto the other side of the bed. A talking skull was a bit disconcerting, but I really didn’t expect less from Death. “WE MADE A DEAL. YOUR LIFE, FOR SOMEPONY ELSE’S.” Crap.

“Could we get the deal in its entirety?” Gala Frosty asked, voicing my questions exactly. “What did we get into, exactly?”

UH.” Mort looked uncomfortable. “I’M NOT REALLY ALLOWED TO DISCUSS THE DETAILS OF OUR AGREEMENT, DUE TO THE BINDING TERMS OF THE CONTRACT.

“Wait, why?” I asked, still confused.

YOU CAN THANK DEAD LAWYERS FOR THAT ONE.” Mort adjusted his hood. “ALL I CAN TELL YOU IS THAT IT’S NOT SOMEPONY YOU CARE ABOUT.

“So it’s a revenge job, then? Is that even allowed?” challenged Gala Frosty.

KIND OF.” Mort got that uncomfortable look again. “THERE WAS A BUNCH OF FINE PRINT, BUT YOU’LL HAVE TO FIND OUT WHAT IT IS WHEN YOU RUN INTO IT.

Well, that bucking helped. “Somehow I don’t think that’s the entire deal…” I realized. “I find it hard to believe you did this out of the goodness of your nonexistent heart.”

I’LL HAVE YOU KNOW MY NONEXISTENT HEART HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. BUT YES, THERE WAS A CONDITION.” Mort sighed and furtively looked around the room. He dropped his booming echo and continued, “If you couldn’t complete the contract within two months, I would take the claim on your soul and somepony else’s of my choosing, and therefore remove you two from this plane of existence.

Buck. “Who?” I asked, not sure whether I wanted to hear the answer. When I made that deal in the throes of death, did I really think it through? Did I sacrifice somepony for the sake of my own revenge?

Mort shrugged. “Can’t tell you. Sorry.” He decided to change the topic. “What do you remember about our deal? Besides what I’ve just told you, of course.

“Nothing,” I huffed, crossing my forelegs. “This is new information to me.”

Hm. That’s interesting,” Mort muttered. “What? Not my fault! If I made people forget their deals, then they wouldn’t remember to do them. Wait, that actually ends favorably for me. I should start doing that… Nah, that seems like a dickish thing to do.

“If I could kill you…” I growled to myself.

Fine, fine. I think I could make a slight exception for you in this case.

“An exception?” I dreaded the response.

An annotation to the contract, as it were. But I’ll give you a little liberty with it since it’s not exactly important and it’s a little out there. Just insurance for me, basically.

As strange as it sounded, I jumped at the opportunity. “I’ll do it.”

Before the words made it out of my mouth, Gala Frosty immediately slapped me across the face. “No, we’re not. Always ask for the fine print,” she scolded.

Don’t worry, I’m not like that.” When Gala Frosty gave Mort a scrutinizing glare, he flatly responded, “What? I was getting to it.

“Fine print. Right now,” Gala Frosty insisted.

Somepony’s been messing with some dark magic of the death-defying variety. As long as the ritual or amulet or whatever is still intact, I can’t see or touch them. I’d like you to find them and pass judgement. If you make the right call, I’ll add an extension. If not, well, I’ll have to take a bit off to make things right.

I glanced at Gala Frosty. To me, this seemed like exactly what I needed to give me a little extra time to get everything done. The terms were simple and straightforward, and I didn’t really see anything that stood out to me as malicious. Of course, I was going to defer to my smart side first.

“I guess it’s as good as it gets,” Gala Frosty finally admitted. “You only do live once, yada yada. Just don’t forget.”

A scroll and quill materialized out of his sleeve. “Let’s see now… I, Frosty Winds, being of sound mind, blah blah blah… My soul for another, yada yada… Here we go.” He dipped the quill into his mouth and added a little annotation. “Special pending extension for one pending reaping in the near future. There. All done!”

“How will we know who it is?” Gala Frosty asked, just as confused as I was.

“We’ll know when we see them,” I guessed.

Give the mare a prize! That’s the plan. Currently all the pieces are moving right where they should be, so once I need you… well, we’ll be in touch.” He shoved to scroll back into his sleeve and got off the bed. “Later.” And with that, he disappeared.

If I owed favors to any more ponies, I’d need to either need to buy myself some self-control or start making a list.

“So… wanna explain what Death was doing in your closet? My closet? Our closet?” I asked Gala Frosty. “More importantly, why the balls do I have a dark and edgy personification of death in here with me?”

She strolled over to the closet and closed the door. “When he showed up while you were out being reckless, Raider actively tried to keep him out.”

“Really?”

“I got him to teleport into the closet until you got back. And that’s Death with a capital ‘D’. He’s not one of us—he’s the one and only.” I followed her out into the main room, a few more questions answered. “So, what’s everypony else doing?”

Raider was still conversing with Ice, Drunky was still crashed onto the couch, and Filly was still playing with deluxe action figure Soarin. By the sounds of things, Raider and Ice couldn’t come to an agreement on whatever it was. “Hey! Klepto! Over here,” Raider yelled.

I assumed she was referring to me. “What?” I irritably stormed over there.

“How would you feel if I took control a little more often?” she asked. “I mean, I can get you through more fights, I’m stronger than you’ll ever be, and I don’t have my stupid emotional issues holding me ba—”

I shoved my hoof into her mouth. “Listen here, you. I’m only going to say this once. I own my mind, not you. When I need your help, I’ll ask for it. Do we understand?” When I didn’t get an immediate response, I roughly twisted and slammed her head into the floor. “Are. We. Clear?” She rolled her eyes, nodded, and made me reconsider the placement my hoof with an aggressive nibble.

Gala Frosty gently touched my neck. “This isn’t what we do,” she whispered into my ear. I begrudgingly grunted an affirmative and wiped my hoof all over Raider Frosty’s head. “There you go.”

“Sorry. It’s… it’s probably just the stress,” I apologized.

“We’ve had bigger things in our mouth before. It’s aaaaaaallll good.” Drunk Frosty giggled from the couch. I might have turned bright red from the implications of that. Filly Frosty only facehoofed from her spot on the floor.

“Really now?” Filly Frosty groaned. “So immature.”

A cacophony of noise erupted from somewhere outside. “I think that’s your cue to leave. Sounds like somepony managed to save us yet again,” Gala Frosty informed me.

“Apparently so. I need to stop getting killed,” I muttered, heading to the closest bed. “Almost dying is getting repetive.” I hopped into the bed and pulled up the covers around me. “Wake me when you need me.”

“You are so cheesy.” Gala Frosty smiled and patted my mane. “Now go to sleep. You’ve got bigger things to do once you get back.”

~~~~~

The second I regained consciousness, a wall of fuzzy numbness hit me. My face felt like it was a huge flabby pillow tied together with tape and painkillers. On that topic, my muzzle was actually taped shut with a healing bandage. At least my torso didn’t really feel leaky anymore—only kind of burny. “Mmmngh,” I groaned.

Pretty clouds… Could use a bit more color, though.

Focus.

But my faaace hurts.

Oh, stop whining.

A cursory glance of my surroundings didn’t really make me feel any better. I’d been moved between two tents, and it looked like somepony was standing behind one of them. I was currently lying on what felt like a makeshift stretcher, judging by the uneven cloth on my right side. A passing light purple unicorn mare noticed my losing battle with the bandage around my muzzle. “You’re awake! Don’t move, please. You might open your wounds again.”

I stopped struggling and let her fawn over me. “Mnh? Hmnph mnn uu?”

“Who am I?” she asked. “Well, everypony used to call me Stardust.” I raised my eyebrow. Used to? Stardust caught that. “You know, slavers and all.” Ah. That made sense. “I assume you’d like to say something.” I nodded vigorously and instantly regretted it as a massive headache slammed into me. “Hold still. I don’t want to cut you any more than you already have,” she said, levitating a combat knife toward me.

“Mpph!” I weakly protested. Most of me wanted to back away from the mare with the knife, but she looked so calm and gentle I couldn’t help listening to her. I still reflexively edged away from the knife floating at my face, though.

Stardust sighed and magically gripped my head. “Stop moving! I’m just trying to help.” I struggled a bit more, to no effect. The knife edged ever so slightly between my lips and sliced the tape portion of the bandages apart on either side of my muzzle. “There you go. I didn’t realize the blood angel was such a little filly.” She laughed to herself.

“You didn’ ‘et sthabbed inna froat,” I whined. “Ith ‘urts!” And my swollen tongue was not helping my speech either.

“So, how do you feel?” she asked with a smile.

“Bweh.” I felt like I’d been, well, stabbed in the face. “Why awen’t we in th’ tenths?

She glanced at a tent next to us. “Just an assumption that the outsides are probably cleaner than the insides.” Eew. Probably right on that count.

I suddenly remembered Rumcake. “What ‘bout my fend?” I urgently cried.

“Your friend? Your Steel Ranger friend?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. I nodded slowly as to not bounce my brain around too too much. “He’ll be fine. Allegedly his armor’s med-suite is keeping him alive, but I think he’s got a little concussion. Minimum. He won’t let me get near him.”

“‘Emme talk t’ ‘im. ‘Ow bad ‘s it?” I stumbled to my hooves and ignored the twisting pain in my gut. Ow. Ow. Ow. Of all the times to not use painkillers, now was a really bad time. I resisted the urge to barf and followed Stardust into the space between two nearly identical tents. Looked like the the slaves I’d liberated had helped themselves to the slavers’ armor and repainted them while I was in dreamland.

The second I set my eyes on Rumcake, I burst out laughing. He was on his back, legs frozen in mid-flail. “Frosty? Dammit, help me out here.” I continued laughing, tears streaming from my eyes. “Stoooop it,” he whimpered. They’d gotten his helmet off, at least. His pitiful expression only made it even funnier.

I fell over and shook in uncontrollable laughter. I finally stopped long enough to squeak, “It hurth’s to breafe!” And then I continued giggling.

Rumcake abruptly broke out into weak chuckle. “What the buck happened with your voice?” I tried my best to look angry, but I couldn’t keep a straight face. “You sound so adorkable!” Stardust tapped me on the shoulder and mouthed to me that she’d be waiting nearby.

“Thath’s wha’ you get for gettin’ sthabbed in th’ face,” I gasped. Finally I drew in several deep breaths. “Okay, I fink I’m done.” Good thing I didn’t have any lunch, because my stomach felt like emptying itself everywhere. “So how’th your legs?”

Rumcake glanced down at himself. “Well, I think I might have broken my leg. And I think I sprained my neck. Oh yeah, my armor shut down, too. How are you doing?”

I laid down across his torso. “Bweh.”

“That bad, huh?” He sighed. “I guess we should radio for help. You’re in no shape to fly, I can’t move, and we have a whole load of liberated slaves that are probably in no condition to travel.” I grunted a general agreement. We needed help. “You wouldn’t happen to have a working radio, would you?” He chuckled. “Worst. Date. Ever.”

“Bweh,” I repeated, coughing up something bloody. “I think I tore somefing. Ugh.”

“Are you going to be okay?” he asked me, concern in his voice. Still feeling kinda bad, but it was bearable. I nodded. “Well, I think I have a maintenance pack in my armor somewhere. In theory, you should be able to reboot my spell matrix with your PipBuck.”

“I think I fail’th arcane-’ech class.” Which probably wasn’t an understatement.

“Don’t worry. I can walk you through it,” Rumcake said with a laugh. “I can’t take you seriously at all. Your voice is adorable.”

Too bad my claw couldn’t pierce his armor. “I will wip you faeth off.” I pouted. “Hmpth.” I pulled up my PipBuck and flipped through the different options. Hunger began to gnaw at my stomach and brought my lack of cherry confectionaries to attention. Well, in my current state I couldn’t really eat them anyway.

The next whole hour was spent with Rumcake teaching me how to plug a PipBuck into a suit of Steel Ranger armor and the procedures on what to do. Apparently I was frustratingly bad at using pre-war arcane-tech anythings. After a few near-crashes and a spectacular failure that nearly short-circuited my own PipBuck, Rumcake’s patience finally reached its end.

“Just give me your hoof. By Celestia, I can’t believe you are this bad at it.” Rumcake cried out in exasperation. I shamefully reached out and let him see the PipBuck on my hoof. “Now, let’s see…”

“Thorry. ‘Old you I thuck at this,” I muttered. Rumcake was focused on the screen, scanning the letters for some kind of magical information that I obviously couldn’t find. “‘Ow’re you goin’ t’ use it?” I’d been poking at the little buttons with a talon with a little difficulty. With hooves, it seemed like typing on its little on-screen keypad was impossible. Rumcake didn’t even have his hooves free!

“Easy.” He reached out with his tongue and started tapping away at the screen with it. His tongue. “I have more skills than you think.” He grinned and waggled his eyebrows at me. “Think about it.”

My face heated up faster than a laser gatling on full blast. Not to mention I broke out in a sweat somewhere more than anywhere else. “W-w-whaaaat?” I managed to stammer, trying my best to not drool. “I-I’m not finkin’ about it!”

“Oh, yes you are,” Rumcake singsonged, tapping away at the screen. “Your hooves are shaking. And your wings are all funny again.” Okay, wings, you can fold up now. Please.

“That’s th’ unsuppressed rage,” I stammered, still blushing. Fine, he was getting me riled up just thinking about it. Not totally my fault! Right?

Well, if somepony got herself a little actio—

Shut. Up. Brain.

“You’re so cute when you’re in denial.” Rumcake continued working at my PipBuck. I reminded myself to not punch him in his smug little face. “Aha!” His legs finally unlocked and his forelegs landed heavily onto my back.

“Ow!” Did I hear something crack? Hopefully not.

“Gah! Sorry, sorry.” Rumcake cringed in pain. “Ooh, ahh. Oh, that hurts.” A second later, he sighed in relief. “Yay, drugs.”

I squirmed around under his heavy armored hooves. Now that it was powered, his armor started to repair itself. Cracks fused and damaged panels repaired themselves. Coooool. “Anythin’ broken?”

“No. Doesn't feel like it, but I’ve been wrong before. Everything’s bruised for sure, dammit. Oh, now I don’t want to move anymore,” Rumcake groaned.

“‘Sthop whining. My everyfin’ hurts. Jus’ call for help.”

“Right.” He shoved his head back into his helmet and radioed in our position to whoever was in charge of the Steel Ranger radio post or whatever. After a long drawn out discussion, followed by an argument, followed up by some cringe-worthy pleading. “One of these days, somepony’s going to park a bullet in his face,” he growled, finally finishing up his radio call.

Unbearable, general hatred from everyone? “Thoufflé?” I guessed.

“Who else?” Of course. Who else. “We’re not supposed to go anywhere until he personally debriefs us. He’s steaming mad about all the mayhem that we just caused.” I had things to do! “Do you think you come up with anything to get us out of this?” he pleaded.

“I’m sure I c’n wing it.” Hehe. Wing. I made funny.

~~~~~

“Say ‘aah’,” Doc said, a pale blue glow still emanating from his horn. “I need to check whether that worked or not.”

“Aaaahhh.” I opened my mouth as far as I could. The moment we’d arrived back in town with our Steel Ranger escort, my first stop was to Doc’s clinic to fix my temporary speech impediment. My tongue had gotten more swollen on the way to back, and my basic knowledge of medicine told me I might have gotten an infection.

“Hmm.” A flat stick pushed down on my tongue. “Close enough.” The stick withdrew. “You can close your mouth now.” Doc tossed the stick over his shoulder. “This Stardust mare really knows what she’s doing with healing magic.”

“Really?” I snorted. “I didn’t realize.”

“Seriously, she really knows what she was doing.” I had to take his word for it, since I wasn’t exactly conscious for most of it. “Healing spells are hard.”

“Whatever. Everything good?” I moved my tongue around my mouth. My face felt right, if not a little sore. “The last thing I need is Rumcake making fun of me for the next week and a half.”

“Well, good news. Localized healing spell worked!” Doc jumped up and down with glee. “I can’t believe it!”

“I can’t either,” I added suspiciously. “What’s the bad news?”

Doc seemed puzzled. “Bad news? I guess stay away from really solid foods for the next, like, forty-eight hours?” I glared at him, and he shrugged “What? Can’t I have a moment without failure?”

“No,” Rumcake responded in his un-armored glory. “Hey, Frosty, I brought you a visitor.”

I craned my neck to look behind him. Lo and behold, Soufflé with his giant peaked cap was storming in behind Rumcake. “You better have a good explanation for this, Squire Winds.”

…I liked the sound of “Squire Winds” more than “science project”. It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Okay, c’mon. Think, Frosty.

I got one!

Sweet. Go for it, Gala.

Gimme the reins.

Fine. The second you’re done, I want control back.

You got it, boss.

I’m not sure if anypony else noticed the slight elevation of my head, the shift in my posture, and the minute changes in my voice. But this wasn’t the violent haze of red like Raider Frosty. It was more calm, as it were. Like everything became more clear.

“Sir, let’s not be hasty,” Gala said, smoothly taking over. “I believe you are quite aware of your… unpleasant standing with the locals.” Soufflé snorted in what I thought was agreement. Or disgust. “Simply put, I have given you an opportunity to start changing that. Be a stallion of the ponies, as it were.”

“Get to the point.” Soufflé impatiently stomped the floor. “I’d like to remind you that I now have the proper authority to assign you to latrine duty in the event you wasting my time.

“As you wish,” Gala Frosty hastily agreed. “Now that we’ve effectively turned the only major hostile faction in the region into a large smoking crater, counter-operations and patrols can be reduced in favor for other uses of your Rangers. Maybe some PR? Luna knows you need it.”

“Do we really need public relations? I hardly care about what the Wastelanders think of us. We have a job to do, and I refuse to allow such petty things to get in the way.”

Gala slightly faltered, then swiftly recovered. “Think of it this way—now you can carry out your duty without needing to deal with those slavers anymore. ”

“Think of it this way,” Soufflé snarked back, mimicking my voice. “You took one of my more experienced senior officers on a high-risk operation with zero intel and no reinforcements. I’m sure you could imagine why I’m a little more than upset.”

I realized this, but it seemed that Gala Frosty had it under control. “And we considered this by bringing a stealth specialist with us. He did the recon, we carried out some sabotage on key structures, and got out of there with minimal injuries.”

“It was an unwarranted risk.”

“The ends justify the means,” Gala Frosty smugly replied.

“Hmph,” Soufflé dismissively grunted. “Fine. Your plan was not entirely asinine, but this will be your only warning.” His coat flared behind him as he spun around to leave. “Next time, clear your extracurricular operations with me and then we won’t be wasting our time.”

“Wow. Good work.” Rumcake observed as he watched Soufflé dramatically stroll out of the clinic.

“All yours, boss,” Gala whispered. Oh, good. She withdrew, leaving me in my familiar haze of confusion and pain.

“You say something?” Rumcake asked, coming closer.

I shook my head. Both as a negative, and to clear my head. “So, what’s next?” There wasn’t really much else to do. Even Doc looked bored since most of his patients had already checked out.

“You didn’t tell me how you got thrashed so badly,” Doc nonchalantly asked. “I just love stories.”

I shot a glance at Rumcake. We’d discussed it beforehand—Doc and Tabber were once squadmates or something, so he might take the news hard. “Uh,” Rumcake blurted. “Maybe—”

“Come on, tell me!” Doc bounced.

I sighed. “You want to know?” Doc nodded. “Fine. Your dear Agent Tabber suddenly decided he had his own agenda. Tried to tie us up with the rest of his loose ends.” Doc’s smile faded.

“The buck you do that for?” Rumcake hissed.

I rolled my eyes. “He was bound to find out eventually.”

When we looked back, Doc was gone. No longer in the room, or even the building. Just gone. “Well, what now?” I asked again.

“We need to do whatever Sleazy McCheapkins wants us to do. We have a deal, remember?” Oh right. Forgot about that. “Unless you have other plans?” Rumcake asked.

“I’m not breaking any promises now. Let’s get that over with.” I sighed. “I don’t want to owe Sleazy anything. I’m on a schedule here.”

“A schedule?” He cocked his head. “When did this become a thing?”

I couldn’t worry him with my own issues. “It’s just a personal thing. Don’t worry about it!” I mustered my most sincere smile.

“Uh… is it that time of month already?” Rumcake cluelessly asked.

I turned red and faceclawed. “No, no, no!” I flustered around trying to recover from that comment. “Uh, no it’s more like—well, uh… it’s a personal thing. No, not like that! It’s, uh—” I buried my face in his chest and screamed in frustration.

Rumcake was taken aback. “Uh… I’mma assume I got that completely wrong.”

“You have no idea,” I muttered into his chest. “Sometimes, I really want to punch you in the face. With my flaming power hoof of doom.”

“I love you too, Frosty.” He tousled my mane. “Shall we get down to business, then? I’ve got nothing better to do.”

~~~~~

“So, my little treasure hunters. Are you ready for your next task?” Sleazy rubbed his hooves together. “It’s important.”

“Let’s get this over with. Give us the details,” Rumcake replied.

“Ever since you moved in, trade has been picking up. And with trade comes guns. Now, here’s the problem: somepony’s picking off my dealers’ caravans in the past week. They make it to around here”—Sleazy pointed to a spot several miles farther from the slaver stronghold on the map stapled to his counter—“near the old downtown zone, and then they never reach their destinations.”

“So you think there are raiders out there?” Rumcake asked.

“It’s the more likely scenario,” I suggested. “They’re probably just waiting in the same spot for caravans to pass by.”

“Now, I need you two to recover the gun shipments. Feel free to help yourself to a few of them, but no more than three. I still have a business to run.” Sleazy pulled out an old notepad and scrawled a few things down onto it. “Here’s the full list of weapons, plus ammo.”

“And what if the shipments are being taken over by the merchants? Maybe somepony’s paying them off there?” I interjected. “I mean, this hasn’t been a one-time thing, is it?”

Sleazy scratched at the hole in his neck. Eeeeewww. “You make a good point.”

“So… what do you want us to do?” I asked, nearly failing to suppress my gag reflex.

“Eliminate with extreme prejudice. If somepony’s buying them up, then buy them back. With free, complimentary bullets. Courtesy of Sleazy McCheapkins.” He paused for effect, then deflated. “I need to remember to get my thunder noisemaker working again.”

“Anything else?” Rumcake asked.

“That’s about it. Oh, and bring back any bobbleheads you find, of course.” Sleazy smiled. “Any questions?”

“So… retrieve the guns, kill the merchants if they’ve gone rogue. Right? And acquire bobbleheads,” I summarized.

“Exactly! Now you’re thinking with power.”

Rumcake nudged me. “I’m going to go get my armor then. Meet you here in a few?”

I shook my head. “I need to grab some more… wait, nevermind. Yeah, I’ll meet you here later.” I was already in the one place to buy guns and ammo. Rumcake left the store, leaving me in the company of Sleazy.

“Vodcolt: You don't need to be a better shot, you just need to shoot more bullets! So, what can I do for you today, my little death machine?” Sleazy grinned, satisfied with the delivery of an obscure company’s slogan yet again.

“I need an upgrade.” I carefully placed the parts of my anti-machine rifle onto the counter. “I love the firepower, but I need some flexibility. You got anything?”

“Do I have anything? Who’dya think you’re talking to?” Sleazy scoffed, the gate to his armory popping open. “Come on in and let’s find you something nice, eh?”

After giving myself a few seconds to consider how creepy that sounded, I strolled on through the open door with Sleazy behind me. Curiously enough, more weapons lined the walls, floors, and cabinets than before in various states of disrepair and assembly. We carefully skirted around a haphazard—and very unsafe-looking—pile of what I assumed were mortar shells and to a pair of heavy-looking reinforced doors that I was very sure hadn’t been there before.

Sleazy sidled past me and unlocked the right door with a key he’d produced out of his neck. As I began to dry heave into an empty box, he politely held the door open for me. “Now, this—this is where true firepower happens.” He chuckled as I slunk past him.

The rest of the armory didn’t compare to this workshop. Weapon cases were neatly stacked in one corner, guns that I hadn’t even seen before were mounted along the walls, and a few more were in the process of being repaired on a few of the workbenches. Sleazy took up position behind the larger one in the middle of the room and placed his hooves on it.

I didn't even recognize some of these weapons! “Woah,” I breathed.

“Say no more! I know the way you think, my little sniper. And I know exactly what you’re looking for.” Sleazy strode over to the pile of weapon cases, and after appraisingly shaking a few of them, picked one and pulled it over to the bench I was standing in front of. “Say hello to the Steelpony Sights ‘AWpsy-Daisy’.” With a dramatic flourish, he undid the clamps on the case and flipped the lid off.

I opened my mouth to ask a question, but Sleazy answered it first.

“No, I have no idea why Steelpony wanted a whole division for specialty long rifles.” Sleazy gestured to the rifle in the box. “Anyway! Bolt-action, five round magazine, fires .338 magnum rounds. It’s been painted with a winter pattern, you know, since it’s part of the Arctic Warfare line of Sight rifles. This specific model has been fitted with a—”

As cool as it was, the last thing I really needed was yet another sniper rifle, even if this one used slightly more common ammunition. With all these other funny-looking guns liberally scattered all over the room, I stopped listening and instead began to idly browse the rest of his arsenal.

“…But I can see you’re a very special little mare that needs something a bit more special than this, of course,” Sleazy nervously chuckled, likely noticing my inattention. He slammed the case shut and nudged it aside. “Something ranged, too, of course,” he mumbled to himself as he searched the stacks of weapon crates.

There was a big monster of a light machine gun with the funniest barrel hanging on the wall that I was a lot more interested in, just because it looked really cool. “What’s this one?” I asked, making very sure to gesture just enough at it but not touch it.

“Ah, that’s an interesting one. If the label is to be trusted, it’s called the Discorderly ‘Champion Perforating Hydra’. Color scheme is supposed to make it look like a Hydra, but I’ve got my doubts. Thanks to Discorderly Corp’s unpredictable weapon designs, this one shoots standard-issue Equestrian Army combat knives for no good reason.” Sleazy pulled it down and let me handle it. “Since it uses runes instead of traditional gunpowder, it has a significantly lower rate of fire than other light machine guns. It’s what— Thirty, forty rounds max per box?”

After a little difficulty, I managed to pop the receiver open and stare down the belt-feed of knives that neatly sat in the attached box. “What.”

“There was a very good reason Discorderly Corp didn’t do well.” Sleazy took the ‘gun’ from me and remounted it on the wall. “And that’s one of them. Makes them quite rare, however—great for collecting. Maybe you’d like something as exotic as you are, hm?”

“Maybe?” I still wasn’t really sure what I wanted.

Sleazy chuckled again and motioned for me to follow him to a workbench with a mostly-assembled gun. “Exotic, deadly, and not quite all together. Say hello to the Sleazycorp Custom ‘Hail Queen Winter’ Support Shotgun.”

Even though it looked a little funny, it still radiated pure awesome. “Ooooh. I like the blue-white thing you’re going for on the paint.”

“Of course you would.” I couldn’t tell if that was Sleazy being sincere or sarcastic. “This bad filly packs twelve gauge slugs in a nine round magazine, perfect for support fire. She’s a modified version of a Vodcolt AutoAttack 24 with the barrel and dual mount stock from a PB&J Hazelnut Hellfire. I cannibalized the hoof-mounted grip from some Canterlot Excellence DMR, so it should be quite comfortable to operate. The scope is from one of the Vodcolt Sentinel-type rifles with a times six adjustable zoom. There’s space for an underbarrel attachment and a cup holder, for convenience.”

My jaw dropped. “What is this even for? Slugs are already blatant overkill—”

“The Hazelnut Hellfire was infamous for its stability and had an extended barrel because of its somewhat flawed design at the cost of fire rate, so I managed to tack it on with its built-in muzzle brake. After a few modifications, I turned this weapon into a sniper shotgun. Automatic, stable, and capable of accepting the AutoAttack 24’s twenty-four round drums if I can find where those went.” Sleazy scratched the hole in his neck. “It’s a bit longer than I’m comfortable with, but it can probably clean the flies off my ass at two thousand kilometers, so I’m happy with it. I’m still looking for a few parts to finish her off, but if you want her now I can go machine them.”

Suddenly, I didn’t really blame Rumcake for drooling over guns. “I want it.”

“I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement.”

I didn’t really have caps on me, and I didn’t want to sell anything I had with me at the moment either. “Bobbleheads. I can do bobbleheads,” I immediately blurted.

“Come on back when you’ve got them, eh?”

At least I had a new potential weapon, once I found another one of his stupid bobbleheads. “I guess that means I’ll need a resupply instead for now,” I begrudgingly sighed.

“Ah, let me show you my line of specialty ammunition as well! Lucky for you, not all the orders for Trotsworth Independent got shipped because of an unfortunate manifest error, aheh, heh, heh.” I judgmentally squinted at Sleazy as he continued to chortle uncontrollably.

As cool as it sounded… “I’ve got to dash. Maybe some other time?” I suggested.

“I’ll ring you up at the counter, then. BMGs, yes?”

“And some other stuff, too.”

“Let’s see what I can do about it.”


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Seamless Transition – You could say there’s a certain degree of skill to insanity. You can now swap sub-perks on the fly. Metaphorically and literally.
Current Sub-perk: Diplomacy – Remember thy Charlamane. You gain +3 to Speech.

Chapter 13: I wonder what Rumcake's up to?

View Online

Chapter 13: I wonder what Rumcake’s up to?

“And now for something completely different.”


“Hey! Hey, Frosty!” A red mare with a cherry cutie mark dashed up to me in the street wearing a pair of saddlebags on her back. Oh right, Cherry! I’d forgotten about her after the whole “got betrayed by a mercenary” thing. I flashed a tired smile at her. She skidded to a stop in front of me. “I didn’t get to thank you for saving us.”

“Not a problem. I’ve gotten used to waking up half-dead.” I yawned in her face. “Augh, sorry. So tired.”

Hey, brain. When was the last time I took a nap?

How the buck should I know?

Thanks, brain.

“Being a heroine isn’t as easy as it seems, is it?” Cherry laughed. “Especially being the blood angel, huh?”

Blood angel. There it was again. “So… wanna explain the whole blood angel thing?” Cherry cocked her head. “Why’d you call me that before?”

“You really don’t know?” Cherry pointed at my PipBuck. “Doesn’t that get radio reception?” The radio. For listening to the news. Duh. “DJ Pon3’s channel has the most reliable news in the Wasteland! Actually, I think he’s the only channel, come to think of it.”

“Who needs radio? I’m too busy with other things.” Or, translation: I forgot my PipBuck had a radio built into it. “Anyway, what’d he say?”

The Enclave had a terrible relationship with the anypony on the surface that didn’t share their ideas. I was a bit worried about what DJ Pon3 had to say about me. “So somepony saw what happened at the Rad Lad’s stronghold. Saw somepony doing good, and told DJ Pon3 about it.” Cherry waved her hoof in the air, trying to explain further with hoof gestures.

“Or saw somepony beating the shit out of their friends,” I muttered.

Cherry scrunched up her nose in thought. “I think he said something along the lines of ‘She was an angel out of the clouds, wreathed in flames and the blood of her enemies’ or something like that.”

My jaw dropped. Of all the things to have seen, that was it? I was pumped up on Doc’s super-crazy drugs and covered in napalm at the time. Hardly fair, considering the thrashing I’d been taking from everypony over the past few days. “What.”

“You’re so… Awesome!” she squealed. “Take me with you!”

I yawned again. “Look, I’ve basically died twice over the past three weeks.” Cherry’s face paled. “I’ve been shot, stabbed, drugged, exploded, abducted, and had more near-death experiences than the rest of my life combined.” She didn’t look too good anymore. “Considering your, uh, occupation, I don’t think this is a good idea for you.”

“H-how are you still alive?” Cherry stammered.

A little help from Death himself? “I ask myself that every day.” I sighed and rubbed the joint between my leg and claw. “I just lose myself, bit by bit.”

“Oh.” Cue awkward silence.

“Greetings, ladies! Your stallion in shining armor has arrived!” Rumcake showed up in his full suit of armor. Repaired and polished, I duly noted. “Ready to roll, Frosty?”

I shook my head. “Not really.” He looked confused. “As much as I’d like to, I need to sleep. I don’t even remember the last time I took a nap.” I flapped my disheveled wings to shake out some loose feathers. “I’m a mess, I haven’t cleaned myself up in forever, and I’m pretty sure I’m getting more crazy.”

“Oh. Uh.” Rumcake sounded disappointed. “Well, uh, I can take Sparkle Cola with me.”

“It’s fine. Give me a few hours.” First stop, find a spa. A look around made me realize Cherry was nowhere to be seen. “Lemme grab a power nap.”

Rumcake shook his head. “I’m moving out now. I want to finish this as soon as possible since the Inquisitor dropped another assignment on me and I think I might have to get on that right after.” I was disappointed that he wanted to leave without me, but at least it let me catch up on some sleep and other personal care.

“Sparkle’s a good Ranger. She’ll do fine,” I decided. “Ain’t nopony throw it down like me, though.” I grinned. “Go get ‘em, boy.”

If he could look doubtful through a helmet, he sure was right now. “Are you sure you’re going to be fine?” I rolled my eyes at him. “I’m just going to hazard a guess that was a stupid question.”

“No shit.” I hovered over to him and patted his helmeted head. “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself, and I’ve got all the Steel Rangers here to keep me safe.”

Rumcake nodded and started heading back to where he came from. “You know what? Sleazy and Soufflé can wait a damn day.”

“Wuh?” I blurted. “What happened to ‘I’m leaving now, harg bla-blarg’, huh?”

Rumcake stomped back to me. “I don’t think our first date went well. You know, crashing a slaver stronghold, getting backstabbed and crap like that. Wanna try again?” He held out a hoof and droned in a silly robotic monotone, “Come with me if you want to party.”

That got me laughing. “Sure. Let’s go, Termineightor.” I hoofbumped him and followed him down the street. “Where to?”

“How about dinner?” Rumcake stopped to check the time. “Well, how about a late lunch? I hear Peppermint Shots makes a mean basket of hay fries.” Sounded nice. I could probably stay conscious long enough for some noms.

My stomach growled. “Might need a bit more than that,” I sheepishly added.

“Oh, I’m sure he makes other things too,” Rumcake nonchalantly replied.

We threaded around the streets and finally made our way back to the Smashed Spritebot, apparently the only location in town that sold decent, non-packaged food. And alcohol, but that was probably irrelevant.

For the afternoon, the Spritebot was kinda full. As in, there were a few more ponies sitting at the bar and at various tables than there should have been during a working day. “Looks busy,” I observed, looking around. We secured a booth in the corner where we could have an area for ourselves.

“You want anything in particular?” Rumcake asked, dropping his helmet onto the table. I collapsed, exhausted, onto the somewhat comfortable cushions and just stopped moving. He shook his head hard, freeing his poofy pink mane from its trapped form. “I hate helmet mane.”

I didn’t even look up to check the menu. “Fetch me a sammich, robot,” I ordered.

Rumcake laughed. “One sammich for the cranky birdie. Got it.” He spun around and strolled to the bar to speak to Peppermint Shots. I could hear him ordering two sandwiches and some drinks. Moments later, he returned with two sandwiches on a plate, a box of cherry snack cakes (Yes!) and a tray with a bottle of Wild Pegasus whiskey and two shot glasses. “Lunch time!

I reached for the whiskey first. “Yay, drinks.” Rumcake placed the sandwiches on the table and pulled the tray off his back. “Gimme.” He picked up the bottle with his teeth and poured a glass for each of us.

“Figured you’d like pegasus whiskey.” Rumcake started pulling his gauntlets off. “You know…” He motioned to all of me. “Yeah.” I politely waited for him to take off his other gauntlet so he could pick up his glass.

A thought came to mind and I raised my whiskey. “To friends absent and lost.” We solemnly clinked our glasses and downed our drinks in silence. Both of us had lost too many friends recently. Recon Force Blizzard was gone, and the Diamond Seekers were nearly gone, too.

“I didn’t know what you liked besides painkillers and violence, so I got you a reconstituted daisy sandwich.” Rumcake pushed one of the sandwiches to me. “It actually looks okay, considering a lot of things. Especially food.”

I took a tentative nibble out of the sandwich. He was right! It wasn’t all that bad. “Hm. Not bad. It’s actually kinda good! What’s yours?” I asked around a mouthful of bread and daisies, referring to his strange brown things between the slices of bread. Strange brown things that I admit smelled quite good.

“This? It’s a radhog and lettuce sandwich.” Rumcake happily crunched on his sandwich. Yes, he crunched on it. “It’s amazingly delicious.”

Gears in my head turned. “Wait… isn’t radhog… meat?” He nodded and kept eating it. “Aren’t we vegetarians?”

“Says the pony-blood drinking berzerker,” Rumcake shot back, an amused grin on his muzzle. “Here. Try a piece.” He proffered a small chunk of radhog meat to me. “It’s heart-stoppingly good.”

I gave him a suspicious glare as I leaned forward and picked the piece of radhog meat out of his hoof. After a few chews, I finally swallowed and replied “You know what? That’s actually really good.” Greasy, meaty, and deliciously disgusting. I knew I shouldn’t be eating meat, but it was so good! The little bloodthirster in me rejoiced a little.

You know you liked it. Reach over there and grab me the rest of that sandwich!

Against Raider’s insistence, I picked up my decidedly non-meaty sandwich instead. I was disappointed to find that my meal now tasted far less impressive.

“Told ya.” Rumcake kept eating.

Another question came to mind. “So, what did our dear Inquisitor want from you this time? Fetch twenty bear asses for a new jacket?”

At least that made him choke on his sandwich. Once he had cleared his airway and washed everything down with a healthy gulp of alcohol, he croaked, “Oh, he wants me to go secure a radio uplink since somepony blew up the old one. Until then, we don’t have long-range communications with other Ranger contingents.”

Interesting. But not interesting enough to continue on that topic. “So… what’s your cutie mark, anyway?” I asked between bites.

“What? You haven’t been staring at my ass? I feel insulted.” Rumcake pouted. I faceclawed. “It’s really not that interesting.”

Truth be told, I hadn’t really been paying attention to anypony’s cutie marks. Just trying not to die. Cutie marks didn’t really matter, anyway.

“If you must know, it’s literally the Rangers logo.” I couldn’t see his his butt through his power armor. “Except the sword is a bottle of rum. Get it? Yeah.”

“Story?”

“No.”

“Aww.” I scooted closer to him and rubbed up against his neck. “Pweeese?”

Rumcake nudged me. “You first.”

I stared at my snowcloud cutie mark. “I got my cutie mark moving clouds. That’s about it.” Rumcake looked disappointed. “What?” A loose daisy from my sandwich found its way onto his face at high velocity. “Not everypony can have an amazing, thrilling, totally awesome cutie mark story.”

“Now I’m going to feel bad if I tell you my story,” Rumcake dejectedly mumbled, pulling the daisy off his face.

I hugged him. “Aww, I still wanna hear it. What’s it going to do? Bore me to death? Am I going to die from the sheer awesome of it? Just, plonk—dead.” I giggled at my own antics and I mimicked face-planting into the table.

Rumcake didn’t think it was funny. “Listen, Frosty. Please don’t make those jokes,” he sternly stated. Shock caused me to hop backward in my seat. “When you do that, it’s like a stab to my heart. I care about you, and things like that… things like that aren’t jokes for you. Not with your track record.” I… I hadn’t really thought of it. “I have watched you die.”

It was my turn to put on a serious face. “I’ve watched you eat it too, you know.”

“I’m not the one taking unnecessary risks,” Rumcake sternly chastised. “But I was there when it happened. When I met you, and in the fortress.”

Hold on. What? “What do you mean ‘when I met you’?” I timidly asked, cringing from his glare. “Could you fill me in on that?”

Rumcake sighed and calmed down. “Ever wonder if love can bloom on the battlefield?” He chuckled to himself and stared at the ceiling. “I didn’t think so. That is, until I ran across a dying Enclave soldier on my patrol.”

Sounded like me. “Then what happened?”

“I followed procedure. Brought her to a medic.” He started turning an adorable shade of red. “Prepped her for interrogation using a program another contingent found in a pre-war facility.” That explained the PipBuck. “But once I got that damn helmet off…” He dreamily stared into my eyes. “Let’s just say I had a feeling.”

“Aww,” I cooed.

“Not a thing that I would change. I knew I couldn’t hurt you. So I broke protocol and decided to take a risk on you.” I refilled the glasses and pushed one to him, which we instantly drank. “Turns out it sort of paid off.” Rumcake sat back in his seat and poured another round of shots. “And I don’t really know why, but I decided that I should keep you safe. Or as safe as possible, anyway. You didn’t really pose a huge threat, and you didn’t have any information that would have been useful to us.”

“Well, thank you for that, then.” I noticed a red mare sitting at the far end of the bar chatting to Peppermint Shots. “Hey, is that Cherry?” She was leaning forward, holding her head up by her forelegs. Peppermint looked like he was actually enjoying the conversation, judging by how long he’d been cleaning that same mug.

Rumcake sat back up and peered down the bar. “I think so. Want her to come over?” He was about to stand up and walk over.

I hastily grabbed his foreleg before he could stand up. No! We were having a good time! Sort of. “Let’s let her do her thing. I’m sure she’d like some time alone with Peppermint or something.” I just wanted to spend a more time with Rumcake, who nodded in agreement. He sat back down, causing the booth seat to creak in protest.

Both of us drank another shot as we both searched for a different topic. “Wanna play a game?” he asked, abruptly changing topics. The last bits of my sandwich disappeared into my muzzle.

“Sure.” I refilled the glasses again. “What is it?” Was the bottle already empty? I waved the mostly-empty bottle at Peppermint. Like a good bartender, he brought over a new bottle just for me. I pulled open the box of snack cakes and unwrapped the first one that fell out.

“Simple.” He asked Peppermint for a few more glasses. “It’s a game we came up with after we saved a small town.” Probably after the technology, but I didn’t say it. The glasses were filled with whiskey, then arranged into a diamond shape. I watched intently, idly fondling the snack cake in my hoof. Once we had eight glasses each, Rumcake dropped a small pile of bottle caps onto the table.

I took a bite out of the snack cake and immediately stopped in mid-chew. Unless the formula had suddenly changed in this specific batch, something was very wrong. This wasn’t ‘Tart Cherry 12’ that I’d come to know and love! I held back a grimace. “You aren’t cherry flavored! You lied to me!” I yelled at the half-eaten apple snack cake in my hoof. A few patrons shot dirty looks at me, and I sheepishly grinned back at them.

“Well, that was uncalled for.” Rumcake held back a snigger. “Are they really not cherry flavored?” I scowled at him and showed him the pale yellow-orange filling inside the snack cake. “Okay, so they’re not cherry flavored. Anyway, let me explain the game before you flip the table.”

Whatever this game was called, it was fun. It was a lot of tossing bottle caps with my mouth into the shot glasses, hoping that they would land in the whiskey. We were supposed to drink the glasses that our bottle caps landed in. Halfway into the first round, I realized that Rumcake was too good at this, but that also meant his aim got worse as we continued.

The next several hours passed in a blur of drinks, bottles, glasses, something involving a few napkins and a carrot. Which may or may not have involved acts that may or may not have involved his tongue. Yeah. It was amazing. At some point in my mild inebriety, Rumcake forced me to go home, against my desired wishes.

Once outside, I replied, “Yes, sir.” I did a lazy spin in the air to get my bearings, then proclaimed loudly, “Naptime, ho!” Somewhere, I’d gotten the idea in my mind that friendship was carrots. Good thing I liked carrots.

Somepony grabbed my hindlegs. “Not so fast, you.” I looked down and realized Cherry was holding me to the ground.

“Can I please go? I wanna sleep,” I whined.

Cherry pulled me down to the ground, hard. She was definitely stronger than she looked. “I’m not done with you,” she replied in a sultry tone.

“Uh.”

“I’ll help you get cleaned up and stuff. Mare stuff.” She abruptly switched to a more disapproving tone. “Your mane is a complete disaster.”

“Riiiight.” I ran my talons through my mane and they immediately snagged on tangled knots of hair. “Fine, fine. Come along, Cherry.” I floated off in the vague direction of Rusty’s house because I still didn’t own a home in the town I’d saved. I’d seen the Ranger barracks, and that was the last place that I wanted to bunk down. Why would I trade my pile of comfort for a stiff bunk? Cherry tagged along below me from the street.

After knocking on the door a few times to no reply, I opened the door with Rusty’s key.

You didn’t give it back?

Shut up. You dropped the ball on this one, brain.

“So this is where you live? It’s… cozy.”

“I share it with two other ponies,” I informed her. “Don’t mess with anything on the ground. None of it is mine.” Cherry pulled her hoof back from the contents of the shelf she was about to touch. “That’s my stuff up there.” I pointed at the rafters. My duster and my bag got tossed next to the door in a disorganized heap.

“Uh… how do I get up there?” I flapped my wings at her to make a point. Being a pegasus allowed me to buck physics and just fly up there. Let’s see… how did Rusty and Broken get up there before? I looked around the room. “Wait, do you have to like, parkour up there?” Oh right.

“I think it was… from this table, then onto this cabinet thing, then up to the rafters,” I uncertainly told her. “Or I could just carry you up there.”

“Yeah, let’s do that instead. I’m no athlete,” Cherry replied. “Except in the bedroom. Eyooo!” I resisted the urge to punch her. “Get it? Because I’m a—”

“Yes. I get it.” I groaned. Before she could make another pun, I forcibly picked her up and tossed her onto the pile of blankets and cloth I called a bed. “Now shut up and let me sleep.” The piles of cloth weren’t as good as a nice poofy cloud, but it would have to do for now. Cherry laid down along the edge of my bedding as I rearranged it for optimal comfort.

Cherry pulled a brush out of one of her saddlebags. “Settle down and I’ll get you brushed. Goddesses know when you last had a bath as well.” I sniffed myself and nearly choked on my spit. I smelled disgusting. She patted my head. “Yeah. Exactly.”

“I really do need a bath,” I grumbled to myself. “First thing first, I need to actually get to sleep. Just like, brush me while I sleep. And if you do anything else, somepony’s getting a hoof in the face.” I pulled a blanket over my eyes and calmed my mind for sleep.

~~~~~

Have you ever slept so soundly that you didn’t hear an alarm? Getting up at the crack of dawn for every day of my enlisted life made sure I didn’t have a good night’s sleep, if at all. Sleeping in after about three straight days of fighting and unconsciousness felt amazing. No lucid dreaming, no interruptions, nopony trying to kill me. I opened my eyes and continued to lie in bed in the relative comfort of my cushions.

“Mmm.” Cherry happily moaned into my ear. Wait, what? She was curled up along my back with her left foreleg draped over me. She then playfully nipped at my ear, causing me to flick it reflexively. “You awake?”

“Mhm.” I twitched slightly when Cherry laid her head on my neck. After a calm, awkward silence, I asked, “Why did you kiss my ear?”

She shifted her head and sleepily asked, “Why are you holding my hoof?” I looked down, and sure enough she was right. Why was I holding her hoof?

Logic caught up to my sleepy brain. “Where’s your other hoof?”

“Between two pillows,” Cherry sleepily mumbled, snuggling closer. Wait… I didn’t have any pillows in here, did I? Maybe one pillow…

A tickle from between my hindlegs got my gears turning. “Those aren’t pillows!” I screamed.

Both of us catapulted ourselves out of bed and screamed. More like I screamed, and Cherry yelped because I may have bucked her to the other side of the bed. After I’d calmed down a bit, she blurted “Sorry! After I finished brushing your mane, I got super-comfortable and I fell asleep.”

I stopped hyperventilating and restrained my hooves against accidental face-cratering. “You scared me, that’s all,” I finally answered. “I’ve woken up to a lot of weird things, but a morning with a callfilly is new.”

“A night at Past Four will change that real fast,” Rusty informed us from the ground floor. Both of us jumped at the sound of his voice. “Now go back to sleep. It’s nearly first whistle and I have cleaning to do at Doc’s.”

Broken also joined in. “I’d tell you two to get a room, but you’re probably too poor to afford a room at the Smashed Spritebot.” My mouth opened for a minute, then I closed it. I hadn’t looted anything recently, so she was probably right on that count.

“Go back to sleep, sis. You too, Frosty,” Rusty grumbled. “All the mares in this town are unbearable…”

Cherry and I rearranged my bedding into a more nest-like pile. “You. Over there.” I pointed at the other end of the pile. “If I wake up with you cuddling me again…” I grumbled, settling down comfortably at my end.

“Yeah, yeah. I know. Hoof in face.” Cherry plopped down opposite from me. “You’re no fun.” She pouted.

“All work and no play makes Frosty a crazy mare. Let me try to get some more sleep before the voices tell me to kill you.” I shoved my head under a blanket and attempted to go back to sleep.

~~~~~

Cherry returned with a small paper bag clutched in her muzzle. “Brought you breakfast.” She dropped the bag in front of me with a grim smile. “You were making all sorts of noise and ruckus. Bad dream?” A cold, nervous sweat covered my body and I was hopelessly tangled up in the bedsheets, so that was entirely possible.

The base of my stump also ached for some inexplicable reason. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t detach my claw just because I’d have to put it back on after. “You have no idea,” I muttered, nosing the bag open. It smelled hot, sweet, and overly delicious. “What…what are these, exactly?”

“Damned if I know.” Cherry shrugged, dropping back into the bed to help me untangle myself from the rest of the sheets. “Did you know that handsome buck at the bar sells breakfast, too?” I snapped at one of the round, soft cakey things in the bag and wolfed it down. “Like it? Didn’t really cost much.”

They were delicious, soft, and definitely freshly made. Hints of fruit and maybe vanilla drowned out any traces of hundred year old preservatives in the pastries. I liked them. A bit dry and starchy for my taste, but nothing a bit of coffee, whiskey, or maybe water would fix. “Tasty.” I simply stated, diving into the bag for another. “Wait, how much were they?”

“Like, fifty caps.” A long-range inspection of my caps pouch using my PipBuck told me I was fifty caps lighter. “I had it covered.”

“Apparently breakfast was on me,” I deadpanned at her. “So, should I know anything else before we continue?”

“Whatever do you mean?” Cherry replied ever-so-innocently.

“I think you know what I mean. Stay out of my stuff. Got it?” I poked her chest for emphasis. “It’s my stuff, not yours.”

Cherry snorted. “Keep your panties on, sheesh. I got it.” She fished one of the pastries out of the bag for herself and munched on it.

“I’m not wearing panties,” I grumbled, taking the last pastry.

~~~~~

After a somewhat enjoyable breakfast of mystery pastries, I started gliding out to the Steel Ranger section of town to the machine shop. At some point in the week, I wrote down a reminder to visit Baked Potato for some claw maintenance. The claw that had replaced my foreleg almost a month ago wasn’t running as smoothly as I remembered it.

A strangely garbed tan unicorn wearing the most peculiar of eyewear caught my eye and I had to go investigate. I was almost there, anyway. He seemed to be talking to himself, intermittently conversing with a small robot that was following him around. On a whim, I soundlessly landed next to him and said, “So… you hear voices too?”

He jumped. “Gah! Oh, jeez, I didn’t see you there.” One lens of his glasses was blue, the other red. I couldn’t wrap my head around why he’d wear those, let alone make the lenses different colors! “Uh, well, this is awkward. Who are you?” He regained his composure and smoothed down his short brown mane. He was wearing a trench coat with the letters “NCR" on the back, overtop a bluish pre-war suit with a red tie.

“I’m Frosty Winds, local basket case. You?” I replied with a grin on my face.

“My name is Durt, and this is zebra lands or bust!” Durt proudly announced. “My goal is to walk to the zebra lands on my own without any kind of aid whatsoever. Except my faithful companion Wolfie, of course.”

I stared at the little robot. I guess it did look a bit like a robot dog. “Woof!” Wolfie barked, wagging his little robot tail. Aww.

“Woof indeed, Wolfie. As I was saying…” Wait, were we even on the same train of thought anymore? “…could you point me in the proper direction of the closest supply depot? I seem to be low on scrap and wool.”

I automatically gave him directions to get to Scrap Bank’s shop. This erratic stallion was making me very confused, but his naturally charismatic nature kept me somewhat entertained. “So why are you walking all the way to the uh, zebra lands? I mean—”

“Charity!” he interjected. “For the foals! Would you like to donate?”

Oh conscience, why must you interfere with this? “Uh… I didn’t bring any of my stuff with me. Is there any other way?” My cheeks burned pink.

“Indeed!” He took out what looked like a chunk of radroach and fed it to Wolfie, who happily gobbled it up. “You can donate on—”

Panicked screams and cries of anger were coming out of the machine shop. “I gotta go! Sorry!” Durt smiled and waved as I flew up to the building. My trained military mind made the connection that there was a struggle in progress. I yanked my SMG out of my saddlebag and barreled through the the doorway. “What the buck is happening in here?” I shouted.

Suddenly, cupcakes. So my trained military mind was not ready for a food fight. Neither was my face when a particularly well-frosted pink cupcake hit me squarely in the eye. “Oi, now tha’s not fair!”

“Who the buck throws a cupcake?” I whined, wiping frosting off my face. “Oh dear Luna, it burns! Ow. Ow. Ow. The hell is in these?” The frosting did look very delicious, and I could use another snack…

“Whatever yer thinkin’, don’ eat it.” My frosted hoof paused halfway to my mouth. “Whatcha doin’ in here, lass?” Baked Potato stood up from behind a workbench, more cupcakes somehow hanging from a bandolier on his body. “An’ put the gun away, willya?”

My SMG went back into my bag. “Will I be better off not knowing what’s in these cupcakes?” I asked with dread. A dark orange mare wearing the Rangers scribe outfit poked her head out from around a bench press. Banana Pudding glared at me from over a dented suit of armor that he was probably working on before the cake fight broke out.

“Ha! Frosty’s got frostin’ in ‘er eye! Ah, the irony.” Baked laughed.

I waved my claw at him. “Yeah, yeah. I’m just here for a tune-up, seeing as I’m really bad at maintainence.”

Baked took off his cupcake bandolier and motioned me to come closer. “Let’s see.” We gathered around his workbench. He then walked around to my side of the workbench, deftly unlatching my claw from its connection point to my stump. “Looks like nothin’ a bit o’ grease won’ solve. Anythin’ you wan’ me to do?”

“You’re cleaning this up, Knight!” Banana Pudding yelled, most likely complaining about the cupcakes still sticking to many surfaces of the machine shop’s interior.

“Can it, ya old coot!” Baked shouted back. “Anyhow, whatcha need?”

“Well, an upgrade would be nice, but I don’t think I really need one,” I groused out loud as I stared off into nowhere in thought. “I guess a tune-up will do.” He walked back over to his end of the table and dropped my claw down onto the surface of the workbench.

…Wait, what?

Suddenly one limb short, gravity took over and I fell over with a surprised bleat. “A little warning would have been nice,” I grumbled from the floor.

“Don’ whine. Walk it off.” He started disassembling my claw, neatly grouping the individual parts in little rows.

I sputtered at him. “Walk? Really?” My balance was thrown off enough by my missing leg and my saddlebag to make me unable to stand. “You’re a funny stallion.” After a few failed attempts at standing, I decided that the floor was comfortable enough for me.

“Ye wimp.” Sounds of machinery clinking and clanking could be heard on the workbench itself. Baked was humming something to himself while he worked, and the orange scribe from earlier was nowhere to be seen. Banana Pudding was back at work on the suit of Ranger armor. “Ew. You’ve been gettin’ into a lotta fights, haven’t you?” Tools clattered around inside a toolbox, then it was followed by a lot of scraping.

“Yeah. You could say that,” I replied, resting against the workbench. “Do you think you can sharpen the talons more? Just the tips, mind you.”

Baked groaned. “If yer gonna use it on offence, I’m gonna hafta install some rubber seals so th’ blood don’t muck about with the machinery.” He searched the room for something in particular, checking inside boxes, behind toolboxes, and even lifting me up to check underneath the workbench itself.

Or under your big fat flank full of cherry-flavored snack cakes.

Thanks for that, brain.

No problem.

Although, it was impressive that he only needed to use one hoof to do it. Hey, brain, maybe I’m not so fat after all!

He gently placed me back on the floor and checked yet another box. “You could have just asked, y’know,” I muttered, slightly annoyed. “Can I help in any way, at least?”

“I think I got this in the bag, lass. Can ye grab the oil from the shelf you’ve been usin’ as a pillow?” Baked replied.

After a bit of digging, I tossed a small black oilcan onto the workbench. “How long is this going to take?” I whined. “I have things to do!” Okay, it was more like I needed to go somewhere within the short space of a month before I randomly died when my “contract” expired.

I was answered by the sounds of power tools and Baked yelling over them. “Sorry lass, this is gonna take a bit o’ yer time.” I groaned inwardly, burying my face in my hoof.

“I wonder what Rumcake’s up to?” I muttered dejectedly. “Probably having a better time than me…”

X~~~X

“How about now?”

I sighed. “No.”

Sparkle waited for a moment before asking again, “How about now?”

Once again, Head Paladin Chocolate Chip proved herself to be correct. Less experienced Rangers—usually the Junior Paladins and apprentices—were like foals. They got bored easily, and they needed constant attention lest somepony ended up missing a leg. Sparkle wasn’t an exception, as I’d repeatedly found out in the past several hours.

“Act your age, Junior Paladin Sparkle,” I groaned in exasperation for the ninth time so far. At least it shut her up again for now.

The street ahead seemed like a terrible place to have to pass through, putting it lightly. All the ruined buildings to our left and right had second floors that could potentially house ambushing forces. Any of these places looked like a potential hive of scum and villainy waiting to strike. Just in case, I kept good ol’ Decrusty out on display to ward off anypony that thought that they could overpower us. Similarly, Sparkle had her grenade launcher out and loaded.

I tried to keep my thoughts focused on the mission at hoof, but I found myself thinking of Frosty instead. What was she doing right now? Was she getting in trouble? Probably staring somepony down with those sexy green eyes, wings all aflutter in unprovoked anger. A quick shake of my head cleared that image away. There was a time and place for that, and this was neither.

“Blips on E.F.S., near blue wreck. Second floor at our three o’clock,” Sparkle calmly stated.

Finally, something to keep me focused. I caught sight of an unruly mop of muddy green hair disappear under a windowsill. “Confirmed. Stay frosty.”

“What am I, your marefriend?” she joked good-naturedly.

It took all my integrity as a superior officer to resist the urge to punch my subordinate right on the spot. Instead, I stayed quiet and let her have her moment for now. Later on I’d have better opportunities for payback anyway. I kept an eye on the yellow dots wavering along my E.F.S. bar.

“More movement, next building over.” A tail vanished around a support beam and down the furniture-strewn stairs. “This doesn’t seem right though. Don’t shoot unless fired on.”

“Yes sir,” came the reply.

Good thing, too. Out of nowhere, a little foal no higher than my knees darted out of a hole in the blue building and began to whale on my foreleg with a lead pipe. I paused in mid-step to allow the young colt to get a few good swings in that threatened to dent my armor.

“Get away from my turf!” the little colt squeaked, showing no signs of relenting.

I stared at the little tan-maned rascal. “Well, I can’t say I was expecting this.” Either no cutie mark, or it was the same color as his cream-colored coat.

Sparkle regarded us with a slight hint of humor in her voice. “You look like you’ve got the situation under control.”

Just like a pre-war comedy routine, I pushed the foal back and kept his pipe out of range of my legs by putting my hoof against his tiny head. “Shut up. More importantly, where’d this kid come from?” I scanned the ruins lining the street, hoping that the parents were somewhere nearby.

“Movement in the alleys,” Sparkle warned, protectively placing herself in front of the colt in front of me. “Looks like we’ve got company.”

A zebra assault rifle enveloped in a pale gray aura floated out around the corner, which was quickly followed by a tiny mirror. “Release the kid or we start shooting!” a hoarse voice yelled, presumably by the unicorn pointing the gun at us.

By “we”, he obviously meant the five other pistols and automatic small arms protruding from behind various bits of available cover provided by the ruins. None of them were particularly threatening, although I didn’t feel like taking the risk of a bullet to the knee. From what I gathered from the slightly visible ponies in the windows, they didn’t really seem very armored or geared well either.

“What now?” Sparkle asked, giving me a puzzled look. “We could totally take them.”

I nodded my head to the right, indicating that Sparkle should open fire on the three targets there in case things went badly. “What do you think about these guys? I’m inclined to think that they’re scavengers or squatters.”

“I’m getting this creepy slaver vibe from these guys.”

“Really now?” Huh, I would think that slavers would be angrier and better armed than these bumbling fools.

“Totally. Look at all that raggedy stuff they’ve got on.”

Until they decided to do something that validated their slaver status, I’d give them the benefit of the doubt. However, it wasn’t unheard of for slavers to disguise themselves in order to take their targets by surprise. Just in case, I kept on edge so I could spin up Decrusty at any given moment.

Some loud commotion echoed through the empty streets. “Heart Attack, you get over here right now or I’m taking away your dessert for a week!” a mare who was probably the colt’s mother screeched from the building on the left.

The foal I was holding back abruptly halted his struggles. “Aww, but Moooooom!” he loudly wailed, dropping his metal pipe as well.

I pointedly cleared my throat and mustered by best demonic voice. “Listen to your mother or I’ll eat you for dinner, you little scamp.” Obviously, that got the reaction that I hoped for.

The little colt blanched and bolted, crying for his mother. Sparkle and I watched him retreat down the street and back toward the hovering assault rifle, just in case that the remaining Wastelanders decided to change their stance on non aggression. Sans the muted yelling of the colt’s mother, the next few moments passed in relative silence.

“I’d hate to be that kid right now,” Sparkle muttered to me over private communications.

“Too much?” I asked as the mirror and rifle retreated. “Oh look, they’ve come to their senses.”

Sparkle shrugged. “Seemed reasonable. Blips are pulling back.”

“You think we made the right call?”

The Ranger beside me loudly stamped her hooves on the pavement. “Eh. Probably. I don’t really give two caps. Kids annoy me.”

“Hm.”

“Speakin’ of which, how’s it going with Frosty? She want kids?”

Hello, random segue. “Ehh… no comment,” I grunted, shoving thoughts of little winged Rumcakes and Frosties scampering about underhoof.

“Rumcake and Frosty, sittin’ in a bunk. B-U-C-K-I-”

Song time was suddenly interrupted on account of Sparkle being insufferable. “Enough. Shut it, Junior Paladin. I don’t wanna hear it. I want silence from now on unless it’s mission critical.” I didn’t always pull rank, but it was reasons like this why I loved being a Paladin Commander.

“Yessir.” Sparkle pouted.

X~~~X

“Damn, I’m bored. Are you done yet?” I whined. Baked had been working on my claw for the past few hours. I would have used the restroom out of sheer boredom, but trying to walk there without falling on my face was annoyingly difficult. I’d just resorted to idly gnawing on my fetlock.

“Calm down, lass. Almost done…” More tool sounds. “There! All clean, reinforced, an’ super-pointy.” Baked walked around to my side of the workbench and helped me up. “Ye wanna do it on the floor or on the bench?”

“Ooh, sounds kinky,” I purred into his ear, leaning up against him for balance.

Baked rolled his eyes. “Personally, I’d enjoy ye bein’ on the table,” he rumbled back. Too much information. I think. “No. Sorry lass, but the wings just aren’t my thing.” Well, at least now I knew. “Let’s just get ye forelegs on the table then.

I obediently propped my stump and my other foreleg onto the table. “I’m going to assume on three?” I asked, mentally preparing myself for one. Baked nodded. I took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s get this over with.”

Baked hefted my shiny refurbished claw. “One…” I squeezed my eyes shut and braced myself. “Two…” Any time now… “Three.” There was a sharp intake of breath from both of us, then nothing happened.

“Uh… did you forget something?” I asked, somewhat disappointed.

Baked looked around the table, looking for something. “I think th’ weight strut’s a bit loose…” He picked up a screwdriver in his teeth. “Hold still.”

“Why do I need to ho–AAAAAAGH! WHY DIDN’T I SEE THAT COMING?” I screeched. The second I moved my foreleg to hold down my claw, Baked moved lightning quick and plugged it into the socket in my stump. I knew better than most that reconnecting a receptive limb hurt a lot. I still wasn’t used to the pain, even after this many times.

Baked laughed. “Priceless! Outta colorful swears, are ya?”

I looked at him with tears in my eyes. “You have no idea how much this hurts.” But at least my claw felt like it was working much better now. And to my expectations, the ends of each individual talon were razor sharp. “Thanks.” I wiped the tears away and flexed my metal limb with delight. “I should name it Binky.”

I think he ignored my comment. “Now, lass. Did a few upgrades m’self.” He opened a small panel mounted on the side and pointed out a small purple gem lodged between a bunch of wires and steel parts. “That’s a recoil somethin’ or other.”

Against my better judgement I peered into the hole. “Do you mean a recoil dampener spell?” I guessed. It was wired up to a larger boxy, cylindrical contraption going down the center of my claw like a bone. “And what would I have to dampen, exactly?”

“Ballistic hoof mod.” Baked grinned proudly. “Holds two twelve gauge shells.” A slot on the underside of my claw near the hoof joint was probably where the shells went. “Fires ‘em one at a time. Flex yer leg all the way to pump it.” An experimental flex released a clicking sound from somewhere inside it.

“Cooool,” I breathed.

Baked dug out a pair of shotgun shells out from a pouch on a nearby toolbench and hoofed them to me. “I’ve rigged it to fire when ye punch things. Jus’ don’ forget to pump it.”

I hefted my mechanical foreleg with newfound glee. “Aww yeah.”

X~~~X

Ah, blessed silence for me to ponder about other things. Other, uh, teal and winged things. I shook my head to try to dislodge those thoughts; I needed to focus on my surroundings right now. We were still in dangerous territory, after all.

After an incredibly uneventful two hours of trudging and pushing through city rubble, Sparkle finally broke the silence. “It’s getting dark. We’ll need somewhere to hunker down for the night.” It wasn’t as dark as she thought it was, thanks to the cloud cover plus the shadows of the buildings around us, but she made an acceptable point.

“Keep an eye out. It’s not too dark yet, but let’s find somewhere defensible.”

Sparkle nodded. “Any of these buildings should do though, right?”

“Too many entry points and I don’t trust them to take more than a single grenade in case we have to go loud,” I pointed out, kicking a particularly large chunk of cinderblock out of my way. “We’re somewhere in the commercial district, so look for anything that looks like Stable access or the like. Lacking that, there should be an entrance to the underground train network somewhere around here. If all goes well, we might be able to use it as a shortcut to the alleged location of the radio tower we’re looking for.”

We arrived at a four-way crossing and stopped. A large barricade cobbled together from a delightful compilation of wrecked carriages, rubble, an entire wall from the three-story house next to it, and every single body-occupied spike in the Wasteland. Crude signs and imagery were painted all over it in a variety of colors. From the few legible bits of graffiti, we were about to enter "Skull Skinnerz territory (keepz otuz!)’’

The two of us stood by this massive pile of crap, unsure how to proceed. “Well, we could go around,” Sparkle suggested.

Severed limbs and loose organs lined the streets around the wall of twisted steel and gore. On consideration of the scale of raider infestation in this area, that seemed like an unnecessary risk. The spoils wouldn’t even cover the effort or ammo it would take to just pass through the area, even if it was faster.

“We’re going around. Watch for raiders that get too close; you know the drill.” They wouldn’t be a huge problem anyway—our armor could probably protect us from the majority of their heretically-maintained weapons. “This way’s probably faster. Come along.”

This new raider territory hadn’t been in the scouting reports from two months ago. Granted we hadn’t gotten much of anything done after the tragic “demise” of Elder Pizza Rolls and the consequent loss of the long-range broadcast array. I made a note to myself to update the maps back at base.

A covered stairwell going into the depths of the earth immediately caught my attention. “That looks like a good stopping point,” I said, taking note of the faded sign barely hanging on by a single chain to the overhang.

“What’s this purple circle for?”

I squinted at the faded text. “Oh. Purple line station.”

“Why’s it a circle?”

“Beats me. Let’s get in and find a place to fortify.” I immediately stomped down the worn stairs and toggled my helmet light. “Eugh. Looks like they got here too.”

Just like outside, the walls and floors had been liberally smeared with an assortment of blood, guts, and all the raidery goodness that they tended to leave behind after a slaughter. I swept my helmet light back and forth, keeping an eye out for anypony that wasn’t as dead as they appeared. From the bodies still mostly intact, it seemed like another group of Wastelanders had fought to their last pony and had also taken down a good number of raiders too. A large pile of pinkish dust at the very foot of the stairs gave me a little hope that this place was at least worth the trip.

“Police the weapons and ammo. Looks like one of ‘em had a laser,” I ordered Sparkle, who dutifully began to sift through whatever was left of the ponies. “Try to stay close if you can. Radio signal isn’t too good now that we’re under a pile of concrete and steel.”

I, on the other hoof, wandered around the bend and poked my head into the ticket booth next to the remaining few turnstiles. Predictably, I was disappointed in my findings. No weapons, caps, or anything worth taking. Just in case, I leaned in and gave the space under the counter a quick glance. Nada. Just a few empty cans.

Next stop, the bathrooms. It was a long shot, but it was completely possible that two hundred years’ worth of scavengers hadn’t checked the medical kits in there. I pushed my way past the turnstiles by simply bending the metal bars out of the way. Conveniently, there was a small junction that made up the bathroom entry off to the right of the main passage. As per the norm: left side mares, right side stallions. Old tiles cracked under my armored weight as I began to investigate the stallions’ room first.

Obviously, nothing. Every single stall had been destroyed, same as the glass and the sinks. The medical box that should have been mounted on the wall wasn’t even present in the room at all. I wasn’t really surprised as much as just plain annoyed that there wasn’t anything here.

“One bathroom clear,” I loudly notified Sparkle.

“Still workin’ on all this stuff,” came her reply.

“Copy that.” Hopefully the other restroom had something more worthwhile.

The mares’ restroom was in a better state than the stallions’. Only one destroyed stall and a pair of bodies decorated this one, not including all of the standard Wasteland filth and grime. Surprisingly enough, the butterfly-patterned box appeared to still be mounted on the wall and locked.

I was about to leave when I realized that one of the corpses sprawled in the corner was marked as aggressive on my E.F.S. How could that be? I tapped the side of my helmet where the E.F.S. sensors were mounted to dislodge any grime stuck to it. When nothing changed, I stared at my heads-up display in perplexion and wondered what was wrong.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that it took a lot longer than it should’ve been necessary for me to realize I was looking at a ghoul that was playing dead. It was hard to tell what its original form had been, besides the unhelpful fact that it had been a pony at one point.

“I’m going to stand here for as long as I need to stand here.” I began to spin up Decrusty and take aim. “And you can just stay right there. Sound fine?”

Apparently the ghoul disagreed. Moving almost in slow-motion, the ghoul detached itself from its corner with a wet plopping sound and tried to push itself up. It was mildly interesting to watch it attempt to stand, so I simply kept watching. Once it had finished standing, it turned to glare at me with its single eyeball. With a feral cry, the ghoul lurched forward and, presumably, attempted to chew off my face.

Of course, I say “attempted” because it barely took two steps with its mangled legs before I hosed its face off with lead.

Even though Decrusty was suppressed, the keening wail of the ghoul dying coupled with dozens of bullets crushing bathroom tiles was loud enough to alert whatever else was down here with us.

“Hostiles, comin’ in!” I shouted, watching my E.F.S. light up with multiple red dots. “Get ready for ghouls!”

By the time I crushed my way back past the turnstiles and regrouped with Sparkle, I could hear the oncoming undead masses roaring and screaming their way toward us. “Well, I have good news and bad news,” Sparkle told me, backing up the stairs behind us.

“Good news.” I followed her up since high ground was too much of an advantage to pass up. “And it better be a laser.”

“Uh.” Sparkle hesitated. “We have a bunch of laser ammo?”

It did bother me a bit that Sparkle could never give straight answers. “Let me guess—there’s no laser.” I sighed, hitting the reload toggle on Decrusty.

The first ghoul rounded the corner and got immediately torn up by a grenade from Sparkle’s launcher and a hail of fire from me. “I broke what was left of the rifle down for parts.”

Better than nothing. “Large group incoming! Grenades, now!” I ordered right as a surge of ghouls rounded the corner.

Sparkle followed orders down to the dot, firing a dozen grenades down the stairs in rapid succession. Ichor and dust flew everywhere, obscuring everything at the bottom of the stairs. There was no point for me to add to the mess with minigun rounds unless I wanted to waste some more ammo hoping to do what she was already doing fine at.

Although I still couldn’t see. “Hold your fire.” Smoke and dust still clung to the air, refusing to settle.

A much larger glowing ghoul burst through the smoke and charged at us much faster than anticipated. Sparkle was in mid-reload and I’d stupidly let Decrusty spin down because I’d assumed that the plastering of grenades would kill anything coming at us.

“Make some room and belay that order!” I yelled, just in case Sparkle got her reload finished in time. “It’s a glowing one!”

Both of us continued to retreat up the stairs. I finally got Decrusty spun up and I began to give the balefire ghoul every bullet I had. Each shot that landed caused the ghoul to stagger and stumble, but it didn’t show any signs of stopping. If it got any closer we’d have some major problems that even Steel Ranger armor wouldn’t protect us against.

With a heart-stopping crack, my minigun jammed. I swore out loud. By the time I could get the jam cleared, the ghoul would be way too close. In a fit of panic, I did what nopony should ever do—I took a step forward and slugged the radioactive ghoul in the face, so hard that its lower jaw melted away into rotten skin and bone.

Too bad it didn’t even notice and decided to tackle me right into the ground.

I gasped in pain as I collapsed on the floor, trying to push myself back up on my hooves. I thought I was heavy enough to resist a knockdown! My armor brightly reminded me that I had entered a highly radioactive zone and suggested that I retreat to a safe distance.

The ghoul got right up into my face and roared, dripping slime and goddesses knew what else all over my helmet. It incomprehensibly gargled in my face and probably tried to say something, but that wasn’t a concern as I tried to fight it off. I could feel it punching and hammering at my armor, and every time I attempted to get up it got smart and punched at my less-armored joints.

“Look out! Danger close!” Sparkle yelled, turning her grenade launcher right on me.

I made a note to myself that she had reckless tendencies, just like a certain pegasus I knew. In an act of desperation, I grabbed the ghoul in a huge bear hug and flung it down the stairs as it growled and kicked.

“Give it to him!” I yelled, scrambling backward out of range.

Six more grenades finally finished off the glowing ghoul, to my relief. Sparkle sent a few more grenades at the eviscerated corpse just in case it tried to get up again. All the red dots on my E.F.S. had disappeared, so I cautiously walked back down the stairs.

There wasn’t anything left of the ghouls. “Alright, we’re clear.” I poked at one of the more intact corpses, just in case.

“Whew. That was too close.” Sparkle sighed in relief.

Speaking of which… “Hey, next time no firing grenades at your superiors, okay?”

“We both know you would have been fine.”

“Just… be careful next time, would you? You’re lucky I don’t have another Paladin to replace you with,” I scolded her.

“Yessir.”

“What’d you find on the bodies?”

“Healing potion, a hoofful of caps, assorted ammunition, a Dash inhaler, a few damaged guns, and a busted laser rifle. Not a whole lot.”

I wasn’t too disappointed at least. “Well, it could have been worse. Go find us a good place to crash. I’ve got a box to open.”

~~~~~

“I’m never trusting your judgement ever again,” I groaned, taking my gaze away from the recently unboarded record shop. “Even if this does look like a defensible spot.”

Down the stairs, past the turnstiles, around yet another corner, and past a series of stairways that went down to the actual train station, there was a small roundabout filled with shops arranged around a broken fountain. The only two stores that had survived with minimal damage were the record shop in front of us and the souvenir shop to its right.

Too bad I couldn’t change her mind since the record shop was tactically sound. There was only one entrance and a hole in the left wall that went into the ambiguous shop that could serve as an emergency exit after a bit of force was applied to it. The interior of the record shop was trashed—bins and boxes of music discs in various conditions were scattered everywhere.

“You know what, I’m not going to argue. I’m tired, I’m all goopy and disgusting, and I just want to get some rest.” I wandered inside, shuffling my hooves so that I wouldn’t accidentally crush any of the records scattered on the floor.

“It’s okay—that gives me time to sort through all this MUSIC!” Sparkle cried in glee. “Speaking of sorting things, what was in the box you were going to go open?”

Right. The medical box. “It was empty,” I groaned, facehoofing at the contents that I had found.

Sparkle tilted her head in sympathy. “Aww.” I didn’t tell her that I’d actually found a note that had a crude drawing of a butt.

“You take first watch. I know you’re going to sort through all that old music anyway.” I cleared a small spot around me behind the counter so I could at least lie down. “Don’t get too carried away. If I wake up dead or missing, there will be words.”

“Yep, yep. I know.” Too late, she was already sifting through broken records and opening boxes in search of her next musical acquisition. “Sleep tight and whatevs.”

I yanked off my helmet and searched for the rag in my saddlebags that I used for wiping up miscellaneous messes. “Ugh. Right after this.” I began the arduous job of scraping off dried gunk off my power armor and helmet before they became any more unmanageable.

A small grin spread across my muzzle as I listened to Sparkle sort through things while humming some happy tune. Most of the other Paladins didn’t understand how I managed to be approachable and responsible at the same time. Little did they know that I made sure that I learned about my recruits and did my best to remember their individual quirks.

“Eeeee!” Sparkle squealed, holding an intact record aloft in her unarmored hooves. “The reprint of ‘Ain’t No Sleepies for the Meanies’ as performed by Corral the Pachyderm! I love this song!”

Junior Paladin Sparkle Cola really had a penchant for music. I’d won her over by “misplacing” a pre-war portable music player into her personal belongings. It wasn’t long before she’d established herself as the resident DJ and party mare—which got her in trouble a lot more often than I was comfortable with. But, hey, a happy soldier was a loyal soldier and that’s what counted to me.

Hmm, if I remembered how that song went, it was something along the lines of: “I said you're such a sweet young thing / Why do you do this to yourself? / She looked at me and this is what she said…” I smugly sang, a little off tune but it was close enough.

“There ain’t no sleepies for the meanies! / Bits don’t grow on treees!” Sparkle began to sing, a lot louder than I was expecting.

A rotten book to the side of her head was enough to grab her attention. “Shh! Not so loud,” I hissed, peeking over the counter to check if anything had heard us.

“Sorry,” Sparkle quietly apologized.

I waved my hoof casually. “It’s fine. Just take caution and think before you act, alright?”

“Yessir.”

Back to cleaning off bits of… “Is that a bottle cap?” I awkwardly asked out loud, trying to fix my gaze on the little curved bit of metal that happened to look a lot like currency.

Sparkle continued to search through piles of old cardboard and cracked vinyl for anything else she wanted to take with her. With a bit of effort, I picked off the bit of metal (not a bottle cap) and finally gave up on trying to stave off sleep. I made myself comfortable, locked up my armor, and I was out before I knew it.

~~~~~

Sleep wasn’t as peaceful as I hoped. All I could hear was the foreboding thrum of ominous chanting and shifty shadows in the dark. Every now and then, one of the shadows would coalesce into somepony I knew. They’d stamp their hooves in rhythm, make strange muted noises, then melt away again.

The next phantom that appeared before me just so happened to be Frosty. Strange thing was, she wasn’t doing much of anything at all. She cocked her head at me and did a cute little ear flop. I continued to stare, unable to make a move or make a sound. When I didn’t do much in response, she carefully took a few steps closer and sat down right in front of me.

“Up all night to get lucky.”

Her voice sounded funny, but I didn’t pay it much mind.

Frosty made a few mumbling noises that I couldn’t understand. “Ooh, you’re a keeper.” She abruptly giggled.

The low beat rose to a fevered pitch, echoing through my mind. My hooves wouldn’t budge, so I tried to block out the noise by flattening my ears against my head.

“Hey. What’s that? Wake up.”

I tried to block out the noise, maybe try to actually get some sleep once this surreal nightmare passed over.

“Yo. Wakey wakey.”

Something began to tug on my ears. Eh.

“Hey, this is important! C’mon!”

Important. Important could wait until later.

I was jolted awake by something warm and slimy worming its way into my ear. Beside me, Sparkle was giving me the most amused grin I’d ever seen on her as she wiped off her unarmored hoof. For a moment, I thought I was still dreaming when the low chanting didn’t stop, but I knew I was awake.

“You did not just wet willy me.”

Sparkle stifled a giggle. “Maaaybe,” she answered with a shrug.

Eww. I unlocked my armor and halfheartedly rubbed my ear before popping my helmet back on. “I assume we’re about to be under attack?” I asked, checking the load on Decrusty.

“You hear that chanting?”

Now that I was awake, I could sort of tell that it was the same phrase being droned over and over by many voices. “What do you make of it?”

“Sounds like… I don’t know. Point is, it keeps getting louder.” Sparkle began to tidy up her new acquisitions—five or six records in their packaging and bound with a combination of metal plating and utility tape for security. “I think it’s been going on for an hour or so. Thought it could be bad.”

I glanced at my blank E.F.S. “By the looks of it, they aren’t in range. Their voices are probably echoing because of the tunnels.” Once again, I checked the load on Decrusty in case she was going to see a little more combat.

Multiple individuals, probably a fifty-plus group by the sounds of it, meant trouble. Trouble usually devolved into altercations, and altercations almost always ended in casualties. Seeing as though there were only two of us, I had to decide whether to pull out before we were potentially overwhelmed.

“Hey, how many grenades do you have?” I asked, genuinely curious whether we could actually fight off an entire decently-armed cult or gang.

Sparkle donned her helmet and stared off into space for a moment. “Uh… enough.”

“Enough isn’t a number.”

She opted out to slam her hoof against the side of her helmet. “Apparently I’ve got squigglyblob-five-zero-zero-Q grenades left.”

Note to self, make sure Sparkle actually performed her mandatory maintenance checks.

A yellow dot appeared at the edge of my E.F.S. bar. “Down, down!” I hissed at Sparkle, complete with frantic gesturing.

Both of us squeezed behind the counter, only poking our heads up over to see exactly who or what was coming. Whatever it was, it barely made noise and it sounded like it was having a really difficult time trying to get up the stairs from the train platform. A second dot joined the first, this one much louder than the last. It grumbled with a distinctly stallion-esque voice about how much his joints hurt.

“Are we there yet? I’m gettin’ craaamps,” the voice groaned.

“No,” the other voice, a much softer feminine one, replied. “When I said that we were ‘almost there’, that doesn’t mean we are there.”

They sounded way too coherent to be raiders, and they weren’t other Rangers since they weren’t heavy-sounding enough. From the sounds of it, probably just more Wastelanders. Harmless, really. Unless they were packing firepower on Frosty’s scale, we’d be fine. I was more worried about the large group behind them that was slowly becoming louder and louder.

Wait… now that I could make out the chants, it quickly became clear that it definitely was a cult and the Wastelanders approaching us were probably their scouting team. It was that, or it was just a small collection of ponies with very loud echoey voices all saying “chugga” over and over again.

“Buckin’… eeew. Is that a leg?”

“No, it’s a candy cane.”

Ah, yes. The female was a sarcastic little shit. I knew somepony that might appreciate her humor.

“What’s a candy cane?”

I heard a hoof impact the backside of a head. “I wasn’t being serious, Tender.”

“Ow! You keep hitting me in the same spot,” the one apparently known as Tender whined. “I’m going to get bruises on my bruise.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be so dense.”

“What’s dat mean?”

The mare sighed in exasperation.

“OW! Are you qui—OW, stop!”

“We’ve got a little extra time before Ticketmaster Busted Dial will get angry for being late. Let’s check out these stupid shops and see if there’s anything worth bringing back.”

“But there’s never anyth—” Another loud slap. “Ow, wha’d I say?”

“Not the point. Let’s start with this one.”

The two worst scouts in the entire Wasteland finally passed our shop and glanced inside, only to freeze in terror. Only too late did I realize that a pair of Steel Rangers were really obvious when they were trying to hide, especially when they were peeking over their choice of cover. We all made eye contact for a fleeting moment before the two of them dashed off, shrieking and screaming for help.

Sparkle slowly turned to face me. “Great first impression, sir.”

I conked Sparkle over the head with my hoof. “Shut up. Now they’re going to run off and alert all their friends.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Besides, we’ve got high explosives, heavy armor, and bullets for days. What could go wrong?” Sparkle confidently replied.

“It’s the heavy armor I’m worried about. They’ve still got the numbers to simply overwhelm us and then they’ll have the advantage in close combat. We’ve got to get out of here before—”

“Greetings and salutations, honorable Steel Rangers. I hope our meeting finds you well?” A different voice, somepony much older and less whiny, called out. “The Train of Fate must be traveling in our direction; we could use your assistance in a matter.”

Damn, that was fast. At the moment, they seemed like they were willing to talk as opposed to immediately trying to sacrifice us to some sort of demonic eldritch god. As the Paladin Commander of the group, I decided to hazard communication with them and hope that I didn’t accidentally insult any of their misinformed beliefs. If that went badly, Decrusty was my Plan B.

I opened a private channel to Sparkle. “Keep quiet and do as I do. Safeties off. Don’t fire unless fired upon. Understand?” I curtly ordered.

Sensing the seriousness of the situation, Sparkle only nodded and stayed a few steps behind me as I confidently marched out of the music store. Patiently standing before us were a trio of bluish-gray robed earth ponies. Following the classic trend of leadership, the furiously huffing and puffing older one in the middle with the engineering cap and the gold-trimmed hood was most likely in charge.

Their leader (elder, commander, messiah, cult personality, whatever) couldn’t have been a more obnoxious clusterbuck of green. He was a pleasant puke-tinted green topped with a slightly more pale shade of barf for a mane. Similarly, a pale squarish patch of fuzz also stood out on his lower lip like a very small neon-green bloatsprite.

“Salutations, Steel Ranger. I am the honored Chief Engineer Soybean. How do I address you?” The robed cultist looked to me with a sort of reverence in his wizened eyes.

Well, this wasn’t the reception I was anticipating. “I am Paladin Commander Rumcake Rum and this is my subordinate Junior Paladin Sparkle Cola.” Sparkle made a hesitant waving motion at the the cultists.

Chief Engineer Soybean nodded and bowed his head. “These are my companions, Coal First Class and Tender First Class.” He motioned at the two hooded figures standing beside him.

So Tender was the larger stallion, and Coal was the abusive smaller mare to Soybean’s right. Disturbingly, both were the spitting image of the other besides the obvious gender difference. They had the coats the color of coal dust and the same emotionless orange eyes. Even their manes matched from the front—they were a good length longer than regulation with a thick orange stripe running down the far left side. Cutie marks were hidden under the boring coats they wore, so I decided to imagine that those were similar as well.

“So… Chief Engineer, what is this about needing assistance? We’re on a tight schedule with our own affairs,” I emotionlessly stated. “We do appreciate the amicable meeting. It’s nice to have a civilized chat in the middle of the Wasteland.”

“Let us hope it stays that way, Ranger.”

The way he said that sounded like a challenge. Maybe I was letting doubt cloud my mind, maybe it was just me being tired. “Are you testing my bounds, Chief Engineer?”

A shadow of fright flashed across Soybean’s face. “Let’s not make decisions that we’ll regret later.” He nervously chuckled.

I narrowed my eyes, the effect of which was lost thanks to my helmet. “Are you threatening me, Chief Engineer Soybean? Mind you that me and my subordinate can and will end you on the spot.” Just for emphasis, I gave Decrusty’s barrel a gentle spin.

“Eh, I think you mean ‘my subordinate and I’, as opposed to—” I increased the rotational speed of Decrusty’s barrel as Soybean spoke. “No, no no! Hold on, hold on—we can have a beneficial relationship if we just put our differences aside.”

“Explain.”

Soybean hastily pulled open Coal’s robe and dug inside before showing me a somewhat dented laser rifle. “I’ve heard you search for these? We’ve got a good number of these that we don’t particularly want to use since we don’t have enough ammunition to go around. If you help us with our slight problem, I can make a few of these yours.” Exposition done, he stood there and hopefully stared at us.

Darn it, he had my attention. “Alright, you have five minutes to fully explain what the problem is and what you expect us to do.” All three robed ponies almost began to prance for joy on the spot.

Realizing that his five minutes had started, Soybean quickly regained his composure. “A violent tunnel gang calling themselves the ‘Funnel Cakes’ moved into the next station on this rail line, which also happens to be our next stop. They have barred all passage through that area and are generally being a giant conglomerated nuisance about it.”

Assuming the raiders on the surface weren’t in the way, we wouldn’t need to use that path. “Have you tried asking what they want?” Never hurt to ask, really.

Coal loudly snorted. “Duh. That was the first thing we asked.”

“And?” Sparkle inquired.

“They kinda just want us to die, and stuff.” She stamped her hooves and shifted back and forth. “It’s that, or they like to say hi with bullets.”

Okay, so these “Funnel Cakes” characters were the shooty kind that didn’t care about making friends. “And I assume you want us to go bulldoze our way through their station so you can pass through?” I asked, heading for the obvious request.

“Essentially. I am partial toward the Love Train, but whatever gets the job done will do just fine. Secure us passage through to Central Station and you shall be greatly rewarded.”

A few more laser weapons would be a nice addition to our arsenal, for both personal and for the base armory when we got back. We probably had enough time to quickly do a little house cleaning for these Wastelanders and still maintain a somewhat feasible mission completion time. Maybe whoever was blocking the tunnel had some nice stuff to loot.

I made the command decision to go ahead. “Alright, we’ll do it. Point us in the right direction, and we’ll be back in a few.” Sparkle made a few annoyed grunting noises, but I didn’t really give her much mind since I was the one in charge.

Soybean gestured in a vaguely sort of leftish motion, away from the echoes of ‘chugga chugga’. “Look for the Station of Five at the junction of Street Nine and the Street of Flower. Once you see it, their fortification is just down the track.” He fished in his robe and offered me a little talisman on a string that looked suspiciously like a miniature steam gauge. “Some of our passengers have an aversion to Steel Rangers, but they might find you less daunting with a Blessing of Steam.”

“What’s it mean? Spend more money?” Sparkle frowned, watching Soybean loop it around my neck.

Normally I would have refused, but it seemed like going along with this crazy pony’s train of thought was a better idea. Train. Damn, they were getting to me. “It’s a charm that brings haste and speed to the wearer.” Soybean made sure to double-knot the little talisman in place.

“Does it work?” I asked, legitimately curious.

I heard Tender loudly snort. “Yeah, it gets you from zero to eighty-eight in about ten seconds flat.”

Sparkle thoughtfully tapped the chin of her helmet in mock thought. “I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or you’re stupid enough to believe that.”

“All aboard the Overreaction Train.” Coal waved his right hoof around in a huge circle and then made a tugging motion. “Choo choo.”

“Choo choo,” the other two cultists hastily added.

I quickly switched on a private channel to Sparkle. “Don’t provoke them. They’re willing to pay, so let’s see where this goes.” Warning issued, I switched back to speech mode. “I accept your mission and I expect due payment on our return.” I did note the heavy static and realized that radio communications wouldn’t work well down here.

Soybean eagerly nodded. “We shall be waiting in the station. Find me, or any of the other Engineers. They will also be able to give you your payment.”

“Easy enough. We’ll stroll on down, lay down some explosive, and come right on back. Bingo bango bongo. Bish bash bosh.”

~~~~~

When we arrived at the bend just before the location specified by the Cult of the Train, I started to feel that we were being misinformed just a tad. The barricade that we had been tasked with clearing was, in reality, more like a castle.

Cleverly enough on the Funnel Cakes’ part, they’d cut a train car in half and turned it sideways to block the entire tunnel, while still being able to have their sentry guns point out of the open windows. They had three standard M.W.T. automated guns, probably taken from elsewhere in the station. Those automated guns could do a lot of damage, even to Steel Ranger armor.

They even had four guards standing on top of the train itself, partially obscured by the train doors welded to their blockade’s roof that they were using as cover. Three of four of the guards weren’t particularly paying attention, idly chatting with each other or fiddling with their gear. Gear, meaning their strange bomber jackets and assorted casual headwear. As for weapons, they were all armed with zebra assault rifles that looked like they were in quite good condition.

I retreated back around the bend to meet up with Sparkle, who was busy adjusting her grenade launcher. “Okay, looks like four potential hostiles armed with assault rifles and three automated M.W.T. guns. Shouldn’t be a huge problem, but we have no intel on what they’ve got inside.” Just in case, I double-checked the load on Decrusty and my missile launcher. One hundred rounds in the belt and two missiles left. Good enough.

Multiple scenarios passed through my mind. What if they were friendly? They had some really heavy ordinance—meaning that they had something to protect. If they immediately opened fire, would we be able to survive the first onslaught? Assuming so, we’d probably have a good five seconds to unload our respective payloads and another fifteen before one of us went down from a lucky penetrating shot.

“I’ve got enough grenades to punch a hole in anything,” Sparkle replied, still busy trying to do something to her grenade-delivery device. “That is, if this thing will stop jamming every six grenades.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“One of the teeth on the main gears broke off. Like, every now and then I’ll have to manually cycle the next grenade in. It’s not too bad, but damn is it annoying.” We probably had extra parts back at base, but she’d probably have to deal with that for the time being. “Ugh, the things I’d do for a bench right now.”

“Well, you don’t. Buck up and gear up—we’ve got work to do.” I gave Sparkle an encouraging tap on the back. “We’ll move out once you’re ready.”

In the time it took for me to about-face and take a deep breath, there were a multitude a of mechanical noises followed by the cha-clank of a grenade being loaded into a chamber. Sounded like Sparkle wasn’t going to give me the satisfaction of waiting on her.

“Let’s get to the beatdown.”

~~~~~

“Hold it right there, turd. Not a step closer or you’re getting more holes than a slut after… uh… ah… Just stop right there!” one of the guards on top of the barricade shakily yelled, which also alerted the other guards to pick up their weapons and point them at us.

Obediently, I stopped in my tracks. “I don’t like him already,” I muttered sidelong to Sparkle.

The guard in question, a sort of panicky looking young colt barely old enough to have his cutie mark, unsteadily brandished his rifle in our direction. He had a weak courageous facade plastered on his face, which really annoyed me for no particular reason.

“You are obstructing movement in these tunnels to the Cult of the Train,” I flatly boomed. “Dismantle this barricade and disperse, or face the consequences.”

A different one, one I also immediately decided I didn’t like, magically swung an oversized knife as us in what I assumed was supposed to be threatening. “Or what? You’ll cry all over us? I’m so buckin’ scared.” I also assumed this one was also some variation of gray, seeing as his poorly fitting gray balaclava blended into his face.

Unfortunate, but I’d been waiting for an excuse to fire off this one-liner. “Cry about this.” Decrusty spun up and began spew hot death metal at the guards on top of the train car. Beside me, Sparkle caught the hint and rapid-fired grenades into the automated guns before they had time to activate properly.

Within the next ten seconds there was nothing left of the half-traincar except a flaming pile of wreckage. Of course, that also meant that the turrets that I had hoped to salvage had been reduced to a flaming pile of scrap as well. We were alive, there was a hole in the barricade, and there were angry shouts and yelling coming from the other side.

“Stupid thing’s stuck. Almost made it through an entire belt, too,” Sparkle angrily grumbled. “I’ve got turntables more durable than this.”

A bright red strobe light mounted on the tunnel ceiling was being particularly annoying, so I decided to shoot it to spare me the post-combat headache. “Looks like we’ll have to push through and clear the area. Doesn’t sound like they’re too friendly.” A stray bullet pinged off my armor, thus proving my point.

“Give it a second.” There was a loud clank, then four grenades suddenly streaked through the air and detonated somewhere behind the destruction. “Whoops.”

Some of the yelling abruptly stopped, probably in a shower of gore and explosives. “You know, we could probably just leave and they’d sort themselves out,” I mused.

“I like that idea.”

A pitiful smattering of gunfire pinged off our armor. “What we agreed on was to demolish a barricade. Barricade no longer exists. Problem solved. Let’s go get our reward,” I finally decided, doing my best to ignore the ineffectual attacks on us.

One bullet managed to shatter Sparkle’s helmet-mounted headlight. “That stupid gangster just shot my Ravemakerinator Twenty-five and seven-fourths! That cost like, a lot of caps!” She was obviously enraged, but justifiably so—she’d searched hundreds of pre-war ruins for the one that just got destroyed.

Much faster than I gave her credit for, Sparkle dove into the burning fray and aggressively dragged out the one pony that I had found to be a complete eyesore. Somehow, he was not only relatively unscathed, but he also managed to keep a grip on his assault rifle as Sparkle dragged him over by one of his hind legs. Fortunately for us, and unfortunately for him, he fumbled his only spare magazine and fruitlessly pawed at it as she dragged him farther away from it.

Maybe I could come up with something witty. Or possibly something more menacing to make this ugly sod pee himself a little. Maybe something Frosty would say, just to see his reaction.

Hm. I guess I had that devious little pegasus on my mind.

Perhaps I would try smooth intimidation first, just to see what would happen. Sparkle roughly threw our brand new captive right in front of me before I had time to formulate something that wasn’t “Tell us everything you know and maybe I won’t turn you into soup”. Or maybe I could say something a little more retro like “Your move, creep”.

“Y-you won’t take me alive!” the little guy stammered. Blackish-gray bits of mane protruded from under his threadbare kepi, which had an old Equestrian Navy logo stamped on it. His muted orange coat nearly blended into the pale orange lining of his dark bomber jacket. Still didn’t like him.

That definitely caught me off guard and threw my hastily thought out response out the window. “We just did.”

Hm. That wasn’t remotely close to intimidating. Darn.

His next action was to futilely swing his empty rifle at my legs. I would have let him continue doing that until he got tired had the action not been scuffing my armor. A valiant effort on his part, though. I easily swatted the gun away before another scratch could be put on my armor.

“That’s enough of that. You’re coming with us,” I growled, giving our new prisoner a quick cuff on the forehead. He immediately squealed in fear and began to cower, curling himself up into a whimpering ball on the ground. “Huh. And here I was thinking that there would be a little more resistance.”

“What do we do with him now?” Sparkle asked.

I kept an eye on the smoking wreck in the tunnel just in case somepony decided to come check on us. So far, so good. Nopony from Orangey Prisoner’s group or gang or whatever decided to come check, probably because they were absolutely terrified of the two Steel Rangers that just wrecked all their cool toys. Toys that I sort of wanted to bring back to the base, but it was a little late for that. Reminder to future Rumcake: make Sparkle pack some spark grenades and tear gas for special cases.

Back on topic. “At least one of us has duct tape. Truss this guy up and let’s see if these train guys want some funnel cake.”

Sparkle loudly facehoofed. “Boo, Rumcake. Boo.”

~~~~~

Somehow, the Cult of the Train had amassed quite the following—much larger than either of us had ever anticipated. It was as if we had walked back in time when we returned to the station, our brand new captive in tow. Garbage and litter were nowhere to be seen, ponies—most likely cultists, based on their identical gray and black striped scarves—filled the station and milled about in a sort of drone-like stupor. The only sounds were our armored hooves stomping the ground and barely audible muttering of the huge collection of ponies.

“Holy Celestia, this floor was blue?” Sparkle pulled herself up to the platform, unceremoniously dragging Orangey over a pair of equally-clean tracks and up the short ledge. “By the code, they’ve polished the floors too. Damn.”

I silently marveled at the cleaning ability of these cultists and sarcastically remarked, “My goddesses, it even has a watermark.” Maybe these guys weren’t too bad after all. I briefly entertained the thought of abducting a few of them to go give Happy Hills a good scrubbing before dismissing it as far too silly.

“Eh?”

Right, all she did was listen to music. “Bad joke. Let’s go find this ‘Engineer Soybean’ and get paid. We’ve got better things to do,” I curtly stated, casting a sweeping glance at the crowd again.

Several ponies wearing the same exact striped hat with the same pattern cued me into the early conclusion that they had to have some sort of authority or power position in their cult. It was either that or that they just had very similar taste in hats. Hazarding a guess, I made my way to the closest hatted one by pushing past the several scarfed cultists in my way.

I opted out for a more polite approach, just in case. “Pardon. My subordinate and I have returned from a quest assigned to us by…” What was it again? Ah, right. Chief Engineer. That was his rank. “Chief Engineer Soybean. We were informed that upon completion of our objective to report to him, or any other members of his rank.”

The yellow earth pony I was addressing spent a few seconds to process my question, continuing to give me the same blank glaze-eyed stare. “Uh… Chief Engineer Soybean is overseeing a grand mission from the Conductor himself.” Perfect.

Sparkle groaned, “Great. Where can we find another Engineer?”

“Honey Comb probably knows.” He began to fruitlessly look left and right, which did nothing but unseat the unruly mop of brownish hair under his cap. “Honey Comb knows. Honey Comb. Honey.”

And now he’d suddenly developed mindlock. “This is precisely why intelligence tests are mandatory,” I muttered to myself.

“What’s your name, kid?” Great thinking, Sparkle. Give him something else to get confused about.

He gave Sparkle a very confused and glazed look. “Uh… Wash. Steward Wash.” The pony, Wash, happily grinned as if coming up with his own name was an achievement. “Hi.”

“Is Steward your name or your rank?” Good question, Sparkle.

“Rank. One day I’ll be one of the Engineers. Imagine the honor of serving under the Conductor himself!”

“Okay, Wash, where can we find someone in charge? Think about this for a minute.” I pressed harder, hoping to the Elements that he actually knew. Lacking that, hopefully the other Stewards were a little smarter. “No pressure.”

“Well… Chief Engineers Boa and Trot are usually away conducting their own crusades. Very rarely are all four Chiefs together in the same room. With Chief Engineer Soybean out, your only other option is Chief Engineer Flying Fish. Although to be warned, he might be asleep.”

“And where, exactly?” I pressed harder, this being the most helpful that Wash could probably be.

Unfortunately, asking for anything more resulted in Wash’s brain getting fried. He added a slack-jawed confused stare to his already glazed expression. All that I managed to get from him was a sort of half-nod before he returned to his business of staring at the wall next to us in the exact same manner.

“There’s one over there to interrogate,” Sparkle suggested, which wasn’t a bad idea.

Without any other options, I followed Sparkle’s gaze and caught sight of the hatted pale orange mare she was staring at. “Oh good, it’s a unicorn. Maybe she won’t be nearly as stupid.” Harnessing the power of brute strength, I pushed through the loose crowd of lesser muttering cultists.

“Excuse me, ma’am. We’re looking for one of your many leaders in order to notify them that their mission assigned to us has been completed,” I sort of projected at the back of her head.

In the moment it took me to blink, the mare had turned around and faced me with a worryingly ecstatic grin. She didn’t even bother to adjust the tangle of green that escaped her white ponytail. Although, similarly, she did have the same sort of glazed-over look that the last one did.

“Hey there! Glad to see a new fa—er, helmet around. Heard ‘bout you two from the other Stewards. We’re all busy little bees here, so your help’s darn tootin’ useful.” She reached over and, in a surprising display of strength, lifted up my hoof and shook it vigorously. “Howdy there! Honey Comb the Steward!”

“Hi. Could you point us to your Chief Engineer guy?” I retrieved my hoof from Honey Comb after a forceful tug or two. Something about these two bugged me greatly, but I couldn’t really put my hoof on it.

“Why didn’tcha say so?”

Very simply, I answered, “I hadn’t gotten to it.” This wasn’t exactly the conversation I had in mind, although this was going better than speaking to Wash.

Another mare, this one of a midnight bluish coat and slightly lighter mane, edged into our conversation. “Honey Comb, leave the Steel Ranger alone.” Oh good, a different unicorn to talk to.

“Li’l Scrappy, you don’t tell me what to do,” Honey huffed.

Scrappy rolled her golden eyes. “I do tell you what to do now. I’m a Senior Steward as of two days ago.”

“No!” Honey gasped.

Scrappy gave a her a confident grin. “Yep.”

I stomped my hoof against the aging floor tiles to get their attention. “Not to ruin the congratulations here, ladies, but I’ve got somepony to talk to. Can somepony please tell me where to find one of your Chief Engineers?”

Our recent capture groaned. “Want a free crazy pony?” Sparkle added with a hint of amusement in her voice.

“I’m sure that Senior Steward Scrap Heap knows all,” Honey sarcastically spat.

Scrappy—correction—Scrap Heap grinned. “Yeah, I do. Your best bet is Chief Engineer Flying Fish. He’s probably either taking a nap in the ticket booth or reading his weird comics somewhere.”

As fun as it would be, splitting up to search both options couldn’t be an option because of the lack of comms down here. “Which of the two is the more likely choice?”

“Sleeping,” both cultists immediately responded.

I nodded. “Thank you for your help.” Before I turned away, I made a little circling motion with my hoof. “And now you can return to your previous conversation. Come along, Sparkle.”

“Yes sir.” Dutifully, Sparkle hefted our captive and slung him over her back. “C’mon. Stop dragging your hooves.”

Then it was off to the ticket booth, which was conveniently marked out by one of the many arrows printed on the floor and the signs on the walls. I was about to question how any of this signage had survived until I caught sight of several groups of ponies garbed in all different types of clothing—raider barding, bodyguard’s armor, Wastelander rags, slaver barding—all working together with cans of paint and cleaning rags to restore the station.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Sparkle muttered behind me.

The first thing I’d assumed was that all the small fry joined up in the cult and that was that. However, there was just no way that everypony got along together this well. There weren’t any dirty looks, no aggression, no nothing. I was at least expecting the raiders—especially the more raidery ones—to scream, yell obscenities, or get violent. One of them, still wearing his bloody war paint and necklace of severed ears, was happily assisting a tiny little zebra push his bucket of muddy water around. Something about this cult bugged me a lot, but I couldn’t exactly say what.

At least Sparkle noticed as well. “What’s your take on this?” I asked, hoping she had an answer for me.

We stopped in front of the ticket booth, which was basically a small tin box with shuttered windows, ticket prices printed on the lower half of the closed shutters. Through the cracks of the shutters, I could see an amorphous pony-shaped blob in the darkness behind it.

“My bits are on some sort of really compelling idea or something. Rudimentary religion, maybe?” Sparkle suggested. “Something’s gotta be holding them together.”

That made sense. “Maybe. I’ve got a feeling there’s something more though. Just a hunch.” I gently tapped against the metal shutters to get the inhabitant’s attention. “Knock knock.”

There was a groan, one not unlike somepony rising from the dead. “What else can you really do to make ponies listen?” Sparkle asked in the meantime.

“Mind control?” It was the first thing that came to mind.

“That’s stupid. This many?”

I shrugged at the same time as the shutters squeaked open. “I don’t know how magic works. Beats me.”

“W’dya want.” Presumably Chief Engineer Flying Fish—the robes matched Soybean’s—groaned. “M’busy.”

“We’re here to report that your job assigned to us has been completed.” What I didn’t mention was that we’d literally fulfilled the bare minimum of the job. “And we were told that you could supply us with payment.”

Our captive squirmed and fell off of Sparkle with a panicked squeal.

“Who’s that?” the Chief Engineer grumbled, rubbing his eyes. “Friend of yours?”

I glared at Orangey. “We nabbed him on the way out. Want him?”

The Chief Engineer squinted at Orangey. “Well, well, well. So the prodigal son returns. You finally crawled out of that hole you’ve been hiding in, have you?”

The duct tape wrapped around Orangey’s muzzle was finally ripped off so he could get a word in or two, just for fun. “I’ll never join you and your scum!”

Flying Fish—as we were currently assuming—flipped back his hood and we got a good look at him. He had murky blue eyes that were more focused on us than the pony he was talking to. His mane was roughly cropped, odd length silvery mane sticking to and fro. His pale blue coat, however, was in much better condition. If I had time, I needed to figure out how he kept it that way.

“Bargain bin Laden, we’ve had this argument before. In fact, we’ve had it on four separate occasions. Make it easy for us and just give up.”

“You’re a flying fish out of water, asshole. Never.” Thank you, context clues.

“We’ll break you one way or another.” Chief Engineer Flying Fish nodded to us. “We’ll take him.”

I made a curt gesture to Sparkle not to do anything. “And of our payment?”

Flying Fish stood up and shook himself. “Of course. Follow.”

And follow we did, literally ten feet over to a locked door that was simply labeled “Cleaning Supplies (Wet Paint)”. Of course, there weren’t actually cleaning supplies inside the room—they’d converted the room into an armory. Although after the door bumped into my shoulder and left a smear of green, I figured the other half of the sign was true.

“Looks like we dropped the ball on that one,” Sparkle blurted at the sight of all the weapons literally piled up by weapon and by ammunition type. “That’s a lot of bucking plasma.”

I eyed the short pile of miniguns and the much larger pile of ammunition crates. “This is an alarming amount of ordinance. Enough for a small army, even.”

“And that’s all my shit!” Bargain angrily wriggled on the ground and tried to gnaw at Flying’s ankles. “If you don’t give it back, my mercs are going to wreck you into next month.”

Hold on. “Mercenaries? You mean Talon mercenaries or the rent-a-merc caravan guys?”

A grin spread across Bargain’s stupid annoying face. “My Talon buddies. They’re probably waiting for their reinforcements right now.”

That threw a wrench in our plans. Horseapples.

Very calmly, thanking my helmet for blocking my slightly fearful expression, I droned “Junior Paladin Sparkle, a word. Outside.”

“Uh… okay.” Sparkle nodded.

And outside we went, to the dull thrum of chattering cultists. I waited for the door to close behind me before revealing the bad news. “This guy hired Talon mercenaries to protect his shipment, probably. The shipment that these Train guys stole, probably. And these Talons want the other half of their pay or—”

“Probably,” Sparkle interrupted. “What’s the plan?”

As cool as bringing back several hundred weapons would be, angering the Talon mercs wouldn’t be a wise move on my part. Even without these guns, they still had firepower and skill that rivaled the Steel Rangers, especially my Rangers. The smart move would be to liberate the merchant that we’d captured and bring back his guns as well, but that required more time, work, planning, and supplies we didn’t have. Hm.

“Idea.” I smirked under my helmet. “We’ll pass ourselves off as the goody goody horseshoes Rangers and bug on out before the Talons arrive for their guy. Sure, we won’t get our weapons but at least we won’t get wrecked. Time to make a hasty advance in the opposite direction, Sparkle.”

“You mean retreat?”

Wording was everything. “A tactical advance away from this place.”

I opened the door a crack and very diplomatically stated, “As part of our new direction, we, the Steel Rangers, encourage the everyday Wastelander to take up arms to defend themselves against the hostile wastes. And, uh, keep the annoying little shit.”

I let the door shut on a very bewildered pair of ponies, being sure to minimize contact with the door. No need to look more green than I already was. Sparkle quickly followed behind me as I weaved and pushed through cultists to get back to the tunnels.

“Hearing you say that crap made me sick,” Sparkle finally spoke up.

“Saying that made me sick.” And then we hastily hauled it out of there.

~~~~~

As it turned out, the remains of the barricade finally stopped burning. It also turned out that whatever was left of the Funnel Cakes gang had either pulled back and abandoned the station or full-on retreated after our previous assault. Possessions had been scattered around the tunnel and platform areas, and grisly carnage was still plastered all over things because of Sparkle’s grenades.

On the way up the stairs out, a little broken toy pony stared up at me. “You know, I think my dad tried to give me one of those when I was growing up,” I suddenly decided to bring up. “I think he really liked the yellowish one. The stupid looking one with the funny hat, if I remember correctly.”

Sparkle stopped short. “Came with a tiny fiddle, right?”

I tried to remember. “Probably?”

We continued up the stairs. “I have the little gray one with the big fiddle. She’s a little scuffed up, though.”

“Big fiddle,” I repeated

“What? I don’t know what it’s called.”

I snorted. “Said the music mare.”

“It’s sooo old! I don’t need to know what it’s called anymore,” Sparkle whined. “You don’t know what it’s called anyway.”

Not to be outsmarted, I randomly guessed, “It’s a tuba.” The second those words left my mouth I realized that wasn’t right.

“Tuba. A tuba?

Once again, I thanked my helmet for hiding my face. “Don’t even start. That’s an order.”

We emerged back out into the darkness of the Wasteland. Just as we were ascending the stairs, four Talon Mercs were doing the opposite. I should have caught them on E.F.S. but the “task” of coming up with the correct instrument had managed to take all of my attention.

I nearly walked right into one of them as I grumbled about Sparkle. At the same time, the griffon in front of me noticed me as well and squawked in alarm. A more precise term might be “piddling one’s combat fatigues while squealing like a little filly”, but that was difficult to apply to the menacing-looking tawny griffin falling over and squawking in front of us. Of course, it was easier to apply to Sparkle, who had decided to trip and bounce down the stairs we just came up from.

Being the cool, level-headed Paladin Commander I was, I firmly planted my hooves on the uneven stairs and unfolded Decrusty. Similarly, the other four griffins leveled their revolvers, shotguns, and double-barreled missile launcher. Two barrels!

“Oh shit!” one of the griffons—they all looked the same to me—swore.

“Hold it!” I yelled, at the same time.

Nopony moved, for once. Nopony fired or said a word. Well, except for Sparkle, who kept crying “Ow, ow ow!” as she bounced off more stairs, until she hit the bottom with a heavy clang and an “Oof”.

Finally, big fat armored griffin spoke up. “Lookit who we’ve got here! Tin ponies got lost.” He paused for a second to yell at the Talon on the ground, “Get off your ass, rook.”

“We have no quarrel with the Talons. You continue with your business, and we will continue with ours.” I made sure to keep Decrusty pointed at the rocket launcher griffin, just in case.

“Yeah. Buzz off, vultures.” Sparkle spat, having finally crawled back up the stairs.

Revolvers Griffin delivered a nasty haymaker to Armored Shotgun Griffin, who barely even reacted to the impact. “If Rangers wanted us dead, we’d be paste. Stow ‘em, boys. They ain’t fightin’ us today.” Shotgunny stumbled and comically tipped over like a turtle.

They did as they were told, so I retracted Decrusty as well. “What brings you to these parts?” I had a pretty good idea, but I would rather be sure.

“One of them caravans our boys got paid to watch got ransacked. The ‘ployer wants his shit back and my boys want their caps. I’m just here to keep my boys from doin’ something stupid.” She held out her claw. “The boys call me Big Fluffy.”

Behold the terror-inducing featherweight known only as “Fluffy”. How unironically creative. Being the polite stallion I was, I still reached out and shook it. “Paladin Commander Rumcake. You wouldn’t mind if I took a look at your contract, would you?”

Fluffy reached into the front of her vest and held a sheet of ragged paper in my face. “It’s a legit contract. What are you, Regulators?” At a glance, their papers were in order as per Talon bureaucratics.

“Blah, blah, blah, escort delivery of weapons, defense of goods and employees, blah, blah blah.” All of the standard boring crap that didn’t say anything out of the ordinary. “Hey, wait a second—I know that name.”

Ignoring the massive list of weapons and ammunition, the Talon Company had been paid to escort one “Bargain Bin Laden” and his caravan of goods to some backwater town I hadn’t heard of, on the payment of our very own Sleazy McCheapkins. Fortunate for us that we hadn’t taken the weapons for ourselves, otherwise we would have had a very interesting problem.

“Some crazy guys in the underground are taking him as a prisoner.” Not necessarily a lie. “Still alive, last time I checked.” Hopefully the Cult of the Train hadn’t decided to change that in the short time since we’d departed.

Big Fluffy victory-slapped Armored Shotgun Griffin and squawked, “Hear that? We got a lead, boys! Let’s get this done and we’ll be back in time for chow.”

X~~~X

“Since you’re Rumcake’s special little somepony, I guess you should be the first to know,” Instant Noodles idly mentioned to me while I lounged in the machine shop listening to Baked Potato’s silly stories and mindless prattle.

“Huh?” I roused myself out of my half-asleep state.

Eloquent as always, Frosty.

Shut up, brain. Hard enough focusing already.

“One of the other scribes told me Rumcake’s armor tag disappeared from our scanners a few hours ago. And Sparkle’s, too. It’s probably nothing, since they’ve missed a few maintenance appointments or they’ve just gone underground somewhere. If you want, I could tell you their last known coordinates.” Instant regarded me for a few more moments. “You look… off. Something on your mind?”

Worst-case scenarios flashed through my head. “No! Nothing at all,” I lied. “Just… didn’t really sleep well.” Damn it. I wanted to make sure if he was okay, but I really needed to get moving. I only had a month left, tops. No time to keep doing other things, Frosty! I was sure he could handle himself.

Can he, though? After him!

Dammit, brain!


Footnote: No new levels. Yes. Really.
Current Sub-perk: None.

Chapter 14: How do you feel about flight?

View Online

Chapter 14: How do you feel about flight?

“Thank you, but I don't think a couple of nuts will solve my big flying problem.”


“I’m going after Rumcake,” I declared. “That doofus probably needs saving, again.” He probably needed my help, and I was going to give it to him.

…Or maybe he’d fallen into a hole and gotten lost and didn’t need my help.

The conflicting thoughts running through my mind must have shown, because Instant frowned and mentioned, “You know, it’s probably nothing.”

Saying that only made me worry more. “But what if it isn’t?” I had a frightening image of Rumcake slowly sinking in a quicksand pit. The image was immediately ruined by an imaginary Sparkle-Cola trying to help by swinging a giant radpython to him.

“He’s our Paladin Commander. I’m sure he can handle himself,” Instant reassured me. “Besides, don’t you need some rest?”

Now that Rumcake was in danger—

Possibly in danger.

Fine, probably in danger. Point being, I didn’t feel tired anymore. “What if he forgot to, I don’t know, pack extra batteries?”

“Extra batteries?” Instant arched an eyebrow at me. “Really? Look, just forget I brought it up.” She regarded me for a moment. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“You made me paranoid!” I sputtered back, prancing in place. Imaginary Rumcake had sunk up to his neck in oatmeal and had begun to merrily rotate in place, pausing only to wave at Filly Frosty giggling from the edge of the bowl.

Hold on a second.

Don’t look at me. You’re the one with the nervous munchies.

“I need to know if he’s okay!”

Instant Noodles regarded me doubtfully. “If you really can’t be convinced otherwise, I’m going to have you take one of our scribes with you that can do armor repair. Just in case.”

“Sure, whatever.” I looked into my saddlebag for supplies. Supplies that I didn’t find nearly enough of. “I’ll go restock on healing potions and food later.”

“Help yourself to the pantry and medical building.” Instant left the room with her robes billowing out behind her. I was about to head out to the aforementioned buildings to acquire massive amounts of loot, when Instant charged back in. “Within reason!” she blurted. Damn. Well, there goes that idea.

“Would reason be… all the healing potions?” I nervously grinned.

Instant was not amused. “No.”

“Aww. Fine,” I mumbled. After taking a reasonable number of healing potions from the Steel Rangers’ ridiculously large stock and helping myself to a few boxes of apocalypse-proof food, I was ready. Well, almost ready. I needed to stop by Doc’s clinic first.

Doc was noticeably different. His mane was more bedraggled than usual, and it looked like he hadn’t slept yet. “Hey there, Frosty. Need anything?” he asked without even turning around. I opened my muzzle to ask, but he somehow knew. “Your clink-clanking kind of gives you away.”

I shook the uncomfortable feeling in my gut and asked, “Got any extra medical stuff? The Rangers only let me off with a hoof-full of healing potions and a few healing bandages.” Something told me that something was wrong with Doc, but I didn’t want to press the issue. Unless he wanted to talk about it.

Whatever it was, Doc didn’t want to share. “I think I can spare a few med-bands and some painkillers.” Wherever they were, I didn’t see them. They were probably stored somewhere more sterile. “Oh, and there’s also my slightly more improved combat stims,” he added as an afterthought.

“You mean the ones that killed me not too long ago?”

Doc looked sheepish. “If it makes you feel any better, I ironed out that teensy little problem.”

It didn’t. “I wouldn’t call it a small problem.”

“Sorry! You got the initial test batch since I didn’t have time to run trials.” A likely story, but I decided to listen anyway. “But it’s okay, I threw it through a distillery and refined it a little and now it probably won’t kill you.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Probably?”

“I’m eighty-five percent sure that this is ninety percent safe about seventy percent of the time,” Doc brightly explained. “And I filtered out most of the asbestos, so this is even OSHA compliant.”

Maybe not paying attention in chemistry was finally paying off. Whatever asbestos did, I probably didn’t want to know. “Uh huh,” I neutrally grunted. “Screw it, I’ll chance one. Never know when I’ll need an ace in the hole.”

“Sure, sure.” He opened several of his many boxes and floated another syringe full of mystery syrupy smashy goodness into my bag, along with a few assorted other medical supplies. I stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do next. “I’m going to assume you need something else?”

I hesitated, then did what Instant would do in this situation. “Something the matter?” I walked over and placed a hoof on his shoulder. “Wanna talk about it?”

Doc sighed and dropped the medical bag he was assembling. “I just never took Backstabber as the disloyal type.” Then he broke down in tears. I held the grown stallion awkwardly in my forelegs as he sobbed into my left shoulder. “He… he used to be my friend!”

“Well…” I really wanted to call him an idiot, but now seemed inappropriate. Wait. “This wouldn’t be our dear Agent Tabber, would it?”

He nodded, sniffling.

Oh. OH! Now that made sense. “It’s not just you. He betrayed all of us,” I consoled him, before realizing that that might not have been the best thing to say. His tears trickled down the sides of my arm and pooled on the cool metal joint attached to my claw.

“It’s just…” Doc started, wailing harder.

I patted his mane. “There, there. We’ll get revenge one day. Lacking that, I will.” Tabber was the least of my worries right now, though. I still had to get to Friendship City before my contract ran out and I died for good. “Please, stop crying. You’re going to make me rust.”

“Sorry.” Doc used the edge of his doctor’s coat to wipe his face. “Unprofessional of me.” He backed away and silently sobbed to himself. “Shouldn’t have trusted him to change. Shouldn’t have let him go with you.”

“It’s totally alright,” I said while drying off my shoulder. “The Wasteland is cruel to the best of us. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” I knew that firsthoof.

…Well, okay, not really. Sort of.

“Look, let’s just get past all of this and move on,” I continued. “Whatever he was going to do, he failed.” At least I hoped so.

“The past always comes back to haunt you,” Doc whimpered. “You can’t escape it.”

Rusty wandered in from the back room holding a broom in his mouth. I hastily pointed at Doc, who had moved onto wallowing in a pile of empty bottles, and motioned for help. Rusty silently leaned the broom against the wall and pulled Doc out of the bottles. “C’mon, Doc. Let’s get you a drink, and maybe a nap.”

I silently thanked him and slunk out of the clinic. The little orange mare that I saw in the machine shop was waiting for me, decked out in her scribe robes. Her curly striped orange and white mane barely poked out of the hood she was hiding behind. I also noted a horn hidden underneath that hood of hers. “Uh, h-hello, Miss Winds? I’m Junior Scribe Tangerine. I’ve been assigned to you until our Rangers have been recovered.”

“Nice to meet you, Tangerine.” I held out my claw as a greeting, but she shied away from me. Was I really that scary? “Uh… right.” My claw was placed back onto the ground. “I need to go get some ammunition from Sleazy, then we’ll be ready to go.”

“I was informed of your arsenal, and I retrieved your ammunition accordingly.” Tangerine floated a small pouch out of somewhere in her cloak and placed it on the ground between us. “Three fully-loaded magazines for your anti-material rifle, two more shock rounds, and two mags for your SMG.”

When I stepped forward to pick up the small filled-to-bursting bag, Tangerine fearfully backed up. What the hell was up with that? “…Thanks,” I slowly stated. There was a snug corner of my saddlebag that just barely managed to accommodate the bag. Ammo acquired. Traveling supplies acquired. Medical supplies acquired. “Well, I guess we’re ready to head out.” I looked over her body. Not that way! She was on the small side, so I casually asked, “How do you feel about flight?”

Tangerine’s eyes got huge and she almost retreated into the depths of her robes. I was positively sure she was shaking harder than a leaf in the wind.

You’re a big stupid dum-dum, dummy.

Shut up, brain.

I can do it, just you watch!

Filly Frosty sounded like she knew what she was doing. Tangerine, on the other claw, was completely terrified.

“Fine… it’s not like I’m doing any better,” I growled as quietly as possible.

“Um… what?” Tangerine peeked out from behind her orange and white mane under her hood. Note to self, stop talking to self out loud. Apparently it’s not normal.

Of course, I wasn’t normal. Normal ponies don’t find themselves being suddenly kicked out of their mind and replaced with a child version of themselves. Until you’ve experienced a total personality shift, there really wasn’t a way to explain Filly Frosty taking control. It was like being happy. Suddenly, really happy. Not like a flood of rage like Raider Frosty. Colors brightened, that layer of grime that coated everything vanished, and I inexplicably felt much better.

Filly Frosty shook out our mane. “Nothing!” She smiled brightly. “I don’t know what’cha thinking, but I’m not gonna hurt’cha. Pinkie promise.” Other note to self: figure out where Filly gets her material from. Then she changed the topic by asking, “Whatchur favorite color?”

Somehow Filly’s foalish charm was making Tangerine open up a bit. “Orange!” Tangerine replied confidently.

“Orange! Orange! Orange!” Filly somehow bounced excitedly on all four hooves. Well, three and a metal leg. Whatever. “So, I heard you’re scared of flying.”

Tangerine scratched at the ground. “Unicorns shouldn’t fly. And I don’t like heights.”

“But it’s so much fun though!” Filly continued bouncing. “Just get on my back and we’ll go. Don’t worry, I’ll take it easy.” She stopped to lie down on the ground so Tangerine could get on my back. “Hop on!”

Tangerine backed away. “N-no… no thanks…”

Filly pouted. “Aww, c’mon… fraidy-cat!” Tangerine looked unsure. “Am I really that scary?” Filly asked, just as confused as I was.

“It’s… haven’t you heard the rumors? The stories?” Tangerine whispered.

Okay, playtime’s over, sugarpuff. Hoof over the keys.

Filly wordlessly retreated along with her whimsy and brightness. The Wasteland looked even more bleak after seeing things from Filly Frosty’s point of view. “Let me guess. Crazy and neurotic?”

“They say you bathe in the blood of anypony that crosses you,” Tangerine whispered.

“That’s a bit extreme, don’t you think?” I arched an eyebrow at her and spread my wings . “Do I look like I even bathe?”

Tangerine cracked a small grin at that. “You make a good point.”

“See? What else does everypony say about me?” I was methodically trying to convince her that I wasn’t a total menace to her health. Or survival.

“Not much else, once I really think about it. Everything else is really stupid,” Tangerine decided.

“So… still wanna fly?” I hopefully asked. “I’ll go slow, then if you feel sick we can just walk there. Though I prefer we fly to save time.” Please just get on. Wasting too much time. Back legs falling asleep. Ow.

“Well, I guess I need to try it once, since I might not have another chance…” Tangerine looked up, a determined expression on her face. “If I tell you to stop, you stop. Got it?”

I agreed and allowed her to get onto my back. She wrapped her thin forelegs around my neck and pressed herself against me. I think her eyes might have been closed, not sure.

I stood up and experimentally flapped my wings. Tangerine tightened her grip on my neck, unintentionally cutting off my airflow. “Loosen… grip… can’t… breathe!” I gasped, barely audible. She still didn’t loosen her grip. My hoof pounded at her impossibly strong grip. “Air… useful! Stop!”

Tangerine let go and apologetically squeaked, “I’m so sorry!”

I inhaled like there was no tomorrow. Knowing my luck, I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. “Just…” Inhale. “Don’t.” Inhale. “Do that…” Cough. Inhale. Choke on spit. Cough. “While I’m flying.” Cough. Inhale. “Got it?” I felt her nod. “Good.” Cough. “Let me finish coughing up this lung.” Cough. “And then we’ll finally bucking leave.”

~~~~~

Instant Noodles had supplied me with Rumcake’s last known coordinates, so at least that wasn’t going to be trouble. And speaking of trouble, Tangerine was a terrible flyer. I hadn’t even gotten a meter off the ground before she started to panic. After a bit of consoling and the loss of an apple-flavored snack cake, I finally got her to relax at a gentle cruising speed of really slow. Admittedly, as a pegasus I had a really skewed definition of what was considered “fast”.

“Can we slow down? I feel… sick.” Tangerine tried to suppress a gag on my back. Please don’t vomit on me. Dear Luna don’t let her vomit on me. She was still holding onto me tightly with her forelegs wrapped around my chest and her hindlegs tightly clutching my back. Where were those last ribs when I needed them? She held on so tightly I was getting worried about circulation, since the metal plates in my duster were starting to chafe.

I kept flying toward the heading that I had charted out beforehoof with a little assistance from Tangerine to account for hazards, “You do realize if I fly any slower we’re going to crash, right?” I called out over my shoulder. “But if you want we can take a break.” Wings were getting tired anyway.

Tangerine choked back her breakfast. “We’re making good time.” Unfortunately it was getting dark, and at our speed we wouldn’t even get close, thanks to pre-flight difficulties. “Can you keep going for another two hours? There’s a small encampment along the way that we can try to stop at.”

“Sounds like a plan.” I flapped onward, directed by Tangerine’s outstretched hoof. “Wait. What do you mean by try to stop?” I felt somewhat insulted. “Do you not trust my ability to land myself?”

Tangerine queasily giggled, barely holding in her breakfast. “No, that’s not it.” She waved a paper map that smacked me right in my face with the wind. Repeatedly. “See the big red ‘T’ with a circle around it?”

“Well, my right eye knows what you’re talking about,” I replied, doing my best to navigate with only my part of my left eye being able to see ahead. Darkness was still approaching, and the encampment that sh—Oh, wait, there it is. At the very edge of the sunset a heavily fortified set of three buildings became visible. I pushed the map out of my vision. “I see it. Over there?”

“Yeah. But one teensy little problem: they’re Talon Mercs.” Oh joy. The self-proclaimed public military organization, available for a just a few of your hard-earned caps, assuming our intel was correct. All griffons, all angry, all the time. “And let’s say they don’t like the Steel Rangers very much.”

“Well, good thing I’m two-thirds griffon,” I jokingly tossed back. “Just in case, can you assemble my rifle and load the mags? The parts should be in my saddlebag, and one of the magazines is in one of the pockets on my duster.”

Tangerine dutifully started levitating parts out of my saddlebag and skillfully assembled my favorite death-dealing machine in record time. “Are we expecting combat?”

“No. But just in case I need to relocate a few brains, we’ll have that option.”

Somehow Tangerine also maintained her gut-crushing hold on my, well, gut the entire time. “Ready.” The barrel suddenly protruded into my field of view on my right side. Soft clicking on my back told me my magazines were being reloaded. Excellent.

A miniature fireball whizzed past me and exploded a few feet away to my left. “Woah, woah, WOAH!” I banked out of the way, barely avoiding the flaming bits of shrapnel. Tangerine screamed behind me. “Hang on!”

Another one zoomed past me. “Don’t drop me!” Tangerine hysterically screamed into the back of my head.

“Doing my best!” I dodged another flaming shell. “Stop shooting at me!” I screamed at the encampment. Looked like they were still shooting flares at me. “What the buck?” A flare that I thought would miss barely clipped my right wing. “Ladies and gentlecolts, please fold your tray tables in the upright position.” A few primaries on the edge of my right wing were singed to bits, and we were slowly losing altitude. I could still glide to the ground, but flying was out of the question. Hopefully healing potions fixed feathers.

Tangerine was screaming her head off, and that really didn’t help trying to land at all. As far as crashes were concerned, we were descending at a leisurely rate instead of spiraling out of control. I managed to hit the ground at with at a brisk trot, barely staying upright. She was still hanging onto me for dear life, and I was forced to violently pry her off.

My sharp vision combined with the setting sun revealed that it indeed was the right encampment. Either that or there was another settlement somewhere in the Wasteland that was surrounded with Talon mercs. Unfortunately, they still wanted to kill me.

Tangerine was huddled up on the ground, likely completely traumatized. I unceremoniously shoved her behind a largish rock for cover and dove behind it after her. “I need this!” I pulled my anti-machine rifle off her prone form and retrieved my mags.

“Are we dead?” Tangerine whimpered.

“Not yet, we aren’t.” My first mag got loaded, but before I could cock the bolt...

Hold on. What if they see you as a threat?

“The hell gave you that idea?”

“Whaa?”

“Not talking to you.” Go on, brain.

Don’t griffons have a standing grudge against pegasi?

“Yeeees?” I wasn’t sure what I was getting at.

Enclave? Super anti-everything? And after the war we didn’t really have good relations with them.

Hmm. “You do have a good point. What’s your call?”

“Hide! I don’t wanna die yet!” Tangerine poked her head out of her hood.

“What the buck do I do now?” I growled under my breath.

Just surrender. You mean no harm, and hopefully they don’t either. Lacking that, we can destroy them. Right?

Fine, you win.

“Got anything white?” I pointedly asked Tangerine. “Or anything we can wave at them with?”

Silence. “Wave your hooves in the air?” Tangerine suggested.

“That’s a terrible idea.”

“Got anything better?”

“Not really.” I slung my anti-machine rifle and stood up out of cover. “Okay, you big oversized rats. We surrender!” I yelled, waving my hooves wildly. A stray bullet ricocheted off the rock next to me. “I’m willing to dismiss that as a mistake…” Stay calm and don’t murder them. I continued waving, seemingly oblivious to everything.

A pair of griffons descended from one of the shorter buildings. While I waited for the welcome party, I decided to analyze the encampment for potential weaknesses. Two identical tiny two-floor buildings flanked a sprawling five-floor complex.

“You know, this is a bit large for an encampment. I’d say it’s a full blown field command.” I pointed out the mounted guns hidden in a few windows of the short buildings. “Plasma turrets in the windows.” The corners of each building had a lumpy shadow occupying it. “They’ve got a few snipers. Or missile launchers. Someone on the roofs, to say the least.”

“Okay, our intel may be a teensy bit out of date,” Tangerine admitted.

Two giant armored griffons wearing the Talon insignia landed in front of us. “You’re far from home, Dashite,” one of them boomed. “You know our airspace is restricted.”

I bristled. “I’m no Dashite, retards.” I lifted my duster and showed them my cutie-marked flank. “We just need a place to stay for the night.” Tangerine slunk out from around the rock and rejoined me. “We’ll be out of your feathers in the morning.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“Stable hunters usually got good stuff,” one of them muttered to the other. “A little accidental misfire, split it fifty-fifty, hmm?”

“You mean Stable dwellers?”

“Same thing.”

The other one became much more agitated by that. “It’s not the same thing, you dimwit!”

“Stuff’s the same.”

Silence. Maybe they were a little bit stupid, maybe they just didn’t care that I could still hear them talk about us. I contemplated simply strolling past them and trotting right into the Talon base, but that option may very well put me in a body bag.

“Point taken.”

Tangerine stomped her hoof in the dirt. “What am I, diced onions?”

I was surprised by her outburst, as were the two griffons. “Nobody cares about you,” Lefty instantly remarked.

“Ouch,” I muttered. “But seriously, got room for the Blood Angel and her sidekick?”

They looked at each other and groaned. “It’s another eggin’ social justice wanderer. Screw it, let’s just let the boss take care of this one.” The other one picked Tangerine up in his talons. “I’m not dealing with this. Let’s go, featherbrains.”

My wing worried me, so I flapped it experimentally. I could still fly, but I’d have to watch my balance more often. “Lead the way, then.” The griffons led us to the roof of the tall building. Halfway there I couldn’t get enough lift due to my injured wing and I was impatiently carried the rest of the way just like Tangerine. It was humiliating, to say the least.

“Hey… is your wing okay?” Tangerine whispered, edging up to me after the guards had dropped us off right up at the roof.

“Yeah. I’ll be fine.” I picked off the remnants of my burnt feathers in disgust. “I just can’t fly very well because I don’t have control anymore.” While we were waiting I quickly preened myself to make myself presentable. “Bleh.” The burnt taste lingered in my mouth. Disgusting.

A different griffon came up a flight of stairs behind a pile of rubble. “Follow me, and don’t touch anything.” We obediently followed the griffon down the stairs and into a large fancy apartment around the corner from the stairs. He stopped us in front of a huge female griffon flanked by two equally large bodyguards.

“I’m Thundercane, acting commander of Firewing’s Talon mercs. What are you here for, pegasus?” she lazily asked.

“Just need a place to stay the night, ma’am.” I smartly saluted. Kissassery wouldn’t hurt. Or professionalism, depending on who you talked to. “We thought your establishment would exceed our expectations. Ma’am.” She was eyeing my claw with mild disinterest. Or veiled interest.

Thundercane laughed hard. “I know ass-kissing when I hear it.” Tangerine’s hoof clanked off my metal right leg, which I pointedly ignored. “But I like your tone, filly. If only some of these meatheads shared that.” Thundercane threw an empty can at our escorting guard. “They’re cleared for the night. But keep an eye on them. Especially that one.” She pointed at me. “That one’s interesting.”

“Not sure if that’s a good thing,” I whispered to Tangerine with a sidelong glance.

The griffon behind us padded forward and motioned for us to leave the room. “Ma’am.” I saluted again and about-faced to leave.

“Hey, pegasus,” Thundercane called out to me. I turned around questioningly. “What’s your name?”

“Frosty. Winds, Fr—shit.” I’d just ruined a badass turn moment because I was too excited to seem cool. “Frosty Winds, Honorary Squire of the Steel Rangers.” I sighed, resignation weighing down my tone.

“Honorary Squire?”

By the way she said that, I got the feeling that Steel Ranger “Honorary” things weren’t distributed as much as I had assumed. “It’s a long story involving a chivalrous Paladin, angry ponies, a creepy doctor and an equally creepy merchant, a slaver invasion, a spy, a plot twist, and plenty of murder. You know, all of that good corny stuff.”

After a few tense seconds and an intense staring contest, Thundercane finally broke down and chuckled. “Sounds like a story I gotta hear.”

I didn’t really want to make time for story time. “Maybe another day. Anything else?”

“I’ll keep you in mind.” Thundercane thoughtfully sharpened her talons. “Dismissed,” she lethargically added.

“Ma’am.” I saluted once more and followed our escort down more flights of stairs. Whatever this place had been before the war, it looked really drab and monotonous. Just room after room of short walls. Some floors had been forcibly renovated into sleeping quarters for the mercenaries or other types of rooms.

As far as I knew, the building had five floors. First floor was populated by a few sparse shops, a weaponsmith, and a bar. The next two were sleeping quarters and private rooms for the more veteran mercenaries. The next was an armory, then the floor that we’d already been on was Thundercane’s penthouse. According to our escort, the other two building were full of mercs and weapons.

“You’ll be staying here,” the escort informed us, showing us to a small corner room with two somewhat clean mattresses side by side. We had just enough room to pile our stuff next to the doorway as floorspace. “Do not go upstairs, ever, unless Big Bird summons you.” Presumably Thundercane. “Is that clear?”

“Crystal,” I replied. The escort grunted and left, his job complete.

“What do we do now?” Tangerine whispered.

I had gotten distracted by the writing on the wall. It looked like it was old, maybe meant for somepony important. “Bad Times Friend Ahead. Maybe NO Terminal Maybe NO HOme. I Will GO Way But We Are TwO Of SOul. I will return.” I reread the message again, hoping it would make a little more sense. Either way, it gave me the shivers. Foreboding shit right here.

In the end, I decided not to bother. It wasn’t something meant for me anyway. My saddlebag was discarded and dropped in the corner. “I’mma sleep. My wings are tired, I’m sweaty, and my sides hurt from being squeezed for hours on end.” Tangerine bashfully looked away. I plopped myself down around a stained section of mattress.

“Looky here. Some sexy tail just arrived,” a voice leered. I opened my eyes to see a Talon mercenary leaning against our doorway. “How much for the night?” Truthfully, he wasn’t bad looking with those multicolored red and purple feathers. He’d painted his face and beak with black paint, just to be super-obnoxious. Somewhat on the twiggy side, but his attitude really had a lot to ask for.

Tangerine shrank back against the wall. However, I’d already had enough of this idiot.
“I just met you,” I sneered, pointing my claw at his face. “And this is crazy.” He hesitated. “I have buckshot.” I pumped the internal shotgun in my claw with a resounding click. “Prepare to die, maybe.”

“That’s so hot.” Well, crap. Shooting him in the face was definitely out of the question, especially here.

“Leave her alone, guy.” A mud-colored earth pony mare wearing combat armor emblazoned with the Talon company logo on either pauldron roughly shoved the offending (and offensive) merc out of the doorway. She brushed her straw-like mane out of her murky green eyes. “And you—” She poked the merc hard.“ —still owe me meat from that—” The merc bolted up the stairs and disappeared. “…And that takes care of that.” She sighed and held out her hoof. “Riverbed Ransom.”

“Frosty Winds. Thanks for the save.” I analyzed my claw. “Where the buck is the safety on this thing?” I laid back down on the mattress to figure it out.

“Tangerine. Steel Rangers Apprentice Scribe.” Tangerine shook Riverbed’s hoof. “What’s a pony like you doing in a Talons camp?”

Riverbed Ransom sat down and gestured with her hooves. “Lemme set up context real fast. So, like, there's this random-ass ranch out west at the ass-end of Suburbia, right? Some dipshit kid owns the ranch ‘cuz his gramps left it to him. Thing is, gramps never got around to, like, telling the kid how to use the stills, but I did my research and figured out the guy's recipe. All I need right now is, like, three thousand caps and the ranch is mine. And, like, Talons’ll pay pretty good for a pony with my skills, guy. You?”

I searched the surface of my mechanical leg for some kind of safety mechanism. A button, switch, anything! No dice. Tangerine threw back her hood and sighed. “Wandered the Wasteland for a bit. I followed the Watchers back and forth for a few years, then I joined the Steel Rangers. That’s it, end of story.”

A twenty gauge shell “accidentally” firing into the ceiling from my claw abruptly ended the conversation right there. “Welp, I found out how to fire it without punching something!” I grinned, pretending to not notice my ringing ears. Maybe if I picked them up, they’d stop. Turned out if I just mimicked a punch, the mechanism would fire. “Nothing happened! Carry on!” I yelled to the rest of the floor, just in case.

“The safety is probably somewhere around the elbow, knowing Knight Baked Potato’s work. Otherwise he forgot to make one.” Tangerine crawled over me, aggravating my bruised sides. “Right there.” She simply pushed a button that was flush against my claw’s surface exactly where she’d said it would be. “There. Safe.”

“Thanks.” I sighed. Note to self: empty shell loaded. “Ow!” Tangerine stomped back across my torso, possibly intentionally stepping on my bruises. “Not cool! You’re hea–OW!” I curled up in pain when she kicked my ribs for good measure. “I liked the scaredy-foal Tangerine better.”

“That’s for calling me your sidekick,” Tangerine sing-songed at me.

“So… where’d you two come from, anyway? We don’t get travelers very often. Wait, shit! What’d Thundercane tell you?” Riverbed hurriedly asked.

“Uhh…” Brain, start working.

No.

Well, buck you too.

“Not a whole lot, really.” I scratched at my mane hoping to dig up anything else.

“Crap. Well, I guess you’re paying the fifteen meat premium,” Riverbed muttered. “That used to be the price for drop-ins, at least.”

Wait. What? “Meat? The hell happened to caps?” Did pieces of metal get replaced with… meat? “Why do I get the feeling that I’ve just promised some bits my plot won’t be able to cash.”

Riverbed dropped the small burlap bag that she was carrying around in front of me. “Meat. Just chunks of meat, about this big.” She opened the bag and all of us were assaulted by the stench of her spoils and her freshes. Tangerine nearly lost control of her stomach again, to my chagrin.

I was rendered speechless. Tangerine cried, “Why in the name of Celestia is the currency meat, for crying out loud?” Good question.

“We don’t get travelers or merchants all the way out here, so caps are worthless to the Talons here. Well, more accurately, they’re, like, only worthless locally because there’s not much to spend them on,” Riverbed told us, closing the bag up. “Instead we use meat. Works as currency and food, guy.”

If they used meat as currency and food… “Wait, what do you eat?”

Riverbed shrugged. “I try to get paid in caps. Otherwise I trade my meat for caps as much as possible. I do favors to get some of the mercs to fetch stuff for me, guy.”

“What favors do you do, exactly?” I idly asked. Maybe I could get one of them to retrieve some cherry snack cakes. She opened her mouth wide, held her hoof in front of her mouth, and bobbed her head. She topped it all off with a sly wink and a nod.

“So like, I’ve made something like two hundred thirty one and a half caps a week blowin’ these guys, guy.”

I couldn’t help but make a snarky remark. “Who gave you the half cap?”

“They all did,” Riverbed replied, the most serious expression on her face.

After taking a good solid minute to consider my next words, I finally responded with, “I can’t say that’s not impressive. Still, it’s sort of weird you charge by the inch.”

Sick burn.

“Pfft, that’s great!” Riverbed held up her hoof, which I bumped instantly.

Tangerine only managed a groan. “You’re so immature.”

“Right, uh… I bet your ass there’s a good chance that Thundercane will, like, make you do something for her,” Riverbed causally mentioned. “Hope you have time to spare.” That couldn’t be good.

“And what if I don’t?”

Riverbed stood up. “Better think of something, then.” With a flick of her uneven tail, she went back downstairs.

I shared a somewhat panicked look with Tangerine. “You know what? I’m going to sleep. Worry about it in the morning.” I dismissed any feelings of doubt and made myself comfortable on the somewhat disgusting mattress. And since I was lacking a bedspread or even a blanket, I draped my duster over my body in an attempt to get more comfortable.

Tangerine pulled her hood back up and over her eyes. “If you say so.” She snugly wrapped her robes around herself and laid down on her mattress. “See you in the morning.”

~~~~~

The universe decided that letting me sleep was too much of a good thing to happen. Sometime in the middle of the night, someone did their best to sneak into our little room thing. Someone, because the sound of claws clicking against the floor and the padded noise of paws hitting the floor definitely meant that it was a griffon. I cracked open an eye and groggily peeked out from under the edge of my duster. From my very low vantage point, I could only see legs. Griffon legs. My saddlebag moved on its own accord, opening up to display its somewhat valuable contents.

“Nopony touches my junk!” I sprang up and seized the mercenary by his throat. Even though he was slightly taller, I could still rear up on my hind legs to reach optimal strangling height. He managed a strangled squawk as he struggled to break free from the steel grip of my claw. “What do you want?” I growled, all vestiges of sleep gone.

“Lookin’ for meat?” the merc squeaked, struggling for breath. Those obnoxious patterns…

Hey, isn’t that the idiot from earlier?

Yes. Yes it is.

“Wrong answer.” He received a quick jab to his gut that knocked the little remaining air out of his lungs. “Think out your next reply very carefully.” Philomena’s Touch was retrieved from my bag without looking. “Or I might aim lower,” I whispered into his ear. Or at least I think I did. I failed anatomy class.

“Okay! Fine! Let me breathe!” the merc gasped. I pushed him away in disgust and dropped to all fours. “Ha! I’m not tellin’ you anything, Dashite! I can’t be—” he gloated, but I didn’t let him finish.

I seized his stupid face by his stupid beak and shut him up in mid-sentence. “I’m very annoyed, very tired, and very unwilling to put up with your bullshit right now.” With a sharp tug, I brought his face level to mine. “Consider your next words carefully.”

Very slowly, I released his beak and angrily waited for a response. “You’re so hot,” he positively moaned.

Raider could feel anger boiling to the surface and I had to take a deep calming breath to keep her from trying anything. If I got any more annoyed, there wasn’t much I could do to stop her. Quietly and threateningly, I asked, “I’m not sure you know what this is—” I menacingly tapped him in the chest with my power hoof. “—but I’d bet my left leg that I could take your head clean off, then some.”

His eyes darted to my prosthetic, then back to me. “Can you do that again, but with a little more allure? You’re a little stressed, I’m a little stressed—I’ll toss in a few extra caps.”

Urge… to kill… rising.

One love tap! C’mon!

No. Raider, stop.

You know you want to.

I did want to.

Can I have some fun then?

I sighed. Ground rules first: no dismemberment, no eviscerations, no executions, and absolutely no disintegrations. With every additional term, I could almost feel Raider sulk and pout.

Yeah, yeah, sure, sure. Whatever!

With that, I cautiously allowed Raider to steamroll her way into control. I felt a cocky grin make its way onto my face and I got slightly more worried. Before I could deem all of this a bad idea, she began to chuckle.

Raider pressed our nose right up against the griffon’s beak. “So, you like it rough? We can play rough” she whispered, shoving him onto his back.

A second later, she playfully straddled his chest and most likely tried her sultriest look on him. “Oh shit, you look great with yellow eyes,” he approvingly muttered.

“Quiet.” Worryingly enough, Raider kept Philomena’s Touch on as she ran my hooves along his sides, pausing only to teasingly rub the base of his wings. “You haven’t seen anything yet, big boy.”

A pair of talons appeared in the doorway and Raider looked up to address the very surprised gender-unidentifiable griffon. “Yes, this is exactly what it looks like. Join in or get the buck out of here,” Raider snapped. When the griffon didn’t respond, she waved our claw at her and sneered, “Go on. Shoo.”

It didn’t take much more angry judgemental glaring to scare away our uninvited guest. Raider returned to doing… whatever frighteningly sultry things she was doing to our griffon, and I was trying to ignore how comfortable it was to be sitting on top of him.

“Shit, this is gonna be awesome.” The griffon under us chuckled.

Raider traced my talons up his chin and rested them on his beak. “Alright, zip it.”

“I was ju—”

“Zip it.”

“B—”

“Ziiiip.”

“I just—”

Apparently this guy couldn’t take a hint. “Zip it good.”

“I could go get—”

“Zip.”

“C—”

“Zizip!”

“How—”

“Zipahzipah!”

“I ha—”

“Ugh, just zip it.” Raider snarled. “Do you want to wake my little book-butt over there?” With our talons still wrapped around his beak, he excitedly shook his head. “Good. Now, where were we? Oh yeah, I remember.”

Without even bothering to take her eyes off of the stupid griffon’s stupid face, she brought Philomena’s Touch down onto his right wing at full force. She didn’t even bother wiping the self-satisfied smirk off our face that entire time, either. All she did was grin wider when the stupid griffon’s brain finally caught up to his sudden lack of right wing.

Of course, he tried to scream, but Raider made sure to clamp down my claw around his beak dangerously tight. “I’m going to turn you into hot wings and dipping sauce,” Raider cooed, which was frightening in its own regard.

The griffon tried to scream again.

“Aww. No? I thought you liked it rough,” she innocently asked. The griffon frantically tried to escape, but Raider wasn’t letting him go anywhere. She caught sight of the thin sheen of blood spattered on my power hoof and sensually licked a thin rivulet off. “Mmm. Tastes like chicken.”

At this point, the griffon was only interested in the fastest means of escape from the crazy pegasus straddling his chest. He frantically mumbled something unintelligible and stared with pleading eyes.

“You don’t want it?” Raider sounded mockingly hurt. Theatrically so.

“Nnn-mnnn!”

“That's a lot of syllables for no. Are you suuuure you don’t want it?”

“Nnnnnnn!”

“Good.” Raider violently yanked the griffon’s face right up against ours and growled, “Get the buck out of Frosty’s face before I get a hankering for some Aldornian Fried Chicken. Gotcha?”

The griffon frantically nodded again. The second our weight was off of him, he bolted, broken wing and all. Conveniently enough, he had left behind his currency pouch for compensation for our trouble, intentionally or not.

Raider chuckled. “And that’s how you do that. Wimp. What’s next?”

I somehow managed to catch her off guard and wrest control of myself back. “Now, I follow my dreams by going back to sleep.”

~~~~~

Jab. “Meeeh.” I moaned, rolling out of poking distance.

“What the flank happened last night?!” Tangerine practically screamed into my ear. “Where’d all this blood come from?” I blearily lifted my head and looked around after removing my disturbingly clean power hoof from my mouth.

I giggled to myself. “Someone came looking for bits. But I gave him a helping hoof.”

Tangerine slowly backed away from me. “And now you know why I’m still scared.” Of course she couldn’t back up very far, but the attempt itself pained me. Even though I probably deserved it, I really needed to stop making these impressions on everypony.

“On the bright side, if you don’t give me a reason to hurt you—” I leaned in uncomfortably close as Tangerine scooted backward as far as she could. She fearfully pressed herself against the wall trying to escape. “I won’t.”

Riverbed Ransom coughed from the doorway. “Am I interrupting a rousing game of Grabfannyclutchbutt?” Tangerine roughly shoved me away.

“Not particularly.” Riverbed eyed the blood stain the floor, then back to me. “Yes, there might have been a little misunderstanding last night,” I grumbled. “I took care of it.”

“Yeah. Heard Fragface got his wings clipped, guy.” She winked at me. “Thanks, I think.” Well, at least somepony appreciated what I did. “Big Bird wants to see you.”

“Wait. Why are you telling me this?”

“Thundercane thinks sending her goons after you might not be conductive to their usefulness.” Riverbed snorted. “So she decided to send me because you might not punch me in the face, guy.”

Tangerine closed my saddlebag and draped it around my neck. “Better not keep her waiting. We need to leave, fast.” My PipBuck told me it was nine in the morning, much later than I anticipated. I needed at least half a day to fly out to Rumcake’s last known coordinates at a comfortable speed for Tangerine.

“Yeah, yeah.” I took off my saddlebag and replaced it on my back. “Let’s go.”

Our meeting with Thundercane was awkward, to say the least. Anxiety was kicking in when I realized she was looking very smug. “So, I invite you into my base and you repay it by maiming one of my squad leaders.” Oh feathers. “I don’t think that’s very polite.”

Think fast, brain!

I got this. You’re hopeless.

Thank you, Gala Frosty.

Thanks to her help, everything became clearer. “You’re just looking for excuses. We both know that was not an accident,” Gala spat.

“And what gave you that idea?” Thundercane innocently replied. “You’re in no position to make accusations.” The bodyguards behind her menacingly hefted their assault rifles. “So, what’s your answer?”

Gala threw our head back and laughed. “Looks to me like you owe me.”

Thundercane looked surprised. “Oh really? Enlighten us.” She motioned to her bodyguards. “They might have different opinions, though.”

“First off, one of your m–contractors said he had it coming, as it were.” Gala counted. “He was an abrasive, annoying, self-centered lout that didn’t advance a professional environment.” Thundercane looked interested. “Just by the way he held himself, he probably had it coming.”

“Hmm…” Thundercane smiled. “Continue, please.”

We were about to take a massive swing in the dark. “So you had him rifle through my belongings as an excuse to get rid of him. I’d find out, then you’d use that opportunity to publicly get rid of him,” Gala tried, her tone wavering just a bit. “I appear to have saved you a whole load of trouble.”

One of the bodyguards tapped Thundercane’s shoulder and whispered something to her which didn’t make her pleased at all. She turned her attention back to us. “Good news for you. I’m willing to ignore your little outburst last night if you do something for me.”

“But it was your plan all along!” Gala screamed in exasperation. “There is no other explanation that works in your favor!”

Thundercane grinned. “You keep thinking that.” Urge… to punch… rising. “Anyway, it’s nothing important. Deliver a message for me, and we won’t have to go through any more of this.”

“Buck this, you’re on your own,” Gala Frosty quietly muttered at the ground. She retreated, leaving me feeling very lost and confused. Thanks, me.

“Ugh. Fine. What do I need to do?” I groaned. “Be another glorified messenger in the Wasteland, then?”

“Somewhere, there is a griffon named Blackwing. She’s the leader of the Talon mercenary group called Blackwing’s Talons.” Thundercane threw a map me, which I deftly caught with my face. “Tell her that the book was last seen in Horseshoe Tower.”

As confused as I was, it still didn’t add up. “What do I say if she asks where I got this intel from?”

“Just tell her you saw some of my thugs casing the place or something. I’m sure you can think of something.” Thundercane looked to her guards. “Get them out of here.”

Riverbed ushered us out before any of the bodyguards got near us. “Like, I told you so,” she said smugly. Several flights of stairs later, we were standing outside the building. “Well, it was nice knowing you, guy,” she said, and before we could reply she turned and strutted back inside, slamming the door in my face.

A moment later the door slammed back open and Riverbed got thrown outside. A pair of small saddlebags followed her out. Brushing herself off, she said, “…Okay. So, like, maybe we’re going to get to know each other better after all.”

Tangerine shook her head. “Let me guess. You’re coming with us to make sure we deliver the message?”

All of us looked worn out already, and we hadn’t even started yet. “Well, you get to tag along with us because we’re going somewhere else first. And without some information, we won’t have any idea where Blackwing has her base, anyway.”

Riverbed slammed her head against the wall repeatedly. “I hate my job.”

I eyed the embarrassingly bald patch on the tip of my right wing. Had I preened them out while I was asleep? “Hey, you think healing potions fix feathers?”

“Probably? We can find out.” Tangerine rummaged through my saddlebag and retrieved a single healing potion.

Once we had arbitrarily decided on a “safe” amount, I swallowed it and waited. Not a moment later, the feathers reappeared with a little prickle, good as new. Yay!

Flying was still out of the question though, since I couldn’t carry two ponies my size. “Well, I guess you’re walking then. I’ll keep you two covered from the sky.” I did a little jump and spread my wings. I landed so I could pull my rifle off my back, out of the way of my wings. “You’ve got a day’s worth of walking ahead of you. Get going!”

I took to a higher elevation, flying in lazy circles around Tangerine and Riverbed below. Great wide wonders! Unburdened flight! On a whim, I decided a miniature acrobatics show was in order. Dives, loops, barrel rolls, everything I could do! The cheering coming from below was all the encouragement I needed.

Ah, I missed the feeling of wind under my wings, the breeze in my mane, the goddamn bullets whizzing by my head…

The air show was paused for a moment as I snapped my wings shut to drop like a stone. Faster drop, harder to hit. Who was shooting at me? There! A pony shaped blob a fair distance away firing a rifle in my direction was the answer. I winced when I flared my wings out trying to slow my descent.

A dim cry of panic from below nearly distracted me. I raised my anti-machine rifle to my shoulder, doing my best to ignore the wind whipping my mane everywhere. I deeply inhaled and did my best to line up the shot.

One.

Two.

I fired, and instantly knew I missed. Recoil from my super powerful rifle launched me backward head over hooves, spinning out of control.

“I am spinning through the air, this is not good!” I cried. Screw it. I called upon the marvels of modern pre-war technology to potentially save my life. S.A.T.S. slowed time down to a crawl. Even though the spell was locked onto a nearby radroach, I didn’t fire. All I needed to do was figure out where the damn ground was.

A moment of confused flapping later, I managed to right myself and safely glide to the ground. “I’m going to guess that wasn’t part of the acrobatics,” Riverbed snarked at me. “What happened?”

“I’m fine, by the way.” I spread my wings out to relieve the uncomfortable burn from the strain of stopping my entire body, plus gear. “Ow. And no, that was not planned. Somepony out there was shooting at me.”

That prompted some very worried glances from my companions. “Did you get a good look at them, guy?” Riverbed asked, a shotgun suddenly appearing in her muzzle. “Lef’ get’m.”

“And what do you plan on doing with that shotgun at this range?” Tangerine snorted.

I faceclawed. “Girls, can we stop fighting for a moment and just get reorganized?” Doubtless the shooter was farther away by now, or had completely lost interest. Or so I hoped. “Tangerine, some directions, please.”

“Because the one with the supercomputer on her leg doesn’t know how to use the damn map function correctly,” Tangerine muttered, floating out her paper map once more. “We’re here.” She pointed at the base of a patch of mountains on the right side of the map. “About another day away is where we’re going to start looking.” She dragged her hoof around in a small circle. “You could also learn how to use your map at some point.”

Even though my PipBuck had a map function, among other things, I rarely consulted it because I wasn’t really used to having some of these abilities at my command. I’d only had the thing for, what, a few days? Map, map, map. No, not items. Map. “Oh. There it is,” I sheepishly replied. All the way at the top right corner of the map, a small box simply labeled “Trading Outpost” flashed once at me. Hmm.

“Can we go now?” Riverbed impatiently stomped the ground. Somehow, she’d stowed her shotgun away while we were talking. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and I don’t want to be caught out in the open at night.”

Somehow I was very worried by the nervous mercenary. “What’s so bad about night? Sure it’s a bit dark, but there really isn’t anything to be afraid of,” I chided. “Right?”

Riverbed nervously chuckled next to me. “Yeah. It’s not like the mole bandits come out of their holes at night and like, kill us in our sleep. Guy.”

Tangerine shook her head. “Really? Mole bandits?”

“They’re everywhere!” Riverbed whispered conspiratorially. “Let’s just keep moving. Even with the mountains to our right, it’s not safe here. We’re too vulnerable out in the open.” I looked around and grudgingly agreed. There were too many places we could get shot at by potential ambushers in the mountains.

We kept walking, idly chatting along the way. Tangerine was taking point, Riverbed took up the rear, and I hovered just above them. There wasn’t much to see nor do, for that matter. Besides the random radroach or bloatsprite encounter, nothing was threatening enough to stop for. Though Tangerine did keep glancing around the area. I dismissed it as her constant fear of me, nothing more.

During our idle talk, we somehow got back on the topic of Riverbed’s choice of employment. “I’m just saying, I find it really strange a pony works for a company made up of griffons,” I pressed, much to the annoyance of Riverbed. “Seriously, what did you have to do to get hired there?”

Riverbed shrugged. “Like, a lot of dick.” Well, of course. “And thanks to a few agreements, I managed to get myself hired as a negotiator. Basically.”

“And what is it that you do, exactly? You know, besides the other mercs?” Tangerine snorted in disgust. “Doesn’t sound like such a useful job.” She spun around to glance at me. “Even you’re more useful than that.”

Can’t tell if sincere or sarcastic.

Indeed, brain. Indeed.

I floated along upside down, trying to think. It was just one of my quirks. Shut up. “Now I have to know. What do you negotiate, exactly?” I added, my curiosity now piqued. “Don’t the Talons just shoot everypony that disagrees with them?”

“And that’s what they want you to think, guy.” Riverbed grinned. “In actuality, the Talons make sure to keep traders safe.” She stopped, then corrected herself. “Or whoever’s paying the caps, actually.”

“And what do you do, exactly?” I inquired again.

Riverbed impatiently whinnied. “I settle disagreements between the Talons and, like, anyone under their protection. Everyone generally takes more kindly to a pony than a menacing and heavily armed griffon.”

She had a point. “So they let you hang around to clear up anything that requires pony-to-pony interaction, right?” I clarified.

“Yes, guy.” Riverbed groaned in frustration. “Can we please talk about something else?”

I agreed. “Sure. Like what?” I asked, still completely bored. Keeping watch wasn’t nearly interesting enough, mainly because Riverbed would start flinging buckshot at whatever caught her eye.

“How about you, guy?” Riverbed shot back. “You always want to know everything about us! How about you tell us your story, for a change?”

As if I couldn’t have written a book about it by now. Grudgingly, I told her most of everything I remembered. How I got here, what I’d done on the way here, all that stuff. I left out as much information about my life above the clouds as I could. Well, not like there was much more I could leave out since something or someone had already done that for me. At least both of them were listening in rapt attention.

“So… are you really going to try going back to the Enclave?” Tangerine asked. “Didn’t they try to kill you or something? Multiple times, right? You might as well stay with us, since you and Rumcake apparently have a thing going on."

She has a point.

Shut up!

“Well…” Did the Enclave really have anything left for me? “I have a few scores to settle. But…” I hesitated, my mind temporarily straying back to Rumcake. “Well, we’ll see. One thing at a time, I suppose.”

But what would I do?

Revenge. Luna knows how great revenge is.

After that, I mean.

Up to you. Or, you know, settle down. Have your average two point four six foals. White picket fence and a dog. And a wagon.

Yay for indecision. Thanks for the input, brain.

“How could you have just forgotten everything? Like, I find that even harder to believe than my bucking life story,” Riverbed cried.

“Look, it wasn’t my choice. I blame PTSD,” I growled.

Tangerine suddenly butted in. “We’re being followed.” We all stopped and stared at her. “What? You haven’t noticed?” she asked innocently, as if we were unwitting foals. “They’ve been behind us for the past few hours.”

“How the buck do you know?” I asked, looking around. Nothing. “I don’t see anything out there.” Besides the random mutated critter trying to kill us periodically, nothing particularly stood out. “Unless that tumbleweed works for the mole bandits.”

“Will you shut up about that?!” Riverbed raged. She raised her hoof, readying up for a fight. “Maybe I’ll just send your ass you to them!”

I instinctively fluffed up my wings and dropped into a low combat stance. “You want some?” My talons dug into the dirt. “Get some!”

Tangerine whapped both of us over the head with the map. “Girls, seriously. We’re being followed.” We shrank away from each other, the fight completely disregarded. “Now cut out the foalish attitudes and listen!” I flapped back into the air and mumbled an apology. “There’s consistently been a strange shimmer following us around.”

“Really?” Riverbed snorted. “That’s called paranoia, guy.”

I’d had enough of this. “Alright, let’s clear this up right now.” I double-checked the breech on my anti-machine rifle and spun around. “If you see it, tell me where.” I laid down on the ground and looked down the sights.

We silently waited for something to happen. Tangerine stared off into the distance behind us, looking for her mystery shimmer. Tense minutes went by, but nothing moved. I didn’t even see what she was talking about, if it was there at all. “I know I saw it,” Tangerine muttered.

An hour crawled by painfully slowly. “I’m telling you it’s just paranoia, guy,” Riverbed grumbled. “Overactive little twerp. Come on, let’s get a move on.”

I shifted my wings, positively twitching at the thought of moving. I’d barely moved since dropping to the ground. “Hey. It’s okay to be jumping at lights,” I murmured to Tangerine, trying my best not to mess up my aim by speaking. “It’s okay to be paranoid. Keeps you from getting killed.”

“I’m not paranoid!” Tangerine screamed. She magically yanked my anti-machine rifle out of my claw and fired one shot. The recoil caused my rifle to fly out of her weak telekinetic grip and knocked Riverbed to the ground. But that’s not what I was staring at. Several hundred feet away, the body of a blue alicorn materialized and collapsed to the ground. Its head bounced off the ground three seconds later. Cue dumbfounded silence.

“Well,” I managed to squeak, rubbing my slightly bruised cheek. “That escalated quickly.”

“Geeh,” Riverbed groaned, limping over. She sharply inhaled, holding her right hindleg where my out of control rifle had collided with. “Aaaagh. Nice grip, guy.”

Tangerine didn’t even care. “Told you! And that’s all I have to say about that,” she proudly answered, levitating my anti-machine rifle back into my care. “Shall we, ladies?” After that, she turned around and kept walking.

“Lucky shot,” Riverbed idly dismissed, still rubbing her sore leg. “Stop sleeping on the road and like, let’s go.” She laughed, kicking dust into my face.

I stood up, dusted myself off, and launched myself back into the air. I kept my anti-machine rifle in my forelegs, just in case I needed to shoot anything else. But… “Hey! Hey! How did you know?” I shouted after Tangerine.

She glanced behind her and simply told me, “I may not be as strong, as fast, or as brave as you are, but I’m a hell of a lot smarter than you are.” Ouch.

Ooh. Need some ice for that burn?

No. Just… no.

“And I was paying attention.”

“How does paying attention allow you to, like, see bucking invisible alicorns?” Riverbed whispered to me with a sidelong glance. “Seriously, what the buck, guy?”

I rolled my eyes. “I call bullsh—”

“There’s a cave up ahead that we can hunker down in for the night. Riverbed, care to do the honors?” Tangerine continued, ignoring our conversation about her. “I don’t want to wake up to an angry horde of bloatsprites in my face.”

Riverbed grinned. “Whatever, guy.” She brought out her shotgun and charged headlong into the cave. It looked dark, scary, and totally not full of monsters. Unfortunately, it was the only place that had some semblance of safety.

A cacophony of un-ponylike screeching was followed by wild shotgun firing. I mentally debated whether I should go in and help, but I decided on simply watching on for the entertainment value. By the sounds of it, something—or somepony—must have just been thrown violently against the walls. Increasingly shrill filly-like screaming began, abruptly stopped, started up again. An explosion shook the pebbles outside the cave, and the screaming transitioned into choking laughter.

A few minutes passed. “All clear!” Riverbed weakly called out, walking back to us. Her armor was more scuffed than before, to my slight amusement.

“What the buck was even in there?”

“Radroaches.”

“I heard screeching and what sounded like wet meat pinballing everywhere.”

“Big radroaches.”

I failed to suppress a snort. “Sure.”

“Get in the bucking cave, guy.”

“What? Get assaulted by a hundred angry radroaches?” I sneered at her, floating into the now-secure cave. “Ooh, scary,” I sarcastically added, flailing about in mock fear.

“Let’s just calm down and get along.” Tangerine trotted in after me. “Is it safe?”

Riverbed kicked one of the many semi-intact radroach bodies in the small cave. “Cave ends right here. It’s just deep enough for safety.” She pointed at some rocks near the entrance. “We can use those as cover, if the need arises.”

“Speaking of which…” Tangerine used her magic to scoop out a hole in the loose gravel at the very back of the cave. “The little fillies’ hole in the ground is back here. Now if you’ll excuse me…”

Riverbed suddenly piped up. “Dibs on next!”

I suddenly decided that my anti-machine rifle needed a good cleaning. A very long and thorough cleaning. I dropped my saddlebags onto the ground and used it as a clean surface to place my completely disassembled rifle. Rag, check. Gun oil, check. Ignoring bathroom sounds, check.

I’d gotten through the firing mechanism and part of the barrel before I realized everypony that needed to do their business had already finished. In fact, our cave’s interior was nearly pitch dark because the residual light from outside had finally faded. Nighttime had fallen, and the others decided to bed down for the night. “We should sleep in shifts. I’ll take the first, since I need to finish this up.” I motioned at my disassembled rifle with a grimy wingtip.

“Eh, I’ll take second, guy.” Riverbed yawned. She’d even brought along a bedroll for herself. Note to self: get one. “Tangerine, you good with third?”

Tangerine looked up from her spot against the wall. “Whatever’s good for you two, I guess,” she meekly replied. “Hush now, quiet now, rest your sleepy head…” she sang quietly, tugging her hood over her eyes.

I listened to her song, glancing up occasionally to stare out of the cave’s mouth. Something about the music, or maybe just her voice, calmed me down. Made me feel safe, if you will. The whole time, I kept cleaning out my rifle. Anywhere I couldn’t reach with my hooves or my teeth with the rag, I used the tip of my non-singed feathers to carefully clean out the grime. At some point, Tangerine had fallen asleep in mid-song while I wasn’t paying attention.

My rifle reassembled, I quietly plodded out to the very edge of the cave, keeping watch and basking in the cool night breezes. I stretched out my wings and gently flapped them, hoping to dislodge any dust hiding in my feathers.

“You need a bath.”

I jumped, startled. Ice Storm stood next to me, apparently enjoying the night air with me. “I didn’t give you permission to bother me right now,” I chided. I crossed my forelegs and rested my head on them. My metal leg was colder than a snow cloud and even the slightest contact against my fur was very uncomfortable, even when I had my right leg on top. Body heat, go!

Ice just kept staring. “I don’t care. Can’t I just enjoy myself once in awhile?” He sighed. “Beautiful night, huh?”

“Yeah. It’d be better if I could see the stars. And the sky.” Because it reminded me of home. Home. Something I hadn’t thought of in a while.

Ice must have known what I was thinking. “Do you miss them?”

“I… I don’t know. In the back of my mind, I’m expecting Lightning to pop up any minute now, telling me I’ve OD’d on whatever new chems she’s made.” Even though I knew that wouldn’t happen. “But…”

“Things?”

“…Yeah. I miss Dad.” I sniffed and held back a tear.

We shared a moment in silence. “I’m bored.”

I resisted the urge to slap him. Though I realized that since he was a particularly strange figment of my imagination, I couldn’t physically hit him. “I’m sure you can think of something. I’m keeping watch,” I replied in a hushed tone. “And besides, can’t you hang out with all the rest of me?”

“They’re not doing anything, and your violent side is taking a nap. Ergo, bored.” Ice sighed, sitting down on the ground. He dropped his fedora on the ground between us. “So bored.”

“Can I ask you something?”

Ice regarded me somewhat lazily. “Sure.”

“Who are you, exactly?” I asked. “I don’t think I know any unicorns.”

He chuckled. “Not somepony that you used to know.”

I quickly checked my PipBuck for the time. Three in the morning. “Well, if you’re really bored we can go grab another memory later. I sure as heck wouldn’t have anything against it,” I decided. “Well, actually… can we go see one of my older memories? I… I want to see Dad and the others again.”

“Can’t.”

“What? Don’t I still have Dad’s medal?” I protested.

“You do. But that’s not how it works.” Ice conjured up an ethereal cigarette that gently glowed blue with each puff. “You’ll have to go to the menu to watch them again.”

“What?”

“Don’t worry about it.” He took a much longer drag from his cigarette. “I’ve been wondering…”

Riverbed stumbled in behind me. “Meeh. Who ya talkin’ to, guy?” Disturbingly, she dropped down right next to me halfway inside Ice Storm. Needless to say it was quite disturbing. “I hate mornings.”

“Uh. Could you, say, move over a little?” I suggested. “Personal space.”

Riverbed moved a bit farther away from me. Ice picked up his fedora, shaking it off and replacing it on his head. “I’ll leave you two to it.” With a sweep of his trenchcoat, he bucking disappeared. Just like that.

“Soooo…?”

“Have fun doing nothing.” I started to grin, but widely yawned out of nowhere. “I’m going to slip into something more comfortable, like a coma. See ya in the morning.”

Riverbed grunted incoherently in response. I made sure all my belongings were stowed away securely where I wouldn’t forget anything. Moments like these made me curse my forgetfulness. Now I had to sleep on the cold, hard ground like any other poor, beddingless soul. Not even a cumulus to flatten out. So sad. I cleared a space in the gravel with my wing and laid down in it. A few more sweepings to get rid of the pebbles that kept poking me, and I attempted to go to sleep. Just some normal sleep, no hallucinations, no interruptions, nothing.

~~~~~

“Do we wake her up?”

“Hit her with this bottle, guy. It’ll be hilarious!” Clink. Tinkle.

“You do it. I’m too pretty to die!” At this point, I was completely awake. I resisted the urge to open my eyes and ruin their little squabble. Ah, the joys of teamwork.

“Don’t be such a wimp. Let me do it, then.” Clink. Step. Crunch. Step. Crunch. There was a sharp intake of breath, and that was when I decided to strike. For added effectiveness, I used S.A.T.S. for a major increase in accuracy. Riverbed was swinging an empty Sparkle-Cola bottle by her teeth directly at my face. One hit to the bottle, one to the face. I watched with some sort of twisted humor as I smashed the bottle out of her mouth, then threw her onto her back using an excessive amount of force via claw to throat. “Gaah! The buck?”

I grinned crazily at Riverbed as she was pinned under me. I intentionally held her down as long as possible, drinking in her increasingly panicked expression. Finally I burst out laughing. “Oh, goddesses, that was priceless.” I rolled off her and kept guffawing. “That’ll teach you to wake me up!”

Tangerine quietly sniggered across from me. “You know, that was actually kind of funny.”

“Yeah, yeah. Yuk it up.” Riverbed picked herself up and glared at me. “Are you quite done? I’d like to go before somepony dies from, like, excess amounts of funny.”

The noise of something powering up outside caused us to freeze in our tracks.

“Did you hear that, guy?”

There were two things that made obnoxious charging noises of that pitch. One was the night-vision goggles on those… uh… “Fracture Force” assholes, I think? The only other thing was energy weapons, which was far more likely because of the number of high-pitched whines there were.

“What’s going on?” Tangerine whispered to nopony in particular.

“Does it look like I know?” I spat back.

“Frosty Winds, you have been convicted of crimes against the Enclave and her ponies. You have been found guilty of desertion, treason, multiple counts of murder, multiple counts of theft, sabotage, espionage, and embezzlement. What say you in your defense?”

I growled and my hackles raised. “Lies.” Everypony else stared at me, dumbstruck. “What are you waiting for? Take up positions!” I yelled. If the Enclave wanted a fight, they’d have a fight.

Rape face time?

Yes, Raider. Time to get our rape face on.


Footnote: Level up!
New Perk: Quick Thinking – Because knowing is half the battle. You gain +5 to all sub-perk skills. Mysterious Stranger now has a better chance of appearing against enemies with high health.
Current Sub-perk: Bloodthirsty – Blood for the Blood God! You gain +8 to Unarmed.

Crossed Hearts DLC installed.

Chapter 15: I’m going to Tartarus for this, aren’t I?

View Online

Chapter 15: I’m going to Tartarus for this, aren’t I?

“Now stop right there! Let's not let things descend into petty insults.”


“Would you believe she’s with the Thieves’ Guild?” Tangerine called out while making herself as small of a target as possible against a rock.

“What?” I hissed at her. “The buck kind of excuse is that?”

Tangerine floated a laser pistol out of one of her saddlebags. “I read it in a book once.” With practiced ease, she checked its charge and kept it ready. “You never know?” she said shyly.

A moment later, we were answered by: “Do you have documentation?”

No. There was no way they were this stupid.

“This can be much less inconvenient for the both of us if we can just discuss it,” they continued.

Tangerine grinned at me triumphantly, but before she could say something smart I interrupted her. “Don’t get cocky just yet. This has to be a trap,” I growled, cycling the bolt on my rifle. “We don’t have a Thieves’ Guild, much less any semblance of organized crime.” Come on, brain! Think of a plan!

Rape!

As much as I would like to, I think we need a better plan.

“You have two minutes to consider our offer,” the Enclave pegasus outside droned. Crap. Crap. Think! Anything!

Riverbed pumped her shotgun. “Maybe you should counter their trap with another trap, guy,” she suggested.

Hmm. A devious thought flashed through my mind. If I could get a little lucky, then everything would go together just fine.

She caught my look. “I assume you thought of something.”

I resisted having a diabolical laugh moment. “Not really, but it’ll have to do. They sound restless out there.” I searched for the key components to my plan inside my saddlebag. “And now time for a cleverly placed jump-cut.” To punctuate that, I pumped my claw-shotgun and evilly grinned.

“What?” both of them blurted.

I exhaled violently through my clenched teeth. “These are extremely unlikely circumstances that are causing me Luna knows how much stress and mental anguish. I think I’m allowed to pretend my life is a movie at this point.”

“Whatever boats your float, guy,” Riverbed huffed impatiently. “So, director. Like, what’s the plan?”

~~~~~

“Don’t shoot. I’m coming out!” I yelled as I slowly flew outside to confront the Enclave pegasi. There were seven of them standing around in a loose semi circle formation surrounding the mouth of our cave. In the center, a more fancily armored pegasus with the tell-tale golden oak leaves of the major’s rank was flanked by three soldiers on either side. I didn’t know whether to be honored or insulted that the Council sent a bucking major after me. A cursory examination of the other pegasi revealed nothing of interest. A staff sergeant, bunch of non-NCOs. Standard squad composition.

“Airpony Frosty Winds, we have been ordered to bring you back. We have been authorized to use deadly force,” Major continued to drone. I noted standard issue laser rifles, an entire multi-laser, and plasma rifles for Major’s squad.

“And why do I need to go with you, exactly?” I tensed up and prepared for anything. “What if I have a different opinion about your orders?”

“You don’t have a choice, traitor!” Staff Sergeant yelled. “You’re damn lucky one of the higher-ups is really bucking interested in you, otherwise I’d shoot you myself.”

I snorted. “Well, thanks.” If I wasn’t dead yet, my plan was going well. “I’m flattered.”

“Stow the chatter!” Major ordered. “And you—” He pointed at me. “Would you kindly disarm and stand down?”

There was something I wasn’t expecting. “Would you kindly buck off?” I snapped back.

“Shit, maybe it’s the other one,” he muttered to himself, then he cleared his throat and tried again. “Subject, executive command Lockdown Tango.”

My body decided to snap to attention against my own will, a disturbingly familiar sensation. Seriously, what was this? “Yes sir! Awaiting orders,” I yelled against my own volition. Even if I tried to make myself move my body wouldn’t respond. Damn you, weak mortal body! Why must you fail me so?

“Excellent.” Major raised his right hoof and spoke into it. He probably had some kind of audio recorder built into his gauntlet, most likely. “The subject responds well to subliminal commands. She does not appear to be aware of them, judging by her reaction.” Thanks a lot, brain. He turned his attention back to me. “Subject, sitrep.”

“Ready to fly,” I obediently responded. What the hell? I didn’t want to say that!

And, of course, he then asked the most obvious question possible. “Subject, what happened to your leg?”

“Needed a new one, sir. Misplaced my standard issue one.” Yay for my shining personality. At least I wouldn’t have to spend four hundred twenty years working off the cost of my missing standard issue leg.

“Subject, debrief,” Major continued. At least the squad behind him wasn’t as disciplined as I feared. They had stopped paying attention to the events unfolding in front of them, which would hopefully get them killed if anything else went to plan.

“Primary objective complete. Secondary objectives unresolved.” What? Huh?

Major blinked at me. “Subject, advise on objectives.”

“Primary objective: Operation White Noise. Secondary objectives are out of your pay grade, sir,” I answered. I didn’t even know what my objectives were!

Major made a note to himself on his audio log thing. “Find out what the subject’s objectives are.” Note to self, same thing. “Subject, you were given a direct order by a major in the Grand Enclave. Need I remind you that I outrank you and your commanding officer? I will repeat myself—what are your objectives?”

“My orders are out your pay grade, sir. Any further attempts to obtain intel on my confidential orders will make you subject to court-martial.” Also note to self: figure out what part of me actually remembers this crap.

Major cursed under his breath. “More questions. Great. I hate politics.” He turned his attention back to me once again. “Were you aware that your primary objective was not complete?”

“Negative,” I duly responded.

“We had to send another team to finish the job, and even they failed.” He sighed. “What do you grunts find so hard about pushing a damn button?” Wait. I’d gotten killed for nothing? My friends had died for nothing?

Apparently the docile, rule-obeying me had the same question. “Sir, I was not aware of the objective status. My previous interpretation led me to believe that the objective had been completed.”

“You’re a complete failure, subject. Hooves out.” Major advanced toward me with a set of hoofcuffs. “Prepare for transport.” A wicked grin spread across my muzzle. Excellent.

“What’s so funny, traitor?” Staff Sergeant yelled, catching sight of my evil glee. “Can’t wait for the slammer?”

Major did his best to lock one side of the hoofcuffs around my claw. “You just activated my trap card,” Raider Frosty sniggered with glee. My vision blurred with her angry crimson tint.

“What the—” were the last words Major managed to utter before Raider Frosty forcibly replaced part of his brain with buckshot. She pumped my claw to eject the spent shell and pointed it at her next target, Staff Sergeant.

Unfortunately for him, his reaction time wasn’t as quick as his mouth. Raider used S.A.T.S. and queued up several attacks into him. The spell wasn’t smart enough to realize that my ballistic claw was no longer loaded with shells. However, she did get several good punches and slashes into the weak points of his armor instead.

“Squad! Open fire!” Staff Sergeant choked out, wildly swinging back at me. Thanks to the undisciplined nature of his squad, they hesitated. That whole second of pause gave me enough time to grab Staff Sergeant in a stranglehold. At this moment I realized I hadn’t been using my anti-machine rifle, which would probably be the better choice for killing armored enemies.

“I don’t want to kill any of you!” I managed to yelp through Raider Frosty’s control. “Leave me alone!”

I was roughly shoved out of the control of my own body yet again. Today was just not my day, was it? “Any of you moves, and your sergeant dies,” Raider menacingly growled, jabbing one of my talons through the thin seal between the base of Staff Sergeant’s helmet and the rest of his armor.

The rest of his squad exchanged what would probably be confused looks at each other. Really, I wouldn’t blame them. “You heard Sarge! Kill her!” one of them yelled. Their energy weapons slowly powered up as they attempted to target me behind their leader.

“Wrong move.” Raider Frosty pulled back Staff Sergeant’s head as far as the armor would allow and sliced his throat wide open. Judging by the copious amount of blood liberally spraying out of the big hole that used to be part of his neck and the little strangled noises he was making, he probably wouldn’t be long for this world. More gruesomely, she was using the spraying blood to obscure the other pegasi’s visors.

Raider called upon S.A.T.S. once again. She was employing some tactics that could be considered, uh, uncouth. Her combat logic proceeded as follows: throw the body, grab idiot number two (left to right, of course) and break his neck, jump number one as a distraction, then attack number four. If it was any consolation to the late sergeant, his body flew quite far and crashed into number six, knocking him to the ground.

Our wings beat powerfully and Raider launched us at unfortunate number two. I got a good look into his terrified eyes behind his visor before Raider clutched his visor in my claw, pirouetted in midair, and showed him exactly what was behind him accompanied by the sound of a sickening crack. Raider then jumped us behind number one and slashed the wires on his plasma rifles, rendering them unusable. The rest of the surviving squad kept tracking my movement and unloaded their combined plasma and energy fire into unfortunate number one. “Nice shot, idiots!” she taunted.

We cast aside the charred, slightly melted corpse of number one and bolted right at number four. He backed up faster than Raider could charge at him, to my dismay. Raider still swiped at him in a hopeful attempt of landing a hit. Out of nowhere, a slow guitar strum echoed through the battle and Ice Storm materialized, emptying his powerfully tiny revolver into number four. He was dead before he hit the ground.

I heard armored hoofsteps approaching behind me.

Hey! Pay attention! On our six!

But Raider was having too much fun. “Shut up.” Boom! Gore spattered the back of our head. We spun around to the sight of one of the remaining pegasi fall over without the back of his head, right where his mane used to poke out of the back of his helmet. Yay for weak points!

“Looks like you’re doin’ just fine on yer own, guy,” Riverbed joked around the shotgun she was pumping in her muzzle. A magical energy beam streaked between us and melted number six’s gauss rifle, to my great relief, since it was pointed at my head. “Great save, Tangie!” she called out to the little hood that had an energy pistol barely poking out of it inside the cave.

Six charged brazenly at Riverbed, who irritably swatted him out of the way with the butt of her rifle. “Two little annoying birdies left.” Raider stalked toward number five, who was frozen in shock at the grisly demise of his entire squad.

“Puh-puh-pluh—” Okay, correction. Her entire squad. “Eeeep,” she squeaked. Silence reigned on our skirmish grounds. None of us moved. I breathed heavily, completely spent by the fight. My armored duster was sticking to my sweaty coat, and saliva dripped from my mouth. Raider was getting worked up by all the blood and gore over the area.

Number six put himself between us and five. “If you’re going to hurt her, you’re going to have to go through me.”

Raider Frosty and Riverbed exchanged nefarious looks.

Okay, that’s enough. Hello?

Raider Frosty didn’t let me have control back. Uh oh. I knew exactly what she was about to do, and I was powerless to stop her.

Riverbed smirked and simply responded, “I think I can live with that, guy.” She raised her shotgun and blasted six in the face at point blank range. His head exploded like a well-bucked meat cloud, scattering gore everywhere.

Five let out an anguished wail and broke down crying.

Okay, that’s far enough. Stop. Now.

Raider Frosty didn’t care at all.

Stop.

She calmly stepped over six’s body, all while thinking very violent thoughts.

I managed wrest control of my right hoof and punched myself hard. “Stop!” I managed to choke out.

“No! They need to die! They need to be taught a lesson!” Raider hissed. “Rip them apart. Gouge their eyes. Drain their blood!”

I think I deserved another facepunch, which I dealt accordingly. “They were… just… following… orders.” Fighting through Raider Frosty’s control was mentally draining, to say the least. When did she get so strong? I could barely get myself back in control!

“They need to suffer for their interference!” We collapsed to the ground, clutching my head. Riverbed was probably getting really creeped out, but I didn’t have time for that.

I needed my mind back before this got out of control. “Get. Out!” I gave myself another punch to the jaw. “This… is my! Mind! I’m in control!”

Raider Frosty roared with laughter. “Really? That’s funny.”

I looked up to Riverbed, who had the greatest look of confusion plastered on her face. “Hey… would it… would it be weird if I told you to punch me?” I croaked.

She answered me with a blank stare. After giving it a whole two seconds of thought, she shrugged and said again, “I can live with that, guy.”

Somehow she decided that the word “punch” meant “hit Frosty in the face with the side of the shotgun”.

“Ow, shit!” The force of the impact threw me to the ground. The right side of my head felt like a giant bruise was already forming. With its addition, I felt much worse but at least it felt like I was back in control. I silently whimpered to myself while rocking back and forth on the ground.

Riverbed looked like she was legitimately worried. “Did I, like, hit you too hard?”

“I bit my tongue,” I joked. “It hurths.” Obviously not my greatest worry, but for some silly reason it stood out more than it should have.

“The buck was that?” Riverbed hauled me back onto my hooves.

“Long story.”

Silence. Gravel crunched somewhere, probably Tangerine joining us with the carnage. “Wanna talk about it? We’ve got time.”

I considered it for a moment. “Nah.” I’d told this story too many times anyway, and I really didn’t want to tell it again. Especially because it wasn’t a particularly cool story, either. Maybe later, I’d write a book about it. If I survived that long, that is. “It’s actually so confusing that I have no idea either.”

Tangerine trotted up to us, skirting the larger puddles of blood and flinging the bigger bits of flesh and gore away from her using her magic. “I’m just going to address the Enclave pegasus in the room.” All of us regarded the hysterical wreck of a pegasus crying in the dirt. “At least I now have more nightmare fodder about you in case I actually get a good night’s sleep.”

“So… like, you want me to shoot her, guy?” Riverbed ventured.

“Uh.” I paused. Weeks ago, that could have been me. Heck, as far as I knew this exact scenario could have happened to me. Empathy kicked in. “I think we should let her go.”

They looked appalled. “What? What if she gives away our position?” Riverbed objected. “Or even better, what if she grabs reinforcements, guy?”

I’d make sure that didn’t happen. I confidently strode up to number five and yanked her visor open. “What’s your name?”

She stayed silent, regarding me with angry, teary eyes. I didn’t blame her. Three insane maniacs had just destroyed her squad and their commanding officer in under three minutes. Months of psychiatric help wouldn’t even dent what she’d witnessed today.

“Alright, fine. I get it. But I’ve got my own plans, and you just happened to be in completely the wrong place at completely the wrong time.” I sighed. “I don’t expect an apology, but I do expect this: tell the Council what happened here today. Take your commanding officer’s recorder or whatever as proof.”

Tangerine levitated Major’s gauntlet to the pegasus. “The data should still be intact.”

Number five snatched the gauntlet from Tangerine and shoved it into a pocket somewhere on her armor. “Now leave, and tell ‘em Frosty’s not going down without a fight,” Raider Frosty gloated out of nowhere.

...What? Hold on, what?

~~~~~

After the pegasus had departed, I looted all the bodies. I was repressing the feelings of horror and shame by drowning it out with happy collections of weapons, gear, and random tidbits. To my eternal annoyance, I never got proper training for Enclave power armor so I didn’t really know how to work it. At least it conveniently folded up into a small pile of superarmored plates, somehow. Whatever, buck logic.

“So, what’s the plan now?” Riverbed idly pawed through one of the Enclave pegasi’s armor compartments that I hadn't looted yet.

“Nothing changes. We keep going, and hopefully we find Blackwing along the way. Otherwise you get to hang around until you get bored.” I sighed, then glumly added, “I’m going to Tartarus for this, aren’t I?”

Tangerine deposited something into my saddlebag from a distance using her magic. “Um… it was bound to happen?”

“At this point it’s go big or go home,” I grunted neutrally as I gathered up all of the weapons from the fight. Most of them had gotten really banged-up from being tossed around, something that I found incredibly annoying about magical energy weapons, so I had to take them apart later on to find the gems that were still intact… or basically whatever wasn’t broken. “I didn’t have to kill them,” I said quietly. “We could have done something else.”

Riverbed was examining a plasma rifle still attached to the same suit of armor she had been looting earlier. “You know what? I need a battle saddle. My face hurts from firing this thing, even with this anti-recoil enchantment.” She rubbed her jaw.

Right on cue, Tangerine navigated her way around the bodies, using her magic to pick out medical supplies from them. A small cloud of bandages, healing potions, combat drugs, and RadAway hovered after her, surrounded by her orange-tinted magic. She grinned as she walked by, flaunting her magical powers.

Again, I tried to push out unpleasant thoughts out of my mind while I salvaged parts from the assorted weapons left. The gauss rifles were trashed beyond belief. Even if the outer shell was only a bit scuffed, an entire set of armor falling on it trashed the important internals just enough that I couldn’t perform field repairs on it. At least I managed to salvage enough of a laser rifle to make it usable. I tied the reassembled laser rifle to the side of my saddlebag.

Somepony cautiously poked me. “You okay? We’re ready to keep going.” I looked back to catch Tangerine’s very concerned stare. “Hey… are you… crying?” At first, I didn’t know what she was talking about until I rubbed my eyes. My hoof came back wet with moisture. Huh.

“I… I guess I am.” I wiped away another tear.

“Um…” Tangerine searched for something inside her cloak. “Okay, I can’t find it. But today’s been hard, and nopony should have to do what you did today.” She patted me on the back. “Bottle it up and move along. I feel your pain, I really do, but suck it up. The Wasteland is a cruel, cruel place and we simply don’t have time for it.”

I nodded and absentmindedly collected the rest of my things. And since I felt like it, I gathered up the magic crystals from the disassembled gauss rifle. More importantly, I pocketed Major’s insignia pins and patches. Just in case, or just as a petty act of vengeful kleptomania. While I’d been feeling sorry about myself, Riverbed had pilfered a plasma rifle from one of the Enclave pegasi and jury-rigged it to her saddlebags as a crude battle saddle.

A single glance at my tattered duster made me realize I needed better protection. It was speckled with holes, shrapnel, blood, and grime, not to mention the fact that many of the protective armored plates lining the interior were dented beyond belief. Against my better judgement, I pulled out one of the less-mangled suits of Enclave armor. “Can one of you help me put this on?” Naturally, Tangerine stepped up and started unfolding the armor with somewhat practiced ease.

“You know, this isn’t all that different from Ranger armor. It’s much lighter, in fact,” Tangerine remarked, fitting the wing plates onto my back. The unarmored underside of my wings always seemed to be a weak point to me, but I didn’t have a choice at the moment. Due to the nature of the helmet itself, I steadfastly refused to wear it. Tangerine also had to leave the hoof gauntlet off the left leg in order to leave my claw operational. “And if its design is anything like Steel Ranger armor, then it should be secured. Feeling awesome yet?” She sat back contentedly.

The thing I noticed first was the tail blade thing attached to the end of the armor that my tail was encased in. It curled around like a manticore’s tail, and it was so weird to have a weapon attached to my tail. Although the greatest change was the extraordinary amount of speed and strength that I suddenly gained. “Woah. This is cool.” To demonstrate my new power, I took a step, intending to perform a spin-buck, but I hadn’t anticipated nearly this much power. I stepped forward and face planted into the ground. “Just in case I forgot what the ground tasted like,” I groaned.

“Slow steps. Just let us handle the fighting, if there is any,” Tangerine kindly advised me. “You’ll get used to it.”

I nearly punched myself in the face multiple times while trying to get up and rub my nose. As Riverbed and Tangerine went back to their own devices, I figured out how to move without killing myself. “And now you know why I never completed power armor training,” I muttered to nopony in particular. After a few more careful steps and tentative movements, I slowly managed to figure out how to move without dismembering myself.

“Hey guy, does this plasma rifle make my butt look big?” Riverbed casually joked, shaking her plot at us. What did she take me for? A depraved, sex-starved bisexual? There were probably enough of those in the Wasteland. “C’mon, crazybrains, let’s roll before your friend brings back reinforcements.” She immediately started walking in what I hoped was the direction we were supposed to go in. I didn’t check.

“Yeah, that sounds like a plan…” I plodded along after Riverbed, who was building up to a fast trot. I picked up my pace in order to catch up, depression momentarily forgotten. Tangerine chased after us, her hood flying back from the wind. Since I was up to a nice brisk pace, I spread my wings and skimmed along the ground. Somepony poked at the back of my mind that I shouldn’t have been able to adapt to the power armor this easily, but I had more distressing matters occupying my attention at the time.

“Hey!” Tangerine puffed from behind us. “Not so fast!” We slowed down our pace to let her catch up to us. “My short wimpy legs can’t move as fast as yours!”

Riverbed impatiently snorted. “Never had a brisk morning jog before? Or a morning marathon, in my case? Catching up to griffons in flight is hard.” She kept moving, albeit at a much slower speed so that those of us that were less physically motivated could keep pace.

I watched the ground slip by under my hooves. What would I do? Where would I go? There was no way I would be able to get away with killing a ranking officer and his security detail by any stretch of the imagination. The second I returned to Enclave-controlled airspace, they would probably execute me right on the spot.

Return was no longer an option. I’d just gotten myself burned, and I was stupid enough to make sure of it.

No survivors, remember? The hell happened to that?

That was me being stupid. Dammit, Raider. Why’d you make me go and do that?

That was all you, sport.

Was it?

Your ego got the best of you, and you just had to go and rub it into the faces of the Council.

Damn. Good work, me.

I bumped into Riverbed’s decidedly ample posterior when she abruptly stopped. “Yo, guy. Asked you a question.”

“Huh?” I looked back up.

Riverbed pointed at the large, derelict building looming ahead of us. “Wanna look for lunch?”

According to what was left of the sign, it was called “per Ma”. Little was left of the remaining facade, let alone the fortifications that had been hastily erected around the entrance. Dried blood was spattered all over the pavement, the walls, the barbed wire had been twisted and mangled into uselessness, and there were holes blasted through various walls.

“Sure. I’m hungry,” Tangerine piped up. She followed Riverbed toward the building, but hesitantly turned around. “You coming?”

My keen observational skills pointed out movement inside the building. The shelves inside had been re-arranged into almost a inverted trench formation, which didn’t make me feel safe at all. I debated for a second, but my stomach made up my mind first with an angry growl. “Sure, I’m in. Keep your guard up, though. I don’t like the movement back there.” Submachine gun, check. Ammunition, check.

I froze in mid-step. “Well, whatcha waiting for, guy?” Riverbed taunted. Unbeknownst to her, a pale red dot danced across her chest.

“Sharpshooter!” Good thing Tangerine decided to shove Riverbed out of the way as I alerted everypony in the area by pointing out the obvious. I fumbled for the laser rifle strapped to my saddlebag, cursing my skill in tying things up.

All hell broke loose.

If tiny little lights could be menacing, this was it. Dozens upon dozens of red dots spontaneously appeared all over each of us. Maybe the Wasteland was being cruel to me, maybe somepony before the war just had too much time on their hooves. Heck, maybe somepony was just really accuracy impaired. But the brightest, most obnoxious laser in the entire Wasteland came to rest on my forehead. I could even visually follow the laser all the way back to the roof right above the “M” on the building. What. An. Asshole.

A voice from inside of the building, amplified by loudspeakers, boomed in our general direction “Hold it right there. State your intentions, or get painted across the pavement.” Many of the lasers refocused onto our faces. Riverbed looked over her shoulder at me expectantly, arching an eyebrow.

“What? I’m not negotiating. You know exactly how well that went last time!” I hissed. There was another, Raider-Frosty-related reason I was successfully repressing why I didn’t want to negotiate. “You talk to them, guy!”

Riverbed rolled her eyes.

Shit, she was rubbing off on me. Bad Frosty!

Tangerine piped up in a quiet voice. “If you want, I can talk to them.” Somehow, that seemed like a better idea. Rather than the self-serving merc or the completely insane pegasus potentially negotiating for their lives, they might take more kindly to the soft-spoken Steel Ranger scribe. “We’re just passing through. Do you have anything you would like to trade, out of sheer curiosity?” she called out.

A few of the dots detracted from their dancing. I was hoping they were conferring among each other about letting us in, and not which one to shoot first. “The Steel Rangers have been kind to us, so I’m willing to make an exception. You, scribe. Approach slowly and don’t make any sudden moves. The rest of you stay outside—if any one of you two so much as sneezes, my snipers will kill you.” I was forced to shut my right eye as the bright obnoxious targeting laser bounced across my vision. Again, what an asshole.

Tangerine decided that since she was the only one going in, we’d have to give her all of the things we needed to sell. I hoofed over all of the random bits and bobs that I had accumulated over the course of my adventure, minus the one or two trinkets that I found interesting.

“What about the other suits of armor?” I asked when Tangerine added them to the ‘to sell’ pile. “Don’t you guys want that stuff?”

Without pausing for a second to reply, Tangerine responed, “It’s nearly useless to us. Not only are our Rangers not properly equipped to efficiently use your Enclave power armor, but we already have blueprints for it in our records.”

That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. “Spare parts?”

“Most of the Enclave power armor is incompatible with Steel Ranger power armor. The parts that are shared are both easily replaced.” Tangerine opened my saddlebag again and peered inside. “So there’s no real point in keeping them except for repairing the one you’re wearing. Anything else you got?”

I reluctantly agreed to sell four of the six sets of armor and most of the helmets that I was lugging around. I kept one helmet , just in case I needed the built-in targeting systems for the battle saddle on my armor. Including the armor that I was wearing, I held onto two so I had parts to swap with.

Riverbed ended up piling Tangerine up with dozens of guns, miscellaneous pieces of junk, and a missile. Where’d she get that from? “I don’t really need anything, so, like, bring back caps.”

“Got it. Frosty? You uh, want anything?” Tangerine asked, visibly straining by the weight of the items she was holding up with her magic. The very, very few unicorns I’d known in the Enclave never seemed to have a problem with moving things. I guess you learned something new every day.

Was there anything I really needed? “Anti-machine rifle ammunition, some bottled water, a few grenades—if there are any—and… cherry snack cakes. Lots of cherry snack cakes.” I listed off the top of my head.

“Healing potions!” Riverbed added at the last second.

Tangerine hefted the huge pile of stuff and mentally recounted the giant list of things to acquire. “Got it. See you in a bit.” She trotted into the building under our watchful gaze. As frustrating as it was, we couldn’t follow her in.

“Shout if you need help!” I yelled after her.

“Okay!”

We watched her tail disappear around a corner, followed by what was probably thousands of caps’ worth of our loot. Much to our disappointment, the laser and the dots didn’t leave with her. “So…” I awkwardly started, giving Riverbed a sidelong glance.

“So.”

“So….” Talk about an awkward moment. The threat of our potential sudden and-slash-or impending doom wasn’t really conducive to conversational topics. “How’s things?”

Riverbed scoffed. “I could ask the same about you, guy.”

“The hell does that mean?” I bristled. “I’m fine. Could be better.” No need to reveal any details of my personal woes to her.

“Don’t tell me that you’re fine. I think I know what ‘fine’ looks like for you, and this—” Riverbed motioned at all of me, ignoring the fact that we weren’t supposed to be moving. “—isn’t it. You’re lethargic, quiet, and mopey, guy. Spit it out.”

“I’m going to keep this quick and concise. I just fought my former comrades whom believe in a government that I no longer work for. A government, need I remind you, that has tried to kill me. What do you think?” I spat, my tone absolutely dripping with acid.

And of course that caused even more awkwardness. Riverbed no longer wanted to talk to me, most likely because she’d irritated me enough already. She suddenly became very transfixed to a scorch mark on her shoulder pad. With all this free time, I took an opportunity to study our surroundings.

For some incredibly stupid reason, we had decided to approach the building from the front where the large expanse of pavement we were standing on connected to the broken road we had come down from earlier. Along one wall, somepony had plastered several monochrome posters of a smiling unicorn, under which read “READ”. There were a few broken chariots and remains of others scattered around either side of us. I was forced to cover my eyes as the pony with the laser attempted to blind me with it.

“That guy is an asshole,” I said with a groan. “That bucking laser.”

Riverbed giggled. “Maybe it just wants you to know it’s a sniper rifle.”

“I mean, what kind of idiot puts such a strong laser on a gun? It totally defeats the purpose of being hidden, let alone it being on a sniper rifle.”

“For our convenience, maybe?”

“Asshole.” I kept my eyes shut, lest I get blinded when I opened them. What I did instead was give him a rude gesture with my claw that I’d noticed from the Talon mercs. While I waited, I had nothing else to do but stare at the insides of my eyelids. Like a ghostly apparition, a memory floated to the surface of my mind.

<~~~>

“You get to seek this time! Now count to fifty. No peeking!” Summer squealed.

My eyes were still closed, and I could feel my hooves pressed over my face. I still missed the feeling of my left hoof. More accurately, I missed receiving sensations from my left hoof. “One. Two. Four. Wait, three.”

Something soft and plush bounced off the back of my head. “No cheating! Start over!”

I sighed adorably and started again, correctly this time. “One. Two. Three…”

<~~~>

“Yo. Wasteland to guy. Hello?” Riverbed waved a hoof in my face. I shook my head trying to push the memory off to the side. What just happened? Why did I see that particular memory? “Don’t flip out on me right now.”

What was the question? Right. “I’m good. Kinda zoned out there for a little.” Once I started paying attention again, I realized that the red dots and the laser were gone. In fact, Tangerine was waiting at the entrance of the building, urgently waving us in. “What happened?”

“I dunno yet. So, like, we’re just standing there, right? Then all of a sudden all the lasers go away, including the sniper. And then Tangie says we can go in.” Riverbed galloped to the building, me barely coordinated enough to follow at that speed. “Time to find out.”

Tangerine waved at us, grinning widely. “Good news, everypony! They’ve agreed to not shoot you on sight.” Well, that was nice of them. “On one condition.” Uh oh. That was never good. “I’m so sorry, Frosty. But it was the only way.” She winced apologetically.

Well, if it was the only way… “Fine, what do they want?”

An old, wizened unicorn wearing a battered, graying outback hat that looked just as old as he was appeared behind Tangerine. His eyes were shockingly blue, which was the first thing I noticed when he scrutinized my ill-gained armor in disgust. Somehow, I got the strange feeling that I’d disappointed him. I didn’t even know him!

Underneath his very well-used light armor, his pale red coat showed the signs of age and extended combat. His tail had been cropped as short as possible, and what wasn’t gray was a faded brown streaked with more gray. As far as I could tell, he was either very bald or he had a very short crewcut under that hat.

He took offense to my question. “They want you to take care of a little problem.” I caught minute movements on top of the shelves. “If you haven’t noticed already, security is a tiny bit tight around here,” he drawled. There was a hint of some kind of accent to his voice that I couldn’t identify. “Welcome to Perma.”

“What’s your name, guy?” Riverbed asked.

His eyes darkened. “You will call me Boss. Got it, whelp?”

Riverbed gulped, shying away from him slightly. “Got it, boss.” Sheesh, talk about commanding respect. This old stallion really knew how to get anypony’s undivided attention.

“Yessir,” I saluted, hoping to snag a few bonus points from Boss. “Orders?”

Boss roared with laughter. Once he’d caught his breath, he finally said, “You know what, filly? I like you.” He abruptly switched to a much more serious tone. “Long story short, shit hit the fan. We had an agreement with a local gang that decided that we needed some security.”

This old trick. “Either you got greedy or they did, I assume?” Riverbed asked, looking around the interior. She cocked her head at a small alcove occupied by an auto-turret. “I’m just going to assume they did?”

“Indeed they did. Those greedy swine tried to double their rates!” Boss yelled. “I gave ‘em a piece of my mind. And a good hunk of my lead.”

I heard a ruffling sound above our heads. Being a pegasus, I could recognize the sound of flapping wings from anywhere. A pegasus landed on the floor with a barely audible scattering of dust. He was armored up from nose to tail in pre-war military-issue ghillie camouflage. One little problem: the camouflage he was wearing was patterned in a way to be used in a snowy environment. Ergo, the dusty whites and grays he was wearing made him stand out in the Wasteland like a beacon.

His head was covered with a black balaclava and his eyes were obscured by a pair of massive goggles. Strips of white-gray cloth from the ghillie suit’s hood dangled over them. The underside of his armor had been spray-painted black along with the rear legs, leaving the top half and the forelegs white. The suit draped over his form, giving him the look of a walking cloud. “Y’all are lucky ah didn’t splatter yer brains all over the pavement.”

Another pegasus? And why did his accent remind me of somepony? But a more pressing question popped out. “Now, I’m not one for fashion, but isn’t your outfit a bit…” I struggled to think of another word. “Out of season?” I finished, a silly grin on my face.

“An’ why don’t y’all go eat a bag dicks,” he retorted.

Boss cleared his throat. “Sergeant Airhead, stand down. And introduce yourself, for Celestia’s sake. ”

“Whatever ya say, Boss.” Airhead held out his hoof to me. “Former Second Lieutenant Airhead, Special Operations. You?”

Spec Ops? Wow. I shook his hoof. I opened my mouth to introduce myself, then I realized that calling myself a Steel Ranger might cause problems. “Ex-Scout Frosty Winds. Recon Force Blizzard. So, what brings you to the Wasteland?” I was somewhat prepared for some sort of sob story about betrayal or something along those lines.

Airhead pushed his goggles up onto his forehead. Turns out his natural coat color was blue, and his eyes were a dull brown. “Bucking politics an’ those big damn bigwigs doin’ all their fancy dandy shit. How long ya been down here?”

I needed to think about that. A month? A few weeks? “Maybe a bit less than a month. I think.” But how long had I really been in the Wasteland?

Airhead seemed relieved. “Good. I don’t have to explain nearly everything. So, you should remember the Cloudbright assassination, right?” I had to think really hard about that one. Why did it sound so familiar?

Wait. My jaw dropped. No. Way. No. There was no way.

“You seem surprised, guy. That name actually mean something to you?” Riverbed asked, leaning over to close my mouth for me. “Dude, I think she zoned out again,” she told everypony else in the room.

Don’t freak out. Don’t freak out. But I did manage to put two and two together, then everything spilled out all at once. “Ohmigosh ohmigosh ohmigosh!” I squealed. “You’re the Cumulus Hotel sniper?”

Tangerine got my attention with a nudge. “What’s the Cloudbite assassination?” she whispered, obviously very confused.

“The Cloudbright assassination,” I corrected her, “was the greatest political assassination ever. Basically, Councilpony Cloudbright was riling up a whole lot of bad publicity on how we should be the ones helping and putting the Wasteland back together.”

Airhead nodded. “Eyup. Rest’a the Council didn’t think the same way.”

“So during a speech, somepony snipes Cloudbright and his entire five-pony bodyguard in less than eight seconds.” I continued to gush in full blown fanfilly mode. “Mysteriously, half of the footage disappears and the shooter was never caught.” But that was where Airhead came in. He’d be able to fill in the gaps. I stared at him expectantly while trying to keep all my hooves on the ground.

All eyes were on Airhead. He sighed, sliding his goggles back down. “Yes, ah did shoot him. Somepony picked me ta do it in exchange for my career, and ah did it without askin’.” Hmm. Why did that sound so very familiar? “Took ‘im out and then ah got branded behind the scenes. Shoulda seen that comin’.”

Lightbulb. “Wait… let me guess. Harbinger?” I suspected. The impassive silence in the room confirmed my suspicions. “Seems like we have something in common.”

Boss slapped both of us. “Storytime’s over. You going to help us or not?”

I checked with the others first. After confirming that we were going to help, I replied, “Yeah. But we’re already trying to do something first. Is it alright if we come back later?” Judging by another one of his disappointed looks, the outcome might not be favorable.

“All on your own time. We’ve got ammo for years, and enough firepower to keep them away.” Boss casually dismissed. “But if you can’t help us, we can’t help you. Sorry filly, but you’re on your own till then.”

As unfortunate as it was for us, he was right. We wouldn’t be able to use Perma as a rest stop, not until we cleaned out that gang. “Seems fair,” I decided. “But can we load up on some supplies first in order to guarantee our survival so that we can live long enough to get back?”

Boss thought about it for a moment. “Your little unicorn already swindled most of our caps, but if you think there’s anything else you need go right ahead. Follow the shelves down to the end.” He then pulled Airhead off to the side. “Sonny, we need to talk.”

Tangerine led us down the zigzagging rows of shelves. She levitated a small pouch of caps, along with a few healing potions and a hefty-looking can full of shotgun shells to Riverbed, who took them gratefully. On the other hoof, I was passed a very large bag of caps and five boxes of cherry snack cakes. Yay!

After I deposited a portion of the bag of caps into my saddlebag, the other half into the compartment on my claw, I checked my PipBuck to see exactly how much I’d just received. The answer was not as much as I was hoping for. “The buck? Only nineteen hundred?” I shouted in complete dismay. “That’s it?”

“It was as much as I could get for them.” Tangerine hid herself in her hood. “I’m sorry, but I also had to use most of it to cover supplies.”

Control yourself, Frosty. “Ugh. Sorry.” I faceclawed momentarily. “I was just hoping to get more for something that would normally cost me my wages for four hundred years, give or take a decade.”

Riverbed laughed behind me. “Like, your Enclave bits aren’t worth anything here. That’s probably why.” Damn this skewed economy and its silly exchange rate. “Heck, even pre-war bits are barely worth anything anymore. I make, like, shotgun shells out of ‘em.”

Which brought me to a better point. “Wouldn’t bits be better? Before the war, they were a perfectly acceptable and stable currency. What’s the problem with continuing to use bits?” I asked, legitimately confused. Why would bottle caps be a good substitute?

“Easy. After the war, bits became worth their weight in caps. The metal itself was more useful being used for other things, and bottle caps were produced to a certain point where they were scarce enough yet plentiful at the same time. Therefore, somepony decided that the bottle caps were useless for crafting, yet good enough to be used as currency,” Tangerine rattled off. “At least, that’s how I think it happened.”

“Or it’s like water, caps, backing, somethin’, something, here we are. I stopped asking a long time ago, guy.”

Once I thought about it, it sort of made sense, to a very limited degree. “I still think it’s stupid,” I replied. “I mean, why does it need to be bottle caps? Why not something like… those posters outside? There are plenty of them, and I wouldn’t need this giant bag to carry around bottle caps.”

“Paper degrades. Ergo, stupid,” Tangerine calmly replied. Once we finally reached the end of the shelf trenching, we emerged in what used to be the bakery section. Behind the short display cases, a heavily armed and armored stallion stood imposingly by his wares. “Well, knock yourself out. They don’t have much in stock, but go right ahead if you see anything you would like.” She tugged a small book out of the depths of her robe and opened it up to an arbitrary page. I caught a glimpse of the cover and decided not to ask about why two strangely-drawn stallions were comically making out. Shopping time!

Two griffons and a pony wearing vault security armor were arguing among themselves at a table with caps and ammunition scattered across it. Both griffons were playing some strange card game involving six stacks of cards and probably some rules that I wouldn’t be able to understand. Riverbed cocked her head at the group at the table. “I’m going to, like, get caught up with the Talons. Be right back, guy.” I nodded, then approached Perma’s resident merchant.

“Buy somethin’, will ya? I’ve got anything you need,” the merchant rumbled. “We’ve got a special sale on small plastic dinosaur toys.”

Was it wrong that I actually considered buying a dinosaur toy? As much as I did, I still managed to maintain focus. As for ammunition, he didn’t stock anything anti-machine, but at least I managed to buy another full magazine for my submachine gun. I also secured myself a decent bedroll that was only slightly stained with blood for the decent price of twenty two caps, and a personal hygiene kit for six caps. The bedroll wasn’t a cloud, but it would have to do. Better than using my lumpy bag as a pillow. Other than that, he didn’t really have anything else of interest to me for sale.

“It’s dangerous to go alone, jerkwad. Take one of these.” The merchant dropped a grenade onto my bedroll before I could shove it into my bag.

It took all of my self-control to not throw everything across the room. Very carefully, I asked, “Why did you just give me a grenade?” And on closer observation, I noticed “Minus the pin?” The smarter part of me was nearly literally yelling at me to drop it and run. Like the idiot I was, I didn’t listen to me.

For some reason, the opposite face of the grenade had, well, a face. Somepony, presumably the merchant, had scrawled a crude happy face onto it. “It’s a buddy system. Heck, it might save your life one day. And yeah, it’s inert.”

Out of sheer curiosity, I asked, “Uh… how much?”

Riverbed mouthed something at me from behind one of the griffins, most likely along the lines of “Are you insane?” To which the answer was yes.

“Three caps.” Eh, sure. I bought it, just because. “Somepony bought that? Holy crap! Enjoy your shit.” the merchant exclaimed.

Somehow, I felt like I’d been duped. But I didn’t care! I had a grenade with a smiley face on it now! I rejoined Riverbed, who was still in the middle of conversation with the other group.

“…and how do you expect to tell them that?” the bluish griffon idly asked, dropping a seven of hearts on top of one of the piles. “We’re in enough trouble as it is.” I gently tapped Riverbed’s shoulder to get her attention. She nodded, still listening to the griffons talk.

The other griffon slapped a king of spades down on top of the seven. “Take that, Straybeak! How you like these kings?” Straybeak groaned, throwing down his cards. “But he’s got a point. Neither of us really want to report back to the boss right now.”

“Damn it, Skyward! Why does your deck have sixteen kings in it?” Straybeak put down his cards and started taking cards back from the piles. “Why do I even play this game with you?” he moaned.

“Because I’m the only girl that’ll play against your deck of nine jacks and four jokers,” Skyward haughtily replied, collecting the rest of her cards from the scattered piles. As she was pocketing her small pile of cards, she noticed me standing there. “Hey! Another pegasus. So many of you are popping up these days; it’s like you’re going out of style.”

I wasn’t sure how to answer to that. Instead, I asked Riverbed, “So, trying to get the message across?”

“Yeah. But these two birdbrains are being chicken,” Riverbed taunted.

Both griffons faceclawed along with me. “That one almost broke my brain,” I groaned. Oh, the puns. “Care to get any more of them out of your system?”

“Oh, don’t egg me on,” Riverbed continued, grin on her face. Okay, that was enough. I grabbed her muzzle with my claw to stem the incoming tide of bad puns. “Mmm mmmphmh?”

Both griffons agreed with my decision. “Thank the goddesses for that. Last thing I need is for Skyward to lose her last three brain cells.” Whap. “Ow! Sky, the heck?” Whap. Whap. “Ow!” Straybeak covered his head under Skyward’s playful swipes.

Both griffons stopped immediately when Riverbed decided to mention, “One Talon to another, are you going to tell Blackwing or not?”

They didn’t seem pleased by that. “What the hell gives you the right to be a Talon? You aren’t even a griffon,” Skyward roared. “And even if you think you are, you could have just painted that logo onto your armor. That isn’t going to fool us.”

Riverbed sighed in exasperation. “I hate having to explain this every single time.” She pointed at the Talon Mercenary logo on her armor. “Listen, guy. I’m one of Firewing’s mercs. He drafted me, and that’s all you need to know.”

Skyward and Straybeak looked at each other. “Problem number one: Firewing’s Talons fell off the map. We stopped receiving transmissions and mission updates months ago. Number two: ponies don’t get drafted into the Talons,” she quickly summed up.

Something told me that Riverbed hated to talk about this particular subject. Perhaps it was just her constant annoyed look, or maybe the way her ears flicked back for no reason. “Would it help if I filled in the gaps? For instance, he likes his whores with a side of apple bourbon at night,” she spat. “No respect for anypony whatsoever, but at least he tips well.”

“Well…” Straybeak mumbled. “That does sound about right.”

More venom laced Riverbed’s tone. “One day, he met his untimely demise after one of these sessions. Let’s just say he had a particularly violent accident. In the middle of the night, he accidentally stabbed himself in the back several times with a bowie knife while falling down some stairs. On fire.”

“Accidentally.”

“Yep.”

Straybeak wasn’t nearly as fazed as Skyward was. He followed up with, “Wait, if Firewing’s dead then who’s in charge?”

“Thundercane, his second in command.”

Skyward tapped her chin. “You know, that might explain a lot. Isn’t Thundercane the one that wanted the Talons to join up with that Red Eye character? After taking over, she might have just cut off comms altogether.”

Straybeak agreed. “Yeah. I guess. But I never really took Firewing as the one to let a pony into the Talons. I guess it was a good thing that somepony finally took him out.”

“It’s not like I had a choice in any part of it…” Riverbed grumbled under her breath. “Anyway, will you deliver the message?”

The answer was a resounding “Nope” from both griffons.

“Why not?” Riverbed cried, stress causing her voice to crack slightly.

“We’re already in trouble, and you want us to deliver unverified intel from a rogue agent?” Once Skyward put it that way, I didn’t really want to deliver this message either. “And here’s the best part: there’s no way for us to know for certain if you’re one of Firewing’s or not.”

Straybeak spoke up. “Wait, didn’t Butcher say he was going to Horseshoe Tower? You think Blackwing already knows?”

Riverbed groaned. “You’ve gotta be kidding. Blackwing already knows? Well, this entire trip was a waste for me.”

“Your intel is stale. There’s no way we’re going to piss off Blackwing any more. You’re on your own.” And with that, both griffons started ushering the pony they were with down the aisles. “Let’s get out of here and get paid already. C’mon, Bargain Bucket.”

“Bargain Bin Laden!” the other bedraggled pony complained. “My name is Bargain Bin Laden! Why do I get the feeling you do that on purpose?”

Skyward laughed. “Sorry, Bargain Basket.” I could hear him grinding his teeth in rage as they circled around the shelves on their way out. What a strange little group.

Says the crazy robot chicken tromping about with her stupid robot-hugger friends and a stupid bird-merc who isn’t a bird.

...Thanks for the observation, Raider.

I noticed that Riverbed was staring at the ceiling dejectedly. “Hey. So what are you going to do now?” If I remembered correctly, the only reason she was still here was because Thundercane needed to make sure that I delivered the message.

“Buck this shit. I’m leaving.” Riverbed stood up and shook out her mane. “My job’s done. Unless you want to buy my services, I guess I’m going back to base. Thundercane owes me a lot of answers.”

Having a mercenary follow me around for personal defense seemed like a good idea. As much as I would have liked to, I knew getting answers was more important than anything else. Heck, I was one to know. “Some other time,” I answered, giving Riverbed my best sincere smile.

Whether Riverbed was grateful or not was anyone’s guess. All she did was give me a little nod. “If you change your mind, you know where to find me. See ya later, guy.” And with that, she turned tail and gave me a dismissive wave over her shoulder. It didn’t seem like she was going to head back just yet, so I probably had time to hire her back if I changed my mind. I liked her. It was just something about her casual nature that put me at ease. Maybe one day, if I survived that long, I might hire her back just to enjoy her company.

That brought my motley little crew down to just Tangerine. “Well then, let’s get out of here,” I told her. “There’s nothing else we can do here. I guess it’s time to go.”

“Finally,” Tangerine grumbled. She shoved her book back into her robes. “The faster we find our missing Rangers, the faster I can get back to reading—er, researching two hundred year old, uh, literature.”

“Literature?” Something about the way she said it made me feel like pressing the issue further. “What kind of literature?”

Tangerine’s hood seemed to obscure her face more. “You know… literature.”

The cover of her book came to mind. “You mean the kind of literature where a stallion loves another stallion very much and, uh…” Where was I even going with this? “I didn’t really think this one through first.”

Either way, Tangerine steadily turned more scarlet.

Right. Research.

We exited Perma posthaste right after a quick snack of snack cakes and water. For the sake of time, I picked up Tangerine against her will and flung her onto my back. I ignored her protesting cries and took off at high speed with only a few faltering flaps because of my lack of training for the power armor. I was also flying in the wrong direction, as I quickly discovered once I consulted my PipBuck.

One course correction later, we were on our way once again to the coordinates. Hopefully too much time hadn’t been wasted and Rumcake was still doing fine. It was still about afternoonish, which left plenty of time to cover lots of ground. Too bad I didn’t have time to stop at every single building that I saw to empty them.

Flying at such high speed assisted by the power armor I was wearing was something I really needed to get accustomed to. Most annoyingly, my right ear flapped slightly more in the wind than the left due to the missing bit halfway down where an earring used to be. My left ear was still being screamed into by the diminutive unicorn on my back. Thanks to the power armor, I didn’t feel Tangerine hammering away at my sides or choking me with her panicked grip.

“Can you slow down?” Tangerine continued to wail. “I’m gonna hurl!” Due to the urgency of my mission, I was going to risk dirtying my armor in exchange for increased speed. The entire time, she wouldn’t cease in her efforts to make me slow down. However, I did notice that my wings didn’t feel nearly as strained from long-distance flying as before I had the power armor. At this rate, I wouldn’t even need any more formal training on how to use this Enclave power armor.

“Directions, navigator?” I shouted to Tangerine over the sound of wind whipping through my mane. Looking at my PipBuck was difficult while flying, especially at this velocity. The last thing I needed was to collide with a suddenly appearing wall.

Hooves thumped against the collar of the power armor I was wearing. “Slow down and I can check the map because you’re too stupid to use yours!” she shouted back. I gave in, flaring my wings out in order to decrease our speed. Now that my wings were reinforced by some kind of metal that I didn’t pay attention about, sudden stops like these no longer hurt at all.

Once we’d slowed down enough, Tangerine unfolded the map in front of my face using her super awesome magical powers. “We’re here.” She tapped a spot only a few inches from our destination. “If you continue this way”—her other hoof extended out in front of me and slightly to the right—“we should be there in no time.”

“Excellent.” I took off as fast as I could in the correct direction the second Tangerine floated the map out of my face. “Onward!” My wings beat powerfully in the wind as I did my best to fly quickly and keep the wildly swearing unicorn on my back at the same time.

~~~~~

Tangerine pointed out a specific street for me to land on in the middle of the ruined city. “We’re close to the last known coordinates. From what our intel—”

“Your painfully outdated intel?” I interrupted.

Even if I was right, Tangerine wasn’t going to let me have that satisfaction. “We need to proceed with caution. This place is infested with raiders and scavengers and they might be smart enough to look up once in a while.”

I made sure that my rifle was loaded and at my side before proceeding down the cracked pavement. Ruined buildings towered above us, which made me increasingly nervous about not having a height advantage. Ambushes usually came from above, and all the open windows and rooftops gave them ample opportunity. I comforted myself with the fact that my anti-material rifle could definitely penetrate all of the buildings here.

“Hmm.” Tangerine looked around. “Do you see a ‘Purple Line Station’ around here? That’s basically where we’re going.”

Unless the station looked a lot like a raider-built barricade, we probably weren’t there yet. With all the graffiti and bodies all over it, it was actually a little bit difficult to tell what was behind it. Casting caution aside, I launched into a low hover to try to get a better vantage point in case there were a few raiders waiting to pounce.

Thankfully, nothing. Just a lot of trash, gore, and all the things that raiders liked to play around in. Weirdly enough, it looked more like nopony had been around for a while.

“See anything up there?”

I rotated in place while maintaining my hover, scanning for anything out of the ordinary. Being between buildings didn’t really—ah. “Uh… hold on, there’s a junction up there. Gimme two.” Without waiting for Tangerine to reply, I darted to the center of the intersection and performed another scan.

Again, no movement. Maybe all the scavengers had gone home? I also didn’t see anything that looked like a train station, but at least the area was clear. I zoomed on back to Tangerine to relay the news.

“Looks clear. Besides the barricade, streets are empty. I don’t see anything that looks like a station, though.”

“That’s weird.” Tangerine consulted her map again. “Says it’s right on that intersection right over there.”

“Well, it’s not there anymore. Maybe it’s under that barricade?”

Tangerine packed up her map and glared at me. “Well, if somepony knew how to use their own map that automatically marks out landmarks, then we wouldn’t be having this problem.” Nevertheless, she trotted on and pointedly ignored the raspberry I blew at her.

I hovered along behind Tangerine, rifle at the ready. The second she set foot in the intersection, she immediately set her sights on some covered stairway going down. She glared at me, then back at the stairs.

Apparently, I’d missed something painfully obvious again. “What?”

“No station?” She pointed at the polished sign hanging above the stairs and I facehoofed. “So what’s this, then?”

“Right. Purple Line Station, I get it,” I groaned.

“You’re an idiot.”

I sighed. “I’m an idiot.”

“Come on, let’s head on in.” So we did, while I tried not to look at Tangerine in case she had something else to add to it.

While I was avoiding eye contact, I couldn’t help but feel like something seemed a little off about the whole place, but I couldn’t really put my hoof on it. Maybe it was my nerves, or maybe it was because I was still annoyed that somepony had built a train station underground. Going down the stairs increased my unease, but I was starting to notice why.

This place was clean. Well, it would be if there weren’t dead bodies littered along the sides of the stairway.

“Whoever came through here knew what they were doing.” I paused to dig through the pockets of somepony that must have been some kind of caravan guard. “They’ve been looted, and whoever came through here was even thoughtful enough to scoot them to the side.” I moved on to the body next to it, somepony that used to be a slaver. “Nothing again, except for this ear.”

Tangerine scanned the multitude of bodies all the way down the stairs. “Hey, notice anything else about these ponies?”

“You mean besides they’re all dead?” They’d also been dead for less than two days, but I assumed that she already knew that.

I heard a groan from the unicorn as I regarded a small animal’s foot on a keychain. “Yes, besides they’re all dead. It’s just… come on down farther. It gets really weird.”

After pocketing the bunny appendage, I trotted down to the bottom of the stairs and followed the bend left. “Can it though?” I asked, then immediately stopped. “Huh.”

“Yeah…”

The immediate entry of what I assumed was the lobby was utterly destroyed. Barricades had been set up at one point, but a well-placed demolition charge had made a large enough hole for a force to charge in.

I picked up slightly burnt perforated tube from the ground. “Flashbang. Huh.”

A spent shotgun shell bounced off my head, courtesy of Tangerine. “Yeah, but check out these guys.”

Tangerine was standing next to a bizarre pile of bodies by the bathrooms. It looked like they hadn’t been moved, but it still didn’t make sense. Two raiders, a sort of Wastelander doctor, and a Ranger scribe were all piled up in the corner, riddled with bullet holes. The door opposite of the corner was smeared with a large quantity of blood, but no body.

“Looks like they got cornered.” Tangerine sighed. “It is weird, though.”

What drew me in was the scattering of bloody tawny feathers on the ground. I picked one up and examined it. After regarding it for a moment, I determined that it wasn’t a pegasus feather. “This came from a griffin,” I smartly deduced.

“Are you sure?”

On a whim, I licked it. Tangerine cringed.

Tastes like chicken!

I groaned and facehoofed. “Yeah, Raider’s definitely sure. It’s griffin.”

“Uh… what’s going on here, anyway?”

I looked around the remains of the lobby. “I don’t even know. Why would these ponies even work together?” Things just weren’t adding up. “Maybe this is just a lot more trouble than it’s worth investigating.”

“Griffins mean Talons,” Tangerine hopefully suggested.

“And Talons means somepony needed somepony dead,” I added, then looked at the bodies again. “Well, in this case, that is.”

My E.F.S. wasn’t picking up anypony else but Tangerine, so I decided, “You know what? Let’s split up and search the area. From what we’ve noticed, there won’t be anything left to take. If you get in some deep trouble, try to make as much noise as you can when you die so I can avenge you.”

To my surprise, Tangerine narrowed her eyes at me and growled.

“Don’t give me that. C’mon, can you come up with anything better?” I sighed.

Tangerine rolled her eyes. “No. Fine.”

“Regroup here in like, ten minutes?”

“Um… okay.”

As expected, a