Fallout: Equestria - Infinite Potential

by Borsuq

First published

Follow the adventures of Angel, a doctor from the paradise of Stable Eight, as she's set upon discovering the Truth within the world of endless possibilities

When two centuries ago Stable-Tec had decided upon the social experiment that was to be carried out within Stable Eight, they could not possibly predict its results. Due to them, when the steel door of that Stable had finally opened, the pony who came out of it looked down on the Wasteland not with fear, but with fascination.

As Angel descended upon Equestrian Wasteland from the paradise of Stable Eight, she knew its potential to be endless.


Edited by: Zaleros, TimePrincess
Proof-read by: guardianxela, Sage Probo, Bazing
Final proofread by: Reese
Cover art by: Faith-Wolff
Former co-editor: Lazygamer313
Formerly last check-uped: Dubz

Author's notes:
Inspired by the fantastic Fallout: Equestria, written by Kkat, Infinite Potential is a side story to it, and is considered non-canon. I also plan to include fragments of some other side stories or make references to them. Big thanks to Kkat for creating this awesome world, and to everybody who contributed to it!

Hope you like it:twilightsmile:

Prologue

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“Hello!

“My name is Scootaloo. You might know me - I’m the vice-president of Stable-Tech and founder of Red Racer, plus my performance at last year’s GALLoPS was kickass, so I’m pretty famous. Not that it matters a damn anymore, I suppose…

“Ugh, sorry. If you are hearing this, then that means Omega-Level Threat Protocols had been enacted, and citizens of Equestria chosen for this Stable had been safely sealed inside, while… the rest of Equestria…

“Damn it!

“Sorry, I just… made a few of those recordings already, and saying those words every time, that you’re dead and that everything you knew is gone… ugh, sorry. Since you’re hearing this, you must already know all that, and this is just some mare’s rambling to you…

“Alright, let’s get this over with. You have been selected for the position of the Overmare of Stable Eight… wait, this is for Stable Eight?! Damn it, Sweetie Bell was supposed to do the recording for it!

“… ugh, I’ll end up doing all of them, won’t I?

“Sorry, sorry, this is the last time I go off-script. As I was saying, you have been appointed as the Overmare of Stable Eight. You have been chosen for your sense of loyalty and duty, both to the ponies around you and to this company. Your job is to lead ponies we entrusted you with, and make sure you pass on Equestria’s spirit to the generations that’ll come after you, so that one day they might return to the surface. We here in Stable-Tec understand that it might take decades or even centuries for Equestria to be livable again, but…

“… fuck, why did it have to come to this…

“By now you must have realized something about your Stable; or, to be more precise, about the Stable’s denizens. There is a reason for that. You see, here in Stable-Tec know that it would be pointless to save ourselves just so that we would die later. We must find out what went wrong, so that in the future, ponykind would do better. Because of that, we decided that the all denizens of this Stable will be unicorns.

“Unicorns have an advantage over pegasi and earth ponies by their ability to use magic. You can use it for mundane things, like moving stuff around or lighting up the room. You can also use it for more complicated tasks, like healing, constructing, teleporting, growing, and bunch of other things. It is said that in the times before founding Equestria, a group of unicorns could even move the Sun and the Moon, just like the Princesses do it now.

“Research it. Develop new spells. Find new uses for the old ones. Master them. Your Stable had been equipped with many spellbooks, procured from the Ministry of Arcane Sciences and from the Ministry of Peace; and let me tell you, that wasn’t easy. Encourage ponies to study them, to develop their talents.

“Of course, I do realize that this could lead to disaster. Hell, seeing that you are hearing this, I don’t really have to explain that, right? Damnit… anyway, we took precautions. Little point about having this Stable build if we would just let you blow it up, especially after that preaching earlier. We made sure that none of the spellbooks contain any dangerous offensive spells; that, and, the MAS wouldn’t let us have them. Also, the chief of security in your stable knows a spell that negates magic, and he’ll teach it only to other members of security.

“As I had mentioned, we gained many spellbooks from the Ministry of Peace - who were much more generous than MAS, I might add - and as you can expect, most of those contain healing spells. Here in Stable-Tec we firmly believe those to be the best kind of spells to be researched by your Stable. We hope that, when after generations it’ll be safe to come out for you, you’ll be able to use your magic to heal Equestria from what we did to her. That you’ll be like angels that come down from Heavens to help all of us.

“Heh, Angel helping… Sorry, inside joke.

“Inside the safe in your new office you’ll find a set of all precise instructions, objectives, and details as to how your Stable has been prepared for the task we put before you. Also, if at any point you believe this project poses a threat to the safety and security to the ponies in your charge, you are to cease participation. The list of protocols included in your safe will help you take necessary steps to rectify the situation. In other circumstances, though, it is crucial that you keep to the directives provided, and keep Stable-Tec appraised of all result, as per your sealed instructions.

“I mean, practicing healing spells can't hurt anypony, right?

“Thank you. From all of us. From all of Equestria. May Stable Eight and all its ponies live long and well.

“...

“May you succeed where we have failed.”

Chapter One: The Original Sin

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“Don’t worry, I’m a doctor.”

With a loud, resonating grinding noise, the massive steel doors to Stable Eight shut behind me.

I could still scarcely believe it. Back during the trial, when I heard the Overmare’s sentence, it was understandable that I couldn’t. But now, as I am physically outside of the Stable, shouldn’t my mind had come to terms with the reality? That the Stable I called home wasn’t my home anymore?

Then again, I suppose given my situation, I shouldn’t be surprised if my mind was still catching up with the events. It was my home. I’d spent the entirety of my short life in Stable Eight. The Stable that, until now, nopony had ever left. The years I spend inside of it were flashing before my eyes, the few precious good times and the plethora of bad…

Was being banished really such a bad thing? I wonder…

“Oh, well,” I finally said; I must have stood a while in silence, because my voice sounded like thunder to my ears, “It’s no use lamenting over this.”

I forced myself to stop thinking about the past; though a part of me was hurting, I knew there was no going back. Not for now, at least. I had to focus on figuring out what I was going to do next.

The space I was in wasn’t exactly dark, as I realized looking around. There were several rays of dim light, falling through something I assumed were wooden boards, but from so far away I was not sure. Still, though, I couldn’t very much see where I was, so I activated my PipBuck’s light.

On that note, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was allowed to keep it. This was one of the pre-War wonders, a small terminal-like device worn on the foreleg, created by a blend of unicorn magic with science. It was capable of many things; I knew that, despite using it mostly as a recording device.

With a smirk, I realized that was probably the reason why they hadn’t removed my PipBuck; they didn’t want data like that to remain within the Stable. Truth be told, I was fairly certain they would go out of their way to remove any trace of me ever existing.

“Honestly,” I sighed, “all those years I spent getting everypony to look past the ‘little white freak all the kids bullied’ thing, going to waste like this…”

My surroundings didn’t do much to improve my mood. I was in a cave.

No, not a cave.

On the ground, right next to my hoof, there were remains of two sets of rails, laying apart wide enough for a minecart to travel by them.

This used to be a mine once. Probably years before the Last Day, maybe even the War. Made sense. What better place to build a Stable designed for unicorns than in the place where ponies used to mine magical crystals once?

“Still, this entranceway is hardly wide,” I mused as I slowly started trotting towards the light. “Must have been chaos on the day the bombs fell. Trying to get everypony inside…”

Even I had to shiver a bit as I pictured it.

I reached the wooden door, because it indeed was what I saw. An old wooden door, made from boards so ruined that the light was falling through the gaps between them. I could make out some shapes on the other side of it, but I would need to open the door to get a proper look of them. I could smell the air from the other side; it was cool, but at the same time, it was much more… rusty. As if there was something stale around...which could be the case. Hadn’t we all learned in school in Stable Eight that the Outside had been dead for about two hundred years?

Naturally, when one did necessary calculations, it quickly became unrealistic that out of all Equestria, only this one Stable would survive, with only around five hundred unicorns (currently four hundred seventy six, with three more on their way). Nor did it seem plausible that the zebras had the means to create so many Balefire Bombs that would be required to completely annihilate Equestria. No, life endured on the surface, I was sure of that… which was probably one of the reasons why I was taking my banishment relatively well.

A single white hoof reached towards the door… and stopped. I hesitated. What awaited for me beyond this door was a new world. Was I prepared to look upon it? I looked at my hoof, the white fur of my leg mostly hidden beneath the lab coat I was allowed to keep. It was shaking.

Shaking with excitement.

I smirked again. The scientist within me was itching to get out and see for herself how the real world looked like. Once again, my curiosity seemed bent on leading me into trouble.

Funny, that. They used to say “Curiosity is the first step to hell,” didn’t they? Well, I wouldn’t have gotten banished from the Paradise of Stable Eight if it weren’t for my curiosity.

And now I was stepping into the Equestrian Hell…

Taking a deep breath - and coughing once a bit of dust got into my throat - I carefully opened the door.

Ruins were laid out before me. The rails led out from the mine into what once must have been a miner town or an outpost. All that was left of it now were several pillars, ruined walls with pipes sticking out of them, boards… nothing of any significance, really.

My gaze travelled up… and up. My eyes widened…

… only to narrow with disappointment.

What was this? Unlike the vast blue space I’ve seen so many times whenever I looked up in the atrium, cafeteria, or swimming pool, thanks to the illusion spells placed on the ceilings of them, what I looked upon was… gray. Not a monotonous kind of gray, there were lighter and darker patches of gray across the sky, but it was disappointing nonetheless.

“Are those… clouds?” I pondered out loud. The unicorns responsible for maintaining the illusions in the Stable conjured the images of them as well across out fake skies, but they were always small and white. This looked as if somepony mashed together hundreds… no, thousands of such clouds and used them to obscure the sky from everypony.

Could this have been caused by the zebra’s megaspells? It didn’t seem like it. Even assuming that the Balefire bombs caused some disturbance in the atmosphere, it would be unlikely for the sky to not clear up in two hundred years. In that case… was it done by somebody else? From those scarce books we had in Stable Eight that weren’t about spells, I knew that the pegasi, a tribe of ponies who didn’t have horns but wings sprouting from their backs, used to control the weather above Equestria. Could this be their doing then? By why would they obscure the sky with clouds?

I sighed, closing my eyes. “I suppose I will have to ask somepony about that,” I decided, examining the ruins around me. “Though credit where credit is due, the unicorns who first cast those illusion spells managed to recreate the width of space almost perfectly.”

I tried to imagine my reaction if I wasn't used to staring into such wide wonder (despite knowing that the ceiling was just a few feet above me). I would quite possibly have a panic attack.

Shaking my head, I tried to focus on the important matters. I had no food and no water, and by the looks of it, neither did this place. I needed to find someplace where I could get those, preferably a settlement of sorts. I looked around, but there was nothing that would tell me where the closest town was. Outside of the circle of ruins, barren wasteland stretched out as far as eye could see. The road leading to and from this mining settlement was long since destroyed by wind, sand and time, along with any roadsign.

Pondering what to do, I glanced at my PipBuck. When I was busy contemplating the sky and the ruined wasteland, the map-maker had began working. Apparently, I was at “Stable Eight”.

That’s helpful. I rolled my eyes, turning around…

… and paused. There was a trail of smoke visible in the distance.

Smoke meant fire. Fire, in turn, quite possibly meant settlement.

“Well, it’s not like I have any better idea as to where to go,” I hummed, turning toward the direction of the smoke.

Before I started walking, I made sure my Eyes-Forward Sparkle, a spell in PipBuck that automatically marked for me any living being by either friendly or hostile, was on. By doing so, I also discovered that I was picking up several radio transmission. Back in Stable Eight, there was only one station, which most of the time played some music, though from time to time there were some news broadcasted on it. Intrigued, I switched my PipBuck to play the first one on the list, and began trotting towards the unknown.

“-rations, the hard-working ponies of Equestria toiled to build this great land, and the leaders sat back and reaped the benefits. And not only them…”

*** *** ***

Well, it probably was a settlement.

Of course, my usage of the past tense in that statement could have been wrong. However, seeing that from the direction where the smoke was coming from a big group of ponies was approaching, with many of them in chains, I felt certain that I was looking at that settlement’s former residents.

When I spotted them, I was already walking for a good half an hour. Despite being relieved to find a sign that ponies indeed lived in this place, I had the foresight to hide behind the billboard on the side of the road (because, as I soon found out after leaving the ruins of the mine town, I was indeed following a road). I also turned off the radio. The beautiful tunes of Sweetie Belle - which I found on another station after getting bored of that self-righteous speech - that I was familiar with from my Stable’s radio, were silenced, as I observed the incoming ponies from the relatively safe hiding space.

I was, after all, really easy to spot…

The incoming group counted sixteen ponies in total, seven in shackles and nine without. Out of those in the former group, two were pulling a wagon, and the others trailed behind, flanked by four ponies from the later group. Two others were on the front, while the remaining three were sitting in the wagon.

Suddenly, one of those three rose. Something was levitated by him, and I heard a very sharp noise. A whip.

“Step on it, you stupid fucks!” I heard him shout.

Well, isn’t this lovely…

The group was approaching rapidly, and I had to decide quickly what to do. For now, all of them were marked as “friendly” on my E.F.S., but I had a feeling that it was going to change.

Hiding was not an option; the area surrounding us was plain. There were occasional rocks around, but the moment I would move from behind the billboard, I would get spotted.

Ironically, the billboard had the words “Pinkie Pie is watching you FOREVER!” written on it, with an image of a strange pink mare that seemed to glare right at me in the middle.

Running away also wasn’t a good idea. I wasn’t a good runner; this little trot I had earlier alone was tiring for me.

Both hiding and running were suicide, then. Fighting? Considering their numbers, suicide with a bunch of kittens dying.

Luckily, though, none of those three were my preferable options.

Those ponies just came from a battle. They’ve been fighting, which meant some of them - if not all - were wounded. Even if they won, the attackers must have wounds here and there; even if they didn’t, they obviously wanted the ponies they attacked alive for whatever reason.

Either way, they could probably use a doctor.

I took a deep breath, and stepped outside from the billboard.

To say that they were surprise would be an understatement. The ponies in front - the two pulling the wagon and their guards - stopped, stunned, and stared at me with wide eyes. The one on the left even dropped the sledgehammer he’s been carrying in his mouth. The one on the wagon who earlier whipped his captives dropped the whip.

I sat down on the ground, waiting for them to recover and come closer, as we were still a bit far from each other. I tried to not think about how dirty my cloak was getting...

After several seconds the captor ponies started laughing. “Well, would you look at that!,” one on the front, who was levitating a long object made out of metal and wood, said. I quickly recognized it as a gun, despite how different it was from the magic guns Stable Eight’s security ponies carried. “Slaves are now throwing themselves at us or what?”

Another realization. Slaves. The ponies they’ve captured were now their slaves. Kind of obvious, come to think of it now…

My attention focused on the buck that dropped his sledgehammer. He was picking it up, again in his mouth, which I found odd. I began to wonder why he wasn’t using his magic… but then I realized he couldn’t use it. He didn’t have a horn.

I was looking at an earth pony.

I’ve read about them, but I never expected to see one. Their kind lacked horns and the ability to use magic, nor did they have wings or the ability to control the weather. However, they made it up in physical strength and ingenuity. They were responsible for the technological progress of Equestria during the war - weapons, terminals, factories, you name it.

That mare on the billboard was also an earth pony. That must have been what made me think of her as “weird”.

I was itching to learn just how different they were from unicorns...

“What are you waiting for?! Get the white bitch!”

Oh wait, I was still in danger.

At the order of the pony with a whip, the two slavers started walking towards me. I noticed a pair of shackles sticking out of the saddlebag of the pony with a sledgehammer.

“Good morning, gentlecolts,” I greeted them, smiling pleasantly.

The pony with a gun also smiled, though his expression was far from pleasant. Rather vomit-inducing. “Well, aren’t you a nice girl. Maybe you will be nice and put those chains on yourself, eh?”

Okay, not ten years ago I was still getting bullied, been thought of as a freak, and ponies avoided speaking with me. Now (or, well, until a few days ago), though, I had practically the entire Stable wrapped around my hoof.

How long would it take to convert those barbarians in similar manner?

“Oh, I don’t think those will be necessary,” I replied, nodding at the shackles. “I actually hoped you would have a job for me. You see, I’m a doctor-”

I trailed off as I found myself staring into the barrel of the gun.

“I don’t care if you are a doctor or a princess,” the buck told me, raising a gun a bit. He grinned “Who you are matters shit now. Stand still, and I might…”

From the wagon’s directions, I managed to catch; “Wait, did she say she’s a doctor?”

“I think your boss is of a different opinion,” I interrupted the slaver innocently.

The buck grimaced, but before he could reply (or shoot me), one of the ponies sitting on the wagon shouted: “Sawed-Off, Smash, get ’er over here!”

Not waiting for either of the bucks, I headed towards the wagon. The two slaves who were pulling it were in terrible condition; they had bruises all over their faces, their barding was ragged and bloodied, and were taking quick, pained breaths.

They probably got shot… and the bullets must have broken some of their ribs, I noticed, passing them. Healing potions don’t restore crippled bones, after all…

I turned my attention to the ponies on the wagon. The one with the whip was, as far as I could tell, healthy. The other two, though, definitely needed medical attention. The earth pony mare had her foreleg bandaged, and was also taking short breaths. The buck was laying on his side, his torso wrapped in bandages, with four spots marked by blood.

Oh, how I wanted to examine the mare properly… the smell of blood wasn’t helping me fight off that urge...

“Ya’re a doctor?” the mare asked, rasping. One of her orange eyes she kept closed due to the pain she was in.

I nodded, jumping at the wagon, and ignoring the shout of protest from the whip-wielding pony. “Hello sweetie. What exactly is the problem?” I asked politely.

I could always use the Diagnosis spell to quickly tell me what was wrong with her, but until I was certain that they weren’t going to attack me, I figured it would be best to not light up my horn.

“What, ya’re blind?” the mare snorted. “Ah have a broken leg. Wish Ah killed that fucker...” she added under her breath, glaring at one of the slaves pulling the wagon.

“What about your chest?” I inquired. “How many broken ribs do you have?”

The mare looked surprised, but before she could answer, the pony with the whip came in between us. “Can I ask why exactly we’re not putting this bitch in chains?”

“Cause Ah want to get fuckin’ healed, Whip Crack,” the mare bristled. “We’re still hours away from Appleloosa, and if she can put my leg back in place and make me stop spittin’ blood, Ah will make a fuckin’ petition t’ Black Widow to have her take yar boyfriend’s job if ya don’t fucking shut up!”

Put my leg back in place… open fracture?

“You-” the buck, Whip Crack, looked as if about to attack her, but he seemed to calm down a bit. “Pff, whatever. Did I say that you could stop!?” Apparently, having lost interest with me, he decided to take out his frustration on the slaves. “Move your sorry asses!”

As his whip once again cracked, I returned my attention to my patients. “I will first take care of your leg, then I will cast a spell to see what else is wrong with you. Okay?” I asked.

As I said that, the wagon and this slaver’s caravan began moving again.

She nodded. I began to untangle her bandage, but she immediately cringed in pain. Seeing this, I concentrated my magic.

Her eyes widened in alarm when a flash of light shot from my horn and hit her leg, but her expression quickly turned into a puzzled one. “Wha- what did ya do?” she asked, stunned.

“Anesthetic spell,” I replied, unwrapping the bandage. “Basically, I removed feeling from your leg. It should return in about an hour.”

I could feel her gaze on me, as well as that of the slavers and slaves marching behind the wagon. Even Whip Crack, who, based on what the mare shouted earlier, was interested in the other gender, was glancing at me sideways, though it had probably more to do with my condition.

“What are ya, anyway?” the mare I was healing finally asked what all of them must have been thinking.

Resisting an urge to chide her that it would be polite to first ask about my name, I replied: “I assume you are referring to the whiteness of my coat and mane and to the color of my eyes?” Without waiting for an answer, I said. “I’m an albino. It’s a congenical disorder. My body lacks pigment.” A glance at the mare’s face told me that she understood none of it. “It’s not contagious,” I assured her, taking off the rest of the bandage and looking at her wound.

As I had guessed, this was an open fracture. Her radius was broken in half, and it pierced her skin. I concentrated again, and lowered my horn. Red aura surrounded her leg. I focused on the bone, putting it back in its place and mending it, making two halves become one again. It was a very difficult spell, requiring utmost attention… but luckily, I was an experienced medical doctor, with vast knowledge about equine anatomy. True, until now all my patients were unicorns, but, anticipating the different density of the bone, I adjusted the spell correctly.

With the bone whole and put back in its place, closing the wound was a matter of second. “Done. Now hold still, I need to check your chest,” I said, moving my head closer to her body and scanning magically. “Ribs from fifth to seventh on the left are broken,” I said out loud, “several bruises, but nothing life-threatening… what is this?” I asked, puzzled.

My Diagnosis Spell was giving me weird feeling. It was a similar one to how it reacted to a sickness, but much weaker, plus I couldn’t see any visible signs of the mare being sick.

“What’s wrong?” she asked; I detected a hint of panic in her voice.

“What could this-” I muttered, but then it hit me. “Oh wait, I think this is radiation poisoning. Sorry, I used to live in a Stable until recently, hadn’t really got an occasion to diagnose one… it’s only minor one, I can try curing it later, though given how small it is, you can safely wait until later to use a Rad-away. As for the ribs…” I focused my magic on them, putting them together. The mare gave a grunt of pain. “Done.”

“Ya could have warned me…” the mare muttered, massaging her side with her right foreleg. “Whoa, ya really healed me already… Somethin’ like this would take Cutter ages to heal-”

“Hey!” Whip Crack shouted from up-front.

“Quit yar whinin’, Ah was jokin’ earlier,” the mare replied.

While those two bickered, I focused on the laying buck. Scanning him with a spell let me know that there were three foreign objects in him. Bullets, by the look of it. He was lucky; they missed his organs. However, removing them was still going to be a bit tricky. Removing objects from a body could be done by one of three ways. I could simply use magic to make his body regenerate and direct it to push the bullets out. That, however, would require more energy from me, and I wanted to retain most of my strength. I could also try using my levitation to pull the bullets off, but for that I would need to know how they look. And the last option would be simply using scalpel and or tweezers, which I didn’t have… but I could make them.

I unwrapped bandages above one bullethole and paused. With a spell, I conjured a small knife made entirely out of magic, thin enough to be used like scalpel. This spell didn’t require much energy, and had the advantage of being perfectly sterile. I manouvered the red blade perfectly above the wound.

“Ah’m Apple Core, by the way,” the earth pony mare, who finished her argument with Whip Crack, spoke.

I turned back to her and smiled. “Doctor Angel.”

The mare snorted, though not in the mean way. “Really?”

“Yeah, my parents used to call me ‘their little Angel’,” I giggled. Turning back to my current patient, I added: “Now please be quiet, I need to focus. This is going to hurt,” I told the buck. “I can use Anesthetic spell, but it would have to affect your entire body, making you a vegetable for an hour. Want me to cast it?”

The buck, who stayed silent through the arguments between Apple Core and Whip Crack, shook his head. “Nah, I’ll be fine. A guy like me can take a bit of pain,” he added with a wink.

I stifled a giggle; I figured I would let him keep his dignity a bit longer, despite how adorable he was right now. “Alright, let’s start then…”

Three removed bullets and a lot of high-pitch screaming later, the buck was good as new. He jumped off the wagon, to help the other slavers guard the slaves and nurse his pride.

“That was fun,” Apple Core commented, grinning. “So, ya’re lookin’ for a job?”

I nodded, sitting down on the edge of the wagon and crossing my hind legs. “Yes, though I don’t want to replace this… Cutter?” I asked, glancing at Whip Crack. It was a rather weird name for a medic… then again…

Turning back to Apple Core, I caught her staring in the direction of my marehood, which was shielded by my hind legs. “Sweetie, it’s impolite to stare,” I chided her, crossing my legs a bit tighter.

Apple Core blushed and immediately looked up. Several slavers chuckled. “Ah’m not into mares!” she snapped. “Ya’re just… sittin’ weirdly.”

I shrugged and smiled. “So I’ve been told. Going back to the subject - as I said, I don’t want to replace Cutter. I will be perfectly happy to work as his helper. I’m sure that…” I paused, looking for the right words, “... in your line of work, you could use a second medic.”

“Yeah, Cutter keeps complainin’ about havin’ too much to do,” Apple Core said. “And seein’ how medics are hard t’ come by, Ah’m sure Black Widow will gladly take ya in.”

“I still say we should just put her with the rest,” Whip Crack said from the front. “We’re one slave short anyway. She would fetch a big price, being a unicorn and all.”

“And hot,” Smash, who was listening in on the conversation, commented, grinning back at me.

“Oh, shut it,” Apple Core told both of them. “And we wouldn't be a slave short if ya weren’t so trigger happy!” she glared at Whip Crack, who merely shrugged.

“So, do you want me to heal up your slaves?” I asked, glancing at the shackled ponies.

“Sure ya want to work with us? That kind of softness doesn’t bode well,” Apple Core said.

I giggled. “Oh, trust me, I’m anything but soft. I was merely concerned about our speed. Besides, as a doctor, I am obliged to heal and cure ponies.”

“Good, we need to keep them in good condition before we sell them,” the mare chuckled. “Ya’ll get to cure them once we get to Appleloosa.”

“Would you mind if I would ask you some questions?” I asked carefully. So far, she seemed friendly, but seeing in what kind of line of work she was in…

“Sure, we’ve got a while ‘til we hit Appleloosa.”

*** *** ***

The talk I had with Apple Core during the ride back was certainly informative. Even though she didn’t know all there was to the Equestrian Wasteland - as I learned Equestria was now called this days - she certainly answered a lot of my questions. The fact that those answers led to further questions was another thing.

She told me that the cloud cover was indeed the work of the pegasi. Apparently, when the zebras blew up Equestria, the pegasi decided to abandon their earth-bound brothers and sister and closed up the skies. Since then, they lived up there, ruled by the Grand Pegasus Enclave. Occasionally, though, one or two of them would come down and live on the ground for whatever reason. Those were called Dashite, and were considered outcast by their own people. One such pegasus was living somewhere close to New Appleloosa, and was using the slavers my new friends sent in that direction as shooting practice.

I would love to examine him…

I also learned that those ponies would get sold to a certain griffin in Fillydelphia by the name Stern, who worked for a pony called Red Eye - the same one, as I had learned, who was making that boring speech I listened to on the radio. Small wasteland.

“Yeah, he keeps making those speeches ‘bout rebuildin’ Equestria and such, how all of us have to play a part in it” Apple Core told me. “As long as he pays for his ‘workers’, Ah ain’t complainin’.”

“That seems… noble,” I commented carefully. I had some misgivings about this Red Eye. This whole ‘rebuilding Equestria’ seemed a bit fishy.

I would need more information to form a concrete opinion.

Apple Core also gave me some information about the more important settlements (meaning, the ones that were too big for them raid and gather inhabitants to sell later), such as New Appleloosa, or raider-invested Ponyville and Shattered Hoof, and those further away like Tenpony Tower, Friendship City and Bucklyn Cross. She also warned me about more dangerous places, like Manehattan and Fillydelphia, or the most lethal: the Everfree Forest, Canterlot, and Splendid Valley.

Before I could ask for specifics about those three locations, I’d been informed that basically everywhere in the Wasteland was dangerous. Apple Core was astonished when I told her that during the half-hour between when I stumbled upon their caravan and when I left my Stable, nothing tried to kill me.

I wish I could have pulled more information out of her - and I would have, if Whip Crack wouldn’t have kept interrupting us and telling us to shut up - before Appleloosa came into view. It was… certainly different from a Stable. It stood next to a railroad, a collection of several dilapidated wooden buildings, boxcars, some metal structures and cages for slaves.

This was to be my new home for the time being. All things considered, I suppose I should’ve been happy that I wasn’t going there in chains.

“You certainly took your sweet time,” came a comment as we passed the first buildings (and first set of guards). I turned around to see a black unicorn mare approaching. She wore a red dress, much unlike the armor the other slavers wore.

This was the leader Apple Core told me about. Black Widow.

“What’s with the chariot?” Widow asked, trotting alongside with it and giving Whip Crack an annoyed look.

“Apple Core and Muzzle got messed up, had to drive them part of the way,” Whip Crack replied, shrugging.

Widow raised an eyebrow. She turned to look at Muzzle, who was together with the other slavers shoving chained ponies into one of the empty cages, and then to Apple Core, who was now together with me jumping off the wagon. “‘Part of the way’?” the black mare asked, turning to Whip Crack.

“The white freak healed them up.”

Since I basically grew up hearing things like this, I didn’t take offense, but I was touched when Apple Core bristled on my behalf.

“I’m going to assume he’s talking about you,” Widow said, turning to me.

While I nodded, Apple Core quickly explained. “We picked her up on our way back. Said she’s a doctor, looking for a job.”

“Really now? That’s rather new.” She looked me over, her eyes stopping on my PipBuck and the Stable barding under my lab coat. “Shot in the dark: you’re from a Stable.”

“Indeed,” I nodded once again. “Due to certain events, though, I was thrown out of it. I’m Doctor Angel.”

“Huh, a working Stable somewhere nearby?” Widow smirked. “Feel like having a little revenge on them?”

I smiled. “I do not mean to sound offensive, but I doubt your ponies could survive an encounter with Stable Eight’s security.”

“Oh really?” Widow raised an eyebrow. “I think I would disagree with you on that, but I suppose we can discuss this some other time. So you’re looking for a job?”

“Yes.”

“She’s good?” she asked, turning to Apple Core.

“Had a bone stickin’ out of mah leg and three broken ribs, fixed me in like seconds. I think she’s better than Cutter,” she added, giving Whip Crack a dirty look.

Widow chuckled, noticing the look. “Then I’m sure he will appreciate her helping him out. Whip Crack,” she called out to the buck. “Take her to your coltfriend and introduce her. And do mention that he has to check those new slaves.”

“Sure,” Whip Crack rolled his eyes. Turning to me, he added. “Let’s go, freak.”

“I will talk with you later,” Black Widow told me, extending a hoof. “Welcome to Appleloosa.”

I shook her hoof. “Thank you, I promise you won’t be disappointed.”

The black unicorn smiled and began to leave. “Ah also have to go,” Apple Core told me. “Ah need to have a drink and hit the hay. Ah’ll show you around later.”

“Thank you, I look forward to it,” I said earnestly. “Thanks for everything.”

“Don’t mention it,” the earth pony mare replied, already walking away.

“Hey, are ya coming freak?!”

*** *** ***

Cutter’s clinic had definitely seen its better days. The slavers’ medic had made his home in a building on the outskirts of Appleloosa, in what used to be an actual clinic or a hospital before the Last Day. The symbol of the Ministry of Peace, three pink butterflies in the middle of a cross, was displayed on a sign above the entrance. The building used to be multi-story, but all that was left of it now was the ground floor. The floors above it got destroyed either by time, nature, or some explosive; only a few jagged pieces of wood and metal remained of them, now making up the clinic’s roof.

I followed my annoyed guide as he opened the door. Behind it, what greeted us was what used to be a waiting room, with a reception desk right next to the entrance. Now there were two camp beds standing on the opposite sides of the room, with curtains placed around them to offer the patients some privacy. Further I could see doors to two other rooms. I guessed that in the past they served to take in the patients for things like regular check-ups and medical visits, while more serious cases, such as accidents, were treated upstairs. On the opposite side from the rooms was a ruined stairway and a hole that must have once had remains of an elevator in it, before the slavers or somepony else looted them for materials.

On the walls of the room were many posters (with graffiti painted over some of them) from the Ministry of Peace, which I was familiar with from the medical books I studied. “War? Fear? Death? We must do better! Ministry of Peace”, and “You don’t need to be a Steel Ranger to be a Hero! Join the Ministry of Peace Today!”

Oh, so that’s why the name “Steel Rangers” seemed so familiar to me when Apple Core had mentioned them.

There was also another door, leading to a bathroom. I wondered if the plumbing in this town still worked...

“Yes, who is it?!” a gruff voice came from behind one of the doors, obscuring the sounds of a strange, tuba-heavy music coming from a radio on a drawer near a bed.

The door opened, revealing a gray unicorn buck. He appeared to be in his forties, but seeing how he lived in a different environment than I was used to, I couldn't be sure if I gauged his age correctly. Either way, he appeared to be slightly older than Whip Crack. He wore a ragged white lab coat, similar to mine, though much dirtier and bloodied. It also didn’t cover his legs.

His eyes softened when he looked at the dark brown buck beside me. “Hey, hon,” he greeted him. Then his expression grew once again harsh as he focused on me. “Who the hell is this?” Cutter asked, trotting towards us.

“Your new nurse,” Whip Crack answered for me before I could even open my mouth.

Ignoring the jab, I cleared my throat and smiled. “Good evening, mister Cutter.” I could have used “doctor” there, I suppose, but I seriously doubted he had any form of proper medical education. “Black Widow agreed to hire me as your helper. My name is Angel,” I felt certain that it wouldn't do me good to brag about my title. “Do you have any jobs for me?”

Cutter blinked, surprised, then looked me up and down. “Hm, I suppose I could use a hoof with all those patients they keep sending me. I hope you don’t expect me to pay,” he added, his frown suggesting he wouldn’t be happy if I would try and correct him.

I shook my head. “Considering my situation, I am perfectly happy with having a place to sleep and food to eat.”

For now…

My new boss snorted. “Fine, then. I will give you caps for something to eat from time to time.”

Caps?

“You can sleep behind the reception desk,” Cutter continued. “Those beds,” he pointed at the two camp beds, “are for patients, but in the storage room,” the other door, next to his office, “you will find a free mattress. Also, if you find a way to open those damned doors to the basement, you can sleep in there. Since you’re back,” Cutter said, turning to Whip Crack, “I’m guessing we have new merchandise?”

“Yeah, seven of ‘em.”

“Good, then you can start making yourself useful,” Cutter told me, going back to his office. He came out shortly, with several sheets of paper held by his magic. “Go heal the new meat. Take how many supplies you will need from the storage, but don’t overdo it; we just need to have them be alive until we sell them, got it? I’m not a fucking charity.”

“Of course.”

“Once you are done, fill those forms. Since we need some form of organization in the business, we need to write shit like name, age, race, cutie mark, and where we caught them. Got all of that?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, taking the sheets of paper.

“Good, now beat it, Whip Crack and I are gonna be busy,” he said, giving the other buck a suggestive look.

I nodded and began leaving, giving them their privacy. Behind me, I could hear them both walking back to Cutter’s office.

“You’re sure about leaving that white freak to do everything?” I caught Whip Crack’s voice. My ear twitched. “What if the boss figures she’s more useful than you-”

“Oh please, that bitch will never fire me. I have too much shit on her,” Cutter chuckled.

I closed the door behind me, smirking. Thanks for telling me she won’t cry if you were gone…

*** *** ***

“Name?” I asked, looking at my last patient.

The night was already falling. Back in Stable Eight, it would mean that the lights would be turned down, so it was never really truly dark in there; out here in the Wasteland was a different matter. It was rapidly becoming pitch black. I already had to turn on my PipBuck light.

Treating those seven ponies was tiresome. Though the slavers avoided hurting them too seriously (as they still needed to make the journey back to Appleloosa), they were all in bad condition. Those two that were pulling the wagon were the worst, with broken ribs, fractured bones and punctured organs.

After examining them all, I had to go back to the clinic to pick up some bandages and healing potions. I could use my magic to heal them, but those two worst cases would require most of my strength. After taking the supplies from the storage quickly (and trying to ignore the sounds coming from the closed room), I raced back to the cages and got to work.

The group of ponies were from a settlement known as Mudhill (Original.), that was basically just a few houses huddled together, as I learned while tending to their wounds. I quickly learned why this was a medic’s job to get that information; ponies were more eager to talk with somebody healing them. Of course, I’m sure that most slavers would be quite happy beating the answers out of them, but Black Widow apparently didn’t want them damaging her merchandise more than it was needed.

Of course, there were exceptions to that rule.

The last pony didn’t react to my question. Unless you count glaring at me as if he was about to kill me as a reaction. Recalling that this was the same pony who hurt Apple Core so badly, I made sure his chains were still in place before I spoke to him again.

“Look,” I said gently, “I understand that given your current status you might be uncooperative, but if you don’t answer me, they will bring in somepony who won’t be asking politely.”

“Good,” the earth pony buck replied. “Let them try. I will fucking kill them.”

“You’d best leave him alone, Doctor,” one of the other slaves called to me. “Bulk Build’s wife died in the slavers’ attack.”

Me ears dropped hearing that. Now I understood his attitude. I recalled Apple Core mentioning Whip Crack killing a pony during their attack. She must have meant Bulk Build’s wife. Turning back to him, I said: “I’m sorry.”

“Fuck off,” Bulk Build replied, looking the other way.

I sighed uncomfortably. I truly felt for him. Stepping closer, I lowered my voice and tried again: “I also lost ponies dear to me, so I understand-”

“You understand nothing!” he hissed back. One of the guards near the slave cage pointed his gun at him and took aim, but I quickly waved him that everything was okay. I wanted to hear him out. “You’re some little filly from a Stable!” he continued. “You have no idea what the Wasteland is like! You never had to see somebody you love be murdered!”

Tears had began to form in his eyes. He buried his face in his hooves. “I will kill that fucker, I swear, I will make him pay…”

My ears twitched. An idea started forming in my head. Paying no heed to my safety, I trotted closer and crouched next to him. “Killing him won’t be enough,” I whispered to his ear.

His head turned sharply to me. “Wha-” he started, but I silenced him by pressing my hoof to his mouth.

“Stay quiet, or we’ll both be in trouble,” I told him, knowing that the guards were observing us. I patted him on his head, trying to look as if I was comforting him; they couldn’t fault a doctor for that. “I was also wronged by others,” I said, keeping my voice quiet. “Life in a Stable isn’t exactly as perfect as it might seem.”

Bulk Build was listening to me, though I could tell he wanted me to get to the point.

“I was wronged, and I sought revenge. But I didn’t kill them; that would have been too easy. All it would do is make them get away from their punishment, into the realm that was beyond my reach. Instead, I chose an adequate revenge for what had been done to me. Take you, for example; your wife had been murdered. Wouldn’t it be a fitting punishment for her murderer to suffer like you do?” I asked, and lowered my lips to his ear. “Wouldn’t it be fair to take away from him the one who is dearest to him?” I whispered.

Now I had his undivided attention. He was looking at me, his eyes a bit moist after crying into his hooves, and I could practically see the gears in his head turning. “Yes…” he finally said, nodding. “That… would be better… That fucker deserves to suffer.”

“I can help you,” I offered.

He quickly became suspicious. “Why?” he asked, his eyes narrowing. “Why would you help me? What’s in it for you?”

“I have a few reasons,” I admitted. “One being that I genuinely feel sorry for what was done to you,” I said gently, placing a hoof on his own. “The other… because it will benefit me.” I smirked. “Tell me, that pony who murdered your wife, he was the dark brown buck called Whip Crack?” When he nodded, I knew I had him. “Tomorrow, I will make sure he and his special somepony will be somewhere nearby, and you will understand why it will benefit me to have him killed.”

Bulk glared at me, but he nodded. “Alright, I can understand that. But how do you plan on-”

I once again pressed a hoof to his lips. “Tomorrow night I will let you out,” I said, and finally left his side.

I walked out of the cage, writing Bulk’s name in the form. “What was with the hugging?” the guard asked me as he opened the cage for me.

Smiling, I explained: “I am a doctor; what’s wrong with being concerned with my patients’ emotional well-being?”

The guard gave me a puzzled look. “Um, well… wait, if you care about them so much, won’t you have a problem with us selling them?”

“Sweetie, a doctor’s job is to save lives,” I told him, lifting my hoof to brush his cheek; he seemed younger by a year or two than me. As I expected, he practically melted at my touch. “If they spend it in chains is none of my business.”

Oddly, as I left the smitten buck behind and headed towards the clinic, I found myself wondering if that was really true. Until today, I had never seen slaves, ponies in chains waiting to be sold to somepony like they were property. It was… degrading. Ponies were ponies, living beings. Having them in chains was one thing, but being treated as objects?

I entered the clinic, my mind already abandoning that reasoning and focusing at the plan of having Cutter taken out of the picture by Bulk Build. I would not be his “nurse”, as his coltfriend put it.

Speaking of, I noticed that there were no noises coming from the room. My E.F.S. told me they we still in the room, so they must be asleep. I pondered going to get Bulk now, but I decided to let those two have one more night.

I took one of the mattresses from the storage room and put it behind the reception desk. I was really tired; the toll from today’s events had taken on my was starting to get noticed by my body. But before I would call it a night, I still had one more thing to do.

Actually, make that two.

*** *** ***

About five minutes later, I was unhappy. After making my business in the bathroom, I was disappointed to find out that there was no running water. I was never so happy to have learned the Disinfection spell as I was now. I never expected I would have to resort to using it to clean my whole body.

I left the bathroom and headed towards the ruined staircase. Cutter mentioned something about a locked door to the basement. I wanted to check it out.

The stairs leading down led to a massive steel door, which, by the look of the dents, cracks and gunshots, many of my new friends tried to open by strength in the past. Also, as I took a closer look at the lock, I noticed that it was busted.

However, I was in luck. There was also a terminal next to the door.

I turned on the small computer and tried to hack it. Working around terminals’ systems was a useful skill to have in a Stable, and it looked like it was going to be equally useful in the Wasteland.

As I began to try and hack the terminal, I expected that it would be difficult, considering that nopony had figured out how to open this door in the past two centuries. I thought I would need to find the correct password in the strands of code, rebooting the terminal to avoid it locking down, over and over again.

I got it on the second try. The password was “defibrillator”.

Aside from making me question the intelligence of everypony in this town, this also gave me an idea…

Ignoring it for now, I unlocked the door through the terminal. Grabbing them with magic, I slowly opened them, curious to what I would see.

The basement beneath the clinic was filled with many drawers and cabinets full of medical equipment. I could see in the green light of my PipBuck braces, ampoules, tweezers, scalpels, tubes, syringes, microscopes... There were IV stands in the corner, and a few refrigerators. I opened one and found several medicines and blood pacs in it.

I continued to scan the room. There were a few generators in the center. Probably a backup source of power in case of emergency. I wondered if they still worked…

A pony could create a laboratory down here, I noticed, smiling.

There was a desk with a terminal in the corner, as well as a strange spherical object next to it. It was made of metal, and there were folded limbs attached to it. Some kind of maintenance robot?

I turned my attention back to the desk. The were two things on it other than a terminal. One was a magazine called The MoP Field Guide: Saving Lives with a Smile. The other, far more interesting, was a statuette, a statuette of a pony to be exact. But not just any pony. The statuette was depicting a yellow pegasus mare, with long pink mane and tail. Her flank was adorned by a symbol of three butterflies.

So, this was Fluttershy, the Mare of the Ministry of Peace. The mare who dedicated herself to healing everybody during the war, no matter if they were a pony or a zebra.

I grabbed the statuette gently with my magic… and shook. I felt as if a surge of magic had washed over me. I looked at the statuette, puzzled. Was it magical? There wasn’t any magic in it that I could sense…

As I looked at it, I realized that there were words written on the pedestal on which Fluttershy stood. Two words that I should have expected, given what little I knew about this mare, but still took me by surprise.

Be Kind.

I put the statuette back on the desk, glaring at it. Somehow, I felt as if it was… accusing me. Shaking my head, I concentrated on the terminal instead. Unlike the previous one, I hacked it quite easily, on my second try. However, much to my disappointment, it contained nothing but notes of a doctor that used to work in the clinic during the War.

Entry One:
I can’t believe so many ponies in this town got drug problems! I grew up here, and I never noticed there were any junkies in Appleloosa. I suppose it might be due to the war, difficult times caused ponies to seek escape in drugs... I had to move out of my office to make room for the patients being treated for addiction. Had to strap them down somewhere until the detox can flush their bodies of whatever the hell they've been all taking. Until then, I guess I’ll have to make do with this as my office.

At least the broken janitor will keep me company. I wonder when they will send somebody to fix it?

Entry Two:
Got the results from the analysis of the patients with addiction’s blood samples. According to them, they all got hooked up by the same drug. That, alone, wouldn’t be so surprising, if it weren’t a drug that was one of the forbidden Zebra drugs! What in Celestia name is going on? Not so long as a month ago there were MoM goons in town; shouldn’t they have been found if somepony was smuggling illegal drugs to Equestria?

I should report this, but what if the MoM had missed this on purpose ? What if somepony in the higher ups was secretly making money out of this smuggling deal? I… I wouldn’t want to get into trouble… you keep hearing what those guys from the Ministry of Morale do with ponies…

It’ll be best if I just send in a report to Canterlot about what the blood analysis showed and leave it at that. Hopefully, if something wrong is going on, then somepony in the Ministry of Peace will work it out from there.

Entry Three:
I cannot believe what happened today! Fluttershy, the Mare of the Ministry of Peace, came here! She wanted to personally congratulate me on my efforts in Appleloosa! She even brought a team of medics to help out!

Oh my gosh, I still can’t believe it! That mare is the reason why I became a doctor! For her to talk with me, to thank me... I cannot find words to describe how happy I am! But that’s still not all!

When the ponies she brought tended to the patients, relieving me and everypony else at the clinic for a few hours, Fluttershy and I went to get some lunch (of course, there were a few bodyguards nearby, just in case). I told her how much I admired her, ever since I saw her helping ponies and buffalo wounded during that battle back when I was a colt, and how I became a doctor later on and joined her ministry, and how I too hated this war. I stopped talking, though, when I noticed that she was crying, but soon it turned out that she was crying because she was happy (thank Celestia, her pet rabbit looked as if he was about to tear me a new one). She was happy that I told her that, that her efforts inspired somepony. She then gave me a statuette of herself as a thank you gift, so that I would remember why I wanted to help ponies every time I looked at it.

I could tell that there was something wrong with her, making her more emotional. Something was clearly bugging her, but when I tried to ask, she smiled and said it was nothing. I’m not sure what to think of that… Either way, she had to return to Canterlot, so she said her goodbyes soon after giving me that statuette.

I am honored for this gift, but honestly, I was just glad Fluttershy had promised to look into this Zebra drug thing, and urged me to forget about it. Took a load out of my mind!

The entries ended after the third one. Looking at the dates, I could tell why. This buck wasn’t making those notes every day since he moved down into the basement, there were two-to-three day intervals between each of them. The last one was made two days before the bombs fell.

*** *** ***

“Are ya going t’ sleep all day?”

I yawned and opened my eyes. Apple Core’s head was hovering above me, and her hoof was prodding my shoulder. I found myself tempted to once again joke about her being interested in me, but decided against it.

“What time is it?” I asked, yawning and raising from my mattress. My lab coat that I used as a blanket slid from my body.

“Around nine. Ah thought Ah would bring ya somethin’ t’ eat; can’t imagine Cutter being a carin’ boss,” she muttered, glaring at closed door to his office.

I, on the other hoof, looked at the plate on the reception desk. It was full of the same canned food Apple Core treated me to yesterday during our ride to Appleloosa. I sighed, noting that the food will be probably the hardest part to get used to.

“Thank you,” I said, not wanting to sound ungrateful. As I started eating it, I turned to her. “So, what plans for today?”

“Ah hoped to show you around, Cutter usually ‘opens’ this place at ten, so ya should have some free time now. Not sure how yar day will look after ‘at. As for me, Ah got guard duty until nightfall. Maybe we can hit the saloon after that?”

“That sound lovely,” I said, smiling and turning to her. I noticed then where she was looking at and the smile turned into a smirk. “Sweetie, are you sure you’re not into mares?”

Apple Core gagged, taken by surprise. She blushed furiously and glared at me. “Ah was lookin’ at yar cutie mark!”

I giggled. “Sorry, couldn’t help myself.”

The mare calmed down. “So, what is that thing anyway?” she asked, pointing at my flank.

A smile crossed my muzzle as I looked down on my cutie mark. “It’s a dragon that devours it’s own tail,” I said. I pressed my hoof to it and drew a circle, trailing it from tail to head.

“Looks like a snake.”

I rolled my eyes. Wasn’t the first time I heard that. “Either way, it’s still a creature that devours it’s own tail. Took me a while to figure out what it meant, but I finally found it in one of the books in my Stable’s library. It was once a symbol of the eternal life cycle, eternity and unity, known as the Ouroboros. And yeah, even in that book it wasn’t written if it was a dragon or a serpent.”

“How in the hay can ya get a cutie mark like that?!” Apple Core asked, perplexed.

“Oh please, sweetie, a mare has to have her secrets,” I told her, giggling. “I did not ask how you got your cutie mark… and, since I am polite and do not stare at ponies’ flanks, I don’t know what it is.”

She gave me a dirty look. “It’s a row of apple cores placed right next t’ each other,” she informed me. “Ah’m good at roundin’ ponies up.”

“Really?” I asked, growing curious. Rising from the now empty plate, I continued as I picked up my stable barding. “I would love to hear how you got it. Will you tell me about it while you show me around the town?”

*** *** ***

It didn’t take Apple Core much time to show me around Appleloosa. Other than the clinic, a building I was already familiar with, the only really important places were the town hall, where Black Widow slept and ran things from, an armory, a station for the train, and the saloon. There were also some ‘barracks’ in which most of the slavers slept in and cages for the slaves.

Noticing a cauldron with some liquid-like substance near the cages, I trotted over to take a whiff. Immediately, I pulled back. “Ugh, and I thought those potatoes in cans you keep giving me were bad,” I said, turning to Apple Core, who rolled her eyes. “What is this?”

“Oatmeal,” one of the slavers guarding them replied.

I looked at him. “Oatmeal? Are you crazy?” I put a hoof on the edge of the cauldron. “Have you ever seen an oatmeal?”

The sleeping drug I prepared last night dropped from my hoof into the liquid, ensuring that once the slaves would get fed shortly before nightfall, they would all go to sleep.

“Who cares, it’s for slaves,” the guard said, shrugging.

“Well, I wouldn’t eat if even if you’d pay me,” I said, turning to look at slaves. When I managed to catch Bulk’s eyes, I tapped at the cauldron.

He looked at the cauldron and nodded.

“Speakin’ of payin’,” Apple Core said, “boss wanted me to tell ya to go meet ‘er tomorrow, t’ make it official ya work with us. Ya know, stuff like payment and shit. Although, given how ya work under Cutter, he will ‘ave most to say about that matter.”

“Why tomorrow?”

“She’s busy preperin’ a new offer t’ send t’ Stern.” Her eyes suddenly narrowed. “And speakin’ of stern…”

I followed her eyes and saw my boss and his special somepony trotting towards us. My eyes darted towards the slaves inside the cages, searching for Bulk Build. I didn’t have to worry; he was already glaring at the buck who murdered his wife.

It was starting to look like a gift from the Goddesses. I planned to send Cutter later to check on slaves, saying something like “I never treated a pony in the Wasteland, I’m not sure if I did the job right,” then bump into Whip Crack by accident in Appleloosa and start thanking him for putting up with me and lead him to his coltfriend, but this was going to save so much of my dignity!

“Good morning, boss,” I greeted him, not needing to fake happiness. “How may I be of help?”

“You can start by not sneaking off ever again,” Cutter replied, frowning. “Somepony needs to run the clinic. Go do that; I will give the slaves a check up.”

Apple Core looked as if she wanted to say something in my defense. I delicately poked her so that the bucks wouldn’t notice and shook my head. Turning to them, I pouted. “Do you not trust me to do my job?”

Cutter rolled his eyes. “Actually, no, but I have to do this everyday either way. Some idiots around here like to damage the merchandise when nopony’s looking. Come to think of it,” he added, brushing his chin, “it’s most usually a merchandise of the female variety.”

The thought of a gay buck checking on the mares was oddly comforting. “I see. Well then, I guess I’m off to the clinic then,” I said, nodding my head and beginning to trot away.

Whip Crack nuzzled Cutter. “I need to go, got guard duty. See you tonight.”

Cutter replied by kissing him.

“Awww! You guys are so sweet!” I called back at them, while Apple Core was making puking sounds.

The two buck glared at me. “Fuck off!” they both said in unison before they parted.

My eyes, however, were no longer on them, but on the slave inside a cage. Bulk Build was now observing Cutter very intensively.

*** *** ***

“Can’t really understand what Cutter was complaining about” I said, trotting together with Apple Core through Appleloosa towards Salt Block, the town’s saloon. “We hardly had any patients today.”

“That’s because there weren’t any raid parties returnin’ today,” Apple Core pointed out. “Wait until Cracker’s group will come in a day or two, they were sent t’ a bigger town than Mudhill. They’re bound t’ come with more slaves and wounds that we had.”

“So do you often attack settlements like that? Seems to me that you would have run out of villages around here already.”

“Nah, we’ve been doin’ that only since Black Widow became the boss. Earlier, we usually just tried capturin’ some travelers.” She looked around after she paused. “Ya know, Ah have no idea how ya can ingore all those ponies starin’ at ya.”

I giggled. Indeed, as we walked through Appleloosa, both now and in the morning, as well as yesterday, ponies kept turning their heads to gawk at me. “I’m simply used to it. I was always perceived as an oddity and was stared at. A very hot oddity since I grew up, I might add.”

“Well, Ah wouldn’t know about that part,” Apple Core rolled her eyes, “so Ah’m gonna take yar word on it. Changin’ subject, how are ya copin’ with workin’ for slavers?”

“I already told you, sweetie, I’m not a pony you would call ‘soft’,” I reminded her. “The only issue I have is with killing; but since that actually hurts your business, you try avoid doing that. So to be honest, I could have landed worse after leaving my Stable.”

With those words, I swung open the door leading to the saloon we had finally reached. A music - the same annoying one as I heard before; couldn’t they change to that other station with Sweetie Belle’s songs? - was barely heard above the chatter of the patrons, majority of them slavers. Apple Core, however, pointed out for me a few merchants that lived in town as well as we made our way to the bar.

Of course, we couldn’t do that without me attracting the attention of everypony. A lot of ponies pointed at me and muttered between themselves; some called and waved, inviting me to their tables, and some chuckled and made obscene gestures to their friends.

“Hey Apple Core, what will it be?” the bartender asked once we sat before the bar.

“Beer for me, and… what d’ya want?” Apple Core asked, turning to me.

“Something without alcohol.”

The earth pony’s eyes became round as plates.

“I don’t drink,” I added.

“Don’t drink?!” She looked at me as if I was crazy. “Angel, ya can’t be serious. What, didn’tya have any alcohol in yar stable or somethin’?”

“Oh, no, we had alcohol,” I assured her. “But I don’t like it.” Apple Core looked at me as if I offended her. “The taste doesn’t sit with me, it ruins your liver, and don’t get me started about how it makes you do stupid things-”

“Tch, fine, whatevs,” Apple Core interrupted me. “One beer and… Ah dunno, a sparkle-cola, Ah guess,” she said, turning to the bartender.

A few moments later, Apple Core was chugging down her beer, while I was looking sceptically at the dark drink. I gave it a sniff; it had a strange smell. Shrugging, I finally decided to take a sip. To my surprise, I found the taste of it rather pleasant; it was carrot flavored… and carbonated?

It was quite good. Very different from the tea I usually drank back in the Stable, but still enjoyable.

A tap on my shoulder took my attention away from my drink. I looked back to see two slaver bucks I was not yet familiar with.

“May I help you?”

The buck grinned. I noticed both of them were missing a few teeth. “You’re than white doctor chick?” one of them asked. “My friend and I wondered if you would like to come over to our table and… examine us.”

I smiled and shook my head. “I’m afraid my schedule is full, try to make an appointment for a future date,” I said, turning back.

“Oh, I see,” the other buck smirked. “You have a thing only for mares.”

“No sweetie,” I told him, looking over my shoulder. “I have standards.”

Several of the patrons that were close enough to hear us laughed, Apple Core being the loudest one. As I returned to my drink, I noticed that she had already finished her beer, and was ordering a new one.

“Another one?”

“What are ya, my mom?” she replied, chuckling.

“I’m just concerned if you have drinking problem,” I shrugged. “Also, a few more of those and you might try to hit on me-”

“Yeah right,” Apple Core interrupted me. She taken a gulp of her beer and continued: “Ah already told ya, Ah’m not into mares.”

“Sweetie, have you taken a look at me?” I asked, raising an eyebrow and putting a hoof on my hip. “Nopony is that straight.”

“Yeah, right…”

*** *** ***

“Hey, Angel…” the very intoxicated Apple Core started, her foreleg around me and her face so near mine that I had difficulty not gagging at the smell of alcohol in her breath. “What’ya say we ditch this place and go play doctor?”

“So how long has it been?” I asked the bartender with a raised eyebrow, who was laughing and shaking his head. Turning back to Apple Core, I pressed a hoof to her chest, gently pushing her away. “Sweetie,” I started, smiling, “I would love to ‘play doctor’ with you, but you’re drunk. I don’t want you to wake up tomorrow regretting anything.”

“Aw, c’mon,” Apple Core continued to try hit on me, though she moved back a bit. “What’s the harm? At’m not gonna spank ya or anythin’!”

“Pity,” I smirked. “Either way, I need to use the little fillies’ room-”

“What are ya, eight?”

“- I’ll be back in a bit. Will you be alright?”

“Pff, what, do Ah look like Ah won’t be?”

“Please don’t make me answer that,” I sighed. Turning to the bartender, I asked: “Can you keep an eye on her?”

When he nodded, I headed towards the bathrooms. Luckily, the fillies’ one was empty, and, what’s more important, still had a working lock. I locked the door and opened the window.

Alright, I thought, pulling myself up the sill. It’s already dark. Even with my white coat, I should make it to the slave cages without being noticed.

Still, to increase my chances, I removed my lab coat and left it in the toilet. With just my stable barding, I was much less conspicuous. I jumped out of the window and started making my way around the town. The saloon was almost on the opposite side of Appleloosa of the slave cages, so I had quite a distance to run, on top of being careful to not get noticed. Thankfully, I still had my E.F.S to warn me if somepony was behind a corner of a building, so I didn’t run into anypony. Also, the guards were more worried about ponies trying to break in or out of Appleloosa, but not so much about sneaking around the town. Thanks to that, not even ten minutes had passed since I left the Salt Block, and I was looking at the cages.

I paused, catching my breath. I really hated running.

The eleven slaves other than Bulk Build were already asleep, thanks to the drug I had slipped to their meal earlier. However, there were two ponies guarding the slaves. I needed to do something about them.

This was going to be tiresome…

*** *** ***

“What did you do?” Bulk was asking me several minutes later.

I picked the keys to the cage from the sleeping guard with my teeth. “Aww put thwem t’ seeph,” I said, but realising how it sounded I spit the keys to my hoof and tried again. “I’ve put them to sleep,” I told him, nodding at one of the slaves who was snoring. “As for them, I put a sleeping drug into that oatmeal. Took me most of the night to prepare a drug strong enough to work on so many ponies.”

“Tough,” Bulk commented, clearly not interested in my troubles. Pointing at the lock, he added: “Can you?”

Nodding, I got to unlocking that cage. We had to hurry; not only was somepony bound to want to use the bathroom in the saloon soon, but also my sleeping spell wouldn’t last long.

“So, you want me to kill that medic so you can take his place?” he asked as I unlocked the door.

“No, I’m a homophobe,” I replied sarcastically, rolling my eyes. “Yes, that’s the reason. He’s in his clinic, right over there,” I said, pointing in its direction. I risked using the Levitation spell on the keys, despite needing to preserve my energy for later, and moved them to unlock the chains binding Bulk’s legs. “Whip Crack should be with him, so you’ll get to kill his lover right before him. You should have no problem getting there, as long as you stick to the shadows and don’t make noise. Now hurry up,” I said, dropping the keys together with the chain on the ground in the cage, and starting to move the guard who had them near the cage. This way, it would look as if Bulk Build took the keys after the guard fell asleep. “They’re gonna wake up soon.”

Bulk nodded, and without as much as a thank you, he began heading towards the clinic. Wishing him luck silently, I began running back to the saloon.

*** *** ***

The alarm was raised just as I jumped back through the window. On the street, ponies called out to help looking for an escapee. I quickly put back on my lab coat and, after sperring a moment to clean the sweat on my face from all the running and to catch my breath,I left the bathroom.

There was no queue forming behind it, but I assumed that any mare that wanted to use it simply went to the male’s bathroom. I trotted calmly, as if nothing had happened, back to where I left Apple Core.

Who was now tongue deep in some buck’s throat.

“How long was I out?” I asked, sitting next to her.

Apple Core pulled her mouth away from the buck with a loud smack. “The hell did’ya eat?! Ya’ve been gone like an hour.”

“Rubbish, it’s been half an hour at best,” I corrected her, blushing a bit from embarrassment over her accusation. “And I’m still getting used to the food you have up here.”

The mare rolled her eyes, losing interest, and returned to her make-out session. I ordered another sparkle-cola and waited.

The saloon was too far away from the clinic for us to hear any commotion, especially with the music playing. But we didn’t need to hear it, the commotion came to us. After several minutes, a few slavers that were on duty ran in, yelling to stop the music.

“Is Doctor Angel here?” one of them called out, his eyes searching through the crowd.

“Here!” I called out, leaving Apple Core behind and trotting towards them. “What’s the matter?”

I didn’t need to fake nervousness. It could be that they’ve figured out I was the one who let Bulk Build lose. But that was a gamble I had to make.

However, such worries evaporated from my mind when the slavers’ faces betrayed their relief at the sight of me. “You need to come with us, Doctor; there’s been an accident.”

*** *** ***

I gasped. “What happened here?!”

We were at the clinic. It was a mess. Several cabinets were knocked over and there were sheets of paper everywhere; clear signs of a fight. More obvious, thought, were two dead bodies.

I quickly ran to Cutter, sparing Bulk Build a mere glance; there was a small puddle of blood around him, and his chest was full of holes. I gently moved Whip Crack away from his lover’s body and pressed my ear to his chest, while at the same activating my magic.

“We heard gunshots and then Whip Crack screaming for help,” the buck who came for me informed me. “We’re not sure what exactly happened; he wasn’t too helpful-”

“Strangled,” I cut him off; his throat bore bruises from Bulk’s hooves.

The glow from my horn disappeared.

Pressing my hooves on his chest, right above Cutter’s heart, I started resuscitating him. I pressed him with the weight of my body thirty times, them opened his muzzle to give him mouth-to-mouth. After two breaths into his mouth, I listened to his heart once again.

“Dammit!” I snapped, giving it another go.

I could tell that there were ponies moving around me; somepony trotted to make sure Bulk Build was really dead, a few just came in and were asking what happened; others simply watched my tries to save Cutter’s live.

I once again breathed into his muzzle, and listened if his heart resumed it’s work.

“Shit,” I said out loud, moving away. “Stand back!” I ordered, lowering my horn to his chest. Concentrating, I cast a spell. My magic turned into an electrical charge that I directed into Cutter’s heart. In normal cases of cardiac arrest, a shock like that could kick the heart back into action.

Unfortunately for Whip Crack, it was not the case.

I listened to his chest one last time. When I straightened and looked at Whip Crack, who was looking at me hopefully, I had to shook my head.

He broke down, crying.

*** *** ***

“Those guards couldn’t have picked a worse moment to take a nap,” Black Widow commented as she and another pony (probably a bodyguard) joined me.

It was morning. I caught a little sleep last night; there was a lot of commotion involved after the death of the town’s medic. Go figure. Ponies tried to find out just how exactly the slave escaped from the cage, and why, out of all ponies, he murdered Cutter. As some guards remembered seeing me comforting him yesterday, I was of course questioned. I mentioned only that Bulk’s wife was killed.

And… that was it. Nopony suspected me of anything. Apparently, everypony assumed that since I tried so hard to save Cutter, I didn’t have anything to do with his murder.

As for the slaves I drugged, they all woke up after a good shake. Some slavers thought it weird that they all fell asleep at the same time, but nopony questioned it.

It didn’t take long for the slavers to find out that Bulk’s escape was caused by the two guards falling asleep. What exactly happened to them, I did not know, and wasn’t sure if I wanted to.

I was currently watching Whip Crack burying his lover not far away from the clinic when the boss of the slavers approached me. I nodded in agreement but didn’t turn to her yet. “Consequences were tragic, especially for him,” I pointed at Whip Crack.

“Not for you,” she said, her voice neutral.

“Are you-” I started, turning to her.

And froze.

The other pony I heard come with her wasn’t a pony. It was a zebra.

I jumped to him, ignoring Black Widow. I’ve never seen a zebra! Obvious, seeing how I lived in a Stable full of unicorns, but that was beside the point! I looked him up and down, taking in all of his… exoticness! The white coat with black (actually, kind of more dark gray than black) stripes covering his face, back, and legs, as well as mane… the potent muscles, visible even through the barding he wore… the different tail, with hair starting around the third coccygeal vertebra…

It was shocking to see how much alike he was to an earth pony.

“I see you like my bodyguard,” Black Widow said, amused by how I was prancing around him (which only now I had realized I was doing).

Clearing my throat, I nodded. “Sorry, I’ve never seen a zebra. I’m Doctor Angel…” I started, wanting to introduce myself to him, but Widow stopped me.

“Don’t bother; see that scar on his head?” she asked, pointing at his right side.

I had to walk around him to look at it. The right side of his face bore a massive scar, starting from just below his empty eye socket and leading well past where his ear should have been. I delicately lifted some of his mane to see that it was practically covering half of his head.

“He’s practically a walking vegetable,” Black Widow continued. “However, he can still listen to basic commands, eat, piss, and most importantly, fight. All I need to do is point at something and order him to attack. Makes you wonder what kind of zebra he was before, huh?”

“The injury must have caused brain damage,” I noted, looking at the scar with fascination. Was it from a bullet wound?

“I was leading a group looking for slaves when we found him, a couple years back, among the dead. I think he and his buddies were attacked by Red Eye’s army, and the survivors were taken to Fillydelphia,” she shrugged. “Either way, when I realized that he was alive, I had him taken to Cutter and sewed back together. Turned out to be a rather good deal; it’s not often one finds such an obedient servant.”

“Fascinating,” I agreed, turning to her. “You wouldn’t mind if I would examine him later, would you?”

Black Widow chuckled. “Sorry, but I like to have him around in the way he is; I wouldn’t want you to fix him by some miracle. Although…” she paused, looking the zebra up and down. “I might be persuaded to part with him… for a price, of course.”

I smiled. “I will turn to you, then, when I will start getting some caps.”

It was still weird to think of something as simple as bottle caps as currency. When Apple Core explained this to me yesterday, I half thought she was pulling my tail.

“Seeing how you are now the town’s medic, it might not take you too long,” Black Widow smirked, turning to leave.

“Can I ask two quick questions?” I asked and she stopped, nodding. “What’s his name? And why doesn’t he have any weapon?”

Black Widow smirked. “I call him Khan; had to think of something other than ‘Mute Zebra’. And as for a weapon - he has four of them.”

She walked away, her bodyguard following her like a shadow, on four powerful legs.

*** *** ***

I sat back next to the desk in the clinic’s basement, my back to the wall, hind legs crossed, and Fluttershy’s statuette on my hoof. I held it on eye level with me. I still felt as if it was accusing me.

“How was I not kind?” I asked her, frowning. I knew, of course, that I was talking with an object, but something was compelling me to speak to it. “Thanks to me, Bulk Build is now back with his wife. A murderer received a just punishment.”

A weak groan sounded from the opposite end of the basement.

“And I ensured Bulk hadn’t murdered anypony,” I added, putting the statuette back on the desk.

I rose and trotted towards the pony strapped to a desk - which to make a room for I had to move most of the objects to the side of the basement (I had so much cleaning ahead of me… maybe I should look into repairing this janitor robot?) - as he began to wake up.

“W-what… where am I?” he gasped, looking around.

“Hello, sweetie,” I told Cutter, standing next to him and smiling. “I’m glad to inform you that you are still alive-”

“What is this!?” Cutter interrupted me, realizing that he was in shackles. “The fuck is this?!”

“Oh, those are chains I borrowed from somewhere,” I said, shrugging. “Amazing how easy it is to find shackles' in slavers town. As I was saying-”

“What the fuck is this!?” he cut me off again, glaring at me with hate and fear. “What are you-”

He trailed off when I levitated a scalped to his throat. “I’m beginning to lose my patience,” I told him coldly. “I am going to explain your current situation now, but if you interrupt me again, I will cut out your vocal cords. Do you understand me?”

Now there was only fear in his eyes. Cutter nodded his head, weakly, mindful of the blade pressed to his neck.

“Splendid!” I said, smiling, and moving the scalped away. “As you might remember, you were attacked by a slave last night. He strangled you, and you passed out due to the loss of oxygen. When I got to the scene, I cast a Stasis spell on you, stopping all your body’s functions. It’s difficult to cast and it’s weak, only lasts for a day, but it was enough to get you here.”

“W-why?” he asked, growing more and more terrified.

“Why, I need a new test subject!” I said, surprised. I thought it was obviou- oh wait. “You know, it surprises me a bit that none of you slavers thought to ask just why I was kicked out of my Stable. Do you want to know why?” Even though Cutter looked as if he didn’t want to know, I bend down to his ear and whispered. “I was banished, after I was convicted of kidnapping sixteen ponies, of casting on them experimental spells and performing surgical experiments, as well as being responsible for the deaths of four of them.”

I pulled away and giggled. “Isn’t this rich? The Overmare threw me away in an act of punishment. Everypony thought I would die on the Outside. But instead, she sent me to the world of endless possibilities for me to continue my research!”

“You… you're fucking crazy!” Cutter finally snapped. “Let me out of here, you crazy bitch! Whip Crack is gonna fucking murder you once he gets here!”

“Considering he buried you today, I doubt he will,” I told him, shattering his hope. “Digging you out was such a pain, but I couldn’t let you suffocate, now could I? Now, hold still,” I told him, lifting a syringe. “I want to examine your blood sample and compare it with mine. I’m curious if living with all the radiation affects pony’s DNA.”

“W-what the hell are you?” Cutter asked me as the needle of the syringe pierced the skin of his foreleg.

I giggled. “I am the one who will discover the Truth of this world,” I told him, once again lowering my voice. “I am Doctor Angel, but from now on, you will address me as the Mistress.”

Footnote: Adventure Started!
Name: Angel
S.P.E.C.I.A.L.:

Strength: 1

Perception: 8

Endurance: 3

Charisma: 8

Intelligence: 10

Agility: 6

Luck: 4

Chapter Two: Settling In

View Online

Civilized? You think you're civilized because you live in the burnt-out ruins of a beforetime town? Tell me something else.

“Good morning, everypony! This is your host, DJ Pon3, and this is the news. Strange things are apparently happening in the vicinity of Manehattan Blast Zone. Several ponies have claimed to witness a fire erupting there suddenly. I got a report from a ghoul who was out there scavenging that one of the few mostly intact buildings had been burned down. By what? Nobody knows. Anypony who is crazy enough to travel through that highly irradiated area, please remember to re-read Equestria’s fire safety instruction book.

“In other news, remember how mommies used to tell you to not litter food, because that’s how you get ants? Well, somebody didn’t listen. A trader was attacked by giant ants that had moved out of nowhere somewhere between Friendship City and Gutterville. As if the manticores weren’t enough of a pest problem around those parts.

“That’s all the news for now. Tune in later for a public service announcement and more news. Now, here’s more of Sweetie Belle, singing about that one great truth of the wasteland: every pony has done something they regret.”

I lifted my head away from the microscope’s lense as the sweet music of Sweetie Belle replaced the voice of a buck that called himself “DJ Pon3”. I’ve begun to like that station more and more. Not only did it play very good music (including songs from Sweetie Belle’s repertoire that I already liked back in Stable Eight, but also from a certain Sapphire Shores that I grew to appreciate as well), but it proved to be a somewhat reliable source of information.

“Giant ant,” I said out loud as I scribbled it on the clipboard I picked up, where on the top of the page I’ve written ‘SPECIMENS TO ACQUIRE’. I paused for a few moments, mentally going over DJ Pon3’s broadcast. “Manticore!” I exclaimed, writing that one down as well.

Still, the information relayed by this mysterious buck weren’t always one hundred percent accurate. For instance, I’d already heard him refer to Appleloosa as a place ponies needed to stay away from at least twice. Although I was sure that it applied in most cases, my own personal experience made me beg to differ.

It has been two days since the ‘death’ of Cutter. I had now completely moved in to the clinic and taken over his duties. According to my contract with Black Widow, I was required to tend to the slavers that got hurt while catching ‘merchandise’ for free, as well as making sure that the slaves were in relative good health until they were sent out of Appleloosa. Aside from that, though, I could charge as much as I liked for medical services to ponies living in the town (such as the bartender) or slavers that got hurt while off-duty. Not to mention treating illnesses. However, from those earnings I had to pay ten percent back to Black Widow at the end of each month.

Ugh, finances. Why do I have to bother with those?!

Shaking my head, I turned my attention back to the microscope. I’d just finished checking the DNA I extracted from Cutter’s blood sample. As far as I could tell, there was no change in a pony’s genomes brought on by the radiation. Of course, this was a simple microscope; to check the DNA strain thoroughly, I would have needed more precise equipment.

One more thing to acquire, I sighed. Except the chances of finding such a device that’s still working… There might be some in old hospitals, but from what I heard so far about the Wasteland, I could find those only in the ruins of big cities. And all of those are far away.

So getting specialistic lab equipment was one of the later goals. I looked at my clipboard to review the ones I could complete much sooner: a complete examination of an earth pony (a corpse preferably), an earth pony test subject, securing a more stable way of getting funds (Will need Apple Core’s help with this one.), finding some readable books, and… resuming my experiments, finally.

I turned to look at the door of what was now currently Cutter’s prison. There were several experiments that I’ve never managed to complete back in Stable Eight, but which should I start with first? I glanced at my clipboard.

I lost two subjects on regeneration research… I mused, cringing inside. So perhaps I should start with something more safe, at least until I secure more test subjects. Hm… truth serum? Would be useful… Of course, I frowned with annoyance, I wouldn’t need a truth serum if Stable-Tech had thought about leaving any books about Ministry of Morale’s memory spells in Stable Eight.

A yawn interrupted my musing. I looked at the time on my PipBuck and saw that it was almost ten, the time to open the clinic. Guess it’s too late to start working on the truth serum. Oh well, I shrugged as I raised from the desk and began to leave the basement. Maybe I should have woken up earlier… but there’s no coffee here! How am I supposed to work?

Once I closed the door to the basement behind me, and entered the empty clinic, I found myself getting almost immediately distracted from my experiments. I hadn’t even crossed half of the way to my new room (previously belonging to Cutter and Whip Crack, but the latter had already moved back to the slavers’ male barracks), when the door of the clinic opened, and Apple Core walked in.

I smiled at her pleasantly. “Good morning, Apple Core,” I greeted her.

The light brown mare didn’t meet my eyes. “Um, hi,” she muttered, looking somewhere around my hooves.

I frowned. “Is it still about you hitting on me while you were drunk? Sweetie, I told you, you have nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Easy for ya t’ say,” Apple Core replied, and I noticed she was blushing.

I rolled my eyes and decided to not remind her that so far, I hadn’t stated my orientation to anypony in Appleloosa. Even if she was right…

Instead, I chose to tell her something that hopefully would make her forget about her embarrassment. “Apple Core, you’ve done nothing to feel ashamed of,” I began, walking slowly toward her and gazing into her eyes. “I am an angel of Celestia and Luna; I’ve descended from Paradise bearing to ponies gifts of both life and death alike.” I stopped before her; by then, Apple Core had finally looked at me, and her eyes were wide open in shock and her mouth hang open. “To desire me is not a sin,” I continued, struggling to keep the serious (and a bit lustful) expression on my face, “for it is natural for ponies to love one that-”

Finally, I couldn’t go on. My features faltered, and lips quivered. A second later I had to cover my mouth as I began to laugh. “You should have seen the look on your face,” I managed to say while Apple Core began slowly to understand what was going on.

She snorted with laughter and looked at me with half-frown, half-amusement. “Dang nabbit, girl, ya almost ‘ad me!” Apple Core told me, glaring at me humorously. “Ah almost bought that bag of horse apples!”

“I can be convincing when I want,” I replied, sticking out my tongue. “Besides,” I continued, regaining a more lady-like composure, “I am a doctor; you can’t fault me for having a bit of a goddess complex, now can you sweetie?” I joked; contrary to what ponies at my trial had said, I knew that I did not have a goddess complex. But I could still joke about it in the right company.

Apple Core shook her head. “Better stop then. Ya seem crazy ‘nough as it is, no need for ya t’ go around town sayin’ crap like that. Folks might start thinkin’ yar one of ‘em Preachers.”

I was confused by her statement, especially that last sentence, as I’ve so far heard nothing about any ‘preachers’. But I decided that I had more pressing matters to take care of for now. “While it is always a joy to see you, sweetie, might I ask why have you come? I believe you were supposed to be on duty until noon.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I was sent t’ get ya. Guards spotted a caravan comin’; must be Cracker’s group.”

Well, there go my plans to start my experiments, I thought, stifling a sigh. I’d already heard that a certain slaver by the name Cracker was sent with a big group to capture ponies living in a small town a few days trot away. By the looks of everything I knew so far, I was about to spent half a day treating both slavers and slaves. Still, though, I tried to remain optimistic. Perhaps one of them will be seriously wounded, with low chances of making it…

“I’ll get some supplies ready; will you help me carry them?” I asked looking over my shoulder as I trotted towards the room that Cutter had used as a storage room.

Apple Core agreed and helped me pack healing potions, bandages and several medicines into saddlebags. Each of us taking one, we left the clinic and headed towards the entry to the town. Now more at ease with me after my amusing performance, Apple Core made some small talk. “Ah wonder how many did they get?”

I just assumed this was what usually passed for “small talk” around slavers.

“Hope they didn’t do too well.”

“Concerned I will have too much work?” I asked teasingly.

Apple Core snorted. “Nah. Well, a bit,” she admitted, grinning at me. “But we slavers get paid based on how many slaves we catch. Like, Ah and others will get credit for those seven ya’ve seen. Cracker will get caps for those his group caught. Also, it increases our ranks around the slavers. Can’t let the snot get ahead of me…” she muttered, a grimace sullying her normally nice features.

“I see… and how exactly does the ranking system looks like?”

“Well, f’course, Black Widow’s on top, she’s the boss. She assigns all the patrols, guard duties, and plans the raids on towns. Second in command is Butcher; ya haven’t met him yet. Maybe ya’ll understand what the hay he’s sayin’, half of folks can’t. He’s out with a small party, catchin’ travelers; he pissed the boss off a month ago and she hadn’t let him go on bigger raids since.”

Maybe she won’t miss him…

“How did he piss Black Widow off?”

“He played with a slave a bit too much, killed her. Black Widow doesn’t like losin’ slaves like that,” Apple Core replied, shrugging. “Anyways, after Butcher there’s me, third in rank.”

“Really?” I exclaimed, impressed. I’d guessed by now that Apple Core was of a high rank amongst the slavers, but I had no idea that she was just two ponies below Black Widow. I looked at her alluringly. “I wasn’t aware that I’ve made friends with such an important pony…”

Apple Core glanced at me. “Yeah, well, it’s not all that great. Ah mean, sure, Ah get more money and get to lead groups once in a while, but Ah still got to obey everythin’ Black Widow says. Ah suppose it’s more of a peckin’ order than actual rankin’... anypony who has a problem with somethin’ Black Widow says, they get better acque-... acquant-...”

“Acquainted?” I hinted.

“Yeah, that,” Apple Core nodded. “They get better acquainted with that zebra pet of hers.”

“Khan?” I asked with interest.

Oh, how I wish Black Widow would let me take a close look at him...

“Yeah, him. Ah’ve once saw ‘im pull somepony’s head off along with most of his spine,” she said and shuddered. I couldn’t blame her; it must have been rather gruesome sight.

Note to self: don’t ever get on Black Widow’s bad side.

Despite the thought, I began to wonder how to get Black Widow’s permission to check Khan’s brain; I was curious to see just how damaged it was. It was strange that despite apparently losing the ability to think and speak, he could understand simple commands and execute them.

“And what is Cracker’s rank in the pecking order?” I asked Apple Core, not wanting her to think I lost interest in our discussion.

“He’s fifth, right behind Whip Crack. And given how since Cutter’s death he became more of a dick that he already was, Ah expect he’ll fall down a rank. Or a head.”

She was right; only yesterday Whip Crack had both beaten up one slave, then got into a fight in the saloon. If he continued to be so aggressive, he might find his head removed from his body by Khan.

My musing and our discussion were stopped when we reached a large group of ponies gathered near the cages where the slaves were kept. Among them was heralded a group of fourteen ponies in shackles, all greatly battered and wounded, with bandages poorly wrapped around them. Surrounding them were slavers, all looking relieved to be back in Appleloosa. One of them, a large light gray earth pony with spiked horseshoes and a coiled rope as a cutie mark (Or is it a snake? I pondered briefly; I couldn’t get a good look from that angle), was talking with Black Widow. The black unicorn mare was listening to him, while at the same time looking over the gathered slaves with an appraising look.

We managed to reach close enough just in time to hear the pony - Cracker, I assumed - say: “... we killed three of those raiders and captured the other two, but they’ve killed one slave.”

“Shame,” Black Widow replied, frowning slightly. “Still, running into a raider group could have much worse repercussions. They’ve been getting even more aggressive as of late. I wonder if we should give up on the hunting grounds near Ponyville, even if that group still lets our patrols go for a small fee.”

“Yeah, I swear, every time I have to talk with them, I half expect them to just blow my head off.”

“Hm. At least you’ve got one extra slave out of this.” She finally noticed me and Apple Core. “Ah, Doctor Angel; Cracker, meet Appleloosa’s new medic.”

“New medic?” Cracker asked, turning to us. “What happen to- Hello Baby!” he exclaimed, smirking, as he looked me up and down. “Where have you been hiding?”

I noticed Apple Core bristled slightly beside me, and I felt touched. “In a Stable, sweetie,” I replied, smiling at him. “I’m terribly sorry for eavesdropping, but I’ve happened to overhear that you lost one slave. You don’t happen to have their corpse, do you?”

Even though I already knew the most likely answer, I had to ask.

Cracker look at the me with raised eyebrow, and he wasn’t the only one confused; Black Widow and Apple Core mirrored his expression. “Uh, no, why the fuck would I bring a fucking corpse?”

Frowning a bit at his language, I replied: “Well, for you, of course, it would have no value. Still, I had to ask, because I had hoped that, if it was a corpse of an earth pony, I could perform a post-mortem examination. I’ve studied only the physiology of unicorns, you see, and although there’s not much difference between the two, there are still minor differences. The bone density, for example, or the muscle structure…”

As I was talking, I was beginning to be more and more aware that the only one that seemed to understand remotely what I was talking about was Black Widow, and even she was looking at me as if I bored her. The other two were also looking at me with deepening confusion.

I cleared my throat, stopping my lecture. “The point is, I would really appreciate if the next time a pony you’ve captured had unfortunately died during the journey back, you would bring his corpse. If it was close enough, of course.”

“How much would you appreciate that?” Cracked asked almost immediately, taking a step towards me.

Black Widow spared me the need to reply to his allusion. “Doctor, don’t you have patients to check?”

I nodded at her, smirking, and turned around to the crowd of wounded ponies.

“Everypony who can move, please form a line over here, and wait your turn,” I told them. “Ponies too wounded or in too much pain to move, please stay where you are and groan.”

Although a little taken aback by my orders, ponies began to line up, slavers pushing groaning slaves to stand. I shook my head, dismayed with their brutality, and headed towards them. Behind me, I could hear the trio of slavers talking.

“Could ya stop starin’ at her flank?” I heard Apple Core hiss. “Ya can’t even see it under that coat.”

“Why do you care?” Cracker snorted in reply. “Anyway, Boss, there’s one more thing I wanted to mention; when we were getting out of Rock Gulch, one of the boys swears he saw the Hooded Figure. I took a few ponies to check it out, but-”

The rest of the conversation was lost to my ears, as I had to concentrate on a misfortunate pony who had lost half of his teeth, his face looked as if it was minced, and had several broken ribs.

*** *** ***

A yawn escaped me as I was finally done with the last patient. Cutter wasn’t kidding when he had complained on his work; on busy days it was really a lot for one pony. I’d started working on that group around ten in the morning, and it was already almost midnight.

“Do you have to be so brutal with them?” I asked with pretense one of the slavers that was keeping an eye on the slaves in the clinic.

The state of three of them was so serious that I had to operate. I was surprised that they’d made it to Appleloosa in their state; that is, until somepony told me that their kin carried them for most of the way. One of them, for example, had an ugly, purulent wound on his leg; I had to cut out a lot of flesh to save his life.

My question caused both guards to chuckle. “Ponies don’t usually line ‘emselves up to become slaves, Missy,” one of them said.

“Doctor,” I corrected him.

I walked over to the closest slave, ignoring the guard’s reply. Each of them was sedated, chained, and laying on a mattress. I double-checked to see if everything was in order, before I finally nodded in satisfaction.

“I’m going to Salt Block for a glass of Sparkle-Cola; don’t break anything, sweeties,” I smiled at them as I turned to leave. I stopped for a moment. “That extends to my three patients as well; I hadn’t spent the better part of today fixing them for you to break them.”

“Sure, sure,” one of them replied, rolling his eyes at me.

“I’m not in the mood for fun anyway,” the other added, shrugging.

Not really feeling comfortable with leaving them in my clinic, I hurried to the saloon. I’d closed the doors to my room, the storage and to the basement, but I felt slightly concerned about the fate of the slaves; those two didn’t really convince me they wouldn’t do anything to them. I hoped to find Apple Core and be done with my business quickly.

However, I was in for a disappointment; Apple Core wasn’t there.

“She got up and left about an hour ago with Snare,” the bartender told me when I asked him. “And it looked as if they were going to be busy.”

Another one? I thought, frustrated that I couldn’t talk with her tonight. That’s the third time since I came to Appleloosa; I wonder if it’s because of how she acted when she was drunk… either way, I’d better ask her about what method of contraception she’s using.

I ordered a glass of Sparkle-Cola, figuring that I might as well drink something since I was already there, as well as ordering some potato crisps. After paying him, I took my order to an empty table not far away. As I sipped my Sparkle-Cola, I scanned the crowd; several ponies who had noticed me were smiling smugly at me and were shouting for me to join them. I just smiled and shook my head; it didn’t take much of a genius to figure that their main intention was, to put it gently, copulation. Sadly for them, their chances were none-existent… unlike mine, which I thought were at least plausible.

So far, I’ve met only three people in the Wasteland that I would consider making love to, and it doesn’t look like any of them are going to show similar interest, I sighed, annoyed. Can’t believe it’s already been a few months since-

My train of thoughts was stopped abruptly by the angry and surprised shout coming from the room behind the bar, followed by the sound of several objects falling. I wasn’t the only one who heard it; other patrons were also looking in that direction, surprised.

Being the closest one, I was the first to react. Urged by my curiosity, I hurried from my table, jumped on the bar’s counter and jumped down on the other side. My E.F.S. was flashing me four bars; one friendly, and three- two hostile. One hostile bar just disappeared the moment I entered the backroom.

Then I saw what caused the bartender to start such a commotion. Next to him, on the ground, were two tiny, brown colored creatures, each about the length of my leg, scattering around on the floor one their six legs, their antenna twitched in the direction of the bartender, beneath whose hoof were the remains of their kin.

As the pony raised his goo covered hoof in the air, I screamed: “Stop!”

My shout had the desired effect; the bartender looked back at me, confused. I paid him no mind; I had to hurry. Although I was tired, I still had the strength to cast two anesthetic spells. Were they going to hit their targets, though…

Not wanting to lose such a chance, I activated S.A.T.S.

Immediately, everything around me froze. Or, to be more precise, my perception of my surroundings had been drastically sped up. The Stable-Tec Arcane Targeting Spell, one of the spells included in my PipBuck, had begun to work. With it, even with my total lack of combat experience, I could hit two of those critters easily (because, as the S.A.T.S. informed me, I had over eighty percent chance of hitting them). Taking a deep breath (figuratively speaking, as I was unable to move when S.A.T.S. was in effect), I lined up two spells, one on each target, and let it do its work.

My anesthetic spell worked; both insectoid creatures dropped on the ground, unable to move. I smiled, pleased with myself. And a little bit surprised. I knew how S.A.T.S. worked, of course, as I checked out every possible use there is for a PipBuck years ago, but using it in an actual combat - or, well, resembling combat at least - was another thing.

I snapped myself back to attention when I noticed that bartender was now giving me an even more confused stare. “What-” he started, but I cut him off.

“Mind if I take them?”

*** *** ***

“Ya’re keepin’ radroaches as pets,” Apple Core deadpanned.

“I know!” I exclaimed cheerfully. “Aren’t they cute?”

It was morning the next day; we were in my room in the clinic. Most of the things in it had belonged to Cutter: drawer, table, wardrobe, sink (not working), fridge, and bed (with the mattress changed). Of course, they were empty; Whip Crack took most of the things he and Cutter had kept in them, but I wasn’t complaining.

The only visible thing that belonged to me was an aquarium, with two radroaches I rescued the night before safely in it, chewing on a bit of brahmin (whatever that was) meat. Their brethren’s remains were down in the refrigerator in the basement. There wasn’t much that was left of it that wasn’t smashed, but it was still a valuable source of information.

“First of all,” Apple Core started, replying to my question, “‘cute’ ain’t in mah dictornary-”

“Dictionary,” I corrected her patiently.

“Ugh, tryin’ speakin’ fancy around ya… second of all, Ah’m pretty sure those things are the very opposite of ‘cute’.”

I giggled. “Well, I suppose this depends on the pony.”

“No, it ain’t,” Apple Core once again deadpanned. “Like, really. Those things are gross.”

“Beauty is an abstract idea, it is defined by our personal standards. What to one pony can be the most beautiful thing ever, could very well be absolutely hideous to another.”

When I turned back from the aquarium (The way they ate was so cute! With those little chelicerae…), I was met with a blank stare. “Can’t ya speak normal?!” Apple Core exclaimed once she recovered.

“Define normal? After all, I am a product of my upbringing, which is safe to assume was much different than yours…”

I trailed off when I saw Apple Core’s annoyed gaze. She sighed as I giggled. “Let’s change topic ‘fore mah head explodes; where the fuck did ya get this glass thingy?”

I frowned hearing her curse. “Can’t you ask in a nicer way? You really curse too often.”

Apple Core facehoofed and muttered something incoherent.

“That ‘glass thingy’ is called ‘an aquarium’. Before the war, ponies used to fill them with water and keep fishes in them.”

“The hell are ‘fishes’?”

“Scaly animals that used to live in rivers, lakes and seas,” I replied simply. “And as for how I got the aquarium, it was in Forty Caps store when you showed me around. I bought it from him.”

“Wasn’t the store closed?”

“He was in the saloon,” I replied, shrugging. I looked back at the radroaches, frowning. “What do you think I should name them?”

“Itchy and Scratchy?” I raised my eyebrows. “What? It fits ‘em.”

“On the other hoof, I don’t think they need names just yet.”

“Whatevs. What did ya want anyway? Smash told me ya wanted t’ talk about somethin’.”

When the slaves woke up early in the morning, they had to be placed back with the others. Smash, who was one of the two ponies that guarded the slaves overnight, had agreed to carry my message to Apple Core. I admit, I was surprised he did so. I suppose I was being prejudiced; I still remembered how he and Sawed-Off were eager to put me in shackles with the slaves.

“Yes, I do,” I told Apple Core, looking her in the eyes. “I was wondering if you would like to earn some caps?”

That got her interest. Her eyes widened, but there was now more attention in them. “What ya mean?”

“Well, you seem to know pretty much everypony around here,” I began slowly, not breaking the eye contact. “And since you are the third important pony in Appleloosa, you would have a much easier time to-”

My soon-to-be-partner stomped angrily. “Just get t’ point!”

“Would you like to sell drugs to ponies?”

Her eyes grew wider again.

“Think of it as a small side business,” I continued, pleased with the effect my words were having on her. “I would provide you with drugs, and you would sell them to slaves and merchants in Appleloosa. I figure you would easily learn what everypony needs.”

“Where would ya get drugs?” Apple Core finally asked.

“You know how there is a door leading to the basement here?”

“The one that nobody could get t’ open?” I nodded and grinned. Apple Core sighed. “When did ya open it?”

“The very night I first came here,” I replied cheerfully. “Inside there was a supply of several drugs and medicines. I have plenty of ingredients to create Buck, Dash, Rage-”

“Ya KNOW how t’ make drugs?”

I couldn’t help myself; I had to laugh at the surprise in her voice. “Sweetie, those things, from a technical point of view, are medicines. Of course I know how to make them. Even if my Stable was supposed to be more ‘magic-oriented’, they provided us with enough Ministry of Peace’s books for me to learn about the drugs as well. In fact,” I giggled, “did you know that the drug that enhances combat effectiveness and numbs the pain, commonly known as Stampede, was invented during the war by somepony named Angel? I just had to learn how to make it!”

“Why do Ah feel like ya just went back in time and invented it?” Apple Core deadpanned again.

“Oh, don’t be silly, that’s impossible,” I quickly told her.

“Yeah, Ah know-”

“Stable Eight’s excessive studies on the subject showed that even though it is possible for a unicorn to travel back in time with a correct spell, it would be impossible for him or her to change historical events.” Ignoring the stare Apple Core was giving me, I continued: “Inventing a battle drug would be one such event. Of course, if-”

My next words were muffled by the hoof pressed against my mouth. “Ya know what Ah hate the most?” Apple Core asked me, frowning. “That Ah can’t say whether ya are fuckin’ with me or not right now.”

I rolled my eyes and moved her hoof away. “Then to avoid such situations, I would advise you to not make sarcastic jokes.”

“Fine, Ah will remember that in the future,” Apple Core sighed.

“Speaking of future-”

“NO!” she shouted, almost shoving her hoof into my mouth. “Ah do not want t’ hear anythin’ more about time travel! Let’s get back t’ drugs!”

Her hoof was stopping me from replying. I looked at it pointedly, then back at Apple Core. She grunted with annoyance and removed her hoof.

“So here’s my offer,” I resumed, as if there wasn’t a hoof in my mouth just a second ago. “From the caps you’ll get from ponies, we subtract the cost of materials, and we split what’s left between us.”

Apple Core frowned. “What ‘cost of materials’? Ya just said ya’ve got everythin’ in the basement.”

Sure, she cannot spell ‘dictionary’, but knows what ‘subtract’ means.

“Sooner or later, I will run out of them,” I explained. “That means I will have to start buying ingredients to make more.”

“From where? Ah don’t recall Forty t’ have any of that kind of stuff. Not t’ mention that Black Widow would notice somethin’s up when ya would start buyin’ chemicals and shit around here and she would want in on this business,” Apple Core pointed out.

I smiled. “True… unless I was buying them from someplace else. When is the next train from New Appleloosa coming?”

Her jaw dropped, causing me to smirk. That smirk quickly turned into a frown, however, when she said: “Ya sneaky bitch- Sorry,” she apologized, noticing my expression. “Um, Ah think it’s two weeks from now.”

As I’ve learned since coming to Appleloosa, New Appleloosa would send a train with various goods every once in a while in order to trade. And by send, I meant have a bunch of ponies pull it, as they had no coal. Either way, the train was the fastest way of traveling. New Appleloosa itself was not only the closest big settlement, but was also a major trading hub in the area. Somepony there was sure to have what I needed.

“I plan to talk with the ponies from that train about if they could arrange some trading agreement, and if not then I will travel to New Appleloosa myself to orchestrate one,” I told Apple Core. “To be honest, I would prefer the second option; I would like to see that town for myself.”

Plus, there is that pegasus that lives in the area… I mused, almost squealing inside at the thought. Perhaps he would agree to let me examine him and run a few tests…

“Black Widow might not like ya leavin’ town,” Apple Core pointed out.

“Leave Black Widow to me, I will find a way to convince her to let me go,” I assured her. “I am good with words, after all.”

“Yeah, Ah can see that,” Apple Core admitted.

“So, what do you say?” I asked her, although I was pretty sure she would say-

“Sure, Ah can use more caps. Ya have yarself a deal,” she said, extending a hoof towards me.

I pretended to frown. “I was hoping we could seal the deal some other way…”

Apple Core began to growl, causing me to giggle. “Sorry, couldn’t help myself,” I said, grabbing her hoof and shaking it.

It appears that I won’t have to worry about the funds for my research. If only the trip to New Appleloosa goes well, that is.

Footnote: 50% to next level!

Chapter Three: Angel Lust

View Online

“I think you need a doctor.”

“So...” I said slowly, looking from the mash of cables and other parts to the book and back again, “according to this, one of its sensor modules has blown… and according to those readings,” I added, glancing at my PipBuck, which was connected to the robot's access panel, “the spark battery’s energy levels are really low…”

I sighed and took a step back, massaging my temples. Though I was second to none when it came to healing ponies, repairing robots continued to prove a difficult task. And, according to this TLC Squared: “Tender Loving Care for Totally Lost Causes" I bought from Forty Caps, this Mister Handy wasn’t a too complicated robot to fix. Well, compared to some other models at least...

In the two weeks since I began my partnership with Apple Core, our small drug cartel had proven to be quite successful. Definitely much more successful than my attempts in fixing the maintenance robot. Or my research, I remarked bitterly. As there wasn’t any way for ponies of Appleloosa to acquire drugs, other than waiting for the train from New Appleloosa, we had plenty of customers. As we didn’t want to alert Black Widow, Apple Core would sell only a few doses of Dash, Buck, or whatever it was the specific pony wanted, every few days. That way, the risk of a pony being under the drug influence for too long a period of time or, Goddesses forbid, overdose, was practically non-existent. Of course, the whole process was monotonous, but it allowed us to gain quite a bit of caps over the time. Even after dividing the shares between us, I was left with enough to allow myself a few luxuries - like this book I had hoped would help me to finally fix the former hospital’s robot - while still retaining caps for my trip to New Appleloosa.

As for Apple Core, I believe she had spent most of her share on alcohol.

Returning to the subject of the eventual trip, I was still not certain whether I would go or not. Or, if I could go. Black Widow would probably not like if her only medic would leave for a day or longer. Because of that, I decided that I would first determine if I really need to go to New Appleloosa; as much as I was curious to see new places and possibly get a chance to meet that pegasus, I could wait until my position was more secure.

That being said, the train from New Appleloosa would arrive today, and since there was a slim chance that I would be leaving with it, I needed this robot to be up and running. After all, I couldn’t let my dear subject die of starvation, could I?

I flipped the pages of the book, looking for a specific passage. I had hoped I could repair Mister Handy, but I didn’t have the parts for it. If I don’t have the parts to fix it, then I will have to… cheat, I thought as I stopped.

The TLC Squared: “Tender Loving Care for Totally Lost Causes" was a book about mechanics in general; it had only one chapter dedicated to robots. Luckily for me, this one chapter also covered the subject of making the robot work when it’s damaged.

“Alright…” I said outloud, my eyes going back and forth between the book and my PipBuck, “since few of the primary electronic systems seem to be fully functional, and the redundant systems are all working, if I reroute its power output to bypass some of the primary systems, the secondary systems should compensate enough to make it work!” I finished, clapping my hooves in excitement.

Without wasting any more time, I started poking in the robot’s programming to make it work. While I was at it, I also changed its settings, so that it would obey me and not consider me as an intruder in the hospital. For whatever reason, every Mister Handy was built with a small saw blade at the end of one arm and a blowtorch on another. Maybe it was supposed to incinerate dirt? Either way, I had no desire for it to use either of those weapons on me.

On a whim, instead of reprogramming it completely (which wouldn’t have been too hard; years of hiding my experiments from other Stable dwellers hadn’t been possible without messing with PipBuck tags, hacking into security systems, and changing medical records), I simply registered myself as the hospital’s new (and currently only) doctor.

I smirked. “Well, let’s see how it went,” I whispered as I pressed the “activate” option on my PipBuck. I quickly pulled the cable connected to Mister Handy and backed away.

The robot came alive shortly after. It rose to the air as its levitation talisman kicked in, stretched out its three mechanical limbs, and turned around as its three cameras focused on me. “Good morning, Doctor Angel,” said an oddly cheerful sounding mechanical voice, emerging from the robots speakers. “How may I be of assistance?”

Inside, I was gleeful. On the outside, I managed to stay calm. “Good morning, sweetie,” I greeted Mister Handy. “Could you please identify yourself, and then run a diagnostic scan of your systems? A very basic one?” I added, not wanting to prolong this moment any more than necessary.

“Of course, Ma’am. I am Mister Handy Type-I model robot, designated as ‘Janitor’, serial number MH10001.” Janitor then fell silent, at least his voice. His body emitted a few clicking noises. “My diagnostic scan suggests that I require repairs; I am running at minimum capacity.”

“But you will be functional for several days, right?”

“Of course, Ma’am. However, I would implore you to call technical support.”

“I will at the closest possible convenience.” When the Equestrian Wasteland becomes the fertile and prospering land of Equestria again. “Now-”

“Ma’am, if you’d excuse me,” the Janitor interrupted me, “according to my internal clock, I’ve been offline for over one hundred ninety-eight years, seven months, twelve days, nineteen hours and two minutes.”

“Yes, that sounds about right,” I said, confused.

“May I ask if the patient that had damaged me by accident had safely given birth since then?”

My eyes widened. “Those… damages that caused you to cease functioning were caused by a mare during birth?”

After helping deliver several foals back in Stable Eight, I knew that mares could get… violent during birth, but since the Janitor's casing wasn’t dented or fractured, I was certain it was something internal that had disabled him. Now, if that had been a unicorn, I could understand, but from several friendly chats in the saloon I knew this was an earth pony town.

“Actually, this happened during one of the patient’s control visits,” the robot replied to my question; it sounded a bit embarrassed. “I believe I must have startled her when I came to take out the trash. It was a busy day, you see, and that visit hadn’t been scheduled, so I didn’t know-”

“Alright, calm down, I’m sure you hadn’t meant interrupting the patient’s visit,” I assured him. “And as for her, I’m sorry, sweetie, but the previous doctor failed to show me old medical records. As such, I cannot tell you what became of her and the baby.”

Regardless, chances are they both died in balefire...

Shaking my head, I turned my thoughts to focus back on the more important issues. “I am sure the hospital provided the best possible care for them. Now, lets get back to the present, shall we? Are you able to perform nurse’s duties? We are short on hooves at the moment.”

“Of course, Ma’am. Although I would prefer to resume my normal duties; this place is a mess.” My brows furrowed. This robot is going to be Mom all over again… “I fear to guess in what state the ground floor and upper floors are.”

Are its probability algorithms capable of predicting that the upper floors had been blown up?

“I’ll make a note of that, but for now you are confined to the basement level. And it’s not a mess, it’s organized chaos, so don’t you dare move anything,” I told him sternly, before smiling sweetly again. “There is only one patient here, but he requires special attention. For his own safety, he has to be tied down and fed. Are you capable of feeding a patient, as well as giving him his medication?” I asked, pointing at the canned food and syringes I’ve prepared on the table.

“But of course, Ma’am,” the robot replied. I could almost hear the pride in its voice. “I might not be one of those fancy medical bots with their medical spell matrixes, but I have been programmed to be able to perform basic nursing duties.”

“Great. I might be leaving tomorrow, so I would need you to look after him. How about you demonstrate me your skills?” I asked, turning to Cutter’s “cell” and opening it.

The time Cutter had spend under my care was not doing well for his complexion. His gray coat became paler, and he was thinner. His muscles had began to deteriorate due to lack of movements, with which the small size of the basement’s cell I kept him had nothing to do with. Cutter was still chained to the same table I chained him to over two weeks ago when I dug him up. The only difference was that, in order for the table to fit into the cell, as well as in interest of hygiene, I moved it to stand vertically. Had to tighten his shackles, but now he could defecate straight to the bucket below him.

He grunted unhappily as I entered his cell. “Good morning Cutter, how are you doing today? Oh come now, you could be a little more optimistic,” I said as he failed to respond. “I feed you, clean you, and from time to time I leave you the radio. I haven’t even started any experiments on you yet. You could at least reply.”

While I had, more or less, decided to start testing the formula I theorized would create a truth serum, I hadn’t had the time to prepare samples. Most of my time was divided between caring for ponies and creating drugs to increase my income. Not to mention that I had to create a supply of spellbane potions for my subject.

Besides, it wouldn’t really be a scientific experiment with only one test subject. I would need a proper control group, made out of - preferably - ten ponies. Once I deal with New Appleloosa, I should probably start thinking about acquiring more subjects… Preferably some earth ponies. Oh, I cannot wait to see if a transplant would work between a unicorn and earth pony!

Though I wouldn’t call that an improvement, my words at least coaxed Cutter into replying. “When are you going to let me go?” he asked, his voice rusty, tired, and weak. I frowned a little, stomped and tilted my head. Cutter grimaced, but added: “Mistress?”

“We’ve been over this, Cutter,” I said once again; what was that, fourth time? “You have to address me properly, and seeing what I plan to do to you, you cannot exactly call me ‘Doctor’. Mistress is the only acceptable term.”

“Excuse me, Doctor Angel,” Janitor's robotic voice came from behind me. “I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to,” I said, turning back, before addressing Cutter again. “It so happens that you might be deprived of my company for some time. That is why I’ve made sure you will be taken care of well when I am gone. Janitor,” I turned to the robot, “please feed the patient.”

“What the... where the hell did you get that thing?” Cutter asked, panic in his voice, as the Mister Handy entered the room.

“Why, it was under the clinic the whole time,” I said, standing by the wall to make room for Janitor. I was slightly confused by Cutter’s sudden fright, but I understood the moment the robot started to open the can with its saw blade. “Oh, don’t worry, sweetie, he’s just going to feed you and give you-”

I was cut off by the sharp sound of metal being cut. Maybe I should have asked Janitor to do that outside, I pondered, noticing that Cutter’s panic increased.

“Get that thing away from me!” he shouted, shaking in his shackles.

“Sweetie, calm down,” I said, trotting closer to him. Janitor, who, as the lack of that awful noise indicated, had managed to open the can, stayed back, its programming probably realizing that it had done something wrong and letting me take care of that. I rose on my hind legs so that my and Cutter’s eyes would be on the same level as I extended a hoof to his cheek in calming gesture. “I assure you, nothing is-”

I stopped talking as his horn began to glow.

For what felt like a lifetime, all I could do was stare at his horn while a maelstrom of thoughts exploded in my head. His horn is glowing! Why is his horn glowing?! Is he casting a spell?! It cannot be, the dosage I gave him yesterday should still be in his system! But his horn is glowing! How is he doing that?!

The next heartbeat, I was flying backwards, a whoosh of air in my ears and blinding pain in my cheek. I screamed in pain as I landed on the floor, the taste of my own blood on my tongue, crawling away as Janitor injected Cutter with spellbane potion while saying: “Please refrain from harming the hospital personnel!”

I let my magic sweep over my face to let me know how serious the wound was. Despite how painful it felt, it wasn’t very bad. I had a deep gash on my cheek. Cutter’s conjured scalpel pierced it and left about three inches long cut. I cast a healing spell, mending the wound and removing the pain.

I released the breath I had been holding. Though the pain was gone, the shock made it hard for me to focus. It took me a moment to realize that Janitor was hovering next to me, asking if I was okay.

“Y-yes, I’m fine,” I said, raising slowly. I was starting to get my breathing back under control. There was still blood in my mouth, though it didn’t really bother me; I knew I hadn’t lost enough of it to be alarmed, and I liked its taste. I licked the inside of my cheek clean and swallowed, contemplating what to do. “I’m… impressed,” I finally said, turning to Cutter. The unicorn was shaking from mild pain, an aftereffect of being injected with spellbane potion that lasted about ten to twenty seconds. “The spellbane potion stays in a pony’s body for twenty four hours, and the unicorn should still be unable to cast spells within the hour after it disperses. And yet you managed to direct your magic and give it the shape of a scalpel. Have you started to form some sort of resistance to it? Or are unicorns of Equestrian Wasteland more resistant to it than unicorns of Stable Eight?”

My voice didn’t quiver, which I was a bit proud of. I wasn’t certain if I sounded as interested as usual, but Cutter probably couldn’t tell.

“Though to be honest, what I am the most interested in right now,” I said, narrowing my eyes, “is what you had intended to do. Judging by the height on which my head was when I backed away as you cut me, and the distance… I would say that you had planned to separate my head from my body. My, how horrible!” I exclaimed, raising my hoof to my lips. “To cut the head of a young maiden such as me… have you no heart?”

My horn lit up as I asked that question. Magic reached for Cutter and within three seconds, the chained unicorn started to twitch violently, his eyes bulged while he tried to catch breath as my spell stopped his heart from beating.

“No, it’s there,” I said, stopping the spell. Cutter’s chains clinked as he winced and exhaled heavily. “Oh well, the Wasteland is a ruthless place. And it’s not like I was in real danger,” I lied.

Cutter chuckled. “Y-yeah, you screamed like a filly for funzies,” he said, still shaken after my Heart Attack Spell.

I smiled. “Just because I cannot die from something like this, sweetie, doesn’t mean that I cannot feel pain. But you don’t have to believe me,” I said, once again nearing him and raising on my hind legs. I pressed my forehooves on the vertical table for leverage, one on each side of Cutter’s head. “When I’ll cut your head off,” I said quietly, conjuring a scalpel of magical energy of my own, “take it into my hooves, and turn it around so that you will see your headless body, you will know I am speaking truth. As well as finally realizing that I hold your life in my hooves,” I added, barely stopping myself from giggling at the thought of how literal that would be.

Cutter’s face became white as milk. “N-n-no… Wha… B-b-b-but you said you wouldn’t kill me!”

I leaned back a bit, tilting my head in surprise. “Who said anything about killing you? I am going to sew you back together after the lesson.”

“That’s impossible!” he shouted, his eyes wide as plates.

This time I did giggle. “Oh, sweetie… Do you know what saying we had back in Stable Eight?” I asked, leaning closer to him again. Our eyes, mine red and quiet and his brown, bloodshot and panicked, were inches apart as I whispered: “‘If something seems impossible, it’s only because nopony invented the spell to do it’.” I giggled again. “Various spells had been researched for almost two hundred years in Stable Eight by the time I started studying medicine; what I am going to demonstrate now wouldn’t even rate in the top ten,” I told him, pressing the red blade to Cutter’s neck.

My horn’s glow became brighter as red aura enveloped my subject’s whole body… and it dispersed as my PipBuck began to ring.

I turned to look at it, surprised. “Oh, it’s that late?” I said; repairing Janitor must have been more time consuming that I had thought. No wonder Cutter had managed to shake off the aftereffects of the spellbane potion enough to cast a single spell. “It would appear that we must reschedule our lesson,” I said, turning to the unicorn as I turned off the PipBuck’s alarm. Despite being saved, he still looked as if about to lose control of his bladder. One would think that as a medic he would be thrilled to gain such experience. “I have an appointment. Don’t worry, I will visit you again before the day is over.

“Feed him, then lock the door,” I told Janitor, walking away from the cell. “Afterwards, I would appreciate it if you would enter sleep mode; I want you to save your energy until you are repaired.”

“Of course, Ma’am,” the robot replied obediently.

I closed the door behind me, not interested in listening to Cutter begging Janitor for help (which had no chance of working), and finally sighed. “That was too close,” I muttered quietly.

Though adrenaline rush was over, my heart was still beating faster than it normally would. I could still recall the searing pain in my cheek, when I’d close my eyes I could imagine how I must have looked like with that cut… I looked around my laboratory, trying to focus on something so that I would stop thinking about that incident. Pots, with drugs, on turned off hot plates, shelves with medicines, terminal on desk… her.

I frowned eyeing the Fluttershy statuette. “You think I unnecessarily scared him like that, don’t you?” From time to time, I imagined that the statuette was the real Mare of the Ministry of Peace. Her eyes were so expressionate that I always felt like I knew what she’d say if she was here. “You think I should have been nicer. He almost killed me!” I hissed, coming closer to it. “He wanted to cut my head off!”

But it’s your fault he’s here. You’ve imprisoned him! And plan to do Celestia knows what!

I snorted at the imagined response. “He’s here because his boyfriend is a murderer, among some other things. And do you seriously think his comfort or life are more important than that of everypony who would benefit from my research?”

You mean you?

The eyes of the little statuette bored into my soul. I tried to stare it down, wondering how anypony could make such a seemingly realistic toy, before I finally shook my head, losing interest.

I glanced at the set of syringes next to the statuette. Each had a dosage of spellbane potion. The were so many different medicaments in the basement’s storage that preparing them wasn’t too much of a problem.

It wasn’t exactly my invention; with a Stable full of unicorns, there had to be some countermeasures against magic. The spell security ponies learn, the one that enables them to dispel magic, was one. Another was the spellbane potion, which after drinking would make the pony release enzymes affecting their nerve cells, causing a reaction throughout the nerve system up to the horn, completely disabling the casting of spells… for an hour. My version, applied directly to the bloodstream, lasted much longer.

It should last for a week… Janitor shouldn’t have problems, I concluded, finally turning towards the door. Let’s see now… in about an hour, the train from New Appleloosa should arrive. I will go see what sort of goods they’d bring for trading, and then…

I bit my lip, pondering, as I exited the basement. I really, really wanted to go, even if I’d manage to assure I would receive supplies for my little drug cartel regularly. I wanted to see a another town, some more of the world, new ponies (Especially that pegasus...). But how could I convince Black Widow to let me go? I was the medic of Appleloosa. Even if there are no slaves for me to heal, an emergency can always happen.

All of the slaves were sent to Fillydelphia a few days ago. Black Widow would have sent them sooner, but she was waiting for Butcher to get back from his “patrol” around the slavers territory with his group, hoping he had captured some travelers. However, there was still no sight of him, so as she sent Cracker to deliver slaves to Fillydelphia, she also sent Whip Crack to look for the missing ponies. From what Apple Core told me, it was rather unlikely that something bad happened to them. It could mean that they were being lazy, or chose to leave Appleloosa altogether. And the latter would mean that something terrible was definitely going to happen to them once Black Widow unleashed Khan.

I wonder when they are going to get back, I mused, as I closed the door to the basement and entered my clinic. My ear twitched when I heard hoofsteps coming from my room. “Apple Core?” I called out.

“‘Ere y'are!” the earth pony replied, coming out. “Where were ya-” Apple Core began, only to stop as she looked at me with wide eyes. “What the hell!? Why’s ‘ere blood on yar face!?”

“Blood?” I repeated, blinking, as my heart skipped a beat. How could I forget to clean my face?! “Oh… don’t worry; it’s my own,” I assured her as I turned towards bathroom to see the mirror.

I could almost hear Apple Core cringe in annoyance. “Alright, let me repeat: what the hell!?”

“There was a damaged Mister Handy robot in the basement,” I replied calmly. The mirror in the bathroom was as clean as everything else in it, but I could still see my reflection in it. My cheek and neck under it was covered in half-dried blood. I cast a Disinfection spell to remove it. “I tried to repair it. Do you know who thought it would be a smart idea to give those robots a sawblade?” I asked as I finished the spell. My coat was again pure white, and the blood landed in the sink.

Apple Core chuckled. “What, really? Ya did that to yarself tryin’ to fix a robot?” Her chuckle became a laugh; I rolled my eyes. “Aren’t ya supposed to be a genius?”

I looked at her, annoyed. “I am a doctor of medicine. I could probably ‘factorize’ a pony’s body and put it back together, with my eyes closed, but I cannot repair a broken robot without parts. And a proper blueprint.”

“Alright, alright, don’t get yar panties in a bunch. What ‘factorize’ means, anyway?”

“I was under the impression we were supposed to meet in Salt Block,” I said, ignoring the question. “Did something happen?”

“Ya hadn’t heard?” my companion looked at me with surprise. “Damn, how long ‘ave ya been down there? It’s all over town!”

“What, chlamydia?” I asked, frowning.

I suspected that it might be the case ever since over a week ago, when Apple Core came late to take my drugs to sell. “Sorry Ah’m late,” she had said, rubbing her eyes. “Stayed up late doing… things.”

“Yes, I can tell,” I had replied, wrinkling my nose; you could have smelled sex from her. “Honestly, it’s what, the sixth one since I’ve known you?”

“And seventh,” she have replied, making me raise my eyebrows. I hadn’t been sure if I should be concerned or intrigued. “What do ya care?”

“I’m just concerned about your health. What contraceptives do you use?”

“Conce-what?”

“Anticonception methods, birth control-” I had explained.

“Aaa... Ah make the guy pull out.”

I'd turned to her, shocked. “That… that’s it?” When Apple Core nodded, I had facehoofed and groaned: “Apple Core…”

“What?”

“Well, for starters, that doesn’t necessarily prevent you from getting pregnant.” As Apple Core stared at me in disbelief, I'd asked: “You know what precum is, right?”

“W- yeah, but ya can’t get pregnant from that!” she had retorted.

“Sweetie, I’m a doctor of medicine,” I had reminded her. “I’m afraid that yes, you can. In rare cases, it contains living sperm, so conception is possible”

Apple Core had grimaced. “Well… fuck. Wait! Ya said ‘rare cases’!”

“Yes,” I had admitted. “There is a chance, but a very unlikely one-”

“Then what the hell are ya scarin’ me for?!”

“Also,” I had continued, “and more importantly, that method doesn’t protect you from venereal diseases.”

Apple Core had sighed. “And what the hell are those?”

“Diseases transmitted sexually?” I had explained, surprised that she didn’t know that. “Spread by sex? Especially vaginal intercourse?”

“Oh…” Apple Core had exclaimed, then twitched. “Is that why Ah’m feelin’ sore down ’ere?”

I'd stared at her with wide eyes. “Alright,” I'd said after a few heartbeats, “turn around and lift your tail.”

In the end, it turned out that she was free of any venereal diseases (which bordered on being miraculous), and she was sore because one of the bucks she had been the night before was rough. Nevertheless, I learned, thanks to that experience, that her method of anticonception was quite popular in Equestrian Wasteland. Between slavers abusing slaves and several ponies' slightly slutty behaviour, I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed anypony showing signs of infection so far.

So when Apple Core told me about “it” being “all over town”, first thought that came to me was naturally that the time had come. “I am not sure if I have enough antibiotics for the entire town…” I muttered, doing the math in my head.

“What are ya talkin’ ‘bout?” Apple Core asked, tilting her head. “Ah’m talkin’ about Whip Crack!”

Oh… that makes sense too, I suppose. “He’s back? Did they find this Butcher pony?”

“Well, yes and no,” Apple Core replied. “Whip Crack’s talkin’ with Boss, but ‘is ponies talked. They’ve found Butcher and ‘is guys… well, butchered.”

This day keeps getting darker...

“I thought you said that there was nothing around that could cause them trouble,” I recalled. “Also, did they-”

It said something about how well Apple Core got to know me when she yelled: “Nopony brought ya a corpse! Anyway,” she continued as I rolled my eyes, “yeah, there shouldn’t be, ever since ol’ Red Eye got that big ass raiders group sometime ago and carted them off to Fillydelphia. Now the nearest big group of ‘em is in Ponyville.”

“Could it be one of those hellhounds you’ve told me about?” I asked, half worried, half intrigued. Oh, how I’d want to get my hooves on one specimen of their kind… Monstrous, huge canine creatures, with claws able to tunnel through solid concrete, intelligent enough to use magical energy weapons. It would be hard to keep one… oh dear, would I have to chop off the poor dear’s limbs?

“Nah, they ain’t comin’ to those parts,” she replied, though I noticed she was slightly nervous.

Though they sometimes harassed slavers’ caravans during their treck down to Fillydelphia. I hoped Cracker wouldn’t encounter any; unlike Whip Crack, he was nice to me. Granted, it was probably because unlike the other buck, he was interested in my gender’s parts, but…

“‘Sides,” Apple Core added, “guys say that they had bullet ‘oles in ‘em.”

“I see… well, either way, it seems like there is nothing we can do about it now,” I said, though I was curious about what was going to happen next. Would that mean that my chances of going to New Appleloosa were even smaller than this morning? “How about we carry on with our plans for today and go get something to eat?”

Apple Core knew what I meant by “something”. “Aren’t ya gonna give up?” she asked, her tone clearly suggesting that this try would end as all the previous one had.

“It’s not my custom to give up,” I replied, trotting past her. “Just let me feed Snuggles and Wigglebutt and we can go.”

“Did’ya say they can probably live for ‘well over a week’ without food?” Apple Core called after me as I went to feed my radroaches. “Also, those names suck.”

“Doesn’t mean I have to starve them. And I don’t recall asking you for your opinion.”

“Yes, ya did!”

*** *** ***

“So,” Apple Core asked from across the table, her head resting on her forehoof; her expression was a strange mixture of curiosity and boredom, “how does it feel?”

I didn’t answer, instead concentrating on chewing… but it was all for nought, as immediately after I swallowed I had to lean towards the bucket.

Apple Core - as well as several other ponies who watched my try yet again to eat meat - laughed as I puked out the bite of the brahmin steak. “So, are ya done wastin’ food?” she asked after I finished.

I looked at her sternly from above the bucket, still convulsing. “Adaptability is an admirable trait-”

“- which ya don’t have -”

“- and the way ponies of the Wasteland had become accustomed to a carnivorous diet and became omnivorous is simply remarkable. If I am to live in the Wasteland, I must adapt,” I concluded, turning back to my plate. I raised the steak with my magic and tried to take another bite, but as I smelled it, my stomach turned in rebellion. “Oh Goddesses,” I mumbled as I pressed my hoof to my mouth, “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Want me t’ start diggin’ yar grave?” Apple Core jibed as I turned away from my plate.

Before I could reply, probably trying to suggest that she would definitely die first (my possible thoughts and plans regarding the subject of my own death being too complex to explain over a brahmin steak), somepony grunted from behind me. I looked back and saw Whip Crack. We hadn’t exactly spoken with each other since shortly after ‘death’ of Cutter, as he was taking his stuff from the clinic. Curious about what he could want, and hoping to hear more about Butcher’s group, I opened my mouth to greet him.

“Black Widow wants to see both of you,” he said before I could say anything.

Words of greeting died in my mouth as I glanced at equally surprised Apple Core. “What does she want?” Apple Core asked.

“Beats me,” Whip Crack replied, shrugging, and left us.

I watched him head towards the bar for a few seconds. He seems to be in better spirits, I mused, wondering if he was starting to get over his lover’s supposed death. Oh well, even if he is getting over it, then he still suffered longer than Bulk Build had.

“Ya don’t think she had learned ‘bout our… business?” Apple Core asked me in a lowered voice.

I looked at her; she was alarmed. I had to give her, that was the most probable reason as to why Black Widow wanted to see both of us. Though the timing seemed strange; Whip Crack had just returned from reporting what his party had found, I noted. Does Black Widow want me to go there and examine the bodies?

Hopefully, not. I would miss my chance to travel to New Appleloosa. And I wasn’t exactly in a hurry to risk meeting the individuals responsible for ending Butcher’s and his slaver party’s lives.

“I suppose we will have to see,” I finally replied. “Though just to be safe, let me do most of the talking.”

“Ah hope ya’ll know what ya’re doin’,” the earth pony said. “Ah really don’t want t’ be on Boss’s bad side. If we’ll need t’, we’ll share profits with ‘er, got it?” It wasn’t an ideal option, but definitely better than risking our lives, so I nodded. Apple Core seemed to relax seeing that. “Alright,” she said, raising, “let’s go.”

What, now? I pouted. “But I hadn’t finished eating yet.”

“And at the rate yar goin’ ‘bout it, ya never will. Not t’ mention how it will all end up in the bucket. Now c’mon, Ah don’t want to keep the Boss watin’.”

Resigned, I also rose. I followed Apple Core, looking at the steak one last time before we left. This is ridiculous, I thought, irritated. I can perform post-mortem examination right after dinner, I’ve cut living ponies open, and I even find the smell and taste of blood to be pleasant. Why can’t I eat meat!?

I tried to imagine how Fluttershy would’ve replied, hoping to get some sort of clue, but it wasn’t as easy without looking at her statuette, so I gave up and trotted after Apple Core.

“How long until the train arrives?” I asked as we walked towards the town hall, glancing in the direction of the station.

“Dunno, should be soon Ah think.”

Well, at least I should be able to look at their goods and talk with ponies… I think.

Like on all buildings in Appleloosa, time had left its mark on the town hall. I assumed it once had a clock tower, but the clock, along with half of the tower, was gone. There was also a hole in the roof, and the all of the windows had been left with only shards of glass on the edges.

I always found it odd that there were no guards stationed there. Then again, I thought as we entered the building and headed towards the room where we know Black Widow had made her “office” of sorts, Khan is probably all she needs for protection. And I suppose there might be an issue of how much one can trust a slaver to guard you.

The door opened when Apple Core pressed the knob. The room wasn’t too big, nor was it too large; a desk near one wall, behind which Black Widow sat, looking through the window and waving at us to join her. There were also ruined shelves and other similar furnitures around, as well as a frame on a wall with something that might have once been a painting. And of course, there was Khan standing next to the doorway, not moving, just staring with empty eyes at nothing, ready for his mistress’s command.

“I suppose you’ve already heard about what Whip Crack found?” she started without greeting as we sat down.

I noticed Apple Core glancing at me unsurly. “Yes, we heard,” I replied for both of us. “And I was so looking forward to meeting Butcher.”

Black Widow snorted. “You are probably better off not meeting him. Butcher was the most brutal slaver Appleloosa had likely ever seen. Did you know he used to be the leader of slavers once?”

That took me by surprise. “I did not actually. Apple Core had once told me only that he is second in rank after you…” I said, looking at the earth pony who shrugged. “... and that I ‘maybe understand what he’s saying’, whatever that means.”

“He spoke with such a terrible accent,” Black Widow explained, then grimaced. “Doez bitch wantz my cock?” she said in lower voice, then rolled her eyes in disgust. “About… twenty years ago, before my time, he became the leader of the slavers. During his eight year long reign, slavers of Appleloosa had basically became no different from raiders; slaves would be beaten half to death before being sold, and those were the lucky ones. I even heard stories that Butcher ate those ponies that he couldn’t sell.”

Well that’s… nightmarish. I concluded, wondering how screwed I could have been if I’d joined them during that time.

“Not huge of a surprise there, seeing how Butcher’s father was a raider.” Seeing my interest, she answered the question before I could ask it. “He got killed in the great raider wars a few decades ago, and his wife and kid got sold here. After little Butcher killed several slavers, they let him join them, though I have no clue what exactly became of his mother.” Her tone of voice suggested that she didn’t care to ask. “Eventually Butcher became the leader of the slavers, until he bit off more than he could chew; he attacked a patrol of Steel Rangers twelve years ago. He survived, but was incapacitated for over three months. While Cutter was getting him back on his hooves, somepony had to step up for the leader position. That somepony was my late husband, Eulogy.”

“Your husband?” I asked, surprised… before I mentally facehooved.

“Did you think I was born with a name ‘Widow’?” she replied, smirking. “I used to be called ‘Dark Lady’. Regardless, under Eulogy’s leadership, the slavers fared much better than when Butcher was in charge. So much so that they decided that he would be the leader. Of course,” Black Widow added, “it wouldn’t have been possible without the advice I gave my dear husband. I greatly contributed to the successes of slavers. So it was only natural that after Eulogy’s unfortunate passing I was chosen as the leader.”

I was curious as to how exactly he had died, but I felt that asking about it wouldn’t be the smartest move.

“Of course, Butcher was pissed,” she continued, “but most of his closest allies had died in that fight with the Steel Rangers. There were some fights, but it eventually calmed down. It helped that with age he started to be more reasonable, but Eulogy would still have to occasionally rein him in. Would have been much simpler to kill him, but there are advantages of having the best fighter - well, minus Khan - in this part of the Wasteland on your side.”

“But enough of this,” Black Widow suddenly snapped. “I didn’t ask you two to come to listen to history lessons. Firstly,” she turned to Apple Core and smiled, “congratulations are in order. You do know that with Butcher’s death you are now second in rank, right?”

Guessing by Apple Core’s expression, this had slipped her mind. “Ah… yeah, Ah mean, Ah do know. Just been too concerned ‘bout ‘em dyin’ to think ‘bout it. Thanks Boss.”

Black Widow nodded. “I am even more concerned. Butcher was, for all his faults, a good fighter, and he was leading five more seasoned slavers. It’s hard to imagine them all getting killed.”

“Do you have any clue who could have done it?” I asked, also concerned.

“Not exactly,” Black Widow replied, crossing her forelegs. “According to Whip Crack, the bodies had already started to decay by the time they found them, two days away from Appleloosa. Some of the corpses had been partially eaten, though seeing how there were plenty of bullet wounds and cuts we can safely assume it was done by something that can use guns and melee weapons.”

“The Hooded Figure?”

I glanced surprised at Apple Core, who had said those words quietly. Hooded Figure? Hadn’t I heard that name somewhere else? I wondered. Yes I did; I recalled that Craker had told Black Widow that he might have seen this Hooded Figure, whatever that is, when he got back. Pity I didn’t overhear Black Widow’s response, I noted as I watched her look now at Apple Core bemused.

“What’s a ‘Hooded Figure’?” I asked.

“A myth,” Black Widow said dismissively. “Some ponies a couple years back saw a strange creature completely covered by a robe with hood over its head. ‘It walked like a pony and talked like a pony, but nopony saw what it really was’,” she said in a scary voice before rolling her eyes. “It was supposedly seen in several different towns, including both Old and New Appleloosa. And a few of those times somepony was found to have died in a gory fashion. If you ask me, everypony who saw him had drunk too much, saw something, already heard that story somewhere, and thought ‘Celestia fuck me, I just saw the Hooded Figure’. What a load of hay… I didn’t take you for being superstitious, Apple Core.”

I wonder if Apple Core knows what that means…

“Ah’m not, Boss!” Apple Core was quick to say. She still looked nervous. “B-but it doesn’t hurt t’ ask.”

“Well, regardless, it seems that this is some tribals’ doing,” Black Widow said. “Seeing how there were no slaves with Butcher and the rest, I wouldn’t be surprised if some tribe saw them leading ponies in shackles and determined to take them for themselves. Or if Butcher underestimated them and attacked first.”

“Excuse me,” I butted in, slightly confused. “‘Tribals’?”

“A group of ponies living with a primitive lifestyle,” the other unicorn replied. “I suppose you could call them ‘families of families’.”

“But weren’t all the tribals ‘round ‘ere killed or sold by that big raider group Red Eye ‘ad captured?”

Black Widow shrugged. “Guess with them out of the way, it was a matter of time for a new tribe to try and settle in. Especially since small group of ponies had already moved into all those empty settlements. I don’t have to tell you that I plan to have them captured, do I?” She frowned and and her gaze drifted to the the window, and what laid beyond it. “They killed my ponies and either stole or freed the slaves they were bringing. I am not going to let that slide. That being said, we are six ponies short, including our best fighter. Coupled with all the ponies delivering merchandise to Fillydelphia, we are too short-hoofed to try and fight them, especially knowing next to nothing about them. And that is why you are here.”

Here it comes, I thought, glad that she was finally about to tell us why she summoned us.

“I’m sending the two of you to New Appleloosa.”

My jaw dropped. What? My ears twitched. Did she seriously just gave me what I wanted?

“I’m afraid I don’t understand how exactly it’s going to help with our predicament,” I said, in case Apple Core was about to blurt something unnecessary.

“New Appleloosa tends to have far more visitors than we have here,” Black Widow started to explain. “For example, a mercenary duo of a unicorn and a griffin-”

My heart skipped a bit. New Appleloosa not only has a pegasus living nearby, but a griffin too?! I felt my tail twitch at the thought of examining one of that species…

“-though DJ Pon3 had mentioned such a duo about a month ago somewhere in Manehattan Ruins, so you’re probably not going to meet them,” she continued, crushing my hopes. “But there might be other mercenaries there, or at least one of the travellers had heard of some group nearby, maybe even one of the Talons. I want you to find them and convince them to come and negotiate a contract with us.”

Pushing away the feeling of how unfair life was, letting me dream of having a griffin to examine and then taking it away in the span of seconds, I focused on the task Black Widow wanted us to accomplish. Her plan seemed logical; bolstering her forces when faced with an unknown enemy. However…

“I don’t understand why do you want me to go along with Apple Core,” I pointed out what seemed wrong for me. “I’m the town’s medic.”

“You’re not going along with Apple Core. She’s coming along with you,” Black Widow corrected me. Turning to the said earth pony, she explained. “Don’t take offense, Apple Core, but you aren’t exactly a diplomatic individual.”

“Oh… ‘S'alright,” Apple Core said dismissively.

“You, on the other hoof,” Black Widow continued, turning to me, “have a way with words, are attractive and manipulative. I still don’t have a clue how you got that slave to kill Cutter for you.”

I gasped. For a second, I was left speechless. “How… how could you?” I managed to say, my lip quivering. I hid my face in my hooves. “Do you know how much I regret talking with Bulk Build?” Because doing that so openly risked suspicions like those. “How many nights I couldn’t sleep because of what happened?” Those nights would have been funnier if I’d started my experiments, not just prepare spellbane potion. “How much I wish-”

“Oh for-” Black Widow exclaimed, loudly enough to cut me off. “Let’s say I believe you, I don’t have time for this.”

I nodded meekly to show that I got it, and took my hooves off my face. Rubbing them against my eyes made me appear as if I’d been about to cry. Black Widow hadn’t bought it, if her rolling her eyes at the sight was of any indication, but I didn’t care. I knew she was suspicious of me since Cutter’s “death”. If it were just the two of us in the room - minus the poor Khan - I would have gave a miss to that performance. However, I wasn’t quite sure what Apple Core would have thought of the part I took in Cutter’s fate.

Not to mention that with her visits to the saloon and drinking habits, I am not sure if she can be trusted.

Black Widow seemed disinterested as she continued: “Then lets say that a fine example of your manipulation skills is how you talked a group of slavers to give you ride right after coming out of a Stable.”

“Um, Boss?” Apple Core interjected. “Ah was hurt, so-”

“-you decided to be magnanimous and not shackle her with the rest after she healed you,” Black Widow finished, smirking, “But don’t you find it weird how a Stable pony just came to a group of slavers and talked with them? Calmly?”

Apple Core blinked and pondered her words. “Hm, yeah, now that ya’ve mention it…”

Is she trying to turn her against me? I frowned, then it hit me. She sends Apple Core with me. For protection, mostly, but probably also to make sure I won’t betray her. Seeing how she knows we became close, she’s trying to plant seeds of doubts in her.

“Of course,” Black Widow added, leaning back, “I might be wrong, and she is just crazy. Certainly wouldn’t have surprised me.” I ignored the joke, but when Apple Core snorted I frowned at her. “Still, you are probably a far better choice to handle negotiations than Apple Core here, and definitely better than Whip Crack. And given the situation, I feel it would be best if I remained here.”

“But what if you are attacked?” I pointed out. “Who would heal you? And what if another fight breaks out in the saloon?”

“I doubt they would have the balls to attack an entire city. As for fights, if some testosterone-driven idiot gets some bruises, then he probably deserves them.”

I felt that I should point out that Apple Core and other slaver mares had also taken part in those fights, but I just frowned instead. “Still, I will save several healing potions, just in case.”

Black Widow shrugged. “No problem with me. Apple Core,” she turned to the other mare, “you’re in charge of keeping our doctor safe. I want her back in one piece. You can pick two other ponies,” she added once Apple Core nodded, “that’s all I can spare. Be sure to pick ponies who can think and be on their best behaviour; the last thing we need right now is losing our good relationship with that town. Also, I expect you to help her in the task; I’m sure citizens of New Appleloosa will be more eager to talk with you.”

I made a mental note to ask Apple Core what she meant by that.

“There’s another thing I would like you two to do for me while you’re there,” Black Widow continued, addressing both of us. “This one should prove a much easier task. Basically, I would like you to do some shopping.”

“Shoppin’?”

“Since that mysterious escape of one of the slaves,” the leader of the slavers said, glancing at me briefly, “some of our ponies have been saying that there’s not enough security around the cages. So I figured, what the hell,” Black Widow smiled wickedly, “lets put mines around them.”

My eyes widened in surprise. That… could be problematic. If I were not told the location of the mines, and had to just do my check-ups outside…

If that was Black Widow’s plan, then it was very smart. In one move, she would calm down those slavers who could get afraid of another slave escaping and killing somepony - even though most of them would never admit to fearing such a possibility - as well as increase security around the slaves and making sure I couldn’t pull the same idea again.

“There ain’t any in the armory?” Apple Core asked.

“No. I want you to buy… let's say thirty. Twenty should be enough to surround the cages, and we will have some spares. I will give you two thousand caps for your expenses.” She waved her hoof. “You can spend the change on beer or whatever, just make sure you complete your objectives. Oh,” Black Widow said, turning to me, “and just in case you would think about running away with my caps-”

“Why are you looking at me that way?” I asked in sad voice. “I hadn’t given you any reason to distrust me.”

Black Widow shrugged. “Don’t take it personally, Doctor Angel, it’s just business. You’ve been here two weeks; Apple Core captured slaves for me for years. Regardless;” she said, her voice turning cold, “if you run away with my caps, I will hunt you down and feed you to Khan.”

I was taken aback by the threat. I glanced at Khan, who was standing as calmly as ever with his vacant expression, then turned to Black Widow. “Does he eat ponies?”

“Do you really want to find out?”

Apple Core quickly replied: “No.”

“Maybe,” I said at the same time. Seeing the looks the other two mares were giving me - Black Widow surprised and Apple Core shocked - I added: “If we used another pony, sure. Sounds kind of interesting.”

Apple Core facehoofed and muttered something under her breath. Black Widow just shook her head in disbelief. “You will be leaving tomorrow morning together with the train. Once it arrives- ah, there it is,” she said as wailing sound assaulted our ears. Is this the train whistle? I wondered, glancing through the window; there was still no sign of the train itself. “Once it arrives, I will talk with the train ponies to take you with them, and then bring you back once you’ve completed your tasks.”

Black Widow had to stop then, as there was a sudden metallic noise incoming, growing increasingly louder. The next moment, though, it became high-pitched, as the train ponies hit the breaks and the train started to slow down as it reached the Appleloosa station. Even though the station wasn’t close to the town hall, I had to cringed at how loud it all was.

I’m supposed to ride in this?

Slowly, the sounds died down. “As you have earlier pointed out, Doctor Angel, you are Appleloosa’s medic, and as such it would be unwise if you were away for too long. You have maximally a week.” She narrowed her eyes. “Maximally. I will know if you’d somehow find mercenaries within a day and then spent six dicking around.”

Is she going to pay one of the train ponies to observe us? Or is there one such pony already on her payroll?

I stopped musing as Black Widow raised. “That is all. I will give you the caps tomorrow morning. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to arrange your transport with the train ponies,” she said as she nodded meaningfully in the direction of the door.

Without wasting a second, we left the town hall. Apple Core because she was unnerved by Khan standing so close, and me because I had to think this over. While I had planned on making this journey, it was to be on my terms. Now I was going because Black Widow ordered me so. It annoyed me that it wasn’t my decision anymore.

More importantly, though, I had to analyze everything that Black Widow had told me. The short lesson of history, caused most likely by nostalgia triggered by Butcher’s death, made me realize some things… or to be more precise, make several assumptions.

I really should question Cutter about what he meant by “I have too much shit on her”, I contemplated. Earlier, I hadn’t done so, as I had more important things to do before I could start undermining the local authority, but now, with Apple Core being second in rank…

“Congratulations on the promotion,” I said as we exited the town hall. Black Widow closed the door behind her and headed towards the train station together with Khan without saying a word. “Though it’s a pity that it had to happen in such circumstances.”

“Eh,” Apple Core sighed, “Ah didn’t really like Butcher.”

“Doesn’t change the fact that aside from him five ponies had died,” I pointed out as we began to walk back towards Salt Block. “And that you apparently have troublesome neighbors.”

“Yeah, Ah ‘spouse thats true. But nevermind ‘at, we’ve got ourselves vacations!”

I frowned, “Sweetie, it’s not ‘vacations’; we are being sent with an important task-”

“Yeah yeah, whatevs,” she said dismissively. “Doesn’t mean we can’t ‘ave fun ‘ough. Now, who should Ah take with us…”

“Please tell me it won’t be ‘the sixth’ and ‘the seventh’.”

Apple Core snorted. “Ya know, Ah’m gettin’ a feelin’ ya’ve started t’ think Ah’m some sort of slut, miss ‘Ah act like a vagina predator but Ah’m chaste as ice’.”

I stopped and looked at her in surprise. “Okay,” I said as I recovered, “couple of things. One; I don’t think that, I was simply concerned that you might get too distracted to help me with our task. Two; you know I wanted to examine if you caught a disease.”

Though admittedly, I could have phrased it better, I thought, recalling her reaction.

“Three; I am not chaste. I simply haven’t met a pony who would meet my criteria for a lover. And last; wasn’t that part about the ice from pre-war literature?” I asked, tilting my head.

“Ah dunno, maybe? And what sort of ‘criteria' can ya have?”

“Well, it helps if they actually like me,” I replied, winking. As Apple Core rolled her eyes, I giggled. “They also have to be interesting.”

“Ah don’t wanna know what ya think is interestin’,” Apple Core said as she resumed trotting. I followed her. “Also, ‘lover’? What are ya, five?”

Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. “Getting back to the more important subject,” I said, “this is a great opportunity regarding our business. Now I should be able to negotiate supplies from New Appleloosa without problems and without raising suspicions.”

Though I was happy about this, I felt as if a shadow had been cast on my thoughts. Things were going too well for me. I didn’t like to rely on luck. Because sooner or later (and in my cause, it was usually sooner) luck runs out.

“Yeah, all’s good,” Apple Core replied, oblivious to my brooding. “Oh, hey, this gives me an idea,” she said as she suddenly stopped. I followed her example and turned to look at what took her attention. “Since we’re goin’ t’ travel a bit, ya should get yarself a gun.”

We were standing in front of the armory.

I felt a shiver run down my spine. “No,” I said, and turned to walk away.

There was nothing in Appleloosa’s armory that could possibly hold any value for me.

“Wha- Hey, get back ‘ere!” Apple Core exclaimed. Despite her words, it was she who followed me. “That old coot will probably give ya a discount, and it’s not like ya ain’t able t’ afford it.”

“Apple Core, I said no,” I replied, not turning to look at her.

“C’mon, ya can’t be that bad of a shooter,” the earth pony continued despite my words. “And Ah can teach ya-”

I had enough. I stopped and looked her in the eyes. “Apple Core,” I said in the voice that allowed no interruptions. “I am never going to carry a gun.”

Apple Core stared into my red eyes in shock, her ears flat. “Um... okay?” She slowly said. “Why?”

I mentally sighed. On the outside, though, I smiled, closed my eyes and tilted my head. “Do I need a reason, sweetie?”

“Well, yeah! Ya’ve just gone and flipped out!”

“Why would I need a gun?” I instead replied. “I have my magic.”

Though I really don’t want to test my spells in an actual combat...

“Yeah, and what good’ll healin’ do ya when somepony’s shootin’ at ya or a monster tries to bite yar head off?”

My smile turned into a smirk as I looked into Apple Core’s eyes. “Did you know,” I said, “that for every spell there is a spell that is its opposite? It’s one of the first things fillies and colts learn in Stable Eight.”

“‘Kay, so?” Apple Core asked, puzzled.

I narrowed my eyes. “Try to think what could possibly an opposite spell of healing spell do.”

Apple Core’s eyes grew wide as plates. “Um… kill?”

I covered my mouth with hoof and giggled. “Well, no. Or at least, not exactly. To guess it correctly, you would need to know how exactly a healing spell work, which sadly not everypony, even my peers in Stable Eight, know. But if you are curious about an array of my offensive spells,” I said, changing the subject, “know that I am able to use the same spell with which I captured Snuggles and Wigglebutt on ponies too, as well as conjure knives-”

“‘Kay, Ah don’t need t’ hear the details,” Apple Core interrupted me. “Important is that ya can take care of yarself. So, what are ya gonna go do now?”

I glanced in the direction of where the train station was. Beside it, on the tracks, there was the train. A machine made out of several cars, with only the front and back being significantly different. There were several ponies gathered around it and the station, some carrying shipment to the stores. I noticed a barrel being carried by a pony towards Salt Block.

“I think I will go look at the merchandise they’ve brought and talk with them,” I said. Maybe I would find something interesting? “I will just have to go take some caps and saddlebags from the clinic.”

“Gonna go ask how the train works?” Apple Core asked.

I tried not to snort. “I have little interest in such primitive machinery. That’s good for maintenance. And what about you?” I asked the earth pony.

“Gotta go find two more ponies, remember? Ah think Mouse will agree…”

Hadn’t expected that. Mousetrap, as was her full name, was a mare.

“What, thought Ah would pick bucks?” Apple Core asked with a smirk, noticing my expression. “Ah know that there are guys already in New Appleloosa, why the heck would Ah drag bucks from ‘ere t’ there?”

Hm, makes sense I suppose. “Oh, this reminds me; what did Black Widow mean when she said you’d have easier time asking ponies around there?”

Apple Core chuckled. “Why, Ah’m from that town. Lived in New Appleloosa ‘til Ah came t’ work ‘ere. Still got a brother there, in fact.”

“Really? I can’t wait to meet him then,” I replied, thinking how much this should make things easier for us.

*** *** ***

“So you’re saying that those were sent by this Candi pony?” I asked, pointing at a small box with healing boxes and some other bottles.

One of the train ponies (the one who brought it along with other goods to the store), looking slightly annoyed that I interrupted his conversation again with Forty Caps, turned to me. “Sent? She’s gettin’ money out of this.”

“Of course, but since she’s not here, it would have been weird to say ‘those are being sold here by her’, wouldn’t it?” I asked innocently.

The train pony looked at me confused. “Ah… what?”

Forty Caps, a scrawny unicorn with light blue coat, chuckled. “Ignore it, she could go on for hours like that.”

I frowned. “Sweetie, when I engaged with you in that discussion about the basic principles of economy last week, I only talked for ten minutes about-”

“Yeah, basic,” Forty Caps intervened. “Sorry, Doc, but I don’t need that ‘interactive decision theory’ thing to run my business.”

Well, I suppose I should be happy he at least had remembered the name, I thought, pouting.

Though I was mainly interested in medicine, biology, magic and arcane-sciences, I had some knowledge in the other areas. I tried engaging in debates about various topics, but my efforts were in vain; ponies in the Wasteland were more interested in practical knowledge.

Getting my thoughts back to the matter at hoof, I glanced at the box again. “So Cutter would buy medicines from you? Instead of arranging trade from New Appleloosa?”

“Well, what can I say?” Forty Caps replied, shrugging. “The old Doc had no head for business. He liked when things were simple. Trotting over here and buying stuff from me is simpler than negotiating a trade deal with another town.”

“And I’m sure you hadn’t taken advantage of that and had him pay a foreleg and hindleg for them,” I said, smiling and looking at him through narrowed eyes.

Forty Caps gulped nervously under gaze. “Um… well-”

“How much?” I asked, turning my attention to the box.

Six healing potions, Buck… I thought as I examined the context of the box, until something caught my attention. Oh? What’s this?

Behind me, Forty Caps had recovered. “For all of it? Well, I usually would have taken six hundred caps from Cutter, but since it’s you, how about-”

“Three hundred,” I interrupted him, levitating from the box a bottle with contents I didn’t recognize.

What is this? I wondered, taking a closer look at it. It’s a liquid… but it’s not a healing potion. I cast a quick spell, not to different from the one I’d use when examining a pony. Hm, it’s concentration is denser than healing potion… is this organic?

“Three hundred? Are you joking? I was thinking about smaller discount, like five hundred and fifty. Of course,” he added, turning slightly red, “I could drop it even further if you… w-well…”

I turned to look back at him. “Not many mares like bucks who are so indecisive, you know,” I said, moving the bottle towards Forty Caps. “You’ll give me a huge discount, because this is the first time I am making such a big purchase, and before I’ve been constantly buying little things from you. Like that aquarium that was standing here for years. I can pay three hundred and fifty. Now, could you tell me what this is exactly?” I asked, wiggling the bottle a bit.

Judging by his grimace, Forty Caps wasn’t exactly happy at the moment. “What, this?” he asked, glancing at the mysterious medicine. “That’s Hydra.”

“Hydra?” I tilted my head, confused.

His grimace turned into a grin, “Well, would’ya look at that, Doctor Know-It-All doesn’t know something.”

I rolled my eyes. “Are you angry for my earlier comment? Come now, sweetie, I know you aren’t a petty pony, just tell me what ‘Hydra’ is.”

It was the train pony who replied. “A super-healin’ potion.”

“Basically,” Forty Caps added. “It’s a very rare drug around this part of the Wasteland, which is why I can only get one every month.”

“That’s interesting, but what exactly makes it ‘super-healing’?” I asked, intrigued.

“Aside from healing, Hydra can restore crippled bones, and I’ve even heard of them making a pony grow back a hoof or an eye.”

My eyes grew wide. I moved the bottle of Hydra back to me. Can it be true? Can this actually allow a pony to regenerate entire body parts?

Forty Caps, no doubt seeing my interest, tried to haggle again. “So, how about-”

“Four hundred.” I replied, not taking my eyes of the Hydra. “Since Candi could afford to sell one,” I said as I turned to the New Appleloosa’s pony, “I assume this means she has several more of them?”

His answer wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. “Um… maybe?”

Not happy with the answer, I turned back to the drug. She must have, I decided. No sane medical pony would sell their only dose of such drug… assuming it really works…

Forty Caps cleared his throat. “How about-”

“Four hundred is my final offer,” I told him. Smiling to soften my words, I added: “You still gain profit out of this deal don’t you?”

“Well, yeah…”

“Then it’s settled?”

The show owner sighed. “Fine.”

“Thank you, sweetie,” I said sweetly, though my mind was on other matters.

Within ten minutes, I had left the shop, got back to the clinic, put everything aside of the Hydra on one of the beds, rushed down to the basement, locked the doors, and entered Cutter’s cell.

Cutter’s eyes shot wide open at my sight. “N-no! Please y- Mistress, I’ll be good!”

His outburst so surprised me that I stopped, forgetting my plans for a moment. What is he on about? I wondered, confused.

He’s scared because of what you tried to do to him earlier, I quiet voice in the back of my mind reminded me.

“Oh right, that!” I exclaimed, and shook my head. “Sweetie, I’m afraid something more important came up. Right now, I need to check something.”

Without further ado, I grabbed the table to which Cutter was chained, and - being careful to not topple the bucket - I began to move it out of the cell into the main room of the basement. It wasn’t easy; I could levitate small objects easily, but something as large as the table was a hoof-ful. Sweat began to form on my forehead as I turned the table to horizontal position and laid in on the floor. At least I didn’t need to move Janitor, who entered sleep move in the corner of the basement.

I gasped from the exertion. I will need lights, I noted as I brushed sweat of my forehead.

“W-what are you doing?” Cutter asked as I flipped the switch for the lights. He then gasped as the room basement became much brighter.

“Shh.” I shushed at him. “I will get right back to you, sweetie.”

Where is it, where is it… I thought as I began to scan the shelves. I had created beforehoof a preparation just perfect for this, but where did I put it… Ah, there it is! I smiled. The transparent container was filled with a preserving bio med gel, created through the mixture of medicine and magic.

Satisfied, I put it on the desk, together with Hydra, and turned to face my test subject. Cutter was looking at me, frightened. I smiled reassuringly and activated my PipBuck’s recorder.

“Audio recording of Doctor Angel, number 2.03. Today, I had acquired a drug called Hydra, which based on the information I had received drastically accelerates cell growth in order for pony’s organism to heal grievous injuries. Apparently, it can restore fractured bones, and there have been cases of it causing regrowth of entire limbs and organs. I will now attempt to verify that information with the help of test subject Cutter. I will first remove the left eyeball-”

“WHAT?!”

“- and cause a fracture in right foreleg’s radius, then I will make the subject drink Hydra.” I continued, ignoring the interruption, although I did raise my voice so that the ringing of Cutter’s shackles as he began to tussle wouldn’t obscure my words. “As a precaution, I will place the eyeball in canopic gel to preserve it, in case Hydra doesn’t work as promised.”

And if it will, well, I will have a spare eyeball. I could try transplanting it to Khan… no wait, he’s a zebra. Even though zebra and ponies seem to share many biological similarities, I would have to first run some tests…

I shook my head to focus more on the current experiment. “I am now going to remove the eyeball,” I said to the recorder, then grabbed grabbed surgical equipment in a telekinetic grasp and walked closer to Cutter.

“NO!” he shouted. “Please, I’ll do anything!”

I frowned, but then I facehoofed. “What am I doing? This is going to hurt!” I placed the tools on the desk and cast an Anesthetic spell on Cutter. Immediately, the ringing of his chains cased, as his body fell limp. “Perfect. Now…”

I used the forceps to keep his left eyelid open, then I grabbed scalpel. Carefully, I slid it in between the eyeball and bone. Slowly, carefully... When the scalpel was deep enough, I paused and concentrated. A red aura surrounded the entire eyeball before I moved the scalpel to sever the optic nerve and helped my magic to pull it out.

Plock!

Surrounded in red aura, I placed Cutter’s eyeball in the container with canopic gel. After I made sure the lid was closed tightly, I released the spell and turned back to Cutter. His body unable to move thanks to Anesthetic spell, he was quite an excellent patient. I released my spell around the empty eye socket, and focused on the right foreleg.

Breaking a bone wasn’t as easy as removing an eyeball. Or healing it, I remarked, as I concentrated my magic. Thankfully, when I studied medicine, I learned the method invented about one hundred and sixty years ago in Stable Eight for removing tumors, and the basic idea should apply here.

I fired a magic bullet from my horn into Cutter’s foreleg, which passed through the skin and flesh and into the bone. As bone was much sturdier than tumor cells, and I wasn’t too good with this spell, I wasn’t surprised when the radius hadn’t fractured with the first bullet. Or the second. The third finally did the trick, as a silent Snap! let me know.

I checked to be sure, and nodded with satisfaction. “The test subject’s body has been prepared for the test,” I said for the recorder, “and now I administer Hydra.”

I grabbed the bottle and placed it by Cutter’s mouth. I then opened Cutter’s mouth, moved the neck of the bottle between his lips, and tipped the bottom up. Since he was under the effects of my spell, I pressed on his throat gently to help the muscles drink it down, while I started at his empty eye socket studiously.

My eyes grew wide. There was something moving inside!

I watched, fascinated, as red flesh began to form, pulsating and vibrating… and I was soon staring at an exact same eye that I had just removed.

My jaw dropped. I raised to look at the desk, where I saw the eyeball still in in the gel, and back at Cutter’s face. It really regrew… I thought blankly as I moved to stand over his limp body. I tilted Cutter’s head to the side to get a better view. It really worked… A quick spell to check the foreleg, and I found that the bone had also been healed.

This… is… AMAZING!

I laughed and bend down to kiss Cutter’s eye. “It worked,” I said. I sat down on Cutter’s chest and continued to talk to my PipBuck. “The experiment was a success. The ability of the Hydra drug to heal crippled limbs and restore organs was confirmed. I will have to acquire additional samples to research it more.”

Turning off the recorder, I returned to kissing the eye. “Isn’t this amazing?!” I asked Cutter as I rose. As he failed to respond, I giggled. “I suppose after such excitement, you deserve some rest.”

As my spell put him to sleep, I gently closed his eyelids and walked away. I decided to let him sleep in that position for tonight, I would put him back into his cell before I left.

But more importantly, this Hydra… I thought as I looked at the now empty bottle. This certainly wasn’t invented back before the war or during it, otherwise I would have known about it. How did the ponies of the Wasteland create it? Not even in Stable Eight had we managed to discover how regrow an entire organ.

“I thought my Stable to be superior to the ponies of the Wasteland,” I told Fluttershy’s statuette, giggling. “But you accomplished something I alone had been trying to for years!”

But did you have to hurt him? Couldn’t you just believe what those ponies told you?

I smiled sadly at it. “You will have to excuse me, Mare of the Ministry of Peace, but I wasn’t going to believe that such a wondrous drug existed. Besides, what’s the harm? Even if it were to be ineffective, I could have always healed him.”

You’re a monster! Have you no regard for how much pain you are causing?

“Of course I do! Why do you think I cast the Anesthetic spell?” I shook my head. “Sweetie, this isn’t the peaceful Equestria you knew when you were young; I would have thought that you had came to understand that during the War.”

Equestria might have changed; it doesn’t mean the ponies should have.

“Evolution.” I countered. “Organisms that don’t adapt to their environment will cease to exist.”

You grew up in a Stable. One which, according to your words, seemed to be a paradise. How could this wondrous place create a psychopath?

I blinked. I was surprised at the sudden ferocity with which I imagined the real Fluttershy would say the last word. Psychopath. I giggled and patted the statuette on the head.

“That’s a story for some other time. You know, I think I will take you with me to New Appleloosa; I find our imaginary conversations refreshing, and I can’t just picture Fluttershy’s voice without you,” I told it. I giggled once more as I turned around. “Hydra… I wonder, how many more fascinating secrets are there for me to discover in this Equestrian Wasteland?”

One thing’s for sure. Learning all of it will be surely fun!


Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk : Horse Sense -- You are a swift learner. You gain an additional +10% whenever experience points are earned.

Chapter Four: Sightseeing

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“Hey there! Welcome ta A-a-pplelooosa!”

The echo of my hoofsteps carried across the dark empty hallway. I looked around, searching for something - or rather, somepony - as my tiny hooves carried me forward, step by step, until I reached it.

The door.

I stared at the switch to open it, hesitating. “I shouldn’t,” I said out loud, taking a step back. “No, I can’t. A good filly never interrupts grown-ups,” I recited in her mind, beginning to turn around...

“Nah, don’t be silly!” a voice exclaimed suddenly. I stopped in mid-turn and listened. “Aren’t you curious?”

“W-well, yes…” I replied, “but Daddy and Mommy say that it’s rude to-”

“Ugh, are you gonna listen to everything your parents tell you?” the voice replied, sounding annoyed. “You should loosen up, break a rule or two, have fun! And c’mon, out of everything grown-ups forbid us, why would opening a door be bad?”

I had to admit, he had a point. “Okay,” I said; my voice quivered a bit, revealing that I was still uncertain about breaking a rule, that there was still doubt in my heart. “No,” I thought, shaking my head. “I’m not going to disappoint him!

Resolved, I breathed deeply, and pressed the switch to open the door.

From inside, something big and fast emerged, pushing me away. Barely a shriek escaped my mouth as I felt being grabbed and lifted up into the air. Something wrapped itself around my body, rendering me unable to move. Terrified and shocked, I looked up…

… right into red, reptilian eyes.

“When you open doors,” the Ouroboros said as the end of his tail brushed my cheek, “you must be prepared to walk through them.”

I wanted to reply to him, but words escaped me. I watched as the Ouroboros’ mouth opened and descended upon me…

*** *** ***

I woke up with a startle.

“Nightmare?” Apple Core asked, raising her voice so that I could hear her over the noise the train was making.

I raised a forehoof to cover my mouth as I yawned, pondering how to reply to her question. “More like a reminder,” I finally replied; however, in my sleepiness, I forgot that I had to speak louder, and only murmured the answer. Before I could repeat it louder so that Apple Core would hear, I noticed - to my mild annoyance - that the earth pony mare had already lost interest and returned to her card game with Mousetrap and Nice Catch. Frowning, I rose and trotted closer to them.

Outside of the passenger car’s window the landscape rolled by. Though yesterday I spoke truthfully when I told Apple Core that I had no interest in such primitive technology, I had realized that the ability to travel between distant places relatively quickly would be quite useful to have. Especially to somepony whose activities could be put at odds with others.

My fellow stable dwellers had banished me, but how would the ponies of the Wasteland, where to kill one another isn’t uncommon, react? I wondered. Not to mention that my… hm, townmates? I hesitated briefly, pondering. I suppose that’s a good term. Not to mention that my townmates have a questionable morality. Meaning that if they’d learn of what I’m going to do to Cutter and some others, they’d either try to kill me or try to enslave me and sell me at Fillydelphia. Being able to get away quickly would be most useful indeed. I suppressed an urge to facehoof. If I knew I would end up in such a position, I would have learned that stupid teleportation spell…

“Want me to deal you in?” Catch, the oldest mare in our little group (but not much, she was only a few years older than Apple Core), asked me as I joined them.

Assuming that meant whether or not I wanted to play, I shook my head. “No, thank you swee-tiee,” I finished awkwardly, yawning again.

Trying to ignore the shaking caused by the train moving, I sat down, wondering if I should try napping again. Though I didn’t consider that dream from earlier to be a nightmare, I wasn’t exactly comfortable with seeing it again.

“Geez, what were you doing last night?” Mousetrap asked. “You slept for like an hour and you’re still yawning.”

“I had to stay up a bit last night to prepare some healing potions, in case Appleloosa would need them while we’re gone,” I replied truthfully.

As the other mares resumed their game, I looked through the window and thought about my dream again. It wasn’t the first time I had it, but it had been a while since the last time; the first occurrence of such a dream since I was banished, in fact. Why now? I wondered.

At some point during my studies I read about the subject of dreams. They mostly occurred during the rapid eye movement stage of sleep, when the brain activity of a person resembles that of being awake. Oneirologists had been trying to discover why we dream for centuries. Most have agreed that they were connected to our subconscious minds, that they projected our deepest desires and anxieties.

Of course, in my Stable, ponies had tried to research dreams with magic. Admittedly, they had some success in that field; they invented spells that granted dreamless sleep, and even some that to some extent could control what dream a pony would have when they’d go to sleep. However, no unicorn from my Stable had managed to reach their ultimate goal of this research - to discover how to walk freely in the dreams of others. Such power had belonged to only one pony in history.

One of the Goddesses, Princess Luna.

The power of the Goddess… it was no wonder that the ponies in my Stable had desired it; and it was no surprise that in the end they had to give up trying to discover how that kind of magic worked. It would take somepony very talented and brilliant, who could conduct a long research on the subject… I’d probably give it a shot at some point in the future.

However, for now, I was restricted to just deductive reasoning if I wanted to figure out what caused my dream.

When you open doors, you must be prepared to walk through them… every action we take has its consequences… what happened to me recently? I thought back to the previous day. The discovery of Hydra? Hm… does my subconscious mind worry what it might lead to? What is my unconscious mind trying to say?

Oh, you don’t want to go there, a tiny yellow pegasus in my head said.

I was about to retort, when I realized what just happened. Blinking in surprise, I turned to look at my saddlebags I had placed against the wall of the car. Inside was the statuette of Fluttershy. Since I had found it, I had taken to imagining the Ministry Mare replying to me when I’d talk to it, basing her character on what I saw. However… this time I hadn’t been trying that.

Okay, either there is some magic in this statuette, or I have started to develop schizophrenia. I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. Could it be that somepony put a spell on it to contain some sort of... imprint? Or a recording… of the Ministry Mare Fluttershy’s mind, and cause it to speak to the mind of whoever possesses it?

Mmm, excuse me? the tiny pegasus asked, a bit meekly, interrupting my train of thoughts. Why do you not consider at all the second option? If you don’t mind me asking that is, she added as I was about to reply.

Because Mom had me tested. Which, I added, if you were really a figment of my mind, you should know; I have reviewed medical records of a unicorn who suffered from a personality disorder. So either you are not, or you are and you’re just trying to confuse me.

I waited for the little pegasus to pop up in my mind again, but as the seconds dragged on, I realized she wasn’t going to reply. Um, hello? I thought, and was again met with silence. I frowned. Oh, you’re going to be like that, huh? Well-

“Why are ya makin’ faces?”

Apple Core’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. I blushed from the embarrassment and turned to her. “Forgive me, sweetie” I said, hoping I looked more calm than I felt. “I was lost in thought. Were you saying something?”

“Ah was tellin’ them again what we’re ‘spposed t’ do in New Appleloosa,” Apple Core told me; to my relief, she wasn’t too interested in my behaviour. She almost immediately turned back to Mousetrap and Nice Catch. “As Ah was sayin’...”

I quickly shot another look at my bags. This isn’t over, I said in my thoughts to the statuette, I will figure out what you are. I only hoped it wouldn’t come to cutting the statuette to pieces to learn what sort of spells had been used on it. Those weird magical properties aside, it was also very beautiful, and I liked it.

“... and Black Widow said ‘at we’re not allowed t’ ‘dick ‘round’,” Apple Core finished briefing the other two. “However, Ah figure we’ll still ‘ave plenty of time to have fun. Most mercenaries will be hangin’ out in Turnpike Tavern anyways, so-”

“That brother of yours is a bartender there, right?” Catch interrupted her.

“Is he hot?” Mousetrap asked when Apple Core nodded.

“How the fuck would Ah know that? Still, if one of ya three wants to fuck ‘im, go ahead,” she said dismissively. “Might make ‘im feel better about slavers.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, surprised.

“Well, it ain’t exactly somethin’ most ponies would be proud for their kin t’ do,” Apple Core explained, rolling her eyes in annoyance. “Still, he’s a business pony, and has no problems tradin’ with us. Most of the ponies in New Appleloosa are cool with slavers in fact. Well, except that walkin’ carcass,” she added, snorting with discontent. Her comment took me by surprise, but before I could question what she meant by ‘walking carcass’ she turned to me. “So, we three will be spendin’ most of our time in the tavern; what will ya be doin’?” I shoot her a questioning look. “Ya don’t drink, and Ah hardly see ya doin’ anythin’ fun for that matter.”

“I guess I’ll walk around town then. We were also sent to buy mines, remember? Somepony has to do it.” It would actually only work in my favor for them to get busy looking for mercenaries. I could buy ingredients for drugs, ask about the Hydra, and examine the statuette… Wait, what did she say at the end? “And I can do fun things,” I said, pouting.

“Yeah, right,” Apple Core snorted with amusement. “If Ah weren’t takin’ ya out to the bar and stuff, ya’d be spendin’ all day in yar clinic.”

“Forgive me, sweetie,” I said, annoyed, “but are you implying that what you are doing - getting drunk and having intercourses with random bucks - is fun? Or” I quickly added as Apple Core was about to reply, “that those are the only fun things to do in Appleloosa?”

She paused to deadpan at me before she said: “Well, at least Ah’m gettin’ laid.”

I rolled my eyes, but I chose to not pursue the subject. I suspected that in a settlement like Appleloosa being a little… promiscuous was normal and maybe necessary. If I ever get back to Stable Eight, I might try to write a doctoral thesis for psychology on them. Regardless, I was looking forward to seeing how different New Appleloosa was.

“Anyway, I’d advise you to keep in mind what we’re supposed to do,” I said, returning to the subject. “I’d hate to disappoint Black Widow.”

Mousetrap snorted. “Yeah, because she might let loose that freakish zebra of hers on us.”

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘freakish’...” I started; inwardly I was happy that they’d taken the bait.

“I would,” Mousetrap interrupted me. “The fact that he’s a zebra is disgusting enough, but that thing is practically a monster.”

“He’s insanely strong and knows those old zebra fighting moves,” Catch explained. “Back when Black Widow was going on raids and patrols, she’d let him loose on all the idiots trying to fight. I’ve seen her pet single-hoofly kill six ponies with his bare hooves. Heck,” she added, lowering her voice to a whisper, “somepony swore to me that they’ve seen Khan once rip off some buck’s skull and then beat him to death with it.”

“He beat somepony to death with their own skull?” I repeated, raising an eyebrow. “I’m… pretty sure that’s not medically possible. Although,” I added, musing, “theoretically, it-

Catch interrupted me. “The point is, Black Widow’s pet is a monster, and it’s under her total control. It’s no wonder that she remained our leader even after her husband’s death.”

I was a bit annoyed that she stopped my train of thought, but I was more interested in Black Widow than Khan at the moment. “She had mentioned that to me yesterday. How did he die?”

“He got shot,” Catch said, cringing.

“You mean he was murdered?” I asked, pretending to be horrified; I had expected something along those lines.

Was this what Cutter had meant by ‘having too much shit’ on Black Widow?

“Gee, what could ‘got shot’ mean other ‘an ‘murder’?” Apple Core said sarcastically.

“Well-” I began, her question causing me to recall ‘shots’ of vaccines, but the other mare covered my mouth with her hoof almost as soon as I opened it.

“Just… don’t,” she told me, frowning.

“Anyway,” Catch resumed as Apple Core draw her hoof back “we never caught who did that; the shot came from outside of Appleloosa.”

“Beg your pardon?” I said, blinking in surprise. “What do you mean?”

“It was a sniper. And a good one; when we checked the direction the shot came from, we couldn’t find any tracks.”

Apple Core snorted. “It was probably that darn pegasus.”

Catch shook her head. “That happened years before he first showed up.”

“Then maybe it was one of ‘is buddies. Who knows how many of those winged a-holes up there could be watchin’ down through a scope.”

It hadn’t taken me too long to realize after my banishment that the pegasi were generally despised by ponies of the Wasteland. I couldn’t fault them for that; though it might not be them who had decided to abandon Equestria two hundred years ago and save their own coats, it was them that continued to keep the cloud cover.

“I heard that it was the Hooded Figure,” Mousetrap spoke up, joining the discussion.

“Yeah, and I heard also about fifteen other stories as well,” Catch said, rolling her eyes. “Some idiot once even suggested that Black Widow could have been behind it.”

Apple Core frowned. “Wait, Ah think Ah ‘eard ‘bout that pony. Was that the one Khan had-”

“Yep.”

“Ugh!” Apple Core exclaimed, cringing.

“Black Widow doesn’t like ponies suggesting she might have had something to do with Eulogy’s death,” Catch explained to me. “Which is a mistake only newbies make; everypony who worked with her longer knows better. She had no reason to kill him; she was already making most of the decisions in Appleloosa anyway. But with Eulogy out of the picture, even with her pet her position amongst slavers could have been endangered. Not everypony liked how she got so high in the pecking order just as soon as she had joined.”

“Just as soon as she had joined?”

“Yeah; she had waltzed into town one day together with Eulogy’s group, about twelve years ago, as his girlfriend. Nopony had any idea where she came from…”

I nodded absentmindedly, deep in thoughts. Apparently, she already knew Eulogy rather well when she came to Appleloosa... could it be… A theory began to form in my mind, but I hadn’t had enough information to be certain whether it was true or not. I’ll need to have a talk with Cutter when I get back.

*** *** ***

After several more hours, the train was finally about to stop.

About time, I thought when Apple Core said we were getting close to New Appleloosa. The train began to slow down. Not that conversing with three slavers hadn’t been entertaining and informative, but all those hours I could have spend studying…

Of course, not wanting to lose so much time, I had brought the TLC Squared: “Tender Loving Care for Totally Lost Causes" , but I had finished reading it a while ago and had to entertain myself by reviewing files stored in my PipBuck. And besides, while I hold all form of knowledge in high regard and I had found this book to be quite interesting, mechanics and robotics weren’t my top interests.

Maybe I’ll find some book about medicine in New Appleloosa? I wondered as I stopped reading notes in my PipBuck and began to rise and stretch my legs. Even though, realistically speaking, the chances of me stumbling upon a medical book containing something I don’t know already are rather low… but then again, just yesterday I had learned about this Hydra medicine, so who-

My train of thought was violently interrupted as the actual train suddenly stopped. At least, I assumed so; how else could the fact that I’d been sent flying across the car’s floor while surrounded by a cacophony of screeching sounds be explained?

I yelped in pain as I hit the train car’s wall, my head spinning from the confusion. Instinctively, I curled up into a fetal position, waiting for the world to stop spinning around.

My companions were even less enthusiastic about the sudden stop than me. “What the fuck?!” one of them exclaimed; I couldn’t tell which.

“Ugh, somepony must ‘ave pulled the emergency brakes…” groaned Apple Core as the train finally ceased moving and stood completely still.

Though my head stopped spinning, I chose to remain on the floor as I checked my PipBuck’s medical scan to make sure I hadn’t suffered any more serious injuries than bruises and possibly a mild concussion. “Is everypony alright?” I asked weakly as I let my healing spell wash over me, curing my wounds and making the pain go away.

As if in reply, somepony began to cough. I rose to my hooves, prepared to treat whoever was wounded, but then I had realized that the coughing sound wasn’t coming from any of them.

It was coming from my PipBuck.

Paralyzed, I could only stare at it. I knew what I was going to hear next.

“I… don’t look too good now, huh?”

Finally snapping, I tapped my PipBuck and canceled the playback. I glanced at my companions. They were still getting up from the floor, massaging their bruises and not paying me too much attention. However, they had heard the playback, and after a few seconds Catch asked: “What was that?”

“It… it was a recording of one of my former patients back in Stable Eight,” I said nervously. “When the train stopped I must have hit a button on my PipBuck and it started playing.”

Whether none of them pressed on this matter because they were still shaken by our abrupt stop or bought my explanation (and assumed my state had also been caused by the stop), I didn’t care.

“How the hell did this fucking train just stop?” Catch asked Apple Core, turning to her. “It’s pulled by those train ponies, right?”

“One of the guards in the caboose must ’av pulled the breaks,” Apple Core mumbled, grimacing as she massaged the back of her head. “Give me a second, Ah’mma gonna ask who t’ shoot in the knee for ‘at.”

After saying that, Apple Core checked the small firearm she had strapped to a holster on her foreleg and trotted towards the car’s door. The other two slavers followed her as she opened it and jumped outside, while I stayed behind.

I sat down, sighing. Of all the audio logs recorded on my PipBuck, what were the odds of that one starting to play? I wondered as I looked at the device. I suppose I should be glad none of my experiments's records began to play… that could’ve made things awkward…

It was hard to believe how long it had been since I heard her voice. When was the last time I played it? I tried thinking back; it must have been months. And to think that there was a time when I’d spend hours listening to it over and over…

I sighed again. This wasn’t the place and time to start being reminiscent. Actually, there currently wasn’t any place for that, much less time, not in the Wasteland. My clinic wasn’t exactly private; my basement didn’t quite have a mood for looking back on the past. And my bedroom… it wasn’t home. It wasn’t filling me with the same sense of security I had back in Stable Eight, with the same… warmth.

Alright, time to pull it together, I finally thought, shaking my head and standing up. I should probably join the others before anything bad can happen.

I snorted at the thought, amused; Apple Core used to live with those ponies, and she and the other two were seasoned Wasteland ponies. I sincerely doubted that they would pick a fight over something like some bumps and bruises, not when we they had a job to do-

“Are ya shittin’ me?!”

… There’s always margin for error, I suppose, I concluded after a second before I rushed to join my companions.

When I jumped out of the car and into the unpleasantly dry and rough-on-the-hooves ground, it quickly became clear what had angered Apple Core so much. “Why the fuck were ya ponies takin’ a caravan across the train track?!” she asked a big group of ponies. I recognized some of the ponies around the group as train ponies, but most of them were unknown to me; I quickly trotted towards everypony.

“Why was the train coming back now instead of yesterday?” one of the ponies in the group, a weathered buck, asked in turn. Frowning, he added. “And what are you slavers doing here?”

“None of yar business, ya-” Apple Core began, but I stepped between her and the buck and cut her off.

“What my companion meant is that we hadn’t come to cause any problems, if that’s what you’re suggesting,” I told the buck, smiling friendlily. Everypony from the buck’s group looked at me, a familiar surprise at my appearance in their eyes. “Or at least, we hadn’t meant any,” I added in apologetic tone. “Based on what Apple Core here was saying, I assume your caravan had been going across the train track? You have my deepest apologies for causing you a fright.”

My gaze moved from the leader of the caravan to his ponies; there were easily ten of them in their group (it was hard to say with New Appleloosa’s train ponies standing next to them). Among them I could see several big piles of various items on carts, with odd shapes next to them. However, before I could make out what they were, the lead buck spoke, forcing me to focus my attention back on him.

“Ah, well, um, no problem, miss. I mean, no harm was done,” he said, blushing.

I smiled and glanced back at Apple Core and the other two. All three were glaring at me with annoyance; no doubt they weren’t happy with me apologizing. I rolled my eyes and gave them a stern look, hoping they would read this as “this has to be done this way,” and not interfere.

“I hope Apple Core hadn’t been too unpleasant to you all,” I said, turning back to the caravan leader (I assumed). “When the train stopped, we ended up getting a few bruises, so we were a bit… edgy.”

“Oh, don’t worry, it was nothing,” the buck quickly replied, waving his hoof nonchalantly. He then looked at me more closely. “Hm… I don’t mean to offend you, miss, but you don’t exactly look like a slaver.”

Giggling as if such notion amused me (when in fact I was a bit offended), I replied. “That’s because I’m not. Allow me to introduce myself; I’m Doctor Angel, Appleloosa’s medic. My three companions are here as my bodyguards; it would have been foolish to send the town’s only medic without protection, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I guess that makes sense.”

I gave the buck a smile and looked past him, at the walls of the city. Apple Core had been right that we were close; it was about a ten minute trot away. “It would seem that our premature stop left us awfully close to New Appleloosa,” I noted, turning back to the caravan leader. “It would seem pointless to travel the rest of the way by train. Would you mind if we trotted the rest of the way with you? It’s always more fun travelling with a big group, even if for such a short distance, sharing stories and gossip.”

“Sure, miss, I don’t see a problem,” the buck replied. He turned back to his ponies and barked orders: “Get the brahmin moving, boys!”

Likewise, I began to turn to Apple Core, Nice Catch and Mousetrap, intending to explain to them why I wanted to walk together with caravan the rest of the way, but as I did so I noticed something in the corner of my eye. One of the shapes I had spotted earlier had began to move, urged by ponies and it pulled one of the wagons. As I finally took a better look at it, I was left speechless.

For about a second.

“What are those?!” I shouted as I raced to stand closer to them.

Several ponies jumped away from me, but I didn’t care, the strange creatures had my full attention. They were massive, each much bigger than a pony. They stood on four legs that ended with cloven hooves. Under their bodies hung bloated organs, located between their stomach and hind legs. None of them had much coat growing on them, and the skin underneath it was reddish. However, those weren’t the characteristics that caused my reaction at their sight, not even those bloated organs.

Each of them had two heads.

There were three of them; six heads, some which turned to look at me. As I stared in turn at the closest one, one of the caravan ponies answered my question. “Um, those are our brahmin, miss.”

I recognized that name; their meat was the most expensive meal to buy in Salt Block, one I had attempted numerous times to try and eat. “Those are brahmin?” I asked, turning to Apple Core with a frown. “Apple Core, how come you hadn’t mentioned that they have two heads?”

Apple Core was standing with the other slavers and looking at me with a frown of her own. “Must ‘av slipped my mind,” she replied, shrugging.

“How do you forget to mention something like that?” the caravan pony that had answered me earlier spoke before I could. “That's like not remembering your first girlfriend turned out to have a dick. Right?” he added, glancing at the buck next to him with a sneer.

The slightly obese (How can you get obese in this Wasteland? This caravan must be quite successful,) buck sighed. “Sometimes I'm sorry I even told you that story.”

I stopped paying attention to everypony and focused on the closest brahmin. I tapped my PipBuck as I trotted to stand before it. “Audio recording of Doctor Angel, number 2.04. I have encountered three specimens of a ‘brahmin’ species, which seem to suffer from polycephaly. Based on the description of the Wasteland ponies, the brahmin are a natural bicephalic species. They are quadrupedal animals with cloven hooves, which coupled with their bloated organs under their bodies - which if I am not mistaken are a set of udders - leads me to forming a theory of them being descendants of bovinae animals... probably cattle,” I added, thinking back to foalish books with pictures of the different animals that used to live in pre-war Equestria. Cows bore strong resemblance to these brahmins. “Due to the obvious differences between cattle and brahmin, it may be possible that the species has mutated over the years, probably due to radiation.”

Focusing on my examination, I gently grabbed the brahmin’s muzzle (the one looking at me; the other appeared to be disinterested in me) and looked into its eyes. “Initial observation leads me to speculate that the each of the brahmin’s head can show different level of interest in its surroundings and/or intelligence levels-”

The head I was holding shook briefly. “Well, that there’s puttin’ it mildly it is,” it said, chuckling.

I blinked, bewildered. “Beg your pardon?” I asked, tilting my head.

The head I’ve been touching nodded at the other one. “Ah mean that he ain’t too smart-”

“You can talk?!” I interrupted her, overjoyed. “This is wonderful! I have so many questions for you! Do you consider yourself separate entities? Does each one of you control half of your body, or do you control it together, which would indicate that you possess some basic form of telepathy? Would you mind if I conducted exploratory surgery on yo-ough!” I exclaimed as I felt something pulling me back.

I lost my balance, falling on my chest. Whatever it was that had pulled me, it now began to drag me away from the brahmin. Startled, I looked back… and I realized that it wasn’t anything dangerous. “Apple Core!” I shouted in annoyance and surprise. “What exactly are you doing?!”

As she held the end of my lab coat in her teeth, she didn’t answer. Apple Core just rolled her eyes and continued to drag me back to Mousetrap and Nice Catch.

Both of them, along with other ponies, were now snorting in amusement or outright laughing. I huffed angrily, feeling heat on my cheeks. I turned my recorder off and waited for Apple Core to let go of me.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long. The earth pony mare released my lab coat as soon as we reached the other two slavers. “Well, sweetie,” I began as I rose from the ground and started to dust myself off, “I hope you have some explanation for interrupting me in such a rude and - might I add - immature way?”

She looked at me in a bemused way. “Ain’t ya the one who said ‘at work comes first?”

“But that was work for me too!” I countered, then I frowned. “No, come back; that was science! That’s much more important!”

“Yeah, Ah don’t care much ‘bout that,” Apple Core said dismissively. “C’mon, let’s go.”

I hadn’t even realized that everypony had began moving. The pulling ponies were strapping themselves to the engine in front of the train, and the guards jumped back into cars. The caravan ponies and their brahmin hurried to leave the railroad tracks and head towards the city.

I should have probably explained to my companions why I had decided to walk the rest of the way - that I had hoped some of the caravan ponies had heard something about this tribe that had apparently settled near Appleloosa, and we could gain information by simply befriending them and asking how their journey went - but I was too dismayed with Apple Core to think about that.

“You could have pointed out to me that everypony’s leaving in some other manner, sweetie,” I told her as I joined her. Mousetrap and Nice Catch followed as well.

“Ah did,” answered Apple Core, to my confusion. “Ah called yar name like three times ‘fore Ah pulled ya back.”

“Oh… you did?” I asked, honestly surprised.

“Eeyup,” she said, and the other two (along with several other ponies) nodded.

I frowned and played back the recording from earlier on my PipBuck. My latest audio log ran normally, without anypony calling my name during it. I was about to give Apple Core a look, but just then…

“I have so many questions for you!”

“Angel…” came Apple Core’s voice in between my excited exclamations.

I blushed in embarrassment as I continued to listen. “I have so many questions for you! Do you consider yourself separate entities?”

“Angel.”

“Does each one of you control half of your body, or do you control it together-”

“Angel!”

“-which would indicate that you possess some basic form of telepathy? Would you mind-”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake…”

“-if I conducted exploratory surgery on yo-ough!”

I turned the audio log off when it reached the point when Apple Core began to pull me back. “It... would appear that I owe you an apology, Apple Core,” I told the other mare, wishing I hadn’t accused her earlier of not first trying to gain my attention. “I… have been told before that I sometimes stop paying attention to my surroundings when I get like that,” I said, smiling awkwardly.

Apple Core, however, waved my apologies aside. “Nevermind ‘at. We ‘av more important things. We might ‘av problems,” she added in a hushed voice, so that only I would hear her. I straightened my ears and listened. “There was one less of ‘em train ponies.”

Recalling what Apple Core had told me, that her special talent was “rounding up ponies”, I didn’t doubt her. Instead I merely asked: “What could this mean?”

“They must ‘av send ‘im to the town, probably to inform ol’ Railright about us. He’s pretty much in charge ‘ere. And given how long we’ve talked, Ah reckon he’s probably right now talkin’ with that pony.”

“Would that be something bad?” I asked her. “I’ve been under the assumption that ponies here have peaceful relations with slavers?”

“Yeah, but that’s ‘cause we usually don’t come t’ their town,” Apple Core explained. “They probably want ‘im t’ keep that trigger happy pegasus away. But Ah thought ya might wanna start sweet-talkin’ ‘im like a the minute we see ‘im.”

I raised an eyebrow. “‘Sweet-talking’?”

“Ya know, like ya do with everypony.”

“That’s called ‘being pleasant to others’, sweetie,” I said, shaking my head. “But nevermind that. Would you be so kind to get to help me get to know those caravan ponies?”

“Why?”

“So that we could engage in friendly conversation with them, possibly learning if they heard anything about the tribe that killed our ponies,” I told her. “Or if they heard of any mercenaries that are free to hire,” I added as the idea came to me.

Apple Core agreed that it was worth trying, and all four of us engaged in conversations with several ponies from their group, traders and guards alike. As per my advice, my companions hadn’t outright asked about the tribals or mercenaries, but instead tried talking with them like they would normally in a bar or tavern. Subjects such as weapons, their maintenance, raiders and the Hooded Figure were touched upon. I myself asked about the Wasteland in general, as I was certain that there was much, much more to learn about it. (Especially since I know that Apple Core forgot to mention brahmin have two heads; who knows what else she could have omitted?) However, I hadn’t learned anything new by the time we reached New Appleloosa's limits; the caravan ponies mostly complained about raiders from Shattered Hoof. Apparently they’d often come under attack from them during their routes.

I broke my concentration away from discussions and looked around New Appleloosa. It was… a touch different from the slavers’ Appleloosa, that was for certain. Inside its walls, it became clear to me that before the Last Day this used to be major rail hub of sorts. Derailed train cars made almost all of New Appleloosa’s buildings. Even the walls, on closer examinations, turned out to be boxcars. I could see between buildings many railroad tracks, practically confirming my guess. There was also a very tall metal spire-like structure in town, with a long outstretched arm and a hook attached to it.

The ponies guarding a big metal gate opened it without a word. Not surprising, since they’ve been probably told about both our groups by that train pony Apple Core noticed was missing. However, we passed the gate without anypony making any problems for us. There were also ponies to greet us, too. Most were focused on the caravan ponies, though several said hello to Apple Core when they recognized her. As the slaver mare replied to them, I noticed a black and grey buck trotting towards us, seemingly with a purpose.

“Been awhile since we’ve seen ya ‘round these parts, Apple Core,” he said as he reached us.

Apple Core turned to him. “Black Widow doesn’t give us too much a free time,” she joked. “Good to see ya too, Railright.”

I immediately interjected myself into their conversation. “Oh, so you’re the Railright I’ve been hearing about,” I told the buck, smiling. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sweetie. I’m Doctor Angel, Appleloosa’s medic.”

“S-so Ah’ve heard,” he replied, slightly taken aback. Nevertheless, he took my outstretched hoof and shook it. Which in turn took me aback, as I expected him to kiss it. Are there no gentlecolts in Equestrian Wasteland? “Now, not that we ain’t pleased t’ have y’all, but would ya kindly explain why y’all here? It’s a rather unusual situation.”

“Oh, most certainly,” I replied. “But we've had a long trip; would it be a problem if we talked in some more comfortable location?”

*** *** ***

About ten minutes later, we were sitting next to a table in the mayor’s “office” (I was pretty sure it was actually Railright’s living room), drinking Sparkle-Cola. Apple Core had no doubt wanted a stronger drink, but I had intervened before she could have asked for it.

“There are two reasons why we’ve been sent here, mayor,” I began when he repeated his question from earlier. “One is to buy several goods that we need. Primarily medical supplies, which is why I have been sent, but also some others.”

Railright frowned. “Ah thought Candi sent y’all some medical supplies on the train.”

“Oh, yes, we’ve received them. However, those supplies actually went first to a trader in Appleloosa, and then I had to buy them from him, an arrangement the previous medic had established. I had hoped to have my own trading agreement with Candi, was it?” I asked to be certain.

“Hm, seems logical,” Railright mused as he nodded at my question. “Speakin’ of, what happened to the previous medic pony of Appleloosa? Um… Cutter, right?”

My ears dropped, but Mousetrap answered before I could. “One of the slaves killed him.”

“It was most unfortunate,” I added; I would have felt much more comfortable if she had refrained from using the word ‘slave’. Ponies here might accept it, but it seemed unwise to remind them that they were owning ponies in the next town. “It must have been Goddesses’ providence that had led me to Appleloosa; without me they’d have been without a medic for good two weeks now.”

“Indeed,” Railright agreed, then changed the subject. “Ya’ve mentioned that there was ‘nother reason for y’all bein’ ‘ere?”

“The other reason is a bit more important. Several of our ponies had recently been killed by unknown assailants.” As I said it, Railright’s expression grew serious. “We were asked to see if there are some mercenaries in New Appleloosa or anywhere nearby, eager to earn some bottle caps by helping us deal with this problem.”

“Y’all ‘av no idea who did that?” Railright asked.

“There were several assumptions made in Appleloosa; Black Widow’s guess that some tribe had come to live in our area seems the most logical to me. Have you heard something about it, sweetie? Some travelers mentioning a large group of ponies, anything like that?”

Railright shook his head. “Sorry, lass, heard nothin’ of ‘at sorts. But ya’re in luck; some mercenaries came t’ town earlier today.” I blinked it surprise; that was lucky! “They should be in Turnpike Tavern. Ah believe ya remember the way?” he added, turning to Apple Core, who chuckled. “‘Av to warn ya though,” Railright continued, “they mentioned that they ‘av somethin’ to do in the area, so it might not be easy t’ hire ‘em. Also, Ah didn’t like the look one of ‘em gave me. Be careful ‘round ‘em.”

“Of course, sweetie,” I replied, smiling. “Thank you so much for your help. And hospitality, of course, of you and your town. I admit, I was a little bit worried… I’ve heard that there is a ‘trigger happy’ - as my companions had described him - pony living in New Appleloosa, a pegasus of all things.”

My attempt at gaining information on the pegasus caused Railight to erupt in laughter. “‘Trigger happy’...” he repeated covering his mouth. “Oh, can’t wait to tell ‘im that… Y’all can relax, Calamity’s not ‘ere. He left this mornin’, guardin’ a caravan.”

I frowned inwardly. Of course; mercenary team comes in, a pegasus specimen goes out. You can’t have everything.

“Should be a couple of days ‘fore he comes back,” Railright continued, ignorant to the fact that he wasn’t putting me at ease but further upsetting me. “And besides, he doesn’t live ‘ere. Ah keep tellin’ ‘im to move in - we could always use such a good shot, ya know - almost ever since he came down. Must be three years now… But he always refuses the offer!”

“Some ponies are loners by nature,” I tried to comfort the buck. “Though I agree, it seems such a pity to not have such valuable pony living here.”

“Ya said it,” Railright nodded, then rose. “Ah think Ah took enough of yar time. No point in keepin’ ya from doin’ yar job ‘cause of some pointless conversations.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t call any part of our conversation pointless, sweetie,” I told him. “However, you are correct in reminding us of our duties. Perhaps we could talk some more on a later date?”

Railright seemed pleased at that prospect, and he wished us good luck as we left his house. “What a charming buck,” I commented as we trotted onto the street.

Apple Core glanced at me with a raised eyebrow. “Do ya have a thing for older bucks? ‘Cause that would explain some things…”

I sighed, not interested in that kind of talk at the moment. Not even to point out that he wasn’t that much older than her. “Railright told us there are mercenaries in Turnpike Tavern. Your brother works there, right?” I asked Apple Core, who nodded. “Then it shouldn’t be much of a problem for the three of you to gain information on them and get to know them?”

“Probably not. But where are ya goin’?”

“I want to talk with their medic pony, Candi, and have all this trading agreement business sorted out quickly. I might also look into buying those mines before I come and join you.”

“Wait, so you weren’t kidding about this medicines thing?” Nice Catch asked, raising eyebrows. “I thought we were buying just mines.”

“As friendly as this town is to the slavers, I just couldn’t imagine the good mayor not frowning if I’d told him ‘we came to buy explosives to kill ponies who’d try to escape the life of a slave’,” I replied. “The trading agreement is something I had planned to arrange anyway, so I mentioned that in greater detail to drawn his attention. As for that not being a part of our mission here, I honestly can’t think of Black Widow being mad at me for ensuring I have medicine for everypony.”

“Even if she was, Ah doubt she’d do somethin’ to Appleloosa’s only medic,” Apple Core said, shrugging. She then pointed to the right. “Clinic is that way. We’re goin’ there,” she added, pointing a a big train car-turned-bar. “Don’t take too long.”

“Of course. If you meet those mercenaries, don’t talk to them about business, wait for me with that. Just-”

“Ah’m pretty sure Ah know better about befriendin’ ponies in a bar than ya,” Apple Core interrupted me, sticking her tongue.

I had to give her a point there. Laughing, I parted with my slaver companions.

*** *** ***

“Ya won’t find too much of Hydra on this side of the Wasteland,” Candi told me, much to my disappointment.

The medic pony of New Appleloosa was - in huge contrast to the only other medic I had met in the Equestrian Wasteland - a kind earth pony mare. She had greeted me friendlily when I entered her clinic, and when I told her that I hoped she could start sending more medicines to Appleloosa, directly to me, she had agreed.

“Ah ‘av lots of spare healin’ potions, not t’ mention other chems,” the mare - who like me had a white coat but had a pink mane; she also wore one of the pink and yellow nurse’s dresses I had seen on some MoP posters - had said, waving her hoof dismissively. “Ah usually sell ‘em anyway, so Ah might as well send ‘em to ya.”

After a brief discussion regarding the exact amount of medicines and how much would it would cost, we had an agreement ready. The speed with which we had concluded this business might have been partly due to Candi needing to check on some patients in their house; we left the clinic right after we finished, in fact. I had offered to go with her, but she had told me it was just a routine check.

As I had nothing too pressing to take care of, I walked with her part of the way. It was a pleasant change to be able to talk with a fellow medic pony. So pleasant, in fact, that I lingered with asking about Hydra and asked her about unusual cases, secret healing methods… Candi had told me that she sometimes mixed healing potion with apple schnapps to make the medicine “go down better”, as she had phrased it. Though I would obviously never try such a method, I had to admit that it was intriguing.

I finally brought up the subject of Hydra when Candi told me we were almost there. I had already known she had used up all her supply during our business discussion earlier (in fact, the pony she was going to see now was the one she had used it on), but now I questioned as to where one could find more.

“Hydra is only made in Hoofington,” she continued. “Well, at least, as far as Ah know; Ah wouldn’t be surprised if there were other places.”

“Hoofington?” I asked, raising my eyebrows. “That’s quite a distance from here, isn’t it sweetie? I don’t mean to pry, but I’ve been led to believe that you keep a somewhat steady supply of it. Do you send your train all the way there as well?” I questioned.

Candi giggled. “Nah, New Appleloosa - Appleloosa is the only line. Tracks in other directions are all destroyed ‘ere and there. Anyways, Ah buy Hydra from ol’ Ditzy.”

“Ditzy? I’m afraid I hadn’t had yet the pleasure.”

“Yeah, Ah didn’t expect ya to. She runs the general supplies store, Absolutely Everythin’, right over there,” she said as she pointed at three train cars that were melded together into a single building with a smokestack, a little further down the street.

“Well then, I guess that’s my next destination,” I thought, gazing at it.

I was about to ask Candi next just how exactly this Ditzy acquired Hydra, but my fellow medic spoke first. “Ya might ‘av problems talkin’ with her…” she trailed off and then facehoofed. “Ugh, that was in horrible taste…”

“Why, what do you mean?” I asked, puzzled by her behaviour.

Candi sighed. “Some slavers cut off poor Ditzy’s tongue a few decades ago, ‘fore Ah was even born.”

My eyes widened. “Oh…” was all I could say. This is indeed going to complicate talking to her… oh, now I get it! “You’re right, that was in horrible taste.”

Candi blushed in embarrassment, even though I could tell she hadn’t meant to joke about this Ditzy. She cleared her throat and resumed: “As ya can figure, she doesn’t trade with slavers. And since the word about slavers bein’ in town with an albino medic pony had no doubt reached ‘er by now…”

“She might refuse to conduct any business with me?” I finished. To be honest, I found the thought of somepony outright disliking slavers in this town to be refreshing. “Hm… if there was an available, compatible donor, I could offer to transplant it and…” I mused out loud.

“Ya could do that?” Candi asked with wide eyes.

“Assuming I would have a donor, most certainly,” I replied. “Of course, since most ponies wouldn’t want to part with their tongues, the donor would have to be recently deceased…”

Come to think of it, I wondered, would Hydra make the tongue grow back? Maybe it’s too complicated an organ… and it certainly wouldn’t work on Ditzy, as in decades the wound must have closed up, but on a donor- wait, decades?!

“You said that it was decades ago?” I asked Candi, who nodded. “Forgive my surprise, sweetie; I was under the impression that living for so long must be quite a feat in the Equestrian Wasteland on its own, let alone with a disadvantage like the one Ditzy has. She must be quite a survivor… exactly how old is she?”

To my surprise, Candi giggled, as if something I said amused her. “Ya know,” she said after a few seconds, “Ah think my patient can wait a few more minutes. Ah’ll go and introduce ya to her.”

“Really?” I asked, pleasantly surprised… and suspicious. I had a feeling that I was about to become a subject of a joke for a second time today. “That’s very kind of you, sweetie,” I replied, resigned.

I can suffer a few more laughs.

“Great, c’mon!” Candi said enthusiastically, giggling.

“There’s one thing that’s confusing to me, though,” I said as I trotted alongside her. “How does she get Hydra all the way from Hoofington?”

Instead of answering my question, Candi pointed at the signs below block letters forming the shop’s name. When we were close enough, I read them, intrigued:

Yes, I do deliveries!

No hooves, nasty stingers? No service.

Ask me about special orders! I won’t answer, but I’ll get right on it!

Wasteland Survival Guide! Available now! First copy for every family is free!

“‘Yes, I do deliveries’?” I read outloud, frowning. “Sweetie, that doesn’t explain my question… wait, Wasteland Survival Guide? What’s that?”

Candi looked at me, surprised. “Ya don’t have any in Appleloosa? That’s a book with survival tips and such, written and published by Ditzy. It’s really useful.”

My jaw dropped in a such an unladylike manner that my Granny would have chastised me.

“Y-you mean…” I stammered, “that in these remains of a civilization, there’s a pony who managed to write and publish a book, and she’s right behind these doors?!”

When Candi realized that I was excited, she laughed. “Well, the counter is a bit further in the shop,” she joked as she opened the door.

I could scarcely believe it. To be able to write a book and publish it, making enough copies to give them away free… And on such a subject no less! If she had written it in Stable Eight as a thesis for Social Sciences she would have definitely gained a PhD!

This pony is amazing! I thought as I began to follow Candi. Oh, what a pity that she hates slavers! I must convince her to give me a chance; after all, I am not a slaver, even if I work for them. Still, this could be difficult… I must do my best. I’m sure if I treat her friendlily and professionally, Ditzy and I will become best of friends.

“Hello, Ditzy Doo,” Candi called over the noise several ponies were making in the store. “Ah’ve dropped by to introduce somepony to ya.”

I looked from behind Candi to see Ditzy… and at first I was confused. Was this the joke I feared Candi was preparing for me? I wondered as I gazed at the corpse behind the shop’s counter.

A decaying corpse, at that. It had already lost all its coat, and the skin was flaking away. Its dry eyes stared in different directions. A few strands of mane were yellow in color. Hm, female, earth pony, I began noticing automatically as I trotted closer, age… a bit difficult to say without examination…

Before the thought of how weird it was for a corpse to be put behind a counter in a shop hit me, I was forced to stop my thinking process altogether. The corpse’s head moved towards me, and its face formed a frown. It then reached to a small sign on the counter and raised it; the words ‘NO SLAVERS’ were written on it. As if to make sure I read it, it tapped it.

“YOU’RE A GHOUL?!” I finally realized.

I could hear Candi snorting with laughter beside me, but I stopped paying her attention. I had heard about ghouls; in Apple Core’s words, “corpses that continued to live”. I’ve tried asking ponies about them, naturally curious what could cause such a condition, but nopony could offer much information in that regard.

And now I was seeing one before my eyes.

I raced towards it (Her, I corrected myself,) around the counter, much to the surprise of Ditzy and probably anypony else present. “You’re a ghoul?!” I repeated more quietly, but still as excited. I then did a double-take at her. The counter hid another unique feature of her - two appendages growing from her back. “You’re a pegasus ghoul?!?” I exclaimed, my eyes round. Ditzy Doo, whose face had by then lost its earlier stern demeanor, was looking at me with a mixture of confusion and fear. Which I ignored, too absorbed in the moment. “You’re a pegasus ghoul who wrote and published an actual book in this largely uncivilized world?!? This. Is. Amazing!” I squeed as I threw my forelegs around Ditzy and hugged her tightly. “Oh, I love this town!”

Footnote: 50% to next level!

Chapter Five: The Morality of Angel

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“I'm cleansing the world of all that is evil!

“That's quite nice of you, but 'evil' is very subjective. What or who you might consider to be evil could very well be the opposite to someone else.”

“Oh, this is just wonderful!” I exclaimed as I continued to hug Ditzy. “I have so many questions for you!” Finally releasing her, I grabbed her by her shoulders so I could look her in the eyes. “Is your body actually dead and is it being sustained by the necromantic fallout of the Balefire Bombs, or has the exposure to it caused some kind of nonlethal variant of necrosis? Do you require substance or sleep? How does your body react to further exposure to radiation? Did you develop your eye alignment disorder before or after you became a ghoul?” I added, tilting my head curiously as I noticed one of her eyes was once again looking the other way from the other. It appears to be strabismus... Seeing confusion in the eye that was looking at me, I decided to that perhaps it would be better to take more direct approach. “Would you allow me to conduct exploratory surgery on you?”

Ditzy opened her eyes slightly wider, and after a brief hesitation she turned to Candi. The white-coated mare was standing on the other side of the counter, probably having trotted up from the shop’s entrance while my attention was focused on Ditzy.

“Candi, sweetie, why didn’t you tell me Miss Doo is a ghoul?” I asked her, letting go of the pegasus to turn towards Candi and stare at her with pretense.

The earth pony mare was in turn staring at me with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment. “Ah thought it would be funny seein’ a stable dweller react t’ seein’ a ghoul for the first time,” Candi replied, giving me a somewhat awkward smile. “Kinda was, Ah s'oppose. But Ah expected a reaction more along the lines of ‘Sweet merciful Celestia, what is that!’ or somethin’,” she explained, pressing her forehooves to her cheeks and raising her voice as she portrayed what reaction she had expected.

“Would ‘ave preferred seein’ that than whatever this here was,” a pony that was already in the store, browsing the merchandise, said while Ditzy Doo frowned at Candi, then picked up a chalkboard from the counter and began to scribble on it. “For a minute there Ah thought she’s gonna strangle poor Derpy.”

“Derpy”? Must be because of the eye, I noted, quite familiar with the custom of giving ponies nicknames based on their defect. However, I didn’t turn to scold the pony, curious what Ditzy was writing.

Wasn’t very nice of you, I read on the chalkboard as the ghoul pony showed it to Candi, who promptly rolled her eyes.

“She just asked ya if she can cut ya open and ya’re givin’ me the heat?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

Apparently, Ditzy hadn’t realized what “exploratory surgery” meant, as now she immediately spun around and stared at me, more with bewilderment than fear. I merely sighed.

“Why does everypony react like that whenever I want to perform exploratory surgery on them?” I exclaimed, asking nopony in particular. “Both in my Stable and in Appleloosa. I am a professional doctor, with surgeon license and doctorates in medicine, arcane bioengineering, and biological hippology, and I’ve been conducting exploratory surgeries since I was a filly with none of my patients ever complaining afterwards.”

“Okay, no need for exaggerating, Ah get that ya’re a competent doctor,” Candi replied, rolling her eyes again. Before I could contradict her claim that I was exaggerating, she continued: “But ya do know that it sounds mighty creepy when a stranger comes out and ask somethin’ like ‘is, right? And no offense, but the name of the town where ya practice yar profession won’t endear folks to yar request.”

Sometime during my enthusiastic reaction to seeing Ditzy, the pegasus ghoul must had forgotten about her reservations regarding me. Now she was once again frowning at me and reaching for her 'NO SLAVERS' sign.

“Miss Doo, it would appear you are under the incorrect assumption that I am a slaver,” I began to say as Ditzy tapped her sign. I brought a hoof to my chest and looked her in the eye, continuing. “I assure you, sweetie, I am only working for the slavers, as the medic of Appleloosa. Which hadn’t exactly came about by my choice; my Stable is located not far from that town, and when I came out of it I ran into one of their patrols. If I hadn’t offered them my services, I would have become a slave myself.”

Ditzy’s stern expression softened a bit, although I suspected she probably considered what I had done to be at least a bit selfish. She did stop staring at me, though, as she picked up her chalkboard, wiped, and wrote another message. Why are you here?

“The leader of Appleloosa sent me and three others here,” I replied, seeing no point in hiding it from her. “Some ponies had killed one of the slavers patrols, and Black Widow wants us to find some mercenaries and convince them to come and help to deal with this issue. As to why I specifically am here, it’s because I am considered to be a diplomatic individual. At the same time, though, I had hoped to come and visit New Appleloosa, as I needed to rearrange a trading agreement the previous medic had with Candi here,” I added, nodding at the said pony.

“Diplomatic, eh?” the buck that had spoken up earlier interrupted as he came to the counter. “Yar boss mustn’t ‘ave seen ya huggin’ strangers. Derpy, how much for cigarettes?” he asked, putting a small box on the counter.

I would have commented on how unhealthy it was to smoke those things, but I didn’t want to deprive Ditzy of her client. As the pegasus ghoul quickly conducted the transaction, she returned to our discussion, wiping her chalkboard again and writing next message. You’re going back there? Why?

Now it was my turn to be bewildered. “Sweetie, I have now obligations to the town and it’s citizens, both those that are free and those that are not. I’m a doctor, I took an oath to help ponies. While my employment in Appleloosa might have been forced, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m their medic.”

Ditzy blinked in surprise hearing my explanation, and quickly her frown transformed into a warm, happy smile. She hastily scribbled on her chalkboard: All ponies should help each other like that.

“I couldn’t agree more,” I said, smiling back at her. Satisfied that her opinion of me had been amended, I extended my hoof to her. “We’ve sadly started on the bad hoof, let me introduce myself properly and make a good impression this time. Hello sweetie, I’m Doctor Angel, but you can call me just Angel,” I told her, smiling.

Before taking my hoof, the ghoul pony wiped her chalkboard and wrote another message. She showed it to me as we shook hooves: Ditzy Doo. You can call me Derpy if you want. Pleasure to meet you.

“Likewise, sweetie,” I agreed. “Would you allow me to conduct an exploratory surgery on you?”

A very loud slap sounded beside us, startling me. Looking to my side I saw that the source of the noise was Candi, who had facehoofed herself. “Ya’re impossible,” she sighed.

I frowned at her before returning my attention back to Ditzy. To my delight, her reaction was much more promising; she covered her mouth as she closed her eyes and made a rasping voice that I recognized as giggling. No, she wrote on her chalkboard after a few moments. You’re funny.

“Alright, fine,” I sighed, giving up. “How about a physical examination then? Completely non-invasive procedure,” I quickly began to ensure her as she tilted her head. “I will measure your vitals, heart rate, temperature, nerve reaction, scan your body for magic residue, the… extent of your body’s degradation,” I added, looking her up and down thoughtfully. “Fortunately I should be able to tell if it extends to your insides by magic and by touch if I have to, so you can be assured that I will not cut you. Oh oh, and your muscle structure!” I realized, excited. “I’ve never seen a pegasus pony! I need to feel your wings up and the muscles that are attached to them!”

“Wow!” Candi exclaimed, interrupting me again. When I glanced at her, she was looking at me with her eyebrow raised. “If Ah didn’t know any better, Ah would say ya seem awfully determined t’ get close with Ditzy here,” she said, grinning at me.

“Well… yes, sweetie, a physical examination requires being close to the patient,” I replied, confused. “Forgive me sweetie, but where exactly did you get your medical degree?”

Candi opened her mouth and blinked at me with surprise. “No, Ah… um, Ah meant it sounded like ya’re tryin’ to get really close with Ditzy,” she explained, emphasizing the words ‘really’ and ‘close’. “Ya know, with all the talk ‘bout touchin’ and feelin’ up?” Candi tried as I continued to stare at her in puzzlement.

I glanced at Ditzy, who was smiling somewhat embarrassingly. She rolled her eyes and shrugged in response, and I tried to put together what Candi was insinuating and what Ditzy apparently had figured out already- “Oh!” I exclaimed, finally realizing what she had meant. “You were implying that I was desiring a coitus with her and that I was using the physical examination as an excuse. Honestly, sweetie,” I told her, looking at Candi reproachfully, “it’s a good thing you do know better. I would take a great offense to both suggesting that I would use an important scientific research as an excuse to attempt to seduce somepony, and that I would want to make love to a mare I’ve just met.”

For whatever reason, Candi’s eyes grew wider and she opened her mouth, as if my statement had confused her. What in the world could be confusing about it? I briefly wondered as the other mare continued to stare at me.

“Um…” she finally mumbled after several seconds, frowning and raising her hoof, but I cut her off.

“Now that this immature discussion is over,” I said, giving Candi a meaningful look before turning back to Ditzy, “let us return to my query. Would you allow me to perform a physical examination on you? I am prepared to offer a compensation for your time of course,” I assured her.

Ditzy covered her mouth, giggling silently for some reason, before she replied: No need for that, she wrote, but why do you want to examine me?

“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked in turn, surprised. When Ditzy shook her head - and Candi was facehoofing again, was I missing something? - I sighed and began to explain: “Question: what does a doctor do? Answer: she makes ponies better,” I told Ditzy. I was delighted to see that I had her full attention; too often when I had tried to explain anything to anypony, they listen to me with half an ear, even back in Stable Eight. “She heals their bruises, lacerations, diseases, and most importantly, conducts research on improving her methods of healing and devise new ways of improving their healths. Your body, sweetie, by my initial examination, I would declare as belonging to a deceased pony,” I told her, looking her up and down again, before pointing my hoof at her. “But you aren’t! You are here, communicating and moving, as if you were alive. Whatever effect the balefire radiation had on you, it appears to be clear that it kept you alive, even if it’s only ‘after a fashion’, as ponies say. By what Candi had told me about you, you’ve also been around for several decades, meaning that this effect is very long lasting. Just imagine what ponykind could do if we were able to harness this and devise a method of using it to help ponies, without the negative side effects,” I exclaimed as I smiled at the thought. “Unfortunately,” I added, my enthusiasm ebbing away, “I realize that it would take a long time of studying of ghouls and the balefire fallout priorities to come to such discoveries. That’s why for now, I will be satisfied with learning about ghoul and pegasi anatomy,” I said, cheerfulness returning to my voice. “I won’t be able to effectively heal ghoul patients if I would lack information about them, nor would I be able to reattach wings of pegasi ponies if I won’t familiarize myself with their build. And while I conduct the research beneficial for my immediate patients, I will make initial notes for the long term research for the benefit of the future of ponykind. Does that answer your questions, sweetie?” I asked, tilting my head and continuing to smile.

Ditzy tapped her chin thoughtfully, thinking over all what I had said. I think so, she finally wrote on her chalkboard, only to quickly swipe it and write a longer message: You could have just said that part about anatomy you know.

Looking at the smirk and raised eyebrow she was giving me, I found myself blushing in embarrassment. “Yes, well, I have been told that I tend to get excited when talking about medical research. Those that mean you’ll agree for the physical examination?” I asked her, pointing at her own words on the chalkboard.

Of course! I’ll be closing my store in about three hours, you can come then, Ditzy wrote, giving me a cheerful smile.

“Oh, thank you so much!” I exclaimed, hugging her again. This time, Ditzy enthusiastically replied, her decayed forelegs wrapping around me. “I’ll be looking forward to it,” I continued as we pulled apart. “I’ll be out of your mane for now, I’m sure you will be having some customers soon. See you soon, sweetie,” I said as I began to back away, waving at Ditzy.

Ditzy waited only as long as it took to write on her chalkboard before she waved back. See you!

Smiling, I turned to Candi, who was now again staring at me. “Candi, sweetie, didn’t you say that you have to go see one of your patients?” I reminded her gently.

The earth pony mare shook and blinked energetically. “Yeah, sorry, was just… processin’,” she replied as she rose to her hooves. “See ya later Ditzy,” Candi called back as she walked through the door and left them open for me.

Waving to the pegasus ghoul one last time, I left the store. “Oh, thank you so much for introducing me to her, sweetie,” I told Candi as we trotted through the streets of New Appaloosa.

“No problem. So, listen… ya don’t plan on doin’ anythin’ besides givin’ her a physical, right?” she asked me, giving me a serious look.

“Well, it’s going be more of an examination than a ‘physical’...” I began, but then I realized what Candi must have been implying. Frowning, I replied: “Sweetie, first of all, both me and Ditzy are adult mares-”

But Candi’s eyes almost bulged out. “Wha- no! Not that!” she quickly exclaimed, blushing, as she began shaking her head. Covering her eyes, Candi murmured: “Ugh, stop givin’ me mental images like that…” I felt slightly puzzled by those words, but before I was given a chance to even ponder whether or not I should ask her of the meaning behind them Candi had recovered and turned to me again. “Look, what meant is, ya’re not gonna do anything t’ harm her, right? Ah mean, no offense,” she quickly added, “but ya were pretty hung up on performin’ exploratory surgery on her, and ya’ve sorta got this ‘insane scientist’ vibe goin’ on.”

“No offense taken, sweetie,” I assured her. “I find your concern for Ditzy to be charming. I’ll admit, I would like to perform exploratory surgery on her and see for myself the state of her organs, but I wouldn’t do something like that to such a nice pony against her wishes. You have my word on that. And as for the ‘insane scientist’ part,” I added, once more looking at her with pretense, “I assure you, I am not insane, my mother had me tested.”

I admit, I would have felt better if this wasn’t the second time today I had to tell this to somepony. The first pony being a little statuette of a Ministry Mare from two hundred years ago that I had started to hear speak to me in my mind.

“Alright, sorry ‘bout that one,” Candi said, waving her hoof.

“If you still doubt me,” I continued, “feel free to come join us. I’m sure that Ditzy won’t mind, especially since you’re the town’s medic.”

“Um, thanks, but Ah’m… busy, this evening. Yes, busy,” she said, sounding somewhat nervous. And… was she blushing? After clearing her throat, she added: “And it ain’t that Ah doubt ya, but Ah’ve never seen anybody ask another pony if they can cut ‘em open.”

“I’ll admit, in my excitement I might have forgotten about the proper etiquette. But believe me when I say, sweetie, if not because of me not being - as you had put it - insane, but because I gave you my word. You see,” I said, turning my head to look Candi in the eyes, “there are only two things in this huge, wondrous world that I despise, and breaking one’s word is one of them. Perjurers, betrayers… I despise them from the depths of my soul,” I added, pressing my hoof to my heart.

Candi raised her eyebrow. “Ya know, crazy or not, Ah wish ya were livin’ here. Ya’re entertainin’ t’ talk with, that’s for sure,” she added with a giggle as I deadpanned at her. “Anyways, Ah really oughta go see that patient. Hope we’ll run into each other later,” she said as she prepared to leave.

“Oh, before you go sweetie, could you point me towards the Turnpike Tavern? I’m supposed to meet up with my companions there.”

As Candi explained to me how to get there, I found myself wondering what Apple Core and the others have been up to. I hope they found those mercenaries and made a good first impression…

“So,” Candi said as she finished giving me directions, “anywhere else ya would like t’ go? Since Ah apparently became yar tour guide,” she added, rolling her eyes and smirking.

I was about to reply, but then I hesitated. I have three hours until I can examine Ditzy, I thought as I tapped my chin, but talking with those mercenaries couldn’t possibly take me such a long time… and I would really not want to be so long in the same watering hole with Apple Core, last time she nearly forced me to drink alcohol. So…

“Actually,” I told Candi, turning to her, “if you could tell me one more thing…”

*** *** ***

Wrinkling my nose as the smell of alcohol hit me - noticeably less intense than in the Salt Block back in Appleloosa - the moment I entered the Turnpike Tavern, I looked over its interior, trying to spot Apple Core, Mousetrap and Nice Catch.

It’s quite crowded, I noted, unable to find my companions amongst all the ponies that were enjoying drinks, playing games or listening to the music. I looked to the counter. Apple Core said her brother is the bartender, and he should know where they are.

However, I made no more than three steps towards the counter, when a pony stepped in front of me. I backed away, startled. He was an elder earth pony buck, in his fifties perhaps, with a muscular body covered by gray coat. His face was adored by a groomed handlebar mustache, and his breath reeked of alcohol, almost making me gag after being exposed to it so suddenly.

At the same time as I took in his looks and his sudden appearance, the stranger had been looking me up and down appraisingly. “Well now, what have we here?” he asked, his speech - surprisingly coherent; despite my initial assumption, he wasn’t at all inebriated - bearing a slight hint of an accent I was not familiar with. “Looks as though you dinnay know much about the sweet science at all, do ye?”

“Excuse me, darling, but what are you talking about?” I asked, confused.

“Well, it’s just my educated opinion, but I can see by the way you move that you could do with a few pointers.”

“Pointers?” I raised my eyebrow, my confusion only growing deeper. “With what?”

“About the sweet science, of course,” the stranger replied, as if it was obvious. “The sportin’ art.”

Sporting… art? What in the names of the Goddesses is he talking about?

“What are you talking about, darling?” I asked out loud politely.

“Pugilism,” he said, finally clearing this up for me, “the buckly, uh, and marely art of hoof-to-hoof combat. That’s what I mean.”

“Oh, I see,” I exclaimed. “Hm, well, I guess it’s true that I could use some help with that…” I said slowly, reminiscing.

Before I could go too far down the memory lane, however, the older pony had apparently took my comment as an agreement too… whatever this was. “Well, let’s go outside and see what I can teach you. You see,” he continued, about to lead me out of the Turnpike Tavern, “it’s all about getting your whole body to snap just like a whip…”

“I’m terribly sorry,” I interrupted him, “but I don’t have time for this right now, sweetie. Perhaps some other time?” I asked, smiling at him.

The older pony shrugged. “Sure, lass,” he said, sounding not disappointed that I wasn’t going to train with him right now. He turned back to a table by which he must have been sitting before he came to talk to me, where a tankard of beer was waiting for him, and added: “You can find me here most of the time.”

“Thank you for your offer,” I told him before leaving him and heading towards the counter.

Well, that was… odd, I thought. I must remember to ask somepony if it happens often, ponies offering random strangers to train them in hoof-to-hoof combat. I wonder… assuming I will have the time, should I take him up on his offer? I asked myself as I sat by the counter and waited for the bartender to finish serving some clients.

While so far I had successfully averted any conflicts that came my way with my words, I came to realize that the Wasteland was an extremely dangerous place. True, if worst came to worst, I had always my magic to call upon, but I wasn’t satisfied with the thought of relying on it all the time. I was a doctor first and foremost, I couldn’t risk overusing my magic and suffering a magical burnout, my magic could be needed to save somepony’s life.

Either I’ll learn some combat skills, or I’ll have to have somepony at my side with those skills that I can trust, I concluded, a bit unhappily. Well, I have Apple Core, but it still might be a good idea to learn how to defend myself. Besides, my mentor always used to say: “to train the mind, first train the body”. His only lesson I hadn’t taken to heart… I thought fondly; he was one of the few unicorns in Stable Eight besides the security ponies that regularly visited the gym. The practice that he failed to instill in me. Although, to be fair, he wasn’t the first pony to try encouraging me to partake in physical exercises, and he had accomplished better results. I suppose it’s about time I at least try following his idea. After all, I am aware just how healthy for the body some exercises would be. Still, I thought, the corner of my mouth curling into a smile, learning hoof-to-hoof combat? Me? He would laugh so hard-

I stopped mid-thought, as my thoughts turned away from my mentor and began to focus on him. Would he?

He who?

D- I began, only to stop. Oh, you’re back, I thought, frowning at my saddlebag, where Fluttershy’s statuette was. I’m curious, was it something I had said, or does this spell allows you - whatever exactly you are - talk with me only for a few moments every few hours that caused you to stop talking to me earlier and start now?

Oh, I wouldn’t know, she replied. I could almost picture her now, a tiny yellow pegasus mare with pink mane, her demeanor somewhat subdued as she looked down and prodded the space underneath her. So, um, who were you thinking about?

So you admit that you are not a figment of my mind?

It’s just… your feelings changed so drastically when you’ve started to think about him, the tiny pony continued, ignoring my thoughts. There was only one other time when that happened… although the effect that recording had on you was far more-

Sweetie, I interrupted her, my cordiality requiring some effort, do you think that just because you can speak to me within my mind I will answer your rather personal questions?

Oh, you’re right, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude, she replied, downcast. It’s just… I’m wondering what could have led a pony to performing such horrific actions. I thought that maybe if I’d knew you better I could understand you, and maybe... convince you to stop…

I won’t stop, I told her resolutely and definitely. Nothing you could say would make me stop. Not until I discover the Truth of this world, not while ponykind continues to suffer, and not while there are those who discard their right to be called ponies. In a bit softer tone, I added: I will never stop.

The tiny pony cringed in fear and covered herself with her wings. One of her blue eyes peeked from between feathers. I expected her to continue pestering me about him or the recording, about my experiments and plans. But she didn’t. She asked me a single question.

Why?

“Ya must be Angel!” The sudden jovial exclamation almost made me jump. Returning my attention to my surroundings, I found myself looking at a light brown unicorn buck, who stood behind a counter. “Mah sister told me about ya.”

I raised my eyebrow. “Sister?” I asked, forgetting about the conversation I had in my head for now. The statuette must have decided to put it off as well. I suppose I should be thankful she doesn’t want to talk to me when I’m speaking with ponies, that would be rather distracting. “You mean you’re Apple Core’s brother? But… you’re a unicorn!” I exclaimed, practically shouting in my excitement after he nodded in reply. Ignoring some confused stares and giggles from ponies around me, I leaned closer to Apple Core’s brother. “So it is true that unicorns, earth ponies and pegasi can crossbreed without the loss of fertility of their offspring?”

“Um…” the buck stammered, hesitating. “Wow, Apple Core warned me ya speak funny like ‘at, but Ah didn’t believe ‘er. Sorry girl, Ah didn’t understand half of ‘at last sentence.”

Rolling my eyes, I hastened to explain. “Forgive my excitement, sweetie, but you are the first living proof of one of the first things I had learned from my biology books. Namely, that all ponies belong to the same species, with unicorns, earth ponies and pegasi being more akin to ‘subspecies’ even though the level of diversity between them is unique when compared with diversities between subspecies of other species. Regardless,” I continued, noticing the deepening confusion on his face, “as they all belong to the same species, it means they are able to produce fertile offspring. I assume one of your parents, grandparents, or further ancestors was a unicorn?”

“Y-yeah, mah and Apple Core’s grandma.”

“Hm, so it is true that the genes determining the kind of pony can remain dormant…” I muttered. Seeking the expression on the buck’s face, I shook and smiled apologetically. “Please forgive me, sweetie, it’s just that… there weren’t many books regarding genetics in my Stable. Would you be so kind to allow me to collect a blood sample from you, so that I could seclude your DNA and compare it with Apple Core’s?”

“Yeah…” the earth pony replied slowly. “Ah’m gonna go with ‘no’. Anyways,” he continued, ignoring my pout, “name’s Apple Whiskey. Pleasure t’ meet ya. ‘Fore ya go join mah sis and others, what would ya like t’ drink? First round on the house for Apple Core’s friends,” he added, winking.

Sighing, I made a mental note to ask him again later for a blood sample. “I don’t suppose you serve coffee or tea here, do you?” I asked, not even hopeful. When Apple Whiskey looked at me as if I was mad and shook his head, I tried something else instead: “I would have some sparkle-cola then.”

“Really?” Apple Whiskey asked, surprised. “Ya sure ya don’t wanna somethin’ with more ‘kick’ in it? Ah’m sure Apple Core must have mentioned about mah speciality, apple whiskey.”

“I’m terribly sorry, sweetie, I’m sure your apple whiskey is truly magnificent,” I assured him. “Unfortunately, I don’t like alco-”

The rest of what I was going to say was muffled by somepony’s hoof. “Ya wanna embarrass me before mah brother or somethin’?” Apple Core, to whom that hoof belong to, asked me as she held me in a headlock, covering my mouth and preventing me from speaking. “Give her some whiskey,” she told her brother, further irritating me.

“Now we’re talkin’!” Apple Whiskey replied enthusiastically, his horn lighting up.

I rolled my eyes, unable to voice my protest. Oh, how tempting it was to disable the muscles in your foreleg for a moment, Apple Core. I pondered the idea, but in the end, though, I sighed and gave up. Oh well, I guess I can suffer one drink. Even if it tastes horribly, I added, shaking at the thought, and returned my attention to Apple Whiskey.

He was currently holding a golden apple with his magic, which he laid on the counter before him. He then washed his horn over it, and with a flash, the apple was transformed into a bottle of what I guessed must have been his trademarked apple whiskey.

Honestly, I would have preferred the apple.

“Nice, huh?” Apple Core said, finally releasing me. “Bet’chya there ain’t any unicorn like mah brother in that ‘super magical’ Stable of yars,” she added, punching me lightly in the shoulder.

“That is indeed very impressive,” I agreed, deciding to not mention how the entire lower levels were flooded with wine about sixty years ago.

“Pick’it up and come with me,” Apple Core instructed, turning around as her brother put on a small glass next to the bottle. “Oh, and brother,” Apple Core added, glancing back, “we’re gonna run out soon, bring us more would ya?” While Apple Whiskey rolled his eyes and nodded, I reluctantly lifted both the bottle and the glass with my magic, and, after thanking Apple Whiskey, hurried after her. “We’ve met those mercs Railroad had mentioned,” she told me as I fallen a step beside her. “There’s three of ‘em there, fourth is out scoutin’. He’s also the one in charge of ‘eir lil’ group. However, they’ve said they can listen to our offer.”

“And what is our offer?” I asked, raising my eyebrow.

“Hell if Ah know, ya’re the ‘diplomatic’ one,” Apple Core replied, smirking, after which she pointed with her head at a table at the dark corner of the room.

Around it were five ponies, two of them being Nice Catch and Mousetrap. The other three were all bucks. Two were earth ponies, and guessing by their similar features - such as maroon coats and dark manes, but also their facial features - I assumed that they might be related. The other one, though, was a brown unicorn. He was clearly older from the other two, being near late thirties while the earth ponies appeared to be in their mid-twenties. He was also different from them in his… demeanor. While the two younger bucks were relaxed and in good spirits, the older of the two having his foreleg wrapped around Nice Catch’s shoulders, the unicorn was sitting a bit further away from anypony, his expression stern as he slowly drank his beverage while constantly keeping his eyes on everypony. All three, however, were wearing some kind of combat armor underneath their ragged cloaks, each bearing a few marks of previous damage.

“Oh, Apple’s back,” the older of the two earth pony bucks noted as we approached. “And I’m guessing this must be your medic?”

“I’m Doctor Angel,” I nodded in affirmation and in greeting as we joined them by the table. I laid the glass and bottle on it carefully and sat down. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise, darling,” the buck replied, winking at me. “Name’s Blast, this is my brother Burst,” he said, pointing at the younger earth pony; I noticed that while he smiled friendlily at me, he also slightly blushed, “and the brooding guy there is Scope. Don’t mind him, he’s always like that,” he added, waving at Scope, who glared at him with annoyance.

Blast, Burst and Scope? I think those might be what ponies call ‘stage names’.

“It’s nice to meet all of you,” I said out loud, giving each of them a warming smile. “It’s heartening to see that such obviously hardened veterans of the Equestrian Wasteland can so courteous,” I added, turning to Blast, who grinned at me in return. “I’ve been told that there’s another member of your team?”

“Yeah, Jack, he pretty much calls the shots here,” Blast replied, shrugging.

Jack? I repeated in my thoughts, surprised. What a peculiar name for a pony…

“I look forward to meeting him,” I said, focusing on the matter at hoof. “I trust that my companions had mentioned to you about why we want to talk with you?”

“They’ve said you have some problems back at the old Appleloosa and that your boss is looking for some extra guns, yes,” Blast nodded. “Question is, darling, why should we take a job like this?”

“Whatever do you mean, sweetie?” I asked calmly.

“Well, whatever problems you have, it’s obviously serious, otherwise you wouldn’t want to hire mercenaries,” Blast replied. “Especially since most hired guns aren’t keen on working with slavers. Moral issues aside, capturing ponies isn’t in our job description.”

“Those are some excellent points,” I agreed, joining my forehooves and leaning my muzzle against them. “What is in your job description, if I may ask?”

Blast grinned again, but it was Scope who replied. “Search and destroy, search and recover, investigation and guarding,” he said in a rough, gruff voice.

“Then it would appear this job falls under your group’s work offer,” I replied. “One of the slaver parties was ambushed and killed by what appears to be some sort of tribe. Black Widow asked us to find some professionals, who could help her ponies fight them. Being able to track them would be a nice bonus, I would imagine.”

“Hm…” Blast hummed, pondering what I said. He exchanged a look with Scope before he asked: “And how much would we be getting paid if we’d help you?”

“Black Widow would like to negotiate the terms of your contract herself. I’m sure her offer would be very generous,” I added, noticing the frown on Blast’s face. “Also, we can pay you a considerable sum as an initial payment. Would three hundred caps be enough to convince you to journey to Appleloosa with us?”

“Three hundred?” Blast repeated, snorting with short laughter. “Maybe if pay three hundred for each of us, darling. Of course,” he added, smirking, “we could be… persuaded to lower our price,” he said, looking me up and down lewdly as his foreleg moved from Nice Catch’s shoulder down her body.

“No, we can’t be persuaded,” Scope said in annoyed tone before I could reply, earning an even more annoyed glare from Blast. “You know Jack’s opinion about professionalism.”

“Ugh, fine,” Blast replied, rolling his eyes. “I was pulling her legs anyway...”

“I’m starting to rethink my opinion regarding your courtesy,” I finally said in a humorous tone. Turning to Burst, who so far hadn’t contributed to the conversation, I added: “I hope you don’t follow your brother’s example when talking with mares.”

“Um…” Burst stammered, seeming surprised and taken aback. “W-well, I wouldn’t say I do…”

“I’m relieved to hear that. Tell me, sweetie, is everything alright?” I asked, frowning and leaning closer to him. “You hadn’t spoken much since I joined you.”

“Um, no, everything’s fine,” Burst hastily explained, growing red on his face. “I just-”

“-don’t know how to speak around mares,” his brother interjected, grinning with amusement.

Burst’s head at once turned to him. “Shut it!” he snapped, glaring at him.

“More importantly,” Apple Core interrupted loudly before the argument could escalate, turning to me, “he still talked more ‘an ya drank with us.” When I looked at her, I realized she had poured apple whiskey to my glass and had pushed it closer to me. “Drink.”

“Apple Core, honestly,” I said, trying once more to see if I could talk my way out of it.

“Ah had known ya practically since the moment ya came out of yar Stable and Ah have yet t’ seen ya drink,” Apple Core replied decisively. She tapped the table with her hoof and repeated: “Drink.”

“Wow, really?” Blast exclaimed in surprise (buying me a few precious seconds to prepare myself mentally). “How long she had been out of her Stable?”

“About two weeks,” Apple Core replied, shrugging, before turning back to me. “Drink.”

Reluctantly, I took a hold of the glass with magic. “You know, sweetie, if I were of a wanton mind, I would consider it rather suspicious that you are so adamant about me drinking alcohol.”

“Stop speakin’ fancy and drink,” Apple Core said, her glare letting me know that she understood what I meant (and snorts of amusement from others that they did too).

Sighing, I poured the contents of the glass into my mouth. The liquid immediately burned my throat as I swallowed it, making my eyes water and entire body tensed and shook. I probably must have had a very amusing expression on my face, considering everypony burst with laughter.

“Ha! Finally!” Apple Core exclaimed after she stopped laughing, slapping me hard on my back. “Ya’re almost a true wastelander now. All ya have left is killing somebody.”

“If those are the criterias one has to meet, being considered a ‘true wastelander’ became much less appealing,” I said in a hoarse voice, massaging my throat. I could already feel alcohol affecting me, like a wave gently spreading through my body. “Alas, considering that I sadly already have a few ponies on my conscience, you can consider me one.”

“Wait, what?!” Apple Core asked, her eyes round as plates. “Ya killed ponies?! But, but… ya’re a freakin’ doctor! And ya said ‘at ya only take issue with killin’ ponies when ya started workin’ for us!”

“Just because I ‘take issue’ with that, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, much to my sadness,” I replied, my ears dropping as I looked down my empty glass. “I was one of Stable Eight’s doctors for seven years, five of which I served as its chief of medicine, and during that time I cured hundreds of my fellow stable dwellers, saved even in many cases. But like my mentor used to say, sooner or later each and every doctor screws up, makes a mistake, and it’s burned into their conscience forever.”

Which is the truth, I remarked, even if they were not my patients but test subjects at that point.

“Well… shit,” Apple Core replied with her usual level of empathy and eloquence. “Sorry t’ hear ‘at. How many ponies did ya… Ah mean, ya know…”

“Five,” I replied, poking my glass.

“This calls for another shot,” Mousetrap interjected, nudging Apple Core and pointing at the bottle of apple whiskey.

“Mmm, alright,” I hummed in agreement, without any resistance as Apple Core poured me another drink.

“Shouldn’t it be another four shots?” Blast asked as I grabbed the glass again. “Since it was five ponies she killed and she already had one?”

“As much as Ah want to see ‘er drink, Ah doubt she could take ‘at much,” Apple Core replied. “‘sides, we still need to discuss business with y’all.”

“Oh, right,” I exclaimed, my trip down memory lane causing me to forgot about it for a brief time. Hastily, I drank my drink again, and found this shot much easier than the previous one. “Now, where were we… Ah, yes, getting your team to come to Appleloosa!” I said, laying down my glass and leaning against the table, feeling a bit unsteady. “Considering that all we’re asking you is to come with us aboard the train back to Appleloosa tomorrow, we’re willing to give you four hundred, one hundred for each of you. You will negotiate a contract with Black Widow, and if you decide to not accept the job, you will be able to get back here on the train. All you would lose is a bit of your time.”

“Hm, that’s true I suppose,” Blast said, rubbing his chin as he pondered. “Still, one hundred per each is a bit cheap… and besides,” he added, grabbing his own drink and taking a sip, “we can’t go tomorrow, we have a job in the area.”

“But you could come with us,” Scope spoke up suddenly, looking at me. “You could be useful.”

“We don’t need four other ponies for the job Scope,” Blast countered before any of us could reply.

“I don’t mean all of them, just her,” the unicorn said, pointing at me.

I blinked, surprised. “Me? W-what sort of job is this, exactly?” I asked, feeling unsure as to where this was going.

“Not important right now,” Blast told me. He seemed to think over the idea. “I suppose it would be useful to have somepony who can patch us up, even if it doesn’t look like a dangerous gig.”

“True, but that’s not why I think she would be useful,” Scope replied. “You said you are from a Stable, right?” Kind of a moot question, seeing how I was wearing a stable barding underneath my lab coat. “Then that thing on your foreleg is a PipBuck. It has an Eyes-Forward Sparkle spell in it, it alerts her to presence of nearby life forms and whether they are hostile or not.” Looking at Blast meaningfully, he added: “Considering where we’re going, it would be really useful.”

“Oh yeah, I recall hearing something about those Stable toys,” Blast nodded. “Would you be up for it?” he asked me. “I mean, the decision in the end would be up to Jack, but he wouldn’t mind somepony with one of them PipBucks, especially since you’re a medic. And he would be more likely to agree to your offer if you’d do that. Even if you’re going to pay us so little...” he added, rolling his eyes.

“W-well, I, um…” I stammered.

I was just asked to go out into the actual Wasteland, help a bunch of ponies that I had just met who fight and kill professionally, and the worst part was that I practically had no choice. Black Widow told me to recruit mercenaries, and they were currently the only ones in New Appleloosa. To say I was scared was an understatement. “Y-you see…”

Calm down, I told myself, concentrating. It would have been easier if I wasn’t slightly inebriated. Remember what he told you; when facing adversaries, you can’t show fear. If they know you’re afraid of them, they’ve won. You didn’t show fear when you were on trial or when you were banished. Don’t be paralyzed by fear over something you don’t know! That’s nothing more than ignorance!

Do you have to be so loud? tiny Fluttershy, her ears pressed against her head with her hooves, asked me meekly in my mind, but I ignored her.

“Forgive me, sweetie,” I finally said, smiling at Blast, “I’m afraid the alcohol affected me more than I had expected. Your offer is interesting, to say the least. However, I’m afraid I won’t exactly feel comfortable venturing into the Wasteland with ponies I don’t know. Why won’t you invite my companions as well?”

“Fair point,” Blast admitted. “But eventual trust issues on our part aside, if we were to go in such a big group, we would attract attention. The reason why our leader is away scouting is so that we can reach our objective without having to fight anything on the way there. There’s nothing more annoying that having to waste ammo on raiders. And trust me, darling, there are things much worse than them.”

“That’s a very smart point,” I admitted, surprised that I hadn’t realized it. “It would appear that there is much I have to learn about surviving in the Equestrian Wasteland. Still,” I added, “I would ask you to let at least one of my companions come.”

As Blast and Scope exchanged a pondering look, Burst spoke up: “There’s no need for that. We don’t expect to fight anybody at the- the place,” he quickly said, apparently stopping himself in the last moment from revealing where they were going. “And even if we run into raiders we can protect you.”

“I think she’s more worried about us buddy,” Blast cut in, smirking.

“Maybe she wouldn’t have if you hadn’t made that lewd suggestion,” Burst countered, looking at his brother with dismay.

As Blast waved his hoof dismissively in response and rolled his eyes, I cleared my throat to get back their attention. “I have no doubt that you would be more than capable of protecting me,” I told Burst with a smile, causing him to blush. “And while I admit that our conversation made me somewhat weary,” I added with a glance at Blast, “I do not suspect you of any ill intent against me.” After all, they would have three slavers waiting for them to come back that would ask questions if I were missing. “However, I do know that the Wasteland is an extremely dangerous place. I have been fortunate to have spend most of my time since leaving my Stable within safety of a town, and as such I find the prospect of going out into the ‘wilderness’ without somepony I know I can trust rather… unnerving.”

“I suppose that’s fair,” Blast replied, sighing. “Fine, you can take one of your friends with you, I’m sure Jack will understand.”

“Thank you kindly, sweetie,” I thanked him, after which I turned to Apple Core and looked at her questioningly.

“Ugh, fine, Ah’ll come,” she said, frowning unhappily. “And here Ah hoped Ah’ll get t’ drank mahself stupid until… when would we be back by the way?” Apple Core asked, turning to the mercenaries.

“If everything goes without problems, we should be back the next day around noon. Around midnight tomorrow if we decide to not to make a camp.”

“Huh, yar ‘objective’ must be close,” Apple Core noted, raising her eyebrow. “What kind’a job could ya possibly ‘ave so close to New Appleloosa?”

“Sorry, you’ll have to wait until Jack gets back. He should be here in four, five hours.”

“Unfortunately,” I spoke up, “I had made an appointment with Ditzy Doo at Absolutely Everything, and I don’t know how long we will be busy. I’m afraid Apple Core will have to fill me in on the details, whether it will be tonight or tomorrow morning. Speaking of, when would we need to be ready?”

“About eight in the morning,” Blast replied.

“Why are ya seein’ that walkin’ carcass?” Apple Core in turn asked.

“Sweetie, that’s a really insulting way to talk about a pony suffering a condition like hers,” I replied, frowning.

“Yeah, it’s called an insult,” Apple Core replied without batting an eye. “Why are ya seein’ her?”

“So I can better understand ghouls’ physiology,” I said, resigned. I knew chastising her would be pointless. “I often lost track of time when conducting physical examination, so I might be forced to spend the night at her shop, assuming she would allow me. If not or if I finish it quickly, where are we staying?”

“Just come back here, mah brother will lead ya t’ a free room,” Apple Core said, rolling her eyes and waving dismissively.

“Then I shall take my leave. It was a pleasure to meet you, I hope tomorrow will be an enjoyable experience for all of us,” I told the mercenaries as I rose. I staggered slightly and felt my head spin as I did. “I really don’t like drinking…” I muttered, pressing hoof to my head.

“Yeah, get used t’ it, we’re gonna celebrate after comin’ back,” Apple Core said, grinning, before looking somewhere above me. “Right brother?”

“Hm? Sure, whatever,” Apple Whiskey said, stopping by our table and placing three more bottles of his speciality. “Hey buddy, ya’re Scope right?” he asked, looking at the older unicorn. When he nodded, Apple Whiskey continued: “There’s somepony by the counter askin’ for ya.”

“Probably some old contact,” Scope replied calmly, although he seemed a bit surprised. “I will see what’s that about; maybe it will be info about some new job,” he said as he rose.

“We kinda already agreed to their offer, so don’t go making any promises,” Blast told him as he began to trot towards the counter.

“Before ya go too,” Apple Core spoke up as I felt her nudge me, “one more for the road?”

She was pointing at my glass, which once again had apple whiskey in it.

“Apple Core…” I began weekly, but she shook her head.

“Ya got me into goin’ out helpin’ them tomorrow, the least ya can do is drink one more shot,” she replied adamantly.

I pouted unhappily, but then an idea struck me. “I will drink it if you promise you’ll stop calling Ditzy a ‘walking carcass’.”

“Ya really oughta stop that,” Apple Whiskey told his sister as she rolled her eyes. “Most folks from ‘ere really like ol’ Derpy.”

“Fine, Ah will try to stop calling ‘er that,” Apple Core groaned; I had a feeling that she might have just said that to get both me and her brother off her back. “Now drink.”

Oh, and for me to drink, of course.

Sighing, I decided to get it quickly over with, and poured the apple whiskey down my throat. I shook as I felt it go past my pharynx and I coughed. She could have at least offered me wine instead of whiskey, I thought, patting my chest as I tried to recover. It’s easier to swallow.

“I’ll see you all later,” I said, my voice hoarse again, before turning around and trying to make my way out of the Turnpike Tavern without staggering or falling down.

The key word being try.

“Alright, ya guys wanna bet how many times she falls over?” I heard Apple Core ask behind me.

I was very satisfied about taking away from Apple Core the chance for both getting some laughs and earning some caps, as I had managed to get to the exit without falling. I did stagger all the way, drifting left and right, bumping into two ponies if I had counted correctly, and nearly tripping over a bottle somepony had dropped on the floor.

Honestly, I thought when I passed through the door and stopped outside the entrance, annoyed despite how relieved I was to be outside, when I have the time I will have to look into improving either my organism’s resistance to alcohol or the speed of it processing it. After all, I added as I cast a Detox Spell on myself, if I could have discovered a way to improve the Stable Eight Inoculation that improves the immunology system-

I paused my train of thoughts abruptly. As my magic washed over me, purging alcohol from my body, my motor skills, reflexes, senses and reasoning had returned to normal states. It also removed that feeling of… lightheadedness, allowing me to concentrate properly. Because of that, I realized that I could hear two ponies talking nearby; and I could recognize one of them.

What kind of ‘info’ could this pony bring to Scope that he would go talk about it outside, away from ponies? I wondered. My curiosity getting the better of me, I crept closer to the edge of the tavern’s wall, as quietly as I could, perking my ears in the direction of the dark alley between two buildings.

“And you’ve been told to give this to me?” I heard him ask as I crouched by the tavern’s corner.

“Yes, well, sorta,” an unfamiliar voice replied; given its depth, I assumed it belonged to a buck. “Ah was told t’ deliver this holotape t’ somepony matchin’ yar description, as soon as ya stroll down those parts, after I hear somethin’ ‘ad happened t’ ‘im. And given that he’s dead-”

“He didn’t give you any name?” Scope interrupted him.

“Nah, thought that was weird but hey, he paid me well enough t’ not ask dumb questions. And he also mentioned that after ya listen t’ it ya will probably pay me a few hundred caps.”

A few hundred caps? I repeated in my thoughts, surprised. Just for this holotape? What could possibly be recorded on it that would make anypony sure Scope would pay after he already listened to it? And why would somepony want it delivered after something happens to them? It won’t be much of a help to them now, apparently...

“Oh, and before ya even ask, Ah ‘ave no idea what’s on it,” the stranger quickly assured Scope. “Ah ain’t got no terminal t’ play it or anythin’. So Ah dunno anythin’, ‘kay. And, uh, ponies ‘round ‘ere would ‘ave notice if Ah’d disappear, ya know, just sayin’,” he added, sounding nervous.

“You’ve read too many of those pre-war comics,” Scope replied; he in turn sounded completely calm. “I’m not going to harm you. I’m going to go and listen to this holotape someplace quiet, meet me at this tavern at midnight. Assuming the contents of it prove valuable you can expect getting paid for this.”

It seemed to me that it’s rare to find a pony putting that much value on information, I commented. Apparently, the pony who left this holotape was certain Scope would. Did he know him? He must have, or at least know about him, but If so, why didn’t he tell this pony Scope’s name? This is really- I began only to cut myself off, noticing that my E.F.S. was showing them moving closer. In a matter of few seconds, they were going to pass this corner, and see an albino unicorn crouched behind it. Oh no, I was too lost in thought… think of something, think of something!

As skillful speaker as I was, I doubted that I could talk my way out of this situation. Similarly as to how I doubted that Scope and this other buck were going to react understandingly to me listening in on them. I couldn’t even start moving now and bump into them, pretending it to be an accident, as nopony wouldn’t find it suspicious. And besides, I was supposed to be intoxicated, Scope had to hear Apple Core tell me to drink another before he left-

Wait, that could work!

With only seconds to spare, I cast Emesis Spell on myself, causing me to throw up on the spot. To complete the illusion, I purposefully tripped myself taking a step forward, falling down on my own vomit.

I heard both bucks back away in alarm as I fell right before them. “What the-” the unfamiliar one exclaim in surprise.

“Oh, Doctor Angel,” Scope in turn said; his voice, too, sounded as if he was surprised, but he quickly regained his composure. “I figured you were a stranger to alcohol, but this...”

“Ugh, so disgraceful…” I groaned, trying to raise myself on shaking hooves. I turned my head to them, squinting my eyes. “M-mister Scope? Oh, this is so embarrassing…” I said, sitting down carefully and pressed a hoof to my head.

“It’s alright, really, it happened to anypony at some point,” Scope said comfortingly. “Although it usually takes more than just three shots. Here,” he added, levitating to me a relatively clean piece of cloth, “you, hm, got a bit on your face there.”

“Oh, thank you so much, sweetie,” I said, pretending to light up my horn as if unable to concentrate, before grabbing the cloth with my forehoof.

“Hey, ya’re that Appleloosa’s new medic, right?” the other buck asked me.

I finally took a good look at him. He looked ordinary, an earth pony like any other in New Appleloosa. If I were to pass him in the town, his appearance wouldn’t capture my attention.

What he said next, though, did.

“Talk ‘bout coincidence,” he said, glancing at Scope.

Coincidence? I repeated, so surprised that I forgot that I was pretending to be inebriated, focusing my eyes as I began to contemplate what he had said. Fortunately, Scope’s attention shifted to the other buck, so he hadn’t noticed. Something to think about later I suppose, I thought as I again as I let my gaze became unfocused, wiping my face of my own vomit while Scope glared at his informant.

“What do you mean, sweetie, do you need to see a doctor?” I asked in a tired voice. “I’m afraid that I wouldn’t trust myself with curing anypony for a bit…”

“Nevermind that,” Scope replied instead. “Are you okay? Would you like me to take you to the local medic?”

“Oh, no, sweetie, that’s so kind of you to offer, but I should be fine now,” I assured him. “Well, by now I mean in an hour or two, but I feel better than before. I don’t think I should vomit like this again… especially since my stomach is empty right now.”

“Still, I best walk you to make sure you’re not going to trip again,” Scope said. Turning to the other buck, he said: “We’ll talk later.”

“Oh, right, sure. Nice meetin’ ya, miss,” he said as he passed me in a wide circle, going back to the tavern.

“I’m sorry if I had interrupted anything,” I told Scope, finishing cleaning my face, mane and chest. “Did I get all of it?”

“Um, yes,” he replied, looking me over. “And don’t worry about it, we were done with our business. So, shall we?” he asked, offering me his shoulder to lean on. I nodded and took him up on his offer, remembering to move carefully and in the same staggering manner as when I was leaving Turnpike Tavern. “You mentioned you’re going to that store Absolutely Everything, right?” Scope asked me as we began to trot together.

“Oh, no, sweetie. I mean, I am,” I quickly corrected myself, “but, you see, Ditzy had agreed to see me after she closes her store.”

“Ah, I see. So where are we going?”

“Well, I thought I could pass the time by examining brahmins. Of course, I realize now that I am not well enough currently to perform a precise physical examination,” I added, sighing, “but perhaps I can gain some informations just through talking with them.”

“You…” Scope began; looking at him, I saw that he was staring at me with one eyebrow raised, “You want to go talk with brahmin?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” I asked, confused.

“Well, for starters, the barn all the traders’ brahmins stay at when they’re in town kinda… smells. Which in your condition could be easily nauseating,” he pointed out.

“I had been warned about it,” I replied, recalling Candi’s words after I asked her about where the brahmins were. “I’m confident that I can tolerate the smell.”

“Also, you would be lucky if you’d find a single head in there that could talk to you, let alone with intelligent speech,” Scope continued. “Besides, why would you want to learn about brahmins of all things?”

“Oh, sweetie, I am very curious about everything there is in the Equestrian Wasteland. I intend to become familiar with physiology of every species living here. And the thought of there being a polycephalic species that I can examine truly excites me!” I added, grinning in my excitement.

I could tell that Scope didn’t share it, but he merely shrugged. “To each’s own, I suppose. You are quite educated, aren’t you?” he asked, changing the subject unexpectedly. “Using all those smart words, I mean. Although I suppose that’s not surprising seeing how you were chief of medicine of your Stable. Especially considering your young age. You must be quite a brilliant doctor to have attained such an important position.”

“Why, thank you, sweetie,” I replied, pleased upon hearing his praise. “Although my ‘brilliance’, as you put it, wasn’t the reason I had been given that position. Or rather, not exactly.”

“What do you mean?”

“Important positions, such as chief of medicine, are acquired in Stable Eight through mentorship system, so that everypony can be sure the leadership of the Stable passes to the hooves of competent ponies,” I explained. “The reason why I was elevated to my position so soon after becoming a doctor was purely caused by my mentor wishing to resume his retirement.”

“Oh, I see,” Scope replied, nodding. I admit, it was refreshing to talk with somepony so interested in my Stable. “Still, that must mean your mentor had picked you through among few other doctors.”

“Three other doctors, to be precise.”

“Then it proves you are a brilliant doctor since you were chosen,” Scope said, smiling. However, he then frowned in confusion. “How come you had to leave, though?”

Having expected such a question, I didn’t panic. Sighing, I replied: “It’s… not that I wanted to leave, but was forced to. Suffice to say that there were ideological differences between myself and the Overmare.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. That Overmare must be quite a bitch I take?” I tensed momentarily, causing me to stagger, which thankfully Scope must have attributed to my ‘state’. “I’ve never heard about any stable ponies with number eight on their barding walking around the Wasteland, so I assume it’s not often something like this happens?”

“That is correct, that was the first time the doors were opened since the day the bombs fell,” I replied, forcing myself to not respond to his comment. With my mood soured, however, I couldn’t help but attempt to end this discussion. “May I ask why are you so interested in my Stable, sweetie?”

“Just a professional curiosity, Doctor Angel,” he replied, shrugging; if he had noticed that my voice become slightly colder, he didn’t show it. “It’s not often that I hear about a Stable that actually worked; most were turned by Stable-Tech into deathtraps.”

I frowned. “Apple Core had mentioned this to me, but I had assumed she was exaggerating.”

“Oh, believe me, it’s not an exaggeration. I’ve been hired in the past to scour what had remained of some other Stables. In most cases, something goes wrong in them, they kill everypony, and turn the Stable into a near-lethal trap for anypony that would enter them. And often also destroy all of Stable-Tec’s equipment inside, making my job pointless,” he added, rolling his eyes. “Surprisingly nopony wants to pay too much for excavated junk. I hope this current job proves more profitable...”

“I’m sure you’d know better than me whether it will or won’t,” I replied diplomatically. “I do not know about what this current job of yours is, after all. But I’m sure you and your group had done similar assignments in the past, right?”

Something about the smile Scope flashed me made me wonder once again what this job could be. “You could say that. To be honest, I wasn’t a part of this group for long, just the last two months. Jack, Blast and Burst had been working together for almost a year now. I did know all of them before, however; you tend to keep tabs on other professionals in this business.”

“Oh, I see,” I exclaimed, surprised. “What made you join them, if I may ask?”

“It’s safer than being alone, plus I suspected Jack had a lead on some other job I was looking into,” he replied, waving dismissively. “But that’s all I am going to tell you for now.”

I pouted at him. “How come, sweetie?”

“Because we’re at the place you wanted to go to.”

“Oh,” I exclaimed, blinking as I looked around.

Just as Candi had described it to me, the barn housing all the brahmin present in the town had been constructed using several old train carts, similar to most of other buildings in New Appleloosa. What set it apart from them was, aside from maybe its size, was that it had several wide entrances, probably to make it easier for traders to lead their brahmin and take them out without disrupting anypony. Also, like I had been warned, a pony could detect a mixture of unpleasant smells in the air coming from it.

Possibly a reason for it being located at the edge of the town, I noted, sniffing the air and reflexively wrinkling my nose. Or why there’s nopony in sight. Oh well, I will get used to the smell shortly. I’m just glad it’s within the town’s wall.

“It’s true that time flies when you’re in a good company,” I said, pulling apart from Scope, shaking a little. “Thank you very much for assuring I would get here without tripping, as well as for that delightful conversation.”

“The pleasure’s all mine, Doctor Angel,” Scope replied. Nodding at the barn, he added: “I hope… this, goes well for you. See you tomorrow morning,” he said, turning around and beginning to trot away.

“We’re going to a Stable tomorrow, aren’t we?”

My question caused him to stop and sight. “I should have known not to talk so much about Stables. Do me a favor and don’t mention to others about this. Jack didn’t want us talking about it so that nopony would follow us to the Stable and attack us,” he explained, turning back to me.

“As long as you won’t mention to my companions about… well, what happened when I left the tavern, I will keep quiet about this,” I assured him. Apple Core would never let me live it down. “So there is a Stable somewhere near New Appleloosa?” I asked, curious.

“Three, actually, each several hours of trotting away from here,” Scope replied. “The one we’re going to is located near where Rock Farms were.”

“‘Rock Farms’?” I repeated, confused.

“Earth pony thing, they somehow grew gems from rocks before harvesting them,” Scope explained; his expression suggesting that he didn’t know how exactly that worked himself. “Used to be run by families, but due to high demand for gems during the war all of them had expended. With all those workers living there they were practically a small community, big enough for a Stable to be build there.”

“I see,” I hummed thoughtfully; ‘growing gems’ aside, that all sounded logical. “Are those farms currently inhabited?”

“I’m pretty sure nopony lives there. Between the raiders and your buddies from old Appleloosa, it’s too dangerous to try and make a living there. Both old Appleloosa and Shattered Hoof aren’t that far from them.”

“Sweetie, you have a gift for making a place sound appealing to visit,” I told him humorously, although inside I felt some of my worries regarding this trip return.

While I wasn’t too worried about running into slavers - especially since Black Widow wouldn’t risk sending patrols with this tribe looming nearby - I was concerned about those raiders from Shattered Hoof. As well as that tribe, although I assumed that if they moved into those farms, which seemed quite sensible, this Jack pony would undoubtedly find them while scouting.

Besides, if I am not mistaken, those Rock Farms are on the opposite side of Appleloosa from where Butcher’s patrol was killed… I think, I added; Scope did say they weren’t far from Appleloosa and Shattered Hoof, which the traders we met after leaving the train had told me was north-east from it, and Apple Core had mentioned that Butcher had been looking for ponies south-west from the town. Come to think of it, if I went a different direction after leaving my Stable I might have run into him. If all I heard about him was true I might have not even lived long enough to be ‘rescued’ by those tribals.

“Hey, don’t worry, like we said it should be an easy job,” Scope assured me. “Going in and out of the area is different than trying to make a living there. All we have to worry about are raiders patrols, which is why Jack is scouting a safe route. And trust me, it’s still safer than if we were going to the Stable that’s west of here. It’s right near Ponyville.”

“That’s the town with raiders, right?” I asked, recalling what Apple Core had told me once. When Scope nodded, I said: “Then it is indeed a safer Stable to visit. If I may ask, why are you going there?”

“Ugh, that’s a long story,” Scope replied, rolling his eyes. “It comes down to a pony from Tenpony Tower wanting a certain pre-war item. Back when we were in Manehattan, we found out it was sent to one of the ponies living on the farms that had been accepted to this Stable.”

“Really? I’m impressed, sweetie, that’s truly remarkable work you and your teammates have done,” I praised him, truly meaning it. “If I may ask, what’s the item?”

“Hadn’t I answered enough of your questions, Doctor?” Scope asked in turn, almost teasingly.

I smiled. “You are right, of course. I won’t pry. But can I ask how come you know so much about Stables?” It troubled me, to be honest. “I mean, you know how many Stables there are near New Appleloosa, and how to get to them… are their locations a common knowledge?”

“Not exactly. I mean, I think some ponies around here know about this closest one. But if the location of every Stable was known, even despite their reputations there would be plenty of idiots trying to break into them and find some valuables. Meaning that either they would have all been discovered and emptied already, or the population of Equestrian Wasteland would be even smaller. No, I merely know about them because I make my business to know things like that,” he said, smirking.

“Aren’t we’re going to a Stable?” I pointed out.

“We’re professionals,” Scope replied, again rolling his eyes. “Now, I think I answered enough of your questions to repay you for telling me about your Stable. So if you excuse me, there’s a drink with my name on it waiting for me back at the tavern.”

“Oh, of course. Have a nice evening,” I called after him as he left.

Well, he was certainly informative, I mused, watching him go for a few seconds before moving into the barn entrance. I didn’t want Scope to think I was distrusting him. Which I kind of was. While I am not surprised, considering his age, that he would have a considerable knowledge about the Equestrian Wasteland, I am surprised he would be so willing to reveal it to practically a stranger.

He could just be nice, tiny Fluttershy told me.

True, I suppose, I replied, not even arguing with the apparition in my mind. Or questioning again why did she suddenly speak up. I would consider that he and the rest of his team plan to kill me and Apple Core after we help them, so he isn’t concerned about telling me so many secrets, but they wouldn’t gain anything worth doing that. Hm… could it be that he hopes it will in turn encourage me to reveal more information about Stable Eight? Perhaps he had noticed when my mood changed and thought I had grown suspicious? Asking all those questions about my Stable was indeed a bit weird after all… not that I would be worried about four mercenaries making their way past Stable Eight’s security. Rather, I would be worried about them throwing their lives away.

You’re surprisingly compassionate at times, Fluttershy said, seemingly surprised.

If you are going to base your entire opinion about me based on how I act towards Cutter, you won’t understand me, which you claimed you’re trying to do, I told her. And speaking of Cutter, Scope could have talked with me about all of that because he might have suspected that I overheard something, despite my ‘state’.

So… you think that the one who asked this pony to deliver the holotape was Cutter?

It would seem the most logical answer, I replied. During the entire time I had been talking with Scope, I had been pondering this at the back of my mind, unable to stop myself and unable to find any other answer. Why else would that pony say ‘talk about coincidence’? And it would make sense, he couldn’t have learned before about Cutter’s ‘death’, as the train had returned today.

I… guess, Fluttershy say uncertainly. I’m sorry, I’m just not good with all this scheming.

That poses a question; I said, ignoring her; several, in fact. What could be on that holotape? Why would he expect something happen to him? Why would he want that holotape to reach Scope? And most importantly, given my current situation, just who is Scope?

You already have some theories answering all of those questions, don’t you?

Indeed, but most of them are just theories, I admitted. Especially regarding Scope’s identity. As for why Cutter had expected that something would have happened to him, he did say that he has some, quote, shit, unquote, on Black Widow.

He did?

Oh, right, that was before I found your statuette. Thanks for confirming once again that you’re not a figment of my mind, I told her, causing the apparition to cross her forelegs and deadpan at me. Anyway, I suspect that he hadn’t told Black Widow about it, and planned to reveal it to her only if she would ever hint that she plans to take some action against him. He probably left this holotape as an insurance.

What could be on it, though? Cutter must have been sure it would make her unwilling to harm him. And, well, she doesn’t seem like a pony who gets… discouraged easily, she said, somewhat bashful. She’s really scary.

She is, I agreed. I have my suspicions, but to be sure I will have to ask Cutter when I get back. I would rather not make any assumptions based on uncertain facts and theories. It might affect how I interact with Scope from now on, which could end badly.

That’s probably for the best, tiny Fluttershy agreed, sounding relieved. Discussing all of that made me really nervous.

I rolled my eyes; I did not ask her to join my contemplation. Or to appear in my mind, for that matter. Anyway, I did come here for a specific purpose, I thought, turning toward the interior of the barn. Let’s examine some brahmins.

*** *** ***

I wasn’t sure what to think about the condition in which the brahmin were being kept.

The barn, having been constructed from a few boxcars fused together, was divided into two segments. Looking by the mismatched color of the wall separating them, I guessed that the second segment was made from two cars, while the first one was from three. Most of the walls from the boxcar in the middle and the two adjected to it had been removed, leaving pillars of sorts, in between which ponies had arranged booths in which brahmin were resting.

They’re treated like animals in those pre-war zoos were, I noted, looking back as I trotted towards the other half of the barn. Then again…

There were five brahmin in this half. I tried to start a conversation with them, but all ten heads gave me only blank stares at best, with some not even raising from their troughs.

I’m pretty sure none of them is the brahmin that was with those traders that caused our train to stop, I thought, taking one more look at them. And come to think of it, the head that talked to me said that the other one isn’t too smart. Could it be that such level of intelligence is rare among them? I thought Scope had been exaggerating, I added, recalling his comment.

Resigned, I walked past the wall to the other part of the barn. I hope those traders hadn’t left the town yet, I thought as I looked from one brahmin to the other in the booths in front of me, from right to left. Which one was it- oh!

Oh! tiny Fluttershy exclaimed, then blushed and covered her eyes. Oh my!

Oh, you’re back, I thought; to be honest, I had been slightly surprised when she remained quiet during my earlier musing. Would you like to discuss this with me?

No, I don’t think we should… Fluttershy said quietly, trying to look away.

Do you think that interspecies relationships are common in the Equestrian Wasteland? I asked, ignoring her discomfort.

I… Angel! she snapped suddenly, surprising me. Stop staring at them like that! Give them some privacy!

This is a public place, I pointed out, and besides they are too busy kissing to realize they have company.

Looking away from the head the colt was kissing, I realized that the other one didn’t have the vacant expression I saw on all the other. In fact, she was acting a like filly her age would; she was blushing and glancing at the other head and the colt, covering her mouth with her hoof and giggling.

Good, now leave! Fluttershy told me, staring at me sternly (and doing her best to ignore the kissing… couple?).

Do you think they’re about to have intercourse? I asked, too intrigued to indulge her.

W-what?! she exclaimed, the fur on her face becoming red. A-angel! They’re just kids!

Kids? I repeated, my attention shifting from them to her in my surprise. The colt appears to be at least twelve years old, he must have already gone through puberty. He has a cutie mark, too, I noted, glancing at the symbol on his flank. It appeared to be a “lasso” catching three bottle caps on his flank. As for the brahmin… judging by her size when compared to an adult, I would say she’s on the same stage of life. I wonder if their lifespans, growth and development are similar to ponies’…

Then they are still kids! Such young ponies-

She’s not a pony.

-are too young to be doing things like that! she finished adamantly, ignoring my comment.

How exactly- I began, but then stopped. Wait, I don’t understand, do you want me to leave or do you want me to stop them? Because-

“Ah, ya’re ’at funny mare from earlier!”

Startled, I stopped arguing with the tiny Fluttershy in my head. So focused I was on the two kids of different species kissing that I hadn’t realized that in the booth right next to theirs was the brahmin that I had been looking for.

As one might have expected, her speaking so suddenly resulted in the colt and young brahmin (If they had descended from cattles, would that make her a ‘calf’? Hm, I think the female calves were called ‘heifer’.) jumping away from each other and looking at me, alarmed.

“Wha- Belle!” the right head of the brahmin (the one that was kissing with the colt) glared at the left one angrily, both her and the colt red on their faces. “Ya were supposed t’ keep watch!”

The other head - apparently named Belle - blinked. “Ah was?” she asked, tilting her head, before gasping air. “Oh, Ah was! My bad,” she said apologetically.

As the other head facehoofed, and the colt continued to stare at me silently, I turned to the older brahmin. “Hello again,” I greeted her. “I had hoped you’d be here. You kids don’t have to mind me,” I said, glancing at them briefly, before returning my attention to the adult brahmin. I noticed that her other head wasn’t even looking at me. “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced-”

“Hang on a fuckin’ second!”

I turned back to the heifer, wide eyed from shock at being so rudely interrupted. The colt, seemingly also shocked, stared now at her as she climbed over the gate of her booth through which the two had been kissing.

“We’re not supposed t’ leave…” the head named Belle tried to say, but the other head ignored her, jumping down from the gate on the other side.

Her movements are perfectly coordinated, I noted as she walked up to me, stomping angrily. I had seen that and other brahmins simply walking, but this heifer climber over an obstacle in a matter of seconds, like a single-headed being of similar build would.

Aside from observing her motor function, I also took the advantage of her being so close now to take a better look at her (Or them? It’s a bit confusing.). Like the adult brahmin I was already familiar with, their body was practically furless with reddish, almost pinkish skin. She was smaller than me, but was a head taller than the colt that I assumed was her age. Her body was also more slender than an adult brahmin’s. Being still a heifer and not a full grown cow, she had very small pair of udders, barely visible from where I was standing. Each head had a pair of small horns protruding from her skull above her their ears. Curiously, their horns weren’t identical; the horns of the angry head were slightly bigger and a bit curved, while Belle’s were straight.

I finished my observations as they stopped before me. “Jus’ how long were ya standin’ there watchin’ us?!” she asked, still angry and still blushing, punching me in the chest with her cloven hoof.

“Um, Anna…” the colt tried to interject, finally giving me a name for the right head of the heifer, but she silenced him with a glare.

“Shush! Well?!” Anna asked again, turning back to me. “Are ya some kind of fuckin’ pervert?!”

Hearing her swear again caused me to frown. Alright, enough of this.

“Young lady, there’s no need for such language here!” I scolded her, looking down on her.

Anna stared at me in shock, her jaw hanging open as she instinctively backed away. Apparently she hadn’t expected such reaction, nor did the colt whose expression mirrored hers. However, she quickly recovered and stomped the ground angrily.

“Ya stand there spyin’ on me and Caps Wrangler and ya lecture me?!” she asked in disbelief. “Ya better start ‘splainin’ yarself, lady!” Anna added, sarcastically saying the last word as she lowered her head slightly and kicked the ground, exhaling sharply.

“I wasn’t spying on you, I merely walked in on you two kissing,” I replied calmly. Strangely, saying the word ‘kissing’ out loud caused both Anna and Deal to quake and become more embarrassed. “If you’re uncomfortable for some reason with others bearing witness at your displays of affection for one another, I’d suggest waiting for a later hour. Now, if you’d excuse me-” I began to say, intending to finally talk with the adult brahmin (who was observing this exchange with amusement), but I was once again cut off.

“W-wait, did ya say ‘for some reason’?” the colt asked me, looking at me with disbelief.

“That is what I said, yes,” I replied, not understanding why did that surprised him.

Caps Wrangler and Anna exchanged equally confused looks. “Wow, and Ah thought Belle’s dumb,” Anna said, pointing at her other head.

“Hey!” Belle exclaimed, upset at the remark.

“Young lady!” I once again said, frowning at Anna. “It’s not nice to call others names, especially when they are your… “ I paused, for the first time in a very long time having completely no idea what to say. What word would describe their relation best? Sister? Other self? “... your other head,” I finished after two seconds of hesitation. “Apologize to her.”

“Ya’re… ya’re kiddin’, right?” Anna asked, looking at me as if I had lost my mind. When my expression didn’t change, she sighed and glanced at Belle. “Sorry sis.”

“Aww, it’s alright!” Belle replied happily, tilting her head to brush against hers.

“Anyways…” Caps Wrangler said, trotting closer to me. “Miss, would ya mind not tellin’ anypony about… what ya saw?” he asked, his face growing red once again. “Ah would be in trouble with mah parents.”

His parents would have objections to him dating her? I thought, puzzled. I suppose this means interspecies relationships aren’t common after all. Then again there could be other reasons… I think...

Not wanting to prolong the colt’s discomfort, however, I didn’t voice any of the questions regarding social norms in the Equestrian Wasteland that had popped up in my head. I merely smiled down at him and nodded. “I had no intention of doing that in the first place, sweetie, I am not a gossipy pony.”

In contrast to Caps Wrangler, who was visibly relieved to hear that, Anna once again stared at me wide-eyed. “S-sweetie?!” she repeated barely a second after I finished my sentence, then again stomped the ground. “Watch it, ya perv!”

“Anna!” Caps Wrangler hissed at her, then smiled apologetically at me. “She’s, uh, jus’ jokin’ ‘round.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” I replied, smiling back at him; apparently he was under the impression that I might change my mind based on Anna’s rudeness. “Even if she wasn’t, I won’t go back on my word. Your secret is safe with me.”

“Thanks, Miss. Ah better go,” he said, turning the Anna and Belle. “Mah parents will be wonderin’ where Ah’ve been. Ah’ll be la- um,” he cut off mid-sentence, glancing at me quickly, “Ah’ll see ya later Anna. Bye Belle,” he added, turning to leave and waving back. “Bye Miss.”

“Bye Caps!” Belle called out as we waved.

Do both of them wave, or just one of them? I wondered, glancing at them.

At the same moment, Anna turned to once again glare at me. I waited for her to speak, but as the seconds dragged on with her just glaring silently at me, I asked: “Is there something you want, sweetie?”

Anna’s ears perked in surprise when I called her ‘sweetie’, but she quickly returned to glaring at me. “Ah’m watchin’ ya,” she told me, turning around and heading for her booth.

Belle in turn gasped. “Ya’ve noticed how pretty her coat is too?” she asked, causing Anna to sigh.

I smiled hearing the cute exchange, before finally turning to the adult brahmin. “I’m sorry this took so long,” I began, looking at the talking head; I wasn’t sure whether or not address both of them.

“Don’t ya worry, this was fun t’ listen to,” she replied, grinning. “Ya said ya hoped Ah would be ‘ere?”

“That’s correct. I don’t believe we were properly introduced. I’m Doctor Angel,” I said, and I was about to raise my foreleg and offer it to her, but I hesitated; adult brahmin’s appendages didn’t seem as maneuverable as calf’s were, making me wonder if she could shave hooves with me.

“Pleasure meetin’ ya, Doctor Angel,” she said, standing as still as before and looking down on me from above her booth’s gate. “Ah’m Bess, and this quiet fellow ‘ere’s Bob.”

Bob? I repeated, surprised. I’m pretty sure that’s a male name.

“Say hello to the kind Doctor, Herbert,” Bess said, looking at… Bob?

“Um… excuse me,” I said as the other head didn’t as much as perk his ear, “is... his name Bob or Herbert?”

“Oh, it’s Bob. Ah just call ‘im Herbet to get on ‘is nerves,” Bess explained, chuckling.

“Oh, I see,” I said, nodding; truth be told, I still felt a little confused. “He doesn’t talk much, doesn’t he?”

Before Bess could reply, a loud snort came from my left. Searching for the source of the sound, I saw that the heifer was still outside of her booth, and Anna was once again looking at me. Belle, however, was drinking water from their trough, having pressed her head through the space between the small gate’s bars.

“Ya ain’t really perspective, ain’t ya?” Anna asked disparagingly.

Frowning thoughtfully, I replied: “If you are referring to my question, I wouldn’t say it had been caused by the level of my perspectives. Rather, it was caused by my lack of knowledge regarding your species, desire to attain said knowledge, and my need to be certain whether my observation had been correct or not.”

Anna stared silently at me for a second, then tilted her head. “Huh? Can’t ya talk normally?”

I sighed. “What I meant was that I don’t know too much about brahmins, I hadn’t even seen any before today.”

“Ya’ve never seen a brahmin? What, were ya livin’ under a rock or somethin’?” Anna asked, frowning.

“I suppose you could say that,” I agreed. “I used to live within a Stable until not long ago. As such, I am extremely curious about everything there is to know about the Wasteland and its inhabitants. And I must say, you brahmin are really interesting.”

Interestin’?” Anna repeated, shocked. “Ya really must be dumb if ya think that.”

“Sweetie, what did I say about insulting others?” I asked, frowning at her once again.

Anna rolled her eyes, but before she could say anything in reply, Belle finished drinking. “Ya could stop sayin’ all those mean words,” she said, her head raising from the trough as they backed away from the gate.

“Mind yar own business,” Anna told her, glaring at her sister.

“Ah think Ah have to agree with the youngin’,” Bess cut in. I turned my attention to her as she continued. “Ah don’t see how ya can find us interetin’. Most brahmin are dumb as posts. Even mah other half ‘ere,” she added, glancing at Bob as he lowered down to their trough and began to eat… whatever it was that ponies gave them to eat. Didn’t smell very tasty.

“That’s actually one of the reasons why I find you so interesting!” I replied, beaming up. “I never imagined there could be a species whose members could be so diverse in terms of their intelligence level!”

“Glad t’ be a member of a dumb species,” Anna snorted, looking away.

“But that's not the only reason,” I continued, ignoring her comment. “Obviously, your bicephaly - that you have two heads - is also really interesting, that you can have two different personalities despite sharing the same body, and that it doesn’t impend your motor functions! Sweeties,” I turned to Anna and Belle, “how did you get over your gate?”

“We climbed over it, obviously,” Anna replied, confused.

“You said ‘we’, despite that you were the one that wanted to come to speak with me, while Belle was reluctant,” I said, then looked at her other head. “Belle, sweetie, could you come over here for a moment?”

“‘Kay!” Belle exclaimed happily, and began to trot towards me.

“Wait, hang on,” Anna said, and they stopped. Not only that, they also dug their hooves to the ground, as if reading to attack me. “Why?”

“I just wanted to evaluate how you walk. It would appear that you can decide by yourself to move if you want, but you are also capable of taking back control from the other… am I correct?” I asked, scratching my chin thoughtfully.

“Hm… Ah dunno,” Belle answered, scratching her head. “Ah think we usually move together… except when sometimes Anna starts bein’ bossy,” she added, pointing at her other head, resulting in Anna rolling her eyes. “Oh, and usually when she and Caps-”

“Belle!” Anna shouted, her hoof shooting to cover Belle’s mouth. “So, um, movin'!” she said, turning to me; judging by her blushing again I assumed Belle had been about to reveal something embarrassing to her (Not surprising, considering it included her young buck.), and was trying to distract me. “Yeah, like she said, we move together most of the time. As for that ‘bossy’ part, what she meant was… ugh, how should Ah ‘splain this…” she mused, releasing Belle; her sister hadn’t seemed to mind being silenced, though. “It’s like, one of us want t’ go somewhere and we both go. But if one of us doesn’t want t’, we can stop. Ah ‘sppose Ah’m usually the one t’ make the call,” she admitted, glancing at her sister, probably to see her if she was gloating that she was right, but Belle was merely smiling at me.

“Hm, curious…” I mused. Is it because she’s more authoritative from the two of them? Or does Belle simply trust her to know better? Regardless, if they truly ‘move together’, it implies some level of telepathy between them… But I don’t have the means of checking if that’s true or not. Unless… “Would the two of you mind assisting me with an experiment?” I asked.

Angel! Fluttershy suddenly exclaimed in my head, looking at me with mixture of horror and anger. You can’t possibly mean-

Of course not, now be quiet, I told her, doing my best to act normally.

“What I mean is,” I quickly added, not wanting the magical apparition to interrupt me again, “is that I would like to examine the two of you, concentrating mostly on your individual reactions. Seeing how you two are the only brahmin here with both heads capable of speech, you are the only candidate for this research. I would like to conduct this research the day after tomorrow if possible,” I added, “as I will require some materials, and I will be away for tomorrow.”

“Ya’re outta luck then,” Anna replied, shrugging. “We’re leavin’ town that mornin’.”

“Wha- really?” I exclaimed, downcast. “Can’t you stay another day?”

“Lady, ya seriously think we have anythin’ t’ say in the matter?” Anna added, raising her eyebrow. “We and two other brahmins belong t’ Caps Wrangler’s parents, we carry the crap they trade from town t’ town.”

“Oh… I see,” I said. I recalled that brahmin were generally being used as pack animals. Seeing how most of them were unable to even speak, it was understandable. Although considering the intelligence those two have… you can’t put them on the same level as all those mute brahmins! I thought. “Do they treat you two right?”

“Yeah, they’re really nice!” Belle immediately replied. “They don’t make us carry as much as Butter, Cup, Pepper and Mint do, and they always make sure we’re ‘ave ‘nough t’ eat!”

“I’m glad to hear that,” I said; I noticed that Anna was once again rolling her eyes. I guessed that not everything was as great as Belle claimed. Which I suppose was understandable, seeing how she and Caps Wrangler must have had a reason for hiding their relationship from them. “Would those other two brahmin happen to be your parents?” I asked instead, hoping to get some information about brahmin reproduction.

Now Anna snorted. “Oh, please. We’ve never met our father, and as for Mom, well…” she trailed off, looking away.

“She was sold,” Belle answered instead, her ears dropping.

“Sold?” I repeated, surprised.

I worked in slaver’s town, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with the concept. Still, to separate mother and her children…

“She was old,” Anna spoke up. She was once again looking at me. “Her milk ‘ad dried up after we grew up a little, and she couldn’t keep with the caravan. Try t’ guess what happened,” she finished, snorting again.

I frowned, confused, but the enigma was solved for me. “Ah, probably been sold for meat,” Bess said, nodding her head. “Sorry t’ hear that.”

“Meat?” I repeated, staring at Bess. How could one eat a sapient being-

The brahmin steaks at Salt Block in Appleloosa.

Oh… Oh merciful Goddesses, I thought, frozen, as my brain tried to process this information. I… I was trying to eat…

Until today, I didn’t know that brahmin were sapient. Nopony back in Appleloosa had told me, not a single time I had ordered them and tried to eat, believing that their status as highest priced meal must translate to their quality. The thought of consuming a sapient being, or even a member of a species that just could have been sapient, was so unrealistic to me, that it had taken me this long to realize that I had tried to do exactly that several times.

“Anna, Belle?” I spoke to them, my face still facing Bess. “Could you come closer to me?”

“Sure!” Belle replied happily, and I heard them trotting towards me.

“What do ya want?” Anna asked as they crossed the small distance between us.

Instead of replying, when they stopped next to me, I turned around quickly and pulled them into a hug.

“What the-” Anna exclaimed somewhere below my left ear; as I hugged them, I squeezed my head and neck between theirs. “W-what are ya doin?!”

Hiding my face from them. I didn’t want them to see my shock, my… horror.

My guilt.

And besides that, those two deserved some comfort.

“I am so sorry this had happened to you,” I said, hugging them a little tighter with my forelegs.

It was a weird sensation, to hug somebody with two very different minds. Their body would occasionally twitch, as if about to try and free themselves from my hug, but then quickly resuming to calmy return it.

“Aww, this feels so nice!” Belle hummed happily. “Almost nobody hugs us.”

“I can’t imagine why,” I said, moving my foreleg to stroke her head. “You’re such a charming heifer, sweetie.”

“Ugh, don’t make this weirder,” Anna whined as she finally seemed to give up.

“I’m so sorry about your mother,” I whispered after a few seconds as I moved my other foreleg to pet Anna’s as well; Belle seemed to really enjoy it, as she began to grind her head against my hoof. She stopped momentarily though when I mentioned their mother.

“Thanks, Miss,” she said in a more somber tone before resuming enjoying her treatment.

“Y-yeah,” Anna added, a bit awkwardly. I felt their forelegs hug me tighter briefly in turn as I stroke her head. “It’s alright Miss, it’s been years since then.”

“I’m glad to know you have coped well with it,” I said; finally, I felt myself calm enough to safely talk with them face to face. Still, we remained in this embrace for a few more moments before I parted away. “It’s a pity that you won’t be able to help me with my research, and I wish we would get to know one another better,” I said, looking from one to the other. “I hope we will get to meet again someday.”

“Oh, do ya have to leave already?” Belle asked, saddened.

“Hm? No sweetie, I still have…” I paused to check the time on my PipBuck. I was surprised to find out that I had less than an hour left before meeting Ditzy. “I have about forty minutes left before I have to leave.”

“Then can ya play with us?” Belle asked hopefully. Anna in contrast rolled her eyes. Again. “Only Caps Wrangler plays with us. And lately he only plays with Anna,” she added, pouting.

As Anna grew red on her face again, I began to reply: “Well…”

I had came here to research the brahmins. To learn more about them, by talking if possible, and by examining them physically. (Not though exploratory surgery, sadly, I knew there wouldn’t be enough time to close them up afterwards.) I didn’t come here to play games with a child.

Worried about the little heifer’s feelings, I searched for the most kind words I could think of as I was about to decline, looking back into her blue eyes. Her big, pleading, gazing at me with hope blue eyes...

“... of course,” I finished, smiling. “I’m afraid I’m not good with games, though,” I added as Belle beamed up and Anna looked at me with disbelief. “I only really liked one when I was your age, and I don’t think you’d enjoy it.”

“That’s okay, we have plenty of games!” Belle exclaimed, practically jumping from happiness. “Come over t’ our booth, Caps brought us our ball earlier!”

A… a ball? I repeated with dread as I followed her. Oh dear…

I hoped she didn’t intend to play a game that would require scoring points. I was not looking forward to being completely humiliated by a teenage heifer with two heads.

*** *** ***

Ironically, despite having lost my drive to conduct my research on the heifer that day, our time spent playing proved quite informative. When first Belle made us play ball - which fortunately only included throwing the ball between us, nothing more complicated than that (didn’t stop Anna from counting how many times I didn’t catch it though) - I was able to evaluate their hoof-eye coordination.

It was better than mine.

The next game we played, Twenty Questions, actually proved much better way of evaluating their intelligence than some of the tests I had planned for them. Right away I learned that they can’t read each other’s thoughts. By measuring the time it took them to formulate her questions and figure out the answer, however, I deduced that while Anna was on the same level of mental development as a pony her age would be, while Belle was a few years behind. I suppose I could have figured that by observing how foalish she acted. Sadly, for this to be relevant research, I would have to conduct it with more brahmins and compare their results.

Oh, and I won that game.

After Belle decided that this game was taking too long to play and was boring, she made us play tag. Which I suppose allowed me to evaluate their physical abilities.

And allowed them to learn that I can’t run to save my life.

“Okay, Ah change mah mind, this is pretty fun,” Anna laughed from the other end of the barn as I sat down on the ground, trying to catch my breath.

“Hm… maybe we should pick another game…” Belle mused as they trotted back to me.

“A… actually...” I tried to say, breathing heavily. “I’m… terribly sorry, sweeties… but my time is up.”

According to my PipBuck, Ditzy would be closing her shop in about ten minutes. As much as I didn’t want to disappoint Belle, I really needed to get going.

“Oh,” Belle exclaimed sadly, “okay. Hope we meet again!” she added, beaming up. “Ya’re fun!”

“Yeah, fun,” Anna said, her sarcastic tone and eyeroll suggesting that she didn’t mean it, or at least not as much as her other head. But then she glanced at me and added: “Ah guess ya’re okay for a pony. Still dumb, pervy and little crazy though.”

“Aww, ya like ‘er! Belle shouted, smiling widely at her. As Anna sighed Belle began to brush her head against hers. “Yay!”

I smiled seeing them show their affection for one another, then turned to Bess and Bob, by whose booth I had been resting. “I hope you at least will be here when I’ll get back to New Appleloosa. I would like to familiarize myself with an adult brahmin’s physiology. If there will be something ailing you, I will heal you free of charge,” I added, confident that my Healing Spell would work even with only basic knowledge about their biology.

It was, after all, only the matter of how effective and how much magic it would require to heal her in such case.

“We should be ‘ere a while,” Bess replied, smiling; I suspected that after watching me play with a heifer for over half an hour she developed a liking to me. “And Ah have a few aches.”

“Then I hopefully will see you two soon,” I said, nodded at both of them friendlily.

“Miss Angel?” Belle’s voice caught me by surprise; as I talked with Bess, she and Anna walked over to me. In my exhausted state, with my heart still pumping blood fast enough to the point that I could hear it in my ears, I hadn’t noticed them. Now they were sitting beside me, with Belle looking at me pleadingly with her dark blue eyes, and Anna looking somewhere at the ceiling. “Can we hug again for goodbye?”

I was surprised to hear such a ridiculous question. “Of course, sweetie,” I replied, hoping my voice didn’t betray my surprise; I did recall her mentioning that almost nobody ever hugged them.

Belle mooed happily in response, and then proceeded to practically tackle me. Somehow managing to not fall down to the ground, I wrapped my forelegs around her as they did the same.

“I really hope I run into you someday,” I said softly as we parted a bit, letting us look at each other. Belle was smiling back at me, but Anna was now looking at the ground, her cheeks burning a bit.

Curious how she would react, I leaned closer, first to Belle, then to Anna, kissing both of them on their foreheads.

Belle giggled and blushed, but Anna jerked in surprised. “W-what the hell!?” she asked, rubbing her forehead and glaring at me angrily. And blushing. “Ya… ya crazy perv!”

Now it was my turn to roll eyes at her. “Just a bit of affection, sweetie. Goodbye,” I said, waving as I began to trot out of the barn.

“Bye!” Belle replied, waving enthusiastically, while Anna, after she finished brushing her forehead a few more times, kicked the ground and said something sounding like “See ya.”

That was… really surprising of you, Angel.

I smiled as I turned my head away from the heifer. Is that a praise I hear in your voice, Fluttershy? I asked the apparition.

When I reached the barn’s entrance, a gust of wind blew, causing my mane to wave on it. As I tasted the fresh air, I realized that I probably smelled bad after being so long with all those brahmin, not to mention playing with one.

Well, yes, tiny Fluttershy replied as my Disinfection Spell washed over me and my clothes. I’m really happy you decided to spend your time playing with them, instead of trying to examine them or worse.

Worse? I asked, raising my foreleg to sniff my lab coat, wanting to make sure the spell had cleansed me. While I didn’t find the brahmin’s smell repulsive, I expected other ponies would.

Well, you are holding one pony against his will and conducting experiments on him.

My leg fell to the ground.

I was afraid that you might be trying to come with a way of taking her back to Appleloosa and looking her up along with Cutter, Fluttershy continued, chuckling nervously, oblivious to the effect her words had on me.

Is that… all that I am in your eyes? I asked, turning to look at her (forgetting that, since this apparition appeared only in my mind, I didn’t need to turn my head to look at her) in disbelief.

Apparently, my reaction confused Fluttershy, as she returned my look with uncertainty. W-what do you mean? she asked, hesitantly.

Do you consider me how I am when in my basement with Cutter to be the real me? I explained, still staring at her. What about whenever I hang around with Apple Core, or earlier with Candi in Ditzy, or with Anna and Belle? Do you think that me is a mask I put on when I’m outside my laboratory?! As my mental voice increased in volume - at least, I thought it did, I wasn’t too familiar with any sort of telepathic magic - my stare turned into glare.

I… W-well, um… tiny Fluttershy stammered, probably having realized how upset I was.

I snorted, barely containing myself from pointing a hoof at her. You are the same as everypony. You have no idea what motives drive a pony, and don’t care, you just know their actions go against your morality and that is enough to condemn them! Well, I continued, calming down; I was no longer “shouting” mentally, but my thoughts turned cold, here’s a valuable piece of information for you; not everybody follows the same morals as you, or even as majority of sapient beings in the planet. It does not mean they have no morals at all. I would never kidnap somebody like Anna and Belle to use them for my experiments! Nor Ditzy for that matter! I added before looking away from her. You are in my head; how could you think that?

Inside, in a part of me that I hoped was inaccessible to whatever she was, I thought: If something with access to my mind thinks so… what did-

A-angel?

Taking a deep breath, I replied: Yes?

Um… Fluttershy stammered. When I turned to her, she was looking at the ground, not meeting my eyes. When they banished you from your Stable, did it hurt? she finally asked.

I raised my eyebrow, surprised at the question. No, not really. At first I was… shocked, I admitted. I suppose it took me a while to come to terms that it had really happened. Looking back at it, I am glad that it did; out here, there are far more possibilities for me to pursue in my research. And I never felt angry at the Overmare or anypony for banishing me; I had broken the laws of the Stable. Even if I disagree with those particular laws, I do understand that. So no, being banished did not hurt. I looked away. What they thought did. I could see it in their eyes, during my trial and when I was being led to the door of Stable Eight. None of them understood, and I don’t think any of them even tried.

It wasn’t exactly true, as the Overmare had asked me questions during the trial. But she had proved unable to comprehend the answers I could give her.

Angel, Fluttershy said carefully after a few seconds had passed. I’m… I’m sorry how that made you feel. I really, truly am. But... I rolled my eyes, knowing what was coming next. … if so many ponies reacted that way when the truth about your experiments came to light, doesn’t this mean that maybe the morals you hold are… wrong?

Do you think Cutter has morals? I asked instead of replying.

Huh?

He is a doctor, like me. Surely, he must have learned somewhere those skills to be Appleloosa’s medic for so many years. And what he had done with that knowledge? He never cared about any of his patients, I said, despite knowing Fluttershy was with me as I heard various stories about Appleloosa’s past during the last two weeks. He prioritized patients based on how much caps they would bring the slavers. He let foals die. He did nothing to help or prevent the slaves from being violated, only that they were alive and healthy to be sold. I know that I’ve been forced into the same role, but you can’t deny that I am trying to do what I can for them.

I… I know, Fluttershy admitted. Showing a shadow of a smile, she added: It was funny when you told those slavers she had that made up venereal disease.

Ugh, don’t remind me, I thought, still feeling the urge to facehoof at the memory from last week. How could anypony with half a brain believe there was a disease that would cause necrosis in your penis after an hour?! The point is, I continued, returning to the original subject, I know it’s wrong to conduct such experiments on ponies. No, I corrected myself, on sapient beings. Which is why I do not conduct them on sapient beings; only on those who had discarded their right to be considered such. Which reminds me, I added, pondering, do you think the Salt Block’s bartender is aware that brahmin are sapient beings?

… why do you ask that? she asked, already knowing the answer.

Because after coming back to Appleloosa I am going to finally resume my experiments, and I will need more test subjects. Fortunately, I should be able to arrange his ‘death’ without any suspicion from Black Widow, seeing how I have seemingly no reason for harming him-

Angel! Fluttershy, who probably had needed a moment to recover after this rather blunt declaration, exclaimed. He… he did nothing wrong to you! And he seems kind-

For all we know, Anna and Belle’s mother might have been sold to him, I pointed out, frowning; I knew that chances of that being the case were slim, but it was a possibility nonetheless. And that’s beside how many other sapient brahmins he might have sold as food.

I… I guess that’s true, Fluttershy admitted.

Oh, and he killed Snuggles and Wigglebutt’s friend, but I could overlook it on account of radroaches being not sapient and him acting in self-defense, I said.

Self-defense?! Fluttershy exclaimed, shocked. What could possibly those little ones do to a grown pony?! I’m not saying that it’s worse to what he did to all those brahmins, she added as I gave her a surprised look, but, I mean, he could have thrown them out!

I agree. Does that mean I won’t have to fear you trying to mentally deafen me when the time comes? I asked, raising an eyebrow.

Fluttershy frowned. Angel, this… this isn’t something that should be up to you, deciding whether a pony should be punished like that. And it’s not something that I am going to commend you for.

I sighed, figuring as much-

However…

I stared at her, wide-eyed.

… while I can’t commend this, I can… understand it, somewhat at least, Fluttershy admitted, reluctantly. And while I would prefer you wouldn’t do it at all, I will try to not oppose it when it happens to bad ponies. Well, not as strongly at least.

It took me a moment to reply. Thank you, Ministry Mare Fluttershy, I finally said, positive there were tears forming in the corner of my eyes.

The apparition gave me an awkward smile. Just Fluttershy is fine, Angel.

Sorry, old habits, I replied, giggling. We’ve always been taught to address ponies properly in Stable Eight. And don’t worry, I will never conduct any experiments on somebody who doesn’t deserve it. Well, not the invasive, painful ones, I amended.

I suppose I can only hope you will stay true to your morals, Fluttershy sighed. As… weird as they might be.

I snorted, amused. You know, the funny thing - or worrying thing to you, I suppose - is, I realize that if I didn’t have any morals, my experiments would produce results in a much faster rate. I probably wouldn’t have even left my Stable, I would find a way around everypony’s mindset. It’s been… tempting, to try. To let go. Especially those last few months. But, I added, before Fluttershy could start to worry, every time I begin to think like this, I remind myself that my morals make me who I am. If I were to discard them, I wouldn’t be Angel anymore. Turning to the magical apparition, I smiled. I started this journey as Angel, I intend to finish it as Angel. No matter what happens to me in this Wasteland, I will not discard what makes me, me.

Fluttershy smiled. I hope you’re going to remember that when we’ll go into the actual Wasteland tomorrow.

Ugh, don’t remind me, I grunted mentally, more than a little worried about tomorrow’s expedition. Now that we had this talk, how about we go to Absolutely Everything? I can’t wait to examine Ditzy! I exclaimed, giggling from excitement.

You’re in charge, tiny pegasus nodded.

With my mood greatly improved, I set off to Ditzy’s store. As an afterthought, I realized how lucky I was we had this argument on the outskirts of the town at such a late hour. I could only imagine how it would have looked to any onlooker, a pony standing still and occasionally making faces.

Oh, and Fluttershy? I added.

Yes?

I just wanted to let you know… it’s nice being able to talk to somepony, I admitted. I know that you don’t approve of my experiments, and I don’t know exactly what you are, but… I’ve never talked with anypony about this part of me. Thank you for being inside my head, I finished, giggling.

It doesn’t appear that I have a choice, but you’re welcome, Fluttershy replied, smiling.

I made a few more steps in silence before adding: For the record, sweetie, if you were corporeal, I would hug you and kiss you on the forehead, too.

Oh! Fluttershy exclaimed, caught by surprise. Um, th-thank you, she stammered, her face growing red.

Although, I suppose I could do that with your statuette-

No no, it’s alright, you don’t need to!

*** *** ***

I sighed in relief as the door to Absolutely Everything opened; being a few minutes late, I was afraid Ditzy might have closed the store already. She clearly remembered our earlier agreement, as the moment when I set a hoof inside, her head raised from behind the sales counter, holding a note with the words Hello Angel! written on it.

“Hello again, sweetie,” I greeted her. “I’m terribly sorry about being a little late.”

She shrugged, smiling, as if saying “it’s okay”. As I came closer, she let go of that note and picked another from the counter, passing it to me.

Need to check everything before closing, I read. You can wait in my room. I left some snacks on the table, feel free to help yourself to them.

I looked up from the note to see Ditzy pointing at the door further in the back of the store, leading to the private part of her store, as I assumed.

“Thank you for being such a gracious host, sweetie. Don’t worry about making me wait, take as much time as you need,” I said, smiling at her as I headed towards the door.

Ditzy’s room was surprisingly small. A bit bigger than the one I had in my clinic, but not by much. Small bed, small table, some drawers in the corners with books on them. A lot of room took some mechanical contraption set in the corner, which after taking a careful look at I identified as probably the printing press Ditzy used to write Wasteland Survival Guide.

That reminds me, I still need to buy a copy, I noted, excited at the idea of reading a book about the Equestrian Wasteland. And I originally wanted to talk with her about the Hydra… and after seeing the size of her store, it would be nice to take a look through her merchandise…

I let my thoughts wander along those lines for a while, but they all stopped the moment my sight stopped on the table. Or, to be more precise, on the box of Fancy Buck Snack Cakes and apples that were on it.

My body took this time to remind me that I hadn’t eaten since morning. As if often happened in the past, my excitement about learning new things had distracted me from things such as eating. As my stomach gave out an embarrassing growl, I was suddenly very glad that Ditzy Doo still wasn’t in the room with me.

I hastily ate one of the apples, as well some of the cakes. I didn’t want my body to make a noise like that when Ditzy would join me. I also made a mental note to eat something nutritious before leaving tomorrow morning.

It would look really bad if I were to collapse out of hunger, I thought. Then again, overlooking all the possible dangers, an expedition through the Wasteland could be quite informative… would my excitement keep me on my hooves throughout it? Probably not, I decided, sighing. Considering all the walking it would include…

Just then I heard a sound of hoofsteps behind me. Swallowing the biteful from the second apple quickly, I turned to Ditzy. The ghoul pegasus came into the room, holding a chalkboard. Sorry it took a while.

“Oh, don’t worry about it sweetie,” I told her, smiling. “Are you ready to begin?”

Of course, she wrote as she sat beside the table next to me. What exactly do you need me to do?

“Nothing complicated, I assure you. First, I would like to ask you several questions, then I will need you to not move as I start examining you, unless I say so. I will also ask you to breath deeply at one point. Does that sound alright?”

Ditzy nodded, smiling, and motioned for me to begin.

“I’ll also be recording everything,” I added, raising my left foreleg and showing her my PipBuck. “Will that be alright with you as well?” Another nod from Ditzy. I smiled and said: “Then let us begin.” I cleared my throat and tapped my PipBuck, beginning recording. “Audio recording of Doctor Angel, number 2.05. Today I had encountered a pony suffering from a condition caused by the balefire radiation. Ponies like her are known in the Equestria Wasteland as ‘ghouls’ or ‘zombies’; the latter is considered to be an offensive name. Pony in this condition appears to be a reanimated corpse; her skin is flaking away, her flesh had begun to rot.”

I paused, both to catch my breath and to look at Ditzy’s reaction. A thought occurred to me that most ponies wouldn’t like to hear them being described like that. Fortunately, the ghoul pony didn’t seem to mind. In contrast, as if figuring out why I looked at her, she closed her eyes and smiled in a silly manner, as if saying “I don’t mind”.

Relaxed, I resumed my audio recording: “I will now attempt to examine the patient, and try to determine what exactly the balefire radiation had done to her. It is important to note that the patient had lost her tongue in an unrelated event, and as such she is incapable of speech. As such, any answers to my questions will be read out loud by myself after the patient finished writing them. I will begin now recording her personal data. Name: Ditzy Doo. Sex: female. Species: pony, pegasus. Age:...” I paused to give Ditzy a meaningful look. She nodded in understanding and quickly scribbled on her chalkboard her age. I glanced at it, about to read it out loud-

I pressed pause on the recording seeing the three-digit number.

“You’re… you…” I stammered, trying to wrap my head around it. “You’re over two hundred years old?! That’s… that’s amazing!” I exclaimed, leaning closer to Ditzy. To her credit, she leaned back only a little. “I had no idea it’s possible to extend pony’s age so drastically! And your body shows no signs of aging! Well, I suppose ‘no such advanced decay signs’ in this case,” I added in the afterthought. Shaking my head, I turned to Ditzy again. “So wait, you actually lived before the war!” As Ditzy nodded, I fell back on the floor. “Wow… I never thought I would get a chance to meet another pony born before the Last Day…” I murmured, shaking my head in disbelief, before once again leaning closer to her. “You have no idea how many questions I have for you!”

Ditzy smiled and quickly wrote: Well, that’s why we’re here, right?

I blinked. “Oh, right! The examination,” I exclaimed. I started the recording again and read Ditzy’s age, then paused again. “Thank you for reminding me, sweetie. Can we talk about the times before war later?” I asked.

Ditzy tilted her head thoughtfully before she wrote a reply. Sure!

Delighted at her seeing her smile, I resumed the audio recording. “Residence: New Appleloosa, Absolutely Everything. Occupation: proprietor of the Absolutely Everything general store.” Seeing Ditzy’s puzzled look, I paused again. “It’s just a routine ‘checklist’. Oh, marital status?” I asked.

For some reason, Ditzy found this question rather amusing. You really need to know that? Single, she wrote after she finished chuckling.

“Like I said, just a checklist,” I replied as I started recording again. “Marital status: single. Characteristic traits: the patient is a ghoul, suffers from strabismus, and is missing a tongue. I will now begin the physical examination of the patient. Casting the Diagnosis Spell.”

I rose to my hooves and stepped close to Ditzy. I lit up my horn and let my magic wash over the ghoul. She raised a hoof, which was now surrounded in a thin red aura, to her good eye, and waved it, but otherwise she didn’t seem to mind.

“Huh,” I murmured as my spell began gathering information, more to myself than for the audio recording or to Ditzy. “It would appear that… the patient is deceased, but her organs continue to work… what?” I asked nopony in particular, puzzled. “The patient’s heartbeat is within accepted norms, her blood travels through her veins around her body… but on the other hoof, her entire digestive system seem to be… Can you eat something?” I asked Ditzy, wanting to check.

The ghoul pony nodded and grabbed an apple. But not before writing on the chalkboard: Would have prepared muffins but there wasn’t enough time to go buy them. Ignoring the remark (but still making a mental note of it), I focused on the reading my spell gave me as food traveled down her esophagus. (It really would have been easier if she had agreed to exploratory surgery.

“The patient had taken a bite of an apple. She was able to swallow the bite and it traveled through her esophagus to her stomach, which began to digest it… except... not really?” I had to stop my spell, using it for so long on such bizarre body started to give me a headache. “It… seems that the patient’s digestive system mimics how it’s supposed to work, but only when she decides to eat something…” I said, trying to make sense out of it.

It escaped my notice that Ditzy was once again writing something on her chalkboard. When she was done she showed it to me. You could have just asked. Ghouls don’t need to eat. But we still enjoy it!

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “You don’t…” I began, looking at Ditzy’s amused face, but then I recalled the audio recording. “The patient informed me that she doesn’t require nourishment, a trait that apparently extends to all ghouls. Is it the same with breathing?” I asked her. When she nodded, I scratched my chin. “The patient doesn’t require oxygen, either. It appears that ghouls are being sustained by…” I paused to once again cast my Diagnosis Spell. I noticed it before, but was too focused on Ditzy’s dead/not-dead organs to check it. I’d recognized what it was now, although I seldom had an occasion to treat ponies suffering from this. “... radiation. My patient has absorbed a small amount of balefire radiation. As I had been informed, ghouls are ponies who had been exposed to lethal amount of radiation and somehow avoided death. It would appear that aside from changing their condition, the radiation is being used by ghouls as source of nourishment. Interesting…” I mused. I looked over Ditzy as I continued: “While I am not familiar with the Balefire Bomb megaspells, I had read in memoirs of the first Stable Eight’s chief of medicine that they are made from necromantic spells. And as it is a well known fact, all megaspells leave behind a magical fallout. Theoretically, it is possible for the fallout of a necromantic spell to affect the body of the deceased pony and animate it… but the patient isn’t just an animated corpse, she’s fully sapient. I… suppose it means her soul must be bound to her body… ugh!” I exclaimed in annoyance as I paused the recording. “Why couldn’t they put any book about necromantic magic in Stable Eight!? Forgive me my outbursts, sweetie,” I told Ditzy after taking a deep breath. “It’s just that it’s annoying that I am reduced to theorizing about somepony’s condition because nopony thought about providing the Stable dedicated to studying magic with a book about the magic that destroyed Equestria,” I frowned, crossing my forelegs and pouting.

There, there? Ditzy wrote, trying to help despite being a bit confused (and a bit amused).

“Thank you, sweetie,” I smiled, then sighed. “I’m terribly sorry, but it appears that you are, in fact, deceased. And if that is true, I am not sure if it would ever be possible to return you to your previous condition, even for me. Reversing the effects the necromantic had on your body would also most likely reverse the effects it had on your soul, releasing it from the mortal plane and causing it to ascend to the Goddesses embrace,” I finished, frowning.

It’s alright, it’s not that bad. Really! Ditzy wrote, smiling.

I suppose it’s not, I mused. Not having need for nourishment and expended lifespan…

I cleared my throat, offered Ditzy a smile back again, and resumed recording. “Ditzy, would you be so kind to tell me how did you become a ghoul? And as you write your reply,” I added before she started, “I will begin examining your muscle structure… especially wings.”

Ditzy nodded in agreement and spread her wings as she began to write on her chalkboard. Trotting closer to her, I sat on my haunches and delicately pressed my forehooves at the base of her left wing, causing her to shudder for an instant.

Tickles, she wrote at the bottom of the board before she wiped it and resumed writing at the top.

As I did my best to identify all her muscles by touch and magic and describe them out loud - making a note at the beginning that someday I would need to find a book about pegasi anatomy to learn the actual names of the muscles and bones in their wings - Ditzy finished her reply. Since her entire reply wouldn’t fit on the small board, she filled it as much as she could, let me read it out loud for the audio recording, then wiped it and wrote the next part. It might cause the recording to be a bit messy, but I would later edit the entire thing when converting it to a written form on the terminal back in my lab anyway, so I wasn’t worried.

“It didn’t happen right away. It took months to change. I was flying from Cloudsdale to Canterlot, delivering goods for MoP, when the megaspell destroyed Cloudsdale. The force of the blast caused me to fall and lose consciousness. I was wounded. Met more wounded ponies. We used the supplies to heal ourselves, and tried to figure out what was happening and what to do. Our hair began to fall out, and over the next few days, skin. The whole process took weeks, can’t really remember how long exact it was. Hm,” I mused as I finished reading. “So you had been exposed to a massive amount of radiation, but you survived… but the radiation remained in you, and you started to change… I suppose being on the surface didn’t help. The entire Equestria would have been covered in varying levels of the necromantic fallout.”

Ditzy nodded and wrote another message. “Few months later winter came. The snow was green. And with no pegasi to control it, it was horrible,” I read. I paused my recording, snorting. “Abandoning other ponies, breaking their own vows taken upon the founding of Equestria…” I shook my head, utterly dismayed at those traitors. I resumed the recording. “I’ve been told that ghouls over time become ‘feral’. What exactly does that mean?” I asked as I began to check her other wing (just to be sure).

Even with the always-happy attitude Ditzy seemed to posses, she found this question saddening. I could tell as I read it that she didn’t like the answer she was giving me: “They say radiation eats ghouls brain. Dunno if it’s really true. They slowly become like zombies in old stories. Stop recognizing friends or anybody, don’t even talk, just attack you on sight.” I moved to stand before Ditzy after I finished reading, frowning. “Eats their brains? I suppose it could be that the decay had reached the concerned ghoul’s brain and damaged the temporal lobe, and maybe frontal lobe to some degree as well… But it doesn’t make sense.” I pointed at Ditzy. “You are most likely one of the first ghouls ever, and yet this hadn’t happened to you. And being exposed to more radiation doesn’t cause any changes in you anymore, right? It now nourishes you. So it can’t be that somehow being exposed to more radiation could cause to ‘eat ghoul’s brain’. What ignorant pony said that?” I asked, rolling my eyes. “No, the reason behind that must be somewhere else…”

However, no matter how much I try to figure out what it is, it will only be speculation, I noted, sighing. Unless I would manage to examine a feral ghoul, preferably alive.

“Will have to think about it later, I suppose,” I said to Ditzy. “Thank you for answering my questions, the examination is almost over. Just a few more things.” I tapped her shoulder. “You can feel that, correct?” I asked as Ditzy looked at me, puzzled. When she nodded, I glanced at her bed. “Could you sit on your bed, please? Hind legs outstretched. Thank you, sweetie,” I said as she did as I asked. I brought my head closer to her legs as I activated my magic, sending a small bolt to her knee, causing her leg to immediately jump. “Reactions are within normal levels,” I noted, then realizing the slightly offended stare Ditzy was giving me, I quickly apologized: “Oh, sorry, forgot to explain that I will be checking your reflexes. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

Much to my relief Ditzy quickly lost the offended look and shook her head, smiling again. Sighing in relief, I once again moved to stand before her. Raising my PipBuck on her eye level, I turned on the light.

“Hm, pupils dilating correctly. Try to follow the light with your eyes,” I asked her as I moved my PipBuck. Only one of her eyes moved along with it. “Sweetie, you developed strabismus, your eye condition, before you became a ghoul, right?” I asked. When Ditzy nodded, I gently grabbed her face and tilted it a bit, giving me a better look at her odd eye. “Hm…” I hummed thoughtfully as I drew closer. “If you weren’t a ghoul, I might have been able to do something with it… I would have needed to examine it closely to be sure, of course. But I have no idea how your condition as ghoul would affect any attempts at fixing it. For I know, if I were to surgically correct it, it would reverse back when you would find yourself in a place with high radiation level,” I explained, frowning.

Ditzy shrugged, however, and in a corner of my eye I noticed her trying to reach her chalkboard with her wing. “‘It’s alright, I don’t mind’?” I asked. When she nodded and smiled, I smiled too. “Why couldn’t there be more ponies like you in Stable Eight… Hm, open your mouth please,” I asked, pushing away the brief feeling of nostalgia.

As she opened her mouth, I moved my foreleg so that my PipBuck would illuminate it a bit. I frowned seeing the stump that remained from her tongue. Like the entire interior of her mouth, it was rotted too. “Similarly with tongue, I don’t know how your condition would affect attempts at transplanting it. Maybe a tongue from a non-ghoul pony would work, maybe only from another ghoul, or maybe just a decayed one from a corpse would be enough. I’m just thinking out loud, sweetie,” I added as I felt her shudder uncomfortably.

Moving my hoof out of the way so it wouldn’t obscure my view, I looked over her mouth once again. “Hm, surprising amount of teeth considering your state,” I noted as I gently held placed my hoof on the side of her head. “Still, I would advise you seeing a dentist with- could you not roll your eyes at me?” I asked, frowning. As she once again shuddered, this time because of giggling, I resumed my examination. Unpleasant smell, but not possible to originate what is causing it. Could be coming from her teeth, entrails, her tongue… speaking of, over a half of it has been cut off. Judging by the surface, it was immediately cauterized, probably used a heated knife, could be why radiation couldn’t make it regrow... Feels-

Um, Angel?

Oh, hello Fluttershy, I replied, surprised at her interruption. What do you want? I’m a little busy.

Um, y-yes, I noticed, she replied sheepishly. Was she blushing? And why wasn’t she looking at me? Um, Angel… you… you might not have noticed, but, um…

Yes, what is it? I asked, starting to feel a bit impatient.

You’re kissing her.

I froze. I’m what?

You’re kissing Ditzy, Fluttershy replied, red on her face.

I opened my eyes (When did I close them!?) and realized that it was indeed true. I was still holding Ditzy’s head, but my own head had moved and instead of looking into her mouth, I now could see only half of her face from this angle, along with the side of her head. I also could see her eyes staring at me with wide open, as it was possible given our proximity. And as I moved my tongue, I felt the stump of Ditzy’s tongue and her decayed tonsils and palate, confirming that I was, indeed, kissing her.

Immediately I pulled away from her. A foreleg length away. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed, horrified. “I-I didn’t mean for that to happen, I swear! I don’t know what came over me, maybe it’s because you are so fascinating and nice and kind and cute and funny and friendly, and maybe because we were sitting so close and I was touching you and we are in your room and you sitting on your bed and I hadn’t been with anypony in moths-augh!” I yowled, feeling something hit me in the head.

I shook, concentrating on my surroundings as I massaged the place where I was struck. To my utter horror I realize that it was Ditzy who hit me, with her chalkboard. However, that feeling quickly passed as I noticed that she wasn’t looking at me with anger, but rather concern. Better? she wrote after I calmed down.

“Um… yes, I think so,” I replied, looking down at the floor, my ears dropping. “I’m so embarrassed. I didn’t intend to hit on you, and I certainly didn’t intend to just start kissing you out of nowhere.”

I heard her writing, so I looked up. It’s alright. I was relieved to read that, but when I noticed Ditzy’s expression, I was… confused. She was too, apparently, as she was looking at me puzzled.

“Then what’s wrong?” I asked, worried that I ruined my relation with her.

You do realize that I’m a ghoul, right?

“Well, yes?” I replied, now even more confused. “So?”

Ditzy’s mouth hang open, causing me to worry for a moment that maybe I had caused her to pull some muscle somehow when I kissed. She closed it, however, and shook to recover before she wrote her next message. So I smell a little? As in, like a corpse?

“Um, so?” I asked, the snorted, amused. “Sweetie, do you have any idea how much time I used to spend around corpses? I am used to that smell.”

I had expected my answer to cause Ditzy to calm down, but it appeared to only deeper her… what was it exactly, confusion? Actually, now it seemed to change into fear… As I noticed that the apparition of Fluttershy was holding her face in her hooves, I realized that she might have misunderstood me.

“This is the moment when most ponies would say ‘this sounded a lot better in my head’, right?” I asked, blushing from embarrassment.

Kinda, Ditzy wrote.

Except… It didn’t really sound better in your head, Fluttershy added.

“What I meant was, I used to spend a lot of time when I was studying medicine,” I explained. “In my Stable, ponies sometimes offer their bodies for studies after they die, and medical students usually have priority when it comes to having access to them. We need to familiarize ourselves with pony’s body, after all. I used to spend hours without break studying them. I got used to the smell, it doesn’t bother me.”

This time, my reply seemed to calm down Ditzy. However, she was still… unsettled by what had originally caused her to be confused. She was about to write on her chalkboard again, but she hesitated for a moment, looked at me, then back at the chalkboard. Finally she sighed and wrote: Are you a necrophile?

That… really, really, really surprised me.

“Um… no? I don’t think so. Why would you-” I began to ask, but then I realized the answer to my own question. “Ditzy, you are not a corpse,” I told her firmly.

I know, but normal ponies don’t kiss ghouls! she wrote; I could tell that she was embarrassed about this.

I opened my mouth to reply, but then I realized why we were having this problem with communication. It was because of one word, one that was now written on the chalkboard.

Normal.

“I… I suppose you’re right,” I said, once again looking away from her. “I’m sorry, I… I know that I’m not a normal pony.” I chuckled and looked at my white hoof. “Right down to my DNA, actually. And… that doesn’t even begin to compare to my… personality. Normal ponies don’t talk casually about corpses, cutting ponies open and hugging ghouls, right?” I asked, glancing briefly at Ditzy. “Sorry I’m weird.”

Angel… Fluttershy began, placing a hoof on my shoulder, but then glanced in Ditzy’s direction and disappeared.

Looking up again, I realized that she was again showing me her chalkboard. It’s okay. You’re good weird. Turning to Ditzy, I saw looking me in the eyes with a smile before she leaned closer and hugged me.

Good weird… I repeated in my mind as I hugged her back. Would she still say that if she knew…

Did it matter?

“I’m sorry about kissing you without any warning,” I said after a few seconds of silence. “And… sorry, but I just don’t see why I wouldn’t kiss you just because you’re a ghoul,” I added as we pulled apart. “It just doesn’t matter to me. It probably makes me sound a bit… sluttish?” I asked, uncertain.

Ditzy scratched her chin before she replied. Dunno. Are you?

“Oh, sweetie, that’s just rude,” I frowned, but then (after both Ditzy and tiny Fluttershy looked at me with one eyebrow raised) I added: “But I suppose I did stick my tongue into your mouth without permission… I don’t think I am,” I replied. “I only had two lovers in my life. That points against it, right?”

I think so, Ditzy replied, then added below: Anyway, I’m sorry for the way I reacted. I didn’t mean for you to freak out. She waited for me to read it, before cleaning it and writing: I guess I was just shocked.

“‘Just shocked’?” I repeated, then smiled. “Does that mean that you didn’t mind it?”

No, was just surprised, she wrote, smiling back.

For the first time in months I felt something stir in my chest. “You know, Ditzy,” I purred, “I meant it when I told Candi that I wouldn’t make love to a mare I just met. But... I have nothing against kissing,” I said, leaning a bit closer.

Ditzy’s eyes snapped wide open. She practically jumped in the air as she began to hastily write a single word.

Straight.

I felt my ears drop as I saw Ditzy nervously pointing at herself. “You’re kidding,” I murmured, surprised. When the ghoul pony gave me an apologetic look, I sighed. “It’s alright. Just… figures I would find myself in such a situation with a straight mare.”

Despite her nervousness, Ditzy still crept closer to me. Sorry, she wrote, and looked like she really meant it. Then she added: You?

I snorted with amusement. “Do you know what decides which sex we are born with?” I asked instead.

Ditzy looked at me, puzzled. She hesitated before she wrote a reply. Yes, it’s the chromo-thingies with the DNA, right? Almost as if sensing I would raise an eyebrow at that, she also added: Been a while since high school.

“Yes, that’s correct. To make it short and simple,” I began; I knew from experience that ponies usually don’t like going into such details, “most of the DNA in our body is contained in chromosomes. They come in pairs, and we are given one set from our fathers, the other from our mothers. What decides our sex is the last pair. If the chromosome we inherit from the father is the chromosome X, then we are born as females. If it is the chromosome Y, however, we are born as males.” I turned to look Ditzy in the eye. “One chromosome. That’s all.” I leaned a bit closer. Ditzy shuddered nervously, but didn’t back away. “Isn’t it silly to decide your sexual orientation because of something like that?”

Footnote: Level Up!
New perk: Cherches La Filly -- +10% damage to the same sex and unique dialogue options with certain ponies.
Quest perk: Ghoul Physiology -- You have learned about ghoul's physiology, as well as how to to exploit their specific weaknesses, and gain a +5 healing when treating one and a +5 damage bonus when attacking one (you can also use your knowledge regarding ghouls’ physiology for… other purposes).

Chapter Six: Wasteland's Ideologies

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“...you shouldn't let anypony pressure you into doing something you don't think is right. Sometimes you have to tell even your closest friends 'no'.”

Stirring up from the best sleep I’d had in months, I reached with my foreleg to Ditzy, only to discover the spot on the bed beside me to be empty. Opening one eye I saw that indeed, the pegasus ghoul had left.

Considering that her body doesn’t require her to sleep, it was very nice of her to cuddle with me for the night until I fell asleep, I thought, yawning, as I rolled on my other side. The mattress itched slightly against my bare coat, but I didn’t mind. Then again, her mind would suffer due to sleep dept... I think? I’ll have to ask her to let me examine her cortex and basal forebrain after she wakes up and twenty four hours later, measure whether the level of adenosine varies or not, I added sleepily as I ran my hoof through my mane.

Um, wouldn’t that be rather invasive? Fluttershy asked me uncertainly. Unsurprisingly, I could perceive the apparition despite having my eyes closed. Still, by habit, I opened one of them to look at my conversationalist as she continued. You are talking about examining her brain, right?

Hm? I asked, in my drowsy state having problems to comprehend what she was talking about. However, repeating her words in my mind caused me to snap out of it. Oh, right, you’re right. Yes, that would be invasive. Sorry, drowsy, I explained, somewhat sheepishly, as I yawned again.

Yeah, I figured, Fluttershy replied, giggling. You know, if you don’t mind me saying, I didn’t expect you to like falling asleep while cuddled to somepony.

Really? I asked, surprised a bit. To be honest, that’s my favorite way to sleep, and one of my favorite aspects of a relationship. Being able to sleep beside somepony, two bodies pressed together, both expressing trust in the other pony… wait, I suddenly thought, my mind now completely roused. I rose to a sitting position and rubbed my chin thoughtfully. Are Ditzy and I in a relationship? Or are we just, um, friends who kiss and cuddle? I waited a few seconds in silence, then frowned and added: Fluttershy, sweetie, I’m actually asking you.

The small pegasus stared at me in surprise, wide-eyed. Um, w-why would you ask me? Fluttershy asked, blushing. How should I know? Shouldn’t you know?

Sweetie, didn’t you notice last night that I am not a normal pony? Or earlier for that matter, I added, rolling my eyes, recalling our arguments regarding my experiments and tests subjects. I might be “good with words”, I might be “seductive” when I want to and affectionate towards ponies I care about, but it doesn’t mean I’m good when it comes to relationships, romantic or otherwise.

Then why did you… um… initiate things with Ditzy? Fluttershy asked, embarrassed even though we were talking just about kissing and cuddling. I mean, if you aren’t sure what you two are…

I did kiss her, even though I didn’t intend to, I replied. It seemed silly to not continue… And besides, I added, I’ve been… lonely. Ditzy is so nice, so good and kind, and it’s been months since…

Since...

So, I said, dropping that train of thought, about my question, what do you think we are?

What makes you think I would know that? Fluttershy replied again, her embarrassment starting to give way to frustration.

Sweetie, you historically had five good, close friends, I reminded her, then pointed a hoof at her. That means you had a far better grasp on personal relations than I do.

Fluttershy sighed and covered her face with a hoof, but then she abruptly looked away, as if startled. Turning back to me, she pointed a hoof in the direction she had looked at. Um, Ditzy’s here.

Startled, I turned to look at the doorway, where Ditzy was standing, her head tilted in confusion. Or at least, as titled as it could be while holding a tray with some breakfast in her mouth. The reason for her confusion was obvious, seeing how I was still pointing my hoof at apparently nothing. Not to mention what kind of faces she had seen me make while standing in that doorway for Goddesses know how long.

I smiled, hoping I hid my embarrassment from the lovely pegasus ghoul. “Good morning Ditzy. How did you sleep? Or would it be more appropriate to ask just ‘did you sleep’ considering your condition?” I asked, forgetting about my embarrassment as I began to ponder the question. “I saw that, sweetie,” I added absentmindedly after Ditzy rolled her eyes.

Already trotting towards the bed, Ditzy once again rolled her eyes at me again, then put the tray beside me. She then showed me her chalkboard. Good morning! I made us breakfast!

“Thank you, Ditzy,” I said, smiling as I leaned closer. I put my hoof around her shoulders and pressed my lips against hers, kissing her for several seconds (and causing the apparition of Fluttershy to blush and turn around, hiding her face in her hooves). “It looks ravishing,” I added when we parted, staring into her eyes intensively, unmoved by her odd eye looking somewhere else.

Ditzy blushed, but she did manage to hold my gaze for several seconds before finally giving in to her embarrassment and closing her eyes, covering her mouth and giggling, as if she was a teenage filly.

“You’re so adorable,” I said, kissing her on her cheek, before turning my attention to the breakfast.

I already consumed the first sliced piece of an apple when Ditzy scribbled another message on her chalkboard. What were you doing when I came in?

I suppose I can’t escape this, can’t I? I thought, sighing. Oh well, might as well use this opportunity to discuss our relationship.

“I was having an inner argument,” I explained. “I like to gesticulate during them, and yes, I know it makes me look weird, but as we had established, I’m already weird, so…” I trailed off, finishing my sentence with a shrug.

Ditzy nodded with understanding, accepting my explanation, and sat beside me on the bed, while I tried to think of the best way to approach the subject that had bothered me. In the end, though, as I wanted to discuss this before she started to eat, I just asked, “Ditzy, if you don’t mind me asking… what do you want the two of us to be?”

The pegasus ghoul turned to me and tilted her head again, confused.

“I… it may come as a surprise to you, seeing how I convinced you to partake in our activities,” I began to explain; this time, it was me that was nervous and embarrassed for a change, not Ditzy or Fluttershy, “but I actually have some problems when it comes to my own relationships. And I mean in general, not just with lovers” I specified. “Interpersonal relationships are… troublesome for me, to comprehend properly. Like a normal pony,” I added, looking away in mild annoyance at my own disability in this field. Clearing my throat, I continued, “What I mean to say, Ditzy, is that I am perfectly happy with us being what you want, but I would appreciate if you could… specify it for me. My first romantic relationship taught me that it’s best when both ponies are clear on all the rules,” I explained further, rolling my eyes. “Which is ironic, considering-”

I was cut off mid sentence by a hoof pressing against my mouth. Just like last night, Ditzy decided to stop my prolonged monologue, although this time she had decided to use a more pleasant manner than hitting me with her chalkboard. For which I was grateful.

After talking her hoof back and making sure I stopped talking, Ditzy gave me a long, thoughtful look. It appeared that she, too, wasn’t sure what we were, or even what she would want us to be. Which, seeing how yesterday was the first time she kissed a mare, was understandable. Finally, she wrote on her chalkboard: Honestly, I dunno ‘what I would want us to be’.

Oh, thank you, sweetie, that’s really helpful, I sighed mentally as Ditzy scribbled her next message.

It sort of been a while since the last time I tried dating, plus there’s the issue of you living in another town. And the age difference. It's kinda creepy.

Beside it, Ditzy drew a face with a tongue sticking out. I looked at at her and saw her grinning in amusement.

“I suppose that is true,” I said, shrugging, despite knowing that Ditzy was making a joke. She was, after all, over two hundred years older than me. The age difference was a valid point to bring up in this situation… if it regarded a ‘normal’ pony. “Though honestly, I don’t really see that as an issue.”

My words had seemingly amused the sweet pegasus ghoul. She giggled, then, blushing, she wrote: Yeah, that, and several other things don’t seem like an issue for you. I kinda realized that last night.

I had to smile at that. “You didn’t seem to complain if I recall correctly,” I replied alluringly, but then quickly returned to my previous composure. “But the fact that we live in separate towns does seem like a valid problem if we chose to pursue a romantic relationship.”

Also, Ditzy scribbled, I don’t think I like you that much.

“Oh, I’m hurt,” I teased her.

You know what I mean, she wrote, although she did giggle. I do like you, though, and it’s been fun last night. So maybe we could be friends who, you know, are affectionate from time to time?

I smiled when, after showing me her chalkboard, Ditzy scratched the back of her head in embarrassment. Giggling, I leaned closer, nuzzling her affectionately. “Hmm, I like the sound of that,” I hummed. “I wish I didn’t have to go with those mercenaries today, we could do so much more…”

Blushing, Ditzy pulled away from me so she could write on her chalkboard. Apparently I was distracting.

You could have said no to their offer, she pointed out.

We had talked about how long my stay in New Appleloosa would be, sometime between me nibbling on her neck (or wings, I couldn’t remember the precise order) and snuggling. Ditzy had been worried when I revealed that I was going into the Wasteland with some ponies I met a few hours ago. The fact that I was bringing along a slaver did not calm her down, not surprisingly. Ditzy did relax, though, when I mentioned Blast and Burst. Apparently, she knew them well enough to know they wouldn’t “backstab” me.

I used to trade with their parents several years back, got to know them a bit, she had scribbled on her chalkboard. They’re good ponies, even if Blast is a bit of a meanie sometimes. Stay close to them, they will keep you safe. Just keep an eye on Blast’s frisky hooves.

Ditzy was far less enthusiastic about the purpose of this escapade, of course. It seemed that now we were about to have this argument again.

“Whether I like it or not, I am currently employed by Black Widow,” I pointed out again. “She told me to find some mercenaries for her to hire.”

To help her fight and probably enslave a tribe that disrupts her business, Ditzy quickly scribbled, then signaled for me to wait as she erased those words and wrote next message. I would rather start them a fanclub.

“Ditzy, sweetie, you yourself had said last night that you hadn’t heard of this tribe, and that a lot of them can be as bad as raiders.”

A lot, but not all.

I smirked. “Well, then I suppose, when it would come to that, I would have to interfere somehow, wouldn’t I?”

I didn’t elaborate, despite Ditzy’s borderline pestering. Truth be told, I had no idea how this situation was going to develop, and it unsettled me. There were too many variables for me to calculate what could happen. That left planning my own actions somewhat difficult.

Back in Stable Eight, all I really had to worry about were my patients and experiments, I thought as Ditzy finally gave up and we began to eat the breakfast she had prepared. I still had some time before I’d have to start getting ready, which let us enjoy the meal and each other’s company. But with all its faults, it was a paradise when compared to the Equestrian Wasteland. The way things are out here… I might be forced to improve ponies lives much sooner than expected, on a smaller scale.

What do you mean? Fluttershy asked me, suddenly appearing. I thought that all you cared about was finding the ‘Truth of this world’, whatever that means.

That is my goal, I admitted, but not my ultimate goal. What good is knowledge if it can’t be used? I am, after all, a doctor, a mare that makes ponies better, I thought, smirking under my muzzle. More importantly, or at least, more “presently”, the issue with what will come from the confrontation between Appleloosa and this tribe bothers me. The slavers can’t possibly capture all of them alive. A lot of ponies will die.

And you do not want to let this happen, Fluttershy told me, and there was only a hint of uncertainty in her voice.

Indeed. Even if they have sinned and committed acts that would deprive their right to be called sapient beings. I would much rather have those bound in my laboratory as test subjects. Regardless, I added, even with my limited options, I can’t plan my actions and their direction that far ahead with so little information. I need to wait and see how this matter with the mercenaries is resolved, then I should know more.

And then what? tiny Fluttershy pressed curiously. You’ll take over Appleloosa?

That was a problematic option. Hm… even though my employment was somewhat forced, I do not like the idea of “revolting”. No, I will have to wait and see what Black Widow will do before I can decide whether or not I would take such actions.

Really? I mean, you plan to experiment on ponies for less than she had done, she pointed out, surprised and confused.

Have you forgotten what I told Candi yesterday? I asked her instead, levitating playfully a sliced apple into Ditzy’s mouth. I despise those that break their word.

*** *** ***

I frowned as I checked my inventory list with my PipBuck. Aside from bottle caps, the Fluttershy statuette, lab coat and stable barding (both of which I had already put back on myself), all that I had with me were a few healing potions that I had brought from Appleloosa with the intention of selling them, and a small case with empty syringes (on the off chance that I would have an opportunity to pick up some interesting blood samples). Had I known that we would be required to journey outside of the boundaries of New Appleloosa, I would have at least brought some RadSafes and Rad-aways, not to mention some helpful chems. Unfortunately, before leaving the slavers’ town, my primary concerns were revolved around increasing my resources and being comfortable.

There was a limit of items I could carry in my saddlebags.

Not that medicines were heavy, mind you. Even with my meager physical strength, I could have carried an even greater number on my person. They did take some space, though, and the saddlebags I had under my lab coat, and some pockets inside of it, could only fit so much.

Which brought me to the source of my frustration: the healing potions. Their size was, in my opinion, disappropriate to the amount of injury drinking them would heal. Hm, maybe instead of starting to work on the truth serum, I should focus on this issue, and other more practical research. If I could remove the ingestible oxidation agent from the healing potion recipe, I should get the basic formula for an injectable version, I mused, thinking back to how I converted the spellbane potion. They would take up a lot less space if they were in syringes... and possibly they would be more effective, too. I also should consider improving the formula of chems, I added, making a mental note. If I could figure out how to limit the side effects-

Raised voices coming from Ditzy’s shop brought me out of my musing. I was still in her bedroom, the pegasus ghoul having left me after we finished breakfast to prepare her store for opening while letting myself get ready for my little expedition in peace. It appeared now that she was having an argument with somepony.

And since I was pretty sure I recognized that voice, I hurried up and went to stop the argument.

“Listen, ya- oh, there ya are,” Apple Core exclaimed, frowning as I entered the store through the back door and trotted towards them. She was standing before the counter, behind which was Ditzy, pointing at the same ‘NO SLAVERS’ sign she had showed me when we first met.

“Good morning to you too, sweetie,” I greeted her, looking at her disapprovingly. “Is there a reason why you were speaking to Ditzy in a raised voice?”

“Ya mean other than ‘er bein’ a pain in the ass?” Apple Core snorted, glaring at Ditzy unfriendly, who gave her back as good as she got. I rolled my eyes at their animosity and continued to trot towards Ditzy. “Ah just came t’ get ya, we need t’ go meet up with the mercs. Also t’ see if she ate ya,” she added with a malicious smirk at Ditzy.

Seeing the sweet pegasus ghoul’s brow furrow at the hurtful remark, I stepped beside her and wrapped my hooves around her in a warm hug. “I’m sorry, my companion can be insensitive and uncivil at times,” I told Ditzy after she looked at me, slightly startled by the hug, but quickly relaxing in my embrace. Smiling with relief as she brightened right up, I turned to Apple Core with a disappointed frown. “Apple Core, sweetie, Ditzy had been nothing but a courteous host and a pleasant company. You should apologize for your remark.”

“Why are you huggin’ ‘er like that?” Apple Core asked instead, ignoring what I said and looking at us with disgust.

“Because I can be very affectionate towards ponies I like a lot?” I asked in return, not understanding why she was this shocked.

Ditzy’s ear twitched, tickling me, and she turned her head to look at me. Seeing her blush, probably from embarrassment, I couldn’t help but think of how adorable she looked, and I leaned closer to kiss her. I felt her shuddering in my embrace at the unexpected kiss (Then again, she’d often reacted like that to kissing anyway.), but she quickly relaxed and opened her mouth wider for me.

This very nice moment was ruined the next second by the throttling sounds Apple Core began to make. I opened my eye to look at her as she said: “Oh Goddesses-” before she pressed a hoof to her muzzle, her cheeks beginning to swell.

Realizing what was about to happen, I quickly cast a spell on her esophagus, forcing her to swallow back her vomit.

“Ugh, fuck,” she exclaimed, grimacing as she glared at me.

Pulling away from Ditzy, I told her: “Sweetie, if you’re going to vomit, I suggest you do it outside.”

Whether casting that spell on her really angered her, or was she indeed going to vomit again (and judging from her face, she was), Apple Core hastily left.

I frowned as the door closed behind her. “So that’s how a ‘normal pony’ would react to kissing a ghoul pony?” I asked, glancing at Ditzy. “I must admit, scarcely have I been so glad of being ‘not normal’.”

Ditzy grinned in reply and pressed her forehead into my neck, as if saying: “You’re terrible.”

“I’m sorry about Apple Core, I’ll make sure that she will come to apologize after we get back,” I said. “She’s actually a nice pony when you get to know her. And if it weren’t for her, I might have ended up a slave.”

The pegasus ghoul made a sound akin to snorting, probably because she wasn’t really convinced by what I said about Apple Core, but as she lifted her head I saw her rolling her eye. I chose to accept that as “Ok, I believe you.”

I sighed as I leaned my head against her shoulder. “I better go with her… and join the mercenaries and go into the Wasteland. I really don’t like the idea of walking for so long…” I groaned, causing Ditzy to giggle. “Oh, don’t give me that, you have wings,” I told her, frowning. As Ditzy continued to laugh in her manner, I hugged her tighter and nibbled playfully on her ear. “You better hope I am in better shape than I think you must be assuming,” I whispered sensually as she once again shuddered. “I think you’d like me to return as soon as possible, considering what we could be doing…”

I trailed off, allowing Ditzy’s thoughts to wander around the subject. Her thoughts weren’t the only ones wandering, though. As she once again shuddered and looked at me sharply, red one her face (as red as ghouls could, I suppose), I realized where my hooves had traveled.

“Oh, sorry sweetie,” I exclaimed, embarrassed and worried; I didn’t want Ditzy to feel overwhelmed. Cursing at this slip up I subconsciously committed, I moved my hooves back up from her teats to her chest. “I suppose I can’t keep my hooves off you,” I offered, smiling sheepishly.

To my relief, Ditzy was only surprised by the unexpected grope. Giggling, she kissed my on the cheek, then reached for her chalkboard that she had placed on the counter. What was it you said about you not being sluttish yesterday? she wrote, smirking at me.

I deadpanned at her. “Sweetie, I’m affectionate, not sluttish,” I corrected her, inclining another giggle from the pegasus ghoul. “And for the record, it’s the first time I had heard somepony complain. Then again, you are only the third pony with whom I shared this level of intimacy…” I added thoughtfully, before shaking my head. “Sadly, we must put such pleasantries on hold for now. I should get going, if Apple Core came to pick me up she might want to discuss something before we meet up with the mercenaries.” Reluctantly, I released Ditzy from my embrace. “Thank you for the wonderful time and meal, Ditzy.”

My pleasure, she wrote in reply. She then quickly added: I packed you some food and got you some water.

I looked in surprise as she brought up a lunchbox and a canteen from under the counter and gave them to me. “Oh… thank you, Ditzy,” I murmured, really touched by the gesture.

The pegasus ghoul smiled, then wiped her chalkboard and wrote another message. It’s the least I could do, considering you refused to wear any armor. Her expression gave away what she still thought of that decision.

Another conversation from last night. “I’ve been told that we’d be trying to avoid any possible encounters along the way,” I reminded her again. “If I have to spend most of the day walking, I want to at least do it wearing clothes that I’m comfortable in.”

Ditzy looked to the floor and sighed, knowing it would be useless to argue with me now. Instead, she just wrote: Be safe.

Despite knowing that I might very soon run into more danger than I had ever faced in my life, I smiled at Ditzy with confidence. “Do not worry about me, Ditzy. You’ve seen my cutie mark, after all,” I added, leaning closer to kiss her on her cheek. Ditzy replied in kind, but at the same time she shot me a confused look. “The Ouroboros doesn’t have an end. Neither do I,” I explained, winking.

*** *** ***

It took us about a minute or two more to finally say our farewells before I finally, with the last kiss on Ditzy’s cheek, closed the door to her store behind me.

Well, I thought, turning around, overlooking Apple Core’s episode, this was a pleasant way to start off the morning-

“Ugh, ‘bout fuckin’ time!”

I feel like I should have seen this coming, I commented in my thoughts, glancing briefly at the apparition of Fluttershy, who just smiled sheepishly and shrugged.

Turning my attention to Apple Core, who was standing right infront of me, I realized that she had been pacing impatiently before the store waiting for me. I also noticed a small puddle of what I assume used to be her stomach’s contents.

“Sweetie,” I began calmly, realizing that for her, this morning hadn’t been quite as pleasant as mine, “there’s no need for such language.”

Apple Core deadpanned at me. “Oh, Ah’m sorry, did Ah interrupt ya some munchin’ time with yar dead marefriend?” she asked in a surprisingly calm voice.

I blinked. “Alright, sweetie, couple of things. One, Ditzy is not dead.” I decided to not add that her body technically is though. “Two, we’re not marefriends. And three… ‘munching’?” I asked, frowning. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with-”

“Fuckin’,” Apple Core explained, her expression unchanged.

“Oh,” I exclaimed, now understanding. Offended, I frowned at her. “Honestly, sweetie, I met Ditzy yesterday. I wouldn’t make love to somepony I just met,” I told her, closing my eyes and turning my head.

“Oh sure, that’s the issue ‘ere,” Apple Core snorted. I glanced at her just in time to see her roll her eyes. “Ya did realize that she’s a ghoul, right? Or were ya too busy clingin’ t’ yar prudish rules t’ notice?”

“Divisions such as medical conditions or races are of little concern to me,” I replied, choosing to ignore the jibe. I turned to step around her. “Was there a reason why you came to pick me up sweetie?”

“Don’t change the fuckin’ subject!” Apple Core hissed as she immediately followed me. She continued to argue as we headed to meet up with the mercenaries. “How could ya kiss a ghoul?! And don’t ya fuckin’ dare t’ say ‘with mah mouth’!” she told me with a glare the moment I opened my mouth.

“As I had already said,” I replied (instead), “whether she, or anypony else I would be affectionate towards, is a ghoul or not matters little to me. I chose to spend some lovely time with her because of her, not her state.”

“Her state of decay, ya mean?” Apple Core asked with a sneer. “Goddesses, ya’re so fucked up!”

“I don’t think I care very much for those insults,” I told her, glancing at her with a frown. “Honestly, if I didn’t know you only express romantic interest in myself when you’re inebriated, I would presume you were jealous. Why does it bother you so much that I had spend the night kissing with Ditzy?” I asked before she could retort angrily to my comment.

“‘Cause it’s gross!” she exclaimed, loudly enough for a pony who was walking on the other side of the road to glance our way curiously.

“‘Gross’? I repeated, raising my eyebrow. “Next I suppose you will tell me I’ve got cooties now?”

Apple Core’s jaw dropped. “That’s not even…” she tried to say, but then she sighed and shook her head. “Forget it, Ah’m done tryin’ t’ talk sense with ya. Ah’ll be focusin’ on all the bottle caps Ah won thanks t’ this.”

“Bottle caps? What do you mean?” I asked, confused.

“Oh, there’s a bet goin’ ‘round Appleloosa whether ya’re into bucks or mares,” Apple Core explained casually, much to my shock. “Since that ghoul still counts as a mare, ya just earned me a few hundred caps.”

She seemed to take a weird pleasure in telling me that I’ve been a subject of a gamble. Was I supposed to be offended? To be honest, I was mostly surprised that an the town had nothing better to talk about.

However, it didn’t meant that I was going to allow such disinformation be. “Sorry to disappoint you, sweetie, but I’m ‘into’ both mares and bucks,” I told her, causing the slaver to immediately frown.

“Oh, fuck ya!”

Strangely, I found myself completely not interested in explaining Apple Core my reasoning for it like I had with Ditzy. Possibly because I doubted she’d be interested.

“Now, was there a reason why you came by to pick me up?” I asked before this conversation could continue down this road.

Apple Core murmured something under her breath - something that sounded akin to “Freakin’ prude,” if I was not mistaken - before replying. “Yes, Ah wanted t’ make sure that ghoul hadn’t eaten ya. But also,” she added before I could chasten her (Then again, I should be happy she’d stopped referring to her as ‘walking corpse’.), “Ah’ve met Jack, their boss.”

That piqued my curiosity. “I see. Did he agree to the arrangement?”

“Yeah,” Apple Core said, but even before she continued I could tell by her expression that things weren’t as good. “But Ah got a strong feelin’ he had only done that ‘cause Blast and the rest had already pretty much made the deal with us. He didn’t seem happy t’ take us along.”

“I’m sure I will be able to smooth things over with him,” I said, confident in my diplomatic skills. “What did he say about coming to work for Black Widow?”

“He agreed to go to Appleloosa with us and hear ‘er out. Dunno if he’ll take the job though,” she added, “couldn’t tell how he feels ‘bout slavers.”

“That’s for Black Widow to worry about, sweetie,” I calmed her down. “All we were told to do is convince them to travel to Appleloosa. Let us focus for now on helping them with their job.”

“Yeah, ya’re right Ah ‘spouse. Oh, and speakin’ of,” she added, turning to me and looking me up and down, “are ya sure ‘bout goin’ like this?”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Well, aside from the fact that ya still don’t ‘ave a gun on ya,” she began, her comment causing me to sigh with mild irritation, “don’t ya wanna wear some protective barding? Yar smelly kiss-toy could ‘ave gave ya some, Ah’m sure she has somethin’ like that in ‘er store. Ya could ‘ave at least left yar coat there,” Apple Core added as I was about to reply.

“What’s wrong with my lab coat?” I asked instead, confused.

“It’s white, will make ya stand out and make ya a nice target for a pony with a gun. Ya’re smart, ya should ‘ave figured it out,” she added with a smirk.

“Or,” I countered, “it will make a pony with a gun realize that they’re dealing with a doctor and they won’t shoot at me? After all, it is doctor’s sacred duty to help everypony in need, why would anypony try to kill somepony like that?”

Judging by the deadpan Apple Core gave me, it would seem she didn’t agree with my opinion. However, she gave up; the slaver pony shook her head and sighed loudly.

Satisfied that I won this argument, I decided to turn the conversation into a more friendly banter. “Can you honestly see me wearing something like what you’re wearing?” I asked, pointing at the leathery barding and the firearm in a holster on her foreleg. I didn’t even want to imagine myself in such attire.

Apple Core snorted. “Yeah, not really. Ah suppose if we’d run into caravan or some shit it would be good t’ ‘ave a pony who’s obviously not a raider with us,” she added in an afterthought. “Although the mercs might still comment on yar lab coat… oh, and speakin’ of which,” she said, nodding at something in front of us, “there they are.”

I turned my head in the direction, surprised. I had assumed we’d be meeting with the mercenaries at the town’s entrance, seeing what time it was. However, it seemed that they weren’t exactly keen on being punctual, or maybe by “ready to leave by eight” they only meant that they would be leaving the Turnpike Tavern (which we were about to pass), not the town itself. Regardless, they were just walking out of the watering hole, Scope, Blast, Burst, and…

“Oh my gosh!” I exclaimed, staring wide-eyed at the fourth person, who could only be Jack, the leader of this mercenary team. Before anybody knew it, I was already beside him. “Big feathery wing,” I said, grabbing the huge wing almost the size of a pony with my forehooves and spreading it forcefully, “feline hind legs, paws with claws and pads underneath,” I continued, raising one of his hind legs, “a tail ending in a hairy tuft,” I said, briefly lifting the end of his tail with my magic, “forelegs ending with scale-covered talons,” I added, grabbing the limb and examining its four digits, very intrigued by their capable mobility and all the possible functions they could perform, “and a face with a beak - you’re a griffin!” I exclaimed excitedly, holding his head and looking him in the eyes.

Suddenly, the four digits I had been so intrigued by clamped tightly around my muzzle, forcing it shut before I could ask whether he would allow me to perform exploratory surgery on him (which, considering the answers and reactions I keep getting whenever I ask this question, was probably a good thing). Jack, a blue-grey griffin (with light gray feathers covering his head), looked at me sternly. Like the other mercenaries, he was clad in a combat armor, one that was appropriate for his body. With mild surprise, I noticed that there was a sword strapped to his back, its hilt poking out above his left wing.

“And you’re annoying,” he told me in a sharp, but young sounding voice. Glancing to his side, he asked: “Guys, what the hell is this?”

A loud sigh stopped me from trying - and probably failing, seeing how I couldn’t open my mouth - to introduce myself. “It’s me losing a hundred caps in a bet, that’s what it is,” Blast commented before reaching to his saddlebags, picking up a small bag and throwing it to grinning Apple Core.

“Ah bet ‘im ya’d ‘ave a nerdgasm when ya see Jack,” Apple Core replied to my questioning gaze.

I rolled my eyes. Just how many bets concerning me somehow did Apple Core make so far?

“‘A nerdgasm’?” I asked instead, seeing no point in arguing about those bets now. However, due to the talons holding my muzzle closed, what came out of me sounded like: “Ah huhham?” which was ignored by everybody.

“That’s the medic we talked about,” Blast answered Jack, then glanced at me. “I thought she was a bit weird, but I thought something like that would have been too ludicrous to actually happen.”

“Ya should ‘ave seen ‘er when she saw brahmin for the first time,” Apple Core said, then grimaced. “Or what she and the ghoul did, ugh.”

“Wait, did she do something to Ditzy?” Burst asked, a concern in his voice.

“Yeah, with her tongue,” she replied, and for a brief moment she appeared as if unsure whether she should be still disgusted or snort with amusement.

Everybody turned to look at me in silence, expressions ranging from surprised to shocked as all of them figured out easily what Apple Core had implied. Finally, the silence was broken by Blast erupting with laughter. “You might wanna let go of that muzzle buddy,” he told Jack, holding his sides as he fell on the ground.

The griffin, who had an eyebrow raised at me quizzically, after a brief hesitation slowly released my muzzle. I moved my lips around a bit to make sure he hadn’t injured me - which I didn’t think so, despite how firm his hold was he was surprisingly gentle at the same time - before I smiled at him.

“Thank you, sweetie. I deeply apologize for my earlier… excitement. I had never before seen a griffin, and being a scientist as much as a doctor of medicine I am positively ecstatic at a prospect of learning more about your species. I will, however, condone myself with a proper composure and etiquette from now on. Also, regarding my companion’s comment,” I added, glancing briefly at Apple Core, “let me assure you, what me and Ditzy ‘did’, as she had put it, hadn’t been because of her condition. Also, I do hope you have a better opinion regarding kissing a ghoul that Apple Core has. But enough about that,” I finished, turning again to Jack and smiling. “I’m Doctor Angel, sweetie, pleased to meet you.”

Jack had continued to stare at me with mild surprise throughout my monologue. “Anybody ever tell you you talk a lot?” he asked a moment after I had finished. Before I could reply, though, the griffin shook his head, which I took as a sign that he didn’t really care about the answer. “I’m Jack, and I’ve been told about the negotiations from yesterday. If you and your friend there will help us out with job, we will go to Appleloosa, that much I can promise you for now.”

“I’m happy to hear that, sweetie,” I replied; while I already had heard that from Apple Core, it was a relieve to actually hear it from him as well.

“This doesn’t mean we will agree to work for your boss,” he added, beginning to walk down the street and signaling for everybody else to move along, “but we will see. For now I hope you two will focus on this little trip of ours. Which brings me to my next point: aside from your PipBuck’s E.F.S., what exactly can you contribute?”

I smiled again. “Why, sweetie, I’m glad you asked!”

“Oh, dear Celestia,” I heard Apple Core utter, causing me to pause for a moment to shoot her an annoyed look (which she didn’t see, as she was facehoofing).

Clearing my throat, I answered the griffin’s question. “I’m an expert medic with a surgeon’s licence, with knowledge of probably every healing spell devised by ponies, both before the Last Day and in my Stable, barring the healing megaspell of course. Although I could maybe try to recreate it’s formula…” I mused, more to myself, rubbing my muzzle thoughtfully. Shaking my head, I decided it was something worth thinking about, but at a later date. “I am, of course, capable of performing surgeries with just surgical tools, though sadly I do not have any with me. I do have six healing potions on my person, which, if such need arises, you can use for no charge. I do believe that my own healing skills should be enough to keep you alive and healthy, however.”

Jack stayed silent for a moment after I finished speaking, letting Blast cut in with another laughter. “Figures we get an expert medic for a job where we expect no shooting whatsoever,” he commented, somewhat bitterly.

The griffin rolled his eyes at his friend and focused on me again. “How about self-defense? Apple Core told us that you don’t have any gun on yourself.”

“Sweetie, do you honestly think that, in an event that we would face something that the five of you combat-experienced Wastelanders couldn’t deal, would one more gun carried by somepony utterly inexperienced with firearms make any difference?” I asked in return.

Now it was Jack’s turn to faceho-... um, facepaw? Facetalon? “I’m sorry I asked,” he murmured, his face covered by his talons.

“I do know of certain spells that should help you in combat should we find ourself in such situation,” I continued, undisturbed. “While the thought of fighting doesn’t excite me, I do realize that the Equestrian Wasteland is an extremely dangerous place.”

“Then why aren’t you carrying any gun with you?” Burst interrupted, confused. “No offense, but I hadn’t met any unicorn who could survive out there with their magical abilities alone. You’d be much safer if you had any firearm.”

“None taken, sweetie, and while I you’re probably right, I will never carry a gun,” I told him, then cleared my throat and, hoping to put all questions regarding this matter out for good, recited: “‘I will carry your books, I’ll carry a torch, I’ll carry a tune, I’ll carry on, carry over and carry forward, but I will not carry a gun’. It’s a quote from memoirs of my Stable’s first chief of medicine,” I explained, noticing the confused stares I received in return, “Doctor H-”

“Ya’re such a nerd,” Apple Core interrupted me, deadpanning at me.

I paused to give her another annoyed look before resuming: “The point is, I am a doctor of medicine. I’m the mare that makes ponies better, not shoots them.”

“Great, an ideologist,” Jack commented, rolling his eyes. I frowned, confused, but before I could ask why he seemed annoyed, the griffin had again shaken his head. “Look missy, all I care is that we do this job quickly and professionally. That means both of you will have to do what I or the others say. And seeing how I probably won’t ask you to shoot anybody,” he added with a meaningful glance at me, “will you have problems obeying my orders?”

“Meh, basically same job as in Appleloosa,” Apple Core replied, shrugging. “Ah ‘ave no problem.”

“I would have problems only in the unlikely event you’d ask me to shoot somebody,” I in turn said, earning myself an annoyed glare from Apple Core. “Sweetie, I have to be honest,” I told her, causing her to roll her eyes. Turning back to Jack, I added: “That being said, I trust you to not have any impossible demands of me. I will follow your expertise and do what you ask of me.”

“Good, then I ask of you to stop talking,” he said, pointing a talon at me. I balked for a moment, surprised at the slightly offensive command. I quickly recovered, though, and smiled at Jack and nodded. Satisfied with my answer, he turned away. “Burst,” he called to the younger earth pony, “if we run into trouble, you’ll stick to her and keep her safe.”

Burst, who had been checking his shotgun, glanced at me. “Sure thing,” he said, before resuming examining his weapon.

“Ya know, Ah could-” Apple Core began, frowning, but Jack interrupted her.

“No offense, but I’ll prefer if the only non-fighter in the group is protected by somebody whom I know can handle protecting her,” Jack replied, lowering his voice a bit as we came close to the town’s gates. “You and Blast will be covering Scope if we’ll have to fight.”

“And why I can’t cover the hot medic?” Blast asked instead, turning his head to me and winking at me.

Jack just deadpanned at him. “You know why,” he told him finally, before signaling the pony guarding the metal gate to open it.

“Meh, killjoy,” Blast sighed, rolling his eyes as we waited, the gate slowly opened to let us through.

“So ya mind tellin’ us what exactly are we helpin’ ya with?” Apple Core asked, looking from Jack to Blast.

“Yes, in a moment,” Jack replied her. “I just want to be out of the town’s limits first.”

Apple Core sighed and looked up into the clouded sky. I had the feeling she was thinking something along the lines of: Paranoid much?. Actually I was surprised she hadn’t said it out loud.

I guess she must be a little intimidated by him… or that sword, I noted, glancing again at the melee weapon. It was the first time I was seeing such a weapon. Almost everypony I met so far in the Wasteland was carrying a gun, and the few melee weapons I had seen were usually knifes, or more primitive and crude blunt weapons. I wonder why he carries a sword? Surely, firearms are far more effective in his profession. He even has one, too, I noted, seeing a pistol strapped to his waist, on his right side. Maybe he uses it with his one forepaw while with the other he uses the sword?

I continued my musing, trying to imagine how Jack’s body would move in a fight, as we finally walked past the New Appleloosa’s gate, with Apple Core briefly saying “Hi Joe,” to the guard pony. Only when I heard the gates beginning to close behind us I stopped, realizing that now I was practically in the actual Wasteland.

Glancing back, I thought how earlie similar this was to when the door to Stable Eight closed behind me. I was about to yet again step into a dangerous world. Only this time, it wasn’t as unknown as it was then, nor was I alone.

Calming myself by thinking that I was with people who knew how to survive in the Wasteland, I focused on the excitement from the prospect of exploring more of this world. That I would get to see with my own eyes what the war had done to this land and how it had evolved during those two hundred years. Possibly even seeing some of the wildlife; although considering all I heard about it, it would probably try to eat us.

And my companions would kill it, I thought with a frown; I would prefer much more to capture some specimens alive. Although I would at least get to examine the carcass… assuming it would be small enough for me to carry, as I doubt anypony would agree to carry it for me.

I shook my head, focusing on the present moment, and hurried to follow my companions.

“Alright,” Jack said once we were some distance away from the town. “This should be fine.” Turning to Apple Core and me, he said: “Our objective is in a Stable located south-east from here, near those old Rock Farms.”

While Apple Core cursed very loudly (and very obscenely I might add), I, still having the order to stop talking fresh in my mind, merely opened my eyes wider and stared. Of course, I had known where we were going already, thanks to Scope, but I didn’t want him to get into trouble.

Not to mention that if I’d reveal what he told me, he might decide to “return the favor”, I added in my thoughts. The prospect of Apple Core learning about my little performance isn’t very appealing.

“Ah should ‘ave figured ya’d drag me into a deathtrap,” Apple Core said, glancing at with annoyance.

I rolled my eyes and opened my mouth to reply, but then, mindful of the order, stopped. Instead I turned to Jack and raised my hoof. “Um, permission to speak?” I asked uncertainly, taking his raised eyebrow as a permission to ask my questions.

A low growl of annoyance escaped his beak, and his talons raked the ground beneath his paws. He did nod though, while glaring at Blast and Burst, who both were chuckling.

“Thank you, sweetie. Honestly, Apple Core,” I said, turning to the slaver, “do you think our companion would go into a, quote, ‘deathtrap’, unquote, if they weren’t confident they could survive it? And besides, why do you assume it’s a ‘deathtrap’? It could be still populated. After all, I came from a Stable that is doing very well.”

“Yeah…” Apple Core began, but unfortunately I cut her off.

“Which brings me to a question,” I said, turning to look at Jack and the other mercenaries, “what exactly do you plan to do if the Stable would, indeed, be still populated?”

Blast snorted, but Jack merely shrugged and replied calmly: “We do not kill people on whom we don’t have a contract for if we can help it, if that’s what you’re suggesting. Besides, our employer didn’t strike me as a sort of pony who enjoys the thought of innocents dying, so she would probably refuse to pay. In case there are still ponies living there somehow, we’d negotiate.”

“I’m relieved to hear that, sweetie,” I told him, smiling. “May I ask then what is it that you want from this Stable? You said that your ‘objective’-”

Faster than I could react, his talons once again clamped around my muzzle, stopping me mid-sentence. “I know what I said,” he told me, frowning. “We’re looking for music records.”

I blinked. Music records?

“Our employer asked us to track down some pre-war songs for her,” Jack continued to explain. “After checking some shipping records in Manehattan, we found out that a pony in Stable Eleven had a record of a certain singer named ‘Countess Coloratura’. Assuming they didn’t end up blowing themselves up, it should still be there.”

“Ya came all this way from Manehattan for just some pre-war music?” Apple Core asked, raising her eyebrows in disbelief.

The better question is, does acquiring music records in the Equestrian Wasteland really require hiring a team of mercenaries that are armed to their teeth? What a sad place the Equestria has become…

“She’s paying us very well,” Jack replied, shrugging, and releasing my muzzle.

That got Apple Core’s attention. “How well?”

“Well enough,” was all that he replied. “But the point is, we’re not going to kill ponies over some dumb music records.” I frowned. If it weren’t for having my muzzle only recently freed and fearing he would grab it again, I would have began to argue of the importance of music in pony’s life and its beauty. “I’m sure we will be able to work something out if there are still ponies living there. But for that we would have to gain their trust, which is why, under any circumstances, you cannot say that you are a slaver,” he told Apple Core.

The slaver mare snorted. “Ah’m not stupid. Are ya gonna tell me next t’ not say it at Tenpony Tower as well?”

To Jack’s credit, he didn’t raise to the bait. “If it turns out to be empty, however, you’re welcome to pick some souvenirs. Consider it your cut for helping us out.”

My ears twitched at the idea. Though I hoped that the inhabitants of that Stable were safe and well, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the notion of picking up some medical equipment sounded intriguing.

It would be wonderful to finally have some proper equipment, it would really speed up my research. Although I doubt anypony would agree to help me drag it back to New Appleloosa… I mused. I guess this means I should pick up only things that I could carry without problems. Still, maybe there would be some talismans or surgical tools...

Which, if the Stable is still inhabited, are probably still being used, Fluttershy pointed out.

I blinked, realizing where my thoughts had gone. You are absolutely right, Fluttershy. Forgive me, I got carried away. I am sure those ponies are doing fine, I added; the lives of ponies were far more important to me than medical equipment, so I didn’t feel regret while thinking it. They live in a Stable, which was designed to survive a megaspell detonation. Nothing from the Outside could have harmed them…

I trailed off, noticing the small obstacle in Jack’s plan.

“Put your hoof down and talk,” he told me with a dangerous glare in his eyes even before I finished raising my hoof, stopping his explanation of which way we were going to reach Stable Eleven.

“How do you plan to enter Stable Eleven?” I asked, frowning. “If the door is locked, it can be only opened from the inside or with an override code, isn’t that right sweetie?”

“Does she call everybody ‘sweetie’ like that?” Jack asked Apple Core, ignoring my question.

“Ya learn t’ tone it out after a while.”

I shot my slaver companion an annoyed look as Jack began to answer me. “We do have the override code for Stable Eleven,” he said, surprising me. “Costed most of the provision for this job to get it, but I was assured it would work. Actually…” Jack added after a moment, glancing at my PipBuck before reaching to one of his bags and pulling out a holotape. “Here, play it in your PipBuck,” he said, giving it to me. “It will be probably easier to access the control mechanism through it. It has the code as well as the location of the Stable on it.”

Picking up the holotape with my magic, I quickly opened the holotape player and put it inside. Immediately, my PipBuck read it and displayed a short message:

Stable Eleven override code: 11GRDST3

The map in my PipBuck also got updated. A new, undiscovered location, titled “Stable 11”, had appeared to the south-east of New Appleloosa. Hm, looking at the distance between the two marks, comparing it with the distance between the marks for Appleloosa and New Appleloosa, then seeing how long the journey took and how fast did the train travel- wow, that’s going to be a lot of walking! I exclaimed in my thoughts as I quickly did the math, my hooves already aching at the prospect.

“That’s… a lot of ground to cover, sweetie,” I said diplomatically as I ejected the holotape and returned it to Jack.

“Which is why we’ll better get a move on,” Jack replied, putting the holotape back into his bags. “I scouted the area yesterday, I didn’t see any raiders or much wildlife, but we should still move swiftly and silently. I’ll be flying over you, if I see anything dangerous we will try to walk around it. I think that’s all,” he said, glancing at Scope, Blast and Burst with raised eyebrows. When the other three either nodded nor shrugged, Jack spread his wings, getting ready to take off. “Make sure they stay close,” the griffin told them before jumping into the air, quickly flying higher up.

“Let’s get going then,” Blast said, taking the point with others following.

Resigned, I trotted along, hoping I would be able to catch up with them a few hours from now.

*** *** ***

“This seems a lot of trouble t’ go through t’ just get some music records,” I heard Apple Core ask a few hours later

I turned my head to regard her and the mercenaries. We weren’t “forbidden” from talking, as Jack would have spotted anything dangerous that could be potentially alerted by our voices long before it could get within earshot. They should also appear as red bars on my E.F.S. However, everypony else walked in silence, exchanging a few sentences at most every now and then, so I opted for silence as well. I spent most of the journey so far admiring the scenery, and occasionally having conversations with the apparition of Fluttershy in my mind.

The views were interesting, to say the least. The mountains that made the borders of the valley we were going deeper into were visible even from New Appleloosa, and they only grew larger the more we walked. They were strewn with blackened remains of trees and sickly looking green grass that also were growing in few patches around us as well (which I took some sample off when we passed some before). Occasionally we would also pass testaments to the destruction wrought upon the civilization, namely a giant billboard advertising some product (Sparkle Cola in this case) or destroyed sky chariots and wagons that must have been blown out of the sky on the Last Day. Those sights were, while very interesting and informative, slightly depressing even for a pony such as myself.

Weirdly, seeing Jack flying in circles high above us only seemed to cement the depressing mood of our surroundings for me.

Focusing on the conversation, I listened to Apple Core ask: “Couldn’t ya find any within Manehattan? I mean, it just seems like a long way t’ get somethin’ like that.”

“Well, we did find some other shipping addresses,” Blast replied, shrugging. “But what are the odds that those recordings would still be there after two hundred years? Two centuries of looting and scavenging means that if you’re looking for something specific, chances are somebody already took it. Stables, however, aren’t places that one can just waltz into and take shit.”

“Huh, Ah guess ‘at makes sense,” Apple Core said thoughtfully.

“We did have one more promising lead, about some different records” Burst added. “But, well… there was a slight problem with it.”

“The place where those records are is practically overrun with manticores,” Blast quickly explained, then grinned. “And Jack can’t stand manticores. He’d literally prefer to come all the way here and blow most of the provision for a holotape than just face one of them, let alone an entire pride of them. And considering how many of them were there, we didn’t argue.”

“Really? If that is a result of some phobia, maybe I could help him?” I interjected, unable to stop myself. “I did read several books about psychology, and while I didn’t bother to get a degree in it, I think I’m competent enough to be a psychiatrist.”

“Oh yeah, then why don’t ya ‘ave a degree in it?” Apple Core turned to me with a smirk.

“Because there were more useful fields I wanted to get decrees in before psychology,” I replied, surprised that I had to explain something so obvious. “I had planned to acquire doctorate in cell biology next, then genetics, then-”

“Alright, fine, Ah’m sorry Ah asked” Apple Core interrupted me, rolling her eyes as I frowned at her.

“Anyway,” Blast cut in before I could tell her that she was being rude, “I don’t think that it’s a good idea for you to play shrink for Jack. On the other hoof though, I think I would really enjoy seeing that,” he added with a snort of laughter.

“Um, no offense, sweetie, but any sessions between me and him would have to be confidential,” I said, not understanding what was funny about it. “Regardless,” I added with a shake of my head, “there is something else I would like to discuss with you. You said that there’s an entire pride of manticores at that place you mentioned?”

“Well, yeah, I mean, there are plenty of them throughout Manehattan actually,” Blast replied, confused.

I brightened up hearing that. “Do you think-”

“No,” Apple Core interrupted me.

“Beg your pardon, sweetie?” I asked, blinking in a surprise.

“Ya can’t ‘ave them bring’ya a manticore to Appleloosa,” she told me with a frown.

I blinked again. “Why not?”

*** *** ***

I spy with my little eye… something beginning with… “r”, I thought as, after looking around the surroundings, I closed my eyes.

“R”? Um… rocks? Fluttershy tried.

Honestly, sweetie, do you think I would have chosen something so obvious?

Oh, of course. Um… is it the “Robronco: Order your Mister Handy today!” billboard that we’re just passing under?

… yes, I finally admitted, sighing. Your turn sweetie.

I’m not sure if that actually counts-

Sweetie, we’ve been playing this game, with breaks, for hours now, we’re in the place called “Wasteland”, and my hooves are, figuratively, killing me, I told her, my increasing exhaustion making me a little irritated. There aren’t many things to “spy on”. We passed by an interesting billboard, advertising, I assume, a product of a company making robots, so I thought I would pick it, and use the subject of the advertisement as its name rather than “billboard”. I don’t think there’s a reason to make an argument about it, isn’t it?

Oh, no no, of course not, Fluttershy quickly agreed. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you… she continued to apologize, but I stopped her, having already calmed down.

No, I’m sorry sweetie. I didn’t mean to snap like that, it’s just… I am starting to think that during this journey I’ll walk more than I had in all my life prior to this morning, assuming I hadn’t passed this mark already.

You can’t be serious, Fluttershy said, giggling at what she thought was a joke.

Well, you’re right, but that could easily become reality. You don’t really have to walk too much when you live in an underground shelter, where on every floor there are multiple portals installed as a form of public transportation, and you spend most of your time studying, I explained. And I would have walked even less if I had learned the Teleportation Spell, which you wouldn’t believe how much I regret right now.

Oh… I see.

… There was a portal right outside of the hospital wing and another one just ten feet from my quarters, I didn’t learn that spell because it would have been a waste of time. How would I know that I would end up being banished from the Stable?

I um, I understand, Fluttershy said, clearly uncomfortable with listening to me complain and make excuses for myself for not having learned the Teleportation Spell.

Sorry sweetie, I apologized, sighing. I realize that I’ve been difficult to talk with for the last few hours. I guess I’m handling physical exertion worse than I thought. Anyway, back to our game - it’s your turn.

Oh, right. Um… I spy with my little eye…

*** *** ***

“Did you have to kill it?” I asked Jack, looking at him sternly.

The griffin, who was standing above the remains of a bloated insectoid creature and wiping his sword of its blood, raised his eyebrow. “Why, did you want to keep it as a pet?”

I opened my mouth to reply, but Apple Core spoke before I could: “She has two pet radroaches in Appleloosa, what do ya think?”

Glancing behind me, I saw that she wasn’t the only one who ran after me. The other three mercenaries were trotting along with her, the expressions on their faces ranging from (rapidly decreasing) worry to (rapidly increasing) annoyance.

Realizing that I was the cause of their grievances, I blushed. When moments earlier I had spotted a red bar pop up on my E.F.S., I immediately warned everypony. They all had readied their guns and pointed them in the direction I told them, but it quickly turned out unnecessary. From high above, Jack also had noticed the threat, and had already been nose-diving at it. However, at the same time, I had noticed that this threat was nothing more than small insectoid animal, and had run towards it, ignoring the pain in my legs, shouting to Jack to not kill it.

Now it was in two pieces, my legs hurt even more, and my companions were annoyed with me.

“Wait, seriously?” Blast asked Apple Core.

“Yep, she calls ‘em ‘Snuggles’ and ‘Wigglebutt’,” she replied, causing the earth pony to snort with amusement.

And it would appear I became a subject of laughter, too.

“I would appreciate if you wouldn’t find my pets so amusing,” I told both him and Apple Core; Jack and Scope still appeared to be more annoyed than amused, and Burst, to my relief, was frowning at his older brother.

“Sorry, sorry,” Blast replied, shaking his head, “just… didn’t peg you for somepony that would keep bugs as pets,” he said, still amused.

“So?” Burst asked, coming to my defense, “That’s not that weird. Doesn’t one of the Hoofington’s Reapers keep radroaches as pets too? I would love to see you laugh to his face about them.”

“Maybe, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t give them such ridiculous names,” Blast retorted.

“Oh, I’m so sorry the names I gave them aren’t to your liking, sweetie,” I interjected, offended.

Blast turned to me, rolling his eyes. “Look baby-”

“Enough,” Jack interrupted him, his voice low with a warning. “We’re still in a dangerous area, you two can argue and hit on her when we get back to New Appleloosa, got it?”

I blinked. They were hitting on me? I thought as both Blast and Burst, one annoyed and other embarrassed, had replied “Fine.” I mean, both of them? It had been hard to miss Blast stares and suggestions, but Burst… Oh, I will figure this out later, I decided, shaking my head, right now I have more important thing to worry about.

Turning to the remains of the insectoid creature, I cleared my throat and began recording with my PipBuck: “Audio recording of Doctor Angel, number 2.06.”

“The fuck is she doing?” I heard Jack ask somepony; I ignored it for the moment.

“During the expedition to Stable Eleven, which I partake in due to a business agreement, I encountered an unfamiliar species of animal.” (“It’s somethin’ she does from time t’ time, apparently. If ya want I can drag her away.”) “Unfortunately, a member of the expedition had terminated it before I could capture it. I will now attempt to shortly examine its corpse and describe it, a proper post mortem examination will have to wait until returning to Appleloosa.” (“Oh for… Ya’re not takin’ this thing!”) “Side note: make an additional recording later on about the mentioned member of the expedition, possibly during physical examination.” (“Um, did she just say she wants to bang Jack, or was that not an innuendo?”)

I paused the recording. Having fresh in mind what Apple Core had done during audio recording number 2.04, I paid some attention to what the people around me were talking about (which, considering I was about to examine a corpse of an animal rather than a living, sapient one, was easy; the former was far less captivating). For better or worse, this resulted in me hearing just how many interference there would be in my recording.

Even my patience has its limits, I thought, turning to my companions.

“Excuse me, sweeties,” I began, smiling at them kindly, “would you mind being less noisy while I’m in the middle of making a scientific recording?”

All five of them, four ponies and one griffin, let their jaws hang open as they stared at me, apparently each trying to think of how to best respond. Finally, the ponies turned to look at Jack, clearly expecting him to be the one to deal with me. The griffin gave out a half-annoyed, half-tired sigh, and covered his eyes with his paw.

“What the hell are you doing, Doctor?” he asked, his voice almost polite and curious sounding; I got the impression that he was forcing himself to remain so civil.

“I am recording a species that I hadn’t met previously,” I explained; I felt it would have been a bad idea to add ‘obviously’. “Since you had went ahead and terminated it, sweetie, and this isn’t the right time or place to perform proper post mortem examination, making an audio recording with my initial observation is all I can do at the moment. It won’t take long, so I would appreciate your cooperation,” I added, smiling again.

Jack opened his beak and raised his forepaw, but he hesitated before speaking. His talons curled, as if grasping something, while he struggled to find words, his blue eyes staring at me. The griffin let out a short growl, that quickly changed into a sigh.

“Fuck it. We’re taking a break,” he said to everypony else, turning away from me.

“Wha- seriously?” Scope asked, his eyebrow raised. He pointed at me and continued: “You’re letting her-”

“Yes, I am,” Jack interrupted him, glancing behind. “Because if we were to continue this argument, I am certain I would try to cut her head off.”

“Oh,” I exclaimed, staring at him in shock. “I… I am terribly sorry I'm causing you to have such violent feelings regarding my person-” I began to say, but, like Scope, I was interrupted by Jack.

However, where with the unicorn mercenary Jack only used his words, in my case he whirled around at me, shot his forepaw and grabbed my muzzle, again. “Shut. Up,” he told me quietly after a second passed. “Do your stupid audio recording whatever, then eat and drink something. Same goes for the rest of you,” he added, releasing me and turning to the others. “We made a very good progress so far, should only be about two hours to reach the Stable if there won’t be more problems.” Why did he glance at me when he said that? “We all deserve some break, and this place offers good cover.”

I suppose it did. Before us rose another billboard, laid partially toppled before us, and there were some rocks by it as well, forming a quite cozy space. To spot us, somebody would have to either be in the sky, or stand in the way in which we had came here.

“You’ve got twenty minutes tops,” Jack added, then, as everypony began making themselves comfortable, turned to Burst. “Burst, tell her about bloatsprites, should make this bullshit quicker.”

“‘Bloatsprites’?” I repeated, surprised, then glanced at the remains.

I had heard that name from Apple Core, back when I had asked her to tell me about the Wasteland, but her description of them was somewhat… lacking in details. It’s body was spherical (at least, I assumed so; with its organs spilling out from both halves of its remains, it was rather… deflated), with big round compound eyes, insectoid mouthparts that I would identify later, two pairs of large membranous wings, several appendages at the bottom that were possibly legs, and a few orbicular bulges.

Certainly, it should take more than the two words Apple Core had used to describe them.

“That’s the, quote, ‘flying turd’, unquote?” I asked Apple Core, frowning at her.

“Ah stand by it bein’ an apt description,” she told me, shrugging, and took a sip from her canteen.

I rolled my eyes and focused on Burst, who was standing now beside me. “I trust you can tell me more about them?”

“Sure,” he replied. “They-”

I raised my hoof, stopping him. “Hold on a moment, sweetie.” I brought up my PipBuck and unpaused the recording. “A testimony regarding the species from Burst, male, pony, earth pony, early twenties, mercenary:” I said, then extended my left leg to him and motioned for him to speak.

“Um, well… this species is called ‘bloatsprite’,” Burst resumed, looking a bit uncertainly at my PipBuck, but seemed to grow more confident as he talked. “They used to be smaller and not as dangerous before the war, I think they were called parasprites then, but they mutated due to Taint. They attack ponies and practically everything on sight, shooting their stings at you.”

“Biological projectile weapon? How interesting,” I mused out loud. “So they eat meat?”

“Yeah, but in most cases it’s from some carcass. You’d have to be very unlucky to get killed by them, they’re considered more of a nuisance than an actual threat.”

“And yet they attack on sight? Hm, a surprisingly aggressive behaviour… could they be defending their territory or young? How do they reproduce?” I asked Burst, curious if there were more bloatsprites. None showed on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle, true, but they could be out of its range. And if there were, maybe I could capture a living one. “Do they lay eggs or-”

“They, um, sorta…” Burst hesitated, looking for the right word. “They spit a new bloatsprite after they’ve eaten enough.”

I was stunned. “They reproduce asexually?!”

“Um… yes?” Burst replied, confused. “I think that’s what that means at least…”

“And not only that,” I interrupted him, to excited to wait for him to finish, “when they reproduce, their offspring is fully grown?!”

At least, that’s how I understood “spit new bloatsprite”. If I wasn’t mistaken…

“Yeah, it’s nearly identical to the ‘parent, I guess,” Burst said, somewhat uncertainly, but it was enough for me.

“That’s amazing!” I exclaimed, but my mood quickly grew sour when I remembered that the bloadsprite was dead. Frowning, I turned to Jack. “And you killed it? Just like that?! Do you have any idea how much I could learn from it?!”

“No,” the griffin replied after he finished chewing a bit of some meat (It better not be brahmin’s meat!), “but I have this weird feeling you’re about to tell us. Seriously,” he suddenly added, looking at Apple Core, “how come nobody in Appleloosa killed her yet? Most of you slavers are barely a step up from raiders. You’re telling me she didn’t annoy anybody enough to kill her yet?”

“We don’t kill ponies that work with us just ‘cause they’re annoyin’,” she told him, frowning. “‘Sides, she grows on ya.”

“I somehow doubt that,” Jack retorted, then turned back to me. “Alright, I’ll bite; would the good doctor tell me what could you possibly learn from a bloatsprite?”

“Honestly, sweetie, I would have thought it to be obvious,” I stated, and despite the stares I got in return, I honestly meant that. “Asexual reproduction produces an offspring that arises from a single organism. Now, as I am sure all of you know, during sexual reproduction, which is how, for example, ponies and griffins reproduce, the offspring inherits the genes from both parents.” Ignoring the annoyed groan Jack uttered, and that both Apple Core and Blast had seemingly stopped listening, I continued: “However, an organism that reproduces asexually receives genes from one parent. Their genetic material is identical! It is, in simple words, a cloning process! And this species” I added, pointing at the remains of the bloatsprite, “gives life to a literally identical organism, already in its adult form!”

“And that means?” Jack asked, rubbing his temples; in contrast to my excited shouts, his voice sounded tired and resigned.

“That means, sweetie, that if I research this biological process, with the help of magic I should be able to learn how to create perfect clones of ponies and other sapient beings, which could provide organs and limbs for transplants!” I began to pace around, too excited to hold still. “Back in Stable Eight we came up with many theories regarding therapeutic cloning, but with those bloatsprites, I could turn those theories into reality!”

I turned to my companions, eager to hear them express their reaction to this revelation. To my surprise, though, I was met with mostly confused and unsure stares. And doubtful, too.

“Ya seriously think ya can figure out how t’ clone a pony with those things?” Apple Core asked, her eyebrow raised skeptically. “Ah knew ya were little off, but didn’t think ya were this crazy.”

I frowned hearing the comment. “Well,” I nickered, “I will be sure to remember this, sweetie, when you develop an alcoholic liver disease. Which, if you won’t decrease your alcohol consumption as I had advised you to numerous times, should happen within the next ten years.”

But as I had expected, Apple Core began to roll her eyes even before I finished warning her for about fifth time since we met. “Yeah, no, that’s ain’t gonna happen.”

“So wait, you really think that it would be possible?” Burst asked me before this could develop into an argument. “To clone organs and stuff?”

“We had a saying back in Stable Eight,” I replied, smiling. “‘If something seems impossible, it’s only because nopony invented the spell to do it’. And unlike what most of my former fellow stable dwellers think, not everything has to be resolved solely with magic,” I added with a roll of my eyes. “Quite the contrary, science offers far better and easier solutions to problems, and when you combine science and magic…” I trailed off, smiling as I sighed dreamily. “Yes, sweetie, it would be very much possible.”

A sudden clap! startled me, almost making me jump. Looking around, I realized it was Jack who was clapping his forepaws. “Alright, we are all impressed. If we pass another bloatsprite, I will be sure to leave it to you to deal with it. Now, can you please finish making this audio recording or whatever and eat something? You’ve got fifteen minutes of break left, and I don’t want you to collapse because of exhaustion. Last thing we need is worrying about carrying you,” he added, returning to his meal.

“Oh, of course, sweetie,” I replied with a smile, despite sensing a patronizing tone in his words. “Thank you for taking such interest in my well-being.” I turned to my PipBuck with the intention to resume the recording, only to realize that I forgot to pause it. “Oh, how unprofessional of me…”

About five minutes later, when I had finally finished describing the bloatsprite’s remains for my audio record (Would have been easier if it wasn’t cut in two pieces!), I gathered them to a tightly bound sack Burst gave me after he took his supplies out of it.

“You’re seriously taking it,” Scope, who was sitting on top of a rock keeping watch, commented.

“Of course I am,” I replied, surprised that there were even doubts about it. I took out three healing potions out of my saddlebag to make a room for the bloatsprite’s remains. “Here sweetie,” I told Burst, passing to him one of them with my magic. “Once again, thank you for all your help.”

“Oh, no problem,” the earth pony replied, slightly blushing. “It was nothing.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say-”

“Doctor,” Jack interrupted me; he was looking at me sternly. “You have ten minutes left to catch your breath, eat something, and rest. I’d advise you to stop talking and use them.”

I was about to reply “Oh, of course, thank you sweetie”, but something in Jack’s stare told me that, if I would, he wound leap towards me and grab my muzzle shot before I could finish that sentence. So instead, I merely nodded, passed the remaining healing potions to him and Apple Core, and sat beside Burst.

“Sorry about Jack,” the mercenary whispered as I made myself comfortable and took out the lunch box Ditzy had prepared for me. “He’s… not comfortable with having ponies unfamiliar with combat out in the Wasteland.”

“It’s alright, sweetie,” I assured him, matching his voice’s volume. “In all honesty, I should probably accommodate myself more with his orders, seeing how much more experienced he and the rest of you are with the Wasteland,” I admitted as I stretched my sore limbs.

I must have grimaced from the pain, because Burst asked: “Are you okay?”

“Well, to be honest, sweetie, I’m afraid I’ve started to develop a muscle fatigue in my legs due to all this trotting,” I admitted as I unpacked my lunch box. “I should be fine, but hopefully we could get a longer rest within Stable Eleven. Possibly with a hot bath.”

Not that it will prevent me from getting delayed onset muscle soreness later, I remarked. I might have a hard time getting back tomorro- oh, I exclaimed as I saw the contents of the lunch box that Ditzy had made for me, that’s so sweet of her!

Aside from two small apples and some Fancy Buck Snack Cakes, there also was a muffin.

Surprised and touched by the gesture, I forgot about my legs. I wonder when she had the time to make or buy it, though? I wondered briefly as I sniffed it. As most of the food I had tasted in the Wasteland, it was, to say gently, not quite as tasty as Stable Eight’s muffins. Certainly not like the ones my grandmother used to make. However, after weeks of eating two hundred year old food supplies, they seemed to be the most delicious things ever. I must remember to return the favor. Even though I’m not the best cook…

“You’re doing quite well for somepony who’s, well, not used to those sort of things,” Burst said as I devoured most of the Fancy Buck Snack Cakes, saving the muffin for the end (and apples for journey back). “I guess you didn’t have to walk as much back in your Stable, huh?”

I swallowed before replying. “You are correct, sweetie. Even without having learned the Teleportation Spell like a lot of ponies in Stable Eight, I didn’t exactly trot through such long distances.”

“That’s an advanced spell,” Scope unexpectedly commented. I glanced up at him, surprised; he was still sitting on the rock, but his attention turned to me and Burst. “And you’re saying there are a lot of ponies in your Stable who know it?”

“Yes, of course,” I replied, recovering. “Even those less magically talented unicorns can learn ‘advanced’ spells, provided they dedicate enough time to mastering it of course. And with all the free time the majority of ponies in Stable Eight have, it’s really not surprising how many of them know Teleportation Spell.”

“Oh yeah?” Apple Core chimed in, grinning. “How come ya don’t know it, then?”

“Because, sweetie, I had far less free time, obviously,” I told her, glancing at her. “Not to mention that I was always far more interested in learning medical spells. Besides,” I added, shrugging, “with all the portals in Stable Eight, I never even considered Teleportation Spell as being useful-”

“I’m sorry,” Scope interrupted me, jumping down from the rock and coming closer, “what?! Did you say portals?!”

“Well, yes,” I replied, slightly surprised by his interest. “We use them in Stable Eight for public transportation between levels and sections.”

Scope’s jaw dropped, and it took him a moment to recover himself. “You came up with a magical transportation never developed in Equestria, even during the Great War, and use it in place of elevators?!”

I frowned hearing the criticism in his voice. However, before I could ask him just how else would he expect ponies living in a Stable to use portals, Jack had interjected.

“Scope, keep watch; you can talk magic with her later.”

The unicorn glared at him, but obeyed the order after a second. However, before he turned around, I could see him roll his eyes. “Keep watch for what, exactly? We’ve been walking for hours and all we’ve seen was that bloatsprite. That tribe they’ve mentioned must have hunted down most of the creatures here.”

“Or it was the Hooded Figure,” Apple Core added with a snort; I wondered if her canteen didn’t happen to contain some apple whiskey, seeing how ‘perky’ she became after taking a few sips. Whether my guess was right or wrong, she continued, adding in a scary voice: “Ya know, that creature completely covered in a robe that walks and talks like a pony. One of our guys said he saw ‘im a few weeks ago ‘round those parts.”

“Oh please, everybody knows that’s a myth,” Scope replied as he resumed surveying the area from atop of his rock.

“Um, no, it isn’t?” Blast cut in, frowning.

Apple Core looked at him, surprised. “Wait, ya believe it’s real?”

“It’s not a matter of believing, it’s a matter of meeting the guy,” Blast replied.

“Wait, what?”

“When was it, two years ago?” the earth pony asked his brother, who nodded. “Back when we were working as caravan guards. We stopped at that small town in Manehattan, Arbu. He came shortly after us, about this high,” Blast said, raising his hoof high above his head, “and covered from head to hooves in dark cloak with a hood on his head, so all that you could see of him was the edge of his muzzle.”

Apple Core continued to stare in silence, utterly stunned. Scope was also looking at Blast, but while he did seem surprised, there was disbelief in his eyes as well. “Well… holy shit,” Apple Core finally said, blinking and shaking her stupor off. “So what did he do? Did he kill or maim anypony or somethin’?”

“Nah, nothing like that. Spoke little, bought some Micro-Sparkle Cells from one trader in the caravan… also wanted to buy some meat from ponies in Arbu, but after he sniffed some he seemed to change his mind,” he replied, shrugging.

“Huh, so he’s just some big weirdo who likes to walk ‘round in a cape? That’s kinda… disappointin’,” Apple Core said, frowning. “What are those Micro-Sparkle thingies he bought?”

“It’s an energy source for some magical energy weapons, sweetie,” I said, absentmindedly, my thoughts focused on this mysterious Hooded Figure.

So apparently, it’s not just a myth or a rumor, he actually exists, I thought. While it is possible for a pony to grow to such a height as Blast had claimed the Hooded Figure had, the fact that he’s only seen with his body completely covered might point out to some sort of mutation or other deformity that he’d wish to hide from others… Probably why he interacts with ponies so scarcely that he’d be considered by many to not be real, too- Why is everybody looking at me?

I blinked, stopping my contemplation and looking around. Everybody was staring at me with surprise, for some reason. After a very brief pondering, however, I realized what was probably the cause of it.

“Magical energy weapons are a part of the Stable Eight’s security’s armament, even though there had never been a case of them using them, if I am not mistaken,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“‘Kay, Ah can believe that,” Apple Core said, frowning, then pointed her hoof at me. “But how come Miss ‘Ah’ll never carry a gun’ knows anythin’ ‘bout security’s guns?”

Frowning, I turned to her. “Well, sweetie, if you must know…” I began, but I trailed off. I suddenly realized that there was some weird sound coming from someplace. “Do you hear something?” I asked, flickering my ears as I tried to locate the direction it was coming from.

“Don’t change the-” Apple Core started to say, but she too stopped. “Wait, she’s right. Is that… is that music?”

It was indeed music that we were hearing. I frowned in confusion. I hadn’t expected to hear music out in the Wasteland, unless I’d use my PipBuck to listen to DJ Pon3. Just as I began to wonder whether there was some kind of radio nearby that suddenly got activated (how come the music gradually became louder was a mystery I planned to solve later), I noticed that there now were six bars on my E.F.S.

Intrigued instead of worried, as the sixth bar was green like the others, marking it as a friend, I climbed on top of the rock beside Scope, hoping to spot whoever the bar represented.

To say I was surprised was an understatement.

“Is that another bloatsprite?” Even as I asked that question, I realized it wasn’t one. The… thing that was floating between hills towards us had the same shape as a bloatsprite, though, for reasons that I couldn’t figure out at the moment. It’s metallic body, and the fact that it was the source of the music, pointed out to it being some sort of robot. “Wait, is that a robot?”

“Yeah, that’s a sprite-bot,” Jack, who landed on the rock beside me, said. “How come you can make that out from this distance?” I turned away from the ‘sprite-bot’, stunned. “I thought albinos have poor eyesight.”

Color me impressed!

“Why, Jack, sweetie, I’m impressed!” I exclaimed, genuinely impressed. “Seldom had anybody in the Wasteland recognized my disorder, and they hadn’t displayed knowledge of its some, shall we say, less visible symptoms!”

My enthusiasm was quenched a tad as Jack sighed heavily. “Why did I even… thanks, I guess. Can you just answer my question, preferably shortly?”

Trust my luck to meet a person with some understanding of albinism that wouldn’t want to talk about it in further detail.

“Well, if you must know, sweetie, I can see as well as a normal pony, thanks to several ocular arcane surgeries I had undergone as a foal,” I replied. As soon as his eyebrows had raised, betraying a hint of interest, I began to elaborate: “Using a focusing crystal, the doctors modified my optic nerves and retina to be no different than those of ponies who don’t suffer from albinism and preventing me from developing visual problems. Although,” I admitted grudgingly, looking up at the clouded sky with a grimace, “if Celestia’s sun hadn’t been covered by those pegasi, it would still probably be best if I wear some protective eyewear.” There were a few times back in Stable Eight when looking at the illusory skies at the ceilings I would find the illusory sun to be hurtful to my eyes.

“Huh, that’s actually... neat,” Jack admitted, sounding impressed.

“Thank you, sweetie. Now,” I began, turning back to the music-broadcasting robot, which had drew even closer as we spoke, “could you tell me what is this ‘sprite-bot’, exactly?”

And why is it playing the March of the Parasprites? I wondered, finally recognizing the tuba-heavy music as the one I had heard on Red Eye’s radio broadcast, the only other radio station besides DJ Pon3. Admittedly, while this music is a bit too monotonous for my tastes, it is more enjoyable than that pony’s speeches at least…

“Nothing interesting,” Jack replied, shrugging, “there are tons of those things patrolling the Wasteland like that. They were supposed to boost the morale of Equestria’s citizens back during the war with the ‘uplifting’ music. And no,” he added, jumping back down from the rock, “I don’t know why they were modeled after those insects’ ancestors.”

Surprised, I glanced at Scope, who just shrugged and resumed watching the area. “And they continue to do so after two hundred years?” I asked, following Jack down. “How come?”

“They simply continue to do what they were programmed to do,” Blast replied. “Like most robots. Which is why a lot of people get themselves killed exploring places, ponies often used robots as security back then.”

Being stuck performing a duty that no longer matters? What a sad existence. I thought back to Janitor, the hospital’s Mister Handy that was currently working for me. He had a programmed personality, probably due to his workplace, but there were limits to his “consciousness”. Considering that if he hadn’t been turned off due to the damage he would have been cleaning that basement for the past two hundred years, it’s probably for the best. I can’t imagine how a true Artificial Intelligence would cope with such a fate.

I stopped my musing as I heard Apple Core groan with annoyance. “Ugh, Ah forgot how annoyin’ that music is! Ya guys mind if Ah shoot it?” she asked and, without waiting for reply, she reached for her gun.

“Yes, because we don’t want to attract attention,” Jack told her sternly, stopping her.

“What attention?” Apple Core asked, rolling her eyes. “There’s nopony ‘ere!”

“Yeah, and the moment you start shooting, it will turn out that there are raiders behind one of those hills or billboards. I would rather not take those chances.”

“If I am not mistaken, sweetie, the music is about to end anyway,” I told Apple Core as the mare rolled her eyes at Jack. “And besides, it would seem that the sprite-bot is bound to hover somewhere away eventually.”

Unfortunately for Apple Core, it appeared that this particular sprite-bot’s programmed path led by our “camp”, as the music continued to grow louder. However, as I had said, it ended about ten seconds later, causing the slaver mare to let out a loud sigh of relief.

Now it was my turn to be annoyed.

“That was the March of the Parasprites,” a gravelly voice announced, completely pointlessly, when the music ended.

I did my best to tune him off as the speaker was about to announce Red Eye’s speech. Of course, with the sprite-bot being only about ten or so feet away as it continued it flight, I wasn’t very successful.

“Not a fan of his speeches I take?” Burst asked as I sighed.

“I suppose you could say that, sweetie,” I replied as the speaker continued. “I had listened to a few on my PipBuck after I left my Stable, and later on the radio in Appleloosa. Let’s just say that I disagree with that buck’s philosophy.”

“Ya do realize he’s our major source of income, right?” Apple Core asked.

Yours, sweetie” I corrected her. “You and the rest of the slavers sell him slaves. I am Appleloosa’s medic. And while I don’t have much against that, I do take issue of what he is doing with those slaves.” Looking from Apple Core to Burst and back, I took advantage of their attention and (hoping to drown out the radio so I wouldn’t have to listen to a repeat of Red Eye’s speeches) began: “He claims that everything those slaves are building is for the future of Equestria, right? But tell me, isn’t a pony - or any sapient being,” I added with a glance at Jack, who raised his eyebrow; I don’t know if he was already listening or not, but there was a spark of interest in his eyes as I continued, “- aren’t they entitled to the fruits of their labor and sweat of their brows? Red Eye speaks only about the future, but not about how he plans to get to it, aside from some nonsense about ‘Unity’.” I shook my head dismissively. “Vague promises. If he truly means to restore Equestria, he should truly work with workers, not slaves. Pay them instead of beat them. But, as he mentions in one of his broadcasts, it would hamper the progress and stave off the future. He has eyes on only that, the future, and completely ignores the present. Sooner or later, it will bite him in the tail.”

“You seem to put a lot of thought into that,” Jack noted while the other two, now joined by Blast as well, continued to stare silently.

“Like I said, I have listened to some of his broadcasts; I had time to think his vision and promises over,” I replied, then, reluctantly, I turned one ear to the sprite-bot as the speaker finally finished announcing Red Eye.

One of the children asked me, ‘Red Eye, what is your cutie mark?

Hm, hadn’t heard that one yet, was the first thing I thought. The second was: Children?

“Meh, Ah don’t really care ‘bout that as long as he stays in Fillydelphia,” Apple Core began to say, but I shushed her with a gesture, curious where Red Eye was going with this broadcast.

To that child, I answered ‘I do not have one.’

I blinked, surprised. He had to be an adult; probably was older than me by decade or two. I had heard that much about him to know that. How could a pony that old not have a cutie mark?

Of course, the next question was ‘Why, Red Eye?’ Why don’t I have a cutie mark? Because I choose not to have a cutie mark.

My jaw fell. “Come again?” I asked out loud after a heartbeat, utterly stunned.

Why would I want one? Am I really going to let a picture on my flank determine my future?

My body jerked.

If I find something that I really enjoy, do I need an icon on my ass to tell me? Of course not. To too many ponies, cutie marks are more about what you can’t be. How can you expect to be a great scientist if your cutie mark is a rake?

The corners of my mouth twitched and started to curl as I continued to listen.

Or an amazing artist if your flank has a picture of a pile of hay? Who is going to give you the chance? But if your flank is bare, then the possibilities are endless.

“Um, Angel?” Apple Core asked, worry in her voice as I began to giggle. “Are ya okay?”

And the choice is up to you. That is why I had my cutie mark removed.

That did it for me. Not caring for the slightest where we were and what sort of dangers could be lurking, I erupted with maniacal laughter. Ignoring my companions’ surprise and confusion - not to mention the hastily growled command to be quiet - I grabbed my sides and fell down on the ground, laughing like an insane pony, after hearing the pony that had claimed he intends to restore Equestria to say the most idiotic nonsense I had ever heard of.

I continued to laugh even when Jack’s talons had again clamped on my muzzle, except now my laughter was muted. Apparently, it either was still too loud for his liking or I was plain annoying him, because he grasped me by my barding with his free paw and lifted me from the ground, pressing me against the rock.

“Stop laughing so loudly,” he growled at me quietly.

The little pain he had caused me helped me calm myself a bit, so I nodded and managed to stop laughing. I took a deep breath as Jack released me and took a step back, in an attempt to further calm down. “I’m sorry,” I managed to say; I couldn’t stop smiling. “I know I shouldn’t laugh… Radiant Celestia and Brilliant Luna, glory to thee, forgive me for taking such amusement in the wandering of that misguided soul, grant him strength and wisdom to see the error of his ways,” I prayed, making a circular motion with my right hoof over my heart, then on the other side of my chest and a bigger one around both points before bringing my hooves together, all while shaking my head. Noticing that the others were still staring at me, I giggled and began to explain. “I just… I just never expected to hear a pony who obviously must be intelligent say such…” I struggled to find the right word, “... such nonsense! I mean, did he honestly believe that erasing his cutie mark would free him from what he is?!” I asked my companions as I uttered a short (and quiet) laugh, shaking my head in amusement and wonder.

Apple Core was first of them to break the silence. “Oookay,” she said slowly, “so Red Eye is an idiot, got it. Can ya stop bein’ freaky now?”

“And loud,” Jack added, glaring at me with annoyance. “I swear, if this area wasn’t so empty for whatever reason, you just would have attracted everything within ten miles!”

“Yeah, ‘cause she was that loud,” Apple Core retorted, rolling her eyes. As the griffin glared at her she added: “And like ya said, there’s nothin’ ‘ere, so-”

She was interrupted by Scope, who jumped down from the rock. “Five raiders coming in from the north,” he said, levitating his sniper rifle beside him.

“Oh, ya’ve gotta be kiddin’ me,” Apple Core exclaimed, facehoofing.

My amusement quickly evaporated as I heard that, even without the cold stare Jack shot me.

“That sprite-bot had a few bullet marks on it, so they are probably chasing it,” Scope added, shrugging. “You might want to take that under consideration before you kill our medic.”

“I wasn’t going to kill her,” Jack snapped, clearly annoyed. He grunted and massaged his temples. “You're sure it’s only five of them?”

Only five?” Apple Core asked, bewildered, as Scope nodded.

Her answer was a short chuckle uttered by Blast. “Just stand back and watch,” he told her before turning to Jack. “How do you wanna do this Jack? Throw grenade at them when they get closer and have Scope pick off those that would get away?”

Jack shook his head. “No, the entire point of getting to Stable without any trouble was to avoid additional expenses such as grenades or ammo.”

“I told you that you should have just killed that Steel Ranger and taken the holotape instead of paying so much,” Scope said.

“I’ll sneak up on them and take them out by myself,” Jack continued, ignoring the unicorn’s remark. “You just give me cover, and shoot only if they notice me.”

“W-wait,” I spoke; I had been lost in my musing as to why would those ponies had shot at the sprite-bot, which I think was what Scope had been implying, as well as berating myself for not noticing that myself. The fact that I had little interests in machines like those and annoyance towards Red Eye’s speeches was no excuse! However, I still had paid attention to what was being said, and I wasn’t sure I liked where this was going. “Are you going to kill them?”

Everybody stared at me. “Um, yes?” Blast said, raising an eyebrow. “They’re raiders, and if we don’t take them out they will kill us all?”

So apparently everybody agrees on raiders needing to be shot on sight, I thought. I had, of course, listened to DJ Pon3 warning about them on his station, and heard plenty from Apple Core and some others about them, but myself having met only one, who was heavily bound during his stay in Appleloosa on top of that, I had my doubts.

I know, Fluttershy unexpectedly chimed in, but to kill them, even though they haven’t done anything to us…

I think so too, I quickly assured her. Let me deal with this.

“But they haven’t harmed us yet,” I began to argue.

“Please tell me she is joking,” Jack said, turning to Apple Core, who was facehoofing.

“We could simply wait for them to pass us-” I tried to say, but Scope cut me off.

“They probably heard you earlier.”

The glare Fluttershy’s apparition gave me did not help me feel better about the realization that I might have led five ponies to their death.

“Well… how about I’d go and convince them to leave us?” I said. In light of all I had heard about raiders, it was probably my least preferable option, but apparently it was the only one that would lead to everybody leaving this place with their lives. “I am quite convincing-”

Jack’s talons were once again gripping my muzzle, stopping me in mid-sentence. “No,” he said, glaring at me with annoyance as he released me.

I was about to start arguing with him but I received and unexpected help. “You know, that’s not exactly a bad idea to let her go,” Blast said, causing everybody to look at him. “At the very least, she would be a good distraction for you.”

I frowned, disappointed that this was the reason why he’d be willing to let me try.

“As much as annoyin’ she is, Ah’m not lettin’ ya get ‘er killed like that,” Apple Core said, seeming even more upset than me.

“Oh please, they’d try to rape her before killing her,” Blast scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Jack would have plenty of time to kill them before they’d even touch her.”

“I’m having less time to do that as we continue this stupid argument,” Jack said, leaning up to glance behind the rock. “I don’t need any distraction, the hills will be enough of a cover for me to get a drop on them.”

“But sweetie-” I tried again, only to find myself being stared down by Jack.

“Look,” he said, pointing one of his talons at my chest, “I am not letting you get yourself or anybody else killed because of your naivety with the Wasteland. Do you remember what you said before that mental breakdown, about ponies and all other sapient beings entitled to some things? Those things,” he pointed in the direction where the raiders were (so it happened that now they were in the range of my E.F.S., so I could see red bars in that direction), “murder, mutilate, rape and often eat everybody they get their hooves on. Doesn’t matter if you’re a mercenary, doctor, trader, or whether you’re an adult or a foal. They had long since given up the right to be called ‘sapient beings’,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “They’re not entitled to anything, and should be killed on sight.”

I blinked, surprised. Even as I myself mulled over his words, Fluttershy said to me: Isn’t that the same reasoning you have for why you perform experiments on some ponies? That they had lost their right to be called sapient beings?

Yes, it’s word to word, practically, I admitted.

“Alright, sweetie,” I told Jack, sitting down to emphasize that I was leaving this matter to him.

“Wow,” Apple Core exclaimed, staring at me, then turning to Jack. “Ya gotta teach me how t’ do that.”

The griffin was still frowning at me, probably wondering whether I truly had surrendered or not. “Keep an eye on her,” he finally told Blast and Burst, then turned to Scope. “Give me cover. I’ll be right back.”

With those words, he gracefully lifted himself slightly into the air and began to fly around the toppled billboard, most likely intending to circle around the raiders behind one of the hills, all while keeping himself so low that his chest was almost brushing the ground.

“Are ya sure he can take out five of ‘em by ‘imself?” Apple Core asked Blast and Burst, while Scope climbed up the rock as far as he could without letting his head stick out above it, and placed his sniper rifle between its crevices, letting him observe the raiders.

“Um, duh!” Blast replied, snorting. “Like I said, just watch. Is it safe to look?” he asked Scope.

Scope glanced back only so long as to deadpan at him, before he returned to observing the raiders. Blast rolled his eyes and jumped up the rock beside him to see for himself. Apparently, the raiders either were far away enough or weren’t looking in this direction, as he motioned for us to come up as well.

Curious, I followed Apple Core and Burst as they climbed on the rocks. Leaning my head slightly above them, I was able to see five ponies, as Scope had said. They… well, to be honest, they looked exactly as they had been described to me. All of them were clad in some ragged leather barding and carried various weapons, two of the three unicorns carrying the biggest of them with their magic and one earth pony carrying just a knife in her mouth. Even from this distance - they were more or less in the same spot as the sprite-bot had been when I first saw him - I could see that their bodies were marked by a lot of scars and that their manes were unevenly cut, making their appearance seem even scarier and more violent.

Although appearances don’t make a pony, I hummed, a part of me still not convinced if I was doing the right thing submitting to Jack’s opinion.

“I swear I heard somepony laugh!” one of the raiders growled in annoyance, looking around as they walked between a hill and some debris.

While some of my companions glanced at me, a raider mare giggled scornfully. “Sure, and the sprite-bot was spying on us. We believe you.”

The first raider - who appeared to be their leader - turned around to face her. “If you have anything to say bitch, do so. I’ll be sure to listen before I break your muzzle in.”

The mare backed away slightly. “Alright, I’ll shut up. Geez. So since there’s somepony here, does it mean we’ll give up on catching that stupid robot and have some fun with them?”

“Yeah, I’d much rather do that,” another raider commented, while the remaining two nodded. “Plus, I’m starving.”

I’m starting to think everybody had been right.

The first raider seemed torn, making me wonder why he had been so interested in catching the sprite-bot, but ultimately he grunted and nodded. “Fine, yeah, let’s find those fuckers,” he said, turning around.

In the exact moment as he did, Jack flew high up into the air from behind a hill. With the raiders moving in the south-east direction (Meaning they would have missed us, I noted with slight annoyance) none of them saw the griffin as he inserted himself right above them, and then swiftly dived down.

He first targeted the unicorn raider who was at the back of the group. As Jack dove at him, his right forepaw reached for the hilt of his sword, and just when he was right above his mark, he spread his wings, stopping his descent, while at the same time he draw his blade. The griffin stroke so swiftly that I could have sworn the unicorn’s firearm had still been held by his magic for a split second after his head had been separated from his body.

The other raiders, alarmed no doubt by noise behind them, began to turn back, but Jack didn’t wait for them. Without looking back at the pony he just killed, he moved on to the earth pony who held a knife in her mouth. A quick thrust and the sword went through her throat, spraying blood around her like a fountain water. As she fell, Jack grabbed the knife she had let go of, and threw it at another raider, plunging it right between his eyes, hilt-deep.

Turning his attention to the two remaining raiders, Jack brought his sword to his side and leaped at the one of his left. The two were the unicorns I noted earlier to be carrying the biggest weapons, some type of rifles probably; my knowledge on those types of firearms was severely limited. Jack, however, seemed to consider them the smallest threat, seeing how he had killed off the other three before them. He swung his sword, aiming not at the raider but at his gun, pushing it out of his way and with the barrel pointed towards the last raider.

Right as its owner began to shoot.

Three shots fired at his companion before he released the trigger, although it was hard to tell whether he had done so on his own accord, or because Jack’s free paw’s talons had pierced through his chest. As the griffin took his blood-covered paw out of the raider, the unicorn fell down on the ground, beside the raider he had unwillingly shot.

It was over as quickly as it had began.

Beside me, Apple Core was staring at the scene with her mouth agape, causing Blast to chuckle in amusement. I myself also stared at Jack. While I oppose violence in general, and I would have still preferred if we could have avoided killing those raiders, I couldn’t deny that the proficiency displayed by him, along with the way his body moved - swift and with a purpose, without any signs of hesitation or doubt - had deeply impressed me. There was a certain… beauty to it, in its own way.

As I watch him wipe the blood off his paw and sword, I heard Apple Core start hesitantly: “So, it just hit me… he’s a griffin with a sword, and he can do all that… he ain’t a member of Bloodtalons by any chance, ain’t he?” she asked, looking at Blast.

“Well, he used to be.”

“Oh, Celestia fuck me with her horn!” she exclaimed, facehoofing. “And ya guys just let us talk back to him?!” she asked Blast, ignoring the offended look I was giving her for using the Goddess’ name in such profane manner. “If Ah knew he was a Bloodtalon, Ah would ‘ave kept my mouth shut! And make her shut it too!” she added, pointing at me.

As Blast and Burst both snickered at Apple Core’s reactiong, I turned to them with a confused frown. “Could somepony explain to me who are Bloodtalons and why is Apple Core making such a commotion about it?”

“Well…” Blast begun, but Apple Core cut him off.

“It’s just the most deadly mercenary group in the entire world!”

“Yeah, that,” Blast agreed. “Also probably the first mercenary group, at least when it comes to the Talons. Jack told us that his family had been in this business since before even the Great War.”

Really? I thought, musing this over. Hm… If that’s the case, I wonder…

“And as for talking back- hey, where are you going?” Blast asked as I jumped down from the rock and began to trot away.

“It is safe now, isn’t it sweetie?” I asked, glancing back without stopping.

Um, what do you plan to do? Fluttershy asked me as I continued to walk towards Jack.

I want to make sure I made the correct choice, I replied. And to get a better picture of what kind of person Jack is.

If you plan to do what I think you’re doing, I really hope you’re right. I did not like what he just did.

Me neither, but you heard what he said about raiders. Since that’s what everybody keeps telling us about them, we should assume it to be right.

Still…

“When I said that I would be right back,” Jack commented as he noticed me approaching, “I thought it was clear that I implied to not come here.”

“Well, if you had made it clear, I would have argued why it’d make little sense, seeing how there’s nothing dangerous around anymore,” I replied, causing the griffin to sigh and roll his eyes. “I must say, your… performance was quite fascinating. I never had a chance to see anybody display such level of physical skills.”

“Thanks?” Jack replied, raising an eyebrow in mild confusion.

“Don’t get me wrong though, I would have still preferred if this matter could have been resolved without bloodshed. I sincerely hope you had been right about the raiders having lost their right to be called sapient beings. In fact,” I added, turning to one of the bodies on the ground, the one which was still bleeding out and that my E.F.S. was still showing as a red bar, “I’d like you to prove it to me.”

Before Jack could ask what I meant - and most likely try to stop me - I cast the Healing Spell on the raider who was shot by his friend, mending his wounds. Two of the three bullets were still buried within his chest, while the last one had exited his body leaving only the wound. I left them, for now at least, while I healed the damage they had done to his lungs and closed the entrance and exit wounds so he wouldn’t bleed out. Taking them out would take too much time for what I intended.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the griffin snarled at me, sounding more annoyed than angered; which, considering what I saw him do about twenty seconds ago, was a relief.

“What a doctor should do,” I replied calmly, my eyes on the raider as he drew still pained but deeper breath now. Not giving him a chance to rise, I cast an Anesthetic Spell, rendering him unable to move, and turned back to Jack. “He lost a quite a bit of blood and some got into his lungs, but he will live.” I began, avoiding mentioning the two bullets still in his body. “After my Anesthetic Spell wears off, he will be able to go back to wherever he and the other four came from. Which, if you are right, will lead to him harming more people in the future.”

“If you have a point,” Jack interrupted me, visibly irritated, “I suggest you make it.”

“It’s simple, really,” I told him, looking him in the eyes. “Kill him.”

The griffin held my gaze for several seconds. I wished I could read what was going through his mind, as nothing of it showed on his face. After a few moments, his eyes darted to the motionless raider, and he snorted. “He’s unarmed. I won’t kill somebody who can’t defend himself,” he said, raising from the ground and turning to leave.

While on the outside I continued to maintain a neutral expression, inwardly I smiled briefly. I was right about him.

“I thought you said that raiders aren’t entitled to anything?” I reminded him. The griffin stopped and looked me in the eyes. “Were you lying? If not, I see no reason why you’d refuse to kill this one.”

“The fu- The fuck are ya doin’?!” Surprised to hear Apple Core’s hiss, I broke the eye contact with Jack to glance behind me. The slaver mare had followed me along with Burst, with Blast and Scope trailing a little behind. “Why are ya plain’ some mind games with ‘im?!”

“I’m not playing mind games, sweetie,” I corrected her, “I just want to know whether I can leave this place with my conscience intact or not.”

Hearing pawsteps coming from Jack’s direction, I turned back to him. Before I finished doing that easy and fast motion, though, I heard another sound; the slashing sound I had heard his sword make as he swung it at the raiders. By the time I had turned my head to look at Jack, the blade had found its mark. A small line of blood splattered on my face as the griffin separated the raider’s head from his body.

“Please don’t heal him from that,” he said, starting to wipe his sword once again with some rag.

I decided to not comment on the sarcasm I detected in his voice. Instead, I sighed deeply with relief. “Thank you, sweetie.”

Grunting in acknowledgement, Jack sheathed his sword. “Sorry about the blood,” he added, drawing a line over his face that I assumed must reflect how the blood had splattered on mine. Undisturbed, I cast a Disinfection Spell on myself to remove it from my coat. Meanwhile, Jack turned to others. “Since you’re all already here, help me search their bodies for valuable things. Preferably bullets and caps.”

“Oh, please undress them while you’re at it, could you?” I asked as I made sure my coat was clear of blood. “I’d like to record their cutie marks after I take their blood samples.”

I was about to take out the case with syringes from my saddlebags, but I noticed the stares everybody was giving me. Before I could ask what was wrong, Jack glared at me and asked: “You are just determined to give me a brain aneurysm, aren’t you?”

Frowning, I began, “Sweetie, that’s not-”

“I know that’s not how it works!” the griffin exclaimed sharply, his wings flaring in his annoyance. “By the Egg, what is wrong with you?!”

“Um…” I stammered, baffled by his reaction and the question. “You mean, besides albinism? Well, I suppose-”

Jack’s talons grabbed my muzzle, again, as with the talons of his other paw he massaged his temples. “It was rhetorical, shut up.” He paused to sigh and turned to look at me. “If you somehow manage to explain shortly why you want to take blood samples of those raiders, I might allow this.”

I took a deep breath as Jack released my muzzle, quickly thinking of how to best accommodate his request. “I want to examine their blood to learn more about the state of ponies population’s health in the Wasteland. That can only be done by conducting a test on a large number of ponies. Also,” I added, hoping it would show that I was being fairly reasonable, “I would actually prefer if I could examine their entire bodies, or even just the brains, but I do realize that I can’t expect you to carry them for me or for you to wait until I cut their skulls open to remove their brains; not that I have the means to transport those safely, mind you.”

Something told me that last bit might not have accomplished what I had hoped; quite the opposite, if Jack’s and other’s expression were of any indication. I smiled uncertainly as I awaited the griffin’s verdict. Jack continued to glare at me, but after a few seconds he sighed and again massaged his temples. “Start looting the bodies then get moving,” he told the rest before turning to me. “You do whatever you do, then catch up. I need to clear my head,” Jack added as he spread his wings, preparing to fly away.

“Wait,” Burst stopped him. “You want us to leave her alone?”

“I will be keeping an eye on her from the air,” Jack assured him. “I just want us to start moving as soon as possible, the good doctor can run after she’s done.” He jumped into the air and was about to fly away, but then stopped and turned around, hovering mid-air. “If you take too long, I will drag you by your tail,” he told me before flying higher up.

“Thank you sweetie,” I called after him, then turned back to the corpses.

I levitated the case and took out the first syringe. No way to mark them, I noted, frowning. I will have to mention in the recording the order I put them in the case.

“Would you like me to stay with you?” Burst offered as he and the others began checking the bodies, searching for any valuables. “There still could be something dangerous around.”

“Thank you for your offer, sweetie,” I told him, touched, “I really appreciate it. However, I fear I might have pushed Jack’s patience to the proverbial limit, and I wouldn’t want to annoy him further by causing you to disobey his orders. Don’t worry sweetie,” I quickly began to assure him as he opened his mouth to argue further, “I still have my Eyes-Forward Sparkle turned on. If any red bars appear, I will start running after you.”

Burst didn’t appear to convinced, but he nodded. “Alright, if you say so. Just don’t be too long,” he added as he took some bullets from one dead raider and the gun that laid beside him.

The others had also finished (apparently, those raiders didn’t carry too many valuable things with them) and were readying themselves to leave as well. “Yeah, Ah would offer t’ stay too,” Apple Core began as she adjusted her saddlebags, “but whatever ya’re gonna do sounds creepy and probably will be, so Ah’m out.”

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “Don’t worry, sweetie, I won’t be far behind you.”

As Apple Core and the rest began to leave, I began to turn back to the closest body, but I realized Burst was still lingering beside me. “You mind if I ask you something?” he asked after a few seconds.

“Of course, sweetie, what can I help you with?” I said, turning to him again.

“What exactly was that with telling Jack to kill that raider?” Burst asked, tilted his head in confusion.

“Like I told Apple Core, sweetie, I wanted to make sure my conscience was clear. Please bear in mind that I hadn’t personally bore witness to the multitude of atrocities everybody mentions raiders commit,” I explained, feeling a little ashamed to admit to such lack of experience which was apparently very common in the Equestrian Wasteland. “Though I had submitted to Jack’s decision and let him deal with this matter the way he saw fit, there was still doubt in my mind, which weighed heavily on my conscience.”

Burst listened to me surprisingly attentively. “Alright, but how does Jack killing the raider you healed helped you clear your conscience?”

I smiled. “Your brother had mentioned that his family has practiced the mercenary profession since before even the Great War, remember? Now, I admit, it was a big assumption of me to make, but I theorized that since Jack came from a family that had been following their traditions for so long - traditions that date to before the war - he possibly follows some code of honor or morals that he would hesitate to break, even when facing people who lost their right to be called ‘sapient beings’.” I glanced back at the raider I had healed and that was decapitated by Jack. “My theory was confirmed when Jack hesitated; plainly refused to kill him, even. I assume he planned to ask one of you to do the deed,” I added, turning back to Burst. “But when he ultimately ended the raider’s life, I know he was speaking truth; raiders aren’t entitled to anything, not even our own morals. Now I no longer feel the weight of doubts I had earlier,” I finished, smiling again.

“I see…” Burst said slowly, frowning as he contemplated my words. “You know, this entire… plan, of yours, it all was banking basically on Jack not being an asshole, which it so happens that most griffins actually are?”

“I was not aware his species had such opinions,” I replied, frowning; since Burst himself, along with his brother, seemed on friendly terms with Jack, it was highly unlikely his remark had been caused by some kind of prejudice towards griffins. Making a mental note to learn more about griffins and how they are viewed at a later date, I shook my head. “That might be true, sweetie, but you have to admit, if that were the case, he wouldn’t be quite as… courteous as he is while dealing with me. I know I can be annoying at times, but I think I never caused such annoyance to anyone as I seem now to be causing Jack. And yet despite that, aside from holding my muzzle, he hadn’t done anything to me.”

“I suppose you have a point there,” Burst agreed. “But I wouldn’t call you annoying, just… um… unfamiliar with the Wasteland and stuff,” he stammered, blushing a little.

“You’re most kind, sweetie,” I told him, smiling. “I look forward to learning more from you and the others. And speaking of learning,” I added, nodding at the corpses, “if you’d excuse me, I have work to do.”

“Right. Don’t take long,” the earth pony said before hurrying after his brother and the rest.

I like him, Fluttershy commented as Burst left. He seems nice. And he obviously likes you.

Indeed, I agreed, plunging in the syringe into the first corpse and taking a blood sample. I like him too. He seems interested in more than just my physical attributes… a rarity amongst bucks who displayed interest in me in the past. What do you think of the others?

Oh, well… Blast seems… nice too, in his own way. A bit nasty when compared to Burst, but I think he has a good heart. And Jack… I’m glad he hesitated when you asked him to kill that raider.

Me too, I replied, growing sullen as I glanced at the disembodied head. I didn’t enjoy asking him to do that, you know. But… I had to know. If I hadn’t asked him, I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking whether I’d made the right decision or not, and it would probably result with me going to a raider base or something to see for myself what kind of ponies they were. Based on everything we heard, including those five’s gossip, I don’t think you’d like that any more than I would.

Yeah, probably, Fluttershy’s apparition murmured, looking down.

Anyway, I said, securing the syringe with the blood inside of it, if you don’t mind, sweetie, I need to focus on making records for them now.

Oh, of course, go ahead.

With my mind becoming quiet, I started to make the next audio recording, describing the pony I had taken the blood sample from. I tried to be as precise as I could in the short time I had - I was aware that I’d have to run after the rest, and since my legs were already aching I had no desire for the distance to grow too large - but I knew that I couldn’t do much more than record whether they were unicorns or earth ponies, their coat colors, some distinctive features such as scars and cutie marks.

If I already hadn’t been convinced that raiders weren’t sapient beings anymore, the sight of their cutie marks would have done it. All of them seemed to revolve around pain and suffering. The worst was the cutie mark of a head of a teddy bear, with nails in his eyes and bloody tears falling down.

I wonder what that Red Eye pony would have thought if he’d see such a cutie mark? I wondered as I began recording the last body, all five blood sample already taken. Probably that the pony should have removed it the moment they got it, I replied with a roll of eyes, banishing the thought. It wouldn’t do me good to start laughing the futility and pointlessness of removing a cutie mark, much less the very faulty reasoning behind it.

A movement on my E.F.S. caught my attention, making me pause for a moment. Mindful that I was alone and what I had promised Burst, I had kept in mind to check it constantly. Until recently the others were still within its range (as only a few minutes had passed since they left; I did say I wouldn’t be far behind, after all), but when their bars had disappeared, I noticed that there was currently a single bar moving on the edge of my vision. However, it was a green bar, so I relaxed immediately. As I couldn't hear any hoofsteps, I guessed it must be Jack, flying back to check on me… or possibly to start dragging me away by my tail, as I took too much time.

Finding the idea not appealing in the slightest, I hurried to finish my audio recording. I described the raider’s cutie mark and looked over the rest of the body to see if there were any scars worth noting when he spoke.

“Hi-”

Pausing the recording briefly, I quickly interrupted him. “Yes, I know,” I said, waving him off without turning around, “I’m almost done, sweetie, just checking whether there are some distinctive scars on this last body.”

“Oh, okay.” He stayed silent for a few seconds, but then asked me: “Why are you doing that, exactly?”

I sighed, annoyed at another interruption, and paused the recording again. “Like I said, I’m trying to gain more information regarding pony’s population health in the Wasteland…” I trailed off and paused, frowning and flickering my ears.

Something was… off with Jack’s voice, that in my fixation on the bodies I hadn’t realized at first. Namely, that it wasn’t Jack’s voice. Or Burst’s, or anybody else from our little group. Confused, I turned around.

A sprite-bot was hovering behind me.

I blinked, surprised. After a heartbeat, I lifted my left leg and unpaused my recording on the PipBuck. “End log,” I said, turning it off. Tilting my head in confusion, I moved closer to it. “You’re that sprite-bot from before,” I stated.

A short chuckle emitted from the robot. “Well, sorta,” the metallic voice said, “I actually just hacked into this thing to talk with you. You can call me Watcher.”

My ears flickered when he said ‘hacked’. “I’m doctor Angel, pleased to meet you, sweetie,” I replied. A thought occurred to me, and I frowned. “Wait, if you can talk to me through this robot… does it mean you can hear and see me?”

“Yep. Why?”

I blinked… and then giggled, unable to stop myself. “Oh, that’s clever. Very clever.”

“What do you mean?” Watcher asked; because of the metallic voice it was hard to tell, but I think he sounded confused.

“Back when I left my Stable, I passed a billboard that said ‘Pinkie Pie is watching you forever’ - ‘forever’ written in capital letters - and now I see what that meant. Pinkie Pie was the Ministry Mare of Ministry of Morale, correct?”

“Yes,” Watcher replied; I half-expected the robot to nod.

“And as one of my companions had informed me, those robots were supposed to boost ponies morale with that music, which means that they were, most likely, the property of Ministry of Morale.” (I mean, it’s in the name, right?) “Meaning that they had Goddesses know how much of Equestria under their surveillance, with the cameras right out in the open. You’ve got to admit, that’s clever,” I said, pointing my hoof at the sprite-bot. “Morally questionable depending on the motives behind this idea and what was done with the gained knowledge, but clever.”

“I… suppose you could say that, yes,” Watcher agreed, though I got the impression that he wasn’t in complete accord with me on it. Which, considering what he was using it for, would be ironic.

“If I may ask, sweetie, why were you spying on me and my companions? And those raiders earlier?” I asked, recalling what the raiders had said between themselves before Jack descended upon them.

“Oh, I send the sprite-bot to their camp further up north from here to to see if they were holding anypony.”

“Commendable,” I commented. “Did they?”

“No, fortunately, just more raiders,” Watcher said, causing me to sigh with relief; I highly doubted I would be able to convince the others to go rescue them. “As for you, well, I was curious. You don’t see many ponies arguing about sparing raiders.”

I sighed. “If you’re going to berate me, like my companions, know that I learned my lesson.”

“Yeah, I saw.” The sprite-bot stayed silent for a few moments, then added: “I’ll be honest, I don’t know what to make of you.”

“Well, sweetie,” I said, smiling friendly, “that makes two of us. What should I make of somebody that spies on others, Watcher?”

"Fair point,” Watcher replied. Again he paused for several seconds. “Are you friends with those ponies and that griffin?”

I raised my eyebrow, surprised by the change of subject. “It… would depend on you definition of friend, sweetie,” I said slowly. “I would say that Apple Core is my friend, certainly - despite her tolerance issues - but as for others, I had met them only yesterday. Well, Jack earlier today to be precise,” I added with a roll of my eyes. “I do like all of them though.”

“That’s good to hear,” Watcher said. “You can’t survive long in the Wasteland without friends. What did you mean by tolerance issues, though?”

“You would understand if you had seen her reaction to me kissing Ditzy,” I sighed. “Or how she talked about her.”

“... Ditzy Doo?” Watcher asked after a few seconds.

“Yes.”

“The author of ‘Wastelands Survival Guide’?”

“That’s correct, sweetie,” I replied happily.

“... the ghoul pony?”

I immediately frowned. “I suggest you chose your next words carefully, sweetie.”

“No no, I didn’t mean anything offensive! Just…” Watcher struggled for words, then finally sighed. “You do realize that’s a bit… unusual, right?”

“It has been brought to my attention, yes,” I replied, shrugging. Slightly mollified, I added: “I won’t let such little things as ‘unusuality’ stop me from displaying affection on somebody I like, though.”

“That's… commendable,” Watcher immediately said. “I’ve got to admit, you’re certainly an interesting pony. I would love to talk more, but time is almost up.”

Time? Can he hack into those robots only for a certain amount of time? I wondered, frowning.

“I will try to talk with you again if I spot you through one of the sprite-bots in the future. Quick advice before I go; stick close to your friends. You… well, don’t exactly look like you could make it on your own.”

I rolled my eyes hearing that, but as I opened my mouth to retort, the sprite-bot suddenly began to once again play the March of the Parasprites, turning around in the air and slowly flying away.

Well, that was… that was weird, right? I asked, hoping Fluttershy would reply.

I was not disappointed. Um, yes, I think so, the apparition said, raising an eyebrow thoughtfully as we watched the sprite-bot slowly drift away.

I wonder how this Watcher is able to hack into them? I wondered. Remotely, I might add. If I am not mistaken, such a feat would require a powerful transmitter… that was really high up… I trailed off, staring into the far away.

Ever since I came outside of my Stable, there were those structures I could see in the distance. Huge, cloud-reaching towers, which apparently were scattered across all of Equestria. When I asked ponies about them, however, all they could tell me was that they were something ponies had built during the war. Aside from one drunk pony in Appleloosa adding that they were columns keeping clouds for falling down on us, nopony offered any more explanation.

Do you think it might be connected to those towers? I asked Fluttershy.

I wouldn’t know, the tiny pony replied. But, um, Angel…

I mean, there has to be a reason why ponies built so many of them… I continued, entrapped by my musing.

Angel-

Not to mention why they are so big-

Angel!

I almost jumped, startled. Fluttershy, sweetie, you’re in my head, you don’t need to yell, I told her, turning my attention to the tiny pegasus.

Um, yes, I’m sorry, but… you remember that you’re out here alone? Fluttershy asked, sounding concerned.

I blinked, and looked in the direction where the others had went. I couldn’t see them anymore.

And that you were supposed to hurry up? Fluttershy added.

Sighing, I looked up. Jack was still visible in the sky, and, just as Fluttershy had suggested, he was flying towards me.

Well, it’s a good thing I had already finished, I thought, taking a last wistful look at the bodies before starting to follow after the rest. Do you think he really plans to drag me by my tail?

Um, I hope not.

Though he had undoubtedly noticed that I had started to move, Jack continued to fly towards me. “I thought I told you to hurry up,” he said as he stopped above me, glaring down at me.

“I’ve done my best to accommodate your command, sweetie,” I replied; I decided it would be best to not mention about the Watcher. For all I know, it would yield similar results as mentioning that there was a tiny pegasus in my head trying to play my conscience.

Jack frowned, but he seemed to accept my reply. “Trot faster,” he said, slightly increasing his fly speed.

Frowning, I increased my pace to match him. Um, Angel?

Yes Fluttershy?

Maybe… um, he seems upset with you, so maybe you should apologize? I mean, it would be a nice thing to do…

I hummed to myself, thinking it over. Maybe you’re right… he did express his annoyance with me several times today.

“Jack, sweetie?” I called out, causing the griffin to look back.

“What now?” he asked, glaring.

I slowed down and stopped, finding talking and borderline running at the same time to be too strenuous. And inelegant. Jack growled, but he circled around and landed before me.

“I wanted to apologize. I… realize I can be difficult to work with,” I said, my ears dropping as I looked away. “I’m afraid I can only imagine how annoying I must be to you, given our surroundings and dangers that could be lurking in them. I didn’t mean to cause you any grievances, but I did, and for that,” I added, turning to look him in the eyes, “I am sorry.”

It was difficult to read Jack’s reaction, but he seemed to accept my apology. He nodded and started to turn around. “It’s alright. And, ugh…” he hesitated, looking back as he spread his wings. “Sorry for threatening to drag you by your tail and stuff.”

“It’s alright, sweetie,” I replied, smiling pleasantly at him.

Nodding once again, Jack took to the sky. “Now start moving.”

I sighed, then whined unhappily as I looked at my hooves before resuming my trot. Above me, Jack also sighed, but before I could turn to ask him why, he suddenly flew right at me. I uttered a shriek, surprised as his forepaws grabbed me, but after a second I realized he hadn’t attacked me, or anything of that sorts. He just… grabbed me.

And continued flying.

Realizing what had happened - and, more importantly, what continued to happen - I gasped, looking around. The ground was below us, just several feet away, maybe a dozen at best. With the way my heart was beating and how wind blew in my face, it was difficult to focus. And for the moment, I didn’t care about it. Or about Watcher, the towers, the raiders, how much my hooves ached or anything.

I was flying.

Though my forehoof clang to Jack’s forepaw, I leaned my head a bit forward, enjoying the sensation of wind brushing past my mane. Of being unhindered by gravity.

Of being free.

Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Empathy - You have studied other sapient beings, giving you a better knowledge of their emotional reaction to you. You get a better idea of what to say to others.

Chapter Seven: Political Clash

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“If you want to see the fate of democracies, look out the windows.”

“This is where the entrance to Stable Eleven is?” I asked, looking dubiously at the crumbling remains of the Rock Farm’s ‘main office’ building that was visible in the distance.

Admittedly, the wooden rectangular structure seemed to be in a better state than the rows of barracks around us that used to house all the ponies working at the surrounding farms. More than a few had only a few bars and boards left of them, while others had missing roofs and such. Compared to them, the main office looked almost brand new.

It would appear that the stability of the workers’ housing wasn’t the top priority, I commented. Still, I added, looking around again and counting the barracks around us, Scope was right yesterday; there must have been enough ponies living around here to form a small community. And that’s besides all the families that lived on the surrounding farms.

“Probably somewhere around it, actually,” Scope replied to my question. “The entrance should have been easily accessible for ponies.”

“What was this, anyway?” Apple Core asked, glancing at the building with mild confusion. “Ah thought those Rock Farms were run by families and shit, this seems more… company thing or somethin’,” she finished, masking her awkwardness with a grimace.

“Equestria needed more gems during the war, farms needed more hooves to farm them,” Scope explained with disinterest, shrugging. “Some of the families banded together and organized, began hiring ponies, eventually built this place. Then they needed an office to keep track of who was working at what farm and how much they were getting paid.”

Apple Core was frowning in attention throughout Scope’s explanation. “Seems way over complicated,” she finally said when he was done.

“That was usually the case,” Jack spoke up, cutting off the unicorn mercenary before he could reply to Apple Core.

I looked up, slightly startled; our griffin companion had been flying above the barracks around us, making sure there were no immediate threats in the area. Even though I could track him with my E.F.S., I was still surprised by his appearance as he quietly landed on one of the more stable buildings. Blast and Burst, who had been looking around scanning for threats, also seemed startled, and they were actually on the lookout for moving things.

“At least as far as I can tell,” Jack added, shrugging. “Anyway, beside the building is a cellar door, probably leads to the Stable. So if you’re done with the history lesson, let’s get a move on.”

Suppressing a sigh, I forced my tired and sore legs to follow everypony as they sped up, spurred by Jack’s words. The brief rest my limbs got a little over an hour ago did little to help me.

At least we’ll finally be at the Stable, I thought, passing by a collapsed barrack. Looking up at the gray clouds covering the sky I added: I hope if there are still ponies living there they’ll let us stay for the night, it won’t be long before evening now. Oh, how I can’t wait for a hot bath and clean bed!

I was pulled out from the daydream involving the two commodities the Wasteland had denied me as I felt a hoof pressing lightly against my chest, stopping me in my tracks.

“Ah just realized somethin’,” Apple Core said in a hushed tone, frowning. “Back when we first met, ya said that yar Stable wasn’t far from there, right?”

“Why, yes,” I replied, confused. “Why are you bringing this up now, sweetie?”

“‘Cause there’s nothin’ in that area. No pre-war settlement like this place,” she said, waving her hoof around at the surrounding us ruins.

Huh, she has a point, I realized, surprised I hadn’t thought of it sooner. I mean, there were remains of a few buildings outside the mine, but not enough to house an entire population that came into Stable Eight. Besides…

“You’re sure there aren’t any ruins there?” I asked Apple Core. When she shook her head, I frowned and pondered: “Hm, that is strange. According to memoirs I’ve read, my ancestors had been-”

“You guys coming?” Blast called out, interrupting me.

I glanced behind Apple Core; our companions had already reached the main office’s building, having either not realized that we had stopped or not caring due to the lack of threats. “We’ll be right along, sweetie,” I called back before turning to Apple Core. “I believe we’ll have to continue this conversation some other time.”

My slaver friend nodded and we trotted after the others. “Just makin’ sure ya ain’t lyin’ t’ me,” she said, giving me a suspicious look.

“Oh, sweetie, that’s just hurtful,” I told her, giving her a hurt look in return. “I wouldn’t lie to you. Do you think I could have traveled a longer distance or something? Because you must have realized by now that I am not the most physically fit pony in the Wasteland. And besides what possible reason could I have for making such a lie, anyway?”

“Ah dunno, protectin’ yar Stable?” Apple Core guessed, shrugging. “Tryin’ to hide their real location?”

I blinked, then uttered a giggle. “So that you and the other slavers wouldn’t come for them? Sweetie,” I said, looking her in the eyes and lowering my voice, “believe me, if it did cross my mind and I would have lied, the lie wouldn’t be protecting my Stable, but all of you.”

Apple Core frowned in confusion. “Just what the hay is ‘at supposed t’ mean?”

I was about to reply, but I was again interrupted, this time by Burst. “Are you sure you don’t want us to check out the building first?” he asked Jack as we caught up with the mercenaries by the side of the mentioned building.

“What’s the point?” the griffin replied, shrugging. “At best there would be a terminal filled with data on the workers here, at worst, there would be radroaches or some shit. And I don’t even want to think about how she would react to the sight of more giant insects,” he added, pointing at me with his talon.

I frowned unhappily hearing his remark. Back when he picked me up (a bit unceremoniously, if you’d ask me) and carried me through the air, I had assumed that he had grown fonder of me. Even after he had dropped me (again, a bit unceremoniously) besides the others, I hadn’t reconsidered that opinion. However, whenever we’d talk in our little group on the way here after that, he would glare at me whenever I had as much as opened my mouth.

I can’t believe I’m actually thinking this, but maybe it would be better if we wouldn’t run into any new creatures, I thought. I don’t think it would be wise to annoy Jack further… then again, perhaps his annoyance stems from the comment Blast had made regarding him carrying me…

“Keep watch while I check if this leads to the Stable,” Jack added as he opened the cellar doors and swiftly went down the stairs.

“Oh for- keep watch for what exactly?” Blast called after him, frustrated. “The only way we could get hurt here is if this building crumbles on top of us, there is nopony here!”

“Nevermind,” Jack’s voice came from down the cellar, “get your asses in here.”

Guess this means we found Stable Eleven, I noted. As the others began to enter the cellar, I followed them slowly, taking a closer look at the entrance. It’s wide enough for three ponies to walk in at the same time. Was there enough time on the Last Day to let everypony in?

I’m sure they would have built it bigger if there could be a chance of some ponies not making it in time, Fluttershy’s apparition told me as it appeared.

Hm, I suppose it’s true, I replied, squinting my eyes as somepony suddenly turned the light on. When my eyes adjusted, I saw that the cellar was a short corridor, about two feet wider than the stairs we had just walked down, and leading to a massive steel door with the number eleven written on it. After all, the entrance to my own Stable wasn’t that much bigger and everypony had entered it before the door had shut two hundred years ago.

Um, since you brought up your Stable, Fluttershy began timidly, was what Apple Core had said true? About there not being any settlement around it?

Well, yes, I didn’t see any sign of it aside from the remains of that small mining town or outpost, I told Fluttershy; suddenly I found myself wishing there was a way to just show her my memories instead of thinking about them. Maybe I could look into that later… But I know my ancestors hadn’t come from there. In the memoirs of Stable Eight’s first chief of medicine, I’ve read that-

“Doctor, you’re up.”

If I were superstitious, I would say that the Goddesses seem determined to not let me finish telling anypony what I’ve read, I told Fluttershy in slight annoyance as I was interrupted again, this time by Jack.

Oh, it’s alright, I don’t mind finding out later, Fluttershy quickly assured me as I turned my attention to the griffin. He was standing under the Stable’s door, right besides a small control mechanism. This seems more important. Besides… I don’t think you should make Jack wait.

Agreeing wholeheartedly with that statement, I was already trotting to him. I decided to not point out that we could still continue our discussion, as it was taking place in my mind. After all, if Stables were as dangerous as everypony seemed to say, it would be better if I’d start focusing more on my surrounding rather than what was happening in my head.

“Alright guys, remember,” Jack began, turning to the others as I connected my PipBuck to the control mechanism and began to work on getting it to open the Stable Eleven’s door, “if somehow there are still ponies in there, we negotiate. I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out to get the music records or their copy or whatever.”

“Yeah, sure,” Blast said; I glanced at him just in time to see him roll his eyes. Turning to others, he asked: “Hey, anypony wanna take bets on what killed all of them?”

“Sure, Ah’m in,” Apple Core replied immediately.

Both myself and Jack sighed with exasperation as the two earth ponies began to take their bets. I missed most of the conversation that followed as (after receiving a glare from Jack) I resumed trying to input the override password (not that I cared much about it anyway), but I am pretty sure that Blast had bet on everypony killing each other, while Apple Core put her caps on the water talisman failing and ponies dying of dehydration.

Slightly appalled by the morbid bet, I decided to not point out that in the event that the water talisman had failed, any logical pony would decide to open the Stable and either search for a replacement on the Outside, or lead everypony away and find a new place to live. If it would be the latter, it would probably result in the door being already open.

Maybe this will teach my oh so cheerful friend to think further ahead, I commented to Fluttershy, who giggled awkwardly, as I finished working on the control mechanism. Ough, I forgot how loud this is! I thought, covering my ears, as the massive door began to open.

Judging by the cringing faces my companions had made, the terrible grinding noise had a similar effect on them as well. Regardless, we all bore through it as we waited for the way into the Stable to open.

As the door slowly turned around itself to the left, I peered curiously at the entrance of the first Stable other than Stable Eight that I’d get to see. Almost immediately my eyes grew wide as plates and my mouth dropped in shock at the sight that awaited us inside.

The door opened to reveal four skeletons, “wearing” ragged stable bardings with number eleven, right in front of where it been while closed, with the fifth one lying beside the control mechanism on that side.

“So much for negotiations then,” Jack commented; I was taken aback by the almost casual tone of his voice. The griffin entered the Stable and leaned over the remains, examining them. “Doctor, how good are you with post mortem on skeletons?”

Shaking off my shock, I hurried over to him, stepping around the skeletons carefully. I frowned as I got a better look at them. “I must say, sweetie, I’m surprised you’re actually asking for my opinion,” I said, turning to Jack and pointing at the bullet holes in their bardings.

“I want to know if you can tell whether there was something wrong with them other than getting shot. You’d be surprised-”

“Ha! Called it!” Blast exclaimed, laughing, and turned to Apple Core. “Pay up.”

“Ugh, fuck!” Apple Core in turn groaned, almost at the same time. “Let ‘er do ‘er thing first,” she told Blast, obviously hoping I could find out some other reason for their deaths. “‘Sides, they could’ave always started killin’ each other ‘cause there weren’t enough water t’ go ‘round,” she pointed out, shrugging with faked nonchalance.

Turning back to Jack as they began to argue what that would mean to their bet, I saw the griffin mercenary glaring angrily at the pair. Burst and Scope must have noticed it too, as they stayed silent and simply entered the Stable, trotting around the remains.

“You’d be surprised by all the shit that went down in Stables around Equestria,” he continued, choosing to ignore the pair. “Can you tell if they were infected by some disease or exposed to some toxin or something along those lines? I want to know if we’re about to walk into biohazardous environment.”

“Hm…” I hummed, glancing briefly at the skeleton beside the control mechanism before turning back to the remains in front of the door. The second from the left were the biggest, so I focused on it (Finally I get a chance to examine an earth pony’s skeleton.). “Well, depending on the disease, it can lead to skeletal deformities… but none I can think of that would be transferrable by air, especially at this point,” I said as I carefully removed the barding protecting the bones (which I held with my magic to prevent them from rearranging) and began to examine the skeleton. “As for toxins, those ponies would have to have been exposed to it over a long period of time for their bones to show any signs of that. There could be some changes in their chemical composition, but to tell you that I would need a laboratory.”

“Just tell me what you can then,” Jack replied, shrugging, and left to explore the rest of the entrance.

As I began examining the bones one by one, searching them for any signs of deformities (other than the bullet marks, of course), Apple Core and Blast finally entered the Stable as well. “How do we even know that they were shot by other stable dwellers?” Apple Core demanded from the mercenary.

“They were shot in the back while trying to open the door,” Jack called back before Blast could reply the slaver. “Or, well, that guy was,” he amended, pointing at the skeleton beside the control mechanism. “The others-”

“Sweetie, that’s a mare’s skeleton,” I corrected him, having already taken notice of its pelvis back when I looked at it.

Jack stopped talking as I interrupted him, staring at me as his eyelid twitched and Apple Core snorted with amusement. Just as I began to suspect that I had, again, annoyed him, he covered his face with his paw. “I swear, she’ll be the death of me…” he murmured as he rubbed his temples.

Confused, I frowned and turned to him, abandoning my examination for the moment. “Um, sweetie,” I began to ask, “are you referring to me or to-” I began to ask as I turned to look at the skeleton, only to find my muzzle being forcibly shut.

Wasn’t he standing about two yards from me half a second ago? I wondered as I looked at Jack, who now stood right beside me, his talons grasping my muzzle.

“The others must have instinctively run away after their friend got shot,” Jack resumed talking to Apple Core, who was trying to hide her snickering from the griffin mercenary. “Judging by their positioning and the locations of the bullet wounds, their killers must have stood over there,” he added, pointing behind him at the entrance’s door.

“And they were probably the ones who left the tripwire,” Burst called out.

I turned my head (as much as I could with Jack holding my muzzle) towards the door on the other side of the entrance, leading further into the Stable. Burst and Scope (joined by Blast a few seconds later) were standing there, examining the wall and something on the floor. As Jack released me and went to take a closer look himself, I raised my head higher to try and see what it was that got their attention. To my confusion, I noticed that there was some sort of wire set before the door, about less than a hoof length above the floor and connected to the wall.

“There it is,” Blast said, pointing with his head upwards at the ceiling.

Following his gaze along with everybody I saw some kind of cylindrical object that I couldn’t identify, hanging from the ceiling right above where the wire had been set. However, judging by how carefully Scope cut it off after having enveloped it in his magic, I figured that it couldn’t be anything good.

“What the-” Apple Core began to exclaim as she trotted closer to the mercenaries. “They ‘ad explosives ‘ere?!”

Explosives? I echoed, my eyes widening.

“Makeshift,” Scope replied as he lowered the explosive down to his eye level and began fiddling with it. “Made in the Stable, most likely.”

“They must have been called away from this post and decided to leave a trap for whoever came by next to try to get away from the Stable,” Jack commented as he leaned over the wire and cut it with his talons in one swift move. “Obviously, nobody came later anyway…”

They made a trap for ponies that tried to leave? I thought, turning my attention back to the remains I’ve begun examining. And killed the ones who tried before… Stable ponies killing stable ponies? Everything in my very being screamed “wrong” at that. I just can’t imagine something like this happening in Stable Eight-

I stopped, a sharp pain emanating from my chest as those thoughts triggered a memory. Grinding my teeth, I forced it back into the dark recesses of my mind.

Angel? Fluttershy’s quiet voice sounded within me, a tone of worry in it.

I can’t imagine other ponies in Stable Eight killing each other, I continued, ignoring her. Using guns and explosives… This isn’t just murder, it’s… fighting. It’s just… I paused, looking for the right word.

Horrifying, Fluttershy finished for me, slightly shaking.

Nodding in agreement, I picked up the skull with my forehooves and held it before me, staring into its empty eye sockets. What happened in this Stable?

Jack’s question pulled me out of my musing. “Found anything, Doctor?”

Pulling my gaze from the skull to the griffin, I replied: “As much as I can tell, sweetie, there are no disfigurements on the skeleton, aside from three bullet marks, on the right femur, left third rib and on the occipital bone.” To emphasize my point (and because I wasn’t sure if he knew where the occipital bone was) I turned to skull I still held around and showed him the hole bullet left in the occipital bone, then shook it a little so he could hear the clinking of the bullet still inside. Shrugging, I continued: “However, I didn’t have the time to check all the bones-”

“Really?” Apple Core interrupted me, a smirk on her face. “The brilliant doctor of medicine ain’t finished checking a few bones?”

“Sweetie, a pony has around two hundred and five bones in their body,”I replied, bemused. “Even I can’t look over so many within a minute.”

“Alright, keep yar coat on,” Apple Core snorted, rolling her eyes. “Ah was just messin’ with ya.”

A growl escaped from Jack’s beak. “Are you two done?” he asked, a threat in his voice and ice in his gaze.

Apple Core actually shook and immediately straightened. “S-sorry boss,” she said, smiling nervously.

I wondered if her newfound respect or fear of Jack was caused just by learning he used to be a part of those Bloodtalons, or by seeing him kill five raiders without any effort. In either case, her reply seemed to satisfy Jack, as he nodded and motioned for both of us to follow. As Apple Core hastily trotted after the mercenaries as they went deeper into the Stable, I stayed behind to put the skeleton back together with my magic, then slid it into the pony’s barding and placed it where it had been for the past century or two. As I turned around to follow everybody, my gaze lingered a moment longer on the remains, my eyes narrowing, before sighing and leaving.

When I passed the door, I was surprised by a notice appearing on my E.F.S. informing me about my PipBuck picking up two new broadcasts. Frowning, I was about to tell my companions about it, but then I realized that they were all staring at what was under the wall on the opposite side of the chamber.

Two more skeletons within Stable bardings.

“This is getting depressing,” Burst commented, sighing, then glanced at me.

Is he worried about how I will take the sights of so many dead? I wondered as I stared back at him for a moment, then turned again to the two skeletons. How sweet of him to worry…

Would it even, um, have an effect on you? Fluttershy asked, doing her best to not pay attention to the remains. I mean, you seem so… used to seeing remains.

The sight of ponies’ remains does not bother me. But… the thought of so many lives lost is deeply saddening, I confessed, my ears dropping. If this Stable is as big as my own, we might see hundreds more skeletons before we leave.

Oh… Fluttershy exclaimed, growing pale.

“It will probably become even more depressing as we go further,” Jack replied to Burst’s comment, probably having come to the same conclusion as me.

“So did those two get killed by the same guys as the five before?” Apple Core asked.

“Probably,” Scope replied, shrugging. “But unlike them, those two weren’t trying to run or hide.”

“Eh? What d’ya mean?”

“Standing right under the wall, a single bullet to the head each,” Scope explained, pointing at the holes in their skull. “They were executed. They were captured, and made to stay here before their killers passed their sentence.”

“They were captured, and yet killed?” I repeated, appalled. “What kind of stable ponies could have done that?”

As some of my companions rolled their eyes at me, Jack seemed to have an answer to my question. “Probably those that followed that mare,” he said, pointing with his talon at something over my shoulder.

Surprised, I glanced behind me. What Jack was pointing turned out to be a poster hanging on a wall. Parts of it were damaged by time and Goddesses know what, but the stoic, smiling unicorn mare in glasses it depicted was still clearly visible, as was the words above and below her.

VOTE FOR STRICT FRAME

TO CONTINUE SERVING AS YOUR OVERMARE

FOR THE NEXT 5 YEARS

I blinked several times as I read the poster, too shocked to comment on it immediately. “‘Vote’?” I finally exclaimed after several seconds. “They chose their Overmare by voting?! Merciful Goddesses, what sort of… intellectually challenged individual thought that it was a good idea?!” I demanded from nobody in particular as I struggled to not utter a curse in the same sentence in which I had called upon the Goddesses.

“And what is wrong with voting for your leader?” Jack asked, sounding strangely surprised. When I turned to him, however, I found him glaring at me with mild anger. “Shouldn’t people have a say as to who leads them?”

“What is wrong with voting for your leader, sweetie, is that it’s not the most qualified pony that becomes their leader, but the most popular one,” I said, feeling a slight grimace of dismay crossing my face briefly; I was unable to hide just how (deservedly) low an opinion regarding this system I held. “Ponies would chose the candidate who promised them the most, not even knowing whether those promises were possible to fulfill or not, or what kind of price they would have to pay.”

“Which is why you give them only a few years of tenure at the job,” Jack interrupted me, frowning. Why did this discussion upset him so much? “So that you can kick them out when they screw up. And how do you even decide what makes a person ‘qualified’? And more importantly, how does your Stable work?” I blinked, taken aback by the sudden question, as well as by the narrowed look he gave me. “Is Overmare a hereditary position there?”

“Sweetie, don’t be ridiculous,” I almost snorted in reply, actually annoyed by his tone. “As it is with every administrative position in Stable Eight, the Overmare chooses her own successor, training her for years before retiring. Although,” I amended, slightly reluctantly, “the Second Overmare chose her great-granddaughter as her successor, and the Third Overmare had been preparing her daughter to succeed her, but-”

“Nepotism, got it,” Jack snorted, rolling his eyes as he interrupted me again. Beginning to actually grow upset, I opened my mouth to retort, but the griffin silenced me with a wave of his paw. “Look, we can continue this over a drink back in New Appleloosa, ok? Hell, I will even pay for those drinks. But right now I want to get this job over with,” he said as he turned to walk further down into the Stable.

Although I wanted to continue our argument until he’d apologise for that last remark, I had to agree that he had a point. “Very well, sweetie,” I told Jack, nodding graciously, “but before we go further, there’s something I would like you to know,” I added, earning myself an angry glare from the griffin. “A moment ago my PipBuck picked up two broadcasts.”

That got Jack's interest. “Probably both are on loop since they all killed themselves,” he said thoughtfully, glancing at Scope who shrugged and nodded. “Recorded before shit hit the fan… Play them both for a moment.”

I probably shouldn’t mention that he could have said “please”, I thought as I looked at the broadcasts on my PipBuck. Hm, I would have expected one of them to be Stable Eleven’s PA System, I noted, surprised, as I selected the one with more intriguing name: the “Celestial Radio”.

“- and the Overmare assured everypony that tomorrow’s commemorations will not be interrupted, saying that security would immediately arrest anypony acting odd, on the suspicion of them belonging to the post zebra-sympathising group, the so called ‘Freedom Fighters’,” a pretentiously sounding buck was saying on the looped recording. “The group that, may I remind you, faithful listeners, had murdered the previous director of this station, Father Gemstone, as well as several other acts of terror in our fair Stable. The chief of security had reported recently that they are close to catching the ponies responsible... Though there is no doubt in my mind that upon their deaths the Goddesses will cast their souls into Tartarus, I am happy to hear that soon they will be caught, made to face justice, and the threat those heathens represent in the blessed Stable Eleven to be over.”

Heathens? I blinked as I listened to the broadcast, liking it less and less as the Goddesses know how long dead pony continued. Well, at least the name of the other broadcast, Radio Freedom, makes more sense to me now; it must have been related to that group called Freedom Fighters.

“And with the Stable Eleven Council election coming up next week, I’d like all you true believers to remember to place your votes on the candidates from the Adherents of the Royal Sisters party, the one true party, so that they may continue leading our Stable into the bright future together with the re-elected last year Overmare Strict Frame.”

“Huh, guess that explains that,” Blast commented; when I turned to look at him, he was pointing at the wall next to the door that we had just passed.

Following his hoof, I found myself staring at another election poster, this one apparently for this “Stable Eleven Council”. It didn’t have any pony on it, only words:

Don’t be a traitor,

do your duty and vote for a member of

ADHERENTS OF THE ROYAL SISTERS

to represent your block at the

STABLE ELEVEN COUNCIL

like every true citizen of EQUESTRIA would!

So they’d also choose ponies to represent blocks from the living quarters in this council? I thought, my curiosity momentarily getting the better of me, despite my growing distaste for this Stable. I wonder what were their responsibilities, exactly…

“To the few who plan to vote for members of Citizens of Equestria party,” the pony on the recorded transmission continued; my ears twitched from the venom in his voice when he said the name of this other political party, “I pray that the Goddess’ wisdom will shine upon them and they’ll remember the disastrous tenure of the CoE government, all the years of corruption, their attempts of controlling the Church and our station, and perhaps worse of all, their plans to open the Stable! Will you let them subjugate us to their zebra overlords?! Vote for the one true party, it is the only way we can stay free and cultivate Equestria’s traditions and values! That’s all for the evening news,” the voice said after a brief pause. “Now, let us return to our evening prayers, everypony. Psalm 17, the Lunar Penance.”

As I listened to the religious song, different from the ones I had heard at my Stable’s Church but at the same time similar enough to instinctively made me want to sit down and bring my forehooves together before my chest, Jack waves his paw again. “Alright, turn that crap off.”

That was a command that I was glad to obey; the fact that there was actual psalm playing on this station only added to my dismay. “What kind of blasphemous, propagandist radio station was that?!” I exclaimed in disgust as I turned it off.

I shuddered to think how my mom would have reacted if she’d ever heard that.

Jack rolled his eyes and opened his beak to reply, but Burst spoke before he could. “Yeah, I gotta say, that was just… wrong. And I’m not even that into the whole Goddesses thing,” he added.

“Well, that’s what you get when you get too into it,” Jack commented, shrugging. When I gasped and glared at him, opening my mouth to rebuke him, he quickly added: “I meant the listeners of that crap. No wonder they couldn’t make this little republic of theirs work if they got all worked up on this religious hatred.” He shook his head in annoyance. “What’s on the other station?”

Though I grew curious as to what he knew about this type of government and how he knew that, I hastily let the other broadcast, the “Radio Freedom”, play on my PipBuck. I hoped it would be a more… objective view on the Stable Eleven’s life, and that it would shed a little more light on what had happened here. I blinked in surprise as a song began to play.

Stay true, stay true to yourself,
Never let go of what matters to you most.
If somebody comes along and takes it,
Then fight with all your heart to get it back!

“That’s it,” Jack said, a gleam in his eyes. I turned off the broadcast as he continued: “That’s a chorus of one of the Countess Coloratura’s songs we are supposed to get.”

“Guess the trip here won’t be for nothing after all,” Blast commented, sounding relieved. After a second he frowned and asked: “Wait, how do you even know that’s it?”

“The music record order we found had also lyrics of some of those songs,” Jack replied, rolling his eyes.

“Do you want to listen to that station a little longer, sweetie?” I asked Jack, ready to resume the broadcast, but the griffin shook his head.

“No, I don’t really care about it. And you better not play it on our way down; in case there are more tripwires and other traps there, it would be useful to hear if somebody springs one of them.”

Why do I have this weird feeling that he meant me when saying “somebody”? I wondered.

“That being said, I would appreciate if everybody would watch where they put their hooves,” Jack continued; although he said ‘everybody’, the glance he cast at me left no doubt this time that he definitely meant me. “We’re going to the Overmare’s office first, she should have the list of all of the Stable’s residents in her terminal. We find the quarters of the pony who had the music record and then go there. If it’s not there for whatever reason, we look for wherever this other radio broadcast is coming from.”

“Would you mind if we looked for the source of the first broadcast and turned it off, sweetie?” I asked, earning an annoyed glare from him. “It really upset me to hear somepony use the Goddesses’ names in such blasphemous way.”

“I’m with her on that, actually,” Burst spoke up, causing the griffin to roll his eyes.

“Fine, let’s just go already,” Jack sighed as he turned around. “Somebody watch where the Doctor is putting her hooves.”

Well, at least now I know for certain that he meant me.

*** *** ***

“Would it hurt life to be easy for once?” Jack asked nopony in particular as the door to the Overmare’s wing refused to open.

Walking down all the way there was… eerie for me, to say the least. I never really appreciated just how much effort the maintenance crew of Stable Eight put into caring for our Stable. Aside from the rusty metal walls and churring noises of various generators, the entire Stable Eleven was just depressing. The illusions the maintenance crew cast on the ceilings and the plants they’d make grow together with the gardeners on the walls and floors truly made Stable Eight feel like a paradise; if I had to live in Stable Eleven, or any other Stable, I fear I’d feel like I was in prison.

Adding to the depressing mood that overtook me as we went deeper were the skeletons and signs of fights. It seemed as if a war took place in Stable Eleven. Not far from the entrance we found three skeletons in Stable security barding, probably responsible for the deaths of the seven ponies from before. Jack commented that they must have been ambushed on their way to the Atrium, and that whoever killed them took their firearms. We continued onward, passing a few more skeletons, and entered the Atrium.

In Stable Eight, the Atrium was often used to host various kinds of social gatherings. Concerts, sporting events... During holidays, the Overmare would make her speech there. Whenever it wasn’t used for those purposes, it was open to everypony. Families would come during the day to enjoy a picnic beneath the illusion of a sunny sky, in the shadow of one of the four trees growing in the corners of the Atrium. Couples would come during the night to lay under the Moon and the starry sky.

In Stable Eleven, the Atrium had also been used for social gatherings. A torn banner hanging from the wall beneath the window of the Overmare’s office pointed to that, its message illegible due to the passage of time. However, on the day that this celebration - whatever it had been about - took place, it had been turned into the site of a battle.

It had been turned into a graveyard.

Dozens of ponies’ skeletons were scattered across the Atrium. Some had clearly been killed instantly, some had tried to run away back to the living quarters or the cafeteria. Some had barricaded themselves with some chairs and lockers in the corridor leading to the Admin, where the Overmare’s wing (with her office and private quarters) were as well as Stable security. Not that it had helped them much, considered the skeletons still clad in security barding scattered right behind those barricades, and more as we walked along the corridor. Before I had followed my companions, I took a glance around the Atrium, especially at some of the skeletons at the back, near the door leading to the living quarters.

They were visibly smaller than an adult pony’s skeleton.

So is this Atrium, come to think of it, I had noted, trying to distract both myself and Fluttershy’s apparition; upon seeing the foals’ remains, tears welled up in her eyes and she kept her gaze downcast. It’s smaller than it should be, I mean. Stable Eight’s Atrium is… at least about 5 times as big as this. Did Stable-Tech change their Stable’s design after they’d finished my Stable?

Fluttershy remained quiet as I trotted after the others.

I sighed. Sweetie, it must have been well over a century since they died.

They were just foals, she replied, tears falling from her eyes.

Their souls are with the Goddesses now. Free of the sufferings that life can bring about. Those skeletons out there are nothing.

I had wanted to continue reassuring Fluttershy that those foals were now in a better place, but at that point Jack had discovered the closed door and uttered his comment regarding life. With an apologetic glance at the apparition, I focused on the griffin.

Said griffin was glaring at the door that had stayed closed, as if trying to make them open with his look alone. As I approached, however, he turned to me. “If in your Stable the doors to the Overmare’s wing were closed, how would you open it if you tried to sneak in or whatever?”

“As Stable Eight’s chief of medicine, I was privy to knowing the spell that would open the Overmare’s wing’s door, so I wouldn’t have to worry about that, sweetie,” I replied, deciding not to mention than even besides that, there would be seldom a moment when I wouldn’t have been welcomed there for the past few years. Noting the glare Jack gave me, however, I quickly added “But there also used to be a keycard from the time of the First Overmare, before we began to use magic for… well, practically everything. Let me think a moment, sweetie...” I trailed off as I wondered where the keycard to this Stable’s Overmare’s office could be. “I think our best chances to find it would be in the Security… and maybe in Maintenance.”

“At least that’s some starting points,” Jack said, sighing. “Scope, you’ll stay with me, we’ll check both of those. The rest of you, divide into two teams and begin going through the living quarters, see if you can find those records.”

“It’s gonna take forever,” Blast pointed out, visibly disliking the idea.

“If you have an idea on how to find the room where this Pacific Glow had lived, I’m all-”

“Actually, sweetie,” I began, interrupting Jack, “I think I might have an idea. A doctor has to keep records of all her patients,” I continued hastily as he turned his annoyed glare at me, “so if I could get to the clinic here, I might be able to find the room you’re looking for. You said the pony’s name was Pacific Glow?”

“Yes,” Jack nodded, sounding interested. He actually smiled at me! “Alright, you and Burst will go to the clinic, see-”

“And why does he get to go with her?” Blast asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Because I trust he will be on the lookout for traps rather than trying to get under her tail,” Jack told him flatly. Pointing at Apple Core, he added: “And I expect that one to kick your muzzle in when you try.”

“Only if she doesn’t like it,” Blast pointed out, turning to Apple Core and winking.

It was safe to say that it didn’t amuse Jack. “Blast, take the slaver and start checking the living quarters. Now,” he added, growling.

“Fine,” Blast replied, sighing and rolling his eyes. “But we will be on a lookout for a nice bedroom, if you know what I mean,” he added as he turned around and went back the way we came.

Unsure, I leaned to Burst. “Does he mean that he’ll look for places to sleep, or that he want’s to have a coitus with Apple Core?” I asked in a hushed voice.

“Um, the latter,” the younger mercenary replied, slightly blushing.

In the meantime Jack had turned to Apple Core, who was about to follow after Blast. “Will you kick him in the balls or something?” he asked, exasperated.

“Hm…” Apple Core hummed, her eyes on Blast as she looked the mercenary up and down. “... Ah dunno yet,” she admitted, a smirk briefly crossing her muzzle, before she remembered whom she was talking to. “Um, Ah mean, sure, no problem boss. Stay close to him,” she told me, pointing at Burst, as she hastily trotted after his brother.

Jack watched them go for a few seconds before turning to me and Burst. “They’re gonna fuck as soon as they find some bed, won’t they?”

As I hesitated with my answer (wondering whether the promiscuous nature I had seen Apple Core exhibit would point out to her doing exactly what Jack had said), I caught Burst giving me an embarrassed glance before he told Jack “Honestly, I was surprised to hear him say he’d look for a bed first.”

The mercenary’s answer must have been enough for the griffin, as he grabbed his head with his paw, muttering: “For the love of… Do you know how to geld a pony?” he asked, turning to me. “Because I’m seriously considering paying you to do that to him.”

“Sweetie, while I sincerely doubt that this particular procedure would pose any problems for me, I’d never perform such barbaric surgery on anypony,” I replied, frowning.

Jack sighed and shook his head. “It was a joke. Nevermind, just go find the clinic. If there aren’t any records there or something else happens, just start going through the living quarters as well.”

Wondering what exactly “something else” could happen, I nodded and followed Burst as we began to trot back the same way Apple Core and Blast had gone. At the same time, Jack and Scope went to check the Security.

“So, um…” Burst began as soon as they were out of earshot, somewhat awkwardly, “do you know which way the clinic is?”

*** *** ***

In order to get to the stairs leading to the lower lever, where the clinic should be, we needed to pass through the Atrium again. Mindful of how the Fluttershy’s apparition reacted to the sight of all the skeletons, especially of the foals, I focused once again on how small this space was compared to Stable Eight’s.

“I don’t understand why it’s so small,” I mused out loud as my eyes travelled across the wall, measuring it.

“Hm?” Burst, who was walking beside me, looked at me. “What is?”

“This Atrium,” I explained, spreading me my foreleg around the room. “It’s a few times smaller than my Stable’s Atrium.”

“Really?” Burst asked, blinking as he looked at the room that we were about to leave. “I could swear it was the size it was supposed to be.”

“What makes you say that, sweetie?” I asked in turn, surprised, as we began to walk down the staircase to the lower level.

“Well… I’ve been only to one other Stable before, and while the overall layout seems a bit different I am pretty sure the Atrium there was the same size as this one.”

“Really? Hm, it’s two Stables then…” I hummed thoughtfully. “Could it be that the Dimensional Transcendentalism Spells had been cast by ponies of my Stable themselves rather than Stable-Tec? I suppose it would be logical-”

“Um, Dimensional What’s-it Spells?” Burst interrupted me, confused.

“It’s a spell that manipulates the dimensions of the space that it was cast on in relation to its surroundings,” I explained. However, noticing the blank stare my companion was giving me, I realized that I had to find a more understandable explanation. “Um… it makes rooms bigger on the inside?” I tried.

“Bigger on the inside?” Burst repeated, frowning in concentration. “But on the outside they stay the same as they were?”

“Exactly,” I said, pleased.

“Wow, that’s… difficult to grasp,” he confessed, his brow furrowing in concentration as he tried to picture it. I couldn’t blame him; it used to puzzle me a lot back when I was a filly. “Do you think you could show me later?”

“I’m sorry, sweetie, but I don’t know how to cast that spell. I only know about it because they’ve told us about it in school. Actually, I don’t think there is currently anypony in Stable Eight that can cast it, except maybe for the head of maintenance… The spell’s formula is somewhere in Stable Eight Library, but only she would have an access to such a complex spell from, hm, the Maintenance’s area of expertise,” I explained, a bit wistfully; if I knew Dimensional Transcendentalism Spell, maybe I could increase the size of my laboratory in the Appleloosa’s clinic’s basement. “From what I was led to understand, it is extremely difficult to cast-” I continued, but I was forced to stop as Burst’s hoof suddenly shot before me and pushed me back.

Looking at the earth pony with confusion, I saw him nodding down. We were just about to exit the staircase and step on the floor from the lower level. There was a strange metal contraption right where I was going to put my hoof on. It was circular, with sharp fang-like blades on the edges, and a plate in the middle.

“Bear trap,” Burst explained, stepping around it carefully. “Can break a pony’s leg.”

“‘Bear’ trap?” I repeated, my confusion only deepening. “What would there be a trap for bears in a Stable, sweetie?”

My question had seemed to baffle Burst. “Um… It’s just a name. It works on ponies fine, trust me. And it’s fairly easy to make, you just need some steel, some gears and a spring.”

“Oh, I see.” I stepped down carefully as well, reminding myself that there could be a lot more traps like those around.

Looking around the corridor on this level, I saw several skeletons, indicating that the battle hadn’t been confined only to the Atrium and the entrance. On the walls there were tons of posters, it was almost impossible to make out the walls themselves. Unlike those we had seen by the entrance, those were trying to convince ponies to vote for blocks C, D and E’s representatives in the Stable Eleven Council. (Guess this means blocks A and B are in the level above us, behind the Atrium.) A lot of them, though (most of which seemed to promote the candidates from Citizens of Equestria party) had been painted over, with either ridiculous mustaches or beards added, or had profane words written on them.

With mild disgust at what this system had led to, I forced my gaze away and focused once more on the trap next to my hoof. “Why are they called that, though? Were they used on bears before the war?”

“I... don’t know. Anyway,” he quickly said, as if wanting to change the subject, “that Stable of yours sounds amazing! How else is it different from this one? You know, aside from still being populated and, um, not having skeletons all over?” Burst added, smiling awkwardly as he nodded at another skeletons further in the corridor.

“Oh, in many ways, sweetie!” I replied, happy to tell him more about my former home. As we began to trot through the corridor in the direction of the clinic, I pointed behind us at the staircase that we had just used. “There would be vines all around the walls here, as well as in most of the corridors. Above us,” I continued, pointing at the ceiling, “there could be an illusion of a sky, with the Stable’s light appearing as either Sun or the Moon, depending on the time of day. I say could because not all the corridors have them, the illusions need to be maintained, if they were on every ceiling the Maintenance wouldn’t be able to keep up with them. And the Atrium…”

Burst’s eyes widened as I described to him how Stable Eight’s Atrium appeared to ponies, with actual grass and trees growing in it and massive illusion on its ceiling. “Wow, that’s just… amazing! Your Stable seems like a paradise! Why would you ever leave a place so beautiful?”

“Ideological dispute,” I replied, giving him the same explanation as I gave Scope yesterday. Eager to change the subject back and feeling warmed by Burst’s enthusiasm regarding my Stable (I hadn’t even told him about the magic constructs yet!), I said: “But yes, sweetie, Stable Eight is an amazing place. And it’s in great deal thanks to being led by responsible and qualified ponies,” I added, remembering the brief discussion I had with Jack. I practically snorted as I repeated what he said. “‘Nepotism’! How dare he? I studied and worked hard to earn my position as the chief of medicine, the fact that my father had held it had nothing to do with it! And Emerald would have made an excellent Overmare if-”

“Wait, your father was the chief of medicine as well?” Burst interrupted me again; in hindsight, I was glad that he did. “Wow, that’s cool! So you wanted to follow in his hoofsteps?”

“Of course, sweetie,” I told him, smiling as a wave of nostalgia washed over me. My annoyance with Jack faded as I continued. “I wanted to be just like him since I was little.” To be the pony who makes others better, I thought fondly, remembering how I used to wait until late at night when Daddy would come home from work and I would bombard him with questions as he tucked me in to sleep. “What about you and your brother? Ditzy had told me that your parents were traders.”

Burst chuckled. “Yeah, I guess you could say that Blast and I don’t really have heads for business. Ever since our dad taught us how to shoot or make explosives we’ve been making our living this way. First we worked as guards for our folks, then after they retired to Tenpony Tower we guarded some other caravans, and finally we became mercenaries. We wanted to do something a little more exciting,” he explained as I gazed at him questioningly. “Being a caravan guard is a stable job and it’s well paid, but it’s really boring. We’ve traveled along all those trade routes for years now, and raider attacks aren’t that dangerous when you know how to fight. Besides, they don’t happen that often, anyway.”

I nodded, understanding that for somepony who had travelled across the Wasteland for years there probably weren’t many new places they could discover. Personally, though, I would have loved to see more of the Equestrian Wasteland - assuming, of course, that I could find a way to do that without needing to rely solely on my own four hooves.

We paused for a moment as we reached a crossroad of corridors, having encountered another tripwire. As I waited for Burst to disarm it, I glanced at the signs under the ceiling. Although the clinic was the same level in this Stable as it was in mine, its location was slightly different. I was a little confused by it, but fortunately it turned out that it was closer than I had expected. It only took us about a minute to reach from the crossroad.

The smile that appeared on my muzzle as I walked into the clinic quickly faded as we discovered a lot more skeletons in there. What was worse, they were all close to the beds in there, which pointed out to them all being patients.

“Ugh, that’s just wrong,” Burst, having probably come to the same conclusion as I had, commented. “C’mon, let’s find those records and leave.”

However, I shook my head. “Before that, sweetie, I would like to see if there’s any medical equipment here that’s still usable.”

“Jack would prefer if we start looting after we finish our work here,” Burst replied, frowning. Before I could say anything, though, he added: “But how about you start going through those records and I’ll check what I can find around here?”

“Sounds good to me, sweetie,” I said, smiling at him with appreciation, and turned to the door leading to the doctor’s office.

When I took a step towards it, however, Burst quickly stepped in front of me. “I’ll just check if there isn’t any trap there first,” he said over his shoulder.

“Sweetie, I doubt a doctor would put a trap in their office,” I remarked, rolling my eyes in.

Burst didn’t reply, as the hiss the door made as he opened them would obscure his words. When he looked into the office, I could see him cringe a little. “Yeah, um, maybe this one should have.”

Already imagining what I could expect inside, I sighed and trotted after him.

The skeleton, probably of one of the Stable’s doctors, lay in the middle of the office. The Stable barding and lab coat that covered it had been partially torn away. The metacarpal and metatarsal bones had been broken, and the similar fractures on the skull along with the dent mark on it indicated that it had been done by a hammer.

They first broke her legs, then killed her, I noted, gazing at the remains sadly. What a cruel thing to do, and to a doctor… I experimented on my fellow stable ponies and hadn’t been as much as kicked or punched, and her… I shook my head and sighed.

Of course, there were some… odd elements in my Stable, so to speak. Not straight out murderers with hammers, thank the Goddesses, but murder isn’t the only act a pony can commit on other pony. Everypony has some darkness in them, after all, and not everypony manages to deal with it. That’s why the Stable Security deals with them.

Except some of them are subtle, I remarked. And some technically don’t break any law. Wish I could have gotten my hooves on those that did this to this doctor, too… what interesting experiments I could have performed on them...

Taking my eyes off the skeleton and letting my train of thought trail off, I checked the office. Like the clinic behind us, it was much smaller than its Stable Eight counterpart, of course, but other than that it was rather similar. There was a desk with a terminal on it, which no doubt housed all the Stable Eleven’s medical records. A few lockers stood by the wall, and on the other side there was a small bed, next to which a toppled hospital screen laid.

Thinking back fondly to the times when I would be so consumed by work that I would sleep in a similar bed in my own office instead of going back to my quarters, I headed for the desk.

“Do you want me to, um, move them outside or something?” Burst asked me as I stepped around the skeleton, pointing at it.

“Why would I want to trouble you like that, sweetie?” I asked, confused, as I sat before the desk. “They’re just bones. And some fabric.”

“Well, yeah, just… some ponies might be uncomfortable around corpses and such,” he explained, slightly blushing and rubbing the back of his head in embarrassment. “I mean, usually they have some flesh on them and stink, but still…”

I smiled at him as he trailed off. “Thank you for such a concern regarding my comfort, sweetie,” I told him, grateful for his good intentions and that I was paired up with such a kind pony. “But in this case, it’s completely unnecessary. Those remains are nothing more than an intriguing composition of collagen and carbonated hydroxyapatite that contain that pony’s DNA to me, and my only interest in them would be scientific; I might be interested in examining them closely if I had the time and means to do so. The pony whose body had been supported by those bones is long gone, her soul having left her mortal vessel to join her loved ones and the Goddesses in the Afterlife.”

As I turned my attention to the terminal, I noticed in the corner of my eye Burst blinking at me. “So, um…” he began, sounding uncomfortable, “... you believe all that? The Afterlife, Goddesses and souls, I mean,” Burst added as I looked at him.

“Why shouldn’t I, sweetie?” I asked, surprised.

“No no, not saying you shouldn’t just… w-well, most of the smart, science-y ponies I’ve met tend to not believe in the Goddesses and everything.”

“Oh,” I exclaimed, now understanding what he meant. “Yes, I suppose that’s not surprising to hear, sweetie. My own mentor has a similar outlook on religion and beliefs. You should have seen the expression on his muzzle every time somepony would say ‘thank the Goddesses’ after he had told them good news regarding their health,” I added, giggling at the memory.

“And yet you do believe in them?” Burst asked.

I nodded. “That used to annoy my mentor, too,” I admitted, but I shook it off and continued “Don’t get me wrong, sweetie, I don’t believe that praying to the Goddess can cause miracles to happen, and to be honest, I am unsure whether They actually still move the Sun and Moon from the Heavens. I mean, it technically could be possible, seeing how much potential magic holds and how little is know about alicorns,” I said, more to myself. “But I do believe They exist. That they look down on us from the Afterlife, embracing our souls as we die. That They still wish and hope all the best for us in our mortal lives. After all,” I added, seeing how he was looking at me with some doubt in his eyes, “They give hope, strength, reassurance and comfort to countless ponies who believe in them. Doesn’t that make them real, even if they wouldn’t be?” I asked, smiling.

Burst blinked after hearing that, then slowly smiled. “I… guess that makes sense. Never really thought of it that way.” He stayed like that, smiling, for a few more seconds, before he blushed and cleared his throat. “A-anyway,” he stammered, “I’ll look over the clinic. You look over the records… oh wait, it might be password protected,” Burst added as he was about to leave, turning back to me. “Do you want me to try and hack it?”

“Thank you, sweetie, but I consider myself a capable hacker,” I told him. “Don’t worry, I know how to not get locked out of the system, so if I won’t be able to find the password I’ll let you try.”

“Ah, alright. Have fun then,” Burst said as he left the office.

Smiling after him, I slowly turned my attention back to the terminal. As Burst had guessed, it was password protected. Sighing, I began trying to hack it.

You really think all those ponies are now in a better place?

I do. I wouldn’t lie about something like this just to make you feel better, I replied, trying another word, only to see it wasn’t the correct one either. Gently, I asked How are you, sweetie?

A little better, I think, the tiny Fluttershy replied. The apparition’s eyes were a little red; was she crying? It’s just… hard to see so many ponies dead. And so many of them so young, too.

I understand, I told her, logging out after my third failed attempt, resetting the terminal. Just because I believe ponies go to a better place after their passing, it doesn’t mean their time on this plane should be short. Far from it, in fact. As long as a pony, or any sapient being, is alive, they can change. Grow. Evolve. Just thinking about all the possibilities that could have happened to so many ponies… I trailed off and shook my head, concentrating on hacking again.

So… would you also want to change? Fluttershy asked me.

Hm… change isn’t exactly the word I would use, sweetie, I said absentmindedly, slightly confused by her question.

But, um… wouldn’t you want to become better? If you believe in the Afterlife, aren’t you afraid that the Princesses would view what you do to ponies as evil and punish you after you die?

Oh, I exclaimed, now understanding where she was going with this. Don’t be ridiculous, sweetie, I won’t die.

Um, Fluttershy began, looking at me oddly, but as she was about to continue I interrupted her.

“Finally,” I exclaimed out loud as I found the correct password. “Alright, now the patients’ records…”

Just as I had expected, the doctor had kept all her records in the terminal, and like me, she had kept them in an alphabetical order. While it made my job of finding Pacific Glow’s quarters much easier, I felt slightly disappointed that I didn’t have an excuse to look at the records of all of the Stable Eleven’s citizens.

That disappointment quickly faded as I simply downloaded them to my PipBuck to read later.

Alright, Pacific Glow’s quarters were… Block D, room 19. Smiling, I glanced at the door. I could hear Burst moving around the clinic, searching for medical supplies and equipment. Well, since he’s still busy… I mused as I looked at what the doctor wrote in Pacific Glow’s record about her last visit. I was a little surprised to see how long the entry was.

Two broken ribs, several lacerations and bruises. I keep telling that stupid mare to stay away from “politics”. Especially in her age! What good do protests do anymore, anyway? The Adherents control everything, and will continue to do so until the next election. Which they will probably rig, just like the last Overmare’s election…

Pacific Glow didn’t recognize the ponies who assaulted her, but is certain that it was either the Stable security or those Stable Youths assholes. Honestly, I don’t know what’s the difference between the two these days, both are Adherent’s dogs, everypony knows that. Stable Youths… bunch of stupid kids that barely remember the Outside and believe everything the Council and “Father” Gemstone’s radio tells them. Limestone Pie should have had them all thrown out of the Stable when she was still the chief of security. Now they are everywhere causing trouble for ponies who say anything bad about the Council or the Overmare, and security doesn’t give a crap.

Hopefully Pacific Glow will stay low for a few days, at least until the “celebrations” are over. Maybe one of the “retired” security ponies could hang around her, just to make sure nopony assaults her again. Could probably use one or two here, actually. This was the fifth assault victim this week, sooner or later they will start coming for my patients to finish their job.

My eyes slowly drifted from the entry to the skeleton. “I guess they indeed finally came,” I noted sadly. Giving the terminal one more glance, I wondered how many more of those reports would contain such… rants from her. How badly things must have gone for a doctor to focus more on the politics than the patient’s injuries? (Although, granted, they weren’t that serious, even when taking the mare’s age into an account. I would have fixed her in less than ten seconds.) Sighing, I turned to the remains again. “They came and killed this mare, and for what?” I asked out loud, grabbing the skull gently with my magic and placing it in my forehooves. “So that they could all die?”

I… don’t understand this, either, Fluttershy replied. Some ponies just… want an easy answer to their problems, I guess.

I nodded absentmindedly, staring into the empty eye sockets. To where, almost two hundred years ago, the eyes of a mare had been. “It’s sad, isn’t it?” I asked after a few seconds of silence had passed. Sensing Fluttershy’s puzzlement, I explained “That this is what we all turn into. That our souls ascend and bodies become this.” My forehooves’ grip on the skull grew tighter. “The undeniable Truth of this world.”

I almost spat that word.

I almost jumped as the door hissed. “Well, a lot of things were either broken or stolen, apparently,” Burst said as he walked in. On his back there was a new saddlebag, a white one with butterflies on it. “Found this behind one of the beds, put some surgical tools I found for you in it… why are you holding a skull?” he asked, eyeing me with confusion and worry.

Realizing how unusual this may look, I smiled sheepishly. “I suppose you could say I was… ruminating? I read an entry she wrote for Pacific Glow’s last visit,” I continued to explain as Burst continued to stare at me. “This mare had a lot on her mind, and this was how she was rewarded for worrying about her Stable so much. If she were alive I would have hugged her, but… now I can only hold her remains and think how sad everything is,” I finished, sighing and shaking my head.

“I understand,” Burst said, sounding sympathetic. I wondered briefly if he truly did or if he was trying to be kind again. “Do you, um, need a moment, or…”

“No sweetie, I’m fine. Thank you for your concern,” I told him, smiling.

Burst smiled back, then cleared his throat and resumed. “As I was saying, I found some surgical tools and other medical equipment, like that, um, listening thingy-”

“Stethoscope, sweetie,” I gently corrected him.

“Yeah, that. There were also some some oxygen masks,” Burst quickly added, as if embarrassed that he didn’t know the name of the device, “I think their oxygen talismans are still working, but I’m not sure.”

My ears perked with interest hearing that. “I believe those are breathing oxygen talismans, sweetie,” I corrected Burst gently as I placed the skull of the doctor back at it’s place on her skeleton and I trotted around the desk to him. He took off the saddlebag and gave it to me. Glancing inside, I saw one of the masks he had mentioned; on its side there were holes for small tubes that a doctor could use to move breathing oxygen gas directly into patient’s lungs if they couldn’t breathe for themselves. “There are more gasses than just oxygen in the air. Those talismans allow to regulate the proportion of them in the air a pony would breathe in through the mask.”

“Huh, I see,” Burst replied, sounding a bit abashed, but quickly shrugged it off. “There wasn’t anything else back there worth taking,” the earth pony continued as I looked around the bag; he also found an otoscope, a few scalpels, tweezers, forceps, and surgical saw, and some other equipment. “Whoever did all of this must have taken stuff like healing potions or Med-Xs.”

“It was either the Stable security or Stable Youths,” I said absentmindedly, examining his finds.

“Stable Youths?”

“The doctor mentioned them in the entry I read. Apparently it was a group of… zealots, of sorts, comprised of ponies too young to remember the life on the Outside. They didn’t like anypony who disagreed with the Overmare and the Council.”

Burst sighed. “Fucking Stable.. sorry,” he quickly added, grimacing. “So you hacked it? Did you get that mare’s quarters?”

“She used to live in room nineteen in block D, sweetie,” I told him. “Shall we go and claim your objective before the others do?”

Burst chuckled and smirked. “Let’s just give this office a quick look too, no point in going back here.”

*** *** ***

“Hey, after we find those music records, wanna check their cafeteria and kitchen?” Burst asked sometime after we had left the clinic. “Maybe there’s still something edible in there.”

“Well, it has been some time since my last meal,” I noted; the rush I felt upon entering Stable Eleven had gradually evaporated and the long hours without food or proper rest began to remind my body of themselves. “But we have time, don’t we sweetie? We’ll be staying here for the night,” I reminded him, then shook with glee at the thought. “Oh, I can’t wait until we all can rest! So far everything in the Stable seems to still function properly, so its water talisman and heating talismans should still be working. I’ll finally be able to take a long, warm bath!”

As I pranced a little, unable to contain the happiness surging in me, Burst chuckled. “Yeah, pretty much the only place in the Wasteland you can get one is the Tenpony Tower, so opportunities like that don’t happen often I’m afraid,” he said as he glanced at the numbers above the doors we’d passed, looking out for number nineteen.

I was about to ask if he could tell me more about Tenpony Tower - as most of what I knew came from Apple Core, who had never been there - but at that moment… I… I stopped, trying to clear my head and wondering just what I had felt.

Angel? I heard Fluttershy ask at the same instant. Can you go into that room? Please?

Confused by her request, as well as the quiet determination her voice held, I turned my head in the direction where the apparition was pointing. The direction I had felt a… tugging from. The doors on my right, beside which I had stopped, were closed, but as I pressed a button on its side they opened.

“Angel?” Burst asked. Glancing at him, I realized that he had gone ahead without realizing I had stopped, probably having been busy with both looking for the room we searched for as well as traps on the floor. However, hearing the door hiss caused him to turn back. “What are you doing?”

“I…” I paused; what was I doing? Checking out a room that didn’t have what we were looking for because an apparition of the long dead Ministry Mare that was tied to a tiny statuette had told me in my mind? Without asking any question why she wanted me to do that at that? “I’d like to take a look at this room, sweetie,” I told Burst, hoping he wouldn’t demand a more complex explanation. “It won’t take long.”

Burst’s eyes darted from me to the room, blinking in confusion. “Um, okay… I’ll go find Pacific Glow’s room,” he said, pointing at the rooms behind him. “Don’t go anywhere without me, okay?”

“Of course, sweetie,” I replied, thankful.

As Burst began to trot away - casting a last worried and intrigued gaze at me - I turned my attention to what laid past the door I had opened. Having already realized that there weren’t any rooms in Stable Eleven that had the Dimensional Transcendentalism Spells cast on them, I wasn’t surprise to see how small this one was. It was the same as Stable Eight’s normal class citizen’s quarters would be, spacious only enough to contain a bed, drawer and cupboard, a desk with a terminal on it and some free space in between.

My eyes were drawn to the skeleton lying on the bed.

I crept slowly closer until I stood right beside it. It was a skeleton of an earth pony mare, who, as far as I could tell, had been well into the fall of her life by the time of her death. In fact, if it hadn’t been for all the remains I had seen in this Stable, I would have thought this pony had died from natural causes; her bones showed no sign of any physical trauma. However, my interest in the skeleton quickly dispersed as I noticed what was under its right pastern bones and coffin bone.

It was a statuette of a pony. Unlike the one I had found in Appleloosa’s hospital’s basement, it was depicting a bright pink pony, who looked as if she was about to bounce up and down on her pedestal. As a matter of fact, just like Fluttershy’s statuette, it looked as if it was alive. Having seen her already on few billboards and in in a textbook in Stable Eight, I easily recognized the Mare of Ministry of Morale, Pinkie Pie.

Is it the same kind of statuette as yours, sweetie? I asked Fluttershy, tilting my head as I noticed that on this one’s base, too, there were some words written.

Awareness! It was under ‘E’!

I frowned, confused. I don’t get it. Awareness doesn’t begin with “E”... and why would it be “under” it? I wondered. As Fluttershy remained silent, I thought back to how she had wanted me to come into this room. Had she know this statuette was here? But how? Turning my head to the skeleton’s skull, I remembered a strange sensation that fell upon me as I passed the room, as if something was tugging me in this direction. Could it have been what Fluttershy had felt, and I somehow felt it through whatever spell had been put on her statuette?

She must have died while looking at it, I noted, observing the angle at which the skull laid. Or at that, I added, glancing at her left pastern bones and coffin bone. Leaning against it was a framed picture of a family of six, with two adult ponies and four foals. The filly in the center of the photograph, standing on a table in front of a large cake, was clearly the Ministry Mare Pinkie Pie, as I realized with surprise; there was no mistaking that bouncy pink mane. The other fillies and the adult mare had in contrast all gray coats, except for the buck, who was light brown. Is she on this photograph? I wondered, glancing back at the remains. If the Ministry Mare was a filly when they took it, then she must have been one of the other fillies… Was she her sister?

I turned my attention back to the statuette. If it was the same as Fluttershy’s - whose continued silence began to worry me - then would I now have the apparition of Pinkie Pie speaking to me in my mind as well? Well, not right away, it had taken over two weeks for Fluttershy to begin speaking to me directly, before that it felt more like I was “imagining” what she’d say, I thought as I was about to reach for the statuette with my magic. Maybe in a few days-

I cut off as a jolt went through me the moment my magic held the statuette, but that was nothing compared to the shock I felt as a tiny pink mare appeared right before my face.

Hi! she exclaimed loudly, grinning as her voice rang inside my head. I’m Pinkie Pie! Oh my gosh, finally! I was waiting here alone for so long and- OH MY GOSH, FLUTTERSHY!!! I didn’t know it would have been possible, but somehow the apparition became even louder as she said those last four words than before. I grabbed my head in pain as the tiny pony darted to my side, throwing herself at the apparition of Fluttershy and hugging her so tightly I’m sure she would have broke her ribs if she were corporeal. I’VE MISSED YOU SO MUCH!

Fluttershy, at first startled, had quickly smiled, although with some effort due to the tight embrace she was in. I missed you too, Pinkie Pie, she said quietly, pure happiness in her voice as she hugged her back.

As Pinkie Pie began to speak again, thankfully less loudly than before, I sat on the floor beside the bed and placed her statuette in my saddlebag together with Fluttershy’s.

Oh, it’s so great to see you! I’ve been all alone ever since… she cast a glance at the remains, her mood growing somber, before she turned back to Fluttershy, brightening up again. But it was worth waiting here if it meant I could be reunited with you! I wish the others were here too. Do you think this pony will find the others as well? That would be awesome! Oh, and speaking of which, who is she? she cast me a curious glance. Is she a nice pony? Is she fun? Limestone was so grumpy to hang around with, Pinkie Pie added, rolling her eyes. Despite her words, though, I noticed a faint smile on her face; I guessed she must had been fond of the time she had spent with-

Limestone Pie! I exclaimed, recognizing the name from the records in the clinic. So she was your sister, I realized as both apparitions turned to me. Gently, I continued: I’m sorry about her passing, sweetie. I’m sure her soul is now at rest in Heavens.

Although her ears had dropped, Pinkie Pie smiled at me. Thanks. Limestone never really put much faith in… wait, she said after a brief pause, her eyes wide. You can hear us?

Why, yes, sweetie, I- I began to reply, but the tiny pink pony cut me off.

OH MY GOSH, THIS IS AMAZING!!! She screeched inside my head so loudly that, despite knowing that it would have been impossible, a part of me wondered if Burst had heard her. I’ve talked and talked to Limestone, but she never heard me! Can you imagine how frustrating it was? But oh, never mind, this will be great! I can finally talk with somepony! Oh, of course, I am super duper happy that I get to be together with you, Fluttershy, obviously, she added, turning briefly to the tiny pegasus, but I love meeting new ponies! And, you know, talking is an important part of meeting. So… Hi, I’m Pinkie Pie! I know I already said that, but I didn’t know you were listening! So what’s your name? I opened my mouth to reply, but Pinkie Pie wasn’t waiting for an answer. She continued to spout questions, bouncing around my head: Why are you here? Where do you live? What do you do? Do you get along with Fluttershy? Nah, of course you do. What-

S-slow down, Ministry Mare Pinkie Pie, please, I managed to interrupt her, getting overwhelmed by the amount of questions and the volume of her voice.

It didn’t help that my head was swirling with questions of my own. How could Limestone Pie had not heard or seen her? I saw Pinkie Pie immediately as I picked up her statuette, and as for Fluttershy, it only took a few weeks. Limestone clearly had her sister’s statuette for years. Could it be that whatever spell was placed on them, they work only on unicorns? I did see Pinkie after I grabbed the statuette with my magic. I recalled feeling a weird sensation wash over me as I had done that, and similar one when I had picked up Fluttershy’s statuette. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some way to test this theory...

Oh, sorry, Pinkie Pie replied, pulling me out of my musing as she stopped bouncing in circles around me and hovered before me, giggling. I just got super excited!

Sweetie, I noticed, I thought, smiling a bit awkwardly. I took a deep, calming breath to regain my composure, then replied: To answer your questions, sweetie, my name is Angel-

Angel? she interrupted me, then gasped and.. began to prance around my head again.

You’re an Angel, a white mare,
A strange, hearing-voices-in-her-head mare.
I never met you but you’re my new friend,
And I’m your best friend Pinkie Pie!

I looked, wide eyed, at the pink apparition as it she stood on her hind legs on the end of my muzzle after finishing this random, out of nowhere song. And… was that confetti that suddenly burst around her, or did I just imagine it? I cross eyed at Fluttershy, really confused by this bizarre behaviour, but unfortunately for me all the other tiny pony did (after she stopped giggling quietly and looking at Pinkie Pie’s performance fondly) was giving me an embarrassed smile and a shrug.

That was… lovely, sweetie, I told Pinkie Pie.

Aww, thanks!

Now, for your other questions, sweetie, I began cautiously, hoping that she wouldn’t interrupt me again; it was unnerving; I came here to help find music records of Countess Coloratura, I am currently living in the town of Appleloosa, where I currently work as the town’s doctor, and yes, I believe I get along well with Fluttershy… although I fear we tend to have different opinions regarding matters like morality and justice, I added, casting her a glance. I do like her and enjoy her company, though, despite our differences.

Awesome! Pinkie exclaimed happily… and loudly.

I shook as my brain hurt from that shriek. Sweetie, could you tone down your voice just a tiny bit? I pleaded the pink apparition.

Okay! Pinkie Pie replied enthusiastically, her tone not any lower than before. She must have realized it, as she gasped and covered her mouth. Oops, sorry!

I sighed, wishing there had been some painkillers back in the clinic. Fluttershy? I asked, turning to the tiny pegasus. Most of the time you, well, don’t appear in my head, I don’t see or hear you, I said awkwardly; I really needed to try and see what those statuettes are, I was uncomfortable not being able to speak in a more precise manner. Can you and Pinkie Pie, um, disappear for me and talk just between yourselves for the time being? You could catch up while I’d try to learn more about this Stable, I said, glancing at the terminal in the room.

The entry I read in the clinic had mentioned that Limestone had been the chief of security for some time. I was certain that such a pony had to keep up to date on the Stable’s affairs. Her terminal could explain to me just what had happened here.

The awfully set up system of government and abuse of religion aside.

Unless you could tell me yourself, sweetie, I added, turning my attention to Pinkie Pie.

Who was already gone.

Annoyed, I glanced at Fluttershy, who just giggled nervously before disappearing as well. Just when I could learn something useful from them instead of having morality discussions. Uttering a sigh, I got up to my hooves and trotted to the terminal. Strangely, there wasn’t a password required to gain access to its contents; apparently, it hadn’t been properly turned off. I looked over the list of entries, anxious to see what they information they could hold, then turned towards the door. I perked my ears, but couldn’t hear Burst coming back. He still showed up on my E.F.S., though, the only bar within its reach. Relaxing knowing that I still had some time, and that nothing bad has befallen my companion, I began to read the earliest entry.

Entry #1

Fuck.

FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCKSD KFJ RGMJIMKLS

I blinked, surprised. Well, that’s… enlightening, I remarked, moving on to the next one.

Entry #2

Have to write this stupid journal. Doctor’s orders. Supposedly will calm me down, help deal with stuff.

Fuck. Just FUCK! What the hell was I thinking? I should have gone looking for Marble when the alarm went off, not trust her to get to the Stable by herself. Fuck, why did she have to leave the house so early that day? Why didn’t she get in here before they closed the stupid door? Why did I leave her?

I wanted to go out and find her, then drag her flank to the Stable, but they wouldn’t let me. Stupid security ponies, beat up three of them as they began closing the door back then before they subdued me, now they have five guarding the entrance. The temporary Overmare’s orders, they stay closed. Fuck her.

The zebras probably didn’t hit anywhere near us. One of the security guys is, or was I suppose, a soldier, said they had to target big cities and military bases and such. So Marble might be alive. Of course, there’s the radiation, but she could find someplace where there wasn’t any, maybe met some other ponies who didn’t make it in time. I just hope it would be ponies like her, all annoyingly shy and super kind. It could happen.

Pinkie’s a Ministry Mare, she’s definitely safe somewhere. And Maud is the toughest of us; wherever she was when the zebras’ hit, she made it, I know it.

I wish they were here. With me. But if they are all alive and safe, that would be enough. Please be alright.

Entry #3

Got assigned to working as security pony. Well, I do like bossing others around. Might take my mind off things.

Also, the temporary Overmare announced about this whole “elections” idea. Seems stupid, but they won’t make you vote if you don’t want to, so what do I care?

Entry #4

The Princesses’ worshipers are gaining numbers. I mean, sure, there always were a couple ponies here and there who deified them, but now they are calling them “Goddesses” and saying how they continue to look after us, even here. Yeah right. Zebras must had bombed Canterlot and killed both Princess Luna and Princess Celestia, they’re dead. Yeah, they say some crap about their “spirits ascending” and what not, but that's just crazy.

But anyway, this one pony, Gemstone, started creating this cult, and is petitioning to the temporary Overmare to allow him use of one of the rooms for his “chapel”. She’ll probably put him off until those elections next year so that the next Overmare and that Stable Eleven Council have to deal with him. Can’t say I blame her, that buck creeps me out.

Entry #5

Somehow that Gemstone convinced the temporary Overmare to let him conduct few “masses” or whatever using the Stable Eleven’s PA System. Great, now I get to hear this sanctimonious shit near every broadcaster. Might go to Pacific Glow and borrow some of her holotapes, if I play some music on my PipBuck and wear headphones maybe I can go through a day without getting annoyed.

Entry #6

Well, it looks like we have a new Overmare and this Council. Dunno who actually represents my block, and don’t really care.

Entry #7

The Council allowed Gemstone, oh sorry, “Father” Gemstone, to open a chapel for his herd. “Father”. I had one Pa, and he was a hundred times the buck Gemstone is. Anypony makes me call him that gets a punch in the muzzle.

Entry #8

More and more ponies join this cult. I think it’s about an eighth of everypony in the Stable by now, actually.

Entry #9

Had to break up a fight today. Between the “believers” and “non believers”. One of the believers spat in my face. Doctor says he should wake up tomorrow.

It wasn’t the only such incident. Recently there had been some heated discussions floating around the Stable, although I didn’t hear anything about fights such as this.

Gemstone had condemned violence (and prayed to Luna and Celestia for forgiveness and peace, like that’s gonna do anything), although I heard from the chief that he’s done that only after he had been told by both the Overmare and the Council.

Entry #10

Well, this is a surprise. Got promoted today. To the chief of security. I knew Chief Constant had health problems, but not serious enough to cause him to retire so early, buck is almost half my age. Hope he gets better soon.

In the meantime, I guess it falls to me to keep everypony from killing each other. Could be fun I suppose.

I was about to start reading the next entry, but then I noticed the date next to it. It has been written a good year after the previous one. Looking over the further entries, I noticed that such long gasps had become a norm to Limestone for several next years. I guess with all her duties as chief of security, she didn’t have time to keep up with writing her journal, I mused. Still, I couldn’t help but frown with disappointment a little. I had been constantly busy in Stable Eight with my duties, and I had no problem keeping track of my journal.

Entry #11

We’re nowhere near the next elections, and ponies are already preparing for them. Some of the candidates that didn’t get selected began banding together. Those parties of theirs already make promises about what they would change and what not. Talk about boring. And pointless, too. No matter what they promise, I bet they will be just like the current crew, bunch of lazy ponies that spend their days scratching their asses.

Granted, one party is a bit different. They’re called the “Adherents of Royal Sisters”, or something like that, and they’re good buddies with the growing church here. Founded by that ass Moon Scrounger. Funny, I recall him to really despise Gemstone when he first started going on about the Goddesses. Guess he hopes to assure the votes of his followers. They will probably grant him another room to be another chapel or give him a bigger access to the PA System in exchange when they win.

Whatever, still not gonna go and vote. Got better things to do.

Entry #12

Well, elections are over. The Citizens of Equestria party got two seats on the Council, Adherents only one, despite the help they got. Seriously, I heard from other guys in Security that every sermon ended with Gemstone telling ponies that they should vote for Adherents candidates. Fortunately, most folks still remember what kind of an ass Moon Scrounger was back on the surface and how he cheated his way to be in charge of workers’ trade union, before everything went to shit. Dumbass. Can’t wait to see him lose the Overmare election. On that note, can a buck even run for that? Or do they change the title to Overstallion? Oh who cares. The remaining two seats were taken by partyless ponies.

In other news, some of the younger ponies in our Stable began meeting together, dunno why; maybe they plan to form their own party already? As long as they cause any trouble I don’t really care.

Entry #13

That Scrounger is craftier than I gave him credit for. Instead of candidating himself for the position of Over-whatever, that ass put somepony else from his party for the election. All hail new Overmare Strict Frame. Yeah right. If the rumors about Moon Scrounger from before the Last Day are true, he probably has some shit on her to blackmail her or something.

Entry #14

The Stable Youths, as some of the teenagers began to call themselves, are starting to become a nuisance. It was all good as long as all they did was attend all the public holiday and events, cheering or booing stuff, but there had been two incidents of them starting a fight. A few more and I’ll have to start some investigation, and I already have a lot of work as it is. Stupid brats. When I was their age I was working my tail off, didn’t have time to start anything.

Hopefully those two incidents were just caused by being cooped up in this Stable for kids who have too much energy for their own good, and not something else. The fact that the other sides of those fights are all comprised of ponies who don’t do the Goddesses’ religion is kinda worrisome.

The Youths are religious, they believe in all that crap Gemstone pours from himself. I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t for those incidents. I hope those are unrelated.

Entry #15

Fuck. Yes.

One of the members of the Stable Eleven Council pitched in an idea about sending an expedition Outside. Out of the Stable. See what became of Equestria.

I could see what happened to my home, find Marble, and Pinkie and Maud.

They still have to vote on it, and then the Overmare just has to sign under it, and we’ll begin preparations. I don’t care if they say I’m too old for something so dangerous, I’m going.

Entry #16

FUCKING STRICT FRAME, MOON SCROUNGER AND GEMSTONE!

She vetoed the project. The expedition Outside won’t launch. No doubt on Moon Scrounger’s orders. Gemstone didn’t want it either, he kept saying how Equestria had fallen to zebras’ evil on his station and how opening the Stable would result in the zebra invaders killing and/or enslaving everypony here. Funny, one would think somebody so devout would want to find the Goddesses he worships. Probably doesn’t want everypony see what bullshit this really is, or to lose control over his little herd if they disperse on the Outside.

Seriously, fuck that bitch and those assholes. I had to wait an entire month for the Council to make the decision, and she fucking vetoes it.

That’s it, I am going to the elections from now on. I won’t let any more of those Adherents fucks decide a thing in my Stable.

Entry #17

Well, got most of the Stable Youth's leadership under arrest. There were too many cases of them harassing ponies or even beating them up to be lenient on them just because they are kids. They even tried to stop some ponies who are declared Citizens of Equestria’s supporters from attending Constant’s funeral a month ago. They claimed he was Stable Eleven’s hero, so he shouldn’t suffer those “scum” at his funeral, or some crap like that. Who do they think they are to decide who can say their final farewells and honor ponies memory?!

Will have to work out what to do with them with the Council and the Overmare. Hopefully we can get it done before the next elections. I don’t like what the polls showed; Adherents have a chance to get a majority. Ponies gave in to the fear propaganda Gemstone spread and they are afraid of opening the Stable. Idiots.

The next entry was, according to the date beside it, from next month. Already suspecting how those elections had turned out, I wasn’t surprised that Limestone had been so anxious that she wrote in her journal again.

Entry #18.

Fuck.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

The Adherents have four seats on the Council. And the Overmare. Moon Scrounger rules Stable Eleven now. Fucker didn’t even try to run for a seat this time, knew nopony would vote for him. He put all of his most popular ponies from each block as candidates instead, and those idiots thought they would be independant from him after becoming Councilors. Stupid fucking idiots.

So much for the expedition. By the time the next elections come up (and that is assuming ponies will grow the fuck smarter and vote at anypony beside Adherents), I will definitely be too old to go. Fortunately there are a few ponies in security I can trust to go in my place (and who are competent enough not to screw it up), but I wanted to go myself. But still, just having any news about my sisters would be enough. Just gotta hope they won’t blow us all up to Tartarus until then.

Thankfully that’s just my humor, they’re not evil or incompetent, just assholes.

The next entry was made less than two weeks after the previous.

Entry #19

Yeah, I gotta retract that previous statement.

So, the Council changed the law to allow the Overmare to not only pardon a convicted pony as she pleases, but also to order the security to release anypony who’s being held in their custody if there is a suspicion of unnecessity of it and of the criminal procedure overall! Because of it, that stupid bitch ordered the release of all the Stable Youths we had arrested, due to them being still underage. I would say those little brats got sent back to their homes with nothing but a slap on their hooves, but they didn’t even get the fucking slap!

Entry #20

And now they granted Gemstone the full control of the PA System. I am pretty sure that violates several of Stable-Tec directives. And, you know, common sense.

Now the speakers broadcasts his preachings all the time in between recording of the psalms. At least they are sung by the church’s choir and not Gemstone. Can’t imagine how much out of tune his singing must be. Still, makes me want to shoot myself.

Entry #21

So, I got fired today. That’s a first for me, actually.

Well, not “fired” I suppose, but “retired”. Except that I was forced to retire. The Overmare didn’t give me any other option, just said that I had to retire due to my age, and that I “surely deserve some peace and quiet after so many years of faithful service to Stable Eleven”. Yeah, right, and the fact that I so loudly criticized some of the new Council’s projects or refused to have several ponies (most of which belonged to the Citizens of Equestria party or were the partyless previous Councilors) be investigated for no reason (I mean real reason, with a proof of said reason, not some made up crap about possibility of treason or rumors) had nothing to do with this hastened retirement. I’m still years from reaching the retirement age for Celestia’s sake! And that’s besides the fact that I can still kick everypony on security’s flanks!

Wish I could tell the Overmare to shove her offer up her tailhole, but I can’t refuse her. The stupid bitch is still the Overmare. All I could do was argue a bit, then agree and go prepare a list of candidates I would recommend for my place. Doubt anypony I would trust to do this job will get selected by her.

Entry #22

Most of higher ranking security officers also got retired. Those who were younger actually got fired. Don’t like who they put in their place. Some of them are good guys, but they’re not assertive enough to oppose the Overmare’s orders. Not to mention my own replacement. I knew they would probably ignore my recommendation, but this is the epitomy of stupidity. They just put a pony from their party, who never worked a day in security, as its chief.

Am I really the only one here who sees how they are trying to get even more control over this Stable?!

Oh, and also, some of the older Stable Youths got accepted into security. I should have thrown those arrogant, violent brats out of the Stable’s door when I had the chance.

Entry #23

So, after a few years of them gradually changing the educational system, adding some new laws and placing several former Councilors under house arrest while they were being investigated, replacing most high ranking ponies in every part of the Stable’s organization including even maintenance, and outright ignoring every incident of the Stable Youths harassing or attacking pretty much everypony not supporting the Adherents or the church, that shit of a pony Strict Frame gets re-elected. I don’t know whether ponies here are really that stupid, or if there was an election fraud. Considering how much power the Adherents now hold, it wouldn’t be tough, I bet.

But that’s not the worst of it. Or most retarded, depending how you look at it.

Two days ago a new law was passed. Due to the “importance” of the Goddesses Celestia and Luna in everypony’s life, as some claim, it is now considered heretical for a pony to let their heads, hearts, ears and I guess asses to be occupied by music other than one praising the royal sisters, or whatever. Not even gonna bother picking up a damned flyer to copy perfectly their shitty reasoning, the point is, all music other than what’s on the “Celestial Radio” has been banned. Every recording or holotape containing music and songs from before we all got stuck here has been confiscated and destroyed.

I blinked. Oh, this cannot be good… I mused, imagining Jack’s reaction to this information. Although, there was this other station that is still broadcasting music… I guess some must have survived…

This also explained how come Burst was taking such a long time to return. The poor dear was probably throwing around everything in that room searching for recordings that were no longer there. Even as I realized that, the rest of the entry confirmed my assessment:

Pacific Glow is crushed, she owned so many of those. I wish there was something I could do for her. She sorta reminds me of Pinkie, she looks like her and also loves parties, although not so much throwing them.

It’s been awhile since the last time I thought about my sisters. I hope they’re well, or at least, better than I am, and that they don’t have to deal with crap such as this.

Pinkie wouldn’t stand by for how things are down here. She would have tried to do something about it all.

Entry #24

New broadcast appeared out of nowhere. The host calls it “Radio Freedom”. Appropriate, considering. Plays several songs that he somehow managed to hide from security ponies. Can’t really recognize the voice, but I’m pretty sure he’s a buck. I asked Pacific Glow about it after I recognized some of the songs from her collections, she mentioned (very quietly, in case anypony who’s the Council’s lapdog could overhear it) that she had copied some for her friends over the years. I have the feeling that she might suspect who’s responsible for the Radio Freedom, but considering what would happen to him she won’t tell even me.

Probably for the best, really. Even though I would never snitch him out, there wouldn’t be much I could do to help, either. I’m not good with all those technical thingies or even music. I couldn’t even protect him, there are too many security ponies and Stable Youths for me to handle. No, the best protection for him and Radio Freedom would be for him to continue his work in secret. To let everypony hear beautiful songs, reminding us that there are other things to life than stupid praying, especially this twisted praying Gemstone had created. It’s simply inspiring.

I wonder if it’s inspirational enough for something that I had been thinking about for a while now. Gonna visit a few old friends and see.

Entry #25

So, for some time now, some unsavory characters - I believe ponies began to call them Freedom Fighters - had been damaging all the Adherents’ posters they put all around the Stable in preparation for upcoming elections. Tearing them off, or drawing on them. They’ve also wrote several messages on walls here and there, saying that the Adherents were greedy liars, that Gemstone was full of hate and shit, that him and Moon Scrounger were controlling everything, all sorts of things like that. And the strangest thing is, Stable’s “Friendly Pie” observation system didn’t record who did it, not even in the Atrium. As if it was done by a group who understood how they worked, maybe even were members of security or maintenance. Can’t imagine who could have done that.

Of course, the Council, the Overmare, and Adherents overall are looking for the culprits, and already cleaned up most of the graffitis. And the Stable Youths began damaging all the other posters, mostly from the Citizens of Equestria party.

Maybe something more drastic should be done.

Entry #26

I don’t think my sisters would have approved of what I had done, but it had to be done.

Well, Maud maybe, and considering everything you’d hear about Ministry of Morale, maybe Pinkie too, but not Marble.

Entry #27

I would have thought that Moon Scrounger would be secretly glad to be rid of Gemstone, but either he isn’t or he is trying to keep up appearances, either way they are searching for anypony connected to this. They bring in ponies into Security’s wing for questioning under even the weakest excuses. Been taken there already, of course. Those newbies don’t really know how to interrogate anypony, aside from hitting them, they had enough common sense to not try that method with me. Not that I had anything to hide, of course.

Still, those repressions are unnerving. If they continue, something should be done about them. Once and for all, maybe.

Entry #28

Pacific Glow came to me today. At first I thought it was about her getting roughed up by some of those brats, but then she told me that security had just arrested Short Wave. According to her, he was the one responsible for Radio Freedom, having constructed an amateur broadcaster and using it to play the few songs he had on a holotape he managed to hide from security. So, either they had found him out finally, or he’s being held for something else, and might let it slip during questioning. Or they figured that his broadcast’s been on loop the entire time he had been there. Neither sounds good. Considering how much they wanted to shut off his radio station, I don’t even want to think what they’ll do to him.

This has to stop.

I hoped it wouldn’t come to this. I contacted the few guys I trust in the security, they were able to smuggle a few firearms for us. We’ll take them, along with whatever other weapons we can make, and go tomorrow morning to end this. They have “their” holiday tomorrow, they will all be there. We’ll take care of the security ponies first, at least those who take real pleasure in harassing ponies in the service of Adherents. Then we’ll gun them down. The Councilors and party members, the Overmare and Moon Scrounger. The Stable will finally be free of their filth.

After that we’ll free Short Wave and hold another election. Or figure something else, because clearly this didn’t work out as the Stable-Tec had hoped.

I glanced at the skeleton on the bed before opening the last entry.

Entry #29

Well, that escalated quickly.

I don’t even know why things went so wrong. The plan was simple, and it looked like everything went according to plan. Sure, Moon Scrounger and Strict Frame somehow managed to get away from the Atrium, but we got most of his lapdogs. A few ponies got killed in the crossfire (from security’s bullets, for the record, we knew how to shoot), and I thought that it would be all that made me feel like a piece of crap today.

We rescued Short Wave and everypony else being held in the Security, took care of the few remaining lapdogs, and we were about to work out how to open the Overmare’s wing where that bitch Strict Frame hid, when a pony came telling us the Stable Youths were killing everypony back in Living Quarters.

I don’t know if they started with just killing our friends and families or outright anypony who didn’t support the Adherents. Doesn’t matter either way. We tried to stop them and save ponies, but by then the fighting broke out everywhere in the Stable. Stable Youths, us, others. It was hard to tell what was happening at few times. Or most of the time. Everypony’s dead now.

I’m the last one, for now. Got few bullet wounds, lacerations and some other things. I could patch myself together well enough to survive, but what’s the point? I thought about leaving, but I don’t think I deserve that anymore. Even if I were to just die out there, under the open sky. And certainly I don’t deserve to meet Marble again. How could I look her in the eyes after what I did here? What I let happen?

Couldn’t even kill that son of a bitch. Would at least make me feel a little better, maybe. Fucking coward took some pills, by the time I fought my way to his room he was already dead. There was the Overmare’s wing keycard in his room. Dunno if that’s because he was keeping her under control or if they were banging. Thought about using it to go and at least make Strict Frame pay, but at this point I just don’t care. She can leave the Stable, stay, or go fuck herself.

Feeling a bit woozy. Don’t think I’ll have the time to go back to cafeteria and get something to drink and come back before I pass out for good. I want to die here, in my room. Staring at my family picture with my Pinkie. Fucking sappy.

I don’t know where things went wrong. Was I wrong when I decided to take all those drastic actions? Was I wrong to oppose Moon Scrounger so openly when I was still the chief of security? Was it not going to elections all those years? Standing back when Gemstone began to build this hypocritical religious empire? No, it’s neither of those. What I did wrong was coming into this Stable. Should have waited for Marble. Even if we stayed Outside, it would have been better. We would have been together. Fuck.

Hooves a bit heavier. Gotta lie down. Wake up and see my family again.

With a heavy sigh, I turned off the terminal. I’m sure you had, Limestone, I thought, turning back to the skeleton. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done differently in her place.

Well, I would have certainly faked this Gemstone character’s death and used him for my experiments for his heresy and abusing the Goddesses’ names, I mused, curious if it would have been that easy. Probably not. What had happened here was just awful.

The question that plagued Limestone in her final moments bothered me. Where did it all had gone wrong? Instead of thinking what I would have done, I tried to put myself in Limestone’s place. Imagine I was an earth pony who had been the chief of security. Would I have found a way to stop the Adherents and Gemstone? Would I even be able to predict just how much of a threat to the Stables citizens they would become? Would I have found a way to prevent all of that without breaking Stable Eleven’s laws?

Or, I thought grimly, was the fault not in Limestone or the ponies that had lived here, but in the system by which they had to abide?

The hoofsteps from outside of the room pulled me out of my musing. Apparently, Burst had given up on searching Pacific Glow’s room. We’ll have to find where Short Wave had hid his broadcast relay, I thought as I waited patiently for him. But how? Even the Stable security ponies couldn’t find it. They certainly had done the obvious thing and searched his room, along with everypony else’s most likely… although, I mused, remembering what I read in Limestone’s journal, there is a chance that Short Wave told them after he was arrested. In that case, there should be some records in the Security’s wing.

My ears perked as Burst finally entered Limestone’s room. As I’ve expected, his expression was full of disappointment and frustration.

“I couldn’t find anything,” he said, grimacing. “I turned the entire room upside down, and didn’t find a single holotape or anything.”

“That’s because they were all confiscated, sweetie.” As swiftly as I could, I told him what I had learned from Limestone’s journal. “It would appear that our only chance to procure those music records you seek is to find Short Wave’s broadcaster,” I finished.

“Do you think security ponies managed to convince him to tell them where he hid it?” Burst asked, sounding uncertain.

I shrugged. “Whether they did or not, it is the only clue we have at the moment, isn’t it sweetie?”

“I suppose. Fine, let’s go to Security’s wing,” Burst said, sighing. As he turned around and began to trot out of the room, I heard him mutter: “Damn, I hope we won’t run into Jack before we get there…”

I was about to call after him, having one more thing I wanted to say, but I hesitated as I began to follow him, and instead turned back to the bed. I looked at the skeleton, all that remained of the pony who had once lived here. Even though her soul had long since left to the Afterlife, I closed my eyes and whispered, hoping she would hear me:

“I do not know what I would have done in your place, sweetie, or how well I would have fared. But you’ve done the best you could with the best intentions in heart. I am sure the Goddesses judged you fairly. Rest in the Afterlife with your sisters, knowing one pony knows you, remembers and understands you.”

My eyes slowly turned from the skeleton to the framed photograph. I wondered which of the three fillies was Limestone.

“Angel”? I heard Burst call for me from the corridor.

“Coming, sweetie!” I called back, then, grabbing the photograph with my magic and putting it in my saddlebags, I followed after him. “I hope you don’t mind, sweetie,” I began as I caught up with him, browsing quickly on my PipBuck through the medical records I downloaded from the doctor’s terminal, “but I hoped we could make one more stop along the way…”

*** *** ***

“So wait, who was this pony again?” Burst asked as we stopped, the room in which Moon Scrounger had lived and died several steps before us.

“Apparently, he was the one really in charge of Stable Eleven, controlling both the Overmare and their Council,” I replied, frowning at the sight that caused us to stop.

“Not just them, by the looks of it,” the earth pony commented, grimacing.

The door leading to the room was surrounded by several skeletons. Two of them were covered in remains of the Stable Security uniforms, but others were not, which coupled with their smaller size indicating that they were members of the Stable Youths.

They died protecting a pony who had committed suicide, I mused, utterly dismayed.

Paying the fools’ remains no mind, I stepped around them and entered the room. I was slightly surprised to see that the skeleton that I assumed was Moon Scrounger’s was still on his bed, without any signs of fractures at that. Given their history, I would have thought that Limestone would have taken out her anger on his body, however pointless it would have been.

Unless one counts stress relieve as pointless, I suppose, I added in an afterthought.

On the floor beside the bed was a small, empty plastic bottle. I lifted it up and checked the label.

“Sleeping pills?” Burst asked over my shoulder.

“Correct, sweetie,” I told him, putting the empty bottle on a nearby desk, right beside the metal card that we came here for. “And here is the keycard to the Overmare’s wing.”

“Wouldn’t checking Security be enough to find if they had learned where the broadcast was coming from?” he asked, then, pointing at my PipBuck, he added: “Which considering that it’s been on the loop for two hundred years seems unlikely, anyway.”

I was not surprised that he was pessimistic. On our way here I turned the broadcaster in my PipBuck on again, curious to see how many songs there were being played. Much to our chagrin, most of the songs we have heard so far on this station we both had already heard on DJ Pon3’s broadcast. Which meant that, even if we would find holotapes containing them, they wouldn’t be worth much. We did hear two songs that neither of us had heard before, however, one of them being the one which chorus was being played when we entered the Stable.

We had no way of knowing if those other songs were Countess Coloratura’s, of course, so not even Burst knew how well Jack was going to take the news, especially if it turned out that it’s all the songs we were going to find that hadn’t already been discovered and broadcasted across the Equestrian Wasteland.

“They would have surely turned it off before everything went to hell,” Burst finished, frowning.

“That is probably true, sweetie,” I replied, nodding graciously in agreement as I followed him out of the room, neither of us paying the remains of Moon Scrounger a second glance. “But you’re forgetting that they had been preparing for some celebration at the time; they might have simply not had enough time to search for it at the location Short Wave had told them about. Regardless, sweetie, this is the only clue we have regarding those records you seek.”

We began trotting through the corridor again, this time in the Atrium’s direction. For a moment I feared that we were going the wrong way, though, as I could see two green bars - Apple Core and Blast - before us. Shouldn’t they’ve had searched through more rooms by now? However, the sign under the ceiling proved it to be the correct direction. I guess they must be very thorough… or they’re having a coitus, I realized, remembering what each of them had said as we parted.

“Ugh, don’t remind me,” I heard Burst exclaim, pulling me back to our conversation. “I don’t wanna know how Jack would react if we’d find anything.”

“And as for the keycard to Overmare’s wing,” I continued, “I desire to visit it for my own purposes, not related to Short Wave.”

And what purposes those would be? I heard a voice that I only began to grow familiar with ask me.

I glanced sideways at the tiny Pinkie Pie as she walked on the thin air beside me, as if trotting along. I was confused as to why she was doing that; Fluttershy was simply hovering right beside her, without beating her wings, just as usual.

“I’m hoping to find some explanation behind this Stable’s governing system,” I began to explain, out loud as I suspected that Burst would be curious as well. “There have to be some orders and directives from Stable-Tech for that temporary Overmare Limestone’s journal had mentioned.”

Why would you want to find them? Pinkie Pie asked, confused.

“I’m curious as to where exactly had Stable-Tech, hm, drawn their inspiration for this idea, as well as just why they had thought it would be a good idea.”

Geesh, the tiny pink pony exclaimed, rolling her eyes. Anypony ever tell you you should be more open to new ideas?

My ears flickered, but otherwise I didn’t let it show how offended I felt by that remark. “You know,” I said instead, casting Burst a meaningful glance, “since it obviously haven’t gone well. Wouldn’t you agree, sweetie?”

Wait, is she ignoring me? Pinkie Pie asked Fluttershy, frowning.

How can one ignore a voice resonating within their mind? I replied to her instead. As Burst nodded in agreement to my question, I continued: I would very much appreciate, sweetie, if you wouldn’t start talking to me out of nowhere when I’m in the middle of a conversation with somepony.

Huh? Why?

Because it’s a tad distracting, sweetie.

The pink apparition snorted. Then let's make this a three-way, silly, she giggled. Well, four-way if Fluttershy decides to join. Tell Bursty “Hi!” from me, would you Angel?

I’m afraid that if I told Bursty- I mean, Burst, that a magical apparition that only I can see and hear told him “hi”, it would lead to some uncomfortable questions.

Oh, you’re no fun, Pinkie Pie snorted again.

I was about to retort, but at that moment Burst, who had been walking in silence and listening to the music my PipBuck broadcasted, spoke up. “So, um,” he began; I quickly shifted my attention back to him, “if you don’t mind me asking, what exactly is between you and Derpy?”

Is he blushing? I wondered; it was difficult to tell in this light.

“Why would you want to know that, sweetie?” I asked, despite already suspecting his reason, and ignoring Pinkie Pie.

Ooooh, so that’s what’s going on, huh? she asked, wiggling her eyebrows and nudging me with her elbow.

In the meantime, Burst did his best to appear casual. “Well, she is a sorta family friend, my parents had traded some stuff with her whenever we’d stopped at New Appleloosa and she was always nice to me and Blast back then. I’m a bit concerned about her. And besides,” he added, slightly uncomfortable, “it is a bit weird. I don’t mean as in wrong,” Burst quickly elaborated, as if afraid that he offended me, “but, you know-”

“No, actually, I don’t know,” I interrupted him gently. “I honestly have no idea why kissing her would seems weird to others, just that it does.”

Wait, Pinkie cut in, tilting her head in confusion, why would ponies think it that it is weird?

Before I could reply her, Fluttershy leaned closer to her and began whispering in her ear.

Grateful to be relieved of answering the pink apparition, I continued my conversation with Burst. “And to answer your question, sweetie,” I said, ignoring the loud ‘Oooh’ that Pinkie had exclaimed as Fluttershy backed away, “I believe we have agreed to be ‘friends that are affectionate from time to time’.”

“Oh, really?”

“Ditzy’s argument that living in two separate towns would make a relationship difficult was very sensible,” I continued, choosing not to comment on the relief I heard in Burst’s voice. It was a bit flattering, though. “Not that we argued about this, mind you. I simply prefer when the nature of a relationship is clearly explained. I’m… not really good on picking that up by myself,” I admitted, slightly embarrassed.

“I see. So, um, you’re not technically together, right?” Burst asked, his cheeks turning a little red.

I hesitated briefly; despite our talk this morning, I wasn’t quite sure if that was what Ditzy had meant. “I’m afraid I would have to check that with Ditzy. Like I said, I’m really not good with relationships.” I paused briefly to glance at Burst. “Were you thinking about asking me out on a date, sweetie?”

The earth pony’s eyes bulged, and now he was definitely blushing. “Um, I, er, I mean…” he stammered, then chuckled uncomfortably. “I mean, I don’t even know if you are into bucks as well,” he said, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment.

I rolled my eyes, and was about to tell him the same thing I had told Ditzy, but just then we both heard a loud scream, not far from us. His discomfort forgotten, Burst reached for his shotgun and began to run forward, towards the source of the scream, only to stop after just a few moments. Considering that I just heard the moans that followed the earlier noise as well, I was not surprised.

Sighing loudly, Burst placed his gun back in the holster on his back. “Wanna go back and take a different corridor leading to the Atrium?” he asked, clearly uncomfortable at the thought of going together with me by the room where his brother and Apple Core were having sex.

I shook my head. “I don’t want to walk around just because they are having coitus. It is something natural, after all,” I added with a smile, then began trotting forward. “I would mostly be concerned about intruding on their privacy.”

Burst snorted as he waited for me before he resumed walking. “Yeah, well, hopefully they remembered to close the door.”

They didn’t, as we found out about a minute later.

“Dude, seriously?” Burst asked as he glared disapprovingly through the open door.

I leaned behind him to look myself. As we had figured out, Blast and Apple Core were on the bed together. Although my slaver companion had been seemingly startled by Burst’s sudden comment, as she tilted her head upwards to look at us upside down, the buck seemed undisturbed to have an audience.

“Hey,” he said, his voice casual despite continuing his thrusts. “You guys wanna join in?”

Burst, taken aback by his brother’s question, made a sound that was a mixture of both snort and groan. I briefly hesitated myself before replying, my mind trying to imagine just how would that work - because while I had read the Zebra Sutra once, the bed in that room was barely big enough for just two ponies - before shaking those thoughts off.

(A part of me blamed the Pinkie Pie apparition for causing them to appear in the first place, as after Blast’s question she giggled and exclaimed: Sounds like a party to me!)

“Forgive me, sweetie,” I replied, smiling, “I don’t make love to ponies I’ve so recently met.”

“Aw, bummer,” Blast replied. Below him, Apple Core seemed a little relieved; I wondered briefly if, despite knowing that her carnal desires were confined to only one gender, I should be offended or not. “What about you little brother? Apple here already told me she would be up for it.”

Now even more stunned by his brother’s question, Burst struggled to speak through his embarrassment. “No, thanks,” he managed to say. “Just hurry up, will you? We have problems with the job, so Jack will already be pissed.”

I left him as he began to quickly explain what we had found out regarding musical records and continued heading to the Atrium, lost in my musing. Having witnesses Jack’s battle proficiency, I could understand Burst’s reluctance to annoy the griffin mercenary, but would he really turn those skills against them?

He doesn’t appear to be the violent type, I thought, remembering how, despite having lost his patience with me a few times already, he never have caused me much harm. Surely, he wouldn’t harm his subordinates in any way due to something they had no control over? Or because they gave in to carnal pleasures? Recalling Jack’s annoyance at Blast earlier, I added in an after thought: Not really, I mean?

Thinking back to that, though, caused my mind to recall Blast’s offer. Although I didn’t have second thoughts about rejecting it, I couldn’t help but feel intrigued at the concept of four ponies sharing such an experience. After all, I did enjoy conducting various experiments. The irony that, around the time I became Stable Eight’s chief of medicine some of my former, less accomplished classmates had held a few orgies, was not lost on me.

Even though I hadn’t felt close to anypony from that group, so I wouldn’t have joined, I added, rolling my eyes. But it would be nice, wouldn’t it? To be together with so many lovers, ponies you could trust with everything…

Oooh, somepony is having naughty thoughts, Pinkie Pie commented, wiggling her eyebrows.

Is it really naughty to share such a wonderful experience with ponies you care about? I countered, shrugging. I wonder…

Um, Angel? Pinkie suddenly said, her eyes wide in alarm. You may wanna stop.

What? I asked, confused, continuing to walk.

I said stop, NOW! Pinkie shouted.

Frowning at the unpleasant racket, I began: Sweetie what are you-

Everything else I was going to think at the pink apparition was lost in the onslaught of pain that erupted in my leg after I had placed it before me and a loud clang sounded throughout the corridor. Letting a painful cry, I looked down at my foreleg to see a pair of metal jaws clamped around it just below my knee. My blood was beginning to stain the sleeve of the lab coat below the wound, and I didn’t need to see the flashing warning on my E.F.S. to know that my metacarpal bones had been fractured.

I tried to warn you, Pinkie said, her ears low as she looked at me with concern.

Oh my goodness, will you be alright? Fluttershy asked, worried.

Of course, I manage to think coherently, despite the great pain I was in. Just…

Clenching my teeth and taking deep breaths, I concentrated as I cast the Anesthetic Spell, limiting the area affected to just my leg. Breathing with relief as the pain had ceased, I looked back as Burst had caught up to me.

“Oh fuck!” he rasped, leaning beside my leg. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you out in a moment! Hang on…” Burst said, moving slightly so that he had more space, then grabbed the two jaws of the trap with his hooves, trying to pry them open.

“Let me help,” I heard behind me.

Surprised, I turned to look as Blast approached. Judging by the state of his penis (which I could clearly see hanging between his legs), he had been still having an intercourse with Apple Core until a few seconds ago. Did he stop because of me? Hm, Apple Core might be angry at me, I mused as I averted my eyes, not wanting him to think that I was staring.

Together, the two brothers managed to open the trap, letting me heave my paralyzed limb out and move away from it. I grimaced in dismay as I examined the damage the bear trap had done, before I waved my horn over the wound, mending the fractured bone, the pierced flesh and the skin.

I could hear the two brothers arguing beside me. “Couldn’t you disarm the traps on your way here?” Burst asked, anger creeping into his voice.

“Oh, how the fuck would I had known you two would be coming back this way?!” Blast countered.

“Then you could have said something after we came here, instead of continuing to screw that-”

“Gentlecolts?” I interrupted them as I finished healing the wound. “There is no need to argue. What’s done is done, and there no permanent harm on my person. Well, aside from my barding,” I amended, looking at dismay at the holes and blood stains.

“Um…” Burst mumbled; when I looked up, I saw him exchanging a glance with his brother. “Okay, well… are you okay?”

I blinked, confused. I wasn’t okay; my breathing and heart rate were irregular due to the adrenaline surge, the sleeve of my barding was ruined, and my leg was still paralyzed. The memory of the pain was also still fresh in my mind, too.

Um, I think he means if your leg is okay, Fluttershy offered shyly.

Oh, right, I realized.

“Yes, sweetie, I’m okay,” I replied Burst, smiling. “I’ve already healed my leg. Just need to reverse the Anesthetic Spell and I’ll be able to continue,” I added as I leaned over my foreleg, my horn already glowing with magic.

“Huh, you weren’t kidding when you’ve said how good you are,” Blast commented.

I was about to thank him for his praise, but just then I heard a disgruntled grunt further away, accompanied by the sound of hoofsteps. As feeling returned to my foreleg, I looked up to see Apple Core approaching.

“Ya better had yar leg cut off for making all ‘at racket,” she growled as she joined us.

Definitely interrupted them, then, I noted in dismay.

“Well, sweetie, I dare say that was almost the case,” I replied, showing her my bloodied leg. “Sadly, it was just fractured.”

“Oh…” she exclaimed, shocked and a little embarrassed. “Um… are ya alright?”

“Of course, I already mended it,” I told her, gently biting my forehoof to see if feeling had completely returned to the leg; reversing the Anesthetic Spell was a bit tricky, even with myself being the one to do so I always preferred to make sure. Feeling the bite, I put my hoof down and put pressure on the leg, then nodded with satisfaction as everything was back to normal. Well, the sleeve aside. Making a mental note to look for some Stable barding and use the PipBuck’s Repair Assist to fix it, I turned back to Apple Core. “Forgive me for interrupting you two, sweetie, but if you are done, perhaps you could come with us?” I asked her and Blast.

“Meh, sure, we can always pick up where we left off later,” Blast replied, shrugging.

With Apple Core nodding as well - despite the grimace on her face and muttering something quietly to herself - we headed to back where we had split off.

*** *** ***

“I really am sorry for interrupting you, sweetie,” I told Apple Core quietly several moments later as I flashed the keycard before the door to Overmare’s wing.

Apple Core glanced at me with confusion as the door opened. “Hm? Oh, that,” she snorted, glancing behind at the two mercenary brothers as they went to check the Security Wing. “Don’t’chya worry ‘bout ‘at. Besides, it was more ‘at ya startled rather than interrupted…”

“What do you mean sweetie?” I asked, confused, but Apple Core was already shaking her head.

“Nevermind. What do ya want t’ find ‘ere again?”

“I want to find the Stable-Tec’s directives for this Stable’s first Overmare. Well, the temporary Overmare,” I amended. “It shouldn’t take long. Why don’t you check the Overmare’s quarters in the meantime? I’m sure there’s something of worth there.”

“Yeah, been plannin’ t’ do just ‘at, wanna see if she had a mini-bar,” Apple Core replied with a smirk and turned to the door leading to a big room.

I, on the other hoof, turned to the door standing opposite of those. As they opened for me, I trotted into the Overmare’s office. As in my Stable, there was a big, crescent desk in the middle of it, with a terminal on it and several monitors on the wall behind. What was not in my Stable, though, was a bunch of bones scattered on the floor and a rope ending in a noose made out of torn sheets by the looks of it tied to the metal beams under the ceiling, .

She must have hung herself, then after she had decomposed enough her skeleton fell off, I realized, slightly confused. Surely, she had some less painful methods of taking her own life?

The two apparitions stayed quiet, just looked on sadly at the remains of Strict Frame, the last Overmare of Stable Eleven. Leaving them to contemplate this at their own pace, I looked at the noose again, then searched for where the skull had fallen.

Based on the direction where it fell and the way the noose is tied… I would say she died looking through the window at the Atrium, I thought, trotting closer to the giant window that took most of the space on the wall of the office. Was she so distraught over what she had helped bring about? Ridiculous, I decided, shaking my head. What good would killing herself have done to the ponies of this Stable?

I looked through the window myself for a few more moments, watching whether Jack and Scope would be coming back. Since they were nowhere to be seen or heard by the corridor leading to the Security Wing, I figured that they must have gone to Maintenance as I had suggested. Briefly, I wondered whether I could turn on the broadcasters from here and use the Stable PA System to let them know that we found the keycard to the Overmare’s Wing (and while I would do that, turn off the loop of the “Celestial Radio”). However, after a few moments I decided that if I’d do that, I would also have to tell him what I had found out about the music records, and that seemed like something that should be said face to face.

Even if everypony seems afraid of doing that, I commented as I rose and hurried towards the terminal. I wanted to get what I came for before I would have to deal with Jack.

Similarly to Limestone’s, this terminal also hadn’t been turned off properly, sparing me from having to hack it. There were a lot of files and entries within it, but at the present moment I was more curious about the directives from Stable-Tec rather than the history of this Stable. (I did, however, begin copying the entire contents of the terminal to my PipBuck.) Ignoring all the various reports and what appeared to be the Overmare’s personal journal, I scrolled down through the files, searching for what I had rightly suspected to be at the bottom: the message from Stable-Tec.

Managing to find it, I hit play and listened:

“Hello!

“I’m Scootaloo, the vice-president of Stable-Tec and founder of Red Racer. If you are hearing this, this means that the Omega-Level Threat Protocols have been enacted and you and all the other ponies accepted into Stable Eleven had been safely sealed inside. It also means that I and billions of others are dead and Equestria has been reduced down to ashes and rubble, but…

“Sorry, didn’t mean for it to come off like that, I’m just sad that it might came to this… and pissed that our current leaders could lead it to this...

“Which brings me up to the point of your Stable. You see, while we here in Stable-Tec build those Stables with the thought of saving the lives of ponies foremost in our minds, that’s not all. We also hope to save ponykind as a whole. If you are hearing this, then you can surely agree that we had let this happen to us. We had caused this. This cannot be repeated. Because of this, your Stable had been selected to participate in a very important social project, which will hopefully prevent ponies for annihilating each other again after Equestria becomes hospitable again, when all the Stables open and you will repopulate and rebuild our destroyed country.

“As you might have realized from my earlier mumble, I am not the biggest fan of Equestria’s leaders. Which is why I have high hopes for your Stable’s social project. You see, unlike how in Equestria we were ruled by the Princesses, here in Stable Eleven ponies will be able to choose who leads them. That’s right. There will be an election held every few years to determine who will be the Overmare (or the Overstallion), similar to how we chose mayors of cities. But that’s not all. The Overmare won’t have the full control over the Stable. Rather, it will mostly be an executive position. Stable Council will be the legislature, and they will be deciding about stuff like laws, the direction in which the Stable’s future will go, stuff like that. The details to all that are in the safe in your office, I won’t bore you with them now, everything is written there more clearly than I could explain. I’d just like to mention that we had based this governing system on the griffins of Griffonstone; ever since the fall of their last king, King Guto, that was how they ruled over themselves, with the Griffin Clan Council and the Arbiter. So, you know, respect different cultures and what not. Celestia knows most of us hadn’t been doing enough of that for some time…

“The first election should, in our opinion, take place about a year after Stable Eleven was sealed. By then ponies should come to terms with what had happened, and gotten to know ponies who would be candidates for positions of Councilors and Overmare. Until then, they need somepony to lead them. Stable-Tec chose you to be that pony. You had been chosen for the position of the temporary Overmare due to your sense of loyalty, duty, and, above all, fairness and honesty. We realize that many ponies wouldn’t kindly step down from such position, or voluntarily give away so much of their power to the Stable Council. We’re sure you will, though, and we are thankful for your integrity. You are, of course, welcome to candidate for either of those positions.

“As with all social projects assigned to our Stables, if at any point you (or your successor) will begin to believe that it’s threatening the lives and safety of ponies entrusted in your care, you are to put a stop to it, and take necessary steps to fix the situation. In all honesty, I just don’t see what could go wrong here, but I just had to make a mention of this.

“So, good luck. Thank you, from all of Equestria.

“...”

“Damn, I wish somepony had thought of this long ago, maybe we wouldn’t be in this shi-”

The recording ended just as I heard several raised voices from down the corridor outside. I perked my ears, recognizing Jack’s voice. Apparently, he and Scope had came back as I listened to the Stable-Tec’s message, and were coming this way. Which was good, because I wanted to speak with him.

Burst had already told him about all musical records being destroyed, by the sound of it, I commented as I rose and walked over to the window again, wanting to look at the tragedy that took place there. I could hear Jack cursing angrily, but nothing that would suggest that he was about to take his anger on anybody, which allowed to me relax a little. I wonder how will he react when I ask him about Griffonstone?

Umm, are you sure that’s wise? Fluttershy asked.

Yeah, it’s not like he is the one who invented this system, Pinkie pointed out. Not to mention that it’s hardly the system’s fault for what happened here.

Of course, sweetie you are right in both statements, I agreed. To Fluttershy, I said: I do not intend to argue with him, I just want to ask him. If he begins to argue, that’s his problem.

Um, I still don’t think that’s wise, Fluttershy offered timidly.

Poor Scootaloo, I thought instead, ignoring the tiny pegasus’ remark. I looked at the skeletons scattered around the Atrium, feeling saddened again. She had such hopes for this Stable. Why couldn’t ponies here make it work?

An angry growl announced Jack’s arrival. “Fucking dammit… I don’t suppose you found a hidden stash of all confiscated musical records and holotapes?” he greeted me as he walked through the door, followed by the other mercenaries.

“I’m sorry, sweetie, but no. Did Burst-” I began, but the griffin cut me off.

“Yes, he told us about this Short Wave pony. Already found his broadcaster back in the Maintenance when we were there,” he said, causing me to glance at him in surprise. The griffin continued as he walked over to me and sat beside me, his companions going over to the Overmare’s desk and looking around it. “Guy converted a janitor closet to a broadcast station by the looks of it. Found some holotapes, but if what Burst told me about the radio broadcast is true, I don’t have high hopes that there will be too many unique songs on them.”

I tried to not show my surprise at how defeated he sounded. “I’m sorry to hear that, sweetie.”

He shrugged. “Oh well,” he sighed, “maybe we’ll continue searching for more stupid songs nobody has heard since the world ended on our way back to Tenpony Tower.”

I sensed it wasn’t the best time to remind him that we had agreed that they would first travel to Appleloosa with us.

“I found the message from Stable-Tec to the first Overmare of this Stable,” I said instead. “Apparently, they based the governing system here on your people’s system.”

Despite sitting a good two steps away from me, I could feel him bristling. “So?”

“It made clear to me why you had defended it back at the Stable’s entrance,” I replied. “Despite how it obviously had failed.”

Jack growled. “Oh, and your principality had done such a better job,” he hissed. “Oh wait, no, you started a war that destroyed the world.”

Knowing his words held some truth, I nodded, remaining calm. “Before that, for the last thousand years under Princess Celestia’s rule, we prospered.” I turned to look at him. “How were things in Griffonstone under Griffon Clan Council’s rule?” I asked, genuinely curious.

If the borderline murderous glare he gave me in reply was of any indication, not as good.

“Um, Jack-” I heard Burst say from behind me.

“Check the safe,” Jack interrupted him without taking his eyes off mine.

“How are things in Griffonstone now?” I asked, taking caution to make sure that there wasn’t anything in my voice that could be interpreted as malice; after all, I was only curious. And wanted to prove a point. “I’ve heard that most griffins now are part of mercenary groups called Talons. Does any griffin still live in Griffonstone?”

I was certain that one of his eyelids twitched a little when I mentioned Talons. However, he didn’t show any other reaction otherwise for a few heartbeats, then finally leaned a bit closer to me.

“And how are ponies, exactly? You’ve seen little of the Wasteland, Doctor. Trust me when I say that both Appleloosas, even your slaver one, are examples of a current few of ponies’ better towns.”

“We were at war,” I pointed out. “You were not, weren’t you? If so, neither side had unleashed any megaspells at you. Why then are so many griffins working as mercenaries in Equestria?” I pressed. “Why have you left the Bloodtalons?”

For an instant, he opened his eyes wide in shock, then leaned even closer, so close that my muzzle and his beak were almost touching. “Tread carefully, Doctor,” he growled quietly. “You’re talking about things you have no idea about. One more question like that and I will slit your throat.”

Despite being quite certain that he meant this threat, I wasn’t scared. Well, too scared. I did see him kill five ponies in a matter of seconds just a few hours ago. But I knew that he wouldn’t harm me unless I bring up the Bloodtalons again, or Talons in general.

… Well, felt that he wouldn’t, more like it.

“How will I have any idea about what I’m talking about if I don’t ask questions?”

I think that for a moment he considered whether or not this question qualified as “question like that”. Fortunately, before he could decide himself, we were interrupted.

“Um, are ya two ‘bout t’ kiss?”

Both of us glanced at the doorway, where Apple Core stood, a bottle of whiskey on the floor below her.

“‘Cause it looks like ya’re ‘bout t’ kiss,” she added, leaning down to grab the bottle in her teeth and taking another swing of it.

“No sweetie, I believe Jack is considering whether or not to slit my throat,” I told her, causing her to choke and drop the bottle.

“W-what?” she asked, somehow managing to catch the bottle with her forehooves, despite still coughing.

“Nevermind,” Jack told her, straightening up. “Help the others look for anything of worth around here.” Apple Core glanced from me and back, afraid and unsure, but I blinked at her reassuringly and turned back to the window. “Me leaving Bloodtalons had nothing to do with democracy,” Jack said in a lowered voice when Apple Core trotted over the a cabinet on the other side of the office. “I don’t even know why you brought it up; or who the hell told you about it, for that matter.”

“Never said I thought it did,” I said as he glared at Blast and Burst. “I brought it up because I am curious… and because you did offend my Goddesses,” I pointed out.

Jack snorted and shook his head. “I’ll admit that democracy has it flaws,” he said, changing the subject. “But never amongst the griffins had anything remotely like this happened,” he added as he pointed at the Atrium behind the window before raising and walking away.

I let Jack leave without bothering him with any more questions, despite having tons of them. I wanted to know more about Jack, about the Talons, the Bloodtalons, about griffins and Griffonstone. But it was clear that I’d have to ask those questions at some other time. And it would be good to find some less irritable person to ask. Or less proficient in the “art” of killing. Preferably both, actually.

“Doctor Angel?” I heard somebody call me. I turned my head to look at Scope. His head was leaning through the doorway; when did he leave the office? I must have lost myself in the conversation with Jack more than I had thought. “There are some medicines in the Overmare’s quarters, can you check them?”

“Of course, sweetie,” I said, raising and trotting towards him.

This short rest I took caused my body to recall just how much I’ve walked today. I was tired. I hoped that I could soon get some real rest.

Maybe I could sleep in Overmare’s quarters? I wondered, feeling sleepy, as I passed Scope and headed towards the quarters-

Um, Angel?

Mindful of what happened last time Pinkie suddenly began to speak, I stopped immediately. What is it sweetie?

Why did that bar suddenly turn red? she asked with dread, pointing at-

My eyes bulging and sleepiness forgot, I stared at the bar on the edge of my E.F.S. One of the bars, one that I was certain a moment ago was green, had turned red.

I turned around and stared at Scope. He was looking at me, his expression unreadable, as he threw something back into the office I just left. For an entire heartbeat, all I could do was stare, overtook by confusion and dread. When I finally snapped, I raced past him, back into the office where the others were, about to shout a warning-

Whatever warning I would have shouted would have been lost in explosion that threw me backwards and caused everything to become black.

Footnote: 50% to next level!

Chapter Eight: Triage

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“This world is full of things that don't go as you wish. The longer you live the more you realise reality is just made of pain, suffering, and emptiness… Listen… In this world, whenever there is light, there are also shadows. As long as the concept of winners exist, there must also be losers. The selfish desire of wanting to maintain peace causes wars and hatred is born to protect love.”

Pain.

The first sensation that I felt as I began to regain my consciousness was pain. Not surprising, I suppose, seeing how the last thing I could remember was an explosion. I was glad to feel it, though; if anything else, it assured me that I was alive. Dying like this would have been, on top of everything else, embarrassing.

I had trouble determining the extent of the damage my body had suffered; the pressure in my head - which suggested a concussion at least - made it difficult for me to concentrate, as did the ringing in my ears, a possible sign of my eardrums being damaged. Despite that, however, I could still perfectly hear two voices, both calling my name.

Angel! Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie yelled again in unison, both tiny apparitions sounding worried and scared.

Calm down, sweeties, I’m fine, I managed to think; a part of me winced, knowing how untrue that statement was. I just… need a moment to focus…

Oh, thank goodness, Fluttershy sighed, then wiped her eyes; despite my state I noticed how wet they were. I was so worried…

We both were, Pinkie Pie agreed, placing a forehoof on my cheek comfortingly. Are you going to be okay?

That was a good question: was I? My body ached all over and the concussion wasn’t helping me with this blind examination, but after a few short breaths I placed a carefully optimistic diagnosis: nothing was broken or punctured. I had been fortunate, and stood far enough from the explosion. If Scope hadn’t called me before he-

I jerked. Scope. He threw that explosive - one of the ones we found on the traps, or maybe a grenade - into the Overmare’s office. Where the other four had still been in.

I willed myself closer back to full consciousness, knowing they will need medical attention. At least they were all alive; when, with some effort, I opened my eyes briefly, my E.F.S. showed me four green bars.

And one red.

Why did Scope do that? Fluttershy asked as I focused on healing my battered body.

Yeah, I thought he was your friend? Pinkie Pie asked, frowning. Or, at least, Burst’s and the rest’s?

I don’t know, I said as my magic began to take effect; already the pressure on my brain had all but dispersed, and the ringing in my ears was dying down. Wincing at the unpleasant feeling as my Healing Spell repaired my eardrums, I added: Although I will know soon enough; you know how inquisitive I am.

Guessing by the concerned look on Pinkie’s face and the worried one on Fluttershy’s, they hadn’t missed the lack of warmth I’d usually associate with such a statement. The Fluttershy apparition, who got to experience some of my more questionable actions, could probably already guess what I intended to do to Scope.

I pushed those thoughts away. I needed to focus on healing the others; I would cast an Anesthetic Spell on Scope and deal with him later. Before I could do so, though, I needed my body to be fully healed, and so I waited patiently as my concussion disappeared, then let the Healing Spell wash over the rest of my body. Now that my brain was free of the pressure that had constricted it, I became aware of the coldness of the floor under me and against my back; apparently the explosion had thrown me against the corridor wall (I suppose this explains the bruise at the back of my head). I couldn’t feel any liquid, though; my assessment about nothing being punctured must have been correct, or at the very least I mustn’t have bled too much. Nor have I peed (I was very glad that I had visited one of the bathrooms briefly during my journey around the Living Quarters with Burst).

Alright, I thought as I finished treating my injuries and began to rise. I opened my eyes; I was right outside the Overmare’s office, and according to my E.F.S., everybody else was inside. Now, I believe the best course of action would be sneak up on Scope and cast the Anesthetic Spell on him. Feel free to correct me if-

BANG!

A cold dread overtook me as I heard the gunshot. For a heartbeat I froze again, just like when I had seen Scope throw his explosive into the office. And just as before, my immediate reaction after I recovered was to run blindly into the room, without even pausing to think.

I gasped as I saw the feathered body of Jack; at that moment, as my brain registered the small, bloodied spot on his head, he was all I could see. I jumped to him, reaching out with my magic. The red glow already enveloped his head by the time I got to him, casting light on…

Seeing Scope so up close, along with the small firearm pointed right at me, caused me to take a step back. The unicorn was staring at me with disturbingly calm eyes, his expression just as I had remembered it being as he threw the explosive: unreadable.

I would say that I was frustrated to find my mind again frozen from the shock and fear, but I was unable to feel frustration at the moment. I stared at Scope with my mouth agape, my jaw moving as if trying to formulate some words, but no sound came from it. By some miracle - probably a deep rooted care for a patient in my care installed - I did manage to not lose concentration on my magic.

Scope raised his gun a bit higher, pointing at my head. He opened his mouth, but instead of speaking he suddenly looked down. I noted satisfaction in his gaze as the glow around Jack’s head slowly dispersed, until it completely disappeared.

“Good,” he said, lowering his gun and turning around.

Whether it was the fact that there was no longer a gun pointed at my face or the fact that the single word he had uttered broke the silence that had seemingly overtaken the world, my stupor had been broken. I stared at Scope, confused by his action. However, I didn’t intend to lose this chance due to that; he had his back turned to me. Narrowing my eyes, I focused and I was about to activate my S.A.T.S., when something in the corner of my eye had caught my attention. As I turned my head towards it, any thought about attacking Scope evaporated.

Apple Core laid there, unconscious, in a pool of her own blood that gradually grew bigger as more of her life fluids escaped her body through the gaping wound in the place where her right foreleg used to be.

A panicked cry escaped my lips as I rushed towards her. The glow around my horn increased as I strained myself, channeling another spell. By the time I reached Apple Core, the red glow enveloped what remained of her shoulder, stopping the bleeding. I quickly looked her over; aside from the most obvious wound, her body bore many burn marks and lacerations. Ignoring the pain I began to experience from pouring so much energy through my horn, I began to cast a Healing Spell.

S-she lost so much blood though, I noted, looking down at my hooves; I was standing in the pool. No, don’t think about that now! First things first, I need to close up her wounds. Already the most serious wounds began to close up; I’d treat the non-life-threatening ones later with healing potions.

And of course, I had to leave the biggest one.

“W-where’s her leg?” I asked out loud, nopony in particular. I began to look around frantically. “I need to stitch it back; Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, help me look, I-”

“Oh, don’t bother,” I heard Scope’s cold voice. I turned around to look at him; the unicorn was standing above Burst, his firearm kept casually by his Telekinesis Spell over him as he talked to me: “If you’re half the doctor you’ve claimed to be, you should have realized that she had lost too much blood already. It won’t be long now before her body will begin to shut down. But I suppose if you insist on helping her, I will speed things up for her.”

“W-what?” I asked, my mind numb from panic.

“I thought she’d bleed to death,” Scope elaborated, shrugging. “Wouldn’t be worth wasting a bullet. But seeing how you stopped the bleeding and now are making such a racket… guess I have to go back there. Give me a moment,” he said as he turned his attention back to Burst.

But I’ve already been only half-listening to him; my eyes had moved from Scope to the earth pony buck. I knew what Scope was about to do, and I wasn’t going to let that happen. As his head turned from me, I lowered my horn, focusing…

Oh no! I realized, my eyes widening with dread.

What?! Pinkie Pie exclaimed, staring at me. What are you waiting for! Get him!

I-I can’t! I can only use so many spells at once! And definitely not a projectile spell like Anesthetic Spell; if I do, I’ll lose my concentration, and… I trailed off as I quickly glanced behind at Apple Core. If she loses any more blood she might die!

Oh no! Fluttershy shrieked, covering her mouth with her forehooves.

Okay, what then? Pinkie Pie inquired, turning to Scope and Burst. He’s about to kill him! You have to do something!

I bit my lip as I watched Scope lining his gun against Burst’s temple; Pinkie Pie was right, I had to do something! But what? Despite all of my intellect, I couldn’t think of any action that would successfully prevent Scope from pulling the trigger, not within that one single second I was given.

As such, all I was resigned to was an action that would almost certainly fail; I yelled and charged at Scope.

My pathetic attempt at an attack did manage to postpone Burst’s death; startled by the commotion, Scope glanced back at me. “You’re kidding,” I heard him say before a swift kick from his hindlegs send me sprawling across the floor.

I yelped from the pain as I grabbed my chest, feeling as if the air had been punched out of my lungs. As I struggled to regain my breath, I almost lost control over my magic. Clenching my teeth as tears formed in the corners of my eyes, I managed to stabilize it somehow, but only barely.

On the plus side, though, I managed to locate Apple Core’s foreleg; the severed limb was lying right beside me. The brief elevation I felt when I noticed that though had quickly dispersed as I realized that I couldn’t exactly reattach it at this moment.

As if to confirm that assessment, Scope loomed over me. “You were kidding, right?” he asked; the gun with which he had already put a bullet through Jack’s brain and almost shot at Burst was now pointing at me. “I was under impression that you’re not stupid, Doctor. Don’t make me change my opinion of you,” he added, the end of the gun tapping my nose.

I trembled, both due to my fear and the disgusting smell that came from the weapon. I tried to look into Scope’s eyes, to say something that would save everybody’s lives, but all I managed to do was open my mouth; no sound came through it.

“Now,” Scope continued calmly, “how about you’ll be a nice little filly and stay here quiet while-”

Whatever else he was going to say was lost as something suddenly bowled into him. As the force of impact drew Scope away from me (and also made him lose his hold on his gun; clattering, it dropped to the floor), I realized that something was Burst. The earth pony must have regained consciousness sometime after Scope’s attention shifted to me and, ignoring the wounds he received from the explosion, attacked. Now he was pinning the struggling unicorn to the floor, holding his shotgun in his mouth and pointing down at his face at point-blank range. Before his tongue pulled the trigger, though, Scope managed to recover enough to grab the shotgun with his magic and pull it out of his face, causing the shot to hit the floor next to this head instead.

I shuddered hearing the much more louder gun fire so close to me; I didn’t even want to think what damage it must have done to Scope’s eardrum. However, despite the obvious pain it must have caused him - along with tinnitus, most likely - Scope managed to retain his hold on the gun. What’s worse, the magical aura spread further up. Burst must have realized it, as he tried to pull away and shake his hold loose, or possibly strike his horn and make him lose concentration. Before he could do either of that, though, Scope delivered a kick into his diaphragm, causing Burst to open his mouth and drop his weapon.

It happened so fast that even if I hadn’t been paralyzed by fear and consumed by channeling my spells I wouldn’t have been able to do anything. All I could do was watch as Burst struggled for breath, while his shotgun, already firmly held by Scope’s telekinetic grasp, turned around. The earth pony tried to get away, but his opponent grabbed the foreleg which was pinning him, forcing him to stay. As the barrel of his own gun pointed at his head, Burst glanced at me.

“Run!”

BLAM!

I stared, agape and wide eyed, as Burst’s head had been turned into red mist, his panicked gaze engraved into my mind.

No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no...

As his headless corpse fell to the ground, I finally found it within myself to scramble up from the floor. I paid Scope no mind; I was dimly aware of him heaving the body off of him as he got up, then scoff at me as I sat down next to him. My eyes were glued to the gaping wound on the neck where a head should be. I pressed my trembling hooves around it, not really thinking why.

… No no no no… I… I can’t, I can’t, I can’t… I thought weekly, looking around. Bits and pieces of Burst’s head where splayed around the floor. I felt something warm on my face; was that his blood? Or perhaps a part of his brain? Or maybe the exertion of continuingly channeling magic - a feat that in my current state of mind was possible only due to long years of practice - was finally beginning to manifest itself (the splitting headache would point to that) and I’ve began to sweat? I can’t… I can’t heal this…

BLANG!

I almost jumped as the noise brought me back to reality. When I turned towards it, a part of me wished it hadn’t; Scope was standing over the remains of Blast, whose body was now as headless as his brother. Had he ever stirred into consciousness before Scope murdered him? Or was it better if he didn’t, if he dreamed before his soul ascended into the Afterlife rather than experience the dread of the futility of his action in the face of death?

I didn’t muse over that subject for too long, just like Scope didn’t stay long over Blast’s body. He already turned around and began trotting away, checking the shotgun… as he walked over to the unconscious Apple Core.

No!

Something within me snapped, urging me back to my hooves. I did not care what it would take of me, I would not let him murder another pony!

“What do you think you’re doing, little filly?” Scope asked me as I ran up to stand between him and Apple Core, his eyebrow raised.

That was a very good question that I wished I had an answer ready for: what was I doing, exactly? Aside from trembling as I stood before a murderer with a shotgun that is. I suppose the fact that he stopped to wait for my response did count for something…

I have to think of something. Come on, think! I told myself, willing my brain to work faster to find some way to save us. Seeing Scope up close with his patience quickly fading wasn’t helping me focus, though. I-I need more time to think, calmly!

Oh no! Pinkie Pie’s apparition’s suddenly exclaimed. She pressed her forehooves against her cheeks and continued: If only you had a device that could affect your perception of time so that everything appears to be frozen!

I- I began, only to stop as my eyes widened. Hastily, I activated S.A.T.S., just as Scope brow began to furrow. At once, everything stopped; the murderous unicorn couldn’t move an inch, his brow frozen in half-furrow. Ministry Mare Pinkie Pie, you’re a genius!

I tried very hard to not think about why I hadn’t thought of that myself; while I did have time now, I had more pressing matters to consider first before I could address that.

I am? Pinkie Pie asked, raising her eyebrows. She then blinked and looked around. Oh, look at that, you have a device that can affect your perception of time so that everything appears to be frozen! Neat!

The pressing matters I had to address were also more important than addressing that, too.

Alright, I thought; a part of me wished I could sigh, but if being unable to move at all was the price I had to pay for peaceful time while I considered what to do, I wasn’t going to complain. Now that I don’t have to worry about him losing his patience and simply kicking me out of his way, I can finally think about this calmly; what can I do? Aside from making myself a living shield, which I’m worried I’ve already made myself, I mean.

Are you sure you can’t cast any spell? Pinkie Pie asked me.

Automatically, I tried to shake my head. Realizing I couldn’t do that, I rolled my eyes and replied: Yes, sweetie, I am sure. Well, I amended, not one so different in structure like the Anesthetic Spell. And definitely not when I’m already strained by channeling. What’s worse, I lost a lot of magic already; if I’m not careful, I’m going to suffer a burnout, and I won’t be able to use magic at all for days.

I cringed - or rather, would have cringed if that was possible - at the prospect. Despite having suffered magical burnouts quite possibly more times than anypony else in the history of Stable Eight, I never gotten used to the pain it caused or the feeling of helplessness that came with being unable to use magic.

Pushing the unpleasant memories aside, I resumed thinking about my situation and what I could to remedy it. And I wasn’t the only one: both Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy were deep in musing, too. Perhaps between the three of us we could come up with a plan?

Hm… Pinkie hummed, tapping her chin. What about a simpler spell, then? Could you grab something?

You mean use my Telekinesis Spell on something? I asked, frowning thoughtfully.

Yeah! It kinda works like whatever that is, right? the tiny pink pony asked, pointing behind me at Apple Core.

That’s Haemostasis Field Spell, sweetie, and, yes, the two spells have similar form, I replied slowly. I should be able to use it, I think, I practiced something similar in case of emergency and needing to operate on multiple patients at the same time… but I’ve only used it on scalpels and other light equipment when I was so strained, I added as I recalled how I studied to become a doctor. If you meant for me to hit him with something heavy, I’m afraid it won’t work.

Pinkie frowned, then looked around the office. She opened her mouth to speak, but then her head jerked towards something that was on the edge of my vision. Well… I doubt that is much heavier than surgical equipment… she said, pointing at whatever that was and grimacing unpleasantly.

Confused, I tried my best to look at where she was pointing (a feat that wasn’t exactly easy when one’s perception of time had been altered like this), wondering what it could be… and then immediately turned my sight away when I realized that it was the firearm that Scope had dropped when Burst attacked him.

No, I told Pinkie plainly.

Why? she asked, tilting her head in confusion. I mean, I’m not crazy about this idea, too, even if that, that… bad pony deserves it for what he did, but what else could you do?

I don’t care, sweetie, I’m not picking up that gun! I’m a doctor, I make ponies better, not shoot them. Besides, I added more calmly, I think he would notice if I tried to grab it with my magic; the gun is within his view, too.

Duh, you’ll wait for him to pass you to get to Apple Core, Pinkie explained as if that was obvious; maybe it was, and in my anxiousness I didn’t realize it? I mean, how many times did he turn his back to you?

The apparition had a point. But still…

Well, it doesn’t really matter, sweetie. I won’t do it. Help me think of something else-

Um, Angel? I turned my attention to the tiny pegasus, glad to hear her finally offer her contribution. However, my relief quickly faded as she continued: I… I think that… maybe you should consider Pinkie’s idea?

I was positive that under normal circumstances I would have been staring wide-eyed at Fluttershy.

Et tu, Fluttershy? I asked, almost in shock. You, of all ponies, would want me to use that-

No! Fluttershy quickly exclaimed, her eyes wide in terror as she shook her head. I hate the thought of shooting somepony as much as you! B-but… You are the only one there. You have to do something. A-and you don’t have to shoot him, she added, hope in her voice. M-maybe you could, um, intimidate him into leaving? I-I’m sorry! Fluttershy suddenly cried, covering her face in her forehooves. I’m sorry for suggesting that, I just… I just don’t want Scope to shoot Apple Core! I’m sorry we can’t do anything to help you!

My anxiety faded (well, some of it at least) as I watched tears streaming down the apparition’s face from behind her hooves. Pinkie Pie moved to her and pulled her into a hug, brushing her head with hers comfortingly.

It’s alright, Fluttershy, I’m sure everything will be alright, she told her quietly, then turned to me. Angel, you have to stop Scope. if that means using-

No, I interrupted her. I won’t pick up that gun.

Oh for- why?! Pinkie Pie exclaimed; she left Fluttershy and moved closer to me. Killing ponies is bad, I know, and so is threatening them. I also know that you are scared. But you have to stop him!

I know, but… I looked away from her. I won’t.

But Pinkie didn’t let me off the hook that easily; apparently when it came to the subject of friends’ lives being at stake, she could be very serious and very persistent. She floated before me and stood on my snout, glaring me in the eyes.

Why?! she asked. Because you’re scared?!

Because I-

Um, Pinkie? Fluttershy suddenly spoke; she was now behind the other apparition, trying to put a hoof on her shoulder. M-maybe you shouldn’t...

But Pinkie brushed her hoof off and continued to glare at me. Or is it because you place your morals above your friend-

Because I CAN’T!

Both Pinkie and Fluttershy backed away, shocked and confused by my mental mental cry. I looked away from them; if I wasn’t stuck in S.A.T.S., I’m sure there would be moisture in my eyes.

I can’t, I repeated, not looking at them. I just… can’t. Help me think of something else. Anything. Please.

I wanted to turn my head away, too, but I couldn’t due to S.A.T.S. This prolonged stay in this state was beginning to unnerve me; I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t even feel my heartbeat, which I knew would have increased a moment ago. The fact that after I would slip out of S.A.T.S. I would have to face a murderer served little to improve my mood; a part of me wondered how long could I stay like this.

A tiny pink head with bright blue eyes that appeared right before my eye pulled me out of my musing. I’m sorry, Pinkie said; with a pang I realized she was crying. I didn’t mean to sound so… mean. I didn’t want to upset you. I’m sorry, she repeated, reaching with her hoof to my face.

As I watched Fluttershy do the same on the other side of my muzzle, her expression even more regretful and compassionate, I slowly felt myself calm down. All is forgiven, sweetie, I told Pinkie, not wanting either of them think that I was mad. Both apparitions smiled with relief; I felt an urge to smile back, but, alas, I still couldn’t. I trust that this matter won’t be brought up again?

Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy exchanged a glance. Well, um… Pinkie began, her eyes darting to the side. Of course, we won’t suggest you pick up a gun again, but…

I’m happy to hear that, sweetie, I interrupted her; I turned my gaze to Scope. Now, where were we with the ideas?

Angel? Fluttershy spoke up; I turned my attention to her, a bit grudgingly. If you’d ever want to talk about whatever is bothering you, we’re here for you.

I sighed. Mentally. S.A.T.S. was beginning to upset me...

I doubt that I will, but thank you regardless, sweetie. For your offer and… not pressing. Both of you are inside my head; I continued, then thoughtfully amended: or at least have seemingly unrestricted access to my mind from those statuettes of yours. Regardless, I think it would benefit all of us if we’d find a way for this experience to be a pleasant one, and I’m afraid that includes giving me what little privacy you can offer.

Oh, of course, Fluttershy agreed. We won’t bother you, right Pinkie Pie?

The pink apparition quickly nodded. Yep, Pinkie Promise! Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye! she recited suddenly, performing strange motions with her forehooves then sticking a cupcake in her eye-

Was that a cupcake? I asked, perplexed.

Now that that’s over, Pinkie began, ignoring my question; I continued to stare at the remains of the cupcake that were still plastered around her eye, I feel like one of us has to point out that this experience also has to include you surviving this, she said, waving her hoof around Scope.

I don’t think any of us will disagree, sweetie, I replied, eyeing the remaining… frosting, I believe, on Pinkie’s face, before giving up and returning to the problem at hoof; what was I going to do?

To say that I found it irritating that a pony with such a high intellect as me, with my perception of time altered and having two others to help couldn’t think of anything, was possibly an understatement.

What about that spell you used on Cutter? Fluttershy offered after a few moments of silence. Back when he, um, cut you, I mean. You stopped his heart from beating.

You mean Cardiac Arrest Spell, sweetie? I asked, pondering the idea; I wished I could furrow my brow or bit my lip. Well… while that spell’s form isn’t that much different, meaning that theoretically I could use it, it is highly advanced spell. I don’t think I could bear the strain if I were to pour so much more magic through my horn. Heart Attack Spell would be easier to cast, but he will still be able to move with relative ease. When he realizes what I’m doing, I doubt he will continue to see value in keeping me alive when-

I blinked. Or would have if it weren’t for the S.A.T.S. However, I now had far more important thing to think over rather than annoyance at my PipBuck’s spell.

Scope kept me alive, I said slowly; both apparitions perked their ears as they eyed me thoughtfully. He told me to leave the Overmare’s office before he threw that explosive. He still hadn’t killed me. He needs me alive for… something! Why hadn’t I thought of that sooner?

Oooh, you’re right! Pinkie Pie exclaimed, excited. And that means… um, what, exactly? she asked, tilting her head. He can still go after Apple Core, and-

Well, sweetie, I interrupted her, what it means is that I, hm, how does that saying go? ‘Hold all the cards’? He wants something of me; information, possibly.

I paused to ponder what could that be. Was it relevant to what I overheard yesterday? I had suspected that this holotape he received was from Cutter; did he want to know more about him and somehow have figured that I had something to do with his “death”? Or did he want to know more about my Stable? He had seemed very interested in it, both back in New Appleloosa and during our journey here.

But still, why would he turn on everybody?

If that is indeed the case, I continued, then he won’t kill me until he gets what he wants.

But Apple Core- Fluttershy began, glancing at the unconscious mare.

Yes, he could kill her, I agreed. Or threaten to kill her to get what he wants from me, then kill both of us afterwards. After all, I will stop being useful then. I paused, letting the idea that sprang from my realization to form in my head. So for us to not get killed, I will have to… stall him. And that means that all I can do… is talk, I added, feeling nervous.

But that’s good, right? Fluttershy asked, a bit confused. Smiling hopefully, she added: I mean, you are so great at talking with ponies and convincing them to your views and stuff.

Yes, but I’m only so assertive when I don’t have a gun pointed at myself or at my friends, I pointed out, shuddering inwardly. You’ve seen how I froze earlier; it wasn’t that I just couldn’t move, I also couldn’t talk or even think! How am I supposed to talk with Scope like this?

The two apparitions exchanged a worried look. Well, um… Fluttershy began, but as she hesitated, Pinkie Pie began to giggle.

Oh, Angel, don’t you see? Pinkie asked, smiling at me. Of course you can’t talk with Scope like that.

I really hope you’re going somewhere with this, sweetie, I told her, annoyed that she had put it so bluntly.

You can’t talk to him if you freeze from fear, the pink apparition elaborated, rolling her eyes. You’ve got to stand up tall and face your fear! Fear alone can’t hurt you; that pony can. And you yourself have said that you hold all the cards here. You can stop him from hurting you. All you have to stop cowering from fear and laugh at it instead! she added, giggling again.

My brows furrowed. (Only in my mind, of course; I sincerely hoped that in the foreseeable future there won’t be another case that I will have to stay inside of S.A.T.S. for so long as now.) Laugh at fear, huh?

Um, Pinkie, Fluttershy began, I’m not sure if this, um, pep talk, is adequate to this situation…

Whatever else she said later escaped my notice. I stopped listening, drowning in a memory.

~ ~ ~

“You really shouldn’t have done that,” I told the black coated colt, glancing at him with worry. “You could be in serious trouble. A-and you’ve hurt him...”

Snorting, he looked back from where he was leaning against the magic kindergarten classroom’s wall. “Like I care. That bully had it coming. Besides, your dad is gonna fix his face, anyway,” he added, returning to stare at the fake window and illusion of a playground outside.

I winced hearing the hatred in his voice. Also, I remembered reading in one of Daddy’s books that wounds caused by magic weren’t easy to heal. And those burns looked scary, too… I looked around the empty classroom where Miss Funcare have told us to wait until she got back from the clinic, wondering what should I say to him for him to know he did a bad thing; also, whether I should do that. “B-but-”

“He hit you!” he snapped, immediately turning back to me. His ice-blue eyes burned with rage. “All I did was pay him back!”

I winced again and looked away, unable to meet his gaze. “I-I’m sorry,” I said, my ears dropping. Pressing my hoof against my still slightly aching cheek, I added “It’s my fault for trying to break you apart…”

“Ugh,” I heard him groan, then he began in a stern, but a touch gentler voice: “No, it’s that meanie’s fault for not apologizing for calling you names when I told him to and then pushing me.”

“Those were just words,” I muttered quietly, looking down at the patterned carpet.

“Oh for Goddesses’ sake, could you get a little angry?” he exclaimed, trotting closer to me. “They shouldn’t call you names in the first place, none of them. Why can’t you stand up for yourself?” he asked, sitting next to me.

Because they are right, I wanted to reply, but I knew it would only get him mad.

“I couldn’t be brave like you,” I said instead, blushing as I turned to glance at him. “I-I mean, you stood up to both of them, and they are older than us… weren’t you afraid at all?”

“Ha! I laugh at fear,” he proclaimed, pressing his hoof to his chest, “and drop ice cubes down its stable barding. It’s all about acting despite fear and not showing that you are afraid,” he explained further as I gave him questioning stare. (And a little giggle, that part about ice cubes was funny.) “It’s what my Dad has told me, anyway. He said that he does that whenever he has to arrest somepony who might cause trouble.”

“Does what?” I asked, interested.

“Hides his fear,” he replied quietly. “Dad said that everypony gets afraid from time to time, and only stupid ponies don’t. But you can’t show it, especially when you face somepony. Just like in your case,” he added, pointing at me. “Everypony thinks that they can call you names because you are afraid and won’t stand up for yourself. You just have to… um, how did Dad say it?” he muttered to himself as he scratched his chin thoughtfully for a few seconds. “Oh yeah, that one must remember that fear exists only in the mind; fear alone can’t hurt you. Acting because of it can, so you must act despite it, and if you do, everything will turn out alright!” he finished, nodding sagely. “And that’s what bravery is all about. Ah, and also, Dad told me that this way you can intimidate the pony that was trying to intimidate you back very easily,” he added excitedly. “It really unnerves them when you appear calm and stuff. And I bet it would be really easy for you if you’d try.”

I couldn’t help but smile a little. “Oh, I don’t think I would ever could intimidate anypony… or that I would want to, anyway. But wow, your dad sure taught you a lot, huh? No wonder you’re so brave all the time,” I added, blushing a little. As he nodded, I tried to imagine me standing up for myself next time somepony would call me names. However, I was still too worried about our problem to think about anything else for too long. “Do you think we’ll be in much trouble?”

“No,” he replied, snorting, then rolled his eyes. “Well, maybe I will, but not you. And besides, once they realize that bully hit you… I mean, imagine your parents’ reactions. Or even better, your grandmother’s!” he added, smirking. Chuckling, he continued: “Can you even imagine Miss Funcare or anypony else telling her that somebody hit her granddaughter? ‘L-l-l-lady-’” he began to pretend that he was such a pony given this task, but I stopped him by tapping his shoulder lightly.

“Don’t do that, Grandma isn’t scary!” I said, frowning at him with pretense. “And besides… it wasn’t really that painful,” I added, rubbing my cheek again as I looked away.

I winced hearing him groan, then fall back on his back. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the point,” he said, annoyance clear in voice. However, he apparently didn’t want to argue about it any longer; as I glanced at him, I saw that he was lying on the carpet, staring at the ceiling, with an unusually, at least for him, serious (and a bit worried) expression on his face. “Do you think I’ll be in a lot of trouble?” he turned to me, finally betraying some worry over what he did.

I opened my mouth, ready to say “yes”, but I hesitated. I didn’t want to make him feel bad, especially since this was all my fault. “Don’t worry, we’ll explain together to Miss Funcare and everypony else what happened, I’m sure they’ll understand,” I said instead, then, smiling bashfully, I added: “Also, I’m sure that whatever happens, you will stand tall and meet the consequences head on and without fear… Demon.”

He began to smile as I told him his own advice, but then tilted his head in confusion. “Demon?”

“Um, that’s…” I stammered, immediately blushing with embarrassment. “M-miss Funcare let me borrow this book about making friends, a-and in one of the chapters the author wrote about coming up with nicknames for close friends… sorry, it was silly of me, and that name-”

A warm chuckle interrupted me. “Nah, it’s alright, I actually like it,” he said, his blue eyes shining with excitement. “Demon… has a nice ring to it. Aaaand it probably fits me,” he added, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment as he chuckled.

~ ~ ~

Hm, maybe you’re right, Fluttershy, I heard Pinkie Pie say as I slowly pulled myself out of my memories. I glanced at her briefly, only half-interested at that discussion, just in time to see her gasp. Wait, maybe if I sing a song to her…

Um, I don’t think that will help that much… Fluttershy replied uncertainly.

I turned my attention back to Scope while they continued their argument. Demon wouldn’t have been afraid, I thought, feeling my worries slowly disperse. He would stand up to you and wouldn’t show fear… and he would have probably defeated you already by now, I added reluctantly; a part of me couldn’t help but wish that he was there. But while I can’t do that, at least I can do what he had taught me. Just like when I stood on trial and was banished. Just-

I was about to add “just with a gun pointed to my head this time”, but I was interrupted.

Wait, what? Pinkie asked, tilting her head. What are you talking about? Who’s Demon?

Nevermind that now. I-

Well, I do mind a little, seeing how I’ve basically said the same thing about standing up to your fear and you were still very worried, but now that you had some convenient flashback or whatever you are all resolute and stuff, the pink apparition said, pouting.

Forgive me, sweetie, I told her apologetically, a little amused. You did give me a very good advice. Now though, I added to both of them as my words cheered Pinkie up a little, I’ll need you two to remain quiet. I’ll have to be focused on talking with Scope and making sure his attention is on me… all while continuing to channel magic.

Now that my fear was no longer an issue (Alright, maybe it would be more precise to say “not as big of an issue as before”...), I was mostly worried whether I wouldn’t suffer a magic burnout. However, there was nothing I could do about it.

I’m sure you’ll be fine, Fluttershy told me. She gave me a comforting smile and added: We believe in you.

Yeah, you can do it! Pinkie added enthusiastically. Talk him up until his ears fall off!

That could be arranged...

Oh, and we’ll be quiet, don’t worry, she added, noticing my gaze.

Thank you, sweetie. Both of you, I told them. Wishing I could take a calming breath before continuing, I turned off S.A.T.S. Here we go…

The world became alive once again around me. I drew breath immediately and shook a little; I wondered how exactly long had I stayed “frozen in time”.

“Look,” Scope said, his brow now furrowed; I tried to not show how relieved I was to hear an actual voice with my ears, “just sit down and be a nice little filly, and I might leave you alive...”

I felt a little satisfaction as Scope trailed off as I smiled at him. I glanced behind me at Apple Core. “It would appear Apple Core won’t be regaining consciousness anytime soon,” I said, my voice calm, not shaking at all. I turned back to Scope and smirked. “Good; now we can talk without any witnesses, sweetie.”

Uncertainty creeped into Scope’s eyes. Clearly, my sudden change of behaviour must have startled him, as I had expected. To his credit though he quickly masked it.

“Would you look at that, little doctor has some guts in her.”

It cost me a great amount of self-control not to tell him the meaninglessness of that sentence from anatomical point of view.

I covered my mouth and giggled. “I assume this means you have been fooled by my earlier behaviour? Forgive me for the deception, sweetie; I’ve learned that when one appears meek and helpless, they are much less, shall we say, suspicious. But now that we’re alone, I suppose there is little need for it,” I added, smirking.

Scope snorted, clearly amused. “Yeah, alright, if that makes this easier for you.”

He must suspect that I wasn’t acting before, I realized. No matter; the longer I manage to act so convincingly, the more unsettled he will become.

“But since you’re now in a more talkative mood,” Scope continued, raising Bursts’ gun a little, “I happen to have a few questions I’d like you to answer.”

“Oh? And, pray tell, what would happen if I’d decide not to, sweetie?” I asked, smiling calmly as I tilted my head curiously.

“I’ll kill you,” Scope replied, equally calm as he pointed the shotgun at my face.

“No you won’t.”

I had to admit, it was amusing to see his brow furrowed in confusion at my almost casual statement.

“Beg your pardon?” he asked, surprised.

“You obviously spared me from this massacre you’ve committed here,” I replied, shrugging. “I doubt you would have continued to let me live this long if you didn’t consider the answers I could give to your questions to be of high value. So you won’t kill me until I’ll answer them.”

Scope’s eyes narrowed, then, after a second, he smirked. “Well, I guess you are clever after all, Doctor.”

“Of course I am. Now, are you ready to tell me why I should answer your questions, sweetie?” I asked, letting a note of impatience slip into my voice.

“So that I won’t shoot your legs off,” Scope replied, his voice a mixture of poorly hidden exasperation and casualty as the shotgun pointed down at my leg instead.

“Now, that sounds a little better,” I agreed; I hoped that it didn’t show how my heart skipped a bit. “But we’ve already established that you are a murderer; for all I know, you will kill me the moment I answer those questions of yours. I think I would prefer to have my legs shot at, sweetie; you will find that I can deal with a lot of pain before I’ll give away what is keeping me alive. I can always heal my body later,” I added with a shrug.

Please believe me, please believe me, please believe me… not that I would tell him what is keeping me alive, I just don’t want to get shot! I told Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie. And from that weapon, too. It’s bad enough that after everything will be over I’ll have to reattach Apple Core’s leg, assuming that there would be enough left of mine, stitching it back after such magical exertion…

I quickly snapped myself out of my musing when I noticed that Scope was still pointing the shotgun at my leg. For several scary seconds, he stood there, staring me in the eyes as if considering whether I spoke truly or not and if he should check. However, when his eyes darted to the side and a smirk began to creep back into his muzzle, he had seemingly thought of something better.

Honestly, I was surprised it took him this long to consider this option.

“I really wouldn’t do that if I were you, sweetie,” I told the unicorn as he took a step to the side.

Scope, who had been about to go around me to get to Apple Core, stopped. “And why is that, Doctor?” he asked, tilting his head slightly, clearly annoyed.

I hesitated for a second before replying, watching him closely. The angle at which he tilted his head… is it so that he could hear me better from his other ear? Did he not take a healing potion after killing Burst? I wondered, noting that the right ear, the one which was closer to me, was the same one by which Burst had fired his gun. Distraught as I had been over the friendly young buck’s death, I didn’t pay attention to anything he had done. Well, if he didn’t, then it would be advantageous, considering our positioning…

I took a step to my right, so that I would once again be right in front of him. “Because the only reason why I hadn’t assured my safety by casting the Anesthetic Spell on you yet is that I have to concentrate on keeping the Haemostasis Field Spell around Apple Core’s wound so she won’t bleed to death. If you were to threaten to kill her if I won’t cooperate and then actually go through with your threat, though… well, sweetie, I would be free to use my magic on somepony else, now wouldn’t I?” I asked, blinking at him innocently.

“You really think I would give you the chance to cast a spell on me?” Scope replied, now more angry than annoyed. “I could shot that slaver of yours and have the gun pointing right at your head before you can blink.”

Having the answer already ready for that, I smiled and lifted my left foreleg, showing him my PipBuck. “I’m sure you’re familiar with Stable-Tec Arcane Targeting Spell, aren’t you sweetie?” I could tell by the subtle twitch of his eyelid that he was indeed familiar with. Not surprising, considering he had known about PipBuck’s E.F.S., too. “It’s one of the spells included in my PipBuck. I’ll activate it the moment you shoot Apple Core; my Anesthetic Spell will hit you before you could turn this gun at me.”

Scope stared at me, cold hatred blazing from his eyes. “Well, aren’t we fucking clever?” he said quietly. He then smiled, dark amusement crossing his features. “Tell me this then, Doctor; what would you do if I’d break your horn?” Scope asked, pointing the shotgun at my glowing horn.

That was a rather terrifying prospect, especially given my situation. However, unfortunately for Scope, by then I’ve began to grow more accustomed to remaining calm under such extreme conditions. Well, on the outside at least. I was able to think clearly, though.

In fact, it was more than just appearing calm. I… found myself liking this disposition of mine. The feeling of being able to talk so calmly with an armed and hostile pony… it made me feel powerful. Even more powerful than I’d feel when talking to my test subjects or performing experiments on them. Oh yes, I liked this sensation. If it hadn’t been for the state of my companions, I might have even enjoyed this situation I was in.

“Hm…” I hummed, looking up as I pondered what would happen in that scenario. “Speaking from experience, and taking into the account the magical strain I’m under while continuingly channeling magic, upon breaking my horn I’d go into shock, lose consciousness and slip into a coma that would last from a day to a week, probably. You have the time to spare, right sweetie?” I asked innocently.

Gauging by the way his eyes narrowed, I’d figured that he did not have that much time to spare hanging out at an empty Stable in the middle of the Wasteland. Which was a huge relief.

“Alright,” Scope slowly replied. “I think this means we’re at an impasse, then. What would you suggest we do to break it, Doctor?” he asked, almost politely as he lowered Burst’s gun a little.

“Oh, I’m so glad you asked, sweetie,” I told him, waving my forehoof. “I was thinking that perhaps you could answer some of my questions first, after which I would spend some time pointing out why it would be in your best interest for me to remain alive. I’m sure if I know more about you I will be able to tell you precisely how useful I could be,” I added, noticing a subtle twitch of his eyebrows. “Of course, after we’d reach a consensus regarding our future cooperation, I would answer your questions; it would be only fair, after all. Wouldn’t you agree, sweetie?”

Although he was clearly unhappy with the direction this situation was going, I did spot a glimmer of interest in Scope’s eyes when I mentioned my usefulness. In my mind, I allowed myself to sigh with relief; it seemed that for now the danger had passed.

“It’s no wonder those dumbass slavers hired you instead of capturing you,” Scope said after a few seconds. “You are quite the smooth-talker.”

Smiling, I was about to thank him for the compliment, but just then I noticed that his eyes had quickly shifted back to Apple Core for a brief second. With my smile turning into a frown, I decided to scold him. “Sweetie, you’re not still considering using Apple Core as a hostage, aren’t you? We’ve already established how pointless that would be.”

Scope’s eyes widened as I spoke; did he think I wouldn’t notice him glancing at her? “To be fair, Doctor, you were the one to establish that, not we,” he pointed out, almost nonchalantly. “You can’t blame me for weighing my options.”

“Forgive me, sweetie, but I don’t see what is it to ‘weigh’. I am sorry excuse for a fighter, true, but with S.A.T.S. even I will hit you with my spell faster than you could attack me or even dodge.”

“Still… it is only an Anesthetic Spell,” Scope replied slowly. “You’ll paralyze me for about an hour or so, and then what would you do? Kill me? I doubt that. You’re still just a stable pony,” he said, coldly. “Fresh out of your Stable. That stunt you pulled on Jack with that raider? How you needed to make sure if your conscience would be clear or whatever?” Scope asked, his eyebrow raised.

“Sweetie,” I spoke up, quickly thinking up an excuse for that situation that was slightly contradicting the personality I was currently displaying, “I think you misunderstood; the purpose of that ‘experiment’ was whether the raiders truly were as terrible as Jack and everybody else portrays them.”

I could have brushed it off by telling him that my opinion of him wasn’t that much different than of raiders, but that would in turn contradict my desire to be useful for him in the future, I thought, knowing that Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie could be slightly confused.

Scope smirked. “Yeah, that would fit this new personality of yours more, wouldn’t it?” he said; I hoped that my face didn’t betray how annoyed I found how close he was to the truth with that speculation. “But that’s not where I was going with it. I was going to bring up how you had Jack kill the raider. How you said that you are a doctor and heal ponies, and not shoot them? How sad you were when mentioning yesterday about those five ponies you had ‘killed’?” The unicorn snorted when saying that. “Being paralyzed for some time isn’t such a scary prospect when you know you will be alright, Doctor. Because you won’t kill me. You are nothing but an innocent stable pony, who…” he trailed off, his eyes widening in confusion and, what I noticed with satisfaction, fear.

As much as I liked that I yet again had gained the upperhoof there, my action hadn’t been caused by my desire for that. No, it was purely accidental. I just couldn’t help myself hearing Scope’s words; I had to laugh.

“‘Innocent’?” I asked after a few seconds, covering my mouth with my hoof as I slowly got my laughter under control. By some miracle I remembered to not take my eyes off Scope; after all, he could always decide to “risk it” and do something to me. “Me? Sweetie, I lost my innocence when I was six,” I told him, now calm, as I took a step closer to him. “Whatever had been left of it was removed completely about half a year ago, I assure you. I am not innocent. Do you want to know what I would do if I’d manage to cast Anesthetic Spell on you, sweetie? You are right, I wouldn’t kill you.” My smiled widened and I opened my eyes wider in excitement, allowing Scope to see the side of me I’d normally reserved for my test subjects. “I would chain you to a table and force a serum into your body that would make you unable to use magic. Next I would… well, probably perform a vivisection on your body, first; I hadn’t exactly checked if radiation on the Outside affected ponies’ organs. Next, I would begin my experiments, by removing those organs to see how well I would be able to keep you alive with magic. I would flay you to see if I can cause a pony to regrow their entire skin. I would cut off your limbs and attach Jack’s in their place, so I can find a way to prevent a body to reject incompatible tissue. I would probably also attempt to inject you with glands of the bloatsprite’s remains that I have in my saddlebag to see if I can replicate their amazing reproduction in a pony, but something like that would require a bit more research before attempting,” I added, giggling. “I could conduct whatever else comes to my mind, but the end result will be the same, sweetie; you would be begging me for the mercy of death through that entire time, but even when my work would be completed… I would deny you,” I told him quietly, narrowing my eyes. “Your anguished cries would be my gift to the souls of those you had send to the Afterlife today.”

There it was; intimidation. It was plain on Scope’s face, even if it didn’t stay on it for long. His eyes had gradually grow wider with fear as I talked and his mouth had dropped slightly, and as I finished he had also taken a step back. Just like Demon had said, it was easy for me, even though back then he would have never imagined just how intimidating I could become.

And now, I hold the advantage here, I thought as I took a step back and let the rush of excitement to subside. I did feel a little pang as I noticed that Scope wasn’t the only one who became scared, though. Pinkie Pie, who had witnessed this side of me for the first time, was staring at me in utter shock, while Fluttershy’s gaze dropped down as she cringed. Both of them could tell that it wasn’t just an act, at least not all of it. Making a mental note to address this after the current crisis was resolved, I smiled at Scope.

“Of course, those who would be useful to me have no reason to fear such fate. There are numerous people out there in the Wasteland who are just a waste of air, after all. They would be far better off serving as test subjects. And you… I think you would be quite useful, sweetie,” I told him, tilting my head as I looked at him with interest.

By then the unicorn had managed to get himself under control. He again stood firmly before me, and his face was a cold mask that betrayed no emotion. Other than a mild amusement, that is. “Ideological differences, huh?” he said, repeating what I had told him to be the reason why I had left Stable Eight. “I have to admit, that makes a lot of sense now. I suppose in this case, we can talk… especially since I believe that my, hm, leader would find use for somepony with your talents,” Scope added, smirking.

Leader? I repeated in my mind. Not an ‘employer’ but ‘leader’... curious…

“Still, is it okay for us to talk? You are already struggling keeping that spell of yours going,” he explained when I gave him questioning look, nodding at Apple Core. “I can see you’re sweating. Wouldn’t want you to disrupt your concentration.”

Is he wondering how long will it take for me to suffer a magical burnout? I wondered, ignoring the few droplets of sweat that had began to trickle slowly down my head some time ago. In that case, it would mean that he still plans to kill me after I give him what he wants… so was that line about leader a lie to ensure I would have a use of him? Oh well, not like it matters at this point… I think...

“Oh, don’t worry about that, sweetie,” I told him, calming down his ‘worries’. “My old mentor had ensured that I would be able to channel spells like those on a patient during an operation without losing my concentration due to any possible distractions.”

I decided to not bring up that he had done so by spitting spitballs at me as I practiced channeling those spells on cadavers during my studies.

“Now then,” I said, smiling at him, “since we have reached consensus, would you kindly answer me the following questions: who are you? Why did you kill everybody? Or attempt to kill,” I added, pointing back at Apple Core. “And who’s this ‘leader’ you’ve mentioned?”

“Reasonable questions, given the situation,” Scope agreed, nodding. He sat down, as if to show that I had nothing to worry from him now; an illusion that failed due to him continuingly holding Burst’s shotgun with his magic. “I suppose you could say that I’m… an operative, of sort. I am a part of certain… group, and as part of my duties to that group I pose as a mercenary to gain information about possible assets or threats. I’ve told you how I’ve explored several Stables before; they are one of the few places a pony could find working technology from before the Last Day. And they could function as perfect bases of operation; that is, assuming, they would be in good enough condition, like this one happens to be.”

“So you killed everybody because you intend to use this Stable as a base?” I asked, my mind reeling as I tried to process all the - somewhat sparse - information he was giving me. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand why such an act was necessary in this case, sweetie.”

“Really? I would have thought it was obvious; I couldn’t let information about an unexplored Stable spread,” Scope explained. “A week, maybe a month from now this place would be swarming with scavengers if those three made it back to New Appleloosa. Blast especially would get talkative when drinking after a finished job. However…” he added and paused to smirk at me, “I’ll admit that I might have gone for some less drastic solution, for the time being at least, if it weren’t for the circumstances.”

“Circumstances?”

Scope eyed me thoughtfully before speaking: “You weren’t drunk yesterday, weren’t you? When I was talking with that pony. You were eavesdropping.”

Slightly surprised he had figured it out, I found myself blushing in embarrassment for being found out. “I’ll admit, sweetie, I did,” I said, seeing no reason in covering that fact given the current events; not that it would have been convincing with my reaction. “However, I assure you, it wasn’t my intention to eavesdrop. Well, mostly,” I admitted. “It was purely by accident that I had stumbled upon your conversation. Afterwards I pretended to be inebriated because I wasn’t sure how you’d react… and you must admit, sweetie, considering your latest actions I was right to worry.”

Is he upset about it, or is he stalling? I wondered. He could be waiting for me to burnout… He didn’t really appear upset about this matter though (or my comment). In fact, he seemed… amused.

“You puked and fell into your own vomit on purpose?” he asked, his voice a touch mocking.

“I wanted to be convincing,” I explained, frowning. “More importantly, though, could you explain to me what was that about, sweetie? And why did you bring it up now?”

“But of course,” he replied, shrugging. “As I am sure you might have figured it out already, Appleloosa’s previous medic had left that buck a holotape to deliver to me in an event of his death. And as for why have I brought it up; those ‘circumstances’ I had mentioned? They were caused by that holotape. Suffice to say that I have to either report it in to my group or take immediate action; I decided to complete my current objective first though,” he added, nodding behind him at the bodies of the other mercenaries.

So my guess was right… I mused. I wish he would tell me more; why isn’t he, though? I believe he still intends to kill me, but in that case, it shouldn’t matter whether he tells me or not.. shouldn’t it? Hm, I wonder if I should ask him for more details… better not, I decided. I can’t risk irritating him. Perhaps later…

“Your current objective…” I began instead. I paused for a moment, recalling our talk from the day before. “You’ve told me that you joined them about two months ago. And that Jack had some lead about a different job then, and that’s what had made you join them. So your objective couldn’t have been searching for liveable Stables, sweetie.”

A short chuckle escaped Scope. “Damn, Doctor, you really are sharp. You’re right, that wasn’t my objective… I suppose you could call it an underlying directive I was given, to explore Stables when opportunity comes. But my main task had been the griffin,” he explained, nodding behind with his head at Jack.

“Jack?” I asked, confused.

“You remember what Blast had told you and your slaver friend, don’t you? He used to be a Bloodtalon… although I suppose it doesn’t mean much for a pony who had left her Stable only about two weeks ago,” Scope added, smirking.

I frowned as I recalled the brief exchange between Blast and Apple Core. “Apple Core had said that they’re the deadliest mercenary company in the world… and Blast had said that they’re possibly the first ones.”

“Being so new to the Wasteland, you can’t possibly imagine just what ‘the most deadly’ can mean; even if you had seen Jack at work,” he added. “It isn’t just that they are all about as skilled as he was. Their record of completed jobs is perfect; they’ve been around for almost three centuries, and they’ve never failed a task they were hired to do,” Scope said, causing my eyes to slightly widen in surprise and amazement. “Throughout the war and the post-apocalyptic world that followed, they’ve constantly fought. Wherever Bloodtalons are, you can expect bloodshed to follow. About the only good thing about it is that the constant wars and battles would dwindle their numbers; there are only a few dozens of them, currently.”

A few dozen griffins, all as skilled as Jack? That’s a rather unsettling idea…

“They are still a force to be reckoned with, though,” Scope continued. “One that everypony would prefer to avoid. Tribes, armies of raiders and entire contingents of Steel Rangers had learned that the hard way. Fortunately, they’ve been gone from Equestria for almost forty years; they’ve been cooped up in the zebra’s lands, constantly getting hired by one Legion after another for their constant wars over there. Almost forty years without any of them setting a single paw on Equestria’s land… until a little over a year ago, Jack Bloodtalon, son of the Bloodtalons’ leader, appeared.”

Son of their leader? I repeated, surprised. And their family name is the same as the name of their company… I wonder if this is related as to why he had made those comments regarding hereditary positions and nepotism…

“As you can probably imagine, when news of that reached us we were worried. It didn’t ease our worries when we had confirmed that the rest of the Bloodtalons are still in the old Zebra Empire. Higher ups were wondering whether he was sent as a scout for a job, or to make contact with potential customers. If they were hired by Red Eye, for example, that could spell some serious trouble. Seeing how he has most of the Talon companies already on his payroll and that there aren’t many others who could afford them that would probably be the case. As such, I was ordered to find out why is he here, evaluate how much of a threat he poses and eliminate him should I deem it necessary.”

“So you joined his team to do so? Didn’t you say that had happened only two months ago?”

“Originally, I only planned to spy on them; however, that approach yielded little results. Eventually I decided to arrange a ‘meeting’ between us, got myself hired to do the same job as they. I’ve already had an established reputation as a reliable and successive mercenary in the Wasteland, so it wasn’t too difficult. I had hoped that after we’d work together on it and split the reward, they’d invite me to join them. They did, and damn if that wasn’t a successful operation!” Scope uttered a short laugh as he continued. “Not only have I learned that Jack wasn’t affiliated with the other Bloodtalons anymore and eliminated him, but also found a functioning Stable! And an ‘information broker’ in Fillydelphia’s contingent of Steel Rangers, too. It’s a pity we weren’t able to find Stable-Tec’s secret storage facility in Manehattan as well, but then again, even my organization considers its existence to be just a rumor,” he added, shrugging.

“My, that is indeed quite a lot of accomplishments,” I hummed, gracing the buck with a smile as he recounted his tale of betrayal that only deepened my disgust towards him and caused me to think: I am going to enjoy ripping him apart, nerve by nerve… “Why, you’re probably going to get a promotion, sweetie! Or whatever equivalent of that you have in this organization of yours,” I added, taking a mental note of the name he used to describe the ‘group’ he belonged to; an organization implied a lot more power than just a group. “Especially if you add to all of them ‘recruiting a brilliant doctor and a scientist’,” I added, purposely faking modesty as I pressed a hoof to my chest.

I was certain that I spotted something that I didn’t like glimmer in Scope’s eyes briefly. “Right you are, Doctor,” he replied, however, smirking. “I’m sure my superiors will appreciate your talents… if not your modesty.”

“Speaking of your superiors, sweetie,” I began, “you have yet to tell me their name; or the name of your group, for that matter.”

His replied was disappointing to me, despite having already anticipated it: “Oh, come now, Doctor,” Scope said, amused, “there have to be some secrets left between us. Especially,” he added, noticing my disappointed frown, “when I’ve already told you so much and you told me so little.”

“You’re subtly suggesting that now is my turn to answer a few questions of yours, sweetie?” I deduced, smiling. “Well, I suppose that is only fair; very well then! However, we will come back to my questions soon, sweetie; I have a lot more to ask!” I added with excitement.

On the inside, though, I was calmly calculating my situation.

“Of course, Doctor,” Scope replied, even bowing his head graciously as he flashed me a smile. A smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

He’s going to kill me after I answer his questions…

“Now, if you don’t mind,” Scope continued; apparently I hid my realization of his intention well enough for him to not notice, “would you kindly tell me what you know of Black Widow?”

I blinked, surprised by the question. “Black Widow? You’re- Forgive me, sweetie,” I began, regaining my composure, “I’ve expected you to first ask me about-”

“The location of your Stable?” Scope finished for me, raising an eyebrow. There was an arrogant smirk on his muzzle. “Why would I ask about something I already know?”

What? I thought, now utterly surprised.

“Beg your pardon?” I asked, my shock so great that I completely abandoned my calm demeanor.

His smirk grew wider. “Don’t look so surprised, Doctor; the location of each Stable is known to my organization.”

Ah, that explains it, I mused. Still, I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising; after all, Jack had bought a holotape containing the override password and location of Stable Eleven from… wait a moment...

“Now, I’ll admit, I don’t know the exact location of it, aside that it’s somewhere near Appleloosa and…” Scope continued, then paused to chuckle. “Since it’s been two hundred years, I suppose ponies of your Stable had forgotten where you came from, haven’t you? Consider this my gift to you, then; Stable Eight had been built below a place called Sanctuary, and that’s where your ancestors came from.”

“Oh, I know about that, sweetie,” I told him dismissively, pretending to be calm. “I’ve told you I’ve read the memoirs of the first chief of medicine of my Stable, didn’t I?”

Inwardly, though, I was unsettled, and not just because Scope knew where my old home was. I felt the same thing when Apple Core had brought up this subject shortly before we’d descended into Stable Eleven. Why did I not see any sign of Sanctuary when I left the Stable? Those ruined remains of a mine town couldn’t have been it. Scope says Stable Eight had been built below it… is it atop that hill in which the mine that would become Stable Eight was? But then…

It took a great deal of effort to not physically shake my head as I put off that train of musing for later. After all, I was about to be killed.

“Leaving the matter of my Stable aside; why are you asking me about Black Widow, thought?” I asked. Smirking, I added: “She wouldn’t happen to be related to that holotape you’ve received, wouldn’t she?”

“Yes, she is,” he admitted freely. “I don’t think you need to know as to why for the moment, though.”

“Very well, I’ll trust your judgement sweetie,” I told him, smiling despite my annoyance and disappointment. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you much, though, other what I have heard from Apple Core and the others. You should probably question her after she regains her consciousness. Anyway,” I said, beginning to recount everything I have been told about her and carefully observing Scope’s reactions, “I’ve been told that she had come to Appleloosa about twelve years ago, along with one of their patrols, as a girlfriend of one of the slavers named Eulogy. Back then she used the name ‘Dark Lady’. Around the same time, the previous leader of the slavers, Butcher, had become incapacitated for three months after a fight with some Steel Rangers. Eulogy became a leader in his place, with Black Widow - whom he married at some point - advising him. Eventually she became the de facto leader of Appleloosa’s slavers, and became their leader officially after her husband had been shot by a sniper. Sometime before that she had acquired a zebra ‘bodyguard’ named Khan; she had found him heavily wounded among dead bodies out in the Wasteland. He doesn’t talk at all and obeys her every command, presumably due to the head injury he had suffered.” Pausing, I went over in my head whether there was something I hadn’t mentioned. “I believe that’s all, sweetie.”

Scope nodded, processing everything I’ve told him. He seemingly hadn’t noticed that his reactions to specific informations, however well-masked, have been spotted by me. His eyebrows had slightly twitched, signaling probably that he found the information especially interesting.

“That’s all?” he asked after a while. He sounded a little disappointed. “I would have thought you’d know a bit more… Weren’t you interested just why Black Widow had asked you to kill your predecessor, Cutter?” Scope asked, raising a single eyebrow. “Don’t tell me it was a coincidence that the day after you arrived there the medic of Appleloosa - with whom she had some disagreements - dies and you take his place.”

I couldn’t help myself; I giggled. “Oh, sweetie, I assure you, I had nothing to do with Cutter’s death,” I spoke, truthfully; after all, he wasn’t dead. “I admit though, it was unusually lucky for me that things had turned out this way; for Black Widow too, I imagine. But tell me, sweetie,” I added, noticing that Scope looking at me dubiously, “do you think leaving that holotape to be delivered to you was the only precaution Cutter had taken?”

“What do you mean?”

“If Cutter expected Black Widow was after his life, wouldn’t it make more sense if he had told her ‘If something happens to me, information about you will be revealed’?” I asked; I had been musing over it every now and then after overhearing Scope’s discussion with that buck. The long walk to Stable Eleven gave me plenty of time to think about various things, after all. “Black Widow however didn’t give me, Apple Core or the other two any commands saying we should be on a lookout for somepony with a holotape or anything of that kind. Which implies that she did not know about it. As such, Cutter leaving that holotape for you seems more like a ‘last-ditch effort’ to get back at her. Now, assuming he had valued his life more, wouldn’t it make sense that he’d have told her of another way for him to share information with others about her if something would happen to him? In a way that would promise a much quicker retribution, too? My theory would be that he shared this information - whatever it might be - with his lover, Whip Crack, and asked him to share it with the other slavers if Black Widow would harm him in some way. However, nothing of that sort had happened; there hadn’t been any ‘revolution’ in Appleloosa or fight for power. That is because there wasn’t any connection between Black Widow and what had happened to Cutter; Whip Crack could see that, and so he had no reason to reveal this information and risk getting killed by her zebra bodyguard,” I finished, quite pleased with this theory.

Scope, too, seemed impressed. “You’re quite shrewd, Doctor,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “Though this theory depends on that slaver’s intelligence; if he’s dumb, he could have missed something obvious pointing out to Black Widow’s involvement… or yours.”

“Really, sweetie? I would have thought that it would be the other way around; his lack of wisdom would have led him to jumping into conclusions.”

The unicorn snorted with amusement. “I suppose you have a point.”

“What’s more, sweetie, for what purpose would I lie to you regarding this matter?” I couldn’t help but point out.

Scope nodded absentmindedly, his gaze shifting to Apple Core. “If everything you have told me had come from her, I doubt she would be able to provide me with any additional information… she seemed the talkative type. I think she would have blabbed to you something a bit… juicier. Not that it really matters, what I do know is enough. Why are you saving her, though?” Scope asked, changing the subject. “I’ve begun to believe you aren’t a type of pony who’d care about somepony enough to go to such lengths to save them. You’re obviously straining yourself,” he added, nodding at my horn; which felt like something heavy had been placed on it. The surging energy accumulated in it had begun to increase my horn’s temperature, too. “You’re using up your magic instead of… well, I was going to say ‘using it to take me out’, but considering we had agreed to cooperate it seems redundant. But still, at this rate, you will suffer a burnout. All for a slaver who’s going to die due to the blood loss anyway.”

“I intend to save her,” I told Scope. “As for why am I doing this…”

Telling him that I am doing this because she’s my friend and it’s my duty as a doctor could cause him to doubt whether the personality I am displaying is real or not, I thought as I trailed off for a second. It’s best if I seem heartless; I can’t afford to lose what little advantage I have.

I smiled mischievously and continued: “I still have a use for her. It would be a pity to lose her, especially after all the time I had invested in building our little partnership in Appleloosa. Not to mention that, if your interest in Black Widow suggests you intend to remove her from there, Apple Core could very well be the next leader of slavers. She would be a valuable asset, if properly guided, don’t you agree, sweetie?”

“You continue to impress me, Doctor,” Scope replied, smirking. “Indeed, Appleloosa’s slavers might very soon find themselves leaderless. And yes… controlling them would be useful,” he added thoughtfully. I could tell that he was already planning something; I wondered what. “Although it would be difficult controlling her if we didn’t have means of reaching her easily… so how about you tell me how those portals you’ve mentioned you have in your Stable work?”

Recalling how interested he was back when I had mentioned them in passing to Burst, I wasn’t surprised he’d ask me about them again.

“You’ve said you use them for public transportation,” Scope continued. “That ‘with all the portals in Stable Eight’ it was pointless for you learning Teleportation Spell. Does that mean they are always active in certain places?”

“You have quite a sharp mind yourself, sweetie,” I praised him. “You’ve made a good assumption based on that little bit of information. The portals are in certain places, but they aren’t active; however, it is possible for anypony to open them. There are talismans placed in specific locations throughout the Stable. If one wants to use a portal, they need to power the talisman with their magic. The enchantment imbued into it will react to the magic and open up a portal, activating the talisman on the other one as well. They come in pairs, you see,” I elaborated. “The enchantment on them… I believe it’s a combination of Portal Spell and Targeting Spell. From what I understand, each talisman has a Targeting Spell’s formula set for the other one inscribed into it-”

“In short, they’re connected?” Scope interrupted me, his eyebrow raised again.

“If you want it to be put simply, yes,” I replied, a little miffed about the interruption. “Some ponies also know how to create portals themselves, too, with the Portal Spell. They can open them to whichever place they choose, as long as they know it’s location, but they also can tap into existing Portal Talismans, which from what I heard is easier.”

Scope nodded, biting his lip in concentration. “Most interesting… Such magic would be invaluable to my organization…” He continued to muse over the idea for several seconds until he shook his head. “Alright, Doctor, last question.”

Already? I was sure I grew tense for an instant, despite how well I’ve masked my emotions until then.

“Really?” I asked; somehow, my voice didn’t quiver. “Then by all means, ask; I have many more questions I wanted to ask you sweetie!”

I need a little bit more time…

While I pondered what should I do to gain the time I’d need, Scope narrowed his eyes at me as he asked his question: “How old are you?”

I stared at him, startled.

“What, do you seriously expect me to believe that you became a medical doctor when you were… what, ten?” he asked, looking me up and down. “You’ve said you were their doctor for seven years; I’d give you twenty years at the most based on your looks. So thirteen?”

“Why, thank you sweetie,” I cut in, holding back a giggle.

“So,” Scope continued as if he hadn’t heard me interrupt him, “my theory is, in your Stable you found a way of halting aging, or something. I’ve heard a rumor that the Ministry of Magic experimented with such spell back in the day. Or am I wrong?”

Oh, this would be funnier if I I were nearing the end of my tenure…

Somehow stopping myself from uttering the last remark out loud, I told Scope: “I’m sorry to disappoint you, sweetie, but I’ll be turning only twenty-two this year. Believe it or not, I have become a medical doctor when I was fourteen and a chief of medicine when I was sixteen. Well, closer to seventeen I suppose,” I added in an afterthought, shrugging. “I suppose you could call me a prodigy and a genius, as far as medicine goes at least. I hold the honor of becoming the youngest pony ever in the history of my Stable who acquired an administrative position; though again, it had been partially caused by my mentor’s desire to resume his retirement,” I amended, repeating what I had already told him.

Scope frowned, doubtfully. “You really became a doctor when you were fourteen?”

I allowed myself to giggle this time. “I’ve always wanted to become a doctor, and I’ve been reading medical books since I was a little filly. And after I discovered my cutie mark, I began studying day and night to achieve my degree.”

The unicorn nodded, appearing a little disappointed. Perhaps I should tell him though… would certainly buy me a bit more time to-

The shotgun, still held by Scope’s magic, rose.

“Alright,” Scope began, casually pointing it at me, “I think that’s about all I need to know. Sorry, Doctor; I think you would indeed be a great asset to us. But I’m not dragging some mad scientist across the Wasteland all the way to Stalliongrad.”

Oh, this is just not fair, I thought, frowning inwardly. Activating S.A.T.S., I turned my thoughts to Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie. Can you believe that double-crossing pony? I was even about to tell him-

Then quickly tell him! Pinkie exclaimed, interrupting me. It will buy you time!

Except he might think that now I am making things up to live a little longer. He might get annoyed and just shoot me. I stopped for a few seconds to think what I could say that would stop him. Hm… yes, this should work…

“You want a moment to pray to your Goddesses?” Scope asked as I turned off S.A.T.S. again. “I think I owe you this much-”

“You’re going to die.”

Scope stopped mid-sentence. He stared at me, actually speechless for a second. “Pardon?” he finally asked, narrowing his eyes at me.

“I’m assuming that the fact the reason why you’re not asking me about Stable Eight’s Security is that you don’t intend to attack my old home?” I asked, raising my eyebrow questioningly. “That you intend to try and negotiate with them instead, so they’d teach you Portal Spell and how to create Portal Talismans?”

“... Go on,” Scope replied, clearly in no mood for a banter after my previous remark.

“There is one small problem with that idea: me. You see, sweetie, I happen to know how Chief Lightbringer, the head of security, thinks. Quite well in fact. And when the door to Stable Eight will begin to open one day - or just somepony will knock on it from the Outside - after two hundred years of it remaining dormant and undisturbed, he’s going to think that I am somehow related to that. Well, actually, everypony will think that,” I amended. “I mean, two hundred years of peace, but weeks or maybe months after I get banished and they start to open? After all, they have no way of knowing that there are groups out here who know of Stables’ locations. They’ll think I told them Stable Eight’s location. But this isn’t the only thing Chief Lightbringer will realize. You see, he knows me quite well, too. He’d know that I wouldn’t just tell somepony the exact location of Stable Eight. Not without some… encouragement,” I added, nodding at the gun that was still pointing at me. “He would also know that it still took some effort on your part, and that I was probably killed afterward. Now, he might have been the one who arrested me, and who had escorted me to the Stable Eight’s door after I was banished, but when he realizes that you have killed me…” I paused for a dramatic effect, staring into Scope’s eyes, “... you will burn.”

Scope stared back into my eyes, not backing down. However, I did notice a flicker of doubt pass him. “So you’re saying that I would need you there alive, is that it?” he finally asked, lowering his gun a little.

I nodded, but just as I was about to tell him how could this work in his favor, I realized that I didn’t have to prolong this for much longer. Finally!

“Well, yes, that was my point,” I told him, smirking. “However, that is assuming that you’d ever go to Stable Eight, but that will never happen. You see,” I added as Scope stared at me with confusion, “when I told you that you’re going to die? I meant today.”

Scope’s brows narrowed, but his annoyance quickly gave way to amusement. “Oh really? How exactly? Because as far as I can tell, the only one who’s going to die now is you,” he said, raising Burst’s shotgun meaningfully.

I giggled. “I rejected death a long time ago, sweetie,” I told him, enjoying the discomfort my demeanor caused him. “You are the one who’ll die because you hadn’t thought of asking me one question.”

“Which is?”

“‘What was my initial speciality when I began studying medicine’,” I told him. As he looked at me with mixture of confusion and annoyance, I elaborated. “Of course, by now I’ve studied all the medical specialities, and I suppose for this particular case I should specify that I mean surgery and not medicine per se, but-”

“Get to the point!” Scope shouted, clearly fed up with me as he pressed the shotgun against my temple.

I looked him straight in the eyes. “Neurology and arcane neurosurgery.”

Scope’s brow furrowed. “What does that have to with-” he began, but then stopped as his eyes slowly grew wider in dreadful suspicion.

To help him grasp the situation faster, I nodded with my head at what was behind him.

Scope actually managed to turn around, Burst’s shotgun raised to fire, before Jack’s sword reached him, but it didn’t save him; it still pierced his throat. As the two of them fell to the floor, one panting with pain and other gurgling with blood, I backed away. The tension that had gripped me was gone, and I sat heavily on the floor, grasping my chest and breathing loudly.

It worked! I thought, more relieved that I could ever recalling being. It worked it worked it worked! I shouted mentally, overjoyed, as Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie hugged each other happily before coming to hug as much of my muzzle as they could.

I didn’t let myself become too relieved; after all, I still needed to keep channeling the Haemostasis Field Spell. However, now that I no longer had to channel the Cerebral Reconstruction Spell and Life Support Spell on Jack, it was easy.

Still, I’ll better reattach her leg back soon, I thought, realizing how much of a toll keeping up both of those spells had taken on me.

As slowly got my breathing under control I looked over at Jack and Scope. The former managed to get off the latter, and was currently staring down at the unicorn with a mixture of disgust, anger and… hurt. Scope was still alive; he even tried to raise himself up, too, but his legs no longer had the strength to do that. So he laid there, gurgling and bleeding out, with a sword still pierced through his throat.

“Back when I said that my mentor had me ensured I would be able to channel spells on patients without getting distracted?” I spoke, not even sure why; I guess I was gloating? “I forgot to mention that he’d have me cast those spells while operating on two patients at the same time. Never really mastered that as he had,” I added, shrugging, “but I did manage to learn how to keep one patient alive while I’d operate on the other.”

I glanced at Jack. The griffin had backed away to the Overmare’s desk, leaning his back against it as he sat down on the floor. He was still eyeing Scope, though I wasn’t sure whether he was doing so out of precaution, or out of anger or grief at his betrayal. However, that wasn’t the reason why I looked at him; it was that he was clutching his head with his talons.

Of course, it wasn’t surprising that he was in pain. What worried me was in how much pain he was; after all, this was the first time I had used Cerebral Reconstruction Spell to heal a bullet wound, not to mention that it was a griffin’s brain, not pony’s.

Theoretically, that spell should have still worked the same, even if my unfamiliarity with griffin’s brain had caused me to pour more magical energy into it. Still, I should make sure he’s alright, but… I trailed off, glancing at Apple Core. The sooner I take care of her the sooner I’ll be free to focus on Jack.

“Try not to move too much, sweetie,” I called out to him. “I’ll take a look at you properly once I’ve seen to Apple Core. Oh, and don’t touch the entry and exit wounds the bullet had left,” I added as I noticed him moving his paw around his head. “I melded your skull after I finished healing your brain and meninges, but I had to omit the skin; I was afraid that Scope would have noticed the glow.”

I thought back to how Scope had lowered his gun when the glow around Jack’s head had dispersed. If he had realized then that the reason behind it was that my magic had seeped into his brain… I trailed off, looking at Scope. His body was still convulsing; with the sword still stuck in his throat, it was taking him longer to bleed out. But it wouldn’t be long now.

Um, Fluttershy spoke up, a little hesitant, shouldn’t you-

I need to take care of Apple Core, I reminded her gently; I knew that Fluttershy had a kinder heart than me. If I had the means, I might have tried to save Scope - even if for different purpose that Fluttershy would have wanted - but in the current situation healing Apple Core took priority. His fate had been sealed the moment he turned on everybody.

More like the moment he allowed you to talk, Pinkie Pie said as I left Scope to die and began to head back to where I’d seen Apple Core’s leg. You were amazing! And a little bit scary, but I suppose that was the point, right? she said, giving me a smile.

I could tell that, while she was happy that my plan had worked, the smile had been a little forced.

“I will be with you shortly, sweetie,” I told the griffin as I passed him.

Jack turned to look at me. His gaze was unfocused, and I could tell that he was confused, but he did nod and stayed where he was. I forced myself to turn away and hurry up.

I found Apple Core’s leg and took a closer look at it. The glow of my horn was bright enough to illuminate it for me. I was relieved to see that, while some tissues were gone from it, it was nothing I wouldn’t be able to heal after I reattach the limb.

I quickly grabbed it with my mouth, not wanting to waste magic on such mundane task, and hurried back to Apple Core. I sat beside her, placed her limb next to her wounded shoulder and turned on my PipBuck’s lamp; I’d need as much light as I could get.

Alright, Disinfection Spell first, I thought, casting it on both Apple Core’s wound and on the leg. After the wound had been cleaned, I took a deep breath, concentrating. Now, the Regenerative Microthreads Spell…

My horn flashed with pain. Casting this spell so soon after having channeled two other spells for a while, with one of them being very advanced and magic-consuming, while continuingly channeling Haemostasis Field Spell, wasn’t the brightest idea. I would have definitely advised anypony else against using it in such conditions. Gritting my teeth, I cast it anyway; it was the only way to reattach Apple Core’s leg. I had no medical equipment, sterile environment, lighting or time necessary to conduct the surgery without magic… not to mention that I would need said magic to continue channeling Haemostasis Field Spell so that Apple Core wouldn’t bleed to death while I operated her, and I was certain I wouldn’t be able to keep it up for as long as that would take. No, this was the only choice I could make.

A thin, almost invisible if it weren’t for its innate glow, thread made out of pure magical energy emerged from the tip of my horn, followed quickly by another, and another, and more after them, all descending upon Apple Core.

I lowered my head closer to the wound that was now surrounded by the microthreads. Thread by thread, stitching it together, I recited the short “song” I came up with after first learning this spell - or rather, it’s ‘reprise’; the original version was about reattaching only a hoof, not entire leg - as I send a few threads to the shattered remains of humerus left in Apple Core’s body. They phased through the bone, after which I sent them the other half of the bone from the limb ripped off by the explosion. The threads phased through it in a similar manner, after which they shot straight up, their ends connecting back to my horn. Bone and artery, watching out for details. More threads connected the artery in the same manner, except it first phased through limb’s end. Vein as well, don’t you know a stitch in time saves lives? As another thread connected itself to the vein, I focused on the muscles. Triceps muscle, brachialis, radial carpal extensor muscle too, don’t forget lateral carpal flexor muscle, Apple Core won’t be thankful for a limp, I hummed to myself, ensuring that every ruptured muscle was connected. Don’t forget some magic in the skin, I added as several shot towards the punctured skin in both Apple Core’s shoulder and severed limb. Carefully, I sewed them into the very edge of the wound, leading them along it before directing them to their respective opposite sides. I allowed myself a satisfied smile before furrowing my brow in concentration again. Piece by piece, nerve by nerve, thread by thread, never stressed…

Unlike the bone, artery or muscles, I couldn’t see Apple Core’s nerves, not without a microscope or some other equipment. However, that was why I first used my spell to connect to everything else. Now I could connect the limb properly, and because of that, the Regenerative Microthreads Spell could find the nerves automatically, based on the spell’s user’s medical and anatomical knowledge.

… and that is the art of the flesh! I finished my chant as the remaining threads shoot down at and began connecting the torn nerves. As soon as they finished, I completed the spell, forcing the threads to back up into my horn. As they connected the limb and Apple Core’s body the threads dispersed, their magical energy seeping into her, perfectly molding everything back in its place.

Well, almost everything; even as red glow of my magic surrounded the wound and merged the ruptured flesh, there were still some lost tissue and burn marks. The humerus, too, while reconnected was still shattered. I quickly remedied that, casting Healing and Bone Mending Spells.

I took a step back as I finally released the Haemostasis Field Spell, looking down at her with satisfaction; aside from a few missing patches of coat and barding, and the huge pool of blood and her pale complexion, she looked good as new!

Right, need to do something about this, I noted as Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie gawked in awe.

Not giving myself time to relax after my prolonged usage of magic, I pulled out the saddlebag Burst had found for me and started to rummage inside of it.

Wow, that was amazing! Pinkie Pie praised me.

It was almost like watching a seamstress instead of a surgeon, Fluttershy added.

Yeah, pity Rarity’s not here, she’d totally dig that thread action! Pinkie said, giggling.

Ministry Mare Rarity had been a dressmaker before becoming the Mare of Ministry of Image, hadn't she? I noted, still searching through the saddlebag. I smiled at the two apparitions. I’m honored that you think she would have such opinion of my Regenerative Microthreads Spell.

“She lost too much blood.”

I perked my ears, surprised that Jack had been observing me; perhaps he was in better shape than I had originally worried? “I know, sweetie,” I told him, not looking up from the saddlebag. “I intend to transfer her my own- ah, there it is!” I exclaimed as I pulled out a surgical tubing. “Should be perfect,” I noted as I looked it over, then set it aside as I prepared empty syringes.

“Do you have the same blood type?” I heard Jack ask as I cast Disinfection Spell on all the equipment I had hastily put together.

“I'm a universal donor; it doesn’t matter what Apple Core’s blood type is,” I told him.

It took me only about a minute to get everything ready. Through all that time, I could feel Jack’s gaze on me, but he didn’t interrupt me further, merely observing me as I used an empty syringe on Apple Core, piercing it into her vein, then, after securing it with bandage, connected it with the surgical tubing and repeated the process with myself. As soon as everything was ready, I began the blood transfusion, casting a spell to ensure that it would circulate properly, then watched as my blood began to flow into my slaver friend.

We’ll have to move her somewhere more comfortable, I noted as I checked her vitals. Her heartbeat had slowed down and her temperature had dropped, but neither was at life-threatening levels; she’d be alright.

I raised my foreleg slightly so that it would be directly above Apple Core and, after making sure everything was connected properly, released my magic. As soon as I stopped using my Telekinesis Spell to hold the surgical tubing, I groaned with relief. Raising my hoof to my horn, I discovered that its temperature was definitely higher than it should be.

A few more spells… unless I take some rest soon. However, I still needed to examine Jack. I’d better not cast any unnecessary spells.

“Jack, sweetie, could you come over here?” I asked; glancing at Apple Core I added, somewhat sheepishly: “I’m afraid I didn’t realize that I won’t be able to ‘be with you shortly’, as I have said.”

The griffin rolled his eyes and rose. While I would have preferred for him to not move until I’d examined him, it did allow me to evaluate his motor coordination. Jack staggered a little as he pawed his way to me around Scope’s dead body. However, it seemed to be mostly caused by the wounds he received due to the explosion. Still, I wanted to be sure; I knew that the bullet had pierced only the frontal lobe of his brain, but due to my unfamiliarity with griffin’s anatomy I wasn't sure whether or not his primary motor cortex had been damaged or not, or how well my spell did heal him.

“Sit before me, sweetie,” I told him, patting the floor directly before me. Jack complied, although he seemed to find the distance to be uncomfortable for his tastes. I ignored that and grabbed his head in my hooves, bringing him down to my eye level. “Sit still. Follow the light of my PipBuck with your eyes. How do you feel?” I asked as I leaned back a little and began to move my left leg before him.

“Like I have the worst headache ever,” he replied wryly. His eyes followed the light without any problem. “Doctor-” Jack began, but I cut him off.

“Close one eye,” I told him. Slightly annoyed, but clearly knowing better than to argue with a medic in his condition, he obeyed. When he closed his eye, I put my right hoof over it and brought my PipBuck closer. As I watched his pupil dilated properly, we repeated the test with his other eye. “Reach out to your beak,” I told him next, continuing to test his voluntarily movement. When he performed that task, I told him to touch, spread his wing, flick his tail, and reach out and touch my shoulder. Jack completed all those test perfectly. “Alright, now I’ll need you to-”

Strong talons gripped my mouth, silencing me.

Well, I guess it’s safe to say that his personality hadn’t suffered any changes due to the injury, I noted, seeing him glaring at me with annoyance and impatience. Pinkie Pie giggled, amused by my remark; even Fluttershy had to cover her muzzle. And his long-term memory, probably…

“Doctor,” Jack spoke; there was an edge to his voice and I could tell that it took some effort from him, but he didn’t slur words, “the last thing I remember is that damn explosion. When I came to, Scope was pointing Burst’s gun at you, your slaver friend was lying in a pool of her own blood, and my two best friends had had their heads blown off. So if you could kindly fill in the blanks, I would very much appreciate it.”

A wave of guilt washed over me as he mentioned Burst and Blast. I closed my eyes as Jack released my muzzle, needing a second regain my composure.

“Of course, sweetie. I wanted to finish examining you first, but it would appear-” I cut myself off, noticing the look Jack gave me. Clearly, he didn’t want to hear another word that wasn’t related to the events after his explosion. “Right. After Scope called me out of the office, he threw some sort of explosive…”

*** *** ***

I dropped down on my haunches, exhausted. Besides me, Jack did the same. We have just finished moving Apple Core to the princess-size bed in the Overmare’s quarters. I wanted her to be comfortable as she recovered. However, moving her had proved to be problematic.

Panting, I glanced at Jack, worried. The rest of the injuries were gone (most of them healed with a healing potion, aside from a few fractured ribs that had required my personal touch) and my examination - after he finally allowed me to conduct it - had revealed that my Cerebral Reconstruction Spell had worked surprisingly well. Jack’s personality, impulse control, attention, language, everything the frontal lobe was responsible for seemed to be unchanged. The only thing I wasn’t sure off was his regulation of emotions and empathy; due to the very recent loss of Burst and Blast and the short time I’ve known him, I wasn’t capable of assessing if the bullet would had affected that. Still, I wouldn’t feel confident he had made a full recovery until I got a chance to perform a Neuroimaging Spell - which I was fairly certain I wasn’t able to at the moment, at least not without any equipment - and until he would spend several days under my observation.

And speaking of full recovery, he still needed to rest, as much as Apple Core in fact. Though healed, his brain and body had been through a very serious trauma; combined with the psychological trauma he had to feel over the deaths of his best friends and Scope’s betrayal… suffice to say that carrying around unconscious mares wasn’t something a doctor should allow him to do.

My initial thought, that I quickly had dismissed, was to transport Apple Core myself. I almost instantly realized though that it would have been impossible; I wasn’t strong enough to carry the much heavier mare to begin with, let alone after having transfused my blood to her and nearly reached the point of magical burnout. And the exhaustion after a day worth of walking, too. The truth was, I needed to rest as much as they needed.

Between the two of us, though, we were somehow able to move Apple Core as soon I transfused to her as much of my blood as I was able to do safely . Fortunately, the Overmare’s quarters were right next to the office, and as I had hoped, the Overmare’s bed was mostly intact.

“Well, that takes care of that,” I said in breaks between panting. “How do you feel, sweetie? Any nausea?”

Jack sighed. “No. And Doctor… I would really appreciate it if you’d wait with bothering me about my physical condition until tomorrow. You’ve already examined me and said I was fine. If I feel bad I’ll tell you, okay?”

“Jack,” I began; the griffin gave me and annoyed glare but I ignored it, “you’ve suffered a very serious injury.”

Jack snorted. Even though he had felt up the ruptured skin on his head the bullet had left before taking a healing potion, he had found it difficult to believe he had actually been shot through the head and lived.

Undaunted, I continued: “The spell I had used to heal you was originally invented in my Stable to aid with the recovery of ponies after removal of brain cancers, tumors, or other similar ailments, not to heal bullet wounds through the head.”

Since the only guns in Stable Eight were magical energy weapons, we’ve never bothered with researching that, as that type of weapon would most likely disintegrate any pony upon shooting them in the head. I did however experimented with that spell a bit before I’ve been banished, of course; which was why I have been able to use it on Jack. Still...

“If it weren’t for the bullet shooting through your brain and hitting only the frontal lobe, as well as my immediate reaction, I doubt I would have been able to save you. And adding to that the fact that you’ve woken up even without my help - I intended to force you awake due to the circumstances - and how you seemingly avoided a decrease of the frontal lobe’s functions, it truly seems miraculous.”

Jack snorted again. “Any other Bloodtalon would claim that it’s because our bodies are made for combat,” he said, sarcasm creeping into his remark.

My brow furrowed a little with interest. I wonder… he indeed seems in remarkable physical condition. I need to find a way to examine him and compare his physiology with an average griffin.

“But there weren’t many documented cases of ponies surviving similar injuries - of objects going through the brain - to begin with,” I continued after a second, taking a mental note of the short interruption. “About the only one that had made its way into my Stable was from almost four centuries ago, so I’m afraid it’s a little ‘outdated’ when it comes to medical knowledge. As such, I am unsure what kind of circumstances could that injury, even if healed so quickly, yield for you, sweetie, especially considering that I am unfamiliar with griffin brains.”

“I get it, okay?!” Jack turned on me, snarling. I almost backed away from surprise, but I managed to stay my ground. “I still find it hard to believe I am alive after being shot in the head, but I get it that I should be under medical observation. Now, will you lay off my tail?”

Confused, I looked at his tail. “But I wasn’t-” As his talons again gripped my muzzle, I realized that he probably didn’t mean that literally. I gave him an apologetic stare and he rolled his eyes, releasing me. “Very well, sweetie. Now, if you’d be so kind to lay down and rest?” I added, pointing at the other side of the bed.

Jack glared at me, but he didn’t protest. “What about you?” he asked as he reluctantly began to walk around the bed. “You’re no better for wear than I am.”

“I’ll stay up a bit to make sure Apple Core’s condition is improving, but after that I will go to sleep too.”

“Close the door to Overmare’s wing at least before you turn in, then,” Jack told me as he unstrapped the scabbard from his back and laid it beside the bed, then got on it and laid down himself, as far away from Apple Core as he could while still being comfortable. “For safety.”

I had my doubts whether it was necessary, but I didn’t voice them, merely nodded and turned my attention to Apple Core. Color had began to return to her face, but I wanted to stay a bit longer with her, just in case.

After about a minute, though, I glanced at Jack again. Our conversation from before came back to me, when I have told him about what had happened. How Scope had shot him with his firearm, then Burst and Blast with Burst’s shotgun. How he had spared me only so I could answer his questions, and how I had stalled him. I didn’t go into too many details regarding that, but I had told Jack that Scope had been ordered by some organization that was apparently based somewhere in Stalliongrad to spy on him.

Do you think he’s blaming himself? I asked Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, unsure.

The two apparitions exchanged a glance. Probably? Pinkie Pie tried, looking at me sadly.

He did say they were his best friends, Fluttershy pointed out.

I looked down at the ground. Jack wasn’t the one to blame for what had happened; I knew that, and so I decided to tell him what weighed heavily on my soul.

“Jack?” I asked softly as I walked around the bed to him, unsure whether the griffin was still asleep.

At first, I thought he was. He laid with his head on one forepaw, in which he held his firearm, and his eyes were closed. However, after two seconds he replied, without opening them, “What?”

I took a deep breath. “It’s my fault Burst and Blast died. I… I could have used my Anesthetic Spell on Scope right away, I even planned to. But when I heard the shot and saw him standing over you, I just panicked and acted on instinct.” My voice quivered a little, but I carried on, afraid he would interrupt me. “Even then I could have still used it, but then I noticed Apple Core and I panicked again. After I began channeling my Haemostasis Field Spell, it was too late, I couldn’t cast the Anesthetic Spell. But I should have done that at the beginning. It’s… just like triage,” I added, my gaze dropping down to the floor. “The process of determining the priority of patients’ treatment based on the severity of their condition. Applied to this situation, priority would have been taking out Scope, and I failed. I…” My shaking hooves rose to my head and I held it, panic and grief finally overtaking me. “T-the first chief of medicine of my Stable, Doctor Hawkeye… h-he had served as a medic in the army during the Great War. I-I read his memoirs and I knew that triage there had been more important than anywhere else, that it was completely different to heal when so close to the fighting or right beside active combat, but I always thought myself capable of staying calm and yet I…” Tears began to stream down my face. “I-I failed, I…”

Talons gently grabbed my muzzle. I raised my gaze to see Jack looking with one eye.

“Don’t do this to yourself,” he said quietly. “You did the best you could. You, me and your slaver friend are all alive because of you. Nobody else would have been able to do what you did. Don’t overthink it,” he added, releasing my muzzle. “The only one guilty of their death is that bastard Scope. The one pulling the trigger is always the one responsible.”

I stared into Jack’s eye, wondering. Wondering if he was right and I shouldn’t feel this guilt. Whether I truly did my best. Whether nobody else would have been able to save the three of us. Whether the one pulling the trigger was the only one responsible.

Whether Jack believed the words he told me and wasn’t blaming himself like I blamed myself.

I wiped the tears out of my eyes. “This won’t happen again,” I told him. “Ever. The next time I’ll find myself in such situation, I will stay calm, analyze everything and take the best course of action.”

Jack snorted, but the edges of his beak curved into a half-smile. “Don’t make promises you might not keep, Doctor.”

I gave him the exact same half-smile. “I’m not,” I told him, gazing into his eye with confidence.

Jack’s eyebrow raised, but he didn’t comment further. His right forepaw again reached for me, but not to clasp my muzzle shut this time. Instead, to my bafflement, he flicked his talon against my nose.

“Go to sleep Angel,” he told me, closing his eye and bringing his forepaw back.

I stayed a few seconds there, massaging my nose out of surprise. I… didn’t expect him to warm up to me, I finally thought, still looking at Jack. Not after I told him-

He doesn’t blame you, Angel, Fluttershy chimed in. He understands that you did your best.

Yeah, and plus, you did save his life, Pinkie pointed out. Kiiiinda hard to not warm up to somepony after that.

I gave them a half-hearted smile in reply. They had a point, but…

You know I didn’t tell him everything, I began as I trotted away from the bed, out of the Overmare’s quarters. Jack wanted me to close the entrance to the wing before going to sleep. Because I cannot, not yet at least. I cannot tell him that there was a chance Scope wouldn’t have tried to kill them all if it weren’t for the holotape. The holotape he got because everypony believes Cutter to be dead.

The two apparitions exchanged a worried and sad glance.

Because of me.

Um, Angel… Fluttershy began after several silent seconds had passed, during which I’ve reached the Overmare’s wing’s door and sealed it. You couldn’t have known-

Doesn’t matter, sweetie, I interrupted her as I began to head back. My actions had started the chain of reactions that led to this.

C’mon, Angel, Pinkie spoke up, sounding as if trying to cheer me up, you’ve heard Jack, you shouldn’t feel guilty.

Guilty? Who’s saying anything about feeling guilty? I asked; despite my question, I smiled at the two apparitions sadly. Well, I do feel guilty, and sad, but that’s not what I meant, what I primarily feel right now.

Then what is it? Fluttershy asked as she and Pinkie looked at me with confusion.

I waited a bit before answering her, mostly because I’ve returned to the Overmare’s quarters just then. I quickly went to check on Apple Core, and when I made sure that her condition was improving, I concentrated. A hiss of pain escaped me as I cast a Sleep Spell on her her; I didn’t want her to regain her consciousness in the middle of the night and wake up me and Jack asking what had happened when we all needed to be resting. Thanks to my spell, though, now she would drift into sleep instead, helping her recover.

Satisfied, I climbed unto the bed, making my way to the big space between her and Jack. Fluttershy, did you, um, ‘see’ - or ‘experience’? I’m not sure which term to use - that dream I had back on the train? I asked her as I laid down. About the Ouroboros telling me that if I’d open the door I must be prepared to walk through them? It wasn’t the first time I had that dream, I continued after Fluttershy nodded. And those words… I actually came up with them, long ago. When you take action, you must be prepared for their consequences. Every action has a reaction, whether it's good or bad. You must be prepared to take responsibility for what you cause. That is why I don’t like taking any action before thinking it through, not if I can help it. But I was hasty; I manipulated Bulk Build to remove Cutter from his seat of power and placed myself in his place, at the same time giving an unfortunate soul closure, punishing the wicked and acquiring a test subject, all while thinking the consequences would only affect Appleloosa. I was wrong, and now I have to take responsibility for it. And I will. I will take responsibility for the deaths of Burst and Blast… as soon when I figure out how, I added as I closed my eyes, falling asleep almost instantly.

~ ~ ~

“Thank you for your book Miss Funcare!” I told the kind, middle-aged mare as I placed the book on her desk. “I’m sorry it took me so long to return it.” I added, embarrassed.

Miss Funcare smiled in mild amusement. “It’s alright, Angel; I hope you enjoyed it and that you’ve learned from it…” she trailed off as her eyes briefly darted around the magic kindergartener’s classroom at all the other foals. “Let me know if you’d like to borrow it again or some other book,” Miss Funcare continued as she returned her attention back to me. “It’s such a pity you can’t access the library until you get your PipBuck. I guess whoever thought up that rule never expected there would be a filly who liked to read as much as you do, huh?”

I giggled as my kindergarten teacher winked at me. I liked her, unlike most ponies she was always kind to me. Despite that, though, I hoped Granny would come to pick me up soon; I knew Miss Funcare couldn’t spend time with just me as she had to take care of every foal in her care. And with Demon being excused from magic kindergarten for the time being, I didn’t have anypony to play with.

I was about to reply to Miss Funcare’s remark, but just then her gazed moved somewhere above and behind me, surprise mixing with pleasure.

“Hello Miss Funcare,” I heard a pony speak behind me. “And I’m guessing you’re Angel?”

I turned around, unfamiliar with the voice… and backed away, startled, as I beheld the older, green-colored filly. “L-lady Emerald Gaze?” I asked, my voice coming out as a squeek.

The midnight green pony with malachite mane and emerald eyes, who was ten years my elder and the daughter of the current Overmare, giggled. “Just Emerald will be enough, Angel; I haven’t even begun the Overmare apprenticeship,” she pointed out, raising her eyebrow at me.

Nodding and blushing from embarrassment, I wondered briefly if I was being ridiculed. After all, everypony knew Emerald was going to be the next Overmare. However, I had more pressing question to consider: namely, why was she talking to me?

As if reading my thoughts, Emerald continued: “Anyway, I’m pleased to meet you. I’m actually here to pick you up;” I’ve already been staring at her, but hearing that made me stare her even harder; “my mom wanted to hear you grandmother’s advice on the… well, something boring to a little filly like you, I’m sure. They’re still discussing that and it doesn’t look like they’re going to finish anytime soon, so your grandmother asked me to take you out of magic kindergarten and keep you company until they’re done.”

Throughout her explanation, I continued to stare at her. I did hear what she said, of course, but my brain had trouble processing it. Not the part about Granny being asked by the Overmare for advice; it happened from time to time. It was the other part that confused me.

M-me? Spend time with the next Overmare?

It seemed that some of my fellow kindergarteners shared the opinion that somepony like me shouldn’t be spending time with somepony like Emerald. I could hear them whispering from the playing area:

“Hey, is that Lady Emerald Gaze?”

“Wow, she’s so pretty! Did you know she’s going to be our next Overmare? My Daddy said so.”

“Duh! But wait, what is she doing with that freak? Is she talking to her?”

“Why would she do that? You think we should go over there?”

Their - admittedly loud - whispers weren’t heard only be me. Emerald had heard them too, if the twitching ear and quick glance in their direction was of any indication. “Oh, I know!” she exclaimed, her voice suddenly louder than before. “How about I show you around the Overmare’s wing?”

I blinked in surprise. “Um…” I mumbled, not sure what to say to such an offer; the other foals’ gawking in shock that I could see in the corner of my eye didn’t help me decide.

As I hesitated, Emerald frowned and looked up past me at Miss Funcare. Her eyebrows quickly raised and she turned back to me. “We have a lot of books there,” she added encouragingly.

That did catch my attention. “Really? W-would it be okay if I read some of them?” I asked hopefully.

“Of course! Now come along Angel,” she said, beginning to turn back. “It was great seeing you again Miss Funcare,” Emerald added to the kindergarten teacher; I noticed her winking at her.

The older mare smiled at her. “Always a pleasure to see one of my old students,” she said, waving with her forehoof, the other one placed on her book.

Did she want to read it? I wondered, noticing that. Oh, I should have given it back earlier!

Making a mental note to apologize to Miss Funcare again later, I picked up my saddlebags and followed after Emerald. The older filly led me through the door and out the corridor leading to - I assumed - the portal talismans.

“So Angel,” she spoke up as we walked, “what kind of books do you like to read?”

“Oh, um…” I stammered, still feeling a little intimidated by her. “W-well, I like to read any book, b-but if I had to pick my favorite kinds… I like to read about medicine. A-and biology overall.”

“Really?” she said, her emerald eyes sparking with interest. “Does that mean you want to be a doctor like your father?”

“Yeah!” I answered immediately with enthusiasm. “I want to be able to make ponies better like Daddy does!”

Emerald smiled at me. “I see; do you also plan to become the chief of medicine after him then?” she asked as we reached the end of the line to the portal talismans; the pony standing before us tried to let us go ahead of him after noticing Emerald, but the green unicorn declined the offer with the wave of her hoof.

“Hm, I think so,” I said thoughtfully. “I’d like to help as many ponies as I can, but I wouldn’t want to take Daddy’s place too soon.”

Emerald giggled. “That’s really thoughtful of you. Well, if you were to become the chief of medicine, it’s good that we’re gonna spend some time together; after all, we would be taking care of everypony together in Stable Eight someday. It would be great if we’d become friends,” she added with a wink.

I smiled at her, a bit of uncertainty in my surprise. Somepony like Emerald wanted to be my friend? For a moment I considered asking her if she truly meant it, but the second after saying that we’ve reached the front of the queue. We stood before a small space; on the walls there were lined several portal talismans, each with their destination written in glowing letters above them. Emerald turned her head to the leftmost one, under the letters “OVERMARE and SECURITY WINGS”.

The unicorn closed her eyes as her horn began to glow, shooting a short beam of magic into the talisman. It began to glow in turn then as its enchantment activated, and, as the glow intensified, it began to spread, opening a tear in space. In the matter of seconds the circle of magic expanded, becoming big enough for two ponies to go through it at ease; inside of it I could see what I assumed to be the corridor separating the Overmare and Security’s wings.

I took a step forward but stopped when I heard a cough. Surprised, I glanced at Emerald, who was holding her hoof against her muzzle. “Are you alright?” I asked.

But the older filly was already smiling at me. “Of course,” she said, then walked through the portal; I quickly jumped after her.

As expected, on the other side we were greeted by the sight of green grass and bushes higher than a pony surrounding us, and the ceiling was replaced by the open sky. Like Granny had told me, the illusion spell placed on the Atrium’s ceiling extended through this corridor. The Atrium itself laid before us, with the grass pathway leading to the Security’s wing on the left and the Overmare’s wing on the right. Without hesitation Emerald turned to the latter, trotting towards the nearby door that blocked the entrance.

I joined her as she pressed the switch to open them, then walked through them into a normal Stable corridor. It was a weird contrast to the one outside; I would have expected it to be ever more pristine and beautiful.

“If we had grass growing from the floor and illusion on the ceiling, we’d have to be constantly visited by the Maintenance and Gardeners,” Emerald answered my unspoken question; apparently it must have showed on my face. I glanced at her in worry, but the green unicorn seemed undisturbed by my borderline insolence. “We have a few plants in our quarters and in my mom’s office, but we can water them ourselves,” she added as she reached the nearby door. Pointing further down the corridor she continued: “That way is the Overmare’s office; I’m afraid I can’t give you the tour of it, it would be better if we didn’t interrupt my mom and your grandmother. But we can hang out here.”

I trotted after her, about to assure her that I didn’t intend to interrupt them, but just then I realized that we’d just entered the private quarters of the Overmare and her family and I began to look around with interest. Their living room was ever bigger than ours! Several shelves adorned the walls, filled with books! Aside from them, there were also a few paintings, portraits and pictures, mostly of the Overmare, her daughter and her late husband, Emerald’s father. In the corners there were some potted plants, some orchid, fern and a fiscus. In the middle of it stood a small table, surrounded by a large couch and two armchairs.

“Make yourself comfortable,” Emerald said as she walked over to the small kitchen in the corner of the room. A small, chest-high wall separated it from the rest of the living room. “Would you like some juice to drink?”

“J-just water will be fine,” I said, jumping shily at the couch.

As Emerald rummaged through the kitchen, I continued to admire the paintings when something suddenly touched me lightly. I turned startled to see a mass of arcana energy that had taken a feline shape. Realizing that it was just a magical construct, I relaxed, and eyed it curiously as I raised a hoof to pet it. Most magical construct created in Stable Eight weren’t this complex; they usually had an oval shape with two limbs that they’d use to carry some stuff and to perform similar task as ordered by their owners. The few constructs that resemble animals, though, had much more advanced enchantments crafted into the talismans that made their core. They not only determined its shape, but also its behaviour, causing them to act like pets from before the war. Indeed, as I petted the lightly blue shape, it responded how according to my books cats would have; by pressing its head against my hoof, then as I moved it along its “spine” it arched its back. A cat would have also purred, but, unfortunately, the magical constructs couldn’t emit any sound.

“I see you’ve met Duchess,” Emerald said, coming back with a tray - oddly - in her mouth. She placed it on the table and passed me a glass of water. “Amazing, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I agreed wholeheartedly as Duchess bounded past me onto the floor and disappeared into one of the two bedrooms.

“Although it is kinda hard to fall asleep when she’s in your room, constantly glowing,” Emerald joked, sticking her tongue at me. I covered my mouth and giggled. “So, wanna see those books?”

“Um, w-well, actually…” I began, hesitantly. I did want to see them, but… if she really wanted to be my friend, I didn’t want to bore her. “I was thinking that maybe we could do something else. I-I mean, you don’t have to do something I would want to do just because my grandma have asked you to…”

But Emerald was already giggling. “Oh, Angel, I don’t mind, really. It’s nice to have an easy day like this every now and then; Mom always has me studying all the Stable Eight laws and administration and…” she shook her head and sighed.

“Really? But you said you haven’t began your Overmare apprenticeship yet,” I said, confused.

“Yeah, but my mother says it will make it easier for me when I do, so I would feel more confident when I’m helping her with her duties,” the teenage filly replied, shrugging.

I frowned. Something in the way she had said that… was it reluctance?

“But… you do want to become the next Overmare, right?” I asked her, uncertain if I read that note of voice correctly.

“Of course! That being said though…” she trailed off, glancing at the door we’ve came through. As if she had wanted to make sure that they were closed, Emerald turned back to me and told me in a hushed voice, “I’m actually thinking about trying out a few other things first before starting the Overmare apprenticeship. I just need to figure out how to tell my mother about it,” she added, returning to her normal volume.

“R-really?” I asked, trying to process what she just told me. “How come?”

Emerald smiled, somewhat sheepishly, as she replied “Well, I have two reasons for that. The first being that I want to familiarize myself with the duties ponies perform in the Stable so that I can better lead them all when I became the Overmare. The other one, though… I want to make sure that this is what I want, to become the Overmare.”

I shot her a confused stare; hadn’t she just have said that this is what she wants?

The green unicorn continued, growing serious as she went on: “There is a reason why ponies who hold administrative position have so many privileges, Angel; it is because they carry tremendous responsibility to everypony, and the Overmare has the most of them. I’m sure you’ve learned that from your parents and your grandmother. I… I want to make sure that this is what I truly desire before I try to pick up those responsibilities. As the Overmare, it will be my duty to look after the wellbeing of every citizen of Stable Eight and to lead them in the right direction. If it wouldn’t be something I could dedicate myself to completely, I could fail everypony. So I’d like to try my hoof in other duties first to see if something strikes a chord in my soul,” Emerald added, more lightheartedly.

Having been listening attentively to her, I nodded as she finished. “I… I think I understand it. You want what’s best for ponies of Stable Eight, so you want to make sure if you really want the super important position.” As Emerald nodded with a smile, I hesitated, feeling slightly embarrassed. “But, um… i-if you don’t mind me saying, Emerald, I think it already proves you would be a great Overmare. You said yourself that you want to become the Overmare, but you’re willing to put it off until you tried first training for other tasks, which could take years. A-and you’re thinking so much ahead, of how your rule could be affected by how much you’d enjoy your duties, it’s like…” I trailed off, unsure what I meant to say. “It’s like you’re… already looking out for us, in the future.”

“Well,” Emerald giggled, looking back at her flank, “with a cutie mark like that, huh?”

My eyes followed her gaze, at the cutie mark depicting an emerald eye inside a triangle and surrounded by rays of light. The Eye of Providence.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Emerald continued, looking back at me, “I doubt I would discover there is anything I’d want to be more than the Overmare. I just want to make sure. But… thank you for telling me that, Angel,” she said unexpectedly. “You’re the first pony I told this to; I was afraid it would come off as silly or stupid.”

I blushed hearing her thank me. “I-it’s nothing, really.”

“You know, you are quite a smart filly; to be able to understand what I meant so clearly right after hearing it. I wonder…” Emerald mused, looking at me thoughtfully, then smirked and continued: “The ability to understand others is an important part of being a leader; are you sure you wouldn’t want to be an Overmare?”

“M-me?” I blinked, startled. I tried to imagine myself as the Overmare… “Um, no, I don’t think so. I don’t think I would ever be able to lead anypony. Besides, I really want to be a doctor; I would be quite happy to advise you after I’d become the chief of medicine, though,” I added shyly.

“And I would be quite happy to have you as an advisor,” Emerald replied, laughing happily. After a few seconds, though, she suddenly clasped her hooves. “Okay, enough worrying about the future, it’s unhealthy for young fillies like us. What do you usually do to pass the time?”

“Um…” I stammered, taken aback by the change of topic. “Oh! We could play some game I play with Demon- I mean-” I began to clarify who I meant but Emerald was already waving her hoof.

“I’m familiar with the nickname you thought for him that he has taken such a liking to. I gotta say, it really fits him.”

“T-thanks… though it wasn’t what I actually meant. The book where I’ve read that name had been mistranslated from Old Ponish,” I explained when Emerald gave me questioning look. “What I’d meant to call him was ‘Daemon’, which is a benevolent, guiding spirit. I thought of it because he’s always there for me trying to help me,” I added, blushing. “But I suppose Demon really suits him. I’m glad he likes it,” I said with a giggle.

“I see… he must be a really good friend if you think of him so highly.”

He’s my only friend… or at least, was my only friend until today, I thought hopefully.

“So, what games do you usually play with Stable Eight’s number one troublemaker?” Emerald asked.

“Well, my favorite is ‘the doctor’...” I began, only to stop.

I didn’t stop only because of the wide, stunned stare Emerald was giving me (although it was a factor). I’ve stopped also because just then I’ve heard a… giggle. A giggle that hasn’t come from either me or Emerald, but from somewhere in that room.

Emerald’s voice brought my attention back to her and caused me to forget what was clearly my imagination. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” she asked, looking at me oddly.

“My favorite game we play is ‘the doctor’,” I repeated, unsure what was wrong. (I also heard another giggle at that time, but it was quieter, as if muffled; I ignored it this time, thinking it was probably… something else.) “I really like acting like a real doctor, checking out all the body parts with my biology book!”

Despite my enthusiasm, Emerald continued to stare at me in that weird way. “All the- um, did Demon come up with this ‘game’ by any chance?” she asked, frowning.

“Demon? Of course not, he doesn’t like that game,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “I’d always have to play ‘security and robber’ with him before we’d play ‘the doctor’. And he had never let me see his penis and testicles, always crossing his hind legs…” I muttered, upset that my friend didn’t like my game. “Of course, I never forced him into playing this or doing anything else he wouldn’t want, he is my friend after all… so anyway, do you want to play it?” I asked Emerald, full of hope.

The green unicorn, who was still staring at me, facehoofed. “Oh Goddesses, what have I gotten myself into…” I heard her murmur, a mixture of dread and amusement in her voice.

I was about to ask her what she meant, but just then a very loud laugher erupted next to me. I turned towards its source, confused…

“Oh, I can’t!” the pink pony exclaimed, rolling on the ground while holding her side. “This is so funny!”

I blinked. “Pinkie?!”

~ ~ ~

I woke up, startled. Pinkie Pie’ apparition’s laughter continued as I took in the sight of very different Overmare’s private quarters than the one I’ve just been in in my dream.

There are some similarities, though… Did I have that dream because of this? Brilliant Luna, thou art a cruel Princess at times… I thought, looking around… and then with a frown I realized that my E.F.S. showed me only one green - the same shade of green as Emerald’s eyes, as my dream so kindly reminded me - bar.

The spot on the bed next to me was empty and cold. Jack had left, and it was some time ago.

Sure, ignore your doctor, I thought, pouting, then sighed and raised my forehooves to my head, rubbing my eyes. I still had a mild headache after overusing my magic, but the long rest - my PipBuck’s clock informed that it was now morning of the next day - had helped me a lot. What did not help was Pinkie Pie’s continued laughter. I take you enjoyed my dream, sweetie? I asked, resigned.

Pinkie tried her best to answer me in between her bouts of laughter. Yeah… oh, I can’t… Ah, I wish Dashie was here to see that… she said as she rolled in mid air, still holding her sides like she did in my dream.

I looked at her with pretense, but when I noticed that Fluttershy, while blushing, held her hoof against her mouth as she giggled quietly, I lost my composure. I was five! How was I supposed to know that the phrase ‘playing doctor’ is usually used to refer to the foals examining each other’s genitals under the pretenses of playing a game?! I asked them, huffing with annoyance.

My comment caused Pinkie Pie to resume her fit of laughter, but Fluttershy in turn looked at me apologetically. You’re right, sorry Angel. We shouldn’t have-

So, how long did it last? Pinkie asked, interrupting her. You playing with your friend Demon, I mean? And did the two of you ever-

I wonder where Jack had disappeared off to, I thought loudly, ignoring her. He should be resting… I’d better go find him.

Before heading after him, I first checked on Apple Core, who slept on my other side. Her condition had improved since the previous night, as my quick examination had revealed. If it weren’t for my Sleep Spell she would probably be conscious by now.

Leaving her to continue sleeping, I began to make my way out of the Overmare’s wing, searching for Jack. I noticed that I wobbled a little; the events of the previous day had really drained me. I’d better eat something soon, at least, I noted. I paused to touch my horn. Although it would do little to help me recover my magic… and besides that, there is still an issue of me having transfused blood to Apple Core. I sighed; my first expedition into the Wasteland was a massive failure in my eyes.

Suddenly a green bar appeared on my E.F.S., pulling me out of my musing. Frowning, I hurried to meet Jack; I didn’t have to go far. I could already hear him from the entrance to the Overmare’s wing, so I sat down on the floor, deciding to wait for him.

“Hello sweetie,” I told the griffin upon seeing him. Although I tried to be gentle due to his loss, I found it difficult to not show my annoyance at him for leaving the bed. “You shouldn’t be up and about without first checking it with me, you know.”

Jack snorted, but he kept his eyes downcast. “Yeah, I figure,” he replied, sounding very tired.

Further berating died on my lips as I took in his appearance. He was dripping with water, his feathers, pelt and armor all wet, and as I looked closely, I realized that he was covered in mud, his forelegs especially.

“Sweetie, what were you doing?”

*** *** ***

“This could have waited until you’d recover,” I pointed out as we left the tunnel leading to the Stable’s entrance.

I shook as I felt small droplets of rain fall on me. As Jack had told me, throughout the night it has been raining outside, but it appeared to be almost over now. Still, as weak as it was, this was the first time I got to experience rain; intrigued, I looked up at the clouds, letting the drizzle wash over my muzzle.

Interesting sensation, I mused; it was different than using a shower head, more natural. I stayed like that for a few more seconds, my eyes on the clouded sky. I wonder how it is up there…

But as always since I’ve left the my Stable, the earthbound matters took priority, not giving me the time to wonder. As Jack walked past me, I turned my full attention back to him.

“I wanted to do it now,” he replied to my earlier comment as we walked a little further ahead.

I hesitated berating him as we reached the two small holes he had dug during the night. Inside were the remains of Burst and Blast, already dragged by Jack before he went to fetch me.

“Sweetie, you could have at least waited until the rain had passed,” I said, taking my eyes off the headless corpses. “Your body might be in a remarkable good condition after your injury, but digging two graves with just your talons through the night as it rained is about the opposite of what you should be doing - resting.”

It didn’t seem that Jack was listening to me, though; his head was turned up the sky, just like mine had been a moment ago. “Maybe you should have let me die,” he unexpectedly said. The corner of his beak curled into a sad smile as he continued, “Maybe it had been my time? Certainly looks like it…”

I frowned, not sure how to react to that. What could he mean by saying ‘certainly looks like it’? I cleared my throat and spoke up: “Sweetie-”

However, he quickly held up his paw. “Forget it. Help me with… um…” Jack hesitated as he looked down, then turned to me with a troubled expression. “What do you ponies say when you do this?” he asked, pointing at the graves.

I turned to look at them, thoughtful. “I believe funeral rites depend on the environment where a pony lives; I’m afraid I could only tell you how it would have been done in my Stable, sweetie. Burst had mentioned about their parents living in Tenpony Tower,” I spoke up, looking at Jack. “Shouldn’t they-”

But Jack was already shaking his head sadly. “We wouldn’t be able to get their bodies there, not without them rotting… and do you think their parents would have wanted to see them like this?” he asked, pointing at what remained of their necks.

I said nothing to that, merely turned back to them. Their souls have already ascended… but just like mother always said, the funeral isn’t for them, but for their loved ones, to let them say goodbye…

“I can perform the funeral service, if you wish,” I said, glancing at Jack. “But it would be good if you could say something as well; you don’t have to do it out loud. Of course, I’m not a priestess, so-”

“Do it, please,” Jack once again interrupted me.

Nodding my head, I trotted to stand right beside the graves, directly between them. I cast my gaze over their remains as I prepared myself. A memory of Burst’s awkwardness and kindness emerged, along with Blast’s slightly vulgar but good hearted nature. I’m sorry, I thought, deeply saddened that this was all I could for them.

Sighing, I sat down on my haunches, ignoring how dirty I would get because of all the mud, closed my eyes and spread my forelegs as I began to recite the words I heard my mother use many times:

“Just as after day comes night, so must after life come death. But just as the night is illuminated by the light of the Moon, so is death not the dark emptiness we often fear, for the light of our Goddesses guides us to the Afterlife’s rewards. Burst and Blast are already there, knowing peace and happiness unattainable in the mortal life. Let the grief and pain that had gripped our hearts disperse in the knowledge of that, and in the promise that we shall see them again in Heaven one day.” I paused to open my eyes and look at their remains. “Burst, Blast, I haven’t known you for long,” I began, sadness creeping into my already sad voice. “But… I really liked you. Blast, you were a bit lecherous, but you were also thoughtful and showed me care when I was injured. Burst, you were…” my voice broke. It took me a few seconds to find it again, during which tears began to form in the corners of my eyes. “You told me to run, thinking of my safety even in the face of death. You were kind and loyal… I’m sorry we’ll never get a chance to go on a date. By the Goddess Cadance’s grace, may you meet love on the other side. May you both be reunited with your loved ones, whether now or when those yet remain on this mortal world join you. By the Radiant Celestia’s blessing,” I intoned, making circular motion with my right hoof over my heart, “by the Brilliant Luna’s kindness,” I continued, making the same motion on the other side of my chest, “and by the Loving Cadance’s compassion, may you rest in peace and happiness,” I finished, making a bigger circle over my chest then bringing my forehooves together.

I waited a few seconds before turning to Jack. He was standing beside me now, his eyes on his dead friends. “Thank you,” he told me, a single tear streaming down his cheek; or was it water from the drizzle?

“Don’t mention it, sweetie,” I said kindly.

A very loud blowing of the nose inside my mind almost caused me to jump. I turned my attention to the two apparitions, both who were drowning in tears.

S-sorry, Pinkie Pie, who was the one to blow her nose, exclaimed. It’s just so sad…

Fluttershy said nothing, only nodded in agreement, her eyes red from crying.

I know, I replied, feeling my own tears dropping to the ground.

I brushed my eyes and focused back on Jack. “Do you want to say anything before we…” I trailed off uncomfortably and pointed at the nearby pile of ground Jack had made while digging out the graves in the first place.

The griffin remained silent for a while, then finally began to open his beak. He hesitated, but after a second he said “Blast, Burst… you guys were the best. I… I’ll never forget you. I hope we’ll see each other again someday, somehow.” Jack closed his eyes and sighed, dropping his head to the ground. When he opened them after about a minute, he didn’t even look at me. “Alright, let’s just do it.”

I helped him as best I could, but Jack had still done most of the work. Not that he minded, although I wasn’t sure if he had even noticed. His mind seemed focused only on the bodies we buried; before they were completely covered, I heard him mutter “Goodbye guys.”

My weakened state wasn’t the only reason why I hadn’t contributed as much as Jack. Every few moments, as more of their bodies disappeared under the earth, I…

I’m Doctor Angel. Pleased to meet you.

Likewise, darling. Name’s Blast, this is my brother Burst…

I closed my eyes and clenched my teeth, trying to clear my mind.

I’m starting to rethink my opinion regarding your courtesy, I hope you don’t follow your brother’s example when talking with mares.

Um… W-well, I wouldn’t say I do…

I brought my hooves to my head and grasped it.

... even if we run into raiders we can protect you.

I think she’s more worried about us buddy.

Maybe she wouldn’t have if you hadn’t made that lewd suggestion.

I knew that their souls were gone long before this moment. However the more ground we threw at their bodies, the more reality of their deaths hit me. More and more memories of the time we’ve known each other, however short it was, came to me:

And why I can’t cover the hot medic?

Sorry, sorry, just… didn’t peg you for somepony that would keep bugs as pets.

So? That’s not that weird. Doesn’t one of the Hoofington’s Reapers keep radroaches as pets too? I would love to see you laugh to his face about them.

Would you like me to stay with you? There still could be something dangerous around.

… I wouldn’t call you annoying, just… um… unfamiliar with the Wasteland and stuff.

Wow, that’s just… amazing! Your Stable seems like a paradise! Why would you ever leave a place so beautiful?

Wait, your father was the chief of medicine as well? Wow, that’s cool! So you wanted to follow in his hoofsteps?

I… guess that makes sense. Never really thought of it that way.

So, um, you’re not technically together, right?

Um, I, er, I mean… I mean, I don’t even know if you are into bucks as well.

Hey. You guys wanna join in?

Oh fuck! Don’t worry, I’ll get you out in a moment! Hang on…

Let me help.

Huh, you weren’t kidding when you’ve said how good you are.

Run!

I almost collapsed, trying to sort out the memories that whirled in my head and calm myself down. I took a sharp breath, on the verge of breaking down as more tears gathered in my eyes, then took another, more slowly, and another…

They’re gone, I thought, and there is nothing I can do about it. I failed them.

As I got my breathing under control, I felt a paw on my shoulder. I looked up at Jack, who extended his other forepaw to help me up. Calming down, I accepted it, and a few seconds after he got back on my hooves I resumed helping him.

By the time we finished, it had already stopped raining. Breathing heavily, I turned my gaze towards the sky. A part of me expected to see a ray of light, another part a rainbow; I knew from my books that when it rained during the day, a rainbow would naturally appear by itself. But all I saw was a cloud cover, completely obscuring the sky.

“So this is how the world is?” I asked. “Ponies and other beings live and die under clouded sky, never knowing the warmth of the Sun or beauty of the Moon and Stars? They live in hardship and die betrayed, buried in the middle of nowhere, as if their lives had no meaning? Is that what Equestria, what this world has become?”

It took Jack a few seconds before he replied. “Yeah, more or less. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse. Everywhere it’s shit, just different kinds of shit. Up there,” he said, nodding at the clouds, “with pegasi, in Tenpony Tower, and in the few cities in Zebra Empire… they’re the closest you’d get to what the world was before the war, and even there it’s shit. And the reason why they can have it good is mostly because of how fucked up the rest of us are. In most of the world… it’s kill or be killed. Wild animals, feral ghouls, raiders, or just people with different goals, they’re all out to get you, and that’s besides wonders such as radiation or even megaspells that are still going. Surviving is a competition, and you either win or lose. Burst and Blast…” he paused briefly, his voice quivering a little, “they didn’t win. Every now and then you’ll meet kind people like them, or maybe not even kind but just fucking decent, but sooner or later they will get killed, even if you try your damn hardest to save them, and it will go on until you yourself get killed… or become a monster.”

I had turned to look at him as he spoke, listening intensively, and when he finished I resumed to gaze at the clouded sky. My brow furrowed as I went over what he said, and what I knew and experienced; the covered sky, the raiders, the way slavers treated slaves, the betrayal and murder.

“No,” I finally said. “I refuse such a reality. I refuse such an Equestria, I refuse such a world, and I most certainly refuse such people!” I stomped my hoof against the ground. “This world… it’s being plagued by a sickness, sickness that twisted all of us! What this world needs… is a doctor.”

I thought back to my dream; not the one I had this night, but the one which I’ve pursued for years. I thought of my goal. I thought of what I’ve just decided. Could I do it? Would I be able to accomplish all three? But even as a sliver of doubt crept into my soul, I saw a bigger picture. A picture in which all the three, not just the first two, were connected, in a triangle with me in the middle.

The Eye of Providence.

Was my dream, that precious memory, a sign from the Goddesses themselves? I wondered, a bit wistfully; it didn't really matter, though. I might have to concentrate on one of the three more than others in the upcoming future, but it won’t matter; accomplishing one will lead to accomplishing all of them!

My resolve reinforced, I continued “I will change this world, ponies, griffins and zebras and everybody else. No more will they live in fear of tomorrow, no more will they die a pointless death!”

No more will they die.

I placed my hoof to my heart. “This I, Angel, doctor of medicine and the mare that will discover the Truth of the world, vow: I will heal this world, starting first with our fallen nation! I will rebuild Equestria, bring peace to ponies and everybody who lives here or will live here, and ensure that elements such as raiders or dishonest murderers have no place in it!”

And then, I added in my thoughts, I will bring about the Everlasting Paradise.

My heart was pumping in my chest. Despite my tiredness, I felt power; power such as the one I had when I stalled Scope. At this moment, I felt more powerful than I ever was!

“That’s all nice,” I heard Jack speak up; truth be told, I had almost forgot he was there. He was staring at me, his expression unreadable, as he continued, “but impossible. You are just a doctor from a Stable; how do you expect to change the world? Strong will and resolve wouldn’t be enough, nor would your knowledge, magic, skill, or whatever else you possess. To change everything… people don’t change. Or rather, they don’t change easily. If you’d truly want to change them, to make them obey the rules of this nation you’d want to rebuild, you’d need them to follow you, to follow your vision. How would you accomplish that?” he asked. “How would you get the people of Equestria to follow you?”

With a pleasant surprise, I realized that he was seriously asking me, and now was looking at me expecting an answer.

I thought it over for a few seconds. He had a valid point; I couldn’t change ponies. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to lock them all up as test subjects for my experiments, nor did I even want to. With all the raiders and other elements about, I had more than enough potential test subjects. Those that commited lesser crimes… yes, they could be stopped, they could be changed, they could be helped. But… they would need guidance. Somepony with a vision.

My dream from last night came to me. Emerald, I thought, saddened, it looks like it will be different for me; for everyone’s sake, I’ll have to take up a position that I don’t truly, completely want.

I turned back to Jack, my anwer ready. “You’re right, I am just a doctor from a Stable. As I am now, nobody will follow me. But… there is one pony I can think of whom others would follow, even of different races. If I want to change this world, that’s who I’ll have to become.”

Jack frowned. “Pony whom others would follow? Who is it?”

I smiled. “The Princess of Equestria.”

The griffin’s beak hanged open as he stared at me, blinking in surprise. I waited patiently for his response to my declaration, curious how he was going to react.

After about ten seconds, Jack finally recovered… and bursted with laughter. My brow slightly furrowed as he slapped his forehead, laughing, but it quickly relaxed. I couldn’t detect any malice in that laughter, and even if there was, I could forgive him; what I declared was hard to believe, after all.

More importantly, I thought, smiling inwardly, it is good to hear him laugh after what he had just been through.

You said it sister! Pinkie Pie exclaimed, bouncing happily.

“That does it!” Jack shouted when he calmed down. He looked at me with a broad smile and pointed a talon at me. “I already suspected this when you began talking, but this confirms it. Unlike most crazy doctors, you don’t have a goddess complex; you have a messiah complex!” he finished, laughing up into the sky again.

I frowned again, more out of confusion rather than offense. Had he said that I have a Goddess complex, it would have been another matter; I wouldn’t stand for insinuating that I’d be so blasphemous. A messiah complex, though…

“My mother had me tested,” I spoke after a while, “so I am not crazy, nor do I suffer any mental disorders. However, if I were to be a Messiah,” I said, extending my hoof to him and smiling, “would you care to be my first Apostle?”

Footnote: Level Up!
New perk: Royal Canterlot Voice (level one) -- You can use your wily charms to influence people. You gain +5 points to Speech and Barter skills.

Chapter Nine: Calm

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“I must digest this information.”

Jack stared a few moments at my extended hoof, then closed his eyes and snorted. “Yeah, I’ll think about it,” he said, turning around and walking back towards the Stable.

Though I had expected such a reply, I couldn’t help but feel a slight disappointment as I retracted my hoof. Jack had seemed to have genuine interest in my vow and my reply. Then again, what I had asked of him wasn’t a small thing.

I suppose “I’ll think about it” is the best I can hope to get from him for now, I mused, smiling as I noticed the edge of his beak curve up into a smile. I got a feeling that, despite his dismissive tone, he had meant it. Do you think he will decide to help me achieve my goal? I asked Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie as I turned and trotted after Jack.

An alarm shot through me as he swayed a little, but almost immediately he shook and resumed walking almost normally. I made a mental note to make him rest more once we got back to the Overmare’s quarters.

Why wouldn’t he? Pinkie replied enthusiastically to my question. I mean, sure, it’s not a small thing to ask, you know, helping to rebuild the world and all, but friends should always help each other achieve their goals and support their dreams!

More importantly, Fluttershy spoke up, a bit hesitant, what you said about rebuilding Equestria and helping the entire world… this is something everypony- I mean, everybody should aspire to do. Not sure about that “becoming a princess” part, but… she added as she trailed off, blushing and smiling sheepishly.

Yeah, when you dream big you dream big sister, Pinkie added, giggling.

Smiling at hearing their remarks regarding my proclamation, I gazed at the back of giffin’s head, pondering what they said. Friends should always help each other achieve their goals and support their dreams… but were we friends? I would have liked us to be friends, but I had little idea as to what Jack thought of it. He had certainly warmed up to me a bit, true…

Maybe if I were to help him first… I pondered. But I know so little of him, I have no idea what he wants… well, I suppose aside from-

“So how exactly would you even go about it?” Jack asked as he turned his head back, pulling me out of my musing. Stopping to wait for me to catch up by the cellar door, he specified “Becoming the Princess of Equestria, I mean?”

Excitement rushed through me as he asked that question. He’s clearly curious… I wonder, how would he react if I told him of my dream? Would he come to share my vision? I considered in the brief time it took me to reach him whether I should tell him about that as well. Hm, no, I don’t think this would be the right time to share this. He’ll need time to process what I’ve already revealed. Besides… I doubt I could tell anypony about it without touching upon the circumstances that led to me leaving Stable Eight. I don’t think Jack would approve of them…

As my mind began to give birth to new ideas, I felt a surge go down my spine; was I really considering telling somebody about my experiments? I had talked about them with Fluttershy’s apparition, of course (and most likely it wouldn’t be long before Pinkie Pie’s turn would come), and while I found this experience quite… pleasant, so to speak, I hadn’t exactly revealed that to her out of my own volition. Furthermore, there was no risk of two apparitions that I could talk with within my mind telling anybody about my experiments.

If I’m really going to do this, I mused, slowing down beside Jack, I’ll have to handle this carefully…

“I am still putting it all together, sweetie,” I began to answer him as we descended together down the cellar door into the corridor leading to Stable Eleven. “In the ideal scenario, I would have been chosen by Princess Luna to succeed her as her rightful heir… Sweetie, I said ideal scenario,” I said with a frown as Jack snorted and rolled his eyes. “Obviously, I don’t intend on waiting for that to happen. After all I’m not Princess Luna’s rightful heir… and I don’t expect her to descend from the Heavens to chose me as the next Princess of Equestria,” I added quickly as Jack deadpanned at me.

Although, as I discover more and more of the Truth of this world… I thought briefly with wonder, before banishing those thoughts and focused on the present moment.

“A far more realistic scenario would be to be elected by the people of Equestria,” I continued as we walked. “However, as I have already mentioned sweetie, I am sceptical of the ideas of democracy… I trust I don’t have to elaborate as to why,” I added as we passed through the Stable Eleven’s door, nodding at the skeletons. “So the system like the one used in this Stable would be out of the question, especially since the position of the ruling Princess of Equestria isn’t a termed office. Furthermore and more importantly, though, I would have to run against somepony if those were to be true elections, and I won’t risk surrendering the fate of Equestria to a pony who could lead it the same direction Stable Eleven’s fate went.”

I expected Jack to disagree with me at this point, but he merely nodded, although with some reluctance. “So you’d intend to rule until you die?” he asked.

“Oh, don’t be silly sweetie,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “I would abdicate as soon as I would accomplish my goal, when Equestria would be rebuilt and the world would be in peace… probably in favor of my apprentice or possibly even my child, if I happen to have one by then. Though I don’t exclude other possibilities, mind you; the Overmare of my Stable, for example, would make a great Princess of Equestria. There could be others I would in time trust to carry on this role.”

“You still haven’t told me how you plan to acquire said role,” Jack pointed out, his voice almost passing for an amused purr.

“I did say that I am still putting said plan together, sweetie,” I reminded him gently, enjoying this talk. I turned my gaze upwards, pondering over it as I continued “I do not like to formulate a plan when I don’t have all the information… or at least when I don’t have a satisfying amount of information. For now, all I can tell you is that I would strive towards finding something between those two scenarios,” I told him, turning my head as I addressed him. Jack was looking at me thoughtfully, as if he too was trying to figure out how I’d become the Princess of Equestria. “If I could somehow cause ponies to want me to become their princess, out of their own choice…” I continued my musing, then sighed. “Though I suppose it would be a lot harder than just becoming an alicorn, as unimaginable as it might be to most ponies…”

I blinked, surprised, as my musing was interrupted by Jack’s chuckle. The griffin had covered his beak with his paw and was shaking his head; realizing that his amusement must have stem off believing my words to be ridiculous, I smiled at him, in what I realized was almost patronizing fashion, and attempted to correct his viewpoint.

“... and most griffins, apparently,” I resumed. “While I realize that it might seem impossible, sweetie, if my theory is correct, it should be possible for a pony, whether they are a unicorn, earth pony, or a pegasus, to ascend and become an alicorn, but…” I slowly trailed off, losing my focus and confidence as my speech didn’t bring about the desired effect. Instead of stopping him from chuckling, Jack’s chuckle had transformed into an outright laughter. Put off by that, I found it difficult to concentrate on what I was going to say. “... but, um, it is of course rather… unusual, and, well, that’s why there have only been… Alright, sweetie, that's enough!” I exclaimed, stopping and stomping my hoof against the floor. “What exactly is so funny?”

Jack needed several more seconds before he could reply. As his laughter toned down, he looked at me and sighed with amusement. “Well, here’s the thing…”

*** *** ***

“Ugh… wha- what happened?” Apple Core moaned as she woke up. “Why do Ah-” she cut off abruptly, her eyes snapping wide open.

I suppose seeing my face hovering right above hers with an annoyed expression wasn’t exactly a comfortable sight.

“Why didn’t you tell me about the alicorns, sweetie?” I asked the slaver mare, forcing myself to speak calmly, mindful of her state.

However, it apparently didn’t bring the desired effect, as as Apple Core continued to stare at me with confusion and slight fear. “Wha- what the hell are ya talkin’ ‘bout?!” she finally asked, her usual strength returning to her voice.

Her expression changed too; now she was glaring at me with annoyance and borderline anger.

I pouted, disappointed with the answer, but when I was about to deliberate on the subject, Jack, who was leaning against the wall of the quarters, spoke: “She probably didn’t know; those things aren’t common around these parts.” I jerked when he uttered the word ‘things’, but didn’t interrupt him. “There isn’t anything of interest for them around the two Appleloosas, as far as I can tell, and the ones serving Red Eye he keeps on a tight leash around Fillydelphia.”

Apple Core blinked at the griffin. “Wait, those things are real?!” she asked, clearly surprised. “Ah thought those guys we’d send t’ Fillydelphia with slaves t’ sell were makin’ those things up!”

I twitched when again the word “things” had been said, but, again, stopped myself from berating anybody. Instead, I sighed, and pressed my forehooves against my face.

Alicorns. There were alicorns in the Wasteland. Not just one, not just two, but multitudes of them, tens at least if not hundreds!

My mind was still reeling from the revelation Jack had bestowed upon me. (Maybe I would have processed it better if he hadn’t been so casual about it!). To learn that there were ponies of the same kind as Goddesses were in their “mortal” life out there in the Wasteland… it was shocking, to say the least. Even more so when Jack had revealed to me that many of them are working together with this Red Eye pony.

“The alicorns serve that megalomaniac?” I had asked, bewildered; how could a pony who ascended into near goddesshood serve a pony who keeps hundreds of ponies as slaves?!

Jack - having had rolled his eyes when I’d called Red Eye megalomaniac, for some reason - replied: “Yeah, though it’s not exactly that they serve him, I think; from what little I have learned it looks more like an alliance. Contrary to what most people think - well, at least out of those who know about them - they were around far longer than Red Eye. Oh, and you’re probably not going to like that,” he had added, shrugging, “but they seem to have a leader… and they address her as Goddess.”

I blinked, trying to process that information. It didn’t help that I could see the shocked expressions of Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, who were bewildered by the news almost as much as me.

“I can see why you’d think I wouldn’t like that… but honestly, as blasphemous as it is, I can understand why a leader capable of commanding a host of alicorns would take such a name,” I’d managed to mutter. “But it cannot be either of the Goddesses… right? How do you know that?” I asked, turning to Jack. “Have you seen her?”

“Of course not. We bumped into a wing - that is, a group of three - of those alicorns a few months back, me and… and Burst and Blast,” he had explained, trailing off briefly as he had mentioned his deceased friends. He had also swayed again, but with a grunt he and a quick shake he quickly evened up his walk and continued, as if nothing had happened. “They happened to be one of each; they come in three ‘breeds’ you see,” he had been quick to explain as he noticed my expression shift from the ‘shocked’ part of the confusion to the ‘interested’ part. “Purple, blue and green. The purple ones tend to rely on teleportation, and the blue can make themselves invisible, though both know a few other spells as the wounds we got that day could have attested to. I have no idea what the green ones exactly do, I took her out first.”

I’d nodded, absorbing greedily all the informations he had been revealing to me.

“I think they have some sort of… telepathy,” he had continued, causing my eyes to briefly widen. “I killed the green one out of the other two’s view and without making any sound, and yet they immediately turned on me. Their attacks were also far more coordinated than I’d expected. Oh, and the best was when, after Blast managed to get them with a couple of grenades that caused the purple one to drop out of the building we were fighting on down to a very radiated area below, leaving half of her wing with us, she had teleported soon between us, with all her wounds healed. She even regrew that wing back.”

“Really?” I’d asked, astonished. “Does this mean that they get healed by radiation?! To the point that they can regenerate entire limbs?!”

I need to see one of them… I’d thought to myself as Jack nodded, either just meet it or get one for study…

“Not just heals, it also makes them stronger; the magic beam she fired after getting back broke through the wall. Anyway, after we finally got her again - and made sure that no part of her fell down again - with her last breath she screeched at us that the ‘Goddess will have your entrails!’, or something along those lines,” Jack had said, dropping his tone to match the alicorn’s, apparently. He then shook his head and continued “After that we did our best to stay clear of alicorns; which was a hard thing to do, as around that time they began poking around Manehattan Ruins.”

“I don’t suppose you had brought their corpses to any scientist for an examination?” I’d asked, but soon the little hope I had dispersed as Jack had shook his head.

“I actually had considered it,” he had admitted, “but we were too battered after that to carry any of them; they are bigger than you normal ponies.”

I nodded with understanding; as precious as an alicorn corpse was, it was more important that they got back to a safe place… especially since apparently there were so many more of them for me to examine…

Finding comfort in that thought again back in the present moment, I dropped my hooves off my face as I listened to Jack continue. “And that’s besides the fact that they became widely known to the Wasteland around ten years ago, if not less,” he said, ignoring Apple Core’s earlier question. “Also, DJ Pon3 doesn’t bring them up too often on his broadcast either, as the alicorns rarely run into anybody and he tries to warn about more imminent threats.”

Although I nodded at his explanation, my annoyance at Apple Core for omitting such a crucial piece of information about the Wasteland already having ebbed away, a certain thing he had said caused me to perk my ears. However, before I could question him about it, the mare in question shook. “Wait, why the ‘ell are we talkin’ ‘bout some blasted alicorns? What the fuck happened? Why am Ah in bed, why can’t Ah remember anythin’ an’ why do Ah feel so… woozy?” she asked, bring a forehoof to the side of her head and closing her eyes.

Jack and I exchanged a glance. “There was… an explosion, and you lost consciousness, which is why you don’t remember anything sweetie,” I quietly explained, leaning closer to her. Dropping my ears, I added “Burst and Blast are dead… as well as Scope.”

As Apple Core uttered something that sounded like a mixture of cursing and sighing, I gave Jack a quick glance. I was wondering if he wanted to tell her about the exact circumstances that had led to those three deaths. To my slight surprise, though, I found myself on the receiving end of the same glance; from what I could gather from Jack’s expression, he too wondered if I wanted to tell her.

Neither of us wants to say it, but won’t stop the other if they want to, I realized. I wonder, are his reasons the same as mine…

I was about to ask the two apparitions for their opinion, but Apple Core uttered at that moment a sentence that contained the name of Goddess Celestia, a verb, and genitals. Scowling, I immediately berated her, which only caused her to roll her eyes at me.

Taking a deep breath in order to calm myself and forget about my companion’s profane words, I resumed bringing her up to speed: “You’re feeling ‘woozy’, as you have put it, because you lost a lot of blood; don’t worry, you’re not in any danger anymore,” I added as she looked at me with alarm. “How is your left foreleg? Can you lift it?”

“Um, yeah, sure,” she replied, a little confused. As she lifted her foreleg, I trotted over to the left side of the bed to take a better look at it. Apple Core frowned in the meantime. “It… sorta feels like Ah ‘ave slept on it, or somethin’,” Apple Core added, bending it an waving her hoof a little.

Such sensation was within my expectations, so I wasn’t too worried, especially considering the movement capability she had displayed. “Can you feel this?” I still asked, just to be sure, and poked her foreleg with the tip of my horn. As I felt her foreleg jerk and Apple Core uttered a short grunt of surprise, I knew she did, even before she said so. “Everything is alright then; the nerves have been reconnected properly. You will regain the full feeling in your leg soon, won’t be longer than a couple of days.”

“... okay, seriously, what the fuck happened?” Apple Core asked after a few seconds, looking from me to Jack and back. “What'd ya mean by nerves being ‘reconnected properly’? Why were they not connected?!”

“The explosion tore your leg off, sweetie” I explained calmly; as Apple Core stared at me in shock, her jaw dropping, I quickly added “Don’t worry, I reattached it, perfectly I might add, but that was the reason why you have lost so much blood, which is why you need to rest now.”

“Oh, yeah sure, rest…” Apple Core stammered, her gaze switching from me to her leg, looking over it as she felt it up with her other foreleg, as if wanting to make sure it was really there, or looking for stitches.

“If you are looking for stitches or scars, sweetie, you won’t find any. I used magic to reattach your leg,” I informed her, feeling slightly insulted that she had such little faith in my abilities. As Apple Core turned to me, I gave her what I hoped was reassuring smile. “Sweetie, believe me, you - and your leg - are going to be fine. What’s important right now is that you rest, alright?”

I felt heartened at the sight of Apple Core nodding, and calming down, but Jack had decided that at that moment he had to make us realize our situation.

“There might be a slight problem with that,” Jack spoke up, causing both of us to turn back to him. “You two do realize our situation, right?” When I exchanged a confused look with Apple Core, the griffin sighed. “Doctor, you might have healed us all, but between you two being low on blood and me still recuperating, none of us are in any condition to travel yet. We are half a day away from New Appleloosa, which is the closest town. Our supplies, if rationed, would last for about three days, maybe four; about half of what we had got destroyed in the explosion. I already checked the cafeteria while you were sleeping,” he added, glancing at me. “Overlooking the blown up refrigerator and other signs of somebody’s last stand, whatever is left there has long since gone bad, so all we have are what little we took with us for this maximally two-day long expedition we had planned. Not to mention that the two of you brought less provisions,” he added, rolling his eyes and sighing; despite his remark, he seemed more tired than annoyed.

“That… sounds troubling,” I commented, frowning.

“Wait, why are ya low on blood?” Apple Core asked, interrupting me as I analyzed what Jack had said.

“Hm? Oh, that’s because I had transfused my blood to you, sweetie,” I replied calmly. As her eyes widened again, I added: “You’d lost a lot of it by the time I got to you, if I hadn’t given you mine you would have died.”

“Oh…” Apple Core explained, looking at me oddly… and the actually appeared to be embarrassed. “Um, thanks Angel.”

“Think nothing of it, sweetie,” I told her, smiling at her, but as Jack cleared his throat rather loudly, I turned my attention back to him.

“And of course, there is always a risk that something finds this Stable, a monster or a bunch of raiders; I don’t think I have to point out that we’re in no condition to fight, either. Which is why I don’t find the idea of staying here too entertaining, even if we were to close the entrance; with the luck this expedition had, I wouldn’t be surprised if the raiders would just wait outside until we die of hunger,” he muttered, more to himself than to us as he sighed. “Doctor, how long do you think we should rest before we’d be fit enough to travel?”

A little surprised that he was asking for my opinion, it took me a moment to start thinking it over. I hummed to myself while I did, weighing the distance, the environmental conditions, and possible threats we could encounter, against our state.

“I would be well enough to travel tomorrow, I think, assuming I drink enough liquids and eat properly,” I began, already knowing that if we were to ration our supplies I would probably not eat properly. “As for Apple Core…” I paused as I looked her over, then after a brief hesitation cast a Diagnosis Spell on her, to make sure I was right. “Even under my care, she should stay in bed for three more days at least,” I finally said.

If only I could have reattached her leg immediately, I thought with annoyance, then she could’ve recovered by tomorrow… or at least have been well enough to travel...

“Can ya just heal me up with your magic?” Apple Core asked.

“Sweetie, the body needs time after suffering a great trauma to recover, and there is little magic can do to aid in that, especially magic of a magically exhausted unicorn,” I informed her. “Having your limb torn off for… hm, I think it was ten, twenty minutes? I would have to check… anyway, sweetie, your severed limb had began to deteriorate, even if only so little, so this qualifies as such a trauma. Also, there currently isn’t any spell that just replenishes pony’s lost blood.”

Apple Core rolled her eyes at me. “Ah was just askin’...”

“And you, sweetie,” I added, turning back to Jack and not even bothering to cast the spell on him, “you should rest for a week.”

“Yeah, maybe later,” he replied, rolling his eyes. Ignoring my frown, he continued: “If we wait three days for Apple Core to be fit to travel - not to mention that I doubt she would stand a chance if something would attack us on our way back - we will be out of food and weakened from having to ration them. I would hunt, but as we’ve seen on our way here, there is eerily little wildlife here. Which leaves us with one option: I will go back to New Appleloosa by myself and get help.”

“Oh, that’s absolutely out of the question!” I immediately exclaimed, jumping down from the bed and trotting up to him. “You might be in exceptionally good condition given the injury you received, but you need to recuperate! Don’t think I hadn’t noticed you swaying a little on our way back here, or how you’d grunt-”

Apparently, despite his state, he was still perfectly capable of grabbing my muzzle before I would notice. A fact which caused the apparition of Pinkie Pie to giggle.

“Contrary to what you might think, I am not thrilled with this idea either,” Jack said as he glared at me. “But it’s better than staying here, hoping nothing stumbles upon the Stable, and then make our way through the Wasteland weakened. If I go by myself, that is fly,” he added, spreading his wings to emphasize his point, “I will be able to avoid raiders and wild animals with ease.”

Except if you just pass out in the middle of the flight, I thought, unable to voice this point due to the talons around my muzzle. And then, if the fall doesn’t kill you, literally anything that would be in the area could.

Jack narrowed his eyes at me, as if knowing what I had thought. “After I get to New Appleloosa,” he continued, clearly ignoring my doubts, “I will talk with Ditzy Doo, ask her if she can fly over here with her delivery wagon and pick you two up.”

My ears perked at the mention of Ditzy Doo; I recalled that she “does deliveries”, and even flies as far away as Hoofington, but it hadn’t occurred to me that she would travel together with a wagon, most likely to carry all of the said deliveries. I had to admit, as reluctant as I was to allow Jack to travel by himself already, a big part of me was happy at the prospect of seeing her so soon, and excited at the idea of flying all the way back to New Appleloosa.

“Now, I assume she likes you enough to rush over to save you,” Jack added, releasing my muzzle. I massaged it, wondering whether that was true, but then I remembered how nice and kind she had been throughout the short time we’ve spent together, even before Jack brought it up the next second, “I don’t know her very well, but everybody always tells me how great a pony she is. But even if that wasn't the case, she could scavenge the Stable for whatever she wants, I’m sure there are tons of things here she could use.”

That was actually a very good idea. “I’m happy to hear she would be able to make a profit out of this situation; I would hate to bother her without any compensation for her time,” I said, relieved.

“Ya know,” Apple Core spoke up, looking at me with a raised eyebrow, “some would say ‘at after two hundred years ‘f nopony touchin’ her cooch, she owes ya, like, favors like those for the rest of yar life.”

“Apple Core!” I exclaimed, upset, and glared at her. “That was a very rude thing to say, especially considering she will be saving you too! Assuming we will go along with this plan,” I added, turning back to Jack and ignoring the slaver as she rolled her eyes. However, I couldn’t help myself from glancing back and adding “And we’ve only kissed and cuddled!”

As Apple Core shook with what I assumed was disgust, I grew even more upset. If it wasn’t for Jack staring at me impatiently I would have continued to berete her.

“‘Assuming we will go along with this plan’?” he repeated my words once he had back my full attention. “I already stressed that it’s the best plan we have, what more do you want?”

“Sweetie, what I want is for you to recover,” I replied, frowning. “As you are now, I fear that you will collapse during the flight back to New Appleloosa.”

“I will take it easy, and if I feel like I’m getting weak I'll land and take a breather,” Jack said, rolling his eyes. “I would rest up on the clouds, but I’m sure you’d say that flying so high up would be dangerous, as I might pass out, right?”

I nodded, as I indeed prefered for him to fly closer to the ground, just in case he would fall, but then realized what he had said. “You can stand on clouds?” I asked, surprised and curious.

Jack gave me a stern gaze. “Can we not get off-topic?”

“You’re right, sweetie, forgive me,” I replied immediately, though not without a little disappointment.

Afterwards I fell silent for a few seconds, trying to think if there truly was no better plan for us to get back to New Appleloosa, but I failed to come up with any alternative. We couldn’t count on anypony, even Mousetrap and Nice Catch, to come after us if we were gone for too long, as they didn’t know where we went. (I decided to not point that out to Jack, on account of him being the one who wanted to keep this expedition’s goal a secret.) And as much as I preferred to stay in the Stable until we recovered, Jack was right; even if we were in a condition to travel, we wouldn’t move fast enough to elude anything that could attack us, especially if we were weakened by hunger. And if we were to be attacked…

Burst’s and Blast’s headless corpses flashed before my eyes, making both Fluttershy and Pinkie gasp. Sorry, I thought, not having intended to shock them with those images.

I-It’s okay, Fluttershy whispered, looking at me sadly. She then smiled and added I know you won’t let that happen again.

A brief, small smile appeared on my muzzle hearing that and seeing Pinkie nod in agreement. I then dropped it and looked firmly at Jack.

“Very well, but I have conditions,” I told him. The griffin lifted an eyebrow, as if saying ‘are you serious right now’, but didn’t interrupted me as I continued “You will promise me that you will stay close to the ground and take a break everytime you feel weak or dizzy. After reaching New Appleloosa, informing Ditzy of what happened and asking her to come help us, you will go see Candi, the New Appleloosa’s medic. And lastly…” I trailed off, hesitating. “And lastly… you will allow me to cast the Recovery Acceleration Spell on you.”

This time I managed to get Jack to lift both of his eyebrows. “What kind of spell is that?” he asked (while at the same time Apple Core asked “Cast What's-It-Spell?”).

“It’s a spell that amplifies your body’s natural recovery rate,” I began to explain. “It’s perfect for aiding with post surgery recuperation, but-”

“Then why the fuck hadn’t ya cast this damn spell on all of us already?” Apple Core interrupted me, frowning.

I slightly flinched hearing the accusation in her voice; I was thankful that Jack didn’t seem to be angry with me, as well, only patiently waited for me to explain.

“I haven’t done that for two reasons, sweetie,” I told her, then glanced at Jack as I continued. “The first is the amount of magical energy this spell requires, which, as it provides the energy for your body to recover on top of speeding up said recovery, is a lot. In my current state, I won’t even be able to have you make a complete recovery before I’d burn out,” I confessed, annoyed at my limits.

“I’ve been told that burnout isn’t a pleasant experience for a unicorn, even when overlooking being unable to use magic for some time afterwards” Jack said, crossing his forelegs on his chest. “You’d be willing to go through it?”

I smiled at him. “I don’t mind suffering a magical burnout if it means helping my patient, sweetie. Especially when said patient is set on ignoring his doctor’s recommendation and plans to travel so many miles,” I added, giving him a little pout. Jack rolled his eyes, but in the corner of his beak I noted a slight curve. Heartened a little, I found myself even more regretful of what I had to add. “It is because of the second reason that I am hesitant to cast this spell.”

“Ugh, figures there has to be another catch,” Jack sighed, raising his forepaw to his face and rubbing his eyes. “What is is? It better not make me impotent or anything of that sort,” he added as I opened my mouth.

“Um, well…” I spoke at first, put off by his comment.

It clearly was the wrong way to proceed, as while I hesitated, Jack stared at me with eyes wide with alarm. “Oh for fuck sake,” he exclaimed before I could finish my thought, facepawing. Apple Core snorted with laughter, which she then immediately stifled as the annoyed and angry griffin shot her a glare. “You really should stop making noises near me,” he told in a low growl before turning to me, still with the same glare.

Fortunately, by then I had recovered. “No! Um, well, that is…” Okay, maybe not completely. I shook my head, took a deep breath, and started again: “Nothing of that sort will happen to you now, sweetie. The repeated casting of the Recovery Acceleration Spell, however, causes the body’s natural healing processes to decline. For an average adult pony, the limit of times this spell can be cast is two; anything beyond that… after that, it takes longer for the body to create new cells and scar tissue, white blood cell count drops, so does platelets count, and even worse, eventually such a pony would develop acquired haemophilia, which impairs the body’s ability to make blood clots, required to stop the bleeding. It also disrupts both the heart rate and body’s circulatory system, which could cause-”

Talons once again grabbed my muzzle as I was about to explain why was I hesitant when the subject of impotence was brought up. “Okay, I got it,” Jack told me, his eyes rolled up to the back of his head.

I was a little unhappy that I wasn’t allowed to further explain all the drawbacks the repeated usage of this spell would cause, even though it had probably spared me from answering just why did I know them so well. I’d guessed that even just mentioning the fact that I had invented it would lead them to some unpleasant realizations.

“So it is safe to cast it this once, right?” Jack asked me. As he still held my muzzle, I was reduced to nodding in response. “So seeing how I doubt we would ever find ourselves in a situation when I would have to be back to my top form right away - especially if from the next day forward I’ll be living on the opposite side of the Wasteland from you Doctor, which I am seriously considering at this point - none of those side effects will affect me, and you’ve been basically just wasting our time?”

Despite his last words, he spoke in a calm manner, so when he released my snout I knew it was safe for me to frown at him with annoyance. “I was trying to explain all of the spell’s risks, sweetie, there’s no reason to be borderline rude. But basically, yes,” I added reluctantly. “I am still unfamiliar with the griffins’ physiology - in general; I’m finding myself more curious about your physiology in particular, though - but based on what I’ve observed so far… I would say that you would be fine even after the third time I’d use the Recovery Acceleration Spell on you,” I concluded, recalling how quickly he woke up after I healed his brain and the extent of his mobility afterwards.

“Yeah, hopefully we’ll never know,” Jack remarked, grimacing a little with belittlement, then shook himself. “Okay, let’s do this. Even if I am confident I could make it to New Appleloosa, this way I should make it faster.”

“You’ll still take your time sweetie,” I told him sternly, in a voice that invited no argument.

While indeed Jack hadn’t argued with me, my short experience with dealing with him as my patient - and the eyeroll he had just done - told me that he was quite possibly going to ignore my words. Despite that, I merely sighed and prepared myself to cast the Recovery Acceleration Spell on him, knowing that he was set on flying to New Appleloosa regardless.

“It would help me if you wouldn’t move,” I told him as my horn began to glow with red light, which enveloped him.

Jack accommodated my request, staying perfectly still, save for slowly breathing, as my magic began to sip into his body. I closed my eyes, concentrating; during this first stage, both the spell and I adjusted to the patient’s body. Knowing I couldn’t afford to waste energy, I aided the process. Stepping closer to Jack, I lifted one forehoof to his chest and placed it on his heart, while the other I pressed against his temple. Now physically feeling his heartbeat caused me to complete this stage within seconds. Then, as I felt it “learn” the body’s healing process, I poured more magic into it, accelerating the natural regeneration and providing Jack with the energy to do so. I barely heard Jack’s soft gasp that he quickly stifled; the pressure and heat in my horn from yesterday returned, and it quickly magnified. I clenched my teeth and continued, ignoring the pulsing pain that would only grow worse. Slowly, as I continued to channel the spell, I felt my head lower ever so slightly, inch by inch, and my forehooves grinded against Jack while I poured more energy through my horn… until it was all gone.

The pressure and the heat were gone, and so was the spell. A short jolt of terrible pain passed over me in that instant as my horn stopped working, as if a great amount of accumulated energy had burst all at once and then was gone. It didn’t last longer than a second, but it still made me yelp in pain as - having lost my balance due to the unexpected loss of strain - I staggered backwards, falling.

I didn’t hit the floor, though; Jack reached out faster and held me by my shoulders, stopping me. “You okay?” he asked with worry, holding me gently.

I breathed heavily, exhausted. “Yes, I… I’ll be fine in a moment, sweetie,” I said, trying to catch my breath. “As soon as the room stops spinning,” I added, hoping that a little humor would dispatch whatever worries he might have.

What humor? Pinkie Pie asked, spinning around along with the room while Fluttershy, who managed to stay in relatively same spot, looked at me with worry.

The pain emanating from my horn wasn’t helping, either. “H-how about you, sweetie?” I asked Jack to help distract myself.

As Jack carefully let go of me and began to examine himself, I slowly raised a hoof to my horn and touched it delicately. Immediately, I drew it back; my horn was unpleasantly warm.

Turning my attention back to the griffin, I saw him looking at his forepaws, bending his talons and then stretching them, then throwing a quick punch through the air. “Great Egg, you weren’t kidding,” he finally said, looking at me, both surprised and impressed. “I feel way better than before.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” I told him. My breathing had began to slow down finally, and although my horn still ached terribly, I found myself capable of standing up. I tried to shake my head, but the immediate new wave of pain discouraged me from it. “And how’s your head?”

He lifted a paw to it, pressing it right at the spot where a bullet had entered. “Better, too; only aches a little now,” he confessed.

I frowned; I had hoped that I would have been able to at least make that pain to go away completely. “You’ll be taking a few healing potions with you in case you run into problems, right sweetie? Take one if the pain starts to bother you again,” I instructed him after he nodded. “They should relieve some of it for a time.”

“Alright then,” Jack nodded again, then looked briefly at Apple Core, then back at me. “I think I should make it to New Appleloosa in three hours. I will be taking it slow,” he added with an eye roll as my brow began to furrow.

At the same time, he began to unstrap some of his bags and remove other items he was carrying and laying them on the still intact table, most likely to make the flight even easier for himself by removing excess weight. There were already plenty of items on that table; as I took a better look at them, I realized, with a pang of sadness, that those had belonged to Burst and Blast. Most notable were their weapons, but their saddlebags were there too.

“Ditzy will probably be here two hours after that, I think,” Jack’s voice pulled my attention away from them, “dunno how fast she flies. You two should be fine until then.” By then he had removed most of his equipment, aside from his armor, his weapons, and one pack that was strapped by his waist. Nodding one last time in farewell, he rose, and began to head towards the door when he glanced at me. “Doctor, you mind walking me out?”

*** *** ***

Although my horn was still hurting and I felt exhausted, the pain had subsided, the exhaustion was mostly only magical in nature, and nothing was spinning anymore (even Pinkie), so I didn’t mind walking Jack back past the Stable Eleven’s entrance. With some amusement, I realized that the roles were now reversed; it was I who was swaying a little, while Jack walked normally.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” he asked me again; I was pleased to detect worry in his voice.

“Sweetie, this isn’t the first time I’ve suffered magical burnout,” I told him, hoping to calm his worries. “I will be back to my normal physical condition shortly.”

Jack narrowed his eyes, as if wondering whether I spoke the truth or not, but he seemed to accept my words. “Good. Now, here, take this,” he began, reaching for something in the pack he hadn’t unstrapped earlier, “and I don’t want to hear any of your-”

But by then he had already took out the item out and I saw what it was. “No,” I told him firmly as he held out the gun before me.

He sighed and looked up, as if praying for patience. “I understand and can even respect your reluctance to use firearms - as idiotic as it is - but just take it, in case something happens. It’s one of Burst’s spares, so you can hold it in your mouth.”

Glancing briefly at it, I noted that it indeed had the mouth-held grip with tongue operated trigger, like almost all of the small firearms I’ve seen; the gun belonging to Jack was of different design, allowing him to hold it comfortably in his paws.

“If something happens, then I will deal with it in my own way,” I told him, declining his offer with as much politeness as I could muster when this topic was brought up. “I will not carry a gun.”

Jack stopped. Upset that we had to have this conversation, I stopped too and faced him.

“You would put both yours and Apple Core’s life at risk because of your morals?” he asked me, glaring at me with annoyance bordering on anger. “I could maybe understand just putting yours, but your patient's too?”

I stared back into his eyes, unflinching. “I happen to put great value in my morality,” I told him.

It was true, of course, but at the same time, caring and protecting my patients and friends to the best of my abilities was also a part of my morality. Gazing into Jack’s eyes, I realized that I had no choice but to admit the truth, not if I hoped to retain whatever respect and maybe friendship he had for me.

“But… I never said that my absolute refusal to carry guns was caused solely by my morals,” I confessed.

As Jack narrowed his eyes, I found myself hoping that he would understand. I didn’t want to explain further.

After a few moments of agonizing silence, Jack finally spoke “So… no matter what would happen, you wouldn’t pick up a gun?” he asked.

I closed my eyes and shook my head. “No,” I said, my voice as calm as ever.

Jack stared into my eyes a few more seconds, as if trying to read my thoughts; I hoped he could read from them that I was speaking truly. Finally, he closed his eyes and facepawed, sighing. “I’m gonna go on a limb here and guess that you aren’t exactly skilled in hoof-to-hoof fighting, either, nor with melee weapons, right?” he asked, his voice sounding very tired and annoyed. Actually, it didn’t even sound like a question with that tone, more like he just said it for the sake of saying it. When I replied regardless, with an affirmation to his guess of course, he dropped his paw and looked at me sternly. “So all you can do to defend yourself is magic, and you purposely made yourself unable to use it?!”

Well, when he says it like that, it does sound rather silly of me to do so…

Not wanting to admit to that - even thought I felt my cheeks burn ever so slightly out of embarrassment - I said “I can also talk my way out of problematic situations! That’s how I bested Scope,” I pointed out, feeling a little pride at that.

“No, I ‘bested’ that bastard,” Jack countered. “You distracted him until you healed me; with magic,” he added pointedly.

“Well, sweetie, I still outwitted him,” I replied, a little defensively. “Me, a pony barely out of her Stable, outsmarted a seasoned Wastelander.”

“I know!” he exclaimed, turning to me with exasperated expression; his beak hang open and his eyes were comically widened. I wasn’t sure if he was mocking me, or if he was so bewildered by that. “Honestly, no joke, if there is an Afterlife, first thing I do after I die is to go find that bastard and ridicule him for getting outsmarted by the Wasteland’s dumbest genius!”

I frowned, my mood souring and not because of the very high possibility of being mocked right now. “Sweetie, speaking about your death in the presence of your doctor is rather insensitive, to be honest, even while jesting.”

My griffin patient rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Everybody dies, Doctor, sooner or later,” he said, his eyes rolling up to the back of his head.

I snorted hearing that accursed statement. Not if I have something to say about that…

Keeping those thoughts to myself, I instead added “Furthermore, while I don’t know what kind of Afterlife you believe in or don’t, I assure you, you wouldn’t end up in the same place where Scope’s soul must be now.”

Now it was Jack’s turn to snort, almost exactly the same as I had. I glanced at him curiously, but he quickly shook whatever he thought about off and changed the subject back to our previous topic.

“After we get over this shit, I’m going to teach you some melee combat tricks,” he declared, looking at me in a manner that almost bothered on contempt. “You can’t live in this world if you don’t have some fighting skills, miss ‘I’m gonna be the next Princess of Equestria’. For now take this,” he said, taking out his combat knife out of its sheath, flipping it around in the air and grabbing it by its blade, then leaned it towards me.

Far more comfortable with such weapons - it was basically a bigger, more clumsy version of a scalpel, after all - I grabbed the grip with my mouth and tried a few swings. Judging by Jack’s disappointed stare, I was doing it wrong.

“Adjust your grip,” he told me, and before I could comply to his request - or rather, try to while looking at him questioningly to see if I was doing it right - he reached to my muzzle and maneuvered both my jaw and the knife slightly. “There, hold it like this. And don’t swing it so wildly. Try to aim, best for the throat-”

“Throat, artery, eyes, temple, sutura coronalis, spine, heart, solar plexus?” I cut in after spitting out the knife, smirking a little. “I happen to know vital areas of a pony, sweetie.”

“And have you ever cut or hit such a vital point of a pony who wasn’t on a surgical table?” he asked, smirking in turn. I almost let it slip that yes I had, but considering my test subjects were always strapped to something I figured it wouldn’t count anyway. “Also, forget about trying to stab anybody in the heart or spine, you clearly don’t have enough strength to push it through the barding anybody who could wander in here would wear. And don’t aim at the eyes, you will get only one and just get them pissed,” he snorted as he rose and resumed walking towards the Stable’s entrance; picking up the combat knife I followed after him.

Jack gave me a few more pointers on our way, telling me at which angle I should move my head if I’d want to slash or stab somebody effectively. I did my best to memorize his advice, while at the same time hoping I wouldn’t have to use them. Jack had also, after some thought, given me some leathery straps along with the knife’s sheath that he had combined quickly.

“It will be easier this way for you to take the knife out if you can’t do it with magic,” he explained as I removed my lab coat, so that the straps (and the knife, of course) would be hidden from everybody’s sight. “Although I really hope it won’t come to this; you kinda suck.”

“Well, sweetie,” I began, blushing from the slight offense, “I’m sure if our roles were reversed - though I don't know why I would be teaching you how to perform a surgery - you wouldn’t be exactly…” I slowly trailed off as I noticed Jack’s amusement, realizing that his earlier remark was meant, while truthful, was also playful. Rolling my eyes, I couldn’t help but huff, “Very funny sweetie.”

Jack didn’t say much to that, other than uttering a short chuckle.

“Come to think about it,” he said after we walked for a bit without speaking, “Burst had a ripper in one of his saddlebags; hardly ever used that thing. Still, it is more deadly than a combat knife, so you might wanna grab it. I left it along with most of their stuff back at the Overmare’s quarters. Just try to not kill yourself by turning it on,” he added, looking at me sternly. “If it seems too dangerous for you to use then don’t bother with it at all.”

Nodding, I made a mental note about this ‘ripper’; if it wasn’t a weapon, I might have felt a bit curious and ask what did Jack mean by ‘turning it on’. As it was, however, I had far more interesting thoughts already in my head to bother with rather than another weapon.

We walked in silence for a bit after that, but when we were about to reach the door leading to the cellar and Outside, Jack finally broke it.

“Why didn’t you tell your slaver friend about Scope?” he asked, glancing at me with his eyebrow raised.

I turned to glance as him as well. “I would have thought that it’s quite obvious, sweetie. I’ve told you about what Scope had revealed to me, that he got some holotape from Cutter concerning Black Widow. I don’t think she would have liked to know that I know that there is something she was hiding, something that - as Cutter had believed - could undermine her position and even endanger her life. And If I had told Apple Core the whole truth of what had happened… well, as much as I like her and enjoy her company, she tends to drink a lot,” I said, shaking my head. “I’d prefer not to risk her letting something like this slip.”

“Hmh,” Jack grunted, nodding with approval. “I’ll give you that, you really are clever… which makes the whole ‘getting magical burnout without having other means of defense’ thing even more ridiculous, but I’ll ignore that.”

“Um, thank you sweetie. I think...” I added, unsure if I should treat that as a compliment after all. Curious, I asked: “What about you? You didn’t intervene when I was telling Apple Core.”

The griffin shrugged. “It’s not her business.”

“That… that’s it?” I asked, blinking in surprise; I had expected a bigger reason from him.

Jack glared at me. “Yes, that’s it. I also thought maybe it would be better for you. Maybe I didn’t want to correct you until you explained to me why you kept quiet about that, maybe I wondered what to do about this organization you told me about, maybe I wondered if you spoke the truth, or maybe I don’t want to think about it now!” he finished, his voice becoming more of a growl.

Despite myself, I shook as I became the target for his wrath, however briefly; it didn’t help that there was a slight echo to his growl vibrating through the Stable Entrance.

I lowered my head apologetically, ears dropping. “Forgive me sweetie, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Jack snorted and headed past the door; I quickly fell in step beside him, trying to think of something to say to disperse the foul mood I had brought upon us.

Maybe it would be best to change the subject, I thought as we walked through the tunnel.

“When you were talking about alicorns…” I began hesitantly; when Jack didn’t show any signs of annoyance, I continued “Back when you had explained to me how come Apple Core could not know about them, I mean; you had said that they became known to the Wasteland about ten years ago?”

“Apparently,” he replied, shrugging, not looking at me. “I wasn’t here, as you said Scope had mentioned. But I asked around after coming to Equestria, learning about the biggest factions, raiders’ nests, and wildlife,” I smiled briefly, remembering how I had done pretty much the same after leaving Stable Eight, “and eventually heard about them, too, from a reliable source at that. Also, they started showing up more like nine years ago, I think,” he added in an afterthought.

“Yes, I figure that must have been how you learned about them,” I said, nodding. “However… when you talked about alicorns, sweetie, I… couldn’t help but get the impression that you knew about them.” An unpleasant shiver went down my spine as Jack glanced at me, not saying a word. “I mean, you’ve said how few know of them and how they’ve became known less than a decade ago, but when we talked before, you said that the alicorns had been around for far longer than Red Eye. And also… based on what little I know of your character, sweetie,” I added, turning to look him in the eye, “I don’t believe you would be so quick to kill one of them, without a chance for peaceful resolution, if you hadn’t thought of them as an unreasonable threat.”

Jack snorted and looked away. We reached the cellar door at that moment, and we passed through it in silence, my griffin companion not answering my question.

Guess I’ll have to get him to warm up to me… I thought, a little disappointed.

“What exactly did that bastard tell you about the Bloodtalons?”

I turned to look at him, slightly surprised; I’d began to think that he was going to ignore my question. Instead, I found him having turned towards me, looking at me with both eyes and expecting a reply.

“W-well, sweetie,” I began, slightly unnerved by the intensity of his state, “Scope said that the Bloodtalons are the deadliest mercenary company, that they have completed every job they’ve been hired for, and that they’ve been gone from Equestria for over forty years.”

And that you’re the son of the Bloodtalons’ leader, I mentally added; I wasn’t sure if he would get annoyed if he learned that I knew that.

Jack snorted. “Sounds about right. Indeed, Bloodtalons have completed every task they’ve been hired for, took down every marked target and so on, past those near three hundreds years since their company was founded… at least, that’s how everybody sees it,” he added, making me blink in surprise. “Their… our seniors, however, when they taught me and the rest of our rookery about our history, they’d always say that there was one job we hadn’t completed. One particular target we hadn’t taken down, not personally. All because a few of those alicorns had meddled with our hunt,” he said in a low voice. As I leaned closer, engrossed by the tale, Jack cut it short. “Still, we had chased that bitch all the way into Splendid Valley, so even if those alicorns hadn’t killed her after my great-great-grandfather’s group had retreated, then either one of the other nasty things living there or Taint exposure must have done the job, as she was gone afterwards. So the Bloodtalons still got paid.” He shrugged and added “ And that’s the story of the - most likely - first sighting of those alicorns.”

“I can’t help but feel like you’ve omitted several details of this story, sweetie,” I told him, pouting a little.

Jack chuckled and actually smiled. “Sorry Doctor, but it’s a rather long tale, one I like, so I would prefer to do it justice; I’ll tell it to you later, when we aren't in such a shitty situation.” He glanced at the endless gray of the cloud cover above, then in the direction of New Appleloosa. “At least it stopped raining… stay safe until I get back, okay Doctor?” he asked, turning back to me, and extend his open forepaw to me.

I smiled at the gesture and reached out with my forehoof. “Of course, sweetie- wait,” I said, stopping my hoof and frowning. “Sweetie, you’re supposed to stay in New Appleloosa.” Jack rolled his eyes but didn’t say nothing or moved at all otherwise, which only irritated me further. Stomping, I took a step closer to him. “You’re staying at Candi’s clinic, you’re not in a condition to-”

I stopped abruptly as a talon flicked my nose. Baffled, I stepped back instinctively, while at the same time Jack soared into the air. “See you,” he called back and waved as his wings swiftly carried him away.

Massaging my nose, I watched him fly away, slowly recovering from the shock. I was a little sour that he had brushed me off in such a manner; the tiny pink pony giggling inside my head wasn’t helping.

I’m going to stitch that griffin’s talons together someday.

*** *** ***

Returning to the Overmare’s quarters did not improve my mood.

“What in the name of the Goddesses are you doing, sweetie?” I asked Apple Core, crossed, as she gulped down a bottle of whiskey.

“Drinkin’?” she asked, raising her eyebrow as she made a brief break from the bottle.

“Didn’t it occur to you that consuming alcohol while recovering and being low on blood is a very bad idea?” I asked, frowning.

“Don’chya doctors use alcohol t’ sterilize stuff?” she asked me in turn, making another break.

“What does that even…” I began to argue, but I realized that it was pointless; there was no way I’d get that bottle away from her. Truly, becoming the Princess of Equestria seemed at least plausible in comparison. Sighing, I gave up. “Very well, sweetie, but promise me you won’t drink more than this bottle today.”

Apple Core looked at me with her ‘are ya kiddin’?’ look, but rolled her eyes when she met my stern gaze. “Fine,” she nickered, laying the half-empty bottle at the bedside locker, saving it for later. “As if there’s much else t’ do…”

“Where did you even get that bottle?” I asked, curious, as I walked over to look at it. The label on it read ‘Wild Pegasus’; ironic name, considering that ‘wild’ wasn’t a name that came to my mind regarding the single pegasus I had met so far. “I thought that the bottle you were drinking back before the explosion was destroyed.”

“Yeah, took it from the mini-bar over ‘ere,” Apple Core replied, nodding at the big cabinet under the wall.

I trotted over; most of the furniture had collapsed in time, but there was one closed drawer that seemed to have survived. I reached over and opened, revealing two more bottles of Wild Pegasus (with the free place for the two that Apple Core must had already taken out), a bottle of wine and… drugs. I blinked, surprised at the sight of an almost empty tin of Party-Time Mint-als, a small stash of Dash and even some Buck (and several empty containers of both chems).

Weird, I wouldn’t have assumed that a pony like Strict Frame would use any other drugs than Mint-als, I mused. Guess one shouldn’t judge a pony based on her looks and position… though really, what use did she have for the others? Unless that Moon Scrounger got her addicted to all of them on purpose to control her… or maybe she became addicted before coming to live in Stable Eleven? She was working on a rock farm… And where did she get those from? Did she make them and keep reusing the same bottles and inhalers? And why did she hang herself if she could just overdose?!

Sighing (and a little frustrated at Strict Frame) I closed the mini-bar, deciding whatever that pony, and by extension everypony from Adherents of the Royal Sisters party, had done and why, it was not worth thinking over. Informing Apple Core to not use any of the drugs, just in case (as far as I knew she didn’t even use them on normal days, but better safe than sorry), I trotted over to the table where Jack had dropped most of his (and Burst and Blast’s) equipment, including our food supplies. After looking it over, I picked up some dried up jerky, some potato mash and two cans of beans, then brought the jerky and half of the rest to Apple Core, telling her to eat it.

“Bossy much?” she asked as she dug into the meat.

“They have nutrients that will help you produce new blood cells; I’d prefer, sweetie, if you wouldn’t develop anemia,” I told her as I began to eat my share (not wanting to risk vomiting, I decided to skip the meat this time).

After our meal and a few gulps of water (after which Apple Core had promptly taken another swig out of the Wild Pegasus bottle), I turned my attention to the stuff Jack left on a table. Feeling a little better (my horn didn’t even ache too badly at that point), I decided I needed to find something to do to pass the time, and I remembered Jack mentioning something called a ‘ripper’ to me.

I trotted over to the table and picked the saddlebag that belonged to Blast. His scent was still on it, and I found myself growing sadder. I took a few seconds to take a deep breath and calm down, then continued. Not wanting to rummage inside the bag that could contain guns, I flipped it over and let the contents spill on the table, carefully and slowly. It contained mostly grenades, but after several seconds from within fell out what had to be the ripper Jack had mentioned.

I looked over the knife with a weird mechanism attached to it curiously, specifically the small iron teeth on the edge of the blade and what seemed to be a wire between them. Noticing the lever by the mouth grip, I picked it up with the intention of turning it on, wondering if it would do what I assumed it would (and really, what the name alone implied it would do).

Whoa, heavy! I realized as almost immediately upon picking it up my head swayed to the side. With an effort, I brought my head back, regaining my balance. If Jack were here, he would probably tell me to not bother using this in a fight if I find just lifting it to be this difficult, I noted, rolling my eyes inwardly. Still curious about the weapon’s function, I carefully adjusted the weapon in my mouth so that the lever would be pressed against my teeth, and bit a little harder.

The ripper immediately came to life, activating its mechanism and causing the little teeth to travel along the blade. I gazed at this saw in knife’s form, feeling somewhat fascinated by the simple lethality of this device. And excited about what I could use it for, despite being probably too weak to use it in combat.

“The hell was ‘at?” Apple Core asked me after I turned it off. Putting the ripper into my saddlebag and beginning to remove it, my lab coat and stable barding, I heard her snicker “Was it one of ‘em fancy vibrator thingies?”

I cast my slaver companion a reproachful stare, but being so excited as I was I quickly dropped it. “No, sweetie. Though it does vibrates a little,” I added with a giggle. “Anyway, do you mind if I leave you alone for some time? I will be over at the Overmare’s office, so if you’d need anything you can just shout.”

“Um, sure,” Apple Core replied, watching me in confusion as I finished taking off my clothes, then grabbed the saddlebag and started to trot away. “What the heck are ya goin’ t’ do over ‘er?”

Turning to her by the door, I smiled and said: “Let’s just say I’ll be getting to know somepony a little closer.”

*** *** ***

Well, that was rather uneventful, I noted about an hour later while wiping sweat from my brow, looking over Scope’s remains and turning off my PipBuck’s recording.

It turned out that performing a post-mortem examination without the help of magic - completely - was more difficult than I had anticipated. Suffice to say that my respect for Candi and every other earth pony (as well as pegasus) doctor had grown considerably. Thanks to the ripper I managed to open Scope up relatively easy, true, but the entire procedure proved… messy.

It’s a good thing the water talismans are still working, I noted, taking off the goggles I found in the Maintenance before I started and looking over my bloodied coat. Frowning, I then took off the the provisional mask made of some cloth from my muzzle and left it beside Scope’s corpse, and checked if the samples I took of him were secured. Alright, that would be all. You can open your eyes now Fluttershy, I added with a touch of humor as I began to pack the samples, ripper, and some smaller surgical equipment back to my saddlebags.

The tiny apparition, who was covering her eyes, brought one down to take a peek around. When she realized that I was no longer looking at the remains - which I’d began to believe meant that they couldn’t see it either - she relaxed and dropped both of them.

Forgive me, sweetie, I usually manage to be far more… clean, I told her as Pinkie floated next to her and patted her on the back as she recovered. This ripper can’t exactly cut flesh evenly.

Y-yes, I’ve noticed, Fluttershy said meekly,

Yeah, it was pretty gruesome how all that blood splashed on your face! Pinkie exclaimed, her description causing Fluttershy’s face to become a touch greener and to shake slightly.

Sweetie, I would appreciate if you’d refrain from such comments for the time being, I scolded Pinkie Pie, nodded meaningfully at the tiny pegasus. The obvious concern for Fluttershy aside… I am not sure if I wouldn’t feel if either of you’d vomit inside of my head.

I knew that, whatever exactly they were, they were within those statuettes, of course, but seeing how they’d been able to talk to me in my head… well, I plainly didn’t know how this spell worked! Which was somewhat frustrating, but on the off chance that the spell that had originally bonded them to the statuettes caused them to bond to me now and actually be inside of my head, I’d preferred to avoid having them vomit around my mind.

Oh, right, sorry! Pinkie Pie quickly said, smiling sheepishly at Fluttershy, who smiled in return and waved to show that everything was okay (while still holding her other hoof against her mouth). So, did you find anything interesting? the pink apparition turned to me as I began to make my way out of the office.

Not really, I replied, pouting unhappily. I mean, finding out that his organs were in excellent condition had confirmed my guess, yes, but I’ve already gotten enough proof of that by simply examining his teeth. Rolling my eyes, I added But it’s not like I have anything to do right now, so it’s not like I lost time doing that… Anyway, I will be certain after I’ll examine those samples I took. I wonder what shall Jack think of my hypothesis…

Sighing, I put those thoughts aside for later. Right now I needed to wash away the blood on my coat… and after that take a long, warm bath. I deserved that much at least.

I expected my blood-soaked coat would cause Apple Core a rather panicked reaction, or at least a raised eyebrow and a question. So I was surprised when upon entering the Overmare’s quarters - intending to use the bathroom connected to it - I was met with silence. That is, until two seconds later when said silence was shattered by a snore.

Well, at least she’s resting, I thought, looking at the sleeping mare. I trotted over to quickly check on her. Wish she didn’t rest together with an empty bottle of whiskey under her foreleg, but still...

Sighing after examination, I hung back from the bed, then looked around the room. Different, smaller and abandoned for almost two centuries, yet… still feels familiar, I thought as a wave of nostalgia washed over me, turning my gaze back the sleeping mare. I bit my lip. No wonder I had that dream…

Slowly, my gaze travelled from Apple Core to my PipBuck. The PipBuck that was filled with many recordings I had made over the years. Including ones that recorded events that transpired in a similar room in my Stable. And in others, with the same pony.

Including the one that had began to play by accident two days ago when the train stopped near New Appleloosa.

Angel? Fluttershy question snapped me out of my reminiscing.

As I shook my head slightly, I realized that I had moved my other hoof above my PipBuck and was about to hit play, turning on that recording again. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, then placed my shaking hoof above it, trying to calm down.

That recording… Fluttershy began as I gradually stopped shaking, with Pinkie’s gaze travelling between the two of us in worry. Angel, that voice, wasn’t it the same as…

Since Apple Core is alright and currently very heavily sleeping, I think I can allow myself to take a long warm bath, won’t you agree? I interrupted her, rising up and headed towards the bathroom. I ignored the two apparitions as they exchanged a look between them. Maybe I will even take a short nap… Waking up to find Ditzy leaning over me would make up a bit for the awful things that had transpired since we left New Appleloosa...

I giggled, imagining that scene. Of course, the water would have probably turned cold by then, but surely, I could convince Ditzy to take another warm bath after refilling the water, right?

The bathroom was, as it was to be expected after near two hundred years of negligence, a mess. Full of dirt and rust. However, a quick search allowed me to find a few treasures in the cabinet beside the wide bathtub that more than made up for the bathroom’s state. First was a relatively well-preserved towel (which honestly didn’t account for much, but it was still dry and clean-ish, so I could use it after my bath) and second… was a collection of bath oils!

Finally, some luxury in this Wasteland! I thought, excited at the prospect. Hastily, I removed my saddlebags and left it in the bathroom’s corner, then looked around for some detergents to clean the bathtub so that I could take bath in it… then spotted my blood covered coat. Hm, lying in a bathtub in the water mixed together with Scope’s blood doesn’t seem… Yeah, I’m just not gonna do it, that’s gross even by my standards, I stated flatly, deadpanning at my blood covered leg. I’ll shower quickly first, then clean the bathtub, then take a bath.

*** *** ***

A long, pleasure-filled moan escaped me as I slowly submerged in the hot bubble bath. Ooooh, how I missed this, I thought as I breathed in the aroma of the bath oils I had mixed in to make bubbles.

Closing my eyes, I lay comfortably in the bathtub, listening to the relaxing music I had recorded on my PipBuck back in Stable Eight. I had considered going over to Maintenance again to look for some PipBuck technician’s tools in order to remove it from my leg for the duration of the bath, but ultimately decided against it in favor of listening to some pleasant tunes (and not wanting to bother with it).

Only thing I’m missing right now is some incense, I though, then giggled and added Well, I suppose some company would also be nice…

Company, huh? Pinkie Pie asked, raising an eyebrow. And what are we exactly?

I glanced at the two statuettes, which I had placed in the bathtub’s corner, then back at the two apparitions. Forgive me, sweetie, I should have specified that I meant the kind of company that can offer cuddles, massage or to wash my back, I told her with a smile.

Oh yeah? Pinkie exclaimed, giggling and floating closer with a smirk on her face. I’ll have you know, Missy, that I am great in all of those! Fluttershy, come here for a moment, she turned around as she called the other apparition.

Oh, um, I would rather not… Fluttershy stammered as she backed away from Pinkie Pie, blushing.

C’mon, it will be like one of your spa trips with Rarity!

I giggled as I washed my mane, heartened and amused by the two apparitions’ antics… and a little jealous. As much as I enjoyed their company, I found myself missing a more physical presence. There was Apple Core, of course, but aside from her sleeping very heavily (and loudly; her snoring was part of the reason why I had turned the music up), I doubted I could convince her into taking a bath together, even if I’d have promised it would be purely… what’s the word, platonic?

And this bathtub is easily big enough for one more pony to fit here, too, I thought, saddened, as I submerged my head under the water for several seconds. Hopefully I’ll convince Ditzy into taking a bath with me… But seriously, it is just my luck that I would be stuck here with the one pony who wouldn’t want to take bath together with me, I added with a little bit of annoyance after emerging and shaking my head, then I grabbed a sponge (found an unopened package of them in another cabinet) and began to brush it gently along my body.

After several seconds of washing myself, I noticed that both apparitions were… well, blushing, and trying to look away. I blinked, a bit surprised. Um, sweeties, are you embarrassed? I asked uncertainty. Forgive my confusion, but we are all mares here, there shouldn’t be any reason for anypony to be embarrassed.

Pinkie Pie scratched the back of her head, looking at Fluttershy, who hid her face behind her mane. Well… you are kinda washing yourself in an, um, erotic way... Pinkie explained, giggling sheepishly.

I am? I thought, surprised. I turned my attention to my left hind leg, that I had raised above the water as I washed it. Oh, forgive me, it hasn’t been brought up to my attention… although that would explain… I trailed off before my memories had traveled too far down the memory lane again. Um, how about this then? I asked as I closed my eyes. You can’t see now, right?

Yeah, that’s a bit better. Sorry, Pinkie said sheepishly as I resumed washing myself, now with my eyes closed. I guess we kinda invade on your privacy, huh?

Hm, I suppose so, although it doesn’t really bother me that much. I am more concerned with your comfort… You should have seen how Fluttershy was when Ditzy and I were kissing, I added, giggling softly. As the tiny pegasus blushed and tapped her forehooves together in embarrassment, I frowned slightly and continued I hope you two will at least give me the courtesy of, hm, disappearing when I’m showing affection to others; it can be a bit distracting.

Oh, absolutely-tutely! Pinkie replied immediately, nodding. Then, slightly blushing and looking away, she added Although, we might get, um, curious, from time to time. In a totally respectful way, she added, grinning nervously as her eyes looked everywhere but at me.

Fluttershy’s entire face in turn was covered by a wall of pink mane.

I would have blinked at her in confusion if I weren’t keeping my eyes closed, but I quickly brushed her comment off. I really did not mind the two of them intruding on my private life, as long as they didn’t disrupt it.

However, all those thoughts on the subject, coupled with my earlier longing after physical company and the sponge occasionally brushing along my groin caused certain… ideas to appear in my mind. Ideas that I considered entertaining…

As I raised my right foreleg above the water and began to slowly wash it, I found myself thinking back to how I stumbled upon Blast and Apple Core in the middle of the coitus, and how the sadly deceased stallion had asked both myself and Burst if we wanted to join in. Although it was a bitter memory, it had made me think about what would have happened if I had said yes… (As well as, if knowing that the two of them would be dead within the next hour would actually cause me to say yes? A rather difficult thought to properly muse over...). A smile crossed my muzzle as I brought the sponge lower down the inner side of my thigh…

“Angel, you’ve gotta-”

I blinked as the metallic voice - that had stopped so abruptly - resonated through the bathroom. Turning my head towards the open doorway, I saw a sprite-bot hovering there.

“Watcher?” I asked, surprised by the intrusion, then smiled in greeting as I lowered my hind leg back into the water. “What a pleasant surprise, sweetie.”

For whatever reason, the mysterious hacker of sprite-bots didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. “Um, I, um… I’m so sorry!” he suddenly exclaimed after he stammered for a while, very loudly. I tiled my head in confusion as a series of loud banging noises erupted from the speaker. Guessing by the sprite-bots erratic movement that followed them - the robot did a half turn and began to fly forward at a higher speed that I had witnessed it moving before, which resulted at it bouncing against the bathroom wall, several times - Watcher must have slammed against whatever controls he was using for steering it. “I didn’t mean to… w-walk in you… y-you know, having a bath!”

Leaning against the bathtub’s edge and supporting myself with my forehooves, I spoke “It’s alright, sweetie, it could have happened to anyypony. Honestly, I probably shouldn’t have left the door open…” I added, blushing from embarrassment, then blinked. “Wait, did I leave the door to Stable Eleven open?!”

“Um, yeah. About that-”

I groaned, facehoofing. How could I forget to close it?! I suppose my frustration with Jack had played a part there… and overall exhaustion and unfamiliarity with this type of situation… Why didn’t the two of you remind me?! I asked, turning to Pinkie and Fluttershy.

I, um, told Pinkie about them… Fluttershy offered meekly.

Yeah, and, um, I thought about pointing it out, but… Pinkie added, smiling sheepishly.

However, I was already not listening to their explanations. Instead, I was pointing my hoof at the sprite-bot. “Sweetie, you are not…” I trailed off as I noticed that at some point Watcher had the robot turn its back from me, meaning that he couldn’t see me through its camera. “Watcher, sweetie, can you turn the sprite-bot around? I can’t talk to you properly this way,” I said, and then waited patiently.

“Um, yeah, sure…” Watcher replied, his metallic voice - on that note, why did I assume it was male voice? I had originally thought so when I first met him, true, but that was because I had at first mistook him for Jack, wasn’t it? - sounding almost abashed. As abashed as a robot’s emotionless voice could be, I suppose…

I waited for the robot to finish turning around before smiling at him. “Thank you sweetie. Now, you are not telling Jack about me leaving the Stable door open,” I told him, pointing my hoof at him. “He already has an opinion of me being the ‘Wasteland’s dumbest genius’, though I hope it was a joke. Whether it was or was not, I do not want to consolidate that opinion!”

“Yeah, no problem, but listen!” Watcher said, floating a bit closer to the bathtub; now that I listened in better, something in the manner of speech made me think of a male rather than female. “I didn’t send this sprite-bot over here to play catch up! A group of almost twenty raiders is coming here!”

“What?!” I exclaimed, shocked, “Here here?!”

“Yes, here here,” Watcher replied. “They were from the same group as those five your group had run into. They didn’t take kindly to finding their friends’ corpses.”

Oh, this cannot be good… I thought, noticing in the corner of my mind’s eye the panicked looks Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie were exchanging.

“B-but… it was raining last night, right?” I asked, beyond confused right now. “Surely, the rain must have washed away tracks and all that stuff, right?”

“Well, yes, probably,” Watcher agreed, sounding a little impatient. “But guessing by the leader saying something along the lines of ‘they must have gone to that closed up Stable by the Rock Farms’ they’ve figured where you must have gone. (I skipped several curses he threw in that sentence.) Anyway, you’d better gather the rest of your group and let them know; say that you overheard about them on DJ Pon3 broadcast or something.”

“Why would I need to lie to them?” I asked, confused. But immediately I decided that I had more important things to worry about now. “More importantly, I’m afraid that what you can see is all of my group at the moment.”

“... you’re joking, right?” Watcher asked. When I shook my head, he pressed “You’re telling me that you and that sleeping mare are the only ones here? What happened to the griffin and the other three?”

“Jack flew back to New Appleloosa to get Ditzy to come pick us up in her delivery wagon,” I replied, then my ears dropped. “Burst and Blast are buried outside the Stable. Scope’s remains are decomposing in the Overmare’s office.”

“... oh.” That was all Watcher had to say at first. “I… I’m sorry to hear that. Look, let's focus on keeping you alive until help arrives, then. Go close the door to the Stable; I left it open so that your friends wouldn’t get suspicious…”

But I was already not listening. “Sweetie, wait; if I close the door, won’t it cause the raiders to hang around trying to get in? I mean, they’ll notice the freshly dug ground where we buried Burst and Blast, so they’ll know we’re here.”

Watcher stayed silent for a few seconds. “Yeah, it’s very possible. But don’t worry, there’s no way they’ll get in if you close the door-”

“That’s now what I am concerned about!” I exclaimed, raising above the bathtub and jumping down. Water leaked down from my wet mane, but I ignored it. “Ditzy will be here in… I don’t know, an hour or two! What if those raiders shoot at her!? Jack will probably be with her, but I doubt he could fight off over twenty raiders alone even if he was in peak condition, which he isn’t!”

I was breathing rapidly, panic rising within me. How could I find myself in another crisis so soon?! If I wouldn’t think of something, I would either die or lose several friends, or most likely both! But I couldn’t-

This won’t happen again. Ever. The next time I’ll find myself in such situation, I will stay calm, analyze everything and take the best course of action.

Don’t make promises you might not keep, Doctor.

I’m not.

I blinked, remembering the exchange from last night. Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath, counted to four, then exhaled.

Just like triage.

As I calmed down, Watcher had continued to speak “I dunno what to do for them, it’s not like I could send a message to a flying wagon, these things weren’t exactly made for high-altitude flight-”

“Watcher?” I interrupted him, gently but decisively. “I need you to tell me…” I paused briefly, thinking of what I’d need to know, “... how much time I have before they’ll arrive, their exact numbers… and how they’re armed.”

I suppose it would be a stretch to ask for their medical history too, I thought, turning around and leaning over the bathtub to grab the statuettes in my mouth, then trotted over to where I left my saddlebags and the towel I had found.

“Wait, do you intend to fight them?” Watcher asked as I began to dry myself, having placed the statuettes of Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie safely back inside my saddlebags; somehow, Watcher managed to make the mechanical voice sound bewildered. “You heard that there’s over twenty of them, right?”

“Yes, I did hear you sweetie, but I am left with no choice. I must confront them; I will not put Ditzy’s life at risk,” I told him, firmly.

Watcher fell silent. “They were about an hour by hoof from here last time I checked on them, which was about ten minutes ago,” he finally said as I vigorously brushed my mane. “I’ll check again for the other stuff. Do you know any offensive spells?”

“Doesn’t really matter, sweetie, I can’t use magic at all currently. Magical burnout,” I specified.

I could almost feel his eyes growing wider from behind his controllers. “Weapons?”

“Only melee, and I’m not very experienced with using them. I won’t carry a gun, much less use one,” I told him truthfully.

“You’re… what about your sleeping friend?” Watcher asked, his mechanical voice hiding his panic, if he felt it, rather well.

“I doubt I’ll have managed to wake her up before they arrive, and even if I could, she is in no condition for a fight. She lost her leg, and although I reattached it, she lost a lot of blood; I had to transfuse her some of mine so she wouldn’t die.”

Again, Watcher fell silent. “Okay, let me get this straight,” he finally said several seconds later. “You want to face twenty raiders, alone, with no magic, no weapons and low on blood after a transfusion.” I nodded. “Your griffin friend’s opinion of you being the Wasteland’s dumbest genius seems well earned. You’re going to die.”

I snorted. “Do you know what the symbol on my flank is?” I asked him, leaning a little so he could better see my cutie mark. “It’s the Ouroboros, the symbol of infinity and wholeness, of the infinite cycle of life and death, the creation and destruction. Ever since it appeared on my flank, I’ve known that my destiny is to understand that cycle, to find out the real and absolute Truth of this world.” I trotted closer to the sprite-bot, so that I would stand right before it, staring straight into where I assume its camera was hidden. “I will not die, not here, not today, not ever. Now,” I added, turning around, my still partially wet tail swishing before the sprite-bot, “are you going to help me prepare, sweetie?”

Footnote: 75% to next level!

Chapter Ten: Unlikely Assembly

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“Just because somepony is ladylike doesn't make her weak. In fact, by using her wits, a seemingly defenseless pony can be the one who outsmarts and outshines them all.”

“This is a stupid plan,” Watcher told me, the mechanical, emotionless voice the sprite-bot emitted somehow managing to sound exasperated.

Having already heard his opinion regarding my plan, I didn’t even turn my head to regard the sprite-bot. I did, however, grace him with a reply, “Yes, sweetie, I heard you the first time. However, since you don’t have a better plan, I’m afraid that’s the course I must take.”

I also made a mental note to ask Watcher about his gender after this was over; the thought that I continuously assumed his gender to be male while it could very well be a mare on the proverbial “other side” of the machine speaking to me really bothered me!

“I have a better plan,” Watcher argued, most likely irritated. “It’s the ‘getting back into the Stable and closing the damn door’ plan.”

This time I turned my head towards him as I replied, but doing so had caused a lock of my mane to fall into my eye as a gust of wind suddenly blew. Slightly shaking from cold as it washed over my naked coat, I brushed my mane off and said “I’ve already told you, sweetie, I will not risk the lives of Ditzy and - most likely - Jack.”

“So instead you just put your life not at risk, but at certain death! Or worse!”

“There are a few things I consider worse than death, sweetie,” I responded. “None of which I believe those raiders are capable of.”

“I think you’d reconsider if you’d ever been into any of their camps,” Watcher pointed out. “Which for all we know might happen quite soon!”

I turned away from him, gazing in the direction from where Watcher had told me they would approach. I still couldn’t see them, as they were currently about ten minutes away from us. Having finished my preparations, however, I came outside to wait for them. I had hoped that I could mentally prepare myself by stretching out a little and attempting to meditate, while listening to the gentle whistling of the wind and the songs DJ Pon3 played on his broadcast, which I had tuned to with my PipBuck.

Of course, between the sprite-bot that continued to convey my unknown ally’s misgivings and two apparitions only I could see, one which was shaking with worry and other pacing around nervously, I hadn’t had an opportunity to sit down and attempt to clear my thoughts.

“If you get back inside, they will most likely stay out here try to find a way to get in, yes,” Watcher tried again after a short silence, probably having taken a few breaths to calm himself. “When your friends arrive, they will shoot at them, yes. But it doesn’t mean they’ll even hit them, let alone kill them. Ditzy Doo and that griffin will just fly away and come back after they raiders had left.”

“And you really think they’d leave after they saw with their own eyes somebody trying to reach the Stable?” I countered. “Ditzy’s arrival would be like a confirmation that there is something inside. No, the raiders would stay here, and who knows what would happen then? With myself and Apple Core cut out of the outside world in the Stable, we wouldn’t know. We could stay until our rations would run out and try to leave, only to be captured, or don’t open the Stable door out of fear and starve to death.” I shook my head. “I prefer to do something while I know what is happening. While I possess enough information to act. Furthermore… ”

I trailed off, my gaze searching for the freshly dug grave. The final resting piece of Burst and Blast’s remains was just a few yards away.

“I’ve already lost two ponies because of my…” I began, then hesitated. My fear? My indecision? “My weakness. Burst and Blast would have been alive if only I had acted differently. I will not repeat this mistake and put two more in danger. This time, I will take the best course of action.”

My resolve had seemingly not convinced Watcher to stop trying to dissuade me. “Angel, please-”

“Why are you so concerned about me?” I finally asked, turning back. I tilted my head as I looked at the sprite-bot curiously. “You don’t know me, we’ve met only the day before. Assuming that it could be called a meeting, given the nature of your… approach method,” I said as I decided on the words I wanted to use, waving at the machine before me to emphasize my point. “And yet you seem very determined to help me survive this.”

“Are you complaining?” Watcher asked.

“Of course not, sweetie, I am merely curious,” I quickly assured him, then smiled sadly. “I’m afraid that the concern for me you exhibit is rather… uncharacteristic for a Wastelander.”

A deep sigh emerged from the sprite-bot. “Yeah, tell me about it… Look, I just want to help you because it’s the right thing to do. Do you always need a reason to help somepony?”

“Sweetie, that’s hardly the same,” I waved off his question. “I took an oath to help others when I became a doctor.”

“Huh, I see…” Watcher said, trailing off as if pondering on what I had said. Slightly confused, I raised my eyebrow, which prompted him to resume our conversation. “Hey, wasn’t ‘first do no harm’ part of that oath? Because what you’re planning to do kinda-”

“Oh please, sweetie, my oath extends to sapient beings,” I snorted and rolled my eyes. “I highly doubt that those degenerates, who enjoy bringing pain and suffering to others, qualify as such.”

And besides, I added, my ears dropping, as I turned my gaze away from the sprite-bot, not wanting to risk Watcher seeing my thoughts reflected in my eyes, I’ve already broken that part of my oath.

“I suppose they don’t,” Watcher replied, sounding faintly amused. I was relieved he hadn’t noticed my change in demeanor. Another sigh escaped through the sprite-bot. “I can’t talk you out of it, can’t I?”

“No, you cannot, sweetie.”

“Well… I hope your plan works. If this doesn’t… I’m glad I got to meet you,” Watcher said. “You… really are an interesting pony.”

“Thank you, sweetie, and I’m sure you will continue to find me interesting after this unpleasant ordeal will be over,” I told him, finding it slightly irritating that he apparently held such little faith in my plan and my survival. However, my annoyance vanished immediately as an idea struck me. “But since it you seem convinced that I will be killed,” I began, turning to the sprite-bot and smirking, “how about we make a bet?”

“A bet?” Watcher asked, the very subtle pause between ‘a’ and ‘bet’ suggesting a confusion.

I nodded. “Yes. If my plan fails and I die, you win, and as a reward you’ll get to say that you were right.”

“I fail to see how that’s a reward,” Watcher replied; I had a feeling that he was deadpanning at his monitor at me.

“I find that such if often the case when it comes to being right,” I told him, smiling sadly.

“I mean, even overlooking the fact that I don’t want you to die, I wouldn’t even get to brag about being right to anypony, since nopony else would know about it.”

“Well, I suppose you could brag to raiders about it,” I suggested, actually pondering Watcher’s dilema.

“Yeah, ‘cause that would be a great conversation as they- wait, why the heck are we talking about this?!” As if to emphasize his annoyance and that he considered this part of our conversation over, Watcher made the sprite-bot shake briefly. “And if your plan works? What do you win?”

A smirk returned to my muzzle. “If I win, I want to meet you, face to face.”

The sprite-bot stayed remained silent for a several seconds afterwards, hovering next to me. I stared at it, patiently waiting for Watcher’s answer, curious to how he would react.

“I…” Watcher finally began, only to hesitate.

“Honestly, sweetie?” I spoke, letting a little pretense to slip into my voice. “You expect me to die within the next ten minutes, and you can’t even agree to such a simple request?”

“It’s not a simple request,” Watcher replied defensively. “I don’t exactly meet with other ponies to begin with. But… sure,” he finally said, “if your plan works and you survive, we’ll meet face to face… someday.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at his either shrewdness or shyness, satisfied with his answer. “Then it’s a date,” I told him simply, turning back again towards the direction the raiders were coming. “Because my plan will work.”

The sprite-bot once again fell silent. I expected a follow-up comment from Watcher, but I was content to finally have some piece.

That being said, I had a feeling that wherever Watcher was (and whoever he - assuming he was a he - was, for that matter), he was currently rolling his eyes at me.

The peaceful moment, however, was brought to a halt, but not by Watcher or the two apparitions (who for once were being content to remain silent), or even by the sudden arrival of the vicious, murdering savages called raiders, but rather by the song played by my PipBuck ending, and instead of being followed by another song as had been the case as we waited beside the Rock Farm’s main office building, but instead by a stallion’s voice.

“Hey everypony, this is your friendly neighborhood DJ Pon3, interrupting the beautiful music of Sapphire Shores to bring you some news!”

Despite that I was about to be in a very dangerous situation within a few minutes, I found myself perking my ears at the sound of DJ Pon3’s voice. I was curious to hear what he had to say, especially since it has been a while since I managed to catch his news report.

That, and I had little other things to do at the moment.

“So, do you all remember how a few weeks ago I told you ‘bout some Stable gal running into slavers right after crawling out of her Stable?”

I blinked. “There was another Stable pony who run into-” I began to say out loud as I turned to the sprite-bot, only to stop and turn abruptly back to my PipBuck as realization hit me the. “Wait, is he talking about me?!” I exclaimed, surprised.

“Well, it turns out mine and whoever else’s prayers either worked amazingly well, or were unnecessary,” DJ Pon3 continued, oblivious to my confusion. “I’ve got a recent report that the said Stable Dweller had been recently sighted in New Appleloosa, in a company of slavers no less. So… what the heck girl? Are you hooking up with slavers? ‘Cause I gotta tell you, that’s some awful company to pick.

“Now, to be fair, guessing by her get-up, the mare seems to be a some sort of doctor, so maybe she’s now the old Appleloosa’s medic. But why would she have come to New Appleloosa then, escorted by slavers? I dunno kids, but if I hear anything interesting about this I’ll keep you posted. In other news...”

The following news escaped my notice as my attention drifted from the PipBuck. “How… I mean, I’ve come to New Appleloosa only two days ago,” I said, turning to the sprite-bot. “How could he possibly know… wait,” I said, a suspicion flickering in my mind. “Are you DJ Pon3, Watcher?”

It would have made sense; how else could DJ Pon3 learn so soon about my arrival in New Appleloosa, if he didn’t have an access to the old Equestria’s secret surveillance robots?

“No, that’s not me,” Watcher replied, however. I still stared at him, unconvinced. “I’m serious! Look, I just made a bet about you dying a moment ago, why the heck would I lie to you now?”

I blinked. “Huh, that’s a valid point,” I admitted, surrendering the argument and dispersing my suspicion. I looked thoughtfully at my PipBuck as DJ Pon3 wrapped up his news report. “Who is he, then? And how does learn about the events transpiring in the Wasteland that he reports about on his broadcast?”

“Dunno, and don’t really care,” Watcher said.

In the meantime, DJ Pon3 had finished, and was now announcing the broadcast return to playing songs. “And now we return to Sapphire Shores, with ‘Get Your Pony On!’”

As music once again began to play out of my PipBuck, another thought struck me. “And wait, did he say that he had talked about me?” I asked, turning to the sprite-bot.

“Yeah, he did. I think I even heard that one, back two weeks ago? What, don’t you listen to his station?”

“Oh, I do, I guess I must have missed that particular news report,” I replied, scratching my chin as I recalled how often I had been listening to DJ Pon3’s broadcast within the few days after leaving Stable Eight. However, noticing that the sprite-bot continued to hover next to me still turned towards me, without Watcher saying anything, which I interpreted as him staring at me. “Sweetie, I’m a busy mare, it’s not that surprising that I had missed some of DJ Pon3’s reports, the one about myself among them.”

“Oh, no, it’s not… I’ve been thinking about something else, actually,” Watcher replied. “About what he said about you and the slavers.”

Ah, that, I thought as I sighed.

“I believe we had established, sweetie, that I am not a fighter,” I told Watcher. “What was I supposed to do when I had stumbled upon a band of slavers exactly? I talked them down, healed their injured and offered my services. They brought me to old Appleloosa, and I managed to become the town’s medic. Thanks to that, I can offer the unfortunate ponies they capture some proper care,” I added, expecting what Watcher could say to that. “Which I wouldn’t be able if I had been forced to join them in shackles, or if I had been killed.”

Watched stayed silent for a few seconds, as if judging my response. Finally, he asked, “How often do you have to say that to yourself?”

Confused, I tilted my head. “To myself? Why would I say this to myself?”

My reply in turn seem to take Watcher aback, guessing by the barely hearable grunt the sprite-bot conveyed. “I…” Watcher began to say after a second, then stopped. “You know, let’s get through this for now,” he started again soon, making the sprite-bot turn towards the direction where the raiders would come from before turning back to me, “we can get back to this discussion later. And speaking of…” he added, turning the sprite-bot again and trailing off.

Following the robot’s gaze, I realized that there were now visible pony silhouettes far in the distance. At the same moment, my E.F.S. kicked in, showing red bars in their direction.

The raiders were here.

Well, almost, I corrected myself as I turned off my PipBuck’s broadcaster, watching as they shapes slowly grew bigger. Guess there’s no escaping…

I almost turned to look in the direction where the cellar door that led to the Stable Eleven was. I resisted, not because I didn’t want to appear weak before Watcher, but because I didn’t want to let doubt creep into my soul.

I can do this, I thought once again, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath.

Of course you can! a loud, high-pitched voice resonated within my mind. I glanced at the apparition of Pinkie Pie as she gave me an encouraging smile. We’ve seen how you’ve talked down that meanie Scope, those “raiders” will be nothing compared to him!

Although I was happy to hear the pink apparition’s express her support and faith in me, I couldn’t help but point something out to her, It will be a tad different than with Scope though, sweetie.

Yeah, I know, Pinkie Pie replied, growing a bit somber and more serious. But it doesn’t matter, ‘cause you will make it work! Right Fluttershy? she asked, turning to the other apparition.

The tiny pegasus mare glanced at her friend, then at me. It was plain that she wasn’t looking forward to witnessing what was about to happen (not to mention to what could happen, my gruesome death among those), anymore that she had when I have confronted Scope. However, despite that, the apparition of Fluttershy smiled at me. Angel… I’m sure you will be fine. You might say that Burst and Blast died because of your weakness, but I see inner strength in you that I wish I had possessed. Now, um… go show it to those mean raiders! she ordered, managing to look at me with determination, although it was clear that she was straining to do so.

I smiled back at her. Thank you, sweetie. Both of you, I added, turning to smile at Pinkie Pie. Although, I added, looking back at Fluttershy, I would say that you have plenty of inner strength already.

Fluttershy blushed, but before she could respond or before I could continue my thought, a voice pulled me back to my surroundings.

“Angel?” Watcher asked, the sprite-bot moving slightly to the side.

Did he say my name just because he wanted to catch my attention, or have I made any weird facial expressions while talking with Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie? I wondered briefly. Or, Goddesses forbid, have I talked out loud?

“It appears it’s time to start the show,” I said, ignoring my worries. “Will you still help me, sweetie?”

“I wouldn’t have stayed around here so long if I hadn’t planned to,” Watcher replied, the mechanical voice of the sprite-bot making it difficult to tell if my question had offended him. “I will do as you’ve asked.”

“Thank you, sweetie,” I said, rising from my haunches and stretching my legs a little.

“And for the record,” Watcher added, even though the sprite-bot had began to slowly make its way back to hide behind one of the ruined buildings, as I we had agreed he would, “I usually don’t help ponies this much.”

I turned to him, my mouth open… and then hesitated before speaking. I closed my mouth and regarded the sprite-bot, or rather, Watcher. I didn’t know him. I didn’t know anything about him, really. About the only thing I did know, though, was that he was helping me. That he went out of his way to warn me, and then stayed to help me, even if it was in this fashion that posed no risk to him. Watcher claimed that he was doing this because it was the right thing to do, and even if that wasn’t the truth - that there was some ulterior motive behind his actions - or even the whole truth, at this moment, it didn’t matter. If it weren’t for Watcher, I would have been still inside the Stable, probably still taking a bath, oblivious that a bunch of murderous savages were about to enter through the door that I had left open.

My gaze softened. “I’m grateful that you have made an exception for me, darling,” I told him, as warmly as possible.

“... Heh, no problem,” Watcher replied, the sprite-bot emitting noises that sounded like chuckling.

With that final exchange, I offered Watcher one last smile and turned away. I could almost feel the sprite-bot gaze lingering on me for a second as I trotted back towards the door of the main office building, before Watcher finally made the machine fly off to the spot we had agreed upon.

As I had set out, I turned to the two apparitions, warmed by my exchange with Watcher, and thinking of how supportive the two of them have been to me. Especially Fluttershy, who had been with me longer, and whom had seen more of me; despite our difference of opinions, she was still helping me. Well, darlings, I asked them, smiling, shall we?

With both Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie replying to me with happy - if somewhat a little confused - smiles, I carried out the plan I had prepared.

As I passed the door - which fortunately had been left open during the evacuation to the Stable two hundred years ago - and the bear trap - the very same that I had walked into yesterday - that I had so carefully brought from the Stable and “rearmed”, then headed for my Stable barding and lab coat I had left on the desk. Ignoring the clothes for now, I grabbed a single little square that I had put on them.

A Party-Time Mint-al.

This was the part of the plan that I probably disliked the most. Not that I was against using chems (in moderation, of course); I was, after all, making bottle caps on the side by selling them to ponies, even if those ponies were slavers. Or that I feared developing an addiction to any chem (As if I would let myself be bound by something of that sort, I couldn’t help but snort mentally.); I knew all the effects drugs had on ponies, so I wouldn’t develop psychological addiction, and as for the physical one, I knew all the treatments to remedy them. My old mentor had made sure of that… along with the effects various drugs had on a pony, for that matter. (That was an… interesting day, to say the least.) No, what I didn’t like was the that the elevated state that came with using this particular drug, the clarity of thought of sharpness of senses, was only achievable after consuming said drug. I disliked the idea of having to rely on them to achieve it, or increase my physical strength and endurance by using Buck, or my reaction time by inhaling Dash.

I wanted to possess all of those without the need to use chems.

I wanted everypony to possess all of those.

I had already experienced the effects of a drug today. I’ve required a little boost to my strength that only Buck could provide me with in order to move what I needed from the Stable, like the bear trap. The effects of Buck had long since left me, and the sensation of how physically weak I truly was even more jarring. I wasn’t looking forward to a similar experience.

Knowing the time was of the essence, though, I didn’t hesitate for a second before consuming the Party-Time Mint-al, then made my way outside. I had reasoned with slavers and first intimidated then bartered with Scope, but now I was about to face an entire herd of ponies who defied logic with their savagery. Although I had planned out what I was going to do and say, and I was confident in myself, I intended to take every advantage I could get to maximise my chances.

Even before I passed the door, I felt the Party-Time Mint-al’s effect take hold; the world became brighter as my senses sharpened, and my thoughts clearer and calmer. I became more focused. I became more confident. And as I trotted towards the approaching raides (whom by now I could hear, courtesy of the drug I just took), I knew that I was going to win that bet with Watcher.

I didn’t have to walk far. I just reached the edge of the ruined barracks when the raiders spotted me. Almost all of them roared with maniacal laughter at my sight, and several broke into gallop. Some raised their weapons, but upon realizing that I was completely unarmed, they lowered them, their grins deepening.

I merely smiled and sat down.

As I expected, my behaviour threw them off. They were used to ponies either running away in terror or shooting at them (though I’d suspect the latter was probably their less favorite). They’ve never seen a pony who upon the sight of raiders would just sit down and wait patiently for them. The ones that ran ahead of the group had slowed down, gazing at me with a mixture of suspicion and confusion. And a promise of violence, that part hadn’t changed. Still, though, they advanced upon me, the ones who had run ahead beginning to encircle me, as if I was a prey and they were the predators.

An allegory that may very well be on point.

Or had been, rather, I commented, smirking in my thoughts.

My eyes darted around at them as they surrounded me. Just as Watcher had told me, there were seventeen stallions and seven mares in the group, twenty four in total. They carried a variety of weapons, from knives and baseball bats to short firearms and battle saddles. They all carried marks of hard life on their bodies, scars poking out from underneath their bardings and missing teeth (and the others having yellow buildup on them, either plaque or tartar), which I noticed thanks to them grinning at me. And their leader…

“Well well, lootit at what we have here boys,” their leader said, grinning. He was a big, grimm looking unicorn stallion with three scars on the left side of his muzzle, one reaching all the way above his brow and most likely being related to the cataract in his left eye. However, I didn’t pay much thought to his medical history, preoccupied with my own survival. He carried a rifle of sorts, but upon seeing how defenseless I was he had strapped it to his back. “A pretty new plaything, all spruced up and ready for some fun,” he added, looking me up and down with a gaze that could be both lustful and hungry, an expressions mirrored by the other raiders.

Well, I got them into talking distance without getting shot, I noted, activating S.A.T.S. for the last-moment mental preparations. Now…

Scope was intelligent, and wanted information from me. Him, I could have intimidated. With raiders, however, Demon’s advice wouldn’t have worked so well. Fear causes ponies to make rash, not thought out decisions (Or make ponies dumb, as most would simply put.), and based on what I’ve heard of raiders, intelligence wasn’t their forte to begin with. If I’d try to intimidate them to gain the upperhoof in our conversation, I would very likely end up being shot by them. Possibly not even on purpose, one raider could just pull a trigger by accident out of fear.

I tried to not think if being killed by raiders by accident would be considered ridiculous in the Wasteland.

No, intimidation wouldn’t work. Fortunately, Demon wasn’t the only one who had given me advices when it comes to conversing with others.

… now is time to put some of Granny’s training to use.

~ ~ ~

I cleared my throat, gazing at my reflexion in the full body mirror and tried again. “Why, hello sweetie,” I said, softening my gaze and flickering my hoof in greeting. “It’s such a pleasure to see you today. May I help you with something?”

A pleased hum sound behind me. “Good, you’ve said it without your voice quivering this time at all, dear.”

Dropping my composure and beaming up happily, I turned around. “Really Granny?” I asked, surprised that I’ve managed to get it right.

The majestic elderly mare that laid comfortably on the couch chuckled warmly. “Yes, my Little Angel, although it would be ideal if you’d notice this yourself. If you want to command ponies attention while talking to them, you need to pay attention to their voices and facial expressions so that you’d know how to best adjust your demeanor and words. Also,” she added, winking at me playfully, “you shouldn’t break your composure just because something went according to your design, or that you were distracted.”

“Oh, right,” I exclaimed, my ears dropping in embarrassment.

My reaction caused Granny to chuckle again, a bit louder. Knowing that this wasn’t a mean-spirited chuckle, I relaxed, and waited patiently for her finish. As I looked at her, her light gray, almost silver coat and her wavy mane that became gray with age even before I had been born (the slight division between darker and lighter gray flocks were all that remained from her original mane colors), I thought once again how lucky I was to have such an amazing pony as my relative. Thinking that I had the genes of the most admired pony in Stable Eight, even if my own were flawed, always filled me with pride. But there was more than that; she was simply the best grandma ever! She was super kind, would almost always spend time with me whenever I wanted to or when Mom was busy, and always had advice for me whenever something was troubling me.

Like now.

A few days ago, we had been asked during our classes who would want to become after we’d graduate. Although most fillies and colts had said that they don’t know yet, I immediately replied when it was my turn that I wanted to be a doctor.

“Oh yeah?” Candy Bell had exclaimed, looking at me with jeer. “And how will you talk with your patients where you can hardly talk to anypony, Whitey?”

My ears had dropped from embarrassment at the remark (and the sneers that followed), but it have gotten me thinking: Candy Bell had a point. There were only about six ponies in the entire Stable that I was able to talk with comfortably. Anytime I would talk with anypony else, even if they weren’t making fun of me or weren’t sneering at me and would just talk to me like to a normal pony, I would get nervous. I would stutter and have troubles looking them into the eyes. But when I would become a doctor, I would not only have to talk with my patients, I would have to tell them what they have to do to get better, prescribe them medicines and spells and make sure they listen to me. How could I do that?

Realizing that I had to find some way to overcome my conversation problems, I had decided to confide in my grandmother the very same day. I hadn’t done it just because I knew how supportive and kind she was, but because I knew she would have some advice for me on this matter. After all, who knew more about speaking to ponies authoritatively than her?

As I explained to Grandma about what was troubling me, she had looked at me with kind understanding. “I see,” she had said as I finished. “It would be indeed a problem for a doctor if she couldn’t talk to her patients.”

I nodded, my ears dropping in shame as I looked down at the floor.

“Darling, there is nothing to feel shame about,” Granny had almost immediately added. Her hoof reached under my chin and lifted my head up so that my ugly red eyes would meet her beautiful green eyes. “Everypony gets nervous from time to time when they talk with somepony. And the way most of them had been treating you it’s no wonder you have those problems more often,” she had added in a lower, grumbly-like voice, glancing at the door leading out of our living quarters with a dismayed frown. I tilted my head in confusion, but before I could say anything Granny continued, “In any case, dear, I believe I have a solution to your dilema.”

Immediately, my ears perked up and I looked at her attentively, curious what she had in mind.

“What we’re going to do, dear, is teach you the art of eloquence, so that you will know how to control the conversation,” Granny had said, smirking. As I looked at her with confusion again, she explained, “Part of being nervous when talking to others comes from being unsure of what the other pony is going to say or do. Therefore, if you know how to captivate their attention darling, what to say to them and how, and how to make them want to do as you ask of them, you’ll no longer feel nervous.”

Tilting my head, I thought over what Granny had just said. “Hmm… I think I understand...” I said slowly. “It’s something like what Demon once told me about, about not showing fear to bullies and trying to intimidate them?”

“Precisely dear, except you won’t be intimidating ponies but learning how to convince them into agreeing with you or doing what you’d ask them to,” Granny had explained. Then booping my nose she added “And unlike your little friend, I will also teach you how to do it. And I don’t mean to brag, darling, but I think everypony in Stable Eight would agree that there’s nopony better than myself when it comes to convincing others. Of course, there is also the fact that I am always right, but…” Granny continued to rumble about the times from long before my birth, but although I listened and nodded politely, I was busy contemplating with excitement Granny’s words.

It was true, nopony in Stable Eight would ever say that Granny wasn’t a… master of eloquence. Or that she wasn’t always right. I had seen many times how everypony would agree to do whatever she asked them to, even the current Overmare. That the conversation she would have with somepony would always go as she’d wanted it to. I might have never really thought that there could be a way that there could be a way for somepony to learn how to control conversation like her, but now that I had been presented with such possibility…

… the thought that I would be able to talk with others like a normal pony, without feeling nervous, had almost overwhelmed me. In that moment I realized that even if I wouldn’t require better social skills in order to make other ponies better as a doctor, I would still want to learn from my grandmother.

So we started our lessons. First Granny wanted me to learn to speak in the same manner as her. That part was easy; with Granny spending time with me almost everyday for all the eight years of my life, I knew how she spoke by heart. Putting all that knowledge into practice, though - even if for now said practice just involved speaking out loud and before a mirror - was a bit harder.

“Let's take a little break, dear,” Granny said, patting the spot on the couch beside her. Nodding obediently, I trotted over and climbed onto the couch, then reached for the glass of water with my magic, feeling a little perched. “You’re doing very well, but I believe it’s time we start practicing on other ponies. Now,” Granny added, holding her hoof up as I looked at her with worry, having almost spilled my water, “when I say other ponies, I mean Demon or Emerald, or your mom. It’s important that we first build your up confidence so that you’ll feel natural and at ease while speaking, darling,” she explained, gazing at me affectionately, “I would not have you start talking with other ponies yet.”

“Oh, I see,” I said, a little embarrassed that I hadn’t figured out what she had meant. “Although… I already feel at ease while speaking in this manner, Grandmother,” I added, smiling shyly. “After all, I’ve heard you speak like this all my life.”

Granny chuckled and brushed my mane. “True, I suppose, although it’s a tad different speaking like somepony than just hearing them. And besides-”

“- it’s important I also learn what to do when I speak, how to stand and what expression I am making, right?” I finished for her, smiling.

“Exactly, my Little Angel. As I’m sure you realize, maintaining your composure while speaking with somepony will be even harder than just remembering how to speak. But I’m sure you will learn how to do that,” Granny added, her confidence filling me with pride. However, before I could thank her for having such faith in me, she sighed, appearing a little downcast. “It is a pity that you aren’t a bit older though; there are some… special manners of speaking that make convincing colts much easier, but I believe we should wait a few years before I teach those to you.”

“Special manners of speaking?” I asked, confused. “What do you mean? And why would they just work on colts?” I added, unsure why they would work on colts and not on fillies.

“Well, I suppose you could say that they would work on fillies too,” Granny admitted. Smirking and uttering a short giggle, she continued, “From my experiences, it usually makes them nervous at least, giving you the advantage in the conversation if you can use that well. However, I’m sure you’d find that colts a bit more… easier to manipulate with this method,” Granny explained, making a circular motion with her forehoof to emphasize her words. “Which is one of the two reasons why I am not going to teach this method now; you are a very smart filly dear, but I want to be sure you are mature enough to not abuse your powers,” she added, her serious demeanor belaying the funny tone with which she said that last word.

I shiver went down my spine at the implication of Granny’s words.

“Of course,” she added, her gaze relaxing, “I’m sure that if you’d ever abuse them, it would have been unintentionally. I know you’d never wish to harm anypony dear,” Granny said, again brushing my mane affectionately.

I nodded fiercely, not even wanting to imagine harming somepony. Still, I couldn’t help but try to figure out what exactly Granny meant, with this method working better on colts and wanting to wait until I was older before telling me about it, and with this method being able to hurt somepony…

“Oh!” I exclaimed, realization hitting me. I pulled away from Granny, excited that I had figured it out despite how vague hints I had been given. “It’s related to sex, isn’t it?”

I was rewarded with a sight that I had never seen before: my grandmother staring at me in utter bewilderment. Her green eyes were wide open and her mouth was half-opened, as if she was speechless. It was such a weird sight that the elevation I had felt mere seconds ago had left me, replaced with confusion and worry. (And a little bit of amusement; if this wasn’t Granny I would have probably laughed.)

As expected of her, though, she quickly recovered. Shaking her head a little, Granny looked at me, a slight furrow on her brow. “Angel, sweetie, where have you heard that word?”

Now it was my eyes’ turn to be wide opened, with my ears immediately dropping. Granny ever called me “sweetie” only when she was upset with me. (Which of course had happened literally only a few times; I was always “dear”, “darling”, or “Little Angel”.)

“Um… I, um, read about it in Daddy’s medical textbooks,” I hesitely began to reply, stammering; all those eloquence lessons went out of the door. “W-well, to be precise, what I’ve read there was about genitals and reproduction in general, but I-I was curious and wanted to know just how exactly foals are made, so I looked up, the um… s-some other books…” I confessed, knowing that I was only digging myself deeper into trouble.

I felt as if Granny’s eyes were drilling into my soul. “What books?” she asked, calm and not angry despite her frown.

“Um… some books from your private library,” I answered, shaking. Upon Granny uttering a groan and raising her forehoof to her face, I felt myself slightly relax, but only slightly; I was probably still in trouble. “I’m sorry, Granny, I know I’m not supposed to borrow any of your books without asking first, but-”

I finally snapped out of my fear and stopped talking, just before I was about to get Demon in trouble too, by mentioning how he had pointed out to me once that since my grandmother always lends me the books I’d ask for so I might as well just borrow them without asking.

Fortunately, Granny hadn’t paid attention to how I had stopped so abruptly, as she spoke a mere second afterwards, “Yes, well, the whole point of that was so that you wouldn’t read those few books you obviously had, so we can pretty much throw that rule out the Stable door now,” she commented, rolling her eyes.

To my relief, she actually sounded more amused than upset… but I still detected a hint of annoyance in her voice. Looking down at my forehooves, I tried to apologize, “I’m really sorry, Granny.”

I heard her sigh and felt her put her hoof gently on top of my head. “It’s alright, Little Angel, I’m not mad. A little disappointed, maybe,” she added as I looked up at her; I cringed hearing her words, but at the same time I noticed that despite what she said, Granny was smirking at me with amusement. “But I can see you know you shouldn’t have read my books without asking, so for the moment I am more worried about you knowing things a filly shouldn’t learn until they are older. Although in all honesty,” Granny amended, rolling her eyes as she sighed again, “considering how curious you are, we all should have expected you would find out about said things sooner. Soo… how much exactly do you know?”

“Oh, about everything!” I replied, unsure if I should still feel sorry or be proud to show off what I knew. And I knew so much that I didn’t even know what to say first! “I know about all kinds of sex and sexual behaviours, oh and that during their estrus cycle, also called heat, mares can get impregnated during the sexual intercours by a stallion resulting in a pregnancy. And that in a few years I will be going through puberty, resulting in changes caused by the hormonal signals my brain will send to my ovaries, resulting in-”

I would have gone on listing all those changes, then probably would have circled back to sex and started listing all those “positions” from the Zebra Sutra, but Granny had decided to press her hoof against my lips.

“Alright, I believe you, you know everything,” she said; Granny looked as if she couldn’t decide whether she should be amused or disturbed. “Way more than a filly your age should... Well, on the plus side, I suppose you’ve spared your mother having ‘the talk’ with you few years from now,” she added, casting her gaze to the side briefly. “Dear, have you told any other foal about what you know?” Granny asked, again looking at me with a slight frown.

“N-no, I hadn’t,” I replied, thankful that it was true. “I only talk with Demon and Emerald about stuff I learn, and Demon was busy training for the Little League, and Emerald was busy with her internship.”

Granny continued to stare at me for a few seconds, making me nervously wonder if she hadn’t believed me, but fortunately she finally relaxed. “Alright, then here’s what we’ll do darling; we wait until your mom comes home so we can talk about when you should have sex and with whom, and you do not talk about any of this to anypony until you’re older. Do you understand?”

Automatically, I nodded, but I couldn’t help but ask: “Not even Demon?”

“Yes,” Granny replied immediately, her brow again slightly furrowing.

My ears dropped; I didn’t like to keep anything from him.

Seeing my reaction, Granny relaxed the very next second and looked at me thoughtfully. “You can talk about this with Emerald, though.”

I brightened up at that thought; the young mare had always supportive of my interest, even if sometimes it looked as if she was disturbed by them, and would always talk with me about them and whatever I had learned.

“She’s a smart filly and had by now learned how inquisitive you are,” Granny continued. “So I’m sure she won’t be too surprised that you know about sex. And talking with a filly closer to your age will help you understand everything better than listening to old mares like me or your mom,” she added, chuckling.

“But why can’t I talk about it with anypony else?” I asked, not really understanding that part.

“Because those are things fillies and colts are supposed to learn when they are older,” Granny replied, giving out a tired sigh. “When you are of age when you go through puberty and start paying attention to other ponies in that way.”

“Well… that’s silly,” I confessed, frowning. “Why does it have to be until then? Especially since puberty doesn’t begin at a specific age, for each pony it starts at their own time.”

Again, Granny appeared to be somewhat amused. “Yes, well, I don’t make the rules.”

I blinked, confused. “Um, but Granny, didn’t you make like half the rules in Stable Eight?”

“But I didn’t make that one, you smart Little Angel,” Granny countered, looking at me with what I recognized to be a fake annoyance.

“Oh, I see,” I replied, still a little confused. However, I abandoned pondering how weird that rule was as I recalled what we had been talking about originally. “Wait; what was this ‘special manner of speaking’ you’ve mentioned, then?”

“Hm? Oh, right, that…” Granny replied, somewhat hesitantly. After a second, though, she shrugged. “I’ve meant speaking seductively, darling. It’s easier to control the conversation if you appeal to their sexuality, make them think you are interested in them. Which is, again, something that you shouldn’t learn until your older. And as I had mentioned, you could easily hurt somepony’s feelings if you… overuse such skills.”

“I see,” I said once again, although this time I wasn’t sure if I understood her. “So… you mean that by speaking seductively one would make them believe that I am sexually interested in them, and therefore they would, um… ‘lower their guard’?” I asked, recalling the phrase Granny had once used to describe. As she nodded, I frowned, then looked down. “But, Granny… why would they be sexually interested in me? I-I mean,” I added, feeling my eyes become a little wet, “look at me, I’m-”

But Granny didn’t let me finish. Once again, she reached with her hoof under my chin to lift my head so that I could look her in the eyes. As I saw those green eyes full of love, I fell silent. “I am looking at you, Angel, everyday,” Granny said, her voice filling me with warmth. “And everytime I see a beautiful young filly, who is going to grow up into a beautiful mare. Your albinism doesn’t make you any less beautiful; me and your parents have kept telling you this for years. It’s about time you start believing us. And when you do, darling,” she added, her hoof moving from under my chin to my mane, brushing a lock of hair gently from my forehead, “trust me, everypony else will finally stop being stupid and see your beauty.”

Although I had heard similar words many times over, what Granny said stirred something in me as I looked into her eyes. Maybe it was the certainty with which she spoke, maybe the more “grown-up” things we had just discussed a moment before had made me look at this differently, or maybe the fact that she had been teaching me eloquence so that I could control conversation whenever I would talk with a pony, not giving them a chance to look down at me because of my albinism. Possible all of the above.

“You… you really think I’m beautiful, Granny?” I asked quietly, hopefully.

Granny smiled. “You are my granddaughter, and my daughter’s daughter. We’re both beautiful mares - well, at least I used to be,” Granny amended, rolling her eyes with a little frown, making me confused again, “ - so there’s no way you wouldn’t be beautiful, now is there?”

Although I had to agree that what Granny was said was logical, I didn’t understand one part. “Well, um, yes, genetically speaking I should have high chances of being beautiful too.” Except for the recessive genes I had inherited that caused my disorder, I thought, but chose to keep that to myself, too concerned about the more important issue. “But, Granny… why did you say you ‘used to be’ beautiful?” I asked, still not understanding it. “You still are beautiful.”

Granny chuckled warmly. “Thank you, dear, but you should tell that to my wrinkles,” she said, shaking her head.

Now I was even more confused. “Why would your wrinkles make you any less beautiful?” I asked, tilting my head.

My question caused Granny to blink and stare at me for a second in surprise, then to smile. She leaned towards me and kissed me on the forehead. “I sometimes forget how special you are, Little Angel,” she sighed as she moved her head back a little so that we could look each other in the eyes again. “Just between you and me? Of all my grandfoals, or all my descendants even, if I had to pick the most beautiful one, it would be you, my Little Angel,” Granny said, smiling.

My jaw dropped in utter surprise. I knew that Granny wouldn’t lie to me, but… even as immense warmth had began to spread through me at such a phrase, my mind argued that I should disagree, after all I had made my genealogical tree for school and I knew there was no way I could be the most beautiful pony of all Granny’s descendants. As if sensing the conflict within me, though, the older mare pulled me into a hug, stopping my train of thoughts.

“You put too much thought into things that are decided by the heart, darling,” she told me, amusement creeping into her voice. Before I could ask what she meant, she broke the hug and looked at me attentively. “Now, since we still have a few hours before your mom gets home, how about I give you those lessons in talking seductively?”

“I… now?” I exclaimed, my earlier thoughts already dispersing out of sheer surprise as Granny’s question took me aback. “But you said that I should be older, and that you’d want to make sure I wouldn’t abuse those skills…”

Granny chuckled warmly. “Yes, well, I’m pretty sure I also said that I am sure you’d never hurt a pony, didn’t I? Besides, I’m not getting any younger here, better not wait,” she added, chuckling again. “So, are you ready?”

Despite my shock, I almost immediately nodded and jumped down from the couch, and stood in attention before Granny, as eager to learn more as always.

“Alright, first of all: eye contact is important, and you should keep your eyes half-lidded, squinting your eyelids like this…”

~ ~ ~

It was amusing that, despite the way everypony else was treating me, I consider those to be better days, I mused as I recalled the memory of my grandmother roundabout way of giving me confidence in myself, feeling a wave of nostalgia wash over as I remained still due to the S.A.T.S. continuously being active. However, that was about to end. With a mental sigh, I deactivated it. If I ever hope to go back to them, I need to make it through this…

With the S.A.T.S. no longer active, my perception of time had returned to normal, making it seem like everything had unfrozen. As the lead raider resumed trotting towards me carefree, his muzzle resumed twisting into even more lustful expression by seconds as his only good eye scrolling up and down my naked body.

And so, I did the only thing I could to ensure my survival and continued relative comfort. I gazed into his eye, keeping my own seductively half-lidded. “Hello there,” I purred, my voice becoming as sweet as honey. The raider leader stopped, taken aback. “My, I must say, I have never seen a stallion as…” I trailed off, letting my gaze sweep over him appraisingly, then, swish an excited swish of my tale, I finished, locking my ruby eyes with his again, “verile as you.”

The raider leader blinked at me in surprise, and he wasn't the only one. Clearly, it didn’t happen often for a mare such as myself to flirt with any of them, especially not when they had come with an intention to kill.

Eventually, though, the scarred raider recovered. His smirk returned as he crossed what little remained of the distance between us. “Ha! It’s refreshing to meet a bitch that knows her place,” he said, stopping beside me and placing his foreleg around my shoulders. “Well, this is your lucky day,” he said, the side of his face with his good eye (the one turned to me now) grinning. “Since you seem like you're itching for some good fun, we will happily oblige you. But first-”

“‘We’?” I interrupted him, making sure to gaze at him not flirtatiously, not with amusement or outrage, but a gentle surprise. “You intend to share me?”

As I’ve predicted, my ideally acted reaction had caused the raider leader to throw his head back and laugh (along with most of the other raiders). He had also squeezed me a little harder, but otherwise he hadn’t hurt me.

“Aw, being prude now, aren’t you?” the raider leader asked me in an almost patronizing manner, lifting his other forehoof to my chin and slightly raising my muzzle; he probably intended to do so forcibly, but I had obediently moved, not letting him use too much strength. “Sorry little bitch, you don’t get to decide who’ll be rutting you silly.”

It took a lot of willpower to not cringe at such crude language. However, I managed to continue to act as I had planned.

Still looking him in the good eye, I again lowered my eyelids seductively as I put my forehoof on his below my chin. “You misunderstood me, handsome,” I told him quietly, though still perfectly audible for all the others, my hoof sensually brushing along his leg. “I do not mind playing with all of you… I am merely surprised you don’t want to keep me for yourself. Then again,” I added, allowing myself to smirk, “I suppose it’s understandable since you haven’t experienced a night with me yet.”

“Oh?” the raider’s leader exclaimed, sounding intrigued. “You’re saying you’re that good in the sheets, huh?”

Uttering a giggle, I looked at him with a mixture of patronizing and sexual admiration. “Do you know how many erogenous zones there are on a pony’s body?” Not waiting for an answer - especially since I wasn’t sure if he knew what ‘erogenous zones’ actually were; by the way his ears had perked though I assumed he had at least he reacted to the ‘ero’ part - I leaned to his ear. “I do. I know each and every erogenous zone of a pony’s body, as well as the most sensual ways to… stimulate them,” I added sultry as I drew back, my hoof slipping from his leg to his neck, caressing it.

The raider stared at me, defocused, as his brain was being stimulated by the signals I was sending into thinking about mating. His grip around my shoulders had loosened, and he was obviously not paying attention to what was around him, so lost he was in the thoughts his mind was conjuring and in my ruby gaze. Had I had a knife with me, I would have probably could have quite easily stab him in the throat, ending the life of a raider viscous enough to survive whatever had left those scars on his face. Alas, I didn’t have any weapon.

Because I wouldn’t need one to end them all.

With the raider’s grip so loose, I easily slipped free from it. “A night with me, alone, would be like an eternity in Heaven,” I told him as I trotted slowly past him while brushing my naked coat against his chest and neck, flickering my tail near his nose and turning my head back to capture him in my seductive gaze again.

I suppressed any thought about actually having a coitus with this repulsive savage. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to not shake with disgust if I thought about it too much.

After several seconds - during which the scarred raider’s penis began to emerge from its sheath - I turned my gaze away, just as his mouth began to open. “But if you intend to share me with others,” I spoke up in a sultry tone, cutting him off before he could even utter a single word, “then that’s your choice.” My eyes scanned the crowd around me. All those raiders were staring at me, almost all with lust in their eyes. I let my eyes linger on a few of them - those that were bigger or more scarred, all that seemed most likely to start act violently - before smiling in the most sultry manner, tilting my head slightly and asking, “Well, who’s first?”

About three bucks jumped the very next seconds towards me, and would have no doubt been joined by more if their leader wouldn’t have gave out an excited yowl. At the sound of his voice those three froze and turned their eyes from me to him. With satisfaction I noted that while they have been startled by the scarred raider, their expressions were more angry than scared.

“Well, looks like we got ourselves a very nice find,” the raider leader said as he trotted over to me. He slapped my flank and chuckled when, despite my composure, I did shudder a little and yelped, which I managed to make sound like a pleased moan. “Oh, you will fit right in baby with that attitude. But before you and I get to know each other a little better-”

“And why exactly do you get to fuck her first?” one of the three raiders that had tried to reach me spoke up unexpectedly, frowning the scarred buck.

The raider’s leader paused to cast him an annoyed deadpanning glare - in which I managed to catch a subtle threat - before continuing, “- we actually came here looking for whoever killed some of our guys a few miles back there. That wouldn’t happen to be you, wouldn’t it?” he asked, his tone jovial, but despite that his good eye glared at me cautious suspicion.

It was tempting to lie and tell him that it had indeed been me who killed their comrades, to see fear once again in the eyes of my adversary, like with Scope. I was curious how he and the others would react; would they laugh and think that I was joking, or would they believe me and I would gain some respect from them? However, the possibility of them killing me in retaliation was far more believable to me, so I didn’t even seriously consider it.

Sighing, I admitted the truth. “I believe they were killed by my companions.”

“Your companions?” the scarred back asked, immediately on alert.

“We were attacked by a group of five ponies, and my companions had killed them,” I continued, ignoring the raider leader as he glanced at few of his raiders and motioned with his head, giving them some sort of signal. The ones he had looked at began to turn and look around, probably on a lookout for anypony who could be near. “Most unfortunate turn of events.”

“I see. And those companions of yours are… where exactly?” he asked, his gaze hardening.

“Hm? Oh,” I exclaimed, as if only now I realized what he was implying, “they’re dead. Those things in the Stable had killed them almost as soon as we’ve began to explore it.”

The scarred raider blinked in surprise, possibly due to my rather balant tone, then relaxed again. “‘Things’, you say?”

“Yes, some weird monsters,” I lied, shaking a little. Based on the opinions regarding Stables circulating in the Equestrian Wasteland that I have heard so far and the conversations Apple Core had with Blast regarding what fate could have befallen Stable Eleven, I was fairly certain the raiders were going to believe this little story. “I didn’t get a good look at them. When they began slaughtering my companions I immediately ran back through the door and closed it.”

“Oh, is that so?” the scarred buck asked, glancing at those few raiders he had ordered to look around. They now had all turned back to him, all shaking their heads. Immediately he brightened up, his hard gaze disappearing as he looked back at me. “Well, since nopony is lying in waiting for us, I guess this means those things did our job for us. Now,” he added, placing his hoof on my back and proceeding to slide it down along my spine, “how about we-”

“Wait, seriously Clawface?!” one of the raiders, a mare, spoke up.

The scarred raider - apparently aptly named Clawface - turned to her with annoyance plain on his face, taking his hoof off me. I hoped that it didn’t show how I’d relaxed when he did so, despite my composure, I grew a little tense as his hoof neared my tail.

“You’re just gonna believe what that little horny bitch says?” the mare continued, her eyes glaring at me with venom before turning back to Clawface. “We should check the Stable to make sure.”

A slight wave of panic went over me, but for the moment I remained silent. I had to see how would things play out first before intervening.

“You want to get killed?” the scarred raider replied, snorting. “Be my guest. It would be funny if your stupidity kills you, like your brother.” Smirking, he glanced at another raider and asked, “Why’d he take the others out, again?”

“He said that the sprite-bot was spying on us,” the raider replied with a grin.

Oh, I exclaimed internally, recalling the raider from yesterday that had apparently noticed Watcher spying on them as a ripple of laughter went through the crowd around me. So she’s the sister of that buck… Hm, come to think of it, this situation is sort of Watcher’s fault… I wonder if that’s the reason why he’s helping me, maybe he feels guilty…

Dispersing the thought for now, I turned my attention to the raider mare, who, oddly, only seemed mildly angried by the remark regarding her brother. “If you’re done comparing me to that idiot,” she began (Huh, so much for sibling’s love amongst the raiders I suppose…), “maybe you fuckers will take the time to notice that you’re all thinking with your dicks right now. This bitch wagged her tail at you and you-”

“Forgive me, sweetie,” I interrupted her.

As entertaining as I found hearing somepony point out how stupid raiders were to be, I couldn’t risk this mare making them see what I was doing. Because of that, I decided to intervene. Fortunately, I was still under the effect of Party-Time Mint-als’ illuminating clarity, and I could easily pick just the right words to get the results I wanted.

Thanks to that, as I tilted my head and looked at her with surprise, I asked, “Are you… jealous?”

The raider mare turned to me, her eyes wide. “What?” she asked after a few seconds, her voice leveled, as if she really wasn’t sure if she had heard me right.

“Why, there’s no need to,” I continued, trotting towards her, but then stopping beside Clawface and turning to him. “I think I can manage to keep two ponies satisfied at the same time… what do you say?” I asked him, nodding my head in the direction of the raider mare without looking at her.

I didn’t have to wait long for her reaction, and even though I had suspected it, I wasn’t quite prepared for the pain that exploded in my chest as she turned around and bucked me with her hind hooves. Uttering a yelp, I fell to the ground, looking at my assailant with a mixture of hurt, fear and confusion.

The mare had turned back around and was slowly advancing on me. “Alright, you little-”

I would never know what “little” thing I was going to be called, as in that moment she was shot several time. Startled by the noise, I looked from the falling bloodied body of the raider mare to Clawface, who was now held his gun with his magic.

Well, that’s a start I suppose… I noted, glancing at the dead raider. Though honestly, I expected him to just hit her for now.

I wasn’t the only one startled, the other raiders were also looking at their leader with surprise. “Boss, you… you killed her,” one of them exclaimed, his eyes wide open.

“Great observation,” Clawface commented as he strapped his weapon on his back again. Upon noticing that more than a few raiders were staring at him, he frowned and growled, “What? I was getting tired of that bitch anyway, and now she dared to hit my newest possession? She should be grateful it was quick and she can now be with her idiot brother,” he added, snorting. Then, turning to me, he began, “Now, how about we-”

“We?”

“Celestia rape me,” Clawface muttered to himself before turning to address the raider who spoke up, “what?!”

Clenching my teeth, I somehow managed to otherwise show no reaction how indignant I felt upon hearing such curse.

Turning my attention back to the conversation at hoof, I watched as one of the raiders walked up from the crowd. “Nothing, boss, just curious if by ‘we’ you mean all of us, or just you and this slut.”

“So what if I do?” Clawface replied, not even bothering to answer the rather obvious question. “You’ll all get a turn with her back at our place. Eventually,” he added, shrugging.

Despite the supposedly casual demeanor with which he had said that, I noticed that his eyes never left the raider that had spoken up. His ears were also perked, indicating that he was on alert in case anypony else were to make any sudden moves.

“What if I don’t want to wait that long?” the raider countered, narrowing his eyes at his leader. “What if none of us want to wait?”

“Then I guess that’s your problem,” Clawface told him, then took a step towards him. The raider’s eyes widened and he took a step back. “And if you’ll want to continue this conversation, you’re going to have a problem the size of a bottle cap in the middle of your forehead,” he added, continuing to walk towards him until he stood before him, his magic enveloping his gun. The next second it was already pointed at a raider, but not the one that he had been threatening, but another one, who was standing behind me. “And so will anypony else who’s gets impatient.”

Glancing at the raider, I realized that he had been reaching for his weapon. However, he quickly gave up on that finding himself at the end of Clawface’s gun’s aim.

Several of the raiders had seemingly gotten the message, as they suddenly appeared to try and look as non-threatening as possible. More than one had sat down and raised their forehooves.

“Hey, it’s cool boss, we don’t mind waiting,” one of them assured him.

“Yeah, have fun,” another one, a mare from the opposite side of the circle, added, smiling nervously.

Clawface nodded with satisfaction at her, but at that moment as he looked away, the raider who had spoken up against him reached with his muzzle for a gun. He aimed it at the scarred raider before anypony could shout out a warning, although in all honesty I doubted anypony would want to even if they could. However, it wasn’t necessary; Clawface’s hoof shot out, hitting the raider’s muzzle hard and forcing the gun out of his mouth. Grimacing angrily, he brought his rifle against him… but didn’t shoot him.

Surprised that I hadn’t rid both myself and the Wasteland of another raider, I turned my gaze at Clawface’s expression, wondering why he hesitated. The scarred buck was staring at his would-be victim thoughtfully, his mouth half-open.

“Wait a moment…” he slowly said, blinking… and then turning towards me. “Was this your plan? To get us all to kill each other so that nopony would rape you?” he asked, waving his gun around as he looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and slight but growing anger.

Despite myself, my eyes slightly widened in surprise as every single raider turned to look at me. Truth be told, I had expected them to figure this out sooner or later, but I had hoped that I would manage to get them to kill several more ponies from among their group. Preferably most of them.

Well, I suppose I still could, but that would involve prolonging this part of my plan by actually having coitus with them, I noted as I quickly considered my chances while the surrounding raiders all turned towards me. Even if I would manage to convince Clawface that it haven’t been my intention to get them to kill each other, I suspected that he might decide to be careful and let the others have their ‘fun’ with me. I preferred to avoid such possibility. Guess it’s time for the second phase then…

Throwing my head back, I uttered a very loud sigh, “Fine,” I said with exasperation, causing the raiders to cringe in surprise because of the volume of my voice. Turning my head back towards Clawface, I smiled and continued, “You saw right through my elaborate plan. I must admit, I hadn’t counted on the pony leading you raiders to be so smart.”

My flattery had mollified some of the anger that have no doubt been stirring inside of the scarred buck, giving me the previous few seconds I needed. Although Clawface smirked and took a step towards me, he still hadn’t hurt me. “Still thinking you can sweet-talk your way out of this, bitch?” he asked, his attitude towards me having grown noticeably colder. “If you were smart, you would have lied and said that you wanted all of us to fuck you. We would have treated you… a little nicer,” he said, uttering a chuckle that was quickly picked up by the other raiders.

“As gracious consideration as that would have been, I don’t really have to bother thinking about it,” I replied, backing away a little despite my confident tone as Clawface continued to advance upon me. I was aware how close behind me the other raiders were standing, though, so I didn’t take any big steps. Just enough to still held some distance between me and their leader. “After all, none of you will ‘fuck me’, as you had put it.”

My words caused another wave of laughter. “Oh really?” Clawface asked, laughing alongside the others as he stopped. His gun had returned to its strappings on his back by then; clearly, he was confident that he could overpower me without it. The few others put away their weapons as well; appearing so weak and defenseless had its perks. “And what is gonna stop us, slut?” the scarred buck asked, his voice dripping with amusement.

“Oh, I am glad you asked, sweetie,” I told him, smiling as I noted that every raider was looking at me and nothing else, then pointed with my hoof. “That thing behind you.”

“Ha!” Clawface exclaimed, looking at me with ridicule. “Do you really think any of us is going to fall for that old-”

He stopped abruptly, his sentence turning into a surprised and alarmed shriek as a red beam shot right past him, then past myself, hitting the raider on my right side behind me as the yelp of pain that followed indicated. Even as Clawface and everypony else began to turn around, the sprite-bot shot another beam of magical energy, hitting the raider on my left.

I didn’t stay to see how many more Watcher would be able to hit. The moment the commotion had began, I’ve whirled around and dashed towards the cellar door. As I did, I was greeted to the sight of the second hit raider erupting with red glow an instant before disintegrating into ash. Like all magical energy weapons, the small gun the sprite-bot had been built with had a small chance to cause such reaction in the hit target. The raider Watcher shot first, for example, had only suffered only a burn mark on the side of his head. It probably hurt a lot and untreated by a professionalist would leave him with a scar, but he would live. The other’s remains were already being scattered as I had raced past him.

I didn’t even grace his ashes with a second thought; behind me were twenty two angry raiders. There was no way the lone sprite-bot would be able to kill them all. Watcher had assured me that all it would take was a one well-aimed shot to destroy it (or several badly-aimed). Which is why we had agreed that he would take action only upon receiving my signal. Watcher had stayed out of sight until he heard me utter that exasperated “fine”, then, having taken advantage of the fact that every raider had eyes only on me he quietly had moved with the sprite-bot around them. Once he positioned it directly opposite from me, Watcher shot the two ponies blocking the way behind me, momentarily disabling them (Well, one of them and killing the other as it had turned out.) and distracting everypony else.

At least a second to recover, another to turn around and grab their weapons, one more to aim and shoot… I got only three seconds at minimum, I calculated as I ran. The plan was that Watcher would get the sprite-bot to hide behind some cover so that I would have a few more seconds, but it was safer to base my plan accounting for the worst odd. Fortunately, it should be enough…

Already as I crossed a mere few yards I heard shots, the raiders trying to destroy the sprite-bot. Amidst them I managed to detect the sound of the machine’s magical laser gun as Watcher returned fire. I took comfort in knowing that my ally continued to buy me time, but the next heartbeat I heard something that - despite being part of the plan - caused my comfort to evaporate.

“Hey, she’s running!” one of the raiders had shout out.

Don’t take comfort, don’t relax, I told myself, running as fast as my legs could carry me, not until this is over. Then-

BLAAM!!!

My brow furrowed at the realization of what that exploding sound that had disrupted my thought process must have meant.

The sprite-bot was destroyed. Watcher was gone. I was alone.

Again, despite everything going according to my plan so far, I felt a cold shimmer of fear take a hold of me. Fortunately, it was different than when Scope had shot Jack. Then fear paralyzed me and caused me to panic. Now, fear served as a great motivator to run faster.

“After her!” I heard Clawface bellow.

I resisted the urge to look behind me, knowing that if I tripped and fell it would be over. Not that looking behind would help me in any way, especially since by then I had skirted behind one of the more intact barracks (at least, the single surviving wall was intact enough to hid me from their line of sight), giving me some measure of safety.

“Find her!” Clawface continued. “But don’t fucking shoot her; I want that little bitch alive!”

Well, there’s another measure of safety, I suppose, I remarked as I hurried towards the Rock Farm’s main office building, heading for the cellar door.

I didn’t feel safe, of course; I could plainly hear the clopping of eighty eight hooves as the raiders rushed after me, spreading so they could maneuver between the ruins of the barracks easily and cover more ground in case I tried to hide.

If I wasn’t running for my life (which despite the relatively short distance had already began to cause me to suffer from dyspnea), I would have probably smirked at the thought of me merely hiding, and out on the Outside no less.

Having reached the entrance to the cellar, I stopped, catching my breath and finally looking behind me. As nerve-wracking as it was to stop, I needed to make sure they knew where I had gone. Only when a raider emerged from around the ruins of another barrack and spotted me, I jumped inside, heading for the Stable.

“Here! I found her!” I heard as I raced through the tunnel towards the Stable’s opened door.

Now, I thought, the last stage of the plan...

*** *** ***

“Boss, but what if what that bitch said about those monsters was true?”

“You think she would have fucking entered the Stable if that was true?” Clawface snorted. “Stupid slut must have thought it was scare us enough to not chase her down here.”

“But-”

A click of a gun. “You can go in like this, or with a bullet in your hoof. Then, if there are ‘monsters’ in there you won’t be able to run.”

“Um, yeah, I think I’m good.”

“Good. Anybody else get scared because of that slut’s ghost story? No? Okay, then spread out! Find that bitch and capture her, alive! We’re going to have fun with her, boys and girls, for a very long time. The one who captures her will get to fuck her first!” he added, as if an afterthought, which was followed by excited stomping and malicious laughter from the other raiders as they ventured deeper into the Stable.

Savages, I remarked, rolling my eyes from my hiding spot as I waited for them sounds of their hooves to grow quieter before making my move.

As I had expected, their leader - along with most of the raiders, despite one or two voicing their hesitation - were determined to capture me after our encounter and the annoyance that I had caused them. The tale of the monsters and the pony skeletons present in the Stable Entrance though caused them to be cautious enough to go in together. After seeing me run away, they expected me to run further into the Stable, attempting to hide away from them.

Well, they got the ‘hide’ part right. However, I hadn’t run too deep into the Stable; I was still at the Entrance. The small side room of the chamber where the machinery that served to open the massive door (which in Stable Eight served as a security post) was the perfect hiding spot, especially if one had enough time to hid inside the cardboard box she had previously dragged there from Maintenance wing (this specific part of my plan had earned me a lot of ridicule from Watcher, and while I didn’t blame him, I had no other cover I could have been able to transport there in such a short time). And I had enough time, thanks to the raiders waiting in the tunnel before the Stable Eleven’s door for them all to gather before following me. I had counted on them to disregard the room, due to it being so close to the entrance, and my assumption had proven correct.

Now, just to wait until they are away… I mused, my forehooves still on my muzzle to stop myself from making any noise, and my ears perked. I realized that I couldn’t hear them as well now, but the change was too sudden for them to be further away. With annoyance, I realized that it must mean the effects of Party Time Mint-al had wore off. It is fortunate that I no longer need to converse with those brutes. I will have to be even more careful though; the decrease of my senses could be distracting if I’m not.

Worse yet, I couldn’t wait too long. It would be better if the raiders were further away, sure, but there was a likely chance that some of them would decide to ignore Clawface’s orders and wait outside, or just that it might be better for somepony to guard the entrance. The latter possibility was almost assured to happen once they explored deeper into the Stable. No, if my plan were to work, I had to act now.

I had to close the Stable, trapping them inside.

Out of all option available to me, this was the only one that ensured success and lack of harm on my person. Or Apple Core’s. Soon after deciding upon this course of action, I had prepared a mixture composed mostly of liquefied Buck and condensed Dash at just the right proportions that had stirred her awake from her alcohol induced slumber long enough for her to make her way up to the main office building (and to carry all of Burst’s and Blast’s belongings Jack had left along with some of his own back in Overmare’s quarters; I assumed the griffin mercenary wouldn’t have been happy about them ending locked up with the raiders). I hadn’t had told her truthfully why though, not wanting to cause her to worry and try to fight or run away, both of which would interfere with my plan. Instead, I had told her that I didn’t want to make Ditzy wait too long after arriving for us to be ready to leave and in her tired, sleepy, low on blood, slightly inebriated and drugged stated that was all the explanation she had needed. Now she was once again sleeping, safely locked further in the main office building.

If I hadn't woken her up, I would have probably had to leave her locked up in the Overmare wing, I remarked, thankful that I hadn’t had to resort to that. Jack would probably figure out a way to take the raiders out before she’d have run out of food, but I doubt she would appreciate that… In any case, I added, snapping myself back to the present moment, I think they are far away now.

I could barely hear them anymore, and some of the red bars had disappeared from my E.F.S. It was the time to act. As quietly as I could, I lifted the cardboard box and crept from under it, trotting into the Stable Eleven’s Entrance and heading for the controls.

The ones inside the Stable.

One couldn’t open the door of a Stable without a specific override code, not even from the inside. However, there was a small chance that it was recorded somewhere within Stable Eleven, most likely in the terminal in the Overmare’s office (which had survived the explosion Scope had caused; Stable-Tec had made those terminals impressively durable), which is why I had closed the Overmare wing after Apple Core and I had left it. Even so, despite that precaution and the doubt I had regarding the raiders ability to operate such technology (If I were a pony that displayed belittling attitude often, I would probably comment on having doubts whether those could operate even a simple switch.), I wasn’t going to allow a possibility for them to escape.

I was going to destroy the door’s control mechanism on the inside of the Stable (or just damage enough for it to be non operational anymore) before closing the door from the outside, and in my mouth I carried something that would help me do it; one of Blast’s grenades that I had left there earlier especially for this moment.

Walking around with an explosive in my mouth, now that is the stupid part of this plan, I commented, rolling my eyes, as I passed next to the passage leading further into the Stable, listening. When I couldn’t hear anypony, I turned back towards the controls. Weird how it didn’t seem to bother Watcher as much as the cardboard box…

Having reached the control mechanism, I carefully placed the grenade on it, using the lever that opened and closed the door as a support. Adjusting it gently with my hooves, I let go of it, but then almost immediately had to adjust it as it slightly quivered, beginning to slide down. It took me a few more seconds, but the apple-like shaped explosive was finally secured. Sighing silently with satisfaction, I turned my head back towards the Stable, where the raiders were.

The second this explodes, they will come back. I will have to be quick, I thought, glancing in the opposite direction, out the Stable door. About two seconds to reach the door, one, maybe two more to start working on the control mechanism… how long does it take for this thing to explode after pulling the pin, again? I wondered, looking at the grenade with an unhappy frown.

However long exactly it was, I was certain that I should be able to at least reach the control mechanism, so I would be shielded from the explosion by the wall of the Stable. I didn’t have to worry about that… and given the distance the raiders had crossed (only a few red bars showed up on my E.F.S. now), there was no way they would be back before I closed the door.

Now or never, I finally decided, taking a deep breath, and leaned towards the grenade. Pressing my forehoof against it so it wouldn’t fall off the lever, I reached with my mouth for the pin, grabbed it with my teeth, then slowly, carefully, pulled it out.

CLICK!

Interesting how loud that sounded to me, but I suppose my ear was right against it. Regardless, hearing that reminded me just how dangerous the thing I was currently touching was. It almost caused me to jerk my hoof away, but I managed to remain calm somehow and take it away slowly so that I wouldn’t cause it to roll down. As soon as I moved my hoof, though, and made sure the grenade stayed in its place, I immediately ran for the door.

Quick quick quick! I thought in panic as I jumped through the exit, then hid myself behind the control mechanism, standing as far away from the door as I could while still operating it. Come on, close-

KaBOOM!

My hooves covered my ears as the noise rang through my body. Even though I knew that it was going to happen, I was still scared by it. And a little deafened, as I realized upon hearing a faint ringing noise in one ear. Still, as I had expected I was out of the explosion’s range and wasn’t wounded. Aside from my ear I suppose, but it should be alright in but a few moments.

Shaking my head, I returned to work. I had no doubt that the raiders were on their way back; the door needed to be closed, and within the next second, a familiar sound of alarm rang out, announcing that the process had began.

Well, that’s that, I noted with satisfaction, glancing through the entrance.

The control mechanism on the inside was destroyed; the console panel, full of cracks and burns, now hung down from it on one cable. Around it were several ruptured ones with sparks arcing around it. Some pieces, the level I used as a support for the grenade among them, laid on the floor around it. But most importantly; as that awful grinding noise emanated as the door began to close, there were no raiders in the chamber.

Looks like I won my bet with Watcher, I commented, turning around and trotting back towards the cellar door. Me, a weak Stable pony, defeated a band of twenty four raiders, with no weapons or magic, just words and a plan. Well, and a little help, I amended. But I was still amazing, wasn’t I? Darlings? I asked after second, surprised by the lack of reply from Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie. Are you, um, here? Come to think of it, you two were awfully quiet… Is it because I left the statuettes in the main office building? I wondered. Hm, that must be it. Well, I guess I have yet another proof that it’s those statuettes and not that I’m crazy-

“YOU BITCH!”

Startled, I looked back. The door of Stable Eleven were almost closed. Almost. In about the next second, the gap that was still left would be closed, and the mechanism would push the massive door forward, completely locking it. However, for the moment, the gap was still wide enough for a pony to go through it, if they were fast enough.

And right on the other side of the door was Clawface and his raiders.

“Oh…” I exclaimed before snapping out of my shock and began running for my life.

I didn’t wait to see if he would make it through the door; he was running when I had looked at him, he would easily make it. As would one or two other raiders that were closest to him.

Okay, think what you can do! I thought, panicking, as I willed my legs to move faster. I… I could go to the building, the bear trap would get one of them! And… and I left some Buck and Dash there! I remembered as I bursted out of the cellar back unto surface, thinking back to the stash of drugs from the Overmare’s mini-bar. I dashed to the right, running along the side of the building as I headed for the door. Maybe, maybe if I take them I may be able to overpower them… Or-

The rest of my thoughts had escaped me as something swiped my hind legs, causing me to fall forward and sending me rolling across the ground, past the building. I yelped in surprise and pain as I felt as if the rough surface flayed my coat. For a m