Fallout Equestria - The Zone

by Sweetwater

First published

An ex-slaver named Buckler must survive in a very different part of the Wasteland.

30 years before the events of the Day of Sunshine and Rainbows, and the Equestrian Wasteland is much the same as it's always been. Except it's not. Not in a mysterious section of the wasteland known only as the Zone, where only the craziest of ponies live and strange forces twist reality.

The ponies of the Zone are struggling to get by with their rapidly dwindling resources, a strange light has appeared in the sky that has not been seen within living memory and violently thrust into this new world is Buckler, a (now ex-) slaver with a talent for shielding. The Zone, and the Wasteland, will soon be changed forever, and there won't be any place in a world of corruption and evil for a pony whose calling is protecting people.

Chapter 1 - Horrors

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(Author's Note: This is a fanfiction based on the world of Fallout: Equestria. Being familiar with the setting is recommended.

Chapter 1 - Horrors

“I’ve seen all kinds of things as DJ Pon3 and even before that when I was out in the Wastes. I’d seen horrors, as I’m sure you’ve seen.”

Day -3

The light of day filled my vision as I awoke, or at least what passed for day in the Equestrian Wasteland. In reality the ever-present cloud cover blocked the sky and the real sunlight from view.

The Pegasi lived up there, I knew, and one day they would all come swooping down and deliver us from the evils of the wasteland.

I smirked at the foalish idea the minute I thought it. Everypony knew that the rumours of the Pegasus Enclave were bullshit, the world was fucked, and no majestic flight of imaginary saviours was ever going to change that.

I heard a noise behind me and my horn flashed as a hoof rapidly connected with my haunches. I felt only a dull thud, my shield magic kicking in a split second before the daily wake-up call could do it’s damage. The pony behind the kick, a sickly green mare named Choke Hold, towered over me.

“Get up Buckler” She spat my name with clear contempt. “Blood Money wants t’ get goin’, ‘fore the stock can get lively and try somet’in’ funny.”

I sighed heavily and she kicked me again. This time I wasn’t ready and her hoof left a painful throb in my side.

“I said now! Or I’ll smack ya so hard you’ll need to ride with ‘em.”

With that she turned and trotted off, the scrap metal plates hastily cobbled together to form barding swaying with her body.

I quickly packed and checked my few meager possessions in my frayed saddlebags; three frag grenades, a cracked but useable magical battery, 4 bobby pins and a screwdriver, a harmonica, a bottle of water, a box of sugar apple bombs, and finally, a single memory orb - my most prized possession.

As I held it carefully in my magical hold I felt the brief urge to delve once again into it’s depths. Within the small orb was the memory of somepony, recorded using ancient magic during the Great War. It was a good one, I’d already watched it several dozen times since finding it, but I resisted the urge to reach out further with my magic and allow myself to embrace the memory.

None of the others would be too pleased, especially Blood Money.

I closed my saddlebags and strapped my, now rolled, sleeping bag to them. Finally I levitated the 9mm pistol that I had slept with into it’s holster on my gear and trotted out from my sleeping position.

We’d slept in the ruins of what I assumed had once been some sort of office. It was a simple two-story affair, although the roof and most of the upper walls had caved in long ago, leaving some ideal barricades behind which the crew had slept. I had personally slept right on the edge of the roof, shielded from potential attackers by an upturned metal desk. The rest of the crew had already vacated the top floor, probably gathered outside waiting for me to finally arrive.

Descending the stairs that led from the “roof” to the bottom floor, our cargo quickly came into view. There were seven of them, weak ponies of various ages. Former settlers, now slaves, we had raided their ramshackle camp during the day while the stronger fighters were hunting and taken as many as possible prisoner. Now they all sat together, holding each other in our ramshackle wagon, each wearing an explosive collar, standard equipment for slavers.

Choke Hold and a heavy set blue buck named Obelisk were already hooked up to the wagon, ready to pull the wagon the miles that we intended to cover.

Our leader, Blood Money, a dark red buck with a cropped silver mane and tail watched with cool indifference as the slaves were pulled towards him. The rest of the crew were idling around him, obviously waiting for me to arrive before we set out. As I approached, he spoke, his deep voice steady with a hint of anger.

"So you're here." His gaze felt like it could strip away my skin. "I told you all we were moving out early and still Choke Hold had to wake you."

"Sorry. I-." My apology was cut short by the stallion smacking me hard across the face. My jaw stung and I could feel myself flushing from a combination of the pain, anger and embarrassment. Somepony behind me snickered.

"I don't care Buckler. We all have to follow orders or we die." His tone made it clear that he clearly didn't really mean "we". He turned away from me and addressed the group. "Everyone get moving. I want to get down to Appleloosa before we start running low on supplies or start losing sales." He glanced at me again. "Unless you all like eating radroach meat?"

The question was left unanswered, as with that he turned and start off west, scanning the horizon for threats.. The rest of the crew started after him, Obelisk and Choke Hold grunting as they fought to gain momentum with the wagon.

I fell to the ground as I felt a powerful shove from behind me. Rupture, deep red like his father, but with pale yellow fuzz in place of his father’s silver and a bloody, vicious looking dagger for a cutie mark instead of the bloody pile of coins that his father sported, snickered as the powerful buck walked past me. He wore a poor excuse for barding like Choke Hold, but slung across his back was a battle saddle supporting two assault rifles, our most powerful weapon, and attached to his leg was a PipBuck.

It was practically a crime that he had been given the thing after we had “liberated” it from a lone Stable Pony out on her own, but he was the best fighter in the crew and the boss’ son. Regardless, he could barely use the inventory manager on the thing, let alone understand all the little indicators and benefits the machine gave him.

He caught me staring at it, brought his foreleg up close to his body and smirked, before walking away with an air of superiority.

He knew that I would never get something like it. My job was protecting, not attacking. The round iron and wood shield on my flank spoke of my special talent - an unmatched natural affinity for creating magical force fields that I had discovered when I was young and naive and I desperately wanted to protect the people in my life. One day a raider group had attacked the camp, and as one rounded on a much younger Choke Hold I had screamed and reflexively summoned a magical shield. The bullets he fired were useless and he was stunned long enough for the crew to dispatch him, and for me to notice my shiny new cutie mark.

Since then I was the guardspony, the pony who protected the rest of them, the pony who got in the way whenever he tried to do anything else. The only other thing I was any good at was repairing weapons, something I had learned from my father. I was learning to lockpick, but they didn’t know that yet and I hoped to keep it that way.

I pulled myself to my hooves and started after the rest of our twelve strong crew of slaver ponies. It was going to be a long day again.

*** *** ***

The billboard by the side of the road advertised that Equestria was “like one big happy family”, written in giant cartoony letters above a faded image of a pink earth pony, some kind of wartime leader, spreading her arms before several smiling fillies. I couldn’t help but think that there was something sinister in the way the pony was staring, not at the fillies but straight out in a way that made it seem like it was watching passers-by. Another phrase below the picture informed the reader that “The MoM keeps her family safe - join the Ministry of Moral today!”

I smirked. That was our crew, one big “happy family” - a bunch of ponies I could barely tolerate and several that I outright couldn’t stand. My only real family, my father, Cobble, had passed away a couple of years ago from a lucky shot to the chest fired by a would-be slave liberator. The other pony had still died of course, but we had no real treatment to give and we’d lost one member that day.

I never really mourned, my father was just as much an asshole as the rest of the crew, the only difference being that he at least defended me when it benefited him. All he had ever taught me was how to fire and fix a weapon, his own special talent.

We had been travelling west along an old highway, preparing to turn south with another road towards Appleloosa, and hopefully a good price for our haul. I’d been watching the billboard pass for the best part of an hour to avoid the dreariness of the walk.

I’d been stationed towards the rear of the wagon to watch our cargo. If we ran into trouble my first priority was to shield them from attack. If they were harmed we could kiss any profit goodbye.

Looking at them, I felt almost envious. They were simple settlers, traders and hunters who probably loved and appreciated each other. I had been born a Slaver, it wasn’t a life I had chosen and not one I particularly wanted, but still one I could not leave. If I left the crew, if I even could without instantly being cut down for betraying them, I had nothing and nowhere to go.

A rumble of thunder snapped me out of my contemplation. Looking north I could see black roiling clouds heading our way, away from a patch of sky above a ring of hills known as the Rim.

I’d heard tales from merchants down south about the area within the Rim, a place that was dangerous and weird even by wasteland standards, and the ponies that lived there even more dangerous and weird. Apparently it was filled with creatures more dangerous than a Hellhounds and environmental hazards worse than radiation, Taint and even the fabled Pink Cloud that filled Canterlot.

I wasn’t sure about all that, but the rumors of deadly weather originating from the area seemed true enough, that storm looked fierce and the others up ahead hadn’t failed to notice either.

“Faster, everypony!” Blood Money barked as we picked up the pace. “Let’s get as far as we can before that slows us down!”

*** *** ***

We didn’t get far before it started raining, little more before the storm hit us in it’s entirety.

The torrential rain soaked me through and the freezing winds used this as an opportunity to bite deep into my body. The black skies above rumbled with thunder as huge flashes of lightning illuminated the world for brief seconds, but blinding us at the same time.

“Maybe the Pegasi are having a party.” Offered a young colt named Tripwire, wiping his sopping wet brown mane out of his eyes. No one laughed, the rest just trudged along through the dirt with the same sour expressions we’d all worn since the storm hit. We had had to turn off the highway mere minutes before the storm hit and now even the ground below us was against us.

Another rumble of thunder rocked the world, much louder than before and I felt a shiver run up my back. Blood Money couldn’t have us keep going like this, either we’d drop from the freezing winds or we’d lose the wagon in the slush that we were now walking through, Obelisk and Choke Hold were already struggling against the mud and wind.

Regardless, our fearless leader was plowing along with his head held high. He wasn’t one to give in and he clearly had some waypoint in mind before we were allowed to stop. How he could judge this was beyond me, the falling rain and dark of the storm meant that I could barely see the lead buck as he walked not 30 hooves in front of me.

A fresh roll of thunder started, disguising the bang as a bullet erupted from the gloom to our left and hit home in Tripwire’s side, sending the colt sprawling bleeding in the muck. The shot instantly put us into battle mode, everypony taking cover and looking towards the direction of the shot in a futile effort to see our attackers, while I quickly put a protection spell around the slaves cowering in their wagon, surrounding them with a faint silver bubble.

I heard a faint *thrump* and then *whoosh* to our rear and instantly dove to the side, trying desperately to maintain my concentration on the spell, quick enough to avoid being engulfed in an explosion as it rocked the wagon. Three more instantly followed, lifting the wagon off its wheels and sending it flying. I could see Obelisk flying with it, still attached to the thing, and heard the sickening crack as he hit the ground with a look of panic frozen on his face, his body ridiculously twisted in a way that I knew was fatal.

My shield had saved the majority of the slaves, although two were now lying on the ground in obvious pain. I looked around and counted 7 of our crew still standing, desperately trying to fight an invisible enemy.

I released the shield protecting the slaves and instantly recast a new one, encasing the entire area and stopping several bullets short. Blood Money turned to me and nodded in approval. Like me, he knew that the shield wouldn’t hold for long at all, but the enemy didn’t know that, and it might force them out of hiding.

Sure enough, several ponies were suddenly visible running at us, armed with a mix of vicious looking melee weapons and guns and outfitted in even worse quality barding than the few in our crew wore - Raiders.

My shield dropped as they smashed into it with their weapons and they flew into open combat with our ponies. I watched as Choke Hold and her twin Choke Chain exploded the head of one, the grips of their 9mm submachine guns wedged firmly in their mouths, only for Chain to have his body sliced with an enormous sword wielded by one of the raiders. He fell and Hold turned, rage in her eyes. She brought her bare hooves up and smashed them down with her terrible strength, instantly killing the pony. She screamed a mix of triumph and sorrow as she continued to stomp on her fallen body, blood splattering her green coat and then being sent running down it by the pouring rain.

I heard a sound to my right and ducked as a unicorn raider fired a shoddy bolt-action rifle in my general direction. He stopped and grinned at me, levitating out the grenade rifle that had assaulted us earlier. I braced myself but instead of firing at me he laughed maniacally and turned fired at the huddle of slaves in the mud.

I screamed an incoherent protest as the 40mm grenade shot towards the group, detonating directly on target and engulfing them in an explosion before I could react to protect them. Instantly their explosive collars also detonated, rocking the area with an almighty inferno that erupted with sound and light.

My ears ringing, I turned to the raider who was now noiselessly cackling at the display. I levitated out my pistol and sent two bullets into his shoulder and stomach.

As he dropped I saw Blood Money locked in close combat with a muscle-bound raider swinging a sledgehammer with his teeth as our leader was pushed back, using the stock of his own assault rifle to block the blows. Even as I fired thrice at the huge stallion a final swing shattered the stock and caved in the red pony’s skull. Both dead ponies fell in on each other in a heap.

I desperately searched for a living pony and saw it in the form of Rupture, kneeling injured in the dirt but still laying down fire on three ponies hiding behind a formation of rocks, biting the bit of his battle saddle for all his worth.

He was firing a steady stream of bullets and I knew what the raiders were trying to do, but my warning came out silent to me and probably as gibberish to him. I watched as the special clip on the battle saddle slowly ran out of bullets, until finally the rifles simple clicked and refused to fire any more.

The three raiders walked out from behind their barricade and as I watched in horror one of them plunged a jagged combat knife into Rupture’s eye, blood squirting back onto his face. My hearing returning I could faintly hear the two mares beside him laughing. My gun rose and fired.





One bullet embedded itself in one head, the other went wide and then I was out. The two survivors turned to me, smiling still, and started to advance on me, one wielding a baseball bat with several blades embedded in the tip and the other, a unicorn, casually levitating a submachine gun.

I backed off as they advanced, desperately searching my mind for an idea, an option for escape. One presented itself, but the idea was so ludicrous that it seemed futile to even try.

I didn’t really have a choice though.

My horn glowed with a silver glow and I telepathically reached into my saddlebags, concentrating to find the objects I needed. I stopped just short of the wagon, now on fire from the collar’s explosion despite the rain, and stared down the raiders, daring them to come closer.

They simply looked amused and continued to approach, the unicorn mare with the gun straightening it slightly and pointing it at me.

“No!” The pony with the baseball bat mumbled from around the grip, so I had to strain to understand the speech. “He can’t fight, look at him. Let’s have some fun first.”

“Good idea.” She agreed, then turning to me; “What do you think? You ready to play?”

“Fuck you!” I screamed back, pulling the frag grenades from my saddlebags, minus their pins, and tossing them into the gap between us. My horn ceased glowing and then immediately lit again as the grenades reached the peak of their arc.

The bastards at least had the decency to look terrified as the grenade exploded and the world filled with light, and then went dark.

Level Up!
New Perk: Tough Shield -- Your recent use of magical barriers has made you more proficient with them. Magical force fields you project can now withstand 10% more damage.

Personal Trait
Increased based proficiency with magical force fields.

This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html
Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

More thanks to my pre-reader and editor, Jeff.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged.

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.

Chapter 2 - Echoes

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Chapter 2 - Echoes

“Oh, time’s almost up. Look, there are a few things you’re going to need if you want to survive out here. A weapon (or at least a lot more ammo for the one you have), armored barding, a bit of guidance... and most importantly, you need to make some friends.”

Day -2

My body ached.

The battlefield of the night before lay silent as I lay in the sludge, breathing heavily with exhaustion. The signs of battle were obvious - the remains of our wagon smoldered in the morning gloom and bodies were everywhere. The rain had stopped at some point during the night but the ground was still saturated with water and the thick mud was sticking to my coat and mane.

I rose unsteadily to my hooves. Although my barrier had saved me from the fate of the two ponies in front of me, the force of frag grenades exploding had knocked me out and left me bruised and weak.

I considered the ponies I had killed, each wearing shoddy barding built using junk, faded cloth and leather. Their weapons lay on the ground beside them. I left them there, I had no experience with any form of machine gun and I doubted my levitation magic was strong enough, even at the best of times, for a heavy close-range weapon. Vaguely I wondered how many ponies they had killed with those weapons and if they’d killed any from my crew with them.

Suddenly the memories of the night before came flooding back. I remembered Tripwire, dead before he was even fully grown, and Obelisk rendered as flew behind our forsaken wagon. I saw Choke Chain’s head explode in front of me, pieces of gore and skull flying in all directions from the impact of the bullet. He had been a decent pony, better to me than most of the rest after Dad died. Before I could think again Chain’s head became Blood Money’s, and it was connecting with the head of a sledgehammer, his eyes going grey and lifeless as the weapon crushed his skull and brain.

Horror and sorrow hit me and I sank to the ground once again, my head in my hooves. It dawned on me just how much had happened last night. The attack had probably taken place in under 20 minutes and yet it had left me utterly alone. All of the ponies had known, even those I could not stand, were dead and I was alone in the wasteland, as good as dead myself.

But that never happened. We were a team, a crew. We killed and captured other ponies because that was something that happened to other ponies, never to us. It wasn’t right that this had happened. Sure, we lost ponies here and there, of course we did, but we never failed. We never all died. We were never left out on our own, the bodies of the others everywhere.

But we had, I knew. Then tears came easily and I cried hard as I sat there until the tears stopped coming and I just sat there, feeling empty and alone, wallowing in my own pity.

*** *** ***

Much later the depressing thoughts subsided. Instead I felt empty and numb, like all emotion had left and I was just a shell. I knew that was probably a bad sign, but I was just grateful to be capable of doing something. I stood once more, the drying mud in my coat cracking slightly, and looked around.

From my position I could see almost everyone, the bodies of everypony I had ever known easily visible in the light. I felt the dark feelings return but I pushed the thoughts from my mind and forced myself to see them as just corpses, not ponies. And corpses didn’t need stuff, whereas I did if I were to survive alone in the wasteland.

First and foremost I knew I had to get our PipBuck. I walked slowly towards Rup-the deep red corpse and studied the body. It hadn’t been dead when I last saw it, but the combat knife lodged in it’s eye socket meant that it probably died of shock and loss of blood hours ago. I shivered as I imagined the sensation of having a knife stuck in my eye, imagined the sheer blinding pain. Again I pushed the emotion from my mind as it threatened to overwhelm me.

“Alright, focus Buckler.” And now I was talking to myself. “Get the PipBuck, then we can leave.”

I looked at the thing on his arm. The small terminal glowed with a faint green light and was attached to his foreleg with a tough metal cuff that I knew would be hard to remove by physical means. I bent my neck down and pressed my horn to the PipBuck.

The spell matrix of the machine was a thing of beauty. I’d had little experience with such things but the sheer complexity of the thing was astounding. From what little I could understand, it was in panic mode. All it’s health monitoring programs were coming back negative - it’s host had sustained fatal damage and it knew it. This was probably a good thing, I discovered as I magically located what seemed to be a locking spell. The spell was encrypted against termination, but with a simple metaphorical prod it decrypted itself, the matrix detecting a potential new host now that this one was dead.

I cut off my magic and with a click the PipBuck unclasped from the arm and fell to the ground.

I levitated it, examining it. I was apprehensive now. The ring of metal and machine reminded me of our slave collars. The horrible machines were designed to be a constant reminder of servitude and would explode any time the owner wanted. Choke Hold had put one on me once for a joke and teased me with the detonator. I could still remember the sheer terror and constant restrictive feeling.

Right. More bad feelings, not good.

I closed my eyes and quickly clamped the thing around my left foreleg, just above the hoof. I was relieved to find that I could barely feel it, there was none of the awkwardness of the slave collar.

I gasped as my body embraced the spells of the machine and my vision filled with indicators and meters. The middle of the screen filled with a box of text and a graphic of a grinning colt, informing me of what each of the parts of the interface meant. What little respect for Rupture’s intelligence I had vanished as I realised just how simple these things were to use, a foal could probably use it. Then I remembered Rupture’s fate and felt horrible for even thinking that.

The lack of bars on the health meter was concerning, so I levitated the Sugar Apple Bombs from my saddlebags and devoured the pack while rifling through the saddlebags of... the corpse in front of me. My search yielded a few cans of processed meat from before the war (surprisingly still nutritious) and a few bottles of irradiated water as well as a syringe of Med-Ex and a couple of healing potions. I noticed a few more empty syringes lying in the mud. Rupture had at least had the presence of mind to use them to ease his pain it seemed.

I wandered around to the rest of the corpses and harvested them. I wasn’t very successful, Rupture was the best supplied in the crew and I didn’t want to try and remove bloody barding from the stiff bodies of ponies, so aside from a fairly large supply of caps I lifted from Blood Money’s corpse I didn’t get much more than a couple more bottles of water and packs of food.

What I did find was weapons. The varied array of weapons I found strewn across the ground provided me with ridiculous choice, although I found no new ammo for my 9mm. I settled on a well maintained sawn-off shotgun and a hunting rifle with a lovely scope on it and a rather nice number of rounds for both.

I also took Blood Money’s rifle with the shattered stock to harvest for parts. The PipBuck proved useful with this, and using it as a guide in combination with my own knowledge I was easily able to combine the highest quality components of both weapons.

It was close to noon according to the PipBuck before I finished scavenging. I stood once again in the center of the battlefield, sweeping my gaze across the fallen ponies. I felt like I should say a few words, more for myself than their sake.

“May Celestia watch over them.” was all I managed. With that I turned and set off north-east, trying to fight the growing fear in the pit of my stomach.

*** *** ***


The wild dog’s head exploded and I aimed down my scope at the last target running towards me. I fired thrice and hit twice, the second hitting the dog straight in the chest and instantly killing it with a yelp as a red light on the compass in the corner of my vision blinked out. I had been testing the system that the helpful colt graphic informed me was called S.A.T.S - Stable-Tec Arcane Targeting Spell - on a pack of wild dogs roaming around an old train station. The PipBuck also had a wonderful feature called E.F.S which allowed me to easily see potential enemies on the compass before I came across them, and allowed me to judge which direction they were in.

So far both were wonderfully effective, even in the rapidly diminishing light.

I wandered up to the station and bucked open the door to the ticket office. It was pretty bare with no decent loot, only a desk with an empty cash register up against the wall and some shelves, with a couple of glass windows presumably to sell train tickets, but it would provide a nice shelter for my first night alone in the wasteland. In a way it was liberating, being alone and in control of myself. But in another way it was utterly terrifying and depressing.

More thoughts to ignore.

I closed the door again and settled down against the office wall. I brought up the inventory manager on the PipBuck and brought out my Memory Orb. I held it once again in my grip as I had the morning before. So little time had passed since then, and yet so much had changed. At least I still had it, and now I had the time to watch it whenever I wanted. I allowed my magic to flow into the Orb and the memory instantly took me.

~ooO Ooo~

The sound of cheering assaulted my ears. My host was standing in a massive crowd before a brightly lit stage and adding her own cheering (it was definitely a her, I had noticed the first time I entered the memory and felt highly uncomfortable afterwards) to the noise. Standing on the stage was a beautiful white unicorn with a curling pink and purple mane, smiling happily at the crowd. Her horn glowed and a microphone levitated in front of her. The cheering subsided a little but there was still a dull hum as her amplified voice was carried over the crowd.

“Thank you! I’m so happy so many of you could come to our first Stable-Tech spring concert. We at Stable-Tech would like to remind you how important the happiness and safety of each one of you is to us.” More cheering followed for a few seconds before she continued. “And I’m happy to inform you that all the profits of this concert will be going towards helping ponies who have been seriously injured in the escalating conflict with the Zebra.” The cheering began again and she backed onto the stage as the lights dimmed.

The performance started with a few lively pieces and the crowd cheered and danced to the rhythm and sang along to the lyrics about love and happiness. It was almost sickeningly sweet, but the idea of this perfect world existing warmed me, and I even felt myself mentally embracing the lyrics, imagining myself tapping along with my host inside my little memory bubble.

Then there was a break as the singer went offstage for a few minutes to prepare, and then she returned and announced that she would be now singing a selection of her newer works.

These were different. The melodies were now deep and low and the lyrics mournful and reflective. The audience reflected this, now much quieter and gently swaying with the music. The final song was a return to the previous form, a short number about blooming love, and then the performance ended.

Now my host was pushing through the crowd, rushing to circle around to the side of the stage. We pushed through the throng of ponies towards a barricaded path. Guards stood watching as the singer, a “Sweetie Belle” that I vaguely recognised from the radios across the wasteland, walked down towards an enormous wagon that was bigger than most houses, waving and smiling as fans on either side screamed in excitement.

As she neared the wagon the door opened and a light purple unicorn with a darker purple mane with greyish streaks visible stood in the frame. The ponies who could see her instantly dropped to hushed whispering. I had no idea who this pony was, but evidently she was well known. The crowd quickly dissipated as Sweetie Belle straightened up and trotted quickly towards the wagon.

A pink pony with a ridiculously looking blue mane nudged my host as we started to walk away. “Follow me.” she whispered, and ran off back towards the wagon. My host followed and they both snuck around the side of the massive vehicle, avoiding the gaze of the guards that stood outside.

One of the windows on the back of wagon was slightly ajar and my host was able to stand up on her hind legs to peer through. Inside I could see both unicorns, but also an orange pegasus with a purple mane who was lounging across one of the seats and a yellow earth pony in a business suit who was standing and looking at the purple mare accusingly.

“-weren’t expecting you, Twilight.” Sweetie Belle was saying.

“Oh are you kidding? I love your songs, and I was honored to be able to have a chance to come watch you Live.” the purple mare replied.

“And that’s the the only reason you’re here?” Asked the yellow earth pony mare in a faint country drawl, clearly unconvinced.

“Well I did want to talk to you three as well.”

“Normally I would do this officially, but for now I would rather that this particular request stay unofficial for now.” She levitated out a rolled up sheet of paper from her saddlebags and unfurled it on a table. The three other mares gathered around to examine it and blocked my host’s view with their bodies. “I read reports about Stable-Tec’s intent to build a Stable here.” She lifted a hoof and pointed to a point on the paper.

“That’s right.” A new voice said, presumably belonging the pegasus whose face was no longer visible to me.

“Well I would also like to use Stable-Tec’s resources to build a specialised M.A.S. facility, here, not far away” She pointed to a new place. The earth pony suddenly drew back from the table.

“Stop, we can’t be talk about this here. Unofficial or not, we can’t make decisions now Twilight.”

“I understand, but please take these.” More paper. “And consider it. The M.A.S will cover everything ofcou-.” Her speech halted suddenly and she cocked her head. “Excuse me ladies, but I need to go. Please consider my request.” She nodded to all three and exited the wagon.

Sweetie Belle spoke up first. “So what do you think?”

The orange mare was examining the papers. “If we don’t do it for her now you know she’ll just go official on us. This all looks easy, but I’d like to know what she wants the extra reinforced parts for.”

The yellow mare with the red mane was just shaking her head. “She shouldn’t have come like this, I wonder why she didn’t go through the Mini-”

Suddenly the world took on a violet haze as my host was pulled backwards, landing on the ground with a thump. I felt her try to move, but something was holding her limbs. Twilight’s face appeared above me, her features betraying her anger as she lowered her horn towards my host’s head.

~ooO Ooo~

The instant I returned to my own body I could feel something was wrong. It was night and I could barely see but I could feel a pressure on my neck, something was wrapped around it. I felt around in the dark and realised what it was, I was wearing an explosive collar!

I remembered back to Choke Hold’s joke while trying to remain completely still, my thoughts racing. Who had put this thing on me? Where were they now? I’d heard stories of raiders putting bomb collars on unsuspecting wastelanders and watching them from a distance as they freaked out, exploding them at opportune moments for maximum hilarity. I’d started sweating now, I could feel the fear overtaking me as I sat alone in the dark.

I remembered my PipBuck and padded it with my hoof in the dark. Suddenly I hit the button I was searching for and the world filled with light. It illuminated a mare sitting in the corner, who stirred.

“Oh you’re back now? That’s nice. So here’s the thing, you’re gonna-” she was interrupted as I launched myself at her.

I was fast, but she was a little faster as she scrambled out of the way of my hasty attack. I closely avoided hitting the wall she had been leaning against and turned to barrel into her again. The office was small and this time I hit her, crushing her against the wall and locking her in place with my hooves. She rolled in my grip and headbutted me in the face, sending me rolling back, letting her free for long enough to turn and hit me straight in the chest with a two-hoof buck. I heard a crack as I slammed backwards into the wall.

I felt in my pack for a weapon - I had none. The bitch had stolen my guns while I slept!

Now she was running at me, horn down as I lay on the floor. My horn glowed and I summoned a magical barrier between us. She slammed into it and edged backwards, shaking her head. She turned and started kicking at the invisible shield.

“Oh, you wanna fight?” She laughed as she assaulted my barrier. “Go ahead and try, you’re coming with me whether you like it or not.”

“Not likely!” I yelled back, dropping my shield as she kicked, ruining her balance and sending her tumbling to the floor. I reached out and grabbed a metal clipboard sitting on the office desk with my magic, slipping into the PipBuck’s S.A.T.S. I queued three hits with the thing and released the spell, bringing the clipboard down heavily on her head three times.

Three hits should’ve knocked her out, but to my surprise she was instantly back on me, sending me scurrying around the room to avoid her hits. I tried to erect another barrier, but my magic was tiring and she simply powered through it with little resistance.

Suddenly she feigned left, and then slammed into me as I rushed to avoid the attack that wouldn’t come. I slid into the desk and she was on top of me, hitting me with her hooves as I brought up my own to block my face, using weak shields to try and stop the blows, to little avail. She hit me hard in the gut and I went limp, pain and loss of breath rendering me incapacitated.

I heard a click and felt the feeling of metal around my hoof. I shook and tried to pull it, but it was now locked to the office desk.

She had me.

Level Up!
New Perk: Horse Sense -- You are swift to understand and adapt to new things. You gain 10% extra XP whenever XP is earned.

This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html
Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

More thanks to my pre-reader and editor, Jeff.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged.

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.

Chapter 3 - Progress

View Online

Chapter 3 - Progress

"We know that the road is hard, and yet we stand and face the challenge."

Day -1

I spent the rest of the night trying to sleep, although I woke in fits and starts every hour or so. Every time I awoke I silently tried to check for a possibility of escape, but there wasn’t one. My captor didn’t seem to sleep much, only once did I wake to find her sleeping. The rest of the time she was watching me, obviously still wary despite my situation, hoofcuffed to a desk.

The cuffs themselves were strong. At one point during the night I had tested them, bending my fetlock around to try and find a weakness, but it hadn’t given an inch. I briefly considered picking the lock, I still had everything except my weapons, but the mare across the room stiffened every time I moved and was always watching me so I didn’t like my chances.

I woke for the final time as dawn arrived, the new light giving me a better view of the unicorn than the night before. Her coat was a dark orange, like rust, and her pale brown mane hung loosely around her neck in several strands. Faded light armoured barding covered her light frame - obscuring her cutie mark and offering protection to her entire body, but mostly to her chest and side where the muddy brown barding was better reinforced. She rose from her position against the wall and stretched, allowing me a quick glimpse of some sort of mask attached to suit at the base of her neck.

She approached me and I recoiled defensively in case she attacked me again. She scowled and her horn glowed with yellow light. A sawn-off shotgun - my shotgun - levitated out of her saddlebags and pointed at me while she spoke.

“Listen up, slaver. You got a lucky hit last night, but if you think you’re gonna be able to take me on again you’re wrong. So what’s happening here is that you’re gonna come with me like a good pony, or I’m gonna keep beating you until you do.”

“Take off the collar and maybe I will.” I replied, glaring at her.

She smirked. “Don’t you like wearing a collar? I think it suits you. Maybe I’ll take it off once we get where we need to go, or maybe I’ll just leave it on. It’s not like the people you captured ever got to take it off again, not that you people give a shit.” She paused and feigned thinking while casually waving the barrel of the shotgun about. “But no, I think you’re going to keep the collar and if you try to escape I can just blow you apart to save some trouble.”

“But then you’ll need somepony else for whatever you want me for. That’s more trouble to go through.”

“I’ll take my chances.” She floated a key out of her saddlebags towards me and unlocked the hoofcuffs. The second they clicked open I yanked my hoof out and flexed my freed fetlock. My captor walked towards the open office door and beckoned through it with her gun. “Let’s go, slaver.” I glared at her but complied. I stepped through the door in front of her into the early morning light.

Suddenly the wasteland in front of me seemed so open, the flat land stretching endlessly up to the mountains to the north. I thought of running, trying to get away before she could shoot or set off the collar. But then she shoved me with the barrel of the gun and I realised the stupidity of that idea. Even if I took her by surprise, I would get nowhere before she blew me sky-high with the explosives around my neck. No, it was better that I stayed with this mare and try to escape later.

*** *** ***

We walked straight for most of the day, me in front and her behind with her gun ready in case I tried anything. I didn’t, but I did try to keep track of our location. My crew had been in this part of the wasteland before, and I could vaguely make out landmarks - a derelict building or two there, a giant display screen in front of an open park there - but soon even they started to disappear and I lost track of where we were going. Yet still we kept on going, barely changing course.

In the end my curiosity got the best of me. “Where are we going?”


Well duh, I thought. “But there’s nothing in the north. Just mountains.”

She snorted. “That’s what you think, little pony. There’s more inside the Rim than mountains.”

Now I was curious, and scared. Inside The Rim was a dangerous place. Nopony ever traded with anypony who said they came from The Rim, because nopony ever came from The Rim, because nopony lived there. Sure the wasteland was a bad place, but if the stories were true then the area within The Rim was worse. The tales went that the ponies that lived there were part of the wildlife, they lived and breathed their home, and it pained them to leave the place. They were cursed by it.

Did this pony come from there? What did a pony who lived in such a place want with me, and why had she left the Goddesses-forsaken place?

And now we were going there. Not good.

*** *** ***

I looked tentatively at the sight in front of me. Looming ahead was a massive canyon, apparently one of many that led between the sheer rock walls that made up The Rim and served as a path to the land within. To the left of the entrance was a crudely made shack built in part from a giant metal container. My captor nodded to it.

“Stay there for a while. I need to scout ahead to check it’s clear for you. Wouldn’t want you getting anypony hurt would you?” She smirked.

I felt my heart race. She was leaving me alone and I could use this time to find a way to escape!

It must have shown because she quickly crushed my hopes. “And don’t forget, if I come back and you’re not here..” She didn’t finish, instead miming out the word “Boom!” and hanging her head with her tongue hanging out, as if dead. She laughed at my shock and turned to trot off down the canyon, quickly disappearing behind the weaving rocks.

After I lost sight of her I entered the shack. Although poorly made, it had clearly been around for a while - evident from the patched bits of rusted wall. One wall had a fridge and cabinet against it while another had a decent-looking bed pushed up against it. I ignored my body’s reminders that I had barely slept for two days and rifled through the storage.

Both provided some nice rewards. From the fridge I acquired a single bottle of water and three bottles of vodka as well as what seemed to be tinned vegetables and a thick stick of some un-named meat. However my best haul was from the cabinet, picking the lock provided me with an assault rifle and ammo and a memory orb. I floated out my own memory orb beside this new one and examined them. Both were the same basic crystal ball, almost exactly alike save for a few scratches and rough areas that set them apart. I stored both back in my saddlebags - now was not a good time to be gone for an unknown amount of time.

Now I had a weapon I potentially had a way out, if I was careful. Shooting her the minute she returned from the canyon wouldn’t be the best idea. I could still miss easily, even with S.A.T.S. to guide me and if I did it would be easy for her to take cover and kill me. However if I let her get too close before making a move she could see my gun and kill me just as easily.

I buried my face in my hooves. I knew I was overthinking it but there was so many things that could go wrong with the escape.

The sound of talking roused me from my self-pity. I edged towards the door and peered out. Three ponies were approaching the mouth of the canyon, each wearing black light barding. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but whatever it was made one of them burst into laughter as the three came to a stop just outside the canyon and sat down next to a rather large rock, mere yards away. My E.F.S was registering them as yellow (safe) lights, but I wondered just how trustworthy the little spell was.

It occurred to me that they appeared to be waiting, perhaps for my captor. Friends, maybe? Definitely not a good thing for me if they were, but then friends didn’t normally lie in wait. So perhaps enemies. They say that the enemy of your enemy is your friend, but I doubted that they would be too eager to help a collared slave. More likely they’d just keep me themselves, or kill me.

I withdrew back into the shack and loaded the assault rifle. No matter how this went down, having a way to fight probably wouldn’t hurt. I stuck my head out of the door once again - straight into the field of view of one of the ponies.

He yelled and unstrapped a submachine gun from his back, bringing it around to fire in his mouth. Too late though, I put several bullets in his head with S.A.T.S and ducked behind the wall of the shack as the door lit up with gunfire. The shots stopped coming and I peered back around the frame. The two surviving ponies had also taken cover, both behind their big rock. I watched the rock for a couple of seconds until one of them appeared around the side of their cover, looking to shoot me again with her own submachine gun.

I proved more accurate as we traded fire, hitting her in the body and sending her reeling before ducking back behind my cover. The second time I poked my head out I almost had it taken off, bullets tearing past my face in the second before I pulled it back. I grimaced and snuck along the wall of the shack as the sound of bullets echoed around me, nearly deafening me, and moved under the small glassless window near the corner. I popped up and took aim, finishing the pony that was now sitting bleeding out of cover.

The final pony immediately turned and started firing on me from the new angle, emptying his magazine at the window I was no longer under. I moved back to the door and waited. The minute I heard the firing stopped I started running, closing the distance between us quickly while bringing up my weapon. He finished reloading and his head came back into view over the rock, his weapon levitating up beside him.

With such a short distance between us it was child’s play to use my now recharged S.A.T.S to spray him with deadly accurate automatic fire while my own magical shield took the brunt of the few shots he managed.

I came to stop and examined the bodies, strangely pleased and terrified with how easily I had killed them. My first kill was the cleanest, I decided, and had the most intact barding. I dropped my rifle and removed it with magic, his lack of head making it much easier to unstrap the barding and pull it off his body before pulling it on myself, content with my new situation.

This feeling was shattered as I heard a familiar voice spoke behind me and I felt cold pressure at the exposed part of my throat not covered by my collar.

“Nice work little pony. Now leave the guns where they are and let’s get moving. We wouldn’t want anypony who knows them catching us.”

“You don’t know them then?”

“Not personally, but I’m sure they’d want me dead if they were still alive.” Her tone was dismissive.


“Of course. Now let’s go little pony.” The pressure at my throat went away. I looked longingly back at the guns before walking towards the canyon. A stupid question rose to the front of my mind, but I voiced it anyway.

“Why do you call me that?”


“Little pony. You’re no bigger than me.”

She laughed. “Maybe we’re the same outside, but you’re still a very little pony.”

“Well I have a name.” I came to a stop and glared at her. “You should use it. If you’re not going to let me go for saving you -” her mouth opened but I kept going, evenly emphasising my point “- from those slavers who would have mowed you down when you came back through the canyon.” Her mouth shut. “You can at least use my name.”

Her brow furrowed as she considered it. I maintained my glare, trying to stay in control of the situation. “Sure.” She decided.

“Good.” I started walking again, leaving her behind me.

“Errr... well?” She said to my surprise. I turned to face her.

“Well what?”

“You haven’t told me your name you idiot.” She smirked and started laughing again as I felt myself blush.

“It’s Buckler.” I snapped.

“Well good job, little Buckler. Now let’s get moving.”

*** *** ***

Trees surrounded us on all sides. The canyon tapered off after a while and gave way to a forest of dead trees which crowded the dirt road we were walking down on all sides. It was strange, seeing this many in one place. The wasteland had them of course, shriveled black husks that dotted the wasteland, but never all in one place. Even without their leaves the sheer density of them meant I couldn’t see far past the cover and whatever dangers remained within.

My companion seemed unfazed though. She was walking ahead confidently, leading me down the path between the trees. Occasionally the path would seem to end, only for her to turn and duck around one of the dead trunks and reveal another rough path that lead on for ages.

The light soon began to fade and I started to see movement in the trees and howling from within the cover, never too far away, that sent shivers up my spine. The mare in front of me simply responded by straightening her sawn-off and glancing around every few seconds.

Suddenly four wild dogs burst from the tree line in front of us, charging at us snarling. They looked bigger than the ones I had killed yesterday, more aggressive as well. Both of us turned to strafe and dashed out of the path of the dogs, my captor firing off both shots in her shotgun, peppering one of the dogs with buckshot and dropping it. The other three immediately turned tail and ran, quickly disappearing from view behind the trees. I came to stop, breathing heavily and pumping with adrenaline and looked at the mare. She was still backing up, her gaze sweeping around the entire treeline as she magically reloaded the shotgun. I tensed again - if she wasn’t relaxing it probably wasn’t a good sign.

The sound of barking and breaking branches alerted me to the return of the dogs just behind me with seconds to spare, long enough to turn and dodge away from their bite before twisting and kicking one of them dead in the side with both hooves. It yelped and shrank back while behind me I heard the roar of gunfire again and a thump as another dog fell to the ground. I erected a barrier as the dog I was focused on charged at me again, thumping against the invisible wall with a snarl.

In my satisfaction with holding off the dog I was tackling I didn’t notice the last one until I heard a yell from behind me. I turned and saw the dog a split second before it was on me, swiping at my lightly armored sides and latching on to my front leg. My shield dropped and I the other dog charged, but that dropped as well as more shotgun shots rang out, only leaving one on me. I reared up and tried to hit it with my front hooves but it dodged around and swiped at me again, leaving a gaping wound in my thigh before I could react.

I stumbled from the pain and it tackled me, sending me sprawling to the ground and it standing over me. I erected a shield quick enough to deflect the first bite and then a blade sprouted from its eye. It howled in pain and went limp on top of me as its brain shut down. I shoved it off and struggled to my hooves panting.

A healing potion held by a rusty colored hoof materialized in front of me. I took it and drank down the red liquid eagerly, feeling my wounds seal from the magic in the potion.

“Thanks.” I gasped.

“Can’t have you being hurt, little Buckler. We need to keep going and there are probably more.”

As she spoke the forest once again erupted into howling, this time much deeper. The mare snapped her head up, concern on her face. Her horn glowed and my hunting rifle materialized in front of me, held in her yellow tinted magic.

“Take this, we’ll need it.” I eagerly reached out to grab the rifle but she pulled it back at the last minute. “And remember, if you shoot me, you’re all alone out here. How long do you think you can hold out?”

My face obviously gave away my fear because she nodded and handed me back the rifle before turning and cantering off down the path. I paused for a second, considering my options, before following her. At least I had a weapon again.

*** *** ***

We kept going until we lost the sound of the dogs and then a little longer until we came to a clearing that my captor decided was a good place to rest. I sat down and watched as she started bucking the dead trees around the clearing for firewood, gathering them up in bunches and setting them down in a pile in the dirt. She then sat down next to it and levitated her knife and a strange black rock up to the pile, striking the rock with the knife and spraying sparks over the pile. To my surprise and pleasure the pile burst into flames, providing a needed warmth and light in the darkness.

I stood and walked over to the other side of the fire, holding my hooves up to the fire. She looked at me suspiciously and drew her sawn-off in warning. My own rifle was slung across my back so I lifted a hoof to indicate I wasn’t going to try anything. She lowered the weapon, but kept it out and I could see she was ready to lift it at any time. I ignored her and stared into the fire, thinking.

“What’s your name?” I asked suddenly.

“What?” she asked, perplexed.

“You never told me your name after I told you mine.”

“Does it matter?” she snapped. “We’re not friends, little slaver. You’re my prisoner.”

“Maybe, but I need to know what to call you just in case.”

She looked unconvinced but relented. “Fine. You can call me Soft Step. But don’t get any ideas, you’re still keeping that collar on and I’ll still blow your fucking brains out if you try to run.”

I nodded and returned to looking at the fire. I was contemplated looking into the orb I took from the shack, or returning to my one when I heard the sound of snapping in the trees on my left. Judging from the way she was looking Soft Step had heard something as well. We both stood and drew our weapons, turning to face the direction of the sound. My E.F.S wasn’t giving me anything but I knew there was something out there.

We stood still for a second, until suddenly the sound of gunfire assaulted my ears - not from the direction I was facing, but from behind me! Bullets thudded into the trees in front of me as I turned away from the fire, and suddenly four red lights spread around the clearing blinked into life on my E.F.S. I could see the shadows of the ponies against the trees in the dark and more were appearing on my E.F.S - at least 6 ponies were surrounding us on all sides.

I took aim at one of them with my S.A.T.S and fired three shots, but the lack of light meant all of them missed. I dropped my weapon and backed into Soft Step, my horn glowing as I summoned a silver force field around us. The rust-colored mare smiled as the bullets collided with the barrier to no effect.


However I was trying too hard to maintain the spell to acknowledge her compliment. My horn felt as if it were on fire as the dome around us shimmered with the force of the bullets impacting with it, the stress of the magic working on my body. I bent over double as even more bullets were fired, and then suddenly the pain in my head subsided a little and the sound of bullets firing stopped. I glanced up, still maintaining the shield.

Now seven ponies stood grinning around us. They all wore the same black barding that the three from earlier had, that I was now wearing, and they wielded a variety of weapons, from excellently maintained submachine guns to standard 10mm pistols and rusty machetes. They had stopped firing - they knew we were trapped. My magic kept us safe for now but all they had to do was wait for my force field to fade and they could pump us full of so many holes. They didn’t even need to waste any energy or bullets now - just maintaining the barrier was taxing my now weakened magic.

One of them knocked on the translucent wall. “Having fun in there? Maybe you two want to have some alone time before we kill you? Go ahead."

Soft Step growled at them and I scowled darkly as sweat dripped down my face. The earth pony just laughed and stepped back, dropping and pulling a cigarette from a pouch on his leg. He ducked his head down next to the fire to light the thing started to puff on it. The others had all adopted more casual poses as well, although they all still had their weapons to hand. This was a game for them now, to see how long I could keep going.

I angled my head to look at Soft Step. If looks could kill then all these ponies would be dead by now - the armored mare beside me looked livid, rather than terrified as I was. I had half a plan, but I couldn’t communicate it to her without giving it away to our enemies. I had to rely on her being quick and capitalizing on what I was going to do.

My body continued to protest as I increased the magic to the shield, solidifying it further for my next action. The strain was great, but it was nothing to what came next. I screamed in pain as forced the shield to expand with an impressive speed. The pain coming from my horn was enormous and I was drenched in sweat, but as the shield grew rapidly bigger it slammed into the unprepared ponies around us. I felt something pop in my head and the shield vanished, but the seven attackers were still sent staggering back, dropping their weapons from the force of the wall of magic hitting them like a brick wall.

Seven weapons fell to the ground.

Seven weapons rose again, wrapped in yellow magic.

Seven ponies cried out in pain as their own weapons were turned on them by a furious Soft Step.
The roar of gunfire filled my ears and suddenly I felt weak and lightheaded as the adrenaline that had been keeping me going started to fade. My horn felt numb and my vision swam as I tried to concentrate on staying upright. My legs buckled under me and I fell to the ground. The sounds around me faded as my vision did, my tired mind welcoming the returning darkness as I blacked out.

Level Up!
New Perk: Commando -- Experience is the best teacher, and you’ve learnt a lot about your new weapon. Your chance to hit in S.A.T.S is increased by 25% when you use any rifle, shotgun or carbine type weapon.

This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html
Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

More thanks to my pre-reader and editor, Jeff.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged (They're good.)

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.

Chapter 4 - Warm Welcome

View Online

Chapter 4 - Warm Welcome

“We are home!”

Day 0

I returned slowly to consciousness in the dim light of the morning. I stood slowly and groggily surveyed my surrounding, subconsciously noting that I had got into the habit of waking up in the midst of a battlefield. The ponies that we had killed the night before lay where they had fallen but looking around I couldn’t see my captor, or any of the ponies’ weapons. My rifle was gone again as well, so obviously the pony travelling with me had decided again that I couldn’t be trusted with a weapon and that it was safe to take it off me again.

It was probably a good decision on her part.

My stomach grumbled and alerted me to the amount of energy I had spent over the past day and the little that I had eaten. I cocked my head and tried to levitate the can of vegetables I found the day before from my saddlebags.

It didn’t respond.

I tried again, and once again not only the can but the straps and flaps of my saddlebags failed to even budge. I concentrated on my horn and started to panic when I couldn’t even summon a simple spark. My heart was beating like a jackhammer in my chest as a wave of possibilities assaulted my mind. I’d obviously strained my magic too much with my spell, but I hadn’t expected this. How long would I be without magic? Would it even come back? Would it be weakened, or perhaps strengthened from the effort? This last thought calmed me a bit, but I was still panicking. Without my magic or a weapon I was defenseless,save for my sparse barding that only covered my body down to my flank, and my arms only down to the elbow.

I heard the sound of approaching hoof-steps and tried to calm myself, taking deep breaths to slow my heartbeat. Soft Step entered the clearing as I struggled to regain my composure.

I brought my head around and pulled the can I had wanted from my bags with my mouth, the explosive collar proving a hindrance to my ability to reach them. I laid it down and sat then clumsily brought it back up to my mouth with my hooves, ripping the tab off before devouring the bland vegetables within. I swallowed a mouthful and looked at Soft Step before nodding at the fallen ponies. “What did you do with their stuff?”

She shot me a look of contempt. “Nice try. I stashed all their weapons away in case I need them. You’re getting nothing, little pony. ‘specially after last night.”

I was curious now. “What do you mean “stash them”? How do you remember where they are?”

“I use this.” Her horn glowed and a device floated out of a pouch on her barding. It looked like a small screen, similar to the one on my PipBuck, but with only a thin backing behind it, rather than the bulky one and the cuff that my PipBuck had. “It’s a Stable-Tec Data Assistant. Not as fancy as your gadget but it does the job - stores all sortsa info.”

I nodded and returned to my food, trying not to make it look too obvious how inexperienced I was with eating with my hooves. The longer she was unaware of my lack of magic the better. I chewed and thought about the new bit of information I’d just learnt. I wondered just how advanced the S.D.A. was, whether it also had S.A.T.S. I hadn’t noticed her using it if it did, but it obviously had a map and notes of where I could find supplies. If I could get hold of it I would be set, if only I had a way to get it off her. She still had all the weapons and I was more useless than usual, not to mention the fact that she had the trigger to the explosive death that the device around my neck promised.

I swallowed the last of the can’s contents and threw it away into the smoldering remains of our fire from the night before. No sooner had it landed than Soft Step was on the move. “Move, little pony!” she yelled. “We’re almost there!”

I resented her insistence on calling me that, but followed as she moved between the tree line. Somewhere a dog howled, and sent a shiver up my spine. I hoped we weren’t here long.

We weren’t travelling for long, she was right about being almost there. After a few minutes of walking the trees started to thin and we emerged into the open air at the crest of a large hill. Below us at the bottom of the hill a chain-link fence stretched as far as I could see. It struck me as strange that the fence wasn’t run down or broken like most constructs in the wasteland, it looked almost new and the metal column between the lengths of fence were barely rusted.

Beyond the fence I could see the more familiar worn-down building that the wasteland was home to, including a couple of large collections that looked to be villages. Following the fence west with my eyes brought my gaze onto a break in the fence filled with large concrete walls. Inside the walls seemed to be some sort of compound, with a large multi-story building looming over the perimeter walls. I could see a metal gate set into the concrete walls, firmly locked and the only visible way into the area.

“Where are we?” I asked.

Soft Step pointed to the fence with her hoof. “Beyond that barrier is the place we call the Zone.”

I laughed. “A place called the Zone behind a mountain range called the Rim. Not really the most imaginative of names a pony could think of.” My observation was rewarded with a sharp kick in the ribs, sending me groaning to the floor.

“Listen here, slaver! This place is dangerous! The Zone is no joke. It’s alive and it wants to be respected. Or you’ll be punished and we don’t want that. Not until we’re done.”

I groaned again and nodded, trying not to further upset the obviously crazy pony glowering over me. Sometimes the wasteland felt like it was tormenting ponies, true, but in reality it was just a joke to people. She seemed to legitimately believe that this place could think and feel.

The mare gave me another smack with her front hoof to drive the point home and started treading confidently down the hill towards the fence below. I stood and followed down the hill, expecting to descend as easily. Instead I felt myself sliding in the mud, struggling to find a grip. I lost my balance and went tumbling down the hill, landing in a heap. Soft Step nudged me with her sawn-off. “Get up, you’re going to get killed like that.” She walked directly up to the chain link fence and turned to face me, nudging her head to the west to indicate that I was to go first.

I huffed and pulled myself to my hooves and walked up to the fence in front of her. Turning towards the compound I started to walk. After a few seconds I heard the familiar clopping sound as she followed after me, no doubt aiming her weapon carefully at my rear. I walked tentatively along the fence towards the large concrete walls, wondering what new troubles lay beyond it.

*** *** ***

The cracked walls and rusted gate loomed in front of me, the entrance to Soft Step’s Zone quite firmly shut. The gate itself was raised a couple of inches off the ground to accommodate a barely visible railway track that led through it. The track was almost completely rusted through, it had sunk into the mud and led off in an almost straight line towards a different part of the mountain range that we had travelled through.

Soft Step was examining the building behind the wall a little bit away, apparently looking for something. Whatever it was, she seemed satisfied with her conclusion and walked back up to me, bringing her head up to mine and whispering to me. “Stay here little pony. Don’t make noise unless you hear the gate open. If that happens...” she paused for a second “scream and run.” With that she turned and started to follow the train tracks away from the compound, searching the ground around her for something.

Leaving the crazy pony to her business I dropped to the floor and tried to peer through the small gap between the floor and the bottom of the metal doors. The doors themselves were surprisingly thick but I could still see beyond them to the compound on the other side.

The train tracks that passed beyond the gated entrance led down to a large courtyard, with small buildings on either side and the single large building just out of my field of view. Standing in the courtyard were three ponies, each wearing what looked like advanced combat barding that covered the majority of their bodies with strong protective weaves and plates, and each armed with a battle saddles. I wasn’t surprised that Soft Step didn’t want to make noise, these heavily armed ponies looked like they were on guard, although I wasn’t sure why, or who they were - the barding style was alien to me.

I was about to withdraw away from the gate when a new pony walked into view from behind a view. Now I instantly knew who these people were, and I was even more sure that attracting attention to myself would be a terrible, terrible idea. The pony was encased head to hoof in the instantly recognisable power armor of a Steel Ranger. I had only seen such armor once before, and that was from far, far away. This close I was in awe of the powerful looking metal pony with his heavy weapons and advanced technologies. I almost wet myself when a second one stepped up beside him.

I stepped back away from the gap as silently as possible. Everypony knew how dangerous Steel Rangers were (it was easy to see why) and everypony knew that if you got in the way of their obsession with wartime technology you were as good as dead. I glanced at the PipBuck on my leg and felt my heart race. We needed to stay away from whatever it was these guys were looking for.

There was a metallic clunk from behind me to the south and I turned to see Soft Step lifting a large round metal plate some 50 yards away. She beckoned and I trotted up to her, glancing around to check that the gate wasn’t opening and a squad of heavily armed ponies rushing out to gun us down. Instead I heard a dog howl somewhere.

The plate she held had been shifted to reveal a round hole sunk into the ground with a rough metal spiral staircase leading down a way into darkness beneath us. I started down the stairway, but she stopped me as I stepped onto the first step.

“Wait at the bottom. Don’t move.”

Something about her tone made me sure that I was going to follow this particular order. I descended the spiral staircase into the darkness below, bracing myself for something - I wasn’t quite sure what. My hooves threw up foul smelling liquid as I walked straight off the last step into a pool of stagnant water. I heard another clunk from above me and I was plunged into complete darkness for a brief second. Suddenly a light shone and illuminated the tunnel we stood in as Soft Step descended behind me, yellow light shining from her horn. We stood in a large pipe full of disgusting liquid that led off in either direction beyond the reach of the light.

“This is a sewer.” I commented absently, and found myself shoved up against the tunnel wall, Soft Step’s shotgun level with my forehead and her face directly in front of mine. Her expression was a mix of rage and fear that unsettled me deeply. Her warning came through as a quiet hiss.

“Shut. Up.”

She released me and I breathed deeply, nodding to her that I understood. She nodded back with an angry look in her eye and levitated the mask that rested at the base of her neck up to her mouth, pulling the strap around her head. Now masked, she started off down the pipe into the darkness with her sawn off pointing in front of her.

We were walking north through the pipe according to my compass, back towards the compound. The light in front of us soon revealed a second spiral staircase that led up to a metal door set into the concrete wall that probably led up into the compound. The sewers probably passed beneath the compound and far beyond into the area and I found myself wondering just how long we would be walking in the pipe.

I hoped it wasn’t long, I was uncomfortable down here. Not only did it stink of stagnant water and pony waste but the darkness around me felt as if it were trying to crush me, and I could hear splashing from an unknown source in the distance that seemed to also worry my Captor.

As we walked I tried to summon my own light from my horn. I was briefly able to summon a faint glow from the tip of my tired horn, but my magic still hadn’t fully recovered and after a few brief seconds the small light spluttered out. I wasn’t sure just how confident I should be in the rate of my recovery, but it was comforting that I was at least regaining it slowly.

Not far past the second staircase I heard a wet growl echo down the pipe that sent shivers up my spine and set the mare in front of me on edge. She stopped and stared into the darkness with her shotgun in front of her. The growl didn’t sound again and eventually we started again, her in front and me behind, occasionally looking behind myself apprehensively.

We approached another staircase and this time slowed. Soft Step pointed up the stairs and I nodded silently, climbing eagerly up the metal steps and trying not to make a sound. I reached the metal cap at the roof of the tunnel and heaved with my side, pushing the lid off and over the hole while trying to stop my collar from digging into my neck from the strain on the lid. The lid started to budge, allowing the sunlight to shine into the tunnel below me and suddenly gave and slid completely up and away, making a grinding noise against the hole which I regretted.

I clambered out of the dark tunnels and embraced the light eagerly. Although we had only been in there a few minutes I felt as if I hadn’t been outside in hours. I hoped we wouldn’t be going back in any time soon.

Soft Step materialised beside me and placed the lid back over the hole we had just emerged from. Like the first one it directly next to the railway that led away into the distance, away from the compound that we had just passed under. I wondered if the pipe followed the railway all the way, or the other way around maybe.

From the back the compound was far less impressive, even at the distance we were standing from it I could see cracks and holes in the imposing concrete walls, and the back metal gates were completely missing. However the Steel Ranger squad were still inside I knew and I wasn’t ready to go wandering into the place.

Soft Step had removed her mask and was now surveying the landscape around us. The view was familiar, the standard blasted landscape and dead trees of the wasteland, with a small collection of houses on the horizon with the familiar cracked road of the wasteland leading up to it from away to the east. I watched as the mare breathed in the air around us and breathed heavily, a slight smile playing on her lips for a few seconds as her gaze swept along the landscape before coming to rest on the collection of buildings.

“That’s where we’re going, little pony.” She said evenly, nodding at the houses in the distance.

“And then?” I asked. She shrugged and poked my explosive collar.

“I dunno. That’s as far as we go.”

“So then you’re going to sell me and leave?”

She shook her head and muttered “You’re a slaver. Brought it on yourself.” I could see I wasn’t going to get anything else from her.

“Well shall we go?” I asked, trying to hide the fear I felt at being this close to the journey’s end, and started off directly towards the houses across the dead earth. I managed two steps before I felt a familiar sharp feeling against my throat. I backed up, startled, as the yellow glowing combat knife floated up in front of my face.

“Not that way. There are some places in the Zone you don’t walk straight through. You go around, you zig zag, you double back. But you never go straight there.” Her voice was low and steady as she explained this new rule to me. The knife rotated and pointed towards the road in the east that led into the town. “There. Sightsee.”

I nodded carefully and started off in indicated direction as the knife floated away. I approached the road with Soft Step behind me, presumably keeping watch in case I broke another rule, and I reflected on how we had probably doubled the distance for no reason. I wasn’t complaining though. I had no clue how to get away, but with no certainty of where I was going when we arrived I needed to try to take out this pony now, while I still could.

A dog howled somewhere nearby as I reached the road and turned to follow it towards the village.

*** *** ***

A little way down the road the mare behind me suddenly shouted for me to stop. I immediately obeyed and she walked up beside me, concern written on her face. I followed her gaze and only found myself looking at open air and the road.

Then, for a second, I thought I saw something. I squinted at the spot and saw it again, clearer this time, mere yards away - a small fluctuation in the air followed by a barely visible crackle of electricity. It looked like some sort of magic, but none that I had ever seen.

Soft Step’s saddlebags opened and she levitated out a clinking bag, holstering her shotgun. Using her magic she opened it and floated out a metal nut. She stepped forward and sent the the nut flying at the distortion. The area around the point in the air exploded with blue lightning as the nut flew through whatever the thing was. I started back and shielded my eyes with my hoof, my mouth open.

“What was that?!” I shouted at the mare.

“Anomaly.” She replied bluntly. “It’s part of the Zone. They’re everywhere.”

“Why? What the hell are they?”

She shrugged. “Dunno. They say that when the bombs dropped on the Zone they didn’t do the same thing that they did everywhere else. They fucked with reality and filled the Zone with things like this.”

My mouth hung open as I processed this new information and tried to think. “So do we go around it?”

“Yes.” She replied bluntly, throwing another nut. This one set off the anomaly a little to the left and the world lit up with lightning again. Another two joined it and although one set off the explosive electricity, the other went flying past it without triggering the surge. Soft Step was concentrating on these bolts and appeared to be noting where they were hitting. She threw two more, one between the paths of the other two, one to the left again of the bolt that didn’t set it off.

An idea struck me as she let the nuts go. The world flashed with light and I immediately turned, bucking her hard in the side. She staggered off and her horn glowed, wrapping her magic around the shotgun she had just holstered. I bucked at her again and her concentration broke, sending the weapon flying to the ground as she toppled backwards. Her front leg flailed as she fell and connected with the anomaly. It instantly exploded with blue lightning and engulfed her entire foreleg. She screamed and dropped to the floor, convulsing in pain.

Her scream of pain turned to one of rage as she rose again and pulled her combat knife from its sheath. She limped forward swiped at me with the vicious blade and I backed off from her swings. I’d expected her to be in worse condition after being bucked hard twice, but the lucky connection with the anomaly seemed to have done more damage.

I tried to summon a magical shield, but my horn still refused to respond and she managed to slash across my barding with the knife, tearing a shallow wound in my body.

I reared up and tried to bring my weight down on the pony, but she dashed out of the way and tackled me hard. We rolled and she pinned me down, my face in the dirt and her knife digging into my back.

“Still no luck slaver.” She hissed in my ear.

Suddenly a laugh rang out across the wasteland. I twisted my head around and saw three earth ponies standing nearby. The lilac pony in the middle wore a heavy brown trenchcoat over mail barding and wore a dual assault rifle battle saddle. She was flanked on either side by two ponies wearing the same barding the others I had seen were, each holding a submachine gun in their mouths aimed at my head. Behind them was our destination, certainly close enough for them to have heard Soft Step’s scream and our scuffle. I felt like screaming in frustration.

The lilac pony spoke as Soft Step rose to meet her, making sure to keep her knife held firmly in my back while simultaneously drawing her shotgun.

“What’s this?” she asked, indicating me in disgust.

“Payment, like we agreed.”

“This ain’t what I-” She began, Soft Step cutting her off mid-sentence.

“You asked for a pony as payment.” My captor pointed out angrily, pointing at me. “I’ve brought you this one.”

The slaver scowled at the mare next to me, who met her stare with her own as the ponies flanking the leader adjusted their stance for a fight. I could feel the tension in the air as the two mares stood defiant, until finally the slaver broke the silence.

“We’ll have the pony, but you ain’t getting anything.” She said casually. “That’ll teach you to not to cheat ponies.”

Soft Step started forward, rage written across her features, but the two guard ponies bringing their weapons up to aim at her head was enough to bring her to a halt.

“Go home.” The slaver said coldly. “Be glad we ain’t shooting you dead. You can even keep his stuff.”

The feel of cold steel against my back went away and I rose to my hooves. “You heard what she said, little pony.” I heard Soft Step say. “Give it.” The knife reappeared a few inches away from my face.

I pulled off my barding and dumped it on the ground, then my saddlebags. It was over, I knew. I’d failed to escape when I was with a single pony and now a full slaver group had me I would have no possibility of escape. Soft Step left the barding where it was, but pulled on my saddlebags behind her own, and with a last vicious look at the lilac slaver, left.

The three ponies marched me at gunpoint through their little “village”, which consisted of five run-down houses, while four more watched from the doorways. They shoved me into a roughly made cell in one of the little buildings, little more than a locked room with metal spikes rammed into the gaps in the broken-down wall. Another pony lay on the hay-covered cinder block pushed up against the most intact wall that passed for a bed. The pale yellow stallion with light grey mane watched me enter the cell, but the minute the door slammed shut behind me he turned over and ignored me.

I sat against the wall and considered the situation. In a way, I was lucky to be alive, even if I was now a slave. The faint restrictive pressure around my neck reminded me that I still wore the explosive collar Soft Step had put on me. I didn’t think she had ever given the key, or the detonator, to the slavers. The thought of her being able to explode me was a worrying one and I wondered if she was that vindictive and vengeful. After all, if she killed me the slavers would get nothing from whatever deal they’d made. I pushed this thought to the back of my mind and settled down against the cell wall and watched the light outside start to fade.

A large brown buck wearing the barding of the slavers walked up to the bars in one of the holes in the opposite wall. He examined me and nodded slightly.

“Nice strong lad. You’ll work hard, ay?”

I just stared back at him and he grinned. “Of course you will. Not stupid, are you?”

More staring.

“I hear you’re not from around here. Shame, but you’ll learn. And I’ll be watching in case you do something stupid.”

He grinned at his own little joke and wandered off to one of the other buildings in the camp, from which I could vaguely hear the telltale sounds of drinking through the rapidly approaching night. Howling started in the distance and I slipped down the wall to the floor, letting sleep take me.

*** *** ***

I woke to the sound of shouting and barking piercing the night air outside. The yellow stallion with the grey mane was sitting by the bars of our room and looking out to the yard outside. I joined him and looked out.

The slavers were under attack. As I watched two ponies came out of a building to the west side of the yard and were set upon by three dark shapes. In the dark and from a distance they looked vaguely like the dogs that I had taken down in the past few days, but even from here I could see that these shapes were far too large and bulky to be any old dogs. The two ponies fired again and again at the shapes, and even managed to drop one before the other two piled onto them, slashing and biting and bringing the slavers to the ground.

An explosion rocked the world and I saw fire erupt from the roof of another building. I backed away from the bars, sweating. The demons were tearing apart the camp and I could hear the gunfire and subsequent screams as another pony fell to their claws.

“What are they?” I whispered. The yellow pony didn’t respond for a few seconds and then shook his head.

“I don’t know. Even in the Zone I haven’t seen things like these before.”

A thumping at the cell door snapped us both away from the bars. We backed off to the far wall away from the door, and braced for battle with our bare hooves. The wooden door exploded into splinters as a massive force struck the thing.

A large creature entered the room by squeezing through the, now empty, door frame. It reminded me of a dog, except far larger and bulkier, bigger than myself at least. Its size, however, wasn’t the most striking thing about it. The creature’s hulking body seemed to be made up entire of wood, from its razor sharp looking claws and branch legs to the twigs on the creature’s hunched back that formed into a sort of spiny fur cover. The creature growled deeply and started stalking towards us, teeth bared and back arched low, ready to pounce low if need be while its eerie pupil-less glowing green eyes stared us down.

Suddenly the brown buck from the earlier burst through the door frame after it, his body covered in heavily bleeding wounds and the combat shotgun in his mouth firing wildly at the massive figure facing us. To my surprise it took three hits from the gun easily and turned, growling, to the pony. It ducked low for the next shot fired and jumped straight at the stallion, sending him flying backwards to the floor and knocking the gun from his grip.

It was on him in a flash, biting and tearing with its sharp claws and teeth. They looked like wood, but they easily tore through his barding like it was just simple cloth and crushing the pony under its weight.

I stared in shock and horror at the creature destroying the slaver, completely frozen. The pony who had shared the cell with me, however, wasn’t so hesitant. In a flash he was over to the shotgun on the floor and lifting it in his mouth. He fired rapidly four times directly into the creature’s head. The first three shots each sent splinters and chunks of wood flying from the things head, and the fourth exploded it, spraying a green, sap-like gore everywhere and sending huge chunks of wood flying.

The creature collapsed on top of the unfortunate pony beneath it and I heard something crack. I felt bad for the guy. Intentional or not, slaver or not, he had saved us and it hadn’t gotten him anywhere.

The yellow stallion turned to me and indicated back to our cell. We quickly bundled back inside and huddled against the far wall, him with the shotgun in his mouth and aiming directly at the door, and me shaking, praying to whatever Goddesses might be listening that another creature wouldn’t come looking for their pack member.

We sat like that until the sun rose again the next morning.

*** *** ***

We walked out into the vacant village in the morning twilight. Half-eaten dead ponies lay strewn across the yard and occasionally we saw the corpse of one of the monstrosities, but they were only one or two compared to the dozen or so slaver corpses.

We passed a corpse in relatively good condition and I knelt down to examine it. The barding was ripped in two and entirely useless, but her pistol lay nearby. I uncertainly tried to levitate the weapon from the ground, hoping that my magic had returned by now.

I was happy to find I could wrap the pistol in a faint glow and levitate it a few hooves off the ground, but I had nowhere to store the weapon and it was still too heavy for my still recovering magic and I wasn’t ready to carry the weapon around in my mouth without training. I dropped it and kept going, hoping that I wouldn’t need to defend myself any time soon.

My former cellmate was surveying the area, examining the bodies like I had been doing. He held the shotgun’s grip tightly in his mouth, as he had all night, but he removed it as I approached him.

“The slaver said you weren’t from the Zone.” He said quietly. I nodded and he sighed.

“That’s a shame. But it can’t be helped.” He paused and looked around again before speaking again. “You can come with me, to a safe place.”

I smiled at the word safe. “Where?”

He pointed east, to where I could only see a collection of steep rolling hills. “Barn is a place that accepts wandering ponies. It’s where I’m going, come if you want.” I nodded. “Good. Follow me and stay close.”

Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have trusted such a pony in an unknown place, but the events had of the previous few days had left me desperate, and I so wanted to trust the pony, to go somewhere safe. So I followed him in the growing light away from the village and towards the place he called Barn, hopefully a place to stay.

Level Up!

New Perk: Horse Sense (Rank 2) -- Your capacity for learning continues to grow in this strange new environment. You gain 20% extra XP whenever XP is earned.

This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html
Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

More thanks to my pre-reader and editor, Jeff.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged (They're good.)

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.

Chapter 5 - Barn

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Chapter 5 - Barn

"I said come in, don't stand there!"

Day 1

Barn conformed to the Zone Ponies’ apparent love of short, literal names. From up close the entire settlement seemed to be built from huge metal and concrete warehouses, with gaps between the structures barricaded with slabs of various construction materials. The large metal doors of the main gate were slightly ajar in what seemed to be a permanent position - judging from the rings of sandbags around them, manned by a group of ponies that watched us approach. The veritable fortress looked beautiful to my tired eyes.

The red-maned stallion guiding me lowered his shotgun as the guard ponies came into view. He’d been holding the weapon for the entirety of our trek, lowering it only once when we encountered another of the air distortions that gave away invisible anomalies.

We had no nuts and bolts, so he had told me to double back and look for some decent rocks. I happily levitated the ones I found with relative ease. My magic was still not at full strength, but it was steadily returning.

This anomaly threw the rocks the stallion threw towards it so far into the air that I didn’t see them come down, or even know if they did. He threw several around the distortion, seemingly trying to find the limitations of the anomaly as Soft Step had done the day before. The thought of the mare still left a bad taste in my mouth and I had tried to ignore the comparison.

As he worked I had been able to get a good look at the stallion. He seemed to be slightly thicker set than I, and his red mane hung in relatively thick strands that fell in all directions over his head, including one that fell between his purple eyes. His cutie mark was three grey bubbles arranged into the rough shape of a cloud.

After a few throws he had seemed to have fully mapped out the size of the thing, but to my surprise he walked off and fired twice at nothing with his shotgun, picking up the empty shells that were ejected and throwing one of them towards the rock on the floor. To my surprise the shell had rocketed into the air - I had taken note that the things seemed to respond more to metal. A few more spent shells had given us the information we had needed to continue towards safety.

We walked between the guard ponies on duty, who lazily pointed their guns at us as we walked past. I could feel them staring at me as we passed their sandbag cover and slipped between the open doors of Barn. One of them, presumably the leader, nodded at my guide as we passed him. The nod was returned and I suddenly felt very anxious.

The fear of the moment meant I had willingly gone with this mysterious pony through a place I knew nothing about, but now I wasn’t so sure that it was a good idea. I mentally prepared myself for some sort of trap and glanced about at my new surroundings.

We passed through the small courtyard beyond the front gate and into the first of the large warehouses that made up Barn. I glanced around anxiously as we entered the huge building. The few metal containers that the warehouse held were empty and pushed up against the wall to allow clear access to the small door to the settlement beyond. Metal walkways hanging from the ceiling allowed a guard pony to watch me as I made my way across the room with my guide beside me.

The pony beside me spoke, his weapon now across his back. “Relax, you look like a trapped radhog. We’re all friends here.”

I wasn’t sure I entirely believed him, but I tried to at least look a little more relaxed as we exited the empty warehouse and stepped into the settlement proper.
As I could have guessed from the exterior view and the guards out front, the settlement was alive with life. Ponies of all kinds walked and stood in the streets that circled the warehouses and I could hear the sounds of laughing and talking not far away in a building down the street to my right.

It was towards that building that my guide now took me. As we walked towards the building I could see ponies glancing at me curiously out of the corner of my eye, and as we neared the door a pony wearing full-body grey barding and a gas mask that covered his entire face emerged from it and stopped still upon seeing me, turning his head to stare at me as we entered the building. Their looks did nothing to calm the worry I had that this was all a very bad idea.

The building turned out to be a bar, called the Rad and Saddle according to a sign out front, with several ponies nursing bottles sitting around the tables against the walls, or at the bar, where a chubby beige pony with a sparse black mane, wearing a filthy apron, was laughing with a patron. The two of us took a seat at one of the empty tables. A couple of the more alert ponies looked at me briefly but returned to their drinks quickly when I met their gaze.

“Don’t worry about them.” My guide intoned. “It’s probably been a while since they saw a new face.”

“Does everypony know everypony else here then?” I asked, confused.

“Pretty much.” He sighed and waved his hoof as he explained. “Barn is an open settlement, but Zone ponies keep to their own people. It’s not normal for an unknown to show up, especially from outside. That thing around your neck probably doesn’t help.” He pointed at my bomb collar.

I nodded, I could see why. Better that they were just staring than trying to put a bullet in my head like some other ponies I’d met recently. I suddenly felt much safer. Here was a bar, filled with seemingly peaceful ponies, in a safe zone in the crazy world filled with things I’d never seen before that I’d been brought to.

I felt safer and happier than I had in days.


I jumped as the barkeeper suddenly appeared beside me and interrupted my thoughts. He slammed his hoof down on our table and grinned at my guide.

“How are you? I haven’t seen you in days. I heard you were dead, or taken up with the slavers.” He squinted at the pony across from me. “But here you are, with a stranger. ” He briefly glanced at me and grinned.

“Not dead, Earnest. The slavers got me. This one as well, from outside the Zone.” My guide replied evenly and nodded at me. “Something happened and now we’re free.”

The barkeeper smiled knowingly. “Something, eh? Lot’s of somethings happening. There’re rumors going around of some new beast that someone or other saw. Like a dog, but bigger and meaner. I think it’s just Ponies drinking too much before going hunting but ol’ Toll reckons there’s something in it, that there’s a new danger out there in the Zone.” He turned back to me. “You might be lucky that you and Haze were together.”

I suddenly realised that he was referring to my guide, and that we hadn’t exchanged names or even talked at all that morning, as we were too concerned with survival.

“Hes’ right.” I said to the pony named Haze. “If you weren’t there I’d be dead, and you brought me here as well.” I smiled at him. “So thanks, I owe you.”

Haze raised an eyebrow and briefly smiled. “It was nothing. It’s in our nature to help other ponies. Not that you’d know it any more.” He said the last sentence with clear disgust and I suddenly felt bad about my career until a few days before. He was right, I knew, but it wasn’t possible to live with those morals for most ponies. The world wasn’t a place for kindness or generosity any more.

“But if you insist on owing me, I should probably know your name.” He continued.

“Oh... right.” I groaned inwardly as I remembered our failure to communicate before now. “I’m Buckler, and you’re Haze, right?”

“That’s right. Good to meet you Buckler.” He nodded and patted the barkeeper’s shoulder. “And this is Earnest. He’s the leading trader here and practically runs Barn.”

The chubby pony grinned and ran his hoof across his balding head. “I don’t think ol’ Toll likes people saying stuff like that.”

Haze nodded. “Speaking of which, we should report to him. He’ll want to keep on top of what’s happening.” He moved back from the table and I followed suit.

“You’re not going to order anything?” Earnest said as we did so.

Haze shrugged. “No caps.”

“Then these are on the house.” The pony removed what looked like two sticks of meat from the pouch on his apron. “Come, eat, both of you.”

At the sight of the food my stomach loudly and painfully reminded me of how hungry I was, and I eagerly telekinetically lifted the meat stick from his hoof and started to devour the cold, preserved meat.

“Many thanks.” Haze said gratefully, grabbing his own with one hoof and tearing into the meat as I gulped down mouthfuls of my own. Earnest dipped his head and turned, heading back to his bar.

*** *** ***

We finished our impromptu meal and left the bar, Haze leading and me following at his side once again. I tried to ignore the continued quick looks in my direction as we walked towards an office building that formed part of the east wall of Barn.

“Death Toll runs the ponies in and around Barn from here.” Haze explained. “We’ll let him know what happened at the slaver camp and then we’re done.”

“Sounds good.” I said, but I was apprehensive. Although I didn’t really know Haze, he was the only pony who I had been able to count on since entering the Zone and I wasn’t sure I was ready to be on my own in this insane place again.

We reached the front door, flanked by two ponies in black barding with red trimming and hoods pulled up over their heads, whilst each wearing a dangerous-looking light machine gun battle saddle. These ponies clearly weren’t to be trifled with.

Haze brought a hoof up to stop me and walked up to the ponies guarding the door. After a brief greeting one guard moved to allow my guide to speak into a speaker behind him. I didn’t hear the exchange, but after he was finished Haze returned to me.

“He wants to see us one at a time.” He told me. “You can explore until I’m done and I’ll come to get you.”

I nodded in understanding and he walked away towards the office building, passing through the doorway between the two guard ponies before it slammed shut behind him.

I wandered a short distance away from the building to casually examine Barn while trying to ignore the looks from the Zone ponies. The warehouses of Barn seemed to have been converted into various different functional buildings. The bar we had previously been in was even part of a converted warehouse, it turned out - the rest of the building was converted into a sort of common room full of bunk beds. Another, with a floor of offices, had been converted into homes for ponies in the settlement.

I was used to villages being made from old-world buildings, but this was still impressive.

After walking around the entire settlement - a feat that surprisingly didn’t take long - I started to make my way back to the office building to wait for Haze, when suddenly a pony-shaped blur erupted from an alcove in the building and slammed into me. I found myself sprawled across the floor. I tried to rise to recover from the unexpected assault but my vision suddenly took on a yellow tint and I found myself shoved against a warehouse wall.

A rust colored face with a brown mane filled my view and I found myself face to face with my captor of the past few days.

“What the fuck are you doing here, slaver?” Soft Step hissed at me. I was shocked at her presence here, but it wasn’t enough to render me speechless.

“I escaped your friends.” I spat. “And another prisoner led me here. He doesn’t seem to like ponies like slavers. Perhaps I should tell him what you did.”

This seemed to make her extremely angry, she brought her hoof up and pushed on my bomb collar, choking me with the thing. I tried to kick out and resist with my own magic, but hers was much stronger.

“How dare you. People like you deserve it. You get out of here now or I swear to Celestia...” she didn’t finish.

“If you. Remove. This collar.” I managed to choke out between labored breaths as the bomb collar choked me.

She grinned evilly. “I don’t have the key. Or the detonator. I never did, little Buckler. I found the collar not far from where I started tracking you. It could be out there right now about to be found and pressed by some curious pony, and you wouldn’t know.”

I could feel myself going pale with fear and anger. The entire way here she had used an empty threat to keep me in line and dumped me in this unknown place and now I was at risk every minute. I tried to kick out but her magic held me. In response she turned and bucked me hard in the stomach. In the last second my horn flashed and I erected a magical barrier to absorb a lot of the blow, but the blow still knocked the breath out of me.

I collapsed to the floor as Soft Step drew her familiar knife. I tensed myself for further attack that never came.
Instead the sound of a gunshot echoed out and the world went quiet. A deep voice spoke slowly.

“Step away, Soft Step.”

I looked up and saw a tall, strong looking white unicorn stallion with a styled mane of pitch black and grey stripes levitating a .44 magnum pistol. Soft Step was facing him with a look of fear on her face, her knife on the floor, while he stared at her with a steady gaze. She briefly glanced back at me angrily before trotting off, levitating her knife to its sheath as she went. As the stallion turned to let her go I could see that his cutie mark was a silver bell suspended on a pitch black curled ribbon.

The stallion stepped up to me as I rose to my feet, regaining my breath.

“Welcome to Barn, Mister Buckler. I am Death Toll. Haze tells me you know who I am.” His deep voice seemed to resonate through my body.

I nodded. This was the pony I was waiting to see.

“Good. Come with me, there are things we must discuss.”

*** *** ***

I sat in an old office in a rusting metal chair across from a surprisingly well maintained desk, behind which Death Toll sat. I spent some time answering questions about my situation to him, detailing how I arrived in this place, although I made sure to avoid answering questions about my history before Soft Step captured me. Throughout the questioning Death Toll sat with the same steady, emotionless mask, that never wavered for a second, except for a brief widening of the eyes when I recounted how the slaver camp had been destroyed by the wooden beast and the occasional polite nod and tilting of the head to indicate that he was listening.

Eventually I finished recounting my tale and Death Toll leaned back slightly, considering me. I was unsure how to continue, so I sat there, waiting for him to say something or respond in any way. After a few minutes of silence he spoke in his deep voice once again.

“What do you plan to do now? I would be pleased to have you here at Barn but the Zone is not a place many ponies wish to live. As you’ve seen, it is very different to the rest of the wasteland.”

I nodded. “I noticed. What is it about this place? Soft Step said that the bombs did this, but I don’t understand why I’ve never heard of places like this before.”

“She spoke the truth. During the war the Rim isolated much of this place, and we have sparse records that the Ministries housed military and scientific installations here because of it. Many theorise that when the megaspells went off they destabilised some other megaspell in production and creating the Zone.”

He paused and pointed at a map on the office wall. It was surprisingly well made, and showed what appeared to be the entire Zone, split into dozens of clearly defined regions that were each tinted a different color, ranging from a cyan color that ringed the edge of the Zone, to green and then yellow and orange, the latter two of which dominated most of the map, to several red splats and finally a deep black spot roughly in the center of the Zone. The regions varied in size from some so tiny that I could barely see the color range to a few that seemed to span a couple of miles. The huge black spot in the center was one such region. Even the other regions became steadily darker around it.

“At first the ponies of the Zone died in droves to the unknown horrors here, but eventually we adapted and learned of its tricks.” Death Toll continued. “This map shows the nature of places here. Blue is completely safe, while yellow and orange denote that caution should be kept at all times. Green is normally safe, which is why we live here.”

He pointed at a structure labeled “Barn” on the map, in the center of small green region and traced his hoof back to a spot on the blue ring along the edge of the map, through a yellow tinged area. “I believe this is the route you took.”

I was taken aback by how complex the Zone was. “So what’s in the black spot?” I asked tentatively.

“I don’t know, we theorise that is the site of a ministry base. Nopony goes to the center of the zone. Even crossing the red zones is near impossible for many. The deeper into it you go the more the Zone affects the world. It tears reality asunder in ways we can’t imagine.” His already deep voice had taken on an even more ominous tone and I was suddenly much more hesitant to ask about it.

“Why don’t you leave?” I asked instead.

“Ponies of the Zone are tied here. Those who leave, and there are many, always return eventually and tell of how they can feel this place calling to them throughout the wasteland.”

This new information was baffling to my mind. Every new fact I learned about this place made me hate it even more. I wanted to leave now. I said as much to Death Toll, who nodded solemnly.

“I understand. I would be happy to send you on your way immediately. I think you would make it beyond the Rim by early morning if you left now and made good pace.”

My eyes widened and I made no attempt to mask my fear as I responded. “What? Right now? You just said how dangerous this place is! Can’t I get some sort of defence or escort?”

“You could, if you paid. The ponies here try to help others, but you’ll be hard pressed to find charity on the level you ask for.”

“But I can’t pay, I don’t have any caps or anything to trade.”

The unicorn’s face remained an unreadable mask as he considered this.

“Indeed. Perhaps I could offer you a job, a small task in exchange for the things you need. I can supply you with what you need to complete the job, and you may keep them and more if you do so.”

I fumed as he laid out his offer. I was furious. How dare he?! He’d obviously been planning this. He was keeping up the charade of being reasonable and generous, but underneath he was just as manipulative as everyone else. I shouldn’t have been surprised, you couldn’t trust anyone unless they were your own.

“-and naturally you wouldn’t be going. Haze would go with you. His return is most timely in this matter, and I understand the two of you have had a good first impression. The two of you will easily be able to deal with the task and he will guide you.”

And make sure that I don’t run off without completing the job, I thought sullenly, but I had little choice but to nod, accepting the deal and trapping me in the Zone for longer.

*** *** ***

I peered through the scope of my new hunting rifle at our destination, a collection of empty ruined houses on the edge of a wartime village. The weapon had been supplied to me after I accepted Death Toll’s job. I was tasked with finding and rescuing a Barn pony who had been chased into this village by slavers. Although his reports said that she hadn’t been captured, she hadn’t left yet either and needed to be rescued, or confirmed dead.

I wore a similar suit to the one I had seen other ponies around Barn wearing, and the same as the one Soft Step had worn since I first met her. I had needed to modify it slightly to fit around the bomb collar strapped around my neck comfortably and as such it didn’t work entirely as intended, light brown barding was heavily padded and would apparently protect me from becoming worm food too quickly. I’d even been supplied with a pocket-full of small metal nuts and bolts, in case of anomalies.

I swung the rifle around and looked at my companion. He also wore new supplies, although his was considerably more impressive. He wore the same full-body barding that Death Toll’s guards had worn, although he neglected to wear the hood, and he now wielded a similar light machine gun battle saddle. The whole getup had the effect of making the pale yellow earth pony far more imposing than before, much more ready to shoot me down if I tried to escape.

“Shall we go?” I offered and he nodded.

“We should be careful. Mutated animals live all over this area. They are our biggest worry here.”

I frowned. Death Toll had pointed out that this area, just north of Barn, was a yellow zone but he hadn’t explained why. Perhaps mutated animals were the only worry here. I sure hoped so, I thought as I looked at the cloud cover above us. It seemed to be growing darker, as if rain were coming.

We set off towards the village and I swept my gaze across the land around us, on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary.

As we neared the closest houses I heard a tormented squeal and a large fleshy creature came running out from behind the house. It looked like a radhog, but far mutated beyond the ones I recognised from the wasteland. It stood at least as tall as me and was covered in disgusting growths and hair, the species’ already naturally overgrown teeth bent into horrible shapes in its jaw. Two squinting eyes ringed in fat widened slightly as it rounded the house and saw the two of us standing in its way, and it half squealed half roared as it charged towards us.

Running behind the disgusting, bloated creature were a pack of dogs, barking wildly at the radhog as they chased it towards us.

I brought up my rifle and slipped into S.A.T.S. and queued two shots directly at the lead creature’s head. Both connected as it barreled forward, sending the thing’s blood and gore flying everywhere. To my surprise the thing kept coming, and it took several rounds from Haze’s machine gun before it slid to a stop and collapsed to the ground.

Next came the dogs. I aimed down my scope and fired at the animals as they ran snarling all around us, angry at being denied their kill. One dropped to my shots while Haze took down two with his battle saddle, sending the others darting away briefly before charging back at us with fresh rage. I took down one as it charged at me, but a second made it to me and clawed at me. The raking slash hurt, but my barding absorbed most of the power of the attack and I turned and kicked the dog hard before shooting it in the head with my rifle.

Haze emptied his weapon into two more dogs, dropping them easily, and swiftly ducked his head down to grab the pistol sheathed on his foreleg in his teeth and brought it back up to face the final living dog. He fired three times at the dog and it whined before falling to the floor.

I breathed heavily and walked over to the corpse of the large radhog-like creature. Up close it was even more hideous. Parts of its hide seemed to have mutated into scales and disgusting tumors covered its body. Regardless, it was clearly related to the radhogs of the wasteland outside the Rim, and I wondered why this thing was so different to the ones I knew.

Haze appeared beside me and knelt down beside the creature, and to my disgust began to carve up its flank with a knife held in his mouth, chopping slabs of meat off and slipping them into his saddlebags.

“Here.” He said, offering me one such piece. The sickly red meat stank as I took it in my magic and tentatively slipped it into my own new saddlebags. “They don’t taste very nice but they’re a good source of food.”

“Errr.. sure.” I managed, sure that I wasn’t going to eat that thing any time soon. It didn’t help my confidence that my PipBuck inventory arranging spell identified it only as “Flesh meat”.

He finished carving up the creature and we moved further into the buildings that made up the simple village. The shells that were once houses seemed completely stripped clean and I wondered whether the ponies of Barn had used this for scavenging in the early days.

We passed another dead flesh, although Haze didn’t stop to carve up this one. When I asked if he was going to he shook his head. “Only harvest your own kills. You can’t trust the Zone.”

We moved slightly further into the village and came into what was once the main square. Several benches were dotted around the cobblestone square with a long dried out fountain in the center. An administrative building sat at the end of the square and several more wild dogs lay on the steps up to it, chewing on another fallen flesh, one they’d obviously taken down earlier.

These fell quickly before our weapons as we charge across the square towards the building. We reached the stairs and stood before the doors, surprisingly intact and shut.

“She will probably be here.” Haze said softly, glancing around for more dogs as a howl sounded through the afternoon air. “This is the safest place in the village.” I nodded and kicked at the doors. They gave way before my kick and we walked into the gloom of the dark building.

The room was completely empty, like most of the other buildings I saw in town, but I could hear a faint groaning coming from up the stairs in the right corner of the building. We made our way towards the stairs and walked up, weapons readied for an attack just incase.

The room we emerged into was just as empty as downstairs but was slightly brighter, a large window allowing the daylight to stream in and affording anypony in the room to look down at the village square below the darkening sky. In the corner was a standing barrel that smoked from a now gone fire and beside it lay a pony in the fetal position, groaning as she clutched a large bleeding wound in her hind leg.

I rushed over to the pony and levitated a healing potion that Death Toll had supplied me with from my saddlebag to her lips. She looked up at me gratefully and gulped down the potion, gasping as she finished the vial. Haze joined me and passed her another, along with a stick of meat. She took both and devoured them in seconds as her wound started to visibly seal a little. Haze dropped down and removed a roll of bandages from his saddlebag and started to wrap it around the remaining wound, binding it in an attempt to further heal the wound.

“How did this happen, Nimble?” he asked, wrapping the wound as he talked.

“Those fucking Slavers shot me.” The orange pony said, wheezing occasionally. “I holed up here and they left.” She laughed mirthlessly. “The cowards were probably scared of the dogs.” She looked kindly at my companion. “It’s good to see you.”

“You too. Hold still.”

She turned her looked at me, smiling weakly. “And who’s the newbie? Another valiant hero here to rescue me? With him here I’m feeling better already.”

I blushed and Haze laughed. “This is Buckler. He’s from outside the Zone, he’s doing Death Toll a quick favor so he can get home.”

“Outside, eh? Sounds exotic. I’m Nimble.” She winked at me as she rose to her feet. The effect was slightly ruined as she winced and stumbled, crying out.. “I think my leg’s broken.” She moaned.

“Here.” I moved close to her and knelt down. “Put your arm around me and I’ll support you.”

She raised an eyebrow playfully but did so, allowing me to take her weight and walk with her down the stairs back to the ground floor of the building. Haze joined me, battle saddle ready in case of further animal attacks. We made our way down the steps to the village square and I looked into the sky.

Over the course of our time in the village the sky had been steadily growing darker and now the clouds looked positively stormy. I furrowed my brow and hoped that it wouldn’t start raining before we made it back to Barn.

Nimble continued to moan in pain as we made our way slowly through the village. Once I thought I saw a dog run between a gap in the houses as a howl echoed through the village and my fur stood on edge, but by the time I pointed it out to my companion the animal was long gone. I tried to stay alert while also concentrating on keeping the pony leaning on me steady. I knew if we were attacked I would have to gently let her go before joining the battle, something which could cost me a valuable edge.

The sky rumbled as we neared the edge of the village and a bolt of lightning raced across the sky above us. Suddenly our world was plunged into darkness as the already dark clouds turned black as night in the space of a few seconds.

“What the...?” I heard Haze mutter, the three of us peering up at the sky above us.

“Does it normally do that?” I asked apprehensively as a fresh bout of lightning erupted from the sky towards the ground in the distance and the wind around us picked up speed rapidly.

“Never.” Haze said, and I could hear the fear in his voice. “Storms happen, but never this bad this quickly. We should get inside.”

He moved towards one of the houses on the outskirts on the village and Nimble and I followed after him. Suddenly a white flash rocked my vision and I stumbled. The lightning was closer now, and far brighter than ever before. The wind had also continued to intensify, and by the time we reached the entrance of the building I felt like it was going to start lifting me.

We piled inside the building, stripped entirely clean with its windows boarded up with wooden boards. I knelt and allowed Nimble to kneel to the floor. The look on the injured pony’s face mirrored the concern that I felt. This storm didn’t feel natural, it felt like some weird Zone thing. I left her kneeling on the floor and joined Haze at the doorway to the house.

I gasped when I looked into the clouds and saw what he was looking at. The clouds in the distance were alive with electricity. The blue lightning was racing across the clouds like a spiders web of energy, and moving towards us across the sky at a frightening speed. The world flashed with blinding light as forks of lightning exploded from the sky and touched down to the ground in the ever shortening distance. As we stood there watching the storm advance I could feel electric shocks pinching my body, which seemed to become ever more painful as the storm advanced.

“We should definitely get inside!” I yelled over the roaring wind. Haze nodded at me and we moved back into the house, the electric shocks instantly fading as we did so. The roar of the wind increased and I could distinctly hear the violent crackle of electricity as the world lit up with light again and again until it sounded like a megaspell was going off outside, the worst of the storm passing over us. I wasn’t sure of our shelter’s strength so I used my still-weakened magic to summon as strong a magical barrier as possible around the three of us, hoping that it wouldn’t be needed.

The unnatural weather passed as quickly as it arrived. The whole event probably lasted a few minutes before the winds subsided and the sound of the storm faded, the world regaining light as it did so, but to the three of us huddled in our bare cover it felt like hours.

When the last remnants of the storm were gone we rose. This time Haze supported Nimble and I drew my scoped rifle, holding it in my magical grip as we exited the building. I could still feel a hint of electricity in the air around us, and somehow as we walked away from our shelter the entire area felt different somehow. The landscape was completely unchanged, the same rolling plains and dead trees, but somehow the world felt strangely different.

It was worrying.

Suddenly I heard a vicious snarl from our left and I wearily turned to meet a new problem. One of the huge wooden wolves had emerged from behind a wall and was now standing a couple dozen yards away, growling viciously as the wooden spines on its back bristled.

A moan of self-pity escaped my mouth as the thing reared and started to charge towards us, fear freezing me to the spot. I could only see the razor sharp wooden teeth in its open maw and the claws raking the ground as it rapidly closed the gap. I could only think about how the Zone was just out to kill me through increasingly horrible and unrelenting methods.

I didn’t even see the brief ripple of air between the wolf and myself.

The hidden anomaly exploded with blue electricity as the wooden monster collided with it. It howled in pain and frustration as the lightning crackled all around its body and left burnt streaks in the bark that made up the creature. The lightning subsided and the creature continued towards us, limping now and with smoke billowing from several points on its body but very much still a danger.

But the explosion of magical lightning had snapped me from my stupor and now I brought up my rifle and emptied my entire magazine directly at the wolf’s face, each shot making a fresh hole that oozed a sap-like substance and slowing the creature more, while screaming in wordless frustration at it and at the Zone, for throwing unknown after unknown my way.

I reloaded and fired again and the creature finally buckled and fell as the last shot pierced its head and presumably collided with whatever passed for a brain inside the wooden monstrosity.

I panted heavily and stared down at the corpse before me. Sap was oozing from every bullet wound in the creature’s body and it was still smoking from the anomaly, but my frustration compelled me shoot it twice more, for both satisfaction and confirmation.

I was suddenly distinctly aware of my lack of real sleep over the past few days and my body felt as if it were made of lead as I stared at the dead creature, fatigue starting to take over. I’d been running on adrenaline and the rush of exploration, but now it was catching up with me. I just wanted to get back to safety.

“Let’s go.” I muttered to my two companions. Haze had been frozen as I had, even his experience in the Zone sometimes seemed to fail him. “I just want to get out of here.”

With that I started to move my tired limbs away from the fallen creature and the anomaly behind it and trudged back towards Barn, praying to the Goddesses that I was done with surprises today.

*** *** ***

Death Toll was waiting when we returned to Barn in the dusk light, flanked by two guards ponies and a concerned looking Soft Step. The large white pony made no move towards us, but instead to my surprise Soft Step broke away and ran at us.

I braced myself for another attack, sure that this time I would be unable to fight at all, but it never came.

Instead Soft Step rushed to Haze and took the injured Nimble from him, supporting her on her own back. They walked away to the left and as they left I thought saw Soft Step look back at me with softened features that I had never seen from her.

I glanced at Death Toll and the bastard was smiling a slight, smug smile. He’d planned something here and played me like before, I knew it, but I was too tired for my lethargic brain to deal with it and I just concentrated on keeping my eyes open.

“Haze, Buckler seems tired after his act of heroism. Escort him to the Rad and see that he gets some rest. I have already acquired him a bed for the night.”

“Yes Sir.” Haze replied and took put a hoof around me, leading me away. I blinked and found myself in the bar with Earnest guiding me into the back, towards a simple bed that looked like heaven. I collapsed into it with a sigh and slipped happily in slumber, the worries of the day entirely forgotten for the immediate pleasure.

Level Up!
New Perk: Hunter -- You really don’t like animals (Especially the giant, mutated kind!) In combat, you do 75% more critical damage against animals and mutated animals.

This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html
Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

More thanks to my pre-reader and editor, Jeff.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged (They're good.)

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.

Chapter 6 - Leaving

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Chapter 6 - Leaving

"Let’s go, let’s go!"

Day 2

The sounds of an active town woke me from my deep slumber.

I’d slept straight through the night, regaining the strength that my experiences of the past few days had drained from me, but now the sound of the other ponies in the common room preparing for the day ahead and moving out started to rouse me. I lay with my eyes closed, still half asleep, as I listened to the room empty, catching snippets of a few conversations as ponies walked past me.

“-heard Ramtar is completely impassable now, anomalies everywhere-”

“-all over the west territories and the Rangers are going crazy trying to push them back-”

“-rescued Nimble just before it hit, it’s a wonder they made it back.”

I smiled lightly. Although I was unsure about the details of the first two I knew that last snippet was referring to Haze and I rescuing Nimble. It felt good rescuing somepony after a life of enslaving ponies in similar situations. I hoped I would get a chance to see the orange pony again before I left.

Eventually the sounds of movement died down and I opened my eyes to find an empty room greeting me. I rolled over on my bed and glanced at the floor around me. My gaze briefly passed over a pair of saddlebags beside my bed before suddenly what I was seeing hit my tired mind and I did a double take, gasping as I realised that I wasn’t seeing things. My, the ones that Soft Step had taken, saddlebags were sitting right there on the floor as if they’d never been missing.

Snapping fully awake, I levitated the saddlebags up onto the bed in front of me as I pulled myself up into a sitting position. A quick rummage through them confirmed that almost everything, save for a single bottle of water and a can of food, was accounted for. I felt unreasonably happy as I shed the saddlebags that Death Toll had given me and slipped my ones back on, shifting the few supplies the pony had also lent me into them. They were dirtier and much more worn, but somehow felt right.

A thought rose in my mind and I retrieved the memory orb I had acquired from the shack outside the Rim. As I considered the smooth orb I recalled how in reality I had only retrieved the orb not three days ago, and yet it felt like much more - having learnt and experienced much since that time.

I knew was safe here now, or at least I hoped I was, but I was slightly hesitant to dive into the memory, remembering how my last experience with a memory orb had ended. I glanced around the common room again. The beds were all empty and I couldn’t even hear any sound from the bar next door. It was just me and probably Earnest in the bar and if someone wanted me dead they would probably have killed me by now.

But if someone wanted to, there was no-one around to stop them, thought another part of my brain.

I cursed myself for being paranoid as glanced around over my shoulder again, half expecting some crazy shotgun-wielding pony to be aiming at me. I knew that if I didn’t look now when I had the chance I might not get another, and so I allowed my curiosity to overcome my caution and allowed myself to be absorbed into the memory.

~ooO Ooo~

The sounds of rushing wind and jolting metal assaulted my ears as I settled into the new body the orb gave me. My host was an earth pony wearing some sort of barding and sitting in what appeared to be a simple metal train car with other ponies, all wearing identical dark green barding that my host presumably also wore, sitting around the tables in the car. Through the simple windows I could see the world flashing by at a frightening speed, largely ignored by the armored ponies, with only a few slumped across their tables and staring out at the scenery.

My host groaned and stretched then collapsed back in his seat.

“All these private sleeper cars on this train and here we are crowded and cramped together. It’s not fair!” He complained to the pony sitting across from him.

“Relax, those sleeper cars are the reason we’re here. It’s an easy escort job and then we get leave. Would you rather be out on the front lines?”

“Well when you put it that way...” My host reluctantly conceded.

The cart was suddenly thrown into darkness and several ponies looked about in surprise as lights on the tunnel wall illuminated them for brief seconds.

“Where ARE we going anyway?” My host asked in the darkness. “They never even told us.”

“None of your business.” A gruff voice from the back of the cart responded. “We just gotta make sure this train gets there safely.”

“Yessir.” Was the half-hearted response from my host before he sank down onto his table.

The train continued on its journey as my host brooded, light filling the cart again as it emerged from the tunnel. Eventually I could feel the transport slowing and hear the sound of the brakes pulling us to a stop. The sounds of shouting ponies came from outside the train and the uniformed ponies within the train, including my host, prepared to disembark, pulling heavy saddlebags down from racks above their seats and pulling them on.

My host pulled his on and made his way down the middle of the passenger cart to the doorway. We stepped down from the cart and I was taken aback as I recognised the area.

We were standing inside the compound that I had first seen when I entered The Zone. The same railroad led down the center of the compound, my host stood directly across from the same large office building I recognised from before and I knew that if he turned and looked to his right, in the direction we’d come from, I would be able to see the same large metal gates that acted as the entrance to the compound.

Of course the entire compound was much more alive in the past. I could see many ponies walking between the small buildings, a few wearing pristine white lab coats and carrying clipboards. Some such ponies hurried past my host towards the train and he turned to watch them as they slipped inside the dozen or so expensive-looking carts with darkened windows that the train pulled, trying to catch a glimpse of the cargo within.

I could see nothing and suddenly felt a smack to the back of the head.

“Eyes forward, private.” The gruff pony from before told my host. In the light I could see he was a formidable pony, pale blue with a green helmet to complete his uniform and standing almost a head taller than my host and strong-looking. His build reminded me of Death Toll.

My host snapped his head around to face the office building and rubbed his head where the pony had struck him. The rest of the group who had been on the train trotted out one by one and formed a line with my host across from the office building. The door swung open and a light pink earth pony mare with a green mane trotted out.

“Good afternoon everypony.” She greeted the assembled ponies warmly. As she trotted closer and came to a halt in front she smiled and it struck me how attractive the mare was.

“My name is Red Gala and on behalf of the MAS and MWT staff here I welcome you to Maremont. I’m glad you all made it safely here without losing anything - or anypony!” She added the last point as if it was an afterthought. “We wouldn’t want the enemy getting ahold of the cargo in those carts, it’s very important for our work here in Maremont.”

She smiled again, but it quickly faded. “Now I’ve got some bad news. The leave you were promised has been cancelled.”

The soldiers around me erupted in protest at this while the pretty mare stood patiently, an understanding look on her face, until it died down with a little help from the large blue buck ordering the group to silence. With order restored, she continued.

“Instead you will be journeying with the cargo and I and will be stationed at Ministry labs in the northwest. I’m sorry but we need to ensure that our Ministry facility is properly guarded. Your presence is essential to our safe continuation of research to further the war effort.”

She stomped her hoof to drive this point home and my host nodded wearily, the rest of the soldiers following suit. I could understand their frustration. She seemed mildly pleased with this response and continued with her speech while two unicorns in lab coats walked up next to her.

“As a final precaution we will be asking all of you to provide a few sample memories for security reasons. No permanent damage will be done - our scientists are experts! We just need to make sure none of you are Zebra spies.”

With that she smiled and turned to walk back into the building, beckoning the soldiers to follow her. The unicorns fell into line behind her and the group of soldiers moved towards the building. A pony fell in next to my host and I recognised the pony my host had been sitting with on the train.

“I have a bad feeling about this.”

~ooO Ooo~

The common room in Barn swam back in to view and I silently cursed the timing of these memory orbs, always cutting out just when things were getting interesting.

I rolled off the simple bed and slipped the orb back into my saddlebags, making sure they were secured to my back properly. I stretched my neck, trying to remove some of the cramp of sleeping with the bomb collar on. I still hadn’t found a way to remove it safely. That was priority one straight after leaving the Zone.

I wandered through the doorway of the common room into the bar beyond. The place was almost completely empty.

I was unsure of the time but it couldn’t have been much earlier than it was the day before when Haze and I had arrived at Barn and yet there were no signs of the patrons from yesterday. The only pony present other than myself and Earnest, who was busying himself with a stove behind the bar, was a depressed looking stallion with a cutie mark of a ball of spikes who was drinking from a half-empty bottle of vodka in the corner. I looked away from him and walked up to the bar, taking a seat on one of the dirty stools as the barpony turned to me.

“Good to see you again!” He smiled slightly. “I didn’t expect you back, especially after that storm yesterday - I thought I’d be getting bad news back. But there you were last night, you and Haze and with Nimble as well I heard! Everypony’s going to be happy to hear she’s back safe.”

“Err... thanks.” I responded, trying to ignore his lack of confidence in me. My reaction was probably easy to see, as the beige pony chuckled as he briefly turned back to his stove.

“Don’t worry about it. The Zone is a harsh bitch and she’s killed more experienced ponies than you easily. Especially last night. Storms like that are rare and come straight from the center of the Zone. Heard it took out more than a few ponies caught in the open.”

He pulled a blackened piece of meat from the stove and offered it to me. “Here, only six caps.”

My PipBuck identified it as “Cooked Flesh Meat” and I shyed away from the disgusting lump. “Err.. no thanks. What else is there?”

He shrugged and reached under the bar, pulling out a can of vegetables. “Twenty caps.”

“TWENTY?!” I was shocked at the ridiculous price.

“Take it or leave it. Good supplies aren’t easy to come by and you won’t find a better price. I need to stay in business.

I grumbled but handed over the caps and took the can. “Any longer here and you’ll bleed me dry of caps. Thank the Godesses I’m leaving today.”

“Why’s that?” Earnest raised an eyebrow.

“Are you kidding?” I gasped at him. “This place is insane. At least in the rest of the Wasteland you know how everything works and the fucking air doesn’t try to kill you. I’m going back as soon as possible.”

The balding pony nodded solemnly. “That’s a shame. We could always use another good pony to do some work around here, you and I could have done good business. But I suppose you’ve got some kind of family in a settlement back there you need to get back to, eh?” He looked pointedly at my collar.

I grimaced and swallowed more of the cold vegetables. “Well, actually...”

He interrupted me with a wave of a hoof. “Don’t worry, I know what it’s like when you have to leave your home. You’re right, you should get back to where things are familiar.”

I lowered my eyes as his words brought back the memories of my “home”. All the ponies I had shared my life with were dead and I no longer even had a home. All the feelings I tried to repress days ago came rushing back and I could see all the events of that night as clearly as when they had happened. The clashing of thunder as their bodies fell lifeless to the floor and the feeling of the rain as their blood joined it in the mud. I felt empty and could feel myself on the brink of tears as the pony busied himself with his bar, oblivious to the damage he had just caused with so few words. He seemed as if he were a million miles away.

Suddenly he spoke again and I found myself returned to the present.

“But before you go you could stop in and see Nimble. She wanted to make sure she thanked you in person for going to get her.” He chuckled. “She’s a good girl. A bit spirited, but a good girl.”

I felt a bit of pride rise within me, dulling my sense of loss a little. That was one good thing that I’d done since losing everything. I smiled.

“Thanks. Could you let me know where she is?”

*** *** ***

Nimble’s home was a on the second floor of one of the old office buildings of Barn. The orange earth pony was repairing her tattered-looking barding when I entered the ramshackle quarters. From behind I was able to see a barely visible scar running down her hind leg, all that remained of her injury of the day before. The power of healing potions, and presumably spells, was impressive.

Following the scar up led me to her smooth flank with spring cutie mark and pink tail swishing back and forth as she focused on her work. I found myself admiring the pony and glanced away. I recovered my composure and coughed loudly.


She turned from her work and smiled upon seeing me. “Buckler, you came. I was hoping you would. Come in.” I started stepping in.. “Um. As long as that thing is safe.” She was looking uncertainly at my bomb collar.

“Don’t worry about it, it’s safe.” Yeah, as long as the detonator wasn’t found by some inquisitive pony, picked up by an animal, wasn’t off- that was enough thinking about that. “How’s your leg?”

She wiggled it in answer to my question. “Fine now. The healing potions fixed it up but I’m still supposed to be resting.” Her disdainful tone made it clear she didn’t think she needed any rest. “I wanted to thank you for saving me. I don’t think I would have made it if not for you and Haze showing up.”

I could feel my face going red as she smiled thankfully and brushed her wild mane over her ear. “You should be thanking Death Toll and Haze, I was just doing what I was told. Where is Haze anyway?” I tried to change topic.

She walked closer to me. “He already came and went. All the Loyalists are out scouting out the area.”

“Loyalists?” I hadn’t heard that before.

She laughed. “Oh that’s right, I forgot you’re a newbie. Loyalty is the group that owns Barn, run by Death Toll. The Loyalists make sure everything around here runs like it’s supposed to. Haze is one of them, and I’m supposed to be as well.”

That explained why the bar was empty “Supposed to?”

“Let’s just say I’m not very ‘loyal’.” She smiled slyly. “That storm has got Death Toll worried. He likes to know everything that happens around here, that and those wolves are all over the place are causing all sorts of trouble for him. I seem to remember you bravely killed one of them for me as well. Thanks.”

“Err.. no problem.” All the compliments from the attractive mare was making me uncomfortable. “I’m glad you’re okay. I just came by to see how you were before I leave.”

“Leave?” The mares tone was disappointed.

“You’re going.” A voice from behind me suddenly stated and I jumped, turning to see Soft Step standing behind me, her blue eyes considering me steadily.

“Oh hey Sis.” Nimble greeted her breezily before focusing on me. “Yeah, why are you going?” She misunderstood Soft Step’s statement as a question.

The word ‘Sis’ slammed home like a hammer to the face and tried to stay calm. “Oh you know. The Zone is really too... weird and dangerous. I need to get out of here and back where I belong.” I glanced between them. They weren’t really related, were they?

“What are you talking about? You saved me, the Zone is no match for you! You can stay at Barn with the rest of us.”

“No, he’s right.” Soft Step said calmly. “He doesn’t belong here and he should go. Here.” She beckoned to the door. “I’ll see you out.” She turned and walked out.

I hesitated. What was this pony planning now? I was sure she was going to try something, but Nimble was watching and I wasn’t sure Soft Step wanted her getting involved.

“Okay... sure.” I started for the door after her as Nimble’s face fell.

I followed Soft Step as we left the building and prepared myself for some sort of attack, wrapping the rifle across my back in magic for a quick draw. The mare wasn’t wearing barding for the first time since I’d met her and for the first time I was able to see her cutie mark clearly, a golden winged horseshoe. Hopefully her lack of armour would make it easier to disable her if things turned bad.

We reached the exit of the building and she turned and faced me. I started back and started to draw my rifle but she raised a hoof.

“Wait. I don’t want to fight.” I relaxed a little but didn’t remove my grip on my weapon. “Look, slaver.” My eyes narrowed and she corrected herself. “Buckler. I don’t know why you helped my sister but I want you to know that I’m grateful for it.”

She paused and looked at the ground. “I captured you and brought you here because I was an idiot and believed that those slavers would be fair. I’ve put you in mortal danger and you repaid me by rescuing my family.” She looked up now and I could see that she looked on the verge of tears. She sniffed and wiped her face with her hoof and regained a little of her composure. “So I’ve decided to help you now. I’m going to escort you to the edge of the Zone and get you home. As a thankyou and a goodbye.”

I was taken aback. I wasn’t expecting such an offer and her sudden display of emotion had left me unsure of how to treat her. I still wasn’t sure I could trust her but she seemed genuinely grateful for me rescuing her sister. A cynical part of my mind reminded me that it was Death Toll who had given me the job and wondered if maybe he hadn’t done this on purpose, to get Soft Step and I closer.

I ignored this for a moment and weighed my options. On one hoof I didn’t have any experience in the Zone on my own, having somepony guide me who knew what they were doing might be a good idea. On the other, I was wary of the pony who had attacked me many times already and who had tried to sell me to slavers. But then I had better weapons now, and barding. She didn’t have an upper hand any more.

“Okay.” I relented. “But you go up ahead at all times. I don’t want more repeats of last time.”

She smiled wryly, returning to her old self. “Don’t worry little Buckler. I won’t hurt you, I owe you now.” She walked past me away from the door. “Wait by the gate out. I’ll be there soon, there’s just a few things I need to take care of first.

*** *** ***

As I arrived at the gate an impressive sight greeted me. Several ponies were standing around two corpses of the wooden wolves I had seen over the past few days. A couple of the ponies wore the black and red barding that seemed to single out the Loyalty ponies while the others wore a mish-mash of barding and weapons.

“Did you kill them?” I asked one of the ponies as I approached.

“Of course.” Another Loyalty pony answered with pride in his voice. “If Death Toll doesn’t want them then I reckon we can find a good buyer for them.”

“What the fuck are they is what I want to know.” Another pony asked. “I’ve never seen nothing like ‘em before.”

“I’ve heard some of the older ones call them Timberwolves. Apparently they’ve seen them before, just not this many and this far away from the center of the Zone.” The first Loyalty pony replied.

“Whatever they are they’re tough to kill.” A unicorn mare chimed in.

“Not so hard that a few armor-piercing rounds won’t take them down.”

I left them to their discussion, walking a little way from the gate and sitting down to wait for Soft Step, staring up at the cloud-covered sky. It looked far more violent than usual, although not as violent as during the storm of the previous night.

My guide appeared not long after I’d sat down. Once again she was dressed in her faded brown barding and looked ready to take on the journey ahead of us. At her look I stood and we set off, her in front and me following behind. It was reminiscent of our journey into the Zone, only this time I felt slightly more secure.


We made good progress at first, traversing the gap between Barn and the slaver village we had been to before in little time. Occasionally we stopped when Soft Step thought she saw or felt something and spent several minutes throwing metal about, looking for an anomaly. The few we found were easy to map out and avoid, however once Soft Step had to grab my barding with her teeth and pull to stop me walking straight into one that neither of us had seen. I thanked her, my heart pounding in my ears at the close call, and we started to go around it.

“Don’t worry about it, little Buckler. Walking into an anomaly is the worst thing you can do. At best you have a few seconds to back the fuck out, at worst you’ll die instantly. It depends what type they are.”

“How many types are there?”

“Dozens, hundreds maybe. We don’t know because some of them do similar things. The most common ones are the Shockers, you’ve seen they’ll do some real damage, and the Grav Fields. If you walk into one of them you can kiss the world goodbye, they’ll either rip out your insides or launch you so far in the air that they won’t even recognise your body when you hit the floor.”

I squirmed at the thought of this. “I’m definitely glad I’m getting out of here. I’ll take Taint or radiation anyday.”

“Oh we have that too.” Soft Step said casually. “Usually you have to go into the red regions to find serious Taint levels, but radiation is everywhere.”

“Oh that’s good.” I said, sarcasm dripping from my voice. “How much further is it? The sooner we’re out of here the better.”

“There.” Soft Step pointed and in the distance I could once again see the gated compound in the distance. “I heard the Steel Rangers have moved out to regroup at their headquarters after that storm but we still need to be careful.”

We approached the compound warily and looked through one of the cracks in the compound’s north wall. Soft Step was right, the compound beyond was empty of the heavily armoured ponies of the other day and my EFS wasn’t giving me any clue of danger so we tentatively made our way to the center of the compound courtyard..

Standing there brought with it a strange feeling of familiarity. It was as if one part of my mind knew I had never stood here before, another part of my mind insisted I had. I made a mental note to be more careful with memories. Who knew what damage they could do.

As we passed the center of the compound Soft Step turned to me. “Before we go on I need to check something. Stay here for a while, I won’t be too long.”

“What?” I was suspicious “What do you mean you have to check something? I thought we were leaving as soon as possible.”

“We are.” She assured me. “Straight after I do this one thing. Don’t get in trouble while I’m gone and hide if somepony you don’t recognise comes past.”

Before I had a chance to respond she turned and walked off, exiting again through the back gate and turning left out of my vision.

“Fine!” I yelled. “I’ll just wait here then! It’s not like I had anything to do anyway!”

I realised I was yelling at nothing and stopped, grumbling. Zone ponies were crazy, I decided. One second they were trying to kill you, the next they were helping you and the next they were leaving you alone for an unknown time.

I looked about at the surrounding compound. There was no use sitting here waiting, it was time to look about.

A quick check in some of the smaller buildings revealed that a lot of the compound had already been cleared out. Entire rooms had been stripped entirely bare, leaving obviously less faded patches of wall in the shape of fittings. Frustrated, I moved away from the smaller buildings to survey the large office block. I wasn’t sure if it would yield greater results but at least it would keep me busy until Soft Step returned.

The lowest floor was outfitted as a reception area. Broken chairs dotted the lobby and a large desk spanned the length of one wall. Slipping around the side of the desk revealed it to be bare, save for a small safe set into the wall.

The safe had several dents in it, presumably from frustrated ponies unable to open it, but still seemed largely intact. I slipped my lockpicking tools from my bags and set about trying to pick the lock. It was hard, harder than any lock I’d practiced on before, but after going through two bobby pins I heard the lock click and the safe door swung open.

The safe proved to contain very little. A few dozen pre-war bits, not worth much, and a few clipboards of useless admin information. Disappointing.

The rest of the room seemed empty, so I made my way towards the stairs in the corner of the room. I followed them up to the first floor and emerged in a corridor. A faded sign on the wall directly in front of me informed me that heading to the right would lead me to “Processing” while heading left would lead me to “Maintenance”.

“Processing” sounded more interesting, so I headed right. I found myself passing through several rooms full of complex looking equipment, none of which seemed within my capabilities to use. One of the rooms seemed built as a vault, with reinforced steel lined walls. The way the doors of the vault were blown inwards and dented, one of them hanging off its hinges and with a barely visible blast mark, suggested that they hadn’t been reinforced as they could have been.

Empty shelves lined the walls inside the vault and each shelf looked designed to hold something precious, they were padded and had small circular indents a few inches wide. A thought came to me and I levitated out one of my memory orbs. Sure enough the little crystal sphere sat perfectly in the padded shelf.

I briefly wondered who would be so desperate to get to a room full of very old memory orbs that they’d be willing to blow open a reinforced vault.

I backed out of the empty room and huffed. Although this was passing the time I had hoped my scavenging would be more fruitful. The ponies of the Zone seemed to have almost completely emptied this place of anything of note. Perhaps this was why food was so expensive here, I thought. If everything had been as picked clean then new resources must be valuable. I wondered whether the most dangerous regions of the Zone had also been picked clean, had the ponies here been that brave?

I ascended the flight of stairs once again, hoping to find something. As I passed a window heading up I heard a noise down in the courtyard. I looked out, hoping that Soft Step was back and that we were leaving.

Instead the courtyard was filling with ponies, some armoured but all carrying weapons. At least a score of ponies stood down in the courtyard, some lounging about and some talking to a formidable looking buck in barding who seemed to be giving orders.

None of them had noticed me, and although my Eyes Forward Sparkle was reading the ponies as yellow for neutral I levitated out my scoped hunting rifle just in case.

A noise from behind me snapped me from the ponies and I turned, aiming down the scope as I did so. I was surprised to find a shocked orange face mere inches from my barrel.

“Sorry.” Nimble squeaked. She was wearing the light barding from earlier and had a submachine gun slung across her back.

“What in Equestria are you doing?” I hissed at her. “Why are you sneaking up on me?! Why are you here?!” I lowered my weapon.

“I wanted to make sure you made it out okay.” She replied, her confident tone returning now there wasn’t a gun in her face. “I saw Soft Step leave you.” She brushed her pink mane away from her face and huffed in annoyance. “And saw that lot come in after you so I followed to come get you.” She indicated through the window. “They’re trouble, especially with me and Sis around. We need to go before they find out we’re here.”

“But... how did you get in without them seeing you?” The ponies outside were well within view of the entrance to the building.

She smirked and wiggled her orange flank at me to show off her cutie mark and tossed her head back towards the floor behind her. “Special skill, I climbed up the side.” I nodded slowly, my mind temporarily preoccupied by the flank being wiggled at me before I caught myself. I turned to hide my embarrassment and looked back out of the window at the ponies.

“So what are they? Slavers?” They were far too well armed to be raiders, or at least the type of raiders that I knew. The Zone was different, but surely raiders would be the same, wouldn’t they?

“Sort of. You just need to know that they’re going to kill us if they see us.”

Something didn’t feel quite right about the way she said that, as if she were avoiding the question. My mind instantly snapped at itself the moment I thought that. I shouldn’t be doubting her, she had come to make sure I didn’t get shot.

“So how are we getting out without getting killed? I don’t think I can get out the same way you got in.”

She nodded. “Don’t worry. We’re going to go find Sis and get out a safer way. Follow me and stay quiet, okay?”

I nodded and followed her down the stairs. As we reached the ground floor Nimble slowed and ducked down and I followed suit. We were still within the stairwell, but I still didn’t want one of the ponies outside spotting us. We followed the stairs down another floor and emerged in the dim light of the basement.

“This way.” The orange mare whispered, leading me down a narrow corridor. “Light up if you can, it’s going to get dark.”

Suddenly another set of stairs appeared and I could see that what she said was true, the light from the small windows around the top of the walls of the basement was rapidly fading as we moved down again to some sort of sub-basement. I lit my horn with silver light, throwing shadows around the walls of the dank room we now stood in. Several pipes climbed the walls and in the center of the room sat a metal plate.

I had seen a plate like this before, it was the same kind that had blocked the entrance to the pipe that Soft Step and I had used to enter the Zone. I suddenly had a very good idea where the pony had gone. Nimble started to move to lift the plate, but I held out a hoof to stop her. Wrapping the cover in my silver magic I lifted it to reveal a spiral staircase leading down into the black hole of the sewer below.

“Thanks. I don’t think I could have lifted that all by myself.” Nimble said in a playful tone. When I opened my mouth to protest she laughed and walked past me, descending into the darkness below. “Yeah, I know. Come on.”

I quickly followed the laughing earth pony. As I stepped down the spiral stairs I turned to replace the cover, in the slight chance that anypony came down here after us. I slid the plate over the hole above me and released my magic and the light of the world blinked out, shrouding us in darkness.

Level Up!
New Perk: Herd Instinct -- Your upbringing means you prefer to be part of a group than on your own. You gain +2 Endurance while you have one or more additional party members.

This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html
Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

More thanks to my pre-reader and editor, Jeff.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged (They're good.)

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.

Chapter 7 - Delays

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Chapter 7 - Delays

“Come on, Fluttershy, we should be much farther along by now.”

Day 2

The sewer stank.

The light from my horn flickered as I knelt over and retched. Of course doing so brought my face closer to the stagnant water and the stench assaulted my nostrils again, causing me to continue to dry heave. Nearby the stink was having a similar effect on Nimble. My guide had a hoof firmly clasped across her nose to block out the overpowering smell. I saw her reach around and grab something hanging from her barding in her mouth, adjusting it with her hooves to cover her mouth and nose.

“Here.” She said to me, her voice muffled by the mask. She pointed at a similar device on my own barding, clipped out of the way so that I hadn’t noticed it. I wrapped the mask in my magic and covered my own muzzle. The stench wasn’t completely blocked by the mask, but it blocked the majority of it and I found myself able to breathe in without trying to bring up my guts.

“Thanks.” I wheezed. “What in Equestria is your sister doing down here? Trying to poison herself?” This was definitely not the same pipe we’d passed through before to pass under the compound, why would she want to come here?

The mare chuckled lightly through her mask. “Maybe. If she doesn’t do it herself I just might. Just look at this!” She lifted her flowing pink tail and I saw that it was coated in the disgusting liquid we stood in. “Honestly, there are hundreds of pipes all over the Zone and she chooses to go for a little trip into the one that smells like something died in i-”

Her complaint was cut off by the sound of splashing and a wet growl echoed through the tunnels behind us.

“Okay. So maybe several things died in it.” Her voice dropped to a barely audible whisper now. I could guess why. Feral ghouls were common in the wasteland, my crew had dealt with more than a few over the years when taking shelter in seemingly safe tunnels. I’d already seen what the Zone did to something as everyday as a radhog, somehow making it into one of those disgusting flesh beasts. I didn’t want to see what happened to the walking corpses of irradiated ponies when they spent time here.

“Where to now then?” I whispered.

“Let’s see.” She reached into another pocket on her barding. A familiar piece of tech emerged, gripped in her hoof, a green PipBuck-like screen with a thin backing. The Stable-Tec Data Assistant glowed in the dark tunnel as she hooved a button. I wandered up next to her and looked at the screen, a map of our current location, while bringing up my own PipBuck and activating my own map. She poked the machine again and this time a little green dot appeared on the map. That was new.

“What is that?” I asked quietly.

“That’s Soft Step. Our SDAs are linked. If I have her ‘signature’ I can track her, or any other pony with an SDA that I’m linked to. Your PipBuck can do it as well, look.”

She hooved another button on her own screen before grabbing my own foreleg. Before I could protest she was hitting buttons on my own PipBuck. A little message popped up on both screens for a split second and she released me. I stepped back and my Eyes Forward Sparkle shimmered before my eyes, a small bar appearing on the compass. I scowled at Nimble, who simply beamed at me.

“There, now you can track her as well. Me too, if you ever wanted to find me. Y’know, after you leave...” Her voice trailed off and her smile faded. “Right yeah. Anyway. Let’s go find Sis? Before the ghouls find us.”

She slipped her SDA back into her barding and headed off towards the dot. I sat there, dazed, for a few seconds before I caught up with myself and headed after her, taking care to try not to splash the disgusting liquid and attract the things were in here with us.

After all, with my luck they would be just around the corner.

*** *** ***

Following the little bar on my EFS lead us further through the sewer system until we emerged from the end of the pipe into a large square room. The cavernous dank space was dominated by a pool of the foul-smelling water that filled the sewer, stretching several yards between us and the pipe on the opposite side, the one that my EFS was telling me Soft Step was down.

My PipBuck made a faint clicking noise as I neared the pool, the whole expanse was irradiated with magical radiation. In a way that thought was comforting. Radiation was something I knew, something I was familiar with in this place. The wasteland was full of it and I’d had my fair share of radiation poisoning. A flitting memory of having RadAway tossed to me by an indignant Choke Chain made me smile briefly before I returned to thoughts of the present.

A quick dip of my hoof revealed that simply wading through the water was out of the question. The bottom of the murky depths was far out of both sight and reach.

“Can you swim?” Nimble whispered beside me.

I shook my head. “No.” I quickly added “I don’t think I’d want to anyway.” A lifetime of living in the wasteland meant I could barely keep myself afloat in water, let alone swim. I didn’t like the thought of attempting such a feat while weighed down by my barding, saddlebags and rifle as well as the ever-present weight of the bomb collar around my neck. Assuming that the damn thing didn’t simply short-circuit and explode when exposed to the irradiated water.

I really needed to stop thinking about my bomb collar.

“Hey. Look at this.” Nimble whispered, thankfully interrupting my morbid trail of thought and pointing at the sides of the room. I followed her point and saw what she was looking at. The edge of the room had some sort of rim jutting from the wall just above the water, mere inches from the surface and barely large enough for a single hoof. It looked treacherous, but Soft Step’s little bar was definitely across the pool, meaning that either we were going the entirely wrong way or she had managed to walk her way across the narrow ledge. Regardless, I had no idea how I was supposed to work my way across the ledge. One wrong hoof and I’d be sent tumbling into the water and, well, everything that came with that.

Apparently Nimble had a similar thought. “Look, maybe you should stay here and guard? Sis’s signal isn’t far down that pipe. I’ll go get her and then we’ll come back and get out of here. No need for you to risk falling in.. there.” A bubble made a wet *glomp* on the surface of the water, as if to force her point. I quickly weighed up the options in my head. I really didn’t want to end up in that water, but at the same time I didn’t like the thought of being left alone in the darkness. Again.

“Yeah, fine.” Better alone than dead. Maybe. Oh well, too late now, I thought.

The mare nodded. “I’ll be right back.”

I followed her to the ledge and watched as the agile pony stepped confidently across the surface, one hoof in front of other, using movements far quicker than I thought I could manage even unburdened. I watched as she circled around the pool, reaching the wall and turning to follow the ledge around. She deftly circled the expanse and skipped lightly into the pipe opening across from me. She turned to me briefly, and despite the dim light and her mask covering her mouth I could tell she was grinning.

“Right back, okay?”

With that she turned, heading through the gloom into the pipe beyond, leaving me standing alone in the little oasis of light that my weak magic provided me.

I shivered in the gloom and it dawned on me that this was the second time today I had been left on my own with promise of return - both times by mares in the same family. The pipe around me didn’t even provide a way for me to distract myself like the compound had, just an endless darkness full of Luna knows what.

I concentrated and forced the dull glow coming from my horn to brighten, allowing me to see slightly further down the pipe. I could see other, smaller, pipes joining the larger one at even intervals. Warily I approached one and looked down the slim tunnel, squinting in the dark. Barely large enough for a pony to crawl through, it led on for a few yards before turning sharply. I reached up to adjust my mask, the smell of the sewer around me briefly assaulting my senses once again as I moved it, and backed away from the opening. I turned to return to the pool to wait for Nimble, the pipe having failed to provide anything interesting.

The water around my hooves sloshed as I walked through the darkness, sending a few more drops cascading over the lip into the pool. The sound of the displaced water echoed around me through the pipe. I smiled lightly. The effect was comforting, it made it seem as if I wasn’t entirely alone, as if there was another pony with me instead of being simply alone in the darkness. I neared the edge of the pipe and came to a stop, looking out over the water and expecting to hear the sloshing stop.

It didn’t.

I stood there in the dull light from my horn as the pipe behind me continued to echo the sounds of moving water behind me, not even decreasing in volume while I stood there, my fur standing on end. If anything, the source of the noise seemed to be getting closer. I released my spell and the pipe around me went completely dark, but still the sound continued. Then I heard another noise, a wet growl among the sloshing, the same kind Nimble and I had heard upon entering the sewer. Ghouls.

I backed up closer to the edge of the pool, suddenly very aware of the pressing darkness all around me and the ever-approaching sloshing. The growl sounded again, much closer, and my heart pounded in my chest. I lit my horn up slightly, just enough to allow me to see a little in front of me.

Standing in the barely lit pipe, a few yards away, was the form of a pony looking straight at me. I could barely see it, but what I could see wasn’t pretty. The pony was missing all of its coat and the skin beneath was rotted away, revealing a hideous mess of skin. It let out another deep growl and stepped towards me, allowing me a view of the vicious teeth in its maw, as well as the glowing green eyes in their sockets, staring towards me with mad fury. I stood frozen to the spot, staring at the hideous thing that used to be a pony while the light from my horn flickered in the dark

Suddenly it charged, the creature tearing through the dark towards me at frightening speeds. The silver glow of my horn flickered and the air around me shimmered, a silver magic shield replacing the basic light. The ghoul barreled into my magical barrier and I grunted to maintain it as he shook off the force of the collision and started to beat on it with his front hooves. He reared up to smash down on my weakened barrier and I released the spell, sending him unexpectedly to the floor as the collision he was looking for didn’t happen. I quickly took advantage of his surprise, drawing my rifle and slipping into SATS I queued up two direct shots to his exposed head. The sound of the shots thundered through the pipe around me, echoing around the tunnel and amplifying to obscene volumes as the ghoul’s skull exploded into several bloody pieces and the thing slumped to the ground.

I knelt down as my ears rang from the sound of gunfire and pain stabbed at my head. Through the ringing I could hear the sound of more growls echoing through the tunnel towards me. I raised my head and shoved the body of the deceased pony out of the way. I reloaded my hunting rifle reluctantly, the sting from the amplified gunshot was still there and, even if I could bear another round of fire, once I exhausted the limited power of my SATS I doubted my own ability to fight more ghouls. I brought the rifle to my eye and stared down the sights into the pipe, my horn dimly lighting the way.

The first ghoul went down the moment I saw it, my spell-assisted fire hitting it once in the leg and twice in the chest, sending it sprawling to the ground dead. I winced from the sound of the fire, pain exploding in my ears and head as another two ghouls charged from the darkness behind their fallen sister. The final two shots from my SATS went wide and the sound of the gunfire finally proved too much. My concentration broke and my magic released my rifle, sending it clattering to the floor. I raised my hooves uselessly to block as the two slammed into me, hooves flailing and teeth tearing at me. I hit one dead in the face with a forehoof, sending it reeling, but pain flared through my other arm and I saw the second ghoul biting deep into the barding and the flesh beneath. I screamed and hit at the dead pony, smashing it with my hoof to drive it off my arm. It released itself, but by then the first had recovered, bucking me dead in the face and sending me flying over the pool behind me.

As I fell towards the irradiated water time seemed to slow. Waves of water flew up around me towards the ceiling, strangely blurred in my vision, probably damage from the kick. My PipBuck sprung to life, clicking madly while I hit the putrid water and the waves rushed to cover me.

Suddenly my air was gone and I found myself falling rapidly through the murky depths, snapping me out of the effect and bringing panic to the forefront of my thoughts. My bite wound stang as the putrid water slipped into the wound and the stench of the water overwhelmed my mask, saturating the filter and allowing me to fully smell the liquid around me, forcing me to struggle to hold down the contents of my stomach and hold my breath. I flailed and kicked at the water around me as I started to sink deeper into the pool. I could feel myself moving through the water, but I wasn’t strong enough to push up through the water with the weight of my equipment.

My lungs burned and I looked desperately around for something, anything that could help me. The darkness of the water glared back at me and struggled to light the water by channeling my little strength into my horn. The light didn’t help, it merely solidified the hopelessness of my situation as the size of the pool around me was made clear. My gaze quickly shifted around the, looking-

Wait. What was that?

A small section of the floor stood out from the rest, much darker. Focusing revealed it to be some sort of mound, covering something. Was that a grate? Maybe a drain? If I could just clear that mound blocking it, maybe it would drain the water. I was certainly desperate enough to try. I was almost positive my lungs were empty now but I still flailed towards the blockage, my hooves sinking into some sort of mush to grab something solid, a long tube, possible a pipe or something. I heaved, with both my body and my little remaining magic. The mound gave way and I felt the water around me shift towards the gap I had opened. Success!

The last of my willpower left me and I finally lost hold of my breath, gasping for air that wasn’t there, breathing in instead the irradiated water around me. Darkness clawed at my vision as I pulled more of the mound apart desperately. I could feel the current of the water pulling around me towards the grating, but it was too late. The darkness claimed me and I slipped into unconsciousness.

*** *** ***

“Come on little pony. Wake up!”

Pain exploded in my chest as I felt something smash into it. I opened my mouth to protest and found a torrent of foul liquid erupting from my throat. I realised I could breathe and sucked down the precious air around me, my empty lungs filling with the life-giving stuff. My brain caught up with just how much of the sewer water I had inhaled and I rolled, doubling over and vomiting all over the stone floor beneath me. I felt a hoof rubbing my back as I groaned, vomit dripping from my mouth.. I wiped it away with a hoof and I heard Nimble’s voice next to me with a worried tone, strangely muffled.

“Come on now, up you get out of that. You’re okay now, you just swallowed a lot of water. Errrmm...” She paused and I felt the hoof withdraw as I retched and vomited again. My wet fur and barding clung to my body and I felt so weak, the muffled sound and the ringing in my ears probably meant that my rifle fire hadn’t done me any good. “There you go, get this back on and you’ll feel better.”

I opened my eyes for the first time and saw her offering my mask to me. It was definitely the worse for wear after my little swim, but looked like it had dried out a little, maybe enough to use again. Thankful, I pushed it to my mouth and fixed it in place.

“Thanks.” I wheezed and turned to look at her. Both sisters stood almost side by side, their rusty and orange coats almost identical in the dim light from Soft Step’s horn. We stood in the now empty pit that had once held the pool of water I had been knocked into, the lips of the pipes on either side jutting a little over the edge. The lump that had been blocking the drain in the center looked like some sort of plant that had pieces of wood sticking out of it, the majority of which was now strewn across the pit floor. I wondered how the two had got down here, and then noticed a set of stairs set into the wall, hidden just below where the waterline had been. Soft Step nodded at me and then at the drain in the center of the room, metal bars linked over the opening to stop anypony falling in.

“Good work. We heard the shots from all the way down the tunnel but by the time we got here you were already under. We took out those monsters but I didn’t think you would make it.” She smirked. “You’ve impressed me, little pony.”

I spluttered angrily, having found my breath. “I impressed you?!” I practically shouted at her. The pony widened her blue eyes a little as I continued. “I almost died because of you and that’s what you say? I IMPRESSED you?!” Her casual dismissal of my near-death experience unlocked an anger that shocked even me a little. All my body’s weakness seemed to fade as I raged at her. “Why are you even down here?! You said you were going to get me out of here! As a thankyou for rescuing your sister and as an apology for bringing me here, you said! Instead you just leave me up there like a sitting duck while you go off to do I-don’t-even-know-what down here!”

Nimble put a hoof on my shoulder. “Buckler...”

“And you!” I shrugged it off and rounded on the pink-maned pony. “You won’t even tell me what danger I was in! Who were those ponies up there and why is it so bad if they see me with you two specifically?! Why won’t anypony tell me anything?”

“Enough.” Soft Step said. I turned to her and breathed heavily, my rage subsiding a little after my rant. “I’m sorry I left you up there Buckler, but I had to get down here and find something before it was too late. Those ponies you saw, they were who I wanted to get here before. I only had a small window and I needed to be as quick as possible.”

“Oh yeah?” I retorted. “And what is it you needed to find?”

“That.” She said simply, pointing with her hoof behind myself and Nimble. I turned, wondering what in the Wasteland she meant, and my eyes fell on a large, reinforced metal door set into the wall of the pit. It vaguely resembled the doors of the memory orb vault from upstairs, except far more intact. Set into the wall beside it was some sort of simple terminal with a keyboard, perhaps some sort of opening memory. “You found it, little pony. I couldn’t figure out where it was from my SDA map and I had given up when Nimble found me. Without you I wouldn’t be here.”

That threw me off a little, but I recovered mentally. So what if I found it for her? “So what’s in there?” I asked.

“If I’m right, information about all over the Zone. The Ministry of Morale had ponies watching every inch of Equestria before the war. The Zone has dozens of hidden MoM installations around the various other Ministry bases. I don’t think anypony trusted anypony back then.” She looked pointedly at me. I suddenly felt bad for my rant earlier, but then she hadn’t exactly earned my trust, had she? “That information is very important. Do you understand?”

I nodded slowly.

“Good.” She walked past me. “Now trust me. I do this and then we go.” I sat down and watched as she approached the terminal set into the wall. “Hopefully this still works. It was made to be waterproof, but time has broken stronger things.” She started typing on the keyboard, no longer paying attention to me. Nimble walked up beside me and sat next to me.

“How are you doing?” She asked.

“Alright considering I just almost died.” I responded. “Nothing serious.” I glanced at the bite mark on my arm from the ghoul. I brought up my PipBuck and glanced at my radiation meter. The little indicator was showing that I had taken a serious dose of radiation in the water, I had minor radiation poisoning that needed seeing to and my ears were still causing me trouble.. “Maybe.”

“I’m sorry.” She whispered,.


“Sorry for not telling you about the ponies upstairs. Do you want to know?”

I sighed. “Okay then. Who are they?”

“They’re rebels.” I looked at her quizzically, interested. “There’s a reason Death Toll’s group are called Loyalty. Years ago Barn was part of a group of settlements that banded together for protection from the wastes under Death Toll. One day one of the settlement leaders took off and took half the group with him. He said that Death Toll wasn’t thinking in the right way and started taking in the kind of ponies Death Toll was trying to protect everyone from, like raiders and slavers.” I winced a little at the tone she took when she said “slavers”. “The ones that stayed called themselves Loyalty and the others, the ones that left, they called themselves Freedom. They’re the ones that control the compound up there now and they’d kill Soft Step and I if they saw us. Loyalists and Freedomers are supposed to shoot each other on sight.”

“You know I’m not a Loyalist! I’m neutral!” Soft Step yelled, her attention temporarily torn from the monitor.

“You might as well be!” Was Nimble’s answer. “You’re my sister and everypony knows you spend too much time at Barn.”

“Bah!” Came the response, before the brown-haired pony returned to her work.

I processed this new information in my mind. The Zone was getting much more complicated. We had factions in the wasteland, slaver groups and raider gangs as well as villages that protected each other, and of course the powerful Steel Rangers, but this seemed far more complex than anything I knew. “Wait.” I said. “What about the Rangers? What do they want from this place? They were here the last time I came through here.”

She shrugged. “The Rangers want what they always do, technology. There’s not a lot we can do to stop them from taking what territory they want, but they mostly keep to themselves and don’t shoot unless you threaten them first. Well, normally anyway.” She smiled morbidly.

A little bell interrupted us as it signalled from over by the door, followed by an “AHA!” from Soft Step and I snapped my head round to look at the unicorn. She turned and grinned at the two of us as the door behind us hissed and grated, pulling slowly apart. 170 years ago it was probably an impressively smooth sequence, now it clunked apart in fits and starts and one of the doors actually stopped moving after opening two thirds of the way. “The password was ‘Press’. Luna knows why. Come on in.”

I stood to follow her. As I did so I felt Nimble put a hoof on my shoulder and I turned my head to look at her. “I hope you feel happier now that you know exactly why we’re down here.” She whispered, smiling warmly.

“I do, thanks. It’s just frustrating when nopony will tell you anything.”

“I know.” Her features suddenly lost a bit of their warmth and her smile somehow felt a lot more dangerous. “So maybe next time we’re sharing secrets you can tell me why you said Soft Step brought you to the Zone.”

I stood stunned as she sauntered past me through the doors behind Soft Step. What would she do if she knew about me and my history? What about Soft Step? I felt my heart race but I fought to control it. It was fine, I didn’t even need to tell her the truth, did I? There didn’t even have to be a next time. I could be out of the Zone by this time tomorrow, for good. Yeah, it was fine, I decided. No need to stress. I smiled confidently as I followed the two mares into the open room.

The room beyond greatly contrasted with the sewer outside. For one thing, it was painted in various bright colours. The light from the mare’s horn revealed a pallette of blues, greens, yellows, every colour of the rainbow. A rather obviously grey bank of screens sat against one wall, providing a welcome break from the offensive array of colours, their green screens flickering, somehow still powered decades after they were made. Cork boards hanging around the room held various faded pictures and notes that had long since lost legibility.

Soft Step approached the bank of screens and magically pulled her SDA from a pocket on her barding. “Let’s see if this works.” She mumbled, placing the thin machine on the screen bank and pressing a button with her hoof. The screens exploded with scrolling text and, glancing over, I could see her SDA doing the same. “There! Nice and easy. The data should be transferring now. Hopefully it won’t take too long.”

I marveled at the technology. “So all this was for getting information on other ponies?”

She nodded. “Of course. And now it’s mine. Everything the MoM knew in my hooves.”

I was confused. “But why? What good does knowing about the past do?”

She sighed. “You should know that more than most ponies. You’ve been in the past, piggybacking on another pony’s memories.” I was shocked at this knowledge. It must have shown because she laughed. “I had your stuff, remember? Those orbs were very interesting.”

I felt a little upset, she had gone through my memory (well at least I thought of the concert as mine) and hadn’t even told me. I suppose it was obvious, and she did have my stuff. Why didn’t I expect it? Still, it felt wrong knowing that another living pony had the same memory as me now. Taking it from a dead pony was different, the memory host was long gone and the memory was its own thing now. I tried to ignore the fact and concentrate on the current issue.

“That still doesn’t answer my question.”

Nimble walked up to us and answered for her sister. “I think she means we can learn from the past. Use information from back then to aid us now.” Soft Step nodded in agreement.

“Even if they don’t give us answers, they lead us in the right direction. Your memories make it clear that the Ministries had something big going on in Maremont before the war, something they went to extreme lengths to hide. It could be anything and it could be very valuable.”

This was far more clear. “So that’s why you want the information here. To find treasure and be rich.”

“No.” The unicorn shook her head. “Well not entirely. When I said valuable, I meant that it could be something that could help ponies. Even the information here could give us a clearer way of mapping the Zone. There’s still parts of it completely unexplored.” An admirable goal. I approved, although it wasn’t what I expected from the pony that captured me and put me in this Goddess-forsaken bomb collar. “Plus.” She grinned. “It’s fun to read about what they were all up to in the past. Look.”

She hoofed a button on the screen bank and one of the screens went blank for a second before the scrolling information was replaced by a series of dates. They were old, very old. Another few button presses and a one of the dates was selected, revealing some sort of report.

ENTRY 46-0-2
Red Gala has moved on to the MAS hub in Central Maremont with a squad of new guards and an unknown cargo. Squeak expressed concern that Red Gala might be aware of monitoring of her and this facility. Questioning of MoM agents within the facility about potentially suspicious behaviour suggested.

More clicks and the entry changed.

ENTRY 29-11-6
The facility has increased their communication with the MAS hubs in Canterlot, Manehatten, Hoofington, as well Ministry agents in Ponyville. Intercepted messages suggest a new Ministry project moving forward. Increased surveillance suggested.

The reports seemed to be in reverse-chronological order. Apparently they had been monitoring the facility above us thoroughly.

ENTRY 4-4-7
Construction of Ministry of Arcane Science facility complete. Surveillance of activity has begun and Ministry of Moral agents have been placed within the staff on various levels. Some other ponies within the facility have close friends and family that are known Zebra conspirators and could be potential targets for questioning.

Soft Step scrolled all the way down the list of reports, clicking on the very first.

ENTRY 1-0-0
Installation of Ministry of Morale Surveillance Station under proposed Ministry of Arcane Science facility ground complete. Standing by for further orders.

“Wait.” I stopped the mare as she began to scroll back up to back out of the entry menus, something had caught my eye. I pointed a hoof at one entry, different from the others. It wasn’t a report, it instead simply read NOTICE. Soft Step nodded and selected it.

Recent increase in activity from the Ministries of Arcane Science, Wartime Technology and suspected activity from the Ministry of Awesome centered around Maremont has lead to increased risk in Maremont as a likely target of Zebra infiltrators. Ministry Mare Pinkie has made the decision to greatly increase surveillance on every potential target in Maremont. All agents are to report directly to me with all information gathered. I’ll decide what’s important.

Document everything.


I whistled. “You weren’t joking when you said they had information on everypony.”

“Of course not. The ponies in the Ministry of Morale were crazy. Led by a crazy mare as well.”

I was reminded of the billboard I had seen on the day my crew were slaughtered, and of the gigantic beaming pink pony declaring that the MoM protects ponies. I shivered and stopped thinking about it. The memory of the pony creeped me out, and it was far too easy to slip into remembering the event a few hours later.


The three of us jumped and looked at the screens on the screen bank. To my surprise all of the screens were now blank, the scrolling text gone. Soft Step picked up her SDA and hooved a few buttons. Her expression changed to one of confusion. “It says it wasn’t done downloading data. Something stopped it.”


The beeping sounded again and once again we turned our attention back to the screens. A single screen flickered and then a single line of text seemed to type itself across the blank page.


“Who in Equestria is Watcher?” Nimble murmured absently while her sister tried typing violently on the keyboard to no avail. Finally she slammed her hooves down on the board, followed quickly by her head.

“I don’t know. But whoever he is I swear to Luna I’m going to fucking kill him.” Soft Step screamed.


“And what is that beeping!” She shouted at the room. The sound of grating metal sounded from above us and we glanced up. A hatch was opening in the ceiling above us and as we watched, a round metal ball dropped from the ceiling on four insectoid-like wings. The sprite-bot turned and seemed to consider us. They were common in the wasteland, but this one seemed different somehow. For one thing, it was painted bright pink. The machine crackled and whirred and a shrill voice sounded from it. “You’ve been a bad pony!”
The black muzzle of a magical energy weapon emerged from a hatch on the bottom of the pink bot and the three of us dove to the side as a magical beam lanced straight at the place. My horn flared and I reached for my weapon, only to come to the horrible realisation that my rifle was still lying on the pipe floor where I had dropped it in my grapple with the ghouls. The bot turned and fired at me again as I jumped to one side to dodge the magical energy. I screamed as I felt the beam connect with my hind leg as I jumped, burning me horribly.

I heard muffled gunshot and the bot shook. Soft Step was aiming at the machine with a silenced .22 pistol. The quieter gunfire of the pistol had none of the ear-splitting volume of my rifle in the confined space and the little weapon was punching some very noticeable holes in the pink metal casing. The bot turned to face the more immediate priority of the firing pony and I took the opportunity to scramble away.

More blasts fired from the little machine towards the mare shooting at it, but I marvelled as she twisted and dodged away from the sprite-bot’s pointing weapon and piercing shots. From somewhere behind me Nimble came running at the bot holding her submachine gun in her mouth like a club. She jumped and my eyes widened as she seemed to almost fly directly at the bot, wrapping her hooves around it and sending it crashing to the ground, smacking it with her weapon as she did so.

“Party’s over bad pon-zzztt....” the shrill voice fizzled out as Soft Step sent a final bullet into the bot.

“Shut up.” She said simply as Nimble untangled herself from the sprite-bot. The orange earth pony sat down, legs wrapped around the machine and set about dismantling the thing, with a screwdriver pulled from her saddlebags, with surprising efficiency. Several tiny bolts clinked to the ground within seconds.

“Ooh! Spark batteries!” She exclaimed, her front legs pawing through the machinery within. “This could be fun, now I just need a weapon to use them. This could do.” She pulled the specially designed barrel that the sprite-bot had used from the mechanical shell. “Think we can do anything with this?”

“I don’t think so.” I offered, considering the black box. “Look, it doesn’t even have a firing mechanism. Maybe if we found some parts, but I don’t even know how they work.” My experience in weapons didn’t cover the rarer magical energy weapons and I doubted my knowledge would translate well to the alien weaponry.

“Oh well. I might still get some caps for.... Errr...” She paused in mid sentence and pointed at the screen bank across from her. “We might have a problem.” At some point in the course of the fight and our looting the text on every screen had been replaced by a clock, counting down to zero. A single line of text sat under the countdown. “PARTY’S OVER BAD PONY.” The numbers counting down seemed completely nonsensical, with no discernable pattern in the decreasing digits, only the ominous countdown to zero.

“Fuck! Let’s move!” Soft Step grabbed her sister and bolted to the door. I followed as fast as my hooves could carry me, following the two ponies into the pit beyond. We ran up the stairs set into the wall of the pit and back to the pipe. The corpses of the ghouls lay in the lip, I dodged and jumped over the bodies. My rifle lay on the floor beside one body, I grabbed it with my magic and kept running, slipping it into my saddlebags as I did so. The echo of the sloshing water at our hooves followed us through the tunnel as we ran and ran, until an almighty boom sounded from far behind us. We skidded to a stop and looked back. Soft Step stood still for a second, seeming to assess the situation before simply saying.

“We’re done here. Let’s go Buckler.”

*** *** ***

I stood perfectly still against the wall in the darkness of the pipe as the armed pony walked past me, grumbling.

“Fuckin’ dark and noises everywhere, why ain’t they dealin’ with this. I didn’t even hear no explosion. So fuckin’ dark, can’t see shit. Bet there’s ghouls down he-”

His voice was cut off with a strangled yelp as Soft Step materialised behind him and cut his throat with her hunting knife.

We had been heading back to the entrance Nimble and I had entered through when we had heard the sound of approaching ponies. From their echoed voices it seemed that the Freedom ponies in the compound above had heard the explosion from the MoM facility. Their response had been to immediately locate all the nearby covers that led to the sewers and send teams of ponies to investigate. Now we were playing a game of cat and mouse with the armed ponies while trying to find an unwatched way out of the sprawling network of pipes. Thankfully the darkness was on our side, a single pony who got too close would quickly find himself missing a vital bodily function (like breathing, or the ability to keep his organs inside his body) after Soft Step had finished with them. She moved like a ghost, unnaturally quiet and somehow able approach targets without so much as disturbing the water she walked through, before eliminating them with a single suppressed shot to the head or a quick slash with her combat knife. Unfortunately the groups were rapidly catching up with us and we still had no way out.

“Come on.” Soft Step whispered. “I think there’s a way out this way. It’s pretty far from the compound.”

I nodded and hurried after her, closely followed by Nimble. We all had our weapons armed and ready, although the brown-haired mare was the most prepared of the three of us. Any fire from our guns and we would announce ourselves to everypony down here, and although the two of us could use our weapons as clubs we couldn’t hope to match the silence and effectiveness with which the other pony could kill.

“Hey! What the fuck?!” A voice sounded from behind us.

“Oh shit.” Another voice joined them. “They got Screw. Hey!” The voice started to yell. “Down here! There’s somepony down here! They killed Screw!”

Luna be damned.

We ran as quickly as possible down the tunnel, hearing the sounds of pursuit behind us, multiple ponies by the sound of it. The tunnel stretched in a dangerously straight line, and suddenly the tunnel exploded with gunfire, several bullets whizzing blindly past us, but still close enough to worry me.

“To the sides.” Soft Step quietly ordered the two of us and we complied, rushing to the tunnel walls.

From further down the tunnel I heard a cry of pain and a voice. “Moron! That fucking hurt my ears and you didn’t even hit anything.”

“Here, let me.” I heard a new voice say. Something about the deliberate tone and the sound of chase suddenly stopping worried me greatly.

A single gunshot fired and I heard it connect with the wall over where I knew Soft Step was. In the darkness she yelled, all sense of silence gone. “Night scope! Weave!”

“That’s right! Run! It’s more fun this way!” Came the response from behind us, the voice laughing as I began to duck and weave around the tunnel. More shots fired, closer and closer. Suddenly I felt a powerful force hit my neck and send me staggering forward, the bullet thudding into me and making my blood run cold. I then realised that I hadn’t felt the hit. The shot had hit home and yet I felt no pain, no blood beneath my hoof as I tentatively investigated my neck. I was exhilarated, it was some sort of miracle, surely.

And then I realised exactly where the bullet was and my blood ran cold. The little slug of metal had hit me in the bomb collar. My heart was pounding in my chest as I prayed to the Goddesses that the ring of metal and explosives wouldn’t go off from the stress of the bullet.

“In here!” I heard Soft Step shout to my right, and I turned to see a golden light from her horn leading the way down a side-tunnel. I ducked in after her, Nimble following quickly as a final shot rang out, missing completely as we raced down after Soft Step. A set of spiral stairs leading to the surface loomed out of the darkness ahead and I had a great feeling of relief, only slightly dulled by the sound of resumed pursuit behind us.

Soft Step stopped and turned at the bottom of the stairs. “Nimble, go up and move the cover. Buckler, protect us. If they try to come near, I’ll shoot the bastards.”

We both nodded and moved to follow her orders. I moved onto the stairs behind Soft Step as Nimble moved up them and started to heave on the cover. From my position I could see down into the gloom of the tunnel, lit up as my horn flared and a silver shield appeared surrounding our position. I prayed that in my weakened state I could sustain it long enough to escape. The unicorn in front of me reloaded her pistol and aimed down the tunnel, braced to fire.

A pony stepped into the entrance of the tunnel in her line of fire and a single shot fired from the pistol at the pony. The shot went wide and the pony immediately stepped back, but the message was there, we were in a position of power here. At least for now, eventually they’d figure out that we couldn’t hold back more than a few of them rushing down at us. Another pony popped out and fired a few shots down at us. The shield held when they impacted, but I could feel the spell failing.

“Nimble.” I called up to the earth pony mare. “How is it going?”

“We’re through! Let’s go!” Came the response, daylight immediately flooding the floor . Soft Step turned her head and nodded.


I rushed up the stairs after Nimble up through the entrance to the tunnel to the surface, Soft Step backing up behind me and aiming at the tunnel. The sudden light hit me like a sledgehammer, almost blinding me after spending so long in the darkness of the sewer. We were standing in the street inside a collection of houses, presumably as stripped clean as the rest of the Zone.

I checked myself over quickly while I waited for the rust coloured mare to follow us. I looked far worse than I thought. My coat was sodden and matted from the filthy water and the bite mark on my arm looked very, very nasty and had visible much inside the wound. I pulled one of my two remaining healing potions from my saddlebag and let the red liquid slip down my throat, allowing my wounds to heal. I’d need some Rad-Away before this was over as well, combat my minor radiation sickness.

Soft Step joined us on the surface and slammed the cover back over the hole and using her magic to grab a nearby piece of large rubble and shove it over the metal plate .“Let’s go. Move fast, but be careful. This area is very dangerous.” She looked directly at me. “If you see anything strange, anything at all, tell me. We can afford a little care, they shouldn’t be able to get out of there ve-”


An explosion interrupted her and rocked the ground beneath us. The cover next to us exploded in a cloud of debris and dust. The unicorn seemed to go pale as the dust cleared and revealed a the tunnel beneath us, clearly exposed. She opened her mouth to say something, but her sister got there first.

“Run!” Screamed the orange pony, tearing away as a blurred shape erupted from the hole, exploding against the wall of a building across from us. I didn’t need telling twice, the I took off after her. Soft Step quickly overtook me and ran up beside her sister, both mares leading the way down the street. Gunfire sounded behind us as we ran desperately down the street away from the ponies emerging from the sewer. Nimble cried out as a bullet hit its target in her rear. Although her barding protected her from the brunt of the force she slowed a little. An alleyway approached to our right and I was relieved for the cover as the mares a few hooves in front of me turned sharply into it.

My thanks came too early, unfortunately. I heard two gunshots and suddenly my side and flank flared with pain as I moved into the alleyway. My pace suddenly slowed to a crawl as my injured leg protested against every movement. The two mares were still making good progress, emerging from the other end of the alley and turning to follow the street without looking back.

“Wait!” I yelled desperately. If they heard me they didn’t show it, moving out of my line of sight as I limped through the alley towards the street, using every ounce of my will and adrenaline to push forward. I emerged into the street beyond and looked about. Soft Step and Nimble were nowhere to be seen.

I started to panic a little. Moving down the street, I could still hear the sounds of pursuit, a stampede of clopping hooves moving down the street towards my position. I desperately pulled myself into a building on the side of the road. Beyond the doorway was a completely stripped shop, its shelves almost entirely empty. I limped over to the counter and collapsed behind it, pulling my last healing potion from my saddlebags and drinking it eagerly. It wouldn’t deal with the pain entirely, at least one bullet was inside my body and the healing potion wouldn’t remove that, but it would allow me to at least run properly.

I lay there waiting while my leg healed, listening to the ponies chasing us run past and watching my EFS light up as dozens of red lights passed past my field of vision, desperately hoping they didn’t check in this particular building. At least an hour passed before I decided it was safe enough to move and night was starting to fall.

I quickly checked upstairs before moving out. It proved to be a fruitful endeavor. A dead pony provided me with ammo for my rifle and an extremely faded box of what seemed to be some sort of potato that crunched when I shook it. Searching through her bags also provided me with an extremely odd item. It resembled some sort of yellow seed pod roughly in the shape and size of a pony eye with a deep red “iris”. I felt vaguely unsettled holding it, but it looked valuable so I slipped it into my saddlebags anyway.

The place was completely empty now, the houses on either side looming ominously in the silence, broken only once by a dog howling in the distance. I felt alone for the first time in days. I had lost everything I knew in a single night, but since then I had almost constant companionship, even if it wasn’t companionship I wanted. Now I was alone again, having been abandoned by the ponies that had promised to take me back where I belonged. Instead I was weak, damaged and alone after being forced over and over again into places I didn’t belong. The loneliness ate at me and I began to remember my life with Blood Money’s crew once again. I missed the times when I understood everything that happened to me.

I shook myself. I needed to keep moving and stop thinking about things. Staying here brooding was an easy way to get myself killed, I knew. I needed to move and I needed to find something to help me, and more importantly I needed to take my mind off my loneliness.

So I ran. I turned and I ran back through the alley, back down the street past the hole leading to the sewers. I didn’t cared where I was going, I was just running and I was running away from the ponies chasing me. I ran past the outskirts of the village and down the road leading away from it. I ran as fast as I could with my injured leg for as long as I could.

I was running so hard, concentration on just ignoring my current situation, that I didn’t even see the fluctuation of the air in front of me, neither did I see the warning sparks as I neared.

I collided with the anomaly and my entire body seared with pain as the blue magical lighting raced across my moving body. I cried in pain and my vision swam as I fell, my legs giving way in pain as momentum carried me through the field of lightning. I hit the floor and felt my flesh burning away from the electricity racing across my hide. My PipBuck made a steady ticking noise as I lay there in severe pain and a familiar darkness clawed at my vision. I closed my eyes and let the steady click lead me into the bliss of unconsciousness for the second time that day.

*** *** ***

My eyes flickered open, revealing a corrugated iron roof above me. I lay on some sort of dirty table in the middle of a sparsely decorated metal room. Where was I? I felt weak, very weak, and very woozy as I hurriedly pulled myself from the table. My vision swam and I almost fell, grabbing the table at the last minute and righting myself.

I made my way slowly towards the door. Even in my delirious state I knew I had to leave. This wasn’t a place I knew and I had to get out to get back to Barn and find Soft Step and Nimble. Soft Step had promised she would help me leave the Zone. I needed to get out. If I got out I could go back to my crew and be safe again.

The door opened and a strange pony entered the room I tried to focus on his appearance but my brain wouldn’t co-operate with my eyes. My ears worked though.

“What the-? Oh nononono. You can’t leave, you’re not even close to being well. Get back on the table and go back to sleep!”

This was a trick, I knew. I needed to leave, this pony couldn’t stop me! I flailed at him but knocked myself off balance and tumbled to the floor. Pain arced through my body and I moaned.

“Come on, get up. You’re delirious. You can’t even go outside anyway, look.” The pony put his hooves around me and propped me up to look at the sky in the distance. Dark clouds filled the sky and in the distance I could see blue lightning racing through the clouds. A deep black shadow also appeared to be moving ahead of the moving blue lightning . Wait. I peered closer. I peered closer and could see the shadow moving and fluctuating. Hundreds upon thousands of pitch black birds made up the shadow, moving just ahead of the lightning as the phenomenon advanced towards us. This was insane.

“Can’t go outside when the storm comes. The air will fry you again itself, you won’t even need to run into a bloomin’ anomaly.” I felt the pony prop me up and shift me onto his back to drag me over to the table. No! I couldn’t! I had to get out and find Soft Step and Nimble. They were out there, they’d be hurt!

As much as I tried to explain this to the pony carrying me he wasn’t having any of it. “No-no. You’re hurt. Now look, here you go.” He dumped me down on the table and lay limp on my stomach. “This will help, just relax and sleep it off for now.” I felt a sharp prick in my back. I opened my mouth to cry out but I already felt even more strange. I suddenly felt very very tired and very numb.

I adjusted myself into a comfortable position on the table, my mind briefly telling me I should be getting up to do something about this situation. Instead my body ignored it and began to shut down. My last waking thought was of Nimble and Soft Step.

Level Up!

New Perk: Final Straw -- When everything goes wrong and you can't take it any more you start to lose it, finding new strength and influence in your rage. You gain +2 Strength, +2 Agility and +15 Damage Threshold and gain access to certain unique chat options when you are at 20% health or lower.

This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html
Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

More thanks to my pre-readers and editors.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged (They're good.)

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.

Chapter 8 - Reflecting

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Chapter 8 - Reflection

"You do not have to say anything. You only have ... to concentrate and try to remember the whole of your life. When people think about the past, they become better."


I opened my eyes.

I lay alone on a familiar stretch of land, a storm raging overhead and rain falling in a torrent. The mud around me splattered as raindrops fell into it like little bombs in the night. I couldn’t feel my body and in the darkness I couldn’t even be sure whether I was whole or not, I might have only been a head lying in the filthy muck with water impacting all around me.

The sounds of gunfire echoed from all directions. Shocked, I looked about, mercifully able to move my neck - maybe I was whole after all. Silhouettes were fighting all around me, simple black pony figures shooting and tearing at each other with terrifying ferocity, like shadow puppets barely visible against the night sky and through the rain.

I couldn’t see how many fought. Dozens? Scores? The darkness obscured the true number to me and seemed to warp those I could see clearly, throwing up enormous shadows that quickly shrank back. I only knew that there were many of them fighting in a circle around me. I saw several fall to their wounds, the dark outlines falling to the floor and the survivors stepping over them to find another opponent. I wondered how they could even see who they were supposed to be fighting - an oddly calm thought, for although I was unable to move and ponies were dying all around me I felt no fear for myself.

Guns roared and ponies screamed as the bullets tore through them, collapsing to the floor as the battle raged. More ponies fell, again and again adding to the corpses on the floor until only a dozen remained. My strange sense of peace continued as the final pony fell and the twelve stopped fighting to face me, I even felt strangely safe and guarded. They advanced, weapons at their side, through the darkness towards me. I lifted my head and squinted, desperate to see who they were through the darkness.

Finally the lead buck came into focus and I moaned. Blood Money’s cropped silver mane framed his cool, unflinching face, the effect ruined by the enormous dent in his skull that seeped blood as rain ran into it. His eyes, the left red with blood and barely visible in the dark, focused on me and he stopped just a couple of hooves away. I heard the sounds of howling somewhere as the pony considered me, lying numb and helpless. Suddenly his legs buckled and the body of my former leader fell to the ground, shuddering before going still. The others stepped forward and I could see more wounds coming in to view.

And then I was running. I didn't stand or turn, I simply found myself running from the ponies I once knew, control of my body somehow restored, as if by magic. Even the darkness was suddenly gone, replaced by a dim daylight that lit up the world. The ground beneath me was no longer wet with rain, instead it was the standard dry earth of the wasteland, the cloud cover looming overhead. The clouds were strange colours, blues, oranges and greens that blended together in an awe-inspiring rainbow-coloured mural that also lit up the world slightly. I could see distortions in the air as I ran. Anomalies meant I was beyond the Rim, inside Maremont, the Zone.

I felt safe, running through the world. I wasn’t even sure that I was being chased by the dead ponies of my crew, only that I was running somewhere.

Shadows darted behind me and I turned my head to see several timberwolves flanking me. Again, I felt strangely serene despite my situation, dangerous animals all around me. They weren’t snapping at me, simply keeping steady pace with me as I ran through the streets.

I saw new movement out of the corner of my eye. I snapped my head back and saw that it was a pony, running with her back to me. I followed, leaving my former route and the timberwolves, who ran steadily onwards the way they had always been going.

The pony’s brown tail and mane swayed as she ran, and the colour of her fur, red-brown - like rust, seemed to dull and lighten while I chased her. It was Soft Step I was running after, my brain informed me.

A hill rose sharply in front of us and Soft Step climbed quickly. By the time she had crested it I had barely reached the start of the incline and she quickly fell out of my view as I ran up after her. I reached the top, slowing and panting from my sustained running, and looked out over the view in front of me. Soft Step was nowhere to be seen. Instead, I could see dark clouds drifting closer and closer towards me, blue lightning crackling across them ominously.

I knelt to the ground and watched in dread as the magical energy washed over the clouds above me. There was nowhere to run or take cover, I could only sit and wait in dread as the air crackled with power and the strange magic tore at me. Strangely, instead of pain I simply felt numb as the lightning collected around me. I shook my head and looked around from my vantage point, ignoring the blue sparks flying crackling in my vision.

I felt as though I was desperately looking for something, but I didn’t know what. The empty wasteland wasn’t giving me answers and the longer I stood there the worse I felt, a strange mix of sadness and frustration overwhelming me. I felt horrible, but I still didn’t know what I was doing. My emotions came to light and I cried out in desperation, tears streaming down my face at being unable to find this unknown thing.

I knelt to the ground and buried my head in my arms, weeping silently.

*** *** ***

Day 3

*** *** ***

I pulled myself from the dream with a start. I lay on a cold platform, my mind groggily trying to recall how I had got there. I remembered the dream first and the emotion I had felt, that desperation, that ultimate need of something I couldn’t quite remember.

The more I thought about it the more the emotion came flooding back. I started breathing heavily, the singular thought overtaking me again as I tried to force myself to remember what I was searching for. The sheer misery rose again.

Then my mind whirred to life properly and pulled me back from the brink. I wasn’t desperate for anything, I realised, it was a dream. Just my sleeping mind playing tricks with me and my emotion running wild over something that didn’t exist. I sighed and allowed my body to go limp again, having tensed in the past few seconds. I looked up at the ceiling and wondered why my mind was making up imaginary things to worry about when I had so much else to worry about.

I thought hard, trying to remember more of the night before. I had blacked out from the excruciating pain that running into an anomaly had caused. I was probably lucky to be alive after that, I realised with a start. Between the damage in the sewers and the anomaly it was going to cost me a lot if whoever had fixed me up decided to charge me. At least he had done a good job. I had a bandage wrapped around my leg, the one that the ghoul pony had bitten, and I felt much healthier than I ever had before.

The constricting presence of the explosive collar was still there around my neck. I was glad that the damage I had taken hadn’t set it off, but I still wondered if I was ever going to get rid of it, since it seems my healer hadn’t had the skill required to remove it.

Staring at the ceiling, something suddenly felt very wrong. I looked up at it, trying to figure out what the problem was supposed to be. Then it hit me. The ceiling was concrete. I narrowed my eyes, staring at the ceiling in confusion. The events of the night before were still returning slowly to my memory and I was still half asleep but I was sure that the ceiling had been metal before. I sat up and looked around. Again, the walls of the sparsely furnished room were concrete, not metal as I remembered.

I remembered the pony that I resisted. Although he had been obviously trying to help me, my damaged condition had convinced me that he was some sort of enemy, although if he had really been out to hurt me directly I would probably be dead by now. I wondered if he was the same one that had fixed me up, or if he had been another illusion, like the metal room might have been.

Thinking about that brought back more memories. I remembered when I tried to escape, he had stopped me and shown me the sky through the door. That same door was there, right in front of me as I sat up. Closed, I couldn’t see through it, but I could remember what I had seen. That same magical storm that Nimble, Haze and I had taken cover from - the one that had filled the air with static and moved at insane speeds. No rain, just blue lightning that struck the ground with frightening power and ferocity. It had been in my dream as well.

And then there had been the birds. Thousands of them flying ahead of the black clouds, almost becoming part of the dark clouds. Had that really happened or had that been part of my dream? I was sure it had been real, but in the addled state I had been in it could have easily been my mind playing tricks on me, or something I was remembering from my dream. I shook my head and pulled myself off the table. This was all getting too much. Even when I tried to leave the Zone it was as if the entire place was purposely messing with me, bringing me back and then sending some new mystery my way. First it was this strange weather that was getting worse and worse, then it was Soft Step’s little mission that had almost gotten the three of us killed, and now because of that I was in Goddesses-knows-where, separated from two of the only ponies I knew in the Zone and no closer to getting out.

And my stuff was missing. Again.

My saddlebags were nowhere to be seen, even as I glanced over the work benches on either side of the small room. A variety of filthy and used first aid equipment lay scattered across them instead. Several empty glass bottles that once would have held healing potion, scraps of bloody bandage and spent packets of Rad-Away as well as what appeared to be label-less liquor bottles of some sort. Vodka maybe?

There was also a mirror in the far corner of the room, a large full-body one that leaned against the wall (concrete, I reminded myself. Not metal.) I wandered across the room and vaguely wondered how long it had been since I looked at my own reflection. The life of a slaver often didn’t give one the opportunity to enjoy things like that.

There had been one time, I recalled, when my father had found a slightly cracked mirror in a building we liked to sweep through for potential slaves. Single or small groups of ponies liked to use it as a shelter, as it was one of the most intact buildings around and often contained supplies, ones that we cleverly left to lure ponies. Then we would sweep through when we passed it again, nabbing some more stock to sell for caps. I normally felt a little guilty for the tricked ponies, but if they were stupid enough to fall for it I suppose I shouldn’t have. I mean, how did they think piles of caps and the occasional chem got there? Ponies had been living in the wasteland for decades, stuff doesn’t just materialise out of thin air because somepony walked past.

It had been a fairly successful trap that time. Rupture had personally caught the two ponies who had been sleeping in the basement and the rest of us had just been checking around for anything else.

My father, Cobbler, had called me over and showed me the mirror. Such a sight was rare in the wasteland and I had looked eagerly into the reflective glass. Standing side by side my father and I had contrasted well, his dark orange coat and thick build with my dull, slightly murky blue fur and admittedly average size. We both shared the same mane colour though, both of our horns poking through the little light olive patch of hair and with a short flowing tail of matching colour sweeping behind. It had felt nice standing there next to him, safe and, although not quite happy, content with my life with the others in my crew.

I sighed ruefully and stopped in front of the mirror. That had been half a life away, and it showed.

My blue fur was patchy and scarred in places and the bandage wrapped around my leg hid the stain of blood. My light blue eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot and my already light mane and tail seemed to be even more faded than usual, although it might have been just the light. I looked thinner than I remembered, even a little gaunt. Twisting my head revealed that the patch of fur beneath my collar was missing, leaving a nasty red mark and a lovely bald ring around my neck. My entire haggard appearance made it clear my adventures in the Zone had not been good for my health, despite my absent healer’s best efforts. As if I couldn’t have guessed already.

I angled myself and looked at my cutie mark. The little wooden shield sat proudly on my rump, my “special talent” showing itself off nicely. Despite what it claimed, I didn’t feel like I had been able to protect anypony recently, especially myself.

A door slammed open behind me and I jumped, turning to face the door. A dull grey earth pony walked through the door and smiled as he saw me, poised to run if he proved a threat.

“Oh good you’re awake! How are you feeling? All better now that you’re not running through anomalies I suppose?”

I relaxed slightly and nodded. “You healed me?”

He walked over to one of the worktops along the wall, taking a pen in his mouth and scribbling on a clipboard that lay on it. “Of course. I might not be an expert, but I’m the best you’ve got and I know enough to know what each bit is supposed to look like and where it’s supposed to go. A bunch of healing potions, a rather lot of Rad-Away and some clever use of chems and you’re good to go!”

I sighed. I knew what was coming next so I got straight to the point. “How much will all this cost me?” Nothing in the Zone seemed to be cheap.

“I already charged you.” He said, smiling. “I went through your saddlebags while you were out and took the caps.” He shot me a patronising look as my expression changed to one of protest. “You didn’t expect me to just heal anypony without a down payment did you?”

“So the first thing you thought about when you saw me was whether or not I could afford not to die?” I said sarcastically. Thinking about it, it was prudent for him to do so, but this was my health and I wasn’t about to let this go.

“Now don’t you get like that!” He shot back. “You’re lucky to be alive. It took the last of my Rad-Away to get you down to a respectable level and that stuff doesn’t grow on trees!” He sniffed at me. “Maybe if you didn’t go running into anomalies we both could have avoided this. And maybe...” He pointed to a cabinet in the corner. “If you weren’t carrying that I wouldn’t have had to use so much Rad-Away.”

I looked over, confused. Lying on top of the cabinet, next to a handful of healing potions and packets of Rad-Away was the strange, yellow and red, eye-like seed I had found on the dead pony. It seemed as though it were staring at me with that deep red unblinking iris, with no discernible pupil. It was eerie, looking at it.

“What do you mean, is that thing irradiated?” My PipBuck hadn’t voiced any complaints when I had picked it up.

The medical pony laughed. “You just carry around expensive and volatile objects without knowing what they do? Are you an idiot or just suicidal?” I looked oddly at him and he laughed again. “You really have no idea what that is do you?”

I shook my head. “Not a clue.”

He pressed a hoof to his face and slid it down again.

“This.” he said dramatically, walking over to the table it sat on. “Is an artifact. It’s an object of great power that grants the pony holding it resistance to certain things, at a price.” I walked up behind him as he continued to talk, glancing back at me. “In this case, this one healed you.”

“It healed me?”

“That’s right.” He nodded. “Started fixing you up the minute you got shocked, healing the burns from the magic a little. Unfortunately as soon as it started doing so, it also started dumping lots of radiation into your body. That’s the trade, you see. Artifacts rarely give without taking.”

He turned and wandered over to a different table with a clipboard sitting on it, leaving me to look at the little seed-pod. This was more Zone madness, I thought. Just what I needed.

“So where do they come from?” I asked, glancing at him.

He shrugged. “I don’t know.” Great. “You find them around anomalies normally, some ponies say they’re what happen if you start messing around with them. But nopony I know really knows.”

He turned and smiled oddly at me. “But you’ll be pleased to know you don’t have to deal with it any more.”


He nodded. “That thing paid for most of your treatment.”

Okay, now this pony was getting annoying. Why tell me all that and take it away from me?

“So where’s the rest of my stuff?” I asked, annoyance evident my voice. “I can’t have cost that much to heal.”

“No.” He replied. “But my silence cost a bit more.” He pointed at my slave collar. “Now I don’t love slavers and I’m more than willing to help an escapee, but I expect some recompense for that.”

I was aghast. “I’m not a slave! This was an accident!”

He nodded slowly, clearly not believing me.

“Either way you owed me a lot, and most of your stuff was broken beyond repair. A massive zap of magical energy is pretty damaging. Just look at what it did to you.” I almost screamed. “But the stuff that I didn’t sell and survived is locked in the locker outside. Here.” He made his way towards the door. “Follow me.”

I sighed and followed him outside. I wondered how much I had left after this pony and the anomaly had finished bleeding me dry.

We emerged from the pony’s house into a small settlement, nothing more than a couple of buildings and some ramshackle gates. Standing by one such gates was a caravan of some sort, a couple of ponies standing by a pack-brahmin pulling a cart.

“They’re the ones who brought you in.” The pony leading me said idly. I almost didn’t know what he meant, and then I realised. Of course somepony had had to have brought me here. I didn’t just come here on my own.

I followed the earth pony around the side of the building, to a locked metal locker leaning against the wall. He knelt and shoved over a small rock, revealing a key that he picked up in his mouth and used to unlock the small padlock keeping the locker shut. I was so glad that he had kept my property in such a secure place, I thought sarcastically.

Opening the locker revealed that he had at least had the decency to leave me my weapon. The hunting rifle stood next to my now even more broken saddlebags, filled with holes and burn marks but somehow still functional. I opened the flap and checked inside. All of my healing supplies were gone, as was most of my food. Only a single can of meat remained, sitting next to my memory orbs and lock picking “kit”. I levitated out a blackened lump of something and sniffed it, trying to figure out what it had been. The wave of stench hit me and I fought the urge to throw up. It was the smell of hot sweat and rotten meat and I suddenly realised what it was. It was the meat from that creature I had killed, the flesh. Somehow the meat was even less appetizing after it had been incinerated by magical lightning. I grimaced and threw it away.

I slipped the saddlebags on with my rifle and levitated up my barding. For his worth, the medic hadn’t been lying. The barding was completely wrecked, somehow more so than my saddlebags. Massive swathes of the reinforced hide had been burnt away completely, leaving the barding apparently unwearable. That too was thrown. Now fully outfitted, I turned back to the earth pony behind me, who beamed at me. I didn’t return it.

“There you go. Now no more running into anomalies.”

“Sure.” Was my brusque response. In a short amount of time this pony had managed to annoy me greatly and I was glad to be on my way as I turned curtly and walked away.

I walked towards the caravan sitting on the other side of the settlement. A white unicorn with a short curled green mane that was going through the packs on the brahmin turned to watch me approach. I caught a glimpse of his cutie mark just as he did so - a spilled bag of shotgun slugs.

“Hullo.” He greeted me in a low voice as I slowed to a stop. “All up and kicking already I see. That’s good to see. You were half dead when I found you.”

I smiled gratefully. “Thank you. A lot of ponies I know would have left me there to die.” We’d done such things many times in the crew, I remembered ruefully.

The unicorn shook his head. “A lot would. Not me. We had room so I picked you up and brought you with us. I knew they had a medic where we were going. Fixed her up a few months back when she ate some bad flesh meat.”

Emphasizing “her”, he indicated to the small cart the brahmin was pulling. I had assumed it was filled with stock for trade. It was, but it also had a light grey unicorn filly sitting happily in a small bare patch in the middle, almost like a nest for the filly, and working. I might have mistaken her fascination with her current task as one of an innocent child with a toy, if it weren’t for the fact that the objects before her were the parts of a revolver, strewn haphazardly across the bare space. The filly brushed her two-toned peachy mane from her face and held a part of the firing mechanism up to her eye as I watched, examining it before putting it down. Her curiosity and work with the weapon reminded me of my father, and I smiled lightly.

“Is it just the two of you?” I asked, turning my attention back to the white stallion. He nodded at me and went back to rearranging the bags in his caravan as he spoke.

“That’s right. I’m Gauge and this is Pellet. We sell what we can along the trade routes here in the Zone, mostly guns. Resources are limited here so ponies pay better. That’s changing though.”

“Changing?” I asked.

“Changing. Those storms of a night, they’re changing everything. Places that you couldn’t even go near are suddenly safe and ready for scavenging and some completely safe trade routes are filled with danger. It’s no place for a new pony to the Zone.” He looked pointedly at me.

I was taken aback slightly. “Is it really that obvious?”

“Yep.” The filly in the cart suddenly piped up before the stallion could answer. She had turned away from her work and her wide brown eyes and smile were playful. “You just look wrong, y’know? Look, you’re not even standing right.”

She pointed at my hooves and in response I lifted on curiously, adjusting and trying to figure out exactly how to stand. This just served to get a laugh from both unicorns as I tried to stand straight and attentive, instead serving to make myself look stupid.

“Never mind.” She giggled at me. “You’ll get it, just as long as you don’t get crushed or burned or shocked-” she paused and looked me up and down before continuing on her rant. “-shocked more I mean. Or thrown in the air or torn apart by dogs-”

“That’s enough.” The stallion, I supposed it was her father, interrupted her morbid list of my possible fates with a forceful tone and the filly’s words ground to a halt as she frowned. “Not everypony new to the Zone ends up like that, otherwise we wouldn’t all be here. You just need to be cautious. Keep your eyes out for everything and listen to ponies who know better. Don’t go running off. Not like that mare a couple of days ago. She’s probably dead by now.”

My ears perked up. “What mare?”

“Another new mare passed us not two days back. Big girl, she had a violent look about her. Said she was chasing some raiders. She wanted to know where she could find some. Got rather rude about it so I pointed her in the direction of Dryside.”

A big, violent mare who was new to the Zone sounded eerily like a pony that I knew. I wracked my brains trying to remember if I had seen Choke Hold go down on that night days before, or if I had seen her corpse among the fallen. I couldn’t remember if I had. Blood Money, Tripwire, Obelisk, Rupture, even Choke Chain were accounted for, but I couldn’t remember seeing the mare’s body along with her twin’s.

And if some raiders had escaped the slaughter with her, it would be just like her to go after them, wouldn’t it? But would raiders from the Zone even go down that far? This was getting far too convoluted, but a voice inside my mind reminded me that despite my dislike of Choke Hold, and hers of me, if we were the only survivors in our crew then maybe I should find her. We were still basically family, we could reconnect and make our way back to normality together. I just needed to make sure it was her.

“Do you remember anything else about her?” I enquired. “Colour, scars, anything?”

The stallion looked at me strangely. “I can’t. I don’t go out of my way to remember specifics about strangers. Especially rude ones.”

The peach-maned filly on the cart suddenly piped up. “Is she your friend?”

“Maybe.” I mused. “You said you pointed her to Dryside? Where is that?”

“That way.” The stallion pointed vaguely north. “Actually we’re heading there now ourselves. We’re planning to stay there until the weather settles again.” He cast a gaze skyward as he said this. “And then we can find some safe new trade routes.”

“I could come with you.” I offered, carefully making sure to show off the hunting rifle I was carrying. “I could make sure we all get there safely, in exchange for your guidance.”

The stallion laughed. “Okay. We don’t need protecting, but it would be nice to have another gun on the trip. Everypony’s a bit shaky with the changes. You never know when ponies might start shooting.” His horn glowed and a few straps pulled tighter around the brahmin. “We’re done here. We’ll leave right now if you’re ready. “

I was about to nod for us to leave when a thought occurred to me.

“Just a second, I need to see to something.”

*** *** ***

The door to the clinic creaked open and I slipped in through the door-frame. The medical pony stood in the corner studying something. On closer inspection it proved to be a rather substantial sum of caps. Caps that he had taken from me, I realised, as well as probably the results of selling my things.

I didn’t begrudge him the caps. He had fixed me up and made sure that I was healthy enough to get back out into the wastes, but I still felt sour watching him count up the profit of my stupidity.

And besides, there was one thing I definitely not going to let him keep.

He looked up at me from his caps at me. “Can I help you?”

“Yeah.” I edged closer to him, closing the gap to the cabinet at the same time. I hoped I was being convincing, keeping my voice steady.. “I just wanted to thank you. I know it took a lot to get me back on my hooves and I’m grateful for that.” This was at least partially honest. “I’m sure your fee was a good deal.”

He smiled waveringly, eyes drawn to my weapon. “Of course. It’s my job to heal up ponies, not to take from them. I wouldn’t want to steal money from an injured pony.”

Especially not one who doesn't know anything about this place, I thought, staring at him. “Oh of course not.”

The dark grey coat on the stallion’s face seemed to grow redder under my steady gaze and he quickly turned back to his pile, suddenly fascinated with it. “Well if that’s all, I accept your thanks and hope you have a good rest of your life. It would be good for both of us if you didn't end up back in this clinic.”

I couldn’t figure out if they were supposed to be kind words, but I continued as if they were. This was going well and I didn’t need to draw attention to my actions now, as I heard a clink from the corner. “My thoughts exactly. I’ll be leaving with the caravan outside, so this will hopefully be the last you’ll see of me.”

With that I turned and started to leave. Glancing behind me revealed that he didn’t even get up to watch me leave. Good. I felt a sudden weight enter my saddlebags as I opened the door and I glanced down at them. I could see the red iris of the seed staring up at me from their depths, nestled neatly between packets of Rad-Away, bandages and healing potions.

Stealing from this pony, I decided, wasn't such a bad thing.

The door shut behind me and I quickly approached the caravan with the waiting Gauge and Pellet. I nodded my readiness at the stallion and he immediately slapped the brahmin, forcing it forward at a lumbering pace to pull the cart. He fell into place to its left and I followed suit to the right, Pellet sitting in her position in the cart and continuing to toy with her revolver. We walked slowly away from the settlement and the clinic across the cracked ground and I set my sights and my thoughts on our destination.

I never did learn the name of the medical pony.

*** *** ***

I stuck my head over the side of my barricade, surveying the area. A broken cargo chariot lay on its side, a hundred years of age showing on the rusting frame. Its cargo, several large barrels large enough to hide a pony, lay strewn across the landscape for many yards in all directions. It was one such barrel that Pellet, Gauge and I now sat behind, guns at the ready. Even the filly had her revolver at the ready.

I almost laughed at the irony. I had been looking for Choke Hold and Choke Hold was looking for raiders, and instead I’d found some raiders. We had made good progress in the past hour and had almost made it to barn, when a battle cry and gunshot had announced the arrival of a band of raiders. The ponies were dressed in rough barding and hide and fairly well armed, but so were we, and after a couple of warning shots both parties were now taking cover behind the fallen barrels, ready to take a shot of opportunity. Unlike the raiders, however, I had my PipBuck. E.F.S. was telling me exactly where they were hiding and moving, even if I myself couldn’t see the movements over the top of my protection. I saw a head pop up over a barrel to my right, where two red dots were hiding, and I brought my rifle up to shoot at them, activating my S.A.T.S. and...


I felt panic rise in my chest as the spell failed to respond, time continuing at its correct pace around me and the the targeting spell failing to activate. This was not good.

A bullet tore past my head and I realised I was still in a battle. I brought my rifle up to aim manually, looking down the scope mounted on the barrel and firing at the pony who had fired at me. Whatever had happened to my S.A.T.S could be dealt with later. Right now I had to deal with the current situation without the assistance of the spell.

Gauge fired beside me with his own rifle and I saw a pony go down in the corner of my eye, a red light blinking out on my E.F.S. to correspond with the kill. My target ducked to avoid the fate of his friend and I followed suit, reloading and glancing up over the barrel while trying to keep as much of me covered as possible.

More shots fired overhead and I brought myself up slightly, picking off another pony behind a different barrel with a round of fire, the scope of the rifle helping to make up slightly for the lack of the complicated algorithms and aim functions of S.A.T.S. More sudden fire sent me sprawling in the dirt with my heart pumping after I felt the trail of a bullet practically graze my fur. My horn flared and I summoned a light shield to aid our protection as I heard my companions’ answering fire. Another light blinked out, three left.

I glanced around at my companions now. Gauge was reloading himself in the brief break in fire and Pellet was moaning and smacking her revolver with one hoof - something seemed to have jammed. Yet another thing to cripple us, but we were still in a good position, despite the four remaining red lights on my E.F.S.

I heard shouting and peered over the top of the barrel, only to see a raider rushing at me with a vicious machete in her mouth. She rounded our barricade and my horn flashed as the wild pony swung her blade. The metal connected with the magical barricade I created, close enough that I could smell the bloodstains in her coat. The pony screamed through the grip of the blade and smashed the shield again as I carefully took aim with my hunting rifle and fired directly into her chest. Her eyes widened in shock from the shot and I released my magic, sending her sprawling forward.

Turning my attention back to the living raiders, I left my victim to die on the ground. Gauge fired beside me as I turned and I saw that the last three ponies were rushing at us at frightening speed through the field of fallen barrels. Their pupils were pinpricks in enormous white saucers - under the effects of a good healthy dose of Dash. I raised my rifle and aimed down the sight, firing desperately at the rapidly weaving ponies. One fired back, levitating her pistol as she ran and firing wildly in our general direction. Every shot went wide, but it bought them more time to catch us up as we ducked for cover.

Suddenly I felt a sudden, intense pain in my leg and I screamed in shock and pain. Looking down, I could see the insane grin of the pony I had left to die on the floor staring back up at me. She grinned through the grip of her machete, the blade of which was now firmly embedded in my rear left leg, just below the hock.

I cursed myself as my vision swam and my mind brought back old lessons. You needed to make sure they were dead. Of course you did. You always made sure your enemies were dead or else they might turn around and kill you. Blood Money had told me that long ago. How could I have forgotten...

A hoof slapped me across the face and I refocused on the world around me. Gauge was standing above me, his white fur splattered with blood. I felt movement in my saddlebags and a healing potion materialised in front of me. I drank it eagerly and I felt a sharp stab in my flank, followed by a rapid dulling of the pain that filled my leg. Vaguely I could also hear a steady clicking coming from my artifact as the artifact I carried started to take its slow effect.

I brought my PipBuck up to my face as I lay on my back. The little pony on screen grimaced at the little dashed line that represented my broken leg. Only just healed up and already hurt, I thought to myself. Looking at my PipBuck brought a new thought. I tried once more to slip into S.A.T.S, hoping that the lack of it in the fight had been a fluke.

It hadn’t. I found myself unable to activate the spell, the matrix of spells not responding to my prompting and the screen of my PipBuck actually seemed to blink out if I tried to activate the targeting system. It was well and truly busted, and somehow I was sure that I wasn’t going to be able fix it. I didn’t even know if it could be fixed. Now I had to rely on my own shooting skill.

I sighed and leaned back, my collar pressing against my neck as I did so. I glanced about. I didn’t know how long I had been out, but the last of the raiders lay dead in the dirt, their own blood pooling around them, including the bitch that had sliced me, her stupid grin wiped from her face by gunshot to the face.

“Okey Dokey! All better now?” I heard Pellet’s enthusiastic tone from outside my field of vision and I pulled myself to a sitting position wearily. I lit up my horn and levitated another stolen healing potion from my saddlebags. I drained the red liquid inside and looked around.

I breathed heavily and cast a glance at my leg. A wicked gash lay along the flesh, although it was already starting to heal - the blood coagulating in the wound rather than seeping from it. I winced and turned away, looking back to Gauge and Pellet. The former had begun calming his braying brahmin and cleaning up the “battlefield” while the latter stood a few hooves away, looking at me expectantly.

“I’m fine.” I smiled at her while I pulled a roll of bandages from my saddlebags and set about wrapping them around my wound. “Did we win?”

“You bet. No help from you, you had to go and get hurt so we finished them ourselves.”

“I thought your gun jammed.” I asked curiously and the light grey filly snorted in dismissal in response.

“Only for a second. A bit of casing, really easy to remove.”

I finished dressing my leg and stood on it warily as the filly responded, relying on the remaining Med-X in my system and the healing potions working to keep me stable. Happily I found myself able to stand on it with ease. I looked about at the bodies lying around me, wandering over to one with Pellet trotting alongside me, her peachy tail flicking absently as she watched me.

“So you and your Dad are good with guns?” I asked, pulling a Rad-Away from my saddlebags and draining it to combat the radiation the red seed-eye was creating in its efforts to heal me. I glanced over the corpse in front of me as I did so. This one had been the one that rushed at us with a pistol. The weapon now lay beside its bullet-ridden former owner.

“Uh-huh. He finds them, buys them, looks at their quality, repairs them, sells them. I help as well. It’s really easy, fixing guns, and Dad is always really good at getting a good deal for everything.” She informed me happily.

I frowned a little. This sounded a bit like my family. I’d been learning from my father how to fix up armour and weapons for a while before he had died. Learning somepony’s special talent from them was hard, but I suspected that Pellet might be talented in that regard herself.

“So what can you tell me about this?” I picked up the raider’s pistol in my magical grip and passed it to her. The large weapon had a very dark, almost pitch black smooth finish on the metal and a curved dark wood grip, that was chipped and scratched from heavy use. A surprisingly elegant weapon for such a vicious former owner, I decided.

The filly took the weapon in her own magic and squinted at it. She carefully twisted and appraised the dangerous weapon like it was a valuable that could shatter at any moment. The long cylinder of the weapon snapped out and back in while wrapped in the filly’s red-tinted magic and when she spoke she seemed to have a more serious tone than the excessively happy one she used normally.

“It’s a standard Ironshod Firearms .45 caliber double action revolver. Five shots. Nothing really special, but it is very pretty. This grip could use replacing before it gives, the barrel is a little warped and the hammer looks really worn but otherwise it looks in good condition.” She looked back at me. “Do you want it?”

“Of course.” I nudged the raider with my foot. “It’s not like she’s going to use it.” And besides, I could use a closer range weapon. Sometimes a rifle didn’t cut it. Perhaps I should invest in something like a knife like Soft Step’s.

I felt a pang of guilt thinking about Soft Step. Even after the circumstances of my meeting with Soft Step, the direct mare had grown on me, I’d been thinking about her on our journey to Dryside - specifically her and her sister’s safety. I was sure she was fine, but I couldn’t help but feel I had abandoned her and Nimble. In reality of course, I told myself, they had been the ones to leave me, even if it was my own fault for getting shot. They weren’t to know.

When we arrived at Dryside, I had decided, I could look for clues as to where Soft Step and Nimble were as well as Choke Hold. When (if) I found my former crew member I could go searching for the two mares, to make sure that they were alright. I ignored the obvious option that they were dead and instead focused on imagining the two mares safe back at Barn.

I found myself thinking of Nimble’s playful, pleasant smile and a smile in response to the imaginary face started to play on my lips. She was a far easier pony to get along with than her sister, and our meeting had been on much better terms, although maybe not a much better situation.

I felt my mind wandering and I shook myself. I wasn’t sure what my thoughts were doing, but I needed to stay in the moment. I couldn’t afford more painful surprises.

“Let’s go! I don’t want attention from ponies looking for our fight.” I heard Gauge shout from farther away and Pellet bounced off back towards him.


I chuckled and magically pulled my new revolver’s holster from the leg of the fallen raider, attaching it to my own and trying to ignore the blood. I turned and walked back towards the pony standing by his brahmin, waving my new possession in the air as I did so.

“Got any ammo for this?”

*** *** ***

We walked side by side through the southern checkpoint into Dryside. Approaching it had been plain to see that this was a very different settlement to Barn. Compared to the latter’s large metal walls and looming warehouses, Dryside was made of a rag-tag collection of dilapidated houses that had been fixed up. It sat on the edge of an enormous sloping crater that was filled with pools of murky water.

The ponies of Dryside seemed different as well. The few that I saw wandering about paid me no mind, unlike the highly suspicious ponies of Barn, and seemed to have a greater air of contentedness about them.

Despite this there was still obviously as much of a fighting presence as there was in Barn. Ponies in barding of all kinds wandered the streets and manned checkpoints into the town. Two such ponies were inspecting Gauges caravan now. They cast a wary eye at me as they worked, but quickly waved us through into town, not even asking about the rifle slung across my back and the holstered revolver on my leg.

The center of town seemed home to some sort of little market, where ponies stood behind roughly constructed stalls that proclaimed the price of their wares on dirty signs. Next to one such stall were ponies chained to poles, wearing bomb collars and sitting in cages. Even slavers were present here. Ponies of all kinds milled about, even a few pegasi. I marveled at the rare breed working their way across the square. One walked past and I found myself drawn to her wings.

I frowned upon inspecting them. The light violet pegasus’ wings seemed stumpy and smaller than I had expected, and her stable barding and saddle-mounted sniper rifle seemed to almost hide them. I heard a cough and looked up to her staring at me with an annoyed expression on her face. I felt myself going red and looked away as she huffed and stomped off. Behind me Gauge chuckled.

“I wouldn’t go looking at her wings if I were you. She’s a bit sensitive about it.”

“Are they meant to be like that?” I asked tentatively as the white unicorn walked up behind me.

“Of course not. Didn’t you see her barding? Stable 45. Nopony from there ever came out normal.”

Pellet bounded up beside me. “They let in pegasi, which was really weird, but everypony says they were trying to turn them into Earth Ponies! That’s why all the pegasi and unicorns from Stable 45 can’t do anything like flying or magic or anything.”

Turning pegasi into earth ponies seemed a bit fanciful, but there was definitely something there. I wondered if I should bother apologising, but I already couldn’t see the violet mare any more in the square. I turned my attention back to the mission at hand.

“So this is Dryside? Where exactly did you tell Cho-” I caught myself before finishing the name. “Where exactly did you tell the mare to go?”

Gauge shrugged. “I just sent her here. But I don’t think she was the kind of mare to not make herself known. Asking around might be a good idea. Here.” His horn glowed and two bags floated out from his bags. “This is for coming with us. I know you volunteered, but you did a good job.”

I thanked him and took the bags. I peered inside to see a decent pile of caps, as well as some mixed rounds for my hunting rifle and new revolver.

“You might want to start over there.”

Gauge pointed towards a two-storey building with a strange flag hanging from a pole jutting from one of the boarded up windows. The crest on the flag showed a pony skull profile flanked on either side by a long leaf with acorns sitting at their base. Not a crest I recognised, but then that added to a list of unknown things I’d learnt about in the Zone. Nailed to the wall on the front of the building was a billboard advertising various jobs with more of the strange crests drawn onto a scrap of cloth pinned into several.

“The ponies stationed there know a lot about the Zone. More than me maybe. Anypony looking for information goes to them.”

“Are they Loyalists then?” I asked, looking between the base and the trader, who frowned for a second before responding.

“No they aren’t. I don’t think you should ask them that either.” He shook his head, seemingly at my question. “Listen. You’re new, but I can see potential in you. You could fit right in here. Just don’t get yourself killed doing whatever it is you are doing. If you ever see us on our trade route, don’t be afraid to make yourself known. I’ll sort you some deals out.”

“Thanks.” I smiled at the two ponies and turned to start off towards the base. “I will, and you look after yourselves.”

Pellet giggled. “You’re the one who needs looking after.”

Yeah, I thought as I put a hoof on the door, I did. I always had other ponies looking after me, and now in this strange place I needed it even more. Maybe that’s why I was trying to find Choke Hold, a part of my mind said, and I found myself agreeing with it.

I hoofed the door open and a dull interior greeted me. Looking at it made me feel uneasy. The place was clearly inhabited, although it seemed more by a manticore than by a pony. Only the presence of an earth pony mare sleeping, passed out on a table propped up by a crate, let me know that anypony lived here. Bits of paper were strewn all over the floor and nailed to the wall, most seemed to be job descriptions similar to the kind nailed outside, although most of these were faded, showing signs of age. Smashed chairs and other assorted dilapidated furniture was strewn across the main room and various liquids pooled beneath the mare on the table, while the walls were littered with scratch marks and bullet holes.

A brown unicorn stallion with a deep red mane walked into the room through a door and his eyes widened briefly as he saw me, before settling into a more relaxed posture as he approached me. He seemed almost lethargic in his movements and as he walked closer towards me in the light I could see classic signs of some sort of drug withdrawal.

“Hey there bro. You’re a new face around here, aren’t you?” He inquired calmly.

“That’s right.” I nodded in confirmation. Everypony could apparently see it just by looking at me, so why hide it?

“Thought so.” The stallion seemed pleased with his correct assessment. “What can we...” The unicorn looked at his partner and sighed. “What can I help you with? Need to know the best place to score around Dryside? Maybe get some good chems?”

“Actually, I need to find a mare that might have come through here. Or maybe some raiders if you can’t manage that.”

“A mare, ‘eh?” The pony smiled suggestively at me and I held his gaze.

“Not like that. She’s family.” Almost true, and I didn’t want this pony getting the wrong idea. “I think she might have been looking for raiders, and she was sent here. She was big, probably a bit of a temper on her.”

“Right, sure.” The pony rubbed his chin while considering my request. “Might be that mare that was causing a bit of trouble in the market. I think she came in here. Give me a minute.”

He signaled for me to follow and made his way over to the mare on the table. She remained unresponsive as we stood by side at the table, snoring peacefully. The stallion turned and winked at me before raising one hoof above the sleeping mare and positioning his mouth next to her ear, close enough for her to hear his breath, were she awake. Suddenly he brought his leg crashing down on her side and simultaneously yelled straight into her ear.


The sudden startling wake up call reminded me of my own frequent alarm, in the form of Choke Hold kicking me awake and I smiled in familiarity as the mare’s eyes flickered open groggily with a resentful glare at the pony that had woken her.

“What do you want, Canvas?” She asked flatly.

“Where did we send that mare who was stomping about looking for raiders?”

She shot him a contempt-filled look and sighed, replying with a slightly slurred response. “Ramtar. Sent her after that group that’s been blocking passage through the safe zones. Hopefully the Loyalist morons shot her.” She spat a phlegmy blob of spittle at the floor at this.

“Thanks. You can go back to sleep now.”

The mare grunted and rolled over, burying her head in her arms and turning her back to the stallion, apparently was named Canvas, who turned back to me and explained with a smile on his face.

“We sent her out west, to Ramtar. The place is a big swampy mess and since the storms anomalies have been popping up all over it. It’s also crawling with Loyalty ponies, ghouls and raiders. So it’s just what she was looking for!” He paused and then his tone got a little lower. “Listen, bro. To tell you the truth, she was trouble. She caused problems in Dryside and to be honest when we sent her out there it was probably to get killed. If she kills the raiders, that’s great, but nopony wanted to take the job because of how hard it will be. It’s up to you if you want to go, but honestly bro, I wouldn’t.”

I furrowed my brow. “I need to find her.”

The stallion sighed and rolled his eyes. “Okay bro, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. But you gotta know, information isn’t cheap. If you want to know exactly where we sent her, you’ll need to cough up caps.”

I decided to press my luck, I’d had enough of ponies fleecing me. “How about instead I take that raider job as well. Then you tell me where they are and I go to the same place she is. You never know, I might be more successful.”

He didn’t look like he believed me, but he conceded. “Okay.” He led me over to a worn map on the wall. It showed a big patch of land with some rough landmarks and reference points mapped out. He pointed to one such landmark. “Here. Go here and you might find her, or get killed. If you kill the raiders, bring some proof. Until that time you still owe me caps.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“One more thing. That place is really dangerous bro. You’re really gonna need to be better supplied.” He indicated my bare coat.

I nodded, turning to go as I did so. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to rush in helpless.” I reached the door and hoofed it open, leaving the building and heading for the market. It was time to go shopping.

*** *** ***

My supply of caps, it turned out, wasn’t getting me very far. After much haggling and persuading in the markets I’d only been able to get some very inedible-looking food and a few bottles of irradiated water at any sort of reasonable price. Now I was trying to talk down the price of some very worn-looking leather barding that a trader was trying to sell me at a vastly inflated rate.

“Look, if you don’t want it, leave. I’ve got other customers I can sell this to and I won’t be seeing any new trade routes soon. 300 caps or nothing.”

I groaned. I really needed any sort of armour and this pony was trying to bleed me dry. “Look, I’m going to Ramtar, I’m going to kill raiders blocking trade routes! Surely that means something?”

The trader rubbed his head. “So you’re doing a job for those Freedom colts are you?”

His words hit me hard. Freedom ponies? They had been the group that had attacked Nimble, Soft Step and I in the sewers, hadn’t they? That explained why the mare had spat at the Loyalists, and why Gauge had suggested I didn’t call them that. But Nimble had said they worked with raiders, not tried to kill them. Would the same ponies that had shot at me really be asking me to kill raiders in a place like this, to keep trade routes clear? This was all getting very complicated.

The trader seemed to notice my stunned silence and he asked again wearily. “You are, aren’t you?”

“Er, yeah of course. Killing raiders in Ramtar. I mean, I’m making things easier for you, so you could easily make up the caps you’ll lose if you give me a discount.”

“Hmm...” I was on edge as I watched the pony consider this. “Nope. 300 caps.”

“Fine!” I almost screamed at the trader and flung my caps at him from my saddlebags with my magic. “Take them.” Before he even had a chance to respond I grabbed the folded barding and stomped off with it, grumbling. It seemed that I wasn’t going to get anywhere near a decent price in this place without fighting off raiders for it.

“Psst! Hey”

A sudden whisper reached my ears. I came to a stop and looked about. I was walking past the slaver stall I had seen earlier, but I couldn’t see anypony who might have made the noise. Regardless, it came again.

“Hey! Listen! Down here.”

I brought my gaze down, to a cage sitting next to the stall. Inside sat an earth pony. She was small, smaller than any grown pony I had seen, although she was clearly not a filly. Her coat was a pinky colour, but not bright like Nimble’s tail and mane. It looked more like the colour of raw flesh after a pony had had their fur burnt off, and her mane and tail were the colour of charred wood, punctuated only by thin lines of distinct silver. The mane on her head was pulled up in spikes bound by cloth, while the rest fell in an uneven mess down the crest of her neck - common raider hair. An image of a tiny flame sat on her flank, even her cutie mark betraying her as a dangerous pony. Her eyes stared up at me, her pupils strangely contracted and a smile playing on her lips. A bomb collar, like mine, sat around her neck.

I looked about. The slaver in charge was talking to another customer on the other side of the stall, oblivious to the raider and her actions.

“What?” I hissed at the caged pony.

“I heard you say you’re looking for raiders.” She said playfully. “You found one.” She giggled at her own joke, clearly this pony wasn’t all there, as if her eyes and look didn’t give it away. “I can help you find more if you want.”

I looked suspiciously at her. “And why would you do that. You’re a raider.”

“Anything to get out of this cage.” She laughed again and I glanced nervously at the slaver, but he seemed to be ignoring her outbursts. “I need to be out there.” She pointed vaguely outwards. “And ‘sides, I don’t need loyalty. Not to ponies like that. Do you know they left me to that bastard?” She indicated the slaver, still chatting with his customer.

“So what, I buy you and you lead me to what I need?” There was no way I was trusting this.

She nodded vigorously. “That’s right. Simple.”

I decided to humour her. “Hey!” I called to the slaver at the stall. “How much for this one?”

He turned from his customer and quickly told me. I swore. “Never mind.”

I turned back to the raider, staring up at me with her strange eyes and shook my head. “I don’t have that kind of money. Even if I did, I don’t really trust you.”

She made a show of thinking in response, as if mocking me. “Hmmm..... The lock on this cage isn’t very reliable, you know.” She rapped on the padlock keeping the bars shut with a hoof. “If you could open it, or let me open it, I could make a break for it, then meet you later wherever you want! Then we go kill ponies. We both get rewards!”

She spread beamed and spread her arms like a showmare, or she would have if she weren’t inside a cage. Instead she kind of pressed her hooves against the bars.

“Right.” I intoned. “And what’s to stop you just running straight away and leaving me royally screwed?” Did she think I was stupid.

“Well. Nothing I guess.” The mare cackled and leaned back against the bars behind her. “Except my detonator. It’s right over there you know.” She pointed behind the stall and rotated the collar around her neck to show a big number “9” drawn on the metal. After briefly making sure nopony was watching I quickly checked behind the stall, where she had pointed. Sure enough, a pile of detonators sat in a crate, and sitting conveniently on top was one labeled “9”. I turned back to the cage.

“See!” she exclaimed. “You let me out and then I meet you at the right place at the right time, and if I don’t, or try anything funny. Well. You blow my head off! Whoosh!”

The madness of this pony was frightening. She actually seemed happy about the idea of having her head blown off, but despite her apparent insanity she seemed to know what she was talking about. I knew all about the incentives of a bomb collar around your neck and she seemed more trustworthy than most raiders, as if that was an impressive feat.

“You’ll need somepony to get you safely through the anomaly fiiieeelds...” She sang the final word.

I sighed. This was going to get me in so much trouble.

“Meet me south of here, at a collection of spilled barrels in two hours.” I looked around anxiously for trouble and levitated my screwdriver and bobby pins out. “Don’t run yet. Give me a few minutes to get away then run for it. If you leave too soon I’ll blow you apart anyway.”

She giggled and nodded. “Gotcha.”

I leaned around the back of the stall and carefully lifted the “9” detonator with my magic, making sure to not attract the attention of the slaver, standing not 10 hooves away. I gently floated it over and slipped it into my saddlebags. I could feel myself sweating. Returning to the strange mare’s cage, I carefully slipped my pin and screwdriver into the padlock and rotated. The mare had been right, it was not hard at all to open it. Within seconds I heard a click and I could hear the enslaved raider breathing excitedly.

“Remember, wait for me to get out of range.” I whispered, flicking off the padlock before walking off.

I made it as far as the southern guard post before I heard a commotion from behind me. Shouting punctuated the air and I glanced over my shoulder to see the small pony rushing across the market, the slaver and several other ponies on her tail. She was laughing and barreling east, avoiding the clumsy grabs of the few ponies who cared enough to help. I briefly thanked the Goddesses that she hadn’t tried to run past me and instead appeared to be arcing around to our meeting point.

I watched as I saw the slaver and the others returned to the market, heads low in defeat. The slaver walked over to his stall and ducked behind it, looking for his detonator. I smiled as I heard his shout of frustration from my position and gently patted my saddebags. In a way I felt bad for the slaver, losing a slave often meant a lot of lost profit for my crew, but it was only a single slave and I needed her. Perhaps I would make it up to him.

The guards nodded to me as I walked past the guard post, paying no mind to the events in the market. And like that, I was out. The plan had gone off without a hitch. Now I just needed the raider to hold up her side of the deal. Or else.

Level Up!

New Perk: Intense Training (Charisma) - You’ve been dealing with a lot of new ponies lately, and your social skills have improved to reflect this. You gain +1 Charisma.

This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html
Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

For further FOE reading visit

More thanks to my pre-readers and editors.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged (They're good.)

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.

Chapter 9 - Footsteps

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Chapter 9 - Footsteps

"Well, that was a guy called Whip. A long time ago he didn’t listen to his elders and now he lies there in order to show smart people the right way.”

Day 3

The field of barrels stood empty as I approached. Corpses of ponies my companions and I had slaughtered lay in pools of blood, some of it my own, and seemed to have already been the victim of local wildlife, with little bites and tears evident on the bodies. The wind whistled past, interrupting the still air, and I shivered. The whole scene had a surprisingly eerie feel to it and I wondered how long it would take for my raider to show up - she had taken a very different route to me apparently.

I’d chosen this place very purposefully as a meeting point. If I was going to trust this raider to not completely betray me the first chance she got, detonator or not, I needed a show of strength. Hopefully this would be that. Seeing her fellow raiders fallen before me might have an effect on the raider and at least put doubt in whatever plotting she was likely doing.

I idly wondered as I sat down if I was being too mistrusting of the pony. She was a raider, but I had released her from her cage and given her a job. She had seemed genuine in her willingness to help. I also had the detonator, which would probably help keep her under control if things went wrong, in addition to the fact that I was armed and she wasn’t.

The thought drew my eyes to my new revolver, sitting in its holster. I’d acquired the weapon in this spot earlier and I felt strangely compelled to practice with it. After all, if I was going to use it in a combat environment I needed familiarity with it. I grabbed the weapon in my magical grip and levitated it into my field of view, aiming down the sights towards a nearby barrel. Four shots rang out and a single clang swiftly followed.

I considered my aim as I reloaded. The weapon had some serious kick to accompany its power and that had thrown off most of my shots. The barrel showed only a single bullet-hole from my shots, and off-center to where I had aimed. My natural ability was increasing rapidly but it was nothing compared to the eerily accurate shots that SATS had provided me with. No more.

A clunk sounded from behind me and looked around. Sitting not far away and straddling the corpse of another pony was my raider, her charcoal mane falling around her face as she busied herself with looting. She heaved and pulled a bullet-hole ridden leather jacket from the pony, glancing up as she did so.

“Hey!” She smiled almost too happily at me, seemingly ignorant of the fact that I was pointing a weapon at her, and pulled the jacket over her head and bomb collar. It looked slightly too large for her slight frame, but she seemed content with it - seemingly oblivious to the fact that one size of clothing does not, in fact, fit all. “How are you doing?”

“What are you doing?” I asked suspiciously as the mare sniffed a red stain on her new outfit and licked it experimentally.

“Looting, duh.” She replied sarcastically as she returned to her task, seemingly oblivious to the death of the ponies around her. Obviously my intimidation plan wasn't working. She stood and walked over to another of the fallen ponies, shifting sprawled limbs nonchalantly with a hoof and shifting her gaze back and forth, looking for a decent haul. I doubted she would find any. Gauge had cleaned the area of almost everything he could. Aside from the revolver I now carried he had taken everything he thought was of value and all that was left were the tattered remains, like the jacket that the raider now wore.

She turned her head and looked about before her eyes came to rest on something just jutting out behind a barrel in a way that shrouded the nature of the object from me. Humming happily she trotted over to it. I squinted and the world suddenly snapped into focus. The object was the handle of a machete. I could see the tattered rags wrapped around the metal handle and my heart pounded as I ran up to the pony trotting towards it.

“Stop right there.” I said firmly pressed my revolver’s long barrel against my raider’s head.

“What?” Her tone was one of annoyance. She seemed oblivious to any threat.

“No weapons.” I circled around the motionless pink mare and kicked the machete away with my rear hoof. “You’re a slave now. I might have freed you from the cage but you have a job to do now and I will not have you killing me while my back is turned.”

Ironic, I thought, that I was trusting this pony to guide me through a deathtrap. I ignored that for my own good.

“Yes Master.” She spat, before laughing lightly - that same slightly unnerving laugh. “You want to go to Ramtar to kill some raiders and I'm going to help you. No betrayal, I promise.”

“No betrayal.” I echoed seriously and holstered my weapon, stepping back from the mare. At least she understood the mission well enough, or at least the part of it I was going to tell her. I’d rather she didn't know about me wanting to find Choke Hold, or my reluctance to take on the raiders if I could help it.

“Now what do I call you?” I could use ‘slave’ (I had most of the time within the crew - being friendly with stock was never a good idea) but I wanted to have some level of familiarity with the pony who was going to be hopefully keeping me safe.

She shrugged and laughed. “You can call me sweetie, girl, whore, bitch, cunt, dead. That’s what everypony else does.” She laughed at her little joke. “But some of those ponies lose something afterwards - sometimes their life.” That laugh again, then suddenly - “ I'm Burnt Fuzz.”

I sighed. This pony might be more trouble than she was worth. “Okay Burnt Fuzz. Time for you to do your job. Let’s go.”

“Of course master.” She said with more than a hint of irony and started forward casually as I followed. As she walked I noticed her hooves catching the sleeves of the jacket she wore and giving the earth pony an odd, stumbling, unsteady walk that made her look even stranger. The loose parts of her charcoal mane not drawn into spikes swayed and shook with her movement, flicking off in every direction. It made for a very odd picture as we began to make our way away from the scene and towards the west.

After a short while of travelling like this we approached the edge of the large crater that Dryside bordered. I could see the town across the way from us and even at this distance I felt a little trepidation. The weight of the revolver on my leg and the rifle across my back seemed to become much more comforting as we edged along the slope leading down into the crater.

Burnt Fuzz simply whistled in the background as I studied the crater itself. At least a couple of hundred yards across, it wasn't the even slope I had thought initially. Instead the expanse was full of a varied collection of gradients and dips that gradually increased in average depth, with pools of sickly water dotted around the ground. The ground itself shifted wildly, only a few feet separating areas of filthy-looking muck and spots where the ground looked so dry that cracks riddled its surface.

“Pretty ain't it?” I almost walked into Burnt Fuzz as she stopped suddenly.

“It’s strange. What is it?”

“A lake.” Her answer was blunt.

“A lake has water in it.” I shot her a contemptuous look and she laughed like I had said something funny.

“It did have water once. Dryside used to be a lakeside town before the megaspells. Clear water and happy ponies. All that shit.” She rolled her eyes and made a tutting sound that suggested she didn't approve.

“Did the bombs do this then? Turn it into...” I waved a hoof over the ground in front of us. “...this?” Balefire was powerful stuff, I knew, but I had never seen something like this.

“No.” The mare shook her head. “It weren't zebra that took the water. It was the Zone.”

I gave her a curious look and she paused, looking out over the lake bed before explaining.

“All the ponies I know say that the Zone took the water to punish Dryside years and years ago. Before I was born it used to be a safe place. The lake and the land around was free of anomalies and let them keep safer and better stocked than most ponies. The extra defense also meant they were hard to attack.” She spat. This knowledge probably came from first hand accounts from relatives or friends of hers. “Scavengers started using it as a base to go deeper and deeper into the Zone. Finding safe ways through to the center. It didn’t like that, no it didn’t.”

She smiled a sick smile and I suddenly felt very uncomfortable. This wasn’t the first time that I’d hear the Zone referred to as a conscious being. Even Soft Step had said as much when I had first arrived, days earlier. I wasn’t sure whether there was some truth to this, but I decided to go along with it, if only to placate the unstable raider.

“What did it do?”

“It took the water.” She shrugged at the simple answer and elaborated at a look from me. “Ponies say that the sky grew darker than usual above the lake and filled with dark magic. Probably like the kind that’s been in the sky the past few days, but smaller and with more...heat. They say that magic dropped from the sky and hit the lake, boiling it so that all the water went away as steam. It was so hot that the dryer buildings on the waterfront were set on fire, and even the surface of the water in some places. I don’t know how, but ponies say that there were huge flames of every colour to burn away the water. Dozens of ponies died.”

Her eyes were as wide as saucers and her tone turned to one of awe as she recounted the description and once again I felt myself becoming a little uncomfortable with her.

“So all the water just disappeared then?” I asked cautiously. She shook her head again and leaned in close, almost whispering in excitement.

“It moved it.” The pony giggled. “After days of burning all the water was gone. Once the fire had burnt out and all the steam rose into the clouds ponies thought that that was the last of it. Instead the clouds moved west and stopped again. They dropped all the water on Ramtar in a storm that lasted almost as long as the burning had. The rain was so heavy and so hot that nopony went near Ramtar for days. When it finally stopped the whole place had become a swamp and was covered in anomalies that hadn’t been there before. Most ponies are scared to go right through and take the same paths over and over instead. It makes it really easy to hide out and attack them if you know the routes through all the danger. The less protected idiots are either so scared to leave the path that they get slaughtered or they run into an anomaly and get roasted.” She chuckled darkly. “They’re both pretty great.”

I scowled. The bomb collar around the raider’s neck was starting to look more tempting the mores she spoke like that and as she turned to keep walking, her tale over, I reached back with my foreleg and felt the comforting bulge that was the detonator in my saddlebags. I wondered if this was how Soft Step had felt when bringing me to this awful place, always considering blowing my brains out with my own bomb collar, the one still around my neck.

No, I decided. She had proven herself more capable than myself. The only reason I was so worried was that I was slightly afraid of this crazy mare.

“It’s a good thing you’re going to make sure we avoid everything then isn’t it.” I said flatly as we started back towards our destiny. “Especially attacks by your fellow raiders.”

“They ain’t my fellows.”

I snorted. Right, I thought. And I was a hellhound’s mother.

“I mean it.” She said firmly, her voice dangerous. “Those bastards can burn.” Then suddenly she was chuckling again.

I frowned. “What did they do?”

The chuckling stopped. “None of your business.” An edge was clear in her voice and I dropped the subject to avoid a confrontation neither of us wanted.

I uneasily shifted my weapons to a more comfortable position as we walked and prayed that this would be over soon. This pony was insane. I wasn’t comfortable around her and I certainly wasn’t safe. I just needed to find Choke Hold.

*** *** ***

The corpse of a Steel Ranger lay in the muck at the base of the hill, his armour blackened and warped by something, likely some kind of intense heat. His legs lay at an impossible angle that reminded me of how Obelisk had fallen on that night several days ago, when he had been thrown through the air by the explosion of a grenade fired by a raider.

My raider stood next to me, looking seriously over the Ranger at the swamp-like plains beyond. We stood at the top of a short hill and in the distance I could see buildings of various sizes - the most notable of which was a large building block of some kind, standing against the cloudy sky almost ominously.

Burnt Fuzz sniffed the air and focused on a single patch of air. I followed suit and found myself looking at a faint distortion that hung in the air a few feet from the base of the hill. Even after such a short time I recognised an anomaly, especially after running head first into one.

This one was different to those I’d seen though. Instead of the blue sparks that I recognised, this one seemed to flare up with brief, tiny flames every few seconds. Following these flares showed me the true size of this anomaly. Yards across at least, the magical hazard lined the base of the hill, acting as an invisible wall to stop an unsuspecting pony from wandering towards the buildings in the distance.

I looked sidelong at my companion. She too was following the anomaly with her eyes, but a slight grin adorned her face as she did so and her eyes flickered as the flames faded in and out.

“Which way do we go now?” My question seemed to break her concentration, and she looked back at me, her eyes darting momentarily back at the anomaly before concentrating on me.

“There.” She pointed behind me and I turned to see a large piece of splintered wood stuck haphazardly into the ground. A filthy, bloodstained cloth was tied to the tip, acting like a rudimentary flag. The way marker was crude but effective - leading past it I could see the faint outline of slightly marked and trampled ground that formed a winding path.

“Some ponies think raiders are stupid. We ain’t, we know how to stay alive. They don’t think a stick in the ground means anything.” She smiled. “That’s why we keep killing them. You’re lucky to have me.”

“Is that so?”

“Yep.” She laughed. “You’d be dead already if I wasn’t here probably. Roasted alive at the bottom of that hill, or killed by somepony else coming this way. They do that often, the other raiders.”

“So where are these raiders?” I asked suspiciously, gently levitating my rifle out in front of me and checking the weapon was properly loaded.

Walking a few yards further revealed that my suspicion was pointless.

Lying in the middle of the path were three raiders. Each appeared to have been beaten mercilessly, despite their varying levels of protection from armour and weapons strewn around. One in particular seemed to have had his entire chest caved in, large cuts visible around the wound from not only the shattered ribs inside, but also external piercing. It seemed whatever had caused it had been spiked, not just a blunt weapon.

I recognised the wounds. They were the kind that come from a vicious hoofblow when accompanied with the kind of spikes found on weaponised ponyshoes. Choke Hold loved to use them. Accompanying her sheer brute strength with the piercing power of the spikes made for a deadly force in close combat.

We were getting closer.

“Looks like you’ve got competition.” Burnt Fuzz was examining the ponies over my shoulder and chuckled. “Not that it matters. We’ll probably see them dead at the roadside soon.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I told you, this place is dangerous. Nopony who would do this knows the way through safely.” She smiled dangerously. “Except you, but you have me.”

Suddenly her head snapped up and she looked around. Warily, I joined her, stealing a glance at my EFS as I looked in all directions. Empty.

“What’s up?”

“We should go - quickly.” Her voice was suddenly serious, a surprise for one normally as unhinged as her. “These corpses have been here for a while. They’ll attract scavengers.”

My own surveying was still showing no danger around us, but my guide was visibly on edge. She was right, she was the one that knew this area and I should follow her lead. She lowered her head slightly and walked over the fallen raiders as if they weren’t there, leaving me to delicately pick my way between the fallen bodies. Her erratic style of walking seemed to dull slightly and she walked with new purpose. I found myself slightly worried about the threat she seemed to sense, if the strange pony had become this focused because of it.

As if on cue, a gurgling growl came from behind us and I turned to see a ghoul shambling into view just behind me. The horrific creature’s ravaged skin had once been some shade of pink and it wore a set of barding that looked familiar - red and black like the armor that the Loyalty ponies wore. It was surprisingly well protected for a ghoul.
Surprisingly quiet as well. The zombie had apparently been able to sneak up on us from nowhere, despite my companion’s and my own efforts to stay alert. I wondered just how much intelligence was hidden behind the dead, glowing eyes of the creature.

Pushing the thought aside, I turned and brought my rifle up to aim at the ghoul. Even without SATS I could hardly miss at this range and I sent several bullets thudding into the ghoul’s scarred hide. Unfortunately it seemed like the barding took much of the force, or else my enemy had ignored it, and the creature replied to my shots with a bestial roar and a charge.

I heard Burnt Fuzz back off behind me as the ghoul closed the small gap between us. It was understandable - I had allowed her no weapon and she was no match for the ghoul in unarmed combat with her slight frame. I had no intention of letting that happen however, instead my horn glowed and the ghoul smashed into the barrier that suddenly materialised before him, leaving him dazed at point blank range.

Blood splattered across me as I fired a single shot and the device on my leg let off a slight but noticeable clicking in response to the close proximity of the now dead ghoul.

My companion walked up beside me and smiled wickedly. “Nice shot, and that thing you did with your horn was cool as well. It’s a shame those shots will probably attract more. You should have been more quiet.” With that she turned and returned to our journey along the subtle path, her pace increasing now.

I hastened to follow her, stealing a glance back at the ghoul as I did so. The barding it wore seemed to be calling to me, the urge to go back and take it to replace my horribly tattered barding strong. However Burnt Fuzz remained ignorant of my wishes and I was forced to turn away from the potential loot to keep an eye on the pony in front of me.

As we worked our way across the path the ground around us seemed to grow wetter and more marsh-like. Anomalies dotted the landscape, often sitting above small pools of filthy bubbling water, and the path frequently veered away from large groups of them, growing fainter and merging with the saturated ground. Often only the presence of another blood-stained flag or some other marker, sometimes even the corpse of another foolish pony, warned of these abrupt change in direction - the anomalies themselves completely invisible.

Occasionally I knew I could hear the sound of ghouls, growls and other disgusting noises that sounded like they were always just behind a nearby hill, although the creatures never showed themselves. The feral creatures weren’t known for their intelligence so I supposed they didn’t know we were here.

The air seemed to grow heavier and warmer, especially close to a patch of anomalies, and I remembered what Burnt Fuzz had said earlier about this area - that it was the result of a dangerously large act of seemingly natural magic. That didn’t seem so strange now, looking at the environment around us.

We approached another way marker now and I watched my companion for a sign of which direction to move in. My eyes widened as my questioning gaze met a panic-stricken face.

“What?” I asked, fear rising at the pony’s expression.

“There should be a sign here to show us the direction.” Came her exasperated reply, accompanied by a desperate wave of her hoof in the general direction of the stick in the ground.

“Does that not show you?”

“No! It’s just a warning! There are dozens of anomalies all over this field that we can’t see and we need to know which direction is safe! If we don’t have a marker we’ll either have to spend ages trying to figure out where they all are, or...” Her voice trailed off.

“Or..?” I prompted.

She shrugged. “Or pick a direction and hope that your corpse is at least recognisable.”

I shivered. I wasn’t eager to go running into another anomaly any time soon. I barely survived my last encounter with one. “So what kind of sign was it.”

“A corpse.” She said simply, head jerking back and forth to look for a clue to the safe direction. “He’s supposed to point the way through, but somepony has moved him.” Her voice grew angry at the somepony and she began muttering angrily under her breath.

“Fucking... did this to stop me... how dare they... bastards... going to fucking kill...”

A groan interrupted her string of obscenities as a ghoul shambled out from behind the charred remains of a tree several yards away from us. I took up a battle stance and prepared to fire as another two materialized from seemingly nowhere. They all wore the same barding that the previous one had worn, the red and black armor of Loyalty. I wondered just how many ghouls in the Zone wore such barding as I took aim.

One fell as I emptied a magazine into her, trying to aim for the parts that weren’t armored. As I reloaded I brought up another force field to brace against the other two that were now heading straight for me. I felt the strain on my magic as they thudded into the magical barrier and broke through it with a few kicks with their forehooves. One veered off towards Burnt Fuzz, standing a few feet from me, while the other charged straight for me. I dove to the side to avoid its wild swings and fired back at it, one of my shots hitting it dead in the leg to cripple it. Despite the injury it swung at me again, albeit slower and much easier to dodge. I smoothly switched weapon, slipping the rifle onto my back and pulling the pistol from its holster on my leg. The .44/70 rounds roared as the undead pony slumped and fell to the ground.

Turning, I saw Burnt Fuzz dealing with her own assailant. She dodged back and forth as the creature swung at her, jumping forward suddenly to exploit a gap to land a blow on the enraged ghoul while at the same time keeping it from pushing her too far from the area she knew was safe. Seeing me, she ducked around the creature to allow me a clear shot. I took it and the third ghoul fell to the ground.

The thrill of victory was shortlived however. The minute the sound of gunfire cleared I could hear the sound of somepony running straight at me from behind. I whirled to meet the new threat, only to find a fourth ghoul barreling into me, its bared teeth gnashing as it tried its hardest to tear at my flesh. I found myself flat on my back, only my hooves pushing back on the dead flesh of the ghoul.

I looked around desperately for my weapon, for any weapon to fight off the ghoul. My rifle was trapped against the floor by my body and I hadn’t seen where the pistol had fell. I felt Burnt Fuzz buck the creature on top of me, but it recovered quickly and continued its attack. Blows rained down on my body and face and I heaved to try and shove the creature off.

And then, as if a switch had been flipped, the creature fell limp. It took me a few seconds to register that the ghoul’s head had exploded, lumps of gore falling onto my own body from the mess that had once been his head. I crawled out from under the heavy corpse and brushed myself off. My gun lay on the ground and I tentatively picked it up, looking over at Burnt Fuzz as I did so. She was looking around, apparently looking for the mysterious gunpony that had killed the ghoul.

I looked across at the fallen ghoul and angle of the wound. Confident I had the rough direction of the shot, I scanned the swampy horizon for signs of the sniper. At first it seemed that nothing stood out, but by squinting harder I found myself able to make out a small patch of purple in the distance. I suddenly felt a sense of dread race down my back as I saw the flash of light reflecting off a gun. They were still aiming at us.

I dove the side and a faint bang sounded from the direction of the purple spot. A single bullet formed a crater near the space I had just occupied, followed by several more. I jumped to my hooves, heart racing, and turned to the raider with me. “Run!”

She nodded and set off past the way marker. “This way! Keep your eyes open!”

I followed, hearing the sound of gunfire from the sniper behind us, trying to follow us with their shots. I tried to weave, but didn’t want to risk running into an anomaly on either side so my arcs were shallow. Up ahead the buildings I had seen earlier loomed closer as we raced towards them, barely dodging around the occasional disturbance in the air that gave away an anomaly before us.

Bullets impacted the ground around us, hitting the pools that dotted the landscapes and sending eruptions of thick mud and water flying into the air. The shimmering of an anomaly in front of me instantly transformed into an inferno as a bullet tore into it. I felt the heat claw at me as I dashed past the flickering flames and my heart seemed to want to jump from my chest.

My guide still ran ahead, her experience in the area allowing her a better opportunity to spot danger and react before I could. The further we ran, however, the longer the intervals between gunshots became, as if the shooter wasn’t able to get a good shot off as easily, and the slower Burnt Fuzz’s pace became.

Suddenly she snapped to a halt, almost sending me barreling into her. I pulled myself up just short of colliding with the smaller pony and looked around anxiously. We were just a few dozen yards from the first building, from the cover from the sniper.

“Come on! Let’s go, they could be shooting!” I cried at the raider, who instead remained still and staring straight ahead. “We’ll be killed if they can get a sight on us!”

“Shut up.” The pink mare suddenly hissed at me through gritted teeth. “Look.”

She pointed with a hoof at the ground before us. The air seemed clear enough and I was just about to suggest she was seeing things, when I saw it.

A distinct shimmer floated in the air in front of us. Similar to the anomalies I had seen before, except this was much, much bigger. The distortion in the air - much more distinct than usual and as if from an intense heat, stretched for several yards across the horizon. From this range I couldn’t see any details to give away exactly what kind this one was, whether it was another of the lightning or flame anomalies I had experienced already or whether it was some new kind of danger. One thing I could tell however, was that it wasn’t stationary like the others I had seen. The ominous shape was moving towards us at a considerable pace.

I felt the panic in my chest rise. This was worse than being shot at. Our only chance to avoid it was to double back, back towards our aggressor to avoid the threat that was drifting ever closer. I had no idea which would be more suicidal, to run willingly into the magical hazard rapidly closing on us or to take our chances with the sniper who was probably gaining ground themselves the longer we stood still.

As it turned out, Burnt Fuzz made the decision for me - one that I had not even considered.

“Down!” She shouted, catching me off guard as she jumped at me, tackling me to the ground and pushing me down against the thick muck.

The small earth pony lay across me, breathing heavily and staring up at the oncoming anomaly. I stared up at the dull metal of her bomb collar as she panted heavily, her hooves continuing to hold me down into the mud. She arched her back suddenly, as if forming a shell over my body - or at least as much of it as she could. The unbound strands of her mane brushed against my skin and I suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

Thankfully, or perhaps not, that feeling was a fleeting one. As the air above us suddenly distorted wildly the feeling was replaced by a much more immediate and powerful one - heat.

The world around me seemed to erupt in heat as the anomaly passed over us. The previously still and somewhat cool air now attacked us like the breath of a dragon. My eyes began to sting and water instantly and I shut them, relying on my other senses to inform me of the details of the situation - which they gladly did.

My skin screamed at me as the leather of my jacket stiffened and cracked and the ground beneath me dried and hardened so quickly I could feel it forming a crust on my body. The metal of my bomb collar started rapidly heating up, burning me as the collar gently touched my neck. I hurried to pull the rapidly drying armor between my flesh and the collar to shield from the heat. I felt Burnt Fuzz shifting slightly, no doubt trying to do a similar thing with her oversized jacket. If left un-insulated the metal would brand our skin in seconds. I prayed that the explosives wouldn't catch.

As the heat continued my flesh felt raw and I could feel a river of sweat pouring from every pore in my body, in a futile effort to keep me cool in the unbearable heat. Every breath I drew in set my lungs on fire. I opened my mouth to cry out, only to find the sound dying on my throat as the heat rushed into my mouth. I heard my PipBuck begin to click, signalling that the artifact I carried had begun to try to heal the damage the heat was doing to me.

Throughout it all I felt the pressure of the pony lying across me, pressing me to the ground as if desperate to keep me down. I felt her suddenly begin to shake, presumably from the sheer heat of the world around us and I wondered if she had pushed me to the ground to shield me from the worst of the heat. I vaguely remembered hearing once that heat always rises. Perhaps this heat was even more unbearable not even a foot above us, and by keeping us down she was making it easier on us.

That lead to another thought. She could have simply said nothing and let me stay standing. She could have endured the lesser heat and let me take the brunt of it alone. It would be nothing for her to take her freedom then. For a raider, she apparently had some morals.

Eventually the air around us started to cool as the anomaly passed over us. I had no idea how long the two of us had been lying in the heat, but it felt like hours had passed before I was able to open my eyes again.

Burnt Fuzz rolled off me and I rose, sucking deep breathes of deliciously cool air. Looking across, my raider was recovering in much the same way. She was breathing heavily and I could see a faint glow coming from the bomb collar around her neck, protected by the thin collar of her jacket. My own neck was still screaming at me as well, despite the insulation from the heat, and I pulled a healing potion from my saddlebags. Foregoing the indirect route, I poured the magical elixir directly onto the skin, feeling it dripping lightly off my hide as the pain began to subside.

The faint clicking from my PipBuck was slowing, the artifact having done its work on my body. As convenient as it was, I thought as I brought up the PipBuck’s radiation counter, I really needed to stock up on Rad-Away if I were going to keep the artifact around. A little more and I was going to start feeling really ill.

I paused and looked across at Burnt Fuzz. Then I reached across with my magic and offered the remaining contents of the potion flask to her. She looked up at me and narrowed her eyes slightly before nodding.

“Thank you.” She rasped as I poured the liquid over her burnt flesh.

“No problem.” I replied, my own voice strained from the lack of moisture in my throat. “You were on top of me, you took more of the heat. Am I right?”

I voiced my theory and she simply looked at me and shook her head, more subdued than she had been previously. “Not really. I have this.”

Her tail suddenly snaked around her body and dangled to her side. I peered into it, curious as to what she meant. I found myself looking at a small orange orb bound neatly into the hair of her charcoal tail. As I stared it seemed to pulse and shimmer, not quite forming a solid shape but somehow still tied in place. It was an artifact.

“It protected me from some of the heat in exchange for blasting me with radiation.” Burnt Fuzz explained. “I probably came out better than you. You look like shit.”

I smiled. “I would have looked worse if you hadn’t shoved me down like that. Why did you do that?”

She shrugged. “I said I’d get you to the raiders so you could kill them.” She smiled wryly and nodded her head sidewards at the buildings that loomed a short distance away. “Come on. In case you’ve forgotten we have a sniper watching us. That anomaly will keep them busy for a bit, but don’t think just because you almost got roasted everypony is that stupid.”

She grabbed me with a hoof and pulled me forward, guiding me towards the cluster of buildings, to shelter from the threat. To tell the truth I had actually forgotten about the sniper in the confusion, her reminder had brought back the fact that we had been running before we were confronted by the anomaly, something that felt like hours ago.

I looked back briefly as she guided me, looking for the telltale purple spot on the horizon that gave away the position of our attacker. I saw nothing, only the faint shimmer as the heat wave swept over the land and, past that, the sun dipping low in the sky. I wondered where the sniper had gone to take cover and how long it would take her to recover and follow us again.

*** *** ***

“In here. Quickly, come on!”

Burnt Fuzz beckoned to me as she passed through a doorway into the building beyond. We had passed into the cover of the cluster of buildings mere minutes before my companion had declared that she could hear the sounds of ponies approaching, too many for us to handle. I had gone quiet and listened and, sure enough, I could hear the sound of voices and the movement of rubble. What followed was a rush to find a door that wasn’t barricaded - as many of the doorways in Ramtar apparently were. It was something I hadn’t expected from a den of raiders.

We passed through the gloom of the building and I took in our surroundings. Judging by the faded headlines in picture frames, this had been the office of a pre-war newspaper. Broken desks and other furniture were strewn everywhere and rubble littered the floor for as far as I could see, while the walls showed the signs of desecrating that was common to buildings in the wasteland. It was not unlike the shelter I had found myself in many times during my previous life with the slavers.

I looked back at Burnt Fuzz, opening my mouth to say something, when my voice froze in my throat.

Although her features were faded in the dull light of the office, I could clearly see her flank as she walked before me. Her normally burnt-pink coat was stained with red on her left flank and a large wound was visible. She walked with a slight but noticeable limp and blood was still running down her leg as she moved it.

My mind raced as I tried to remember when this might have happened to her. My eyes widened as I realised that she hadn’t shown me her left side at all during our pause to recover from the anomaly. Could it have happened then?

I peered closer, squinting in the light and trying not to alert her to my actions. At closer inspection, the wound was clearly a bullet wound, and from a considerable caliber to look at it.

“Stop!” I declared suddenly and Burnt Fuzz obeyed, looking back at me quizzically.

“What?” Her voice was the same as it had been for a while. More subdued than when I had first met her.

“You need to lie down and deal with that.” I pointed to the wound.

She snorted dismissively, but I knew she was feigning it. “I’ll deal with it later. It’s just a flesh wound.”

I tried to keep my voice level as I spoke. “When did you get shot?”

“When we were in the anomaly. The bastard sniper got a shot off on me. Luckily we were laying down so we were a harder target. Only got my leg.” Her tail came around and three empty syringes clattered onto the floor. “I was dealing with it.”

I was taken aback slightly. Not only by the revelation that she had been keeping Med-X somewhere on her person, but also by the fact that she had kept her wound to herself. Even on the slaver crew we had made sure that even our slaves were at least able to walk everyone in the crew were at least reasonably healthy, even if medical supplies weren’t always distributed fairly.

Perhaps it was a raider thing. Burnt Fuzz had already expressed her dislike of being associated with the other raiders here, maybe they were used to being largely self-reliant despite the company of others. Ponies often assumed raiders and slavers were the same thing, but few realised just how different they were. Sure the slavers I had been with had traded with raiders occasionally, but we avoided them when we could.

They didn’t even use the slaves right. They just killed them for sport and then asked for more without the fund to pay us.

I realised my mind was wandering from the situation at hand, and turned my attention back to my guide,

“I don’t care if you’re dealing with it, I won’t let you go walking around with a hole in your leg when you’re supposed to be keeping me safe.”

She growled in displeasure but I continued. “You said we couldn’t deal with whoever’s outside so we’re not going anywhere anyway. So you take this-” I levitated out a healing potion and passed it to here. “-and go find a room to rest in. We’ll move out again in the morning.”

And maybe in the meantime I can come up with a plan, I thought.

Now that we were in Ramtar and so much closer to Choke Hold and the raiders that might still be alive I realised how much trouble this could potentially be. I had no idea of the terrain, or even how many raiders I was dealing with. In addition, without SATS I was heavily weakened and I would need all the help I could get to complete my goal.

I followed Burnt Fuzz as she found an office with a still-standing table and unceremoniously draped herself across it, guzzling the healing potion with a sour expression on her face. After checking over the office for anything she could betray me with I backed out and closed the door and, on further thought, dragged a nearby desk in front of it - blocking her in until I removed it.

With that I started on a tour around the newspaper office. Framed copies of what had apparently been acclaimed copies of “Equestria Today” lay scattered around the place. Some had been shattered, while others still hung neatly on the wall as if the balefire bombs had never fallen. One particular headline caught my eye for some reason and I walked closer to read it.


“Ministry Mare Applejack found time away from her duties today as she attended the traditional Apple Family Reunion at Sweet Apple Acres. Also present were Ironshod Firearm’s Braeburn, Stable-Tec CEO Applebloom and the Ministry of Arcane Science’s Red Gala, who regular readers may remember as being rumored to have recently been moved into a higher position within the Ministry by direct order of Ministry Mare Twilight Sparkle. "

The surviving Apples also held a ceremony for the hero Big Macintosh, who gave his life to protect Princess Celestia from a cowardly Zebra assassin. It’s nice to know that despite the turmoil of our nation, Applejack still has time to-.”

I lost interest in the article as it continued to ramble on, and instead turned to the picture that had caught my eye. The faded picture showed a group of weathered looking ponies standing together in front of a barn. Most were smiling, although their eyes didn’t match their smiles, and all looked very similar. Even without the headline it would not have been hard to guess that they were all related.

I recognised several of the figures in the picture. Standing almost in the middle, clad in plain business garb and a slightly out of place stetson and flanked by two very large security ponies, was a mare I recognised as a wartime leader - most likely Applejack if the article was anything to go by. Others wore similarly serious outfits, including another who wore a similar stetson hat to Applejack with his suit. Maybe that was Braeburn, I reasoned. I recognised another pony, the younger earth pony that had been at the concert with Sweetie Belle - Applebloom. It was hard not to recognise her face after delving into that particular memory so many times.

Then my eyes fell on another pony, one that I had only recently seen, but in full colour and before my very eyes. Red Gala stood close to Applejack, one of the gathered that looked like she belonged in an office. The more I looked at her, the more I felt a strange familiarity with the scene and her place in it. It was something I couldn’t quite put my hoof on, but it was definitely there. Somewhere.

After a few minutes of trying to figure it out I decided it was a hopeless task and left the frame hanging on the wall, a testimony to a time when the world wasn’t quite so fucked. I walked over to a window on the east side of the building and gazed out.

In the distance, towards what I realised was the center of the Zone, I could see the cloud cover growing darker, no doubt warning of another of the electrical storms of the past few days. I wondered if there was some significance to their seemingly daily occurance since I had arrived in this Goddess-damned place, and how long they were going to go on for. Even for the ponies who lived in the Zone they were an oddity and they bore a worrying similarity to the storm that Burnt Fuzz described as being the cause of the lake around Dryside being drained.

A faint glowing in the dull light caught my eye as I stared out of the window. Turning for a better view, my gaze fell on a dusty terminal sitting alone in a cubical. Having somehow survived balefire and the sacking of the building, the screen was glowing pitifully underneath a layer of grime.

I walked over and wiped away a layer of filth, revealing that the terminal was already unlocked and had a list of prompts sitting on the screen in a similar layout to the terminal that had been in the underground compound I had been in the day before. Lines of text marked a series of messages between the user of this terminal and some other recipient. Unlike the other terminal I had accessed recently, however, it seemed that the owner of this one had been careful, seemingly having deleted his older messages. I laughed a little at the irony.

The messages were short, but interesting.

Typeface, I need you to report to western Maremont ASAP. Some kind of magical discharge happened and ponies are saying it’s related to the MAS facilities. Lots of injuries reported and the public need to know!

Listen Typeface, I need you to make this place look good for the MoI agents that are dropping by today. Luna knows we definitely don’t need Rarity shutting us down. Hide everything they could use against us and lie through your teeth if you have to.

Good work with the inspection last week Typeface. You’ll get a raise for this.

I smiled in amusement at the entries as I read. The more I seemed to learn about the Equestria of the past the more it seemed like they were little better than we were today; lying, stealing and revelling in the death and pain of others. I remembered what Soft Step had said about learning from the past. It seemed like maybe we shouldn’t be learning too much, rather making our own way instead.

Typeface, you probably know I’m going to be away on a business trip to Canterlot tomorrow so I need you to take care of something for me. We’re going to be getting a very important delivery and I need you to make sure it’s safe. The Ministries could shut us down for this information, but I just can’t let it go. Please, I need a pony I can trust. Just put it in the safe in my office. It’ll be safe there until I get back.

The messages ended, leaving me intrigued. What was this delivery the message had mentioned and, more importantly, was it still in the building?

Walking around, I was able to quickly locate an office that looked suitably important for what I assumed was the guy in charge of the newspaper. A noble looking wooden desk stood dead center, its surface covered in dents and scratches yet still quite whole. Walking around the desk revealed a worn carpet that had been violently pulled back to reveal a floor safe - no doubt the safe mentioned in the messages.

Kneeling, I could see that somepony had clearly tried very hard to open this safe. The surface was covered in the signs of attempted forced entry, but apparently to no avail. It seemed whoever had been trying to access it had become quite frustrated, as a smashed terminal lay against the wall behind the desk and the safe - clearly somepony taking their rage out on the long-dead ponies of “Equestria Today”.

I smiled and brought out my lock picking kit. If the pony who had been here before wanted to go around looting other ponies things he should probably learn the tricks of a dishonest pony. Simply bashing at things weren’t likely to get things done.

The lock was complicated, but not overly so. I managed to eventually manipulate the mechanism until a satisfying click signalled that I had bypassed the lock. The door to the safe swung open, revealing a deep hole filled to the brim with paperwork and notes - probably dirt on the various ponies that “Equestria Today” found interesting enough to tell the public about. Sitting atop the pile, apparently the most recent addition to the safe, was a carefully wrapped box.

I carefully levitated the box, pulling it up out of the safe and down onto the floor. Once there I tore the rotting brown paper that covered the box away and lifted the lid, revealing a memory orb, nestled in the packaging within. It seemed for all the world like it had been put there just for me - the memory of a long-dead pony that had waited for a century for me to add it to my own memories.

I was wary, remembering why exactly we were now taking shelter in this building. Ponies were walking around outside somewhere and Burnt Fuzz was locked in her room recovering under my own orders.

But something in the back of my mind ached to reach into the orb and see what awaited me there. It had apparently been something important - so important the head of the paper had been slightly scared of the repercussions of holding it. The fact that the package had still been unwrapped suggested that he had never even looked at it. It must have been something very special.

I stole a glance out of the window. The daily storm had finished building and was moving rapidly outwards, the sparks of electricity that it released visible even at a distance. Soon the ponies in the area would be taking cover, if they hadn’t already, if they wanted to stay out of the danger of the discharges. The lack of sound throughout the building or outside, save for the crawling of the radroaches, suggested that we were safe from interference. I doubted the memory orb would take too long and anyway, Burnt Fuzz needed the time to recover.

I nodded, my decision made, and concentrating on the orb. The world around me shimmered and faded as the memory took hold.

~ooO Ooo~

The first thing that hit me was that my host was female. Even after my experiences in my original memory orb it still felt weird to step inside the body of a mare, but somehow the body felt strangely familiar. I felt as if I had been in this body before. It was strange, the body didn’t feel like the mare I wore at the concert but neither could it be the soldier from my second orb, for obvious reasons. I cast aside the thought quickly - it was leading me to places I didn’t need reminding about.

I stood in an open space filled with ponies, although not quite as closely packed as the ponies in the concert in my other orb. Scanning the crowd with my host as she walked showed similarities between the ponies gathered. Their clothes varied between more rural garb and the stiff suits of business ponies, as well as several clear military uniforms dotted throughout the crowd.

A sense of deja vu hit me as I continued to look at the faces around me. With a start I realised that I recognised at least half these ponies - infact I had been looking at them from quite a different angle just a short time earlier. These were the ponies in the picture of the article about the Apple family - this was either the reunion the article had been reporting - or a similar reunion from another year. I strained to see if I could put names to faces, looking for Applejack, Braeburn or maybe even the pink hide and green hair of Red Gala.

As if reading my mind, my host pushed through the crowd and came upon a welcome sight. Standing in the middle of a small crowd was an orange-coated pony with a long, blonde ponytail that fell down from beneath her wide-brimmed stetson hat. Applejack was flanked by some very tough looking security ponies and looked as if she was trying to mingle despite the general aura of separation she seemed to emanate, as if she didn’t quite belong with these ponies.

“Yes!” I heard my host excitedly whisper under her voice before excitedly advancing on the important pony. “Applejack!”

The orange pony turned and smiled wearily at my host before responding. “Howdy Red Gala, Ah’m glad t’ see ya made it.”
Well that made two ponies I knew. My host appeared to be none other than Red Gala

“I could say the same about you. I thought you would be too busy with Ministry business.”

Applejack shifted uneasily. “Yeah well. Ah reckon that a family reunion is worth takin’ time off fer. Even if I weren’t allowed to come alone.” She gestured at the security ponies giving my host a cool but slightly threatening look, as well as several more in the crowd I hadn’t spotted.

My host nodded. “Well hopefully everything will go smoothly. We shouldn’t be having any disasters or barn-raisings this time! Just a good old fashion traditional family meetup.”

Applejack laughed before growing more solemn. “Yeah. Ah’ll welcome a bit of tradition in times like thes. Things’re getting worse an’ worse. Not that ah need to tell you. The MAS is just as frantic as everypony else. Ah ain’t even spoken to Twilight in weeks.”

Applejack’s change in mood was mirrored by my host as she nodded in agreement. She hoofed at the ground, as if unsure what to say next, and the silence between the two ponies had started to become uncomfortable when she finally spoke, choosing her words carefully, like she was picking through a minefield.

“Listen, Applejack. I wanted to talk to you about the Ministry actually. Twilight and the higher ups are really pushing for progress and, well...” She paused. “I need to start showing more results.. I’m supposed to be the...” She cleared her throat before announcing her title. “...Chief Consultant Regarding Natural Magic, and yet the most I’ve done so far is set my team to analysing Zebra potions.”

“What’s that got to do with me?” Applejack’s tone was cautious.

“Well. I was hoping we could talk again about the Za-”

“No.” The Ministry Mare’s response was short and quick.

“But Applejack!”

“Ah said no before and I’ll say it again. They’re too unstable for ya’ll to use in Ministry work. Ah don’t like it.”

Red Gala sighed. “I understand, but I really think we can do some good with them. They might be unstable but they’re also powerful and could really contribute to the war. The Ministry Mare herself has authorised the creation of a specialist facility for us to do our research in. She intends for Stable Tec technicians to make sure it fits the standards we require.”

“Twilight don’t know what she’s messing with. Ah swear, she’s just gonna wind herself up more than any of us.” Applejack shook her head. “Ah s’pose if Applebloom’s gonna be involved with housing them it might be a little safer, but still...”

“Please Applejack.” Red Gala was practically begging now. “We need those trees. They’ll be in good hooves.”

“Fine.” A smile spread across my host’s face at the orange mare’s sudden decision. “But Ah’m only doing this because yer mah cousin. Send yer ponies to Sweet Apple Acres and Ah’ll make sure Granny don’t stop them.”

I felt my host’s body relax in gratitude. “Thank you Applejack. This is going to do so much good for us in the Ministry.”

“Jus’ be careful.” Applejack cautioned as the memory began to fade. “Zap Apples have a mind of their own.”

~ooO Ooo~

The world returned in a blaze of light. Rather than the usual calm fade into and out of a memory, it was if I stood in a dark room and a torch had just been lit. My vision swam and a bright spot burned in my vision as I blinked. The faded and crumbling walls of the office seemed to shimmer and take on the appearance of metal through the distortion. I rubbed my eyes to clear them and gently lowered my hoof to allow my eyes to adjust.

I felt disorientated and confused for a second - the world was far brighter than it should be and I could see flashes of light from the window. I briefly wondered if I had actually fallen asleep somehow while in the memory orb and if such a thing was even possible before my mind reminded me of the storm that had been approaching when I had gone out.

I walked over to the window and looked out. Sure enough, the telltale deep black clouds stood out above the buildings that rose around us, distinct from the grey of the normal cloud cover. The standard blue lightning shot across the gap between the sky and the ground but there was also something else, something that caught my eye.

Bright lights were visibly darting from the cloud cover. Little balls of what appeared to be pure light, like that created by a unicorn spell, fell to the earth to accompany the blue lightning, a beautiful tail of smaller lights streaming behind them. They were so dazzlingly bright that my eyes hurt to watch and they lit up the world as they fell. They had obviously been what had caused the strange brightness in the office.

They weren’t contained to just the storm either, I realised as I watched. As far as I could see the white dots pierced the heavens and fell to the earth all over the Zone. I noticed that, although they fell to the ground like stones thrown by some giant creature, they caused no visible impact when they hit the ground. Their light simply faded where they fell and they disappeared as more fell to replace the lost light.

It was hauntingly beautiful and I found myself staring as the things continued to drop from the heavens as the storm passed above me. I didn’t even look as a particularly close strike of lightning struck the ground near the office and static caused my fur to stand up.

Gradually they stopped falling and I sighed. The light had been a rare sight - something that inspired awe in the wasteland.

I continued to stare up at the clouds above me and blinked to clear my vision. I felt stronger than I had before. The journey here from Dryside had been taxing and my body had felt weak, but now I felt as if I were ready to go again. The rest from the memory orb had clearly done me good - more than I had expected.

I made the decision to see how Burnt Fuzz was doing. Although she had been doing worse than I the bullet wound should have healed a bit by now and if it hadn’t I could probably spare one more healing potion. I was running low on supplies but I needed to make sure my guide was okay. If she were smart she would have been resting like her told her and we could move out immediately.

I smiled. I felt a lot better about the mission as I stared up at the clouds. The raiders would not be hard to deal with - I had dealt with some before and I could be stealthy if need be. I would find Choke Hold and make my way out of the Zone and there was no way anypony would stop me.

Sighing happily, I moved to move out of the window that allowed me my view. As I did so I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.

My blood froze in my veins.

Walking out from the space between the nearby buildings were several ponies. Each wore full-body barding, some even with masks that covered their face with large respirators, and all carried large guns. At least a dozen spilled out into the street below, organized in a rough V shape with a single pony leading. They stood with a sense of power, taking a solid stance with their guns pointing forward. The lead pony stood smaller than the rest, but they still seemed to emanate something - something that made it very clear that they were in charge. These ponies clearly knew what they were doing and they were heavily armed, heavily armoured and they were in a group.

And every single one of them was staring straight at me.

Level Up!

New Perk: Rad Resistance - You've taken more radiation than anypony should and your body has developed a slight immunity. You take 25% less radiation from all sources.

This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html
Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

More thanks to my pre-readers and editors.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged (They're good.)

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.

Chapter 10 - Confrontation

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Chapter 10 - Confrontation

Excuse me, AJ, but we didn't travel all over Equestria searching for you to come home without you!

Day 3

I backed away from the window, shaking slightly. In the street below the group of ponies started to move, half turning their attention away from me to move towards the building. As I continued to back away one of the ponies turned to the leader and I could see communication between the two, despite the taller pony wearing a respirator. He nodded once in reply to the words of the leader and then the scene completely disappeared from view as I backed up too far to see over the window sill.

The room I stood in now felt much quieter and emptier than before. I felt almost like it were expanding outwards around me, creating a threatening void in which I stood alone. I could hear ringing in my ears and I simply stood, staring at the window that, from this angle, only showed the black clouds in the sky and the buildings around this one. The clouds loomed ominously, the beautiful falling lights from earlier now noticeably absent.

The sounds of movement suddenly echoed from downstairs and I shook my head. I found myself suddenly brought back to the urgency of the situation. Downstairs, I knew, were a dozen ponies that could potentially want to kill me. I didn’t recognise their barding, which suggested that they weren’t Steel Rangers or Loyalists. That left either Freedom or some other unknown group. I had already experienced pain at the hand of the former, even if I was now doing a job for them. If it was the latter then the future was uncertain. While they might also want to just help me, the risk of them just shooting me dead was too high for me to walk freely up to them.

I exited the office and made a beeline for the room that Burnt Fuzz was holed up in. Healed or not, now was definitely not a time for her to be locked in a room. The desk that blocked the door appeared to have been moved slightly. Clearly the raider had tried to open the door while I had been out, but the pony’s small frame hadn’t been enough to force the door. I braced and pushed against the desk, my horn lighting up as I did so. Through a combination of force and magic I quickly shifted the desk away from the door and it immediately burst open. Burnt Fuzz stood in the doorway, her expression dark.

“About time you let me ou-!” Her outburst was cut short by my hoof connecting with her mouth, silencing her. Her expression changed to one of shock, before returning to an irritated scowl. I pulled my hoof away and to my own mouth, shushing her, before pointing towards the stairs across the corridor from us.

As if on cue, a voice sounded through the building. “If you’re in here, come out. We are not here to hurt you, we only wish to help.”

Fat chance, I thought as I stood perfectly still. Burnt Fuzz’s disbelieving expression seemed to mirror my own thoughts. There was a pause from the speaker and a new voice could be heard from downstairs - quieter and talking with authority directly to someone.

“Find him.”

I felt my heart begin to race. They obviously weren’t going to be true to their word. I felt light headed as I considered our options. I was pretty sure there was at least another exit to this building - I thought I had seen a door on the opposite side of the floor that was labeled as an emergency exit. Unfortunately that meant going through the cubicles and past the stairwell that the ponies would no doubt be making their way up. We had to be careful.

Grabbing Burnt Fuzz and pulling my pistol from my holster I began to make my way across the office floor, dropping low to move through the cubicles with increased stealth. Burnt Fuzz followed my lead and we slowly moved forwards, heading for the emergency exit. As the sounds of ponies ascending the main stairwell echoed through the building I found myself envying Soft Step. Her ability to move with complete silence would be useful in this situation, as well as her skill with dispatching enemies silently. My pistol and rifle were certainly useful, but they were by no means quiet weapons. The minute I used one the group would be alerted to my position.

I heard the first of the group reach the top of the stairs and shout out towards the cubicles.

“Hey! Come on, come out! We won’t hurt you.”

I faltered slightly. Something about their voices seemed convincing - like they really didn’t want to hurt us. A thought occurred to me - the EFS that my PipBuck gave me changed colour depending on the disposition of the pony it detected. I swept my head back and forth, looking for the dots on my EFS. They were everywhere, but that didn’t necessarily mean the ponies were on this level. The dots themselves were strange, they appeared to be flashing rapidly between red and yellow - hostile and friendly. The magic didn’t seem to be sure what they were like. I groaned inwardly. First my VATS and now my EFS, this PipBuck seemed broken beyond repair by the magic that had almost killed me.

Unable to rely on magic, I poked my head out cautiously between two cubicles. Two earth ponies in full-body barding and respirators stood at the entrance to the stairwell, looking around and tracing their sight with twin-rifles in battle saddles. Neither was looking in our direction - it was safe for us to move on. I signaled as much to Burnt Fuzz, and we snuck onwards towards the emergency exit.

I was glad as we moved that the normally wild raider was proving capable of moving silently. Despite her normal attitude, she understood when a situation wasn’t in our favour. As we made our way past the desks and cubicles I considered actually giving her a weapon. She was still unarmed and if we were caught by the dozen or so ponies looking for us it would be only myself against them all.

My horn glowed and I pulled my rifle out in front of me. My pistol swung around and I offered the gun to Burnt Fuzz. In a situation like this, her shooting me was the least of my problems. However, instead of taking the gun eagerly like I had expected, the pony shook her head at my offer. I pressed the pistol forward again, urging her to take it, but she just shook her head and sat back on her haunches, folding her front legs. I shot her a confused look but withdrew my offer, keeping the rifle out and slipping the pistol back into its holster. Now wasn’t the time to argue, even if I didn’t understand what she was doing.

Our progress suddenly froze as a pony walked out between the cubicles a few yards away. Slowly, as if aware of our presence, he turned, bringing his guns around to face us. I didn’t give him time to finish his turn. Instead I brought my rifle to bear and fired once at him, ducking away from the row of cubicles the minute I did so and dragging Burnt Fuzz with me.

The stealth part of our chase was now over. Every pony in the building would have heard that shot and would come straight for us. Now it was just a case of making it to the emergency exit and running. I could see the door growing closer and closer as we ran, keeping low but going as fast as I was able. Shouting came after us but I ignored it - we were close now and it didn’t matter. My body protested and I felt a wave of nausea grow as we closed on the door, but I pushed past it. We couldn’t stop. We had to keep going.

Suddenly we were at the door. I grinned - we were out now. I grabbed the handle in my magic and pulled, the heavy door protesting and groaning with the age of centuries. Still there were no gunshots from our pursuers - I presumed that they had realised they couldn’t stop us and were going to regroup to intercept us. I doubted they could. They would have to find where the exit came out first.

The door opened and the stairwell beyond was revealed. My heart instantly dropped at the sight before me. I suddenly had a very good idea why the group hadn’t fired on us. They hadn’t needed to, they knew what we were running into.

A flashing red and yellow dot appeared on my EFS and a large, hulking figure detached itself from the shadows of the stairwell beyond the door. I fell back on my haunches, dropping my rifle to the floor as the creature reared up on its hind legs - it was useless against this creature. The black fur of the beast’s head brushed the ceiling and it let out a low, bestial moan, revealing a set of powerful jaws as it did so. A pair of dangerously intelligent eyes set their gaze at us while two vicious-looking paws came up to rest in full view. I felt sick.

A voice spoke from behind the figure of the bear before us.

“Please don’t be afraid, we just want to talk to you.”

*** *** ***

The group of ponies gathered around us as we stood outside the newspaper office. Directly before us stood the smaller, green-coated earth pony that I had seen before, the one that seemed to hold authority. He wore the same full-body barding that the rest wore, although up close it became clear that the armour they wore was heavily modified and patched - nowhere near perfect condition. I supposed it was to be expected from Wasteland barding.

He had been the one who had escorted Burnt Fuzz and me out here. Or rather, he walked alongside us as his bear walked ominously behind us, snorting and sniffing and growling in a way that kept the both of us on edge. Despite the actions of his bear the pony kept a jovial demeanour as we walked, reassuring us that we were safe. As we continued to walk more of his group had joined us, until all dozen of them finally formed a circle around us in the street, with the bear standing directly behind the lead pony.

He ran a mossy green hoof through his grey mane and I found my eyes drawn to his forelegs. The arms of his barding weren’t even, I realised. The sleeve of his raised foreleg stopped halfway down the leg, while the other one reached all the way down to a boot that covered the hoof. My head suddenly swam and I put my own hoof to my head, dropping the line of thought and staring at the ground as I tried to fight the sense of rising bile in my gut.

A hoof placed itself on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

I raised my head and nodded, not trusting my mouth to open safely. I found myself staring into the eyes of the green lead pony, grey like his mane. My eyes widened briefly and then contracted as I found myself caught off-guard by the kindness in his expression.

“You and your... companion seem to be in a sad state. This is raider territory you know. What compelled the two of you to come here alone and in such a state?”

I swallowed, confident that I wasn’t about to throw up now that the moment had passed. “We’re here for a job. The raiders here have been causing a nuisance to a nearby town and we’re here to take care of them.” The words flowed out easily and the stallion received them with a kind smile. I caught myself before I revealed more. “What about you? Are you and your group here for them?” If they were, I feared that I wouldn’t be completing the job given to me.

“You could say that. It’s true we were looking for the raiders in this territory, although we are not here to kill them. Not initially at least.” He didn’t elaborate, and instead leaned around to look at Burnt Fuzz as she swept her eyes restlessly over the armed ponies around us. “Indeed, we thought the two of you might be raiders when we first spotted you. Your mare companion especially has the look of a raider. Is she with you voluntarily?”

“She’s fine. She’s my guide in this place.”

“Of course, of course.” The earth pony nodded and his brow furrowed, as if thinking. His smile returned within a few seconds and then he placed a hoof to his chest. “My name is Gravebloom. I am the leader of this little band.” The same hoof suddenly swept around to indicate his party. “May I ask your names?”

I nodded. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this pony, but he seemed genuine enough. And besides, what harm could a name do? “I’m Buckler. This is-”

“Burnt Fuzz.” The mare in question answered quietly, cutting me off.

“It’s a pleasure.” The green pony smiled warmly. “It has occurred to me that we have similar business here, you and I, and our goals are not mutually exclusive. Would you object to our two parties joining for a time? This mare no doubt knows the area better than us all, and we have the means to ensure you come to no harm.”

He wasn’t wrong. The dozen ponies around me could no doubt have easily killed us in the newspaper office if they had wanted to. The bear that stood sniffing the floor was easily capable of taking us both out with a few swipes of his claws. If we had tried to shoot when we had opened the emergency exit the fight would have lasted a few seconds. His offer was a good one, and although I was still wary, his actions thus far weren’t cause for suspicion. He had explained why he had come after us and his explanation seemed sound.

“Sure.” I answered and I turned to look at my companion. “Is that okay with you, Burnt Fuzz?”

“Yeah. Sure, whatever.” The mare seemed strangely subdued and unwilling. I frowned.

“Sorry Gravebloom, could you give us a minute?” I smiled apologetically and started to lead Burnt Fuzz away out of earshot.

A frown flashed across his face for a split second before the easy smile returned. “Of course, but please be quick.” He pointed a hoof to the darkening sky. “It is getting late and I would rather we finish here before nightfall.”

I nodded and whispered to Burnt Fuzz. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She spat. “I just don’t like these ponies. I’ve heard of them, they’re all some religious nuts. You can’t trust them.”

“You were a raider.” I deadpanned. “I trust you.” It wasn’t entirely a lie.

“Shut up!” She shouted, her expression turning instantly to one of anger. I brought up a hoof and tried to ease her. She breathed heavily and returned to a semi-normal state, looking at the floor as she spoke. “It’s not like that. They’re just weird, okay?”

‘Weird’ in the Zone was relative, I thought. But by the look on Burnt Fuzz’s face and her words, she clearly had a problem with the group standing impatiently waiting.

“It’s just a little extra security. I’m taking their help and you’re taking it as well. Don’t forget what you’re wearing.” I decided to assert my authority, we needed the help and I didn’t want her getting in the way.

She narrowed her eyes but nodded solemnly. I turned to walk away and signaled to Gravebloom that we were ready, satisfied with her response. As we returned, however, the mare let out a final jab back at me.

“You’re wearing one too.”

I stiffened slightly, my thoughts instantly going to the bomb collar around my neck that she was referring to. I thought briefly about saying something, but we were back within hearing range of the larger group. I decided it wasn’t worth it.

As soon as we rejoined the group they set off - Gravebloom joining Burnt Fuzz and I at point with two armed ponies as the rest walked just behind. The bear walked at the very back, pulling his enormous mass with strong strides of its four paws. Every few yards Burnt Fuzz would point or nod certain direction and we would turn to follow her.

As we walked I continued to consider what Burnt Fuzz had said. Watching her guide us, I started to wonder if I should have paid more attention to her opinion. She was the one that knew the Zone the best. But the grey pony seemed so willing to help, I wondered if she was right about them.

“Gravebloom.” I started, choosing my words with care. “I have to thank you for your offer. We’re all much better off this way.”

The shorter pony nodded. “It’s only natural for ponies of the Zone to help each other.” He paused and looked at me. “Even if they have only recently joined us. Am I right?”

“Yes you are.” I smiled at him, then suddenly wondered if I’d answered two questions of his at once.

“The truth is, my companion wasn’t sure if we should trust you. But I think this has done both of us some good.” I chose my words carefully, despite the openness of my confession. In front of me Burnt Fuzz’s back stiffened slightly, but I ignored her.

“She’s right to be wary, but she needn’t worry. Cooperative ponies have nothing to fear from us.”

I decided to push my luck. “So who exactly are ‘you’? Do you come from a settlement?”

The stallion’s casual smile widened to almost a laugh at my question. “Not at all. We’re a collection of like-minded individuals who travel the Zone, embracing all that this fantastic place has to offer. We care for it and in return take in the lessons it has to teach us, like a farmer who harvests food in return for caring for the seeds.”

“Teach you? Teach you what?”

“Why, everything! Surely you’ve felt the Zone touching you, even in the small time you’ve been here. Little thoughts at the back of your mind, visions given to you by the magic in this place? The Zone is a living being that wants to communicate with us, and teach us to be better.” He spoke with conviction and his eyes sparkled with every word. I was starting to understand what Burnt Fuzz had said about him being weird.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard about the place being alive though. It was starting to seem like a common opinion among ponies living here, even if they didn’t take it too far.

“The Zone speaks to all of us.” A nearby unicorn wearing a respirator spoke with a feminine voice. In her armour and with her face covered it was hard to tell she was female. “But some of us are more in tune than others. My brother and I were born on the outside. We had another being speak to us when we were small, in our dreams. She called herself the Goddess and she claimed she could unite us all.” She scoffed. “Then one day we were part of a trading caravan that came through the pass into the Zone. The Goddess instantly went silent, and we were aware of another presence. This presence that had scared off even the Goddess left us in awe. We found Gravebloom and he showed us the way.”

She spoke so reverently of the Zone and Gravebloom. It was fascinating. I had maybe felt something on the edge of my thoughts, maybe, but these ponies spoke as if there was some great being here they had exclusive access to.

“So are you travelling here because of some message you’ve been told?”

Gravebloom chuckled. “The Zone is not so explicit. We have had hints that we will find a new companion here, one that will help us in our ultimate goal.”

“And that is?” I pressed.

“To find the center of the Zone of course. The power at its heart will lead us to new horizons.”

The center of the Zone. I remembered the map in Death Toll’s office, with the big black spot around the middle, surrounded by red. If what I knew was right, these ponies would be insane to try to make their way there. Gravebloom and the mare had seemed so confident, I was starting to wonder if they were as stable as they seemed. Then again, I hadn’t exactly been keeping sane company recently. Some of my notable companions were a pony who enslaved me and a raider, a group of religious nuts couldn’t be too bad.

*** *** ***

“We’re here.”

Burnt Fuzz’s voice cut through my thoughts as she came to a stop. Before us stood a decrepit building covered with signs of vandalism. Crude phrases were drawn on the wall with various phrases and empty Dash inhalers were strewn around the entrance. Sitting off to one side was a battered cage that looked like it had one been designed to hold a large bird. The complex designs of the metalwork suggested that either the owner or the bird had been important, but now the metal had been dented and bent - apparently to hold something much larger. This was definitely a raider hideout.

I walked up beside Burnt Fuzz. “Do you think they know we’re coming?” Would they have seen Choke Hold coming? Would she have been taken by surprise on her own? It was getting very dark and the raiders knew this area better than anypony else. It was a very real threat.

The raider shook her head and pointed at the empty windows of the four stories of the building. “They would have already started shooting if they did. We’ve been lucky.” She held up a hoof and shook it at me while smiling wickedly. “We’d be full of holes, like cheese.”

I ignored her warped sense of humour. “So they’re either inside unsuspecting or out raiding?”

She shrugged. “Probably. There ain’t nopony stupid enough to come here usually so they’ve got no reason to keep watch. If they’re out they’ll be coming from that direction.” She pointed down a thin path that led off past several buildings. “The trade routes are that way. If they’re out hunting stupid caravans trying to sneak past in the dark, they’ll be that way.”

Choke Hold wouldn’t know that. If she made it this far she would have gone straight into the building. Regardless of what everyone else thought, finding the raiders wasn’t my objective here and I had to take the option that would get me nearer to finding Choke Hold.

Gravebloom and his group were checking the area, several even moving to circle around the building. They looked every bit the organised force. It was no wonder they had trapped us in the Equestria Today building, they actually scouted out the area before charging in. Gravebloom was standing with his bear and two other ponies, including the mare that had spoken before.

“What are your plans now we’re here?” I asked the lead pony as I approached. “You said you weren’t here to stop the raiders, but are you going to anyway?”

“We were planning to wait here until the pony we are searching for shows themselves.” I mentally put a hoof to my face, not able to believe that these ponies were content to just wait for a pony they didn’t even know and weren’t sure was going to arrive. “But I also wish to help you. While we have no reason to go after these ponies specifically like you, raiders as a whole are a blight on the wasteland.” He waved a hoof towards their building as he continued. “They have no respect for the world around them and are content to destroy. For a plant to thrive the rotted parts of it must be pruned and returned to the soil.” As he finished his eyes briefly came to rest on Burnt Fuzz before returning to me, his smile returning as he did so.

Burnt Fuzz narrowed her eyes and began to swish her tail slightly in response. I stepped a little closer to Gravebloom and placed a leg firmly in front of ‘my’ raider. “So you’ll help us?”

“Yes. Thorn and Stem will follow you into the building, if that is where you wish to go.” The pony indicated the two ponies standing with him. The mare nodded at me.

“My brother and I will not be missed here. Between the two of us, Stem and I will be enough to ensure your safety.” The stallion in question said nothing and I wondered if he could even speak. In their full-body barding and respirators I certainly believed they could be of help. Stem carried twin grenade rifles on a battle saddle, while his sister’s battle saddle sported a pair of heavy rifles.

Beside me Burnt Fuzz muttered under her breath. “Enough to kill us if they don’t like what we do as well.”

I smiled awkwardly, pretending not to hear the raider’s comment and hoping the other three hadn’t either. “We’ll be glad to have the backup. We’re going to go straight in after the raiders, to be finished as quickly as possible. Is that okay with you two?”

Thorn nodded. “Lead the way.”

I gently shoved Burnt Fuzz ahead of me as I nodded and turned to enter the raider hideout, leaning close to whisper to here. “They’re just going to help us and then we’ll leave them. Relax.”

“Don’t blame me when it goes wrong.” Was her only response.

I took the lead as we entered the broken building, Burnt Fuzz a step behind me and the two armed ponies bringing up the rear. I found myself slightly more wary of their presence as I drew my rifle in the darkness of the corridor, but I was at least relieved that it wasn’t the bear standing behind us.

We headed cautiously through the shadowy corridors of the building. I soon realised that the building had once been a hotel of some sort. Rows of doors, some open, some firmly shut and some either hanging off of their hinges or just missing entirely, lined the corridors. The place was in as much a state inside as outside. Debris and junk littered the floor and we had to be careful not to kick anything that would make noise as we moved. The longer we could keep the raiders unaware of our presence the better.

My EFS was useless. It still showed Stem and Thorn as flashing red and yellow dots and wasn’t showing anypony else in the vicinity. Occasionally a red dot flashed briefly into vision before disappearing again like a ghost.

Suddenly we rounded a corner and the scene changed from simply messy to outright destroyed. Bullet holes riddled the wall and one patch of wall had been completely caved in, revealing a room beyond. A corpse lay across the floor in a pool of blood. While not quite fresh, the blood wasn’t old either. Judging from the obvious wounds, the pony had been beaten and stomped to death. His face was a mess, his horn was completely smashed and a hoof that had apparently been reaching for a submachine gun laying just inches away was bent at a painful angle. My stomach roiled at the sight and I fought to keep it under control. This was no worse than what I was used to, but my body wasn’t in a good state as it was. The sight was enough to push it to the edge.

“Looks like somepony already came this way. You might be too late.” Thorn commented. She was right of course, this was the work of Choke Hold. I had been right to come straight in here, she had headed straight in to confront the raiders and this was the result. Obviously the raider had been minding his own business when Choke Hold had surprised him. It looked like he had only got off a single spray of bullets before being mercilessly beaten by the large earth pony.

Burnt Fuzz moved closer to the gun laying across the ground, before coming to a stop and looking at me. I realised she was asking for permission and nodded at her. In this situation everypony should be armed, enslaved or not. She eagerly picked up the weapon in her mouth, checking to see how many shots she had left as she did so. I wondered why she was so willing to use this weapon and not the pistol that I had offered her previously, but didn’t voice my question. Instead I looked around as the mare busied herself with looting what was left of the raider.

I peered through the gloom into the hole in the wall. I wondered if Choke Hold had caused this as well, it definitely seemed like her style. The room beyond appeared to be a storage room of some kind, and my heart leapt as I spotted the tell-tale yellow and pink of a medical box in the darkness. I vaulted the remains of the wall and headed straight for it. My haste proved to be a mistake as a soft beeping sounded as I approached the box and a slight glow appeared just below me.

On instinct my hoof struck out. It was too late to back off the mine, but I might be able to catch it and disable the explosive. Through some miracle my hoof connected with the little button on the first try and the beeping stopped. My heart was beating ridiculously fast and I felt light headed as I looked down at the flat explosive. Goddesses knew how I was able to disable it before it exploded, but an unexploded mine was a useful weapon. Gripping it in my magic I lifted it and slipped it into my saddlebag, feeling the weight shift as it settled.

I breathed heavily to slow my heart and my head began to clear. I looked up at the box on the wall. Locked, just my luck. I narrowed my eyes as I brought out my tools to open it. The lock wasn’t complex but I was definitely not at my best. It took me several tries to open and put me down to my last couple of lockpicks. The results proved reward enough however - opening the little yellow box gave me two healing potions and a Rad-Away, as well as a syringe of Med-X and a bottle of semi-irradiated water. An excellent haul, and worth almost being blown up for.

I slipped the healing potions and Med-X into my saddlebags and held out the Rad-Away in my magic. I brought my PipBuck up and flicked to the radiation meter. With the red eye in my pack flooding me with radiation to heal me I needed to keep an eye on the levels.

Just as expected, my levels were dangerously high. The little indicator sat just under halfway up the meter and made me gasp a little. It was no wonder I felt so bad, according to this I should be showing the symptoms of pretty serious radiation sickness. I instantly chugged the Rad-Away and watched as the little line started to move further down the meter, bringing the radiation level back to a slightly better position. It was still higher than I wanted it, but at least it was slightly better.

Jumping back over the broken wall, I returned to the other three. Burnt Fuzz looked much happier now she held a weapon in her mouth, bringing to mind again why she had rejected my offer in the Equestria Today building. She spoke around the grip as we started to move on.

“Ooo ‘i’n’t b’ow up ‘en.” She mumbled. I shook my head.

“No I didn’t blow up. Did you know about that mine?”

The raider shook her head but giggled a little as I glared at her disbelievingly. She spat out the weapon and smiled at me. “I didn’t, but it was funny watching you panic. I’m impressed you disabled it. You should be careful. There are traps everywhere and you might not always be so lucky.”

“She’s right. Always check before you move forwards.” Thorn chimed in behind us and I scowled. They didn’t have to tell me this. I may have been new to the Zone, but I had grown up in the wasteland. I wasn’t some naive stable pony; I knew all about traps.

Suddenly gunfire erupted from somewhere above us and was cut short within seconds. The four of us instantly took up battle stances and stood completely still, waiting for some sort of follow up. The sounds of a fight could be heard from just above us and the ceiling shook, sending aged plaster dropping to the floor below.

After a short time it seemed like we were safe. I indicated forwards and whispered to my companions. “Let’s go. Stay quiet.” Somepony was definitely still in here, but whether it was raiders or Choke Hold remained to be seen.

Burnt Fuzz and I kept our weapons pointed firmly forward while Thorn and Stem kept an eye out for attacks from behind. We had to be careful, once we made a single shot the whole building would know we were here.

As if on cue, the sound of running hooves could be heard from our left. Instantly stopping, all four of us were prepared as a blood-splattered light brown mare rounded the corner and started charging right for us. It seemed she was running away from something though, not towards us. She skidded to a stop and her eyes widened as her brain registered the four ponies standing aiming at her. Turning to run, she barely managed to start moving in the opposite direction as our bullets hit her body.

In that instant I realised why Burnt Fuzz had refused my pistol. She was not a good shot. Half of the rounds that erupted from her machine gun went wide and her shots cut a line across the hallway as the recoil shook her small body. It seemed her method was to spray as many bullets as possible in the general direction of the enemy and hope it hit. It was something common among raiders. They favoured high odds over precision.

The body of the raider hit the floor and we started running. All stealth was abandoned now, I just wanted to find the other raiders and take them out quickly. We found a flight of stairs, ascending quickly. A sign just above the stairwell pointed the way to a meeting hall. I looked at Burnt Fuzz and she nodded, pointing in the direction the sign indicated.

We didn’t encounter another raider as we made our way towards the hall, but as we neared gunfire sounded again. It was immediately answered by a loud thump and a scream of pain. The pair of double doors that led into the hall burst open and a raider shot out and hit the floor with a crack, followed rapidly by a screaming stallion. Both met death under our gunfire, although I wasn’t sure if it was required for the pony on the floor. That crack had sounded pretty bad.

We cautiously pushed open the doors to the meeting hall, ready for whatever lay beyond.

The scene before us was one of destruction. The room had originally been designed to hold dozens of ponies for events and gatherings, and as a result had had a stockpile of chairs and tables. This was evident by the smashed wood and broken tables that littered the room. Tabletops lay stacked against one wall and were riddled with bullet holes, cracks and holes where they had been used as target practice, among other things.

The dozens of filthy mattresses had been dragged into the hall for the raiders to sleep on, a common practice in the wasteland, and various bodily fluids around the room showed exactly what the raiders had been using it for - sleeping quarters and a living area. Half of a metal drum sat in a corner smoking with crude stools in a circle around it, while the walls were decorated with all sorts of things. It was the perfect living space for a raiders.

Or at least it had been. Now it served as a tomb for several raiders that lay across the floor in growing pools of their own blood. Some seemed to have been caught off guard, one in particular lay near the door on a mattress and had probably been killed as he slept, while others had grabbed guns to fight back. It hadn’t done any good. They had simply been able to die with a weapon, rather than without. The pony standing at the center of the scene had not discriminated.

Choke Hold was closing on the last living raider as she desperately reloaded and fired a 10mm pistol at my old companion. Most shots in the magazine missed, but one skimmed Choke’s shoulder and the other hit her dead in the leg. It didn’t matter, the huge sickly green mare simply walked up to the raider and hit her once with a powerful swing of her spiked hooves. She flew through the air and connected with the floor. Choke Hold immediately charged at her and brought her hooves up, then down - crushing the raider under her weight.

Thorn and Stem went to aim at the mare, but I brought up a hoof in front of their weapons. “Wait!”

“Who the hell is that?” Burnt Fuzz hissed at me.

“A friend, trust me.” I assured her as I lowered my weapon and walked away from the three ponies, towards the mare. “Choke Hold, it’s me!”

The huge earth pony turned and affixed me with a terrifying glare. Her pupils were pinpricks in her eyes and her brownish-red mane was plastered to her forehead with sweat. Judging from her appearance and actions, as well as her being able to shrug off direct hits, she had probably taken some sort of combat-enhancing drug - rage maybe. It would certainly account for the ferocity of her fighting.

“You.” She hissed angrily. She started towards me, keeping the same stance she had when she had approached the raider. I smiled despite my waning confidence. I’d forgotten what Choke Hold was like to be around. “What are you doing here Buckler?”

“I-I survived the raider attack. I heard about a pony that sounded like you coming this way so I thought I’d come to find you.”

The back of her hoof struck me and sent me sprawling to the floor.

“YOU SURVIVED?!” She practically screamed at me as I scrambled to my hooves. “All those ponies died and YOU survived? You useless fuck!” I noticed now that she was crying a little underneath her rage. She went to hit me again and my horn flashed, shielding me from her hit with a short barrier spell.

Bad idea. She screamed wordlessly in fury as I backed away. I panicked. This was not how this was supposed to go. I was supposed to join up with her and leave. We had to stick together, why didn’t she understand that?

“You and your shields! Always hiding behind them! Never actually helping in the fights! YOU COULD HAVE SAVED THEM!”

“I tried. There’s only so much I can do to-” My words were cut off as she loomed over me.

“You tried.” Her tone was dangerous. “Trying wasn’t good enough. You see this?” She waved a hoof over the scene around us. “Those raiders killed our family. In return I killed them and then I followed the ones that ran! I made it through this Goddess-forsaken place and I killed every fucking raider I could find! I’m avenging the ponies that died, what are you doing? You’re fucking weak!”

Her hoof slammed down onto the ground with the sound of metal on wood and I heard the floorboards crack.

“That’s real nice.” Came a voice from the door. “But he came here to kill raiders as well. Tried to find you as well, apparently.”

Oh no. I turned to see Burnt Fuzz walking towards us. Thorn and Stem were still standing in the door, their weapons drawn but otherwise not moving. “No.” I mouthed, shaking my head at the raider walking towards us. This was a very bad idea.

“Who is this?” Choke Hold growled at me as Burnt Fuzz continued to approach. “What is this?”

“Burnt Fuzz.” She answered shortly. “How about you get off him? I need him to stay alive right now.”

“Is this a RAIDER? Are you travelling with a raider Buckler?” The huge mare turned away to stare dangerously at the smaller one, who suddenly seemed to realize the danger and stopped, staring straight back.

“She’s my slave. She’s guiding me through the Zone. Look!” I pointed at her bomb collar in a vain attempt to calm Choke Hold down. She closed her eyes and swept her brown-red mane from her eyes. Her next words were scarily quiet.

“Raiders killed everypony you knew, and now you’re travelling with one while I kill them?” She started towards my companion. “Well it doesn’t matter! She’s done her job, you can get rid of her now!” She squared her shoulders and launched herself towards Burnt Fuzz. “Here! Let me!”

“No!” I shouted, my magic flashing and a large silver barrier appearing directly in front of Burnt Fuzz. Choke Hold collided with it and the barrier flickered, sending a wave of pain through my head as I fought to keep it up. I looked desperately towards the two ponies in the door, but they made no move to stop the raging green mare. Thorn’s horn had lit up, but I could not see any noticeable effect.

Having had her charge stopped by my barrier, Choke Hold rounded on me. “How dare you! How dare you protect a raider!” She leant forward and bucked the barrier hard, breaking it. She turned quickly and smacked Burnt Fuzz so hard I felt myself wince. The small pony flew through the air and collapsed against the wall, groaning in pain.

But it seemed like the large mare was done with the raider. Instead, she turned and started running straight for me.

“You could have saved them Buckler!”

I dodged her charge and brought my rifle to bear, aiming directly at her.

“You didn’t save them!”

She came at me again and I fired a warning shot as I backed off.

“You don’t deserve to live when they died!”


“You useless.”

She closed in on me, forcing me to retreat until I hit the wall. Nowhere to go.


She hit me once as I mustered my magic for another shield. This one was barely able to protect me from the brunt of the blow.


The second blow came quickly and connected easily. I staggered.


Another blow sent me sprawling to the ground, the rifle dropping from my grip. I felt my skin tear at the spikes accompanying the terrible force of the impact.


The word was emphasised as she kicked me hard in my exposed side. Blood erupted from my body, I wasn’t sure where - I was numb from the beating. Choke Hold stood over me, panting hard and kicking me viciously as I lay on the floor.

“Why did it have to be you?” She whispered, readying herself for a final blow.

I whimpered. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. We were going to leave this place and rebuild. She wasn’t supposed to hate me. I wondered if I had known this was inevitable, but ignored it in favour of the happier alternative. The death of our fellows had made me forget how different we were.

“Stop.” The sudden, authoritative voice, echoed through the room. I twisted my neck from my position on the floor. There, standing in the doorway with his whole group, was Gravebloom. I felt a brief rush of joy. Surely he was here to save me. “He’s had enough.”

“Who the fuck are you?” Choke Hold sneered at the small green pony.

“I’m Gravebloom. I’m here to find you.” What?

“Me? Why me?”

“You’re connected to this place, I can feel it. You should have realised it by now, surely. You’ve felt stronger, more powerful since you came here. Your actions seem guided and your instincts have saved you from death many times in the past few days.” What on earth was he saying?! Choke Hold wasn’t some spiritualist. She could barely put on a battle saddle by herself.

Gravebloom smiled and approached Choke Hold unarmed. It was strange, seeing the two similarly coloured ponies of much different build standing opposite each other. Choke Hold seemed uneasy, but nodded.

“Who are you? Are you with him as well?” She pointed at me, lying on the floor in agony. My PipBuck clicked angrily at the radiation being poured in to me as the artifact tried desperately to heal me. Gravebloom regarded me sadly.

“We were, but your former friend seems to have been a tool sent by the Zone to guide us to you. We have no need of him now, his fate is unavoidable.” So why not just let her kill me? “We are a group of ponies similarly touched. We seek untold power given to us by the magic of this place. The Zone can grant any wish.”

“Any wish.” Choke Hold repeated his words quietly. I could practically see her being drawn in by his words. She wanted power, and an opportunity to be part of a group again, I realised. “What do I have to do?”

“Simply follow us, and help us in our goals. We will help you and arm you and soon they will be your goals as well. But this is not the place for this.” He cast his gaze around the room, lingering briefly on Burnt Fuzz and I. “Leave them, their spirits will be taken in by the Zone.”

He extended a hoof and lead Choke Hold out. I watched them go, the bear leaving last - following his master even in the cramped quarters of the hotel. The sounds of their exit soon faded out, leaving me alone in the deathly silence of the hotel.

I groaned and clutched at the places where Choke Hold had hit me. I was sure things inside me were broken, and I couldn’t work up the energy to use my magic, or even lift my arms enough to search my saddlebags for the healing potions from earlier. My vision began to fade out as the pool of blood around me grew and I groaned. I wasn’t even sure if Burnt Fuzz was alive and I couldn’t look to check in this state.

I wasn’t sure why I had protected her from Choke Hold. Maybe something the big mare had said about not being able to save ponies had got to me and I had felt the urge to protect the mare who had guided me and saved me from death more than once.

She was right though, I hadn’t been able to protect her. I hadn’t even been able to protect myself. My cutie mark said that I was supposed to protect ponies. It was my destiny, but so far I had been unable to protect anyone. My father was dead, as were all the ponies I had that were even close to family. Nimble and Soft Step, two ponies that had been trying to help me, had disappeared because I hadn’t been able to protect us. Burnt Fuzz was dead after all she had done to help me. I was useless.

I screamed and thumped the floor, closing my eyes in pain. From across the room I heard voices, but they were useless to me now.

“Hey, what the fuck happened here?”

“They killed ‘em! They fucking killed ‘em all!

“Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck. Are they still here?”

“Look! It’s the cunt! What’s she doing here? I thought she got caught.”

“Hey, this one ain’t one of us!” The voices were distorting now, as if the speakers were teleporting all over the room even as they spoke.

“He’s fucking dead, look at him.”

“I think he’s still breathing.”

“Well just kill him. He’s probably the one who did this. A big damn hero trying to come in here and kill us!”

“Yeah, just fucking kill him.”

“What th-.”

The last thing I heard before I blacked out completely was the sound of gunfire.

*** *** ***

The world around me held a orange hue. I lay alone in the meeting hall, my body unmoving. All the other bodies were gone, including Burnt Fuzz’s.

I frowned. I shouldn’t have known that, but somehow I was looking down on the scene even as I lay in it. I couldn’t feel any pain, even though I could now see the wounds in my side clearly. They were horrific and the me in the ceiling recoiled as the me on the floor groaned. We were the same me, but somehow I was doing two different things.

Suddenly I heard the sound of panting. Turning to look at the door, I watched in horror as a Timberwolf entered through the door and approached my fallen body. I wanted to reach out, to protect the part of me that lay on the floor, unable to see the creature, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t move.

The wolf came to a halt a few strides from my body and sat. His entire body spoke of feral power as he regarded me. The surreal mix of natural and unnatural that emanated from his entirely wooden body was fascinating. The hundreds of twigs and spikes of wood that formed his coat bristled as he brought his head up, letting out a single howl.

The sound reverberated through my body, shaking me. It spoke of sadness and melancholy, but also of anger and violence. My coat stood on end as the single long note continued and a chill ran through my spine. This was the sound of a creature for the Zone. Something foreign, yet altogether familiar. It was a simple sound, but it spoke of such danger that I couldn’t help but feel terrified until it came to an end as suddenly as it had started.

It had been the sound of death.

*** *** ***

I faded in and out of consciousness as the world changed around me. I was being carried, by what I didn’t know. I could hear muffled voices. They were saying words, but I couldn’t seem to understand them, as if a filter was sitting between my mind and my ears to stop me registering what it was they were talking about.

“-you were right. Still, what the hell was he doing out here?”

“With a raider no less.”

“Yes thank you Haze. How is she doing anyway?” Haze. That was a name I knew.

“She’s fine. I don’t see why we saved her as well.”

“Shut up Haze.”

“Look, he’s back. See if he can do it now.”

A glass bottle was pressed to my lips and a liquid poured down my throat. It burned as it went down and I shuddered and coughed at the taste. Alcohol?

“Easy there Buckler, it’ll help.”

I opened my eyes and found myself staring at a moving dark sky. No, I was the one who was moving now. I blinked and the sky seemed to take on a metallic blue hue. Again, and it was gone. I tried to roll to see the sources of the voices but my body protested. I was forced to lay there as the clouds above me flew past.

“I can’t believe we found you. We tried going back to find you but you weren’t there!”

“Nimble shut up. He’s not in a state to talk, or even listen. Look.”

I heard mumbling.

“That’s what I thought. Give him another, he needs it.”

Again a bottle was pressed to my lips and again the liquid was poured down my throat with that same burning sensation. I shuddered and shut my eyes. I felt numb, but the liquid combined with the movement of the sky was doing my head and stomach no favours. I was tired, I realised. Really tired.

I began to drift off again, the burning in my throat and growing pain in my body doing nothing to stem the tide of sleep that was trying to pull me under.

“I think he’s off again.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll be there soon. He’ll be fine.”

Level Up!

New Perk: Intense Training (Charisma) - Your recent conversations could have gone better, but you’ve definitely learnt from them. You gain +1 Charisma.

This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html

Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

More thanks to my pre-readers and editors.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged (They're good.)

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.

Chapter 11 - Heroes

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Chapter 11 - Heroes

"But I’ve seen and heard about heroes too. Ponies who set out to help others and fight against anything that threatened their fellow pony."

Day 4

The sound of rushing wind greeted me as I woke. I yawned, stretched and turned my head towards the sound, then blinked as I found myself staring up at a window. I laid on a filthy mattress that sat beneath the sill and the sharp angle allowed me a view of the clouds above. The wind blew through the opening in the metal wall, shaking the walls of the shack.

I frowned. This shack seemed very familiar. I had definitely seen the arrangement of furniture before, including the fridge and cabinet against one wall and the bed pushed up against another. Lying on the bed was a slightly-framed earth pony with a charcoal mane that both stood in spikes on her head and flowed down around her shoulder. For a second I thought Burnt Fuzz wasn’t breathing, mostly due to my position on the floor. It was only after she shifted slightly and one of her pink hooves - the colour of raw flesh - poked over the side of the bed that I breathed a sigh of relief.

Pulling myself quickly to my hooves, I found myself forced to lean against the rusting metal wall as my head throbbed. My mind was cast back to the pained daze of last night, when I had been carried under the cloud cover and mixture that tasted vaguely alcoholic had been forced down my throat. As I rubbed my forehead I wondered just how much alcohol had been in it, or if what I remembered was even the limit to what I had been given to drink.

The pain was punishment for my failure. My gaze shifted again to the earth pony on the bed and I felt a pang of regret. Although my exact memory of the circumstances evaded me, we had somehow managed to survive our fight with Choke Hold.

No, I realised, catching myself. It hadn’t been a fight. The word “fight” implies that both parties have an equal chance of winning. Choke Hold had been completely in control of the situation. I had barely kept her from destroying the raider that now laid on the bed and then I had fallen to her myself. Only the intervention of Gravebloom and my rescuers had saved me from certain death.

It pained me, but it was now clear how stupid I had been in thinking that I would be able to reconcile with Choke Hold. The two of us were so vastly different, looking back I wondered what could have made me think that it was ever a good idea to pursue her. Perhaps it was the desperate hope of a pony who had lost everything, including the ability to follow his own destiny.

Ignoring the pain in my head, I wandered over to beside her bed. I considered the sleeping figure of Burnt Fuzz with concern. She didn’t seem to be in any pain, which meant our rescuers had seen to her as well as me. Indeed, she laid on the better bed and I wondered if this was due to the severity of her wounds. She had been thrown with quite a bit of force and her small frame was probably more easily wounded than my own. I hoped that the bomb collar she wore around her neck, the collar I held the trigger to in my bags, hadn’t caused a problem when healing her.

She shifted in her sleep and I was offered a clear view of her hind flank. The little fireball that was her Cutie Mark sat there to show off her special talent. I had the feeling that the meaning of the mark was more subtle than my own. The little shield was quite clear in my supposed talent to protect people. In contrast, I hadn’t a clue what the fire meant. Perhaps she was skilled in making fires, but that seemed like a strange one. Then again, maybe not. She had been a raider after all.

“Are you enjoying the view?”

A playful voice from behind me made me jump. I turned to find an orange earth pony leaning in the doorway. A wry smile sat on her lips as she looked me up and down and pushed her pink mane from her face.

“I like your new friend, Buckler. She’s cute, and the raider look makes her seem exotic.”

“Nimble.” I spoke the pony’s name with relief. I was glad she was one of my saviours. “You’re okay.”

She laughed lightly. “Of course I’m okay. Why would I not be?” I opened my mouth to respond, but the mare continued as I did so. “Oh, that’s right. You ran off while we were being chased and then decided to team up with raiders and nutjobs.” Her voice was still light despite the words, but her gaze was cold and even an idiot could see she was looking for an explanation.

“I was shot during the chase and managed to drag myself to safety. By the time I had recovered you and Soft Step were gone.”

She frowned in obvious concern at my words, but didn’t let up. “That doesn’t explain why you were travelling with those cultists.”

I hung my head. “I thought I could trust them. It was a mistake. I heard that somepony I knew was nearby and I set out to find them as quickly as possible. I let down my guard and almost got myself killed.” Her gaze stayed on me, seemingly expecting something. After a few awkward seconds I finally blurted out. “I’m sorry, I didn’t leave you on purpose.”

She melted instantly and her smile became one of genuine warmth, her green eyes losing the suspicion of before. “It’s okay, Buckler. We’re just glad you’re okay. Gravebloom has done much worse to ponies he doesn’t have a use for than leaving them for dead.”

“You’re lucky you were travelling with that raider.” A new voice sounded and a rust-red unicorn mare with a brown mane walked into view behind Nimble, who stepped into the room to allow her sister to follow her in. Soft Step, like her sister, was a welcome sight and I felt my heart jump slightly at the sight of her.

“You were spotted and reported to Death Toll. That’s how we were able to find you before you became a very dead little pony.”

“Death Toll told you to find me?”

“Not us.” Instead of elaborating, she beckoned to me with a hoof and walked back through the doorway. I shot a questioning glance to Nimble, who only motioned with her head for me to follow. I did so tentatively.

The second I exited the shack I knew why it felt so familiar. I stood in a clearing on the edge of a canyon that stood between the looming walls of the mountains around me. A downhill path sloped off to the south, away from the gaping gate that lead towards the Zone. This was the entrance that Soft Step and I had taken into the Zone and this had been the spot in which I had killed three hostile ponies in my first experience with the ponies of the Zone. It had been only a matter of days before, but somehow it felt so much longer.

The signs of my kills were gone, save for a few faint stains on the ground that a passer-by might think was blood. Instead, standing just off from the entrance to the canyon, I could see a familiar pale yellow earth pony. He wore black barding with red trimmings with a battle saddle that sported twin light machine guns slung across his back. As I approached he shook his head to adjust the thick strands of red mane that fell around his head.

“Haze?” I spoke the pony’s name tentatively as I approached.

“Buckler.” The Loyalist acknowledged my presence with a nod.

“Are you the one that Death Toll sent to find me?” It made sense. The earth pony was among the only ponies in the Zone to have spent time with me.

“I am.” Haze nodded before sighing. “Let’s get this out of the way, Buckler. Are you working for the enemies of Loyalty?”

My eyes widened and my mouth fell open with the abruptness of the accusation.

“Haze!” Nimble exclaimed the second the question left his mouth. “We’ve been through this, Buckler isn’t working for anypony!”

“I need an explanation from him Nimble. I’ve as much reason to believe Step’s story as you do, but that doesn’t explain his actions.”

“What are you talking about, Haze?” I asked cautiously. Clearly something bad must have happened to make this pony, a pony I had saved and worked with, distrust me. Not only that, but judging from his words Soft Step had told him and Nimble about her bringing me to the Zone. There must have been a serious problem if she had told them that, considering how she had wanted to keep it a secret.

The stallion sighed and rubbed his face with one hoof before replying. “Death Toll thinks you’re a spy, Buckler. He sent me to find you and get the truth. After that...” He trailed off. He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

“He thinks I’m a SPY?! That’s insane! I haven’t even been here a week and you’re saying he thinks I’m a spy?”

“He’s not the only one.” Haze said darkly. “It would explain why, after saying you intended to leave the Zone with help from Nimble and Soft Step, you abandoned them and walked first into a Freedom town and then into raider territory accompanied by known hostiles.”

I gaped, shocked by the accusation being made. I threw my head around to look for support from the mares around me. To my dismay I found no support from Nimble, who was looking awkwardly at the floor despite her earlier words. Only Soft Step was staring intently at Haze, anger written across her face.

“Buckler isn’t a spy. He’s just an unlucky pony who I found and captured because I needed him. In any case, his story matches mine, so if you’re calling him a spy then you’re calling me a traitor.” She stepped forward slightly, her tone dangerous. “Are you? Is that what you think?”

“I... I don’t know what I think.” Haze faltered in the face of the mare’s questioning. “I just want to understand.”

I was stunned. The problems my thoughtlessness had caused were piling up even more by the second. Ponies that just days ago were helping me now thought me an enemy. I needed to explain properly, but I wasn’t sure I could even explain it myself. The truth was that I could see how Death Toll would see my actions as suspicious. To appear out of nowhere in his town, only to run straight into a hostile town instead of leaving as I had intended. These weren’t the actions of an honest pony.

“I’m not a spy, Haze. I’m just weak and stupid.” I spoke quietly, my words bitter. Haze frowned but allowed me to continue.

“I don’t know what Soft Step has told you, but I’m just going to repeat what she and Death Toll have already been told. Hopefully you believe me.”

“I come from a family of slavers. For most of my life I’ve travelled the wasteland to find other ponies to sell to the highest bidder. I wasn’t even particularly good at that. I never fit in with the others in the crew, especially after Dad died. I was just the weakling to them, somepony to keep a lookout or do the bitch jobs.”

I paused and took a deep breath. The silence in the clearing was suffocating, every pony concentrating fully on me.

“And then a few days ago everypony died. We were attacked by raiders. They killed everypony. I thought I was the only survivor, so I took what I could and left. That’s when Soft Step caught me and brought me here. That’s when she sold me to those other slavers and I met you.”

“That doesn’t explain what you were doing in a Freedom town, or why the raider is with you.”

I nodded. “Soft Step and Nimble were taking me out of the Zone and we got separated. I had no idea where I was and I ran into an anomaly, one of those big electrical ones. It almost killed me.” Soft Step winced and lifted one hoof and I remembered how she herself had scraped one of those anomalies in our fight shortly after arriving in the Zone.

I continued. “The ponies who rescued me told me about how they had seen a pony that I knew to be dead: one of the members of my slaver crew named Choke Hold. She had been heading towards Dryside so I followed her trail, hoping to find her again. The Freedom ponies there pointed me in the right direction and I found Burnt Fuzz, the raider you found me with, who offered to take me into the raider territory.”

“That’s where you met Gravebloom.” Nimble said quietly. I nodded.

“He said we had a similar destination and I thought I could trust him since he didn’t kill me straight away. Even though Burnt Fuzz warned me against trusting his group, I let him take advantage of me and lead him to Choke Hold and then...”

I felt a lump form in my throat. I closed my eyes and breathed. “She hated me. We had lived in the same family for years and I came to find her so that we could leave together, and she hated me. I should have seen it coming, especially when I showed up with Burnt Fuzz. She attacked us and then she left with Gravebloom. He said that she was becoming part of the Zone and that he wanted her to help him. They left me for dead in raider territory, where you found me.”

I looked up, looking Haze straight in the eye. “That’s my story. That’s why I did what I did. Not because I’m a spy, but because I’m a naive fool who should have been killed so many times by now, because I’m not good enough to be alive when better ponies than me have died around me. If you don’t want to believe then find. Just kill me, or take me to Death Toll or whatever it is you do to traitors. I’m done.”

With that I turned and walked away from the three ponies. Suddenly very, very tired, I was vaguely aware of an awake Burnt Fuzz standing in the doorway to the shack as I approached it. She moved to let me walk past and I could feel her watching me as I walked back to the bed under the window and slumped onto it, throwing dust up everywhere as I did so. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about everything I had just told Haze.

*** *** ***

“I believe you, Buckler.” Haze’s voice cut through the silence.

“Thank you.” I replied quietly, keeping my eyes shut. I didn’t know how long I’d been lying here, but I guess that the three Zone ponies had been talking more about the situation outside. “So what are you going to do with me?”

“Nothing. After all you’ve been through these past few days I think you deserve to choose your own path for once. I’m going to head back to Barn with Nimble and report to Death Toll. I think he’ll accept my word if I say that I believe you.”

I pulled myself up and opened my eyes. Nimble and Haze were standing side-by-side before me and Soft Step stood in the doorway of the shack. Burnt Fuzz was nowhere to be seen. I was glad she was healed and up and about but I was worried about what the unstable pony was up to and made a mental note to check on her as soon as possible.

Thinking about the raider reminded me of something and I looked back to Haze. “I never thanked you for healing me up. That must have been expensive, thank you.”

Haze waved my thanks away with a hoof. “I didn’t really heal you. I cured you, you didn’t need much healing. Your artifact managed to repair you by itself. You would have died from the radiation poisoning, not the damage you’d taken - when we reached you you were approaching a lethal dose. We had to remove the artifact from you and pump you full of this.” He reached around to his saddlebags and showed me a clear glass bottle full of a clear liquid with an orange tint. I read the label and frowned.


Haze nodded sagely and took a swig from the bottle. “Diluted with Rad-Away. For some reason, if you mix one part Maremont vodka with one part Rad-Away it greatly increases the purging power of the stuff. It’s some sort of chemical reaction, and it means that you can get far more out of a single dose of Rad-Away.”

“Haze likes to mix his drinks.” Nimble explained cheerfully. “When he was little he snuck into his parent’s liquor and started trying everything.” She smirked and nudged the blushing pony. “Eventually he got his Cutie Mark when he started finding mixes that actually did things other than just get you drunk.”

“Most of them still do that though.” Soft Step intoned, clearly not approving as Haze took another drink.

Haze merely smiled. “Vodka also works wonders for keeping your cool in a tight situation. It’s invaluable in the Zone.”

I wondered just how much vodka he had given to me to remove all the radiation in my body.

“What about Burnt Fuzz?”

“The raider?”

“Yes. she looks healthy as well, so I owe you thanks for that as well.”

“You can thank Soft Step. I was happy to leave her, but she said that if you were with her we should probably bring her as well. I wasn't so sure, but helping ponies is what I do so I used the last of my healing supplies to make sure she was okay. I also took her weapon, just to be safe.”

I turned and thanked Soft Step, followed by Haze again.

“I don’t know the full story but she’s definitely no friend of the raiders we found. I’m not sure what she’ll do now but I’m glad that you were able to save her. After all, it’s my fault she was in that state.”

Yet another life that I had failed to protect, saved by these three ponies. “I’m not sure what she’s going to do now. I doubt she’ll want to come with me out there.” I waved a hoof in the general direction of the wasteland to the south. “I don’t think she has a home anywhere, and it doesn’t feel right just letting her go off on her own.”

Soft Step shrugged. “She can come with me if she likes. As long as she promises not to cause trouble and does as she’s told. I wouldn’t mind a companion.”

I frowned. “Aren’t you going with Nimble and Haze?”

She shook her head. “They’ve got Loyalty business in Barn and I have more leads to follow.”


“That’s right. I’ve got more to learn from that information we found, little pony. I have a mission and I’m going to see it through.”

Nimble shook her head and sighed. “I really wish you’d just come with us. Death Toll still wants you to join up, and I’d feel better if you were with us.”

“I know what Death Toll wants, and if you remember it was these two who had to come rescue you after he sent you off to scout on your own.”

Nimble winced and lifted her leg slightly, the one that had been injured when I first met her. Her eyes fell to the ground and she spoke curtly. “That was a mistake. They came to rescue me at Death Toll’s request.”

Soft Step snorted. “Yeah well, I’d rather have that raider girl with me than have Death Toll interfering in my business constantly.”

Nimble shook her head again and glared at her sister. “Wanting everypony to work together isn’t interfering, Soft Step.” Her tone was stern and insistent.

“Maybe you two should stop.” Haze interjected calmly. “Nopony wants an argument here.”

Nimble stiffened for a second before relaxing. “You’re right. It’s time we left anyway.” With that she turned to me and her smile returned. “I guess it’s time for another goodbye, Buckler.”

“Maybe it’ll actually be true this time.” I joked.

She nodded thoughtfully before placing a hoof on my shoulder caringly. “I know you’ve been through alot, but I think life can only get better for you. You’ve got nothing to hold you back now. Just decide what it is you want from now on and go for it. You may feel alone in the wasteland, but I believe in you. You’re not as useless as you think you are. You just have to decide what you want.”

With that she turned and walked past her sister out of the shack. I stood to follow as Haze exited after her, Soft Step moving to allow me to stand in the doorway. The mare had already reached halfway across the clearing and was standing before the valley that lead from the world in which I was born to the world she lived in. She turned one last time before walking into the valley, waving and shouting “Good luck.” to me.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Burnt Fuzz watching as she and Haze left, clearly on edge. As soon as the two ponies were out of eyeshot she approached me.

“So what are we doing now?” She asked. “You got killing raiders out of your system or do you want to go look for more trouble?” She snickered but suddenly stopped and winced.

“Careful, don’t hurt yourself.” I warned and she shot me an angry glare.

“I’m fine.” Suddenly her features softened and she looked sheepish. “But thanks for trying to help me back there, and thanks for telling your friends to help me. I didn’t want to die.”

I was taken aback. It was my fault she had been in that state and yet she was thanking me. “It was nothing. I don’t want anypony dying because of me.” My voice dropped as I continued. “Thank you for standing up to Choke Hold for me. You didn’t need to do that. It’s the second time you’ve put your life on the line to save me.”

The pony snorted. “I couldn’t just stand by and watch her talk to you like shit after what you said. Didn’t expect her to lose it like that though. Anyway, we could’ve taken her if those bastard cultists hadn’t just stood by and let her beat the two of us.” She spat. “I’ll stick a pole up their ass and spit-roast them over a fire next time I see any of them.”

I chuckled darkly. “Well hopefully next time you’ll have somepony more useful than me around to help. I owe you a lot for everything you’ve done.”

Burnt Fuzz gave me a strange look and opened her mouth as if to say something, but shut it again slowly, apparently changing her mind. Suddenly she spoke again and the look vanished from her face. “So where are we going now?”

“We aren’t going anywhere.” I replied. “You’re free to go now.” My horn glowed and I levitated a screwdriver and bobby pin from my saddlebags. I casually slipped them into the lock on the collar around Burnt Fuzz’s neck and opened the lock. With a soft click the collar snapped open, falling from the raider’s neck to the ground.

“I’m heading back to the wasteland I know.” I continued. “If you want to come with me then you’re welcome, but know that I won’t be coming back to the Zone. If you want to stay in your home then Soft Step will take you with her for as long as you want to stay with her and help her with her mission.” I nodded towards the unicorn that stood watching us.

The small pony shrugged. “Okay I guess.” She turned to Soft Step. “Hey Softy, is your job gonna be any fun?”

“Fun?” Soft Step raised an eyebrow and smirked a little. “Fun how?”

“You know, explosions, hunting, killing assholes. That sort of stuff.” Again came the laugh that accompanied such statements from Burnt Fuzz.

Soft Step cocked her head a little and nodded slowly. “There’s a high chance of that sort of thing happening, yes.”

“Cool.” Burnt Fuzz smiled and nodded sagely before turning back to me. “Are you sure you’re not coming?” I could have sworn that a look of concern flashed across the raider’s face briefly.

I shook my head. “I can’t. I can’t stay in a place like this and I can’t keep putting ponies in danger with my inexperience.”

Burnt Fuzz sighed and frowned a little. “Well okay I guess. Don’t get yourself killed out there.”

“Don’t worry.” I smiled. “At least out there I know where I am.”

The raider nodded and backed up a little as Soft Step suddenly approached me.

“You know.” She said. “If you’re going to go out on your own, you might want to take this off.”

I heard a click and felt the weight of my own collar around my neck lighten. A glowing key floated past my face and slipped into Soft Step’s saddlebags.

“I thought you didn’t have the key?” I asked curiously.

Soft Step smiled and shook her head. “I said I didn’t have the detonator. I hid the key in a safe place, little pony - the stash where I hid the guns from the ponies we killed when we arrived.” She floated out her S.D.A, the little screen wrapped in her gold magic and showing a map with a small orange dot indicating the location of said stash.

I groaned inwardly as I suddenly remembered how useless the technology wrapped around my own leg had become. In the space of a few days it had been reduced from an invaluable tool to something barely more useful than Soft Step’s own equipment. At least it still had it’s uses though, it wasn’t as if it were just a dead weight.

“I was planning to release you on our first trip out, but that journey was interrupted before we could arrive.” Soft Step interrupted my thoughts with her words.

I nudged the collar lying on the floor tentatively. “Thank you. It’ll be easier going now without that thing wrapped around my neck.” I had planned to remove it first chance I got, perhaps even trying to pick the lock blind myself, but Soft Steps gesture was well received.

“Well that’s it then.” I said quietly. “Now that everything’s taken care of, I’ll be off.” I smiled at both ponies. “Thank you for all of your help. Good luck.”

“You too, Buckler.” Soft Step replied evenly. “Just make sure that this is what you really want to do.”

“It is.” I nodded and turned to start down the path away from the clearing.

Behind me I could feel both ponies watching me as I left. They were my final goodbye to the hell of the last few days, to the madness of the things that belonged to the Zone. As I descended down the path away from the two of them, and the entrance to the place they lived in, I could almost feel the world around me changing, becoming more normal.

A wave of nausea hit me suddenly and I stopped and shook my head, closing my eyes and rubbing my forehead to clear it. When I opened them the world seemed different somehow. I couldn’t quite explain it, but something just felt different, almost wrong.

Soft Step’s last words still echoed in my head and I suddenly found myself wondering if this was really what I wanted.

“Of course it is.” I scolded myself.

“I don’t belong there, I belong here, where I was born.”

With that I started walking again, down the path and away from the Zone.

*** *** ***

“Don’t take another step.”

The sandy-coloured earth pony leveled her rifle casually at me as I tried to look as innocent as possible. I had returned to the train station that Soft Step had captured me at, returning down a path that I knew. I found that in the few days since I had last been here it had been taken over by a group of ponies, traders presumably, who appeared to be using it as a temporary base. They had even erected rough barricades, behind which their guard was now eyeing me suspiciously.

“What do you want?”

“I was going to spend the night here.” I replied honestly, indicating the darkening sky. “It’s not safe to wander the wastes at night and I thought this place was empty.”

“Nope.” Came the simple reply. “It’s ours now.”

“Could you spare the room? I could pay.”

The guard pony scratched her head and I could hear whispering from behind the barricade before she spoke again.

“How come you’re on your own? You don’t find ponies walking alone this far north after all those rumours of raider attacks. It ain’t safe.”

“Raiders attacked my caravan.” No need to let these ponies know I was a slaver when they were already suspicious of me. “I’m the only survivor.”

The whispers started again and the guard turned her head slightly to listen. I watched her calmly, until suddenly a bright flash of white light made me start. I turned my head in the direction it had come from, only for my head to start to swim at the sudden movement and for my vision to blur suddenly, sending the scene before me into violent distortion. I shook my head and clutched a hoof to my forehead again.

I was tired, I knew. I had been walking without much rest since leaving Soft Step and Burnt Fuzz and I doubted I was fully recovered from my ordeal of the past few days. My legs were heavy and my eyes had been playing tricks on me for most of my journey, as well as dull constant throbbing in my head that wasn’t painful but still irritated me with it’s presence. Spells like the one I had just experienced had become commonplace as well.

As I recovered I became aware of the sound of words coming from the guard’s direction, although I didn’t quite catch what they said they were clearly directed at me. I took a deep breath to clear my head and concentrated on her again, just as she finished speaking.

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” I asked wearily.

She frowned. “Are you alright?”

I waved a hoof at her. “I’m fine, just a little tired.”

“Right...” She said, not sounding convinced. “Well the others said there’s no reason not to let you stay the night, but you’re sleeping on the far end of the platform away from anypony else. And you’ve got to pay.”

“Of course.” I nodded, happy they had even let me in. “How much?”

I balked as she told me. “Couldn’t you lower it just a little.”

She scowled. “Listen buddy, you’re lucky we’re even letting a lone pony like you stay with us. Don’t push your luck.”

I apologised and handed over the sum of money, the price of spending the night almost completely draining me of my caps.

“Thanks.” The guard said as she motioned to an unseen pony to move a barricade. “Come on in, but don’t try anything funny.”

I slipped through the gap that had been created for me and followed the guard pony as she guided me towards the end of the station platform. They had been decent enough to provide me with a blanket on which to sleep for the night and I happily slumped onto it.

“Thank you.”

“No problem. Just don’t cause any trouble.” With that she turned and walked off back to her post, leaving me to sit there and look about.

The empty station of a few days ago now held about a score of ponies sitting in groups around the station. It seemed that my assumption that they were traders had been correct - several carts stood just inside the barricades, bound with a tarp that hid their contents. Everypony was ignoring me, content to let me go about my business now that I had paid for entry. I briefly considered asking around for a chance to buy, but quickly realised that my meagre supply of caps wouldn’t buy me much, and that I wasn’t keen to sell what I had left.

Instead I settled down on my blanket and prepared to sleep. Despite the dark of night having only just started to arrive, my body felt so tired that I wanted to sleep as soon as possible. If I got a decent sleep then I could continue to recover and hopefully set out earlier in the morning. I yawned, my subconscious agreeing with my intent to sleep, and closed my eyes, letting sleep take me.

*** *** ***

My eyes flickered open and I rubbed them as they grew accustomed to the darkness around me. Judging from the light and the goings on around me I’d only been asleep a couple of hours. Despite this I already had started to feel the benefits, my limbs felt lighter and I didn’t feel as bad as I had earlier.

The traders had set up three small fire pits, around which many were now clustered. They were talking and eating by the flickering light and my stomach growled as I watched them. It had been a while since I’d last ate - I managed a small scavenged meal on my journey south but otherwise hadn’t eaten much.

I pulled myself to my hooves and wandered over to the group. As I walked I rubbed my eyes again, trying to clear the haze of sleep from my eyes. I wasn’t sure if it was the light or just me, but the fires seemed strangely dull as they flickered in their pits. I vaguely wondered if my last few caps would buy me food, or if the traders would let me use the fire for cooking.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. As I neared the circle of light a mare turned and smiled brightly at me.

“Hi there! Care for a bite?”

I was slightly taken aback as the mare shoved a kebab holding a non-descript meat in my face. She seemed young, although not quite a child, and continued to smile as she waited for my response.

“Thanks.” I mumbled in surprise as I took the stick in my magic and tore a piece of meat. “I didn’t expect free food.”

“Well you paid for board and you’re not making any fuss, so I reckon there’s no harm in giving you a little something.”

I nodded thankfully and looked around the ponies gathered around the fire. They all seemed engrossed in their own business, although occasionally I spotted one stealing a glance at me. It reminded me of how the ponies at Barn had behaved when Haze had brought me there. My stomach rumbled again at the memory of the sausage I had eaten at the bar there. None of the ponies around the fire seemed interested in talking to the strange pony who had paid to stay with them for the night so I started to stare into the fire instead, chewing on my meal as I did so.

“Hey, are you okay.” The mare’s voice pierced the night next to me as I continued to stare.

“Yeah I’m fine.” I replied, trying not to raise any concern.

“Oh, okay.” She said, not sounding convinced. “Where are you from?”

My mind raced for a second. I still didn’t want them knowing my previous occupation, but I didn't trust myself to lie. I settled with a misleading truth. “I’m coming from up north.”

“The north?” She echoed. “Didn’t know there was much up there, apart from...” She trailed off before exclaiming “Are you coming from the Zone?”

I winced and nodded. “Yeah.”

“I knew it!” She hissed excitedly. “I knew you were acting weird. Everypony knows Zone ponies ain’t comfortable outside.”

“What do you mean ‘weird’” I asked, slightly worried. I hadn’t thought my behaviour had been strange, but if this pony had noticed then I might have cause to worry. Especially if I was behaving in a way that suggested that I was from the Zone, despite having only been there for a couple of days.

“You know, just weird. When you were talking to me it was like you were looking through me instead of at me, plus you keep on clutching your head like you have a headache.”

As she said this I realised that throughout the conversation my hoof had indeed drifted to my head and I put it back down, blushing. Had I really been doing those things? I didn’t think I was, I was definitely looking at the ponies I was speaking to.

“So.” She continued. “Why’s a Zone pony coming this far south? Scavenging? I remember somepony saying they’re getting low on resources up there.”

“Nothing like that. I just needed to leave.”

“Oh? Ain’t never heard of a Zone pony ever wanting to leave that badly before.”

I sighed and looked around again. The ponies around the fire were giving the mare and I an occasional strange look as we spoke quietly, but they seemed uninterested in our general conversation. The mare herself was busying herself with maintaining the fire and digging through a pack that sat next to her as she spoke.

“Yeah well, I’m not a normal Zone pony. Look, I don’t want anypony thinking I’m trouble. I just want to go south.”

“Don’t worry.” She said cheerfully. “I ain’t judging you. Just, err...” She paused. “Just try to not look so weird. Some ponies don’t like it when you look through them like that.”

I nodded. “I’ll try.” I didn’t know how, I wasn’t even aware I was doing it, but I made a conscious effort to look at the pony as she spoke next.

“So how come you’re all alone? Ponies don’t tend to go about alone, especially not up there, from what I’ve heard. Having somepony around to watch your back is important.” She paused before continuing. “Being alone is kinda weird as well.”

“Maybe you’re right.” I replied hollowly as I continued to stare into the flames. “But it’s not my choice. Almost everypony I know is dead, and I left behind the rest to come south for something more normal.”

“Sounds a bit stupid if you ask me.” The mare replied frankly.

“Why’s that?”

“Well if everypony you know is either dead or in the Zone, leaving them behind seems like an easy way to end up alone and dead.”

I groaned. She was right, and I’d been thinking much of the same for a while, even if I didn’t want to admit it.

“I just don’t belong there. It’s not a place for me and I’ll just end up getting ponies killed.”

“I think you belong wherever there’s ponies you know and can count on. When you work together you can keep each other safe.”

I sighed and turned away from the fire. “Maybe you’re right. I need to do some thinking.” I turned to look at the mare, who was still organising her own things. “Thank you.”

She smiled at me. “You’re welcome. Did you enjoy it?”

I paused, confused. What was she talking about? “What?”

“The kebab. Did you like it?” Her rapid complete change of topic had taken me completely by surprise. It’s was if she had just forgotten the conversation

“Yeah, thanks. I’ll just be going back now.”

I shuffled off, glancing back at the mare as she watched me go. I returned to my blanket and laid down, thoroughly unsure of what had just taken place. It had seemed like a conversation at the time, but now that I had returned to my bunk I realised that some things were very strange about it. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen the mare herself talking at all, I had been instead staring into the fire. A chill ran down my spine and I pushed an unwelcome thought to the back of my mind.

Rolling over, I looked at the cutie mark on my flank. I considered the little shield and remembered what the words the mare had said. She was right, a good way to keep ponies safe was to stay together. Safety in numbers. Was leaving behind the only ponies I knew any more really a good idea?

The darkness drew in around me as the sounds of the ponies around the fire started to fade. I could feel the claws of sleep trying to pull me back, my body eager to continue to recuperate now that it had been fed, and I started to give in, relaxing and closing my eyes.

*** *** ***

The sky above me roiled as I stood alone in the train station. I couldn’t recall standing having stood up, but somehow I now stood alone on the platform, the traders who had camped here completely gone. The air around me crackled with energy and I shivered in the darkness as lights sparked around me, before disappearing into a barely visible distortion.

A howl sounded from the darkness around me and I took an involuntary step backwards as dark shapes suddenly raced into view, circling me at such speeds that they blurred with the night. Low growls and howls shot through the darkness as the shapes settled, only for more to appear just on the edge of my vision. Dozens of silhouettes of settled around me and I squinted to make out their forms.

One of the creatures in front of me stepped forwards, sounding a vicious snarl as it kept its head and body low. It was a dog, a feral animal that I had seen plenty of in the past few days, but never with this much ferocity and in this many numbers. Standing alone before the horde I felt terrified. My first urge was to run, but the dogs surrounded me on all sides. I drew my pistol and held it cautiously, sweeping across the crowd in front of me while simultaneously glancing back to check on the dogs behind me. The creature that had approached started to circle, keeping low as if it were about to pounce. I followed its movement with the gun, ready for an attack.

Suddenly it tensed and launched itself at me, jaws wide and ready to grab my throat. I fired twice and the body of the dog went tumbling to the floor. As if a spell had suddenly broken, more dogs began to stalk forward. My horn glowed and a silver shield flashed into existence around me. The dogs jumped and collided with the barrier before collapsing to the floor. My horn flashed again as more approached and my shield exploded outwards, smashing into the approaching dogs and sending them flying.

I winced as the feedback of exerting my magic shot through my horn and my shield flickered and died. I scrambled to re-cast the spell as the dogs around me began to pick themselves up and limp forwards, while the dogs on the edge of my vision started towards me to fill the space of those that had fallen.

The shield reappeared around me, smaller this time but still stable. The dogs began to bang against it, trying to smash through the magical barricade with sheer numbers. Each collision threatened to break the shield, but I was prepared and managed to just about keep it maintained.

Suddenly a new, louder howl sounded through the night. This was louder than all those before it, loud and clear despite the sounds of the dogs trying to get to me. It was a raw, wild cry that was very different to those of the dogs. It was a sound I heard many times in my few days in the Zone - the sound of a Timberwolf.

I couldn’t see the creature, but the howl had an instant effect on the dogs. They suddenly stopped attacking and backed away from my shield, even as it threatened to break from their efforts. A bead of sweat dripped from my head and my breathing was ragged as I looked around at the restrained animals. They were all eyeing me with the same animosity in their gaze as before, but there was now fear there as well.

Somehow curious, I walked confidently towards the source of the howl, the crowd of dogs backing off to let me pass as I did so. The sound had come from the North, and as I reached the edge of the barricades around the station and looked out I gasped.

The landscape before me was lit by a multi-coloured glow that filled the sky. Lights of every colour, from reds to greens to deep purple, filled the sky, spreading out from the ominous shape of the mountains of the Rim to the north. This type of light was called a rainbow, I recalled. It was as if the Zone itself was painting the world around it, and it was beautiful. I could only think of how wonderful it must look at the center, at the source of the glow.

A single form sat in the vast expanse between myself and the mountains. Despite the light the form was still dark, with a single set of striking green eyes looking out towards me. The timberwolf shook itself, and the wooden, branch-like spikes that covered its body flared before settling down agian. The creature stood and opened its mouth, probably to howl again, and I braced for the sound.

What I heard instead was a surprise. A scream of pain sounded from the maw of the beast and I shivered. It closed its mouth and the scream stopped, but the dogs around me suddenly opened theirs and I heard shouting.

“Help her!”

“What the fuck is this?!”

“Someone get him up!”

I backed up, looking around wildly in panic as the dogs continued to shout. Suddenly something struck my face and I fell backwards in shock as a new white light filled my eyes.

*** *** ***

Dark shapes filled my vision and I scrambled backwards, pulling myself to my feet from the blanket as I did so. As my vision settled the shapes focused and became the face of angry ponies looking at me.

The traders were carrying various weapons and behind them I could see more, clustering around a huddled shape on the floor.

“What happened?” I asked, panicked.

“You tell us. You’re the one who did it.” Spat back the guard that had admitted me yesterday.

“What?” I struggled to understand and looked around them at the group on the floor.

Lying on the floor was the mare that had given me the kebab yesterday, her face and side bruised as if struck by a heavy force. She seemed unconscious but still alive.

“You were making weird noises in your sleep and crying out so she went to check on you. Next thing we know there was a silver flash and she went sprawling across the floor.” The guard leveled her gun at me. “What did you do?”

“I don’t know.” I protested. “I was asleep, I must have done it in my sleep.”

“Maybe you did.” She shrugged. “But all I know is you’ve attacked a pony in my caravan and you’re dangerous. You’ve got five seconds to say something to stop me shooting you right here. Five.”

I had nothing. She wasn’t going to believe that I hadn’t done it on purpose, and I didn’t even know exactly what had happened. I started to step backwards as she aimed at me down her sights.


I still had my guns, I thought. If I started shooting could I get out safely? It looked like the guard pony was the only one with a weapon readied.


I didn’t want to shoot the ponies who had given me a place to sleep and some food, but this pony seemed set on my life. I felt sick with regret at what had happened to the unconscious mare already. My vivid dream had fucked with my mind and made me subconsciously summon and use the shields that I had used in the dream. What had been dogs in the dream was that poor mare in reality.


It was too late for regret now though. I had to act, I had to survive. My horn glowed and my magic wrapped my pistol in a silver glow.



The final number was cut out as I whipped my gun around and fired once, hitting the guardspony in the side and sending her sprawling, dropping her gun and clutching at the bleeding wound. The traders were shouting and scrambling for their own weapons, but I was already off.

Running for the exit, I brought up a shield and shoved aside one of the barricades as I ran through it. I heard gunshots from behind me and brought up a shield behind me as I ran. Seconds later a salvo of bullets shot into it and the shield fell, broken from saving me.

I ran north through the darkness, taking no mind to what was around me and determined to keep going.

Nimble’s final words of goodbye echoed in my mind.

You just have to decide what you want.

I knew what I wanted now. I didn’t want to go south any more. The wasteland wasn’t a home for me any more and I couldn’t believe it had taken this long for me to realise it. Everypony I knew was in the Zone now and staying there was the best course of action. For a pony with no home, home is a place that feels familiar. Despite the strangeness of the Zone, its ponies were more familiar to me than anypony in the wasteland, even after a few days.

I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I was sure where I wanted to go. The absurdity of that idea almost made me laugh, but I was too busy sucking down the breath required to keep running to laugh. Even if I didn’t know where she was, I was going to to find Soft Step and help her. This was my goal now, to help the ponies who had saved me - to pay them back and make myself a better pony through them. I would protect others as part of a group and maybe find a place for myself again.

I smiled madly and ran, my exhilaration from my realisation and my near-death experiences both in reality and in a dream fueling me. Ahead of me the mountains of the Rim loomed closer and closer, until finally the path up to the entrance to the Zone was visible in the dark.

*** *** ***

Firelight and soft, playful music from a stringed instrument greeted me as I reached the end of the path. I squinted in the sudden light and moved towards it, looking for the owner of the fire.

As I neared, I could see two forms in the flickering light. Soft Step lay on her back, eyes closed and with her S.D.A. lying beside her, the source of the music I could hear. Burnt Fuzz was staring at the fire, squatting on her hind legs with her front hooves crossed in front of her, almost brushing the floor. Despite her strange position she showed no signs of instability, and was sitting like a statue, staring transfixed at the fire, the flickering orange light throwing odd shadows over her face.

I cleared my throat as I approached the pair and Soft Step spoke without looking at me.

“Welcome back, little pony. You took less time than I expected.”

She had expected this? “Were you going to wait here until I came back?”

“Of course. The Zone touches everypony who stays in it for long. It embraces them until they can’t stand to be away from it.”

“I don’t think I’m that bad yet. I came back because I realised that you guys are all I have now.”

“Are you going to propose to us next? It’s only been a couple days.” Burnt Fuzz suddenly chimed in, her voice laced with sarcasm.

Soft Step chuckled. “We’ll see, little pony.” She raised a hoof, her eyes still closed, and pointed at the raider by the fire. “I like this mare by the way. I think we’ll get along well.”

“As long as you don’t piss me off.” Burnt Fuzz replied, her voice sweet with a sharp edge.

“You too.” Soft Step said simply. She gestured to an area of clear ground by the fire. “You should get some sleep, now that you’re here we’re setting out first thing tomorrow.”

I shook my head in amusement. It had taken me ages to come to the realisation I had and Soft Step had just been waiting here, always expecting me to come back, and now she was just casually telling me when our next moves were, knowing already that I was going to help her.

“So what exactly are we trying to do now?” I asked, moving around and settling down by the fire.

“That’s easy, Buckler. We’re going to the center of the Zone.”

“The center? Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Of course. It’s the most dangerous place in the Zone to try and get to. But that’s our mission, to find a safe way through. Because the ponies who have got close say that the center has more treasures than anypony could imagine. They even say that at the center is something the Ministries were working on before the end, something that Gravebloom desperately wants, along with many other ponies.”

“So you want to stop him getting it?”

“That’s right.”

“But what is it?”

“Nopony knows exactly. Only three ponies have ever seen it. Only three have ever made it to the center and back alive and they won’t say exactly what it is, or tell anypony how to get there.”


“Because they’re scared of what it is.”

Soft Step paused and turned over, opening her eyes to look at me. Up until now I had wondered if she was being serious, but one look into her eyes told me that she was deadly serious. Across the fire I could see Burnt Fuzz out of the corner of my eye, staring at the two of us with an expression that suggested that she believed this fully as well.

“They say that at the center of the Zone is a wish granter. An object that will grant any wish that you ask of it, no matter what.” She turned back over to look back at the sky. “That’s why Gravebloom can’t get to it.”

New Quest Perk: Touched by the Zone (Rank 1) - Your time in the Zone has changed you in many ways and you've grown part of it. Animals in the Zone are now less aggressive to you and anomalies are easier to detect, but outside the Zone all SPECIAL values are reduced by 1 and initial NPC dispositions are reduced.

This Fic is based on Fallout Equestria, which you can find here: http://www.equestriadaily.com/2011/04/story-fallout-equestria.html

Huge thanks to Kkat for writing it and creating the world for us all to play around in.

More thanks to my pre-readers and editors.

Locations and events in this story are inspired by the 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and the 1979 film Stalker. Familiarity with these pieces is not required but is encouraged (They're good.)

Any resemblance to any other pieces of fan fiction is merely coincidental.

Any criticism is welcome and encouraged.